What I learned I rejected but I believe again
I will suffer the consequence of this inquisition
If I jump in this fountain, will I be forgiven
We all had delusions in our head
We all had our minds made up for us
We had to believe in something
So we did
Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill, "Forgiven"
20 years before the events of "The Phantom Menace"
Jedi Temple, Coruscant
It was not often that Afton Ariia disobeyed her instructors but it was an abnormally humid day on Coruscant and remaining in that stifling room while Master Yoda had droned on about the living Force had been too much for her five-year-old attention span to handle. So she had used her special ability for fading into the background to sneak out. Once she had reached the hall, she ran as fast as her tiny legs could carry her until she had reached the back hall doors.
The Temple Gardens were Afton's favorite place to play. They were filled with enormous trees and thick bushes that made for excellent hiding places. Once, when her sometimes-friend Obi-Wan had been particularly mean to her, she had tossed herself from one of the tallest trees and pretended to have broken her arm. He had been filled with remorse and almost broke into tears at the thought that he may have caused her fall. Afton had laughed long and hard when he discovered it had all been a trick. It had been worth being sent to her room without dessert that evening.
Afton moved quietly through the gardens, careful to avoid any of the Masters who might be about. She considered going to her favorite hiding place to take a short nap - she was awfully tired - when she spotted a little girl sitting still as stone on the edge of the fountain. Afton crept near her cautiously, careful not to disturb her. Once she got close enough, she recognized the other as being one of the students who lived on Level 4. She did not know her name - Afton was generally shy about getting to know others - but she had seen her around the Temple. Pleased that she might now have someone to play with, Afton pushed aside her bashful nature and approached the other little girl.
A long silence, then a whispered, "Hello."
Afton waited for a moment to see if the girl would look at her, then curiosity won out. "Why're you sittin' so still? Why won'tcha look at me?"
"Because of the Biter."
Afton scrunched up her turned-up nose. "What Biter?"
"The one on my finger," the child whispered again, her voice wavering.
Afton peered over the girl's shoulder cautiously. There the enormous black bug sat on the tip of a tiny thumb, it's long teeth clearly visible. Afton shuddered and pulled away slowly. "I heard they bite hard."
"Mhmm," came the terrified reply.
Afton folded her hands behind her back and stood there for a moment in quiet contemplation. She could tell the girl before her was terribly frightened - she knew she would be - and wondered how she could help her. For certainly if she proved to be brave and helpful, the girl would want to be her friend. She just did not feel quite ready to play the hero - especially after seeing those teeth.
"What's your name?"
"I'm Afton. I live on Level Three."
Tavia let out a small squeak as the Biter flew down to land on the tip of her shoe.
Afton gnawed at her lower lip for a moment then asked, "Why don't you swat it away?"
"I don't want it to bite me!"
That made sense. Afton took a deep breath then plunged ahead. "Do you want me to swat it away for you?"
Tavia turned grateful bright green eyes to her. "Would you? I'll be your best friend!"
Afton straightened her little shoulders and moved closer to Tavia, her gaze watching the Biter unwaveringly. "Master Yoda once said I was very im...imprudent."
"What does that mean?"
Afton shrugged. "Don't know.I think it means I am brave."
Tavia nodded, impressed by the girl's knowledge. "So are you gonna swat it away?"
Both girls watched in terrified fascination as it slowly crawled up Tavia's boot toward her leg. She whimpered softly and Afton knew she had to act before her newfound friend got bitten. She edged closer, moving her hand back to prepare to swat, considered simply turning and running away, then screwed up her courage and brought her hand down on the threatening bug. The minute her tiny palm closed around it, the Biter snapped it's large teeth into her skin and Afton screamed loud enough to wake the dead. She began running around the fountain, her screams continuing, broken off occasionally by a barrage of tears, her hand held out from her waving in the air. Tavia had no idea how to help her, and now that the Biter was gone - flown off somewhere to nurse it's wounds - she jumped down from her perch and followed Afton around the fountain, wailing just as loudly.
This was the scene that greeted Mace Windu as he exited the Temple. The two little girls continued tearing around the fountain, their wails echoing off the garden walls. He hurried over, snatching up Tavia into his arms as she flew past.
"What is going on here, young one?"
Between sobs, Tavia explained that the Biter had hurt Afton. Mace sat the girl down on the fountain ledge and reached out to grab Afton as she attempted to run past him. The girl wailed even louder in his arms as he moved to sit down next to Tavia, positioning Afton carefully on his lap.
"Now, now, let me see this injury of yours," he commanded gently, taking the small hand in his. A welt, almost the size of the palm it was in, was pulsing bright and red against the child's fair skin. Mace actually had to keep himself from flinching at the sight of it. He blew on it softly, trying to tame the burning he knew she must be feeling. "Now that isn't such a bad injury to cause the wailing that I heard," he teased. "I thought someone had whacked off your arm with a lightsaber."
Afton sniffled, not wanting to appear cowardly, and fought back her tears.
Mace smiled at her efforts. "There now. That's better. What were you doing battling with a Biter anyway, little Afton?"
"It was on my foot, Master Windu," Tavia explained for her friend. "But Afton batted it away for me. Isn't she terribly im...imp..prudent?"
The Jedi fought back his laughter. "Yes, I would agree with you there. Afton is extremely imprudent, " he agreed, knowing that was how Master Yoda often referred the young charge who had a penchant for getting into everything around her.
Tavia snuggled closer to the big, dark man, seeking the comfort that her new friend was receiving. She wanted to be praised, too. "I sat still with the Biter on me for a long time."
Mace nodded. "I don't know if I could have done the same. Now, we all must not overlook the fact that none of this would have happened had both of you been in your classes. Can you explain yourselves?"
The two girls looked at one another, as if hoping the other would speak first. A Biter seemed insignificant compared to getting into trouble. Afton began gnawing on her lower lip while Tavia buried her face in the Jedi's cloak, her dark hair falling across her like a mantle. Neither seemed inclined to speak.
"Very well," Mace sighed. "Come along then. It is time to meet with Master Yoda."
Mace stood, setting Afton on her feet and started off toward the Temple. The two girls looked at one another as Tavia slid off the ledge.
"Master Yoda scares me," Tavia whispered in confession to Afton.
"Me too, " she whispered back.
Tavia was surprised her friend was afraid of anything. "I won't let him scare you, Afton."
Afton smiled, her cheeks still red and swollen from her tears. "I won't let him scare you, either, Tavia."
They grabbed hands, holding on as if it were a lifeline, and started off in Master Windu's wake.
I have as much rage as you have I have as much pain as you do Iíve lived as much hell as you have And IĎve kept mine bubbling under for you You were my keeper You were my anchor You were my family You were my saviour and therein lay the issue and therein lay the problem "Sympathetic Character" Ė Alanis Morissette
20 years later
The night air was surprisingly warm, as Kieran stepped out onto the large balcony. A smile crossed his face as he saw Tavia standing at the edge looking down on the city below. Her long dark hair, usually worn neatly up, was left to blow in the gentle breeze and glistened in an almost blue color in the moonlight.
He remembered the day he had first met her, standing in almost the exact same place nine years early. Nine years. He found himself shocked by the amount of time that had passed and even more shocked at how much both of them had changed.
It had been an incredibly hot summer night, when he had come to the balcony to meditate and consider his future. He was beginning to feel frustration with his lessons, finding it difficult to control his emotions as he was constantly instructed to do. He often felt that Master Antaro desired the impossible. He was desperate to get away, to contemplate where he felt he truly belonged. When he found that Tavia had beat him to his usual spot he was initially angered, but stopped himself short of simply leaving. For years he had heard rumors, among the other students at the academy, of the rebellious girl before him and he found himself instantly intrigued by her. Her hair was shorter then, barely passing her shoulders and her slight build made her unique among the other females at the academy. He knew little of her, much like everyone else, but he saw her as a challenge, and he was never one to pass on a challenge. Timidly he approached her, questioning whether he should disturb her, when suddenly he was almost overwhelmed with an intense feeling of sadness.
Stepping up to stand beside the girl he glanced over the edge, taking in the incredible height. "You arenít planning to jump, are you?"
Tavia eyed him briefly, her angst apparent. "Does it matter?"
Still looking over the ledge, Kieran commented, "Itís a long way down. Surely you can find some place lower where the effect will be the same."
Turning to face him, Tavia asked, "Was there a reason you came here or did you come simply to annoy me?"
Not to allow her harshness to faze him, he replied, "Actually, I always come here. You are in my spot."
"You arenít planning to jump, are you?"
"Why? Looking for company?" He replied playfully.
He was relieved when she laughed lightly. Over the next hour he learned that her lessons had been suspended indefinitely because of concerns voiced by the Council. They felt her extreme devotion to her studies and her inability (unwillingness?) to form lasting friendships could prove to be a problem later on in her apprenticeship. Though they did not view her as a definite threat they did feel that she would benefit from time away from her lessons. Instead of staying at the Jedi Temple, Tavia had decided to leave the order and return to the family she had left when she was little more than an infant. Kieran had heard stories of the Orítav mining colony where she had been found by Master Ilaara fourteen years earlier and was shocked that someone as intelligent as Tavia would even consider going to such a place. He became determined to keep her at the Temple and in doing so he realized all that he himself had to lose.
She had, unknowingly, prevented him from making a terrible mistake the same way he had with her, and everyday since he found himself grateful that fate had brought them together.
"You arenít planning to jump, are you?" He asked playfully.
Smiling, Tavia turned to him. "Why? Are you looking for company?"
Their words echoed those from the past. It had become a sort of joke between the two of them, but it also served as a reminder. A reminder that both had once stood on the edge of the abyss. It was a place neither wished to return to.
She moved over to him, taking comfort in his embrace, allowing him to kiss her deeply. When their lips finally parted Kieran commented. "You didnít wait for me."
"I needed some air." She told him, freeing herself from his arms and returning to her place at the railing that surrounded the balcony before continuing. "Besides, I knew you would know where to find me."
"Still uneasy in there?" He chastised, gesturing back to the doorway.
Nodding, she replied, "Bad memories, I suppose. Funny, isnít it? No matter what we do to please them our accomplishments go unnoticed, while our failures, no matter how minuscule, never go unpunished."
Moving to stand beside her, he wrapped his arm around her. "You have not gone unnoticed. Master Ilaara speaks very highly of you. You should be proud of all you have accomplished." Dropping his arm he took her hand. "Come on. I want to show you something."
They walked quietly through the temple. It was late and the corridors were empty. After months of separation both were enjoying this time together, even if little was said between them. Words were unnecessary as they had become so accustomed to each other that they could easily anticipate each otherís thoughts and emotions. They made their way to the garden at the base of one of the Templeís spires.
Upon entering the garden, Kieran smiled as Taviaís features formed a look of pure joy. A pale green glow was emanating from the Hechílat plants which were in bloom. The rare flowers only bloomed for two nights each year and were not expected for another week, but the unusually warm weather had forced them to flower early. Kieran knew that Tavia waited anxiously for their arrival each year. Smiling widely, she turned to him. "Does Afton know?"
Kieran shook his head in response, guiding her to a secluded bench beside a large fountain. Several times when they were still quite young, Afton and Tavia had met here, after having sneaked out of their rooms, just to see the Hechílat. They had been caught each time and punished accordingly. Tavia had confessed to him that seeing the strange flowers had been worth being given extra lessons or being sent to her room.
Once seated, he reached out with his hand to caress her cheek lightly, looking deeply into her eyes. In the dim light they appeared even paler than usual and her hair even darker. The contrast was striking. Many times they had spoken of marrying once she was knighted, and later of children. He hoped they would have her eyes. He traced her jawline with his thumb before moving his hand around to the base of her neck. He pulled her close to him until his lips touched hers, gently at first, then more deeply as she leaned into his embrace.
Snaking her arms around his neck, Tavia pulled him close to her until their bodies were pressed together. She parted her lips, allowing her tongue to explore his mouth. The scent and taste of him was intoxicating, causing a soft moan to escape her. Kieran pulled his mouth from hers, moving his lips lightly over her skin toward her neck. He nipped lightly, sending a wave of arousal to course through her that he felt as clearly as she.
Finding her ear he flicked his tongue out to tease her lobe before whispering, "I love you."
His hands continued their exploration of her, moving down her shoulder before cupping her breast. Gently rubbing her nipple with his thumb he felt it grow taut through the thin fabric of her robe. He wanted her, wanted to show her physically how he felt for her, wanted to feel her bare skin pressed against his. But he knew he would have to calm his desires. They could not risk being found here. Tavia had so much still ahead of her and he did not want to be responsible for compromising that.
A presence behind them prompted them to disentangle themselves from each other.
"Master Windu," Tavia said quickly jumping to her feet. She inclined her head to him respectfully, suddenly feeling like the four year old girl from so many years before, who had been caught truant from her lessons.
"Young Tavia, you should be in your quarters," he chastised. "You are to face the trials and your mind needs to be there, not...elsewhere."
"Yes, Master," she said softly, hurrying off to do his bidding without a parting word to Kieran.
Once she was gone, Mace moved to sit next to Kieran, a smile crossing his face.
"What is it, Master?" Kieran asked.
"Tavia. She has come a long way from the rebellious child she once was. There was a time..."
Kieran nodded, knowing the Jedi Master did not need to continue his last statement. He knew the concerns many had had regarding Taviaís future, but knew that they had been all but erased. When she had first been brought to Coruscant she was severely under-size and malnourished. Even the healers believed she was destined to remain far smaller than her peers. The effects of her hard beginnings were still evident, almost twenty-four years later, in her pale complexion and slight build. Those that did not know her often mistook her frail appearance for a sign of sickness. It was her small size that worried Kieran. Though he knew that she was intelligent enough to be able to think her way out of any situation she could not fight her way out of, he still harbored concern for her. He couldnít bear the thought of losing her.
