He finally found her through the Force. She was in another part of the garden, and surrounded by a trio of much younger Padawans, probably ones whose Masters were also meditating somewhere in here. It was exactly what he would expect from her, although he did hope they didn’t keep her talking for an hour this time. Hers was a generous heart that never wanted to ask someone to finish talking to her. It had gotten the better of her during missions more than once. Although on at least one occasion he was pretty sure it had won them a vital ally.
By the time he reached her, though, two of them had fallen away, called off to their own Masters. Padmé sat with her old friend Ellé Okrest who had recently become apprenticed to Adi Gallia. And when Adi had once said after she’d gotten one Padawan killed that she’d never take another one, but that was a resolve none of them could really afford to have anymore.
Once, too, Mace would’ve been concerned about Padmé now seeing so much of two Padawans she’d been overly close to during their days as Initiates. But Ellé was harmless, compared to her relationship with Anakin Skywalker, and anyway, he’d come to see this part of her as, if still a potential weakness, a potential source of strength as well.
He thought Ellé was a bit intimidated by him, though. The minute their eyes fell on him, she was on her feet and bowing fast, the way Padmé herself might have once done. He tried to make his voice gentle as he said, “Padawan Okrest. How go things with you and Master Gallia?”
“Well, sir,” she said, not looking up at him. “We are going out on another mission tonight. Almost as soon as she's done here she will head straight to the Council chamber, and then likely to our ship from there. We even ate very early.”
“Her connection to the Force has gotten a lot stronger,” Padmé told him. “Master Gallia put her through some very strong meditation exercises about a month ago, when they happened to be on Kashyyyk, took her out to an overgrown part of the woods and just let her absorb herself in all the life there.”
“I am pleased to hear that,” Mace told her. “Good luck on your next mission.” He was a little sorry to hear they were leaving already, though. He would have liked to have dined with Adi. He was fairly sure Padmé was far more sorry.
“It really is remarkable of her to have progressed as far as she has in such a short time,” said Padmé as they left the garden and headed for the Refectory. “Even if she still isn’t as strong as most of us. She might even eventually be stronger.”
“I know,” he said, aware that she still worried he wouldn’t. This was the way she now continually pushed him, trying to encourage him to have more empathy and be less harsh. It seemed her eighteenth nameday a few months back had unleashed her confidence, especially as it had become time to seriously consider when she would be ready for the Trials. He didn’t think she would be for at least another year or so, but it would not be too many years.
It was all a strange reversal from only a few years back, when she had been a submissive, overeager to please Padawan who wished only to emulate him, even to the detriment of her own natural skills being developed. He was lucky Qui-Gon had been there to identify that problem and tell it to him. Before then he'd only known something was wrong; he would never have figured out what if it hadn't been for his old friend. It wasn’t a problem Masters thought of; Qui-Gon himself had probably only recognized it because he’d had the same one with Obi-Wan Kenobi. It hadn’t been an easy problem to correct, either. He’d been lucky enough to be aided by her own strong will and smarts; she had come to the realization she didn’t need to be exactly like him on her own, but he’d had to make sure she didn’t then doubt that fact. (His being the object of her first mature sexual feelings hadn’t helped matters either, but thankfully that had passed within a year or so without any harm being done).
The little things gave him encouragement. Like how instead of entering the Refectory behind him like she had once always done, because it was the busiest time of the day she darted in ahead, and he heard her call greetings to more than one fellow Padawan. She was still looking around as he stepped in behind her, but then she shook her head. “Younglings aren’t here yet,” she said. It made sense she’d look for them; she always helped him whenever he taught the Initiates classes, and they liked her more than him.
Except ultimately, after they had gotten their food, and Padmé had said hello to a few more people and congratulated one newly-made Padawan, it was a call of “Master Windu! Will you and Padawan Naberrie come join me?” that led them to sit down with Obi-Wan Kenobi. They were both made glad by that. It had been four months since they’d last seen him, and it was good to do so again.
“Good evening, Knight Kenobi,” said Mace as they sat down. “Your Padawan is not here?”
“No,” said Obi-Wan. “Tru’s lessons went over, and I couldn’t wait for him tonight; the Council wants to see me for some reason.”
“We do?” Mace asked, surprised. “I haven’t heard anything about it.”
