Anything you recognise is either JK's or George/Disney's. Anything else is probably theirs too.
Padme seethed silently as the infuriating man smirked at her and turned his back. Her handmaidens objected vocally to his lack of decorum and respect, but she knew that this man would not care the slightest. Indeed, he would interpret any such reaction as a validation.
She turned to the boy that was so dear to her heart. "Please, Ani, don't go."
He looked at her with enormous eyes that seemed to bore into her soul. "But he's going to help me free my mother!"
Fighting down the sudden flush of intense shame at not already offering to do that herself, Padme said, "I will do everything I can to free your mother, Ani."
"When?" he asked pointedly.
She did not have an answer to the painfully direct question. Rebuilding Naboo was her prime concern; the details of which captured her attention daily from the instant she woke of a morning to the moment she fell into an exhausted slumber in the dead of night. Even meeting with Anakin and the freighter captain for less than five minutes had taken that valuable time out of her schedule; time in which she had ignored several datapads full of authorisations she needed to review. The best she could do would be to order one of her aides to organise Shmi Skywalker's freedom.
But they were all overworked as well.
Anakin nodded at her lack of immediate answer. His expression did not hold any condemnation, merely resigned acceptance. It hurt the young ruler all the more. He turned away from her and followed the unnamed captain from the room.
"You will not order Anakin to remain, Your Highness?" Sabe asked. Her voice was tinted with the disapproval she obviously felt.
Padme shook her head. "The Captain was correct; I have no authority over him. Ani has already run away from the Jedi; forcing him to remain would be unwise. But I can do something for him." She turned to one of her aides. "Please summon Jar Jar, I have a task for him."
"Your Highness?" Sabe asked.
"Jar Jar is looking lost. Sending him with Anakin would do him good," Padme said with a satisfied nod.
Several smiles were concealed with varying degrees of success as her plan became clear. However, her dear friend made another good point. "Jar Jar's loyalty and friendship are not in question, but his competence is. Would sending him with the freighter Captain put Anakin in more danger?"
Padme sighed as she picked up yet another datapad. "I hope not. But he is the only person available at the moment. Unless you can think of anyone else we can spare?"
"What of the R2 unit Anakin flew with in the Battle? They worked together very well."
A genuine smile grew on Padme's face. "What a wonderful idea."
A stately figure stood with his hands clasped behind his back as he stared out the window of his office, high in the Senate tower. Coruscant buzzed and bustled beneath him, unaware of the true nature of the man now at the heart of the Galactic government.
Chancellor Palpatine pondered recent events. Darth Plageius was dead, by Palpatine's own (extremely satisfied) hand. Darth Maul was dead, by the hand of the enigmatic human who tore the Force with ease. As the sole remaining Sith, he was beholden to find an apprentice. As he had come to expect, the Force guided his hand.
As Darth Sidious, he had studied each Jedi Master in depth, cataloging their strengths and weaknesses, preparing and scheming plans and contingencies for the death of each. While there were always disaffected members, one in particular had potential. As Senator Palpatine, he had befriended the powerful Master Dooku, becoming a sounding board for his concerns.
He had subtly pushed and guided the troubled Jedi, and Dooku had finally made the decision to leave the Jedi Order. He would return home to take up his family holdings, adding the power of nobility and the power of extreme wealth to his already considerable power of the Force. While not yet ready to be exposed to the true nature of the Sith, it would not be long. Wealth and power were insidious corruptors. And Dooku would make a fine apprentice.
Temporarily, of course. Sidious had already chosen his true apprentice.
Skywalker. A portentous name. The boy with an unprecedented connection to the Force would leave reverberating footprints as he strode across the very galaxy itself. Palpatine smiled as he allowed himself to consider the possibilities that would come from having such a powerful apprentice at his side. The galaxy would bow to him as one.
A hologram flickered to life over his desk. "Chancellor Palpatine, I am honoured. You wished to speak with me?"
Palpatine turned. "Ah, Master Dooku. Thank you for contacting me. You are well, I trust."
Master Dooku nodded. "Yes, Chancellor."
"I was saddened to hear of Master Sifo-Dyas' passing. I know he was a close friend."
"Thank you," the Jedi Master replied, inclining his head slightly.
Palpatine smiled. "It has come to my attention however, that Master Sifo-Dyas had a Force vision; one where he foresaw a war that would shatter the Rebublic. To that end, has made a large military commission with a species called the Kaminoans. With the Jedi Council currently stymied in debate, I was hoping you would take up his legacy..."
A chime echoed softly in the chamber, almost drowned out by the constant, intense, but wholly civilised, debate. Qui-Gon sighed and reached down to his comm.
