I'm Counting On You

by Julie the Tall Terror tall_terror@hotmail.com

Summary: Sequel to "If I Don't Catch You" and "I Won't Fail You". You must read those stories to fully understand this one. Anakin is 14 years old and has learned and suffered much during his first year as a Padawan, but now he must face a greater challenge, regaining Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's trust. Rated PG-13 for violence Begun on February 19, 2001 and completed on March 30, 2001 Revised December 2001

Dedicated to my wonderful brother, Jonathan, who suddenly gave me a new monitor and wouldn't let me pay him for it. :)

Alternate site with fanart for this story at: fanfic.theforce.net

Part 4 of 4

The last time Anakin had been on a mission, he'd packed a whole satchel full of droid parts and tools. He'd spent hours deciding what to take and removing all the silly things Kaely had put in. For this trip, it took mere minutes for Anakin to stuff a few tunics and other minor necessities in his bag.

Anakin looked longingly at his empty shelves and sighed. His hands felt useless without something to occupy them and he knew it would be harder while on a ship. He had noticed one benefit to his punishment. At least Kaely's behavior has improved.

Before, she wasn't concerned with taking chances and would often come to her maker with a scraped up hull or broken and bent arm appendage. Now that Anakin was not allowed to repair her, she was more careful and thought a bit more before trying to pull something too heavy or squeeze through a gap too small for her.

This time he remembered not to take anything really important with him. Kaely was the only item he couldn't bear to part with. Anakin recalled how he'd lost everything he'd brought when the Sith had kidnapped him. None of it was very special and it all was easily replaced. Yet, it worried him that he would have lost something important, like the ancient books Obi-Wan had given him, had he taken them.

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had nothing but what they wore when I first met them, Anakin recalled abruptly. What little they had brought when they first went to Naboo had been lost when the Trade Federation destroyed their ship. For the rest of their mission, the two of them, like the ship's crew, had only the clothes on their backs. It was a good thing that the Queen's ship had plenty of 'freshers.

Leaving the bedroom, Anakin went to gather his survival gear. The food rations were in a big box in the kitchen. Kaely followed Anakin and began picking through the rows of ration clips, looking them over. Most were soups and a few had dehydrated pieces of fruit, vegetables, or meat. They looked like rather pitiful meals to a growing boy. Hopefully, I won't need them.

Kaely began to choose them for him despite the fact that she knew nothing about food or taste. Each type was color coded by a small dot on one end and she simply picked the colors she liked. Anakin let her play and clipped the ones he wanted on his belt.

"Almost ready?" Qui-Gon's voice came from the doorway.

Anakin glanced up briefly from his seat on the floor. He quickly returned to the box. "Yes, sir."

Qui-Gon entered the kitchen and took a seat by the table. "Have you thought more about yesterday?"

Anakin didn't look up. "Some."

"We need to know, Ani."

Qui-Gon wasn't going to order him directly. At least he understands that this is hard for me.

"I don't know how to explain it." Anakin winced at his own answer. It was a pathetic attempt to get out of talking about it.

"Just do your best." Qui-Gon was as calm as always, but Anakin could sense a faint urgency in his master's tone.

Anakin remained on the floor and leaned against the kitchen cabinets looking up at the ceiling. He couldn't make himself look Qui-Gon in the eye.

"I didn't block a lot of the Force out like I usually do. I dropped my barriers and let it in as much as it liked," Anakin admitted. "Even though nothing bad happened, I shouldn't have."

"You don't like how the Force flows in you?" Qui-Gon was both puzzled and concerned. He was one of the few who were close to understanding what the Force was like for Anakin.

All the other Jedi spent years to feel as much of the Force as they could and even longer learning to command it. Qui-Gon had heard many Jedi marveling over how strongly the Force was with Anakin. Like the rest of the Jedi, Anakin also struggled to maintain control, just not in the same way. When the others lost their grip on the Force nothing dangerous happened, they merely lost their perception of it. Anakin didn't dare lose control. It took all of his strength to hold the Force away.

"The Force can be so pushy that sometimes I feel like a holo-puppet," Anakin mumbled quietly.

"The Force makes you feel like a slave."

Anakin slumped against the cabinet doors.

"The Force does control your actions to a degree, however it also follows your directions, Anakin," Qui-Gon tried to reassure him. "Fearing your power will not help."

Anakin didn't respond and Qui-Gon knew he'd not gain another answer at this time. "Come," he told the teenager. "Obi-Wan will have the ship ready by now."

Obi-Wan was waiting for them on the landing deck. Anakin quietly walked around and examined the outside of the ship. Obi-Wan took the opportunity to speak to Qui-Gon. "Did you get him to talk?"

"A little." Qui-Gon looked tired and worried. "He didn't exactly call on or command the Force to massively obey him, as the Council seems to think. You were right, Obi-Wan."

"He didn't prepare in any way either, did he?"

Qui-Gon nodded. "None at all, Anakin could do that at any time."

"Could we not talk about it out here, please?" Anakin announced petulantly.

"Certainly, we would have no need to if you'd stop doing everything you can to evade the questions," Obi-Wan replied.

Anakin didn't like that response, but he didn't get angry either. Qui-Gon was already walking up the ramp into the ship and Obi-Wan had turned to follow when Anakin froze.

