(Follows 'Hidden Agendas' and 'Whispers of Betrayal') The sun has set on the Republic, and Obi-Wan must find the strength to keep the night watch.
The two Jedi sat in a small clearing atop the bush-covered knoll. The silence lay comfortably between them as they watched the hurried activity below, where beings scurried about with the purpose and unity of a Verpine colony. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, the pace gradually slowed. Singly, and in small groups, the figures began to drift from the base toward the u-shaped hollow, carved by time and erosion into the hills, to the right of where the Jedi perched.
A lone figure in a flowing brown cloak wended its way up the knoll and stepped into the clearing, bowing low, then straightening to push back the cloak's hood. The young Calamari Jedi stifled a ripple of surprise and said, "General Kenobi. The troops are gathering for your address." His eyes skittered to the small figure balanced on a smooth boulder beside Obi-Wan as he asked, "Shall I announce Master Yoda's presence?"
Studying the Calamari's grey-green skin glistening in the final rays of daylight, Obi-Wan paused before replying, "I think not."
"But it would lift the soldiers' spirits to know ..."
Obi-Wan held up his hand, cutting off the young Jedi's protest. "I will be along shortly, Lieutenant. Alone."
Wide blinking eyes flicked to the diminutive Jedi Master and back. The Calamari bowed low. "Yes, General." With a swirl of brown, the young Jedi swiftly retreated down the hill.
Closing his eyes, Obi-Wan tilted his chin up to let the rising evening breeze caress his face. Air leaked out of his lungs in a long, slow hiss.
"Heavy, is the guilt upon your shoulders," Yoda said, his nasal voice quiet in the hush of twilight.
"Not most days. But there are some moments ..." Obi-Wan blinked his eyes open and stared straight ahead. "Moments like now, when it feels like a dying star is collapsing in upon me. Moments when I almost forget how to breathe." He pointed to the silhouettes on the valley floor. "Look at them. In a week I will lead them into another battle. How many won't return this time? I am commanding an army of corpses in the name of a dying cause."
"They offer their lives willingly. Respect that, you must."
"I do, Master. But with each death, I wonder what I could have done differently. If only I had made other choices while training Anakin. Been less harsh, perhaps. Or shown more compassion. Or saved my own master. I know it would have unfolded differently. He wouldn't have turned ..."
"No," Yoda broke in. "Wallow in self-pity, you must not. Too young you were, yes, and make some mistakes, you did. But still, showed him the right path, you did. It was he who chose not to walk on it."
Obi-Wan rubbed his beard and shifted to look into Yoda's piercing green eyes. "But I was his master. It was my responsibility and mine alone. And I failed." Softly, he repeated, "I failed."
"The failure was his. You know this to be true. In your heart, you must look." The Jedi Master rested his taloned hand on Obi-Wan's forearm. "Let not your love for the boy turn into a guilt that will let the man defeat you. Rise above it, you must." His grip tightened. "Too heavy this burden is, for you to bear alone. Draw on the Force, and lighter, your load will become."
Darkness crept up the hillside as Obi-Wan pondered what Yoda had said. The shadows wrapped around them. Below, a few scattered campfires sprang to life. The breeze chilled, and the Jedi Knight tucked his cloak close around him.
"You've felt the burden, too, haven't you?" Obi-Wan asked.
With a quiet sigh, the Jedi Master replied, "Change the past, I cannot. Forward only flows the Force." Yoda's reply hung between them for several moments.
"Yes," Obi-Wan finally replied. "Only now it seems to be rushing over a precipice, like the rivers of Theed, carrying us all to certain destruction."
"Always in motion is the future. Certain, nothing is."
"We are being hunted down like animals. Hunted and killed. That much is certain, Master. We are fast shrinking from an army to a ragtag band of rebels." Obi-Wan stood and spun away from the Jedi Master to stare into the night. "Already we are being reduced to mere cells of resistance, acting independently, no one group knowing what the others are planning, struggling to stem the relentless tide of evil. Soon, we will scatter, seeking bolt holes of light in the hope that the darkness will not find us out and destroy us."
"Where there is life, there is hope."
The Jedi returned to Yoda's side and sank to his knees. "That's what you told me when you sent me off to hide Amidala's baby. I know it. I believe it. But as more lights are snuffed out, as more Jedi die, each day comes to feel like a lifetime. I am so very weary, Master Yoda."
"But continue on, you will. Sworn to protect the child, you have."
"Yes. I will fulfill my promise gladly. Until the day I become one with the Light."
The Force shimmered between the two Jedi. A soft murmuring of voices rose from the natural amphitheater. The troops were ready -- ready to soak up rousing words of wisdom and valor from their fearless leader. It was only here, under cover of darkness, alone on a hill with the Jedi Master he revered, that the renowned General Kenobi could express his doubts and ease his anxieties by voicing them. Yoda's presence was a refreshing wellspring that he valued more than he could admit. Aloud, at least. As he acknowledged the truth deep within, the guilt lifted, dissipating into the Force. Still, one thought wormed its way through his mind, disrupting his growing serenity.
"Master," Obi-Wan began hesitantly, "Will you tell me where you hid Pad ... Amidala?"
Yoda's voice was suddenly sharp. "You haven't sought her out, have you?"
"No, I haven't. Neither in body, nor through the Force. My promise holds. But, please, Master. My peace would strengthen if only I could know where she is, and who is caring for her. I ask nothing else. I would never approach her. I only wish to know ..."
The Jedi Master's tone softened. "Sorry I am, Obi-Wan, but tell you, I cannot. As you said, a band of rebels we are. The fewer that know, the safer she remains. Night is upon us. Cautious, we must be, until the dawn."
"I thought you trusted me." The Knight immediately regretted the words. He had, after all, received no less than the answer he'd expected.
"Trust you, I do. And tell you everything, I do. Everything I can. This secret, I have told no one." Yoda's voice dropped to a whisper. "Know of your love for her, I do. Bury your feelings deep. Confront Vader, you must. If he knows, he will seize on your love, twisting it into a weapon. Use it to destroy you, he will, if he is able. Give him such power over yourself, you must not."
Obi-Wan sighed and pushed to his feet. "At least, while An- ... while Vader focuses his hatred on me and pours his resources into hunting me down, you remain free from danger. That is as important to me as Amidala's safety." He paused. "She is well removed from all harm, isn't she?"
"And well loved," Yoda replied.
"That goes without saying." To himself, Obi-Wan whispered, "It is enough. It has to be."
The Jedi glided to the edge of the clearing and paused. "Will you be here when I return?
"No." Yoda's answer was swallowed by the night. Obi-Wan nodded and started down the trail, the Jedi Master's voice trailing after him. "Heed what you have learned. Save you, it can."
A calm knowing welled up from within, and the Force shone luminescent around the Jedi Knight. His pace increased as tendrils of light wove through and around him, binding his essence to the life teeming all about him, and to the galaxy beyond.
Obi-Wan smiled and whispered to the night, "It already has, Yoda. It already has."
When he hit the valley floor, he was running. As he entered the torch lit amphitheater, a ground-swell of cheering rose round about him, carrying him forward to the makeshift podium. Victory was theirs. Somewhere. Sometime. He could feel it.
