Only when one became a teacher did one realize how much—or how little—they truly knew.
It was nerve-wracking at first, taking on Ezra as his apprentice. Kanan had never taught anyone in his life. He was always the one being taught; the student, the rookie, the Padawan learner. He spent several nights that first week lying awake in his bunk, thinking about lesson structures and in what order he ought to administer the exercises—every student was different, after all—and he was noticeably distracted during the day, making lists, meditating more than usual, lost in thought. Hera thought it was sweet how much he’d taken the task to heart, and she told him so.
“Relax, Dad,” she teased as she helpfully kneaded the tension from Kanan’s shoulders. “You’ll do fine.”
But after the first few lessons—and several arguments, and at least one meltdown—Kanan felt more like an unlicensed therapist than a Jedi Master. So far he’d spent more time lecturing than doing any actual training. But it was to be expected; Ezra lacked rudimentary knowledge of the ways of the Force and had a lot of mental grooming to do before his mind would even be ready to receive the lessons. Like a fallow field, the soil had to be turned and aerated before the seeds could be successfully planted.
To make matters even more difficult, the boy was a free spirit, a true wild child, unaccustomed to obeying rules or respecting authority. He was easily frustrated by the abstract, gave up too soon when faced with single-solution problems, was impatient and sarcastic and cracked too many jokes at inappropriate times, and somehow managed to press every single one of Kanan’s buttons.
A typical teenager, basically.
Kanan honed his patience like a knife and instructed Ezra to do the same. It was the only way they were going to get through training without killing each other—accidentally or intentionally.
He never expected it to be easy, mentoring and teaching a kid, but neither did he expect it to be so hard. And he couldn’t blame it all on Ezra. All of Kanan’s deficiencies, his failures, his backslidden years in which he’d abandoned the Force, all the lessons his Master had never finished teaching him, were suddenly thrust into his face as evidence proving he was unsuitable to be Ezra’s instructor.
He didn’t know what he was doing. That was the one underlying maxim that kept resurfacing every time they ended a day on a bad note. He was way out of his depth, flying by the seat of his pants. They were reduced to squeezing training sessions in between ops and supply runs and evading the Empire, with none of the texts or old Masters to guide them. No library, no collective centuries of wisdom to call upon for advice. Just a single lightsaber and the memories in Kanan’s head, and that was all. It was so much less than what Ezra deserved. Kanan wished he could give him the best. It was impossible, he knew that, but it didn’t make him want it any less. Things had been much different when he was a Padawan.
It kept him up at night, thinking about the hows and whys. Mostly the hows. He wanted to do this right, but he could only teach Ezra what he knew. And he knew so little. He shouldn’t be teaching anyone. He was a half-finished project himself. He wasn’t a knight, wasn’t a Master. He was barely mentor material.
But you are the only one who can show him, said a calm voice inside him. You will find a way. He needs you now, whether you are ready or not. It is more important to be present than perfect.
Kanan tried to believe it. And that was his first mistake. Trying.
It wasn’t until after narrowly escaping the Inquisitor on their failed rescue mission to Stygeon Prime that Kanan finally stopped trying to teach Ezra and began to teach him. They accomplished more in one afternoon than in all their sessions of the past month. It was a huge victory for them both.
It wasn’t all clear skies and smooth sailing, of course. Ezra still lacked discipline and concentration. He was an unpolished gemstone, a newly-sparked flame burning in the night. Kanan wanted to feed that flame and help it grow, but he was very aware of how easy it would be to snuff out the spark if he was too overbearing. Sometimes he felt like he was too hard on the boy, but the boy was also willful and independent. Only the lightest, most expert touch would be able to shape him into a Jedi. Kanan didn’t want Ezra to fail—not just because that would mean admitting that he too was a failure, but because he genuinely wanted Ezra to surpass his own abilities someday.
And the times when Ezra did do well, and looked up at Kanan with a proud grin, were the times that Kanan thought he would die for him. He ruffled the boy’s hair and complimented him—not too much, he didn’t want it to go to his head—and savored the little victories. They were happening more often now, but not without effort, discipline, and a lot of patience.
