Anakin walks into the darkened Hall of Knighthood and uses the Force to guide himself to the center of the unseen circle created by the twelve Masters present to witness his Knighting. He feels Obi-Wan entering behind him and taking his place among the Masters.
"We are all Jedi," Master Yoda's voice rings out in the traditional opening of the ceremony. "The Force speaks through us. Through our actions, the Force proclaims itself and what is real. Here we are today to acknowledge what the Force has proclaimed."
Suddenly, twelve lightsabers are lit in synchrony and Anakin sees that all of the Masters with the exception of Master Yoda are in full robes, with the hoods pulled up and lit sabers held in front of their faces, casting an ethereal glow on their features.
"Padawan Skywalker," Master Yoda says, gliding forward in his hoverchair to join Anakin in the circle. Anakin keeps his eyes trained on the diminutive Grand Master, expression not betraying the rapid beating of his heart. It's finally happening and he almost can't contain his joy and triumph.
"Ten years have you spent under the tutelage of Master Obi-Wan Kenobi," Master Yoda continues solemnly. "Ten years have you spent learning the ways of the Force and of the Jedi Code. Far you have come from the boy from Tatooine. Ready you are for Knighthood your Master has proposed. Ready you are for Knighthood the High Council has agreed."
Master Yoda nods and Anakin takes that as his cue to kneel. He drops down gracefully to one knee and dips his head down.
"By the right of the Council," Yoda pronounces, bringing his saber down over Anakin's right shoulder, "by the will of the Force," he swings the lightsaber slowly over Anakin's head and down over his left shoulder, "I dub thee Jedi," he swings the blade back over above Anakin's right shoulder, "Knight of the Republic."
There's a light Force tug on his Padawan braid and then a quick slash of heat dangerously close to his right ear. When Anakin looks up, it's to Master Yoda's hand holding out his shorn braid.
"Thank you, Master Yoda," Anakin says, accepting the braid and bowing his head down quickly before standing up.
One of the hooded Masters walks up next to Master Yoda, deactivates his saber and clasps his hands in front of him. Obi-Wan, their training bond tells Anakin. That bond will fade in time, he knows, but for now, it remains as strong as it ever had been.
There's an air of expectation around the circle, a breathless waiting for Anakin to complete his part of the ritualistic ceremony.
Anakin closes his hand over his Padawan braid and gives Obi-Wan a deep bow. "I thank you for your guidance, Master," he says.
It's not quite everything he should do but there's nothing required of him and he's certain that Obi-Wan isn't such a stickler for tradition that he would mind this minor deviance.
There's a brief—nearly too brief to notice, if Anakin hadn't been so attuned to the Force in that moment—hesitation before Obi-Wan returns the bow and murmurs, "It has been my honor and my pleasure, Knight Skywalker."
Anakin straightens up at the same time that Obi-Wan does, makes eye contact with his former Master, and smiles—another break in tradition—before turning and exiting the chamber.
He already knows what he's going to do with his braid; he's going to have it delivered to Padmé, as a sign of his devotion to her. That everything he is, even the part of him that's a Jedi, is hers.
"Can you believe this?" Anakin demands, stalking into Padmé's apartment. Padmé looks up, startled.
"Master Ani! What a surprise!" C3PO greets.
"Hi, Threepio," Anakin says shortly, dropping unceremoniously down on the couch. He looks a mixture of misery and terror and anger.
"Believe what?" Padmé asks with a frown.
"They're reassigning me! They're giving me command of the 41st!" Anakin jumps up and starts pacing in sharp staccato steps.
"That's...good, though, isn't it?" Padmé asks hesitantly. "That's a promotion. You've been talking about that since before your Knighting."
"It's under Master Mundi's command!" Anakin's hand clenches and relaxes and he stops by one of the columns in the room, glaring at it.
Padmé has a fleeting worry that he's going to punch through the wall before she brushes it aside. "I don't understand, Ani. I thought you and Master Mundi had worked well enough together."
"Yes. When I thought Obi-Wan was dead and I didn't have another choice. But Obi-Wan isn't dead, thank the Force. And now they're taking me away from him and I—what are they thinking? Who's going to watch out for him? He's going to get killed without someone there to watch his back!"
"Anakin, I'm sure Obi-Wan will be fine—"
Anakin slashes a hand through the air sharply. "That's not even all of it. I was his Padawan. I trained with the 501st. I should stay with them. That's how it's always done. But they're trying to separate us. They must not want to risk my further tainting him by association, now that he's on the Council."
Padmé purses her lips. "Well, perhaps you should ask the Council. I'm sure there's a perfectly logical answer for it. Or perhaps, if you feel that strongly about it, they'll put you back."
Anakin snorts. "Right, the Council. As if they'll listen to me."
"But Obi-Wan's on the Council, isn't he? Wouldn't he listen?"
"Obi—" Anakin's eyes widen. "Yes, yes, you're right. Obi-Wan would listen. Padmé, angel, you're brilliant!" And with that, he rushes over to her, kisses her fervently, and runs out the door.
He slows down to a rapid walk when he gets to the Temple entrance but makes straight for Obi-Wan's quarters. When he passes by a group of younglings nearly old enough to be chosen as Padawans, they burst out into indistinct chatter.
"Well, I don't care what anyone says," one voice—that of a Togruta female—rises over the rest, "if Master Kenobi asks me to be his Padawan, I would say yes in a heartbeat."
That silences the others long enough for Anakin to register what she had said and - what does that mean? Is Obi-Wan already looking for another Padawan? Is that why Anakin is being reassigned to a different army? He debates questioning the Togruta but decides that he could just as easily ask his former Master instead. He hurries onward, ignoring how the chatter picks up behind him.
