Actions

Work Header

Lead Me From Fear To Love

Chapter Text

Jedi Knight Pangur Bahn sighed, shielding his heterochromic eyes from the harsh desert landscape of Tatooine.  Just behind the trianii, like a pair of dark-eyed shadows, were two of the queen's handmaidens, Padmé and Sabé.  They were followed by an astromech droid, the only one that survived the race from Naboo.  The negotiations with the Trade Federation had broken down on the arrival of Pangur and his Dathomirian knight-partner, Salín, who had been grievously injured during their escape with the queen's entourage.  The escape had also damaged their ship's hyperdrive, forcing them to land on the barren planet of Tatooine, the nearest non-Republic planet to Naboo.

The group had hoped to hide themselves there long enough to fix the hyperdrive, but it was proving more difficult than Pangur had anticipated.  They had no parts to spare for the repairs, no money to purchase more, and Pangur was hardly a mechanic on his best days.  Padmé touched the being's arm, tilting her head back to look up at him.  The top of her head barely reached his sternum.  "Knight Pangur?  There is a . . . scrap shop not far from here.  Perhaps they would have the parts we're seeking?"

"Excellent eye, young one," Pangur praised, touching a paw to her intricately braided, chocolate hair.  Sabé boasted the same braids and Pangur envied them for a moment.  His people enjoyed warmth, and ran warmer than humans, but Tatooine was hotter than even his people preferred and their upswept braids were probably nice and cool, unlike his long, white fur.

The interior of the scrap shop was a relief after the heat of Tatooine's twin suns, the domed structure half-buried to help keep it cool.  A little, blond boy was sitting on the counter, blue eyes sharp as the Jedi and handmaidens entered.  Padmé, in turn, gave him a lovely smile.  "Hello."

The boy started, then ducked his head with a blush.  "Are you an angel?"

Padmé blinked at the boy, then gave a soft giggle.  "I'm just a girl.  And you're a funny, little boy."

"Oh—I—um—"  The boy went bright red.  "I mean—hi!  Um—Watto will be back in a moment, if you want to wait.  You can look around and if you have and questions, I'm sure I can help!"

Pangur tried not to frown at the Toydarian name and hoped it didn't actually belong to a Toydarian.  The beings were heavily resistant to Force suggestion and Pangur was extremely limited in funds.  If he couldn't get Watto to take the amount of Republic credits they'd managed to scrape together, they were in a great deal of trouble.

The Jedi's hopes were dashed when a cranky-looking Toydarian fluttered into the main room of the shop, a scowl on his face.  "What're you looking for, offworlder?"

"My hyperdrive needs repaired," Pangur touched the R2 unit, at his side.  "My astromech, R2D2, has a list of the parts I will require."

"You come with me," Watto gestured to Pangur after looking over the parts list.  "Boy, you watch the shop until Khi returns, then you can go home—if your work is done."

"Yippee!"  Anakin slid from the counter.  A flash of fondness crossed the Toydarian's face before he flew into the scrap yard, Pangur following behind.

"Padmé, Sabé, stay in here," Pangur paused in the doorway to order the girls not to follow him.

"Yes, sir," Sabé gripped her friend's hand and Pangur shook his head.  The two looked so alike with their similar features and coloring that he had trouble believing they weren't twins, at times.  Even their Force-signatures were similar, though Padmé had assured him there was no actual relation when he had asked.

"Is he your master?"  Anakin asked as Pangur followed Watto.  "Watto is mine."

"You're a slave?"  Padmé gasped.  The Nubian had never run into slavery before since her planet had been part of the Republic for generations.

"I'm a person," The boy replied, clearly hurt.  "My name is Anakin Skywalker."

Pangur thought he heard the girls apologize—likely they were too polite not to, though it was clear the pair felt terrible for the thoughtless outburst—but most of their words were lost to distance.  Watto whistled, catching the attention of a young man that Pangur guessed was about twenty-three or -four, though his pale, blue-green eyes were far older in appearance.  Ginger-gold hair glinted in the planet's twin suns, and Pangur frowned, curious, when he saw a thin, waist-length braid decorated with shiny beads and twists of wire snaking from behind the man's right ear.

"Yes, Master Watto?"  The man hurried towards them, Pangur's eyes locked on the long braid.  It's resemblance to a padawan braid was disconcerting, but had to be coincidence.

"The cat-being needs Nubian parts.  Hyperdrive.  You fix this."

"Yes, Master Watto," The man replied, bowing.  The almost Jedi-like bow made Pangur's brows furrow, but it couldn't mean anything, even with the braid.  Outer rim slaves did not have Jedi training.

Watto turned to Pangur.  "Ben knows the pieces.  He will fetch what is on your list.  Now, there is the matter of payment . . . "

"Of course," Pangur agreed, smiling genially.  He hoped he had enough credits to pay for the parts since any contact to request more could result in their ship being traced and place everyone at risk.  Unfortunately, Watto was not impressed with his reasoning, or with the amount of money he had to offer.

"Jedi," Watto spat, scowling and throwing them out.  "You come back with money!  And no Republic dataries.  They're worthless!"

Pangur collected the girls, scrubbing at his face.  Padmé and Sabé glanced up at him, concerned, and Sabé commented, "The news was not good, I take it?"

"Not at all," The being sighed.  "We cannot fix the ship without money, and our funds are . . . extremely limited, I'm afraid."

"We'll figure out something," Padmé assured him, offering a smile Pangur couldn't help but return.

"I've no doubt of that, I simply hope it is in time," Pangur replied, stiffening slightly when the wind began to pick up.  The natives were scurrying for cover and Pangur felt something sharp twist in the Force, screaming for them to find shelter.

"Padmé!  Sabé!"  The blond boy from Watto's shop hurried toward them, followed by Ben and giant of a man with azure eyes.  "Do you have somewhere to go?  There's a sandstorm coming."

"Our ship is in the outskirts and we're headed back there now," Padmé said.  "But thank you, Anakin.  You're very kind."

The men closed their eyes for a moment and Pangur felt something stir the Force.  "You will not make it back to your ship in time," The larger man told them, gesturing for the group to follow him.  "Come.  You may weather the storm in our home."

Pangur eyed both men carefully.  They moved like well-trained fighters and the Jedi could see battle scars marring their work-hardened bodies.  At almost two meters tall, the larger man was a full head taller than Ben though he was still shorter than Pangur.  Despite being Jedi and trained to fight for most of his life, Pangur wasn't certain if he could win against the pair if they were taking them into a trap, though the Force said he could trust them.

"Thank you," Padmé broke into Pangur's train of thought, smiling brightly at Anakin.  "We would appreciate it."

"Great!  Come on!"  Anakin caught the girls' hands to lead them through the streets.  As an afterthought, he gestured to the men with his chin to introduce them to the girls.  "Oh—and those are my dads, Khi and Ben Skywalker."

Pangur raised an eyebrow.  Khi looked a few years past thirty, so he was old enough to have a son Anakin's age, but Ben was on the young side and they couldn't both be blood relations.  Ben caught the look and scowled.  "Adoption."

"I apologize," Pangur spread his hands in a gesture of peace, tail twisting contritely.  "I meant no disrespect."

"Don’t mind Pangur," Sabé smiled back at them.  "He's too serious for himself.  I caught him frowning in his sleep, once."

Pangur sputtered out a protest, indignant, but the comment had the desired effect.  Ben's eyes—green now, though Pangur would have sworn them gray moments ago—slid away from him.

The storm was starting to pick up when they reached the slave quarters, and Khi hastily ushered them out of the howling winds.  "Sandstorms are very dangerous on Tatooine," Khi explained almost gently; Pangur thought the man rather soft spoken.  "They can strip skin from bone.  Best to avoid being out in them."

"We don't have sandstorms where we're from," Padmé replied, face pale.  "I never knew sand could do anything like that."

"Leave your outer clothes in the entryway, please," Ben requested, catching Anakin's arm when the boy tried to rush further into the house.  "I know it's a little cramped with so many of us, but we try to track in as little sand as possible."

Anakin made a face, but stripped down to his undershirt and shorts then dusted off his feet.  It was only then that Pangur realized that both Anakin and Khi were barefoot.  Before he could comment, the boy was hauling Padmé and Sabé towards his room with R2D2 following closely behind, the boy chattering a mile a minute.  Khi and Ben watched him for a moment, then traded fond smiles.

"I will get your brush so we can deal with your hair, then I will clean up this sand while you fix something for us to eat," Ben offered his lover with a soft smile.

"Thank you, a chuisle mo chroí," Khi kissed Ben softly.  "Could you bring a comb for Pangur?  I fear he has brought home more sand than even I."

Pangur raised an eyebrow.  Khi's sepia hair reached the bottom of his shoulder blades, swept up in a braided half tail, but it probably carried far less sand than Pangur's fur.  Ben returned moments later and Pangur had to look away from the intimate moment has Ben carefully brushed through Khi's hair.

"Now, your turn to make a late meal, Qui—Khi."  The younger man stumbled over his lover's name.  Pangur stiffened, then shifted into a defensive stance.

"Your name is not Khi."  Pangur accused the man, hand going to his lightsaber.  He wished he hadn't trusted the men, though the Force was still telling him they meant no harm.

"it is . . . from a certain point of view," Khi replied, surprising Pangur with the Jedi adage.  "Though you're an offworlder so . . . I guess it matters little to you."

"I don't understand."

"My real name is Qui-Gon Jinn, and Ben's is Obi-Wan Kenobi.  They sound like the names of freemen on this world, though I've only ever been a slave—even if it has not always been on Tatooine.  Still on Tatooine, the names are pretentious and using them brings a chance of punishment where the names Khi and Ben do not."

"You could be punished for your name?"  Pangur asked, horrified.

"Names have power," Ben—Obi-Wan—shrugged.  "In our home, we use our real names.  Out there, we do not."

"What name would you prefer us to use?"  Pangur finished combing the sand from his fur, glad to find it was far less than expected.

"Either is fine," Qui-Gon ducked through the doorway with the ease of long practice. Pangur was glad he wasn't the only one having trouble with the height of the doors, though Qui-Gon had no need to duck to simply stand inside as Pangur did, being a head shorter.  "If you'll excuse me, I'll fix us something for late meal."

"Perhaps I could aid you?"  Pangur padded deeper into the home, mindful of the doorways and ceilings.  The slave quarters were carved into a cliff face and the trianii didn't care to concuss himself by forgetting to watch his head.  The rooms the Skywalkers shared were cramped for three, never mind six and an astromech.

"Would you mind if I indulged in my curiosity?"  Pangur asked.  "There would likely be some rudeness on my part . . . "

Qui-Gon chuckled.  "You want to know how it came to this?  How Obi-Wan, Anakin and I became slaves?"

Pangur flushed, though it was impossible to tell under his fur.  The twitching of his tail, however, gave him away.  "Yes.  If you don't mind, of course."

"My homeworld is not part of the Republic," Qui-Gon explained, not offended by the question.  "So I was born into slavery.  Sold around the galaxy for a bit, trained to fight in the gladiatorial arenas, where I met Obi-Wan, and now I'm here.  Anakin was also born into slavery though he's native to Tatooine to our knowledge.  His mother wasn't, but she spoke little of her past.  Understandable, all things considered.  Obi-Wan . . . was freeborn.  He attended the Jedi temple but his teacher—knight-master, I think you call them?—sold him the first time they went off planet.  His first owners tried to mind-wipe him, but it seems it's only partially effective on Jedi."

Pangur stared.  'The Jedi sold him?"

"It was quite a shock to me, also," Qui-Gon admitted.  "It's why he was in the arenas.   He was sold to the arena when he was fourteen . . . he is twenty four now and I am almost a decade his senior.  Watto won us about five years back."

"How long have you been . . . "

"We became lovers when he was sixteen," Qui-Gon replied.  "We've been lucky to stay together for so long, but we're arena partners and very good at it.  There's more money to be made in the arenas when we fight together, so no one wanted to separate us."

"You're Force sensitive."  Pangur realized.

"Trained by a Jedi for a bit, too.  Well, the one who trained me left the order so he wasn't precisely Jedi but I'm not sure what you consider him."  Qui-Gon nodded.  "He told me I could have been Jedi in another life.  Perhaps he was right, though it doesn't bear much thought.  Could have is not are so dwelling on it is pointless."

"And Anakin?"

"Also Force sensitive, Knight Pangur," Obi-Wan replied.  "And yes, we knew you for Jedi the moment we met you.  It's pretty obvious, even in the outer rim."

"Yet you still allowed me into your home . . . ?"  Pangur blinked.

"It is as the Force wills," Qui-Gon replied.  Obi-Wan just shrugged, not happy about it but agreeing with his lover and the Force.  "Now, tell us why you are on Tatooine and let us see if we are able to aid you in your return home."
<>*<>

The solution to Pangur's problems turned out to be an arena match followed by a podrace.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had fought in arenas around the galaxy together for a decade and were the current champions on Tatooine while Anakin, to Pangur's surprise, was a podracer.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan winning their gladiatorial match, and thereby winning the bets Pangur placed, gave him the money he needed to enter Anakin in the Boonta Eve Classic.  He even managed to strike a deal through a bet with Watto that he would get the three slaves if the boy actually managed to win.

The pod used was one Anakin and Obi-Wan had been working on for months—possibly years—and while Pangur knew little of mechanics, even he could tell it was quite a work of art.  It was built from scrap they'd collected here and there over time, quite a feat for a pair of slaves.  Pangur convinced Watto it was his and managed to get the being to donate Anakin to the cause provided Pangur used his own funds for collateral.  Thanks to his winnings from the arena match, he had just enough to avoid putting up the ship.

Pangur walked away with the parts to fix the ship and all three of Watto's slaves, despite the fuss raised by the Toydarian.  "A bet is a bet, Watto," Pangur warned, glancing towards the top box.  "And you best honor it unless you want me to take it to the Hutts."

Watto grumbled, but considering his windfall was enough for him to move to a nicer planet and retire, Pangur doubted he was actually that upset about the whole thing.  As they left, Watto turned to Pangur.  "You better not go back on your word.  I still have friends I can send after you."

"They will be freed as soon as we are in Republic space," Pangur agreed, though he wasn't sure how he was going to fit three more humans and a protocol droid on the already over-crowded ship.  It was a relief that he would be able to give the repairs to Anakin and Obi-Wan, however.  He was no mechanic and while he thought he could fix the hyperdrive, he knew the father-son duo certainly could.

At least Watto had shuttled the parts, hyperdrive and protocol droid to the ship while Pangur waited for the three former slaves to pack what little they owned.  A handful of rough spun clothes, whatever toiletries they could salvage and the adults' gladiatorial gear accounted for most of their possessions.

"I would like to present you to the council when we reach Coruscant," Pangur told Obi-Wan, one eye on Anakin and the handmaidens as they followed a handful of paces behind the adults.  "I would request some compensation for your help on this mission—I will not hear of you beginning your new life empty handed."

"We thank you," Qui-Gon bowed.  "But is it necessary for us to speak to the council?"

"It is my belief that Obi-Wan's knight-master sold him and told the council he died.  The council would never have consented to the sale and I am certain they would have tried to find you if they knew what your knight-master did.  If my belief is correct and they do not know . . . "

"Then it's possible there are others," Obi-Wan finished, frowning.  "I may have been lost over a decade ago, but if there were others—and they were more recent—perhaps they could be found."

"Yes, exactly.  Will you at least speak with them?"  Pangur pleaded.  "I cannot bear the thought of other Jedi sharing your fate when there is a chance we can save them."

"I will speak with the council," Obi-Wan consented, though Qui-Gon could see fear sparking in his eyes.  There was a chance that Obi-Wan's original beliefs—that the council had known and consented to the sale—were true, though Qui-Gon hoped that was not the case.

The older man was reaching for his lover when something screamed in the Force, making the Force sensitive members of the group freeze.  Anakin staggered, giving a soft moan of pain.  "Dad, what is that?"

"Get to the ship!"  Pangur snapped, drawing his lightsaber as foreboding flooded his veins.  "Now!"

"Take the girls, Anakin," Qui-Gon ordered and Obi-Wan felt his lover strengthen the shields they kept around their son.  "Your dad and I will be right behind you.  Go!"

"Yes, Papa," Anakin and the handmaidens had barely begun to move when a black cloaked figure dropped down between their group and the ship.  The girls and Anakin skidded to a halt, eyes wide.  Pangur lunged toward the children as the being drew a lightsaber—sanguine as the blood he sought to shed—desperate to block the strike aimed at Anakin.

Obi-Wan arrived first, a lilac blue lightsaber gripped in his calloused hands.  A second snap-hiss revealed Qui-Gon held a 'saber of his own, spring green in color.  The older man's azure eyes narrowed.  "Don't touch our son."

Pangur gaped at the gladiators' lightsabers as the being disengaged, hood falling back to reveal a red and black tattooed Zabrak a few years younger than Obi-Wan.  Anakin grabbed Padmé and Sabé's hands.  "Stay close," The nine year old told them.  "As soon as my parents give us the chance, we have to run."

Pangur didn't even realize it until later, but Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan synced their breathing, just for a moment, and brushed their hands together while reaching for the Force.  As one, the pair lunged toward the being Pangur was certain was a Sith despite the council insisting the Sith order had been destroyed millennia ago.  As they moved, Pangur thought he saw a pale green glow around Qui-Gon and a blue one around Obi-Wan that became a soft aquamarine when they touched.  At first he dismissed it as a trick of the light, but quickly realized it was their connection to the Force, strong enough to manifest around their physical forms.

In tandem, the two shifted the battlefield, leaving the path to the ship open for Anakin, Sabé and Padmé.  Anakin tightened his hold on their hands and the three raced for the ship.  Pangur knew the speed they were running had to be Force enhanced, but he hadn't been aware it was something that could be imbued into others.  Yet Anakin had lent his strength to the handmaidens even as he moved.

Pangur immediately filled in the gap so the Sith couldn't go after them, the two gladiators falling back with their son.  "Go!"  Pangur yelled, lightsaber at the ready as the Sith paused for a moment to examine the trio.  "I'll hold him off!"

"Dammit, Pangur!"  Obi-Wan growled, even as Pangur frantically blocked a powerful strike, then barely dodged a sharp thrust from the Sith's lightsaber.  Before either of them could say more, something warm was pressed against Pangur's back and pain burned through his mid-section.  Abruptly, he realized the Sith's 'saber had nearly cut him in two—was almost a third of the way across his torso—when Qui-Gon had blocked it, plastering himself to the trianii's back to reach around him and block the strike.  The man wrenched them back as Obi-Wan Force tossed the Sith away.  Pangur barely realized they'd jumped on the ship when the shock of his injury caught up to him.

"Med bay!"  He heard someone demand and the arms around him lifted him from the ground as everything collapsed into darkness.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The ship was thrown into horrified silence for a moment as Qui-Gon clutched the larger being.  He turned to address one of the yellow-clad, young women.  "Med bay.  Now!"

"R-right," The dark haired girl squeaked, pale faced as she looked at Pangur.  She drew in a sharp breath, collected herself, and hurried down the corridor with Qui-Gon on her heels.

"Dad," Anakin clutched Obi-Wan's hand.  "Will Pangur be okay?"

"Your papa will do the best he can, a stór," Obi-Wan scooped the boy into his arms and settled Anakin on his hip.  "Right now, you and I can get this hyperdrive fixed so we can get Pangur to a real healer."

"I'll show you to the engine room," The last handmaiden offered, hurrying down the hall.  "Everything you need should already be there."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan rushed after the blonde girl.  "I'm Obi-Wan and this is my son, Anakin."

"I'm Eirtaé," The girl replied, "One of the queen's handmaiden's.  She is currently resting in her room, but I'm certain she will be by later to greet you."

"Best she stay there until we're in hyperspace," Obi-Wan answered.  "Easier to defend should that being manage to get on the ship."

"Let us hope it doesn't come to that," Eirtaé stepped back to let Obi-Wan into the engine room.  "If you have need of anything, please let me know."

Padmé glanced at their abandoned packs, then gathered them up.  The pilot was plotting a course for Coruscant so she and the other handmaidens thought it would be best to find places for the newcomers to sleep.  The queen smiled to herself, wondering how her life had suddenly gotten so strange.

The former slaves ended up bunking in an out-of-the-way corner of the engine room with R2D2, though with Qui-Gon monitoring both injured Jedi, Padmé doubted he'd get much sleep.  At least he had an excuse to be awake aside from worry, Padmé couldn't help but think as she headed for the galley.  It was late but her mind was whirling from the message they'd received while she was gone regarding the condition of her people.  She was hoping a cup of tea would sooth her enough to sleep.

"It's such a small thing, isn't it." Qui-Gon's voice made her jump, though it was clear he wasn't talking to her.  "So dangerous for what it looks like."

"Where did you get the scan?"  Obi-Wan leaned close.

"The handmaiden that led me to the infirmary with Pangur—Rabé—she helped me with the equipment," Qui-Gon explained.  "She's quite knowledgeable.  I think she was the one who had been watching over Salín all this time.  She's done well, but her ability—and mine—is rapidly reaching its limit."

"Just a little longer, my heart," Obi-Wan murmured.  "I take it she's there now?"

"For a spell.  I wanted to show you the scan tonight," Qui-Gon looked back at the datapad in his hand.  "What do you think, a chuisle mo chroí?"

"We'll need a professional to remove them," Obi-Wan sighed.  "They're right next to the spine . . . even then, it may be very dangerous. I won't risk either of you."

"You're Jedi, so maybe they'll take out yours and once we get jobs, we can take out Ani's and mine," Qui-Gon said.  "Maybe we can have them permanently deactivated until then.  I don't want—well . . . just in case."

"Yes—hold on," Obi-Wan smiled, then called, "You can come out, Padmé.  We heard you approach.  There's no need to hide."

"I didn't want to intrude," The queen flushed.  "And I didn't mean to overhear."

"We would have stopped talking if we were bothered," Qui-Gon gestured for her to sit, passing her a cup of tea.  "You look . . . overwhelmed, a mhuirnín."

"It's been a very long week," Padmé confessed.  "If I may . . . what were you discussing?"

"Our slave transmitters," Qui-Gon pulled up a hologram of his spine and gestured to a miniscule, dark spot next to it.  The spot was roughly the size of Padmé's finger nail, almost innocuous looking.  "They're attached to a remote and a master can just . . . blow you up.  Ours are deactivated for now, but to deactivate them permanently or remove them requires a healer and real equipment."

"Well, you should ask the Jedi, I think, but if they refuse to remove them, I will do it for you.  A reward for saving us."

"That isn't necessary—"

"Then as a gift.  I won't let you refuse, Qui-Gon.  You're my friends and I want to," Padmé crossed her arms.  "And I know you didn't let me overhear you so I would offer.  Now shut up and accept it."

"Bossy thing, aren't you," Obi-Wan nudged her.

"Good thing she's the queen, then," Qui-Gon added, both men laughing as she sputtered.

"How did you know?"  Padmé asked, sipping her tea in an effort to regain her composure.  "Not even the Jedi knew."

"They could probably feel the difference in your Force signatures," Qui-Gon told her, "but you and your handmaidens feel a great deal alike.  If they didn't know who was the queen originally and they weren't very good with sensing Force Signatures, it would be hard to tell."

"We also noticed everyone in your entourage demurs to you," Obi-Wan added.  "Likely it is not obvious, but slaves must learn to read people quickly and well.  Watto cared little, but that was not the case with most of our masters."

"I just—it's hard to believe there is still slavery in the galaxy," Padmé shook her head.  "And, if I may, what happened to Anakin's parents?  His biological ones, I mean."

"We never knew anything about his father, but his mother was called Shmi," Qui-Gon informed her, eyes sad.  "She died just a few months after Watto won us; we promised to raised Anakin as our own when she passed."

"What happened?"

"Tatooine has a native population called Tusken Raiders," Qui-Gon explained.  "They don't generally come near the slave quarters since we've little of value, but when Ani was about five, they decided we were worth their time."

"They killed her?"

"She died in the raid, but it could have been the Tuskens or the peacekeepers that showed up to drive them out.  The peacekeepers aren't exactly careful about slaves getting caught in the crossfire."

"Gods," Padmé breathed, horrified.  "Did Anakin see?"

"No, thank the Force," Obi-Wan replied.  "He and I were at Watto's.  A shipment had just come in and he wanted it sorted out before the shop opened.  Qui-Gon was with her when she died, though he wasn't in the marketplace during the raid.

"You miss her."

"Shmi was like a sister to me.  She watched out for us when we first arrived and she was kind and thoughtful—and incredibly stubborn.  It's where Anakin gets it.  You remind us of her a bit, actually.  It's nice."

"I'm honored.  Thank you," Padmé flushed at the praise.  "That means a lot, especially know how high you held her in regard."

"Mo ghrá was a lady worth regarding," Qui-Gon smiled.  Obi-Wan chuckled softly, nudging his lover and pressing a kiss to his cheek.

"Mo ghrá?"  Padmé tilted her head.  And what about what you called me earlier?  A mhuirnín?"

"They're terms of endearment.  My love and my darling, respectively," Qui-Gon gave a tiny shrug.  "I tend to use them rather liberally for my friends and family.  I hope you don't mind.  The practice is quite common on my home world."

"Not at all," Padmé smiled.  "I have few friends, so it is nice to hear that I am counted among yours."

"What brings you out here in the middle of the sleep cycle, anyway?"  Obi-Wan twined his fingers with Qui-Gon's.  "You look far too exhausted to be awake."

"Worry," Padmé confessed, telling them about the situation on her home world.  "Palpatine says the Republic will not be of much aide to us.  He says the Senate will debate while the Trade Federation kills my people but—we have no military.  We are helpless and I cannot stay by and let them suffer while the Senate stands idly by . . . "

"You have much heart," Obi-Wan told her, rubbing her back and starting to lull her to sleep.  "Qui-Gon and I will help as we can.  Now, you should rest and when you wake in the morning, we will help you plan."

"Thank you," Padmé yawned, letting them hug her and drown her in their seemingly indomitable strength and serenity.

"We don't have enough friends to take them for granted," Obi-Wan replied, chuckling when Qui-Gon scooped her up and began to carry her down the hall like a child.  "Now, to bed with you.  Things will look better in the morning."

With no one else awake to see, Padmé let him carry her down the corridor, relaxing against him and hiding her face against his chest.  Rather than disturb her, the men quietly tucked her into bed, smiling fondly when Sabé wrapped around her best friend in sleep, both relaxing at the other's presence.
<>*<>

The remainder of the trip was uneventful.  Padmé brainstormed with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon about how to convince the Senate to aide her without stepping on the toes of the Trade Federation.  Anakin spent his time either with Padmé or exploring the ship and doing little upgrades and repairs to the ship or R2D2—whatever he could find to stay busy.  He and Obi-Wan also spent time with the pilot, learning to fly the ship.  Qui-Gon, by contrast, spent almost all of his time with the dying Jedi, desperately trying to keep them alive.

The former slaves stared outright the first time they saw Padmé in full regalia.  She smiled, enjoying their shock.  "What do you think?"

"Wizard!"  Anakin grinned.  "Why do you paint your face so funny?"

Padmé burst into giggles as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon rolled their eyes.  Qui-Gon sighed, "Tactful, my son is not."

"Papa!"  Anakin protested, but he was laughing.

Qui-Gon checked over Pangur and Salín again as they approached the landing pad.  Neither knight was doing well and they hoped the temple healers would do better than the limited medical equipment on the ship.  Really, it was a miracle the two had stayed alive long enough to reach Coruscant.

The ship was met by three members of the Jedi council, four healers and a retinue from the Senate.  Ric Olié had been in touch with both the Senate and Jedi council once they reached hyperspace to update them with the queen's progress.  Padmé clasped hands with the Skywalkers, smiling softly at them as she and her entourage were hustled away.  The healers bustled about the grievously injured knights, and within moments, had rushed away with them, leaving the former slaves and council members alone.  The Skywalkers shifted uncomfortably as the council members looked them over, eyes lingering on the two lightsabers each man wore on his belt, though they did not request their removal.

"Thank you for aiding Knights Pangur and Salín, we do," A diminutive, green being told them.  Obi-Wan started, desperately gripping Qui-Gon's hand as he stared at the three beings, feeling like he should remember them but finding only blank spaces in his mind.  Aside from the diminutive master, there was also a dark skinned, Korun human and a dark orange Iktotch.  "Need to help, you did not, but very glad we are that you did."

"Knight Pangur had a request of me, should I see the council," Obi-Wan was glad his voice wasn't shaking, though he knew his hands were judging by the way Qui-Gon squeezed the one he held.  He wasn't sure how he could face the beings who many have consented to his knight-master selling him ten years ago.  "Though I . . . did not expect it to be in such circumstances."

"Hear you, we shall," The diminutive being agreed, eyes flicking to Obi-Wan's braid as he gestured for his companions to follow him into the temple.  "For Knight Pangur's sake."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan bowed, leaving Qui-Gon to wrangle Anakin as they were led into the temple by the three council members.  Obi-Wan frozen just inside the door, staring at the austere opulence of the ancient building as something tugged in the missing parts of Obi-Wan's mind.  Somehow, despite having little memory of the temple, he knew exactly how to get to the council chamber.  The man swallowed hard, staring around the half-remember architecture wished he could remember why it all felt so familiar.

Anakin, meanwhile, was begin tugged along by an awestruck Qui-Gon, both of them slack-jawed at the building around them.  Anakin was positive the entire slave quarters on Tatooine could have fit in the temple's main hall—probably with room to spare—and the boy was certain he'd never seen anything so lavish.  Qui-Gon hadn't either, following Obi-Wan only by the tug on their bond as they moved.

"This place is so wizard," Anakin reached for Obi-Wan's hand.  "Did you really live here, Dad?"

The dark skinned human stiffened and turned to stared at Obi-Wan.  "What is he talking about?"

"I'd rather explain once we're in the council chamber," Obi-Wan tensed, refusing to look at the man.  "Knight Pangur said to speak with you but . . . doing so in the temple hall probably isn't wise."

The beings traded frowned, the diminutive being's ears laying flat in what Obi-Wan knew was sadness despite having no memory of every seeing this being, or another like him, before.  "Wait, then, we shall," The ancient being agreed.  "However, very curious I am."

Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon, glad for his lover's steady strength as they were led further into the temple.  It was a relief that the council members did not try to offer further conversation, and Anakin was too busy staring at—and trying to touch—everything.  It was several more minutes before they arrived at the council room, and Obi-Wan found he remembered parts of the temple, though none of its residents.

The council chamber was an intimidating room, though the view of Coruscant out the window was breathtaking.  Anakin tried to move to the window to stare at the cityscape, but Qui-Gon wrapped an arm around the boy, holding him in place.  There was no sense in alienating the Jedi council, no matter how innocent the misstep.

"Welcome to the council chamber," The dark skinned man gestured for them to stay in the center of the circular room while he and the other council members from the landing took seats around the room's edge.

"Have something to tell us, you do?"  The green being asked, ears up.  Obi-Wan was certain it was an indication of curiosity, though how he knew, he wasn't certain.

"I—I am not certain how to begin," Obi-Wan confessed, glancing around the council chamber.  "I had thought Pangur would be with us, and there was little time to consider meeting you on the way here."

"Perhaps introductions?"  The Korun replied, and Obi-Wan knew he was offering his version of a smile, despite the neutral expression on his face.

Obi-Wan bit his lip, then decided it was best to simply be blunt.  If he had been sold with the council's permission, it was best to know from the beginning.  "I was—perhaps I still am—Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Ten years ago, I was sold into slavery by my knight-master for the gladiatorial arena."

Every being in the council chamber gave their version of a gasp, and the green being dropped the gimer stick clutched in his three fingered hands.  "Believed you dead, we did," The ancient master choked, hobbling toward Obi-Wan.  The man froze for a moment, then knelt as the being approached, letting him press a small hand to Obi-Wan's face, the other touching the slender braid.  "Or left you to that fate, we would not have."

"It wasn't all bad," Obi-Wan smiled, lifting the being to his shoulder as he rose in a move his muscles remembered, though he did not.  "May I introduce my lover, Qui-Gon Jinn, and our son, Anakin Skywalker?  This is—I'm sorry, Master Jedi, I have forgotten your name, but I remember that it was you who gave us our favorite saying."

"Do or do not?"  Qui-Gon asked.  "You got that from him?  Well, I am glad to have met you.  Now I know who to tar and feather for that particular adage."

"Ass," Obi-Wan rolled his eyes and smiled as the diminutive master cackled.

"Yoda, my name is," The troll-like Jedi told them, then gestured to the dark skinned Korun and the Iktoch.  "Master Mace Windu and Master Saesee Tiin."

"Nice to meet you . . . or re-meet you, I suppose," Obi-Wan gave a small smile.

"I am curious—how did you forget us?"  Mace asked, one brow raising.  "It couldn't have been simply time."

"After my knight-master sold me, the slavers attempted to mind wipe me.  It was not entirely successful but I—remember little from before.  My training, mostly, parts of the temple . . . but people were one of the first things they took from me."

"Then why keep your braid?"  Mace tilted his head.

"My braid?"  Obi-Wan touched the length of hair.  "I—didn't know it was from the Jedi.  I just never could quite get rid of it.  For some reason it felt important."

Several of the council members hummed, then Depa told him, "The braid you wear symbolizes that you are a padawan in the Jedi order.  There is also a hairstyle that goes with it, though you did not keep that."

"Though your lightsaber appears to have survived,"  Mace raised an eyebrow.  "You are not supposed to carry one unless you are Jedi—though I suppose it is not illegal, just highly frowned upon."

"I thought . . . for a long time, I thought the Jedi sanctioned my sale, so what did I care for your rules regarding lightsabers?"  Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow.  "Knight Pangur, however, was very insistent that wasn't true and requested I speak with you in case others had fallen victim to the same fate."

"Concerned for this, we are," Yoda agreed.  "Speak of this, we must.  Be willing to speak to the entire council, you would?"

Obi-Wan nodded.  "If this happened to anyone else, I don't want them left there."

"We will reconvene as soon as we can get the rest of the council together.  In the meantime, I am certain you would like to clean up, eat, and rest."

"We would appreciate it," Qui-Gon squeezed his lover's hand.  "It's been . . . a long trip."

"The temple may be . . . overwhelming," Obi-Wan warned his lover and son, then explained to the council, "Qui-Gon and Anakin are extremely Force sensitive."

"We can test their midi-chlorian count, if you would like," Saesee Tiin offered.  Obi-Wan shrugged, unconcerned.  Regardless of the count, the pair would never be trained as Jedi which was the only reason Obi-Wan knew to run the tests.

"I would like that," Qui-Gon replied, smiling.  "I'm very curious what they are."

"As you like," Saesee Tiin agreed, bowing his head.  "I shall schedule some time with the healers tomorrow, if that is suitable."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon replied, looking almost hesitant as he turned to Mace.  "I also appreciate the offer to clean up, but our clothing was left on the ship . . .  and it is probably not acceptable for the temple, in any case . . . "

"I will draw something from our stores for you," Mace replied, rising.  "It is common practice here, so you need not think it charity.  If you'll excuse me, I will let the quartermaster know."

"I will lead you to your quarters," Saesee Tiin added, also getting to his feet.

"We would appreciate that," Obi-Wan said, relaxing minutely as Qui-Gon tugged him close.  The three followed Saesee Tiin towards the visitor's rooms in the temple and the Jedi let them know it would probably be several hours before Mace would be able to convene the entire council.

The quarters the Skywalkers were shown were at least four times the size of their slave quarters on Tatooine and situated on the second level of the main gardens. The wall separating the quarters from the balcony was made entirely of tinted transparisteel, and the lower part of the wall could be folded back to open the room onto it.  A water feature was tucked into one corner of the transparisteel wall, a section of wall fitted around it so it was both inside and out.

A moderate sized entryway led to the main room where multiple seating areas were set up, far more suitable for the diplomats that once frequented the space than the family currently staying there.  There was a small, guest'fresher next to the entry way, and a short hallway led to four giant bedrooms, each with its own refresher and antechamber.  Each bedroom held a large sleeping couch and enough clothes storage for Padmé's entire wardrobe while the antechambers had a small sitting area and desk.

"This place is wizard!"  Anakin gasped, jaw dropping as he stared up at the ceiling.  A number of tiny lights inset in the ceilings of the rooms could mimic the stars on a variety of worlds.  Anakin prodded the ones in the main room.  "I can make it look like the stars from any world.  See, here's Tatooine."

"And this would be Coruscant, if we could see the stars here," Obi-Wan touched the controls, changing the pattern.  Anakin grinned, eyes lighting up.

Qui-Gon, meanwhile, was staring around the kitchen and dining area the main room opened into.  The counter between the kitchen and dining area could either be used to set up a buffet or for a handful of people to eat at while the table in the dining area could be expanded to fit sixteen.  The kitchen was also stocked with everything a gourmet chef would need, to Qui-Gon's delight.  They wouldn't be able to cook in it, currently, since there was no food there, but he hoped they would be able to cook there at least once before they had to leave the temple.

"Master Tiin said the quartermaster should have our clothing here within the hour, and they will be collecting our things from the ship sometime tonight also," Obi-Wan reminded his family.

"We should clean up, then," Qui-Gon scooped Anakin from the floor and flung him up, grinning as the boy shrieked in glee.  It was strange to have ceilings tall enough to toss Anakin, and the tall man appreciated not needing to duck through the doorways.  "All right, Ani, pick a bedroom."

The boy explored each of them thoroughly, deciding on one next to the main room.  His parents settled into the room across from it, as Anakin took in the room that was currently his with wide eyes.  "I think this is bigger than our whole apartment on Tatooine," Anakin spun in the middle of the antechamber, still giggling.  "Can we stay here forever?"

"That's up to the Jedi," Obi-Wan stroked the boy's hair.  "Now, go ahead and hop in the shower, all right?  We haven't bathed since Tatooine and you don't want to be stinky when you see Padmé again, right?"

"Are we going to see her again?"  Anakin asked excitedly, stripping off his shirt.  Sand trickled from the ground.

"I hope so," Obi-Wan nearly sighed as the boy dirtied the room within thirty seconds of being in there.  He hoped the Jedi didn't mind.  "Now, shower."

Anakin finished undressing, not body-shy in front of his parents, and raced for the 'fresher.  The shower there was both water and sonic and the desert-born child was excited to try a real shower with water.

The clothing the quartermaster brought them almost an hour later was styled in the Jedi fashion, but dyed so they would not be mistaken as members of the order.  The pants, under tunics and obi were a soft cream while the belts and boots were dark brown.  The over tunic left for Qui-Gon was forest green while Obi-Wan's was a rich blue and Anakin's was wine red.  The trio gaped at the richly colored clothes and Qui-Gon was certain he and Anakin had never worn anything so fine.

The three had showered while waiting for the new clothes and were wearing the soft robes left in the room for them.  Obi-Wan drew the clothing on clumsily, fumbling to remember how to fasten the tunics and wind the obi beneath the thick, leather belt.  Finished, he took a moment to tug everything straight, making sure his clothing was settled properly and braid smooth before knocking at the 'fresher door to check his lover's progress.

"Oh—"  Qui-Gon froze upon seeing him, eyes wide.  The man wasn't even half-dressed, pants barely clinging to his hips, under tunic hanging open, a stark contrast to Obi-Wan's neatness.  "You—you look like a Jedi."

"I was, once upon a time, my heart," Obi-Wan reminded his lover, reaching out to help with the unfamiliar clothes and odd fastenings.

"They may allow you to become one again," Qui-Gon replied, fingers twining in Obi-Wan's braid.  His fear curled around the bond he and Obi-Wan had developed just after they'd become lovers.  Neither man knew exactly what the bond was, but they had welcomed it and the added closeness it allowed them.

"It is not a life I would take," Obi-Wan wrapped his arms around the older man, letting his love for Qui-Gon fill their bond and overcome Qui-Gon's fear.  "A life without you and Anakin is not one I want."

"I love you, a chuisle mo chroí," Qui-Gon used the braid to tug his lover to his toes, kissing Obi-Wan softly, his love joining Obi-Wan's to chase away the fear that he'd almost given in to.  The two basked in the warmth of their bond, Qui-Gon's arms wrapped tightly around Obi-Wan while the smaller man pressed his ear to his lover's chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart.

"Dad!  Papa!"  Anakin's near-wail shattered the moment.  "I can't get these clothes right!"

Obi-Wan chuckled and felt Qui-Gon's shoulders shake with near-silent laughter.  "Why would you give up the Jedi again?"

"Hush up, you," Obi-Wan gave Qui-Gon a quick kiss.  "Come on, we better go rescue our son."

Anakin had, at least, managed the pants but the tunics and obi had defeated him completely.  Obi-Wan knelt and tugged the tunics into place, showing him how to fasten them and the obi before helping him with belt and boots.  Anakin ran his rough hands over the material.  "I think this is worth more than I am."

"Probably worth more than your papa and I, too, a stór" Obi-Wan tweaked Anakin's nose.  "Everything fit?"

Anakin considered it, then nodded.  "It's weird to have boots."

"I agree," Qui-Gon scooped up the boy, depositing Anakin on his broad shoulders.  "Are we supposed to meet the council, now?"

"We haven't received a message," Obi-Wan touched the comm. unit on one wall.  "I think it'll wait until after we eat, in any case.  Should we find out if I remember how to get to the commissary?"

Obi-Wan, as it turned out, did remember how to get there.  Qui-Gon touched his lover's arm once they arrived, biting his lip.  "We have no money . . . "

"So long as things have not changed, it is free to eat in the commissary, so we don't need to worry," Obi-Wan laced their fingers.  "Come.  Let's eat."

"Wow," Anakin stared.  "Look at all this food!"

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon laughed.  Anakin, unlike his parents, had never gone hungry.  Even when things were sparse and they didn't have enough to eat, Anakin always ate first.  The boy was not, however, used to having a choice in his food.  The men were almost positive he couldn't even name most of it.  "This is so wizard!"

"Get what you want, but only what you're going to eat," Qui-Gon set him down.  "We can come back for more."

Second helpings were also a novel concept.  Anakin took bits from just about everything human-safe, eager to taste the new food.  "Excuse me," Anakin tugged the sleeve of a Mon Calamari standing near one of the dishes.  "Can you help me reach that pudding stuff?  Please?"

"Of course," The being smiled and one of the empty spaces in Obi-Wan's memory tugged.  He knew her, somehow, but couldn't quite place her.  The Mon Calamari handed off the dish.  "Are you new?  I don't recognize you."

"Just visiting.  Thank you for your help," Anakin gave her a brilliant smile, making the being half turn to say something.  It was then she caught sight of Obi-Wan and her silver eyes went wide, tray dropping from nerveless fingers.

"Obi-Wan?!"

"Yes?" Obi-Wan hadn't expected to find someone who knew him.

"I—I thought—You were dead!"  The Mon Calamari threw her arms around the man, almost sobbing into his shoulder.  "Where have you been?  Why didn't you tell me you were alive?"

"I'm sorry," Obi-Wan pattered her back awkwardly.  "I—I can't recall—"

"Obi-Wan?"  Hurt filled the being's voice.  "Don't you remember me?  I'm your best friend, Bant.  Bant Eerin."

"I'm sorry," Obi-Wan repeated, feeling the empty parts of his mind ache.  "I suffered a partial mind wipe when I was sold—"

"Sold?"  Bant stared.  "Obi-Wan, what happened to you?"

Panic licked at Obi-Wan, fluttering through their bond and the man jumped when Qui-Gon slid an arm around his shoulders, smiling genially at Bant.  "I apologize, Knight Eerin, but Obi-Wan does not remember you even if you remember him.  Perhaps we might eat together and you could get reacquainted?"

"Oh—yes, I'm so sorry," Bant flushed.  "If that's all right?"

"Of course," Qui-Gon replied and Obi-Wan could see the Jedi his lover could have been if things had been just a little different.  The older man introduced himself and Anakin as they found a table and sat, Bant staring at the two for a moment before happiness sparked on her features.

"A husband and son?"  Bant squeezed Obi-Wan's arm.  "I'm so glad for you!"

"They aren't married," Anakin told her, matter-of-fact.  "Slaves can't get married."

Bant stiffened, having forgotten Obi-Wan's comment about being sold.  "Slaves?"

"I'm sorry—Bant."  Obi-Wan apologized, stumbling over the Mon Calamari's name.  "The council has requested we discuss this with them first."

"Yes, of course," Bant nodded numbly.  "I just didn't expect—I figured you must have left voluntarily.  I never expected Master DuCrion would such a thing."

"Master DuCrion?"  Obi-Wan's brows furrowed.

"Your knight-master?  Master Xanatos DuCrion?  Did you forget him as well?"

"Yes, thank you, I—well.  No matter what anyone thought he would or wouldn't do, apparently he did," Obi-Wan replied bitterly.  "And I spent ten years as a slave because of it."

"Not entirely without benefit, I think," Bant glanced at Obi-Wan's family.

Obi-Wan followed her gaze toward Qui-Gon and Anakin unable to prevent the goofy smile from forming when his eyes landed on them.  "There were some good days, yes."

Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Anakin were summoned to the council chamber a few hours after late meal.  Bant had joined them in their borrowed rooms, telling Qui-Gon and Anakin about life as a Jedi while filling in some of the Obi-Wan's missing memories.  It was easy to see why Bant and Obi-Wan had been best friends:  the two were remarkably similar.  Bant shooed away the initiate who'd come to guide them to the council chamber, telling the trio, "I will take you, if that's okay.  I would like to spend just a little longer with you.  We've over a decade to catch up on."

Obi-Wan gestured for her to take the lead.  "Of course.  I've enjoyed talking to you.  I'm just sorry I can't remember more of our years together."

"The best thing about memories is that new ones can be made, even when old ones are lost," Bant replied sagely.

"You're a glass half full sort, aren't you?"  Obi-Wan asked.  Bant tilted her head, confused.

"It's a saying on Tatooine," Anakin explained.  "If you're always seeing the good in things, your glass is half full of water.  If you're always seeing the bad, then your glass is half empty."

"Makes sense, especially in a desert," Bant nodded.  "Whoever created that saying must have been quite wise."

"Or drunk enough to pretend," Obi-Wan joked, surprising a laugh from Bant.  The man, no matter his memories, was still her Obi-Wan.

"Thank you for bringing them, Knight Eerin," Mace met them at the chamber door.  "You are dismissed."

"May the Force be with you, Obi-Wan," Bant murmured, pressing a kiss to his cheek.  She bowed to Mace and disappeared down the hall before the man could reply.

"I've no doubt this will be hard for her," Mace commented almost idly, watching her leave.  "She thought you were dead for a very, long time."

"By no fault of Obi-Wan's," Qui-Gon reminded the man, jaw clenched at the implication made that any part of it could have been his lover's fault.

"Of course not," Mace's eyes widened for a moment.  "I meant that your support would mean a lot to her, as I'm certain hers will to you."

"I don't remember her," Obi-wan replied, startled.

"That doesn't mean you can't be friends," Mace pointed out.  "I believe you two will still get along quite well.  Perhaps she is not the only friendship you will regain here."

"Perhaps," Qui-Gon glanced at the council member.  "Thank you for speaking with us."

"Of course," Mace agreed.  "I must confess to a slightly ulterior motive to agreeing to show you in . . . I am hoping we might spar at some point, also?  Given your lightsabers, I am assuming you can use them?"

"Of course," Qui-Gon grinned.  "Obi-Wan and I always look forward to a friendly match."

"We shall settle the details once you have spoken with the full council," Mace couldn't help his own smile.  "I thank you again and I hope that, perhaps, you will forgive us for believing you dead so long, Obi-Wan.  Please know that none of us would have left you, had we known."

Obi-Wan hummed thoughtfully, following Mace into the large room.  The former Padawan swallowed hard, looking at the masters he'd once aspired to and long forgotten, wondering if he would ever reach for that goal again.  Conscientiously, Obi-Wan tugged at his tunics while Mace took a seat.  Qui-Gon smiled, lacing their hands together, soothing and grounding his lover.

"A student of the Jedi, you once were," Yoda told Obi-Wan, face somber, "until from the order you were sold.  With the Jedi, as a Jedi, your place is not, but welcome in the temple you once called home you and your family shall always be."

Obi-Wan staggered at the announcement, knees giving out, and several of the council members leapt to their feet as Qui-Gon caught him.  "Obi-Wan?"

"I—sorry," Obi-Wan choked, face turned away to hide his tears.  "I just thought—when we were free I could show you my home.  I never thought I would be turned out—"

"Turned out you are not!"  Yoda snapped.  Obi-Wan turned almost instinctively to look at him.  "Your home this still is."

"The Order wronged you, Obi-Wan," Adi Gallia told him.  "We never questioned, never looked.  You cannot be Jedi, your place is with your family, but we, the Order, will support you as you rebuild your lives as freemen.  Jedi or not, the Order will not abandon you."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon told the council when Obi-Wan continued to stare at them blankly from his place in his lover's arms.  The older man tightened his hold, looking over the council, "I was hoping I might . . . request a favor . . ."

"Of course," Depa Billaba nodded almost regally, though Qui-Gon thought she was smiling despite her stern appearance.

"I know Anakin is not Jedi but—slaves have transmitters placed inside them and I had hoped that . . . you would be willing to remove it for us?  Or—Or at least deactivate it—"

"We would like to have you checked over by medical anyway," Depa Billaba replied, smiling.  "To ensure your health.  We will let them know to locate the transmitters on all three of you and make plans for their removal."

Qui-Gon sighed in relief.  "I apologize—I know we are asking for a lot, especially since we are not part of the Order, but we have no one else to turn to . . . "

"Understand, we do," Yoda assured him.  "And upset we are not."

"If I may ask for just one more favor?"  Obi-Wan looked over the council.  "Anakin has never been formally educated and he is very behind in his schooling.  If he could—just for a little while—have a teacher or sit in with the order's younglings.  It would just be until he's caught up to his peers when we can afford to send him to school . . ."

"School is free on Coruscant," Saesee Tiin told them, "but we shall make arrangements for all three of you."

"Me?"  Qui-Gon's brows furrowed in confusion.  "But I am not Jedi."

"You've not received any formal education either," Saesee Tiin's voice was gentle.  "We shall fill in the gaps, get you and Obi-Wan your Basic Education Degrees on Coruscant so that you will be able to continue on with whatever you want—we will even aid you with the University, should you chose."

"Indeed.  Arrangements we shall make," Yoda agreed, cutting off Qui-Gon's startled protests.  "Help transition you to your new lives, we shall."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan had finally collected himself, surprising the council as he released his feelings to the Force in a move that outshone many masters, regaining his center.  Several of the council gave signs of approval before the discussion continued on.  The Skywalkers would be checked over by medical in the morning, though Yoda requested they first join him for meditation and first meal.

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon told the council about their lives as slaves and in the arena, and the two could see the council grow visibly distressed at their narration.  At one point, Yoda openly wept for the lost Padawan, causing Anakin to dart to the ancient master and hug him tightly.  "It's okay, Ser Yoda," Anakin told him, all childish innocence and comfort.  "Dad is okay now.  We're free."

"Weep for what could have been, I do," Yoda replied, hugging Anakin in reply, "and for his suffering, also.  For you and Qui-Gon, too, that you were forced to endure such anguish."

"But me and Papa are okay now, too," Anakin snuggled the master tighter.  "I'll hug you 'til you stop crying.  Papa and Dad do that when I'm upset.  That makes me feel better when I'm sad."

"Then sit with me, you should," Yoda let the boy crawl into his chair and, by the meeting's end, had a warm pile of sleeping Anakin with him.  Qui-Gon smiled fondly at his son and carried the boy easily to bed.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The trio met Yoda the next morning for meditation—no chore since slaves were often up before the sun—and surprised Yoda with their mastery of the skill.  Qui-Gon just smiled serenely.  "One cannot afford distractions in the arena so meditation is necessary for any Force sensitive who wants to survive their first bout."

"There's also little to do outside the arena, except train and meditate," Obi-Wan added.

"Beyond that, Anakin is extremely Force sensitive so we had to teach him or things happen whenever he gets extremely angry."

"Explosions, mostly," Obi-Wan told Yoda mournfully, though amusement was sparking in his eyes.  "That poor speeder was never the same."

"Shut up, Dad,"  Anakin snapped, laughing.  "That was your fault.  Tell him, Papa!"

"I'm not part of this," Qui-Gon held up his hands.  "I wasn't ever there, remember?"

Anakin giggled, flopping across Qui-Gon's lap, only to be hefted up by the man and flung over one of his shoulders as Qui-Gon stood.  "Papa!"

Yoda was struck, suddenly, by how serious the Jedi younglings were compared to Anakin.  Obi-Wan smiled softly at his son.  "Children need love and attachment.  At least, human ones do."

Yoda hummed noncommittally and led the way toward the commissary in his hover chair, though Obi-Wan could see the ancient master consider his words.  The master glanced up at Anakin, perched atop Qui-Gon's broad shoulders and waving cheerfully at the wide-eyed Jedi as they passed.  Several of the knights pointed and whispered Obi-Wan's name when they say him, darting furtive glances toward them.

"Gossip travels quickly here," Qui-Gon commented loudly, making several of the younger knights flush brightly and rush away, eyes looking everywhere but the Skywalkers.

"Ass," Obi-Wan chuckled, nudging his lover.  Qui-Gon just smirked, trying—and failing—to look innocent while Anakin giggled.  Obi-Wan rolled his eyes and turned back to Yoda.  "Medical after this, right?"

"Be examined, you should, but go only with your permission we shall," Yoda nodded.  "Wish to make certain you are healthy, we do."

"And get a midi-chlorian count for Khi and Ani for your curiosity," Obi-Wan added, enjoying the ear-twitch it earned him.  It was clear Yoda was flustered at being caught, though he didn't seem overly bothered by it.

"We don't mind it, you know," Qui-Gon assured the master, though his eyes were glittering in amusement.  "We're curious ourselves.  Also, if I may request it, would we be permitted to visit Pangur and Salín while we're there?"

"Speak with the healers regarding this, we may," Yoda watched Obi-Wan collect a pair of trays while Qui-Gon took his own.

"Dad," Anakin tugged Obi-Wan's hair to get his attention.  "I don't know what all this is."

"Just like last night, anything safe for humans is marked," Obi-Wan tapped a symbol on the card in front of a dish.  "We can eat any of that, though you may not like it all."

"But I can take whatever I want?"  Anakin lifted a dish with the Force so he could sniff it.

"Jedi try not to waste," Obi-Wan selected a couple of dishes of his own, and put something on Qui-Gon's tray.  The pair ignored Anakin as he used the Force to look at or lift food to examine and sniff.

Yoda frowned, scolding the boy, "Improper use of the Force, that is.  Rude it is considered."

The Skywalkers stared, surprised, and Anakin hastily put the dish down.  "Sorry.  I didn't mean to be rude.  Why is it . . . improper?"

"Initiates are only to do such manipulation with training," Yoda replied.  "Makes people nervous, this does."

Qui-Gon stared, incredulous.  "Force use in the Jedi Temple makes people nervous?"

Yoda blinked up at him, then huffed, "Best left to the training salles, such things are."

"I apologize," Obi-Wan offered the master a tiny bow.  "I had forgotten that rule and slaves do not have the luxury of dedicated training times.  Our lessons are taught in spare moments with whatever we have available."

"Consider that, I did not," Yoda nodded.  "Even so, request you mind this rule in the more public area of the temple, I do.  In the privacy of your own quarters, the training area or the classrooms, mind no one would."

"We might forget on occasion," Qui-Gon warned.  "The Force is an extension of us—like an extra hand or arm.  We will try, however, to do as you ask."

"Do or do not," Yoda advised and Obi-Wan almost sighed as Qui-Gon's blue eyes locked on the diminutive being.  "There is no try."

The weight of Yoda's many years settled on Qui-Gon's broad shoulders, his calloused and scarred hands stained with blood, death and defiance.  It was the Force that showed Yoda that tall man on his knees, broken and beaten but never defeated.

"Sometimes try is all you have to give," Qui-Gon told him, "and sometimes it is what you must content yourself with, even when the end result was failure."

"Perhaps that is so," Yoda nodded, feeling the Force settle around them.  "Still, something I wish to impress on the younglings it is not."

Qui-Gon rolled a shoulder in a shrug, careful not to unseat Anakin.  "Of course, Master Yoda."

"Can we eat now?"  Anakin sighed, bored with the talk of philosophy.  "I'm hungry."

Obi-Wan glanced at his lover.  —It is these small blessings I am most thankful for.

That I have you and our son, that Anakin never knew true hunger, this I can agree with.—

Yoda stared at them, considering, then smiled at Anakin.  "Time we ate, I think," Yoda agreed with the boy, leading the way toward a table once they'd picked out their food.  "Come, let us break our fast."

Anakin grinned and flipped easily from Qui-Gon's shoulders, a well-practiced move, and nodded.  "Yeah!"
<>*<>

The Halls of Healing had the trio wide-eyed in awe, having never seen most of the equipment available.  Obi-Wan, for his part, had vague and impressionistic memories of the Halls and Bant had commented that he'd spent little time there and probably wouldn't remember much even without a memory wipe.

The Skywalkers were met by an O'reenian female dressed in the white robes of a healer and led to a large room that held close to a dozen beds.  "I was told to give you a complete physical," The woman offered, gesturing to three beds with flimsy medical gowns laid over them.  "If you'll dress in those and sit on the exam tables, we'll begin.  If you would like, I can draw the curtains to offer you some privacy."

"No," Qui-Gon fumbled with the Jedi tunics, still unused to their many ties and snaps.  "Slaves are not body shy and I would prefer to be able to see my family.  You must forgive me, but healers do not have my trust after—after what I have seen."

"As you wish," The woman agreed.  "I am Healer Iason and I will be examining you today."

"Are you using all this stuff on us today?"  Anakin asked, staring at the impressive-looking medical instruments in wide-eyed wonder, having never seen anything quite like them before.  Slaves didn't exactly rate good medical care.

"Not all of it, no," Iason replied, patient as Obi-Wan helped his son with the gown and staying silent when Anakin sat next to Obi-Wan.  "But some of it, certainly.  You'll likely need inoculations—things to protect you against some diseases—and we'll be taking some blood for a midi-chlorian count."

"Midi-chlorians are what let you feel the Force," Obi-Wan reminded his son at Anakin's confused frown.

"Exactly.  Now, which of you would like to get things started?"  Iason held up a medisensor.

"I will," Qui-Gon offered almost immediately.  The healers he had experience with in the past were not kind beings and cared little for the ones they were supposed to be helping.  Qui-Gon had seen many a being die in a healer's care and he would not risk his family to that fate.

"Thank you—are these scars from stitches?" Iason gasped, black eyes wide in horror.  "How barbaric!"

"But effective," Qui-Gon told her, patient as she looked over his many scars.  "Slaves rarely rate bacta and I prefer stitches to nothing."

"Fair enough," Iason dipped her head in concession.  "If you'd like, we can look at diminishing some of this scar tissue, later.  Some of it is quite serious."

"I'll think about it," Qui-Gon agreed, though Iason could tell he was simply humoring her, even if dealing with some of his scarring would help him in the long run.

Iason let the matter alone, instead moving on to the rest of the examination.  Qui-Gon insisted everything be done to him first and Obi-Wan stayed by Anakin's side through the entire examination, despite the boy being the least nervous of the three.  Iason guessed it was because he'd never fought in the arena or dealt with the hack healers that worked there.

The three submitted quietly to her tests, the only pain a brief pinch when blood was drawn for the midi-chlorian counts.  It only took Iason an hour to assess all three of them, and Anakin's parents forced themselves not to look worried as Iason read over the information from the medisensor.

"Malnutrition and dehydration, which we expected, but it isn't serious.  No parasites or diseases though all three of you need inoculations, which we were also expecting."  Iason glanced up at them and smiled before looking back at her datapad.  "A few good meals and enough fluids and you'll be fine in no time.  We also located your transmitters and I have deactivated them permanently, but it will require surgery to removed them and that is best left until you're a little healthier."

"But nothing serious?"  Qui-Gon sagged in relief.

"Nothing serious," Iason repeated, squeezing his arm.  "Now, as far as midi-chlorian counts go, Ser Kenobi is at 13,500 just as he was before.  Ser Jinn, your count is 13,750 and young Anakin—"

Iason gasped and dropped the datapad, making Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon demand, "What's wrong?  Is Anakin okay?"

"Twenty—this is impossible!"  Iason replied, stunned.  "I need to retest—not even Master Yoda is this high!"

A repeat of the test and a test with a new sample yielded the same result.  "So . . . is it bad?"  Anakin finally asked, clinging to his parents.  "I thought higher was good."

"Young Anakin's count is 23,000," Iason finally told them once she'd confirmed her results.  "The highest on record."

"But . . . that's good, right?"

"I don't know, Ani," Obi-Wan teased.  "That sounds more like an infestation."

Anakin giggled.  "That's horrible, Dad!  You have awful jokes."

"Yet you keep laughing at them," Qui-Gon replied, grinning.  Obi-Wan rolled his eyes, distracting Qui-Gon by tucking himself into the man's side.

"Ani's midi-chlorian count is very high," Obi-Wan told the older man, fighting to remember the mostly-lost information.  "Yoda had the highest on record at . . . 16,000, I think.  I guess it explains a lot, though."

"There is a prophecy about it," Iason added.  "Someone conceived by midi-chlorians . . . perhaps it is Anakin."

"And now you've given him ammunition for the worst dad-joke in the history of ever," Anakin scowled.  "Thanks a lot."

Iason blinked.  "Dad-joke?"

"Corny jokes told by fathers the universe over," Obi-Wan explained.  "Ani gets a double dose because there are two of us.  I'd tell you to feel bad for supplying material but after his two-year-long knock-knock joke phase . . . he deserves everything his papa and I dish out."

Iason just nodded, looking confused.  "Well, we're done here, if you want to head out."

"We were hoping to see Pangur and Salín, actually," Qui-Gon admitted.  "We know they aren't awake but . . . we were quite worried for them.

"Both are in bacta, so they won't know you're there, but the sentiment is kind," Iason led the way down the hall.

Pangur and Salín floated almost eerily in the tanks, Pangur's white fur rippling oddly in the thick liquid.  "It's good Pangur is not human," Qui-Gon commented, looking at the mess of the Trianii's abdomen.  "His injuries would have killed him, if he was."

"It was still a near miss," Iason admitted.  "He and Salín were lucky you were there."

"Considering Pangur freed us, we were lucky he was there, too," Obi-Wan pointed out.  "I'm glad both he and Salín will recover, though we've not yet met Salín.  She's been unconscious since before Pangur arrived on Tatooine."

"You're welcome to come speak with them at any time.  We anticipate both being out of bacta in a week or so."  Iason touched Salín's tank.  The length of time they were being kept in the bacta spoke of the seriousness of their injuries.  Both the trianii and the Dathomiri healed quickly, which meant they would be in there less time than another race with the same injuries.  "Neither of them will ever be back on active field duty, but I'm glad they're home and alive."

"While there is life, there is hope," Qui-Gon smiled.  Obi-Wan wasn't sure where his lover had picked up the saying, Qui-Gon only knew it wasn't from his home world, but it was an adage the man quoted often.

"Healer Iason?"  Anakin pressed his hand to Pangur's tank.  "Can I wave at them?  Please?"

"Certainly, though they cannot see—oh!"  Iason blinked, startled as the Force fluttered, exactly as though Anakin was waving.  "I've never felt anything quite like that before."

"Ani has done it forever," Qui-Gon shrugged.  "Though Obi-Wan and I have never managed to replicate it.  Not . . . separately anyway."

"Separately?"

"We can do it if we are fully synced," Obi-Wan explained, then realized Iason still looked confused.  His brow furrowed.  "Qui-Gon and I have a very strong mental connection.  It's like a training bond but a lot stronger than the one I shared with my master, if my memory of the training bond is correct.  It lets us pretty much become a single entity, at least where the Force is concerned.  I thought—is this not common among Jedi?"

Iason frowned.  "This is the first I've heard of such a thing—I will look into it further, though it doesn't sound harmful.  Have you been able to do it long?"

"Since we became lovers, I think," Qui-Gon frowned, considering.  "Maybe a little less, but not much."

"I see.  Well, with your permission, I'd like to tell the council about both that and your midi-chlorian counts.  Would that be all right?"

"I suppose," Obi-Wan glanced at his lover.  "I didn't know you needed permission.  Don't you report to the council?"

"We wouldn't need permission if you were Jedi, but since you aren't, well, we are required to keep things confidential."  Iason glanced at her datapad, then sent a report off to the council.  "Now, let's get those supplements for you and we'll be done."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon herded his family after the healer and took the offered bottles before heading back to their rooms.
<>*<>

They met Padmé and her three handmaidens that night, after the Senate had adjourned, for late meal in her borrowed quarters.  "You all look exhausted," Obi-Wan commented, laying a hand on the young queen's shoulder.  "I take it things are not going well?"

"The Trade Federation has argued that a committee needs to be sent to see if what I claim is actually true."  Padmé gritted her teeth for a moment, angry, then sighed when Rabé put a hand on her shoulder.  "Senator Palpatine says we should move for a vote of no confidence in the chancellor but . . . "

"You're not sure that's the best course of action."  Qui-Gon nodded.  "Politics are tricky things.  We've little experience with them, but perhaps if you talk it over with us, you will be able to better determine the best course of action."

"I called you here for a nice meal, not to put Anakin to sleep discussing politics," Padmé replied.  "And I think some time away from the subject to . . . mull it over will help, also."

"Well, we shall have our nice late meal and when Anakin falls asleep we shall talk about what you think should be done on the morrow.  Between us and your handmaidens, I'm sure we can find a few brain cells to rub together," Obi-Wan winked at the Queen, who laughed softly.

"Deal, then," the Queen rose, sweeping a hand out to gesture towards the dining room.  There was a lovely buffet set up along one wall and the group eagerly filled their plates.  The Skywalkers caught Padmé and her handmaidens up on what they'd discussed with the Jedi and gave her an update on Pangur and Salín.  When they'd finished, Padmé—rather briefly—told them about her dealings with the Senate before moving on to other, lighter topics.

Following late meal, they group headed into the sitting room where Anakin gave a gleeful cry upon seeing R2D2.  "Artoo!"

"I had him brought up when you agreed to come to dinner—I think he missed you," Padmé chuckled.  "If you'd like, I thought maybe you could take him home with you.  I think he's missed you."

"Really?" Anakin lit up.  "Dad?  Papa?  Could I really?"

"Are you sure, Padmé?"  Obi-Wan glanced at Artoo.  "Droids are expensive and we can't pay you for it . . . "

"He's been moping since Anakin left," Eirtaé told the Skywalkers.  "Ric Olié has already replaced the droids destroyed in our race from Naboo and there's no reason for Artoo to be miserable when we can fix it."

"I wouldn't offer if I wasn't sure," Padmé replied firmly.  "Consider it part of your reward for rescuing me, if you must, but I won't have you saying no just because he costs money."

"We're friends, Padmé," Qui-Gon told her.  "We don't need a reward for helping you.  And our freedom was reward enough already."

"Shut up and take it," Sabé broke in, laughing at the stunned look on the Skywalkers' faces.  "We want to do these things for you because you're our friends, but you make it really, really hard.  The Queen is rich and the handmaidens earn quite a bit themselves—we earn a lot of hazard pay, you see—so just take it."

"We don't want pity or charity—"

"It's not pity or charity," Padmé crossed her arms.  "You acted as my bodyguards the moment Pangur was injured, not to mention saving him and us on Tatooine.  And getting us the parts to fix our ship.  We know you don't think you should get anything because we're friends, but I employ people for these things, so let me pay you like it, yes?"

"So shut up and take it?"  Obi-Wan glanced at Sabé, who grinned.  "We thank you, Padmé."

"Great, now put your political advisor hats back on," Padmé ordered, settling on one of the couches.  "I believe you promised to help me with what to do with the Senate?"

"Weren't we waiting until Anakin fell asleep?"

"He's working on Artoo.  He wouldn't notice if the planet exploded."

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traded looks, unable to fault Padmé's logic there.  "All right, then," Qui-Gon agreed, accepting the offered datapad.  "What's this?"

"The highlights from the Senate talks," Padmé rubbed her face.  "I just—how could anyone think I was lying about this?  My people are dying and the Trade Federation is accusing me of lying."

"Oh, a mhuirnín," Qui-Gon felt his heart ache for the young woman as she wiped furiously at her eyes.  She held back her tears until Qui-Gon folded her into his arms and hugged her tight, rocking her softly as her sobs finally broke free.  Anakin heard her cries and hurried over, the trio settling Padmé on the couch.

"Can you go get us some water, Ani?"  Obi-Wan murmured as he rubbed Padmé's back.  "And maybe some tea?"

"Okay, Dad," Anakin glanced around, grateful when Sabé guided him toward the small kitchen area in their suite.  By the time he'd returned, Padmé had cried herself out and was curled between the two men, half asleep.  Anakin crawled onto Padmé's lap and let her snuggle him while his parents looked over the notes.  She and Anakin were both asleep by the time the pair finished looking over the information they'd been given.

"She really needs the sleep," Obi-Wan gently stroked the young queen's hair.  "Poor girl looks exhausted."

"She's the youngest queen in quite some time," Sabé leaned over the back of the couch, eyes soft as she looked over her best friend.  "This has been extremely wearing on her and we're all very worried for our people.  Did you find anything useful in all that drivel the Senate spouted off today?"

"Not really," Obi-Wan made a face.  "I doubt the vote of no confidence will do anything for Naboo.  It'll take a long time to vote in a new chancellor and from what the current one said . . . he agrees with Padmé but his hands are tied by the Senate so there's not much he can do about the matter."

"That's what we thought, but Palpatine is very adamant we were misreading the situation," Rabé frowned from where she sat on a nearby chair.  "Do you think he didn't know?"

"He does this for a living, doesn't he?"  Qui-Gon asked.  "Could he really have misread the situation that badly?"

Eirtaé bit her lip.  "The only other option is that he deliberately misled us.  But why?"

Qui-Gon spread his hands, shrugging.  "Obi-Wan and I aren't very familiar with the Senate, so you'd have to ask Palpatine.  I guess we better wake up the queen so we can tell her what we think about her session with the Senate today."

"I have a feeling it's going to end with us returning to Naboo," Sabé paced slowly, thinking.  "Do you think the Jedi would send us another team to aid us?  If the Senate feels the need to put together a committee, perhaps the Jedi would consent to being the members of it."

"They are supposedly considered a neutral party," Obi-Wan shrugged.  "So I suppose it wouldn't hurt to ask?  We aren't exactly part of the order, so we couldn't even begin to guess if they would agree."

Qui-Gon nodded, shaking the Queen's shoulder gently to wake her.  Padmé made a tiny sound of protest, curling into Qui-Gon before waking and rubbing at her eyes.  "Did you finish reading everything?"

Padmé was yawning widely by the time they'd finished telling her what they'd found, and Qui-Gon urged her to resettle against him and Obi-Wan.  Anakin was still sprawled over the girl, and when Sabé checked on them ten minutes later, all four of them were fast asleep.  Sabé just shook her head and set an alarm before following the other handmaidens to bed.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Anakin woke first the next morning, head hanging off the couch next to Obi-Wan's leg, feet propped against Qui-Gon's shoulder.  Padmé was sprawled across both men and Anakin, head laying on the arm of the couch.  Qui-Gon had an arm around her waist like Obi-Wan had a hand hooked in Anakin's belt, keeping the pair anchored to the couch.  Anakin squirmed from his dad's grip, rolling easily off the couch without waking any of the others.

"Good morning," One of the handmaidens greeted softly as Anakin entered the dining room.  "First meal should be here shortly, if you'd like to join us.  Would you like some tea or juice while you wait?"

"Yes, please," Anakin smiled.  "Thank you, Rabé."

"It is no trouble at all, young one," Rabé smiled, pouring a glass of juice for the boy when he reached for it.  They were joined not long after by a still-yawning Obi-Wan, and when Anakin glanced over at the couch, he saw Qui-Gon awake but not moving since Padmé was still laying on top of him, fast asleep.  Obi-Wan took the older man some tea, then sat with Anakin and Rabé, glancing blearily about the room in an attempt to wake up.

"Good morning, Dad," Anakin giggled, hugging his father tightly.  Obi-Wan almost absently snuggled his son in reply, still sipping at his tea.  "I'm surprised you're awake."

"Me too." Obi-Wan admitted, then added almost sarcastically,  "I think it's Qui-Gon's fault.  I can hear his brain ticking away across our bond.  Thanks ever so much for that, my heart."

"You're welcome, a chuisle mo chroí."  Qui-Gon's reply was soft enough that Padmé didn't stir, though it carried across the room just fine.  Obi-Wan made a face at his lover, then turned back to his tea.

"What's that mean?"  Padmé gave a sleepy yawn.  "It's pretty."

"A chuisle mo chroí?"  Qui-Gon repeated, making Padmé smile.  "It meals 'pulse of my heart,' in my native tongue.  For all I am not always the . . . fondest . . . of my people, the language is a lovely one.  And so is my homeworld.  I should like to visit it one day, as a freeman."

"You used one last night, right?  A different one, for me."  Padmé stretched as she rose, standing on her tiptoes as she tried to touch the ceiling.  Qui-Gon smiled and lifted her about the waist, her fingertips brushing the plaster before he let her down.

"I did," Qui-Gon chuckled.  "A mhuirnín.  It means my darling.  I hope you don't mind.  It's often a term of affection between a male and female relative.  I used to use it or a ghrá—my love—for Shmi, also."

"I am honored," Padmé pressed a kiss to his cheek.  "Thank you.  Does Anakin have a special name, also?"

"A stór," Anakin answered for his father.  "It means 'my treasure.'"

"That's sweet," Rabé hid a smile behind her hand.  "Does your native tongue often use endearments?"

"Sometimes more than names, I think," Qui-Gon laughed.  "But I try to tone it back around those not used to my people or our ways.  It tends to disturb them."

"Well, you need not do it here," Padmé insisted, perking up when someone knocked at the door.  "Oh, that's probably breakfast.  I'm starved!"

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon didn't begrudge her the use of the word, though it wasn't likely Padmé even knew what it was like to be truly starving.  Indeed, they hoped she, like Anakin, would never know the feeling of true starvation.  Anakin followed her eagerly to the door.  "What's for breakfast?"

"I have no idea," Padmé confessed with a laugh.  "I barely know what I'm eating on this crazy planet.  Whatever it is, it's nothing I've had on Naboo!"

"Eirtaé has had some of this," Rabé started setting things out on the sidebar, carefully tasting everything she was laying out.  Qui-Gon tilted his head.

"Official taste tester?"  The man asked, curious.

"When required," Rabé agreed.  "We don't expect trouble here, but it is best to be prepared.  Besides, this means I get to try everything first."

"And then tease me about it," Padmé mock-pouted.  "The lot of them are cruel, cruel beings."

"Yes, we're absolutely horrid," Sabé said from the doorway, laughing.  Padmé caught her best friend up in a hug.  "Hurry and eat, please.  We still have to get you in your full regalia for the day."

"Ugh," Padmé made a face.  "The worse part about being queen.  I suppose we must all make sacrifices and traditional clothing is mine."

"Such horrors you deal with, a ghrá," Qui-Gon teased, tugging one of the braids she slept in.

"My love, right?"  Padmé translated, smiling brightly as Qui-Gon nodded.

"We will return to the temple after breakfast," Obi-Wan told the girl.  "If you'd like, we can take a request to the council for more Jedi?"

"I would appreciate it, yes."  Padmé stuffed what looked like a fruit tart in her mouth, reaching for her datapad.  "Sabé, would you go with them?  I feel an actual emissary may plead our case better for the council."

"I really should be at your side—"

"We need the Jedi," Padmé told her, scribbling something down.  "Can you make this . . . legible . . . for me, please?"

"Of course . . . what was that word?  Agra?"  Sabé glanced at Qui-Gon.

"A ghrá," Qui-Gon corrected her, chuckling.

"Thank you," Sabé gave him a tiny smile, then turned back to Padmé.  "Of course, a ghrá."

"I think you've started a trend," Obi-Wan told his lover, putting together a plate for him while Qui-Gon wrangled their son and forced him to sit at the table properly.  The man collected the handmaidens and queen as well, ignoring their soft protests.

"Family breakfast," Qui-Gon told them firmly.  "We have enough time to eat before you must run a million directions to prepare for your day."

Padmé did feel better after sitting down to eat, her three handmaidens and the Skywalkers catching up with one another about the past two days.  For the first time in weeks, Padmé found herself happy.  She felt a bit guilty about it, since her people were in dire straits, but she needed it.  It centered her, helped her set herself for the day.

"May the Force be with you," Obi-Wan told her as they left, hugging her tightly.  "And whatever you need, we'll do what we can to help."

"Thank you," Padmé kissed his cheek.  "I appreciate it."

"Anything for you, a ghrá," Qui-Gon drew her into a hug and pressed a soft kiss to the crown of her head.  "Remember, stay in the moment and stay centered.  Your best decisions come when your heart and your mind are in harmony with one another."

"I'll do my best," Padmé clutched the man tight, enjoying the way his larger frame curled protectively around her.  Hugging Qui-Gon was a little like hugging her father, and she needed that, just for a moment.  Eventually, she pulled away and straightened her shoulders, drawing her queen persona on like a cloak.

Anakin throwing his arms around her broke the illusion, for a moment, and Obi-Wan touched a hand to her cheek.  "Whatever you do, we know you'll do your people proud."

Sabé, dressed in her handmaiden garb, met the three at the door.  "I suppose I will be going with you for the day, if you don't mind?  Padmé wants me to speak with the Jedi council."

"Of course not.  And if everyone likes, we can show you around the temple tonight after the senate lets out, if you and the others want?"

"I would," Padmé called, poking her head out of the bedroom.  Eirtaé heaved a put upon sigh and dragged her back inside while Rabé was yanking at her hair.  "We'll meet you at the front entrance of the temple tonight—ow!"

"If you don't want it to hurt, stop moving," Rabé ordered her queen, annoyed.

"But we appreciate the invitation and will certainly be coming," Eirtaé called in reply.  "Now go, please.  Before Padmé gets distracted again."

Sabé laughed and the group disappeared out the door.
<>*<>

The council agreed to meet with Sabé, gravely reading over the Queen's desperate request.  Mace sighed when he was done, rubbing his face.  "We want to send a team with you," The man sighed, glancing at Yoda.  "However, there are no teams available that would be suitable for this."

"I don't understand," Sabé glanced around the council chamber.  "You don't have any other negotiators available?"  But . . . you're the Jedi."

"Not all Jedi are negotiators," Obi-Wan explained to Sabé.  "But even if they were, the being that attacked us on Tatooine complicates things."

"Obi-Wan is correct," Saesee Tiin agreed.  "We are certain the being is after the Queen.  While it is not likely that he will try anything on Coruscant, it is likely he will be waiting for you on Naboo."

"Which means the team that must go with you needs to be highly experienced and excellent fighters.  The teams we could send are already on out on missions and won't be back for at least two tendays.  We could recall one of them, but even that will take several days at the very least." Mace looked like he wanted to pace.  "I highly doubt your queen will wait that long, nor do I think it would be wise of her to do so."

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traded looks and, after several moments, Qui-Gon spoke up.  "Obi-Wan and I would be willing to accompany whichever team you send.  We can handle the being from Tatooine if he is on Naboo."

"That is but one being," Plo Koon told the pair.  "There is also a droid army to deal with, and Naboo has no military.  They'll be slaughtered by the droids.  A team of Jedi will not change that."

Sabé considered his words for a moment.  "That is true, however if we have a negotiating team with us, we might be able to convince the Gungans to help us.  They're an amphibious species that is also native to Naboo and they do have a military but . . . we've never gotten along very well.  Still, for the sake of our world, I'm sure we could work together."

"We could send Master Kit Fisto and his former padawan, Knight Bant Eerin," Depa mused.  "They are good negotiators and fighters, and since both are amphibious, they may help place the Gungans at ease and help convince them to help."

"Master Fisto is an excellent fighter and while Knight Eerin is not quite as good, she can hold her own against most of the temple," Mace agreed.  "If the Skywalkers go with them, I think we may be able to help with the situation on Naboo."

"In official capacity, the Skywalkers must go," Yoda added, looking thoughtful.  "Or their actions may bring grief to both Jedi and Republic.  Make them Jedi we cannot but make them official we must."

"Perhaps give them rank of an Antarian Ranger?"  Plo Koon suggested, surprising the group.  "Or we could simply create a new rank for the mission.  I doubt the republic would argue the point."

"Jedi Gladiator," Qui-Gon joked, grunting when Obi-Wan elbowed him.  "What?  It's what we are."

"Less violent, I would hope, since you need not fight in the arena," Depa shook her head.  "Something . . . gentler would be better, I think.  The Jedi are peacekeepers, after all."

"Do the work of the Jedi, they are, so call them Jedi we should," Yaddle glanced around the council.  The council members traded sighs, knowing that even if they did continue to debate, it was likely the end result would have them agreeing with Yaddle.  Yoda's ears flattened slightly, indicating his displeasure, and sighed.

"Right, Yaddle is," The older being sighed, then turned to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  "Known as Jedi for this mission, you shall be."

"We would be honored to be called Jedi when on missions for the council," Obi-Wan bowed.

"You think you will be sent on multiple missions?"  Depa tilted her head.

Qui-Gon smiled, dipping his head.  "The Jedi are stretched thin and we are willing and capable of helping.  We do have Anakin to consider, of course, but the Force says we are needed, and so we will help."

"We can't ask that of you," Mace replied, eyes locked on the pair.  "You are not Jedi.  This is not necessary—"

"Slaves do not have choices," Obi-Wan interrupted, making Mace pause, uncertain.  "We fought for our very lives in the arena at the whims of our masters.  But here . . . here, we can offer our lives freely.  The Force says the Jedi and the galaxy need us, and if we help the Jedi, perhaps we can help others like us.  At the request of the Force, we are choosing to offer our aide, Master Windu.  And we offer it all freely."

"Even if you don't do this, your place in the temple is assured," Mace said, wanting to make sure the Skywalkers understood this wasn't necessary.

"We know," Qui-Gon glanced around the council.  "We understand we don't have to do this.  But we want to.  We were slaves, worthless to everyone but each other.  But now we can help change the galaxy, help bring balance to the Force.  And we want to.  We want to help save people, if we can."

"Thank you for this, we do," Yoda dipped his head slightly to them.  "Send you with Master Fisto and Knight Eerin, we shall."

"Before we formally agree—would we be able to leave Anakin here, with the initiates?  We cannot take him to an active warzone."  Qui-Gon glanced around the council.

"Of course," Plo Koon agreed.  "And know this: if something does happen to you while you are on Naboo, we will care for Anakin.  You need not fear for his future, no matter what happens."

Both men bowed deeply, Obi-Wan replying, "Thank you.  I know we are not Jedi, but to know you will watch out for him . . . it means a lot to us."

"Supposed to be Jedi, you were."  Yaddle folded her hands, grief lining her features.  "Sense this, I do, but understand what happened, I do not."

"Maybe the Force changed its mind," Qui-Gon smiled gently at Obi-Wan.  "Or maybe we're still supposed to be Jedi.  We're just not taking the traditional route."

"Whispered of coming change, the Force has," Yoda nodded sagely.  "Good for the order, and the Jedi, it shall be.  Perhaps whispered of you, and your family, the Force did.  Responsible for it, you may be."

The former slaves blinked at each other, then shrugged.  "I don't know anything about that," Qui-Gon told the diminutive master.  "And I know little of the Order anyway, so whatever reason we're here, it is as the Force wills."

"Listen to the Force often, you do," Yoda commented, ears flicking.  "Guide you often, it does?"

"Of course," Obi-Wan touched his lover's arm.  "When you're in the arena . . . there's no telling how long you'll survive.  Every day could be your last alive, and the Force kept us alive.  So we kept listening to it in hopes it would save us."

"It kept me alive for twenty years," Qui-Gon added.  "And after that long, with those odds, well . . . it only made sense to pay it heed when we weren't in the arena, too."

"Odds?"  Mace questioned.

"Millions of slaves are entered into the arena each year," Qui-Gon explained.  "Only half survive that first year.  Only 5% survive the first five years.  For every ten thousand beings originally entered, twenty five make it through the first decade.  Only five will make it to year fifteen."

"You survived twenty years in the arena," Mace frowned.

"Qui-Gon's odds were, quite literally, one in a million," Obi-Wan glanced at his lover.  "That he lived so long is a testament to his fighting abilities."

"Our fighting abilities, a chuisle mo chroí."  Qui-Gon corrected.

"You survived ten years on your own," Obi-Wan reminded him.  "That counts for a lot."

"Neither of you had good odds for survival," Plo Koon broke in.  "But we are glad you did.  It also allows us to better understand your reliance of the Force."

"It saved us when we should have died," Qui-Gon said simply.  "Your code, your traditions, don't mean much to me.  I know little about them and, honestly, I don't know that I agree with much of what I do.  But the Force doesn't care if I'm following your code or traditions, it saved me—us—anyway.  And it led us to you."

"And we both feel it is leading us back to Naboo.  To help defeat the being we fought on Tatooine," Obi-Wan nodded.  "I don't fully understand this, but there is great change coming.  There is something . . . broken . . . within your traditions, within your tenants.  There is something unbalanced and missing and we are, somehow, at the center of this shift."

The council traded frowns, not liking what the pair seemed to be telling them.  It was Yaddle who shook her head when Even Piell began to say something more.  The council needed to meditate on this, to commune with the Force and determine if what the pair spoke was truth.  "Go now, you must," Yaddle dismissed the trio.  "Prepare for your journey.  Send information about where young Skywalker will stay, we shall."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan bowed, Jedi-like, and all three slipped from the chamber.
<>*<>

Sabé spent the day with the Skywalkers, waiting for the senate to finish their daily arguments.  Sabé prayed that Padmé was having more luck with the senate, and wondered if she would follow Senator Palpatine's recommendation for calling for a vote of no confidence against Chancellor Valorum.  "Worrying over what is happening in the senate will not change it," Qui-Gon put a hand on the girl's shoulder.  "Let us show you around.  Maybe it will help you set aside your worries for a time."

"Thank you, Qui-Gon," Sabé hugged the man tightly.  "I just—things were not going well and I can't help worry."

"Why don't you and I meditate while Qui-Gon and Ani fix mid-meal, then?"  Obi-Wan offered, turning his feet toward the Skywalker quarters.  Anakin had stayed in their rooms with C3PO and R2D2 and Sabé was certain he was getting antsy.

"Meditate?"  Sabé chuckled.  "For what?  I'm not Force sensitive."

"Meditation is good for more than just communing with the Force," Obi-Wan grinned.  "It helps us organize and settle our minds.  Bring our heart and our mind back into balance with one another.  Finding our center helps us make better decisions because we can be empathic while considering things logically.  If we are unbalanced, either our emotions or our logic will overpower the other and cause us to make poor decisions because we are not seeing a problem properly."

Sabé stared at the former gladiator.  "That . . . was a lot more complicated of an answer than I expected."

"People are complicated," Qui-Gon replied.  Sabé shot the older man a dirty look as Obi-Wan laughed.

"Neither of you are any help," The girl huffed.

"Let me teach you to meditate," Obi-Wan nudged her towards the windows.  "We prefer the floor—the temple has these great mats.  We never had these in the arena, and I never even thought . . . anyway, you only need to sit in a way you find comfortable.  One day we'll talk about proper posture and how to sit but today is not that day."

Sabé let him get her settled, leading her through the basics of meditation.  The sunlight coming in the window was artificial, but it was still warm and comforting.  Qui-Gon and Anakin spoke softly to one another as they fixed mid-meal, things rustling and clicking softly in the background.  Sabé let herself relax in their presence, feeling trust and love for them lighten her heart.  Something was lighter in their quarters than the rest of the temple, a peace she hadn't felt anywhere else.

"Feel better?"  Obi-Wan asked some time later, hand on her shoulder.

Sabé blinked, turning to stare up at him.  "Yes—thank you."

"We told you meditation has many uses," Obi-Wan teased, and Sabé couldn't help but think the man seemed so very young in that moment.  It was easy to forget he was only twenty four, with his changeable eyes so ancient from all the horrors he'd seen.  If he had been Jedi, Sabé through he would still be a Padawan, or perhaps a brand-new knight.

"Let's eat!"  Qui-Gon called, setting a last glass on the table as Anakin returned from the 'fresher, hands damp.

"This looks delicious," Sabé took the offered sandwich, sagging into her chair.  "Do you like it at the temple?"

"It is nice here," Obi-Wan admitted, ducking his head.  "And . . . it is nice to be in a familiar place.  We need not worry about money and the council is very gracious about helping us acclimate to our freedom.  And I did not know I'd forgotten so many friends."

"We're glad you like it here," Sabé admitted.  "We were a little worried you only stayed because you believed you had nowhere else to go."

"But—we don't have anywhere else to go," Qui-Gon traded a look with Obi-Wan.  "Don't misunderstand, we do like it here, but if we couldn't stay here, where else could we go?  We are not yet republic citizens, we have no real claim to our son . . . what else could we do?"

"You will always be welcome on Naboo," Sabé told them firmly.  "You saved the queen, at great risk to yourself and your family.  We would make sure you were made republic citizens, that you were able to properly adopt Anakin."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan touched her hand.  "But we really do like it here and . . . I think the Force also wishes for us to stay."

"If you ever change your mind, Naboo is also your home," Sabé turned her hand to grasp his, squeezing it gently.  "And if you ever choose to have a proper wedding . . . I would hope you would consider Naboo."

"Can they get married on Naboo?"  Anakin frowned.  "I mean . . . slaves couldn't get married at all, and I know they can now, but if they get married and adopt me on Naboo, does it count here too?"

"Of course it does, silly boy.  That's part of the beauty of the Republic.  If it counts on one republic planet, it's legal on the rest of them, too.  At least, things like marriage and adoption are."  Sabé grinned at the three.  "I know we've only known each other for a few days, but Padmé—and the rest of us—already consider you part of our family."

Qui-Gon ducked his head, a blush touching his cheeks and Sabé had to turn away.  The man was absolutely adorable when he was paid a compliment.  As a slave, Qui-Gon had never been accustomed to them and never quite seemed to know what to do with himself when he received one.  "That—that means a lot."

Obi-Wan had his eyes locked on Qui-Gon, and Sabé couldn't help catch her breath at the love in his eyes.  She squeezed his hand again and said, "I would like to tour the temple with Padmé, if that's all right.  Would you mind if we just spent the day relaxing?  I haven't really stopped since everything with Naboo happened and I . . . "

"You need to rest," Qui-Gon filled in.  "I'm sure we can figure out something."

The rest of lunch was mostly quiet, even Anakin a bit subdued, though it looked like he was considering a problem rather than being upset about something.  The handmaiden tilted her head.  "What are you thinking about?"

"I got a few new parts for C3PO," Anakin explained.  "And me and Dad are almost done with his programming.  But I was thinking, maybe we should add some languages.  I'm trying to make it so 3PO can learn new languages based on the ones he knows, but I dunno which languages are best if we live in the core.  We got the ones from the rim worlds that we heard lots but . . . "

"Maybe I can help?"  Sabé offered.  "As a politician I run into a lot of different languages."

"Thanks!"  Anakin grinned up at her, demeanor brightening.  Sabé ruffled the boy's hair, unable to help herself.  Anakin really was sweet.
<>*<>

Padmé and her other handmaidens arrived rather late, the sun long set before the senate adjourned for the day.    Obi-Wan showed her to their quarters, helping Qui-Gon fix late meal while she cleaned up, all four hand maidens dressing in clothing similar to what the Skywalkers had been given, though all four were in crimson and cream and wore head coverings to help conceal which of them was the real queen.

"Your quarters are very nice," Padmé glanced around.  "Larger than I expected of a Jedi's quarters."

"We've been told these quarters were originally for visiting dignitaries," Qui-Gon explained.  "They've long since fallen into disuse since the dignitaries now stay with at the senate building so the council placed us here."

"That explains why it's so big,"  Eirtaé  said.  "And all the rooms."

"It does?"  Anakin pursed his lips, considering the size of room.  "Why?"

"Well, if the Queen's full retinue were here, we would need the space," Eirtaé explained.  "We left two of our handmaidens behind, plus it's possible we would have her advisors with us and our senate representatives would likely spend a great deal of time here.  That's about ten people for us, and Naboo is considered to have a very small group that travels with the queen.  Many representatives will have twice our number.  Really, if some of these groups came here now, they would complain they were cramped."

The Skywalkers all gaped at her, Qui-Gon croaking, "Really?"

"Really," Padmé couldn't help smiling at the look on his face.  "Is this to be your permanent quarters?"

"We're not certain," Obi-Wan gestured for them to settle at the table.  "The rooms are very luxurious but . . . the main room is the size of our entire home on Tatooine.  It is hard to be comfortable here, no matter how nice.  We have said nothing to the council—we don't want to complain—it's just . . . so much.  We're not worth—"

"You are worth all this and more!" Padmé interrupted, crossing her arms.  "I know you think you're just former slaves, but you and Qui-Gon are good men.  Your whole family is wonderful.  You helped save us just because we needed it.  You didn't expect us to free you, didn't expect any sort of payment and you still aided us.  Whatever you are, you are not just anything."

"Thank you, Padmé," Qui-Gon squeezed her shoulder.  "What you said means a lot to us."

"We also got good news from the council," Anakin told her, drumming his fingers eagerly on the table.  "Tell her, Dad, Papa!"

"Little brat," Qui-Gon chuckled, before turning serious.  "Yes, the council has agreed to send Knights Bant Eerin and Kit Fisto to help with Naboo.  Obi-Wan and I will be going in official Jedi capacity as well."

"Knight Eerin and Master Fisto may be able to help us gain the cooperation of the Gungans," Sabé added.  "They have a standing army.  If we can hold the droids off long enough, the Trade Federation will have to surrender."

Padmé considered that for a moment, turning Sabé's plan over in her mind.  "It's a good idea.  If the Gungans will cooperate.  We haven't exactly been on the best terms."

"The Trade Federation will not care if we are human or Gungan.  If any of us hope to survive, then we must work together," Rabé nodded.  "Maybe with the Jedi, we can convince the Gungans of this."

"Let's hope so," Padmé sighed softly, then smiled.  "Still, it is good to know we will have both the Jedi and the Skywalkers with us."

"Then for now, you can enjoy your time with us," Obi-Wan told her.  "We would like to show you the temple, after we eat, and you're welcome to stay the night here.  Force knows we have enough room.  Sabé seemed to think you would want to leave tomorrow, but the council said it won't be before midday since the knights going with us will need some time to prepare for the journey."

"Thank you, Obi-Wan," Padmé ducked her head.  "This means a lot to us."

"Thank us when we've succeeded," Obi-Wan replied, then turned their conversation to lighter things as they began to pass dishes around.

Once they'd eaten, the Skywalkers showed Padmé and her handmaidens around the temple, introducing them to Bant and Kit and two knights returned to the Skywalkers' quarters with the Nubians after they completed their tour.  Padmé was grateful for the chance to get to know the two knights better, and was even more delighted to learn Bant had been a childhood friend of Obi-Wan's.

"I've forgotten most of the stories she has to tell," Obi-Wan smiled at his oldest friend.  "Though I am glad to hear them.  It is nice to learn more about who I was . . . before."

"We're glad you're happy here, Obi-Wan," Rabé squeezed the man's arm.  "And we're glad you're both returning to Naboo to help us.  No offense to Master Fisto or Knight Eerin, but we know you."

"Well, both Jedi have ringing endorsements from us," Obi-Wan smiled.  "And I would trust Bant with Anakin's life."

"Not your own?"  Kit tilted his head.

"I would trust someone with mine or Qui-Gon's lives long before I would trust them with Anakin's," Obi-Wan glanced at his son, fast asleep in Qui-Gon's arms.  He hadn't wanted to go to bed while everyone was talking, but the day had worn the child out and he'd eventually nodded off while they talked.  "Anakin is our son.  We would do everything in our power to protect him."

"Thank you, Obi-Wan, for such a gift," Bant gripped her friend's hand.  "It means so very much."

"We should adjourn for the night so we can prepare to leave on the morrow," Eirtaé laid a hand on Padmé's shoulder.

"You are still welcome to stay, if you'd like," Qui-Gon reminded the group.

Eirtaé shook her head.  "Best we return to our rooms tonight.  That way we can get some packing done before we go."

Bant and Kit left first, the queen and her handmaidens following soon after.  Qui-Gon tucked Anakin into bed once they'd left and the two set about preparing for their trip to Naboo.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The group's departure ended up being delayed when Palpatine recommended Padmé spend another day trying to convince the senate to help Naboo.  Padmé clearly wasn't please with the display, believing that the extra time spent on Coruscant wouldn't help her people but bowed to Palpatine's many years of experience.  Frustrated when the chancellor refused, yet again, to take action, Padmé called for a vote of no confidence.

"I cannot delay any longer," The queen told the senator once the session the closed.  "I will be leaving with the Jedi come morning to save my people."

"Of course, my queen," Palpatine bowed to the teenager.  "I will continue to petition the senate to aide Naboo . . . there is also a great deal of talk that I shall be voted in as the next chancellor."

"It is my hope that you are able to convince the senate to send help, however, I will not sit idly by any longer while my people are in danger."

"Then I wish you the best of luck, my queen," Palpatine bowed.

"There is no such thing as luck," The queen answered, amusement sparking in her eyes.  "As the Jedi so often remind me."

"Of course, my queen,"  Palpatine bowed a second time and the Queen swept away in a flurry of opulent robes.

Rather than waste time acquiring a new ship, the group simply crammed back into the transport ship Padmé and her retinue had used originally to escape Naboo.  The Queen and her handmaidens took the main bedroom and antechamber in the rear of the ship while Ric Olié, the pilot, offered to sleep in the cockpit. That left the second, minuscule bedroom usually reserved for the pilot for either the Jedi or the Skywalkers to share.

"You may take the second bedroom," Kit told the Skywalkers.  "Jedi are not in the habit of taking comforts when there are not enough for others."

"Three things," Obi-Wan told the Jedi Master, chuckling as he ticked them off his fingers.  "First, Qui-Gon and I were arena slaves.  We have, quite literally, slept on rocks.  Second, it'll be easier for us to up the humidity in the second bedroom than anywhere else on the ship.  Third, I took the liberty of having a mattress put in the engine room in that little cubby we slept in last trip so we'll be quite comfortable there."

"Sounds like you have it all figured out," Bant nudged her friend, silver eyes happy.  "Are you certain—"

"Very much so," Qui-Gon broke in, urging the Mon Calamari towards the room.  "And Obi-Wan is right; you and Master Fisto will be much more comfortable if we can increase the humidity of the room you are sleeping in."