Kanan dealt with his personal doubts on a daily basis, conquering them with as much fortitude and determination as he could summon. Slowly Ezra began to trust him, to really form a bond with him, and Kanan found himself drawing strength from the vulnerabilities that Ezra was now brave enough to share with him.
Like a flower, the boy was slowly opening up to him, revealing the tender heart his petals were carefully guarding. Sometimes they were good things. A favorite song, a happy memory of his parents, the funniest thing that ever happened to him. Sometimes they were dark and painful things. His worst recurring dream, the number of people he’d seen die in front of him. Doubts. Sorrows. Injustices. Things that awoke in Kanan a fierce, fatherly instinct to nurture and protect.
And sometimes they were things so awful that even the dark side paled in comparison.
They were working on Ezra’s focus today. The Empty Stomach Challenge, Kanan called it.
“You’re not always going to be fit and well-rested. Sometimes you’re going to be hungry and tired, maybe even wounded, but you need to learn to quiet these signals from your body and keep your mind on your objective. It’s just mortal pain. Remember that.”
“Mortal pain sucks,” Ezra muttered.
“It does. But you can master it. Now, deep breath in. And hold. And out. And—reach.”
They were sitting cross-legged before one another in a field of magenta ryhia grass on Sigma Dregan, their eyes closed. The sky was a rich purple with tall golden clouds. It was late in the day, the last of the three small suns was about to set in the north, and it’d been nearly 36 hours since either of them had eaten. The acid in Ezra’s empty stomach was making him queasy. He was tired, shaky, and cranky. So was Kanan, but he was better at managing it. The promise of food, sitting in a box nearby and to be enjoyed upon completion of the lesson, wasn’t helping matters. It was part of the training, Kanan told him. Quieting the temptation, the urgent need for relief and satiation. Ignore the flesh, the moment, the impermanent. Focus on the Force, which was everything the flesh was not.
“Concentrate, Ezra,” Kanan admonished. “You can’t connect with the Force when your head is cluttered with noise. You must quiet it.”
“I’m trying,” Ezra snapped, “but you keep interrupting me.”
“I keep interrupting you because you look like you’re about to pop every blood vessel in your body. Relax.”
“You tell me to concentrate, then you tell me to relax! Which is it? I can’t do both!”
“Yes, you can. Release the tension from your body first. Just let it go. Relax your face, drop your shoulders. Go from head to toe, releasing the tension from every muscle. That's better. Now: turn your mind into an impenetrable room, unable to be influenced by outside forces. Nothing can get in or out except what you allow. This is one of the biggest, most basic stepping stones when it comes to using the Force. Master this and you will have laid the groundwork on which so many other skills are built. This is also why fasting is such an important part of Jedi training. With the body in a state of repair, the mind can—”
Ezra’s stomach made a noise like a dying Purrgil.
Kanan suppressed a smile. “It’s just a little discomfort. Don’t worry, we’ll be done soon.”
“Honestly, that’s the worst part. I’d feel a lot better if it wasn’t sitting over there and staring at me.”
“Look at it as a reassurance, not a temptation. Your needs will be met. Take comfort in that. Until then, do what must be done. Accomplish your goal. You can do it. I believe in you—and more importantly, I think you believe in you, too. Come on, Padawan.”
Ezra let out a long breath. “Just a little discomfort.”
Roughly six minutes later, a crow of triumph startled Kanan from his meditative state.
“I can sense them, Kanan! I can hear them!”
“Good! Where are they? Can you see?”
“Yeah! They’re by a huge lake. The water is light blue and really cloudy. It looks like milk. And there’s—the lake’s in some kind of huge flower field. I think it smells nice there?”
“That’s Lake Dregan. Good work. Mission accomp—”
“It does smell nice there, I just heard Sabine say so! Her and Zeb are picking some of the flowers. They’re big and white and they have a yellow center. The petals are sparkly. Sabine says some kind of medicine can be made with them. And Hera and Chopper are working on something on the Ghost. I think they’re cleaning out the air filtering system. Chopper just dropped something big. Now Hera’s shaking her head and saying something about recalibrating him with a hammer—no, wait, she didn’t say that out loud. She just thought it. Huh. Sure sounded loud enough.”
