Shmi struggled awake from a murky but terrifying nightmare, the unpleasantly sticky perspiration of a typical Tatooine night on her skin. As it always was, her first instinct was to call out, to check and make sure Anakin was all right...but Anakin was gone, perhaps forever.
She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed, swiping a hand across her brow. It came away gritty with the sand that permeated everything with stubborn inexorability despite her best efforts to keep the desert at bay. This nightmare was just the latest in a long series of sleep-bound torments, which usually starred herself...or worse, Anakin...being chased into various horrible fates or torturous deaths. Sometimes these nightmares ended on a hopeful note, with herself and her son able to free themselves from whatever was threatening them. In others, when things seemed the most hopeless, he would appear and save them, his lightsaber blazing and all the dark, evil things cringing back from his very gaze. She always awoke from those with a profound sense of peace and security, two sensations that were strange to her and thus all the more welcome.
But not tonight. There had been no ingenious escape, no tall and heroic rescuer. Tonight had been something new, and by far the worst one ever...even though it hadn't been her son or herself in danger. Tonight, she had watched helplessly while he was pursued, tortured and killed by unseen tormentors. The rescuer had become the victim. Shmi shuddered at the fading memory of those garbled, more-sensed-than-seen images...if even he could be defeated by the dark forces of the universe, what hope was there for anyone?
She went into the kitchen and took one careful swallow of water, pressing a cloth to her damp face. The moisture-free sky was crisp and clear, every star blazing. She stared up at the heavens with a sigh, wondering where in that sea of stars wandered her Anakin. Was he happy? Was he safe? Was he learning the ways of the Force at his side?
Guilt worried at her as her thoughts drifted away from her son, as they always did, to thoughts of another...I should be thinking only of Anakin, her mind told her. It should be my son's safety I fear for, his presence I miss, his voice I long to hear...and it was, but not entirely.
She smiled to herself as a rare cool breeze came through the window and lifted the wisps of hair from her forehead, a sense of calm tranquility stealing over her. She took a deep breath, feeling herself relax in spite of all that seemed determined to keep her on edge. Her brow furrowed...this calm did not come from herself. She had felt it before, but only in the presence of... His name rose unbidden to her lips, but she bit it back. Ridiculous, to think that he would return here for her.He had Anakin, that was what he cared about, and indeed what she cared about, that her son was safe and free.
Shmi felt a vague electric tingle on her skin, as if she were standing too close to a power converter. A shiver passed over her and she whirled, peering into the darkened kitchen, suddenly certain she was being watched. "Qui-Gon?" she whispered before she could stop herself, knowing she had to be alone but making the attempt anyway. Nothing. She sagged, fighting off disappointment.
"Hello, Shmi," came the quiet voice, startling in the silence.
She gasped and stiffened, one hand flying to her chest. A faint glow came to her eyes through the kitchen doorway. She squinted, watching as it brightened...and then he stepped into view, his form indistinct and glowing with an unearthly light. He was just as she remembered him, tall and strong, but clad in traditional Jedi robes...they suited him far better than had his farmer's camouflage during his sojourn to Mos Espa. Her knees faltered and she sank to the edge of the kitchen bench with a disbelieving exhalation. He moved smoothly forward and sat down at her side.
Shmi stared as her mouth opened and closed, words failing her. "I...I..." He said nothing as she collected her scattered thoughts. "I...dreamed of you," she finally managed hoarsely, stunned to hear those words coming from her own mouth. He smiled and nodded.
"I know. The Force binds us together, all of us. You were no stranger to my slumber, either."
She cocked her head and leaned a little closer. "But w..why are you here? You don't look..." She cleared her throat. "You don't look real."
He sobered. "I'm not real, Shmi. Not in the sense that you mean."
She shook her head. "I don't understand."
He sighed. "My corporeal existence is over."
One hand rose to her mouth, the cold realization of what he meant creeping up her throat. "You're dead?" The idea filled her heart with unexpected despair. She hadn't realized, not until that moment, how much she had come to depend on the hope that he would someday return here...not just as Anakin's mentor, but perhaps for her. And yet, here he was.