He mentally admonished himself. He was a Jedi and both he and Tavia had accepted the risks when they began their relationship. He knew she would not be pleased if she knew that he constantly worried about her whenever they were separated. Forcing himself to be confident in her abilities he brushed his fears aside. He quickly excused himself and headed back to his quarters, setting his mind on the meeting ahead of him the following morning and determined to enjoy the coming time he had with Tavia.
There was nothing she could do.
Helpless, she watched the entire nightmare play out before her, unable to stop the pain that she knew was to come. She had no body to call into action, no voice to scream out a warning Ė she saw it all, as always, through his eyes. She watched in childlike terror as the death scene was played out: the hero falling to his knees, noble and dignified, even in the end; the villain, so arrogant and proud, smiling over his victory. It was the scream that tore at her the worst, though. For it tore not from the lungs but from the heart. Wrenching, disbelieving, terrified and furious. She felt the scream as if it were her own, understood it and all of itís pain. She had lived this scene before, if only in her dreams, and now she was being forced to live it again. But this time was different. This time there was a chance to fight back.
And fight back he did.
Each lunge and parry was beautiful and terrifying to behold. There was fury behind the madness but there was also a new sense of purpose, a renewed sense of being. Suddenly, he understood where his place in the Force was, and how the living Force reacted around him. She watched the transformation in wonder, reveled in his ability to vanquish his foe. And when the moment came for Master to leave Padawan --
-- It is too late --
-- No --
The pain tore at her with a fresh intensity. It never should have happened like this. It never should have happened at all.
-- The boy is the Chosen One. Train him Ė
Afton Ariia jolted out of her dream, her heart racing. It was the fifth time in as many weeks that she had dreamed it and the emotions were no less real than they had been six months ago when she had "seen" the events as they had taken place.
She swung her legs over the cot, her bare feet touching against the cold marble floor, and sat silently for a moment, allowing her heartbeat to slow. She had just started the "Trials" when it had happened, suffering through her own battles when she had suddenly, instantly, been transported through the Force to witness the death of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn through his Padawanís eyes. It was a memory she would never tear from her mind. Though she had not truly been there, she had felt the raw emotions as strongly as if she herself had lived it. It had been the first time in years that Afton had been reminded how closely she and her childhood sweetheart, Obi-Wan Kenobi, had been connected through the Force. The discovery had been more than disconcerting at the time.
Afton stood and padded across the floor to the washroom. She spent the next few moments splashing her face with cool water, hoping to make any residual memories of the recent dream fade away. She knew she would not sleep anymore that night Ė she could never sleep after witnessing Qui-Gonís death Ė and she had to be alert with the approaching dawn. One never wanted to be half-asleep when facing the Council.
After drying her face, Afton caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and found herself regarding the reflection that stared back at her. Some would call hers an arresting face, with large, green eyes that were sometimes too bright, a small, slightly turned-up nose that hinted at a stubborn nature, full lips and well-sculpted bones. But all Afton saw were the eyes, eyes that often saw too much, more than any one person should be forced to see. Master Yoda had once called it a great gift. Afton referred to it as the tragedy that was her life. To look into her eyes was to see someone three times her age. She knew of wars past that not even Yoda had been alive to witness; she had glimpsed visions of the future. Sometimes the desire to gouge those eyes out became almost unbearable, even though she knew she lived the dreams in her mind. They would never end. At least, not until her death.
"Morbid thoughts do not become you," Afton muttered to herself, moving away from the mirror and returning to her room. She wandered over to the window, which stretched from ceiling to floor, offering an expansive view of the city-planet of Coruscant. The sun had not yet begun to rise but it mattered little Ė so many lights shone from both buildings and ships that littered the skies that it created an artificial day. Pressing her palms to the window, Afton leaned forward, her nose flattening against the glass, a position she had often taken as a child. So many beings going so many places, she thought in wonder. I am so insignificant in the scheme of things, and yet the Force has chosen to place me in a position of importance. The thought was a daunting one and Afton quickly pushed it aside. She always became morose when it came time to stand before the Council Ė they intimidated her that much. She always felt like a child again when she stood within the Circle, she even found herself waiting for Master Yoda to send her to her room to think over her transgressions. A soft smile touched her face at the thought. Things had been so much simpler when she had been a student in the Temple.
Out of habit, Afton reached up to touch her Padawan braid, only to realize with her hand in midair that she no longer had one. Without it, Afton felt as if the attachment to her Master, Limo Sierra, was gone. She felt vulnerable, naked. It was a difficult thing, to accept the fact that she was now a Jedi Knight, that she had passed the tests, proven her ability and worth to carry the title of Knight of the Jedi Order. Master Limo had been so proud of her, but Afton still worried that she could somehow let her down. Let them all down. She had just sacrificed so muchÖ
The pain Obi-Wan felt as he watched his Master murdered rushed through Afton anew. She wished she could have been there for him, helped him through his anguish. He may not have accepted it, would have pushed her away, but she could have tried. And the guiltÖthe guilt wracked her still. Though Master Limo had assured her time and again that there was nothing she could have done, Afton still felt certain she could have prevented the events that took place on Naboo. After all, she had known the face. She had seen it, had dreamed the nightmare long before it had become a reality. Perhaps they could have kept an eye out for such a being. Perhaps, if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had been warned of him beforehand, been warned that Afton had witnessed Obi-Wanís death at his hands, perhaps they would have been more cautious.
Afton realized she could spend a lifetime on "what might have been" but still found herself playing the "what ifís?" over in her mind time and again. When Master Limo had told the Council of Aftonís vision, they had told her she had acted accordingly and that there was nothing more to worry about. Her mysterious attacker had most likely simply been a vision from the midi-chlorians telling her that she must rethink the course of her life. After Qui-Gonís death, she had hurried back to the Jedi Temple to stand before the Council and question their guidance. All she had received in return was another cryptic reply: "Hard to see, the Darkside is." If Afton questioned her decisions it was simply because she was never given concrete replies. At least, nothing to build on.
The sun was slowly beginning to rise in the Coruscant sky and Afton set about preparing herself to meet with the Council. She dressed quickly in cream colored trousers, tunic and vest that were colored with a slight green cast that matched her eyes and soft brown kid boots that molded to her feet and calves. She preferred the soft leather to the customary boots that many of her peers wore, for it allowed her to move more easily through the gymnastics required of a Jedi, one of her stronger skills. Afton then pulled her hair, a tangled mass of dark red curls, back in a loose ponytail, missing for a moment the simple days of the Padawan close-cropped cut. More than once, she wondered what had prompted her to grow her hair out but always put off getting it cut as a luxury she did not have time for. She quickly slipped into her robe, a coarse wool blend in a warm brown, and headed out the door.
The students were already up and about, moving through the halls to their classes and training sessions. They all took the time to smile at and greet her, each face eager to please, their gazes all saying one thing: "I am available as a Padawan." She smiled secretly, knowing what they were going through but not wanting to break their hearts by admitting she had just left Padawan status herself. She truly did not feel ready to be a Master. Afton could empathize with their plight though. The first time she had met Master Limo out in the garden, her favorite place at the Jedi Temple, she had smiled her sweetest and done everything short of begging to get the Jedi to notice her. She had been only six at the time but immediately knew that she belonged beside the dignified Jedi Knight. Three years later, Master Limo had appeared again, and Afton had spent four full hours showing off her fighting skills. All to no avail. The Jedi had left without a word. It was not until a year later that the Jedi Knight, Limo Sierra, returned, a year that was full of pain and heartbreak for Afton when her best friend, Obi-Wan Kenobi, had been sent off to the Agricultural Corps. When Master Limo had come to her, saying that she wished Afton to become her Padawan, it was all that the young student could do not to leap straight into her arms. A secret smile crossed her face at the memory. Poor Master Limo probably chose Afton just to get her to leave her alone.
Her path to the Council took Afton out to the garden where she spent a few extra moments reliving childhood memories. She watched as the Hechílat blooms slowly closed before her eyes and the rising sun, feeling slightly deprived that she had missed out on their beauty. Such was the fate of the procrastinator, she thought. Her walk took her past the fountain where she stopped to swirl her fingers around in the cool waters before finally forcing herself to move on, into the main corridor.
Her mind was so preoccupied with the coming meeting that she did not sense her friendís presence until Tavia reached out and touched her arm lightly. "Afton?í
Afton turned and blinked at the dark-haired woman for a moment, recognition not immediately setting in. Then she smiled brightly. "Tavia?"
The two laughed and hugged one another instantly, the reunion of over nine years quickly banishing any thought of the coming appearance before the Council.
"I didnít know you were going to be here!" Afton exclaimed.
Tavia rolled her eyes, laughing. "Still have your head in the clouds, I see?" She shook her head. "I have known since yesterday that you were here."
"Why didnít you come find me?"
"Well, Kieran is here as well."
Afton raised an eyebrow at that. "You are still together? I am so happy for you! I am surprised the Council hasnít seen fit toÖintervene."
"Not that they have made it easy for us," Tavia replied with a sigh. She then whispered conspiratorially, "Only, now Yoda knows that sending us to bed without supper is more like dessert."
The two women laughed uproariously at that, drawing looks from those passing nearby. They both affected guilty expressions and began moving once more along the corridor as the conversation continued.
"So why are you here?" Afton asked curiously. The last she had heard, Tavia was off on some secret mission with Master Ilaara on the Outer Rim.
"I suppose for the same reason as you Ė some meeting this morning with the Council."
Afton suppressed a shudder. "Just like old times, eh? I wonder what they could possibly want with both of us?"
"And Kieran," Tavia added helpfully.
"Kieran has been called before them as well?" Now Aftonís imagination really began to take off. It made little sense why the three of them would be called together for the same meeting. Kieran, who had been a Jedi a little over two years, Afton who had barely reached her first anniversary as a Knight and Tavia who was still a Padawan. She frowned. One never knew what to expect from the Council.
"Do you think they just sit around all day wondering what they can do to confuse us next?" Tavia questioned as if reading Aftonís thoughts.
The redhead laughed. "I can see Master Yoda now," she cleared her throat, launching into a perfect imitation of the revered Master, "Confuse them, we must. Expect it of us, they do. All is lost, should they find out."
"Stop!" Tavia begged, tears forming from her laughter. "Oh, I can just picture it!"
Both women jumped at Master Winduís gruff voice and turned only to find Kieran standing behind them, doing his best to stifle the laughter.
"That wasnít funny," Tavia muttered, slamming a fist a little less-than-playfully into his stomach.
The Jedi doubled over, chuckling. "It was worth it Ė just to see your faces!" He bowed to Afton. "Afton Ariia, congratulations on your Knighthood."
Afton just shook her head. "How does she put up with you?"
"My good looks," Kieran replied quickly with a big smile. He winked a dark blue eye at Tavia who only grunted and continued on her way toward the Council chambers.
Afton smiled as she watched Kieran hurry off to catch up to her friend. It was strange to see Tavia so close to someone. When they had been children, Tavia had often kept to herself, barely even opening up enough to pull some of the pranks she and Afton had gotten into. The instructors had worried about her because she was so withdrawn and independent. Even Afton had drifted away from her, deciding that the little dark-haired girl was too quiet for her tastes. It was during a Padawan Training Sim when Afton was seventeen that she and Tavia had the chance to reacquaint themselves. Tavia and Kieran had just barely gotten to know one another, but the change in her was already remarkable. The two girls had grown close quickly, and they, along with Kieran and Obi-Wan, had spent the entire two weeks never very far from one another. She remembered the "mission" that they had been sent on as a part of the training. The entire three days spent on Dantooine had been a comedy of errors for all four of them. Somehow, though, they had succeeded in being the first team to successfully complete the task. Even Master Yoda had wondered aloud how they had accomplished that feat.
"Afton!" Tavia shouted from down the hall. "Are you coming? Or shall I tell Master Yoda you had "more important" things to doÖlike wash your hair?"
Afton laughed, waving her friend on and headed that way. She reminded herself to stop dwelling on the past; it was the present, the here and now that mattered. All that her continued reveries regarding the past did was bring up memories that were better left forgotten. Certainly, she missed Obi-Wan beyond what she would care to admit, but it was also very likely that she would never see him again. So why continue to dwell on it?
Tavia and Kieran were holding the lift when Afton finally reached them. Her friend flashed her an exasperated look before pushing the button and they began their ascent to the Council Chambers. Kieran began humming a popular tune cheerily, flashing a smile when both women focused a glare on him.
"You two look as if you are about to attend your own funeral," he commented chattily between notes.
"We may soon be attending yours," Tavia snapped playfully.
Afton just shook her head, already attempting to focus her mind on the coming meeting. She practiced a few calming techniques, brought her mind back to the present, centering on the living Force around her as the doors opened to the chambers.
And every bit of focusing disappeared within seconds. There, in the center of the room, stood Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Aftonís feet became rooted to the floor. She hardly noticed as Tavia and Kieran moved around her to exit the lift and enter the chambers. She could actually hear her heart thudding in her chest and wondered if it might not just burst through the bone. He was staring back at her with a look that said he was just as surprised to see her as she was to see him.
"Afton, would you be so kind as to join us?" Master Winduís voice rang out across the chamber, his tone indicating that he was less than impressed by her tardiness.
Somehow, through no strength of her own, Afton exited the lift and moved to join the others in the center of the circle. She whispered a quick apology to the Council members, her gaze focused on the floor. Somehow, Tavia and Kieran had maneuvered around her, effectively leaving her standing next to Obi-Wan. Afton discovered herself standing stiffly, unmoving, and even then she was consciously aware of the sleeve of her robes touching that of Obi-Wanís. His presence wrapped around her like a blanket, threatening to suffocate her as itís strength mingled with her anxiety. She could barely pay attention to Master Windu as he spoke.
