Anakin Skywalker pressed his advantage.
He pushed his enemy across the catwalk that extended over the lake, countering her quick and graceful style with simple and economical movements. A duel is not a performance, as Obi-Wan told him frequently. Extraneous movement will only show your weakness.
A surge of energy in the Force with a flash of light almost too quick to see were his only warnings when his enemy suddenly took the initiative. She was up and driving him backward before he could respond with more than a clumsy block. His heel hit the edge of the catwalk and he pivoted just enough to keep from going over the edge into the lush greenery of the Jedi Temple's gardens. He fell backward, the rough steel digging into his elbows as he caught himself with a jarring thud.
A violet lightsaber was pointed at his throat and his enemy stood calmly above him, her hood hiding her face. "Will you surrender?" she asked quietly.
"Never." Anakin swiped at the blade with his own, managin to roll further back, but a blur of yellow light on his right side blocked off his escape. He felt a wrench in his right hand as the energy of the lightsaber beams caught and locked, then the powerful tug as she caught his lightsaber with her own and pulled it from his hand with a practiced twist of her wrist, leaving him prone and disarmed.
"Surrender, Anakin. You're beaten."
Anakin closed his eyes, blocking her from his sight and his mind, and reaching out into the Force around him. As always, it seemed to reach back in a welcoming way. He let it flow into him. When he felt strong again, he reached out his right hand, calling his lightsaber to him. It flew from her hand and landed in his as he flipped upward and landed on the rail of the catwalk.
"I'm just getting started."
He swung at her, and she had to turn away to block it. He took the opportunity to jump down from the rail and find surer footing. But she was quick. She swung her saber in a sharp arc. He barely had time to fall to his knees and raise his lightsaber over his head to block it. Again, she used her blade to wrench his weapon from his hands, this time ripping it into thin air.
He heard it clatter against the rail, and lunged for it - too late. He watched it fall, end over end, into the shrubbery at the lake's manufactured shore. He sighed, and turned around. "Fine, you win."
She laughed aloud and pushed her hood back, revealing the silky blonde hair and fine, kind face that Anakin had secretly admired since meeting her. Siri Tachi put her lightsaber away, then reached a hand down to him to help him up. "Sorry about your elbows."
He examined them. The skin was split in a couple of places from their scrape against the catwalk, and he bet he'd get good sized bruises out of the fall, but there was no real harm done. "I've done worse." He stood up and dusted himself off. "You should have seen me after a few pod crashes."
"I'm going to get you to Malastare someday and see this business for myself."
"You'd love it. It's really rugged. I'll get you to Tatooine someday and show you a real podrace."
Siri rolled her eyes, then lowered herself down to sit on the edge of the catwalk and look over the lake. She reached out casually, and Anakin's lightsaber jumped up into her hand. She gave it to him. "You're good for me, Anakin. Better for Obi-Wan, but very good for me."
"Good for him?"
She smiled and ruffled his hair, which annoyed him, but didn't entirely surprise him. Siri had spent several years undercover, trying to bring down a slaver, and she had picked up some habits that often seemed out of place among the Jedi. She certainly tended to be more affectionate than Obi-Wan, or even Bant, if also still quicker to fight than either. "He needs to be challenged sometimes."
"Well, I guess I'm pretty good at that."
"And speaking of challenges," she said, picking up her lightsaber, "shall we have another go at this?"
Anakin was usually eager for lightsaber practice - he actually enjoyed it, in its own way - but he shook his head. "No. Obi-Wan will want to practice after his meeting. He'll let me win if he thinks you've been beating me all day."
"I'm astounded. Obi-Wan Kenobi lets you win?"
"Are you sure?"
"Sure, I'm sure. I want to beat him fair. Then he gets this funny look on his face and all of a sudden something opens up."
"You should spite him and not take the opening."
"I tried that once. I got in trouble for it."
Siri looked fascinated. "Really? I wonder what he's trying to teach you."
"I guess to take a window of opportunity, if it happens to open."
"Somehow I doubt it. That's not particularly good Jedi philosophy. We examine the window thoroughly before going through it. Otherwise, it might be a trap."
"What do you think?"
"I don't know. I suppose you're not meant to realize that he's letting you win. Maybe he means to teach you how to win a duel without entirely destroying your opponent. You do tend to do that."
Anakin looked down. Siri had seen him fight, and he suspected that she knew - in a way Obi-Wan simply couldn't - how it was with him once he got started. Sometimes, trying to stop fighting was like trying to stop a sandstorm that was bearing down on him, only harder. "Maybe," he muttered.
Siri's hand touched his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Anakin. It isn't my place to try and interpret your Master's teachings, and his reasoning may be quite different. He may simply enjoy seeing you succeed."
"It's all right," he said, patting her hand. It felt good to be able to do that sometimes. "Are you going to take a padawan of your own?"
Her eyes grew far away. "I'd like to. I look around, I see the children. But I'm not ready. I don't know how to be a Master. I watch Obi-Wan, and I'm frequently somewhat mystified about what he's doing."
"So am I," Anakin said.
"Ah, but you're the padawan. You're supposed to be mystified and trying to understand your Master's mind. I'm a knight. I'm supposed to know."
"I think Obi-Wan doesn't know half the time."
He'd meant it to reassure her, but it seemed to annoy her instead. She frowned. "Obi-Wan is giving a great deal to your training, and fights battles in your defense quite frequently. It is not the place of a padawan to -"
Anakin waved a surrender. "Okay, all right. I know. I just think you ought to take a padawan, is all. I think you'd be just as good at it."
"Maybe so. My expectations are rather high." She winked. "Besides, how could I ever hope to compete with Obi-Wan? Not everyone can train the Chosen One."
She tilted her head back reverently and affected such an exaggerated attitude of piety that even Anakin had to laugh at her joke, though he usually found the prophecy more frightening than amusing. It was sometimes overwhelming to have people think he was destined to do something he didn't even understand.
He was trying to think of something to say when the comm-link hooked to his belt let out a sharp beep. He picked it up. "Skywalker."
Obi-Wan, as usual, didn't bother with preliminaries. "Anakin, where are you?"
"The Lake. Remember, I was practicing with Siri?"
A brief sigh. Obi-Wan didn't seem to like it particularly well when Anakin practiced with Siri, but he hadn't prohibited it. "Yes. Of course. Is Siri still with you?"
Siri leaned over the comm-link. "No, she's long gone."
"Amusing," Obi-Wan said, though he didn't sound the least bit amused. "But my padawan was due outside the Council room ten minutes ago."
Siri arched an eyebrow at him. "You neglected to mention that you were expected."
Anakin hadn't noticed how late it was - he'd been having fun with Siri - but he knew that either they wouldn't believe him or that it would be the cause of a lecture about being aware of one's surroundings at all times. So he just said, "I apologize for being late. I'll come immediately."
"It's as well you're with Siri," Obi-Wan said. "Yoda would like to speak to all three of us."
"Impatient you are, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan looked across the Council Chamber at Yoda. "Is it that obvious, Master?"
"Try to hide your feelings, you should not. Control them instead, you should."
Yoda gave him a rare smile. He almost never offered advice on training Anakin directly, but he often offered it in the form of critiques of Obi-Wan's own behavior. "Concerned about his friendship with Siri, you are?"
"No, Master, of course not."
The smile twisted into a frown. "You are, yes you are. Worry so much, you do not, when he is running freely on Coruscant."
Obi-Wan chose not to answer that accusation. He had become stricter about Anakin's outside activities since the disaster with the garbage pit racing, but he was not as strict as the Council would have him be. Yoda was determined to stop the unauthorized visits around Coruscant; Mace Windu wanted his droids and gadgets taken away. Obi-Wan had tried both, but Anakin had become desperately unhappy. He'd tried to cover it up, but Obi-Wan could feel it through their bond and see it in the disorientation and malaise that suddenly pervaded Anakin's work. Normally voraciously curious - almost frighteningly so - and able to grasp intellectual concepts on a single hearing, Anakin had begun stumbling over even the simplest things.
This had seemed to Obi-Wan to be counterproductive, so, after much soul-searching and a very uncomfortable closed conference with the Council, he had returned all of Anakin's droids, most of his gadgets, and one free afternoon a week to explore the more respectable areas of Coruscant. Obi-Wan had half-feared that his apprentice would see the limitation only, but Anakin had been overjoyed and - despite Yoda's fears - had spent nearly half his free afternoons in museums and libraries. He had as vast an appetite for high culture as he had for low, and, like everything else to which he applied himself, he absorbed it with astonishing speed. It had surprised Obi-Wan the first time Anakin sat across from him at dinner talking about the split between Classical Gigantism and Neobrutalism in Naboo art and architecture - in the same enthusiastic tone he used to describe a particularly attractive new starship model - but it had become routine rather quickly, and now Obi-Wan took as a matter of course that Anakin knew more about those subjects than he did.
"Coming, they are," Yoda said, pointing his gimer stick toward the window. Obi-Wan could see Anakin and Siri moving out into a glass-ceilinged walkway below, headed for the turbolift. They were speaking with one another in an animated way.
When he spoke to Siri, Anakin still used words like "wizard" and "rugged." His hands moved a great deal and his face was lively. Obi-Wan recognized this for what it was - one of Anakin's weirdly sincere forms of flirtation (that was a weakness that would have to be dealt with before long, though Anakin only looked at him blankly when he brought the subject up, refusing to admit that he was doing it at all) - but it still stabbed him. Anakin never seemed quite so happy to see him.
"Jealous, you are?" Yoda asked, an eyebrow raised.
"Perhaps a bit. I… recall being more glad of my Master's company than Anakin often seems to be of mine."
"The right word, is 'seems.' Loves you, the boy does." Yoda sniffed.
Obi-Wan was gratified by Yoda's sense of Anakin's feelings - he supposed he knew, when he was not being petulant in his own mind - but didn't care for the tone of disdain that accompanied it. "As I loved Qui-Gon."
"No. This boy… " Yoda shook his head. "Confused are love and hate and joy and anger within him. All things, he feels… all too large for him." He sighed. "Think, you do, that I do not care for the boy. I do, as do all the Council members. Kind, he is, and generous. That he is talented, there is no doubt, and intelligent. But control, he must learn."
"I am trying to teach him to control his feelings."
"Mmm. A hard lesson it is for him. Impossible, I fear, for see, he does not, where the danger lies."
"I think you underestimate Anakin's self-understanding."
"Bold, you have grown, Obi-Wan."
"I'm sorry, Master. It was not my place to question you."
"Your padawan, your place is. But underestimate the danger he is in, you must not."
A soft electronic tone broke the conversation, and Yoda keyed the control to open the door. Siri swept in, her long robes swaying importantly. Anakin stayed a few steps behind her, as he would if he were her padawan, but as soon as he saw Obi-Wan, he quietly stepped away to stand at his Master's side.
"I am sorry, Master," he said quietly. "I'll… I will make an effort to… " He searched for a formal sounding phrase. "… to be more alert to my schedule."
"That is all I can ask, Padawan." Had they been alone, Obi-Wan would have begun asking him about his practice session and trying to make him more at ease, since the lesson had been learned, but clearly, the Council Chamber was not the place for such a thing.
Anakin recognized it and simply moved to stand closer.
Yoda dimmed the lights, and a holoprojector rose up from beside his chair. Blank pixels floated in midair for a moment, then resolved themselves into a grainy broadcast from a woodland world. Some solemn gathering was being held. There was no sound.
"Malkiri, this is," Yoda said quietly. "A Mid-Rim world, royalist for seven hundred years. But royalist, it can no longer be."
Siri looked up. "This is a funeral for the monarch?"
Yoda nodded. "Destroyed, was the royal family. Murdered were the king, his wife, and four children."
"Who is in line for succession?" Obi-Wan asked. "Are we to go and defend… ?"
Yoda looked at him levelly, not answering the interruption, then went on. "No line was there, beyond the children who are burned with their parents today. Pass, the world will, into the hands of all its local chieftains."
After interrupting Yoda once, Obi-Wan chose not to break the silence this time. Siri also appeared to have learned that lesson. But Anakin couldn't bear silence, so when it had spun out for longer than seemed natural to him, he bent his head respectfully and asked, "Are they any good?"
Yoda looked at him gravely. "While existed the monarchy, mainly concerned with trade were the local governments. When weak was the economy, invited were experts."
Understanding dawned. "The Trade Federation," Obi-Wan whispered.
Just as he said it, the pixels resolved to a closer shot of an overweight Neimoidian in shimmering red robes. He was standing at the head of the gathered crowd, speaking.
"Mayor of the capitol, he is," Yoda said. "And now, essentially, leader of Malkiri."
"Do you suppose the Trade Federation assassinated the royal family?" Siri asked.
"Guesses, I do not make, Siri Tachi. But our interest here, it is not, to oppose the Trade Federation. Warn you only, I do, that they will be present, and in command of this world, when you arrive."
Obi-Wan furrowed his brow. "Master, what is our interest?"
The holo cleared, and a new one formed, a sharper one - a young human male in padawan dress, his long braid draped over one shoulder. "Zio Shapoi," Yoda said. "Knighted, he was, shortly before you became padawan to Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan."
"Born on Malkiri, he was, and chose to visit, he did, when he learned his past."
"Was he also killed?" Siri asked.
"Killed, he was not. Arrested, he was."
Yoda turned off the holo altogether and sighed deeply. "With a lightsaber was the royal family killed."
"There must be a mistake," Siri said.
"Agree with you, I do. But tried he must be."
"Then we're not rescuing him?" Anakin asked.
"That limitation, the Council does not impose." Yoda squared his shoulder. "Violent, has the response been. Poison, it is, and spread, it has, from Shapoi to all Jedi."
Yoda nodded. "Yes. Not wanted, are the Jedi on Malkiri. Think, I do, that such things have been said and felt there before this. The murder has kindled a flame, but dry are the woods of Malkiri, and burn quickly they will."
The holo came back on, this time with sound. It was Malkiri again, and a crowd again, but this crowd was not somber - it was enraged. An effigy of a Jedi was hanging from a wooden pole, and it was burning. A banner read, "Malkiri, break free from Jedi mind control." The crowd was throwing stones at the burning effigy and chanting a slogan that Obi-Wan couldn't quite make out.
He could think of nothing to say. He'd known that there were people who disliked or envied the Jedi, and of course there had been worlds that associated them with an unpopular negotiation, but this kind of violent rhetoric was new to him.
"He's not going to get a fair trial there," Siri commented dryly.
"That is why go there, you must," Yoda said. "Watch the trial. If unfair it becomes, bring Shapoi to Coruscant you must."
Anakin's eyes were glued to the holo. "We're going there?"
Obi-Wan put a calming hand on his padawan's arm. "Perhaps we can use the opportunity to teach… "
"Teach, you will not," Yoda said firmly. "One Jedi, we may lose. Care, we do not, to lose others. Go, you will, posing as a family."
"To what end?" Siri asked.
"To observe, to rescue if necessary," Yoda said. Then he turned, an intense look in his eyes. "And to learn from where they have learned this hate. An enemy of the Jedi, we know there is in the galaxy."
"You think the Sith are behind this?"
"Make guesses, I will not," Yoda repeated. "But observe them, you will, from within. Siri's own name, may she keep, but Anakin and Obi-Wan are known to the Trade Federation, though changed are both your faces. Names, you will be given."
"How will we fit into this society?" Siri asked. "It looks… small."
"News for the Republic this will be. Obi-Wan will pose as one gathering it for broadcast."
Obi-Wan looked nervously at the rioting crowd, and, though he knew his padawan would resent it, said, "Perhaps Anakin should stay here."
He saw Anakin's jaw clench, but the boy did nothing. He was gaining some control.
It hardly mattered. Yoda was shaking his head energetically. "Undercover you will be. Siri knows how, and you can learn, but home life, neither of you has familiarity with."
Anakin straightened up. "You want me to… help them?"
Yoda nodded solemnly. "Know, you do, of the rhythms of the home."
Anakin looked at him incredulously. "And you… I mean, Master Yoda, do you believe I am properly suited to this mission?"
"Otherwise, suggested it, I would not have."
Anakin just stood blinking in the sunlight for a moment, clearly not daring to believe that Yoda had considered him capable of any responsibility. It frankly startled Obi-Wan as well, but then, Yoda had always had the capacity to surprise him. "Thank you," Anakin said at last, stepping back into Obi-Wan's shadow.
Yoda raised the lights again and hobbled over to his chair to sit down. "Go, you will, tomorrow morning."
He dismissed them.
They rode down in the turbolift in confused silence and were going slowly through the glass walkway when Anakin finally spoke. "So… mostly, we're just pretending to be a family. Then we get this Shapoi."
Obi-Wan nodded. "If it is necessary. There is a slight possibility that he will receive a fair trial on Malkiri."
"Not likely," Siri muttered. "I say we skip the preliminaries and pull him out."
Anakin nodded firmly, and Obi-Wan gritted his teeth. Missions away from the Temple were hard enough with Anakin's impulsive nature always ready to throw things out of whack. How was he supposed to conduct a mission with Siri to look after as well?
The Jedi did not make a habit of completing missions undercover, or at least hadn't for many centuries. It was becoming more common, a practice that Anakin gathered many in the Order didn't much like. In addition to his apprenticeship, he also studied under history, humanities, and science tutors - most young knights, like Siri, who hadn't taken padawans yet. His history tutor had denigrated the strategy as "behaving like common spies."
Anakin hadn't made up his mind yet. Well, he sort of had - he agreed with his tutor. Jedi should be respected everywhere, and they should always look like Jedi. No one had any business not letting them.
But, at the same time, it had been fun to meet a secret Jedi in Mos Espa, and turning into a secret Jedi was also… well, kind of fun.
Siri, who had little patience with the tutors - used the same disdainful sniff that they did, but usually with a snide comment about their "vast experience working in the field" - was enjoying herself quite freely, and had attempted "looks" from four different human cultures so far. Anakin had liked all of them. The fifth one, the one she was working her way into now, was the best - a kind of wrapped around draped fabric that made her look like the big statues in front of Theed palace.
"Is that Naboo?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Naboo-inspired. Very fashionable in the upper echelons of Coruscant society right now."
"And very foolish to wear on a mission to a world controlled by the Trade Federation," Obi-Wan cut in, inspecting her.
"Oh. Good point." She looked dubiously at the others. "Oh, all right, then. I'll go Alderaanian."
"No, not Alderaanian, either. The Alderaanians have consistently sided with the Naboo, and if I'm to be a journalist, it should be from a world whose press is not considered deeply political." Obi-Wan smirked. "Furthermore, you look like you're on your deathbed in that white dress."
Anakin laughed. "So, where are we going to be from?"
"Watch out," Siri said, "Obi-Wan is about to be dull."
"A cover story really ought to be dull," Obi-Wan told her patiently, but in a pointed tone of voice. "We don't necessarily want people asking a lot of curious questions. And, Siri, if it's all the same to you, the Code forbids me to take more than one padawan at a time, and it is more productive for me to be instructing Anakin than instructing you."
Siri recognized the insult well enough, and fell silent. Anakin didn't know exactly what to do; Siri was his friend and he knew he should defend her honor, but Obi-Wan was his Master, and it would be as big an insult to correct him.
The moment passed. "So we will be middle class Coruscantians," Obi-Wan said. "The light blue gown you wore second will be quite adequate, and we need not discuss our origins any further back."
Siri picked up the dress in question from the back of the chair she'd draped it over, leaving with only a very cold glare toward Obi-Wan.
"That was kind of mean," Anakin said, as soon as she was gone.
Obi-Wan smiled. "Siri does not bring out my best qualities, I’m afraid. But you are quite correct, and I owe her an apology. I will tender it in private at a later time."
"Now, if we are to be middle class Coruscantians, you should take some time to find some of the interests of your age mates." He tugged at Anakin's braid. "And I'm afraid that this will have to be disguised."
"Disguised," Anakin said quickly. "Please. I don't want to… It's been there ever since you cut my hair on Naboo and... well, you know."
"Yes, I do. You know this area of Coruscant well enough to find what you need."
Anakin pulled on his long robe to go out, hooking his lightsaber onto his belt by habit. "Are we going to be armed there?"
"I'm not sure."
"I mean, if we are, I better find something I can hide my lightsaber in."
"I see. Well, make the consideration, and we will discuss the need for it later."
"Okay. What will you choose?"
"I have appropriate attire."
"Maybe I should start keeping some stuff… "
"By the time we move on to our next mission, you'll have outgrown it." Obi-Wan grinned. "For that matter, by the time we finish this one, you will have."
Anakin smiled back, but he felt a little self-conscious. He thought he might end up taller than Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan didn't seem to like the idea very much. "Well, I'll go find something, then. Bye."
Obi-Wan said goodbye, and Anakin felt his master's eyes on him all the way down the corridor leading from their quarters. It was a comfortable kind of feeling, and he knew that Obi-Wan was smiling.
He swept around the corner, enjoying the feel of the full brown robe swaying with the motion, and followed his accustomed path down to the main entrance and out into the bustling Coruscant afternoon. The day was murky with pollution and it smelled bad, but there was always a moment of wild joy when he went into the world. People gave him strange looks sometimes, but the shopkeepers were used to him and always welcomed him. Some of the regular customers knew him as well. But he was not going to be a shopkeeper or an adult, so he couldn't very well waste his afternoon talking to them.
He'd seen the kids in the plaza before, riding and doing simple tricks on hoverscoots. They wore brightly colored silks and high leather boots, and quite a few of them wore knee-length silk jackets. It would be as good a disguise as any other, and he could conceal his lightsaber easily.
The scoots were about half a meter long and a decimeter wide. They flew quickly and had a range of several meters into the air. Anakin had thought it looked mildly amusing, but he hadn't tried it yet. He slipped quietly into the crowd watching them.
Three of the boys were flying about three meters up, using the scoots' thrusters to repel one another into stunts. They called one another names that Anakin probably would have hit someone for in his former life, but they laughed while they did it, so he guessed it was their normal practice.
"Hey!" someone shouted. "Look who's come to visit!"
The three scoots dove on him in sequence, half-play, half-threat. He squared his shoulders and didn’t react.
The leader of the three circled around in front of him and hovered, crouched on the scoot. "What, are we in trouble with the Jedi now? Too much fun in sight of the Temple?"
Anakin shrugged elaborately, giving himself time to swallow his temper. "Just thought it was good flying up there, is all."
The boys didn't seem to know what to do with a compliment. They just went back to idly circling Anakin. He watched the way their ankles moved to control the scoots. It wouldn't be very hard to do, and he could probably out fly them on an hour's practice.
"Where do you get your stuff?" he asked.
"Why do you want to know?"
"Looks like fun."
"Thought that was against the rules for the braid-boys."
Do not answer him. Yoda himself has entrusted you with a mission. Do not destroy it before you start by losing your temper at a thoughtless, spoiled, careless, brainless…
"You've been misinformed," he said, as coldly as he could. "So, where do you get your stuff?"
The lead boy shrugged, apparently deciding that he wasn't going to be able to go home and brag about getting into a fight with a Jedi. "Jumanadel's," he said. "Good a place as any."
"Thank you." Anakin started off.
"We're mostly here every day."
Anakin turned. The boys with the scoots were on the ground, and the leader was smiling in a friendly enough way. Anakin smiled back.
They'd only been joking. Good thing he hadn't lost his temper.
He went to Jumanadel's, a block or so away, and bought several outfits like the ones the boys were wearing. As an afterthought, he picked up a scoot as well.
By the time he came back through, the boys were gone, which was just as well. He didn't have time to waste today - he still had to go back to the Temple, and find some way to hide his braid.
"What do you suppose is taking so long?"
Siri went to cross her ankles on the table, then moved them quickly when she realized the straight skirt she was wearing left little to the imagination. She cursed under her breath. Obi-Wan pretended not to notice. Siri had picked up any number of odd behaviors in her years undercover. She was trying to break most of these habits. "You know Anakin. He's trying to get it right."
"I suppose so. And the hair may take some work. They'll have to use growth solution and possibly add extensions."
"Siri, I owe you an apology for my comment earlier."
"It was… inappropriate. And I am sorry."
She looked at him coolly for a long time, then shrugged in a disinterested way. "All right." Her eyes moved up and down over his disguise. "Are you planning on wearing that sort of thing the whole time?"
"It's about ten years out of date."
"My persona will be unconcerned."
"Convenient for you both."
Obi-Wan considered the wisdom of continuing in this vein, decided he was likely to comport himself badly if they did, and chose to change the subject. "Have you been to Malkiri before?"
"No. I met a woman from Malkiri while I was working for Krayn, but I suspect she wasn't typical."
For reasons that Obi-Wan didn't understand, Siri always became tense when she spoke of the years during which she'd served as an undercover agent, posing as a pirate to fool the slave raider Krayn. She had given a convincing performance of having fallen from the Jedi path, but it had only been a role. When they had removed Krayn from power (she and Anakin had set up a slave revolt), she had returned to the Temple gratefully. Anakin had reason to be uncomfortable about the mission - he had killed Krayn with his newly constructed lightsaber, and Obi-Wan had never been as certain as Anakin was that the man had still been armed at the time - but Siri had performed admirably. Why did the energy around her always spike dangerously when she brought it up? He didn't press the issue; when Siri was ready to talk, he supposed she would. "Why was your friend different from others on Malkiri?"
"She left, for one thing. Malkiri's citizens tend to stay put."
"Then your impression was that the planet, with the exception of Krayn's associate, was stable."
Siri leaned forward, crossing her arms on the table and looking thoughtful. "I don't know that I could say that on such short acquaintance with only one person."
"What was your impression?"
"That she was unusual… but maybe not as unusual as she thought. She spoke of a rather unchanging society and how she resented it, but when she spoke more honestly… or, shall we say, with fewer inhibitions… she seemed to resent the Neimoidian intrusion more, and the changes that made the local culture feel in some way different."
"A not atypical reaction to social change. How did she view the royal family?"
"As anachronistic. She complained that they were the ones who invited the Neimoidians, but then got in the way of - and I quote - 'the one thing Neimoidians know how to do.'"
"The king blocked trade agreements."
"I would think so."
Obi-Wan sighed. If Siri's perceptions were correct, it only added to the obvious argument that the Neimoidians were behind the murder of the royal family. But how did the hatred of the Jedi become involved? Why the Jedi? Why not frame someone local?
"Did she mention anything about Jedi?"
"None of Krayn's people thought much of us," Siri said. "So at the time, I just let it pass without comment. But I wonder now."
"So do I."
"Obi-Wan… what do you make of it?"
Obi-Wan had been turning to go back to his personal quarters and pack, but when Siri spoke, her voice was too troubled to ignore. She was staring at her hands on the table, her face set in an overstudied expression of serenity.
"I don’t know. It's new to me."
"Do you think it's going to be like Kegan? All the lies and brainwashing and so on?"
Obi-Wan hadn't thought of Kegan for years. It had been the first time he'd worked with Siri, and they had ended up captured in a school that taught hatred for the rest of the galaxy, including the Jedi. Siri had gotten both of them into trouble several times because she couldn't stifle her desire to correct the lies. Surely, several years undercover would have cured her of that… but still she looked and sounded apprehensive.
"I don't know what to expect, Siri. But we have both grown since Kegan."
"It makes no sense. Why build a society on hateful lies about other people?"
"Hate can be a powerful feeling. It covers fear and uncertainty." He thought of the surge of hate that had burned up through him when he'd attacked the Sith lord who had killed Qui-Gon, and closed his eyes against the memory. It burned away any fear he felt, and left him with only madness, no responsibility. There was no future, only the horrible past that required vengeance.
It had been self-destructive and foolish, but that moment of feeling that he held all the destructive power in the galaxy… letting go of that had been one of the most difficult things he had ever done.
He was trying to sort the thought out to explain it to Siri without delving into matters he still considered private when the door slid open.
Anakin stepped inside gingerly. His long robe was pulled closed, and his hood was up, hiding his head entirely. Obi-Wan could only see the very bottom of his chin. Something about it gave Obi-Wan a chill. There was something hidden in Anakin even when he smiled and laughed. But when he wrapped himself in shadows... It could be disconcerting.
"Very inconspicuous, Ani," Siri said cheerfully.
"It must be difficult to see like that," Obi-Wan prodded.
Anakin turned toward him slowly. "Okay," he said. "Don't laugh."
"I won't. I promise. And so does Siri."
Anakin let go of his robe, and Obi-Wan caught a glimpse of bright blue. Then he moved his hands up to the hood, paused, then pushed it back with a single, decisive motion.
His face was red with embarrassment, but Obi-Wan wasn't certain why. It really wasn't that bad. The cosmetologist had extended Anakin's blonde hair down to shoulder length. His padawan braid was folded neatly in half, and looked like a decorative touch of some kind. Obi-Wan was not an expert on youth culture, but he had seen such a hairstyle in one advertisement or another recently. "Why the hesitation?"
"I feel like I should be wearing one of Siri's dresses."
Obi-Wan willed himself not to smile. "I see."
Anakin shucked the robe off the rest of the way, then folded it neatly over the edge of a chair. The outfit was loose fitting silk, made to catch the wind, and Anakin looked acutely uncomfortable in it. Obi-Wan didn't think he'd ever seen his padawan in anything but shades of brown and beige, but now his clothes were irridescent, shimmering, bluer than the sky of the boy's desert planet. The shirt was a light blue, with a long jacket of darker blue draping over it. Silver stitching in odd places simulated "mending" of tears which had not occurred.
"I think it looks fine," Siri said.
"Yeah. Pretty." Anakin ran an uneasy hand over his hair.
"You know," Obi-Wan said, an idea dawning on him, "I think Qui-Gon might have been surprised at that assessment."
It worked. Anakin's eyes widened, going from dejection to delight. "Oh, yeah… I almost forgot… I mean, I didn't forget but… Well, you know."
"I have a box of his things. There are some leather straps and so on that he used to keep his hair out of his face. Would you like them for the duration of this mission?"
"If it's not… you know, disrespectful or anything… "
"I think Qui-Gon would have been quite happy to make the loan. You'll find the box behind my mirror."
Anakin smiled and went into Obi-Wan's private room.
Siri raised an eyebrow. "That was a good strategy."
"I thought it would please him."
"Be careful. Mace will say you're spoiling him."
Obi-Wan went to his door. He could see Anakin from here. Qui-Gon's box was open on the floor, and Anakin had taken out a thin leather band, worn about the forehead to keep the hair still, and put it on. He was standing in front of the mirror, his feet slightly apart, his hands resting easily at his sides. His face had taken on a deliberate expression of thoughtfulness…
It was Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan realized. It was the expression Qui-Gon had worn while watching something that interested him - the expression Anakin had probably seen most in their days of acquaintance. The recognition was both painful and kind. They rarely spoke of Qui-Gon, of the years Obi-Wan had spent with him, or the days that had changed Anakin's life forever.
After awhile, Anakin sensed his presence and turned around, looking embarrassed. Obi-Wan smiled at him and closed the door.
Anakin folded his new clothes carefully into a traveling bag. When he'd seen the boys in the square wearing them, they hadn't seemed quite so…
Well, Mom wouldn't like them.
And they were light. Everything he'd ever worn had either been scratchy or heavy, substantial in some way. With these things, he had to keep glancing down at himself to make sure he was actually wearing something other than air.
He caught sight of his reflection in the mirror behind his sleeping couch and shook his head. If he'd seen himself back in Mos Espa, his thought would have been, "Spoiled rich kid."
The scoot tucked easily into the bag with his clothes, but other than that, he had to be selective with his hobbies. Normally, he wouldn't take any of them along, but if they were to spend time on Malkiri as a normal family, he couldn't very well spend all his spare time meditating and practicing saber drills.
None of the talking droids could come, that was for sure - their security wasn't very good. Maybe the little mech droid he'd found on the sidewalk one morning. Someone had tossed it out the window, but it was in good shape, and he'd just been repairing its -
Obi-Wan was at the door. He was dressed in a non-descript way, in tan leggings and a rust-colored tunic. His lightsaber was visible, but he was carrying a waist-length cape that would presumably cover it up when they got outside.
"I'm sure you'll find a droid to rescue on Malkiri. Right now, we need to move. We're taking a commercial transport, and the schedule is a bit tight."
"Okay." Anakin grabbed his lightsaber and tucked it into a loop he'd made on his cloth belt, then pulled on a knee-length blue jacket with rolled cuffs. "Is Siri ready?"
"She's waiting outside."
"Oh." Anakin slung his bag over his shoulder, then followed Obi-Wan out and locked the door. Siri was standing beside a private transport near the main entrance to the Temple - it would have been foolish to have an air taxi driver remember picking up Jedi in civilian clothes - and the three of them loaded it with their baggage and climbed inside. Obi-Wan flew. Anakin didn't bother to ask. The trip was too short to have much fun, anyway.
The transport was boarding when they got there, and they joined the queue. Siri went in first, their verification chips in her hand.
The steward dropped the chips into the verifier. "Tachi family?" he asked.
"Yes," Siri said. "I am Siri Tachi. This is my husband, Baklee Tachi, and our son."
"A bit young to be parents of such a big boy, aren't you?"
Obi-Wan smiled patiently, and spoke in a low, convincing voice. "There is nothing at all odd about it."
"There's nothing at all odd about it," the steward repeated, looking dazed. "Your son's name?"
There was a blank moment when Anakin realized that, unlike the two of them, he had not yet worked under an assumed name. "Kitster," he said, grabbing for the first friendly name that came to mind. "Well, Kit. Kit Tachi."
"Very well. You may board. Your cabin is portside, aft."
"We need to work on that," Obi-Wan said. "I'd rather not spend the entire mission using mind tricks on the people we run across."
"Why didn't you give Anakin a name?" Siri hissed.
"You didn't bother to ask if I had. And I don't care for using the name I used posing as a slave trader."
"They shortened it for convenience, as it already existed, while they were getting your press papers ready. I didn't choose it."
Anakin shook his head. "We've got names, okay? It's not a disaster. I can be Kit. No problem."
The attempt to stave off an argument was unsuccessful, because Siri and Obi-Wan were not acknowledging that they were arguing. The low-key sniping continued all the way to the cabin, and Anakin left them to it. He had no interest in watching two people he cared about fight one another, and besides, he hadn't ever been on this class of transport before. He grabbed the scoot and went out to explore. A few harsh looks from crew members told him not to attempt to use the scoot, so he just tucked it under his arm to carry.
Care had been taken in the hallways, which were arched prettily and decorated with red and gold accents. Each cabin door was etched with designs. Anakin doubted they'd been hand-produced, but at least some kind of effort had been made. Passenger lounges were set every hundred meters or so, and people were gathered, drinking and watching holoproj programs or vids as the large ship took off. Anakin wandered into one of these, but left quickly when he noticed that two of the girls, both roughly his own age, were him more closely than they were the Twi'lek dancers on the holoproj. That hadn't happened when he wore his Jedi clothes, and he hadn’t made up any way to answer it yet.
The next lounge was full of people older than he was. This wasn't usually a problem; Anakin usually found himself more comfortable with adults than other children. He was quite surprised when they looked at him disdainfully. One Rodian woman, with no attempt at subtlety, picked up her handbag and clutched it to her as though it was about to run away. The holoproj here was set to the news. At first, Anakin was surprised to see that it was news from Malkiri, then he reminded himself that a transport that went to Malkiri was likely to have others on it interested in that news. Zio Shapoi, the accused Jedi, was still being held. The human journalist reported that the government was not forthcoming with the evidence against him.
Anakin watched quietly, trying to look nonchalant and unconcerned, since he guessed that he would draw too much attention if he actually looked interested in the news. He was certainly the only person close to his age watching it at all. But he couldn't make himself leave.
Had Zio Shapoi killed the royal family? If so, why? And if not, why wasn't he escaping? Why hadn't he called for help?
Was he still really a Jedi? Or had he left the path?
The question interested Anakin in a way that wasn't quite academic.
Something moved under Anakin's elbow, and he realized that someone was touching the hoverscoot. He'd forgotten about it entirely. He turned to see the newcomer.
He had expected perhaps a human boy his own age, maybe some other species. What he had not expected, in any way, was a Neimoidian adult.
But that's what he found staring at him. The Neimoidian was only a bit taller than he was, dressed in fashionable green robes. His headpiece was simple, and his smile was passably friendly. "Do they let you ride that in here?" he asked. The longer sentence showed his accent, but it wasn't as pronounced as the Neimoidian accents Anakin had heard on Naboo.
"Um, no. I thought they might, but they don't. And I didn't feel like putting it back."
"Can I see it?" He took it without waiting for an answer. "Really nice. This is the latest model. I sell something like it, but we haven't got this version in yet. Slow transports. Is it as good as they say?"
"I haven't really tried it yet."
The Neimoidian finished inspecting it, then held out one hand in a surprisingly human gesture. "I am Daj Orti," he said. "I have a shop on Malkiri."
"Oh." Anakin didn't know what to make of a friendly Neimoidian who mimicked human behaviors like smiling and shaking hands. He knew that Obi-Wan would say, Act on the facts you see, Anakin, not the assumptions you may hold. It seemed as good advice as any, so he said, "I'm Kit Tachi. My family is going there for awhile." He stopped himself from giving any more details, because he didn’t want to take the chance of getting something wrong, and having to cover for it should he meet Orti later on.
"Oh, it's a nice planet. You'll like it. Come and see me while you're there." Daj Orti handed back the scoot, and disappeared down the corridor.
Anakin watched after him for a moment, then just shook his head. It was probably time to get back to Obi-Wan and Siri.
A datapad slammed down on the table in front of Obi-Wan, then the chair beside him scraped out and Siri sat down in it.
"Details," she said. "Little ones. Like Anakin's name."
"I'd assumed the Council had assigned it, as it assigned mine."
"I made a miscalculation as well, but recriminations are pointless. We've both done what undercover work we have alone, and we need practice working on the same story. No more mistakes."
Obi-Wan nodded. "Very well. The name he chose will do. It belongs to a friend of his from Tatooine, so he is unlikely to forget it."
"Right. Now on the matter of his age… "
"What did the steward mean by that?"
"He means that we are only a bit more than ten years older than Anakin."
"I am fourteen years older than Anakin."
"Is fourteen a typical age for human males to become fathers? Or twelve or thirteen for females to become mothers?"
"But certainly not common, and as you reminded me, our cover story should not invite curious questions. Clearly, our disguises aren't making our ages that vague."
Obi-Wan couldn't think of any argument with this, particularly since it was his own argument she was using. "I am open to suggestions, Siri."
"As much as I know you were looking forward to parading him around and saying, 'This is my son' -"
"Don't be ridiculous."
"- I think it would be better if we used a different familial relationship."
"As long as it remains clear that I am Anakin's guardian."
"I will not challenge you for that when we are alone. But in the outside, we should both appear to be equal guardians. I'll find a way to defer to you, should the need arise."
"That wasn't what I meant, Siri."
"Of course not," she said dryly. "At any rate, I propose to be his joint guardians. I would say that we could jointly be his older siblings, but it is a bit atypical for adult human siblings to set up housekeeping together."
"So I will be his sister. You will be my husband, as planned, and we have raised him since my parents died six years ago."
"I would prefer to be the direct relative."
"Anakin looks more like me."
Again, there was no argument. To Obi-Wan, Anakin and Siri looked nothing alike, but he recognized that their shared coloring, long legs, and slightly rounded features would seem to an outsider to suggest a relationship. "Very well."
The door opened, and Anakin came in, looking considerably more comfortable than he had earlier. He slid into the chair across from Siri and grabbed a piece of fruit from the bowl provided by the transport crew. "I met someone going to Malkiri," he said. "A Neimoidian. His name is Daj Orti."
Obi-Wan exchanged a quick glance with Siri, then leaned forward. "Anakin, what did you tell him of our destination?"
"I said my family is going there for awhile, that's all. I figured once the two of you finished fighting, you'd start working out the details. I didn't want to trip us up."
"He's a natural," Siri said. She explained their discussion up to that point.
Anakin nodded solemnly. "I don't have to talk about our parents dying or anything, do I?"
"No," Obi-Wan said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "If people ask, it would be quite all right for you to say that you don't enjoying talking about it."
Anakin gave him a dubious nod, obviously not reassured. The event Siri had tossed off as a given - parental death - was a place where Anakin was gripped by sheer terror, but he understood the necessity of the change in plans, and the most logical explanation for it. "So, how long have you two been married?" he asked. "Was it before I came into the picture?"