The fervent words he had spoken to the troops the previous week rose like bile in his throat. Foul. Acidic. Obi-Wan swallowed hard. He stood motionless, hands clasped behind his back, staring out the viewscreen. Around him, the bridge of the refitted Republic Cruiser boiled with frantic activity. The tension gripping the crew increased minute by minute, relentlessly seeking to undermine the Jedi's calm.
Seated in the command chair, Bail Organa thrummed his fingers on the arm rest, occasionally issuing an order in a firm voice that served to keep the crew functioning and relatively centered. One corner of Obi-Wan's mind admired the Alderaanian's natural leadership abilities, even as he watched their joint forces being relentlessly maneuvered into a deadly snare.
What had been planned as a simple attack on a crucial military convoy, had turned into a rout. Where had those two Star Destroyers come from? Their source had been impeccable, the plan faultless. Both generals were known for their uncanny ability to sense a trap, yet trapped they suddenly were. How? Obi-Wan clenched his jaw. He knew how. He could sense it, or rather, him. Vader was on that ship. Hunting his old master.
As Bail barked out another command, Obi-Wan's gaze jumped to his friend. The white lines etched around Bail's mouth and eyes belied the calm tenor of his voice. The Jedi could sense an urgency that bordered on fear emanating from the man. Afraid to die? Obi-Wan had fought at Bail's side long enough to know that death did not intimidate him. No, Bail's fear didn't seem to be centered on himself, but rather outwards. For the men? Or for someone else? Obi-Wan frowned thoughtfully. Something else was at work here. Yoda's green visage popped into his mind, deepening his frown. What did Master Yoda have to do with Bail's anxiety?
The Jedi suddenly knew what he had to do. He touched Bail's shoulder. "We have to retreat, General, before our path is completely cut off."
Bail stared out the viewscreen. "Most of the fighters out there are not hyperspace capable, General Kenobi. I'm not yet ready to leave those men to their fate."
"Nor am I. We have one squadron of fighters in reserve. They do have hyperspace capability. I will lead them in a diversionary attack while you recall the other fighters and retreat."
"You expect a single squadron to divert those twin monstrosities?"
Bail stifled a snort. "How so, Kenobi?"
"He isn't hunting you, General. It's me he wants."
"You believe Vader is leading this attack?"
"Without a doubt. And he will zero in on his prey with ruthless efficiency. When I leave this ship, as I must anyway, he will let you escape rather than lose his chance to destroy me."
"And what about you?"
Obi-Wan shrugged. "I'm not so easy to kill."
Bail stood and stared into his friend's eyes. "Your luck is bound to run out one of these days, Obi-Wan."
"A Jedi makes his own luck, Bail. Besides, you have more than a rebel army to worry about. You have a planet that needs your leadership. You must make it safely back to Alderaan."
Watching his friend's gaze cloud over and grow distant for a second sent goosebumps skittering up Obi-Wan's arms. Bail was hiding something from him. He could feel it. He opened his mouth, quickly clamping it shut. This was neither the time nor the place to address such issues. Obi-Wan grasped his friend's forearm and squeezed it.
"You will get back. I promise," the Jedi said. "And I'll drop in for a visit, just to say 'I told you so.'"
Alarm flickered in the Alderaanian's eye for a micron before disappearing. Bail grinned. "You do that, Kenobi. You need to stop somewhere and have a bath. Soon."
Obi-Wan heard a soft snicker behind him, and realized the bridge had fallen quiet as all ears strained to hear the conversation between the two generals. The Jedi glanced around to see heads jerking back to face momentarily unattended monitors. He cast a small smile at his friend and nodded tersely. He pivoted on his heel and strode from the deck, Bail's launch orders to Omega Squadron filling his wake.
A soldier was awaiting the general's arrival on the flight deck. Ignoring the offered jumpsuit, Obi-Wan took the helmet and handed the soldier his cloak. He marched across the deck, his heels pounding out his grim determination. He scrambled up the ladder of his snubfighter and dropped into the cockpit.
As the snub's systems came on line, Obi-Wan centered himself. The thought darted through his mind that, perhaps, today was the day Master Yoda had foreseen -- the day that he would finally confront his former Padawan. The thought fled before he could shunt it aside.
Obi-Wan coasted the snub across the deck and ran a second weapons check as he hovered above the airlock grid. The inner shield dropped. Three seconds later the outer shield disappeared, and the snubfighter leapt out of the underbelly of the cruiser. Obi-Wan relaxed into his pilot's chair as the vacuum of space gathered his ship into its welcoming embrace.
Orienting his ship relative to the planet they were orbiting, Obi-Wan opened his comm channel and ordered the approaching Omega squadron to fall in behind him in a staggered V formation, half below him, half above. The twelve ships paired off and did as ordered. The squad leader requested permission to fly on the general's wing.
Obi-Wan eyed the battle zone for a second. "Request denied. Stick with your assigned wingmates, Major."
"But that will leave you unprotected, sir."
"That's my concern, Major. Your mission is to harass the convoy and cover the retreat. Over."
"Those Star Destroyers are almost in range. We can't survive that kind of fire power."
"I'll take care of them."
The incredulity in the major's voice tugged a grimace from Obi-Wan. "I'll be a gnat in a gundark's ear." He glanced at the sensor display. "We've been spotted. A welcoming party is heading to intercept. Shields double front on the first pass. Out."
Obi-Wan switched from Omega channel to the general comm frequency. Battle chatter filled the cockpit. He ignored it, trusting his subconscious to pick up on anything important, and opened his senses to the Force.
At full throttle, he sliced through the flight of incoming fighters like a lightsaber through metal, leaving two debris clouds in his wake. Vectoring toward the convoy, he dodged retreating ships and joined a fighter that was strafing a corvette.
Obi-Wan eased his snub in behind and below the fighter. He fired a proton torpedo at the corvette. The other pilot followed suit. Obi-Wan's missile broke through the already weakened shields; the second one impacted against the hull, setting off a series of internal explosions. Obi-Wan ordered the pilot's retreat. He circumvented the now drifting hulk, closing his mind to the waves of panic and fear emanating from it.
"We lost Omega Six." The static-filled comment touched his mind. Obi-Wan's nostrils flared. He reset the throttle to full and honed in on his targets. The Star Destroyers were within range of the convoy. Soon they'd be able to fire upon the retreating fighters. He reached out through the Force, seeking a familiar signature, finding it shrouded within the first ship.
Anakin, Obi-Wan called. It's not too late. Return to the Light.
Hatred lashed out at him, strong enough to set him back in his seat. Padme. It must be what I did ... A jolt rocked the snubfighter. Obi-Wan focused on evading the suddenly heavy barrage. He juked the snub back and forth as he followed the Force's leading through the field of fire.
Skimming the snub as close to the immense ship's shields as he dared, Obi-Wan shot towards the bridge that protruded from the craft like a giant periscope. He flashed past the wall of transparisteel, glimpsing ducking figures. He immediately pulled his ship into a port barrel roll, looping the snub under the destroyer and back over for a second pass.
A wisp of a smile played across his lips when he noted the second Star Destroyer maneuvering to situate above the first. So the hunter wants to capture his prey. Obi-Wan buzzed the bridge again, peppering the shielding with laser fire. He deflected a sliver of icy anger that lanced out at his Force connection. The other ship's tractor beam would do little good while he stayed so close to Anakin's.
