The scenery of Crimson Corridor slid by unnoticed as Obi Wan's long strides ate up the ground. His attempts to find calm were second nature, but this time the effort was halfhearted and distracted as frustration overran his senses.
How could she be so naïve?! She was going to let a Sith into her home? Into her life? Couldn't she see this had to be some kind of trick? That she was in danger? He had to do something, but what? If he went to the Council he'd be betraying Buffy's confidence. Even if it was for her protection he wasn't sure she'd forgive him. Was it better to let things progress and for her to see what the Sith really was for herself? What if she was hurt though? Or worse…
Maybe he'd been too hasty. Perhaps he should've stayed if just to keep an eye on the Sith and to protect Buffy.
A flash of his dream flickered through Obi Wan's mind, making him clench his fists. The fact was, as much as he hated to admit it even to just himself, that he was afraid. Not of the Sith, but of the influence of the darkside. Normally Obi Wan would've had complete faith in his moral fortitude, but that dream had shattered that confidence. He knew he shouldn't be letting that vision dictate his actions – that was the first rule in dealing with prophetic dreams – but when faced with the fork in the path that could potentially be the catalyst to it becoming reality, he found it easier said than done.
Distracted by his thoughts as he was, he almost didn't feel the attack coming before it was too late. The threat of violence erupted behind him suddenly, the Force screaming at him to get down. He barely dropped out of the path of a blaster bolt before it could strike him in the back.
That Sith, Obi Wan thought, snatching his lightsaber free and bringing it to life. How stupid of me to think he wouldn't be out here waiting to ambush me.
He rolled and turned gracefully, bringing his blade up in a sweeping arc toward his assailant. It didn't occur to him until he was staring into the wide eyes of a human teenager that the Sith likely wouldn't attack him with a blaster.
The boy's shocked gaze traveled from Obi Wan's own to the ground where his blaster was laying – still attached to his hand.
There were a handful of other boys behind him – probably a street gang of some sort judging from their apparent shared love of the color yellow – all staring wide eyed and silent.
Obi Wan started to choke out a shocked apology, but before he could get the words out they all scattered like spider roaches. It happened so quickly that within seconds it was as if they were never there at all. Other than the severed hand and abandoned blaster…
He stared wide eyes before he turned quickly away from the only evidence that that horrifying scene had just played out. How could he have done that? He'd just maimed a street kid! Was he that obsessed with the danger the Sith represented that he couldn't tell the difference between evil and misguided when being attacked?
He started in the direction the boy had run in - he should find him, make sure he got medical attention – before he realized it was a fruitless endeavor. Those boys were sure to know this area much better than he did and they'd have the added incentive of thinking they were running from a murderous Jedi. He'd never find them.
Swallowing around the lump in his throat, he continued slowly out of the alley he'd been in and onto the main street. The strange shops and occurrences that were normality in Crimson Corridor passing unseen as his mind rolled over all that was wrong and how to fix it. He wasn't sure where he was going, but it didn't really matter…
"Twice in one day," a voice called, jarring him from his circling thoughts. "A fortuitous coincidence or your 'force' at work?"
Obi Wan came back from his inner turmoil to find himself outside the Jedi Temple and face to face with Chancellor Palpatine being escorted by a handful of guards. He was smiling, but it disappeared as Obi Wan met his eyes, replaced with concern.
"Perhaps 'fortuitous' was a hasty choice of words. It looks as though things haven't gone well for you since we parted ways."
He waved the guards to a respectful distance as he approached Obi Wan.
"Whether a chance encounter or the will of the Force, I would always say a meeting with you is fortuitous, Chancellor Palpatine," Obi Wan said numbly, his diplomatic training kicking in automatically.
"A golden tongue, you have there," Palpatine laughed. "Did they teach you that at the Temple or is it natural talent?"
Instead of feeling embarrassed or insulted at being called out on his over the top manners, Obi Wan found himself almost wanting to smile – a welcome distraction from the guilt and confusion.
"A natural talent, perhaps encouraged a bit by the Jedi. It doesn't do well to insult anyone during political missions."
"I believe you mean that most politicians enjoy ample amounts of flattery. Never a truer observation was made. I was just finishing up for the day. Would you care to join me for another meal? It looks as though you have a lot on your mind, I'd be interested in helping if I could."
Obi Wan hesitated, giving the Temple a sideways glance. Had the Force really had a hand in this? He certainly hadn't made a conscious decision to arrive here. And if so, was he meant to have met up with the Chancellor or to seek help from Qui Gon or the Council?
"Or did you want to meet with the Council? I'm sure they'd make time for you and whatever issue you're having despite you having left the Order."
An uncomfortable feeling twisted in Obi Wan's stomach. Palpatine was right, of course, they would make time for him. But he had left the Order, he shouldn't be running back here for every problem – or rather to whine about every mistake he was making.
They should know about the Sith, but Obi Wan wasn't sure he was ready to end his relationship with Buffy in such a way. Also, there was this horrible twisting feeling in him when he thought of telling them what he'd just done. The disappointment, but understanding they'd exude - the pressure to return, because obviously leaving had been a mistake…
"An evening meal in your company would be most welcome," Obi Wan said, forcing a smile.
