The Alzidans liked windows, big, landscape-wide windows. It was fairly obvious to Qui-Gon Jinn why they liked them, but he didn't think that beautiful scenery was a sufficient reason for putting them in their med-center. They had them there anyway.
Qui-Gon faced the huge picture window; the swampy flat lands and the hills beyond them were bathed in the orange light from Alzida's huge, primary sun. A padded chin rest and frame immobilized his head. His body lay supported on a slanted medical table with rests for his arms before him.
He heard a click and a whoosh. In his side vision, he could see that the second droid, Em-Four-See, had just finished positioning his apprentice in the bacta tank on the other side of the med-center. He floated in the clear liquid, eyes closed, naked except for the harness and body fittings that supported him and the breathing apparatus on his face.
Obi-Wan Kenobi was also bald, shaved everywhere by the droids, except for the Padawan's braid that drifted in the bacta next to him.
"I shall begin this part of the decontamination. Please remain still, Master Jinn," Em-Four stated in its smooth modulated tones. It was a voice programmed to be comforting and reassuring for its patients. Warmed, white-padded, silver fingers gently grasped his head. Qui-Gon Jinn cared for neither comfort nor care. He merely wished to endure the procedure as silently and quickly as possible and be done with it. Em-Four's skilled fingers began picking through the jelled hair around his left ear. Having no other choice, Qui-Gon stared out the window as the droid worked, making little, slick smacking sounds as it moved up his head.
An enormous moolu had slowly undulated onto the plain below the farm complex. Two smaller ones followed it. A 'small' moolu was at least as big as any of the farm complex buildings. With no limbs, their whole bodies were one great long, fat muscle; they skimmed the swampy plain, feeding on the tasty algae and fungi that grew on the flat lands with a small mouth at the forward end. Dark brown patches spotted the great beasts' hides. The glint of a droid skiff hovered into view, scanning the moolus and the discolorations on them.
A small, white tray moved to Qui-Gon's left and he saw tiny, little moolutee dropped onto it by Em-Four. Their thin black bodies coiled and twisted like animated strings. The tiny little pincers on both ends, their only feature, flexed and grabbed the air before the droid's suction nozzle took them away. Tiny smudges of red blood remained on the white tray before the droid wiped it off and then dropped more wriggling little moolutee on it. Bits of clear gel clung to them.
"They look rather active. Are you sure they're anesthetized?" It was difficult to speak; aside from the numbness, with the frame around his chin he had to move his whole head to just open his mouth even a little bit.
"It is only reflex motion. They are no longer able to attach themselves to you." Em-Four continued its clicking and smacking. "The decontamination will go faster if you refrain from speaking, Master Jinn."
Qui-Gon obliged by not replying and looking away from the tray. Another moolu had moved into the field outside, another moolu with more irregular brown patches of colonies of billions and billions of teaming moolutee clinging to its sides.
The droid continued to click and smack and slurp up the parasites from Qui-Gon's hair. There were also little rustling sounds of flimsiplast as the medical droid covered up its work as it went, preventing any un-captured moolutee from escaping. He couldn't feel anything on his head, but it sounded like the droid was making progress.
The tray moved forward and Qui-Gon saw a new collection of squiggling, bloodstained strings. Their long, little bodies allowed them to burrow into a thick moolu hide, but fortunately they only went as deep as they needed to get their blood meal through much thinner human skin. A few of them had been cut into pieces but even the smallest severed end still flexed its little pincers. A moolutee could regrow itself, whole, from any portion of its body. This was only one of the many ways that they reproduced, so they had to be carefully removed from their hosts, especially prior to treatment for the many welts and bites the moolutees made. Qui-Gon was to be next in the bacta tank and moolutees loved bacta. They could happily multiply and completely fill a bacta tank in a few days if just one piece of one of the parasites got into it.
The tray moved up out of Qui-Gon's field of view, and he once again stared out at the vast orange-hued plain outside. Another moolu had crept into view with a small swarm of farm skimmers buzzing around it. Each skimmer was at least as large as a single passenger space ship, but the huge bulk of the moolu dwarfed them. They hovered and circled before darting in to scrape away at the brown patches on the moolu's sides.
"Under the orange sun,
Produce second to none,
Qui-Gon shut his eyes, clearing his mind to rid it of that awful song. Like all advertising, it was designed to stay in the mind and even Jedi were not immune to it. Alzida Farms had one of the largest and most visible ad boards in a busy lower level commercial district close to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. One couldn't possibly come and go from the nearest entrance to it without going past those insistent, animated images.
Qui-Gon had to credit Alzida Farms for one thing; their images were accurate. The fields of Alzida outside the med-center windows looked exactly like their advertisements.
