The cup rattled just a bit, sliding almost imperceptibly across the table. The water inside sloshed around as it was moved by invisible hands, the meniscus bobbing frantically with the motion. A few meters away from the table, a lanky teenage boy of fifteen years stood, his eyes closed, his right hand outstretched and trembling with exertion. His name was Selusda Kraen, though he usually went by Selu, and he was a Jedi Padawan, as denoted by his plain tan tunic and the long braid extending from his otherwise close-cropped black hair down across his shoulder. Though he was in no way touching the cup of water, it continued to vibrate and then lifted off the table to float twenty centimeters above the hard gray ceramic surface, joining two other cups that were floating there, suspended in thin air by the power of the Force.
The young man stood there silently, gritting his teeth as his brow furrowed with exertion. He had been standing that way for the past couple of minutes. There were three cups in the air now, all hovering perfectly still, and three more that remained on the table. The teenager’s right index finger twitched, and the base of the fourth cup started subtly shifting as he sought to extend his mind’s reach around it and lift it, too, off the surface of the table. He had once lifted five into the air, and now, today, he would strive to hoist six into the air telekinetically. If the Force was with him.
And then the light, tinkling sound of female giggling resonated across the small practice room where he’d been straining to control the water cups. Selu’s concentration vanished like a group of younglings caught out of their dormitory by a Jedi Master after hours. All three cups of water tumbled out of the air to clatter into a landing on the table and floor as he lost his mental grip on them, spilling water everywhere. None of the cups broke-the Jedi Order had been far too prescient to place easily breakable objects in a place filled with younglings who could move objects with their minds.
“Blast!” Selu burst out, his eyes darting towards the source of the laughter.
As it turned out, that source was one rather well-known to him. A lithe female human about his age, also wearing the familiar tan-and-brown tunic and leggings of a Jedi Padawan, was standing at the entrance of the room. Her hair, shiny, mostly straight and as black as midnight, was fairly short, coming down to her neck, except for her own Padawan braid, which was tucked behind her back to lie against her shoulder blade. There was mirth in her blue eyes as she surveyed the sight before her.
“Nicely done, Selu,” she said with a wry grin. “I think Master Yoda was looking for someone to mop these floors as an exercise. He’ll certainly thank you for volunteering.”
Selu muttered something incomprehensible under his breath as he stooped down to pick up the fallen cups of water. Serra Keto was in his lightsaber class-and by class, he meant the physical group of students, as she outclassed him and most of the other students in nearly every way when it came to handling a blade. Some people, Selu thought jealously, had everything handed to them on an aurodium platter. Based on his first impressions of her, Serra was certainly one of them and she knew it. Furthermore, adding to his consternation with the trim young Padawan, Selu thought she was the prettiest girl he’d ever laid eyes on. However, he quickly damped down on all those emotions, releasing his control on the Force. Merely having those thoughts was bad-having Serra sense his emotions would compound his error a hundredfold.
However, Selu’s introspection had the unintended side effect of diverting his attention from the task at hand-a bad choice given his situation and particularly his audience. As he leaned forward to pick up a cup rolling around just out of his reach, it happened. His Jedi senses gave him a quick precognitive indication of what would happen, but his wandering mind could not react nearly fast enough-he had much to learn in that regard, it seemed. Even as he realized with horror what was about to happen, his feet went out from under him and he landed squarely on his posterior in a puddle of water on the slippery wet floor.
“Kriff it all!” Selu swore loudly as he landed. This, of course, elicited peals of laughter from Serra. Selu’s face reddened with embarrassment and humiliation. He could feel the heat creeping up his neck as he glowered. He absolutely refused to make eye contact with the laughing Serra, instead fixing as stony a stare as he could manage on a particularly innocent chair in his best imitation of Master Windu.
“Tsk, tsk, Selu,” Serra said between giggles. “Such language! If Master Drallig heard that, you would be mopping practice room floors. Probably a whole lot of them.”
The cute little Padawan was not making Selu’s situation any better. Her verbal jabs certainly were not improving his temperament one bit. What he really wanted to do was sink into the floor and disappear in abject shame, never to be seen from again, but since the hard tiled surface seemed as impermeable as ever, he supposed he’d have to make the best of the situation. How did his master deal with such situations? Selu ruefully surmised that one of the requirements of being a Jedi Master was not getting into such humiliations.
Suddenly, a slender hand appeared in his field of vision, extended down towards him. Selu looked up, slightly startled, to see Serra standing in front of him, clearly offering to help him up. Selu reddened further, if that was possible. He’d let his mind wander again. He hoped this wasn’t becoming a recurring occurrence. Part of him wanted to refuse Serra’s help, to show that he could get up on his own, but one of the dictums of the Jedi was always accepting a gift in the spirit it was given, no matter how humble.
Selu reached up to take her hand, she helped him up. Unsurprisingly, she had quite a grip, but the skin of her palm was soft and smooth. Selu savored the feeling, the nerves in his fingers tantalized briefly. Then he was standing upright again, and, feeling slightly guilty over how much he’d enjoyed holding her hand even for an instant, he quickly let go.
“Thanks,” he muttered.
“You’re welcome,” Serra replied, a trace of her earlier grin still tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Are you hurt?”
“No, not really,” Selu answered. “Though I think I’ll have a large bruise on my pride tomorrow morning.”
Serra laughed again. “That was pretty funny.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Selu said, brushing water droplets unsuccessfully from his partially sodden clothes. “So . . . were you just looking for another Padawan to distract when you found me?”
“Not exactly,” she said lightly. “Actually, Master Koon saw me in passing and asked me to look for you.”
“What did he want?” Selu asked.
“Something about how he needs you to report urgently to his quarters,” Serra said teasingly. “I think it was something about a mission that you’re going on shortly.”
“A mission!” Selu exclaimed. “Serra, why didn’t you say so?”
“You were a little distracted,” she joked.
Selu shook his head and immediately headed for the exit. Behind him, he was vaguely aware of Serra’s renewed laughter at the sight of seeing his completely soaked hindquarters. He reddened once more and increased his pace, trying to get out of sight and earshot as quickly as possible. Once he was safely away, he did his best to put a certain female Padawan out of his mind and tried to school his emotions into a sufficiently serene state in order to impress Master Koon. By the time he reached his master’s quarters, Selu felt that he’d managed to do an acceptable job of doing so.
Selu paused at the entrance of the Kel Dor Jedi Master’s personal quarters, waiting to be summoned. Master Koon had surely sensed his approach and would send for him when he was ready. He stood there for a moment, trying his hardest not to fidget. His hands smoothed over his slightly rumpled tunic, tucking any loose folds into his brown leather utility belt.
“Come in, Selu,” Selu eventually heard a deep, distinctly alien voice say a minute or two later.
Selu touched the door control and it slid open quietly, admitting him into the dimly lit quarters in which Master Koon resided. As he entered, the door silently closed behind him. Like all Jedi residences, Koon’s quarters were spartan, with few furnishings aside from a desk, chair and bed. The room was made of the same pale gray and tan synthestone that characterized the construction of the majority of the Jedi Temple. A small shelf tucked away in a quarter housed most, if not all, of the Jedi Master’s possessions. Master Koon himself stood in the center of the room and, as always, Selu was in awe as he approached the distinguished Jedi Master.
Plo Koon was a tall Kel Dor and a member of the Jedi Council. His peach-colored skin was wrinkled and gnarled in an unusual pattern, and he constantly wore a special breath mask and goggles to protect him from oxygen, as atmospheres breathable for humans were fatal for Kel Dor if inhaled. Selu stopped and bowed respectfully before his master, waiting to be spoken to before speaking.
Ever since Plo Koon had chosen him as his Padawan, Selu had striven to please his master, who was nearly a legend among the Jedi Order and had trained numerous Padawans before. Selu, who had never considered himself or regarded as any sort of prodigy in the Force or particularly outstanding Jedi, had been both elated and confused when Master Koon had selected him. There were far more outstanding Jedi candidates for selection, but apparently the Kel Dor had seen something in him that Selu wasn’t even aware of, and as a result, Selu had tried to do whatever he could to prove to Master Koon that he was worthy of being his apprentice. His motivation to do so was daily reinforced by the jealous glares and hushed comments he heard from certain other Jedi Padawans who had been chosen by less . . . prestigious Jedi Masters than a member of the Jedi Council.
“Good afternoon, Selusda,” Plo Koon greeted him. “How were your exercises?”
“They went well . . . for the most part,” Selu answered. “Up until the point where they didn’t go well.”