"A good question," Obi-Wan said. "We might have married young, out of University, perhaps."
"And here I was looking forward to being newlyweds." Siri grinned. "I think the longer we can make our marriage without suspicion, the less likely it is that our over-familiarity will be questioned. Or our under-familiarity, for that matter."
"What do you mean?" Anakin asked, then blushed and said, "Oh."
"And while we're on the subject," Obi-Wan put in, "I snore horribly, and that's why you've always insisted on having a separate sleeping chamber."
"He does snore," Anakin added helpfully, then winked. "Anyway, I bet you guys could just say you've known each other since you were kids. Then it wouldn't really matter how long you've been married, right? You'd still have all the same habits you already have, so you wouldn't get tripped up."
"A natural," Siri said again. "And that could mean that the two of you have known one another for Anakin's full life as well."
"Do we like each other?"
Siri shrugged. "I'll leave that up to the two of you."
"My first inclination would be to establish ourselves as a well-adjusted family," Obi-Wan said. "It's far less dramatic and less likely to attract unwanted attention. But as I understand it, somewhat rebellious young people may have an easier time gathering information from their peers."
"Not really." Anakin tossed the pit of his fruit into the disposal unit. "I remember some of them back in Mos Espa. They were slaves, so maybe it's different, but for them… well, mostly they wanted to say things more than hear things. The one who always knew what was going on really was my friend Kitster."
"Well… I guess it was because you never had to prove anything. I mean, he knew about my podracer and my droids and stuff because… well, it never occurred to me to stop talking."
Obi-Wan smiled. "That, Anakin, is a recurring problem that has nothing whatsoever to do with who might or might not be listening."
"That's not true. I'm great at keeping secrets."
"If you decide they need to be kept."
"And that's exactly what I'm saying. If I hadn't kept that stuff secret from Watto, he'd have taken it away and sold it. But it never occurred to me not to tell Kitster, because you just knew he wasn't going to go back to Gardulla's and tell someone in the kitchens. He wasn't out to impress anybody."
Yes, but Anakin… are you capable of even feigning that?
Obi-Wan cut off the thought, hoping it hadn't somehow leaked through their bond. He knew that specific thoughts and words rarely made it through by accident - it took solid effort even when it was deliberate - but it was an ungenerous thought, and it would be, he thought, just his luck for that to be the phrase that made the crossing.
Anakin was looking at him steadily, but didn't look flustered, so he supposed that all he'd picked up was a certain amount of doubt.
"Anakin, before you commit to trying your friend's persona, I must ask you if you can maintain it. You have never been average, in any way."
"I know. It kind of sounds fun."
Obi-Wan glanced over at Siri for support, and she nodded. "I know what Obi-Wan is asking. I was unable to, shall we say, maintain a low profile on our first mission. It drew unwanted attention."
"Precisely," Obi-Wan said.
"Although it did end up getting us where we needed to be."
"Thank you, Siri."
"The point, Anakin, is that once you've committed to that method of gathering information, it will be awkward to change your tactics. Will you be able to maintain it?"
Anakin considered this carefully. "Probably," he said after awhile. "I'll consider it."
Anakin made his way to the viewing lounge long before the ship dropped out of hyperspace. Obi-Wan thought it strange, but he found the starlines soothing. Traveling in hyperspace was the only time he found it easy to meditate. Something about the way time and space were merged and bent, about the way everything seemed to converge, made it feel powerful to him… more powerful than the things that stalked his mind when he meditated in realspace.
He was alone with his thoughts at first, as he tried to find some place in himself that could be considered average. He found plenty that was below average, and he listed those things to himself in Mace Windu's calm and reasoned voice. And he knew where his gifts were. But the things that made him just Anakin, just a boy like any other boy… it was sometimes hard to find those things. And he had to. Maybe not just for the sake of the mission, either.
Normalcy had never been something he'd craved, and he didn't crave it now. He'd always wanted to do something special, something important. That was part of who he was, and he accepted it. But he also knew that it was a liability, and a real weakness. A Jedi did not set out to do important things or special things, only necessary things, so practicing playing a small role…
Well, it had to be good for him.
So, what inside of him was normal? Where was that place?
The ship shuddered, and the starlines disappeared. The pale blue atmosphere of Malkiri glowed in the lower part of the viewport. Ooohsand Ahhs told him that he was no longer alone. He'd felt some others approach while he'd been meditating, but he hadn't realized that he was now standing at the front of a fairly large crowd.
The planet seemed average to him. Oceans, woodlands, plains… He thought he could see a desert area in the northern hemisphere. The transport locked into orbit over one of the dark green areas that Anakin knew from experience would be a forest. Something glittered in the midst of it, and he supposed it was a city.
"Kit!" a female voice called, and Anakin looked up at hearing a familiar name before he remembered he was supposed to be using it. He saw Siri weaving through the crowd. "We're scheduled for the first launch down. Baklee and I are ready to go. Do you have your things ready to disembark?"
Anakin nodded and let her lead him out. "Is Baklee mad?"
"A little impatient."
"I just wanted to see the planet."
"We'll be seeing plenty of it over the next few weeks."
They swept into a corridor, and saw Obi-Wan waiting in a small group in front of a door, their bags at his feet. His arms were crossed over his chest, and he was giving Anakin a critical glance.
"Sorry, Baklee," Anakin said, trying not to adopt the contrite expression of a padawan. "Just watching the planet." He picked up his luggage.
"All right. The launch is about ready to go down." He started to lead Anakin into the hangar, Siri falling in behind them, but Anakin deliberately dragged his feet. Obi-Wan glanced at him in an irritated way. "What?"
Anakin shrugged and made an elaborate show of shifting his bag, and muttered under his breath. "Siri shouldn't be walking behind us. She should be walking with you. It looks funny like this." He couldn't help wincing at the thought of flat-out correcting two knights, so he covered it up with more pointless business. "Sorry. But I'm supposed to -"
"I know. Thank you."
Siri moved up, so that she was at Obi-Wan's left shoulder, while Anakin trailed behind on the right. Anakin had seen families passing by in Mos Espa; he thought they would pass. He smiled to himself. It felt weirdly good.
They were the last on the launch, so they had to squeeze into the three seats beside the door, where there would be no view of the landing, no chance to see the atmospheric burn. Siri spent the time glancing casually at a tourists' brochure that was programmed into the arm of the seat, and Obi-Wan made a show of glancing over her shoulder at it. Anakin caught himself just watching them fondly, decided that wasn’t exactly normal, and turned to fiddling with the hoverscoot instead. He stifled the urge to take it apart, but he couldn't help fixing the alignment of a servomotor on the thrusters.
The launch settled with a jolt that any pilot with two weeks experience could have avoided, then the cabin pressure adjusted and the hatch was popped.
Air flooded the launch, softly perfumed with woodland smells. Anakin hadn't spent much time on green planets, but he loved them, and he decided that Malkiri needed to be saved, for no other reason than that it smelled too good to leave to the bad guys.
"Are you ready?" Obi-Wan asked quietly, leaning forward to gather bags.
Anakin nodded. To his utter shock, Obi-Wan grinned and reached across to mess his overlong hair.
When he raised his voice, he was in his persona. "What, you're getting to big for that, or is the hair just to pretty to mess up?"
"That's low, Baklee." Anakin raised an eyebrow. "Just try that again in a few months when I'm taller than you."
"If you two are finished posturing," Siri said with a weary tone, "I think we should go about our business. There should be an air taxi waiting for us outside. Baklee, my love, would you mind getting my bag?" She smiled sweetly, then headed out.
Obi-Wan picked up her bag and his own, then Anakin followed him outside. It was a gray and misty day, and a comfortably moist breeze was blowing. The trees surrounding the spaceport were tall and thin. Anakin thought they were evergreens, but he wasn't sure. They were the source of the wonderful scent.
Siri waved them over to the edge of the platform, where an air taxi was hovering. They tossed their bags inside, and Siri leaned forward to speak to the driver.
"Really a lovely world," she said enthusiastically. "My husband is here to report on the trial of Zio Shapoi -"
"Hmmmph," the driver snorted. "I got a trial for that falernash." He shook his fist. "Let's see if he can duck this."
Given that half-bright eight-year-old in the Temple crèche could have ducked that fist, Anakin didn't think Shapoi needed to worry too much.
"At any rate," Obi-Wan said quickly, "we will be here for some time. My wife has arranged for a house, I believe?"
"Oh, yes," Siri said. She slipped a chip into the driver's hand. "I believe it's in the center of town."
The driver looked at the address. "Nice neighborhood. Lotsa kids. Your boy will like it." His gaze in the rearview mirror switched to Anakin. "How old are you, son?"
"Almost fourteen," Anakin answered automatically.
"Will you be going to school while you're here?"
"Of course he will," Siri said. "My brother will not fall behind in his education."
"Well, I can swing you right by on the way to your house," the driver said. "I'd have to pass it anyway. You'll like it. What's your best subject?"
"In school, what do you like?" He wheezed a laugh. "Or, well, like my nephew says, what you hate least?"
Anakin hadn't considered that question. Generally, his favorite subject was always whatever he was studying at that moment. He gathered that this wouldn't be marked as "normal," so he just said, "I don't know."
"Must be something. Math? Science? Art? Music? What kind of kid are you?"
"Just normal." Since the driver apparently didn't want to give this up, he offered, "I like building things."
"Oh, they've got a shop for you to do that in. Nice shop."
"Marvelous," Obi-Wan said dryly.
The air taxi slowed and descended. "Here it is," he said. "Have a look. Looks like recess right now."
Anakin looked down at the school from a height of about twenty yards as the driver circled it self-importantly. The yard was crowded with children, more than Anakin was used to seeing. Some were playing a team sport of some kind, others were on hoverscoots similar to the one Anakin was carrying. The ages ranged from early childhood to near adulthood.
His attention was drawn to a gang of boys at the edge of the yard, near the forcefield that enclosed it. He could hear them over the static, catcalling. Several of them had stones in their hands. The group shifted, and he saw another boy - the same age, but smaller and thinner - with a brown blanket of some kind draped over him. One of the bigger boys tossed him a stick. Anakin kept his eye on this group as the circling continued.
The boy in the brown blanket looked very disappointed. He took a half-hearted swipe at one of the others, and Anakin realized dimly that he was playing Jedi. Anakin himself had done so in Mos Espa, during rare playtimes, but he was always the hero leading all the others. This boy was chasing the others, who suddenly turned on him.
"Try to mind trick us!" someone yelled.
Anakin couldn't hear what came next, but he saw the small boy wave his hand dramatically, and the others all laughed at him heartily. A stone flew. The boy hit it with the stick.
Then someone shouted, "Get the Jedi!" and they all rushed in on him. Anakin could no longer see him, but he saw the stick pulled away and broken over someone's knee.
"That's a bit rough, isn't it?" Siri asked, her voice tight.
"Ah, high-spirited kids," the driver said. I wouldn't worry about it. They won't really hurt him."
The crowd drew away again, laughing, and the small boy was left alone. He pulled off the blanket and threw it in a mud puddle.
As the driver pulled away, presumably headed for the house Siri had rented, Anakin looked over his shoulder and watched the boy deliberately stamp the blanket into the mud.
Anakin was visibly shaken from the scene at the school, but it was Siri who Obi-Wan was concerned about. Her face was perfectly composed, but her fingers were clasped on her small handbag like vices, and they looked tense and brittle enough to just snap off.
Anakin caught his eye, and glanced down at Siri's hand. He had noticed it as well. Obi-Wan nodded.
Anakin's jaw tightened, and he nodded slightly at Siri's hands, then at Obi-Wan's.
When the thought hit him, it was like a direct blaster hit. She's your wife. Comfort her.
Obi-Wan winced; it had almost hurt, it was so loud. But he got the point. He covered Siri's hands with his own, which had the added benefit of hiding them from any curious glance the driver might throw back, and said, "Don't worry, Siri. I'm sure Kit will be fine at school. He knows better than to get into unnecessarily rough games." He raised an eyebrow significantly at Anakin for that particular directive, and was rewarded with rolled eyes.
Siri managed a vacant smile. "It just seems so… mean-spirited."
The driver shrugged elaborately. "It's not like they're pretending to chase someone helpless. Just makes 'em feel better, to play at being stronger than the Jedi. Just in case they come here."
"Is that a common fear?" Obi-Wan asked.
"You asking me for the news?"
"Well, they're always sticking their noses in where they don't belong" - Anakin snorted loudly at this, since he'd spent a good part of the last four years resentful at what he considered a deplorable apathy toward any cause they hadn't been assigned to, but the driver either didn't notice it or thought it was an agreement - "so, yeah. I guess we figure they probably didn't mind too much when Shapoi decided it was time to change our government."
"Why'd he want to change it?" Anakin asked, keeping his voice innocently curious.
"There's some elements around here. Nasty folk. His parents were always like that. Agitating. And then he came to see 'em, and next thing we know… " He shook his head. "Shame. The little princes were cute as Derindian eri-bugs."
Siri gave Obi-Wan's hand a squeeze, and she smiled in a way that was reassuring and gratifying. She'd gotten her bearings again. He let go. She slipped into a soft, cultured tone, and addressed the driver. "It certainly is a tragedy. What were they agitating about?"
"Strange ideas. Said the king shouldn't be inviting in outsiders, like it's any of their business what how the king decides to run things. That's why he's king and they're not, am I right?"
Siri nodded. Obi-Wan could see her mind working now, re-creating the persona they'd discussed, building it on this new information. He hoped she wasn't going to do anything too difficult to follow up. "Of course you're right," she said. "This sort of business, with just anyone running things… it's not civilized. It's like living in the Outer Rim."
"You said it! I can tell by the way you folks talk that you're high class people. I knew you'd understand. Oh. Here we are." He lowered the air taxi into a nondescript neighborhood full of large, pyramid-shaped houses. They landed in front of one in the middle of the block. It was a cool green, and the sides glowed a light blue. The house next door had a yellowish tint. "Nice place," the driver said. He held his hand out unapologetically, and Siri pressed several credits into it.
They took their bags and left the taxi. It steered off into the night. Anakin watched it, shaking his head. To Obi-Wan's surprise, his only comment was, "Nice to know that I'm obviously high class."
"The highest," Siri said. "I clearly married down."
Obi-Wan ignored this. "Shall we go in?"
"Yeah." Anakin looked at the house, apparently really taking it in for the first time. "This is rugged," he said. "Really big. I bet it's great inside. You have the code, Siri?"
"It's a chip," she said, tossing it to him. "Enjoy yourself."
Anakin went inside looking honestly delighted.
"Thank you," Siri said quietly when he went was inside. "I was upset."
"That's my job, madam" Obi-Wan told her, then put a hand on her shoulder for show and led her inside.
The entrance hall was huge, and sloped all the way up to the pointed windows at the top of the pyramid. Anakin had already disappeared up the stairs. Obi-Wan could hear him opening doors.
Siri shut the main door, closing them away from the rest of Malkiri, then leaned against the wall, breathing deeply. She drew a small device from her handbag, activated it, and observed a series of lights. "No unauthorized surveillance," she said.
"A present from Adi. I used it on Krayn's ship any time I needed to send a message."
"The incident at the school… "
"It surprised me," she said.
"It shouldn't have. I knew it was here. But the children… why would the children behave that way?"
"I don't know."
Anakin appeared at the top of the stairs, saw the expression on Siri's face, and immediately came down. He sat on the third step and looked at her steadily. "So what are we going to do?"
It was Anakin's all-purpose, Okay, we've sat around long enough statement, and Obi-Wan smiled at it. He knew the answer Anakin expected, and he gave it. "We shall be patient."
Siri was outside of that interaction, and didn't notice it. "They don't hate us for anything we've done. They hate us simply for being Jedi."
"Are you sure?" Anakin asked. "Maybe Shapoi -"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "Even if Shapoi came down here with his lightsaber and killed everyone but our taxi driver, he would certainly not have been doing so with the authority of the Jedi, nor would he be doing so as a Jedi. This sort of reaction is completely irrational."
"Yes, but he could have started it," Siri said. "And if he did, I will personally -"
"Oh, all right. I will personally arrest him and bring him back to the Council for trial."
"Brutal," Anakin commented. "Do you guys think he did it?"
"I didn't at first," Obi-Wan said. "But if his birth family is involved in some sort of political resistance, then perhaps, in the rush of seeing them again -"
Anakin let out an explosive breath. "Is there any blood relation you actually trust?"
"That is not what I mean."
"Then what -"
Siri waved a hand at them sharply. "This is a pointless debate. Anakin, you are right that we are perhaps unduly suspicious, but you ought to be the first to acknowledge that we're talking about a potentially powerful bond."
"And that is all I meant by it," Obi-Wan said.
Anakin sighed and shrugged. "All right."
"At any rate," she said, "what is happening here is not new. Yoda was right. If Shapoi did it, the normal reaction would be shock that a Jedi would do such a thing, because it is simply not what we do."
"Exactly, Obi-Wan. We are dealing with people who are not operating on basis of reality."
"It could just be some weird way they reacted," Anakin suggested uncomfortably.
Obi-Wan frowned. There was something in Anakin's reaction that he disliked, but he couldn't put a finger on it. "It takes time to build a delusional system."
"But we haven't seen much yet."
"We've seen children incorporating it into their imaginary play, and we have heard a grown man make casual accusations as though they were accepted fact. It may not be pervasive of the entire culture, but I think we need to understand the nature of what we are seeing. It is not uncommon, and it's developed enough that people feel little need to explain it."
"And there is nothing particular we can do about it," Siri said. "That's the difficult part."
Anakin stood up, looking disgusted. "Maybe if we really did stick our noses in more often -"
But he had no opportunity to finish his thought (not that it was a new one to Obi-Wan or Siri), because the lighting along the wall suddenly flashed in a rapid pattern, and a five-tone bell sounded.
Siri was still nearest the door, and she glanced at the monitor. "We have a visitor," she said.
She moved away from the monitor. It showed a grainy image of a Neimoidian woman, holding a metal tin. She waved up at the camera above the door. "I'm your neighbor," she called up, holding the tin toward the lens. "I brought dinner!"
Obi-Wan was nonplused, and it looked like Siri felt the same. They both looked to Anakin.
"She's just welcoming us to the neighborhood," he said in a bored tone that would serve him well in portraying a normal child. "My mom did that a lot when new people came. She's probably just trying to be friendly."
"No. Just pretty sure."
"It would look strange not to respond," Siri said.
"Well, then. I guess it's time to meet the neighbors."
Neither Obi-Wan nor Siri seemed in a rush to open the door, so Anakin got up from his stair and did it himself, reminding himself of Mom's directive to always welcome a guest with a smile.
The Neimoidian woman attempted a smile. Unlike Daj Orti on board the transport, she had clearly not mastered this human expression, but she was trying. That she succeeded only in making her upper lip curl uncomfortably over her oddly shaped teeth wasn't the point. When she spoke, her accent was even more pronounced than Nute Gunray's had been. "I am Thama Bercha," she said. "I live next door. May I have the pleasure of making your fine acquaintance?"
"Come on in," Anakin said with a shrug. He'd felt his guard go up right away when he'd first seen her, but he cursed himself for it and covered it with a kind of bored hospitality. Just because she was Neimoidian didn't mean she was a spy. He took the small tin she was carrying. Some good smell was wafting up from it. He'd read that Neimoidians only ate fungi and molds and thought it sounded gross, but then again, there were plenty of good things made with fungi and molds, like mushrooms and cheeses. It sounded bad, but maybe it really wasn't.
Obi-Wan came forward. "I am Baklee Tachi," he said, then presented Siri. "This is my wife, Siri. And you have already made the acquaintance of our charge, Siri's brother Kit."
Thama Bercha dipped her head in a brief nod. "I have not been here long myself," she confided. "My lord Ilb is a trader in woodwork. There is much fine wood on Malkiri."
Anakin wondered idly if there would be time to find some of it and carve something. He had not done so since he'd finished the pendant he'd made for Padmé. She had been kind enough to wear that during the time he'd been in Theed. He thought he might like to make her something better and send it along. A Queen shouldn't have to be seen wearing a nine-year-old's tinkering.
Of course, she'd probably stopped wearing it, and the Council wouldn't let him send anything new, but it was a nice daydream.
"My husband is covering the trial." Siri had taken Thama's coat and hung it in a small closet by the door. She smiled in a winning way. "Madam Bercha," she said, "I'm afraid I don't know my way around the house yet. We'd been talking here in the entrance since we came inside."
Thama laughed. "Oh, yes. Don't worry. All the houses here are the same. I will show you the kitchen." She moved in front of Siri and led them into the darkened rooms, which lit up by motion sensors as they moved through. The kitchen was in a back corner. Its slanted wall was entirely transparisteel, and looked out on a large, sloping yard. A stream and a small fence marked the end of the property. Beyond it, Anakin could see several people - Neimoidian and human - moving around.
This was easily the best house Anakin had seen, save for Theed Palace.
"What's over there?" he asked, looking down the yard. "Someplace to shop?"
Thama craned her neck to see what he was looking at, then shook her head fondly. "No, that is the home of a local friend to the children. I don't remember his name. My husband and I do not have children to play there." She took the tin from Siri. "This will warm slowly," she said. "It is Neimoidian. I don't know much Malkiri cooking yet, but I will learn. We could perhaps talk while it heats? Most wives among the houses here speak to one another."
"Well," Obi-Wan said, "I'm sure that Siri will want to be part of your group. She's always been very sociable."
"We would be honored. She is very pretty and very nice."
"Thank you," Siri managed. "Would you care to sit down? I'm sure Baklee would enjoy staying with us as well. After all, we're both new here."
"Your… husband… would care to speak with me?" Thama's eyes widened. "Truly?"
Obi-Wan pulled out a chair for her. "If such a conversation would not be offensive to you," he said. "I realize that human and Neimoidian customs differ somewhat, and neither Siri nor I would want to make you uncomfortable in any way."
Thama sat down, her face darkening to a deep blue. Her lips worked in an attempted smile, and she stumbled for something to say.
And Obi-Wan thinks I flirt?
"I would be… quite honored," Thama said. "Quite, quite honored, if your husband does not find it too low, to speak to a woman not his wife."
"Not at all," Obi-Wan said easily. "There are many things I would like to know, and a fellow newcomer might be able to tell me things I haven't realized I need to know. But I think Kit might be a bit bored by all this adult talk. Would it bother you if he went to meet the other young people? I think he wants to." Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow at Anakin, both asking if he was right and suggesting that he should be.
Anakin nodded. "Yeah, sure, Baklee. I'll grab my scoot."
"Be careful," Siri said. "Those things are dangerous."
"Oh, you know how careful I am, Siri." Anakin smiled widely.
"That's what I mean."
Listening to the stilted beginnings of the adult conversation, Anakin was glad of a chance to escape it. He grabbed the hoverscoot and went outside.
The device was simple enough to operate. Its thrusters were pressure sensitive, and it was just a question of using shifts in body weight to steer. Sensors attached themselves to the rider's feet in a configuration that served the secondary purpose of helping secure the footing.
Anakin placed his feet on the scoot and started it, taking a few practice swoops across the back porch to get a feel for it. Simple. It would take a little bit of practice to judge exactly what the pressure points were, but he didn't think he'd be taking any spills. He guided it down the stairs and across the lawn. Grass was too soft to really get any speed over, but it did give him an opportunity to practice rises and dives, and by the time he got to the back fence, he was able to swing himself over it with no difficulty. To add a bit of challenge, he drew himself up into a ball and flipped over in midair. Before he straightened, he pushed his legs out and repelled against a tree, sending himself into a wider arc.
The scoot picked up speed, and Anakin went with it, pushing the edge of the arc and shifting his weight to pull himself upright again. He laughed for the sheer pleasure of it.
Someone was clapping.
He slowed his movement and turned toward the sound.
A small group of children was gathered on the grass watching him. The biggest was a girl; she was clapping enthusiastically.
Not exactly average, he chided himself. But he hadn't really been doing anything any more complicated than the boys on Coruscant had been doing, and these kids didn't know that he'd never tried this particular amusement before. He decided it would be best to play along, though he'd need to remember not to improve too quickly. He bowed expansively and leapt off the scoot with a dramatic flourish.
He felt like a bantha's backside, so he supposed he was doing something right.
The girl - human, with hair exactly the color of wet sand - clapped again. "Are you new?" she asked enthusiastically. "I'm Sephi Liss. And this is Lyclar Nez" - she pulled a Neimoidian girl forward - "and my sister Chary" - she produced a smaller human girl, with blond hair and blue eyes. "We were watching you."
"I'm Kit. Kit Tachi." He picked up the scoot. "I just moved into the house uphill. Is this where you live?"
They giggled, for no reason Anakin could guess at - it had seemed like a normal question to him. Lyclar, the Neimoidian girl, finished the giggle first. Anakin took her in. He had never seen a Neimoidian child before. There was something vaguely larval about them, but, like the food, they weren't as gross as they'd sounded when he'd read about their life cycle. "No," she said. "Sephi and Chary live uphill, too, and I live next door to them. This is his place," she said, pointing beyond the area beside the fence.
An adult Neimoidian was bending over a speeder bike, making adjustment to the stabilizer while a human boy Anakin's own age looked on in a concerned way. As Anakin looked over, the man straightened up and caught sight of the group by the fence. He waved enthusiastically, his hydrospanner catching the murky light.
It was Daj Orti.
Anakin waved back. Maybe he could get some information out of this.
Obi-Wan could see Anakin from the back window, first going back and forth across the porch, then flying gracefully over the lawn. He was amused to find himself half-expecting a spill and worrying about it, though he knew that this was child's play to Anakin. It was something about that big window - it was built for worry-prone parents, and it did its job well.
But he didn't dare let his attention wander too much from Thama Bercha. She already suspected that he didn't wish to share her company, and it would be rude to confirm the suspicion. He didn't dislike her. She wasn't the sort of person he would choose to associate with over shared interests, because as far as he could tell, there were none, but she seemed friendly and good-natured.
Siri had found that someone had kindly stocked the cupboards with basic supplies, and had made all of them mugs of hot tainleaf tea. She was actually jumping into her role with a zeal that disturbed Obi-Wan, reminding him of seeing her for the first time in her fierce pirate's garb. She had convinced him then, and he should have known better.
"It's really so very good to get away from Coruscant," she was saying, stirring her tea. "I worry about Kit, never seeing nature. And of course, all the political intrigue… that can't be healthy. Though Baklee wouldn't have much of a career without it!" She finished with a wink.
"Indeed," Obi-Wan agreed, not sure where she was going and not wanting to impede her. "And I don't think it harms him to see how the galaxy works."
"Or doesn't work," Siri scoffed. "Come now, Baklee, even you must admit that the Senate has become corrupt and thoroughly inconsistent. The new Chancellor tries, but… "
"But it is too late!" Thama interjected. "You have seen this, you remember how the girl queen and the Jedi turned the Senate against a perfectly legal protest!"
"Well," Obi-Wan said, "there was the matter of the invasion of Theed… "
There was a sharp pain in his foot as Siri stomped on it, smiling serenely as she did so.
"There is no proof of such thing!" Thama said, her voice emphatic. "It was a dirty lie told by a little girl and a Jedi. The Jedi used their mind tricks to convince the Senate, you know. The Naboo hate the Neimoidians."
"Why do you suppose that is?" Siri asked her, sounding perfectly innocent. Obi-Wan didn't trust his own voice.
"They don't even like the others on their own world. They hate anyone who is not Naboo."
"But the Gungans sided with the Naboo - " He felt Siri's foot move again, and moved his own before she could strike.
"Jedi brainwashing," Thama sniffed. "The Federation obeys the law, and does nothing without approval from the Senate. It was not fair for them to withdraw such permission."
"Of course not," Siri said, in a comforting voice. "Baklee, didn't I say at the time that something seemed to be very wrong there?"
Siri had, in fact, said something of the sort. It had been in reference to the Sith warrior who had murdered Qui-Gon, and the strange behavior of Nute Gunray under questioning, but she had said it. "Yes, you did. You spoke of it at length."
"Well, things are very different here," Thama said, obviously at least partly mollified. "You can see that we get along very nicely. The children play together, and we are all friends here in this neighborhood. We are neighbors here," she finished with a touch of pride.
The pride had some justification. It was an unusual setup. For such a recent integration, the Neimoidians and humans on Malkiri seemed to get along remarkably well, though Siri's old acquaintance seemed to suggest that there were tensions under the surface. But what was the secret? How had the tensions been transferred? And why to the Jedi, of all people?
"The Federation was invited here by the monarchy, wasn't it?" Siri asked.
"Yes. King Rithnati was a generous man, and many of our people have been made wealthy here, and we have brought wealth to Malkiri."
"That's what I'd heard," Siri said. "I didn't believe it when someone told me he'd been blocking trade agreements."
"Oh, he had started to. There are people here… the Jedi's family, you know. They didn't like us. The king was pushed to respond to them."
"Who knows?" Thama said, though her voice said that she had some very definite ideas, all of which were pronounced, "mind trick." Obi-Wan considered challenging her to explain why Shapoi would have both mind-tricked the king and killed him, but Siri was clearly trying to work her way into this odd mindset, and it could prove useful to do so. He held his tongue, and went back to looking out the window. Anakin was now over the fence and talking to three girls. Judging by their body language, they were quite taken with him.
Obi-Wan decided that he needed to have a lengthy talk with his padawan at some point in the near future.
There was a soft bell, and the motion of lights caught Obi-Wan's eye. A plastic tube that was wrapped decoratively around Thama's wrist was swirling with red and gold light. It was emitting the sound. "Oh, dear," Thama said. "I really must be going. That's my lord, and he seems to be home early."
"Oh, but he would be welcome to come eat with us… " Siri said.
Thama was already getting up and reaching for the overcloak she had removed. "No, no… I will come for the dish tomorrow and we can speak more. I enjoy you and think we shall be great friends. I hope you enjoy the stew." Her eyes shifted to Baklee. "I am honored to have spoken with Sir, and hope he also finds the food and the world to his liking." But her voice was a bit colder on that.
She started to scurry out, and Siri had to jump to her feet to walk her to the door. Obi-Wan heard her call out, "I'll see you tomorrow, Thama!" then the door shut, and they were alone.
When Siri came back to the kitchen, her hands were on her hips. "We are trying to fit in, Obi-Wan. We want to know what they think. They will not be open if they think we're in on the grand conspiracy."
"You have already shown her that you disagree. I will need to have the freedom of an objective viewpoint to function in the press."
"Or you may have limited your access, if word gets out."
"Siri, you weren't on Naboo. You didn't see what the Federation did to them, to the world. And you didn't see the -"
"The Sith lord. I know. I am not stupid, Obi-Wan, and I know where your mind is. Tell me what you sense here. Do you sense the Sith?"
"I sense anger, and fear. Baseless hatred. Certainly things I associate with the Sith."
"But I sense no locus for it, no point for it to emanate from," Siri said. "I don't think they're here."
"They don't have to be here. I just want to know if they're involved."
Siri frowned and sat down, steepling her fingers in front of her chin. "If they are, Obi-Wan… I think they are newcomers. And I think this hatred predates them."
"On what grounds?'
"The conclusions were simply leapt to - Thama is not the first Neimoidian I've heard advance the theory that we manipulated the truth on Naboo. And the anti-Jedi sentiment on Malkiri… how shall I put this?"
"It's being used, not created."
"Yes, that's exactly it. And that's what puzzles me. That the Sith or the Federation would manipulate the populace is hardly surprising. But why should they have hated us in the first place? We were never even here, except when his parents called us to test him."
Obi-Wan went to the window and looked out across the darkening lawn toward where Anakin and the other children were playing. He now appeared to have joined another group. There were no fights going on at the moment, but if one started…
Obi-Wan shook his head. Anakin knew better than to get into pointless fights. Unfortunately, knowing better didn’t always stop him from doing it anyway.
Siri came and stood beside him. "You should go down to the courthouse first thing tomorrow. See if you can find Shapoi. And a good escape route."
"That won't help our standing here, if we help one of our own escape trial."
Siri closed her eyes. "I don't know if there's anything we can do about our standing here. And Yoda did say that teaching was not our mission. And I'd like to get home as soon as we can."
Obi-Wan smiled at her. "Back to the lack of nature and the terrible political intrigue? That can't be healthy."
She opened her eyes and returned his smile in a tired way. "Well, we don't have much of a career without it."
Thama Bercha hadn't been lying… Daj Orti really was a friend to what seemed like every child on Malkiri. Aside from the three girls he'd spoken to and the boy whose speeder bike was being repaired, Anakin guessed that there were at least fifteen kids over for long stays, and others occasionally flew by and shouted greetings. Daj asked after merchandise he'd apparently sold them, and if any problems were reported, he called out, "Bring it to my shop! I'll fix that, no charge!"
Watto would have keeled over dead if he'd seen all the free service Daj Orti gave out. And Daj did it himself, rather than assigning it to a nine-year-old slave.
It occurred to Anakin that he might ask Daj for a job - it would be good to have a little income - but he decided to ask Obi-Wan first. It might not be normal. And it might not be allowed.
"You're very good on that scoot, Kit," Daj said, coming over and perching himself on a low wall. The long Neimoidian robes seemed unsuited to the casual pose. "Is it better than the last model?"
"Hmmm?" Anakin swooped back and forth. "I don't know. I mean, it's pretty good."
"That's a new model. You didn't have an older one?"
"Well, I… "
"Because if that was the first time you've flown… "
That struck Anakin as genuinely funny, and he laughed. "No, it's not the first time I've flown. It's a good model," he said. "Nice response. I had to adjust a servomotor, though."
"Yes, that's shipping damage. I have spoken with the company, but they claim it is unavoidable. I unpack the scoots when they come and make the adjustment before I put them out."
Anakin wanted to start talking about the scoot, and Daj's shop, and engines and thrusters, but he stopped himself. The servomotor he could pass off as being well-educated about a hobby, but if he wandered off on a tangent and started talking about taking machines apart or building new components from junk…
Well, that would bring up questions about how a nice, well-bred boy from Coruscant happened to have spent his childhood.
"So, you are enjoying Malkiri?" Daj asked.
"I only just got here. Smells good, though."
Daj took a deep sniff of the air, leaning his head back and letting the center of his face swell a bit. "You're right. I hadn't noticed. It does smell pleasant." His head turned, and he suddenly stood up from the wall. "Hey, boys!"
Anakin followed his gaze. Groups of four or five children each were playing at various toys on the lawn, tumbling down toward the tree line. There, at the bottom of the yard, a larger group of boys was playing at some game. Many had picked up branches, and a smaller boy was crouched in the middle of the group. Anakin couldn't tell whether or not it was the same game that he'd seen at the school.
"What are you doing? I told you, no rough stuff here."
One of the human boys turned and gave him a good-natured smile. "Oh, we're not hurting him."
"Yeah," the little one who'd been the focus of the rough play called. "I'm okay."
"I don't want your parents saying you can't visit. Or shop."
"They don't mind."
"Sure. Hey, who's the new guy?"
"This is Kit." He shoved Anakin forward playfully. "You'll like him."
Anakin hadn't decided how to approach them yet, but he knew he wasn't here to talk to Daj and listen to the girls giggle. He was supposed to be getting on the inside.
He started to do an elaborate routine on the scoot, then changed his mind. If he wanted them to talk to him as freely as he talked to Kitster, he couldn't afford to get into competitions with them. So he just looped a little, and finally kicked off the scoot and tucked it into a pocket he'd discovered in the jacket that was made for the purpose. "Hey," he said.
The smallest boy waved. The others just looked at him frankly. The one who'd spoken to Daj appeared to be the leader, or anyway, the one the others all looked at for a cue. Anakin observed their poses and adopted a similar one, with an uncomfortable smile on his face. The temptation to start talking was strong, but he managed to check it. Obi-Wan would be proud.
The head boy came over. He was dressed much as Anakin was, though the silks weren't as bright. "I'm Tomik Cral. Can I see that thing? That's the new one, right?"
Anakin pulled the scoot out of his jacket and handed it over, willing himself not to fight against it. Kitster always handed him whatever he asked for. He hoped that it hadn't felt quite this bad, and guessed that Kitster wouldn't have gone along with it so often if it had.
Tomik put himself on the scoot, flew for a few meters (to Anakin's relief, he wasn't a clumsy oaf likely to break it - he did seem to know what he was doing), then hopped off. "Great. They fixed that problem with the balance." He examined it. "Thanks, man. I gotta get one. Hey, Daj, when are you getting these?"
"You've been saying that for three months!"
"Is shipping slow out here?" Anakin asked.
"Where are you used to?"
The group got quiet. "Really?" the smallest one asked. "You're actually from Coruscant?"
"That's gotta be really rugged, with all the -"
"Aw, shut up, Brinje."
"No, it's okay," Anakin said. "Really, Brinje, you can ask me anything you want."
Tomik glared at him.
Oops. Challenged him. Didn't mean to do that.
Brinje glanced around among the bigger boys, seemed to draw a conclusion, and backed away. "I, um, ought to get home." He backed a few more steps then turned and ran into the woods.
Tomik rolled his eyes, and handed the scoot back to Anakin. "What a little Force-fart," he muttered after Brinje.
Anakin had no idea what to say to that, which, he reflected, was probably just as well if he was going to stay in his persona.
Tomik shrugged. "Anyway, yeah, if you're used to being on Coruscant, it takes awhile for stuff to get here. But mostly it's not bad."
"At least you don't have to worry about the Temple eunuchs," a Neimoidian boy snorted. "Is it true they grab kids off the street in Coruscant and brainwash them?"
What, and help a kid who needs them for no reason, without so much as a thousand year old prophecy to influence the decision?
"No," Anakin said, then remembered that he was supposed to be getting information about this. "Well, I never heard of it, anyway. Where'd you hear that?"
"Everyone knows it," Tomik said, surprised. "That's how they get new people. They just steal them."
"Yeah!" An enthusiastic female voice joined in, and Anakin saw Sephi on the edges of the group. "I heard they take babies, right away from their mothers."
"And never let them come home!" Lyclar said behind her.
Their voices stabbed Anakin through the chest, cutting off his breath in a harsh and painful gasp. Mom's face rose up in his mind, and the stern faces of the Council. No, Anakin, you may not return to Tatooine. No, Anakin, you may not write. No. No. No…
"You okay, man?" Tomik asked. He looked honestly concerned.
Stop it. You can't do this, you can't feel this, not right now. You're not Anakin Skywalker. You're Kit Tachi, and your guardians are only a handful of meters away. He covered the gasp with a cough and said, "Sorry. Breathed wrong." He pulled Kit Tachi around him like a long cloak, and the pain dulled. His breath came more easily. "I thought Sha - Well, that one who killed the king and stuff… I thought he was here visiting his parents."
"Yeah, but he was a grown-up, and it was the first time he ever came back… "
They went on talking about the case, and Anakin absorbed what he could, falling into Kit's quiet mode of listening. That was the secret, then… just sit back, and let the persona do the work.
As far as he could tell, the idea they had about Shapoi (the fact that it was formless and illogical seemed not to bother them) was that he had been wandering around looking for someplace to maneuver into a position of power, and he had stumbled across his dissident parents and decided to take up their cause, so that he could control Malkiri. He didn't really care about Malkiri, of course, or about his parents - it was agreed that such things were trained out of Jedi at a young age - but they didn't care about Malkiri either, or about their son, or they wouldn't have let him go with the Jedi in the first place
(not true, never true)
and besides, maybe they'd planned it all along.
Half of their beliefs contradicted the other half, and Anakin still had no idea why they had started believing them, but apparently, once they'd accepted the idea that the Jedi were capable of anything, such minor problems were easily surmountable.
Sometime while they were talking, the sun went down. Daj came over to shoo them home - "Before your parents start thinking I stole you" - and they left in a clump. Anakin found a place three or four people behind Tomik. They went around Daj's house and up the hill along a moving walkway. The girls went on across the street where Anakin lived, and two boys turned left while Anakin and the others turned right. By the time they reached the house Siri had rented, they'd lost another, but there was still a group of seven or eight. Anakin turned up toward his door.
"So, we'll see you in school tomorrow, Kit?" Tomik called after him.
"Sure," Anakin said blandly. He went inside.