"From algae and swamp scum,
Pure and oh, so wholesome,
Qui-Gon clenched his teeth, which came naturally with his chin fixed in place. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of verses to that song. Qui-Gon hardly knew more than a few but he begrudged every brain cell occupied by them. Unfortunately, his focus was seriously diminished by the anesthetic. Moolutee were tenacious blood parasites and the only effective way to deliver an anesthetic that would force them to detach was through the blood of their hosts.
Outside, some of the skimmers had gone on to the largest moolu and lightly passed over its surface, mowing long, cleared stretches though the brown patches and flitting away only when the great sluggish beast threatened to roll over on them.
Inside the white-walled med-center, Qui-Gon flexed his fingers without moving from the armrests. Only Qui-Gon's scalp was completely numb. He still had some residual numbness in his body from the initial stage of the decontamination, when the droids had suspended both of them with medical anti-gravs and rapidly skimmed and shaved every moolutee from their bodies from toes to head. The only good things Qui-Gon could say about it was that he couldn't feel anything at the time (that itself being an unpleasant experience for him) and the droids were well programmed.
Obi-Wan had chosen the quickest procedure and had sacrificed his hair except his braid which was easily enough checked for any hidden moolutee; there had been three.
Qui-Gon had refused to have his head and beard shaved. So while his Padawan went to the bacta tank right away, he had to wait while Em-Four picked out the moolutee individually from the long strands of hair that they could hide in. Thankfully his facial hair had not been infested.
Something splashed and Qui-Gon realized that he'd been staring vacantly out at the orange plain and hills for several minutes. He could only see fuzzy whiteness in his side vision, a side effect of the anesthetic. His whole body felt lethargic and strangely distant.
He heard more water, dripping and sloshing. But Em-Four didn't seem to notice. If there was something wet or leaking he thought that they would want to do something about it, especially in a med-center. Only after a few more minutes of staring blankly out the window did he realize what it was.
The droids had taken Obi-Wan out of the tank.
Em-Four-See helped Obi-Wan Kenobi into the white medical isolation suit. It wasn't as heavy as the blue outdoor-environment suit, but it was more uncomfortable with his body hair shaved off, along with the half-healed bites all over his body, some located in fairly tender regions. The isolation suit also bunched up in places at his knees and elbows, the shoulders sagging down over his arms. Obi-Wan thought it would better fit his much larger Master instead of his smaller, seventeen year-old body.
Once he was covered and Em-Four-See had approved, he went over to Qui-Gon. Em-Four was about halfway finished, so Obi-Wan got a small white stool by the window and sat down. Em-See asked him how he felt, but otherwise its shiny silver mechanical arms didn't slow down; its two yellow eye-sensors stayed focused on its work.
The med-center had a sterile, alcohol and bacta smell, masquerading as something fresh. The room was bright white, with smoothed corners and no sharp edges. A few small, sleek silver floor droids scurried around randomly, vigilantly looking for any germ or contaminant to clean up.
Obi-Wan felt much better. The post-anesthetic grogginess had completely left him in the bacta tank. Neither he nor Qui-Gon had lost enough blood to be harmed. The moolutee were numerous, but they were still small. He and his Master had been wearing environment suits when they had chased the bounty hunter, Silhume, out into the fields. Silhume had expected them to turn back as soon as they found out that the environment suits had been sabotaged. She had been wrong. She had kept shooting, trying to kill them up until the moment when Qui-Gon Jinn had cut her in half. A finger-width away from exploding, the thermal detonator that she had held in her other hand had fallen to the swampy ground.
After that, they had run with Force-aided speed as the skimmers descended and sterilized the area in their wake. A swath of white, consuming fire had followed them all the way back to the high jagged rocks that kept the moolu away from the farm complex. They had ascended, leaping from rock to rock to where a farm transport could retrieve them. High up above the plain, they had stripped off their ruined environment suits. Neither one of them had gotten any more than ankle deep in the swamps, but the moolutee had gotten everywhere, like squirming, black hairs, sprinkled on their pale skin. The creatures delivered their own sting of anesthetic to their hosts, so they had been unaware of how bad the contamination was until they could see it. Some moolutee had clustered into darker, moving patches in places, like Qui-Gon's shoulder and back, and the backs of Obi-Wan's legs and one arm.
Once they had boarded the droid-piloted transport they could see from above the long, blackened scar that the skimmers blasted. Anywhere they had been would be thoroughly sterilized and the whole operation documented. The moolu would be kept away from that spot for a year at least. Alzida Farms would have absolute proof that none of their produce had ever fed on the blood of sentients.