Plo Koon laughed heartily at Selu’s confession, which was a better reaction than Selu had expected.
"What happened?” the Jedi Master asked, the tones in his voice, while undecipherable to most humans, plainly indicating to Selu that his master was bemused.
“I had three cups of water levitated and then Serra arrived and . . . disrupted my concentration,” Selu admitted. “I dropped the cups, and then slipped and fell.”
“An important lesson you’ve learned, then,” Plo Koon replied. “The importance of maintaining one’s concentration under pressure can hardly be underestimated. The same principal that applies to levitating water cups can be applied to negotiations in the middle of a blaster fight.”
“Yes, Master,” Selu said. “I certainly learned that lesson when I landed in that puddle of water.”
“Indeed,” Koon agreed. “And you’ll need both parts of your experience for our next mission.”
“Both parts, Master?” Selu asked, puzzled.
“The lesson on concentration and your familiarity with water,” Plo Koon replied with a trace of mischievous humor that one unfamiliar with the Jedi Master would not have expected.
“Oh?” Selu replied, arching his eyebrow in curiosity.
“We are going to Ando,” Koon said. “There is trouble there which concerns the Jedi Council greatly. The two of us, and our partners, will be departing early tomorrow morning.” “Partners?” Selu inquired.
“Yes, Selu,” Koon answered. “Our mission is grave enough that another Jedi and his Padawan will accompany us. Ah, and here they are now.”
The Kel Dor gestured and the door to his quarters opened to reveal another pair of Jedi.
One, garbed in the robes of a Jedi Master and with a lightsaber neatly clipped to his belt, was a tall male Caamasi with dark gray skin. His furred humanoid physique had elements to it that were vaguely ursine, although there was no ferocity on the serene non-human’s face. Beside him was a diminutive being that, like the Caamasi, was covered from head to toe in fur, though his was a dark brown. However, the smaller non-human, a member of the Tynnan species, clearly had more akin to an aquatic mammal, as evidenced by his webbed paws and rudder-like tail. Though he looked rather ungainly standing there in his Jedi robes, one paw reaching up to tug at the long set of whiskers protruding from his muzzle that dangled close by his buckteeth. Judging by his physiology, he was no doubt an expert swimmer, which would come in handy on Ando. Though he seemed nothing more than a child’s pet at a quick glance or first impression, Selu knew that the Tynnan had his own numerous strengths that served him well in his apprenticeship, as the two were good friends.
"Master It’kla,” Selu said with a respectful nod to the serene-looking Caamasi, then turned to give a more enthusiastic greeting to his fellow Padawan. “Skip! What a surprise!”
“It’s good to see you too, Selu,” Skip replied enthusiastically, his voice thin and high-pitched, with a bit of a whistle and lisp added to his Basic from his large protruding incisors.
Apparently the Council’s choice of companions is to your liking then, Padawan?” Plo Koon asked wryly.
“Very much so,” Selu said, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth before he managed to school his features into a more serious expression.
“Master It’kla and I have some matters to discuss that do not require your presence,” the tall Kel Dor informed the two Padawans. “I suggest you make preparations of your own for the mission.”
“What do you recommend, Master?” Selu asked.
Plo Koon canted his head forward and to the side, thinking for a moment, and then gave his answer, but it was not addressed to the Padawans. Instead, to their surprise, he turned to the Caamasi Jedi standing nearby.
“Master It’kla, may I speak hypothetically with you?”
“Of course, Master Koon,” the Caamasi’s smooth voice answered.
“Say you knew two Padawans who were supposed to be departing on a mission. What would you say that they do?”
“They should make as good use of the time available to them as they had,” Master It’kla answered.
"And would that include asking their masters questions to which they already possess the answer?” Plo Koon continued, his voice lilting into tones which Selu recognized as laced with humor.
“Certainly not,” Master It’kla returned. “If they were old and capable enough to go on an important mission and weren’t given specific instructions, they might consider using their own intuition and instincts in order to prepare themselves.”
“A fascinating insight, Master It’kla,” Master Koon answered, looking pointedly at the two Padawans. “One that I would agree with.”
Selu and Skip took the hint. Bowing in respect to the two masters, they departed Master Koon’s chambers, heading for the training areas of the Jedi Temple.
“What do you think we should do, Selu?” Skip asked him as he waddled along at Selu’s side.
“My guess is that we first should head to the archives,” Selu said. “I’m not very familiar with Ando, other than that it’s a watery world populated by Aqualish. More information on the planet might be useful.”
“I agree,” Skip said. “Though you’ll have an advantage when it comes to remembering data with that memory retention rate of yours. I suspect you’ll learn more about Ando than I will.”
Selu nodded as Skip referred to his high memory retention rate, which was about eighty percent. While a highly uncommon trait among humans, it allowed him to recall most everything that he saw or experienced at will. To say the least, it was incredibly useful and was largely responsible for Selu’s success in written or memorization exercises he had taken as a youngling and then as a Padawan.
“It’ll make up for all my other weaknesses,” Selu replied self-deprecatingly, adding a shrug to punctuate his response.
Skip chuckled along and they made their way to the Jedi archives, a cavernous room filled from floor to ceiling with data tapes and data cards. Finding a pair of unoccupied terminals in an alcove off in one corner, they sat down and began their research.
Selu soon became engrossed in what he was reading. As it turned out, Ando’s surface was ninety-five percent water, with most of the native Aqualish living either on the few land masses that poked above the waves or on floating ships. Images that were shown of the land displayed swampy locales enshrouded in mist which concealed Aqualish settlements. The Aqualish were easily annoyed and generally much larger than him, so the Padawan made a mental note to tread lightly while on Ando. Reading further, Selu found that most of Ando’s economy was driven by the vast oceans, namely in the form of fishing. Unfortunately, the most recent HoloNet news reports that Selu found were distinctly uninformative. Although several of them mentioned unrest, possibly related with the rising Separatist movement that some feared might fracture the Republic, that was hardly a problem unique to Ando, which had often been a hotbed of unrest due to the virulent temperament of its inhabitants.
Suddenly, he was distracted by a sudden tugging on his sleeve. Skip was standing there, a vaguely impatient and pained expression on his face.
“Selu, don’t you know what time it is?” Skip asked, his voice almost plaintive.
“Huh?” Selu replied, startled out of his fixation on the material he was reading.
Glancing down at the chrono on the bottom corner of his terminal screen, his eyes widened as he realized that it was only five minutes until Master Drallig’s lightsaber class at 1700-on the other side of the Temple.
“Oh, not good,” Selu muttered.
Bolting from his terminal after hastily logging out, Selu followed Skip in a brisk walk out of the archives. While they did not want to be late for Master Drallig’s lightsaber class, one absolutely did not run in the Jedi Archives. Especially if one was a Jedi Padawan. The Jedi Master in charge of the archives, Jocasta Nu, was known for the stern nature of the punishments which were used to correct such behavior which dared disrupt the ordered nature of the archives. Having heard through word-of-mouth from other Padawans of hours of preparing reports on incredibly boring subjects, in addition to attending lectures on proper social conduct which could put an insomniac to sleep, they had no desire to join the list of targets of Master Nu’s ire.
Walking as fast as they dared without breaking into a run and thus drawing sharp looks and reproves from passing Jedi, Selu and Skip just barely made it into the training room where another eighteen Jedi Padawans were already stretching. Just as they arrived, Master Drallig, a fairly short, stocky Human male with long blond hair bound beyond his head in a ponytail, assumed his position at the head of the group, signaling that class had just started. They had made it, just in time. Selu breathed a heavy sigh of relief as Master Drallig signaled them to join the others at the head of the class with only a slight twitch of his eyebrow. Nodding in acknowledgement, Selu and Skip took their places and began working through the stretches that the Padawans typically did before engaging in lightsaber practice. While Jedi in the field almost never had a chance to stretch before engaging in combat, there was no sense in risking injury by not doing so in practice environments.
As usual, Serra Keto was leading the practice-as Master Drallig’s Padawan, Serra often helped him with simplistic tasks such as warming up. She glanced at the two of them as they took their places, and a discreet nod at the wall-mounted chrono from Serra told him that she was aware of just how close they had been cutting it by arriving when they did. Selu reddened slightly, and fixed his gaze firmly on the hard tile floor, paying Serra as little attention as he possibly could. Thankfully, Master Drallig soon took over the practice and began working the Jedi Padawans in the arts of lightsaber combat. Retrieving training lightsabers from storage compartments, the Padawans were soon spread apart, holding blades and working through the saber forms.