"Yes. I was killed on Naboo in a battle with...a Sith Lord. A malevolent creature who uses the skills of a Jedi to channel the power of the Dark side of the Force."
"Oh no," she whispered. Her breath caught. "Ani?" she asked urgently.
"He's fine, have no fear. Obi-Wan, my apprentice, will look after him. He will train him as a Jedi. You will see him again, I'm certain of it."
She nodded, relieved. She raised her head and met his eyes. "How can you be here? Are you a...a ghost?"
"No, I am no ghost." He looked off towards the window and the starfield beyond. "In life I was a Jedi Master, a disciple of the Force. Now, I exist only through the Force. I have been assumed into its eternity, and it gives my consciousness life even after the death of my body."
Shmi moved closer to him, studying his face...it appeared to be the same face worn by the man she had known so briefly, though she realized with a start that she could see right through him. She raised a tentative hand, then stopped. He nodded, shifting to face her more directly. "Go ahead."
She touched his cheek...it was not flesh, but neither was it insensible. It was like touching an electrically charged mist...barely there, but there nonetheless. "You have substance," she mused, wonderment causing her to forget herself as she traced one finger down his jawline.
"Yes, of course. I could not sit upon this bench nor walk on the ground if I did not...but it is merely an illusion created by the Force."
She dropped her hand and her eyes to her lap, twisting her fingers together. "I have...so hoped that I would see you again," she whispered. She forced her next words out, determined to have said it at least once. "I felt a certain kinship to you, such as I've never felt upon such short acquaintance."
He reached out and took her hands in his, the touch a strangely insubstantial electric tingle. "Shmi, Anakin would not be who and what he is had you not been strong with the Force yourself. You too could have been a Jedi had you been Republic-born." She met his gaze, stunned. "We are kin through the Force."
She smiled. "So you came here because we are...kin through the Force?"
He averted his gaze. "No, not entirely."
"I wanted to make certain you were all right," he said emphatically, dropping her hands and facing forward once again. A safe answer, a proper answer.
"As you can see, I am fine." Two can play at that game.
He shot her a glance. "Then my business here is concluded." His tone seemed to be daring her to contradict him.
"I suppose it is." She rose and went back to the window. She felt rather than saw him moving towards the door. Don't let him leave like that, she told herself. She turned quickly. "Will I see you again?"
He paused at the door, then turned back. "Do you wish it?"
She nodded. "I do."
"Then you will see me again," he said. As always, his manner and tone sent the clear message that all the heavens would go dark before a promise he'd made would be broken. He moved away, fading as he did, until he was gone from sight and sensation. Shmi leaned against the sink, drained. A wave of sadness washed over her. He is dead, she thought. Dead at the hands of some evil version of himself. Now, no matter what happens in the future or how much I might wish for it, I will never feel his arms around me.
Her chest hitched, her lower lip trembling of its own volition. Shmi grabbed blindly for a kitchen rag and pressed it to her face, muffling her sobs even as some part of her rejoiced that he had chosen to come to her at all.
"Mistress Shmi?" came the fussy entreaty from the yard. "Mistress Shmi?"
"What is it, Threepio?" she said, her eyes burning over Watto's near-illegible bookkeeping that it was her lot to decipher. The unfinished droid minced in from the yard, his gait still reminiscent of an aging butler.
"The inventory is complete, madam. Shall I begin the compiling?"
She rubbed at her aching forehead and nodded absently. "Yes, go ahead. I'll be another hour at least." She bent over the books again, her neck crying out in protest...but it had to be done.
"You should not work with such insufficient light," came a low, calm voice. Shmi had not been expecting it, certainly not at this moment, yet she was not at all startled. She shrugged, not taking her eyes off her work. Suddenly it didn't seem so taxing.
"I can manage," she said.
"You'll damage your eyes. Then what will you do?" The audible concern for something so mundane as her vision made her smile. She set down her pen and looked up to where Qui-Gon was sitting on the counter, watching her.
"Perhaps Watto would free me. What good is a blind slave?" She said it in jest, but his alarmed expression drove the joke away quickly.
"Don't scoff at such things," he said. "A blind slave might be sold to far more dangerous and less agreeable positions than this one. You must take care of yourself, Shmi."