Sitting by Qui-Gon's head, Obi-Wan waited for some acknowledgment, but he got none. Through their bond, his Master felt different waking than he did when asleep, but this was something uncomfortably in between. Qui-Gon lay on a slanted med-table, on his stomach, his whole body covered in white. His head was held in place for the procedure, his cheeks pressed between the sides of the headpiece. His half-lidded eyes stared dully out the window, not responding to Obi-Wan's presence at all. Disturbed, Obi-Wan raised a white-gloved hand.
Em-Four immediately reminded him that he was not to touch Qui-Gon until the decontamination was complete, though he was welcome to stay otherwise. Obi-Wan lowered his hand and nodded to the droid. He watched Em-Four draw a tray full of wriggling moolutee into its flash incinerator and then wipe away the tiny splotches of blood before its pincers deposited more. It looked like quite a lot of them had nested in Qui-Gon's hair. Other silver pincers drew out long, thin strands of hair, quickly sliding back and forth along their lengths and checking their roots for moolutee before tucking the hair under the white cap that now covered more than half of Qui-Gon's head. The rest was held in place by a thin net. A needle at the base of his skull connected to a tube of amber fluid, the anesthetic delivered to the moolutee through Qui-Gon's blood.
The slick, uncomfortable feel of the environment suit against his skull now made Obi-Wan very sympathetic to his Master's desire to keep his hair. He felt a little guilty for chiding his Master about whether his hair was worth the extra trouble. Qui-Gon had not disparaged his own choice of a quick procedure. Now his Master silently grimaced whenever Em-Four pulled his head against the frame. Eyes still unfocused, he briefly tried to find the source of the disturbance before giving up.
The droid paused to ask Obi-Wan to switch sides with it so it could finish. Obi-Wan hastily complied. Qui-Gon remained stubbornly wakeful, but unaware of the activity until Em-Four started pulling his hair again. Obi-Wan wondered if it would be better if he just went to sleep, because he looked miserable.
Slowly, cautiously, Obi-Wan raised a gloved hand, but not close enough to upset Em-Four.
"Qui-Gon?" Through the Force, through their bond, Obi-Wan felt what his Master felt, numb and aware, but isolated and disoriented with a sense of time slowed to a crawl. He had to pause to clear his own mind of the sympathetic discomfiture he felt.
"I think you should sleep now." Obi-Wan moved his hand. The Force flowed from him to Qui-Gon as warmth and comfort and Obi-Wan willed him to close his eyes.
But it didn't happen. Qui-Gon blinked and Obi-Wan's own will to coax him to sleep dissipated. A new clarity formed. Qui-Gon's brows lowered and then his shadowed blue eyes looked to the side, at Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan quickly lowered his hand and sat back, pinned by his Master's glare, or as much of a glare as Qui-Gon could manage. Obi-Wan swallowed. His Master's discomfort and numbness had sharpened into awareness and displeasure.
Obi-Wan did not flinch from the scrutiny, but he did not attempt any apology, either. He would defend his actions later, when Qui-Gon could speak. Had he succeeded, Qui-Gon likely would not have remembered the intrusion at all, and Obi-Wan realized that by default he would have been concealing his deed if he had not intended to say anything about it.
Obi-Wan felt Qui-Gon's attention slipping. A short time after that Qui-Gon had gone back to his sleepless, miserable disorientation. Obi-Wan guiltily sat by him, unable to ease the discomfort, and unable to resolve the consequences of what he had already done.
The door to the med-center opened. He and the two droids looked up to see a five-legged holo platform clamber in. It went straight up to Obi-Wan and activated. A half-sized, transparent blue image of the Director of the Alzida Farms raised her hands to Obi-Wan, who sat back on his stool so the holo-sensor would capture only his image.
"They've confessed!" she announced. "Those Ulak puju have admitted that they were behind this all along!"
"They've confessed?" Obi-Wan repeated, not knowing what the matronly director was talking about. Her tall head leaned toward him, her small eyes scrutinizing him.
"Where's your Master, Apprentice?"
Obi-Wan sat up straighter. "He's still indisposed. I can give him your message and he can contact you later, Director."
She nodded. "Just tell him that the Ulak Consortium admitted that they've been spreading these rumors all along about bounty hunters hiding their kills in our fields. Our barristers already have the court papers filed. They will answer for this," she promised, gesturing triumphantly, her large sleeves flying out.
"I will tell Master Qui-Gon. I am sure he will be pleased." Obi-Wan knew that he was happy about the news. It meant that this mission was over. He didn't know what had convinced the Ulak to admit what they had been doing, and he didn't care; he would find out later.
The Director wished him good health and the holo-platform shut off and scrambled out again.
Obi-Wan turned back to Qui-Gon, who had not moved or reacted to the news. Em-Four sucked up another tray full of squirming moolutee; it was nearly finished. All of this had been started by rumors, Obi-Wan thought.
