Stray

Jan. 23rd, 2017 11:04 am
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Title: Stray
Fandom: Star Wars
Rating: G
Summary: What if Qui-Gon found Ezra on Lothal...

(Otherwise known as simple wish fulfillment fluff born from bouncing ideas around with a friend. There may be more parts to this in the future as inspiration hits.)

--I--


The grassy plains of Lothal stretched out before Qui-Gon Jinn, warm and green-gold in the afternoon sunlight. He'd only ever visited this world once before, on a minor mission many years ago, but once was enough to know where he was. No other world had grass quite like Lothal's.

Pursing his lips, the Jedi Master turned away from the rippling sea of green, focusing his attention instead on the edge of the city he'd found himself outside of days ago. He was here for a reason.

He was alive for a reason.

Qui-Gon wasn't one to question the will of the Force often, but considering the circumstances, he felt it reasonable to be a little bewildered.

But that was all the more reason to figure out what the Force wanted of him here.

"Mister?"

Qui-Gon shook himself out of his reverie and looked down - very much down - at the small child looking up at him. Big, blue eyes met his, settled under a mop of unruly black hair, and when the boy realized he had Qui-Gon's attention, he offered the man a big, gap-toothed smile.

Qui-Gon smiled back. He'd felt the boy's presence easily, though he hadn't necessarily expected to be approached. "Yes, little one?"

Emboldened, the child reached out to tug on Qui-Gon's worn, brown robes with a tiny, dirt-smudged hand. "Do you got a credit? Or, or, you got a jogan?" He let go then, wrapping his arms around his stomach while doing his best to give the Jedi a pathetic look. "Mama can't get food 'til- 'til tomorrow, but I'm really hungry." As though on cue, the child's stomach gurgled. Not a lie.

Though not everything the boy said was ringing true either. Qui-Gon considered him for a moment, taking in everything from the dirt caking his stick-thin arms, to the filthy and frayed state of his clothes, and realized it wasn't difficult to guess where the lie was in this. The boy was clearly an urchin, using any lie he could think of to touch the sympathies of a stranger's heart. His mother, or whoever counted as his guardian, had likely coached him on what to say.

And yet, Qui-Gon couldn't deny that the ploy was working well. There was no malice here, he could tell. Just a genuine need. The Jedi Master could feel his heart going out to the child. He had no credits to spare. All the currency he'd possessed was long since obsolete. But a favor done for one of the stall owners earlier had paid off in the form of a few local fruits. Had the boy been watching then? Was that how he knew to ask for a jogan?

Or...

Why not ask the boy himself?

Still smiling, he reached into one of the pockets of his voluminous robes before pulling a purple fruit out. "How did you know I had one of these?" he asked, keeping his voice light, like he was teasing.

The boy's face lit up at the sight of the fruit, and just as Qui-Gon thought he would, he responded eagerly. "I dunno, a lucky guess?"

More than luck, Qui-Gon suspected, given the boy's bright presence in his senses, but the answer satisfied him nonetheless. He hadn't known before. He'd relied on intuition.

"Or good instincts," he suggested, not above nudging a Force-sensitive child to listen to the promptings of the Force, even if he never received the training to do more with it than that. After all, the Jedi were hardly the only tools the Force used to accomplish its will. To the boy's delight, he placed the fruit in his hands, an unspoken reward. "Keep listening to those instincts and you'll do well."

Oblivious to the greater implications, the boy only grinned gratefully up at him as he pulled the fruit close to his chest. "Thanks, mister!" And then he was gone, running off before Qui-Gon could say another word. Probably wary of staying too close to even someone he'd just begged food from. It was a sad truth that those who lived in poverty had to be wary of even friendliness. Too many people preyed on the weak and vulnerable for it to be a good idea to take any chances. He couldn't fault the boy for his caution.

Even so, as Qui-Gon watched the little boy disappear around the corner of a building, he felt a sad ache for the state of the galaxy. A child that strong in the Force, and here on a world that had once had its own Jedi Temple, should never have come to live in conditions like this. He should have been found years ago, in fact.

