by Lilith Sedai (

Series: The Elements Series

Archive: M_A, SWAL, QJEB (others ask)

Category: AU, drama, angst

Rating: NC-17

Warnings: Introspection and transitional material ahoy. CLIFFHANGER ALERT.

Spoilers: Jedi Apprentice 1 and 2

Summary: The Jedi Order's main source of lightsaber crystals is drying up. Knight Kenobi and Master Jinn must complete their tasks on Torehir and then investigate the new problem together in spite of unresolved differences between them. Third in the Elements Series.

Feedback: yes, please, any comments welcome.

Acknowledgments: To Nati, Wren, Torch, LapisLaz, Wolfling, Marnee, and BlackRose for pre-pre-betas, pre-betas, re-pre-betas, regular betas, infinite patience, and more helpful plot/characterization suggestions than I can count. :) All remaining errors, including extraneous commas, are solely my own.

Notes: George Lucas has stated that the Force is polarized in four ways: Light and Dark side energies, and Living and Unifying energies. In this series I distinguish between Living and Unifying Force as two types of energy that are used in different ways and for different purposes.

Disclaimer: George, I admit that you own the boys, but if you were REALLY in control of them, they wouldn't spend so much time whispering in my ear and goading me on to write this stuff. I only do what they tell me to; making a profit isn't one of their commands.

**"Air" will make much more sense if you read it after reading Parts I and II of the Elements Series: "Water" and "Earth."**

Shouts and squeals and delighted laughter pealed through the window that opened onto the balcony terrace from the palace gardens. Qui-Gon Jinn stood behind the multi-paned window, arms folded and hands tucked inside his sleeves. He watched impassively, concealed behind a gauzy curtain, pretending not to look down to ground level but doing it anyway.

Eight small children romped and played in the gardens, supervised by one young man. Currently he lay on his back, heedless of the risk of grass stains on his pale tunic, at the bottom of a pile of shrieking youngsters, Torehiri boys and girls and human Jedi tangled together like puppies. The young man laughed with delight, mellow tones rich amidst the piercing calls of the children, then wrestled his way to his feet and began tossing his small assailants in the air, catching them with Force and levitating them down slowly. Laughing children drifted and turned like brightly colored autumn leaves, falling slowly through the air to drift around the Knight.

Shifting his feet, Qui-Gon caught a fold of the curtain between his thumb and forefinger, absently testing its faintly rough texture. He remembered the night of his rescue ruefully-- in the short time since it happened he'd been able to think of little else. It had been a terrible shock, coming fully to himself only to realize that he was engaged in sexual intercourse with Kenobi. Even as orgasm struck his body, wracking him with uncontrollable shudders, forcing him to pour his essence into the young man whose body clasped him, he had felt the Avatar disperse from his mind and understood at last what had happened.

The entity's sudden removal left him with no defense against the overwhelming sensation of pouring out his ecstasy deep within the younger man's tight, finely muscled body. In the aftermath he stood shaking, abandoned by dignity and power. He was left with no distraction from the intensity of the knowledge that Obi-Wan Kenobi was lying hot and naked and trembling in his arms at long last, the young man's own forced orgasm wracking him with aftershock, the hot pearly fluid slippery between their bodies. He could not escape either Obi-Wan's self-sacrifice or his own pleasure in it.

How could he have lost so much control and awareness of his own actions? It shamed him and frightened him deeply. As Yoda so often warned it would, his terror had led to anger and anger to suffering. In the heat of the confused, embarrassment-filled moment he had fled from fear into shame and from shame into resentment, becoming irrationally infuriated that Obi-Wan had made such a sacrifice to return him to himself.

He didn't want to admit that anyone could affect him the way Obi-Wan did, both personally and professionally. But waking to orgasm, waking to rescue, waking to that perfect body in his arms... he was faced with irrevocable, stunning proof of both. He had hurt Obi-Wan cruelly with his foolish attempt to reject that revelation. Qui-Gon's head bent forward to touch the glass, leaving a faint oily smudge on its surface.

"Distracted, you are," his Master's knowing tones brought him back to himself and Qui-Gon quickly released the fold of curtain he'd been drawing back and forth through his fingers. Yoda stared up at him with ill-concealed amusement, ear-tips high.

"Knight Kenobi should take a Padawan Learner," Qui-Gon responded, striving to appear casual, determinedly turning his back on the tranquil scene in the garden.

"Should and will... they are not always the same." Yoda chuckled softly, undertones of sadness entering his tone, and Qui-Gon winced at the direction of his old master's thoughts. The wise old Councilor watched him carefully, eyes half-lidded. "Escape your destiny you cannot," he commented a little too lightly and turned away, moving toward a low table covered with flimsiplast and data readers. Qui-Gon followed him, irritated by the remark and intending to question the ancient Master more closely.

Even after he left the window his sense of Obi-Wan was as sure as if he were tied to the young Jedi. He could tell that Obi-Wan was plucking the children out of the sky and placing them on the ground tenderly one by one, preparing to lead them inside again. He wondered if his Master could sense the troublesome lingering resonance between himself and Kenobi, but Yoda forestalled his questions, seating himself behind the table and gazing up, suddenly businesslike.

"Torvan has sentenced Ilvar to ten years' imprisonment," Yoda revealed, clawed fingers tapping a printed sheet.

Qui-Gon's eyes widened. "It is a mild punishment." Particularly considering the numerous deaths that occurred in the rioting that had resulted from Ilvar's treason. He felt slightly uncomfortable that he would not be penalized for his own role in the events that had followed, but according to Torehiri law he had been out of his mind and was not to be held responsible for the Avatar's actions. Fortunately the Avatar had caused no deaths, a fact for which Qui-Gon was profoundly grateful.

"Hmmm, yes. Lenient. Torvan's leniency is designed more to pacify Livarin and the other Livans than to spare Ilvar, I think." Yoda nodded sagely. "Torvan is an intelligent man. Wise. A good king. This does much to ease the lingering tensions between Livans and Torehiri."

Qui-Gon nodded agreement, hoping that Torvan would continue as well as he had begun, but the majority of his sympathy lay with Ilvar. He felt at least partly responsible for the Livan's plight.

Yoda watched him compassionately, reading the play of his expressions in his eyes. "Spoke of Ilvar to the Rilvani High Priestess, I did. He will be permitted to return and rejoin the Rilvani tribe if he wishes when he is released."

Qui-Gon sighed with relief, pleased that the Livan would be re-accepted into his tribe. It was hard being an outcast among both strangers and one's own. Furthermore, Ilvar's education and his hard-earned experiences could be used to benefit the primitive Rilvani, Force willing.

"Much remains that should be done on Torehir, but not enough time is there." Yoda frowned down at one flimsy, picking it up and studying it. "Production at Juyoren has dropped again. The situation is critical." Yoda sighed. "We must make haste and finish here."

Juyoren? "The crystal-mining concern?" Qui-Gon frowned. The Jedi-- and by extension the Republic-- could ill afford a disruption of operations at the Juyoren facility. His hand moved instinctively to his lightsaber. Though it did not contain Juyoren crystals many Jedi weapons did, and the thought of having to do without lightsaber focusing crystals was disturbing to any Jedi.

Qui-Gon saw the same conclusion in Yoda's sober gray-green eyes. "We cannot risk a failure of the Juyoren facility." Yoda lifted his chin, thoughtfully gazing through the same window Qui-Gon had occupied earlier. "Production statistics show sharp decline and our other sources can no longer produce enough to compensate. Evasive, is Master Bretor. Glib. 'Temporary downturn, run of ill luck, need for better equipment.' Luck? Hmmf. Jedi believe not in luck." Yoda shook his head. "At first we believed his excuses. But feel right, it does not. Not enough crystals have we now to spare for new padawans to build lightsabers, or to use crystals in sparring. Training proceeds with wooden poles."

Qui-Gon's eyes widened with surprise. That was serious indeed. Perhaps he had been too remote from the Temple. "Bretor?" The name was familiar and after a moment, he placed it. Bretor had become a new Master just before Qui-Gon was raised to Knighthood. His memories of the other Jedi were not very flattering: the man had seemed too sullen and temperamental to make a good Jedi Master.

"Mmm." Yoda nodded. "Subtle businessman is Bretor, and well-suited to the assignment the Council deemed him. Not a diplomat or a warrior, but a shrewd manager."

"He is a poor fighter," Qui-Gon remembered. "I defeated him in a battle tournament just before I was knighted."

Yoda nodded good-naturedly. "That you did." The wizened little Councilor cut his eyes at Qui-Gon and the human Master had to stifle a wry smirk. Bretor had borne a subtle grudge against him ever since, displeased that a Padawan could-- and had dared to-- defeat a Master in battle. Though he had not encountered Bretor for over sixteen years, he suspected theirs would not be a pleasant reunion.

"You will find out the causes for the trouble on Juyoren. Help you, Knight Kenobi will. He is also assigned to the Juyoren mission," Yoda stated calmly.

Qui-Gon stiffened a little, surprised. "Surely I can handle the assignment myself, my Master. Or perhaps you might--"

"Too old am I for fieldwork." Yoda's clawed hand went to his tender ribs in demonstration of the statement and Qui-Gon winced, reminded that he had been the unwitting agent of his own master's injury. "I am needed by the Council." He lifted his gaze to Qui-Gon sharply. "Obi-Wan is qualified. Skilled. A good partner he will be. A fine Jedi he is."

"I do not debate these things, but I do not want a partner," Qui-Gon replied stiffly. Especially not Obi-Wan Kenobi. There was too much explosive emotional potential there and Qui-Gon did not want to have to face it. Not now. Perhaps not ever. Not if he could avoid it.

"Need one, you do." Yoda's tone brooked no defiance. "The last weeks prove it." He thumped his gimer stick on the carpeted floor for emphasis. "I am not blind, Qui-Gon Jinn." Yoda pursed his lips, staring firmly up into Qui-Gon's eyes. "A connection there is, forming between you and Kenobi."

Qui-Gon turned aside instinctively, avoiding the intent, judging stare.

"Aha!" Yoda's voice was abruptly gleeful. "You have sensed it!" He jabbed his stick at Qui-Gon's thigh. "Escape him you cannot. He is your destiny."

Qui-Gon sighed, his eyes drifting back toward the tall windows. Destiny? He shifted his feet again, chafing against Yoda's cryptic pronouncement. He reached out lightly toward Kenobi, testing the Force between them. It was stronger than any random connection between them should by rights be-- strong as a training bond, though much different from one. A bond? But what kind of bond might it be, and if it were not dealt with promptly, what might it become? One thing was certain... if he was correct and this new affinity he had found for Kenobi was truly a force-bond, further proximity would certainly do nothing to discourage its continued formation. The thought filled him with ambivalent emotion, mostly dismay.

"Kenobi is not my destiny," Qui-Gon resisted the urge to squirm when the words left his mouth and he heard how sulky they sounded. "When we return to the temple, the connection can be severed by healers. If any intervention is required at all." He bit down hard after appending the last words, knowing that they revealed too much about his estimate of the strength of the connection that already existed.

"I feel your conflict, old friend," Yoda moved around the table and stepped close, resting one small hand against the back of Qui-Gon's knee. "Difficult it is, to face fear." He gazed up, mouth pinching contemplatively, eyes narrowing to slits, and Qui-Gon felt the Force stir subtly as Yoda quested its currents, seeking the future. They both fell silent for a long moment as he waited. "You will do what is right," Yoda murmured at last. "Little more will the Force tolerate." Satisfied, he patted Qui-Gon's leg again. The tall Jedi sighed, wishing that for once Yoda would share his insights, but after so many years of interacting with his old Master he knew better than to ask. Pretending he did not care to know was preferable to the frustration of being denied an answer, and he preferred the illusion of control.

Yoda's eyes crinkled with amusement as he gazed up into Qui-Gon's resigned face, sensing his irritated thoughts. "Not given to half-measures are you, Qui-Gon? All or nothing is your way, I think. Have a care that you do not distress Obi-Wan with your intensity, or with the swift changes in your focus." The tips of his ears were high, an infallible sign of good humor.

"You will accompany Obi-Wan as he journeys to gather the remaining candidates," Yoda decreed, changing the subject abruptly. "I wish for you to go to Rilvani and recruit among the Livan tribes. There is much potential there."

"But it is his mission. He will resent my presence and regard me as evidence that we doubt his abilities." Qui-Gon folded his arms. "It would be better if he went alone."

Qui-Gon's seeming altruism did not convince Yoda, who fixed him with a flat stare. "Two are quicker than one, and time is short. Learn to work together you must, if you are to succeed on Juyoren. On this much depends!" Yoda shook his head, exasperated.

"Yes, my Master." Qui-Gon could not quite keep a tone of discontent from shadowing his voice.

"Ponder my words, Qui-Gon," Yoda advised him wearily. "Your peace you must make, with yourself and with the Force. And with Obi-Wan. You can avoid your emotions no longer." He turned and moved toward the data terminal that had been placed on a low table for his use, signaling subtly that the interview neared its end.

Qui-Gon spared a last glance at the now-empty gardens, at the lush grass trodden down by small feet. Peace? His soul had known only tumult from the moment Knight Kenobi had entered his existence. Perhaps it was because he was struggling against the will of the Force with regard to Kenobi, as Yoda had just implied. He must meditate and divine the truth of things for himself. The will of the Force was not always easy to accept, but as a Jedi Master he must reconcile himself to it. Somehow.

He sighed, more disturbed by the offered advice than by its absence. "When will we be leaving?" He gathered composure around himself like a shroud.

"The transport will be ready within the hour." Yoda's voice was soft, sympathy in his tones as he glanced at Qui-Gon, and the tall man knew that he had not succeeded in hiding his deepening distress from his former Master.

"I leave you, then." He bowed formally to the tiny Councilor and Yoda inclined his head in polite farewell.

Slipping out of the room, Qui-Gon made his way down toward the domestic levels of the palace. The bond told him where Obi-Wan would be: directing his charges through the servants' halls to the palace nursery, where they would be fed and housed without disturbing the courtiers and wedding guests.

Moving quietly through a dim spiral stairwell lit by flickering oil lanterns spaced at wide intervals, Qui-Gon sighed, considering Yoda's words. They had only served to increase his disquiet, as had his insight about the possible bond. That would explain why he was distinctly uncomfortable in the young Knight's presence, but was even more so when he was widely separated from the other man. Kenobi's absence felt like an unreachable itch under Qui-Gon's skin, stealing sleep and ease, causing him to toss and turn by night and to prowl restlessly by day. Though only one full night had passed for him subjectively without Obi-Wan at his side, he already bore dark circles of sleeplessness under his eyes that spoke of his agitation.

Since the morning after his rescue, Qui-Gon had found himself almost irresistibly drawn to be near the Knight. He suspected that even without the excuse of duty that permitted him to seek Kenobi out with impunity, he would be surrendering to that subtle pull, moving nearer to Kenobi, perhaps without having consciously decided to find him. Over the past two days he had come to compromise with that subtle pressure by watching Obi-Wan from hiding, just as he had done this morning. Worse, Kenobi probably knew it. If there truly was a bond, the young Knight was doubtless experiencing a similar psychic resonance, sensing Qui-Gon's whereabouts and activities just as unavoidably as Qui-Gon sensed his.

His boot-heels made soft rhythmic clicks on the plain marble floor, echoing off the unadorned walls of the servants' wing of the palace. During the two days since his rescue, Qui-Gon had acted on the assumption that discretion was easier than confrontation. The few face-to-face encounters he had been unable to avoid so far had been strained, wordless meetings that began with the exchange of a single nervous glance and continued with mutual avoidance of eyes until they separated as rapidly as possible. The flight back to the Torehiri capital had been particularly uncomfortable, involving prolonged and silent proximity. He was not anticipating their upcoming partnership with pleasure.

Feeling his sense of Obi-Wan's presence growing, he halted. The young Jedi, fully cowled, entered the corridor where Qui-Gon stood. Gliding past without pausing, he headed deeper into the dormitories. The Jedi Master reversed his course and fell into step next to the younger man.

"Master Yoda wishes for me to accompany you to pick up the remaining candidates and for you to seek more potential candidates in Rilvan," Qui-Gon explained soberly, without preamble. "We are to use this opportunity to resolve our differences preparatory to beginning another mission the Council has seen fit to assign us."

Obi-Wan nodded, the movement evident only in the slight dip of his cowl.

His silence gave Qui-Gon pause, and he used the opportunity to ponder the energy that lay between himself and Kenobi. The more he focused on the bond, the more he felt an overwhelming need to touch it, or to touch Obi-Wan. It was like the compulsion to pick at the scab over a half-healed, itching wound, and he was suddenly too weary to struggle against it any longer. He extended a tentative probe, sensing the connection cautiously.

Unifying Force twined into Living Force between them, a multitude of tendrils woven around them tightly, energies bearing the intermingled Force-signature of both men, binding them together strongly. There was indeed a quiescent emotional link here, left dormant by their refusal to acknowledge it. The bond was not yet deeply rooted, but the density of the energies that comprised it confirmed his nagging intuition that its removal would not be simple. He suspected they would require the assistance of soul-healers to sever the connection that had begun to develop between them, when the time came for it to be broken. He touched it experimentally with a finger of thought, feeling almost shy.

Obi-Wan glanced up from beneath his cowl, sensing the infringing tendrils of Qui-Gon's will. His pale eyes flashed briefly and Qui-Gon could sense the Knight launching a probe of his own only to confirm the impression that Qui-Gon himself had just received. There was a surge of understanding and dismay, then Obi-Wan withdrew behind his mental shields with dignity, returning his gaze to front and center.

Qui-Gon swallowed hard. He had hoped that leaving Torehir, where the Force was so strongly imprinted to them, would hasten the process of separation. Clearly it was not to be that simple. He could no longer lie to himself by taking refuge in the notion that the attunement to Kenobi he was experiencing was just a lingering Force-resonance that would probably subside on its own in time.

Destiny. A partner. While the notion still frightened him, it was not so unthinkable as it had once seemed. The Knight was skilled and worthy for his age and experience; his abilities were no longer a primary concern for Qui-Gon. What was much worse was how much he would miss Kenobi if their duties separated them. That knowledge disturbed him far more than the notion of accepting that he must accept the presence of a companion.

"I will meet you aboard the transport," he stated quietly, angling away from his silent companion. He had half an hour to prepare his pack and make his way to the landing platform.

Obi-Wan was readying the transport for takeoff when Qui-Gon arrived; the hatchway began to close the moment his feet were resting solidly on the main deck. There were four rooms to choose from, so he took the one furthest from Obi-Wan's, across the hall on the diagonal. Perhaps anticipating his duties with the initiates, Obi-Wan had settled himself next to the dormitory; Qui-Gon was adjacent to the cockpit.

The ship shuddered and lifted off while Qui-Gon was stowing his pack under the bunk that was now his. He gave in to the tug of Kenobi's presence and moved into the cockpit, taking a seat in the copilot's chair.

"We'll go to the most remote destination first," Obi-Wan stated coolly, not looking up from entering coordinates into the navigation computer. "There are fewer children waiting there. We'll pick up the majority on the way back."

"When will we stop at Rilvan?" Qui-Gon hoped the neutral question would not imply that Obi-Wan had forgotten that addition to his itinerary.

"That's our last port of call. No children are waiting closer to the capital." Obi-Wan tapped at his console and the navigation computer displayed their route on its small viewscreen. "Yoda saw to it that the children who lived closer to the capital than the barrier mountains would be gathered before we ever left Rilvan."

Qui-Gon nodded, his hand sliding into a pocket of his cloak. "I brought along the complete briefing information for the mission I spoke of before," he spoke quietly, feeling slightly diffident. Both of the men paused, remembering how his neglect to share such things with Obi-Wan had created difficulties in coordinating their first diplomatic mission together. Qui-Gon broke the uncomfortable silence by plugging the data chip into the main computer.

"Juyoren is a small installation, its significance carefully concealed from the Republic at large," the Jedi Master explained as schematics of the mining colony began to scroll slowly across the screen. "Many Jedi know little more of it than its name, but it is of critical importance to the Order." The information briefing regarding Juyoren was terse but thorough, and he keyed past a stream of production records, reviewing the most relevant geological factors instead.

"The planet has a near-unique geological composition heavy with veins of rare trace minerals. That, combined with geological instability and high incidence of natural volcanism, makes the planet largely unsuitable for colonization and development." He glanced at Obi-Wan, who was listening attentively, sharp eyes following the additional information that scrolled across the screen. "Together, these factors cause the formation of dense energy crystals of unrivaled purity and rare chemical composition."

Obi-Wan nodded thoughtfully. "The crystals are mined by Jedi operatives and shipped off-world to be faceted for use in constructing lightsabers?" he theorized, touching his own weapon instinctively.

"Yes." Qui-Gon was relieved by the professional tone of their interaction and by its apparent productivity. "But recently there has been an increase in volcanic activity on Juyoren. It has caused a distinct drop in production. This was not regarded as critical until Alesko resigned its position in the Senate and withdrew from the Republic."

Obi-Wan frowned, a fine line of concentration creasing in his brow. "The Hutt? They have always maintained an influential presence on Alesko."

"It seems probable. In any case, the Aleskan governing body required that all Republic presence-- including Jedi interests-- be withdrawn from their planet until further notice." Qui-Gon paused. "There are operatives investigating the circumstances of the planet's withdrawal, but our own efforts must focus on Juyoren. In case nothing can be done to persuade the Aleskans to return to the Republic or permit our operations, we must restore the effectiveness of the Juyoren facility."

Obi-Wan leaned forward, his shoulder brushing Qui-Gon's. He seemed not to notice, absorbed in the information he was reading. "But the Juyoren facility is mobile." He touched the screen, halting the scroll of information. "Shouldn't it be able to relocate when local volcanism increases?"

"Indeed." Qui-Gon called up a map of the planet, showing locations that had been mined. "These are the relocation records for the past sun cycle."

