I say, sorry it’s taken so long to get here, we had a fairytale and a Christmas party to deal with in the meantime. Those should come through soon.
Dialogue aboard the Morningstar, damage control, and no cliffie. We all needed a soft ending, heading into Christmas. And tea. And non-angst family history. And a hug for Erin, who likes them.
Even in hyperspace, they don’t have time to talk. Anakin has been tinkering with Morningstar’s comms array for the last few months, and the ship is now one of the few in the Galaxy capable of exchanging comm signals while traveling at lightspeed. An old friend, Astri Oni, calls from Dex’s café on Coruscant, bare minutes after they take off from Nar Haaska.
Qui-Gon looks to Nasriel before accepting the call, a wordless apology for putting her off again. He tries to ignore the Padawan’s weary expression as she hugs him perfunctorily, and slinks off in the direction of the engine room, by telling himself that Nasriel is quite capable of waiting, and this call could well be important.
Astri chatters for ten minutes before getting to the point, which is that she’d heard Qui-Gon was offworld and is wondering, firstly, if he is all right, secondly, if Nasriel is all right, and thirdly, when they are going to be back. Because Dex has disappeared again and she has no idea where he could be and it’s been over a week and that’s why she’s calling from the café, because –
Qui-Gon manages to interrupt for just long enough to inform Astri that she could better use her comlink credits by calling someone who is not on the other side of the Galaxy, and that Anakin might be available to help.
“But in the meantime,” he concludes, “I’m sure Dex will be able to look after himself.” Astri disappointedly rings off, leaving Qui-Gon to wonder what she had hoped to achieve by calling. It also leaves him free to go and find his Padawan.
Engine rooms, however small and cramped, are generally perfect hiding places, full of complicated machinery and even more complicated negative spaces. He smells trouble before he sees it – a salt-and-oil, coppery scent like an overheating pod engine, rising above the thickly fuel-laden air of the engine room. Rounding a corner, ducking a thick tangle of cables, he finds Nasriel.
She sits, legs crossed, head bowed, in the crawl space between two whirring generators. Her hands lie open and supine on the floor in front of her, and his beskar steel knife, which he only now realizes she had lifted from his belt, lies across her palms. Nasriel’s hands, the knife, and the metal deck plate are all slicked alike with the vivid purple blood that seeps slowly from matching horizontal slashes in her wrists.
Although he is not as flexible as he used to be, and although it is murder on his protesting joints, Qui-Gon sits down, facing Nasriel and mirroring her pose. For a long minute, they both detachedly watch the trickles of blood, but at length, the Master breaks the silence.
“What, exactly, are you trying to achieve?”
“I want to die,” Nasriel whispers, still motionless. When this elicits no response, she continues, “You promised – when I was five – that if I fell and if that endangered anyone else, you’d kill me. You promised.”
“Yes.” After another long pause, he says quietly, “I don’t think you are trying to kill yourself.”
He gestures lightly to the cuts. “Because I know that you know that veins, especially if you don’t cut them right through, drain slowly enough that one of two things will happen before any serious damage is done: it will clot and stop bleeding, or someone will find you. If you wanted to bleed out fast enough to die, you would have cut an artery lengthwise. In other words, you just wanted to make enough of a mess that I would notice.” The words are harsh, but his tone is not, and even her Force aura supports this conclusion, with its sheen of surreal normalcy, its cynically synthetic sparkle dusting the surface of a deep well of emptiness. And she knows he can see the emptiness under the sparkle.
Qui-Gon’s comlink rings again, its shrill buzz echoing in the small room. He flips open the housing, pulls out the power cell, and drops both pieces on the floor, before turning back to Nasriel.
“Whoever it is can wait,” he says, noticing as he does so that there is a faint spark of hope in the Padawan’s hitherto blank eyes. In the old days, this would have been classified as total despair, but of late they have both been learning to be thankful for ridiculously insignificant things. “Now, tell me what is troubling you.”
Raising her dripping hands and holding them out, palms down, Nasriel cocks her head to one side and stares at him, defiant, calculating.
Qui-Gon pushes her gently away, violet smears rubbing off on his own fingertips. “Sharing memories is merely informative. Words are healing. Use words.” The pool of blood is congealing into a sickening gel on the hot metal of the deck, the thick dead smell of it stifling the air in the engine room. “And you should get cleaned up. Just this once, we can leave the mess in here for the hangar droids at home.”
In one fluid motion, Nasriel unfolds her limbs and stands; from sheer force of habit, extends one hand to help her Master up. Back when she was smaller and he was suppler, the custom was a joke between them; not so much now. The Padawan’s hands are greasy with blood and cold to the touch, but Qui-Gon tries to ignore that.
Later, in the cabin, Nasriel silently washes her hands and the bloody knife in the tiny basin, and fetches the med box to tape together the cuts on her wrists. It’s not an easy task to complete one-handed, so Qui-Gon offers to help.
“Yeah. Thanks.” The Padawan accepts the assistance matter-of-factly, and watches, heavy dark hair hiding her face, as her Master tends to her self-inflicted wounds.
