200th post on Against the Shadows! Thanks to everybody who’s stuck around – we’ve come a long way together: I couldn’t have done it without you.
Okay, this one owes its roots to Erin’s Just In Case. Which I went hunting for, swearing at Kysherin about (in the search bar, in the search bar…), annoying Erin over… only to discover that I should have been looking in my email all along. But she posted it for me anyway. Thanks, Erin.
Also, thanks to Caitie – she knows why.
This went on a lot longer than I expected it to – the angst seam went deeper than preliminary surveys suggested – so I’ve split it into two (still quite long) parts.
One other thing: Why does my spellchecker think ‘Obi-Wan’ is a plural, even after I’ve had to teach it that it is a word? Anybody?
I’m not in the habit of surprising people. Lived too long on the edge not to know how scary it can be to have someone come up behind you when you’re not expecting it. That said, it’s difficult to actually surprise a Sentinel; we’re – they’re, I keep forgetting I’m Temple now – always scanning for strangers in their vicinity.
In the Temple, that still holds for some people, at some times. Even through a closed door, Master Obi-Wan can usually tell whether I’m coming into the quarters headed for my room or coming into the quarters to talk to him. But when he’s deep in some book he might as well be on another planet; the only thing he’ll notice then is the Council call signal on his comlink – not always that.
Today, it’s a quiet day. I’m crunching the numbers from somebody else’s research in the chemistry lab. Blaze the pet txakurra is sitting up next to me, on guard. I think he likes me. Ben’s doing his homework at the table in the main room. Master Obi-Wan’s in his room, dealing with Council memos or something. I realize I don’t actually know what he does with his time. I take a break; make a cup of tea for Ben, one for me; as an afterthought, pour a cup for Master Obi-Wan as well. Although his door is closed, it isn’t locked, so, working on the Sentinel basis that he’s trying to block noise, not visitors, I slip in without knocking.
He all but jumps as I set the teacup down on the desk beside him, turns away from me, snatching something from off of his face, holding it under the desk – but he’s too late, I’ve seen.
“Since when do you wear glasses?” Even if he’d been quick enough with hiding them, there are the betraying marks on his face – a tiny dent either side of the nose. You’d have to have sharp eyes to notice, but… Sentinel raised over here.
“Oh…” he prevaricates. “Don’t worry about it.” But he’s holding the glasses above the desk now, turning them slowly, studying, appraising; I sense there’s more to say. These aren’t particularly interesting glasses, don’t warrant this level of scrutiny: just plain black, square lenses in a plastic frame.
“I’m worrying, Master,” I say.
“This is what you get for a lifetime of viewscreens, Padawan. Take my word for it: work on paper whenever you can.” He looks up at me, smiling ruefully. “Close-up things are a bit blurry for me. In theory it’s reversible.”
I frown; notice, though surprised to be noticing, that I can see the shadow of my eyelashes in my peripheral vision; ask the obvious question.
“I don’t have time,” Master Obi-Wan answers calmly. “It takes a week after the surgery, for things to come right. Last time I had a week to spare with nowhere offworld to go in it was after… no, just before you came along.” Pausing to take a sip of tea, he looks sad, for barely an instant. “Frankly, some days I find myself looking forward to the next horrendous mission – I might finally get rid of these things.” He flaps the glasses at me for emphasis; they break, one plastic arm flying one way, the rest of the structure the other.
I turn, stoop, pick up the pieces by hand. “Flimsy Mando rubbish – no, let me, I’m good at fixing low-tech things.” As I carefully wind the tiny screws back into place, using the edge of one fingernail as a screwdriver – can’t even glance at stuff this small with electronic tools – I keep talking. Just because. “That’s kind of scary. Looking forward to getting that bad hurt. Looking forward to scaring everybody half to death. ‘Cause I remember the time you mentioned. I wasn’t even here, we heard about it way to glory out at Kinooine. It’s… you know when you came to find me at Hoth? I guess I’m not as brave as you or something, but I wouldn’t go through that kind of mess again, I sure as nine hells wouldn’t look forward to it. Does it get easier – when you’re older – when you have to deal with it a lot?”