She nodded. "You're right, I'll be more careful." She chuckled. "Always so serious-minded."
He rose and stood before her, hands behind his back. "I'm afraid it's my nature. Lightheartedness is not exactly a trait that is fostered among Jedi."
They said nothing for a few moments. "Did you just come to check on my working conditions?" she finally asked. "Or have you another purpose?"
"I came to tell you about Anakin," he said. Shmi straightened quickly, the mention of her son's name bringing her back to the present....as well as prickling her with guilt that in her pleasure to see him she hadn't thought of Anakin immediately. You're acting like a foolish child, she chided herself. Remember yourself.
"What of Ani? Is he all right?" she asked anxiously.
"Yes, he's quite all right. He has begun his Jedi training with Obi-Wan."
Shmi considered this news. "I wish that you could train him," she said quietly.
"As do I," he replied, his tone sad. "You never met Obi-Wan, but he is a very talented Jedi. I have full confidence in his ability to train Ani effectively." She nodded, a thousand anxieties chasing each other around her mind. Qui-Gon sat on the edge of the countertop and leaned closer to speak to her. "I know you worry for him," he said softly. "I share your concern...but I am keeping a close watch on him. I cannot interfere, but I can speak to Obi-Wan much as I am speaking to you."
"What about Ani? It would mean so much to him to see you."
He hesitated. "I don't think that's wise. He needs to think of Obi-Wan as his mentor now. I have no wish to undermine Obi-Wan's tutelage. I am gone, and Ani needs to accept that as final. I may speak to him in the future, but for now...I should remain dead to him."
Shmi nodded, seeing his point. "I understand. I'm...glad you can bring me news of him."
"And I am glad to do so," he said, his lips curling in a half-smile. "My life's work will not be complete until I am assured of Anakin's future. Much depends on him."
She looked up and met his eyes...the gaze held for a few moments, just long enough for the tone of it to begin to shift. She looked away, a flush rising to her cheeks. Qui-Gon rose to leave, then turned back. "I will see you soon," he said, then faded quickly into nonexistence.
Shmi took a few deep breaths, shaking off the spectral visit, and returned to her books.
And so they fell into a routine. Shmi came to expect that about once per week, in the evening, Qui-Gon would come to her and tell her of Anakin's progress. Sometimes he came to the house, or if she were working late he would come to Watto's shop after the Toydarian had retired. She began to anticipate these visits as the highlight of her week...not only because she looked forward to speaking of Anakin, but because it meant she would see Qui-Gon.
"Can I ask you something?" she asked him one evening after talk of Anakin was finished. She'd been working up the nerve to ask him this question for several weeks. They were on the roof, far from prying eyes. It was one of Shmi's secret places where her dreary existence seemed far away.
"I've been feeling...how shall I say it...unusual things lately."
He cocked his head and regarded her curiously. "Unusual in what sense?"
"Well, lately...I know when you're coming about ten minutes before you arrive. And at times I think I can even tell how people are feeling...some people."
Qui-Gon smiled. "You are becoming aware of your connection to the Force, Shmi." He stared at her intently for a moment, his brow furrowing. "It is truly a shame you were not born free," he said with regret. "You could have been a very powerful Jedi. You've had no training and yet you can touch the Force on your own. That's rare."
She sighed, letting the subject drop. It didn't matter how strong the Force was with her, she would never be a Jedi...but it tied her to Anakin and that gave her hope.
"What were you like as a boy?"
Qui-Gon smiled at the quiet question, watching her as she shelled kartapods into a large bowl in her lap. "Why do you ask?"
She shrugged. "I am merely curious. You've been coming here for some time now, we talk about Anakin and his training, my work, the shop...you know so much of me and I know so little of you."
His steady gaze betrayed a hint of amusement. "What do you want to know?"
Shmi thought for a moment. She hadn't considered too many specifics. "Well... where were you born? Do you have family?"
Appreciating that this wouldn't be a quick answer nor a brief conversation, Qui-Gon moved from the window to sit across from her at the table. "I was born on Ord Mantell," he said quietly. "I know that my birth parents were artists. Beyond that there's not much more I can tell you. I was given over to my Jedi training when I was seven months old."
