by Lilith Sedai (

Series: The Elements Series

Archive: M_A, SWAL, OKEB, QJEB

Category: AU, drama, angst, first-time

Rating: NC-17

Warnings: Some not-fully-consensual sex in this segment, not really rape. This isn't really intended to be a response to the virgin sacrifice story challenge, but somehow the sacrificial plot point kind of worked its way in.

Spoilers: Jedi Apprentice 1 and 2

Summary: Obi-Wan must deal with the unexpected results of Qui-Gon's attempt to heal the Torehiri coral reef. Second in the Elements Series.

Feedback: yes, please, any comments welcome.

Acknowledgments: To LapisLaz for the beta that prevented the Avatar from sucking his own cock! To the girls on #tpm and the Third Layer for emotional support, primary readings followed by valued opinions, and immensely helpful hand-holding.

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.

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

The tall man awoke, blinking against the sharp rays of a setting sun. He wasn't quite sure where he was; he remembered Force, remembered power, remembered the billion tiny reef creatures and the sea and sand. He didn't remember meeting with the man who lay bare against him, or how they had come to have intercourse here on the beach, as he assumed they had. At least, he could feel the rightness of lying bare in the young man's arms. He was beautiful and desirable, the Force was strong between them, and how else might they have come to be entwined so?

He wasn't sure why they had sheltered under an overturned boat against a cold, wet cliff. But he was sure of one thing. The boots that were scuffing sand, surrounding the curious shelter, belonged to people who displeased him. He could feel them jangling in the Force like the ripped passage of machinery through forest and soil. They were the ones who had harmed the reef; he was sure of it.

Fingers curled under the lip of the boat's hull and he anticipated that it would be lifted, anticipated it and reached to stop it with his mind, slipping out from under the boat himself instead, standing tall, hardly aware of his nudity. Wide eyes surveyed him, surprised. He sensed duplicity from them, and fixed them with a stern stare.

"It's the Jedi Master!" a dismayed voice hissed, and his eyes followed it to a face.

Ah, he should know this face, though not as well as that of the young man he couldn't quite remember. He drew himself up, gazing serenely down into the man's face. He was... he was a Livan. Yes, that was the word. Furthermore, the Livans were Force-sensitive, in their degree. They'd felt what... the man he had been... had done.

Some of the certainty he'd felt wavered in him. There had been a name, a name worn by the man who had called him, who had used him to heal the reef. Why could he not recall? There was no coherence in his recent memory, and that was troublesome. It must be dealt with, but later would be soon enough. These men were the most pressing problem he now faced. They meant to pose as a search party, but that was not the fullest truth of their intentions. No, they had come to find out who had undone their efforts, and they were not best pleased to discover it was he.

He stared at the men who confronted him, several sliding around to his side, outflanking him. He thought of the man beneath the boat, so weary that he hadn't even stirred when he'd risen and left him. He could suddenly remember that man's name very easily. Obi-Wan Kenobi. But why did the young lover's name bring a flicker of annoyance with it?

It was not important now, he decided as one of the Livan's hands fell on the lip of the boat, preparing to tip it over and reveal the young man who lay beneath. He smiled, turning to the terrorist conversationally. "There's no one else under there," he said pleasantly.

"There isn't anyone else under there," a vague nod confirmed the words, and a slight turn of the head accounted for the rest of them. So easily swayed-- he could have done this with little trouble even before. He folded his hands easily before his belly, the motion coming familiarly, thoughtless.

"Who is your leader?" Force, thoughtless as breathing, laced into his words, natural as the sunlight and the rain, spreading out in a green-gold net over the men who faced him.

"I am Ilvar," the half-dreamy response came from the one he'd half-recognized. Ah, yes. Of course, the secondary manager of the canning factory. How interesting.

"You are highest in your organization?" A nod. "From whom do you take orders?"

There was a long pause, then a response. "Princess Livarin."

The tall man nodded, his guess confirmed. "On whose behalf does she act?" he questioned them, on surer ground now. They looked uncertain, glancing among each other, anxious to please him.

