January 7 - March 4, 2007

Disclaimer: as if. This is a Phantom Menace/Georgette Heyer fusion. There is a sort of explanation here. Do not archive without permission.

Episode One: The Quiet Padawan

A hush swept over the assembled students as two men entered the salle at a leisurely pace, their stance and bearing marking them as Jedi masters as much as the cut and style of their clothing. The taller of the two, in particular, had an air about him that drew every eye, and soon enough, the whispers started. "It's Qui-Gon Jinn," breathed one impressionable young student to another, and his comment was soon echoed across the salle. "Qui-Gon Jinn is here!"

This was not an entirely unusual occurrence, as all knights and masters without padawans were required to take a regular part in the training of those students who were as yet without a master, in the hopes that the former would come to find a suitable match among the latter. Some knights and masters, however, attended these training sessions less regularly than others. Indeed, it was common knowledge even among the younger set at the temple that several members of the council had attempted, separately and together, to impress upon Qui-Gon Jinn a more earnest view of the duties and responsibilities he owed the Jedi, and induce him to choose a padawan from among the many hopeful young persons of quality who were only too eager to attract his attention, and to settle into the life of a teaching master, as befitted a Jedi of his age and experience.

However, Qui-Gon seemed perfectly content to attend only the occasional training session, most frequently in the company of the Jedi council member Mace Windu, to converse with those knights and masters he had previous acquantaince with, and to return to his quarters alone. This made his presence something of an event, and nearly all the students who had reached a suitable age to become a padawan hoped to draw his gaze somehow, and the more confident ones even dared to hope that they might be solicited for a sparring session, and that this sparring session might eventually lead to forming a more intimate connection.

Every student who had been seen to aspire to such an exalted position had found his or her hopes dashed to the ground, sometimes by a dry remark calculated to depress all pretensions, but more frequently from simple neglect. It was only rarely that Qui-Gon's eye fell on any one student for more than a moment, despite the introductions and recommendations made by their teachers, and even more rarely that the student in question could hold his attention for longer than a single sparring session. He was seemingly indifferent to the charms of even the most accomplished of each new year's crop of debutantes. After several years of such behavior from Qui-Gon, many of the other masters, including his old friend Mace, had all but despaired of ever seeing him paired with a padawan again, and come to think that the tragic events that had parted Qui-Gon and young Xanatos had perhaps marked him more deeply than he cared to admit.

It was generally agreed among the other masters that Xanatos had been far too headstrong, unbecomingly so for a student, and rather too proud of his family connections, and indeed, Mace privately thought that Qui-Gon would do better to look to a more gentle, quiet personality for his next apprentice, but Qui-Gon did not, in truth, appear to look very hard at all. Sometimes he would condescend to spar with some promising young student, and perhaps even offer advice on his stance or her light-saber grip, but just when everyone began to think it possible that this time he'd pop the question, he would instead accept some urgent mission to the Outer Rim, and leave the Academy as solitary as he had arrived.

"Really, Qui-Gon," Mace said, shaking the sleeve of his tunic into a more pleasing fold, "it is positively unfriendly of you to persist in attending these sparring displays. You quite ruin the chances of those of us who really are attempting to find a padawan."

Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow. "Looking to become leg-shackled so soon again, Mace? Surely it has not been so very long since Metiam was knighted."

"You might not credit it, but it has been more than a year," Mace said. "It's certainly not too soon for me to begin to consider forming a new connection, if I should happen to meet someone I believe would suit. And if they are not all busy making calf eyes at you, waiting for you to single them out."

"They will be waiting for a long time." Qui-Gon's voice grew rather flat in any discussion on this particular subject. "I don't believe I have ever given any student cause for false hopes in that direction."

"Merely being addressed by you raises their hopes," Mace said, with some asperity. "Many of the knights believed that you and young Bant would make a match of it, last season."

"A very capable young woman," Qui-Gon said. "But she has an unfortunate tendency to attack too strongly to the left, and leave her right side vulnerable." As he spoke, he surveyed the groups of students in the salle with a dispassionate glance, indifferent to the many eager, wide-eyed looks that met him in return. "One can only hope that whoever chooses her as an apprentice will correct the error before taking her into the field."

"But you would rather not trouble yourself?" Mace shook his head. "Apprentices don't teach themselves, you know. We don't attend these sessions purely for our own amusement."

"Speak for yourself, Mace," Qui-Gon said softly, "speak for yourself."

Not quite all of the students who watched Qui-Gon Jinn, however, were doing so in an admiring fashion. Many were, of course, staring more or less openly, unable to conceal their reactions to his commanding presence and to a face which, though craggy, was generally considered among the handsomest in the order. Moreover, Qui-Gon had a deceptively simple way of tying his sash that many of the younger set had tried in vain to imitate. All attempts to ascertain from Master Jinn himself how the trick was done had been met with dry looks and cutting answers, and a discreet attempt to apply to Master Mace, as being far the more approachable of the two, netted them nothing but an amused glance and a set-down.

"Told me to mind my stance and stop gawking at my superiors," Reeft said glumly. "But damme if I can see how he achieves such an effect without a padawan to assist him in the mornings."

A few students, however, refused to adopt the languishing airs their fellows affected, and instead attempted to regard Qui-Gon Jinn with the same indifferent disdain he afforded them. In this latter group was a young man who watched the entrance of Master Jinn under long red-gold lashes, careful not to let the others perceive how intently he studied the man. It would not do to give the impression that he cared one whit for the presence, or absence, of the Jedi order's greatest champion, a man who, so rumor had it, only need smile faintly, or give a gracious nod, for more impressionable young students to scratch a tentative Q-G on the handle of their lightsaber; the bolder ones had even been known to tie love-knots in their hair, at the spot most commonly chosen for a padawan braid.

Obi-Wan Kenobi despised such tricks. Nothing would induce him to fawn over the great Qui-Gon Jinn in such a manner; neither a tall, well-made figure nor a handsome face were qualities that affected a Jedi's mastery of the Force, and Master Jinn's indifference, bordering on arrogance, had been a source of irritation to Obi-Wan ever since their first meeting some years previously. Upon being introduced to Obi-Wan by Master Gallia, Qui-Gon Jinn had surveyed him from head to toe, in a manner that in anyone else would have been termed rudeness, and made some comment on the increasing number of students from distant, rustic planets. Only later that evening was it borne in on Obi-Wan that Master Jinn had been referring to the old-fashioned way Obi-Wan wore his sash. Well! If Master Jinn, supposedly the paragon and the pinnacle of the order, could not trouble himself to remember that the clothes did not make the Jedi, Obi-Wan saw no need to trouble himself with the existence of Master Jinn.

Nevertheless, there was something about that tall, imposing figure that drew the eye. Obi-Wan could not help but observe how well the simple tunic of a master fit across Qui-Gon Jinn's broad shoulders, nor could he help noticing the high gloss of his boots, which was quite impressive, if one cared at all for that sort of thing, which Obi-Wan certainly did not. It was plain, from the divergence of their interests, that Master Jinn would not make a suitable master for Obi-Wan, but Obi-Wan hoped he was not small-minded enough to deny the man's good points, in addition to observing his bad ones. He was the Jedi who had brokered the treaty of Zinflis, after all, and stood alone against the armies of Margenhalt for three days, and rescued the children of Queen Zagr from the ice caves of Lamen. These accomplishments were far more worthy of respect, in Obi-Wan's opinion, than mere superficialities of clothing and manner. Still, if his fellow students chose to idolize the man to the point of imitating his slightest sartorial whim, Obi-Wan could at least admit there were less worthy Jedi to choose from.