He wasn't a Jedi any longer. He needed to deal with his own mistakes if he wanted to make his own path.
Palpatine smiled and Obi Wan joined him, the guards falling in around them.
The light from the Holocron faded, leaving the room lit only from the city outside the window. The three figures stared silently where the information had just played, the tension in the air thick. The evidence that the Sith had in fact orchestrated the entire Naboo Blockade and invasion instead of just being involved in some way was troubling. But more than that…
"You recognize the Sith Lord on the Holocron?" Qui Gon asked.
He hadn't been prepared for something so monumental when he'd received the call from the shady new owner of the Tusken Oasis claiming he had important information for the Jedi. The contents had shocked him, but while the voices were clear the holocron had been damaged at some point, leaving the images grainy and flickering. The black robed figure was unknown to him, but there was also a certain sense of recognition tickling the back of his mind – the Force no doubt trying to tell him something.
"Combine the other pieces, first, you must. Then, though the answer still seems unlikely, will the image become clear. Who gained the most from this chain of events?"
"Gained…" Mace started.
Qui Gon silently echoed his confusion. Part of his mind wanted to go to Buffy immediately but while she'd gained his apprentice, there wasn't much else that she'd gotten out of it. It also very obviously wasn't her under that black robe.
As far as he knew there had been no gains. The blockade and invasion had failed. The Trade Federation not only failed in their quest but now had many questions to answer. Whether they were only involved or the entire invasion was orchestrated by them, the Sith could not have gained what they were after with its failure and were also exposed. Queen Amidala was more respected and had gained an ally in the Gungans, but, again, was very obviously not the one in the holocron no matter her talent for makeup and disguise. The Senate members were squabbling more than ever and Supreme Chancellor Vellorum had been-
Then it hit him. And Yoda was right, only after looking at the other pieces did the image become clear.
"The new Supreme Chancellor, yes," Yoda said gravely. "The Sith Lord has maneuvered himself into a position of extreme power."
"Right under our noses," Mace breathed, obviously as horrified at their blindness as Qui Gon.
"As is the way of the Sith," Yoda nodded.
"We must move quickly. Who knows what damage he could do in that position. He needs to be apprehended immediately-"
But Qui Gon was already shaking his head, earning him a disbelieving look from Mace and a curious one from Yoda.
"Quickly, yes. But the Force is warning me not to be too hasty. His election to this position makes it obvious he has many supporters – whether as a politician or a Sith Lord. We need to be very careful in how we handle this."
"You can't be suggesting we simply leave a Sith in such a position of power!"
"We can't just go in with accusations and a blurry holocron," Qui Gon contested. "We can't even guarantee that the rest of the Council will accept this as proof, let alone just assume that because we're Jedi that our word will be accepted by the entire Senate."
While Mace seemed scandalized by that notion, Master Yoda looked grimly thoughtful.
"Though the longer in power he is, the more damage he may do, I fear Qui Gon is correct," Yoda said sounding tired. "Keep this secret, we must for now."
Mace shook his head. "The rest of the Council will know we're hiding something. It will cause a divide."'
"Very careful, we must be. A dangerous position this has put us in. Much evidence we will need before making any accusations. Not only to the Council and Senate do we need to prove his guilt, but to the people of the Republic as well. Otherwise, questioned the integrity of the Jedi as a whole may be…"
Dinner was a quiet affair, much different than the chatter over their lunch. It was only after the plates had been cleared away and Obi Wan was on his third glass of Corellian brandy that he felt comfortable enough to discuss the day's events. He tried to keep things vague - the friend he'd left the Order to do good out in the Republic with had teamed up with an adversary that was extremely untrustworthy for a mission he felt was foolhardy. And then, reluctantly, the events with the street gang in Crimson Corridor…
"My, that is an unfortunate turn of events. But it seems to me that you are being entirely too hard on yourself, my boy," Palpatine said, standing and walking over to Obi Wan's chair. "That blaster bolt would've killed you had you not been a Jedi – does that sound like the action of a child that needs to be pitied?"
Obi Wan frowned. That was indeed the truth, but…
"You may have well saved someone else's life with that action," he said, laying a hand on Obi Wan's shoulder as he leaned against the table to look down at him. "I'm sure he, or any of his friends that were with him, won't be as quick to attack a stranger again. I think the people of the Republic are much better off having you still with us than a thief and potential murderer with both of his hands. And this friend of yours… You'll forgive me if I don't follow suit in your attempt to keep her identity a secret. As the Chancellor I'm privy to much information and even before that I'd heard of this girl. The Slayer, correct?"
Obi Wan's eyes widened and he started to get to his feet. He'd betrayed her again! But Palpatine gave a light laugh and gave a gentle, but insistent push back into his seat.
"No need to look like that, young Kenobi, you didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. Except… You care for her a great deal, don't you?"
Obi Wan nodded hesitantly. Despite their disagreement over how to handle the Sith and the Hutts, she was still Buffy – strong, funny, beautiful, amazing Buffy.
"Ah, I see," Palpatine said with a knowing smile that made Obi Wan's face flush. "'Care for' is quite an understatement."