"On the behalf of the Livans," one of the men ventured timidly, and emphatic nods greeted him. "And what do the Livans act on behalf of, other than themselves?" Feeling the ignorance and the small, childish, fumbling energy of untrained sentient Force and its clumsy manifestation in their ill-advised thoughts and actions was like the ache of the land for rain in the desert; worse, they were abysmally low in insight. Which was why they were so confused and misguided. But now they would have a guide. He gazed at them mildly, waiting.

"On behalf of... everything. The world. Torehir." one said slowly.

"Ah." That earned him a slow smile. "There you touch truth." He lifted his head, gazing straight into the sun, unblinking. "I speak for the world," he lowered his gaze again, smile growing deeper. "Therefore I lead you, and you will answer to me." The words rang with his certainty, and though he knew it was a childish illusion, he parted the cloud above them and light shot down in a broad shaft, seeming to fix him in a ray of spun gold. Gulls swooped to arc and bank around his shoulders, crowing their raucous cries.

Like all illusions, it had its effect in spite of sentient cynicism. The Livans shifted nervously. Disbelieving looks were exchanged, and he frowned slowly, moving the Force again so that clouds gathered, lowering, thunder rumbling in the distance. The men shifted into a tighter bunch, milling like frightened sheep. The flickers of fear they felt fed off one another and quickly grew in them to become a low, formless, instinctive terror.

"Do you require proof?" he smiled again. "Look at the reef you destroyed." His eyes narrowed, the clouds thickening, thunder growling louder. "Will you move against me, or will you serve me? Unguided, you have moved against me in my service, like the fools you are. I will show you how to move against our true enemies."

They exchanged nervous glances again, shifting uncomfortably, no one wanting to be singled out.

"You lie, Jedi," Ilvar plucked up his courage and mastered his fear, the obsequiousness he had shown at the cannery evaporating as he understood that Qui-Gon knew he was responsible for the acts of terrorism. "You use your wizard's tricks to confuse us. You will betray us to the Torehiri."

"I think not," the tall man fixed him with a serene stare. "Come," he lifted his hand, gesturing lazily, and they fell in behind him as he strode proudly across the sand, wrapped only in sunlight and the long flowing cloud of his hair. Jedi? He pondered the term thoughtfully. Yes. He had been Jedi, once. But no more.

Several minutes walk, with the short Livans struggling to match the pace set by his long legs, brought them to a small communications array set on the shore for broadcasting transmissions to the next continent. "Observe, if you doubt." He raised his hands, feeling the very air vibrate to his call. Force was in him, around him, was him. He did not move or speak to direct it, merely felt it answer his will.

The sand stirred, seeming to flow and eddy around the concrete pedestal that supported the metal and plastic dish array. A Livan gasped-- the concrete was disintegrating, weathered away by air and shifting of sand particles, a process of aging intensified a thousand-fold. Blooms of rust began to spread on the metal like dark orange lichens, eating cancerously at the dish, and the plastic twisted in the sunlight, warped and writhed and burned, withering. A snap of electric arc flared, and another, as the insulation on the wires was eaten away, and the wires themselves eroded, disintegrating, the metal particles dispersing. The dune grasses crept forward as the dish collapsed, roots lacing into the fading form of technology, covering it, obliterating it. The dune reformed subtly, a smooth and innocently beautiful mound of shimmering opal dust and graceful trailing grasses where the comm station had squatted in its artificial ugliness.

"Now." He let his gaze rove the shocked faces of the men. "Do you oppose me?"

Slowly, one by one, the Livans shook their heads, eyes sparkling with fear and awe. "You are Livantanerai," Ilvar whispered, and went to his knees. One by one, his men followed him. All was as it should be.

Obi-Wan awoke alone, wrapped only in two damp Jedi-cloaks, aware of dusk falling and the damp sea-breeze penetrating to his bones. He lifted himself suddenly, disoriented, cracking his head against a seat in the inverted hoverboat and swearing automatically. He reached out with his senses for Qui-Gon but felt no sense of the Jedi Master's presence.

He scrambled out from under the rough shelter, cursing the weariness that had sent him to sleep. There were footprints surrounding the boat, booted and bare, many of them. The bare prints were fewer, large and wide in comparison to the narrow booted feet-- Qui-Gon's tracks, unmistakably. They mingled with the boot-prints and progressed away across the sand. Obi-Wan called his clothes to his hand, hastily struggled into his wet, sandy leggings, and bundled the rest in the cloaks, breaking into a rapid trot, trailing the prints across the quickly-drying beach.