"Pardon, Master Qui-Gon," a protocol droid's voice came through. "You have a priority call from the Queen of Naboo."
Qui-Gon winced. He sincerely did not wish to report to her that he had not been granted leave to collect Anakin as of yet. Every Jedi Master not currently assigned to a mission had been ordered to report to the Temple. "Please relay my apologies, but I am currently in session with the Jedi Council," he answered shortly.
"I have already informed the Queen of your circumstances. I am afraid she insists on speaking with you."
Already receiving disapproving looks from several nearby Jedi for his poor manners, Qui-Gon sought to end the call then and there. "Please inform the Queen that I shall contact her momentarily, just as soon as I am not indisposed."
He moved his thumb to disconnect the communication, but a slight tremor in the Force stayed his hand. The protocol droid spoke again, after a short pause. "The Queen requests that I inform you that Anakin intends to leave Naboo."
"What?" Qui-Gon burst out in a most un-Jedi manner. Silence descended on the room as Jedi with a combined experience of several thousand years turned to look at him.
"The Queen requests that I..." the droid began, repeating its words.
"Yes, yes, put her through," Qui-Gon snapped, holding up the holo.
A second later, the beautiful girl shimmered into existence. "Master Qui-Gon," she greeted, before noticing the assembly. "Councillors, Masters, thank you for taking our call. We are afraid that we bear some bad news about Anakin."
Yoda sighed. "In no danger, the boy is, I sense. An inconvenient time it is, for this conversation."
The Queen continued, as though she had not heard the ancient Jedi's response. "Anakin plans to leave Naboo on the ship that brought him here."
Ki-Adi-Mundi sighed. "Order him to remain," he said brusquely. "We shall organize his return to Telos shortly."
"On whose authority, Master Jedi?" the Queen asked. "It has been pointed out to us most categorically that Anakin is a free being who has committed no crime. As someone with legal employment, he may come and go as he wishes."
Mace Windu glared at the hologram. "We can delegate our authority to you, Your Highness. Skywalker is a ward of the Jedi."
"We are afraid he chooses not to recognize your authority, Master Windu," she replied, her voice hard. "And we are reluctant to oppose Anakin's views in this, given his shameful treatment at your hands."
Several Jedi murmured their disagreement at that, but Qui-Gon leapt upon the opportunity to present an option to the Council. "Could you not personally appeal to him to remain? Perhaps offer him a temporary home until we are ready to begin his training?" he suggested. He knew that few Councillors would agree to such a suggestion had the other option been returning the boy to Telos for a stint in the AgriCorps. But if the alternative was Anakin flitting about the Galaxy unescorted, having him fostered on Naboo would be far more palatable.
Several Jedi Masters shook their heads at the idea. But before any discussion could take place, Luminara asked, "When is the ship scheduled to depart? How long do you have to convince him to remain?"
"We are informed that no request for departure has been filed. The ship was damaged in an encounter with pirates while en-route to Naboo. With our infrastructure crippled, non-essential repairs to private ships are low priority. However, the Captain's cavalier attitude and considerable funds suggest he could... Please excuse us." the Queen broke off and turned to one side, listening to someone out of the holorecorder range. Her face morphed from regally inexpressive to shocked surprise in an instant.
"Your Highness?" Luminara prompted an instant before Qui-Gon.
Still facing away from the Jedi, the Queen blurted, "He's left? But his ship! It was damaged!"
Qui-Gon's heart dropped.
The Queen returned her attention to the assembled Jedi. "Our apologies. It seems the Captain is even more reckless than anticipated. He has departed, and it is our belief that his ship is on its way to Tatooine."
Mundi frowned. "Tatooine? Does Skywalker wish to return home to his mother?"
Qui-Gon internally groaned. It would reflect poorly on the boy if he was still so visibly attached to his former life.
"Of course not, Master Jedi. Anakin intends to purchase his mother's freedom."
Qui-Gon left the Council chambers at an unseemly pace for a dignified Jedi. The Council's interest in Anakin's future was far more pressing when he was not under the direct control of the Jedi. He had been given instructions to reclaim the lad as swiftly as possible; a marked difference from the standing order that he not have contact until Obi-wan had passed his trials.
The rank hypocrisy infuriated Qui-Gon; the very Councillors who blocked him from training the boy were among the loudest in demanding that he be reclaimed.
It seemed they did not want him trained, but were aghast at the idea of such a potentially powerful Force user not under their collective thumb.
He called Obi-wan, instructing his padawan to meet him in the Temple's hanger bay, and disconnected before any response was made.
The hanger bay in question seemed far more distant now than it had the last time he and his padawan had taken this path. The turbolifts too took an age to arrive, and then traversed the Temple levels far slower than he wished.