"I suppose we are outvoted," Kit grinned, then dipped his head towards the Skywalkers.  "Thank you for your kindness.  And please, call me Kit."

"Thank you, Kit.  It means a lot to Obi-Wan and I." Qui-Gon collected his and Obi-Wan's packs to take them to the engine room.  "You and Bant should settle in.  We need to be on our way."

Kit nodded, following Bant towards the second bedroom.  They wouldn't have much space, but for a pair of Jedi, it was enough.
<>*<>

The trip was quiet until a mere half hour before they were due to drop out of hyperspace when Ric Olié called them to the cockpit for a call from Mace Windu.  The man looked nervous, not an expression either Skywalker associated with the council member.  "Obi-Wan.  Qui-Gon."  Mace greeted, visibly forcing himself to still.  "I'm afraid I have some . . . news."

Both men stiffened as Mace continued to speak, Qui-Gon finally snapping, "What in the Sith hells do you mean, 'We can't find Anakin?!'"

"The créche masters allow the older children a measure of freedom," Mace shifted away from the comm., as though the men could reach through and throttle him.  "We didn't expect him to disappear!  He told the créche master he was going to work on that protocol droid of his, and that was the last she saw of him."

"How did you not notice this last night?  Or this morning?"  Qui-Gon almost snarled.

"He managed to convince some of the droids to arrange his pillows to look like him for the night and move them in the morning!  She thought he was simply awake early and back to working on his droid."

"He's been missing for almost twenty four hours!"  Qui-Gon yelled at the council member.  "He could be anywhere by now!  Hell, you lost him before we even left!"

Obi-Wan stiffened, then turned on his heel and stalked from the room, a thunderous expression on his face.  Qui-Gon watched his lover go, brows furrowed, then turned back to Mace.  "Where have you looked for him?  Do you think he's headed into Coruscant?"

"If he has, we'll find him," Mace promised.  "I swear it to you, Qui-Gon.  We will not stop looking until your son has been found—"

"That isn't necessary," Obi-Wan growled, frog marching Anakin into the cockpit followed by his astromech.  "He and his droid were hiding with the other astromechs, in the entrance to the maintenance tunnels.  How they fit in the tunnel, I will never know, but at least they are found."

Qui-Gon saw relief in Mace's face that Anakin had been located, though he didn't look happy about the boy being on transport ship.  The master frowned, looking at Qui-Gon.  "I assume we can expect you back as soon as possible?"

"Excuse us, we need to speak to our son," Qui-Gon replied, ending the call without answering Mace's question before rounding on Anakin.  "What were you thinking?  Sneaking aboard a ship headed for an active warzone!"

Anakin swallowed hard at the look on Qui-Gon's face.  While he knew his papa would never hurt him, he was used to Obi-Wan's anger.  His dad was easy to rile, but just as quick to forgive Anakin's missteps.  Qui-Gon, however, was another matter.  The man was slow to anger, tranquility and serenity a mantle about his presence, both physically in the Force, but now he almost thrummed with ire and Anakin felt himself crumble under the look on Qui-Gon's face.  To his shame, Anakin could feel tears start streaking down his face.  "P—Papa—"

Just as quickly as Qui-Gon's anger appeared, it was gone in the face of the distress rolling off his son.  The man gathered Anakin into his arms, scooping him from the floor and rocking him gently.  "Anakin, what were you thinking?  Do you have any idea how much danger we'll be in?"

"I can help," Anakin curled around his papa, hiding his face in Qui-Gon's shoulder.  "The Force said I had to come, Papa.  I know you and Dad don't want me in danger, but I had to."

"You most certainly did not," Obi-Wan frowned at the boy, though the hand stroking Anakin's back was gentle.  "You needed to stay at the temple and let the adults handle this."

"You and Papa say I should always listen to the Force," Anakin told them fiercely.  "And the Force said I had to come to Naboo."

"We need to let Ric back into the cockpit," Obi-Wan said.  "We're nearly at the blockade . . . I don't think we've time to turn around.  We would have to drop out of hyperspace to do it and at this range . . . "

"The Trade Federation will know we were here and they'll be expecting us to come back," Qui-Gon finished as the three left the cockpit to Ric Olié and moved to settle into the common area of the ship.  Bant, Kit and Padmé were already there, summoned by Ric just before he returned to the cockpit.

"Anakin!"  Bant gasped, seeing the child in his papa's arms.  "What are you doing here?"

"We must return him to Coruscant immediately!"  Padmé leapt to her feet.  "I'll let Ric know to turn around—"

"We can't, Padmé," Bant touched her arm.  "If we drop out of hyperspace now, the Trade Federation will know.  I doubt we'd even be able to get onto the planet after that, never mind achieve the goals we would need to in order to help your people."

"But Anakin—"

"Obi-Wan and I will be able to protect him," Qui-Gon settled at the table, Anakin on his lap.  The boy was curled into his papa, Qui-Gon unwilling to let him go.  "We will not put your entire world in danger for our mistake.  Padmé, we are so sorry.  We never intended—"

"This isn't your fault," Kit told the pair, squeezing Obi-Wan's shoulder.  "You could not predict that your son would sneak aboard a ship heading to a planet in the midst of an armed blockade."

Anakin flinched, sniffling against Qui-Gon's tunic.  "I'm sorry!  But I had to come!  Why won't any of you believe me?"

"It's not that we don't believe the Force gave you a message, Ani," Qui-Gon replied, "but we do believe you are a nine year old boy and have no place in war.  Your dad and I are terrified you'll be hurt or killed.  The Force telling you to come doesn't mean you'll be all right when it's over."

"Still, it looks like he's succeeded in his goal of coming along," Bant frowned.  "We will do all we can to keep your son safe, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon.  We will get him home."

"Thank you, Bant," Obi-Wan dipped his head.  "That means . . . so much to us.  We thank you.  And we know you will."

"Dropping out of hyperspace," Ric Olié announced.  "What are we doing, my queen?"

Padmé glanced first at Qui-Gon, then at Obi-Wan, who nodded at her.  "Head for Naboo, Ric," The Queen answered.  "We're sticking to the plan."
<>*<>

"This city is also empty," Bant broke the surface of the lake to yet another of the Gungan cities.  "Where could they have all gone?"

"I have heard of a few . . . sacred places that the Gungans go in times of trouble, but I have no idea where to even start looking for them," Eirtaé admitted, glancing around the group.  Padmé and the other handmaidens shook their heads.

"Dammit," Ric cursed, looking like he wanted to punch something.  "How can we have been sharing a planet for thousands of years and understand each other so little?"

Padmé shook her head sadly.  "It is a grievous error on all our parts, but the queens bear much of this blame.  Once this ends, I shall make sure to build a friendship with the Gungans.  But first, we must find them and save our home."

"Can you try to find them through the Force?"  Rabé asked the Jedi, uncertain.

"It doesn't exactly work like that—"

"I can!"  Anakin perked up.  "Or . . . I think I can.  I've never done it without knowing a person first, though.  But—there are lots of Gungans, right?"

"Right," Qui-Gon nodded as Obi-Wan's eyes widened in understanding, leaving the rest of the group staring at them.  "So if we find a group of beings in the Force, there are only two things it could be.  A group of Nubians or the Gungans."

"And you can locate them?"  Kit's brow furrowed.

"We can.  Anakin can do it on his own, but Qui-Gon and I must use our bond," Obi-Wan explained.  "It's not exact, mind, but I think it will get us close.  Do we have a map available?  It will make things easier."

"I downloaded one to Artoo," Anakin plopped onto a tree stump.  "I don't know how long this will take.  Sometimes I can't do it very well."

"Can you meditate?"  Kit settled in a lotus position next to Anakin's stump.  "It will aide you in connecting to the Force."

"He can, but he's a nine year old boy," Qui-Gon stroked Anakin's hair, a fond smile on his face when Anakin leaned into the caress.  "There is only so long he can sit still and breathe."

"Well," Obi-Wan collected Anakin up, settling the boy on his lap, Anakin reclining against his chest.  "I guess I will simply have to help you."

Kit and Bant watched curiously as the two fell into a meditation breathing pattern, Anakin almost limp against his father.  After several, long moments, the boy began to glow faintly white, his aura curling around Obi-Wan's.  "Dad," Anakin gripped Obi-Wan's sleeve anxiously, "I can't tell—"

"It's all right, a stór," Obi-Wan answered.  "Let me see and I'll help."

"Let him see?"  Bant tilted her head, curious.  "Do you have a bond with Anakin also?"

"It is not as . . . deep as Obi-Wan's and mine, but yes," Qui-Gon kept his voice low as he watched his lover and son.  "I think it is similar to that which you share between a master and padawan?  That's what Obi-Wan says, though he doesn’t always . . . remember things from the temple very well."

"It saddens me that he has lost so much of his past," Bant mourned.  "I'm very glad he's back but I just . . . it's hard, sometimes."

"I'm sorry," Qui-Gon told her, settling next to her.

"No," Bant gripped his arm.  "I'm not sorry.  I could never be sorry to have him back.  Better to have  him back with no memory of me, than dead and lost.  I know as Jedi we are not to have attachments and we are to believe that our fallen friends return to the Force, but . . . "

"The grief of losing your friends still lingers," Qui-Gon finished for her.  "I'm glad you're willing to stand by Obi-Wan even though he doesn't remember you.  That he has friends like you lightens my heart."

"You are my friend also, Qui-Gon," Bant squeezed Qui-Gon's arms gently, her smile soft.  "You know that, right?"

Qui-Gon looked startled at her statement, his eyes going wide in bewildered shock.  "But I'm just a former slave.  Why would anyone want to be friends with me?  What does it gain you?"

"You are a kind, compassionate man, Qui-Gon Jinn," Bant answered.  "A loving father to Anakin and a wonderful husband to Obi-Wan.  If you considered me a friend, I would be most honored."

Qui-Gon flushed scarlet at her words and ducked his head, softly protesting, ". . . Obi-Wan and I aren't married."

"You are in all ways that count, and once the council gets your papers straightened around, you'll be able to marry him legally."  Bant said, eyes flicking towards Obi-Wan.  "Maybe they will even be finished by the time we get back."

"Will we be able to adopt Anakin?"

"I think the council has already made Obi-Wan his guardian," Bant told him.  "Since he was born free, it allowed them to expedite it so Anakin would not need to go into foster care. Once they have your citizenship resolved, though, you'll be able to adopt Anakin without issue."

Bant wished she could take a holo of Qui-Gon's almost shy smile, though she knew she'd hold the memory close to her heart even after she became one with the Force.  Before Qui-Gon could say more, Anakin bolted from Obi-Wan's lap, smile bright.  "I found them!  Well, I found a bunch of people, but I think I found the Gungans with everyone."

"Let's show them on the map," Qui-Gon urged Anakin toward Artoo.  "Maybe Padmé will be able to figure out which people are hers, and which are the Gungans."

"Yes, Papa," Anakin hopped toward the droid, the meditation giving him energy.  Obi-Wan followed more slowly, letting Qui-Gon reel his lover to his side as Anakin began pointing out the concentration of life forces he'd felt all over Naboo.

They were several hours away from the Gungan camp, and avoiding the droid meant it was growing dark by the time they arrived.  The leader of the Gungans, a being Padmé called Boss Nass, didn't look particularly impressed with them.  "Wesa no welcome da Naboo," The being spat, glaring at the humans.  "Yousa bring da machaniks here."

"We do sincerely regret bringing such strife to Naboo,"  Sabé began, only for Boss Nass to turn his nose up at her.

"Naboo no respect Gungans, yousa tink yousa better den da Gungans, not even letting usa speaking to da real queen."  Boss Nass scowled.  "Yousa be leaving now, or wesa be squishing!"

"Wait, please," Padmé stepped in front of Sabé.  "You're right, we've shown you great disrespect by allowing one of my handmaidens to open negotiations.  I allowed my fear of the droids and the terrible being with them to rule our interactions."

The Jedi also leant their voices to the queen, and the Skywalkers were glad to see that the council had chosen wisely, sending amphibious non-humans to speak with the Gungans.  Boss Nass was more willing to listen to Kit and Bant than the Queen at first, and allowed Padmé to speak at their urging.  "Please," Padmé pleaded at the end of her speech, going to her knees, "help us force the Trade Federation off our homeworld."

"Yousa no tink yousa better den da Gungans," Boss Nass rose to his feet.  "Mesa tinkin' da Gungans will be helpin' yousa."

Padmé rose gracefully before the Gungan chief, only for the being to laugh, gesturing to the swamp mud covering her from the knees down.  Padmé offered a lopsided smile as Anakin giggled.  "You're all dirty."

"What a state for a queen, huh?"  Padmé chuckled, futilely dusting at her knees.  After a moment she sobered and approached Boss Nass.  "We need to plan how to get those droids off Naboo."

Boss Nass nodded, snapping his fingers.  "Follow mesa.  Wesa convene da war council."

"Naboo thanks you, Boss Nass," Padmé bowed and followed the Gungan leader.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Kit Fisto stayed with the Gungans, volunteering to go with them to meet the droids on the battlefield while Bant agreed to accompany the rest of the group to Theed.  She would stay with the queen and her handmaidens while they went after the viceroy should Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan need to go after the Sith.  Anakin would go to Theed with his parents, though he was under strict orders to find a safe place to hide and stay there the moment he did.  Artoo, unwilling to be without Anakin, followed right along after them.

"Good thing he did all those upgrades to that thing," Obi-Wan grumbled to his lover, earning a chuckle from Qui-Gon.

"When we get to Theed, the queen, her entourage and Bant will head into the palace to track down and trap the viceroy while Obi-Wan, Ric Olié and I free the fighter pilots," Qui-Gon reminded everyone.  The group traded nods, following the Skywalkers and Bant into the city.

It was easy enough to get around the droids, staying hidden amidst the grandiose Theed architecture.  Padmé glanced around for a moment, taking in the placement of the droids.  "The easiest way into the palace looks like it will be through the hanger."

"They're funneling us straight to it," Bant warned the group, though they all knew Padmé was right and that was likely where they would head anyway.  "The Sith is probably waiting for us there."

Obi-Wan gave his lover an almost vicious grin, "Then we shouldn't disappoint."

"Indeed," Qui-Gon's smile was all teeth.  Bant did a double take, not used to those particular looks on her friends.  Vicious was not a trait she really associated with either man.

Anakin scrambled into a fighter the moment they got into the hanger, Artoo at his heels, while his parents and Bant dealt with the droids so the queen and her handmaidens could free the pilots.  "Stay in the fighter, Ani," Obi-Wan ordered as the boy got settled.  "I mean it!  Don't get out of that fighter for anything and I love you."

"We both love you, a stór," Qui-Gon added as stayed near Obi-Wan, eyes sweeping the hanger for the Sith.  "Stay safe."

"I love you too, Dad and Papa, and I will,"  Anakin promised, looking over the switches as Artoo trilled something.

The pilots barely finished scrambling into their fighters when the Sith appeared at the end of the hanger, snarling when he saw the gladiators.  Bant gave the men a short salute urging the queen and her handmaidens towards the other set of doors.  "That's your cue, boys.  May the Force be with you."

"And with you also," Obi-Wan told his friend as he and Qui-Gon headed for the Sith.  The being slid into a fighting stance, double bladed lightsaber at the ready.  The gladiators raced for him, breathing together and brushing hands before igniting their own lightsabers and lunging for the red and black being.

Bant had only a moment to admire the acrobatics all three were performing as she, the queen and the handmaidens headed further into the palace.  "Stay with the queen," Padmé ordered, gesturing to Sabé, who was serving as her double.  "I'm betting the viceroy is in the throne room—we can box him in if one of the others and I head around the back."

Bant hesitated only for a moment.  She didn't want to leave the side of the real queen, but if Bant stayed with Padmé, not only would she blow the girl's cover, it was likely she'd place her in even more danger.  "Panaka, you stay with them," Bant agreed, moving closer to Sabé.  "I'm staying with the queen."

Anakin, meanwhile, was trying desperately to stop the fighter he'd hidden in from joining the space battle.  "All I wanted was shields, Artoo!"  The boy cried, flipping a number of switches.  "Get that kriffing autopilot off!"

Artoo beeped at him almost scathingly and Anakin scowled.  "Why yes, I do kiss my parents with this mouth!  I was a slave Artoo.  Kriff isn't even the worst word I know!  Now get that autopilot off!"

Artoo beeped again and the last thing Anakin saw before his fighter took off was his papa executing a balestra shuffle forward followed by a lunge at the Sith while his dad leapt over the being's head, with a downward thrust.  With the being distracted by Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan managed to score a graze along his shoulder.  The Sith snarled and shifted to strike at Obi-Wan, barely dodging Qui-Gon's next blow.

The Sith twisted away from the center of the pair, bolting down a hallway.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan exchanged looks, chasing him.  "Damn it!"

"Where the hell does this place even go?"  Obi-Wan asked as they entered a huge room crisscrossed with catwalks.  "We've got to be heading under the city."

Qui-Gon shook his head, frowning as he reached for a second 'saber, Obi-Wan doing the same.  While the pair often battled only with a since lightsaber apiece, when they truly fought their hardest they used two.  At times, it was almost like watching a juggling act with lightsabers, the pair passing them back and forth to one another and switching between a single and double almost effortlessly.  While it was a dangerous way to fight, it was extremely effective in throwing off their opponents.

The Sith stared at them for a moment when the second 'sabers appeared, lips peeling back in a sneer.  "I will destroy you, Jedi!"

"Not Jedi," Obi-Wan snarked back, locking blades with the being as Qui-Gon flipped over his head, 'saber kissing the being's arm.  He hissed in pain and disengaged, kicking Obi-Wan off the catwalk as he raced away, nursing his arm.  Qui-Gon managed to Force toss the being from the bridge as well, sending him to one several levels below Obi-Wan.  Qui-Gon dropped to his lover's position, helping him to his feet.

"Are you all right?" Qui-Gon worried, feeling the Force ripple briefly with Obi-Wan's pain.

"It's nothing serious," Obi-Wan rolled his shoulders.  "The landing was jarring, but I'm not hurt."

"I'm glad of that, a chuisle mo chroí," Qui-Gon touched his lover's face.  "Now, about this creature—"

A sudden, high pitched whine had both men grimacing and Qui-Gon hastily deactivated one of his lightsabers.  While a real lightsaber used a Kyber crystal, Obi-Wan's second lightsaber and both of Qui-Gon's used whatever crystals the pair were able to scrounge up.  Since they were often flawed, eventually the strain caused by forcing power through the crystal would make it explode.  The pair had long since learned the high pitched whine currently coming from Qui-Gon's primary lightsaber warned them roughly ten seconds before the malfunctioning lightsaber exploded.

"What a time for that to happen," Obi-Wan muttered.  Qui-Gon glanced at the lightsaber.

"Maybe it is,"  The man smiled.  "These things do make great grenades when they explode.  We weren't in the habit of using them in the arena, but . . ."

"Good plan," Obi-Wan grinned in reply, and the pair dropped onto the being's catwalk.  They let the Sith kite them towards the strange laser doors.  The gladiators still had no idea where they were going, but the Sith seemed to have something in mind.  While it was not usually wise to let their opponent choose the location, the Sith was prepared to fight Jedi, not gladiators.  Already, the being had discovered the pair completely different from what he'd trained for.

As the being darted into the first set of laser doors, Qui-Gon ignited his faulty 'saber and sent it flying after the being.  The Sith dodged the lightsaber, cackling, as the doors locked, sealing him away from the gladiators.  "You seemed to have missed, Jedi."

"I didn't miss, and we are not Jedi," Qui-Gon replied, hearing the 'saber's whine increase in pitch a second time.  The Sith howled as the 'saber blew, managing to block part of the explosion with the Force, though he was slammed into the wall.

"Well done, lover," Obi-Wan offered as the doors opened.  The pair lunged for the Sith, who scrambled back, bleeding from where the casing of the 'saber had cut him.  The three clashed viciously, burns blossoming across skin and clothing on all three from the volley of strikes.  A sudden clicking had Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon vaulting away just as the laser doors closed a second time, separating them at the same moment the Sith disarmed Obi-Wan from his second lightsaber, leaving it in the path of the doors.

All three of them threw up hasty shields when the laser doors closed, making the 'saber violently explode.  "Kriff!"

"He's good," Qui-Gon commented, eyes locked on the pacing being.  "We're going to need a new strategy.  I think we have about a minute before the doors open again."

Obi-Wan nodded and the pair sank into a light, meditative trance, passing ideas through their bond faster than speech ever could until the pair had decided on a new plan.  They meditated until the doors opened, then raced for the Sith again, following him down the narrow hallway as they traded furious blows.  It was only a little further before the hall opened into a giant power plant, a walkway surrounding a pit to the planet's core.

"Several of the Jedi forms would be at an extreme disadvantage in these rooms," Obi-Wan panted as they pressed their advantage.  "No wonder he was headed here!"

"Good thing we aren't Jedi," Qui-Gon dodged under a sweeping strike, then flicked his free hand, leaping over the Sith's head as Obi-Wan slid between his legs, striking up at the Sith while Qui-Gon thrust downward.  The Sith parried Obi-Wan's lightsaber as he spun away from Qui-Gon's assault before leaping easily across the pit, growling while he took a moment to collect himself.

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon glared, separating as they raced around either side of the pit, the elder gladiator cursing loudly when his second 'saber began to whine.  Obi-Wan heard it and barely hid a grimace, shouting, "Hey!  Sith!  Catch!"

The being turned, charged toward Obi-Wan even as Qui-Gon threw his 'saber towards the being's back.  The Sith dodged the 'saber itself, but was still clipped by the explosion and nearly being sent into the pit.  Obi-Wan lunged for the being while he was off-balance, but the Sith managed to bring his lightsaber up and sloppily block the attack.

Obi-Wan deactivated his 'saber and flipped it over the Sith's head, evading the being's rapid advance with several back handsprings, the Sith's lightsaber humming around him in a series of incredibly narrow misses.  The Sith barred his teeth in a grin as he backed Obi-Wan against a wall, raising his blade.  "You lose, Jedi."

"Not quite," Obi-Wan replied as Qui-Gon used Obi-Wan's 'saber to pierce the being's spinal cord partway down his back.  Surprise made the Sith's eyes grow wide even as he collapsed, lightstaff falling from his nerveless fingers.  Qui-Gon caught him as he fell, Obi-Wan joining him.  The Sith gasped and choked, body fighting to breath with the broken nerves.

"You—killed—"

"I'm sorry," Qui-Gon murmured, laying the being's head on his lap as Obi-Wan snatched up the fallen weapon before joining him.  "Will you tell me your name?"

"So you—can gloat?"  The Sith demanded, flinching as Qui-Gon gently cradled the being's head.  The Sith wondered how the man could look so sorrowful about his impending death, despite being the one who killed him.

"No," Obi-Wan caressed the Sith's face, an almost paternal gesture.  To his surprise, the Sith leaned into it, eyelids fluttering.  "Because everyone deserves to be remembered.  Have you any family you want us to tell, if we can?"

"I have—brothers," The being managed, breathing growing more labored.  "My name—my name is—Maul.  I'm—from Dathomir—please—my brothers, Savage and Feral—"

"We will do what we can for your brothers," Qui-Gon promised, even as the being went limp against him, yellow eyes sliding closed.

"We need to check on Anakin and the Queen," Obi-Wan told his lover giving the being a final look before rising and clipping the lightstaff to his belt.  Qui-Gon gave a short nod of agreement, throwing the Sith over his shoulder as he stood.  Maul was too young not to be working for someone, and the pair didn't want to risk losing the body if the being's puppeteer was on planet.  Once Qui-Gon had Maul secured, the pair raced for the surface.

Obi-Wan stopped so suddenly when he reached the hanger that Qui-Gon nearly ran into him, skidding to a halt mere centimeters from Obi-Wan's back.  The younger man was looking around the empty hanger, panic in his green eyes.  "Where the hell is Anakin's fighter?"

Qui-Gon went white.  "You don't think he joined the space battle, do you?"

"If he did, I'll kill him," Obi-Wan growled.  Unable to do anything more for Anakin, the pair headed for the throne room to see if the queen needed their aid.  Padmé, it turned out, had everything well in hand and was holding the Trade Federation's viceroy at blaster-point.  Bant was surrounded by a pile of demolished droids, though it looked like the pilots had been successful in destroying the control ship, deactivating whatever droids the Jedi and Gungans hadn't razed.

Bant looked over as they arrived, eyes widening at the sight of the being thrown over Qui-Gon's shoulder.  "That's the Sith?"

"His name is Maul," Qui-Gon carefully laid the being down.  "He said he's from Dathomir."

Bant shook her head, unfamiliar with the planet.  "We'll have to ask the council.  Perhaps one of them will know more."

The gladiators shrugged, unperturbed.  As far as they were concerned, the threat had been eliminated, and it would be the work of the Jedi to discover more about the being.  They would need to discuss finding Maul's brothers, though.  Sith or not, it had been his dying request and the concern in his eyes had been real when he'd spoken of them.

"Um—" Rabé gently rested her fingers at the being's throat, brows furrowed.  "I think—I think he's still alive."

"What?"  Bant and Qui-Gon rushed to her side, checking Maul by turns.  The being's pulse was slow and faint, his breathing so shallow it was almost impossible to feel, but almost miraculously, Qui-Gon had not killed him.  Bant's fists clenched as Qui-Gon turned to Padmé.  "Get a medical droid.  Now."

"I'll go," Rabé offered, scrambling from the room.  Qui-Gon resettled the being, cradling Maul with the Force and infusing his touch with safety and warmth.  Usually Qui-Gon wouldn't dare move someone with a spinal injury, but he had already thrown the poor being around like a sack of tubers.  Most likely, moving him into a seemingly more comfortable position wouldn't do any more damage than what he had done dragging Maul up for the power core.

"Kind and compassionate," Bant repeated her earlier words to Qui-Gon, just to see him flush again.  "Most people would have left the Sith to die.  He did try to kill you."

"A lot of people have tried to kill me," Qui-Gon reminded her serenely.  "I was a gladiator for twenty years; you learn not to take it personally.  Besides, I have a feeling Maul wasn't exactly doing it of his own free will."

Bant frowned, but said nothing more, just followed Rabé towards the medical bay.  She wouldn't risk the Sith being left alone, even if he was unconscious and partially paralyzed.
<>*<>

The Jedi council arrived on Naboo late the next day, pleasantly surprised to find the Gungans helping the Naboo start clearing out the droids and begin repairing Theed even as both groups celebrated their victory.  Various street vendors gave out food and drink for the workers, Gungan food served right alongside Naboo cuisine.  Stories and songs rang through the streets as the cultures came together for the first time in a thousand years, a new friendship budding between the two peoples.

The council's first several hours were spent with the Queen and the representatives of the Trade Federation, putting the final touches on the treaty the Queen had created.  While mostly fair, the treaty certainly did not favor the Trade Federation's personal interests.  Palpatine had arrived with the Jedi council to discuss the treaty, though he left for Coruscant directly after the conclusions of the negotiations, leaving the Jedi to clean up the rest of the mess with the Sith and Trade Federation.

"I'm certain his position as Chancellor is a busy one," Padmé frowned after the departing man, Anakin at her side.  "But you would think he would make some time for his home planet."

"I'm sure he didn't want to go," Anakin patted Padmé's arm, though she noticed that he didn't sound particularly convinced of that.  "I bet there was something real important he had to do on Coruscant.  Like . . . some important bill or meeting, and he couldn't be late."

"He's not the only one late for something," Qui-Gon announced as he approached the pair and scooped Anakin into his arms.  "You are also quite late—your bedtime was hours ago."

The council looked up as Qui-Gon and Anakin left, Mace giving Obi-Wan a small smile.  "I heard you and Qui-Gon weren't the only ones busy during the battle of Theed."

"Is that what they're calling it?"  Obi-Wan considered the name, then added.  "And yes, Anakin really did take out the droid control ship even though we told him to stay out of the fighting."

"That's what we get for telling him to stay in that fighter.  Really, we should have known better."  Qui-Gon sighed, wrapping an arm around Obi-Wan.  "Anakin wants us both to tuck him in tonight.  Like we used to after our arena fights."

Obi-Wan nodded.  It was Anakin's way of reassuring himself that his parents were safe and alive.  "Even so, Anakin should have known better than to stay in the fighter," Obi-Wan crossed his arms.  "I don't care how proud of him we are or what planets he's lauded a hero on—if he does that again, he'll be grounded until he dies of old age!"

The council chuckled at the declaration, the room echoing with Yoda's mischievous cackle.  Mace shook his head in semi-disbelief.  "Sounds like you'll have your hands full when he's older."

"When he's older?"  Obi-Wan snorted.  "We have our hands full now."

"We meditate for guidance daily," Qui-Gon told the council dryly, earning a grin from Mace.

"Would you be willing to join us in the Medical Bay after you tuck in your son?"  Mace asked, sobering.  "We—the council—would like to determine what we are to do with the Sith as soon as possible."

"We were a little surprised to learn he survived," Depa confessed before the pair left.

"It was not entirely intentional," Obi-Wan admitted.  "We thought he was dead, though I supposed we didn't really check . . . Rabé noticed our mistake when we arrived to help the queen."

"I thought you fought him in the power core?"  Depa frowned, confused.  "Why was he in the throne room?"

"I carried him back from the power core with us.  We weren't sure how long the rest of the fight would take and didn't want to risk someone stealing the body before we could examine it further."  Qui-Gon explained.

"Wise of you, that was," Yoda agreed.  "Leave your son waiting, you should not.  Speak with you later, we may?"

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon gazed at each other for a moment, animation crossing their features, then Obi-Wan gave a little bow.  "We'll meet you in the Medical Bay, after tucking Anakin in."

"Thank you," Plo Koon said as the council bowed to the pair in reply.

When the Skywalkers arrived in the Medical Bay almost an hour later, the Jedi were crowded around the Sith's bacta tank, nudging at the being with the Force.  Maul tried to shy away from the council's scrutiny, distress roiling through the Force around him.  If he was awake, the Skywalkers were certain he'd be huddled as far back as possible from them.

"Enough!"  Qui-Gon snapped, wrapping a shield around the Sith.  "Have some compassion—he nearly died!"

Maul relaxed at Qui-Gon's Force signature, physically reacting to the psychic touch.  Obi-Wan let his own Force presence mingle with his lover's, letting Maul know he was there.  Maul was uncertain at first, not as familiar with Obi-Wan outside of their fight, but when he kept his contact gentle the being eased, tentatively returning the caress.  "Poor thing," Obi-Wan's fingers ghosted over the tank.  "He's terrified."

"He's Sith," Depa reminded them.  "They hate Jedi and he tried to kill you."

"We were gladiators," Obi-Wan reminded her.  "It was a rare day someone didn't try to kill us.  You stop taking it personally after awhile."

"Look at him," Qui-Gon pressed a hand to the tank, eyes soft.  "Forget, for a moment, that he's Sith and really look.  He's at least a handful of years younger than Obi-Wan, and he's been badly mistreated, possibly tortured.  Wherever he was, he didn't get enough to eat, and his scars are some of the worst I've seen."

"Given his probable age, his skill is even more impressive," Master Eeth Koth looked the Sith over.

"We're pretty sure he was trained specifically against Jedi," Obi-Wan smiled when Maul relaxed further into his and Qui-Gon's presence.  "I've heard Pangur is actually quite an accomplished swordsman and he defeated him pretty easily, but he had a lot more trouble with Qui-Gon and I—probably because we don't fight like Jedi.  Or anything else he's fought, I'd wager."

"That does make sense," Mace frowned at the Sith.  "The question is, what are we going to do with him now?"

"He has not actually committed any crimes against the republic, to our knowledge," Plo Koon cocked his head, considering.  "Using the dark side is not actually something one can be arrested for.  Treason, perhaps, or attempted murder but both of those things would be hard to prove . . ."

"Taught to hate the Jedi, this being was," Yaddle, the most compassionate Jedi in the Order, reached out to inspect Maul as well.  "Perhaps learn to love them, he can also."

Maul tentatively reached for Yaddle, curious but cautious, the Sith feeling somewhat safe with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan near.  Yaddle smiled, readily allowing him to examine her, patient as he explored the new visitor to his senses.  While Maul's body was unconscious, it was clear his mind was still very much awake.  To entertain him, Yaddle invited him into a game of push-pull with the Force, his confusion at doing something simply for fun evident.

"I don't think he has often been touched with kindness," Qui-Gon told the council as he watched the pair interact.  "That he was treated so cruelly . . . it is hard to imagine he could be anything but what he is."

"You were treated badly as well," Yarael reminded the once-slave.  "Yet you do not use the dark side."

"That was . . . not always the case," Qui-Gon looked at Obi-Wan.  "And I had a reason to let go of my anger and hatred.  Should this being not be offered the same chance?"

"Used the dark side, you did?"  Yoda's ears raised.  "Interesting.  In you, I feel no corruption."

"In the arena, kindness is rare," Qui-Gon told them, eyes dark with sadness.  "There is so much death and pain that it's easy to fall prey to your hatred.  The mastery of your emotions, the balance of what you feel in your heart and what you know in your mind is one of the most important states you can reach.  Obi-Wan and I use the darkside—at least by your definition—because we allow our logic and our emotion to balance one another and affect how we use the Force.  It is important to understand, however, that we do not use the Force in hatred.  Even in anger it is important to remember that we are all sentient beings and we must treat each other with love, kindness and compassion."

The entire council stared at him and Obi-Wan tried to hold back his laughter at their reaction.  "There you go again, my heart, sounding like a Jedi."

Qui-Gon blinked, then ducked his head, flushing slightly.  "It is nothing that is not true."

—Oh, my heart, how much I love you,— Obi-Wan told the older the older man, kissing him softly.  Mace shook his head, smiling at the pair for a moment, then turned back to the Sith.  "That still does not help us with the Sith."

"Help him return to the light, we shall," Yaddle told the council, firmly.  "A frightened child willing to leave the dark, I believe he is."

"But no one has ever turned from the darkside," Eeth Koth protested.  "The temptation is too strong!"

"Qui-Gon has," Obi-Wan reminded the being.  "So it is possible.  You make the darkside sound inherently stronger than the lightside, but it is not.  Being good or evil is a choice each being makes every time we make a decision.  The darkside may be quick to offer power, but one must be willing to pay the price to gain it.  Additionally, it would be hard to return to the light knowing how you treat someone who has used the darkside—what incentive would they have to return, knowing they will be ostracized and treated like filth should they come back?"

"They must answer for their crimes," Mace retorted.

"That is true, but Obi-Wan is right.  Forgiveness, compassion and empathy on the Order's part, even while they are punished by the Republic for what they have done, would go a long way in helping them make good decisions rather than bad ones.  Beings like Maul—what chance did he have to be anything else?  And now that he does, who is to say he will not surpass the rest of us, knowing what it is like to face such hardships?"

"Not all such beings had such limited choices," Depa reminded them.  "Perhaps this Zabrak deserves the chance, but not all such beings deserve our forgiveness."

"Those who need forgiveness most, often deserve it least," Qui-Gon reminded the council.  "Obi-Wan and I fought in the arena—our hands are bathed in the blood of the innocent—victims of circumstance that wanted to be there no more than we.  And yet, we killed them to survive so that we might be here now.  What forgiveness do we deserve?"

Yaddle nodded her agreement with Qui-Gon.  "True, his words are.  Earned, forgiveness is not, but given it should be.  A chance to redeem himself, this child should have, I believe."

"Bow to Yaddle's wisdom in this matter, I do," Yoda added.  "Believe, I do, that a chance to turn away from the darkness, Maul should have."

The council discussed that for a moment more, then Mace sighed.  "We shall make a place for him at the temple and assign him a teacher.  Apparently we're giving this Sith a chance to see if they really can change."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan both bowed.

"Can you tell us anything more of this Si—Zabrak?"  Eeth Koth requested.

"Zabrak?"  Obi-Wan blinked, looking between the Jedi master and the bacta tank.  "I was not aware you and he were the same species . . . "

"Yes, though I do not believe we share a homeworld," Eeth Koth replied.

Obi-Wan related what little they knew of the being, noting that Eeth Koth paled at the mention of Dathomir.  When the man mentioned Maul's brothers, Mace heaved a sigh.  "Let me guess.  You want to go get them."

"We cannot leave them on Dathomir," It was Eeth Koth who spoke up, the vehemence in his voice startling the rest of the council.  "Especially not if Maul is to stay at the Jedi temple."

"I don't understand,"  Mace confessed.  "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Dathomir is the home of two cults, the Nightbrothers and the Nightsisters," Eeth Koth explained.  "The planet is matriarchal, but the sexes are kept separate unless they wish to breed.  The Nightsisters are . . . witches, basically, and use the Force only for the betterment of themselves.  While they are not entirely evil, they do not greet lightside users with kindness.  The Nightbrothers are similar, though they do not have the . . . mystical training the Nightsisters do.  Taking Maul to the Jedi Temple and leaving his brothers on Dathomir would be a death sentence for them."

Mace rubbed his temples.  "When I took in the Skywalkers, I did not expect to start collecting strays."

"You'll get used to it," Obi-Wan gave the Korun a knowing look as Mace tried not to whimper.  "Qui-Gon will have you joining in before you know it, too.  He and I can help get the boys.  We'll take Anakin; perhaps having a child along will ease tensions?"

"We can send Master Yanarath Kar'lis and Padawan Rhys Kotan along also, then," Depa agreed.  "Padawan Rhys is only twelve, so you will have two younglings with you, and he is Zabrak also."

"They aren't on a mission right now," Even Piell nodded.  "Yes, I think this is wise.  Padawan Rhys is also very well-learned with a lightsaber.  If there is trouble, he will be able to help."

"Oh good," Qui-Gon touched his empty belt.  "Obi-Wan and I only have one between us."

The council all blinked, then Even Piell asked, almost hesitantly, "What happened to the other three?"

"Well . . . "  Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon again and told the council about the fight and faulty crystals used in the three lightsabers.  By the time they were done, Mace looked like he wanted to slam his head into the wall a few times.  Yoda cackled at the look.  Mace needed a few lessons in patience and it looked like the Skywalkers were more than ready to oblige.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The master-padawan team arrived two days later in the old, but sturdy, ship they would be taking to Dathomir to retrieve Maul's brothers, Savage and Feral Oppress.  Anakin and Obi-Wan traded grins.  Padmé and the handmaidens had gifted father and son each a set of mechanic's tools and the two were certain they could upgrade most of the engine prior to their departure.  Qui-Gon just sighed, catching the collars of their tunics before they could race off to find out.

"Good," Saesee Tiin smiled as the three approached, glancing briefly at the lightstaff hanging from Qui-Gon's belt.  He didn't like the eldest Skywalker using a Sith weapon, but Qui-Gon could hardly go to Dathomir unarmed.  "Let me introduce you."

Yanarath, a Bothan, barely reached the middle of Qui-Gon's sternum and stepped back to avoid craning his neck in order to see the tall man properly.  "Does that weather change with the extra height?"

"No, but I make an excellent lightning rod," Qui-Gon quipped, making the being chortle.  Rhys groaned quietly, head dropping.  He already had a few centimeters taller than his master, his nut brown skin still devoid of tattoos.

Anakin gave the padawan a shy smile.  "It sounds like your master and my papa have the same sense of humor."

"This is going to be a long mission, then," Rhys offered the boy a hand.  "It's nice to meet you.  Are you the . . . uh . . . you know, that Pangur found?"

"Former slaves?"  Anakin filled in.  "You can call us what we are.  It's not offensive.  And yes, we are the former slaves Pangur won and brought back to the temple.  Dad was sold when he was about your age, I think."

"Wow . . . "  Rhys breathed.  "I can't imagine Master selling me—whoever your dad's master was must have been awful."

Anakin shrugged.  "I guess?  Hey—do you like engines?  I got this new tool set from Padmé, cause I broke the droid ship and I want to see if I can make the engine go faster."

"I'm not real great with mechanics, but I can show you where the engine room is," Rhys headed for the ship, Obi-Wan just behind them to make sure the boys didn't blow anything up while Qui-Gon worked some logistics out with Yanarath.

"One of the rooms is larger than the others," Yanarath told Qui-Gon while they toured the ship.  "I was thinking the boys could all share it . . . I'm not sure how comfortable the children we're collecting will be around adults, but at least they wouldn't be alone."

"It is probably wise," Qui-Gon agreed.  "Three berths and a med bay?"

"Yes, the med bay used to be the second large berth, but it was converted when the Jedi purchased the ship," Yanarath explained.  "The only 'fresher in the ship is next to the mess hall, there, and then the cargo and engine area in the back.  The bridge is up front, here."

"Does anything need done to it before we get underway?  The faster we get Savage and Feral, the happier I will be," Qui-Gon glanced into one of the smaller rooms.  "We don't really have anything but what we're carrying."

"Master Windu sent orders for us to bring travel packs for you three," Yanarath gestured to the packs on the sleep couch in the room Qui-Gon was looking at.  "Yours and Obi-Wan's are in here while Anakin's is in the large room."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon replied.  "Then we're ready to go, if you'd like."

"I heard that boy of yours was an excellent pilot," Yanarath offered.  "I'm capable, certainly, but if he wanted to fly this bird, I'd be more than willing to give up that honor."

"You may regret that," Qui-Gon replied, comming his lover and son.  Anakin raced for the cockpit, Obi-Wan at his heels.  Obi-Wan was a far better pilot than Qui-Gon, little as he liked doing it, but leaving Anakin on his own wasn't exactly wise either.  Artoo screamed past moments later with Rhys, chirping desperately at Anakin.  Qui-Gon watched the whole thing inscrutably and Yanarath felt his heart sink as he wondered what he'd gotten himself in to.

The trip to Dathomir was, fortunately for the Jedi, quiet.  Landing was a little difficult since the nav computer had trouble calculating their course, but Anakin and Obi-Wan managed without it, relying on their hard-won skill and the Force.

"Well," Yanarath offered, glancing around the planet once they'd disembarked, "I certainly wouldn't want to vacation here.  Also, you should probably move, Padawan.  I'm fairly certain the plant you're next to is carnivorous."

Rhys edged away from the large plant, wide eyed.  "How can you tell?"

"The leg hanging out of it is a dead giveaway," The master cackled.

Rhys sighed heavily, glancing at Anakin.  "See what I mean?  He thinks he's funny."

"No wonder he and my parents get alone so well," Anakin muttered in reply as they began picking their way toward the village Eeth Koth told them about.

"I'm really glad we got to come on this mission," Rhys admitted, looking around the planet.  "I don't get to talk to non-Jedi much, so it's been really interesting to hear what you and your fathers think of the Jedi and the temple and stuff."

"We're going to be living there for awhile, you know," Anakin told him.  "You're welcome to come by and talk to us whenever you want.  Maybe—maybe we can be friends?"

"I'd like that," Rhys grinned.  "Hey, I was wondering—did your dads really save Pangur from the Sith?"

"Maul," Anakin corrected.

"What?"

"His name is Maul," Anakin repeated.  "He's a person, just like us and he only attacked us 'cause he was scared and angry.  That's why we're saving his brothers.  If we save his brothers, so no one can hurt them if he disobeys, then he doesn't have to be scared anymore and the Jedi can teach him to be nice and save people."

"Right—but your dads really stopped him from killing Pangur?"

"Yeah, and that was super cool, too, but I'm glad we're going to help him be a better person instead of fighting him all the time."

"Me too," Rhys decided as they neared the wood and stone wall around the village of the male Zabrak on Dathomir.  The boys stepped closer to the adults, Obi-Wan making sure he was mostly in front of his son.

"Halt," One of the men snarled as they approached, battle axe trained on the group.  "What the hell are you outsiders doing here?"

"Peace," Qui-Gon implored, raising his hands to show he held no weapon.  They had not bothered to hide the lightsabers at their belts; making sure they kept their hands away from the weapons told the Zabrak they did not wish to fight.  "My name is Qui-Gon Jinn.  We were sent by Maul to find his brothers, Savage and Feral.  We were told they were here."

The guard's eyes narrowed.  "You've spoken with Maul?  But—you look like Jedi and he was purchased by a Sith."

Purchased?— Obi-Wan sent his unhappiness over the bond.  —Do you really think he had no choice but to serve the Sith?—

I don't like it any more than you do, a chuisle mo chroí, but it is not impossible.  All we can do now is make sure Maul is no longer forced to serve anyone else.  And to do that, we need to get his brothers.

Right,— Obi-Wan agreed, looking back towards the guard.  A second one had joined him while they spoke, suspicion written in every line of his body.  Obi-Wan smiled disarmingly at the guards.  "Our friendship with Maul is very complicated.  But he requested we come and get his brothers for him."

The guard pursed his lips, looking to the newcomer, who nodded.  "We will take you to the chief."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon gestured for the others to follow him.  "It is appreciated.  I've already told you my name, and these are my family and friends."

The guard's eyes flicked to each being as Qui-Gon introduced them, though neither Zabrak seemed inclined to introduce themselves.  They were not harassed as they were taken to the chief, though the being looked surprised to see them.  "Let me guess," The chief's eyes narrowed.  "Here to purchase your master another apprentice?"

"Not at all," Obi-Wan smiled at his lover.  Qui-Gon could get just about anyone to like him, but Obi-Wan could—and had—sold sand to a Jawa.  "We are actually here at the request of Maul.  We're fetching his brothers for him."

"You're welcome to them,"  The chief smirked, waving a hand to a pair of his men, who disappeared.  "For a price."

"We're willing to bargain," Obi-Wan agreed, forcing his distaste not to show.  No matter that he never intended to purchase a slave, they would need to buy these children if they wanted to free them and return them to Maul.  "But we want to see them first.  Never buy sight unseen."

"A shrewd man," The chief waved a hand and a pair of boys with brilliant, yellow tattoos were dragged into the center of the room by the guards, rope leashes wrapped tightly around their small throats.  The leashes tightened at any resistance, and the younger of the pair was trying desperately not to cry as he was viciously strangled by the ropes when he was dragged along.  The elder scrambled toward him, choking out a whine when he was wrenched back by his own leash before he could help his brother.

Both boys were painfully young, at least in Qui-Gon's eyes.  The elder was just shy of Anakin's age and the younger was on the cusp of leaving his toddler years.  Both were far too thin, though not quite starved, and dressed in little more than tattered rags while evidence of beatings marred their tattooed, brown skin and stained their clothing.  Given their appearance, the pair were likely on the bottom rung of the village's hierarchy, though the other boys they had seen around village were treated little better.

The little one wheezed and tugged at the rope on his throat, trying to loosen it as his brother scrabbled frantically for him.  Anakin darted forward, carefully loosening the noose.  "Are you okay?"

The toddler whimpered softly, shying almost frantically away from Anakin while the elder bared his teeth.  "Don't touch him—ah!"

The crack of a whip meeting flesh made the Skywalkers wince and the chieftain glare at the Zabrak boys.  "Be silent, Savage."

"Yes, sir," The elder murmured in reply.  "I swear we'll behave.  Please—Feral don't need no reminder."

"Tch," The chieftain snorted derisively, then turned back to the Skywalkers and Jedi.  "10,000 credits for the pair."

"5,000 credits," Obi-Wan countered, frowning as Savage pulled his leash taut, fingers twining with his brother's, their yellow-gold eyes wide in terror as a group of strangers bartered for their lives.  "They are young,  malnourished, and injured.  They will need care before they are even capable of work."

"Flesh wounds," The chief spat, waving off Obi-Wan's concern.  "And the entire village is too thin.  If you want fat, well-fed beings, go find the Nightsisters.  9,000 credits."

Obi-Wan considered the offer.  The council had given them only 5,000 credits, though they could probably request more if necessary.  The chief's slow shift in price was also telling.  It wasn't likely he would go very low unless Obi-Wan figured out something clever.  "5,000 credits . . . and a favor from the Jedi."

The chieftain tilted his head, eyes narrowing.  "Any favor?"

"Anything that does not break their code," Obi-Wan agreed.  "And you need not use it now, if you do not wish.  I'm certain we could have something put in writing for you."

"A favor . . . "  The chieftain mused, then nodded.  "5,000 credits and a favor from the Jedi for the pair.  Done."

"Yanarath?"  Obi-Wan turned to the Bothan.  "Can you draft something while we settle the credits?"

"Of course," Yanarath agreed, taking the flimsiplast offered by another Zabrak and beginning to scrawl something across it.  The chieftain looked it over when he was finished, then both parties signed it once the Zabrak determined he was satisfied with the document.

"Pleasure doing business with you," The chieftain waved the group out, the guards rushing them out of the village, pulling the boys along behind them.  It was only when they had cleared the gates that Obi-Wan was handed the leashes.  Both Savage and Feral were wheezing with the tightness of the ropes, Feral trying hard not to sob as the gates to their home were slammed closed behind them, leaving them alone with their new masters.

Savage swallowed hard, shoving Feral behind him in a desperate bid to protect the toddler.  "Wh—What're you gonna do with us?"

"So'lanai, Savage and Feral."  Qui-Gon knelt before the children.  "You are safe with us.  We are going to return you to your brother so let's get these ropes off, shall we?"

"S—So'lanai," Savage returned almost hesitantly, startled to hear a greeting in slave creole offered by what appeared to be Jedi.  "I don't understand, Ser Jedi.  The Jedi hate the Sith, and Maul was bought by the Sith, so—"

"Jedi do not hate," Yanarath settled next to Feral, reaching for the rope about his neck.  "The Sith are bad people.  They wish nothing more than to hurt others and place little above their own greed.  Jedi seek to stop them to help those the Sith would hurt."

"Don't touch him!" Savage yanked Feral away from the Jedi, panic coloring his voice.  It was only after Feral was safe behind him that Savage realized the gravity of what he'd done.  His masters had been kind so far, but Savage had just yelled at them and moved away.  He knew better than to be so disobedient.  Worse, he had pulled Feral away, too, which meant the toddler would share whatever punishment he was given.  Fear had the boy trembling, tears filling his eyes.  "I—I'm sorry—"

"You've nothing to be sorry for," The Jedi master rose, smile soft.  "Your fear of me is understandable, considering what your brother was."

"Not that it matters," Obi-Wan cut in.  "Maul was sold to the Sith, not given a choice over whether or not to use the Dark side.  He is at the Jedi temple, on Coruscant, and safe.  He wanted us to get you so he did not need to worry about the Sith who purchased him retaliating for his failures."

"I don't understand," Savage replied, forcing himself to stay still as Qui-Gon carefully took the rope off his neck, then moved to repeat the gesture with Feral.  "What does that mean?"

"It means all three of you are free," Qui-Gon told him.  "We may have purchased you from your village, and the Sith may have bought your brother, but we do not own you."

"So . . . me and Feral don't have to come with you?"  Savage stepped back, gripping Feral's hand tightly.

"Yes and no," Qui-Gon smiled.  "It would be your choice not to, certainly.  However, you are required to come back with us because Maul sent us to fetch you and you are in his charge."

"So . . . we have to go with you because Maul said so, not because you own us?"  Savage's brow furrowed in confusion.  "We're free because you don't own us, but we're not free, because we're kids and need an adult to take care of us?"

"Exactly," Obi-Wan smiled.  "Now, let us get you to your brother, hm?  I'm sure he's very anxious to see you."

"And you can't hurt Feral, right?  Because we're free," Savage gripped his brother's hand tight.

"We can't hurt either of you, because you're free," Qui-Gon agreed.  "Though, if Feral would like, I would be happy to carry him back to the ship.  It is quite a ways from here."

Feral glanced at Savage, who shrugged, then gave a little nod.  "Yes, please.  Master."

"Qui-Gon," The man corrected, scooping the little boy up.  "You don't have a master.  And Jedi masters are called masters because they are teachers, not owners."

"We used to be slaves, too.  That's how we know Slave Creole," Anakin explained, falling into step with Savage.  "It's really confusing.  My parents and I are from Tatooine."

"We were gladiators in the arena," Qui-Gon added.  "Well, not Anakin, but Obi-Wan and I were.  We were freed about a week ago.  Won by a Jedi in a pod race."

Savage stared at Anakin, silent.  If they really had been slaves, they were certainly self-assured for men who had been free for less than a week.  He had heard about the gladiatorial arena, however.  If the adults really had fought in it, that would certainly explain some of their assurance.  If they had done well, it would explain even more.  "Were you good?  In the arena?"

"Champions on several worlds," Qui-Gon nodded.  "Obi-Wan and I rarely lost and we fought together for almost a decade."

"You spent a decade in the arenas?"  Savage stared.  No wonder they were so confident, even after the confusion of being freed.

"Two, actually," Qui-Gon corrected.  "Obi-Wan was only there ten years, and we fought as a pair much of that time."

Savage felt his jaw drop.  To survive the arenas for twenty years . . . it was almost unheard of.  The man had to be an incredibly skilled fighter.  No wonder Maul had lost to him.  "Wow . . ."

"Have you met Rhys yet?"  Anakin asked, pulled Savage's attention from his parents.  The padawan gave an easy smile and ducked his head in a tiny bow.  "He's Master Yanarath's student.  Doesn't know much about engines, but he's pretty good at telling stories.  Rhys, you should tell him about your visit to Taanab."

"You just want to hear about how I fell headfirst into a pile of fertilizer again," Rhys whined as Anakin giggled.  "I'm never going to live it down, either.  Everyone remembers it.  Even the head of the order.  My master had to rescue me . . ."

Savage couldn't help his own laughter at the other Zabrak's complaints about the manure pile, nor his headfirst trip into it.  Yanarath chimed in a few times, offering his own perspective to the story, pulling his wayward apprentice from the 10 meter tall dung heap before the boy suffocated.  "There are times I think he still smells," Yanarath told the boys.  "Every now and then I'll get this whiff—"

"Yeah?"  Rhys challenged.  "And what about the time you were on Zeltros, huh?  Chasing after all the pretty women there.  What do you have to say about that, huh?"

"My former padawan has a big mouth," Yanarath groused, scowling.

"Oh, Zeltros," Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan traded looks.  "There used to be a large underground arena on the south side of the planet.  I don't know if it's there anymore, but we fought in it several times.  Once every couple years, I think?"

"I had not realized you'd been brought into the inner rim," Yanarath tilted his head.

"Arena slaves travel all over.  There is . . . a large market for the fights.  Some are even on the holonet, I think, though most of the people watching think we're freeman, fighting for money or glory or something.  On Zeltros the people who knew we were slaves . . . we were often sold to the highest bidder for the night," Qui-Gon went silent for a moment.

"They raped you?"  Yanarath gasped softly, not wanting the boys to overhear.

"No," Obi-Wan hastily assured him.  "Not on Zeltros.  The Zeltrons never did anything without consent.  A few of them really liked to watch Qui-Gon and I go at it, though.  It was . . . certainly an interesting experience.  I, at least, was spared any non-consensual sexual contact for my duration as a slave."

Yanarath looked relieved to hear it.  "And you consented for them to watch?"

"We did, though slaves have little choice in the matter.  Still, if we said no to anything, even them just watching, they would leave us be for the night.  Zeltros may be filled with hedonism, but they are very mindful not to force anyone or make them uncomfortable with sex."  Qui-Gon smiled at his lover.  "It was certainly an interesting planet."

"Quite so," Yanarath agreed dryly, then fell silent, thinking about what Qui-Gon had said.  If it were true, if they really had been taken into the inner rim, the problem of slavery was even bigger than the Jedi realized.  It was not limited to Hutt controlled space or the outer rim, and the Jedi wondered if there was even an arena on Coruscant, though it wasn't likely a former Padawan would be taken there, were that the case.

It was a quiet group who boarded the ship and headed for Coruscant, the boys seeming to understand that Yanarath had something he desperately needed to meditate on, leaving Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in charge of all four children for the duration.  Rhys watched his master, concerned, but the Skywalkers just reassured him that Yanarath had discovered something that adjusted his view of the galaxy and needed to determine what to do with the information.  Rhys had nodded, though he hadn't fully understood, and set about helping Obi-Wan with late meal as the shuttle headed for Coruscant.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Maul was out of the bacta tank and at the Jedi Temple by the time they returned home, though the healers had yet to replace his severed nerves with cybernetic implants, forcing him to use a hover chair or remain bedbound.  Yaddle was sitting with the Zabrak when they entered, Savage and Feral racing for the bed.  "Maul!"

"You're safe," Maul rasped, clutching at them both, tears in his eyes as he looked at Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  "Thank you, for everything.  I owe you so much—"

"Friends count no favors," Obi-Wan told the being firmly, and Maul jerked, startled.  "And despite our rocky start . . . I believe we can be friends."

"Discussing Maul's future with the Jedi, we were," Yaddle told them almost gravely, though her body language was open and pleased.  "And his brothers, also.  Heard of your trip, we have, and relieved to know there was no difficulty with your mission we are."

"Thank you, Master Yaddle," Qui-Gon bowed.  "We were also glad, considering.  And Maul, I know I borrowed it without permission, but thank you for the use of your lightstaff.  We did not run into trouble, but I was glad to have it at my side."

"You did not carry your lightsaber?"  Maul's brows furrowed.  "Why not?"

"They exploded," Obi-Wan reminded him.  "During out fight?"

"I—It is hard to recall," Maul admitted.  "Much of it is a blur.  Master Yaddle found a compulsion from the Sith that trained me and there are things that are . . . hard to remember."

"Of all the beings that would understand, I am certainly in their number," Obi-Wan absolved, grabbing Feral before he could tumble from the medical couch.  "I suffered a partial memory wipe soon after my knight-master sold me, so I am missing much of my knowledge of the Jedi.  Being here has certainly been interesting."

"I am sorry I tried to kill you," Maul dropped his eyes.  "My fear for myself and my brothers—I hope never to fall into that trap again."

"It is forgiven," Qui-Gon smiled and took a seat at the end of the medical couch.  "Do you know what will happen to you now?"

"Once I am well, Master Yaddle has agreed to take me as her student," Maul gave his soon-to-be master a smile.  "I will have quarters across from you where I will live with my brothers when I am not on a mission, and they will stay in the créche when I am.  Master says this is not traditional, but she says I am not a traditional student so this is all right."

"Agreed to take you as my student now, I have," Yaddle corrected, flicking her ears.  "Listen to me already, you do not!  Bad as a crécheling, you are!"

"I have it on good authority that Padawans are supposed to be difficult," Maul grinned at her.  Yaddle huffed, arms crossed.

"Told you this, Master Yoda did?"  Yaddle asked, ears twitching.  "Enjoyed causing trouble, Master Yoda does.  Toss him in a fountain while meditating, I will."

"Would that be wise?"  Obi-Wan asked, tilting his head.

"Do it anyway, I shall," Yaddle muttered, earning a laugh from Obi-Wan.  She turned to him, smiling.  "Wish to help me, do you?"

Obi-Wan grinned and Qui-Gon sighed, shaking his head.  No one ever thought his lover was a prankster, yet Obi-Wan loved them.  The elder chalked it up to his lover's far more serious nature, and Qui-Gon never stopped him.  Seeing that side of Obi-Wan was always a treat, even when the prank was aimed at him.  "You two can plan vengeance on Master Yoda some other day," Qui-Gon told them, kissing his lover softly.  "For now, I think we should leave Maul to catch up with his brothers in peace."

"Right, Ser Jinn is," Yaddle agreed, climbing onto Obi-Wan's shoulder.  "Allow them to stay in here tonight, the healers shall, and stay with me until their brother is well enough to return to their quarters after this night, they will.  Ser Kenobi, plan our prank later, we will.  For now, settle properly into your quarters, you should.  Some things we had delivered for you, also."

"What—oh, we couldn't possibly—"

"Needed, these things were," Yaddle told them, eyes crinkling with her smile.  "Hope you like everything, we do."

"Thank you for everything," Qui-Gon bowed to Yaddle, looking almost shy.  "We really do appreciate it."

Yaddle just shook her head in reply and directed them down the hall.
<>*<>

The changes to their now-permanent quarters draw smiles from the Skywalkers.  A number of crystalline stones had been tucked into the small shelves of the water feature in their room, the lights in the back of the shelves making them glitter.  A handful of bonsai trees and other plants were displayed there as well, and Qui-Gon could feel the living Force gathered around the trees, so carefully shaped to draw the currents of the Force.  The stones resonated also, almost singing with the Force.  Meditation aides, Obi-Wan thought, and their familiarity made him think he'd used at least some of them as a youngling.

"They left us cushions for meditation," Qui-Gon gestured to a rack holding several soft, thin cushions.  "Master Fisto or Bant must have told them about our trip to Naboo."

"If I remember correctly, reports are made to the council," Obi-Wan reminded him.  "And Anakin and I locating the Gungans was a pretty important part of the mission."

The Jedi had also re-arranged the main room so there was only a single sitting area with a pair of comfortable couches and chairs in addition to a low table. They had also added workbenches in the back with room for Obi-Wan and Anakin's tools in addition to a number of spare parts.  Artoo chirped in glee at the sight of lubrication for his joints and the mostly-finished C3PO was settled across both workstations.  Outside, butted up against the mechanical workstations was a place for Qui-Gon to tend the numerous plants spread over the balcony and throughout their rooms.

The antechambers had been turned into study areas, the several shelves and larges desks.  Everything Anakin would need to attend classes was on his desk, from datapads to a book pack.  The boy grinned and started looking through it, eager—and anxious—to see what he would be learning.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had their own study material at the desk in their room, though they set it aside to look through later.  The Skywalkers had also been supplied with clothing and other necessities, including full kits of travel gear, should they need it.

"I wonder if Maul's place is this nice," Obi-Wan hung his cloak at the entryway, boots left beneath it, marveling at the efficiency of Jedi quarters; there was storage space hidden wherever it would fit and Obi-Wan was certain everything they owned had a place designated for it.  Qui-Gon's cloak soon joined his lover's, as did Anakin's after a reminder from his papa.  "I hope so.  He deserves something nice, I think."

"Likely," Qui-Gon wrapped his arms around Obi-Wan's waist.  "They said he would be across the hall from us, right?  So he might not have the garden view, but I get the feeling he won't mind.  Most beings aren't . . . as infatuated with plants as your old lover."

"Old?"  Obi-Wan smiled, kissing Qui-Gon gently.  "Just . . . aged.  Like fine wine.  Or cheese."

"Are you calling me cheesy?"  Qui-Gon asked, deepening the kiss briefly.

"If the shoe fits," Obi-Wan laughed into the kiss, ignoring Anakin's sound of protest as they traded several more kisses.  It was only when Anakin went quiet that they stopped, traded a quick glance.  A quiet Anakin was a dangerous Anakin—unless he was sleeping.  Then it was a break from chaos.

"What did you find there, a stór?"  Qui-Gon asked and Anakin flipped through a packet of flimsiplast on the kitchen counter.

"Why is Papa listed as my father on my birth certificate?"  Anakin wrinkled his nose, confused.  "He didn't even know me when I was born.  Did he?  Mom said I didn't have a dad."

"Birth certificate?"  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan hurried to their son.  "You don't have a birth certificate."

"This says it is," Anakin held up the certificate.  "How did the Jedi get it?"

"They made it," Obi-Wan touched the bit of flimsy with Qui-Gon and Shmi's names listed as the child's parents.  "Qui-Gon, all our paperwork is in here.  I was sold into slavery illegally since I was born in the core but . . . they've got my adoption of Anakin, they made a birth certificate for him—"

Qui-Gon grabbed up one of the papers, eyes filling with tears.  Anakin started when his papa wrapped his arms around him, face buried in the boy's hair.  Wide eyed, the boy asked, "Papa?"

"You're free, Anakin," Qui-Gon sobbed brokenly, clutching boy and certificate.  "Even if you go back to the outer rim, you're free."

"You're citizens of the Republic," Obi-Wan added.  "You can't ever be sold as slaves again and you have the legal rights of . . . well, a Republic citizen.  Qui-Gon, we can get married."

Qui-Gon continued to sob, reaching out to his lover.  For years, he had dreamed of being able to marry the man he loved so dearly, of being able to adopt their son, of being safe from being separated or sold.  Obi-Wan went willingly into the man's arms, holding Qui-Gon and Anakin tightly.  "Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon breathed into the man's shoulder, fear in his voice, "I don't—I don't know how to be free.

"We will manage, my heart," Obi-Wan murmured, pressing a soft kiss to Qui-Gon's temple.  "And we will do it as we always have—as a family."

"I love you—both of you—so much," Qui-Gon choked out, eyes red-rimmed.

"Are you going to cry more?"  Anakin snuggled his papa.

"No, a stór," Qui-Gon kissed Anakin's hair, then rose and wiped his face.  "I think I have shed enough tears for a long time."

"They were happy tears through, right?" Anakin asked, tugging Qui-Gon's tunic.  "Like our first night here?"

"They are very happy tears," Qui-Gon agreed, lifting Anakin easily.  "Because we are all safe and you have a future now, Ani.  One where you are free to do whatever you wish.  And because we are all together."

Obi-Wan glanced around again, from the cloaks and boots at the entryway to the workbenches.  "I guess the Jedi have given us everything we need to start a new life.  I just—can't believe they're giving us all this."

"It's pretty unbelievable," Qui-Gon admitted, wondering what the catch for all this was.  "Maybe they think they owe you for getting you sold?"

"Maybe," Obi-Wan said doubtfully.  "I doubt it.  That isn't the Jedi way."

"We should have a quarters warming party," Qui-Gon began digging through the kitchen to marvel at all the gadgets he kept finding.  They would be getting rid of some of them, certainly, but the chance to have guests over without needing to worry if they had enough food was too exciting for Qui-Gon to pass up.  Obi-Wan smiled sappily as his lover began digging through their supplies to put together a late mid-meal, heart light knowing they were free, had somewhere to call home, and would no longer need to worry about Anakin going hungry again.

"Look at all this stuff, Papa," Anakin skidded into the kitchen holding his book pack.  "I can't believe I get to go to school—do you think I'll do okay?  I'm really behind—what if I'm stupid?"

"You aren't stupid," Obi-Wan kissed the crown of his son's head.  "And I'm sure you'll do great.  I've no doubt the teachers will know about your particular challenges.  I remember little, but I'm certain the teachers will be very kind."

Anakin considered that, then nodded and curled up on the couch with one of his new textbooks while Qui-Gon started mid-meal and Obi-Wan began looking through the papers on the table.  After flipping through the first several and giving them cursory glances, he stopped, blinking in bewilderment.  "Huh.  Apparently I'm twenty three."

"Don't be ridiculous," Qui-Gon began setting out plates.  "You have to be fourteen to compete in the arena.  It's one of the only rules they're actually strict about."

"I've got my official birth record," Obi-Wan held out the flimsiplast.  "According to what the temple had, which I'm assuming is accurate, I'm twenty three.  Which means I was thirteen when I started fighting in the arena."

" . . . it's a good thing slaves don't have an age of consent."  Qui-Gon commented after a moment.  "If you'd been a freeman at the time—well, I wouldn't have been able to sleep with you in the first place, but if I had, I would have been hauled off to jail. Or executed.  Maybe both."

"If I'd been a freeman, I wouldn't have had my memory wiped and would have known I was only fifteen," Obi-Wan replied, smiling.  "And if I had been a freeman, even if I had been a Jedi, I would have found a way to save you."

"I've no doubt," Qui-Gon bent over his lover to press a chaste kiss to his lips, then finished setting out mid-meal.  Anakin bounded eagerly to the table, excited to have so much fresh food.  On Tatooine, that food they could often afford was ration bars more often than not, and on the rare occasions they could purchase real food it was usually expired.  The only treat they got with any regularity were the Pallie fruits Jira sold.

Mid-meal eaten and dishes done, Obi-Wan and Anakin headed to their new workbenches to start cleaning up Artoo, then work on finishing 3PO, the protocol droid they'd been building for the better part of a year.  They needed to debug his programming and finish his lower half, but they were on the home stretch to getting him done.

"Can we make a protocol droid for Padmé, too?"  Anakin asked, helping Obi-Wan disassembling Artoo's so they could clean out his joints.  Artoo gave a little squeal when they took his leg off, but seemed content to let them give him a good cleaning.  "A diplomat would need a protocol droid, right?"

"Especially one that speaks a lot of languages," Obi-Wan agreed.

"Yeah . . . "  Anakin's face fell.  "I bet she has a ton of them, though.  And ours probably wouldn't be nearly as nice as one she could buy."

"I think it would be better," Obi-Wan ruffled the boy's hair, streaking it with grease.  "And we could make it just what Padmé needs, instead of one of those droids full of worthless software."

"You think?"

"What if we loaned her 3PO when he's done?  Then we could learn what she needs and make a droid to match."

"That would be wizard," Anakin grinned, good mood returned, and went for the astromech's remaining leg.  Artoo whistled, beeping concernedly once he was back on the floor and twisted his head around to find Qui-Gon.

"Don't look at me," Qui-Gon told the droid.  "They're the ones that can put you back together."

Anakin giggled when the droid gave several insulting beeps and whirled his dome back around to Anakin.  Obi-Wan grinned at Qui-Gon and returned to his work, all three of them jumping when the door chimed.  It was Qui-Gon who answered, tilting his head in curiosity when he found Mace and Yoda on their doorstep.  "Hello . . . ?"

"We wanted to make sure the quarters were all right," Mace explained as Qui-Gon stepped aside to let them in.  "I know we didn't exactly ask before we redecorated . . . do you like them?"

"Yes—thank you.  We’ve never stayed anywhere this nice," Qui-Gon ducked his head almost shyly.  "The main room is bigger than our whole quarters on Tatooine, I think.  You didn't have to do all this, really.  We can't pay you for it—"

"Count favors, friends do not," Yoda replied, grinning impishly.  "Glad you like this, we are.  Excessive the quarters may be, but the furnishings from when the room was in use, these are.  Cost little, this did, since already the things we had."

"We did replace the bedding and pulled a few things out of storage, but that was it," Mace agreed.  "If you find anything you don't want, just box it up and have the quartermaster retrieve it.  We'll either sell it or return it to storage."

"Even if this didn't cost much . . . thank you," Qui-Gon told the council members.  "We never expected—we thought, when we first came here, that at best we would be tossed onto the streets with nothing but our freedom.  That you have even allowed us to stay was more than we could have hoped for.  Then you gave us official paperwork so we're legal citizens of the Republic.  Knowing our son will always be free . . . it means the universe to us."

"It was our fault Obi-Wan was sold in the first place.  The least we could do was make sure you were free.  Yours and Anakin's citizenship is still in process and will likely take nearly six months to be fully complete.  Still, even if you chose to return to the outer rim before that, we made sure you were registered as free there, also."  Mace squeezed the man's arm.  "Which reminds me of the other reason we came.  The healers want to schedule a time to get those transmitters out.  They said recovery should be short so they were thinking sometime this week."

"Before Anakin starts classes?"

"Start next tenday, he will," Yoda agreed.  "Once the transmitters are gone, have one more thing to do you shall."

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traded looks, then Obi-Wan shook his head.  "I don't understand."

"Decided to send you to Ilum, we have," Yoda told them, settling on one of the meditation cushions.  "New lightsabers you will need, and build his own, Anakin should."

"Only Jedi are allowed on Ilum," Qui-Gon protested.  "I know we offered to help with missions, but even then, we aren't Jedi and—"

"If you're going to do the work of a Jedi, you deserve the equipment of a Jedi," Mace told the former slave.  "Even a trip to Ilum to get Kyber crystals for your new lightsabers."

Qui-Gon bit his lip, dropping his eyes.  With a real Kyber crystal, Qui-Gon wouldn't need to worry about his lightsaber exploding under stress.  Kyber crystals were almost impossible to buy, and Qui-Gon knew that the only reason Obi-Wan still had his was because they became almost worthless once fully attuned to a Jedi.  "We don't want to start out new lives by owing—"

"You've been freemen for only a handful of days, and the first thing you did was help free Naboo."  Mace touched his new friend's shoulder.  "No one could have expected more—not even from a Jedi—and you have asked for nothing in return.  What else could we do but this?"

"You gave us a ho—a place to stay," Obi-Wan twined his fingers with Qui-Gon's.  "We're just slaves, Master Windu.  Former slaves.  We're used to being sent off to die without anyone caring.  Being given all this for nothing—we just don't understand why."

"Jedi, you were once," Yoda told the man, not moving from his cushion.  "Taken from us, you were, and now returned, you have been.  Learn something from this, we might.  Change the order already, you have.  Perhaps a lesson from the Force, this is.  Welcome this change we should, I sense."

The former slaves flushed, unused to being given such importance.  Qui-Gon ducked into his lover, only nodding when Obi-Wan gave a tiny bow.  "Thank you.  For this opportunity."
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Three days after returning from Naboo, the once slaves found themselves transmitter-free and back on a ship, this time with Yoda, Bant and a handful of younglings a year or two Anakin's senior.  They were headed for Ilum, eager to locate their new crystals.  "Ilum is a cold world," Bant told the Skywalkers as the Crucible landed.  "I'm not sure if Obi-Wan remembers, but it is almost entirely snow."

"A snow desert?"  Anakin tilted his head, curious.  "I've never seen snow before.  It's cold, right?  Cold like Tatooine was hot?"

"Sometimes it gets so cold it feels hot."  Bant grinned.  "Does it ever get so hot it feels cold?"

"You're funny," Anakin giggled, letting Qui-Gon help him into his cold weather gear.  The other younglings were similarly dressed, chattering eagerly about what they hoped to find in the caves.  Mace had warned Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon about the caves, telling them about the visions it might cause in concern that their bond might cause something strange to happen.  Obi-Wan, to their surprise, remembered much of his first trip there though the people he'd gone with were indistinct and mostly lost.

"Seen snow before, you have?"  Yoda asked Qui-Gon, tugging his cloak tighter about his frame.

"I have," Qui-Gon said.  "My homeworld can have rather harsh winters in places, and several of the worlds I fought on would get heavy snowfalls.  There were a couple of nights instead of the traditional fights we would be divided into groups and have snow fights."

"Those were nice days," Obi-Wan smiled at his lover.  "No one died, our worst injuries were some mild frostbite, and it was . . . well, it was fun."

"You don't describe the arena with that word often," Bant helped zip up the coat of one of the younglings, then surveyed the group.  "All right, everyone bundled up and ready to go?"

"Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan," Yoda waved the adults over.  "Open the door to the main cavern the younglings must.  Ask, I do, that help them, you do not.  Do this themselves, they must."

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan traded shrugs.  "I think we can agree to that."

Yoda thanked them, then headed over to the rest of the group, the two men at his heels.  Anakin tilted his head at Yoda, then glanced at the tall snow banks outside.  "Master Yoda?  Would you like to ride on my shoulder?  The snow looks very, very deep and you might get lost if you walk."

"Appreciate it, I would, though get lost I would not," Yoda told the child, settling on Anakin's should when the boy knelt.  Bant counted over the younglings, made sure everyone was properly dressed, then palmed open the exit.  The Jedi younglings poked their heads out cautiously, staring at the wind whipping the snow about the barren landing pad.  They gasped when Anakin barreled past them with a whoop, Yoda cackling wildly from his perch.

"He has the curiosity of a cat and none of the self preservation," Obi-Wan sighed as the boy disappeared into a snow bank, blond hair barely visible over the crest of the snow.

"It's just a bit of snow, a chuisle mo chroí," Qui-Gon pressed a swift kiss to Obi-Wan's lips, then headed for the snow bank, easily hauling the pair out by the scruff of Anakin's snowsuit.  Yoda was still cackling gleefully, and Anakin was giggling madly, his face red from the biting wind.

"Snow is fun!" The boy announced and Yoda abandoned ship for Qui-Gon's shoulder just as the child dove into another snow bank.  Anakin reappeared moments later and rolled his eyes at the younglings still on the ship.  "Come on!"

The younglings traded looks, then hesitantly followed Anakin into the snow.  More than one needed rescued from the snow drifts, and it took quite a bit longer than Bant anticipated to get to the caves since Obi-Wan started an impromptu snowball fight with the younglings.  When they arrived at the entrance to the cave almost half an hour after Bant expected, the younglings all gaped at the huge, stone door.

"Open it to get inside, you must," Yoda told the younglings, still comfortably seated on Qui-Gon's shoulder.

"But I can't move something that big," A Besalisk youngling protested.  Anakin glanced toward his parents, who shook their heads.  While Anakin could move the stones sealing the entrance without help, the other younglings needed a chance to figure out how for themselves.

"Are you sure?"  A Twi'lek boy asked looking at the stone slabs.  "I mean . . . I know Master Yoda says we either do it or we don't, but at least we can try to move it, right?"

The first youngling nodded and the younglings began taking turns trying to shift the slabs.  Anakin watched them strain, then suggested, "Can you do it together?  My parents and I can do more stuff with the Force when we work together, so maybe you can too."

The younglings blinked, surprised, but one of them nodded.  "I bet he's right.  We do plenty of things better when we work together, so this shouldn't be any different, should it?"

Anakin watched the younglings set to work, moving the heavy slabs.  When they started to wobble, Anakin reached out with the Force to lend his own ability to their efforts.  For Anakin, who could shift the slabs by himself, this was a lesson in control.  Obi-Wan squeezed his son's shoulder and smiled proudly as Qui-Gon murmured, "Well done, Ani."

"Thanks, Dad, Papa." The boy hugged Obi-Wan tightly before following the other younglings into the cave.  Once inside, Yoda easily closed the door, chuckling at the younglings' awe.

"Now, it is time for you to look for your crystals," Bant told the group.  "Each of you must listen to the Force and follow it to your crystal."

"But I'm going to make two lightsabers," Anakin's brow furrowed.  "Will it lead me to both?"

"Give you exactly what you need, the Force will," Yoda told him.  "Now, listen to the Force you should.  Freeze shut, the door will after dark."

"It will?"  Several of the younglings went wide eyed.  "But—"

"But it won't matter," Anakin interrupted.  "We're going to have our crystals and be back to the ship by then."

The younglings all nodded, readily accepting Anakin's confidence and Obi-Wan gave Yoda a dirty look for telling them such a thing, though he stayed quiet until the younglings had left the cavern.  "They're nervous enough already.  You need not scare them further."

"Tradition, this is," Yoda looked a little startled.

"It's a bad one," Qui-Gon scowled.  "You're sending them into a dark, terrifying cave in hopes of finding a crystal that will tell them it's their destiny to be Jedi and they're already going to run into their darkest fears in the cave.  Telling them they're going to be frozen inside and left behind on top of it?  That is a terrible thing to do to a child!"

"Consider this, I will."

"Will you?"  Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow.  "Or are you just telling me that so I stop scolding you?"

"Examine our traditions more often, perhaps we should," Yoda admitted, looking slightly sheepish.  "And speak with the council regarding such things I shall.  However, on Ilum we are and have a crystal to find, you do."

The two men gripped hands, matching their breathing and opening their bond to allow the Force to guide them to their crystals.  The crystals in the walls around them lit up like stars as the two immersed themselves in the Force, lighting the cave with an eerie gleam.  Yoda watched the pair head into the caves, almost as though in a dream.  Once the pair left, Yoda and Bant settled in to wait for their return.
<>*<>

Anakin stayed close to the other younglings, curious about them.  He hadn't had a chance to interact with the Jedi in the temple much, yet, and this was the first group of initiates he'd really gotten a chance to talk to.  His parents had encouraged him to talk to them on the ship, but the younglings had stayed in their clique and only tolerated the strange outsider.  Anakin, for his part, found little in common with the sheltered younglings and found himself far more mature than the group despite his lesser age.

"Stop following us," The Besalisk girl scowled at him, crossing a single pair of her arms.  "This is a test for Jedi—I don't even know why they let you come!"

"My dads are going to train me, so I need lightsabers and the council says that if we're going to do the work of Jedi, we should have the equipment of Jedi."  Anakin replied, standing just a little taller.  "And since Dad was Jedi, we were allowed to come here for crystals."

"Was a Jedi," The Twi'lek sneered.  "I heard your dad washed out and just says his knight master sold him to make himself sound better."

"My dad isn't a liar!"  Anakin replied hotly.  "He was sold by his knight master!  Knight Pangur freed us and brought us back to Coruscant!"

"Oh—so you admit you were a slave?  The Besalisk girl raised a brow.

"Sure, why wouldn't I?  It's nothing to be ashamed of."  Anakin gave a confused shrug.

"You should be," The Besalisk replied.  "Only animals are bought and sold, so if you were a slave, you were practically an animal!"

Anger roared through Anakin's small frame, but the boy forced himself to stay quiet, breathing rhythmically like his fathers had taught him so he could get his anger under control.  His parents always said it was better to balance his emotions with his logic so he didn't do something he would regret later.  "You are very ignorant," Anakin told her, anger still roiling under the surface, but not sharpening his tongue.  "If you think slaves are nothing but animals, you have a lot to learn about the universe."

"What would you know?" The girl snapped, then spun on her heel.  "You were just a slave.  Anyway, I have a crystal to find.  Because I'm Jedi.  Unlike you."

"You're not being very Jedi-like," Anakin replied.  "Jedi are supposed to be compassionate and kind."

"We're also supposed to be honest," The Twi'lek stalked after the Besalisk.  "But I guess only real Jedi learn the whole code."

Anakin shook his head and sighed, moving down another corridor, a pair of younglings at his heels.  Anakin glanced at them, tilting his head.  "You're not going to start telling me how I shouldn't be here, are you?"

"Naw," A human boy grinned at his Mirialan companion.  "I figured you must be close enough if the council is letting you come.  Besides, I'm not very good at finding my way around caves, so the more people I'm with, the better."

"It's true.  He's a much better scholar," The Mirialan sighed, shaking her head.  "It's a good thing I'm around, or he'd never get anywhere in the temple."

"What can I say?"  The boy said almost mournfully as Anakin and the Mirialan laughed.  "I'm hopeless.  My name is Jak, by the way.  My friend is Stellaria.

"I'm Anakin," The boy offered, returning the younglings' bows.  "So, um, do either of you know what we're looking for?  Dad just told me that the Force would guide me and I'd know the crystal when I felt it."

"That's about all we know, too," Stellaria admitted.  "I guess we should keep looking?"

"If we can only find the crystals with the Force, maybe we should try meditating?"  Jak suggested, making Stellaria and Anakin blink at him, surprised.  After a moment, the trio found an out of the way cubby and settled in to meditate.  The Force surged around them, and after several minutes, all three of them were headed back down the corridor, guided by the Force.
<>*<>

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon settled in the main cavern, sinking into meditation, the crystals around them still glowing like stars.  While the younglings came into the caverns on Ilum to be tested, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had no lessons to learn that the cave was able to teach.  Instead, the Force gathered around the pair, guiding them through a maze a caverns to an egg-sized crystal that fit perfectly in Obi-Wan's cupped palm.  It shone a soft aquamarine when they touched it, a color they'd long since associated with the mixing of their auras in the Force.

"It's beautiful," Obi-Wan touched the stone reverently.  "I've never—even the stone I found for my original lightsaber was not this harmonious."

"It's because half of you was still missing," Qui-Gon pressed a kiss to the corner of his lover's mouth, tucking the stone into one of his pouches.

Obi-Wan felt his heart melt, seeing the adoration in Qui-Gon's eyes.  He'd been told often enough that he looked at Qui-Gon the same way, but knowing how much Qui-Gon loved him was breathtaking.  Obi-Wan tugged at the man's tunic, prompting Qui-Gon to bend slightly so that Obi-Wan could kiss him.  "I love you so much, my heart."

"And I you, a chuisle mo chroí," Qui-Gon murmured, then kissed his lover again, open mouthed.  The two stayed that was for some time, trading soft kisses and simply holding each other.

"We should get back to Master Yoda and Bant," Obi-Wan murmured some time later, ear over his lover's heart, listening to the comforting beat.  "We don't want stuck in here."

"Stuck behind a little wall of ice, and you the only one with a lightsaber.  Whatever would we do," Qui-Gon teased softly, kissing him again, though chastely.  A low rumble following by the sharp crack of stone made the two stare at the ceiling, leaping back as the cave roof collapsed where they'd been standing, a pair of younglings falling through the hole with terrified cries.

Immediately the Skywalkers caught the pair as they fell, safely lowering the two to the floor.  Qui-Gon rushed toward them, checking them over for injuries as Obi-Wan checked over the cavern to make sure they wouldn't be another cave-in.  "Are you two all right?"

"We're fine," A Twi'lek boy snarled, yanking away from Qui-Gon.

"You're certain?"  Qui-Gon asked, half-kneeling in front of the pair.  "That looked like it was a nasty fall."

"Except you caught us," A Besalisk girl snapped.  "Not that we needed you to."

"Of course,"  Qui-Gon smiled.  "You're Reyad and Ysma, right?"

The Twi'lek huffed, scowling.  "Congratulations, you remembered our names.  Look, we have crystals to find so—"

"Don't let us hinder you," Obi-Wan broke in, watching Ysma close her eyes, turning in a slow circle before looking straight up.  "Is everything all right?"

"Fine," Ysma snapped, still staring at the ceiling ,all four hands clenched into fists.  "I found my crystal."

"That's great!" Reyad followed her gaze.  "How you going to get it down?"

Ysma bit her lip, uncertain.  There was no visible way to reach the crystal and Ysma didn't have enough control of the Force to levitate to it.  For a moment, she considered asking Reyad to levitate her, but he didn't have enough control to maintain his hold on her, either.  Unless she managed to build some kind of tower, she would never reach it.  She supposed she could use the stones from the cave in, but she wasn't sure she would be able to stack them so they wouldn't fall, or that there were enough.

The girl pursed her lips, looking at Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  They would be able to lift her to get her crystal, but she didn't want to ask these non-Jedi to help her.  However, if she didn't ask them to help she would never get her crystal, then she wouldn't be Jedi, either.  "Um—Ser Kenobi?  Ser Jinn?  Can you help me?"

"Of course," Obi-Wan agreed as he and Qui-Gon reached for the Force.
<>*<>

Anakin gave Jak a little wave as he and Stellaria headed further into the caverns.  Jak's crystal was hidden deep in a crevice, forcing Jak to overcome his fear of the dark and enclosed spaces.  Unable to help him, the other two continued on to find their own crystals.  Stellaria broke off not long after, feeling her own crystal down a side corridor while Anakin's was still further into the cavern.

"Did you stick it far enough back here?"  Anakin grumbled to the Force, pouting slightly.  He was never sure how sentient the Force was; he didn't think anyone really knew, but he always thought it felt like it knew things, so Anakin assumed it could understand him, at least.

Sudden, mechanical breathing made the boy freeze, twisting nervously around to locate whoever was making such a horrific noise.  "Hello?"  Anakin hurried forward, toward the place he thought the breathing was coming from.  "Do you need help?"

The breathing continued, and something in the back of the cave began glowing a brilliant crimson.  Anakin swallowed hard, eyes going wide when something evil twisted through the cave.  Like dying stars, the crystals flicked, then went out leaving the only light in the cave a terrible, red glow.  The temperature began to rise, sweat pouring from Anakin's body as he struggled from his coat.

"Anakin!"  Obi-Wan cried, voice pained.  "You were my best friend, my brother, my son.  Anakin, don't do this!"

"I hate you!"  A man snarled, and Anakin knew the voice was his.  Lightsabers hummed, clashing in the dim glow cast by the lava weaving about the cavern of a planet Anakin had never seen before.  Anakin saw himself, older and tainted, fighting to kill his own father, rage poured into every movement.  Obi-Wan fought for survival even as love flooded the Force around him, reaching frantically for the older version of Anakin, desperate to save him.

Anakin threw himself backwards, away from the vision, panting as he fought to understand what happened in the vision.  Darkness and hatred still roiled through the cavern, making Anakin's skin crawl.  Anakin wiped his eyes, sniffling as he tried to draw the Force around himself, wishing his parents were there so he could bury himself in their arms, feel their love drive away the hatred.

"I won't become you!"  Anakin cried out to the mechanical thing, somehow knowing the creature making those terrible sounds was the Anakin he'd seen in the vision.  "I love my dad!  I love my papa!  I would never hurt them!  And I would never hate them!"

The cave roiled with darkness and hatred, but Anakin closed his eyes, reaching for the Force.  He could feel the bond he had with his parents, feel their love for him woven through its very foundation.  Anakin fed that love through the Force and into the crystals making the cavern light up like Tatooine's twin suns.  The brilliance of the crystals purified the darkness; the love Anakin and his parents felt for each other annihilating the hate.

Anakin snatched up his crystal, sticking his tongue out in the direction the breathing had been coming from before he raced toward the entrance of the caverns.  As the child reached the main cavern, strong arms scooped him up, and Anakin giggled madly as he was settled on Qui-Gon's broad shoulders.  "Papa!  Dad!  I found my crystal!  Did you?"

"We did," Obi-Wan held up the giant crystal so Anakin could see it.

"It's huge," Anakin gaped, then held up his own crystal.  It was roughly the size of his thumbnail and already resonating with Anakin's Force presence.  "I wonder why it's so big.  Do you think mine is big enough for two lightsabers?"

"The crystals in lightsabers are actually quite small," Obi-Wan reminded the boy.  "The one Qui-Gon and I found would build . . . well . . . a lot of light sabers.  Certainly more than three."

Even Yoda was floored by the sheer size of the crystal the pair had found, ears going rigid as he looked it over.  After a few moments of study, the being leaned in closer, ears flicking.  "Missing a piece, this crystal is.  If, correctly remember I do, it is the same shape as the crystal Padawan Kenobi found while searching these caves many years ago."

Obi-Wan blinked, then slipped the crystal from his lightsaber, matching it to the indentation in the larger crystal in Yoda's hands.  Once Obi-Wan had replaced his lightsaber crystal, Qui-Gon slid a hand around the back of Obi-Wan's neck, tilting the man's head up to kiss him softly.  "All those years before we even met, and you've carried a piece of our crystal."

Obi-Wan kissed Qui-Gon in reply, then pulling away with a laugh as Anakin began making mock-disgusted sounds.  Qui-Gon flipped the boy from his shoulders, holding him tight while Obi-Wan tickled him into a frenzy of laughter.  "Dad!  Papa!  St—Stop!"

"Stop?"  Obi-Wan frowned.  "Stop what?"

"Stop tickling me!"  Anakin giggled, kicking out in an effort to get away.  When Obi-Wan kept going, the boy repeated it in several languages, Obi-Wan pulling away once he howled it in Shyriiwook.

The last of the younglings emerged from the caves, and the adults made sure they were all bundled up into their cold weather gear before heading back into the cold.  Bant smiled Obi-Wan, then gestured to the giant door.  "Ser Jinn?  Ser Kenobi?  Would you do the honor of closing the door?"

"Of course, Knight Eerin," Qui-Gon replied gallantly, earning an eye roll from the Mon Calamari as he and Obi-Wan turned back to the door and raised their hands.  The earth began to rumble as they closed it tight, the stone slabs easily shifting back into place with their combined abilities.  Finished, Obi-Wan linked arms with Bant and began skipping back toward the ship as Qui-Gon offered Yoda a shoulder and followed slowly behind, the younglings ranging between him and Obi-Wan.

With their crystals gathered, it was time to build their lightsabers.

It was fun to watch the younglings building their lightsabers with the help of the ancient droid, Huyang, on the Crucible.  Anakin had limited experience with building lightsabers, having helped his parents whenever one of their exploded in the past.  It was their first time having so many materials available, however, and the two gladiators eagerly began exploring the Crucibles stores with permission from the droid.

"Have you dealt with Kyber crystals before?"  Huyang asked Qui-Gon once the children were working on their lightsaber hilts.  "I know your bonded was Jedi but you . . . I cannot recall you."

"No, this is a first for me," Qui-Gon admitted.  "Our lightsabers in the past were made from whatever junk we could scavenge and they were guaranteed to explode at some point.  Really, we were just making some really useful—and rather unpredictable—grenades."

The droid laughed, shaking his head.  "Well, you needn't worry about that with the Kyber crystals.  What sort of crystals did you use before?"

"Whatever we could find," Obi-Wan reiterated.  "We managed to keep my original crystal since they're worthless to sell once they've been attuned to a specific Jedi, but that was only one lightsaber."

"We got very good at tossing it around," Qui-Gon grinned at his lover as the droid laughed.

"So I heard.  Did you really juggle your lightsaber to kill that Sith?"

"We didn't kill him," Obi-Wan corrected.  "But he isn't Sith anymore, either.  Yaddle took him as her student.  One of his brothers is about Anakin's age—I bet you'll be seeing them both soon."

"Interesting."  Huyang mused, then turned his attention back to Qui-Gon.  "Well, since you've not done anything with Kyber crystals before, the first step is to make sure they know you.  This requires you keep the crystal nearby, meditate with it, and wash it in your Force signature.  In the meantime, we will put together the inner workings of the 'saber—with new parts."

"That will be a first," Qui-Gon grinned at his lover.  "Are you going to rebuild your old lightsaber?"

"It needs it," Obi-Wan looked it over.  "This lightsaber probably saw more use than most other 'sabers will ever see in a lifetime.  I . . . it's like an old friend."

"Why don't you make two new ones instead of breaking down the old?"  Qui-Gon curled his hands around Obi-Wan's, smile soft.  "I think I would miss it as well.  And with the size of the new crystal, there is no need to take it apart."

"Jedi are not supposed to get attached to things," Obi-Wan's hands tightened on the lightsaber.

"You have not been Jedi in a very long time," Qui-Gon murmured, kissing him softly.  "Besides, I think most Jedi are quite attached to their lightsabers and this one has seen more than most.  It deserves a place of honor in our home—it has saved us more times than we can even count."

"It's not a sentient being," Obi-Wan chuckled, resting his head against Qui-Gon's chest and listening to the man's heart.  It was soothing to Obi-Wan, feeling their bond thrumming with love and hearing Qui-Gon's heart beat.  After their arena fights, the pair would curl up together, Obi-Wan listening to his lover's heartbeat while Qui-Gon just felt his lover breathe, alive after another fight, bond opened wide enough so they could feel the content love in each other's mind.  "And I have everything that's important to me, right here."

"You don't need to defend your decision to me, a chuisle mo chroí," Qui-Gon said.  "I understand.  I know Jedi don't hold with material things, but one lightsaber?  I don't want you to get rid of it any more than you do.  Keep the lightsaber, let's retire it like it deserves and we will start this life completely anew."

"You would have made a great diplomat," Obi-Wan rose to his toes to kiss his lover's cheek.  "And you've convinced me to keep it as it is."

"Then I guess we both have a great deal of work to do," Qui-Gon squeezed Obi-Wan briefly, then let him go.  "Two new lightsabers take time."

Obi-Wan smiled and the pair followed Huyang into the depths of the ship.
<>*<>

It took the most of the trip for the younglings to finish their lightsabers, and Bant was surprised to see that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon sitting and helping the group for hours.  Anakin had finished the first day, already familiar with the inner workings of a lightsaber because of the sheer number of them Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had gone through during their time in the arena.

"You have training droids on the ship, right?"  Obi-Wan asked Bant as Anakin eagerly showed off his new 'sabers.  "Anakin has the basics down, he used to train with my old lightsaber so I think he'll have fun with the droid."

"We have a bunch of younglings excited to show off their new lightsaber skills," Bant told her friend, arms crossed.  "We would be insane not to have at least one training droid available."

"I don't need it," Anakin told the pair, clipping his lightsaber to his belt.  "I promised Huyang I'd give him a good cleaning once my 'sabers were done.  He said his joints are sticking—you should take better care of your droids.  They're not just machines, you know.  Huyang has lots of knowledge.  I hope you have his memory backed up somewhere."

"I would have to ask the council," Bant couldn't help her smile.  "Well, if you want to work with a training droid later, there are some available."

"Thanks, but I just need my toolkit," Anakin headed toward the room he and his parents were sharing during the trip.  "But thanks!"

"He's a good kid," Bant nudged her best friend's shoulder.  "Don't ever ask me to babysit."

Obi-Wan roared with laughter, throwing an arm around Bant.  "I promise not to ask you to babysit, but I might ask you to teach him to swim."

"He can't?"

"Tatooine is a desert planet, Bant.  We're lucky when we have enough water to drink.  Anakin's first water-shower was at the temple."  Obi-Wan grinned.  "He is never going to live down those terrified shrieks . . . at least, he won't once enough time has passed that I can tease him about it."

Bant shook her head, smiling, and the two went to check in with Qui-Gon.  The man was sitting with the initiates, happily helping them put together their lightsabers.  Huyang was also monitoring them, though he was sitting with Anakin, who was carefully cleaning the droid and oiling his joints.  Obi-Wan ran a hand over his son's hair but didn't otherwise disturb them, instead sitting next to Qui-Gon to help with the other younglings.

By the time they returned to the temple, the Skywalkers had made friends with the four younglings as well as the droid and Anakin had promised Huyang that if he could come to their quarters, Anakin and Obi-Wan would give him a proper cleaning.  By the time they arrived back at the temple, all of the younglings had their lightsabers completed and were ready to start practicing with their new 'sabers.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The day after the Skywalkers returned from Ilum, the healers had decided that Pangur and Salín were well enough to remove from the Bacta tanks.  It was unlike either Jedi would ever be fit for active field duty again, but at least they were alive.  Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon joined Mace and Pangur's former master, Kahliel.  Kahliel was pacing anxiously in the waiting area when the pair of gladiators arrived, Mace trying to calm the aged Togruta.  "The healers would not remove them from the Bacta if they were not ready," Mace assured the being.  "Trust in their judgment."

"If they had but one more day, I'm certain both could become field ready again," Kahliel wrung her hands together.  "It will kill them both to be trapped in the temple."

"I'm sorry, Master Kahliel, but a  lifetime more would not help their injuries," Qui-Gon touched the master's shoulder.  "It is a miracle they are even alive, and they will need your support to find their new path among the Jedi."

The Togruta sighed heavily, dark eyes tear-filled.  "I know I ought to take the Force's blessing, but Pangur was always such a curious thing.  This will crush him, to have to stay here.  He loved to explore, and Salín was always right next to him.  They were créchemates, you know."

"Just because he can no longer explore the stars does not mean there is not plenty more to find," Obi-Wan replied.  "The Force itself is vast and many Jedi have spent their lives learning about it.  You must have positive thinking about this, at least when we visit them.  Your anxiety about their new limitations will only cause them great distress—especially if they think you believe them to be less than they once were."

Kahliel nodded, though she continued to pace, trying to blink back her tears.  After a moment, Qui-Gon wrapped the Jedi in a hug, letting her bury her face in his shoulder.  "It is all right that you need support, also," Qui-Gon murmured, and the being broke down in tears.  "I cannot bear the thought of seeing something Anakin worked for his whole life being snatched away by such a grievous injury."

"They let that thing live here now," Kahliel sobbed.  "He tried to kill my padawan and he is rewarded by being welcomed into the Jedi!  He should have been thrown into a prison to rot!"

"Kahliel—"  Mace started, but Obi-Wan shook his head.

"She is grieving, I think," Obi-Wan told the man.  "I don't think she means it."