He backtracked two parallel sets of tracks, one heading for the improvised shelter and the newer one heading away from it. The original trail led down to the surf. There was another heading down into it at the same point, the direction of the prints indicating that people had come from down the beach. The trail Obi-Wan currently pursued continued straight ahead. He frowned. They had landed, come straight to himself and Qui-Gon, then left with Qui-Gon, but passed their boats... then presumably reversed direction somewhere further down the beach, returned to the boats, and left.

He left his bundle and broke into a run, following the tracks, sensing them with his mind, alert for signs that Qui-Gon might have attempted to break free. But there were none; no signs of evasion or pursuit, just the measured prints of a quick walk. The tracks stopped and milled in front of a low, unspectacular dune and then reversed back toward the place where he knew they disappeared into the breakers.

Whoever it was that had found them lying under the boat, Qui-Gon had gone with them, without waking him. Obi-Wan winced. The Jedi Master had been hurt, vulnerable... there was no telling what might be done to him in his current condition. Obi-Wan quickly made up his mind on a course of action, retrieving his clothing-bundle. He ran back to the overturned hoverboat and dragged it out into the water, scrambling into it and igniting the power source. He had to get back to the city and enlist aid for a search.

The search proved futile. Three days of scouring the bay, the mainland, and all the nearby islands both by sea and by air turned up nothing-- not so much as a whisper of Qui-Gon's whereabouts. Obi-Wan had kept his senses open, straining for any touch of the Jedi Master's familiar aura, but found none. He remembered the scattered fragments of Qui-Gon's psyche sinking beneath the overload of the Living Force of Torehir that he had summoned. It was little wonder he could not sense the other man beneath that.

On the second day he called Yoda and asked for Jedi aid; specifically, that Qui-Gon's Master be dispatched to use the remnants of their Master/Padawan bond to try to locate Jinn psychically. Yoda's eyes narrowed and his mouth pursed thoughtfully. He nodded at last and cut the communication; Obi-Wan expected to be notified shortly that Jinn's Master would arrive soon.

In the meantime, he spent his days and evenings in relentless, expanding search, hoping that the Jedi Master had not been spirited offplanet secretly, wondering what he would do-- and how he would feel-- if the man had.

His own guilt in the matter of the abduction weighed upon him heavily-- he had failed Jinn yet again, a fact that could hardly fail to reinforce the older Jedi's mistrust of him. That is, if Jinn were ever found, and if his mind could be recovered when he was.

Obi-Wan's lips pinched tight with dismay, and he banked the jetcraft he was piloting sharply, swerving around an outcrop of stone. He and several Torehiri divers were scouting underwater cave areas not far from the bay on the small submarine craft, but their air was running low and they'd had no luck here either. He was beginning to despair, his concern for the elder Jedi's welfare nagging at him mockingly.

A shadow eclipsed him for a brief moment and he glanced up with instinctive caution at the underbelly of a huge sandshark, tail lashing sinuously, driving it forward. Obi-Wan frowned. He had not Qui-Gon's skill with manipulating the Living Force, but it occurred to him that there was an angle of search he had not yet tried.

He pulled his craft out of formation and let it settle to the sandy bottom. Climbing off, he pulled off his flippers and let his feet sink into the silky sand. It was a connection with the planet, with its life and pulse; the water swirled very softly around him, caressing him. He sank into the sensations, increasing his sensitivity to the life that burgeoned around him.

The sense of the predatory shark, the milder fish swirling out of its path, the stingrays and the billion tiny corals... he drifted toward the corals, sensing more of Qui-Gon there, more of the hand that had lovingly rebuilt the reef. Lovingly? Yes. The sour Jedi Master had poured out an unbelievable swelling of happiness, fondness, ecstatic self and selfless love for the life that existed here and for the world that supported it. Obi-Wan began walking forward toward the shadowed curl of the repaired reef, shocked at the intensity of this sense of Qui-Gon, of the hidden thing he had discovered. Such fearless, total love... it made his throat close to think what this selfless gift might have cost Qui-Gon Jinn. It twisted a knife in his heart to think that he might have lost his own chance to witness the depths of love in Qui-Gon's heart.