The Jedi Master closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. He let it out slowly, willing his impatience and frustration to be exhaled with it. It was affecting him in disturbing ways.
The turbolift reached the required level, and the doors hissed open. A tall, lean man exuding gravitas stood waiting outside the doors. "It has been decades since I felt such frustration from you, my old friend."
Qui-Gon smiled, the first genuinely happy expression he had shown in days. "Master Dooku!"
Dooku smiled, his aristocratic features expressing genuine affection. "It has also been quite some time since I have been your Master, Qui-Gon. But were I still, I would no doubt demand to know just why you are so perturbed. I sensed your frustration quite clearly."
Qui-Gon's smile vanished. "I need to track down and collect my future padawan. The lad decided to leave the AgriCorps on a freighter." He started striding towards the hanger bay.
Dooku raised an eyebrow, but fell into step beside his friend. "A reckless decision. Not unlike a certain padawan I once knew. Do you know your student's whereabouts?"
"He was on Naboo until moments ago, but is now on his way to Tatooine. At least, that is the best information I have. Back to his mother."
"He remembers his family?" Dooku asked with some surprise.
Qui-Gon winced. "He is nine, and I only found him a few weeks ago."
"Ah," Dooku said diplomatically. "Would he be this Skywalker I've heard so much about?"
"Yes," Qui-Gon replied with a nod. "I'm told he intends to free his mother from slavery."
Dooku regarded his former student carefully as they walked briskly. "Is there a reason you have not taken him as your padawan already? If you've already chosen him..."
Through a tight jaw, Qui-Gon replied, "Obi-wan's trials have been delayed."
Dooku sighed deeply. "Ah. I see. You think him ready." It was not a question.
"And the Council believe that Skywalker is too old to begin his training, but are preventing you from taking him as your padawan."
Qui-Gon did not answer.
Dooku was silent for a moment, weighing up a decision. "Have you considered the possibility that the Jedi have lost their way?"
That caused some surprise. "What do you mean?"
Dooku raised a hand and gently stroked his silvery, close-cropped beard. "I have long been at odds with many of the Council's positions. I believe they have lost sight of what the Jedi stand for, debating inconsequential minutiae at the expense of the Order's ideals." He sighed deeply. "Qui-Gon, I am leaving the Jedi."
Qui-Gon stopped his brisk pace, stunned at the idea. "Leaving?"
"It is not a decision I have made lightly," Dooku continued. "I have been considering it for many years now. Recently I came to the conclusion that there was only one thing holding me here."
"What is it?"
Qui-Gon blinked. "Me?"
Dooku smiled, genuine affection on his aristocratic features. "Yes, my friend. Your determination to follow the Living Force in defiance of the Council is your greatest strength, and a source of inspiration to me. I taught you as best I was able, but you have taken my lessons and become a Jedi great beyond my expectations."
"I- thank you."
Dooku inclined his head in acknowledgement, and the pair resumed their previous pace. "However, the Council is proving incapable of dealing with this new threat to the Force. I can no longer in good conscience remain a part of the Order."
"So you are leaving," Qui-Gon said, feeling an inky darkness surround his heart.
"I am. I have one last thing to do in the library before I formally renounce my Knighthood. I wished to tell you in person. And I wish to extend to you an offer."
Qui-Gon drew a sharp breath. "You want me to leave the Jedi Order as well," he stated flatly, scarcely able to believe what he had heard.
Dooku did not answer directly. "That is a decision you need to make for yourself. You still have responsibilities you cannot abrogate. Kenobi will need your guidance until he is permitted to take his trials. Young Skywalker's apprenticeship will take the next decade or more. In time, should you reach the same conclusion as I have, know that I would welcome your wisdom and presence at my side."
The pair entered the Temple's hangerbay in silence. Qui-Gon did not speak until he placed a foot upon his ship's boarding ramp. "I shall need to think deeply on this."
"Of course. I would expect no less. It is not a decision to reach lightly."
Qui-Gon nodded. "Perhaps... Might I ask a favour."
Dooku raised his eyebrows. "Naturally."
"If Anakin's training cannot begin immediately, I believe the Council will order him back to Telos. If I can convince them, would you foster him for short while? I would prefer him exposed to someone embodying Jedi ideals than have him toiling aimlessly in the AgriCorps. Or have him attending political functions on Naboo."
Dooku gave him a slow smile. "I would be delighted."
Obi-wan watched his master with concern. The long journey to Tatooine had been made almost entirely in silence; the padawan had sensed his Master's mood and chose to leave him be. It had not helped that there had been a series of those awful Force disturbances – apparently originating from their destination. The thought of someone of Anakin's sensitivity being so close to the disturbances made the padawan nauseous.