"She doesn't," Mace replied.  "But have some faith in me, hm?  No matter how angry she is, these words will fester in her heart if we don't speak of them."

"He is right," Kahliel pulled away from Qui-Gon, wiping at her eyes.  "Even so, what that being did was unforgivable!  Why should that Sith be allowed to stay in the temple with my Padawan, who has so faithfully served the Jedi order?  Pangur will be forced to endure his remaining days knowing the reason he cannot explore the stars no longer has been rewarded for harming a Jedi!"

"Maul was sold to the Sith Lord," Obi-Wan told the Togrutan.  "Someone placed a compulsion in his mind to make him hate, and he was tortured and starved to make him obey.  Likely he was told to stop the Jedi or face the consequences and the fear that must have wrought in him—Maul is eighteen.  Nineteen at best.  If he were Jedi, he would be a senior Padawan.  The Sith threw him at Jedi knights and masters as though he was expendable."

Compassion twisted Kahliel's heart, imagining the terror Maul must have felt seeing Pangur for the first time.  The Trianii could be intimidating to those who had never seen the species before thanks to their great height and vicious-looking teeth and claws.  "How old was he when he was given to the Sith?"

"From what Savage has said, it was before Feral was born, so maybe twelve or thirteen?"  Mace told her.  "He was encouraged to build a relationship with his family—and then it was used against him."

"Just a bit older than Pangur, when I took him," Kahliel murmured to herself.  "Still a kit, Pangur was.  Force, I can't imagine raising a hand to my Padawan—and you said Maul was tortured?"

"This is the first time Maul has had a choice not to be Sith," Qui-Gon said.  "Does he really deserve so harsh a sentence as what you would bestow?"

Kahliel shook her head, looking at the ground.  "I will not pursue anything further, nor badmouth him before my former padawan.  And I will be brave for Pangur and Salín both, as they try to understand the new lives the Force wishes them to lead."

"Thank you.  But if you need anything, know we are here for you, too.  This will be hard on Pangur and Salín, but I know it will be hard on you as well and I want you to know you have the support of the Jedi, as much as Pangur and Salín." Mace squeezed the being's shoulder.

"Thank you," Kahliel murmured, gripping Mace's forearm, then turning hopeful eyes at the healer entering the room.

"You can go in, now," The healer told them.  "They're not awake yet, but it shouldn't be too much longer."

Pangur and Salín had been cleaned up and dressed once removed from the tank, Pangur's fur still wet from his cleansing after being removed from the bacta.  Kahliel fetched a handheld dryer, her fingers combing through the damp fur with the ease of long practice as she carefully began drying him.  "He hates having wet fur," Kahliel explained.  "It chills him."

"Of course," Obi-Wan settled next to Salín, gently taking her hand.  "Is there no one to sit with Salín?"

"Her master died many years ago, a year or two after she was knighted," Mace rested his hand on her blanket covered leg.  "Someone sabotaged his ship.  Killed everyone aboard.  Pangur is her closest friend and while they have a fair few acquaintances, they have no other close friends."

Obi-Wan said nothing more, the Force thrumming with an emotion Mace couldn't name.  Pity, perhaps, though laced with a something else.  Qui-Gon wrapped an arm around his lover's shoulders, kissing his temple.  —What is wrong, a chuisle mo chroí?—

—The Jedi view attachments as weakness,— Obi-Wan explained.  —But having no attachments also means having no support group.  What happens when things like this happen and they have no friends to turn to?  Mind healers are all well and good, but they can only do so much.—

We will speak with one of them about it later, if you wish,— Qui-Gon offered.  —Perhaps Bant would be able to offer some insight before we spoke with Mace or Yoda?

—That is wise, I think,— Obi-Wan agreed, then glanced toward Pangur.  —It looks like our friend is waking.

Pangur shot upright when he woke, trying frantically to rise from the medical couch as Kahliel fought to keep him still.  "There was a Sith!" Pangur shoved at the being's hands.  "Let me go, Master!  I must help the Skywalkers and save the Queen—"

"Enough, Knight Pangur," Mace's voice was sharp and authoritative, causing Pangur to snap to attention.  "Lay down and rest.  You're back in the temple."

"Master Windu!"  Pangur sighed in relief.  "I'm glad to see you!  The Queen is in grave danger and—ah!"

"And you were badly injured, Knight Pangur," Obi-Wan gently turned the being's head, forcing Pangur to look at him.  "Qui-Gon, Anakin and I are fine.  The Queen is safe and the Sith has been . . . dealt with.  Please calm yourself."

Pangur allowed himself to relax at that, sighing softly in relief.  "Thank the Force.  Have you spoke with the council?  Told them about what happened to you?"

"Everything is fine, Knight Pangur," Qui-Gon joined his lover, large hand resting over Obi-Wan's on the being's cheek.  "You may rest easy about that.  Queen Amidala has been returned to Naboo and the federation dealt with."

"And the Sith?"

"That . . . is complicated."  Obi-Wan admitted.  "And something for a day you are feeling stronger."

"Salín is also fine," Qui-Gon told the being, a little surprised Pangur had not asked after her first.  "She is asleep in the next bed."

"I know," Pangur smiled.  "I can feel her.  She should be waking up any moment now.  It's nice to feel her mind again.  It was very quiet while she was dying."

"I needed some peace and quiet from your nattering," Salín managed to grumble out, though Pangur seemed to think she was joking.  "What happened?"

"We have been wondering that as well," Mace told both beings.  "Considering you found the Skywalkers on Tatooine and the Queen was a bit busy for a proper debrief, things have been a little . . . fuzzy about the events leading up to the Skywalkers.  Such as how Salín was injured so badly and what happened to the negotiations with the Trade Federation."

"There weren't any," Salín struggled to sit up, looking startled when Qui-Gon moved to help her.  "Who are you?"

Qui-Gon introduced himself, though Mace halted his attempt at explaining his presence.  "We'll get to that, in time.  However, you have the first part of his story and I would very much like to hear what led up to his part."

Salín nodded, glancing at Pangur.  "We arrived at the Trade Federation ship as we were supposed to, and were led into some kind of conference chamber to wait for the Viceroy.  We were only there for five or ten minutes when the ship that brought us was destroyed, likely by the Trade Federation.  We felt the recoil through the Force, and I was thrown from my feet from it.  Things are . . . confused after that."

"Salín took a lungful of the gas," Pangur filled in.  "They must have expected a different team because the gas they used is deadly to many humanoid species, but a mere irritant to mine.  Salín breathed some of it in before she could get to her feet.  Not enough to kill her, but it greatly affected her abilities.  She was nearly unconscious by the time we arrived back in the hanger."

"I remember cutting through a number of battle droids and . . . there was an invasion heading for Naboo," Salín stiffened.  "Huge droid carriers, all headed for the planet!"

"Salín was near collapse by then, but with our ship destroyed, we needed to find a way onto Naboo."  Pangur said.  "We hid in one of the ships and landed several hundred klicks south of the capitol.  We stole away on one of the ground transports and managed to get to Theed just after it had been captured by the droids.  Salín was able to move under her own power, but slowly.  We found the Queen and her entourage being escorted to the prison and managed to free them, but Salín was shot several times because she was not functioning as normal."

"I don't even remember this," Salín admitted.  "Some shouting, I think, but nothing more."

"I carried her to the hanger where she managed to stay standing long enough to help me free the pilots," Pangur continued.  "I'm not certain how.  She was took several more blaster bolts as we fled to the ship, then collapsed once we had taken off.  One of the handmaidens tended to her while we escaped, but the Federation managed to destroy our shields and break the hyperdrive.  We barely managed to get to Tatooine."

"And it was a miracle either of you made it home," One of the healers commented, bustling into the room to check over Salín and Pangur.

Pangur let himself fall back against the pillow as the healer looked him over, groaning softly in pain.  He remembered the fight, could recall the heat in his side, a nova beneath Tatooine's blistering suns.  For a moment the cruel, red and yellow eyes of the Sith swam through his mind's eyes and he knew he would have been dead twice over from that mission, were he human.  "How bad is the wound, Master Healer?"

The healer bit her lip, glancing at the others in the room.  "I'm sorry, Knight Pangur, but we're not certain it will ever fully heal.  The likelihood of you returning to active status is very slim."

"What?"  Pangur's eyes widened.

"No one has survived this type of injury before," The healer admitted.  "Ser Jinn would have needed to practically impale himself on Ma—the Sith's lightsaber to do it while blocking at the same, exact moment.  The timing of the move requires a master swordsman.  You are a very fortunate being, Knight Pangur."

"He is a cat," Salín told the healer, something soft in her eyes as she looked at her knight partner.  "But he better watch it—he's down to eight lives now."

"I am not a cat," Pangur gritted out, but was smiling at Salín.  After being créchemates and knight partners for so long, they had long grown to be very close friends.

"You are too," Salín retorted.  "And I'm glad for it."

Pangur smiled softly as the healer turned to Salín.  "You were also gravely injured.  The gas you inhaled did a lot of damage to your insides.  Knight Pangur isn't the only miracle the Force has given us these past days.  And I'm afraid you will likely be stuck at the temple with him, Knight Salín.  Between the gas and the blaster bolts . . . your body is not doing well.  Both of you have done a great deal of damage to your internal organs and while bacta can do many things, it cannot do miracles."

Salín nodded, startling when Mace rested a hand on her shoulder.  To the Korun's surprise, she leaned into the touch.  "Pangur and I have met every challenge we've faced in life together, and we will continue to do so with this one," Salín told the healer.  "And I will not squander the second chance we've been given by regretting the could-have-beens."

"If only more Jedi had that kind of spirit when I told them they would likely be taken off the active roster," The healer smiled.  "I have recommended to the council you have regular sessions with the mind healers—together if you wish.  I know that is . . . uncommon, but from the sound of it, it will do you both good."

Salín glanced at Mace when the healer left.  "I know that it is attachment but—"

"It is fine," Mace looked at the Skywalkers and smiled.  "It has come to our attention that attachment . . . may be a strength rather than a weakness."

Pangur, Salín and Kahliel gaped at the councilor, though Mace deigned to reply.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan only traded amused smiles glad the council had chosen to look into the matter of attachments—and, therefore, their bond—further.  Before anything more could be said on the matter, a sudden commotion in the hall had Mace rushing for the door.  It was Maul who fell through, a tangle of limbs and walking frame.

The Zabrak cried out, a sob of pain torn from his lips when he hit the floor.  Pangur gasped.  "You!"

Qui-Gon was at teenager's side in an instant, large hand smoothing over the topmost part of his back as he and Obi-Wan carefully pulled away the walking frame.  "Just breathe," Qui-Gon urged.  "A medic—healer—a healer is coming."

"Sorry," Maul whispered, sniffing.  "I just—I didn't want to be a burden.  I thought if I learned to walk faster, I could leave the Halls of Healing and then Master wouldn't have to waste so much time with me."

"You let that Sith into the temple?"  Pangur demanded, not noticing Maul's flinch.  "He nearly killed me!  He should be executed!  Or at least thrown in jail!"

"Pangur.  Enough."  To everyone's surprise, it was Salín who spoke, her voice soft.  Mace's brows furrowed, briefly, as he remember she was also Dathomirian.

"Salín?"  Pangur tilted his head.

"He's a Nightbrother," Salín told her partner.  "I was taken from Dathomir as a child, before I learned much about the ways of the Nightsisters, but I do remember the Nightbrothers are . . . well, the Nightsisters called them breeders.  Considered them cattle, at best."

"Maul is only eighteen," Qui-Gon carefully helped the teenager sit up, Maul's arms tight around his shoulders, fists clenched in Qui-Gon's tunics from pain.  "He was sold to the Sith roughly five years ago."

"Please, Knight Pangur," Maul pleaded, and Pangur stared at him, the red gone from the teenager's eyes, the once bile-yellow now softened to yellow gold.  "I—I was—I didn't know—"

"They mind raped him, tortured him," Mace told the knight too softly for Maul to hear.  "The things he's been through—he was just a child."

The anger fled from Pangur's heart at the sight of the youngling staring up at him with those tear-filled eyes, face pinched in anguish.  Pangur softened as he told the councilor, "He's still just a kit."

"Knight Pangur, I—I'm sorry." Maul huddled down, waiting for the being to say more, believing the harsh words justified.  He had tried to kill the trianii, after all, and whatever words Pangur chose to throw at him were nothing more than what he deserved.

"I forgive you, kit," Pangur told the boy gently.  Maul's eyes widened, and Pangur felt his heart break at the bewilderment on Maul's face at his words.  It was as though he was unused to any type of kindness.  "Are you going to learn the way of the Jedi?"

"Master Yaddle has agreed to teach me," Maul ducked his head.  "I—I never thought the Jedi would let me train here.  They're going to train my brothers, too."

"Savage and Anakin are about the same age," Obi-Wan explained.  "They're becoming rather good friends."

"I'm glad to hear it," Pangur replied.  "And I'm glad Master Yaddle has agreed to teach you, Maul."

"Welcome to the Jedi, Maul," Salín smiled, and Maul shifted back slightly, eyes locked on the Dathomirian.  "I hope I will impress you with how unlike the Nightsisters I am.  I would say I would hope to make you think better of our people but . . . no, the Nightsisters are kind of terrible and I am very glad I am not one."

"Me too, I think," Maul told her, smile bright as Salín laughed.  Obi-Wan and Mace traded looks, and Mace nodded.  Pangur's forgiveness and Salín's acceptance would go a long way to helping Maul, they were all certain.

The healer arrived then, and scolded Maul for pushing himself, but giving Obi-Wan a wink.  He had been in the hallway while Pangur and Maul had talked, knowing this was something the two needed to work out and knowing Maul was well enough that the tumble would not have caused much beyond some bruises.  Obi-Wan sent a feeling of thanks in the Force that the healer waved off.  They were Jedi and it was important they stood together.
<>*<>

A week after Maul's impromptu meeting with Pangur, the healers decided that Maul was well enough to get settled into his new quarters with his brothers and Yaddle.  Initially, Yaddle had moved in only to mind Savage and Feral while Maul recovered, then decided that it would be easier on them all if she simply stayed there.  Maul, knowing it would take time for the Jedi to feel comfortable with a former Sith about, agreed to let Yaddle stay, knowing it would help the Jedi feel less nervous with his presence.  Additionally, Yaddle living with them would allow her more time to teach her new student and give Maul's brothers a chance to learn to trust his teacher.

"Finishing decorating, you should," Yaddle told the Skywalkers, Savage and Feral as she looked around their quarters.  "Collect my padawan from the Halls of Healing, I will."

Anakin pouted slightly, giving the being his best puppy eyes.  "But I thought we were going to get him together."

"Wish to overwhelm him, we do not," Yaddle replied.  "And complete, the decorations for his homecoming are not.  Finish these you will, while got get Maul, I shall."

"But I want to see him again!"  Anakin whined.  "Please?"

"See him again you will," Yaddle

"Master Yaddle is right, Anakin," Qui-Gon agreed.  "Though either Obi-Wan or I should probably go with you, should Maul get tired.  The walk to get here is rather lengthy and while you can support him with the Force, having someone for him to lean on would probably not go amiss."

Yaddle considered it for a moment, then gave a small nod.  "Come with me then, you shall, Ser Jinn."

"Qui-Gon," The man corrected, and Yaddle gave him a mischievous smile.

"Call you Qui-Gon, I shall, when call me Yaddle, you do."  Yaddle replied, glancing back over the room.  "Leave Obi-Wan to organize this mess, we shall."

"And it will be done before you return," Obi-Wan promised, ruffling Anakin's hair with one hand and tugging at Savage's horns with the other.  The boy giggled—for the Zabrak, the horn tug was the equivalent of a hair ruffle—and gave a little nod when Yaddle looked at him.  Feral, however, went to tug at the hem of Qui-Gon's tunic, staring up at him with huge, yellow-gold eyes.

"What's wrong, a thaisce?" Qui-Gon asked using the name he'd gifted to all three Oppress brothers for an endearment as he scooped the child into his arms.  Qui-Gon insisted they had found a treasure on Dathomir, so the Oppress brothers were named.  Feral snuggled into Qui-Gon, little hand twisted in the man's tunic as he sucked his first two fingers of the other hand.  Qui-Gon smiled.  "We do need to go pick up your eldest brother, a thaisce, and you'll need to let me go for us to do so."

"Are you gonna come back?"  Feral mumbled around the fingers in his mouth.  Qui-Gon pressed a soft kiss to the crown of the boy's head.  Every time they left Feral would ask them if they were returning, eyes big with worry.  It had not taken the adults long to realize Feral was terrified he'd be abandoned, again, and needed the reassurance they would return.

"Of course we'll come back," Qui-Gon told the youngling, kneeling so Yaddle could stroke his back.  He was reluctant to force the child to release him, knowing Feral had been forcibly taken from Maul any time the being had to leave Dathomir for the Sith.  Letting him willingly let go of people was a big step for Feral to overcoming his fear of abandonment.  "We love you and as long as we are able, we will return home to you."

"Promise?"  Feral's little brows were pinched.  "And—and Maul will come home, too?"

"Your brother will always come back to you, a thaisce," Qui-Gon replied.  "Even when he was Sith and he wasn't supposed to love you, he loved you and came home to you anyway, right?"

Feral nodded, face still tucked into Qui-Gon's neck.  "And Maul can stay here, this time?"

"Home he will stay, yes," Yaddle replied.  "With you and Savage and me.  But release Qui-Gon you must, so help bring Maul home he can."

Feral considered Yaddle's words for a moment, then gave a tiny nod and let go of Qui-Gon's tunic so the man could settle him back on the floor.  The moment he was steady, Anakin was grabbing his hand and dragging him back toward Savage.  "Come on.  Papa and Master Yaddle are going to get your brother so we got to finish getting the decorations for his party ready.  Dad said he would help."

Obi-Wan gave his lover and Yaddle a wink and gently Force shoved them out the door as he turned back to see Savage unsteadily throwing streamers around with the Force.  "Here, Savage," Obi-Wan steadied the child's hold on the streamers.  "Let me show you a trick or two for that."

Yaddle and Qui-Gon beat a hasty retreat while the boys were distracted, rushing toward the Halls of Healing.
<>*<>

Maul was sitting gingerly on the edge of the medical couch when Qui-Gon and Yaddle arrived, plucking uncertainly at the Jedi tunics he'd been given to wear.  He already looked better, having but on weight since he arrived at the temple simply by having enough to eat in addition to being practically bed-bound while his spine healed.  The healers were extremely happy with his overall progress, though he and his brothers, like the Skywalkers, was still on a calorie-rich diets and nutrition supplements.

"Time to leave, it is," Yaddle told her padawan, hopping onto the bed next to him.  "Need to get a hoverchair, I shall, to deal with all this tall furniture.  Think me as old and lazy as Yoda, people will."

Maul gave a tiny smile, then returned to plucking at the hem of his tunic.  "Thank you for coming to get me.  I—I was nervous that I might have to wander the halls alone.  I know you and Qui-Gon aren't bothered by what I've done, but . . . I don't think most of the Jedi feel the same."

"The Sith are as mysterious to the Jedi as the Jedi are to you," Qui-Gon told Maul, pulling him off the bed by the hand.  "And you're both mysteries to me."

Maul managed a soft chuckle, shaking his head.  "You have a very strange outlook on life.  I always expected you to be angrier about me trying to kill you, even if you were a gladiator."

"At first I was very angry about people trying to kill me, but at some point during my life, I found that it simply became quite commonplace," Qui-Gon explained.  "It was simply, 'Oh, someone is trying to kill me.  Must be Centaxday.'"

Yaddle laughed outright as Maul ducked his head to hide a smile.  "Even so, I am grateful you and Obi-Wan were willing to forgive me."

"In time, others will also," Yaddle assured the teenager.  "Now, back to our rooms we should go.  Miss you, your brothers do."

Maul nodded and followed the pair from the Halls of Healing, staring about the temple curiously as they walked.  He had been confined to the Halls of Healing until he could walk again, and even after his forays into the main temple had been short, his body too exhausted to make it far.  Because of this, the temple was something of a fascination to him, and he hadn't even realized he was staring up at the ceiling until he ran over someone.

"Hey!"  A pink-skinned Mon Calamari protested as Maul grabbed her before she could fall.  Silver eyes went wide at the sight of the Zabrak.  "You!  Oh cinnamon!"

"Um—"  Maul blinked at her, brow furrowing.  "Have we met?"

"This is Knight Bant Eerin," Qui-Gon replied.  "She was on Naboo with us."

"Oh."  Maul bit his lip, uncertain.  "Um . . . It's nice to meet you.  I'm sorry about . . . Naboo."

"Of course.  Excuse me," Bant practically ignored the apology in favor of tugging her arm from his hold in her haste to get away from him, bowing shallowly before rushing down the hall.  Qui-Gon and Yaddle stared after her, bewildered, as Maul drew his cloak closer around himself, half-hiding in its long folds.

"Bant?"  Qui-Gon called after her, mystified when she ignored it and continued her hurried steps, turning a corner several feet later without so much as glancing back.  It was completely unlike the gentle woman to be so cold, and she hadn't seemed to mind the idea of Maul staying in the temple when the Skywalkers had told her about it, though she had never stopped in to see the Zabrak.  Of all the Jedi Qui-Gon had expected to offer Maul a second chance, he had thought Bant would be at the top of the list.

"Do you think all the Jedi will be like that?"  Maul asked, sighing softly.

"Out of character for Bant, that was," Yaddle admitted, still looking astonished by Bant's rudeness.   "Perhaps caught her at a bad time, we did?"

"Don't worry about it," Maul mumbled, starting down the hallway again.  "I probably deserve it."

"You most certainly do not!"  Qui-Gon snapped.  "That behavior was completely uncalled for!"

"I'm not worth losing a friend over," Maul told them, and Qui-Gon heard his voice quaver softly.

"If I lose her over that, she was not a friend worth having in the first place."  Qui-Gon retorted, though he did relent slightly.  "Still, I will give her a chance to explain her behavior, should there be some kind of alternate explanation for it."

"Thank you, Qui-Gon," Maul murmured.  "I—I've never had anyone stand up for me like that before."

"Get use to it, a thaisce," Qui-Gon told him.  "You've got family here, now."

Maul smiled almost shyly, but didn't reply, and the rest of the walk back to his quarters was spent in relative quiet.  It wasn't long before the Zabrak grew weary from the walk, readily leaning against Qui-Gon as they move, his solid bulk reassuring when the being stumbled.  It would take time to rebuild his stamina, especially after the major injury he'd suffered.  It was a testament to the healers that he was already back on his feet.

"Getting better will take time, a thaisce," Qui-Gon wrapped an arm around the teenager's shoulders when he stopped to rest three quarters of the way back to his quarters.  "But it will happen.  I promise."

"I just . . . I want it to be faster," Maul glanced at Yaddle.  "So you don't regret taking me as your padawan."

"Regret taking you as a padawan I would never," Yaddle hugged the teenager tight.  "Knew you would need to recover when asked you, I did.  Have some faith in me, you should, hm?"

"Sorry, Master," Maul half curled around the woman.  "It's just . . . my old master—my Sith master—would have been angry and . . . he used to torture me, if I took too long to get well.  He used to—he used to put a wet cloth over my f-face and—"

Maul was shivering and almost sobbing into Yaddle's hair as she held him.  The being tightened her hold, enveloping him in the Force and sending feelings of love and comfort through their fledgling master-padawan bond.  "Need to tell me, you do not," Yaddle assured him.  "Listen I will, when ready to talk about it, you are."

Maul shook his head.  "He would pour water over it.  I thought—I thought I would drown.  He said he'd buy my brothers and—and do that to them if I didn't obey.  I know you're—you're different but I—I'm still afraid."

"Have scars, we all do," Yaddle replied, gently messaging the nape of Maul's neck, soothing him.  "Tell you about my tribulations one day, I shall.  Help you overcome your fears and worries, I will also."

Maul nodded, staying in Yaddle's embrace a little longer before they resumed their journey.  It was Qui-Gon who opened the doors, blinking in startled shock at the small crowd that had gathered in the Oppresses' rooms.  Obi-Wan and Bant were both there, wearing shit-eating grinned and holding a sign that read, "Welcome to the Jedi, Padawan Maul Oppress!"

Maul froze when he saw them, and Yaddle was certain her padawan was blushing beneath his tattoos.  "I—Thank you."

"I'm so sorry I ran off earlier," Bant slowly moved to hug him, giving Maul time to back away if he wished.  Instead, the Zabrak threw his arms around her.  "I must have seemed so mean!  It was just—Obi-Wan had just called me and asked me to get some people for this welcome party, and I hadn't realized you were already on your way here even though I hadn't gotten anyone else here yet."

"I thought you hated me," Maul squeezed her a bit, then let go.  "That maybe you thought . . . I shouldn't be here because I was Sith."

"Silly thing," Bant kissed his cheek before back away.  "Whatever you were before, you're Jedi now.  Welcome home, brother Jedi."

"Right, she is," Yaddle agreed, smiling at Bant.  "Welcome home, my padawan."

"Thank you, Master," Maul said, kneeling when Yaddle gestured that she needed to reach his head.  Bant produced a small, cloth bag that Yaddle took, shaking a length of silka beads into her hand.  Maul eyed them curious, taking in the small loops that looked like they would secure to his horns.

"Wear braids, all padawans do," Yaddle explained, holding up the silka beads.  "Of their own hair, when they have it, or of silka beads, if they do not.  Your padawan braid, I present.  Represent the trials you have been through, the colored beads do, and earn more throughout your training, you shall."

Maul wept as Yaddle carefully hooked the beautiful strand of beads to Maul's right front and middle horns so it draped behind his right ear, as Obi-Wan's braid did.  Once settled, the length of beads fell a hand-span past Maul's shoulder, solid proof this wasn't a dream he would wake from.  Maul drew in a sharp breath, and Yaddle willingly let him pull her into a tight hug.  "Thank you, Master.  This means . . . so much to me."

"Greet the others, you should," Yaddle told him as the rest of the group clapped and called out congratulations as he stood.  The diminutive master smiled softly, settling back to watch as Maul smiled shyly, a handful of his peers welcoming him to the Order.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Anakin and Savage spend the remaining few days before starting classes with the Jedi younglings reading through the materials given to them by the Jedi to help catch up with other students.  Savage, who had been given what schooling the Nightbrothers were allowed had far less to catch up on than Anakin, but could often be found near-by, helping Anakin through the rather extensive materials.  Feral stayed with them also, since Maul spent most of his time with Yaddle, and the adults would take turns entertaining the toddler while going through their own materials.

For part of the day, Yaddle collected Savage and Feral to go over the most basic lightsaber forms while Anakin practiced using his new 'sabers under his parents' watchful eyes.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan also took the boys to the Salles on occasion, where Savage and Anakin would trade knowledge and Obi-Wan worked with Feral and Qui-Gon, slowly remembering the forms he'd thought stolen by the mind-wipe.  It was a surprise to find out how much his body remembered where his mind did not, and Obi-Wan could only assume the drills had been ingrained in him from an extremely early age.

The night before Anakin started school, Qui-Gon looked ready to toss his datapads in the trash out of sheer frustration for the volume of material they were studying. "Do people from the core really learn all this?"

"Over many, many years," Obi-Wan pressed a kiss to his lover's temple.  "You aren't going to need to know it all at once.  I think they just gave it all to you now so that when you find something that interests you, you can just read about it to your heart's content."

"Is Anakin all ready for tomorrow?"  Qui-Gon set his datapad aside and stretching.  He'd spent the last two hours reading over the information about the plants set around their room and was eager to learn about some of the strange flora he'd seen on other worlds during his arena career.

"He and Savage are extremely excited about it," Obi-Wan shook his head almost wonderingly.  "I spent half an hour trying to pry the two of them out of their books.  I don't recall ever being that interested in education at their age."

"You were also a freeman who didn't know you shouldn't take school for granted," Qui-Gon pointed out.  "Does Anakin know how to get to his classroom?  Will he be changing classrooms?  I've seen that on holovids before.  Do the rooms really look like the ones on the holovids?"

"No—Qui-Gon, have you never seen a classroom before?  A real one, I mean?"

"I was born a slave, a chuisle mo chroí," Qui-Gon reminded his lover.  "Education is for freemen.  Why would I have ever seen a classroom?  Or did you forget that you were the one that taught me to read?"

"Well, no, just—it's hard to think you've never seen a classroom, even if you haven't attended school," Obi-Wan confessed.  "Though I guess I shouldn't be surprised.  Anakin hasn't seen a classroom either.  Do you think we should let him look at one before throwing him into it?"

"We could always leave a little early tomorrow," Qui-Gon suggested.  "Maybe see it then?"

"Most children don't want their parents walking them to school," Obi-Wan said.  "I hadn't intended on going with him."

"Oh," Qui-Gon drooped in his chair.  "I—I had hoped to see a classroom, but—if Anakin doesn't want—"

"We'll see a classroom, even if it isn't Anakin's," Obi-Wan promised, drawing his lover up for a kiss.  Qui-Gon perked back up, eager to see one of the rooms his son would be learning in.  Before Pangur, before the Jedi, Qui-Gon had only dreamed that Anakin would ever be able to attend school.  For this to become a reality was something the once-slave had never dared to even hope for.  "The council has arranged for a tutor for you and I, though, so we'll be in the archives instead."

Anakin, however, had been expecting his parents to accompany him and Savage to class the next morning so his parents willingly headed down the hall to meet his first teacher and give Qui-Gon his first look at a classroom.  Savage was telling Anakin about his previous school while they walked, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan trailing behind.  Maul was with Yaddle, learning how out to reach the light side of the Force while Feral was in the créche with the Jedi toddlers.

"The temple is nicer than my old school," Savage told them, still marveling at the temple's luxury.  While the Jedi led rather austere lives, they did not go without comforts and to the former slaves and impoverished Zabrak, the temple felt incredibly opulent.  "We only had one classroom, and everything was broke.  We didn't have enough . . . well, anything, so three or four of us would have to share datapads, sometimes.  The older kids were real mean, too.  After Maul left, me and Feral got beat up a lot since we didn't have no one to protect us."

"Dad used to teach me and Papa at home," Anakin was almost skipping in excitement.  "We've never even seen a classroom.  I mean, we've seen a couple on the holovids, but never in person."

"Here we are," Obi-Wan announced, smiling when Anakin scrambled to get into the room.  "This is where you'll be spending the first part of the day.  The second will be in the training salle to learn how Jedi use lightsabers."

Anakin stopped just inside the doorway, gaping.  "Wizard!"

An orange-skinned Twi'lek in Jedi garb jumped in surprise when Anakin spoke, spinning to look over the group as a smile bloomed on his gentle features and crinkling his blue eyes.  "You must be my new pupils.  It is a pleasure to finally meet with you.  Master Eeth Koth has told me much.  I am Master Zekku."

"It's nice to meet you also, Master Zekku," Obi-Wan bowed, and Qui-Gon was struck again by how much his lover looked like a Jedi just then.  Despite the mind-wipe, Obi-Wan had kept a surprising number of mannerisms taught to him by the Jedi.  "I apologize for dropping in on you like this, but we wanted a chance to see your classroom."

"Ani and I have never been inside a real classroom before," Qui-Gon explained, ducking his head shyly.  Zekku melted a little at the soft admission, gesturing for them to enter.

"Feel free to look around then," Zekku offered, waving a hand to indicate the entirety of the room.  The room was smaller than Qui-Gon expected, and circular, with room for twenty students seated in groups of two around the teacher.  A holographic display sat in the center of the room, the controls set at a gap in the seating where the teacher could stand and not obstruct the view of their students.  There were a number of low shelves around the room to accommodate a variety of teaching aids, and a moderately sized desk to one side where the teacher could sit when the students were doing independent study.

"The classrooms I've always seen on the holovids are square and . . . I think there are more students?"  Qui-Gon touched one of the desks.

"Children are our future," Zekku told the man, smiling.  "Jedi have smaller classes to ensure each student has more opportunity to have the attention they require from their teacher, especially if they are having difficulties.  Outside the temple, class sizes are usually larger—you likely saw a very traditional, non-Jedi classroom on the holovids."

"This really is amazing," Qui-Gon hesitated for a moment, then mimicked Obi-Wan's bow.  Zekku smiled at the effort, though it was as sloppy as any new initiate's, and bowed in return.  "Thank you for letting me look around."

"Of course," Zekku glanced back toward the door as his students began to file in.  "Anakin and Savage will be following the Hawkbat clan.  With your son and Savage, they will number sixteen.  The children are in this classroom from now until 15th hour, when they go to the salle for physical training and lightsaber classes until 18th hour when training ends for the day.  Mid-meal is from 12th to 13th hour, and they eat in the commissary with the rest of their clan.  We also have snacks at 10th and 14th hour.  Just small things—but you know how hungry growing children are."

"I . . . don't actually remember those days," Obi-Wan confessed, refusing to look at Zekku.  "Hunger, specifically, I mean.  And after the mind wipe, well, slaves are almost always hungry.  We managed to make sure Anakin never starved, which was more luxury than most slaves get, but snacks were . . . well, we are all accustom to growling bellies on occasion."

Zekku's heart ached for the former Jedi and his lover.  "I hope the council will also allow us to do something about it.  No one deserves that."

"Slaves are not the only people that go hungry," Qui-Gon reminded the man.  "Almost everyone in such poverty does not have enough to eat.  While in the arena, I saw freemen beg for food from slaves . . . I have even seen them starve to death for want of it.  At least our owners have incentive to feed us something.  We're worth more alive, generally, but that . . . had I food to spare . . ."

"And I'm sure you even gave away some you didn't," Obi-Wan touched his lover's cheek.  "You are such a kind man."

"I could hardly let a child die," Qui-Gon protested.  "I had not yet fallen so far as that."

"And that only makes me love you all the more," Obi-Wan told him, claiming a soft kiss.  Zekku tilted his head, curious, as the Force flared around the pair.  The Force seemed to approve their relationship, and it make Zekku wonder if there were other relationships that Force had approved of that the Jedi had been unable to foster due to the traditions of the Order.  The Twi'lek considered that for a moment, and wondered what kinds of changes the Skywalkers would bring to the temple.

The students began pouring into the classroom before Zekku could say anything, several of them staring openly at the Skywalkers and Savage.  One little Iktotchi girl eyed them for a moment, frowning.  "Who are you?"

"I'm Anakin Skywalker," The boy greeted, then gestured to his friend.  "And this is Savage Oppress.  We're new."

"We don't get new kids your age," The girl replied, crossing her arms.  Zekku frowned.  He had not expected hostility from the younglings, even in the face of such odd circumstances.  Making a mental note to speak with Yoda about it, Zekku gestured for the students to take their seats.

"Sers—No.  Initiates Skywalker and Oppress will be joining the Hawkbat clan during the day for all their lessons," Zekku told the class.

"Initiates?"  The Iktotchi girl glanced at the boy.  "But . . . they're too old to start now."

"No one is ever too old to learn the ways of the Jedi," Zekku reprimanded.

The youngling considered it, lips pursed, then gave a decisive nod.  "Yes, Master Zekku.  Does this mean we will be seeing more initiates who are older?"

"Consider this . . . a learning experience," Zekku touched Savage's shoulder.  "We do not often find students so late, and understanding their unique perspectives of the galaxy will make us all better Jedi."

"So just them, then," She nodded.  "Got it."

Obi-Wan glanced at his lover.  "She and Anakin will either become friends or try to kill each other."

"Let's hope for friends," Qui-Gon answered, looking slightly concerned.  "Is this normal for children in school?"

Obi-Wan shrugged, the mind-wipe having stolen those memories from him.  "Perhaps we can ask Bant?  She would recall her own years in the créche—and likely mine also."

"I'll do that," Qui-Gon replied, then turned back to Zekku, bowing.  "Thank you for allowing me to see your classroom.  It has been an interesting opportunity."

"It was an honor, Ser Jinn," Zekku bowed in reply, smiling when he heard the girl asking Anakin what he was talking about.  When the boy started explaining his and Savage's past to her, the younglings began to cluster around them, curious.  As Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon left, Zekku was herding the children into their seats.

"Let us begin with politics today," Zekku told then class, grinning as they all groaned.  "Anakin?  Savage?  Will you tell us more about your home worlds?"

"About Tatooine?"  Anakin asked, sounding startled.  "What about it?  It's a desert."

Zekku coaxed information from both boys about the leaders of their home worlds and what the economy was like there, though the boys didn't know what he was doing by name.  Obi-Wan slid a hand into his lover's, leading the elder man toward the archives and leaving their son to begin his first day of school on his own.
<>*<>

The temple archives was a cavernous room, containing all the knowledge the Jedi had collected over their many years of service to the republic.  Obi-Wan recalled little of the room from what memories he'd managed to keep after his mind-wipe, though he knew the room hadn't really enthralled him until after he hadn't been able to access any sort of literature.

Next to him, Qui-Gon gave a soft gasp of awe, drifting toward one of the shelves in an almost dream-like state.  "We—we're allowed to read these?  All of these?"

"That is what they're here for," Obi-Wan smiled softly.  Qui-Gon loved the written word, had done so even before he'd been able to read.  The man had smuggled bits of flimsiplast to his cell in the arena to marvel at the writing on it, and Obi-Wan could remember the first time he'd caught Qui-Gon with the headline of a news article.  The man had been horribly embarrassed, so ashamed that he'd been unable to read the bit of flimsy without aid despite being a full-grown adult.

Obi-Wan would never forget the excitement in every line of his lover's body when he'd offered to teach Qui-Gon to read.  They'd had limited reading material, and Qui-Gon had struggled to learn with whatever they could find, but both men had been determined and by the time Qui-Gon was twenty six, he'd mastered the written word well enough to read almost anything he came across.

Qui-Gon hesitantly reached out to touch one of the datapads, fingers barely brushing against it when an elderly woman snapped, "What do you think you're doing?"

Qui-Gon jerked back, paling.  Of course he should have known better than to touch anything.  These datapads were probably just for Jedi, and he wasn't actually allowed to read them.  He'd just let the excitement overwhelm him, and gotten ahead of himself.  Slave weren't given lessons, they weren't supposed to read.  "S-sorry.  I just—I thought—I've never seen so many datapads and I—I'm sorry."

"Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan touched his lover's arm.

"These are for Jedi," Qui-Gon told his lover softly before bowing to the woman.  "I won't touch them again."

The woman pursed her lips in a frown, arms crossed.  "What are you talking about, young man?"

"I'm sorry," Qui-Gon repeated against, almost desperately.  "I just—I just wanted to touch—I'm sorry."

"Nonsense," The woman huffed.  "Of course you many read the datapads.  However, you are late for your lessons and it is that to which I was referring."

"So I—I'm not in trouble for touching the datapads?"  Qui-Gon twisted his hands anxiously.

"Of course not," The woman softened.  "I am the Master of the Archives, Jocasta Nu.  You must be Ser Qui-Gon Jinn and former Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi?"

"Yes, Master Nu," Obi-Wan bowed, Qui-Gon quickly repeating the gesture.  "Are you our teacher?"

"I've not the patience for that, young one," Master Nu answered.  "But I promised to help locate you for your teacher.  If you'll come with me?"

The pair followed Master Nu to a small room set off to one side that Obi-Wan vaguely recalled, and he wondered if he'd spent a lot of time there before.  The man ran his fingers over the table, brows furrowing as he dropped to look underneath.  In the center of the table was his name, carved with clumsy fingers.  Next to it was Bant's name, in addition to two others he didn't know, Garen Muln and Reeft.  The man wondered, for a moment, if he'd known the boys who names were next to his own, then jerked to his feet when a cheerful voice announced, "Ready to get started?"

"Bant!" Obi-Wan narrowly missed slamming his head on the underside of the table.  "You're teaching us?"

"I am a lore keeper," Bant grinned.  "I'm just a really good swordsman, too.  Now, I have a test to give you so I can figure out where you're at in each curriculum, then I can plan around whatever you need to learn to get up to speed with schooling in the core."

"Is it bad if we do badly?"  Qui-Gon asked nervously.  "I—I don't have much book learning, so—"

"You're not even getting a grade," Bant assured him.  "In fact, I'll be the only one looking at it, okay?"

Qui-Gon considered it for a moment, then nodded.  "Thank you for agreeing to teach us.  I was worried it would be a stranger and . . . well . . ."

"They would think you were stupid?"  Bant squeezed his shoulder.  "I doubt any Jedi would believe so, but I know better.  You may not have much book-learning, but you are very smart, Qui-Gon and I can certainly attest to that.  So, let's get started, shall we?"

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon both offered decisive nods, and Bant handed over the tests.  She had a feeling things would be very interesting with the pair of them in the temple and she was glad the council was allowing her to be part of it.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The pair practically collapsed into bed at night once they got Anakin to sleep, too exhausted by the ceaseless energy of a nine year old to do more than just shamelessly cuddle and bemoan their old age.  The exuberant boy had come home more energetic than when he'd left that morning, despite several hours of physical training for class and spending almost two more hours in the salle with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  He'd even done with homework with gusto—though how he'd been loud doing it, Obi-Wan wasn't certain he'd ever know—and by the time the boy had fallen asleep, his parents were more than ready to join him.

"I hope he isn't like this every day," Obi-Wan groaned, hiding his face in his pillow.  "I'm not sure I could handle it."

"Of course we can, a chuisle mo chroí.  We can do anything as long as we have each other."  Qui-Gon pressed a soft kiss to his cheek, then curled against his back, nuzzling the baby-fine hairs at the base of his lover's neck.

"We do make a good team, don't we?"  Obi-Wan agreed, sleepily.  "The best team, I think."

"I want to get married," Qui-Gon said suddenly into Obi-Wan's nape, voice soft.

Obi-Wan blinked lazily, not entirely certain he'd heard Qui-Gon right.  "Married?"

"Since we're freemen, now," Qui-Gon explained, tightening his arms around his younger lover.  "If—If you want; we don't have to.  I just thought you would.  Want to get married, I mean.  I know we talked about it before, on Tatooine, not that it really counted or anything, since we were slaves, and I'd understand if—if I was just convenience while we were in the arena, I just—I thought . . . "

"Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan breathed, and nearly missed his lover's next words, the near-silent plea combined with the fear and uncertainty over their bond nearly breaking his heart.

"Please don't leave me."

Obi-Wan woke completely at that, twisting in Qui-Gon's arms to kiss him deeply, love sweeping over the bond to chase away Qui-Gon's doubts.  "I will never leave you, my heart.  You weren't some . . . convenient fuck or whatever it is running through your head.  I love you."

"Then why did you sound so . . . indifferent about us getting married?"

"Because I am mostly asleep, thanks to our son who, despite sharing none of your genes, managed to inherit your sheer stubbornness.  Thanks for that, by the way."

"So it wasn't disinterest?"  Qui-Gon's sigh of relief fluttered over Obi-Wan's cheek.

"You silly man," Obi-Wan kissed his lover again, drawing back to add, "Of course I'm interested.  I've been thinking about it since we got our papers."

The pair traded kisses for a time before Qui-Gon pulled away.  "I know Padmé said something about having a big ceremony on Naboo, but . . . I kind of just want it to be us and Ani.  And Padmé could marry us, right?"

"We need witnesses," Obi-Wan nodded.  "Maybe the handmaidens and Bant?"

"I'd like that," Qui-Gon agreed, tightening his hold on Obi-Wan.  "We can ask Bant about it tomorrow."

Obi-Wan hummed his agreement, too tired to stay awake any longer.  Qui-Gon, just as exhausted, snuggled against him and followed him to dreamland.
<>*<>

"Bureaucrats," Master Plo Koon grumbled when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan went searching for a council member to ask what they would need to do to get married.  "You'll have to wait until Ser Jinn's citizenship status in the republic is resolved before you can marry.  We can try to convince the senate otherwise, but it is probably faster to just wait."

"But that might take up to six months," Obi-Wan protested.

Plo Koon spread his hands in a semi-helpless gesture.  "The Jedi are capable of many things, Ser Kenobi.  Rushing paperwork in the Republic is not one of them.  However, we can plan for a ceremony once we hear your citizenship is complete."

"We would appreciate it, Master Koon," Obi-Wan bowed.  "Some of these things are still so strange to us . . . I know I'm originally from Coruscant, but there are times I recall so little that having friends to help us navigate this strange, new world is invaluable."

"We have had some Jedi who have lost memories to amnesia," Plo Koon replied.  "I, myself, lost an entire week once after a 'saber accident.  I still cannot remember it, and having that hole in my memory is rather disconcerting.  I can only imagine what it is like to be missing almost thirteen years of your life."

"It really isn't as bad as you think," Obi-Wan said.  "I don't remember anything to miss it, and until I came here, I had no reminders of it.  Sometimes this can be . . . over whelming, but mostly I'm glad to be able to rediscover what I do remember.  And Bant had been very helpful teaching me about who I was while I was here."

"It is a relief to know," Plo Koon admitted.  "We assigned Bant to teach you two in hopes it may even jog some latent memories, though I see we were mistaken.  Still, I know Bant missed you greatly, so I cannot regret our decision, even if she does not bring back any of your lost memories."

"I didn't know who she was, but I think I missed her, too," Obi-Wan squeezed his lover's hand.  "Friends like her . . . they are to be treasured."

"Indeed they are," Plo Koon smiled.  "You can never have enough friends like Bant.  And speaking of Bant, you best hurry to your lessons.  I'd rather she not hunt me down for making you late."

"We'd protect you," Qui-Gon replied, laughing.  "And thank you for your help."

"We will make sure you are able to marry, Ser Jinn," Plo Koon touched the man's shoulder.  "I promise you this."

"We have waited eight years for this," Qui-Gon replied.  "A little more time will do us no harm.  And Master Koon?  Please, call me Qui-Gon."

"Then I am Plo, to you," The Kel Dor replied, bowing.

The pair waved as they left, heading for the archives to meet with Bant.  There was be little time to dwell on their inability to marry, at least for the moment.  Maul and Yaddle were leaving for Ilum that afternoon, so Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had agreed to look after both Savage and Feral, and they still had to get Anakin to school before heading for their own lessons.

Maul met them at their rooms, bags in hand.  "Everything should be in here, but they can always just get anything they forgot.  The door is keyed to them and—"

"Maul," Qui-Gon smiled, squeezing the man's shoulder.  "Calm down.  We will be fine, I promise.  It is only for a few days."

"I just . . . Feral is still very clingy and I'm worried this will make it worse," Maul worried his lip.  "And I know you have your own son, but he isn't my brothers and—"

"You know, I cried the first time I had to leave Anakin at home while we went to fight an arena Circuit," Qui-Gon commented, making Maul start.

"He did," Obi-Wan nodded.  "I cried after our first fight after we took him in.  When we got back he stuck to us like glue for almost a month.  It drove Watto—our master—crazy."

Maul began to pace.  "Do you think this will bother Feral, or—"

"I think you need to go to Ilum and let us handle Feral so that Feral will understand that you will come back to him," Obi-Wan told the being.  "He knows Qui-Gon and I.  He's comfortable with us.  He's stayed with us before, even.  Have faith that everything will work out."

Maul nodded, then handing off the bags before hurrying away.  Qui-Gon watched him go, shaking his head.  "Good thing Yaddle warned him about the caverns."

Obi-Wan sighed, dumping the boys' packs inside the doorway.  "Come on, my heart.  Maul isn't the only one running late this morning."

Qui-Gon cursed softly as the two rushed down the hall.
<>*<>

"We have a special guest today," Bant greeted as the two entered, the pair blinking when they saw Mace sitting at their study table.  "He wants to drag you two to the salle to spar since none of us have actually seen you fight."

"Really?"  Obi-Wan blinked, considering.  "I guess . . . that's true.  But you trusted us to fight Maul without having any idea of our abilities?"

"It was the will of the Force," Mace replied solemnly.  At Qui-Gon's stern look, he added, "And maybe a vision.  I saw you fight him and win, so I knew you were capable."

"Sometimes I think you and the Force need to get better at sharing information," Qui-Gon grumbled.  "That's an awful big thing to just leave to a vision.  What if we'd failed?"

"Honestly, I'm not sure any Jedi could have beaten Maul if you failed.  Some on the council, but what you did . . . none of us could have managed that."  Mace gestured for them to head out of the archives and led the way toward the training salles.

"Qui-Gon is the only man I know who can make friends with everything.  Except maybe a Sarlaac.  We never attempted that one."  Obi-Wan nudged his lover.  "He even managed to make friends with a Krayt dragon, once, and those are the most vicious of beasties."

"They are simply misunderstood," Qui-Gon insisted.  "And he was hurt and alone.  I couldn't just leave him!  He'd die!"

"Krayt dragons are not pets, Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan heaved a sigh, the argument as old as the Tatooine sands.

"About half the time they had animal fights they'd boot Obi-Wan and me out of the arena because they weren't certain if I'd kill it or make friends with it," Qui-Gon grinned as Obi-Wan rolled his eyes.  "Sometimes they'd stick us in there specifically to find out."

"That was how Watto won us, actually," Obi-Wan added.  "They shoved us in with a gundark and every one bet we'd either kill it or get eaten.  Apparently they don't know Qui-Gon very well."

"You seriously made friends with a gundark?"  Mace gaped.

"I battled twenty years in the most dangerous arenas in the galaxy and it's the gundark that gets people," Qui-Gon huffed.  "Of course I made friends with the gundark!  Their fur is very soft, you know."

"You pet it?!"  Bant gasped, horrified.  "Who pets a gundark?!"

"Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan told her tiredly.  "Qui-Gon pets gundarks.  And rancor.  And fucking krayt dragons.  You have no idea the shit he used to bring home.  We actually found a datapad about animals, once, at Watto's.  It didn't work quite right, but he let us keep it as a reward for something.  Qui-Gon's nose didn't leave that damn thing until he finished it."

"His fascination isn't surprising," Mace smiled, then explained.  "He is very attuned with the living Force so it stands to reason he likes plants and animals, and that he is capable of taming a large number of them."

Obi-Wan heaved a sigh, though Bant could hear the humor buried beneath it.  For all Obi-Wan complained about the strays, he never actually minded them until they tried to eat someone.  Qui-Gon's strays, however, were usually well behaved regardless of how sentient they were.  They seemed to simply obey him instinctively and none of the slaves ever died to them.

Qui-Gon never kept them, either.  He would nurse them back to health and let them go.  When Obi-Wan asked, once, Qui-Gon had simply replied, "They're wild animals, a chuisle mo chroí.  No one has a right to keep them."

The group headed for one of the smaller salles that did not allow for spectators and Mace glanced at Bant.  "Would you like to fight with me?  We can do two on two."

"I would be honored, Master Windu," Bant agreed.  "Obi-Wan and I used to spar together often.  I am curious to see how his fighting style has changed."

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan traded grins, igniting their new 'sabers.  They hadn't had much time to practice in the time since they'd been freed, too busy getting settled in to the temple, and Qui-Gon was still getting used to a 'saber with a Kyber crystal that was attuned properly to him.  Bant explained the sparring etiquette of the salles while the four warmed up.

"Ready?"  Mace asked after they saluted and bowed to one another, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon double checking their 'sabers were set to training power.

"Always, Master Windu," Qui-Gon grinned, flipping his 'saber around his hand and sliding easily into a fighting stance, Obi-Wan mirroring him.

"Go!"  Mace announced, moving into a defensive stance.  Obi-Wan took the bait Mace offered, sprinting toward him, 'saber high, body open.

Mace didn't even realize it was a trick until Qui-Gon was parrying a thrust from Mace even as Obi-Wan spun backward to lash out at Bant.  The Mon Calamari flipped over the strike, cursing loudly as Qui-Gon leapt from Mace's back to nearly bisect her while in the air even as Obi-Wan sprinted beneath her to engage Mace as a distraction from Qui-Gon.

For a moment, Mace managed to get the pair on the defensive while he and Bant regrouped, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon back to back.  It was only when they matched their breathing and began to glow that the master realized his mistake.  "Sith spawned son of a karking bantha nut!"

"Language," Obi-Wan chided as he went for Bant.  "There might be children about."

"Shut up," Mace replied, barely dodging a strike from Qui-Gon.  He was fairly certain the pair had gotten even faster.

"Solah!"  Bant cried when Obi-Wan stopped his 'saber inches from the woman's neck.  Mace cursed again as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon teamed up against him.  He'd been holding his own against one of them at a time—the first to make a mistake would have lost—but against them both, Mace had little chance and he knew it.

Qui-Gon leapt high, coming straight down on Mace's back even as Obi-Wan disarmed him and called the Force to soften their landing so Mace didn't actually get injured.  The pair had their lightsabers poised to strike when Mace croaked, "Solah."

"That was a great fight," Qui-Gon panted, holding a hand out to Mace.

"I could have beaten you one-on-one," Mace replied, struggling upright.  "Either of you.  But the two of you together . . . "

"We can test that theory," Obi-Wan offered with a grin.

"After we take a breather," Mace headed for the small fount of water each of the salles had, drinking deeply.  Qui-Gon followed him, intrigued.

"I like the republic," Qui-Gon dipped the offered cup into the basin.  "All the water I can drink!"

"Hear hear," Obi-Wan followed his lover happily and took the cup once Qui-Gon had finished.  "Nice and cold, too."

"We may face terrible conditions on missions, but there is no reason to go thirsty or hungry in the temple," Mace told them.  "Not to say we don't train for it, but there is no need to do so all the time."

"Very true," Obi-Wan agreed.  "Ready to get your ass kicked again?"

"One on one?  I will be the one winning," Mace told him, grabbing his 'saber and following Obi-Wan to the center of the salle.

The following series of one on one fights was very telling of the gladiators' abilities.  The pair defeated Mace just a bit more often than Mace won against them while Bant earned herself several thorough trouncings by the pair.  Mace was grinning when they finished, satisfied.  "That is a very . . . unique fighting style."

"We learned it in a rather unique way," Obi-Wan admitted, sprawled on the salle floor, panting.  "We should invite Maul next time.  I bet he would have a unique fighting style as well."

"If it's anything like yours, I'll just let you two go after him," Mace replied.  "Everyone says I'm angry when I fight but you—you two are crazy."

Obi-Wan laughed breathlessly.  "Well, we'd be happy to teach you how to fight crazy instead of angry, if you teach us the Jedi Forms.  At least, teach us properly.  My body remembers a lot, but I'm afraid my head doesn't remember anything so it's very hard to teach them to someone else.  Even the bond isn't very helpful for it, since I don't know what I know."

"I would be glad to," Mace groaned as he sat up.  "I haven't been beaten that badly in a very long time."

"It was fun," Qui-Gon grinned.  "You would have done well in the arena."

"I mean to ask about that, actually," Mace propped himself against the wall.  "Bant mentioned that you've alluded to having some Jedi training.  I was curious as to who that had been."

"Freemen are allowed to enter the arena, with the understanding that in the arena they will be the same as all others," Qui-Gon told Mace, trying to decide the best way of telling the man of his former teacher.  "Some of them were Jedi who left the Order for various reasons.  Maul probably fought in the arena, too, but never where we were, since we didn't recognize him.  We'd remember someone with his skill."

"His master probably had him in a different circuit just to avoid a pair of gladiators called the Jedi," Obi-Wan pointed out.  "No point in risking us actually being Jedi and knowing he was Sith."

"Circuit?" Mace asked, curious."

"I'll explain later," Obi-Wan told them, falling silent so Qui-Gon could continue telling Mace of his Jedi teacher.

"I was fairly new to the arena, so maybe fourteen or fifteen and making rounds on the Spicer's Circuit when I met him.  He was the first Jedi—former Jedi—I'd seen in the arena.  They weren't common, of course, but you were bound to find one or two in just about every circuit.  He was a freeman, but he must have seen the potential in me.  Taught me meditation and how to build and use a lightsaber."  Qui-Gon told Mace.

"What was his name?"  Mace asked, curious.

"I don't wish to get him in trouble, if he returned to the Jedi," Qui-Gon twisted his hands together.  "He spoke of the Jedi often so he didn't sound certain that he wanted to leave . . . "

"I promise we will not discipline him over this," Mace replied.  "And this was nearly twenty years ago.  Whatever has happened, it is long past."

Qui-Gon didn't look overly certain, but said, "His name was Sharad Hett."

"Sharad Hett?"  Mace gaped.  "But that—that was years before he left the Order.  And he fought in the Arena?  But—he told us he hated the acclaim that he'd earned during his career as a Jedi."

"I don't think he did it for recognition," Qui-Gon frowned.  "He wanted to better his skill.  He was in and out of the arena circuit until I was nearly twenty.  What happened to him?"

"He left the Jedi and . . . joined the Tusken Raiders on Tatooine."  Mace's voice was soft.

"What?"  Qui-Gon jerked.  "I don't—what do you mean, he joined the Tusken Raiders?  They're murderers!  How could a Jedi condone that?"

"He is no longer Jedi, Qui-Gon," Mace told the man softly.  "I'm sorry."

"No—but that means he could have—"  Qui-Gon's voice cracked and Obi-Wan drew the man into his arms, holding him while Qui-Gon shuddered.

"If Sharad Hett truly joined the Sand People, it is possible he was also partly responsible for Shmi's death," Obi-Wan told Mace and Bant, pained.  "That Qui-Gon's teacher could have killed the woman we considered our sister . . ."

"I'm so sorry, Qui-Gon," Bant covered her mouth, horrified.  "That's terrible."

"He wields a crimson lightsaber," Mace told them.  "And the reports I've seen said his clan tends to avoid human settlements, but they are bringing the Tuskens together.  It's possible he had nothing to do with that particular raid."

"I wasn't there, and it may not have been, but how could he encourage the Tuskens to hurt people?"  Qui-Gon asked, tears in his eyes.  "The slaves never did anything to anyone.  Why didn't he stop them?"

"I don't know, Qui-Gon," Mace gripped the man's shoulder.  "I'm sorry that the news wasn't what you wanted to hear, but surely your friend would never have tried to harm anyone so.  Knight Hett was a good man, Qui-Gon.  If he has joined the Tuskens . . . maybe he will make them a better people.  And he might have tried to stop the raid on the slave quarters, but Knight Hett is still just a man.  He cannot be held accountable for the Tuskens not under his command."

"I know," Qui-Gon wiped his eyes.  "In my head, I know this is the truth.  Yet right now . . . my heart does not feel that."

"We should go meditate," Obi-Wan offered his lover a hand.  "I'm sorry, Master Windu.  Perhaps we can answer your other questions later?"

"Thank you," Mace bowed.  "I believe you were rather fond of the room of a thousand fountains, if you would care to meditate somewhere other than your quarters."

Mace and Bant watched the pair go, Bant's eyes sad.  "Poor Qui-Gon.  That must be difficult to learn."

"I never expected he was trained by Knight Hett," Mace confessed to the Mon Calamari.  "He never seemed to have any real interest in taking a padawan."

"Perhaps Qui-Gon was the reason why?"  Bant suggested, straightening her clothing and following Mace from the salle.  "It would have been impossible to hide his trips to the arenas if he had a padawan, and teaching Qui-Gon might have been enough for him."

Mace nodded and left for his own chambers to meditate on what Qui-Gon had told him.  Sharad Hett had not been a problem on Tatooine, at least Mace had not thought so.  If he was attacking the human settlements, however, the Jedi would have to intervene.  They couldn't allow one they had trained to attack innocents that way.

Mind and heart heavy, Mace settled on his cushion to meditate.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The day Maul returned from Ilum and a few days after the incident in the training salle, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had decided that Mace was, rather decidedly, avoiding them.  Bant had tried to assure them it wasn't the case, but Obi-Wan had just cocked an eyebrow at her knowingly and the woman had caved.  "Maybe," She told them, frowning.  "But I doubt he intends to; he is just busy."

"He said he had questions," Qui-Gon reminded her.  "If he hasn't hunted us down to ask them, it's because he is intentionally avoiding us.  Probably out of some misplaced embarrassment or belief we won't want to speak with him."

"Ridiculous," Bant waved it off.  "He is a council member.  I'm certain he doesn't avoid facing such things head on."

"Just tell us where his chambers are and we'll resolve it," Qui-Gon smirked, knowing he'd caught her.  Bant glared at the pair of them.  They were as adept with their words as they were with lightsabers.  And they could do it in multiple languages, too!

"Fine, but it won't fix anything because there is nothing to fix," Bant assured the pair.  Qui-Gon shrugged but took the flimsiplast she dutifully scrawled directions to his room on.  "Now, let's get back to your lessons.  You can pester Master Windu later."

"Yes, Knight Erin," The pair chanted, making Bant huff in annoyance, though Obi-Wan could see the hint of a smile.

They two were well behaved after that, as they usually were when Bant taught them.  Qui-Gon, who knew nothing of the history of the Republic, had a fair bit to catch up on there, while Obi-Wan seemed to remember that from prior to the mind wipe, at least.  Once lessons ended, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan headed for Mace's quarters.

"Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan!"  Mace took a step back in surprise at seeing the pair.  "I wasn't expecting you."

"We know," Qui-Gon told the man flatly.  "If you had been, I don't think you would have answered the door."

"Nonsense, I—Oh hell," Mace cut himself off with a sigh.  "I didn't realize it was that obvious."

"You may hold a stern façade to the rest of the world, but there is no way you would have left your other questions unanswered if you weren't avoiding us," Qui-Gon told him.  "There is a great deal of curiosity in those eyes of yours."

"You're quite perceptive," Mace gestured for the pair to take a seat.  "Shall I fix some tea?"

"Slavery tends to force one to get very good at reading people," Obi-Wan told them man, ignoring Mace's flinch.  The entire council still felt incredibly guilty about losing Obi-Wan to a lie fed to them by his knight-master.  The pair knew the Jedi had people looking into the other lost padawans, to make sure they truly had died rather than been sold, and there was also a query regarding Xanatos to determine if he'd known Obi-Wan was alive.  "And you can stop flinching when I bring up my time as a slave.  It wasn't your fault.  It wasn't the Jedi's fault.  There is no way you could have known."

"We do still owe you an apology—"

"Stop, Mace," Qui-Gon held up a hand.  Mace blinked at Qui-Gon being so familiar with him, but let it go.  "Look, I'm sorry I was so . . . prickly . . . a few days ago.  I simply hadn't been expecting, well, that.  And I do owe you an apology for it.  I was numb.  In denial.  It's hard to believe a man I held in such high regard became a Tusken, of all things.  But even so, I shouldn't have taken it out on you."

"Your lover has quite the explosive temper, doesn't he," Mace told a laughing Obi-Wan dryly.

"Qui-Gon's temper is like the desert.  Hot, dry and lingering," Obi-Wan told the man.  "When you truly see a fit of temper from him, you'll know."

"If you're done making fun of me . . . " Qui-Gon nudged his lover's shoulder.  "We wanted to invite you to dinner, to let you ask the rest of your questions."

"That's truly not necessary—"

"We insist," Qui-Gon smiled, patting Mace's arm.  "Besides, it'll be a nice change from either cooking for yourself or visiting the commissary, right?"

Mace heaved a sigh.  "I'm not getting out of this, am I."

"Not a chance in any of the Sith's nine hells," Obi-Wan replied.  "We'll see you at 19th hour."

"Thank you," Mace replied, showing them out.  "I'll see you then."

As Mace shut the door, he could have sworn he heard Obi-Wan tell his lover, "Bant owes me ten credits."
<>*<>

Mace arrived at the Skywalker quarters exactly at the start of the 19th hour, hesitantly touching the chime to let them know he was there.  Anakin opened the door and all but dragged the councilor inside, grinning.  "Papa made bantha stew and fresh bread," The boy told Mace excitedly.  "You'll love it!"

"I'm sure I will," Mace agreed, bowing to Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon in greeting.  "Thank you for inviting for the meal.  I brought some of the pudding cake Bant said Obi-Wan loved as a youngling . . . I hope that is acceptable."

"My tastes have not changed much, it seems," Obi-Wan took the confection gladly, putting it in the coldbox until they were ready to eat it.  "Sit, please.  We're nearly finished cooking."

"And feel free to ask whatever you wish," Qui-Gon added.  "I think the questions you have won't bother Ani.  Actually, he may even be able to answer some of them."

"Perhaps," Mace took the offered seat at the table.  "I was just curious . . . you see Master Yanarath said you had been to Zeltros while you were still slaves.  But that's firmly in Republic space."

"It's on the Nebula Circuit," Qui-Gon shrugged.

"The Nebula Circuit?"  Mace asked, feeling lost.

"Let's eat, then we can pull out the star charts," Obi-Wan suggested.  "I think that will make things easier for us."

Mace nodded, patient while Qui-Gon served up the delicious-smelling stew.  Anakin eagerly dug in, sharing everything he and Savage were doing in their classes with a new pair of ears.  Mace was glad he wasn't on créche duty.  The créche masters had up to twenty younglings under their care—it was little wonder they kept asking for help, if even one of them had Anakin's energy!

Obi-Wan nudged Qui-Gon and the pair snickered quietly at the dumbfounded look on Mace's face as Anakin chattered away at him, clearly not expecting a reply to anything he was saying.  Eventually Obi-Wan took pity on the council member and told Anakin, "Stop talking and eat, young man.  And don't talk with food in your mouth."

"Yes, Dad," Anakin sighed, stuffing a piece of bread in his mouth.

"We told him not to speak with his mouth full, once," Qui-Gon told Mace in a long-suffering tone. "But then he endeavored to demonstrate that his mouth was most certainly not full and he could fit more food in."

"So he takes the letter of the law very precisely."  Mace nodded.

"If he was more tactful, he would be a wonderful lawyer," Obi-Wan grinned.  "However, tact is not one of his many gifts."

"It's true," Anakin agreed after swallowing.  "Watto almost never let me around the customers, I was so bad at it."

"He would have driven off the entirety of our business," Qui-Gon teased, ruffling his son's hair.

Mace chuckled, and the Skywalkers kept the talk light hearted as they finished eating, leaving Mace wondering how bad the news they would have for him afterwards would be.  It was nice, however, to be in the company of people like the Skywalkers and Mace tried to remember if he had ever felt so comfortable anywhere before, even in the presence of his friends from his initiate days.  In truth, the Korun master had always been old for his years and far too serious.  Friends had been scarce, and few had felt like dealing with the serious man on a regular basis.  Even he and Depa had grown apart after her knighting, both too stoic to share much communication.

"Coruscant to Mace," Qui-Gon waved a hand in front of the councilor's eyes, catching his attention.  "As glad as I am you feel safe enough to space out at our table, I recommend paying attention before Anakin eats your pudding cake."

Mace moved his dessert away from the boy, frowning.  "I will wipe the floor with you during your lightsaber class tomorrow, if you eat my cake."

"Promise?"  Anakin perked up.  "Because it would be so cool if you'd visit my lightsaber class!  The teacher keeps telling me I'm doing everything wrong just because it's not what he's used to.  He thinks my parents must be terrible fighters."

"We'll arrange to come in one day," Mace promised.  "But not tomorrow."

"You better finish your dinner, Ani," Qui-Gon told the child.  "You were telling me you had those droids Master Zekku gave you from the salle to see about fixing."

Obi-Wan nodded his agreement, then froze, a horrified look on his face.  "Oh sweet Force," The man gasped, wide-eyed.  "He's turning into Qui-Gon, only with droids."

"Hey!"  Anakin pointed his spoon at his dad.  "I do not collect pathetic life forms!"

"Just because your life forms are mechanical doesn't make them any less pathetic than the ones your papa brings home," Obi-Wan replied, then sighed softly, muttering, "Of all the things I never thought I would say . . ."

Mace chuckled, but Anakin hastily finished his food and rushed to the workbench where a handful of training droids were pried open and scattered across it's already-scarred surface.  The adults finished minutes later and Qui-Gon went to get the star charts while Obi-Wan told their son, "Let me know if you need any help."

"Will do, Dad," Anakin agreed almost absently.

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon cleaned off the table, then set up the star chart Qui-Gon had fetched.  Mace watched them sift through it for a moment, then asked, "Is a star chart really necessary?"

"It'll make things easier," Obi-Wan shrugged.  "And you did want to know why we were on Zeltros while being slaves, right?"

"It is somewhat deep in Republic space," Mace agreed.

"You really aren't going to like Qui-Gon's response to that," Obi-Wan started marking something out on the chart as Qui-Gon joined them.

Mace looked at Qui-Gon, curious.  "What does that mean?"

"I've been to Coruscant before."  Qui-Gon answered.  "It's the last stop on the Perlemian and Corellian Run Circuits."

The councilor staggered, dropping into one of the chairs, a dull roar in his ears.  "What?"

"Coruscant is the last stop on the Perlemian and Corellian Run Circuits," Qui-Gon repeated.  "I was confined to the arena, of course, but I've been here a handful of times."

"There's an arena on Coruscant?"  Mace's voice was faint.  "How could we have missed this?  Having slaves smuggled in . . . surely you're mistaken."

"There are arenas on a number of Republic worlds," Qui-Gon answered.  "But before we get into that, we should explain the circuits."

Mace nodded, still feeling faint.  To have missed something like this—having slaves smuggled beneath the Jedi's very noses.  It was almost inconceivable.

"There are ten circuits that make up the . . . Arena League," Obi-Wan explained.  "Five are on the main hyperspace trade routes, and the other five cross through the other territories.  The five on the trade routes are the Perlemian Circuit, the Corellian Run Circuit, the Corellian Circuit, the Rimma Circuit and the Hydian Circuit.  The other five are the Nebula Circuit, the Nova Circuit, the Hutt Circuit, the Spice Circuit and the Kessel Circuit."

"The five that follow the main trade routes are bigger and more important than the ones that don't," Qui-Gon added.  "The lesser Circuits—Nebula, Nova, Hutt, Spice and Kessel—are almost like training circuits.  Gladiators go through those first, mostly, to teach them how to fight in the arena and to train them for the Major Circuits—Perlemian, Corellian Run, Corellian, Rimma and Hydian.  There are also a few planets, like Tatooine, that have stand-alone arenas.  They aren't part of a circuit but owners like them because it means gladiators on the lesser circuits can be matched up with gladiators on the major circuits.  Watto mostly kept us in the Tatooine arena after he won us because he didn't like, and couldn't afford, to travel much."

"Qui-Gon and I have fought in all ten circuits, and won all of them.  Between us, we've also fought at . . . probably ninety percent of the stand-alone arenas as well," Obi-Wan looked over the map and marked several more planets.  "There are roughly a thousand of those, I think.  The arenas on a circuit can also serve as stand-alone arenas when a circuit match isn't taking place there."

"It takes about six standard months to make an arena circuit in full.  If an owner wants, a gladiator can do two circuits a year.  That's what Obi-Wan and I did until Watto won us.  We only did one full circuit after that, then he kept us on Tatooine and were sent occasionally to stand alone arenas or circuit arenas when an important match was near-by."  Qui-Gon gestured to Tatooine and roughly a dozen planets in close proximity.  "Those were the most common."

"If you make it through a full circuit, there is . . . well, it's like a championship match on Corellia.  The winners will all be gathered at the arena there to fight for the Arena Grand Champion.  Qui-Gon and I are the only ones who have won every circuit and won the grand championship each time we were entered."

Mace swallowed hard.  "So Qui-Gon fought the circuits on his own for ten years, then had five with you before Watto won you and practically retired you?"

"He said it was because he needed us at the shop, but we think it was more that he didn't like the blood sport.  The gambling was too hard for him to pass up, though," Obi-Wan grinned.  "Especially with such well-known champions at his command.  Tatooine actually became pretty famous as a stand-alone after we got there because anyone could challenge us.  They didn't have to work their way through the circuit first.  I think for awhile Watto had it worked out to get part of the entry fee from the arena since everyone was coming to fight us and he knew it."

"Savvy of him, I suppose."  Mace glowered at the star chat.  "And you spent . . . almost half your time in the Republic.  How is it no one caught any of this?"

"Oh, Ser Jedi," Qui-Gon patted Mace's back sympathetically.  "The Arena Circuits are the least of your troubles if you're looking for slavery in the Republic.  There are a number of Republic Senators that own slaves and no one has taken notice."

"Your senate is rather corrupt," Obi-Wan agreed.  "Though I've never heard of either Palpatine or Valorum owning slaves.  If it makes you feel better."

"Not even marginally," Mace sighed, staring almost helplessly at the Star Chart.  "Force, I need to take this in front of the council . . . we can't just let this go, but getting permission from the Senate to investigate. . ."

"So don't," Qui-Gon suggested.  "According to what we've learned from Bant, the Jedi have worked separately from the Senate before."

"While that is true, this is going to take some careful planning."  Mace looked like he wanted to slam his fist down on the table.  "I had wanted to . . . I don't know, run in, lightsabers blazing and save everyone or something, but to take down the slavery ring in the Republic . . ."

"It will take years," Obi-Wan finished, resting a hand on Mace's shoulder.  "We knew that when we agreed to answer your questions about this.  But we know it will be done, no matter how long it takes.  And the Jedi will not stop until they have done it."

"You have more faith in the Jedi than I do, I think."  Mace wasn't sure if he wanted to laugh or cry.  "Thank you."

"Sometimes the difference between succeeding and failing is having a little faith in each other," Qui-Gon replied, hugging Mace tightly.  The councilor clung to the man, face buried in Qui-Gon's shoulder as he collected himself, steadying his breathing and releasing his feelings to the Force.  He couldn't afford to be angry, couldn't afford the lapse in judgment, but he needed the anger, needed the feelings to keep him motivated during the months and years to come as they fought to fix this.

"Thank you," Mace told them, eyes going back to the chart.  "May I borrow this?  I will need to take it before the council and . . . I must meditate on this.  I'm afraid this is rather overwhelming."

"Of course," Qui-Gon kept his hold on Mace, feeling the councilor clutch his tunics, then shake.  For a moment, Mace stilled, then he slid from his chair, kneeling in Qui-Gon's embrace as shuddering sobs rocked his frame.  Obi-Wan knelt behind him, curling around the older man.

"It'll be okay, Mace," Obi-Wan murmured, the pair holding him tightly.  "We'll fix this."

Mace nodded, safe in the circle of their arms, then rose after a few more minutes, wiping his face.  "You're right," The man told them, releasing his turmoil to the Force.  "We will.  I have some things I must look into before we go further, and I must speak with the council, but we will fix this.  Thank you."

"Tomorrow, Mace," Qui-Gon squeezed the man's arm.  Mace blinked at him, and Qui-Gon repeated, "Tomorrow.  Meditate on what you have learned and rest tonight.  It has been . . . generations since this began.  Twenty more hours before you begin trying to fix this to order your thoughts and sleep will not do anymore harm."

Mace nodded, pulled his hood low to hide his red-rimmed eyes, and disappeared out the door.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

A month passed quietly as the Skywalkers and Oppresses settled in to temple life.  Anakin and Savage made a handful of friends among their créchemates, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon caught slowly up on their studies, and Maul spent most of his time with Yaddle.  Mace did, eventually, visit Anakin's lightsaber class and wipe the floor with him, then dragged Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Maul along to wipe the floor with the training Master, though not in front of his students.

"Doing things differently does not mean doing them wrong," Mace reminded the training master.  "And it would do us well to learn how to fight against non-Jedi, since it appears the Sith truly are rising again."

Maul flinched, refusing to look at the councilor.  Yaddle had not let them question him much in depth yet, though Maul was not privy to many of his former master's plans.  The diminutive master had insisted on giving Maul time to get his bearings and recover, and Maul had admitted he didn't think he knew anything particularly time sensitive.  The council hadn't argued with Yaddle, knowing that if there was something important, Maul and Yaddle would readily tell them.  Until then, they could wait just a little longer for Maul to share his past.

Bant and the Skywalkers often ate mid meal together in the commissary and several councilors were almost fixtures at their table.  Mace grew to be great friends with both Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, he and Yoda enjoying debating the many tenants of the Jedi code.  Yoda was insistent that this was good for the order, though sometimes Mace thought he should put that gimer stick of his to use on the Skywalkers' shins.

"We probably shouldn't argue the code in the middle of the Commissary," Obi-Wan told the handful of councilors that had settled around them, eyebrows raised as the other Jedi craned their necks to see what was happening.  "Why don't we meet in our quarters for late meal and finish this discussion there."

The group agreed and Mace ordered food for the meal.  It had been a long time since the councilors had truly been challenged in their thinking of the code.  Many Jedi, even if they didn't agree with it, stayed quiet on the matter and insisted the council knew best.  Qui-Gon had simply rolled his eyes and told Mace that was arrogance.  It was important to question things, because times and people changed.  Stagnation could destroy an order as surely as a blaster.

Yoda glanced around, ears lowering.  "Has a point, young Qui-Gon does," The ancient master murmured.  "Many years since these halls were as full as when I was a youngling."

"Many years since you were a youngling, it has been," Obi-Wan pointed out,  trying to yelp and laugh at the same time when Yoda swatted him with the gimer stick.

When the councilors arrived that night, they were surprised to see the Oppresses had joined the party.  Qui-Gon nudged Maul affectionately.  "Since we're discussing the code, we thought Maul could tell us about the Sith code."

"Think it is wise, I do," Yaddle nodded, squeezing her student's hand.  "Help us understand the Sith better, it shall, and teach us all something, also."

Maul ducked his head, shrugging.  "I—I hadn't known you didn't actually know that Sith code, so—I never thought to share it."

"Does it bother you?"  Depa asked.  "Sharing the code with us?"

"Yaddle says that if I share small things, maybe the big things won't seem so bad when they come up," Maul replied.  "And talking about the code doesn't bother me.  It's not . . . directly associated with everything else I went through, even though it was the reason I went through everything."

"If understand the Sith code we do, perhaps understand the Darkside better we can."  Yoda agreed, nodding.  "If understand it we do, then arm ourselves against it we can."

"There is no ignorance, there is knowledge."  Plo Koon considered that.  "We have largely ignored the darkside, and that has made us ignorant of it.  Our ignorance of this goes against our very tenants."

"Questioning things brings knowledge," Qui-Gon waggled a finger.

"Your questions bring me insanity," Bant grumbled, earning a laugh from several council members.  She had been surprised to be invited along, but the council thought it would help her teach the Skywalkers better as well as help them learn more about what information they should be seeking for their archives.  Bant was one of the youngest lore keepers in the Jedi, but she knew almost as much about the archives as Jocasta Nu.

"I had wanted to asked about that," Qui-Gon broke in before the councilors could continue.  "I've seen the Jedi Code all over the temple, but there are a couple variations and none of them are the one Obi-Wan and I thought was the code."

"Remember the code after the mind wipe, you did?"  Yoda turned to Obi-Wan, curious.

Obi-Wan shook his head.  "Not exactly?  And we weren't Jedi, so it wasn't really the Jedi code but it was what we lived by.  It sounds similar in some ways, I suppose, but at the same time . . . it's very different."

"Remember our code now, you do?"  Yoda asked, prompting Obi-Wan to recite the code he had relearned since coming to the temple.

"There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
there is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force."

"And it's so similar to our code, that its really strange," Qui-Gon told the council when his lover was done.  "The wording is similar and everything, yet the codes are completely different."

"May we hear it?"  Mace encouraged.  Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon gave a tiny nods, their voices harmonizing eerily as they recited the code they chose to live by.

"There is emotion, yet peace.
There is ignorance, yet knowledge.
There is passion, yet serenity.
There is chaos, yet harmony.
There is no life without death.
There is no light without darkness.
In balance, the Force guides my path."

Yaddle and Yoda traded looks, ears stiff, Yaddle admitted, "Similar, it is, to the original code used by the Jedi."

"We don't have the last parts," Depa explained.  "In the original code, after the line about chaos, it ends with 'death, yet the Force.'"

"Moved away from it, we did, because cause confusion among the Jedi, it did," Yoda told the Skywalkers.  "Believe it caused Jedi to fall, we do."

"I don't think that's true, actually," Bant spoke up, surprising even herself.  "Since Maul came to us, I've been researching the Sith and the Fallen Jedi more, and it seems like the only Jedi who fell were the ones who didn't stay true to the code, regardless of which one it was.  They let something become an obsession, sought power instead of peace, hurt people simply because they wanted to."

"We've seen that in the arena before.  The slaves call it Krchk.  The word might have been Shyriiwook originally, but it means something like . . . blood frenzy or battle frenzy," Qui-Gon nodded.  "Basic doesn't have a very good translation for it, but it's when a fighter does terrible things for want of gaining something else."

"It wouldn't be far off, I think," Maul agreed.  "The Sith code is all about gaining freedom through power.  They believe the Jedi are enslaved by their foolish code and that they are weak because of it."

"Touch the Force differently, the Jedi and Sith do," Yaddle added, smiling at her padawan.  "Touch the Force differently, the Skywalkers do also.  Interesting to see while meditating, it is."

"What do you mean?"  Mace asked, curious.

"Use negative emotions to reach the Force, the Sith do," Yaddle explained.  "Hatred, rage, terror.  Use logic only, the Jedi do, setting aside emotion of all kinds.  Use both logic and emotion, the Skywalkers have.  All emotions they use, also, not just negative ones.  Feels very different in the Force, it does."

The council blinked, one venturing, "I had wondered why something felt strange when I meditated on occasion.  Perhaps those times were the same times the Skywalkers were meditating also."

"You can touch the Force through positive emotions?"  Bant looked delighted.  "There is nothing in the archives regarding this."

"I get the feeling it wasn't something most Jedi did—or recorded if they were," Obi-Wan frowned.  "Your order is not the most . . . welcoming of change that way."

Mace shrugged when everyone looked to him.  "He is not wrong.  We have become . . . resistant over the years.  Perhaps we have been a little arrogant in our thinking."

"I think you have gone a very long time without it being properly challenged," Qui-Gon told them as he began setting out food.  The children were keeping busy with homework and the droids Anakin kept dragging home, but Feral looked ready to see if his teeth were sharp enough to have a go at Maul's boots.  In the interest of the Zabrak's footwear, it was probably best they ate.  "The Jedi way is not necessarily wrong, but that doesn't make it the best or only way."

"The Force led you here to bring balance," Mace intoned, then sighed as he recognized the words as prophecy.  "You know, I was looking forward to a nice discussion over dinner, not a prophecy."

"You know, it may be talking about Maul," Obi-Wan retorted, earning a tug from the Force for being deliberately obtuse.  He sighed.  "Mace wasn't looking to give a prophecy and I wasn't looking to be part of one."

"So don't," Qui-Gon shrugged.  The Jedi stared at him.  "What?  I don't know anything about this foretelling poodoo.  I don't have visions, I don't tell the future—hell, I can't even read palms right.  I know Obi-Wan has had visions, but they're not really reliable.  The future is the future.  It changes.  If you want to help the Jedi, do what is best for them as you go, not what you foresee might be best in fifty years.  If you follow the will of the Force in the here and now, the future you saw fifty years away will take care of itself well enough."

"Spoken like a man without visions," Mace replied, earning several agreeing nods from the gathered beings and a laugh from Obi-Wan.

"I keep telling him that!  The problem is . . . well . . ."

"He's not entirely wrong," Depa filled in.  "Now if only I could get my former master to listen to me when I offer such advice."

"Your former master is quite adept at telling the future, thank you very much," Mace answered.  "And I must take it into account when I make my decisions.  As must anyone with the ability to see the future."

Qui-Gon rolled his eyes, grinning when Depa did the same, though both let the matter drop, at least for the moment.  The table was spread to its largest capacity, but extra chairs were found and the children took their plates into the sitting area to eat in front of the holovid, excited since they were rarely allow to eat away from the dining table.

"Now, I have been curious about the Sith Code since we arrived . . . " Ki-Adi-Mundi glanced at Maul.  The former Sith grinned, shaking his head.  And here he thought Jedi were diplomats.

"Peace is a lie, there is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me."

"That is fascinating," Bant was taking notes, to Obi-Wan's amusement.  Something in his lost memories tugged, and he thought maybe she had always been this way, far more studious than he and—and—someone.  "It's almost like—I mean, in the most general sense, of course—two side of the same coin.  Jedi use nothing but logic to access the Force and Sith use nothing but emotion.  Negative ones, but maybe if they actually tried to use positive ones they wouldn't be so nasty all the time."

"Nasty?"  Maul raised an eyebrow.  "I was called many things as a Sith.  Nasty was not among them."

"Calling someone nasty is a major insult, coming from Bant," Obi-Wan failed to hide his laughter.  "She's practically cussing you out."

"It makes sense," Qui-Gon mused.  "I mean, the Force is not good or evil, it is simply the Force.  Morality is a sentient creation and changes from world to world and person to person.  To ascribe such an aspect to the Force is foolish.  At the end of the day, it is the intent with which we utilize the Force that makes what we do with it good or evil."

"It's been hard to adjust to your code that way," Maul admitted.  "Your code makes me feel like I'm not supposed to have emotions, but you tell us to have compassion, and to be kind.  And how am I supposed to do that if I don't feel anything?  Isn't compassion born from a type of self-sacrificing love?"

"And when you reach for the Force with positive emotions, like happiness or love, it feels like it's smiling," Qui-Gon nodded.  "Since I was never trained as Jedi, it was always easiest to reach for the Force with emotion, at least until Knight Hett trained me.  And it always felt different when I reached for it with a positive emotion.  Like it was laughing.  I think, maybe, you've gone so long without touching the Force with your emotions that you've forgotten that."

"Laughs for the younglings, it does," Yoda nodded.  "But for the older Jedi, even older Initiates, it does not.  Perhaps because reach for it with joy, they do?"

"Maybe," Mace considered that.  "We will need to meditate on that, I think.  Perhaps understanding these differences will bring us better understanding of the Force—if we are all willing to learn from one another."

"Your methods are no less valid than ours," Qui-Gon answered.  "Just different."

"Except the Sith way," Maul broke in.  "I think that's wrong."

"Using negative emotions will make you do things you regret," Adi Gallia corrected.  "But perhaps using emotions is not strictly wrong and that, I believe, was the original way of the Sith.  It is something we will need to research further."

Bant perked up and Obi-Wan shook his head.  She was going to be lost in the archives for months with this new project.  He wondered if he should sneak some ration bars on her person so she didn't die of starvation while lost in the stacks.

The discussion ran late into the night, the Jedi, Skywalkers and former Sith examining how the codes differed from each other and the Jedi promising to meditate on what they had learned.  Yaddle just settled back in her chair, eyes on the furiously debating council members.  Discovering the Skywalkers truly had been good for the Jedi.  They had been slowly dying for generations now; perhaps being challenged in their ways would revitalize the order.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The end of the year's sixth month, and over three and a half months after the Skywalkers arrived at the Jedi temple, the Jedi were getting ready for the Fête Week that made up the Festival of Life.  Bant was grinning madly as she spoke of it, gesticulating wildly in her excitement.  "There is always at least one, huge party in the commissary," Bant told the Skywalkers.  "And often we have a large number of smaller one in each others' quarters, too.  We recall as many knights as we can for Fête Weeks—oh, you'll love it!"

"I read people usually gave each other gifts?"  Obi-Wan asked, curious.  He thought he might vaguely recall a fête week, but which one he wasn't certain.

"Jedi aren't big gift-givers," Bant shrugged.  "Or—nothing we can't use, anyway.  My master got me specially made boots one year, and groups of friends will usually give each other foodstuffs or small reminders of each other.  Nothing extravagant or expensive."

The Skywalkers traded nods.  They had gotten a few, small things for Anakin and the Oppresses, and they'd gotten something for Bant, Mace, Depa, Yaddle and Yoda.  "And there's a week-long festival on Coruscant too, right?"

"Oh, we'll have to visit for certain," Bant nodded.  "There are always music and games, and carnival rides.  It will be so much fun!  But before that . . . all of our surviving créchemates are coming home for the Festival, so I thought we could get together a couple days ahead of time.  It would give Obi-Wan a chance to meet them without randomly running into them in the commissary."

Both men chuckled at the less-than-subtle reminder of Bant's experience of seeing Obi-Wan for the first time and making a mess when she dropped her tray.  Still, Obi-Wan looked uncertain.  "Do you think it's a good idea?"  The man asked his friend.  "My lack of memories really bother some people.  I've met a few beings I was supposed to know but didn't and . . . it didn't always go well."

"It'll be fine," Bant smiled, always so optimistic.  "I've already spoken with them all and warned them about the mind wipe.  They're anxious to see you again.  Please, Obi-Wan?"

"I will meet them," Obi-Wan agreed.  "But if things go badly—"

"You can say I told you so," Bant replied and Obi-Wan blinked at her, almost dumbfounded.  She ducked her head with the Mon Calamari version of a blush.  "Sorry, you used to say that all the time."

"No, I still do.  Just . . . sometimes these things pull at the missing memories."  Obi-Wan shook his head.  "It's nothing . . . I'll remember things on rare occasions, but usually fleeting and confusing.  The Healers thinks I might recover some memories, being around here, but it's not like some dam in my mind will burst and I'll suddenly remember my childhood again."

"It's kind of a shame you won't have those memories, but I don't think it matters," Bant pressed a soft kiss to his cheek.  "I love the man you've become, even without them."

"Don't get any ideas there, a mhuirnín," Qui-Gon warned with a chuckle.  "He's quite taken."

Bant made a face.  "Ew.  He's like my brother."

"Thank you, Bant," Obi-Wan drew her in to touch a gentle kiss to her cheek in return.  "Now, Qui-Gon and I need to go toss Ani around a training salle for a bit."

"You have the rest of the week off from classes, so I'll see you at the dinner," Bant told them as they gathered their things.  "We'll be eating in the commissary."

Obi-Wan waved at his friend, nervous and excited about the idea of meeting his créchemates again.  Anakin and Savage's créchemates had overcome their initial uncertainty of the boys and were rapidly becoming good friends, making Obi-Wan wonder if his own experience in the créche was the same.

The table Bant led them to that night was packed full, though Bant had made sure to reserve a pair of chairs next to her.  A few of the gathered beings looked familiar from Obi-Wan's time in the temple, but the man couldn't recall their names or that they'd even been créchemates.

"You really don't remember us do you?"  A man asked, dark eyes sad.  "I'm Garen Muln.  You, me, Bant and Reeft were best friends."

"Garen!"  A Dressellian male hissed punching his friend's arm.  "What is wrong with you?  Bant kriffing warned us!"

Garen yelped in protested, rubbing his now-tender arm.  "Hells, Reeft, that karking hurt!  It's one thing to hear my best friend—who I thought was dead, by the way—forgot us and another to see it!"

"Why would I lie?"  Bant snapped.  "Obi-Wan has been through enough.  And you're not the only one who thought he was dead, Garen.  You think that hasn't been hard on Reeft or me?"

Garen threw up his hands.  "I have no tact, okay?  Everyone knows this!  It's why I'm a pilot instead of a fecking diplomat!  And who the hell is the Wookie next to him, anyway?"

"Qui-Gon Jinn," Bant introduced.  "He's Obi-Wan's lover.  They have a son, too, but Ani's eating with his friends from the créche."

"It's nice to meet you," A lovely, blonde woman offered.  "I'm Siri Tachi.  Pardon my rudeness, but have you been together long?"

"Eight years," Qui-Gon glanced at his lover and grinned.  "We're going to get married just as soon as my citizenship status gets settled."

"Wait—"  Reeft's brow furrowed. "Eight years?"

A Qui-Gon's nod, Garen crowded into him, snarling," He was only fifteen, you sick fuck!"

Obi-Wan shoved the Jedi back, standing protectively in front of his lover.  "First, I don't need you—or anyone else—to defend my honor as I'm perfectly capable of doing it myself.  Second, we thought I was sixteen, seeing how I'd been mind-wiped and didn't exactly remember my damn birthday.  Third, it really doesn't matter how old I was because slaves don't have an age of consent."

The table froze, eyes locked on Obi-Wan.  After a moment, Siri croaked out, "What?"

"Slaves don't have an age of consent," Bant repeated softly.  "So even if he had know his real age, it wouldn't have mattered."

"It's mostly for the sake of our owners, but plenty of slaves take advantage of it as well," Qui-Gon sighed.  "I would never have—but I didn't know.  We didn't know."

"Humans can't fight in the arena until they're fourteen," Obi-Wan added.  "I'd been fighting two years already so we figured that meant I was sixteen."

Garen backed down, though he still looked unhappy.  "Fine.  I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been an asshole."

"It's all right," Qui-Gon held out a hand for Garen to shake.  "It's nice to know Obi-Wan has such good friends.  But he is right—we were gladiators for years.  Obi-Wan is quite capable to taking care of himself.

"Gladiator . . . "  Siri frowned.  "That's the third time I've heard that word today.  That's some kind of arena fighter, right?  I didn't know there was any kind of arena that still existed.  I could have sworn they died out centuries ago."

"There are arenas all over the galaxy, even in the republic," Obi-Wan explained.  "Slaves and freemen fight against either other—or sometimes animals.  The matches in the major circuits are almost always to the death, but in the independent arenas and lesser circuits it varies a bit more.  The slaves that fight in them are called gladiators while the freemen are called warriors."

"There is a certain amount of prestige and money to be earned there, which is why the freemen fight," Qui-Gon added.  "Not that slaves see any of the money, of course, but it's there for the freemen."

"Obi-Wan survived the arena for ten years, and Qui-Gon for twenty," Bant added.  "They're actually champions on a number of worlds."

"Oh yeah, a real accomplishment," A sour-faced man still bearing a padawan braid sneered.  "I bet they wouldn't last a minute against a real Jedi."

"Maul would beg to differ," Qui-Gon muttered, earning laughs from Obi-Wan and Bant.

"Sometimes Jedi—well, usually former Jedi, I suppose—fought at the arenas," Obi-Wan told the man.  "They expected easy wins just because they could use the Force or had lightsabers.  The Major Circuit was called the Jedi Killer sometimes—they usually didn't last long."

"It's where I met my teacher," Qui-Gon added.  "I was fourteen or so when he arrived there and about twenty when I last saw him.  A bit before I met Obi-Wan, I guess."

"How convenient," The sour-faced man crossed his arms.  "And not a bit of proof you met."

"Oh shut up, Aalto," Siri snapped.  "We only let you sit with us because you knew Obi-Wan.  Apparently that was a mistake."

"And you were just as big of an asshole back then," Garen glared.

"Stop," Obi-Wan broke in, holding up a hand.  "We're used to hearing that sort of drivel.  Slaves aren't exactly well respected."

"However, if you would like to see our abilities, we'd be willing to spar with you," Qui-Gon offered, smiling genially.

"Fine," Aalto spat.  "I'll show you what a real Jedi can do.  Just pick the time."

"How about tomorrow?"  Obi-Wan suggested.  "Two hours before late meal?  I'll even let you fight Qui-Gon first."

Bant forced back a laugh.  Aalto didn't know it, but Qui-Gon was the better fighter of the pair—if only by a bit.  Not that Aalto would believe it since Qui-Gon had little Jedi training.  Qui-Gon glanced at his lover.  —You know I'm going to wipe the floor with him, right?

It will be hilarious,— Obi-Wan smirked over their bond.  —And an excellent object lesson.—

You have been hanging about Yoda far too often, a chuisle mo chroí,— Qui-Gon replied, but Obi-Wan could feel his lover's laughter.

"Fine," Aalto interrupted their mental conversation, slamming his hand on the table to accept the challenge.  "Two hours before late meal.  Salle 2.  Don't be late."

The man left after that, to the rest of the group's relief, and one of the other beings at the table began telling Obi-Wan about himself as a very young child, starting the biggest paint war in créche history.  Obi-Wan laughed, turning to Qui-Gon.  "We better not share that with Ani.  He'd take it as a challenge."

The night was pleasant and Obi-Wan listened intently, curious about himself from before the mind-wipe and as a Jedi.  He and Qui-Gon also shared some of their stories from after Obi-Wan had been sold and wiped, often having half the gathered Jedi in peals of laughter thanks to the shenanigans of the highly Force sensitive family.

At one point Garen glanced at Obi-Wan, brows furrowing slightly as he moved pulled a chair between the former Jedi and Bant.  "Obi-Wan?  You all right?"

Obi-Wan startled, blinking at Garen.  "Yes, I just—I hadn't realized I was missing so much.  Have I changed a lot?  Am I anything like you remember?"

"You grew up, Obi-Wan," Reeft gave his friend an easy smile.  "But so did we.  I know we haven't had much of a chance to get to know each other again, but you still seem like the boy I remember.  Kind-hearted and protective of your loved ones."

"He's right," Garen agreed, knocking shoulders with Obi-Wan.  "Whatever happened, whatever the mind-wipe took or left behind, you're still you."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan replied, the sadness leaving his eyes as they returned to their normal blue-green.  Qui-Gon absently twined their fingers together, never pausing in his story , though he gave his lover's hand a soft squeeze.  "I try not to dwell on it, but having all of you here and knowing you know me from before though I don't remember you . . . sometimes it can be . . . "

"Overwhelming?"  Reeft's smile was lopsided.  "Yeah.  We might not have been mind-wiped, but Jedi are often away from the temple for months at a time.  Things change a lot in our absence and sometimes coming back can be confusing."

"I know you don't remember us, but we're still your friends," Garen told the man.  "And I know Bant got first dibs on getting to know you again, but if you ever need us, we're here.  I can't guarantee I'll be great at it, but I'll be here."

"He tries," Reeft snickered.  "Master Yoda is horribly ashamed of him."

"Shut up, you," Garen shoved the Dressellian with a laugh.

Obi-Wan couldn't help laughing, hugging both men tightly.  "Thank you.  So much."

"You're back from the dead, Obi-Wan," Reeft touched the gladiator's face gently, tears and happiness glittering in his eyes.  "For us—me, Garen and Bant, that's all that matters.  And maybe we're all a little different than we used to be, be it time, missing memories, or growing up but we have a second chance.  No way are we wasting it."

"And if we're done with all the sad talk?"  Bant tried to wrap her arms around all  three men, grinning.  "I want to hear that speeder story Ani keeps bringing up!"

"Not a chance in all nine of the Sith Hells," Obi-Wan answered cheerfully, earning a snort of laughter from Garen.  Bant sighed dramatically, then turned pleading eyes to Qui-Gon.

"Still wasn't there," Qui-Gon held up his hands in a placating gesture.  "Also, I'll be the one getting tossed there if I tell it, so it's not happening."

Bant made a face but Obi-Wan began to tell the new group about their fight and the pod-race that won their freedom.  Anakin joined them towards the end of it, after his friends had been herded back to the créche, and crawled onto Qui-Gon lap to stare around at Obi-Wan's créchemates.

"You sure were popular," Anakin announced after a moment.  "What happened?"

"Got ugly," Obi-Wan replied nonchalantly.  "It happens when you get old.  Just look at your papa."

"Hey now!"  Qui-Gon protested, eyes glittering as the table laughed.  "I am a fine specimen of a man, thank you very much!  C'mon, tell him, guys."

"We wouldn't know," Siri managed, straight faced.  "Jedi are chaste."

"Chaste?"  Qui-Gon asked, turning to Obi-Wan for the meaning as his cheeks burned in shame.  "I—um—I don't know what that means."