His hands halted centimeters from the delicate sprays and coils that formed the reef, sensing the tiny lives that thrived there thanks to the benevolence of Qui-Gon and of the Living Force. He reached out to them with his mind, marveling at their well-being, their contentment, their tiny collective knowledge. Extending a tendril of his own thought he summoned his sense of Qui-Gon, reached out and gave it to them, felt the small thrill of recognition and peace, tiny but magnified by the scope of the reef. After a long moment, he probed very gently, questing, looking for more images of the man among the unformed mind that was the reef.

Nothing. He nearly slumped with despair, but the corals were nearly mindless, after all-- just because he had failed here did not mean it might not work elsewhere. There were the sharks and the gulls and the tiny beachfront creatures... and also the land animals. He could not reach out to all of them, not now, his abilities were already stretched to their limits... but the Living Force generated by the planetary entity of Torehir was stirring in response to his question, he could sense it... stirring, curious, coiling around him and then--

Obi-Wan felt a snap like the recoiling of a broken elastic as he was instantly cut off from the reef and from his sense of communion with the life-force of Torehir. His eyes opened and his brow creased. That was unusual. It was as if Torehir itself had rejected his gentle probe...

He remembered belatedly to glance at the readout on his oxygen regulator. The gill was nearly exhausted. He turned and made his way back to the small jetcraft and nosed it toward the surface, following in the wake of his departed companions, seeing them bobbing on the distorted mirror of the sea's surface, where water ceased and air began.

After regrouping they darted back across the choppy waves, depressed by their failure. Obi-Wan fell behind, thoughtful, reaching out again toward the life-force of Torehir. All was silent before him now, silent and serene and as smooth as glass, as though the whole planet was shielded against him. He could still use the Living Force, still draw it to him and channel it forth... but it was vastly, eerily silent, the currents opaque to his seeking touch.

Giving up for the moment, he focused ahead, seeing the point of the dock begin to resolve itself from the amorphous forms of the shoreline. He abruptly sensed a familiar presence that sent his heart leaping with joy. Obi-Wan speeded his craft, outracing his companions and banking in toward the dock, sending a wide fan of water spraying up, but none of it touched the small figure who awaited him. Yoda tapped his gimer stick patiently as water parted around the shield he'd woven. Obi-Wan leaped to the dock, a wide smile on his face. "My Master."

Yoda lifted his head, fondness shining from his eyes in spite of his serenity. "Obi-Wan." He nodded warmly, but there was caution in his eyes. "Felt you try to seek Qui-Gon, I did. Felt the Living Force exclude you."

Obi-Wan nodded, acknowledging the truth of the words. "I don't know what happened." Yoda would know if anyone did.

"Mmm." Yoda dipped his chin, pondering for a moment, choosing to reveal no more.

"Have you brought Qui-Gon's Master?" Obi-Wan looked around unobtrusively, seeing only Yoda.

"Brought him I have. Let us return now to the city. Come." The tiny Jedi Master serenely turned and began to make his way meticulously over the uneven boards in the dock. As always, Obi-Wan felt an urge to pick his Master up and carry him, but he knew the words that would greet his impulse: 'Make haste with patience.'

Obi-Wan felt a great portion of his burden lighten, lifting from his heart with the knowledge that he again shared it with another Jedi: his own cherished Master. Obi-Wan trusted Yoda beyond thought and life. All would be well now, if it possibly could.

The young Knight went to one knee on the plush palace carpeting not out of necessity, but the better to meet his Master's eyes. Yoda took a cushion from a tall chair and seated himself upon it, arranging his robe with a deliberate lack of haste that his former Padawan recognized as a delay designed both to make Obi-Wan feel his subordination and to stall for time in which to select words. Yoda had, after all, trained him in the finest arts of diplomacy. He smiled warmly at the little Master, accepting this aspect of him along with all others.

"I thought you would send Qui-Gon's master here to seek him, but I did not expect you to come." Obi-Wan ventured at last, as Yoda became still but did not begin to speak.

"Qui-Gon's Master am I," Yoda murmured at last, lifting his sleepy green eyes to Obi-Wan's.