Selu, a fairly miserable duelist, was with one group off to the end of the class, working through the kata, a drill that involved a variety of techniques, for the first and most basic form, Shii-Cho. Some of his friends who were more talented had started picking up more advanced forms, but he was still struggling through the first form. Even Skip, a year his junior, had just started to work the basic drills and movements of the Ataru form, a fast-paced style of lightsaber combat known for its acrobatics. Ataru would be a good choice for Skip, Selu thought as he wove his blade through a clean parrying loop. Its speed and agility would allow him to exploit the balance he could gain through using his tail as a third foot, and would compensate for his short reach. Selu still didn’t know what form he would use, though. He had yet to build his lightsaber, and merely gaining a decent understanding of Shii-Cho was proving to be challenge enough. True, he had improved. But not nearly enough-seven years after first picking up a lightsaber, he was still near the bottom of his class in the use of the signature Jedi weapon.
Selu was dripping with sweat as he sped up the intensity of his practice, weaving the training saber’s glowing blue blade in cerulean arcs of light. For once, he felt in control of the blade, moving smoothly from motion to motion, the parries transitioning cleanly to counterstrikes meant to sever an opponent’s weapon hand. His strikes were coordinated and followed up, and he even worked a feint or two into his sequences. He felt comfortable, at ease-and then, there was a wrenching feeling in his arms.
The training saber flew out of his hands to bounce across the floor with a loud clatter as the metallic hilt hit the tile. Selu was keenly aware that Master Drallig was standing in front of him with a fierce expression, his green lightsaber blade extended, which was obviously the source of his disarmament.
“What are you doing, Padawan Kraen?” Drallig demanded.
Selu winced. That tone never signaled a good end to the conversation. Whatever answer he gave, it would be wrong.
“Practicing the first Shii-Cho kata, Master,” Selu replied dutifully.
He was vaguely aware of the eyes fixed on the back of his head, meaning that the whole class would get to once more experience his correction. Aware that pride was not a Jedi trait, Selu tried to push that thought aside. “Yes, that is what you were doing,” Master Drallig replied. “But it is not the best exercise for you.”
Selu was confused. This wasn’t the usual reprimand he got from Master Drallig.
“I disarmed you with one slash that you never expected,” the battlemaster explained. “You’re becoming complacent-too dedicated to memory and rigid adherence to form.”
Selu’s face reddened, an occurrence that was becoming increasingly common, Selu realized with dismay. A flash of anger rose in him at Master Drallig’s lecture. Hadn’t he been told to practice Form I? Why in space was Master Drallig yelling at him for doing what he was told? It certainly was not fair. His eyes blazed as he glared at the instructor, even as he bit back the sharp replies that sprang to mind unbidden.
“I don’t need the indignation, Padawan,” Drallig said coldly, his own eyes narrowing as he noticed Selu’s expression change. “Either accept the correction or be dismissed from the class.”
With a threat like that, Selu backed down. In spite of his anger, he did not want to explain to Plo Koon why he’d been kicked out of lightsaber practice. Not to mention the embarrassment that would bring his master, who would add that to the running list of reasons he no doubt kept to ship Selu off to the AgriCorps and find a new Padawan, one with more talent.
“I accept your correction,” he mumbled.
“Good,” Drallig said, his ire calming almost as quickly as it had appeared. “In fact, this might be a good time for all of the class to work on something besides rote form.”
If any of the other Jedi Padawans hadn’t been paying attention to Selu’s reprimand before, they certainly were now.
“All of you find a partner,” Drallig said. “Find someone who is as skilled or outmatches you in skill, if possible.”
The Padawans complied promptly, pairing up and moving some distance away from the others so as to not interfere with the other training pairs. Selu started to move towards Skip, only to be stopped a command from Master Drallig.
“No, Selu,” Master Drallig said, halting him in mid-stride. “I want you paired up with Serra. There’s a larger skill gap there so you can learn more from her.”
Selu groaned inwardly. One humiliation was leading right to another. He pinched himself subtly, hoping it was all a bad dream he would soon wake up from. No such luck. Resigned to his fate, he walked across the floor to stand squarely in front of Serra, wincing in preparation for the burning sensation of the training lightsaber against his skin. If nothing else, it would be an exercise in pain control and concentration. Selu gave a quick salute with his blade to Serra, who returned the gesture-though she was smiling as she did so, anticipating the victory. She would not be disappointed. While ordinarily, Serra was the epitome of a well-behaved, mannerly Padawan in front of the masters, when given a chance to prove her superiority with a lightsaber, she could be absolutely heartless. Selu wondered if she was even aware of how vicious she was, but decided against asking her, as it might only provoke her. Master Drallig certainly wasn’t aware of it, that was for sure, and Selu did not wish to attract any more attention from that corner of the room after earlier.
Twenty grueling minutes of swordplay later, Selu was exhausted, sore, and angry. There were faint burn scorches across his arms, neck, legs, and body. Had they been real lightsabers, Serra would have left him in pieces on the training floor a minute into the fight. Thankfully, as he stooped to pick up his lightsaber and once again square off against her in another futile attempt, Master Drallig mercifully called a halt to the class. Selu kept quiet-though his burns had certainly not been planned for by Drallig and had not been the point of the exercise-he would not complain.
“That is enough for now, Padawans,” Master Drallig said. “Return your sabers to the racks and reflect on what you learned.”
“Yes, Master Drallig,” came a chorus of tired replies.
Selu gratefully dragged his tired, aching body out of the training room. His burns, though he had tried to place them out of his mind during his sparring, were painful, and some of them had raised red welts.
“Selu, are you okay?” Skip asked, coming up to walk alongside the human Padawan. “You don’t look so good.”
Selu heard the concern in his friend’s voice, but brushed it off. If he was going to be a Jedi Knight, he needed to endure despite hardships-even if that included dealing with Serra’s superior grin and a dozen welts. Life in the galaxy could be a lot worse, he figured, and, as Master Koon had told him, pain was a part of life.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “Think I’m going to go clean up and catch a meal or something.”
“Do you want some company?” Skip asked.
“Eh . . . not at the moment,” Selu replied, the exhaustion he felt beginning to creep into his voice a little. “I think I’ll probably rest a little after I eat, unless our masters have instructions for us.”
“Okay,” Skip said. “I was thinking it might not be a bad idea to get some swimming in before Ando, though.”
A smile crept across Selu’s face, even though it seemed like the effort cost him ten times the usual amount of energy to do so.
“Anything to get in the water, is that it?” he asked teasingly. “All right, I give. It’s probably a good idea. But-later. For the next two hours, the swimming areas will be filled with younglings learning how to swim from Master Fisto.”
“Good point,” Skip agreed. “Wouldn’t want to get in their way.”
“Or them in ours,” Selu remarked. “The lessons are over at 2200, though.”
“I’ll meet you at the pool at 2215, then,” Skip said cheerily, clearly anticipating what would be for him an almost blissful experience.
“Until then,” Selu said, then he turned off and hauled his protesting body back to his quarters.
After taking a disappointingly lukewarm shower to clean off-the heating elements in his wing of the dormitories were apparently off-Selu felt somewhat better, though the water impacting on the skin sent needles of pain through his body every time they touched a welt, which was often. The soap was little better, eliciting sharp stings even as he scrubbed the salt and grime from his body. Moreover, his training tunic was ruined from lightsaber burns, so Selu tossed it and his equally ruined undertunic and pants into the recycling bin where unwearable clothes and other refuse were discarded. Selu turned off the water and quickly dried himself off before slipping on a fresh undertunic, tunic, and pants, as well as easing his feet into his boots again. He felt better, though his arms and shoulder still ached from the repeated jarring sensation of trying to block Serra’s strokes over and over again.
Heading over the Temple dining area, he found that most of the other Padawans had already eaten, which meant that the food line was short and the dining area was nearly deserted-there was still another twenty minutes until the next group arrived. Selu gratefully accepted the platter of runyip stew from the serving droid and took it back to an unoccupied table to eat, dipping his thick, mealy haroun bread in it to provide some filler. However, the runyip wasn’t the best he had ever smelled and, moreover, it was piping hot. Selu nearly yelped as the first spoonful of the piping hot broth hit his mouth and burned his tongue. Dropping his spoon in surprise, he managed to splatter droplets of stew across his fresh tunic when the spoon landed in his platter. He swore under his breath and tried to brush them off. No avail. Runyip stew too was thick-he only managed to smear the drops in further. Rattling off a string of words under his breath that he knew Master Koon would not be pleased to hear, Selu dabbed at it with a napkin dipped in his tumbler of water, and managed to get most of the stew out. He was a bit more careful as he finished off the sweet-and-sour flavored stew, taking more cautiously-sized spoonfuls despite his ravenous appetite. Finishing off his meal with a Barabel fruit, Selu managed to not spray any of the sweet juice from the black-skinned fruit while eating it, which gave him some satisfaction. While he ordinarily would not have considered that much of an accomplishment, today, he would take what he could get.