A far more pressing problem, for Obi-Wan, was his own lack of choices. He was fast approaching the age where he could no longer attend the Jedi Academy, and these training sessions, as an unbonded student; in fact, Obi-Wan was forced to acknowledge that he was very nearly on the shelf, and he was well aware that unless no eligible knight or master made him an offer in the immediate future, he would have no choice but to leave the temple and take service with the Agricultural Corps or accept som other simple, menial post, the inevitable fate for young Jedi students whose company was not solicited in a training bond and who had no families on whose support they could rely. No matter how much he strove for a correct Jedi-like serenity, Obi-Wan could not help but consider such a future bleak, and to think that his only hope lay in finding a master, by hook or by crook.

It would not be Qui-Gon Jinn; no one could truly believe that Master Jinn would take another padawan this season, no matter that he came to the training sessions, and besides, Obi-Wan thought ruthlessly, he was getting on a little in years. Perhaps he considered himself past such things as training bonds. Perhaps he could even be said to be past his prime — but then Obi-Wan stole another glance under his lashes, and had to acknowledge the falsity of that statement. Whatever the defects of Qui-Gon Jinn's character, one could not consider him old, or unattractive, or a less than able teacher.

None of which, unfortunately, solved Obi-Wan's problem, but surely it must be possible for him somehow to attract the attention of one of the younger, but still respectably accomplished knights. There must be one, at least, among their rank who would look past the unfortunate cloud that hung over Obi-Wan since the events of last year, and who would judge him solely on his abilities in the present. Obi-Wan knew himself to be too reserved to make a personal approach to any of them, and found the idea somewhat distasteful, even though several of the less shy students had made a practice of it and in some cases succeeded in capturing some master's attention. In addition, it was not a kind of behavior that could be considered at all suitable for someone who was conscious that his conduct must be scrupulously proper in order to make up for previous lapses, both real and perceived.

However, Obi-Wan was not entirely without resources; he knew himself possessed of some real accomplishments which, if he could only show them off in the restrained and unexceptional manner suitable for a padawan of quality and good breeding, might strike a watching knight favorably. Perhaps now was the time, Obi-Wan decided, for him to attempt a plan he had been pondering for some time.

The salle grew increasingly noisy and crowded as more and more Jedi knights and masters arrived, chagrined to see that arriving after Qui-Gon and Mace made them not fashionably, but unfashionably late. This training session, one of the last of the season, was beginning to turn into quite a crush, as nearly everyone present wandered this way and that way, attempting to find and speak to their particular friends, sometimes at tedious length. Qui-Gon Jinn, for his part, was crossing the floor to avoid being trapped into a conversation with Knight Zallighersy, whose constant chatter invariably exasperated him. Mace Windu strolled by his side, not hiding his amusement. "Come now, Qui-Gon," he said. "You know that Silence would certainly introduce you to some of the more promising young students, should you ask her."

"Should I be able to get a word in edgewise, do you mean. Besides, I have no fancy to let her criticize my character for the rest of the evening. After all, I have you for that."

"Let us go this way, then." Mace turned left somewhat abruptly, and nearly collided with a newly-made knight going in the opposite direction, who stammered an apology and melted out of the way at Mace's disapproving look. "Adi informed me earlier today that some of the youngest students present will demonstrate a formation drill."

"And you thought it would be a treat for me to watch the children stumble into each other! Mace, you are too kind, and I am too selfish, monopolizing your company in this manner. Perhaps you should go and be kind to one of the younger knights instead."

"Oh, no." Mace took Qui-Gon's arm and steered him toward the clear space that had formed around Master Gallia and her young charges. "Nothing would induce me to abandon you, old friend."

"I was afraid you would say that," Qui-Gon sighed.

Despite Qui-Gon's misgivings, Master Gallia's little group performed as well as might be expected of children of that age, the only mishap of their little display occurring towards the end of the performance. One of the children, a little Twi'lek girl with a bright smile, had drawn Qui-Gon's eye; her lively, easy manner and confident way of performing the drill reminded him in no small measure of Xanatos as a child, still possessed of the sweetness and frank, open disposition that had first attracted Qui-Gon's attention. When the child looked up and met Qui-Gon's gaze, she lost her place, and missed the final step of her kata, nearly stumbling into the human boy on her right, so that he also lost his place and the pair of them finished the performance a beat behind the others.

Unperturbed by this error, the Twi'lek child looked up again, as fearless as she was pretty, and Qui-Gon was very nearly resolved to at least ask Adi for her name, so that he might attempt to remember it for the future time when she would be old enough to leave the schoolroom, when he became aware of Mace attempting to attract his attention by tugging on his sleeve. Qui-Gon tried the effect of a quelling stare, but Mace was far too familiar with him to allow himself to be intimidated. "Look here," Mace said, drawing Qui-Gon with him into another group of spectators. "This is a bold start!"

Knights and masters, padawans and students had gathered to watch, but Qui-Gon and Mace were able to obtain a good view, as soon as those to either side of them grew aware of their identities. They quickly found themselves in the front line of the audience collected around a young male human student who was performing the third Bremel air kata, a feat that few in the temple could master; those who did were, in Qui-Gon's opinion, excessively lionized by a certain portion of the temple's inhabitants, some of whom seemed to feel that the mere ability to turn somersaults in mid-air ought to be sufficient qualification for a membership in the Light-Saber Club. Qui-Gon, who had been a member since before he was knighted, could have explained to them that the first and last requirement was to possess that confident, effortless-seeming skill, in dealing with the Force, that was the hallmark of a true Jedi nonpareil.

For a student to choose the third air kata was, as Mace had pointed out, somewhat bold, perhaps a trifle over-bold, but Qui-Gon could not detect any other sign that this young man was particularly spirited or striking. Though he was on the short side, he had a trim, athletic build, and his features were regular and far from displeasing; but his face was too calm, Qui-Gon felt, and his manner in performing the kata too restrained. Every leap was precise and well-executed, but to Qui-Gon's critical eye, the performance lacked a certain something. The student seemed too concerned with the outward manner of his display, as though insufficiently in tune with the force that supported him. Every movement was painstakingly correct, and the overall effect seemed to Qui-Gon sadly insipid and joyless. Nevertheless, many of the watchers murmured admiringly, particularly when the student managed a neat landing after the tricky feat known as air-dancing. At the end of the final movement, several of them began to applaud.

"A very creditable attempt," Mace said, though he did not go so far as to clap. "Good science for one so young, I think, unlike that girl from Corellia who shows herself glaringly abroad upon every landing. So many forget to practice correct transitions and follow-through."

Mace himself did not favor an airborne style of fighting, nor did Qui-Gon, but the gravity-defying technique first pioneered by Master Yoda several centuries previously remained popular with many Jedi, and deservedly so. Those who considered it all show and no substance had most assuredly never faced Master Yoda himself in practice, as both Mace and Qui-Gon had done several times. The venerable Jedi master could easily outfight most of his younger colleagues, and held his own method of handling a lightsaber to be superior to theirs, but Mace was also aware that Yoda looked with some dismay on the popularity of this style among some of the young Tulips of the temple, whose concern was more with surface elegance than with a deeper reliance on and trust in the force.

"Passable," Qui-Gon said in a bored voice, loud enough to carry. "If the Jedi were a troupe of common street performers, no doubt he would be the star of it. But most of us strive not to be so common as all that."

