It was early enough in the morning that the highest of the Jedi Temple's open-air practice chambers was still empty. Obi-Wan Kenobi's boots made almost no noise on the worn, darkly tiled floor; he had been trained to walk without sound for almost as long as he could remember. He stood in silence for a moment and breathed, then faced the city before him. The dawn light touched the stone of the balcony beneath his fingers, transforming it briefly to rich red-gold. It was summer, but the air was still cool and fresh against his just-washed skin.
Hundreds of meters below him flowed the never ending stream of ships on the business of government, heralds with their hulls gilded by the rising sunlight. The roar of their engines was muted - there were ordinances in this ancient sector against excessive vibration. But the ever-present smell of hot metal, skimmer fuel and lubricant vapour still hung faintly over the scent of the flowers that had been planted in pots around the viewing benches, and no amount of shielding, it seemed, would ever keep it out.
From within the temple the fifth bell rang. There would be little time before the first of the other Padawans came here for their own early practice sessions. But open air was a rare thing on Coruscant and solitude was a rarer thing than open air. It was why he came here so early, whenever he was on this world. Here, alone, in the dawn light with the waking city beneath, he found the Force easiest to touch.
He closed his eyes then, turned away from the city below, and took his place in the centre of the sparring floor. Another breath and he was ready to begin. He kept the movements slow at first, stretching and readying muscles still stiff from the last night's sleep. That had been one of the first of all lessons, certainly one of the first he could remember. The stretches and then the teaching assistant guiding him through his first tumbles and handstands and laughing with him at his first clumsy forward roll.
Now he did not stumble or falter. He had been a ungainly child and an ungainly teenager. Grace had come with age and his growing mastery of the Force. It was something that for a long time he had thought he would never attain but which was second nature to him now. He drew and ignited his lightsaber and let his body move fluidly, in patterns so long practiced that he could have done them in his sleep, in the ancient kata known simply as 'the dance'. Above him he heard the climbing engines of a courier shuttle launching from the council landing platform, but the sound, familiar as it was, provided no distraction. The breeze the followed it rustled the leaves of the scented plants and provided a moment's welcome coolness. That he ignored as well.
His focus was his lightsaber. He did not open his eyes; he did not need to. The weapon was an extension of his own body. The hum of the blade and the ionised smell of the air around it were as familiar to him as his own heartbeat, for he had held a lightsaber of one form or another in his hand for almost every day of the past sixteen and a half years of his life.
Sixteen and a half years. It was more than four-fifths of his life; easily measured, for today was his twentieth birthday. Seventeen years ago he had sat wide-eyed and mostly uncomprehending when his mother had told him that he was to be taken to a tower high above a city on a world far away to learn to be a knight. Just over seven years ago Qui-Gon had chosen him as his Padawan after he had finally despaired of that dream ever coming true. Since then he had traveled further and seen more worlds than most of his peers would see in their lifetimes. He had killed many times. Often, too, he had been injured, more than once close to death. The ache of a barely healed arm was a reminder of the last time that had happened; he accepted the pain, accommodated it and danced on.
He was transcendently aware of his own body and the way it moved, of the things that surrounded him, of the air that flowed past him, of the warmth of the sun as it touched his skin. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, there was the sense of the presence that was the most familiar thing in his life. He did not falter but knew that Qui-Gon had felt his recognition and would wait until he had finished. He moved into the last steps of the dance and entered and held the final, graceful form.
Obi-Wan powered the saber down, and only then opened his eyes. Qui-Gon stood patiently beside one of the benches near the entrance to the room, his arms folded into his sleeves. Two of the younger Padawans stood talking softly in the doorway, a Mon Calamari he knew vaguely and a human girl with bright blonde hair he did not recognise. Qui-Gon stepped forward, and Obi-Wan bowed, as tradition demanded within the training ring.
'Good morning, Master.'
Qui-Gon made him a half bow in return. His expression was serene but Obi-Wan could sense his weariness.
'Good morning. Have you finished here, Padawan?'
'In a moment, Master.'
It was going to be a warm day, another reason to exercise early. Obi-Wan knelt over the low ornamental pool to one side of the court and quickly washed his face, stray splashes darkening the dusty tile surround. The two other Padawans shrugged off their robes and took their places in the centre of the ring as Qui-Gon stood by patiently. Their two lightsabres thrummed into life and he wondered absently how long they'd been standing there, waiting for him to finish. Qui-Gon's presence was just as unexpected.
