Okay, here goes nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the final chapter of War Stories qua War Stories. I have every intention of making the whole darn thing, including a bonus epilogue chapter I wrote just for the heck of it, available for full download as a novel. There’s just one problem: I could use a betareader. I know you’ve all read most of the story already, but if anyone’s got the time or inclination, it would be wonderful if they could have a look at War Stories as a novel rather than as a serial, and point out issues I might have missed. (If it’s any inducement, you’ll get to read the epilogue before anyone else does.) Drop me a comment if you’re interested!
The next few weeks pass slowly and uncertainly, and after a while, Qui-Gon gives up trying to work out what time it might be at any given moment. Every so often, Kijé Yenseh materializes, always with the date, time, and weather outside (late in the winter, this is usually ‘sunny, but stanging freezing outside’), and usually with some other thing – a book, more flimsi, a candle, a butane lighter.
Yoda visits about as often as Kijé – every other day, perhaps – it is not as if they have nothing to say. The pair of them talk about Dooku, about the war and the Separatists, about Komari Vosa and Jango Fett, about the fact that Yoda is teaching Nasriel and some other small-sized Padawans how to fly. They talk briefly about Tahl, and the next day (according to the calendar of Kijé) Tahl knocks on the window, jolting Qui-Gon out of a daydream over the guttering stub of the candle.
“Qui?” she asks softly, and, “Hello,” says Qui-Gon, “You didn’t have trouble finding the place?”
“Yoda told me where to come.” They talk for a while, desultorily, little sips of conversation with long, thoughtful pauses between, and all about the distant past. They have plenty of that, and it is warmer and lighter than the present.
At length Qui-Gon apologizes for the Separatist sniper, and Tahl laughs, says she enjoyed that – and he apologizes for leaving her thinking him lost to the Dark Side, and her face crumples as if she might cry.
“I’m not denying it was hard, Qui. But I kept telling myself you knew what you were doing, and… it’s good to have you back, even if you are an idiot.” Moving closer, Tahl presses her hands against the transparisteel, her body heat making two warm patches on the pane.
Qui-Gon lays his palms against hers, touching-not-touching through the window. “Thank you for trusting me, Tahl. You know what that means to me.”
“You’ve been earning it for years,” Tahl says. “Thank you for coming back.” She frowns, twisting away, and goes on quickly. “No, Qui, I’m not doing this. I can’t see you, I can’t touch you, I can’t even feel your presence. This is worse than a comlink. I might – I might come by later,” she offers, paltry compensation for losing her matchless company, and the sight and sound of her, all of which he has so sorely missed.
“Whenever you can make it,” Qui-Gon agrees reluctantly, clinging to the warmth of her hands on the window. “Just so long as you come back to me.”
“Always,” Tahl promises, turning back to the emptiness that he knows is all she can feel of him in the Force. “You’ll find it harder than that to get rid of me.” And then she is gone, back into the light that fills the upper levels.
The candle has burned out, sputtering into a puddle of fast-hardening wax on the table-top. Although he could not possibly have meditated, even with the candle as anchor, its steady light was oddly calming, allowing him to think in smooth, unbroken strands – which he must, for his writing continues apace. The pile of pages, covered on both sides with notes, maps, diagrams, is three finger-widths high, on the day Mace Windu returns.
Direct, sparing no words for greeting, “What are you writing?” Mace asks, and, without comment, Qui-Gon passes the top few pages through the door-hatch. The Korun Master reads silently, face drawn into a skeptical scowl. Finishing, he glances up to meet Qui-Gon’s elaborately incurious gaze.
“Betraying your Master again?” Mace’s tone oozes sarcasm.
“No.” It would take too long to explain. He is not loyal to Dooku, and has never had any reason to be. One cannot betray when one never truly belonged. He settles for, “Trying to end the war sooner. That was the only reason I went.”
For the first time in a long time, he realizes a moment later, he has succeeded in surprising Mace Windu. The Councilor halts, puzzled, and Qui-Gon waits.
“Can I take these?” Mace asks, tapping the flimsis against the window.
He goes to fetch the rest from the table, and hands those over as well. “Please do.”
“Is this all?”
“Until Kijé brings me more flimsi,” Qui-Gon shrugs, regretting the words for Kijé’s sake in the instant they are spoken, for:
“Yenseh,” snorts Mace. “I should have guessed. I’ll see you get a datapad.”
This is distinctly heartening. “Would you take a note to Nasriel for me? Please?” he ventures, laying on the open hatch a folded flimsi sealed with the last of the candlewax. Of late Kijé has been banned from the medcenter, or he would not resort to this.