When he gets to Obi-Wan's door, he presses the buzzer impatiently and realizes that he doesn't even know if Obi-Wan is on Coruscant or if he's been sent on a mission. Without me, he thinks and fights back the fear that if something happens to Obi-Wan, he wouldn't have any way of finding out now that they're no longer working together. This can't continue.
Just then, he senses movement inside the room, coming towards the door, and breathes a sigh of relief at the familiar Force signature.
Obi-wan opens the door with a look of mild surprise. "Anakin," he says, "I wasn't expecting to see you."
"Yeah, I've been away on missions."
"I know," Obi-Wan says with a touch of humor. And—right, of course he does. He's part of the body that's giving out the missions now. Speaking of—
"Can we talk?" Anakin asks, barely restraining himself from barging into the room as he used to do. He's not a youngling anymore, he can wait for an invitation.
"Of course," Obi-Wan says, stepping back and gesturing for Anakin to enter. "I have a strategy meeting in an hour but I was just planning on meditating before then. I'm glad you stopped by, actually. There's something I wanted to discuss with you, if you're feeling up to it."
"Yeah, sure," Anakin says, taking his customary seat by the window.
Obi-Wan takes his usual seat across from him and Anakin has a momentary flash of countless talks they'd had over the years, with the two of them in these positions, sometimes with datapads containing mission briefings, sometimes with datapads containing one of Anakin's assignments for a class, sometimes with nothing except the thoughts in their heads.
"Why don't you start first," Obi-Wan says, startling Anakin back into the present.
Anakin licks his lips. "I was informed earlier that I've been given a new command. The 41st. Under Master Mundi."
"Yes, I'm aware. Please do try to rein in some of your more reckless tendencies, for his sake."
"You have to tell the rest of the Council to move me back to the Third Systems Army."
Obi-Wan blinks. "What? Why? I thought you got along well enough with Master Mundi?"
"No, no, it isn't about him. It isn't right, separating us. They can't do this. We've worked together for so long, and I was training to take over the 501st, and I was just getting to a good place with them—"
"Oh, yes, I know. But unfortunately, it's far too complicated to shift an entire legion around to another army. I'm sure you'll get comfortable leading the 41st as well—"
"—and who will watch your back if I'm not there? What if you get taken again? And killed for real this time? I thought you were really dead last time, you disappeared from the Force and our bond broke and we're not even going to have an active bond anymore so if we're not in the same chain of command, how will I ever know if you need my help?"
Obi-Wan looks taken aback. "Anakin, you're a Knight now. You're not obligated to watch my back or come to my aide. I apologize if you ever felt like you had to do that as an apprentice." He bows his head and shakes it minutely. "I suppose this is one area that needs correcting," he mutters.
"What? I didn't—I never helped you because I thought I had to, like it was some kind of requirement. I did it because I couldn't just let you die!"
"Hm, well, I suppose that's better. But the point still stands. Anakin, you're a Knight now. You can work with other Masters besides me. In fact, I think it would be a good experience for you to work with other Masters. You'll be able to see different styles of doing things and incorporate them into your own if you want. It's a luxury that I didn't have and you'll be better prepared to train your own Padaawan one day."
Anakin feels bewildered. "My own Padawan? But I was only just Knighted! I'm not ready for a Padawan."
"No, I know. You need some time on your own first. But one day, you will be and you'll be better prepared to teach someone if you're familiar with different styles of teaching."
"But that's not—I just want to get transferred back to your army! Unless you—do you not want to work with me anymore?" He can't help the sudden note of insecurity that creeps into his voice.
"Of course I want to work with you, Anakin," Obi-Wan says firmly. "And I will. But—and this is what I had wanted to talk with you about, actually—I wasn't ready to teach you Anakin. I was never meant to be your Master. Qui-Gon would have been a far better teacher for you. I tried my best but clearly it wasn't enough."
"I'm not upset that you made that clear to the Council. That's your right, of course. I wish you had spoken with me about how you felt earlier, so that I could try to make corrections but I understand if you didn't feel like you could talk to me about it."
"What? Made what clear? Correct what? I don't understand." Are they even having the same conversation? Anakin feels like it had shifted without him realizing and he doesn't know what Obi-Wan's talking about now.
"My role as your Master. Or perhaps our relationship as Master and Padawan?"
"What would you have needed to correct about that? There wasn't anything wrong! What even gave the Council the idea that there was something wrong?"
Obi-Wan just stares at him and he looks tired and aged and sad all of a sudden. "I see," he says.
See what? Anakin wants to scream. He doesn't see anything at all. This conversation is infuriatingly frustrating.
"Well, when you feel like you can talk to me about it, I'm ready to hear it, even if it isn't for a while yet. If you feel like you can't tell me, I would urge you to speak to someone else about it. Perhaps Master Mundi. Or even Master Yoda." He starts to get up.
"Wait. So you won't have the Council move me back to your command?" Anakin asks. In this, at least, he'll get a straight answer before he leaves.
"It's not in my power to do so. But even if it was, I agree with the decision. I think it'll be a good experience for you to work with someone besides me. You'll like working with Master Mundi."
Anakin presses his lips together unhappily but Obi-Wan's already moving towards the door and he knows that the conversation's over. At least for now. He reluctantly gets up and lets himself be shown out, stopping at the doorway and giving Obi-Wan a small bow in farewell.
He passes by another group of younglings, this one a couple of years away from being Padawans, who watch him with wide eyes as he turns the corner away from Obi-Wan's room.
He decides to try speaking with Master Mundi next, and finds the Cerean Master in the Temple Gardens.