'I thought that you were staying at the palace until this evening, Master,' he said.
'As did I, Padawan,' Qui-Gon replied. 'There was a change of plan.'
Obi-Wan looked up from where he knelt and blinked away the water beaded on his eyelashes. 'Is there a problem with the negotiations?'
'The negotiations are complete,' Qui-Gon explained. 'I'd rather be here, and I believe the Malastrians would prefer it also.' His tone grew dry. ‘You'll discover that the presence of a Jedi representative has an inhibiting effect on senatorial celebrations.'
Obi-Wan rose to his feet. 'When did you return, Master? I didn't hear you arrive last night.'
It was in part an apology. If Qui-Gon had been in their shared quarters it would have been his Padawan's duty to prepare the morning tea and to fetch the message clips. Qui-Gon shook his head.
'My shuttle has just arrived, Padawan. I haven't been back to our quarters yet. I saw you exercising below and came here first. Were there any messages for me?'
Obi-Wan nodded. 'There were several clips yesterday, Master. Nothing marked urgent, two confidential, one of those from off-world.' He paused. 'Most of them are red-tagged, I'm afraid.'
Qui-Gon's shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly. 'I suppose I shouldn't regard appeals for my help as an inconvenience.'
'There is no need for you to review all such messages personally, Master,' Obi-Wan said. This was an old argument. 'Few of the other Masters do.'
'They may not, but I choose to, Padawan,' Qui-Gon frowned at him. 'Let that be an end to it.'
'Your workload is heavy enough, Master,' Obi-Wan continued doggedly. 'The fact remains that the great majority of such messages are a waste of time, and the messaging bureau are more than competent at deciding which ones are not.'
'That is something I prefer to decide myself, Padawan,' Qui-Gon said, with as much irritation as he ever displayed.
Obi-Wan sighed and gave up. 'Yes, Master.'
Qui-Gon's expression softened a little. 'I know that you're motivated by concern for me, Padawan, and I am grateful for that, but I will decide my own workload.'
'I know, Master,' Obi-Wan said contritely. 'It is just that these have been hard months for both of us.'
Qui-Gon nodded. 'And you have worked hard over this treaty, my apprentice. I wish I'd been able to get permission for you to attend the talks.'
'It has been my privilege to act as your researcher, Master,' Obi-Wan said, bowing his head at this rare praise. 'I know how important this treaty is. I'm honoured by the responsibility you've given me.' He bent and picked up his over-robe.
'But in the past three weeks we've spent barely a day together,' Qui-Gon stated. 'I hope you'll let me make amends for that today.'
'Yes, Master,' Obi-Wan said. He found himself unable to suppress a smile of simple happiness. He had missed his Master painfully during the protracted negotiations, much more than he was willing to admit. In the past year they had gone from world to world with almost no break. Their time on Coruscant was usually no more than a few snatched days, a flurry of catching up with whatever trials or examinations he'd missed, then another briefing and another mission. The thought of spending longer than a week in the Temple had seemed a fond and unattainable dream. A glancing blow from the edge of a disruptor blast had changed all that, and the healer's insistence that he be held back from operational duties for at least a month had seemed a Force-sent opportunity to get some rest and catch up with his old friends.
The reality had been a disappointment. Most of his friends had been assigned away from the Temple. This time there were no exams to study for and the healers had forbidden him all but the least challenging katas. Then Qui-Gon had been asked to negotiate an agreement in the most recent of a long succession of Malastaire/Dabar trade disputes. His Padawan had not been invited to attend alongside him; instead Obi-Wan had spent three lonely and thankless weeks researching the issues and precedents concerned in the Senate Library. As his birthday approached he had stoically resigned himself to the fact that it would be spent without friends or master. He had not dared to hope that Qui-Gon would be able to return to the Temple in time. The knowledge that his Master had travelled all night in order to do so filled him with a heady mix of happiness and relief.
He shrugged his robe back on, with some reluctance given the rising heat. The two in the ring had paused while the Mon Calamari made a minute adjustment to the human girl's grip on her saber. He nodded his thanks to them as he left. Qui-Gon's travelling bag sat on one of the benches just outside the arched doorway, and he shouldered it without thought and took his place beside his master.