Obi-Wan was sitting in the parlor, watching him with a smile. He looked strange somehow, like he was behind a curtain. "Looks like you made a few friends already," he said. His voice sounded a little off as well. "You're much better at this than I am."
Anakin nodded. The kitchen lights had come on, and they were very bright. "Sure. Thanks. I have to get cleaned up before we meditate. We're meditating, right?"
Obi-Wan stood up, the smile fading. "Anakin, are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I just want to get cleaned up."
Anakin didn't look at him as he went up the stairs. Of course he was all right. He'd just been talking to people and playing his part. It made him tired, that was all. Tired and a little numb, like he'd been sitting in the suns at true noon.
He grabbed his plain pajamas, then went to the 'fresher to peel Kit off for the evening.
Obi-Wan watched Anakin go up the stairs, not certain why he was worried. Oh, true, it was odd that Anakin asked to meditate - Anakin avoided meditation whenever he was allowed to get away with it - but that was just something on the surface.
He was distant.
That was essence of the problem. Anakin's presence in the Force was usually vibrant to the point of being distracting to any sensitive in the vicinity, but tonight, that presence was muted, coming through with the distorted quality of sound traveling under deep water.
Concentrating on his padawan, he hadn't noticed Siri's approach. She was frowning. "I sense some worry."
"Anakin was acting oddly when he came in."
"I will take that to mean you have a theory?"
She shrugged, then sat down on the deep window seat that looked out over the front lawn. She pasted a smile on her face (the neighbors could see her there), and said, "Did he look like he'd been in a fight?"
"Do you suppose the children think differently from Thama Bercha, or that they are more tactful about it?"
She stretched and tossed her hair flirtatiously. "And you know Anakin. How deep did he have to make his cover to avoid responding to it as Anakin - by taking a swing at someone?"
"That's not fair, Siri. Anakin resorts to fighting sooner than I would like but -"
"And when he does not resort to fighting, he has fought a hard battle with himself and won. And he fights that battle because he wants to please you." She turned off the light, and her face took on its normal, settled look. "To not defend the Jedi in general and you in particular, if the children were being cruel, must have taken a real effort for him."
"I'm glad to be in the company of such an expert on my padawan."
"It's a guess. Do you think it's wrong?"
"I don't know."
"I guessed it because it's how I felt when I began my assignment with Krayn. The temptation to get out my lightsaber and cut his miserable head off was hard to fight. And I was considerably older than Anakin, and somewhat more levelheaded."
Obi-Wan thought the second was debatable, but he didn't want to spend time having an argument with Siri. He turned away from her. "Well, I thank you for your insight, Siri."
"I will take that to mean that you have a theory of your own?"
"No. No theories." He glanced over his shoulder at her. Standing in the shadows of the alcove, he could clearly see only the bluish white glow of the stars reflecting in her hair, looking like an aura. Something about it gave him a foreboding chill. "I'll check on him, Siri. And I do thank you for sharing your experience. I didn't intend that to come out… sharply."
"Yes, you did." She turned and sat down again without turning on the light, and looked quietly out over the neighborhood.
Obi-Wan left her there and went upstairs to check on Anakin.
The boy was already in his room, but the door was open, and Obi-Wan went inside. Anakin was sitting on his own window seat in an unknowing mimicry, but unlike Siri, he smiled when Obi-Wan came in. He'd obviously been trying to meditate on his own, but hadn't gotten very far. His presence was as it had always been, as though someone had pulled it up from the swamp it had seemed to have sunk into when he came in, and dried it off, leaving him open and clear. He had tied back his hair and unfolded his padawan braid to its full length (it was on the room side, but Obi-Wan turned down the window light anyway, to avoid any chance of its being seen).
Obi-Wan sat down across from him, on the other end of the window seat. "You really should keep the braid hidden, Anakin, even in our home."
"I know. I'll put it back. It's pretty simple."
"And meditating in a window is possibly not our best approach."
He looked pained. "I didn't think about that. It's just so quiet and pretty. And these guys wouldn't know meditating if they tripped over it." He took a quick, guilty glance out the window, and folded his braid up to tuck into the ponytail. "No one's out back. It's just Daj's back there, and I don't see anyone left outside."
There was no point in belaboring the issue; Anakin understood what was wrong. "You seemed upset when you came home."
"What was troubling you? Siri thought perhaps you were having difficulty with some of the sentiments expressed here… "
Anakin made a comical face. "You're conferring with Siri about me?"
"Not deliberately. Was she right?"
"Sort of. I mean, sure. Yeah."
"You said 'sort of' first, Anakin. What is it more precisely?"
Anakin stood up and crossed his arms, as though he had caught a chill, though the room was quite warm (when given the option, Anakin turned up the heat in any room he inhabited). He looked toward the wall. "Obi-Wan… "
"It was just that… well, they weren't wrong." He turned, looking ashamed and apologetic. "I mean… well, that's not what I mean. They were mostly wrong about stuff they think they know. But some of the stuff is true. They just, you know, see it differently that you do. I mean, than we do."
I caught the first phrasing, Anakin. Obi-Wan reached out and touched Anakin's shoulder. He had always seemed to need more physical contact than other padawans to feel connected to the world and valued by his Master. "It is permissible for you to see things differently than I do."
"I don't mean just you and me. I mean they see things differently than the way the Order does. You know, taking babies and stuff. We really do that, you know."
"I'm aware. And I'm aware that some people disapprove."
"I guess they don't know how hard it is. You know, the discipline and everything."
"That would be my assumption."
Anakin gave him a guarded look. "A couple of the girls were talking about never getting to see the babies. They sounded like they didn’t like that. I… well, I mean, I couldn't answer them, since I was Kit. But… "
"But as Anakin, you also have no answer?"
"I see." Obi-Wan squeezed his shoulder and briefly considered embracing him, but decided that even Anakin Skywalker would eventually reach an age where such things would be uncomfortable, and nearly fourteen was probably past it. Instead, he just patted the shoulder he was already touching, then let go. "It is a difficult life, Anakin, made more difficult for you because you remember another. But it's a life to which you are suited. Someday, you will be a great Jedi, among the greatest, I think."
This didn't bring a smile, as Obi-Wan had hoped. Instead, Anakin shivered again. "I know. The Chosen One."
"No. I have consciously avoided discussing the prophecy with you, Anakin, because I know it disturbs you, and because I do not know how to guide you in regards to it." Obi-Wan glanced across at his padawan. Admitting uncertainty about his approach was a risk - Anakin had a way of getting into the cracks in Obi-Wan's teaching as it was - but in this case it was the plain truth. Obi-Wan considered it his position to teach Anakin to be a Jedi Knight. The matter of the prophecy was something that couldn't be addressed until after that was done. "I mean you will be a great Jedi knight, specifically because of your compassion," he said. "It is a trait I fear I lack sometimes, despite having had Qui-Gon as a Master."
Anakin did not correct him on this, though he did manufacture a puzzled expression.
"Well, perhaps we had better do our evening meditations," Obi-Wan said. "You should get some sleep before school."
Anakin feigned a look of horror, then sat down across from Obi-Wan, and went into his usual restless meditations. Obi-Wan guided him silently until he was in a safe place, then simply stayed to watch over him.
On Tatooine, the suns came up in an ostentatious display, shading the never-ending sky in jewel tones - first deep indigo, then violet, then bright orange, then finally the brilliant blue that broken Anakin's heart to remember.
On Coruscant, in the Temple, morning came softly, with the lights rising, bringing in the gentle morning routine. It was like being enfolded in a soft robe; the building itself seemed to cherish the people inside of it.
Here on Malkiri, dawn was a gray thing, as the sun lit up the night's fog. Anakin sat in his window, watching the world come into focus, a few meters at a time. First, he saw the patch of grass that marked the back yard, then a row of flowers that a previous occupant had put in. Then the shadows rolled back to the creek, fuzzy at first, then clear. Then he could see Daj's house, and the shadows of the woods beyond. In those shadows, he thought, anything could be waiting - monsters to slay, criminals to chase down… maybe even whatever evil thing was spreading lies around here. In the early morning, Anakin let himself be Ani again, let himself imagine being a hero, vanquishing all the galaxy's villains (his imagination conjured an endless supply of these).
His alarm bell sounded shortly after the day was fully light, and he cleaned up and got dressed before going down to breakfast. For school, he decided on something a little less bright, a moss green version of the scoot fashion. He started to put on his lightsaber, to find a place to conceal it, then decided to ask Obi-Wan's opinion first, just putting it into one of the deep pockets of the long jacket to avoid any unintentional sightings.
He tried not to think about the fact that he'd be in school in less than an hour. He couldn't imagine it. He'd never had anything resembling school when he was a slave, and classes in the Temple were all taught by gentle Masters who moved students at their own pace, so he'd never been forced to sit through a lesson he'd already learned, or pushed past one that he hadn't mastered yet. Lessons were also interspersed with a great deal of meditation and exercise, and integrated into life, rather than separated from it in a walled off area away from adults.
Anakin didn't know what to expect in a normal school, and the thought of it made him nervous.
Obi-Wan and Siri were already in the kitchen. He was dressed; she was still in her nightclothes, with a long, soft robe… a clingy one that really showed what she looked like. Anakin blushed and looked away. "Morning," he said.
"Good morning," Siri turned over some kind of egg in the pan she was working at, then slid it out onto a plate. She put it in front of him and - to his astonishment - kissed his cheek. "Neighbors are out," she whispered.
Anakin looked unobtrusively over his shoulder, out the window, and saw a few people in their back yards, doing some kind of morning exercises. They probably had no interest in looking in other people's windows, but Siri was right - they would need to put on the show anyway. Anakin started in on his egg, feeling disappointed for no reason he could place. He glanced at Obi-Wan. "So… you're going to start today?"
Obi-Wan was using a handheld scanner to read the morning news, also quite studiously not looking at Siri. "Yes. I've made arrangements to go to the courthouse and interview Shapoi. I'll at least get a feel for how he is, and how he's being treated."
Siri broke another egg into the pan. "Check for escape routes while you're there."
"I planned to." He tipped down the scanner and winked at her, then glanced back at the news. "And what are your plans?"
"I will join Thama for lunch. Then I'll slip away and see what is available in terms of, shall we say, short-notice transport off planet. Are you ready for school?" she asked Anakin casually.
"I guess I'll find out when I get there." He opened his jacket casually to show Obi-Wan the lightsaber hilt in the pocket. "Just wondering about what I should bring."
Obi-Wan frowned. "I think," he said after awhile, "that a datapad should be sufficient. Perhaps a stylus."
Siri sat down with her own breakfast. Anakin kept his eyes averted. Her nightdress was awfully low cut. "When I registered him from Coruscant, they sent a text list. I downloaded them all to this." She leaned back in her chair, stretching backward (Anakin averted his eyes for another second), and pulled a datapad from the counter. She handed it to him. "I think you had most of the material in here memorized before you joined us," she muttered. "Ridiculous curriculum, but at least you won't be behind."
Anakin glanced over it, not as sure as Siri was - he hated stumbling across the gaps in his education where other people could see - but it didn't look very threatening. He was pretty sure that he knew at least most of it. "Thanks. What do you want me to do there?"
Obi-Wan looked over, seemed to notice that he was looking straight at Siri, and started fidgeting with his food. Anakin suppressed a smile; it was good to know that Obi-Wan was human sometimes. "Find out what is being taught formally. And it is very important for you to tell us what sources they are using to teach it."
"Maybe it's not anything they're teaching in school… "
"That's possible. We would need to know that as well."
"What do we do, once we know?"
Obi-Wan gave him a small smile, the same one Qui-Gon had given him on board the Queen's starship. Anakin waited for We will be patient, but instead, Obi-Wan said, "We will return to the Temple and ask the Council for guidance." He stood up and tucked the news scanner into a belt pouch. Anakin could see the end of his lightsaber hilt under his shirt.
"Um… " He moved his jacket to indicate his own.
Obi-Wan nodded and pulled on a poncho. "I'm aware, Anakin."
"You're going?" Siri asked. She glanced over at the window above the sink. A woman in her front yard waved at her, and Siri, looking dazed, waved back. She glanced over her shoulder with a grin. "Good thing we're keeping the act up."
"Mmm," Obi-Wan said. He continued staring at his datapad.
The whim came over Anakin quite suddenly, taking him by pleasant surprise. "Better kiss her goodbye," he suggested. "The neighbors are watching."
Obi-Wan glared at him, but Siri laughed. "You heard our mission expert."
With a frozen smile that promised later retaliation, Obi-Wan leaned over Siri, and planted a kiss on her forehead. She responded with a peck to his cheek, then he stalked out of the room.
Siri raised an eyebrow at Anakin. "Don’t do that again."
Anakin looked up from his egg, surprised.
"As much as I enjoy tweaking Obi-Wan, I can't let you do it. You're his padawan. You owe him respect."
"I didn't mean to… I don't know. I just thought it would be funny."
"It was. And it was also a good idea for our roles. I suppose it did look somewhat normal."
"It did. It looked really good."
"The best chaste and bloodless kiss I've ever had," she said, giving him a warm smile.
"And how many kisses have you had?"
The smile faltered. "I was in deep cover for a long time, Anakin." Without giving him a chance to consider this, she stood up and pulled out his chair playfully, taking his lightsaber and tucking it under her robe. "You need to get going," she said. "You'll be late. Shoo."
Anakin found a boxed lunch shoved into his hand, and was out the door with another kiss on the cheek before he knew what was happening. Siri stood on the porch and waved to him as he went down the street, making him think of Mom. He waved back, then pulled the scoot out of his pocket to ride for the rest of the trip.
Obi-Wan chose to walk to the courthouse rather than calling for a taxi. The walk was only a kilometer or two, some of it on moving walkways, certainly a less strenuous walk than was common on Coruscant. Judging from the looks he got from people in speeders on the streets, it was decidedly uncommon here.
Well, "Baklee" was supposed to be from Coruscant. He could have this eccentricity without awkward questions. Obi-Wan wanted the time to think. He would have to develop some retaliation for Anakin's little prank, perhaps something involving his persona at school; Anakin would be expecting it, and would be disappointed if it didn't come. He wasn't angry at Anakin, any more than Anakin was actually disrespectful toward him. He hoped Siri wouldn't lecture him on that count; Anakin understood perfectly well what their roles were, and having a bit of fun didn't change that.
Much of Anakin's apprenticeship was difficult and filled with angst, but there was also a kind of wild joy in it, and Obi-Wan had come to value his padawan's occasional playful moods as much as his great skill and vast potential. It was no wonder he and Qui-Gon had gotten along as well as they had.
He was not quite as entertained by Siri's mood. The nightdress had been donned after he'd retired last night, and it had been something of a shock when he'd come into the kitchen that morning to find her cooking. She explained it as "a leftover from Zora" - part of her previous assignment - but that didn't, to Obi-Wan's mind, explain why she had kept it, or brought it along. And it certainly wasn't healthy for her to wear that around a fourteen-year-old boy who was quite impressionable where women were concerned.
And, he had to admit, it was distracting to him as well. He had not struggled with his commitment to the Jedi order - it always seemed a natural way for him to live - but he was not immune to the sight of a beautiful woman, and Siri was beautiful.
More to the point, she seemed to need something from him. He didn't think it was what she was apparently hinting at - Siri was no more likely to waver in her commitment than he was - but he'd dreamed of her last night, sitting in the window, the blue glow of the stars spreading over her until she glowed like a ghost in a child's picture book. We're all ghosts, she'd said, then laughed horribly and reached out her glowing arms to him. He'd planned to speak to her about the dream, to see if she had shared it, or what it meant to her, but the nightdress had… distracted him.
He let the thoughts circle idly in his mind as he walked, hoping they would coalesce on their own. They didn't. As he approached the bustling street outside the courthouse, he brought his consciousness closer to the surface. He couldn't be Baklee while musing on Obi-Wan's private concerns.
The courthouse, like so many buildings on Malkiri, was pyramidal, made of dark brown stone and covered with leafy vines. The bailiff stopped him at the door, demanding identification. Obi-Wan flashed his press badge quickly and swept on by as soon as the hand-scanner approved it.
"Ah, Tachi," a law enforcement officer said, standing up from his desk. "You were to interview the prisoner?" He preened. "My name is Terja Kritol. I made the arrest."
"Is this for galactic broadcast?"
Obi-Wan smiled in a way that he hoped said, I am asked this too frequently, and I am only answering out of polite duty. "I'm afraid I'm not quite that far along in my career yet. I am merely collecting information for a reporter to work with at a later time."
"Oh," Kritol said, clearly losing interest. "Well, I'll take you back there. He's not very friendly. And you have to be careful. Don’t listen to him talk too long, or he'll brainwash you. But I guess you know that part, being from Coruscant. You've probably talked to the brain-bangers before."
"Yes," Obi-Wan said. "I have spoken to many Jedi in the course of my career."
Kritol led him down a flight of stairs into a basement area, where a narrow corridor led between the cells. Something tugged at Obi-Wan's Force sense, and he looked up to see a man slightly older than himself standing at the door of a cell near the end, waiting patiently for him.
"This is him," Kritol said.
"So I gathered."
"I'll just be right out here." Kritol pulled a chair over from across the hall and started to sit down.
"I believe the interview will go more smoothly if I speak to Shapoi alone," Obi-Wan said.
"I don't know if I ought to… "
Obi-Wan pushed the Force at him. "You have no need to stand guard, Terja Kritol. There is no danger in this interview."
Kritol blinked a few times, then stood up. "You know, probably it'll be fine. I got work to do anyway." He shuffled back down the hall and disappeared up the stairs.
"Brilliant," Shapoi said dryly. "Nothing like a mind trick to get things settled down on Malkiri."
"Well, we brain-bangers have a skill or two that come in handy."
"Heard that one, did you?"
Shapoi ran his hands over his mouth, hiding it as he spoke. "You know my name. I think I remember you from the Temple. Qui-Gon Jinn's padawan, weren't you?"
"Yes. Though the name you may use here is Baklee Tachi."
"Well, Baklee Tachi, did it occur to you that it may not be best to confirm their suspicions? Sooner or later, someone will point out to him that it was a bad idea to leave his post."
"I wanted to speak freely. I take it you are unmonitored?"
"You are certain?"
"And I'm sure they told you the truth."
Shapoi grinned self-consciously. "Well, let's say I gave them a bit of encouragement as well."
"Ah." Obi-Wan took out his datapad and pretended to take notes. "Are you ill treated?"
"They keep the rations down, but I can on reduced rations. Have you spoken to my birth parents? I am concerned about them."
"No. Not yet."
"Please get them off this world. Whatever happens to me. They are decent people. I was pleased to know them."
Shapoi sighed, clearly relaxing somewhat. "Beyond that," he said, "there is no reason for you to be here."
"We came to see that the trial is fair."
"There won't be a trial. We both know that."
"Then we can get you out of here."
"That would be foolish. It would be obvious if I disappeared at the same time you did. They have enough questions about the Jedi as it is without giving them ammunition in the form of official aid from the Order in escaping their justice."
"Did you commit the crime of which you're accused?"
"No. Nor do I have any information about whoever did."
"Then you will need to stand trial, and if a fair trial can't be obtained on Malkiri -"
"My instructions are -"
"Tell the Council that I declined assistance. Help my family. I can take care of myself."
"Please. I ask as a favor to me, and as a help to the Jedi Order. They cannot be given proof that the Council would bend their laws to save one of our own."
"They don't appear to need proof of much."
"They aren't fools, however good an impression they do of it. Many want confirmation. Do not give it to them."
"Better to let them convict you of killing the king?"
"Better to convict Zio Shapoi of one crime than the entire Jedi Order of all the crimes they imagine."
Obi-Wan took a deep breath. "I will consider your request, but I can't guarantee it."
Shapoi stepped back and looked down at his cell floor. "You must do what you feel is right," he intoned.
"I'm aware of that. As you must."
Obi-Wan hesitated, then made a few fake notes on his datapad and arranged his features into a disinterested mask. "Shapoi, have you any idea where this comes from? Are there… I mean, other than the Neimoidians, are there others here? Other newcomers?"
"Why assume it's newcomers?" Shapoi asked, then waved it off. "I don’t trust the mayor and have made no secret of it. But don't mistrust the average shopkeeper more than is necessary. Can't you sense it? The worst thing about Malkiri is that nearly everyone is well-meaning. There is some deceit somewhere, but I wasn't able to locate it."
"No nexus for the hatred." It was exactly what Siri had said. But Obi-Wan found that he didn't accept it from Shapoi any more easily. He stood up. "I'll return tomorrow," he said. "Perhaps we will have found something worthwhile."
"Yeah. Sure." Shapoi shook his head and laughed softly. "May the Force be with you, Baklee Tachi. And may it get you off Malkiri as soon as possible."
Anakin had found Tomik Cral and his friends in the schoolyard before the entry bell rang, and followed them as unobtrusively as he could, pretending that this wasn't one of the most alien environments he'd ever been in. There were children everywhere. The literature about the school that Siri had given him said that there were sometimes up to twenty-five children for each adult. Anakin had known this in his mind, but actually seeing the result of that number was a shock to his system. That the literature had given this statistic as though it were a glowing recommendation in comparison to other schools was utterly beyond comprehension. It was one thing actually in the crèche, but the crèche babies were often brought into the main Temple to see and be spoken to by older children, Padawans, knights, and masters. It helped them see the paths of life and know what might be ahead. Here, it looked like life stopped in the late teens, unless a student wanted to turn into a teacher. How did they know what grownups did?
And Anakin had thought the Jedi were pretty insular, since they didn't let younger students compete with adults, as Watto had. (He had accepted this as a good thing and a kindly meant thing, but he sometimes missed podracing against the best in the sport.)
He let Tomik's group lead him into a large entryway, then pulled out his datapad to find out where he was supposed to be. Tomik grabbed his sleeve. "We all start out in Exercise."
"I thought people did that at home," Anakin said, surprised. "I saw them out on the lawns."
Tomik shrugged. "Yeah, my mom does that. But we do it here. C'mon. Gotta change down first."
Anakin followed Tomik into a large, vaulted room, painted a dismal shade of green. It smelled of old sweat and dirty clothes. A tall human man took his name, assigned him a small footlocker, and presented him with a strange (and ugly) yellow outfit. It was one piece, with short sleeves and short pants, and plain, buttoned fastenings. The other boys were all putting their own on. The girls had all disappeared somewhere. Anakin guessed they had their own changing room.
There was much shouting and name calling, and Anakin noticed that the smaller boys all hung together in the back, and looked like prey animals peeking out at a krayt dragon in their territory and wondering if it would be hungry. Tomik and some of the others occasionally called them names and cursed at them. Anakin had an urge to grab Tomik's arm, twist it behind his back, then slam his self-satisfied face into the row of footlockers. But Kit wouldn't do that, so again, Anakin drew Kit around his mind, and let Kit close his eyes to it.
They met the girls in a larger room and went through a series of calisthenics that was dull, but relaxing in a mind-numbing way, then a teacher appeared from the girls' changing room. She was a short human woman with a sharply triangular jaw and small dark eyes. A nest of dark, curly hair sat uneasily on top of her head. "Good morning!" she said, her voice falsely enthusiastic. To Anakin, she sounded like she had a bad headache and would rather be just about anywhere else.
The younger children all answered "Good morning, Madam Dysto!" Anakin took his cue from Tomik's group (and even most of the small boys his own age), and just gave her a disinterested stare.
"Well," Madam Dysto said, "it's a brand new week. Are we all ready for it?"
The little ones all gave her an affirmative answer. The older children rolled their eyes at each other. One of Tomik's friends did so in Anakin's direction. Anakin waggled his fingers in front of his eyes in a gesture that - on Tatooine, anyway - meant, "That guy's crazy." It appeared to mean the same here, because the boy smiled and nodded.
Madam Dysto went on. "Now, we all know that things are hard right now, and the bad time isn't finished quite yet. But you know you're safe here. The bad man is all locked up, and the grownups won't let him hurt you."
"I'm comforted," Tomik said out of the corner of his mouth. "Dysto's on the job. She can take a Jedi or two."
"Maybe even four," Anakin said. Tomik laughed.
"For you older children," Dysto continued, "I need to remind you that school hours are school hours. There's to be no more slipping the forcefield. You belong on the grounds, and you need to stay on them."
"Even though the bad man is all locked up?" Anakin whispered.
"You never know," Tomik said. "His Jedi friends might show up and decide to round up all the class-cutters, steal 'em off to Coruscant, and make them into Temple slaves."
Anakin's throat locked, and his breath stopped. He could feel the cloth of his persona thinning, unraveling, tearing at the weak spots, leaving him exposed. He kept the expression on his face still, though it felt like cracking clay, and the litany began inside his head. Don't let it out, don't blow it, don't say anything, keep it down, it's just words, don't break…
It couldn't have been more than a second or two, because Tomik's expression didn't register any change at all, but for those seconds, the galaxy seemed to simply stop. Anakin forced himself to swallow, pushed himself deep down, and pulled the tattered edges of Kit Tachi back together to be mended.
It was just words.
And not true words.
He couldn't afford to let words - even that word - get under his skin.
He made himself breathe in without gasping, settled into a normal rhythm, then turned his attention back to Madam Dysto.
She gave a few more exhortations about rules, most of which were duly ignored by everyone in Anakin's vicinity, then released them to change back into regular clothes and go to classes. Anakin checked the schedule that Siri had downloaded to his datapad and discovered that his first class was mathematics. He found that finding his way through the poorly lit hallways to the right anonymous looking classroom was significantly more difficult than the subject matter being taught inside. He spent math class composing a letter to the real Kitster (addressed by his family name, Binai, in case anyone confiscated the datapad), even though he was fairly certain Obi-Wan wouldn't let him transmit it.
After math, he moved on to literature, which was mildly interesting because they were trying to figure out what a novel meant. Anakin had read the text in his run through Obi-Wan's collection last year, and he thought it was a good adventure about a water shortage, but it hadn't occurred to him to look at it as saying something about the decline of Mid-Rim culture, with the evaporation of a lunar reservoir standing for the disappearing folkways. It was something like analyzing a vision, and once he understood that, he got along fine. It even excited him a little, and made him want to reread it, with that idea of the reservoir in his head as he went. It was a whole new way to read, and he thought he might try it with some other books, too. He should ask the teacher if it worked with any other book. But he noticed that Tomik's bunch just sat around that class looking puzzled, so he kept his thoughts to himself, and - again, unlike a Temple class - no one noticed his unspoken interest and prodded him to participate. The literature teacher seemed to favor girls anyway.
After literature came history, which was the first serious academic shock. Obi-Wan insisted that Anakin learn history, and there was so much of it that it took up a lot of time. He was deep into the spread of human colonies now, and had at first been delighted to find that the class was also studying that. But while Obi-Wan's history talked about how people, eager to see and learn and spread out, had settled new worlds and brought their various cultures with them, the teacher here talked about people being chased off their homeworlds and sent into exile. They'd managed to create a life, but now, they were being pursued again, by people intent on subjugating them.
Anakin started out taking notes, but eventually just turned on the recording device on the datapad. This was exactly what he was supposed to be looking for.
Malkiri had been settled, according to the teacher, by political dissidents from Coruscant, some nine hundred fifty years ago (the story Anakin knew said that it had been settled by a voluntary colonial team led by an eminent politician). They had objected to the corruption that was rampant on the capitol, and when they had made their positions known, the Jedi had influenced the Supreme Chancellor to have them evicted to a distant world.
Anakin raised his hand, hoping he would find a non-suspicious way to ask this before the teacher called on him.
"Yes, Master… Tachi, is it? Ah, yes. Our visitor from Coruscant."
"Yes, Ma'am." Anakin took a deep breath, and opted not to mention hearing a different story altogether. "I was just wondering - how do you know it wasn't the Chancellor doing it by himself? How do you know it was the Jedi?"
"Ah. You haven't studied this period on your homeworld?"
Anakin shook his head, and in this case it was true. He'd read about the emigrations and explorations, but he'd just assumed that Coruscant was going about its normal business in the background.
"Very well. I hadn't planned to teach Coruscantian history today, but it was asked, and it is a wise question. Does anyone know why the Jedi disliked our Founder, Hunara Malkir?"
No one did.
The teacher sat on the edge of her desk. "A thousand years ago," she said, "the Jedi had a bloody internal feud."
The Sith uprising! Anakin realized. But what…
"They managed to quell the rebellion in their own ranks, but everyone around them saw the brutality that ensued when they fought one another, and there were many movements against Jedi power over the next century. Malkir's was one of them. The rebel Jedi were vicious and killed many innocent people. What, he thought, was to stop another rebel faction from arising? The answer, as long as they study the kind of power that they study, was nothing at all. He wanted training stopped immediately, and laws created to prohibit the use of their powers among those who had already been trained."
"And the Council didn't like that much," Anakin guessed.
"No, indeed." The teacher got up. "We have preserved some of the arguments. To answer your question, Kit, the Supreme Chancellor had no quarrel with Malkir, but the Jedi were unwilling to give up their power, and they had many quarrels with him. So they saw to it that he was sent away, and his followers came with him."
"And now the Jedi murdered his descendents," a girl in the front row said quietly.
The teacher didn't argue with her.
The lights in the walls flashed to show that it was time for another class, and most of the students moved on. Anakin remained in his seat. It wasn't impossible. That was the thing. It really wasn't impossible.
But Obi-Wan didn't lie to him. If the teacher's story were true, Anakin would have known it already.
He looked up. The teacher was looking at him steadily, some concern on her face.
"I'm okay. I better get to… " He checked his schedule again, and was relieved to find an art class. That would be relaxing. "To art. It's upstairs, I think."
"Yes. One flight up, the third door on the left."
"I'm sorry if I disturbed you, Kit, but it's important to know the truth."
"I agree. The truth is the most important thing." And I wonder if you've ever heard it.
He was late for art, but the teacher was a young Neimoidian woman who was free-spirited and said she didn't care about such arbitrary things. She presented him with a block of clay and told him they were making busts. He let his fingers fashion it, pinching out a nose here, an ear there… until he realized that he had two noses on the figure, one on each side, four eyes, and two mouths. On one side, Obi-Wan Kenobi smiled benignly at him, but growing out of the back of Kenobi's head was the horned visage of the Sith who had killed Qui-Gon.
Anakin slammed the clay between his hands, turning it into a shapeless lump, then slowly - attentively - began to shape Padmé's face. A part of his mind had liked the look of the double figure, so he shaped Mom's on the other side. He didn't notice the teacher watching him as he worked.
After leaving Shapoi's cell, Obi-Wan's day had gone downhill.
He went to the house Shapoi's parents were reported as living in, only to find it deserted. It was no wonder - it had been defaced with many vile sayings, and several of the windows had been shattered. It was under guard now, and there were workers around it - "It's an eyesore in a decent neighborhood," one of the guards explained - but no one seemed to have the slightest idea where the Shapois had disappeared to, except for a vague notion that they had gone "underground." Obi-Wan considered asking whether they meant it literally or figuratively, but decided that it would be too suspicious. He would have to find another route to them.
Trying to reach the mayor was worse. No one accepted the idea that he needed to be interviewed, and since all his lackeys were under video and audio surveillance, the mind trick was too risky. He gave up after twenty minutes, and decided to go back to Siri and work out a new strategy.
It was early afternoon, and people were outside, taking time off for a midday meal. Humans and Neimoidians were walking and laughing together, and everyone seemed relaxed and happy. A few people waved to Obi-Wan as he passed cafes and public parks, and he waved back automatically, finding himself thinking, If they knew who I really was, they'd be cursing at me. Something told him the thought was supposed to make him angry, but in fact it merely made him puzzled and heartsick. He could live without the affection of the people of Malkiri, but he was sorry to know they were shutting their minds up so tightly.
He missed his street the first time he reached it. All the corners looked essentially the same, and he hadn't been paying proper attention to the street names. Halfway down the block, he noticed he was headed downhill toward the stream, and turned back up. The house, at least, was easy to spot. It was the same style as the others, but it was the only green one on the street. After a day of fruitless wandering, he had to admit that it looked comfortable and welcoming. He could see the length of the kitchen, through the window that looked out on the back yard, though the angle was too high to see much of the room itself. He could see the top of the back of Siri's head through the window. He hoped she had changed her clothes since this morning.
The door was unlocked, and responded to a light touch on its scanner. "Siri?" he called.
"In the kitchen, Baklee," she said in a measured voice that told him she was not alone. "We have a visitor. One of Kit's teachers."
Obi-Wan froze. A hundred things went through his mind. What had Anakin done to send a teacher home on his first day? Fighting, most likely. His temper was going to be the death of him. Or worse, he might have slipped in his cover, let on who he was. That might have caused the other children to torment him, and if he hadn't fought back, he might be hurt. Or maybe he was racing, or daring the other children into some dangerous sport.
"Yes, I'm coming." He resigned himself to whatever it was, sighed, and went into the kitchen.
The teacher was a young Neimoidian woman who tried to stand up quickly when she saw him, but didn't look like she resented doing it. He waved her down and she nodded her head gratefully. Obi-Wan noticed that she was wearing a Core Worlds style dress and no headgear. Interesting.
Siri was wearing a perfectly modest pink dress, to his relief, and she was frowning down at something she held in her hands. She offered it up to him and he took it.
It was a small clay figurine, with a face on each side. A female face on each side. He looked at it more carefully. On one side was a soft, plain face, middle-aged and careworn. Obi-Wan had never seen that face, but he had a strong suspicion to whom it belonged. The other was unquestionably Padmé Naberrie, Amidala of Naboo. The likeness wasn't perfect, and the proportions were off, but the eyes and the sharp, pretty line of her nose had been sculpted with care that bordered on reverence. "What is this?" he asked, not taking his eyes from it.
The teacher shifted in her chair. "Your charge made this in my art class today," she said. "I am Prila Kam, by the way."
"This is my husband, Baklee," Siri said.
Obi-Wan forced himself to look up. "I'm pleased to meet you, Madam Kam. I am interested in why you've come. Has Kit been a difficult student?"
"Difficult?" Prila Kam asked, sounding astonished. "No, of course not. He was quiet and well-behaved, and obviously, quite talented. If I had a class full of Kits, I would be a happy woman."
"I don't understand."
A cool hand rested on his wrist. Siri was looking at him steadily. "Madam Kam is concerned about the subject matter. Apparently this wasn't the first figure Kit made. She was just beginning to tell me about the other."
Prila nodded. "Yes. I watched him destroy the other figure. It was of this style - am I right to guess that these double figures are a cultural icon of some kind?"
"Sure," Siri said. "An old tradition among our people. The Dark Side and the Light Side, though my brother seems not to have used it that way here."
"Hmmm. I'm not sure. The one reminds me a bit of the girl-queen who seduced the Chancellor."
Obi-Wan hoped fervently that Prila Kam would not share that viewpoint with Anakin. "She does, a little," he said. "But I think she's meant to be a girl he met a few years ago while I was on assignment in the Outer Rim. That was close to the time he lost his mother, and I would guess he's conflated the two."
"Ah, I see. The poor child." She shook her head. "But it is not this piece which disturbed me. I think it beautiful work, and clearly fashioned with much love, and that is the most important thing. It was the other that troubled me. Now that I see you" - she nodded in Obi-Wan's direction - "I see where one of the faces was. It was a rendering as lovely as these two. He clearly thinks well of you."
"I'm glad to hear it. Who did I have on the back of my skull?"
"That was why I came. It was some sort of demon, horned, with sharp markings and harsh lines on its face. I sketched as much of it as I could remember." She pulled out a datapad, with a face Obi-Wan recognized instantly displayed on the small monitor. "Are you familiar with the figure? Is it a demon?"
"Yes. A demon." Obi-Wan glanced across the table at Siri, whose expression was unreadable. She undoubtedly would have guessed who the figure was. "If you're concerned about the identity Kit apparently sees between his guardian and a demon, I can only say that I share that concern."
"It occurred to me at first that he was perhaps unhappy at home, but this is clearly a loving family, and it makes my heart float to see how much you care. But I was also… disturbed by the destruction of that first image. Kit seemed to notice what he was doing quite suddenly, and he obliterated it. It was beautiful work, however frightening, and he simply ground it out of existence."
Siri stood up and smiled tiredly at her. "Yes, well. Kit makes sudden decisions. And isn't it the nature of wet clay to be constantly reformed?"
"I suppose… "
Obi-Wan took his cue from Siri and stood. "Madam Kam, I thank you for taking an interest in Kit's welfare. I'll talk to him later."
Madam Kam smiled and rose. "Very good then. I have an afternoon class to teach, so I should go back to the school. You have a talented boy. Give him clay and paint and wood. It will make him happy. And, with practice, wealthy."
Obi-Wan walked her to the door and watched her disappear down the street, then went back to the kitchen. Siri was examining the figure again. "Kind of her to come down here," she said.
"Do you think it does mean anything, Obi-Wan?"
He sat down. "I'm not sure, Siri."
"All the doubles… "
Something tried to make a connection in Obi-Wan's mind, but he was tired, and it missed. "He's undercover now, Siri. He's dealing with having a new name and a new history. I expect he's just thinking in twos now."
"That was the Sith lord, wasn't it? On the first figure?"
"When did Anakin see him?"
"I'm not sure… I… " Obi-Wan found himself troubled by the question, but then a memory answered it for him. Of course. "The Sith nearly ran Anakin down when he and Qui-Gon were running for the ship. It would have been a brief look, but the circumstances were somewhat intense."
Siri nodded uncertainly. "Someone will need to tell him that the Queen is not a hero here."
"Someone being me?"
"You said it, Wise Master."
"I suppose. Do you think it meant anything that the Sith grew out of my head?"
"Probably that you're a diametric opposite to him."
"But his mother and Padmé - "
"I don't know." She rubbed her head. "Did you get anywhere today?"
"Nowhere with seeing the mayor. Shapoi wants me to find his parents. Seems they've deserted their home."
"And he's forbidden us to rescue him."
Siri's weariness left her, and her eyes flared. "He's done what?"
"I don't take orders from knights in jail," Siri said. "I'll apologize back at the Temple when we get him there."
Anakin's last class was chemistry, or at least a pre-cursor to it. He was paired with the boy Brinje, whom Tomik had been teasing last night. They did a simple experiment that involved turning a local vegetable into a battery by hooking it up to wires. It didn't strike Anakin as a particularly useful skill, though Brinje turned out to have a slightly odd sense of humor, which made it at least a little amusing.
After class, he went back up to the art classroom to get his work from the kiln, but it was already locked. Madam Kam was inside at her desk typing notes into her datapad, but Anakin guessed that she didn't want to be disturbed. He could pick the bust up tomorrow. He thought Siri might like it.
He found Tomik's gang outside, lounging around beside the forcefield. Tomik was on his scoot, and so were a few of the others. Anakin got on his own and coasted over to join them. He let the scoot rise a bit, and crouched on it to remain at eye level with the standing boys.
Tomik mimicked the posture. "School burns," he said. He started to circle the group. Anakin took the hint, remembering the boys on Coruscant, and did the same, mirroring Tomik's actions. Tomik folded his arms over his knees. "I smoked out on that lit paper. You're lucky you missed it."
"What was it?"
"It was this dumb book we read last month, about this girl on a space station. Spends the whole time worrying about losing her job, but somehow or other, I'm supposed to figure out that she wants to lose it." He rolled his eyes as if this were the most absurd thing he'd ever heard. Anakin thought he knew the story - it was another one in Obi-Wan's collection - and had thought that much was pretty obvious. Tomik shrugged. "Anyway, we're going over to Daj's shop to pick up Lirc's scoot. He blew the motor last week. You coming?"
"Sure. I like Daj."
"Yeah, he's okay for a Flat-Nose. C'mon." Tomik swung out of the arc and headed down the road, slow enough for the kids on foot to keep up. Anakin stayed at the back, swooping back and forth, keeping his eyes open as they went through town.
The adults were all still at work, if they belonged there, so the streets weren't crowded. There were women on porches, but almost no men. In the neighborhood where Anakin lived, humans and Neimoidians seemed to treat each other as if there were no difference, but here in the old neighborhoods that they were passing through, the neighbors weren't spending any time together. Humans visited with one another over porch rails, as did Neimoidians on the next block, but Anakin saw very little interaction.