"Anakin!" Master Mundi greets him with a smile. "How are you? Come walk with me."
"I'm well, Master Mundi," Anakin says. He phrases his next sentence carefully because something is clearly going on with the Council and his assignment and he doesn't know what it is but he doesn't want to make it worse. And Obi-Wan worried that I hadn't learned enough about diplomacy, hah. "I was surprised to learn about my reassignment."
Master Mundi frowns at him, though. "I'm sorry to hear that. Anakin, I know that you've had a difficult relationship with the Council over the years and I apologize if we've given you the impression that we would leave you working with someone you take exception to. Perhaps I should not have been so quick to send you back to Master Kenobi's tutelage after Jabiim. We will take the steps necessary now to help you perform at your best. We truly need every Jedi at their best during this trying time."
"What? But I wanted to go back to Obi-Wan. There wasn't anything wrong with the two of us, we were fine!"
"Then did something happen after? We've questioned Obi-Wan about it but he couldn't recall."
"Questioned? Questioned him about what? Nothing happened! Why do you and Obi-Wan keep talking about something happening? Where did you get this idea that something happened? What happened?"
"Well, that's for you to tell us, Anakin," Master Mundi replies serenely. "If you wish. You don't have to, of course. We don't need to know the details. I want to reassure you that Obi-Wan did nothing to impede the transition. In fact, he helped to facilitate it and he allowed Master Yoda to perform a Force-guided review of his memories. Master Yoda didn't find anything especially concerning but Obi-Wan's been temporarily relieved of his teaching responsibilities as a precaution until it's been determined what he needs to improve as a teacher. In that sense, it would be helpful to hear feedback from you, so that when he does eventually take on another Padawan, he won't repeat the same mistakes. Though it may just be that you and he were a less-than-ideal mix in personality and were unable to work through your disagreements? This had been a rather rude awakening for him, but no Master expects this outcome." Master Mundi shakes his head. "Perhaps the Council should never have granted him permission to train you. He didn't have any experience as a Knight himself."
"I don't understand. Obi-Wan was a great Master. He was the best I could have had."
"Anakin," Master Mundi says gently, "you don't have to worry about repercussions if you tell me. This is why we waited to ask you until you had been removed from Obi-Wan's command, so that there would be no conflict of interest."
"You think Obi-Wan would retaliate against me if I reported him for something?" Anakin asks hysterically. "He's more likely to shoulder more blame than he deserves and punish himself for it. Which is what he's doing now! I don't know what he's told you but nothing bad happened and there's no reason, absolutely none at all, for me to be removed from his side. Because nothing happened and even if something did, I wouldn't fear repercussions from him. He would never do anything to hurt me."
"Not intentionally perhaps," Master Mundi says. "We do believe him in that; he would not have been raised to the High Council if there had been any doubt about his character in that sense."
"Then you should know that he was the best Master he could have been! What did he say happen? I'll counter any claims he made. Because they'll be completely unfounded. He's a kriffin' martyr. I can't believe he's doing this." He's angry at Obi-Wan on Obi-Wan's behalf. That self-sacrificing idiot. This is why Anakin needs to stay with him. He doesn't put any value on his own life.
"He hasn't said anything. He's as much in the dark on this as we are. But if you wish to tell us what areas he needs to correct, please know that you can tell me or any of the Council members at any time and we will strive to work with Obi-Wan to become a better teacher. We do take these allegations very seriously. The training of Padawans forms the foundation of the Order."
"What allegations?" Anakin shouts.
"That he failed as a teacher, of course."
"What? I never said that!"
"You withheld your braid."
Anakin stops. He blinks at Master Mundi. "'The braid'?" he repeats. Then it clicks and he sees a flash of it in his mind, his recently shorn braid in his hand, Obi-Wan and Yoda before him, that air of expectation and waiting. "But it's just tradition to give the braid to the Master. It wasn't required."
"Of course not. We would never require a Padawan give something like that to anyone."
"But. It's just a braid," Anakin says weakly. He's starting to get the sense that he missed something about this, that it wasn't just tradition but Tradition.
"Mm." Master Mundi resumes walking and Anakin follows automatically. "Jedi have very few things that are really ours. Our robes, our food, our rooms, all of those belong to the Temple, to the Order. There are only two possessions that a Jedi has that are personalized. Our lightsabers and our Padawan braids. Both of those are imbued with a depth of meaning. We customize the design of our sabers and we embark on a journey of self-discovery when we obtain the crystal for it. Over time, it absorbs some of the Jedi's Force presence and becomes unmistakably theirs. When you handle another's lightsaber, you get a sense of that other Jedi, correct?"
"That's why it's a sign of such respect and trust when two Jedi trade sabers. Similarly, a Padawan braid holds great significance to a Jedi. It is a symbol of their years of training, the education they have obtained, the experiences they had that helped form them into who they are as Knights. Each additional band besides the standard two represents a Padawan's particular interest and skill. You know that."
Again, Anakin nods. He does know it. He had selected his bands for his piloting and mechanic skills with Obi-Wan's input and Obi-Wan had helped him add them to his braid.
"But it isn't just the Padawan that braid is representative of. For no Padawan can get to Knighthood without the guidance of a Master. So the braid also signifies the partnership between Padawan and Master. And at the end of the training, traditionally the Padawan gives their braid to their Master, because without them, they would not have completed their training. It is a sign of respect and appreciation for the Master, a way of thanking the Master for their efforts and a way of leaving a part of them behind with the Master while they embark on their new lives."
"Yeah, I know. But Obi-Wan knows that I respect him and that I appreciate his teachings. And I'm not going anywhere. I wasn't planning on it anyway. I had thought we would continue working together after I was Knighted. What would he need my braid for?"