Obi-Wan forgot, sometimes, how bad Qui-Gon's vocabulary could be in Basic.  He frequently forgot it wasn't his lover's native (or even second or third) tongue.  "It means Jedi don't have sex."

Qui-Gon's eyes widened in horror as the table burst into laughter.  Garen was almost crying as he told Qui-Gon, "She's kidding.  We're just not allowed to form attachments."

"That sounds . . . lonely," Qui-Gon frowned.

"We chose this," Siri defended, frowning.

"It's not like we're slaves or . . . any . . . thing . . . er—sorry."  Garen flushed as Obi-Wan snickered.  He didn't remember Garen, but it felt right, that Garen managed to immediately shove his foot in his mouth.  "I didn't mean—actually, you know what?  I'm stopping now."

"It's for the best, really," Reeft chuckled, shaking his head.  "Look, we're having fun.  Let's not devolve into politics that we may simply have to agree to disagree on, okay?"

"Sorry," Qui-Gon apologized, then gracelessly changing the topic.  "Now, I believe you were telling me about Obi-Wan's first lightsaber class?"

Anakin giggled madly as the story was told, and the group stayed long into the night, sharing stories about one another.  By the time they left, Anakin was fast asleep, draped against his dad, and the staff was shooing them out.  Reeft waved.  "We should do this again."

"We should.  Thank you for re-meeting me," Obi-Wan didn't bother bowing with Anakin in his arms.  The child would be too big to carry, soon, and Obi-Wan was glad his son's growth hadn't been stunted by his time as a slave as so many children's were.

"We'll be at the fight with Aalto," Garen replied as they parted ways.  "I'm looking forward to seeing him get his ass kicked."

"I'll try not to disappoint," Qui-Gon called.  Garen just grinned.
<>*<>

Two hours before the commissary officially opened for late meal, Qui-Gon Jinn met with Padawan Aalto in the largest training salle in the temple.  A few hundred Jedi had come to watch the once-gladiator fight a true Jedi, through hardly the temple's best swordsman, and Obi-Wan almost expected to feel like he was back in the arena.  The air was charged with excitement, just as the arena was, but there was something different about it in the temple.  No one was expected to die, the Jedi eager to see an exposition of skill instead of a life or death battle.

Obi-Wan felt the tension ease from his frame as he joined Bant, Garen and Reeft in the front row, giving his friends a nod of greeting.  "Are you excited?"

"Aalto's an asshole," Garen told him, grinning in reply.  "I hope your lover kicks his ass into next week!"

Mace and Yanarath agreed to judge the bout, checking over the fighters' equipment to make sure the lightsabers were on training settings and to make sure both parties knew that any kind of permanent injury was grounds for censure.  Qui-Gon smiled touched Mace and Yanarath's shoulders in turn.  He had no intention of harming Aalto, though the boy needed taught a lesson.

While the pair were warming up, Padawan Rhys found Anakin and Savage sitting in the stands, eagerly asking to join them.  He had a second padawan with him, a Nautolan girl about his age.  She was slender, with gray and purple skin, her dark eyes roving over the crowded stands.  "I'm Naia," The girl offered, focusing on Anakin and Savage after a moment.  "Sorry for my distraction, I was trying to figure out if my Master had arrived.  Rhys told me you were on the Dathomir mission with him?"

"Anakin was," Savage told her.  "I was the Dathomir mission.  Well, half of it.  They came to buy me and my little brother, Feral, for my older brother.  He's a Jedi padawan, now."

"Maul, right?"  Naia nodded.  "I've seen him wipe the floor with just about all the padawans he's fought, even the ones almost ready to be knighted."

"Master Yaddle says he's one of the best," Savage replied, proudly.  "Though he can't beat Anakin's fathers.  And I saw him fight Master Windu, once."

"How did it end?"  Rhys questioned.

Anakin and Savage traded grins, Savage replying, "Badly, at least for my brother.  Master Windu is amazing."

Naia laughed outright.  "Master Windu is the best swordsman of the order.  I don't think I've seen anyone beat him."

"My parents can," Anakin offered.  "If they go one on one they win about half the time.  If they gang up on him, though, they always win."

"Two on one is hardly fair," Rhys commented.  "I know the fights we get in outside here won't always be fair, but with your fathers, it seems like it's even less fair than normal."

"Probably," Anakin agreed.  "Still, it isn't like they have an easy time beating Mace, even two on one.  He is very good."

"In other words, your father going to wipe the floor with Padawan Aalto," Naia smirked.  "Padawan Aalto could stand to be taken down a few pegs.  He's really mean and he always thinks he's better than he is."

"Papa always says it's important to understand your own limitations," Anakin told his new friends.  "Because then you know how much you can handle."

"I take it you also learned this lesson?"  Savage raised an eyebrow.  "Probably from experience?"

"I was a podracer.  We're always in trouble,"  Anakin grinned.  "Dad says that's all us podracers are good for—trouble and crashes."

"I don't know . . . " Rhys frowned.  "We're always told to push ourselves.  Doesn't that mean we ignore our limits?"

"Not really," Naia glanced at Anakin.  "But it means we know how far to push past them.  And when we do go past our limits, we have our masters to help us . . . which makes our limitations different.  Because they can help us if we're having trouble."

"Just like my parents," Anakin nodded.  "My mom was like that, too.  If I was having trouble, she would teach me and help me, but not do it for me.  It let me get better without killing me.  Of course, getting better at school work is a little different than, say, pod racing or lightsaber battles."

"Very true," Naia agreed.  "Though speaking of lightsabers . . . Savage, do you think your brother would be willing to teach Rhys and I a little?  He's so good and I thought maybe . . . if we could work with him some . . . "

"He'd love it," Savage told her eagerly.  There were times Maul still wasn't sure he was fitting in well, the older padawans still wary of the once-Sith, though a handful of them had sought him out in an attempt to be friends.  Teaching Naia and Rhys, however, would serve to prove Maul really had changed his loyalties to the Jedi in addition to giving him a chance to interact with some of the younger Jedi in the temple.

"Great!" Naia lit up in excitement.  "I'll talk to him next time I see him in the salle.  Thank you!"

"Hush," Rhys ordered them almost absently, eyes on the ring.  "They're starting!"

"Go Papa!"  Anakin cheered, waving.  Qui-Gon picked him out of the crowd and saluted the little boy before turning back to Aalto.  Mace had backed away to allow them to bow to one another, one hand between them.  When it dropped, he'd explained to Qui-Gon, the match would officially start.  This fight would go until one of the fighters surrendered or was knocked unconscious, and the only rule was that they were not to cause permanent damage to their opponent.

The Padawan gave the gladiator a vicious grin, snarling, "I'm going to teach you how a real Jedi fights."

Qui-Gon tilted his head.  "I see.  Then I shall teach you how a gladiator fights, also."

The pair bowed, Aalto's barely perceptible, and readied their lightsabers.  Qui-Gon started with a single 'saber, knowing it would give him an advantage because Aalto had never seen him fight. While the second 'saber was visible, it was unlikely Aalto would understand it's purpose until Qui-Gon began to use it.  The two touched swords in a salute, as Qui-Gon had been taught just hours earlier by Reeft, then stepped away from each other.  Mace dropped his arm.

"Begin!"

Aalto charged in, expecting an easy opening against the gladiator and was surprised when Qui-Gon leapt over his head, thrusting down with his own 'saber in a move Aalto barely managed to parry.  When the padawan turned to catch Qui-Gon as he landed, the big man was already ducking beneath Aalto's lightsaber, his own swinging out to catch the padawan in the shin.

Aalto hissed in surprise as Qui-Gon's 'saber, set to training mode, burnt a line across his boots.  Qui-Gon did a back handspring, going to one knee to block another strike from Aalto before sweeping the padawan's legs from beneath him.  The gladiator smirked, taunting, "If this is how a real Jedi fights, it’s a wonder any of you have managed to survive."

Aalto snarled something and charged at Qui-Gon, footwork sloppy in his anger.  Qui-Gon blocked the strike, delivering a vicious bottom kick to the padawan's chest and blowing him backwards, bringing his 'saber up and scoring a line from hip to shoulder as Aalto went flying.  Aalto lunged back in with a thrust Qui-Gon easily parried, then shrieked curses when Qui-Gon's lightsaber kissed his neck, leaving behind a scarlet burn.

"You must find your center," Qui-Gon instructed, easily dodging Aalto's attacks.  "You are letting your anger get the better of you and it is causing you to make mistakes."

A warning shrieked through the Force and Qui-Gon's saber flickered when struck by Aalto's blade.  Mace's eyes widened.  He'd turned it back to high power without the judges noticing and it was only Qui-Gon's skill that allowed him to dodge the strike as it passed through the less-powerful blade.  Qui-Gon flipped back, putting distance between himself and Aalto to change the power settings on his own 'saber, then leapt back into the fray, shaking his head at Mace when the councilor went to interfere.  Obi-Wan shifted at the sidelines, ready to step in if necessary, though Qui-Gon had the situation well in hand.

"This is a practice bout," Qui-Gon told the padawan.  "You have forfeited the rules you and your order laid down at the beginning of the fight."

"So?" Aalto's lip curled in a sneer, expression ugly.

"I hope you are prepared for the consequences," Qui-Gon replied, and Anakin's eyes widened at the shift in the man's stance.  Before, Qui-Gon had been fighting for fun.  It had been a training exercise, like Anakin had seen many times before, when his parents were practicing at the arena.  Now, however, Qui-Gon was taking the fight seriously.  Before, he had been teaching Aalto as he went, staying on a level that would not fully shame the younger man when he lost.

Aalto's decision to make this a serious fight, however, changed that.  Qui-Gon would not harm the padawan, at least, not seriously, but he would no longer by humoring the man.

Aalto lunged at Qui-Gon, only to find the older man already gone, flipping over Aalto's head, and twisting in mid-air to slam into the man's back and drive him to the floor.  There was a sick crunch as Qui-Gon brought a booted foot down on the wrist of Aalto's right arm, snapping the joint and making his hand spasm.  Aalto dropped his 'saber with a shriek of pain, but before he could even attempt to recover it, Qui-Gon had called the 'saber to his own hand, kicked the younger man over, and crossed them at his throat.  "Yield."

Hatred and rage flashed over Aalto's face, the padawan growling out, "Solah."

Qui-Gon deactivated the 'sabers, tossing Aalto's to his master.  "Teach your student control," Qui-Gon told the being.  "He is not worthy to wield the weapon of the Jedi in his current state."

The master's jaw ticked as the being moved to help Aalto from the floor, but Mace dipped his head in a brief nod.  Qui-Gon was right—Aalto needed to learn to control himself, and his reactions, before he was ready to use his lightsaber again.  The fight with Qui-Gon would not look good on his already problem-filled record.  "Ser Jinn, I must apologize for Padawan Aalto's misstep—"

"Padawan Aalto must apologize for his own misstep, Master Windu," Qui-Gon's face softened as his friend's apology.  "And please know, I do understand that this is not the way of the Jedi.  With very few exceptions, you have all been so very kind to me and my family.  Aalto's behavior does not change that.  However, I know the people of the galaxy rarely meet Jedi and if Padawan Aalto is the one they do meet . . . what would they think the rest of you are like?"

"We are cognizant of that," Yanarath told Qui-Gon, glancing at Aalto.  "Unfortunately, we are fallible beings, every one of us, and sometimes we make mistakes."

"I'm sorry, Master Yanarath," Qui-Gon shook his head, breaking himself of his gladiator mindset.  "And to you also, Master Windu.  I'm sure that's nothing you didn't already know and I didn't intend to sound so condescending."

"Looks like his master needed the reminder, through," Mace glanced at Aalto's master, who was watching the group closely.  "And I accept your apology.  Though next time you wish to lambast me, perhaps in private where the other Jedi are not staring while you scold one of the heads of the order?"

"I apologize," Qui-Gon bowed deeply, giving Mace a little wink.  "I let my emotions get the best of me, Master Windu.  Please forgive my foolish words."

"Forgiven, my friend," Mace was glad Qui-Gon was willing to help him save face, though it really wasn't necessary.  "Now, Padawan Aalto, please have that wrist seen to.  I will be discussing this with your master, certainly.  In the meantime, however, Qui-Gon, would you and Obi-Wan like to have a real match?"

"Oh?"  Obi-Wan perked up.  "Really?"

"Training power," Mace told the younger man, earning a wrinkled nose from Obi-Wan, though the councilor knew while there was some disappointment, Obi-Wan was mostly teasing.  "But perhaps Yanarath and I against the pair of you?"

"You may regret this," Yanarath told the councilor as they prepared to face off against the gladiators.  "I am afraid the 'saber is not my strongest skill."

"You'll be fine," Mace told the Bothan.  "Besides, I will be here to aide you."

On the sidelines, Garen and Reeft traded raised brows as Bant cheered for her friends.  Garen joined in, though during a lull turned to Bant.  "Can they really beat him?"

"They've done it before," Bant replied, then whooped in delight as the fighters headed for the center of the arena.  "Just you watch.  Obi-Wan was always a great fighter but this—this is art."

Further up in the stands, Anakin and Rhys got in a playful argument about who would kick who's butt worse, though it was clear Rhys knew his master was no match for the gladiators.  Yanarath's skills lay in logistics and organization.  He was usually sent to worlds torn apart by natural disasters or war to help with refugee camps and in those skills, there were few who were his match.  Those skills did easily help with tactics, however, and Rhys knew that would be his master's saving grace in this battle.

And, indeed, Yanarath did better than anyone expected, with Mace's 'saber skills there to back up his almost wild plan to get to the pair.  They even managed to disarm Obi-Wan of one 'saber, briefly, to everyone's surprise.

"I'd much rather you were on my team than against me," Qui-Gon admitted after the match, drawing Yanarath in for a back-slapping hug.  It was common in the arena between what allies a gladiator made there, to show there were no hard feelings for a fight, especially when there was a possibility of death.  Yanarath and Mace accepted the gestures with wide grins, Mace used to it after his many bouts with the Skywalkers, and the spectators were roaring with excitement from the fight.

"Looks like you two have some new fans," Mace commented, only to see Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan grinning toward Yanarath, who had been mobbed by his gleeful padawan.  Despite Yanarath's loss to the gladiators, hero-worship shone in Rhys' bright eyes.

"You were so cool, Master!" Rhys gushed, and even Mace couldn't help his smile.  "The way you and Master Windu charged in like that—!"

"It would have worked, too, had we been just about anyone else," Obi-Wan told Yanarath, patted his shoulder.  "You are an incredible tactician—especially if you and Master Windu have never fought together before."

Yanarath ducked his head.  "We have not, so I was a little surprised we did so well.  Thank you for the compliment.  I'm not in situations that require my lightsaber often, and I was never the best swordsman—"

"Your swift mind helps make up for lack of raw ability," Mace told the other master.  "It was an honor to fight with you."

"And with you, also," Yanarath bowed.  "I was wondering—would you mind showing me the disarm you used against Ser Kenobi?  It seemed very effective and—I would appreciate it very much."

"It would mesh with your fighting style quite well," Mace agreed.  "Of course.  Would you like me to teach it to your padawan also?  Most master-padawan pairs fight similarly so it would probably do well for him also."

"If it would not take too much of your time, Master Windu.  I know being a councilor must keep you busy."  Yanarath twisted his hands.

"Not too busy for this," Mace assured the being.  "Now, let us set up a meeting time. . . "

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traded grins.  It would be good for the council to get to know the Jedi under them better.  Yoda had some relationship with many of the children, but much of the council was too busy to have contact with the other Jedi often.  Perhaps drawing them from their ivory tower would be the first step to truly affect change in the Jedi order.  Leaders who were too far removed from their people tended to forget what their people truly needed to flourish rather than simply survive.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Yanarath was the talk of the temple for much of the festival week, and Rhys confessed to Anakin that it was good for his master, who was often overlooked because he was sent to refugee camps instead of treaty-signings.  The Skywalkers were glad to see that one of the temple's unsung heroes was getting attention, but their own was drawn away from the temple celebration by the news their paperwork had finished being processed and the pair could finally get married.

The elder Skywalkers had been called to the council chamber to be told the news, the shocked wonder on their faces something Mace knew he would remember for years to come.  "How soon can we get married?"  Obi-Wan asked, gripping Qui-Gon's hand, eyes bright with excitement.  "What do we need to do?"

"Made some preparations already, we have," Yoda told them gleefully.

"Unable to resist, I was," Yaddle shamelessly added.  "Learned of your home world's traditions and took the liberty to speak with Padmé of Naboo.  Remembered you had hoped to invite her to the wedding, I did, and be here the third day of the festival, she will."

Aside from the guest list, the council had taken care of many of the preparations for the wedding.  The pair had long decided they did not want to use rings as a symbol of their marriage, since slaves had no real possessions aside from their body, so the two chose to get tattoos instead.

The design they chose was simple, a ring woven through with a bit of knot work traditional to Qui-Gon's race, the Tuath Dé.  The tattoo was small, set on the inside of their wrists, a symbol for all to see while small enough to be private, personal.  The pair had intended for the tattoos to be a simple black, but the healers had mentioned they could easily mix a small bit of dust from their Kyber Crystal in the tattoo ink, which would make it shine with their aura color any time the pair touched the Force.  The result was beautiful and the men loved the way their tattoos would shimmer aquamarine when they made love.

Mace did suggest they at least have rings, for the times they needed or wanted to make sure people knew they were married since the tattoos did not carry the same meaning as a ring, and Yoda, who was officiating with Padmé, nodded in agreement.  "A point, Master Windu has," Yoda told them when they spoke to him about it.  "And silly, it is, to have a ceremony that speaks of rings when no rings you have!"

"Why would it talk about rings?"  Qui-Gon asked, exasperated.  "We weren't planning on exchanging them."

"Because talking about circles, I am," Yoda rapped the man's leg with his gimer stick.  "Love is a circle, life is a circle, sometimes destiny also, bringing Obi-Wan back to us.  Circles are important, yes."

"Eight hundred years made him senile," Qui-Gon complained as he and Obi-Wan prepared for bed, earning a laugh from his lover.

"Just let him deal with it," Obi-Wan replied, grinning.  "I know the wedding is about us, but this is making him so happy that I just haven't the heart to tell him no.  Besides, it's just a ring exchange, and he's supplying the rings.  So long as we're married at the end, what do we care?"

"You're right, of course," Qui-Gon kissed him tenderly.  "Now, I believe you and I had some other preparations for the wedding?"

"You mean practice for the honeymoon?"  Obi-Wan chuckled, following Qui-Gon to their bedchamber.  They were not going on an actual honeymoon, though Mace had arranged to keep Anakin occupied the day following the wedding.  Both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were fairly certain Mace had simply foisted Anakin off on Padmé and declared his work complete.

Qui-Gon kissed his lover hungrily, shoving him back on the bed.  "Practice, sure."

Obi-Wan laughed and began to strip off Qui-Gon's tunics.
<>*<>

In the end, the Skywalkers had invited the council, the Oppresses, Bant, Garen, Reeft, Padmé and her handmaidens, Pangur, Salín, Yanarath and Rhys.  They had also agreed to have their reception open to any Jedi who wanted to come, Bant and Yanarath taking over the planning for it.  When Obi-Wan asked, Yanarath had just smiled.  "It's being handled," The Jedi told him, waving him off.  "You just enjoy the ceremony."

It was Ki-Adi-Mindu who came to find the Skywalkers two days before the wedding, two large boxes in his arms.  "Ser Jinn, I was not certain if you had chosen what to wear, but I wanted to offer you the option of the traditional wedding clothing of your homeworld.  Many of the Jedi do not have much use for wedding traditions, but because of my species, I was one of the few Jedi allowed to marry."

"Why did the Jedi allow you to marry?"  Qui-Gon asked, curious.

Ki-Adi-Mundi explained the low birthrate of his people and the dangerous drop in the population, though he admitted that he had been cold and distant to his family, following the Order's tenants on attachment.  "Seeing you, however . . . I believe I have done them a great disservice.  My children are grown and I barely know them."

"It is not too late to try and mend those relationships," Obi-Wan assured the being.  "All children eventually learn their parents are simply sentient beings, prone to mistakes.  While you cannot undo the past, you can change what you do for the future."

"But it will take time," Qui-Gon added.  "And your children may not be ready for that kind of step."

"What should I do if they aren't?"

"Be there for them in whatever way they will allow," Obi-Wan smiled softly.  "And eventually, they may allow more."

"Thank you," Ki-Adi-Mundi told them, then gestured to the boxes.  "However, that was not the reason I came."

Qui-Gon pulled open the box he's been given, breath catching in his throat when he glimpsed what was inside.  Eireann had two distinct populations on the planet, Qui-Gon's people, the Tuath Dé, and a second race called the Milesians.  The Milesians were a second group of humans who had arrived on the planet generations after the Tuath Dé and enslaved them.  While Qui-Gon, like most of his people, had little love for the Milesians, he was quite proud of his Tuath Dé heritage.

In the box was the traditional garb of the Tuath Dé, a handsome kilt in the Jinn family tartan.  Qui-Gon jerked, staring at Ki-Adi-Mundi.  "How did you get this?"

"Having the cloth made was simple enough, and the pattern is still a matter of public record on your homeworld," Ki-Adi-Mundi explained, smiling.  "This is a freeman tartan, is it not?"

"It is—I'm just—I will be the first to wear it in generations," Qui-Gon swallowed hard.  Slaves were not allowed to wear a family tartan, and the idea he was allowed to do so was almost overwhelming.

"I was surprised to learn the Jinn line was descended from Kings," Ki-Adi-Mundi commented.  "It seems the Jinns were quite important."

"They were the old royals," Qui-Gon nodded.  It had been one of the few history lessons he had learned on his homeworld.  "Though I suppose it matters little since they were overthrown by the Milesians and sold.  Thank you for this.  It means a lot that you went to such trouble to learn about my people . . ."

"Expanding my knowledge is never trouble," Ki-Adi-Mundi replied.  "And I enjoyed learning about your homeworld.  The Tuath Dé are quite fascinating."

Qui-Gon and Ki-Adi-Mundi chattered for a moment while Obi-Wan opened his own package.  The clothing was in the style of the Jedi formal robes, through rather than the expected black, they were white, the sash made from Qui-Gon's tartan.  The man blinked, then looked up at Ki-Adi-Mundi.  "What's this?"

"Your homeworld is Stewjon, but your parents gave you to us rather young . . . I thought the Jedi robes more appropriate.  We can get something else, of course, but this was your home.  White is traditionally worn for weddings on your homeworld; I thought it might be a nice way to bring the two together."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan pulled the councilor into a hug.  "It means a lot that you went to all this effort for something to wear to our wedding."

"Oh, no," Ki-Adi-Mundi tried to wave it off.  "The honor was mine."

Ki-Adi-Mundi's gift found the Skywalkers inviting their other guests to mesh the traditions of their home worlds into the Skywalkers' wedding. Depa painted designs on their hands in red-brown henna, the whorls and lines opening into intricate flowers.  Several worlds gave small tokens of coins or trinkets to the married couple, and Plo Koon was insistent Qui-Gon wear a vermillion ribbon about the braid in his hair.  The mystified man obeyed, through the being never explained that particular tradition.

"It is my people's tradition to carry something of our parents," Mace told them, holding out his closed hands.  "They are not . . . traditionally . . . from your parents, but perhaps it is close enough?"

Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow when he was handed a smooth, black rock shot through with red veins.  "Thank you?"

"It's from your homeworld—from the River of Light.  When I tried to track down your family, I learned about a rather peculiar legend that gets shared regarding the Jinns.  About thirty five years ago, a woman named Mei-Lein Jinn birthed a baby boy in the river.  One of the locals said the Force tangled around the babe like vines and was quite insistent it was you when I mentioned your name.  There are no records to confirm it, of course, but I thought that even if I couldn't find your mother, the stone like a good compromise.  I doubt she touched it during your birth, but it would be interesting if she had."

"My mother's name was Mei-Lein?"  Qui-Gon asked, wide eyed as he took the stone.

The Jedi blinked.  "You didn't know?"

"I was sold away from her early—I always thought she must have died for me to be sold barely weaned, but I never knew—Thank you, Master Windu."  Qui-Gon bowed.  Qui-Gon probably wouldn't have known his own name, but his homeworld was one of the few in which slaves were legally named, in addition to their slave number.

"Everyone should know their mother's name," Mace clasped Qui-Gon's arm, the way brothers shook hands on Mace's home world. "Now, as for Obi-Wan, we actually have record of your family in the temple.  Your parents sent a memento with you when they brought you to us—though it was buried in storage after all this time.  I think we had intended to give return it but with time and distraction . . . we forgot."

The long chain Mace offered the younger man was old; far older than just a single generation, and Obi-Wan wondered about the history he held in his hand.  "This was my family's?"

"You mother's,"  Mace corrected.  "Your homeworld may have been Stewjon, but your mother's family was originally nomadic.  These were how they kept their family histories before they invented print, but the tradition has survived.  It is called a linage chain and each family member places a trinket on it that represents him- or herself.  They are passed from eldest child to eldest child and some of the charms are incredibly valuable, though what they say about your family's history is priceless."

"I can't believe you went to all this trouble for us," Qui-Gon wiped his eyes as Obi-Wan threw his arms around Mace.  "You can't know what this means—I didn't even know my mother's name.  Thank you."

"Humph," Mace grunted, though he looked pleased.  "If you're done crying all over me, don't you two have a wedding to deal with?"

Qui-Gon had the stone made into a necklace for the ceremony while Obi-Wan wore the chain looped about his lightsaber hilt, a tiny bit of their Kyber crystal added to the chain to represent himself.  He'd spent almost a hour studying the chain the night before, fingers touching each of the charms as he'd added his own.  The mind-wipe had taken so much of his own history that Obi-Wan had despaired knowing anything concrete from before, but this gave him a link to his past self and his ancestors, and it would give one to Anakin as well since the boy would one day inherit it.

"Ready, a chuisle mo chroí?" Qui-Gon took Obi-Wan's hand before pushing open the doors to the council room.  They would be married in front of the giant window overlooking Coruscant.

"Ready," Obi-Wan agreed, and the two headed into the room.

As promised, Yoda gave a great speech about circles and rings that neither man paid much mind to, too busy stared at one another.  It was Bant who drew them out of it, touching their clasped hands and smiling at them both when Yoda asked who stood witness of their union in the Force.  "I do, and the Force is with them."

"And who bears witness for the Republic?"  Padmé asked.

Qui-Gon chuckled when the entire council chorused, "We do!"

Padmé glanced at the Jedi, then gestured to her handmaidens, who stepped forward.  Padmé has asked to include a tradition from Naboo, to which the Skywalkers agreed, but they hadn't had time to ask what it was.  They suspected the handmaidens' strange garb played a part, though they hadn't through much of it when they noticed it.  The young women wore flowing grey and white robes, a ribbon of scarlet twined from ring finger to heart, and each carried a crimson flower.  Padmé directed her next words to her handmaidens.  "And who bears witness of this ceremony for those who cannot bear witness for themselves?"

"For Shmi, I bear witness," Sabé laid the flow in the men's upturned palms, dark eyes soft at Qui-Gon's sharp intake of breath.

"For Qui-Gon's family, I bear witness," Eirtaé laid down her flower.

"For Obi-Wan's family, I bear witness," Rabé laid her flower with the others.

"For your teachers, friends and mentors who were unable to be here," Another handmaiden announced, and the last three laid their flowers down as she spoke.  "We bear witness."

The Force gathered around the flowers, and for a moment Qui-Gon could have sworn he felt Shmi there, offering her blessing to them, and thanking them for watching over her son.  Neither man had expected to weep at their wedding ceremony, but Qui-Gon broke, then, head bowed.  Padmé looked horrified, but Obi-Wan gave her a reassuring smile.  "These are good tears.  This is a good tradition.  Thank you."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon repeated when he'd collected himself.  "I just—I thought I felt Shmi and . . . she was so happy . . . thank you."

"Wed now, you are and kiss, you may," Yoda told them.  "Proof to all gathered of the union you now share in the eyes of the Republic's laws."

Qui-Gon kissed Obi-Wan softly, the flowers crushed between them, and the gathered crowed cheered.  A handful of pictures were taken of the Skywalkers, the three of them grinning like idiots.

"Another surprise we have," Yoda smirked.  "Tradition of my people, to share a meal after a wedding.  Had the commissary make the traditional dishes of my people, I did."

"Traditional dishes?"  Obi-Wan asked hesitantly.  While little was known about Yoda or Yaddle's origins, they did know the beings were originally swamp dwellers.

"Oh yes," Yaddle nodded.  "Many kinds of grub, there are."

"And bugs," Yoda added.  "Had the most delicious brought for you, I did.  Tradition for my people, this is."

"Please tell me they're at least dead?"  Mace asked, looking a little green.  Qui-Gon only shrugged.  It wouldn't be the first time he and Obi-Wan had eaten bugs.

"Alive," Yaddle replied, looking at the Skywalkers.  They looked unimpressed.  Yaddle nudged Yoda, who sighed.

"No fun, these Skywalkers," Yoda complained.  "Tradition to have bugs it is not, through tradition to have a meal, yes."

Obi-Wan shrugged.  "It wouldn't be the first time we've had bugs, and besides, there was no way Bant or Yanarath would have ever let you serve us bugs."

"Bah," Yoda huffed, taking Anakin's offered shoulder while Savage knelt next to Yaddle.  It should have been Maul's job to carry his master, but Yaddle had waved him off, knowing Savage and Anakin would walk together and being in the middle of a conversation with Yoda.

Chatting happily, the group headed towards the offered meal, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon happily clasping hands as the ink dried on their new marriage certificate.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The Skywalkers had been at the temple for six months when the first reports for the investigation regarding the other Jedi padawans reported dead in the field returned.  They had gone back fifteen years, just to be safe, though it looked like Obi-Wan had been the earliest sold.  In that decade, sixty padawans had been reported dead, only a handful of whom had died in the temple.  Twenty had been sold into slavery.  Seven of them had been found alive.  Two were in pleasure houses, one was in a mine, one was a house-slave and three were in the arena.  One of the pleasure slaves and the house slave were in Republic space.

Mace stared at the report in his hand, bile creeping up the back of his throat.  Two padawans sold each a year and no one had ever noticed.  Gripping the report tightly, Mace forced himself toward the Skywalkers rooms, eyes wet with unshed tears.  He had already cleared the funds to purchase the slaves, made sure there was enough to buy their families also, but he knew he needed to show this to Obi-Wan.  At the very least, the once-padawan deserved to know what the council had found and Mace knew their aide would be invaluable while preparing for the newcomers' arrival.

It was a small blessing Anakin wasn't there when Mace arrived; there was no need for the child to hear the news Mace bore.  Anakin already had old eyes—Mace refused to add to their years.  Steeling himself, the councilor touched the door chime, swallowing hard when Obi-Wan opened the door a few breaths later.  The younger man's brow furrowed.  "Mace?  What's wrong?"

Wordlessly, Mace held out the datapad for Obi-Wan to take.

"Force," Obi-Wan choked as he read the first several lines, blue-green eyes going wide.  Qui-Gon was at his side in a moment, Obi-Wan's distress shrieking through their bond.  The man glanced between the pair, still in the doorway, and he ushered them to the couch, settling between them and pulling Obi-Wan into his side.

"What happened?"  Qui-Gon asked, taking the offered datapad from his husband.  He skimmed through the report, shock written on his face as he reached the end.  "A third of your padawans?  That's—"

"How could we not notice?"  Mace buried his face in his hands, weeping.  "We didn't question it.  Three masters are in the report multiple times—How could we not know?"

"Being a Jedi is dangerous," Obi-Wan reminded the councilor.  "And you had no reason to suspect anything.  The deaths were reported on dangerous, war-torn worlds and the masters were very careful."

"We're going to get them all back," Mace promised.  "And punish the masters responsible."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan squeezed the man's hand.  "But I sense you came to use with another purpose in mind, also?"

"The council has already cleared the necessary funds to purchase the surviving padawans," Mace sighed heavily, twisting his hands together.  "I've also requested a list of Jedi closest to the slaves' most current locations before I came here.  Once I know who is nearby, I'll send teams to get them."

"You'll purchase their families too, won't you?"  Obi-Wan asked anxiously, clutching Qui-Gon's hand.  "They won't be forced to leave them behind?"

Mace softened at Obi-Wan's visible distress, shaking his head.  "We would never leave their families behind.  I'd buy everyone if I could, but even the Jedi have limits."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan released his anxiety to the Force, seeking his center.  "I can't imagine if I had to leave Qui-Gon or Anakin—Force—"

"But you didn't," Qui-Gon assured his husband.  "And they won't be leaving their families, either."

"Qui-Gon is correct," Mace agreed, then hesitated before continuing, "And I was hoping to request a favor from you.  As a council member, not as a friend."

"Of course," Obi-Wan agreed.  "What did you need?"

"Would you be willing to help us create a reintegration plan?  We don't want them to struggle with being free and you two will understand the challenges they face better than the rest of us."

"We would be glad to help," Qui-Gon squeezed Mace's shoulder.  "Making this transition as easy as we can for everyone would be an honor."

"We have no idea what shape they'll be in," Mace warned.  "Most of them are not . . . in ideal situations."

"We will still help, and gladly," Obi-Wan assured him.

Mace let himself relax slightly at that, and went to make them all some tea, glad he'd long since earned the right to use their kitchen, while Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon looked over the rather lengthy report.  The pair were visibly agitated when they finished, though Mace's assurance that things were being investigated helped calm them.  "When this comes out, it will shake the very foundations of the Jedi," Qui-Gon commented quietly.  "And it must come out.  Keeping it secret will only make it worse when someone does discover it."

"I will need to discuss this with the council," Mace bowed his head.  Qui-Gon was right, of course, but it hardly made the truth easier.

"We would like to meet the ships as they land," Obi-Wan set the report on the table and sipped at his tea.  "Qui-Gon and I may be able to help alleviate some of the fears they will be feeling.  They may also be more willing to speak with us than with you."

"That is reasonable, I think," Mace agreed.  "I certainly don't want to add to their stress."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon glanced Mace over, then gripped his forearm.  "This must be incredibly difficult for you."

"I've no right to complain—they've gone through so much worse—"

"Them going through worse doesn't make your experiences—or your worry—invalid," Obi-Wan broke in gently.  "We're your friends, Mace.  Talk to us.  I promise, we will not judge."

Mace broke down, telling the pair about his inadequate he felt as a council member—how had he not seen this?—and how afraid he was that the former Jedi would resent the Order for this.  He was afraid, too, that they would be able to help these former Padawans.  "Worst of all," Mace told them, wiping his eyes,  "There are a couple I think I am glad died, just so they didn't have to suffer."

"Glad or relieved?"  Qui-Gon questioned, a warm hand curled around the nape of Mace's neck.

"Relieved," Mace correct himself.  "What little was found on two of the padawans sold . . . well.  You read it.  And I'm worried they're still alive.  That we've been lied to twice, somehow."

"Is it possible?"

"A couple were cremated and some are in mass graves so we cannot be absolutely certain, but I trust the Jedi who were sent and there is no evidence the padawans are alive."

"Then you must meditate on this and trust the Force," Qui-Gon replied.  "If the Force tells you to look, then look.  If the Force tells you they have rejoined it, then they have left this life."

"Qui-Gon . . . "  Obi-Wan and Mace gaped at the man for a moment.

Qui-Gon shifted uncomfortably.  "What?"

"Nothing," Obi-Wan shook his head.  "It's just. . .  you sounded like a Jedi for a moment.  It was . . . disconcerting."

"Gee, thanks," Qui-Gon huffed, half pouting.

"It's nothing bad, it's just that . . . well, you and the Jedi code aren't exactly friends."  Mace pointed out.  "Still, your advice is sound.  Thank you."

"It's nothing," Obi-Wan smiled up at his lover, though the comment was clearly directed at Mace.  "Have you some time to stay?  We can get started on this reintegration plan."

"Not long," Mace settled back onto the couch.  "I will need to speak with the council later and go over some mission reports, but nothing is currently pressing."

The trio poured over the report since none of the returning Jedi would have the same needs—at least, not outside of rather extensive therapy.  "They need some control over their new lives," Qui-Gon told him gently when he and Obi-Wan determined Mace's schedule too rigid.  "Slave don't have many choices and small ones will help things sink in without becoming too overwhelming."

"You seemed to do well enough," Mace raised an eyebrow.

"Arena slaves, gladiators specifically, have a fair amount of autonomy as far as slaves go," Qui-Gon explained.  "Plus, we had Anakin to think of."

"We also kept our meltdowns behind closed doors," Obi-Wan added, giving Qui-Gon a half smile.  "Trust me when I say this is better."

"If you're sure," Mace sighed softly, glancing at the clock.  "I need to get to the council meeting.  I'll drop in later to see where you're at with this."

"Go," Obi-Wan urged.  "Qui-Gon and I will be fine."

"Thank you," Mace gave the pair a short bow.  "You've no idea how much I appreciate this."

"Go," Qui-Gon repeated, voice gentle.  Mace stayed silent but wondered if maybe, just maybe, the pair did know what it meant to him.  With a second bow, Mace disappeared out the door.
<>*<>

The first padawan to return to the temple had spent the last three years in the mines and had to be blindfolded to stand anything brighter than a candle flame.  The human had been within six months of his trials, but the conditions of the mines were bad enough that few humans survived more than a year, and it had left him nearly broken.  His hands had been ruined by the work and Mace doubted he'd ever hold a lightsaber again.

"Challa?"  The man rasped, frantic when he lost contact with the small, bird-like Jedi knight that had retrieved him.  "Challa!"

"So'lanai," Qui-Gon's soft greeting immediately calmed the man, though he only stopped feeling around for the knight when Obi-Wan folded the man's hands in his own.  "Challa is nearby and you're safe.  You've been returned to the Jedi temple; they've been searching for you."

"So'lanai," The man gripped Obi-Wan's hands.  "Are you Jinn or Kenobi?  Challa said—he said I could stay with him but—"

"Arrange that, we can," Yoda's soft voice made the man jump in fear, hands tightening around Obi-Wan's.  "Good to see you again it is, Padawan Halvarsen."

"Master Yoda?"  Halvarsen went to his knees, weeping as the ancient master hugged him tightly.  "I—I'm really—home?"

"Home you are, and glad for that, I am," Yoda murmured, letting the man clutch at him.

Challa tilted his head, bird-like and gave his species' version of a frown.  "We should get inside, Halvarsen.  "You'll grow chilled.  I don't wish for you to become ill."

Halvarsen bit his lip.  "I—I like it outside.  I haven't been in the open air for so long . . ."

"I thought, perhaps, we could visit the room of a thousand fountains?"  Challa explained, resting a hand on Halvarsen's shoulder.  "Master Windu said we would be able to lower the lights so you could remove your blindfold, there."

"Really?"  Halvarsen gasped, groping for his friend.  "Please, Challa, I want to see—just to make sure I'm really home."

Challa chirred softly as he and Halvarsen headed for the door, Challa using the Force to guide the blind-folded man.  Mace watch them, dark eyes sad.  "Challa and Halvarsen were close friends until Halvarsen di—was sold.  According to Challa, Halvarsen was not mind-wiped, but he's spent the past three years in a Force inhibitor.  The healers have not looked at him yet, but there is a chance he will have difficulty touching the Force the rest of his days."

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan both shuddered.  Obi-Wan watched the pair disappear inside and commented, "Halvarsen will need Challa.  The familiarity will help him a great deal and maybe, when he truly knows he is home, it will help combat the damage of the Force collar."

"Challa has been moved from active duty for a half cycle," Depa told them softly.  "We are hoping Challa will help facilitate the process.  After that, we will re-evaluate."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon hugged the woman.  "I know this must be hard for the order."

"Hard as it may be for us, it is harder on them," Depa replied.  "And it is also our fault.  We will care for our own, especially when we are all they have."

"Good," Obi-Wan replied, and hugged Depa as well.  "Do you think he will ever be able to become Jedi?  I know I gave up, but I have a family.  Halvarsen, however . . . "

"Nothing will be decided until he is better," Mace led the way inside.  "And then if he wishes to become Jedi, we will see about reassigning a master to him.  Or perhaps simply have Challa teach him.  He has been a knight for over two years now and having an older padawan for one's first Padawan is usually helpful."

"Halvarsen will have much to overcome," Qui-Gon reminded Mace.

"And Challa will not need to do this alone," Mace agreed.  "But for now . . . Halvarsen just needs time.  I was thinking he could join Bant's lessons, once his eyes are finished healing.  It would be almost a week from now, but I think it would do him good."

"Talk to Challa in a couple days," Qui-Gon recommended.

"Just remember," Obi-Wan turned to look at the council members.  "They will need time and patience."

The council traded determined nods, and Mace resolutely followed Challa and Halvarsen into the building.
<>*<>

The next two slaves located were a pair of Twi'lek males found on a planet deep in Republic space.  The first was twenty three and had been sold two years after Obi-Wan as a house slave.  Like Obi-Wan, he'd been mind-wiped and remembered little of the Jedi.  He had also found a family during his time as a slave and was accompanied by his lover and their two daughters, ages one and three.  The second Twi'lek was only seventeen and had been sold to a pleasure house three years prior, though his mind had been left intact.

The eldest Twi'lek pushed the others back when the Jedi approached, blinking in surprise when Anakin bounded forward, grinning.  "So'lanai!  Welcome to Coruscant.  I'm Anakin Skywalker and these are my parents, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi."

The eldest Twi'lek froze, eyes darting from Anakin to his parents then back to the Jedi.  "So'lanai," Obi-Wan gave a small smile and wrapped his arms around Anakin's shoulders.  "He won't be punished for speaking out of turn.  He's a freeman.  And so are you."

"Are you certain?"  The Twi'lek frowned.  "I've never heard of a Jedi owning slaves, but . . . you offer a slave's greeting."

"My parents and me are from Tatooine," Anakin explained, leaning into Obi-Wan's embrace.  "We were slaves there but we aren't now.  The Jedi freed us.  My parents even got married."

"And adopted you," Qui-Gon ruffled Anakin's hair, then turned to the Twi'lek.  "So'lanai."

"So'lanai," The Twi'lek clasped Qui-Gon's forearm.  "I'm Lorik, this is my lover, Aylin, and our children, Kalina and Nayla.  Our hanger on is Kelyan."

"Welcome to the Jedi Temple," Mace bowed in greeting.

Lorik glanced at the Jedi, then back to Qui-Gon as Aylin broke in, wide eyed.  "Are we truly free?  All of us?  And—and my children?"

"All of you," Mace replied firmly.  "Your paperwork is being processed and we're going to be heading to the halls of healing to make arrangements to have your transmitters removed."

Aylin gave a choked sob, burying her face in her lover's shoulder.  Lorik gripped her tight, tears in his own eyes.  "Thank all the gods."

"What about me?"  Kelyan twisted his tunic anxiously, eyes tear-bright.  "I—I've no skills to speak of and I'm not old enough to be on my own."

"All of you are welcome to remain here if you wish," Adi Gallia assured the boy.  "If not, we will settle you on another world, make sure you have work, find you tutors.  You were Jedi, once, and we will take care of you."

"Can I—Can I be Jedi again?"  Kelyan asked, lips trembling.  "I—I was barely a padawan when—when I was sold but I know I can do it, if—if someone will just give me a chance—"

"If you wish to rejoin the Jedi, we will do whatever we can to help you achieve that," Adi smiled at the boy and Mace tilted his head.  Adi had always enjoyed teaching and the Force seemed to think she and Kelyan had a connection.  Perhaps she would be the who guided the Twi'lek to knighthood.  "For now, however, let's get you settled in and caught up on some of this coursework.  You cannot be a padawan and return to missions until we know you are healthy."

Yoda's ears twitched as he watched the pair, and Mace knew the old troll was going to get involved.  "Stay with Master Adi Gallia, you will," Yoda announced, and Mace had to cough to hide his snicker.  "Help you regain your bearings, she can."

"Master?"  Adi turned to Yoda, frowning.

"Connected, you are," Yoda sketched a finger between the pair.  "Calls you together, the Force does.  His teacher, perhaps, it wishes you to be."

"Oh, no," Kelyan shook his head, wide eyed.  "I do not deserve—"

"I can think of nothing that would please me more," Adi smiled, making the Twi'lek shift back, uncertain.  "But nothing needs decided now.  Let us get you well first, and then if you wish to be my padawan . . . I would be most honored."

Lorik smiled softly, wrapping an arm around his lover.  If nothing else, it seemed Kelyan would gain something good of all this.  "May we see our new quarters?"

"They're right down the hall from us," Anakin told the being, almost bouncing in excitement.  "You'll love it!"

Obi-Wan was fairly certain Lorik and his family would not stay long, though the gladiator couldn't blame him.  Despite the memory loss, the temple and it's what-ifs could be haunting.  He was also fairly certain Lorik did not want his daughters trained as Jedi, which would surely happen if they were Force-sensitive and remained at the temple.  Still, it would be important for Kalina and Nayla to learn some control and for a few of the lessons Lorik had forgotten be re-taught to him to help with his own Force abilities.

"From what little we know, Aylin would probably do well in the Agri-corps," Mace told the Skywalkers as they headed inside.  "And Lorik would probably do well on the administrative side.  We've made arrangements for them to go there, first.  If they don't like it, we will look into other alternatives."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan squeezed Mace's arm.  "It will mean so much to them, knowing someone cares what happens to them."

"Adi has offered to stay in touch," Mace replied.  "It seems Kelyan bonded with the family during the trip and she believes the contact will help them all adjust."

"Master Gallia will be a good teacher for Kelyan," Obi-Wan offered almost trance-like, then shook his head slightly.  "So says the Force."

"Glad to know we are all in agreement, then," Mace grinned.  "Come on, let's show Lorik and his family where they'll be staying until all the arrangements are made for them."
<>*<>

Mace returned to their rooms a handful of days after the two Twi'lek arrived, pacing in agitation.  The Jedi sent to retrieve the arena slaves had returned with grim news—their masters were refusing to sell.  "I don't know what to do," Mace told the pair, turning on his heel to pace back toward the Skywalkers.  "We can't just leave them."

"Sit," Qui-Gon shoved Mace onto the couch.  "Buying slaves outright is only one way to get them.  Many masters will bet their slaves in arena fights.  Obi-Wan and I changed hands so often there were times we would pass through three or four masters and not know."

"The Jedi I sent looked into that, but there are no competitors that are consistent enough to bet on.  And if they bet on the same people enough, they will stop being put up as collateral.  Plus one of the owners never bets her Jedi."

"There is a third option," Obi-Wan glanced at his lover.  Qui-Gon sighed but nodded to a silent question asked over their bond.  "There is a type of arena fight called a sacrifice match.  Each side puts in something of great value—usually a slave or some kind of exotic pet.  Then two teams fight each other.  The last team standing gets both sacrifices.  Qui-Gon and I could fight, but you'd need a really good sacrifice to convince someone that never bets their slave to put them in."

"Like a real Jedi?" Mace asked, trying to get up to continue pacing.  Qui-Gon planted his hands on the man's shoulder and shoved him down.  The Skywalkers were not going to deal with him trying to wear a hole through their floor.

"Like a real Jedi.  But they have to volunteer," Qui-Gon told him.  "Fighters can't double as sacrifices and there is a chance that we'll lose since we've been out of the arena for awhile.  And if we do lose, whoever is serving as the sacrifice . . . "

"Will be a slave."  Mace finished softly.

Obi-Wan nodded, settling next to the master.  "But it may also be the only way.  Most of the beings that deal in the arena are greedy, somehow.  The trick is to find their price."

"I'll discuss it with the council," Mace said, rising to his feet.  "I'm far too emotionally compromised to make such a decision."

"Stay here and meditate with us for a time," Qui-Gon urged, clasping Mace's shoulder.  "You need to calm down and sort out your feelings before you go to the council with any of this and I think joint meditation will help."

Mace nodded, helping Qui-Gon fetch a few meditation mats while Obi-Wan spoke to Bant.  Mace spent nearly two hours with them, sorting through his emotions and releasing them to the Force.  When he finally found his equilibrium, Mace rose.  "I want you to come with me, to speak to the council regarding the sacrificial match."

The Skywalkers nodded, falling in behind Mace as he let his way to the council chamber.  The council was unhappy with the news Mace brought, and protested the Skywalkers' offer, but the sacrificial match was the only one the owners would agree to.  Yoda frowned.  "Like this, I do not.  Send the Skywalkers, we should not."

"The arena is called the Jedi killer for a reason," Obi-Wan argued.  "You have no experience and the price of losing is far too high to risk that!"

"He's right," Even Piell clenched his jaw.  "I don't like it, but he's right."

"I'm going with you," Mace told the pair.  "I one of the best fighters at the temple and I'm sure between the three of us—"

"Four, there will be," Yoda interrupted, tapping his gimer stick.  "Accompany you, I will."

"Masters—"

"No, Obi-Wan," Mace crossed his arms.  "We aren't sending you alone.  Yoda and I go with you, or we figure out something else."

"There is nothing else!"  Obi-Wan snapped.

"Exactly," Mace said.

The gladiators sighed, then Qui-Gon nodded.  "Fine.  But we train you.  Two weeks.  We start tomorrow at eighth hour and end whenever Obi-Wan and I say.  Understand?"

"Done." Mace agreed.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The Skywalkers worked Mace and Yoda hard, terrified of losing the matches that would either bring the Jedi home or send more slaves into the galaxy.  Depa, Siri and Shaak Ti volunteered as tributes and the slave owners agreed to bet their Jedi in the sacrificial matches, greedy at seeing three, female Jedi for the taking.  Each owner had met the arena limit of having two dozen fighters on the field during the match, set against two former gladiators and two Jedi.  The sacrifices would be chained and were not allowed weapons, though they could defend themselves as they were otherwise able.

The group was headed to Kessel for the fight, the largest arena in the Minor Circuit.  Located in one of the Royal Sanctuaries, the climate was only slightly warmer than Mace was strictly comfortable with, though he wasn't bothered by it.  The Skywalkers, having lived so long on Tatooine, barely noticed the heat and Yoda, whose homeworld was mostly swamp, mourned the lack of humidity.  Shaak Ti stared at the tall, stone walls of the arena.  "How have we not found these?  If something like this was on Coruscant—"

"Do you really think they're stupid enough to build an open arena like this on the core worlds?"  Obi-Wan rolled his eyes.  "On Coruscant it is hidden, probably in the lower levels.  There are a lot of empty spaces just above the unsafe levels where no one would ever look."

Shaak Ti snapped her mouth shut.  Both Skywalkers had heard her at the temple, denying the existence of the core arenas and they grew tired of being called liars.  She was hardly the only one, but it made it no less irksome.  Siri just shook her head.  "We haven't had much luck finding it yet, though."

"Hardly a surprise," Qui-Gon replied.  "We don't know where it is and Coruscant is a very large world, even with narrowing it down with what we did know.  And it may have moved—I don't think it would have been difficult."

This arena, however, was permanent.  Built from stone and plastcrete, the arena was heavy and imposing.  The entrances for the gladiators had plasteel bars at the doors, lifted when the gladiators were allowed entrance to the arena.  Obi-Wan led them below the arena to prepare, gesturing them into one of the fair-sized stone rooms kept for the freemen who chose to enter the fights.  The group could use it for whatever preparations they had and spend the time before their fight there.

"You said there was something more we would need for this?"  Mace asked, eyeing the cases Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had sent ahead of them.  They'd already been delivered to what Siri had dubbed their dressing room in her head, like they were holostars rather than voluntary sacrifices and gladiators in this wretched arena.

"It is a rare gladiator who does not wear armor, and they typically do not last long." Qui-Gon told the pair, unlatching the smallest case while Obi-Wan pried open a larger one.  "Numbers tend to overcome ability at some point, regardless of the fighters, and we don't wish to lose you that way."

"Truth you speak, this is," Yoda answered, though he made a face when Qui-Gon began handing him plasteel greaves, gauntlets and a gorget followed by an armorweave over tunic.  "Heavy and restrictive this is, however."

"I'm certain it won't slow you down that much.  Or did you think the training we had you doing in those weighted vests were for our amusement?"  Obi-Wan cocked an eyebrow as he handed over Mace's armor.

"I did wonder," Mace replied, earning a snort from the women.

While Mace and Yoda's armor was fairly plain, mostly mimicking their Jedi tunics, Obi-Wan's and Qui-Gon's was more elaborate.  Someone had spent good money on their equipment, and Mace was sure it hadn't been Watto.  Their clothing was done in the drab Jedi tans and browns with white, plasteel pauldrons, gauntlets, greaves and a gorget.  A Jedi crest covered the back of their armorweave over tunics, Obi-Wan's in lilac blue and Qui-Gon's in spring green; their pauldrons bearing the same crests in aquamarine.  Qui-Gon also bore a spring green vine motif curling up his left gauntlet and right greave while Obi-Wan had an almost water-like lilac blue swirl on his right gauntlet and left greave.  Obi-Wan wove a lilac blue ribbon through his braid, making it easier for the crowd to see, and Qui-Gon streaked his hair with spring green before tying it up in a high tail.

"This is how we're known in the arena," Qui-Gon shrugged, applying a stripe of black just above his eyebrows and around his eyes, then blending it into green on his nose and cheeks.  Obi-Wan did the same, though he went from black to blue violet.  Their eyes were brilliant against the dark make-up, unnaturally pale against the black.   At Mace's raised brow, Qui-Gon grinned.  "You'd be surprised, but it actually helps keep the dust and dirt away as well as cut back the glare of the sun.  The rest is just . . . well, the arena is a stage and this is how people know us."

"You would know best," Mace submitted to similar treatment with the paints, though Qui-Gon had brought purple for him and Obi-Wan used yellow on Yoda.  The little master looked nothing like the kind Jedi Mace knew him to be with the armor and painted face.  The man hid a shudder as he turned back to the gladiators.  "We should go back over tonight's plan."

"The trick is to get out as fast as possible," Qui-Gon reminded them.  "Yoda will go first, since he is the smallest, then Obi-Wan and Mace will go together and I will be last.  Do not linger to help another leave.  The sacrifices will already be chained in the arena and you must go help them."

"There is a strategy in some of these cases to just kill the sacrifices if one team finds itself loosing," Obi-Wan explained.  "The idea being that if they can't have the slave, no one else can either."

Qui-Gon looked over Depa, Siri and Shaak Ti.  "We'll cut you free as quickly as we can.  Stick with the other Jedi.  Mace, your job is to keep everyone away from them.  Since they're Jedi sacrifices, there is a chance they'll be in Force inhibitors, though I'm not sure how large a chance it will be.  Obi-Wan, Yoda and I will be there to defeat the others."

"There is one more thing . . . "  Obi-Wan bit his lip, looking over the Jedi.  "You can still back out—you don't have to fight—but in order to make sure we win . . . you cannot show mercy.  Kill instead of incapacitate.  The gladiators will not hesitate to repeat the favor and I . . . the arenas may be called Jedi Killers, but I don't wish to lose any of you to this one."

"We're all going home, Obi-Wan," Mace squeezed his shoulder.  "Have faith in us, hm?"

Obi-Wan searched Mace's eyes for a moment, then nodded.  "I do.  And thank you."

"Come on," Siri ordered, her grin toothy and hard.  "Let's win back some Jedi."
<>*<>

The Jedi sacrifices were chained to tall, plasteel posts set into holes in the ground, barely able to stand on tip-toe.  The first sacrifice was one of the youngest Jedi who had been sold, barely thirteen though he'd been fighting in the arena for a solid month.  Obi-Wan could already tell the Besalisk youngling had been mind-wiped, though he wasn't sure what had remained of the boy's memories.

"Stick to the plan," Qui-Gon ordered, reaching for his husband.  Obi-Wan nodded as they twisted their fingers together, falling into their bond.  Their new tattoos glowed aquamarine from the depth of their connection, the Force gathering around them.  Mace and Yoda stared, dumbfounded.  They had never seen them pair so far in their bond and they made a note to see if the lore keepers at the temple had found anything further on their return.

The creak of the rising gate had their attention back on the fight, Yoda throwing himself beneath the bars the moment the gate was high enough.  Mace and Obi-Wan scrambled after him seconds later, Qui-Gon a mere breath behind.  Yoda had time to free Depa and the young Jedi before the first of the opposing team arrived, the being turning his attention to the gladiator wielding a vibroblade.  Blasters were restricted in the arena—the spectators insisted it took the fun out of the sport—but almost anything else was free game.

Mace freed Siri and Shaak Ti when he got to them, then twisted and cut down two approaching gladiators.  As Jedi, they had the training and stamina to handle the length of the fights, but many Jedi were not as adept at fighting as Mace or Yoda.  He twisted under a third gladiator and caught of glance of Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, dark eyes widening at the sight of the pair.

The Skywalkers had always been good natured and kind, warm lights in a world where many others had been snuffed out.  Now, though, their light had grown cold and hard, like moon glinting off a sheet of ice, their ferocity enhanced by armor and face paint.  The pair swept into the thickest group of gladiators, lightsabers blazing to life with their telltale snap-hiss.  The crowd screamed in excitement, and the roar began to change.

"Jedi!  Jedi!  Jedi!"

Mace had forgotten that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had been known as "The Jedi," on the arena circuit.  While they were not recognized without their gear and face paint, the crowd certainly knew them now and only cheered louder at the appearance of their lightsabers.  Mace also hadn't realized just how brutal the pair had been in the arena.  They'd told him, of course, about the number of lives they'd taken and the viciousness of their fights, but to see it first hand was awesome.

Obi-Wan went down into a controlled slide, spinning beneath the other gladiators' feet as Qui-Gon plowed through the middle of them, slicing two in half before snapping a third's ribs with a roundhouse kick.  Obi-Wan drove his lightsaber backward to sever the spine of one gladiator even as he tripped three more with the slide and sliced off their limbs as he rose in a quick spin.

The crowd screamed as the other gladiators fell back, eyes locked on Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  "I didn't sign up to fight The Jedi," One snapped, heading for the gate.  "No way—"

Something sparked about the being's neck—a shock collar—and the man shrieked, convulsing as he collapsed.  Mace shoved Depa back when she moved to help, seeing the Skywalkers go tense and still.  After what felt like hours of listening to the being scream but what the Force told Mace was mere minutes, something gave a soft pop.  Horror wound through the being's agony and suddenly his head was missing.  Mace saw Depa blanche out of the corner of his eye and knew he was doing the same.

"You agreed to fight to the last," Obi-Wan twirled his blade around his hand.  "Unless you want to risk setting off your transmitter too."

"And if we surrender?"  A grizzled woman demanded.  "You're the Jedi.  Surely you would allow—"

"We are gladiators," Qui-Gon tilted his head arrogantly.  "This is the arena."

"No one said shit about the Jedi," The woman snapped.  "I never would have volunteered if I'd known!"

"This was a sacrificial match with three female Jedi and a child," Obi-wan hissed.  "Even if you didn't know we were the Jedi, I know the tactics your master employs.  You never should have agreed."

"We are slaves—"

"Sacrificial matches are the only matches in which you have a choice," Qui-Gon snarled.  "It is the rule of the arena.  What did she promise you, your master?  Wealth?  Fame?  Freedom?"

"Fuck you!"  Another gladiator screamed, lunging at the man.  Qui-Gon twisted out of the way even as he raised his lightsaber and cut the being down.

"And there's no way you'll let us leave alive?"  The woman asked.

"Tell me—if I say no do you intend to try to kill the child?"  Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow.

"If he's old enough to fight in the arena, he's old enough to die in it," The woman sneered.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan traded looks, Qui-Gon leaping at the woman, who barely dodged.

"If he's old enough to die in the arena, then so are you," Qui-Gon snapped, twisting beneath her blade and delivering a vicious hand heel to the underside of her chin.  The woman's neck snapped back with a sick crack, the other gladiators looking horrified.

The remaining gladiators lunged for the Skywalkers who were little more than a whirl of blades in their midst even as two slid away from the pack and headed straight for the young padawan.  Mace twisted under one to cut down the second even as Yoda bounded past to take out three gladiators attempting to disembowel the Skywalkers.  Mace beheaded the second gladiator lunging for the padawan, turning in time to see Qui-Gon droving his 'saber through the heart of the final gladiator.

Fight over, Mace let his attention return to the crowd, shivering as they continued to chant, "Jedi!  Jedi!  Jedi!"

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan raised their 'sabers in a salute that had Siri hiding a snicker.  Judging from the look on Obi-Wan's face, he remembered full well that the almost flippant salute he was offering the crowd was just shy of an insult in the temple.  Qui-Gon looked like he knew it, too, and the pair stoically let the crowd cheer at them while Mace hurried toward the Besalisk padawan.

"Are you all right?"  The Jedi master asked, going to one knee so he could look the child over.  The boy nodded, almost collapsing when his knees suddenly gave out.  Mace caught him, letting the boy cling to him and sob.

"Do—Do you know who my new master is?"  The Besalisk questioned, voice muffled in Mace's shoulder.

"No one," Mace replied, rocking him as he'd seen Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon do with Anakin.  "Once the paperwork is completed, you'll be free."

The boy jerked, drawing in a sharp breath.  "But—"

"You are Jedi, young one," Mace told him, smiling.  "We will be returning to the temple on Coruscant where you will stay until you chose to leave."

The boy huddled into Mace, letting the man lead him from the arena.  The group was finished for the night, and Yoda began wiping off the paints as soon as they exited.  Siri sagged against Depa.  "Are all the fights going to be like that?"

"It's hard to say," Obi-Wan sighed.  "Likely the next fight we'll have better opponents, now that people know we aren't no-name freemen trying to enter the arena."

"How could they not recognize your names when you signed up?"  Shaak Ti demanded.  "You were famous!"

"We were entered under our master's name," Qui-Gon snorted.  "Slaves don't have identities.  You are only what your master says you are.  I had masters who never knew my name—and masters I was glad didn't know my name.  In the arena we were the Jedi—the Knight and the Apprentice—and that was our only identity.  There were times the only person in the arena that knew my name was Obi-Wan."

"We kept them a secret on purpose, sometimes," Obi-Wan added, heading back into the room.  The fight had barely taken fifteen minutes.  "They were ours; something no one could take from us even when they took everything else."

Qui-Gon nudged Obi-Wan onto a stool and pulled out several cleanser pads and began wiping off his husband's face paint.  As the black and blue violet disappeared, Obi-Wan's demeanor softened, slowly thawing from winter to summer.  Their paint was a much an armor as their actual armor, Mace soon realized, hiding them away from the blood-thirsty crowds.  When Qui-Gon had finished, the pair switched places, Obi-Wan's hands gentle as he tended his husband.

I love you, a chuisle mo chroí,— Qui-Gon pressed a soft kiss to his husband's lips.  —I'm glad you're here with me.—

—I would never leave you to fight in the arena alone, my heart.— Obi-Wan replied, clever fingers taking out Qui-Gon's ponytail and brushing out his sepia hair.  The Jedi turned away at the almost intimate moment.  —Now, we should turn our attention back to the Jedi, and their newest acquisition.  I think they need a little help.—

The boy eventually introduced himself as Drex, though he stayed half-hidden behind Mace any time he spoke.  Obi-Wan gave him a tiny smile and knelt to make himself look smaller before holding out a hand.  "So'lanai, young one."

Drex stared at him for a moment, then softly replied, "So'lanai."

"You needn't fear us," Obi-Wan offered when it became clear Drex wasn't going to say more.  "Qui-Gon and I are not just the Jedi, we're also currently acting with the real Jedi.  You're safe and they're going to take you home to the temple."

"I don't remember anything from there," Drex leaned in to almost whisper it to Obi-Wan.  "What if—what if they throw me out?  Or sell me again?"

"They won't," Obi-Wan assured him.  "I was mind wiped, too, but they kept me.  And I'm sure if you want the chance, they'll even let you become Jedi again."

"You think so?"  Drex glanced up at Mace, then back to Obi-Wan.  "So I could help other slaves be freed, too?"

"Hopefully we'll have freed all the slaves by the time you've returned to the field, but yes," Obi-Wan replied.  "For now, though, will you come out from behind Mace?  There's no reason to hide."

"But—I heard someone call him Master, and he's supposed to be my master now, right?"  Drex asked, eyes huge.

"The Jedi use the word master to mean teacher," Obi-Wan explained.  "It doesn't mean that someone owns you.  Depa was Mace's padawan—apprentice—for many years.  Calling him 'master,' is almost like calling him 'father,' at least for her."

"I never knew master was a nice word," Drex took a hesitant step toward Obi-Wan.  "Am I really going back to the temple to be free?"

"You are, though we're settling for heading back into town for the night," Mace let the boy take his hand.  "Then you have a choice.  We have a ship here that can leave for Coruscant in the morning with you; you can stay on the ship here for a couple days while we win the other Jedi; or you can stick with us for a couple days at the hotel we're staying at in the city."

Drex chewed his lip for a moment.  "Would I be alone on the ship?"

"The pilot is staying on the ship, but I'm sure she'd be glad to have you stay with her," Obi-Wan smiled.  "Her name is Kahliel; she's Togrutan.  Would you like to meet her?"

"And she won't mind me staying on the ship?"  Drex asked.  "I don't want to cause anyone trouble."

"Kahliel would be pleased to have your company, I'm sure," Depa smiled.  "She says the ship is boring and she's hoping someone will come help her do some maintenance."

"I don't know much about ships . . . "

"She would be more than happy to teach you.  She is older and her students are grown so she has little company these days," Depa coaxed.  After a moment, Drex nodded, deciding he wanted to stay on the ship.  Mace let out a breath he didn't know he was holding, relieved to get the young Jedi away from the arena and into the safety of the Jedi craft where Kahliel could take off if there was need.

The group walked Drex to the ship and it didn't take long for him to settle in, comfortable with the almost-elderly Kahliel.  The Togrutan was gentle and soft-spoken, making her an excellent choice to deal with a terrified ex-slave.  From there, the Jedi returned to their rooms to wait for their match the next night.
<>*<>

Obi-Wan's prediction of the next fight being harder than the first turned out to be true.  Now that the owners knew the Jedi were in the arena with a pair of Jedi they had even bargained with other owners for the best fighters available for the matches.  Qui-Gon looked over the competition from their entrance to the arena, frowning.  "Our exit strategy from yesterday is still our best option, but free the Jedi slave first and get her over to our people.  Wait to free our people until Obi-Wan and Mace are out to watch your back."

"Understand, I do," Yoda agreed, settling at the gate.  "Move quickly, Mace and Obi-Wan should.  Have to keep up with my old bones, they do."

Mace chuckled, gripping his lightsaber when Obi-Wan grabbed both of his.  Yoda squeezed beneath the gate even faster than the night before, having learned the timing of the mechanism, and shot toward the Jedi they were fighting to win.  This Jedi had been sold two years after Obi-Wan, when she was seventeen, and was a rough-looking Iktoch woman.  From what they'd been able to find out, she'd been sold for agricultural work most of her years as a slave, then into the arena half a cycle ago.

"Master Yoda?"  The hope in the woman's voice was almost painful, her voice raw and pained.  "You—You came for me?"

"Came as soon as we found you, we did, Padawan Kylara," Yoda told the young woman, cutting her free.  "Sorry for what happened, we are, but time to speak of that later, there is."

"Yes, Master," Kylara let Yoda herd her to the other three sacrifices as Mace and Obi-Wan streaked past, diving into the front most line of the opposition with lightsabers whirling in a deadly dance.  Qui-Gon stopped next to Yoda and waited for him to free Siri, Shaak Ti and Depa.

"Mace!"  Obi-Wan's shriek had Qui-Gon leaping into the fray.  A lucky strike with a club had gotten through and slammed into Mace's temple, the man collapsing to the dirt.  "Fuck!"

Qui-Gon whistled, and Obi-Wan's lightsaber hummed through the air as the man threw it, slicing off the hand of the man with the club.  Qui-Gon wrenched Mace back, pulling him next to Yoda who leapt forward at Qui-Gon's gesture to join Obi-Wan.  The pair split in a pincer movement, herding the gladiators toward Qui-Gon.  Thinking they'd been left with easy prey, all fourteen remaining went only to realize that they'd fallen into a trap.

Mace rejoined the fight as the wave hit Qui-Gon, dark eyes fierce as a bruise purpled the left side of his face.  When the gladiators tried to fall back, Obi-Wan and Yoda moved back in, hemming them at the back as all four worked in tandem to keep them from escaping the side.  Cornered and frantic, the gladiators managed to rally and drive Obi-Wan and Yoda back, but it was far too late.

The entire fight was less than five minutes, the end little more than a bloodbath between Jedi and gladiators.

The rescued Jedi sank to her knees at the end, tears in her eyes.  "We were promised to them for the night if they won," Kylara explained.  "Whatever they wished, short of killing us."

Shaak Ti shuddered, "We need not worry of that, now."

"I heard that the fighters for tomorrow were promised the Jedi sacrifices and their freedom," Kylara murmured, eyes huge.

"Then we best win," Mace answered before he staggered.  "And I need some bacta."

"You're certainly concussed," Depa replied, tugging her former master's arm over her shoulder.  "Let us depart this terrible arena.  I'm thankful we've only one more night to go."

"The other Jedi," The Iktoch woman realized, her eyes widening.  "And the youngling for yesterday—my master said he died!"

"Former master," Siri corrected, grinning.  "We won you and now you're no one's slave."

"Not even the Jedi's?"  Kylara looked weary, her shoulders slumping.  "What price must I pay to avoid being turned out on the street?"

"Owe us, you do not," Yoda replied.  "Lost to us, you were, and help you start anew, we shall.  Return to the Jedi, you may, or settle elsewhere also.  Help with either, the Jedi shall."

"I just want peace," Kylara whispered, scrubbing her face.  "I do not want more bloodshed and I—I want to go home."

"I'm sure we can find you work in the temple," Depa touched the woman's shoulder.  "Whatever the case, you needn't worry.  We will help you get settled wherever you end up."

"Thank you," Kylara replied.  "I will be glad to be away from this place."

"You're welcome to join Drex on the ship," Siri offered.  "He didn't want to stay in the town any longer, either.  We offered to send him back but he wanted to wait for the other Jedi."

"He was mind wiped," Kylara shook her head.  "What terrible technology.  Will you accept him back into the order?"

"Only if he wishes it," Shaak Ti frowned, though she didn't comment further.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan traded looks.  Shaak Ti may have agreed to help, but it was clear she wasn't fond of the idea of the lost Jedi being welcomed back into the order as Jedi.  Mace and Depa both frowned at Shaak Ti's attitude and the former gladiators were relieved to see the council members felt the same.

Kylara stayed on the star ship with Drex and Kahliel, not wanting to stay anywhere near the arena or risk someone attempting to recapture her.  Kahliel, for her part, was glad for the company, and Drex practically plastered himself to Kylara, passingly familiar with her from the arena and needing the stability.

The other Jedi returned to their quarters, glad there was only one more fight and that they would be leaving the planet behind as soon as they won.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The final sacrificial match was packed, the Jedi having drawn a great deal of attention to themselves.  As the slaves were shackled in the arena, Obi-Wan's eyes went wide, staring at the two slaves that were being placed in the match rather than the single, missing Jedi.  Obi-Wan caught his breath.  "They're paired fighters."

"Paired fighters?"  Depa asked, curious as she looked over the man and girl.  The officials had not yet come for the Jedi sacrifices.

"Like Qui-Gon and I," Obi-Wan explained.  "What happens to one always happens to the other.  If one dies, the other is put to death.  If one is won in a sacrificial match, the other is also.  Based on the rules of the arena, their fates are now entwined."

"Which was is the one we're here to get back?"  Siri questioned, frowning at the pair.  Both were humans, the man near Qui-Gon's age while the girl barely looked fourteen.

"The elder," Mace gestured to the man.  "Lan-Xi was sold the year after Obi-Wan and was twenty two.  He's been in the arena that last five years.  The girl, however . . . she was never mentioned."

"She wouldn't be, if they're partners," Qui-Gon considered the man for a moment.  "I recognize him.  Obi-Wan should too.  I'm almost positive we fought him on Tatooine once, just before Pangur freed us.  The girl—it was her first fight, I think."

"Kindness is rare in the arena," Obi-Wan agreed with a nod.  "Lan-Xi begged us not to kill her, and it was not a death match.  Qui-Gon choked her out and we soundly defeated Lan-Xi.  Qui-Gon, do you remember her name?"

"Michi," Qui-Gon replied after a moment.  "Her name was Michi."

"So we also get Michi if we get Lan-Xi?"  Siri asked, frowning.  The arena hands had just finished chaining up the pair and were headed for the Jedi.

"That's how pairs work," Obi-Wan replied.  "It's part of how Qui-Gon and I stayed together for so long."

"Then you'll just have to win the pair," Siri replied as the arena hands collected her, Depa and Shaak Ti.  "Let's get them home, Obi-Wan."

"With pleasure," Obi-Wan agreed, and all four Jedi waited anxiously for the match to start.

As before, Yoda was the first to dart from the gate when it opened, heading straight for the Jedi captives only for Obi-Wan to race after him as seen as he was free.  "They've got electrostaves!"  Obi-Wan shouted, cutting Michi free.  "They can stop a lightsaber and it takes five seconds of direct contact for the staff to kill you!"

Yoda frowned, eyeing the advancing gladiators even as he cut down Lan-Xi.  "Get to the others, you must," Yoda told the pair.  "Protect you all, we will."

Lan-Xi's brows furrowed briefly as he looked at Yoda and Obi-Wan wondered if he'd been mind-wiped.  They hadn't heard one way or another, but given his age when he was sold, it wouldn't have been surprising.  The man easily scooped up the trembling Michi and sprinted for the other sacrifices as Obi-Wan and Yoda fought off the gladiators at his back.  Mere steps before they reached the Jedi, Lan-Xi twisted, flipping over one electrostaff only to take another to the back as he curled around Michi.

The girl shrieked as Lan-Xi collapsed, convulsing, and dropped her to the ground even as Qui-Gon kneed the gladiator with the staff in the face, breaking his nose and snapping his neck.  Mace dragged Lan-Xi back to the other Jedi, Michi at his heels while Obi-Wan joined his husband, fighting like men possessed as they kept the electrostaves away from the sacrifices.

The opposing gladiators quickly surrounded them, leaving the Jedi on the offensive and Mace soon found himself surrounded by half a dozen gladiators with electrostaves.  Obi-Wan whistled and gestured to Qui-Gon, who raced toward the Jedi master.  Having never fought against electrostaves, Mace found himself having difficulty, dropping his lightsaber as one of the gladiators got in a lucky strike and brushed his arm.

"Jump!"  Qui-Gon ordered, slicing two of the gladiators down as he hit the rear of the group and drove inward, taking Mace's place in the center.  Mace called his lightsaber to his left hand while flipping over the opposing gladiators and found Yoda urging him back toward the sacrifices while his arm regained feeling.

"Do not get hit," Mace warned the other master, watching Obi-Wan fight back to back with his husband.  Yoda nodded, leaping back into the fray and leaving Mace to guard the sacrifices.  The strange, new weapons had thrown the Jedi briefly, but with the Skywalkers knowing how to handle them and giving Mace and Yoda breathing space to learn, it wasn't long before the fight easily moved back into their favor.

A sudden shriek made Mace stiffen, watching Obi-Wan take a knee when one of the gladiators slammed the staff into his thigh.  It was a mere breath before Qui-Gon knocked it away while Obi-Wan sliced it in two, but the damage was done.  Obi-Wan scowled.  "I karking hate those damn things!"

"All right, Kenobi?"  Siri asked, shoving Michi and Lan-Xi back when one of the opposing gladiators got a little too close for comfort before Yoda could stop him.

"Fine," Kenobi rolled back over his shoulder, and flipped to his good foot, striking down a gladiator as he did so.  "Everyone else okay?"

"We aren't injured, so I supposed it's close enough," Depa answered, dodging an opposing gladiator by letting him chase her around a pillar.  "Someone want to—ah, thank you, Master."

"Of course, Padawan," Mace smiled at his former student and headed back for the main fray.

Rallied and with a better understanding of the electrostaves, the four Jedi began to coordinate their attacks properly and soon had the opposing gladiators trapped between them.  Even with the electrostaves they stood little chance, quickly killed by the Jedi.  Panting, Mace looked over the pile of bodies.  In three nights, they had massacred seventy-two people.  "It must have been hell to survive this for twenty years."

"It cost us both dearly," Obi-Wan told the group, shivering as he remembered the first time he'd seen his husband mere weeks after being sold to the arena.  Qui-Gon had been an empty-eyed broken man who had forgotten everything but a world of fighting and death.  Obi-Wan's then-owner had probably paired them in an effort to keep Qui-Gon from killing himself, and the former Jedi knew things could have gone very differently if he'd been paired with anyone but Qui-Gon.

Sexual abuse was common among partnerships like theirs, especially at first when one partner was smaller and weaker than the other.  Obi-Wan had heard the cries of other gladiators echoing through the arena as their partners used them, and for nearly two months, Obi-Wan had waited for Qui-Gon to teeter over that line and the molten golden flecks in his eyes to overtake the blue.  Instead, Qui-Gon had seen Obi-Wan as someone to protect, the man dragging himself from the darkness as he clung to Obi-Wan's light.

Qui-Gon shuddered, feeling the memory through their bond, and told the Jedi, "There are some gladiators who die in the arenas just to escape them.  Without Obi-Wan . . . it is likely I would have been among them."

"It is the other reason it is so rare to see a gladiator survive twenty years," Obi-Wan said.  "The mental toll is far too great.  Without Qui-Gon, I am not certain I would have made it ten."

"You do not give yourself enough credit, a chuisle mo chroí," Qui-Gon kissed him softly.  "I cannot take all the credit for your stubbornness."

"No, but I will certainly give you credit for all of Ani's," Obi-Wan teased, though Mace noticed his eyes didn't lighten and Qui-Gon's smile seemed faked.

"Shmi is to blame for at least half," Qui-Gon bargained, laughing as Obi-Wan rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Somber mood broken, the group headed for the ship, looking curiously over their final Jedi acquisitions.  Michi and Lan-Xi were watching them as well, though warily, and after a few moments of study, Michi's face lit up with recognition as she finally realized who the Skywalkers were.  "We fought you on Tatooine last year!"

Lan-Xi continued to study the pair, frowning and shaking his head.  "Are you certain, Michi?  I—I do not remember—"

"Lan-Xi, they are the only fighters we have run into that use lightsabers," Michi reminded him, then sighed softly, sadness weighing down the Force at the blank look in the man's eyes.  "You really don't remember, do you."

"I—I think it has grown worse, young one," Lan-Xi confessed, scrubbing his face.  "There are days I am surprised I still remember you."

"What is he talking about?"  Depa questioned, glancing at the pair.

Michi clutched at Lan-Xi's hand, looking uncertain.  "Lan-Xi was resistant to the regular mind wipe so they kept trying over and over . . . he cannot . . . he remembers almost nothing from before he met me and now he . . . he doesn't make new memories so great anymore, either."

"Heard of something like this I have not," Yoda's ears flicked.  "Have the healers examine you, we will, when return to the temple, we do."

"Please don't tell our new master," Michi pleaded.  "We've been hiding it—they'll put him down if they find out!"

"We will not be putting anyone down," Mace assured the girl.  "And neither of you have a new master.  Nor will you ever.  Lan-Xi was Jedi, just as we are, and we came to bring him home to the Jedi temple.  You are invited also, if you wish to accompany us."

"But I—I wasn't Jedi, and—"

"You are his family," Siri told her firmly.  "We can't ask him to leave that behind, right?"

Michi nodded, though she stayed close to Lan-Xi as they headed for the ship.  The Jedi didn't want to spend another moment on Kessel, anxious to get the newly acquired Jedi back to the temple and get the rescued Jedi as far from the arena as possible.  They also needed to speak with the now-freed slaves and figure out what the four wanted to do with their freedom.

Drex wanted to return to the créche until he was ready to be taken by a new master, still wanting to become Jedi more than anything.  Kylara also requested to return to the créche, though she wished to help raise the youngest of the temple's children.  Their innocence of the world and its horrors would go a long way toward lightening her heart, and she almost went limp in relief when the three councilors agreed with her request.  The trio did make sure Kylara understood that if she decided she was unhappy there—or even if she just wanted a change of scenery—she was free to try whatever job she wished until she found one she enjoyed.

Lan-Xi and Michi, however, posed a unique problem.  Lan-Xi would need access to mind healers who specialized in Force users, but required peace not found on Coruscant, especially given his poor memories and difficulty maintaining a shield.  In the end, he was taken to one of the Jedi retreats where Healers tended to stay.  It was the council's hope the Healers would be able to repair his mind, but it was not a certainty.  Michi, who viewed Lan-Xi like a father, chose to stay with him.  Rather than force Lan-Xi to endure Coruscant for any length of time, the group made a side trip to drop off the pair.

"I do have one question," Siri crossed her arms once everyone but the Jedi had left the small galley.  "What the hell is an electrostaff?  I mean, I saw one, sure, but what is it?"

"A pain in my arse," Qui-Gon grumbled.  "I can't believe anyone gave electrostaves to those mediocre fighters."

When the Jedi gave them confused looks, Obi-Wan explained, "They're rare—hard to make, hard to buy, and they cost a mint.  None of the owners we challenged had the means to purchase them."

"Perhaps the owner felt they would be beneficial since they work against lightsabers?"  Shaak Ti suggested.

"No one wastes money like that on a fight like this," Qui-Gon replied, shaking his head.  "No offense to Michi or Lan-Xi, but this fight was nothing.  The slave owners aren't particularly well known or rich, they sent mediocre fighters in instead of top-ranked gladiators after realizing who we are . . . someone must have backed this fight for them to have electrostaves."

"But why?"  Siri asked.  "What would they gain?"

"I don't know," Obi-Wan confessed, Qui-Gon shrugging his agreement with his husband.  "If they were lucky one of us might have died, but there was no guarantee.  And they'd already seen us fight, so it couldn't have been simple observation . . . "

"Meditate on this, we will," Yoda told the group.  "Feel it has something to do with the enslaved Jedi, I do, but who or what was behind it, I cannot sense.  Find the connection we must."

"Of course, Master Yoda," The others agreed, considering the ancient master's words.  If someone really had planned this, there was more at work here than the fights they'd gone through.  They had already reclaimed every Jedi except for one, but the masters that sold their padawans were still missing.  Mace frowned, considering the implications.  With the masters still missing, it was possible they were behind the electrostaves—the question then was why.
<>*<>

The last slave retrieved was a Togrutan pleasure slave that arrived the night after the Jedi had returned from Kessel.  The padawan was little more than a child herself, barely seventeen, deathly ill and heavily pregnant.  With her came a little slip of a girl who had just turned four with the same rust-orange skin and white facial markings, though her lekku and montrals were the same blue as her eyes rather than red like her mother's.

"Mommy!"  The little girl sobbed as the healers swarmed the teenager the moment the ship landed, desperate to save both mother and unborn babe.  In the rush, they didn't notice the second child trailing after them as quickly as her little legs could carry her, even as she sobbed.

It wasn't long before the child was hopelessly lost in the temple, eyes puffy and red-rimmed from her tears, exhausted from running from every Jedi she saw.  She knew she would be in trouble for bringing her filth into the beautiful building and beaten for daring to lose her way.  The little girl eventually found a tiny alcove where she could hide, curled into a tiny ball as she cried.

"Are you okay?"  Anakin knelt next to the Togruta youngling, looking her over.  No temple initiate owned such ragged or filthy clothing, leading Anakin to guess that she'd probably come with the teenager that had been rushed to the Halls of Healing.  "Did you come on the star ship?"

"They taked Mommy away," The little girl sobbed, finally looking up at Anakin.  At the sight of his richly dyed clothing the child paled.  Anakin had to be one of her new masters.  "Um—Um—I din't mean—"

"So'lanai," Anakin greeted and the girl's shoulders sagged in relief.  Her mommy said owners didn't give slave greetings.  "You're safe here.  This is the Jedi temple."

"Jed-die?"  The girl's brows furrowed.

"Yeah," Anakin grinned and held out a hand.  "I'm Anakin Skywalker, an initiate here.  Sort of.  I live here with my parents, so I'm not a traditional initiate."

"I'm Ahsoka," The little girl replied, gingerly taking his hand.  "So'lanai."

"Ahsoka, huh?  That's a cool name," Anakin curled his fingers around her hand.  "Do you want me to take you to your mommy?  She's in the halls of healing."

"I want my mommy," Ahsoka agreed, letting Anakin pull her to her feet.  Anakin knew Qui-Gon was already there, anxiously pacing with the knight who had found Ahsoka and her mother in the brothel a handful of star systems from Coruscant, deep in the core.  Obi-Wan was with the council, working with the planet's local government to expose the slave ring and get the brothel closed down.

"Ani?"  Qui-Gon caught sight of his son as the boy entered with Ahsoka.  "And who is this?"

"This is Ahsoka," Anakin nudged the girl forward.  "She's the new lady's daughter."

"So'lanai, Ahsoka," Qui-Gon knelt, trying not to intimidate the child.  "You must be very tired and hungry.  Would you like to get cleaned up and get something to eat while we wait for news about your mommy?  I bet if we asked, the healers would let us borrow a room here."

Ahsoka nodded uncertainly, quiet when Qui-Gon scooped her up.  Anakin disappeared to get some clothing for the child as Qui-Gon spoke with one of the healers and the pair were shown into a side room where Ahsoka could bathe.  "Are you okay with Ser Jinn helping you, sweetling?"  The Healer asked.  "Or do you want a female to give you a hand?"

Ahsoka chewed her fingers, uncertain.  Lots of males hurt her mommy, but not the slave ones, and Qui-Gon had given the slave's greeting.  The healers hadn't, though, and lots of free women had hurt her mama, too, though not nearly as many.  "I wanna stay with Key-Gone."

"Qui-Gon," The man corrected, though it seemed Ahsoka was just a little too young for the "Qui" part of his name.  "Or you may call me Khi."

"Khi," Ahsoka agreed, almost purring in happiness when Qui-Gon settled her in the big sink.  It was full of warm water.  Ahsoka had never had a warm bath before!

Anakin returned as Qui-Gon was toweling the little girl dry and the man helped her dress in the slightly-too-big Jedi garb, the little girl marveling at the rust-red over tunic Anakin had gotten for her.  "I wear pretty colors?"

"Just for you," Anakin grinned, watching his papa wind the obi around the little girl's waist.  Belt in place, Qui-Gon tugged her clothes straight and tickled one of her still-bare feet, earning a giggle from the youngling.  Anakin hadn't even tried guessing her shoe size, figuring that she'd gone barefoot that long so a bit longer wouldn't hurt.  "Do you like your new clothes?"

"Yeah!"  Ahsoka threw her arms around the boy, grinning from ear to ear.  "Thank you!"

"We should let the healers have their room back," Qui-Gon herded the pair back into the waiting room.

Ahsoka was already drooping with exhaustion, though she insisted she wasn't tired even through Qui-Gon knew the past few days were weighing heavily on the little girl.  Anakin frowned at her, arms crossed.  "You should go to sleep.  Papa will wake you when we find out something about your mom."

"No!"  Ahsoka stomped her foot.  "Not without my mommy!  And my sister!"

"You should sleep," Anakin repeated, frowning, and Qui-Gon hid a smile.  His son certainly wasn't used to dealing with people being as stubborn as he was.

"I'm not sleepy!"  Ahsoka scowled.  "You—You Skyguy!"

"Skyguy?"  Anakin sputtered, jaw dropping.  "Why you—!  You're nothing but a snippy little brat!"

"Skyguy!"  Ahsoka stuck her tongue out.

"Snips!"  Anakin retorted, crossing his eyes at her.

"Younglings," Qui-Gon cut in before the pair could get any worse.  "Enough.  You're both very tired.  Ahsoka, I think you do need some rest."

"I'm not gonna sleep—"

"Without your mommy, we get it," Anakin rolled his eyes.  "How about we meditate instead?"

"Med-did-tate?"  Ahsoka tilted her head.  "What's that?"

"Meditation can be a way to rest without sleeping," Qui-Gon explained, settling in a full lotus on the floor.  Anakin joined him, tugging at Ahsoka's hand.  "You still have to sleep, but this will help for right now."

"I dunno . . ."  Ahsoka danced uncertainly in place.  "Mommy din't say not too."

"C'mon, Snips," Anakin tugged her hand again.  "It'll be nice.  And when we're done, I'll teach you how to play push-pull."

"But I don't wanna be pushed," Ahsoka's lips trembled as she stared pleading at the older boy.  "Please don't push me.  I be a good girl."

"I'm not pushing you," Anakin giggled, reaching for the youngling.  "We'll be pushing things with the Force."

Ahsoka blinked up at him.  "The Force?  What's that?"

"Have you ever moved something without touching it?"  Qui-Gon asked the little girl, making her startle.  "Or maybe you know how someone is feeling even when they're hiding it?"

Ahsoka nodded.  "Mommy says I'm not 'posed to tell nobody 'cause they'd get real mad.  Are you mad?"

"The slavers would have been," Qui-Gon let the youngling curl up in his lap as she sniffled.  "But we are with the Jedi.  They use the Force all the time.  In fact, they'll even teach you how to use it."

"And mommy won't mind?"

"Your mommy used to be a Jedi," Qui-Gon told her.  "I don't know if she remembers, but she was a student here, once.  I don't think she'll be mad if you learn to use the Force like she did."

Ahsoka considered that for a moment, asking, "Can my new sister use the Force, too?"

"Most likely, though we won't know for sure until she actually does it," Qui-Gon said.  Ahsoka considered that for a moment, then nodded again.

"You teach me to Force?"  The girl told him.

"The Force is a thing," Qui-Gon chuckled.  "I can teach you to use it, if you'd like."

"Okay," Ahsoka agreed, and straightened up in Qui-Gon's lap.  "You teach me."
<>*<>

All three were asleep by the time Obi-Wan arrived, Ahsoka curled against Qui-Gon's chest as Anakin sprawled over the man's lap.  Obi-Wan smiled fondly, bending to press a soft kiss to his husband's lips.  —Qui-Gon,— Obi-Wan nudged the man awake over their bond.  —Any news on the girl?  And who is this little one?

Her name is Ahsoka.  She is the last padawan's daughter.—  Qui-Gon replied.

The padawan's daughter?— Obi-Wan frowned.  —But . . . she's barely seventeen.

You know as well as I that plenty of masters like a slaves that young.—  Qui-Gon reminded his lover.  Obi-Wan gently brushed a hand over the little girl's montrals, then carded his fingers through Anakin's soft hair.

"So, have you heard anything?"  Obi-Wan kept his voice soft and low, soothing enough not to wake either youngling.

"Not yet," Qui-Gon glanced toward the doors that led further into the Halls.  "It's been at least three hours . . . if the news was good . . . "

"We would know," Obi-Wan settled on the floor, moving Anakin onto his own lap.  —I was told she nearly died several times on the way here.  The news was grim from the start.

What will happen to Ahsoka, then?—

—Likely they will accept her into the créche.  The council seemed certain she could be Jedi.  They must have tested her midi-chlorian count on her way to Coruscant.—

Qui-Gon frowned, studying the little girl in his arms.  "I'm not sure that would be best for her," The man admitted.  "She may need more care than a créche master can provide."

Obi-Wan started to reply, then froze as the Force drew him into a vision.  Anakin and Ahsoka were older, Anakin fully grown and knighted, Ahsoka a half-grown teenager.  The pair were fighting a slender woman with bone-white skin, a red lightsaber a blur in her hands.  Anakin and Ahsoka looked like a master-padawan pair, even addressed each other that way, but Obi-Wan knew differently.  No matter what they called each other, they were siblings, not a master-padawan pair.

"A chuisle mo chroí?"  Qui-Gon touched his husband's shoulder.  "Are you all right?"

"Fine," Obi-Wan shook his head, driving away the vision.  "It's just—I think Ahsoka is going to be around awhile."
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Ahsoka's mother and sister died that night, and the Jedi settled the little girl in the créche since she was the same age as most younglings when they came to the Jedi temple.  The Skywalkers were left to finish the reintegration plans for the remaining lost padawans in an effort to get them settled faster.  Drex and Kylara had ended up spending the night in the Halls of Healing, both hooked up to IVs to give rehydrate them and give them sorely needed nutrients.  The conditions in the arena were poor on the best days, and both Drex and Kylara had brought home a handful of parasites.

The elder Skywalkers met with the council the next day, looking exhausted but with the reintegration plans in hand.  Ki-Adi-Mundi raised a brow.  "I'm impressed you finished these last night, especially given the strain you went through in the arena."

"The faster we get everyone where they can heal, they better off they'll be," Obi-Wan slumped gratefully in one of the chairs that had been brought in for him and Qui-Gon.  "While I'm certain they're glad we freed them, their lives have been upset enough.  Giving them some kind of normalcy will be a relief."

"Fair enough," Saesee Tiin dipped his head in acquiescence.  "May we see your plans?"

"We uploaded them to your datapads," Qui-Gon flipped over the first file.

The council flipped slowly through the files, considering the offered plans as Mace made a note to himself to speak with all the lost padawans individually.  He wanted to see if any of them knew more about the beings spearheading the slavery ring throughout the Republic and outer rim and possibly point them in the right direction to begin their investigation.  For now, however, the council was more concerned with getting them settled in completely and determining what they would need in order to be reintegrated successfully with the Jedi.

Lorik and his family were called in first since they were the only ones leaving the temple.  The Skywalkers had found a lush planet in the core that had been sparsely settled by the agri-corps that would be perfect for Lorik and his family.  There were plenty of other families there, and it would be a safe place for his daughters to grow.  Most of the inhabitants knew each other and with its location deep in the core and low population, it wasn't likely to be raided by pirates or slavers.

"This is wonderful," Lorik told them when he and Aylin were called to the council chamber to make sure the plan agreed with them.  "And we will be able to catch up on whatever school subjects we need to?"

"We put together datapads, and the head of the colony had agreed to arrange for teachers for you." Plo replied.  "The Skywalkers believe your daughters will do fine in regular school once they are old enough to go, though a contingency has been made, just in case."

"Thank you," Aylin threw her arms around the masters in turn, earning horrified looks from a few masters, though the rest simply hugged her in reply.  Aylin turned to Adi, smiling.  "And we'll keep in touch?"

"Of course," Adi hugged the Twi'lek a second time.  "Aside from liking you, I'd never hear the end of it from Kelyan if we didn't."

Aylin laughed and nodded, then turned back to Mace.  "When will we be leaving for this new planet?"

"We have a shuttle scheduled to leave a mid-day tomorrow," Mace told them.  "Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan assured us you'd appreciate the expediency so you don't settle here only to move again."

"We do appreciate it," Lorik glanced at Aylin.  "Routine helps."

"Is your memory also damaged?"  Depa questioned, frowning.  While most sentients found the ability to mind wipe another being barbaric, they had not heard of it doing any lasting harm before Lan-Xi.

"I am not certain," Lorik confessed.  "I am extraordinarily forgetful, but nothing that cannot be contributed to it being natural.  Aylin thinks it was the mind wipe, but there is simply no proof."

"And without remembering how you were before the mind-wipe, how would you know?"  Saesee Tiin pursed his lips, considering, as Lorik nodding in agreement.

"We have scans of your brain from when you were a padawan with us and as of now," Depa offered.  "With your permission, I'd like to compare the two.  Perhaps we'll find something."

"By all means," Lorik acquiesced.  "If this will help anyone, even if it doesn't help me, I'm more than willing to volunteer.  Just let me know if I can assist any other way."

"We will, thank you," Depa bowed and the family soon left, headed to collect what they'd been given by the Jedi to begin their lives anew.
<>*<>

Halvarsen, Kelyan, Kylara and Drex were called in next, the council choosing to meet with them together since all four were staying at the temple.  Challa joined them since he was directly involved in Halvarsen's care, sticking close to the easily startled human.  Drex stayed close to Obi-Wan wide eyed as he stared around the council chamber and many beings therein.

"This is so wizard," The boy murmured, earning a smile from the Jedi.

"Glad you like it, we are," Yoda replied, introducing himself.  Drex and Kylara had little chance to meet the other Jedi since they had been stuck in the Halls of Healing, though both beings looked all the better for it.

"We do apologize that you've been somewhat confined since you arrived," Ki-Adi-Mundi told the four.  "You all had some unique issues that needed addressed before you could wander about the temple and there was some concern you would be overwhelmed."

"We did not wish to make the same mistakes with you as we did the Skywalkers," Plo added, mask shifting to indicate his smile.

The lost padawans looked uncertainly to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, who both shrugged genially.  "We went and saved Naboo, converted a Sith and rescued said former Sith's family."

"It was a very busy week," Qui-Gon spread his hands in an almost helpless gesture.

"Rather than reintroduce you to the temple with a mission, we thought it best we did things more slowly this time," Adi rolled her eyes at the pair.  "But we do want to get you all properly settled.  We've been assured you will find the routine welcome, and I've no doubt having your own rooms will be far more comfortable than the halls of healing."

Kylara and Drex, who had hardly minded the pampering, shrugged, but nodded in agreement.  Kylara told them, "As nice as it was to be catered to for the night, I—and likely Drex as well—am unused to being idle.  Where I spent most of my time as a slave, we only ate if worked.  It was actually a little stressful to be trapped in the Halls of Healing."

"Many of us would agreed with you," Even Piell half-teased.  "Jedi are not idle beings."

"Which brings us to why you're here," Plo broke in, looking the four beings over.  "Three of you have petitioned to rejoin the Jedi when you are healthy again, and one of you wishes to remain here, though not as a Jedi."

"I simply do not wish to be caught among such violence," Kylara replied.  "The arena was . . . enough.  I am not certain I would have made a good Jedi."

"There are Jedi who have never used their lightsabers on a mission," Yarael urged.  "Some of our number specialize in aiding with relief efforts during natural disaster, or to refugees.  Many of them have never needed their lightsaber on the battle field."

"We had thought perhaps you would like to consider such work," Adi told Kylara.  "We think it would suit you.  You would not need to be Jedi, but if you would allow us to train you for crisis counseling, you would be an invaluable addition to any of their teams.  Until then, however, you would be more than welcome in the créche."

"I'd like that, I think," Kylara smiled softly.  "I thought perhaps I would have no purpose once I returned here, but that . . . to be able to help others . . . I think that is what I was called for all along."

"Settled, the matter is, then," Yoda rapped the floor with his gimer stick.  "Have a créche master and teacher in mind, we do, and introduce you when we are done, I shall."

"Thank you, Master Yoda," Kylara bowed.  "And thank you for coming to get me.  I . . . had given up hope of rescue.  Thought maybe you hadn't come for me because you really did agree with my sale."

"Agree, we did not," Yoda's ears lowered.  "Knew of the sale, we did not.  Told by the Skywalkers, we were."

"Thank you," Kylara turned to the Skywalkers.  "For giving us hope."