'There is another reason I wished to return early,' Qui-Gon stated as they made their way through the arched halls. 'It is your birthday today, my Padawan.' A wry smile. 'Or did you think I'd forgotten?'
'No, Master,' Obi-Wan said simply. 'You have never forgotten, no matter what the circumstances.'
Qui-Gon stopped and turned to face him. 'Today, on your twentieth birthday, you have become a senior padawan, Obi-Wan,' he said formally. 'You have entered the last and most difficult stage of your journey to knighthood. It is my honour and privilege to be your guide on this journey and I know you will not disappoint me.'
Obi-Wan bowed his head. 'Thank you, my Master. I will do my best to make you proud of me.'
'I know you will, Padawan,' Qui-Gon said. He reached into his robe. 'This is my gift to you.'
Obi-Wan had expected another stone. To the best of his knowledge Qui-Gon did not collect mineral specimens of any form himself. He only seemed to acquire them in order to pass them on to Obi-Wan as birthday gifts. It was a subject of considerable amusement among his contemporaries. But this was not a stone. The bracer was of a metal similar to bronze, he thought, a thick torc-bracelet of twisted wire. It was dark green with age and its Force signature sang of many centuries of existence. He held it in his hands and felt the weight and coldness of it. Jedi allowed themselves little in the way of personal adornment. It was the first piece of jewellery he had ever owned.
'Do you like it?' Qui-Gon asked.
A smile curled at his padawan's mouth. 'No rock, Master?'
'I can go into the gardens and dig one up if you believe it would be more appropriate, my Padawan,' Qui-Gon said mildly. There was amusement in his eyes.
Obi-Wan turned the cold metal around in his hands. 'It was just unexpected, Master. Thank you. This is very beautiful.'
Qui-Gon nodded his acknowledgment. 'It's just over two thousand years old. It was found at an archaeological site on Eossa.'
'From the world where I was born,' Obi-Wan said slowly. He looked down at the torc with new appreciation.
'Yes, Padawan. I hope it will serve as a reminder.'
'A reminder of what, Master?'
Qui-Gon did not answer him directly. 'There is something that we should attend to today, my Padawan.'
Obi-Wan nodded, although a faint frown crossed his face. 'My twentieth birthday should be the day I carry out the ritual of mourning with you, Master.'
'And you are aware of what the ritual involves?' Qui-Gon asked formally. He started making his way along the corridor again. Obi-Wan moved into step beside him.
'Yes, Master. Today is the day I should reflect on what becoming a Jedi has cost me.' He looked up at Qui-Gon, his brow furrowed. 'Master, I've thought about this a lot over the past few weeks. I do not feel ready to undertake this ritual.'
Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow. 'Indeed? Why not, Padawan?'
Obi-Wan considered his answer. 'I am content with what is, Master. To be a Jedi, to be your Padawan, is the greatest joy of my life. My family are part of my past. I know it's wrong to feel this way but most of the contact I have with them seems little more than a duty.'
'You were separated from your family when you were three years old, Obi-Wan, and those relationships were arrested then,' Qui-Gon reminded him as they walked through the coolness of the temple halls together. 'We are both human. Family relationships are fundamental to our species. Something precious was taken from you, when you were too young to understand. This is the time to ask; if I was given the choice, would I have chosen to make this sacrifice?'
Obi-Wan nodded, although his face still betrayed his disquiet. 'I understand the concept behind the ritual. But the path for my life has already been chosen. This is what is. There is no way to change the past, and I would not do so if I could. My life here is something that I must accept and which I do, gladly.'
Now it was Qui-Gon's turn to frown. 'Acceptance is not always as easy as you might choose to believe, Padawan. It took me many years to come to terms with my separation from my family. Your loss is real also. That you have become distant from your own family is a part of that loss.'
'I am sorry, Master...'
Qui-Gon stopped, turned to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. 'Meditate, Padawan. Search your feelings. What does the Force tell you?'
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, but the serenity he had felt while he danced was no longer within his grasp. The loss that Qui-Gon had spoken of was a loss he seemed unable to feel.
'Forgive me, Master, but I'm not ready to undertake the ritual of mourning yet.'
'Then we shall leave the ritual until you feel you are ready,' Qui-Gon said simply. 'Walk with me, Obi-Wan.'