"A Knight has their own path within the Force and it does not always intersect with their former Master's, no matter what our intentions may be. So the braid is all that the Master can rely on having. It serves as a reminder of their time with their Padawan and all that they have learned from teaching that Padawan, for the training period is one of growth for the Master as well. But it must be given of the Padawan's free will. This is how it has been done in the past thousand years, if not more.
There's only been a couple of handfuls of times when a Padawan has scorned tradition and withheld their braid from their Master. Sometimes the braid was given to a different Master who the Knight felt was more instrumental in their education. Other times, it was kept by the Knight and wasn't given to any Master. But in all of those cases, withholding the braid symbolized a repudiation of the Master by the Padawan."
"Repudiation?" Anakin whispers, horrified.
"Yes. It means that the Padawan thought the Master's teaching was lacking and that it may as well have not happened. It is the gravest insult a Padawan can give and an indication that the Padawan no longer wishes to have anything to do with the Master. That they considered their association of ten or more years to be done and forgotten. During peacetime, this would have meant that the new Knight would never be assigned to a mission with their former Master. But the Republic is at war and the Jedi are part of one military body so the Council determined that moving one of you to a different unit would be the best we could manage for separation. Is that not sufficient? I'm afraid there's a limited number of options available right now."
"But there wasn't anything wrong between us. There was nothing lacking in Obi-Wan's teaching. I just, I didn't think there would be consequences to not following tradition. I didn't mean to repudiate him. I didn't even think that was a possibility."
"It's rarely done and not talked about much. It's not one that any Jedi wants to consider happening to them. Our training lineages are what binds us to each other and to be renounced by a member of one's own lineage is....well," Master Mundi trails off. "We know you didn't have a very easy transition into the Order, Anakin. We had hoped that over time, you would find your place among your peers. But when that didn't happen, we had thought that at least you and Obi-Wan had a strong bond. You were the only two left in your lineage, except for Master Yoda who's the start of many lineages."
"Wait, but I'm not renouncing him. I don't want to disassociate myself from him."
"Of course you can still speak with him if you wish. We just want to ensure that you'll be able to function to the best of your ability on missions, and if that means not working with Obi-Wan, then so be it. The war places some constraints on how we distribute missions but we can at the least limit your interactions with him and not keep you in a subordinate position to him."
"But I don't want to limit my time with Obi-Wan. You want me to function to the best of my ability? Then put me back with Obi-Wan! We work well together. We're a great team. We'll be the best team in the Order. There isn't anyone else I can or want to work with more than Obi-Wan. Even you, Master Mundi. No offense."
Master Mundi just raises a brow at him and Anakin mentally groans. Great. Now they'll probably separate him from Obi-Wan because he's too attached.
"I didn't withhold the braid because I thought he was a bad teacher," he insists. "Or because I can't work with him."
"So you are not repudiating Obi-Wan?"
"No. I wasn't repudiating him. I'm proud to have had him as my Master."
Master Mundi nods slowly. "Very well. I'll present your request to the Council about transferring you back. But Anakin, perhaps you should consider working with others anyway. You may not think it now, but there could be other Jedi you would work better with than Obi-Wan."
"You may not have withheld the braid because there was something wrong between you two but you still didn't give him the braid. Perhaps if you meditate on that, you'll learn what it is that you felt was lacking between you and why you had kept the braid for yourself."
"Nothing. There was nothing lacking. I just made a mistake. I didn't think the Jedi cared so much about it. I'll give him the braid. It's fine."
"Anakin, that's not—I'm not saying that you ought to give him the braid. I'm suggesting that there was a reason, a subconscious one, perhaps, why you kept the braid and didn't feel that Obi-Wan deserved to have it. And that if you meditate on it, you may learn what that reason was and that might help you strengthen your relationship with Obi-Wan."
He doesn't have to meditate on it though; he knows why he didn't give the braid to Obi-Wan just as he knows that he can never tell Obi-Wan or anyone in the Order the real reason. It wouldn't strengthen his relationship with Obi-Wan, it would rip it completely apart. "I'll talk to Obi-Wan. And I'll give him the braid."
"Anakin," Master Mundi says when he's turning around to leave. "You should know that Obi-Wan was your staunchest supporter for your obtaining Knighthood. There were some on the Council who felt you weren't ready but Obi-Wan was able to convince them that you were and that you deserved the promotion. He took responsibility for your recklessness in battle which, having worked with you as a Master temporarily, I knew was no fault of his. But he did so to give you a clean start as a Knight with the Council. Not many Masters would do that. Take care that you don't waste his efforts."
Anakin nods shortly and hurries away.
"Where's the braid?" he asks as soon as he enters Padmé's apartment again.
She's dressed in a simple, silky gown now and lounging on the sofa in front of the window with a flimsiplast. The sky's darkening outside as Coruscant enters a night cycle. "Huh? What braid?" Padmé asks, setting down the flimsi and coming over to him.
"My Padawan braid that I had Threepio deliver to you. Where'd you put it? I need it back. I made a huge mistake."
Padmé frowns. "What's going on?"
"I didn't give the braid to Obi-Wan because I didn't think I had to but because I didn't, the Council and Obi-Wan now think there was something that went wrong during my training which is why they're separating us. I need to fix it. I need to give him the braid. You do still have it, don't you?"
"Of course I do. It's in the box with the carving you gave to me when you were nine."
"Can I have it back? I'm sorry. I'll get you something else."
"It's fine, Anakin. Here, I'll go get it for you." She makes her way to her bedroom and comes back soon with the braided lock of hair.