"I am certain you are all wondering what it is you are doing here. During your training, the four of you participated in a simulation in which you proved yourselves highly successful as a team. Rarely is the need for a team necessary among the Order, but due to recent circumstances we feel that teams might be best for future endeavors. The four of you form our trial team."
"Master," Kieran was the first to speak, voicing the concerns of the four who stood before them. "What circumstances are you referring to that could possibly lead to Jedi teams? We are taught to work alone. It is less conspicuous among others."
The Council members glanced at one another for the next few moments, silently communicating as to how much information they should reveal. It was Master Yoda who finally spoke. "Dangerous has it become, a Jedi to be."
Master Ki Ai Mundi picked up from there. "Ever since Master Qui-Gonís death, seven other Jedi have given their lives to the Force."
Tavia stepped forward slightly. "How? Who is doing this?"
"That is a question we can not answer," Master Windu answered simply.
It was not enough for Obi-Wan who still had memories of the Sith Warrior he had encountered, the vision of his Master dying in his arms. "Were these provoked attacks? Were the Sith involved?"
"There have been no reported sightings of any Sith since the incident at Naboo," Master Mundi replied. "Nor any indication that these Jedi were killed by Sith. There is evidence that there have been a few bounty hunters involved, as well as paid assassins."
"Someone is paying for the extermination of the Jedi," Afton said softly, uncertain why she had decided to speak this aloud or how she knew it. She felt the Councilís eyes on her, their minds probing her thoughts. Stubbornly, she refused to allow them to know what she was feeling, building up a quick wall.
Master Windu leaned forward, staring at her intently, a frown marring his smooth brow. "Afton, have you had any other visions since you first dreamed of the mysterious Sith that killed Master Qui-Gon?"
Afton sucked in a sharp breath, taken aback by the Masterís casual mention of the secret she had worked so hard to keep from Obi-Wan. She felt his gaze turn to her, questioning, demanding. Even Tavia and Kieran had now turned to regard her, all eyes watching her, waiting for answers she did not know how to give.
"Afton," Yoda chided. "A question Master Windu has asked of you."
"IÖ" She was uncertain how to answer. Certainly, she had visions. She lived with them on a daily basis. But nothing had been concrete, most she hardly remembered. "No, Master. Nothing that has alerted me to any more Sith."
The Jedi Master leaned back, seeming to accept her answer.
"Because of these recent events," Ki Ai Mundi continued. "We felt it best to approach this latest incident with caution. If this team concept works well, we will begin initiating it amongst the Order until the danger can be discovered and eliminated."
"What is the mission, Master?" Kieran questioned.
"One of the most celebrated and honored architects of Alderaan is missing. It is believed by many that he has been abducted. You will go to Alderaan and learn what you can so that you may restore this great personage to his family."
"Master, if I may?" Obi-Wan stepped forward to speak. Afton was quick to note the strain in his voice, as if it were difficult for him to speak calmly.
"Obi-Wan, a question have you?" Yoda acknowledged him.
"Yes, Master. Are you certain this is a good idea? That was years ago when we participated in the simulation. Things have changed." He glanced back at Afton, his eyes burrowing into her. "We have changed." He returned his gaze to the tiny Master seated before him.
"Understand your anxiety, we do, Obi-Wan," Yoda replied. "See through you we do."
The Jedi raised his chin defiantly, as if preparing to argue.
"The decision has been made," Master Windu commented, his tone implying it was the end of the discussion.
But Obi-Wan was not to be deterred. "What of Anakin? He is Ė "
"Skywalker is to remain here," Mace Windu answered, focusing a stern gaze on the Jedi. "The Council will use the time to review his progress."
"Your transport is to leave in four standard hours," Master Mundi informed them, allowing no room for argument or the discussion to continue. "You will go to Alderaan, learn what you can and continue the search for this scientist."
"Watch your backs," Master Windu added. "Look out for each other, and keep your eyes open. May the Force be with you."
The four Jedi bowed to the Council and quietly retreated from the room to the lift. It was a silent, tense trip. Afton had squeezed herself into the furthest corner from Obi-Wan, refusing to make eye contact with him. His emotions were palpable, his thoughts centered on her. More than once she found Tavia and Kieran gazing at her with sympathetic expressions. It made her want to scream. They did not understand. They could not comprehend how difficult this was going to be. When the lift finally reached the main floor, Afton attempted a quick exit through the doors but Obi-Wan reached out and grabbed her arm before she could escape. He pulled her around to face him, his expression tight.
"You knew? You knew of the Sith killing Qui-Gon?"
Afton was quickly shaking her head in denial, trying unsuccessfully to wrench her arm from his grasp. "No. No, I never knew there was a danger to Qui-Gon."
"Master Windu said Ė "
"I saw only a mysterious and dangerous creature," Afton defended, turning away from Obi-Wanís accusing blue-grey eyes.
"How did you know he was dangerous? Why did you report it to the Council if you knew so little about him, Afton?" Obi-Wan demanded his voice raising.
She finally succeeded in pulling loose from his grasp, stumbling a few feet back from him. "You donít understand."
"Then make me understand." He hated this. Seeing her again had been bad enough, but now that the subject of his Masterís death had been brought up, that she had somehow known it was coming, he could not let it go. She was so incredibly beautiful, seemed to become more so as age and wisdom and character settled over her. Her bright green eyes were shining with unshed tears. He was upsetting her, hurting her. It was time to turn the tables, he thought. But unlike he, this time she is no innocent. "Afton?" He prompted.
"It was a dream," she began. "I had it over and over again. He was attackingÖI was battling him. Master Limo told me to inform the Council because the dreams were upsetting me so."
"How long ago, Afton?"
She was silent, worrying her lower lip, glancing around as if searching for an escape.
Obi-Wanís fists clenched at his sides.
Afton took a deep breath, barely whispered, "Seven years."
Silence. An exhaled breath.
"Seven years?" Obi-Wan repeated, his voice deceptively soft. "You knew of him seven years ago? Did you know when we last saw you, Afton? Did you know then?"
She simply nodded, unable to speak.
Betrayal such as Obi-Wan had never before felt washed over him. He could not believe he had ever considered throwing away his future as a Jedi for this woman. He found himself wondering how many times she had deceived him in the lifetime they had known one another.
"Why didnít you tell me?" He found himself grasping at straws, looking for any excuse to clear her of any purposeful wrongdoing.
"You never would have listened to me," came the reply.
It was a feeble excuse at best. "What about Qui-Gon?" He demanded. "He would have listened to you. He always listened to you."
Afton had no answer for him. She remembered Master Limo telling her that Qui-Gonís knowing of some mysterious attacker would not have made a difference. The Force did not work that way. It had been Qui-Gonís destiny to die on Naboo, for whatever reason, whether he had known of a danger or not. It was difficult to accept, but perhaps Master Limo was right. Who was to say that if she had known the date and time of Qui-Gonís death, she could have done anything to prevent it?
Obi-Wan took a step toward her, his gaze holding hers. "All this timeÖall this time I blamed myself for not getting to him in time, not being able to make it through the force-field, not being able to help him. And all this time it was youÖ"
"What are you talking about?" Aftonís frustration was mounting.
"Itís your fault," Obi-Wan replied steadily. "You killed Qui-Gon, just as sure as if you had been holding the weapon yourself."
Aftonís head snapped back as if she had been slapped. The accusation hung between them, widening the already enormous gap that existed between two people who had loved one another so much.
"That isnít fair," she whispered, her voice catching.
Obi-Wan stared at her for a moment longer, fighting the urge to apologize, fighting the urge to reach out and pull her into his arms. He forced the image of Qui-Gonís death into his mind to focus, to keep from falling under her magic.
"No, it isnít, is it?" He replied, then turned and stalked off down the corridor.
A long, brittle silence followed. Tavia remained silent, watching her friend closely as she quickly regained control of her emotions. She regretted that she and Kieran had witnessed the scene that had just taken place, but there was nothing they could have done. It was out now, and they all had to deal with it somehow, or the mission was bound to fail. Quietly, Tavia moved over to Afton, reaching out to place a hand on her shoulder.
"Not now, Tavia!" Afton whirled around, her eyes still glistening with tears she somehow held in check. "Not now!"
Afton pulled away from Taviaís hand and hurried off in the opposite direction from Obi-Wan, disappearing around the corner.
Tavia was at a loss for where to go next. In three and a half-hours they had to leave for Alderaan. What would happen then? They had to be focused, especially if the Councilís warnings were true.
Tavia did not move as Kieran sidled up next to her, folding his arms across his chest and rocking back on his heels. He glanced over at her for a moment, waiting to see if she had anything to say. When she did not speak, he decided it was up to him to shed some light on the current situation.
"Well, I think that went rather well, donít you?"
All he received in reply was a sharp elbow jab in the side.
Obi-Wan left the Jedi Temple, knowing he needed to walk a bit and calm himself before he spoke with Anakin about the fact that the Council wanted to keep him there for observation. Why was it that trouble always seemed to come in droves? First the Council takes his Padawan from him, behaving as if his training was not sufficient, then they proceed to turn his world upside down by bringing Afton back into it.
That was not the worst of it though. Seeing Afton again he could have dealt with, even being sent on a mission with her would have been acceptable. But to learn that she could have prevented the death of his Master, that she had lied to him about so many things for so long Ė that was something he could not accept. He had waited for her to deny it, but she had not. He had waited for some reasonable excuse, but there was none. How could he have been so deceived by her? Had he really not known her, at all? They had been raised in the Temple together, had spent countless hours staring up at the night sky and sharing their dreams and hopes. They had fit together like two pieces of a puzzle, knowing and understanding one another beyond concept. Or so Obi-Wan had believed. He had wanted to share their lives together, grow old together. He had made so many plansÖ
He still remembered with frightening clarity the day that his illusion had been shattered. Afton had asked him to meet her in the garden that morning and he had headed out there with the intent of asking her to marry him, to make certain they were never again separated. He had it all planned out. Certainly the Council and their Masters would be upset, but they would eventually understand that what they did was right. The decision would be accepted and he and Afton would never have to be apart again.
When Obi-Wan entered the garden, he sensed her immediately. Her presence was like a balm to his soul. Everything seemed right when she was near, the universe around him was clearer. She stood with her back to him, the morning sun glinting off her hair, causing it to shine like fire. He found himself wondering what it would look like long, how it would feel to wrap his hands in it, to bury his head in the curls. Afton turned to him as he approached, a tremulous smile on her face.
"Good morning, Padawan Afton," he teased, leaning forward to kiss her swiftly. "I was hoping to see you at breakfast."
She moved away from his reach, her hands twisting nervously in her cloak. It was a cool morning, and a strong breeze blasted through the city, slapping her braid into her cheek.
"I had things to doÖto prepare for."
Obi-Wan was no fool. He sensed her unease, her agitation immediately. He knew there was something wrong, something she worried about speaking with him about. "What is wrong?" He moved over to her, lifting her chin so that their eyes met. Her normally bright green eyes were clouded. "You are upset, I sense that much. But your eyes Ė I have never seen that expression before, Afton. Tell me, so that I can help you."
"Master Limo and I are leaving shortly for another assignment."
Obi-Wan frowned. It was something they were used to, this separation. And it always came quickly, without warning. He did not see how this could upset her. "I donít see how that is something to be upset over, Afton. We are used to having only a short time together." He smiled then, and raised a brow at her. "But, that wonít have to happen much longer."
She turned her gaze back to him, her brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
He walked away from her then, wondering how best to say what he wanted, moving over to a nearby bench where he sat down. Finally, he simply decided to say it, without dancing around the subject. He grinned up at her, his heart about to burst with excitement, happiness. It would finally happen! "I have decided that I hate being parted from you so much, Afton. So, I believe that we should be joined in marriage."
She was silent, blinked. "Marriage? Obi-Wan, we are but Padawans. We have years of training ahead of us. Master Limo and Master Qui-Gon would never allow it. Let alone the Council."
Obi-Wan waved a hand in dismissal. "They would have to." He bounced back up on his feet, as if too excited to stay in one place for long. He approached her again, gripping her shoulders, taking any excuse to be near her, touch her. His gaze locked onto hers. "I love you, Afton Ariia, and I am not about to let you out of my site much longer. If the Masters refuse to allow us to join, well, then weíll leave the Order." He did not really mean it, but the words had come out just the same.
She stepped back out of his grasp, as if stung. "Obi-Wan, we are to be Jedi Knights!"
He shook his head, not willing to take his words back now that they were spoken. "I know, but if that comes in the way of my love for youÖ" He shrugged. "They donít rule our lives, Afton. They canít." He meant it.
"The Force does," she whispered. "Being a Jedi has always meant everything to us."
"And we have always meant everything to each other," he pointed out.
She turned away from him.
"Afton?" He called out to her, anxiety beginning to shoot through him.
"No," her voice was barely a whisper.
He moved toward her, thinking perhaps he had misheard her. "Afton Ė"
She turned back to him, her gaze having difficulty meeting his. "Obi-Wan, I am getting on that transport in one hour and I am going to Corellia with Master Limo."
He refused to listen to what he knew she was about to say. He shook his head. "After that Ė"
She inhaled, her eyes growing cold. "There is no Ďafter thatí, Obi-Wan. Not for us."
"I donít understand," he replied, still denying her words, still denying the sudden wall that appeared between them.
"IÖI never want to see you again, Obi-Wan."
A heavy silence hung between them. Obi-Wan felt his mind grow blank, he did not know what to do, did not understand what was happening. An enormous chasm seemed to have appeared before him, threatening to pull him in. The darkness, the loneliness pulled at him, beckoned him. When Afton started to move away, he lunged after her, grabbed hold of her.
"You canít mean this," he demanded. "You love me!"
"I want to be a Jedi," she whispered her reply, meeting his gaze steadily "You will be a Jedi," Obi-Wan assured her. "We both will. Together."