Obi-Wan took over, punching at the keyboard, drawing up planetary statistics and correlating them quickly. "It looks as though volcanic activity follows the colony wherever it goes," he commented wryly.

Qui-Gon tilted his head, considering Obi-Wan's words, and fed a request into the computer, drawing up statistics regarding the colony's previous moves. "You're right," he murmured, indicating the new data subset with one finger. "The number of moves has risen by sixty percent in the last ten sun cycles, but overall incidences of volcanism on Juyoren have not increased."

Obi-Wan looked at Qui-Gon involuntarily, surprise at having his words taken so seriously flickering behind his eyes. "Then what has caused this chain of coincidences?"

"That is our job to find out." Qui-Gon met Kenobi's gaze calmly and the moment of accord stretched between them until it broke when the Knight glanced away, suddenly growing uncomfortable with the mutual scrutiny. He made an unnecessary course correction, frowning over the controls with exaggerated care.

Qui-Gon sighed and rose, diplomatically putting some distance between them. Walking into his cabin, he rested his back against the bulkhead and sank into a crouch, reaching for a meditative state. He hadn't chosen to reveal that the Council had already arrived at Kenobi's conclusions independently, but Obi-Wan had passed the small test of his insights with flying colors.

Being possessed by an independent entity had been a terribly humbling experience for Qui-Gon, one that forced him to acknowledge his own limitations... and in contrast to them, Kenobi's competence. The young man's intuitions were keen and sharp; he chose relevant questions to pursue and drew new information to the fore and synthesized it into his existing knowledge almost effortlessly.

Their conversation about Juyoren had gone surprisingly well, all things considered. It was a good start, if a tenuous one. It wasn't hard to understand why Obi-Wan was suspicious and mistrustful. Qui-Gon hadn't given him much reason for trust, and the Avatar had given him even less.

It had been a long time since Qui-Gon shared such a satisfying, cooperative interaction with anyone but Master Yoda. He shifted uncomfortably, folding his long legs beneath him. Kenobi's conversation was forcing him to realize exactly how far he had withdrawn after Xanatos's betrayal. For such a simple, basic interaction to be so soothing and yet so terribly unfamiliar, it seemed that he had become very bitter and withdrawn indeed.

As he finished settling himself, Obi-Wan stepped out of the cockpit, hesitating in front of his open door. The noise of his boots roused the Jedi Master from the beginnings of meditation and Qui-Gon opened his eyes, meeting the Knight's gaze for a long moment, but in the pain of his self-discovery he found no words and after a time Obi-Wan turned and ghosted away. Qui-Gon resisted the impulse to follow him, resuming his interrupted thoughts.

He had already re-evaluated Obi-Wan Kenobi's Jedi skills and professional competency, but that was not all that was needed. In the face of their growing bond and his own guilt at having mistreated Kenobi, he was going to have to do some hard thinking and re-evaluate his responses to the young Knight-- and perhaps also to the boy that Kenobi had once been.

They crossed the terminator while on autopilot and over-flew the southeastern continent shortly after dawn, landing only several hundred kilos from the polar cap. Sun glinted brightly off iced snowdrifts and their robes flapped against their legs, bitter wind whipping gusts up around their thighs, mocking the insulated Jedi gear they wore. Obi-Wan lifted his hand to his forehead as a makeshift sunshade, scouting the windswept village before setting out, boots crunching in a skim of snow. There were no visible signs of the settlement's habitants. Wordless, Qui-Gon followed him, feeling his toes begin to grow numb.

Obi-Wan rapped on an ice-crusted door, and it creaked open slightly, a bright eye in a pale face peering through the crack. "Are you the Jedi?"

"Yes," Obi-Wan responded, bowing respectfully. After surveying them carefully, a Torehiri man opened the door further and they slipped inside, glad to shut the bitter wind out behind them.

Obi-Wan's instincts were true; a woman crouched on the floor amidst three small children, tugging and adjusting the sleeves and ties of animal skin parkas, drying tears and closing packs, easing straps on small shoulders. She glanced up at the Jedi with an expression that hung between fear and hostility, her hands lingering on one girl, drawing the child against her with fierce possessiveness.

Qui-Gon glanced at Obi-Wan, who was already sliding his concealing robe off his shoulders in spite of the chill that lingered even inside the fire-heated dwelling. He seemed to shed the mysterious Jedi aura along with the cloak, smiling down at the woman with openness and warmth, effortlessly projecting reassurance.

He threw back his own hood in tacit support of the Knight, making eye-contact with the man who had admitted them. His eyes were also on the tiny girl, too-bright with tears. This was always the worst part of recruiting, taking children from their grieving parents. There was almost no way that it could be done painlessly. Qui-Gon was glad that the other families had brought their children and left them here; one set of distraught parents was bad enough. Three would have been distinctly unpleasant.

"Your daughter will be well cared-for," Qui-Gon murmured, stepping close to him, trying to offer comfort. He stood next to the saddened father, both men gazing down at Obi-Wan. The children had gathered around the skirts of their single protector; mother to one of them, she now served as mother to all in their wariness of the strangers. Obi-Wan smiled and items moved from the nearby table to carousel over his hands, dipping and bobbing in a circle. Wide eyes followed the movement, the bravest child stepped forth, staring at him in amazement.

Obi-Wan smiled at the narrow-eyed mother again, reaching into his stole with his free hand. He removed his hand, a crumpled bit of green lying in his palm, and it stirred and grew, then bloomed. Her eyes widened; living in a barren land of snow, she had never seen a blossom, though perhaps she had read of them.

Qui-Gon blinked at the young man's deft manipulation of Living Force, then reached to enhance it, tying it tightly with a Jedi Master's skill, setting it to sustain the flower permanently. Obi-Wan made no visible acknowledgment but accepted the assistance without question, levitating the lush bloom forward. Tentatively, she reached and took it, pressed it to her face, scenting its delicate perfume.

"We will teach her to do these things," Obi-Wan murmured. "She will become a Jedi, and her life will be like that of this flower-- brought to fullness and sustained by the Force. When she returns to visit you, she will be a blossom to brighten the snows. Her skill and beauty will be your shared gift to the galaxy."

The mother stared at him for a long moment, eyes dark and unreadable, then released her protective clutch on the squirming girl, letting her step forward to join the others in admiring the small spinning circle of tableware that Obi-Wan held aloft with his mind.

Qui-Gon released a soft breath; sometimes parents changed their minds at the last moment. They might have been forced to leave all the children if this single mother's ire had been roused against them. He had always kept his own speech to a minimum at these times, fearing an emotional outburst from the parents, but Obi-Wan's tactics in this case were superior to his own.

"It's time to go." The father's voice shook. "Taritha, we love you."

The small round face looked up, eyes liquid. "Love you, daddy." Her eyes were drawn back to the revolving tableware. The mother turned away, shoulders bowed, staring into the fire.

"Come, and I'll show you more," Obi-Wan invited, lifting Taritha gently and seating her in the crook of his arm. She nestled against his neck. Qui-Gon helped him shoulder half-into his robe and tuck the other half around himself to shield him from the wind. Qui-Gon glanced at the mother, who held the blossom in shaking fingers, a crystal teardrop escaping to slide over a silky yellow petal.

"Quickly, Obi-Wan," he murmured too softly to be overheard, and they stepped forward, herding the children before them. The father followed, wrapped in his own parka, and nodded soberly to Qui-Gon when he glanced back as Obi-Wan led the little ones up the ramp. It had gone well, though he could sense the mother's sobs now from inside the small hut that she had shared with her family, now reduced by one.

The Torehiri father stood forlorn, buffeted by the bitter wind and snow that curled around his body and tugged at his parka, watching as the Jedi ship rose into the air, carrying away his daughter.

Qui-Gon set the autopilot again and made his way to the dormitory where Obi-Wan was settling the children, distracting them from the traumatic moment of parting. Taritha's eyes were welling with tears now and she let out a low wail, her fists clenching in Obi-Wan's tunic.

"She's crying," Obi-Wan commented, but he meant the mother; his expression was remote. "Taritha can sense it." He held the little girl, crooning to her softly.

Qui-Gon nodded. "I'll take care of the others." He settled them into their beds and indulged himself by sending them both to sleep with delicate Force pushes, watching from the corner of his eye as Obi-Wan gently comforted Taritha and put her to bed-- without the touch of Force. Instead he inspired her trust with gentle words and tone, speaking to her softly until her lashes drooped. She fell asleep, breathing softly, the slightest hint of a hitch in the regular rise and fall of her chest. Obi-Wan stood with his hand on her, soothing her gently with his presence.

Qui-Gon shifted uncomfortably as he watched, guilt touching his heart afresh. Obi-Wan was fine, strong and honorable, the soul of a Jedi. But there was something else to him, as well... beneath the mask of Jedi efficiency there was a softness, an optimism, a vulnerability, an openness to love and kindness that knew no boundaries of race or station. And Qui-Gon had sought out that vulnerability unerringly and had attacked it without mercy, because in his own arrogance and pain, he had believed it had no place in a Jedi.

He'd been wrong. He could not have made the simple personal connection Obi-Wan had accomplished with the grieving mother; if he had tried, Taritha's mother would probably have been in hysterics before he ever made it to the door. There was something about Qui-Gon Jinn that did not inspire confidence or invite trust-- he held himself too aloof, too remote, trusting only in himself and never letting anyone near. Conversely, there was something about Obi-Wan Kenobi that produced the exact opposite reaction. Obi-Wan seemed to open his heart and invite others inside it, and they responded to him in kind. How was it that they did not take advantage of his openness and shatter him?

As Qui-Gon had done. Twice now, once years ago on Bandomeer and once only days past. Did he truly believe it would be a good thing for Kenobi to learn to close himself down, as Qui-Gon had? Or would learning to close his heart also close Obi-Wan to the will of the Force, as Qui-Gon had closed himself against it in the wake of Xanatos' betrayal?

Increasingly, Qui-Gon was compelled to admit that Yoda was right. In rejecting Obi-Wan as his Padawan, he had denied the will of the Force. Moreover, in maintaining his distance from his peers and jealously guarding his fear and pain, he had flirted with the Dark Side. It was a direct result of his own self-indulgent folly that he had grown so weak that he surrendered to the onset of the Avatar almost willingly, regarding the power of the Living Force as a convenient escape from the side of himself that Obi-Wan threatened to make him confront.

He had grown stagnant in his bitter retreat from Xanatos's betrayal, stagnant and unable to connect personally with others. Obi-Wan had effectively demonstrated that twice already and the mission was barely begun. Was it possible that over the years he had taken his bitterness out on everyone who tried to come close to him-- on his colleagues, his friends, even his old Master? He closed his eyes and a torrent of memories streamed through his mind, filtering through his new perspective. The objective truth of his own actions stung him with pain and shame. Yes. He had become unreasonably withdrawn and his self-absorption had made him cruel, most especially to Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Obi-Wan straightened Taritha's blankets and pressed a gentle kiss to her sleeping cheek; as he pulled back he relaxed slightly and Qui-Gon could see the evidences of emotional strain at last in his pinched brow and troubled expression. "You handled that well," the older man spoke, but his praise provoked only suspicion; Obi-Wan glanced up at him and the frown furrowed deeper in his forehead as he tried to divine the older Jedi's ulterior motive for offering unsolicited praise.

"We have another pickup an hour's journey northeast," Obi-Wan spoke quietly in deference to the sleeping children. "Just one boy. Do you want to--"

"I'll stay with the children," Qui-Gon offered. He felt selfish, avoiding the emotional upheaval of separating families, but it was Obi-Wan's own mission, and he had proven himself quite capable of handling it.

Obi-Wan nodded curtly and withdrew, seating himself on the deck and folding his cloak over himself. After a moment, Qui-Gon wandered to the cockpit, watching the polar sea flash by beneath them, thick with icebergs and slushy with the dull look of water that hovered on the verge of freezing.

The next child, a Livan, came aboard without incident, but at the following village matters were not so simple. Qui-Gon was helping one of the small boys care for himself in the lavatory when Kenobi's flare of dismay traveled down the incipient bond. Bundling the child quickly back into the dormitory and locking the ship down to protect their charges, he sprinted into town, following Obi-Wan's aura. Citizens vanished wordlessly at sight of him, never a good sign. He could hear the twang of projectile weapons fire growing louder as he rounded a final corner and sprinted into the main thoroughfare, immediately falling into step at Obi-Wan's side.

Obi-Wan was parrying hand-fired darts as he fled and Qui-Gon had no option but to draw his own lightsaber in mutual defense. It felt oddly nostalgic to battle at another Jedi's side, trusting Obi-Wan to partly cover his flank and returning the favor by defending Kenobi's back, swiftly blocking and incinerating the darts that sought to pierce them. After a moment's awkwardness they fell into a mutually complementary pattern with textbook accuracy, letting the Force guide their defense. Abandoning the candidates to their families, they let themselves be chased away by the angry villagers, retreating up the ramp of their ship and rocketing away.

"It is unpleasant when this happens, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon found himself trying to share his experience with the younger man as they sat in the cockpit, watching the village lights recede behind them. "But it could have been worse. If you had already retrieved the candidates, the children might have been endangered by their own 'rescuers.'" He had seen it happen before.

The young Knight withdrew into silence anyway, refusing to discuss what had gone wrong and blaming himself for the failure. Qui-Gon sighed and shrugged mentally, withdrawing in his own right. The two hardly spoke over the next day as they continued their mission.

Fortunately, that hostile confrontation was by far the worst of the resistance to their efforts. Over the course of two days, they gradually gathered seven of the ten children who had originally been tested and chosen. It was not a bad average. Qui-Gon set their course-heading for Rilvan while Obi-Wan took out the midichlorian sampling equipment and tested it. In Rilvan their task would be more difficult; potential candidates had not yet been identified among the jungle tribes.

It was just after noon locally when they arrived at the coordinates for set-down near Rilvan. Qui-Gon gazed out, astonished, calling for Obi-Wan.

The clearing where the Avatar had caused a landslide of earth, stone, and vegetation was filled to overflowing with Livans; apparently word of their coming had gone before them. The only empty space was the wide shallow lake that had been created by the landslide, water pouring over the trunk of a downed tree that formed the lowest part of the barrier which dammed the river's course. The sluggish water meandered around the perimeter of the slide, picking away at it slowly.

The assembled Livans milled and scrambled to make way for the transport; Obi-Wan trooped into the cockpit with the new Initiates at his heels. Qui-Gon hurried to make a barrier of Force over the sensitive controls as the children rushed forward to gaze through the forward viewscreen at what awaited on the ground.

When they emerged from the ship with the youngsters in tow, the Rilvani High Priestess was waiting at the head of the assembly, her eyes shining with pleasure as they rested on Obi-Wan.

"Livantani," she greeted them cordially.

"I bring the greetings of Princess Livarin and Livantan Yoda to you all," Obi-Wan bowed respectfully in return.

"We are glad to have you among us, Jedi Kenobi." She gestured proudly. "The tribes of the delta have assembled to do you honor. They hope that their sons and daughters may be chosen and trained as Jedi Livantani." She gestured with both hands, encompassing the crowd, which shouted in unison.

Qui-Gon caught the arm of a particularly adventurous young boy from the polar continent who seemed intent on disappearing and counted the others quickly, wondering how he could keep up with them all in the melee.

"Let us begin the testing, so that the parents may have time to say farewell to their children before we feast you," the High Priestess suggested to Obi-Wan, then turned her gaze to Qui-Gon. "My acolytes will care for the little ones you already have."

Obi-Wan nodded acceptance, bowing, and the children were led away. Qui-Gon fell into step behind the younger man, effacing himself automatically. Whispers of "Livantanerai" echoed around him, but for the most part attention focused on Obi-Wan. Awe-stricken, many Livans scuffled to be close to the young Jedi for a moment, to look at his face or to speak a word of polite greeting.

Obi-Wan seated himself on the very tree trunk where he and Yoda had first beheld the Avatar and Qui-Gon began the task of shepherding the families with acceptably aged children into line and directing them forward, letting Obi-Wan be the one to test them.

The morning progressed quickly. A shocking number of the children put forward as candidates qualified, surpassing the minimum midichlorian level requirements when tested. After an hour, it became clear that Obi-Wan would have to pick and choose among the best of them.

Qui-Gon watched carefully, surprised at the eagerness of the adults. When their children scored low, they seemed genuinely disappointed even as they led their little ones away with comforting words. He was amazed by how many Rilvani and other tribal families had brought their children for testing. Their enthusiasm for the idea of their children training to become Jedi Livantani was unprecedented. Of course, together Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had given very effective demonstrations of the extent of Jedi power with the Force.

The growing crowd of those who surpassed the minimum were eager, parental concern manifesting itself in tenderness and loving displays of touch and speech with their children. There was none of the hostility or fear the Jedi had encountered elsewhere.

The Jedi Master marveled at how closely these tribes connected themselves to the Living Force. Even more, however, he was touched and humbled by the reverence they held for Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Livan parents were prepared to entrust so many of their children willingly to the Jedi... or perhaps it would be more truthful to say that the children would be entrusted to Obi-Wan Kenobi. The reverence with which he was treated made it clear he had come to be regarded as a hero in the aftermath of Qui-Gon's rescue.

The High Priestess moved to Qui-Gon's elbow, smiling up at him politely. "My people respect Jedi Kenobi," she murmured, watching as the young Knight rubbed his thumb comfortingly over the slight sting of a sampling lancet. "They see him as a man whose power and brave self-sacrifice are strong enough to subdue the will of a god."

Qui-Gon glanced at her, mildly discomfited as he realized she had observed his unease. "Perhaps they have the right of it," he responded soberly.

She smiled up at him, wrinkled face crinkling in an expression of delight. "I think so," she agreed. "Any mother among us would be honored for her child to become such a powerful Livantan."

Qui-Gon nodded, following the motion of Obi-Wan's arm as he wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead before accepting the forearm of the next candidate. The clearing was dense with Force-signatures, crammed with beings, and he felt a need to withdraw from the press to meditate upon what he had seen.

"Livantan," he addressed the High Priestess respectfully, "the Force calls me. I feel a need to be alone so that I may listen."

She nodded, glancing toward the temple. "Our celebration will be held at the foot of the temple, where we will offer bounty to the land and sky," she mused. "Perhaps you would care to meet us there at dusk?"

"An excellent idea." He bowed, casting a glance at Obi-Wan, who was too busy to notice the byplay. Tucking his cloak closed around himself, Qui-Gon slipped away.

The trek through the woods seemed shorter than it had on the night of his rescue; glimpses of the ruined temple beyond the tree-line simultaneously attracted and repelled him. Most of his memories of it were faint and fuzzy, though stronger ones tickled insistently at the back of his mind. He pushed them away, wanting to concentrate on the events of this moment. Dwelling on the departed Force-entity in such an emotionally charged place was unwise. Strong traces of energy lingered here, imprinted with the Avatar's being. To ponder them too closely merely invited a second possession. There would be more time and safety for that after leaving Torehir. Once he was away he could incorporate the Avatar's knowledge into his own at leisure if he chose.

His own memories of Obi-Wan were paramount as he neared the structure. Setting aside his robe, which was growing uncomfortable in the hot, steamy sun, he began to climb the face of the temple, ignoring the building ache in his knees. When he arrived at the top he gazed down soberly at the obsidian altar where Obi-Wan had lain. The straps that had bound him still hung from the carved stone rings.

He glanced up toward the sun, squinting. Storm clouds were gathering in the east, a preliminary to the usual afternoon rain. Qui-Gon scooted a hip up onto the altar and then slid back, crossing his legs, closing his eyes and tipping his head toward the molten gold of the sun, hair cascading freely down his back. He drowned the echoes of his senses in the crimson of eyelids illumined by the brilliant sunlight.

Slowly he projected himself into deep meditation, listening to the Force whispering to him. His own and Obi-Wan's residual energies were twined about him now, energies very similar to the bond that had developed between them. They guided his mind, leading him past veils of his own deep-rooted and subtly dark fears. He had let those fears imprison him for far too long. They had first led him to desert a boy who had needed him and later caused him to deeply wound the man that boy had become-- a man who Qui-Gon was beginning to realize was far more than he had initially seemed.

He felt the first patter of rain against his eyelids and ignored it, reaching deeper, examining his fears so that he could acknowledge them and release them to the Force. He had thought that he was threatened only by the fear of renewed betrayal, that by trusting a companion as he had trusted Xanatos he would invite pain and anger into his heart. That thought, while true, was merely a single layer of his current disharmony with himself and the Force.

There were deeper fears yet, deeper truths. Impelled by the Force, he touched his dread, experiencing it open-mindedly for the first time. What he feared most was already deep inside him: the passionate emotions that were revealed inside his soul when he found himself engaged in the act of love with Kenobi on the very altar where he now sat in meditation. The walls of his fortress had cracked to their foundations as he realized that he was buried deep within the beautiful young man whom he had craved so painfully but reluctantly in so many ways ever since he first beheld him. The cracks had revealed him to himself: he already cared far too deeply for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

From their first meeting Obi-Wan had seeded into his heart like the giapi vines that laced into the stone of this very temple. Now that the boy had become a man, the seeds left scattered on barren soil were emerging from their dormancy to take root and crumble his walls, thriving and blossoming on the harsh, stony dirt of his soul. Obi-Wan's presence was like rain washing away resistance, and fresh air breathing life back into Qui-Gon's arid existence. The process was already irreversible. He loved Obi-Wan Kenobi and the vulnerability and weakness that resulted from his feelings terrified him.

Qui-Gon gasped, the peace of his trance crumbling to shreds as his fear and pain eclipsed the quiet voice of the Force. He could not release so much violent emotion at once. It clung in a smothering shroud around his soul in spite of his best efforts to disperse it. Trembling, he lowered his head, raindrops dripping steadily from his beard into his lap. It was unreasonable to expect himself to deal instantly with the outcome of pouring ten years' worth of re-evaluation and introspection into an afternoon's meditation session. He must forgive himself for failing to review his actions and choices objectively for so long. He must persist in his attempts to purge the shadow from his soul gradually.