"Thank you!" he enthuses and hugs her tightly before taking the braid. "I'm going to go give this to him now, before he or the Council get any more ideas in their heads."
"Okay," Padmé says with a tinge of amusement.
Anakin catches Obi-Wan walking back to his room in the residential quarter of the Temple. "Strategy meeting over?"
"Yes," Obi-Wan says with a sigh. "For now, at least."
They walk by a pair of Padawans who turn immediately to whisper to each other upon seeing them. Anakin frowns. "Why does it feel like everyone's talking about me today? Everywhere I go, whenever I pass by other Jedi, chatter starts."
"It's not you," Obi-Wan says. "Or, not directly, anyway."
"So, it's...you?" Anakin hazards a guess.
Obi-Wan sighs again. "You know how the Temple is. Information has a way of getting around and it's far more interesting to talk about a scandal involving a Knighting ceremony than the war."
"Something scandalous?" Anakin says. Then he widens his eyes in realization. He turns back and stalks over to the two Padawans, ignoring Obi-Wan calling his name. "Hey," he says to the Padawans, startling them into looking away from each other and at him. "Are you two talking about Obi-Wan? It is rude to spread rumors and gossip about someone. And I'll have you know that Obi-Wan didn't do anything. Nothing at all, okay? Any youngling would be lucky to have him as a Master. Why don't you spread that piece of news around."
The Padawans stare at him with wide eyes.
"Anakin," Obi-Wan says behind him, clasping a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. There's no need to frighten them. This isn't the first time I've been the subject of gossip around the Order. It'll pass the next time Quinlan pulls one of his stunts. Come on. You must have been looking for me for something, right?"
"Why aren't you more upset about this?" Anakin asks, letting himself be turned back towards Obi-Wan's room. Obi-Wan drops his hand from Anakin's shoulder and he immediately misses that contact.
"I have other matters to be concerned with right now besides what younglings are saying about my teaching abilities." Obi-Wan shrugs. "So. What was it you wanted to speak with me about?"
"Here," Anakin says simply, holding out his braid. He had anxiously curled it into a small coil on the way over, red and yellow bands dotting it at uneven intervals. "Take it."
"What?" Obi-Wan looks taken aback.
"Take it," Anakin insists. "It's yours. I should have given it to you during the ceremony but I wasn't thinking."
Obi-Wan gingerly stretches out his hand and runs his index finger along the strands of hair. There's a wistfulness about the gesture and Anakin longs to just grab the other man's hand and put the braid into it. But Obi-Wan retracts his hand and takes a step back, as if distancing himself from Anakin, and the braid. He shakes his head. "I can't. You should put that back where you had it."
"What? What do you mean, you can't? Of course you can. I'm giving it to you now!"
"You said that you hadn't been thinking but can you honestly tell me that you hadn't put any thought at all over the years into what you would do with your braid once it was cut off?" Obi-Wan stares intently at him. Anakin looks helplessly back; he can't and he doesn't know how Obi-Wan knows but he somehow does. He doesn't appear to be angry, though.
"Just months?" Obi-Wan asks with an arch to his brow.
"Just since I thought it was going to happen soon. But can't I change my mind?" Anakin asks plaintively. He doesn't know what he'll do, how he'll make amends if Obi-Wan doesn't accept the braid.
"Of course you can. But it's also my decision whether to accept the braid or not. And I can't take something that I didn't earn, especially this when it wasn't given freely to me."
"But I am freely giving this to you! No one is making me do it."
"Anakin, giving it to me because you feel guilty about the fallout of your initial decision or because you think that you need to in order to get what you want isn't giving it freely. Though I must admit I'm not entirely sure why you want to return to the Third Systems Army at all."
"To fight at your side!" Anakin says.
"Which we will still do. You leading the 41st doesn't have to mean that we'll never be on missions together if you don't want it to mean that. But Anakin, I spent a lot of time in meditation after your Knighting and I think you were right in your decision. You said it yourself before the ceremony - I'm no Qui-Gon. I tried my best to pass on his wisdom and teachings but I know I wasn't a perfect replacement. I didn't deserve your braid."
"You didn't have to be a replacement for him! I misspoke, before. I was just upset with the Council. You know I get frustrated with them. I shouldn't have taken it out on you. I'm sorry."
Obi-Wan smiles at him, but it doesn't reach his eyes.
Anakin feels sick.
"I still believe that you were ready to be Knighted, Anakin. I wish I could have done more for you but I think you're going to be a wonderful Jedi, in spite of any gaps in your training that I couldn't fill. And I will do what I can to identify what those gaps are and make sure they're filled in by qualified Masters."
"There aren't any gaps!"
"You don't have to spare my ego, Anakin. I know quite well that I still have a lot to learn. We all do and we never stop learning."
"Right, yeah, so the things I still have to learn, whatever you and the Council think I haven't learned during training, that's not your fault. And I'm not repudiating you. I'm not renouncing you. That's never what I was trying to do."
Obi-Wan smiles again and this time it's lighter, as if a weight's been lifted from him. "Thank you, Anakin. But enough of that now. I know that you had been looking forward to being Knighted. Don't get all bogged down in this. You're a Knight, now. It's a big accomplishment. Don't worry about your old Master. I can take care of myself."
"No, you can't," Anakin mutters. Louder, he says, "So will you take the braid now?"
Obi-Wan shakes his head. "No. It's yours."
"It should have been yours. That's what I'm trying to say."
"There are many 'should have's but only one 'was'. Perhaps this was the final lesson of your apprenticeship for both of us. We can't dwell on the past and what we wish we had done differently."
Anakin's heart falls. "And you won't ask for me to be transferred back to the 501st?"
