"Last time, Anakin."
"But, Mom, Master Qui-Gon and I were-"
"Bed. I know you're excited about the race, but if you don't sleep now there won't be a race for you." Shmi Skywalker sent a pointed look to her son, and Qui-Gon withheld a grin as the boy reluctantly obeyed. Anakin had stalled as long as he could, more than once coming up with 'one last thing' that he needed to do before giving in to sleep.
"Go lay down, I'll tuck you in in a minute-"
"Can Master Qui-Gon do it?"
He could sense her hesitation and, with a smile, he answered. "Certainly. Now, listen to your mother." Anakin let out a whoop and took off into his room, leaving the two adults alone.
Shmi stared after her son, exasperation and fondness battling each other in her expression. "Thank you. He's not normally so-"
"It's the excitement. The race, and visitors." Qui-Gon's smile grew reminiscent. "He's fine. I've had headstrong Padawans before, so it's not quite as foreign to me as you might think." Even now, I have a rather headstrong one, though Obi-Wan no longer argues over bedtimes.
Shmi smiled tentatively, looking at him, and he could sense something from her -- a strange feeling of anticipation, and something else that he couldn't put into words. "We don't often have visitors."
"Particularly not visitors like us. An attractive young woman, a Gungan, and an old, worn Jedi."
Her smile grew bolder as she looked at him, and that feeling came again, this time mixed with humor. A sense of fond teasing. "You're hardly old. Or worn."
Rather than answer, he chuckled and then, with a small nod, left to attend Anakin.
The Tatooine heat had broken slightly when the twin suns set just a couple of hours before, and as Qui-Gon Jinn spoke with young Anakin Skywalker in his small room, he had to admit he was relieved that this planet did, indeed, grow cooler at some point. Mindful of Shmi's wishes, Qui-Gon did not allow the conversation to continue for long.
"Now, I believe it's time for you to sleep, Anakin. Rest. Tomorrow, we have a Podrace to win." He smiled kindly, and pulled the thin, frayed coverlet over the boy.
"Thank you, Master Qui-Gon."
In moments, the child was asleep. And, when Qui-Gon paused to look into the second small room, he saw that the other was also asleep, exhausted from the events of the day. Though Padmé would not, perhaps, appreciate being called a child, it was how Qui-Gon viewed her. A handmaiden, forced into a war, brought against his counsel to this spaceport. The Queen of Naboo had wished to learn more of the planet, and requested that her handmaiden accompany them, to serve as her eyes and ears. It was, he'd believed, a very bad idea. However, it was possible his initial instinct had been incorrect; the boy had taken a liking to her, trusted her. Perhaps that would serve as the extra push to convince him….
He had to bring the boy back to Coruscant, somehow. It wasn't just chance that had brought them here, to this remote world. It wasn't just chance that they had happened upon Watto's shop first, rather than try one of the other merchants. It wasn't just chance that the slave boy who assisted in that shop bore a higher midi-chlorian count than anyone on record. Somehow, Qui-Gon had to bring this boy to the Jedi Council, to train him. He was the Chosen One, there was no doubt in Qui-Gon's mind, though the Council would likely remain unconvinced until it was proven so.
However, there were obstacles. Things that would hold the young boy here, on this sandy plane. Friends, a certain amount of notoriety from being the only human able to compete in the podraces, his mother…. Anakin loved his mother, that was obvious. And who couldn't feel an overwhelming affection for such a woman? She was wise, a wisdom won through life and not through study - she was an embodiment of the Living Force; even though her past and future remained unsteady, she lived life as wholly as she could. She loved her son, and found joy in the day-to-day offerings of the Force. Even he felt the draw of her personality, her gentleness, the beauty of her generosity. Her heart, and her strength.
He wanted them both free. They deserved to be so, but as he'd told her earlier that day, he hadn't come to free slaves. It was not their mission, even if it was now his wish. Duty warred with desire, as always, and he wondered which - this time - would come out on top?
With a sigh, he walked outside the small hovel and looked into the night sky, searching for answers in the stars. It was calm and largely silent, aside from the sound of distant sand beasts low in the background. It was peaceful.