He must follow the will of the Force, whatever it demanded of him.

The rain slowed, flowing over his face like tears, then stopped. He shifted on the hard stone that supported him, easing his chilled bones. Gentle breezes moved about his body and the slow heat of the reappearing sun began to draw steam from his clothing, drying him.

Something had changed inside him this afternoon, and in changing himself, he had subtly altered the bond that lay between himself and Kenobi, the powerful energies in the vicinity of the temple reinforcing the currents that twined between them. Carefully Qui-Gon closed additional shields around his mind, damping the resonance to a reasonable level.

If he had not left his commlink in his cloak at the foot of the temple, Qui-Gon would have been tempted to discuss the results of his soul-searching with Yoda. However, he steeled himself against the pain of his guilt and shame over his own folly and remained where he was. He would have to confront his responsibility for his own actions, no matter how hard it might be. It would be unfair to burden his injured Master, who had tried to steer him aright from the first and who had never lost faith and love for him in spite of his willful stubbornness.

He lay back across the obsidian altar, parting his wet clothing to let the sun shine on his chest and belly. Obi-Wan had lain here waiting for him with the same unyielding stone against back and hips. Now he lay here himself, equally unsure what the future might bring, an impending sacrifice to the will of the Force.

It was several hours yet till dusk, so he relaxed and fell asleep, warmed and lulled by the radiant energy of the sun soaking into the glossy black stone beneath him.

Qui-Gon roused himself when the sun sank low and eased up from his hard bed. The heat of the jungle sun and stone had partly dried his garments and he felt refreshed, though stiff. Easing himself down from the altar, he felt a touch of shame-- whether or not he had been the Livantanerai, napping on a sacred religious symbol was not socially sensitive behavior for a Jedi to indulge.

He made his way down from the temple, shouldering into his cloak and sitting down to wait, slightly chilled by the lengthening shadow of the structure and the remaining dampness of his clothing.

Before long the Rilvani and their guests approached, winding through the forest bearing smoky torches. Obi-Wan and the High Priestess headed the procession. He moved out to meet them, unsure of protocol until an acolyte stepped aside, creating a position for him in line directly behind them. The Livans led several herd-beasts in the midst of the line and, when they stopped, preparations began to fill ancient, blackened fire-pits with wood and the beasts were quickly and humanely slaughtered and prepared for roasting.

Obi-Wan caught Qui-Gon's eye and gestured to a small knot of Livan families who stood apart from the others, uneasily commingling with the Livan and Torehiri children Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had already recruited. "The candidates I selected," he pointed out quietly. "Fifteen of them. They all have midichlorian counts over nine thousand."

"Impressive," Qui-Gon murmured, and meant it. The children would in all likelihood become powerful Jedi one day.

"We could take dozens more, had we space in the transport or the crèche," Obi-Wan murmured. "The Force runs strong in the Livan people. I picked only the strongest."

"We would not wish to deplete the population of its Livantani," Qui-Gon agreed, gazing at the busy throng.

"Should I not have chosen so many or only the most powerful?" There was a bite to Obi-Wan's words, and Qui-Gon shrugged, noncommittal. Obi-Wan's mission, Obi-Wan's choice. He did not think the Knight had erred far on either one side or the other. Livan families typically had several children and there would probably be more strong Force-users in the age-group immediately older and younger those they had taken.

"Do you doubt your own judgment?" Qui-Gon glanced at the younger man. "Do you feel that the Force led you in your selection?"

Obi-Wan hesitated. "I chose arbitrarily, based on strength alone."

"It is a solution often followed in recruiting initiates." Qui-Gon nodded. "Attempts to read auras can mislead. Always in motion--"

"--is the future," Obi-Wan finished tartly, supplying the remainder of Yoda's proverb. He seemed edgy, unnerved. Qui-Gon wondered if it was the weariness of his day's work, or something more.

"How did you spend the afternoon?" Obi-Wan questioned him abruptly. "I saw you leave the slide. Where did you go?" The question was aggressive, as though Obi-Wan already guessed its answer.

"You had things well in hand. I returned here to meditate on the events that occurred while--"

"Here? You mean there," Obi-Wan interrupted, nodding toward the temple, lifting his chin slightly to indicate its top. Firelight reflected in his eyes with an angry gleam. His very aura thrummed with negative emotions: anger, fear, resentment. Pain.

Qui-Gon subsided with a quiet nod and let silence change the subject as he turned his gaze to watch flames licking around the meat that turned on crude spits. It would be a primitive meal with few amenities, meat seared but only half-cooked. What mattered was that it would be savored and shared in company of friends and kin. He looked askance at Obi-Wan, who seemed alien and remote, his young weary face all planes and angles sculpted in gold velvet and ebony shadow. Friends and kin? Well, at least that held true for the Livans. A stab of pain wrung his heart. How could he have allowed himself to weaken and begin to love this man? How could he ever stop now that he had begun?

After a time he rose to move away casually, tucking his cold hands into his sleeves and stepping forward, nearer the cook-fire. Juices from the cooking meat sizzled in the flames, and the sweet smell of burning tickled his nostrils.

A shadow darted in front of him and his arms shot out swiftly, catching the child up and hoisting her into his arms. "You must take care, Taritha," he admonished her gently. "You would be badly hurt if you fell into the flames." He glanced worriedly about for others who might be in danger, but he found the remainder of their charges still scattered among the Livan families who were preparing to give up their own children.

Unaware of Kenobi's eyes upon him, he hoisted Taritha to his shoulder and steadied her there. He stepped back as one roasted herd-beast was lowered from the spit to a bed of fresh leaves and carved. Livans began to gather in line, waiting to be served, and the High Priestess ushered Obi-Wan forward to join Qui-Gon at the head of the line.

"Jedi live to serve the people." Qui-Gon bowed his head. "Let us be fed last."

The High Priestess leaned on her staff. "The Jedi honor us," she returned politely. "We ask that our Jedi guests represent the Livan people in offering to the Land. Would you carry our bounty and present it to them?" Two acolytes moved in front of Obi-Wan, proffering a wooden dish that held the choice organs of one herd-beast, roasted and garnished with leaves and flowers.

Amazingly, Obi-Wan stepped back, dropping his eyes. "With respect, Livantan, I have already made my sacrifice to your gods." The negative emotions Qui-Gon had sensed earlier abruptly peaked, fear darkening the young Jedi's aura like an eclipse. He glanced toward the top of the temple and then jerked his eyes away as though he could not bear to let them rest on the sight of the altar where Qui-Gon had taken him.

The gathering fell silent with collective shock, only the snapping and settling of the fires breaking the stillness. Overcoming his own surprise, Qui-Gon stepped forward hastily, filling the breach. "And I have not made mine. I would be honored to offer up this sacrifice to the Land." He removed Taritha carefully from his shoulder and handed her to Obi-Wan, who took her without meeting his eyes.

"Livantanerai--" the High Priestess gave him his ill-deserved title, dithering with dismay. "It is your place to accept sacrifice, not to offer it..."

"I am not the Land, merely its chosen servant," Qui-Gon raised his voice slightly that all might hear over the nervous murmur that had arisen at his words. "And so I serve the Land, as the Livans should, and as Livantanerai, I serve the Livans, as the Land should." He reached and took the wide platter carefully. "Let the circle be made complete." He turned and started up the stone steps, not without a few hard thoughts about the young Knight's clumsy and impolitic refusal.

Another startled murmur from the assembled crowd swelled raggedly into a triumphal shout. The High Priestess gave a call and the multitude slowly fell into synch, a thousand throats producing an eerie, throbbing chant. The tempo of the chant quickened as Qui-Gon climbed, and Qui-Gon felt the Force stir in response to the mass call. So many people, gifted with Force but untrained... each one could only barely affect the Force alone, but together they were unimaginably powerful.

Their call wove into the elements around them and the volatile air responded, sweeping through the leaves of the tree-canopy and whipping at the cook-fires with a roar that Qui-Gon could hear even over the mingled voices of the chant and the pounding of the hide drums. The air currents they had summoned curled around the temple, washing around his body and lifting his cloak. He began to wonder if he had been altogether wise accepting this duty; would the High Priestess have intended a sacrifice of life as well as one of food and drink?

More power swelled from the gathering below, drawing winds in from the four points of the compass. The air roared and sobbed over the tree canopy and wound into itself to whirl around the altar, a Force vortex of power not unlike the one he had summoned to heal the reef. Qui-Gon hesitated, wondering how much control the hundreds of untrained minds held over what they had summoned. His steps slowed, but he proceeded.

The greedy tendrils of power and wind licked at him hungrily, tangling around him, teasing at him, ghosts of memory and power... the Force recognized him as its own, knew him as the Avatar, the Livantanerai. He faltered, reaching to brace himself against the stone, feeling the power pluck at his mind. But this time... this time, there was a strong beacon inside himself, a reason to resist the power and remain Qui-Gon Jinn. He reached for it, letting its touch drive back the primal elemental will. There might be consequences, the bond might strengthen as a result, but he would have to deal with that later. Firmly anchored by his bond with Obi-Wan, he resumed his progress upward, approaching the altar with caution.

The tug of the wailing winds and the siren-song of the Living Force curled around him, threatening to lift him from his feet as he leaned forward cautiously and slid the platter onto the altar at the base of the vortex. It was whirled upward and away, immediately lost in the tempest: the Force accepted the Livans' offering. The lure of the power and the residue of the Avatar were almost overwhelming, scouring at his mind and his resolve. As he faltered before them, the strength of the wind threatened to sweep him away, to take him as part of the offering. If he lifted his arms and stepped forward, it would take him too, take him and bear him up inside itself, transmute him into the embodiment of its power once more... but the Livans were not alone in summoning Force. Even as the wind whipped around him to lift him free, its power driving tears from his eyes and stinging his skin with fine grit, he felt Obi-Wan's strength extended toward him, holding his feet firmly in place on the stone.

Obi-Wan. Yes.

Qui-Gon stepped back cautiously. The chant, which had been masked by the howling winds, changed and began to fade to a sober, reverent finish. The wash of power slowly receded in time with it, dispersing the winds that had taken the Livans' offering. He did not look back toward the altar as he made his way down the stone stair. Instead he focused on his bond with Obi-Wan, luxuriating in the wrapping of Force that the young Knight maintained around him protectively, ready to hold him steady even as the winds that teased at his hair and robes fell to a gentle breeze and then died.

His foot touched the ground, and the chant ended like a dream vanishes into waking. Qui-Gon gazed about himself disoriented by the sudden absence of Force-power, feeling a surreal quality in the scene that surrounded him. It felt as though he had been gone for many years and suddenly found himself returned to a particular moment in his past, ready to re-live a life misused.

He blinked away the sense of deja vu, reaching back to smooth his wind-tossed hair. Obi-Wan stood nearby, shrouded in cloak and hood, holding Taritha's tiny hand in his, not looking at Qui-Gon. He surrendered the little girl to an acolyte and jerked his chin at Qui-Gon, demanding that they confer. The two Jedi stepped back from the feasting. Obi-Wan met Qui-Gon's gaze at last, his eyes flinty, opaque gray under his hood, snapping furiously at Qui-Gon.

"You are a fool, Qui-Gon Jinn!" He barely managed to keep his voice to a whisper. "Did you ever stop to think that the Living Force might try to take you again?" Obi-Wan hissed. "I felt you-- you were forced to anchor your mind against the Force energy-- and even then the vortex would have dragged you away if I hadn't held you there! What if you had failed? What more do you owe these people, Qui-Gon? What more do I owe them? We very nearly gave our lives--"

"We are Jedi," Qui-Gon interrupted him fiercely. "Sworn to service. Their good comes before our own, and if the Force requires our sacrifice, we are bound to give it freely. They have given us-- you-- their children! How would you repay them? With rudeness, by flouting all that they believe in?"

"I should have gone," Obi-Wan turned his back bitterly, words tumbling forth angrily in self-recrimination. "What did it matter what it would have cost me to go back up there again? It would have cost even more if--" he fell silent abruptly, as though realizing he still spoke aloud.

Qui-Gon drew a sharp breath, intrigued by the words. Did Obi-Wan mean a cost to the Livans and Torehiri, or a cost to himself? There was no way to determine. "If...?" He reached and grasped Obi-Wan's shoulder, was shrugged away fiercely. "If the Force had taken me again?"

The angry silence and the stubborn straightness of Obi-Wan's spine would have to be answer enough. "Obi-Wan, I would not have expected you to sacrifice yourself for me again," Qui-Gon murmured softly. "I never asked for your sacrifice in the first place."

"Nor did you accept it." The bitter words stung Qui-Gon. "But you need not fear. What I did was for them, not for you. I know my duty." Obi-Wan filled his lungs deeply, his shoulders rising and chest swelling as he struggled to regain his composure.

"We should leave this place as soon as the feast is done," Qui-Gon murmured neutrally, not knowing what else to say.

"Then I must complete my business here." Obi-Wan walked away without further comment. Qui-Gon watched him go with renewed surprise and a flare of pain, almost reaching to catch Kenobi's arm, but he stopped himself. He could say no more to comfort the Knight, and he had business of his own to attend among the Rilvani.

Even now the High Priestess was approaching, gazing worriedly after Obi-Wan. "Is Jedi Kenobi well?"

Qui-Gon nodded a reassurance, smiling at her formal use of the term 'Jedi.' "He regrets the necessity for his absence, but there is business elsewhere that he must complete." He hoped the simple words would be enough to satisfy both protocol and concern.

She hesitated, gazing up into Qui-Gon's eyes. "It is not my place to interfere, Livantanerai." She inclined her head diffidently. "But I feel responsible for the distress my request has caused. Jedi Kenobi..." she hesitated. "I glimpsed his face as he watched you climb. I think if you had not come down from the temple, he would never have forgiven himself for failing to go in your stead." She shook her head. "When he offered his body to appease the Land, I had not realized things stood as they do between you. I regret having caused discord between you tonight."

Qui-Gon felt himself draw back instinctively from the emotional content of her words, retreating into the shadow of his cowl, and she shook her head, reaching to take his arm. "Pardon my rough ways, Jedi Master Jinn," she articulated his proper title carefully. "I should not have spoken."

Qui-Gon realized that her sudden use of his formal title represented a potential alienation between himself and the Rilvani and the possibility disturbed him. "Your words cause no offense, Livantan." Qui-Gon bowed to her respectfully. "Obi-Wan's sacrifice was as you believed it to be," he hastened to assure her. "He did what he did to serve your people, not out of love for me."

She blinked, surprised. "These motives do not exclude one another, and neither diminishes his sacrifice in our eyes," she responded, reassuring him in turn. "And... your pardon, Jedi Master Jinn, but I believe you are mistaken."

Qui-Gon lifted his gaze to hers, startled, warily searching her smoke-bleared eyes and finding certainty there. He glanced into the night, eyes following the path Kenobi had taken. Could it be true? His heart surged with painful hope, but he instinctively clamped down tight on the troubled emotion. There was duty to be done.

"Come, Livantanerai," the High Priestess invited him gently, returning to the more familiar form of address. "All have been served now but you. Bless my people with your presence at our celebration." He inclined his head and offered her his arm, letting her guide him to his place.

Qui-Gon spent the rest of the evening engaged in surprisingly pleasant diplomatic responsibilities, wondering what Obi-Wan might be doing. Since he had abandoned the Knight to his tasks during the afternoon, however, Qui-Gon tried not to begrudge Obi-Wan's absence.

When the time came for the festivities to end, the Livans brought fourteen of the promised children to Qui-Gon. The parents gazed at him with ill-concealed awe and more than a touch of fear. Only one less than promised-- it was a better-than-good average, and they were already in custody of many more children than Obi-Wan had been instructed to gather when he departed from Coruscant. Qui-Gon was pleased, and hoped that Kenobi would be as well.

His time as Livantanerai had earned him the awe and respect of the Rilvani and other Livan tribes, but the parents who had let Obi-Wan test and accept their children gazed about, looking for him nervously, feeling the need for the continuity his presence would represent. Qui-Gon sighed and hurried the proceedings subtly. The children sensed their parents' concern and were nervous already; only the presence of their new-found playmates who had already entered the custody of the Jedi kept them from panicking. As for their parents, the presence of the smiling High Priestess and her obvious faith in Qui-Gon worked to calm their fears.

In the end, the children's youthful innocence and the prospect of fun with new friends combined to allow the partings to occur without serious incident. Qui-Gon was glad of that, gently soothing a sniffling child in one arm while speaking a few words of calming reassurance to her nervous parents before ascending the ramp with his small mob of new initiates.

He heard the boarding ramp lower only a few minutes after he had settled in with their new charges and glanced up as Obi-Wan walked in leading a little girl by the hand. He was carrying a tiny babe in the crook of his arm. Qui-Gon raised his eyebrows inquisitively, surprised that the Knight was not returning alone.

"He wasn't brought for testing." Obi-Wan lifted his arm slightly to indicate who he meant and released the little girl with a gentle nudge toward the squirming mass of candidates who were ranged around Qui-Gon in a disorderly knot, playing with toys that had been provided for their amusement on the voyage back to Coruscant. "His parents are very poor. When his sister qualified, they asked if I would take his count as well." He adjusted the blankets around the baby gently. "He scored a bit lower than she did, but well within the acceptable range." Obi-Wan hesitated, casting a quick glance toward Qui-Gon as though he feared the Jedi Master's condemnation. "He has fourteen siblings. The family can barely feed itself."

Qui-Gon nodded. It was unusual to take two children from a single family, but he found that he trusted Obi-Wan's judgment on the matter. He had seen the living conditions among the Rilvani and could understand such a large and poor family's wish for its youngest members to have a better life than their culture could offer.

"It is not common for such a young babe to enter the order, but it is not unheard of." He got to his feet and moved near Obi-Wan, gazing down into the clear violet eyes of the young child. The baby's lashes were so pale they seemed white. Qui-Gon lightly tickled the child's soft cheek with his callused fingertip and the baby squirmed, its mouth falling open in a toothless gurgle of happiness.

"I was only a baby when the Jedi took me from my parents. I don't remember them." Obi-Wan did not lift his head, but the tips of his ears reddened slightly, and he stepped around Qui-Gon, walking further into the dormitory. "We should get back to the capital as quickly as possible."

Qui-Gon nodded. "Yoda transmitted that the wedding has been tentatively rescheduled for tomorrow afternoon. Then we will depart for Juyoren." His gaze held a question that his voice did not.

Obi-Wan glanced up at him, eyes opaque, expression too smooth. "As the Force wills it," he spoke calmly.

Choosing to accept that answer for the moment, Qui-Gon nodded politely and moved into the cockpit to prepare for lift-off.

After the autopilot was engaged and the children settled, Obi-Wan took his leave and closed himself inside his cabin. Qui-Gon hesitated, one eye on the children and one on his own cabin door, but he was not really weary. He settled for leaving the dormitory open and, keeping half an ear tuned for noise from the children, he settled into the pilot's seat to meditate. Obi-Wan's distress at his company had been apparent off and on throughout the mission, but their return to Rilvan had brought it to an unexpected peak. And there were the High Priestess's words to consider.

Even now, while the Knight was sleeping, Qui-Gon could feel Obi-Wan's fears keenly through the incipient bond and was ashamed of his part in having caused them.

Sinking into the Force, he worked to accept his shame, letting it merge with the energies that filled and surrounded him. The Living Force embraced him gently, helping him re-channel the negative emotion. His trance deepened and, perhaps as a result of his link to Obi-Wan, he experienced a rare moment of clarity and deep connection to the Unifying Force. Even as he identified it, Qui-Gon felt his vague sense of the future come alive. His destiny was shifting mysteriously into some entirely new course.

Clearly he had been wrong. About a great many things, most particularly about how he should react to Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Qui-Gon stirred, feeling Obi-Wan's destiny twining with his inescapably in many paths of the possible future. Their journey was just begun. It would be made easier if he could bring himself to make amends for his behavior. He owed it to Kenobi to give him the credit he deserved, and to come to terms with his own feelings for the young Knight.

Qui-Gon sighed, trying to achieve equanimity with the subtle pressure to release his destiny to the Force and trust wholeheartedly in its outcome. His own reluctant emotions made that very difficult to do. Love. It was a terrifying prospect, one that should be out of the question. Even if Qui-Gon's own ineptitude had not already damaged their relationship beyond repair, Obi-Wan was very nearly young enough to be his grandson. Too much separated them; too much time and rank and cruelty and pain.

Love. The word created a terrible hollow ache in his soul. At his age, he had lived too long and experienced pain too frequently not to recognize that ache as the mixture of desperate craving and terrible fear it was. To love and be loved...

Neither he nor Obi-Wan were ready for such a step. However, the young Knight had once offered him respect and friendship. Now Qui-Gon was finally prepared to offer those things to Obi-Wan in return. It was clearly the will of the Force that Qui-Gon accept Obi-Wan and form a team partnership with the young Knight. He hoped that Kenobi was still willing to give him the chance to prove that he was worthy of trust.

Feeling a sense of painful and inevitable completion to his train of thought, the Jedi Master opened his eyes, withdrawing from his introspective trance and composing himself carefully. Much had changed for him since he set forth on this short journey with Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The path the Living Force had set before him was a difficult one, and he understood the first step upon it would be deeply humiliating. There were many pitfalls awaiting him as well-- his mind still instinctively shied away from love and trust, and he was ashamed by the knowledge that he was preparing to burden such a fine young Knight with a bitter old fool like himself as a partner. But the Force had shown him the consequences of his willful arrogance and he must repent and follow its guidance instead of his pride and fear, or he would hurt young Kenobi all the more.

And that, he reflected as rose and quietly made his way toward the dormitory to check the initiates, was one thing he had no desire left in him to do.