Obi-Wan shakes his head. "It's no longer my place to do so. I was able to advocate for you to be Knighted because I was your Master. That time has passed. If the Council asks it of me, I would be happy to have you back with the 501st. But I'm not in a position to make such a request now."
Anakin is reluctant to let the conversation end on that note. The issue feels very...unresolved. "I feel like I've ruined something between us. How can I fix it if you won't accept my braid?"
"There isn't anything for you to fix. You didn't ruin anything, Anakin. You've just uncovered the truth. And the truth is that I wasn't a good enough Master for you. That's not on you. That's on me. But having you work with Master Mundi, who is far more experienced than I, might go some way in correcting my fallacy."
"Your fallacy?" Anakin echoes.
"That I could train you, even though I had just been promoted to Knighthood myself. And that only because I managed to defeat a Sith. I had never taken the Trials and Force only knows if I would have been ready to pass those. The Council hadn't thought so, before the battle on Naboo. And Qui-Gon had only suggested it so that he could take you on as his next Padawan. I don't know how far away I really was from being Knighted."
Obi-Wan shakes his head. "But that's in the past. Anakin, I really am honored to have had the opportunity to teach you and to learn from you. I hope that one day, I will be able to earn your respect. I wish you well on your future path wherever that takes you. May the Force be with you." Obi-Wan bows and then turns and enters his room.
Anakin hadn't even realized that they had been standing in front of his door all this time. He blinks at the now closed door with 'Kenobi' inscribed on the nameplate next to it. He looks down at the coiled braid still laying in his open palm and then back up at the door. "But I do respect you," he whispers. How had he made such a mess of things?
When he enters Padmé's apartment for the third time that day, he feels like he's walking in durasteel boots.
"How did it go?" Padmé asks as soon as he's inside.
"Welcome back, Master Ani. Would you care for some dinner?" C3PO greets him.
"No, thanks, Threepio. I don't have much of an appetite right now." Anakin drops down onto the couch and cups his face in his hands. He feels Padmé settle next to him and wrap her arm around his shoulders. "He refused to take it," he says into his hands. "Worse, he thinks I don't respect him."
"Did it have that much significance?" Padmé questions.
"Yes. It's one of the very few things a Jedi has that are his or her own. That's why I wanted to give it to you as a token of my love. But now I've ruined everything with Obi-Wan. What am I going to do?"
"Well...perhaps this is for the best."
"What?" Anakin drops his hands and stares at his wife in shock.
Padmé holds up her hand. "Hear me out. In the time that I've known you, you've spoken more about Obi-Wan than anything else. But about half of that is complaints about his treatment of you, about how he's been holding you back and not trusted you or listened to you. And now, you have a chance to work with someone who is not Obi-Wan; someone who might treat you differently. Someone who might treat you better."
Anakin feels a lurch in his stomach as if he had been punched. "Padmé, those things I said about Obi-Wan—I didn't mean them like that. I was just frustrated. He's not a bad person. He wasn't a bad teacher. I don't not respect him. I don't want to not work with him. I don't want someone who will treat me differently or better. Obi-Wan's always treated me well. He took me on as a Padawan to make sure I'd be trained, even though he could have just been a Knight like his friends. He—Master Mundi said that he took responsibility for the things I did that the Council wasn't happy with. He—"
"I didn't say he was a bad person," Padmé interjects. "I've only had a limited number of interactions with him and going by what I've seen, he's an upstanding man and an honorable Jedi. But I don't know him the way you do; I can only judge him as a teacher based on what you've said to me. And similarly, he can only judge your feelings toward him based on your words and actions. If you say you respect someone but you don't also show them that you respect them, you can't expect them to believe you. And it sounds like that's what's happening here. Perhaps you should have given him your braid during the ceremony."
"Yeah," Anakin says miserably. "But I didn't and it's too late now."
"We all make mistakes, Ani. Sometimes you can fix them but sometimes, you just have to accept that you made them and move on as best you can."
"I don't want to move on from this one. I want to fix it."
Padmé sighs. "Well, I have an early meeting in the morning so I need to go to sleep. Try not to stay up all night thinking about this. I'm sure that it'll resolve itself in time." She presses a kiss to his temple and gets up.
"Yeah, alright," Anakin mutters absently and pulls the braid out of his pocket. He stares contemplatively at it, and tries to think of how he can make things right again. He refuses to believe that he can't.
"I'd like an audience with the Council," Anakin tells the Temple Guard at the door to the Council chambers. The guard just nods and gestures for him to take a seat among the others waiting to speak with the Council. Most of them, he knows, are Knights and Masters with their Padawans waiting to either be briefed on an upcoming mission or be debriefed from a mission. A few might be present to make a request of the Council, like him. He's never done this; he hasn't had the kind of relationship with the Council where he could have or had wanted to ask them for anything. But this he wants enough that he'll risk the Council's criticism to formally ask.
He waits patiently through the Council's private session, then through the others being called in one by one in the order that they had arrived once the Council's open session starts. He keeps himself occupied practicing what he will say once he is in the room, the speech that Padmé had helped him put together.
Finally, he's called in and it's his turn to stand in the center of the Council chamber.
"Knight Skywalker," Mace starts. "I presume this visit is in regards to your request to be transferred back to the Third Systems Army?"
Startled, Anakin glances over at Obi-Wan whose eyes shift to Master Mundi. The Cerean gives him a slight nod. Anakin turns back to Mace and says, "Yes, Master Windu. I am eager to find out if my request has been granted."
"Before I give you our answer, I'd like to hear from you why you want to be transferred back."