A few young knights had seemed on the verge of approaching Obi-Wan, but at Master Jinn's blighting and all too audible comment, they hesitated, and the entire audience gathered around him began to disperse, some of them with little perfunctory nods, while others disdained to take any further notice of the young man they had been watching with considerable admiration mere moments previously. Obi-Wan was left standing alone on the floor in a pool of quiet until Bant came up to him, her large, warm eyes brimming with sympathy and concern. "What a detestable man he is!" she said. "To make such an odious comment in front of everyone — it is the outside of enough!"

"You never called him detestable until you came to discover that he wasn't making up to you after all. In point of fact, I would have said you were not entirely indifferent to him." Obi-Wan busied himself with ensuring that his lightsaber was properly clipped onto his belt, attempting to ignore the blush of mortification heating his face. "It's certainly not a generally held opinion."

"Oh, I'm not saying he doesn't know how to make himself agreeable, when he chooses! But he seems to consider most students unworthy of that kind of attention; we are quite beneath his touch."

"For my part, I would have been more than pleased to escape his attention entirely," Obi-Wan said. "Not that I care a fig what he thinks, of course."

"I know, dearest." Bant put a hand on Obi-Wan's arm. "It was shockingly uncivil of him, but truly, Obi-Wan, you mustn't take it so to heart. People will forget — indeed, I don't think so very many of them heard — and there is still plenty of time for someone to make you an offer. Don't refine upon it too much."

"Yes, of course." Obi-Wan smiled a trifle mechanically. The tips of his ears still burned. "There is no need for you to fret about me. Is my memory at fault, or has Knight Varlis solicited your company for the next practice bout?"

Bant's feelers fluttered. "Yes, she has. Although you shouldn't assume that she intends anything by it — it may mean nothing, you know."

Obi-Wan attempted a more convincing smile. "Asking you for a second time, and in such a manner? It appears to me that she has a decided partiality for you. You shouldn't keep her waiting for too long. I rely on you to tell me all the details of your conversation with her, afterwards."

It was clear that this encouragement put Bant in a happier frame of mind; she squeezed his hand affectionately before leaving. He watched her walk away from him and across the salle to Knight Varlis with only the tiniest pang in his heart; it was past time that Bant became creditably established, and Obi-Wan was aware that her association with him did her no service in the eyes of some of the high sticklers in the temple, detestable old gossips that they were. Bant herself seemed ignorant of any danger, but the possibility of the blot on Obi-Wan's reputation spreading to that of his friend had troubled Obi-Wan a great deal of late, although he had not been able to bring himself to give up her friendship. Bant's kind heart and unfeigned affection had supported his spirits at a time when every other friend and acquaintance had practically cast him off, and he wished nothing more than to see her paired at last with some steady and sensible Jedi who would appreciate her as she deserved.

Obi-Wan held high hopes for Bant's fate, but he was fast approaching the end of all his hopes for himself. He turned away from the center of the floor to seek the relative privacy of an unoccupied corner. As he walked past a group of older padawans and younger knights, he overheard one of them saying, "...wouldn't do for a respectable connection, but he would look demmed fetching in spangled tights, don't you think?" and the others laughing raucuously in response. Obi-Wan held his head high, refusing to acknowledge the presence of such a pack of frippery fellows; none of them could hold a candle to the true Jedi masters, and Obi-Wan would not let them cut up his serenity any further, or dignify their vulgar mocking by seeming to take any notice of it.

The laughter, and some of the cruder comments, had reached Mace and Qui-Gon as well, although they also had withdrawn from the center of the salle, to an area a little to one side, where the most distinguished Jedi masters frequently congregated. Many of the Jedi knights and masters who did have a padawan would make a brief visit to the salle on occasions like this to speak to their fellows in the order, and to partake of the light repast of fruit and fresh spring water served during the course of the evening. Qui-Gon and Mace found a relatively secluded spot, not far from the refreshments and with an excellent view of the salle.

"That was unkind of you, Qui-Gon." Mace spoke bluntly. "You would do better to curb your tongue on occasion, rather than use it to wreck a young man's reputation."

Qui-Gon shrugged one shoulder. "I have the greatest dislike of those who can do nothing but trifle with the Force, and to be frank, I see no reason to praise anyone for acting in such a fashion."

"You are never anything but frank," Mace assured him. "A curst sight too frank, at times. I saw nothing amiss." At Qui-Gon's look, he amended, "Nothing that experience will not mend, at any rate." Mace tapped his fingers against the handle of his light-saber. "Indeed, I believe him to be most capable; it's a shame none of the single knights or masters seem inclined to make him an offer, and you certainly have not helped his chances by speaking as you did."

"Despite your lavish praise, I cannot help but notice that you haven't hastened to claim this paragon for your own," Qui-Gon said. "I thought you were in the market for a padawan, and here is one who by your own accounting would be a fine choice. What, pray, is your objection to taking him on?"

"Well, the truth of the matter is that I'm not entirely certain we should suit. I don't deny someone ought to make the offer. His teachers have nothing but praise for him," Mace allowed, "and such a talent should not be lost to the order, but it must be acknowledged that he runs, or at any rate, used to run, with a rather fast set. There was young Bruck, for instance."

Qui-Gon frowned. "Was he not the one who left the Academy under a cloud, last season, and accepted a carte noire from one of the less reputable senators? I understand his exploits are the talk of the town now that he is allowed to run unchecked. And you would have me consider the intimate friend of such a credit to our order as my padawan learner?"

"I believe you could be the making of him, if you chose to, and perhaps he would be the making of you as well. Now, now, don't look daggers at me! you know it is not the least use. You're growing too set in your ways, Qui-Gon, and it won't do; it's your duty to the temple to take a padawan, and I never expected to see you shirking your responsibilities like the merest cawker. We're none of us getting any younger, you know. Although I can give you twenty years, I believe," he added cheerfully.

"Thank you, but I am not yet in my dotage," Qui-Gon said. He detected a considerable portion of Master Yoda's most energetic meddling in Mace's speech, and as he had never taken kindly to being dictated to, some coolness crept into his manner. "Allow me to be the best judge of what student to take for a padawan, and when! It will certainly not be someone who is desperate to sell himself to the highest bidder."

"Very well, you'll have no more lectures from me." Mace selected a glass of water for himself with a marked lack of enthusiasm. "You never did heed my advice, Qui-Gon. But as I'm sure you are well aware, there are others whose interference you won't be able to escape so easily."

Qui-Gon could not help but glance over his shoulder, as if expecting either Master Yoda or Knight Zallighersy to bear down on him without warning, but he quickly recovered himself and favored Mace with a slow, sardonic bow before walking off. He intended to seek out Adi, and speak to her about the vivacious little Twi'lek child, but he could not find her anywhere in the salle, and on inquiring with some mutual acquaintances as to her whereabouts, he discovered that she had already left, taking her young charges with her.

That was a disappointment, but a faint one, and his business with her was nothing that could not be put off until another day, after all, or perhaps until after his next mission; it would be some years before the Twi'lek girl emerged from the schoolroom. Qui-Gon exchanged greetings with several people, but he was beginning to find the training session dull — in fact, a dead bore. Passing through the crowd, he overheard several comments about the student who had performed the air kata, more than one of which seemed to suggest that he was likely to follow in his friend Bruck's footsteps and come upon the town, rather than forming a respectable connection by being chosen as a padawan. Qui-Gon found himself frowning at the suggestion; so far from appearing likely to become lost to all propriety, the student in question seemed quite stiff with it. Far too prim and colorless for Qui-Gon's taste, at any rate.

Discovering himself close by the doors, Qui-Gon took the opportunity to step outside. There would be other, more select gatherings held in private quarters here and there in the temple; he knew himself welcome at several such, should he care to attend. Certainly that was a more pleasant way to spend an evening than to be lectured on his shortcomings by Mace.