He paused outside Kenobi's door, touching his fingertips briefly to the cold metal of the hatch that excluded him from the young man's quarters, then ghosted silently into the dormitory, re-tucking blankets and soothing restless sleep where needed. Soon enough they would be in the capital and then he could begin to make things right.

Yoda was awaiting them on the landing platform when they arrived in the capital. Leaning heavily on his stick, he climbed the ramp slowly. He lowered his voice for the benefit of the sleeping initiates.

"Linger on Torehir we may not," he admonished quietly as soon as they had exchanged brief pleasantries, his hand fidgeting with a length of pale cloth bandage that wound around his small ribcage, holding healing herbs against a partly-healed cracked rib. "Already too much time has passed."

"Qui-Gon told me of the trouble on Juyoren," Obi-Wan bowed deferentially to his tiny Master.

"Will you accept the mission?" Yoda lifted sleepy eyes to the young Knight's face, and Qui-Gon felt himself grow still, listening intently without appearing to.

"Master, I..." Obi-Wan hesitated, glancing at Qui-Gon with swift, nervous eyes. He hesitated, visibly reminding himself of his duty. "Yes, my Master." The words were subdued, though perfectly polite.

"Good, good." Yoda nodded decisively. "Decided it is, that you and Qui-Gon will undertake the mission to Juyoren." Glancing between them, the elder Jedi looked pleased and relieved. "Formalities must be observed. The wedding will take place tomorrow. We leave the next morning, as rapidly as politeness to the King and Queen allows, yes?" He regarded them each in turn.

"Yes, Master," Qui-Gon spoke automatically, hearing Obi-Wan chorus the same words almost in unison.

After a few moments of desultory conversation in which it was decided that Obi-Wan would remain to tend the children, Qui-Gon accompanied Yoda into the palace and then made his way to his solitary room.

He wakened early the next morning, unsure of his duties for the day. As Livantanerai, he was respected in Rilvani, but the Torehiri, whose works of civilization the Avatar had attempted to destroy, hardly shared the opinion of the primitive Livan tribes. Qui-Gon suspected it would be best to make himself scarce and let Obi-Wan and Yoda take over the remainder of the diplomatic mission. He could make himself useful by watching over the children and freeing Obi-Wan for more public activities.

Thus resolved, he made his way to the transport only to find it empty; apparently Obi-Wan had taken the children to join the first group of candidates in the nursery for breakfast. He made his own way down into the domestic areas of the palace, following his innate sense of the young Knight.

Arriving in a nursery dining room, he stood in the doorway and watched the palace matrons working to feed their young charges with a minimum of mess. There was a playroom adjacent to the dining area, and Obi-Wan stood there, setting the container of milk he held on a counter and gently taking up the youngest child they had recruited in one arm. It fussed, small delicate hands waving in the air like tiny pale spiders, curling around the Jedi's fingers.

Obi-Wan smiled, letting the baby suck at the tip of his least finger, moving to a cabinet where its food and clothing was stored and hooking his boot in the handle of the door, levitating out a bottle. Qui-Gon stepped quietly into the room, past the melee of the older children's breakfast, and plucked the bottle out of midair, filling it and placing it in the warmer.

Obi-Wan rounded his shoulders on the older Jedi, turning away and directing all his attention toward the baby cradled in his arm. It fussed louder and the young Knight began to sing softly, a lullaby in a language Qui-Gon didn't know. His voice was untrained but pleasant, the Jedi Master decided, watching Obi-Wan glide a few steps away. And he had a gift with children.

Qui-Gon glanced at the matrons and their merry charges, but none seemed aware of him and Obi-Wan, the adults busily spooning food into tiny mouths.

"I haven't yet thanked you properly for what you did to save me," he heard the somber words emerge from himself with something akin to surprise. "I was not at my best that night, and I spoke to you with more cruelty than honesty." His tone was a little too harsh, but the confession was painful for him. He wrapped his arms around himself, inside the sleeves of his cloak, as was his custom. His words were true, coming deep from his own sense of honesty and remorse at the pain he had caused the young Knight, Furthermore, the bond demanded them, dragging them forth in spite of Qui-Gon's shame and his fears. "I deeply regret that you were forced to endure both the Avatar's physical abuse and my own harsh words." He managed the words more gracefully this time.

"It was my duty." Obi-Wan sounded only half-interested, drifting toward the emotional safety of the bustle in the next room, his eyes fixed on the baby he held. "I did as the Force required. As any Jedi would have done." Obi-Wan bent and brushed his lips over the child's forehead, crooning softly to it as it grew even more fussy, smelling the scent of its warming meal.

Qui-Gon opened the warmer and removed the bottle, testing its temperature, then stepped around Obi-Wan to offer it. The young Jedi took it and replaced his fingertip in the baby's mouth with the nipple. The child settled immediately, sucking contentedly. Obi-Wan smiled down at it, casually stepping away from Qui-Gon again.

The Jedi Master watched him, pained by the abrupt dismissal of his attempt at apology, faintly tortured by the beauty of the younger man's profile and the tenderness with which he held the child who had been given into his care.

"You'll be wanted at the negotiations this morning, the wedding this afternoon, and the formal reception this evening," Qui-Gon stated at last, turning slightly aside himself, hoping that his hurt was not evident in his eyes. "The Torehiri do not have faith in me any longer as a neutral ambassador; we shall require your diplomatic abilities to fill the breach my weakness has caused."

Obi-Wan looked up sharply. "You and Master Yoda won't be attending, then?"

"Yoda will doubtless attend the wedding and make an appearance at the reception, but my diplomatic mission is yours to finish now, if you will." Qui-Gon drew up his hood, the better to hide his discomfort. "If you are troubled that you may be neglecting your responsibility to your charges, I will watch over the children while you are busy with other duties."

"The matrons are supposed to care for the palace infants, but they should be busy with wedding preparations and I had planned to dismiss them," Obi-Wan admitted absently, returning his eyes to the nursing child. "Still, you needn't bother unless you wish to. They will stay if they are needed."

"I would rather attend the reception and dance again with you," Qui-Gon spoke without thinking, his voice very soft, his eyes averted, and he felt himself redden with intense shame at the awkward expression of such a deeply personal sentiment, unwanted by the man to whom it was offered. He could feel Obi-Wan's response, a wild pang of erotic shock laced with deep fear and confusion, rapidly tamped down and shielded. The Jedi Master turned, hands falling on the rim of the empty cradle. "But instead, I shall stay here and watch over the children."

He listened, motionless, forcing a tumult of conflicting emotions to numbness while Obi-Wan took the emptied bottle from the baby's mouth and patted the child over his shoulder until its stomach eased. Not looking at Qui-Gon, the Knight laid the infant tenderly in its crib and pulled up the blankets around it, brushing his fingertips over its small cheek. The baby already slept, its trust in Obi-Wan's care perfect.

His excuse for inattention removed, Obi-Wan glanced up at Qui-Gon at last, cautious evaluation in his expression as he attempted to divine the Jedi Master's motives. Contrite, Qui-Gon smiled slightly at the young man, trying to reassure him but feeling the awkwardness and unfamiliarity of the expression. Embarrassment stirred in him as Obi-Wan merely raised a doubtful brow very slightly in response. "I will return to relieve you after the reception," the Knight stated with cool politeness, and stepped out with a half-bow.

Distracted as he was by his own concerns, Obi-Wan felt inadequate to serve as an effective mediator, but fortunately little effort was required. With the threat of the Avatar neutralized and with the terrorist ringleader identified, apprehended, and sentenced, the main points of contention between the two factions were already settled.

After a few minor points regarding the extradition of two further Livan terrorists were hammered out to the satisfaction of both sides, there was little left to do other than observe ritual courtesies involving the joining of two families via matrimony. Some minor debates arose between Livan and Torehiri customs, but they were easily dealt with. Obi-Wan was left with the impression that both sides wanted to see the wedding proceed as smoothly and rapidly as possible.

As the respective kings delivered benevolent speeches demonstrating their goodwill for the future of the young couple, Obi-Wan was finally free to reconsider the events of the past few days. His thoughts were chaos, dominated by confusion and dismay. As Yoda had predicted, Qui-Gon seemed to regret his harshness on the night of the rescue, but Obi-Wan was not sure how far he could trust Jinn's apparent repentance.

The man's new pleasantness only confused him further. Surely Jinn remembered what the Avatar had said and done to Obi-Wan and knew what it had dragged from his helpless mind. Could that information be the reason why he was treating Obi-Wan more courteously now? Did he feel Obi-Wan was too fragile to be dealt with honestly any longer? Or had Yoda dressed the Jedi Master down and forced him to pretend to cordiality for the sake of the Juyoren mission?

Obi-Wan could not be sure that he was correctly interpreting any of the signs he thought he saw. There were too many variables to be confident in any theory, not least of which was that damnable bond that had formed between them. It was undoubtedly influencing both his own and the Jedi Master's behavior against their wills.

In spite of Jinn's altered behavior, Obi-Wan could see only two things when he looked at the older man. Foremost he saw the bitter, aloof person who had rejected him so callously on so many occasions, and secondly he remembered the indifferent and implacable menace of the Avatar. Neither image was particularly reassuring, and he was unable to reconcile either with the Qui-Gon who had accompanied him on the recruiting mission. Obi-Wan sighed and returned his attention to the proceedings at hand.

After an hour of fanning the air with meaningless cordial speeches, the Livans and Torehiri stood in accord that the ceremony should proceed immediately. Obi-Wan stood at the head of the table with one hand on Torvan's head and the other on Livarin's. He recited the same ritual blessing of peace she had spoken to him on the shore so long ago, and with his words the long-delayed wedding was set in motion. Obi-Wan suspected that the factions' willingness to reconcile stemmed at least partly from a desire to avoid repeating the necessary preparations for a third time at a later date.

The wedding was lavish and interminable, as state weddings are, and no flourish was spared despite the reduced number of guests. Livarin made a beautiful bride, dainty and poised at Torvan's side, drawing on a seemingly bottomless fount of energy as the wedding ended and the reception commenced with a buffet luncheon.

Secondary ceremonies and rituals proceeded apace, stilted and formal Torehiri custom and lighthearted Livan celebrations juxtaposed smoothly. Together, the customary reception festivities lasted well into the evening. The remains of the buffet luncheon were seamlessly replaced with a sumptuous supper by servants who worked so smoothly as to be nearly invisible. After most of the guests had finished eating, the ballroom floor was cleared for dancing.

Yoda paid his respects to the married couple at the conclusion of the feasting and excused himself, but Obi-Wan was trapped at the ball by the necessity to serve in his capacity as diplomatic liaison, soothing wounded tempers and tactfully satisfying inquisitive natures.

After accepting numerous congratulations on the success of his mission to stop the Avatar and enduring a round of politely phrased but prying inquiries regarding the cause of Qui-Gon's involvement in the debacle, Obi-Wan recognized the opening strains of the dance Master Jinn had demonstrated to him. Rather than embarrass himself later with his own ignorance, he made polite excuses to escape from the dignitaries who surrounded him. Courtesy mandated he request a dance with the new Queen before the evening ended, and when he did so she accepted gracefully.

"Is Master Jinn well?" Livarin's voice was concerned, her intonation meaningful. Like the others, she had heard confirmation of the Avatar's identity.

"Quite well." Obi-Wan responded courteously. "He chose to stay and watch the children in the nursery, so that I might have the honor and pleasure of attending your wedding." A diplomatic answer, but the sobriety in her eyes acknowledged that she was aware Qui-Gon would have been less welcome than he should. Obi-Wan sighed. Clearly Livarin still admired the Jedi Master intensely even after all that had been said and done; he ruefully hoped that she and Torvan could make a success of their loveless marriage.

The music swelled, briefly preventing further conversation, and he swept her into a pirouette, remembering the blessing she had whispered at the ocean-side... a blessing that had been wasted on a relationship that was misrepresented to her, one that had only worsened since then. He hoped that it would prove more successful in casting fortunate omens on her relationship than it had on his. Obi-Wan felt a brief pang of regret that was swiftly overwhelmed and turned to pain by his ugly memories of what the Avatar had said and done to him.

"Ah, your lover has arrived," Livarin murmured, making Obi-Wan blink with surprise, stiffening as his memories faded. There was warmth in her voice, but the title she gave Jinn was spoken a little ruefully. Rousing herself from the moment of regret, she smiled at Obi-Wan, her eyes sparkling up into his with pleasure. "Councilor Yoda has apparently accepted my request that he relieve Master Jinn from his duties so that he might come to join us for the end of the evening."

She sounded satisfied; Obi-Wan winced. He knew this dance was ending, knew he was expected to go into Qui-Gon's arms: the one place he least... and most... wanted to be. It was inevitable now that the man had come. When the music finished he released the Queen, bowing to her politely and returning her smile, lifting her hand to kiss her ring. "Your Majesty," he bowed and turned away, already distracted.

Qui-Gon stood against the wall, head and shoulders above the Livan and Torehiri courtiers who milled around him. He was cloaked but unhooded, staring out a narrow-paned window into the gardens absently, arms folded inside the sleeves of his robe. Obi-Wan reluctantly angled toward him across the dance floor, feeling an almost magnetic compulsion moving his feet. It was most frustrating-- he did not wish to be near Jinn, and yet the incipient bond tugged at him with merciless persistence, particularly when he was not preoccupied with other duties. Something made it nearly impossible to avoid the man. He could neither stay away from Jinn nor stop watching him, even in such a crowded room.

He settled to the wall hesitantly just out of arm's length from the older man, resisting the impulse to stand closer. He reminded himself sternly that it was not his own desire; it was merely the will of that unwanted connection between himself and the older Jedi that had come into existence the night the Avatar took him. Perhaps it had been brought about by their position at the focus of the Force storm, or by Obi-Wan's efforts to anchor Qui-Gon's consciousness so that the Avatar would disperse. Whatever had caused it, the bond would have to be dissipated. They would have to consult the Healers at the Jedi Temple for assistance as soon as they could.

Obi-Wan swallowed, not wanting to relive the events of that terrible evening when it had formed, and he felt Jinn's concerned eyes swing to him inevitably as the agitation in his thoughts penetrated his shields. Jinn glided near, closing the distance between them, and Obi-Wan shut his eyes, swallowing a shiver of unease as the Master's large, callused hand rose and fingertips grazed his temple lightly.

It was the first time they had touched skin to skin since Qui-Gon withdrew himself from Obi-Wan's body atop the Rilvani temple. The resonance flared wildly between them, triggering a wash of too many emotions to be analyzed, Qui-Gon's spiritual presence striking Obi-Wan like the wavefront of an explosion. "Please don't do that," Obi-Wan dropped his eyes and drew back, sliding along the smooth marble wall. "I don't like for you to touch me."

Qui-Gon dropped his hand, a trace of hurt flickering in the deep-set eyes. "I am sorry."

The last dance was beginning without them, and Obi-Wan wondered suddenly if it would be even worse than dancing to spend the half-hour before the reception ended in conversation with the Jedi Master. Perhaps it would be best to get things out into the open immediately. "I think I understand your wish for solitude now," Obi-Wan said, guided by his impulse. "I know what you have tried to make me see all along, what I refused to accept. It helped, what the Avatar told me of your private thoughts regarding me. You needn't go out of your way to spare my feelings. As soon as we have finished at Juyoren, we will see to having the connection between us severed. You may go your way, and I will trouble you no more."

Qui-Gon's shoulders seemed to slump very slightly; he gazed intently at Obi-Wan. "The Avatar was wrong, and so was I," he whispered. Obi-Wan did not look at him, but then there was a rustle, and Qui-Gon's voice rose from the level of his knees. "Knight Kenobi, I ask forgiveness. My words were thoughtless and cruel, and I retract them fully. My actions were ill-considered and reckless, and I shall endeavor to mend them. I acted with conduct unbecoming a Jedi."

They were his own words, echoed from so long ago. The Knight's eyes jerked around to the top of Qui-Gon's head. Master Jinn was kneeling fully before him like a Padawan, bending his forehead to touch the stone deferentially. His robes pooled gracefully around his body and his long, thick braid trailed on the marble floor. Qui-Gon offered the ritual of apology to Obi-Wan publicly-- choosing this forum was a tacit admission of the depth of his shame. But the public nature of this apology also rendered it manipulative, pressuring Obi-Wan to accept it.

"Get up!" Obi-Wan snapped, an irritable whisper. "What in the name of the Sith do you think you're doing?"

"I hope to earn your trust," Qui-Gon responded simply, unmoving. "I offer my respect and friendship."

Obi-Wan stared at him with confusion and embarrassment, conscious of a growing number of eyes on them. He heard stillness fall gradually over the huge room as the moment stretched, even the music from the orchestra fading to discord and then silence as the musicians lost their concentration and looked to discover why the crowd had ceased to dance.

He went to one knee suddenly, irritably, and took Qui-Gon's head in his hands, steeling himself against the surge of physical and emotional awareness that filled him when his skin touched the Jedi Master's. "Stand before me. Let there be peace between us." The sharpness in his voice held little promise for the sincerity of his words, and he chose the least forgiving form for the completion of the ritual, but Qui-Gon raised himself and the two Jedi stood face to face, reconciled in word if not in deed.

The curious crowd gradually returned to life around them, an interested buzz of conversation swelling. Qui-Gon did not move away, gazing down into his eyes, and Obi-Wan realized that his hands lingered on the older man's face, fastened there by the almost electric connection that was flaring between them. He could feel Qui-Gon's emotions, feel the other man's shame and confusion. His pain. His contrition... and the sudden overwhelming surge of his desire.

Obi-Wan swallowed, attempted to remove his hands, and watched as they merely slid down the sharp-boned cheeks, fingertips wandering through the short beard and onto the long neck, the thick rope of braided hair sliding through the fingers of his left hand. He didn't want Qui-Gon's desire; he didn't want his own-- particularly not after everything that had happened.

He reminded himself forcibly that he had permitted the Avatar to all but rape him for Qui-Gon's sake and received precious little gratitude in return. The man's very presence was a discomfort, reminding him inevitably of the coldness Qui-Gon had displayed to him throughout his life, especially after the rescue was finished. But all he could do was stand there, feeling the roughness of hand-washed tunics against his skin, his palms resting on Qui-Gon's chest. He stared into those indigo-blue eyes, hypnotized, struggling to find words or to push Qui-Gon Jinn away.

He couldn't. The touching of skin to skin had catalyzed some unexpected reaction between them. Ponderous and inexorable, it pressed forward now, disregarding will and warning. Qui-Gon's hands came up slowly, fingertips caressing the bones of his wrists, clasping his hands, thumbs sliding gently into his palms. Obi-Wan swallowed hard, shaking his head in an effort to clear it.

"Dance with me," Qui-Gon suggested very softly. "Will you, Knight Kenobi?"

Obi-Wan gave in numbly, his gaze dropping as he nodded. Shivering, he let Qui-Gon lead him toward the dance floor to take their place in a line that was just preparing to resume the aborted dance. As the conductor re-started the music, he felt the warm strong arms enclose him tenderly. It was a slow, meditative dance, warm and sensual, designed for the closeness of lovers.

He trembled as Qui-Gon drew him softly against his tall, solid body. No. No. But Force, it was impossible to resist; Qui-Gon wasn't responsible for the insane compulsion that they both felt to close the distance between them. It was the Force that twined around them and bound them together, born of their confrontation at the temple and strengthening in shadow every day since... Obi-Wan felt himself involuntarily snuggle close against the broad chest, frustration and lust and confusion cresting in him.

"We must overcome our differences and learn to work together for a time yet, Knight Kenobi," Qui-Gon murmured apologetically. "It is the will of the Force. I regret that you do not wish it," the Jedi Master's voice was sober. "I did not wish for the Force to master me either, and yet it would not let me escape." He lifted Obi-Wan's cold, tense hand and kissed his knuckle softly. "The Force has taught me that I was wrong about many things." He released Obi-Wan's hand and pressed his cheek to the Knight's hair. His lips brushed Obi-Wan's ear-- accidentally?-- and the young man shuddered with terrible longing.

"No," he whispered, shaking his head against Qui-Gon's shoulder. "It isn't a good idea for us to work together now, not as we are. We should return to Coruscant immediately and consult the mind-healers..." his words were in vain. He could not release Qui-Gon and his body would not listen as he demanded that it ignore their proximity; his penis urgently firmed against his thigh when Qui-Gon pulled him still closer.

"Obi-Wan..." Qui-Gon sighed huskily into his ear, nuzzling the rough beard against him lightly, and the young Jedi shivered again, an irresistible, bone-deep tremor. Their closeness was driving him slowly insane; the neglected, denied bond between them had developed an iron will all its own and he was helpless to resist it.

"I have wronged you so often. Forgive me." Jinn's voice trailed off into a low, anguished groan. "How I need you..." his words were a broken gasp. He tugged Obi-Wan out of the mass of dancing couples and led him up the wide stair, certainly not in the direction of the nursery or the Knight's solitary pallet in the transport. No, Qui-Gon was leading him toward the room they had once shared, the room Qui-Gon now occupied alone.

This was madness. His entire being burned simultaneously with fear, reluctance, and overwhelming need. The Force-binding between himself and Qui-Gon acted on Obi-Wan like an irresistible aphrodisiac, utterly disregarding his attempts to control it. The young Jedi Knight obeyed Jinn's guiding arm in a daze, struggling against the Force that bound them, trying frantically to center himself and failing in desperation.

As Qui-Gon paused to unlock his door, Obi-Wan managed to regain sufficient self-control to clutch at a last, fading hope. Unable to master himself, he buried his head in the tall Jedi's shoulder again, his entire body tense and trembling. "You can take me if you will," his voice quavered, almost inaudible. "I cannot stop you, cannot stop myself. But I do not like you, Qui-Gon Jinn. I do not trust you, and I do not wish to be made your lover."