There was also a lot of graffiti on the walls. Most of it was initials and names, but there were also political statements, and more of the anti-Jedi rhetoric. Anakin wanted to look at it closely, but that would look suspicious. He did take note of the fact that some of it was old and faded.
Daj's store was at the edge of this nasty knot of buildings, and it was the only one with no markings. It had obviously been repainted very recently. The sign said "Orti's Off-Time," and there was a wavy concrete ramp climbing the slanted walls. Tomik flew up it and did a back flip in midair, then swept down and through the door. Anakin took the simpler route.
Daj was behind a counter, bent over something, and he stood up to wave to them. "Eh, boys! School's out already?"
"'Bout time," Tomik said.
"You'll be happy, I think." Daj grinned and bent down to bring up a long oblong carton, a little more than half a meter long and perhaps two decimeters wide. Anakin recognized it immediately. It was the packaging his own scoot had come in. "They came in this morning."
Tomik did another excited flip and exclaimed, "Soaked! I get my allowance in a few days, and I'll be back."
"It will take that long to get them unpacked."
"I'll help," Anakin offered.
Daj looked up, noticing him for the first time. "Ah, yes, Kit Tachi, who knows where they come broken. I accept your offer, if your parents have no objections."
"Kit hasn't got parents," Tomik said. "Just a sister and brother-in-law. His folks are dry-ash."
Anakin didn't grab for Kit quite quick enough. He glared at Tomik.
Daj recognized it and gently pulled him around the corner, to a place where many scoot cartons were stacked, then looked back at Tomik. "You talk too much, Master Cral," he said. "Someday I think you will talk too much to the wrong person."
When Anakin chanced a glance up, he saw Tomik smirking, and knew that if he didn't get this fixed, he'd end up with no one but Brinje to observe tomorrow. He couldn't bring himself to say it was okay, but he manufactured rolled eyes and an elaborate shrug, thinking, I'm going to wipe that smile off your face and make you eat it.
The smirk faltered, and Tomik backed away a little. Anakin wondered if his expression was what he meant it to be.
"Will your sister mind?" Daj asked, pretending nothing happened. "The work would be quicker and more pleasant with an extra pair of hands."
"Siri's pretty easy about that kind of thing," Anakin told him, and picked up a stack of cartons. "I'll get started." He listened carefully to his voice and decided that it sounded normal - smooth and unruffled. (It had cracked a few times last year, but he'd learned that if he relaxed and let it be at the pitch it wanted to be rather than tightening up and fighting the change, it wouldn't embarrass him.) He waved at the others, and took the cartons into a storage room behind the counter. "See you at school tomorrow, Tomik."
For awhile, he heard Daj doing business with them, but tuned it out, opening the cartons one at a time. He could see why the servomotors were always out of alignment; the packing material had to be tight to avoid worse damage, and it put too much pressure on them. He made the adjustment lazily, letting them go to float around his head as he finished them.
There were about six in the air when Daj came back. "Don't mind Tomik Cral," he said. "He lives with a mouthful of tacks. He spits them out by accident and means nothing by it."
"Like calling you a Flat-Nose?"
Daj smiled and scrunched his high forehead a few times. "But for a Neimoidian, a flat nose is very handsome, don't you think?" He tilted his head up to show off. "A mark of good breeding and great appeal to the ladies."
Anakin smiled. "That's not how he means it, though."
"How he means it and how I choose to hear it are two different things." Daj bent down and started opening cartons himself. "You're sure your sister and brother-in-law will not mind you being late?"
"I saw you speaking with your brother-in-law late last night, in your window. I thought certainly he was your father."
Anakin tried not to react to the information that their meditation had been seen, or to frantically wonder if Daj had also seen his padawan braid. "Why's that?"
"Oh, when you grew quiet, his posture to you was kindly. You are lucky to have such a guardian."
"Yeah, Baklee's great."
"You always speak late at night like this?"
"Oh, no. Just sometimes. When we get to a new place."
"Mmmm." Daj made the servomotor adjustment on two more scoots, then sighed. "Kit, some new places are different from other new places. Malkiri is a good world, but there are unkind things here. It is well to be careful where you choose to… talk."
Anakin's heart sped up, but he tried to keep his voice casual. "What do you mean?"
"I have only been on Malkiri for year, Kit Tachi. Before that, I lived on Coruscant." Anakin froze. "And I know what practice you are imitating."
Imitating. Anakin grabbed the idea and worked it into the Kit persona. "Yeah. I like to play at it. They look cool. But don't worry, I noticed it's not a very good idea around here."
"That," Daj said, "is putting it mildly."
Use the opportunity.
Anakin swallowed. "So, do you know why it's like this? I mean, my sister doesn't much like 'em, and she makes me stop pretending sometimes, but this is all kind of weird."
"I do not know. Malkiri is what it is."
They worked together in silence for an hour, getting all the new scoots unpacked and making the alteration, then Anakin got up and stretched. "Well, I guess that's about it. I better get home. I bet Siri's got dinner on the table by now."
Daj smiled. "I thank you for your help." He reached into a pocket, and tossed a few credits in Anakin's direction.
Anakin caught them easily and dropped them into his jacket. It was the first time he'd gotten straight wages for work. "Thanks, Daj."
"I'm your friend, Kit Tachi. And if you need help, or simply alternate method of transportation, you come to me, right?"
"Now go home and eat the dinner your fine sister has made for you, and speak with your fine brother-in-law in any way you choose. But not in the window."
Anakin nodded, and headed out into the fading afternoon.
"It is his free afternoon," Siri said, stirring a sweetener into her tea. "It probably didn't occur to him that he wouldn't have that here. We're supposed to be simulating a routine, and that is part of his."
Obi-Wan frowned at her, but couldn't think of an argument. The fact remained that they were on an unfamiliar planet - one unfriendly to the Order to boot - and Anakin was more than an hour late coming home. The bust still sat on the table between them, the ghost of its predecessor still hovering around it. He had suggested different meanings to himself. Perhaps it was simply a question of the timing, with both the Sith lord and he entering Anakin's life with Qui-Gon's death. Perhaps it showed an ambivalence in his response to the Queen - or to his mother - to have the dichotomy represented there. It might have been a question simply of conflicting masculine images - the father vs. the monster, as the feminine figure was also conflicting images (the mother vs. whatever it was Anakin felt about the Queen). It could have been about different kinds of power, or images of the time of his escape from slavery, or attachments to Qui-Gon, or simply the opposite halves of a duel.
Or Anakin might have just thought it looked rugged.
"You're worrying too much about it," Siri said.
"I don't see you putting it away either."
She smiled and shrugged. "I'm just deeply offended that he didn't decide to sculpt me in his images of the feminine."
"Trust me, Siri, he notices that you're feminine. In that thing you were wearing this morning, even I noticed that."
"I don't suppose you packed anything less provocative."
"Sorry. I didn't think about it."
Obi-Wan stood up from the table and went to the window over the sink, looking out over a depressingly empty street. He could see into the other houses, where families were gathered around tables. Many seemed to be talking comfortably with one another, and he wondered how in the world they kept thinking of new and interesting things to say, with no missions and no lessons to learn. "Where is he?"
"You worry about him so much. Why?"
"Because he is my responsibility." She said nothing. "Aren't you going to tell me I should trust him? Give him more freedom? Or perhaps put a bell around his neck?"
"He's your padawan, Obi-Wan. I'm just interested in why you do what you do. I want to learn from you."
But I don’t know what I'm doing!
Obi-Wan just looked down at his hands, then back out the window. A smooth motion at the corner caught his eye, and he relaxed as Anakin's face came into view under a street lamp. He was riding the scoot, lazily letting his feet push it through a few tricks. His expression was thoughtful and quiet. He looked up and saw Obi-Wan, and waved so casually that Obi-Wan knew he didn't even suspect he'd caused worry.
Well, it was his free afternoon.
Obi-Wan went out to the entrance hall to wait for him. The door slid to one side, and Anakin floated in, lowering himself to kick off the scoot. He was definitely starting to look comfortable on it.
"Where have you been?" Obi-Wan asked.
Anakin looked up, surprised. "I was at Daj Orti's. I made a few credits. I hope that's okay. I mean, it's not like a lot or anything."
"Well, it's not precisely forbidden, but I would not advise asking Master Windu's opinion."
Anakin grinned brightly. "Never even occurred to me." He slid the scoot into his jacket pocket with an easy movement that made it look like he'd been doing this for years, and started toward the kitchen. "I'll give it back to the Temple when we get back. It's only a little bit of what I spent on all this stuff. It's not like I was going to ke -" He stopped, and Obi-Wan almost ran into him. "How did that get here?" he asked.
"Your art teacher came by," Siri said.
Anakin picked up the bust. "What for?" He sounded honestly confused. "I went to get it after school. I was going to give it to you. I thought you might like it."
"The image concerned her," Obi-Wan told him, slipping around him to sit down at the table. "As did the one you destroyed before it. I must admit to some concern as well."
Siri raised an eyebrow, and Obi-Wan waited for her to say, Some concern? Don't you mean plain, unhealthy, irrational obsession? But she didn't say it. Instead she looked at Anakin. "It's very pretty, and if you still want to give it to me, I'd be honored to have it."
Anakin brightened immediately and nodded. "Sure. Thanks."
Siri laughed. "When you give me a gift, I think it's traditional for me to be the one to say thank you."
Anakin just shrugged and reached for a piece of fruit, still smiling. Obi-Wan knew that he preferred giving gifts to just about any other activity, and he would now seek the bust in Siri's quarters every time he visited.
"I suppose it's pointless to ask what it means," Obi-Wan said.
"You aren't angry with me for something?"
Anakin's brows drew together in an expression of sheer bafflement. "No. Why?"
"No reason, I suppose. We should get dinner."
They worked together on the meal, chopping vegetables and adding some local spices that Siri had found, and sharing the day's various frustrations. For all Anakin's protestations, Obi-Wan thought he sensed at least some liking for school; it had at least given him a passion to reread several books, and he was openly enthusiastic about his art class, strange busts aside. Siri had visited several of the neighbor women, but come away with nothing but recipes and a sour taste in her mouth from the bile they were blithely repeating. For Obi-Wan's own part, he told Anakin about Shapoi - to his chagrin, Anakin agreed with Siri's reasoning - and told them both about his failure to connect with the mayor. At one point, Obi-Wan stepped out of the room to check the heat settings on the household computer, and when he looked into the well-lit kitchen to see Anakin and Siri talking to one another and working together, he realized that anyone looking in would see nothing unusual about this house, nothing that made it seem different from every other house on the block.
He had a strange urge to go back in and throw his arms around both of them, and it surprised him. He had never desired any family outside the Order, and he didn't really desire one now, but perhaps there was some old biological urge, a wild gene as yet unconquered in the human race, which made such a configuration attractive, made a man want to be a part of it.
Siri flicked a bit of flour at Anakin, and he took a swipe at her with a leafy green vegetable. She started to pick up a second one to meet the challenge, then changed her mind and leaned forward to kiss his head instead. He made a face.
After dinner, they talked more seriously. Anakin told them both that Daj Orti had seen them meditating last night, and, more importantly, that Daj had come from Coruscant.
"What is your sense of him?" Obi-Wan asked.
Anakin considered the question, then shook his head. "I'm not sure. He's not telling the truth about something. But I… Well, I like him. He feels okay to me."
"No. But can I go back tomorrow?"
"If you'd like to. If he does know something, it would be well to keep him in our sights."
"Great. I like his shop. It's lots cleaner than Watto's."
Then Siri asked about Watto's shop, and Anakin was off and running, telling stories of Tatooine as they cleaned up the kitchen. Siri caught Obi-Wan's eye during part of this, and she just shook her head. He smiled at her and rolled his eyes. Obi-Wan sometimes wondered if Anakin enjoyed Jedi company simply because the customary quiet of the Order provided him with space to talk into.
Siri excused herself to meditate, taking the bust with her, and Anakin finished putting dishes away. Obi-Wan settled in at the table to read the daily news, having decided in some vague way that, posing as a journalist, he ought to keep himself informed through traditional newspipes.
Anakin shut the last drawer and sat down across from him. "Sorry if you worried about me getting back late. I didn't think about it."
"I neglected to tell you to curtail your free afternoon." Obi-Wan put down the scanner he'd been reading from. "Anakin, your art teacher says you have talent. Would you like me to see that you get paints and clay and so on?"
"How come? Would it make me a better Jedi?"
"I think it would be inconsequential. She merely thought it would please you."
"What would I have to trade for it?"
"Trade? Oh. I see. Yes, timewise… I suppose you would have to choose, unless you wanted to give up your free afternoon."
He considered it. "I like the stuff I'm doing better. But can I keep doing that while I'm here?"
"Of course." There was unusual silence for a moment, then Obi-Wan sighed. "Anakin, do you feel I am robbing you of things you enjoy?"
The answer was immediate: "No."
"I only ask because your teacher -"
"You're my teacher, Master." His voice was firm on this, almost scolding, which was odd, given the sentiment he was expressing. He stood up and headed out of the room. In the door, he paused and turned around. "It was opposites," he said. "You and the other one. That's all." He disappeared into the shadows.
Anakin set up a changing screen to meditate behind, but it was stark and white, and there was something disturbing in its sterility, so he hastily shoved it to one side and turned off all of his lights. He crossed his legs and rested his arms on his knees, as he'd been taught, but without Obi-Wan to guide him, no sense of peace and tranquility came.
It wasn't unpleasant; the interlude was quiet and it did help him focus his thoughts, for all the good it did. He didn't have enough facts to come to a conclusion about Daj Orti, and, try as he might, he couldn't find much worth understanding about Tomik Cral. After five minutes of this, he got up and wandered to the window. Daj's house was dark, but he could be down there, watching for signs of his new friend.
Am I really Daj Orti's friend?
Anakin frowned. He couldn't escape the fact that he felt comfortable with Daj, sensed deception, but no malice. But what kind of deception held no malice? It didn't make sense.
Well, there was Padmé. She lied, and meant you no harm.
He shoved that thought away with a force that surprised him. He'd thought he was over his brief moment of betrayal even before he'd gotten up from his knees in the swamp. But sometimes, it came back. And always with the word "lie" attached to it, and it hadn't been a lie. More like a game. A game like he was playing right now, come to think of it. Not a lie.
Was Daj playing a game like that?
He didn't turn around to see Siri. "What?"
"Why are you awake in a dark room?"
"I like it like this," he said. "There's moonlight." He turned around. Siri was in her nightgown again, but she'd borrowed a knit tunic from Obi-Wan. It hung loosely over her narrow shoulders, slipping a little bit on the right and skimming over her shape. It came to the middle of her thighs, and the thin silk clung to her legs underneath it. She was trying to cover up, but it had the bizarre effect of making Anakin think about what she was hiding.
She seemed to sense this, and crossed her arms, then stepped into a deep shadow. Anakin could see the light from the hallway around her, an aura. "I thought you might have finished meditating."
"I only started a few minutes ago."
"I know you, Anakin."
He smiled. "I guess."
"Obi-Wan says that there is a volunteer clean-up crew at Shapoi's parents' home. I'm going to join it tomorrow."
"That's a good idea."
"What should I look for? What sorts of tokens?"
Anakin started to protest that he didn't know, but of course he did. That was why Yoda had sent him on the mission. To help Obi-Wan and Siri look like a family, yes... but also to try and understand a family. "Did he know his parents in the Temple at all?"
"No. They never met."
"Do parents ever get anything?"
"On rare occasions. If, for instance, a child shows a sign of illness, the medics might consult a family's medical records."
"But no school stuff, no reports or anything?"
"No. Why? Would those be kept?"
A sudden, painful image came, of Mom in his room on Tatooine, collecting up his things, sitting among them. Probably it was wrong. Mom didn't have time to wallow. But... "Mom would keep everything, if she had anything."
Anakin pulled the image of his mother back into his mind. He'd been sent here because he was supposed to understand a little bit. He had to look. He had to examine. It came in a fuzzy way. What would Mom be doing?
She is in a dusty room, maybe in their hovel, or maybe Watto has moved her to another one; it doesn't look familiar, but it is very foggy to him. It may not even be a real place, and it certainly is not a vision of something happening. It is only of what might happen.
He imagines communication devices - a comm-link, a holoproj, a two-way holo-comm. The comm-link is silent. There is no one to call. Qui-Gon perhaps would have spoken to her, but Qui-Gon is gone; she will have heard that on...
He makes her reach for the holoproj, which projects images of the celebration on Naboo. She searches for his face, finds it.
Watches it again.
"Who was Shapoi's master? Did he ever go on a mission that people would have heard of here?"
"Possibly. I'll see what there is in his mission history."
"Look for that. I bet a lot of the parents watch for their children. I would, if I were them. They probably kept stuff. What are you looking for it for?"
"I want to know the extent of their connection."
"Are you thinking he really did it?"
"No. But I want all the information."
"A solid plan," Obi-Wan said, coming up behind her. "If not one with a well-defined objective."
"Undercover work rarely has well-defined objectives, Obi-Wan. Much of the time, it is simply a matter of learning what there is to see. And at any rate, Shapoi asked for his parents to be rescued, and I consider that a fair request. We'll need to find them, and for that, I will need to learn something about them."
Obi-Wan just nodded. "Yes. I see your point. Siri, I would like to speak with my padawan."
It was a request that no Jedi knight would refuse. Siri nodded curtly and left.
Anakin stood as still as he could, wondering what Obi-Wan was upset with him for, but Obi-Wan just shook his head. "Have you meditated?"
"No. Not really. I started to."
"Then I'll meditate with you, if you don't object, in a few minutes."
"Sure. It's easier when you're with me."
"Which is why I really should have you learn to do it yourself, but I rather enjoy it, so I'm afraid I've been lax." He gave Anakin a rare, self-deprecating smile. "There are times I almost understand you, Padawan."
Anakin laughed. "Same here."
Obi-Wan's expression turned awkward. "Anakin, I saw last night that you were talking to several girls... "
"I like girls."
"I've noticed. But the, er, flirtation, is... somewhat inappropriate for your station."
Anakin tried to remember flirting with the girls last night, but drew a blank. "I don't understand," he said. "They were flirting with me a little, but I was just being nice."
"Anakin, let me put this plainly. As far as they are concerned, or any other girls at school to whom you are inclined to be nice - and in this they will be quite correct - Kit Tachi has a very strict guardian who deems him too young to engage in that sort of play."
Not knowing how to respond to being told to stop doing something that he wasn't doing, Anakin just said, "Sure."
"Very well, then. Shall we meditate?"
Anakin nodded, and they sat in peaceful silence for thirty minutes. After it, Anakin slept fitfully, dreaming of doubled figures, Queens and lies, and the monster who stalked him across the fiery plain of his mind. He remembered almost none of this when he awoke.
"I really must see Zio Shapoi," Obi-Wan said. "Our interview was incomplete."
The guard laughed. "I don't know what you did," he said, "but Shapoi himself said you're not allowed. Doesn't even want you in the building. You or anyone with you, he said."
"I'm surprised that hasn't resulted in you being determined to allow me full access."
"I... " A confused frown flitted across the guard's face. "Well, it was... "
Obi-Wan gritted his teeth. It was an iffy business, contradicting another Jedi's... suggestion... but Shapoi had no business shutting out the Order. "Shapoi was mistaken. He needs to see me, and you should allow it."
"He was... mistaken."
Obi-Wan waved his hand slightly, shifting his tunic to hide the motion from the camera. "I really must speak to him again."
The guard turned slowly, in a dreamlike way, toward the cell block. Obi-Wan decided as he followed him that it would be unkind to risk any further tampering with his reasoning capacities.
Shapoi appeared to reach the same conclusion when he appeared at the bars of his cell, a cross expression on his face. He started to say, "I told -" then clamped his mouth shut on it. He waited until the guard wandered away in his daze, the looked dully at Obi-Wan. "We've pushed him too hard."
"Why have you forbidden my presence? And those I am with?"
"I know the Order. I have been on missions, and I know you will attempt a rescue. You could not do otherwise. And I doubt you are here alone."
"I am not. I'm accompanied by my padawan and another knight."
Shapoi sat down on his bunk. "Human female, I would guess. A perfect portrait."
"A rather pretty one, actually." Obi-Wan smiled as a peace offering.
Shapoi accepted it. "Yes. It's rather nice, isn't it? In its own small way."
"Your parents have fled their home. Where would they go?"
"They're gone?" Concern flooded his face. "I don't know. I was only here a few weeks. Perhaps they're safe. Perhaps... "
"You seem unconvinced."
"I will remain unconvinced until they are safe on Coruscant, far from this place."
"How did they come to their political views?"
"They watched me. They... " He looked away, embarrassed. "Apparently, they... loved me. That was why they allowed me to be taken in the first place. They believed it was better for me to be trained. To... "
"To reach your potential."
"Yes. I had failed to wonder about that. It surprised me when I learned it. It... touched me." He closed his eyes, drew the Force around himself for calming, then breathed deeply. "But we had very little time to get to know one another. We had many questions for each other, but none concerned Malkiri politics."
"We'll find them."
"Put your energy into that, please. And ask your padawan and your partner to do the same."
"My padawan will understand your distress. As for my partner, I do not speak for her."
"I only ask you to speak to her."
"I'll do what I can."
"As will I." Shapoi sat down on his bunk, and broke all eye contact, which was as succinct a dismissal as Obi-Wan could imagine.
He nodded and went back up through the cellblock and the office, and into the sunny Malkiri afternoon. He could hear children in the schoolyard, a block or so away, and wondered idly how Anakin was doing.
He had castigated Siri for being unfocused, but she at least was trying to form a plan. He himself had expected to simply walk in, get information from Shapoi, and solve the problem. The truth would solve this particular equation.
But he was drawing no closer to the truth, and he was no longer entirely sure what he was trying to solve with it.
There were questions, of course. But which ones counted?
Why did the people of Malkiri despise the Jedi? Anakin had told them a bit of what he'd been taught in history class, but surely, they were not still truly concerned about events that had occurred nearly one thousand years ago.
But the Sith are back. Maybe we were the foolish ones, to forget.
That was true enough, but did it matter here? The identity of Qui-Gon's killer had not been widely publicized. The people of Malkiri had no reason to make a connection.
Unless the Trade Federation had brought some knowledge of the Sith with them.
And did it matter? Was there a way to stop it? The hatred was an unbroken circle here. Use of power would be considered intrusive; aloofness was apparently considered arrogant.
Why had Shapoi been framed for such a horrific crime? The hatred certainly seemed to have been present without a specific cause.
And who had framed him? Who had killed the royal family? And why?
What was the position of the mayor, and why did he refuse visitors?
The last questions seemed to be the most pertinent to the situation, and it was certainly the ones the Council would be interested in, but Obi-Wan felt curiously distant from them. He wanted to get to the root of the problem, not to cover some simplistic angle of it. As he'd tried to explain to Anakin about slavery in the Outer Rim, fixing a symptom of an illness was not enough to cure the illness. (To Anakin, of course, the symptom was the illness; he made no distinction.)
He almost didn't answer, and wouldn't have if he hadn't sensed Siri's presence through their old childhood bond. He had nearly forgotten the name he was using. He turned around.
She was cutting across the street, smiling fondly, one hand raised in a wave. Unlike other days, she'd chosen to wear very casual clothing, and it was covered in plaster dust and paint. A kerchief kept most of it out of her long blonde hair. In an odd way, she looked very much the girl she had once been (smile and wave apart, of course; Siri's more usual expression as a girl had been a strange combination of impassivity and annoyance). That was comforting in its familiarity. He waited for her.
She caught up to him and looped one arm through his. This close, he could see that the smile was pasted on. "We're on a public street."
Obi-Wan nodded and drew her a bit closer. For style, he bent down and kissed her cheek.
"Be careful," she said dryly. "I might misinterpret such passion."
"I take it you have been at the Shapoi home?"
She nodded. "It's a mess. The things there... you can only see part of it from the outside. The inside has been... Well, it appears that people took great delight in destroying their property. Some of the mess, I handled in biohazard gloves."
"The amusing thing, Siri, is that you look happier than you did yesterday."
"I am doing something. I can't imagine not having a mission, even if it is merely to repair a broken home." She leaned over and opened the small sack she carried as a purse. She drew out three silvery disks. "I found these far in the back of a drawer in Madam Shapoi's vanity. I thought perhaps something so well hidden would be something of importance to her."
"I would agree."
"You take them. I don't want to be found with them while I work."
They reached a corner that led to a main street, lined with cafes. People were out eating lunches. A bluish hand waved frantically from across the street, and Obi-Wan belatedly recognized Thama Bercha sitting with a Neimoidian man in rich robes... presumably, her lord Ilb.
Siri forced a cheerful smile, and there was some pantomimed talk between them, the gestures exaggerated to make sure they could be seen. Obi-Wan thought that Madam Bercha was inviting Siri to lunch, because Siri pointed to her clothes and shook her head with an exaggerated expression of apology.
"I'd best get back to work," Siri said. "Or she will be offended that I didn't join her. You should go greet her; you're dressed for it." She hooked her arms around his neck and glanced furtively around.
"But she doesn't much like me."
"True. But that is not a reason to deliberately offend her. At least for you, it will pass quickly." She stood on her tiptoes. "Just kiss my head again and look like you're saying goodbye for the afternoon. I think that should look all right. Though we should ask Anakin what we ought to do if we meet at midday."
Obi-Wan made a show of brushing a stray hair from her face. "Given Anakin's track record, he will not recommend the forehead." It occurred to Obi-Wan that such a thing might not be entirely wrong, given the situation. He put his hand under Siri's chin, tilting her face up and expecting to see the same sort of teasing he'd seen yesterday morning. Instead, her eyes were dark with irritation at him, and that made him feel much more comfortable with her. He kissed her forehead. She squeezed his hand in a perfunctory way and scurried back off toward the Shapoi house.
Obi-Wan took a deep breath to prepare himself, then went over to greet the Berchas.
Anakin had been homesick for the Temple most of the morning, as he turned in his first pointless assignments to disinterested teachers and sat through frequent recaps of lessons that had already been taught yesterday. Math was the worst. After spending nearly fifteen minutes during the morning assembly doing twelve different mildly altered versions of the same problem, he came into class only to hear the teacher lecture on the equation needed for it, and give a quiz on it. More homework was given on the theme. He had read his story for literature class when he'd awakened in the morning
(really need to work my evening schedule better)
and thought of a lot of different things it might mean. Most of them were probably wrong, but it turned out that the teacher was more interested in making sure everyone got the sequence of events right than in really talking about things today. He offered one of his ideas, and she said, "Well, that's an interesting take, Kit," but didn't really comment on it. It hadn't been a good trade off. Tomik and his gang had studiously ignored him ever since. He was looking forward to art, but he had to get through recess first. He missed the the Temple most at recess.
The Temple was not uncompetitive (no matter what the Council wanted) and play often became a bit energetic, but people were polite to one another and used their soft voices. Anakin found now that his tolerance (and occasional liking) for yelling and crudeness had worn away, and all the posturing was irritating him. The simple fact that he could probably send most of them to the med center without even turning to look at them while he fought did not help matters... and the notion of it kept recurring to him.
Kit doesn't like loud noises because he and Siri used to live beside a busy freeway. He doesn't fight because he has only the vaguest idea of how to do it. And...
But it was no good. Whenever he let go of his Anakin-self to try and take a stab at Kit, the irritation tried to rise up and fill in the gap. So he would have to settle for pretending to be Kit for now, rather than actually becoming him.
Worst of all, he wasn't even learning anything useful for the mission. He'd only heard three anti-Jedi statements this morning, and none of them had an explanation.
He had to get back in Tomik's group.
They were gathered near some kind of play equipment. It appeared to be a fluctuating repulsor, which would throw a child a meter or so into the air to do acrobatics. The shape was irregular, and it would make the surface of the field uneven and prone to unpredictable angles, but several of the generators seemed damaged, and no one was actually using it. Tomik himself was on his scoot, trailing over the round edges of the toy. Brinje was hanging at the edge of the crowd.
Anakin, already on his scoot, resigned himself and floated over to join them. Tomik didn't say anything - including "hello" - but there was no move to push him out.
"Hey, guys," Anakin said, slumping his shoulders a bit and trying to sound embarrassed. He put his hand to his head and straightened the leather strap that held his hair in place (another of Qui-Gon's).
"You good at lit?" Tomik asked, gliding back and forth along a curve in the repulsor toy's edge, tipping his scoot up in a quick move at the end of each arc.
"Just thought I'd give it a stab."
"Yeah? You wanna tell me where you got that thing about that dumb flower being that girl's mother?"
"Figured it didn't sound any stupider than a reservoir being the whole galaxy." This, unfortunately, was a version of the truth. He'd tried a few ideas about the flower, none exactly self-evident, and just picked one that sounded like it might be interesting to talk about. He wanted to see what the teacher had to say about it.
Tomik smiled, apparently taking that as an appropriate avowal of disinterest. He stopped his back-and-forth gliding and went back to following the irregular shape of the toy, bending his knees here and there to change his angles. "Yeah, well, you can fill the rest of us in on stupid stuff like that tomorrow."
Anakin shrugged. "You guys coming to Daj's after?"
"Maybe. What'd you do after we left, anyway?"
"Picked up a few credits helping Daj out. I'm going again today."
"Cool. I got a drag on my rear left thruster. Can you fix it?"
"I could help in science."
They both turned around. Brinje had moved in closer and was looking hopefully up.
"I'm pretty good in lab, right, Kit?"
Tomik leaned forward, using the rounded edge of the repulsor toy to hover at a strange angle, about forty-five degrees over the ground. "Yeah, but mushbrain, I'm not in your lab."
Anakin supposed he could have helped what he did next, but - as with getting Obi-Wan to kiss Siri goodbye - he acted as soon as the idea occurred to him. The repulsor to was not bolted the ground. Tomik was using it to achieve his weird stance.
Anakin looked at it with as nonchalant an expression as he could muster, and pushed the Force out at it. The machine tottered, then suddenly shot back half a meter.
Tomik lost contact with the surface he'd been repelling against, and his head fell down onto the playground's muddy surface, splattering his clothes with stagnant rainwater. His feet remained hovering, but he'd far overbalanced, and didn't have the strength to right himself.
It had made noise, and many other children turned to look. Some even had enough spine to laugh. Tomik glared at them.
Serves you right, you miserable bully. And I hope you'll see lots more mud before I go.
The thought seemed to almost come from outside of himself. Almost. But not entirely. Its vehemence surprised and sobered him. He tried to imagine what Mom would say, found it hurt too much, and replaced that image with Qui-Gon.
Ani, you have not changed his point of view, and you have behaved shamefully. Will you repair or compound it now?
Well, it wasn't exactly right, but maybe it was close enough. He didn't bother to imagine Obi-Wan's reaction, which would make Mom's look comfortable if he found out.
He reached down and helped Tomik straighten out. "You okay?"
Tomik swung his legs inward until he was crouching low to the ground. His face was bright red, where it could be seen through the mud. "Fine," he said tersely. He lowered himself, took off the scoot, and proceed to kick the repulsor four times, muttering under his breath. It looked like it hurt.
He turned to the gang, glancing over their shoulders to make sure none of the other students were listening. "I'm tripping rapids," he said. "No way I'm going back in there. You guys up for it?"
Two or three boys, Brinje included, nodded enthusiastically, and the whole gang tromped over to a spot along the forcefield. Tomik struck a casual pose in front of it, scoot dangling from his had. He looked around, then took a swing at it with his scoot, firing the thrusters as he moved. The field crackled, faded, broke in an uneven ellipse. The great scent of the evergreens spilled into the playground. Tomik spilled out of it.
Apparently, "tripping rapids" meant leaving the school grounds.
Brinje moved to go through the hole, but Tomik shoved him backward. "You're not invited."
Two more went through. Anakin waited to see if it would be the whole gang. If not, he wanted to see what the others were like without Tomik bullying them. To his relief, four boys stayed back, saying something about having to be in class.
"Kit?" Tomik asked.
Anakin shook his head. "My brother-in-law'd fry me if I kicked art. Madam Kam came to our house yesterday."
Tomik gave him an understanding smile. "Yeah, she's weirder than a drunk Wookiee. She'd definitely spark you out on it."
Tomik and his cohorts got on their scoots, and zoomed off toward the nearby forest. The forcefield crackled again, and the hole closed.
By the time Anakin turned around, only Brinje was left. "How come you let him talk to you like that?" he asked, unable to block the question and thinking that it couldn't exactly be abnormal. Normal people would have to wonder about it.
Brinje just looked at him for a minute, then shrugged. "I like Tomik. He's really tough. I wish I was like that."
"But he's so mean to you."
"If you don't like him, how come you keep coming back?"
It's my job.
"Dunno. No one else to talk to yet."
"I'd join your gang, if you had one. How'd you do that with the repulsor?"
Anakin felt the blood draining from his face. "What do you mean?"
"You know... How'd you make it move?"
"Why would you think I did?"
"It never moved before you got here."
Anakin made his voice impatient and a little petulant. "Well, did you see me move it?"
"Well, you were staring right at me, so I guess I didn't do it, huh?"
Brinje frowned. "How come you wear that braid in your hair?"
If the alarm hadn't already been going off in Anakin's mind, he might have stumbled on that question, but he was alert now, careful. "It's the way my friends wear it back home," he said. "That's all."
"Are you in a scoot gang?"
Anakin, whose idea of gangs involved Hutts and bounty hunters, tried to apply it to the boys he'd seen by the Temple, and did not succeed. "No. No scoot gang."
"But it's, like, a sign or something?"
"Kind of. Lots of guys at my school do it."
"Oh. Okay." Brinje kicked a stone. "You going to do any more of those cool things in art?"
"Soaked. I'll see you there." He went off thoughtfully.
Anakin let him go. He examined the forcefield and saw where two of the generators were out of sync with the others. A good whack with the thrusters in his scoot would make for a temporary distortion of the field. Good to know.
For now, he wanted to go back in and see what he could find out. But it never hurt to have an escape route.
Just in case.
Zio Shapoi sat silently in the middle of his cell, letting his eyes take in everything while concentrating on nothing.
It had not occurred to him to be surprised that his parents had not come to visit him. Every time he thought he had the gist of the relationship, he was struck by some new thing that he realized ought to have been self-evident. His mother, Daha, should have been here long ago, perhaps to bring him food or something to read; perhaps to complain to the guards that there was only circumstantial evidence and he should not be held... mainly just to be here. If he'd been looking at the situation from the outside - if he'd been on a mission and noticed a grown son jailed while visiting his parents - it would have struck him as surpassingly odd to find that the parents in question had not been constantly beside the cell.
But because he was not at all accustomed to being anyone's son, he had failed to notice that his parents had behaved abnormally.
Even that didn't explain it, though. He had found a rough equivalence between parents and Masters, and he knew that, if his Master, Et'hla Ra Verinan, had still been alive, she would undoubtedly have been here to offer him support, even though she'd taken another padawan after him before she died. Why wouldn't he have expected Daha? He'd seen all the grainy holos and fragments of his life that she had saved. He supposed that it just didn't seem as strong a connection to him, or as permanent. He'd only just met them.
At any rate, until Jinn's padawan had told him that his parents had gone into hiding, he hadn't noticed their absence.
Why did they run?
Zio could think of any number of reasons, the most obvious of which was that his arrest had made them targets of the strange madness on Malkiri. Et'hla had always taught him not to disregard the obvious; it wasn't always the truth, but it pointed towards it in most cases.
He knew that Daha would have been there. Daha made sense to him, in some ways. But what about his father? Pojul was reticent with him, and awkward. Was that the normal way about human fathers?
Zio didn't know.
More importantly, Pojul had been the radical in the household, and he had hated the way Malkiri was changing (Zio himself was indifferent to the Neimoidian presence, and actually rather encouraged by the general good will between the dominant species). Most importantly, Pojul had been in the same house, and had access to Zio's lightsaber.
Et'hla had lectured him a hundred times, or a thousand. Your lightsaber is your arm, your leg. It is part of your mind, Padawan. You do not leave it aside.
But for Zio, being a Jedi had been largely about diplomacy, and his lightsaber was so often dormant that he frequently failed to carry it. Here on Malkiri, it was foolish to do so.
Still, you should have missed it when it disappeared.
And he would have missed it, had it been in his possession in a public place, then been gone. It had not. It had been in his parents' home. He had left with Daha, to walk in the woods and talk - how she had wanted to know about him, about his life, and how good it had been to tell her! - and he had not had any inclination to check on his belongings when he returned. Pojul had been home all along.
A day later, the murders, the recriminations...
His lightsaber had been in the place where he had left it when they came to search the house - but it had been recently charged.
It was circumstantial, of course. There was no way to match a particular power signature to a lightsaber wound. Cauterization was too instant, and the heat caused too much distortion. But how many lightsabers would there be on a world like Malkiri?
It was disturbing, but possible, that his father had framed him.
There is something you aren't seeing, Et'hla's voice scolded, though Zio knew it was really just his own mind, speaking from the part of itself that she had formed. There is something else. Something further than Pojul or even Malkiri's blind, baseless hatred.
He felt a ripple in the Force and let his eyes focus on his surroundings. A figure was coming down the long hallway, glancing carefully over her shoulder. She was filthy and wearing shapeless coveralls, but Zio could tell that she was quite lovely despite it - and that she was, without a doubt, a Jedi.
The partner that Jinn's padawan had spoken of. He sighed and stood up to greet her. "May the Force be with you."
She frowned in an irritated way. "You might pretend to keep cover."
"As I told your partner, there is video surveillance only here. It makes no difference what I say. As I further told your partner, I would greatly prefer it if you would both put your energy into finding my parents and getting them off Malkiri. I will resolve my own situation."
"As I told him, I don't take orders from you."
"Nor I from you."
She frowned. He tried to place her among the children who had been in the Temple. Like most young knights, he had occasionally visited the crèche, looking for a padawan that he had yet to take. All he could see was a blonde girl, arms crossed defiantly, glaring at a bigger boy. It could be her. Or it could be another of the rebellious ones who never took no for an answer. The crèche master always spoke to them gently, trying to break their stubbornness without breaking their spirits. The strategy had never been noticeably successful.
She was now examining the locking mechanism.
"You know," he said. "Visual surveillance actually might catch that."
"They're playing sabacc at the desk." But she stopped the more obvious parts of the behavior, and checked her chrono. "And they should be having a bit of reception trouble by now."
"Don't try to break me out."
"We're not leaving you here."
"Get my parents off this planet, and get yourselves off. Tell the Council to disavow me. I was a rogue. I turned on my training. Anything."
"Did you do it?"
"Then you know perfectly well that the Council will say no such thing." She sniffed. "Unless, of course, there's a reason. Then they'll say you turned and sold out to a slaver, and not even bother to tell the people whose opinion you value otherwise. But that's neither here nor there. You're not on a mission, and telling lies about you serves no purpose."
Zio almost didn't need the Force to feel the wave of bitterness that came off of her with this. Bitterness and... shame?
She didn't seem the type.
The shout came from the end of the hall, where a guard was lumbering down the stairs, blaster drawn.
Zio was not allowed unapproved visitors. They would immediately assume the Order had come to spring him (that they would be right would only compound the problem). He had to give them a different idea.
Abruptly, he reached between the bars and pulled the woman forward, hoping that he had observed this properly in the few holovids he'd seen. She managed to get as far as "What do you think -" before he pressed his mouth down on hers.
She understood quickly enough, and pushed him away with a look of loathing. He sensed a thought trying to come to him - All right, a rogue, then - then she spat at his feet. "You can't even be a proper Temple eunuch, can you, killer?"
The guard had reached them by then, and she was staring at Zio resentfully. (This, he thought, was not entirely faked; it had been a very big liberty to take.) She turned to the guard. "I've been cleaning up his miserable parents' house all morning, and I wanted to give him a good hard kick."
"You're not allowed in here." He shook his head. "I'd put him outside in chains if it was up to me, and you could kick him as much as you wanted, but that's not the way it works, little girl." He turned her around, then glared at Zio. "And if I hear of you so much as breathing at another woman, I'll drag you out there in chains myself, and to the devil with how it works."
He led the woman out solicitously.
She glanced back over her shoulder once, and Zio clearly heard, We'll get you out.
She would be back. There was no question in Zio's mind about that. Even if her partner was willing to go along with his wishes, this one would be back. She would feel too guilty to leave him here with that reputation.