Loud destruction

Screams split the darkness

The cold wouldn't go away

Burning so bright

Anakin choked on air as he struggled to breathe. Obi-Wan glanced back as Anakin began coughing lightly. The vision had only lasted a few seconds and had told Anakin little more than that there was danger ahead. He quickly covered up his startled reaction. "Where are we headed anyway?"

"A little system called Reh-Ot-Esolc."

"Reh-Ot-Esolc," Anakin repeated, trying the convoluted name on his tongue. It sounded vaguely familiar. Anakin began to grin suddenly as he remembered the location of that system.

"Ani," Obi-Wan said with a grin, "we'll be following the Corellian Run. Would you like to fly us?"

"Would I?!" Anakin dashed past Obi-Wan to the cockpit. It was a standard Jedi ship designed to carry four comfortably enough. Anakin glided straight to the pilot's seat, while Obi-Wan took the co-pilot post and Qui-Gon relaxed in a passenger chair behind them. Kaely landed on the last chair and felt very important to be there.

Anakin couldn't have been happier. It had been almost half a year since he'd last flown a ship and he ached to take off. His eyes flicked from one screen to another in anticipation. Obi-Wan hid a grin as Anakin settled in his chair and assumed an air of command.

A metallic voice rose from the com. "You are now clear to join space lane 21, Ship #7279J."

"Acknowledged, Temple Control," Anakin replied.

"May the Force be with you."

Anakin smoothly guided the ship off the deck. "Hey, Obi-Wan? Why doesn't this ship have a name?" Anakin asked.

"Its another one of those 'can't be bothered with' things you were complaining about the other day."

"Oh," Anakin responded in a voice that showed he didn't understand why anyone wouldn't name their ship.

"Ships are necessary tools. There are a few that are named," Qui-Gon said.

"Yes, a few," Obi-Wan continued. "Most Jedi never feel attached to a particular ship long enough to name it. Ships are just things we need, unlike droids."

Kaely squawked at Obi-Wan's teasing and hissed as though she was too insulted to even attack him. It was just an act. She couldn't risk leaving her chair while they were heading for orbit and lightspeed and Obi-Wan knew it.

That evening Anakin finally found a chance to be alone in the cockpit. Anakin was grateful for the solitude in more ways than one. Even Kaely had not followed him, but had remained in the common room with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. She said she wanted to practice spying. Even though he knew his masters would notice her, Anakin didn't object.

She might actually succeed for a few minutes and hear something interesting, Anakin smirked to himself.

Anakin quietly began calling up screens to investigate the Reh-Ot-Esolc system. He'd never been there, and though their mission data had a lot of good information, it didn't tell him what he wanted to know.

He activated the onboard star charts and searched through them. He scanned the location of Reh-Ot-Esolc and just as he'd recalled it was close to Naboo.

Yes! Anakin crowed silently. Maybe I'll get a chance to send Padmé a holo-message.

Anakin frowned. Maybe, if I just do it and don't ask. Anakin squashed that idea. I have to ask, even though they'll say no. Doing it anyway would not be worth the trouble I'd be in. After the mission is done and we are heading home would be a good time, then they might let me.

Due to how close the two planetary systems were, Anakin knew the expense of sending the message wouldn't be so high. Sending one to Padmé from the Jedi Temple was an enormous cost and Anakin considered paying for the transmission himself.

Grinning, his hope began to swell. Anakin still had an account he'd begun three years before at one of the more stable mid-rim banking systems. He'd stashed away as many credits he could spare from the time he'd worked as a hired theif for the purpose of buying his mother's freedom. In the almost two years since he had joined the Jedi Order it had been collecting interest in the bank. Despite that his money had been earned by less than honorable means, the Jedi allowed him to keep it.

I don't have anywhere near enough money to buy Mom yet, and no income to add to it. He began calculating how much the message would cost and whether not it was small enough to be worth taking from his account. Anakin frowned in indecision.

It's not too much. Maybe I can spare it this time. I might not get another chance to be so close to Naboo again for years.

Anakin looked at the star chart again and caught his breath. Indeed, Reh-Ot-Esolc was very close to Naboo, but it was even closer to Tatooine.

I've got to send Mom a message. Anakin's heart ached at the thought. He'd never received a reply from the one holo-message he'd sent her almost two years ago. It worried him, even though he'd known she couldn't answer. It was impossible for a slave to have the money to send any holo-messages at all, much less send one all the way from the Outer Rim to the Core.

I haven't seen Mom in five years. Anakin hardly dared to think about it. He didn't want to start crying, even though there was no one to see him.

I could get from Reh-Ot-Esolc to Tatooine and back in less than a day. It would be so easy. Anakin stared at the star chart.

So very easy.

The three inhabited planets of the Reh-Ot-Esolc system were surprisingly well organized and neighborly for the Outer Rim. The Jedi arrived quietly and were directed to the largest city of the central most planet, Reh. Representatives met them and gave them comfortable quarters for the duration of their stay.

It was nearing the end of winter on this side of the planet and Anakin was grateful for the thickness of his robe. Kaely thought it was a pretty place and Anakin had to agree that it did have a few unique aspects that he was curious about. In particular, the orange snow the three Jedi saw shoveled in piles along the roads was puzzling.

The sun was deceptively bright, yet it seemed to give off no warmth. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, of course, were not discomforted at all. Anakin had to use the Force to heat the air around himself enough to stop his shivering until they reached the conference building.