The rumors had been circulating for awhile. Alzida products were contaminated. The real reason why they so strictly kept people away was to hide their illegal activities. There had been inquiries, investigations. The Ulak Consortium had been suspected of starting the whispering campaign, but they had denied everything. Apparently, now that it had gotten serious, they had changed their story.
The problem had become more than just talk when the rumors escalated into claims that Kuzod Goor was buried under a rock slab near the farm complex they were now in. Real bounty hunters had started showing up. That was when the Jedi had been called in. Kuzod Goor had been a notorious crime lord on Malastare who was so universally disliked by his fellow crime lords that there was still a hefty bounty posted for his death, or proof of his death, two years after his disappearance. Silhume had come looking for the prize and had apparently died for nothing.
Em-Four's pincers whirred to a stop and it announced that it had finished. A bulging white cap covered Qui-Gon's head, but now his eyes were closed. Obi-Wan got up and returned the stool to its place by the wall while Em-Four and Em-Four-See removed the headrest and other equipment, adjusted the medical table back to horizontal and together turned Qui-Gon over to lie on his back.
Amazingly, Qui-Gon was now asleep. Obi-Wan stood back while the droids ran a final scan over him. His stubborn half-awareness had turned into restless unconsciousness. Obi-Wan felt suddenly queasy for him. This was not the kind of sleep that refreshed; it drained, with the body never quite relaxed and dreams undigested.
The droids finally pronounced the decontamination complete. They immediately stripped the cap and isolation suit off of their patient. They sliced the suit's whole length and peeled it off. Obi-Wan grimaced at the red bite marks scattered all over Qui-Gon's body, his uncovered hair now a dark, dampened mass around his head.
Em-Four-See began fitting the harness and life-support equipment onto Qui-Gon's lower body. Em-Four inserted the mouthpiece and then attached to it the breath mask over Qui-Gon's face, placing it snugly over both the mouth and nose. His long, slow breaths now sounded through the mask. Through it all, Qui-Gon stirred a little, but he stayed as stubbornly asleep as he had been wakeful a short time ago.
Obi-Wan stepped back as the droids moved the medical table over to the second bacta tank. They connected the harness and life-supports with the tank's primaries and then lifted Qui-Gon to hang vertically over the pit of the tank. The bacta tank rose up around him until he floated, completely submerged. The dark mass of his hair slowly unwound and fanned out around his head.
Everything was orange. Qui-Gon didn't know why. The doors, the floors, the sky, the windows, the food, the plants, all painted in shades of orange. He kept looking for green or yellow, but he could only find orange.
The walls in the great halls of the Jedi Temple had receded to infinity, the floor gaining astronomical size. Qui-Gon stood in the middle and knew he would need a ship to get to the staircase he could see in the distance to get to the lifts to get to the docks to get a ship. The staircase receded even further into the distance as he tried to puzzle out this problem.
Bored with the impossible paradox, he sat down on the smooth, cool floor. He lay down on the parquet surface, putting his cheek on its reassuring, smooth hardness. He liked the smoothness very much. Above him was an orange sky full of orange stars.
He turned over, feeling huge on the floor, large and bloated and bigger than the room. Obi-Wan was tiny, nimbly keeping his balance on top as he diligently scraped little bugs off of Qui-Gon's back...
Qui-Gon's eyes opened and he stared out of the bacta tank past the window to the orange plains outside, where the Moolu rumbled amidst their attendant scrapers and skimmers. Why did a bacta tank need a view? His own breath was loud in his ears. His hands bumped into the smooth, curved wall of the tank.
He shook his head, trying to get rid of the mouthpiece and then realized that he really did not want to do that. He stilled his body. One of the droids was already peering into the tank at him. A panicky patient in a bacta tank could be immediately sedated by the droids and he did not wish any more nightmares. He was obviously not reacting well to the earlier anesthetic. Most of the fantastical and disturbing images were already fading from his memory, but that last one of him as a moolu with Obi-Wan as an attendant was too intense to go away.
Qui-Gon had dreams, but they were rarely so vivid, or so weird. Qui-Gon was not accustomed to weird, nor was he accustomed to so badly overestimating his own strengths. Em-Four had cautioned him about every possible side effect. He had heard the warnings, but had casually assumed they were unnecessary, and he had completely forgotten them when he had sunk into a drug-induced malaise. He knew he had better control than that, but amidst his own overconfidence it had slipped away.
Obi-Wan appeared outside the tank, only his face visible, the rest of him covered in a baggy white isolation suit. Reminded of the dream, Qui-Gon closed his eyes, a corner of his mind weighed down with concern from his apprentice. He felt restless and tired at the same time, so he stayed still, weightless and quiescent. He smelled the faintly sweet and sour, alcohol-like scent of the bacta, tasted it. No matter how well sealed the mask, how thoroughly filtered the air supply, it couldn't be kept out. The bacta was warm, kept precisely at his body temperature and slightly more viscous than water; his skin tingled with the accelerated healing of his wounds. The harness and lower life support machines sealed around his hips and inguin kept him centered in the tank and efficiently disposed of his bodily evacuations. Everything in the tank was sterile and comfortable and controlled. Qui-Gon kept his eyes closed, waiting to be let out.