Broad hands stilled on his back and he felt Qui-Gon's breath catch painfully in his chest. He was held close for a long moment, and then the tall Jedi released him, taking a half-step back. The deep-set eyes were shadowed and Qui-Gon visibly struggled with his composure in the face of the blunt rejection. Obi-Wan could understand why; the separation hurt dreadfully and he ached to close the gap again, but he held himself rigidly still, waiting in agony to see what Qui-Gon would say and do.

"I am sorry." The Jedi Master's voice was hoarse with pain. He reached to the coded lock, shaking fingers working the keys. "I had not meant for this to happen..." Qui-Gon shivered and took a step back as Obi-Wan involuntarily swayed toward him. He reached to push Obi-Wan away with an agonized twitch of his muscles. "Perhaps we should consult separately with Yoda regarding observations he has made of this... phenomenon... that is affecting us." The door slid open and he lunged inside as though forcing himself to enter fire.

"Yes," Obi-Wan breathed, slumping against the wall for balance. He held himself there, poised on a razor's edge between relief and anguish. It was all that he could do to continue fighting his body, which wanted to pursue Jinn inside, wanted to push the handsome Jedi Master to his back on the wide bed they had once shared and cover him-- . He gulped, shoving that image away with all his strength before he could topple through the doorway to join the other man. "I think that would be wise," he breathed, his voice cracking with strain.

"Good night," Qui-Gon whispered, and with a clumsy jerk he palmed the door shut between them. Obi-Wan hesitated, wavering indecisively before he took a slow step away. The air felt almost like clinging stone around his body, but he forced himself to take another step and yet another, until he was trotting down the hall toward the nursery and his waiting Master.

When he arrived Yoda was gazing alertly at the door, and as Obi-Wan entered he felt his Master's psychic shields engulf him mercifully, cutting him off from the remnants of the bond's compulsion. "Thank you," Obi-Wan managed to whisper, mindful of the sleeping children, lifting a shaking hand to wipe perspiration from his brow.

"Release your fear," Yoda ordered sternly. "To the Dark Side it will lead you. Kneel, Obi-Wan." He stepped forward as the young Knight obeyed, trembling. "Qui-Gon is clumsy," Yoda sighed. "Impulsive and awkward. But he means well." His hands touched either side of his former padawan's face. "Begin the release meditation."

The Knight obeyed, trying to draw his jangling emotions together. Yoda soothed him, thumbs stroking gently at his temples, injecting calming tendrils of peace into his mind. "Rise above," Yoda murmured, approving. "Calm. Your fear is a mist, a fog that obscures the Force. Let it sink beneath you. Good." Yoda's voice lulled him, soothing him, helping him to center himself in peace. "Feel it recede from you. Feel the Force replace it. Yes." Yoda paused as Obi-Wan centered. "Now extend the Force... disperse the fear. Like a breeze dispelling the mist." Yoda's chin tipped with satisfaction, his eyes sliding shut. "Now. Tell me, Obi-Wan. What remains?"

Obi-Wan floated in the peace of the Force, free of the pressure of the bond that tied him to Qui-Gon, safe and protected amidst the aura of his old master.

"I distrust Qui-Gon because the rules of interacting with him are never the same," Obi-Wan mused. "He changes them to protect himself. Now it seems that all the rules have changed again, and I do not know where I stand. I believe that if I renew my efforts to find a place to stand in relation to him, he will only change them again. The closer I let myself stand to him, the worse I will be hurt when he changes."

"Mmmm." Yoda nodded. "Much fear has Qui-Gon, also. Perhaps the same fears apply to him, hmm?"

Obi-Wan blinked, considering. "Perhaps." He focused on his mentor's face as Yoda's eyes also opened. "Do you think he is looking for a place to make a stand, Master?"

"Qui-Gon has long despaired of finding firm ground on which to stand," Yoda explained softly. "Failure haunts him, and he flees from it. Years ago he placed all his faith in Xanatos, who betrayed him and turned." Yoda hesitated, shaking his head sorrowfully. "Perhaps one day someone will be strong enough to stop his running, make him face his fear and overcome it. When he learns that all faith and trust is not folly, then he will know where he may stand firm. He will not run again after that, I think."

Obi-Wan hesitated. "You think I am the one who is meant to reach him, don't you."

"Difficult to tell." Yoda's eyes were soft with compassion, and he touched Obi-Wan's hair gently where the padawan braid had once hung. "Do not listen to your fears, Obi-Wan, or follow Qui-Gon's path you will. Close yourself away, and you will grow cold, untrusting, and bitter. Open your heart and the Force will guide you."

Obi-Wan rose, glancing unconsciously over his shoulder in the direction of Qui-Gon's rooms. "I promise that I will do my best to give Qui-Gon another chance, Master, but I cannot begin by becoming his lover. Trust must come first." He met Yoda's eyes earnestly, imploring him to understand.

Yoda nodded with disappointed agreement, his ear-tips drooping slightly. "Unfortunate it is that dispersing the Avatar hastened the formation of the pair-bond between you. Too early it is for that. Neither of you are ready." He sighed and turned his back, moving to the side of a stirring child and stroking her brow, easing her rest.

"Pair-bond?" Obi-Wan repeated, dismayed. "Hastened? Then it existed before..." he trailed to a halt, struggling to incorporate the new information.

Yoda looked back at him, faintly nodding a solemn confirmation. "Bonded you have been to Qui-Gon Jinn since Bandomeer, Obi-Wan, though the bond lay silent between you for many years. A difficult path lies before you, young one." He tilted his head up to gaze at the knight. "Remember your promise."

Yoda came to Qui-Gon's room before dawn, the hooded figure of Obi-Wan at his heels. Qui-Gon bade them enter, looking nervously at Kenobi, sensing the diminished resonance between them. Obi-Wan was shielding from him with new intensity, his mind clamped tight-shut with a level of control that a Master might have envied.

By contrast, Yoda was intently focused on Qui-Gon, wearing a no-nonsense expression, his energies directed outward. Qui-Gon winced slightly, recognizing his old Master's mood. When he was thus, it was best to listen and agree. When such a mood struck him, Yoda could be as implacable as the forward march of time.

"A bond there is," the Councilor stated without preamble. "A pair-bond, growing between you. Severed it might yet be, by healers at the temple." The small Master glanced at Obi-Wan, who accepted the words without the faintest flicker of surprise, then returned his attention to Qui-Gon. "Determined, we have, that Obi-Wan opened the connection by drawing your mind to his as he worked to help you escape the Avatar. It is responsible for his success and your return."

Qui-Gon darted a swift glance at Obi-Wan to gauge his reaction, but the younger man stood impassive. Of course he'd already discussed this with Yoda, this knowledge was not new to him. He returned his attention to their master's words.

"If you so wish, you may be able to resist completing the bond for a time, using concentration and control," Yoda continued, moving his gaze between them for a second time. "Deny it, reject it, and it will continue between you in its current state, unless circumstances trigger its completion. Once you have accepted the bond, then it will be harder to deny, harder to break. Perhaps impossible."

"Such circumstances..." Qui-Gon hesitated. "They include intimate physical contact." It was not a question.

"Yes." Yoda confirmed with a curt nod. "Any physical contact has the potential to stir the bond, as you have discovered." His ear flicked back unconsciously toward Obi-Wan, the source of his information, and Yoda looked thoughtfully up at Qui-Gon. "You will not be able to prevent its completion if sexual intimacy occurs between you, I think. Pair-bond, by nature, requires that connection for completion. You will continue to experience pressure to consummate it." He was matter-of-fact and unembarrassed by his words, but Qui-Gon detected a flicker of discomfort from Obi-Wan, the first perceptible crease in the Knight's near-perfect shields. He tucked his hands into his own tunic-sleeves defensively, half-turning to face the window, where the horizon had begun to brighten with the coming dawn.

"A pair-bond." Qui-Gon murmured the words slowly. It was even more serious than he had thought, though last night's events had increased his suspicions. Such things typically only formed in cases where mutual love existed between the bonded individuals. He cast a cautious glance at Obi-Wan, who did not meet it, his eyes hidden behind the overhanging lip of his hood. He was faintly aware that the Avatar had plumbed the depths of Obi-Wan's thoughts and emotions when he held the Knight imprisoned in the stone and that he would be able to research this new possibility there. Perhaps it was time to reconsider his decision to hold himself aloof from the Avatar's memories and from those of his own that intersected them.

In rejecting those memories he had been wary of re-invoking the entity and had hoped to avoid further violation of Kenobi's privacy. But love? Could Kenobi love him, as well? He realized suddenly that his desire to examine Kenobi's possible feelings was an instinctive tactic designed to evade his own. He was definitely ready to offer his respect to the young Knight, and last night made it clear that the incipient bond might force him to offer his body, as well. But to reveal his newly-discovered love? His fingers tensed around his forearms. Not yet. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

The torrent of thoughts had taken only an instant. "Pair-bond," Yoda confirmed, lifting his chin, ears tilting downward in disapproval of the dismay in Qui-Gon's voice.

Qui-Gon sighed. There was no need to ask whether Knight Kenobi wished to make the attempt to deny the pair-bond; his incredible shields were proof enough of his intentions. And Qui-Gon himself, in spite of his new resolve to overcome the bitterness that had isolated him, had no real desire to commit to a life-mate. He built up his own shields carefully, easing them into place between himself and Obi-Wan and layering them thick, feeling the intensity of the half-formed bond for the first time through the magnitude of its absence. He felt hollow. His sense of Kenobi was reduced to awareness of whereabouts and little more.

Yoda glanced between them for a third time, features impassive, and thumped his stick on the thick carpet decisively. "Waste time you do not," he commented dryly. "Good. We will now leave Torehir. Long past time to attend to Juyoren."

Qui-Gon fell in behind Yoda, shouldering his pack as they left the room.

Both human Jedi were deeply shrouded in hood and cloak when they made their way to their transport, walking slowly to accommodate Yoda's pace, one on either side of him. The children preceded them toward the ship in two disorderly lines. Yoda maintained his leisurely demeanor, refusing to hurry. Qui-Gon could not help but notice that Obi-Wan had mastered the art of matching Yoda's pace without looking uncomfortable, just as he had been forced to do so many years ago.

The ancient Councilor wore his customary shabby tunic and well-worn robe, hood lying on his small shoulders. As senior Jedi in the party, he accepted the ritual farewells with grace and dignity. Livarin knelt to catch his hands in her own, placing polite kisses on either of his wrinkled cheeks. Torvan did the same for Obi-Wan, who shifted the baby he held to his left arm and accepted the ritual with placidity similar to Yoda's despite Qui-Gon's eyes on him.

Qui-Gon lingered unobtrusively behind his comrades and kept an eye on the children, made uncomfortably aware of his disgraced status when the only farewell offered him consisted of Livarin catching his eyes and bowing slightly. He inclined his head politely before Torvan nonetheless, helping Obi-Wan and Yoda shepherd their chattering escort of children up the ramp into the ship.

The youngsters were mostly eager and unafraid, a tribute to Obi-Wan's expert care. He did not envy Yoda the solitary task of their care for the week it would take him to travel to Coruscant.

He and Yoda began the work of settling the children into the sleeping area while Obi-Wan helped their pilot prepare the ship for takeoff. The Councilor distracted the children from their fears when the ship's engines began to rumble and continued as the g-forces fluctuated slightly while Obi-Wan took the helm eased them from the planet's gravity well. Qui-Gon busied himself spreading extra blankets on the small bunks. They would be needed; already the chill of space had begun to bleed some of the warmth from the ship's interior.

Soon the temperature would stabilize, but it would still be chilly aboard ship; energy that might have been used for comfort was routinely conserved during transit in order to reduce the drain on the hyperdrive generator. Too often aboard Jedi ships such conservation proved wise when unexpected attack or other troubles called for every ounce of power a vessel could muster.

Finishing the last cot, he moved to join the knot of nervous candidates and extended his own power in a subtle calming influence over them. The jump to hyperspace would happen soon and the children must be readied. He lifted the sleeping baby from where it lay next to Yoda on the deck and cradled it in one arm, tucking its blankets around it more tightly to help keep it warm. He lowered his shields to join Yoda in guiding the children through the meditation.

"Concentrate and feel the Force," Yoda's gravely voice broadcast perfect serenity and soothing as he led the soon-to-be-initiates through a preliminary focusing exercise. Qui-Gon joined his will to Yoda's, sending ripples of serenity to smooth any troubled emotions from the small minds that surrounded them.

"You are a seed filled with the force of life," Qui-Gon murmured, and Yoda subsided, listening with ears pricked alertly forward as Qui-Gon began weaving subtle threads of Livan mysticism into the lesson, adapting it slightly to invoke the children's familiarity. "Feel the peace of the soil around you. You are one with the soil. Feel the warmth of the sun's rays, pressing down on you." That warmth was the energy of the Force, generated by himself and Yoda, lapping the children in comfort.

"Center in the soil," Yoda captured the thread of the meditation. "Put forth roots. Anchor." His voice dropped to a slow, lulling burr.

Qui-Gon extended a tendril of thought toward Obi-Wan, felt the young man reaching for the hyperdrive controls as the ship's computer fed the coordinates into the drive system.

"You swell with life," Qui-Gon murmured. "Reach for light. Your leaves press upward, toward the sun." The ship jolted slightly as the hyperdrive engaged and the children felt the pressure of acceleration just as they envisioned their own burst of growth. Some gasps broke forth, but the little faces were rapt, focused on their vision.

"Open, you do, to the sunlight." Yoda focused the Unifying Force more tightly as the Living Force receded slightly, and Qui-Gon followed in unison, cushioning them from the shock of being abruptly distanced from the life-force of the only home they knew. "Feel its rays surround you."

Qui-Gon opened his eyes. The crucial phase of the meditation had passed and Yoda had matters well-in-hand. He surveyed the children, gauging their individual reactions to the Force. Taritha sighed, her face ecstatic, and Qui-Gon smiled a bit, watching her. Her midichlorian count had been particularly high. She reached out to the Torehiri boy next to her and caught his hand, and his face also transmuted with wonder as he felt what she did. Qui-Gon covered his smile by stroking his mustache with his hand, amused and pleased. Perhaps this was a future pair-bond in the making.

The thought sobered him as soon as it registered, making him remember the early morning conversation he and Obi-Wan had shared with his old Master. Obi-Wan was leaving the cockpit; he could sense the young man's presence strongly in spite of the Knight's shields; Qui-Gon's own had been dropped for the shared meditation exercise, heightening his sensitivity to Obi-Wan once more. He tested the bond experimentally, unsurprised to find that the intensity of the energies that sought their union had decreased only slightly when they departed from Torehir.

Resigned to the necessity of the action, Qui-Gon resealed his shields, letting his awareness of Obi-Wan fade into the background of his consciousness. Doing so was difficult, but he accepted the necessity.

Obi-Wan sensed Qui-Gon's replaced shields easing the pressure of the bond between them and his chest expanded in a deep sigh as the tension inside his mind relaxed slightly. He let himself into his quarters, sealing the door behind him. The three Jedi would alternate between caring for the children, resting, and assisting the pilot in his minimal duties until they reached Juyoren; afterward Yoda would take up residence in the dormitory and keep watch over the children himself until they arrived on Coruscant.

He drifted toward the small porthole in the outer bulkhead, mesmerized by the distorted motion of hyperspace outside the transport. When pressed, Yoda had reluctantly suggested several soothing meditations that he might use to help slow the bonding process; this was one. He centered his consciousness in the onrushing void, surrounding himself with a spiritual vacuum, shielding Qui-Gon out of his mind and heart entirely.

No emotion or psychic resonance could penetrate the vacuum, and his shields served as eyelids, blocking out the psychic vision of Qui-Gon's presence. For the moment he was isolated, discrete in himself, a self-contained existence buffered by the sterile emptiness of space. However, as Yoda had pointed out, he was limited by this isolation. Like a transport in the wilds of hyperspace, he contained merely a finite amount of resources. He was dependent for his very existence upon the things he attempted so valiantly to shut outside himself-- no Jedi could long exist independent of contact with his fellow beings and the Force they generated.

Obi-Wan breathed shallowly, his physical body unconsciously responding to the metaphor he had created inside his mind, conserving the resources of the fragile vessel that contained his soul. He wondered if Qui-Gon found the bond's existence as onerous as he did. Probably even more so; the Jedi Master had lost no time in erecting his own shields after Yoda had stated the possibility that the bond might be denied and severed. Probably his apology, kind though it had been, was born of guilt and nothing more. Intended to assuage Qui-Gon's conscience rather than soothe Obi-Wan's wounds, it meant relatively little.

As for the desire they had experienced, it seemed similarly meaningless. There was little possibility of love between them, only the inclination of the unwanted bond strengthening the solely physical lust that had manifested between them before.

He would have to come to terms with this bond, discover how to cope with its existence until it could be removed. His own actions had resulted in the current state of affairs between himself and Qui-Gon and his guilt and regret were inescapable. As was the responsibility that Yoda had laid upon his shoulders.

If only they could return to Coruscant and see to the soul-healing now, before the pressure to consummate the bond increased beyond their ability to resist, or if they had leisure to attempt to build a friendship without the demands of a mission upon them! If he was not the one who could reach Qui-Gon as Yoda had hoped... if this bond between them was the mistake that it seemed...

He would hate to be tied to Qui-Gon in misery for the rest of his life, but the Juyoren mission was critical. Deprived of his lightsaber, a Jedi lost an essential tool necessary for the effective completion of both offensive and defensive maneuvers. His own lightsaber contained a pair of fine Juyoren sapphires, and he had only a single set of spares in his belt pouch. He was a Jedi, and was bound to set personal concerns aside in favor of the welfare of others. He accepted the necessity of moving to get to the bottom of the situation as rapidly as possible, and he and Qui-Gon were close at hand. Logic dictated that they move immediately to serve the needs of the Order.

The door whisked open behind him and he turned to face Yoda's inquisitive gaze. "Plans must be made for the Juyoren operation."

"I'm coming, Master." Obi-Wan nodded politely and followed Yoda into the dormitory, grateful that his Master had spared him time for a few minutes' contemplation. The upcoming discussion was bound to be unpleasant; Obi-Wan had done some independent research in his spare moments while he and Qui-Gon gathered the new initiates, and he already had his own ideas regarding the best way to approach Juyoren.

Yoda settled himself on the floor, folding his short legs, and gazed at Obi-Wan expectantly. Qui-Gon seated himself as well, but Obi-Wan chose to remain standing. With a glance at the children playing happily in the far end of the dormitory, he began.

"I've considered the data on the Juyoren installation," Obi-Wan did not bother to pausing for courteous formalities. "I think that the most logical and efficient approach possible for this mission would be for me to go undercover and infiltrate the operation from within the ranks of the mining employees." His voice rang with confidence as he regarded Yoda, who returned his gaze serenely, offering no judgment.

Turning his head, the young Jedi regarded Qui-Gon implacably, summarizing his points tersely. "Master Bretor knows nothing of me; he left the Temple when I was still a small child. Your preference for operating independently is well-established. We should take advantage of his ignorance and his assumptions." The Knight stood firm in spite of the bruised, weary shadows beneath his eyes. "We could both go in as representatives of the Jedi and operate from the top down, but I don't think that's likely to work. At least, not quickly."

He began to pace, nervous energy exhibiting itself in compulsive movement. "The true problem is clearly hard to discover, or perhaps it is being concealed from the Jedi. Master Bretor has spent years at the top of the organization, and apparently he does not yet know what the trouble is."

The young man cast Qui-Gon a challenging look. "Or perhaps he is at the heart of it, in which case having an ally concealed within the organization could prove a valuable asset to you as you investigate openly. Besides, what is there to do in working with Bretor that one of us cannot do as effectively as two? I will examine the interior of the organization clandestinely and report any significant knowledge that I gain back to you." Obi-Wan stopped pacing and bent forward toward Qui-Gon, his palms flat on the tabletop.

Yoda eyed Qui-Gon appraisingly, waiting for his opinion, and the Jedi Master hesitated. Something was tickling at his intuition; he did not entirely like this plan even though it made logical sense. His instincts were aroused and his sense of the future felt unsettled. Reading the future was far from his greatest skill, but when his sense of impending trouble registered, it was rarely wrong. "It seems reasonable enough, but I don't like it," he shook his head, not quite looking into Obi-Wan's face. "My feelings say that this is a dangerous plan."

Obi-Wan straightened, exhaling an irritated puff of breath. Both Jedi looked to Yoda, whose ability to read future possibilities surpassed either of theirs. He merely looked inscrutably between them, choosing to withhold his thoughts on the matter. Qui-Gon sighed explosively in turn.

Obi-Wan tried to release his irritation with his seniors into the Force. "Do you have a better idea?" He folded his arms, his tone insolent and challenging.

Qui-Gon sighed again. Of course the young Knight would have to take his disagreement personally. "It is not that yours is a bad idea," Qui-Gon rounded on Obi-Wan in frustration. Two sets of calm eyes regarded his uncharacteristic annoyance with placid judgment, Kenobi's apparent serenity completely at odds with the tone of his words from a moment before.

"Then you question my competence to execute my part of it." Obi-Wan had regained control of his voice, but in doing so lost control of his eyes; they glittered with a momentary flicker of anger.

"No." Qui-Gon disagreed wearily. "I don't mean to question your competence at all." He shook his head, exasperated, wishing in vain that he had chosen to be more cooperative the first time they attempted to plan a mission together. Obi-Wan had warned him then that such unreasoning obstinacy could earn him enemies, and in a way, it had. He was his own worst enemy now; in Obi-Wan's eyes he was only repeating an established pattern of being deliberately difficult.

Obi-Wan stared at him intently for a long moment, then decided to resume, pulling out a data reader and punching up a small stellar map. "If we detour slightly, you can leave me on Prinasi without losing more than a half-day's travel time. I'll arrange to be hired at the recruitment facility there, and join you on Juyoren within a matter of a few days at most."

"There is yet time to review our options," Qui-Gon stalled. "It would not be wise to ignore them without proper consideration. Perhaps I may present a safer alternative."

