Simple Gifts

"Your menu, sir."

Anakin Skywalker scrunched his nose at the liveried serving droid, accepting the compact datapad with an expression of bemused hesitance. Nobody called him sir. That was his line. Yes sir, no sir, thank you sir. Or in more recent months, since his abrupt liberation from lifelong slavery: yes master, no master, thank you master. It felt disorienting to be the addressee, as though he had been jolted out of his own body and thrust without permission into a stranger's. He flicked a glance upward at the hooded figure seated beside him, wondering whether he should have accepted the menu, or even allowed the droid to depart without correcting its mistaken use of the honorific.

But Master Obi Wan merely turned his head a bit, just enough to reveal one sparkling blue eye beyond the robe's wide hem, and gave him the briefest of smiles. It wasn't a smile any normal person would recognize, just a twitch of the mouth and a very subtle tightening around that one visible eye. Then he turned away again, the concealing drape of cloth falling back into place, shadowing his face.

Anakin took that as full permission. As Watto had always complained, Give that boy a centimeter and he'll take a parsec, eh? Wadding his own uncomfortably hot cloak into a tight ball and wedging it under the plush luxury liner's seat, he propped his legs up cross-wise between the wide-set armrests and set about perusing the menu. To his chagrin, it did not offer a Huttese translation option. While fluent in spoken Basic, he had not learned to read the aurebesh until six months ago. Huttese was much easier. With a sigh he set to decoding the exotic names of foreign dishes, hoping to discover something even vaguely familiar. He was starving.

"May I take your order?" The droid purred back into the aisle, one delicate mechno-hand extended graciously to retrieve the menu.

"Uh…the house special and a Malastarian on the rocks." He had overheard a deep space pilot order that once, in a cantina back on Tatooine. It sounded intriguing.

"Very good, sir."

"Just a moment." The droid returned, face perpetually frozen in plastoid deference. Obi Wan lowered his hood. "Water will suffice for him, thank you."

When the servant had hummed back through the privacy partition, Anakin grumpily threw his head back against the soft cushions. "I wanted to try that Malastarian."

The young Knight's eyebrows drifted upwards. "Arriving at a sensitive diplomatic function with a drunken Padawan in tow would, I imagine, earn me an official censure from the Council."

"Oh." The boy fidgeted in his chair. "Is everything on Yuros so …posh?" He waved a hand about the cabin, encompassing the filigree light fixtures, the inlaid paneling, the plush carpets covering the decks, the chromium accents on seats and luggage compartments. The first-class accommodations outshone the muted splendor of the Jedi Temple by far.

"No," Obi Wan told him. "Though much of what you will see in the government sector will be. Ninety percent of the population lives in abject poverty, by common galactic standards. The planet is hopelessly in debt to the Trade Federation. We must convince the Federation envoys and the Yurosian parliament that it is in their best interest to transfer their debt to the Republic."

Anakin frowned, puzzling out the implications of this suggestion. "Isn't that just like one master buying a slave from a different owner? I mean, won't they just be hopelessly in debt to the Republic?"

The older Jedi exhaled slowly. "Yes…though in theory, the terms of repayment will be far more just and manageable. There are those in the Senate who think this will alleviate the suffering of the general Yurosian populace in time."

But the boy was not satisfied. "I don't get it. Why can't we just give them money? That's what they need."

Obi Wan's gaze slid sideways, toward the viewport, which was covered with a synthsilk panel. A tiny furrow appeared in his forehead. "Money does not solve all ills, Anakin."

"It got us off Tatooine," the Padawan protested.

"But it did not save us from every trouble."

That was just playing dirty. They both still ached with the loss of Qui Gon Jinn, and Anakin knew enough by now to know that this statement was a warning to desist in his tenacious argument. "Yes, master," he said, sullenly. As far as he was concerned, buying a debt was buying a slave contract. Jedi were meant to do far better, nobler things than that. They were supposed to bring justice and peace. They were supposed to be compassionate.

The food came, saving them from the awkward silence. The house special proved to be more bizarre than the entertainment lounge in Mos Espa's premier gambling den. Anakin wasn't even going to hazard a guess as to the identity of half the dish's components. But his mentor was kind enough to point out which portions he would likely find palatable, and even dispatched a few of the weirdest things himself, including a blob of wriggling half-seared flesh stuffed inside a fragile snail-shell.