"We'll have to introduce you to Pangur," Obi-Wan ducked his head, ears pinking slightly at the compliment.  "He was the one that found us and returned us home."

"Whatever happened, I am glad the Force has returned us all home," Halvarsen's smile was shy, though the others in the room offered their agreement.

"Welcome back to the Jedi, you are," Yoda told them.  "Certain, Kylara's future now is, but some details to discuss for the rest of you, there are."

"I would like permission for Kelyan to stay with me," Adi joined the lost padawans in the center of the floor.  "And once he had caught up with his studies, I wish to take him as my padawan learner."

"I see no reason to wait until he had finished with his studies, if Kelyan agrees to this," Mace looked around the council chamber.  "He is always welcome to leave if he changes his mind, but I think having such certainty in his future will help his recovery."

"But—"  Kelyan swallowed back the protested, eyes huge in fright.

"It's all right," Qui-Gon moved to touch the boy's shoulder.  "Are you worried Adi might change her mind?"

Kelyan dropped his eyes, nodding.  "I—I'm sorry.  It's just . . . I haven't been a Jedi in so long and I might—she's a council member.  Should she really be training a nobody like me?"

"The Force has brought us together, and I'm glad for it," Adi clasped Kelyan's hands in hers.  "I want nothing more than for you to be my student.  It would be a great honor to guide you to knighthood."

"Please, Master Gallia," Kelyan bowed his head.  "I would like that.  To be your padawan."

"There are no objections to this," Yarael glanced around at the other council members.  "Master Gallia, let me be the first to congratulate you on your new padawan learner."

"And be the first to congratulate Padawan Kelyan on finding a master, I will," Yaddle's smile lit her face.  "Difficult, it may sometimes be, to walk the path of the Jedi, but become a great knight, I believe you will."

"I'll do my best, Master Yaddle," Kelyan let Adi tug him to her side with a one-armed hug.  Yoda looked ready to comment about doing rather than trying, but Obi-Wan's subtle headshake had him relaxing back in his chair.  Kelyan was too uncertain of himself and his future, even with Adi's agreement to teach him, for the adage to be of any help to his mental state.

"If that is the case, may I petition the council to be allowed to take Halvarsen as my student?" Challa touched his friend's arm.

The council traded looks.  They were still uncertain Halvarsen would ever recover enough to become Jedi, though the certainty of having a teacher would help him as much as it would help Kelyan.  It was Yarael, normally the most conservative of the council members, who replied, "I have no objections."

The rest of the council signaled their own agreement, Mace turning back to Challa.  "The council has no objections.  Knight Challa, we congratulate you on taking your first padawan learner and may we also congratulate you, Padawan Halvarsen, on finding a new master."

"Thank you," Halvarsen almost whispered, though his bow was impeccable.

That left Drex anxiously waiting to hear what would become of him.  He had no one willing to take him in and teach him, and he still wasn’t certain he'd be allowed to stay in the créche until he found a new master, even with Mace's assurances.  Mace gave the boy another reassuring smile, then said, "Padawan Drex has requested he be allowed to remain in the créche until another master had been found for him.  He has suffered a mind-wipe so there will be much for him to relearn, however, I believe him fully capable of overcoming that obstacle."

"Precedent, there is, since a padawan already he was," Yoda reminded the others.  "Agree with this, I do."

"Place him with one of the older créches, we should," Yaddle nodded.  "Good for him, it would be, to be with other younglings near his age."

"That . . . may not be necessary," Even Piell flipped through something on his datapad.  "When Padawan Drex was originally chosen, there were two knight interested in him and the second knight, Arasath, had not yet chosen another student, perhaps she would agree to accept Padawan Drex."

"I barely remember anything," Drex protested.  "I'm sure Knight Arasath has better things to do."

"Ask her, we should," Yaddle approved.  "Her choice, it is, to ask you, and yours, it is, to agree or not.  Call her here, we will."

"No!"  Drex blanched, clutching Obi-Wan's arm.  "I don't remember anything; no one would take me as a padawan—I know that, I just . . . I didn't want to leave.  I'm sorry.  If you . . . if you don't want me to stay . . . "

"Have a place here, you do," Yoda assured the Besalisk.  "And a good padawan, you will be.  Let us speak with Knight Arasath, you should."

Drex chewed his lip, looking up at Obi-Wan, who smiled encouragingly and told him, "It can't hurt to ask.  Even if she says no, the council will let you stay in the créche until a new master is found."

Drex clenched his teeth, determined, and nodded.  "I want to be Jedi."

Even Piell slipped from the council chamber, to fetch the knight.

It was not long before the pair returned, Knight Arasath eagerly hurrying into the council chamber, breaking into a bright smile when she saw Drex.  The near-human was a delicate-looking thing, already outsized in both weight and height by Drex.  "The rumors are true!  Padawan, I am so happy you're alive!"

Drex dropped his gaze, half-hiding behind Obi-Wan.  "I'm not—I don't remember you.  I had a mind-wipe and—whoever you think I am, I'm not.  Not anymore."

"I think you're the padawan who is supposed to be my student, mind wipe or no," Arasath replied, hope in her eyes.  "The Force as led us to one another time and again and it must be for a reason.  I will understand if you are not comfortable around me, given what happened with your former knight master, and I will respect that.  If you do not chose to go with me today, I will take no other student until I know you have found a teacher, even if it is not me."

"You'd do that?"  Drex stepped toward her, eyes wide.  "But why?  I'm not worth that!"

"Because you were meant to be a Jedi knight and I will ensure it happens.  I believe in that, and I believe in you."  The knight replied, holding out a hand.  "Please, Padawan Drex, will you do me the honor of becoming my student?"

"Thank you, M—Mas—"  Drex stumbled over the word, eyes darting between Arasath and the council, frantic.  "I—I can't—"

"Mentor then, until you can call me Master and not think I am your owner," Arasath's smile was gentle.

"Thank you, Mentor Arasath," Drex whispered, clutching her hand.  "I'd like to be your Padawan.  If you'll have me."

"It would be my pleasure," Arasath agreed, then bowed to the council.  "I appear to have gained a student.  I would like to present my new padawan, Drex, to the members of the council."

"Glad for you both, we are," Yoda replied.  "Congratulate you both, we do."

"Thank you, Master," Arasath laid a hand on Drex's shoulder.

"Excellent," Mace rose to his feet.  "We will send you the remaining information to reintegrate your students into the Jedi.  There is information regarding their schedule to catch up on their studies and any pertinent medical information.  The council understands that the lost padawans will present special challenges for both themselves and their masters and are here to help you in any way we can."

"Thank you, Masters," Challa, Adi and Arasath bowed.

"Excellent.  Then I believe we are finished with this council session?"  Mace glanced around the room, the councilors all nodding.  "Then the meeting is adjourned and Knights Challa and Arasath are dismissed.  Thank you for your time."

"That went smoother than expected," Obi-Wan said when the new masters slipped out the door.  He was about to continue when a commotion in the antechamber caught everyone's attention.  It sounded almost like a fight and the remaining beings in the council chamber rushed to the door.

It was not the expected fight, but a pair of exuberant padawans piling on Drex, shrieking in happy glee.  "You're back!"  Naia squealed, arms around a rather confused-looking Besalisk.  "Rhys and I never even dared hope you were a lost padawan!"

"We're so glad to see you!" Rhys had his arms around the Besalisk as well, the two almost knocking him over in their excitement to see their friend.  "We're so glad—"

Arasath whistled sharply, yanking the pair from her padawan.  "That's enough.  Drex was mind-wiped and has no memory of the temple."

"You forgot us?"  Rhys' face crumpled.  "I—I'm so sorry.  I never meant to—we were just so excited that you were back and safe that we never thought you wouldn't know us."

"You were my friends?"  Drex looked from Rhys to Naia, brows furrowed as he tried to remember.  "Were we friends long?"

"We grew up in the same créche," Rhys replied quietly.  He should have known to check that Drex hadn't been mind-wiped, especially since being friends with the Skywalkers almost since they arrived at the temple.  "This must be so confusing.  And then to have Naia and I practically maul you when you don't even remember . . . I'm so sorry."

"Me too," Naia added, releasing Drex.  "Can you forgive us?  I was so happy to see you, I didn't even think that you might not know who we are."

"Could we be friends again?"  Drex grabbed Naia's sleeve before she could back away.  "I don't remember anything, and I don't want to be a bother.  I don't even know if you'll like me anymore.  I'm probably nothing like you remember—"

"You still babble when you're nervous," Rhys nudged the Besalisk.  "So you haven't changed completely.  Obi-Wan's friend, who knew him before his mind-wipe, says it's not so hard.  Obi-Wan doesn't always get her jokes and stuff, but having him back makes it more than worth it.  So it you don't mind us talking about things you forgot, we'd love to be friends again."

Drex nodded shyly and Arasath couldn't help her smile.  "Then why don't you come with us as we get Drex settled, hm?  I'm sure he'd love to have a chance to get to know you."

Rhys and Naia traded grins and linked arms with Drex, following behind Arasath as they headed for the quartermaster.  Obi-Wan leaned against his husband, smiling, as Plo said, "They are shining examples of our Order."

"Indeed," Even Piell agreed, the rest of the council nodding.  "It is a shame not all of the Jedi have demonstrated that.  We will have to work on this.  I had not realized how shameful some of our Order was acting until recently.  I'm glad it was brought to me attention."

"Work on it, we shall," Yoda replied.  "But for now, other things to do, we have."

The council traded bows and headed into the temple.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Ahsoka was not fitting in to the créche as the masters had expected, too traumatized from her rescue while being both newly orphaned and newly freed.  She was alone in a strange, new world with strange, new rules and the créche master had requested the Skywalkers leave her alone to get used to her new surroundings for at least a month.  Ahsoka cried when she was taken to the dormitory, scared and uncertain.  She had never been sold without her mommy before and her mommy had always told her not to do anything without her permission so she didn't make her owners angry.  Now, though, Ahsoka had to figure out how to make these strange people happy on her own because her mommy had been sold to the Force.

The little girl desperately tried to stop her tears.  Her old master, the one before these strangely dressed people, would beat her if she cried and now that she was a big girl who could be sold on her own, they'd probably whip her instead.  Ahsoka didn't want whipped; it was scary and made her mommy scream and cry.

"You're still awake, young one?"  One of the strange beings, a furry Bimm, settled on Ahsoka's bed.  "You should be asleep."

"I'm sorry," The little girl begged, curling into a ball in case the being struck her.  "I'll sleep!  I'm sorry!"

"I'm not upset, young one—"  The stranger frowned and Ahsoka panicked.  Frowns were bad.  Frowns meant she did something bad and that she would get hurt.  Her mommy used to protect her, but her mommy had been sold to the Force and wasn't there anymore.

"I'll be good," Ahsoka sniffled, hoping the being didn't hurt her worse because she was crying and being annoying.  "I—I'll sleep, an' I'll be good.  Please—"

The being sighed softly, but left without raising a hand to her.  Ahsoka curled up tighter.  She didn't like being a big girl.  She wanted to be a little girl again so they sold her to the Force with her mommy and baby sister.

Trying to cry really, really quietly so she didn't get into more trouble, Ahsoka finally succumbed to her exhaustion and drifted off to sleep.

The next day was little better.  The other younglings played, but Ahsoka knew that playing was only for freeborn beings and she wasn't allowed.  She'd tried, once, and when her master saw, she was beaten so badly her arm broke.  Her mommy had fixed it with magic, but Ahsoka knew better from then on that she wasn't allowed to play, even if the younglings invited her.  No matter how fun it looked or how much she wanted to.

Instead, Ahsoka was a good girl and started cleaning.  She wasn't really good at it yet, but she tried and sometimes that kept her out of trouble.  When the strange people took away the cloth she'd been using, Ahsoka curled up in a corner, uncertain.  No one was ordering her about, so maybe if she stayed small and silent, maybe they wouldn't get mad that she wasn't working.  Maybe.
<>*<>

A week later, the créche master met with Mace regarding Ahsoka.  "She is not suitable for the Jedi.  She refuses to interact with the other younglings and has cried herself to sleep every night since she arrived.  Her nightmares and distress echo through the Force and disturb my other charges.  My recommendation would be to send her home."

"She does not have one," Mace scrubbed his face.  "Her mother was one of the lost padawans—she died a week ago in the Halls of Healing."

"Contact younglings' Services, then," The créche master crossed her arms, determined.  Ahsoka staying would only cause further distress and possible harm to the other younglings in her care and she could not recommended the betterment of one at the harm of the many, no matter how she felt for the little girl.  "I will get her ready to go."

"Surely if we allow her more time to adjust—" Mace cut himself off when the créche master shook her head.

"She is a detriment to the other younglings here," The being repeated.  "If you will excuse me, I will help her collect what little she has."

Mace frowned.  Ahsoka probably needed therapy and more one-on-one attention than the créche could offer.  Striding from the room, he headed for the Skywalkers' quarters.  If anyone would have an idea on what to do, it would be them.

"Let us take her," Obi-Wan urged Mace once he had explained Ahsoka's situation.  "We can give her more attention than the créche master and she needs that right now."

"I can't ask that of you," Mace replied as he paced their living room.  Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traded looks and Obi-Wan Force-shoved Mace onto the couch.

"Sit," Obi-Wan ordered as Qui-Gon set out their tea.  "I like this floor and you're going to ruin it.  If you want to pace, do it in your own quarters."

"As for Ahsoka, you're not asking, we're offering."  Qui-Gon handed Mace a teacup.  "Actually, we're kind of telling you.  We're going to adopt Ahsoka."

"If I say no, you'll be kidnapping her."

"If you say no, we'll tell Yaddle, who will agree with us, get Yoda on her side, and then it'll happen anyway."  Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow.

"You cheat," Mace informed the pair, downing his tea.  "But maybe you're right."

"Maybe?"  Qui-Gon said.

Mace heaved a sigh but gave in, knowing they were right.  "I'll arrange it.  How soon can I bring her here?"

"We've got her room ready for her so we'll go pick her up once you notify the créche master," The pair grinned innocently.

Mace threw up his hands in exasperation.  "Fine.  I get it.  Go get Ahsoka and I'll take care of the rest."

The Skywalkers bowed as Mace stalked from the room, grumbling.  He had an adoption to arrange.
<>*<>

Ahsoka had just finished gathering her things when the Skywalkers arrived.  The little girl looked confused about having things in the first place, and when the créche master nudged her toward Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, the little girl hunched down, shying back.  The men traded looks, Qui-Gon kneeling in an attempt to be less intimidating for the girl.

He was taller kneeling than she was standing.

"So'lanai, a stóirín," Qui-Gon greeted, earning a startled gasp from the girl as she realized who had come to get her.  "What's wrong?"

Ahsoka's lip trembled, the presence of another slave a relief and a comfort, even if they were dressed kind of like the strange people.  "I don't wanna be a big girl," Ahsoka sniffled.  "I want my mommy."

"I'm sorry, a stóirín," Qui-Gon held out his arms, letting Ahsoka fall into them.  "But your mother was not sold, she died.  You cannot go to her."

"No," Ahsoka sobbed, face pressed to Qui-Gon's shoulder.  "She an' my sister got sold to the Force!  I wanna get sold to the Force, too!"

"Sweetheart, your mom joined the Force," Obi-Wan corrected, stroking her montrals and lekku.  "She wasn't sold to it.  That's how the Jedi say people die."

"I don't want my mommy to be dead," Ahsoka wailed, clutching Qui-Gon.  "An'—an'—where's my sister?  Is my sister joined the Force, too?  Is she dead?"

"I'm so sorry, a stóirín," Qui-Gon rubbed her back, open hand large enough to cover most of it, she was so tiny.  "Your sister died too."

"No," Ahsoka begged, tears streaking down her thin face.  "No—my mommy—I want my mommy—"

"I'm so sorry, Ahsoka," Qui-Gon breathed, feeling the little girl shudder in his arms.  "They're dead, a stóirín, I'm so sorry."

"I wanna die too!"  Ahsoka cried.  "Please?"

"No, Ahsoka," Qui-Gon said softly.  "You can't follow your mommy.  I'm sorry, a stóirín, but death is not somewhere you can go."

"Not even to visit?"

"Not even to visit."

"But—what are th' strange people gonna do with me?"  Ahsoka clutched at Qui-Gon's robes, desperate for comfort.  "Are they gonna sell me again?  I'm not good without my mommy.  I'm little an' stupid."

"Do you know what being free is?"  Obi-Wan asked, went to one knee next to his husband.  "Can you tell me?"

"It's like them," Ahsoka gestured to the Jedi younglings.  "No one beats you an' you don't gotta work.  Your owners don't hurt you 'cause you don't got any."

"The Jedi bought you, your mommy and your sister," Obi-Wan explained.  "They freed you.  That means you aren’t a slave anymore."

"Can I go to mommy, then?"  Ahsoka perked up.  "'Cause I'm free?"

"No, a stóirín," Qui-Gon replied.  "Death isn't somewhere you can go, even if you're free."

"Then where can I go?"  Uncertainty fluttered through the girl's eyes.  "The lady said I'm not 'llowed to stay inna nursery 'cause I'm dis—dissir-up-ive.  That means I'm bad, right?"

"It means you're in a new place with new rules and are adjusting," Qui-Gon smiled.  "But Obi-Wan and I were hoping maybe you'd like to come stay with us instead."

Ahsoka's brows furrowed, the little girl shaking her head.  Adoption was not common among slaves, especially after a child was considered old enough to sell on his or her own.  Anakin had been fortunate to have Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon around when Shmi died, and would probably been left on his own otherwise.  Slave children often went through several masters before they were old enough to be worth keeping, and those first years were dangerous.  Without other slaves to care for them or a compassionate master, slaves sold before form their parents before the age of ten often died.

Qui-Gon could remember those years as a child, alone and scared.  He had been sold from his mother exceptionally early, barely two or three at the time.  He'd gone hungry often and had barely survived those years himself.  He'd met a few slaves who had been adopted into other families when their own died or their parents were sold, but they were rare, barely a handful over his lifetime if he included Anakin.  For Ahsoka to be uncertain of why they would even bother to take her in wasn't surprising, and her mother had probably taught her to be suspicious of offers like theirs, even from fellow slaves.

Qui-Gon let her move away as he asked, "Do you know what adoption is?"

Ahsoka shook her head.  "Mommy said the Jedi adopted her sometimes, but I dunno what that it."

"It means someone you aren't related to takes you in and acts like your parent."  Obi-Wan explained.  "You remember Anakin, right?"

Ahsoka nodded.  "You're Skyguy's daddies.  But how does he have two daddies?  I didn't think daddies could have babies."

"That is true," Obi-Wan chuckled.  "Biological human men are not able to have babies, no.  Qui-Gon and I adopted Anakin when his mom died.  He didn't have a daddy before that."

Ahsoka frowned, considering.  "But what about my mommy?  Would you replace my mommy?"

"Not at all," Qui-Gon told her.  "Your mommy will always be your mommy, even though she died.  We want to help your mommy out and help you grown up because your mommy isn't here to do it anymore."

"Slaves don't get adopted," Ahsoka almost scolded.  "So you can't be my daddies."

"First, that didn't stop us with Anakin, and second, you're free.  Freemen can be adopted."  Obi-Wan hugged the little girl when she stumbled into his arms, desperate for comfort.

"So you'll be my daddies?  Ahsoka clutched at Obi-Wan's tunic, uncertain.  "I never had a daddy afore.  Will I like having daddies?"

"Daddies are pretty great," Obi-Wan smiled and snuggled the girl with his husband.  "Qui-Gon and I would love to be yours, for as long as you'd like."

Ahsoka seemed to consider it for a moment, then asked, "That's okay?  You won't get mad?"

"We always wanted a daughter," Qui-Gon scooped the girl into his arms and carefully rose.  Ahsoka cuddled up to him, tucking her head into the hollow of his throat.  She was exhausted after the last week and now, knowing she was safe, the little girl could stay awake no longer.  Qui-Gon swayed gently where he stood, a move learned by human and humanoid parents the galaxy over, lulling the little girl to sleep.

Without another word, the trio headed to their quarters, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon wondering how Anakin would take having Ahsoka around, especially considering they had taken her in without telling him first.  He'd suspected something considering they'd cleaned out one of the bedrooms they never used, but it had been with the hope Ahsoka would be staying with them rather than in the créche.

When Anakin returned from classes, Ahsoka was curled up on one of the couches with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, the three watching a children's holovid.  Anakin froze in the doorway, face breaking into a sunny smile.  "Snips!"

"A—Anakin—"  Ahsoka curled up as small as possible, shaking.  "I—I'm sorry—!"

"I'm sorry to surprise you like this, but we've been given permission to adopt Ahsoka," Obi-Wan caught Anakin as he leapt onto the couch with them.

"This is so wizard!"  Anakin threw himself on Ahsoka, hugging her tight.  "You're my little sister!  This is the best surprise ever!"

"You aren't mad?"

"No way, Snips!"  Anakin squirmed around so he was holding her properly, rather than flattening her in a hug.  "You're going to be the best sister ever, and I'm going to be the best big brother you ever had!"

"But I've never had a big brother . . ." Ahsoka protested.

Qui-Gon hid a snicker.  —That's not going to stop him.—

Probably not, no,— Obi-Wan agreed with a mental laugh.  Still, Anakin's excitement was infectious and Anakin dragged the little girl through their rooms, Ahsoka giggling happily as they went.

The pair almost sagged in relief, feeling Anakin's adoration for his new sister ringing through the Force.  Ahsoka, in turn, seemed to love Anakin just as much, her own joy a beautiful harmony to his.  Obi-Wan snuggled into his husband's side, smiling, "I feel like we found a piece of our family we didn't even know was missing."

Ahsoka was young enough that her behaviors from being a slave would fade fairly quickly now that she felt safe and was in a place where her new rules were carefully laid out for her.  The créche master had not gone over any expectations, though out of inexperience rather than malice, but the Skywalkers knew the boundaries being thoroughly explained would bring Ahsoka a measure of comfort.  She was also young enough that "slave" and "free" had relatively little meaning and her transition from one to the other would likely be smoother than it had been for the older slaves.

"Come on, Ahsoka," Anakin tugged the little girl's hand.  "I've got these really wizard droids—they can fly.  We can play with them for a little bit before late meal."

"We can play?"  Ahsoka asked, shifting uncertainly.  "But—last time I played, my masters hurt me.  They broke my arm."

"We're free now, Snips," Anakin squeezed her hand.  "And our parents love us; they would never, ever hurt us.  I promise."

"Okay," Ahsoka whispered, letting Anakin tug her back to the main room.  Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon looked up when they entered, but didn't move when Anakin announced they were going to fly his droids on the balcony.

"We'll call you for late meal," Qui-Gon offered, holding out a hand.  Anakin went willingly, Ahsoka shaking as she followed, startled when Qui-Gon pressed a soft kiss to Anakin's hair and the top of her montrals.  "Have fun."

"It's okay?"  Ahsoka burst out, blue eyes huge.  "You aren't going to hurt me?"

"We will never hurt you," Qui-Gon told her, and Ahsoka grabbed him in a hug.  "I promise."

Ahsoka nodded, moving to hug Obi-Wan as well, then let Anakin tug her onto the balcony.  The men traded looks and soft sighs.  Ahsoka had a bit further to go than they thought, but with time and patience, she would get there.
<>*<>

After her first week with the Skywalkers, Ahsoka fit right in like she'd always been there.  She and Anakin even had their own "secret" handshake, where they would tap their index fingers together while making lightsaber noises.  Ahsoka willingly followed Anakin like a little duckling, content to be wherever Anakin was and do whatever Anakin was doing.  She even made a friend in Feral, who was only a month or so her junior.

It was strange to watch them together, the solemn-eyed Zabrak boy and the exuberant Togrutan girl, but the two got along impossibly well, Ahsoka serving as Feral's voice when Savage wasn't around and Feral reining in Ahsoka's hyperactivity.  The council wisely switched Ahsoka to Feral's créche, to keep them together during the day, and the little girl rapidly dragged the boy right along with her as she made friends with everyone.

"Anakin might pick up stray droids, but Ahsoka is going to be just like you and pick up stray everything else," Obi-Wan accused his husband, who grinned.

"Face it, you've missed having things shed all over the furniture," Qui-Gon nuzzled into the side of Obi-Wan's neck, one of the other man's few ticklish places.  Obi-Wan shrieked, laughing, and shoved him back.

"I do not miss having things shed on the furniture," Obi-Wan replied, still fighting to keep Qui-Gon away from his neck.  "You're the one that misses it!"

"Sometimes, but I think Anakin is bringing home so many droids that my animals wouldn't fit," Qui-Gon chuckled, letting Obi-Wan go after claiming a soft kiss.

"At least she's taking the transition well," Obi-Wan shook his head.  "Though it was pretty funny when she walked in with Mace as one of her strays."

"He is never living that down," Qui-Gon snickered.  "Just wait, Depa will be next."

"I'm surprised it hasn't happened already," Obi-Wan snorted.  "They've been together a great deal."

"It's nice to see, I think," Qui-Gon settled on the couch, Obi-Wan sprawled atop him, head tucked into the side of Qui-Gon's neck.  "They've gotten a lot closer since they fought in the arena together.  Well, since Mace fought and she was tied to a pole as a sacrifice."

"Shaak Ti is still a pain in our ass, though," Obi-Wan rubbed his face.  "Did you hear they were considering her for the council?  She'll be a nightmare."

"Having a skeptic on the council won't hurt anything," Qui-Gon replied, though he didn't sound particularly happy.  "Only having people who agree with you is a great way to get a complacent council, no matter how well-meaning the Order."

Obi-Wan gave a soft hum of agreement, knowing Qui-Gon was right, and snuggled in closer.  "How long do we have until the kids get back?"

"Depends," Qui-Gon twisted to kiss his hair.  "What did you have in mind?"

"Our room is just down the hall and we haven't had any time to ourselves lately . . . "  Obi-Wan started kissing his husband's neck.  "What do you think I have in mind?"

"We have thirty minutes.  Let's go."  Qui-Gon scooped Obi-Wan into his arms and headed for their room, Obi-Wan laughing as his husband all but ran down the hall.  They may have sacrificed a little of their time alone, but having Ahsoka and Anakin around was certainly worth the sacrifice.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Toward the end of the Skywalkers' first year as freemen, a handful of reports reached the council about the lightsaber wielding Tusken warlord.  While they had known Sharad Hett had joined the Tuskens on Tatooine, the former Jedi had been living fairly peacefully, staying away from most of the Tuskens' skirmishes and certainly never serving as a warlord.  Now, though, Jabba the Hutt was attempting to wrest control of the planet from a second Hutt called Gardulla.

The pair had incited war between the Tuskens and humans, selling off antiquated blasters at exorbitant prices, turning a profit while encouraging bloodshed.  While Hutt controlled worlds were rarely under Jedi jurisdiction, the re-emergence of Sharad gave them reason to step in.

"I am requesting Ser Jinn join me for this trip," Ki-Adi-Mundi told the council, hands clasped behind his back.  "I understand he may be emotionally compromised, given his past with Knight Hett, however, I believe he can help me convince Knight Hett to return to the Jedi."

"Qui-Gon also has a past with the Tuskens," Mace warned.  "And it's a rather bloody one.  They killed Anakin's mother and attacked the slave quarters on several occasions."

"Even so, he and Sharad had a strong relationship.  Perhaps not as father and son, but at least a master-padawan relationship."  Ki-Adi-Mundi replied.

"It would allow us to see if we could occasionally separate the Skywalkers for missions," Depa mused.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had already proven themselves a formidable diplomatic team, aided by Qui-Gon collecting languages like candy.  A week with one and he was conversational, at the very least, and two weeks on planet let him sound like a poorly-educated native.  Being able to split the pair on occasion would be useful.

"Speak to them regarding this, I will," Yoda agreed.  "Wish to be separated, they may not and understand this, I do.  Know what the bond would do over distance, we do not."

"I have one more thing to propose, if we send Ser Jinn on this mission," Plo looked around the council.  "I would like this mission to serve as Ser Jinn's Trial.  Upon successful completion, I wish to grant him the title of Jedi Knight."

Murmurs swept through the council.  Qui-Gon had received no official Jedi training, yet he upheld the way of the Jedi on every mission he'd been on.  Adi nodded her agreement.  "I second the motion."

"Third it, I do," Yaddle agreed.

"All in favor?"  Mace glanced around the room.  He was surprised when the motion passed unanimously.  Yarael Poof had been very vocal against the Skywalkers in many council sessions.

"Bestow the title of Knight on young Kenobi also, we should," Yaddle added.  "Many trials already, he has had to face and overcome.  Proven himself time and again, he has.  The title of knight, he deserves."

"I second this," Yarael Poof stated, nearly flooring the rest of the council.  The discussion, though slightly longer than the one for Qui-Gon, also ended in unanimous approval for the idea.  The pair had been serving as knights already, it was past time they were granted the official title rather than the vague term of "Jedi."

"Obi-Wan will have to decide what to do with his braid," Depa mused.  "He has had it for a very long time."

"I propose we allow him to keep it, if he wishes," Plo told them.  "Ser Kenobi's braid may resemble a padawan braid, but I do not believe it is one any long."

"If Ser Kenobi feels that is the case, I have no objections," Mace allowed, the other council members offering their own agreement.

"I've one more thing before we adjourn," Adi turned to Mace.  "Every Jedi in this Order has asked for permission to dye their robes and/or use armorweave.  Can we just allow it already?  The additional cost to the order is negligible and I'm sick of being stopped in the halls.  Please just let them.  They're going to drive me to insanity."

Half the council snickered, knowing Mace wanted purple himself.  Yaddle did not bother to hide her chuckle.  "As long as all colors we use are accessible to all, no issue with this do I have."

"Wish to wear color myself, I do," Yoda confessed.

"We should keep the initiate whites, though," Depa offered.  "Lightsaber colors cause quarrel enough.  Let's not add to that headache."

"Younglings are karking weird," Even Piell agreed.  "I'm with Master Billaba on that one."

"Agreed," Plo could remember some of the arguments from his time in the créche.  "Though they've gotten better with the Skywalkers and Oppresses around.  Maybe it is the demonstration of difference not being bad?"

"Meditate on that and bring it back up," Mace told him, wondering if Plo was on to something.  "Actually, we should all meditate on it.  For now, however, we have missions to decide."

"After you answer my question."  Adi crossed her arms.

"Fine," Mace huffed.  "All in favor?"

Yarael protested, though he eventually gave in and agreed that if it didn't appear to be working in a year they would return to the Jedi tans.  Given how little he argued, though, Mace had a feeling he was simply playing devil's advocate—necessary, if occasionally annoying—and actually had something in mind for himself.

"Now, if we may move on?"  Mace cocked an eyebrow.  Sharad Hett really could not wait any longer.  Ki-Adi-Mundi took his leave; he needed to speak with Qui-Gon.
<>*<>

Qui-Gon was fairly quiet on the trip to Tatooine, unhappy about Obi-Wan not being there, though the bond itself was unbothered.  "Distance has no real meaning in the Force," Qui-Gon explained when Ki-Adi-Mundi asked, clearly concerned by his reticence.  "Though I am glad we haven't had any ill effects.  The Healers were worried since we've haven't been apart for any real distance since forming the bond."

"I see."  Ki-Adi-Mundi stroked his beard thoughtfully.  "Has your friend—Knight Eerin, correct?—had any luck learning more about it?  Or any of the archivists?"

"Nothing of any real note," Qui-Gon sighed.  "From what Bant has managed to find, bonds like mine and Obi-Wan's are incredibly rare.  She's found information on similar bonds, but they're far less potent.  The last recorded bond like ours was well over a thousand years ago.  It seems it's just . . . one in a million."

"A bit like your arena odds, hm?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi joked, earning a startled blink, then a chuckle from Qui-Gon.  "Still, I hope they are able to find something on it soon."

"I do too," Qui-Gon settled in the pilot's seat with a soft sigh.  "Not that Obi-Wan and I would have it any other way, but it would be nice to know more about it."

Ki-Adi-Mundi took the co-pilot's chair, staring thoughtfully at the blur of hyperspace.  "I know you said your bond with Obi-Wan is undisturbed by the distance, but are you all right?  You did say you hadn't been apart since you met."

Qui-Gon shrugged.  "You needed my help with Sharad and it was important to find out if Obi-Wan and I even could be separated, in case the Jedi need us in different places, but . . . "

"I will tell the council that while the bond allows you and Obi-Wan separation, you are not comfortable with it."  Ki-Adi-Mundi assured him.  "There may be times we need one of you rather than both, but I will let the council know those times should be rare."

"Thank you," Tension Qui-Gon hadn't realized he was carrying bled from his shoulders.  "I . . . am nervous about returning to Tatooine as well."

"You are a freeman now, Qui-Gon," The council member reached over to squeeze the man's shoulder.  "You cannot be pressed back into slavery there.  The council would never stand for it."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon sighed softly.  "It's not just that, though.  Sharad . . . I haven't seen him in something like fifteen years.  He's a Tusken raider . . . I just . . . "

"Sharad's tribe of Tuskens lives on the Jundland Wastes and have little contact with the other settlers.  I'm not sure his tribe even goes nears the non-natives."

"I know he probably had nothing to do with Shmi's death, that isn't something the Sharad I knew would do.  Still, it's hard to know he joined the Tuskens, especially with what happened to Shmi.  He was the closest thing I had to a father—if not for him, I would have died in the arena long before I met Obi-Wan."

"You started in the arena at fourteen, correct?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi questioned.  "What did you do prior to that?  You needn't tell me if you don't wish; I simply don't know much about your past."

Qui-Gon shrugged, "No one has really asked.  Mace and Bant know some of it and Obi-Wan's other friends from the créche know less."

"And Obi-Wan?"

"Knows everything, of course," Qui-Gon smiled, thinking of his husband.  "We have things we haven't shared, but when the bond is completely open we share memories.  Bant says that isn't common with the bonds the Jedi share but she's found mentions of it in similar bonds."

"Does that bother you?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi didn't think he would like having someone know him that well.

"I have nothing to hide from him," Qui-Gon replied.  "He saw the worst of me in the arena, why should I be worried about showing him the rest?"

While Qui-Gon had a point, Ki-Adi-Mundi was relieved he managed to avoid answering when the ship dropped out of hyperspace.  The Cerean rose to look over the map on the navigational console.  "We can head directly to the Jundland Wastes.  The council believes he is currently camped somewhere near The Needles."

"Searching in this ship will be difficult," Qui-Gon disagreed.  "It isn't very maneuverable and we won't make good time.  We'd be better off renting some speeders in Mos Eisley.  And if we do need to leave the ship for any reason, we'll have to be concerned about the Jawas stealing it.  And they will.  Plus, traveling the Wastes on foot is inadvisable."

"I shall bow to your wisdom in this matter, then," Ki-Adi-Mundi dipped his head in acquiesce.  "And I will leave the speeder to you as well.  Given I am not native and know little Huttese, I fear I would be taken advantage of."

"They would cheat the pants off you, as Ahsoka likes to say," Qui-Gon laughed.  "I recommended avoiding the docking bays and land near the slave quarters.  We can pay them to watch the ship and they'll do better than the shipyard—provided the council sent you with Wupiupi?"

"Obi-Wan reminded up, yes," Ki-Adi-mundi held up a pair of small bags.  "Some in coin, some on credit chips.  He was very adamant in regards to the currency."

Qui-Gon looked through the bags, nodding.  "This is quite a bit.  I—I was thinking—could I request a favor from Ki-Adi-Mundi the council member?"

"Of course," Ki-Adi-Mundi readily agreed, strapping in as they approached the planet.  "What is it?"

"Slave children under five have an incredibly high mortality rate," Qui-Gon explained, looking uncertain.  "If we could test those in the slave quarters and take those eligible back to the Jedi . . ."

"I'm sorry, Qui-Gon, but we simply aren't equipped for that," Ki-Adi-Mundi replied sorrowfully.  "Though it is a brilliant idea.  I will tell the council once we return home.  We will be able to put something a bit more refined given a few weeks.  And if we figure out something more official, they will not be in danger should they return to the outer rim."

Qui-Gon nodded, seeing the wisdom of the Cerean's suggestion and feeling comforted knowing the council would help the slave children as best they could.  "Thank you."

"It is clear we have overlooked many students simply based on social status," Ki-Adi-Mundi replied.  "It is long past time we changed.  The Force agrees with this—so I suppose we should listen."

"It's hard to argue with the Force," Qui-Gon headed toward the Mos Eisley slave quarters.

"It is strange to see you pilot," Ki-Adi-Mundi confessed.  "It is not something I picture you doing."

"I can even drive a podracer," Qui-Gon made a face.  "You live with a stick jockey—pilot—long enough and you acquire the skill out of necessity, no matter how little you like it."

"Anakin?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi asked, knowing how obsessed the boy was with ships.

"Anakin," Qui-Gon confirmed.  "Though I despise piloting.  Which Obi-Wan thinks is hilarious, by the way."

Ki-Adi-Mundi hid a smile, nodding.  He could see why Obi-Wan was amused, certainly.  "It is a natural reaction, I suppose, to desire keeping one's feet on the ground."

Qui-Gon made a face at him, catching the gentle teasing and landed with a harder bump than strictly necessary.  Qui-Gon glanced toward the council member, looking innocent.  "Oops."

"Revenge is not the Jedi way," Ki-Adi-mundi rubbed his shoulders where he'd jerked against the harness.

"I'm terrible at landings," Qui-Gon said, straight-faced.  Ki-Adi-Mundi rolled his eyes with a huff.

The pair were met by almost a dozen slaves when they landed—the young, the old and the infirm—curiosity and fear lining their expressions.  It took Ki-Adi-Mundi a moment to realize that these were the slaves unable to work.  The slaves immediately knew the newcomers for freemen, though it was a few moments before they realized they were Jedi.

"What do you want?"  The speaker was the healthiest of the group, a frail-looking near-human with snowy curls.  "We've naught for you to take."

"So'lanai," Qui-Gon greeted, clasping his right wrist with his left hand, right palm and the back of his left hand toward the sky.  "Chntk sotona ni dao?  Mijya Wupiupi iinok."

Ki-Adi-Mundi forced himself not to stare.  The greeting was something the entire council was familiar with, but the Skywalkers did not speak slave Creole around the Jedi, though he assumed it was common enough when they were alone.  Qui-Gon glanced at the council member, then back to the slave.  "Ngo dai Jedi."

"Chs," The being gestured for them to follow.  "Dai Jedi sotona Sleantah?"

"Neekta," Qui-Gon shook his head.  "Sotona dao Basic?"

"If we must," The being huffed.  "You speak Sleantah like you were born to it."

"I was," Qui-Gon replied.  "The Jedi freed my family and I last year."

"Sleantah?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi glanced at Qui-Gon, looking confused.

"Slave Creole," The slave replied, then told Qui-Gon, "Your friend looks confused."

"I have not told him what we're doing," Qui-Gon gave a small shrug, smirking.

"Ruhaja," The being laughed, though the word was clearly an insult.  "You should at least explain what a chntk is.  Ours will be amused by the outsider's confusion, but explanations take time—something you have little of, I think."

"Fair," Qui-Gon conceded, then turned to Ki-Adi-Mundi.  "Every half year—or as necessary, if the slave is sold off—an election is held in the slave quarters to select a leader called a Chntk.  They handle requests like ours where freeman hire slaves to do things, and they're responsible for paying out what funds are received for it.  Choosing someone trustworthy is very important."

Ki-Adi-Mundi nodded.  "Were you ever the . . . Chen-tick?"

"Chntk," Qui-Gon corrected, hiding a laugh.  "A few times.  Obi-Wan and I served jointly when we did serve, at the behest of the community.  Unusual but allowed."

"Interesting.  How did you hold elections?"

"By vote," Qui-Gon gave him an odd lock.  "Anyone who wanted to be considered stepped forward at the community meeting.  Sometimes the community requested people, then we raised our hands to vote when each name was called.  If the Chntk was sold from the community before the end of their term, another election took place.  That happened ever year or two."

"Qui-Gon—if we hadn't found you, what's the likelihood you would have been sold away from Ani and Obi-Wan?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi had never asked—had never wanted to considered it.

"Even being owned by Watto, after five years every day we had together was a miracle," Qui-Gon replied quietly.  "It was a miracle we had Ani, a miracle we survived the arena . . . we'd expected to be lost in a bet by Watto every time we fought.  We were fairly sure he wouldn't sell any of us, since we were really useful at the shop, but if there was a dry season, we were all worth a lot of money.  Obi-Wan and I couldn't be separated if he was going to sell us as gladiators—which was where most of our worth was—but Ani . . . he's a great mechanic and as soon as he could survive on his own . . . "

"Force," Ki-Adi-Mundi breathed.  "And you couldn't . . . stay in contact or something?"

"How?"  Qui-Gon shook his head.  "Slaves always try but many of us are illiterate, it's usually illegal for us to own comms, even if we could get them and access for arena slaves with the outside world is highly limited at best.  Most arena slaves barely leave the arena.  Watto letting us stay in the slave quarters was strange."

"Watto sounds almost . . . kind."  Ki-Adi-Mundi never thought he'd be describing a slave owner as kind.

"We were fortunate Watto owned us, in many ways," The former slave admitted.  "We were not beaten, Ani did not go hungry, he kept us together and . . . I think he even cared for us, a bit.  He threatened Pangur for us, told him that he had to free us.  As far as owners go, he was certainly one of the better ones."

"I'm sorry," Ki-Adi-Mundi couldn't bear the thought of not having Anakin or Obi-Wan at the temple.

"Ashtrin mara seranon, tktk seranon sa raseur," Qui-Gon told the council member, translating it a breath after, "Treasure your family greatly, for family is a freeman's dream."

"We're going to stop this, Qui-Gon," Ki-Adi-Mundi gripped the other Jedi's arm.  "Family should not be a dream for anyone, and no being should ever be afraid their family will be sold away from them."

"Big words, Jedi," The slave snorted.  "What makes you think you'll succeed?"

"We're Jedi," Ki-Adi-Mundi folded his hands in his sleeves.  "Impossible is what we do."

"Good luck," The being snorted.  "Let me know if you manage."

"I will tell you myself," Ki-Adi-Mundi vowed.  "Force witness it."

The slave shoved open a door and gestured the Jedi inside without replying.  Ki-Adi-Mundi gritted his teeth, determined, and followed Qui-Gon inside.

The Chntk was an ancient-looking Iktoch, eyes half-hidden in the folds of skin on his weathered face.  The Jedi bowed to the being, Qui-Gon touching Ki-Adi-Mundi's shoulder before stepping forward.

"So'lanai, Chntk," Qui-Gon bowed.  "Ngo Jedi, Ki-Adi-Mundi taht Qui-Gon Jinn.  S'ka Ki-Adi-Mundi nira sotona Sleantah; sotona dao basic?"

"You are the one they call the Jedi Knight from the Arena," The Chntk commented, looking Qui-Gon over.  "Not a true Jedi."

"I was the Knight," Qui-Gon nodded.  "Now I am a real Jedi.  I was freed a year ago with my partner—now husband—and our son.  We are seeking another former Jedi on Tatooine.  We were hoping to hire the slaves to watch our ship while we search for him."

Ki-Adi-Mundi listened while the pair bartered relentlessly, eventually agreeing on a sum far cheaper than the docks in Mos Eisley proper.  Qui-Gon bowed to the Chntk when they'd finished, then turned to Ki-Adi-Mundi to request the funds.  "500 credits per day would be 800 Wupiupi . . . we had intended to stay for a week—"

"Credits?"  The Chntk asked, confused.  "Credits are no good here—we barter only in Wupiupi.  Why are you speaking of credits and conversions?"

"My apologies," Ki-Adi-Mundi frowned.  "The space port posts its prices in credits and expects travelers to exchange the currency rates.  I had assumed this was the same.  We have the Wupiupi to cover this."

Qui-Gon shrugged, then grinned at the Chntk.  "I guess this paid off a bit better than expected."

"I will not cheat you,"  The Chntk crossed his arms.  "We barter in Wupiupi here, not credits.  I will not accept this without reopening the barter."

"It is not a cheat, just a misunderstanding," Ki-Adi-Mundi help up his hands.  "I had simply assumed something that wasn't true.  May I offer my sincere apologies?  I intended no offense."

The chntk chuckled at the apologize, then turned to Qui-Gon.  "I will accept the original barter and we will watch over your ship as long as there is need—though if you do not returned from the wastes . . . "

"If we have not returned in a month, keep the money given you and sell the ship," Qui-Gon offered.  "We will pay for the month in advance.  Whatever we do not use, you may keep for yourself."

"Done," The Chntk traded bows with the Jedi, accepted the offered payment and showed the pair from the room.  They still had a number of things to do if they intended to leave the next morning.  Ki-Adi-Mundi would need different clothing for the heat of the wastes.  Qui-Gon requested to know which stores were run by fair masters and the pair headed into Mos Eisley for the things they would need for the wastes as well as a place to sleep for the night.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Ki-Adi-Mundi was grateful he'd bowed to Qui-Gon's expertise where the Jundland Wastes were involved.  The man had insisted on lighter clothing than the typical Jedi robes and made sure they had plenty of water, likely more than they would need.  Qui-Gon had insisted it was better too much than too little and now that Ki-Adi-Mundi was sweating out what felt like every ounce of liquid in his body, he thankful for Qui-Gon's preparations.

"The needles are a couple days from Mos Eisley," Qui-Gon told Ki-Adi-Mundi, shouting to be heard over the wind made by the speeders.  "So long as we don't get delayed, of course.  They were calling for sandstorms but the Tuskens—"

Qui-Gon cut himself off, and Ki-Adi-Mundi sighed softly.  Any mention of the Tuskens had Qui-Gon falling silent, lips pursed.  The Cerean just hoped he wasn't making a mistake, taking Qui-Gon into the Tusken camp itself.  The council member veered toward Qui-Gon's speeder.  "Will you be all right in a Tusken Camp?"

"I'll be fine," Qui-Gon replied, though he was still wearing a frighteningly distant look on his face.  "I doubt this is the group that attacked the slave quarters in Mos Espa anyway.  From what the locals said, they usually avoid human settlements."

"Yes, but the Tuskens did kill Shmi," Ki-Adi-Mundi pressed.

"I am not going to hate an entire race for the mistakes of a couple," Qui-Gon snapped.  "And we don't even know it was the Tuskens—"

"Qui-Gon, stop."  Ki-Adi-Mundi drew his speeder to a halt.  "We can't go into the village with you so upset."

"I know," Qui-Gon led the Jedi to a small outcropping that offered a bit of shade and dropped from the speeder.  "I just—Shmi was like my sister.  Obi-Wan and I would have died to protect her and we weren't even there."

"Tell me what happened, Qui-Gon," Ki-Adi-Mundi urged.  "It will help."

"That's the problem," Qui-Gon admitted quietly.  "No one actually knows.  A lot of raids are blamed on Tuskens, yes, but it is very easy to dress like one.  They're scavengers, they cover every part of themselves with whatever bits of material they can find.  It is impossible to know that the people who attached the slave quarters really were Tuskens."

"But you believe they were."

"I don't know," Qui-Gon scrubbed his face.  "Tuskens hadn't attacked the slave quarters for years.  Everyone knows we have nothing of value unless someone managed to steal one of us and that's just not worth the trouble when they could steal fresh meat from somewhere else and not risk someone's owner hunting them down—or blowing them up.  There was no reason for the Tuskens to attack us.  But it's hard to know that when you're seeing what looks like Tuskens turn tail and run."

"What if they were?  What would you do?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi settled next to his friend.

"All I want is the truth," Qui-Gon admitted softly.  "I should not be holding an entire race responsible for the possible actions of a few and I . . . I need to talk to them.  To know how to let go.  But I'm afraid that if they did kill Shmi, I'll do something I regret."

"You need not fear that," Ki-Adi-Mundi squeezed his arm.  "I will stop you, if need be."

"Can you?"  Qui-Gon asked, fists clenched.  "You've seen me fight.  Can you truly stop me if I . . . go on  rampage?"

Ki-Adi-Mundi nodded, though he wasn't positive he could.  He was excellent with a lightsaber, but nowhere near Mace's level and Qui-Gon was an equal match to the other master.  If Qui-Gon did go on a rampage and lose himself to the dark, Ki-Adi-Mundi wasn't certain he'd be able to stop the other man.  The council member looked Qui-Gon over for a moment, then rose.  "We are heading to a village, are we not?"

"More or less.  The Tuskens don't really have villages, just camps."  Qui-Gon shook his head.  "Why?  What does that have to do with anything?"

"There will be children there," Ki-Adi-Mundi said, as though that explained everything, and climbed back on his speeder.

"What does that mean?"  Qui-Gon demanded, clearly confused.

"You would never harm a child, Qui-Gon Jinn," Ki-Adi-Mundi replied.  "And once you see that their families are not so different to your own, you won't harm the adults, either."

"How can you know?"  Qui-Gon snapped.  "I've harmed children in the arena!  I've killed children in the arena!  How can you be sure?"

"The council found some holovids of your fights," Ki-Adi-Mundi ignored the way Qui-Gon stiffened in horror.  "Every time your opponent survived, you carried them from the ring with you if they could not walk on their own.  And more of the younger fighters survived while fighting you than any other gladiator.  You are not a monster, Qui-Gon Jinn.  A victim of circumstance, perhaps, but never a monster.  And you never harmed a sacrifice.  Even protected them from your own team, sometimes.  We've heard you say that there is no kindness in the arena, but you proved that wrong over and over again.  Trust me when I saw that I am certain you will not harm the Tuskens, no matter what you find out.  Please."

Qui-Gon nodded, climbing back on his own speeder.  "Thank you, Master Ki-Adi-Mundi.  To hear that means a lot."

"Any time," The Cerean replied.  "Now, let us find Knight Hett.  We have much to speak to him about."

Qui-Gon led the way back into the Jundland Wastes, still quiet and contemplative but lighter than  before.  Ki-Adi-Mundi was right, they did have a long way yet to go and Qui-Gon could considered the Jedi Master's words as they travelled.
<>*<>

The pair reached the Needles as the suns began to set, though Qui-Gon insisted on camping some ways away from them.  "That's Tusken land," Qui-Gon explained, finding a rocky outcropping to settle at.  "Best to arrive in the daylight when we have an easier time seeing what kind of welcome we'll be receiving."

"Are you anticipating trouble?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi questioned as he helped the other man with the tent.

"The Needles are sacred ground for the Tuskens, and extremely dangerous.  Womp rats and Krayt dragons are very common here."      Qui-Gon began spreading something around the camp.  "This will help keep the womp rats from the camp."

"And the Krayt dragons?"

"Prayer?"  Qui-Gon suggested, grinning at the look on Ki-Adi-Mundi's face.  "There is nothing I've found that will keep away a Krayt dragon, but they shouldn't bother us tonight, at least."

"Shouldn't?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi glanced around the outcropping.  "I'd prefer a better guarantee."

"Nothing stops a determined Krayt dragon," Qui-Gon laughed.  "But they usually seek out the same hunting grounds and we are not usually here so unless we've stumbled into their hunting grounds, which as far as I can tell we have not, then we are safe."

"I will trust your judgment on that," Ki-Adi-Mundi had heard about some of Qui-Gon's adventures with what Obi-Wan affectionately called his husband's strays.

Qui-Gon refused to let Ki-Adi-Mundi build a fire, and the Jedi soon learned why Qui-Gon insisted on the warmer clothing for night as Tatooine's temperature dropped quite drastically without the suns to heat the sand.  Qui-Gon looked comfortable enough, but when asked, Qui-Gon only shrugged.  "My home planet is far more inclement than this, and I spent some years in space as well."

"Before you were a gladiator?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi tilted his head.  "I'm afraid I'm not very familiar with your past.  We do not have much information."

"I thought Mace was looking for it when he went to Eireann," Qui-Gon curled his knees to his chest, resting his arms atop them.  "I just assumed I wouldn't have been allowed to stay in the temple without the council knowing more."

"He looked while he was there, but records of the slaves sold on Eireann are . . . spotty at best.  All we know is that you were sold from your mother at two, then off planet at six.  Anything past that, we don't know."

"There really isn't much to tell.  I was a field slave until I could mind myself—four, maybe?—then I was sent out with an older slave to watch herds of sheep.  I think I angered my owner, or I wasn't doing well at the job, and then they sold me as a ship rat."

"Ship rat?"

"Ships have small crawlspaces, conduits, or other tiny areas that children can fit but adults cannot.  Oftentimes a ship can be repaired without taking it out of hyperspace if you have someone small enough to access it from the inside.  It's dangerous, and a lot of slave children lose limbs or die.  I found a desiccated corpse in one of the ships, once.  She was the slave that had been the ship rat two before me."

"I can't even imagine how horrifying that would have been," Ki-Adi-Mundi shuddered.  Qui-Gon decided that the council member didn't need to know about the  fingernail marks along the conduit where she'd tried to claw her way free from the wires that had eventually strangled her.

"The best ship I worked on was a pirate ship," Qui-Gon grinned.  "I was sold to them the ship after that one . . . so I was about seven, I think.  They were all really large, non-human species so I was like the family pet.  They were the nicest crew I was with."

"Why didn't they keep you?"

"They got boarded and the other crew took me.  Fortunately they already had a ship rat, so they sold me quick."

"How long did that last?"

"I outgrew the crawlspaces when I was about ten," Qui-Gon shrugged.  "I ended up back on Eireann for a time, doing hard labor in the spaceport, then got sold around to a few other spaceports on various planets until I was fourteen, then tossed into the arena."

Ki-Adi-Mundi hadn't considered that slave children might have taken part in such dangerous work, and before a Jedi youngling was even considered an initiate.  At least Qui-Gon had gotten out of it safely, but Ki-Adi-Mundi knew there were thousands of other children who couldn't say the same.  "I am sorry that happened to you.  It is things like this that make me wish the Jedi had gotten involved sooner."

"It's not your fault," Qui-Gon leaned back to stare up at the stars.  "But right now, we have another mission to focus on."

Ki-Adi-Mundi nodded, though he knew he would have a great deal to meditate on when they returned to the temple.
<>*<>

Hours later, Ki-Adi-Mundi woke to Qui-Gon's hand over his mouth, the big man holding a finger to his lips.  Ki-Adi-Mundi nodded, gesturing to the side of the tent.  It had been an oversight on Ki-Adi-Mundi's part not to ask if Qui-Gon had an experience with bonds aside from the ones he had with Obi-Wan and Anakin.  Hesitantly, Ki-Adi-Mundi reached out with a tendril of the Force, surprised when Qui-Gon easily latched on to it.  —So you are able to form temporary bonds?—

—I have had some training,— Qui-Gon tilted his head, frowning.  —It doesn't sound like an animal . . . probably Tuskens or Jawas.  We should be able to open the tent with the Force and surprise them.  Whatever they're expecting, I doubt it's Jedi.—

I agree,— Ki-Adi-Mundi readied his lightsaber as Qui-Gon tugged up the tent flap.

The pair threw themselves from the tent, igniting their lightsabers in the same motion.  The Tuskens who had surrounded the Jedi growled and shook their gaderffii at the pair.  The head Tusken of the group whistled, making the rest of the tribe fall back even as what Ki-Adi-Mundi was the chief stepped forward, igniting a 'saber of his own.

"Sharad!"  Qui-Gon recognized the crimson blade immediately and dropped the 'saber he was holding as he raced toward the Tusken.  "It's me!  Qui-Gon!"

"Qui-Gon?"  Sharad barely managed to deactivate his lightsaber before he accidently ran Qui-Gon through.  "What are you doing here?  And with a Jedi?"

"They freed me," Qui-Gon caught his former mentor in hug.  "It's a long story—and you joined the Tuskens?  What happened, Sharad?  Why did you leave the Jedi?"

"You've spent time on Tatooine, I take it?"  Sharad sighed softly.

"The last five years," Qui-Gon stepped back.  "The Tuskens killed my alcerín—my almost sister.  They raided the slave quarters . . . Her son—now my son—was only five and she was defenseless."

"Not my tribe," Sharad snapped, though when Qui-Gon stepped back toward him, Sharad let the man wrap an arm around him without complaint.  "My tribe has been working on finding a way to create a treaty of some kind with the settlers for years.  We made some strides with the ones in Anchorhead this past year but the Hutts have been working against us."

"We heard they were selling weapons to the Tuskens to encourage war between the tribes," Ki-Adi-Mundi shook his head.  "The Jedi are concerned with what the Hutts are plotting, especially since they are trying to pin it on the Tuskens."

"It won't be hard," Sharad sighed.  "Settlers already hate the Tuskens; it won't take much to tip the scales."

"We will do everything we can to help," Qui-Gon hastened to assure the man.  Ki-Adi-Mundi hid a smile.  Despite his anger at the Tuskens for killing Shmi, Qui-Gon had forgiven them the moment he heard they needed help.  The man would certain make an excellent Jedi knight.

"Whatever it is, the Hutts have been working towards it for almost twenty years," Sharad told them.  "I fear they wish to eradicate both the Tuskens and the Jawas.  They've even had people dress like Tuskens and attack the settlements."

"For how long?"  Qui-Gon demanded.

"Before I arrived.  Tuskens have a slightly . . . different sense of time, but I believe it has been nearly twenty years.  Perhaps more, even."

Qui-Gon swallowed hard.  "So it may not have been Tuskens that killed Shmi."

"Your . . . almost-sister?"  Sharad hesitantly translated the Sleantah word. Qui-Gon had used to describe his relationship to Shmi.

"My alcerín.  Her name was Shmi.  She was killed in a raid on the Mos Espa slave quarters."

"My tribe never attack the slave quarters," Sharad sounded almost distraught.  "Not since I explained what slavery was.  They wanted to figure out how to help the slaves."

Something in Qui-Gon's expression melted and Ki-Adi-Mundi knew that whatever else, Qui-Gon would do his best to stop the Hutts from hurting the Tuskens any further if it at all possible.  Sharad turned back to the Tuskens and gave a few orders.  Qui-Gon tilted his head for a moment, then turned to Sharad and attempted to tell him something in the Tusken language.

Sharad laughed.  "Your accent is atrocious."

Qui-Gon grinned in reply as Sharad called out another order and the Tuskens packed up the Jedi's camp and loaded it onto their banthas before climbing aboard themselves.  Qui-Gon and Ki-Adi-Mundi climbed onto their speeders, Sharad catching Qui-Gon's arm.  "Would you mind if I ride with you?  I would like to hear about what you've been doing since I saw you last."

"Of course," Qui-Gon pulled the other man aboard.  "Let me tell you about my husband and son . . . "
<>*<>

Sharad invited them to share his campfire, looking over both Jedi as they settled around the flames.  "Council member Ki-Adi-Mundi, I do not believe the Jedi sent you here simply to mediate a treaty between the Tuskens and Hutts."

"I have also come to request your assistance," Ki-Adi-Mundi admitted, not looking at Qui-Gon.  "You were once the greatest knight to grace the Temple's halls.  The council requests your return now in light of a troubling development."

"I did not leave the Jedi to continue playing your games," Sharad snapped, arms crossed.

"Of course," Ki-Adi-Mundi apologized, then drew in a deep breath.  "The Sith have returned."

"The Sith."  Sharad shook his head.  "Impossible.  They've been eradicated for thousands of years."

"Unfortunately not," Ki-Adi-Mundi sighed heavily.  "Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan defeated—and turned—one on Naboo."

"Turned?"  Sharad turned to Qui-Gon, shook his head with an incredulous chuckle, "Of course he did.  Only Qui-Gon could manage something like that.  And the former Sith has confirmed that they are still in existence?"

"He did."  Ki-Adi-Mundi rose to pace by the fire.  "We learned they were never truly gone, just in hiding.  Qui-Gon turned the apprentice but we still don't know who the master is.  Sith are rather secretive bastards, evidently."

Sharad spread his hands.  "I am sympathetic to your plight, but I cannot leave my people.  Surely you can understand that.  We are so close to reaching an understand with the settlers and my people cannot do this without me."

"We're not asking you to walk away," Qui-Gon said earnestly.  "And I'm sure the Jedi will help.  I mean, that's why they sent Ki-Adi-Mundi and I, right?  My husband and I are already one of the top diplomatic teams in the temple.  Surely we can help you with the settlers."

"So you will help us with the settlers?"  Sharad turned to Ki-Adi-Mundi.

The councilman raised his hands, as though in defeat.  "As Qui-Gon said, we are at your service."

"Having Jedi will help the settlers understand we are serious in regards to this treaty," Sharad mused, gazing into the fire.  "As a Tusken, I cannot show my face or perhaps this would have been easier.  There are times that part of their culture can be an inconvenience."

"But you have us to help, now," Ki-Adi-Mundi assured him.  "And a treaty between you and the settlers will not be the most difficult treaty any of us have managed."

Sharad laughed outright.  "It can't be worse than that time Master Ki-Adi-Mundi, Master Eeth Koth and I were on Terris IV."

"Obi-Wan and I were just there," Qui-Gon looked startled.  "They were fighting with Terris V."

"That's the third war they've started with each other in a decade," Ki-Adi-Mundi sighed.  "And the third one we've moderated, too."

"Ten credits a fourth one starts in the next two years."

"That is a sucker's bet," Sharad waved it off.  "Besides, I stopped betting when I joined the Tuskens.  They have no interest in it.  Some of the customs are very strange to outsiders."

"Some of our customs are probably very strange to them," Qui-Gon pointed out.

"True," Sharad agreed, settling back by the fire.  "But there are good things here, too.  Different from the Jedi—or different from the Jedi I remember.  I cannot believe they allowed you to marry and remain there, Qui-Gon."

"My husband and I have a powerful bond that not even the Jedi can explain," Qui-Gon shrugged.  "The Force is telling them to change.  Has been telling them for awhile, I think.  My family and I are just the start.  Maybe you are meant to help."

"A second family in the Jedi temple?"  Sharad laughed.  "My son is far too old to join the Jedi—He's nearly thirteen."

"Anakin was nine when we arrived, and the Jedi are training him," Qui-Gon replied.  "But I would understand if you didn't want to return, too.  It sounds like your place is here."

"Know that if you need me to help you with the Sith, I will do so," Sharad said firmly.  "I may have left the Jedi, but that does not mean I will leave the galaxy in danger."

"We thank you," Ki-Adi-Mundi dipped his head in a bow.  "But I do have a request . . . "

Sharad tilted his head.  "Oh?"

"May we meet this son of yours?"

"Of course," Sharad whistled sharply, drawing a child toward them.  The boy, like his father and the other Tuskens, was covered top to toe in cloth, face obscured by a mask.  "My son, A'Sharad.  My wife disappeared just after his birth in a sandstorm.  I . . . do not know if she died or if she simply left."

"Irah lenair sa'atin ah-kta." Qui-Gon squeezed his mentor's arm.  For Ki-Adi-Mundi, he translated, "I mourn what the sands took from you."

"I thank you," Sharad replied, introducing Qui-Gon and Ki-Adi-Mundi to A'Sharad.  The boy bowed to the pair, though he hid shyly behind his father.

Qui-Gon knelt, smiling.  "It's nice to meet you, A'Sharad.  Your father was my teacher for several years.  He was. . . like family to me."

"It's nice to meet you," The boy offered slowly, his accented basic good but in need of practice.  "Are you really going to help Father make a treaty with the settlers?"

"We are," Qui-Gon glanced at Sharad, then turned back to his son.  "Are you going to go help us as well?"

"The whole tribe has been helping," A'Sharad stepped toward the tall Jedi.  "Even the women and children.  I get to play with the settlers' children sometimes, and I've been to school with them, too.  The teacher at the schoolhouse says that if we learn more about each other, we can learn to have respect for each other.  I think he's really smart."

"I do as well," Ki-Adi-Mundi agreed.  "And we will help your tribe create this treaty with the settlers of Anchorhead."

"Father said if we get the settlers to sign the treaty, we can visit the city more often," A'Sharad squirmed eagerly.  "And the other younglings and I get to play with the settlers' younglings.  That's fun.  We play stickball."

"We like to promote the younglings playing," Sharad explained.  "Even if the treaty doesn't work exactly as planned, we can still help create friendly relations between our peoples.  Already we have fostered friendships between individuals."

"We're glad for that," Ki-Adi-Mundi said.  "It will help with the treaty."

Sharad nodded, starting to bank the fire.  "We best sleep.  Morning will come early and we will begin heading for Anchorhead then."

The two Jedi nodded their agreement, Qui-Gon helping his former mentor with the fire before they settled in for the rest of the night.   Ki-Adi-Mundi fell asleep to Qui-Gon and Sharad sharing stories of their families, and Kai-Adi-Mundi was reminded, yet again, how different Qui-Gon's life had been to his own.  He'd tried to participate, at first, but he had no stories to share.  He was close only to his first wife, and had no children or padawans, leaving him little to share.

"I can't believe you've been on Tatooine all this time," Sharad shook his head after Qui-Gon finished telling him about Anakin winning the Boonta Eve Classic.  "So much time I missed . . . "

"You didn't know," Qui-Gon absolved.  "But Sharad—if you had know . . . about me being on Tatooine . . . "

"You and your family would have been Tuskens," Sharad assured him.  "Now get some rest.  We have a lot of travelling to do tomorrow."

It would take a day and a half to reach Anchorhead and then the real work on the treaty Sharad sought would begin.  Qui-Gon curled into his bedroll and Sharad couldn't help carding his fingers through Qui-Gon's hair as he did when the man was just a bit older than A'Sharad.  Sharad sighed, feeling at peace.  He'd missed the boy he'd considered his apprentice after he'd been forced to leave the arena, and having Qui-Gon here with A'Sharad was almost perfect.

Sharad chose to meditate that night, so at peace that opening himself to the Force was more restful than sleeping.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The Tuskens were surprisingly efficient when they traveled, even on banthas, and Ki-Adi-Mundi was surprised when Sharad started a cheerful chant that swept through the ranks of the Tuskens.  Qui-Gon listened for a minute, learning the words, and joined in.  Several of the nearest Tuskens laughed at the man's atrocious accent, but let him continue without comment.  Qui-Gon had a surprisingly nice voice, even with the unfamiliar and guttural language.

When the first chant ended, one of the other Tuskens began a second, this time in what Ki-Adi-Mundi had come to recognize as Slave Creole, or what Qui-Gon called Sleantah.  Sharad glanced at the Jedi, offered a small shrug.  "Slaves don't have much in the way of entertainment so they create their own—stories, songs, dances—it's amazing what they've created, especially since their culture has meshed so many others."

"It will be a shame to lose the culture, but I will not mourn the loss of the institution," Ki-Adi-Mundi replied, unable to help his laugh when Qui-Gon started a percussion beat on his speeder.

"The Jedi are getting involved with the slave trade?"  Sharad asked, startled.

"We're going to stop it," Ki-Adi-Mundi said.  "The Jedi had no idea how widespread it was—or that it had spread to the core.  While it was in the outer rim, and especially Hutt space, we weren't able to intervene.  But now we know better and I can assure you, we will be destroying it wholly."

"That is . . . a massive goal."

"It will take time, but no matter how long it takes, we will succeed," Ki-Adi-Mundi answered, face set in determination.  Sharad stole a look at Qui-Gon, then his son, wondering if he should return to the Jedi.  If they were helping to stop slavery and fighting the Sith, they would likely need his help.  Still, he had a responsibility to the Tuskens.  He'd taken the position as their leader and promised to help defend them against the Hutts.

Qui-Gon and Ki-Adi-Mundi spent a good part of the day learning more about the treaty they were taking to Anchorhead.  Sharad sighed heavily.  "Gardulla does not approve of us working with the settlers considering it cuts into her bottom line."

"Do you think the treaty will last?"

"The Tuskens want them to stay out of the wastes and the settlers have no real interest going there," Sharad explained.  "And this would open up trade since the Tuskens have regular access to the Jawas and they can travel more easily between the settlements than the non-natives."

"What do the Tuskens get out of this?"

"Besides being left alone?"  Sharad chuckled at his own joke.  "The settlers have vaporators so they have more reliable access to water, plus they have some farming so there's easier access to food as well.  The partnership between the settlers and Tuskens is very good for both parties."

"May we read it over?"  Qui-Gon requested, still absently beating something out on the hull of the speeder.  "That way if the settlers do have questions, we sound like we actually know what we're talking about?"

"The Jedi really have turned you into a diplomat, haven't they?"  Sharad handed over the treaty.  "I always wished you could have been a Jedi.  I thought you would have been one of the best knights I'd ever had the opportunity to train."

"I would have been a terrible Jedi, I think," Qui-Gon smiled.  "I'm far too emotional and I haven't always been . . . the lightest Force user.  Something tells me the Jedi wouldn't appreciate that."

"You weren't always the lightest Force user?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi raised an eyebrow.

"Obi-Wan and I aren't unfamiliar with the darkside, we just aren't Sith," Qui-Gon confessed, refusing to look at the Jedi master.  "Not exactly Jedi material."

"Obi-Wan was Jedi," Ki-Adi-Mundi reminded the man as he flipped through the document, happily dropping the line of discussion.  The idea of Qui-Gon being evil enough to use the Darkside was uncomfortable.  "Sharad, this appears to be only half a treaty.  Where is everything from the group at Anchorhead?"

"This is our second meeting about the treaty, and the first in which we've had any kind of document."  Sharad explained.  "Last time we asked the people of Anchorhead to make a list of things they desired to have in the treaty and note the ones they would not make the treaty without.  We've had nothing beyond that."

"I didn't realize you hadn't even begun discussions," Ki-Adi-Mundi admitted.

"I am aware," Sharad sighed heavily.  "We have a long road to travel to truly create this treaty—if the settlers even let us get beyond this meeting."

"It will work," Qui-Gon told his friend, determined.  "They want this, you and your tribe want this—you will all make history."

"You always were optimistic," Sharad's expression softened.  "I'm glad the arena didn't take that from you."

"It did," Qui-Gon ran a thumb over his tattoo.  "Obi-Wan brought it back."

"When I have a chance, I am going to the temple and meeting this husband of yours," Sharad insisted.  "He sounds amazing."

"He is," Qui-Gon answered, the turned the conversation back to the treaty.  Ki-Adi-Mundi watched the man thoughtfully.  Even with Qui-Gon's confession, the man was more than ready to be a Jedi knight.
<>*<>

The rest of the journey to Anchorhead was quiet, and the Jedi were surprised when the settlers met the Tuskens at the edge of town.  A number of children appeared, eager to see their friends again after the several weeks apart.  The adult Tuskens and settlers greeted each other just as warmly, trading food and small trinkets, glad to see each other again.

"We're hoping to figure out a better way to keep in touch," Sharad explained as he took the Jedi to the five-being council who acted as Anchorhead's current leaders.  "It's hard to get the holonet out in the desert sometimes, but many of the Tuskens are eager to have access to the teaching materials the settlers are offering.  We tire of our children lagging behind in education just because we live in the wastelands."

"The communication network is terrible on Tatooine," One of the council members made a face.  "We all wish that would improve.  The Hutts are happy with it as-is, though.  The harder it is to spread news, the more likely we are to have misunderstandings and allow misinformation to guide our descisions."

"There are land formations we could use as antenna, but getting permission . . . well."  Another council member huffed.  "Hutts will be Hutts, I suppose."

"Well, perhaps our example will be something for the other settlers to emulate and if we can create peace between this settlement and a tribe of Tuskens, perhaps others will do the same."  Sharad said, gesturing Qui-Gon and Ki-Adi-Mundi forward.  "I would also like to introduce some . . . unexpected help in this.  Jedi Master Ki-Adi-Mundi and Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn."

"Chntk—ah—Chief Hett has requested we share our expertise in helping you and the Tuskens create your treaty," Qui-Gon bowed to the council.  "We hope we will be of help as you and Chief Hett's tribe create a new chapter in Tatooine's history."

"Chntk?"  The council member who mentioned the antenna tilted her head, though she didn't comment further.

The council member who has mentioned the terrible communication network on Tatooine shook his head when the first council member would have said something more.  The man bowed, saying, "We would welcome your aide, Jedi.  I am Nayal."

"And I am Samiyah," The second council member greeted.  They were joined by the other council members, Tyree, Yehuda and Jairo as they made their way toward the building that would house the peace talks.

The discussions regarding the treaty were to be held in a small building next to the open-air town hall, half-buried to help keep it cool like so many of the buildings on Tatooine.  Sharad had gathered four of the tribe's elders, to join him in the creation of the treaty, evening out the voices on both sides.  In addition to A'Veer, the tribe's eldest, there was also KkH'UrOr, Sh'Taruk and Kalari, all of whom had served as counsel to the previous chiefs of the tribe.  With the addition of the two Jedi to help moderate the talks, both Tuskens and settlers felt they would have a better chance of creating something they would be able to honor for generations.

"I thought we could start working on the treaty in the morning," Samiyah looked around as the Tuskens and settlers chattered, the children racing through the town square.  "It will give us a chance to celebrate one another's company."

"We thought we might share a meal," Nayal added.  "Everyone has been looking forward to it.  We've all made out best dishes."

"We haven't brought anything—"  Sharad began.

"You're hosting," Jairo, the eldest settler, grinned, earning a laugh from A'veer.  "A few of us have tried to make some Tusken dishes.  You'll have to tell us how they are compared to the real thing."

"I guess I best go tell the rest of my tribe we will be hosting your feast," Sharad's grin was evident in his voice.
<>*<>

Ki-Adi-Mundi had never seen anything quite like the feast shared between the Tuskens and Anchorhead settlers.  The Tuskens built a dozen fires where everyone collected, passing food between them.  The children ranged between the fires, eating whatever came within reach.  The food was plentiful and filled with spices found rarely off Tatooine.

Several Tuskens revealed strange, stringed instruments they plucked with metal picks as another pair revealed heavy drums they kept beat on with their gaderffii.  A handful began to chant along with the music and the settlers cheered when groups of Tuskens began low, almost shuffling dance around the campfire, shaking their gaderffii in time to the beat kept in the drums.  Ki-Adi-Mundi studied the dance carefully, earning a smile from Sharad.

"This is Dance of Raindrops," Sharad explained, watching his tribe.  "It is our way of blessing this treaty.  It is also a dance of celebration and community.  The settlers don't know this dance yet, but you'll probably see a few join in for the next one, the Dance of the Dawn."

"You're teaching the settlers your dances?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi knew many cultures placed a great deal of significance in their tribal dances.  The dances were the stories of their people, the records of their histories before they could write.

"They are teaching us some of their own as well," Sharad chuckled when a few settlers joined in the repetitive steps of the chorus, then ducked out as the dancers began a new series of steps.  "After the Dance of the Dawn, likely they will do a few dances of their own.  The dance steps do not carry the same significance as those of the Tuskens, but their music carries more."

"The children have combined some of our dances with their music," A'Veer told them.  As eldest, A'Veer was considered the authority on clan tradition and his acceptance of this change brought tolerance from the others.  "It has been the creation of a new history, one where both song and dance have meaning.  It is not tradition, but it is good."

Qui-Gon had joined in the dancing, following along with the settlers.  Ki-Adi-Mundi watched him for a moment, commenting, "He's very good."

"His people—the Tuath Dé—place a lot of emphasis on music and dance.  It helped a lot while I was training him to fight, knowing how to dance so well."  Sharad sighed softly.  "It was terrible . . . turning something so beautiful into a way for him to kill."

"But it let him survive," Ki-Adi-Mundi reminded the other man, blinking in surprise when Qui-Gon did a kick step he recognized from a sparring match.  "Surely you don't regret that."

"Less that it helped him survive and more that it was necessary in the first place," Sharad's shoulders slumped in sorrow.  "He was too old to take to the temple, the council would have turned him away and without any family . . . likely he'd end right back up in the arena."

"What do you mean?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi demanded, turning to face the former Jedi.  "He would have gone to Youngling Protective Services."

"There were rumors . . . "  Sharad shook his head.  "I never knew if they were true, never had the resources to find out, but some of the slaves in the arena said that a lot of the fresh meat came from the city worlds or the children given to YPS."

"But surely someone would have looked—" Ki-Adi-Mundi cut himself off.  There would have been no one to look.  Likely everyone would suspect the missing younglings had simply run away and even if they were reported, with no one to follow up, their files would have been shuffled to the side, buried under the security forces ever-growing paperwork and eventually forgotten.

The settlers began their own dances after that, a few settlers pulled out a mix of their own instruments, a couple joining the Tuskens with the stringed instruments.  Most notably were what looked like dented cauldrons or pots the settlers played like drums.  "Kettle drums," Sharad explained, and Ki-Adi-Mundi startled at the strange tones they gave off.  "Each is handmade and no two play alike.  When matched with our own drums, the effect is wonderful."

The Tatooine settlers bore a number of dance styles, their culture a bit of a melting pot for the dozens of species that lived in Anchorhead.  "Impressive," Ki-Adi-Mundi commented as the settlers began to dance, the Tuskens joining in alongside them.  "The meeting of your cultures is fascinating, indeed."

The two were silent for several songs, the Tuskens and settlers switching off every few songs.  After almost an hour, Qui-Gon flung himself down next to Sharad, grinning.  "I haven't danced this much in years."

"You should play a tune," Sharad nudged the man, grin in his voice.  "As I recall, you were quite good with that Eireann whistle."

"Oh, no," Qui-Gon shook his head.  "I haven't played in years.  Feadógs are hard to find and . . . they're worth a fair bit if you know the right people."

"You loved that whistle," Sharad frowned.  "Did Obi-Wan make you sell it?"

"Slaves don't have possessions, Sharad," Qui-Gon reminded the man softly.  "I wouldn't even know where to look for a new one and even if I did find it, I couldn't afford it."

"You have a stipend, Qui-Gon," Ki-Adi-Mundi reminded the man.  "You and Obi-Wan both."

"We've no official designation," Qui-Gon reminded the council member, voice too soft for anyone aside from Ki-Adi-Mundi and Sharad to hear.  "Obi-Wan and I are welcome in the temple now but that doesn't mean we always will be.  We're different; we're making the order change and . . . we know that our welcome could very rapidly wear out."

It had never occurred to Ki-Adi-Mundi that the Skywalkers would still be concerned about the council getting fed up with the change they were bringing to the temple and kicking them out.  They'd arrived with little and whatever the Jedi had given them over the year they'd been there was all they'd leave with.  The Skywalkers seemed so confident in their place at the temple that the Jedi sometimes forgot that part of it was probably bravado. Ki-Adi-Mundi squeezed the man's shoulder.  "You and Obi-Wan will never have to worry about that, understand?  You're welcome to stay at the temple as long as you wish—the Jedi won't be kicking you out.  As for the change . . . the Force has been trying to guide us that way for a very long time.  You just succeeded in getting through to us where others failed."

"As for the Eireann whistle, well," Sharad headed to his bantha and dug out a small case.  "I have one here."

An  whistle, what the Tuath Dé called a feadóg, was a metal fipple flute a little over a third of a meter in length.  Sharad's bore beautiful knot work about the neck reminiscent to what was on Qui-Gon's marriage tattoo though far more intricate.  Qui-Gon checked it over, chewing his lip for a moment, then tested it out with a simple scale, followed by a short, jaunty tune.  By then he'd drawn a fair bit of attention to himself, and Qui-Gon flushed but kept going, the simple tune rapidly growing more complicated as he continued on.

A handful of Tuskens seemed to recognize it and began to imitate Qui-Gon's earlier dance style, tapping their toes against the sand.  If they were on a harder surface, Ki-Adi-Mundi suspected it would serve as a percussion line.  When the first song finished, the gathered crowed cheered and requested a second, then a third before the Tuskens picked up the music again and they began making rounds between them and the settlers.

"Thank you," Qui-Gon offered the feadóg back to Sharad.  "It's been . . . a long time."

"You should keep it," Sharad closed Qui-Gon's fingers around the beautiful instrument.  "Tuskens do not bare their faces so it is . . . almost impossible for me to play, now.  I kept it because it reminded me of you.  But now that you are here again, I do not need the reminder."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon threw his arms around Sharad.  "I've missed the music of my people."

"The dancing too, I'll wager," Sharad teased, but squeezed the man tighter for a brief moment.  "Now go wear yourself out with the others.  A few of the younglings look like they want to teach you to dance properly."

"Tuskens dance like the sands," Qui-Gon replied, almost leaping to his feet.  "But the Tuath Dé dance like the wind.  I'll wear your tribe out teaching them how to do that, make no mistake."

"Go try," Sharad laughed.  "You're practically ancient compared to them—like Master Yoda."

"If I'm Yoda, what are you?"  Qui-Gon raised a brow.  "Half in the grave?  Should I be getting a shovel?"

"Get gone with you," Sharad shoved his apprentice.

Qui-Gon laughed and headed back into the crowd, head and shoulders over almost everyone.  Sharad shook his head as though exasperated, but Ki-Adi-Mundi could feel his joy sweeping through the Force.  The Jedi master almost laughed.  Obi-Wan had certainly been right when he said Qui-Gon Jinn could make friends with almost anyone.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The feast had gone long into the night, the settlers sleeping around the Tuskens fires, sharing their camp even when they were most vulnerable.  Ki-Adi-Mundi spent much of the night in meditation, joined by a content Sharad.  When morning arrived, the Tuskens fed the settlers, eagerly passing around some kind of sweet bread and bantha milk.  Qui-Gon revealed tea from somewhere, earning a laugh from Ki-Adi-Mundi.  It was one of the few vices Qui-Gon had picked up in the core and the man squirreled the stuff away somewhere for every mission.

Sharad took the tea happily, startled when Qui-Gon gave him the rest of the small brick he carried.  "It's not much," Qui-Gon apologized, "but I can get more when I go home.  You seem to be stuck in a tea-less land."

"Welcome to Tatooine," Sharad muttered, and Qui-Gon lightly shoved the other man with a roll of his eyes.

The group dealing with the negotiations headed for the town square once they'd eaten, eager to begin hammering out a treaty that would bring their people together.  Pulling their mismatched chairs into a circle, the groups passed around copies of what they wanted included in the treaty and the Jedi took the time to look over the settlers list and compare it to the Tuskens'.

"Most of this is very practical," Ki-Adi-Mundi commented as he read.

"There is little time to be frivolous on Tatooine," Qui-Gon replied.  "Last night's festivities were rare—Living on Tatooine is hard and most of its residents are far too poor."

"I wonder what the poverty line is on Tatooine," Ki-Adi-Mundi mused, though he shook his head when Qui-Gon started to answer.  "That was just an idle thought and you can expound later, if you'd like.  For now, though, I'd like to handle this treaty."

"We find most of your demands acceptable," Councilman Tyree announced, "but we do have concerns with parts of the treaty."

"I agree with what I have read of your own," Sharad marked something down on the paper in his hand.  "I also request we ensure this treaty has the same . . . connotations in both the Tusken language and basic."

"Huttese too, since it is the language of the law on Tatooine," Yehuda, added, the rest of the group nodding in agreement.

"It's nice to be helping a group that isn't attempting to screw each other over," Qui-Gon muttered, forcing Ki-Adi-Mundi to cough in an effort of hide his laughter.  Sharad gave Qui-Gon a knowing look, though he didn't call the younger man out on the comment.

The group worked for several hours on the treaty, the Tuskens and settlers creating their treaty using both their desire to work together and their logic at creating a treaty that would benefit both their peoples.  At noon, both groups felt that it was time to declare a short recess for mid-meal.  The suns had risen high and hot, and a handful of settlers and Tuskens had fixed a meal for the councils and Jedi.

"Excuse me, Chief Sharad?"  A collection of younglings from both groups hurried toward them, one of the settler children carrying something in her hands.  The device beeped several times as the little girl held it out for Sharad to take.  "A white lady said to give this to you."

"Get back!"  A'Veer screamed, snatching the device away from the child and throwing himself away from the group.  The eldest Tusken landed atop the device as it let out a shrill, mechanical whine.

"A'Vaar!"  One of the settlers cried, clearly recognizing the device, even as Sh'Taruk hauled her back.
Qui-Gon reached for the eldest Tusken with the Force as Sharad threw him to the ground, covering Qui-Gon's body with his own as an explosion rocked the town square.  A'Veer's body blocked most of the blast, leaving the settlers and Tuskens with minor injuries and ringing ears.  Several of the Tuskens let out mournful wails as the Force let out a warning howl, causing Qui-Gon to twist around Sharad, lightsaber humming to life just in time to block a crimson blade wielded by a red-haired woman with bone-white skin.

"Aurra Sing!"  Ki-Adi-Mundi gasped.  "We thought you were dead!"

"Another lost padawan?"  Qui-Gon grunted, blocking another strike.

"No—she was taken forcibly from her master by slavers years ago.  We sent out a team to find her but lost her trail a month later—we thought she was dead."  Ki-Adi Mundi rushed to help Qui-Gon.

"I was abandoned!"  Aurra snarled, leaping for Ki-Adi-Mundi.  "My master left me!  And now I will have my revenge for being abandoned on a planet by a master that left as many scars as the slavers!"

"What?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi flipped over Aurra and twisted gracefully to block a strike to his ribs.  "The dark woman worried for you!  She spent almost six months searching desperately across the galaxy before disappearing in the Ash Worlds sector to meditate on her failure in finding you."

"Liar!"  Aurra flung out a hand, throwing debris at the Jedi.  "I was hired to kill that damned Hett, but I'll take revenge on the Jedi while I'm here!  And my former master's favorite, too!"

Qui-Gon dove at the woman's unprotected back, Aurra narrowly dodging a lightsaber blow but not fast enough to avoid the powerful bottom kick that followed.  The woman was thrown back almost twenty feet from the Force-enhanced kick, Qui-Gon following after her to attack her before she could recover from the landing.  Aurra rolled past him to jump on Sharad, who fended off her blows easily.

"What a coward," Aurra laughed as she fought the former Jedi.  "Running from the order with your tail between your legs to do what?  Become a disgusting Tusken!"

Sharad ignored her, managing to score a shallow slice that ran from her hip to her rib.  A series of guttural noises followed, and Qui-Gon was fairly certain Sharad had just told the bounty to shut the fuck up in Tusken.

"Don't like that?"  Aurra laughed.  "How about this—when I've killed you I'm going to kill each and every one of these pathetic weaklings.  Including that son of yours.  What's his name again?  A'Sharad?"

This time the Dun Möch technique worked, Sharad's eyes darting quickly toward his son even as Aurra raised her 'saber to cut the Tusken chief in two.  Qui-Gon's eyes widened and he automatically reached to sync with his bondmate.  While distance affected the bond little as far as mental connection was concerned, being so far from one another did mean the pair could not share energy.  Desperate, Qui-Gon reached for his own reserves but knew he would never make it in time.  Together, he and Obi-Wan wielded a power neither could get anywhere near matching on their own.

There was, however, one final option Qui-Gon could try.  He and Obi-Wan had vowed to avoid doing it around the Jedi, but it was the only way to save Sharad and, likely, the other Tuskens and settlers.

Ki-Adi-Mundi's eyes widened as Qui-Gon used his fear to reach for the darkside of the Force.  Gold ringed Qui-Gon's azure eyes as darkness roiled around him, power flaring as the man lunged at Aurra faster than then eye could follow.  A heartbeat before Aurra's 'saber touched the Tusken chief, Qui-Gon tangled it with his own from behind her, even as the man wrapped an arm around her waist and spun her away from Sharad.  A Force enhanced toss sent her flying several meters, but rather than follow her thinking only of maiming or killing her as Ki-Adi-Mundi through a darkside user would do, Qui-Gon stayed near Sharad, snarling, "Leave.  Now."

Aurra shivered at the ice in Qui-Gon's voice, hastily retreating several steps.  Ki-Adi-Mundi moved threateningly toward her, making Aurra raise her 'saber with a growl, but when Qui-Gon followed the Jedi Master, the white woman broke and fled.  As her swoop sped away, Aurra snarled, "This isn't over, you filthy Tusken!"

"The hutts are trying to sabotage our treaty," One settler shouted as Aurra sped away.

"The hutts are trying to sabotage our being alive," Yehuda grumbled, the Tusken next to her barking out a laugh.

"It isn't the first time and it won't be the last," Sharad growled, shaking sand from his clothes.  Qui-Gon looked the former Jedi over, relieved to see that Sharad appeared unhurt.  The man's grip on the darkside faded, gold bleeding back to pure azure.

Ki-Adi-Mundi swallowed hard.  "Qui-Gon—What was that?"

""I'm sorry, Master Ki-Adi-Mundi," Qui-Gon offered as his knees gave out, sending him tumbling into the sand.  "I had to save Sharad and . . . without Obi-Wan, that was all I knew to do."

"You used the darkside!"

"I know," Qui-Gon flopped back, exhausted.  "And I'll pay for it, too."

Ki-Adi-Mundi's brows furrowed briefly, confusion settling on his features.  This was hardly the rampage he'd expected from a darkside user.  If anything, he thought Qui-Gon would be more as he and Obi-Wan had described Maul during the battle of Theed, so bathed in anger he tried to destroy everything in his path.  "I don't understand—pay for what?"

"I thought you quit using the darkside," Sharad frowned, kneeling next to his former student.  "After bonding with that husband of yours."

"We quite reaching for the Force with negative emotions," Qui-Gon sighed and sat up.  "But we've never been apart like this.  I couldn't reach Obi-Wan to share energy with him from this far away and if I didn't . . . she would have killed you.  And after you, she probably  would have gone after the rest of your tribe, and the settlers.  I couldn't let her do that—she would have hurt so many people . . . "

"How did you stop?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi almost demanded.  "Darksiders don't stop trying to kill someone out of the goodness of their heart."

"I didn't want to kill Aurra," Qui-Gon protested.  "I just wanted to save Sharad and the others."

"Then why use the darkside at all?"  The Jedi master frowned.

"Because I needed the boost," Qui-Gon glanced at Sharad.  "Obi-Wan said the Jedi only allow use of the lightside of the Force and that they consider use of the darkside taboo, but I don't understand.  You never told me not to use—is it truly that terrible?."

"You allowed him to use the darkside?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi rounded on Sharad with a growl.

"The darkside was the only reason he survived the arena," Sharad snapped in reply.  "And I didn't see the Jedi coming to save him, so what did it matter if he used the darkside so long as he stayed alive?"

"He could have been corrupted!"

Sharad sighed heavily, shaking his head.  "I learned a lot of things from the arena, many of them never found in the temple.  For example—the darkside isn't evil."

"Sharad, you know the teachings as well as I do," Ki-Adi-Mundi frowned.  "The path of the darkside is nothing but corruption and chaos."

"I know the Jedi teachings," Sharad agreed.  "But I know other teachings, too.  Such as the ones Qui-Gon follows."

"The teachings Ser Jinn follows?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi raised an eyebrow.  "Are these not your teachings?"

"Not entirely," Sharad settled next to his former student, letting Qui-Gon lean heavily against him in exhaustion.  He'd pushed his body to its limit in order to move fast enough to stop Aurra and without the ability to share the strain with Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon had exhausted his body to do it.  "Spending time in the arena . . . I learned as much from Qui-Gon as he learned from me."

"Oh, I'm sure that's not true—"  Qui-Gon started, but Sharad cut him off with a shake of his head.

"But it is, Qui-Gon.  The Jedi do not think of the Force in dualities as you—and I'm assuming Obi-Wan—do.  It was not something I had considered until I met Qui-Gon."

"And where did he get it?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi raised an eyebrow.

"The concept of dualities is very common among my people," Qui-Gon shrugged.  "I don't see why the Force would be any different.  You can't have a lightside of the Force without a darkside, just like you can't have life without death or day without night."

"And your belief about the darkside being evil?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi questioned.

"It's not," Qui-Gon glanced at Sharad, continuing at his mentor's nod.  "The Force isn't good or evil; those are things sentients created because we needed to have some kind of rules that let us live together in societies.  If the Force really was good or evil, there would be absolutes."

"Explain."

"Well . . . do you think I'm evil?"  Qui-Gon refused to look at Ki-Adi-Mundi.

"Of course not."  The Jedi Master hastily assured the man.  "Perhaps misguided about the darkside, but hardly evil.  Have I done something that gives you that idea?"

"No, it's just that I've done a lot of really bad things," Qui-Gon replied.  "In the arena, I killed a lot of people and some of them were helpless or innocent.  Victims of circumstance.  Killing helpless people and innocent people is evil, right?"

"You were a slave, Qui-Gon."  Ki-Adi-Mundi shook his head.  "You didn't have a choice."

"Obi-Wan and I have killed people as a Jedi, too," Qui-Gon reminded the master.  "And not all of them were bad people either.  Just like when I was a gladiator, some of them were simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"But you did it to help people," Ki-Adi-Mundi protested, the excuse weak even to his own ears.

"Which means it's all about intent, right?"  Sharad helped Qui-Gon slowly rise to his feet, the short break helping abate Qui-Gon's exhaustion.  "But if we can kill people with the lightside of the Force and not be considered evil, then why can we not save people using the darkside and not be considered good?"

"I know I tapped into the Force with my fear that Sharad might die, but that doesn't mean I intended to lose myself in that emotion, nor did I have any intent to kill the bounty hunter.  All I wanted to do was protect Sharad."

"Regardless, you know that the Jedi consider using the darkside taboo, so why use it at all?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi paced in front of the pair.

"Because if I didn't, Sharad would be dead," Qui-Gon gripped his former mentor's arm.  "And Obi-Wan and I technically use the darkside all the time.  Just we reach for it with positive emotions so it isn't . . . murky like it was today.  With Obi-Wan is near, our bond makes love our overshadowing emotion but here, without him . . . fear was the strongest thing I felt.  I'd forgotten how much more corrosive it is to use negative emotions than positive ones.  If Obi-Wan and I did that with the bond open, it might burn us out."

"Burn you out?"

"From what I've gathered, the lightside gives one less power, but is more sustainable," Sharad explained.  "The darkside give short, high bursts of power but sustaining it is an incredible strain on one's body.  Using the lightside is akin to being a long distance runner while darkside users are sprinters.  If you can effectively switch between them, then you can maintain a steady base from the lightside and draw short bursts from the darkside.  I've never been particularly effective with it, but Qui-Gon used to be quite good."

"And negative emotions are more exhausting to use," Qui-Gon added.  "It's like how being angry is more exhausting than being happy.  It's also easier for negative emotions to be really strong and overcome logic.  If that happens, well, it's like how people describe seeing red.  You do stupid things you regret later because you're not thinking straight."

"And that is why you are so exhausted now?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi raised an eyebrow.

"It's hard not to lose yourself in powerful emotions," Qui-Gon admitted sheepishly.  "And when Obi-Wan and I have our bond open, that much energy is far less of a strain because we share it over the bond, and we're less likely to get lost in an emotion because we can ground each other so our emotions aren't overwhelming."

"And the negative emotions?"

"We've never tried it," Qui-Gon said.  "It's so caustic that we're afraid that if we combined it with the extra energy we get over the bond it would be too much of a strain and kill us.  We've talked about it but there's just no safe way for us to do so.  And even if there were . . . we're not sure we want to."

"It's also very difficult to learn," Sharad broke in.  "And not something I recommend teaching to anyone other than proven Jedi masters.  Using negative emotion to touch the darkside may be very easy to grasp, but it is also very easy to get lost in.  It is my belief that is why so many darkside users Fall.  Not because they use the darkside of the Force, but because they let their emotions overcome the their ability to think clearly.  The intent behind using the darkside starts as one thing, then turns into another."

"Your opinion, Qui-Gon?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi asked curiously.

"I agree with Sharad; a Force user getting lost in a negative emotion is what makes them fall, not using emotions to reach for the Force itself.  Emotional control is necessary to harness the Force with negative emotions and not lose yourself in it."  Qui-Gon replied firmly.  "While Obi-Wan and I have taught Anakin some of the basics, it more because he's so strong in the Force that things blow up when he gets mad.  He's not allowed to actually do it on purpose until he has better control of his emotions.  Something like that certainly isn't appropriate for a youngling to attempt."

Ki-Adi-Mundi relaxed slightly.  Qui-Gon might not have fully believed in the Jedi's way of doing things, but it also didn't sound like he was a large advocate of using the darkside for frivolous reasons.  He would need to discuss this with the council, though Ki-Adi-Mundi thought that even with this new development, Qui-Gon was still suitable for knighthood.
<>*<>

With Aurra gone, the Tuskens and settlers were free to continue their peace talks.  Where Sharad had been the initial leader of the talks, having the most experience developing treaties as a former Jedi, Ki-Adi-Mundi and Qui-Gon took over.  Even knowing that Sharad would do his best to be unbiased, he was still the Tusken leader where the Jedi did not have such concerns.  Future generation were also more likely to follow the treaty since a nonpartisan group oversaw its creation.

"You need to chose someone to stand in for A'Veer," Samiyah bowed her head in sorrow.  "And we should plan for . . . however you inter your dead."

"Usually we would bury him in the sands to mummify him, then return him to our sacred cavern in the Needles upon our return there, but there is so little left after the explosion . . ."  KkH'UrOr mourned.

"He saved our children," Tyree comforted.  "His death was not wasted."

"Whatever we can do, we will," Jairo looked to Sharad.  "Anything you need."

"Our thanks to you," Sharad bowed.  "We will gather what we can and cremate him this night, and return him to the sacred cavern."

"Our people will help," Nayal touched Sharad's arm.  "And we will not dishonor his memory by giving up on this treaty."

"Of course," Sharad agreed, and the group returned to work.  They were well over halfway done when they broke at nightfall to mourn A'Veer.  The settlers were invited to join the Tuskens for the burning of the body, and Sharad requested they offer a few of their customs to the ceremony, since A'Veer meant a great deal to the settlers as well as to the Tuskens.

"We thank you for being allowed to mourn with you," Samiyah replied.

"If we are to join our people, then it must be in all aspects, not just the good ones," Sh'Taruk, who was now the tribe's eldest, looked at the other elders.  "It is what A'Veer would have wanted, and I believe we should continue to honor that."

It was another hour before they were ready for the funerary rites they would hold in Anchorhead in preparation for returning A'Veer to the sacred cavern.  The large o-daiko drums played with the gaderffii were set around the large pyre, A'Veer's remains already resting in its midst.  The Tusken women were standing around the pyre in a circle, beautifully embroidered shawls with long, brightly colored fringe perched gracefully on their shoulders.

"It is a dance to signify the soul being freed from its physical confines and moving on from this world," KkH'UrOr explained softly.  "It is the Dance of the Stars."

The settlers brought cups of water in offering for the dead as was their custom, pouring the precious, life-giving liquid into the Tatooine sands as the Tusken women spun around them, long shawls fluttering through the air.  Qui-Gon played a soft, mournful melody that wove in with the drumbeats and clinking beads, a gentle countermelody to the soft chanting drifting through the night air.

As the music reached a crescendo, A'Veer's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren shuffled deliberately to the pyre in time with the dancers, torches in hand.  As one, A'Veer's family thrust their torches into the pyre and stepped back, joining in with the other dancers as flames licked A'Veer's remains.  As fire engulfed the pyre, the dancers slowly swept to a halt, arms raised to the sky.