He felt her before he saw her, before he heard her. She walked quietly, almost tentatively, and when he sensed the cause of that tentativeness he closed his eyes. Duty and desire, and the wide dichotomy between….
There had been no father.
She joined him there, on the small porch area behind the hovels, and stood quietly beside him, working on her courage. Maybe sensing her nervousness, he began to speak, light comments about the city, the planet, the suns. Easy conversation.
Shmi enjoyed talking with Qui-Gon, enjoyed watching his face as he spoke. Enjoyed it too much, perhaps, and this was the cause of her tentativeness. But, as they conversed in the cooler air of night, small talk eventually turned to deeper subjects as she forgot a small amount of her insecurity. Subjects such as her hopes for the future, for Anakin's future.
"He deserves better than a slave's life," she murmured, repeating her words from earlier that day.
"You both do." He looked at her, then, and his eyes told her that these were not simply empty words, meant for polite comfort. They were truth, and sincerely meant. "But… I really didn't come here to free slaves. My duty lies elsewhere." Shmi heard the pained undertone to his voice, and it reassured her. He saw the injustice, which was more than most. He was an honorable man. A good man.
"I know." Shmi stood beside him, looking out over Mos Eisley. If Anakin could only escape this... she didn't worry for herself. She found joy when she could, where she could, but she knew the surroundings would eventually sour her beautiful child. Would transform that innocent, selfless person into something twisted, blended into their mass of greed.
"The stars are very bright here. On Coruscant, there is too much light to see them clearly," the tall man beside her commented, his face raised to the sky. She followed his gaze, nodding thoughtfully.
"When I was very young, I lived on a planet with a large city. It was... different."
He turned to her then, and she stared up at him. She had thought she would be shy, but instead his steady regard emboldened her. She had to take this chance, for good or ill. "There is another vantage point, to look. More private than this..."
Again that steady gaze, and she began to wonder if she had been too bold, if it was too forward, if-
"I would like to see that."
Smiling, she took his hand and led him around the first line of slave homes cut into the rock, to the small, narrow path that had been formed when one of the homes collapsed. It had created a stairway of sorts to the roof, not recognizable as such, but definitely serviceable. It was just a short walk, and few - if any, other than her - knew of it. She wondered, as she led him to the private area, if he could sense her true feelings, her true intentions. Well, her intentions, if she could summon the courage. Her hopes were those of a child's fantasy, but she still could not quell them. She was a slave and he was a Jedi, yet there was a certain spark, a draw, between them that she couldn't explain. She only hoped he could feel it, also.
As they climbed the rocky steps, with her in the lead, she could no longer see his face and so her attention shifted to where their hands were still connected, the touch of flesh drawing all of her concentration. She felt the calluses on his palm - created by years of study with a lightsaber, she knew - and suddenly she was no longer so self-conscious. They were both servants, of a sort, though his was through free will while hers was not.
She paused when they reached the top, pleased that there was no one else about. "This is the spot - no one comes here."
"It isn't too far? Anakin won't be worried?"
She shook her head, fondly considering her son, and softened even more towards this man who seemed to care so for Anakin. "No. I come here often to... to think. He is a good boy, and will give me peace in the evenings, when I need it." She smiled. "If he does sneak from his bed, he's more likely to tinker with that droid of his than come out here to be caught by me."
Qui-Gon nodded, his eyes once again on her. His gaze was intense, considering, perceptive, and she wondered what she looked like through his eyes. Old, she knew. Aged far beyond her years, lines of sun and hard life on her face-
"They are your beauty," he said. She tilted her head, startled, and he smiled. "I could feel your thoughts. I didn't mean to intrude, but it is difficult not to hear them, at times."
She returned his smile. "You may. I have nothing to hide, though I don't agree with you that these lines are a beauty."
"You doubt the word of a Jedi?" he asked, feigning surprise. She laughed, and he smiled gently. "An enhancement, then. The Force shines through all of us, and what is inside is what appeals to a Jedi. To this Jedi," he added. Raising an eyebrow, he leaned down. "The lines on your face are from wisdom and life, and therefore are beautiful."
"To one who knows the Force."