The Knight blinked, understanding immediately, reflexively drawing back. This explained Yoda's delay, then. "You... never mentioned training him," he spoke hesitantly. He didn't understand why his Master might have made such a significant omission.

"Never asked, did you." Yoda's eyes twinkled for a moment with sympathetic humor. "Better, I thought it, that you did not know before you were Knighted. The Council agreed. You harbored much resentment against Qui-Gon. Measure yourself against him, you would have. Your own man I wanted you to become, free of his shadow." Yoda cleared his throat wryly. "What did it matter, who I have trained before, eh?" He poked Obi-Wan with his stick. "My Padawan were you, Obi-Wan. My Padawan you will always be." His ears curled as Obi-Wan smiled hesitantly, unable to help himself. It was true, though it still stung that Yoda might have chosen Qui-Gon more willingly than he had taken Obi-Wan.

And that, of course, was the exact sort of thought and fear Yoda had hoped to spare him by remaining silent. Obi-Wan drew a deep breath and blew it out forcefully. There would be time to meditate upon this knowledge later; for now, he had duties to attend. He set his personal jealousies aside, focusing on the issue at hand. "Master, have you been able to use your bond to sense Qui-Gon?"

Yoda tilted his head, troubled. "Yes and no," he answered cryptically, narrowing his eyes. "Sense him you did too, I think."

"The residue in the reef," Obi-Wan nodded.

"That, and more." Yoda paused to ponder. "Your thoughts I would have," he requested gently, and Obi-Wan bent his head, allowing his small Master to clasp it between his three-fingered hands.

He felt Yoda's deft, light telepathic touch delving to his most recent memories of Qui-Gon, sifting them quickly but with care. "Mmmmm," Yoda grumbled softly. "Thought so, I did."

Obi-Wan squirmed, a little uncomfortable with the notion of Yoda discovering his sexual feelings for Jinn, and opened his eyes as Yoda withdrew. His Master's frown had deepened. Obi-Wan raised his brows, questioning.

"Drew too much of the Living Force, did Qui-Gon. Gave too much of himself to the life of the reef. Force-energy has overcome his control. The collective minds and energies of the animals, the plants..." Yoda paused, thinking. "They have a will, which they let be known to us through the voices of the midichlorians." The ancient Master fingered the head of his stick thoughtfully. "When Force surges more strongly than a Jedi has been trained to control, very strong do the voices become. Overwhelm the rational mind, they may. It is possible that Qui-Gon has become the unwitting agent of the life-forces on Torehir. Too deeply connected he is."

Obi-Wan frowned, partly understanding, remembering his sense of Qui-Gon in the reef and how the Living Force had suddenly seemed to shut him out. "He's become an... Avatar?" the Knight suggested hesitantly. "Of the Living Force?"

Yoda nodded, accepting the term. "Rare it is, but not unprecedented."

"But Qui-Gon is still there, inside the Avatar," Obi-Wan guessed, his understanding growing. Otherwise, why would the Force have shut Obi-Wan out when it perceived his touch? It had shut him out as Qui-Gon had done from the beginning...

"Understand, you do," Yoda nodded. "Your insight serves you well." He sighed with what might have been worry, moving to sit on the low bed he had been provided. "Subsumed he is-- one life-force of many. The Force listens to him, among a multitude of voices. Louder his voice may be than some, but his will does not control."

Obi-Wan nodded soberly, glad of Yoda's counsel. He might have searched for days or weeks without such conclusions occurring to him independently. Yet all the time, the evidence he required had been right here under his nose.

"Can you reach into the Living Force to find the Avatar?" Obi-Wan sank to the floor and crossed his legs.

"Run the risk of being shut out, I do, as you were." Yoda sighed. "But find it I may. I will listen for a sense of Qui-Gon's mind. When he speaks, then can I sense him. As I did this afternoon, when he prompted the Avatar to close the Living Force to your mind." Yoda sighed. "Listen constantly, I must. I will tell you when I am certain." He lay back, and Obi-Wan reached to take his stick and set it gently aside. Yoda opened his eyes, his expression sober. "Act, the Avatar will," the old Jedi murmured. "Ready you must be."

Obi-Wan nodded and bowed, then rose and left the small Master to his seeking.