Obi-Wan settled to the deck at last, folding his legs beneath him. "Be my guest, Master Jinn," he spoke politely, but Qui-Gon could see the resolve in his eyes and knew that his efforts would prove in vain.

Qui-Gon was right. By the time their transport was within two days of planet-fall on Juyoren, the Jedi were still arguing over various plans for approaching the mission.

Qui-Gon removed his cloak and lay on his bunk, tucking the blankets over his body. They must decide in the morning. The past few days had been long and trying for both himself and Obi-Wan they struggled to sublimate the attraction that festered between them and simultaneously hammer out the basis for a working relationship while engaging in a serious disagreement over mission procedures. As a strategist, the young Knight was headstrong, confident, and persuasive. Unfortunately, Qui-Gon shared the same qualities. For the past week they had alternated between bitter debate and half-unwilling flirtation, each man constantly distracted by the other's sensual presence and power.

To Obi-Wan's credit, he had not consciously attempted to use seduction to obtain Qui-Gon's agreement. However, oddly enough it was when he was at his most fiery and obstinate that Qui-Gon found him most irresistible. From observing the subtle cues of dilated pupils and quickened breathing, he could guess that Obi-Wan's experience was much the same. The mingling of duty, reluctance, and antagonistic attraction made for a volatile partnership.

The debate had been frustrating as well as fascinating, but now one of them must bend. A decision on their course of action must be made immediately before they passed Prinasi, where the first stage of Obi-Wan's plan must be implemented if it were chosen. If anything, Obi-Wan was more determined that his plan would be selected than he had been at first.

Qui-Gon sighed and turned to his side to seek sleep. Tomorrow would be time enough to decide whether or not he would bend.

In his own cabin, Obi-Wan's thoughts were even more troubled than Qui-Gon's. Even though he had chosen to bow to necessity and duty in accepting the Juyoren mission, there were still many things Obi-Wan must come to terms with, Yoda's revelations and his own fears foremost among them. He shifted a little uncomfortably in his cloak, which had been washed since Qui-Gon wore it, but which still seemed to hold the aura of the other man's presence in its folds.

His mind relentlessly conjured the vision and sensation of Qui-Gon's wide, heavy hands gliding over him. Qui-Gon's muscular arms encircling him. The hard heat of the man's big body next to his own. The sweetness of his lips brushing Obi-Wan's ear. The young Jedi shuddered violently, a mixture of longing and loathing. He wanted Qui-Gon so badly, wanted to give in to the wild flare of attraction they'd endured together. He craved it very nearly as much as he feared it.

However, now that the incipient pair-bond had been revealed, Obi-Wan understood that the poor consolation of casual sex must not be permitted to occur between them. It would tie Qui-Gon to him permanently in mutual distrust. A more miserable fate he could not imagine than pair-bonding to someone who cared so little for him.

Perhaps he was still listening to fears, but the Avatar had told him things that Yoda did not know. Yoda believed in Qui-Gon's heart, but Obi-Wan's own experiences had taught him differently. If he gave in to their mutual lust before trust and respect could form between them, then Qui-Gon would indeed mount him and use him like he was an arrogant pup, just as the Force-entity had done.

Obi-Wan shivered at the thought, a mingling of fear and guilty pleasure. After they had jumped to hyperspace and were free of Torehir, the barriers of both Qui-Gon's and his own shields allowed him to ease his control and permitted himself to indulge in the memories he'd been evading ever since the night they were made. In retrospect they were terrible... but they had not always been so dreadful. At least, they had not been when they were made, not during the few brief, confused instants immediately after the Avatar had gone.

Obi-Wan clasped his cloak tightly around his shoulders, feeling alone and depressed. Initially, it had seemed so wonderful...

His mission accomplished, Obi-Wan stared up into Qui-Gon's dazed eyes, feeling the residue of their pleasure cresting and fading between them as the pulsing of the older man's orgasm subsided to stillness inside him. Qui-Gon's eyes remained clear, his mind strongly present. Obi-Wan joyfully realized that the Avatar was gone and that Qui-Gon's own spirit had firmly regained its control of his body. It was Qui-Gon Jinn who had come to orgasm inside him, not the Avatar...

At that moment, the knowledge had meant a great deal to Obi-Wan.

The young Knight stared moodily into the blurred streaks that were the nearest stars. In the aftermath of the experience he had still been aroused even though he was shaken and somewhat embarrassed by their intimacy. He had been hopeful and pleased that he had at last performed a service that Qui-Gon could not fault him for.

In his relief at his success, Obi-Wan had not anticipated the Jedi Master's cruelty and therefore he had been all too vulnerable when it came. Qui-Gon's harsh words that night had come as a painful revelation: the Avatar had spoken the truth to him. Qui-Gon Jinn felt only contempt and lust for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

But the memory of Qui-Gon's body inside his, taking him...

Obi-Wan sank to his bunk, his trembling hand stealing between the layers of his tunics, slipping inside the waistband of his trousers. His mind understood what had happened, but his body... that was a different matter. It must be appeased, as Yoda had tactfully suggested, in order to decrease the pressure to consummate the bond.

An image rose in Obi-Wan's mind, unbidden. Qui-Gon Jinn's beautiful eyes only inches from his own, the man's expression dazed with the shock and passion of unexpected orgasm... his penis grew warm and firm inside the clasp of his fingers. The vacuum created by his meditation and his shields hung around him in eerie silence, choking him with lack, but the heat in his mind sparked the heat in his loins and he moaned faintly as he began to stroke his own flesh.

A guilty whisper escaped his lips on a breath of carefully-hoarded air: "Qui-Gon..."

Qui-Gon slept badly, disturbed by his sense of impending trouble and by the necessity to decide whether he would bend to Kenobi's will or refuse it. Normally he would not have considered backing down from a certainty, but over the past days he had begun to suspect that he had injured Kenobi's trust so badly that they would never be able to work together effectively if he rejected the Knight's opinion now.

He rose at last, scrubbing his palms against his beard. Threading his fingers into his hair, he rubbed his scalp wearily, trying to ease away the headache that had formed there. Perhaps it would be best after all if they separated on the mission. If he let Obi-Wan have his head the mission might well go sour, but it might be that working together to salvage it afterward could help him to regain the Knight's respect.

In any case, it was clear that Obi-Wan would not concede his points in the face of only a vague apprehension.

Qui-Gon sighed and rose, donning his tunics and shouldering into his cloak. It was time to meet for the final decision. After a week's time and with the deadline closing rapidly upon them, he was out of objections.

He met Yoda in the hall and let the Councilor precede him into Obi-Wan's room. The Knight awaited them, standing before the viewing port with the light of hyperspace bathing his expressionless features. As they entered he turned, back ramrod-straight and posture defiant, clearly prepared for a final battle.

Qui-Gon walked forward impulsively, his gaze holding Obi-Wan's. He moved close deliberately, well inside Kenobi's personal space, a faint sense of pain accompanying his satisfaction as he observed the young Knight's body tensing involuntarily, though he refused to step back. Qui-Gon gazed down into his eyes, feeling the silent void yawning deep between them, both their shields erected firmly against the undesired bond.

"We will do as you suggest," Qui-Gon searched Obi-Wan's eyes deeply for a long moment, relenting only when the younger man's composure flickered minutely. He inclined his head slowly, very slightly, into a half-mocking bow. Obi-Wan's weight shifted almost imperceptibly to his rearmost foot, preliminary to stepping back, as he instinctively recoiled against what he clearly feared would be an attempt to take a kiss. Qui-Gon let his lips curve upward, reflecting his amusement. Kenobi's jaw set with annoyance-- his eyes blazed as he realized he had succumbed to the Jedi Master's tactic and revealed his own insecurity. He squared his stance and gazed up at the taller man defiantly.

The moment broke as Yoda snorted, thumping his stick with impatience. "A triumph of the Force it will be, when you learn to work together." He lifted a censuring glare to them. "See that you do not kill one another in the process." His stern facade crumbled abruptly as he huffed with amusement and turned away, chuckling softly. He went out, heading toward the cockpit to instruct their pilot to begin course computations for the diversion to Prinasi.

Obi-Wan blinked in surprise, staring after his annoying Master, a combination of disbelief and dismay on his expressive features.

"It's a good thing we'll be rid of him soon," Qui-Gon turned his head toward the still-open door and remarked in a loud voice, letting Obi-Wan know he meant for Yoda to hear. "Else we'd be pair-bonded for certain before ever reaching Coruscant!"

The only response was an amused chuckle trickling back down the corridor, and Obi-Wan stared up at Qui-Gon with surprise. The Jedi Master's mouth quirked and he stared down into the Knight's wide gray eyes, inviting the younger man to share the joke. Obi-Wan gazed uncertainly up at him for a long moment before pulling his eyes away and gliding toward his pack, pulling out civilian clothing and beginning to ready himself for his part in the plan upon which they had finally agreed.

Qui-Gon followed him quietly. "I still sense much danger in this undertaking, Obi-Wan." He let his quiet tone and his use of the Knight's first name emphasize his warning. Obi-Wan paused, half-out of his cloak, and turned coolly, his state of dishabille making him seem oddly vulnerable. Qui-Gon did not grant him time to form a retort. "Do not refuse to turn to me due to misplaced pride. Do not let fears and anger cloud your mind and endanger you," he hesitated briefly, "as I did at the reef." He firmed his jaw and regarded Obi-Wan frankly.

The younger Jedi blinked in surprise and tilted his head slightly, considering Qui-Gon's words. "I would be deeply distressed if you came to harm," Qui-Gon spoke simply, stepping forward. His fingertips stroked the air over Obi-Wan's cheek, not quite grazing the younger man's flesh.

Obi-Wan's lashes flickered over his crystal-clear eyes, confusion plain to read on his mobile features-- confusion, then wary, half-frightened resolve. Very slowly, the young man lifted his mouth, hesitantly offering the kiss that earlier, he had thought Qui-Gon would take.

Qui-Gon did not let himself think. Instead, he permitted his fingertips to sink to Obi-Wan's cheek and brushed his lips softly against the offered mouth. Though their bodies did not touch, he could feel Obi-Wan surge passionately beneath him, so he lingered, mingling their breath, letting his tongue lightly trace the slight fullness of the younger man's lower lip. He withdrew after a long moment, and Kenobi avoided his eyes, turning away quickly.

"May the Force be with you, Obi-Wan Kenobi," he spoke, his voice rough, and left, clasping his cloak around himself.

The stopover on Prinasi and the remaining days of their journey passed uneventfully; Qui-Gon found himself tense with anticipation as their pilot negotiated the thermal currents of Juyoren's oxygen-rich atmosphere, evading a plume of ash from an active volcano. Gazing through the main viewscreen at the planetary surface, Qui-Gon mentally judged the volcano's distance from the Juyoren installation. A bit too close for comfort, perhaps twenty kilometers at most.

Yoda, his vision eclipsed, impatiently nudged at Qui-Gon's leg and the tall Jedi stepped aside, abashed by his own uncharacteristic eagerness to begin the mission. It was not as though Obi-Wan were already waiting here on Juyoren, after all. It might take days for the younger man to arrive.

"Patience," Yoda chuckled. "All things in their own time, Qui-Gon."

"Yes, Yoda." If his former master was going to needle him with open displays of amusement at his predicament, then he was no longer duty-bound to offer courteous politeness in return.

The Councilor only chuckled again, ignoring the unaccustomed familiarity. "Hail Master Bretor," he instructed their pilot.

"Hailing Juyoren Mining Corporation," the pilot tapped deftly at the console. "Senior Jedi Councilor Yoda requests direct transmission to Jedi Master Lamec Bretor."

"Transmission received. Please stand by," a neutral voice responded, the comm operator not bothering to include video transmission.

Yoda huffed and deftly jabbed the transmitter control with the tip of his stick. "No delays will I accept! Authorize us for landing and have Master Bretor meet me as we disembark." His tone was peremptory and authoritative.

"Landing authorization granted," the anonymous voice responded, tinged with nervousness now. "Master Bretor is--"

"--meeting me in five minutes," Yoda finished the sentence irascibly, then released the button. "Ignore further transmissions and proceed to the executive landing pad," he instructed their pilot. Qui-Gon watched the Sullustian stifle a smile as he reached for the retro-thruster controls and moderated their descent.

As they descended the final twenty meters, Qui-Gon watched a short, heavy figure in Jedi robes trot hastily out onto the platform and then fall into a posture of waiting. He bit back a smirk of his own as Bretor brushed irritably at his rumpled tunic and then smoothed his age-white hair and calmed himself visibly. Yoda grunted slightly at the spectacle, waiting until the ship had settled fully before turning leisurely and making his steady way down the corridor, perfectly unhurried. Qui-Gon trailed in his wake, amused by his former Master's tactics. Yoda lazily arranged his robes and then gave Qui-Gon a serene nod, and the tall Jedi Master palmed the hatch control, strolling down the incline at Yoda's side.

The fresh air swelled in his chest, infusing him with energy, its flavor touched with the slightest pungent tang of ash. He drank deeply of it, relishing the change from recycled shipboard atmosphere.

"Welcome to Juyoren, Councilor Yoda. You honor us with your presence." Lamec Bretor bowed deeply, eyes sliding past Qui-Gon so coolly he might never have seen the second Jedi. Qui-Gon was struck with a sense of deja vu, remembering how he had been slighted at the farewell on Torehir. It felt almost as though he were a padawan again, trailing in his revered master's figurative shadow.

"My companion is Master Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi Council's chosen representative to investigate productivity in this facility." Yoda's gravely voice managed an almost silken inflection, and Qui-Gon realized he was displeased by the slight.

Bretor blinked. "Ah, Master Yoda. When my communications lieutenant announced your arrival, I thought that you might stay and see to matters yourself."

"Important this mission is. The Jedi Council has placed full faith in Master Jinn. He is young and mobile as I am not. A most efficient operative is he. Well able to assist you actively for as long as your pursuit of a solution may require."

Qui-Gon watched the administrator's eyes flicker and realized that Yoda had scored a point; the administrator was not pleased by the prospect of long-term, active interference in his operation. He bowed slightly as Bretor's opaque gaze rested on him, silently blessing his old Master for having the insight to give him the open support of the Jedi Council. It looked like he would need all the authority he could get in dealing with Bretor.

"While you are here, perhaps you would care to tour the facility." Bretor included Qui-Gon in his gaze perforce, even though the words were addressed to Yoda.

"Accompany you Master Jinn will, and remain here until the problem of production is remedied." Yoda looked up inscrutably. "I go; I am needed on Coruscant. I trust the Council will not have to turn our attention here again." He locked eyes with the much-taller Jedi administrator for a long moment.

Qui-Gon hung back, observing the interaction carefully. It was rare for Yoda to be so blunt and heavy-handed in conversation; usually Mace Windu handled missions and announcements that required a harsh touch. The sly old Master was typically gentle and unassuming, but he wore the mantle of authority well when necessity dictated.

Qui-Gon suppressed a wry smile. Just as his introduction of Qui-Gon was a subtle warning for Bretor to respect Qui-Gon as a receptacle of the Council's authority, Yoda's abrupt manner in dealing with Bretor served as a tacit message to Qui-Gon. The administrator was clearly not favored by the Council; Yoda's sharp words implicitly warned of impending action against Bretor if matters did not improve.

Qui-Gon watched as Yoda acknowledged Bretor's bow and made his slow way back up the ramp, leaning slightly on his gimer stick. The administrator watched him go, face impassive, then turned to Qui-Gon.

"Master Jinn, if you would care to follow me?" His tone was acid, but Qui-Gon nodded serenely and fell into step with him.

The facility was, in effect, a large spherical ship divided into sections devoted to the storage of mining equipment, mining personnel, and a small ore refinery. The entire compound was capable of flight, large engines mounted on thick struts at eight positions around the craft. The exhaust manifolds doubled as landing claws, and the facility was connected to the mine at only one point: a central lift shaft. The dormitories, work areas, and storage rooms were narrow, roughly triangular, and utilitarian, the layers interconnected by the central lift and a spiral staircase that circled it.

His questions were answered curtly and the tour proceeded rather more quickly than Qui-Gon suspected it would have done if Yoda had chosen to remain. It did not appear that Bretor intended to include the mines in his itinerary. Qui-Gon had just determined to mention the omission when Bretor spoke again. "I've just hired a new contingent of miners to speed production," his courtesy held a note of sarcasm beneath the false politeness, sharp and dangerous like a concealed vibro-shiv. "Their arrival should bring production up swiftly and end the Council's concerns."

Qui-Gon nodded impassively, folding his arms and ignoring Bretor's hostility. They stepped into the lift tube and were whisked to platform level, where a boxy personnel transport was settling and extruding its ramp. A variety of beings all wearing similar tan coveralls began to file out of the confines of the ship. Wookiees, Gamorreans... most were from large, burly races and Qui-Gon's brow pinched slightly as he began to wonder if the slender-bodied Obi-Wan had yet managed to be hired. He would have had to move incredibly fast to be included in this contingent, but there was a remote possibility.

He would have liked to lower his shields and reach for Obi-Wan, but was constrained by the possibility that Bretor would have sensed his probe. He did not have long to wonder, however. His worries were soothed as Obi-Wan emerged from the depths of the personnel carrier, looking childlike and out-of-place amidst the bulky bodies that surrounded him. The tight-fitting tan coveralls looked tailored on him, almost elegant.

"The runt of the litter?" Qui-Gon forced a note of amusement into his tone and inclined his head toward the young human, inviting Bretor to observe Obi-Wan more closely. For Qui-Gon to call attention to his oddity should help to draw suspicion away from their connection and deter suspicion from Obi-Wan's cover.

"I interviewed and hired him personally via holographic transmission. Tamrin's work profile was well-suited for administrative personnel, and he's a skilled mechanic," Bretor snapped defensively. "Not everything can be accomplished by dimwitted hulks."

Qui-Gon's brows rose thoughtfully as he pondered Bretor's unflattering description of the majority of his work force and set his provincial attitude aside for future consideration. "I see." He kept his voice neutral, noting several miners resting hostile eyes on Bretor. "Apparently some of these 'dimwitted hulks' speak Standard." He let sarcasm touch his voice.

Bretor shrugged indifferently. "They all understand it. It was a recruiting requirement. The mines are dangerous, there's no leeway for pausing to let translators render emergency instructions." He punched at a data reader, calling up the new duty roster.

"Akalif, enroll the new miners," he instructed, and an assistant scuttled over and began calling numeric designations and conducting retinal scans for computer comparison. Obi-Wan joined in the line of waiting miners, standing proudly not far from Qui-Gon and Bretor.

Now that Kenobi was under his eyes, Qui-Gon could feel the bond pulse plaintively between them, convulsing weakly against the restraints they maintained over it. It felt good to know where Obi-Wan was again, and to have him near. Rashly, he allowed himself a single glance in the young man's direction, then regretted it as he realized his interest had been observed.

"Tamrin's a pretty one, isn't he. If you're worrying that the other miners will rough him up, you needn't." Bretor's entire manner changed. His voice dropped and grew sly as he drew close to Qui-Gon, an air of unpleasant confidentiality surrounding him. "He'll share dormitory accommodations with the other mid-level administrators until he makes better arrangements for himself." Bretor's oily tone left no doubt of his meaning. Qui-Gon maintained an air of polite, disinterested reserve, ignoring the potential insinuation. Inwardly he struggled to quash his anger at Bretor and to set aside worry that the fleshy aging administrator might decide to offer Obi-Wan those better arrangements himself.

"After you have finished here, I would like to tour the mines." Qui-Gon could not keep a touch of frost out of his tones.

"But of course." The oily note in Bretor's voice subsided but did not vanish, and Qui-Gon felt himself pull inward, retreating from interaction with the man. He moved to the edge of the platform, gazing across the broken hills that separated the compound from the rising volcano. The facility was tightly contained and small; thus he had overestimated the distance while descending from orbit. At most the volcano was seven kilometers from the installation. A pall of ash hung heavily over its throat, drifting upward lazily until it was smudged back by the wind. Qui-Gon suspected that breathing could become very unpleasant if the direction of the wind shifted. Moreover, they were hardly out of danger from possible eruptions.

"We monitor the volcano carefully," Bretor stepped up to stand at his shoulder. His earlier hostility had moderated somewhat, and he seemed inclined to volunteer information now with good grace. "Crystals tend to form in the vicinity of volcanic fault lines, so we must often settle closer to active cones than we like."

"Why not select inactive cones?" Qui-Gon tried to keep his tone non-judgmental.

"There is no such thing." Bretor scoffed. "Perhaps our mining activity disturbs the underground pressure balances." He shrugged elaborately. "When we located here, indications showed that this cone had been inactive for over ten thousand sun cycles. You see it now. You should look at it after dark. That mountain may look gray and innocent now, but when the sun has set, you can see the hot spots glowing all over it..." he shook his head. "We won't be staying here much longer, I think."

"Aren't we in danger of pyroclastic flow here?"

Bretor shook his head. "There are a series of natural ridges and valleys lying parallel between us and the volcano. I think it highly unlikely that any significant pyroclastic flow activity would reach the compound. Even if it did, the facility is heat-shielded and the likelihood is strong that nearly everyone would be safe inside."

In the past few moments Qui-Gon had begun developing a mild respect for Bretor's knowledge of geology, but the administrator's casual attitude as he spoke of the possibility of deaths sent a cold feeling shivering down the Jedi Master's spine. "Nearly everyone?"

"We send out a few canary scout teams regularly to check thermal vents and take measurements on the mountain in order to double-check or repair our instrumentation." Bretor shrugged. "They receive extra pay for undertaking hazardous duty."

Canaries? The cold feeling was back, and worse. "You mean you view them as expendable." Qui-Gon spoke bluntly.

Bretor stepped back, face going cold again. "They aren't slaves and they are well-paid for the risks they take; the risks are necessary."

"Why don't you send droids?" Qui-Gon inquired tightly.