Shmi stopped shelling and stared at him, amazed. "Seven months?" she repeated.
He nodded. "Yes, that's the way of the Jedi. Those who are strong with the Force are identified early in life. All of my childhood was spent with the Masters who trained and raised me, and then when I became a Padawan I went with my own Master until I was ready to face the trials."
"And then you became a Master yourself."
"Eventually." Shmi was shaking her head sadly. "Why the sorrowful expression?" he asked.
She shrugged. "It just seems unfair...you've known nothing but Jedi discipline."
"It's not as austere as it sounds. The Jedi do emphasize mental rigor and philosophical reflection, but it's not a monastic order. We are encouraged to express ourselves...in moderation. I formed many lifelong friendships as a young trainee, and I saw much of the galaxy during my life."
They fell silent, Shmi wondering how to phrase her next question so as to be as noninvasive as possible. "Are Jedi..." She cleared her throat. "Are they allowed to form personal attachments?"
He smiled. "You mean, are they allowed to date? Of course. Many Jedi choose a life of solitude to enhance their concentration, but just as many take life partners and maintain relationships with others within or even outside the Order."
"You chose solitude, then?"
His expression darkened slightly. "I wouldn't exactly have used the word 'chose.'" His tone and manner spoke volumes to Shmi, who'd come to know him better than he would have suspected.
She waited for several minutes, until she was sure he was ready for the question. "Who was it?" He looked at her sharply, but her eyes were on her kartapod shelling, her features composed and accepting. Qui-Gon hesitated, but only for a moment.
He laced his hands together on the tabletop. "She was a lieutenant with the Republican forces. A pilot, very skilled and unusually strong with the Force for a non-Jedi. Her name was Bela Calderi." He paused, collecting scattered thoughts of Bela from the dark corners to which he'd banished them long ago. To his amazement, they no longer had the power to paralyze him. "We found ourselves stuck together on a small diplomatic vessel as she ferried me to investigate the attempted assassination of a Republican official. I was a young Jedi at the time, no more than a year out of apprenticeship. She had such a keen mind..." He trailed off, remembering. He stood abruptly and went to the window, suddenly loathe to see Shmi's face while he finished what he'd started.
"What happened?" she breathed, her kartapods forgotten.
"It was a three-week trip," he said, lost in the past. "We met when I boarded the ship. Just before we arrived, I asked her to marry me. She accepted. We went about our mission. I identified the assassin and the man who'd hired him. We set them up for capture, but they got wind of it and led us into an ambush. I was seriously injured, and Bela was killed right before my eyes while I lay powerless to help her." He turned back towards Shmi. "It took me a month to recover physically, and a year of intense meditation and reflection to regain my mental focus."
"I'm so sorry," she said. "I didn't intend..."
"It's not your fault," he said, sitting down again. "I've not breathed a word of those events in over twenty years, I've kept it close to me."
Shmi hesitated, then reached out and took one of Qui-Gon's large, strong hands in both of hers...it was so real, yet so intangible. "Then why did you tell me?"
He smiled and covered her hands with his free one. "Because you asked...and I found that I could answer."
"Relax. Let your mind's natural order come forward...flow with the sensations."
Shmi sat cross-legged on the floor, her eyes closed and her breathing slowed to about five respirations per minute, her pulse thumping along at half its normal rate. Qui-Gon crouched before her, watching her face carefully.
"Reach out with your mind," he said, his voice low and velvety. "Feel the Force flowing through you." A smile spread across his face as a fork rose off the floor where she'd placed it before beginning. It dangled there in space and was soon joined by a cup, some coins, and Shmi's shoes. "Good," he whispered, amazed at her progress. The objects sank down to the floor and Shmi opened her eyes with a deep inhalation. Qui-Gon sat down facing her, shaking his head. "You are truly amazing," he said. "Even with this minimal guidance I'm able to offer you, you're catching on quicker than many a Jedi trainee."
"I've been doing the exercises you told me about, and the ones in here..." She rose and took a book down from the shelf. "This arrived a few days ago from Coruscant." It was a book of mental exercises designed to enhance one's connection with the Force, and a volume found on most every Jedi's nighttable.