After finishing his meal, he placed his tray and dishes on a moving belt that would take them back to the cleaning area.
Leaving the dining area, Selu returned to his dormitory, a tiny little room maybe three meters by three meters in size. The walls were a soothing pale gray color, which had not been a hue Selu had chosen, as it had been like that when he was assigned there. While he didn’t mind it, the darkness meant that he had to activate full illumination in order to read. The room was sparsely furnished, with only a sleep couch, a storage chest that doubled as a desk, a chair, and a wall-mounted glow-panel. It was the closest thing that Selu could call home, even if the living space was intentionally minimized. Jedi Padawans were not expected to spend lots of time in their quarters anyway, and at the moment, Selu couldn’t care less about the size. It was comfortable, and it was the one place where he could be alone, more or less without disturbance. Making sure he left his comlink active in case Master Koon needed him, Selu stretched out on the sleep couch fully clothed. It was only 1920 hours, and Selu was looking forward to two and a half hours of sleep to help banish the fatigue induced by Master Drallig’s lightsaber class before he went swimming with Skip.
Sleep came quickly to him-no sooner had his eyelids closed over his weary lids then unconsciousness claimed him. At first, it was sweet, blissful rest, and if he had been aware of it, he would have felt his body practically rejoicing at the opportunity for it. However, even while his physical being mended itself, his mind was not so willing to relax. Instead, it decided to start playing games with him.
He was standing at the training pool, clad only in black swimming shorts that allowed him freedom of motion. However, instead of Skip standing there, ready to dive into the water, it was Serra. This could get awkward, he thought, even as he was vaguely aware that it was a dream.
However, to add to his consternation, Serra suddenly seemed to notice him for the first time in this strange dream of his. She laughed, a superior smile spreading across her face, and lifted a hand in a gesture he recognized. Before he could do anything, he found himself flying into the water with a loud splash, propelled backward by telekinesis. Recovering quickly despite his initial surprise, he swam over to the edge and hauled himself out of the pool. As he did so, he saw Serra standing above him, the same mocking expression on her face. Now, a lightsaber hilt was in her hands. An all-too-familiar green bar of energy fountained from the silvery hilt as she raised the weapon and brought up her guard. Selu, defenseless, backpedaled, but Serra advanced relentlessly. The first blow caught him across the chest, scoring a diagonal red slash across his body. Thankfully, it was still a training weapon, but his body still screamed in agony. Selu turned and ran, but a quick strike of her blade across the back of his knee sent him sprawling to the wet floor, the smell of burned skin rising from his singed flesh. She mercilessly stabbed downward with her blade as he rolled to his back. He was hit multiple times, and though he tried to plead for mercy, his insane dream apparently did not allow him to form words, and no clemency was shown. Selu threw up his arms in a desperate attempt to block her blade, only to have them take the full force of her attacks. Only when she had left red ribbons of welts across his body and arms did she cease her barrage. Selu was left in a quivering heap on the ground, wracked with painful spasms.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked pitifully, finally managing to form words.
When it came, her reply was cold and biting.
“It’s not what I’m doing, Selu,” she intoned frostily. “It’s what you do to yourself.”
Selu opened his mouth to ask what she meant, but at that point, Serra drew back her foot and planted a vicious kick squarely on his forehead, knocking him out. Her heel caught him squarely on the bridge of his nose, igniting a blazing star of pain as fragments of his skull were driven into his sinuses.
“Aaaagggh!” Selu screamed, coming violently awake in the strictest sense of the phrase.
His eyes shot open as he rolled off the sleep couch to land face-first on his utility belt, which he had carelessly tossed onto the ground before falling asleep. The bridge of his nose caught the metal buckle, eliciting a sharp pain-though not nearly as bad as it had felt in his dream. A trickle of blood dribbled down to his mouth from his nose, and he clasped one hand over it to staunch the flow. Pulling himself up to a sitting position, he managed to prop himself up on his other arm, trying to reorient himself. He was shaking, he realized as he looked at his trembling hands, and sweat was pouring down his face and body.
There was a light knock at the door to his dormitory. Selu blearily waved a hand and it slid open with a hiss, admitting a slim figure silhouetted against the dim lighting of his room.
“Are you all right?” the person asked, their voice clearly identifying the visitor as a young human female.
Selu started, at first fearing it was Serra, but it wasn’t. The voice and stature of this person weren’t right, and Serra didn’t live in this dormitory anyway.
“I’m fine,” he managed, but his voice was just as shaky as his hands, and he knew that she plainly disbelieved him.
“You don’t look all right,” she said with concern in her voice and stepping forward.
As she walked in, Selu saw that his visitor was little more than a girl, and a rather petite one at that. Though she was dressed like a Jedi Padawan, she couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old, meaning that she had just been chosen by a master. She knelt down beside him, placing her small left hand on his forehead and closing her brown eyes.
“Just relax,” she said soothingly.
She did something, for Selu felt the Force move through her and into him. There was an unusual tingling sensation in his nose, and then, to Selu’s surprise, the bleeding stopped. The girl must have employed some type of Force healing-a rare talent for a Padawan as young as her to be using so skillfully. Selu started to say something, but her eyes darted open and she shushed him by placing a finger from her left hand to his lips, and then slipped her hand down under his tunic to place it on his chest, coming to rest on his pounding heart.
Again, Selu sensed the outpouring of Force energy from the girl, manifested in the form of healing energy. His heaving chest and rapid breathing slowed to a more normal rhythm and he could practically see the waves of tension leaving his body.
“There,” she said slowly. “That’s better, right?”
“Yes,” Selu said, nodding before he realized that her eyes were still closed. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied shyly, pulling her hand back. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure,” Selu said. “I was asleep, and then I had this horrible dream, except . . .”
The girl looked bemused, and she opened her eyes to look at him.
“Did the masters tell you that Jedi don’t have nightmares?”
Selu nodded gamely.
“This is the first one I’ve had in awhile,” he said. “I thought I was the only one.”
“No, you’re not,” she said. “I’ve had them before-I still call them nightmares, even if the masters say that it’s just our minds playing tricks on us, or possibly a message from the Force.”
“A message?” Selu asked.
Whoever this girl’s master was, she had a completely different perspective on dreams and nightmares from Master Koon. Selu’s impression of her was that she was more than a little precocious, but at least she was sympathetic.
“My master says that the Force tells us things in our sleep times, when we’re open to its currents without thinking about it, so the connection is more instinctive. Maybe about a place, or an event, or about a person. Maybe it’s even trying to tell us something about ourselves.”
Something about ourselves . . . the words the girl spoke reminded Selu of what Serra had said in his dream. Was the Force trying to tell him a message?
“Help you up?” the girl asked, pulling him from his reflection.
Selu was vaguely aware that having this pint-sized girl help him up bordered on the absurd, but once more recalling Master Koon’s lessons on accepting gifts, he took her hand and pulled himself up, inwardly reminded of his earlier encounter with Serra. Internally, Selu groaned. Even when she wasn’t around, the phantom of the talented, beautiful, and altogether superior Serra Keto managed to haunt him-even in his sleep. Was there no escaping her?
“Hey, you’re hurt,” the girl said, taking notice of one of the scarlet welts visible on his wrist.
“Oh, that?” Selu replied. “It’s nothing. Just a reminder to do better in lightsaber practice.”
“Uh-huh,” the girl nodded sagely. “You know, the healers keep some salve for burns like that. Did you get any from them?”
“No,” Selu said, turning his reply into a self-deprecating joke. “I was busy finding some salve for my pride. Besides, I’d probably need a whole jar.”
“A whole jar?” the girl wrinkled her brow in confusion. “How many times did you get hit?”
“I lost count after a dozen or so.”
“You got hit by a saber over a dozen times?!” the girl exclaimed, sounding more than a little incredulous.
“You could say that,” Selu said, ducking his head ruefully. “My opponent was at the top of her game.”
While his welts had settled down to a dull burning pain after he’d cleaned himself up, being reminded of their existence had sent flaring up with reminders that sent lines of fire running up and down certain nerve endings.