"The volcanoes we deal with, the ones that produce crystals of adequate quality to generate and focus energy, also contain high concentrations of iron." Bretor had an answer for everything, it seemed. "Magnetically charged iron deposits on or just below the surface play hell with droids."

"You don't have any fliers," Qui-Gon observed. "Must the scout teams travel on foot to make their runs?"

"Fliers are more dangerous than foot travel in the thermal currents surrounding an active volcano." Bretor's voice sharpened still further. "With all due respect to the Council, Master Jinn, I know my job very well and I resent your being sent to tell me how to perform it."

"Do you use canary teams in the mines, as well, to test for dangerous heat and gases?" Qui-Gon met Bretor's eyes without backing down.

"We use state of the art sensors and in particularly susceptible areas we maintain actual birds as a backup. Despite your implications, the lives of my miners are important to me, Master Jinn." Bretor's eyes flared with something very close to anger.

"Good." Qui-Gon was grudging but sincere; he would hate to think of Obi-Wan's predicament if the reverse were true.

Akalif finished his task of verifying and assigning the miners and led them off the platform. Wordless, Bretor gestured to Qui-Gon and led him in on the heels of the descending miners. When they disembarked from the lift, Qui-Gon and Bretor remained, descending beneath the surface.

"I've been reluctant to abandon this particular installation because not only is there an abundance of suitable crystals here, but there are also veins of porous lava that have been partly eroded away by subterranean rivers. We have to do relatively little actual excavating here." Bretor offered the information in clipped, reluctant tones. "The natural caverns are extensive, though given the pressure to produce more crystals, we haven't bothered to map them all." The lift doors opened, revealing a wide, low cavern eerily lit by a sparse assortment of glow-bulbs. As they stepped out Qui-Gon automatically noticed the elevated temperature, unusually high for a subterranean area.

"Excavation in volcanic areas is risky. There are a lot of toxic and unbreathable gases that creep in. All my miners carry breathers," Bretor handed one to Qui-Gon. "That's not a fail-safe precaution, however. Careless digging can inadvertently break through to chambers containing superheated steam or weaken a retaining wall holding back magma flow. We've maximized our use of the natural caverns accordingly; they're safer."

A large, heaped barrow of stone trundled heavily past on a set of steel tracks. "Part of our daily take of ore," Bretor gestured. "There might be one facet-quality lightsaber crystal in that load after it's refined, two if we're lucky. We generally excavate about twenty loads per day. Right now, it's more like ten. We're taking extra precautions to avoid stirring up the volcano any further, and to avoid risking men." He glanced at Qui-Gon sarcastically. "The unsuitable crystals are sold off for lower-grade energy applications, and go a long way toward financing the Order."

Qui-Gon nodded, reaching and taking a small chunk of stone in his hand. "They have a strong Force-resonance," he murmured. "But the crystal inside this stone... it has shattered, I think. Do you use blasting in the mines?"

"A lot of them are cracked." Bretor nodded brusquely. "We don't blast, but volcanic forces aren't gentle."

"Do you think using Force-sensitives as miners might help you concentrate on productive ore?" Qui-Gon suggested.

"Not many Force-sensitives can lift a chunk of stone and see the crystal inside it, as you do," Bretor responded dryly.

"I'd like to go further down and view the excavations," Qui-Gon requested.

"They are a long way down, and we haven't installed lifts." Bretor responded brusquely. "Your pardon, Master Jinn, but your unexpected arrival has interrupted me in the midst of important hiring interviews. If production is to be quickened, I must have more men. Would it trouble you to accept an alternative guide?" His words were polite but his bearing was still arrogant. Nevertheless Qui-Gon shrugged slightly, giving acquiescence, and Bretor gestured to a subordinate. "Eefsha will take you down to the excavation levels if you still wish to go."

"I do," Qui-Gon replied with equanimity.

"Then I will meet you for evening meal." Master Bretor strode away.

"I'm Qui-Gon Jinn," Qui-Gon introduced himself wryly to the burly wookiee Bretor had indicated, conscious of the administrator's discourtesy to both himself and his wookiee guide. Seeming accustomed to such slights, Eefsha inclined his head with a low, not-unfriendly rumble, gesturing toward a knot of miners who stood almost out of sight against the far wall of the cavern. Qui-Gon nodded politely and followed him.

His extended and arduous journey through the mines revealed little of use: the workers seemed diligent. Conditions, though hotter the further he descended, appeared adequate and the safeguards he inspected seemed reasonably thorough. Sensors constantly tested temperature, pressure gradients, and air quality; evacuation routes were clearly marked in luminous paint. Dangerous areas were carefully marked and barricaded.

Weary from matching Eefsha's long, rambling stride, Qui-Gon was glad when they returned to the uppermost chamber and he could enter the lift and let it carry him up into the main complex. After consulting a public computer terminal, his guide led him to a featureless door on one of the upper levels. Eefsha rumbled a few sentences. Qui-Gon's rudimentary training in the wookiee language permitted him to hazard a translation; Eefsha had brought him to his quarters, where he could freshen before dining. He bowed, essaying a few polite words of thanks in the Kashyyk tongue, knowing his accent was abominable. Eefsha barked pleasant laughter and returned the courtesy before departing.

Looking forward to food and rest, he set aside his soiled robes for cleaning, bathed quickly, and dressed in fresh clothes, making a mental note to ask for a mining coverall of his own before descending again to view the excavations.

When he exited the 'fresher, the data terminal on his desk was flashing a message; activating it he found a curt invitation to supper and a highlighted map indicating his route to the dining area. Quickly he memorized it and set out, finding his way with little trouble.

Bretor did exceptionally well by himself, Qui-Gon decided as he entered the luxurious private dining area. He suspected that Obi-Wan was dining rather less well and wondered when he might encounter his young partner again. Bretor turned from the window that dominated one wall of the area and gestured to the serving droids, who scuttled to place steaming dishes on the table.

Qui-Gon was slightly surprised when Bretor took the seat at the head of the table, and he let himself be gestured to sit at the administrator's left. His discomposure eased when several other guests streamed into the room, then heightened again when Obi-Wan-- Tamrin-- entered at the rear of the line and assumed the place that had been left vacant for him at Qui-Gon's side. Had their cover been destroyed so quickly? Obi-Wan was perfectly shielded and seemed at ease as he took his seat, chatting quietly with the woman who was seated on his left.

Bretor was smiling; the oiliness that had disturbed Qui-Gon earlier had returned in full force as he watched his guest notice the young man's presence. Qui-Gon bowed to Tamrin with austere politeness and turned his attention to the serving droids, who finished their task by pouring wine and then scuttled back to their niche.

The fare was pleasant, though not as simple as Qui-Gon preferred. He ate sparingly and neatly, keenly conscious of Obi-Wan's presence next to him. Bretor watched them with hooded eyes in between making polite conversation and listening to the informal reports that the guests, his top administrators, offered. Akalif had been seated across from Qui-Gon at Bretor's right and was particularly talkative; given that he had initiated thirty new miners and had an unusually disrupted day, it seemed only natural. Qui-Gon listened with a polite expression, analyzing the man's words with thoughts of detecting discrepancies or oddities in the information he was absorbing while also lending half an ear to the muted conversation at the foot of the table.

Akalif eventually wound down and turned to exchange pleasantries with the Ikadri who sat at his side, and Bretor took advantage of the momentary lull. "Master Jinn, you are neglecting your dinner companion." His lips curled into a smile that had subtle suggestive elements.

"We haven't been formally introduced," Qui-Gon responded, voice chilly. He was discovering that he liked Bretor's attitude less and less as time passed.

"Of course. How rude of me." Bretor's tone sounded smug and ingratiating. "Qui-Gon Jinn, you are seated next to Tamrin Al'w, the new second in command of our maintenance facility. Tamrin, you have the honor of meeting Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, representative of the Jedi Council, sent to aid us in increasing productivity at this facility." The administrator watched proprietarily as Tamrin bowed slightly in his chair and extended his hand to Qui-Gon, who stiffened his shields and shook it briefly.

"Tamrin's hiring is part of our concerted plan to increase production. A skilled worker such as he is sure to keep the drills and excavators in perfect order. Among other things." Bretor steepled his hands. "Perhaps you'd care to ask him about our equipment?"

"I beg your pardon," Qui-Gon bowed to Tamrin, maintaining his aloof posture and letting indifference play in his voice. "I am sure you are capable and I am pleased to make your acquaintance, but your familiarity with the installation so far is likely to be little more than my own. You will forgive me, but it seems unlikely you would yet be aware of the sort of difficulties and delays I have been sent to eliminate."

"Of course." Tamrin matched his aloof tone, taking a sip of wine.

Qui-Gon observed Bretor's eyes narrow as the administrator watched Obi-Wan turn away and resume desultory conversation with the others. Then the administrator smoothed his expression, gesturing Qui-Gon to draw near.

"Relax, Master Jinn. Enjoy yourself. We cannot fix the problems of the mine over a single dinner." He smiled persuasively. "Cordial company, good food... what more could one ask?" He reached for a carafe and topped Qui-Gon's glass with the rich wine it held. "We are not unlike, you and I, though we have begun our association poorly. Please, allow me to make amends. Enjoy the hospitality Juyoren offers." His smile was knowing and not entirely pleasant. "We are solitary here, and it is far from the amenities of Coruscant and the Jedi Temple. But you and I have done well enough on our own, wouldn't you say?" Bretor's cool eyes judged him over the top of the glass the administrator lifted in toast. "Drink with me, Qui-Gon."

Qui-Gon lifted his glass and let the wine touch his lips, choosing not to swallow it. "I do hope that our association will be pleasant and beneficial for all concerned," he countered mildly.

"Indeed," Bretor responded softly.

There was little further productive conversation, so Qui-Gon excused himself after eating. He took the lift to landing level and strode out onto the platform again, curious to see the volcano by dark, as Bretor had suggested.

The cone loomed indomitably on the horizon, the sight of the ominous vista shivering his spine with a presentiment of threat. Though the sun had not yet fully set, the ash-cloud at the summit glowed, a menacing orange glare lighting the soft underbelly of the ash cloud. As the light-level dimmed, the shoulders of the peak came alight as well, dull red shadowed with sullen black. He stood for a long time, watching night fall over the mountain, a pale white moon rising in the clear air to the east, not yet obscured by the pall of rising ash.

At last he bestirred himself. The air was growing cool and the platform was filmed with gray dust that showed no prints from his boots; it had fallen since he came out. The air-currents were shifting slightly and the breeze had drawn more ash from the cloud to fall on the mining colony. Ash was beginning to rain down thickly, a scent of sulfur permeating the air and drying his throat.

He blinked a cinder from his eye and went back inside, brushing accumulated ash from the shoulders of his cloak and from his hair. He quietly made his way back to his assigned VIP quarters and palmed the lock. Stepping inside, he stopped short as though he had slammed into a wall, hand poised over the switch that would activate the overhead lighting. His bed was not empty.

Cautiously he crept forward, letting his eyes adjust to the dim interior of his quarters after the well-lit corridor. His hand closed on his lightsaber, prepared to whip it free with an instant's motion, and he directed a trickle of Force at one shaded window, noiselessly lifting the blind and permitting moonlight to pour into the room through the narrow opening.

A man lay in the path of the mellow silver light, resting peacefully.

Obi-Wan. He lay in Qui-Gon's bed, his head resting on Qui-Gon's pillow. The moonlight glowed on his pale face and bare chest; he was drowned in sleep, his hand curled loosely next to his head on Qui-Gon's pillow. Qui-Gon's lungs froze, heavy as lead inside his body. Dismay mingled with delight in the Jedi Master-- had the younger man decided to abandon their attempt to forestall the bond? That would be insane; they had a cover to preserve! Why under the moons of Alderaan would he be here, his slender limbs warming the inside of Qui-Gon's sheets and blankets?

His hand fell away from his weapon and he let the shade move downward again, shutting away the glow of the night, hoping that removing vision would help to calm his body and mind, both of which had responded to Obi-Wan's presence with frantic, heated haste. But the change in the environment troubled the young Knight and he shifted, murmuring in his sleep.

Sith, what was Kenobi doing here?

Qui-Gon fought his body as he had never fought an opponent, struggling furiously against the surge of warmth and need in him, against the helpless, painful longing to simply strip away his robe, his tunics, his leggings, and press as much skin as he could manage against the younger man. He battled titanically against the compulsion to move across the room immediately and lie down the bed at Kenobi's back, feel the press and weight of the young firm body in his arms. To hold Obi-Wan to his chest and feel his vitality. To kiss and claim the sensual, passionate creature that he dreamed lay behind Obi-Wan's facade of Jedi calm, Jedi competence...

Qui-Gon shuddered, agonized, and stepped to the wall, flipping the light switch. His desire was a result of the bond, and it was dangerous-- succumbing to it would not only threaten to destroy their cover, but would leave them linked in animosity.

As light flooded the room Obi-Wan stirred and raised himself on one elbow, hair tousled, blinking fuzzily at Qui-Gon and wiping at his eyes with his fist, a curiously childish gesture that wrenched the Jedi Master's heart with tenderness and desire. "Tamrin, wasn't it? What are you doing here?" He kept his words neutral, but his tone was deceptively harsh as he struggled for control.

"Administrator Bretor noticed your interest in me at the platform." Obi-Wan's voice was sensual and smoky with the residue of sleep. It sent a pang of wild lust flaring straight to Qui-Gon's already overheated groin. The gray-blue eyes fixed him meaningfully. "I am... a courtesy the house chooses to extend for your use, Master Jedi." Obi-Wan raised his body sinuously and trailed his open palm over his own nipple, a perfect picture of erotic invitation, but his eyes were cool, aloof. "I am... 'the hospitality Juyoren offers,'" he parroted Bretor's phrase seductively.

Qui-Gon blinked, tongue flickering out nervously to wet his lips. His hands opened and closed once; Obi-Wan's eyes flickered toward a corner of the ceiling almost too quickly for Qui-Gon to be certain it had really happened. He blinked again. Surveillance. Of course. Bretor was testing him with a bribe, hoping to gain... what? Did he think Qui-Gon could be bought? Was he after material for blackmail, to ensure his compliance in some clandestine activity? Or did Bretor simply hope to distract him while the influx of new personnel built production back to acceptable levels? He could not be sure.

"I am not accustomed to accepting such intimate courtesies." Qui-Gon was surprised by the calm in his own voice, and he moved slowly, keeping his attention on the young man in his bed, giving the matter careful and apparent consideration. He moved until his back was casually presented to the device Obi-Wan had indicated, letting his intense frown show Obi-Wan that he was trying to choose the best way to respond to their situation. "You are handsome, of course, and the offer is appreciated, but I would much prefer for you to return to your own bed."

"I have none, unless I share yours. The dormitories are crowded with extra miners, Master Jedi."

Sith, that sultry voice was persuasive. If not for the bond... if not for the threat of being permanently locked together that hung over them, they could simply give in and take what their bodies craved. They would even have been able to use the excuse of their cover! Qui-Gon swallowed hard. He wanted the younger man so much...

Obi-Wan shifted, covers falling away from him, and Qui-Gon glanced automatically along the young body, blinking with surprise. He was not the only one affected by the situation; he could see the ridge of Obi-Wan's erection lying in sharp relief along his left thigh, ill-covered by his sleeping pants. As he had been on Torehir, Obi-Wan also was aroused by the incipient bond.

The bond. That constant miserable psychological pressure of the psychic link acting on flesh and blood and mind, seeking to add the joining of minds to the joining of bodies. That there was love mingled with his half of it only made Qui-Gon suffer the more.

"Is your advancement with the company related to your success with me, young one?" Qui-Gon forced his voice to indifference. If it was, they must make an appearance of complying with Bretor's will. The higher Obi-Wan rose within the internal hierarchy of the company, the better his chances of uncovering corruption along the way.

"Let's say that I found it preferable to be second in command of the mechanical division from my back in your bed." Obi-Wan smiled wryly.

"Preferable to...?" Qui-Gon could not resist the impulse to ask, forehead pinching with concern.

"To being a lowlife canary mechanic who sleeps in the administrators' dormitory and spends his days trotting around the lower levels of the mine repairing laser picks." Obi-Wan's sleep-husky voice purred at him, but the younger man's eyes were still cool and the set of his body was tense, though deliberately erotic.

"Then you may stay." Qui-Gon shrugged. "I would not see anyone punished for failing to please me."

"You are most kind." Obi-Wan lay back upon the narrow bed with an enviable semblance of calm, closing his eyes.

Qui-Gon hesitated to join him, strolling to the windows and opening the blind again. He flicked off the lights and stood in the moonlight, gazing at the lush valley that spread out beyond the installation. Ash was falling like snow, beginning to dim the light of the moon and weighing heavily on the leaves of the subtropical trees. He took off his cloak and loosed his hair from its ponytail, finger-combing it to lie in a wild mass around his shoulders, shaking out the residue of ash. He reached into his pack for a brush, working the tangles out methodically.

Bretor played a dangerous game. Bribing or distracting a council representative was dangerous business, especially for another Jedi. What had Bretor meant, that they were not unlike? What had he implied when he stated that they were far from Coruscant, but that they had both done well?

Qui-Gon glanced at the young man who lay in his bed. For whatever purpose, he had been provided with an offering of flesh intended to buy him. Had he been so darkened by Xanatos that the other Jedi believed him a seeker of illicit pleasures, a casual user of catamites? Was he considered a ready target for corruption, did Bretor truly think it possible to enlist him in some variety of clandestine profiteering?

Apparently so.

If not for Obi-Wan... would Qui-Gon have been the easy target Bretor obviously believed him?

He could not say.

He no longer knew who he had been or where he had been bound before the young Knight entered his life. And for the first time, he realized that he was deeply glad of that. He could be grateful that the threat of subtle, creeping darkness was behind him now, and let himself be soothed by the presence of so much light so near to him.

Qui-Gon braided his hair and wrapped the tie around the end. Sighing, he folded his cloak and laid his lightsaber on top of its dark material, then turned his back and unbuckled his belt, shrugging out of sash and stole and tunics, kicking out of his boots. Only his leggings remained. He directed a flicker of Force at the blinds, veiling the room in shadow. Obi-Wan was awake, though he lay quite still... awake, and waiting.

Qui-Gon was damnably eager for what must come next; eager for it and frightened by it all at once. "If you have plans to slit my throat while I sleep, be warned that it will not be so easy as it might seem." Qui-Gon made the comment casually, but he knew he was merely using their cover to stall the inevitable.

He moved to the bed and put a knee up on the mattress, moving his other leg across, intensely aware of Obi-Wan's presence between his thighs before he raised the first knee and eased himself down next to the young man, trying not to touch him. He heard the quick hiss of in-drawn breath and felt the tremor next to him.

"May I hold you?" his voice was very quiet, very sober, and he eased his shields slightly, letting Obi-Wan feel his intention to respect the younger man's body.

"Yes." The response was a whisper. "Please."

He reached out tentatively, the heel of his hand brushing against warm skin; Obi-Wan was bare-chested as he was, wearing loose sleep trousers. Tentatively, tenderly, he gathered the tense, lean body into the circle of his arms and pulled them snugly together. It was not enough, not nearly enough... and yet as incomplete as the contact was, it soothed a soul-deep ache in him, and he could feel from the quivering sigh that escaped Obi-Wan's chest that the young Knight felt the same.

He re-strengthened his shields and calmed his mind to maintain them as he slept, aware that Obi-Wan was carefully doing the same. Suddenly he knew that he would sleep soundly tonight for the first time since he last held Obi-Wan in his arms, sharing bed, warmth, and breath with his young companion.

Constrained by their impeccable shields, the bond failed to fan into flame and gradually settled, appeased by their closeness. With a relieved sigh he let himself relax. He and Obi-Wan each lay still as bodies with needs half-met reluctantly decided that half a loaf was better than none and gradually subsided into comfort.

"Good night," Obi-Wan murmured at last, voice slurred with sleep, and they sank into dreams together.

A soft rumble and tremor shook the earth where the mining colony sat. It awakened Obi-Wan, who found himself lapped in gentle warmth, the living velvet of moist skin and soft breath pleasant against him. He was hard and aching, pressed up tight against Qui-Gon's thigh... he could feel the stirring of the thwarted bond as it struggled to pierce their shields, and hastily pulled out of the shelter of those warm arms before it could grow stronger and elude his control.

He hastily climbed out of bed, swaying a little as sleep fell away from him, and stepped into the 'fresher, snagging his coverall on the way. A quick shower wakened him, and he paused to ease his body beneath the hot spray, checking his shields compulsively to ensure that Qui-Gon could not sense his pleasure. Touching himself relieved the subtly building pressure to return to Qui-Gon's arms and he heaved a sigh of relief, letting the luxuriant flow of hot water sluice him clean.

He toweled himself dry and stepped into his coverall, zipping it quickly. He must show up promptly for his morning's work, another excuse to leave Qui-Gon. He stepped into the main room, where Qui-Gon had also arisen. The older Jedi sat at his desk, unbraiding his long hair and running a brush through the thick waves. Obi-Wan resisted the impulse to bury his fingers in the sumptuous mane and tilt the strong jaw back for a kiss, instead sitting on the edge of their bed and yanking on his boots. He buckled on his utility belt, checking the power pack of the welders and gauges clipped to its loops. All were charged and ready.

Prepared to leave at last, Obi-Wan rose and approached Qui-Gon. "Until tonight," he breathed, remembering their charade, and watched Qui-Gon's strong throat bob as he swallowed and then nodded.

Obi-Wan strode from the room quickly, crushing the bond ruthlessly as it threatened to surge between them. The pressure was slowly growing again, perhaps encouraged by their night together. Their personal predicament had been badly worsened by Bretor having forced him into the role of Jinn's seducer. But he could not pass up the implicit opportunity in the promises of power and wealth, should he prove trustworthy... it was just possible that complying with Bretor's wishes would put him on the fast track to knowledge about the corruption that undoubtedly troubled this installation.