A murmur of disappointment went through the salle at Qui-Gon's departure. Several of the accredited beauties among the students smiled less brightly, and those who had been carefully planning how to approach him — in the most casual, unassuming manner, to be certain! — were left with nothing to do but store up their clever introductions and witticisms for another day. Obi-Wan, for his part, barely noticed the Jedi master's absence, save that it was a relief to know that he would not suddenly meet Qui-Gon's bored eyes, when looking across the salle, nor be the subject of any more cutting remarks from that quarter. After seeing Bant pair up with Varlis, Obi-Wan had expected to spend the remainder of the evening in solitude, scorned by everyone who affected to follow Master Jinn's lead. It had come as a considerable surprise to him to be solicited for brief sparring bouts by a couple of younger knights after all, and to be drawn into conversation with them afterwards. Obi-Wan could hardly credit it when the conversation turned upon his prospects for the future.

"This ain't the place for a taking young thing like you," Knight Impris said, patting Obi-Wan's shoulder. "Too many curst rules, hey?"

Obi-Wan shifted away from Impris's touch, only to fetch up against Knight Elerin. "I agree with Impris," she said with a warm smile. "A student of your abilities is wasted here. I feel certain that your beauty and talents would show to much greater advantage in a less stuffy and conventional setting."

"I am perfectly content with my place here at the temple," Obi-Wan said, although he was forced to admit to himself that it would not be so for very much longer. The end of the season was fast approaching, and with it the end of his sejour on Coruscant.

"Aye, but you'd leave it soon enough if you were offered something better, wouldn't you?" Knight Impris said, with a knowing look in his eyes.

"Naturally every student wishes to form an alliance with, with the right person," Obi-Wan acknowledged. It had certainly been his goal during this and many other evenings — indeed, it was still his goal, and to have two knights seeming to vie for his favor was a much greater success than he had dared to imagine. Perhaps Qui-Gon Jinn's blighting remark had not been heard by as many people as all that, and perhaps these two, who were not callow, newly-made knights in the first blush of youth, were of an age to choose a padawan to please themselves, paying no heed to vulgar gossip.

At the same time, there was something about their conversation and way of looking at him that he could not entirely like. Knight Elerin, when speaking of his air kata, had paid him extravagant compliments on how well he had looked, but said nothing of his science. Obi-Wan, when daydreaming of a bold future as a padawan to some worthy knight, had seen himself learning quickly and well from sage instructions, earning his master's approval, but he had never in his most daring fantasies envisioned the praise coming in advance of the hard work.

"I feel we could become great friends," Elerin told him now, looking him up and down in such a way that Obi-Wan began to blush. "I was acquainted with Bruck, too, you know, and I wonder now that he never introduced me to you."

"I don't wonder at all," Impris said with a fat chuckle, coming within an inch of pinching Obi-Wan's cheek. "You quite take the shine out of him, my dear."

"We were not very close," Obi-Wan said, although experience had taught him that very few people believed this. Certainly his words made no impression on Elerin and Impris, who seemed determined to use the slender pretext of their friendship with Bruck as an excuse to treat Obi-Wan with greater familiarity than he found at all comfortable. His manner grew stiff, and his answers to their comments increasingly wooden.

"You must be tired after your performance," Elerin said coaxingly, choosing her own interpretation of Obi-Wan's growing reserve. "Should you not be more comfortable if you were to sit down quietly, away from this dreadful crowd? Knight Impris has rooms not far from here, and we could have a comfortable cose, just the three of us."

"I'm afraid I must retire early," Obi-Wan said, rapidly searching his mind for some plausible excuse. "I have engaged to attend Master Gallia's class on water meditation at dawn."

Impris shook his head, displaying his windswept curls to great advantage. "That don't signify in the least. We'll make certain to have you back to your own quarters at a reasonable hour. And you can't say your teachers wouldn't think it a deuced sight more important for you to show signs of forming a particular friendship than to be perfectly on time."

Obi-Wan's lips tightened. "I'm afraid I cannot," he began. A faint sound in the background grew loud enough to intrude itself on his attention. It was the tap of a malacca cane against the floor. A scant moment later, Knight Impris stiffened gracelessly at a sharp rap across the back of the knee.

"Excuse me you will, I am certain," Master Yoda said. "Speech with young Obi-Wan I desire." He stepped in between Impris and Elerin, who both gave way to him, looking rather sheepish. "Unless your business with him particularly urgent is, suspend it for later, I pray."

"Of course, Master Yoda," Elerin said awkwardly. "I, that is, perhaps we will speak again later."

Knight Impris merely bowed, and could be heard to say to Elerin, as they turned away, "Curst inconvenient! Do you think..." His voice trailed off as they vanished into the crowd.

Obi-Wan was left alone with Master Yoda, whose eyes were fastened with sharp perception on Obi-Wan's face. "Feigned to make you an offer, did they?"

"They were most attentive," Obi-Wan said slowly, "but I could not quite make out — I could not be certain of their object in seeking me out." Belatedly, he made his best leg. "Master Yoda."

"No need there is to stand upon ceremony with me," the venerable master informed him briskly. "Private speech with you I desire. Do me the honor of walking with me, you will, away from this crowd."

"Of course, Master Yoda." Obi-Wan nodded obediently, and shortened his stride to match Yoda's deceptively tottering steps as they made their way towards the nearest set of doors. Master Yoda's attention must lend credit to his somewhat tattered reputation, but Obi-Wan was not chiefly concerned with the impression he would make upon others, just at the moment, although he was aware of several pairs of curious eyes watching them as they departed the salle. "You may as well let me have the worst at once," Obi-Wan said resolutely, steeling himself. "You have come to tell me to leave the temple at my earliest convenience, haven't you? Docent Vant informed me this morning that a respectable family on Bandomeer is advertising for an accomplished young person to teach the children."

The doors swung closed behind them, leaving them in the comparative silence and peace of the hallway. "Hasty you are in your conclusions, mm," Yoda said, tilting his head to look up at Obi-Wan assessingly. "The faults of youth are strong in you. A sensible older master you need, experienced in the ways of the world, not some frippery young fellow."

Obi-Wan could not help smiling, and an irrepressible dimple showed in his cheek. "But Master Yoda," he said impishly, "compared to you, everyone is young and frippery."

Master Yoda rapped him across the ankles with his malacca cane, not particularly hard. "A scapegrace you are," he said severely, but the hint of a twinkle in his eye robbed the words of censure. Nevertheless, Obi-Wan could not help but take them to heart.

"I am aware." Only years of deportment lessons kept Obi-Wan's shoulders from slumping. "Master Yoda, I fear it's too late for me to turn respectable, or at any rate respectable enough to attract a master who would be willing to teach me. I have attempted to mend my ways this past season, but I don't have a single offer to show for it, and I'm beginning to think I never shall."

"Nonsense," Yoda said, and gestured for Obi-Wan to accompany him. They strolled at a dignified pace down the hallway. "Enact me any Alderaan tragedies you will not, please. Not at all becoming, these die-away airs are."

Obi-Wan caught himself up with a blush. "I beg your pardon," he said. "But Master Yoda, indeed I cannot help but feel that time is running out. The season is drawing to a close, and the temple will soon be pretty thin of company."

"Trust in the Force you must," Yoda said, nodding his head with great emphasis. "And respect your elders. Most gratifying it was to hear that air kata in my style perform you did."

"Making a cake of myself in front of everyone," Obi-Wan said bitterly, "for all the good it did me." The rap of Yoda's cane on his leg did not entirely come as a surprise. "And I am very much afraid it was not quite in your style. I thought I might make a better impression if I tried to be more restrained — more respectable — and instead I merely made poor work of it, and accomplished nothing to the purpose."

