The rhythmic buzzing of the comm unit woke him. Qui-Gon squinted at the chrono and sat up, shaking off his grogginess with practiced ease.
"Captain Talik wishes to speak with you, Master." Obi-Wan's voice sounded relaxed, calm. Normal. Maybe a good nap had helped him clear his head, Qui-Gon thought.
"On my way," he replied, swinging his feet over the side of the bed.
Captain Talik's figure was waiting on the holographic panel, glowing an eerie reddish-gray. He looked as if he hadn't had any sleep at all.
"Captain," Qui-Gon said by way of greeting.
"Master Jinn, my apologies for disturbing you." The figure fiddled nervously with its hat. "I won't waste your time. I was hoping you might be willing to participate in the next phase of the plan."
Qui-Gon could feel Obi-Wan's pulse of excitement. He pressed his lips into a thin line. "I'll need to check with the Council first, as we're expected back on Coruscant. What assistance do you require?"
"The team that was going to intercept the slave buyer suffered casualties during the raid. We've also discovered that one of our ships was badly damaged in the operation. We are... terribly short-handed, and there isn't time for reinforcements to come." The man was very nearly pleading. "I respectfully ask you to lead the mission, Master Jinn. I can provide you with a team of eight Judicial troops. Master Benica wishes to join you as well."
Qui-Gon gritted his teeth. "Yes, I imagine she does." He turned to look at Obi-Wan and saw his apprentice was nearly bouncing with anticipation. He sighed. This wasn't a good idea. Obi-Wan needed to return to the Temple. He needed to be debriefed, and he needed some time to reflect on his experience undercover. Hells, I need some time, he thought. He turned back to the holographic display, noting the hopeful expression on Talik's face. "We would be happy to be of service, Captain," he said, feeling his shoulders tense at his own words. "However, we have been summoned to return to Coruscant. I will contact the Council, and the decision will be theirs."
"The meeting is scheduled to occur in twenty-four hours, Master Jedi, so please... Thank you," Talik finished, bowing, and the image winked out.
"Master, with all due respect--"
Qui-Gon cut his padawan off with a gesture. "There is nothing to discuss. The decision belongs with the Council."
"That is utter shit and you know it!" Obi-Wan spat. Qui-Gon's mouth fell open in response. "You've never needed to ask the Council for permission before. You do what you choose, what you feel is right. Why this sudden allegiance to the rules?"
Qui-Gon took a measured breath, fighting the urge to grab the boy by the front of his tunics and slam him into the wall. Obi-Wan flushed, apparently sensing his master's reproach, and said nothing more.
Qui-Gon studied him for a long moment. "You're right," he said at last, "that I follow the will of the Force. In this case, I feel it would be a mistake for us to continue participating in this mission." He paused, watching Obi-Wan's face carefully. "I sense a disturbance in the Force, something neither of us is prepared to face. We need time. You need time." Qui-Gon suddenly felt drained. A mild headache was beginning behind his eyes, and he exhaled.
Obi-Wan folded his arms into his sleeves and was silent for a moment more. "Master, we don't have the luxury of time. If we don't lead this mission now, the client will likely escape, and we may not have another chance." He paused, and Qui-Gon looked up to see those blue-green eyes burning into his own. Obi-Wan was so young, and so determined. So idealistic. Qui-Gon barely remembered feeling that way himself, but he remembered being admonished by his own master for his youthful enthusiasm. He'd always hated it, too.
"I'll contact the Council," he said with a soft sigh. "We'll go wherever they need us."
Obi-Wan nodded and left the room. Qui-Gon's headache throbbed.
Qui-Gon stood in the cargo bay of the transport, waiting for the dim clank of metal on metal that would indicate they had re-docked with the Judicial cruiser. He took a long breath and released it slowly, concentrating on the sound it made as it passed through his nose: a calming, focusing sound. He centered his balance and stood in a standing meditation pose, hoping to gain a few moments' serenity before -- in all likelihood -- hell broke loose.