Master Obi Wan was astoundingly brave, even if he didn't understand about money.

"Excuse me…Master Jedi?"

Anakin looked up automatically toward his teacher's cloaked back, but the beggar woman's eyes were not directed toward Obi Wan. They were staring at him. He blinked, pausing between two wide marble steps. The woman was appealing to him. In her arms she clutched a filthy bundle which might be a baby, or a heavy knot of rags. It did not stir. Her face was haggard, even for a Yuro. Dark eyes gazed at him, appealing. "Can you spare anything? For a mother?"

His hands scrabbled at his belt pouches, but he had nothing to give her – except a few scraps of circuitry and the Temple-issued equipment he had been given upon departure. Nothing she could eat, no currency. "I…uh…"

"You! Move along!" A security guard in thick synth-leather armor bustled her away, gloved hands gripping her arms, shoving her down the steps, behind the cordon where hundreds of other hungry faces stared, pointed, muttered. Anakin felt hot rage coil within him. His feet strayed after the guard, of their own accord.


Like a lightning bolt hurled by some quiet thunder god, Obi Wan's voice brought him up short. His shaking limbs obeyed without his conscious consent. A few steps higher, his teacher stood paused in mid-stride, brown cloak sweeping over the pink-hued marble of the capitol building stairs. Officials and dignitaries, secretaries and media emissaries, security guards and the absurdly tall, bobbing hats of the Nemoidian delegation flowed past him, around him, a stone amid a slow-moving river. He fixed Anakin with a stern gaze, reeling him back in, step by step, until the relucatant Padawan once more stood by his side.

"Sorry master, but master, that-"

"Later." The word cut across his excuses. A strong hand reached down and enclosed his in a firm grip. He pulled away – he was not a baby, he was a man of ten years' experience, a champion pod racer, and now a Jedi. But the fingers clenched tight about his own, and he knew there was no escape. He stayed close, hoping the voluminous sleeves of their robes would disguise the humiliating spectacle of a Jedi Padawan being dragged by the hand up the grand ceremonial stairway. The Yurosian officials and their retinue swept them along in the tide of bright vestments and trailing capes, and the colossal portals of the Capitol building swallowed them.

The grand entrance hall had been built to impress. Crenellated chandeliers floated on repulsors above the polished tile of the mosaic floor. Burnished columns reflected lights caught and refracted by walls of tinted glass – real hand-made glass, melted out of sand, not transparisteel. Tapestries adorned the stairwells, the vault of the ceiling was carved in fantastic shapes. And yet over all this glorious embellishment, the beggar-woman's mournful face seemed super-imposed, a phantom haunting its halls. Anakin saw nothing around him, his mind still caught out of time in the moment when she had appealed to him for charity.

She had called him 'Master Jedi'. She had named his depths, summoned his future up out of dark potential into living reality. She had a baby…like his mother, still languishing on Tatooine.

"Padawan. Focus on the present moment. You should attend to these meetings. There is much to learn from this situation. Follow my lead and keep your ears open." Obi Wan was issuing advice, rapid-fire, in a low tone, as they stood before the doors to the negotiating chamber. The others crowded too near. One large Nemoidian trod upon his toe by accident. He pressed closer to Obi Wan, still vainly trying to tug his hand free of his master's cautionary grip.

The Jedi were given seats at the head of the long table. Anakin's feet dangled off the floor when he sat down. The room had been censed with crushed haffa leaves. He wrinkled his nose, undecided. He stood when Obi Wan did. The Yuro premier was making the tedious introductions. There were lots of important people here, lots of long, complicated names and titles to memorize. But nobody mentioned the beggar-woman outside in the cold post-equinoctal air. She was a forgotten nobody, a scrawl of graffiti on the façade of the government's palatial stronghold. She did not matter.

His mind was jerked back to the present by the mention of his own name. All eyes were on him and his master. He bowed when Obi Wan bowed. Somebody across the table whispered in his neighbor's ear. The Force carried a hint of astonishment across the space. They thought Anakin too young to be here. He glared at the offender, until the politician's waving eyestalks dropped in embarrassment.

"Oh…ah…Master Kenobi," the Federation delegate stammered, one fat hand clutching at his heart, his misshapen headdress teetering atop his narrow, reptilian head. "We were not told which Jedi would be representing the Republic's interests here. We had hoped for a well-seasoned negotiator."