Anakin licks his lips nervously. "Masters, I'm afraid that I unintentionally gave you the wrong impression about Obi-Wan during my Knighting. Obi-Wan was a fine teacher, an excellent mentor, and an admirable Jedi. I could not have asked for anyone better to learn from. I have never been a strict observer of tradition so my withholding my braid was not intended to be a slight against Obi-Wan. I am not repudiating him and I do not wish to be separated from him. Furthermore, I feel that given the current state of the Republic and the Jedi's role in the war, I would be able to serve the Order best as a partner to Obi-Wan, rather than as a subordinate to Master Mundi who, though I'm sure is a good commander in his own right, is not someone whose style I am familiar with. Obi-Wan and I work well together. We know each other, we complement each other on the field. I believe the two of us together would accomplish far more than either one of us alone."
Master Windu stares at him for an interminably long time and Anakin starts to wonder if he's in a silent debate with the other Councilors. Mace's lips twist as if he's bitten into something sour. "We agree, Knight Skywalker. Master Kenobi has agreed to the transfer. You are hereby reinstated as the General of the 501st Legion, under the command of High General Kenobi of the Third Systems Army." Mace's expression suggests that he himself had not agreed but Anakin doesn't care. It's not Mace whose opinion he values. He doesn't dare look at Obi-Wan though. He's afraid of what he'll see, though he knows that Obi-Wan has one of the best dejarik faces.
He's relieved at the verdict and doesn't care if it shows on his face. This isn't all there is to it, he knows, but it's an important step. He next has to figure out how to truly make amends with Obi-Wan. But at least they'll be able to work together again while he does that. He bows. "Thank you for your consideration, Councilors."
Then he leaves before he can mess anything else up.
It isn't until they're in a command tent reviewing strategy with Commander Cody and Captain Rex and Anakin spots a strand of ginger hair caught in the coarse fabric of Obi-Wan's outer robe that he has an idea for how to fix things. He picks the hair off of the cloth and when Obi-Wan looks over curiously, Anakin holds it up with a cheeky grin and quips, "You're shedding like a loth-cat, Obi-Wan. Must be getting old."
Obi-Wan rolls his eyes. "Could you please just focus on the battle plan?" he says and turns back to continue his discussion with Cody.
"Of course," Anakin says agreeably and surreptitiously tucks the strand of hair away in one of his pouches. Then he really does refocus on the planning meeting because it's been a couple of weeks since Anakin's been reassigned to the 501st and he and Obi-Wan are still walking on shells around each other. They barely talk outside of the missions and when they do, the conversation's stilted. Despite Obi-Wan's reassurances that Anakin's failure to uphold tradition hadn't changed anything between them, he's more and more sure that it has.
He's been carrying his braid with him and thinks sometimes about sneaking it into Obi-Wan's belongings so that the other man will take it. But that wouldn't be the same, Anakin knows. And he's also glumly certain that the braid would find its way back to him somehow.
But this....this he thinks might work, if he can pull it off. He starts to look forward to the culmination of this project, treats it as if it's a mission—his own personal mission.
He spends the next couple of weeks collecting stray ginger strands of hair, brushing imaginary lint off of Obi-Wan's shoulders and surprising him with brief massages. Obi-Wan startles badly the first couple of days and Anakin thinks that perhaps he should back off of the casual touches. Obi-Wan's always held himself apart from others, now that he thinks about it. But then Obi-Wan stops jumping every time Anakin reaches out to him, stops commenting on Anakin picking at his clothes, starts leaning into his hands squeezing the tension out of his muscles.
One night, when they have a brief respite from the fighting and Obi-Wan's collapsed onto a cot to sleep for the first time in seventy-two hours, Anakin sits down cross-legged at the low table that's been set up in their tent and turns on one of the portable flashbeams. He pulls out his old braid and lays it out on the table and looks at it for a while. He feels like he's looked at this braid and thought about what it represents more since his Knighting than he had in the ten years of his training. It had always just been there, just something that he wore. Now it represents a time of his life he can't go back to, for better or worse.
With all the trouble this braid has caused him, he'd thought it would be a relief to finally do this but he finds that he's reluctant to unravel it. It makes him nervous because what if things get worse between him and Obi-Wan and then he won't even have this to remind him of how things used to be?
But—he looks over at Obi-Wan's prone form—if he keeps holding on to the past, he and Obi-Wan can't move forward. Perhaps they can't have what they used to have but they might be able to have something better. They have to. Anakin will make sure of that. He vows to keep this lesson in mind and to treat Obi-Wan with the respect and the appreciation that he deserves.
Taking in a deep breath to steady himself, he tugs off the red band at the bottom of his braid and starts to pull the strands apart. When he reaches the yellow band that signals the start of the braid, he leaves it tying the individual hairs together and smooths out the long blond hairs. He loops the red band around the bundle of ginger-colored hair that he's gathered over the past couple of weeks and threads the end through a gold ring until the ring is sitting at the center of the length of hair. Then he uses the Force to hold the ring steady while he overlays the blond bundle of hair over it, arranging it so that it bisects the red hair. He winds the red and yellow threads of hair over and under each other and pulls the strands tight to form a knot around the ring. Then he repeats the cycle.
As he winds the red and blond hairs together in a lengthening chain, he focuses his thoughts on his relationship with Obi-Wan—his admiration for the other man, his worry over his safety and his life, his affection and fondness for him, his need to protect him, his fear of losing him, his gratitude at the time they've already had together, his hopes that they'll have many more years with each other. He's chosen a circular pattern for the braid in honor of the two of them commanding the Circle Fleet Armada together as well as to represent how the two of them form two halves of a whole.