“It was Master Yoda who found me and told me,” said Obi-Wan, who actually didn’t seem surprised at all. “Maybe it was just him? Although that’s not really like him.”
They fell silent for a moment, both men contemplating the oddness of the whole thing. It was true that Master Yoda would sometimes make a plan with only a small part of the Council and then present it to the rest of them later, but it was rare that Mace himself was not one of the ones making such plans with him. The only reason he could see that Yoda wouldn’t was if it involved Mace himself somehow, or possibly Depa or Padmé.
When it didn’t look like that conversation was going to immediately resume, Padmé asked, “Have you seen Master Jinn lately?”
“A few weeks ago,” said Obi-Wan, smiling, because he was quick to realize what Padmé was really asking about. “He and Anakin were about to head for Sopertlia. I think they actually might be back from that mission within a day or so. The bombing of the royal palace I’m sure you’ve heard about already keep them there longer than planned, of course, but since the likely culprit is far away from Sopertlia now and the negotiations are officially concluded, there’s not much more reason for them to linger. Anakin was looking good. He’s grown a few more inches again, and he did a remarkable High-Loosi Kata. Not doing so well at the Ataru style of lightsaber combat, though; Qui-Gon is thinking he might switch him to Shien, especially with how tall he’s getting.”
“The aggressive type,” said Mace, even though they all knew that, because he thought Padmé could do with hearing that said out loud.
“It does seem to be how he prefers to do things,” Obi-Wan agreed. “I’ve heard Tru say he’s-Qui-Gon!”
Mace and Padmé both whirled around in astonishment, and saw that it was indeed him and Anakin both entering the Refectory. They were still in their traveling cloaks, and Qui-Gon’s hair looked a touch disheveled; Mace suspected they’d probably gotten off the transport, handed anything they were carrying to a droid, and come straight here. Which wasn’t what they usually did; Qui-Gon had always liked to take his time doing things. Were they headed straight out again? Was this only a brief unexpected drop in?
Padmé at least restrained herself from greeting Anakin with more than a wave, which he returned, but that was a bigger smile on her face than he’d seen in at least a month. She didn’t need to call them over anyway; Obi-Wan did that for her, even getting out of his chair, and getting a hug from his old Master, who of course was going to give him one. Anakin, to his credit, looked a little embarrassed about that, but he was at the age where most Padawans would be. It didn’t stop him from giving Padmé a little hug, either, when he pulled up a chair next to her, but it wasn’t the full on glomp of his Master’s, just a modest placement of arms.
“You were not supposed to be back yet,” Obi-Wan was protesting, but he was laughing as he said it. Except Qui-Gon didn’t return it, and that was when Mace noticed he wasn’t smiling. He glanced over at Anakin, who was, hugging done but head still close with Padmé’s as they chattered away at each other, so it likely wasn’t what they’d just come from.
“We ended up on a faster transport home,” said Qui-Gon. “And good thing too. We barely stepped into the Temple when Master Mundi accosted us and told us we are both summoned to stand before the Council. 1900 hours. We’ll barely have time to eat-”
“1900 hours?” asked an astonished Obi-Wan. “But I’ve been summoned to the Council at the exact same time!”
“Well, then,” said Qui-Gon, who did not seem very surprised to hear this. “This really is quite an affair, because I was also told, Master Windu, that if I was to run into you in the Refectory, I was to tell you to bring Padawan Naberrie with you to the Council tonight.”
“What? Really?” This attracted the attention of the two Padawans. Then, as the realization of what all four of them as well as he himself had in common hit him, Mace saw Padmé look over the other three, and then meet his eyes, and he knew her sharp mind too had hit on it, even before she said, “Ani, you’ll be thirteen in another week, won’t you? Master Windu…” She didn’t ask the question, but there was an accusatory tone to her voice that asked it for her.
She was eighteen now, and even if this wasn’t what Mace thought it was, maybe it was time she and Obi-Wan both got involved in the discussions, because the time would come soon, in any case. “I think it possible, Padawan,” he said, “that it may be time to face one of the most serious things we may all face in our lives, aside from the attack on the Temple we lived through half a decade back.”
“No.” Qui-Gon spoke the protest very softly, which did nothing to decrease the intensity of it. “Surely not yet. He still is not even thirteen for four more days!”