Anakin curiously watched the people arrive. The people of this system looked very similar to humans. They had very pale, almost gray skin. This might be Suoicarg's species; they look much like her, Anakin observed. Except she has dark brown hair and these people all have white hair.

It was mid-morning by the time they were all assembled in a conference room. They had welcomed the Jedi and introduced everyone. Anakin had read the report and data about Reh-Ot-Esolc and already knew what the speakers were going to say. He tried to pay at least some attention to their plea for joining the Republic.

The speaker for Ot began by outlining the situation. "Our system, according to all the stipulations of the Republic, qualifies to join. However, until now we have been ignored simply due to our location."

Anakin's mind was already wandering. If things go well here, stopping by Tatooine wouldn't be too hard. It's so close.

"When the new borderline for the Outer Rim was drawn a century ago, our people were ecstatic at how close we now were to the Mid-Rim. We thought that this would finally give us the opportunity to join."

Nah, my masters would never agree. Not just the fuel cost, but also the 'unnecessary danger' of detouring to that rotten ball of sand, Anakin growled silently to himself.

"Yet no one has listened and that division has actually made things worse." It was the representative of Esolc's turn to talk.

I could go anyway. Anakin hardly dared to think about it. It's so close. He couldn't help thinking again. Anakin's lungs constricted as he forced himself to breathe normally. It hurt so much.

The speaker droned on. "If we were only a few hundred light-years closer, we'd have been welcomed into the Republic decades ago. However, as it is, the Senate has always refused to send any ambassadors or representatives to the Outer Rim."

Anakin glanced slyly at each of his masters. They were completely focused on the speakers. Anakin felt about with the Force to see if they were paying any attention to him. He knew that the training bond would sometimes give away his emotions to them and that he had to guard his thoughts carefully.

I could just rescue her.

Anakin didn't notice the representative was talking anymore as she said, "No politician wants to go anywhere close to the edge of the Mid-Rim, much less past it."

Once Anakin allowed himself to consider it, the possibilities began to flow. While thinking of sending a message he had consulted the computer for the time difference between Tatooine and Reh's cycles. Timing the message would be vital to prevent Watto from knowing of it. But I could fly away just before dawn here and it will still be night Mos Espa's time when I arrive.

Reh's own planetary leader stood up next. "This system is simple and we would like to open trade with others, but they will not even consider us. Only smugglers and other unsavory characters will even think about coming here and naturally we want nothing to do with them."

Anakin's heart beat faster in excitement. I'm sure Mom's daily routine hasn't changed much. She's not watched for several hours in the early morning because Watto is running the shop and she is working on repairs dropped off by customers the day before.

His mind whirled as he planned out how he'd rescue his mother. I could get Mom and use the Force to find and remove the slave transmitter. We'd leave and get back to this system by Reh's sundown.

"Also, the protection the Republic status provides would go a long way towards preventing any wars with our neighbors should they consider harming us."

Anakin tried to return his concentration to the speakers. He didn't want to risk his masters noticing his lack of attention. I just have to ride this out. None of the serious stuff will happen today. Just talking. He half listened as he heard Qui-Gon ask about a tour of the planet.

Actually, I could probably leave tonight. They really don't need me for anything. I'm just here to observe, and I can see that these people will probably get their citizenship in the Republic like they want.

Anakin stiffened and snapped out of his sneaky planning. I can't. Anakin had to fight to prevent the feelings of grief and hopelessness welling inside of himself from spilling into the bond.

I can't disobey my masters again. I promised I wouldn't. I promised!

Anakin's throat felt dry and his eyes began to water slightly. He again looked warily at his masters. To his relief, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were still oblivious to his distraction. They were focused on the mission, just as Anakin should have been.

I'm sorry, Mom. I can't.

Anakin was standing on the edge of a frozen cliff. The wind whipped harshly at him making balance difficult, even for a Jedi. Far below he could vaguely make out a small town nestled against the rocks. As he watched, tiny rays of light began to stream over the buildings as dawn broke. Anakin shivered and could feel his toes going numb despite the protection of his boots.

Just as Anakin began to step back from the craggy ledge, a warning of danger coursed through his senses. Instantly, he was alert and searching for the cause of the disturbance in the Force. It answered his query, prompting him to look up.

A tremor and loud crack were Anakin's only other warning as a wall of orange and green plummeted down on him.

Anakin sat up in bed and nearly stood to run before coming to his senses. He looked hurriedly around the dark room as the Force rush began to wear off. Anakin regained control of his thoughts first and ended up using the Force to make his eyes adjust to the dimness.

The room was silent and well heated for the comfort of the off world guests, but Anakin shivered anyway. Kaely was still asleep and hooked to her power cord recharging. Anakin reached out with the Force, feeling only peace and slumber radiating from everyone else in the building.

It's early, at least a couple of hours before sunrise, Anakin realized as he crawled out of bed.

Anakin was far too disturbed to go back to sleep. I wish I could control my dreams and make what I want happen in them. I'd never have another nightmare again.

He decided to sit on the enclosed balcony and wait for the dawn. The balcony was made of clear durasteel and even the floor was transparent giving a perfect view of the city and mountains. As a precaution, a rolled up rug was in one corner for those who didn't like the effect. Anakin didn't care. If he wanted to feel like he was floating then he'd levitate.

It could be another vision. Though Anakin didn't want it to be a vision, he wasn't careless enough to ignore the possibility.