Now the pair sat in the cockpit of a small Jedi transport in geosynchronous orbit above Tatooine.
His Master's mood had not improved upon their arrival. Qui-Gon had argued fruitlessly with the thugs maintaining a blockade over the Mos Espa spaceport. Some disaster had the Hutts and their gangs riled up. They weren't permitting any ship to land or depart.
Qui-Gon disconnected the latest call and sat back hard in the chair, huffing in a most alarming way.
Qui-Gon closed his eyes and took a deep breath before answering. "Yes, Obi-wan?"
"If Anakin is still down there, he can't leave. So as long as we are kept from landing, he cannot depart."
The Jedi Master gave a nod of acknowledgement. "While that is true, it is not what has me concerned."
"Then what is it?"
Qui-Gon turned to him. "You don't think Anakin may be responsible for all that?" he said, waving a hand towards Tatooine. "Hundreds of slaves going missing? The Hutts in turmoil?"
The padawan frowned, but closed his eyes and extended his senses. "I don't think… I don't sense Anakin's presence at all."
Qui-Gon sighed. "Neither do I. But I could sense him earlier; he was so happy the Force practically glowed."
Obi-wan blinked. "Did you not feel the tremors? It was like the man on Coruscant! Isn't it more likely that he is responsible for the havoc below?"
His Master nodded with a deep sigh and a look of shame. "Yes, it is possible; probable even. You are right; I should not be blaming Anakin without more evidence."
"Should we not discover what we can about this man?"
"He is the Council's problem. I sent them a message informing them of his presence on Tatooine. They will have felt the disturbances just as we did. Anakin is our problem. The ship the lad arrived on is still locked down there. I need to get down there and find the captain."
"Master," Obi-wan ventured, "what if the captain is the human who tears the Force? He has managed to hide himself from us, and Anakin has disappeared as well. Surely there could be no other explanation."
Qui-Gon did not move for long moments. "I came to the same conclusion, though it was not one I wished to accept. Even if it were true, it would not change our mission objectives at all."
"No, Obi-wan. If that is the case, then we need to move with urgency, but also with care."
Obi-wan did not reply immediately. He watched the ship's instruments in silence as yet another small ship braved the gauntlet, dodging and weaving with three aggressive ships on its tail. It evaded the weapons fire masterfully, and Obi-wan found himself pleased when the tiny one-man skiff cleared Tatooine's gravity well and escaped into hyperspace. The previous two ships had not been so lucky. The smoke plumes from their burning wreckage still rose from the desert floor.
"I agree that it would be in Anakin's nature to assist the slaves escaping, Master," he offered. "Until the Battle of Naboo, I was not convinced he was who you believed him to be. Now however; I would not wager against him accomplishing what he sets out to do."
Qui-Gon actually smiled at that, the first positive expression Obi-wan had seen since they had been ordered to leave Anakin on Telos. "The boy has the potential to shake the whole galaxy."
"I think that is exactly what the Council is worried about, Master."
"The best way to prevent a river washing away a settlement is to direct the flow, not dam the source."
"Levees sometimes break, Master. The settlement would still be in danger of flooding."
"So do dams. And the consequences of that are far worse."
Obi-wan grimaced. His Master's parables always had hidden meanings that challenged his assumptions.
Another ship took off below. As the fighters moved to intercept, a second ship rose into the air, taking advantage of the break in formation. Alarmed, two more groups of patrolling ships broke formation to intercept it, leaving even more holes in their screen.
Like the dam of Qui-Gon's parable bursting, ship after ship roared up off the planet. Comm chatter exploded, ringing with curses, threats and denunciations as the turbulence buffeted the mob.
Qui-Gon slammed his fist down. "No! No!"
Obi-wan's fingers flashed over the control panel, activating every scanning function the ship had.
The cloud of ships dissipated as they hit the mesosphere, disbursing in all directions. Each and every one flashed away into hyperspace the moment Tatooine's gravity could be overcome.
Obi-wan looked down at the console, then over at his Master. "I'm sorry, Master. My scans could not identify Anakin's ship before it went to hyperspace."
Qui-Gon nodded, his expression resigned. "That is hardly unexpected, Obi-wan."
The Jedi Master tapped the console, activating some of the ship's systems. "We go down and talk with some people. We need to find out where the captain was heading."
Obi-wan scratched his cheek. "He is probably going back to Naboo. Anakin would want his mother safe."
"If so, then the Queen can delay him until we get there. If he does not however, then the round trip could cause us to lose the trail."