Qui-Gon nodded. "I asked Obi-Wan to send it. Frankly, I'm amazed it arrived undamaged...but knowing Obi-Wan, he took steps to insure its safe passage."
"The Force can be used to influence minds, and that influence does not have to stay with the Jedi. It can be attached to important objects, for example, to insure they're not stolen or tampered with."
Shmi whistled low under her breath. "That skill would help me immensely," she said.
He nodded. "That's one of the reasons I thought you should try to enhance your sense of the Force."
"One of the reasons? What are the others?"
He met her eyes. "Touch me," he said. Shmi just stared at him for a moment, wondering if she'd heard right. She scooted a little closer and raised one hand, ordering it sternly to stop trembling, and laid the backs of her fingers against his cheek. As soon as she did, her nervousness was forgotten in the wonderment at what she felt.
"You feel different!" she exclaimed, turning her hand over and laying it unabashedly against his face. He did feel different. The one time she'd touched him before it had been like a thick mist coalesced into a mockery of solidity...now, he definitely had more substance. It was like touching a pliable force field, an energetic boundary that separated him from the rest of the world.
"Yes," he said softly, his eyes fixed on her face. "But it's not I who am different, it is you. I use the Force to manifest myself in this way, so the stronger you are with it, the easier it is for me to manufacture this illusion...and the more convincing it will be to you. As with a communication signal, the stronger and more finely tuned receiver makes for the clearest transmission."
Shmi stared into space, lost in thought, her fingers unconsciously stroking up and down his cheek. "That makes sense," she said with a nod. "Does that mean if I were stronger with the Force you could come here more often, or stay longer?"
"Yes," he said...it was almost no more than an exhalation. Shmi looked up and met his eyes, all of a sudden acutely aware of how close they were sitting and how she was touching him. She dropped her hand as if burned and moved back, picking up her focus objects and rising to put them away. Qui-Gon stayed where he was on the floor, not moving.
"I'll...I'll keep practicing," she stammered. "I'm only on page twenty of the book."
Qui-Gon nodded, staring blankly at nothing. "If you have questions, you can contact Obi-Wan. He can help you...and his existence doesn't require concentration."
She was washing dishes rather noisily in the sink, busying herself with anything she could lay her hands on. "Is it difficult?" she asked, feigning nonchalance.
He sighed. "Not so much difficult as...taxing. It demands my complete mental focus. Luckily that's something I spent my entire life developing, yet I can still only manage it for short periods."
She stopped washing and gripped the edge of the countertop, bowing her head...giving in, for once, to the emotions that these meetings engendered in them both. Qui-Gon watched the back of her head, a sense of inevitability suffusing him. "Sometimes I talk to you," she said, almost too softly for him to hear. A shudder ran through him...their unspoken agreement not to discuss or even acknowledge the underlying reasons for their association was being strained to the breaking pont. Tension hung in the air like a haze. "I tell you about my day, I tell you about my nightmares, I talk about everything I'm feeling and thinking. I know you're not there, but I talk to you anyway. That probably sounds crazy." She stood still as a statue at the sink, her back to him.
Qui-Gon rose. The need to touch her, somehow, was like a low-grade fever. His whole form trembled with it. "I am always here, Shmi. Even though you can't see me...I'm always with you."
Her eyes fell closed and a single tear escaped her eyelid to track down her cheek. After a moment to pull herself together, she turned...but he was gone.
Mace Windu stretched his back and hung his cloak on its peg, feeling the strain of yet another day in the Council chamber weighing on his shoulders. The days when he'd been a Jedi fighting for peace and justice seemed very distant...a bureaucrat, that's what I've become. There were times when he wished for a freer existence, to go out amongst those he'd sworn to protect, to face the darkness every day and find his own path through the Force. Some of his brethren lived that life and lived it intensely, and at moments like these he envied them.
"Long day?" came a voice from behind him. Mace smiled, shaking his head, and turned to face his visitor.
"I was just thinking about you," he said.
"About how glad you are to be rid of me?" Qui-Gon said, cocking an eyebrow. He and Mace were of an age, they'd come into training together and become Padawan together, earning their Knighthoods within a few months of each other. That Windu held a seat on the Council while Qui-Gon did not was merely a consequence of the latter's more independent nature...or, some might have said, of the former's greater skill at accomodating the wishes of his superiors and fellow councilmembers.