But there was nothing that could be done about the past. Only the present mattered now. Mindful of the Living Force, Qui-Gon returned to the question at hand of what he was supposed to do now. In the back of his mind, though, he determined to keep a look out for any future glimpses of a little coppery-skinned native of Lothal. He didn't believe in coincidences, after all.

The Force had guided them to meet for a reason.

--II--


It was raining the next time Qui-Gon's path crossed with the boy's, the kind of steady, soaking rain that was excellent for crops but miserable to walk through for anyone caught unprepared. Qui-Gon had recognized the signs in the air and the behavior of the local animals. Loth-rats had been scampering in and out of the alleys - and more importantly coming up out of the sewers - before the dark clouds had even rolled into view. It made him wonder if sometimes the storms here became torrential enough to flood the sewers completely. With the warning in mind, though, Qui-Gon had his hood up, thick Jedi robes more than sufficient to handle most normal rainfall. He did not have the funds to purchase better rain gear at the moment, counting himself lucky to even have a place to sleep at night, but that was alright. It was only water, after all. He'd dry off soon enough.

He'd made no progress in determining his purpose here on Lothal, though having a place to stay and something of a temporary job went a long way toward helping him replant his feet after having his entire existence uprooted. With basic needs met, he could focus on touching base with the rest of the galaxy, and any of his acquaintances who might still be alive.

That would have to be approached carefully, though, if he did not want to draw the attention of the Empire that had apparently wiped out the Jedi Order. For the sake of any remaining Jedi, and for himself, he could not risk any communications that might be detected.

First I need to find someone who sympathizes...

But that thought was destined to trail off the moment he passed an alley and realized it was not nearly so empty as it looked. Certainly nothing was visible except puddles and garbage strewn across the ground, and a garbage can tipped on its side, but Qui-Gon was a man who looked at things with more than his eyes. Someone else was there, someone familiar, shining bright in his mind's eye. One eyebrow arched up. There was hardly anything to provide adequate shelter from the rain here. Nothing except...

He stepped into the alley and leaned down to look into the mouth of the garbage can. He shouldn't have been surprised, and yet, there he was, the little urchin from before, curled up in a miserable, shivering ball as rainwater dripped from his hair and clothes. Qui-Gon blinked, and the boy blinked back in alarm before scooting to the back of the can.

"That's an odd place to seek shelter from the rain," Qui-Gon commented. "Surely there are better places you could be?" He said nothing to acknowledge the wary reaction. Doing so would give the fear a validation that in this case the boy did not need.

The tactic worked well. Defensiveness flickered in the boy's blue eyes, and he scowled back at perceived judgment, lifting his chin. "I'm not in here 'cause of the rain. I'm playin' hide an' seek!"

It was a blatant lie, and Qui-Gon had to stifle the urge to smile at it. A better reaction than thoughtless fear, but he didn't want to goad the boy into anger either. "I see," he said gravely. "In that case, it is a very good place to hide." Assuming he wasn't bothered by the smell, or the cold air, or the small puddle he was sitting in now. "I expected to find a Loth-cat in here, not a little boy."

"I'm not little!" the boy protested. "I'm seven an' a half!"

Qui-Gon lifted his other eyebrow. The age was greater than his initial estimate. "Is that so?" He tipped his head in what would have to do for a bow. "Then I ask your forgiveness, my young friend."

He would keep his opinions to himself that that was still little to him.

Apparently mollified, the boy's scowl smoothed out into wary curiosity. He edged forward a little, maybe to get a better look at Qui-Gon's face, or maybe to get his back off the cold bottom of the can. Either possibility was likely. "What were you lookin' for Loth-cats for?"

Well, he hadn't been, as a matter of fact, but Qui-Gon didn't mind working with that. "A Loth-cat would be able to help me with a problem I have," he replied. "There is a Loth-rat that has taken up residence in my room." All true statements, if a bit misleading about his original intent.

The boy considered the problem as seriously as only a child could, unwrapping an arm from his shivering body so he could rest his chin on his palm. "Loth-rats aren't so bad," he finally declared. "Just don't leave your food out where they can get it, or make sure you eat it all so there's nothin' left."