He'd been unhappy when Mace had instructed them to remain in the sector and assist the Judicials. He'd made the call in private, just so he could explain to his colleague exactly why it was a bad idea for them to continue.
Mace had listened, and nodded, and then promptly dismissed Qui-Gon's concerns. "You should have more faith in your apprentice, Qui-Gon. After all, you have trained him well."
"It's not about faith," he'd replied testily. "I know my padawan, and I know his emotions are running high now. He needs time to sort out his experiences. He was away from the Order for six months."
"Qui-Gon, something more is troubling you," Mace said, steepling his fingers in that way Qui-Gon had always found infuriating. "Did something happen to Obi-Wan on this mission? Something I should know about?"
He'd paused then. Something had happened, of course, but he wasn't sure it was something he wanted to share with the Council. Not yet, at any rate. Not until they'd had a chance to discuss it between themselves.
"No," he'd sighed. "Nothing."
Mace had watched his face for a moment, and then nodded in response. "Very well. I see no reason why you shouldn't remain where you are. May the Force be with you, my friend."
A thick clunk resonated throughout the bay, bringing Qui-Gon out of his thoughts. He waited until the light above the airlock turned green, and then keyed in the code to open it.
A tall, thin woman stepped through, flanked by two children. She bowed at Qui-Gon in greeting.
"Master Benica," he said, returning her bow. "Welcome aboard."
The children at her side bowed more deeply to Qui-Gon, and he acknowledged their show of respect with a smile and a nod of his head. "Padawans Manya and Rill Vees, I believe?"
"Yes, Master," they replied in unison, looking up at him. They seemed quite young, Qui-Gon thought. But then, they were twins, and that made them special.
"I'll show you to your quarters, and then we'll make arrangements to meet shortly," he said, starting towards the corridor. They walked in silence, footsteps echoing around them. Qui-Gon stopped outside the door that was previously his own small room. "I'm sorry there isn't much space," he said. "We're doubling and tripling up, it seems. There's going to be a squad of Judicials joining us as well, but we kept the largest room for the three of you."
"It will be adequate." Master Benica replied, gesturing the children in with a nod of her head. She bowed to Qui-Gon and turned to follow them.
"Alissi," he said, catching her elbow. She turned back. "I just wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about Rollan. He was a great Jedi." He paused, words seeming horribly inadequate.
Alissi smile's was strained. "Thank you, Qui-Gon. My brother will be sorely missed." With that, she slipped through the door and closed it.
Qui-Gon stared at it for a moment before returning to the small bridge of the transport.
He found Obi-Wan in their room, meditating.
"They're here," he said.
Obi-Wan nodded, but did not open his eyes. Qui-Gon noticed that Obi-Wan had pulled down the upper bunk for him from its storage spot in the wall, and had placed a folded blanket and a pillow on it. He somehow doubted he'd have a chance to use it any time soon.
"We'll meet in the galley in ten minutes," he said.
Obi-Wan opened his eyes. "How are the children?"
"They appear to be fine," he replied. "I'm sure they'll need some time to deal with their grief. Losing one's master is a most traumatic event in the life of a padawan."
"I can only imagine," Obi-Wan muttered, stretching. "The Benicas were twins, weren't they?"
"Yes," Qui-Gon sighed. "They aren't many pairs of twin Jedi these days. I'm not certain who will complete the training of their padawans."
"They won't remain with Master Benica?"
Qui-Gon shook his head. "Twin Jedi are far too valuable. Their training is handled with the utmost care, and they are only apprenticed to twin masters."
"Is it true that twin Jedi are naturally telepathic?"
"That's what I've always heard. Perhaps you should ask the Vees twins yourself, since you know them so well."
Obi-Wan smiled -- it was the most genuine expression he'd displayed in hours. Qui-Gon returned it, feeling a flutter in his stomach. There was never going to be a good time to say this.
"Obi-Wan, I'm sorry for my shortness with you earlier. I don't want what happened on the slaver's ship to drive a wedge between us."