She shook her head, trying to pull out of his grasp, but he only tightened his hold, afraid to let her go. "You donít understand, Obi-Wan. You canít understand."
"Then explain it to me!" He demanded, the chasm widening before him. Everything he had ever known was suddenly, inexplicably slipping away.
"Our focus isnít on the Force, Obi-Wan," she replied coldly. "Itís on each other. We will never understand the living Force, never understand the galaxy around us if we cannot focus."
"I love you," Obi-Wan said softly, his heart in his words. He felt the tears hovering at the back of his eyes. He held them back, not wishing to grant her that victory. She was almost out of his grasp now, there was little left for him to hold onto. "You love me as well. I donít see how you can walk away from that."
She pried his fingers loose from her arm, her expression hardening even further. She was no longer the girl he had come to love. Before him, Afton became a stranger. "Becoming a Jedi means more to me than you, Obi-Wan Kenobi."
The pain tore at him. He held on to it, memorized it. He would never allow himself to forget it.
"Someday, when this day is forgotten, it will mean more to you as well."
He shook his head slowly at that, his gaze still disbelieving. He could not let it end so easily. "Youíre wrong. You can stand there and act as noble as you wish, Afton, but you can not convince me that you do not love me."
"I donít love you, Obi-Wan." Her voice was steady, convincing, cold.
Obi-Wan felt himself fall into the void. Around him there was only darkness, emptiness. He turned away from her, unable to stare at the stranger before him any longer, unable to reconcile that this was the same person he had grown up with, that he had loved so fiercely. He blamed himself for this, blamed himself for opening to someone so completely. And he blamed her for being so deceitful.
When he turned back to her, he had regained his composure. His expression blank, unreadable. He struggled to hide the disappointment, the despair. "I never would have thought you so ambitious," he whispered under his breath.
She raised her chin defiantly. "I mean to be a Jedi someday. You will not be the hindrance that keeps me from my goal."
The words were cruel, effective. Obi-Wan felt his heart shatter.
"I curse the day I ever fell in love with you," he snapped, turning quickly on his heel and headed off toward the Temple. With every footstep he waited to hear her call out to him, hoped to hear her say it was all a mistake, that she loved him, that they would always be together. But the words never came. Finally, unable to stand the waiting, Obi-Wan turned to go back to her. But the space where she had stood was already empty
By the time Obi-Wan returned his thoughts to the present, he discovered he had wandered further from the Temple than he had planned. It would take him a good half hour to get back, then time spent finding Anakin, then he had to attempt to get to the transport on time. He would go, there was no arguing that. What would come of it, he did not know. His thoughts returned to Aftonís mention of her recurring dream. Why had she been so certain he would not have listened to her? He had grown up knowing of her innate ability to see into the future and the past through her dreams. What could have possibly caused her to think he would not have listened?
Suddenly, Obi-Wan came to a halt, his brow turning to a frown. By Aftonís admission, she knew of the dream the last time they had seen one another, when she had pushed him away. Was there a connection? Somehow, the correlation fit. He remembered Qui-Gonís words to him only a few years ago, telling him that perhaps Afton hurt as well. Had Qui-Gon known what Afton was going to do? Had she spoken of it to him? Obi-Wan found himself doubting the beliefs he had held onto for so long. It made sense to him that the Afton he knew would have done anything to protect him Ė even if it meant hurting them both in the process. But what had she seen that had frightened her so? What was it that had convinced her they would be better off apart?
So centered on his thoughts was Obi-Wan that he did not sense the danger that approached him until it was too late. A heavy object crashed into him from behind, knocking him hard enough that he staggered off the sidewalk into an alley. He had his lightsaber out and activated before he had fully regained his footing but could barely recover before another unseen object slammed into his shoulder. He forced himself to focus, felt a strange ripple in the Force and turned just in time to deflect a piece of scrap metal that flew out of the darkness at him. The barrage began to pick up. Objects tore off the building walls, flew out of the trash that lined the alley and began attacking him full force. At first he fought it off but soon began to tire under the onslaught, unable to stop smaller, sharper missiles from making contact with his head. He was quickly becoming battered and bloody, his strength weakening, when a strong Force-created wind knocked him from his feet. He still had no idea where his assailant was, saw and felt no one hiding anywhere within the vicinity, as he attempted to climb to his feet. Another piece of metal slammed into him from behind, knocking the air from him, causing darkness to dance before his eyes. Objects from every direction began pelting him relentlessly until he finally succumbed to unconsciousness.
After the meeting with the council, Tavia hurried back to her room to pack. Her emotions ranged from excitement to self-doubt. Never had she gone on a mission without Master Ilaara. She was still a Padawan and still had uncertainties in her abilities. She was, however, grateful for the time the mission would allow for her and Kieran to spend together. Much of their relationship had been spent under that watchful eye of the Council and Masters Ilaara and Antaro. They viewed the couple's relationship with mixed feelings. True, they credited Kieran with helping Tavia to realize her true potential but they also saw it as a hindrance, something that may distract the couple or cause them to act unwisely at a crucial moment. Tavia disagreed with them on the latter. In her bond with Kieran, she found a strength that she doubted she would have without him. He had never doubted her and had always encouraged her to do what she thought was right even if it was in conflict with the wishes of the Council. She never actually disobeyed them, but she had become very adept at bending the rules to suit her needs.
A gentle knock at the door pulled her attention away from her preparations.
"Come," she called out.
The door opened and Ilaara Ta'ru stepped into the room. The tall woman stood with an almost regal air, her delicate features hinting at wisdom gleaned from years of service in the order. Her long blonde, almost white, hair was allowed to cascade about her shoulders highlighting her ice blue eyes. Tavia suspected the council would not approve of Ilaara's casual appearance and knew that that was her Master's intention.
"I sensed your uneasiness, Tavia," Ilaara said, not being one to dance around an issue.
Tavia smiled at the Jedi. She never hid anything from Ilaara and admitted that she would be unable to even if she wanted to. When Tavia had been found by Ilaara and her Master Shanya, the two had bonded instantly and inexplicably. Neither could explain the kinship they shared which only strengthened after Ilaara chose Tavia as her Padawan. It is expected for Master and Apprentice to share a deep bond but this went beyond even that.
"Do you question the wisdom of the council?" Ilaara asked.
"No, Master," Tavia replied emphatically. "It is my own abilities that I question."
"And in doing so are you not questioning their wisdom in sending you to Alderaan?" Before Tavia could respond she continued. "You are no longer the quiet, rebellious young girl you once were. You have proven your abilities to everyone...except yourself. We are proud of you Tavia. You need to learn to be proud of yourself."
"Yes, Master." Tavia inclined her head slightly before zipping up her satchel.
Opening the door Ilaara said, "You had better be going. You would not do well to miss your transport. And may the force be with you."
Tavia nodded, gathering up her belongings and heading out the door. She wound her way through the corridors of the temple, trying to focus her mind on the mission. The Council had seen fit to put their trust in her and she was determined to prove that their trust had not been misplaced.
Rounding a corner Tavia found Afton bent over, stuffing something into her already over-stuffed bag. Tavia mentally shook her head at her friend's sense of organization, or lack there of.
Coming to a stop behind Afton, Tavia said, "You would have more success if you folded your things instead of just cramming them in."
"Very funny, Tavia," The young Jedi laughed without humor. "Not everyone can be as organized as you."
"Do you need some help?" Tavia offered, kneeling down beside her friend.
Afton let out a grunt as the zipper she had been fighting with finally closed. She flashed her friend a playful smile. "See, perfect."
Tavia laughed at her friend's stubbornness, then stood, taking a moment to straighten her robes. As Afton joined her, she noticed the young woman appeared preoccupied. "Something wrong?" she asked, her tone suddenly serious.
Afton's brow furrowed slightly. "I don't know. I have this odd feeling."
"Something to do with Obi-Wan?" Tavia suggested, assuming her friend's unease was merely a remnant of her confrontation with the young Jedi.
"I don't know. It's probably nothing." The young woman tried to brush the feeling aside but a shadow of it remained, nagging at her, urging her to pick up the pace as they made their way to the landing pad. Coming to the top of the steps, Afton felt her heart drop. Kieran stood waiting for them, but Obi-Wan was no where to be seen.
"Where is he?" she demanded of Kieran, her concern for him far outweighing any desire to hide her feelings for him.
The handsome man shrugged. "I assumed he was with the two of you."
Tavia was about to suggest they return to the temple to search for him when she noticed a shadow fall over Afton's features. She seemed to turn inward, as if something were playing out vividly in her thoughts.
In her mind, Afton was overcome with a wave a fear and confusion. A seemingly endless darkness had engulfed her mind, filling her every sense with an immense pain.
"Afton!" Tavia said firmly.
The Jedi blinked, trying to rid her mind of the horrid sensations. Her face still a mask of unease, she said, "We have to go after him." Without waiting for a response from either of them, Afton set off towards the stairs leading back to the temple.
Tavia and Kieran watched as Afton disappeared from view before turning back to each other.
"Stay here," Tavia told him moving to follow her friend.
"Wait!" Kieran said grabbing her arm. "I'll go."
Breaking free of his grasp, Tavia's features turned serious. "Stay here. Afton will need me." When it looked as if he was not going to allow her to go she softened her tone, placing her hand on his arm. "Please Kieran. I will be okay. Hold the transport, we won't be long."
Reluctantly he nodded.
Kissing him quickly she hurried off after her friend. Having developed a close relationship with Afton, it was easy for Tavia to pick up her presence as the Jedi made her way through the temple. The dark haired woman was forced to break into a run just to catch up with her friend. Once on the ground level Tavia spotted the redhead just as she was making her way out into the street.
"Afton!" she called. "Wait!"
The Jedi slowed enough to allow her friend to catch up, remaining silent as they moved into the city. It was usually not advised that they venture too far out into the lower level of Coruscant and it was immediately obvious as to why. Buildings around them, though far smaller in size to the monstrous Jedi Temple, still towered over them, allowing little light to filter down from above. What light did permeate the darkness was merely enough to cast strange shadows. Most life dwelled away from the surface. Those that called the surface home were wanderers or criminals. They passed only a handful of these people as they ventured further away from the temple. Tavia soon determined that Afton had little idea where they were going.
"Afton stop!" Tavia commanded firmly. When the redhead reluctantly complied, she continued. "Do you know where we are going? You need to focus your mind, we...."
"Tavia," Afton started, her tone full of annoyance. "If you don't want to come, go back and wait with Kieran."
"And while you wander aimlessly through these streets Obi-Wan needs help. You are of no use to anyone with your emotions raging through you. Now focus. You know him better than I, you can reach him."
The Jedi nodded in acquiescence, closing her eyes she allowed her mind to focus on the essence of Obi-Wan's being. It never failed to surprise her how close of a bond had formed between them, and she located him quickly. What she sensed in him filled her instantly with dread. His thoughts were in chaos, as if he had been severely injured. Swallowing hard against the anguish that threatened to spill from her, she slowly opened her eyes. Taking in their surroundings, she gestured down an adjacent street. "That way."
The two women made their way down the street in silence. The few people they passed cast them distrustful looks, but didn't try to interfere with them. Rounding a corner Afton pointed in the direction of a darkened alley between a large office tower and a storage house. The alley, if it could be called that, was extremely narrow, and a pile of discarded crates made maneuvering through the passage almost impossible. Making their way past, relatively unscathed, the two women arrived at a doorway. Afton immediately reached out to open it, and was not surprised that it was locked. Unclipping her lightsaber, the Jedi moved to activate it.
"Wait," Tavia said softly, placing her hand on the door. "There are a lot of them in there. We need to find another way in."
Afton nodded then looked up, surveying the building. "There," she said pointing to a broken window several meters up the side of the structure. Clambering on top of some metal containers, Afton cautiously peeked in the window before climbing through. Tavia watched the taller woman make it safely before following. Her smaller frame made the climb more difficult, as was evident from the gash to her upper arm she received from a shard of glass still in the windowpane.
"You okay?" Afton asked as she glanced at the rip in her friend's robes and the blood that had begun soaking the area around it. After the younger woman nodded they both took a moment to look around at their surroundings.
They both deduced that the building had been recently vacated. Though dust had formed on most of the fixtures it wasn't in a state of complete disrepair. The room they were in had apparently served as an office of some kind, though now it was, thankfully, deserted.
Afton quickly sensed Obi-Wan's presence on the level below. She could tell he was near death, and felt her anger swell. Burying such emotions had become almost second nature for her and it did not take long for her to calm her mind. She knew she would be of no use to anyone if she could not focus.
Tavia followed her to the door and gently pushed it open. Almost instantly they were met by a barrage of blaster fire. They easily deflected the blasts with their lightsabers, redirecting them back to their assailants. The three men fell to the floor several meters from the women. Cautiously, Tavia moved towards them while Afton stood ready to defend themselves from further attack. After inspecting the third man, Tavia looked back at Afton silently, confirming the men were in fact dead. Afton had hoped one of them would have survived in order to shed some light on the situation.
Both women came to attention as they heard voices and the sound of retreating footsteps below them. They quickly found a stairway and quietly slipped down to the ground level. Afton gasped audibly when she saw Obi-Wan bound in the center of the large storeroom. Without thought she ran over to him, dropping to her knees beside him. Tending to be more wary, Tavia took her time to survey her surroundings before squatting down beside her friend. Even in the subdued lighting she could easily see the severity of his injuries. A deep cut stretching from almost his ear to his chin marred his left cheek. His right eye was so swollen it was almost shut, and his hair and robes were heavily crusted with blood. Afton watched impatiently as her companion ran her hands gently over his chest and abdomen.
Tavia could not believe the extent of the Jedi's injuries. The plethora of cuts and bruises to his head and face were the least of her concerns. Shaking her head, Tavia lifted her eyes to meet Afton's. "He has at least three broken ribs." As a moan escaped the fallen Jedi, she continued to examine his face and noted the raspy noise he made as he breathed and a faint trail of blood coming from the corner of his mouth. "He might have a punctured lung and other internal injuries. We have to get him out of here. I don't know how long he has."