Picking up the note, the Councilor fingers it thoughtfully. “No,” he decides.
“Give it back, then.”
“No,” Mace repeats, and walks away.
Qui-Gon considers swearing, but it wouldn’t help, so he settles down to read about riyo trees for the eighth time. Thirteen chapters later, Kijé’s regular visit brings more flimsi, a datapad with dictation software – Master Windu’s idea, he explains awkwardly – and a fresh candle.
“Thank you, Kijé. Do you suppose I could have another pen? This one’s almost finished.”
“Oh…” That secretive smile again. “Of course.”
In the morning – well, he thinks it is morning; it was night when Kijé left, and he has been asleep since then – Qui-Gon wakes from an uneasy sleep to hear something tapping against the door. The hatch opens abruptly, and the tapping stops, but he gets up to turn on the light and investigate anyway.
An ink-pencil is describing slow circles around the hatch, and, when Qui-Gon plucks it out of the air, a hand follows it, batting aimlessly at nothing. There is no mistaking the tattoo decorating the back of it.
The hand withdraws, pausing to wave hello, and then Nasriel is grinning at him through the window, her pointed teeth gleaming and the glow of delight around her practically visible. Nasriel is not wearing her outer tunic, just a sleeveless, scoop-necked inner tunic, with her leggings and bare feet and a cloak thrown on over the top. Although she shivers in the cool air of the basement level, she still looks radiantly happy.
“Hello, Master, how are you?”
“I’m fine. Did Mace give you the note after all?”
“No… Kijé did, when he told me to bring you a pen.” Force bless Kijé the pickpocket. Nasriel’s momentary confusion evaporates, and she chatters on brightly. “I’m living with Xan now, but he’s downtown with ‘Roni and Res from Ninth Lower again, and Tahl’s in the Archives, so nobody’ll miss me for at least an hour. If – if you don’t mind me staying that long,” she adds uncertainly.
“Stay as long as you want,” Qui-Gon tells her. “And you’re all right? Kijé didn’t know.”
Nasriel folds her arms tight over her chest, hands reaching up around opposite shoulders, and shrugs, which looks rather odd in that pose. “I’m okay. I’m at home a lot – because of the balcony – I lie around in the sun and read all day, it’s great. That’s why I’ve not got full tunics on, to soak up more sunshine. It’s nearly spring now, the weather’s lovely. The plants are okay too.” She laughs suddenly, an infectious ripple of pure delight, but cuts off, pressing her hand flat against the window. “Knock on the glass, please?”
When Qui-Gon obliges, the Padawan nods, slowly, and slides down to sit cross-legged on the floor. “I wasn’t sure if you were there or somewhere else. This kind of sucks, actually. Are you… are you really all right, or just trying not to upset me?”
“On balance, Sriel, I prefer the void to the darkness.”
Nasriel sighs. “Why does everything have to be so hard?”
“Ask the right question, Padawan.” For many years now, that has been a familiar reminder, quiet encouragement to think logically and get to the heart of the matter. Nasriel has used it on him more than once too, but today she rebuffs the patient non-answer.
“I am! Everything is hard. Dying is harder than it sounds. Living is harder than dying. Coming home is hard. Being suspected of Force-knows-what all the time – that’s hard. Talking to you about anything serious is beyond hard; it’s an exercise in warped reasoning. There must be some reason for it; I just want to know why we always have to choose between… the darkness and the void.”
“Not everything is hard. Falling is easy. Being wrong is easy. Failing… failing your family is easy. But the things that aren’t hard are rarely worth doing. Your question has no answer.”
Nasriel halts, studying the floor, and he thinks she is considering what he has said – it is difficult to be certain, with the Force blocked and a thick pane of transparisteel between them. “You said… you used to say everything had an answer. And that the trouble was finding it.”
“The answer to this one is I do not know.” He is about to say more, but Kijé comms Nasriel to tell her Xan is home, and she has to leave. “Think about it,” Qui-Gon calls after her. “We’ll talk again next time you come.”
After that, she comes every day, full of gossip about life upstairs. A youngling started a fire in the garden; Xan came home hungover and Tahl slapped him; Ahsoka’s learning Jar Kai but she’s really bad at it; Bruck’s gone to Allanteen; Bant says next time Ben pokes a carnivorous plant it will be his own sweet fault and she won’t help him. Nothing about Obi-Wan. When Qui-Gon asks why, Nasriel shrugs uncomfortably.
“He’s pretty mad at you, Master.” Nervously, twisting the end of her braid, she adds in a whisper, “So was I.”
“Why?” He knows – how could he not know? – but Nasriel has to say it. Words are healing.