The smile faded, but Obi-Wan did not drop his gaze. "It doesn't have to be a wedge, you know."
Qui-Gon's jaw tightened. "There's nothing else it could be. I'm sorry."
Qui-Gon sighed and sank to the floor to sit next to his apprentice. "Obi-Wan, please don't do this. You, of all people, should understand."
"That you're afraid?" Obi-Wan said, a touch of bitterness in his voice. "Yes, that much is clear."
"I'm not afraid," Qui-Gon replied. "I took that vow of celibacy for good reason. You know that."
"She's been dead for six years, Master," Obi-Wan whispered. "When are you going to let her go?"
"I'm not clinging to a ghost," Qui-Gon replied, a little more strongly than he'd intended. Thinking about Tahl always made him a bit defensive, for some reason. "And you're hardly in any position to judge my feelings on the matter."
"I thought we were honest with each other," Obi-Wan muttered, hugging his knees to his chest. "Or would you prefer I hide behind the Code and pretend it was nothing more than duty when I made love to you?"
"That wasn't making love," Qui-Gon heard himself hiss.
Obi-Wan smirked. "Well, if we're going to be honest, you're right. You fucked me, plain and simple. You'd rather think of it that way?"
"I'd rather not think of it at all."
Obi-Wan raised a carefully controlled eyebrow. "Then don't mention it again. As you've already made quite clear, it wasn't your choice. You've nothing to be sorry for."
Qui-Gon opened his mouth, but could think of nothing to say to that. The boy was correct, to an extent. I'm the one who keeps bringing it up, he thought. I never wanted it. It wasn't my choice. He nodded, standing, and left the room, struggling to shield his dark thoughts.
"We need to be at the rendezvous point in eighteen hours," Obi-Wan began. "Master Benica will pose as the slaver C'Lon and will contact the suspect. The boarding teams will be waiting in the cargo bay." He paused, remarkably poised, Qui-Gon thought. "Manya, Rill, and Qui-Gon will be taken aboard first. I'll accompany the boarding team. On my signal, we'll begin the operation."
"How do you know the real customer is coming?" asked one of the Judicials, a sharp-faced woman called "Bangs" by her comrades.
"We don't," Obi-Wan replied. "C'Lon never had direct contact with him, only with his personnel. We really have no idea what we're going to find." Qui-Gon thought Obi-Wan sounded almost excited by the thought.
"We're holding the slaver on the flagship," another Judicial said. "Perhaps she would be willing to help us, in exchange for a reduced sentence."
Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon, uncertain. "She could be useful," Qui-Gon told him. "It would be best if you were the one to contact her."
"She thinks I'm dead," Obi-Wan mused. "This could be a bit of a shock."
"She also thinks she's spending the rest of her life in prison," Bangs added. "This could ease the blow."
Obi-Wan nodded. "When can I see her?"
"The sooner, the better," Qui-Gon said. "This ship is fast enough to get us to the coordinates in twelve hours, but we shouldn't chance being late."
Bangs stood. "I'll call the officer in charge of the prisoners and make the arrangements."
They watched her leave, and then everyone looked back at Obi-Wan.
"Padawan Kenobi," Manya began, and then pursed her lips, as if hesitant to speak. Obi-Wan tilted his head, and waited. Rill met her eyes and nodded. "If anything goes wrong, should we allow ourselves to be taken captive?"
"We're what he wanted, after all," Rill continued.
Qui-Gon opened his mouth, ready to protest, but Obi-Wan spoke first.
"What would that accomplish?"
"We could learn what he wants, who he is. We could pretend to accept our fate, but collect information on him."
"Or we could kill him," Rill said, voice flat.
Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow and glanced at Alissi. She returned the expression. Obi-Wan returned his gaze to the children.
"You must follow the will of the Force," he said softly. "Those who love you would tell you not to follow such a course of action."
"But there are more important things than love," Rill replied.
"Indeed," sighed Alissi, looking down at her clasped hands.
Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon, and then looked away again. The meeting broke up, but Qui-Gon remained sitting at the table, lost in thought.