Qui-Gon pursed his lips, concealing a wince at what that revealed about the boy's life. That the boy considered having no food left a viable solution to the problem spoke volumes about how little food he usually had. "Wise advice," he conceded, straightening up now that he no longer had to bend to look all the way into the back of the garbage can. An idea sparked. Perhaps he could do something here... "But I'm afraid it won't help in my situation. I have too much food to eat by myself."

From the way the boy's blue eyes widened, it was clear that that possibility had not occurred to him. He opened his mouth, then closed it.

Casually, Qui-Gon encouraged the boy's forming thoughts. "It's too bad that I'll lose the food that I can't eat. If only there was someone I could give the rest to."

That was apparently too much for the boy to stand remaining silent. "I'll take it!" he blurted out, eagerly crawling to the edge of the can now. "I can eat lots an' lots."

Carefully, carefully... The boy was as much a stray as any alley-cat. Given any reason to be suspicious, he'd bolt, likely straight back to his guardians. While that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, it also wouldn't help him.

"Really." Qui-Gon loaded the word with just enough skepticism for even a seven year old to read. He folded his arms, tucking his hands into his sleeves - both to lend weight to his expression of doubt as well as to assure the boy that there would be no attempt to grab him here. "As small as you are?"

"I'm not little!" As though to prove himself, the boy climbed out and stood up completely, even rising to his tiptoes a bit. "See? I'm already this tall an' getting bigger!"

"And I'm this tall," Qui-Gon pointed out with a smile.

"That's just 'cause you're old!"

Seven year old logic and tact at its finest, Qui-Gon had to ruefully note. "Hmm, I suppose I could give you a chance to prove me wrong..."

If the boy had been older, he might have seen the bait for what it was, but instead all he saw was the challenge. He crossed his arms and lifted his chin, grinning at his perceived triumph. "Show me where you live an' I'll take all the food you don't want!"

There. That would do. The boy had claimed the idea as his own now. Qui-Gon tilted his head forward, restraining another smile. "Very well. I live just down the road."

It was too bad, he mused as he led the way, that he didn't have more of the boy's trust. The rain was still coming down just as steady as before, and his companion was small enough he could have fit under Qui-Gon's robes. At this point, however, such an offer would be crossing an invisible line.

Pick the battles that can be fought, Qui-Gon.

Battles that could be fought and won. As the child scrambled to keep up with his long strides, the Jedi Master couldn't help but be satisfied with the way this one had played out.

--III--


Two instances of giving food to the boy with nothing asked for in return was apparently enough to cement a level of trust in the boy, because the next time Qui-Gon saw him in the streets, the boy deliberately angled his path to intercept him. He still kept a careful distance of a few feet from him, but the smile he turned up at Qui-Gon was wide, showing off his missing teeth.

"Mister, mister! Guess what!" he announced. "I ate all the food you gave me!" His chest puffed out. He was clearly pleased with himself. "I told you I was big! An', an', none of it got wasted!"

This time, Qui-Gon didn't bother to stifle the smile that pulled at the corners of his mouth. "I can see I was wrong to doubt you." His eyes sparkled, infected by the boy's good humor. "All by yourself? No help from your mother at all?" A boast like that deserved a little teasing, a gentle nudge to keep the boy inclined toward humility. He expected some mild embarrassment, maybe a flush and a quick defense.

He didn't expect the boy's expression to shutter, smile vanishing.

"Mama..." The boy's eyes dropped to the ground, and he took a breath.

Qui-Gon could feel the lie coming before he even said it.

"Mama had to work. She worked all day and all night, an', an' then she left for work this morning a'fore I could tell her."

That was the first clue Qui-Gon had that there was something really wrong in this boy's life. Something more than simple poverty.

The boy barreled on, chattering as though to help deflect any more attention from the topic of where his mother was. "I've been keepin' an eye out for Loth-cats for you. I saw a big brown one, but it ran away. I chased it 'til it got to the grass, then I lost it. There's lots of Loth-cats in the grass. Maybe you could look for one there!"

"Perhaps another time," Qui-Gon demurred. In all honesty, he had no interest in acquiring a pet.