Windu sighed. "Hardly. More like how much I've missed you...and your miniature revolutions." He sat down heavily, putting his feet up on the table in front of him. In the Chambers, he'd been Qui-Gon's superior officer...but here, they could just be old friends who'd grown up together. "We lost you too soon, Qui-Gon."
"It was the will of the Force."
"You'd know more about that than I would, you were closer to the Force than any Jedi I ever knew." Mace leaned forward, his smooth, dark skin gleaming in the evening light over Coruscant. "I'm glad to see you, but...why are you here? It's an exertion to manifest yourself, why to me?"
Qui-Gon sat down opposite the Councilmember. "I need your advice."
Mace's nonexistent eyebrows shot into his forehead. "An historic moment. Good thing I'm sitting down."
"I'm serious, Mace."
Windu sobered. "Of course you are." He watched as the tall Master rose and began to pace restlessly, his hands clasping and unclasping behind his back. Mace's brow furrowed. "What's troubling you, my friend? To see you agitated like this is cause for concern."
"The concern is mine alone."
"It doesn't have to be."
Qui-Gon turned abruptly to face Windu. "Is it possible to go back after death and finish something left unresolved in life?"
Mace sat stunned for a moment, then chuckled low in his throat. "I should have known. You were never content in life, always seeking out battles to fight and causes to champion...why did I ever think that death would change you?"
"Dammit, this isn't about a cause," Qui-Gon exclaimed. Windu drew back from his vehemence. "This is personal."
"Young Skywalker? Is that it? He's being trained, as you wanted."
"This isn't about Anakin." He sighed and bowed his head. "It's about his mother."
"What about..." Mace cut himself off. "Oh no. Don't tell me."
"Tell you what? What's to tell?" He resumed his pacing. "When I arrived in Mos Espa, I quickly became aware of two things: one, that Anakin was so strong with the Force that I could not let it go unnoticed; and two, that from the moment I met her I felt a strong personal connection to his mother that I could not explain. So what shouldn't I tell you? That Anakin's future had to take priority and so I did nothing? That I hoped to one day return? That she entered my dreams just as stealthily as she'd entered my life? None of it matters. I was killed before I could do anything."
"But you did do something, didn't you." It wasn't a question. "You've been seeing her...like this," Windu said, indicating Qui-Gon's otherwordly incarnation.
"Is that wrong?" Qui-Gon said. It had the tone not of an accusation, but a sincere question.
"It's not a matter of right or wrong," Mace said, rising to face him as best he could while the deceased Master still towered over him. "You're dead, Qui-Gon! Dead! Now, I know you," he said, tempering his harsh words with a gentle tone. "You've never walked away from anything your entire life. But if you continue in this way there will come a time when that woman will start to forget that you no longer exist on your own! Don't you see the inherent dangers there? Do you want to do this to her, and to yourself?"
Qui-Gon sat down again, dropping his head into his hands. "I don't know. I don't know what to do," he said quietly. "How can I go on this way?" He raised his eyes and Mace was stunned by the depth of pain he saw there. If he'd realized how serious this was to his friend, he wouldn't have spoken so casually. "But how can I stop?" He thought for a moment. "Mace...what are the limits of my existence? How do I fit into the world of the living?"
"Limitations? You're asking me? You're the one who's living it. I can only speculate." He stepped closer. "Qui-Gon, the Force gives you this eternity. What you do with it is your own business. The Jedi believe that the dead continue on in order to help advise and sustain those who are still physically in the world...but you are gone, you are no longer a Jedi. Our rules and our values no longer bind you. You will do what you must, as you have always done. If that means completing in death what was left unfinished in life, then who am I to argue?"
Shmi puttered aimlessly about her kitchen, unable to sleep. She mended a broken vase, then tossed it into the scrap pile when she found it no longer held water. She beat the dust and sand out of every bit of fabric in her dwelling until she could scarcely lift her arms...and at every sound or whisper, she looked around expecting to see him.