Master Yoda shook his head, twitching one ear in a very pointed manner. "That kind of thing never answers," he said. "Found that out for yourself, did you not? Judge you for what is in their own hearts, people will, whatever your manner."

Obi-Wan nodded. "Truly, I'm very grateful to you for rescuing me from such an awkward situation," he said. He considered again the approach of Knights Impris and Elerin. "I suppose anyone who might have had more serious intentions was driven off by Master Jinn's comments."

Yoda's ears stood straight up. "Master Jinn, hmm? Was he in the salle? Tell me of this you will."

Obi-Wan haltingly told the tale of his performance and Qui-Gon Jinn's contemptuous dismissal. The memory of Master Jinn's cold words still stung his pride, although he attempted to keep his recital level and dispassionate, in the approved manner of a student reporting to a master. "The amount of talk occasioned by his comment, although it may not have been his intent, cannot have escaped him," Obi-Wan finished.

Yoda remained silent for the remainder of their stroll down the hallway. Only when they had turned the corner did he resume speech, with one of his penetrating questions. "Regret, do you, the attempt to befriend young Bruck?"

Obi-Wan considered the question gravely. "I believe I acted from the best of motives," he said finally. "I know he was sometimes rather too free in his speech and frivolous in his manner, but I thought it was merely an excess of high spirits. I felt he was sound at heart, and could be encouraged to train his mind on more serious subjects."

"Not the only one to think so, you were. Many there were who saw great potential in him for advancement within our order." Even as a student barely out of the schoolroom, Bruck had cut quite a dash at the public training sessions, and had certainly never lacked for sparring partners; he had been an accomplished flirt from an early age, courted by several knights and masters, all of whom had professed a most sincere desire to train him in the Jedi arts.

"I don't regret the attempt, truly I don't. But I do regret being drawn so far into his affairs. I sought to influence him for the better, and instead, gossip will have it that he influenced me for the worse. I regret not seeing how deeply the want of principle ran in his character. I'm afraid I misjudged him." By the time Obi-Wan had understood the full extent of Bruck's wilder exploits, it had been too late, and the damage done; Bruck had already intimated to several of his admirers that Obi-Wan had participated in every ripe spree and illicit excursion into the less reputable areas of Coruscant.

"So did all his teachers, and every master in this temple. No greater than theirs, your failure is. Indeed, much less, or claim a master's accomplishments do you, hmm?"

"No," Obi-Wan disclaimed hastily, "indeed I don't. But, Master Yoda—"

Another sharp rap across his shin silenced him. "Practice you need," Yoda said firmly, "in perceiving the ways of the Force. Not alone in this you are," he added with a thoughtful air. This lasted only a moment, however, before he shook it off and resumed his usual brisk, no-nonsense manner. "Practice tomorrow you will, the air kata as I have taught it to you."

"Yes, Master Yoda."

"Prim and missish you will not pretend to be, when the Force speaks to you."

"No, Master Yoda."

"Reserve a practice room for you I shall, so think not you can shirk this duty."

"No, Master Yoda!"

It was with decidedly mixed spirits that Obi-Wan bid his elderly mentor good night and withdrew to the student dormitories. Master Yoda did not seem to feel that Obi-Wan's case was a desperate one, but thinking back upon the matter, Obi-Wan could not feel that Yoda had offered him any very practical solution to his problem; after all, he had been putting his fate in the hands of the Force for several seasons now, to no discernible purpose. Obi-Wan retired to his room in some bewilderment, bathed, and put on a clean nightgown, reflecting that he was at the very least much more comfortably situated this evening, thanks to Master Yoda, than he should have been in the company of knights Elerin and Impris.

Said knights, failing to secure the company of Obi-Wan or any other student suited to their tastes, had decided to repair to a select gathering Elerin had word of from her former master, in the hopes of finding some other congenial form of entertainment. To their dismay, however, the gathering turned out to be very select indeed, and when the master who hosted it allowed them entry, after looking them up and down in silence in such a manner that Impris had half a mind to leave, they discovered none but the very stuffiest of their order within. "A veritable gallery of gargoyles, m'dear," Impris said later. "I can't think what Master Uflek was about, inviting you."

As Elerin very naturally went to pay her respects to her former master, Impris was left to his own devices, and reliance upon his own wits alone, always an uncomfortable state of affairs for him. Furthermore, as he found himself under the close scrutiny of some masters who were acknowledged leaders of a set he could only aspire to, he grew increasingly convinced that the fit of his new robe was not at all what it should be; indeed, after observing Master Mace's belt and boots, he felt himself to be the veriest shagrag, and sidled in as unobtrusive a manner as he could manage towards the refreshments.

After fortifying himself with some truly excellent brandy, and feeling an intense gratitude that his host did not stint on refreshments, Impris once again surveyed the company, and found his situation not quite as desperate as he had first believed. The company did consist primarily of Jedi some several years his senior, with whom he had never enjoyed any particular intimacy — not, he later assured Elerin, because they were all members of the Light-Saber Club and beyond his touch, but merely because their notion of social intercourse was rather too dull for his taste — but now that he had recovered his bearings somewhat, he perceived the presence of some knights closer to himself in age, and indeed in interests. Some of them he believed to be former padawans of the masters present, invited no doubt in the same way that Master Uflek had invited Elerin, who was now involved in a very earnest conversation about fiscal policies in some obscure region of the Republic, and looked very nearly ready to fall asleep where she stood.

Impris insinuated himself at the edges of this group of younger knights, and exchanged a few idle remarks with a distant acquaintance while he listened to the general tenor of the conversation. After some little time, his attention was attracted by the sound of a familiar name, as a knight whose name Impris recalled as Ucchi mentioned Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Obi-Wan Kenobi's figure, in an approving manner. In the most casual way imaginable, Impris said something about having had a private little chat with Kenobi just moments earlier.

"Oho!" Ucchi's arched eyebrow invited Impris into the discussion. "You should be in a position to know, then. Is it true that he's a ripe 'un?"

"Ripe for plucking, I'd say," Impris confided, regretting once again the lost opportunity.

"Really?" Ucchi's voice invited further confidences.

Impris nodded judiciously. "Only have to look at him to see he's too much of a wanton to stay tamely in the temple. Kenobi's cut out to be a barque of frailty, not a padawan."

Ucchi shook his head, more in regret than in disagreement. "I suppose it's too late to get to know him better before he exchanges the temple sparring sessions for the Senate assemblies."

"Much the better place for him," Impris said. "Daresay he'll accept a carte noire from some lucky fellow before the season's over." The Senate assemblies were, indeed, notorious for the ease with which senators and businessmen could meet and befriend dazzling young beauties in need of protection and financial security. "Legs like that, it would be a crime not to—"

Suddenly Impris found himself grasped by the back of his tunic and lifted straight into the air, until his toes barely touched the floor. "Knight Impris, is it?" said a calm, bored, thoroughly unnerving voice. "I suggest you look to your manners, and cease to bandy a student's name in such a manner. It's really not at all the thing for a knight to do, you know."

Impris made a rather undignified squeaking noise, by way of protesting the decidedly uncomfortable situation he found himself in. "Master Jinn," he gasped, having identified his attacker by means of looking sideways until his eyes very nearly rolled back in his head. "I meant no harm, indeed—" He was deposited on his own two feet. "—but damme, it's common knowledge in the temple that Kenobi's anyone's for the taking—" He was once again hauled into the air.