“No. No, I wish it did.” Just for that fleeting second, he’s sad again. I wonder why, but don’t ask. “However old you get, as long as it still hurts, you’ll still wish it didn’t. Worst of all, you’ll still know you can’t change it. But I can hope to get something good out of next time I’m confined to Temple perimeter on pain of Master Che’s distinct displeasure.” Master Obi-Wan says that last phrase so glibly I realize he’s heard it, said it, maybe both, more times than I can guess.
I’m curious, about so many things. But two months’ acquaintance isn’t a steady enough base on which to ask the deep questions, the what’s-troubling-you ones. Oh, I know he gets the crazy bad dreams sometimes, but there are two drawbacks to asking about it: first, he’ll know I know. Second, my nightmares will become a valid target for inquiry; I don’t want that.
So I don’t ask Master Obi-Wan if he’s okay, don’t ask if anything’s wrong, if there’s anything I can do to help. We don’t know each other well enough for that kind of conversation. We barely know each other well enough for the one we just had. I just set the mended glasses on the edge of the desk, leave as quietly as I came, feeling his gaze follow me. Close the door, go back to my work.
In the evening, when I have nothing better to do, I’m lying on my bed, turning pages of a novel with one hand, petting Blaze with the other. Master Obi-Wan appears, not quite coming in, hovering in the doorway.
“I’m going down to meet Ben in the refectory for dinner,” he says. “Coming?”
I just shake my head. Thirteen years of explaining to people that I’m Saalisan, so I can photosynthesize, I only need about a fifth as much food as a Human – I’ve had it up to here with explaining; nowadays I make excuses.
“I’ll come down later.”
“Nasriel,” he says, an unmistakable note of warning in his voice, “That wasn’t a request.” While the voice is Master Obi-Wan’s beyond a doubt, the tone, the words, remind me painfully of someone else; I close the book, scramble to my feet, try not to look intimidated: that only makes things worse.
“Coming, Master,” I amend. Two months down the line, already the cracks are starting to show. Starting out, I’d hoped… doesn’t matter; I’m too optimistic for my own good, I think, staring at the floor, heart pounding, wondering what’s coming next, scared to find out. But then he decides to surprise me: holds out his arm for me to take, like a nobleman, like one of the gentlemen in those awful historical holovids Sima Orezna watches.
“May I escort you to the refectory, my Lady… remind me, what is your Saalisan name? The one we replaced after the Shadow case?”
“It was Kaliu,” I say, making sure he hears the past tense. I’m Nasriel Kenobi Threeb now; just have to keep telling myself that, reminding myself I belong here. I take his arm, still waiting for the catch. There isn’t one.
“Well, Lady Kaliu, at last I get to be a diplomat again instead of a soldier. While you… of course, you’re a countess, aren’t you?”
I’m almost enjoying this game – I’m not strictly a countess, gave up all the titles years ago. I’m not sure if I like that in the game I’m not-Jedi, that we’re different again, but I play along, feel myself stand straighter, walk like a great lady, instead of a little girl wondering where the game ends, dreading the last move, hoping he isn’t mocking me, knowing he probably is anyway.
We meet Ben in the refectory. If he’s surprised, he has the manners not to show it. Over dinner – I have a cup of tea, just to be companionable – Master Obi-Wan explains that he’s been puzzling over the logistics of training two Padawans; thinks he’s got it figured out.
“Time in the Temple you can split – perhaps help each other out when I’m not around, which, Force help me, is more often than I’d like. Missions are the next problem – what do you say to taking turns? Bear in mind that I’ve somehow managed to draw one to depart early tomorrow.”
Taking turns isn’t the issue – that comes when we have to decide who takes first turn. Tossing a coin won’t work: we’re both experienced enough to be able to influence random-chance devices. In the end, Master Obi-Wan takes the coin, holds both hands, closed, on the tabletop. Ben is about to choose, but he’s halted by a stern look from his uncle.
“Lady’s choice, Ben.”
I pick the hand without the coin; Master Obi-Wan looks at me as if he knows I knew which was which. But he couldn’t possibly: no Sentinel has ever told any Templar about the technique for laying a trace on an item without touching it. However, he abides by the draw. Ben will go tomorrow.