Obi-Wan took a deep breath.
"Ready?" Qui-Gon asked.
"Yes... no." He shook his head. "I didn't think I'd see her again."
"Does it bother you that you deceived her?" Qui-Gon asked, folding his arms across his chest.
"Yes," Obi-Wan admitted, glancing up at Qui-Gon with wide eyes. "She cared about me. She trusted me."
"She was a slaver, Padawan. She sold sentient beings, after torturing and abusing them."
Obi-Wan snorted. "I see you've read my report."
Qui-Gon shook his head. "This is exactly why debriefing is so critical after undercover missions." For the hundredth time, he wished they could have simply returned to the Temple.
"It's complicated," Obi-Wan sighed. "She did terrible things, but... I liked her."
"And that is what makes us human, Padawan." Qui-Gon squeezed his shoulder. "Your affection for her may save her, you know."
The door slid open and a Judicial trooper waved them through. They followed him down a corridor, past rows of doors. The trooper paused before one and tapped a code into the panel. The door slid open.
Obi-Wan stepped through first, and Qui-Gon followed. C'Lon was sitting on a hard bench, facing away from them. Her extravagant clothes had been exchanged for the orange coveralls of a Judicial prisoner, and her once-spiky gray hair lay flat against her head. She looked like the old woman she was, and not the tough slaver who'd threatened him with a blaster and taken him captive only a few days ago. Qui-Gon suppressed an un-Jedi-like smirk.
"C'Lon," Obi-Wan said.
Her head snapped up at the sound of his voice. For a moment, she didn't seem to recognize him, and then her face paled. Her mouth opened and closed several times, but she said nothing. She glanced at Qui-Gon, then back to Obi-Wan, taking in the Jedi tunics with narrowed eyes. She finally made a sound like a strangled laugh.
"Fuck me," she muttered, shaking her head. "I should have known."
Obi-Wan only stared back at her, hands tucked into the sleeves of his cloak. He didn't seem to know what to say in response.
"Here to gloat?" C'Lon asked.
"Actually, we could use your help," Obi-Wan replied.
"My help?" C'Lon repeated. "Oh, fuck you." She stood and walked towards him. The trooper stepped forward, but Obi-Wan waved him back with a gesture. "Here I've been so worried, and sick, and guilty, thinking I'd sent you to your death, and you..." She flailed her hands in front of him.
"I'm sorry," he said. His tone was sincere, but C'Lon didn't seem to notice. She glared at him, and then slapped him hard across the face. The Judicial leapt forward and pushed her against the wall, growling a threat. Obi-Wan put a hand on the man's arm, stilling his movements. The Judicial rolled his eyes and then released C'Lon with an exasperated sigh.
C'Lon stared at Obi-Wan for a long moment. Finally, she folded her arms across her chest and waited for him to speak.
"My name is Obi-Wan Kenobi," he told her. "I'm a Jedi padawan. I've been working undercover to infiltrate your operation."
She shook her head and snorted. "Well, you certainly did your job well. Thanks for nothing. Now get the fuck out of my ruined life, why don't you?" There was pain in her voice, Qui-Gon noted.
Obi-Wan caught her wrist as she tuned away. "C'Lon, please," he said.
She jerked her arm away and glared at him. "Get OUT!"
Obi-Wan clenched his jaw, frustrated. "We can help you, if you cooperate. They've agreed to reduce your sentence considerably in exchange for information. Remember that beach?"
"I dream about it." She paused, eyes narrowing. "Reduce my sentence? By how much?"
Obi-Wan smiled, ducking his head and looking up at her through his eyelashes. "That depends on how much you help us." It was a coy gesture, one Qui-Gon could only assume he'd used with C'Lon before.
C'Lon pursed her lips. "Aren't I supposed to get a lawyer, or something?"
"The Jedi operate outside the legal system," Qui-Gon interjected when Obi-Wan hesitated. "We can take care of this quietly, perhaps get you the minimum sentence."
