Only when one becomes a teacher does one realize how much—or how little—they truly know.
It’s a little nerve-wracking at first, taking on Ezra as his Apprentice. Kanan has never taught anyone in his life. He was always the one being taught.
He spends 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 is different, after all—and he is noticeably distracted during the day, making lists, meditating more than usual, lost in thought. Hera thinks it’s sweet how much he has taken this task to heart, and she tells him so.
“Relax, Dad,” she teases as she helpfully kneads 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 feels more like an unlicensed therapist than a Jedi Master. So far he has spent more time lecturing than doing any actual training. But it’s to be expected; Ezra lacks rudimentary knowledge of the ways of the Force and has a lot of mental grooming to do before his mind is even ready to receive the lessons. Like a fallow field, the soil must be turned and aerated before the seeds can be successfully planted.
To make matters even more difficult, the boy is a free spirit, a true wild child, unaccustomed to obeying rules or respecting authority. He is easily frustrated by the abstract, gives up too soon when faced with single-solution problems, is impatient and sarcastic and cracks too many jokes at inappropriate times, and somehow manages to press every single one of Kanan’s buttons.
A typical teenager, basically.
Kanan hones his patience like a knife and instructs Ezra to do the same. It’s the only way either of them is going to get through this 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 can’t blame it all on Ezra. All of Kanan’s deficiencies, his failures, his backslidden years in which he abandoned the Force, all the lessons his Master had not finished teaching him, are suddenly thrust into his face as evidence proving he is unsuitable to be Ezra’s instructor.
He doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s the one underlying maxim that keeps resurfacing every time they end a day on a bad note. He’s way out of his depth, flying by the seat of his pants. They’re reduced to squeezing in training sessions 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’s all. It’s so much less than what Ezra deserves. Kanan wishes he could give him the best. It’s impossible, he knows that, but it doesn’t make him want it any less. Things were much different when he was a Padawan.
It keeps him up at night, thinking about the hows and whys. Mostly the hows. He wants to do this right, but he can only teach Ezra what he knows. And he knows so little. He shouldn’t be teaching anyone. He’s a half-finished project himself. He isn’t a Knight, isn’t a Master. He’s barely a mentor.
But you are the only one who can show him, says 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 tries to believe it. And that is his first mistake. Trying.
It isn’t until after narrowly escaping the Inquisitor on their failed rescue mission to Stygeon Prime that Kanan finally stops trying to teach Ezra and begins to teach him. They accomplish more in one afternoon than in all their sessions of the past month. It’s a huge victory for them both.
It’s not all clear skies and smooth sailing, of course. Ezra still lacks discipline and concentration. He’s an unpolished gemstone, a newly-sparked flame burning in the night. Kanan wants to feed that flame and help it grow, but he’s very aware of how easy it is to snuff out the spark if a Master is too overbearing. Sometimes he feels like he’s too hard on the boy, but the boy is also willful and independent. Only the lightest, most expert touch will be able to shape him into a Jedi. Kanan doesn’t want Ezra to fail—not just because that would mean admitting that he too is a failure, but because he genuinely wants Ezra to surpass his own abilities someday.
The times when Ezra does well and looks up at him with a proud grin, Kanan thinks he would die for him. He ruffles the boy’s hair and compliments him—not too much, he doesn’t want it to go to his head—and savors these little victories. They’re happening more often now, but not without effort, discipline, and a lot of patience.
Kanan deals with his personal doubts on a daily basis, conquering them with as much fortitude and determination as he can summon. Slowly Ezra begins to trust him, to really form a bond with him, and Kanan finds himself drawing strength from the vulnerabilities that Ezra is now brave enough to share with him.
Like a flower, the boy is slowly opening up to him, revealing the tender heart his petals have been carefully guarding. Sometimes they’re good things. A favorite song, a happy memory of his parents, the funniest thing that ever happened to him. Sometimes they’re dark and painful things. His worst recurring dream, the number of people he’s seen die in front of him. Doubts. Sorrows. Injustices. Things that awake in Kanan a fierce, fatherly instinct to nurture and protect.
And sometimes they’re things so awful that even the Dark Side pales in comparison.
They’re working on Ezra’s focus today. The Empty Stomach Challenge, Kanan calls 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 mutters.
“It does. But you can master it. Now—deep breath in. And hold. And out. And… reach.”
They’re sitting cross-legged before one another in a field of magenta ryhia grass on Sigma Dregan, their eyes closed. The sky is a rich purple with tall golden clouds. It’s late in the day, the last of the three small suns is about to set in the north, and it’s been nearly 36 hours since either of them have eaten. The acid in Ezra’s empty stomach is making him queasy. He’s tired, shaky, and cranky. So is Kanan, but he’s better at managing it.
The promise of food, sitting in a box nearby and to be enjoyed upon completion of the lesson, isn’t helping matters. It’s 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 is everything the flesh is not.
“Concentrate, Ezra,” Kanan murmurs. “You can’t connect with the Force when your head is cluttered with noise. You must quiet it.”
“I’m trying,” Ezra snaps, “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 makes a noise like a dying Purrgil.
Kanan has to suppress 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 lets out a long breath. “Just a little discomfort…”
Roughly six minutes later, a crow of triumph startles 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 is impressed; that’s far more detail than he was expecting from Ezra’s first time using Force Sight. A proud but nervous smile comes to his lips.
“I think it’s safe to say you’ve completed today’s lesson, Padawan Bridger. Congratulations.”
Ezra’s eyes pop open. “Can we eat now?”
Kanan chuckles and rises to his feet. “Yeah, come on.”