Anakin squinted balefully at the Nemoidian. Nicitating membranes flashed across the tall being's eyes, clouding the jagged pupils. Obi Wan's hand brushed against his shoulder, reassuringly.

"I hope my recent experience with Trade Federation affairs will assuage your anxiety," Obi Wan replied smoothly. Anakin caught the glimmering spark of cold humor in the Force, the little dancing embers of dark mirth. Obi Wan could be scary in this mood. The Padawan hoped the idiotic Nemoidian would get the hint about Naboo and shut up.

Nemoidians did not blanch. Their skin did, however, register a splotchy indignation, a certain mottling about the gills. The delegate's ragged mouth turned down sourly. "Yes, yes, of course," he muttered, folding his hands back inside his brocaded sleeves.

"Let us proceed, then," the Yuro premier decided, and the assembly took their seats once more.

Anakin's mind drifted freely – after all, none of this was important. Not compared to that woman outside.

"Master. It's raining outside."

"Yes, it is." Master Obi Wan rolled over. Anakin could hear the rustle of velvet and silk bedclothes, the soft sigh of the overstuffed mattress. He sat up straighter in his own magnificent bed, under the vaulted dome of the guest room, and listened to the spatter of frigid water against the insulated window panes. He rubbed his eyes. The negotiations had dragged on nearly till midnight. His head would have slumped forward and hit the polished table more than once, had Obi Wan not saved him each time with a swift tug of the arm. Anakin didn't even remember dragging his weary body over the threshold of this over-decorated suite. Perhaps he had been sleepwalking, bored into a zombie-like stupor by the dreary proceedings.


"Hm." The Force rippled, a little spatter of mild annoyance against the windows of his mind. Probably he should not be disturbing his mentor's few hours of rest. But this was important.

"Those people we saw. The beggars outside the capitol building. Can't we do anything for them?"

A gentle exhalation. "We are doing something for them, Anakin. If the Nemoidians will agree to the contract, and sell their loan to the Republic, and if the Yurosian cabinet will sign the terms, then it is to be hoped planetary funds will be made available for relief efforts, housing, medicine –"

"No." Anakin cut off the lecture. None of that was real. "I mean right now. It's raining. They must be cold and wet. Do you think they have a place to stay? Do you think they have any food right now?"

The sigh was barely audible. "No, I do not think so."

"I want to go see them. To find out. Maybe we can do something."

The glowlamp on the nearby table blossomed into a soft radiance as Obi Wan waved a hand. "We cannot save everyone, Padawan," he said firmly, though he was already on his feet and pulling his tunic over sleep-tousled hair. He shrugged into his cloak and reached for his boots.

"That means we're going," the boy concluded joyfully. "You agree with me." He tugged on his own boots, fumbled with his belt. "There has to be something we can do."

"What we can do, Anakin, is be mindful. We can go see what it is we are working for. We can remind ourselves that treaties and trade arrangements exist to serve living, breathing beings. That can sometimes be difficult to remember."

Anakin shrugged. As long as they were going.

He was supremely grateful for his own warm cloak as they ventured through the bleak, lightless streets in the deserted sector behind the government buildings. Rain pummeled them with icy fists, threw deep puddles across their wandering path, blew stinging cold droplets into their eyes. His nose began to run, and he scrubbed the back of one numbed hand across his face. It was not difficult for the Jedi to locate the dilapidated vagrants' camp. Despondency and hunger tolled a solemn, repetitive dirge through the Force, drawing them like a beacon.

The beggar woman was there, huddled under the shelter of a busted cargo-lift. The entire shanty town was a fantastic concatenation of scraps and blasted out industrial equipment, panels of warped durasteel and corrugated plastoids salvaged from junkyards or shipping bays. Water dripped forlornly off the cold roofs, pooled and soaked into the fresh dirt collecting in dark cracks where the duracrete had broken open. Anakin saw the remnants of a heating unit, abandoned to rust at one end of the makeshift square. Trash floated in the rivulets of escaping rainwater. Despair hung in the air like thick bacci smoke.

"Little Master!" the woman exclaimed when he peeped his head beneath the ragged overhang of her shelter. "Why are you here?"

"I wanted to help you," he explained through chattering teeth. "I think I can fix that heater unit. I'm good at fixing things."

She smiled wanly, hugging the bundle closer to her breast. "Can you fix my life?"