“Are all older Padawans this dumb, or is this something you have to do?” she asked.
“Excuse me?” Selu replied, a bit confused and verging on indignant.
The girl sighed, as if she was disappointed in having to explain herself.
“If there’s a problem, you should try and fix it, right? Make the situation better?”
“Not all problems are that easily solved, no matter what we do,” Selu said. “But I see what you mean.”
“So why haven’t you done anything to make your own situation better?”
“My situation? You mean, the lightsaber, or the burns?”
The girl rolled her eyes.
“Both, but I guess the burns for now. If I was in pain like that, I wouldn’t just endure it for no reason. Were you trying to test yourself?”
“Not particularly,” Selu said.
Come to think of it, it would be rather silly for him to try and go on a mission to Ando that would no doubt be physically demanding with giant red welts all over himself. Selu was really starting to be annoyed at constantly being wrong, though.
“Then stay here,” the girl said. “I’ll get some of the burn salve from the healers and be right back.”
Before Selu could offer a reply, she’d energetically scooted out the door in a rush of disturbed air currents, leaving him sitting on his sleep couch pondering the oddity of the entire situation. First, there had been his nightmare, and now, this strange girl had appeared literally out of nowhere. Was she some kind of empath? That would explain her singling him out-his emotions had been broadcasted pretty clearly. At any rate, the combined events of the evening had been enough to thoroughly rattle him, and there was no way he would be getting back to sleep. He still had nearly an hour before he was supposed to meet Skip, but Selu had no desire to re-experience that dream-or nightmare-whatever it was. Pulling a small holoprojector from his storage chest, he set it on top of the container and activated the tiny device. Miniature 3-D projected images materialized from the bottom of the display, floating in the air and slowly rotating. The projector cycled through different images, most of them natural landscapes and scenic vistas, which Selu had used a focus for calming techniques on many occasions. By allowing his mind to submerge itself in the beauty of the projections, he was usually able to clear his mind by keeping his focus on the images.
He heard a slight rustle behind him and turned to see the girl-blast it all, he still didn’t know her name-standing there with a jar that must have been the burn salve she had run off to requisition. He arched one eyebrow at her inquisitively.
“The healers just let you into their supplies?”
“Not exactly,” the girl admitted. “But one of the healers, Master Che, said it was okay after talking with my master and I showed her my talent for healing.”
“That must be convenient,” Selu said.
“I suppose so,” she replied, handing him the jar.
“Thank you,” he said, accepting the jar. “I’ll make sure this gets returned to the healers. Though, if any of them should ask me any questions . . . who should I say gave this to me?”
“My name’s Aubrie. Aubrie Wyn. I think I was named after the color of my hair,” the girl replied, winding one finger through a strand of her wavy auburn hair.
“That make sense,” Selu said. “And I’m Selu. Selu Kraen.”
“Nice to meet you,” Aubrie said, then turned to go.
Selu stared at the jar in his hand for a minute, and then opened it and set it on the chest besides the holoprojector. Sliding up one sleeve of his tunic to expose a series of welts that Serra had so indelicately laid across his wrist and forearm, he dabbed his other hand in the jar and began smearing it across the injury. It didn’t seem to have any immediate effect, which something of a surprise, as he recalled that it normally brought a cooling sensation. Then, he heard a stifled giggle behind him and slowly turned around.
Sure enough, though he had initially thought she had left, Aubrie Wyn was still standing in the doorway, watching him.
“Is something funny?” he asked.
“Just a little,” she said. “Have you ever used Jamochian burn salve before?”
“Personally, no,” Selu said. “But I’ve seen it used, and I’ve had it applied on me before. Why? I’m not that bad at first aid.”
“What do you mean by not that bad?” Aubrie asked.
“I mean, I passed the course,” Selu said. “What is it already?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Any healer would tell you that it’s important to read the directions on any unknown substance before using it,” she replied, a smug smile breaking out across her face.
Selu glanced down at the jar to see, clearly printed on the instructions for its use, the words “Mix with a little water before using.” His expression quickly soured. Yet another mistake.
“Oops,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” she replied.
She shook her head, laughed some more, and then made her exit. Selu made sure she was gone before stalking off to the refresher to find some water to go with the salve.
Ten minutes later, the burn salve was layered over his welts, its cooling sensation replacing the pain from the lightsaber marks. Selu glanced at his chrono. He still had about forty minutes until he was supposed to meet Skip. That would give him enough time to drop off the jar of Jamochian salve back at the healers with thirty minutes to spare. Perhaps he’d find some kind of exercise to divert his attention, like sparring. He smiled at that thought, even as he started walking towards the healers’ quarters.
Before he got there, though, he was interrupted by a familiar voice.
“Are you all better now?” Aubrie asked as she caught up with him.
“You’re not following me, are you?” Selu inquired lightly.
“No, just happened to see you walk by,” she said. “Did you get yourself all patched up?”
“Yes,” Selu said curtly. “I even read the directions this time.”
“Good for you,” she said. “Maybe you should have just let me put the salve on you. I don’t often get to do any healing myself; usually I’m just watching one of the masters. Speaking of that, out of curiosity, who’s your master?”
“I’m Master Koon’s Padawan,” Selu said, allowing a bit of pride to creep into his voice.
“I need to talk to him,” Aubrie said sincerely. “I need to warn him.”
“About what?” Selu asked, sensing a verbal trap.
“That he has a Padawan who’s completely hopeless. He can’t use a lightsaber or a medkit to save his life,” Aubrie said impudently, a wry smile spreading across her face as she made her comment.
“Hey!” Selu protested sharply. “I’m not hopeless!”
“Really?” she asked skeptically.
“Yes,” he said. “If you’d be so kind as to take this jar back to the healers and then head to the third sparring ring, I’ll see if I can find an opponent to show you otherwise.”
“Okay,” she said dubiously, accepting the jar from his outstretched hand. “I’ll see you there. Try not to trip over your own feet or anything on the way.”
“Same to you,” Selu shot back as he headed off towards the sparring ring.
What an impudent little saucebox Aubrie Wyn had turned out to be, he thought. She’d gone from caring and concerned to being as quick-witted and superior as . . . Selu clamped down on that rebellious thought before it could fully enter his subconscious. He was not going to think about Serra, not if he could possibly help it. Heading down to the sparring ring, Selu stretched on the way and even after he got there.
His breathing rhythm consciously altered, shifting into one suitable for combat, as his balance, breathing, mind, and limbs melded together in smooth harmony. The aching he had felt from earlier was washed away with currents of the Force, refreshing him, sharpening his reflexes and focus. His spirits rose with anticipation of what was to come. This was one of the few places where he felt comfortable, in the sparring ring. And by sparring ring, he did not mean lightsaber combat, as he’d already borne witness to the fact that the traditional Jedi weapon was not normally an extension of his mind and body when he used it. No, these training circles were reserved for unarmed combat.
Tall, open areas for the most part, they were separated into various ten by ten meter training areas demarcated by low one-meter walls to keep sparring sessions from spilling over into adjacent sections. When one of them was in use, tall transparent plastic walls would slide up around the training circle to provide even more enclosure. Some of them had static training dummies or sparring droids that Jedi could practice against. The floors were padded to make falls easier to take, but still firm enough so that one would not sink into them. A two-level elliptical observation gallery encircled the sparring rings, allowing others to view the training from both the ground floor and one level up. This was useful for when Jedi Masters were observing their Padawans or Padawan candidates, or for when classes were gaining instruction from watching a pair of more seasoned combatants.
Entering the sparring rings, Selu looked around, hoping to find an opponent at this late hour. Though there were few people around, as one might expect from the time of night, one Padawan was working away at a training dummy. This was a soft, squishy version of a humanoid body set on top of a mount also covered in the same deformable material, its contours designed to mimic a variety of humanoid physiologies. Its construction was intended to absorb repeated punishment and every contact surface was heavily cushioned in order to avoid injury. While the Jedi Temple also had padded training droids for unarmed practice, the static dummies were useful for practicing repetitions.
Selu walked up to the Padawan, a Human male perhaps a year or two older than him, who was rocking the dummy’s torso and head with punishing combinations of punches. Selu waited for the other to finish a combination and acknowledge his presence. The other youth was familiar to him vaguely-Selu knew only that his name was Bairdon Jace, he was two years older than him, and he was a Alderaanian Padawan apprenticed to human Jedi Master Khaat Qiyn. He seemed to be employing a style of Corellian boxing, though, a tidbit which Selu filed away for future use.