"So, we're going down then?"
Instead of answering, Qui-Gon flicked the comm. "This is private yacht JR-492 to Mos Espa control, requesting landing clearance and docking bay assignment."
A moment later, they got a response from a ruffled-sounding controller. "Er, come on down, I guess. You can take your pick."
Even with so few ships in the spaceport, there was still a buzz among the population. The two Jedi strode purposefully through the streets. Qui-Gon led them to a specific shop. They stepped through the entrance and through to the cluttered, outdoor storage area. A gruff voice issued a steady stream of inventive curses in Basic and Huttese from behind one of the larger piles of broken electronic equipment.
"This is Watto's shop?" Obi-wan snorted.
"Yes," Qui-Gon replied. "Why do you ask?"
"The Nubian hyperspace generator you won from him was of very good quality. I find it difficult to believe it came from this junkpile."
Qui-Gon smiled sadly. "Anakin turned scrap even Watto discarded into a pod-racer and a fully functioning protocol droid. I suspect that it was that particular skill that accounted for much of Watto's success."
The Toydarian hovered higher, looking over the mound of salvage to see who had entered his domain. His eyes narrowed dangerously. "You! What do you want?" he demanded.
"Information," Qui-Gon replied. "Anakin came back here to buy his mother. I want to know where he went."
The Toydarian gave a nasty smile as he flew closer. "Oho! Ani ran away did he? You shouldn't have deactivated his..."
Qui-Gon whipped out his lightsaber and lit it with a snap-hiss. The azure blade flared to life, the tip barely the breadth of a finger away from Watto's nose. "We don't need anything from you other than where he went. Editorialise after we leave."
Watto's eyes bulged as he stared cross-eyed at the humming blade. "You- Jedi! You're a Jedi!?" Anger filled his voice, smothering the fear. With a trembling hand, he pointed accusingly at Qui-Gon. "That's how you cheated on our..."
Obi-wan duplicated his Master's move.
Two lightsaber blades focused Watto's attention far better than one. He swallowed nervously, leaving the rest of his claim unsaid. "Er, right. He got his mother and left. They went to the spaceport. He kept telling Shmi that he wanted her to meet his friend."
"The starship's captain?" Qui-Gon pressed.
"Don't know. I just wanted him and his droid out of my shop." Watto drifted back a bit, away from the twin beams of destruction. "Just like you! Both of you; get out!"
Obi-wan glanced up at his Master across the rough table as they ate. Even in the worst of situations in their many adventures, he had never seen Qui-Gon so downcast.
Watto wasn't the only one unable to give them much information. Qui-Gon had led his padawan in search of Anakin's friends, and they found an urchin named Kitster. The boy had heard that Anakin had returned home briefly, but hadn't seen him. He knew that Shmi had been freed, but little else.
They had been brusquely stopped and interrogated by some bounty hunters, on the basis that they were strangers in town after a massive heist, therefore they may know something pertinent. It seemed to Obi-wan that his Master had struggled not to let the encounter descend into violence.
Nothing else they tried elicited any information. No one knew which ship Anakin had been on, or on which ship he had departed. The docking bay that berthed the enigmatic human's ship was empty of anything, even to the Force. It was as though no one had been there in the past week. The harbourmaster was even less helpful, not able to recall any details of the ship at all.
The padawan hesitated. "Is Naboo our next stop?"
Qui-Gon sighed. "Yes. Anakin would be unlikely to take his mother anywhere else. Go and ready the ship while I," he stopped, rising to his feet and looking intently at the main door to the cantina.
Obi-wan felt the same sudden surge in the Force. He also stood, turning to face the same door.
A hooded figure entered at a brisk pace, looking around the cantina. He spotted the two Jedi and almost ran towards them. He pushed his hood back, revealing a man with dusky skin, a shock of dark hair and a stripe of yellow facepaint across his the bridge of his nose.
"Quin?" Obi-wan said, surprise on his face.
"Obi-wan. Master Qui-Gon," he panted. "Thank the Force you're here."
Qui-Gon nodded. "Quinlan Vos. What is wrong? I sense your-"
"It's Aayla!" the newcomer blurted. "My padawan. I can't sense her anywhere!"
"Calm yourself," Qui-Gon said softly, with a sudden surge of compassion. "What happened?"
"We were on a mission; undercover. Aayla was in Gardulla's palace when the thieves stole everything. Including her!"
AN: Thank you all for your patience and reviews. I've started a new job that is taking up a great deal of my time and creative juices. It's rewarding, and quite a big raise in pay, but it plays merry havoc with my spare time. I hope to have the next chapter of Havoc out within the next week.
Happy new year to you all.