At last he heard a hum and a thumping over the loud breathing sounds. The tank began to descend and his ears popped with the pressure change. His head and then shoulders emerged into air, the fluid dripping off of him. He opened his eyes and was immediately assaulted by a rinsing spray, warm air and another rinse that went down the length of his body. A drier drew the moisture from his hair as he momentarily hung suspended by the harness and then was moved to the side.
Qui-Gon blinked. Em-Four-See faced him, scanned him, removed the mask and lowered the harness so his bare feet gradually supported his weight. He breathed deeply, grateful for the normalcy of simply standing on his own.
Em-Four-See inquired how he was feeling; its voice was pitched higher than the other droid, its neutral face was of white plastic, unlike Em-Four's silver features. He still felt a queasy, a little light-headed with a slight pressure of a near headache. Em-Four-See assured him that these were only side effects from the anesthetic and that they would pass with a few hours of rest. Both droids began removing the harness and remaining life-support from him.
Obi-Wan silently waited, his body suit crinkling loudly whenever he moved. His tension and concern had been hovering nearby ever since Qui-Gon had revived in the bacta tank. It was finally starting to irritate him.
Em-Four helped him into a long, perfectly white and shapeless tunic that hung down to his knees. It covered most of the pink, now half-healed bite marks all over his body, a scattering of them still visible on his forearms and legs.
Qui-Gon looked directly at his Padawan, who respectfully straightened. Obi-Wan's concern seemed ridiculously out of proportion to this situation. A very short time ago, Obi-Wan had himself been removed from the tank and his body was likewise covered with the same marks. A couple of pink wounds marked his forehead under the gathered white hood that covered his shaved head.
Then Qui-Gon remembered what Obi-Wan was overacting about, the intrusion on his mind. He glared critically until Obi-Wan lowered his head. Now Obi-Wan compounded that deed with fearfulness about the consequences. Qui-Gon was not in the mood to lecture him about his lack of maturity. His Padawan had such sound judgement; he had to admit occasionally better than his own, so a lapse like this was especially disappointing.
Qui-Gon lifted one foot, then the other, as Em-Four slid a pair of flimsy white slippers on his bare feet. When he looked at them his hair fell down in front of his face again. He firmly pushed it back behind his ears, but the shorter strands fell back down again.
Em-Four-See presented them with their lightsabers on a large, white tray. Qui-Gon silently nodded to Obi-Wan who took both of them.
"Master," Obi-Wan suddenly spoke. "The Director informed me that the Ulak Consortium has been found responsible for the rumors about the bounty hunters." Qui-Gon raised his eyebrows at this good news. He asked for a comm.
The Director seemed more interested in talking about lawsuits and a new publicity campaign, which Qui-Gon was sure would soon end up on the advertising screens on Coruscant, but somewhere in the middle of that the Director assured them that she would give them a good report of them to their 'superiors', effectively dismissing them in her way. She did inquire about his health at one point, after finally noticing that the holo-image of him wore a medical tunic and slippers. He told her he was recovering well. With some relief he ended the communication.
The droid led them out of the treatment room, down an empty, pale orange hallway to a private room that was just as white and sterile as the treatment room and left them alone to rest. There were two sleeping alcoves on opposite walls, a private fresher and two chairs; their clothes and equipment were neatly stacked on a low table by the floor-to-ceiling window. It was a bright, cloudless midday and several moolu lumbered together in the distance.
Qui-Gon went to one alcove, sat down in the middle of the medical couch and crossed his legs. Eyes closed, he felt the Force about him; it was strength, returning to his body, healing his small but numerous wounds.
The tension in Obi-Wan peaked.
"Do you feel well, Master?"
The tension retreated, but some remained, coupled with impatience, and now it mixed with Qui-Gon's own irritation. If he had refused to be rendered unconscious by the droid, then his wishes should have been quite clear to his own Padawan. His condition had hardly been that dire, but Obi-Wan had presumed to choose for him, or at least, he had tried to.
Qui-Gon dismissed Obi-Wan's presence in the room. His own wounded pride and disappointment over Obi-Wan's choice clashed together as his thoughts sank deeper, to what his own choices had been.
Obi-Wan waited, but Qui-Gon remained silent.
He knew he should not have spoken. He had added to his earlier transgression by interrupting his Master's meditation, but he desperately wanted to speak.
He looked at the neat piles of clothes on the low table by his knees.