“Because you went off with Dooku years and years ago and you didn’t tell me, even when we were hunting him. And – and you left me with Dooku and the Shaman. And then you went off again and you wouldn’t take me and I didn’t know where you were and I was scared.” Qui-Gon waits to see if she is finished or just warming up, and Nasriel runs on. “I was angry. But then I thought… I’ve been blaming you for everything that’s happened: for leaving me with Dooku, and – and at Chu’unthor, and for going off and making us all think you were Lost… but you were just doing what you’ve always done – the right thing, as it came up. I guess I mean… I’m sorry I thought less of you just because the right thing wasn’t the convenient thing for me. I’m sorry,” she repeats, looking so dejected that Qui-Gon wishes he could hold her close and tell her it’s all right. He has to settle for telling.
“Whatever you may have thought or felt, you didn’t let it get in the way of doing your usual competent job. Good work, Padawan.”
Nasriel smiles at that, and jumps up from the stone floor, to slip one hand through the door-hatch and clasp Qui-Gon’s. Is it strange that his opinion still matters so much to her now that he is nothing – not a Sith, not a Jedi, not a civilian? Well, he still cares what she thinks.
“Thank you,” Nasriel says earnestly.
“For what?” he asks, genuinely curious.
“For doing the right thing even when it was really hard for you.” Her thin fingers squeeze for an instant, then release. “I love you… I missed you. I’m so glad you’re back.”
“I used to know a little girl,” Qui-Gon starts reflectively, and Nasriel grins because she knows he means her, “who could never have said to me what you just said quite so calmly, or without trying to jump on me. I think she’s grown up now.”
“Yeah…” Nasriel flattens her face against the transparisteel, features comically warped by the flat pane. “That’s not going to work, is it?” She has to unstick herself a moment later, because her comlink rings with a text message. “Bi-An’s looking for me, so I have to go. We’ve got a mission, Xan and me – Corellia.”
“Could you pick up my lightsaber while you’re there?”
Nasriel shrugs. “Sure. Where did you leave it?” So he tells her, and then she is gone again, and he is left alone, in the emptiness between Dark and Light. The silence seems to last a long time, this time, but it is difficult to tell for sure.
Eventually Mace returns, but instead of just knocking on the window for attention, he opens the door. Sitting at the table, reading, Qui-Gon scowls suspiciously at him.
“What is it?”
“The Council has finished considering your… extraordinary mission report. They have concluded that you’re unorthodox – as if we didn’t know – but on the whole more likely to help than to hinder, and very much less likely to turn to the Dark Side than previously supposed. Would you concur with this analysis?”
“Then,” the Korun Master continues, drawing out the word, “while I would like you to know that I was not in favor of what I’m about to do, I was outvoted eleven to one, so you’re free to go.”
“Go where?” He is almost used to the void now – and knows that if he is thrown out of the Temple again he will simply fall back into the darkness – there is nowhere else to go.
“Home,” Mace enunciates. “You are hereby free to go home… Master Jinn.” And with the last two words, Qui-Gon is suddenly not nothing. He is a Jedi again, and he is free, and best of all, Obi-Wan did not side with Mace, despite having every reason to.
“Thank you,” he says coolly, following the Councilor out into the corridor. The rush of Light as he crosses the threshold hits him like a duracrete wall, and he gasps with the impact of it, before he settles back into its familiar pattern, instinctive as breathing. In the upstairs corridors, on the way home, the sunlight angles in through every window, and Qui-Gon judges it mid-morning.
At the door to the quarters, Mace halts him a moment. “Padawan Threeb does not live here anymore, but most of your… family are here at the moment. And it is the thirteenth day of spring.” Ah. Perfect timing. Striding off down the hall, Mace leaves Qui-Gon alone again, so he can draw breath and think for half a moment, before flicking the door open.
The main room of the quarters he shares with Tahl seems crowded – with Xan and Obi-Wan, Bruck and Anakin, and assorted Padawans. Leaning on the wall by the door, Xan is the first to notice him, and raises one hand in a casual, wordless salute. Obi-Wan is on the balcony, looking deliberately out over the city. Nasriel, sitting on the sofa and holding forth to Anakin about something, breaks off in the middle of a sentence and flings herself across the room to her Master.
“Qui-Gon!” She rattles when she moves – a second lightsaber clinking against her own. “Got your ‘saber. And I’m not grown up at all.” Nasriel promptly proves this last, as previously discussed, and when she is up at Qui-Gon’s level, arms around his neck and legs around his waist, clinging like a monkey, she takes advantage of the comfortable whispering distance thus afforded. “I love you… and I missed you… and I’m so glad you’re back!”
“Happy birthday, Sriel,” Qui-Gon says.