He decided that he'd better free himself. Better an escaped rogue than an organized Jedi rescue. And better not to let the Order look too closely into what might actually have happened.
"I don't understand why you spend time with them," Daj said, opening the control panel of a sleek new speeder bike. "You don't seem to like them much."
Anakin shrugged. "Neither do you, and you let them come to your house. And don't tell me it's business. You're the only scoot dealer around here. They've got no place else to shop." He pried off the hood of a toy mini-speeder and grimaced. The engine was completely gummed up. "Pass me the pressure freeze. I've got to dry this and clean it off. Don't these guys ever take care of their things? I've seen cleaner engines from a Hutt's dungeon." He caught himself. "Figure of speech."
"Mmm." Daj handed him the can of pressurized cold gas that would freeze up the gummed oil and dirt for easy suctioning. "In backwards order... first, I have not heard such a figure of speech, but it is quite descriptive. Second, very few children care for their machines as you do, so no, they do not maintain them well. Third, Tomik is a natural leader. I would like very much to change his perceptions."
"He doesn't seem to want to change."
"That is why I suggest only with great gentleness."
"Do you think it's working?"
"I think he's stopped painting foul messages on my shop. Though that could, I suppose, be simply because he tired of me painting them over. Still, it is progress." Daj shrugged in a resigned way.
Anakin shook his head and aimed the freeze at the outer layer of grime. "You're not like a Neimoidian at all."
"Oh, really? And what are Neimoidians like, if I might ask?"
Anakin felt himself go hotly red. "I'm sorry. That was a dumb thing to say. I'm sorry."
When he looked up, Daj was regarding him mildly. "You might have responded more defensively. I accept your apology," he said. "And no worry. I am aware of the rather well-earned public reputation of the Trade Federation. Most of us here are freely associated with it. But not everyone associated with it agrees with all of its policies and prejudices. You understand this?"
"So why not just change it?"
"Sudden changes are rarely permanent. There would be too much... I am not certain how to say it. Too much enforcement involved."
"I'd still do it. Kick out Gunray and the all those guys. People'd get used to it."
"You are an impatient boy, Kit Tachi. And you have not answered my question. Why do you spend your time with Tomik?"
Anakin decided that Brinje's answer was the safest. "He's tough, you know. Just -"
But Daj was rolling his large eyes. The gesture, in Neimoidian physiology, involved a slight rotation of the elaborate irises, so that they appeared to be cogs turning against one another. "You do not follow. You are followed."
Anakin fell silent. Daj had it partly right. Maybe even mostly right. But he could follow, if a leader was any good. He only started leading when he decided that no one else could. The decision usually took considerably less than an hour, but still, it was the principle of the thing.
He followed Obi-Wan all the time. He'd follow Padmé if she ever called and asked him to. And he'd follow Mom or Qui-Gon Jinn all the way to hell, even if they didn't ask. He knew how to be loyal.
He finished drying the gummy engine, then the suctioning tool made too much noise for meaningful conversation. By the time the toy speeder was working again, it was time to go home.
The evening was cold, and he wished for his heavy brown cloak. The silks didn't stop even a little bit of the wind. He'd gotten more accustomed to the fluctuation of temperatures since the flight from Tatooine, but he still hated being cold, and looked forward to slipping into his room and turning the heat up to something normal.
But when he came around the corner and the house came into view, he felt like he'd been pushed back by a hot wind.
He could see Siri and Obi-Wan through the parlor window. She was sitting primly in the alcove seat, and he was at a computer terminal. Nothing looked wrong... but everything feltwrong.
They were arguing, and it wasn't the usual playful teasing.
He stood absolutely still for a moment, hating the cold, the sound of his heartbeat in the quiet night, and the terrible stink that seemed to be coming through the Force at him. He felt the wind tugging at his hair, insinuating itself into his pores.
He took a deep breath, and headed inside to deal with whatever was happening.
Obi-Wan looked up sharply from a stilled holo. (It showed a cheering crowd, with a Jedi and her padawan up front, receiving some kind of honor.) "Anakin," he said. "I'm glad you've come home. It may be necessary for us to change our tactics."
"It is totally unnecessary," Siri said, not looking over her shoulder at them. She had some kind of textile in her hand, and she poked a needle through it brutally. "Shapoi is not going to turn us in just because I went to see him. We made up a perfectly reasonable cover story."
"You should not have gone," Obi-Wan said.
"We are equal here. You are not in command of this mission."
"So you've pointed out, but I didn't fail to note that you didn't share your plans with me."
"It was not planned."
"We had an understanding, Siri."
"To my understanding, my responsibilities here included finding escape routes. I could hardly do so without visiting the prison."
Anakin cleared his throat. "Umm... ?"
"Please speak, Anakin," Obi-Wan said. "Siri and I have been around this circle several times without interruption."
"Siri probably should have said something," he said. "But it's done, right? So now what do we do?"
"There's no reason to change our plans," Siri said. "It was unfortunate that a guard observed me at the prison, but it was managed. The guard did not take my name. There's no reason it should interfere with Obi-Wan's visits as a reporter."
"I'm not concerned about the guards, Siri. I'm concerned about Shapoi. He doesn't want us to rescue him. You are not subtle in your opinions on the matter."
Anakin tried to think of something to say to smooth it over, but nothing came to mind. "What's he going to do about it?"
"He's already tried to forbid my visits," Obi-Wan said, "and we can't keep using the mind trick on his guards. That is cruel."
Anakin was surprised to hear Obi-Wan say that. It was an opinion that he held himself, regardless of the frequency of use, but he thought Obi-Wan disagreed with him. "Maybe we should work on finding the parents...?"
"That's what I was working on before Siri came home," Obi-Wan said. "All I have found so far is that they have, indeed, saved many images of him that were broadcast. It is not helpful in discovering their current whereabouts."
The stink in the air faded a bit, and Siri came over to look at the holos. "All right. Let's see what else there is. If there is anyone they may have thought to contact."
"Can I go warm up for a few minutes?"
"Yes, of course," Obi-Wan said. "I apologize for accosting you so quickly."
"It's okay." Anakin was headed for the stairs when the lights flashed in the walls, signaling a visitor at the door. "I'll get it," he said.
He keyed the door open to find two uniformed officers standing on the porch. "May we speak to Baklee Tachi, please?"
Obi-Wan appeared from the parlor. "Yes?"
The officers turned to him, and the one who had already spoken asked, "Did you visit with Zio Shapoi this morning?"
"Have you spoken to him since?"
One of them looked over Obi-Wan's shoulder and saw Siri. He frowned. "Is that your wife?"
Siri came forward. "Yes. I am."
"You also visited Shapoi. I have your image from security cameras."
"This afternoon, yes. I wanted to express my disgust with him."
"So we heard. Quite a job, too. But you may be in some danger, considering the manner in which he treated you there."
"I won't go back."
"You don't understand, Ma'am. Shapoi has escaped."
Obi-Wan had an opportunity to be grateful for the argument with Siri - knowing everything that had happened helped a lot as one officer questioned him and another questioned her. They would not contradict one another.
As far as Obi-Wan could tell, Shapoi had risked mind-tricking the guard one final time, and it had, as anticipated, a bad effect. The man had been found in a daze, humming in the middle of the open cell door. No one else had been hurt; Obi-Wan guessed that Shapoi had made an effort to hide his actual exit from the building.
"Do you know why Shapoi may have touched your wife in the manner he did?"
Obi-Wan clenched his jaw. Siri had not mentioned that during the argument, which might have proven a good decision, as the officer's first mention had brought genuine shock. It was audacious, but Shapoi would know that even the bigots on Malkiri would recognize that a true Jedi would not behave in such a manner. Whatever expression had come across his face must have been the right one, because the officer had given him a commiserating look, and had treated the subject gently. Obi-Wan decided that Baklee was not the insanely jealous type, and his concern was only for Siri's state of mind, not on some kind of half-baked revenge, which would make any decent law enforcement officer keep on eye on both of them.
"I imagine, from our talks, that he looked down on her. That he was impatient with the hatred directed toward his Order and struck out."
"To show they could take anything they want."
"To show that he could."
The questioning went on for twenty minutes, but as neither Siri nor Obi-Wan actually had any idea where Shapoi might have gone, there was ultimately nothing to be gained from it.
When they left, Siri sank down on the front stairs with a deep sigh, and rubbed her temples with her long fingers. "When I find him, I'll kill him myself."
"That's a healthy attitude. I'm going to check on Anakin."
"Anakin's fine. I saw him go into his room. They didn't have any questions for him."
"I'm still going to check on him."
He brushed by her and went down the corridor to Anakin's room. He knocked on the door, and was blasted by escaping dry heat when it opened.
"Are they gone?"
"Yes. How much longer do you need to stay in the oven before you finish baking?"
Anakin offered a forced grin. "It's cold outside. What's next?"
"I'm not sure. According to Siri, Shapoi wants the Council to disavow him."
"Well, that shouldn't be too hard."
"I doubt they would do so."
"They would if it were me."
"I know you think so, but I believe you're wrong. And I would not allow it, at any rate."
A more genuine smile appeared. "I guess we just drop the act and go get him now, then, right?"
"No. His escape from prison will make it difficult to leave the planet unnoticed. We will need to find other routes. And we will find his parents."
"Because he asked."
"If I get arrested, will someone go get my mom?"
Obi-Wan sighed and leaned against the doorframe. "You're in an unpleasant mood tonight, Padawan."
"So are you and Siri."
"Anakin, I am sorry I pulled you into that. It was inappropriate of both of us to show such... dissent... in front of you."
"I'll live. What were you looking at?"
"Siri found several holos of Shapoi that his parents had apparently kept. We had hoped to understand the family dynamics better. It seems somewhat pointless now."
"I think we should watch them anyway. Maybe get an idea of what to expect when we find them."
Obi-Wan didn't think it was a particularly useful idea, but his own judgment had been poor so far today. "All right. Come downstairs in ten minutes or so. I'll get us something to eat while we're watching."
Anakin nodded, and Obi-Wan went back out. Siri was standing at the end of the hallway, at the top of the stairs, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed over her chest. She was looking at her feet. "Obi-Wan... "
"I apologize. I should have consulted with you before visiting Shapoi."
The words were measured, as though she had memorized a phrase in a language she didn't speak. For Siri, of course, that wasn't far from the truth. It was quite an effort for her to apologize. "I accept," he said.
She glanced up, nodded, and looked down again. "Then we start again?"
"Yes. Anakin will join us in a few minutes, and we'll look at those holos you saved. I was going to get us something to eat."
"I'll do it." She smiled in an awkward way. "I find I rather enjoy it. Who would have suspected?"
She reached across their bond in the Force tentatively, and Obi-Wan reached back.
It would be all right.
He went to the parlor and drew the privacy shades (an oversight earlier; the projection itself wasn't visible from the windows, but he was giving in to some of the paranoia).
He hadn't had much of a chance to look at the images before (the one he'd been looking at was the first he'd retrieved, and he'd discontinued it shortly after Anakin came in). He had gone for a long, rambling walk after leaving the Berchas, and only arrived home ten minutes before Siri. Then the argument had begun.
The encounter with the Berchas had been mercifully brief. Madam Bercha had introduced him to her husband, then fallen respectfully silent. Since Obi-Wan had little to discuss with Ilb, a few stilted pleasantries seemed to be enough to satisfy manners. He made a point of wishing both of them farewell, and using Thama's name. The fact that he was trying to appear as a Coruscantian journalist did not necessarily mean he had to pretend to agree with every aspect of Neimoidian culture, and he was developing a healthy allergy to their marriage customs.
Healthy? Should I not accept what is?
But the answer that came into his mind was Qui-Gon's face, set with the small smile that always meant he had no intention of playing by the rules.
Obi-Wan found that he could not rebel to the extent that Qui-Gon tended to. He was quite certain that, had Qui-Gon lived, he would have found a way to get back to Tatooine and end slavery there, despite the Council's position on not acting without Senatorial approval (he was also quite certain that Anakin knew this perfectly well, and that it caused some unspoken resentment, but he guessed that there was an outside possibility that he was simply paranoid on that count). For himself, he settled for the small rebellions. Letting Anakin wander on Coruscant. Greeting Thama Bercha by name in front of her husband.
In his experience, a hundred small changes made over time tended to be more permanent than a single large change, imposed in a sudden moment. The rising tide of impatience in the galaxy disturbed him, particularly when he saw it in his own padawan. Fix it now! was the cry. And if you have to break something to do it, let the pieces fall where they may.
People were not considering consequences.
So thinking, he had wandered the perimeter of the city, and come to his own home from a direction he hadn't anticipated. He'd barely settled in and gotten the holoproj set up when Siri came in, and, after washing her hands and face, told him that she'd been to see Shapoi, and he wouldn't believe what Shapoi wanted the Council to do.
After that, the tight circle of the argument had begun.
This time, he examined the small silver disks more closely, and found embedded dates on the sides. He put them in order, and set the first one into the projector just as Siri appeared with a tray of food and set it down on the small desk. Anakin came in a minute later, reached for bread, then sat on his other side.
Obi-Wan turned on the image.
An achingly familiar scene came up - the Temple crèche, full of quiet children. The crèche Master walked among them, speaking to them in gentle tones. A few still kept toys with them, though it was discouraged early. Obi-Wan remembered those days with deep fondness, bonding with Bant in particular and all the others in their turn. Even Siri. He remembered her, two years younger than he was, sneering at a boy who still had a stuffed toy with him at six. She'd been a bit of a brat... but she was talented. Even then, she'd stood out.
But this scene was before his time, or Siri's. He recognized the crèche master only from a brief visit the man had made; he had chosen to leave service and spend his old age off Coruscant before Obi-Wan's childhood. Perhaps he'd brought this to the Shapois. It showed nothing much at all, just life. A small boy on a bunk, thumb in mouth, was reading, and the master sat beside him.
"Is that Shapoi?" Siri asked, pointing at the boy.
"I'm not certain. It might be."
"Did they send this out?" Anakin asked. "Like maybe to tell the parents their kids were okay or something?"
"No. I've never heard of such a thing."
Anakin frowned. "Do you show them anything when you take the babies? Like the schools, that send out all these pictures of how happy everyone is? Do you think they showed your parents anything when they took you?"
"No, nothing like that. Though it would perhaps not be a bad idea." Obi-Wan glanced at his padawan, but didn't say anything further. Anakin had trouble wrapping his mind around the idea that the other children had no memories of other homes. He had tried to imagine his own parents once, at Anakin's request, and found it nearly impossible to guess what they might be like, or what they might have wondered about when he was taken.
The image cut out. There was a moment of static, and another came up. It was a presentation of some sort on a world he'd never seen. A small woman stood with a tall teenage boy on the steps of an official building. Both wore long robes. Obi-Wan could see Zio's padawan braid. The woman must have been his master. Masters and padawans were most often of the same gender, but it was by no means rare for them not to be. Shapoi looked at the woman with the normal deep respect that would have been expected of him. She was presented with some token, and he bowed to her.
Obi-Wan missed Qui-Gon with a sudden intensity that surprised him.
The image shifted several more times. There were more presentations, news items. Always, Zio Shapoi was an inconsequential figure, but always, he was there.
"It's nothing," Siri said, frustrated.
"It's everything they had," Anakin corrected.
"So what can we expect?"
Anakin leaned forward, found Zio in the picture that was floating before them, and shook his head. "Anything," he said.
The morning after Shapoi's escape, Obi-Wan came into Anakin's room and told him in a low voice, "We should be prepared to leave on short notice. Take all things which you must not leave to school with you."
Anakin shrugged and took his lightsaber from the bedside drawer where it had waited since their arrival. He buried it at the bottom of his packsack, beneath the scoot and his schoolbooks. He tried to figure out if there would be an unobtrusive way to pack a few changes of clothes, but realized that would be a waste of space. If they had to leave Malkiri suddenly, Kit Tachi's wardrobe would lose what marginal usefulness it had. Beyond the lightsaber, only his datapad really remained to pack, as far as necessities went. It was more than he'd left Tatooine with.
Obi-Wan gave him a sharp look as he left, apparently a reminder not to engage Tomik's gang in a duel, or perhaps dismember Madam Dysto. What does he think I'm going to do?
(Be honest with yourself. He saw what happened with Krayn. He saw you keep attacking when your opponent was down. And are you any more sure than he is that Krayn actually still had a blaster when you killed him?)
Anakin frowned and fixed the scoot onto his boots. He didn't care for that particular voice inside his head, mainly because it was unapologetic about the implications of what it was saying. Krayn hadhad a blaster. Otherwise, Anakin wouldn't have killed him, wouldn't have kept fighting.
(Does it matter? He was a slaver and a brutal criminal. The galaxy is better off without him.)
"Oh, shut up," Anakin muttered to himself. He tossed a few more items into his bag, mainly to cover his lightsaber, and went downstairs. Siri tossed him a piece of fruit as he went out the door, and he headed out onto the street and guided the scoot to school.
He was almost there when he started to notice the armed guards lining the streets. He reached out into the Force. It felt jumpy and nervous, and he drew away from it. He went through the arch under the forcefield with a bit of a flourish, and glided down to Tomik's gang, which was gathered around the school door. "This because of Shapoi?" he asked.
Tomik nodded, looking delighted. "Yeah. He got out. They got the launch pads locked up, and they figure he might try for a hostage here."
Anakin raised an eyebrow. "Yes. I hear that all the time about the Jedi. Taking kids hostage, right under their teacher's noses… "
That bit of sarcasm went unnoticed. Tomik raised his fist and gave a whoop at a man on patrol, who returned the gesture. "My brother," he explained. "He's been in the militia for a long time. This is the first time they called him out."
When they got in, they found the atmosphere of the school radically changed. Madam Dysto went on at length about not letting anything disrupt lessons, but all the lessons were quite disrupted. Literature was all but hijacked by a hysterical girl who was sure that Shapoi was going to steal her away and force her to go to Coruscant. Rumor had gone around about Shapoi kissing Siri - funny that neither she nor Obi-Wan had bothered to mention that before - and Anakin found himself called upon to add to the hysteria by swearing revenge. After a very brief moment of considering his persona and reflecting on what the real Kitster would do, Anakin just frowned and said something about time balancing it out in the end. It didn't seem to impress anyone much, and he supposed that was the effect he was after, though it just didn't feel right to have people thinking he was a coward.
In art, Madam Kam asked them to express their feelings about the escape through art. To this end, she gave them all paint today. Anakin hadn't ever worked with paint before, and had no idea what he was doing, so he just smeared dark colors onto the paper she provided, and swirled it with the brush into deep whirlpools and smaller eddies. Since there was a good amount of time left after this bit of fakery, he added dark red highlights here and there, and finally, just because it seemed to want something, put two bright points of light in the upper right corner.
All the paintings were left on the wall to dry. Anakin scanned most of them while he got his things together. They all seemed to show people more than feelings, mainly a stylized Jedi stealing a wide-eyed child. His own mess looked very conspicuous, and he had the nasty feeling that Madam Kam would decide it was deep and meaningful.
After school, he slipped out before Tomik's gang and started to head toward Daj's. A soldier stopped him outside the gate. "Straight home, today, boy," he said. "There's a criminal on the loose."
Anakin just blinked, momentarily unsure how to respond. Part of him wanted to just brush the man off, push him aside, and go on, but that would be rude. "I'm sorry?" he said. "I… I have a job."
"You can do without it today."
"My boss will worry if I don't show up. He'll think the murderer got me."
The soldier shook his head. "Nice try. Communications are still up."
"Come on, man."
"Not my choice, little friend."
So Anakin wound up walking home with Tomik's gang after all, scoots tucked under their arms, escorted by soldiers.
Obi-Wan and Siri were both home when he got there. He could tell from their faces that they'd made no progress with Shapoi. Siri's electronic surveillance detector was out again, sitting on the kitchen table. It was still showing clear house, but Siri kept looking over her shoulder at it anxiously. Obi-Wan simply sat at the table, watching the detector calmly over steepled hands.
They said almost nothing that night, meditated separately, and began the same routine the next morning.
School the next day seemed to be no more than a repeat, a feedback loop. By lunch recess, Anakin felt as though he were drowning in sugar water, maybe laced with some mild intoxicant. He felt like he wasn't even present.
So when he saw Tomik standing beside the weak spot in the forcefield, he kept a close eye on what was happening. The patrols went by once every ten minutes or so, and Tomik waited carefully for a lull, then slammed his scoot into the beams. Four of five of his gang slipped out. It seemed like Brinje was with them. Anakin moved closer.
Another patrol went by, and Anakin counted the seconds, using the time to tighten his pack. The back of the soldier disappeared around the edge of the forcefield.
Anakin picked up his scoot, fired it, and tore a hole through the energy.
He followed Tomik into the woods.
"All right," Siri said. "Where would you go? If you'd just escaped from jail, on a world that you'd only spent a little time on?"
Obi-Wan sighed. "I'd find a way out. Look for an underground movement with some transportation. There clearly is one here. But the presence of his parents skews the equation. He will find them first."
"Are you sure? He told us to find them."
"He won't delegate."
"Delegate… " Siri bit some comment back. "You told him we would take care of it, I told him we would. And he was bound and determined to stand trial. Now, he looks guilty."
"It's unlikely that the people of Malkiri consider him any guiltier today than they considered him two days ago."
Siri frowned at him. "Will you stop playing Jedi master with me and just register some kind of reaction? I'm not your padawan."
"Would you prefer it if I started behaving like an adolescent again? Or are you reserving that privilege for yourself?"
She recoiled as if he'd slapped her, but brushed it off with a flick of her hand before he could apologize. "Well, I asked for that, didn't I?"
Obi-Wan didn't bother to contradict her. "My reaction isn't that different from yours," he said. "I simply feel a need to contain it. I've gotten in the habit around Anakin. If he sees me being impulsive, he'll take it as permission to do the same."
"And if he finds out what a wild padawan you were?"
"He knows my story relatively well, so you have no extortion threat." He winked, hoping that she was joking and trying to return the jest in kind, though he didn't feel it.
"And here I thought I'd be set for life." Her voice was dry and tired, but it didn't have much of an edge to it. She took off the short jacket she was wearing and tied it around her waist. Under it, she was wearing something sleeveless, tight fitting, and low cut. She didn't seem to take any notice of it, so Obi-Wan decided not to take any notice of it, either. "Back to Shapoi," she said. "If we can't make a guess as to where Shapoi himself would go, what sort of place do you think his parents would go?"
"I'd guess they would seek the underground, of which I have no doubt they were a part. But… "
Obi-Wan shrugged. "I think they're nearby. I think… I think they wouldn't want to be too far away from him while he's in trouble."
"Why do you say so?"
"Because I… " He shook his head. "Never mind."
"No, tell me."
"Because I would stay close to Anakin," he said after awhile, surprised to actually hear it aloud.
"You're his master and he depends on you. He's a child. Shapoi -"
"If Anakin were to take his Trials today and pass them with no difficulty, I would still feel an urge to watch over him, as I always felt that Qui-Gon would watch over me. And as Adi watched over you while you were undercover, I might remind you."
She shifted uncomfortably. "I seem to recall you being the one to rescue Qui-Gon as often as he was the one to rescue you."
"You and Adi would only have been sent when Qui-Gon was in trouble and I needed… guidance. Of course that's what you remember."
"If you're right, then his parents are probably somewhere near the town. The woods?"
"I would think the woods would have been searched."
"Anakin says the children often play truant there," Siri said, "so clearly, the surveillance isn't constant. And the forest would provide food and a semblance of shelter."
"A resistance movement would need more than trees and berries."
"Are you sure it's an organized movement?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, you're taking for granted that these people who dislike the way things are going are some kind of cell."
"Aren't they usually? How many secret bases have we found? Hidden labs?"
"Underground schools," Siri added with a faint smile.
"Exactly. People will always try to organize… "
"I'm not sure about that. The slaves on board the ships - granted, they were controlled, but almost none attempted to circumvent those controls. And anyone who seemed to be forming coalitions was dealt with severely. I'm not certain that people here would actually form a cell."
"It would be difficult to accomplish anything without some kind of support."
"How much do you see having been accomplished?"
"I see your point."
"And when something did happen, it was one spectacular crime, carried off by an individual, with no apparent repercussions."
"Apparent may be the key word, Siri. The death of the royal family -"
"Has no particular benefit to people who hold the views we've heard from what you would call the Resistance. It only serves to increase the power of the Trade Federation here. So if any strategic goal is being served, it's theirs. Or it could be the act of a single, enraged man. Either way, nothing we've seen points to an organized opposition. If we waste time trying to track down a phantom syndicate, we may walk right past people lurking in the woods."
Obi-Wan nodded. "All right. We'll search the woods."
"Good." She headed down the street, and Obi-Wan followed her. They entered the woods together.
The sweet smell of the evergreens was overbearing this close, cloying and heavy. Light came down in strange, speckled patterns, and needles from the trees made the forest floor almost slippery. Somewhere close by, Obi-Wan could hear the gurgling of the stream, and a slight hiss that suggested it went over a waterfall somewhere ahead. Thinking in an unfocused way that the clean, aerated water at the bottom of a fall, coupled with the possible sound-masking value, might make it an attractive place to hide, he nodded to Siri and they struck off along the water.
They seemed to have been going for quite awhile when Siri spoke, though Obi-Wan's chrono said that not much time had passed. "Who do you think really killed them?" she asked.
"You really think it's Shapoi, don't you?"
To his surprise, she didn’t snap at him. Instead, she sat on a moss covered rock beside the stream. He could feel the Force around her; she was not idle - she was searching in a way that made more sense than simply following the stream. "I did think so," she said. "I didn't think it was definite, but I thought there was a possibility. Jedi can go bad, you know. You thought I had, why wouldn't I think it about Shapoi?"
"You were careful to cultivate the image of it, Siri. Shapoi has shown no signs of -"
Her eyes burned for a moment, then she looked over her shoulder, back toward town. "But when I met him… no. He's as solid a Jedi as you are."
Interesting, Obi-Wan thought. Not "as solid as I am," but "as solid as you are."
"What are your thoughts, Siri?"
"I think his lightsaber was used. Try as I might, I can't get past the coincidence of a rarely-drawn weapon losing a charge on the same day a weapon of similar type was used to commit a murder. Someone had access."
"That wouldn't suit their cause and it would certainly hurt their son. I don't see it."
Siri leaned back on the rock, stretching out in the sunlight like a cat. Obi-Wan was suddenly very aware of the shape of her body. He took off his poncho and threw it across her. She gave him one of the irritated frowns that he had associated with her since crèche, and that brought his mind back to where it belonged. She closed her eyes again. "Someone they trusted."
"Or someone who could control them."
"Obi-Wan, you're trying to see Sith everywhere. I find it somehow unlikely that the remaining Sith lord would come to Malkiri just to mind-trick Pojul and Daha Shapoi into framing an obscure Jedi for a political assassination."
"But here on Malkiri, it's never going to be about a Jedi, Siri. It's about all of us. The hate was here, and someone threw a flame into it."
"I'm not sure that we can assume -" Her eyes opened and she sat up, the poncho pooling around her waist. "He's here. I just felt him."
Although Anakin had been fascinated by the smell of the forest on Malkiri, he had not found a time to go into it until now. To his surprise, it was warmer under the canopy - apparently, the geothermal warmth held in compensated for the solar heat kept out. It was a comfortable warmth, a blanket wrapped around him. The scent of the trees was completely pervasive here, almost painfully wonderful - it was the full and tantalizing smell of bread baking in a kitchen, almost ready to bring out to cool, making him hungry and homesick at the same time.
He drew his knees up and hovered over the forest floor on his scoot, closing his eyes and letting the sensory input rush over him like the wind. Obi-Wan said he was too easily distracted by his senses, and it was true - he knew it was true - but sometimes, he just wanted to give himself to all that sweetness, and let himself drown in it.
Instead, he just breathed deeply, once, twice, three times. He opened his eyes. The forest was just trees, and his senses retreated and let him think.
He knew a little bit about tracking; it was one of several subjects in which Jedi students were given a passing education, as they might well need to follow someone or avoid being followed themselves. But it took no training to follow Tomik's path. There was a rough mud trail, and along it, limbs had been broken, and trees bruised and cut by a carelessly swung branch. Food containers and other garbage made a rough path back into the shadows.
Anakin pulled the scoot up higher, straining the limits of its repulsors. On a whim, he pulled closer to a tree, found that he could pull himself up even further, using the wood as a base. He was perhaps ten meters up now, looking at the thin trail winding away. He could see motion in the canopy about half a kilometer ahead.
From here, he could see that a lower canopy stretched midlevel in the forest. If he moved slowly, he could probably stay at this height. He didn't know why he wanted to, but his instincts told him that he should.
Anakin, you must learn to separate your instincts from your desires.
He frowned, unsure, and decided to stay high anyway.
The canopy provided a strange, soft feel to the scoot's repulsion, and Anakin felt as though he were traveling over gentle waves as he made his way from one tree to another. It would have been more efficient, he supposed, to stay on the path, but -
"Hey, that hurts!"
Anakin grabbed the trunk of a nearby tree and looked down. Tomik and his two larger friends (a slow boy whose name was either Irzi or Urzi and an even slower one whose name Anakin had never been told) were waving sticks in the air, closing in on Brinje, who was backing into a bush, his hands raised over his face. Irzi-or-Urzi took another swing at him and Anakin heard the wood slap against Brinje's knee.
"We're gonna take you back to Coruscant!" Irzi growled. "And once you're there, you belong to us!"
"Yeah," the slower one said, apparently unable to think of any new threat. "That's just what we're gonna do."
Tomik jabbed at him in a cruel move that drove the stick into Brinje's breast bone. Brinje grabbed at his chest and went down. "Only he'd be a pretty pathetic Jedi. We'll just have to find some other use for him," he leered.
Okay. This has to be stopped.
Anakin debated just diving on them, swinging the two henchmen into the nearest trees, then taking on Tomik and beating him to a pulp. It wouldn't be very hard, he thought. And maybe I'll give him a couple of whacks with that stick. Maybe more than a couple.
Obi-Wan's voice came into his mind like a cooling draught. You are too angry to attack. You will do more damage than you can live with. But you must do something. It is right to do something.
Anakin sighed with relief. It did feel like something Obi-Wan would say. He liked to do things quietly, but he did do things sometimes. Anakin rose higher in the tree, and he saw Brinje's head tilt up. Tomik started to turn and follow the gaze, so Anakin ducked behind the trunk. After a few seconds, he looked around again. Tomik was advancing on Brinje.
Anakin caught Brinje's eye deliberately, and put his hand over his mouth. Be quiet. He reached into his pack, and drew his lightsaber from the bottom.
Then Tomik took another swing, this one directly at Brinje's shoulder. Anakin heard the crack as either the bone or the stick broke.
He ignited his saber and sliced the thin top of the tree off, then pushed it down toward the path. Brinje saw it coming and scrambled away. Tomik and the others saw that motion, and jumped backwards, until they were almost directly below Anakin. It hit none of them.
Brinje just stared up, and Anakin realized he was in plain view, lightsaber ignited.
He turned it off and hid it in the pocket of his coat, moving as he did behind another tree.
"Better go, Tomik," Brinje said. "Before the whole forest falls on you."
"Yeah, right," Tomik said.
But he left. His buddies went with him.
Anakin glided down, using the branches in a zigzagging pattern to get to the forest floor. He landed beside Brinje. "You okay?"
Brinje was staring at him openly, his eyes drifting to the braid buried in the extensions on his hair. "Lots of guys at your school wear that, huh?"
Anakin shrugged. "Well, it wasn't a lie."
"Lean forward." Brinje obliged, and Anakin checked a long welt on his neck. "Someone hit you on the neck?"
"Irzi. Tomik told him not to be dumb, but that's like telling the waterfalls not to smoke."
"Let me see your knee."
Brinje rolled up his trouser. The knee was a deep purple, and a bruise was swelling up from it, but it didn't look broken.
"And your chest, where Tomik hit you?"
"I'll let my mom look at it, if it's all the same to you." Brinje muttered.
"How's your shoulder? Are you okay to get home?"
"I'm not walking on my shoulder."
"I'm trying to help you here."
"I just sometimes heard that you guys… well, you know… "
Anakin fought to conceal his irritation, and didn't quite succeed. "No, I don't know, unless you're planning to finish that with, 'Sometimes you guys help ungrateful little kids for no reason.'"
"I'm no younger than you. Don't talk to me like I'm a little kid."
Control. Control. "All right. I'm sorry. Look, are you okay to walk? Really okay? They were slamming you pretty hard."
"Yeah. I am."
"Okay." Anakin reached down and helped Brinje to his feet. "You know not to say anything, right? You know… Come on, you know that, right?"
"I'm not stupid, either. But if you guys are sneaking around to cause trouble…" His eyes widened. "You broke Shapoi out of jail!"
"And then decided to stick around for art class?"
"Just so we wouldn’t be suspicious!"
"No, Brinje. I didn't break Shapoi out of jail. I never even saw him. Will you please promise not to tell? You only know because I was helping you. It's a fair trade. I could've just let Tomik keep hitting you."
"No you couldn't've." Brinje sighed. "And I guess that's why I'm not going to tell."
"Are you coming back into town?"
Anakin considered this. There was no reason to stay in the woods, but…
That outer-sense, the tickling at the edge of his consciousness, awakened. He felt something like a buzzing in his head. He wanted to see where it was coming from. "No. I'm going to see what else is out here. I hardly ever get a vacation, and it smells nice here."
"Smells like my mother's closet."
"Whatever. I want to stay. You go home and get checked out. What are you going to tell your mother?"
"What does it look like?"
Anakin examined him. The part of him that was Obi-Wan's padawan suggested that he should tell Brinje to be honest with his mother, who might then be of assistance in keeping him away from the dangerous situation. But the part of him that remembered going home to his mother with scrapes and bruises obtained practicing with his podracer or fighting in the street, and telling her something that would make her less worried… that part of him answered. "I don't know. Maybe you could tell her you were climbing a tree and a branch snapped. You got slapped by a couple on your way down. It definitely looks like branch bruises, though, so don't say you fell. And watch out for Tomik on the way back. He could be laying for you."
"Nah. He never does that."
They smiled cautiously at each other, then Brinje turned and headed down the path back toward town. Anakin looked up the path as it went further into the woods and became less defined. He could feel that other sense again. And… Obi-Wan? Was Obi-Wan here someplace?
Maybe there was something going on here. He decided that he'd better find out.
He drifted into the shadows, and the sense grew larger as the ground began to rise and grow stony. Needles from the trees made a carpet here, and he could hear the sound of the stream not far away as it went over a waterfall. He looked to the top of the hill, and was surprised to see a low wooden house, built facing away from town. From here, he saw the side of it, triangular. The back of the house sloped literally under the hill. From the front, it would look as though the hill had a façade. From the back, it just looked like the forest.
Something glinted among the trees, catching Anakin's eye - something metallic.
His eyes scanned the trees on the house's roof again.
They were tall and straight, lined up, perfect…
Too perfect. The rest of the trees in the forest grew any old way, wherever they could get sun. These were in a half-circle, and each tree was perfectly straight.
And the metallic flash had come from one of the trunks.
One perfectly round shrub with high leafy edges.
Another small, squat shrub, with sharp corners.
Anakin crouched low, and headed for the round shrub. When he got there, he let the scoot rise until he could see over the edge.
Deep in the shrub was a shallow metallic bowl - a broadcaster.
It's a communications array. It's -
His other-sense suddenly seemed to scream and fill his head. Someone was here, someone was right here -
Then there was a heavy thud, which he heard before he registered the pain on the back of his skull. He was barely able to recognize that someone had hit him before the world swam into grays and finally black.
Siri was a few meters ahead, and Obi-Wan managed to stifle the urge to race with her. That part of their lives was left behind - he could allow her to reach the top of the hill first.
He spotted a quicker route, somewhat steeper, and took it.
They arrived at the top of the hill at the same time, to find nothing but a rather striking vista of an apparently endless forest.
Siri bit her lip, but not before the edge of a curse escaped her mouth.
"I don't know what you were expecting."
"I felt Shapoi's presence," she said. "He's here in the woods."
"I agree. Though I didn’t feel what you did."
"You haven't breathed his used air up close."
"No, but I have talked to him at greater length."
"Are you telling me that you don't trust my perceptions?"
"No." Obi-Wan sat down on a large boulder. "Why would you jump to that conclusion? You know perfectly well that we won't always sense the same things."
"Well, you didn't trust me to let me talk to him in the first place." She blew air out of her mouth in an explosive gesture, and several flyaway strands of her blond hair flew up in a cloud. "Of course, I did seem to make a bit of a mess of it, didn't I?"
"I think he might have gone anyway, Siri. He didn't want the Order involved, and the longer we stayed here, the more convinced he would have become that we would."
"I sped the process up a little."
"Well, patience was never your strong suit."
Siri clenched her fists and planted them on her slender hips. With the breeze tugging at her hair, she looked like the heroine of a grand adventure. "I don't know where he is," she said.
"The Force is not a compass," Obi-Wan answered. "It can -"
"Will you stop it? Will you stop talking to me like I'm your padawan? I'm not! I was a knight before you, and I functioned very well on my own for almost three years!"
"I'm sorry… "
But she wasn't listening. She was pacing. "I managed to go without the Council, without my master, without Yoda… without you, even. I maintained my cover…" She stopped, closed her eyes. "Do you know what I had to do, Obi-Wan? Do you have any idea?"
"I imagine you were thorough in your persona."
"Thorough. Oh, yes. I was thorough." She sat down on the ground, her legs crossed. "Now that I think about it, there were a hundred excuses I could have used, you know. Lots of reasons not to… I mean, other than being in the Order. It's a stupid thing for a woman to do to get close to power. I learned that later. Took a different approach and did better, but at first… I don't even remember his name, he wasn't even anyone placed too highly to refuse -"
Obi-Wan started to ask, "What are you talking about?" But he understood before the question fully formed, and asked instead, "Siri, do you really want me to know this?"
She didn't answer for a long time. Finally, with a slow, rolling motion, she rose to her feet. "Look at me, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan glanced up at her. The sun picked out her curves and caressed them, and the breeze pushed her clothes against her. He looked down. "All right. What do you want from me, Siri? What have you been asking me for since this began? I am not going to -"
"I want you to look at me like this, to know what I just told you, and still think of me as a Jedi knight."
"I thought if anyone could, you could. But even you… you see this, you cover it up. You hear what I told you, and you look away."
"Siri, I've never thought of you as anything but a Jedi."
"Then why did you throw my jacket over me?"
"Because you were distracting to me!" Obi-Wan ran a hand through his hair. This was not the time to be having this conversation. "If you wanted me to see you as a knight, why were you treating me like a schoolboy to be teased?"
Siri turned around, a look of honest surprise on her face. "It never occurred to me that you felt… well, teased. You've never wavered, not since Melida/Daan, anyway. I just… it never occurred to me."
"It appears we've been operating at cross-purposes."
"Apparently so." Siri sighed. "I'm sorry, Obi-Wan. It wasn't fair to you."
"No, it wasn't. But if it helps in any way, Siri, I have always thought of you as a Jedi. No one needed to tell me you were undercover. When I took the time to think about it, I simply understood that you would not betray the Order. I was right." "But I -"
"Did what seemed right in an unusual situation."
"I feel like such a fraud when I go back to the Temple. They want me to take a padawan, and I just keep expecting someone to scream, Don't you know what she did? "
"Have you talked to Adi about this?'
"No. I couldn't tell Adi. I couldn't stand the idea of what she would think of me. I couldn't stand the idea that she wouldn't forgive me."
Obi-Wan stood up and went to her. He didn't embrace her or offer her a place for tears; that wasn't what she needed. Instead, he simply stood beside her, a colleague, an equal. "She'll forgive you, Siri. I have a padawan now, and I can tell you on some authority: your master will forgive you. It would hurt too much not to."
Siri turned and gave him a half-hearted smile. "We're not getting very far in finding Shapoi here, are we?"
"No, we're not. And we should return to the task at hand."
"All right. Yes." She looked over the rise again, toward the valley beyond, where the thin, sparkling line of the stream broke the vast forest. "We should head toward the water."
"Yes, I think we -"
Obi-Wan stopped, a rush of fear suddenly washing over his mind, then vanishing.
