The council obviously didn't see things that way, as they'd recently assigned him "temporary guardianship" over a padawan while their master was out on a mission. Of course, they made it explicit that Hal was not to take them as an apprentice - after Xalkaia had left the Order, it had been decided that he wasn't ready to take on a padawan learner - and that he was merely looking after the kid as they trained for their Trials of Knighthood. All he could do was swallow his pride and accept the mission with grace, but on the inside, he was still fuming from the encounter. He had better things to do than this.
Maybe this is all a test... Hal mused as he waited for the padawan to arrive at the secluded grove. It was a place not too far from the Temple, but still remote enough to commune with nature. Many years ago, his master would take him here to meditate - in a somewhat futile attempt to calm his reckless streak. Hal still remembered how every minute seemed to drag on for eternity, and how he'd only used the time to dream about lightsaber training. He hadn't appreciated his master's training until it'd been too late. Now, as the Knight gazed out into the woods, he would give anything for a chance to see his master one more time.
Em-One suddenly chirped up in Binary, rousing Hal from his reverie. The diminutive droid bounced up and down, signifying with its head that someone had arrived. With a brief sigh, Hal glanced up to greet the newcomer as they entered the grove. Whatever happened, he refused to take out his frustrations on the kid. And even though he wasn't supposed to teach the kid... well, it wouldn't be the first time Hal disobeyed the Council.
Sometimes, Neel could not understand the Council’s decisions or why his Master acquiesced to them. They have been dangling the option of allowing him to attempt the trials for months now. When he asked his Master when that would be, he told Neel that there were still things he must learn before he was ready. Immediately after that, he took off on a mission without Neel, and he had no idea how long he would be gone. How was he supposed to learn the things he must learn if he was not to accompany his Master?
To make things worse, during his Master’s absence, Neel was asked to report to another Knight—Hal Mikko. And apparently, the Council had specifically ordered Hal not to train him. So, if he was not to be trained, and they were not assigned a mission, what was the point of him reporting to the Knight? With a sigh, Neel le go of the doubts and resigned to following his orders. After all, he did believe his Master and the Council to be much wiser than him.
Neel was supposed to meet Hal at a grove that was a few minutes away from the Temple. He was quite familiar with this area. In fact, it was where he ran to be alone whenever his Master gave him an earful; especially after he had been either curt or disrespectful to senators or their aides. When Neel entered the clearing, he noticed that Hal was already there and picked up the pace. He could hear the trusty droid announce his arrival chirpily.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” Neel said, bowing slightly. “I’m Neel Kant,” he followed up with an introduction. Neel was surprised to see that Hal only seemed a few years elder to him. When he realized he was staring, he quickly averted his gaze to the droid. He gave a quick wave to the droid as he mouthed a ‘hi there’ with a smile.
Hal didn't know what to expect before Neel entered the clearing - the Council hadn't given him many details, though admittedly he hadn't asked for any. With his luck he wouldn't have been surprised if a young Rancor had stumbled through the trees. All the more reason why he was surprised - pleasantly so - when a Pantoran teenager broke through the tree-line and came rushing into the grove.
The padawan was apologetic and polite, and from a first glance seemed well-adjusted. For what it was worth, when Hal reached out through the Force, the feeling he got from the Pantoran seemed to corroborate his first impression - the Council hadn't stuck him with some basket case. Good. Hopefully the kid wouldn't prove him wrong.
As for the Knight, Hal didn't seem like the 'wise and contemplative' type of Jedi. Beneath his poncho was an armor-woven flight suit, and his lightsaber hung low on his hip like a gunslinger's blaster. Physically he didn't look much older than Neel, he was likely in his early twenties, but there was something about his aura that suggested a maturity beyond his years. A weight. When he smiled at Neel, however, all of that darkness seemed to be alleviated.
"Don't worry, you're right on time," Hal bowed in return, while Em-One waved with one of its tiny appendages. "I'm Hal, Hal Mikko. The Council assigned me with looking after you while you study for your Trials." Judging by his tone, Hal wasn't any more thrilled by the proposition than Neel was. The Knight began to approach Neel, his blue eyes scanning over him closely.
"Technically I'm not supposed to be teaching you anything, but I'm curious. You're a bit old for a padawan, but you seem like you're a good kid, and you already have your own lightsaber," Hal gestured towards the dual-phase saber before returning his gaze to meet Neel's eyes. "So tell me: why aren't you a Knight?"
The question was blunt, and judging by his expression Hal was looking for something. Maybe he was just analyzing Neel, but the question felt like it was more than just curiosity. It felt more like a test.
Neel grinned when the droid waved back, and he turned his attention back to Hal. He nodded as the Knight introduced himself, and his smile faded just a tad when Hal mentioned that he was to oversee him as he prepared for the trial. So, he was to watch him, but not train him? What was the need for him to be monitored? Neel did not think he had given any serious reason for them to be so paranoid. Was he so volatile and unaware of it? Realizing that he was drowning in a sea of doubts, the young Pantoran quickly pulled himself back to the present. The last thing he wanted was to seem lost and unfocused in front of Hal.