The sensor display flashed a notice that two allied capital ships had jumped out of the system. That left only Bail's ship. Obi-Wan cut short his third run at the bridge. He veered the snub to starboard, weaving his way along the underbelly of the destroyer. At his touch, the snub surged away from the Imperial ship, back toward the convoy, ducking and dipping to avoid enemy fire. He silently urged the craft to greater speed. Anakin's Destroyer protected him from the other's tractor beam, but it wouldn't take long for Anakin's own beam to zero in on him.
The second destroyer re-oriented for a run on Bail's ship. As if on signal, a voice silenced the comm chatter. "Restoration signing off." The blip that was Bail's ship disappeared from the display. Obi-Wan smiled grimly. Thank the Force. He took quick stock. Almost two squadrons of friendlies still in system. Bail had left all the hyperspace-capable fighters behind. To help the foolish Jedi escape, no doubt.
The snub swooped below the convoy. Still no tractor beam. Obi-Wan frowned and flicked his comm unit open.
"Force One here. Who's out there?"
"Squads Omega and Nova, sir," the major heading up Omega replied.
The sensor display showed a blip pulling away from Anakin's ship and honing in on the convoy.
"Major. Both squadrons are to retreat for rendezvous immediately. Out." Obi-Wan glanced down. The blip was closing. Fast.
On instinct, Obi-Wan jerked the snub to port. Lasers bolted past him. A silver ship followed, swinging to starboard for another pass. He recognized that ship. He'd flown one just like it -- after he'd killed the Sith who'd owned it. And he knew he couldn't outrun it.
The snub wove in amongst the convoy ships. Another burst of quad lasers. Obi-Wan snapped the ship up and rolled to port, narrowly missing a corvette. Realization struck. Nothing was firing on him. Nothing except that lone fighter.
Extending his senses outward, Obi-Wan tried to get a reading on the pilot pursuing him. It was like banging his head against ferrocrete. As he'd thought. Anakin had accepted his challenge -- a bit more personally than he'd intended. Obi-Wan exhaled slowly as he opened himself fully to the Force.
The two fighters danced and darted around the convoy, never exposing themselves to clean shots, rarely taking them. The star destroyers floated above, twin krayat dragons waiting for the hapless womprat to pop out from its lair.
For the sixth time in several minutes, Obi-Wan's gaze skipped over the instrument panel. Blast. The fuel cells were critically low. Anakin would nail him before he could make the jump -- if he could get past the blockade. The only option was down. Obi-Wan rolled the snub and glanced at the planet they were orbiting. Brown and green and oblivious.
The Jedi nodded to himself. He hurtled in the direction of the destroyers, twisting the snub to curl around the nearest freighter, then plunged toward the planet. He gained a few precious seconds before the sleek fighter broke away from the convoy. Not enough. Obi-Wan set rear shields to maximum.
The first hit rocked the snub. Obi-Wan used the momentum to throw the craft into a corkscrew dive. Red laser fire formed a deadly cordon. Three hits found their mark. Shields dropped to 30%. Obi-Wan swung to port and pulled a tight circle. He fired two rounds before Anakin's Infiltrator could pull up. One laser scored the port engine. A thin trail of smoke dissipated into the vacuum of space.
Before Obi-Wan could resume his run, Anakin had circled around and was firing again. The snub juked to one side and the other as the Jedi sought to avoid being hit. The fuel light began flashing. A twin blast jolted the snub. The shields sputtered, then died.
Clenching his jaw, Obi-Wan forced himself to stay focused. To not think about death riding down his tailpipes. Juke to port. Again. Starboard twist. Barrel roll. A laser caught his starboard engine, setting off a small explosion. Obi-Wan fought the stick as he tried to control the spiraling snub. Gravity's pull increased as thin fingers of atmosphere tugged at the ship.
"We're almost to you, sir. Hang in there." The voice of Omega squadron's major broke Obi-Wan's concentration.
"Blast it, Major," Obi-Wan barked. "What are you still doing here?"
"We pulled back. But the general had told us to make sure ..."
"I'm the only general in system." Obi-Wan toggled switches as he attempted to get the dead engine to re-fire. "I'm ordering you to make your jump. Now."
"That's a direct order, Major. I can't make hyperspace. Get your men out of here." The comm unit crackled. Obi-Wan shouted, "Now!"
The subdued, "Yes, sir," was barely audible.
Multiple blasts shook the snub. Warning lights flashed across the board. The sensor monitor flickered. He saw the green blips of Omega Squadron make a pass near Anakin's red marker. The monitor went black.
Obi-Wan twisted and peered out the back of the cockpit. Where was Anakin? Had the major scared him off?
The snub started to shake as atmosphere wrapped around it. Obi-Wan jerked his attention back to his ship. "Come on," he whispered. "Hold together."
The shaking increased. Obi-Wan's teeth rattled. His muscles strained as he struggled to slow the spin. He killed the port engine, hoping that would help. Sweat trickled into his eyes, blurring his vision. He swiped at them, rapping his knuckles on the helmet's visor, then blinked rapidly. Heat fused his boots to the floorboards. In seconds, sweat was rolling off him. Obi-Wan swallowed hard, his throat suddenly parched. There had to be stress fractures. That meant ... The Jedi blocked the thought. Not much time. Seconds.
Obi-Wan initiated the ejection sequence. Maybe ... Maybe he could convince Anakin he'd died in the explosion. So long as I'm not too convincing. The ground was invisible, obscured by a shroud of smoke, but he could sense it rushing up to meet him.
Anakin mustn't sense him. Mustn't realize ... The pod ejected.
The last thing his mind registered before he slipped into a Jedi trance, was the explosion's shockwave grabbing the pod and flinging it toward a rockface.
His world was red. Fire and blood. Pain without end.
Indistinguishable murmurs faintly echoed through his mind. The voices beckoned him out. Out of the depths of his being. As he neared the surface, the pain swelled, bombarding him with bursts of flame. A radiation storm that flashed out from his core. Blackness slammed him back into hiding.
Something cool trickled over his lips. He licked at it. Bitter liquid dribbled over his swollen tongue and down his throat. He tried to swallow. Coughing racked his body and drove the air from his lungs. He fought. Fought to breathe, to drive back the darkness. Air shuddered back into his lungs as the darkness won.
Dark and light danced on his eyelids. He blinked his eyes open and attempted to focus on the shadows dappling the wall. Wall? Where ... ?
"Mama! Mama! He's awake!"
A blurry form appeared above him. Obi-Wan squinted, his vision throbbing in and out of focus in time to the pounding in his head. Dark eyes in a tanned face. A finger touched his lips.
"Don't move. Don't talk. Rest." The husky voice soothed his mind, silenced his questions.
The pain. The constant pain ebbed and flowed. He sank into it and let it wash over him. This time, he welcomed the blackness.
Agony lanced through his midsection. His cry was cut short by a hand clamping over his mouth. His eyes flew open. A dark face filled his vision.
"Silence." The deep voice was hushed, urgent. "One sound will kill us all."
He squeezed his eyes shut as hands jostled him. His breath came in short bursts as shards of fire sliced along his nerves and pierced his mind. He groped for the Force, stopping suddenly. He might sense ...
