Jun Windu sat at a terminal closing up records from the day's work when Qui-Gon burst into the lab, closing the distance between them in two long-legged steps.
"Qui-Gon?" His clothes were ruffled and dingy, his wind-tangled hair coated in dust. "What happened?"
"Oh." He looked down as though noticing his appearance for the first time. "The wind is picking up out there. The locals in town say that a storm is coming."
"They are frequent on this world."
He opened up his bag, reaching in to pull out a cloth. She watched as he carefully unwrapped it as though about to show her an exotic or rare treasure. Instead, it was spotted with what she recognized as dried blood.
"Can you get a midiclorian count from this sort of sample?" he asked hopefully, the earnestness of the request piquing her curiosity.
She let out a light chuckle, taking the cloth from his hands and carrying it to a lab bench. Scraping a bit of the sample away, she mixed it with a solvent and placed it into one of the pieces of equipment sitting in front of her. As she read the terminal, her brows furrowed in confusion.
"Is this some sort of joke, Qui-Gon?"
"Why?" he asked, making his way over to stand beside her.
"I've never seen a midiclorian count this high before from any Jedi I've tested," she said. "Not even Master Yoda. She locked eyes with him. "Where did you get this blood sample?"
"I met a slave boy in town." He ran his hands through his hair. "The Force led me there," he trailed off.
"I have to speak to the elders." He turned and hurried away, offering no thanks or farewell, leaving the master healer to wonder about her friend's strange behavior.
"So if I understand you correctly, you are proposing the purchase of two slaves?" Mace asked.
Qui-Gon was still jubilant with childlike giddiness as he sat in front of the holographic images of the council of elders. Knowing the range of locations and busy schedule of its members, the fact that they were able to assemble in their entirety with such short notice was further confirmation to Qui-Gon that this moment was ordained by the Force.
"The Order easily has the funds I believe I would need. It would not be a burden. And it is clear I cannot take the boy away from his mother."
"A question of funding this is not, Qui-Gon," Yoda interjected. "A final decision on purchasing slaves to bring into the Order, this Council has not made. Consider it unwise many do."
"Yet, we have done it before with Aayla."
"Those were unique circumstances," Mace said, answering the challenge. "She was rescued; not purchased, and it has required a tremendous amount of adjustment for her to fit into the Order. We were not certain for some time that she truly wanted to be a Jedi, or if she did so out of obligation to us for rescuing her."
"And I would argue that these circumstances are every bit as extraordinary." Qui-Gon rose from his seat, unable to contain his frustration. "Even if I did not believe with every fiber of my being that this is who the Force sent me to find – the Chosen One, it would be madness to risk the Sith finding one so strong in the Force."
After a few moments of silence, Corrar Tachi spoke. "Though Qui-Gon and I have shared similar opinions on this in the past, I do not believe we should make a hasty decision."
"Meditate on this more we all should then reconvene we will," Yoda said with certainty.
Qui-Gon directed his attention back to the circle of Jedi masters. "If no one is opposed, I will stay here until a decision is reached to watch over the boy and learn more."
"Agreed," Yoda said.
The Coruscant skyline was elaborately attired for evening again in its usual spectacle of lights; a sight Obi-Wan was growing too accustomed to seeing through office windows. He had pulled many late nights on staff under Senator Kitab, but nowhere near the hours he was investing into the Oversight Committee. He only wished he had more fruit to show for his labor. Investigations had yielded one dead end after another, everything appearing pristine and without flaw on the surface, when he knew something was wrong. Then there was the matter of Palpatine, another reason he was sitting in Kitab's office. There was great pressure from the chairman to give a go ahead for the Trade Federation to implement its armies, a decision to which Obi-Wan had little comfort in lending his support.
He leaned his head back in the chair, his eyes drawn to the collection of ghostly holos lining the shelves of the elder senator's office. It hadn't taken but a few months in office for Obi-Wan to understand completely why Kitab kept the holos. Day after day fighting in the venue of the Senate Arena, so far removed from Aksu, it was easy to get lost in the game of making alliances and staying one step ahead, and forget that the position was a matter of duty and service. It was something he had never seen Olin Kitab forget or waiver in, and it was one reason that Obi-Wan valued his wisdom and judgment. Few individuals outside the Jedi Order held that honor.
"Obi-Wan, I'm sorry to be late." The large, sturdy man moved to sit behind his desk. "Trust me. You didn't miss much with that budget meeting."
"That might be the only perk of being on this committee."
"I am enjoying getting the opportunity to work with Byram more. He is a great addition to our team."
"I'm glad," Obi-Wan said, barely acknowledging the remark. His mind was swirling with questions, but he was bound by his agreement with the Oversight Committee to not discuss their dealings outside its members.