Fighting back her own pain, Afton set about lifting Obi-Wan from the floor. Once again, their actions were halted by the sound of several people approaching.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Afton commented to her friend as both rose to their feet and activated their weapons.
Perched high above the storeroom, a dark figure surveyed the events below. He cursed silently as he saw well-laid plans begin to crumble around him.
The timid voice behind him pulled him from his thoughts. He turned to regard the insignificant creature behind him. "What is it, Captain?" The emphasis the Sith placed on the other's rank clearly showed how little respect he had for him. Sidious found the man's use of a rank almost laughable. In essence he was little more than a leader for a gang of pirates.
"There are more of them. You must..."
"I will do nothing," Sidious stated plainly. "Your men will do as they were instructed."
"You can not possibly expect my men to go up against two Jedi."
"You would rather defy me?" The Sith Lord asked, a wicked smile forming on his shadowed face.
Captain Nevek stepped back in fear, shaking his head.
"Good. Now order your men to attack."
"Yes Lord Sidious." He acquiesced. Pulling out a communications device he did as he was instructed, knowing without doubt that he was sentencing his colleagues to death. When the connection was severed he turned back to the Sith, his eyes betraying his true feelings.
"Think of it this way, Captain. There will be no one with whom you will have to share your reward." He then turned back to the drama that played out below him.
He visually scanned the taller of the two Jedi, finding nothing of note about her. His eyes then settled on the smaller dark-haired woman. A sense of familiarity passed over him and he mentally traced back, trying to determine if and when he had encountered her before.
He then remembered.
Several months before there had been a failed assassination attempt on the Mallastare Senator Aks Moe. As a result, Jedi had been assigned to guard him. He remembered this one. He had met briefly with her and her Master in a corridor outside the senate chambers, yet long enough to take note of the fire that burned within her. She did well to stifle her emotions, but he was still able to detect them from her.
Now gazing down on her, he found himself pleased to see little had changed. At that moment he decided to watch her, to determine if she held any promise.
When the attack came, Tavia was surprised at the ferocity. Those involved seemed to have little regard for their own well-being, and as a result their assault was sloppy. Confident that she could defend herself and the other two Jedi, she instructed Afton to protect Obi-Wan. Currently he had a only slight chance for survival, and any further injuries would certainly cement his fate.
Without argument, Afton gently took hold of Obi-Wan under his arms and dragged him out of harm's way, careful not to aggravate his injuries further. She concentrated on Tavia, ready to help should her friend need assistance. It kept her mind occupied on something other than Obi-Wan's deteriorating condition. A soft moan from him turned her attention back. The robes covering his abdomen were now completely saturated. Without hesitation, Afton ripped a swath of cloth from the hem of her own robes and pressed it to his wounds.
"Don't you die on me," she choked, her words hitting her like a fist. She had never considered truly losing him. True, they were Jedi and the possibility was always present, but it was not one she had ever had to confront. Glancing down at his broken form she found herself now faced with it fully. A sob formed in her throat, and she swallowed hard against it. She wished he would wake, if only long enough for her to tell him how she truly felt. To tell him why she had left him so long ago, to try to make him understand that she had only been trying to protect him. If only they had more time.
No! She mentally chastised herself. He was not gone yet and she would be damned if she was going to let go of him that easily. If it took every ounce of strength she had she would see to it that he lived and that they would be together again.
Darth Sidious watched intently as the dark-haired Jedi fought off one attacker after another. Despite her small size her movements were graceful, almost fluid. He could easily sense her focus on the situation. Such was the depth of her concentration that he felt safe enough to probe her mind gently, to try and learn something, anything, that could be of use. Hers was an inquisitive mind, one that would question everything that was presented to it. She accepted nothing for what it was and as a result was known for eliciting the unfavorable attention of the Jedi Council. Her defiance he could overlook, if not use against her. He probed deeper, discarding useless information, grasping that which he deemed worthy.
As she disposed of the last of her attackers he slipped from her mind, an evil smile forming on his thin lips. He would remember this one.
He turned away, his plan for the Jedi crushed but a new plan taking it's place.
"Lord Sidious, about the reward," Nevek prompted.
The Sith sighed, having forgotten about Nevek. "All in good time, Captain."
With that he raised his hand slightly and Nevek collapsed on the floor silently, his head flopping at an odd angle on his shattered neck. Sidious stepped over the lifeless body and made his exit, unnoticed.
The last of the attackers lying motionless at her feet, Tavia ran over to her friend. She took note of Obi-Wan's pallor, attributing it to his extreme loss of blood. She did not want to alarm Afton, but she was beginning to doubt the likelihood of his survival. The reality of it hit her harder than she thought it would. Ever since the training simulation she had been sent on with Kieran, Afton and Obi Wan several years earlier, there had been a kinship between them. Though often separated by dozens of light years theirs was a friendship that she had always believed would endure. Now, glancing at Obi-Wan's battered body she was finally forced to face the possibility of losing one of them, and it frightened her. Forcing her emotions aside she reached down to help Afton lift the unconscious Jedi to his feet. She was shocked by the cold feel of his skin but quickly set about doing what had to be done.
Once out on the street determination set in and they quickened their pace. By the time they reached the temple they were almost dragging him. Tavia stayed with Afton long enough to make certain that the Healer's could help Obi-Wan. Once she knew that the Jedi had a chance to survive, and Afton had once more regained her calm, Tavia set out to look for Kieran and inform him of the latest events. If she had her way, the Council was going to hear about this. If a Jedi was not even safe to walk past the Temple doors then something was definitely wrong in the galaxy.
Tavia and Kieran stood before the Council, both wearing grim expressions. After Tavia and Afton had returned carrying Obi-Wan's battered form, Kieran had launched into a tirade over what the Council was and was not telling them. He went straight to Mace Windu and demanded that an emergency meeting be called that he and Tavia could attend, while Afton took Obi-Wan to the infirmary. Now they both stood before the circle of Masters, their question already posed: How was it that a Jedi was attacked not far from the Jedi Temple? And what did the Council plan on doing about it?
There seemed to be no answers forthcoming and Tavia felt her frustration mounting. Jedi were being slaughtered, attacks were happening right outside their doors and yet, they behaved as if it were some minor mishap that would soon go away. Had she always been such an innocent in her beliefs of what the Jedi Council was about, what it stood for? She found herself wondering if it was worth it, standing here pleading with Kieran, looking for more information on the situation before striking out into the unknown. She could sense Kieran's frustration as well. It was very rare that things upset him, he was normally a relaxed and patient man who never worried. But the attack on Obi-Wan, who they both knew to be capable of protecting himself, was a serious warning sign.
"Told you much, did we," Yoda replied in answer to their questions. "Important is not the quantity of what you know."
"I have to disagree with you, Master," Kieran argued, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. "If Tavia and Afton had not gone to locate Obi-Wan, it is very possible that he would have died. These are more than just random attacks. Somebody knew he was going to be alone. And whoever that somebody was had the strength to incapacitate a Jedi Knight!"
Yoda glanced over at Master Windu whose gaze was centered on Tavia. Finally, the dark man asked, "Tavia, what of those who attacked you and Afton? Did you sense any of them using the Force?"
"No, Master," Tavia responded, stepping forward. "They appeared to be no more than hired thugs who were not very well prepared for dealing with Jedi. After the initial attack, Afton went to protect Obi-Wan and I was able to dispose of them quite quickly. Whoever they were, I am certain that they were not responsible for the attack on Obi-Wan. They could not have done the damage that was inflicted on him. They were not bright enough to have taken him unawares."
"You seem quite confident in your belief."
"I am, Master."
"Then how do you explain the occurrence?" Master Mundi questioned.
Tavia glanced over at Kieran who nodded his encouragement. She looked back at the Master who had questioned her. "I think it was a warning, Master. Maybe all of the attacks have been warnings for something bigger to come. I think the attacker had meant for Obi-Wan to die, but maybe had not expected Afton and I to appear as quickly as we had. If it had not been for Afton's connection to Obi-Wan, we would not have known he was in trouble until it was too late. We would have shown up, found Obi-Wan dead, been ambushed and believed that those attacking us had killed him. Maybe they would have then run away instead of continuing the fight. Whoever hired them may have told them to not to leave until it was certain Obi-Wan was dead, but Afton's protection of him kept them from finishing the job."
The Masters considered this for a moment, whispering among themselves. Finally, Mace Windu turned back to regard the two Jedi. "It is true that we have our concerns over the attacks that have been occurring. We believe they lead back to the mysterious Sith, but we have no proof of it, nor have we seen any reappearance of the Sith since Qui-Gon's death. Our only course of action is to continue on as normal and hope that something of note comes to the forefront."
"You mean use the Jedi as bait," Tavia snapped heatedly.
Kieran laid a calming hand on her arm but the words had already been spoken.
"A better plan, have you, Tavia?" Master Yoda asked, his blue eyes boring into hers. "A better judge are you of the situation at hand? More wisdom have you under such circumstances?"
Tavia wanted to ask why they should care if they lost a few Jedi - they could always train more. But she held back the words at Kieran's warning look. "No, Master," she replied softly, though her demeanor betrayed her complacency.
Master Mundi seemed to wish to mollify her, at least for the time being. "We understand your frustration, Tavia. This has been a very unfortunate incident. But instead of dwelling on what might have been, you must instead concentrate on what is. You all worked well together as a team in saving your fellow Jedi's life. It is our hope that this teamwork shall remain with you during your mission."
"I was unable to detain our transport," Kieran pointed out. "How are we -"
"That has all been arranged," Master Windu replied. "Your new transport leaves in the morning. Obi-Wan should be well enough to travel by then. May the Force be with you."
There was so much more each of them wanted to say, but they had been dismissed and they knew that to continue was futile. They bowed low and exited the room, remaining silent until they had reached the main floor and entered the garden where they knew they could not be heard. Once there, Kieran grabbed Tavia and kissed her hard on the mouth. When he pulled away she stared at him in bafflement.
"Care to explain?"
He grinned sheepishly. "I'm just proud of you for holding your tongue. I know what you wanted to say to them."
"That's your idea of 'holding my tongue'? Gods, Kieran, I almost told Master Windu where he could shove his lightsaber!"
Kieran chuckled. "But the point is you didn't, even though you did get a little snippy."
He just grinned, placing his hands on her shoulders. "Look, I don't like this anymore than you do. When you and Afton went running off, I was frustrated beyond belief that you wouldn't let me come with you. You know how much I like to play the big strong hero and protect you. But I can't. And with this growing crisis, I find myself wanting to more. It's a difficult predicament at best."
"I can protect myself just fine," Tavia replied, touching his cheek softly. Looking into his deep blue eyes, she realized she feared for him, too. No matter how capable each was at protecting themselves, there was always a chance for something to go wrong. Look at Qui-Gon Jinn. After the report of his death, Tavia's faith in the skills of the Jedi had weakened. The thought of losing Kieran terrified her. "But if it will make you feel better, I promise never to stray very far."
It was something, and not enough. But Kieran could not push her, no matter his feelings on the issue. He felt the disturbance in the Force as if it were something palpable, menacing, but he could not pinpoint it, could not describe in detail what exactly it was he felt. Something was coming, he knew, something was about to end. He pulled Tavia into his arms and savored the moment. Current events were causing him to realize that life was much too short, and even a lifetime spent with Tavia would not have been enough for him. He feared for her should anything happen to him. He knew he was the only one she could truly open up to, truly be herself with, just as she was the only one he could allow to let see his true self. If something were to happen to him, who would she have to turn to? Would she bottle everything up inside once more, withdrawing from everything and everyone around her? She had so much potential, so much good to give, but a tiny part of her refused to believe it. It was a part of her that asked too many questions, railed against too many injustices, believed in too much of the bad before the good. It was the part of her he fought to bury ever since they had first met, and slowly, over time, he had succeeded. Even the Council had seen the change in her.
But it would be so easy to tear down the structure that had been built.
Kieran shrugged the thought away, and kissed the top of Tavia's sleek, black hair. "Look at us. We're moping about and being morose for nothing! We are about to go on a grand adventure with two people who will most likely kill one another before the mission is done. This should be a lot of fun!"
Tavia laughed, shaking her head. "We shouldn't laugh at Obi-Wan and Afton. They have caused one another quite a bit of pain." She leaned up on her toes and kissed Kieran lightly. "I don't think we need to worry about them though. If you had seen the worry on Afton's face when we found Obi-Wan, any question of leftover feelings there would be answered."
"Speaking of, why don't we go see how he's doing?" Kieran suggested. "If what you say is true, I am sure we will find Afton there as well. We can let them in on the good news."
Tavia was about to follow Kieran when she stopped abruptly. "What good news?"
Kieran glanced back at her with a grin. "Why, that the Council doesn't give a womp rat's ass what happens to us, of course."
Tavia rolled her eyes. "For your sake, I hope none of them were eavesdropping just now."
Kieran laughed good-naturedly then reached out to pull her along beside him.
Afton reached over to brush her hand gently across Obi-Wan's brow. He had not yet awakened, though a dip in the bacta tank and the combined efforts of the Jedi Healers had mended his injuries. There was a slight scar on his scalp where he had been hit the hardest and Afton found herself touching it gently, as if she could will it away. When she had first seen him lying there unmoving, every emotion she had felt for him had resurfaced immediately. If any permanent damage had been caused, if they had not made it to him in time, she would have blamed herself for all of it. After all, it had been because of her that he had left the Temple so angrily. Perhaps his thoughts had been so wrapped up in the revelation of her dream that he had not noticed the danger until it was too late.
"Is he going to be all right?"