It had been three weeks since he'd been to see her. His continued absence struck though her with more pain than she would have thought possible. How I have grown to depend on him, she thought. How I have come to cherish his friendship and...she shook her head and chided herself. Say what you mean, Shmi. Admit it to yourself, admit that you need him in your life. It's not a sin or a crime to have emotions.
She scolded herself further for being so mercurial. She was used to thinking of herself as a stable, well-adjusted individual, not at all prone to mood swings or wild bursts of emotion...and yet she continued to run the gauntlet between anger at him for leaving her to twist in the wind and sadness that he continued to stay away. Once, she'd burst into mad laughter after finding herself actually worrying about him. Could he be hurt or ill? her mind wondered...before remembering that he was dead, there wasn't much more that could be done to him.
But that was the issue, wasn't it? That he was dead. Could she be...was it possible that she was...had she actually fallen...well, with a dead man? A dead man, Shmi! Dead!
She pushed her thoughts away and went to the window, staring out at the stars as if trying to read their inscrutable messages. Where are you, Qui-Gon? And what's to become of us?
The nightmares were back. With reinforcements. Shmi tossed and turned, in the grip of their latest assault on her unconscious mind. And they never ended hopefully anymore, no escape, no rescue, just pain and death.
She woke suddenly, the nightmare pulling away to tatters before her blurry eyes. She scanned the room and jumped, crying out in surprise, to see Qui-Gon sitting quietly in the chair by her bedside, his fingers tented under his chin, watching her. "Qui-Gon! By the Force, you scared me half to death!" she exclaimed, trying to calm her hammering heart.
"I'm sorry I haven't been to see you in awhile," he said without preamble.
Shmi was only partly in control of herself, her mind half-convinced it was still dreaming. "What...what are you doing here? It's the middle of the night...I was dreaming...where have you been? What are you doing here, what are we doing, by the Force what's going on here?" She scrubbed her hands over her face, her mouth saying things that it had been prevented from saying in the past.
He shook his head. "I don't know."
Anger came to her then, sudden and fierce. "You don't know? You don't know? What does anyone know...why do you come here?"
He stood up and paced, his hands clasped behind his back. "I...I've missed you, and I..."
"No," she cut him off. "Why do you come here at all? Why did you ever come here in the first place?" Her mind was regaining its bearings, but the anger stayed.
He looked at her. "Well, Anakin...I thought you..."
She jumped out of bed and stood before him, her eyes snapping. "That's not the reason and we both know it. I don't need you to tell me about Anakin because Obi-Wan sends me a letter every week telling me how he's doing and he does that because you told him to!" she said, jabbing a finger in his direction. "So why? Why the charade, why the pretense, why all of this? And why did you stop coming?" she said, near tears as she shook her fists in the air.
"Because it was becoming too difficult!" he said with uncharacteristic ferocity. He took a deep breath and looked out the window. "Do you know what it is to walk amongst the living and witness what you can no longer share? To see your friends and loved ones going on and fitting their lives around the space that you've left?" He took a step away and turned his back. "Or what it did to me to keep coming here, week after week, and talk to you without lips to speak, watch you without eyes to see, and be with you with no hands to touch you nor arms to hold you?"
Shmi put her hands over her eyes. "I love you," she whispered.
His head bowed to his chest but he did not turn. "The Jedi say that this existence is our heaven...and yet I'm sure I must be burning in hell. Heaven could not be this painful." He started out of the room, fading as he went.
Shmi took a step forward. "Don't go," she said, her voice choked. He paused.
"What more is there to say?" he whispered. "The sooner I leave, the better it will be for both of us."
"Didn't you hear what I said?"
He turned and met her eyes. "I heard...and if I were alive it would fill me with joy. But you deserve better."