Kanan was impressed; that was far more detail than he was expecting from Ezra’s first time using Force Sight. A proud but nervous smile came to his lips. “I think it’s safe to say you’ve completed today’s lesson, Padawan Bridger. Congratulations.”
Ezra’s eyes popped open. “Can we eat now?”
Chuckling, Kanan rose to his feet. “Yeah, come on.”
They sat side by side on the crest of a small hill, watching the sun go down behind the trees while they ate a light meal of rehydrated protein mash and grains, vegetable crackers, and water flavored with powdered linglok fruit. Linglok was full of vitamins and minerals and electrolytes, the perfect thing for people who hadn’t eaten in a while. Ezra downed his first three cups and tore open another packet, emptied the powder into his canteen, added water and shook it up. Then he dug his spoon into his bowl of mash and crammed it into his mouth.
“Don’t eat too fast,” Kanan warned. “You’ll get sick.”
“I always eat this way.”
“You should slow down. It’s easier on your stomach, especially after fasting.”
“Nah, I’m used to it.” Ezra abandoned his spoon and used one of his crackers to scoop up his mash. It all vanished into his mouth with a huge crunch. He chewed, his cheek bulging absurdly.
The fond look on Kanan’s face turned melancholy. “You must have gone hungry pretty often on Lothal.”
Ezra shrugged one shoulder. “Mm, sometimes. Just part of being on your own, I guess. You learn to eat quick, especially if it’s stolen food. It’s not like they really want it back after it’s been eaten, right?” He made a funny face and mimed the act of vomiting. “Bleuuugh!”
Kanan grinned. “Yeah, I guess not.”
Ezra drained his cup in a single gulp and poured another from his canteen. “There was a major supply shortage a year or two after my parents—after I was on my own,” he said at length.
Kanan had already been listening, but now he straightened his back, came to full attention. The flower was about to bloom again. He didn’t want to miss a thing.
“The Empire destroyed all the roads to and from Capital City,” Ezra continued. “They were gonna rebuild them, they said. Improve them. But everyone knew it was just a plot to stop intercity trade and force the people to rely on Imperial supplies. Make it to where they totally depended upon them. The local government resisted for a while, but they gave in when the people started protesting.”
Kanan frowned. “The people protested their own government? I thought they were against the Imperial occupation?”
“They were, but.” A shrug. “They were hungry. They didn’t care who had the food as long as they got it. You know what they say: civilized society is only three missed meals away from total anarchy. The shortage lasted for years.” Ezra narrowed his eyes against the wind and fished another cracker from the packet.
“How did you manage to survive?” Kanan asked softly. “I mean, being on your own at seven years old, no parents, no protection, having to provide for yourself. Not many could have done that.”
Ezra nibbled his cracker instead of eating it whole this time. “I made acquaintances. Drug dealers, prostitutes, thieves. They felt sorry for me because I was so young. They would feed me, throw me a ration bar or a piece of fruit every now and then, and I’d hang around for a bit. But I didn’t trust any of them. I would always leave after a while. I knew it was safer to be on my own.”
Grimly, Kanan absorbed this information. “Were there no orphanages you could go to? No foster homes?”
“They’d all been taken over by the Empire, turned into their own little stormtrooper factories.” Ezra shook his head. “They were always trying to round up the stray orphans, ones like me who were still on the street. ‘Get ’em while they’re young’ they used to say. ‘They’re easier to program.’”
“That’s… terrible,” Kanan said at last.
Ezra shrugged as if it was no big deal. “I could run and I could hide. And I was pretty small. I learned to be quiet. I could escape most people’s notice, fit into tight spaces, things like that. I hung around the Imperial barracks a lot. Sometimes the troopers, the ones who weren’t hunting me down, they would give me food. Once I learned where they kept it, I started stealing it. That’s how I learned to break into stuff. I think a lot of them knew I was doing it but didn’t report me. I was just a homeless little kid to them. They didn’t care about a few stolen supplies. They were just regular people underneath that armor. Most of them, anyway. But when the shortage happened, that was the worst it ever got for me.”