The hands lowered him beneath the floor. The Jedi stifled a moan. Thick wooden planks were fit snugly into place above him, the darkness relieved by a single sliver of light tucked between the boards. Something sharp dug into his thigh. He didn't dare move. Every breath was laced with threads of anguish. Pain is a friend. My closest friend. Force help me.
Shouting. Banging. Tromping. Crying. The sounds charged into the room. A woman's voice pleading. A muffled demand. A man's angry reply. Heavy steps.
A boot covered the slice of light. Dust floated into Obi-Wan's eyes and nose. He clamped his jaw tight, refusing to sneeze. Tears ran down his cheeks and pooled in his ears. Eternity filled each second. His breathing sounded like it was being amplified a dozen times over. He stared unblinking at the sole of the boot and recited the Jedi Code silently, while thumps and bangs rang out above him. Finally, the muffled voice spoke again. The boot disappeared.
Silence crammed into the hole, deafening the Jedi. He strained to stay alert, but spots danced across his vision, melting together, fading to black ...
Light jerked his eyes open, blinding him. He swallowed a groan.
"It's all right, friend," a male voice said. Large hands gripped Obi-Wan under the arms. "You can scream now, if you need to."
The man hauled Obi-Wan out of the hole, a female voicing caution. The Jedi sucked air through his clenched teeth. He drew a shaky breath when the man stretched him out on a pallet. "T-takes ...," Obi-Wan whispered. "Takes too much energy t-to scream."
A booming laugh rolled over the Jedi, jump-starting the hammering in his head. A weak smile was all he could manage. The female tucked a blanket around Obi-Wan and wiped his brow.
"I'm sorry you're in so much pain." Her dark eyes were warm. "The only bacta treatment available is in the village. We couldn't risk that." She removed a canteen that was strapped to her hip and held it to Obi-Wan's lips. "This local remedy is all we've been able to give you." A bitter taste, vaguely remembered, filled Obi-Wan's mouth. He swallowed, grimaced. Her smile flashed white teeth in a tanned face. "Rest so the medicine can work."
As she rose, Obi-Wan asked, "Why?"
Puzzlement filled her face.
He continued, "Why am I still alive?"
The swarthy man stepped beside the much smaller woman and rested his arm across her shoulders. He stared at Obi-Wan for a moment before answering. "The fates aren't finished with you."
Sudden weariness stole over Obi-Wan. "W-why are you helping me?" His question trailed to a whisper.
The woman replied, "You can't even keep your eyes open. We'll talk later, Jedi."
So they know I'm a Jedi. Obi-Wan leaned against the plaster wall of the near empty room, slowly spooning a thin broth. It seemed to be the same time of day as the last time he'd awakened. How many days had passed? Had there been more than just the one search?
Each question increased the pulsing pain in his head, so he stopped asking them. Instead, he focused on what he knew. That he'd suffered a severe concussion was a given, considering that every movement brought pain and vertigo crashing down. He winced at the thought of crashing. How? No, that was another question. He turned his attention to the messages his body was transmitting. Several broken ribs. Twisted knee, maybe hip. Bruises and lacerations ... everywhere.
Sitting was not agreeing with him. It was pure stubbornness that kept him upright. Obi-Wan grimaced. How often had his master lectured him on that point? Though his master's words had rung somewhat hollow when Obi-Wan considered Qui-Gon's own intractable nature. But he didn't want to go down that path right now. Didn't want to think about what was lost. He let the empty bowl fall to the pallet and slouched against the wall, embracing the pain that exploded from his ribs and trembled along his limbs. He could feel the Force hovering within reach and ignored it. Maybe pain would cauterize the wounds and bring balance to his soul. Was there enough pain in the galaxy to do that?
He hoped so. Because fear was dogging his heels. And the dark whispers were growing bolder. Master, help me.
Obi-Wan knew exactly what his master would say. Don't center on your anxieties. Focus on the moment. It had become his mantra, the only time, the only way, he could center himself and wield the Force with the confidence of old. No matter what Yoda said, Obi-Wan knew he wasn't ready to face his old Padawan. Might never be ready. And that was why he'd run. And failed.
The Jedi's hand moved reflexively to rub his beard. Fingers ran along a clean-shaven jaw. When? Again, his gaze skimmed over bare feet and drab green clothing. Again, he wondered what had become of his lightsaber. His fingers lingered, tracing a jaw line that had been hidden for twelve, no, thirteen years.
"It makes you look younger."
The woman entered the room, followed by the man, who ducked through the low doorway. They sank to the floor to sit cross-legged before the Jedi. Both were clad in rough-spun white tunics and leggings, with sandals on their feet. Both were deeply tanned. Black hair. Dark brown eyes set in broad faces. Obi-Wan let his hand fall into his lap and waited.
After a moment the man spoke. "I am Calder beDirk. This is my mate, Liv."
The couple exchanged a glance.
Arching one brow, Obi-Wan asked, "How high is the bounty, now?"
Calder huffed. "Bounties do not concern us, Jedi. But while you stay amongst us, you must have a name that doesn't so clearly mark you as an off-worlder. The harvest is upon us, and with it the workers. We cannot know what ears might perk at such a name. To some, perhaps, you would be seen as ... the door to a life of ease."
"That high," muttered Obi-Wan. He watched a small child totter into the room, thumb in mouth. The toddler swung around his parents and plopped onto the Jedi's legs. His sharp intake of breath startled the child. He waved the mother away and smiled at the little one, who popped his thumb out of its nest and grinned. The Jedi asked, "What would be preferable to Obi-Wan?"
"Bi'wan. Bi'wan." The toddler grabbed Obi-Wan's outstretched finger. "Bon. Bon."
"Ben," Calder said with a smile. Obi-Wan met his gaze and nodded.
"Ben!" the child declared gleefully.
"Yes, little one. I am ... Ben." The name rolled off his tongue with surprising ease.
The child slid off Obi-Wan's thigh and began to play with the bowl and spoon.
"Why would you risk so much for a stranger? Especially knowing who I am and the danger I could bring?" Obi-Wan resisted the urge to test their responses through the Force.
"Do you know what planet you crashed on, Ben?" Calder asked.
"What do you know of my planet?"
Eyebrows drawn together, Obi-Wan cast about in his memory. "A member of the Republic, but standoffish. Never asked for help, even when civil war threatened, ah, ten years ago, was it? Though, I seem to recall working with various Daksheen relief teams on other worlds needing assistance."
Liv said, "We are happy to help where help is needed. But we don't like being told how to live, even by our own government."
"The Republic respected that," Calder said. "We chaff under this new order. And we refuse to bow to their rules and demands. They have no right. No right."
"But they have much power," Obi-Wan pointed out.
"Power to kill us, perhaps. But never to break us."
"The Daksheen have chosen a hard path."
"And you have chosen an easy one?"
Obi-Wan sighed and shifted slightly. Heat flared across his midsection. He groaned and stretched out on the mat, his arm draped across his eyes.
"I thought the Jed ... you people could heal yourselves," whispered Liv.
"Some better than others," replied Obi-Wan. He inhaled slowly. "But I dare not even try. There are some hunting me who could ... sense the disturbance. I don't even know if they are nearby, but to search for them would surely draw them here."
"Take Jak to the kitchen for a treat, Livi." Calder's voice was firm.
Obi-Wan listened to the shuffling, the whispers, the quiet "Ni-ni, Ben," and the silence that followed.