He backed away, straight into Obi Wan. ."Master! I'm gonna fix that-" But he stopped when he saw the look on Obi Wan's face. The Jedi stood frozen on the spot, eyes looking past and through the pathetic cluster of dwellings. His features were hardened into fierce concentration.

"Anakin," he said after a moment. "We need to leave here. Now."

"But I-"

"Obey me," Obi Wan hissed, punctuating the command with a sharp push in the back. "Now. Not that way. Over the wall- there. Quick."

The Padawan's angry protest died on his lips as he caught the glint of the lightsaber's hilt resting in his teacher's hand. Leaving his regret swirling in the dirty puddles with the other trash and debris, he scuttled over the indicated wall and crouched on its opposite side. Obi Wan's boots hit the pavement beside him a moment later. Again the young Jedi stilled, listening through the Force.

"Tracker droids," he decided. "Maybe armed."

Alarm arced between them, Anakin pushed the beggar woman from his imagination, reached into the Force alongside his master, felt the older Jedi's gentle guidance as he floundered momentarily in depths too overwhelming. There – he found it. A flutter of danger, approaching quickly, silently. Another one. Another. Droids were hard to sense in the Force – undead, they left no distinctive signature in the universal life energy. One had to feel for their emptiness, the subtle hollowing they left behind.

"They're following us," Obi Wan breathed. "The Nemoidians are not to be trusted."

"You can scrap them," the boy declared. He had a training saber of his own. He might be able to block an attack himself. If the shot ricocheted, he could take out a probe, no problem. They should teach the crafty Trade Federation a lesson.

"No. There's no need for senseless destruction. I need to know what they're up to. Follow me."

And they were off again, two dark shadows creeping among the blasted out shells of old factories, weaving among the ruined streets of an earlier epoch. Pale faces peered from alleys and under tattered shelters as they passed, then scurried back in to hiding as the hovering probes drifted by in their wake. The rain shimmered and twisted, drenching them all to the bone, indifferent to hunter and hunted.

"May I be of assistance?"

The Nemoidian head of staff looked down his noseless face at the two sodden, bedraggled Jedi standing on the doorstep of the Ambassadorial residence. His orange eyes narrowed dismissively as his gaze travelled down to the puddles collecting beneath their dripping cloak hems. He tilted his weak chin back, the squat black sculpture atop his head wobbling precariously.

"I should like to ask the Sub-Executive a question," Obi Wan proclaimed, arms folded across his chest. "Now."

The tall reptilian cast a pained look at their sopping garments and then at Obi Wan's lightsaber, hanging in plain view at his hip. "Oh..ah, it is quite early in the morning, Master Jedi – as you can see, the sun has not yet risen –"

"You will extend my apologies and fetch him now," the Jedi said, placidly. He made a subtle motion with the fingers of one hand.

Anakin loved watching a mind trick at work. The Nemoidian's bulging eyes took on a dull gloss and his lopsided mouth popped open slightly, giving him the distinctive appearance of a pickled grog. Shoulders slumping, he wheeled about and shuffled away into the residence's cavernous halls, leaving the doors wide open behind him. Obi Wan stepped over the threshold, into the foyer, and ran a hand through his wet hair, slicking it off his forehead. Anakin followed, savoring the gust of warmth inside the building. Though the Trade Federation delegates were not warm-blooded, their Yurosian hosts had provided all the likely comforts.

Soon enough the Sub-Executive appeared, wrapped in an extravagant synth silk nightshirt. His towering headpiece, replete with scrolling wings on either side, was firmly in place. Anakin wondered idly what Nemoidian heads looked like under the ornate heraldry of their hats. The Sub-Executive stormed to a halt at arm's length from the Jedi, his face crumpled in an expression of extreme annoyance.

"What is the meaning of this?" he snarled.

"I might ask you the same," was Obi Wan's polite reply. A trio of probe droids hummed into view up the residence's front steps, halting in mid-air just outside the door. Their long legs dangled menacingly below their dark bodies, and their targeting lights locked and flashed red.

Anakin moved closer to his teacher, feeling the air intangibly tauten.

"What?" the Sub-Executive spluttered. "A security measure. We employ surveillance droids to insure our safety on potentially hostile worlds. You must admit, Master Kenobi, that you have a certain reputation among the Federation's administrative cohort."

"Really." The young Knight was unimpressed. "Are all your surveillance units armed?"