The way Hal carried himself as he approached Neel, made him rethink his initial impression of the Knight. He realized that he shouldn’t let the man’s youth deceive him. Hal’s demeanor was unique, but commanded the same respect as that of many experienced older Knights Neel had met. This realization only added to Neel’s frustration with the Council. They sent him to meet a Knight, who was only a few years older than him, but has accomplished so much more; but this Knight was forbidden from teaching him anything. Neel began to wonder if this was a roundabout way of shaming him.
Hal’s question was like salt on a wound. Neel did not blame the man, however. He could sense that, despite being blunt, the question was posed with no judgment and out of genuine curiosity. Without even thinking, Neel answered by repeating the excuse he had told himself all these years.
“Because my Master believes I still have much to learn, and I trust his judgment.”
Neel had never really thought about the real reason why he was not a Knight yet. He had always taken the word of his Master and the Council, believing that they would know when he was ready. He never attempted to answer that question by himself. Hal was right… He had already constructed his own lightsaber; multiple times in fact, given the number of modifications and upgrades he had performed. And he had proven himself capable in numerous missions. So, why wasn’t he a Knight?
Any attempt to sincerely answer that question would end up with Neel facing the truth: that he was still vehemently holding on to his past. Perhaps, he subconsciously avoided answering it honestly, precisely because he was afraid to face that truth.
Hal's response was just as unreadable and enigmatic as any of the Order's finest sages. Neel had given him a measured response, probably a wise response. It reflected modesty and restraint, both hallmarks of a Jedi... yet Hal had a feeling that it wasn't the entire truth. He didn't need the Force to recognize that it was by no means a natural response. Like much of the Order's dogma, it felt practiced, artificial. Detached. There was a lot to consider.
"Now suppose I could help you pass your Trials." The words were sudden, but no less unreadable. If it wasn't clear to Neel before, it was now: Hal was testing him. The Knight paced back and forth in front of the Pantoran teen, clearly deep in contemplation. "Granted, the Council assigned you to me with the explicit direction that I was not to teach you. Why, I wonder?" The question was rhetorical, and Hal quickly moved on.
"And yet they still chose to assign you to me, knowing that I am not supposed to help despite the fact that I could help you." Hal stopped pacing, and once more met Neel's gaze. Inwardly, he felt a twinge of pride, knowing that his master would've appreciated this unorthodox method of questioning. "The question is then, who do you trust: me, or the Council?"
It would be interesting to see how the padawan responded to that...
The Padawan could not figure out what Hal was thinking. Maybe it was because he was shaken up from having to discuss his insecurities, or maybe it was because Hal was much better at hiding his intentions and emotions. Or perhaps it was a combination of both. Furthermore, when it became apparent that Hal’s line of questioning was some kind of an assessment, it only sent Neel’s mind to race with an avalanche of more questions.
Neel stood right where he was, with hands folded behind him and his eyes following the man in front as he paced. He began biting his lips; a compulsive tic he exhibited every time he was a bit tense. As Hal pondered out loud, Neel realized that the Knight had the same questions that he did, before arriving at the clearing. But Hal ended it with a surprising question.
Hal’s question—technically—should not be valid. Technically. It suggested that trusting him was different from trusting the council. But he was a Jedi Knight; meaning, he trusted in the order, and thereby, in the council’s decisions. He should not have to choose between the two; the two should technically be one and the same. And yet, the question was posed.
Neel began to wonder if this was the test. And if it was, then what was the right answer? As he wondered, he remembered his Master’s advice: Do not tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what it is. Neel’s instincts told him to trust in his teachings, and he decided to be honest with Hal.
“I do not think I have to choose. Maybe, this is the Council’s way of teaching me that to trust in anyone blindly is foolish—even if it is the Council. Maybe, they sent me here to see if I can look beyond their decision and choose to learn from you.”
For a moment, Hal did nothing but meet Neel's gaze intently. The silence was palpable. The whole jungle seemed to wait for his response - even Em-One remained motionless. Then, subtly, the corner of the Knight's mouth turned upwards. That slight smirk evolved into a grin, and from there into laughter. It was a warm, genuine laughter that came from deep within his chest. Any pretense of tension the moment held evaporated entirely.
"Heh, I'm sorry Neel. That was a good answer, it's not that, it's just - " Hal waved away the last vestiges of laughter with a gesture, "I've always wanted to that to a padawan. Act all mystical and vague and kriff. Always pissed me off when the masters would do that stuff with me back I was an apprentice... but now I think I get why they did it." The Knight regained some of his composure when he cleared his throat, but the aura surrounding him certainly seemed lighter. Definitely less intense than it had felt before.
"Ahem, the truth is, I know why the Council doesn't want me to train you Neel: for starters, you're too close to taking your Trials. A Jedi never stops learning, but in this case, they don't want my, er, techniques to throw you off when you're clearly prepared already."
He hesitated briefly before he continued, and if Neel was perceptive, he'd notice an ever-so-slight change in the Knight's tone as he began to speak. "The other reason is, I'm not supposed to take on a padawan learner. Don't worry, you weren't assigned the deadbeat of the Order - it's just... complicated. Maybe I'll tell you some other time. But for now, tell me about yourself. Where're you from kid?"
Hal hadn't anticipated their conversation to go like this (chances were Neel didn't either), but truth be told, he was warming up to the kid. There was something about Neel that he liked, instinctively, and Hal was a man who trusted his instincts. Plus, even though he wasn't supposed to train Neel, it didn't mean that they couldn't learn a thing or two about each other.