"The last thing I remember is the pod hurtling toward a wall of rock." Obi-Wan forced the strain out of his voice. "How did I survive?"
"We were gathering the herds to return them to the plains when we saw your ship explode. This pod you speak of hit the mountainside and bounced down to the valley, causing a small avalanche. It looked like a giant hand had crumpled it. We found you trapped inside a cocoon of air-filled cushions. Your blood had painted them red. When I wrapped my arms around your middle to pull you out, you groaned. Good thing, or we might have left you for dead. The straps that had held you in place had broken your ribs. The cushion beside your head had burst and there was a large gash above your ear. We couldn't wake you."
"How long was I unconscious?"
"The accident happened ten days ago. For a week you were almost lifeless. We didn't expect you to survive. It wasn't until three days ago that you showed any signs of responding."
"And the pod? Could you take me to it?"
"No. Imperial soldiers took everything. Even the body."
"Body?" Obi-Wan's gaze snapped to the Daksheen. The furious tattoo started up inside his head with renewed vigor.
"A vagrant had died the night before in a brawl in the village. We ... borrowed his remains and dressed him in your clothes."
"That would fool no one."
"We made it as difficult as possible to identify the body."
The pounding in his head grew until it was difficult to focus. Obi-Wan blinked as he waited for Calder to continue.
"We placed the body in the pod and burned it all."
"But they still search." Exhaustion swept over the Jedi.
"They are very thorough."
"Or they suspect the truth." Obi-Wan hesitated. "Did you leave my weapon in the pod?"
"No. It is safely hidden."
What little energy remained whooshed out of the Jedi's body, like oxygen exposed to vacuum. "Then if he's here, he knows I live."
As his eyes drooped closed, Obi-Wan whispered, "Someone you don't want to meet."
I have a bad feeling about this. Taking firm hold of Jak's pudgy hand, Obi-Wan hobbled along behind Liv and her seven-year-old daughter, as they wove through the marketplace. At breakfast, Calder had handed him a cane carved from a tree branch and declared that Ben must be seen to be what they were claiming him to be -- one of the family. A widowed cousin, come to grieve his loss in peace and quiet.
At least now he understood why they had shorn his beard. Married men were all clean-shaven, and remained so for at least six months after losing their spouses. But it left Obi-Wan feeling rather exposed. Telling himself that it added to his aura of grief, he kept his head down as he trailed behind Liv. But his eyes missed nothing. Especially not the occasional white flash of Imperial armor.
As the morning wore on, Obi-Wan found himself leaning more and more on the cane. It wasn't his knee -- after two weeks, that was almost completely healed. Nor his head -- though sudden movements could still cause waves of vertigo. But his ribs were vigorously complaining about the exercise, the jostling ... and the hugs. At least eight or nine people had approached him, saying how good it was to see him again, how sorry they were about his loss, always ending the exchange with a hug and a hearty, "Take care of yourself, Ben." He was beginning to think that the whole village knew his secret.
Halting, Obi-Wan shifted his weight to the cane and scanned the crowd, looking for Liv, who seemed to have gotten a ways ahead of him.
"Ben." Jak yanked on his hand, drawing his gaze downwards. The child pointed. "Mama."
Obi-Wan traced the finger's path to see Liv bartering with a salesman. He smiled at the child and released his hand. "Go to your mother, Jak." The child grinned and toddled away. Obi-Wan watched him until he reached his mother's side and tugged on her tunic. She looked up and waved at Obi-Wan. He nodded and turned away.
Right into another hug. A wide-shouldered, buxom woman folded Obi-Wan in a crushing embrace, murmuring condolences in his ear. She left him slightly hunched over, gasping for breath, holding his right arm protectively across his ribs. Bewilderment clouded his mind as he waited for the spiking heat to dissipate. Who didn't know?
A hand spun him around. Obi-Wan staggered, sudden dizziness pounding through his head and blurring his vision. His gaze widened as he blinked repeatedly, trying to focus on the black and white visored helmet in front of him.
"State your name and business," a muffled voice demanded from behind the visor.
Obi-Wan stared at the Imperial trooper blankly for a microsecond before his brain kicked into gear. "Ben ..." Had they given him a last name? "... beDirk. I'm visiting family."
Villagers encircled the pair, their silence stony.
"How did you get injured?"
"You'll have to come with me for questioning." The soldier tightened his grip.
No! Obi-Wan exhaled the clamoring panic. His right hand arched a small wave. "I don't have to come with you."
The trooper blinked. "You don't have to come with me."
"I'm not the man you're looking for."
"You're not the man we're looking for."
"I may go."
"You may go." The soldier released Obi-Wan's arm.
The Jedi limped past the trooper. The villagers stepped aside as he passed through the circle.
Liv joined him, her two children running to keep up. She whispered, "I don't understand what happened. Did you use your magic?"
Obi-Wan nodded. "I hope it wasn't a mistake."
The argument had been long and heated. In the end Obi-Wan had conceded, agreeing to stay on for a few more days. But only because it would take Calder that long to arrange transport off planet. It was better this way, Calder had insisted. If they were under surveillance, the appearance of normalcy was critical.
But logic did not dampen the growing sense of dread.
Calder's stride was as long as his shoulders were broad. Obi-Wan ignored his aching midsection as he hustled to keep up. Their sandals kicked up little puffs of dust as they made their way around the farm's perimeter road. The big man pointed out the autumn pastures, filled now with herdsmen and their wards, the river that fed the fertile valley, the contract harvesters with their droid workforce. Obi-Wan feigned polite interest, his thoughts a roiling cauldron. He'd been so careful not to use the Force up to now. Should he have gone with the trooper? It had been a day. Surely Anakin would've already moved to capture him, if he were in system. Wouldn't he? Guilt and uncertainty nagged at him, increasing his unease.
They topped the rise that overlooked the farm yard. Calder halted. Obi-Wan joined the Daksheen, his polite demeanor shedding as tension filled his limbs. Below them, a pair of white-suited soldiers marched from the house, mounted their speeder bikes and raced away.
Calder charged down the hillside, bellowing. Obi-Wan followed, clutching at his side. He drew on the Force, just a little, just enough to quiet his screaming ribs. He bounded up the staircase and through the doorway, almost crashing into Calder.
Jak sat in the middle of the kitchen, tugging at his mother's sleeve. His plaintive wail echoed off white and red-spattered walls. "Ni-ni. Mama ni-ni." Liv's crumpled form lay in a red puddle. Obi-Wan took a step forward, stopping when he spotted the girl. He glided across the room and stared down at Calder's daughter, so much the image of her mother. He tore his gaze away from the gaping hole in her chest and met Calder's burning glare.
"She did this for you, Jedi. Kept silent for you. Heal her."
Obi-Wan shook his head slowly, refusing to let horror blank his mind. Calder paced across the room and clutched Obi-Wan's arm, shoving him toward Liv and the crying child. Obi-Wan stumbled and fell to his knees beside Jak. "Go to your room, Jak," he whispered. He nudged through the Force. "Go now." The child scrambled to his feet and ran from the kitchen.
Calder picked up his daughter's body and cradled it against his chest. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he barked, "Heal her, Jedi!"