“Hey,” Selu said, once Bairdon turned to face him. “Are you up for a live round or two? Best of three falls?”
“Are you sure about that?” Bairdon asked.
Unlike Selu, Bairdon had already hit his growth spurt and towered a good five inches above Selu, as well as having at least a five kilo weight advantage. Five kilos of muscle. His voice was deeper too, but Selu ignored that for now.
“I’ll be fine,” Selu said defensively.
Bairdon shrugged amiably.
“Sounds good to me,” he said. “Not like I have anything better to do. No holds barred?”
“Aside from the usual avoiding from death or serious injury, no,” Selu joked.
The two walked over to an unoccupied training mat, leaving their cloaks at the side of the ring. The transparent rigid walls slid up into position around them, adding another three meters of wall to the existing one meter. Selu and Bairdon took their places at the opposite ends of the ring, then bowed respectfully to each other before closing the distance, hands rapidly snapping up into guard positions. The two advanced towards each other, eyes alert, watching for any sudden motion, reaching out to gauge the other’s intentions with the Force.
Selu struck first, his right fist lashing out in a quick jab meant to test Bairdon’s defenses. The Alderaanian was fast, though, blocking Selu’s blow out wide and returning with a quick one-two punch that Selu just managed to block. The punching combination pushed Selu back and Bairdon swiftly pressed Selu back, using his rapid-fire, heavy-hitting punches to knock Selu even farther rearward. Jace’s punches had enough force that it was much easier for Selu to simply dodge backward or sideways to elude them; blocking took too much strength. However, though Bairdon would launch a powerful snap or side kick whenever Selu danced too far out of range for a hand strike, he never managed to land one. His kicks, compared to his punches, were slower and more predictable. While they were powerful enough that Selu didn’t dare to try and stop them, he was able to exploit blocks to his advantage, redirecting the force of the blow away from his body into thin air. Ever since he had launched his first punch, Selu had played purely defensive, utilizing little more than an easily blocked counterattack in response to the lightning flurry of blows. By now, Bairdon had managed to back him up within three meters of the back wall. Selu noticed out of the corner of his eye that a certain auburn-haired girl had arrived and was watching him be driven back.
“Come on, Selu,” Bairdon said. “Don’t just stand there.”
However, just as Bairdon unleashed another powerful right jab, Selu had sprung back and upward to rebound off the back wall. Employing the momentum of the maneuver to good effect, Selu unleashed three kicks in mid-air even as landed. The first two, high and aimed at Jace’s face, were blocked by the other Padawan’s upraised arms, but the third one, a short kick to Jace’s side, connected squarely, sending the other Padawan staggering back a step as Selu landed.
Having taken the first twenty seconds of the fight to evaluate Bairdon’s style, Selu now had a good idea of his Corellian boxing style, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. In turn, he adapted the movements of his own style, K’thri, to exploit them. If Bairdon was sharp, he would in turn respond and adapt, and the cycle would continue. Some people decried K’thri, a popular form of competitive martial arts, as being too showy, but Selu saw it as a harmony of elegance and practicality. Its speed, combined with the varied maneuvers and footwork, gave the style rapid, fluid motions that could be enhanced further with Jedi reflexes and precognition.
Selu now used it to good effect to belabor the larger Padawan’s defenses. He launched a quick flurry of rapid jabs designed to distract Bairdon’s guard straight at the other Padawan’s face. They were countered quickly, but Selu swept his right foot down low in a vicious arc intended to jerk Bairdon’s feet out from under him. He almost succeeded, but Bairdon deftly jumped over the foot-sweep, striking out at Selu, who parried it out with a circular blocking motion from his right hand. Trapping Bairdon’s extended right arm by gripping the sleeve of his tunic, he pulled the other Padawan in close to unload a lightning-fast jab into his midsection. Before Bairdon could respond, Selu released him and backed off, unwilling to risk defending the full force of Corellian boxing up close, which was known for its devastating short-ranged knee and elbow strikes.
The same pattern repeated itself several more times. Bairdon would duck and weave, feinting at Selu, and then eventually strike out, using his longer reach. However, in response, Selu would employ wheeling blocks to knock those dangerous fists aside, dart in for a quick jab or a kick at the Alderaanian’s legs before withdrawing. So far, he was feeling pretty good, having remained untouched, but he knew his streak of good luck wouldn’t last. Bairdon would get his touches on him too.
It came on the third time. Selu trapped Bairdon’s punching arm out side and came in for a blow. Bairdon’s left fist snapped out, catching Selu on the side of the face and whipping his head back. Even as the blow landed, though, Selu had somewhat anticipated the trap and kicked out, catching Bairdon in the stomach. However, it barely slowed the Alderaanian down, who partially deflected and absorbed the kick and kept coming. Two more punches rocked Selu’s chest, and an elbow strike that was barely deflected clipped his head. Selu fell back, trying to keep his balance. Bairdon pursued, but the Alderaanian was a little too aggressive, and Selu caught him with a neat roundhouse kick to the side of the face. Now it was Bairdon’s turn to fall back a step, and Selu took the opportunity to lunge, his arms reaching out to encircle around Bairdon’s knees. Lifting the surprised Padawan in the air, Selu swiftly dropped him on the ground to land squarely on his back, while his momentum carried him over the fallen Bairdon’s head. He shoulder-rolled back to his feet, pivoting to turn back towards his opponent, who had also risen off the ground.
“That’s one for me,” Selu said with a slight smile.
“This time,” Bairdon said as he closed in again.
The Alderaanian attacked with more energy this time, striking out with both hands and feet, but though Selu took a few glancing blows, he continued to avoid taking too much damage and his legs, constantly in motion like those of a true K’thri practitioner, were completely undamaged. Selu again allowed himself to be forced back by Bairdon’s onrush, but gave himself more leeway in throwing counterstrikes. After one particularly wild blow from Bairdon, Selu landed a pair of jabs to his midsection, opening up Bairdon’s guard enough for Selu to kick out Bairdon’s back leg, sending him stumbling back, though the other Padawan’s right fist was already pulled back to launch a blow. Selu prepared to shift his left hand to block the incoming fist, but Bairdon did not attack with his fist. Instead, he sent Selu flying back with a burst of telekinesis that sent the completely off-guard Padawan tumbling head over heels to the other end of the sparring arena. Bairdon, for his part, managed to recover his balance, posting on one arm to save himself from falling, and then scrambling to his feet.
Meanwhile, Selu finally managed to slide to a stop across the floor and quickly bounced back up. His welts, particularly those that had been hit by Bairdon, throbbed, and a sharp pain was racing through his head, but he ignored it. His blood was up now, and he was not about to admit defeat, not now. Not after all he had been through today.
“That’s one for me,” Bairdon said triumphantly.
“By telekinesis!” Selu shot back indignantly. “That’s not fair!”
“You were the one who said no holds barred.”
“Oh, is that what you meant?” Selu replied sarcastically.
If Bairdon wanted to try and use Force powers, he was soon going to find out what Selu had painstakingly taught himself to do with K’thri in combination with the Force. Previously, both combatants had avoided overt use of the Force, besides using it in the same way as all Jedi did in combat-to synchronize and coordinate their actions while heightening their reflexes and affording them some level of precognition. Now, Selu was prepared to be a little more . . . acrobatic in its use.
Selu charged, making sure to keep his arms up. Lashing out with a high flying right kick, he aimed square for Bairdon’s head, but his foot was knocked away, causing him to land right in front of Bairdon, facing the wrong direction. Undaunted, Selu drove an elbow into Bairdon’s ribs even as he spun around. Bairdon clipped him with a right to his own side, but the blow failed to slow Selu, who dropped to the floor and scissored Bairdon’s feet with his legs. Bairdon fell backwards, only to recover by turning the maneuver into a backwards somersault. However, for the instant where he was balancing on his hands, he was both vulnerable and deprived of his most effective appendages. Selu took advantage of the temporary weakness, spinning off the floor to plant a kick square on Bairdon’s kidney, which elicited a cry of pain even as Bairdon managed to somehow salvage his ruined somersault and roll back up to his feet. Selu did not give him time to recover though, not wanting to experience telekinesis again.