He already had a stray to hold his interest.

"Well, when you got time, I can take you," the boy declared. "Just let me know when you're ready, mister."

"Qui-Gon," he interjected. At the boy's curious look, he elaborated. "My name is Qui-Gon." It was an introduction long overdue.

Overdue or not, the boy hesitated for a long moment, staring up at Qui-Gon as though he could weigh with his eyes whether or not he could trust him. Whatever he was looking for, he must have found something, because finally, he said, "I'm Ezra."

--IV--


Many people looked at Qui-Gon and did not realize how silently he could move when he wanted, or how easily he could hide his large frame when there was a need for stealth. When he parted ways with Ezra, he simply stood there for a moment to give the boy plenty of time to believe he was leaving Qui-Gon behind. Then the Jedi Master closed his eyes. Felt for that bright presence.

And moved.

He did not vanish, did not tuck himself into any number of dark nooks or crannies, nor did he hunch his shoulders in a vain attempt to make himself appear smaller. No, all he did was blend, becoming one with the crowd. It wasn't so much a trick of the Force, though having its aid certainly helped. It was also making himself part of the crowd's natural ebb and flow, integrating himself until he was simply overlooked.

It could be nothing. A lie about his mother did not necessarily mean Ezra was hiding anything to cause concern. And yet, even if she was no longer in his life, be it through death or negligence, or any other reason, what would stop the boy from referencing a different guardian?

It could be nothing.

Then again, it could be something, and Qui-Gon's instincts were prompting him to take a closer look. Never one to take the guidance of his instincts lightly, the Jedi Master let his path wander through the busy streets and markets that little Ezra's did. Occasionally, he caught glimpses of blue-black hair and dusty brown clothes, sometimes paused to talk to another person, sometimes while lingering near a market stall. Qui-Gon's lips pursed when he saw little fingers snatch a fruit from a bin when the owner's back was turned, but intervening in petty theft was not the purpose of his self-appointed mission. Would defeat it, in fact.

He wanted to see where Ezra's path took him at the end of the day when he had no reason to suspect he was being followed.

Unfortunately, even a Jedi Master's tracking experience could be thwarted by circumstances beyond his control. A shout from the stall owner sent Ezra running, panicked but clearly along a preplanned path that sent him scrambling into an alley, then diving into a vent that had conveniently already had its cover unscrewed.

"Damned street rat!" the stall owner snarled, drawing up short in his pursuit. There was no way he'd be able to fit his large bulk into that small shaft, even assuming he was willing to leave his stall unattended for the time it would take to catch the thief. "I see you near my stall again, you'll be lucky if all I do is beat you!"

He got no response, though whether that was because Ezra knew better than to goad the man further, or because he was already out of hearing range, it was impossible to say. Regardless, the stall owner was reduced to muttering dire imprecations not-so-quietly under his breath as he stomped back out of the alley, past where Qui-Gon was casually leaning against a wall.

It was disturbingly telling that no one else in the area so much as batted an eye at the threats. Perhaps no one took them seriously. He had to grant that they could be empty threats, simple frustration vented through words.

Even so, what did it say that no one cared enough to be sure? Were the children of Lothal viewed with so much disdain, or was it only the urchins on the streets? Where were the people who did care about Ezra?

Qui-Gon let his eyes linger on the vent where Ezra had disappeared, equally prevented from following him that way. He'd have to find his answers somewhere else, or wait for another day.

--V--


Spring may have come to this part of Lothal, but that did not mean winter had yet released it completely. Temperatures dipped when a cold front blew in, prompting Qui-Gon to visit the market the next time his job allowed him the time. As used to an austere form of life as he was, his small apartment was not so well heated at night that an extra blanket or two would be extravagant.

He'd only just finished making his purchase when a bright presence darted across the street and abruptly attached itself to his leg.

"Daddy, daddy, there you are!" Huge, blue eyes peered up at him urgently as Ezra all but burrowed into him. "I've been looking everywhere for you!"

Startled, Qui-Gon looked down, and it did not take a Jedi Master to read the desperate plea there. Neither did it escape his attention that Ezra was working his way into the folds of his cloak in such a way as to shield him from view.