The Nemoidian eyed the hovering droids nervously. He waved a webbed hand. "No, no of course not – these are simply security models and – aaaiii!"

The last exclamation was torn from his throat by the sudden blaze of a blue lightsaber blade erupting from its hilt. In a single fluid motion, Obi Wan shoved Anakin behind him, whirled to deflect three simultaneous shots aimed at him by the seeker droids, and rolled forward, weapon howling in the damp air, to neatly sever the foremost in two. Its pieces clattered on the marble floor, molten edges glowing hot. The remaining droids fired again, in vain. The shots ricocheted into the ceiling and the floor, leaving ugly burn marks where they impacted. In a furious dance of blue light, the attackers were carved apart, their dismembered shells spinning out to shatter against the doorframe, the steps, the lantern which illuminated the entryway.

Obi Wan flourished the saber again in a wide circle and deactivated the blade, replacing the weapon at his belt with a quiet precision.

"Oh! No! Those models must have had a malfunction!" the Nemoidian stammered out.

The Jedi bowed. "It has been my honor to help you solve your malfunctioning droid problem," he said. "The Jedi exist to serve all the Republic's people."

The Padawan's mouth hung open, but not as wide as the Sub-Executive's. The Nemoidian regained his wits first. "Ah..yes," he murmured hastily. "Thank you." He returned the courtesy, his hat wavering comically as he dipped his head.

Anakin trotted back down the steps behind his master, hurrying to match his pace to the older Jedi's purposeful stride. The rain still pounded down in sheets, slicking the smooth walkways, diffusing the first grey light of dawn. "Master! I thought you weren't going to scrap those droids?"

Obi Wan quirked a half smile. "Scrapping the droids in a lonely alleyway would be senseless destruction," he said. "Scrapping them in front of the Nemoidians is diplomacy."

"Oh. Can I learn some diplomacy, do you think?"

"Perhaps. If you behave."

But the promise of future diplomatic training only buoyed Anakin's spirits for a short time. Once they had returned to their luxurious quarters and set about drying cloaks, boots, and clothing, the more immediate problem surfaced in his mind again. Sprawled comfortably across the soft velvet bedding, nibbling on the platter of fruit and pastries provided by the automated servants, he could not suppress a pang of guilt.

"Master. Now that those droids are taken care of, can we go back? Where those people live, I mean. So I can fix their heating coil."

Obi Wan withdrew a bundle of cream and brown cloth from the drying unit and tossed various items in his Padawan's general direction. "I'm afraid not. Negotiations reopen in one hour. I need you focused on the task which we were assigned to accomplish. Remember: convincing the Trade Federation to surrender their claim will ultimately help every Yuro, including the woman you encountered earlier."

Anakin yanked his tunic's ties closed with a sharp flare of temper. "Why can't we give her money? You have lots of money with you."

"Republic credits, for the mission."

"Nobody cares!" Anakin fumed. "Fine! Then we could win some money – gambling, or...or a race or something. We can make some money and give it to her. I'll do it."

"You will keep your focus on the mission, Anakin. You are badly distracted by this side issue. We have a job to do, and you are allowing your emotions to get in the way."

Emotions? So what? Anakin had another thought. "We could smuggle her off planet! I bet she could get a job on Coruscant or Vandor or somewhere. People do that all the time. We could use a mind trick, maybe, to get her on a ship-"

"Abuse of power is not something I have taught you," Obi Wan said, tightly. "That's enough, Padawan."

"You don't care! She could drop dead for all you care!" Anakin sprang to his feet, enraged. "What's the point of being a Jedi if you can't help people?"

The Force shuddered with outraged disbelief, but somehow Master Obi Wan kept his face completely expressionless. He very deliberately fastened his belt and clipped the saber in place at his side. The silence spread like a dark stain, trickling coolly between them.

"We will go the negotiations now," Obi Wan said at last. "You will attend to the proceedings, and I will test your knowledge of their details later. We will prevail upon the Nemoidians to yield over the Yurosian debt to the Republic, and leave the planet. That is how we will help these people. Now come."

This time Anakin made sure to walk in the traditional position of the deferent Padawan: two steps behind his teacher, on the left side. Obi Wan had explained to him that this had, besides the obvious symbolism, the additional benefit of being the safest position for the student should the master need to suddenly engage his lightsaber. Anakin now mentally added another advantage: it was a perfect position from which to maintain a sullen resentment. His face could not be seen, and it was difficult to have a conversation with someone at such an awkward angle. Perfect.