“Oh, Nasriel? Do you recall that object you mended this morning? Should circumstances arise under which it can be dispensed with altogether, not only is Master Che unlikely to remember, I am unlikely to be able to remind her to make suitable arrangements. If you could possibly…?”
He is asking me to be an external memory. It isn’t as if I’ve never done that before; I nod.
“I’ll remember, Master.” We go home: it’s late, the men have an early start tomorrow.
When I wake in the morning, the dawn is bleeding through the balcony windows, fading into my room, casting fuzzy shadows on the wall five centimeters from my face. Under my bed, lying on my spare boots, doubtless ruining them, Blaze makes a sleepy little txakurra whine, thumps his tail on the floor.
Still half-asleep, I realize that someone is tapping something against my head; I grab blindly at whatever-it-is. When I roll over to investigate more closely, I find that Master Obi-Wan is gazing bemusedly down at me; that I’m holding his folded glasses in my hand.
Embarrassed, I try to give them back, but he gently pushes my hand away.
“No, no, that’s why I woke you. We’re just about to leave, but as I’m unlikely to need them on mission, would you mind looking after my glasses for me? Besides, some people –” he smiles so I know he doesn’t mean me “have been known to investigate my belongings in my absence. Oh – don’t forget about Master Che.”
After he’s gone, after the quarters are silent again except for Blaze’s breathing, I stay where I am for a long time, holding those yrelt glasses, thinking. I won’t forget. Of course I won’t forget. It just troubles me; some nameless unease. In the end, I tuck the glasses away in a drawer with the other stuff I don’t want anyone to find.
Then I put it all out of my mind, settle down, accustom myself to the rhythm of ordinary life in the Temple. When Master Obi-Wan first said he’d take over my training, I more than half-expected a quiet life. That was two months ago. Since then we’ve had the Shadow case, had the mission to Zayam; I haven’t had any more time to myself than when I was a Sentinel.
A week later, I’m in the dojo. I’ve spent most of the week in the dojo. Because I can’t afford to be just good now I’m Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Padawan, I have to be brilliant. I’ve been here since dawn today, practicing, flouting nature by working faster, more precise, even as my strength wanes. I pay for it, though, mind running on overcharge, burning like a glowpanel filament. The Force can give, will readily give, more power than a living being can bear. By the time my comlink rings in my cloak pocket, I am so near my limit that the shock of disturbance, the very sound, is a physical pain. The callsign is Master Obi-Wan’s, but the caller is Ben, sounding concerned, even distraught.
“Are you guys okay?” I ask, hoping he’ll take the question at face value, not read into it anything I didn’t intend.
“I’m a little banged around, singed,” Ben replies, candor wavering across the line of bravado. “Master Obi-Wan…” His voice trails off into a gulp, but he pulls himself together, continues suavely. “Will be wanting to avoid meeting Master Eerin. Please inform Master Che that we will be home in about an hour.”
“Ben,” I say, drowning my worry, “what exactly happened?”
“We were investigating an abandoned building in a war zone. He opened a door. The building blew up.”
“Is Master Obi-Wan awake, or can you fly that thing on your own?”
“He’s sort of awake,” Ben hedges, but a hedge is not a wall, leaving the way open for my next question.
“Can I talk to him?”
“I – I really don’t think that’s a good idea. Not at this precise moment. Go tell Master Che. Now, Nasriel. Please.” He cuts the call. All day I’ve been on the edge of pure Force-euphoria – dangerous place to be – let it slip to answer the comm; I’m so tired I can barely breathe. So, drawing on the bottomless energy of the Galaxy again – too much, too long without resting – I run. As my bare feet slap over the cold stone of the floor, I can hear the voice in my head, the begging, bargaining one I used to use when we were on the road, when I wanted something Jiron didn’t want me to have. This time it’s asking for something slightly nobler. Dear Force, Kenobi is one of your best, one of the brightest stars of the Order. I’m trying to help him. If I have to die for this, have to burn out like a candle, so be it, but at least let me succeed in my mission first.
By the time I reach Master Che at the medcenter, I am glowing; I can see the light from my eyes reflected in the windows. Tranquil, methodical, calm to the point of cold, I tell her everything Ben has told me, then bow my way politely out, my task complete for now.