“I’m not hurting you, am I?” he checks a few times, always receiving the same silent negative in reply, even when he knows perfectly well he is hurting her, because it is not possible for an investigative deliberate pinch, right on the edge of a cut, not to hurt.
He has to ask. “What is it you’re trying to punish yourself for, minx?”
“We’ll just add that to the list and never mention it again, shall we?” Nasriel replies bitterly.
“What’s on that cord. And what happened while I was with Dooku. And why you lied to us all for so many years. And now, what I’m trying to atone for. You never used to do this to me; we always dealt with things as they came up.”
“We have time now to work through the whole list twice, once backwards, once forwards, if you wish. You have a seat, I’ll make some tea, and we’ll talk.” Tea has been an integral part of every serious discussion Qui-Gon has had with any of his Padawans. The simple ritual is calming, and the tea cups themselves are often used as distraction, diversion, something to look at when one cannot meet the other’s eyes.
Nasriel, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, her favorite cup cradled in her hands, the stretched starlight from outside shining through the translucent green ceramic, begins to speak without the need for prompting, hunted, haunted, urgent. “You remember when I came home, after all that?” Some experiences are not to be named; not now and possibly not ever. “And I let it go. I released it. What happened doesn’t have any control over me anymore. Or I thought so.”
“I thought I’d forgiven them. The slavers. And – and the others. For what they did to those girls. For what they did to me. But I was with Dooku and the Shaman of the Whills. And he – the Shaman – took me back there. He had me walk through it again. And it was so dark, not like when I’m redoing memories with you. And I hated those men. I wanted them to burn to death, or something worse. I – I fell, Master, I hated them, I’m evil.”
“Well, if that’s all…” This is not an appropriate response. Qui-Gon sips his tea and starts afresh. “Padawan mine, everyone – every Jedi who has ever lived, including Master Yoda, has, at some point in their life, truly hated somebody. A single instant of hate does not make you evil. I promise.”
After a pause, a breath, Nasriel nods slowly. “Just how much do you think your promise is worth?” She is not like Obi-Wan, who will hurt nobody by word or deed if he can avoid it, but whose scrupulous fairness will not allow him to hold back a reproach he feels is deserved. Nasriel is a strange girl, striking only out of pain, and only ever targeting those who, when in a rational mood, she loves the most.
Qui-Gon flinches, but takes the hit in stride. “I deserved that. As to the next item, I lied to you because I couldn’t think how to explain without pushing you into asking for a transfer. I lied to Obi-Wan because, as I’m sure he will have told you, up until the Jabiim affair, he could not even imagine the possibility of reversing a turn to the Dark Side. Does that answer your question?”
“For now. We – we should finish this one later. At home. When we’re not both tired and distracted.”
Perhaps that is for the best: the last few days have been fraught and difficult. And the topic is not one that will submit to rough handling. Xanatos returned from Telos – and Obi-Wan from Jabiim – wrecked. Force knows the discussions following those cases took place a few sentences at a time, over spans of weeks. The lure of the Dark Side haunts this teaching line, it seems: the unending battle to continue along the Jedi path despite crushing odds is fought up ever steeper hills, with ever more inadequate weapons. Someday, someone really will fall: Qui-Gon is determined that it will not be today, and it will not be Nasriel.
“So,” Nasriel says, forced cheerfulness breaking the spell of contemplation. “What is on that cord?”
Qui-Gon laughs softly, and tugs upward on the cord, revealing the black stone charm knotted onto it. “It’s just a rock.”
“No.” The Padawan is adamantly not accepting this explanation. “Nothing is ever just what it looks like with you. What is it really?”
“Yours, now. Your grandmother sent it to me for safe-keeping until Rasla was old enough for it, and then your mother repeated the pattern, asking me to keep it for you. It’s a homeworld custom I don’t know much about – I’m told the stone can be handed on in any order, so long as it’s being worn by someone. Rasla said you were to have it when you had passed some great trial. She wasn’t specific.” He reaches back to untie the knot in the leather cord, freeing it, though not without difficulty, for the long years have stiffened the leather; then beckons to Nasriel. “I think resisting the temptation of the Dark Side unaided is a suitably great trial.”
Solemnly, Qui-Gon fastens the charm around Nasriel’s neck. She picks it up, studying its even curve and lustrous surface, wondering.
“Thank you,” the Padawan says, the image of calm politeness. Then, childlike, craving comfort, “May I have a hug? Please?”
Nasriel scrambles onto Qui-Gon’s lap, confident, despite all that has passed today, of her safety there. Within minutes, she tumbles into the dreamless sleep of exhaustion, with her Master’s arms around her, and her head resting on his shoulder. One hand is raised, around Qui-Gon’s neck, fingers tangled in his hair; the other clasps the smooth black stone that was so hard earned. Lulled by the dull hum of the hyperdrive, the Padawan slumbers away the few hours that remain before Morningstar reaches Coruscant.
Good Solstice, and may the Force be with you.