He sighed. There was no way to escape his role; already he would have to pay the consequences for failing to seduce Qui-Gon last night as he'd been instructed to do. Steeling himself, Obi-Wan stepped from the lift and entered the shop where he was to work. Akalif, his immediate supervisor, awaited.

"Master Bretor is not best pleased with your performance so far, Al'w." His voice was cold.

"A miner should be aware that it takes time and care to strike the perfect lode," Obi-Wan responded lightly. "A Jedi isn't an easy target for seduction, as Master Bretor should know." He made his tone slightly mocking. "Bretor can consider himself lucky that Jinn didn't make me leave and demand that he personally account for the reasons behind my presence." He stood defiantly, one hip cocked. "I'm in his bed. I'll soon keep him busy enough."

"I imagine you will." Akalif's eyes raked him hungrily. "You're pretty enough to tempt more than one Jedi." He winked lewdly. Obi-Wan shifted his feet, realizing that Akalif meant to imply Bretor too was interested in Obi-Wan.

Akalif smirked, relishing the young man's discomfort. "Jinn's weakness for pretty boys is a legend among the Jedi, Tamrin Al'w. You're the perfect bait to snare him, that's for certain. Take care that you stay that way; there's a special and dangerous assignment for you today."

The assistant administrator grew more businesslike, his smirk dropping from his face. "The west ridge sensors fell silent shortly after midnight; chances are they're clogged by volcanic ash. Any grunt could clean them if they are, but if they've been struck by a pyroclastic missile, it'll take skill to fix them. That's why you're the one who's going to check them out."

Obi-Wan obediently shouldered the tool kit Akalif indicated, taking the rolled paper map that his superior proffered.

"You'll have to walk; there are thermal vents near the sensor array and skimmers aren't safe," Akalif explained. Obi-Wan nodded. It would be pleasant to be out of doors again, more pleasant at any rate than spending the day in the sweltering burrow of the mines.

"Watch out for pyroclastic activity," Akalif warned. "The mountain has been grumbling this morning, and if an ash-fall cuts loose on you, chances are you won't survive to tell about it. Take goggles and a breather; the wind has shifted and is coming from the east again, but if it turns to the north you'll need it." He loaded Obi-Wan down with the recommended supplies as he spoke, briskly efficient.

Shaking his head at the combination of intrigue and practicality, Obi-Wan left the complex, trotting across the landing platform and vaulting the low barricade. His boots kicked up a low cloud of ash as he strode across the ghostly gray landscape. Consulting the map, he angled toward the south, where a narrow river had worn a channel through the foothill ridges. He could turn away from the water after a time and follow the fourth ridge up to the broken sensor. The out-of-the-way route would increase the length of his journey considerably, but it would keep him further from the flanks of the volcano and would reduce the amount of time he would spend climbing and descending ridges of harsh volcanic stone.

He speeded his pace to a quick trot, hoping to return before nightfall.

Obi-Wan reached the final ridge by noon and angled up along its steep flank, reaching the top with relatively little difficulty. Perversely, the gray desert of fallen ash had faded and ceased as he approached the volcano, leaving the country where he now walked verdant and rich with life. It was quite pleasant, the volcano looming magnificently over him. The only hint of volcanism was the increasing frequency of gas vents, withering the vegetation that had once grown around it and choking the air with heated fumes. Spotting the sensor array on a faraway crest, he put on his breather as a precaution and speeded his pace again, approaching it directly.

The ground shook again under his feet, and he drew on the Force subconsciously, letting it direct his balance so that he would not twist an ankle. There was no ash here, so it would be a mechanical repair. He hoped he could resolve the problem quickly. Even though the countryside was lovely and the scenery impressive, he was growing nervous being so close to the ominously shifting mountain.

He slowed as he approached the array. Sure enough, a pyroclastic missile had struck it a glancing blow, destroying the delicate antenna that transmitted seismic information. He set to work immediately. Kneeling, he rummaged in his bag and dragged out a spare, extending the telescoping antenna rod. Quickly he removed the damaged part and discarded it.

It took an hour's work to wire the new antenna into the sensor grid. When he was finished he rose, dusting stiff knees, glad that he could soon be gone from here. His skin and eyes felt gritty with dust and sweat. He checked the readings, but they meant nothing to him-- the mechanics of thermal geology and volcanism were not his specialty.

Placing the damaged antenna into his bag, he beat a steady retreat, relieved to be finished. He moved faster on the way out, already aware of the best path to take and the location of dangerous vents. Exhilarated by having finished his task without incident, he decided to follow the ridge to its tip; the stone was well-eroded and sparsely vegetated, making the traveling much easier than it was in the rocky valley. He'd noticed on his way in that the finger of land ended in an abrupt cliff that loomed above a narrow and deep bend of the river he'd followed on his outward journey.

Obi-Wan smiled. He could use a swim.

In minutes, he stood on furthest point of the cliff, staring down at the water sparkling far beneath. He sensed its depth carefully with Force and judged it adequate for his purposes. Sighing with anticipation, he stripped out of his ashy clothing and boots, stuffing them into his shoulder-sack and levitating the bundle gently down to rest on the far edge of the sparkling river. The air was pure here, rushing against his face and chest briskly, and the vista before his eyes was unspoiled. The temperature of the day was perfect.

Lifting his arms and rolling his shoulders to work out the kinks his muscles had developed from carrying the heavy bag, he lifted his head to the blinding brilliance of the sun, letting his lashes sink shut, his bare skin absorbing its radiant heat. Slowly and with infinite grace, he flexed his raised arms, fingertips extended. He could feel the breeze caressing freely around his body, tickling at the fine down on his arms and thighs, cool on his smooth nudity. He was keenly conscious of the spring in the muscles of his legs, of the warm gritty stone under the soles of his bare feet.

Obi-Wan opened his lungs, drawing the pure blue vitality of air deep inside him, feeling it disperse life throughout his body. He closed his mouth, capturing it inside him, containing it within his lungs just as the shell of his body contained his fragile, effervescent life. With a final glance at the blue water to ensure himself of his trajectory, he lifted himself to his toes, poised on the verge of the cliff-face for an interminable moment, and sprang. The wind cradled his body as he arched forward, bringing his fingertips together over his head, his knees and ankles together, toes pointing. He balanced against the wind, vertigo pooling in his belly, the air rushing against him with enough force to bring tears to his eyes.

Down, down... slicing the wind like a knife-blade, sensing the water that waited. He cut it as cleanly as he'd cut the air, breaking the surface with such force that he carried a thin layer of air about his body as he submerged. Bubbles precipitated by the violence of his impact with the water boiled away toward the surface as he curved upward, sunlight shimmering in wild ripples above his dazzled eyes, air tickling his body as it rushed upward with him.

He broke the surface with a wild gasp, rising half the length of his body, drinking air again greedily.

Swimming toward shore until he could stand on the steeply-sloped river-bottom, he cleared the water from his eyes with the back of his hands, blinking a few lingering droplets away from his lashes. The Force whispered, and he raised his head with a start, his gaze falling on an unexpected companion. Qui-Gon Jinn did not pause even to shoulder out of his cloak, striding determinedly into the water toward him.

Time stood still as the young man's fingers froze in the act of stripping water from his scalp. Trailing wisps of Qui-Gon's loose hair blew back over his shoulders with the force of his passage, water swirling around his boots and over their tops as he pressed forward. Obi-Wan could feel the Jedi Master's need pushing out before him, a warm, relentless wavefront. Irresistible.

Qui-Gon's expression was soft, his eyes hazy and tender. Obi-Wan felt a bone-deep shiver travel up his spine and knew that it had nothing to do with the chill of the water. Ripples lapped against Qui-Gon's pelvis, wet fabric limning the ridge of his erection. Obi-Wan could not move, not even as the broad warm hands settled on his waist and his cheek, not even as Qui-Gon wordlessly tipped Obi-Wan's chin up with his thumb and bent his head to take the Knight's lips.

It was as different from the previous kisses they had shared as night was from day-- different and similar, wild and gentle. The touch of Qui-Gon's mouth was inexpressibly compelling, sweet seeking and controlled hunger, and Obi-Wan's trembling hand rose to the nape of the taller man's neck even as Qui-Gon's palm slipped to the small of his back, pulling him forward tentatively. Qui-Gon's low moan rumbled against his chest and Obi-Wan realized he was kissing Qui-Gon ardently, surging and withdrawing against the Jedi Master's mouth, his lips hot and clinging, his hands clasped tight behind Qui-Gon's neck.

Obi-Wan pulled back, gazing uncertainly up into dilated, dark-centered eyes with a thin rim of sapphire. They were both still shielding, barely holding passion at bay, but the contact felt incredible nonetheless, and Obi-Wan did not want to relinquish it, not while Qui-Gon's expression melted with sweetness and he could almost forget that the Jedi Master cared for nothing but his body.

"They told me you had gone to fix a sensor array." Qui-Gon breathed. "The most recent sensor readings are very bad. Bretor suggested I might catch up to you... try to protect you, should the mountain give way." He hardly seemed aware of what he was saying, leaning back in helplessly for another taste of Obi-Wan's willing mouth.

"He's trying to dispose of you; get you out of his way..." Obi-Wan murmured against the mouth that was devouring him softly.

"Perhaps that is so, but I found I could not leave you to face the danger alone." Qui-Gon punctuated his words with tiny kisses to Obi-Wan's jaw, holding him closer.

His lips tingled from their kisses and cool water swirled about his hips and overheated groin. "This isn't wise," Obi-Wan breathed, unsure whether he was referring to their closeness, Qui-Gon's decision to seek him out, or hesitating in the near vicinity of the unstable volcano. Perhaps all of them, but the bond was overwhelming them both, making thought next to impossible. A stray breeze tickled a wisp of the older man's hair against his cheek in a butterfly-soft caress, not at all unlike the gentle stroking of Qui-Gon's thumb along the ridge of his spine.

"Perhaps not," Qui-Gon acknowledged, his voice a rumbling whisper. "But it gives me the chance to hear what you have learned." He did not move to release Obi-Wan.

They were playing with fire, fanning the flames, and both of them knew it but were already too far gone to care. "Yes," Obi-Wan murmured softly. He lifted his head again slowly and licked away a single drop of crystal-clear water that the tip of his nose had left on Qui-Gon's cheek. The Jedi Master shivered faintly, eyelids closing, his hand sliding from Obi-Wan's cheek to his throat.

"Your boots will be ruined," Obi-Wan observed, and the deep blue eyes snapped open, a hint of humor in their depths.

"Perhaps," Qui-Gon acknowledged.

Before Obi-Wan knew what was happening, the Jedi Master swung him up into powerful arms and turned back to the shoreline. Obi-Wan instinctively clasped his arms around Qui-Gon's neck, his heart racing dizzily. The big Jedi's cloak and the bottom of his tunic and stoles were streaming with water, his filled boots sloshing. Water that had soaked the last few inches of his hair dripped on the ground.

Qui-Gon let Obi-Wan's bare feet touch the grass when they emerged from the pond, but didn't release him, folding his legs and levering them both down to sit on a patch of grass between the gnarled roots of a huge tree, Obi-Wan's hips and thighs sideways across his lap. He reached and began to fumble with the fastenings of his boots one-handed.

"My clothes are nearby," Obi-Wan commented, watching him struggle with the boots.

"Are they?" A distracted tone; one boot slid free. Qui-Gon lifted it and a stream of water poured out. He tossed it aside, then began struggling to reach the other. Wordlessly Obi-Wan helped him, partly glad for the excuse to escape those devouring eyes.

Freed from the sodden footwear at last, Qui-Gon propped the boots against a root and leaned back against the trunk, pulling Obi-Wan softly against him. He sighed, seeming to relax, but Obi-Wan knew both their hearts were racing. He had to make his report and they had to get back to the safety of the mining compound, that was it. Right. In just a moment, as soon as he disengaged from this gentle embrace. As soon as he found his clothes. All he had to do was stand up. That was the first step.

Slowly he shifted, moving his knees to either side of Qui-Gon's thighs, a motion that settled the curve of his hips against the other man's groin. His knees went weak at the sensation of hardness nestled against him, removing all thoughts of rising to his feet. He leaned his head back slowly until it rested on Qui-Gon's shoulder. The physical desire engendered by the denied bond was irresistible, overwhelming.

Jinn's mouth pressed a single burning kiss to his throat and the man sighed, his broad hands falling loose at either side of Obi-Wan's body. The breeze that had caressed Obi-Wan's bare form as he dove found them and curled around them, echoing the soft sigh. Obi-Wan gazed down at a thick lock of the older man's hair that had tumbled over his own shoulder, the wet tip now curled and cool against the skin of his inner thigh.

Qui-Gon's hand reached for the lock of hair even as Obi-Wan noticed it, catching it and turning the wet tendril between thick fingers meditatively. Then his other hand moved over Obi-Wan and caught the lock, stretching it over Obi-Wan's flat belly. The young Jedi sighed at the sensation, unable to move. His entire mind was focused on his shields, struggling to maintain them.

Then Qui-Gon's hands deftly looped the lock of soft hair once around his erect penis, and he gasped, hands fluttering indecisively and then clenching on his own thighs. He watched, helpless, as the curl of hair bound him, spiraling up the tautness of his shaft and caressing him with its thousand silky strands. Once more around the base of the crown and then Qui-Gon's hands pulled the lock tight, binding his erection inside a soft caress.

Obi-Wan exhaled a whisper of a moan, rational thought deserting him. Slowly Qui-Gon released the end of the lock and lifted his chin, tilting his head back, the hair sliding in a spiral course around Obi-Wan's tingling arousal. The cool wetness at the tip of the lock emphasized the completeness of its course when it stroked over him as the hair fell away.

Again Qui-Gon bound his erection, including his testicles this time, and drew the hair tight about the young man's flesh, hands trembling. Obi-Wan was powerless to resist the butterfly-soft touches and the tantalizing constriction. Again, and Qui-Gon swept more of his mane over his shoulder and let it flow against Obi-Wan's chest and belly, the vagrant wind stirring it in a thousand agile caresses.

He was engulfed in the older man's hair, body clad in it and devoured by it, and still the Jedi Master repeated the deft, erotic motions. Each time the hair bound him more completely as Qui-Gon bent his head forward and wrapped more turns into the spiral around his shaft; each time Qui-Gon pulled it a little tighter, a little faster. The big hands snapped the lock tight and Obi-Wan's hips bucked; the strong neck pulled the heavy head upright and the lock twined around him with the slightest tantalizing threat of burn. Obi-Wan whimpered, shields wavering. The powerful, sure hands wrapped him hard and tight, then held the hair and regulated its spiral passage, maintaining the pressure. His concentration shattered to fragments, shields dissolving and failing him entirely, but Qui-Gon did not seem to notice, so intent was he on what he was doing.

Obi-Wan's resistance was destroyed and orgasm spasmed from deep inside him, uncontrollable surges making his body thrash. A wailing cry escaped his throat as he pulsed pearly fluid into the tangled locks of hair; Qui-Gon's hands clenched and then fell limp.

The cry in his ear was a harbinger of sudden and entirely unexpected anguish. The full force of Obi-Wan's unguarded psychic presence slammed against Qui-Gon's shields with no warning and they flexed inward deeply, shuddering like a sheet of plexiglass stressed to the verge of shattering. An instinctive vision of the jagged shards of his soon-to-be-crushed shields driving into his own brain inspired him with panic and Qui-Gon withdrew himself from his body instinctively, centering all effort inside his mind as he struggled to shore up his assaulted defenses. For an eternal, agonized moment, it seemed that they would shatter in spite of everything he could do, but then the intensity of Obi-Wan's pleasure began to recede, and he was left with a merely overwhelming pressure, curling around him as tightly as his own hair had ensnared Kenobi's penis.

Obi-Wan was panting next to his ear, skin cold and clammy with the shock of the uncompleted bond, but they had survived the results of their madness uninjured and unbonded. Qui-Gon drew a gasping breath. It felt like his first in quite some time; his mind had not kept track of his surroundings as he struggled against the psychic attack that he had unwittingly precipitated.

Obi-Wan was shivering against him, still shrouded in tangles of Qui-Gon's hair. The sun had sunk and gone in behind the cloud of ash, and there was a bitter bite of evening in the rising wind. Qui-Gon blinked, forcing his eyes to focus; half-dried fluid plastered wet strands of his hair to Obi-Wan's softened penis.

"I'm sorry," The Jedi Master's voice was raw and husky, as though from screaming. Had he? He could not be sure. "That was foolish of me, and the fault is not yours. The bond... I could not resist you, when I saw you standing there in the pool." His hoarse voice dropped with shame.

"Yoda warned that we would be under pressure." Obi-Wan's voice was not raw, and his pulse, though rapid and shallow, was slowly normalizing; Qui-Gon could feel it against his chest. "Haven't you... tried to disperse it?" Obi-Wan's ears flushed faintly crimson with embarrassment. "Sexual meditation... self-pleasure?"

"I was afraid it would trigger the bond," Qui-Gon responded quietly. "I didn't know that it might help."

"Yoda." The word was almost a curse, and the young Jedi lifted his head from Qui-Gon's shoulder, energy returning with the surge of annoyance. His eyes were haunted, his expression closed.

Qui-Gon realized that Obi-Wan's shields were rising back into place and sighed with relief, his own mental anguish lessening as he was allowed to ease some of the stringent tension in his own defenses. His mind felt like his body would have if he had attempted to lift a landspeeder on his back. "Yoda is not in the habit of sharing information readily," Qui-Gon agreed wryly. "He believes experience is the most effective teacher."

"In this case, his omission placed you in danger. You could have been badly injured." Obi-Wan's bell-like, cultured tones were grave. "If I had crushed your shields--"

"I am fortunate that you did not," Qui-Gon agreed, helping the younger Jedi to rise off him and dragging his tangled hair back behind his shoulders. He remembered the image the midichlorians had sent him, of his brain being sliced by shreds of shattered plexiglass. He suspected that if his shields had failed, he would have gone into severe psychic shock. At the least.

"If this happens again..." Obi-Wan hesitated, expression shuttered, but his voice betrayed his reluctance. "Qui-Gon, I think that if we find ourselves being overcome again, we should drop our shields and let the bond form naturally." He shook his head, forgetting his nakedness in the urgency of his thoughts. "Better to sacrifice our personal wishes than to let you die." He lifted his clear blue gaze to Qui-Gon, face sober.

"Or you." The Jedi Master hesitated, turning the idea over rationally in his mind. Obi-Wan was right-- the risk of continuing to deny the bond was growing beyond acceptable levels. "Perhaps the next time, you might find yourself shielding against me." He wanted very badly to reach and touch the younger man's cheek, but restrained himself. "And as I am a Master and you a Knight, it seems likely that I would overpower you, as you very nearly overpowered me."

Obi-Wan nodded hesitantly, dismay rising on his face as he considered the logic of Qui-Gon's conclusions. The Jedi Master did not continue further with an explanation of his conclusions: no matter whose shields were crushed, it was almost certain that the newly bonded mate would vicariously experience the same psychic injuries through the bond-- shock, brain damage, or perhaps even death. "I will not see that happen," Qui-Gon stated simply. "If the pressure to join becomes irresistible again, Obi-Wan, I will not shield against you."

"Nor I against you." The words were a faint murmur, and Obi-Wan's expression was hidden by shadow. "Let us go quickly. This should have eased the pressure considerably, and now you know how to disperse it on your own. Perhaps we may yet finish the mission without confronting that possibility." Obi-Wan moved along the edge of the river and retrieved a bulky parcel, drawing out his clothing.

"Yes," Qui-Gon agreed softly. He reached over his shoulders, fingers deftly braiding his hair as Obi-Wan dressed, hoping to cover the awkwardness of the moment and to disguise his inability to remove his eyes from the proceedings. "Perhaps we may." But as he watched Obi-Wan step into his mining coverall and rake the zipper up over his flat, muscular belly, he understood that their chances were slim. Perhaps Obi-Wan did as well; a shiver coursed through the slender body.

Obi-Wan straightened and wordlessly shouldered his tool kit; Qui-Gon tied his braid and let it fall down his chest. They set out together, moving back toward the compound at a rapid trot. Remembering Qui-Gon's need to hear his report, Obi-Wan surrendered his meager information to Qui-Gon in clipped phrases.

"...and they promised that if I bedded you... distracted you... I would rise quickly. They hinted that my trustworthiness... could lead me to considerable wealth." Obi-Wan moderated his breathing instinctively. "That's really all I've learned."

"It's exceptional progress... for such a short time," Qui-Gon responded, slightly more out-of-breath than his younger companion. "If they believe you've succeeded today... we might learn what we need quickly." He slowed their pace and then halted. "More ash here," he explained, attaching his breather.

Obi-Wan realized it was true and reached for his own mask, strapping it to his face. The earth rumbled again and Obi-Wan waited for it to steady, but the shuddering of the land increased and the thundering roar of its motion rose until it threatened to drown out thought. Disturbing subharmonic vibrations played along the surface of his skin, raising the fine hairs on the back of his neck. As the tremor continued his anxiety peaked, raising goose-flesh down the backs of his arms.

"We'd better hurry," Obi-Wan shouted, finishing with his breather. Closing his bag, he poised himself to resume their homeward trot.

Qui-Gon stared past him, face suddenly haggard under the glass plate of the breather. "It's too late."

Obi-Wan whipped around, following the Jedi Master's stare, and swallowed hard. The mountainside had given way and a growing shroud of ash billowed toward them at breakneck speed. It was eerily and deceptively beautiful, all delicate curls and feather-soft plumes, concealing murderous heat and suffocating gas.

"The ridge will stop it, turn it aside," Obi-Wan husked, his throat dry with fear.

"No," Qui-Gon caught his shoulder, tugging at him urgently. "We're too close. Run."

They fled together.

to be continued in Elements IV: Fire