No, not vanishing.
Being cut off.
"What is it, Obi-Wan?"
"Anakin," he said. "Something's happened. I need to get back to him."
Siri checked her chrono. "He should still be in school. Go. I'll keep looking for Shapoi."
"Good. Do you have your comm-link?"
"Then we'll keep in contact. I don't like this."
"I'm not fond of it myself. Do you want me to come with you?"
"No. We need to find Shapoi. And then I want all of us off this world. Something is going bad here."
"Figure of speech."
She nodded. "Go."
"What do you mean he's not here?"
Madam Kam blinked her large eyes slowly, three times. Obi-Wan thought he had time to count each striation in the color of the irises between the motions of her eyelids. "He didn't appear at the beginning of my class, Baklee Tachi. You should perhaps speak to your charge. He seems to have left school grounds."
"How can that happen? I thought the school was supposed to have some responsibility for the children here."
"This is not a prison, sir. Our shields are not set to show alarms if a student determines to cross one. If your brother-in-law has any affinity with mechanics, he may have been able to damage the field. We've known for years that there is a flaw, but… "
Obi-Wan clenched his teeth and held up one hand. "Very well. I will report Kit's absence to Madam Dysto, then I will attempt to find him." He took a deep breath. "Do you know of any… perhaps not entirely sanctioned diversions in the area? Particularly races?"
Madam Kam shook her head in bewilderment. Obi-Wan scanned the room, saw no apparent secrets in the eyes of Anakin's classmates, and nodded his thanks to the teacher. He left, not bothering to stop in Madam Dysto's office. It would do little good to put the school's machinery in motion - if Anakin had left, he had done so without consulting the school, and without an adult per child, the school would have no way to actually track him.
And, as Anakin was ultimately Obi-Wan's responsibility, it was hardly fair to waste annoyance on the school.
But where would Anakin have gone?
He almost tripped over a small boy sitting on the wide steps in the school lobby. The boy's bag tipped over, spilling datapads, drawings, styli, and a hoverscoot onto the hardwood floor.
Obi-Wan bent down. "I'm sorry, child. But do you know where Daj Orti's shop is?"
The boy smiled widely, apparently pleased to be spoken to by an adult. "Oh, sure. Everyone knows Daj's. It's down the street, then a left turn through the old town, then out until you're almost in the new town. It's all clean and there's a ramp on it."
"Thank you. You've been quite helpful."
Obi-Wan left the school grounds, unable to keep a slow and measured pace. He was concentrating now, trying to feel Anakin's presence in the Force. As he'd told Siri, the Force was not a compass, but it could be used to track, and Anakin was usually, quite frankly, a gravitational force. But now, Obi-Wan could only feel a vague tugging at his mind, a small hook pulling him in no particular direction. He could only trust his knowledge of Anakin, and the problem with that was that the most likely thing for Anakin to do was something new that hadn't occurred to him before, which left Obi-Wan with nothing at all to go on.
He supposed that objectively, it only took him ten minutes to get to Daj's store, but it seemed at least an hour, maybe more, before he saw the odd building with the scoot ramp outside. His feet only hit one riser on the porch steps.
Daj Orti was alone in the shop, behind the counter, and he stood with a welcoming smile. The smile faded abruptly into concern when he saw Obi-Wan. "You are Kit's guardian." It wasn't a question.
Obi-Wan nodded. "He isn't here?"
"No. I assumed he was still in school." Daj came around the counter and pulled a stool out from an aisle. "Sit down. You look upset. Has something happened?"
Obi-Wan sat down on a crate at the end of an aisle. His legs felt shaky. "I don't know. I went to the school, and he wasn't there. I don't know where he's gone, and I am concerned."
"He may have simply slipped away… "
Obi-Wan didn't know how to address the issue without giving away some skills he didn't want to discuss, so he just shook his head and repeated, "I am concerned."
Daj drew back, looking at him in an appraising way. "You sense he is in danger?"
So this was what Anakin meant about Daj's sharp perceptions. It was disconcerting. Obi-Wan simply repeated, "I can't find him."
"But he often runs off, doesn't he? Back on Coruscant?"
Obi-Wan nodded. He raised his hands to his temples and rubbed in small circles. "Yes. Yes, he runs off. If he isn't here, I need to go now, to find him."
Another appraising look. "You really are concerned. Your worry is for the boy."
"Of course it is."
"He is difficult for you."
"He is difficult for everyone, but at the moment he is lost, and he is therefore my difficulty to deal with." He stood up. "I really must go."
"They go to the woods," Daj said abruptly. "I am not supposed to know, but I repair their scoots. They are gummed with resin and clogged with leaves and needles. I walked the woods not long ago. There is a path of sorts from the school to the mayor's home."
"The mayor's home?" An alarm seemed to sound in Obi-Wan's mind. The mayor - the one who wouldn't see him, the one who had never made an appearance.
"Yes. He lives near the waterfall."
Back where I started, with all this time wasted. "So far from town?"
Daj sniffed. "He does not bother himself with our everyday concerns, you know. His business is with galactic trade. But it is an attractive spot. I believe the children may approach it."
"Thank you. I -"
"Go fetch the boy." Daj gave the forced and unusual smile that Anakin had told him about. "He's the best assistant I ever had."
"I'm afraid you can't keep him."
"I knew that from the first. But collect him anyway."
Obi-Wan nodded his thanks and left.
It would be the woods. That's why it had been so strong there in the first place. Along the stream to the waterfall.
He didn't bother looking for a path to the school or to the waterfall itself. He just ran through the woods toward the sound of the water; he could pick up the path going back. There was no need to need to bother with hiding his skills here; no one was nearby, and he leapt easily over stumps and other obstacles. He reached the stream quickly and followed its course toward the ever-growing hiss of the waterfall.
Anakin dreamed of home.
He was cold, as he often had been at night, though it felt oddly damp. Mom was cooking breakfast, baking bread. He had to wake up now, or he'd be late to the shop, and Watto would be furious. He didn't want Watto to be mad, because there was a big race coming up, and maybe Watto would let him fly again, even though he'd crashed last time.
He started to roll over, but it hurt his head.
Mom! Hey, Mom, I'm sick!
Anakin pulled himself to his hands and knees, ignoring the pain in his head. It wasn't awful. It just made him a little unsure on his feet. "Mom?"
He tripped over something on his floor, something that looked like a tree root, but couldn't be, as there were no trees in Mos Espa.
The kitchen was shadowy and green. He couldn't see Mom anywhere.
He blinked his eyes into the sun.
I'm on Malkiri. I haven't been on Tatooine in four years, and I can't find Mom because she's still back there.
Anakin swayed in the clearing, feeling completely lost. He had been by the strange house that looked like a hill. How had he come here, and where was here?
His head still hurt, and he still felt unsteady on his feet.
Someone hit me and dragged me.
A horrible thought occurred to him, and became a certainty before he even thought to check. Someone had found him and knew he was a Jedi padawan. Someone had seen his pack. His lightsaber.
He pulled his pack off his shoulders and around to the front. It was undisturbed.
Why wouldn't someone have opened it? Why knock him over the head and then not take what he was carrying?
Forget that for a minute. Go back to 'Someone hit me.' Go back and think about that closely. What are you going to do about that?
"Shut up," Anakin hissed at the voice in his head, and for once it did. Maybe it knew as well as he did that there were more important things right now than worrying about payback. Like finding out who had found out what. And finding out where he was and how to get back home. "Think," he whispered to himself. "Just think. There has to be a way."
He looked around himself. He was in a circle of trees that could be anywhere. He couldn't see any glint of the windows of the house he had been at. It could be anywhere in the woods. The stream burbled away not far from here. He could hear the hiss of the waterfall. It hadn't been too far, then, unless he had been taken to an entirely new place, but he didn't think it had been that long. The sun hadn't moved very far.
The stream. It goes behind the house. Follow it upstream into town.
Anakin rolled his eyes. He must have been hit harder than he'd thought. He'd found his way home from the open desert by the shapes of rock formations, and that was a lot more complex than this. He turned toward the stream.
And promptly fell forward, the world spinning around him at an alarming angle. His hands hit the damp ground, and he stayed there on his knees, long hair hanging in his face, trying not to vomit.
After awhile, the dizzy spell passed. He reached for a sapling and pulled himself up slowly, stopping each time the vertigo tried to take him. He would need to remember to move slowly.
Using the trees for support, pausing now and then to get his equilibrium, he made his way toward the sound of the rushing water.
Obi-Wan ran along the stream, darting around trees easily, leaping over roots. He could see the place where the land dropped off, and he knew he was getting close. Anakin's presence was growing stronger, but he was lost and disoriented. But for a moment, he'd felt a surge of impatience and anger that - for once - had done his heart good. Anakin with enough energy to be angry was Anakin not badly hurt.
It didn't make his impatience any less. He had been worried and
concerned, and he wanted to actually have the boy in sight, in easy reach. Once he was there, he wasn't sure if his instinct was to embrace his padawan or cuff him - neither was precisely the approved method of dealing with a Jedi padawan - but such choices were irrelevant until he was actually there.
The path ended abruptly at the top of a steep incline beside the waterfall. He could see the sunlight flashing on the windows of the house Orti had told him about. Below, the stream bent sharply toward another part of the woods. He looked out over the trees, preparing for the inevitable frustration of not seeing him in this vast forest, but almost as soon as he looked down, he saw motion.
He opened himself up to the Force, felt Anakin's presence and nearly cried out in relief. But the boy was moving strangely, listing from tree to tree as though he were on a water-ship and didn't have his sea legs.
Obi-Wan started to nearly fly down the slope, then remembered that it could be seen from the windows of the house. He made himself slow down and pick his way over the rocks to the stream below. "Kit!" he called out, when he was close enough to see Anakin's face on the other side of the stream.
Anakin looked up in a dazed way, then smiled. He took a stumbling step toward the stream, and Obi-Wan put on a burst of speed, splashing across the shallow water, not needing to use the Force, but not particularly caring what could be seen from the house. Anakin had taken a few uncertain steps in, and was swaying with the current when Obi-Wan caught him and held him. To keep him from falling down, of course. That the feel of his heartbeat and the sound of his steady breathing sent palpable waves of relief coursing through Obi-Wan like a tide wasn't the point at all.
"Are you all right?"
"Someone hit me. I wasn't paying enough attention."
"We'll talk about that later." Obi-Wan picked him up - barely noticing that Anakin's legs were long enough to dangle almost to the ground when he did so - and carried him over to the side of the bank he'd been running on. He set him down on a boulder. "Let me look at your head."
Anakin obediently bent forward, pulling his long hair up from his neck. An ugly welt crossed the base of his skull, but it didn’t actually look like a bruise. More like an energy burn.
"Did you sense anyone nearby, Anakin?"
"At the last minute. I should have been paying more attention."
"And you should have been paying more attention when I said we'd talk about that later." Obi-Wan leaned in to look at the wound more closely. It had been carefully inflicted. "Did you sense someone who was in tune with the Force?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure. It wasn't there, and then it was there. Why?"
"This looks like a wound from a lightsaber in training mode. You've had them before on your arms and chest. Inflicting one near the base of the brain would cause temporary unconsciousness."
Anakin tried to jerk his head up, throwing Obi-Wan's hands momentarily off, then slumped forward again, looking green. "Somebody snuck up on me with a lightsaber? Why didn't they kill me?"
"I don't know. What were you doing before it happened? For that matter, why weren't you in school? What did you think you were doing?"
"I was following Tomik. Then I decided to see what was down here. There's a big comm array. That's what I was looking at. I thought it might be important. It's all hidden."
Obi-Wan finished his examination and pulled Anakin's hair back down over his neck. He kept his hand on Anakin's shoulder to give the boy a bit of support. "You should have come straight home when you found it, and let Siri or me come to investigate."
"Who do you think hit me? It couldn't have been a Sith, could it?"
Obi-Wan frowned. "No. A Sith would have killed you, probably taken your lightsaber. The same is true of whoever killed the royal family."
"There's only one I can think of. Shapoi. Siri sensed him in the woods just before I felt you hurt. And he was careful not to do any serious damage to you. He simply didn't want you wherever you were."
Anakin managed to sit up straight. His eyes were unfocused and he looked a bit dizzy, but he seemed to be coming around at least a little. "Is he on our side or not?"
"He is on the side of the Jedi," Obi-Wan answered. "That I am confident of. But he doesn't necessarily interpret that in the same way you or I would."
Anakin didn't answer.
"We need to find him. It's time to leave."
"Why would he hit me? Why not just say, Stop it?"
"I don't know."
"I want to know. And I want to hit him back."
Anakin looked up through narrow eyes, and Obi-Wan realized that he was fighting with his temper. His tone had not been defiant; it had been rather miserable. He wanted Obi-Wan to help him not want to hit Shapoi.
Obi-Wan found that help a bit difficult to offer, since he himself would have liked nothing better at that moment than to do precisely the same thing. But he was older and wiser, and knew better.
"Anakin, whatever Shapoi's motives were, I think they were not malicious. I believe he may have been trying to protect you from something he has already discovered."
"He surprised me."
"He frightened you."
"No." Anakin shook his head. "Well, a little. But mostly… it's embarrassing." He blushed and looked down.
"There's nothing to be embarrassed about. However gifted you are, you are still a padawan, and Shapoi is a full knight."
"I should have felt him there."
Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow. "Ah, so there was a permanent injury after all. Anakin Skywalker's pride has been wounded."
He had tried Qui-Gon's wry tone, the one that had always felt warm to him when he was a padawan, and was surprised when Anakin turned and glared at him. "All right, yes, okay? I'm embarrassed. I screwed up. I didn't do it right. I -"
Obi-Wan put a hand on his arm. "Anakin, be calm. There is no shame in a mistake, and you should not be shamed by this."
Anakin drew in a deep, shaky breath. "Yes, Master. Does this mean I'm going to have to have special lessons where I have to make mistakes and be embarrassed?"
Obi-Wan thought about it very hard. He had made up what Anakin called his "special lessons" to deal with some of the baggage Anakin had carried from Tatooine, and because they hit directly on his weaknesses, they were rarely pleasant, but he learned from them. At the same time, while Obi-Wan had been able to deliberately provoke Anakin's temper, consciously force him to sit out his impatience, and make him see the results of his impulsive behavior, he found that he simply could not make himself deliberately humiliate the boy. Not for anything. That lesson wasn’t worth the price. "No," he said. "No special lessons. But be aware of your pride, Anakin."
"All right then." He pulled out his comm-link. "Siri?"
She answered immediately, also sounding put out. "What?"
"I have Kit."
"Good. Then I can stop looking."
Obi-Wan almost asked where Shapoi was, then remembered that the comm-link was not untraceable. Instead, he tried something he hoped was obvious enough for Siri to follow. "You've found... the item we lost?"
"No. Not a sign." She sounded discouraged. And embarrassed. Obi-Wan wondered if she and Anakin would benefit from discussing the subject of pride with one another, or if they would just exacerbate the situation for each other.
"We'll be at the top of the waterfall," Obi-Wan said. "Meet us there - you'll see a large house in the hill with full size windows looking out - and then we'll go home."
"Fine. Siri out."
The comm-link emitted a hiss of white noise as it was turned off on her end, and Obi-Wan thumbed the control on his own. "Can you climb the hill?" he asked.
Anakin got to his feet, swayed, looked at the top, and squared his shoulders. "Sure."
"Are you certain?"
Anakin stood swaying for a moment longer. He turned to Obi-Wan, his lips pressed firmly together, and shook his head, looking very angry with himself for doing so.
"Very good," Obi-Wan said. "You passed this one and only special lesson on your pride." He squatted down in front of the rock. "Now put your arms around my neck and I'll carry you on my back."
A few more seconds passed than really needed to, but Anakin's strong arms wrapped themselves carefully around Obi-Wan's neck from behind, the hands clasping opposite elbows above Obi-Wan's breastbone. Obi-Wan hoisted him up, making his arms into stirrups, and started to climb up the hill. Anakin didn't talk as they went, but when Obi-Wan set him down at the top, his expression was merely neutral.
They sat quietly together, leaning against tree trunks, while they waited for Siri to join them.
Siri found them ten minutes later, and together, they made their way back upstream toward town. Obi-Wan wanted to keep carrying him all the way, but Anakin drew the line when they got to the edge of the woods. The idea of what would happen if Tomik saw Obi-Wan toting him around like an infant was enough to convince him not to let it happen.
"I'm okay. Honest. If we walk slowly, I'm okay."
Obi-Wan lowered him to the ground and looked at him suspiciously. "Anakin, there is no point to be made by pretending that you aren't injured."
"It's an energy burn. I've had worse. You should've seen me a month or so before you and Qui-Gon found me. Sebulba flashed me with his vents and the pod went crazy. I was bleeding all over."
Siri grinned. "Well, that's a charming image, Ani."
Anakin ignored her. She wouldn't let Obi-Wan carry her into town, either, so he wasn't going to let her distract the conversation. "So I can handle walking a few more meters into town. Okay?"
Obi-Wan sighed. "I'll be walking right behind you. Siri will be beside you. She is allegedly your sister in this scenario. She can hold your arm. You may complain about that all you like; it will look realistic."
And so they made their way back into town, Anakin feeling a bit stronger with each step. Obi-Wan stalked along behind, looking annoyed. Siri walked at Anakin's side, leaning over every now and then to appear to scold but actually winking and whispering things like, "Baklee's turning into an old woman."
Anakin knew she meant well, and knew that she was trying to tell him that she understood where he was coming from, but it still didn't sit right with him. When Obi-Wan had caught him in the forest, all he'd wanted was to just fall into that hug and stay there a good long time, and for the first time, it had felt like Obi-Wan wanted the same thing. The distant master-padawan dynamic had gone away, just for a minute, and it had felt like really being in a family again. Siri hadn't been part of it.
They got to the house without incident. Siri let them inside and did a quick surveillance check - it appeared no one had been in with listening devices since they'd left - then Obi-Wan steered Anakin into the kitchen, sat him down at the table, and grabbed a cold compress from the freezer. He pressed it to the back of Anakin's neck and held it there until Anakin reached up to hold it himself. Anakin had to admit, it did feel soothing.
"I'm okay," he said again. "But thanks."
"I was somewhat concerned about you," Obi-Wan said mildly.
"He ran back to town, then all the way out to where I found the two of you," Siri said, sitting down across from Anakin. "We were most of the way there when he sensed that something had happened to you."
Anakin glanced up at Obi-Wan, not surprised that his master had done such a thing, but surprised to find himself unsurprised. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"I'm aware of that." Obi-Wan sat down in the third chair, his back to the window over the sink. "And it does beg the question of why you were not in the place you were meant to be."
"I told you. I was following Tomik."
"From what you've told me, Tomik Cral is a bully and an unpleasant young man, but unless there is something you're not telling me, he is hardly a key to the disturbances on Malkiri. You would have done better to remain in school."
"And get the same stuff again? That's all they do. Just go over and over and over the same stuff, whether you get it or not."
"And what have you learned from Tomik that is different from day to day?"
Anakin frowned and rubbed at the compress, making a cool bulge roll over the swollen area at the base of his skull. "I just… Well, I did find out that they think… " He bit his tongue, suddenly realizing how much trouble he would get in once he told Obi-Wan everything about the afternoon's excursion. And besides, what Tomik had implied to Brinje about what the Jedi did to padawans was… he didn't even know how to say it.
"That they think what?"
"Well, they were making fun of Brinje and they said he wouldn't be a good padawan and the Jedi would… find other things to do with him." He looked down at the table. "I couldn't… I had to do something."
"Anakin, that's a slur that has been made before. You can't let it enrage you. You are well aware that it is untrue."
"They were hurting Brinje, too. Hitting him with sticks. Hard."
Siri and Obi-Wan glanced at each other, and Siri leaned forward. Her voice was gentle, but it demanded an answer. "Anakin, what did you do? Did Tomik find out who you really are?"
"No! No. Not Tomik."
"But someone did?" Obi-Wan asked.
"I was up high. Tomik didn't even know I was there. But… Brinje saw me." He looked from one to the other, trying to gauge their expressions. It didn't matter what Siri thought, really, but they were equals on this mission, and he had compromised it. "I had to help him," he said. "They were hurting him. I thought you'd think I was right to help."
"I do think you were right to help, Anakin, but -"
"I did it as quietly as I could. I thought I could do it without him seeing what I did."
"What did you do?"
"I dropped a limb on the path." Anakin sighed and made himself finish. "I cut it off with my lightsaber."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes slowly, then opened them again. He looked deeply disappointed. "What is done is done. Was Brinje with you when you were hurt?"
"No. He went back to his mother."
"Well," Siri said. "We didn't come home to a mob or an arrest warrant. Maybe it did no harm."
"We should be careful. I spoke to Daj Orti while I was looking for you, and I think he also suspects that you are not what you seem."
"I haven't said anything to Daj."
"I didn't think you had. He merely suspects. He came from Coruscant. Perhaps he's seen you somewhere there. At any rate, I think our time may be running out."
"I think the game has changed," Siri said. "All we've found out undercover is that there are a lot of lies floating around this planet. My theory is that someone chose this world to work mischief on because of a pre-existing prejudice, not that one was created for a particular purpose. The Council is not going to like that report."
"Well, I'll back you up," Obi-Wan told her. "The question is, who? And why? Anakin, you said it was a comm-array you'd seen, correct? Where did you see it, precisely?"
Anakin paused for a moment before answering, not sure whether or not the reprimands were past. But he supposed they both had more important things to worry about than scolding him, and he had more important things to worry about than being scolded. "There's a house up near the waterfall."
"It's the mayor's house. Orti told me about it."
"Really?" Anakin blinked. "The mayor's the one you can't talk to, right?"
"Then maybe… " He stood up. The world wobbled a little, but he ignored it. "He has a comm-array up there. A big one. And it's all camouflaged to look like the forest."
"Really?" Siri stood and guided him back to his chair. "That's very odd -"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "He is the local contact for a galactic trade organization. Communications would be expected."
"I don't want to jump to any further conclusions, Siri. He may have simply wanted the array to blend into the surroundings for aesthetic reasons."
"So why would someone attack your padawan for showing up there?"
"I think it was Shapoi," Obi-Wan said. "He didn't seem to be trying for any permanent wound."
"Which only reiterates the question. Why would Shapoi want to keep Anakin away from a standard communications array?"
It was suspicious, Obi-Wan knew. Hiding a communications array so carefully and so far from town was in fact quite odd. If he were alone, he would go there immediately, ascertain what the purpose of the array was, and report back to the Temple.
But Anakin put a crazy skew on things, particularly since the other candidate to care for him was Siri. Siri would insist on going along, probably armed, and Anakin would either doggedly join them or agree to stay and then follow.
I have to teach him better discipline, but there isn't time for it today.
If he were alone…
But Shapoi was alone. And Shapoi had done exactly what Obi-Wan would have, right up until the point that he'd incapacitated Anakin. It wasn't precisely orthodox, but it wasn't in Qui-Gon's league of rebelliousness, either.
So, if I were Shapoi, why would I sneak up on a padawan - one whom I do not know at all except by the magnetic presence he projects - attack him and inflict a mild injury, then leave him alone in the woods?
Obi-Wan felt his anger rising at Shapoi. He recognized it, evaluated it, then shunted it to one side. It wasn't going to help.
"I'm thinking, Siri."
"You know we're right. You know that's not normal."
He didn't answer her.
Why would Shapoi be there?
All right. Why move Anakin?
(To keep him out of danger.)
But why do it secretly? Why not simply talk to him, tell him to leave? Shapoi doesn't know that Anakin won't obey orders. Why keep out of sight?
"Because he doesn't want the Order involved," he muttered aloud.
"Anakin, Siri and I have both spoken to Shapoi. He wanted the Order to stay away from the case. He thinks it would be disadvantageous for us to be involved."
Obi-Wan looked at Siri. "He was planning to do something this afternoon, at that house. He not only wanted Anakin away from the scene, he wanted to make sure that the Jedi genuinely had no knowledge of his presence there."
"Do you think he was going to kill the mayor?" Anakin asked.
"He's already been all but convicted of murder," Siri said, raising an eyebrow. "He might have decided that it was the wisest course."
"Or he may have decided to disassemble the comm-array, or place surveillance devices on it, or play sabacc with the mayor's guards." Obi-Wan shook his head. "But I think it was something drastic. I think he was trying to bring an end to whatever is happening here."
"Doesn't he realize that it doesn't matter whether or not we're there?" Anakin asked. "Anything he does, they're still going to figure he's doing it as a Jedi, and that the Council put him up to it."
"He knows it in his mind," Obi-Wan said. "But I don't think he really believes it, not on a deep level, any more than I do."
"How can you say that after everything -?"
"I know it in my mind, Anakin. But all my core beliefs rebel against the existence of this sort of hatred. It is so senseless. I find myself assuming that surely someone will come forward and speak rationally, and that as soon as that happens, the crowd will recognize the superiority of that approach."
"Wow. And Mom used to say I had a vivid imagination."
"Sarcasm is not appreciated. I told you that I am aware of the flaw in my thinking. I simply think you both need to be aware of it."
Siri nodded. "I am quite aware of it, Obi-Wan. I always was." She smiled. "It's one of the things I like best about you, to tell the truth. You'll stand in the middle of a crisis and argue philosophy, and you honestly can't understand why people get impatient with you. It's very endearing."
Obi-Wan had a sudden, clear memory of Naboo, standing before Boss Nass. He had begun to argue about the nature of symbiosis, and Qui-Gon had put a weary hand on his shoulder - weary and familiar, with a smile to match. He supposed it was something of a lifelong pattern.
Anakin, however, just looked puzzled by it, as he often did. He preferred action to discussion, and despite his injury, he seemed ready to go back into the woods right now. Obi-Wan didn't doubt that Anakin's recommendation would be to fan out, find Shapoi, and cart him back to Coruscant, against his will if necessary. The knowledge that Siri would side with him was annoying, but beyond doubt.
So Obi-Wan asked for neither opinion.
"I want the two of you to stay in town. I'm going to -"
Obi-Wan never finished the sentence. The screech of an alarm split the air outside.
Siri was already opening her mouth to object and Anakin had looked ready to run for cover, but at the sound, all three of them came to attention. Siri stood up, her eyes focused on the window. "Everyone's going outside."
"Is it a storm?" Anakin asked, getting to his feet and grabbing his packsack. "Sometimes -"
"Clear skies," Siri interrupted. "It's something else. An emergency. A fire, an accident -"
"An escaped prisoner," Obi-Wan said firmly. "I think we'd better go."
There was no argument, and they had no trouble blending into the curious crowd on the street. They seemed a bit more hurried, but Obi-Wan's cover as a journalist made that seem natural. If there were news happening, of course he'd want to get to the front of it. Siri and Anakin slipped along easily to either side.
The crowd got thicker and more emotional as they neared the center of town, going up the hills, past the pyramidal houses, and toward the jail and courthouse. The mob stopped here - and it truly had become a mob. People on every side were shouting curses. Many had rocks or sticks in their hands. It seemed not to matter how technically adept a society was… when they reverted to this level, they instinctively grabbed for the most primitive of weapons.
Obi-Wan wove through them until he could see the courthouse steps. Four men were dragging a bound and blindfolded figure. They didn't seem to be moving very fast. In fact, they seemed to have deliberately stopped.
The blindfolded figure looked up, his hidden gaze focusing directly on Obi-Wan. Shapoi.
Blood soaked the blindfold around his ears and seemed to have flooded from his nose. As Obi-Wan watched, one of his guards kicked him, in the side, causing him to double over, but not cry out.
He did not fight back.
Obi-Wan understood this. It was a situation where any response would have to be lethal, and a lethal response would confirm every bad thing these people believed about the Jedi.
"Stop it!" Obi-Wan shouted, but it was lost in the general din.
A stone flew out of the crowd and hit the side of Shapoi's face. Blood spilled from a new cut on his cheekbone.
Another rock sailed toward him, and Obi-Wan reached desperately for it with his mind. It swerved away and clattered harmlessly on the steps. Good, that was…
The crowd was dangerously quiet. Then someone called out, "The Jedi did that! He's attacking!"
"I have attacked no one," Shapoi said. His voice was not loud, but it carried - he was using a variant of the mind trick that many of the diplomatic teams employed for crowd control. "You are all very mistaken. The Jedi have no interest in interfering with your affairs. We -"
And that was when his guard killed him.
The movement was quick, a single shot from a blaster, and Obi-Wan had not anticipated it. Neither, it seemed, had Siri, though Obi-Wan could see that Anakin had been struggling to get forward. The boy reached for his pack.
For his lightsaber.
Obi-Wan grabbed his wrist. "No, Anakin. You can do Shapoi no good in this way."
"He died to protect the honor of the Jedi Order. Would you waste his life by dishonoring his sacrifice?"
Anakin glared at him, and Obi-Wan half-thought that his padawan might bolt anyway, but the moment passed.
"Stay with Siri," he said. "I'll go up with my press badge and find out what happened."
He put Siri's hand on Anakin's shoulder, noting only vaguely the look of disorganized anger on her face. She was a Jedi. She would control it.
Obi-Wan pushed his way to the front of the mob, flashing his press pass as he went, trying to reach the fallen knight before any more harm was done to the shell that was left of him.
Most of the crowd was still jeering, still spitting hate through their teeth, but as Obi-Wan made his way through them, he saw more and more people drawing back, looks of solemn shame on their faces.
Good. They should be ashamed. They are right to be ashamed.
The thought came from anger, and Obi-Wan set it aside until he was able to cope with it more productively, but it was true. Shame was called for in the case that one had done something shameful.
He held up his press chip as he went through, pulling out a datapad with a recording feature to look more believable. By the time he got to the steps, he was certainly not the only person with those accessories. He found the guard who had first led him to Shapoi's cell - Terja Kritol - and waved him over. "What's happened here?"
"Shapoi was shot."
Obi-Wan swallowed his impatience. "How did it come to be?"
"Oh. We found him up in the woods, nosing around the mayor's house. He tripped an alarm and we came to get him. When we got back into town…" Kritol waved vaguely at the crowd. "They heard about it, I guess, on the comm-channels. They're always listening in."
"But it was a guard who shot him."
Kritol shrugged. "He's lucky he got all the way back into town. Most of us would have killed him on sight. First the king, now the mayor…" He frowned. "And now we've got to guard his body."
"What will you do with it?"
"Put it back in the cell, I guess."
Obi-Wan sighed. "I have lived on Coruscant my whole life. A Jedi is properly cremated. He is no longer being held for trial. You should contact the Council."
The answer to this was a loud sniff.
"Well, thank you for your time," he said. "I need to… interview witnesses."
"If you want to. Don't think most of them are in the mood for being interviewed, though."
That was true, Obi-Wan supposed, but as he was not in a mood to conduct sham interviews, it was convenient. He wandered among them, occasionally asking a question of the somber looking ones. They usually met his gaze with wide, wounded eyes, then remembered pressing engagements elsewhere. The ones still shouting took no notice of him at all.
He reached the far edge of the mob and looked back over his shoulder. Siri and Anakin were still standing where he'd left them. From a distance, he liked Siri's expression less than he had up close. She looked dazed and lost. He'd left her to take care of Anakin, but now he hoped that Anakin would take care of her. The boy was a natural caretaker when he was in what Obi-Wan thought of as his 'neutral' mood, the mood that he seemed to settle into when there was no particular stressor in his life. But there was a definite stressor here, and he could only hope that the caretaker instinct would rise up more powerfully than the agitation.
You should go back to them. There's nothing more to be done here. The mission failed, and you should go back to Coruscant to -
A cascade of gentle energy poured across his shoulders and down his spine just before he heard the sound of someone weeping in the shadows to his right.
An alley here led between the courthouse and a municipal building - the lowest levels of each; unlike the houses, the public buildings on Malkiri were fashioned as step pyramids - and the narrow path didn't admit much of the afternoon sunshine. Obi-Wan could see garbage bins and data chip recyclers for the local news agency, and the squat box of a public holo-comm station. It was set up for an adult to sit down in, to keep movement to a minimum so the cheap equipment would send a more accurate representation, so it was about chest high to him.
The woman was sitting behind it. He could see the edge of her skirt.
He walked as silently as he could, trying not to frighten her away, and then squatted down beside her, angling himself so that he would also seem to be in front of her. "Are you all right, madam?" he asked.
She jumped, hitting the back of her head on the comm-station box and then leaning forward to weep into her hands again. Clearly, she wasn't all right.
"Is there anything I can do?"
The woman raised her head miserably. Obi-Wan could see that she was in her late middle years, perhaps even at the beginning of her elder years. Her hair was mostly gray, if still threaded with strands of black, and she had a face as sharp as that of a bird of prey. She looked at him hopefully for a moment, then shook her head again and looked back down at her hands.
"It was very upsetting," Obi-Wan said carefully. "But I'm sure we can get help for you -"
"My son," she murmured.
"Zio. My son. They murdered my son."
She nodded, then turned her face against the stone wall of the municipal building. "You are the Jedi, aren't you? He said you were here."
Technically, Obi-Wan knew, he should lie, keep up the pretense. But Qui-Gon's voice in his mind was perfectly clear on this matter: The time for lies is over, and the truth will help this woman.
"Yes," he said. "We were sent to monitor the trial. We wanted to rescue him -"
Madam Shapoi held up her hand. "No, no. I am aware. He did not wish to involve you."
"I never knew him." She put her hand back down, folded it with the other in her lap, and studied her crossed fingers as she spoke. The tears slipped unimpeded down her cheeks. "When he was taken from us - when we gave him up; he wasn't taken, I shouldn't say that - when we first lost him, I thought of him constantly. I never stopped thinking about him, but I… "
"My partner found data chips."
She looked up through her steadily flowing tears. "May I have them back?"
Rather than stopping the flow of tears, this promise was met with a wail. "They were all I had, and now they shall be all I have forever." She ran her hand viciously under her running nose. "I had come to a point where I did not think of him at every meal, wondering what he might be eating, or how happy he might be, or how jealous I was of that other woman in the holos I saw. Then he came here! He came to find us!" Another bout of sobs. "He was a good man. When he came back, when I saw him again, I realized that I had never closed up his room in my heart. I missed him! I missed him so very much… "
Obi-Wan had a sudden, paranoid certainty that Anakin was behind him, listening to this, steeling himself for another attempt to return to his own mother on Tatooine. Worse, Obi-Wan found himself wondering if Shmi Skywalker was feeling this… or if the other parents had. If his own had. He hoped not. He didn't know them and had never wanted to, but he hoped that they had been happy and had not worried for him.
He moved slightly to look over his shoulder, saw nothing but the empty alley entrance, and chastised himself. Anakin wasn't here; Obi-Wan had just internalized the boy's unspoken accusations, and declared himself guilty of them.
He put his hand on Madam Shapoi's shoulder. "I know," he said.
"He came back to us," she whispered again. "And Malkiri killed him. This world killed my only son."
"What happened, Madam Shapoi?"
She squeezed her eyes shut and Obi-Wan was certain she wouldn't speak again, but she did. "He was going to the mayor's home this morning. He suspected… oh, it was complicated. It was that -"
"I'll take you back to my partner and my padawan. You can tell all of us, and we will look after you. Your son wished for you and your husband to be taken from this world."
"That would be a blessing."
"How did he come to be captured?"
"He went this morning, but he was distracted. The boy - your padawan? - was at the site. Zio wanted to make sure that he was out of danger and… by the time he went back… it must have been too late. The guards must have been there. Pojul told him not to go. Pojul said it had waited this long, it could wait another day. But Zio insisted."
Obi-Wan tried giving her a smile. "Your son was a very insistant man."
She smiled back, looking surprised that she could, then cried harder. "Yes," she said. "He was."
"Come with me. We will find Siri and Anakin, then you can take us to your husband. Then we will find a way out of this place."
"My son… what will happen to his… to… "
"When we get back to Coruscant, the Council will demand that his body be returned for proper rites. I get the impression that the guards will not allow any desecration. They may feel like it, but they are sane enough to know that they have made enough enemies already today."
The fury was rising like steam, spilling into his blood and forcing itself into every cell of his body. It was absorbed hungrily, as if some secret part of him had been starving for the rage.
He could feel like a vast reservoir of power just beyond his vision, reaching out to him, offering itself to him. It was cold… but it also burned. Come into your strength, it seemed to whisper.
The colors of Malkiri brightened, becoming as false as a poor-quality holo, with everything surrounded by a hazy glow. These murderers, ignoramuses… stupid, filthy human Hutts… They had dared lay hands on a Jedi of the Order, and they couldn't be allowed to -
A movement beside his shoulder cut cleanly through the haze. He had been vaguely aware that Siri's fingers had been stiffening, but it had seemed inconsequential.
Until she reached for her lightsaber.
Anakin didn't let himself think. He pulled himself away from the power that beckoned him, and threw his arms around Siri's waist, calling on his own strength to pin her arm against her side. Her lightsaber hilt was between them, and if she turned it on, he'd be, in Tomik's words, completely smoked. For a moment, she fought him, and he was certain she was going to win. She was a full Jedi, and she was stronger than he was. But she wasn't fighting him with her full strength, because she was also fighting herself. "We have to go, Siri," he whispered.
"They killed a Jedi."
I know! Do you think I don't know?
"The time to help him is past."
"You sound like Obi-Wan!"
"I'm trying to. Come on, Siri. Please. Before I help you."
She pulled away a little and looked down at him. Her eyes were stormy skies, but they cleared slowly. "You shouldn't… you can't… "
"Well, neither can you, so just give me this." He took the lightsaber hilt and tugged at it gently. She let go of it. "And let's get out of here. Fast."
"Obi-Wan will… "
"He has his comm-link."
The colors were coming back into the world, the power grasping at him again. He could feel the humans and Neimoidians of Malkiri around him, and he wanted to shove the power out at them, knock them onto their backs, burn them up with the fire inside of him.
"Please, Siri," he said. "Let's move."
She nodded curtly and put her hand on his elbow, leading him toward the edge of the crowd. He knew she was moving aimlessly, but to an observer, she would look like a concerned guardian taking her charge away from an explosive situation. They passed the courthouse, and went by a dark alley. Anakin could feel Obi-Wan there and he turned. He saw only his Master's hunched back, but he felt… what? Obi-Wan was thinking about him for some reason.
Siri pulled him past, now genuinely taking control. Anakin was surprised to find himself relieved by this. "He won't have to go back through the crowd," she said through the corner of her mouth. "That's good."
Anakin wholeheartedly agreed. "Where are we going?"
"I don't know."
"Back to the woods then."
"There's been enough trouble in the woods."
"Something's there. I want Obi-Wan to see it. Besides, where else are we going to go?"
Well, it was logical enough, and Anakin knew it would make more sense to be back there, in their safe place. But something was going to happen. Anakin felt it all around him. And…
He didn't want it to happen at home. He liked the house. He wanted to continue liking it.
"The woods," he said again.
"Anakin, I really think -"
Anakin's comm-link beeped. He picked it up. "What is it?"
"I've found someone," Obi-Wan said. "Meet us by the stream, where we waited for Siri earlier."
Siri frowned, but her eyes had regained some of their humor. "He always takes your side."
"Don't I wish."
Obi-Wan switched off the comm-link. Madam Shapoi had gotten shakily to her feet and was straightening her clothes. She'd stopped weeping, but her face had taken on a slack, numb look. "My husband is in the woods," she'd said. "We can speak there."
So he had called on Anakin. It occurred to him that it would have been more proper to call on Siri, but he was more accustomed to working with his padawan than to working with a partner. In any case, they would be where they needed to be.
"Madam Shapoi -"
"Daha. You may call me Daha. My son called me Daha."
"Then perhaps I should not -"
"Please, Jedi. Call me by my name."
"Very well. Daha, then. I've told Anakin to meet us near the waterfall, as it is a place he knows. Is that close to where your husband is?"
"Yes, very close. Zio left the boy near where we were hiding."
"Daha… Anakin did not mean to… "
"To cause harm. He followed a path and investigated what he found there. He never intended to cause harm to your son."
"Mm." Daha crossed her arms over her chest. "Tell me, Jedi, if you lost your boy because of someone else's carelessness, would you genuinely care whether or not that person meant harm?"
"Perhaps not if that person was knowingly careless, but Anakin had no way to know that this impulse could put someone in danger."