Kitab reached behind his desk and pulled out one of his prized bottles of brandy and two glasses. "Palpatine is wearing on you."
"He's only half my problem."
"Then the Trade Federation would be the other half." Kitab chuckled. "Palpatine was in my office two days ago and … you were the topic of conversation. He was commending you on your determination and ability to stand your ground … which really means you're getting under his skin."
"I can't speak about the committee," Obi-Wan began hesitantly.
"But, you've come to me for advice," he said, completing the sentence. "In fact, I would wager a hefty sum that you are sitting there trying to figure out how much you can tell me and still be skirting the rules." He raised his eyebrows, and a wide grin split his face. "It's damn fortunate for you that some of your other colleagues are not so honor driven, so rumors abound." Kitab took a sip of his drink. "I suggest you stop withholding your approval …"
"Senator … there is something wrong. I haven't found the evidence, but all is not as it seems."
"I know. I had a similar discussion with Adi earlier today." He shifted in his chair. "Part of being a good politician is knowing when you have lost a battle … knowing when to give up ground so that you can regroup and mount a better offensive."
"I'm listening," Obi-Wan said, taking the first sip of his drink.
"Tell me what you have lost in giving your approval. The Committee says that the Trade Federation may begin to use this army because it meets certain conditions. So they put the units into service." He shrugged large shoulders. "If there is something wrong, it will come out in time, sometimes more quickly than you may think. I'm not telling you to forget about it. Still keep watch, but you will be there at the right time and place."
Time and place seemed to be a common theme in his life lately, and Kitab's words reminded him that something was coming – the storm on the horizon. As much as he wanted to dig in stubbornly and fight it out to the bitter end, his master's lectures on patience also came to mind.
"If you ask me, you need a break," Kitab said.
"I'll try to free up some time."
"You need to get out of the office for a little while." Kitab leaned back in his chair. "Do you like opera?"
"I have a box reserved for this week's end. The company is from Alderaan., and it should be a real treat. Your fiancée is coming back into town. I could invite Byram and his wife. The box is private, so we could keep the problems out." He flashed another one of his trademark wide grins. "Think about it and let me know."
Qui-Gon stood across the street from the small junk store, concealing himself physically beneath a cloak in the same way he shielded his presence through the Force. It was a position he had frequented for the better part of a week as he waited for his fellow elders to come to some sort of decision. There had been no threat from the Sith, at least none that he had sensed as he watched over the boy and his mother.
He had spoken to the Toydarian named Watto on two separate occasions after the boy and his mother left the shop for the evening. The pudgy blue alien had seemed impervious to any sort of Force suggestion, so he was at the mercy of usual forms of bartering and negotiation. It wasn't the first time in this journey he had wished Obi-Wan was here. Still, he had put the formation of a nearly 'fair' deal in motion. Now he just had to fulfill the conditions the elders had placed on their approval.
He wasn't sure if he agreed with the collective wisdom of the elders in this instance. Explaining everything to the boy's mother and leaving the choice to her seemed risky. What if she were to say no? They couldn't afford to leave the boy vulnerable to the Sith. He only hoped he could make her see that her son would soon be in great danger if she did not go.
Pushing back his hood, he pulled the small piece of machinery from beneath his cloak and held it close to him. He wasn't really sure what it did, but it fit the criteria. It was broken and needed someone to fix it. Crossing the street, he set foot into the shop, smiling when he saw the boy, Anakin, look up from where he was sitting.
"Can I help you, Sir?" the boy asked.
"Yes, this piece of equipment is in need of repairs. I would rather go to someone I know."
He set the device down on the counter and Anakin hurried over. The boy began right away, prying the panel off of the side to peruse the tangle of wires and circuits. "This shop is mostly for ships, and pods, and speeders, but I think I can fix this."
He left the counter and returned with a few tools and began to work diligently. "So, are you a medic or something?"
"Why do you ask?" he asked, flinching when he realized he sounded defensive.
"Well, this is a medical device."
"Oh … no," Qui-Gon said, flashing a crooked smile. "I'm traveling with a medical team, but I'm … a teacher."
"What do you teach?"
"History … at a university on Coruscant."
The boy looked up abruptly, stopping his work. "You live on Coruscant?"
"Yes, I do."
"I've never met anyone from Coruscant." He set the tools down, studying Qui-Gon with wide-eyed wonder. "Is it true the whole city is a planet?"
"It is …"
"Oh, it's you." Qui-Gon turned at the sound of the Toydarian's voice, hoping the snouted creature wouldn't stay too long. He was hoping to learn more about Anakin.
"Yes. I need a small repair."
"Then this is the place to come, yes." Watto flapped over to the window, glancing back towards the boy to inquire about his progress in Huttese.
"I'm almost done," Anakin said.