Anakin sat on the hard floor too caught up in his thoughts to notice the coldness of the clear metal. Maybe if I meditate a little bit, I'll see more. He looked out at the still city. Even if I glow a little, there is no one to see it and I can stop it better now.

Before he could calm his mind enough to start, Anakin jerked as a disturbance in the Force overwhelmed his senses. Unlike in the dream, Anakin reached out for his masters through their training bond and felt that both of them were already alert. Knowing at once that something was wrong, he dashed for his clothes and lightsaber. The commotion woke Kaely and she beeped in confusion. Anakin didn't have time to answer. The droid had to unplug herself and hurry to catch up as Anakin ran out the door.

Anakin didn't bother with the ornate stairs that spiraled downward or turbolift, but jumped through the center straight to the bottom. As he landed he could see that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had done the same only seconds before. Outside, a few ships were just beginning to be prepped for flight and the three of them piled into one.

Qui-Gon was busy on his comlink alternating between asking questions and calming the frantic speaker on the other end. Anakin moved out of the way as three more people, guards or soldiers by the looks of them, dashed into the small ship and shut the hatch. Kaely zipped in behind them and was too surprised to scold Anakin for leaving her behind.

Loudly, the pilot yelled for everyone to strap down for take off. Obi-Wan grabbed Anakin by the arm to keep him steady as they rose in the air.

"There has been an avalanche of some kind, a very bad one according to the reports Qui-Gon has heard on the comlink."

"I know." Anakin nodded and tried to collect his wits. "How many people are in the town?"

Obi-Wan took Anakin's answer calmly and was not surprised. "About four thousand. It's a tourist town during the summer so there are no tourists."

"No winter sports?"

"Not here," one of the other passengers spoke up. "The orange substance coating the mountaintops isn't snow. It's called Wonston. It's very cold and clumped together with frozen moisture like snow, but it is mainly made up of tiny grass seeds. They lie dormant in thick piles all over the mountains until spring when they thaw and the wind carries them away to grow all over the mountain and valley."

Obi-Wan leaned back and spoke quietly so only his Padawan could hear. "This season has been unusually cold and the Reh have a low tolerance for it."

Even worse for those buried in it, Anakin realized. At least they aren't covered in ice, but we have got to get them out fast.

Their ship had no safe place to land on the mountainside. The pilot had no choice but to hover while everyone grabbed their gear and jumped out. The Jedi and three Reh members of their group trudged through the deep drifts of orange speckled with green towards the barely visible rooftops. Ahead they could see several teams of rescuers already digging.

Qui-Gon called out to the new groups arriving, "Follow us. We will show you where we sense people are trapped."

"We must all split up, Anakin," Obi-Wan explained.

Anakin nodded and reluctantly headed off in a different direction. All structures in the resort were made of durasteel, as required, so that no buildings would collapse in on themselves in just such an emergency. They knew that most of the people would be merely trapped in their houses and the Jedi were needed to find the people who were outside when the Wonston fell.

Qui-Gon was moving quickly towards the center or the town where he felt many people suffering. Obi-Wan began hunting closer to the mountain wall where many boulders had fallen. Anakin stretched out with the Force for any glimmers of life hidden nearby. "Don't get lost, Kaely," he reminded the droid as she followed him.

"There." Anakin pointed to a blank section of clumped orange seeds and the rescue workers instantly began digging. Anakin didn't stop to help, but moved on to the next place he felt people. Thinking back to his vision, he remembered a set of smaller buildings a little apart from the main town and followed the Force's directions to find the spot where they were hidden under the mass.

Another group came and took over the digging for Anakin so that he could move on. A second rush of warning from the Force caused Anakin to stiffen. Up ahead by the rocks, there were frightened people in immediate danger. Anakin ran and leapt past boulders and other obstacles to reach them, only to find that Obi-Wan was already there.

Partially under a rock ledge, Obi-Wan was pulling someone out through a small opening in the drifts. "Here Ani!" he called. "There are more -"

Anakin stumbled as he felt the ground tremble faintly again. He sensed only a brief warning of danger before the ground fell out from under his feet. Obi-Wan was swallowed up by the orange and vanished from view. Anakin tried to vault up to grab the rock above, but his legs were already trapped and within a second the Wonston buried the rest of him.

"Obi-Wan!" Anakin panicked and spit out several seeds. He probed with the Force and sensed Obi-Wan farther below in a light healing trance.

The silence was horrible. Anakin grasped the training bond with all his might and called out for Qui-Gon. He feared that his limited skills would never reach Qui-Gon at this distance. Remembering his training, Anakin built up a Force barrier and pushed the massive number of tiny seeds away from himself to create a pocket.

"I can't do this alone," Anakin said in a choked whisper. Arg! I'm wasting air! I have no idea how long the air will last in here! I've got to make a tunnel or something, Anakin thought furiously.

The small chamber Anakin had formed with the Force was already crumbling. He tightened his control on the shield surrounding himself. He reached out to find the other poor people trapped in the avalanche. Three, plus Obi-Wan, too.

Anakin began digging towards the nearest victim to his right. As he pushed through, he shoved the seeds with the Force and his hands to pack them tightly together along the walls to make a tunnel. In some places the seeds flowed like sand and in others stuck together in hard clumps. The man he found was awake, but clearly very disoriented. He mumbled incoherently as Anakin tried to free him.

I don't even know if I'm doing this right. Maybe I should have dug to the surface first?