He sinks into the Force and uses it to guide him on when to add a bead - he's decided to forgo any bands this time and instead plans to use a small crystal bead for each of the traditional colors. In a Padawan braid, they would have signified the Padawan's special skills. But in this braid, they will represent his hopes and well wishes for his and Obi-Wan's futures.
White first, that they will heal the rift between them and that they'll be able to heal from the ravages of war, both mentally and physically.
Yellow next, that their skills with their lightsabers will be enough to allow them to protect each other.
Then blue, that their mechanical knowledge (more Anakin's than Obi-Wan's) will serve them well as they spend more and more time aboard ships and tanks fighting against droids.
Red, that they will be able to fly through battles successfully and always land safely.
Black, that if they need to go undercover, they will be able to do so without being discovered and captured (again).
Last, but not least because it is what ties them to each other and to all life, green, that the Force will be with them always.
When he comes to the ends of the strands of hair, he slides the red and yellow bands off and uses the Force to thread the ends of hair back into the braided knots. It doesn't look or feel like a traditional Padawan braid; it's shorter and it contains alternating thick ginger and blond cords of hair. It glows faintly to his Force sense but even as he's watching, that fads as if it's being absorbed into the braid.
He feels inexplicably tired after that, and yet accomplished. It's a different kind of braid, he thinks. But is it one that Obi-Wan would accept? He hopes so.
Anakin wakes to his name being called and fingers tapping on his left forearm. He jerks up and realizes that he's fallen asleep on the table with the finished braid in one hand.
He groans and straightens, rubbing the back of his neck. His back aches from being hunched over the table for hours.
"I thought about just letting you sleep there the rest of the night," Obi-Wan says in a hush. Anakin turns to see that he's on his side, eyes slitted open, hair sleep-mussed, lips curved in a small smile. "Just so that when you woke up in the morning, you'd realize that you really aren't as young as you used to be. But then I figured we couldn't afford to have you all stiff and achy in the morning. What are you doing? It's the middle of the night cycle."
Anakin looks back at the braid and decides that now's as good a time as any to give it to Obi-Wan. It's completely silent outside, the entire army unit asleep except for the sentries keeping watch. He crawls over to Obi-Wan's cot and tucks his legs under it. He holds the braid up between them.
Obi-Wan blinks, rubs his eyes, and then squints to see the braid in the dim light of the tent. "What is that?"
"It's a new braid. It's our braid."
Obi-Wan frowns. "That doesn't look like a Padawan braid."
"Because it's not. This isn't for our past. It's not about my training. This is for us now. For our partnership. See? Both you and I are in this."
Obi-Wan reaches out for the braid and Anakin slides the ring anchoring it onto his index finger. Obi-Wan brings it closer to his face and stares at it in wonder. "It feels like you."
"And you. It's a two-strand braid. The traditional Padawan braids have three strands—one for the Padawan, one for the Master, and one for the Order. But this is just about us, so it's one strand for each of us, doubled up and building on each other. This braid isn't possible without both strands."
Obi-Wan's throat works as he swallows. "Where'd you learn how to make this?" he asks hoarsely.
"Some of the traders I had met on Tatooine as a kid. They showed me a bunch of different knots that they use to secure cargo. I made some changes to it to tie in the beads and instead of knotting it off into a tail at the end, I wove the ends back into the braid itself."
"This is...Anakin," Obi-Wan meets his eyes with wide blue ones. He's made Obi-Wan speechless. He'd be quite proud of himself for it but he has more to say so he barrels on before he can lose his nerve.
"Obi-Wan, these are the words I want you to remember. I've said you were the closest thing I had to a father, and you are. You've said you wanted us to be brothers, and we are. But we're more than that. We're two halves of a whole. Some people we choose to bring into our lives and some people are brought into it. Neither one of us chose each other ten years ago but you don't choose the other half of your soul. It's already yours," he says in a rush.
He means to stop there but it's like once he's started, everything he's been mulling over is spilling out all at once. "We were meant to meet," he continues intently. "You were meant to teach me. No matter what had happened, we would have found each other, the Force would have brought us together. I believe that with every fiber of my being. I'm thankful beyond words for your teaching and your friendship. But that was just a prequel. This is when our real story starts."
Obi-Wan blinks rapidly and closes his hand around the braid tightly. He wraps his other hand around the back of Anakin's neck and Anakin lets himself be tugged down. Obi-Wan presses his lips to the top of his head. "Anakin," he murmurs, "thank you. I will treasure this always."
Anakin closes his eyes and feels something settle in his chest. They stay like that for a moment longer and then Obi-Wan takes a shuddering breath and lets him go.
"You should get some sleep," he says gruffly.
Anakin bites his lip. "Yeah," he agrees. "Good night."
"See you at sunrise," Obi-Wan says with a quirk of his lips. Then he brings his closed fist to his chest and closes his eyes.
Anakin goes to his own cot with a spring in his step and a feeling like everything will be okay again. No, he mentally corrects himself. Everything will be better.
In the morning, Obi-Wan is already up and dressed by the time Anakin wakes up. He has a moment of panicked disorientation and he looks down at his empty hands and over at the empty table top. The braid—where is it? He pats the pockets of his inner robe but they're empty too.
Then Obi-Wan clears his throat. When Anakin looks up, Obi-Wan runs two fingers down the front of his tunic and he can see the outline of the braid hanging on a thin chain around his neck, hidden under the fabric of his clothes.
Anakin breathes a sigh of relief. So their middle-of-the-night conversation hadn't been a dream.
Obi-Wan quirks his lips at him and without a word, exits the tent. The flap doesn't quite close completely so the early morning sunlight spills inside.
It's a new day.