Daha shivered, and looked at the brick wall. "Of course. I understand that, in my mind. But we must protect our children, mustn't we? That's what we're here to do. Don't you agree?"
Obi-Wan didn't answer.
"I thought I was doing the right thing. They said his power would overwhelm him if he wasn't trained. So I let him go."
"It was the right thing, Daha."
"Then why is my son dead? Why did he die when I'd barely had a chance to know him?"
Her voice sounded so lost and young, despite the deep lines on her face, that Obi-Wan didn't have the heart to even try to argue with her or correct her. "I'm so sorry."
She nodded. "I know."
"But please, Madam… Anakin is just a boy, and he did not intend harm to your son. Even if you must blame him in your mind, please spare him your anger. Know he has not earned it."
"I…" She put a hand over her mouth and closed her eyes, struggling with herself for a moment. "I know. I understand. I won't hurt your boy."
"But I am not alone. And we should move quickly, if we are to reach my husband before your companions do. He will not have given the matter extensive thought."
Anakin felt the presence of someone else in the woods, but he didn't think anything about it, except that it would necessitate running without much assistance from the Force. Siri, a few paces behind him, seemed to sense the same thing and come to the same conclusion. Their feet fell heavily on the forest floor.
It was difficult running like this, and although he was in good physical shape, Anakin found himself starting to break a sweat, and - worse - to feel the strain in his lungs. There was a maddening sense of abrasion in the passageways beneath his breastbone, and it distracted him more and more with every step. He felt as though he were breathing spun glass.
He supposed he'd sensed that he was getting closer to the other person, but he didn't really notice - pay attention to it - until he was grabbed roughly by the upper arms and swept up off the ground.
His first response was simple surprise, which was lucky for his assailant. He had time to think What happened? then he was looking down into a reddened human face, green eyes lit by mad rage, gray and black hair hanging in untidy clumps on the cheeks. His lips were pulled back in a snarl, revealing yellowing teeth.
"Put him down!" he heard Siri yell, then he was being shaken like a pod with its engine leads cut.
The instinct that rose up in the wake of surprise didn't come from the Jedi Temple and its pristine training rooms. It came from years of streetfighting in Mos Espa. He arched his back sharply and pistoned his legs forward, catching the man's breastbone and shoving him away. It broke his hold and Anakin fell a meter to the ground, landing hard on his backside and jarring his teeth. His left hand twisted, hurting the wrist, and his right landed in a puddle of cold and muddy water.
What happened next couldn't have taken more than a second, and probably took less, but Anakin felt it as a series of slow and discrete events. The forest became preternaturally silent and its colors surreal, then he felt himself folding inward, like a scarf forced down into a magician's fist, his power and his very identity seeming to become concentrated on a single point.
Then the fist he had tucked himself into tightened and rose up.
He pushed with the Force - but he didn't feel like he was pushing, more like something else was pushing through him - and the man flew backward toward a tree.
Time resumed its normal speed and Anakin saw that the man was almost literally flying, that he would certainly hit the tree hard, that it would… "Stop!" he yelled foolishly.
Then Siri was between the man and the tree, breaking his flight and veering them both away.
Anakin got up and scrambled over to them. "I'm sorry," he said, bending over the man, who was now prone on the ground, to check for injuries. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry, you startled me jumping out like that, I -"
He stopped. The man was looking up at him not with anger, hate, or even embarrassment, but with something approaching wordless awe. "Zio said you were powerful, but I didn't know what he meant."
"Obviously," Siri said. "Who are you?"
"Pojul Shapoi." He glanced at Siri, then his eyes came back to Anakin in a way that was both uncomfortable and shamefully gratifying. "Zio said he had to sneak up on you earlier - hide himself - because he sensed that you were so strong. He was right, wasn't he?"
"Yes," Anakin said sharply, not liking how arrogant it sounded, but at the same time not able to say anything else without its being a lie. "He was right. But he could have tried talking to me instead of hitting me."
Pojul Shapoi said nothing.
"Anakin," Siri said in a low, warning voice. "This is not the time to argue with Zio's father."
Shame covered Anakin like a sudden sandstorm. Shapoi might not even know his son was dead yet, and now he'd have to hear it from someone who'd just bragged and yelled at him.
Whether or not Pojul had any sensitivity to the Force, Anakin didn't know. He had not been trained to seek other sensitives yet. But he had obviously caught the tone of Siri's voice, and the change in Anakin's demeanor. His arms dropped to his sides, and his verging-on-elderly face became that of a child lost in the woods. "What happened in town?" he asked, but his voice said that he already knew, that a part of him had known since his son had been taken away.
But Anakin was spared from saying it by the sound of approaching footsteps. Anakin reached into the Force, sensed Obi-Wan, and sighed with relief.
You'll have to tell him what you did. If you don't, Siri or Shapoi's father will.
"Kit!" he called from the top of the hill. "Are you and Siri all right?"
"We're fine!" Siri called back.
A woman about Pojul's age appeared at the top of the ridge behind Obi-Wan, and Anakin guessed that she was Shapoi's mother. As she came down the hill, breathing hard from overexertion, he could see the careworn lines of her face, and the stoop of her shoulders, as though she'd walked under a heavy burden.
He liked her right away - she reminded him of Mom, and he didn't pretend to himself that it was anything else - and went up the slope to help her down.
She drew her arm away when he reached for it, turning her shoulder up against him like a wall.
Anakin didn't know what to say - of course, she must think what her husband thought - so he just stood beside her on the slope, blinking stupidly.
She looked at him with bright, steady eyes, which suddenly softened. She reached out her hand and touched his face so gently that Anakin thought he might simply fall into her arms right now. "I am sorry," she said. "It has been difficult. But you did not deserve that, and I am sorry."
"'s okay," Anakin managed. "Are you all right, Madam Shapoi?"
"No. Not all right." She looked down the slope at her husband and held out her hand to him. He came to her. "Zio is dead," she said. "He didn't fight, and they killed him."
Pojul's face twisted and he muttered, "I told him he should fight. I told him, didn't I Daha?"
"Yes. But you know he couldn't have."
Pojul fought it very obviously, but nodded.
Daha Shapoi led them to the stream, and checked up the hill quickly. "We are too near them here. We should move to the shed. Come." She stepped into the cold water, seeming to find rocks that were close to the surface without needing to look. Pojul followed her, then Siri, then Obi-Wan. Anakin went last, and looked down. The stepping stones had been placed deliberately. He could see them from here in the middle of the stream, but they would not have been visible to anyone passing by casually.
The Shapois led them further down a path that, like the stones, was only evident while it was being followed. It twisted twice, leading downstream and north, then a small clearing opened out. A wooden shed had been built under the shelter of a rock wall. Daha and Pojul led them into it.
It was dimly lit and starkly furnished, but the scent of the wood changed and deepened with age after it was cut. For a moment, Anakin set aside all his other questions to wonder why all the buildings on Malkiri weren't made of this.
"It's not fire safe," Daha explained, as though she heard him. "We must be careful."
She smiled wearily. "Zio asked when he came here. Apparently, Coruscant lacks pleasant smells."
Pojul was pulling out crates to sit on, setting them around a large box in the center of the shed. He gestured toward them. "Please sit," he said. "We have much to discuss."
"What's really going on?" Siri asked, not taking her seat. To another observer, she would have looked cold and aloof. To Obi-Wan, she looked furious. Anakin reached up and touched her wrist in a gesture that seemed too tentative to actually come from Anakin Skywalker. Siri's fingertips patted Anakin's hand absently, and Obi-Wan watched her go through a relaxing routine, beginning in her shoulders.
Marvelous. Siri is taking lessons in control from Anakin. What has gone wrong here?
Daha and Pojul Shapoi simply watched her, wide-eyed.
"Your son made it clear that he didn't want this investigated too closely," Siri said. "I want to know why. We can bring justice for Zio, but not unless we know what really happened."
Pojul and Daha glanced at one another nervously. They obviously shared something they had kept quiet for some time. "Pojul," Daha said, "it's too late. Zio was wrong. He couldn't stop it."
Pojul frowned deeply and covered his eyes, then nodded. He put his hands back on the table and looked at Siri. "Please sit down," he said. "We will have to begin at the beginning, and it is a long story with a terrible ending. You should at least be comfortable for it."
Still looking as though she had misgivings, Siri sat down between Anakin and Daha.
Another look passed between Daha and Pojul, then Pojul spoke. "We were born here, both of us," he said. "We were raised with all the -"
"Lies," Daha interrupted. "All the lies. We once believed them."
"I suppose 'lies' is as good a word as any. Though not all of them are precisely lies, are they?" Pojul cocked his eyebrow at Obi-Wan.
"Just points of view," Anakin whispered, and Obi-Wan felt a chill for no reason he could name.
Pojul nodded. "Exactly. And we both had many negative… points of view."
Daha picked up the thread. "Shortly before we were married, there had been talk of beginning a new colony, on some world further out in the Rim. We were young then. Adventurous." She smiled fondly. "We snuck away from our parents, married early, and set out on the ship. There were people from several worlds there."
"I bet Malkiri just loved that," Siri muttered.
Daha just shrugged. "Well, we don’t travel much, I suppose."
"At any rate," Pojul said, "we never made it to the colony. We were attacked by a crew of pirates."
"My mom got taken into slavery by pirates," Anakin piped in, to Obi-Wan's surprise. "I hate them."
Obi-Wan started to say, You need to overcome your hatred, Anakin, but decided not to correct the boy in front of strangers. There would be time later.
"We're not fond of them ourselves," Daha said. "And they seemed to have the same intention for us that your mother's pirates had for her. Did you say you know your mother?"
Anakin nodded. "I… Yes. I knew her."
"Anakin is an unusual case," Obi-Wan said. "He only came to us a few years ago."
"Packs quite a punch," Pojul said with a half-hearted grin.
Obi-Wan looked at Anakin, who was looking steadily at the table and refusing to raise his eyes. "Yes," he said. "He has a great deal of power. What happened when the pirates came?"
"A team of Jedi rescued us," Pojul said. "I don't remember their names. There was only one human in the group, a woman. The point was, they treated us kindly and respectfully, and brought us back to our homes. For their troubles, they were given the sort of hospitality you have seen already on Malkiri."
"Why is it like that?" Anakin asked.
"It has always been. Malkiri was founded by people fleeing the great war between the Jedi and the fallen Jedi. Sith, Zio called them. There was acrimony from the beginning." Pojul took Daha's hand and went on. "When Zio was born, we weren't thinking of the Jedi, only about our beautiful son. But there was an oddness to him. One day, Daha found him in his crib, holding one of his toys in the air far above his hands. We didn't know what to do. We called the Jedi to Malkiri. They came. They took Zio. And ever since, Daha and I have been highly suspect."
"I would imagine," Obi-Wan said. "What does this have to do with what happened when Zio came back?"
Another guarded look passed between the Shapois. Daha bit her lip. "This is… difficult."
Siri nodded. "We understand. But you must understand that the man who died today was not just your son, he was also a Jedi knight, and we also have an interest in bringing justice to him."
"Go on, Daha," Pojul said. "I can't."
She nodded. "We had become increasingly dissatisfied. We had spoken out against the monarchy. When they brought the Trade Federation here, we protested."
"It isn't that we have… opinions… about Neimoidians," Pojul cut in. "Since the business with the Jedi, we have been careful not to make such snap judgments -"
"And we are not judging you," Siri said, impatience starting to creep into her voice.
"Of course. I… Daha, let me tell it. I have to. This is on my head, in the end. Zio knew it. You should know it. And these Jedi should know it, especially the boy who I unfairly attacked. All of this is on my head."
"I will tell it." Pojul's voice seemed to strike out in his insistance, but then, obstinately, he fell silent for a moment, his eyes fluttering up and down the wooden wall, as though watching something that had been projected on it. He sighed. "It began with simply speaking out. Not against the Neimoidians, but against the Federation, and against the king for inviting them. I made enemies. But to my surprise, the mayor was not among them. I was invited to his home. He was gracious."
"What does that have to do with anything?" Daha asked, but her eyes were moving rapidly and her fingers were clenched tightly on the table. "The mayor only asked you to stop speaking."
Pojul covered his face with his hands, then looked up again. "That is where it started. But I refused. We began to talk. He seemed a reasonable enough man, though I disagreed with him. He invited me back again to continue the argument, or so he said. When I went back again, we ate together and spoke of other things. I told him about Zio." He made a deep keening sound in the back of his throat, an uncontrollable expression of grief that Obi-Wan wasn't even sure he was aware of. When it subsided, he spoke again. "I thought of him so often, thought of him, and how I hated this world that would never have accepted him. And how I missed him and wanted him with me! My son!" He squeezed his eyes shut, and Obi-Wan could feel him willing his grief under control.
Would I be able to do that, if I lost Anakin? Or he, if he lost his mother? What power and danger is in this bond!
"The mayor - I suppose I should use his name, shouldn't I? After all of this, I can at least call him by his name. Fual Harkae. But his name doesn't matter, and he was not my friend."
"What happened, Sir?" Anakin asked with an unusual degree of respect, considering that the man had apparently attacked him when his back was turned.
"The strange thing is, I can't tell you. Not because I don't wish to, but because I don't remember. Harkae said that he knew people on Coruscant to whom I could speak about a hateful government. Calls were made. I remember… a shadow. A shadow only. I don't know how long I listened each time, or even how many times there were. But my anger kept growing. It was the fault of the king and all the Malkir line. I kept thinking that. They carried the poison here in the first place, and it was their fault. Harkae agreed with me."
Anakin's eyes widened. "You killed the king?"
Pojul covered his face again, and nodded miserably.
Daha stood, shoving herself away from the table. "And you let Zio go to prison for it?"
"No! I -"
"He sat in that prison for weeks! He died keeping your secret! And you never told!"
"I didn't know!"
There was complete silence.
Siri broke it. "What do you mean, you didn't know?"
"I knew where his lightsaber was, and I knew that it had lost a charge. I knew that I had been out that morning, but… Oh, Maker, this sounds terrible."
"You killed a man and his children," Daha said. "Of course it sounds terrible."
"For weeks before Zio came to us, I had been having… blank spots. Confusion. I was losing things, and forgetting my way to places I had been many times."
Obi-Wan thought of the guard at the prison, after he and Zio had fed him too many conflicting mental suggestions. The human brain could only take so much pushing. And someone had been pushing Pojul Shapoi very hard. "Madam Shapoi," he asked, "it never occurred to me to ask at the Temple. How did Zio happen to find you? Surely you must know that it is not a regular practice for us to return to our birth parents."
Anakin shifted uncomfortably.
"I… he said as much. He said it was accidental." Daha crossed her arms and shivered, trying to process everything that was going on. Strangely, a smile flitted across her face. "He said, 'It was an accident, but let's say an accident I was trying to have. I knew I had come from Malkiri. I was researching the world, and someone contacted me upon seeing my name in a list of database visitors.' It seems someone asked him if happened to be the son of Pojul and Daha Shapoi, lovely people." She pressed her fingers to the space between her eyebrows. "He was curious. That's all."
"Did he say who the message was from?"
Daha shook her head. "He mentioned a name, but it was a common one. I'd heard it before, but never known anyone who bore it. I don't remember it, but I'd guess a search would turn up thousands, if not millions, anyway."
"So," Siri said to Pojul, "someone was fuelling your anger, and someone else drew Zio here to be framed. And what happened on the day the king died?"
"I still don't know. Zio and Daha went out to walk, as they did every day. I started thinking about politics, as I once did. Then there is a long blank. I didn't even realize it was blank. I assumed I'd been puttering about in my garden, or maybe taken a walk. But after Zio escaped -"
"You found this out after he escaped?"
"Yes, Daha. You know I wouldn't have let him stay in jail if I had known the truth!"
"Yes, you do."
She appeared to think about it, then she sank down listlessly into her chair. "Yes, I do."
Pojul went on. "Zio had been giving the matter a great deal of thought. He liked the coincidences less and less. And he had noticed something about my behavior that seemed strange. He… I can't explain what he did, but he asked me questions, one thing leading to another, until I was in the middle of the blank spot and remembering everything."
"It is a method known to Jedi healers," Obi-Wan said gently. "Zio must have been trained in it."
"Well, it worked. And I told him everything. And he wanted to go to the mayor's residence, and find out who we had talked to. I knew that the conversations at least took place once every month. Tonight would be one. Zio wanted to put listening devices on that comm array. But when he got there, he saw your boy, and had to get him out of harm's way."
"And make sure he could plausibly deny knowing about unauthorized espionage," Siri muttered. "Of course."
Pojul nodded. "He had stolen his lightsaber from the courthouse when he escaped - they never released that information; it would have caused a panic on Malkiri to know there was an armed Jedi free."
"There were four," Anakin said.
"He told me he turned down the setting. He didn't want to hurt you, and I hope… "
"I've had worse."
"He brought you here. I built this place when I was just a boy, as an escape from the drudgery of town life. Daha and I came here when we were first courting, to get a feel for living rough."
"For the colony," Daha said.
"Yes." Pojul tried to put his arm around her, but she pulled away from him. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, then opened them and spoke again. "He left you in a clearing a few meters west of here. You could see it from the door, I'm sure. Somewhere you couldn’t see the mayor's house, and no one there could see you."
It clearly wasn’t okay, but Anakin was controlling himself. In fact, he seemed to be exerting far more control than Obi-Wan thought was warranted by the situation. Was he that angry?
"Once you were safe," Daha went on, "Zio came back here. He was determined to go on. Pojul said that the mayor's people would be back by then. Zio said it was now or wait until next month, and he thought that things were deteriorating too rapidly to wait. We argued. Pojul told him to fight if he had to; Zio said that fighting would only make things worse before he had any evidence. He went off."
"And got captured," Anakin almost whispered. "Because he was late."
Both of the Shapois were too busy telling the story to themselves to hear Anakin, but Obi-Wan heard. He put a hand on his padawan's arm and felt the boy relax, just a little.
"We couldn't stand waiting, so we followed," Daha said. "We saw the capture. I followed him into town. I told Pojul to wait here in the woods, in case he escaped."
"And that's how you found us," Pojul said. "That's all there is to it. I killed the king, and now I've got my son killed for it."
The story ended without fanfare, and the five of them sat in uncomfortable silence. Again, Siri broke it, her voice cool and practical: "You need to get to Coruscant. You'll stand trial, I'm sure, but there are matters in your testimony that the Jedi Council needs to hear firsthand."
"All transports off the planet are monitored by the Trade Federation," Pojul said dully. "I don't know how we'll get away."
Anakin frowned deeply, obviously thinking closely about something. "Madam Shapoi?"
"What is it?"
"Will you do something that might not sound like it makes sense?"
Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow. "What is this, Anakin?"
"I don't know yet." He bit his lip. "Do you know where Daj Orti's shop is? Orti's Off-time?"
"The toy store?"
"Yes. I think… Well, would Daj know you right away if you walked in?"
"I doubt it. It's a children's store."
"Good." He stood up and walked a few paces, his hands clasped absently behind his back. He turned back to them. "Go there. Wait until it's empty, then tell Daj that Anakin Skywalker sent you."
"Ani!" Siri cut in. "Have you -"
"No. But I think he knows. He's said some stuff. I think he knows who we are, or at least who I am, and he's been keeping it secret."
"What shall we say you sent us for?" Pojul asked.
"Nothing right away. If he doesn't look like he knows the name, just say it was a mistake and leave and come back here as fast as you can. If he does look like he knows it… tell him we need an 'alternate method of transportation.' He'll know. And he's right in with the Trade Federation. He can get us past their inspection."
The Shapois looked to Obi-Wan for confirmation; they had apparently learned enough about masters and padawans to know they should do so. He nodded. "I will defer to Anakin on this. But if you find yourselves having to return here because Orti doesn't recognize you… do so carefully."
They nodded. Pojul again tried to put an arm around his wife, but she refused to allow it.
They left the shed and headed for town.
"Are you sure about this?" Obi-Wan asked.
"I trust Daj."
"And I trust you."
Anakin looked up at him, wide-eyed with surprise, which hurt - what had he done to make Anakin so certain he would be punished? "Master… "
"This was not your fault, Anakin. Not in any way."
"May I have moment before we go to the mayor's, Master? I just need to… meditate. And maybe I ought to do it alone."
"Are you sure?"
"All right. Stay close, and don't be long. I think we may need to leave this place very suddenly."
Anakin clenched his jaw tightly and crossed his arms tightly over his stomach, gripping the sides of his silk tunic so hard he was sure they would tear. The long dark gray coat he'd put on this morning - this morning, when a Jedi knight named Zio Shapoi had still been breathing and thinking and talking to his parents - snagged on the branches of bush. He yanked it away fiercely and lost his balance, and went sprawling into the clearing where he'd awakened only two hours ago to find himself lost and disoriented.
He pulled himself to his knees and vomited into the underbrush.
When the wave passed, he felt woozy and empty. He leaned backward against a nearby tree to steady himself. The energy burn on the back of his neck throbbed dully.
He had killed twice before. The first had been a blood carver intent on killing him. He still didn't know what he'd done, exactly - something horrible, he thought, because the blood carver's face had almost melted into itself. But the point was, the blood carver had been an assassin, and had pushed him and threatened him until there was no other choice. His second kill had been the pirate Krayn, in the course of a fair duel
(there was a blaster in his hand, he wasn't unarmed)
and anyway, no one would miss that slaving waste-of-oxygen.
He had come to terms with killing as part of his life, though he didn't enjoy it. He'd read about people who got some kind of thrill out of it, a power rush, but Anakin didn't find it thrilling and he thought that the power factor was pretty low compared to other ways he felt the Force. It made him sad to realize he was never going to be innocent of it again, but he didn't think he would do anything differently with Krayn at all; with the blood carver, if it had gotten as far as it had, he didn't think there was anything else to do, short of dying himself. However far he had been pushed, the ultimate decisions had been at least kind of in his control.
Today, someone was dead because of him - a Jedi was dead - and he'd had no control over it, and he would do anything, anything at all, to turn the clock back three hours and decide to go to Madam Kam's art class and do a new painting rather than follow Tomik Cral into the woods.
He tried to summon Obi-Wan's voice: It is not your fault. Shapoi made his own choices. You could not have known.
He knew that if he went back to the shed, Obi-Wan would say that and try to make him believe it, but even Obi-Wan couldn't make the other voice go away, the one that said, You're supposed to be stronger than that. You're supposed to be the Chosen One. You should have foreseen it. You should have felt Shapoi long before you did. You could have, you should have…
He couldn't shake that other voice because it was right. He hadn't been using his mind, or his Force-sensitivity, to their highest potential. He hadn't been fully paying attention. He had been careless and stupid, and now Zio Shapoi was dead.
Images of the afternoon came unbidden to his mind. His careless decision to follow Tomik… flying above the trees… helping Brinje (and revealing himself in the process - stupid!)… deciding to go on down the path… sensing a presence a moment too late… awakening… Shapoi kneeling beside the guard… the blaster being fired… Shapoi falling… and falling… and falling…
The images circled in his vision, faster and faster, until they became an undifferentiated blur.
Help me! Please!
He tried to open his eyes and found that he couldn't. The world around him had turned dark, the sky lit with alien fire. He couldn't find the source of the voice that had called to him in agony.
Is anyone there?
His thought echoed over the landscape as though he'd shouted. Shadows trembled; fires erupted from cracks in the rocky plain. The ground in front of him began to bubble and boil, and he jumped backward away from it. Something huge and dark emerged from the new chasm.
Anakin raised his lightsaber and swung at it; the weapon passed through it like smoke, and the figure split into two, each advancing on him.
Stop it! Who are you?
The figures lunged again. Anakin knew better than to swing at them, he knew what would happen if he did, but he couldn't stop. It was instinct. The blade cut across both shapes in a diagonal, and then there were four.
The world began to shake and spit fire from all its broken edges. More shadows came up from beneath, surrounding Anakin on the top of a rapidly shrinking precipice.
Obi-Wan! Help me! Get me out of here!
His voice seemed small and far away, as though drowned by the shadows around him. They came closer, taking some shape that he knew he didn't want to see, couldn't see.
And they were becoming solid.
(you can fight them now; death is part of life)
Anakin felt himself trembling inside, more even than the ground he was standing on, but he fought for control.
This was a vision. However strange and powerful it was, it was only a vision. He had to take action in it. He had to defeat these shadows and come out on the other side of them.
He got to his feet, his lightsaber raised, and lunged at the first form advancing on him. It stopped in shock as the blade hit home, this time doing what it was meant to do.
The figure clutched at its wound and stepped backwards. The shadows slipped away like a cloak and Anakin saw, to his horror, that it was Siri Tachi.
The figure behind her leaped forward and over her, raising a lightsaber at Anakin. He blocked it by instinct, and the shadows departed to reveal Adi Gallia.
Stop it! What are you doing?
Mace Windu, Ki-Adi Mundi, beautiful Depa Billaba, sweet old Bant…
Please, make it stop!
The last figure came at him. He couldn't control his reaction at all, and the shadows fell before he even struck, but not soon enough to stop his lunge.
"Do you think he's all right?" Siri asked, standing on a chair to look out the high window after Anakin. "He looks off-balance."
Obi-Wan stood in the doorway and watched his padawan crash through the underbrush and out of sight, not at all his usual, graceful style. "No. He's not all right. But I think he wishes to be left alone for the moment. Not a very long moment, but perhaps we could use it to talk."
Siri nodded and climbed down from the chair. "I almost attacked in the square today. Anakin stopped me."
"What did he do to Pojul Shapoi?"
"He just gave him a bit of a shove. I think it scared Anakin more than it scared Pojul, to tell the truth."
"Anakin has good reason to be frightened of his temper," Obi-Wan said. "I'm actually rather glad you distracted him in the square."
"Well, there you have it. It was my brilliant plan all along."
Obi-Wan crossed the room to her, and sat down on the chair beside where she was standing. "Siri, I don't think you would have attacked. I know you believe you would have, but I don't."
Siri considered this for a long time, her hand massaging a spot at the back of her neck. After awhile, she sighed and pulled out another chair, to sit across from Obi-Wan. Their knees were touching lightly. She looked down at her feet, then finally looked across at him. "I'm not sure," she said. "I just don't know anymore."
"You always had impulses, Siri. They are not new since you returned from Krayn. You were always able to control them."
"But for two years, I barely tried. It's so easy…" She bit her lip and closed her eyes. "All the discipline I used to take for granted, even love, I find so difficult now. So constricting."
"It's not meant to be easy, Siri. We've chosen a hard life."
"Chosen? When did we choose it?"
"I chose it after Melida/Daan, when I left the order and came back. Now you've left and come back. As knights, we choose every day. Leaving is easy. Staying is difficult."
"Is it still difficult for you, Obi-Wan? Do you… do you ever think about things that you might have had outside? A spouse? Children? A house like that horrid one we're living in?" She tried to smile and failed.
"Yes. I suppose that's what I mean, ultimately."
Obi-Wan was inclined to tell her a lie to comfort her, to say that of course he agonized over these things, but he and Siri had a mental bond that stretched over more than a decade. She would know he didn't. "Siri, the Order is my family. Qui-Gon was my father and Anakin is my son. I never wished for a wife. But I will tell you, when the three of us have been together in that house, I've felt at peace. It is my hope that we will be able to work closely together again."
She sniffed. "That's not exactly what I meant."
"I know. Siri, what do you actually want? I believe you to be a strong and good Jedi knight, but if you're unhappy… "
"I'm unhappy. But I'd be miserable anywhere else."
"You could marry, have a family, do those things you mentioned… "
"Ah, but to marry, I would have to leave behind those I love. The Order is my family, too." She winked at him shakily. "And at any rate, how could any real husband compete with our idyllic marriage?"
"I believe our idyllic marriage may be missing some key elements."
"That's easier to fix than you seem to think."
"Oh, I know. I know. I don't want that, really."
Obi-Wan searched her feelings, decided that she was mostly telling the truth, and let it go. "Siri, you need to make a decision."
"I'm aware of that." She stood up and pushed her hair up into a soft bun, holding it there loosely while she looked out the western window. The sun painted her in an orange glow. "If I take a padawan, that's the decision, isn't it? I can't just start raising a child and then decide I chose wrong."
"Padawans have been given to new masters in the past," Obi-Wan said, "but it is traumatic, and I know you wouldn't deliberately wish it on a child."
"Exactly, so -"
Obi-Wan! Help me! Get me out of here!
Obi-Wan jumped to his feet. Anakin's voice was loud and insistent in his mind. Even Siri had heard it. She was already reaching for her lightsaber.
Obi-Wan led the way out the door, following Anakin's path into the clearing, not knowing what he expected to see.
Anakin was at the far edge of the clearing, his lightsaber drawn, clearly unaware of his surroundings. He had somehow achieved a deep level of meditation - Obi-Wan could feel the alteration of the Force around him - but his fears about that level were coming true. He lunged at nothing.
Siri was partly into the clearing when he ran at her. She ducked away in time, and they both heard Anakin's inchoate mental scream.
"Anakin! Anakin you need to come up now!"
Anakin rushed at him, saber raised, a look of misery on his face.
Obi-Wan didn't step aside. He drew his lightsaber and met the blow as lightly as he could, locking the blades to create the loudest buzz he could. He looked at Anakin across the x-form between them. "Anakin, wake up."
"Obi-Wan?" he whispered vaguely.
"Open your eyes."
The eyelids trembled, then lifted to reveal Anakin's cloudy, intense blue eyes.
Obi-Wan let up the pressure on his lightsaber. Anakin took the hint and deactivated his own. He barely waited for Obi-Wan to get the blade out from between them before he threw his arms around Obi-Wan's shoulders in a way he hadn't done for two years. "You're okay. I didn't kill you. You're okay."
Obi-Wan folded him into an embrace and kissed the top of his head, though a deep chill was making its way through his bones. I didn't kill you. "Yes, Ani. I'm okay."
Siri made her way over and sat on the ground on Anakin's other side. "What was that about?"
He turned her, surprised. "You're okay, too, then?" She smiled. "Ani, I hate to break it to you, but a fourteen-year-old with his eyes closed isn't that formidable an opponent."
"I saw myself killing Jedi," Anakin whispered.
"It's what the Shapois said," Siri told him, mussing his long hair. "They were wrong."
Anakin looked at Obi-Wan, his face grave and pale. "I couldn't stop."
"It was a vision, Anakin. You know that visions are often symbolic and sometimes quite unclear."
"You stopped me. Thank you."
"You're welcome, Padawan. But you need to learn to control your visions, and you need to learn to separate them from reality. What you saw…" Obi-Wan decided not to finish the sentence. He would hear more of Anakin's vision later. "It's over, Anakin. And I will help you if need to meditate to that level again."
Siri stood up and dusted herself off. "Well, if we're done with this, gentlemen, I think we need to pay a visit to the Mayor."
Anakin ran easily between Obi-Wan and Siri, the horrible vision starting to seep into memory, its intensity more embarrassing than frightening. But still, he wanted Obi-Wan in his sight, close enough to see him breathing. It was stupid - just a vision, and, like Siri said, a fourteen-year-old with his eyes closed wasn't much of a threat - but it was weirdly pervasive. Siri's footsteps behind him were light and quick, and reassured him in a less all-consuming way.
The followed the stream to the hill, coming up beside the rock where they'd met so long ago that afternoon. The setting sun turned it orange, and some reflective particle tossed arcs of light into the deepening dark.
Obi-Wan stopped, and held up his hand for Siri and Anakin to do so as well. They gathered in the shadows of the last trees before the hill, and looked up at the too-even arrangement of the camouflaged comm-array.
"We need to make some decisions," he said. "Siri, do you think it is advantageous to continue our cover story?"
She looked him over carefully, then checked the welt on Anakin's neck and examined the scratches that were covering her arms from her fall in the clearing.
"He's not going to buy it. Maybe one of us - you - could go there and treat him as an interview, but all three of us? I don't think it's customary for a reporter to work with his family gathered, and Anakin and I don't look as though we've been prepared to impress a business contact."
"We could go back and change," Anakin offered. The comm-array was buzzing, and something about it made him feel dirty. "I can bandage up, and Siri can wear long sleeves."
Obi-Wan shook his head. "There's no time for that. Shapoi believed that whatever contact was meant to happen would happen tonight, and may well be happening now."
"Well, you could go in alone," Siri said doubtfully.
"No. I don't want us separated again on Malkiri."
"Why did you ask for my opinion if you didn't want it?"
"I do want it. What do you think will happen if we go in there without our cover story?"
Siri sat down on the rock and put her head in both her hands, thinking deeply. At last, she looked up. "I don't think we can afford it, Obi-Wan. If we go in there as Jedi after having been undercover… we already have reason to believe the mayor has orchestrated one anti-Jedi outpouring. That would give too much fuel for another, particularly this close to Shapoi's escape."
"Then what do you suggest? I will not go alone."
"All right, that makes sense. All I can think of is to say we've been out exploring and got lost. Just a family outing gone wrong. Anakin?"
He shrugged. He didn't much care. After today, he didn't care what Malkiri thought of the Jedi; he just wanted to teach this planet a lesson it wouldn't forget.
But that wasn't why they were there, and he had to defer to Obi-Wan and Siri.
"Very well," Obi-Wan said. "A family outing, then. Are we ready, family?"
Anakin nodded, and Obi-Wan put his hand on his shoulder, like a careful father. Siri came over to them and Obi-Wan put his other arm around her shoulders. Her own arm slipped easily around his waist, and she leaned into him with a weariness that Anakin didn't think she was faking. The portrait thus assembled, they started trudging their way up the hill, towards the path that led to the mayor's door.
The comm-array grew louder as they approached it; it was using a great deal of energy, more than was normal.
"Mas… Um, Baklee?"
"What is it, Kit?"
"I think there's something wrong with the machines up there."
Obi-Wan smiled down at him fondly. "I don't think you'll have time to repair them."
Anakin rolled his eyes, feeling more comfortable with each passing second. "Well, I bet I could. But that's not what I mean. They're powered up too high."
Obi-Wan stopped. "What do you mean?"
"It shouldn't be making that much noise. It's a secret thing, so I bet he keeps it in good shape. Why would there be that much feedback?"
Obi-Wan and Siri looked up the hill, then back at Anakin.
Before either of them spoke, a flurry of voices came from the hilltop. Several Neimoidians in flapping robes ran to the comm array, shouting back and forth at one another in Basic.
"No, no! Just pull the -"
"By the gods! It's painful out here!"
"The array isn't responding -"
"Just pull the plug! Shut it down!"
The buzz hit a higher pitch, became unbearable even here.
Anakin suddenly understood that the array wasn't just malfunctioning.
He turned and put one hand between Obi-Wan's shoulders and the other behind Siri's and pushed. "Get down!"
They fell forward into the grass just as the hill collapsed around them, and white fire licked up into the sky. The noise was unimpressive at first - just a crash of glass and stone - then the slow rumble as the supports of the house collapsed, one by one, beneath the ground. Anakin could feel the vibrations of it coming up through his body.
He scrambled to his feet - Siri and Obi-Wan had already done so - and jumped backward just as a piece of land collapsed into the hole beneath it. Fire shot up, and Anakin could see down for a moment into a lavishly appointed room, wall to wall with flames.
Anakin looked up. A Neimoidian from the hilltop had spotted them, and was starting down.
"Run!" Obi-Wan yelled. "Into the shadows, now."
Obi-Wan didn't think the Neimoidian could have gotten a very clear view of them, but he wanted to stay in the shadows anyway. He did not think that the explosion and their presence at it had been entirely coincidental. Shapoi had known the time of the monthly contact - perhaps he had been the Jedi expected to be there when the mayor was assassinated. But having different Jedi on the premises would serve the purposes of whoever was behind this even better. If more than one Jedi was involved in the killing of Malkiri's leaders, then the Order could hardly protest that it was a single rogue.
He led Siri and Anakin by paths he'd never seen, finding his way through the now-dark forest with ease until they reached the edge of town. He stopped.
"We need to contact the Temple," he said. "We need to go back to the house. I will speak to Yoda. The two of you get everything you can that identifies us or has anything to do with the Shapois."
"All right," Siri said.
Anakin looked over his shoulder at the bright glow in the sky over the mayor's house. The trees around it were beginning to catch. Obi-Wan wondered in an offhand way if it had reached the Shapois' shed yet, and remembered what Daha had said about it not being fire safe.
"Questions later, Anakin. We need to move now."
He nodded, still pale and looking shocked. "Of course, Master."
They remained in the shadows as long as they could, and by the time they reached their street, no one seemed to be in a mood to notice them. Some people were running for the woods with alarms and extinguishers; others were dousing their houses with water. The three Jedi slipped into their yard and through their door unnoticed.
"Let's move fast," Anakin said. "I don't want anything bad to happen here."
"We seem to be safe for the moment… "
Siri was already scanning out front. "It may be a short moment. The mood out there is vicious. I can feel…" She shivered. "Leave the lights out."
Obi-Wan nodded. Siri disappeared to the kitchen and Anakin went upstairs. He heard them both tearing open drawers. He went to the back of the living room and turned on the holo-communicator, punching in the emergency code that would get him through to whichever Council members were immediately available.
The undifferentiated pixels crackled, bent, and formed themselves into a squat figure with pointed ears.
"Master Yoda," Obi-Wan sighed with relief. "Our mission has taken a bad turn."
"See that, I can, in your face, Master Obi-Wan."
"Shapoi is dead."
Something crashed in the kitchen and Siri let out a stream of curses that she definitely hadn't learned in the crèche. Obi-Wan glanced over his shoulder, then looked back at Yoda. "Master, the mayor has been assassinated. The world will be destabilized. The Senate needs to be notified."
Yoda frowned. "News, this is not, Obi-Wan. Already was the Senate notified."
"What does the Chancellor wish of us?"
"Help, you cannot, by staying. Unwelcome are you there. Demanding your return is the Malkiri delegation to the Senate."
"How did he find out we were here?"
"Informed him, the Chancellor did."
Yoda frowned. "When of the mayor's demise he learned, demanded an investigation he did. Offer a pre-existing team, Chancellor Palpatine did."
Obi-Wan took a deep breath. What a foolish thing to do! "And what are the wishes of the Council?"
"Servants of the Republic, we are, Obi-Wan. Return to Coruscant, you shall."
Obi-Wan nodded. "I understand. Siri and Anakin are packing. Master, it… it is worse than it may seem on Coruscant."
"How worse is it?"
Obi-Wan told him briefly what had happened since their arrival, about the baseless hatred and about Shapoi's escape from prison.
"Guessed, we should have. Always independent, was Zio Shapoi."
"Yes, well, it appears to have made matters worse. Much, I will wait to discuss until we have returned to the Temple, but Master… it appears to me, and I suspect Siri will also see this, that the assassination of the mayor was meant to occur when a Jedi was present. To cast suspicion."
"And present you were."
"Yes, Master. All three of us. Anakin heard something wrong with the machinery, then the hillside exploded."
"Seen, were you?"
Obi-Wan nodded. "Not closely. But I cannot guarantee that we weren't identified."
Heavy footsteps announced Anakin's entry. A bag fell at Obi-Wan's feet, then his padawan knelt beside him. He lowered his eyes, and did not speak without permission.
Yoda looked over him. "Safe you are, Padawan Skywalker?"
"Yes, Master Yoda. Master Obi-Wan has kept me safe." He looked up at Obi-Wan, then back at Yoda's hologram. "He's kept all of us safe."
Obi-Wan put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed briefly. It was a kind impulse of Anakin's to defend him, but it would have the unfortunate effect of introducing possible doubts. "Master Yoda, if I send Anakin back with Siri, perhaps I could try to reach these people before things get out of hand."
"Out of hand, things already are, and permission, you do not have, to remain on Malkiri."
"But if we could only explain… "
"It's too late," Anakin whispered.
"Heh," Yoda said. "To your padawan, you listen, Obi-Wan! Too late, it is already."
"But Master, to run would seem an admission where no guilt exists."
"A greater evil would defying the Senate bring. Place guilt, Malkiri will, in the way it always has. But commit the crime of which they most accuse us, we cannot. Servants, we are. Above the law, we are not."