"And so A'Veer rejoins the stars," Sharad intoned when the flames reached their peak.  "May he find peace among our ancestors."

Qui-Gon closed his eyes and opened himself to the Force.  —And so we release you to the Force,— Qui-Gon felt something in the Force shift and change.  —May it forever guide you forward, A'Veer.—

The settlers, Tuskens and Jedi watched as the fire lit the night.
<>*<>

It took two more days to finish the treaty, the second of which was spend translating it properly from Basic to Huttese and Tusken.  On the dawn of the third day, the Council and Tuskens signed the treaty, making Anchorhead the first place on Tatooine where the Tuskens were welcome and encouraged to mingle with the townspeople.  Ki-Adi-Mundi gripped Sharad's shoulder, smiling.  "Well done, Knight Hett."

Sharad startled at the title, then shook his head.  "I've not been a knight in a very long time, Master."

"You may have left the Order, but you have not abandoned our tenants," Ki-Adi-Mundi replied.

Sharad couldn't help his smile, though he knew Ki-Adi-Mundi couldn't see it.  "Thank you for your help, Ki-Adi-Mundi, Qui-Gon."

"Anytime," Qui-Gon hugged his mentor tightly.  "Will you return to Coruscant with us?"

"I cannot leave my people right now," Sharad squeezed Qui-Gon tighter, then let him go.  "With the treaty so new, I can't leave yet.  But I will return to the temple soon, if only to visit.  And if you have need of me, all you need do is ask."

"We look forward to it."  Qui-Gon smiled.

"I would like to request permission to bring my son to the temple for training as well," Sharad bowed to Ki-Adi-Mundi.  "If that would be allowed."

"I will speak with the rest of the council," Ki-Adi-Mundi promised.

"For now, though, we need to get back to Mos Eisley and back to the temple."  Qui-Gon couldn't resist hugging his mentor again.  "I'm glad I got to see you again.  And meet your people.  After my sister died to the Tuskens, I was . . . angry.  But seeing your tribe has given me a chance release that anger.  Thank you."

"I'm glad, Padawan," Sharad pressed a hand to Qui-Gon's cheek.

Qui-Gon bit his lip, then pulled away to bow deeply to the man.  "Thank you, Master."

Ki-Adi-Mundi watched the pair for a moment, mentally composing his answer for the council.  If they did knight Qui-Gon, then they needed to promote Sharad to Master rank.  Clearly it was his teaching that had set Qui-Gon so firmly in the light, even among the darkness of the arena.

"Go home, Qui-Gon Jinn," Sharad ordered gently.  "And next time you come, I want to see these children and that husband of yours."

"You better visit us in the temple, too," Qui-Gon ordered.

"I will," Sharad promised.

"Wait," Ki-Adi-Mundi held up a hand.  "Knight Hett, there is one more thing I would request you do before Qui-Gon and I take our leave."

"I told you, I am no knight—"  Sharad cut off as Ki-Adi-Mundi held up a collection of thin ties, similar to the ones Qui-Gon recognized from Obi-Wan's braid.  "Master Mundi?"

"He is your padawan, Master Hett," Ki-Adi-Mundi gave the Tusken warlord the baubles.  "I would request you give him a proper braid."

Qui-Gon tilted his head, but settled at Sharad's feet as the man slowly braided the ties into Qui-Gon's long hair, just behind his right ear—a proper padawan braid for a rather improper padawan.  Sharad, eager to acknowledge the man he'd considered his padawan, couldn't help his smile as he tied off the braid.  The two bowed to each other, and Sharad hugged Qui-Gon tightly.  "I'm so proud of you, Padawan."

"Thank you, Master," Qui-Gon couldn't help grinning.

Ki-Adi-Mundi lagged behind while Qui-Gon went to fetch their speeders, quietly discussing something out of Qui-Gon's earshot.  When the man did return, Ki-Adi-Mundi gave a small nod to Sharad and climbed onto the speeder.  "Thank you for your recommendation," Ki-Adi-Mundi told the former knight, smirking.  "I'm sure the council will appreciate your wisdom."

Qui-Gon gave the two a strange look, hugged Sharad a final time with promises to visit passed between them, and the pair headed back for Mos Eisley.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

"Papa!"  Ahsoka shrieked, streaking toward Qui-Gon as he disembarked the shuttle.  Qui-Gon scooped her up to give her a spinning hug and toss her, making the little girl giggle.  Once Ahsoka was safely back in Qui-Gon's arms, Anakin wrapped himself around his papa, grinning ear-to-ear.

"You're home!"  The boy squealed.  Qui-Gon shifted Ahsoka and let Anakin wrap his arms around Qui-Gon's neck so the man could lift him and hug him tight.  "I was afraid you would be stuck there."

"We are freemen," Qui-Gon reminded his son gently, pressing a kiss to Anakin's head.

"I know, but I was still afraid someone would sell you back," Anakin confessed, clutching the man's tunic.  Ahsoka tilted her head.

"But Papa is a Jedi," The Togrutan reminded her brother.  "No one will sell him now!"

"They sold Dad."

"I was much younger, and your papa had Master Ki-Adi-Mundi with him," Obi-Wan reminded their son, going up on his toes to kiss Qui-Gon in greeting.  He'd followed their children at a more leisurely pace, allowing them to greet their papa first.  Qui-Gon smiled at his husband, letting the younger man lead them into the temple.  "How did it go?  Did you see Sharad?"

"Ki-Adi-Mundi and I made a treaty between Sharad's tribe of Tuskens and the settlers of Anchorhead," Qui-Gon replied, chuckling a little at the shocked look on Obi-Wan's face.

"I'm impressed," Obi-Wan confessed, leading the way toward the temple.

"He gave me a braid like yours, too," Qui-Gon tilted his head, letting Obi-Wan see the decorated braid.  "I think they're going to formally recognize me as Sharad's padawan and give him the title of master."

"But you have to raise a padawan to kn—ah," Obi-Wan cut himself off, hiding a smile.  "Well, I'm glad to hear that."

"Master Mundi and I have to give our report to the council," Qui-Gon pressed kisses to his children's temples, then kissed Obi-Wan deeply.  "I'll tell you all about it after that."

"You best go before they think you got lost," Obi-Wan took Ahsoka from his husband and held out a hand for Anakin to take.  Before Qui-Gon could walk away, Obi-Wan added, "I'm glad you're home, my heart."

"I am too, a chuisle mo chroí," Qui-Gon replied, kissing his husband a second time.
<>*<>

Qui-Gon and Ki-Adi-Mundi were surprised to find the council in colored tunics when they entered the council chambers, Depa's vibrant orange catching their eye even before the noxiously patterned over tunic Yoda was wearing.  Qui-Gon offered Depa a smile, "Orange suits you."

"Thank you," Depa smoothed her hands down the tunic.  "I am fond."

It was Yarael, however, who caused both returning Jedi to do a double take.  The being offered his version of a smirk as Ki-Adi-Mundi forced himself not to stare at the man's pale teal over tunic.  "I apologize—is there something on my clothing?"

Qui-Gon began to laugh, shaking his head.  "Remind me never to play Master Yarael in sabaac."

"An excellent sabaac face, he has," Yoda agreed, and the council forced themselves not to stare at the diminutive being's brightly patterned clothing.

Qui-Gon glanced at Mace, gently brushing him with a tendril of the Force.  Surprised, Mace linked to him, coughing to hide a laugh when Qui-Gon told him, —That tunic Master Yoda has on will burn out your retinas if you look at it for too long.

"Welcome back, Master Mundi, Jedi Qui-Gon," Mace greeted as the council finished settling in.  "Judging from the written reports, the mission was . . . interesting."

"Indeed," Ki-Adi-Mundi readily admitted.  "As stated in the written reports, much of what happened could not be transmitted over unsecure channels.  The treaty was successfully created, however."

"Given your reports were mostly blank, it must have been quiet shocking," Mace crossed his arms.  "I hope you intend on elaborating."

"We may have discovered another lost padawan," Qui-Gon told the council, twisting his hands together.  "Ki-Adi-Mundi didn't think so as she was reported missing, but she claims she was abandoned by her master."

The council traded looks.  "Who did you find?"

"Aurra Sing," Ki-Adi-Mundi almost whispered.  "We found Aurra Sing."

The council collectively caught their breathes, shock rippling through the Force.  "The Dark Woman has been in isolation since she lost Aurra's trail."

"Speaking of her teacher, Aurra mentioned something else."  Qui-Gon forced back his temper.  "She said her master left more scars than the slavers.  I looked into the Dark Woman—your files say that she was given the . . . how was it termed?  The 'problem padawans,' for training and that she's known for using 'brutal training methods.'  What exactly did she do to her students?"

"We don't monitor masters that closely," Saesee Tiin replied.  "We trust their judgment with their students."

"Still, a heavy accusation, that is," Yaddle frowned.  "Look into this further we shall."

"Master Yaddle," Plo started to protest, then sighed in defeat when Yaddle frowned at him, her ears lowering.

"We have not interfered with the way masters train their padawans," Even Piell tapped his foot, considering.  "There have been some masters that I believe we should have . . . perhaps the dark woman should have been one of them.  But Qui-Gon is right.  If the dark woman used abuse to get her students to obey . . . we cannot allow that.  It goes against all we stand for."

"I would like to propose that Masters Yoda and Yaddle look into this," Oppo Rancisis suggested.  "Master Yoda works closely with the créche, surely he would know signs of abuse if he saw them.  And given Master Yaddle's past, I think it best she speaks to the Dark Woman."

"Do this, we shall," Yaddle replied before Yoda could say anything in protest.

"We will reopen the investigation and examine the padawans reported missing as well," Mace sighed heavily.  "Though that was only a handful who were not . . . retrieved, either dead or alive."

"Padawans frequently go missing," Even Piell explained to Qui-Gon.  "Usually it is something as simple as a truant office on whatever planet we're on mistaking them for a local.  It is still logged, but clearly the padawan is not left to the mercy of a school system they don't belong to."

"I once lost my padawan to a traveling circus," Mace nodded.

Depa gaped.  "Master!  You agreed never to bring that up!"

"Four days," Mace help up the count on his fingers.  "And when I found her, she was acting as their fortune teller.  And not very good, either."

"Palm reading," Depa spread her hands helplessly as Mace smirked.  "I'm not sure what you expected."

"So often the reasons a padawan gets lost is utterly ridiculous.  It is rare we don't get them back," Eeth Koth shook his head.  "So there are only a few to investigate from the years of the lost padawans.  No more than five, certainly."

"I'm glad it's not many, and I hope you don't find anything more," Qui-Gon told them.  "But I'm still very concerned about the accusations that she was abused and abandoned!"

"Let us investigate, Qui-Gon," Mace urged his friend.  "And if our investigation returns something, then we will make sure we have a failsafe in place.  Is that acceptable?"

"Thank you, Master Windu," Qui-Gon bowed as Ki-Adi-Mundi has taught him on the way back from Tatooine, earning a smile from several council members.

"Now, there is the additional matter of finding Sharad," Even Piell raised a brow.  "Your reports said you found him, but given that he is not here, I take it he has refused to return to the Jedi."

"Impressed that you made a treaty with the Tuskens, we are," Yoda added.  "Well know are their hostilities.  Congratulate you, we do."

"Thank you, Master Yoda," Ki-Adi-Mundi bowed, he and Qui-Gon telling the council about the events of their mission.  The council listened intently, trading horrified looks at the loss of the Tusken elder, and nodding at the work the Jedi had done for the treaty.

"Went well your mission did," Yaddle smiled.  "See a change to Qui-Gon's hair, I do."

"Yes—about that—" Ki-Adi-Mundi glanced toward the man, then faced the council.  "I have two recommendations.  First, while Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan can be separated for mission, they are uncomfortable with it, especially for so long.  It also became . . . problematic in the end."

"Oh?"  Adi Gallia raised an eyebrow.

"In a moment," Ki-Adi-Mundi waved off the question.  "Second, I would like to have Qui-Gon Jinn formally recognized as Knight Sharad Hett's padawan."

"Sharad Hett has left the order," Yarael protested.

"True, however he trained Qui-Gon long before that," Adi reminded the group.

"And there is no reason we could not reinstate him," Even Piell shrugged.

"He is a warlord on Tatooine," Yarael growled.

"He has also offered to help the Jedi with the issue of the Sith, should we require his aide," Ki-Adi-Mundi replied.  "Additionally, he has truly done the order proud with his work on Tatooine.  I believe that we could not consider him Jedi while he serves as a Tusken Warlord, but we could add him to inactive status unless we recall him to help with the Sith.  It would give him a formal rank without being a conflict of interest."

The council mulled that over for a moment, Oppo finally saying, "It has no precedent, yet I believe it could work."

"We're straying into dangerous territory," Yarael warned.  "If we do this for him, we may do it for others."

"Let us consider them exceptions for now," Eeth suggested.  "If we find it is doing well, maybe that will change, but we can use this opportunity to test how this change would affect the Jedi."

"Fine," Yarael sighed heavily, but nodded his agreement.  Qui-Gon tilted his head.  For someone so vehemently conservative about their tenants, Yarael was incredibly open-minded.

"Good.  Padawan Jinn, is this acceptable to you?"  Mace turned to Qui-Gon.

"Thank you," Qui-Gon bowed.  "Master Hett deserves this.  He taught me so much."

"With that taken care of, I would also like to nominate Padawan Jinn for knighthood and recommend we elevate Knight Hett to master in that case," Ki-Adi-Mundi smiled serenely at the council.

"What?"  Qui-Gon whirled to face Ki-Adi-Mundi, eyes wide in shock.  "But—I used the darkside!"

"You what?" Even demanded.  "Master Mundi, you recommend him for knighthood even knowing that?"

"Reach for the darkside as we consider it often, the Skywalkers do," Yaddle looked confused.  "Taken issue before, we have not."

"We were also  not considering them knighthood!"  Saesee snapped.

"It was different this time, in any case.  Qui-Gon used negative emotion to reach for the Force.  It is why I stated his and Obi-Wan's separation was problematic."  Ki-Adi-Mundi explained what had occurred on Tatooine, telling them about the gold that had ringed Qui-Gon's eyes.  The council listened gravely, gaping when Ki-Adi-Mundi told him about Qui-Gon's Fall—and his immediate return.

"There is nothing like this in the archives," Yarael frowned.  "How did you avoid losing yourself?"

"I wanted to save Sharad," Qui-Gon looked around the council.  "Using the darkside doesn't mean losing yourself to it.  I wanted to save Sharad, not hurt Aurra, so I used that fear to give me power in order to save him."

"How did you come back?"  Mace questioned.

Qui-Gon tilted his head.  "Come back?  I didn't go anywhere.  I learned to control my reactions when using the darkside with negative emotions in the arena but it . . . even if you can that doesn't mean you should.  And it’s a real strain on your body.  It's useful when you can do it properly, but . . . learning how to control yourself in the midst of such powerful emotion while compounding the feeling with the power being fed from the Force . . . this isn't something I think you should advocate."

"Yet you used it."  Depa frowned.

"Our control—Obi-Wan's and mine—was forged in the fire of the arena.  We had to learn how to do this, or we would have died.  Jedi have resources.  You have people to turn to.  And while I think you need more lessons on how to handle your emotions—which should, in turn, help prevent a Jedi from falling if they do reach for the darkside this way—I would never want anyone to experience what my husband and I did."

"I see," Mace glanced at the rest of the council.  "We will need to discuss Master Mundi's recommendation further among ourselves.  For now, finish your report, if you would."

There was little more to tell, though the pair did offer a copy of the treaty, at the request of both Tuskens and settlers, and Ki-Adi-Mundi told the council of Qui-Gon's suggestion for the slave children and purchasing them for the Jedi temple.  The council promised to look into the idea further and Qui-Gon took his leave, heading back to spend some time with his family.
<>*<>

Ahsoka pounced on him the moment Qui-Gon entered their quarters, squealing and wrapping herself around his leg, butt planted on her papa's foot.  Obi-Wan and Anakin looked up from the tool bench, grease-covered hands buried in Artoo's innards.  The boy froze, looking between Artoo and his papa, knowing he was at a delicate stage of work but wanting to greet Qui-Gon.

"Finish up, a stór," Qui-Gon made his way toward the workbench, hauling Ahsoka with him.  When he arrived he kissed both Anakin and Obi-Wan, then reached down to haul Ahsoka into his arms.  "And how's my girl, hm?"

"I maded you something!"  The little girl replied, wrapping her arms around Qui-Gon's neck.  "It's a welcome home card!  Ani helped me write it, but I made it pretty."

"Did you now, a stóirín?" Qui-Gon let his daughter down so she could lead him to the table.  A large, glittery card was sitting at Qui-Gon's place, the people on it almost unrecognizable but for the colors of their hair or montrals.

"This is you," Ahsoka pointed to the brown haired blob, then gestured to the orange blob with smears of white and blue.  "And you're holding me."

"And this is your dad and Anakin, right?"  Qui-Gon tapped the orange haired and yellow haired blobs.  Qui-blob was holding Obi-blob's hand while Ani-blob was hugging Obi-blob.

"Anakin said you wouldn't know," Ahsoka stuck her tongue out at her brother.  "Because I'm not a good draw-er."

"I think you draw just fine," Qui-Gon took the card to the cold box.  "Why don't we hang this up here, so everyone can see it?"

"Okay, Papa," Ahsoka re-settled on Qui-Gon's foot.

"It's her new thing," Obi-Wan called from the main room, not looking up from Artoo.  "Kylara said she's been doing it all week."

"Gone for three weeks and see what I miss?"  Qui-Gon shook his head.  "I must admit, I don't like the idea of being on extended missions."

"It is one of the reasons the Jedi want us to eschew attachments," Obi-Wan sighed heavily.  "So that we can do our duty to the order without regret for leaving our loved ones behind.  And with us one missions together . . . "

"I know," Qui-Gon glanced at Anakin and Ahsoka.  "I just . . . this wasn't what I'd intended."

"Are we gonna leave the Jedi?"  Anakin asked, looking worried.  "I like it.  I like learning how to control the Force and fighting with lightsabers and . . . well, meditation isn't fun but it's okay, too."

"Even if your papa and I are gone a lot?" Obi-Wan asked.  "Sometimes Jedi can be on missions for months."

"I don't know," Anakin frowned.  He had really missed his papa, but at the time things hadn't been bad.  Qui-Gon had stayed in touch with them during the whole trip and Anakin really did like learning about the Force.  "If it gets bad, we can leave then, right?"

"Padmé has offered up a place on Naboo, if we should chose," Qui-Gon replied.  "And it's been all right this year, right?  The longest we were gone before this was when we were rescuing the lost padawans, and we've had a fair amount of downtime between missions . . . "

"That's true," Obi-Wan nodded, turning to Ahsoka and Anakin.  "And that's been alright with you two, right?"

"Staying in the créche is like a slumber party," Ahsoka giggled.  She'd come a long way since those first, uncertain days in the Order.  "And I like staying with the Oppresses and Master Yaddle, too!"

"And it's fun when Savage and Feral stay here," Anakin agreed.  "You've been gone a lot, but it's . . . it's okay.  It's not that we don't miss you when you're gone, but you call, and we can feel you in the Force so you're there for us, even when you're not here for us.  Sometimes it's like you're not even gone at all, except we're sleeping somewhere else for the night.  And even then sometimes one of the other masters stays with us.  Master Mace and Master Depa do that a lot."

"Oh?"

"Yeah.  Ahsoka called him Uncle Mace, once.  That was real funny," Anakin grinned.  "She calls him Ateri all the time but since he doesn't speak Sleantah he didn't know it meant adopted uncle.  When I told him he turned purple he blushed so hard."

"You two are silly," Qui-Gon kissed his son's crown.

"Uncle Mace said that makes Depa our cousin, so we don't gotta call her Master Billaba when we have meals together," Ahsoka added.  "Depa lots after that—I don't think she knew Uncle Mace thought she was family.  Jedi are silly, sometimes."

"Do you ever feel like we're not family because your dad and I have been gone so much this year?"  Qui-Gon let her settle on his lap.

"You're silly too, Papa," Ahsoka kissed his cheek.  "You always feel like my papa in the Force.  Like . . . big and warm and even if you're not here, I still feel you.  Like when you were away but you held me after I had a bad dream.  You and daddy.  It was like being wrapped in sunshine.  I liked that."

"And if was okay even though we were physically with you?"  Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow.

Ahsoka huffed, rolling her eyes skyward in exasperation.  "Just because you're not here doesn't mean you aren't here."

I am so confused,— Qui-Gon confessed to his husband as Ahsoka, seemingly pleased with her strange explanation, began climbing onto Qui-Gon's shoulder.

Obi-Wan shrugged and turned to Anakin, hoping for a clearing answer.  Anakin shrugged.  "When we feel you in the Force, it's like you're right next to us.  Sometimes we think we could touch you if we tried.  So even if you are gone, you don't always feel gone.  It was like this the couple times you traveled away from Tatooine, too.  So it's okay when you're off on missions because you're never really gone."

"I'm glad," Obi-Wan snapped the last plate into place as Artoo beeped happily.  "Go wash your hands, then you can join your sister in climbing all over your papa."

Anakin was gone down the hall before Obi-Wan had even finished talking.  Obi-Wan chuckled softly.  "They're very glad you're home."

Anakin was throwing himself at Qui-Gon a few breaths later, hands soaking wet, but clean.  "I heard you tell Dad you made a treaty with the Tuskens.  Why would you help?  They killed Mom!"

Qui-Gon told his family about his trip, including what Sharad had told him about people dressing like Tuskens to attack the slave quarters and the Tuskens wanting to help free the slaves.  Anakin drooped a little, then.  Qui-Gon stroked his son's hair.  "What's wrong, a stór?"

"Just . . . I hated the Tuskens because I thought they hurt Mom," Anakin whispered.  "But I was wrong and if I . . . if I'd been with you, I would have been real angry and hurt innocent people."

"There is ignorance, yet knowledge," Qui-Gon quoted their code.  "We were ignorant of all the facts regarding Shmi's death so we need to learn more about the what happened rather than lose ourselves in anger or hatred."

"But what if they had hurt Mom?"  Anakin chewed his lip.

"Then you must have empathy, a stór," Qui-Gon answered.  "Before we left for the Needles, I told Ki-Adi-Mundi that I was afraid I would lose control of myself and hurt the Tuskens and asked if he thought he'd be able to stop me.  You'll never guess what he said."

"You were headed to their camp, right?"  Obi-Wan scooped up Ahsoka before she could nose-dive from the back of the couch.  At Qui-Gon's nod, then man added, "I can certainly guess, then."

"What did he say?"  Anakin's eyes were wide.

"I bet he said that your papa wouldn't go crazy because there would be children there," Obi-Wan cocked an eyebrow.  "Because Qui-Gon would never hurt a child.  And you, Ani, wouldn't hurt them either."

"Why's that?"

"Because you wouldn't want any of their little ones to know what it felt like to lose their mother," Qui-Gon replied for his husband, Obi-Wan humming in agreement.  "You know how much that hurts and you'd never want to make anyone feel that kind of pain."

"That's empathy, right?"  Anakin considered that for a moment.  "I guess I wouldn't want anyone to miss their mom like that, no matter how much I didn't like them.  And even if the Tuskens did kill Mom, it wasn't all the Tuskens, right?  So it wouldn't be right to hurt them just because they're the same species.  That would be like . . . like being mad at Uncle Mace because some peacekeeper on Tatooine hit me once."

"Exactly," Obi-Wan told him.  "This is why you must control your reactions, even if you feel very strongly about something."

"And your mother wouldn't want you to hurt someone for her," Qui-Gon added.  "Do you remember her favorite saying?"

"The biggest problem in the universe is that no one helps each other," Anakin smiled almost sadly.  "And hurting someone isn't helping them, right?"

"Right," Obi-Wan sat on Anakin's other side, so he and Qui-Gon could squish the boy between them.  Ahsoka flopped across her brother, grinning.  "Your mother wouldn't want you to hurt someone in anger, especially not if you could help them instead.  Just think if we tried to hurt Maul instead of helping him.  We would be out a very, dear friend."

"But it's okay to defend yourself, or someone else who needs help," Anakin stated.  "I think I get it."

"Something to think about," Qui-Gon told him firmly.  "For now, though, I have a few more surprises."

"Oh?"

"Sharad didn't send me home empty handed," Qui-Gon rose to fetch something from his bag.

"The planet didn't either," Obi-Wan muttered, noticing the trail of sand his husband was leaving.  Anakin giggled.

Qui-Gon reappeared with two elaborately beaded bracelets for the children, Anakin's eyes go wide when he matched the colors to Tatooine.  Orange for sand, yellow for sun, and blue for water and sky.  The designs were the same on both, a sunburst in the center that swept out to either end.  There were small differences in the coloration, Anakin's have more blue than Ahsoka's, who also had red on hers.

"Sharad said these are symbols of protections," Qui-Gon explained.  "It's like . . . a request that the loved ones we've lost watch over us.  Their children often wear these until they pass the rites of adulthood in their tribes."

"Like my mom?"  Anakin traced the design almost sadly.

"Like your mom," Qui-Gon repeated sadly.  "The Tuskens told me they would mourn her at their yearly meeting, as they do their own dead.  As far as their concerned, she's one of their own now and posthumously adopted her into the tribe."

Anakin sniffled, burying his face in Qui-Gon's chest.  "I was so terrible!  I said lots of mean things and they—they're treating her like she mattered, like a free woman even though she was a slave!"

"It's all right, a stór," Qui-Gon soothed, hugging his son tight.  "None of the tribe blames us, especially not after they heard everything that happened.  They even said we had a right to be angry."

"I'm never going to jump to conclusions like that again!"  Anakin vowed.  "I don't want to be terrible to nice people like I was with the Tuskens!"

"That's my boy," Qui-Gon hugged his son tight, letting the boy cling to him.

Ahsoka, meanwhile, already had her bracelet on, admiring the lovely colors.  It was a bit large for her, no doubt meant for her to grow into, but the Tuskens were clever and had designed it with laces, meant to adjust the size as she and Anakin grew.  "Look, Papa!  It's so pretty!"

"Aren't you just a holo," Qui-Gon managed to get a picture of both his children, then one of all four of them to send to Sharad.  Once he had his picture, he produced a small box for Obi-Wan with a charm inside.  "He said this is for your lineage chain—to tell your descendents that we are friends of the Tuskens."

"Our lineage chain," Obi-Wan corrected his husband, going to fetch it so they could add the charm.  The colorful addition fit right in and Qui-Gon sent a holo of it along with the other two.  It would be some time before Sharad got them since he'd already left Anchorhead, but Qui-Gon knew he'd be glad to have it all the same.

Qui-Gon revealed his feadóg after that, to Obi-Wan and Anakin's delight and Ahsoka eagerly clapped along with the little tune Qui-Gon played at his husband's request.  Obi-Wan and Anakin had both learned a bit of the Tuath Dé dances and did their best to remember the footwork as Qui-Gon played, though they would certainly need some practice.  Ahsoka demanded taught, then, and almost three hours were spent with Qui-Gon teaching all three of them a basic jig.
<>*<>

Qui-Gon heard nothing about the recommendation for his knighting for almost a week and was surprised when he was summoned to the council chamber one evening.  Something stirred in the Force, and he could feel Obi-Wan's happiness fluttered over the bond, but thought little of it since his husband was off with their children.

"Discussed Master Mundi's recommendation to knight you we have, Padawan Jinn," Yoda told the man gravely.

Qui-Gon bowed, feeling confused.  "I had assumed that with my use of the darkside—"

"We discussed that, too," Mace broke in.  "Quite in depth.  But regardless of decision, we do need to inform you of it."

"Of course, Masters," Qui-Gon bowed, patient.  He knew that after using the darkside on Tatooine they would never knight him, and given his past, he wasn't sure their decision was wrong.  He was hardly Jedi, following his own code and following the Force wherever it lead.  Though disappointing, their decision not to knight him was hardly a surprise.

"Congratulations, Padawan," Sharad's voice made the man jump.

"Sharad?"  Qui-Gon gaped as the man stepped from his hiding place to one side of the room.  While still covered head-to-toe in cloth, the top-most layer appeared to be a set of Jedi tunics.

"Master Hett," Sharad corrected, smiling.  "Tonight I come as your knight-master, not your friend."

"What?"  Qui-Gon looked helplessly at the council.  "I don't understand."

"Knighting you, we are," Yaddle smiled at the man she'd quickly grown to call friend.

"Padawan Kenobi," Mace gestured, and Qui-Gon twisted to see his husband step into the room, children in tow.  "Please join Padawan Jinn in the center of the council chamber.  Ani, Ahsoka, why don't you join Masters Yoda and Yaddle?"

The two traded giggles and raced for the masters, clambering up to share their chairs.  Obi-Wan blinked, then turned a questioning look towards Mace.  "Master Windu?"

"You have successfully completed your trials, Padawan Kenobi—and done far more," Mace told him.  "It is only right we knight you also."

They've all lost their minds,— Qui-Gon told his husband.

Obi-Wan nodded minutely in agreement as Depa told Obi-Wan, "We have determined that you will be allowed to decide what you wish to do with your braid—you are welcome to keep it, if you would like.  It has not been a traditional padawan braid for a very long time."

Obi-Wan touched the braid, considering.  Depa was right that it was not a padawan braid, yet if he was going to be a Jedi knight, it felt right to have it cut off; as though he and Qui-Gon truly were starting a new chapter of their lives.  —Qui-Gon?—

—It is your decision, a chuisle mo chroí,— Qui-Gon replied.  —Whatever you decided, I will support you.

"Cut it," Obi-Wan told them.  "Maybe it is not a traditional padawan braid, but it is still a padawan braid."

"Do you have a preference on who cuts it?"  Mace asked.  For Qui-Gon's benefit, he added, "Generally a knight-master cuts a padawan's braid, or if that cannot happen for any reason, a padawan may chose a teacher or mentor.  Often times, the braid will be presented to that person."

"Some padawans lay their braid on the pyre if their master dies before their braid is cut," Obi-Wan told his husband.  "In honor of their teachings.  Being chosen to cut a braid is extremely important."

"So Sh—Master Hett is here to cut mine?"  Qui-Gon couldn't help smiling.

"If you don't mind losing a chunk of your hair, yes," Sharad gave the little twist that indicated a Tusken was happy.  "Though we could simply unbraid it—"

"No," Qui-Gon shook his head.  "I want you to cut it.  Maybe I'm not a proper padawan—or a proper Jedi—but I want everyone to know you were my teacher."

"Thank you," Sharad murmured.  "It would be my honor."

"And you, Padawan Kenobi?"

"I know this is . . . unorthodox, but I want Qui-Gon to cut my braid," Obi-Wan's voice was soft.  "Before he was my lover—and even after—he was my teacher.  All of what I know is thanks to him."

"Obi-Wan, no," Qui-Gon protested.

"Yes, Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan replied firmly.  "I was barely a padawan when I was sold to the arena.  I lost so much in the mind wipe and you taught me everything.  You are the closest thing I've ever had to a knight master."

"Guess that answers the question of who is getting knighted first," Adi muttered, making Depa hide a grin behind her hand.  "We can't have a padawan knight someone."

"If wish Qui-Gon to cut your braid you do, then allow it, we shall," Yoda decreed.  "But first, shall Master Hett knight Padawan Jinn."

"I'm sorry, Master Yoda," Qui-Gon shifted, uncertain, "but I do not know this ritual."

"I'll help you," Sharad told his student, smiling.  "If you'd kneel, please."

Qui-Gon obeyed, watching, wide eyed, as the masters all rose and made a circle around them and Obi-Wan, igniting their lightsabers.  Yoda offered Qui-Gon a reassuring smile and announced, "We are all Jedi.  The Force speaks through us.  Through our actions, the Force proclaims itself and what is real.  Today, we are here to acknowledge what the Force has proclaimed."

Sharad ignited his 'saber and brought it down just above each of Qui-Gon's shoulders, intoning, "By the right of the council, by the will of the Force, I dub thee Jedi, knight of the Republic."

There was a soft hiss next to Qui-Gon's ear, and the man caught his braid before it could touch the ground, immediately holding it up to Sharad.  "Please accept this, Master," Qui-Gon dipped his head.  "And thank you for teaching me."

"You were the best student a Jedi could have asked for," Sharad took the braid, then knelt to draw Qui-Gon into a hug.  "Congratulations, Knight Jinn."

Qui-Gon rose, grinning and Sharad stepped back to take his place as a Jedi Master.  In turn, Obi-Wan knelt before his husband.  Qui-Gon shifted uncomfortably, then tugged anxiously at Obi-Wan's shoulder in an attempt to get him to stand.  "Obi-Wan, you shouldn’t kneel before me.  I wasn't even a Jedi thirty seconds ago.  I can't—Obi-Wan, please—"

"It's okay, Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan rose to wrap his arms around his husband, frowning when he felt Qui-Gon shake in his arms.  "It's just for a few minutes—"

"We've ignored most of our traditions just to get here," Yarael interrupted, heaving a sigh.  "What the hell is one more?  Why don't we have Master Yoda knight Padawan Kenobi, then he can rise and Knight Jinn can cut his braid?  Then Obi-Wan can follow the tradition to be bestowed knighthood and have Knight Jinn cut his braid?"

Obi-Wan's eyes filled with tears, "Thank you, Master Yarael."

"Do not get used to this," Yarael commanded, though there was no bite to his words.

"We won't tell," Obi-Wan promised, earning a sharp huff and a twitch of a smile from Yarael.

Yoda directed Qui-Gon to stand next to Sharad while Mace offered the opening words of the ceremony.  "We are all Jedi.  The Force speaks through us.  Through our actions, the Force proclaims itself and what is real.  Today, we are here to acknowledge what the Force has proclaimed."

"By the right of the council, by the will of the Force, I dub thee Jedi, knight of the Republic."  Yoda passed his lightsaber over Obi-Wan's shoulders.  "Rise you may, Knight Kenobi."

Qui-Gon stepped forward, then, and with a flick of his wrist, Obi-Wan's long braid slid free.  The man caught it, smiling as he held it out to Qui-Gon.  "Thank you, Qui-Gon.  For being the best teacher, mentor, partner, lover and husband I could ever ask for."

"Congratulations," Qui-Gon folded both their hands around the braid, kissing his husband softly.  Soft hisses sounded as the council deactivated their lightsabers and Yaddle made a motion to Anakin and Ahsoka, who raced forward to mob their parents.

"Congratulations!"  The pair threw their arms around Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, and Sharad soon joined them to hug his former student.

"I'm glad you could be here," Qui-Gon wrapped himself around his teacher.

"Nothing could have kept me from this," Sharad replied.  "I leave in the morning—I cannot stay away from my tribe too long, but when they heard you were being knighted, well, they insisted.  But for now . . . "

"A celebration, there is," Yaddle admitted.  "Learned of this, your friends did, and unable to resist, they were."

"You can meet Bant, too," Obi-Wan told Sharad.  "She's been teaching us since we got back to the temple."

Sharad groaned.  "You are as bad as the husband of yours with jokes!"

"See!"  Anakin pointed an accusing finger.  "I told you!  I told you, your jokes are terrible!"

"You have absolutely no room to talk, a stór," Qui-Gon informed his son, then turned to introduce his children properly to Sharad.

Ahsoka's eyes went wide and the little girl held up her arm.  "Lookit!  Lookit!  I wored my bracelet.  I wear it lots.  It's my favorite.  Thank you for giving it to me!"

"It was my pleasure, young one," Sharad picked her up.  "A'Sharad is here as well.  He is in the commissary where your friends are waiting for their promised celebration."

"Lead the way, then," Qui-Gon told his now-former master.  "If you remember where to go."

"Knighting you has made you impudent," Sharad nudged the man, then headed for the doors.  "Well?  What are you waiting for?  I'm starved."
<>*<>

Chapter Text

"Oh—look at you without a braid!"  Bant squealed, throwing her arms around both Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon the moment they entered the commissary.  "Congratulations, Knights Kenobi and Jinn!"

Obi-Wan grinned brightly and swung her around before dropping her lightly to her feet in front of Sharad.  "This was mine and Qui-Gon's teacher here, Master-lite Bant Eerin."

"Master-lite?"  Bant giggled.  "No, nothing so serious.  I've just been helping them catch up on schoolwork.  They've come very far this year."

"A testament to your teaching ability, I've no doubt," Sharad bowed formally to her.  Bant flushed, sputtering out another protest even as she bowed in reply.  "And who are these two?"

"Garen and Reeft!"  Obi-Wan gaped.  "I thought you were out on missions!"

"We managed to get them done in record time.  No way we were going to miss your knighting ceremony," Garen threw an arm around his friend.  "And who is this?"

"Master Sharad Hett," Qui-Gon introduced, laughing when Garen went slack-jawed.

"I've a son about here somewhere, too," Sharad added, looking around the commissary.  "I hope I haven't managed to lose him."

"Is he covered as you are?"  Bant asked, gesturing toward the back of the room.  "I think he may have found some friends."

Sharad spotted his son in the midst of a group of younglings roughly the same age comprised of a Besalisk, a Zabrak and a Nautolan.  With them was a red-and black figure he knew immediately as Maul.  Qui-Gon followed Sharad's gaze and chuckled.  "Maul and his ducklings—Drex, Rhys and Naia.  They're also good friends of Anakin's."

"Maul's ducklings . . . ?" Reeft asked.  "I know I was gone for almost half a karking year, but how could I have missed that?"

"Many of the padawans were not particularly welcoming of Maul," Qui-Gon explained to the younger man.  "He was often shunned.  I guess Naia and Rhys asked Anakin about Maul during my match with Aalto before the festival of life.  A couple weeks later they cornered him and asked if he'd tutor them with their 'sabers.  Since then, they've taken to following him about like little ducklings.  Once Drex was returned, he joined right in."

"Naia has also taken up the lightstaff," Obi-Wan shook his head fondly.  "Her master is at his wits end, but she's stubborn and, apparently, quite gifted with it."

"Gray before his time?"  Sharad asked, tilting his head.

"She would be, if her species had hair," Obi-Wan nodded.

"It's good for A'Sharad to make some friends here," Sharad watch the group a moment longer.  "I'm hoping that when things settle a little more on Tatooine, I'll be able to bring him here for training.  The council has already granted me permission—he'll be formally recognized as my padawan while we're in temple or doing work for the Jedi."

"The Jedi are changing," Reeft told Sharad, glancing at the Skywalkers.  "This year has been quite the experience.  But it has been good, I think."

"Before the Skywalkers, we never would have let in a former Sith," Bant pointed out.  "And who can regret letting Maul come here?  He is one of the brightest lights in the Order."

"Possibly because he understands how deep the darkness can truly be," Sharad looked over Maul a final time, unconcerned with the former Sith being so near his son.  Qui-Gon trusted the being and that was enough for Sharad.

The Tusken also had a chance to meet Pangur and Salín, and went to his knees at Pangur's feet, thanking the Trianii for saving Qui-Gon and his family.  Pangur's tail twitched in embarrassed agitation.  "I did nothing," Pangur protested.  "Qui-Gon saved my life.  Please, don't kneel—I have done nothing worth that."

"Qui-Gon had been officially recognized as my padawan, before even before that, I considered him my apprentice," Sharad replied.  "I lost track of him when he was a slave, and I'm glad you freed him when I could not."

Pangur sputtered out several more protests and Salín heaved a sigh.  "Please stand up before you make him explode with mortification."

Sharad nearly went face first into the ground, roaring with laughter.  "Qui-Gon said I'd like the pair of you," Sharad let Salín tug him to his feet.  "Still, I do owe you my thanks for finding and saving him.  Thank you, Knight Pangur."

"You're welcome, Master Hett," Pangur bowed in reply.  "Still, I would welcome a change of topic."

"I heard Qui-Gon nearly got cut in two rescuing you from Maul," Sharad replied, making Pangur's tail thrash and Salín give a snort.  Pangur would never live down that moment, though the being was too good a sport to be offended by a joke about the injury that nearly killed him.

"You're both terrible, terrible people," Pangur informed them haughtily.

Salín smiled.  "I apologize, Master Hett.  I cannot help but tease Pangur when I've the chance.  We've known each other since the créche.  Welcome home to the temple."

"Thank you," Sharad replied, then turned to check on his son again.  They'd been joined by a Twi'lek teenager a year or so younger than Maul that Pangur identified as Kelyan.

"Kelyan, like Drex, was one of the lost padawans," Pangur explained.  "Master Adi Gallia took him on a padawan.  He doesn't have many friends yet—he's a bit skittish—but he and Maul understand each other well."

"It's good that the Jedi are so welcoming.  Just a few years ago, that wouldn't have been the case."  Sharad commented.

"Yeah, well, they didn't realize they'd lost a few of their padawans to slavery and ended up with the Skywalkers here, throwing everything they touted about attachment in their faces with that bond of theirs.  Garen's voice made Salín jump.  "Things around here have certainly been interesting since they arrived."

"Qui-Gon never was one to let the status quo go unchallenged," Sharad chuckled.  "I can only imagine the nightmare Obi-Wan can be."

"Yeah, well, you should see their kids," Garen grumbled.  "You know Anakin made friends with a girl because they love explosives?"

"Somehow . . . I am not surprised," Sharad confessed, considering what he knew of Qui-Gon.  "My former padawan made friends with just about everything."

"He's alluded to gundarks," Pangur said.  "He said I was about as soft as one.  But really, no one pets gundarks."

"Qui-Gon would pet a gundark," Sharad sighed.  "In fact, if he claims he's petted a gundark, I've little doubt of it.  He's very, very good with living things of all kinds.  Has he brought any strays here yet?"

"Thus far, it's been avoided," Bant joined them upon seeing Garen there.  "Obi-Wan says it's just a matter of time.  Not for lack of trying, however.  Obi-Wan just doesn't allow them onto the return shuttle.  He's very practiced at finding them new homes, apparently."

Qui-Gon watched the group from across the room for a moment, turning to Obi-Wan.  "I have a feeling they're talking about us."

"Sharad is probably just offering up the embarrassing details of your childhood," Obi-Wan teased.  "Like that time you got stuck in the door of your cell . . ."

"He better not be," Qui-Gon scowled.  That particular incident was best left forgotten—would have been, if Sharad hadn't seen.  It had taken him five minutes to get Qui-Gon free while he laughed himself sick at the sight of the boy with his foot stuck in the top of the cell door, face cherry red from dangling upside-down.  How Qui-Gon had gotten up there in the first place, he'd never shared.

Sharad's group was soon joined by Pangur's master, Kahliel, but Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were distracted from that when Yanarath approached, grinning widely.  "They knighted you!  Well done!"

"Thank you, Yanarath," Obi-Wan couldn't help his smile.  "They surprised us.  I don't remember much about how knighting really works—I thought there was some sort of test or trial done in the temple, but the council determined our lives had been our trials already."

"For all you've overcome, I would say this is well deserved," Yanarath smiled.  "Rhys and I will be in the temple for a time . . . I am hoping we will have a chance to catch up."

"Absolutely," Obi-Wan promised.  "Just let us know when you've some time."

"I'll have to pry him from Maul first," Yanarath complained.  "I swear, they all gravitate towards him.  I'd be proud of my student for overcoming prejudices if I didn't need a crowbar to overcome Maul's gravity well."

"Believe me when I saw it is very possible to be proud and annoyed by your child at the same time."  Obi-Wan glanced at Anakin.  "Naboo comes to mind."

"I think angry was the word you were looking for," Mace corrected.  "You did say you wanted to ground him until he died of old age."

"That's true," Obi-Wan agreed as Qui-Gon shrugged.  "There are times a good grounding wouldn't go amiss for any of them."

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon split off after that, making rounds about the room to thank everyone who came and making sure to introduce Anakin to A'Sharad.  A'Sharad, for his part, was chatty as any youngling with new friends, Maul and Kelyan using the distraction to sneak away.  It was surprising how well the pair got along, but with such darkness and violence in their pasts, they understood one another well and Kelyan liked that Maul never seemed to judge him for his past as some of the Jedi had done.

It was late when things wound down, Ahsoka long since asleep on Qui-Gon's shoulder and Anakin drooping so low Obi-Wan was surprised he was still walking—or even awake.  Feral was sprawled over Maul, as deeply asleep as Ahsoka, and Savage was wrapped around his brother's waist, yawning widely.  Sharad smiled fondly at the children.  "Looks like long past time for them to be abed."

"You will stay the night with us," Obi-Wan told Sharad, watching Drex pick up his staggering knight-master.  Arasath was tiny in her padawan's arms, the delicate near-human half-limp in sleep.  Drex was wearing a fond half-smile, and Qui-Gon had a feeling the rumors that Arasath would stay awake for days at a time weren't entirely fabricated.  Next to him, Naia was half-asleep as her knight-master, a Rodian woman called Silreno, was urging her padawan to the doors.  Rhys and Yanarath were at their heels, both yawning in time with Naia.

"Looks like it's bed time for everyone," Maul commented, letting Qui-Gon lead the way down the hall.  Sharad knelt so Yaddle could ride on his shoulder since Feral was keeping Maul occupied.

"I miss you being Ahsoka and Feral's age," Sharad told his son.  "Well—sometimes.  I don't miss the diaper changes.  But snuggling you like that—I do miss that."

"I'd break you if you tried to carry me like that now," A'Sharad laughed, picturing it.  "The tribe would never let you live it down, if you broke your back trying to carry me about like a youngling."

"Fearsome warlord—killed by picking up son."  Sharad joined in, caressing his son's head.  "The Anchorhead gossip paper would have a field day."

The exhausted group almost fell into their beds, Qui-Gon not even bothering to put Ahsoka into pajamas.
<>*<>

Sharad and A'Sharad left early the next morning, having a three day trip back to Tatooine.  Garen left with them, having agreed to drop them off on his way to his next mission, and Qui-Gon hugged his former master tightly.  "Stay in touch, Master."

"Of course, Padawan," Sharad smiled, the word rolling off his tongue.  It was nice to be able to acknowledge the relationship he had with Qui-Gon, and he was glad the Jedi had made it official as well.  "Thought I suppose I should call you Knight Jinn."

"I never even dreamed this could be possible," Qui-Gon's smile was bright.  "I knew a little about the temple from what Obi-Wan remember and I always knew that even if they did find us, we would never be Jedi—and yet—I can barely believe it."

"Believe it or not, you deserve this, Qui-Gon Jinn," Sharad told the man firmly.  "And your ascension to the rank of knight it well deserved.  You have seen more trials than many Jedi, yet you remain ever faithful to the true meaning of the code—by following the will of the Force.  Whatever happens beyond this, know that I am proud of you."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon buried his face in Sharad's shoulder.  "I had always hoped—but I was an arena slave and no one ever wasted their pride on an arena slave."

"Being proud of you was never a waste," Sharad said firmly.  "And don't you ever forget that, Padawan."

Qui-Gon's grip tightened for a moment, driving the breath from Sharad's body.  The man always forgot how strong Qui-Gon was, body hardened with fighting and hard labor.  While Jedi could enhance their strength with the Force, in addition to being fairly muscular due to their training, Qui-Gon was certainly stronger without Force enhancements than many Jedi.  At Sharad's wheeze, Qui-Gon hastily loosened his grip, flushing.  "Sorry, Sharad."

"Humans are rather fond of oxygen," Sharad teased gently, patting Qui-Gon's shoulder.  "But no harm done.

"Are you going to come back?"  Ahsoka asked, eyes wide.  She'd been fascinated with the Tuskens' clothing since they'd arrived, her little hands often tugging and pulling the many wraps and layers.  Sharad and A'Sharad bore it with grace, A'Sharad and Anakin answering whatever questions poured from the youngling's mouth.  "Oh—can we come see you?  I never been to Tatooine."

"You are always welcome to visit my tribe," Sharad knelt to tell the child.  "You are like family now—and no, you don't need to dress as we do.  A'Sharad and I were fully adopted into the tribe as kinsmen, so we wear these clothes, but you and your family are . . . outsiders consider family."

"We are alteranon," Qui-Gon told the girl, using the Sleantah word that indicated a friend close enough to be considered family without being a blood relation.  "The tribe itself is seranon, blood family, and we are alteranon, or almost-family."

"Like Ateri Mace," Ahsoka nodded in understanding.  "So . . . so is Ser Sharad my ateri too?"

"Exactly," Sharad agreed when Qui-Gon looked at him uncertainly.  "And I would be honored for you both to call me Uncle—though given that the Jedi view their padawans as their children, I am more like your grandfather."

Ahsoka's eyes went huge.  "I have a Grandpa?"

"Sharad—"  Qui-Gon's voice wavered, his eyes bright.

Sharad rose to touch Qui-Gon's cheek, forcing the man to look at him.  "I have two children, Qui-Gon Jinn, and you best not forget it."

Sharad found himself with two armfuls of Jedi as the Skywalker family almost threw themselves at him.  Ahsoka and Anakin were squealing, excited to have a grandparent and Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon were unable to believe anyone would actually want to claim them so closely.  A'Sharad looked the four over, considering.  "So . . . I'm an uncle?  But Ani's like . . . my age.  That's weird."

"I don't know if you've noticed, but our whole family is weird," Anakin pointed out, gesturing to the insanity around them.  "But we can just call each other cousin.  I think that's better.  And less weird."

"I agree," A'Sharad agreed, offering good-bye hugs to Anakin and Ahsoka.  "And you have to write."

"You do too," Anakin ordered.  "Me, Savage, the padawans and some of my cyber-friends have a holosite where we put stuff.  I'll give you the transmit route so you can keep up with all of us.  It'll be great!"

"Will your other friends mind?"

"No way!  They'll think it's cool.  You can pick who you want to read about, though.  You don't have to talk to them," Anakin waved it off.  "We make . . . they're like groups of friends, I guess.  Rhys and them have friends on there I don't read about.  Dad and Papa are on there too with some of their friends and I never read their stuff."

"So I can write letters everyone?"

"It's more like keeping a journal on the holonet.  Only the people you invite can read it, though," Anakin assured him.  "That's important."

"I'd like to see it.  Would you mind if I invited my tribe and people of Anchorhead?  We like to keep in touch when we have the ability and that would probably make it very easy."  A'Sharad grinned.

"Sure, whatever," Anakin shrugged.  "Everyone keeps inviting people.  I call it The Codex and it's totally wizard."

"That would be great, Ani!  Thank you so much," A'Sharad hugged his new friend.

"We'll visit," Qui-Gon promised Sharad as the pair boarded the starship.  "And you better visit here, too!"

"We will," Sharad promised.  "A'Sharad and I will be here for an extended term at some point so I can get some of the masters to help train him, but giving the . . . upheaval on Tatooine right now, that's probably going to be a few years away.  Short trips, though, I think we can manage."

"Say hello to everyone for me," Qui-Gon waved.

"I will!  Good-bye, Padawan!"  Sharad waved in reply as the ship's doors closed.  Qui-Gon watched the ship until it disappeared, grinning.

"I'm glad I got to meet your master," Obi-Wan leaned into his husband's side.  "He is a wonderful man."

"I'm rather fond," Qui-Gon kissed the other man happily.

The group headed inside after that, Anakin and Ahsoka needing to get to their remaining classes and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan headed to the council chambers.  The council were sending them on their first mission as fully fledged knights—not that it was any different from the missions they'd been doing—though it was supposed to be short and close-by, though the situation was violate.

"The galaxy waits for no one," Obi-Wan joked as they packed to leave the next morning.

"Especially not Jedi Knights," Qui-Gon laughed, feeling the Force settled around him, as though everything was exactly as it should be.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The Skywalkers had just finished celebrating their second Festival of Life in the temple when Qui-Gon went searching for Mace, finding the man on his way to the council chamber.  The man's long strides ate up the length of the hall as he hurried toward the councilor.  "Mace!"

"Good morning, Qui-Gon," Mace greeted, pausing to let the other man catch up.  "Given the purpose in your step, I assume you're looking for me?"

"I was, thank you," Qui-Gon smiled.  "I had a question—Siri mentioned it when we were talking during the Festival of Life.  Why do the Jedi not have a booth during the Festival of Stars?

Mace blinked.  Of all things he'd been expecting, that certainly wasn't on the list.  "What?"

"We should have a booth at the festival of stars," Qui-Gon repeated.  "I was just wondering why."

"What for?"  Mace asked, utterly mystified.  The Jedi had never taken part in the public celebrations, preferring to enjoy the company of other Jedi during the few weeks they were recalled to the temple as possible.

"Obi-Wan and I like to wander the city—especially the lower levels and under city," Qui-Gon explained.  Mace nearly sighed; really, it wasn't like the new should surprise him, after all.  What it had to do with the strange comment about the Festival of Stars, however, was another matter.  Before Mace could ask, Qui-Gon continued, "The people in those areas are afraid of us, Mace.  We're strange and terrifying to them—practically bogymen.  The Jedi shouldn't scare people."

"I agree."  Mace cocked an eyebrow, "But what does having a booth at the Festival of Stars do in this regard?"

"Give people a chance to talk to us," Qui-Gon replied as Mace headed for the council chamber again.  The Skywalkers had been at the temple for almost a year and a half now, Anakin celebrating his eleventh lifeday and Ahsoka getting ready to celebrate her fifth.  They were growing more comfortable talking to the council with the time they'd lived at the temple, more comfortable carrying their concerns to the councilors—though Mace was a particular favorite since he was also a friend.

"So we need a booth during the Festival of Stars so people can interact with us?"  Mace eyed his friend.  "And you think it will help?"

"The only way to change things is to start somewhere," Qui-Gon pointed out.  "And this is one of the easiest ways to get out among the public."

Mace sighed.  Qui-Gon had a point, and having the citizens of Coruscant fear them was not a welcome reaction.  "I will speak with the council, Mace promised.  "But I cannot guarantee anything."

"I know, but having beings tell their children they'll be stolen away by us isn't exactly a way to earn trust."  Qui-Gon said.

Mace rubbed his face.  "We have never stolen a child.  Parents bring them to us—Force sensitive children are difficult for non-Force sensitive parents—"

"I am aware," Qui-Gon patted Mace's shoulder.  "I can't image raising Anakin if I didn't understand anything about the Force.  Of course, he's a bit of an exception given his strength—Ahsoka doesn't make things explode when she's mad, thank the Force—but it was certainly . . . interesting."

"Interacting with your son made us understand why the créche masters were always begging for help," Mace replied.  "I can't imagine dealing with twenty younglings with that much energy."

"Skipped créche duty a lot, huh?"  Qui-Gon nudged his friend.  "You shouldn't do that.  The younglings probably think it's great to be friends with the councilors."

"Yoda is in there enough for us all," Mace waved it off as they arrived at the council chambers.  "I'll speak to the rest of the council regarding having a booth at the Festival of Stars.  We have three months, yet, so we should have plenty of time."

Like Mace, most of the council was horrified to know that many of Coruscant's citizens feared or reviled them, thinking them little more than baby-stealers.  Worse was that if the citizens of Coruscant felt this way, it was likely others did as well.  "Having a booth at the Festival of Stars would reach many," Depa considered aloud.  "But what would we do?"

"Lightsaber demonstrations would likely be popular," Adi grinned.  "Maybe have lessons to teach a basic weaponless kata.  People seem to like things like that."

"Have the initiates put on a demonstration, we could," Yoda nodded.

"There are also those Jedi dolls that I've been seeing around the temple," Plo Koon added.  "Perhaps we could hand those out?"

It had been Kylara's idea to create Jedi dolls for the younglings, knowing they liked to emulate people they admired in play.  It hadn't been difficult to get a handful droids to handle the making of the action figures.  Anakin, Naia and a few padawans had fixed up the junk droids and soon each youngling had a doll in their own image that could be dressed up like a Jedi.  It wasn't long before other Jedi shyly requested their own versions and before anyone knew exactly what had happening they'd found the action figures had taken over the temple.

In fact, a large number of younglings would request whatever knight or master they could find to go on "missions" about the temple with them.  A knight had even carried a youngling's doll on a mission, to the youngling's delight.  A number of Jedi had multiple dolls, often likenesses of friends.  It was no surprise Yoda was incredibly popular, but almost every Jedi had at least a few younglings with dolls in their likeness.  It was heartwarming to see the grounded Jedi, those on the permanently disabled list due to either age or injury, light up when they realized a youngling wanted to play with them or had a doll in their likeness.

"Perhaps we could also take a few training 'sabers?"  Even Piell suggested, surprising the council.  "It is often one of the more mysterious things about the Jedi, and learning about the weapons we carry  may help ease their fears of it—things are not nearly so mystical once you've used them yourself."

"We should have information about the various corps. there we all," Saesee Tiin suggested.  "That way people will have an opportunity to understand that Jedi are not just diplomats or warriors, we are also healers and farmers."

"You assume we should participate in the first place," Shaak Ti protested, crossing her arms.  "There is no reason for us to degrade ourselves as an . . . exhibit!"

"We would hardly be an exhibit," Yarael frowned at Shaak Ti.  "While I agree that perhaps a booth at the Festival of Stars may not be the . . . most effective us of our time, the people of the galaxy should not fear us.  We are here to help them, and Padawan Oppress has shown us what fear of the Jedi can do to people."

"That Sith was a special case," Shaak Ti scowled.  "We stay removed for a reason—we cannot afford attachment.  And people who speak to us there might think they have some kind of rapport  with them and that we should no longer be impartial judges if they are involved!"

"She does have a point," Oppo Rancisis admitted.  "People may expect something we cannot offer if we build connections to them."

"Prove our impartiality through actions, we would need to, yes," Yaddle agreed.  "However, leave fear in the hearts of those we are sworn to protect, we cannot.  Dangerous, it is, for the people not to trust us.  More dangerous, perhaps, to see us as cold or uncaring.  Come to us when we are needed, they may not, and drive others to the darkside, it could."

"We are going against thousands of years of tradition!"  Shaak Ti protested.  "This is an outrage!  We should not be listening to those Skywalkers on matters such as this!  They know nothing of our ways—"

"Wrong, the Force has said our ways are," Yoda cut Shaak Ti off.  "Stay on the path we were before they came and darkness clouded the way.  Fear, I do, that headed for the destruction the Jedi were."

"Our numbers have been dangerously low for years," Depa studied her hands, Adi nodding in agreement.  "The Order is dying, Shaak Ti.  You've seen it as well as we have."

"If people cannot handle the path of the Jedi, then it is not the path meant for them!"  Shaak Ti snapped.  "Traditions are there for a reason."

"You are right," Yarael agreed, making Shaak Ti smirk in triumph.  "But sometimes those reasons become outdated, or irrelevant.  For generations after we changed from Force-imbued weapons to lightsabers, it was tradition to have a cord connecting you to your lightsaber.  This was because when lightsabers were first created, the Jedi had to carry the power packs for them.  The tradition was out-dated and irrelevant.  There was no reason to have that cord, except that we had always done so."

"That is a lightsaber cord, not a way of life," Shaak Ti protested.

"While that is true in some respects, it is not in others," Yarael replied.  "It changed our way or fighting.  Many of the forms we use today would not have worked if we still wore the cords.  There are actually dozens of forms that were created when we used Force imbued weapons that were incompatible with the corded 'sabers, and so they have been lost to time.  Tradition, in this case, harmed the Order very much.  We must be mindful not to fall into a similar trap, no matter how seemingly insignificant the tradition."

Shaak Ti's jaw tightened, the woman recognizing that she has lost.  Shaak Ti had been very outspoken against the Skywalkers and changes they brought, but unlike Yarael, was not opened-minded in regards to the changes the Order needed.  There were things the Skywalkers did that were not particularly compatible with the order.  For example, having family groups in the temple was difficult, and a staggeringly high number of younglings given to the Jedi were unwanted by their families due to the strain of dealing with a Force-sensitive youngling.  Yarael knew of at least two that had been abused before the Order stepped in and took them.

The Jedi had begun allowing Jedi to make family groups, however.  Many Jedi had people they considered what the Skywalkers called "alteranon," or family that was no related by blood.  There were a few Jedi who had already begun petitioning the council to allow the Jedi to form attachments and marry, as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had done.  They had also mentioned that any children born of those pairs should be raised as Anakin and Ahsoka, though all groups involved knew those changes would be years—possible decades—away.  The social structure of the temple was surprisingly delicate and the council wanted to be certain that particular change truly was in the Jedi's best interest.

"Fine," Shaak Ti huffed, returning the council to the matter at hand.  "If we do decide we're going to have booths at the Festival of Stars, who do we propose plans this?  We certainly don't have time."

"Need to, we do not," Yaddle told Shaak Ti.  "Many Jedi able to do this, there are, and among the grounded Jedi, some there are.  Utilize their talents for this, we shoud."

"Indeed," Depa pulled up the roster.  "In fact, I see six at the top of the list that would be perfect for this.  As far as getting the other Jedi involved, I think we should send out a request for volunteers.  Grounded Jedi such as Pangur and Salín, who are physically capable but unable to leave the planet due to dietary restrictions, would be perfect for something like this."

"Fine," Shaak Ti huffed, still frowning.

"This is a good thing," Adi told her fellow council member.  "People should trust us—and we have lost sight of that, too wrapped up in helping the galaxy to serve the people."

"We are Jedi," Shaak Ti answered.  "If the people can't figure out we're helping them, we are not the ones to blame."

"Perhaps," Eeth Koth considered.  "However, if it does not change, we will still be the ones paying the price.  Now, I believe we have chosen to at least attempt this festival—let us turn to other matters.  There is still much to do this day."
<>*<>

Most of the Jedi jumped at the chance to participate in the Festival of Star, regardless of how conservative the Jedi.  Some were vocally against it, like Shaak Ti, but most felt that earning the trust of the people was something the Jedi should do more of.  When the request for volunteers was sent out, in fact, so many offered that the efforts for the festival were expanded.  There would be several booths in the upper and lower levels as well as the under city.

The Jedi outsourced the action figures so they would have enough given they only had three months to prepare and Coruscant housed over a trillion beings.  The dolls would be sold for a donation, since things could not be given out for free at the booths—there had been enough issues in the past to force a regulation—but there was no limitation on what the price had to be.  In addition to the dolls, the Jedi designed and built the travelling booths and sparring rings to be taken to each area and each group was assigned two shuttles—one for passengers, the other for cargo.  Special training 'sabers were built for the booths as well, in a variety of sizes so both younglings and adults could try them.

"So there will be a lightsaber demonstration or mock battle at the top of the hour and half past," Mace looked over the schedule he'd been given.  "Those are fifteen minutes.  At a quarter past the hour there is a forty five minute kata lesson that will be held to one side of the booth and some sort of kata demonstration at three quarters past."

"The initiates are handling the demonstrations," Depa eyed the schedule over her former master's shoulder.

"Excited they are," Yoda hummed.  "Made special signs, each clan has.  Good to see, this is."

"In addition to that, there will be several Jedi at each booth to answer any questions the public might bring and mind the training 'sabers."  Adi added.

Plo nodded, looking over the final page.  "Looks like the booths in the upper level will be a little crowded—the planners are concerned we may have to cut things back at those, but the lower level and under city will have plenty of space."

"Impress, I am, that so quickly together this came," Yaddle admitted.  "Glad to be in the public, the Jedi are.  Do this more often, we should consider."

"Let's see how this goes first," Eeth Koth requested.  "I hope we have everything."

"Our planners are good at what they do," Mace assured the other councilor.  "One of them has managed seven refugee camps spread across three planets at once—surely he is capable of planning for a festival."

Even Piell nodded, asking, "The Jedi that we send will be staying all day, correct?  Even the initiates?"

"Yes; there is a night shift for each booth as well, though no initiates are involved with those," Depa replied.

"Good," Even closed the file.  "Transportation has been arranged, food stipends are handled and everything else has been packed up and marked as completed.  The knights chosen to oversee this particular venture have done well."

"In that case, we should get to bed, Master," Depa rose, stretching.  "You and I are in the under city with the Skywalkers tomorrow and we will be leaving quite early so that we can get there and set up."

"With you, I am also," Yaddle clambered from her chair.  "Also Masters Yoda and Adi, I believe."

"And we shall be up before the dawn," Adi replied.  "I'm thankful Kelyan is excited—Have I mentioned by Padawan is morning person?  Also, I am not certain how he manages to function on as little sleep as he does.  It is rather impressive."

"You've mentioned," Mace replied dryly, though without heat.  Kelyan, it seemed, only slept a few hours a night and deemed it sufficient.  Adi exhausted herself just thinking about it.  Mace glanced at her, then continued, "Meeting adjourned.  I will be available on my comm. tomorrow, should I be needed."

The council traded bows and headed for the doors.
<>*<>

The hanger was busy the next morning as Jedi bustled about to get to their transports for the Festival of Stars.  Mace and the other councilors headed for the lower city were joined by a number of Jedi, including the Skywalkers.  Anakin and Ahsoka's créches were also there, their number including Savage and Feral, as they would be handling the initiate shows.  Kylara, who was one of Ahsoka's créche masters, was trying to get the children to settle when Qui-Gon arrived.

The older Jedi going to the under city all stared when the big man settled into one of the rows and, almost immediately, had every initiate attending their booth piled around him.  The whole group was asleep before they lifted off, exhausted by being up at the early hour despite their excitement.  Obi-Wan chuckled at the slack-jawed looks on his friend's face.  "Animals aren't the only thing he tames, you know.  Young sentients are also part of his repertoire."

"Thank the Force," Kylara heaved a sigh of relief.  "Can we keep him?"

"If you do, it would be wise to remember that younglings—and sentients—aren't the only strays he collects," Maul didn't even look up from where he was helping Yaddle load a number of boxes to comment.

"That's true," Anakin remembered, grinning.  "We had a lothcat for a whole week once."

"I remember that," Kelyan laughed outright, glancing at Adi.  "My master was ready to pull out her tendrils."

"Papa doesn't collect nearly as many things here as he did on Tatooine," Anakin mused.  "I think Dad makes him leave there where he found them.  If he's with the créche all the time, though . . ."

"You can keep him, then," Ahsoka's other créche master announced.  "The last thing we need is more strays brought to us. "

Anakin and Savage traded giggles and went to join the rest of the créche with Qui-Gon, the pair snuggling up to either side of him as Ahsoka and Feral had claimed his lap.  In addition to the councilors, their padawans and the initiates, they were joined by Obi-Wan's friends from his days in the temple as well as Drex, Naia, Rhys and their masters.  Pangur and Salín were also in their group, eager to be included in the festival.  One of the worst things for them as grounded Jedi was the inactivity.

Siri, Bant, Garen and Reeft finished loading the second transport and Anakin gave his parents a pleading look.  "Can me and Savage please ride with Garen in the cargo transport?"

Obi-Wan raised a brow, glancing at Garen.  "I guess that depends on him, really."

Garen blinked, then shrugged.  "No reason why not.  I wasn't looking forward to riding alone."

"I'm riding with you," Bant blinked, confused.

"Like I said, alone," Garen repeated.

"Hey!"  Bant punched her friend's arm in response, earning a yelp from the man.

"Your nose would be in a datapad the entire time," Garen rubbed his arm.  "It's almost like being alone.  C'mon, let the kids ride with us."

"If you don't mind," Obi-Wan almost hedged.

Bant offered her friend a cheerful smile.  "We would love to have them along, Obi-Wan."

"Then I don't mind."

"Wizard!"  Savage and Anakin slapped hands, grinning, and raced toward the cab of the cargo transport, almost leaping inside.  Before they could close the transport, Artoo chirped out a demand and followed the pair onboard.

"See you in the under city," Garen called, and headed out.
<>*<>

Coruscant's under city was located in the lowest inhabitable levels and comprised of the city's poorest residents.  The under city was polluted and gritty, it's citizens spending much of their time in a state of constant twilight due to the disrepair of the giant lamps that were supposed to light the levels.  The under city had the highest crime rate on Coruscant, gangs running rampant while the Security Force made themselves scarce.  Vendors were sparse in the under city, few from the other levels wanting to brave the area while those located there could scarcely afford the disruption.  The booths around the Jedi were comprised mostly of food and a handful of community troupes that were struggling to survive.  Beings living in the under city could afford few extras.

"Ain't nobody can afford that shit," A vendor next to the Jedi's booth spat a wad of phlegm in their direction as the Jedi unloaded the dolls they'd brought.  "Ain't no money for that shit here."

"You don't even know what they cost," Arasath replied, undeterred.

"They're fancy," The vendor snorted.  "Fancy shit's expensive, no matter who's selling—a donation?  A donation of what?"

"Whatever can be spared," Drex grinned at his smirking master.

Arasath nodded in approval at her apprentice, then continued, "We are Jedi.  We do not require money and would not request even this but for the regulation that things may not be given away at the booths."

The vendor grunted, clearly unhappy with the answer, and returned to his own work, snarled frustrated curses as he tried to hang his sign.  Drex gestured toward him, but Arasath shook her head.  Ahsoka was already tugging the being's filthy tunic.  "Excuse me, Ser Food-Seller-Man, but I can help!"

"Fuck off, kid," The vendor almost shoved her away.  "You can't help, this damn thing is bigger than you and the last thing I need is a Jedi brat getting hurt by my sign."

"Size matters not," Ahsoka quoted, making Yoda grin, though it was Yanarath who clarified for the vendor.

"As Jedi, she does not require physical strength to lift your sign," Yanarath explained.  "She is able to use the Force for this."

"Yeah right," The vendor stepped back.  "All right, princess, let's see it."

"I'm not a princess," Ahsoka replied, her little brows furrowing as she slowed her breathing and stretched out a hand.  Slowly the sign lifted, wobbling slightly as she carefully shifted it into place.  Obi-Wan turned to watch her in the Force, ready to interfere if necessary, though not before.

The being gaped as she settled the heavy sign into place.  "Gods below!"

"It's perfect!"  Ahsoka announced, dusting off her hands.

"Well done, a stóirín," Obi-Wan complimented.

Ahsoka grinned.  "Thanks, Daddy!  What do you think, Ser Food-Seller-Man?"

"Name's Andor, kid," The vendor held out a hand.  "Thanks for the help."

"It was fun," Ahsoka replied, looking up at the sign again.

It wasn't long before the Jedi had finished setting up their own booth, and Yanarath called them toward the passenger transport.  "Rhys and I have snacks and water for everyone to keep on their person.  There is also more on the shuttle, if you have need.  Talk to Master Yaddle and Maul in order to get your food stipend.  Last, we have first meal here for everyone and thirty minutes before the Festival official opens."

The Jedi invited those nearby to join them for first meal, wanting to get to know their neighbors.  Andor joined them, his bravery getting the others to follow.  They were clearly wary of the Jedi, and Ahsoka's display had not helped despite the friend it had earned her.  Still, the others were grateful for the food and approached readily.

"We don't get big displays," One being commented, looking over the various stations at the Jedi's booth.  "You'll probably be real popular."

"We will bear that in mind," Mace thanked them as the opening bell chimed.

"Looks like that's our cue," Obi-Wan grinned as he and Qui-Gon rolled easily to their feet, Qui-Gon offering the still-seated Depa a hand.  "Let's start with a bang, right?"

"Indeed," Depa smirked.  "The bang will be Master and I kicking your butt."

"You wish," Qui-Gon nudged her, the three joining Mace in the ring they'd set up not half an hour before.  The vendors paused, turning to watch as their lightsabers hissed to life.  Despite the demonstration's brutality, the Jedi laughed and joked as they fought, quickly drawing a crowd from the festival-goers.

After almost ten minutes, Depa spun around Mace and got a solid bottom kick to Obi-Wan's chest, booting him from the ring with a triumphant whoop.

"Avenge me!" Obi-Wan called to his husband with a grin, laughing madly when Depa was thrown from the ring a moment later.  Depa dusted herself off, then glanced at the ring and nudged Obi-Wan.

"Want to team up?"

Obi-Wan nodded and the two flung themselves back in the ring, Obi-Wan shouting, "Grudge match!"

"Ahket!"  Qui-Gon yelped as he narrowly missing taking a blow across the chest from his husband's lightsaber.  "S'jakta alla ng!"

"Qui-Gon!" Obi-Wan admonished, wide-eyed.  "There are children here!"

Qui-Gon muttered something in Sleantah that Mace was certain was only slightly less rude, then began to attack his husband in earnest.  Mace had little more time to think on the matter since Depa was pressing the advantage against him, a fierce grin on her normally stoic features.

By the time Arasath called time on the battle at the fifteen minute mark, Mace had convinced Depa to re-join his team and go for Obi-Wan.  "Traitor!"

"My master promised me lunch," Depa shrugged.

"We were winning!" Obi-Wan cried in protest as the crowd laughed outright.  Qui-Gon caught the man up in a hug.

"Thank you for the match," Mace offered, the four bowing to each other.  When they'd finished, Obi-Wan sprang to Qui-Gon's shoulders to greet the crowd.

"Welcome to the Jedi's first booth at the Festival of Stars," Obi-Wan spread his hands, the rest of the Jedi waving at the crowd.  "Now, I know we're new, but we did bring some goodies to share, so please check them out.  Following our act in the ring—once I've found the willpower to shut my big mouth!—we'll have a few of the Jedi masters teaching one of our empty-handed kata.  That'll be about forty five minutes, and we hope you'll join us!"

"At half past, we'll have another fighting demonstration, and three quarters an hour past, the Jedi initiates will be putting on a show," Depa added from her perch on Mace's shoulders.  "We'll be repeating our schedule all day so if you miss one, please join us for the next!"

The crowd cheered and the Jedi cleared out, Bant and Silreno waving people toward their second area where they were having the kata lesson.  Children flocked to the stall as well, staring enviously at the Jedi dolls spread over the back wall of the booth.  "How much are the dollies?"  A little girl asked, her eyes huge at the sight of the expensive-looking toys.  "I got two credits, can I buy one with that?"

"Purchase them with credits, you may," Yaddle smiled at the little girl.  "But need to, you do not.  Take barter rather than coin, we will."

"Barter?" The youngling tilted her head.  "What's that?"

"Tokens or trinkets," Maul moved to stand by Yaddle.  "Like . . . a ration bar or a toy."

"We have some old clothing at home," The girl's father offered.  "Could we trade that?"

"Welcome, that would be," Yaddle replied, smile widening.  "Use such things on refugee worlds, we do.  Of little worth to you, these clothes, but to those peoples, priceless, they are."

"So you take the clothes I can't wear no more for a dolly and give them to little girls who don't have clothes no more?"  The youngling considered.

"Correct, you are," Yaddle agreed.

"So can I bring you all my old clothes?"

"Honey—" The girl's mother started, but the little girl shook her head.

"Not for dollies," The girl assured the woman.  "But we should help, right?  So I can bring my old clothes because somebody needs them."

The girl's parents smiled almost helplessly, the father telling Yoda, "How do you say not to that?"

"Most welcome, your contribution would be," Yaddle repeated, smiling.  "We thank you."

Word of the exchanges rapidly spread through the crowd and soon clothing became popular currency for the Jedi dolls.  Jedi often arranged relief supplies and Yanarath quickly took over oversight of the clothing collection.  Everything they collected would be sorted back at the temple and the Jedi knew everything given to them would see use of some kind.

Yanarath gave Andor an easy smile when the man gaped at them.  "We did not say the donation need be money."

The Jedi worked shifts at the booth, giving them time to wander the festival themselves, trading greetings and purchasing trinkets from among what vendors were available.  Adi and Depa walked together, pausing curiously at one of the few open buildings along the strip.  "A clinic?"

"Even people in the under city need healthcare," The woman in the doorway looked exhausted.  "And those who have the most trouble getting it, often need it most."

Adi and Depa traded looks, Depa murmuring, "It seems we have spent too much time looking off world to tend to our own."

"We'll fix it," Adi promised her friend, then turned to the woman.  "You run this clinic?"

"Me and another, best we can," The woman nodded.  "We have to work the clinic's schedule around the actual clinic we work at during the day—this one is considered non-essential so it's not given permanent staff."

"It's taken quite a toll on you, hasn't it," Depa touched the woman's shoulder.  "Are there many clinics like this one in the under city?"

"Not nearly enough," The woman invited them inside.  "Mostly clinics like this one have closed, leaving huge populations without access to healthcare.  We do the most basic of things—screenings, medications and education, mostly—but we're fighting constant shortages.  Clinics in the under city aren't exactly high on the priority list to be staffed or supplied."

Depa and Adi traded looks, Adi thoughtfully murmuring, "Master Che was saying the Med Corps. needed off duty assignments.  According to her, they're stagnating."

"That's true," Depa smirked at the other woman.  "Excuse me, if you will.  I have a call to make."

"We can't pay—" The woman hastily broke in.

Adi patted the woman's shoulder.  "You don't need to.  And we really must thank you.  This clinic, and others like it, are a wonderful answer to a long-asked question."

The woman bit her lip, but nodded her acceptance.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The week went smoothly after that, the crowds buzzing around the Jedi's booth.  They were eagerly welcomed by all involved, and it wasn't long before every youngling in the area was proudly showing off their Jedi dolls.  The third day in, the Padawans had created a series of "missions" for the dolls and younglings that had them ranging through the festival, doing good deeds where they could.  They were rewarded with a treat of some kind for completing their "missions" and the younglings quickly grew excited to see the Jedi.

A few hours before the end of the festival brought along the first set of Security Force officers.  They were racing after a near-human adolescent clutching the strap of a messenger bag, shoving his way through the crowded streets.  Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon looked up from the younglings they were talking to, offering a small bow.  "Excuse me."

The fleeing teenager froze when he saw the Jedi approaching in front of him, spun nimbly on his heel and headed back for the security forces, Obi-Wan on his heels.  One of the officers clothes-lined the child, sending him to the ground, and the second shoved his stun baton into the young teenager's ribs.  The child cried out in pain, body spasming.  When he tried to crawl away, the officer struck him harshly with the baton and electrocuted him a second time.

"What are you doing?"  Obi-Wan demanded, yanking the boy away from the officers and shoving him into Qui-Gon's arms.

"Stopping a thief," The guard smirked.  "You're welcome."

Qui-Gon felt the boy in his arms tremble, huddled down in Qui-Gon's protective embrace.  If Qui-Gon hadn't been holding him, the teenager wouldn't have been upright.  Qui-Gon's eyes narrowed, though the hand stroking the teenager's hair stayed gentle.  "This boy didn't do anything!  And stun batons are not to be used on children!"

"All you under city scum are liars and thieves," The second guard sneered.  "I look forward to the pollution killing the lot of you."

"We are no liars," Mace Windu stepped from the crowd, arms crossed over his chest.  "And I'd thank you to keep your prejudices to yourself."

"Please," The first guard snorted.  "Your fancy costumes don't make you Jedi."

"Master Mace Windu, Head of the Jedi Order, he is," Yoda's appearance made the officers blanche.  "Grandmaster Yoda, I am.  Recognize me, do you?"

"Our apologies, Master Jedi," One of the officers gulped.  "We didn't intend to offend—"

"Treat these people like that, you should not!"  Yoda snapped.  "Take Master Windu and I to your captain immediately, you will!"

"Y—Yes, Sir!"  The guards hastily began shoving their way back through the crowd, the Jedi at their heels as they headed toward their headquarters.

Qui-Gon shook his head.  "Those guards shame their uniform.  Now, are you all right, young one?"

The boy nodded.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Obi-Wan smiled.  "But we do need to ask—what was it you stole?"

The adolescent sniffed softly, chewing his lip.  "It—It weren't much.  I was just hungry—I'll take it back, and I swear I won't do it again."

"It's a loaf of bread," Qui-Gon dug it from the boy's bag.  "Which stand?"

"Just down the way," The boy dropped his eyes.  "What are you going to do to me?"

"I'll have Anakin pay the vendor for it," Obi-Wan told his husband, pressing a soft kiss to Qui-Gon's lips.  "And I think we can spare a few ration bars."

"I'm sure we can afford to purchase him a real meal," Qui-Gon could feel the sharp jut of the boy's ribs and spine beneath his hands and the teenager's ragged clothes.  "Perhaps some clothing, too."

The boy yelped when Qui-Gon scooped him up, unable to walk on his own due to the stun baton charges.   "I am curious," Obi-Wan walked next to them, boy's bag in hand.  "Why didn't you go to Youngling Protective Services?"

"We won't call them," Qui-Gon assured the boy when he went stiff in fear.  "You needn't worry."

"Younglings go missing," The boy swallowed hard.  "The pretty ones, especially, or the ones that cause a ruckus, that like to fight.  Anyone that won't be looked for, really.  My older brother disappeared a few years back.  They said he ran away, but he never would have done that!  I tried to tell the Security Forces, but they said I was a liar.  When two more younglings went missing . . . I ran away.  Dangerous as they are, the streets are safer than the foster homes."

"We lose lots of people out of the shelters, too," A near-by under city resident added.

The Jedi traded looks.  There had been rumors, but no one had been able to confirm anything.  The Security Forces claimed it was all lies, but if they were in on it . . . the implications were not good.  Adi gave the being who spoke a gentle smile.  "I have some questions for you in regards to that, if you'd be willing to answer them?"

The being glanced at her neighbors, who were shifting uncomfortably.  "We'll talk—if you do something for us first."

"Which is?"  Depa stepped next to Adi, dipping her head in a nod.

"There is a serial killer in under city, killing the prostitutes and leaving them around for people to find.  They like places the younglings go."  The being looked started at her own daring.  "You find the murderer, and we'll tell you about the missing people."

"The security forces—"

"Told us whores weren't worth investigating, and we'd have to pay them to do."  The being's jaw tightened with her anger.

"Investigate the killer, we will," Yaddle announced from her perch on Maul's shoulder.  "But investigate them for information on the missing beings, we will not.  Deserve more, both groups do.  Take each case on their own merits, we shall."

The being glanced around, seeing the others at the festival nod.  Turning back to the Jedi, she gave a sharp nod.  "Agreed."

"We have been ignoring the issues on Coruscant far too long," Adi sighed heavily, Depa nodding her agreement as Adi turned to the being.  "We are thankful you brought it to our attention."

The Jedi had to admit, overall, the Fête week was quite successful. Hundreds of younglings had been tested for Force sensitivity in the under city alone with dozens discovered with the potential to be Jedi, and Yoda let himself believe the Jedi might raise their numbers enough to reopen the other temples and chapter houses around the galaxy.  It would take time, likely generations, but Yoda let the hope grow in his heart all the same.
<>*<>

The council assigned Pangur and Salín, stuck on planet but able-bodied aside from restrictive diets, to the missing beings.  The pair were glad for it, spending most of their days going insane from boredom.  Meanwhile, another grounded team were assigned to look into the murders.  It was good for both teams, offering purpose, and Mace hoped that they would be able to utilize other grounded Jedi on Coruscanti missions in the future.

Pangur and Salín dug through the Security Force records, pulling every report they could find on the missing beings.  The Security Forces were required to create a record for every complaint that came through, even if they weren't followed up on or didn't require a proper report.  They'd requested the records from every precinct and dug through official reports.

No one was expecting what they found.

Mace stared at the logs, wide eyed.  Millions of cases that fit the requested criteria filled the screen his datapad.  And those were just the cases that had been recorded.  He was certain that for every recorded case, for every logged complained, there was at least one that was not.  Disbelief had the councilor rubbing his eyes.  They would need an army to get through the backlog of cases, plus the new beings stepping forward every day that had not filed anything with the Security Forces.

"Naboo has been spearheading an anti-slavery coalition," The now-eleven year old Anakin Skywalker told Mace almost absently.  "Padmé said Palpatine recommended keeping it out of the Senate so they don't tip off the slave owners there, but Padmé said they've already got a handful of planets involved.  Maybe they can get funding to help?"

Mace blinked.  "An unofficial coalition?"

Anakin nodded, finally locating whatever he'd been looking for on his datapad and holding it out to Mace.  "And other planets—including the ones involved in the coalition—make direct donations to the Jedi, so I bet no one would think anything of it.  They can't earmark the money for this, but Padmé trusts us."

"You've stayed in touch with Padmé?"  Mace had known, vaguely, that the Skywalkers had spoken with her, but for some reason it was a surprise to have it confirmed.

"The Codex makes it easier," Anakin shrugged.

"The Jedi really appreciate your holosite," Mace smiled.  "It has been very helpful.  The Jedi used to be . . . closer to one another.  I never quite knew why we grew apart, but the Codex has helped us rekindle that closeness."

"There are more people on it than just Jedi, too," Anakin grinned.  "Some of the grounded Jedi have taken over running it, really.  They like being able to help out."

"We're looking at more ways to get them involved with the order," Mace replied, flipping through the letter Anakin had given him to read.  It in, Padmé was explaining the Anti-Slavery Coalition.  The head of the Order had to congratulate her.  She certainly was a clever, young thing.  "What have they been doing with the Codex?"

"Research, sometimes.  They monitor security, too.  I don't really run it anymore, Yoda assigned some Jedi to do that—I think it was beings on the permanently grounded list that specialized in programming or something."

"Having researchers available is helpful," Mace nodded.  "I've utilized them myself and I've heard from other Jedi on missions praise them as well.  I will have to remember to let them know how thankful the Jedi are for them far more often.  They've saved a fair few missions, even."

Anakin grinned.  "I'm glad they can help again."

"As am I, young one," Mace held the datapad out.  "Now, thank you for the information regarding the coalition.  Please let Padmé know we'll be in touch."

"Yes, Master Windu," Anakin bowed.  Mace bowed in reply.  He would need to discuss Anakin's apprenticeship with his parents soon.  The boy had already begun blossoming as a Jedi and he was looking forward to seeing the knight Anakin would one day become.
<>*<>

After a mere week of watching Pangur and Salín struggle to slog through the millions of reports, Mace called an emergency session of the council and summoned Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as well.  Mace looked over the council, face grave.  "It seems we have an issue, even following the records and reports."

"What do you mean?"  Shaak Ti frowned.  "With that amount of data, it should be relatively easy to track the slavers."

"Coruscant has a population of over one trillion beings," Mace rubbed his face.  "There are millions of missing persons reports each year—and appears to go back generations.  We have gone back fifty years, and Salín does not believe we have even scratched the surface of when this has begun.  Additionally, both she and Pangur believe the other ecumenopoleis, such as Alsakan, are the same as Coruscant."

"Ecumenopoleis?" Qui-Gon asked, brows furrowed.

"City planets," Mace clarified.  "One is an ecumenopolis and multiples city planets are Ecumenopoleis."

"And ecumenopoleis have some of the highest missing persons rates in the galaxy," Even Piell grit his teeth.

"Not all of them were stolen for slavery, I'm sure," Adi frowned.  "With those numbers, there are bound to be millions—maybe even billions—of cases that don't lead anywhere or go somewhere else completely.  In this case, there is simply too much information for us to follow properly.  It could take years to even find a case we can follow back to a slavery ring."

"Are we really that blind to the needs of the people we vowed to protect?" Plo asked, tension in every line of his body.

"Demand far outstrips supply," Ki-Adi-Mundi ignored the question, having no satisfactory answer, even for himself.  "The galaxy is many, and we are but a few."

"What if we backtrack the paths of the arena slaves?"  Mace suggested, looking at Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  "We know where the arenas are on the non-republic planets, but surely there are some from the core we could trace back to their place of origin."

"Most core slaves don't last long in the arena," Obi-Wan's brows pinched.

"And memory wipes are fairly common for new slaves," Qui-Gon added.  "Not to mention, even if someone is from the core, it isn't illegal to snatch them in Hutt space and sell them.  We would have to prove they were taken the Republic and it's very easy to falsify records of them getting on a ship headed to the outer rim.  Some probably even unknowingly board slavery ships and were 'captured,' once they were outside the Republic space."

"Our best bet would be to find a core slave, or talk to someone less likely to get wiped, maybe someone on a farm or plantation, but we'd need permission from their master or a slave willing to risk dying for information that might not even help us," Obi-Wan sighed.

"We could buy them," Adi suggested.

"We'd still have to guess which ones have information," Yarael shook his head.  "And if we start purchasing slaves that claim to know something . . . well, they will all come forward.  And even the Jedi cannot afford that."

"It would be nice if we could afford to stop slavery so handily, though," Mace replied.  "It wouldn't change the laws, but at least they wouldn't have any slaves to trade."

"While that would be nice, the percentage of slaves from the core worlds is still small," Qui-Gon reminded them.  "And they may travel even into wild space.  There are worlds where slave outnumber their masters one hundred to one.  Without the transmitters, they'd never be able to stop a revolt."

"How many slaves are there in the galaxy?" Saesee wondered why they'd never asked the Skywalkers the question before.

"I'm not sure," Qui-Gon frowned.  "Trillions?  There are a number of worlds on the edge of wild space that serve as . . . well, they're basically auction worlds.  Slaves from both sides of the galaxy are taken there.  Core slaves may be in the far reaches of wild space, and slaves from wild space may be on worlds in Hutt space."

"And the slaves still in the Republic," Mace sighed.  "Generations of them, and we still don't know how to find them, or even where to look.  According to Qui-Gon, we have them on Coruscant."

"In an arena we've never found," Shaak Ti smirked.  "Maybe he's lying about that, too.  How would he have even known it was Coruscant if he never saw the outside of the arena?"

"Enough, that is," Yoda broke in.  "Argue such a point we will not."

"Fine," Shaak Ti huffed, the Skywalkers nodding in agreement.

"Have you ever met a slave from the core?  Aside from Obi-Wan, I mean?" Oppo Rancisis questioned.

"Yes.  At first, when I was little, I thought they were lying.  I know better now, but . . . back then I thought there were no slaves in the Republic.  Once I got a bit older, I knew better, but you don't meet too many core dwellers in the arena.  At least, not the slaves."

"You don't see the auction block inside the arena, either," Obi-Wan added.  "We get bet or bought outside, while we fight.  Sometimes our new owners came to see us, sometimes we'd change hands without even knowing it."

"Do you remember anything about any of the core slaves?" Mace turned back to Qui-Gon.

The man shook his head, brows furrowed on thought.  "Maybe—There was one group, three Twi'leks.  Sisters, I think.  Older than me, but I think I was eight at the time.  I remember thinking it was strange, because they said their parents sold them.  What kind of parent sells their children?"

"Bad ones," Shaak Ti sounded disgusted.

"Ones with children they can't afford," Even heaved a sigh.  "Some of the families in under city have a fair few children they can't afford.  They can't—or won't—take advantage of the offered birth control or family planning devices.  Maybe they're looking to make back some of what they spent—or sweet Force."

"Wrong, something is?"  Yaddle frowned at the horror-filled words.

"What if some of them have children with the expectation of selling them?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi almost whispered, realizing the same thing Even had.  "It's almost like a factory.  They get paid by the government to keep the children due to the poverty they live in, and then they get the money for selling them once the children are old enough.  Get around it by claiming the younglings have run away."

"And they wouldn't even have a flag raised by reporting them missing.  Not that it would matter, since the Security Forces are in one it.  And Youngling Protective Services."

"And the Senate," Even almost spat.

"Need the senate to let us investigate without telling, we do," Yoda's ears were flat.  "If tip our hands, we do, be investigating murders rather than kidnappings, we will be."

"What about the transmitters?"  Obi-Wan mused.  "You took mine and Qui-Gon's.  Could we trace them back somewhere?  Find a way to remotely deactivate them?"

"We tried that," Adi admitted.  "The transmitters each have a specific code that can't be changed.  You have to hack each transmitter separately to get the code, which has a surprising amount of security to do it.  In addition, if you get it wrong, there is a risk of blowing up the transmitter.  We attempted to trace them back to a factory or source, but all identifying marks are removed.  Whoever makes them . . . they don't want people to know."

"So we're back to trying to follow the files," Depa sighed heavily.  "But we're going to need an army to even get through them.  We don't even know where to start."

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon exchanged looks.  "Actually, we may know where to get people that can help us look."
<>*<>

The Jedi headed back into the under city, Mace, Depa and Yoda following Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon.  The end of the Fête week had also brought an end to the week-long truces held by the gangs.  For years prior to the Fête week, the Jedi were a rarer sight than the Security Forces.  Now, however, they were working on changing that, getting involved in the near-by clinic and continuing to create "missions" for the younglings they'd met during the festival.  Several of the grounded Jedi were working on a holosite for it, opening up the missions to younglings all over Coruscant rather than just that section of the under city.

Despite the changes already made, the street deserted quickly as the locals doing their best to avoid the Jedi.  Mace frowned thoughtfully.  "I suppose it is little surprise they still do not trust us."

"Given everything we've been uncovering, can you truly blame them?"  Depa asked her former master, eyes sad.  "For all they know, we are in the league with the Security Forces and are lying about it.  The few we've spoken with about the missing beings are hardly a majority."

"And few Jedi feel the need to mingle with the general population," Qui-Gon added.  "They've barely seen us since the festival, and they have no way to know what we're working on behind the scenes until we start it here."

"Sad, but true never the less," Depa shook her head.  "Where are we going, anyway?"

"A community center near the place our booth was, there is.  Go there, we are," Yoda told her.  During their search, Pangur and Salín recruited the help of a former investigative Jedi—an elderly, Cosian male named Tera Sinube.  The being had subsequently discovered a support group for beings who believed their "runaway" family members had actually been sold into slavery.  This would be the first contact they'd had with any of the beings involved in the support group, but everyone was hoping they would have information that would aid the investigation.

"Can we offer any sort of compensation for their information?"  Obi-Wan glanced at the council members.  "Not that I think they won't offer the information anyway, but you know things are . . . tight down here.  A reward for information would likely be welcome."

"Come up with something, I'm certain we can," Yoda agreed as they approached the building Tera had sent them to.

The community center where the group met was little more than abandoned building, run-down and nearing collapse.  If rain had reached those levels of Coruscant, Depa was certain the roof would have offered little protection from it.  Qui-Gon pulled open a door to reveal a dark hall lit only with a scattered handful of battery-powered lamps.  Mace briefly wrinkled his nose at the myriad of scents from the building—mold, mildew and urine—but didn't hesitate to go inside.

A room at the end of the corridor held a dozen beings of varying species.  Seven or eight younglings played quietly to one side, and the Jedi could sense a handful of adolescent beings in the room next door.  Every adult in the room carried at least one blaster, and most carried a vibroblade or two in addition.  Their weapons were serviceable enough, kept in as good of repair as they could manage.

The adults looked up as they entered, a Bothan and Weequay rushing toward the children as the rest put themselves between the Jedi and the younglings.  A Twi'lek, younger than the others, glared at the Jedi, spitting, "What the hell do you want?  We ain't broke no laws."

"Our apologies," Mace held up his hands, letting them know he wasn't going to reach for his lightsaber.  "You aren't in any trouble."

"We have, in fact, come for a favor," Qui-Gon added, his hands also up.  "If you'd be willing to help us."

"Help law enforcement?" A male Weequay snorted.  "There are faster ways to die."

"Please, just hear us out," Obi-Wan requested, moving next to his husband.  "Then you can tell us yes or no."

We'll listen," The Bothan glanced around at the others in the room.  "But if we say no—you will never contact us again."

"Done," Mace offered a hand.

"Sit," Another being gestured to the chairs, ignoring the offered hand.  "And start talking."

"We're opening a massive investigation on the missing persons from Coruscant," Depa looked around the circle.  "The Jedi learned about the infestation of slavery in the Republic about a year and a half ago—it was the first we'd ever heard of its existence in a supposedly free state.  And we're working to stop it."

"You're trying to end slavery?"  the Weequay man snorted.

"We will end slavery," Mace replied.  "We know the rot runs deep, even into the Senate itself, but we will destroy it, one way or another, no matter how long it takes."

"Jedi," A reptilian being snorted, graveled voice incredulous.  "Are you really so naive?"

"I know it is rare you see us work on Coruscant—though we hope to change that, given what we have seen of the Security Forces—but the impossible is often what we do."  Depa smiled, showing teeth.

The reptilian being roared with laughter while as the Bothan asked, "Even if that means toppling the Republic?"

"Served as the Senate's lapdogs for too long, we have," Yoda answered gravely.  "Time to remember we serve the Force and the Republic, it is, and serve the Senate, we do not."

"But why now?'  The male Weequay finally asked.  "My daughter has been missing for a decade."

"How we missed it, I am not certain, but we did not know," Mace swallowed hard, Obi-Wan touching his arm.  "We have failed those we serve in this.  But we will fix this.  I swear that to you."

"No one ever told the Jedi," Obi-Wan explained when a few of the beings offered questioning looks.  "And for all we have awesome abilities, we cannot change things we know nothing about."

"And suddenly you've figured it out?"  The Twi'lek laughed.  "Yeah, right."

"A pair of Jedi happened upon a former Padawan, sold by his knight-master, and a well-travelled gladiator," Qui-Gon gestured to himself and Obi-Wan.  "The Jedi believed my husband was dead, but when the deception was revealed, they began to take action.  It has been difficult to get even this far, without the Senate learning of our investigation, and it will likely take many more years to free the slaves, but we can—and will—work until we do."

"We've already been to the Security Forces," The Twi'lek sighed heavily, crossing her arms.  "What assurance do we have that you'll be any different?"

"Words will do nothing to satisfy you, I know that," Depa earnestly told the woman.  "Instead, I implore that you consider the actions we have already taken.  We have come here to find you, and we have Jedi at the temple already searching for answers and connections so that we can stop this and save the slaves involved.  Even beyond freeing them, we will work to get them back to you."

The two Weequay gripped each other, clearly spouses now that Obi-Wan was seeing them together, and nodded sharply.  The female drew in a deep breath.  "We'll help."

"I will also," The Twi'lek offered, the Bothan agreeing moments later.  One by one the other adults offered to help the Jedi, agreeing to be at the temple the next day to discuss it with the Jedi working on the investigation.

The reptilian being glanced at the chrono, hastily turning to gather up the children.  "The Security Forces will be here soon," The being explained.  "If we're caught here, we'll be arrested."

"Arrested?  But why?"  Depa looked around the group.  "You've done nothing wrong."

"Too many of us filthy aliens loitering about, breaking curfew, whatever they can think off—kriff—" The Weequay froze, eyes on the door of the room as the teenagers were herded inside.  The eldest, a Kel Dor just below his age of majority, was bleeding from the head, struck by a Security Force baton.

"Ry'il!"  The boy's father gasped, reaching for his son, only for one of the officers to aim a blaster at his face.

"Freeze!"  The officer ordered, face set in a disgusted sneer.  "You're all under arrest for breaking curfew, trespassing, loitering, and conspiracy to commit treason!  Move and I authorize the use of lethal force!"

"Those charges are poodoo and you know it," Obi-Wan snorted, drawing the sergeant's attention.  The officer trained his gun on the Jedi.

"Stand down, Officer," Mace ordered, expression stony.  "This is official Jedi business."

The sergeant's eyes widened.  "Jedi?!"

"Jedi," Mace repeated.  "Now, I recommend you leave.  And I recommend you make sure someone is actually breaking a law before attempting to charge them for it.  You never know who might be around."