"If you had more wits than words," Jinn suggested, in a tone somewhere between dispassion and dislike, "you might be capable of noticing that this so-called common knowledge is in error."

"It is?" Impris racked his brains for any gossip to the contrary, and was seized with sudden illumination. "Oh! Oh, I see. Don't want you to think I can't take a hint," he said with a rather forced attempt at a chuckle. "Thing is, I had no notion! Didn't think you went in for that sort of thing."

Qui-Gon Jinn was not, in truth, enjoying his evening. After leaving the salle with the relief of one who has discharged a cumbersome and unwanted duty, he had intended to enjoy a convivial hour or two in the quarters of Master Tep Harron, in an environment entirely free from simpering young students and prosy Jedi elders alike. However, on his arrival in the part of the temple where the master had his quarters, he encountered several other knights and masters who informed him, with a crestfallen air, that Master Tep Harron had been suddenly called away to attend to a renewed outbreak of hostilities on the Miklos mining satellites, and the informal little soiree had perforce been cancelled. Returning to his own rooms, Qui-Gon had been practically waylaid by Mace, who informed him roundly that he had not the least intention of going into Master Hapst's regular gathering without some moral support, which Qui-Gon would, naturally, be so obliging as to provide.

"What a sad trial you are to me, Mace. Should you like for me to hold your hand?"

"What you may do is help me carry these cases of wine — gently, now! Hapst has many excellent qualities, but sadly, a discerning palate is not one of them."

Lured by the promise of decent claret, Qui-Gon had agreed to accompany his friend. Now, finding himself in the process of chastising a gossipy knight who was clearly, to Qui-Gon's experienced eye, something of a loose screw, he regretted the charitable impulse. He should rather have retired to his books, his tea, and his bed, and borne Mace's comments on his valetudinarian habits with an even temper. Instead he was compelled to defend the honor of an insipid little thing of a student, with whom he had not exchanged a single word, and about whose character he was beginning to have grave doubts.

"I won't poach on your territory," Impris assured him. "Wouldn't dream of it — mind you, if you should ever come to tire of him, and cast him off — not that I'm saying you would, of course — won't say another word on the matter." He closed his mouth resolutely.

"Indeed you won't," Qui-Gon agreed, "or I will certainly hear of it. I believe I will also have a word with your immediate superiors, and ensure that no one has been struck with the bright idea of sending you on any diplomatic missions. An agricultural survey, now, that's the ticket."

Impris looked dismayed. Qui-Gon patted him encouragingly on the shoulder, and strode off in search of solace. The other people in the room stepped quickly out of his way, until Mace came up to him, and handed him a glass of claret.

"I quite thought you intended to call that young popinjay out," Mace said. "Kenobi should be grateful to have such an ardent champion."

Qui-Gon said meditatively, "I feel very strongly that if any one tries my patience any further this evening, I will not be responsible for the results. Do you realize that everyone present here tonight, with two exceptions, will now begin to spread the rumor that I have reached a private arrangement with Kenobi?"

"The thought had occurred to me," Mace said, making short work of the last few drops in his own glass. "I also find it noteworthy that you did not, in fact, take any measures to avoid or suppress this rumor."

Qui-Gon Jinn never yielded to anything as common as exasperation. "Oh, come now, Mace. You of all people should be aware that the idea is clearly absurd. I have not exchanged one word with Kenobi."

Mace nodded, with the greatest good-will in the world. "You have merely driven away others who would pay court to him, and defended his honor in a somewhat vigorous fashion. No more than you'd do for any other student in whom you have no interest whatever, to be sure."

"You have heard me speak up before against those who would abuse a student's good name," Qui-Gon pointed out.

"Oh, certainly. Although not a student about whom you yourself have spoken disparagingly not an hour before."

"I criticized his performance, not his morals. The notion of Kenobi as a person of dubious virtue is clearly absurd."

Mace refilled his glass. "Do go on. How have you arrived at this great knowledge of his character on such short, not to say non-existent, acquaintance?"

"You have only to look at him," Qui-Gon said, plucking the glass from Mace's hand. "He employs no arts to attract, and takes no particular care with his dress. He is quite the most meek and colorless bird of paradise I have ever seen, and my conclusion must be that he is, in fact, not one." Qui-Gon drank a little more deeply than was his wont. "You must admit, Mace, that we do occasionally — just occasionally! — have students here at the temple who are indeed what they appear to be, and strive for Jedi honors in earnest."

"I will grant you the possibility," Mace said, with a fine gravity. "I will also remind you that you yourself referred to this particular student, earlier, as one who would sell himself to the highest bidder."

Qui-Gon frowned. "I believe I spoke in generalities only. I am afraid this subject is beginning to wear on me, Mace."

"For my part, I find it quite fascinating," Mace assured him. "The recurrence of Kenobi as a theme to our evening, and your undeniable interest—"

"I have no interest in Kenobi," Qui-Gon said curtly. "These events are nothing but coincidence."

"Coincidence there is not," Mace said, in a creditable imitation of Master Yoda. "Only the will of the Force there is." He took a cautious step backwards, on the chance that Qui-Gon would feel compelled by the will of the Force to do some violence to the exquisite lines of Mace's robe, but Qui-Gon merely drained his glass and announced his intention of retiring, since he was clearly not going to be provided with any intelligent society this evening.

The two knights and three masters who attempted to wish Qui-Gon joy as he made his farewells did not improve his mood, although he maintained an unruffled demeanor until he had exited Master Hapst's quarters. Striding along the empty hallways of the temple, Qui-Gon threw a dark look in the general direction of the student dormitories, where the mousy little Kenobi was no doubt already deep in dull and virtuous slumber.

Qui-Gon's supposition was incorrect. Obi-Wan was not, in fact, asleep, but sitting up in his bed, with his legs drawn up to leave space for Bant to curl up at the foot; Reeft sprawled comfortably on the rug on the floor, stretching his legs to warm his feet at the heating vent.

"She has asked me for a meeting tomorrow morning — a private interview," Bant said, exultant. Everyone at the temple knew what that meant. "Oh, I am the luckiest student in the world!"

"I'm so happy for you," Obi-Wan said, squeezing her hand. "I believe Knight Varlis is esteemed most highly by the council for her diplomacy and savoir faire."

"Dashed good pilot, too," Reeft put in. "Second in the precision flying competition last year."

Bant was glowing with happiness. "Indeed, she is everything that is amiable and pleasing. I only wish you could meet someone who will suit you as well, Obi-Wan. And you, Reeft," she added, reaching down to touch Reeft's shoulder, although since Reeft was younger than the other two, his need to find a master was not quite so pressing.

"Thought Impris seemed quite taken with you," Reeft offered, tipping his head to look up at Obi-Wan. "Heard him say so, what's more."

Obi-Wan shook his head. "I really don't think we should suit," he said repressively, "and besides, Knight Impris appeared to be in search of another Bruck, not a potential padawan."

"Oh, dear," Bant said, in soft-voiced dismay.

"Deuced awkward for you," Reeft agreed. "Though he isn't such a bad sort, really — not that I mean to say you should agree to that sort of arrangement," he added hastily.

"No, indeed." Bant, with a much higher degree of sensibility than the other two, looked faintly horrified. "Obi-Wan, it is intolerable that you should be exposed to such treatment only because you sought to preserve Bruck's honor at the expense of your own."

Obi-Wan made an attempt to turn the conversation back onto the subject of Knight Varlis again, and Bant chatted happily on for some time about her hopes for the future, all of which Obi-Wan and Reeft could enter into with very nearly the same level of interest. The three of them had been close friends from childhood, rarely spending a day apart, and Obi-Wan fought to subdue the melancholy thought that he might soon be parted from them by the width of the galaxy, to eke out a living in service on Bandomeer or some other distant planet with few amenities and little in the way of agreeable society.