Qui-Gon nodded, turning to look out over the city. His profile was strong, and wise, holding a beautiful sort of gentleness that was edged by durasteel. A formidable man, indeed. The first man who hadn't looked at her as property, or even as just Anakin's mother, in many years. And her entire being yearned for more of that feeling.
He has seen stars beyond stars, and traveled among the beautiful and powerful. What could he see in a slave woman, when a hundred women of society would gladly smile in his direction?
"A smile from one who has never known sorrow is an empty thing."
She jumped, this time truly startled by his voice, and he smiled softly, still staring out at the stars. He didn't turn in her direction, but she could sense that his attention lay only on her, on her reaction, giving her the chance to back down from the path she was trying to lay.
"You see much. Much more than I would expect." She took a deep breath, still hesitant. He would leave tomorrow; she would have no other chance. Courage and strength found her at the thought, and she took the long step off of that cliff. "You know, don't you, why I came to you."
"A Jedi does not form attachments; it is forbidden." He turned to her, then.
"A slave cannot form attachments," she said simply. "Not long-term attachments, at least. Mother and child, that cannot be denied. But everything else… a slave lives only in the moment, because we know that the next, everything can change."
Silently, he raised a hand to her cheek, stroking it softly. A caress that was so different from the type of touch she had become accustomed to. It reminded her of the time before the slavers had taken her; it awakened the memories of a lifetime ago, when she had been simply a woman, not a mother... or a slave.
"Yes. In the next moment, everything can change. Duty and desire…." He closed his eyes, seemingly fighting with himself, and she stared at him, wondering what debate raged within him. Then he let out a breath, and opened his eyes, his determined gaze locked on hers. "I will try to free him, with all of my power. I pledge this to you. I will try to free you both."
She smiled. "There is little you can do, but thank you. It is more than I could hope for, for a Jedi to try."
His touch grew firmer and she leaned into it, unable to resist despite the importance of their words. "Tomorrow, I will appeal to Watto's greed. He won't be able to resist another wager-"
"Gambling. It's his weakness."
"Yes. It might be difficult to secure his release. To secure your release. But I will try." Rough, warm fingers traced the lines of her face and she let her eyes slide shut, shivering at the rush of fire that came from the simplest of touches from this man.
Tomorrow, he would leave. Tomorrow, he would try to free her son. Tomorrow-
He hushed her thoughts, elegant fingers crossing over her lips. "Keep your mind on the here, the now," he murmured, his forehead dropping to press against hers. "Forget tomorrow. There is only now."
Now. Sweeping the cacophony of thoughts and fears and questions to the back of her mind, she freed herself to the present. Boldly, she lifted her mouth, lips brushing his as she answered, "Only now."
Their mouths met and slow, lingering kisses strengthened as heat overtook them both. A thick fur that she often used for star-gazing softened the sandy stone beneath them as they sunk to the ground, his long form over hers.
There were no soft, empty words, no protestations of love - for love was forbidden, attachments were forbidden, and this was a comfort to her as she wrapped herself in his warmth, as she fell into the joys of now and forgot the future. He would ask no more than she could give, and in return she would ask the same of him. A selfish love, a selfish desire… it felt oddly liberating.
Her world became the sight of him, strong and beautiful and passionate; her universe became the feel of him, lips and hands and body. Slow caresses combined with more urgent embraces, warm kisses and hot breath against her skin. Low moans and growls that sent a thrill of desire straight through her body, wordless gasps that said so much. Through the fog of touch, she heard her name, said with such a quality and tone and urgency that she gasped even as his long, lean muscles tensed under her fingertips.
Their heartbeats slowed together under the watchful stars, and they held each other, silent, content, simply existing in the now.
The next morning, she rode with the others to the hangar area, where the racers were gathering with their crews and supporters before the race. Qui-Gon had gone ahead of them, leaving early to make the final arrangements with Watto. As they approached, she saw Watto fly off, obviously in a rather horrid mood, and she wondered what the two had discussed to cause her owner such agitation, and whether it had anything to do with Qui-Gon's pledge from the evening before.
"Good morning." Qui-Gon smiled as he greeted them, and for a moment she forgot all thought of Toydarians and owners and anything other than the man before her.