A glance in the direction the boy had come from was all it took for Qui-Gon to understand what was going on.

The same stall owner from the day before stormed across the street with fire in his eyes. Ezra's attempt to hide was clearly too little, too late, because the man only came to a stop once he was standing in front of Qui-Gon. Breathing hard, either from rage or exertion, he jabbed a finger toward the lump in Qui-Gon's cloak. "Does that thieving brat belong to you?"

Without even thinking twice, Qui-Gon dropped a protective hand onto Ezra's head. The boy was trembling with very real fear. "He does," he replied evenly, meeting the other man's fury with a calm and level look. "Has my son done something to offend you, sir?"

Usually, Qui-Gon preferred to shade or bend the truth, but sometimes when a situation called for it, he was willing to outright lie.

"Offend me?" The man's voice rose to a sharp pitch, like he couldn't believe his ears. "He's stolen fruit from my cart five times now! Yes, I've been counting, you little shab!" That last was directed at Ezra.

With a stern look of warning, Qui-Gon drew himself up to his full, intimidating height and embraced the role that he'd just claimed. "I'll thank you not to use such language with my son," he said with a tone of iron that would brook no argument. "If he has stolen something, you will be compensated, and any further consequences will be between him and me." That said, he pointedly turned his attention down, pulling his cloak back and exposing the boy so that he could address him, though he made no move to detach him from where he clung to Qui-Gon's leg. He didn't want to give the angry shop keep a chance interject. "Now. Ezra. Did you take something from this man?"

Ezra quailed, eyes darting from Qui-Gon to the other man. It was easy to tell that he didn't know which answer he should give. A yes would cement his guilt and bring Qui-Gon's unnamed consequences, but a no could provoke its own explosion from the man who'd just been robbed. The boy licked his lips, incriminatingly sticky with purple juice.

"I was hungry," he said, voice small.

Qui-Gon could see the towering rage sparking in response, and quickly moved to cut it off. "And that is entirely my fault," he said. "I apologize, Ezra, for letting work delay me from restocking the pantry." And while it was plain to see that that wasn't the response that Ezra was expecting, Qui-Gon only smiled and smoothed his hair back, reassuring, before returning his attention to Ezra's victim. "How much did he steal from you?"

The shop keeper probably gouged him a little, anger seeking an outlet through revenge, but in Qui-Gon's mind it was worth it to be able to walk away unchallenged, and with Ezra unhurt.

Besides, it gave him a valid excuse to wrap his arm around Ezra's shoulders to keep him from making an escape. Maybe he wasn't actually the boy's guardian, but after a situation like that, it was time to have a talk.

--VI--


"I think it would be wise to avoid that particular fruit stall in the future," Qui-Gon commented, voice mild. They had reached the edge of the market at this point and would soon be out of sigh of any of the other stalls. Ezra would probably deem it safe enough to try to leave soon, and that was the most immediate lesson Qui-Gon wanted to impart. He did not know how badly the fruit seller would have hurt the boy if he'd caught him, and frankly, he did not want to find out.

Ezra had to crane his neck to look up at Qui-Gon, a mix of uncertainty and caution on his face. He didn't respond for a moment, clearly trying to read Qui-Gon before he weighed what kind of response he should give. Qui-Gon kept his own expression neutral, offering no hint of judgment. It would be better if Ezra felt he could be candid.

Whether it worked, or whether Ezra was just still young enough to be open about his thoughts, the boy finally offered a plaintive, "But I like his fruit."

"Would you have liked getting spanked?" He met Ezra's eyes with a level look. He did not want Ezra to read any kind of threat into the question, only consider the potential consequences his actions almost had.

Ezra ducked his head. "No..."

"Then it would be best if you gave that man no more reason to feel like he should punish you." The logic should be straightforward enough that even one as young as Ezra could understand. Whether or not he learned from it and let it guide his actions in the future was another question, but that was something that would have to be seen in the future. The idea had at least been planted.