"She is… very special," Obi Wan conceded.
"I can protect her, you know," Palpatine said, surprising him. "And so can you. If we work together we can keep her safe despite her poor choices. Would you like that?"
"Well, yes," Obi Wan blurted. "But I don't-"
"The Council distrusts her, I assume," Palpatine said, returning to his own seat and pouring another drink. "Asking for their help with her would not only be fruitless but they'd use her decisions against her."
Obi Wan couldn't deny the truth to the words that the Chancellor had spoken – a whispered part of him had been saying the same thing. If they were to find out she was working with the Sith, their reactions would be – well, they'd be much like Obi Wan's own actually. Shock, disgust, distrust. Guilt prickled at him. He'd left the Order to do good in a different way, but when faced with something truly different he'd balked. Could she possibly be right about the Sith's intentions? Realizing he'd been silent too long, he brought himself back to his conversation with the Chancellor.
"Ah, yes, I believe your assumption to be correct – if the Council were to find out about this they may see it as evidence they were right to distrust her. She has a very different way of doing things," Obi Wan said. "A way the Jedi do not see eye to eye with."
Palpatine smiled a little too sharply and took a sip of his drink.
"That is something I can entirely understand…"
"You want to leave now? With no preparations?"
"What's to prepare?" Buffy asked, throwing some clothing in a bag. "The only thing I've been waiting on was the scanner and you brought it, so… let's get this show on the road."
Maul watched her curiously. While leaving with no plan was obviously foolhardy, he didn't want to discourage the anger that he knew was driving such recklessness. Though he couldn't sense it from her it had been practically palpable since he'd returned to her rooms. Whatever had gone on between her and the Jedi whelp hadn't ended well.
She snatched up her bag and he followed her through the door, mentally planning their assault since she seemed to have no interest in doing so. A sudden stop on the street outside her building had him almost running into her and again cursing his inability to sense her – hopefully that would change when she agreed to be his apprentice.
"Uh, do you have a ship?"
Maul blinked at her, finding himself in the rare (but not so rare around her, he was coming to find) occurrence of being surprised.
"You're ready to wage an assault on the Hutts and liberate at least one of their slaves but you have no transportation?"
Her face colored in an interesting way and he found himself amused by her sputtering.
"I- Well- It's – Urgh! Do you have a ship or not?!"
How in the world had she managed to stay alive thus far with such abyssal planning abilities? Could her "skills" in fact just be the Force watching over her? Definitely something to look further into later on.
"I do, but it will only carry you and I. To bring a slave back with us we'll have to find other transportation," he lied, betting on the fact she hadn't gotten too close of a look at his ship. He still had some… items on board that would very much give away his apparent change of allegiance. Not to mention that body he forgot to jettison…
"Dammit," she mumbled, then scrunched her face up oddly as if she'd tasted something bad. "I do know one person that could take us - if the price is right. But he's not too happy with me these days…"
"You are out of your fucking mind, Buffy! No way. Absolutely not. You come here out of nowhere and want me to take you and… that," Bal hissed, pointing a finger at Maul. "On a suicide mission to pick a fight with a Hutt?"
"You took me on a suicide mission to kill a Sith," Buffy whined.
"Yeah, and look how well you did with that!"
"I'm familiar with the planet. I can guide to an area outside their-"
"No one was speaking to you," Bal said, a dangerous look in his eye that was making Buffy nervous. She'd explained that he hadn't actually killed the people in the Factory District (well, the non-syndicate affiliated ones, anyway) but Bal didn't have the moral conflict about those events that Buffy did and still very much blamed Maul for their deaths. Part of Buffy thought it was sweet that Bal had actually been so attached to the people he claimed to care nothing about, but right now his softheartedness was a little annoying- Oh…
"There's this little kid, Anakin, he's just a little older than Alec," Buffy said, giving him the sad doe eyes. "He was a slave but the Jedi managed to free him. His mom is still there. I have to go get her, Bal. After I failed Bria and Alec…"
Buffy's voice caught. She'd started that as a way to tug at Bal's heartstrings a little but the truth of it hit her halfway through…
"You're going through all of this for a single slave?" Bal asked, his voice a little softer.
Buffy gave a kind of shrug and a nod at the same time.
"Eventually I want to free all of the Hutt's slaves, but I need to get a look at the operation first hand, see how hard it'll be to dismantle. How easy it is to get Anakin's mom will be a measure of how easy it may be to sneak out other slaves. But, technically, yes this is just for a single slave."
"But why the rush? Why not lay out a plan instead of leaving immediately," Bal said, unknowingly echoing Maul's concern.
"Because I'm not sure how much time she has left..."
She swallowed hard, the memory of feeling of crushing loss, total defeat, when she lost Dawn in the desert to Glory still as raw as if it had happened yesterday.
"Because I know how quickly losing the one thing you've been fighting for, the one thing that means the most to you, can make you give up," she said softly. "No that Anakin's gone..."
Bal gave a put upon sigh and turned toward the ramp.
"You coming or not?" he called down to them.
She didn't notice Maul's thoughtful gaze as he followed them into the ship.