They sit side by side on the crest of a small hill, watching the sun go down behind the trees while they eat a light meal of rehydrated protein mash and grains, vegetable crackers, and water flavored with powdered linglok fruit. Linglok is full of vitamins and minerals and electrolytes, the perfect thing for people who haven’t eaten in a while. Ezra downs his first three cups and tears open another packet, empties the powder into his canteen, adds water and shakes it up. Then he digs his spoon into his bowl of mash and crams it into his mouth.
“Don’t eat too fast,” Kanan warns. “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 abandons his spoon and uses one of his crackers to scoop up his mash. It all vanishes into his mouth with a huge crunch. He chews, his cheek bulging absurdly.
Kanan’s fond look turns melancholy. “You must have gone hungry pretty often on Lothal.”
Ezra shrugs 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 makes a funny face and mimes the act of vomiting. “Bleuuugh!”
Kanan grins. “Yeah, I guess not.”
Ezra drains his cup in a single gulp and pours another from his canteen. “There was a major supply shortage a couple years after my parents… after I was on my own,” he says at length.
Kanan was already listening, but now he straightens his back, comes to full attention. The flower is about to bloom again. He doesn’t want to miss a thing.
“The Empire destroyed all the roads to and from Capital City,” Ezra continues. “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 frowns. “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 narrows his eyes against the wind and fishes another cracker from the packet.
“How did you manage to survive?” asks Kanan 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 nibbles 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.”
Kanan grimly absorbs 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 shakes 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,” says Kanan at last.
Ezra shrugs as if it’s 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 doesn’t want to ask. He doesn’t think his heart can take it. But he asks anyway.
“Mm.” Ezra winces 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 smiles with half of his mouth. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he says with a strained grin.
Kanan doesn’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 doesn’t mean for his words to come out so accusatory, but he senses there’s something Ezra wants to tell him. Something he wants to get off his chest. Something heavy and… dark. Ugly.
A cloud rolls over the sun and a breeze ruffles 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 licks 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 has gone dry, but his throat feels too tight to allow a single drop of liquid to pass. He finally manages to rasp, “What happened at these houses, Ezra? What did you do?”
Ezra takes 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 can hear his own heart pounding in his ears. A powerful wave of shock, anger, and disgust rolls through him. “Did they touch you?”
A full minute seems to pass.
Kanana stares at the side of Ezra’s face. The breeze picks 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 smiles and looks up at Kanan.
His eyes are pretty, Kanan thinks. Not quite blue, not quite violet, but something in between. Indigo, perhaps.
“It was nice to be complimented for once. I was so used to people yelling at me and calling me ugly names.”
There is nothing Kanan can say. Nothing can even come close.
“Sometimes I would get a bath as part of the deal,” says Ezra 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 forces his throat to work. “No. No, I don’t think I have.”
Ezra nods and looks down into his cup, tilts it back and forth to roll the contents around the bottom. Kanan notices his nails are chewed down to the quick. How has he never noticed that Ezra’s nails are chewed to the quick, or that his knuckles are so large compared to his slim fingers, as if they have been repeatedly busted and cracked? And how has he never noticed the way Ezra rubs his lips when he’s anxious or upset? How has he missed all the signs that point to… to him being…
“The only bad thing was sometimes they would wash me.”
Suddenly Kanan’s eyes are burning. He shuts them and presses 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.”
Kanan opens his eyes and stares into the sunset. Tears glisten, threatening to spill.
Ezra scratches 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 thinks almost hysterically. But all he says is “Okay.”
Silence falls. A bird soars overhead, squawking and shrilling. Ezra carefully folds his empty cracker packet and puts it in his pocket, even though the wrapper is entirely biodegradable and safe to be discarded anywhere.
Probably a habit he picked up on the streets, Kanan thinks. Waste nothing. Leave no trace. He’s more of a specter than any of us.
Then, without a word, Ezra shyly scoots over and leans into Kanan’s side, rests his head against his shoulder.
Though Kanan hasn’t known him for long, he knows that it isn’t like Ezra Bridger to just cuddle up to someone. This is something new. This is…
Hold me. Please.
Kanan’s first instinct is to recoil—don’t touch him, he’s been hurt, he’s damaged, be careful, stay back, you can’t help him—but he finds his arm automatically wrapping around Ezra’s shoulders, obeying the request he heard in his head. He feels Ezra’s small body relax beneath his hand, smells the odor of his clothes and sweat and unwashed hair.
“I’d like to have a rich-people bath again someday,” he sighs. “But without… y’know. Them. Without having to do anything to earn it. That’d be nice.”
The images come 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 lifts his hand and blows a thick drift of bubbles into the air, crinkles his nose and laughs. No dark shadows watching from the corners. No recorders running, no click of cameras.
Just Ezra Bridger, safe and happy and free.
Kanan is disciplined enough to keep his thoughts above the water, locked onto Ezra’s sweet, wholesome face. Because as long as he’s focused on Ezra’s sweet, wholesome face, he isn’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 even knew the word for what they were doing to him—molesting him, Kanan’s mind hisses, they molested him—and somewhere out there those holos are likely still circulating, recordings of tiny little Ezra Bridger, naked and confused, betrayed by the adults who should have been protecting him. Kanan wants 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 shivers against him.
Kanan lets go of his black thoughts with a gasp. His heart is pounding. He turns his head and presses his lips to Ezra’s hair, breathes deep, closes his eyes.
Vengeance is not what good Jedi Masters seek. Justice, yes, but not rage-driven acts of retribution. Good Jedi Masters don’t allow their emotions to run riot over them. Good Jedi Masters don’t fantasize about death and destruction, don’t want to kill for the satisfaction of it.
But he isn’t really a Jedi Master, is he? No. Not Kanan Jarrus. Not at all.
“Yeah,” he says, “that’d be nice.”