The Alzida protocols had required that they only wear the farm's environment suits when they had gone outside. The rules had made them vulnerable to the bounty hunter's sabotage, but had also spared their clothes. He carefully laid their lightsabers down between the two piles, one his, one Qui-Gon's and then looked outside.
He placed his hand on the thick transparisteel and stared out at the swampy orange fields, the moolu and the farm skimmers whizzing around them like insects in the distant hills. A very short time ago he and his Master had pursued Silhume across the plains. They had discovered the bounty hunter's sabotage when small splits had opened up on the legs of their environment suits. Obi-Wan had barely been able to see Qui-Gon's face through the orange reflections on his mask plate, but Obi-Wan had instantly known the question; should they continue? Just as wordlessly, Qui-Gon had known his answer. They had gone on, together.
Now, the shadows of his Master's thoughts at the corner of his mind were of violation and displeasure. Obi-Wan longed to have their earlier unity restored, even though he knew that the desire itself created more discord.
He glanced back at Qui-Gon, who hadn't moved from his seat on the medical couch. Qui-Gon's silences pierced him far worse than his admonishments.
He went to the fresher, took off the isolation suit and stuffed it down the disposal. It whooshed away with a rush of warm air. He bathed, washing off the inevitable traces of bacta. The warm, fine spray felt good, as well as the blow jets that dried him. One wall of the fresher was completely mirrored and he could see every pink mark on his body. He absentmindedly scratched his backside and then stopped himself. Em-Four had warned him about some mild itching, but he had declined any medications for it. Itching was something that his Jedi mental disciplines should master. And he knew Qui-Gon would expect nothing less from him as well.
Obi-Wan leaned close to the mirror to examine his shaved head and the spots all over his skull, and decided that he would be much happier when his hair grew back and the wounds were healed. He couldn't imagine Qui-Gon without his hair and an hour's discomfort in the med-center was still much less time than a restoration process (many hours), or simply growing it back (years).
He stepped out of the fresher. Qui-Gon had not moved, so he dressed as quietly as possible. His clothes felt strange on his now smooth skin and he knew that along with the healing bites, his hair growing back would itch, too. He attached his lightsaber to his belt last and picked up his robe.
"I presume you are aware of your error, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon hadn't even opened his eyes.
"Yes, Master," he answered humbly.
Qui-Gon's dark blue eyes opened and looked to him inquiringly.
"I should not have tried to influence you, Master." Obi-Wan bowed his head. "I should have recognized that you were determined to suffer through your treatment, and I should not have interfered with your decision."
Obi-Wan did not look up as he spoke. If he wanted an explanation, Qui-Gon would have to ask for it. He stared down at the white floor, at a curved, rounded corner of the room and waited. The Jedi Code demanded absolute honesty and this was his conclusion.
Earlier, he had seen that his Master was distressed, but it hadn't been possible to ask permission. Qui-Gon had clearly been incapable of comprehending any offer at the time. So, Obi-Wan had decided on his own what to do. Qui-Gon himself sometimes skirted the authority of his Jedi superiors whenever Qui-Gon decided it was necessary. Qui-Gon taught that sometimes it was necessary to follow the heart over rules, but his Master was affronted whenever Obi-Wan applied those teachings to him.
Obi-Wan continued to stare down at the mercilessly white floor; he wondered how his Master seemed to contend with conflicts like these so easily. After a long, tense interlude, Obi-Wan had to admit that he was probably not going to out-wait Qui-Gon. He looked up.
Qui-Gon had a fairly pleased look on his face and he gestured for Obi-Wan to sit next to him. The stress ran out of the younger man and he went over to the medical couch and sat down, laying his robe down beside him. He wasn't quite sure if Qui-Gon approved of his conclusion, but he was obviously ready to talk.
"I do not care to admit this," Qui-Gon began. "But your assessment is essentially correct."
Obi-Wan swallowed, a little surprised to hear such a concession so soon.
"I was clearly incapacitated. Your instinct to help had merit, however badly executed it was."
Obi-Wan's still surprised mind untangled this last statement.
Qui-Gon raised his eyebrows. "However well-meaning your actions, Obi-Wan, you were quite unsuccessful. I would have expected you to do better," he admonished.
Surprised by having his performance evaluated about violating Qui-Gon's wishes, he bowed his head and wondered where this was leading. "I...I was...distracted."
Qui-Gon looked down at him critically. "That is not acceptable, my young Padawan. Your focus is everything." Obi-Wan knew he was right; doubt could kill as surely as any weapon. His decision to 'help' his Master to sleep had been driven by Qui-Gon's pitiful condition at the time, but he had known that his Master might object to it. Even half-conscious, Qui-Gon had sensed his hesitation and he had failed.
"I'm sorry, Master. I will do better."