Feinting at Bairdon’s face, Selu drew his guard up, allowing him to spear the other Padawan’s solar plexus with a sharp hand-jab. However, in his rush, he failed to see the flying knee blow that knocked his own arm against his head, sending him sprawling back a few meters. He managed to keep his balance, but Bairdon was already on top of him, rearing back to deliver a finishing blow. At that point, time seemed to slow. Selu reached out, looking at the only object he could see-Bairdon’s brown Jedi cloak, and quickly snagged a mental grip on it. It was not a finessed exertion of the Force, but Selu yanked it towards Bairdon as hard and fast as he could. The cloak whirled around to wrap itself around Bairdon’s legs with enough force to throw his punch off into an easily blocked maneuver. Selu kicked out, catching the surprised Alderaanian in the chest. Just as Bairdon tried to respond with a counter-blow, or possibly attempt to free his still-entangled feet from the cloak wrapped around them, Selu gestured, and his own cloak flew through the air from behind him just as Bairdon counter-punched. Selu ducked, and the cloak wrapped itself around Bairdon’s arms, temporarily restraining him. Bairdon would be free of both garments in a second or two, but Selu was not about to afford him that luxury. Instead, he decided to end the fight, and in as fancy of a way as he could pull off.
Selu leapt up to plant rapid-fire one-two kicks on Bairdon’s chest, but instead of landing back on his feet in front of the Alderaanian, he carried his motion forward and upward, giving the illusion that he was running up Bairdon’s body into the air. Springing off Bairdon’s shoulders, Selu landed knee-first on his opponent, slamming him to ground with a whuff of exhaled air from Bairdon. In a flash, Selu’s arm had snaked up to grab the inside of Bairdon’s collar and yanked it across his neck, constricting the blood supply to his brain. Bairdon’s eyes bulged, and he blinked in surprise even as his face rapidly took on shades of crimson. Then, defeated, he tapped Selu’s arm with his free hand, signaling an end to the match. Selu released his vanquished foe and got up.
“Are you okay?” he asked Bairdon as the other slowly sat up.
“I think so,” Bairdon replied, rubbing at his midsection. “You’ve got a hell of a kick.”
“Thanks,” Selu said, helping the other Padawan up. “It took a lot of practice. You’re not bad either.”
“I don’t feel like it,” Bairdon answered ruefully. “I mean, you had control of that entire match.”
“It happens,” he said, not wishing to put down the other Padawan further by explaining how he’d dissected Bairdon’s technique in the first fifteen seconds.
Even as the Alderaanian came to his feet, Selu noticed the wince of pain as some injured body part protested. Though he didn’t exactly feel great himself, he knew Bairdon had been hurt.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Selu asked.
“Maybe,” Bairdon said through gritted teeth, wincing as he did so. “Probably not. I think you bruised my kidney.”
“Easy then,” Selu told him, supporting Bairdon with one shoulder as he helped him to the side of the ring. “Sorry about the kick.”
“It’s fine,” Bairdon said. “I shouldn’t have left myself open like that. I practically asked for it.”
“Well, luckily for you, I happen to know a promising young healer,” Selu said with a twinkle in his eye as he let Bairdon lean heavily against the wall at the edge of the ring.
“Oh?” Bairdon asked.
“Indeed,” Selu said. “Just rest a minute, and I’ll go fetch her.”
“Make sure she’s pretty,” Bairdon said wearily, closing his eyes as he slumped against the wall.
Selu chuckled and walked over to the sidelines, where Aubrie Wyn was standing, having watched most of the fight.
“Not bad,” she said. “I thought he was going to beat you into the ground.”
“Thanks, I think,” Selu replied, mopping some sweat from his brow. “Listen, you said earlier that you didn’t get a lot of chances to practice hands-on healing, right?”
“Yeah, I did,” she said, at least incrementally startled. “That’s a pretty good memory.”
“Would you like a chance to practice?” Selu asked. “Not for me, I mean. I, uh, landed a kick or two on Bairdon that was a bit harder than I would have liked for sparring purposes. I didn’t mean to, but I might have really hurt him. Do you think you can do anything?”
Aubrie’s eye’s lit up, her expression brightening.
“Sure,” she said eagerly. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks,” Selu told her.
“Now just be careful,” Aubrie said in a mock lecture, wagging her finger. “Try not to overdo it next time and hurt somebody in training.”
Selu rubbed one of the welts on his arm-which although it would be gone by morning thanks to the Jamochian burn salve-still tingled a little at the touch.
“Yes,” he said. “I wish I’d been more careful-I’ve been on the receiving end often enough, and I know how unpleasant it feels-probably just as bad as one of Master Drallig’s lectures. I’ll certainly have more restraint next time I do live sparring.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Aubrie said over her shoulder as she entered the sparring ring and walked over to Bairdon. “You did well. It was a pretty clean session, and you beat someone older and bigger than you.”
“I agree,” said another voice from behind Selu, this one much deeper and more aged than Aubrie’s.
Selu turned to address the speaker, and instantly realized that Master Drallig was standing behind him. What was the Jedi battlemaster doing here at this late hour? Had he overheard Selu’s impolite comment about his lectures? Selu’s face turned ashen white, anticipating the berating he was more than likely about to receive.
“Don’t look so pale, Padawan,” Master Drallig said, with a trace of a smirk. “You’re not the first student I’ve overheard making a less-than-complimentary remark about my lectures.”
Selu could muster up no meaningful reply to that, so he just stood there.
“Step into the sparring ring,” Master Drallig told him.
Selu was puzzled by the unusual nature of the command, but did as he was instructed.
“Now, do as I tell you,” Master Drallig said.
The esteemed Jedi battlemaster barked out commands, ordering Selu to execute maneuvers, ranging from blocks to kicks and arm strikes. At first, his movements were slow, unlinked. However, Master Drallig soon sped up his pace, barely pausing to breathe, and began adding more acrobatics to his commands. Selu was flying through the air now, then tumbling, spinning, cartwheeling around the sparring ring as he tried to keep up with the relentless stream of commands. Though he was far from polished in his execution, he kept going to the next move even if he messed up the previous one. Finally, Master Drallig stopped, leaving Selu standing there, his arms up in a standard guard position, right leg forward.
“Not bad,” the Jedi Master told him. “Come here, Selu.”
Selu complied wordlessly, out of breath from the intense exercises he had just been placed through.
“Do you know what that was?” Drallig asked him.
Selu shook his head numbly, still trying to catch his breath.
“That was the first kata for Ataru,” Drallig said.
“Ataru?” Selu asked. “Isn’t that a lightsaber form?”
“The seven forms are not just restricted to the use of a lightsaber,” Drallig said. “The moves you just did were for unarmed combat.”
“I see,” Selu said, finally able to speak clearly again. “How did I do?”
“Like I said, not bad,” Master Drallig answered him. “It wasn’t perfect, but my first impression is that you have potential in using Ataru, although you’ll need some work to use it with a lightsaber. You might ask your master to show you more about the form later.”
“Do all the forms have an unarmed component?” Selu asked.
“Yes, they do,” the Jedi Master replied. “And it seems you might do better in learning those parts first rather than with a lightsaber.”
“I think you’re right,” Selu said. “Thank you, Master Drallig.”
“You’re welcome,” Master Drallig told him. “What are you doing next?”
Selu was puzzled by the question, but Master Drallig had been behaving rather cryptically for this entire conversation. This friendly air certainly wasn’t part of the usual impression he gave his students. Anyway, he didn’t see any reason not to answer the question.
“I was going to meet another Padawan and go for a swim to prepare for a mission to Ando,” Selu replied.
“Very well,” Master Drallig said, not giving any reason for his query. “May the Force be with you on your mission.”
“Thank you,” Selu said.
With that, Master Drallig turned and walked off silently, leaving a somewhat confused Selu standing there. He looked over to where Aubrie and Bairdon were, but apparently, she’d helped Bairdon up and out through the other entrance into the sparring ring as they were some distance away, headed out of the training area. Selu glanced at the wall chrono and realized it was after 2200 hours-he needed to go meet Skip. He could catch up with his two new friends later. Grabbing his cloak, he quickly strode over to the swimming area, still mopping at the beads of sweat dripping off his now tangled and soaked hair onto his face. Stopping by his quarters to slip into a pair of knee-length shorts more suitable for swimming, Selu was in a bit of a hurry, as he barely reached the swimming area in time.
The large rectangular area with its massive pool of clear blue water was just as he’d seen it in his dream, except that instead of a malevolent Serra, Skip was standing there, a cheerful grin on his face, as Selu arrived.
“Hey Skip,” Selu said, walking over to the storage cabinets located along one of the walls.
Stripping off his boots, tunic, and undertunic, he stuffed them into one of the cabinets to avoid getting them wet.
“Wow,” Skip said, noting the fading but still visible lines of welts running across his now-bare upper torso. “Serra really got you with that lightsaber today.”