It was a good sign, he thought, when Ezra fell silent after that, not even paying attention to where they walked, or to the hand that Qui-Gon still had around his shoulders. Qui-Gon let him think, content to guide their path down the street that would take them to his apartment.

The silence didn't last all that long, though. Worry made Ezra shrink under Qui-Gon's hand. "Are you gonna punish me?"

Ah. And now they came to the heart of the matter that Qui-Gon really wanted to discuss. He kept his hold firm, though not so tight as to hurt. "I think I should leave that to your parents."

Silence. Silence more dead and complete than when Ezra had been mulling over Qui-Gon's advice, and if Qui-Gon hadn't already been looking at him, he would have missed the way the boy's eyes widened before he dropped his gaze to the ground, head tilted so his dark hair shaded his eyes. Small shoulders hunched in a way that Qui-Gon could feel.

More worrying than all the other signs, though, was the way even the boy's Force signature seemed to dim a bit.

"...you can't." It took a long minute for Ezra to drag even those words out. "Mom an' Dad are... are busy. They're working. You can't see them."

Both guardians mentioned now. A strong sense of foreboding filled Qui-Gon, even if the only indication he gave of what he thought was a thoughtful hum of acknowledgment. "And what about the person who looks after you while they work?"

A person he'd seen no sign of every time he'd seen Ezra on the street.

Again, Ezra chewed on his words before responding, squirming at Qui-Gon's hold on him now. "I take care of myself. I just gotta wait for them to come back."

Qui-Gon stopped. The words should not have come as a surprise. He knew, in the back of his mind, that he'd suspected. Even so, it was not the revelation he'd wanted to hear. The pieces he was putting together through Ezra's mix of truth and lies painted a picture far more troubling than that of just a penniless urchin.

A child, with no one to look after him. Parents negligent, or absent from his life. No one caring enough to step in, despite the obvious signs. A child resorting to begging and thievery just to survive.

Qui-Gon took a breath, and released it. Calm. Ezra would not respond well to alarm.

"I see." He looked down, offering Ezra a smile and a light squeeze that was meant as much to reassure him as it was to prevent letting him go. He wanted the boy to hear him out. "And does taking care of yourself mean always eating by yourself? Or is joining a friend for dinner allowed? I do still have problems with that Loth-rat, you know. I could use your help."

When Ezra looked up at him with startled blue eyes, that was when Qui-Gon knew. There would be no coaxing that little rat out of his home, as he'd been planning.

Not until he no longer needed an excuse to convince Ezra to come visit him for food.

--VII--


The third night that Qui-Gon invited Ezra to dinner, the boy brought a stuffed Loth-cat doll.

"This is Dev," he said. "I don't have a real Loth-cat, but I thought maybe he could help with your rat."

Qui-Gon smiled, giving Ezra's shoulder a light pat. "That was very thoughtful of you, Ezra."

Ezra beamed, and it was hard to say whether it was because of the praise or because of the affectionate contact. Qui-Gon imagined the boy didn't get much of either, given his situation. It made his heart ache to think of how quickly Ezra had warmed up to him because of it, to the point now that he didn't think he'd need the excuse of the rat to talk Ezra into eating with him.

Perhaps Dev would end up "scaring" the Loth-rat off tonight.

"I'll put him right here," Ezra declared, setting the doll down on the floor near where they had determined the rat was getting in. "He can stand guard." He started to stand back up.

Then he hesitated. And knelt back down, peering into the hole in the wall.

Qui-Gon's attention sharpened. There was nothing to hear, nothing to see, but he could sense the small presence there. Hardly a difficult skill, but he'd also been trained. Ezra, on the other hand...

"Don't you dare come in here," Ezra scolded. "Or Dev'll eat you!"

It could have been coincidence. Ezra might have done the same thing even with no rat there.

Qui-Gon didn't believe in coincidences.

He is strong, he noted, and not for the first time. Maybe not the incandescent strength of the last Force-sensitive child he'd met, but comparing any child to Anakin was hardly fair. Ezra's strength and sensitivity were his own, and easily indicative of a boy who could have become a powerful Jedi Knight if he'd ever been found by those who could have raised him as such. If a Jedi had ever...