Qui-Gon inclined his head. "Yes, you will," he replied. He raised his hand and one of the small, square pillows leapt off the end of the medical couch into it. He placed it next to Obi-Wan's leg and then lay down, curled up on his side with his head on the pillow, practically in Obi-Wan's lap.
"You may proceed, Padawan," he instructed, making himself comfortable.
Obi-Wan sat momentarily frozen in place, shocked that his Master would so casually instruct him to do what had displeased him so much just a short time ago.
No, he realized, this was exactly when he may need to use the Force, when he was shocked and distracted, and not just when he expected it. He laid his hand on Qui-Gon's brow. The skin was warm under his palm. Qui-Gon's mind was as still and quiet as a void. He felt the Force flow through him and increase.
"You're tired now," he said softly, pushing the image of comfortable warmth down through his hand, filling the void. Qui-Gon's eyes closed as Obi-Wan's hand slid back, his fingers gently stroking back loose strands of hair. "Sleep."
Qui-Gon had completely relaxed. Obi-Wan knew that Qui-Gon could have easily pushed him back, but he didn't. It was the same as when he had first taught Obi-Wan about using the Force to influence another person's mind.
Only Padawan Learners apprenticed to Jedi Knights were taught mind techniques, and Qui-Gon had begun his instruction soon after he had taken him as his pupil. Obi-Wan had been enormously honored that Qui-Gon had felt he was strong and disciplined enough to begin at such a young age. Qui-Gon would first have him clear his mind and his Master would show him what he would do. Then Qui-Gon would clear his mind and have Obi-Wan try. It was something that could only be taught person to person, by trial and error. No words could capture it.
There had been many false starts, but within a few days Obi-Wan was able to convince his Master to stand on one foot and repeat what he said. It was only a start then and Obi-Wan had needed much more practice before he could truly influence another person's will, but Obi-Wan fondly remembered a later lesson, when Qui-Gon had been very understanding and had even laughed after he had asked his Master to crawl on the floor on all fours. Then Qui-Gon had asked him to jump up and down and dance, but he wasn't using the mind influence when Obi-Wan had gleefully complied, that day's lesson having degenerated into silliness and then hugs.
Obi-Wan sensed Qui-Gon's mind sink deeper into sleep, his breathing even and slow. He realized that Qui-Gon had said nothing about how long he would sleep. Obi-Wan smiled down at his now silent and peaceful Master and stroked his hair. Qui-Gon had left that decision up to him.
Qui-Gon opened his eyes a little. Everything was annoyingly too white and he closed them again.
He felt comfortably warm and rested. He sniffed, opened his eyes again and looked down. He was covered by Obi-Wan's robe.
"Are you feeling better, Master?"
He rested a moment, his head on the pillow on Obi-Wan's lap. Obi-Wan's hand stroked his shoulder. The tension had left his Padawan, who had so recently suffered through their conflict with the intensity of youth. He sensed patience now, a maturity that would grow with time and experience.
Qui-Gon lifted his head and sat up. The after effects of the treatment were completely gone. He tensed his shoulders, then his arms and legs, stretching in place. Obi-Wan's robe slid down off of him and he gathered up the brown folds of fabric and gave it back to him.
They both got up. Obi-Wan commed for a meal and Qui-Gon went to the fresher. This fresher, Qui-Gon noticed with some pleasure, was the first room he had seen in the farm complex that did not have any windows in it at all, and no reminders of the farm or its purpose.
Along with bathing, Qui-Gon thoroughly washed his hair. Bacta tended to make hair fuller and now he had a thick tangled mane to deal with. There were disposable combs and hair lotion and he worked through the mass, mindful of the half-healed wounds on his scalp, then rinsed and dried it into something civilized.
He inspected the pink bite marks all over his body in the wall mirror; his broad back and shoulders were especially marred and there were a few stray bites on his neck. The moolutee had made quite a meal of him. He caught himself scratching an elbow and stopped. Between the itchy wounds and his body hair growing back, his Jedi discipline-and his Padawan's-would be sorely tested.
He pushed his hair back away from his face again. His hair ties were in one of his belt pouches, so he went out to get them.
Their meal had arrived. But as he put on his underclothes and pants, and tied his hair back, he noticed that Obi-Wan was just sitting on the medical couch next to the food cart waiting for him. His hairless head made him look younger. Curious, Qui-Gon went to the cart and looked down through the clear cover. There was broth and dark bread, garnished mashes and some kind of dumplings in pink sauce, green food sticks and dessert squares. It certainly smelled good and Qui-Gon wondered why his apprentice hadn't even helped himself to the appetizers already.
Qui-Gon turned his head to the window, toward the orange fields of roaming moolu with their parasite crop feeling on their enormous bodies. Obi-Wan's gaze followed his and then looked up at him.