"That is for me to say, not for you." His mouth opened and closed, words failing him. Shmi turned him to face her and slowly reached up to lay a hand on his cheek. He was still sensible to her, that tingly, force-field feeling. He sighed and his eyes fell closed for a moment...when they opened again, he simply looked too wrung out to offer any further resistance. She smiled. "Save Anakin, I've been alone my entire life," she said quietly. "I haven't minded, not really...but I have so often wondered what it would be like to find someone I could truly love. I never really thought it would ever happen, not in my life and in this place." He tried to speak, but she silenced him with one finger on his lips. "Would you take that from me, because we exist in different ways?" She stepped back and raised one hand to the buttons on her nightshirt. "Everyone occupies their own plane of existence, Qui-Gon." She popped the buttons, one by one. "We are all of us fundamentally alone...and yet sometimes our planes intersect. It is a rare thing, destiny. The Force works through us to bring us that which we are destined to have." In one fluid motion she pulled the nightshirt over her head and tossed it aside. Qui-Gon sagged, all the fight going out of him at the sight of the planes of moonlight over her body...and perhaps more at the strength of her will that she would choose him even as he was.
"Shmi...I don't know what to say," he croaked.
"Don't say anything," she said. She reached out and took his hands, then placed them on her shoulders, first one then the other. Qui-Gon could scarcely feel her...that she was there, little more. "Just relax and concentrate," she said. She grasped his forearms and closed her eyes, her neck arching and her head falling back. Qui-Gon felt the Force coalescing around her, around both of them. He was amazed at her depth of focus, and calmed his mind to match it.
They stood there, still as statues, willing themselves into focus with each other. Shmi felt his hands growing more and more solid against her shoulders, and Qui-Gon found that he was suddenly able to feel the fine hairs on her skin. He bowed his head until their foreheads touched as Shmi's hands crept up his arms to grip his face between her fingers. Almost there, her mind whispered. Just focus...concentrate... She angled her head upwards unconsciously as she felt their minds inching towards each other somewhere in the space between them. He reached out to her with his feelings, sensing her tantalizingly close, his face lowering towards her of its own volition.
All at once, their minds found each other through the Force...just as their lips met and his snapped into solidity. They both jumped back, startled. Shmi stared up at him, his face completely solid beneath her hands. "By the Force," he whispered. He ran his hands up and down her arms as if reassuring himself it wasn't a trick.
"Just stay focused," she whispered, stroking one thumb across his lips and the scruffiness of his beard.
He pressed his forehead to hers again, cupping her head in his large hands. "I love you," he said quietly.
He drew her tightly against him and they kissed again, this time with no hesitancy or reservation, their minds and souls intertwined through the Force that gave them both life.
When Shmi awoke, damp as usual with morning perspiration, he was gone...but she'd expected him to be. Even with her own focus aiding him, he couldn't manage his physical manifestation for more than a few hours at a time. She'd been able to fall asleep in his arms, and was grateful to have had him with her for that long.
She washed herself and dressed, a smile always on her lips. All those months of unspoken tension, all the yearning and dreaming and wishing...she'd never expected it would come to such a satisfying conclusion. She had not led a prude's life, but she could never have known how the experience would be elevated to a completely unforeseen level when you shared not only your body with someone, but your mind as well.
She was half-tempted to look for a note, knowing he was physically incapable of leaving one. Their union through the Force enabled him to touch her, but not a writing instrument which had no mind on which to focus. It mattered not, she knew he would return as soon as he could.
Her friend Kiterina came in for the day's marketing trip and found her washing some dishes, singing. Kiterina set her basket on the table and sat down to listen. "You're in a good mood," she commented.
Shmi laughed. "That I am." She dried her hands on her apron and whipped it off with a flourish.
Kiterina couldn't help but return her sunny smile. "Why so cheerful?"
She couldn't contain it. Might as well tell the sand to stay outside the door where it belonged. "I'm in love, Kiterina. That's enough to make anyone cheerful."
Her friend jumped up, amazed and grinning. "You didn't tell me anything about this!" she exclaimed. "Who is he? Where is he?" She peered past Shmi towards her bedroom. "Still asleep, is he?"
Shmi's grin widened. "No, not asleep. He's dead!" The words felt silly coming from her mouth but she didn't care.
Kiterina's smile fell from her face as if slapped off. "My Maker, Shmi! I'm so sorry! That's horrible!"
She shook her head. "You'd think it would be, wouldn't you?" She picked up her own basket and linked her arm through Kiterina's. "Come now, let's us off to the market. We've all the time in the world."
Qui-Gon watched her go, his mind hovering around her, smiling to himself at the spring in her step and the light shining from her eyes. All the time in the world.