Kanan didn’t want to ask—he didn’t think his heart could take it—but he asked anyway. “How bad?”
“Mm.” Ezra winced as if he suddenly got a sour taste in his mouth. “Bad enough that even the rich people had nothing. The Imperial storehouses were locked up and put on guard. I almost got caught a few times, barely escaped that last time. That’s saying a lot considering I can escape from just about anything. Anyway, I gave up after that and lived off whatever I could find on the streets. There was nothing to steal unless we stole from each other. That happened a lot. Everyone was desperate. Only people with connections to the Empire had anything, but even they didn’t have much.”
“And yet you survived.”
Ezra smiled with half of his mouth. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Kanan didn’t buy it for one second. “It takes more than the will of a child to fill an empty belly day after day. Or are you telling me you were just that good a thief?” He didn’t mean for his words to come out so accusatory, but he sensed there was something Ezra wanted to tell him. Something he wanted to get off his chest. Something heavy and—dark. Ugly.
A cloud rolled over the sun and a breeze ruffled Ezra’s hair. “I did a bunch of things. I stole nav cards and power cells out of speeders and shuttles and traded them for food. Sometimes I got work as a delivery boy. I’m sure I was carrying all kinds of illegal things in those containers, but no one would suspect a kid of transporting spice or blasters or anything like that. And other times…” He licked his lips. “Other times all I had to do was stay for a couple hours at somebody’s house. I’d walk away with a week’s worth of rations. I liked those jobs, even though they… well, at least they paid well.”
“They who? Imperial officers?”
“I dunno. I never knew their real names. They only went by the names of the masks they wore.”
“Yeah, not helmets but, like, old fashioned costume masks that hid their faces. You know, like in a circus. There was Black Feather and Blue Tiger, a bunch of others. Maybe a dozen. They said it was all part of the game, but I knew it was so I couldn’t identify them if I saw them on the street. I was young, but I wasn’t as dumb as they thought I was.”
Kanan’s mouth had gone dry, but his throat was too tight to allow a single drop of liquid to pass. Finally he managed to rasp, “What happened at these houses, Ezra? What did you do?”
Ezra took a sudden interest in the grass between his feet. “Most of the time all I had to do was take off my clothes and sit with them while they had—meetings, I guess they were. Lunch conferences or something. Everything was weird. I didn’t understand what was going on half the time or what they were even talking about. They used some kinda code language, lots of shortened words. Sometimes they took holos of me just sitting on pillows or posing with statues in gardens. Things like that.”
Kanan became aware of his pulse pounding in his ears. A powerful wave of shock, anger, and disgust rolled through him. “Did they touch you?”
A full minute seemed to pass.
Kanan stared at the side of Ezra’s face. The breeze picked up again, tousling his hair.
“They always gave me more if they touched me. They were fair, at least. Nice to me. Told me I was—that I had pretty eyes.” He smiled and looked up at Kanan.
His eyes were pretty, Kanan thought. A vibrant blue with hints of violet, like star sapphires.
“It was nice to be complimented for once. I was so used to people yelling at me and calling me ugly names.”
There was nothing Kanan could say. Nothing could even come close.
“Sometimes I would get a bath as part of the deal,” Ezra said in a lighter tone. “Not a regular bath, but like, a rich people bath. That was always nice. Hot water and bubbles in a tub so deep you could—you could sit down and the water would come up to your chin. And oils. All kinds of oils that smelled so good, and bars of soap carved to look like animals, big fluffy white towels. It was awesome. You ever have a bath like that, Kanan?”
Kanan forced his tongue to work. “No. No, I don’t think I have.”