"Healing is not my talent. I'm a knight." Easing Liv onto her back, Obi-Wan took in the broken and bruised face while he searched for a glimmer of her life force. He closed his eyes and sat back on his heels. "I'm sorry, Calder. She's beyond healing." He reached out and gently brushed her eyes closed, concealing her empty, accusing stare.
Calder jostled Obi-Wan aside and fell to his knees beside Liv. He laid his daughter in her mother's arms and draped himself over both. Loud sobs flooded the room.
Obi-Wan let the agonized sounds wash over him for several minutes, then pushed himself to his feet, welcoming the dull ache radiating from his side. At least he was feeling ... something. He wiped his hands on his green leggings. "I have to leave."
"No!" Calder lunged to his feet. He grabbed Obi-Wan by the collar and slammed him against the wall. "They died protecting you, Jedi!"
Tugging unsuccessfully at the thick fingers wrapped around his neck, Obi-Wan rasped, "I didn't ask them to. I'm not responsible ..."
"You are! You will be!" Calder leaned close and stared into Obi-Wan's eyes. "If you leave now, Jedi, you deliver proof of our guilt to those Imperial scum. You know they're watching. They'll come back and destroy us all if you leave. All. Even Jak."
Releasing his grip, Calder stepped back. Obi-Wan slumped against the wall. He rubbed at his neck and eyed the Daksheen warily.
"They will likely return, anyway," Obi-Wan said. "Come with me. You and Jak."
"No. These are my people. This is my place."
Obi-Wan sank to the floor, protectively hugging his ribs. "I don't want to be responsible for any more dying, Calder. Every decision I make sends more beings to their deaths. The burden is suffocating me."
"The service of remembrance for my mate and my daughter will be held tomorrow at sunset. My grieving cousin will be in attendance."
"You don't know what you ask."
"I ask you to honor their sacrifice."
Obi-Wan pulled his legs against his chest and let his head fall onto his knees. Defeat loomed over him.
The walled square on the edge of the village sided a wide river. Steep banks dropped down to rumbling white water. The ground was tiled with flat stones that spread out from the center of the square in a starburst design. In accordance with tradition, Calder and his remaining family -- Jak and Obi-Wan -- stood by the central rock. That one stone was slightly raised, and on it rested the urns containing the ashes of the deceased. Calder would return them to the river of life after the service.
Obi-Wan stood stiffly behind Calder. The gazes of the two hundred or so mourners seemed to drill into the back of his head. A neighbor had offered a mourning outfit of traditional brown. Obi-Wan tugged at the neckline of the snug tunic and resisted the urge to re-adjust the leather sash. He had already cinched it as tight as possible, so that it served to bind his ribs. He ignored the insect exploring his sandle-clad foot and stared beyond the river as the ceremony began.
The holy man's voice droned, reciting centuries-old dirges about the circle of life. There is no death; there is the Force. Would Calder find comfort in that thought? Do I? Obi-Wan found himself thinking of his old master. A tear tracked down his cheek, stinging his freshly-shaved jaw. Perhaps such thoughts were meant to be a comfort to those facing death. But how does one comfort the person who must find the courage to go on living? From where does that courage spring? Is dying the easier choice?
The sun dipped below the horizon. The ceremony had just begun to celebrate the lives cut short, when the rapid thudding of many boots on stone rolled down the street and over the square. As one, the crowd turned to face the company of Imperial soldiers double-timing towards them. The white uniforms glowed in the twilight. An eerie calm settled over the villagers.
The Force vibrated with the knowledge of possible violence, and the smell of ozone, from blasters not yet fired, seemed to fill Obi-Wan's nostrils.
The soldiers blocked the only escape route and snapped their blasters to ready position. The villagers faced the troop silently, a human wall separating the Imperials from the Jedi. The soldiers remained unmoving, awaiting orders. Obi-Wan started forward. Calder spun him back.
"Where do you think you're going, Jedi?" Venom filled the Daksheen's voice.
"I can stop this. It's me they want."
"You could have made this choice two days ago. It was wrong then. It's wrong now."
Obi-Wan knocked Calder's arm down. "I don't want anyone else to die for me."
"You will not shame Livi's sacrifice by making it nothing."
Obi-Wan clenched his fists. "No more deaths."
"The choice is not yours, Jedi. And this fight is not yours. They made it our fight by killing two of our own." Calder pulled Obi-Wan's lightsaber from inside his tunic and slapped it into the surprised Jedi's hand. Then he pulled out a blaster and cocked the firing pin. "Return to your own arena, Jedi Knight. A ship is waiting. Five kilometers west of my house. Fight this war on your terms."
Scanning Calder's face, Obi-Wan asked, "You knew this was going to happen?"
"I hoped not, but I knew it was possible." Calder pivoted away. He halted and looked over his shoulder. "You're a good man, Ben." With that, he strode through the crowd, toward the black clad officer who was repeating his demand for cooperation.
Obi-Wan noted hands everywhere, reaching inside tunics. He squeezed his eyes shut as Calder raised his blaster and yelled, "Rally Daksheen!" Shouts and cries and the whine of blasters filled his ears. The smell of burning air and singed flesh clogged his nose. He was surrounded by a cordon of death. His limbs trembled. Liv's honor was his shame. Despair shrouded his mind.
A hand on his wrist popped his eyes open. The woman who had crushed him in the marketplace, stood holding Jak. The boy's faced was buried in her neck.
Her voice was stern. "You know what is right. Don't think. Act."
"I-I'm trying ..." There is no try.
Obi-Wan wheeled and dashed toward the river. He blew out his trepidation, inhaling calm. As his foot hit the riverbank, he gathered tendrils of the Force and jumped the raging waters. He hit the far bank, tumbling to the ground and springing back to his feet. He paused for a quick glance at the battle, then ran into the approaching night.
By the time Obi-Wan reached a small plateau three kilometers west of the beDirk farm, he was raging. Unspent battle adrenaline pulsed through his veins. He let loose a blood-freezing yell and somersaulted to a standstill. His chest heaved. He used the Force to swat aside the agony bathing his ribcage.
No choice. The Daksheen had given him no choice tonight. Just as Master Qui-Gon had given him no choice but to take Anakin as his Padawan. Just as Master Yoda had given him no choice but to save Amidala from herself and her husband. Just as Anakin had given him no choice but to hide Anakin's own son from him and the Emperor.
Icy anger rode the cool night breeze. [This is Master Qui-Gon's fault. He started it when he insisted on saving that slave boy.] I can't blame him. I loved him. He was a father to me. [He had no right. No right to try to set me aside to train the boy. No right to wring that promise from me. How could he do that to me? I wasn't ready for the burden.] But I accepted it. I did my best. [I failed. It was his fault. He knew I'd fail.] No! He trusted me.
Obi-Wan fell to his knees in the sparse grass. Pebbles dug into his skin. He pressed his forehead to the ground. Visions of exploding snubfighters melted into Daksheen falling in the village square, their blood washing over the stones. A yawning void opened up within him and despair rushed in to fill it. How could he go on? Everyone he loved, every life he touched, was destroyed. Body or soul or both.
That one soul-wrenching memory overwhelmed him. His sweat. The heat of the shimmering red shield that prevented him from moving. That let him see. The elbow that clipped Qui-Gon's chin. The red blade that sank into and through Qui-Gon's midsection. His own tortured scream. The gloating, demon face.