She smiled, a trifle shyly; gone was the confident woman of the night before, confidence fed by starlight and shadow and the stoic stance of the man beside her. In the bright of light, it seemed but a fantasy, a memory that didn't fit quite right with the other memories of her life. Then he lifted her from the eopie's back, and set her down, his hands lingering at her waist, his eyes intense and warm, and the reality of the memory returned to her. It had been no fantasy, or if it was, then it was a living fantasy and not one brought about by too much sun.
As they prepared the Podracer and settled Anakin in the starting area, she was thankful that Anakin was distracted by the race, for he would have certainly noticed her discomposure otherwise. Her son was perceptive, very perceptive, and she rather doubted that he'd believe her already-prepared excuse of the race making her nervous; she rarely smiled or blushed when she was concerned about a race.
But, of course, she was nervous. She hated watching Anakin race - it frightened her beyond anything she could have imagined, but there was no way she would miss it. Either his triumph, or his failure - she had to be there. If it was to be his last moment breathing, she would see it, and try to bring him back through the force of her will.
As the engines started, they made their way to a viewing platform, leaving Anakin behind in his racer. In a low voice, she looked up at Qui-Gon. "How is he? Is he nervous?"
The words they had exchanged the previous evening hung between them, and she imagined that if she were to reach out her hand, she could touch them.
"Duty and desire…. I will try to free him, with all of my power. I pledge this to you. I will try to free you both."
"There is little you can do, but thank you. It is more than I could hope for, for a Jedi to try."
Then memory was swept away by fear as she watched the deadly race begin. Her son. Qui-Gon's hand, warm on her shoulder, helped to ground her, and she was thankful for the unspoken comfort. Despite the heat of the day, she was cold, ice in her veins as she watched her son on the small hand-held viewscreen.
An eternity later, cheers erupted around her as Anakin crossed the finish line, the noise deafening, but all she could do was summon a small smile and lean against Qui-Gon limply for a moment. He had lived. Then she regained herself and stood straight and tall, ready to congratulate her son on his win - which she knew was likely more important to him than his life.
The hovel was quiet when Shmi entered. Anakin had gone off to play with his friends (and retell the glory of the race again and again, no doubt), and Qui-Gon and the others had returned to their ship with the parts Watto had given them. She was glad for the silence - she needed time to think. Or time to not think, might be more accurate - her nerves were raw, still, from watching the race, and from the events of the day before.
She sat, still and quiet, for some time before she rose and mechanically began to clean the kitchen. Their visitors had been quite polite, but there was still that evidence of others about that couldn't be completely erased until they'd gone. An extra cup or plate, a pitcher moved from its normal position on the counter. She let the automatic movements lull her, calm her, and she tried to keep her thoughts away from what had happened the evening before, from the scene the stars alone had been witness to.
Then, the excited voice of her son cut through her thoughts, and she turned to him with a smile as he raced into their hovel, Qui-Gon close behind.
Her eyes widened as Anakin shoved a handful of money at her, and through his and Qui-Gon's explanations, she gathered that they had sold the Podracer. In her hands, she held more money than she ever had in her life, and she looked at them, stunned. But the true shock came a moment later, when Qui-Gon told them that her dearest wish had come true: Anakin was free. She knew, when Qui-Gon looked at her, that he had been unable to free them both. But she didn't care - Anakin would be free of this place, free to pursue his dreams, to live a better life. He would be free.
The excitement of hearing that he was to become a Jedi put off her son's realization, but not for long. She shared a knowing glance with Qui-Gon when Anakin stopped his headlong rush to his room to pack, when he turned with a troubled look on his face.
"But what about Mom? Is she free, too?"
Her heart broke at the look on Anakin's face as Qui-Gon explained that he had tried, but Watto wouldn't allow it. She wondered at that for a moment, because Watto had treasured Anakin's mechanical skills and flying abilities far more than her help in the shop, but soon realized that Qui-Gon must have had to be quite clever with his wager to free Anakin. He would have known that she wouldn't leave without her son, and so freeing only her would be useless.
When Anakin came to her, tears in his eyes, she stroked his hair back and comforted him. She could sense Qui-Gon's urgency, and spoke quickly, explaining things to her son, encouraging him to get ready. He had to be free of this place, even if it meant leaving her.