Ezra nodded and looked down into his cup, tilted it back and forth to roll the contents around the bottom. Kanan noticed his nails were chewed down to the quick. How had he never noticed that Ezra’s nails were chewed to the quick, or that his knuckles were so large compared to his slim fingers, as if they had been repeatedly busted and cracked? And how had he never noticed the way Ezra rubbed his lips when he was anxious or upset? How had he missed all the signs that pointed to—to him being—
“The only bad thing was sometimes they would wash me.”
Suddenly Kanan’s eyes were burning. He shut them and pressed his tightly-clenched fist to his mouth.
“They would say their hands slipped, but I knew it wasn’t an accident. They were touching me on purpose. It wasn’t too bad, though. They always paid me more, and they were gentle, never hurt me. It… kinda felt good sometimes. But as I got older, they invited me over less and less. By the time I was eleven, they had stopped completely. I guess maybe I got too old for them. But by then the shortage was over, so I didn’t need to go to their little meetings or whatever anymore.”
Cracking open his eyes, Kanan stared into the sunset. Tears glistened, threatening to spill.
Ezra scratched his cup with a blunt thumbnail. “Don’t tell the others, okay? I don’t want ’em to get freaked out.”
Like I’m not? Kanan thought almost hysterically. But all he said was, “Okay.”
Silence fell. A bird soared overhead, squawking and shrilling. Ezra carefully folded his empty cracker packet and put it in his pocket, even though the wrapper was entirely biodegradable and safe to be discarded anywhere.
Probably a habit he picked up on the streets, Kanan thought. Waste nothing. Leave no trace. He’s more of a specter than any of us.
Then, without a word, Ezra shyly scooted over and leaned into Kanan’s side, rested his head against his shoulder. Though Kanan hadn’t known him for long, he knew that it wasn’t like Ezra Bridger to just cuddle up to someone. This was something new. This was—
Hold me. Please.
Kanan’s first instinct was to recoil—don’t touch him, he’s been hurt, he’s damaged, be careful, stay back, you can’t help him—but he found his arm automatically wrapping around Ezra’s shoulders, obeying the request he heard in his head. He felt Ezra’s small body relax beneath his hand, smelled the odor of his clothes and sweat and unwashed hair.
“I’d like to have a rich-people bath again someday,” he sighed. “But without, y’know. Them. Without having to do anything to earn it. That’d be nice.”
The images came unbidden to Kanan’s mind: soap and bare skin; suds, bubbles; Ezra’s boyish grin and crackly, pubescent laugh; his wet hair and clean face, dark lashes clumped together, eyes sparkling and happy. He lifted his hand and blew a thick drift of bubbles into the air, crinkled his nose and laughed. No dark shadows watching from the corners. No recorders running, no click of cameras. Just Ezra Bridger, safe and happy and free.
Kanan was disciplined enough to keep his thoughts above the water, locked onto Ezra’s sweet, wholesome face. Because as long as he was focused on Ezra’s sweet, wholesome face, he wasn’t thinking about a stranger’s hand between Ezra’s thighs, fondling his hairless eight-year-old genitals and pretending to be sorry because they weren’t really sorry, it wasn’t an accident, they were perverts and liars, they were predators, monsters. They touched Ezra and were conditioning him before he’d even known the word for what they were doing to him—molesting him, Kanan’s mind hissed, they molested him—and somewhere out there, those holos were likely still circulating, recordings of tiny little Ezra Bridger, naked and confused, betrayed by the adults who should have been protecting him. Kanan wanted to find them all and kill them. Utterly destroy them. Choke the life from their bodies and then drag his lightsaber through their corpses, eviscerate them, spill their guts out and—
Ezra shivered against him.
Kanan let go of his black thoughts with a gasp. His heart was pounding. He turned his head and pressed his lips to Ezra’s hair, breathed deep, closed his eyes.
Vengeance was not what good Jedi Masters sought. Justice, yes, but not rage-driven acts of retribution. Good Jedi Masters didn’t allow their emotions to run riot over them. Good Jedi Masters didn’t fantasize about death and destruction, didn’t want to kill for the satisfaction of it.
But he wasn’t really a Jedi Master, was he? No. Not Kanan Jarrus. Not at all.
“Yeah,” he said, “that’d be nice.”