"There is no proof you're Jedi," The sergeant blustered, looking proud of himself.  "Your clothes don't prove it, and anyone can wear a pipe.  Maybe you're lying to get these pieces of shite out of trouble."

"Like to examine my lightsaber, you would?"  Yoda's ears stiffened.

"N—No, Ser Jedi!"  The sergeant hastily backtracked upon seeing Yoda.  "Just—these vermin will say anything to get out of trouble—"

"Vermin?" Depa's brows raised.  "Mind your tongue, Officer."

"Well—um—you know those non-humans will make up all kinds of bantha shite," The man sputtered, cutting off at the look on Depa's face.

"You will take me to your supervisor immediately," Depa commanded, body tensed for a fight, even if it was just a verbal one.

"Y—Yes, Ser Jedi!"  The sergeant scrambled to obey.  The others gave a sigh of relief when Depa practically marched them out of the building.

"Your padawan is vaguely terrifying," Obi-Wan commented to Mace, watching the officers rush out the door.  He turned back to the gathered group.  "Now, we do still need to settle the details, such as what time you are able to get to the temple, and we will need to coordinate this with the Jedi running the investigation."

"We would also like to discuss hiring some of you one for the duration of this investigation," Mace added.  When the Skywalkers blinked at him, Mace added, "You aren't the only ones with telepathic bonds, you know."

"Of course," Qui-Gon agreed, hiding a smile.

"Hire us on for what?"  The Bothan asked, clearly confused.

"The Jedi are stretched thin, and there are many records to go through," Mace explained.  "We will not be able to do this on our own.  But you have spoken with others who have lost loved ones.  You, and other groups like this one, will know what we need to look for.  This will be a job, of course, and you will be compensated."

The beings blinked, startled.  Despite living in the upper levels, the Jedi were often considered destitute.  In truth, however, the Jedi was one of the Republic's oldest institutions, and with age came wealth.  The Order was old enough to own the very land the Temple sat on, and so avoided needing to pay any kind of yearly stipend for the temple.  The Jedi were generally frugal and had little need to spend money.  When they died, their wealth reverted back to the Order.

Additionally, the Jedi received monies earmarked for them by the Senate each year as well as donations from thousands of planets.  With those monies were also the funds they made from the various corps the Jedi kept.  The Agri-corps supplied much of Coruscant's food, though few realized the various corps were actually part of the Jedi itself.  All that combined to make the Jedi an incredibly wealthy organization, though the members of the Order saw little of that money.  Much of it served as trust for the future of the Order, or was earmarked for the many disaster relief efforts either run or funded by the Jedi.  Even then, many of the causes taken on by the Jedi could be funded fairly liberally.

"We'll do it," The Weequay male told them, his wife readily agreeing.

"Be at the temple tomorrow at ninth hour," Mace offered a few credits.  "This will cover the transportation there.  We will also make sure to get you home.  Once there, we will discuss your contracts and arrange for you to be questioned to see if you have any further information that may help with this case."

"See you in the morning, we shall," Yoda bowed, and the two groups parted ways.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

While the new hands were a huge help, searching through the many reports and records, it would still take a great deal of time.  One top of that, Tera Sinube had suggested they look at records from the other ecumenopoleis and see if they couldn't find some kind of pattern between them.  With twenty city planets to work with—though outer rim planets like Nar Shaddaa likely wouldn't send anything—and a combined population of several trillion, it could take years to get through the records, never mind find any kind of pattern.

While those Jedi and their non-Jedi helpers worked, the rest of the Jedi returned to their usual duties, including Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon.

"Welcome home," Mace greeted the Skywalkers as they made their way into the council chamber after their last mission.  It was hard to believe Anakin would be turning twelve in a few days.  "How did it go?"

"We successfully negotiated a treaty with the people of Melida/Daan to stop their civil war.  Again."  Obi-Wan replied.  "Also, you are a terrible person."

Depa chuckled at the comment.  "Even so, we thank you for going.  We know the war is . . . old.  It is a relief you have managed to end it.  For good this time, we hope."

"We didn't find any evidence of slaver activity there, at least," Qui-Gon added.  It had become standard to look on the various planets the Jedi visited, an attempt to untangle the paths the slavers took and, if all went well, locate something more.  The council was hoping for an illegal auction, but they would take almost anything.

"You are certain?"  Yarael asked.

"The entire planet was an active warzone," Obi-Wan replied.  "We're sure."

"We're starting to run out of leads," Adi sighed heavily.  The slavers always seemed to be a step ahead of the Jedi, their clues leading to empty buildings, cold trails and, on one occasion, forty massacred slaves.  Without witnesses or evidence, they were losing what little ground they gained over the last couple years.

"We'll find something," Qui-Gon assured her.  "Somewhere, in all this information, there has to be something."

"Of course," Adi nodded.  "We simply need to keep looking."

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traded looks.  They had been hesitant to bring up the idea there could be a leak among the Jedi, but if things continued as they were, it was something they may yet have to consider.  "We will keep our ears open as well," Qui-Gon told the woman, smiling encouragingly.  "Surely we will find something."

"In the mean time, I believe you have a report to deliver," Mace told the pair.  "Then we have other news for you as well."

The mission had been fairly straightforward, at least, as straightforward as negotiating a treaty while dealing with three different factions could.  Yaddle offered the knights a soft smile.  "Done well, you both have."

"Thank you," Qui-Gon flushed, pleased.

"Other news, we have, yes," Yoda glanced around the council.  "Decided that allowed to become an official padawan, Anakin is."

"Did you determine if we would be able to take him as our student?"  Obi-Wan asked.  There had been much discussion amongst the council regarding that, since it was highly irregular.  Part of the issue being not only the council's concern that his parents would coddle him or endanger the mission if they believed him in danger, but also his high midi-chlorian count.  Another teacher would have been less equipped to deal with the unique challenges Anakin offered.

In addition to that, Anakin would be the first student with immediate family in the Jedi, but the council had a feeling he would not be the last—Ahsoka aside.  Other Jedi had expressed interest in creating family units as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had, and while change was slow, this seemed to be what the Force wanted from the Jedi.  Unique challenges or not, the council's treatment of Anakin in this would set precedent for any other Jedi like him.

"The council has decided that you can take him as your apprentice on the condition that he accompanies a different master for at least two missions per year.  It is a concern that being with his parents on missions may put his education at risk, and this is a way for us to monitor him.  We also do not want to appear that his knighting would be favoritism.  Having other masters doing oversight will let other Jedi know he is as capable as any other padawan, regardless of his parents training him."

"Considering making this mandatory for all padawans, we are," Yoda added.  "Prevent situations like Aurra's it would as well, where abuse there may be."

"More oversight of the padawans would not go amiss," Oppo Rancisis did not look at Shaak Ti, though everyone on the council knew he did not approve of her training methods.  Given her padawan had died shortly after being knighted, likely due to lack of experience, Oppo's point was well-founded.

"We are agreeable to that," Qui-Gon smiled.  "We do request he be familiar with any Jedi he goes on a mission with, perhaps have a couple training sessions with them ahead of time so he can learn how they work, how they fight.  That way if they do run into trouble, the master will know Anakin's capabilities and Anakin will know the Master's."

"We can agree to this," Ki-Adi-Mundi allowed.  "It is wise for any padawan going with a different master."

"Add this to the stipulations, we shall," Yoda agreed, then looked at Mace and added.  "Be the same master each time it cannot."

Everyone chuckled as Mace tried to look innocent.  Everyone knew that Mace likely would have taken Anakin for a padawan if they had not allowed Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to train him instead.  Depa shook her head, knowing Mace would do his best to take Anakin on whatever missions he could, and it was likely Depa, who intended to take Savage as her student, would be along for the ride.

Dismissed from the council, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon went to fetch Anakin and Ahsoka from the créches they stayed in while their parents were off planet.  The mission to Melida/Daan had lasted nearly three weeks, a tenday past the anticipated timeframe.  They had stayed in touch with their children, but it simply wasn't the same.

"Papa!  Daddy!"  Ahsoka squealed when she saw them, darting toward Obi-Wan and nearly knocking him over in her excitement.  Qui-Gon laughed, then nearly took a header himself when Anakin barreled into him from behind, grinning madly.

"You're home!"  The boy hugged Qui-Gon tight, then reached for Obi-Wan.  The boy had put on a fair few centimeters since they'd arrived at the temple and Obi-Wan suspected Anakin would end up just shy of Qui-Gon's impressive height.  Obi-Wan also suspected that if he did, Anakin would endlessly tease his poor dad for being short.

"Hey, you two," Qui-Gon smiled.  "Did you behave while we were gone?"

"Of course," Anakin sounded affronted and the two men's brows raised.  "Really!  I didn't even get in trouble once this time."

"You're a good kid," Obi-Wan pressed a kiss to Anakin's hair.  "But sometimes you get . . . overzealous about things.  And Yoda talks you into joining him for far too many pranks."

"This coming from the man who tossed the grandmaster into the largest fountain in the temple," Anakin reminded his dad, grinning.

"Well, at least you come by the trouble-making honestly," Qui-Gon chuckled.  "Come on, let's find something for late meal.  I have had nothing but ration bars for a week.  And I might have eaten worse over the course of my lifetime, but that does not make a ration bar good."

The four headed for the commissary, Obi-Wan letting Ahsoka walk on her own, as he turned to ask his son if he wanted to do anything special for his name day.  The Skywalkers, like the other Jedi, didn't really celebrate their name days.  Anakin and Ahsoka had each had a few friends over the year before, but as slaves the idea of a large party was completely foreign.  Anakin did get a couple small gifts each year, trinkets of little value to anyone but him.

"We're glad we made it back in time," Qui-Gon told his son, large hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Me too," Anakin smiled up at both his parents, then swept of Ahsoka and started running toward the commissary.  "Last one there has to do the dishes after!"

"Sounds like a challenge to me, my heart," Obi-Wan grinned.  "Think we can win?"

Qui-Gon smirked and the pair took off after their son.
<>*<>

The Skywalkers had a small cake for Anakin's twelfth name day, and Ahsoka offered him a handful of small battery packs that would be perfect for the mouse droids he was repairing for the temple.  Anakin hugged her tight.  "Thanks, Snips."

"Drex and Maul helped me pick them," The little girl grinned.  "I'm glad you like them!"

"They're perfect," Anakin told her.  "You want to help me with the mouse droids later?"

"Yeah!"  Ahsoka squeezed her brother tight, then took the battery packs over to Anakin's workbench.

"We've got a present for you also, young one," Obi-Wan traded a smile with his husband and set a small hair tie and a bead on the table.  Anakin tilted his head, confused.

"We would like to formally ask you to be our padawan, a stór," Qui-Gon tugged the boy's braid-tuft.  "We were given permission from the council just a few days ago."

Anakin's face lit up.  "Really?"

"Really," Obi-Wan touched the tie.  "If you'd let us do your padawan braid?"

Anakin nearly rocketed from his chair, skidding to his parents' feet.  While most padawans had a three strand braid, to signify the master, the padawan and the Force, Anakin would have a four strand braid, one for each master, himself, and the Force.  Ahsoka watched the ceremony quietly, a considering look on her face.

Once Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had finished, Ahsoka asked, "Do I get a braid when I'm a padawan?  But—I don't have hair."

"You will have a braid like Maul's," Obi-Wan told his daughter, scooping her into his lap.  "So it won't be exactly like Ani's."

"That's okay," Ahsoka decided, little fingers caressing her brother's braid.  "Are you and Papa going to be my master, like you're Ani's?"

"I don't know, a stóirín," Qui-Gon admitted.  "Would you like us to?"

"No,"  Anakin told his parents, arms crossed.  "I'm going to be Ahsoka's master."

Qui-Gon started to reply, but was cut off when Savage came barreling into the room, Depa at his heels.  The Zabrak almost threw himself at Anakin.  "I'm a padawan!"

"Me too!"  Anakin showed the other boy his braid as Savage held up his strand of silka beads.  The two babbled almost incoherently at one another, though they seemed to understand what the other was saying.  Depa just shook her head, smiling as she watched the pair.

"I see you finally told him," Depa smiled.

"We thought it would be a good day for it," Obi-Wan shrugged.  "And twelve does seem to be the magic age for a number of initiates to be chosen."

"It's rather traditional," Depa admitted.  "I'm a little early with Savage, I know, but I think he's mature enough."

"Given the lives he and Anakin had lived . . . I would be impressed if they weren't," Obi-Wan waved the two off, turning as Ahsoka announced that she was going to go find Feral.

"And it's chaos in the Skywalker household," Qui-Gon joked, then noticed Mace in the doorway.  "Well, Mace, I hope you know told Depa what she is getting into.  I have a feeling Savage will be absolutely nothing like her."

"The experience will be good for her," Mace smirked, leaning against the doorway.  "Maul said my new grand-padawan was here.  I had intended to congratulate him, but perhaps I will return later."

"You may as well join us," Obi-Wan wavered him in.  "There's still cake."

"Oh?"  Mace edged inside.  "What kind?"

"The good kind," Qui-Gon grinned.  "It's got jelly in the middle.  Go get a slice.  The last thing our kids need is more sugar."

Depa laughed, getting slices for both her and Mace, and watching Savage and Anakin race around the rooms.  Savage paused just long enough to hug Mace, accepting his congratulations, before the two raced out to go find their other friends and tell them the good news.  Depa stared after the whirlwind, wide eyed, but when she started to follow, Mace shook his head.

"Let them wear themselves out," The man advised.  "Trust me."

"It's good advice," Qui-Gon confirmed, kicking his feet up.  "Enjoy your cake.  They'll come back when they're either hungry or tired."

Depa laughed and settled on the couch with her former master, turning her attention back to her cake.
<>*<>

Three days after Anakin was official assigned as his parents padawan, the Skywalkers were given their first mission as a team.  Anakin bounded into the small lecture room in excitement, stopping short when he saw over fifty Jedi knights and masters in the lecture room normally used for senior padawan classes.  Considering Jedi generally worked alone, or in very small groups, the number of Jedi present had murmurs sweeping through the ranks.

The council sat on the raised platform at the front of the room, their padawans in the row before them.  Anakin perked up on seeing Maul, Savage and Kelyan, racing off to sit with them at Obi-Wan's nod.  They were soon joined by Naia, who was grinning madly.  "Do you know what we're all here for?  We never have this many Jedi on a mission together."

"Patience," Maul told the girl, letting her squeeze onto the bench between him and Kelyan.

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon settled next to Pangur and Salín, offering the two beings quick hugs in greeting.  "Back on active mission status?"  Qui-Gon asked, grinning.  "Congratulations!"

"Sort of," Salín chuckled.  "We're back on—provided the mission keeps us on Coruscant."

"Are we all staying on Coruscant, then?"  Obi-Wan wondered.

"Oh no," Tera Sinube chuckled.  "You all won't be, but Salín, Pangur and I will be."

Qui-Gon was about to ask more when Mace stood up and announced, "If you would all take a seat, please?  I understand the location of this briefing is unorthodox,  however, this particular mission is as well."

"As you are all aware, we have gained knowledge of slaves being kept in the Republic," Shaak Ti joined Mace in the center of the raised platform, her hands in her sleeves.  "Aside from the Jedi, several politicians have also felt the need to take action and come together to create the Anti-Slavery Coalition or ASC.  This is a covert group working behind the scenes to support the Jedi as well as working towards eradicating slavery both throughout the Republic and on non-Republic worlds."

"The group claims they are only working on non-Republic worlds and act as though they believe there is no slavery currently in the Republic."  Mace continued.  "Many of the politicians involved in the summit know little about slavery and are only involved because they trust the heads, Padmé and Bail Organa of Alderaan.  In an effort to show the others the issue slavery is causing, they are visiting Phindar, both to see the slave trade for themselves, and hold a covert summit."

Half the room, the Skywalkers included, caught their breath.  Phindar had been thrown out of the Republic years before for breaking numerous laws.  It was run by a cruel, vicious crime syndicate who ruled with terror and by slaughtering anyone who dared dissent right along with their entire families.  There was a stand-alone arena on Phindar known for its brutality.  Qui-Gon had been to it twice—once before he was paired with Obi-Wan and once after.  All but the cruelest of masters avoided it.

"Who's bright idea was that?"  Maul burst out, pale under his tattoos.

"Not ours," Depa assured him.  "We tried to offer alternatives, but the representatives have refused."

"In truth, however, they may be safer on Phindar than any other world," Adi admitted reluctantly.  "Phindar does not have the connection to other worlds that one run by Hutts would, and it is the world where the representatives are least likely to be recognized.  Additionally, given the syndicate running it, they are more likely to ransom any politicians they do capture rather than kill them."

While most of the Jedi were unhappy about the risk the politicians were running, they did see the need for the politicians to see the issue for themselves and why Phindar was one of their better options, but that also meant they would need to provide security for the beings involved.

"There are eighteen representatives," Mace gestured around the room.  "Each will be accompanied by at least two Jedi.  Given the nature and location of this mission, it is covert.  No one outside the Jedi assigned to the mission and the ASC can know we're involved in any way."

"We are not exactly a . . . covert pair," Silreno gestured to herself and Naia.  "Outside the Jedi, family groups are usually the same species type and she is amphibious while I am reptilian."

"While this is true, Naia will blend in quite well if she is with Master Fisto," Mace answered.

"Oh," Silreno nodded.  "This is one of those missions.  I see."

"One of those missions?"  Obi-Wan questioned Salín, who chuckled.

"The council mixes and matches us to make us stand out less.  You know, covert."

"Ah.  Of course," Obi-Wan nodded.

"Padawans, if you will hand out the datapads?"  Adi requested, gesturing to the council's padawans and waving Anakin and Naia along after them.  The five bowed and began searching out each Jedi for the datapads with their assigned missions.

"Not everyone will be guarding the delegates," Mace glanced around the room.  "The ASC representatives have received a handful of death threats already for what little they have already done.  Those Jedi not going with the representatives will be working with Master Tera Sinube and Knights Pangur and Salín to trace those threats in hopes of discovering where they originated.  Salín, Pangur and Sinube will be coordinating from Coruscant as they have the most knowledge of the mission.  Those Jedi may discuss this further after the briefing and note this is also a covert operation.  We do not want to tip of anyone that we know of the threats."

Obi-Wan took the datapad from Savage and heaved a sigh.  "I want to punch whoever suggested Phindar in the face."

Qui-Gon glanced through the datapad as Obi-Wan grumbled, nearly dropping it when he found the name of their charge.  "Padmé?!"

"What?"  Obi-Wan gasped, yanking the datapad where he could see it.  "Ahket ang naa!  What is she thinking?  If I was her papa, I'd ground that girl until she was sixty!"

"Master Windu," Kit called, waving the councilman over.  "It appears I have two delegates—well, a delegate and a body guard.  In light of this, and to create a more believable group, I would like to request my former padawan, Bant Erin, join my padawan, Nahdar Vebb, Padawan Naia and I on this mission."

Mace glanced back toward the rest of the council, Yoda giving a short nod.    "Done."

"Thank you," Kit bowed.  "Two Gungans, two Nautolans, and two Mon Calamari will be more believable than having Nahdar with us on his own."

"Of course," Mace agreed as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon turned back to their datapad, Anakin on Qui-Gon's lap so he could see as well.

"Looks like Sabé is coming too," The boy commented, flipping through the information.  "Padmé's not allowed to travel without a double so Rabé is going to act as queen while Padmé and Sabé go to Phindar."

"That makes sense," Obi-Wan was still unhappy they were going to Phindar, but at least Padmé and her handmaidens were planning well.  For a moment the Skywalkers considered asking for an additional Jedi for their group since they had two people to protect, but a smaller group would likely draw less attention in their case.

"How are we going to convince people they're with us?"  Anakin frowned.

"Actually . . . "  Obi-Wan mused, smiling, "I think I have a plan.
<>*<>

"Uncle Ben!  Uncle Khi!"  Padmé and Sabé squealed when they met the pair at Bandomeer's spaceport.  The seventeen year olds were in simple, homespun clothing, their long hair in a crown braid.

"Look at you girls," Qui-Gon scooped them both into his arms, swinging them around happily as he hugged them.  "Prettiest girls in the galaxy!  And how're my favorite nieces?"

"We're your only nieces," Sabé giggled, moving to hug Obi-Wan while Padmé greeted Anakin.

"Thank you for coming," Padmé dropped her eyes.  "We know you weren't the biggest fan of our father . . . "

"But we do love you," Obi-Wan hugged her tightly.  "And we loved your mother as well.  Now, are you two ready to go?"

According to their fabricated story, seventeen year old Padmé and Sabé were the orphaned children of Qui-Gon's sister.  Their mother had died some years before in a mining accident and their father had finished drinking himself to death a month prior.  Qui-Gon and obi-Wan—going be Khi and Ben for the mission—were their uncles, bringing the girls to live at their farm on  Lucazec.  They had ended up with a weeklong layover on Phindar.

"Our transport leaves in the morning," Obi-Wan told the girls.  "We'll find somewhere to stay near the spaceport tonight."

The girls nodding, letting Qui-Gon to lead them toward a small inn a few streets away.  It was rundown but clear and the staff was friendly without being nosy.  When the five were settled, the men gave the girls a long look.  "Phindar?"

"The other delegates wanted to see one of the arenas and we had to find a world where none of us would be recognized.  The only one that fit all the criteria was Phindar.  We know it's not ideal, but it was the best option."

"If any of us are discovered on Phindar, they will kill all of us," Obi-Wan almost snapped, fear for the three children making him sharp.  "In the arena.  As brutally as possible."

"The only slaves taken to the arena on Phindar go there to die," Qui-Gon paced in agitation.  "I've been there twice—only once with Obi-Wan.  It was—well.  Everyone on Phindar is desperate.  The freemen, the slaves—everyone."

"We'll be careful," Sabé promised, she and Padmé settling on the bed.

"Do you have blasters with you?"  Anakin held out his hands when they nodded  "I want to check them over."

"Thank you, Ani," Qui-Gon ruffled his son's hair.

"Sure, Papa," Anakin nodded.  "I don't want them hurt because their blasters malfunctioned."

"There is one more thing," Obi-Wan spun his son and plopped the boy on the bed between Padmé and Sabé.  "While we are on Phindar, you must do everything we tell you.  No questions, no arguments.  And if something happens to Qui-Gon and I, listen to Anakin.  I know he's the youngest, but even on Phindar, he will have resources among the slaves and will best know how to survive."

"And no matter what, do not reveal your identity," Qui-Gon added.  "Ani, stick to Sabé and Padmé like glue, understand?  Your job is to keep them safe, just like mine and Obi-Wan's is to protect all three of you."

"Yes, Papa; yes, Dad," Anakin nodded.

"And there is no way to call this off?"  Obi-Wan looked at the girls.

"No," Padmé crossed her arms.  "We all need to see this, and our lives would be in danger no matter where we go.

"Basically, we're going with or without you," Sabé shrugged.  "The ASC needs to see this so we can better advocate for those we're trying to help.  I know you're trying to protect us, but we cannot help others without losing this part of our innocence."

"I know," Qui-Gon sighed.  "I just wish there was a safer way."

"Yeah," Anakin looked up at Padmé, starry eyed.  "I thought politics was supposed to be cushy, you know?  You stay away from people who want to hurt you, and you've got body guards and stuff."

"It mostly is," Padmé wrapped an arm around the boy.  "But sometimes it's this, too."

Anakin frowned, not like the idea of Padmé in danger, but knowing she would be his angel if she didn't.  "Fine," Anakin sighed.  "But when I'm a knight, you better make sure to take me with you!"

"I promise," Padmé dropped a gentle kiss to Ani's hair.  Sabé raised a brow and filed away the look on Padmé's face for another time.  For now, there was work to be done."

Anakin pulled out a toolkit and set to work on the girls' blasters as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon checked through their things.  The girls had done well, but were a little too, "city," to pass as farmers.  It was late by the time they'd all finished, and Qui-Gon hoped it was enough.
<>*<>

The five arrived at the transport early, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan hoping to avoid the crowds and find somewhere at least slight defensible to sit since they would be riding in steerage.  Steerage class was the cheapest was to travel, passengers mixed in with a ship's cargo.  They received little in the way of amenities, and had to provide everything they would need for their journey.

The Skywalkers and Naberries settled in next to a stack of cargo, Anakin and the girls perched atop one of the containers to watch the passing beings.  Padmé idly kicked her feet against the container.  "I've never travelled in steerage before."

"Another new experience," Anakin answered.  "I've only done it twice—it's not very fun.  I've glad this trip is only a day long."

"Watto took us off-world for a match when Ani was six or so," Obi-Wan explained.  "It was the only time Ani went off planet and we all rode in steerage.  It was . . . an interesting trip."

"We're banned from three planets in wild space," Qui-Gon smiled innocently as Padmé and Sabé gaped at him.  The other Skywalkers nodded their agreement.

"It was Watto's fault," Anakin added.  "He hit four nobles with a speeder."

"And blamed me," Obi-Wan huffed.  "The nobles were fine, and they probably wouldn't have run us off world, but he also killed a sacred bird."

"You get into the weirdest trouble," Padmé giggled.

Uncle Mace says that too," Anakin grinned.  "Usually with more sighing, though.  And cursing."

The group fell silent for a bit after that, Padmé and Sabé curiously watching the boarding beings.  Most of the beings claimed bits of space of their own, blocking them off with whatever was available.  "How many more are there?"  Padmé eyed the ever-growing crowd.  "Surely the cargo bay is at capacity."

"Safety standards are for people who can afford to sue," Anakin told her, the line practically a mantra from Watto.  "And steerage is around to make as much money as possible.  The own and captain will cram as many beings on here as possible."

"There's still cargo to bring aboard, too," Qui-Gon's face was blank.  Padmé turned to follow his gaze, going white as she saw the "cargo."  Three dozen slaves, bodies hardened from heavy labor and bowed in exhaustion, were being led onto the ship.  Chained in three lines of twelve, they were controlled by shock collars and clubs.

"Get moving!" a slaver snapped, forcing the beings to shove through the crowd.  Their chains would hook to heavy rings on the far wall.

"Those're laborers," Anakin explained.  "Probably from the Offworld mines.  Slaves like them don't get sold much—usually they get worked to death in the mines and buried where they fall.  Sometimes mines or quarries will buy 'em used for cheap but it's usually because wherever their going is broke.  They'll be lucky to get enough to eat."

"It is also common to purchase slaves you cannot work for experimentation," Obi-Wan swallowed hard.  "It is . . . not a pleasant way to die."

"There were mercy killings, sometimes, to avoid going," Qui-Gon gripped Anakin's ankle where the boy was perched on the tall container.  "I knew several slaves who killed their children to spare them such a fate.  Most planned for the possibility."

Padmé gasped, horrified.  "Did you—for Ani—?"

"No," Anakin snapped.  "I was never sold to one of those places, and Watto never intended to, so we aren't talking about it!  Never bring it up again, got it?!"

The girls nodded, taken aback, though at the look of horrified terror on Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's faces, Sabé hastily, if gracelessly, changed the subject.  "Didn't the Jedi used to have an Agri corps outpost on this world?  What happened to it?"

"Offworld," Obi-Wan made a face.  "They strip mine and use very eco-unfriendly practices.  It drove the Agri corps out ten or twelve years ago and absorbed the other mining company on planet.  Since there's no native population, Bandomeer is technically owned by Offworld, who is based on Telos, a slave-owning planet."

"And since slavery is legal there, its legal here, too."  Obi-Wan added.

Padmé nodded, about to reply when Sabé gestured toward the ship's doors.  "What's that?"

Qui-Gon looked over the collection of cloth-covered crates and a cloth-covered container.  "The four crates are gladiators and the other contains about two dozen kennels.  Those hold the children going to auction."

The large crates were locked down in the far corner while the large container was placed near the containers the Skywalkers and Naberries were perched on.  While they'd been covered for their trip through the spaceport, they would travel to Phindar without the covers so the slavers could keep an eye on them.  Padmé stared at the children.  They were all between five and ten, dry-eyed and silent.  Padmé hugged Anakin tight and wept.

This is what waits for you on Phindar," Obi-Wan told her.  "Are you sure—"

"Yes," Padmé straightened.  "I have to see this so I can better help them.  I don't let you down."

"You don't have to prove yourself, a mhuirnín," Qui-Gon smiled softly.  "And something like this . . . we would never think less of you."

"But I would think less of myself," Padmé replied, glancing at the slaves around the cargo hold.  "Can we talk to them?  Or would they get in trouble?"

"Depends on the slaver, but transports are usually safe enough.  It's not like you can steal them or anything," Obi-Wan shrugged.  "They're even more lenient if you look like you can buy one, but since we're in steerage that might be hard to pull off.  We wouldn't be the first credit-clinchers to travel this way, however."

"Do not use Sleantah," Qui-Gon warned in an undertone.  "People will get suspicious."

The girls nodded, Qui-Gon helping them from the container.  Padmé gripped the man's hand.  "I would like to meet the arena slaves."

"It will likely be unpleasant."

"I know," Padmé tugged at him, Sabé following at their heels.

Other curious passengers were approaching the slaves, more daring with the gladiator when they realized they wore shock collars that would go off if they reached through the bars of the crates.  As Qui-Gon drew closer, he realized one crate held a pair.  The younger of the pair a male Togrutan about Padmé's age while the elder had to be nearing forty.  The boy was curled as far from his arena partner as possible and Qui-Gon could see blood on the boy's pants.

Most arena partnerships weren't like the one Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan shared.  Usually, the stronger partner would use the weaker however they pleased, including sexually, similar to the one Padmé was seeing now.  Qui-Gon shuddered, knowing that could have easily been Obi-Wan if they been placed with anyone but each other.

"Do not reach in the bars," Qui-Gon reminded the girls.  "The collars won't go off if you do."

The girls nodded and Sabé looked the gladiators over.  "They're very scarred."

"Prize fighters don't go to Phindar," Qui-Gon glanced at the Togrutan boy.  "Gladiators go to Phindar to die."

The Togrutan let out a relieved sob, then shrieked when his partner grabbed his middle lek and dragged him from the corner, shoving him down.  Sabé gasped, hands clapped over her mouth, and Qui-Gon wrenched the bigger being away from his partner and yanked his arm through the bars.  The shock had the man going limp even as one of the slavers raced toward them.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"I will not allow them to—to have relations—in front of my children," Qui-Gon huffed, arms crossed.  "How disgusting!"

"There's always one," the slaver grumbled, then prodded the being with his club.  "Here that, animal?  Try to fuck your toy again and I'll have your back turned to ribbons."

"Yes, Master," The being slurred as the Togrutan crawled away from him.  Sabé darted a look toward the slaver, then pressed a ration bar into the boy's hand.

"Eat it when they go to sleep," Sabé whispered.  The Togrutan sniffed, but nodded.

"Thank you," The boy replied in an undertone, hiding th bar in his tunic.

From there, Padmé tried to talk to the laborers, but they were far too exhausted, staring uncomprehendingly at her.  Padmé's heart ached for the slaves, and she wanted nothing more than to purchase them away from whatever mine or quarry they'd be sent to.  When they failed with the laborers, the Naberries moved to the children.  Anakin had been busy while they were talking to the other slaves.  Padmé was certain every child had been given a ration bar, and she now knew why the Skywalkers travelled with so many extra.

The children were talking quietly to the boy, though they fell quiet when Qui-Gon approached, clearly intimidated by the huge man.  When he left them to speak with the girls, however, the children opened back up.

"You're pretty," The youngest girl offered softly, blue eyes wide.  She was next to her identical twin sister, both human girls the same right down to their white-blond ringlets.  "Are you twins too?"

"We are," Sabé smiled softly.  "What about you?"

"Yeah," The sister replied.  "We get lots of attention.  People think we're . . . ex-oh-tick."

"Exotic?" Padmé corrected gently.  "You're very pretty."

"I wish we weren't," The first girl replied, sniffing.  "We got sold as ship rats and we're getting picked up on Phindar but . . . everyone says that we're going to be bed warmers instead.  And they said it'll hurt and . . . and . . . I don't want . . . "

Padmé bit her lip, looking over the children.  She could save them—if she could get word to Naboo.  "Obi-Wan—"

"If anyone finds out, they'll kill you," Obi-Wan reminded her, arms crossed.

"I don't care," Padmé snapped, Sabé nodding in agreement.  "I won't leave them to this!  And if I die, I die."

"That's my girl," Obi-Wan smiled gently.  "We figured this would happen—Anakin set up a secure line with Kahliel.  She'll get in touch with your people."

"Thank you," Padmé hugged the man tight.

Anakin and Padmé set up the call and the two spent several hours working with Kahliel to purchase the children and, to the Skywalker's surprise, the arena slaves.  Padmé smiled softly.  "I won't leave that poor Togrutan to that," Padmé answered.  "And if I'm buying him, I have to get all of them."

Kahliel nodded.  "I will do what I can."

"Thank you," Sabé told her, and the two spent the rest of the trip relieved to have saved at least those few slaves, and what to do with them once they were safely on Naboo.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The spaceport in Phindar's capitol city was derelict and dirty, the once-thriving tourist trade destroyed when then syndicate took power.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan kept the girls between them once they left the ship, Anakin clutching their hands in his.  Padmé and Save tried not to gawk at the hundreds of panhandles and peddlers hoping to eek coin out of unwary visitors.  Most travelers to Phindar were either there for the arena, dodging the law, or stuck due to a layover for their transport since stopping on Phindar made travel cheaper.

"Almost half of Phindar's population is made up of slaves," Obi-Wan explained softly as they made their way through the spaceport.  "Many of them are people the syndicate is unhappy with."

Several gentle nudges in the Force told the Jedi most of the delegates had arrived.  Obi-Wan gently pushed the girls toward the street, ignoring their horrified gasps as the reality of slavery on Phindar sank in.  Beings in rags and chains trailed those of the upper and middle classes who were dressed in rich clothing.

"Why don't they use droids?"  Sabé wondered, dark eyes huge in her pale face.  "Surely that would be better.  Cheaper, at the very least."

"Slaves are, first and foremost, a status symbol," Anakin explained, face serious.  "It proves you have money and power, you know?  And droids have lots of limitations—most of them can only do the job they were designed for.  A sentient might be able to do the job of four different droids.  Plus, droids and slaves can cost about the same to purchase and take care of.  Watto made a lot of money on droid maintenance and repair."

"Droids aren't really popular in the arena either, since they don't feel pain, fear or desperation," Qui-Gon added.  "I guess it makes for better fights, watching being fight for survival."

"That's horrible!"  Sabé gasped.

"Droids also make poor caretakers," Qui-Gon continued.  "A number of planets I've been on took advantage of the slave trade to provide aide for the old and infirm."

"Oh—"  Padmé frowned.  She hadn't considered that people taking advantage of an evil practice might not always have evil reasons.  "And if slavery ends. . . well.  We'll just have to make sure alternatives are in place."

"You do your people proud," Qui-Gon murmured, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead.  Padmé blushed at the praise.

The group headed to a small in near the spaceport, wanting to get settled.  It was only mid-afternoon on Phindar, but late on both Coruscant and Naboo.  Obi-Wan glanced around.  "There's not much to see on Phindar; we'll be touring the slave market tomorrow and the arena the day after."

"We can tour the arena?"  Padmé tilted her head.  "I thought that was closed to the public."

"On most worlds, that would be true, but on a few worlds—one of which is Phindar—prisoners are executed in the arena.  Because of this, the under-part of the arena, where the cells are, is left open to encourage people to heckle the political prisoners," Obi-Wan explained.

"But know it will probably not be . . . pleasant," Qui-Gon added.  "What you saw on the transport will be some of the kinder interactions."

Padmé nodded.  "We understand.  But we have to do this.  You know that."

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan sighed, but nodded.  Obi-Wan turned to his son.  "Whatever you see, remember your papa and I were never—that he never—"

"I know, Dad," Anakin flashed his parents a smile.  "We've talked about this."

"But you've never seen it," Qui-Gon hugged the boy tightly.  "And it is—bad.  Something I wish you never had to see and thank the Force you'll never experience.  I'd protect you from this, but you'll see the Galaxy's shit-stained arsehole as a Jedi so . . . better we're with you for this, I think."

Anakin nodded.  "It's bad isn't it."

"You, a stór, barely remember the auction block.  That will be traumatizing enough," Qui-Gon said.  "The arena will be far worse."

"Especially on Phindar," Obi-Wan shuddered.  The one time he and Qui-Gon had been on Phindar was a special request from the planet's leaders.  Since their master owed the syndicate a favor, they'd gone.  Thank the Force their Master hadn't bet—or lost—them on Phindar.  Their time in the arena had been wretched, but on Phindar—Obi-Wan refused to remember.

Qui-Gon caught the subdued thought over the bond and shuddered.

The girls spent the first day acting like country bumpkins who had never been off their homeworld.  Despite the layer of filth and oppression that covered Phindar in a hazy fog, the girls ooh'ed and ahh'ed over everything.  Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon kept an eye on all three children while getting ration bars and a number of single credits, likely to hand out to people while they were on planet.

Sabé watched for a moment, curious, then returned her attention to Padmé.  Anakin was pointing out a variety of street vendors and warning Padmé which ones not to eat at.  Qui-Gon urged Sabé toward the group.  "Ani is right," The man told them.  "We should get something.  And maybe some pastries for the morning?"

"I saw a baker," Anakin announced, gesturing toward a building.  Padmé and Sabé traded looks.

"It is . . . all right?"  Sabé finally asked.  The filthy building looked like it had rodents.

"Sure," Qui-Gon headed toward it.  "Look at the inside.  It's clean."

Padmé through they might have different definitions of clean, but heaved a sigh and followed the Skywalkers.  Tomorrow, a filthy bakery would be the least of her concerns.
<>*<>

The slave market was just outside Phindar's capitol city and was one of the largest on the planet.  Conservatively, Padmé guessed the gargantuan compound held about five thousand beings, chained in sections around the market.  The stench of waste and unwashed bodies nearly made the girls vomit, gagging into the scented kerchiefs Obi-Wan had given them earlier that morning.  The Skywalkers were unbothered by the smells, used to the scents from years past.

Despite the early hour and the sales not starting until afternoon, the market was already bustling.  Padmé and Sabé stared at the datapads they'd been given on entrance, dark eyes huge.  "What is this?"

"Come along," Obi-Wan urged softly in Huttese, the other automatically switching to the language so they would be harder to understand.  "Out of the pathway.  We'll explain then."

Padmé nodded, tightening her hold on Anakin's hand.  "Why are there all these numbers?"

"Most slaves don't have names, a mhuirnín," Qui-Gon told her gently.  The girls caught their breath.  They'd known it, intellectually, but now it was truly sinking in as they stared at the numbers listed in the datapad.

"Here," Anakin flicked through the information on the pad.  "They have all the slaves for sale listed here.  Most of them have a price, but the more valuable slaves will go to auction.  Some slaves are listed in multiple lots—these here with that show sets of numbers—and the rest are all single lots, or slave sold one at a time."

"What about gladiators?"  Sabé asked.  "They're considered single units, even if they're in pairs, right?"

"Except for extremely rare occurrences, gladiators are dealt with entirely in the arena," Obi-Wan answered.  "I've only seen two slave markets, both within my first days at a slave.  If they do show up in one, however, they will be listed as a single lot and it's very likely they'd go to auction if they were any good."

"Most markets, this one included, divide the slaves into sections by a number of criteria, including age, size, and jobs they would best be able to perform," Qui-Gon pointed to the relevant sections on the datapad.  "Buyers are allowed to interact with and try out the merchandise to a limited extent.  They are not allowed to cause injury or damage."

"Merchandise?"  Padmé trailed off when she saw the tears in Qui-Gon's eyes.  "Oh . . . Uncle Khi . . ."

"It's fine, a mhuirnín," Qui-Gon dried his eyes.  "It is just . . . a lot."

"We can go—"

"No," Obi-Wan said firmly.  "You need to see this.  Now, what do you want to see first?"

"Want is a strong word," Sabé muttered.

"None of them will grab you—most probably won't even touch you," Obi-Wan told the girls softly.  "Offending a freeman isn't wise.  Even Anakin has scars and the last time he was at a slave market was when he was a toddler."

The girls flinched, but grew a little more comfortable walking around the beings.  Sabé eyed Qui-Gon curiously as the man occasionally looked over one of the slaves.  Grabbing his arm, she hissed, "You know sleight of hand!"

"I know how to pickpocket, too," Qui-Gon pressed a paternal kiss to her hair and kept passing slaves ration bars and water.

Padmé glanced at him, replying, "You're teaching us."

"After," Obi-wan told them both firmly, nudging them along.

Padmé wished she could offer some kind of hope or comfort to the slaves in the market, but there was little to say.  She didn't know if these slaves would even live long enough for the Jedi to free them; since Phindar wasn't a republic planet, it would probably take even longer to free the slaves there.  Sabé looked as torn as Padmé, gripping her friend's hand tightly as they made their way around the market.

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon hurried them past the slaves earmarked for the brothels, the girls forcing back tears as a girl several years their junior was forced roughly to her knees.  "That's what you meant by 'trying out the merchandise,' isn't it," Sabé's voice shook when she spoke.  "Being forced to—to do that—"

"Yes," Qui-Gon refused to look at her.  "You two don't need to see that."

"But—"  Padmé started to protest, but Qui-Gon shook his head.

"Believe me when I say hearing it will be bad enough."

The girls flinched, hearing several of the slaves whimper or keen, a few sobbing in pain and fear.  None of them struggled or protested as potential owners thoroughly examined the merchandise.  Padmé turned to look a final time, Sabé's hand in hers, and stared at the nearest slave, a petite near-human with a vacant, doll-like expression.  Qui-Gon followed their gazes.  "He won't last much longer," The man told them softly.  "He's lost his . . . his . . . Keirai?"

"Will to live," Obi-Wan translated for a floundering Qui-Gon as he fought to explain the complex Sleantah word.

"That's terrible," Padmé clasped her hands over her mouth.

Qui-Gon shrugged.  "There is freedom in death."

The girls flinched again, not protesting when Anakin took their hands to guide them away.  When they stopped out of sight of the brothel slaves, they were next to a small pen with mothers and the youngest of the younglings.  Padmé stared.  She had known, on some level, there would be babies at the market, had known Anakin had been born a slave, but to be confronted with it nearly made her ill.

"I need a moment," Padmé sank to her knees, leaning against the pen's fence.  Qui-Gon gently stroked her hair, face soft, but it was the tiny hand patting her arm in an attempt to comfort her that caught her attention.

The girl looked up in time to see a Trianii rip her toddler son away from the bars.  The female was a beautiful tortoiseshell calico, her son a wisp of a youngling and jet black.  Both were staring at her with huge, yellow-green eyes.  Padmé offered a watery smile, hating the helplessness she felt as she looked around the market.

"It's all right," Padmé told the pair.  "We won't do anything."

The elder being didn't look convinced, and they hurried away from the pen, Padmé wanting to ease the mother's worries.  She sighed softly.  "I never really thought about what happened to the younglings.  I can't even imagine . . ."

"Come along," Qui-Gon ordered.  "They are about to open the market for business."

The girls followed the Skywalkers toward the auction block, though it was really more of a checkout.  Beings indicated which slaves they wanted on their datapads and paid the set price.  As with many aspects of the market, it was completed with brutal efficiency.  The five watched as slaves were handed off to their owners, the girls' gaping when the Trianii youngling who had tried to comfort Padmé was ripped from his mother's arms and sold to a smirking Twi'lek.

Both Trianii were too well-trained to cry.

"Uncle Khi, Uncle Ben—" Sabé pleaded, not even sure what she was asking.

"She'll never see him again," Obi-Wan didn't soften the blow.  "It is the nature of the slave trade.  Our history is lost between auction block and owner.  Khi and I were lucky.  Likely that boy won't be."

"And his mother?"  Padmé saw the female Trianii turn away.

"A sold child is a dead one," Anakin answered, sniffing softly.  "Even if she sees him again, he's dead to her.  I know it sounds real cruel, but Mom used to say it was the only way the mothers could survive."

"Ani—did your mother have any children before you?"  Padmé's eyes widened.  She'd never considered the Shmi might have experienced something so terrible personally.

"I don't know.  Mom didn't think so, but one of her old owners mind wiped her about ten years before she had me, so Mom never remembered for sure."  Anakin frowned.  "She had some names tattooed on her inner thigh that she thought were my half-siblings, but after the mind wipe . . . she never knew for sure."

Padmé and Sabé had never considered a mother might be forced to forget her own children.  "Do you think that woman might be mind wiped?"

"It's hard to say for certain," Obi-Wan sighed.  "It depends on the owner, depends on the woman—slaves do not grieve, no matter how sad they are.  Grief is a luxury of freemen."

"You and Uncle Khi say that a lot," Sabé hugged Obi-Wan.  "That things are luxuries of freemen."

"It is how they are.  Slaves have no time to mourn; they are torn from their families, these are things we take for granted as freemen.  Freemen are not wrong for doing these things, they are simply things slaves are not supposed to do."

Padmé nodded.  "And if you or Uncle Khi had children?"

"Then I pray they were born to freewomen since a child's status is the same as the mother's," Qui-Gon answered.  "And it is very likely I do have children, somewhere.  I can't know for certain, but given everything that happened to me . . . I probably have at least one.  Sometimes I wish I could look but . . . the galaxy is vast and I won't put a child that may not even exist before my own family."

The group continued around the market, moving away from the auction block and towards the younglings' kennels.  These younglings were older than the babies and toddlers in the pens with their mothers, kept in this section from ages five to twelve or so.  Padmé could see three of the fifty missing fingers, one missing a hand and another without a leg below her knee.

"Probably ship rats," Qui-Gon answered the unasked question.  "I was damn lucky to keep all my limbs—and my life.  Not everyone has similar fortune."

"And the ones that don't?"

"Fingers aren't really a big deal, but the ones without a hand or leg?  Kindness would have been to let them die.  They're only good for experiments, now," Qui-Gon touched the bars of the kennel, the girl hesitantly touching his hand.

Padmé wanted to demand how Qui-Gon could say something so terrible, but the haunted look on his face reminded Padmé of when he'd first mentioned people being sold for the experiments.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had all but admitted to having a plan on how to murder their own son to spare Anakin such a fate—Padmé found herself nodding silently.  She'd ask Anakin more about the slaves sold as experiments later, when the older Skywalkers were out of earshot.  She needed to know, but she didn't want to upset them further.

"There is one more part of the market you should see," Obi-Wan told the girls.  "But it is . . . the least pleasant part."

"I thought we saw everything already," Sabé frowned.  "What's left?"

"Some slaves are purposefully mutilated," Anakin answered when his parents stayed silent.  "Blinded, deafened, tongues or vocal chords removed, things like that.  They put in transmitters and trackers there, too."

"We won't make you go, but if you want to know about slavery . . . all of it, you should see it," Qui-Gon swallowed hard.

The girls traded looks, nodding.  "We should."

Reluctantly, though it had been their suggestion, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan headed for a separate, barn-like structure.  It was far enough from the main market to keep the sounds and smells away.  All five nearly gagged on the stench of burnt skin and hair mingling with the sickly-sweet scent of decay.  A howl rent the air and Qui-Gon blanched, freezing mid-step.

"Force and ancestors," The man's soft keen was almost prayer-like.  "Please."

"Qui-Gon?"  Obi-Wan touched his husband's cheek.

"They messed up a blinding—Oh Force," Qui-Gon breathed, going to his knees as the screaming cut off abruptly.  Obi-Wan hugged his husband tight, rocking him and stroking his hair

"It's all right, I've got you."

"Let's sit for a moment," Padmé suggested as Anakin snuggled into his papa.  "What happened?"

Anakin and Obi-Wan shook their heads.  "We've never heard anything like that before."

"Blinding is extremely rare," Qui-Gon's voice was watery, words muffled by Obi-Wan's belly.  "It's a major hindrance and if you really want a blind slave, ocular implants are cheap and removable, so they don't lower a slave's resale value like a permanent blinding."

"Papa, are you okay?"  Anakin clutched the man tighter.

"No," Qui-Gon admitted hoarsely, startling when the girls snuggled into him. Obi-Wan pressed a soft kiss to his husband's hair.

"Tell me about it, my heart."

I don't want the children to hear,—  Qui-Gon explained, breathing slowly as he spoke over their bond.  —It is terrible, a chuisle mo chroí.—

—Tell me anyway.  You need to share this.—

Sometimes things go wrong when a slave is being blinded.  The procedure is so rare, and just as rare is when something bad happens.  Usually these are minor things, but one in few million blindings something goes terribly, terribly wrong. I've only see it once.—

—What happened?—

—Traditional blindings are done by putting a red-hot, metal rod in the eye and burning it out.  It is extremely painful.  Sometimes, though, they . . . they go too deep and push through the eye socket and into the brain.  I was young—one of the first times I was sold as a ship rat.  The slaver who botched it put the slave down by driving the rod further into the being's brain.  It took almost an hour for him to die, and that sound—Force, it was . . . I've never heard anything like it.—

—Sweet Force,— Obi-Wan breathed.

Someone must have taken pity on this one and killed him.  That last slave . . . It must be a terrible way to die, and probably incredibly painful.—

—I cannot even imagine . . . —

Don't imagine it,  a chuisle mo chroí,— Qui-Gon recommended.  —That wasn't—I've never had an owner try to protect me before.  He turned me away and covered my ears, tried to spare me from that—but it was far too loud.  He even offered a mind wipe.  I didn't, but when I had nightmares, my owner wasn't even angry.  I woke the ship with my screaming once and he even hugged me.—

He hugged you?—

He had nightmares too, I think.  Maybe it was validation or something, I don't know.—  Qui-Gon shrugged.  —I thought it was resolved, but hearing that brought it back.—

I'd be more concerned if you weren't bothered, I think,—  Obi-Wan admitted.  Out loud, he asked, "Do you want to stay here instead of going with us?"

"No—I can't say I'll be fine, but I can do this," Qui-Gon rose, shaking slightly.  Obi-Wan sighed softly but followed his husband toward the building.  The slave they'd heard had been removed by then, to Qui-Gon's relief.  The girls looked at the sterile tables and vicious looking equipment.  There were only two slaves there, both getting transmitters, a simple procedure using an injection.  Even so, Obi-Wan was certain the girls—and Qui-Gon—would probably end up having nightmares, at least that night.

Obi-Wan twined his hand with Qui-Gon's.  He would be very glad when this mission was over.
<>*<>

The girl were subdued the rest of the day, passively letting the Jedi guide them to an eating house where they picked at their food.  Anakin was a bit more lively, likely due to the realities of slavery keeping the girls quiet had always been part of his life.  Qui-Gon had perked up a bit once they were away from the building, though Obi-Wan could feel the memory buzzing in the back of their minds and sent Qui-Gon a wave of agreement that they would meditate on what they had heard once the children were in bed.

"How did you bear it?"  Padmé asked, once they were safe in their rooms.  They had been speaking in Huttese all day, knowing that it was least likely to be understood on Phindar, who spoke mostly their native tongue and basic.  "I'm so sorry—how could we just let this go?"

Perhaps meditation will not be waiting until they are in bed,— Obi-Wan murmured as Qui-Gon let the girls curl against him.

"You did not know it was happening," Qui-Gon hugged them both.  "And now that you do, I've no doubt you will fight until it had ended.  But you must remember not to sacrifice yourselves while you do it, do you understand?  Killing yourself trying to change this will do no one any good—and may in fact harm the efforts to stop the slave trade.  So take care of yourselves, understand?"

"We promise, Uncle Khi," Sabé and Padmé vowed, hands fisted in his tunics.  "And tomorrow we see the arena.  Will it be anything like today?"

"There are ways it will be better, and ways it will be worse," Obi-Wan shrugged.  "There are no babies in the arena, traditionally, though what we will see to be executed . . . I do not know.  We aren't familiar with Phindar, thank the Force."

"The syndicate made this plant one of the worst in the galaxy," Anakin made a face.  "Sometimes I wish it was part of the Republic just so the Jedi could step in and fix it."

"We cannot change what has been done in the past, a stór," Obi-Wan answered gently.  "However, the future is always in motion."

"Obi-Wan is right, and the future of tomorrow promises to be a long one," Qui-Gon rose from the bed and settled on the floor in a perfect lotus position.  "Now, however, I suggest we meditate and then rest.  Today will trying and tomorrow will be as well."

The others settled in a small circle around Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan at his side and Anakin between the girls.  Qui-Gon smiled.  "You two have been practicing."

"It's helpful," Sabé replied, then fell back into her pattern of breathing, the Jedi following behind her.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

It was late when they woke the next morning, the night hardly restful for any of them.  Qui-Gon had slept better than Obi-Wan expected, their bond soothing the trauma he'd experienced the day before.  Qui-Gon and Sabé went to fetch them first-meal while Anakin looked over the message Kahliel had sent him in regards to the slaves they'd seen on the transport.  "She managed to get the gladiator pair," Anakin told Padmé, frowning.  "And she got all the children except the twin girls.  Their new owner wasn't interested in selling them."

Padmé bit her lip.  While she was relieved they'd bought most of the children, the fate of the twins had been of great concern, especially with the news they'd told her.  "Can you tell her to keep looking?"  Padmé asked.  "Maybe we can buy them after their new owners are done with them.  We'll just have to keep track of them."

"It would be better than nothing," Obi-Wan told her, hoping Anakin's bit of news didn't set the tone for the rest of the day.  The last thing any of them needed on Phindar was more trouble.  Obi-Wan tried to ignore the sinking sensation in his belly; he had a bad feeling about this.

Phindar's arena was enormous, able to seat over a hundred thousand beings, and the first five rows were the "spatter zone" where beings were expected to be showered with the blood of those sent into the arena to die.  To one side was the section of cells that held those being executed, each three by three meter cell packed to the brim with whatever criminal the syndicate had deemed worth of execution as well as whatever family they could hunt down.  Some of the beings were elderly, others mere babes.

Those cells stank of fear and vomit while the others, the ones housing the gladiators, reeked of sweat and blood.  On the side the held the gladiators were several training yards where the gladiators worked out when not locked in their cells or forced to fight.  The training areas were considered safe zones, where fighters were free to mingle and even teach one another if the fancy struck them.  Even on Phindar, not all matches were to the death and gladiators were rewarded the more entertaining a fight was.

"What are those?"  Padmé gestured to a pair of smokestacks next to the building.  "I didn't think there was any industry here."

"They burn those that die in the arena on this world," Obi-Wan explained softly.  "Those are the chimneys from the furnaces."

The girls paled, Padmé asking, "Is that true on all worlds?"

"It varies by world, but it is the most common method," Qui-Gon barely glanced at the smoke stacks.  "On worlds like Coruscant, the bodies just get tossed into the lower levels that are too polluted for people to go.  Some worlds we've been to have mass graves.  Sometimes they are donated or sold to science—I've little doubt that some of your medical schools use dead slaves in research."

"What about Tatooine?"

"There are huge plant-creatures called sarlacc that live on Tatooine.  Usually the dead are stripped and tossed into them.  That's how they execute people on Tatooine, too," Anakin shrugged.

Qui-Gon led them toward the cells that the gladiators would inhabit.  "Not everyone is allowed in the training areas at once," The man explained.  "So there will still be slaves here.  Be mindful, though, some of them might tried to grab you."

"Are they dangerous?"  Padmé glanced at the cellblock.

"No, they're probably begging," Qui-Gon pushed open the plasteel gate to let everyone inside.  "They wouldn't dare harm a freeman."

The stone cells were fairly quiet, roughly two and a half meters square and cool despite the head of the day.  The floors were warmed and cushioned only by a thin scattering of straw and everything was covered in a thin layer of filth and soot.  The girls almost huddled between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, eyes wide as they stared around.

"Come on," Anakin urged, roaming freely around the cells, unafraid of the slaves within.  "They won't hurt you."

"You're sure?"  The girls shyly approached the first cell, Padmé holding out a ration bar.

The gladiator snatched it from her, staring at her for a moment before ducking his head in a tiny bow.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome—um—Ktarashai?" Padmé whispered, glancing at Obi-Wan, who smiled.  Using Sleantah where others could hear would draw suspicion, but it was safe enough among the slaves.  The gladiator blinked, startled, then offered her a small smile before tearing into the ration bar.

As with the slave market, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon slipped most of the slaves ration bars and water.  They even left them in empty cells, knowing the owners would appreciate them one their return.  "We will tell the others the food is safe," One of the other gladiators offered.  "Tora'nai.  We thank you for this."

"I wish we could do more," Qui-Gon sighed softly.

The gladiator simply shrugged.  "Stay towards the front.  The paired fighters are in the back—it's no place for children."

"We'll remember that," Obi-Wan thanked him.  Qui-Gon headed back to leave rations and water in the back cells, then headed out to the training yard.
<>*<>

The group spent most of the day among the gladiators, though Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon warned the children not to get attached.  Phindar had one of the highest death tolls among the galactic arenas.  The elder Skywalkers did give out food and water, sneaking it to the grizzled slaves in the training yard much as they had at the slave market the day before.  Prior to the fights, the group left to get a light late-meal, then headed into the arena proper.

The huge structure was stone and plasteel, able to seat over 100,000 beings.  At one end was an ostentatiously decorated box where the planet's rulers sat during the matches.  The rest of the crowd packed themselves onto hard, metal benches, many carrying blankets or cushions.  Vendors roamed the aisles, selling food and drink, souvenirs, and rotten fruits and vegetables.  Sabé tilted her head in question at the sight of the rotten food.

"You throw it at the people in the arena," Anakin explained.  "We never did on Tatooine—food is way too expensive there."

"We were thankful for that," Qui-Gon made a face.  "Conditions are bad enough without the rotten food."

Obi-Wan nodded, waving a hand and shelling out a few credits for a brochure on the fights that night.  Softly, the man told them, "The executions are mixed in with the other fights.  We won't be able to avoid them.  I'm sorry."

"If the people can bear it, so shall we," Padmé answered, trying to seem braver than she really felt.  Qui-Gon gave her a one-armed hug, bolstering her and Sabé with the Force.  No being was truly Force-null, they simply didn't have a high enough midi-chlorian count to use the Force as the Jedi did.  In many slightly-sensitive beings, like Padmé and Sabé, their abilities manifested as highly accurate intuition.

"Whatever else you are, you are simply children here," Obi-Wan told the girls.  "No one will judge you."

Sabé blinked at him, realizing he meant that they need not appear strong.  It they turned away or cried—even if they left—it would not affect them as Naboo's leaders.  Sabé nodded.  "Thank you."

"You may feel differently when this is over," Obi-Wan replied softly as he and Qui-Gon looked around the arena, brushing their fellow Jedi through the Force.  Most were there already, the Force tinged with sadness at the terrible realities they'd witnessed.  Obi-Wan offered Bant a reassuring Force nudge and felt some of her pain ease.

A handful of minutes later, the Force jerked with the Jedi's horror as the first fight began.  Padmé and Sabé were quiet as the first gladiators entered the arena.  The beings were older but clearly inexperienced as gladiators.  Obi-Wan's brows furrowed.  "From the quarries, probably.  If you cause enough trouble in places like that, you get sent here instead."

"They don't usually last long," Qui-Gon added, frowning.  "Looks like this will be a series.  Two gladiators battle to the death and the survivor goes to the next round."

"It's how they weed out bad fighters," Obi-Wan added.  "Usually they did it if they think a gladiator doesn't have much potential.  I never participated in one."

"I did," Qui-Gon shrugged.  "Bad fighters die, good fighters go to better arenas.  Depending on who you ask, the bad fighters are better off.  There were times—but that is over, now."

"If it's so bad . . . "  Padmé looked uncertainly at Qui-Gon.  "Why not just . . . kill yourselves?"

"There is freedom in death, but there is hope in life," Qui-Gon stroked her hair.  "Sentients don't want to die, it's not in our nature, and so no matter how bad it gets, we live in hope that it will get better."

"I'm glad you did," Padmé kissed his cheek, then Obi-Wan's.

"Are they fighting empty handed?"  Sabé squinted at the fighters, trying to get a better look.

"New fighters often do.  Obi-Wan had his lightsaber, but most owners don't waste money on weapons for slaves this new to the arena," Qui-Gon didn't have to explain that he had been one of those slaves.  Ship rats in the arena didn't generally have good odds.

There was a gleam of light as someone from the crowd threw a large vibroblade into the arena.  The spectators shrieked in excitement as the two slaves raced for the blade.  The slightly younger being reached it first, snatching it up even as he turned to slash at the other being.

The knife went flying from his loose grip, the older being somehow snatching it from the air by the hilt.  Padmé's scream of horror was drowned out by the roar of the crowd as the being brought the vibroblade down, easily cutting his opponent's arm off at the elbow.  The injured being collapsed and both girls and Anakin hid their faces as the being with the vibroblade messily slit his opponent's throat.

The crowd howled, pounding the seats and floors in excitement.  The Jedi present radiated numb horror through the Force and the Skywalkers were certain several of the delegates had vomited.

They stayed for five more matches, but after the first execution, where a girl a year Ahsoka's junior died, Padmé gripped Obi-Wan's arm.  "I can't bear any more," The girl wept.  "Please—I need—"

"Let's go," Obi-Wan urged the group softly.  The three children huddled into Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon's arms as they left.
<>*<>

"I'm sorry," Padmé choked out once they reached the relative safety of their room.  "I'm such a coward—I couldn't bear to watch—"

"Never apologize for your compassion," Qui-Gon ordered, wrapping the girl in his arms.  Padmé's sobs seemed to snap Sabé from her horrified stupor and she quickly joined her best friend, tears rolling down her cheeks.

"How did you survive?"  Sabé curled around Obi-Wan, face pressed to his shoulder.  "The Neimoidians committed terrible atrocities with our people but this—how could anyone do this to a sentient being?"

"We're slaves," Anakin replied simply.  "Slaves aren't people; they're practically animals.  For the people who own them, it's like making dogs fight or something."

"I'm so sorry, Ani," Padmé hugged the boy tight.  "We'll fix this, I swear!"

"If anyone can, it's you, angel," Anakin agreed.  "I know it."

"I'll go find us something hot," Obi-Wan shifted Sabé to his husband and pressed a soft kiss to Qui-Gon's lips.  "I think we'll need it."

They all piled into a single bed that night, Padmé and Sabé curled together as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon bracketed them.  Anakin slept sprawled over their legs and feet.  Qui-Gon tangled a hand in his husband's hair, listening to his family breathe.

The two men soothed away the night terrors, each child waking in turns.  Padmé and Sabé both dreamed of the elder Skywalkers dying in the arena and Anakin woke from their fear.  Used to the uncertainty and reassured by his parents' presence, Anakin easily fell back asleep.

Padmé and Sabé, however, took far longer.

"Rest," Obi-Wan urged, stroking Sabé's hair when she started to speak.  "Questions will keep until morning."

Sabé nodded and snuggled into her best friend.  "I'm glad the Jedi saved you."

"I'm glad you saved us, too," Qui-Gon replied, smiling.  "Don't sell yourself short, hm?"

Sabé nodded.  "And we'll save them, too.  Somehow."
<>*<>

It was early when the group woke, despite their exhaustion from the previous night's emotional turmoil.  They had little to do before afternoon when they were meeting up with the rest of the delegates in one of Phindar's few wild areas for the rest of the summit.  They were going under the guise of being on a camping trip and needed to get a handful of supplies, but the girls wanted the trip to look last minute.

"We may have a problem," Obi-Wan announced as he and Anakin stepped back into the room with first-meal in their arms.  "Three of the delegates and their guards were captured at the arena last night."

"What?"  Padmé snapped, spinning to face them.  "Who?"

"The two Twi'leks and the Wookiee," Anakin was typing furiously on his datapad.  "I'm letting the council know—I sent a general message, and I told R2 to go wake up Uncle Mace.  It's really early on Coruscant."

"We have to get you two off planet," Obi-Wan began stuffing their things into their bags, wishing the girls had brought backpacks like theirs rather than travel cases.

"The ports are closed," Qui-Gon shook his head.  "One of the delegates couldn't keep their mouth shut.  They know everyone is on planet, though there weren't any holos being circulated so they may not know exactly who we are."

"They have no reason to identify us, so we must not panic," Obi-Wan told them.  "We'll wait here, at least for now.  Hopefully there will be more news, soon."

The group picked at their food for a moment, when Sabé quietly asked Qui-Gon, "Did you hear how?"

"Not all of the delegates are as adept at blending in, it seems," Qui-Gon sighed.  "They said a few things that got them reported.  It all just . . . exploded from there."

"We need to help the other delegates," Padmé announced, hands on her hips.  "And the Jedi.  We can't just leave them.  They'll be executed—or worse!"

"Gods curse your afterlife," Sabé told her friend, letting her head bang down onto the tabletop.

"But you'll help?"

"Like I'd like you get into trouble without me," Sabé snorted.  "What kind of best friend would I be?"

Padmé grinned and turned to the Skywalkers.  "Well?"

"Our job is to protect you," Obi-Wan smirked.  "If you insist on planning something . . . "

Padmé grinned, appetite returning.  She might be helpless to stop the slave trade on this world, but she could safe her friends.  Sabé caught the look and forced back a sigh.  At least they wouldn't go into this half-cocked.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan would never allow it, and Padmé did nothing by halves.

"We need to clear out," Anakin announced suddenly, holding up his datapad.  "I'm monitoring communication and someone reported us."

"Always have multiple exits," Qui-Gon told the girls, prying open a window.  "Come on."

"There's a few abandoned buildings three blocks northwest of here," Obi-Wan helped his husband and son into their packs and watched Qui-Gon leap to the roof of the next building.  "Come on—Qui-Gon will catch you."

Neither girl hesitated, so great was their trust in the man.  Anakin followed after them, though he landed easily on his own, Padmé's travel case in hand.  Obi-Wan was on his heels with his pack, the large travel bag the Skywalkers had been carrying since Bandomeer, and Sabé's travel case.  From there, it was an easy leap to the ground and a quick jog through a series of allies to the abandoned buildings.

"Are you sure this building is safe?"  Sabé carefully stepped around a large pile of rubble.

"Structurally, yes," Anakin frowned at the rickety-looking stairs.  "That doesn't mean you won't fall through the floor, though."

"Isn't that part of being structurally sound?" Sabé asked dryly.

"No, that is where the building won't collapse on your head," Anakin replied cheerfully.

Sabé glowered at him, but followed Obi-Wan to the top floor rather than reply.  Anakin dumped the pack in his arms on the floor, then pulled a portable console from his bag and set it up in one corner.  The child's brows furrowed as he stared at something on the screen, clearly unhappy with whatever he was saying.  Obi-Wan watched him for a moment, but the boy shook his head to the question sent over their bond.  There was nothing his parents could help with, yet.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan traded looks, the elder opening the large travel bag they'd barely touched since arriving on Phindar.  "We were afraid something like this might happen," Obi-Wan sighed softly.  "We had intended to give these to you when the mission ended, but I suppose our preparations will see use after all."

"We had a set made for each handmaiden, but we shipped the rest to Naboo," Qui-Gon pulled out two, heavy bundles as Obi-Wan took a third to Anakin.  "You best put these on."

The girls gaped for a moment as they shook out the high-collared, armorweave robes.  They were similar in style to what Padmé had worn during the battle for Naboo, the material a beautiful red-tinted black decorated with stylized lotus flowers in crimson and white.  Their under clothes, boots, and plasteel greaves and gauntlets were black.

"Where did you get these?"  Padmé almost demanded, wide-eyed.

"We had been planning on sending them to you and the other handmaidens for awhile," Obi-Wan admitted.  "We thought it would be nice in case you ever found yourselves in a situation like the battle of Naboo again and they're much better suited for it than the 'battle robes' you currently have.  We just . . . never really thought they might actually see use."

"When we heard about this mission, though, we thought it best to bring them, just in case."  Qui-Gon said.  "The syndicate doesn't have any kind of customs, so we knew it would be safe enough, but we had hoped you wouldn't see these until you were headed home."

"There are custom blasters, too?"  Sabé examined the silver blasters, accented with red-tinted black metal and the stylized lotus.  "They're beautiful—but they must have been expensive.  We can't accept that."

"I made them," Anakin replied almost absently, prodding something on the portable console.  "They should fit your hands perfectly.  Eirtaé sent me scans."

"She's very sneaky," Padmé smiled.  "These are very nice, Ani.  I didn't know you could make blasters."

"I built a podracer," Anakin reminded them, flushing slightly at the praise.  "Blasters are easy."

Sometimes I feel like a terrible parent,— Obi-Wan told Qui-Gon mournfully.  —Letting our son build blasters and podracers . . . Force . . . what would Shmi think?—

You are a wonderful father, a chuisle mo chroí,— Qui-Gon cupped his husband's cheek.  —And Shmi would be glad her son is alive and free.  And she would be proud that he was becoming a Jedi.—

—Thank you, my heart,— Obi-Wan smiled, shifting to his toes to kiss Qui-Gon softly.  —Come, we need get dressed ourselves.—

The elder Skywalkers dressed quickly, then checked over the girls and Anakin.  Anakin's outfit looked almost exactly like his parents', though the sky blue designs on his armorweave tunic, left gauntlet and right greave looked almost like a circuit schematic.  Padmé tweaked the boy's collar to set it straight.  "Don't you look handsome."

Anakin went scarlet.  "Um—th—thank you!  I—um—Papa and Dad had it made when I became a padawan."

Sabé and Padmé traded looks and hid smiles at Anakin's flustered words.  "Well," Padmé ruffled his hair.  "I think it suits you."

Anakin hastily returned to the portable console, then dug back through his pack.  "I brought commlinks so we can communicate since Padmé and Sabé can't create bonds with us.  I've also got the security forces linked to my console . . . I'm tracking their location based on their comms."

"Any news on the other delegates?"  Qui-Gon asked, separating out their remaining supplies.  Like most Jedi, the Skywalkers carried little that couldn't be left behind, though knowing they had enough food and water for a few days and enough money to get off planet should the need arise was helpful.

"They have eight of the delegates and their Jedi," Anakin frowned.  "They're in the palace right now, but according to the security feeds, the syndicate plans to have them executed tomorrow night."

"That doesn't leave us much time to plan," Padmé frowned.  "It'll probably be easiest to catch them in transit, but . . . if we hit the castle, we might be able to topple the entire syndicate, too.  We would need some help, but I'm sure there's a resistance of some kind . . . if we can find them."

"That's a lot of ifs," Qui-Gon handed out small medpacs and a miniature survival kit that included a rebreather, a fire starter, and a small blanket.  Sabé eyed the pouches for a moment.

"Do you really believe these are necessary?"  Sabé eyed the gear skeptically.

"We have no idea where this will take us," Qui-Gon told her.  "Better to be prepared—especially since some of the safest places on this planet are in the wilderness."

"He's right," Obi-Wan agreed.  "Best keep it with you."

"Fine," Padmé agreed, then turned to Anakin.  "Can you get a layout of the castle?"

"Can Gungans swim?"  Anakin grinned.

"Padmé."  Sabé crossed her arms.  "What are you thinking?"

"We're going to need a few things from the castle," Padmé smirked.  "Like the location of the weapons vault—which is probably where the Jedi's lightsabers are being kept—the dungeon, and the treasury vault."

"Look at our little girls," Obi-Wan gave a fake sniffle and pretended to wipe away a tear.  "All grown up and toppling governments."

"Oh—and the security dossiers on the remaining resistance, too," Anakin held out a datapad for his parents, only to have it snatched up by Padmé.

The girl looked it over, then turned to the others.  "Let's break Phindar."
<>*<>

The remaining resistance on Phindar was a small, broken group of less than one hundred beings.  Padmé considered the dossiers carefully, lips pursed.  The resistance had agreed to meet them once Padmé revealed her true identity, but it would take several hours for them to gather.  With the clock ticking for the captured delegates and the still-free ones in constant danger, wasting those hours doing nothing but observing had been difficult.

"Do you think the gladiators would help?"  Padmé frowned, considering.  The political climate was ripe for an uprising, if they could get enough fighters to start it.  The resistance was far too small to do it on its own.

"If we can guarantee them freedom and not dying to exploding transmitters, all the slaves would probably help," Obi-Wan replied.  "The problem is, unless we get the owners to agree, or find the codes to every slave on the planet, we'd never be able to pull it off."

"Dad?"  Anakin stared at his console.  "You're never going to believe this . . . the syndicate keeps the codes on record—so they can blow the slave up, too.  Probably if the nobles do something they don't like or some kind of insurance against . . . well, a slave uprising like we're planning, probably."

Qui-Gon ruffled his son's hair.  "Great job, a stór.  If we can get these transmitted and deactivate the transmitters, I have no doubt they'll help."

"Good," Padmé checked the chrono.  "We better go meet the resistance."

The five met the resistance below the city, in abandoned access tunnels hidden from the syndicate's prying eyes.  The gathered group stared at the humans outright, their eyes raking over their armor and the face paint Qui-Gon had insisted on.  While the resistance would know who they were, the thick stripes like the ones Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan wore in the arena would help hide their identities on first sight.  The girls had also returned their hair to the intricate braids, the subtle differences in their hair the only real way for most people to tell them apart.

"I am Padmé Amidala," Padmé stepped forward, then gestured to the others.  "We're the group that contacted you.  The syndicate took our friends—and while we're getting them back, we thought we'd help start a revolution."

"What makes you think you'll succeed where we failed?"  One man crossed his arms.

Qui-Gon smiled, offered a small bow.  "We are Jedi, and there are many more of us on planet.  Not all of them have been captured by the syndicate, and we won't leave those that have in the syndicate's hands."

"We have less than 24 hours before they have our friends executed," Padmé paced in front of the group.  "It isn't a lot of time to plan a revolution."

"It's impossible," One of the resistance shout from the back.

"Not if we can get more beings on board," Padmé told him.  "And the Jedi have assured me that if we can get the codes transmitted, the slaves—all the slaves—will help."

"Slaves?"  Another resistance fighter asked skeptically.  "You think they'll make a difference?"

"Considering they make up almost half your planet's population?  Absolutely," Padmé replied.  "And if we can get the cells open—you'll have the gladiators, too.  And they are fighters."

"We're listening," The resistance leader crossed his arms.

"We'll need to get to four locations in the castle," Padmé told them as Anakin flipped on a holo to display the map of the castle.  "We need to get to the comm. tower; we've got to get to the dungeons, and we'll have to get to both the weapons vault and treasury."

"The comm. tower is at the top of the castle," Anakin gestured to it on the map.  "Everything else is in the lower levels.  This means we'll need to have two teams.  I'll be on the team headed to the comm. tower since I'll have to hack into the systems and transmit the slave codes."

"Since we will also be sending a call to arms to the Phindian people, we will also need the most recognizable resistance leader to go with us," Padmé looked over the crowd.  "We need to keep this group small, we can take one more fighter, but four is the absolute largest the group can be."

Ani can handle the blasters,— Qui-Gon was forcing himself not to pace.  —And a small team is far less likely to be noticed than a large one.—

Neither Obi-Wan nor Qui-Gon liked the idea of sending Anakin—or Padmé—off without one of them, but they knew Padmé was right and the small team would be more likely to succeed.  Additionally, the elder Skywalkers would be needed in the lower levels, which would have more guards.  —Ahket,— Qui-Gon grumbled.  —It's his first mission.

Obi-Wan nodded, sighing.  If they had seen Anakin in a fight or two, if they knew how he'd handle himself, it would help.  —He did save Naboo.—

A space battle isn't the same, a chuisle mo chroí,— Qui-Gon reminded his husband, though the reminder eased the tension in his shoulders slightly.

Obi-Wan turned his attention back to the resistance, watching emotions flutter through the Force.  Several of them were eyeing Anakin and Padmé skeptically, muttering their doubts to one another.  Qui-Gon nudged Obi-Wan forward.  —Do what you do best, Ser Negotiator.—

Obi-Wan looked over the crowd.  "Chose your leader and your best fighter.  They will accompany Padawan Skywalker and Queen Amidala to the comm. tower.  Another dozen of your best fighters will go with Handmaiden Naberrie, Master Jinn and I to free the Jedi and raid the weapons vault and treasury.  The rest of you will take to the streets.  When the call to arms goes out, we will need you to incite the people."

"They are right," The leader of the Phindian resistance, Kaadi, announced.  "We have been oppressed by the syndicate far too long.  I know we are hesitant to put our lives in danger, no matter the cause, but we cannot sit here any longer.  Down with the syndicate!"

The roar of the crowd grew slowly, the Phindian stamping their feet as they began howling, "Down with the syndicate!"
<>*<>

"We're mad, attacking the castle in mid-afternoon," One of the resistance fighters muttered as Obi-Wan peered over the edge of the neighboring building.

"It's a good plan," Another shrugged.

Anakin glared at them both, hissing, "Shut up!  You'll get us caught!"

The Phindians' mouths snapped shut.  Qui-Gon glanced at his son.  "Stay safe and protect Padmé."

"I won't let anyone hurt my angel," Anakin vowed.

Obi-Wan raised a brow.  —Well.  That will interesting when he gets a bit older.—

—One step at a time, a chuisle mo chroí,— Qui-Gon implored, wide eyed, then turned his attention back to Anakin.  "Keep the Phindians safe as well."

"Yes, P—Master," Anakin agreed.  He had been trying to get in the habit of calling his parents by their Jedi titles while on missions so people would take them more seriously.  He'd been successful in front of the Phindians, at least, and neither Padmé nor Sabé cared since they knew the Skywalkers would do everything they could to protect them.

"May the Force be with you," Obi-Wan told his son aloud, reaching over their bond to add, —And your papa and I love you.—

—I love you too, Dad.  Papa.—  Anakin knew Qui-Gon was listening in.  In reply to the spoken words, the boy replied, "And also with you."

"Equipment check,"  Qui-Gon ordered, watching the group look over their armor and gear.  He and Obi-Wan checked over the girls and Anakin, then did their traditional check over each other before looking over the Phindians.  "Good.  Mark your targets."

"I've got the alarm triggering in thirty seconds," Anakin told them, tapping something on his comm.

"Comm. group, with me," Padmé ordered, letting Anakin pick her up.  At twelve, he was already almost equal to her in height.  The boy leapt to the next building, then turned to aid the Phindians, Kaadi and Jantu.  Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traded eye rolls—Anakin was hilariously smitten with Padmé, but it hadn't been affecting the mission.  Still, it was probably something they should talk about when they got home.

"The rest of you, with us," Obi-Wan ordered, the two Jedi leaping from the building, Sabé in Obi-Wan's arms and a female Phindian named Duenna.  According to Kaadi, she worked in the castle.  While she wasn't the best fighter, she knew everything about the castle and would be more helpful than another fighter.

Anakin's group would head to a side entrance near a staircase that ended near the comm. tower.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's group was headed around the back where they would enter through the kitchen.  According to Duenna, there was a staircase there that headed for the lower levels.  They would reach the cells first, then could head towards the vaults.

Obi-Wan held up three fingers, counting down silently.  Something in front of the castle exploded, Anakin giving a short whoop over their bond, and the alarms began to shriek.  Guards raced toward the front of the castle, their formations lazy and complacent after over a decade of the syndicate being unchallenged.  The larger group raced into the crowd by the back door, the Phindians easily blending in with the others while the Jedi used the Force to make themselves and Sabé unnoticed by the rest of the workers.

The smaller group, meanwhile, climbed to a second story balcony using a trellis Padmé would have considered a poor choice for security.  Considering they were attempting to break in, however, Padmé would accept the small blessings.  She gave a surprised gasp when Anakin hauled her over the balcony—Jedi training had made him incredibly strong, even without the Force—then reached back for the Phindians.

"We have to be careful," Kaadi told them, heading for the stairs.  "These levels of the castle won't have many people and the ones that are here will either be part of the syndicate, guards, or renewed servants."

"Renewed?"

"They mind wipe resistance members, then brainwash them into being loyal to the syndicate." Kaadi swallowed hard.  "They used to send them to war torn planets and film them dying, usually gruesomely."

"I thought they were executed in the arena," Anakin frowned.

"They are when they don't need servants," Kaadi snorted.  "Otherwise they just murder anyone in their family they can find.  It's what they call entertainment."

"You lost people that way," Padmé touched her shoulder.

"We all have," Kaadi shook her head.  "I lost one friend to the mines of Offworld and slavery, and the other to the damned machine.  He's still in the castle, somewhere, thinking he's loyal to the fucking syndicate."

"I'm sorry," Padmé murmured.  "But we're going to change this.  We're going to free your world."

"If we make it to the comm. tower," Kaadi muttered, and the group dashed up the stairs.
<>*<>

The large group, meanwhile, raced down the stairs.  It was three levels to the dungeons, with the two vaults being the floor above.  Only two guards remained in the cell block, and Sabé easily dispatched them with the stun setting of her blaster.  "This is far too easy."

"Who would be dumb enough to attack the castle?"  One of the Phindians murmured in reply, stealing a keycard off one guard that opened the main doors to the block.

"Each cell has an individual code," Another Phindian explained as they entered, voice barely above a whisper.  "If we break the doors down, the alarm will go off.  They're wired to the metal plates that hold the locks."

"Guess we'll have to get creative," Obi-Wan grinned at his husband as they looked at the barred, cell doors.  Qui-Gon smirked in reply.  Lightsabers could cut through blast doors, given time.  Cells like these would be nothing.

"Qui-Gon?" Bant hissed, gaping as the group of Phindians and humans examined the cell doors, wanting to make sure the alarms wouldn't go off if they cut the doors down.  "What are you doing here?  You should have gotten off world!"

"They closed the ports," Sabé shrugged.  "And we weren't leaving the delegates—or the Jedi.  Really, you'd think you never met Padmé or me."

"She's got you there," Kit Fisto chuckled, stepping back so Qui-Gon could free him.  "All right, what's the plan?"

"Free you, free the slaves, topple the syndicate . . . pretty simple, really," Obi-Wan grinned.

"You better get to work, then," Naia answered, gripping the bars.  "If you open the doors without a key, you'll set of the alarm."

"How about only part of the doors, then?"  Qui-Gon asked, he and his husband slicing through the bars.  Naia skipped back as they approached her cell, almost diving through the hole the moment Obi-Wan stepped out of the way.

"Guess they weren't expecting Jedi," A human knight called Quinlan Vos joked.  "You know where my lightsaber is?"

"Probably in the weapons vault," Obi-Wan headed for his door.  "Our next stop."

You've got guards incoming, Papa,— Anakin told them.  —I'm transmitting the slave codes now, and once that's done, Padmé and Kaadi will be giving the call to arms.  Several of the other resistance are keeping most of the guards busy at the front of the castle, but they're not going to last much longer.—

—Good.  We're getting ready to head for the weapons vault now.—  Qui-Gon replied, then relayed Anakin's news to the others.  "Sabé, take the Jedi to the vault.  Obi-Wan and I can hold off the guards here.  Maybe serve as a distraction."

"A distraction?"

"If we can make them think we've only just broke in . . . "

"They won't raise the alarm for the missing prisoners," Sabé nodded.  "Good idea.  How will you know if we're successful?"

"I will tell them," Bant squeezed Obi-Wan's shoulder.

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon each passed off one of their 'sabers, Bant and Kit accepting them before everyone scrambled into position.  The guards started firing the moment they saw the Jedi, but five castle guards, lacking training and talent, were no match for the Jedi.  Rather than kill them, the Jedi stripped them, then locked them in one of the remaining cells.

"This is far too easy," Obi-Wan frowned.  "Surely the syndicate has not gotten this complacent."

"It's been almost fifteen years since anyone has even attempted an uprising," Qui-Gon spread his hands.  "The Phindians aren't exactly daring and according to Kaadi the last uprising ended with thousands dead.  The resistance is practically gone, they have no resources . . . what does the syndicate have left to fear?  No one is going to invade—it's more convenient to have a neutral planet run by an independent syndicate for covert deals."

"Or research," Obi-Wan snorted.  "Let's just hope the people will answer our call."

The pair rushed to the weapons vault once they'd handled the "reinforcements."  The Jedi had found their lightsabers almost immediately, Bant and Kit relieved to have their own back and readily handing Qui-Gon's and Obi-Wan's back.  Using a borrowed 'saber was never pleasant, especially when the stones weren't well matched the temporary user as was the case between Kit and Qui-Gon's Kyber crystals.

"We've got to figure out a way to get these weapons to the people," Sabé crossed her arms, thinking.  "Are there any hover-sleds here?  We can load everything on and shove it out into the riot."

"Riots?"  The Jedi traded looks.  "What riot?"

"The one Padmé managed to incite with the resistance leader," Sabé grinned.  "She's good at that."

"Apparently," Kit snorted.  "All right, let's find some hover-sleds and get these out into the riot.  At least this explains where all the guards are—busy trying to save the syndicate."

"The collapsing syndicate," Naia corrected, making Kit grin.  The Jedi master always did love a good fight.

They found several hover-sleds already in the weapons vault, the group quickly loading the blasters on the pallets.  "You six," Obi-Wan gestured to half the Phindians.  "Get these outside."

"The rest of us will head to the treasury," Sabé headed for the door, Jedi and delegates at her heels.

They had to go down another level to reach the treasury, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon putting three guards to sleep with the Force on the way.  Most of the guards were busy with the riots, leaving little more than a skeleton crew in the castle.  Places like the treasury were less guarded, the syndicate thinking no one would be able to get that far into the castle.

The treasury, unlike the weapons vault, was almost entirely empty except for vast stores of bacta.  "The recession on this world isn't fake," Sabé breathed, wide eyed.  "They really are broke.  They've got nothing to trade and nothing left to spend.  Even if we hadn't come here, the syndicate would have starved the planet to desperation in less than five years."

"We'll let the Jedi know the Phindians will need aide," Bant assured her.  "Well, we better get this bacta to the hospitals, then we need to get to the spaceport, too."

We're out,— Anakin announced.  —Me and Padmé will be on the building next to the castle, where I started the alarm countdown.  How much longer will you be?—

—Give us . . . ten minutes,— Obi-Wan replied as they loaded the bacta.

Anakin sent a feeling of agreement and the remaining resistance members headed for the doors with the bacta.  There was no doubt people would be hurt in the riots and the bacta was already sorely needed.
<>*<>

Rioters had filled the streets when the groups escaped the castle.  The leaders of the syndicate were too busy dealing with the rioting slaves and citizens to concern themselves with the Jedi escaping the palace.  Unfortunately, not all the syndicate guards were as complacent as the ones in the heart of the castle and the moment they reached the street they found themselves in a great deal of trouble.

"Scatter!"  Kit order, blocking several shots with his lightsaber, startling when Anakin and Padmé appeared next to him, Anakin blocking three more shots and Padmé stunning a guard.

"I don't care what you do—get the fuck off this planet!"  Quinlan ordered, earning a shriek from his delegate, Satine Kryze, as he swooped her up and leapt to the top of a building.

"This is where we part ways!"  Kaadi gave the Jedi a toothy smile.  "We've got a revolution to win."

"The council is going to kill us in our sleep," Obi-Wan told the girls as they raced for the port.  Padmé and Sabé traded proud grins, falling into step behind Qui-Gon, who was  using his bulk to part the crowds.

"We freed Phindar," Sabé made sure her blasters were set to stun and began firing at one of the syndicate guards.

"Gods curse your afterlife," Qui-Gon spat at her, repeating the curse Sabé had offered Padmé barely a day before.  "And stop firing at the Phindians!  We need to get off planet, not become part of the riot!"

"Revolution," Anakin corrected, and Obi-Wan looked ready to pull out his hair.

"Not the time, Anakin," The man snapped.  "Right now we need to get all the delegates off world—without dying, if you wouldn't mind."

"The rooftops will be easier, my heart," Obi-Wan called, gesturing upward.  Quinlan had already thought of it and was racing over the rooftops, Satine in his arms.  The delegate was scowling, but cooperative.

"Take Sabé," Qui-Gon called, grabbing up Padmé.  She started to protest, fired off three more shots, and resettled herself so she could fire over Qui-Gon's shoulder, Sabé following suit.

This was not what I had in mind,— Obi-Wan grumbled.

Anakin fell in, covering them from blaster fire as they raced toward the spaceport, the girls taking out syndicate guards as they moved.  Qui-Gon didn't want to encourage either girl, but they were both amazing shots.  "Almost there."

The spaceport was even worse than the rest of the town, visitors to Phindar as desperate to escape as its residents.  Terror hung thick and heavy as people raced for the ships.  The Skywalkers skidded to a halt on the last line of rooftops before the spaceport, letting the girls down.

Sound off when you get on a ship,— Qui-Gon ordered as the Jedi arrived.

Do not wait for us,— Bant snapped.  —We agreed we were on our own if something happened.—

You know better, Bant,— Obi-Wan answered.  —And we'd have trouble getting the girls on a ship before they knew everyone was gone, too.  Plus they're helping with the revolution.—

We're on,— Quinlan announced.  —Don't wait for us.—

"I have a feeling Satine doesn't approve of whatever ship he boarded," Sabé told them, gesturing to a run-down freighter at the far end the space port.  "I'm asking her about that later."

"Do you know Satine?"

"We have similar beliefs about many things," Padmé shrugged.  "She's often an ally of ours, though she's more of a pacifist than we are."

"I'm not sure it's all that difficult," Obi-Wan teased as the girls fired off several more shots.

"It's non-lethal!"  Padmé protested.  "I would never kill a sentient!"

"And I hope you never have to," Qui-Gon deflected several more shots.  Anakin glanced toward the spaceport.

"The last delegates are aboard.  Time for us to go, too!"  Anakin announced.  "We better hurry, too, otherwise we won't have a ship to board."

Padmé hastily grabbed Qui-Gon again while Sabé did the same with Obi-Wan, the Skywalkers leaping from the roof and racing for the spaceport.  Most of the ships were already full, shoving people away as they closed the doors for take-off.  Several were using blasters to forced the terrified people back.

"Let's hope we didn't wait too long," Obi-Wan muttered, letting Sabé down to race at his side, her hand in his.  Anakin gripped Padmé's hand, Qui-Gon leading the way once again, shoving through the people with his bulk.

"Miss Padmé!"  A little girl darted through the crowd, white-blond ringlets bouncing.  "Miss Padmé!  My ship has room!  Come on!"

"It's you!"  Padmé gasped as the little girl grabbed her hand.  "From the ship that brought us here!"

"Come on!"  The little girl tugged her towards a Corellian freighter.  "Hurry up!  We can't wait any longer!"

The six threw themselves onto the ship just as the doors closed.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The little girl who led them to the ship dove into one of the maintenance hatches just as the engines began to rumble.  Anakin Force tossed Padmé and Sabé into the near-by jump seats.  "Strap in," The boy ordered.  "We're in for a rough ride!"

The girls barely got themselves strapped in when the ship launched itself upward.  Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon grabbed onto a conduit, Qui-Gon yanking Anakin into his arms with the Force just as the ship shrieked from the planet.  Anakin yelped as his papa's hold tightened, knowing there would be bruises but that the alternative was to be seriously injured, bouncing around the hold.

For several, panicked minutes, the Skywalkers clung to both the conduits and each other.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan opened their bond, using the Force to strengthen themselves against the harried race from the planet.  The shaking stopped when the ship got out of Phindar's gravity well, though the Skywalkers didn't relax until they hit hyperspace.

Padmé sagged in her seat.  "The next time I start a planet-wide revolution, remind me to have an escape plan!"

"The next time you try to start a planet-wide revolution, I'm stunning your ass and locking you away until the urge passes."  Sabé glared at her best friend.  "Gods, but I could just kill you right now!"

"Please don't," Obi-Wan dropped to the ground.  "We might need her money.  You can kill her after that."

"Gee, thanks," Padmé huffed.

"Is everyone all right?"  Qui-Gon's hands patted down his son, checking to make sure Anakin was fine before looking over the girls.  It was relief to see they were all fine despite the rough take off, and Qui-Gon took a moment to breathe a sigh of relief before looking around the ship.  "At least we're off planet, I suppose."

"We're on a YT-1300," Anakin ran his hands over one of the inner walls.  "Modified, to get that kind of speed.  Probably a smuggler or a pirate.  They tend to favor these freighters because they can get some good speed."

"We noticed," Obi-Wan told his son dryly, then frowned.  "The question is, which ship are we on?  I—"

"Don't say it, a chuisle mo chroí," Qui-Gon groaned.  "Just—let me line in delusion."

"Say what?"  Padmé and Sabé traded confused looked, Padmé continuing, "Is something wrong?"

"I have a bad feeling about this," Obi-Wan said.  Qui-Gon made a face.  Obi-Wan's bad feelings were legendary and usually involved shit hitting the fan in truly impressive ways.

"We should find the captain," Padmé suggested.  "We'll have to talk to them at some point, if only to find out where we're going and work out payment."

"Best stick to the story," Qui-Gon warned them.  "At least until we figure out exactly what kind of ship we're on.  Not all pirates or smugglers are bad, but until we know about these . . ."

The girls nodded, but before they could say anything, the little girls popped back out of the maintenance hatch, grinning.  "Welcome to the Star Opal!"

"I'm Mina," The girl that had grabbed Padmé on Phindar smiled.  "My sister is Mita."

"The captain wasn't gonna take no passengers, but we told her you was rich," Mita grinned.  "You are rich . . . right?"

"It's a little late for that question, isn't it?"  Qui-Gon easily lifted both girls from the access shaft.  Like most slaves, they were underweight and bore a fair number of superficial injuries.

"If ya can't pay, the captain'll space ya," Mina told them.  "We like you though.  We don't want her to space you."

"Do you like the captain?"  Padmé knelt in front of the girls.

"She's real nice," Mita replied.  "We was real scared, 'cause lots of people said we're real pretty and we thought our master might . . . hurt us.  But she hasn't.  No one on the crew has."

"They don't hit us, neither," Mina added.  "It's been real nice."

"They only owned us a couple days," Mita shrugged.  "They weren't the owners who bought us, but this master taked us and we really like 'em."

"They aren't scary, either," Mina grinned.  "Well, maybe they're a little scary, 'cause they're pirates, but only a little.  And you're rich, so they won't hurt you."

"This might get interesting, then," Obi-Wan muttered to his husband.  They had funds, at least, but not on them, and getting to the credits could be tricky with Padmé traveling incognito.  Anakin could probably get a message out, but it would all take time they might not have.

"At least we're off planet," Anakin tried.  Obi-Wan ruffled the boy's hair.  That much was true, at least.

""Are you going to take us to the captain?"  Qui-Gon knelt so he wasn't towering over the girls nearly so much.

"I much prefer doing business right here," A woman announced, voice almost sultry as she stalked into the room.  "It's much easier to show you the door that way."

Qui-Gon tensed but stayed kneeling, eyes locked on the woman.  Anakin shifted protectively in front of Padmé and Sabé, though he didn't reach for his 'sabers.  Obi-Wan just stepped forward and smiled.  "In that case, shall we open negotiations?"

"Negotiations?"  The woman scoffed.  "This isn't a negotiation.  Either you pay me the requested amount, or I space you.  And the brats there, too, for lying to me and wasting my time.  I wonder what will kill them first—distance from their transmitter remotes of lack of air?"

Mita and Mina paled, huddling together in fear.  Qui-Gon nudged them back, urging them to move behind his son as he rose to his full height, towering over the woman.  Her eyes went wide at the size of him.  "I'm certain that won't be necessary," Qui-Gon replied.  "But we do have a multitude of talents in addition to money.  Some of which you may find of greater value."

The woman rolled her eyes.  "5,000 credits a head and I won't space you."

"5,000 credits?  To go where?"  Obi-Wan crossed his arms.

"Does it matter?"  The woman raised an eyebrow and tilted her head arrogantly.  "Either you pay us, or we space you."

Obi-Wan considered the woman for a moment, when Qui-Gon stiffened.  —You should agree, a chuisle mo chroí,— Qui-Gon told him, letting his husband feel the small niggling in the Force through their bond.  Obi-Wan touched it curiously.  The Force was telling him to agree to the amount, but not because the captain would space them.

Interesting.  We will have to meditated on this.— Obi-Wan mused, then turned his attention back to the woman.  "We currently have 1,000 credits on us, but we can get the remainder in a day."

"That wasn't the deal," The captain snapped.

"We won't leave the ship until you get paid," Obi-Wan urged.  "And we can earn our keep while we wait for the funds to come through.  My son and I are mechanics and my husband and nieces are excellent cooks.  We won't be idle."

"I've got rats," The captain jerked her head toward the little girls.

"Yeah, but I can fix the stabilizer problem you're having, plus Dad and I can upgrade your hyperdrive," Anakin replied.

The captain eyed them for a moment.  "Fine.  Your current 5,000 gets you a day.  If I don't have the money by the end of tomorrow, I space you."

"Agreed," Obi-Wan helped out a hand.  The captain ignored it.

"We're headed to Boonta," The woman told them.  "Now get me the credits you have, then get to work."

Obi-Wan handed over the 5,000 credit, making sure the captain didn't realize they still had about 1,000 credits more to spread between them.  The captain snatched the credits from them and stalked back out of the room.  Mita and Mina headed for the access hatch again, disappearing into the bowels of the ship and giving the Skywalkers and Naberries a moment to themselves.

"Let me guess," Sabé told the Jedi almost balefully.  "She's nice somewhere deep down inside."

"She is a pirate," Qui-Gon chuckled.  "But everyone needs a little kindness and her sour behavior means she probably needs it more than most."

Sabé shook her head.  "You are . . . something else."

"Come on," Qui-Gon gestured to the door.  "We all better figure out what we're doing.  I'd rather not get spaced because her meal wasn't very good."

There were only five crewman aside from the captain and ship rats, all women of various species and heavily scarred.  Two of them shied away from Qui-Gon while the other postured and growled.  Sabé offered them smiles, surprised to find their rage did not extend to her or Padmé.

Qui-Gon tilted his head, watching them.  "Wherever they are from . . . their lives were not kind."

"You think they were abused?"  Sabé questioned.

"Yes, but not like you're thinking," Qui-Gon ran a thumb over his tattoo.  "But I think it's more likely they are former slaves."

Padmé frowned at him, then looked around the ship.  The freighter was space worthy, but run down and Padmé had a feeling that if they didn't find a way to do some major upkeep, it wouldn't stay space worthy for long.  "I'm beginning to think this trip is the Force trying to shatter every illusion I had about the galaxy," Padmé huffed.  "Is everything broken?"

"Nothing is beyond repair," Qui-Gon nudged her.  "And people like you are who gives the rest of us hope."

Padmé sighed softly, pulling open the door to the ship's kitchen.  "Oh—no wonder they threatened to space us if we couldn't pay."

"They barely have enough to feed everyone on this trip," Qui-Gon began searching through the cupboards.  Many were bare.

"How could they afford Mita and Mina, then?"  Sabé's brows furrowed.  "I thought slaves were expensive and it doesn't look like they have enough to buy slaves with."