But a Jedi has, a voice in Qui-Gon's head whispered. He paused in the process of setting a bowl of buttered roots on the table. A Jedi has come, and he is still young.

Young, but still too old, the council would have surely said. Old enough to have already formed attachments, just as Anakin had. And yet, that had hardly stopped Qui-Gon then.

He wondered what had happened to Anakin after... Well. After he was no longer there. Had Obi-Wan taken him as an apprentice, as Qui-Gon had asked of him? He felt confident that his Padawan would have honored that wish, and yet...

And yet, where was the Balance in the Force that the prophecy had promised? Was the prophecy simply not fulfilled yet? Where was Anakin at this point? Very few of his old contacts had responded to his attempts to reach out - dead, in hiding, or unwilling to aid a ghost from twenty years in the past - and none of the ones who had had hear anything of the boy who should now be a grown Jedi Knight. Not in the past seven years.

Not since the Jedi had fallen, and that was troubling timing indeed.

But that was a mystery that could not be solved right now. Here and now was the question of Ezra.

"Are we gonna have fruit with that, too?" the boy asked, already climbing up to the table.

Qui-Gon could not help the smile that tugged at the corner of his mouth. He had quickly learned of Ezra's sweet tooth. "For dessert, yes. You need to eat your dinner first." Roots and rice, with a thin slice of bantha meat that had fortunately come pre-cooked. All of it very simple, very easy to prepare. The last thing Qui-Gon was known for was his ability to cook, though Ezra never seemed to care, even when the Jedi Master had come close to scorching his food.

He did not have to guess where Ezra had come by that attitude.

"Have you washed your hands?" he asked instead, giving the boy a pointed look.

Ezra made a face. "But my hands are clean!" He held them up for inspection. "See? No dirt!"

"It is not only dirt that I am worried about." Though Ezra's clean hands were a vast improvement. The first night they'd eaten together, Ezra's hands had been filthy enough that Qui-Gon had helped him scrub them clean. From there he'd let the boy do it himself.

But he was still making silent plans to dunk the boy in a bath.

"There are many things we cannot see that could still be unhealthy if they get in your food," he went on to explain patiently. "Now do as I say. The food will be ready as soon as you're done."

Ezra sighed. "Okay..." The promise of food was still magical enough to end any further argument from him. He slid off the bench and ran off to the small room that held the 'fresher and sink, leaving Qui-Gon alone to finish putting the dishes in their places.

Alone with the thoughts in his head.

Alone to consider the fate of the Jedi Order, and what might become of it now. Were there even any other Jedi left? The Force had been silent when he'd tried to reach out, so silent that it hurt, and laced with a darkness that he'd quickly pulled away from before it sensed him. He hadn't dared search that way since.

Contacts that didn't answer.

An empty Temple on Lothal.

A Jedi Master and a Force-sensitive boy, and no one to go to for guidance. No one to counsel him on any thoughts he might have for ensuring that the Jedi had a future at all. All he had was the will of the Force, and the knowledge that it had brought him here.

What is my purpose here? he wondered once more, considering.

Wondered, and watched for Ezra's return.

--VIII--


A cold blast of wind stopped Ezra in his tracks when he opened the door to head back home. He had long sleeves on, but even that was no match for the stubborn remnants of winter. He shivered, hugging his doll to his chest, then darted a look up at Qui-Gon before ducking his head.

"Dev doesn't like the cold," he said, muffling his voice in the doll.

There was no reason to call him out on the lie. Qui-Gon hummed thoughtfully, making no move to shut the door despite the chill. Ezra had a decision to make here. It was important not to take it from him.

"Does Dev need a blanket?" he asked instead, tone neutral. "Or would he like to stay the night?"

Again, Ezra risked a quick look up at him, shuffling his feet just a little. He looked out the door into the fading evening light. Did he have someone waiting for him out there? Or was he only thinking of the relative safety of wherever it was he called home?