"Good. The boy is good at fixing things, eh. I would talk more, but I need to close the shop. There is a sandstorm coming. I would get back to your ship if I were you."
While Anakin finished the repairs, Qui-Gon settled the price with the Toydarian. Accepting the piece of machinery back, he left the shop and began to hurry down the road as high winds whipped at his cloak and hair.
"Where is your ship at?"
Qui-Gon stopped and turned, waiting as Anakin ran to join him.
"It's on the outskirts of town," he said, raising his voice to be heard over the loud gusts.
"You'll never make it in time. It's coming too fast and sandstorms are very, very dangerous."
"Can you direct me to an inn where I can wait the storm out then?"
"You can come home with me."
"Anakin … it wouldn't be proper for me to impose. I barely know you and your mother …"
"It's okay," the boy said. "I'm supposed to do this."
"What do you mean?" Qui-Gon said, following Anakin as he began to walk away.
"You know … you're like me … so you know what it's like to just know when you are supposed to do something.
Qui-Gon dipped his head down to avoid stinging granules of sand before glancing back in the direction of the winds. On the horizon he could see the storm approaching and it looked as though he had few options. "Okay, Anakin. Lead the way."
He hurriedly followed the boy down the street, noticing the wind continuing to pick up as they went. They turned down an alley and climbed the stairs to a small hovel, crammed in together with other homes. Anakin pushed the door open.
"I'm home, Mom," he called out.
"I'm glad, Ani," came a voice from somewhere in the small residence. "I heard the winds picking up and was worried you …" Shmi appeared from the kitchen, pausing abruptly when she saw Qui-Gon.
"I brought a guest." Anakin shrugged his shoulders. "You remember Mister Jinn, don't you?"
"My ship is quite far away and your son was kind enough to offer me shelter," Qui-Gon explained. He could feel heat seeping into his cheeks, knowing the whole situation seemed very improper. "But, I should go."
"Awww." Both adults turned their heads towards Anakin. "But, I wanted to hear more about Coruscant," Anakin protested as he began to make an appeal to his mother. "Did you know that's where he is from? Please, Mom, can he stay?"
The woman paused for a moment, making Qui-Gon feel as though he was some stray animal brought home, whose fate rested in her hands. "The inns are all probably filled up by now," she said softly. "You can stay until morning."
It was different meeting a private ship rather than a transport. There were no crowds to muddle through or loud commotions. It was just him waiting on the landing pad. He glanced back over his shoulder at the two overly serious armed escorts, waiting to defend him at any sign of trouble, and realized that he had actually missed Garen's levity and sarcasm, not that he would ever admit it.
And, if he was honest with himself, Garen wasn't the only one he had missed. He was actually happy that Siri was returning and that he would no longer be in the apartment alone. It was good to know there would be another friend nearby.
He approached the transport after it settled to the ground. Siri was the first to disembark. They exchanged only a casual embrace, knowing they were much less likely to be the subject of observers in the more private setting. "Welcome home," he said, surprised by the warmness of his own words.
"Thanks." Her face scrunched into an odd expression. "You look awful. What have they been doing to you while I was away?"
"You know. I gave you a proper greeting," he protested.
"And I thanked you for it."
As much as he wanted to continue with his point, his attention turned to Corrar Tachi who was now at the bottom of the ramp.
"Councilor Tachi." He addressed the Jedi master with hesitancy, extending his hand in greeting.
"It's good to finally be on Coruscant with you, Obi-Wan," Corrar said, taking the hand offered.
Garen joined the trio as they started towards the waiting speeders.
"I have arranged to have your things unloaded and brought to my … our apartment." It felt odd to say and drew a scrutinizing glance from Master Tachi.
"That's fine," Siri said, seemingly oblivious to her father's expressions. "I've had more shipped, but it won't arrive for a few more days."
They traveled back to the apartment where Siri, clearly exhausted, quickly retired to her room, leaving her father and Obi-Wan in an awkward silence.
"I should get some rest as well," Corrar said, stopping down by one of his bags. "I need to meet with Cin first thing in the morning." He reached inside his bag and rummaged around, stopping to briefly look up at Obi-Wan. "And you look like you could use some sleep." He pulled a datachip from his bag and handed it to Obi-Wan. "But you might want to look at this first."
"What is it?"
"A message." Corrar stood up and pulled his bag over his shoulder. "Qui-Gon regrets he hasn't been able to make frequent transmissions as he had hoped, but he wanted me to relay this to you."
Obi-Wan accepted the chip, holding it almost reverently as Corrar left him alone. Contact with his master had been limited, the elders feeling that too much contact with Coruscant was risky. The thought of a message was encouraging, and he found himself wondering what words his mentor had for him as he started towards his office.