Little did either Padawan know that the individual in question had been watching them from the other entrance to the swimming area. They did not hear her sudden intake of air as Selu removed his tunic to reveal the red lines of the welts she’d inflicted on him herself, ones that she knew from experience must have been painful. They didn’t see her cast an appraising glance over Selu’s shirtless torso. They didn’t sense her clamp down on that thought a second after it occurred to her, sealing it away in her private vault of thoughts that nobody else ever saw. They did not sense the remorse welling up in her normally unflappable spirit as she once again was reminded of the wounds she’d given him, nor did they see her abandon her concealed position to quietly walk up to them.
“Yeah, she did,” Serra Keto admitted, startling both of them with her approach.
However, her appearance was not as polished as it usually was-in fact, she looked positively disheveled. Her face and clothing were dirty, smudged with grime or water, and she looked tired. The jet black locks of her hair had lost their usual sheen, falling limply from her head in tousled strands, and her blue eyes were downcast, lacking their usual brightness.
Selu’s eyes widened in surprise as he was instantly reminded of his dream, and he quickly checked to make sure that she wasn’t packing a lightsaber, almost in a panic with worry. He could feel his heart rate accelerating and wasn’t sure if that was from trepidation due to her approach, or merely being around her again-particularly sans tunic. Thankfully, at least one of his fears was mollified by seeing that she bore no weapon, and the only thing in her hands was what looked like a dirty rag.
“Serra?” Selu asked cautiously. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to find you,” she said slowly.
“Uh . . .” Selu responded, unsure of her intentions.
Her shoulders slumped.
“Master Drallig saw what . . . what I did to you in class today. After class, he gave me a terrible lecture. I’ve not seen him that mad in a long time. As discipline, I’ve been scrubbing first dishes, then dormitory floors for the last few hours.”
Selu and Skip winced sympathetically as Serra continued speaking even as she took a tentative step forward.
“I guess I wasn’t thinking about how my actions were affecting you while we were sparring. That was not only careless of me, it was not becoming of a Jedi.”
“Force forbid you ever make a mistake,” Skip chortled unhelpfully.
Serra shot a glare at him.
“Oh, hush,” she said to the Tynnan before continuing to Selu. “This is hard enough for me already, saying this. Selu, I wanted to apologize. Master Drallig suggested it would be a good idea, but I feel I owe it to you.”
She stepped closer, until she was standing directly in front of Selu.
“Especially after I saw-,” her speech faltered, and she reached out one hand slowly to brush an angry welt running along his right bicep, causing him to flinch slightly.
Every nerve ending in Selu’s arm was aware of her touch, despite the fact that her fingers were grimy and dirty. This was hard for her, he knew. She rarely had to admit mistakes; she rarely made them, but here she was, trying to apologize. Or at least so it seemed to him. He could see the sincerity in her eyes, the remorse and despondence in her manner. There was even something else he sensed from her stance and tone-was it fear? Or insecurity? Selu found himself even more shocked to find that Serra Keto of all people even knew what those emotions were, based on every impression he’d ever had of her. She stood there quietly, as if trying to formulate the right words, or maybe just waiting to see how he would respond. While part of him wanted to indignantly preach self-righteousness at her, he knew better, and didn’t really want to hurt her. Even though he’d always thought of Serra Keto as being invulnerable, and indeed unreachable, somehow he knew that she was yearning for his acceptance of her apology, for him to forgive her. Any refusal on his part to do so would leave a wound, an invisible mark perhaps, but a painful one nonetheless. It was something he could not stand to do to her-it was against the Jedi Code, for one, but it was also not a deed he felt he could live with for the rest of his life.
“It’s okay,” Selu said, breaking the silence and taking her hand. “Everyone makes mistakes. Trust me, I know.”
She looked up at him, silently willing him to continue. He returned her own steady gaze, making sure he had her complete attention before continuing.
“I accept your apology,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers.
The relief that washed off of the disconsolate Padawan was palpable, and her countenance brightened even as he said those four simple words. It was the most human he’d ever seen Serra, the most vulnerable as well. Selu found this antithesis of her usual behavior foreign, a side of her she normally didn’t display.
“Thank you,” she breathed slightly.
Then, to Selu’s great surprise, she ran up and wrapped her arms around him in a warm embrace, a faint tear of relief running down her cheek. Selu was at first taken aback, and nearly lost his balance as she hugged him. He hadn’t realized that this part of Serra had existed, but underneath her granite exterior, there apparently lurked a tender heart which could not stand knowing that she had inflicted harm on another and left the matter unresolved. Her reaction was unexpected, and even as relief continued to roll off of her, Selu somehow overcame his momentary perplexity and returned the gesture, placing his own arms around her.
At that point, time seemed to slow for both of them. For his part, Selu was keenly aware of just how tightly they were pressed together, and he wondered if Serra felt the same way. She looked up at him, and Selu was tempted to say what he thought, how he felt. The hidden attraction he felt for her which his senses were glaringly reminding him of at that moment. Then he realized how foolish that would be. They were Jedi, and despite the elusive tales of hormone-fueled Padawan romance, this was not why she was here. She was here because she’d cared enough to not leave a hurt unresolved, not because she’d wanted to be swept off her feet. Voicing his attraction now was not only pointless, it was uncalled for, and she might even take it as him trying to take advantage of her momentary lapse of control, or as demeaning her apology. So Selu bit back what he was going to say, and found another question that seemed to fit much better.
“Friends?” he asked.
“What was that?” Serra whispered, as if she hadn’t heard him the first time.
“Are we friends?” Selu asked, steeling himself against her response.
She released him to step back slightly, almost like she was puzzled or disappointed by the response. Her motion also could have been due to the fact that placing a little separation between them made it easier for her to look Selu in the eyes, but Selu sensed there was possibly something more. However, Serra quickly covered up whatever emotion that had briefly flashed by with an easy smile.
“Yes,” she said. “I’d like that.”
“I’m glad,” Selu said, with a wry twinkle in his eye. “You see, my friend Skip and I were about to go for a swim to help us prepare for a mission we’re going on to Ando.”
Serra gave him a confused look, trying to decipher his statement.
“And it occurred to me that you could use some cleaning up,” Selu said. “So, I had an idea, but it wouldn’t have worked if we weren’t friends.”
Serra’s look turned to a mix of curiosity and suspicion.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Well,” Selu said slyly. “I wouldn’t feel at all comfortable throwing a training partner or an acquaintance in the pool. But I’d have no problems doing it to a friend.”
As he spoke that first sentence, Selu edged him and Serra, as they were still in a loose embrace, over towards the rim of the pool. As he finished the second sentence, he grabbed her as tightly as he could and threw both himself and Serra off the edge into the water.
“What? No! Selu!” Serra exclaimed as he did so, reacting a moment too late.
Skip chortled with laughter as he watched the two humans hit the water with a huge splash, then followed them by jumping into the pool himself.
Selu had released Serra as soon as they hit the water, and came up quickly, grinning from ear to ear. She surfaced a second or two later spluttering, her hair down around her face, obscuring her vision.
“Why . . . you! How dare you!” she raged impotently, trying to clear her eyes and get the hair out of her face.
Succeeding in doing so, she turned her sternest gaze on Selu.
“Yes,” Skip interjected gleefully. “Force forbid he do something fun like throw you in a pool.”
For the moment at least, Serra ignored the Tynnan, even if he was right. She wasn’t really mad at Selu, or even indignant, but she felt that she needed to express her surprise somehow. Lecturing seemed as good a way as any to her, especially if she fooled Selu into thinking she was really mad, though there wasn’t much chance of convincing him of that given the lack of genuine anger emanating from her.
“Selusda Kraen! I never would have guessed you’d do something like that!” Serra scolded as she began treading water.
“You’ve learned an important lesson, then,” Selu said in his best imitation of Master Drallig. “Don’t always trust your first impression.”
He tossed his head back and laughed, and soon Skip joined him as well. At first, Serra continued to give Selu a baleful stare, but then she started cracking, a trace of a smile threatening to spread from the corner of her mouth across her face, betraying the fact that she wasn’t really mad. Finally, she caved and joined them in all-out laughter.
All in all, Selu figured, despite all that had gone wrong, by day’s end, things had turned out well. He’d learned more than a thing or two and gained a new friend in Serra Keto, which alone made the lightsaber welts worth it. It had been a good day. Though, given the way it had started, Selu reflected mirthfully to himself, he never would have predicted that from his first impression.