The negotiations were short. Blissfully short. For some reason, the Nemoidian delegation seemed almost eager to rid themselves of the onerous Yurosian planetary debt. Yesterday's impasse had melted away during the night; and all that remained was the grueling business of overseeing particular details. Anakin cared not a whit for the accountants' reports and the haggling over transfer procedures. He slumped in his chair, studying the table's polished edge, and meditating darkly on his mentor's heartlessness, his stubborn incapacity for simple human empathy. The beggar woman's voice echoed in his imagination, drowing out the hum-drum drone of the politicians and money-mongerers in this room, the sound of Obi Wan's occasional interjected remark, always delivered with emotionless calm.

He was shocked to discover, some time later, that he and his teacher were the only ones left in the ornate chamber. "It's time to leave, Anakin. The agreement is satisfactory, and once the formal celebration is completed, we can depart- as soon as tomorrow morning."

Anakin stumbled to his feet. His limbs had grown dull and senseless from long disuse. He wriggled in place to restore his circulation. "What about the beggars?" he demanded, returning to the sore spot with the diligence of a much younger child.

Obi Wan's eyes betrayed a flash of impatience. Neither of them had slept much last night, and the day had been trying. "What would you have me do?" he asked, one eyebrow rising sardonically.

"Nothing," Anakin snapped, tongue running ahead of his prudence. "Nothing, all right? Just do nothing. She's a mother, she has a baby. But you don't care, do you? What would you do if that was your own mother? You'd leave her in the gutter to die! You wouldn't even know it was her, would you? You don't care where your mother is, Obi Wan, if she's starving or poor or a slave on some hell-hole planet, because all you care about is your stupid loan treaty!"

Tears leaked out from beneath his lashes. His fear for the beggar woman bled into his fear for Shmi, for his mother, for his poor slave mother stranded on Tatooine, where the Jedi had left her, just as they would leave this other woman. Shmi and the woman outside became one thing, his fear and anger one thing. It was all Obi Wan's fault.

"Anakin, you must calm yourself."

Except that was hypocrisy, wasn't it? Because Anakin was the Chosen One and the Force told him things, told him secrets others tried to hide, and it told him now that Obi Wan was anything but calm. His face was calm, yes; his posture was relaxed – but inside, where the Force could see, he was wounded by Anakin's harsh words. His pain made it worse – how dare he be wounded! This was Anakin's fear, not his, Anakin's and the beggar woman's and Shmi's. Obi Wan couldn't be part of it, because it was all his fault.

Anakin reached for the weapon he knew would strike deeper. His anger whispered the words in his ear, honed to a lethal edge. "Qui Gon would have helped her, you know. He would have done this stupid mission and helped her. Because he cared about people. He rescued them. You don't do that – you're not a Jedi like he was, and you never will be!"

A heartbeat of stunned silence. Then ..."No," Obi Wan agreed, quietly.

Anakin's anger burst and dissipated, leaving only hiccupping sobs in its wake. "Why won't you let me help her?" he pleaded, gripping the table's edge. She was herself, she was Shmi, she was every innocent in the galaxy, every voice that cried out for help.

There was a silence, in which those inaudible cries rang and echoed in the Force, fading down its infinite corridors.. "Because I must first show you how to be a Jedi," Obi Wan said heavily. He sounded exhausted. "You cannot help anyone if you cannot control your emotions, Anakin."

The boy glared up at him, and the Force still resounded with the beggar woman's pleas.

"You will return to our rooms now, and stay there until tomorrow morning. I will attend the banquet tonight alone, and we will depart early. And while you are there, you will meditate on the need for self-discipline." The words were curt, uncompromising.

The Padawan swallowed, squeezed his fists in to balls, and bowed in defeat.

Anakin woke the next morning, groggy with headache. He had not slept well, the night having passed in a weary cycle of tears and failed attempts at meditation. Eventually he had collapsed face-first upon one of the over-stuffed mattresses, too empty to feel or think any longer.