Anakin dragged the man to the small chamber he'd made as quickly as he could. He left the man there and crawled halfway down the tunnel and began digging down. Just as he was beginning to get close to the next person, Anakin heard the Wonston fall. Instantly, Anakin poked his head up and saw that the section that he'd found the man had caved in without Anakin there to hold up the ceiling.

Why is it I always get stuck in situations I don't know how to get out of? None of my training has never included being buried in snow, much less in frozen whatever these, seeds things, are, Anakin thought in disgust.

Anakin struggled to divide his concentration between keeping a force shield around the man he left and digging out the woman nearby. She was still conscious and was clutching a child tightly. The little one was curled up in her arms trying to stay a warm. They were somewhat easier to pull out, but it took much longer to carry to them to the chamber. Anakin fretted over what to do about air. He couldn't determine if it was sufficient or not. The Force continued to insist that he hurry.

Anakin sat the three on the floor of the chamber he'd made. It was very cold and they all were visibly suffering as their skin was turning purple. This is taking too long, I've got to get these people out now!

Steeling himself, Anakin held one hand in a fist above his head and pushed. It started out well, but quickly became very hard to move the layers of icy seeds out of the way. Anakin began to notice that the areas of orange Wonston above him had more specks of green. The seeds that had begun to sprout made it sticky and harder to push out of the way. Just as he thought he couldn't maintain the extra strain on his hold on the Force any longer, the pressure lightened.

"Hey down there!" The muffled call startled Anakin and he nearly lost his concentration. Rescue workers above began digging in earnest now that they could see the trapped people with Anakin.

Anakin was breathing too heavily to answer and had to devote all his remaining strength into levitating the child through the opening. His head was swimming by the time the rescuers caught the toddler. I can't lift the adults, he realized in defeat. I'm too tired. I've got to go for Obi-Wan now, while I still can. The others will finish getting these two out. Anakin crawled to the wall and began digging again.

As he progressed, Anakin fought to ignore his exhaustion. He climbed back down forming a new passage, but this time he let Wonston collapse behind him. He just couldn't hold up both his shield around himself as well as the tunnels anymore. Anakin didn't have to dig much deeper down, but he had to go farther to the left than he had expected.

Obi-Wan's head was covered in congealed blood. The debris or rocks dislodged in the collapse had struck him. Anakin strained to get a secure a grip on Obi-Wan. Now beyond exhaustion, Anakin was on the verge of collapse. Only the Force was keeping him steady and Anakin knew that it wouldn't be long before his mind gave up from the pressure.

Gathering his arms under the unconscious man's shoulders, Anakin tried to vault as far along the remaining passage as he could. He didn't even make it half way. Almost there, Anakin tried to encourage himself. Just a little more.

Suddenly the weight ceased when Qui-Gon's presence filled his senses. Anakin sagged with relief as he felt his master grasp them both with the Force. Qui-Gon and other rescue workers pulled them out.

Anakin didn't try to stand up. Vaguely he heard Kaely buzzing around his head and beeping. The minutes seemed to stretch while he waited for Qui-Gon to finally return from getting Obi-Wan onto a stretcher. Carefully he helped Anakin sit up. The boy's limbs were shaking with fatigue and cold.

"Obi-Wan will be fine, his healing is already progressing well," Qui-Gon murmured as he checked the Padawan for injuries. "I'm sorry I could not come sooner."

Anakin didn't try to speak; it was a struggle just to keep his eyes open. But Qui-Gon could feel his understanding. "I was carrying the injured aboard a ship and the pilot took off before I could leave," Qui-Gon explained.

Qui-Gon helped Anakin to stand once the workers were ready to carry Obi-Wan and the others. He continued to talk to help Anakin stay awake. "When I reached here I found that Kaely had made an absolute fit over the place where you had fallen and the rescue workers had finally understood that she wanted them to dig."

The droid beeped and whistled in confirmation. She hovered by Anakin's head and fussed at the bits of seeds stuck to his hair. Anakin was too tired to care as she tried to brush them out.

"Since Obi-Wan was unable to call for help, I could not have located him so quickly," Qui-Gon said quietly. "I am thankful you were here, Ani."

"So am I, Master," Anakin replied automatically. So am I. If I'd gone... Anakin looked up sharply at Qui-Gon.

"Yes," Qui-Gon said sadly. "I know that you nearly ran away last night."

Qui-Gon was able to easily tend to Obi-Wan's head wound, so they returned to their rooms instead of going to a hospital. The journey back to the city had been one of silence. Anakin was lost in thought and Qui-Gon would never discuss Jedi matters in public. There was nothing else either could say.

Obi-Wan awoke from the healing trance after they arrived. The knock to his head had looked worse than it was due to all the blood. The time it had taken for Anakin to dig him out, waiting for the next transport, and the travel time had been sufficient for him to safely return to consciousness. Despite how well he was recovering, Obi-Wan made no objection to Qui-Gon's less than subtle hint to stay in bed for the remainder of the day.

Anakin waited quietly for Qui-Gon to elaborate on his statement on the mountain. He fetched water, extra blankets, and anything else asked of him. How much longer? Anakin busied himself and held his tongue. How did he know? I was so careful.

Finally, Qui-Gon ran out of tasks for Anakin to perform and Obi-Wan had all that he needed. "Come and sit, Anakin," Qui-Gon directed him to one of the nearby chairs.