In such a situation, the elegancies of life that he took for granted at the temple would be far beyond his means, and this might be one of his last evenings in the comfort of his own rooms, and in the even dearer comfort of their company. When at last they bade him good night, Bant patted his cheek, and Reeft clapped him on the shoulder, and Obi-Wan fell into an uneasy slumber. His dreams during the night were unusually vivid, of strange planets and hazardous missions, deserts and jungles and underwater cities.

Despite this, he woke feeling greatly refreshed. Obi-Wan rose and went to Master Gallia's dawn meditation class, so as not to make a liar of himself, and found himself joyfully in tune with the Force, more serene and relaxed than he had ever felt, or at any rate, ever at such an early hour. He breakfasted lightly on divira nuts and tea, and proceeded to find the promised practise room that Master Yoda had, indeed, reserved for his use. At the very least, it was clear that he would be spending his time this morning in a rational and useful manner.

Master Gallia's dawn class had not been very heavily attended. Many of the older students, as well as young knights and masters old enough to know better, were sleeping off the excesses of the night before, and there was an air of quiet repose about the temple long after the sun had risen. Qui-Gon Jinn remarked on it when he beat a brisk tattoo on Mace's door, exhorting him to hurry up and get dressed or there would be no hot cakes left at breakfast. "This place is as silent as a tomb today," Qui-Gon said as Mace came to receive him. He looked his friend up and down. "Your tomb, perhaps. You look dreadful. It distresses me to think that you acquired a head like that from Hapst's wretched cognac."

"I did not," Mace said, with some dignity, and opened the door fractionally wider. He was dressed, but not with quite his customary elegance. "If you had stayed a little while longer, instead of taking off in a huff, you might have accompanied me to a much more convivial gathering."

"I thank you, but I believe I've had my share of convivial gatherings for the season. I have not, however, had breakfast yet."

Mace shuddered delicately. "Then by all means go and have some," he said faintly. "I shouldn't wish to deprive you of anything this morning, Qui-Gon, except my company."

By dint of equal measures of coaxing and abuse, Qui-Gon lured Mace out of his quarters, and they both went in search of hot cakes, although Mace, after one bite, pushed his share onto Qui-Gon's side of the table, and sat nursing his tea and his head with equal care. Many of the Jedi masters seemed to be breaking their fast in their own quarters this morning; however, Qui-Gon was not at all surprised to see Master Yoda ensconced at his favorite table, tiny nose deep in the Coruscant News, cane propped lightly against a chair.

Nor was he surprised when, just as he finished off the last of Mace's abandoned hot cakes, a malacca cane tapped gently against his knee. "Good morning, Qui-Gon. Mace."

Qui-Gon returned the greeting with good grace, while Mace merely lifted his teacup in mute acknowledgement. "I missed your presence at the training session last night," Qui-Gon said mendaciously.

Yoda sniffed. "Left early, you did. Irresponsible, you are." He jumped lightly onto the chair next to Qui-Gon. "Informed by six people so far this morning have I been, of your involvement with young Kenobi. Obviously a deep source of grief to me it is that you did not see fit to inform me of this fact yourself."

"There is no involvement," Qui-Gon said, pouring more tea for himself. "Merely a misunderstanding perpetrated by what I can only believe to be a very green young knight."

"I know," Yoda said unexpectedly. He looked shrewdly at Qui-Gon, and then at Mace, who had roused himself enough to look rather amused at Qui-Gon's expense. "Speak with you privately I would, Qui-Gon."

"Oh, he has no secrets from me," Mace drawled.

Qui-Gon set his teacup aside and rose. "Then it is about time, don't you think?" He bowed slightly to Yoda. "May I escort you somewhere, Master Yoda?"

Yoda nodded and stepped lightly down off the chair again. "To the light meditation room, if you please." He walked ahead of Qui-Gon with the dandyish, almost mincing step that had led so many opponents to underestimate him in the salle as well as on the battlefield. Out in the hallway he stopped, and withdrew a small enamelled box from within his robes. "Hmmm."

Qui-Gon bent down to get a better look. "Is there something the matter?"

"Certain I am not any more that this design is conducive to meditation," Yoda said, eyeing his snuff-box consideringly. "Change it, I must, before we proceed."

Qui-Gon knew better than to disagree with Yoda on a matter of snuff-boxes, and merely bowed his head in acquiescence. "Very well."

They changed direction accordingly, choosing a route that would take them to Yoda's quarters. The public spaces of the temple were still largely empty and peaceful, and Qui-Gon, replete with hot cakes and tea, found it quite restful to walk by Yoda's side and discuss the recent fad for wooden intarsia snuff-box lids. He was not entirely prepared for Yoda to look up at him with an expectant air and say, "It is his last season, you know."

"No, I don't know," Qui-Gon said, disdaining to pretend ignorance by asking who this mysterious he was. "At least, I suppose I do now, but I cannot see that it is any concern of mine."

"Linked you are to him now, in widespread rumor. No one else will approach him, when claimed by you he is perceived to be. Much harm have you done him by your interference," Yoda shot him a sharp look, "yet time there is to turn this harm to good."

"You wish me to accept him as my padawan learner," Qui-Gon said flatly.

"A highly suitable match it would be." Yoda paused to take an infinitesimal pinch of snuff. "Too old you are, Qui-Gon, to keep dithering in this manner merely to confound expectations. Choose a padawan you must, and be chosen by a master he must, or leave the temple within days. Lose him to the order we shall, unless you deign to make him an offer."

They had arrived at the entrance to Yoda's quarters, and Qui-Gon waited outside while Yoda dashed in quickly to pick up another snuff-box and adjust the line of his coat across his shoulders. When Yoda emerged again, Qui-Gon had his reply ready. "Surely you must see that it wouldn't answer, Master Yoda. We should not suit at all." Yoda cocked one ear in polite skepticism. "Do you truly expect me to take an interest in such a quiet, colorless little dab of a student? An excellent young man in his own way, no doubt," Qui-Gon hastened to disclaim before Yoda's cane could find his kneecap, "but not of a style I particularly admire."

"Obi-Wan is an excellent young man," Yoda said calmly, "and not just in the common style, either. Good for you, he would be."

Qui-Gon shook his head. "You forget that I was present for his air kata last night. That performance was both common and lacking in Force-sensitivity. I cannot think that he would be such a loss to the order, if that is the best he can do." Indeed, the most remarkable thing about Obi-Wan Kenobi that Qui-Gon could bring to mind was that he had a very self-possessed air for one so young, and to Qui-Gon, who valued a frank and open temperament, this was hardly a recommendation.

Yoda was silent for a moment, as they walked on down the hallway. "A very good point you make," he said at last, sounding not the least bit discouraged. In fact, rather to Qui-Gon's surprise, he smiled. "That give your attention to the matter you will, is all I ask of you."

"Certainly, Master Yoda," Qui-Gon said, with only the faintest trace of suspicion in his voice. Yoda could be most tenacious in pressing an issue when he believed himself to be in the right. This sudden tractability was unexpected, but Qui-Gon did not hesitate to make use of it as they reached a corner and drew to a halt. "I assure you this question shall have all the consideration it deserves, and in return, I trust you will not canvass this matter to excess."

"Not at all," Yoda assured him. "Trust you to be honorable in the matter I do." He gestured to the right with his cane. "This way am I going, if care to share the light meditation with me you should."