Beside him, Anakin was clenching his jaw so tightly that Obi-Wan could hear his teeth grinding, but he said nothing, at least not out loud. But Obi-Wan could still feel the half-formed undercurrent of his thoughts: Someone should fix this, someone should make them understand, someone needs to take control of this, someone needs to visit this on them until the end of time…
He squeezed his padawan's shoulder again, leaving his hand tight until he felt the muscles beneath his fingers start to relax.
Yoda seemed to sense that some communication was happening, because he waited until Obi-Wan's full attention could come back to him. "Return, you must, Obi-Wan," he said again, kindly. "Nothing further can you accomplish on Malkiri."
Obi-Wan lowered his head. "I know, Master. I'm sorry. I failed."
Anakin waited for Yoda to say, "A failure, this is not," or "Fail, you did not," or something, but the old master didn't say anything like that. He just let it hang there long enough to look like it was true.
It was one injustice too many in the course of the day, and that it came from Yoda - Yoda who Obi-Wan respected! - made it worse somehow.
But Anakin couldn't yell or storm at a Council member; that was for sure. He had to keep calm. So he remained on his knees, but straightened his shoulders and raised his head to look Yoda in the eye. "Master Kenobi didn't fail," he said as simply as he could, then lowered his eyes again.
"Again, look up, Padawan Skywalker," Yoda said.
Reluctantly - he didn't have time for a fight with the Council right now - Anakin obeyed. He saw that Obi-Wan looked both pleased and embarrassed.
Yoda, to his surprise, looked more kindly than annoyed. "Know, you do," he said, "that the failure here is not Obi-Wan's. Know this as well does the Council. Knows it, Siri Tachi does. When ready to know it is Obi-Wan, so will he."
Anakin felt himself go red. Of course. It always seemed to come out that he was wrong and Yoda was right. "I'm sorry, Master. Both of you."
"Necessary, 'sorry' is not." Yoda looked back to Obi-Wan. "Return, you must, now. What things you have prepared, bring. All else, the Temple will replace."
"We have everything anyway," Anakin said. "That's what I came down to tell him. We're ready."
Obi-Wan nodded. "Good. I have the chips from the Shapoi family with me. It is my hope that they found suitable passage and will reach you on Coruscant before we do."
Yoda closed the connection.
"I'm sorry I embarrassed you."
"I'm sorry I made my embarrassment so obvious. It was a kind gesture, if an unnecessary one, and I am grateful to you." Obi-Wan reached out a hand and tugged at Anakin's hair. "I'm going to miss this when you have it removed. It's very handy."
Anakin smiled, then squared himself for action. "We better get Siri and get out of here before they shut down the spaceport. I mean, I could hotwire something and get us out, but I know you don't want me to."
"At the moment, Anakin, I am not ruling out any possibilities."
Siri swung into the room, a satchel over her shoulder. In her hand, she held Adi's listening-device detector. A small light was flashing on one side. Anakin nudged Obi-Wan and pointed to it. "Baklee?"
Obi-Wan paled and looked up at Siri. She was holding a datapad that read, "It just started. They might have heard the end, but no more. Aimed from town."
Anakin felt his nerves go into high gear, and the kind of calm that came to him, paradoxically, only when he was active, seemed to descend. If they'd only caught the very end, maybe there was still confusion. If people were coming, they would need to know why the Tachis were packed and on their way out the door. "All right," he said. "You know, Baklee, we're pretty close to the forest. Maybe we should take a couple of bags and head away from the fire."
"Good idea, Kit."
Siri just nodded, and went to the small coat room off the entrance hall. She tossed a jacket to Obi-Wan, wrapped a small cape around her own shoulders, and shrugged at Anakin, who had only been wearing the long scoot coats since his arrival.
Anakin palmed the door open.
The people in the street were still throwing water on their houses in a panicked way, but more had gathered at the end of the street closest to the forest. The flames had spread while they'd been speaking to Yoda, and a great cloud of black smoke was rising into the early night. It carried the scent of the Malkiri evergreens high into the sky, as if the trees' perfume were trying to escape its own prison.
"Just blend into the motion," Obi-Wan said. "We won't attract attention in this."
They had only taken a few steps toward town when the lights that lined the street flashed bright red and a siren went up into the air.
Siri froze. "They heard enough," she whispered.
"We can't know that," Obi-Wan said, putting his arm around her and trying to lead her forward.
"Yes, we can, and we do."
Anakin let the Force into his mind, felt the sudden urgency in the mood. There were people approaching from the town end of the street, blocking their way. Behind them, the forest burned. To their left, people were slowly leaving the panic of their own houses - Thama and Ilb Bercha had drifted into their front yard already - and noticing that something was afoot. To the right was only the house they'd lived in together, as empty as every other temporary lodging place was after they left it.
Anakin reached for his lightsaber under his coat; Obi-Wan didn't stop him, but gave him a look that said, quite clearly, I am trusting you to be responsible. He didn't draw… but he kept his hand on the hilt.
The city guard burst around the corner. Only four officers were there, but one of them must have let it leak that they'd picked up a suspicious transmission to Coruscant, because a confused and angry crowd had gathered around them. Anakin didn't think that the officers could control that crowd, if it came down to it.
There was going to be fighting.
Siri reached out and drew Anakin slowly back to her with one hand, while pulling Obi-Wan to her with the other. "Move slowly. They don't know who they're looking for yet. They couldn't have had time to trace the transmission to a particular house, and even if they did, they won't be sure which is ours, or what our name is supposed to be. They may think it was one of the other families long enough for us to slip by."
"I think we can get through them," Anakin said. "If we have to."
"They are frightened and bewildered," Obi-Wan said. "Can't you feel that?"
Anakin fought against it - he wanted to keep his own feelings clear - but he couldn't deny it. "Yes."
"We're not going to fight them unless they leave us with no choice at all. They are on a precipice. I am not going to push them over."
A flare shot up from the forest fire, and Anakin saw Obi-Wan's "precipice" clearly in his mind… suspended over the flames… waiting…
He shuddered. "Okay."
They moved slowly and deliberately back toward their house, satchels slung lightly over their shoulders.
More people drifted out of their yards and into the street. The noise the crowd was making was clearer now as it flowed around them. People were shouting, "Where's the traitor?" and "No one betrays Malkiri!" A girl ran past Anakin with a flaming branch, whooping with a terror that was almost glee. He thought she was one of the three who had first spoken to him at Daj's… the ones Obi-Wan had thought he was flirting with.
They had made it to the end of the walkway to their door - Anakin had no clear idea where Siri was ultimately leading them, only that this was the only relatively safe direction - when their time ran out.
"Jedi!" someone shouted.
Siri kept moving, but Anakin felt something hot brush by his cheek. The flaming branch landed on the lawn beside him, setting the gray-green grass on fire. He looked back, almost involuntarily, to see the girl
(Sephi Liss, his mind supplied for no good reason; her best friend is the Neimoidian girl Lyclar Nev)
But the girl wasn't his concern.
The crowd was reforming, oriented toward the house, and a small figure had worked its way forward.
Anakin lost all interest in running away.
He recognized the boy in front of the crowd, waving his skinny arms at the house. For once, Tomik Cral was in his shadow.
"They're Jedi!" Brinje yelled. "I saw one of them!"
Obi-Wan sensed Anakin's mood shift in time to stop him, but not quickly enough to do so with any grace. He simply reached out and grabbed the boy as he drew his lightsaber, pulling him backward, dragging him against his momentum.
"Let me go!"
Obi-Wan kept his voice soft, almost whispering in Anakin's ear. "I will not do so, Anakin, and you will be glad of that at a later time." He looked up at the crowd and spoke a bit louder, but still in the most reasonable voice he could summon. "Do not approach."
"But he -"
"I am aware, Anakin. Do not ignite your lightsaber. We haven't time to go through your relaxation exercise, but you must not act on your anger. I will stop you if you do."
"We will need your mind here with us, Anakin. And you know ultimately that you must not act on this feeling."
Anakin's muscles went rigid under Obi-Wan's arms, and he seemed to hum like an energy barrier. Obi-Wan could almost see the waves of energy coming from him in jagged, uneven spikes.
"I helped him," Anakin whispered helplessly.
"And he betrayed you. And because of that, we need to walk away from this mob before they regain their momentum and come after us."
The muscles of Anakin's back, pinned against Obi-Wan's chest, tightened again. They were trembling under the strain. Then, with an effort, Anakin relaxed them. His head lowered then rose again, and he was still. "All right," he said.
Siri leaned in. "If you two are done having a moment, I think maybe we better move."
Obi-Wan looked out at the crowd, which was starting to stir after his mild mental suggestion. Torches were twitched, hands tossed stones.
Anakin nodded and looked at her with a gratitude that Obi-Wan didn't quite understand. "Yeah," he said, regaining himself. He looked around, then back over his shoulder, toward the back yard. "Daj's," he said. There's a fence, but it's short, and it's the only way." He slipped his lightsaber back into the large pocket of his jacket, and turned decisively away from the crowd.
Anakin had to take the chance that Obi-Wan and Siri were following, because he couldn’t make himself look at either one of them. The anger was still in him, but it was no longer a flare in his mind. It was a queasy illness at the center of his abdomen, making him feel off-balance and ashamed. He kept remembering a time when he'd been three years old, shortly after Watto had discovered his aptitude with machines. The greedy old Toydarian hadn't allowed him to leave the shop until all the small parts of the engines were clear of dirt and grime, and it had been so many hours, and he hadn't learned to use the 'fresher very long before. Mom had found him, still working, but wet and stinking and crying because he knew that he was supposed to be better than that. Mom had held him then as Obi-Wan did now, and he had been grateful, but then Watto had come in and said something about going home to clean up, rather than stinking the place up, and he'd been even more grateful for that, as he was to Siri for bringing him back up to the clean world as though he'd never left it.
He ran down the back yard easily and leapt the fence with grace, feeling the Force come to him, welcoming him and embracing him as it always did. He could feel it beckoning him forward, and he followed its promptings without thought. It was still cleaner than he was.
The lights in Daj's house were off, but the yard was lit by the fire burning in the woods just beyond the stream. The woods were dry. The good smell surrounded him with obscuring smoke, and he chanced a glance behind him. Siri and Obi-Wan were only a meter or so away.
"Back into the woods?" Obi-Wan asked. "The fire would hide us."
"Or cook us," Siri said.
Anakin could hear the crowd now, rushing down the hill. A plank of the fence broke with a snap that echoed through the smoke, preternaturally loud. His eyes were starting to burn and his lungs felt as though someone had hung them out on a dehydration rack. He felt for the Force, for the sense that had been guiding him thus far. Master Obi-Wan didn't need to take his advice - especially now - but he thought the advice would be taken nonetheless.
He felt something shimmering at the edge of the energy. "Wait here," he said.
"Anakin, we cannot take on that mob with weapons." Siri coughed harshly in the smoke.
"That's not what I mean."
Another cough, this time from his other side. "What do you mean" - cough - "Padawan?"
Anakin tried to accept the smoke into his lungs; it wasn't any worse than the things he'd breathed in at the track, or - worse - at Gardulla's. It probably wasn't that much worse than Coruscant pollution. But it was harsh and it hurt, and he gave in and bent over in a coughing fit. "Just wait here," he said. "Something's coming."
Obi-Wan's eyes were watering. Between that and the thick white smoke, he could see only shadows, and those were merely blurs of gray. The one advantage to it was that they were as well camouflaged to the crowd as they were to one another. Unless someone literally tripped over them, they'd be safe here, barring smoke-related injuries.
Was Anakin really waiting for something to happen, or was it an excuse to continue his attack?
Obi-Wan searched Anakin's heart, and couldn't really read what he found there. There was a deep anger, but it seemed directed inward. He knew that in some ways, that could be more dangerous; self-anger could destroy the mind far more quickly than anger at others. But it did take the others out of danger, which was a plus. He let it be for now. Whatever Anakin's motives, they did not seem to include another uprising of his temper. Obi-Wan let his consciousness reach further out, for the elusive sense that Anakin was following.
The blur that was Siri had gone to stand quietly beside Anakin; she had trusted him immediately. Obi-Wan supposed he had no reason to doubt; one thing that had been certain about Anakin from the start was the depth of his perception. Even at the battle of Naboo, before he'd had any training, he had known something had happened to Qui-Gon. He could now sense further than Obi-Wan, and he could sense weaker presences.
A torch passed by in the smoke only three meters away, as someone ran into the woods.
You should bring them back before they hurt themselves.
Obi-Wan squinted into the smoke, found a tree a bit ahead of the rioter, and knocked it down in his path. He screamed and jumped back, leaving the fringe of the woods.
"Don't be foolish!" someone yelled. It echoed and became nebulous in the smoke. "If they're in the woods, they're dead! Don't follow!"
That was a relief, but it also increased the danger here in Daj Orti's yard. There was only so much space, and even feeling around like blind men, the mob was certainly going to find them soon. "Anakin," he said, lurching over to where the others were. "How much longer?"
Anakin wrapped a hand around his upper arm and drew him closer. "Soon! I think… " He looked up, face turned into the curling smoke. His arm jabbed suddenly upward. "There!" he cried. "There!"
Someone heard him. His cry was echoed through the crowd.
Obi-Wan saw nothing above them at first, and heard only the approaching mob.
Then a white light appeared in the smoke, making a round and welcome haven. Anakin ran into it. Siri followed. Obi-Wan knew that it would certainly give away their location, but whatever it came from was their only hope… if it was friendly.
A vaguely cylindrical shadow appeared above the light, then Obi-Wan could hear the sound of engines above the roar of the nearby flames. The ship lowered until they could feel the blast of exhaust from the engines blowing the smoke away and whipping their hair and clothes around them.
A hatch opened in the side and a gangplank lowered. Pojul Shapoi leaned out of it. "Can you make the jump?" he yelled.
"No problem!" Anakin shoved Siri forward. "You first."
"I don't think so. Padawans to safety first."
"One of you, jump!" Obi-Wan said. "I will guard the rear." There was no response. "Anakin, I can't order Siri, but I can order you. Jump onto that ship."
Anakin broke into a run, then his footsteps were cut short. A second later, Obi-Wan heard the clunk of his boots landing on metal, followed almost immediately by Siri's.
A shape broke through the mists, a member of the city guard. Another - a civilian - appeared next to him. There was plain fear and rage in their eyes.
"Obi-Wan!" Siri called. "You need to come!"
The smoke was closing around him. He turned away from the crowd, ran five paces, then used the Force to enhance and control his leap onto the gangplank. It was already rising when he landed, and he rolled down it into the cargo bay, much as Qui-Gon had, long ago on Tatooine.
Anakin and Siri were waiting for him, red-eyed and grimfaced, and smelling of the fragrant smoke.
"Where are we headed?" someone yelled from the cockpit. Obi-Wan stumbled in.
Daj Orti was at the controls, his hands resting lightly beside the naviputer input controls.
"Thank me when we get where you need to go."
"Coruscant," he said.
"Good, then. The route will not be questioned by the security droids, not with this ship."
"I will see to it that you are compensated for your trouble."
"What compensation? I get to be a hero for Jedi. What more compensation can a Neimoidian ask?" Daj offered his strangely human smile, then turned back to the controls.
Obi-Wan felt Anakin come up beside him, and he put an arm around him. Siri approached from the other side, and leaned wearily on his shoulder. They looked out the viewport at the world of Malkiri. From orbit, the great forest fire looked like only a tiny spark burning in the darkness.
Then Daj got automated clearance to leave, and the starlines erased Malkiri from view entirely.
Anakin wasn't sure how long he'd been sleeping on board Daj's ship, but when he opened his eyes, he saw Obi-Wan sprawled on the floor beside him, snoring. He thought of being pulled back from attacking Brinje, found that he still wished he'd been let go, and was ashamed of himself. Obi-Wan had helped him there. He knew it. And he knew that he'd been wrong. But still… he wished he'd had one swing. Just one. Tomik Cral had irritated and annoyed him the whole time he had been on Malkiri, but right now, he hated Brinje more, hated him absolutely.
Siri was curled more neatly on a small couch, and the Shapois were resting together on the larger sleep couch.
He stood up and stretched, feeling all the stresses he'd put his body through in the last few hours, then went up to the cockpit and sat down in the co-pilot's chair. He checked the readouts; they were only a half-hour or so from Coruscant.
Daj looked over at him kindly. "You had a nice rest?"
"Yes. I didn't know you had a starship. How come you came on the commercial flight?"
"I like to be pampered. But I have the starship, in the event that I want to bring a shipment here more quickly than the delivery routes allow." He shook his head. "I'm glad you're all right, Anakin Skywalker."
"How long did you know?"
"Oh, I always knew, or at least suspected. I saw you pit racing on Coruscant a few years ago. A strange thing, to see a Jedi padawan engaged in such a reckless pursuit. But you did it well."
"I almost got myself and my master killed."
Daj sighed and nodded, as if he'd expected nothing else. "When I first saw you on the transport, I said to myself, 'That boy looks like the padawan I saw racing.' And your story was so vague. Then I saw you meditating with your master, and I knew for certain."
"I was trying to be so careful, and I didn't even need to be. Thanks for keeping the secret."
Daj frowned - a much more Neimoidian look than his smile. "Now, I will share one with you, to balance the scales, so you know you have my trust."
"Why do you trust me?"
"Because I saved your life."
"I saved Brinje. Maybe not his life, but I sure got in the way of a beating. And he -"
"Yes, your master told me after you first fell asleep. I have no doubt that Brinje believed you to be behind the murder of the mayor, and possibly felt complicit in the act because he knew of your presence beforehand." He shrugged. "That it gave him a moment of triumph was also, I am sure, an incentive. You have neither motive. You know I have not betrayed you, and you know I stand to gain very little. Therefore, I trust you."
Anakin grinned. "I was hoping for something more like, 'Because you tell the truth' or 'Because I like you.'"
"Ah, but I do like you." Daj laughed. "That is ultimately true, my young friend. I liked you from the start, and liked you better as I got to know you. You have a great hunger for justice. And a great affinity with hoverscoots."
"I have more luck with the hoverscoots." Anakin shifted in his chair. "What were you going to trust me with, Daj?"
Daj sighed. "I told you, on the day you first came to my shop, that not all Neimoidians agreed with the policies of the Trade Federation. Do you remember my telling you this?"
"The Federation holds near absolute power over my people. Those of us who disagree must do so… very carefully."
"You're in a rebellion?"
"Not precisely a rebellion, but… let us say, a movement for change. Something has gone very wrong with the upper echelons. I came to Malkiri because Fual Harkae was highly suspect in some circles - he was certainly part of Gunray's… how to say it… organization? Yes, organization is as good a word as any. When he was sent to a world with Malkiri's reputation, we in the underground anticipated another Naboo. That was costly for my people -"
"For the Naboo and the Gungans, too," Anakin muttered, thinking about the detention camps and the starvation and the destruction that Padmé had to deal with.
"Yes, yes… but it cost us in ways it did not cost them. When a people does such a thing… it is a poison, Anakin. And we want to clear it from our system."
Anakin considered telling him about the Sith, and how the Council thought that they had been in contact with the Trade Federation, but he knew he couldn't do that. He trusted Daj, but that secret did not belong to him to tell. It was known to the Council and to the Senate, and the Senate - particularly Chancellor Palpatine - had been adamant about not making the information public, for fear of causing a panic.
And anyway, all Daj was missing was the name. He already knew something was wrong.
"So you didn't blow my cover, but I blew yours."
"Unintentionally. And I believe the damage can be repaired eventually. I have a reputation for occasionally doing crazy and unexpected things, for a Neimoidian." He shrugged. "In the meantime, should it be necessary, I still have contacts on Coruscant."
"You could work at Jumandel's."
"Ech," Daj spat. "Overpriced and poorly serviced. You are too intelligent to have done your shopping there, surely?"
"I was in a hurry, and it was nearby."
"Well, I suppose it is forgivable. But I will tell you where to find better shops."
The proximity light flashed, and Daj cut in the sublight engines. The outer edges of the Coruscant system jumped into view, then flew past them as the city planet approached. "You should wake your master and the others," Daj said. "Tell them we are almost home."
Obi-Wan was dreaming badly, of shapeless shadows in the mist, and was glad of the touch of Anakin's warm hand on his arm, bringing him up from it.
"We're almost to Coruscant," he said.
"Thank you, Ani."
Anakin didn't move for a long time. His eyes were thoughtful, a relatively rare and mature expression for them.
"What is it, Padawan?"
"I'm not glad you stopped me yet."
"You will be."
"I know. But I'm not yet. Do you hate me?"
"Of course not."
"What if I'm never glad of it?"
"You will be."
"But what if?"
"I'll never hate you, Anakin. I promise."
He turned this over in his mind. "I guess not. You never hate anybody. I'll go wake up the others."
He wandered off toward where Siri was sleeping, leaving Obi-Wan feeling confused and a bit low. Anakin seemed to want something from him, and he wasn't certain what it was.
The moment passed with his residual sleepiness, and he stretched and started gathering their belongings.
The Shapois woke up disoriented and upset, and soothing them took most of the remainder of the trip. At some point during the restful time, they had both internalized the idea that they had lost their son and what few belongings they still had, all in the same afternoon, and it was proving difficult on them. Pojul would need Jedi counseling, and enough of a security clearance so that he could be told what had happened to him, and how he had been used. Both of them would need a great deal of time.
Mace Windu and Yoda were waiting at the bottom of the gangplank when they came outside, and Obi-Wan was pleasantly surprised that he was able to meet their solemn gazes without flinching.
"You are well?" Mace asked.
"Yes. All of us." Obi-Wan introduced Daj and the Shapois.
"With you is our sympathy," Yoda said to the Daha and Pojul. "Brave, was Zio, and a fine knight."
"There is something I believe Pojul should discuss with the closed Council," Obi-Wan said.
Pojul looked up with wounded eyes. "I -"
"You know of matters which are of concern to us."
He nodded. "Yes, of course."
Anakin cleared his throat.
"Permission you have to speak," Yoda said.
"Daj probably lost his shop and everything else. Can we help him?"
"It is quite all right," Daj said. "There is no need for assistance."
Mace raised an eyebrow. "Nevertheless, it was a significant sacrifice on our behalf, and we would like to express our thanks."
Daj bowed deeply. "It was my honor, sir."
They boarded an air taxi that was waiting for them, settling comfortably into the seats. It was good to be back in the Core Worlds.
Mace, again, spoke first, looking over his shoulder at Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Siri. "You will be glad to know that the cause of the explosion at Fual Harkae's home was ascertained by off-world investigators while you were en route, and there is no legal case to be made against you."
"It never would have been more than circumstantial anyway," Siri said. "And weak, as all we could have been accused of was being nearby."
"Then running," Obi-Wan pointed out.
"I tend to do that when a stone-throwing mob is chasing me."
"Nevertheless," Mace went on, as though he had not been interrupted, "when you reported that it seemed to be centered on a communications array, the Republic communications oversight committee investigated. There was an energy pulse sent to the receiver, and it contained an ignition code." "It was booby-trapped?" Siri asked.
The air taxi dropped to the walkway in front of the Temple, and they disembarked.
Anakin slowed his pace as they entered the building. "Where did the order come from, the one that blew up the array?"
"Very good, Anakin," Mace said. "That is precisely why we are still concerned. They were unable to pinpoint the origin with any degree of specificity - it was scrambled rather efficiently - but they were able to trace it at least to the Coruscant system."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes. "Then they're here."
"Yes," Yoda said, leaning forward and widening his eyes. "Here, they are. And so are we."
Obi-Wan didn’t make the connection at first. Of course they were here. Was it a simple warning of danger?
But Siri had gone rigid beside him. "So we aren't under suspicion on Malkiri - Obi-Wan and Anakin and myself -"
"But already spreading are rumors that the signal came from the Temple itself."
"That's stupid!" Anakin burst out. "That's the most ridiculous… "
Mace Windu stifled back one of his rare smiles. "No reasonable person believes it, and we have the assurance of the Chancellor that it will not become a matter of concern."
"But Malkiri will still believe it," Daha said softly. "They will believe it entirely."
"Yes. Believe it, they will."
It was good to get back into his Jedi tunic and leather boots, but Anakin had to admit, it was a little bit of a wrench to give up the silks. They weren't very warm, but it had been kind of rugged to dress up in nice clothes that didn’t mark him right away as a Jedi. He also hadn't had his hair cut yet, pleading weariness when they came in two days ago and "forgetting" yesterday. This morning, they'd received word that they would be called to go and speak to the Council about their experiences on Malkiri, so he couldn't commit to something that might be a lengthy process.
He did his morning exercises with Obi-Wan, took lessons from three tutors (history, diplomacy, and astrophysics), then returned to his cell to await the call. His droids - somewhat to his surprise - had been left alone, and he'd been working on the propulsion units of a little flyer (purpose as yet undetermined) when Obi-Wan appeared at the door.
"Thank you for tying the hair back, Anakin."
"I'll call down to the cosmetologist later. I just didn't want to maybe miss the call from the Council."
"It won't take as long to cut it as it did to lengthen it." He smiled in a friendly way. "But I am not in a hurry to see it go, either. I've gotten rather used to it."
Anakin drew a small bag out from under his bed, and held it on his lap. "Here are Qui-Gon's hair things. I guess I won't need them anymore." He held them up; they seemed heavier than they should be.
Obi-Wan took them. "I'll keep them for you. Perhaps, when your apprenticeship is over, you will want them again."
"You're giving them to me?"
"I am. And with that, I suppose you can keep them as well as I can." He offered the bag back to Anakin.
"Thank you. I mean… it's weird, not needing them. But…"
"But we do need them." Obi-Wan sighed and sat down beside him on the small sleep couch. "I wonder if he might not have done better with this assignment than I did."
Anakin laughed. "Master, no disrespect to Qui-Gon intended, but he couldn't even fool a nine-year-old when he was going undercover." Obi-Wan's eyes widened in surprise, giving him a comic look that made Anakin laugh again.
"I hadn't…" A laugh escaped Obi-Wan. "Well, I suppose that's true. He simply couldn't hide who he was."
The soft bell attached to the comm-system sounded, and Anakin hit the "respond" button. "Skywalker," he said.
"Is your Master not present?"
Obi-Wan turned his head toward the machine. "I'm right here, Master Windu. I hadn't returned to my cell yet."
"Very well. You are both needed in Council Chambers now."
They walked comfortably together through the bright halls of the Temple, past the fountains and peaceful meditation rooms. Anakin's eyes took it all in as they had when it was new. It was beautiful here. He didn't stop to remember that often enough.
Master Windu, Adi Gallia, and Yoda were sitting in their Council seats, and Siri and the Shapois were standing in the center of the room. Siri was fidgeting, looking nervously at Adi and biting her lip.
"Please sit down," Adi said, indicating several smaller chairs which had been brought in (it would be unthinkable for them to sit in the empty Council chairs).
Mace shifted in his chair and looked directly at Obi-Wan. "First, we have examined the records of your mission, and find no fault in your conduct on Malkiri. We recognize that the ensuing events were unanticipated, and you did not have control over the outcome."
"We would particularly like to recognize your padawan's contributions," Adi said softly. Siri looked at her warmly, but looked away quickly. "Anakin made a valuable contact in Daj Orti, and his observation about the communications array provided information necessary for the proper investigation which cleared you of the crime for which you were hunted."
Anakin blushed. A recognition from the Council? Had Obi-Wan asked them to do that?
He glanced at his master and saw the same unfeigned surprise that was on his own face. Obi-Wan caught him looking and arranged his features to show more confidence, but Anakin had not been offended; he knew the surprise had been at the Council's action, not at the sentiment.
"Told us, Pojul Shapoi has, of his encounters with the mayor."
"What will happen to my husband?" Daha asked.
"Tried, he will be." Yoda frowned. "A serious matter, is this murder. But hold the trial on Coruscant, we will. Malkiri will be hostile."
Pojul nodded. "I will serve whatever sentence is deemed necessary. I will die if it is asked of me."
"Asked, it will not be. Explain, we will, the essence of the mind control though explain we cannot its origin."
Obi-Wan leaned forward. "If you will pardon me, Masters, it seems obvious that there was Sith involvement. We also traced communications from Coruscant following the Naboo crisis."
"Obvious, it may be. Provable to the courts, it is not."
"So we just leave it?" Anakin asked.
Mace Windu steepled his fingers under his chin. "We have assurances from the Chancellor that the situation will be explored." He stood up. "Now, Master Yoda has words for all of you. Master Gallia and I will escort the Shapois to the new home which has been arranged for them."
They started out of the room.
Siri took a deep breath and turned around. "Master Gallia?"
Adi turned. "What is it, Siri?"
"If it is not a trouble to you… may I speak with you privately later? There is something I wish to discuss."
"Of course it's no trouble, Siri. You are always a welcome visitor. I'll have something warm to eat ready."
Siri gave a grateful sigh. "Thank you, Master. I will be along shortly."
Anakin raised his eyebrows to ask Siri what was going on, but she ignored him, by which he guessed that the matter was personal.
Yoda rapped the floor with his gimer stick, and brought their attention back to him. "Know, we do, what has happened, whether or not there is proof. But the reason for it, we must find. Learn the truth of the Sith's intentions, we must."
"Isn't causing trouble enough?" Siri asked wearily. "I mean, when you boil it down, isn't their whole point to destroy our lives?"
"For the Sith, no, not enough. To end our lives, the Sith wish."
Obi-Wan nodded. "I understand what you mean, Master. But perhaps they were merely attempting to sully the Order in this case, to weaken our position in the galaxy."
"Of that, I have no doubts, Obi-Wan. But small is Malkiri, and with a reputation that causes others to disregard its opinions."
"We haven't learned yet why they chose Naboo," Siri said. "It may not be as organized as you think."
"More organized, it is. Of this, I am sure. But what is the shape of it?"
Something about Yoda's question made Anakin think it was the most important of all. Who was gaining from it, and why? Who would benefit both from the blockade of Naboo and the destruction of Malkiri's infrastructure?
It's the wrong question. Naboo and Malkiri are incidental. What is the ultimate effect?
But he couldn't puzzle out what both worlds could have in common, or who they might serve in common. Maybe they'd served different purposes; maybe it was a mistake to correlate it too closely with Naboo.
What happened on Malkiri? A small world, one Jedi, one crime, fanned to violence.
Anakin's skin prickled and ice seemed to surround his heart.
He didn't know how to say it so that it would make sense and not sound paranoid, but having it all laid out that way made it seem very familiar to him. When he would try a new modification on an engine, or a new intelligence system on a droid, he knew better than to just press it into the use he'd meant it for, unless there was absolutely no choice.
No, he would take it someplace controlled, and try it on a small scale.
Anakin knew what it had been: a test run.
"It comes off after I run over to Daj's new place," Anakin said. "I swear. I've got an appointment and everything."
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes and tugged at Anakin's hair. "For someone who didn't even want to pull his hood down, you seem to have become rather attached to this."
Anakin just grinned. "It's kind of fun to look different from everyone else I'm training with."
"Of course. But the point of the standard hairstyle is to make you feel a part of the Temple."
"Which is why it's coming off." He shrugged. "Anyway, I promised Daj I'd help him get set up. I still have this afternoon free, right?"
"That hasn't changed. But return before sunset, and that includes your appointment with the cosmetologist. I have a lesson for you."
"About what happened before we left Malkiri?"
Obi-Wan sighed. He wanted to create another lesson for Anakin about his temper, but he was running out of scenarios. "No," he said. "It's about what happened in the woods. You need to learn to control and analyze your visions, and I'm going to find a way to help you."
"I'm hoping to come across a method at some point while you're out. If not… "
"Exactly. We improvise."
"Okay. I promise I'll be back by sunset."
"Then you'd best go about your business."
"Guess so." Anakin still paused. "Master?"
"What is it, Anakin?"
"You improvise all right, you know."
"Thank you, Ani." There was an awkward moment, then Anakin disappeared down the corridor, headed eagerly for the front door. Two days back in the Temple had been more than enough to make him restless again. Obi-Wan watched him until he was gone, feeling good and wishing he could say something like that to Qui-Gon, just to make him smile.
He really didn't know how to approach this lesson with Anakin, and decided in a vague way to consult the library for the advice of older masters. Surely, Anakin wasn't the only padawan ever plagued by intense visions; someone would have an idea.
As he rounded the corner, he caught sight of a slight figure standing outside one of the training rooms, her hands clasped behind her back as she watched through the large window. He turned aside to go to her.
She didn't turn away from her observations when he came to stand beside her. "Have you heard anything about the girl Berli Jai? She has good footwork."
"So do you. You and Adi complimented each other well - maybe you should look for a padawan who is more like Adi."
Siri smiled. "That would be pleasant. But who says I'm looking for a padawan? I'm merely taking an interest in the children of the Temple."
"Mm-hmm." Obi-Wan turned so that he was facing into the training room with her. The girl (he presumed her to be Berli Jai, but, as he had never had to search for a padawan, he had not fully familiarized himself with the younger ones) really did have good footwork. She was a dark-haired human with copper-colored skin and small, upturned eyes. She looked very serious. "Have you checked her records yet?"
"Adi's been compiling data on several likely candidates. I read it all last night after I talked to her." She handed a datapad to Obi-Wan. It listed eight names, five girls and three boys.
"How did that go?"
"I told her everything, Obi-Wan." She closed her eyes and swayed slightly, then opened them again. "She forgave me. I was so afraid to tell her, but she just… she accepted it, then gave me this list, as though nothing had changed."
"Is that what you wanted?"
"Of course it is!" She sniffed. "Oh, I suppose I wanted it to be more of a scene. Maybe she could have been shocked, and I could have argued my case, and we both could have come to an understanding. I told her that. She laughed and she hugged me. She never did that before."
"Really?" Qui-Gon had embraced Obi-Wan on more than one occasion, and Anakin seemed to need to be embraced quite frequently.
"I never wanted her to, and it never occurred to her. Neither of us is particularly demonstrative, I suppose. But it was nice. She said, 'Siri, you have no need to make an argument. You made a call on your first solo mission, and it was a logical one based on the knowledge you had. I am sorry you were subjected it, but we all have made mistakes.' She said she was proud of the way I conducted myself in that investigation. And that she'd wondered why I hadn't taken a padawan yet. She said it would be good for me."
"Are you choosing it, Siri?"
She didn't answer, at least not directly. Instead, she turned back to the window, not quite looking at Obi-Wan as she spoke. "It was sometimes nice," she said. "To be that close to another person. Even a smelly pirate."
"Did you tell Adi that part?"
"Yes." She grinned. "I got the distinct impression that Adi wanted to ask me about it more specifically, but decided it would be in poor form."
"Do you want to be asked about it?" Obi-Wan squirmed a bit a the idea; he was not ignorant of the subject, but he chose not to think about it often.
"No. Yes. I don't know. But I do know something. I know that the Order is more important to me. Being close to another knight in my mind and through the Force - that's more powerful, more… intimate, quite honestly. I want to stay."
"Then you're choosing."
"No. I've chosen."
"I'm glad, Siri," Obi-Wan said. "It would be a blow to the Order to lose you."
She turned up her nose in mock injury. "To the Order? Hmmph."
Obi-Wan grinned. "Well, I'm sure Adi would miss you, too."
"Adi." One eyebrow went up.
"And Anakin would be heartbroken."
She nodded, a smile playing around her lips. "Well, we can't have that."
She let the smile come to the surface. "Thank you, Obi-Wan. For everything." She looked back through the window. "So you think Berli Jai acts too much like me?"
"Possibly." He glanced at Adi's list. "What about this Rodian girl, Teerya? Adi marked her particularly."
"I haven't seen her yet."
"And the boy from Oseson?"
"I'm not sure I'm ready to raise a boy alone."
"You're not alone, Siri. Not unless you want to be."
"I guess I know that." She took a deep breath. "I think I'll go meet Teerya next. I think I can do this."
"Of course you can. Do you want me to come with you?"
"No. I can get this far on my own. But I'll come to you if I need help."
"All right. And on that note, I should probably finish seeking the help I was on my way to get."
"Probably." She squared her shoulders to move on, then looked back at Obi-Wan. "Oh, by the way, tell Anakin I found the perfect place for that bust he made. It's - what is it?"
Obi-Wan didn't know what Siri had seen in his face, but he felt as though a wall lume had suddenly gone on beside him. Of course - Madam Kam had been right. Anakin understood images, he created them and organized them. He needed to see his visions in a clearer form, a form he could share and understand. Obi-Wan nodded to himself. "I just fully understood the lesson I mean to teach this evening. I need to go find clay and paint."
"All right… " She gave him a bemused smile. "Teaching looks very exciting."
"Sometimes it is. Sometimes I love it, believe it or not." He squeezed her shoulder. "May the Force be with you, Siri. And be sure to bring your new padawan by."
They said their goodbyes, then went their separate ways.
Qui-Gon's old friend Didi Oddo had found a recently-vacated shop in a neighborhood frequently by schoolchildren, and the Order had purchased it for Daj Orti in recognition of his service and the loss of his shop on Malkiri. It was nowhere near as well-equipped as Orti's Off-Time, but it was clean and in good condition. Daj had been able to divert two shipments from their route to Malkiri, so the shelves were partially stocked already
"They're popular things, too," Daj said, arranging equipment in a fanned display that made the shelf look a bit less empty. Anakin was doing the same with a group of brightly colored datapads whose surfaces danced with animated characters in various combat scenarios. "More of the new model scoot - your model - and the new version of Droid Attack."
"A hologame. Very popular. Though I would guess it would interest you little, having had the real experience."
"You guess right."
"At any rate, these should sell well, and I have credit to place new orders. I will be back in business quite quickly. You'll see."
Anakin finished his display and checked it. It looked well-balanced, if too bright to stare at for long. One of the animated characters died a grisly death, but the subroutine resurrected him and began again. "If you say so."
"I do say so." He nodded at Anakin's satchel. "I see you brought your hoverscoot. Do you need it repaired?"
"I can repair it myself, Daj."
"Or you could give me business… "
"Oh. I never think about that. But I don’t think so. I thought I could give it to you, and you could sell it used. I guess I won't have much of a chance to use it."
Daj stopped working and frowned deeply. "No," he said after awhile. "No, I will not take it and sell it. It is a harmless pastime, and I will not aid and abet you in giving it up."
"But I have no time… "
"You travel the city some afternoons. Use it rather than walking. Enjoy it. Keep that part of yourself, Anakin Skywalker. I will not take it."
"Thanks, Daj." He looked out the window; the filtered sun had taken on the golden cast of late afternoon. His appointment was in twenty minutes. "It's time to leave, though."
"Understood. I thank you for your help. Don't stay away."
Anakin took the scoot out of his satchel and fixed it onto his padawan boots. They weren't quite as well suited as scoot boots, but they worked well enough. He glided out into the afternoon, careful to avoid the pedestrian traffic around him. A few people gave him odd looks - a Jedi padawan, in full dress, behaving like a common school boy.
Let them look.
He flew into the square just outside the Temple, and, on a whim, used a column to repel himself high into the air. He twisted three times and pushed his legs out quickly at another column to send himself in a different direction. It was neither as fast as podracing or as dangerous as pit racing, but it held the freedom that the skies had always held for him.
Below him, someone clapped.
He glanced down and saw some local boys gathered - the same boys he'd seen before he left, the ones who said they were always around.
He found a column and flew down to them, then kicked the scoot off his feet. "Hi. I was just -"
"That was pretty good, braid-boy," the leader said, smiling, adjusting his own scoot onto his boots. "You picked it up fast."
Anakin adopted the casual speech pattern. "What can I say? I'm talented. And, for the record, my name's Anakin. As opposed to braid-boy."
The boy wrinkled his nose. "Boring."
"They call me Sticks." He pointed to the others with him, another human and a young Wookiee. "Those two are Jams and Hairball."
"He's Jams," the human said, jerking his thumb at the Wookiee.
Sticks shook his head. "So, you want to come up with us?" He took off into the sky, and hovered a meter above Anakin's head. Jams and Hairball followed him.
Anakin took his scoot out and looked at it. It would be nice to spend the afternoon with them; they were definitely not like Tomik Cral.
But he had promised. He had one quick appointment, then Obi-Wan had a lesson for him, one of the ones Obi-Wan really worked on. And Obi-Wan worked on his lessons because they mattered, and because it mattered to Obi-Wan to teach him.
He smiled at the boys from his place on the ground, then tucked the scoot back into his satchel. "Maybe some other time," he told them. "I have to go home."