Anakin did as he was told and sat stiffly. Restraining himself from blurting out his questions and demanding answers was getting harder by the second. They always do this at the hardest times! Why don't they ever test my patience when I'm not anxious about something? Anakin thought in growing irritation.

"Thank you for being there to help me, Ani," Obi-Wan said suddenly.

Anakin tried not to look sheepish. "Well, I'm glad I was there too."

Qui-Gon sadly regarded Anakin's tense and aggravated expression. "We knew that you were-"

"You knew! Exactly!" Anakin hit his balled fists on the arms of the chair. "I didn't actually do any real preparing. I didn't collect supplies for traveling. I didn't leave behind any kind of record on the ship to show what files I'd searched for. And I was careful not to look up any information when we landed here!"

Anakin's irritation mounted and grew with each sentence. The beginning traces of indignation threatened to flare into anger. He gave suspicious looks to each of them. "Are you now scanning my mind and eavesdropping on my thoughts?"

Qui-Gon stared at him and Obi-Wan could only blink in confusion. Both were completely surprised by Anakin's accusation. Their shocked expressions helped ease Anakin's fears somewhat.

"Certainly not!" Obi-Wan blurted when he recovered his voice.

"Anakin," Qui-Gon said carefully, "you know that no Jedi would ever do such a thing. Also, you should be aware by now that no one could read your mind without your knowledge."

"I thought you knew us better than that," Obi-Wan said coldly.

Anakin crumpled and his face drained of all color. "I'm very sorry, I shouldn't..." His voice cracked and he hung his head in shame. "When will I learn not to say stupid things," Anakin muttered to himself. He didn't realize he'd spoken along until he felt Qui-Gon's hand on his shoulder.

"Your instant distrust of everyone will pass in time."

Anakin forced himself to look up at his masters. He expected them to be stern and disappointed and was stunned to see grief in their eyes. I really blew it and hurt them this time. Anakin sunk further in his seat.

"We were given this mission because it is so close to Tatooine," Obi-Wan said.

"It was intentional," Qui-Gon said. "And you passed the test."

Anakin's jaw dropped. "Test?" He tensed up as began to understand. "You took me close to Mom on purpose just to see what I'd do?!"

"Ani -"

"Why?!" Anakin demanded. "Is loving and worrying about my Mom a weakness? Or is this to test my loyalty?" Anakin said sarcastically. "Congratulations, I chose you instead of Mom!"

"Padawan, that is enough," Qui-Gon interrupted. "After your use of the dark side, we needed to know if we could truly rely on you."

"But this?" Anakin gritted his teeth.

"When we are on missions, I'm counting on you to be where you should be, when I need you, and doing what is right," Obi-Wan explained. "And today you proved that we can trust you. If there had been some other way..."

Anakin was crushed. I knew that things would be hard for a while after the mess I made fighting Lavir and using the dark side, but why this? Why did they have to deliberately make me chose between rescuing my Mom and obeying them?

"If I'd...," Anakin struggled to keep his voice steady. "If I had left, what would my punishment have been?"

The Jedi regarded him in concern while he fought to keep his composure. Obi-Wan answered him. "If you had disobeyed again we would've had no choice but to remove you from the Temple."

Just what I thought. Anakin slouched. At least they weren't going to expel me entirely.

However, Anakin knew that was a small comfort. The Jedi would certainly never let him out of their sight for long, much less allow him to ever leave their order. Not that I think I'd ever want to leave, but being their linchpin to destroy the Sith and whatever 'balancing the Force' is supposed to mean is not exactly what I had in mind when I joined.

"We prepared carefully for the possibility that you might disobey again," Qui-Gon intruded on Anakin's train of thought. Quickly the teenager returned his attention to his masters.

"An uninhabited planet was selected not more than two days journey from here and a team of Jedi were sent to wait in orbit around it," Qui-Gon continued, his voice growing stern again. "We would have taken you there and given them our ship, leaving the three of us stranded. Before leaving on this mission we packed all of the survival gear we'd need and a field com-terminal to report regularly to the Jedi Temple."

"We were prepared to stay there for years if necessary," Obi-Wan told him.

Anakin hung his head in silence as the full implications of the seriousness of this situation finally became clear to him. I came so close to ruining everything, again.

"Would you have freed Mom anyway?" Anakin held his breath as he waited for their answer.

"At this time, the Council cannot -" Obi-Wan began.

"If you'll excuse me," he interrupted. "I need to be alone for a while." Anakin's throat constricted and he struggled to remain calm. It wasn't working.

"Ani, wait, we need to tell -"

"No!" Anakin darted for the exit.

Obi-Wan sat forward in alarm and nearly tried to get up but Qui-Gon wouldn't let him. "Why did you let him go?"

Qui-Gon was struggling to remain were he was as well. "He needs to calm down first."

"He needs to know!" Obi-Wan disagreed.

"After he accepts this, yes," Qui-Gon insisted. "Then he will be ready to listen."

Anakin didn't return until dinner. The teenager had missed both breakfast, due to the avalanche, and lunch, due to his stubbornness. But he had to eat sometime and the Jedi knew that when Anakin had calmed himself he would come. However, just in case, Qui-Gon kept carefully aware of where Anakin was at all times, though he refrained from disturbing him. They didn't see Anakin until he plodded woefully into their small dinning room.

"Anakin, you must listen!" Obi-Wan demanded immediately from the where he was sitting at the table.