"I should not," Qui-Gon said, very decidedly. "I have business to attend to—" He waved his hand in the opposite direction. "I trust you will excuse me."

"Of course," Yoda said, and did not twitch his ears in quiet satisfaction until Qui-Gon had turned his back and was well on his way along the hallway leading to the practice rooms.

Qui-Gon congratulated himself on having escaped so easily from Yoda's meddling clutches; at the same time, he was aware that it was doubtless no more than a temporary respite. He regarded the elderly master with great affection and respect, and knew better than to underestimate him. Passing a row of open practice rooms, Qui-Gon slowed his steps and considered the usefulness of solitary exercises to work the kinks out of his back, versus the undeniable enjoyment of finding Mace again and prodding him, in his present state, through a bout of vigorous sparring. As he weighed the merits of each alternative in his mind, he became gradually aware of a faint stirring in the Force, guiding his steps towards one of the practice rooms.

As always, Qui-Gon did not hesitate to follow where the Force led. He stepped into the doorway and came to an abrupt halt, astonished by what he beheld. It was a sight he had seen before: Obi-Wan Kenobi practicing the third Bremel air kata. Yet at the same time, it was a sight utterly unlike what he had seen before, and Qui-Gon could hardly credit what his eyes told him.

This splendid, joyful creature before him was not the dull, indifferent student of the previous night. Gone was the careful air, the subdued demeanor, the sedate formality which had marred the performance. Here was passion, and spirit. Kenobi was all agility and determination, yet this determination did not take precedence over his reliance on the guidance of the Force; he placed himself in its hands with perfect trust, and was rewarded with the most extraordinary grace, the mechanical precision of his earlier peformance replaced with a fluid ease that spoke of both great skill and great Force-sensitivity.

Qui-Gon noted, in an abstracted sort of way, that Kenobi possessed good science and excellent bottom, yet the technical aspects of this display paled beside the look of transcendent delight on Kenobi's face.

This put a different complexion on the matter. Yoda was, beyond any doubt, correct in his assessment: Kenobi possessed talents beyond the ordinary, and would be a grave loss to the order. He must certainly remain at the temple. As no other immediate solution appeared to present itself, Qui-Gon took another step into the room.

Up until that moment, Kenobi had seemed to be entirely unaware of his audience, but this particular movement of Qui-Gon's sent a ripple through the Force. Partway through his final leap, Kenobi looked up, and his eyes met Qui-Gon's. Unlike the little Twi'lek girl, the young man did not falter or lose his place, but his final landing and turn were stilted and very nearly out of rhythm.

"Master Jinn," he said quietly, in that manner that was just a little too stiff to be generally pleasing, and bowed. "I was not aware that you wished to use this room. It will not take me a moment to remove—"

"Stay," Qui-Gon said, a little more brusquely than he had intended. There was nothing for it; he would have to come up to scratch, or face an eternity of Yoda's reproaches in the awareness that he deserved them. "I wish to speak with you, if you would grant me the honor of a private interview."

Kenobi's composure faltered for a moment. His eyes lifted to Qui-Gon's face, and Qui-Gon discovered those eyes could be quite speaking. "You cannot mean that."

Qui-Gon crossed his arms. "It has been brought to my attention," he said, with all the politeness he could muster, "that I have, however inadvertently, ruined your prospects of finding a master before the end of the season. It is my undeniable duty as a Jedi, to you and to the order, to make amends. Obi-Wan Kenobi, will you be my padawan learner?"

Kenobi turned pale, then blushed delicately. "I am most sensible of the honor, Master Jinn," he stammered, "but I could not possibly accept. You don't wish to be burdened with a padawan — certainly not a padawan who is not truly of your choosing. I believe that you would come to regret the offer."

"Your concern for me is touching," Qui-Gon said dryly, and detected the faintest spark of indignation in Kenobi's usually so cool eyes. "Let me speak plainly, to avoid the possibility of misunderstanding. What I offer you is an arrangement of convenience. You desire to remain at the temple and meet a suitable knight or master to teach you, but you cannot stay past the end of the season unless you enter into a padawan bond. Very well; you shall have one. I will engage not to interfere in your affairs, if you will do me the courtesy of not interfering in mine, during the time that we are bonded together, which will only be until a more suitable master can be found for you. I trust this arrangement is acceptable to you?"

Kenobi looked up at Qui-Gon through his lashes. "It is certainly an unexpected solution to my difficulties," he said. "If we are to be frank, though, you must be aware that I have not the least inclination to form a part of the set you belong to."

It seemed the little Kenobi had a backbone, at any rate, to go with his deplorable fashion sense. "Then you must take care to find another master who appears to you to be a greater catch," Qui-Gon said, with equanimity. "But if you wish to remain at the temple, you can't afford to spurn my offer. Will you be my padawan learner?"

Kenobi hesitated only fractionally before lifting his chin and answering, "Yes." He offered his hand, Qui-Gon took it, and the bond was sealed in the clasp of palm to palm. "Until a more suitable match can be found," he added.

Qui-Gon was not accustomed to think of himself as an unsuitable match for anyone, and the novelty of being regarded as such was unexpectedly entertaining. He smiled warmly at Kenobi, to discernibly unsettling effect. "I will take care of the announcement, and notify the appropriate authorities of the change in your circumstances," he said easily. "Do you get back to your practice, and mind your footwork."

Leaving the practice room, Qui-Gon allowed himself a single look back over his shoulder, to see Obi-Wan Kenobi standing in the center of the floor with very little of his usual composure — looking, in fact, entirely flummoxed. This might turn out to be a splendid lark, Qui-Gon reflected as he walked down the hallway, no matter that Yoda had deviously manipulated the two of them into this situation. Kenobi was such an earnest young man, and must benefit from Qui-Gon's greater experience of the world, as well as a few words of discreet advice on the proper manner of wrapping a sash. In due time, another master would be discovered for him, and Qui-Gon freed once more of every responsibility.

But what if this new master were to make a mull of it? Qui-Gon found himself unexpectedly troubled by the thought. He would have to give some attention to the matter, after all, if only to ensure that Kenobi was bestowed upon someone equal to the task of teaching him. Musing on this and equally weighty matters, Qui-Gon went in search of the padawan registrar.

Obi-Wan, for his part, had the distinct sensation that his entire world had been turned upside-down. He could hardly credit this sudden reversal in his fortunes; his knees felt weak, and he sat down on the floor to recover himself. From thinking he would shortly need to pack his bags and depart for a life of unrewarding monotony on the Outer Rim, he had gone to being the accepted padawan of the Jedi order's most sought-after master.

For a short time only, he reminded himself. After all, it wasn't as though Qui-Gon Jinn truly desired him for a padawan, nor he desire Qui-Gon Jinn for a master. He should be grateful that Qui-Gon's sense of honor had compelled him to make an offer, but Obi-Wan could not help but feel a certain wistful regret. This was not how he had envisioned the experience of having his hand solicited in a padawan bond. Obi-Wan had always imagined a relationship of mutual respect, perhaps even of liking and affection. Whatever now existed between himself and Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan felt quite certain that affection was not the proper term for it.

Nevertheless, he was now firmly fixed at the temple, secure in his place for the time being, and he owed Qui-Gon a great deal of gratitude for that fact. He would have to work hard at finding a master to replace Qui-Gon, so as not to make a nuisance of himself by being underfoot for very long. Qui-Gon's patronage would introduce Obi-Wan into a whole new circle of temple society; surely there had to be someone, Obi-Wan reflected, who would not disdain to teach a modest young student from a provincial world.

Then he jumped to his feet, and ran out of the room. He could not wait to tell Bant.

* * *

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