"Dev... Maybe Dev..." Indecision made the boy curl his fingers in the fabric of the stuffed animal. "It's okay, 'cause he's got me. He's- he's not alone. I'm warm an', an' he can keep me warm, too. But..." Ezra bit his lip, then finally looked up again. Up, up, all the way to Qui-Gon's eyes, a plea making into his own. "But what about that Loth-rat? What if it comes back? Shouldn't... shouldn't Dev stay here to keep watch? We didn't eat all the food!"

It didn't escape Qui-Gon's notice that Ezra made no mention of anyone else keeping "Dev" warm.

"I think that's up to Dev," he commented, letting his hand come to rest on Ezra's shoulder. He knelt down so the boy wouldn't have to look so far up, and met Ezra's eyes in turn. "He is welcome to stay if he wants, and so are you, if you don't want to leave him on his own. If you think your parents would be alright with you staying the night, that is." It was a gentle probe, as such things went, but a necessary one.

Despite the stories some might tell, Jedi did not just steal children.

Ezra's mouth clammed shut for a very long moment, indecision warring with something else. A gust of wind blew through the door again. His eyes welled up as he shivered, hugging himself.

A light squeeze of comfort from Qui-Gon broke the moment. Ezra's breath hitched, and the next moment he was burrowing into Qui-Gon, little arms wrapping around the Jedi Master's chest. "Mama an' daddy are gone," he didn't quite sob. "The- the Empire took 'em an', an' I don't know where they are."

The words fell with an icy weight that hit Qui-Gon harder than the cold air did. Immediately, he folded Ezra into his arms, Loth-cat doll and all. The Empire... He felt like he had yet to grasp the entirety of what the Galactic Empire represented, but nothing he'd heard boded any good for prisoners taken by them. If they'd taken Ezra's parents, and long enough ago that the boy had already adjusted to life on the streets...

It meant, for all intents and purposes, he was holding an orphan in his arms.

"Shh, shhh." All he could do was make soothing noises, quietly nudging the door closed with the Force, his broad hands busy rubbing small circles on Ezra's back. "You'll be alright." He knew better than to make promises about Ezra's parents coming back. Reassurance, though, he could do, as well as giving the boy a safe place to release emotions he must have been holding back for so long. It was good for him to cry, in that regard. Denying one's emotions never did anyone any good in the longer run. Qui-Gon had learned that lesson many times over, both from experience and from his fellow Jedi.

So he tucked the boy's head under his chin and sank the rest of the way to the floor, the better to rock him back and forth while Ezra poured his small heart out.

--IX--


Qui-Gon's apartment only had one bed, but Ezra was small enough that he could share. Just as well, because by the time his tears trailed off into hiccups, it was well and truly dark outside. Ezra didn't seem inclined to let go of him, either, even after his crisis of emotion had passed. His small fingers curled into Qui-Gon's clothes, refusing to let go.

That was alright. An early bed time would not do any harm for a Jedi Master his age. Qui-Gon contented himself to carding fingers through Ezra's hair, humming softly, until even the boy's hiccups disappeared. He did not need the Force to tell him that exhaustion would soon be claiming its victim, not with the way Ezra was curling up against him, head starting to slide down his chest.

(Qui-Gon's hand in his hair steadied his head before it could slide down too far.)

He waited, just to be certain that Ezra wasn't going to find a second wind, then carefully he slid his arms to cradle the child before rising to his feet.

Ezra didn't stir, except to tighten his hold.

"Sleep well, young one," Qui-Gon murmured.

He would have liked to remove at least an outer tunic before retiring, but he decided it was more important not to risk jarring Ezra. Instead, he settled for a lighter blanket to drape over the boy and himself as he laid down to sleep. With the two of them providing each other with warmth, it should be sufficient to keep them comfortable.

Tomorrow, he promised himself as one of his last thoughts for the night, he'd look into obtaining a second bed. For tonight, though, he found he did not mind letting his eyes close to the sound of small, soft breaths, or the feel of a sleepy heartbeat on his chest. For one night, he wouldn't even mind a patch of drool cooling his clothes under Ezra's cheek, or the baby-soft hair that tickled his neck.

(He did not know that Ezra would neglect the bed that Qui-Gon would find for him, and more nights than not, would crawl into his bed to curl up with him instead for the next several weeks.)
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