Afton glanced over at Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan's young Padawan, and a great controversy among the Council. She had heard the whispered rumors of this child being the Chosen One and how Master Yoda feared his training. Personally, she could see how Yoda's fears were not unfounded. The child was young, but not young enough to have not already formed such a lasting attachment to his mother that the damage of their parting would be irreparable. She saw the loneliness that was evident in his enormous blue eyes, and found herself wondering what Qui-Gon could possibly have been thinking.
"He will be fine, young Padawan," she smiled softly, realizing she was attempting to convince herself of that more than the child. Anakin had sat stoically with her for the past few hours, waiting for his Master to awaken, but the late hour was beginning to take it's toll and the child could no longer hide his yawns. "Why don't you go to bed now? I will tell Obi-Wan that you were here and to be certain to come to you once he is able."
Anakin yawned once more, then slid off the chair he sat in and headed to the door. Once there he stopped, hesitating a moment before turning back to Afton. "Is it true that Master Obi-Wan is leaving me tomorrow?"
Afton frowned, realizing that Obi-Wan had not had a chance to speak with his Padawan before the attack. Who knew what the poor child had heard? She dropped to her knees on the floor so that their eyes were level.
"The Council is sending Obi-Wan on a mission with myself and two others. It is an experimental mission, and could be dangerous for you to be on. Also, the Council wishes to have you around for awhile. To talk with you, see how you and Obi-Wan are working together, that sort of thing. See, unlike Obi-Wan and I and the other Jedi, you haven't had the chance to grow up here in the Temple, to learn the basics from the Great Masters. It will be good for you to spend some time here, hang out with the kids your own age, spend some time learning from Master Yoda or Master Windu. But they are not taking you away from Obi-Wan, nor is he leaving you. It is just temporary, and it is for the better."
Anakin sighed, not knowing whether to believe the pretty Jedi or not. It had been Master Yaddle who had come to his room to inform him that Master Obi-Wan was injured. She had led him to the infirmary where he met Afton Ariia, another Jedi Knight and one who claimed to have grown up with Obi-Wan. He thought she was very beautiful and very nice and had enjoyed sitting with her. Immediately he sensed there was more between her and his Master then simple friendship, it was evident in the way she cast worried glances at him continually, and how she touched him. She reminded him a bit of Padme, just as strong, just as pretty, just as gentle. He missed Padme and wanted to tell this Jedi all about the young Queen and how kind she had been to him and how he knew one day he would marry her. But he knew that Afton was right. It was late and tomorrow he would begin his lessons with Yoda.
"Good night, young Padawan," Afton said softly as he disappeared out the door. She was silent for a long moment before returning to her vigil beside Obi-Wan's bed. She spent the next few minutes studying his face, noting the character and strength that had been added with age and experience; the lines were sharper, the angles more defined. She traced his jawline gently, lingering for a moment over the cleft in his chin, wanting very much to kiss it, then moving across his lips, following the shape of his nose. She ached to kiss the mole on his right cheek, like she had done so many times in the past, but knew it would be hazardous to do so. He could awaken at any moment and her being here alone could anger him enough. Fearful of giving in to her desires, Afton stood and moved over to the window, staring out at the Coruscant skyline.
The moment she walked away, Obi-Wan opened his eyes to watch her graceful movements. He had awakened during her soft caresses and had found himself content to remain there, unmoving, not wanting to disturb her ministrations. It took him the next few moments to recall how he had ended up in the infirmary, and the events leading up to it. He knew he had been attacked, but the events of the attack were foggy at best. It was almost as if his memory had been wiped. He could see ghostly images but none of it made sense. For some reason, the image of a group of hired thugs continually appeared in his mind. Was that it? Had he been so preoccupied that he had allowed a small band of robbers to overtake him? The thought seemed preposterous, but it was the only explanation that would come to mind.
"It is good to see you awake."
Obi-Wan glanced up to see Afton standing beside him once more, her face unreadable. He wondered briefly what her expression had been when she had touched his face. If he had looked, would he have been able to see through her eyes into her soul? Would he have seen the person he thought he had only imagined? There was so much he wanted to ask her. So much they needed to discuss and he did not know where to begin.
"Do you remember what happened?"
He knew she would ask that question. He shook his head, though a lingering headache reminded him not to move too much. "No. Can you fill me in?"
Afton frowned, took the seat next to him. "When you didn't show up in time to leave, I figured something was wrong." She glanced over at him then, and the unspoken altercation that had occurred rose up between them. She dropped her gaze to her hands. "Tavia and I went looking for you, found you and were promptly ambushed by some no-account thugs."
"I was attacked by thugs?" Obi-Wan asked in disbelief.
"Were you?" Afton retorted, returning her gaze to his. "You had time to use your lightsaber, that much is evident. The attack took place on this level, but we found you three levels down. Is there nothing that you remember?"
Obi-Wan tried but it was all a block. He was beginning to question being attacked at all. He shook his head once more. "No. Nothing."
Afton sighed. "It might be from the blows to the head that you took. The Healers wondered if any damage could be permanent."
Obi-Wan frowned at that, his gaze following Afton as she stood and wandered back to the window. Even after the attack, one question still burned in his mind, something he knew he had to ask before they went on this mission together, before he took the chance of putting his trust in her once more. During his state of unconsciousness, he had dreamed of the day Afton had left him. Only this time, he had not walked away in anger. This time he had agreed that they needed time away from one another, and they had hugged and separated as friends, still loving and caring for one another without the feelings of pain and betrayal. It was the realization that things could have gone differently, that so much pain could have been avoided, that prompted Obi-Wan to approach the topic both of them most dreaded.
Before the nerve left him, Obi-Wan asked softly, "It had something to do with me, didn't it?"
Afton turned back to him, her brow furrowed. "What?"
"The dream." He knew he was on to something when Afton's eyes widened, when uncertainty seemed to set in. "You saw something that frightened you - maybe you saw it as some sort of message - and you left. Is that right?"
She was silent for so long that Obi-Wan thought that perhaps he was wrong, that his original impression had been correct. But the moment she turned from him, the moment she could no longer face him, Obi-Wan knew that he had guessed right.
She spoke softly at first. "In the dream, it was you he killed, not Qui-Gon. I was there and our attention wasn't where it should have been. He killed you because of me." Afton turned to face him then, the barrier no longer in place. The cold, apathetic eyes were replaced with love, sorrow. "I couldn't allow that to happen, Obi-Wan. And I had the dream so often! Even Qui-Gon warned me about us straying from our chosen path. And then you came to me about marriage and I just knew the only way to get you to listen was to get you to hate me."
Obi-Wan was about to reply when the doors opened and Tavia and Kieran walked in.
Tavia immediately felt the tension in the room and sensed that they had interrupted something. She glanced over at Afton but the redhead refused to meet her gaze, instead turning to stare back out the window at Coruscant. Tavia would have suggested that perhaps they should come back later but Kieran had already moved over to Obi-Wan and started needling him regarding the attack.
"So, I hear you ran into a couple of old crones and they beat you up," Kieran teased, leaning a shoulder against the wall.
Obi-Wan frowned. "Might have been. I couldn't tell you."
Kieran glanced around in confusion and it was Afton who finally turned to explain.
"Obi-Wan doesn't remember anything about the attack. It may just be short-term memory loss from the blows to the head he took. Then again..."
"You're thinking someone put a Force block on him," Kieran stated, his eyes growing dark.
"Maybe," Afton replied with a shrug. "Though I can't think who would do that. I mean, if there were a Force-user in the city, wouldn't we know it?"
"As Yoda says, 'Hard to see the Dark side is'," Tavia commented, pushing her dark hair over her shoulder. She moved over to Afton. "One of us could attempt to lift the block."
Immediately her friend shook her head. "He still hasn't recovered from the attack. He isn't strong enough yet. Perhaps later."
"Well we have good news and bad news," Kieran commented, while pushing away from the wall to sit in a nearby chair. "The good news is, the Council does hope to draw out your attacker."
"What's the bad news?" Obi-wan inquired, swinging his legs over the bed in a hope to begin regaining his strength. His head swam for a moment, the world around him spinning. He did not see her move, but suddenly Afton was beside him, her hand on his shoulder, steadying him. He offered her a grateful smile then glanced back at Kieran.
"The bad news is we're the bait."
"How did I know he was going to say that?" Afton muttered, receiving a grin from Obi-Wan. "So I take it the mission is still a go?"
Tavia nodded. "The Council was hoping we could leave tomorrow morning -- if Obi-Wan is up to it."
The Jedi felt all of their eyes on him. "I'm fine," he reassured them all quickly. "Really. A small headache, my pride is in shreds, but other than that I am fine."
"Thanks to these two lovely ladies," Kieran commented while standing and moving over to place a kiss on Tavia's cheek. "Don't know what kind of Jedi you are going to make, kid, if you have to be rescued by two women all of the time."
Obi-Wan grinned good-naturedly. "I don't see anything wrong with beautiful women coming to the rescue."
Kieran raised a brow. "Your point is made."
"We had best let you get your rest," Tavia said, glancing pointedly at Kieran as he was about to protest. "It's two days to Alderaan and we'll have plenty of time to discuss our strategy. The transport is leaving at daybreak. We'll see you there."
Tavia grabbed hold of Kieran and pulled him along with her out the door.
Afton watched them leave, making a mental note to herself to let Tavia know not to pull such a blatant stunt again. The moment for confessions was over. An uneasy silence hung in the air. Afton knew that Obi-Wan was watching her but she refused to meet his gaze. She was tired; it had been a long and exhausting day. Perhaps tomorrow they could make another attempt at patching the holes that had existed for too long in their relationship. The prospect frightened her. How much had they each changed in their time apart? She knew she was not the same person any longer. What if they disappointed one another? Not that she truly expected anything to happen between them. It had been a long time and things had changed, their priorities were now in order and so much had happened between them and... Afton shook the thought from her head. The future was difficult to see and this was one time when she was not certain she even wanted to know how things would end.
Obi-Wan watched her silently as the mass of ever-changing emotions flitted across her face. How had he ever believed her capable of the crimes he had accused her of? Afton had always been easy to read and now, looking at her next to him, he could see her true feelings, as blatantly as if he were reading them on paper. Had a secret part of him known what she was doing when they separated? Had he felt better laying the blame on her instead of accepting the fact that their love could not be? There was so much that needed to be said between them still, especially if they were to spend the next few weeks in close proximity. But he felt Afton's anxiety as if it were his own. She was poised for flight, prepared to speed away from him at a moment's notice if he but said the wrong thing. Now is not the time, Obi-Wan, he warned himself. You will have plenty of opportunity in the days to come. Let her break the ice.
"We should probably take Tavia's advice and get some rest, Afton," Obi-Wan commented, breaking the silence.
Afton glanced down at him, surprise at his words registering on her face. She found herself longing to touch him, just one more time, but she quickly suppressed the urge, retreating back into her shell of apathy. "Yes, you're right. You need to regain your strength. I will see you in the morning, Obi-Wan." She moved to head for the door, then quickly turned back to him. "And be certain to speak with your Padawan. He was very upset at your injuries."
He assured her that he would, his gaze following her as she moved out the door. Just before it closed behind her, he called out, "Hey, Afton?"
She peered around the corner. "Yes?"
"Thank you for coming after me."
She smiled then, her gaze softening. "You're welcome, Obi-Wan Kenobi."
Afton stared out the cockpit window of the transport that was speeding them toward Alderaan. The stars flew by in hyperspace, tiny streaks of long-gone lights. Captain Silar, a big gruff man who had hardly spoken a word to them since they had boarded, moved around behind her, tinkering with control panels and monitors. When Afton had first asked if it were okay with him that she sit in the cockpit for awhile, he had behaved as if it were an incredible inconvenience. But since she had taken her seat in the co-pilotís chair, speaking not a word, he had seemed to accept her presence, moving around quietly for a man of his size, as if respecting the peace that she wordlessly sought.
It was because she had to get away from him, if for no more than a few moments. Afton had not been prepared for her feelings for Obi-Wan to reappear as quickly and strongly as they had. She had dismissed her worry for his injuries as common concern for a fellow Jedi, but since that morning, when they had met on the landing pad to begin their mission, she realized her assumptions had been wrong. Every time he neared her, she felt her body begin to tremble. She ached for him to touch her, to feel his strong hands holding her, the warmth of his skin against hers. Every time he smiled, her heart skipped a beat. Afton found herself straining to hear every word he spoke, every sigh he uttered. She was certain she had conquered these feelings long ago, that her fascination with Obi-Wan Kenobi had ended with maturity.
But she had been so wrong.
Now her mind was muddled. She could not think straight and that was no way to begin a mission. Her fingers drummed on the arm of her chair as she attempted to put the facts of the mission in order. One missing architect. Had this person been murdered, or kidnapped? If it were a kidnapping, then the family would likely receive a ransom note which, as far as Afton knew, had not appeared. So the kidnapping idea could be set aside for now. Murdered and the body dumped somewhere, then? She leaned forward to place the datacrystal that Master Windu had given her into the computer. Her eyes scanned the information while her brow wrinkled into a frown. The architect in question, a man named Caras Menar, was highly regarded on Alderaan as being well ahead of his time in both design and structure. Many of his edifices were either considered objects of art and beauty or monoliths of construction. He was only 35 years in age, newly married with no children. His wife, Sirena Sallaire, was a renowned singer and musician. So obviously, money could have been a motivation for murder. Jealousy perhaps? A competitor? But if Caras Menar was murdered, why go through the trouble of making certain his body was not found? No, murder did not feel right. Would he have left of his own will? Perhaps his job or wife, or both, became too stressful for the man so he decided to start life elsewhere. Or maybe this was some elaborate scheme toÖtoÖ
Afton shook her head. None of it seemed right.
"Youíre trying too hard."
Afton started at Obi-Wanís smooth voice and turned to flash him a glare. "Donít do that."