Her heart shrunk from the thought.
Finally, Anakin headed for his room to finish packing, a bit more somber than before, leaving Qui-Gon and Shmi alone. She stood, looking after him, then she turned to Qui-Gon.
"Thank you," she said in a low voice, staring at him, trying to convey the depths of her gratitude through her gaze.
He nodded, concern etched on his face. "Will you be all right?"
A jerky nod of her head, and then her eyes were drawn back to her son's room. She could hear his instructions to the droid, and tears threatened to fall over. But she had to be strong in his sight, so that he could be strong - later, when they had gone and she was alone, there would be time for weeping.
Weeks later, she sat in her small home - the tiny hovel that felt too large now that Anakin's voice no longer filled its walls. Soon after Anakin had left Tatooine, she had traded a good amount of the money for a small HoloNet projector. Any news that she could get, any hint of where Anakin was….
She was honest enough with herself to realize that, while she had primarily wanted news of Anakin, news of Qui-Gon would also be a comfort. He played a dangerous role. He deserved peace. Whenever she was home, the projector was on, her attention at least partially on it while she went about her daily tasks.
And so it was that she heard of the triumph of her son in the Naboo War, and his acceptance into the Jedi Order. She glowed with pride at his achievement, and tried her best to keep it capsulated from her grief when she heard of the death of Qui-Gon Jinn. She wept for Qui-Gon, and reveled in her son's glory, and tried to not let the one tarnish the other.
She began to hear Qui-Gon's voice at the oddest times - usually when she most needed it. And, while she was grateful for it, she wondered often if she was beginning to lose her mind. Too much sun, perhaps, or too many worries. But surely she would hear her son's voice, if she were losing her mind?
One evening, months after his death, she was sitting in her home by herself when the solitude began to close in around her, thick and endless. She stood, and left the hovel, and looked at the stars. The private vantage point drew her feet automatically, and she moved unthinkingly to it, climbing the rough steps and then turning to stare out at the city.
At the stars.
Her hands tightened on her apron, the cloth smooth and soft, unlike others that she owned. It had been a gift from Cliegg Lars, a frequent customer of her owner's shop. He'd lost his wife recently and they spoke of their mutual grief, her sympathy for his loss and his sympathy for hers creating a bond of friendship. He had a son, Owen, who was very close to Anakin's age, and he had told her on one occasion that it was all that kept him going, seeing Owen's eyes lighten when he smiled.
All she had to keep herself going was a fuzzy HoloNet image that she'd saved, from the celebration after the Naboo War. He stood so proud, so handsome, next to the Jedi that the announcer said would be his Master.
She sighed, looking at the stars. Knowing that no one would believe her, she hadn't spoken of Qui-Gon to anyone. She, herself, could scarcely trust it was real and not just fantasy born of too much sun and too little companionship. But it had been real. She turned her eyes to the ground, to that very spot… and the memory, always vivid, took hold, and she wept for all that she had lost.
"A smile from one who has never known sorrow is an empty thing."
The voice sounded so real… not just a word or two, hazily heard at the edges of her awareness, but stark and real and close. She looked up, but saw nothing. Instantly, she berated herself. How could she think he was there? He had passed on. She had seen the unsteady footage of his funeral, felt the dull ache as burning flames engulfed his form. Watched as the fire flickered around him, the flames not obscuring the dignity of that profile, the peacefulness of those features.
The beauty within, and without.
No, it couldn't have been his voice that she'd heard. Sighing, she closed her eyes and, as she had so many times before, told herself she was imagining things, allowing memory and fantasy to create a new reality. He was gone.
"Are any of us truly gone?"
Her eyes sprang open. That was his voice, she was sure of it. Just as she was sure she hadn't heard it with her ears, but with something deeper. "Qui-Gon?" she whispered hesitantly, wondering at her own sanity.
"He will do well. You will do well."
Her breath caught and she raised a hand to her throat. "Are you…" She couldn't finish the sentence - there was too much fear, too much hope - and if the answer was what she expected….
"Keep hope. Happiness will find you."
And then there was silence. With a sigh, Shmi turned her face up to the stars, and touched the soft cloth of her new apron, and smiled.
Original cover by Phurie. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.