"For slaving inside the boundaries of the Republic?" she retorted. "The minimum sentence is twenty years."
Qui-Gon smiled. "We have a great deal of influence. At the time of your arrest, you were merely an accessory to kidnapping. The minimum sentence for that charge is only two years."
C'Lon raised an eyebrow. "Funny. I thought the Jedi only bent the law when it benefited one of their own."
Obi-Wan ignored the jibe. "This is bigger than a slaving operation, C'Lon. We're interested in the client."
"Of course you are," she smirked. "Since when did the Jedi give a shit about anyone but themselves?" Obi-Wan clenched his jaw, and C'Lon turned to Qui-Gon. "I suppose I'm cooperating, then. Do I need to sign anything?"
"We'll take care of it," Qui-Gon replied.
"I refuse to sit at the table with this criminal," Alissi hissed.
C'Lon said nothing, staring resolutely at her plate.
"Alissi, please," Qui-Gon whispered, taking her hand and tugging her towards the table.
"It's because of her that my brother is dead," Alissi retorted, standing her ground. The cold anger in her tone sent a chill down Qui-Gon's spine. It was far too familiar.
"Well, I won't argue with you," C'Lon muttered, looking up. "But keep in mind that I know the name and coordinates of the man who actually pulled the trigger." Her eyes met Alissi's, and the women glared at each other for several long seconds.
Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon, face taut with tension. Qui-Gon sighed. "And that's why you're here, C'Lon." He released Alissi's hand and sat across from the slaver.
A small gasp at the door signaled the arrival of the twins. They looked up at Alissi, uncertain. Alissi made a disgusted sound and left, the padawans following at her heel.
"I can't say I blame her," C'Lon said between bites. "I wouldn't want to eat with me either."
They continued to eat in silence, and Qui-Gon once again questioned his decision to bring C'Lon with them. They didn't have much time before they had to be at the meeting point with the client, and it had become clear that negotiating with C'Lon wasn't going to be easy. Inviting her to eat latemeal with the team -- rather than locked in her cabin -- had been Obi-Wan's idea. He seemed to think C'Lon would be more cooperative if she didn't feel so much like a prisoner.
"If you lot are trying to butter me up, it's working," C'Lon quipped, smirking at Qui-Gon.
Obi-Wan pushed his half-empty plate away and glanced back and forth between C'Lon and Qui-Gon.
"Go check on Alissi," Qui-Gon told him. "See if you can reason with her. We need to solidify our plans for tomorrow."
"Yes, Master," Obi-Wan said, nodding his head in a bow as he stood.
C'Lon watched him leave, then turned an incredulous face to Qui-Gon. "Did he call you master?"
"He's my apprentice," Qui-Gon replied.
"I'll bet," she snorted. Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow in query. C'Lon smirked. "So all of that was just for show on my ship, with you resisting him?"
"What?" Qui-Gon knew what she meant, of course.
"Oh, come now," C'Lon grinned, picking up her cup. "I've heard about what goes on between Jedi and their apprentices."
Qui-Gon snorted. "Obi-Wan is my student, nothing more."
"You seemed to enjoy fucking him."
"My relationship with my padawan is none of your concern," Qui-Gon replied, a bit too curtly. "You clearly know very little about the Jedi."
"I know more than you might imagine," she muttered, holding his gaze. He didn't reply.
"Master, we're in the cargo hold." Obi-Wan's voice on the commlink broke the silence between them.
"On our way," Qui-Gon replied, then clipped the device to his belt. "We'll need your help now," he told C'Lon. "If you don't plan to cooperate, I can escort you back to your cabin."
C'Lon pushed away from the table and stood. She looked more herself in civilian clothes, hair resolutely spiked up once more. She raised herself to her full height and stared up at Qui-Gon. "I plan to cooperate. I may be a stubborn old bitch, but I'm not stupid, you know." Her lips quirked into a smile. She had her moments, he had to admit. If one overlooked her chosen profession and criminal past, she could even be endearing.
Qui-Gon smiled and gestured towards the door. "After you, milady."