“Maybe this is just a preliminary discussion,” said Padmé. “Surely they aren’t planning…not this soon…these things always take a while to plan anyway, don’t they?” She looked to her Master as she said this, though he sensed no uncertainty from her; she knew what she knew.
“They do,” he confirmed. But still, he knew things she was still too young to know, about how dire circumstances could be, or could get, and how sometimes even the Jedi would, out of need, or perceived need, push to get things done before what some thought the right time would be. These were things he feared she would learn very soon.
“Why are you all talking over my head??” Anakin demanded loudly. “What’s going on? Padmé, what are you all talking about? Will you at least talk to me? If your Master doesn’t forbid you to anyway?” Although from the glare he directed to Mace, he already expected him too.
It was a good thing Mace didn’t mind meeting his expectations. “Wait at least until after tonight,” he said. “I think we’ll probably be willing to talk to you soon, Padawan Skywalker, but we should at least wait for this Council meeting first.”
“Come, Anakin,” said Qui-Gon, who had finally separated from Obi-Wan. “We’d best go get our trays right now if we wish to eat tonight.”
Twelve going on thirteen was an age for most humans where such a point would carry the day. But even as he dutifully followed his Master, behind and to the left, nice as one would wish, Anakin continually looked back at their table, even after Padmé, at a jerk from her Master’s head, turned away towards her tray; in fact, that seemed to just make him look harder. Mace feared this would be a long lastmeal.
The five of them left the Refectory and headed straight for the Council Chamber together. Qui-Gon and Anakin were still in their traveling cloaks. They had taken them off while eating, but Qui-Gon had made a point of redonning his when he’d stood up, knowing his Padawan would then do the same. He wasn’t sure if it really mattered that much, especially since the meal and the company had rejuvenated him well, and eating heartily plus being with Padmé was the best combination to do the same for Anakin. But they were still being dragged into this literally right after getting back from a lengthy and surprisingly difficult mission, and he wanted the Council reminded of that.
Although he was still finding it hard to believe that this meeting was really over what Mace, and his young Padawan with him, and even Obi-Wan all seemed to think it was over. He knew what the situation was, of course, and far more than even Obi-Wan did, let alone Padmé. He knew the Council had been discussing it a lot, more and more this past month. He’d long since realized what they were going to do, sooner or later, and resigned himself to that part. But that they would want to do it now…well, he was the boy’s Master, and he wasn’t sure he would even allow that.
He was glad to see the full Council assembled; he’d worried they might try to force this with an abbreviated one. All of them except Mace had arrived already. Qui-Gon did feel some strength in walking to the center of the Chamber with Anakin on one side and Obi-Wan on the other. There was a moment’s pause, while everyone looked at Mace and Padmé, and she looked between her Master and the three of them.
Then Mace said, “This involves me as well as the four of them, doesn’t it?”
He met the eyes of Depa Billaba, and she nodded, and said, “Yes, it does.” Qui-Gon’s heart sank as her grim tone.
“Very well, then,” said Mace, and walked to stand by Obi-Wan, Padmé shuffling into place at the far end of the group.
“Five of you here, there are, then,” said Master Yoda. “Remember, you, six years ago, what happened with you five?”
“Darth Maul,” said Mace, giving away his name, Qui-Gon noted, because Obi-Wan had known it, but the two Padawans hadn’t. “The Zabrak Sith Lord who attacked us on Polsing. We believe we were the only five Jedi to have any direct contact with him. He broke into the Infirmary with Padawans Naberrie and Skywalker and myself present, and battled me, and also Master Jinn and Knight Kenobi when they arrived on the scene. When he realized he was outmatched, he swore revenge on all five of us and fled.”
“And since then,” said Master Gallia, “we have seen more of him. This last year, especially, he has turned up nearly every month, causing death and destruction across the galaxy, and especially multiple Jedi deaths. This year alone, he has killed nearly a hundred of us so far.”
“We cannot go on like that,” said Master Mundi. “Our numbers aren’t growing back, they’re only shrinking further. Even before all this happened, parents in the modern day weren’t as willing to give up their Force-sensitive children to the Order as they were in old times. Now, with it being known how many of us are being killed, they are even more reluctant.”
“Nearly wiped out once, we were,” said Master Yaddle. “Happen again, that cannot.”