The end. The beginning. Of this waking nightmare. Of this living death.
It had to stop.
[Kill him.] I love Anakin. I can't kill him. [Anakin is dead. Kill him.] I can't. Even if I wanted to. He's grown too powerful. [Kill him.] How? [Take his power. Use his own power against him.] No. I could never do that. [It is the only way.] There has to be another way. There has to. [Light cannot defeat the darkness. It is snuffed out and the darkness remains.] That can't be true. [Look inside. The truth is there.]
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Knight, looked inside his soul and wept. [It is the only way.]
The dark figure scaled the smooth wall, finding purchase where there was none. It rose without hesitation, like a moon shadow, swift and silent. Fingers curled over a balcony ledge. The shadow sprang up, flipping to land softly on the balcony. It hovered before the darkened windows for a moment, then disappeared inside.
Obi-Wan ran his fingers over the comm console. The message had been sent. He'd be here soon. He glanced over his shoulder. The infrared beams were once again standing guard over the glass doors leading outside. The system had been ridiculously easy to circumvent. Should he mention it? He shrugged and padded across the room, sinking into one of the chairs in the conversation circle. He straightened and slipped his fingers under the leather sash, retrieving the lightsaber tucked against his spine. That was better. He relaxed against the padded chair, settling in to wait.
Six minutes later, Obi-Wan heard a quiet rustling in the hall. He flipped the lightsaber in his palm and brushed his thumb over the trigger. A smile flitted across his lips.
The door slid open. A silhouetted figure paused in the doorway, then reached for the light console. Obi-Wan flicked his finger and glow globes sprang to life around the room.
A startled Bail Organa stood blinking in the bright light. The Jedi reached out through the Force, closing and locking the door. Bail tightened the belt on his emerald dressing gown and gaped.
"Obi-Wan? Is it you?" Bail stumbled forward, grabbing a chair to steady himself.
"Well, it's not my ghost, Bail. Come sit before you fall."
Bail lurched across the room and fell into the chair facing Obi-Wan. The Jedi gave his friend a crooked smile. "You came."
Sputtering, Bail said, "Of course, I came. I was working at my desk ..."
"I knew you would be."
Bail glared for a micron, then continued, "When I get a comm saying nothing but, 'I told you so.' I traced the call to find it originated inside my own palace!" Anguish rolled across the Alderaanian's features. "Sithspawn. You were dead. For over three weeks we've been mourning ... I've been mourning ..."
"Was it a big funeral?" Obi-Wan swung his feet up and propped them on the low table in the center of the circle. He arched an eyebrow inquisitively.
"Blast it, Kenobi! This is no joke. Why didn't you contact me? Yoda? Someone!"
A sigh slipped passed the Jedi's lips. "Because for the first week I was dead. Or almost. And then I was healing. I didn't know if Anakin was nearby, so I couldn't use the Force." Obi-Wan paused. "Blasted inconvenient, that."
"Welcome to the galaxy the rest of us inhabit, Kenobi. Didn't you have access to bacta?"
Obi-Wan rested a hand on his still tender ribs and shook his head. Bail cast him a sympathetic glance.
After a moment of silence, Bail asked, "Well? Aren't you going to tell me what happened? And why you have a bit of stubble instead of a beard? And why you are wearing a tunic that is so snug it is ripping? And why you are resting bare feet on my table?"
"Sandals don't work well for climbing walls."
"I'm sure you have better things to do in the middle of the night than listen to my tale of woe. Sleep, perhaps? A soft bed would be ... wonderful."
"I am quite beyond sleep, thanks to you. So, talk."
Obi-Wan shrugged his resignation. He told the story without interruption. His voice trailed to silence after he described his leap across the river. He found himself staring out a window, unsure as to when he'd started moving about the room. He turned to face his friend. Bail sat, fingers steepled, his gaze intent.
"So you have no idea what happened to Calder, his son, his people?" Bail's voice was gentle.
"I'm sure many died. But, no, I don't know." Darkness shadowed his thoughts.
"They didn't die for you, Obi-Wan. You know that, don't you? They died for the freedom we've all lost. You are simply a symbol of that freedom."
Obi-Wan avoided Bail's gaze and nodded.
Bail added, "I'm no Jedi, but even I can tell you left something untold."
Gazes locked. Obi-Wan said, "On the bridge of the Restoration, before I flew out to get myself blown up, I could sense that you were hiding something from me. You and Master Yoda."
Bail's gaze dropped.
Obi-Wan whispered, "Some things are not meant to be asked. Or told."
In the silence that ensued, Obi-Wan returned his stare to the night sky. He pressed his palm against the glass, relishing the cool touch. The words came of their own accord.
"Master Qui-Gon told me that each of us harbors, deep within, the capacity for doing great good ... or great evil. Every decision carries the seed of victory ... or defeat." Obi-Wan suppressed a shudder. "I have teetered on the abyss, Bail. I have looked into the dark night of my soul. And the truth was terrifying." Obi-Wan knew he needed to continue. He forced the thought out. "I have realized that I am just as capable as Anakin of turning to evil." He returned to his chair and perched on the edge of the seat, then picked up his lightsaber and wrapped his fingers around the hilt. He met Bail's unblinking gaze. "Master Yoda was right. The choice was Anakin's. And the choice is mine."
Bail leaned forward, elbows on knees. His voice was barely audible. "What do you choose, Obi-Wan?"
"The shadow within whispered to me. How easy it would be to crush Anakin's darkness with my own." Obi-Wan flipped his lightsaber to the side and powered it up. He watched the blue blade extend, remembering the green blade once wielded by his master. He flicked it off. "But if darkness usurps darkness, is the second even deeper, more impenetrable than the first?" He tossed the weapon to Bail. " I would sooner walk up to Anakin and let him cleave me in two with his lightsaber, than use evil to fight evil."
The air whooshed out of Bail. He slumped in his chair and frowned. "Don't ever scare me like that again, Kenobi."
Obi-Wan arched his eyebrows. "Believe me. I have no desire to put myself through such an ordeal, ever again."
"Yes. Well, I'm glad we didn't lose you. Either way."
"I told you before that I'm not so easy to kill." Obi-Wan paused. "I hope you didn't mind me coming here ... like this. Making you listen ... to this."
Bail blinked. "By the Republic, no, Obi-Wan. Probably the one and only time I'll ever be glad to have an 'I told you so' flaunted in my face."
The Jedi nodded. "Good. I, I could have gone to Yoda, but I needed ..." He started again, "I needed to be reminded of what was good and beautiful in the Republic. Alderaan has always done that for me. I needed to remember what we were fighting for. It's easy to forget when you are surrounded by death." By the Force, I'm starting to sound positively maudlin. Obi-Wan smiled. "Besides, didn't the good general once offer the use of his refresher facilities?"
"To a fellow in desperate need, yes. I suppose you'll be wanting that soft bed you hinted at, as well?"
"Now that you mention it ..." The smile widened, crinkling out from Obi-Wan's eyes. "My usual quarters?"
Bail hesitated for a split second, then tossed the lightsaber back to Obi-Wan and grinned. "They're all yours. Just wash the dirt off in patches, so you don't clog the drain. Okay, Kenobi?"
The smile drooped a little. "Sure, Bail. Thanks."