"Sneak up on you? Itís your attention that was elsewhere," the Jedi commented, casting a glance at the Captain as he moved past him to slip into the chair next to Afton.
"No. Get into my mind. Read my thoughts. I donít remember inviting you in," she snapped.
Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow. "Everythingís back to normal I see. The Healers say I am no longer in danger and you revert to the attitude of a Hutt. Charming."
Afton chose to ignore him, pulling the datacrystal from the computer and slipping it into her pouch. She could feel Obi-Wanís grey-eyed gaze on her, watching her every movement, looking past the surface to everything underneath, everything she wanted so fiercely to hide from him. Her nerves were taut, stretched to the point of breaking. She tried to focus her eyes on the passing starfields, ignoring Obi-Wanís presence.
"Afton, we need to talk."
Afton turned to tell him how unlikely that would be, only to find that he had leaned closer, so close in fact that when she turned, their noses were almost touching. Her tongue darted out to lick her lips nervously, her breath catching in her throat. His cool grey eyes regarded her thoughtfully, roaming over her face until they finally settled on her recently moistened lips. The tension between them quickly doubled and before long, Aftonís nails began digging into the arms of the chair. She focused her gaze on a point just past Obi-Wanís shoulder.
"I would prefer we didnít. Not yet."
Obi-Wan sighed, glanced back at the Captain who had suddenly stopped moving around, then turned back to Afton. "You canít put this off forever. We need to talk, or neither of us are going to concentrate on this mission like we should. You know that. What are you so afraid of?"
Afton rolled her eyes. "Iím a Jedi. Iím not afraid of anything."
"Wrong choice of words. My mistake."
Obi-Wan leaned back in his chair, noting the sigh of relief Afton ex-hailed at his movement. He dropped his chin into his hand, pondering what he was going to do next. He had forgotten about the stubborn streak in Afton. He remembered when they were younger he could never decide if he wanted to kiss her until she gave in, or strangle the stubbornness out of her. Now he found himself in a similar situation. It was strange how there were some people one could be separated from for years and the moment they are reunited, it was as if they had never parted. That was the way this felt. Certainly, there had been an argument that had caused a rift between them, but that had been like, what? Yesterday? And only the day before they had been in love and happy, correct? He mentally shook his head. He knew they could not simply pretend that nothing had happened between them. Neither could they ignore one another and continue on with their lives. Obi-Wan knew that Afton was as anxious for everything to be said and done as he was, but was uncertain as to the outcome. He was hesitant as well, having no idea how much they had both changed, whether or not they were compatible any longer, or how much they could still hurt one another.
"The longer we wait, the more difficult it will become," he commented softly.
"We have more important things to discuss right now, Obi-Wan," Afton replied, turning to face him, her expression unreadable. "The mission, remember?"
He ran a frustrated hand across his face. "We donít get to Alderaan for another day, Afton. Certainly we could Ė "
"Shhh," Afton cut him off, glancing back at the Captain who now made no pretense of pretending not to listen. He was sitting in the communications chair, watching the proceedings in amusement. "Do you mind?" Afton asked with a strong hint of annoyance.
"Wayís I see it, little lady, this here is my cockpit and should the two of you wish to continue your little marital spat, there are plenty of other places on this here ship."
"We are not married," Afton snapped.
"Couldíve fooled me," the old man replied nonchalantly.
Afton jumped to her feet, glared first at Captain Silar then Obi-Wan before stomping out of the cockpit. Obi-Wan got up to move after her, hesitating only when the Captain commented: "Got yer hands full with that one."
Obi-Wan flashed the man a happy grin and hurried off after the redhead.
Aftonís flight took her into the main compartment where Tavia and Kieran were laughing over some inside joke. They both jumped like guilty children being caught by their mother when she entered the tiny rectangular room.
"Oh, Afton, hello," Tavia greeted her, her face flushed and lips swollen from recent kisses.
The Jedi considered moving on to some other more secluded area when Obi-Wan moved up behind her. "Youíre following me," she mumbled aside to him.
He grinned good-naturedly at her. "Yes."
Kieran and Tavia watched in amusement as Afton moved over to the small bench to sit down, only to be followed by Obi-Wan like a shadow. He sat next to her, moving closer when she attempted to move away. She finally gave up, flashing him a quelling look and folding her arms over her chest in frustration. Kieran had to fight back the urge to laugh, glancing at Tavia as she rolled her eyes, her thoughts flashing through his mind: Twenty-five credits say sheíll have him on his knees before we leave Alderaan.
Nah, Kieran replied. Sheíll be the one swooning at his feet.
Youíre on pal!
Tavia shook her head, doing her best to suppress her smile. She knew it was awful to laugh at the problems her friends were facing but they were really two of the most exasperating people she had ever met. Both were too stubborn and quick to toss out a sarcastic remark for their own good. Even when they were younger, whenever they were together sparks were sure to fly sooner or later. At the same time, Tavia had never seen two people so obviously in love. When they were at peace, the aura that surrounded them was beautiful to behold. Since they had grown up together, their souls were inexplicably intertwined and no matter how stubborn each aspired to be, nothing would ever change that fact.
Tavia glanced once more at Kieran, realizing how lucky she was. They acknowledged their love for one another daily; knew that to be without the other was to lose a half of themselves. Certainly they had their disagreements, but they believed in and trusted one another enough that they never lasted long. At times, Tavia worried that the Council would one day forbid their joining, but in truth she knew that nothing could truly separate them, not even death.
"Well, since we are all here, why donít we discuss this little mission we are on?" Kieran suggested, casually leaning back and draping his arm over Tavia.
"I agree," Afton added quickly, jumping to her feet to begin pacing. It was not only a ploy to get away from Obi-Wanís nearness Ė although it did work in that capacity Ė but she always had to be moving to think properly. "I looked over the information Master Windu sent with us, but didnít find any clues that could necessarily help. Heís married to a popular singer, no kids, that sort of thing."
"So thereís no indication of foul play then," Kieran commented. At Taviaís glance he pointed out, "If his wife is as well off as he is, she wouldnít need his money."
"Why must the wife be implicated?" Tavia asked pointedly. "Perhaps he ran off with some lowly maid."
"I donít think either of those options are very likely," Obi-Wan interjected before the conversation got too far out of hand. He forced himself into the discussion as a distraction, to keep himself from watching Afton move around him. She had tossed her robe onto a nearby chair, allowing him a glimpse of the figure she had acquired in her adulthood. A tiny waist offset her shapely hips and equally shapely bust, all set on a pair of impossibly long legs. Focusing on the moment was difficult at best and he pictured the lecture Qui-Gon would have given him had his Master been there.
Obi-Wan tried to catch Aftonís eyes without really looking at her. "Was there any information as to the kind of work he did? I mean, would a competitor or someone in that sort of position have wanted him gone?"
"I considered that option but unfortunately there was nothing in the notes to help." Afton made a circle around the group, moving back past Obi-Wan. "The file said his work was ahead of his time and very beautiful, but little else."
There were a few minutes of silence as everyone considered their options, or lack thereof. What frustrated them the most was that each one of them knew that there was something the Council was not telling them, as if they were being tested. The Council was notorious for doing such things, to see if the Jedi were focused, paying attention. All they could hope for was that when they reached Alderaan more answers would await them.
"Very well then," Kieran spoke up confidently. "I guess we just wait and see what we find out, hmm?"
"I donít see why the Alderaanian authorities arenít taking care of this." Tavia glanced around at the others. "I mean, why does the disappearance of one man involve the Jedi?"
"Perhaps he was involved on some secret project for the Senate," Obi-Wan offered. "It would be a perfect explanation for why the Council has chosen not to tell us everything. It could also explain his disappearance. Maybe he was working on some project that someone else wanted to get their hands on."
Afton looked down at Obi-Wan with a frown. "So, what you are saying is whatever information we discover could be potentially dangerous to our health?"
"Iím getting to like this mission more and more," Kieran commented sarcastically.
Tavia ran her hand over her eyes, stifling a yawn. "Well, all of you can sit here and dissect the mission. I am going to get some sleep."
"Night, Tavia," Obi-Wan called out as she left the room.
"Night, Tav." Afton glanced over at Kieran who was watching the doorway through which her friend had disappeared with distinct interest. "The Council is not watching, you know, Kieran."
He looked up at Afton in amusement. "The Council is always watching, Afton." The handsome Jedi stood, stretching his arms high above his head. "I think I am going to go do a few exercises before turning in, stretch these weary muscles. You kids have fun."
An uneasy silence fell over the room as Kieran exited to the cargo hold. Obi-Wan turned to look up at Afton who was studiously avoiding his gaze, suddenly appearing extremely interested in the bolting on the bulkhead. She stood close enough that the familiar scent of her washed over him, the intoxicating mixture of floral and spice. He found himself wanting to know what she was thinking, but had already been berated by her once for intruding into her thoughts, even though she had been the one broadcasting them so loudly. The more he thought about it, the more he knew that Afton was right. They could not discuss the topic of "them" until the mission was over. To do so would mean to occupy their minds with something other than the facts at hand. But as long as they did not talk about the past, there was still a significant lack of trust between them, and the possibility for more pain. He knew that Jedi were not supposed to be so wrapped up in emotion, and perhaps it was something one learned better with time, but when it came to his relationship with Afton, how could he be otherwise? They had been raised together, expected to care for one another, encouraged to understand each other, but how could anyone have known the bond that would form? Seven years ago they had been more than simply lovers, they had been twins, mother and father, best friendsÖand the worst of enemies. Now what were they? What could they be after all that had happened?
"Well then, I suppose that is the real question," Obi-Wan commented softly to himself.
"What was that?" Afton glanced over at him absent-mindedly. It was obvious that her mind was elsewhere.
"Nothing." He shook his head. "Just talking to myself about the mission."
Obi-Wan excused himself then, commenting that he agreed with Tavia on getting some sleep before arriving at Alderaan. Afton watched him leave, feeling both relieved and frustrated that he had not broached a conversation regarding the past. She dropped onto the recently vacated bench and closed her eyes in an attempt to meditate and calm herself. It was not long before her weariness caught up with her, though, and she was soon fast asleep.
She was running through the darkness, but could not escape the danger. No matter how fast she ran or where she turned, it was still there, right at her heels, just over her shoulder, so closeÖyet impossible to see. She felt itís hot breath on her neck, itís claws scraping at her back, itís heartbeat pounding in her ears. She reached down to search for her lightsaber only to find that it was not there. She was defenselessÖand the danger was so close.
Aftonís feet slipped out from under her and her body crashed to the floor with a hard thud. She lay motionless, waiting for the danger to consume her but it only continued to hover around her, waiting in the darkness, displaying neither itís face or voice. A chilling wind swept over her, wrapping around her, smothering her in a blanket-like fog. She trembled, fighting to stay warm as the cold attempted to seep into her, push past her skin to consume her soul. With every bit of strength, Afton pushed it away, watching in horror as it gathered away from her, hovering like a predator watching itís prey. She turned abruptly as the feeling of a hand touching her shoulder possessed her, only to find that there was nothing there but more darkness. She whipped back around forward, certain that something had touched her hair, but again she was met with only blackness. The danger, whatever it was, was all around her, waiting, preparing for the perfect time to close inÖ
The setting of the dream changed suddenly and the clock had turned back, leaving Afton in the wilderness of Dantooine with Kieran, Tavia and Obi-Wan on their Training Sim. She recognized the scene instantly. It was during their first night on the planet and they were crowded around a tiny fire where they had decided to rest for the night. Kieran had been regaling them with spooky tales of long dead Sith who came back to torment Padawans. Afton truly did not believe a word of it, but the stories had shaken her all the same and she had continually inched closer to Obi-Wan, seeking protection in his warmth.
"Scared?" Kieran asked all of them after his latest tale regarding two Jedi who had grown up together as best friends until one had turned to the Darkside and killed the other.
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes. "Weíre Jedi. Of course weíre not scared," he replied, with over-emphasized bravado.
"Besides," Tavia added logically. "These tales of yours are ridiculous. No one could seriously believe them."
"What about the last one?" Afton asked, a tremor running down her spine.
"That is the least believable of all," the dark-haired girl replied, tossing a glance at Kieran. "Two friends turning against one another. Really!"
Kieran shrugged at her look. "Truthful or not, it just goes to show you that danger lurks everywhere. You have to be careful. Your greatest enemy could be right behind you."
Tavia stood, shaking the leaves and dirt from her robe. "I suppose you could spend your life jumping at shadows." She looked over at Afton, cocking an arched brow. "Tell me, Afton, If I suddenly became a horrid monster, could you kill me?"
Afton blinked at the question. Three pairs of eyes were watching her closely and it unnerved her. Kill her good friend? She could not imagine having to do such a thing. She shook her head. "The question does not require an answer."
Her scientific mind unsatisfied with such a reply, Tavia quickly covered the ground that separated her and Obi-Wan. She unhooked her lightsaber, activating it with a flick of her wrist. Pointing it at Obi-Wanís throat, she glanced over at Afton. "What if I were to kill Obi-Wan?"
The redhead scoffed at that. "You never would. The question is moot."
"And I donít believe we need a demonstration," Obi-Wan commented pointedly, his gaze never leaving the glowing blade.
When Tavia did not make any motion to shut her weapon off, Afton jumped to her feet. "I donít understand the point of this, Tavia. Do you want me to say I would kill you if pushed to do so? Is that what you want to hear?"
"What I want to know is if you are strong enough to do what you must. If faced with the decision, would you allow your heart, or your mind, to dictate your actions?"
Two green gazes locked in a battle of wills. A thick silence fell over the group. Afton was the first to pull away from the struggle.
"You arenít my Master," she mumbled, turning away from the searching gazes of the group.
Tavia deactivated the lightsaber, ignoring the sigh of relief that Obi-Wan emitted. "No, Iím not. But itís a question she should ask of you," she commented, returning the weapon to her belt. "I already know the answer, but I think it is something you have to face."