“And what have you done to stop it?” Qui-Gon demanded.
“Teams, we have sent,” said Master Yoda. “Ten Jedi at once, to find and destroy him. To find him, they have never been able to. Too clever, he is. Gone, he is, at any place they come to.”
“And you want to use us to lure him out, then,” said Mace. “Make for a fight he won’t run away from. Like we discussed a long time ago, when Skywalker was far too young for it.”
“He’s still too young now,” said Qui-Gon.
“Is he, Qui-Gon?” Mace asked softly. “Once, I think he might have been. But our lives and our missions are more violent more often nowadays, and Padawans grow up faster than they used to. I read about the work he did during the mission you two had just now.”
“But, Master,” his Padawan protested. “There’s a different between that and the Sith.”
“Face the Sith directly, he may not have to,” said Yoda.
“The point is to get him where we want him,” said Master Billaba. “You certainly won’t meet him alone. We’ll bring all the backup we can spare. We might even have a separate attack team.”
“Although you do know, Master,” said Obi-Wan, “you and Master Windu would be of the Jedi best able to battle with him.”
“Do you think it will really be that simple?” Qui-Gon sighed. “You know what he said to us. And given how much he’s always known where and how to strike, and avoided those of us who've searched for him…his attunement to the Force is obviously strong enough that we will not be able to take him by surprise. There is no way you can do this without putting both our Padawans in grave danger. I won’t do that to mine. He’s still only just about to turn thirteen!”
He could sense their indignation at his defiance, even though it was hardly the first time he’d defied the Council. He returned the sentiment.
He wasn’t sure what anyone would’ve said next, if Anakin himself hadn’t softly said, “We’d have a lot more Jedi killed if we don’t do this, wouldn’t we?”
The boy was thinking of those two times when they’d been Initiates and Padmé had nearly sacrificed herself for the sake of someone else, Qui-Gon was sure of that. He recalled what he himself had said to Anakin over that, about needing to respect her choice to do that. But this was different. “As your Master, Anakin…” he started to say.
“Please,” his Padawan interrupted. “Just let them tell me, please.”
“There will be,” said Master Mundi. “Some of them probably younger than you, Padawan.”
“And remember, too,” said Mace. “If Anakin is the Chosen One…”
“You are not making this decision based on that!”
“On that, no,” Master Yoda said. If he’d been anyone else, Qui-Gon wouldn’t have believed him. “Understand what you are saying, we do. And to find something else we can do, we have tried. Nothing else, there is, and wait any longer, we cannot. This is a decision made on desperation.”
“And have you made it?” asked Obi-Wan.
“Did you hold a Council vote?” added Qui-Gon. “One you didn’t even tell a senior member about?” That wasn’t entirely fair, he knew; Mace would’ve had to recuse himself anyway.
“Just now, yes,” said Yoda, unrepentant. “Agreed, most of us did, that this must be done.”
“Padmé,” said Mace quietly, “Are you willing to do this? Put your life in danger for this?”
“You know she is,” snapped Anakin.
“That is true,” said Padmé. “You know I am.”
“But do you need all five of us?” asked Obi-Wan. “Would the three of us do just as well?”
“We were all three of us together a year ago, remember?” said Mace. “On that mission is was too dangerous to take Padmé and Anakin on, and when Darth Maul was active in the area. He didn’t approach us. It’s too likely he’ll only do it if we have them with us.”
“He might,” said Qui-Gon. “Could we not at least try that first?”
The members of the Council glanced at each other, then Yoda nodded. “Try that first, then, we will.”
“We’re trying to get a rough idea of his location,” said Master Mundi. “We think we might get enough to go on if we gather enough info; we might call you back here in a month. If it doesn’t work, of course, it might get harder to find the Sith again; Maul may go to ground.”
“I’m sure you’ll eventually find him again,” said Obi-Wan, for which Qui-Gon was grateful.
“Settled, then that is,” said Master Yoda. “Master Windu, your seat?”
“Stay with Master Jinn,” Mace said to Padmé as he sat down. “I’ll be coming to your quarters as soon as we’re done here, Master Qui-Gon.”
Obi-Wan came with them too, as they made their way down to the quarters Qui-Gon shared with Anakin. The two Padawans, now free of Master Windu’s efforts to keep them apart, were soon close together again, like they’d been at lastmeal. “Hey,” he grinned at her. “At least we’re working together.”