"They may have been payment for a lost bet," Qui-Gon shrugged.  "There are a surprising number of ways to get slaves without paying for them."

"They're dangerously low on water, too," Padmé announced, checking the readouts.  "We're going to be on tight rations."

"And the emergency purifier tanks?"  Sabé moved to look at another gauge.  The purifier tanks were usually small, taking waste water of all kinds and making it potable for use in an emergency.

"Either empty or broken," Padmé scowled.  "I'm not even sure we'll make it to Boonta!"

"That, we can do," Qui-Gon dragged everything out of the cabinets.  "Well, it won't be gourmet, but I can feed everyone until we reach Boonta.  We might not get all we want, but no one will starve."

"We'll take it," Sabé replied.  "What do we need to do?"

"First, I think I should talk to Anakin and Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon frowned.  "Seeing about fixing the purifier tanks is more important than an upgraded hyperdrive."

We'll look into it,— Obi-Wan replied when Qui-Gon explained what they needed over the bond.  Anakin looked up from where he was digging through the wiring in the hyperdrive, shaking his head when Obi-Wan tried to get them to head for the water purifiers.

"We might be running out of water, but the stabilizer issue isn't from the stabilizers, it's because the power to the hyperdrive keeps fluctuating and if we don't fix it, we're either going to be dead in space, or blown up."  Anakin yanked off the cover of the one side and whimpered.  "I'm not sure I can fix this while we're in hyperspace.  Actually, I'm not sure I can fix this while we're in the air.  Force, do they not do any upkeep on their damn ship?"

"If what Qui-Gon said is anything to go by, they haven’t the money," Obi-Wan sighed.  "Can you keep if from going out, at least?"

"Probably?"  Anakin frowned.  "It would be easier with my full tool kit, but even with what I have, I think I can keep us flying.  I'm not sure we'll reach Boonta on this thing, though."

"Do what you can," Obi-Wan told his son, moving to the water purifiers.  "I'm going to see about getting us some water."

"If it looks like the hyperdrive, you may as well give up," Anakin warned him.

"If we don't get the purifiers working, I'm not sure we'll have enough water to drink,"  Obi-Wan began prying open the cover of the purifier, yelping when something sparked and nearly dropping it in surprise.  "Shit!"

"Dad?"  Anakin grabbed both Obi-Wan and the panel with the Force and tugged his dad back.  "Are you okay?"

"I think you're right about them not caring for their ship," Obi-Wan shook his head.  "Something is shorted out in there."

"I know we offered to help out, but I think this might be a bit more than we can do with our makeshift tools and they don't actually have any of their own," Anakin slammed the panel down, growling in anger, though it didn't echo through the Force, to Obi-Wan's relief.  Anakin's abilities in the Force occasionally made things explode when he lost his temper and that was the last thing they needed.

"All right, so we've got to fix the purifiers so we have water, and make sure the hyperdrive doesn't fail," Obi-Wan ran his hands through his hair.

They had a lot of work to do.
<>*<>

Just so you're aware, Anakin will be having words with the Captain regarding the state of the ship over late meal,— Obi-Wan warned his husband, wiping his hands on a rag to clean off the engine grease.

Given the frustration and cursing you've been sending over the bond since you got in the engine room over the state of the purifiers and hyperdrive, in addition to what the lack of food and water I found in the kitchen, she probably deserves it.—  Qui-Gon replied.  —She is endangering the entirety of her crew.—

Obi-Wan sent a feeling of agreement over the bond, sighing softly.  Anakin was well within his right to be angry.  The ship they were on was a hazard to them all, and if the Force hadn't gotten the Skywalkers on it, the hyperdrive would have blown long before they reached Boonta and likely killed everyone on board.

Father and son made their way to the galley in companionable silence, arriving as Qui-Gon and the girls carried out the ration bar gruel they'd created from what little was in the kitchen.  Obi-Wan and Anakin recognized the scent immediately, making the pair frown.  Ration bar gruel was a ration bar mixed with water and cooked with whatever spices could be found to at least attempt to help the flavor.  The gruel was moderately nutritious, given its only real ingredient, and had been invented specifically to stretch out as little food as possible over as many days as possible.

The Skywalkers had never known a freeman to eat it.

"It's not gourmet," Qui-Gon announced to the room, setting the pot on the table with an almost angry thud as he glared at the captain.  "It's not even good.  But there's enough to stretch our rations to get us all to Boonta."

The captain clenched her jaw.  "How dare you—"

"Shut up," Anakin snapped, his anger cold and sharp in the Force.  Obi-Wan laid a hand on his son's shoulder, letting his love and serenity sweep over their bond.  The boy's anger softened as he slowly breathed, reigning in his temper.  He knew that if he let his temper get the best of him, he would only say things he regretted later, and probably make things worse.

"You are lucky we're aboard," Obi-Wan told the captain.  "Especially given the state of your ship."

Anakin nodded, and began again, more calmly.  "The fluctuations were in the hyperdrive, not the stabilizers.  If Dad and I hadn't gotten to it when we did, your broken water purifier wouldn't have mattered since you'd all be space particles."

"Not only that, you are dangerously low on all your supplies, not just water," Qui-Gon tapped his fingers on the lid of the pot.  "If Obi-Wan and Anakin hadn't fixed the purifier, we would be out of water in two days and out of food in three."

"What were you thinking, taking off with broken systems, no food and no water?"  Obi-Wan crossed his arms.  "It was stupid."

The captain flinched.  It was barely perceptible; if the Skywalkers or Naberries had been anyone else, they would have missed it.  Padmé furrowed her brow in thought.  "Not stupid," The girl looked over the crew again.  "Desperate."

"What could make you so desperate to gamble your lives that way?"  Sabé wondered.

The eight crewmembers traded uncertain looks, the captain gritting her teeth.  "What are you implying?  That we're on the run or something?"

Qui-Gon's jaw dropped, he and Obi-Wan trading wide-eyed looks.  "You aren't former slaves," Qui-Gon breathed.  "You're runaways!"

The crew fumbled for their weapons, pointing their blasters at the men with shaking hands.  Anakin nudged Padmé and Sabé back, the three ignored by the crew, eyes darting between his parents and the crew women.  Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon kept their hands up, trying to appear unthreatening.  Anakin reached for the Force.

Now, Ani,— Obi-Wan send over the bond, and the eldest Skywalkers flung the muzzles of the blasters skyward as they dove to the ground.  The moment his parents were clear of the blasters, Anakin yanked them forcefully away from the crew, throwing them out of the room and shutting the door.

"You should watch where you point those things," Anakin scowled.

"Anakin!"  Padmé scolded.  "Stop it.  They're scared!"

Anakin huffed, folding his arms over his chest.  "Fine."

"Don't you dare touch them," The captain glowered.  "I'll kill you if you even think about hurting anyone!"

"No one wants to hurt anyone," Qui-Gon rose slowly and deliberately.

"We ain't lettin' you turn us in, neither," A slender Twi'lek snapped.  Part of her left lek was missing, and an ugly scar curled around her throat and down under her shirt.  "You'll have to kill us first!"

"We don't want to turn you in, either," Qui-Gon told them, Obi-Wan and Anakin nodding when Qui-Gon sent them a questioning look.  Padmé and Sabé shrugged, trusting his judgment as to whether or not to reveal their identities.  "Are you sure?"

"We trust you," Sabé smiled at the man.

"My family and I are former slaves from Tatooine," Qui-Gon told the woman, wrapping an arm around Obi-Wan.  "The girls with us are Queen Padmé Amidala of Naboo and her handmaiden, Sabé Naberrie.  They're part of the senate's newly formed Anti-Slavery Coalition."

"In the Republic?"  The captain looked startled.  More scathingly, she added, "You know the Republic is a hotbed of it, right?  You going to stop it there too?"

"Everywhere," Padmé replied furiously.

"And how're you planning to do that?" A sharp eyed Elomin female snorted.  "You politicians—you're worthless."

"The Jedi are helping as well," Padmé replied, not offended.  It was hardly the worst she'd been called.

"Jedi," The Twi'lek spat.  "Just as worthless as politicians.  Maybe even more.  All the big talk about equality and the will of the Force, and they're too busy being senate dogs to help the rest of us."

"The Jedi are changing," Padmé told them.  "And we will stop slavery, I swear it."

"For now, though, we need to get this ship to Boonta without exploding or starving," Obi-Wan told the group.  "Unless there is a closer planet we can set down?"

"Nowhere that won't turn us into the slavers," The captain admitted softly.  "Phindar was safe enough because they don't talk to the rest of the galaxy much, and we did manage to pick up Mita and Mina there, but everywhere else . . . if the port control realizes what we are, they'll turn us in."

"Can you keep us running until we reach Boonta?" Obi-Wan turned to his son.

"There's no way the hyperdrive will last that long," Anakin shook his head.  "I mean, I can try, but it would be a lot better if we could land before that."

"Columex is a trade planet on the way to Boonta,"  Obi-Wan frowned.  "We could probably stop there."

"And turn us over to the authorities?"  The captain snapped.  "Over my dead body!"

"We aren't going to turn you in!"  Anakin snapped.  "We were slaves, too!  We'd never do that!"

"And how can I trust you?"  The captain demanded.  "We never met, I don't know you, and it's not like we can check your story, now is it."

Qui-Gon sighed.  "We can argue while we eat," The man told them, starting to dish out the ration bar gruel.  The crew blinked at him, startled, and Qui-Gon just shrugged, handing around the bowls.  "You don't have enough food.  This is the best thing we can do with it."

"But the water . . . " A Theelin female glanced down at the gruel.  "We don't have enough to make things like this."

"Obi-Wan fixed the purifier," Qui-Gon nudged the bowl towards her.  "Now eat."

Anakin took his bowl without complaint, though he did wrinkle his nose at the first bite.  Obi-Wan ruffled the child's hair.  "Once we've eaten, I guess we better head back to the engine room.  We're going to be monitoring that hyperdrive pretty constantly if we want to make it to Boonta."

"You can do it," Padmé kissed Anakin's cheek, making the boy burn scarlet.  "I just know it."

"Let's just hope the hyperdrive agrees," Anakin muttered, and the pair hurried from the room.
<>*<>

In the end, the decision was taken from any of their hands.  Despite Anakin and Obi-Wan's valiant efforts, the hyperdrive quit when they hit the Trogan system and the ship barely limped to the planet itself.  Anakin and Obi-Wan took the controls from the inexperienced pilot's hands, guiding the ship to one of the planet's few landing pads.  It was talent and liberal use of the Force that kept them from crashing.

"This is not good," Padmé watched the lashing rain slough from the windows of the cockpit.  "Trogan is one of the poorest planets in the galaxy.  If anyone here finds out we have runaways on board, we're in trouble."

"We need parts," Obi-Wan rubbed his face.  "And supplies."

"Well, at least we have access for the funds to purchase everything this time," Anakin grinned at his parents, who chuckled.

"Obi-Wan and I will contact the council," Qui-Gon told them.

The captain stared at them for a moment.  "The council?  Are you part of this . . . Anti-Slavery group, too?"

"We're Jedi, actually," Obi-Wan frowned at Anakin when he hid his laughter with a cough.  The crew of the Star Opal gaped at them.

"I thought you said you were slaves from Tatooine!"  The Theelin growled.  "You lied to us!"

"No, we . . . didn't become Jedi through the traditional route," Anakin grinned proudly.  "The Jedi found us on Tatooine a few years ago, and the Jedi who found us freed us.  Now we're Jedi.  So we're former slaves and Jedi."

"So . . . those men really are your fathers?"  The Twi'lek questioned.  "But how?"

"They adopted me when my mom died," Anakin smiled up at them.  "I know slaves don't really have adoption, but they took me in and were just like my parents so . . . we've always considered it adoption.  Then we were freed, the adopted me for real."

"I'm glad you found a family," The captain glanced at Mina and Mita.  "Kind of like us."

"Exactly," Obi-Wan agreed, then turned to his son.  "Anakin, why don't you and the captain determine what we'll need to fix the ship while Qui-Gon and I call the council?  We'll need an idea so we can request money to get home."

"Padmé, Sabé, you two should go with them," Qui-Gon told the girls.  "We'll let you know what we learn."

The council had little good news to answer, though the Skywalkers did learn the other delegates were safe, at least.  They also wanted to see if the crew of the Star Opal would return to the temple.  The council was hopeful they would have information that would help lead the Jedi closer to stopping the slavers.

"We'll see what we can do," Qui-Gon promised.  "They do not trust us, and they must be very careful since they are not yet freed."

"Get us the names of their masters," Mace told him.  "We'll free them while you get home.  Since we aren't with you, and don't really know where you are, we can barter with their masters without concern of them locating you.  Something the crew isn't able to do.  Perhaps that will prove our good intentions."

"So will fixing their ship," Obi-Wan reminded the man.

"We can send you whatever funds you need," Mace sighed.  "Force, how do you manage to get into these situations?"

"It's the will of the Force," Qui-Gon replied, almost smirking.

"I'm about to start believing in luck just to tell you that yours is bad," Mace grumbled.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan just chuckled.
<>*<>

Thankfully, YT-1300s were common freighters on Trogan, so it was a simple matter to purchase the parts and tools to fix the ship.  They restocked on the rest of their supplies as well.  "We've filled the galley and the water tanks, in addition to getting supplies for your med bay," Qui-Gon told the captain as the ship was loaded.  "It's enough to get you . . . wherever you want to go."

"I also received the rest of the money for our passage," Padmé smiled.

"The cost of the parts and supplies—"

"Was granted by the Jedi council and is separate from the amount we agreed for passage," Padmé told them.

"There is another matter, however," Qui-Gon folded his arms, hands in his sleeves as he'd often seen the council members do.  Padmé hid a smile as her handmaiden grinned outright.

"What?"  The captain shifted, hand going to her blaster.

"Nothing of that nature," Qui-Gon assured her.  "The council requested you speak with them.  They're gathering information so we can take down the slaver ring that's operating throughout the galaxy.  We know some, but Obi-Wan and I were gladiators, so our information about the slavers in outdated since we haven't seen an auction block in . . . well, Obi-Wan only saw the first one he was sold at, and I haven't been to one in well over twenty years."

"Twenty years?"  The captain gaped.

"In any case, we don't have the information we need, and we're having difficulty tracking back through the Republic to try and discover who is in charge."  Qui-Gon explained.

"I thought you were toppling slavery everywhere," The Elomin sneered.

"We already have legal cause to collapse it in the Republic," Qui-Gon replied.  "And it's the most delicate stage since it isn't supposed to exist there.  Once they handle the Republic, we'll be moving to end it in the rest of the galaxy as well."

"Sounds like it might take the rest of your lives," The Theelin commented.

"Possibly," Qui-Gon shrugged.  "But even if it does, we're going to do it."

"Of course," The captain rolled her eyes.

"Which leads me to the other thing I wished to tell you," Qui-Gon forced back his grin.  "As a gesture of good will, the council negotiated purchase with all your former owners and has filed your paperwork to grant you freedom in addition to filing for citizenship in the Republic."

"We haven't even agreed to talk to them."  The Twi'lek snapped.  "Why would they do that?"

"Because every being deserves to be free, and they're hoping it will show you can trust them."

The captain pursed her lips.  "Is that so."

"Consider it a reward for saving us, if you wish," Qui-Gon answered.  "But please, speak with the council.  They need help finding the entirety of this slavery ring.  We've been slow to find clues and any information you have would help us do it faster."

"They might even have some work for you," Anakin reappeared.  "Now that the hyperdrive is fixed—and upgraded—your ship is absolutely wizard!  Maybe even the fastest there is!"

"The council is always looking for freighters.  We transport a lot of goods to refugee planets and need messages packages taken to Jedi on missions,"  Obi-Wan mused.  "And there aren't enough Jedi pilots—or ships—to go around."

"It's steady income," Qui-Gon pointed out.

The captain looked over her crew, eyes locking on Mita and Mina for a moment.  "We'll talk to your council," The captain agreed.  "But on our terms.  And not in the temple!"

"We can meet on Naboo," Padmé offered.  "We're not exactly close, but it's semi-neutral ground, we're will to host, and it's safe for you there."

"Fine," The captain agreed.  "I guess we're heading to Naboo."
<>*<>

The crew of the Star Opal was quiet and somber as they met with the Jedi council in the palace of Naboo.  The council had arrived before the Star Opal, though they insisted on giving the former runaways a day to get settled before meeting.

"We brought a surprise for you, too," Mace told the Skywalkers with a grin as they disembarked the star ship.

"A surprise?" Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traded curious looks.

"One you'll really like!"  Mace called.

Someone giggled, and the next thing Qui-Gon knew, Ahsoka was launching herself at her papa with a happy squeal.  "Welcome to Naboo!"

The Skywalkers wrapped around each other, Ahsoka sandwiched in the middle with Anakin, all grinning in delight.  "We've missed you so much," Qui-Gon told his daughter, hugging her tight.  "Did you have fun while we were gone, a stóirín?"

"Yeah," Ahsoka sprawled over him.  "Me and Feral made some new friends, too."

"You'll have to tell us all about it," Obi-Wan encouraged.

"I got a new droid for Ani, too," Ahsoka squirmed down, wrapping her arms around her brother.  "It's a mousy droid.  It was broken and in the trash, but I bet you can fix it."

"Of course I can," Anakin grinned.

"Come on," Mace waved a hand.  "She can sit in while you give your report.  It's nothing she can't hear—and nothing she probably won't hear eventually anyway since you discuss missions around her."

The group headed into the castle, leaving the crew of the Star Opal with Padmé and Sabé.
<>*<>

"We've agreed to speak with the Jedi council," The captain stood before the Jedi the next day, her arms crossed.  "But not this many of you."

"We are not all on the council," Tera Sinube chuckled.  "Some of us are just on the mission to take out the slavers and need to hear this information for ourselves."

The captain blinked at him.  "You're serious about wanting to end slavery in the galaxy."

"We are," Mace bowed to her, making the captain shift uncertainly.  No one had ever bowed to her before.  "And we thank you for your help."

"Speak with you about working for us as well, we wish to," Yoda added, and the captain couldn't do anything but stare.

"Thank you," The captain almost whispered after several, long moments.  "Mita and Mina begged us to take the Skywalkers and Naberries aboard the ship . . . we never expected anything like this."

"Mita and Mina are both somewhat Force sensitive," Mace told the woman.  "Not enough to be Jedi, but their instincts will serve them well."

"Though if you are ever on Coruscant, they are welcome to spend a few weeks at the temple to better understand their abilities," Depa smiled.  "We requested the captain be made their guardian so that would be up to you."

"Well . . . " The captain glanced at her crew, her eyes on Mita and Mina.  "We did agree to help with the investigation.  And you did say you had work for us.  If a couple of weeks at the temple will help them . . . we'll go."

"You will agree to come to the temple?"  Mace asked.  "It doesn't need to be immediately, if you would prefer to explore the galaxy freely first."

"I'll talk to my crew about it," The captain smiled.  "And that can be done after we talk to you about what we know about the slavers."

"Thank you," Mace bowed again and let the way from the room.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Seven year old Thalia squirmed happily as she and her mother boarded the airbus for Coruscant's upper levels.  The pair of Twi'leks had scrimped and saved all year to attend the Festival of Stars on the upper levels of Coruscant.  Even better, Thalia's favorite holovid show, the Force Warriors, was going to have a booth there.  Thalia might even get to meet them!

"Are you excited?"  Thalia's mother asked, smiling.  The little girl nodded and clutched her Bindi doll tighter.  Bindi was her favorite because she was a Twi'lek like Thalia, but Bindi was purple instead of cerulean like Thalia and her mama.

"Do you think Bindi will sign my dolly?"  Thalia asked, clutching her mama's hand tighter.

"Maybe," Nilima hung something around Thalia's neck.  It was a weird, cloth necklace and had a stiff piece of flimsi hanging from it.  Thalia's mom tapped the strange necklace.  "This is your ticket, okay Thalia?  Don't lose it."

Thalia nodded, inspecting the card.  "Hey!  It's got my picture on it!  And my name!  See, Mama?  It says Thalia!"

"You're such a good reader," Nilima stroked her daughter's lekku.  "You're very, very smart."

"I gotta do good in school," The girl declared.  "I'm gonna be a Jedi like Bindi someday!"

"You might change your mind," Nilima hedged.  "Maybe you'll be a star ship pilot instead."

"That would be so cool!"  Thalia gushed, not noticing the tension easing from her mother's eyes.  "I'd see the whole galaxy.  And you could come with me.  We'd see it together."

"That would be wonderful," Nilima hugged her daughter tightly.  "Why don't you tell me all about the worlds we'd visit?"

Thalia spent the rest of the hour it took them to get to the upper levels telling her mother all about the adventures they'd go on and the world's they'd see.  When they crested the vertical lifts from the lower levels, Thalia cut off, her eyes going wide as she stared at the sky.  "Mama, what's that?"

"That's the sun, baby," Nilima replied, stroking her daughter's lekku even as her heart ached.  This was her daughter's first time seeing the sun.  Nilima just hoped it wasn't the last.

It had taken all the extra credits Nilima had scraped together over the year and almost every credit she'd ever managed to save to get the tickets, but the awe in Thalia's eyes made the hardship worth it.  The little girl had her nose pressed to the window, slack-jawed at silent.  "It's so bright!"

Nilima smiled.  She had only seen the sun a handful of times herself, unable to afford trips to the upper levels even before Thalia had been born.  "It's pretty, isn't it."

"It's the most amazingest thing I ever seen!"  Thalia gasped.  "I wish I could see it every day!"

"Me too, baby," Nilima murmured softly, hugging Thalia tight.  The little girl giggled and squirmed in her mother's arms, twisting back to continue staring out the window.

"You're silly, Mama," Thalia giggled.

Nilima just smiled and herded Thalia toward the door as the bus slowed.  "Our stop, baby."

Thalia almost skipped off, making sure to hold her mother's hand tight.  The under city was rife with gangs, slavers and crime.  Thalia wasn't allowed outside on her own.  She was glad she knew better than to let go of her mama; there were so many people.

The pair wound through the crowds, heading toward the color Force Warriors booth.  Thalia dragged her mother towards the booth.  They were about to start a live show and Thalia could see Bindi waving.  The girl pulled her mother's hand hard.  "Come on, Mama!  We'll miss the show!"

Thalia squirmed through the crowd, easily reaching the partition between the state and the audience.  She eagerly waved at Bindi, grinning at a Togrutan girl next to her that was also jumping in excitement.  Thalia squealed.  "This is so wizard!"

The Togrutan nodded.  "I love Force Warriors.  Zuri is my favorite."

Thalia saw a Zuri doll in the other girl's arms.  Zuri was the only human on the team, pale skinned with long, red hair.  He wasn't as good with Bindi, of course, but he was still cool.  Thalia held up her Bindi doll, to show she loved Force Warriors as much as the other girl.  "I'm Thalia!"

"My name's Ahsoka," The girl bowed, smiling.  She was about a year older than Thalia and her clothes were totally wizard.  Ahsoka's mama let her come in a costume and she even had two metal tubes, like lightsaber handles, at her belt.

"Your costume is real neat!"  Thalia told her, wide eyed.  Ahsoka looked confused for a moment, so Thalia added, "You look almost like a real Force Warrior."

Before Ahsoka could reply, Bindi waved to the crowd and announced, "There's nowhere for evil-doers to run and hide, the Force Warriors are here to vanquish the dark side!"

Thalia shrieked in excitement.  Best.  Day.  Ever!
<>*<>

Watching the Force Warriors in person was even better than the holovid show.  Bindi and the other Force Warriors beat back the evil minions of Darth Darkness and restored light to the galaxy.  Thalia even got to help.  When the Force Warriors were having trouble, they told the crowd that cheering would help them fight better.  Thalia cheered louder than anyone else.

"That was so fun!"  Thalia told her new friend.  "I never seen anyone fight like that!"

"It was pretty wizard," Ahsoka grinned.  "Hey—you wanna go watch the real Jedi fight?  There's a booth just a few down from here, and they've got a demonstration starting soon."

"Real Jedi?"  Thalia gasped.  "I heard there was some at the festival last year, too, but I didn't get to see them.  Let me get my mama and we can go!"

"Okay," Ahsoka agreed.  "Where is she?"

The Twi'lek turned and froze.  Her mother was nowhere in sight.  Thalia knew they'd been together, and her mama would never let them get separated.  "Mama?"

Ahsoka frowned as Thalia began jumping up and down, trying to see through the heavy crowd.  "Thalia?"  The Togrutan tilted her head.  "What's wrong?"

"I can't find my mom!"  Thalia sniffled.

Ahsoka bit her lip, then held up a finger and closed her eyes.  Thalia watched, curious.  Ahsoka almost looked like she was talking to someone.  After a few moments, Ahsoka opened her eyes.  "My parents are coming to help us find your mama.  We just gotta stay put.  And if your mama is looking, she'll probably come here first, right?"

Thalia nodded, wiping her eyes.  "Hey—maybe Bindi will help us!"

"I don't think—"  Ahsoka started, but Thalia had already squirmed under the barrier.  Bindi was a Force Warrior, and that was what Force Warriors did; they helped people.

"Bindi!"  Thalia called, racing through the set.  "Bindi!"

The actors were still backstage when Thalia arrived, the Twi'lek who played Bindi making out with another actor, one of Darth Darkness' minions.  Thalia gasped, drawing the attention of the actor who played Zuri, earning a sigh.  "The hell do you want, brat?"

"Um—"  Thalia swallowed hard.  This was nothing like she'd been expecting.

"You gotta pay for autographs, brat," Zuri's actor snapped.

"Oh please,"  Another Force Warrior took a drag from his cig stick.  "Look at her.  The brat probably can't afford one."

"I can't find my mama," Thalia burst out.  "She's missing!"

"Seriously kid, do we look like the Security Forces?"  Bindi's actress rolled her eyes.  "Go whine at someone who karking cares."

"But—You're the Force Warriors," Thalia sniffled.  "You're supposed to help people."

"We play Jedi," Zuri's actor snorted.  "That doesn't actually make us Jedi.  If you want those goody-two-shoes—"

"SHUT UP!"  Ahsoka's Zuri doll came flying past, slamming into the man's chest.  "FORCE WARRIORS SUCK!  You're supposed to be like my parents, or Uncle Mace or Depa and you suck!"

"Why you obnoxious, little—"

"That is quite enough," A dark-skinned human snapped, glowering.  "When we allowed this show to be made, we expected the actors to follow basic decorum—on set and off."

Thalia gaped at the newcomer.  He was dressed a lot like Ahsoka, but his over tunic was a rich plum rather than rust red.

Ahsoka grinned.  "We aren't dressed like Force Warriors, we're dressed like Jedi."

Thalia stared, clutching her Bindi doll.  It wasn't nearly as comforting, now that she'd met the real Bindi, but Thalia was scared and hugging something made her feel better.  "Jedi are apposed to help people, right?  Will you help me find my mama?"

"Of course, young one," The man knelt, smiling and introducing himself as Master Mace Windu.  Thalia's eyes grew wide.  She lived next door to a being named Andor, who had met the Jedi the very first time they did the Festival of Stars.  "Would you come with me to talk to the Security Forces?"

Thalia bit her lip.  "But . . . Mama says the Security Forces don't look for beings like us.  We're from Under City, so no one cares what happens to us."

"We care," Mace replied, startling when Thalia threw her little arms around him, hugging him tight.  "And I promise the Security Forces will look for her.  As will we."

"Please find my mama," Thalia begged, sobbing into the Jedi's shoulder.  "I don't wanna go to Younglings' Protective Services!  Some of the younglings at my school had to go, and it was real bad.  They got hit by their new parents, or it was so bad, they runned away, then disappeared!"

"Don't worry," Ahsoka told the girl.  "We'll find your mom for sure!"

Thalia hoped Ahsoka was right, clutching both Ahsoka and Mace's hands as they went to the Security Forces' office.  She didn't want to lose them like she had her mama.  The Security officers stared at the pair of Jedi that entered with her, and Thalia hoped it would make them look for her mama.  Security Officers in the Under City never looked for anyone that went missing.  Thalia's aunt went missing when she was little and she and Nilima had been laughed out of the Security Offices when they reported it.

"You're sure they're going to look for my mama?"  Thalia asked the Jedi after they'd left.  "And . . . and what's going to happen to me now?"

"I'm certain they'll look for your mother," Mace assured her.  "And while we search for her, I thought you could remain with the Jedi."

"Is that all right?"  Thalia bit her lip.  She knew she couldn't go home, and it wasn't safe for her to wander about the under city alone.  If the Jedi didn't let her stay, she'd have to go to YPS and maybe disappear like her mama.

"I bet we'll find your mom in no time," Ahsoka assured her.  "It would be awful silly to send you to Younglings' Services for a couple hours.  You should just stay with us."

"I don't have any money," Thalia told the girl uncertainly.  She'd heard her mama say that a lot just before they were ordered to leave where they were.

"We are Jedi," Mace smiled, offering her a hand.  "We don't require payment."

Thalia took it, smiling.  "Thank you, Master Windu."
<>*<>

Thalia loved the Jedi.  She spent the day with Ahsoka and her friends, Feral and Barriss.  Thalia's mom had warned her they wouldn't be able to afford much at the festival, but the Jedi had included her in everything they did, assuring her that she would not need to repay them.  The Jedi had even given her a comm. so they could call her the moment the Security Forces found her mom.  Even better, the comm. unit took holos.

Thalia made sure to take lots so she could show her mom everything.

Thalia tried not to think about how long it was taking to find her mom as the sun slowly began to set.  Nilima had been missing most of the day, and Thalia wondered what the Jedi would do if they couldn't find her before nightfall.  They'd only agreed to keep her for a little while, and she was too young to stay alone even if she didn't live in the Under City.  Thalia didn't want to go to YPS, either.  She was scared she would disappear, too.

"Excuse me, Master Mace?"  Thalia hesitantly tugged Mace's sleeve.  "Have you found my mama, yet?  I'm sleepy and . . . and . . . I don't wanna go with strangers."

"Hold on, young one," Mace laid a hand on her shoulder, then turned to finish speaking to a white cat-being and a huge man with gentle, azure eyes before turning to address Thalia.  "Not yet, Thalia.  I'm afraid it is taking us longer than we anticipated to find your mother."

Thalia sniffled.  "Mama said we didn't have to worry up here.  She said people don't disappear in the upper levels.  She said slavers don't take rich people and the gangs are too scared to come up here!"

"I have already requested several Jedi aid the Security officers in the search," Mace told the little girl, sighing softly as he picked her up.  Thalia forced back her tears.  She was a big girl and big girls didn't cry, but it had been hours and no one had found anything.  If Thalia's mom hadn't returned yet, then it was because she couldn't.

Thalia hugged Mace tight.  "Are you going to send me to YPS, now?"

"We thought you might want to stay with Ahsoka tonight," The big man offered, giving Thalia a soft smile.  "I'm her papa, Qui-Gon Jinn."

"Is that okay?"  Thalia looked between Mace and Qui-Gon.  "What happens if you don't find her tonight?"

"We'll keep looking until we find your mother," Mace promised her.  "And you will remain with the Jedi until we do."

"Uncle Mace is real stubborn," Ahsoka assured her new friend.  "So if anyone can find her, the Jedi can."

"Are they like the Force Warriors?"  Thalia asked the other girl.

"No way," Ahsoka told her.  "Jedi are way better than those stinky Force Warriors.  And we don't give up, neither.  Okay?"

Thalia set her jaw.  She was going to be brave while the Jedi found her mama.  "Okay."

Qui-Gon and Mace carried the girls back to the Jedi temple, trading looks.  They just hoped they would be able to keep their promise.

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon left Anakin and Savage in charge of Ahsoka, Feral and Thalia while they  headed for the council chamber.  Qui-Gon barely managed a brief stop at the quartermaster to get some clothing and request a pair of Jedi dolls that looked like Thalia and Nilima for the little girl.  The man hoped the dolls would bring Thalia some comfort while they searched for her mother.

"I spoke with the créche master," Mace greeted the Skywalkers as they entered the council chamber.  "If we are unable to locate Thalia's mother tonight, she will be able to stay in the créche."

"Is that the best environment for her?"  Obi-Wan asked, concerned.

"She will be in Kylara's créche, so she will see Ahsoka and Feral every day for classes, and it is certainly better than Younglings' Protective Services," Adi told the Skywalkers.  "And I'm sure you won't just let her flounder about on her own."

"That's true," Qui-Gon agreed, offering a small smile.  "Still, thank you for letting her stay here."

"Heard the stories of the Under City, we have," Yaddle sighed softly.  "Wish to be more involved, we do, but able before this, we were not.  Take non-Force-sensitives from YPS without reason, we could not."

"We have direct evidence people are going missing from Core worlds, but we didn't have anything showing YPS was selling children,"  Salín sighed.  She, Pangur and Tera Sinube had joined the Skywalkers with the council, waiting for reports to come in from the Jedi searching for Nilima.
<>*<>

Kylara herded the exhausted initiates onto the passenger ship headed to the temple from the Festival of Stars booth closest to the warehouses in the Under City.  Kylara was supposed to be driving the cargo ship back, leaving the other créche master to handle the younglings on the trip home—though the younglings were likely to be sleeping the entire trip.  "They're set to go," Kylara told the other créche master, offering a yawn of her own.  "Should be a quiet trip."

"I hope so," The créche master stretched, popping his back.  "Force, I'm glad tomorrow is the last day."

"I hear that," Kylara agreed, heading for the cargo shuttle.  "I'll meet you back at the temple.  I need to pack up the rest of these dolls, then I'll head back."

"You want help?"

"No, I can do it in two trips and it's better to get everyone else back," Kylara waved it off.  "Don't worry about it, I'll be just behind you."

The passenger shuttle took off, Kylara offering a small wave.  The Iktoch gave a satisfied smile as she loaded the last of the dolls onto the passenger ship.  She'd been working with the créche ever since the Jedi had freed her from the arena five years before, and she couldn't have been happier.  She had thought she'd die a slave in the arena, never thinking the Jedi would save her.  Seeing Mace had been the happiest day of her life.

Smiling, Kylara turned for the second load of dolls and froze, eyes going wide.  A pair of men were escorting a cerulean Twi'lek female across the square with a handful of other beings.  "Urgent call for the council," Kylara whispered into her comm., following the large, Feeorin males.  "I think I found the missing Twi'lek."

"Jedi Kylara," Mace replied, and Kylara sagged in relief.  "You found Nilima?"

"Yes," Kylara slipped across the square, eyes on the group.  "There are others with her.  I'm following them now."

"Do not engage," Mace ordered.  "It'll take us an hour to get backup to you.  And stay on the line with us."

"Yes, Master Windu," Kylara agreed, following the group across the square.  In the background, she could hear the council arranging to have the Skywalkers, Pangur, Salín and Mace to her coordinates.  Adi and Depa took over the holo, Kylara turning it so they could see the group she was following.

"I'll have Anakin meet us in the hanger," Obi-Wan said as they left the council chamber.  "We can cut our time down to three quarters an hour."

The group headed into one of the warehouses, Kylara diving inside just as the doors slammed closed.  The Jedi clamped her hands over her mouth to hide her gasp.  Cages and kennels, filled with children and teenagers, lined the walls of the warehouse while older slaves were chained in long lines through the center.

"We've got the last of 'em," One of the Feeorins called, and several more began shifting the wall between the building the slaves were in and the one next to it.

"Sweet Force," Kylara breathed, suddenly understanding how they were getting off planet.  They loaded the ship in the Under City, then used the lifts to take it to the warehouse directly above, in the Upper Levels.  A forged certificate would get them off planet, and from there they could head anywhere in the galaxy.

"This is the missing link we need," Adi murmured.  They had managed to locate several auction planets, but without the slavers' base of operations, they had been unable to link any purchases to Republic citizens.  Additionally, they hadn't been able to connect any of the kidnappings from the Core worlds to the slave trade.  "This ship will need to take these people to the base of operations to register the slaves . . . if we can follow it there, we can raid the base and topple slavery throughout the Republic."

"How far out are the other Jedi?"  Kylara asked, keeping her voice to an undertone.

"At least thirty minutes."

"They're loading the beings onto the ship," Kylara bit her lip.  "I don't think we have that long.  If they hit hyperspace, we'll lose them."

"Kylara—"  Depa started, only for Kylara to cut her off.

"I should be able to wire my comm. into their systems," Kylara told the council.  "If I do that, you can track them through hyperspace."

Even Piell clenched his fists.  "You're a créche master, Kylara.  Stay where you are—"

"We can't afford to lose this ship, Masters," Kylara drew in a deep breath.  "If you do, not only will you lose Thalia's mother, we'll lose the only link we have to the slavers.  I'm not going to let that happen."

"Kylara, you are not a field Jedi—"

"I was," Kylara snapped, voice low.  "Before I was sold, my master and I were constantly in the field.  I know I didn't finish my padawan training, and that I refused to rejoin the official ranks, but I am still Jedi.  I will not stand idly by and let this happen."

The council traded somber looks, and bowed to Kylara, Adi telling her, "You honor the Jedi.  May the Force be with you."

"Wait as long as you can," Depa ordered.  "Anakin is driving—they may yet make it."

"I can give them five minutes," Kylara watched the slavers force the kidnapped beings onto the ship.  "I'll leave my comm. on, but it'll be best if you're all quiet."

"Kylara," Obi-Wan hissed, and the Iktoch woman found herself sagging in relief before she realized they'd managed to connect the Skywalkers into her comm. frequency.  "The council told us what's going on."

"How far out are you?" Kylara watched as the cages were loaded onto the ship.

"Ten minutes."

"They're loading the last of the slaves.  We don't have ten more minutes."  Kylara shifted, gritting her teeth.  "I'm sorry."

"Kylara—"  Mace started, but the Jedi was already racing across the warehouse.  Mace fell silent, not wanting to give her as she dodged behind the supplies they had yet to load.  Likely the other Jedi would be arriving as the ship prepared to take off.  Kylara raced up the ramp, slipping, throwing herself in the cargo hold as several slavers passed.  She'd left her over tunic, tabards and boots in the warehouse, allowing her to blend in with the slaves.

The Jedi hastily slid into a space at the end of the line, just behind a Mirialan, who gave her a wide-eyed stare, hissing.  "Who the hell are you?"

"I'm Jedi," Kylara glanced at the doorway.  "I need to get to the comm. center."

"Are you here to save us?" The being asked.

"I—I don't know," Kylara swallowed hard.  "If we can trace this ship, we believe we can topple the entire slave trade in the Republic.  If I save you . . . "

"Just cut the chains," Nilima desperately told her.  "I have to get back to my daughter.  Please."

Kylara clenched her fists.  "I'll try to release the chains from the control room.  But I can't promise anything.  We can't miss this chance."

"We'll distract the slavers," The Mirialan told her.  "Get to the front, near the door.  You should be able to hide on top of the kennels."

Kylara nodded, leaping onto the cages as several of the slaves began to riot.  The slavers raced into the room, Kylara forcing herself to ignore the cries of the slaves as they were beaten.  The Jedi threw herself through the door.

"We're almost there, Kylara," Mace called as Kylara skidded onto the bridge and palmed the door closed, locking it behind her.

"I've got to end the call," Kylara popped the panel to the comm. unit.  "If all goes well, you'll be back on in less than a minute, but you'll only be receiving; you won't be able to transmit.  You'll lose the ship in hyperspace, otherwise."

"May the Force be with you," Yoda told her.

"And with you," Kylara replied, and cut the connection.

Mace breathed a sigh of relief when Kylara's comm. unit came back on-line, showing the Jedi flipping the locks for the slaves' chains and grabbing the unit to deactivate their explosive collars.  The woman winced when klaxons began sounding, racing toward the cargo hold.  "She doesn't have a lightsaber," Qui-Gon breathed, gripping the seat.  "She refuses to carry any kind of weapon."

"We're almost there," Anakin was going as fast as his modified engines were capable, dodging traffic with use of the Force and reflexes born of pod-racing.  "Just a few more minutes."

Qui-Gon watched as Kylara began helping the slaves remove their collars.  "Go," Kylara ordered as she freed the first few.  "Don't wait.  I don't know how long I have—"

"We aren't leaving you," Nilima replied, turning to face the incoming slavers.

"Your daughter is at the Jedi temple," Kylara snapped.  "She needs you.  Now go!"

"I can't just—"

"I have friends coming," Kylara shoved her toward the ramp.  "Now go!"

Nilima gave Kylara one, last look and raced for the doors.  Kylara kept working on the slave collars, crying out when one of the slaves hit her with a stun baton.  "How did you find out about us?"  The being demanded, kicking her.  "Who are you working with?"

"I'm a private investigator," Kylara lied.  "I was hired to find a Twi'lek, and stumbled across your ship instead.  And when the Security Offices get wind of this, they'll arrest every last one of you—"

"Shut up, you dumb bitch," The slaver shoved the baton in her ribs, turning it to its highest setting.  "No one's going to find out about this!"

"I'm not going to let you get away with this—!"  Kylara shrieked, convulsing.  "The authorities are already on the way!"

"The Security Forces are in our pocket," The captain sneered, as the crew pinned her down.  Kylara choked and struggled, trying to free herself as the other Jedi watched helpless.

"I meant the Jedi," Kylara snarled as the captain put a blaster to her head.  "And they won't let you get away with this—!"

"Then I guess we'll have to make sure you can't tell," The captain replied coolly, and pulled the trigger.

"No!"  Pangur gripped his lightsaber, watching the slavers toss Kylara's body from the ship.  Anakin slammed into the door of the warehouse as the captain closed the ramp.  Salín snarled under her breath, eyes narrowed.

"They have to get away," Mace ordered, though he didn't look any happier about it.  "They don't know she wired her comm. into their systems.  If we stop them, her sacrifice will have been in vain."

"They killed Kylara," Anakin punched the dash.  "We can't just let them get away with it!"

"They're getting away for now, Anakin, not forever," Obi-Wan pulled his son into a hug.  "Force—if she'd just waited—"

"If she'd waited, we would have lost this chance completely," Salín cradled Kylara's body.  "Kylara has done the Jedi proud."

"I'd rather she was alive," Anakin sniffled, hiding his face in Obi-Wan's shoulder.  "She wasn't supposed to—she stayed in the créche to stay away from violence.  She wasn't supposed to die like this!"

Mace wrapped the being in his cloak and lifted the woman's body carefully, settling her in the shuttle.  The Jedi bowed their heads for a moment before getting back into the shuttle, Mace still cradling Kylara's corpse.

"Wait!"  A Twi'lek called, racing toward them.  "Please!  You are Jedi—the Iktoch woman said you had my daughter!  Her name is Thalia!"

"She's at the temple," Qui-Gon helped the woman into the shuttle.  "Safe and sound."

"Thank you," Nilima looked at Kylara.  "I wish I could have thanked her, too.  Instead, the slavers got away with all but a dozen of us."

"She wired her comm. into their systems," Mace bowed his head.  "We'll be able to follow them.  Kylara gave her life so we could topple this slaver ring."

"If she'd left without helping us—"

"Kylara was Jedi," Salín told Nilima softly.  "That wasn't something she would have been able to do.  Especially not since we rescued her from slavery."

Silence fell over the shuttle for the rest of the ride back to the temple.  Mace carried Kylara's body to the Hall of Ascendance, the Jedi that had been with him falling into step behind him.  The council met them there, somber and quiet, as Mace laid the body in the pyre.

"Have the ceremony tomorrow, we shall," Yoda told them all softly.  "Tell the younglings, we must."

"Ahsoka," Anakin murmured, pressing into his papa's side.  Qui-Gon kissed his hair, Obi-Wan wrapping the boy in a one-armed hug.  Anakin rested his head on his dad's shoulder.  "And Feral."

"Thalia will be glad to see her mother at least," Obi-Wan offered Nilima a small smile.  "And we're glad you're safe."

"Thank you for taking care of her," Nilima followed them down the halls of the temple.  "If was afraid she'd be taken to YPS and that I'd see her on the ship with me."

"We've been working to take down this slavery ring for a long time," Qui-Gon explained.  "We would never have done such a terrible thing to her.  And we're glad that . . . whatever else . . . Kylara got you home."

"I never thought I was worth anyone sacrificing themselves for me," Nilima admitted.  "And I won't let her sacrifice be in vain."

"We're home!"  Obi-Wan palmed the door open, the children looking up from the holonet.

"Mama!"  Thalia shrieked, throwing herself at Nilima.  Ahsoka was on her heels, Obi-Wan scooping her up and hugging her tightly.  "You're home!"

"You're welcome to stay here, tonight," Qui-Gon told Nilima softly.  When she agreed, the man turned to Anakin.  "Will you show them to the spare room?  We should talk to Ahsoka and Feral.  Savage, can you get Maul, Yaddle and Depa for us?"

"Papa?"  Ahsoka tilted her head.  "What happened?"

"Once the others are here," Obi-Wan told her, only to find them in the doorway, Maul's hand poised over the chime.

"Came from the council, we did," Yaddle explained, gesturing to herself and Depa.  "Thought it best to come here, we did.  Speak with Feral and Ahsoka we should."

Feral blinked up at them.  "What happened?"

"Come here, dear heart," Maul settled the boy on his lap as Qui-Gon settled Ahsoka on his own, Obi-Wan curled next to them.

"We have terrible news," Qui-Gon stroked Ahsoka's lek.  "Kylara helped us break up the slavery ring, but . . . she gave her life to do it."

"She died?"   Ahsoka stared up at them, tears in her eyes.

"One with the Force, she has become," Yaddle climbed onto the couch between Maul and Savage.  Depa hugged her padawan tightly, rubbing his back.  "Miss her, we shall."

"I don't want her to be dead," Ahsoka sniffled.

"Us either," Obi-Wan told his daughter, wrapping an arm around Anakin when the boy settled on his other side.  "We're sorry, a stóirín. We will all miss her, very much."

It was with heavy hearts that the Jedi set their plan into motion that would topple the slavery ring throughout the Republic.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty Five
The Slavers' Base

Mace gave Depa, Adi and Yaddle some time with their padawans, then called an emergency session of the council.  He had wanted to do it the moment they returned from the warehouse, but the slavers were headed to wild space and there were no known hyperlanes there.  They would need to wait for them slavers to exit hyperspace so they could follow the route they'd taken.  It gave him some time to draft a mission plan, at least.

With no idea how long the slavers would be in hyperspace and a great deal to plan, the council knew time was of the essence, but they understood that it was important for the Jedi to care for their own as well.  Yoda had determined that part of the issues in the Order stemmed from them putting the needs of the galaxy before their own.  If they were going to change the Order to better help the galaxy, they would need to remember that Jedi had needs just like every other sentient.

"My apologies," Depa bowed to her former master and the head of the council.  "My padawan needed me."

"Care for the Order, we must," Yoda assured her, nodding to Adi and Yaddle as well.  "All right, your padawans are?  And Ahsoka and Feral as well?"

"Difficult to accept, the news was," Yaddle's ears drooped.  "Saddened by her loss, we all are."

"The Order has lost a great Jedi today," Shaak Ti bowed her head.  "I believe we should give Kylara the title of knight, posthumously."

The council stared at the woman for a moment, shocked.  Shaak Ti had argued against even keeping the lost padawans in the temple, but for her to request one of them be given the title of knight, even posthumously, was shocking.  Yarael recovered first, nodding in agreement.  "Kylara certainly deserves it.  Her display of bravery did the Jedi proud."

"Announce it at her cremation, we shall," Yoda agreed, after the rest of the council agreed.  "However, here to discuss another matter, we are.  Gifted to us a chance to destroy slavery in the Republic with her sacrifice, Kylara did.  Waste it, we will not."

"We have several plans we can put into action," Adi flipped through files on her datapad.  "We should call Tera, Pangur and Salín here.  They've been coordinating efforts on Coruscant for years now.  They will best be able to help us determine our course of action."

"I agree," Even nodded as Depa sent a message to summon the trio.

Given the speed with which all three arrived, Mace had a feeling they were waiting for the call.  "Savage got a copy of the plans you've been working on while you were going after Kylara, Master Windu," Tera told bowed to the council.  "We looked them over while waiting for your summons."

Mace gaped at the Cosian for a moment.  "Savage got them for you?"

"Savage and R2," Tera nodded.  "It was quite impressive, but I knew time would be of the essence once you returned here.  We do have some suggestions regarding both the plans you have proposed, and the team you'll be sending."

"Of course, these may change depending on where you end up going," Salín glanced at her teammates.  "Do we have any idea where they're headed?"

"The only thing we've been able to find thus far is the three auction planets, but they don't keep copies of their records there," Depa frowned.  "And they don't have the location of their base there, either.  They've messed up in a lot of places, but that isn't one of them."

"To be this careful . . ."  Yarael frowned.  "There must be someone pulling strings.  Groups of this size are not this careful without someone powerful behind them."

"Someone they are afraid to anger."  Horror fluttered across Adi's features.  "The Sith!"

"Perhaps . . . but evidence of this, there is not," Yoda reminded her.  "Discuss this, the time is not.  Know how long the slavers will be in hyperspace, we do not.  Prepare for the journey first, we should, then determine if evidence of Sith, there is."

"Master Yoda is right," Mace nodded.  "There will be time enough for that after we are ready to leave at a moment's notice."

"We will want a large team," Even looked through the roster.  "Which will require some coordination."

"If I may?" Salín bowed to the council.  "I believe there should be multiple teams sent out—one for the slavers' planet, and the others to do damage control until the evidence and the leaders of the slavers can be returned to Coruscant and those involved formally prosecuted."

"It would be wise," A few of the council members nodded.

"Coordinate the teams, Pangur, Salín and Tera should," Yaddle agreed.  "Involved for the entire investigation, they have been.  Know where the most problems will be, they will."

"Agreed," Mace nodded.  "The team headed for the slavers' planet will need to be fairly large as well.  We should have a Jedi in charge of coordinating that team as well."

The council nodded, flipping through their datapads.  Much of the night was spent in discussion about who should be on the teams, and how many.  The slavers' planet was large, and the team would need to be large enough not only to find the data they were looking for, but also make sure they could incapacitate the slavers and handle any issues with the slaves themselves, since the enslaved beings might not recognize the Jedi as friendly.

"I can understand your hesitance, but Padawans Anakin Skywalker and Savage Oppress are two of the best slicers we have in the temple," Shaak Ti told Depa, arms crossed.

"It does not matter," Depa almost sighed.  "They won't know what they're looking for, and they aren't prepared to deal with that kind of information!  Their skills will only get them so far and we don't want everything when we get there.  Once we have evidence, we can get everything else later."

"If the information is locked down, which the padawans are best suited for."

Adi and Even traded exasperated looks, Even finally breaking in, "Then send Knight Eerin.  She has worked with both padawans on a regular basis, is an excellent fighter, and will know what we're looking for.  Once the boys get into the system, she will be able to handle the rest."

"Send Kit with them as well, we should," Yaddle added.  "Dangerous, their mission will be and one of the best fighters in the temple, he is."

"And I've no doubt Padawan Skywalker will insist on taking that R2 unit of his," Mace sighed.  "At least they can download what information they find onto it."

"That team should also be in charge of transmitter deactivation," Depa suggested.  "Likely they'll be able to find the transmitter codes there—hopefully for all the slaves that group has sold."

"The only other thing stopping us," Mace nodded.  "If they do find all the codes, we'll need to make sure no one knows so they don't have time to change them.  Anakin and Savage would likely have the best knowledge of what to do with them, too."

"I believe Bant should be the leader of the Data Collection and Transmitter Deactivation Team," Adi proposed.  "She is cool headed and Kit does not have the technical knowledge the leader would require."

"A knight chosen to lead a master?" Shaak Ti almost cried, clearly scandalized.

"Knight Eerin has better background," Adi argued.  "And she and Master Fisto were never the . . . most traditional of pairs since Bant was a senior padawan before Master Tahl died.  I do not believe he will mind at all."

"I agree with Master Gallia," Even and Oppo Rancisis replied, Oppo adding, "We should consider the gifts of our knights more often—age and rank do not always mean a being is most qualified for a given job."

Shaak Ti huffed, but was forced to back down when others on the council agreed with Oppo and Bant was given charge of the team.

Depa, meanwhile, was placed in charge of the team in charge of protecting and liberating what slaves they could while Yaddle served as her second.  Depa had a cooler head around suffering beings than Yaddle, but Yaddle's personality would earn the trust of the slaves far better than the somewhat-distant Depa. Adi and her Padawan, Kelyan, would accompany them, as would Maul's ducklings: Naia, Drex and Rhys.  Naia's master, Silreno, and Drex's master, Arasath, would also be with them.

While Rhys served on the Slave Liberation Team, his master would be back on the ship with what Mace believed would be one of the most important jobs of the mission.  Yanarath would be in charge of coordinating all the groups going and sending Jedi where they were needed, in addition to relaying information to the Pangur, Salín and Tera on Coruscant for damage control all over the galaxy.

"Do you think he can do it on his own?"  Depa frowned.  "That is a huge job—perhaps Rhys should stay with him."

"Padawan Kotan will better serve the other team," Mace replied.  "He is friendly and kind.  Beings instinctively trust him."

"Handled far more complicated matters alone, Knight Kar'lis has," Yoda told them, defending Mace's decision to leave Yanarath on his own.  "If help, he needs, have him recall Padawan Kotan then, he should."

"We need a team to lock down the slavers' ships, too," Oppo looked over the plan.

"Knights Garen Muln, Reeft and Siri Tachi would likely be well suited for that, and Knight Tachi has a padawan roughly Padawan Skywalker's age, does she not?"  Ki-Adi-Mundi asked.  "Unless I am much mistaken, she is the same Iktoch girl Anakin bonded with as an initiate over their love of explosives."

"Padawan Bryni," Even frowned.  "Poor Master Zekku . . . he was never quite the same after that."

"They blew up half the lab and nearly burnt half the fur off one of the Wookiee knights helping them.  I can imagine it would be rather traumatizing," Yarael reminded them.  "Very well suited for Knight Tachi."

"Padawan Bryni and Knight Muln are both very good at commandeering ships," Ki-Adi-Mundi made a face.  "Though Padawan Bryni is a terrible pilot."

"So don't let her fly.  We can send an astromech that can help Knight Muln slave the ships together, if necessary," Adi told the group.  "There is one—R2-KT that would be good for this, I think.  I'll make sure to have it placed on standby."

"I elect we place Knight Muln in charge, given he has the most experience with ships," Ki-Adi Mundi suggested.

"I want Quinlan and his padawan, Aayla Secure, there, also," Mace told the council.  "They are the best trackers in the Order and we cannot afford to lose any of the slavers to the wilds of whatever planet we end up.  Which they will attempt, I've no doubt."

"If any get away, they could communicate a warning to the others," Yarael agreed.  "It is best they go with you."

"As for the main team that goes for the slavers, I want on it." Mace crossed his arms.

"Knew you would want this long ago, we did," Yoda told his once-student.  "Already on the team, you are."

"Thank you, Master," Mace dipped his head in a bow.  "And those with me?"

Yoda almost made a comment about Mace realizing he would not be able to do this on his own, but the man so rarely requested to even work with others that Yoda held his tongue.  He did not wish to discourage the man from doing it again.  "With you go the elder Skywalkers, Maul and myself," Yoda told him.  "Best to capture the slavers, we are.  Leader of this team, you will be, Master Windu.  Look forward to seeing it, I am."

Mace blinked at his master, a small smile curling his lips.  Depa nearly choked to see her former master show the emotion in the midst of the council session.  Mace had an incredibly Sabaac face—at least, when he wasn't playing Sabaac—and to have the smile slip through meant he was incredibly pleased.

"I will assign Knight Muln as the pilot, though I've no doubt Anakin and Savage will be fighting over the co-pilot's seat," Ki-Adi-Mundi told them.  "I'll have the three pick out a ship first thing later this morning."

"We should not wait—" Mace began, but Depa laid a hand on his arm.

"Dawn is but two hours away, Master," Depa told him.  "Let them sleep.  The pilots will be under enough stress during the journey.  The least we can do is allow them to be well rested at its start."

Mace sighed, but Depa was right.  They were in the middle of playing the hurry-up-and-wait game, not knowing when the slavers would drop out of hyperspace.  They knew the ships with new slaves went to the base, but there was also a chance this would be yet another false trail, no matter how slim.  Even if they didn't leave the moment the ship left hyperspace, however, the tracker would still lead them to the planet.

"You are correct in this, my once padawan," Mace tugged one of her braids affectionately, startling several on the council, though Depa had grown used to it over the last few years.  Mace had begun being more affectionate to a handful of people, Depa among them.

"We also need to assign the other teams," Pangur added, looking around the council.  "This may be the key group in topping this slavery ring, but that does make our other teams less important."

"True, this is," Yoda nodded, and the council fell back into discussion that lasted much of the night.
<>*<>

Four days after Kylara sacrificed her life to get a tracker on the slavers' ship, the slavers' ship left hyperspace.  While the damage control teams had already been deployed, the group headed for the slavers' base scrambled to leave.  Within an hour of receiving the news, the group was hot on the slavers' tails and the Coordinating team on Coruscant was setting up in the communications tower.

Salín and Tera readied a number of maps so they could track the various teams and keep them appraised of one another.  Steady, colored lights swept across the holographs, the teams spread across the galaxy.  Pangur flipped open the comm. channels, announcing, "The slavers have left hyperspace.  All teams are go.  Status check!"

A chorus of voices greeted the trio, Yanarath's clear from the main team's ship.  "Liberation One, checking in.  You're loud and clear."

"Looks like you're about to hit hyperspace," Pangur's voice was tinny and stretched as Garen threw the lever and the stars streaked around them.

"We are go," Yanarath replied, glancing around the tiny ship.  The communications console was crowded into a tiny corner, squeezed between the wall and navigation console where Drex and Arasath were seated, Arasath delicately perched on her padawan's lap.  Yanarath was certain they were uncomfortable, since he was sharing the seat with his own padawan, who was far smaller than Drex, and they barely had room to move.

"You fly like a drunken Corellian," Obi-Wan complained to Garen once he'd set the autopilot.  "With suicidal tendencies."

"Yeah, well, fuck you, too," Garen replied, laughing.  "I fly just fine."

Obi-Wan made a face, slipping off his husband's laugh.  The star ship had been chosen for speed rather than space, so they had over two dozen people crammed in a ten person courier ship.  With the exception of Garen, who was piloting, every seat was shared—though how Anakin and Savage both managed to fit in the co-pilot's chair was anyone's guess.

"We've got two and a half days until we hit the slavers' base planet," Garen told the group.  "Everyone better fucking bathe regularly.  Sonics only and since we only have one fresher you better make it speedy, but I refuse to smell any of you for the duration of this trip."

"We're all adults," Siri huffed.  "I'm sure we can handle something as simple as bathing."

"I've ridden with you on a long trip, Tachi," Garen answered.  "Spray body freshener is not the answer."

"That was you, Garen," Siri rolled her eyes.

"Enough," Mace snapped, arms crossed.  "This is a serious matter!  Start acting in a way befitting your station immediately."

Anakin heaved a mental sigh, telling his parents, —He's always this high strung on missions.

"Mace, calm down," Qui-Gon touched his friend's shoulder.  "I'm certain they meant to harm.  We're just stuck in very cramped quarters, and it will be difficult without a bit of humor ease the tension."

"We are headed to the slavers' main base to finally topple slavery in the republic!  We have been working toward this for five years!"  Mace snapped.  "Do not treat it like a joke!"

"We are not treating it like a joke," Qui-Gon assured him.  "We understand the gravity of this situation, but creating more stress during the journey will not help anyone—us or the slaves we are going to rescue.  If these jokes help relieve some of the tension, then let them be."

Mace sighed softly.  "You're right.  I just—it's been five years since this began.  I can hardly believe it's so close to ending."

"It's not over yet," Adi reminded them all.  "The only thing we know about the planet we're headed to is the location."

"Until we receive information, we can't do anything more," Depa told the group.  "I recommend we eat and rest while we wait."

"Agree, I do," Yoda nodded.

"Someone will need to watch the controls, but I agree," Garen looked over the route.  "There shouldn't be any issues, but I don't want to take chances."

"I'll take first watch!"  Anakin eagerly offered, sliding into the pilot's seat.  Obi-Wan rolled his eyes, the rest of the group heading for whatever space they'd found to bunk in, with the exception of Mace, who settled at the navigational computer.

"Master," Depa scolded.

"I won't stay up long," Mace waved her off.  "Really."

Qui-Gon dropped a hand on Mace's shoulder.  "You've been awake for almost two days, Mace.  You're exhausted."

"I'm fine.  Really." Mace waved him off.  Depa frowned at Mace, then gave Qui-Gon a sharp nod.  Qui-Gon shrugged.

"Sleep," Qui-Gon ordered, and Mace realized, as he slid under, that the glowing bastard had used a Force suggestion on him.  Qui-Gon hefted the councilor like a youngling, turning to Depa.  "Where should I put him?"

"I—didn't actually expect that to work," Depa admitted.  "I can't remember where he found to sleep."

"You could have mentioned that before," Qui-Gon told her.  "He might have been missing sleep, but he hasn't been skipping meals."

Depa rolled her eyes.  "He's not that much bigger than Obi-Wan and I've watched you carry him for kilometers.  Come on, I think he took over whatever space was closest to the cockpit after."

"Garen took that one," Qui-Gon headed into the corridor.  "Still . . . they can share."

Garen just sighed and moved over.
<>*<>

Garen woke them the second morning, calling the Jedi to the cockpit.  "Master Sinube sent us more information regarding the planet and it isn't good."

Mace, Adi and Drex looked over the holo-map Garen had on the nav. console, Drex drooping.  "We're headed right toward the three main auction planets.  The ones we've already found."

"Not exactly," Garen zoomed in on the area.  "The slavers headed to the center of the three systems.  We thought it was only an asteroid field, but it looks like there's a planet in the center of it.  The hyperlane we're on will get us to the entrance of the asteroid belt, but we'll have to pilot manually after that."

"At least we've got the Order's best pilots here," Siri's padawan, Bryni, announced.

"At least someone recognizes my greatness," Garen puffed out his chest.

"I meant Anakin and Savage," The girl replied, smirking as Siri laughed.

"Do we know anything about the planet besides the difficulty we're going to have getting to it?"  Obi-Wan looked over Adi's shoulder.  Artoo nudged them all out of the way and plugged into the console, projecting the image so everyone could see it.  "Is the communicator Kylara wired to the ship still working?"

"We got some footage as the ship landed, but it's been at the landing pad since then," Yanarath told them.  "The landing pad is away from the slaves by a fair amount, we know that much."

"We might want to plan some reconnaissance when we arrive, if we can," Mace's voice made Depa jump.  "I don't think it's wise to run in.  It might give them a chance to destroy the records we need, or activate the slave transmitters.  The last thing we want is a massacre."

"Quinlan and Aayla are probably the best choice, then," Arasath crossed her arms, considering.  "They're two of the best Jedi for stealth and tracking."

"We can teach you to blend in there," Obi-Wan offered the pair.  "And whatever happens, do not let them put a transmitter in you."

"Understood," Quinlan nodded.

"Most of them are new, so they probably won't speak Slave Creole," Qui-Gon warned.  "They'll learn, in time, but the basic greeting should at least let them know they can trust you."

"Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan touched his husband arm, smiling brightly.  "They won't learn Sleantah.  They'll be free."

Qui-Gon blinked, looking almost uncomprehending for a moment, then grinned brightly.  "That's wonderful."

"It will be a shame to lose the language, but the sacrifice will be worth it," Mace told them.

"Lose it, we will not," Yoda chuckled.  "Speak Sleantah half the younglings do, and many knights and masters also.  Use it for code on missions, they have."

"I'm glad to hear that," Obi-Wan admitted, then turned his attention back to Quinlan and Aayla.  "There is more you have to learn, and we're running out of time."

Quinlan and Aayla listened closely, knowing their mission might hinge on their success at blending in with the other slaves.  The Skywalkers spent the rest of their time on the ship teaching the pair.
<>*<>

Savage and Anakin were sharing the copilot's seat again when they dropped out of hyperspace halfway through the third day.  Drex was at the nav. console and Artoo was manning the deflector shields.  "Now I wish I'd brought a ship with guns," Garen muttered, checking the restraints of the pilot's seat.  "They'd be helpful."

"We're dropping out of hyperspace in one minute," Drex announced.  "If you haven't already, strap in.  This may get rough."

"Artoo, you ready to route power to the deflector shields?" Anakin asked.  The little droid beeped, echoed by the little pink and white astromech, R2-KT.

"Whichever one of you is steering if I get knocked out better be ready," Garen tightened his hands on the yoke.

"Thirty seconds," Drex called, locking a set of arms around Arasath to serve as restraints.

Garen glanced at his co-pilots, who nodded.  They would be launched straight from hyperspace into the asteroid field surrounding the system.  If they hit anything at that speed, it would likely destroy their ship.  The Jedi drew in a deep breath, opening himself to the Force.  All around him, he could feel the other Jedi doing the same.  Anakin lit like a star, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon joining him moments later as they opened their bond.  The Jedi would be able to help nudge away the asteroids, so Garen would only need to concern himself with the ones coming directly at them.

Drex glanced at the computer.  "Exiting hyperspace in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one."

"Hard left," Anakin snapped as Garen yanked the yoke around.  Artoo screamed at them, diverting power away from the rear shields to strengthen the others.

Garen banked hard, narrowly avoiding another asteroid, the Skywalkers, Yoda and Yaddle nudging two in front of them to create a space for the ship.  Another hard turn had KT beeping at them in reproach.

"Yell later," Garen snapped at the droid, twisting the yoke to send the ship into a spin around another droid.  "Hold on!"

"Watch out!"  Anakin almost screamed, Savage flipping the controls to the co-pilot's seat so Anakin could loop them around three more asteroids, the other Jedi shifting a handful of asteroids before they lost a wing.  Savage turned the controls back over to Garen.

"Sorry," Savage gave the man a sheepish smile.  "But Anakin saw it coming,"

"Just don't—do it again," Garen banked hard, Artoo and KT shrieking their displeasure as they threw everything on the lower deflector shields so they could scrape by another asteroid.

"How do Force-nulls navigate this thing?"  Garen asked, sagging when they reached the end of the asteroid belt.

"There has to be some kind of path or trail," Maul studied the belt for a moment.  "Their pilots must know it, and when they drop out of hyperspace, it's in the exact location."

"Yeah, well, we're learning it while we're down there," Garen informed them, heading for the planet.

The planet was temperate and mostly water, the compound taking up most of what little land existed.  It was easy to see why the slavers would like the planet: it was difficult to get to, and it would be almost impossible for the slaves to run away.  Garen set the ship down as far from the compound as possible, hoping to avoid the slavers' attention.

"Be safe," Qui-Gon clapped Quinlan on the shoulder.  "And don't get caught."

"We'll be back in a day," Quinlan promised, and the pair disappeared out the door.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

Garen had landed roughly half a day away from the slaver's compound, careful to conceal the ship in a dense part of the ancient forest.  A rocky outcropping hid the ship from aerial view and once they'd powered it down almost entirely, they were hidden from the slavers' electronic sensors as well.  After Quinlan and Aayla left, the others set about making the ship more hospitable for the several days they would be there.

Qui-Gon, Arasath, Drex and Bant headed out to scout the immediate area, the group wanting to know more about the planet they'd landed on.  Savage and Anakin had taken over the communications console in an attempt to see if they could get into the slavers' communication systems remotely, if only to monitor their comms.  Yanarath was with them, wanting to make sure he understood what they were doing for when they actually began attacking the compound.

Mace, Depa, Yoda, Yaddle and Adi, meanwhile, were holding a mini-council session.  Obi-Wan stared at the council members for a moment, startled.  He hadn't considered how many council members had come with them, though to have five on the mission was certainly telling of its importance to Jedi, both personally and as an Order.  Adi gave the man a wink before turning her attention back to Depa and Obi-Wan left them to discuss whatever council business they'd brought with them.

It wasn't far to the galley, where Obi-Wan figured he'd offer his limited culinary services for mid-meal.  Rhys' voice from the galley had Obi-Wan pausing, not wanting to walk in on what sounded like a private conversation.  "I'm trying to figure out a tattoo pattern," Rhys was telling Maul almost timidly.  "My eighteenth life day is approaching, which is when I am considered an adult among my clan.  That's when they get their tattoos."

"I don't understand," Maul replied, uncertain.  "Isn't think something you should discuss with your master?  This is something you would normally discuss with your parents, is it not?"

"I did, but I—there's something else—" Rhys twisted his hands together.  "He doesn't quite understand the meaning behind the tattoos.  He suggested I speak with Master Eeth Koth but . . . the pattern I want for my tattoos isn't really traditional so I thought . . . maybe I could talk to you instead."

Obi-Wan stepped away from the galley door, out of range that would be able to understand them, but close enough to know when they'd finished speaking.  Tattoos were very personal for a Zabrak, with each line and color steeped in meaning.

"What is it you want?"  Maul finally asked when Rhys stayed silent.

"I want to look like you," Rhys almost mumbled, words jumbled together.

Maul froze, golden eyes huge.  There was no higher honor for a Zabrak than for another to ask for a similar tattoo pattern.  "But—why?"

"Because you're amazing!"  Rhys answered.  "You turned away from being a Sith to join the Jedi, and you overcame all the adversity you found in the temple without faltering or hating us.  You're really kind, too.  You didn't have to be nice to Naia and I when we asked you to teach us, and you just let Drex join right in even though he didn't remember anything.  I think you're one of the best Jedi in the Order and I want to be like that.  Like you."

"You honor me, Rhys," Maul's voice was choked with tears and the man hugged Rhys tightly.  After a moment, Maul collected himself and told the teenager, "My concern is that my tattoos were born in the darkness of Dathomir.  It is not a stigma I would wish on anyone."

"Master suggested . . . if you were all right that I used your pattern, that I could use the outline.  The Zabrak on Dathomir are the only ones that fill their tattoos in.  But there's a place under the jaw I want to fill in.  To show that they were yours."

"Of course you may use my tattoo pattern," Maul hugged Rhys a second time.  Somberly, Maul offered the traditional acceptance of their people, "Your request honors me and I hope you will uphold the meaning of the tattoos."

"Thank you!"  Rhys squeezed Maul tight for a moment, almost lifting him from the floor.  It was only then Maul realized his little ducking had outgrown him by a centimeter or two.  Once Rhys had let him go, Maul tugged one of the teenager's horns and returned to their preparations for mid-meal.  All three of his ducklings were certainly growing up.

"Would you two like some help?"  Obi-Wan poked his head into the galley.

"If you'll fit," Rhys joked, gesturing to the tiny space while Maul wiped at his eyes.  Obi-Wan pretended not to notice even though they both knew he had.  Even so, Maul sent a wave of appreciation at the man, grateful he didn't mention it.  Rhys, not noticing the exchange, added, "This ship was not meant for a crowd!"

"Unless they're Yoda and Yaddle's size—yeouch!" Maul clutched his bruised shin as the crack of Yoda's gimer stick sounded in the galley.  The councils must have finished their meeting while Maul and Rhys were talking.  "Where the karking Sith Hells did you even come from?!"

Maul leapt the diminutive master's second swing, Yoda telling him, "Mind your language, you should."

"I'll set that thing on fire while you sleep," Maul threatened, earning a frown from Yoda, though his ears were twitching in amusement.

"Yaddle and I can throw him in a fountain," Obi-Wan offered.  "Again."

Yoda harrumphed, sticking his nose in the air.  "Know when wanted, I am not!  Offered to help I intended, but ruined your chance of that, you have."

"Master Yoda, you know you and Yaddle are the only ones able to stomach your cooking," Obi-Wan was already in the back of the galley and safe from the gimer stick when Yoda swatted at him.

"True that is not," Yoda crossed his arms.  "Eat it, Qui-Gon does."

Obi-Wan hesitated for a breath.  Discussing Qui-Gon and food was a great way to turn that conversation extremely awkward and hurt Yoda's feelings all in one, fell swoop.  Qui-Gon, having suffered through years of both hunger and starvation, would eat anything human-safe as long as it stayed still long enough for him to catch it.  Rather than explain that to everyone, Obi-Wan told Yoda, "My husband is a sarlacc in disguise.  Also, he has no taste buds.  That wretched tea of yours killed them all."

"Delicious, my tea is," Yoda grumbled, but returned to the galley, ears still twitching in amusement.  "Still, offer my help, I shall."

"Thank you," Maul smiled and offered the being his shoulder as they all set to work.
<>*<>

While Bant, Arasath and Drex returned to the ship my mid-afternoon, Qui-Gon didn't reappear until an hour after nightfall, Quinlan and Aayla with him.  Qui-Gon was cuddling something to his chest, the little creature suckling contentedly on one of the man's calloused fingers.  Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow, though his smile was soft.  "And you keep insisting you don't bring home strays."

Before Qui-Gon could reply, Aayla burst out, "He is a menace!  He nearly compromised the entire mission—millions of lives—and for what?  A youngling dumped in a hole!"

Obi-Wan caught sight of the human babe in his husband's arms.  The child couldn't have been but a handful of months old, sable hair baby-fine and blue eyes unfocused.  He was sucking on Qui-Gon's finger with the contentedness of a youngling who knew he would get nothing more, no matter how much he cried.  Qui-Gon glared at the Twi'lek woman.  "He wouldn't have lasted the night.  And the slavers won't be returning for him."

"Those bones in the hole—" Quinlan cut off abruptly, horror dawning on his face.  "Those weren't animal bones."

"Don't be silly, Master," Aayla huffed.  "They're far too small to belong to . . . anything . . . else . . ."

Aayla trailed off, suddenly realizing what Qui-Gon had already known and Quinlan had just figured out.  The bones belonged to the babies thrown into the pit to die from exposure or starvation.  The padawan choked and raced outside to vomit.

Quinlan pursed his lips, almost snapping at Qui-Gon.  "You knew."

"I've heard of them—those pits," Qui-Gon's voice was soft.  "But you hear things . . . you pray it’s a myth, even though you know it's not."

Obi-Wan hugged his husband, giving the man a curious look before asking, "What was it?"

"Shmi called it a milk pit," Qui-Gon answered, and Obi-Wan blanched.  For the other Jedi, Qui-Gon explained, "When younglings are born with defects—physical or mental—they'll get rid of the baby.  If the species makes milk for the youngling, the mother will often be sold as a wet nurse.  Shmi said they occasionally put healthy younglings in the pits, but it was rare since killing healthy babies meant fewer slaves later.  For all they're disgusting pieces of shit, slavers aren't quite that dumb."

"This little one is old enough that his mother was probably taken either in a raid or kidnapped from a core world," Obi-Wan stroked the babe's cheek.  "Otherwise he would have been tossed in the pit when he was born."

Mace clenched his fists.  "What's wrong with him?"

"This little one?"  Qui-Gon turned so Mace could see the child more clearly.  "He's blind.  It's possible it developed later, from illness or accident, or the slavers didn't notice.  He wouldn't have been mobile until very recently."

"Ah," Obi-Wan looked between the boy and Qui-Gon again.  "So that's why you're purring."

Several of the Jedi traded uncertain looks, Bant hesitantly telling her friend, "Obi-Wan, you know Qui-Gon is human, right?  He—uh—can't purr."

"He purrs," Obi-Wan insisted.  "Listen to him."

"I don't purr, I am humming," Qui-Gon heaved a sigh, then explained, "My people can inhale and exhale at the same time so I can hum without stopping.  Because my voice is deep, it resonates."

"See?"  Obi-Wan grinned.  "He purrs."

"I growl, too," Qui-Gon grumbled, tugging his husband up for a quick kiss.  Obi-Wan chuckled into it, sending love and delight over their bond and receiving what amounted to an eyeroll and amused smile in return.

"Why are you humming?"  Naia wondered.

"Because mo leanbh likes it," Qui-Gon shrugged.  "Ani and 'Soka did too.  I don't know, most younglings seem to like it when you sing or hum for them.  Parents do it for their children all the time; Obi-Wan did it too, and he can't circular breath."

"That is true," Obi-Wan agreed.  "It was pretty instinctual."

"And because mo leanbh cannot see, it is a way for him to know who and where I am," Qui-Gon added.  "And we really should stop talking about whether or not I purr—which I don't—and find a bottle for this little one."

"We also need to discuss why Knight Vos and Padawan Secura are here instead of at the slaver compound."  Mace raised an eyebrow.

I'll see about a bottle,— Obi-Wan told his husband.  —You better help explain what happened.—

"It's a little complicated," Quinlan confessed.  "Aayla and I made it to the compound, but we were only there half an hour and had barely avoided getting caught three times.  I don't quite understand it, but everyone was suspicious of us.  Rather than risk being caught, Aayla and I left the compound and began scouting around there before returning to the ship.  The pit we found the youngling in is halfway between the ship and the compound, though what Qui-Gon was doing there, I have no idea."

"I felt a disturbance in the Force," Qui-Gon replied simply.  "It led me there.  And the slavers aren't going to return for this child, nor will they bother check on him.  Even if he managed to get out of the hole, he never would have found his way back to the compound.  Not to mention he isn't missing, they threw him out.  So I have, in no way, compromised the mission."

Aayla huffed, unhappy but agreeing now that she knew what the pit was.  Instead of reply to Qui-Gon, the padawan told the Jedi, "My master and I still can't infiltrate the compound.  We'll be going in blind."

Obi-Wan handed his husband a bottle for the youngling in his arms and told the gathered Jedi, "Qui-Gon and I could go."

"What makes you think you'll do any better?"  Quinlan asked, curious.

"Because we were slaves," Obi-Wan told him.  "It's hard to explain, but even when you're new, you just . . . you know when someone is a freeman.  Even fresh, you can't afford to mess that up because it can mean anything from a beating to death.  Because of that, the slaves probably treat you differently, which makes the slavers suspicious."

"But we acted exactly like them," Quinlan protested.  "How could they tell?"

"I don't know that I can explain it," Obi-Wan said.  "I'm not ever sure we could show you.  Things are . . . different when someone might own you."

"Maybe you can show us?"

It was almost impossible to tell the difference, a shift in posture, a change in tone.  Most of the Jedi didn't notice a difference between the Skywalkers, Quinlan and Aayla, but the Oppresses and Anakin did the moment they stepped into the room.  Anakin tilted his head.  "Dad?  Papa?"

"It's fine," Qui-Gon told his son.  He spoke more softly than he did as a freeman, drew less attention to himself.  "We're trying to show Quinlan and Aayla how to not get caught at the slavers' compound."

Mace felt his heart break as he observed the elder Skywalkers, realizing he was only now seeing the true weight of slavery on Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's shoulders.  Even by the time they'd had their first meeting with the council during the Naboo crisis, they'd been more confident of themselves.  "I'm not sure anyone can learn that.  Not . . . without truly being a slave."

"We'd thought something wasn't . . . exactly right, but how do you explain something like this?"  Obi-Wan asked.  "And I thought maybe I was just nervous.  I'm sorry, Quinlan, Aayla.  I should have said something."

"It's all right, Obi-Wan," Quinlan squeezed his shoulder.  "I still can't tell what we're doing differently."

"It's a lot of very subtle nuance," Mace sighed softly.  "Could you go in as a slaver instead?"

"We should still let the slaves know we're coming," Depa crossed her arms, thinking.  "We don't want them panicked . . . what if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan go with Knight Vos and his padawan?  Knight Vos and Padawan Secura could infiltrate as slavers, which would give them more mobility around the compound even if it is a little trickier, and Knights Jinn and Kenobi could infiltrate the slaves.  Get a count, let them know what's happening, find out whatever else they can."

Obi-Wan glanced at the child in Qui-Gon's arms.  "My only concern is that we may not have that much time."

"A reason for your concern, there is?"  Yoda asked.

"They threw away the child," Obi-Wan nodded to the boy.  "If they're keeping his mother to sell as a wet nurse, they wouldn't have done it until they were ready to take them to auction.  In which case we don't really have time to infiltrate since they'll be leaving with this batch of slaves no more than two days."

"If we scout tomorrow, we can attack the day after," Kit Fisto suggested.

"Four of our number would be exhausted," Adi shook her head.  "I know there are twenty five of us on this mission, but I don't think that would be wise.  We already have a lot of unknown factors.  Would it really be wise to need to account for that, too?"

"But the knowledge could help resolve a number of those factors," Depa argued.  "We would have the layout of the base, and the slaves would know we're coming."

"We'd also know when they were actually going to market," Qui-Gon added.

"And we might know already," Yanarath grinned.  "Anakin and Savage got into the slavers' communications systems.  "According to the transmission the boys picked up, they're headed for the auction worlds in five days time."

"We told you hacking into their systems was a good idea," Savage moved next to his master, earning a rough nudge from Depa in reprimand for his arrogance.

"But why get rid of the child if they aren't leaving for five days?"  Naia wondered.  "What would be the point?"

"All the more reason we need to get in there," Quinlan crossed his arms.  "But Aayla and I can't."

"Maybe not the slaves," Obi-Wan said suddenly, smirking.  "But you could blend in with the slavers.  And Qui-Gon and I will infiltrate the slaves."

"If we infiltrate the slavers, do we need to get in with the slaves?"  Aayla questioned.

"We'll probably be able to find things out from the slaves we won't get from the slavers," Qui-Gon reminded her.  "And the initial reason we were infiltrating the slaves was to prevent panic—which you won't be able to do if they believe you're slavers."

Quinlan considered that for a moment, the sighed.  The Skywalkers were right, and they would be able t blend in with the other slaves.  "Would this change the mission?"

"We have five days before they're due to leave for the auction planets, so if we spend a day there, then return, we can have a day to rest and plan, then attack."  Mace answered.  "I think that will work."

"Then we better get some rest,"  Quinlan answered.  "We leave tomorrow."
<>*<>

Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Quinlan and Aayla  left for the slavers' compound long before dawn the next morning.  Force enhanced speed had them arriving in just under three hours, the sun beginning to crest the horizon and the slavers only beginning to wake.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan paused at the compound to examine the slaves there.  Aayla's eyes went wide as the pair began to strip and roll in the mud.

"The slaves are in small clothes," Obi-Wan explained, trying to make the mud look more naturally acquired over time.  "And they're filthy.  Being clean and dressed in anything more won't help us blend in."

"But where will you put your 'sabers?"  Quinlan asked, concerned.

Qui-Gon offered one of his lightsabers to Quinlan and the other to Aayla.  "They'll go with you."

Aayla's slender hand closed around the hilt of Qui-Gon's second 'saber.  "Are you sure?  What if something happens and we're not around?"

"We are experts in more than just lightsaber combat," Qui-Gon smiled.  "And we have the Force.  We will be fine."

Quinlan nodded, the four separating.  Quinlan and Aayla blended seamlessly in with the slavers.  Obi-Wan was certain that with their talents, the two could easily have blended in with the slaves given just a little more time and observation.  As the Master-Padawan pair headed for the main building gin the compound, the Skywalkers joined the slaves in the pens, the knowledge of where to fall in to avoid notice almost instinctual.

"So'lanai," Obi-Wan breathed in greeting, not surprised when most of the slaves nearby bore confused looks, but a few who heard him relaxed minutely.

I picked up more chatter,— Anakin warned over their bond.  —And there's someone coming . . . it's a bit garbled, but I think it's whoever runs this sector of the ring.  Or something like that.  It's someone important, in any case.—

Thanks, Ani,— Obi-Wan replied.  —We'll get a message to Quinlan and Aayla.  Maybe they can find out more from the slavers.—

I'll let you know if I find out more,— Anakin promised, letting the bond fall silent.  His parents sent a wave of love, receiving one in reply from Anakin, then returned to their study of the compound.  If the pair had to guess, the Skywalkers estimated there were close to 300,000 slaves on the world, and at least ninety percent of them had been caught within the past three months.  Slaves stayed at the compound up to six months for "training," though there was an auction every month on the three planets.

That's over three million new slaves that come through here every year,— Obi-Wan gasped, horrified.  —And introducing new slaves doesn't even account for the movement of the slaves already in the Republic.—

We knew the auction planets have over thirty  million slaves come through each year in total, counting both old and new slaves, then the new slaves they get probably barely covers the slaves they lose each year,— Qui-Gon frowned.  —I hadn't really thought about it, but slaves must be a really high commodity in the Republic.—

Given the demand, it would offer the slaves at least some protections since they would be incredibly difficult to replace.  That, at least, was good news—in so far as it could be good news, given the topic.  Obi-Wan hid a grin.  —And soon they'll be non-existent, if we have anything to do with it.—

Good.— Qui-Gon sent a smirk along the bond.

The slavers are coming,— Obi-Wan warned.  The two made themselves as inconspicuous as possible, eyes following the beings.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan might have been good at being staying unnoticed, but that didn't mean the other slaves had the same ability.  A dark-skinned teenager around Anakin's age sitting next to Qui-Gon spat on one of the slavers as they passed.  The slaver snarled, kicking the boy to the ground and making him cry out in pain.  Qui-Gon dove between them, taking the next several kicks for the boy.

Obi-Wan's heart was almost in his throat even as Qui-Gon reminded him, —I'm fine, Obi-Wan.  This is only a lashing.—

A little warning next time,— Obi-Wan forced himself to release his fear, not wanting to panic, especially not when panicking could get their cover blown and get them killed.

Aayla and Quinlan rushed out with a group of slavers, Aayla wide eyed as she watched Qui-Gon being dragged to a tall pole in the center of the compound and strung him up, arms stretched above his head.  Qui-Gon sagged for a moment, gathering his strength as one of the slavers looked over the newcomers, eyes lighting up when he saw Aayla.

"You," The slaver smirked, thrusting the whip at Aayla.  "Ten lashes for the slave."
<>*<>

Quinlan and Aayla slid into the main building in the compound, pausing briefly to see Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan disappear into the slave pens.  Aayla and Quinlan explored briefly, finding the main building was where the slavers stayed while on planet.  Each room held the crew of a ship, and the sprawling building had enough room for well over a hundred crews.  In the center was a huge commissary where the awake slavers had gathered for an early first-meal.  Aayla and Quinlan joined the yawning slavers, settling next to the largest group.

It wasn't difficult for them to get the slavers to believe they'd come in with one of the crews while artfully avoiding to specify which.  It wasn't long before the master-padawan pair had gotten the slavers talking.  "Getting slaves from the core is easy," One of the slavers told them.  "The Sefs and Yips bring 'em right to ya!"

"The what?" Aayla tilted her head.

"Damn, you must be new," The slaver laughed, gently punching her shoulder.  "I'm Fenreich."

"Ally," Aayla replied, smiling.  "And this is my best friend, Quinn."

"Nice to see some new faces," Fenreich replied.

"So what are Yips and Sefs, then?" Quinlan asked.

"Sefs are the Security Forces and Yips are Youngling Protective Services.  They bring those core slavers a nice, huge haul and they don't even have to lift a finger.  Shit, they're practically a shuttle service."

"Sure," Another slaver pointed out, "Except you rim workers get to keep whatever you make.  We gotta pay off those annoying fucks, and we don't get a choice in what we get.  They just hand us a bunch and we hope they pass inspection."

"Inspection?"

"It's how we get paid," Fenreich explained.  "Each month, the CEO of Offworld sends a group of inspectors to look over the slaves.  For each slave that can be sold, we get a certain amount.  If they are rare, exotic or exceptionally beautiful, we get a bonus.  Each crew usually brings in a few thousand slaves each month."

"Sounds pretty lucrative," Quinlan grinned at Aayla, greed in his eyes.  Aayla nodded.  "Of course, we didn't get into this for morals."

Fenreich rolled his eyes.  "No one gets into this for morals.  But you can make some good money on this.  Some of us out in the rim know how to get creative, too."

"How's that?"  Aayla leaned forward, curious.

"I got a whole town to voluntarily get on my ship," A third slaver introduced herself as Tekka.  "I told them a swarm of flesh-eating locusts were coming . . . those morons paid me to bring them here.  Made a killing off 'em, too."

Aayla felt sick, listening to the slavers share stories about how they rounded up villages and families, dragging them away to be sold.  Her anger at their treatment of sentient beings roiled in the Force, and Quinlan squeezed her shoulder, reminding her that they couldn't blow their cover yet.  Later, Aayla could be angry, and given Mace's own rage seething in the Force, she would be in good company.

Shouting from outside had everyone racing toward one of the pens just in time to see a pile of slavers dive on Qui-Gon.  Aayla gasped as he was dragged to a post in the center of the pens.  One of the slavers shoved a whip into Aayla's hands.  "You.  Ten lashes for the slave."

"What?"  Aayla almost dropped the whip.

"The bastard needs punished," Fenreich told her.  "And as fresh meat, you're going to deliver ten lashes to this filthy slave."

"But—I've never—"  Aayla looked uncertain.  "What if I do it wrong?"

"Ya can't deliver a lashing wrong," Fenreich assured her.  "Well, unless you don't deliver it at all."

Aayla stared at Qui-Gon for a moment, and the Twi'lek couldn't think that the big man looked almost feral, his brown hair stringing across his face from the mud and his azure eyes wild.  The woman swallowed hard, looking at the whip.  —Master,—  Aayla begged.  —I can't.—

It's all right,— Qui-Gon assured the padawan gently.  —I knew my punishment before I stepped in.  It's worth the lashes.—

But . . .— Aayla could see the whip scars on Qui-Gon's back and thighs, remnants of his past.  All Jedi had scars, but these were angry and deliberate in a way the scars Aayla had earned on missions were not.

Do it,— Qui-Gon ordered.  —Before you get us caught!—

Aayla knew she needed to do something soon.  The slavers were staring at her and if she refused to whip Qui-Gon, not only would they be outcast among the slavers, Aayla might blow their cover completely.  —I . . .—

THAT  IS AN ORDER,— Qui-Gon snarled, and Aayla felt something nudge her mind.

The padawan brought the whip down, scoring a harsh line across Qui-Gon's back.  The man grunted in pain, having forgotten the feel of the lash after ten years without.  His body quickly remember, however, and Qui-Gon waited for the second blow, remembering how to breath, how to brace.

Aayla fought back tears as she brought the whip down again.  She'd felt the Force command behind the first strike, but the others were her own choice.  Blood dripped from the wounds, Qui-Gon drawing in a sharp breath after the fifth strike and crying out after the eighth.  Qui-Gon sagged against the ropes when she'd finished, face buried in the crook of his arm.

"Didn't figure you had it in you.," Fenreich congratulated her.  "A lot of females don't got the guts.  They're bleeding hearts, ya know?"

Aayla snapped the whip, ignoring the blood spraying from it.  "Call me a bleeding heart again and you'll see what a real bleeding heart looks like—yours."

The slavers cut Qui-Gon down, the man staggering but staying upright as he was thrown back into the pen.  Aayla sent a flutter of worry at him, forcing herself not to react otherwise.  —I'm fine.—  Qui-Gon reassuring the padawan.  —I promise.—

Aayla forced herself to remain impassive, even though she desperately wanted to cry.  She hoped she never had to repeat that.

At least it earned Aayla the slaver's trust and respect.  Quinlan was accepted right along with her, the slavers readily offering the information the Jedi had come to find.  "I was wondering," Aayla took a seat next to Fenreich.  "Who runs Offworld, anyway?  And do you know who the representative coming with the inspectors is?"

"Offworld is a huge company," Fenreich replied.  "The old CEO was Lord Crion du Terion, but he now ruled Telos IV.  His son, Lord Xanatos du Crion, has taken over as CEO.  He name an heir last year, some man named Bruck Chun.  Ser Chun is going to be heading the inspection this month."

"Ser Chun, hm?"  Quinlan forced himself not to react.  There was a good chance Chun might recognize him or Obi-Wan, though Obi-Wan had been gone so long, it wasn't likely.  Of course, even if Chun did remember Obi-Wan, the man would probably love seeing Obi-Wan in the pens.  If Quinlan remembered right, Chun had never been particularly fond of Obi-Wan.

Aayla and Quinlan spent a little more time asking around the compound, but most of the compound was off limits to the slaver crews.  They would need Anakin and Savage to get into the main records and they knew little about the head of Offworld.

The four Jedi slipped away the night, returning to the ship with information about the layout of the compound.  Quinlan also told them what he'd learned about the heads of Offworld.

"Xanatos was my former knight-master, wasn't he?" Obi-Wan's brows furrowed.  "He sold me—for his own company?  But why?"

"We'll just have to ask him when we arrest him," Mace growled, looking over the map Quinlan and Aayla had created.  "And we will catch him."

Obi-Wan nodded, fist clenching.  "And we'll make sure he can't sell anyone else."

The other Jedi nodded.  It was long past time they toppled this entire operation.
<>*<>

Chapter Text

The Jedi chose to attack the day the inspectors arrived.  Things would be chaotic with the inspectors there, the slavers eager for their money, the few guards there caught up with new people and new routines.  "Chun and the other inspectors are supposed to arrive around mid-morning," Quinlan told the group.  "We can get ready to attack before they arrive."

"We can put the Liberation team next to the walls closest to the pens," Adi suggested, looking over the map created by the Jedi infiltrators.  "These walls look short enough for a Jedi to jump."

"Jump them also, Bruck Chun can," Yoda reminded them.  "A Jedi, he once was."

"Did you know he left the Jedi?"

"Left voluntarily with his master, Ser Chun did," Yoda nodded gravely.  "Xanatos, his master was.  Chose Ser Chun, Xanatos did, after—after selling Obi-Wan."

"You thought I was dead," Obi-Wan absolved.  "Why would you be suspicious of Xanatos taking another padawan?"

"Still, regret, I do, that believe him, we did," Yoda squeezed Obi-Wan's hands.  "But now, have other matters to deal with, we do."

"Indeed," Mace agreed.  "There are more slaves here than we were anticipating . . ."

"Many of them are new, though," Kelyan's voice was soft, the padawan looking almost daring at speaking up in front of the Master of the Order.  "If we get them out of their chains and arm them, most of them will fight.  Especially if they know their transmitters have been deactivated."

"Savage and I will handle that," Anakin nodded decisively.  "And we're working on getting evidence against these bastards."

"Mind your words, Ani," Qui-Gon warned almost absently, examining the map.  Anakin made a face at him, but muttered an apology.  "What will you need to get into that section of the compound?"

"A distraction to draw away most of the group," Bant joined him, squirming under the tall man's arm to lean against his side.  Garen considered the pair for a moment, the joined in on Qui-Gon's other side.  Qui-Gon ruffed up the pilot's hair, but let him stay there, tucked under Qui-Gon's arm.

"We didn't get far in that section," Aayla worried.  "I guess only the compound's guards are allowed to go back there."

"We can manage that," Kit's smile was full of teeth.  "We should probably stick near the front gate.  We can follow Mace's group in."

"Our first priority will be releasing the current slaves so the slavers can't blow them up, then gathering evidence," Bant nodded.  "Master Windu, can your group create a distraction to draw everyone away from us?"

"Absolutely," Mace smirked.  "We'll be entering the front door.  Forcefully."

"While you lot are busy with that, we'll be making sure the slavers can't leave," Garen gestured to the landing pad some distance from the compound.  They would be able to wreck a fair bit of havoc there without being noticed, given how far it was from the rest of the compound.

"And we'll be monitoring the outside," Quinlan added.

"All right," The group traded nods.  Mace looked around the group.  "We need to be in position by daybreak.  I won't risk the inspectors beating us there."

"Understood," The group agreed, and separated to prepare.
<>*<>

The group was quiet as they prepared to leave the day before they inspects arrived at the Slavers' compound.  They would travel during the night and rest while they waited.  The Skywalkers were in full gladiatorial regalia, from armor to face paint.  It was, in part, because they wanted the slavers to know who had come for them, but also because at least some of the slaves would recognize them as the Jedi based on their clothing.

Obi-Wan was kneeling before his son, carefully painting the black and blue stripe across Anakin's face when Mace held out his own paints to Qui-Gon.  "I want everyone to know I am with the Jedi as well."

Qui-Gon blinked, hearing several murmurs of assent, and looked around the small cargo bay they'd converted into a common area.  Most of the Jedi that had come on the mission were dressed similarly to the Skywalkers, though the designs and colors on their armor varied based on the Jedi who wore them.  Several of them were holding small pots of paint so they could do stripes of their own.  Qui-Gon shook his head.  "I don't understand."

"The slaves know you as the Jedi, and now that you really are Jedi, they associate this style with real Jedi," Mace explained.  "While this might not mean much to me—or other freemen—it does mean that if we wear similar clothing and similar face paint, the slaves will recognize us and know we are there to help them."

"He's right," Bant slipped into Anakin's seat when he moved, paints in hand.  "And I kind of what to see the slavers wet themselves when they realize the Jedi are Jedi."

Everyone stared at Bant, gaping.  "That was the most vindictive thing I think I've ever heard you say," Garen managed.  "Do you—Do you actually dislike someone?"

"I am extremely upset by their life choices," Bant replied primly.

"I think Bant might actually be furious," Reeft stared at his best friend.

"So am I," Mace smiled, showing teeth.  "So she's in good company."

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan helped anyone that wanted the stripes, pausing several times to re-center themselves as the overwhelming support they were receiving from the Jedi sank slowly in.  For years they had hunted these slavers and now, at the cusp of toppling the entire slave ring, they wanted to wear the gladiatorial paint the Skywalkers were known for.

"We better get going," Quinlan commented as dusk fell.  The others nodded, falling into step with the Skywalkers, Quinlan and Aayla.  "We should be there by midnight or so, and we can rest in shifts until dawn, when we prepare for the inspectors to arrive."

The group nodded in agreement, swift and silent as they traveled with the aid of the Force.  Halfway to the compound, their comms. cracked softly as Yanarath announced, "Comm. test.  Everyone read?"

"Loud and clear," The group sounded off.  Yanarath was back at the ship, coordinating their attack with Pangur and Salín on Coruscant.  He had kept the baby Qui-Gon found, the youngling strapped to his chest as he worked.  It was Yanarath who would be making sure that if any chatter got through from this planet, Pangur and Salín could send a team of Jedi to handle it before it went anywhere else.

The Jedi arrived by the middle of the night, spreading around the compound to get in position.  Anakin, on the team handling the comms. and deactivations codes, curled near his parents, letting Obi-Wan help him fall into restful meditation.  The boy gave a thumbs up to Garen's team as they passed, trading a smirk with Siri's padawan, Bryni, who had a bag full of sticky grenades.

Mace pursed his lips, vowing—yet again—to kill Master Zekku in his sleep for that unholy alliance.  Either that or take a page from Yaddle's book and drop the Twi'lek in a fountain.

Reaching their positions, their group fell into meditation and settled in to wait.
<>*<>

The Jedi felt Bruck's ship the moment it entered the system, darkness and hunger creeping through the Force.  The Jedi tensed, briefly, Yoda's ears lowering at the slimy feel of the former Jedi.  Obi-Wan gripped his lightsabers and heard his husband growl low in his throat.  The younger man turned, not liking the gold that flecked Qui-Gon's eyes, but while Qu