The soft bed held no allure, after all. Obi-Wan leaned on the railing of the balcony that led off his bedroom and listened to the night sounds drifting up from the gardens. The palace gleamed in the moonlight.
It felt so good to be clean. Bail had procured comfortable clothing, even -- the miracle worker -- boots. Gloriously tall boots, with no possibility of exposure for heel or toe. The perfect fit. He might never take them off. Maybe for showers. But that was it.
At the bottom of the pile of clothing Bail had handed him, had been his cloak. Bail had kept it, though he couldn't explain why. Thank the Force. Obi-Wan lifted the hood over his head and tucked his hands into opposing sleeves. Comfort draped over his shoulders.
Yet sleep eluded him.
He had bared his soul to Bail. Purged the darkness. Still ... murky wisps of guilt and regret clung to the corners of his mind. Cobwebs he couldn't quite reach. If only. If only. He'd already trod this path with Master Yoda. A treadmill he couldn't seem to get off. I don't understand. How do I rise above my guilt? It seems to have become my lifeblood. My every act seeks to right the wrongs -- ones I committed, ones I allowed. I am haunted by a legion of regrets. If Master Qui-Gon had survived, Anakin would have turned out differently, and I ... I might have been allowed to express my love ... His mind suddenly stopped churning. He had hurt Padme so badly when he'd torn her away from her life with Anakin, even if it had been for her own good. And taking her away had widened the gulf between him and Anakin. He knew now it could never be bridged. Not by him. And Padme would never thank him for what he'd done. Is that the thing that hurt more? That in saving her, he'd ruined his last possible chance for any kind of happiness? That was ridiculous; she had never been within reach to begin with. But was his own desire for love clouding his judgment?
Out of the corner of his eye, Obi-Wan caught a movement, above and to the side. He peered out from his hood. His breath caught. Had his thoughts conjured her up?
Padme. No, the regal figure standing on Bail Organa's balcony was Amidala. Padme had likely disappeared forever when he'd whisked her off Naboo for the last time. Obi-Wan sank into the shadows and stared hungrily at the moonlit vision. The white dressing gown accented her porcelain skin. Dark tresses were swept from her face and left to tumble down her back, swaying below her waist. Despite her straight spine and uplifted chin, she looked wan. Vulnerable.
Obi-Wan swung onto the balcony railing and reached up for the first handhold. The night breeze picked up. It brushed his cheek, his ear. A deep, oh-so-familiar whisper rode the current. 'Let it go.' Obi-Wan pressed himself against the smooth wall and squeezed his eyes shut. I love you, Master. I couldn't even save you. 'Let it go.' I love her ... 'Let it go.'
Opening his eyes, Obi-Wan saw Bail step onto the balcony. He draped a blanket over Amidala's shoulders and squeezed. She leaned against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and looked down towards Obi-Wan's seemingly empty balcony. Bail kissed the top of Amidala's head and led her back inside.
The breeze tugged at Obi-Wan's straining fingers. He trembled, then let go, dropping back to the floor of his balcony. Curling into a tight ball, Obi-Wan fought to keep from shaking. Why didn't you tell me, Bail? Did you know how I felt? Did you ... fear me? A deep shudder ran along his spine. Master! Help me! The breeze ruffled Obi-Wan's cloak. 'Let it go.' Let what go!? 'All of it.' All? My hopes, my dreams, my regrets? ... My love? 'All of it.' I don't understand. 'Even that.'
The breeze died down and Obi-Wan was totally, utterly ... alone.
His breathing sounded deafening. It resounded through his being. He was surrounded by a ... a waiting -- expectant and enduring. Something unbidden rose up from within. Suddenly, his body was shaking with sobs. He tried to calm himself, but to no avail. Tears poured forth, bathing his face, filling his gaping mouth with salty brine and soaking his cloak. Tears of penance. Tears of cleansing.
When the last tear had fallen, Obi-Wan knew ... he knew, at last, what his master had known all along. You didn't need to understand the will of the Force to serve it. You didn't need to know why or where things had gone wrong, or where the fault lies. You only needed to trust. The will of the Force was striving for balance -- day by day, moment by moment. Only trust. And serve.
The waiting ended. The Force flooded Obi-Wan's innermost being, filling every nook with the luminescence of a supernova. He was bathed in a warmth and peace that surpassed anything in his memory. His soul exhalted. He gladly handed over everything that had ever hindered, and watched it dissipate harmlessly into the light.
And then there was only the light. Obi-Wan drifted in its embrace, never noticing when sleep stole over him.
The sun breaking over the horizon roused the Jedi, as its rays peeked through the balustrade to flash in his face. He rose stiffly, laughing at his complaining body. Pain is my friend. But not my only friend.
Obi-Wan reveled in the gold and pink dawn. The Republic's dawn would come. He had tasted that surety before. Now he drank in the knowledge in long draughts, like a man who'd stumbled out of the desert and discovered an oasis. In a way, he had.
Dawn would come. But he did not need to know how or when. And he did not need to be the one to make it come to pass.
Obi-Wan nodded in response to a whisper only he heard. He needed to say good-bye to Bail. He was finally ready to do the one thing he had dreaded. Now that the dread was gone ... he could face his Padawan. Come what may.
It was the will of the Force.
Thick white walls stood guard against the midday heat. Cool air stroked his cheeks as the old man pushed himself to his feet and slowly walked across the room. His long robes whispered against the hard-packed floor.
"Now let's see if we can't figure out what you are, my little friend. ... And where you come from." Ben patted the R2 unit's shiny dome and stepped aside to sit on a low-backed chair padded with a dark blanket. The boy's comment and his own reply were cut short as the robot beamed a blue hologram onto the round table at the Jedi's knees.
The small image shimmered with aching familiarity. Force help him, she looked like her mother; even sounded like her. He'd known about her, of course -- Bail and Amidala's daughter. Known that she'd taken Alderaan's senate seat at an even younger age than her father. Political savvy concealed beneath an innocent face. Truly her father's child. Emotions long buried erupted, cascading through Ben's mind. He stared at the holo, eyes glittering, his features schooled to stillness. Jealousy nibbled at the Jedi's resolve. He shunted it aside. Bail had been a good friend. And he had never known of Ben's feelings. It had all been such a long time ago.
Amidala's face filled his vision. He yearned to cup her jaw in his hand. To hold her close and shield her from all the hurt she'd experienced. Hurt that he'd caused her, even as he'd sought to save her. But she was beyond all pain now. Had been for ... what? ... twelve years? Had it really been that long? Sometimes it felt like twelve lifetimes. Amidala's visage faded as the holo of Princess Leia Organa leaned forward, then flicked off.
Ben resumed breathing and leaned back thoughtfully. He gripped his right elbow to quell a slight shaking, and twisted a bit of white beard in his right fingers. He glanced askance at Luke. The boy returned the look, seeing, no doubt, a time-worn old hermit. Would he ever have the courage to describe to Luke the warrior he'd been? Or the beloved Republic he'd lost? The burden of surviving had crushed his youth and vigor; Tatooine had eroded his body. But Obi-Wan still lurked inside, awaiting the right moment to re-emerge.
The Force whispered softly. It was time to return. Day was dawning.
Obi-Wan held Luke's gaze. "You must learn the ways of the Force, if you are to come with me to Alderaan."The End