Anakin's eyes had a blank look to them. "I understand why you did what you did." He sat down at the table. "I apologize for refusing to hear you earlier and running out. It was childish of me."

Obi-Wan relaxed somewhat. "The Council may not have the funds to spare for purchasing a slave, but Queen Amidala is working to free your mother."

"Queen Amidala?"

"Over the last five years, the Queen has attempted to free your mother many times," Qui-Gon said. "However, she has found that she cannot do it alone. As have we."

"Therefore," Obi-Wan grinned. "The Council has given permission for us to combine our resources. Queen Amidala has the money to purchase your mother, but cannot send anyone to the Outer Rim. She is also ready to offer a home on Naboo, in gratitude for the shelter you and your mother provided and the help in saving Naboo."


Qui-Gon shook his head at the boy's stunned look. "We knew this test would be very hard on you and because you passed, we shall make a detour to Tatooine to free your mother."

Anakin beamed in excitement. "When can we go?!"

"As soon as this mission is done. Another day or two at most."

"YES!" Anakin almost jumped for joy. He could hardly keep still enough to even eat. I'm coming, Mom! I'm coming!

"In the meantime, you may call the Queen. I'm sure she'd love to talk to you..."

"No holo-terminal?"

"These people have no way of trading for one at this time. This system's technology is very simple and mostly antiques," Qui-Gon explained. "At least you can talk directly to her."

Anakin tried to hide his disappointment. I wanted to see her. Over the years he'd had to content himself with news-holos of Queen Amidala that he'd scrounged up. And I wanted her to see me. I don't look like a little kid anymore.

Qui-Gon discretely left the room. Anakin hunched over the com-terminal in anticipation. It was agonizingly slow to establish the connection. At least I won't have to deal with some busybody secretary or security guard to confirm that I can talk to the Queen, Anakin thought in relief. Padmé gave Qui-Gon her personal comlink frequency.

Finally the device registered the signal's completion. "Hello, this is Anakin Skywalker calling Padmé."

Anakin settled in to wait. On the other end someone would have to notice the comlink's blinking or beeping and then key the message. To his surprise the response was almost immediate.

"Anakin! I almost didn't recognize your voice," Padmé replied eagerly. "I didn't realize it had already started to grow deeper."

Anakin's face turned bright red. Now I am glad she can't see me. Anakin was disgusted with his instant reaction and tried to hide his blush even though no one could see it.

"You must be almost fifteen now. Right?"

"Uh, yes I'm pretty close, about fourteen and three quarters or so," Anakin stammered out. I sound dumb. Where's all that boldness when I need it? "I want to thank you, Padmé. Master Qui-Gon told me that you've been trying to free my Mom for years now." Anakin could hardly contain his happiness. "I didn't know that."

"You are more than welcome, Ani," Padmé said cheerfully. Anakin could imagine her lovely smile. "I'm only sorry I couldn't do so sooner."

Anakin was naturally a little curious about why she never could before, but didn't feel that he had a right to ask. However, Padmé chose to explain anyway.

"The bureaucrats have put me off again and again," she told him and her voice becoming tinged with anger. "At first they said we had to put all our effort in recovering from the Trade Federation's occupation and battle damage."

"Unfortunately, they were right, Padmé," Anakin interjected. "Your people come first."

A soft sigh, barely audible, came from the com. "Later, their excuses were even more irritating. They'd go on about the dangers of the Outer Rim, the cost of the ship, transportation, fuel, armed guards to safely get to Tatooine, and the hefty price of a slave -"

"Who may or may not be for sale," Anakin finished Padmé's sentence for her. "Sounds familiar. The Jedi Council is very good at finding excuses too."

"I told them that I was going to free Shmi, regardless of the expense," Padmé continued. "They finally realized I was serious and changed their tactics to 'we'll have the extra funds to free Shmi Skywalker next year.'"

Anakin couldn't help but smirk at the semi-menacing tone in Padmé's voice. "I'd have liked to see those idiot politicians' faces when they discovered they couldn't stop you."

Padmé laughed. "They were a bit shocked when they found out what I'd hidden in the new 'Restoration Project' - after they'd already passed it, of course."

Anakin grinned. I bet they were! After the Neimodian's defeat, you'd think they'd have guessed that going up against my Padmé would guarantee their failure!

"Everything is ready for your mother," Padmé told him. "A house of her own and servants to care for it. She will lack nothing, Anakin, I promise you."

"Thank you." Anakin's voice cracked embarrassingly, but for once he didn't care.

"Now, tell me about you," Padmé asked. "How is your training coming?"

Anakin relaxed blissfully in his chair. "It's amazing..."

"Anakin," Obi-Wan murmured quietly. "Try not to look so paranoid."

The three Jedi wandered unobtrusively through the streets of Mos Espa. Or rather, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were unobtrusive. Anakin threw dark looks at every person they passed.

"You are too tense, Ani," Qui-Gon pointed out. "You are even glaring at the droids."

Kaely was hovered behind them and squeaked in surprise at Qui-Gon's statement. "He doesn't mean you," Anakin told her.

Anakin relaxed a little and reduced his glaring to brief irritated glances. "I won't feel safe until we are in the ship and are at lightspeed. And after I've triple checked that Mom doesn't have a second slave transmitter hidden in her or something."