"Aaah," Qui-Gon said, understanding.
There really was only one thing that most, if not all, of their meal would be made from. As unappealing as moolutee were in their natural form, once harvested, properly dried, processed, cooked, pressed and shaped, they were also extremely nutritious as a variety of different foods and food ingredients. The Alzida Farms supplied food staples to thousands of worlds. The possible disruption to their operation and resulting panic buying of substitutes (including factory grown moolutee products, which Alzida insisted were inferior to their natural, traditional farming) had made solving their mysterious bounty hunter problem a priority mission for the Jedi.
Qui-Gon chuckled at his Padawan's hesitance. He moved a chair to the cart, sat down and removed the cover. Savory aromas greeted him and Obi-Wan slid over on the medical couch to sit opposite him. Qui-Gon picked up a spoon and sampled the broth.
"Excellent," he pronounced, picking up a napkin and putting it in his lap. Obi-Wan poured some water for both of them and started nibbling on a food stick. That quickly disappeared and he tried his own bowl of broth while Qui-Gon served himself some dumplings. A sudden noise caught Qui-Gon's attention and he looked up to see Obi-Wan smiling.
"I was just thinking about the vids on the lower levels on Baraka Boulevard." He did a little dance with his spoon over his bowl.
Qui-Gon sighed, putting down his spoon. Obi-Was referred to an exceptionally large advertising vid in the commercial district near the Jedi Temple. It cycled through a wide range of mini-stories, but one of them featured an animated chorus of moolutee happily serenading a hungry family from a younger child's bowl.
"Casserole, soup or stew,
We are so good for you,
Qui-Gon knew he would never be able to look at that sign the same way again. The singing moolutee were one part of Alzida's advertising that looked nothing like the real thing, Qui-Gon reflected.
Obi-Wan grinned back at him, obviously amused by the pained look on his face. He dipped his spoon into the broth and slurped up some in a perfect imitation of the toddler in the advertising vid gulping down the lead, singing moolutee before the big finale. Qui-Gon didn't know which was more disturbing, his Padawan imitating that vid, or the fact that he immediately recognized it. He had thoroughly banished thoughts of Alzida's advertising from his mind, but now Obi-Wan had brought them back with a vengeance.
Thankfully Obi-Wan stopped. He dipped some bread into his broth and ate it, but his blue-gray eyes still had a playful gleam. Not quite immune to teasing, the corners of Qui-Gon's mouth twitched. Underneath the mirth he sensed such enormous admiration and gratitude from his Padawan that Qui-Gon was once again reminded of the intensity of youth. Without the conflict, would they ever notice the love between them? Or was it the other way around, he wondered.
Qui-Gon looked down at his meal; he took a bite of dumpling. The chopped and ground filling was juicy and tender and delicious.
"I wish to thank you Obi-Wan, for at least trying to assist me earlier," he spoke softly.
Obi-Wan looked up at him. "Did I act correctly then, Master?"
"No." Qui-Gon picked up a food stick. "It is explicitly against the Jedi Code to try to influence your Master without prior permission." He broke the stick in half. "But I badly overestimated my ability to maintain my equilibrium during the procedure. You were correct in your assessment. And even though my actions were not against the Code, I was completely incorrect to deny that permission." Qui-Gon silently munched and watched his apprentice. He sensed more intense emotion from the young man, who picked up his own eating scoop and served himself mash and dumplings. Qui-Gon himself felt gratitude and pride that Obi-Wan accepted his admission so seriously. They ate in silence, finishing most of the food. Then Qui-Gon got up to finish getting dressed.
"Master, is that why you asked me to use the sleep influence on you? Because you should have given permission?" Obi-Wan finally asked as he put on his robe and came over to him. They stood together next to the wide windows, the high rocks around the farm compound cast long shadows over the orange, swampy fields. The moolu had moved on.
"I didn't ask you to do it Obi-Wan. I told you to do it," he corrected with mock severity as he found the sleeves in his own robe; Obi-Wan silently helped him put it on. Qui-Gon sighed. "And, yes. I acted on impulse when I rebuked you in the med-center. So, I knew I had my own lesson to learn." Qui-Gon clipped his lightsaber to his belt. "And...I was tired," he finished.
"Now, I think we should go see the Director before we leave." He gestured toward the door. Obi-Wan smiled back, tucking his hands into the opposite sleeves of his robe. He turned to go, but Qui-Gon reached over and pulled the shorter Jedi's hood up over his bald and spotted head. At first surprised, Obi-Wan grinned back at his Master's smirk as Qui-Gon brushed his long, brown hair back over his shoulders. They left the white room together.
Original cover by ardavenport. HTML formatting copyright 2007 TheForce.Net LLC.