“Yes, we are,” said Padmé, and could not keep herself from smiling as well.
“It may not go that far,” Qui-Gon reminded them. “You may find yourselves doing nothing more because of this than having another period of time in the Temple without us. And rest assured, Anakin, I will keep you very busy during that time, and I know Master Windu will do the same for Padmé. Just like we did a year ago.”
“He will,” Padmé agreed, but Qui-Gon knew that didn’t stop her from spending as much time with Anakin as they could manage. Which he himself had no problem with at all. He was glad to know she’d be there to look after him in his absence.
“You know,” said Obi-Wan, after a minute where both Padawans had been quiet, apparently lost in thought. “Forgive me, Master, but I think Anakin should get a chance to answer this question, if only just in front of the three of us. What Padmé said she’d be willing to do, Anakin, would you be willing to do the same? Of course the teachings of the Jedi hold that you must be, but…”
“Teachings or no, I am willing to do what we have to do to destroy the Sith,” said Anakin. “I know how bad they are.”
Exactly the response Qui-Gon had known his Padawan would give. “That, by itself,” he said, “is the right answer, Anakin. But remember not to be too reckless and impatient. You may not need to die. And the Jedi Order, right now, cannot afford to lose a Padawan of your potential when the Sith might be defeated without losing him.”
“But am I not the Chosen One, Master?” said Anakin. “The one the prophecy says is supposed to destroy the Sith. I know everyone’s told me not to worry about that, because if it’s right, then it’ll happen anyway, and I haven't been ready yet. But if this is really what I’m *supposed* to do…”
“That still does not require any reckless action right now,” Qui-Gon insisted. “In fact, you may be destined to destroy them later, when you’ll be more capable. We certainly don’t want you killed now if that’s the case.”
“Listen to him, Ani,” said Padmé, and that got a nod out of Anakin. Not the first time Qui-Gon had wondered if maybe she might have influence on his Padawan where he did not.
Most Masters would have been extremely dismayed indeed at that idea. But as Padmé then said, “So tell me more about what you’re learning right now, Ani,” Qui-Gon Jinn instead found himself thinking that perhaps that didn’t have to be a bad thing, not if she was willing to follow his lead on what to do about it. Which she would be, he was sure, unless her Master objected.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have left the two of them to their own devices in his room once they reached their quarters. But he and Obi-Wan had seen too little of each other in recent months, and he was too glad to sit down with him alone and talk with him about how things had been going for them both. They also commed Tru Veld briefly, although he was now eating himself. They both were especially happy about getting the time together after Qui-Gon had given Obi-Wan advice about the next stage in Tru’s training.
An hour and half later Mace arrived, looking a little tired, and asking no questions immediately about where their Padawans were, which indicated the Council session had been an especially grueling one, probably only really getting intense after the four of them had left. Obi-Wan stood up so as to give him the seat nearest to the door, and when he collapsed into it, he said, “We can’t even agree on how to track this guy down, whether to ask the government for help or not, how many scouts to send or what types or where to send them…”
“Well, that gives time, doesn’t it?” said Obi-Wan. “Anakin might be older when we do this after all?”
“The Council is so worried about letting this go on I don’t know if there’s any chance of that being the case,” sighed Mace. “We don't know how this one's going to end at all.”
“That’s probably what they hate about it most,” Qui-Gon couldn’t help but comment. And Mace just nodded, because he couldn’t deny that.
He almost didn’t continue, thinking maybe it would be better to make the proposal when Mace was less drained. But he couldn’t be sure if the three of them would get the chance to meet again before one of them was sent out on another mission. The Council having vague plans for them wouldn’t keep any of them at the Temple; not when the Order’s numbers had gotten so low over the past decade.
“But,” he said, “if the three of us are sent out without our Padawans-and this is something that might or might not end up involving Tru, Obi-Wan, I’m not sure-I know, Mace, that you sometimes have concerns about the closeness of Anakin and Padmé’s relationship, but all the same…what would you think if, while we were gone, we specifically directed the two of them to work together?”
That got Mace to stand back up, and he did not look amenable to the idea. But instead of rejecting it, he simply asked, “What do you think they would be doing together?”