Afton turned her glare on the other girl. "You know me so well, do you?"
Tavia shrugged. "I know you couldnít do it. I know that faced with the decision to kill me or sacrifice yourself, you would take the coward's way out."
"Now really," Kieran said, coming to his feet. "This was all in good fun, Tavia. I think you are going Ė "
"What about you?" Afton questioned, her voice soft.
"I think we need to get some sleep," Obi-Wan suggested, hoping to end the conversation before it grew any worse.
"What about you?" Afton asked again, her voice stronger. "Could you kill me?"
Tavia did not even hesitate. "Yes."
Suddenly Taviaís lightsaber was back in her hand, glowing a brilliant green. Obi-Wan screamed out for Afton to move, only to be cut short when Taviaís weapon sliced across his shoulders, decapitating him at the neck. Afton cried out in terror, reaching for her lightsaber only to discover it was not there. She called out to Kieran but he was nowhere to be found. It was her and Tavia and Taviaís lightsaber, which was swinging ever closer to her, the smell of ozone permeating her senses, the glow of the blade reflecting in her eyes. She attempted to reach out to her friend, to stop her from the attack but Tavia only swung at her once more, this time the weapon ---
The Jedi woke with a start, a scream dying on her lips. Obi-Wan was leaning over her, a frown marring his brow.
"It was only a nightmare," he said softly, reaching out to brush the tangled curls for her face. "Youíre safe."
Afton remained silent while her heartbeat slowly calmed. The nightmare remained fresh in her memory, the smell of the blade as it neared her, the hum of it drummed through her ears. She found herself recalling that first night on Dantooine once again. The challenge that Tavia had tossed before her. Their relationship had never been the same since, but why did it come back to her now? And why had the dream changed into such a terrible ending?
She could sense Obi-Wanís worry and quickly sat up. "I am all right," she assured him. At his continued frown she emphasized, "Really."
He continued to hold her hand, his thumb stroking her palm in a soothing manner. He had sensed her terror long before she had screamed, Aftonís emotions being strong enough that they had penetrated his deepest sleep. He had hurried to her side, only to discover that he could not wake her from her sleep. Whatever the dream had been, it had held her in its grasp for over a minute before he had finally been able to wake her.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
She shook her head. "NoÖI justÖItís nothing. Bad memories really."
Obi-Wan did not believe her. The knowledge of her seeing Qui-Gonís murderer long before they met him was still too fresh in his mind. When they were young, he had known about her ability to see into the past and future, but had never appreciated (feared?) it for the strength that it was. Now he found that he was fascinated by the mere thought of what she could see, what she had seen.
"Do you believe you saw the future?" he asked tentatively.
Afton looked over at him and their gazes locked. "No. The past." She frowned. "Or a version of the past." She pulled her eyes from his, shaking her head. "I am not certain what it was."
"Perhaps if you talked about it Ė "
"No!" Afton snapped, immediately regretting it. "Iím sorry, Obi-Wan. I didnít mean to jump on you like that. I justÖdonít like discussing my dreams."
"I donít understand." Obi-Wanís hold on Aftonís hand strengthened as she attempted to pull away. "Talking about it could help. Perhaps I can see something that you have not or Ė "
"Thatís just it, Obi-Wan. People always see things I donít Ė because they want to. Everyone seems to believe this is some great gift, some way to right the wrongs and make everything better. But itís not like that. Half the time I feel as if it is just the Forceís way of driving me mad!"
Obi-Wan wanted to reach out to her, to comfort her, but he knew that she
would not accept it. Once, long ago, he could have pulled her into his arms
without complaint. She would have told him everything she had seen and felt and
heard and they would have talked about it and even if they did not find the
answers, it still would have meant something. But now, an enormous chasm existed
between them and Obi-Wan was uncertain if they would ever again cross it.
It was midday on Alderaan when they finally reached the capital city of Alder. The sun shone brilliantly in the blue, cloudless sky and the grassy plains billowed gently in the soft breeze as the transport glided past overhead, toward the landing pad. The Jedi stood in the cockpit, hovering behind Captain Silar like anxious children. More than once he let them know that they made him nervous, but they appeared unperturbed by his ranting and he finally decided it was best to simply ignore them.
Kieran paced in the back, muttering about diplomats and politicians while Tavia stood nervously twisting a strand of hair around her finger. Only Afton appeared at peace, though Obi-Wan figured it was because she received no sleep the night before and was barely awake. For his part, Obi-Wan was not looking forward to beginning the present mission. He did not want to play diplomat or even investigator. What he wanted to do was find the last Sith. Yoda had said there were always two, which meant there was still one out there, one that Obi-Wan believed carried partial blame for Qui-Gonís death. He knew that the Council was trying to keep him busy, keep him involved in missions that carried less danger, but he did not appreciate it. He wanted to end it; he wanted to make the Sith pay for taking his Master from him. Obi-Wan begrudgingly worked at controlling his anger and seeking serenity in the Force on a daily basis.
Captain Silar glanced back at the Jedi, his gaze focusing on Afton. "Weíre all cleared to land, little lady."
Afton nodded in response. "Very well, Captain. Take her down."
Afton moved out the door then, followed closely by Tavia. Kieran and Obi-Wan waited until the Captain had brought the ship to a quiet landing before meeting the women out by the ramp. The group was quiet as the ramp lowered to the ground, the bright Alderaanian sun shining into the ship, momentarily causing them to squint. Afton glimpsed a small delegation waiting near the perimeter of the landing pad, but did not recognize any of the persons.
"I donít see Senator Antilles," Obi-Wan commented as if reading her thoughts.
Afton headed down the ramp, her senses immediately alert for anything that appeared unusual. Earlier Obi-Wan had informed her that he and the others had agreed that she should be team leader, being that she was slightly less hot-headed and sarcastic than the others. In essence, they had all agreed that she was better equipped at handling the bureaucrats and the fact that they had relegated her to little more than diplomatic liaison hurt more than she cared to admit. Afton knew that they had meant it as a compliment, that they had entrusted her with a task none of them felt capable of handling, but for once she wished someone would see her as a loose cannon instead of little miss responsible.
As they neared the delegation, a short young man with black hair and kind blue eyes stepped out to greet them. He nodded to Afton. "Welcome to Alderaan. I am Belton Denwar, Chief Aide to Senator Antilles."
"I am Afton Ariia. These are my associates Kieran Sentri, Tavia Tanen and Obi-Wan Kenobi." As the Aide bowed to all of them, Afton commented, "We were told that Senator Antilles would be meeting us."
"I am sorry, but Senator Antilles was called back to Coruscant by the Chancellor. He asked me to extend to you his deepest regrets and has instructed me to offer you our full cooperation in your investigation."
Sensing no deception, Afton smiled and accepted his explanation. She glanced around at her companions, noting that they all kept their expressions carefully blank, then returned her attention to Belton Denwar.
"Thank you for meeting with us, Mr. Denwar. We have been extensively researching the facts regarding the disappearance of Caras Menar and hope that we can bring this entire investigation to an end shortly." Afton was proud of herself for having perfectly iterated the short monologue that she had been practicing for the past hour.
Belton smiled. "Nothing would please us more. Will you follow me please? I will show you to your quarters for the duration of your stay." He continued to speak as he walked, Afton moving along beside him, the other Jedi walking just behind, their glances quick to take in everything. Bringing up the rear, the reception group chatted quietly among themselves. "The Senator asked that you stay in the Diplomatic Wing of the Palace. Unfortunately, the Royal Family is on vacation, otherwise I know they would wish to be here to meet with you."
Obi-Wan listened with one ear to the conversation between Afton and Belton Denwar while the rest of his attention focused on the group behind them. He had initially sensed a mild amount of fear among the delegates but was beginning to believe that it had stemmed more from meeting four Jedi than any wrong-doing on their parts. It was not uncommon that many of the Republic feared the Jedi more than they trusted them, a fact that normally produced more harm than good. Obi-Wan knew that one usually feared what one did not understand, and when it came to Force-users, the common being was less-than-properly educated. Even though the Jedi had been in existence for over two thousand years, rumors and false-truths still abounded as to the nature of their activities. Though Alderaan was home to a peaceful and well-educated society, Obi-Wan was certain the larger half of the population still did not understand the role of the Jedi in the galaxy.
As they entered the Palace Courtyard, Afton took a moment away from her conversation with Belton to appreciate their surroundings. Every structure she glimpsed was built out of the pure white Sahsa rock indigenous to the planet. This architectural design lent a clean, open feeling to the city. In the center of the Courtyard was an enormous fountain, carved from the same rock, that filtered into a large pool in which floated tiny purple flowers and graceful white swans. Belton began explaining the structure and design of the Palace to Kieran who had fallen in step beside him. Aftonís attention was focused on the elegant birds when Obi-Wan grabbed a hold of her hand, pulling her to the side, away from the group.
"What is it?" Afton turned her head, watching the group as they moved on ahead.
"I sense a disturbance in the Force."
She glanced up at him, frowning. "I donít sense anything."
"Itís not here," he replied, shaking his head, his tone one of exasperation.
Afton rolled her eyes. "Obi-Wan, we donít have time to reflect on every little change in the universe. Our mission involves the here and now, not whatís out there. I thought Qui-Gon had taught you not to center on your anxieties?"
Obi-Wan caught her with his gaze, his expression intent. "Afton, the last time I warned someone of a disturbance in the Force and they refused to listen, I lost the most important person in my life. I am not going to take that chance again."
Afton felt his determination, his underlying solicitude. She worried her lower lip for a moment, wondering how best to allay his concern and still keep everyone focused on the mission. Finally, she replied, "Very well, Obi-Wan. I will tell Kieran and Tavia to stay alert, and I will do the same. But you must understand that our main attention must be focused here, until we get this investigation wrapped up."
Obi-Wan ran a frustrated hand through his hair, nodding. "Okay. Youíre right. Iím sorry. I justÖ"
"I know." Afton laid a comforting hand on his arm. His pain over Qui-Gonís death was still palpable. She wanted to give him the reassurance he needed that none of it had been his fault. But it was difficult to alleviate someone elseís guilt when you were still consumed with your own. "We had best catch up with the others, before Belton Denwar gets the wrong impression of us."
Obi-Wan smiled at her teasing and quietly followed her to the group, who had stopped just inside the main foyer to wait for them.
"Iím sorry about that, Mr. Denwar," Afton apologized immediately. "We had something we needed to discuss."
The Aide smiled in understanding and escorted them on to their rooms. They were situated on the fourth floor of the Diplomatic Wing, Tavia and Afton sharing one room, Obi-Wan and Kieran in another on the opposite end of the corridor. The halls were open and airy, various potted plants and trees providing a fresh, outdoor environment and colorful paintings depicting Alderaanís past adding a subtle touch of culture. The rooms themselves were large, separated into a bedroom with two single beds, a main sitting room with doors that led out to a private balcony and a bathing room with an enormous sunken tub that Afton immediately found herself wanting to luxuriate in. It was a bit disappointing that they were here for business rather than pleasure.
"Senator Antilles arranged for two of you to attend tonightís Music Gala where Sirena Sallaire will be performing," Belton informed them when they stopped at the womenís room. "Unfortunately he was unable to secure enough invitations for all of you, as this event is normally sold out quite quickly. Who shall I tell them will be attending?"
"We are," Obi-wan spoke up quickly, moving to stand next to Afton. "Myself and Afton."
Unable to comprehend his motives, Afton only stared at him in shock at first before finally regaining her voice. She turned back to Belton. "I am sorry, but there is no way that any of us can attend. As you said that this is a popular gala, I am assuming that it is also quite formal?"
The Aide nodded. "Why, of course. All of Alderaanís society will be attending. It all goes to charity, you know."
"Well, as none of us have anything to wear but serviceable clothing, we simply could not attend."
"Oh, but you must attend!" Belton Denwar insisted, his tone sounding slightly panicked. "It is the only chance that you would be able to speak with Ms. Sallaire. She is a very busy woman and would not set a time aside in her schedule to meet with you. That was why the Senator worked so hard to secure your invitations."
Afton was beginning to feel a headache coming on. "You mean to tell me that the only place we will be able to question Sirena Sallaire about her husbandís disappearance is in a room filled with partying guests and music?"
"UnfortunatelyÖyes," he replied, stepping back slightly when he looked up at Aftonís stormy green eyes. "I am sorry, Jedi Afton. You would not have to stay long and we can supply you with appropriate clothing to wear."
"Looks as if we have no choice," Obi-Wan commented, though his tone indicated that he was not entirely displeased. In fact, if Aftonís perception was correct, he seemed to be enjoying her discomfort immensely.
"Well, it is settled then," Belton announced, his face belying his relief. He turned to address Tavia and Kieran. "As we were unable to secure invitations for all of you, is there something that we may do for you? Dinner, perhaps?"
Kieran was about to accept the offer when Tavia cut him off.
"Actually, while Obi-Wan and Afton try to chat up Ms. Sallaire, this would be an excellent opportunity for Kieran and I to examine some of Menarís work. If we could be supplied with an escort to show us around the city I think that should suffice us for now."
"Of course. I shall allow you some time to get situated and have the escort meet you in the foyer in, say, an hour?"
"Perfect," Tavia replied, ignoring Kieranís groan.
As Belton Denwar hurried off to take care of the arrangements that were needed, Kieran grumbled, "Why is it they get a fancy evening and elegant dinner and we have to work?"
"Believe me," Afton muttered, pushing Obi-Wan and Kieran into the hallway, "the last thing I will be doing is enjoying myself."
The door whisked shut as Obi-Wan chuckled in reply.
DISCLAIMER: This story is a work of fiction written in appreciation of Star Wars; to promote the franchise and to keep it alive. All characters and settings original to Star Wars are copyright to Lucasfilm, Ltd. The rest is copyright to the author.