Qui-Gon looked sharply at the teenager. Anakin had anxiously watched for trouble the whole journey, even while they were out in the desert. It had worried Obi-Wan from the start. By the time they began to skirt the edges of the city, Qui-Gon became concerned as well. Anakin had expressed his disgust of Tatooine before, but never with such vehemence bordering on hatred. They could sense it rolling off of him in waves.

They easily slipped into the slaves' quarter unnoticed. It was a typical Tatooine morning, blindingly bright and sunny. There were a moderate number of slaves going to and fro in the street. Just enough of them for the Jedi to blend in.

Anakin scanned the area in depth, hunting for the soft, comforting presence of his mother. I had such little control of the Force before, that I never could sense her clearly. As he walked down the familiar road he couldn't shake the creepy feeling that coming back here gave him. I was going to come free all the slaves one day. Maybe in a few years I can.

At Shmi Skywalker's door, Qui-Gon held out a hand to stop Anakin. "I will go in first. She will recognize me."

Anakin felt insulted, but remained where he was. "Mom will know it's me! I don't look that different!"

Qui-Gon used the old code Anakin remembered and they swiftly vanished through the door. In the dim interior, Anakin could barely see the shape of his mother standing in the hallway.

"Ani!" Shmi threw her arms around her son at once.

"I'm here, Mom," Anakin choked out.

Shmi looked up at the boy who now towered over her. "You've grown so much!" she glanced down at the brown Jedi robe she was clutching, noticing how Anakin was dressed. Shmi smiled in delight and turned to her guests.

"Welcome, Qui-Gon," Shmi greeted him and then looked at the other Jedi.

"I am Obi-Wan Kenobi," the young man said as he stepped forward.

Shmi smiled. "I'm pleased to meet you."

"We have come to free you," Qui-Gon told her, but from the look in Shmi's eyes they could see that she had already guessed that.

"Watto has never met Obi-Wan, so he will go to negotiate with him." Anakin carefully didn't say the word 'buy'.

"You have come at a good time. Watto has been trying to sell me for months now, but the price he is asking is far too high." Shmi was facing the Jedi and so missed seeing the look of murder on Anakin's face.

"We can meet whatever price he asks," Qui-Gon promised her.

Its not too late, everything will be fine. Anakin hugged his mother and took in the familiar sounds and smells of his old home. The oil and grease of droid parts, the sweet scent of crushed Noitol leaves whose oil his mother used to protect her skin from the strong rays of the sun, and the sound of C-3PO's startled yelp.

"Hey, Threepio!"

"Oh, my! Master Anakin I am so glad -" Threepio stopped talking when a tiny pink droid whizzed around his head. "What's this?"

"This is Kaely, I made her a little over two years ago," Anakin introduced them. "Kaely, meet Threepio. I built him, too."

"Hello, I am C-3PO human cyborg rela -"

Kaely interrupted the protocol droid's spiel with a loud screech and tittered at him jealously.

"How rude!"

At last! Anakin thought in relief as they finally reached their ship. I wish we had hired a speeder or had landed closer to the city at least. Anakin looked at his mother's tired face with concern. Kaely and Threepio had slowed them down the most during their trek. Qui-Gon had been forced to actually threaten both droids with being deactivated to get them to hush.

Obi-Wan went ahead and opened the hatch. Anakin stayed back to keep pace with Shmi's slow and tired walk. Mom is strong, but it was a long walk in the sun.

Anakin and Qui-Gon got Shmi aboard as quickly as they could and took her to the main room. Qui-Gon shut the hatch and went to the cockpit to help Obi-Wan with the preflight sequence. Anakin had just fetched his mother a cool drink of water in the galley, when Obi-Wan returned from the cockpit

"Anakin, we have a mission."

Anakin stopped to look at him in confusion. "Already?"

"There has been an emergency and we are the only Jedi in this region of space," Obi-Wan explained and a dismayed look crossed his face. "We can't take your mother there."

No!! Anakin's face was a mass of pain. He wanted to scream and yell, but knew he could do neither. Obi-Wan's right, but I just got Mom back!

"Qui-Gon is contacting the Naboo. They will send a ship to meet us at a safe spaceport on the edge of the Mid-Rim."

Anakin stared out into space. I know what this means. After this mission we will just be sent on another. I won't get to see Padmé, and I'll have to say goodbye to Mom with in a day, instead of the week I was hoping for. He took a shuddering breath. We might not even go near Naboo again for years.

"It is your duty, Ani," Shmi kissed her son's forehead gently. "This is the way it must be."

"I want you to have my savings account I started to free you." Anakin dug into his belt pouch for the datachip that contained the codes.

"I will not need it."

"I know, but use it for the extra things you've never even dreamed of buying!"

"Anakin," Shmi shook her head and smiled. "While on Naboo, I will get a small job," Anakin opened his mouth to interrupt but Shmi stopped him. "You know I could never sit and do nothing. Everything I earn will go towards sending holo-messages to you. Save your money for replying to me."

"Okay," Anakin agreed reluctantly. I didn't think of that. Mom's right. I won't be able to earn more money, so I'd have no way of answering. "But don't you work hard!"

"I promise." Shmi's eyes began to water faintly. "Nothing strenuous."

Shmi wrapped her arms around the young man and grieved to be parted from him again so soon. Anakin gathered her close and kissed his mother's forehead, just as she had done countless times for him.

The End

Go to the sequel, "Instead of Hurting You"