He craned his stiff, throbbing neck sideways and squinted across the elegant rooms. Obi Wan knelt on the carpet, in meditation posture himself. Even wrapped in the Force's tranquility, he looked worn and …a little sad. Anakin rolled gingerly off the bed and packed his things in silence. He could see that the other Jedi was already prepared for departure, although the second bed showed no signs of having been slept in. How late had the banquet gone last night? Was it customary for diplomatic bashes to extend till dawn? Or had Obi Wan perhaps stayed away so long in order to avoid his tempestuous Padawan?

There were no answers forthcoming; in fact, between their rooms and the spaceport the two exchanged perhaps a half dozen words. Anakin noted with a pang that the Capitol building was devoid of any loiterers. He had hoped to catch one last glimpse of the beggar who had so arrested his attention – to offer her an apology, or a word of empty comfort and sympathy. But the security guards had done a thorough job of scouring the grounds, in preparation for the festivities last night. The steps to the building were empty. An expensive aircar delivered the two Jedi to the spaceport, and they trudged, in silence, all the way to the passenger liner's docking bay.

Obi Wan consulted briefly with the ticketing clerk.

"Jedi, huh?" the graying woman snorted. "Well, I suppose you can squeeze in on the economy deck. Next time get a return fare."

With a hand signal, Anakin was summoned to a long line of jostling travellers, most in worn clothing, not a few stinking as though they seldom washed, Trampers and space vagrants chewed bacci gum and lounged against the corridor's walls.

"What happened to the first class cabin?" Anakin wondered aloud.

"We shall find space among the less privileged," Obi Wan announced. "And be mindful."

"Yes, master." Just wizard.. His temper tantrum had launched Obi Wan into one of those moods again. There was nothing to be done about it now. Anakin hefted his satchel higher on his shoulder and enjoyed the distraction their fellow passengers provided from the strained silence between master and Padawan. If he listened carefully, he might even be able to pick up a few more choice curse words.

Eventually they were herded onto a cramped deck containing twice as many passengers as seats. Anakin pushed and jostled his way though the crowd behind Obi Wan, and obediently setlled in on the floor at the back of the low-ceilinged space, leaning against the bulkheads. No serving droids relieved them of their bags, or offered them menus full of exotic delicacies. The place already stank of mingled pheromones and multi-species sweat. The deck rumbled beneath them noisily as the ship took off. Despite the number of bodies jammed into the long hold like so many cargo boxes, the chill of space soon penetrated the insufficient insulation. Anakin huddled closer into his thick brown robe.

"Master…where's your cloak?"

Obi Wan shrugged. "I must have left it at the diplomatic banquet."

The Padawan tentatively scooted closer, offering warmth. He was not rebuffed, so he settled himself against Obi Wan's side, using the older Jedi's arm as a pillow. Two sleepless nights caught up with them at last, and the thrum of the giant hyperdrive laboring beneath them lulled them into a shared slumber, mutual discomfort and exhaustion smoothing over the rift torn by impassioned debate.

Hours later, the lurch of reversion roused them simultaneously. The crowd milled and buzzed, while a public announcement recording blared that they were approaching the Vandor spaceport, and those disembarking must present themselves at the aft boarding ramp for security inspection. The Jedi stayed leaning against their bit of wall; they would be going on to Coruscant proper, not stopping at her less populated sister-world. But from their vantage point, Anakin had a clear view of the ramps' access corridor. First class passengers trickled past, servants or droids pushing their luggage carts before them. A rich merchant. A pair of young scamps with fashionable clothing and inebriated smiles. Another merchant or businessman. A very official looking person in uniform – Republic navy, maybe. An elderly Rodian, with two assistants doting on him. And last, a slight figure in a dark brown cloak, carrying an infant in her arms.

Anakin 's head jerked up. The cloak was a Jedi robe, too long for the woman wearing it. He craned his head, but already the ship's staff were blocking his view again. He heard the baby whimper and cry, heard a mother's voice gently shush it. The voice was somehow familiar.

"Master! We had a first class berth reserved on this flight, didn't we?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, Anakin. Go back to sleep."

The other decks were now releasing a crowd of passengers into the exit passage. There was nothing more to see. A strange feeling of mingled shame and gratitude welled up in Anakin's chest, and he stared at Obi Wan as though seeing him for the first time. He dropped back against the hard bulkhead and leaned against his mentor's shoulder again, feeling drowsiness overcome him. Obi Wan rested one hand on his saber hilt, and wrapped the other about Anakin's slim shoulders. Having at last reached a silent understanding, they simply rested in the moment together.

And the Force sang with contentment.