He had barely closed the door behind him when a diplomatic functionary rushed up to him, panting with haste and fear. "Jedi Kenobi. There have been more terrorist attacks on Torehiri industrial installations."

"In addition to the destroyed communications array?"

"Yes, Knight Kenobi. Many more. And they are all..." he hesitated. "I think you'd better come to see the vids."

Obi-Wan hurried along to the communications room.

The vids were indeed most informative. Finding a small dune with a high concentration of trace metal particles where there was once a communications array had been one thing-- but in the first vidclip he saw, there was uninterrupted forest where a mining company had been quartered. Worse, the shafts were filled in with uncut, solid rock. Hysterical miners spoke of how the stone had come to life and flowed toward them, forcing them up and out.

Next the vids showed a landing strip crumbled to dust and seeded with flowers, and after that followed more images of what Obi-Wan could only call accelerated natural reclamation.

Everywhere in a small district, communications towers and power conveyors had simply rusted away. Solar collectors had been reduced to their component atoms. Mudslides had destroyed fields and roads. It seemed that the parade of destruction would never end. So far the incidents were all localized to a remote area in the tropical interior of the same continent upon which the capital was built. The continental interior was accessible from the capital only by aircar or by foot travel-- the most isolated areas had been struck first, and the pattern of destruction had paralleled the movement of information towards population centers in a circle of slowly increasing diameter.

Obi-Wan could see the undisciplined intent of the Living Force behind all of it, Force energies working to restore a fully primitive state to the planet, combative of the efforts of the two indigenous sentient species. And behind that unleashing of power stood the body and abilities of Qui-Gon Jinn, the focal point of Force, the unwitting hand that directed it.

There were no injuries and only one eyewitness-- a terrified, primitive local who babbled hesitantly about a god, a being unlike any he had ever seen, tall and golden and clad only in a wild mane of hair.

Obi-Wan winced as speculative looks passed back and forth between the diplomats following that description, and then rested suspiciously on him. After an hour of watching hysterical news reports that had begun to repeat themselves long ago, he excused himself to report to his Master.

After hearing Obi-Wan's news, Yoda agreed that they should relocate to the district where the terrorists were active, and Obi-Wan made their excuses as diplomatically as possible without actually admitting to his certainty that Qui-Gon was involved. He obtained a transport for their use and prepared it for departure.

The sun was sinking low when they departed and their conveyance chased it, keeping it just above the horizon as they set out for the interior of the continent. Obi-Wan sat piloting the aircar next to his tiny Master, ruefully reflecting that in spite of his best efforts, the damage Yoda had sent him to prevent was already done. The royal courts of both Torehir and Liva thought that Master Jinn had turned to the Livans' side to work mayhem against the Torehiri. As a result the Torehiri were thrilled to have the Jedi out of their palace, while the Livans were cautiously optimistic about a turn of events that seemed to do them little harm.

"Master, I've been considering our possible courses of action," Obi-Wan commented. "What if I were to attempt to interfere with the raids in such a way as to arouse Qui-Gon's animosity, so that the Avatar will surface and act against me?"

Yoda's eyes narrowed as he considered the suggestion. "Unwise, that would be," he decided at last. "Capable is the Avatar. He can direct far more Force than Qui-Gon can summon on his own. And anger... that is the path to the dark side." Yoda regarded Obi-Wan serenely. "Would you risk destruction only to place Master Jinn's feet on such a path?"

"Of course not," Obi-Wan responded, chastened.

"Find him we can," Yoda reassured his former Padawan with a pat on the leg. "Confront the Avatar then you will."

"Me?" Obi-Wan frowned. "I had thought you would use the bond--"

Yoda smiled at him serenely, mysteriously. "As the Force wills, so shall it be," was his only response, and Obi-Wan knew better than to press for further details.

They flew low over a long finger of snowcapped mountains that sank gradually into a low fringe of green hills. The texture of the tropical foliage at the lower elevation was like crushed green-blue velvet racing past beneath them. On their right, the folded ridges sank into a wide, flat valley, so broad that Obi-Wan could not make out its other side. He tried to relax, but he couldn't help feeling nervous-- it was an uncomfortable sensation knowing that the Living Force on an entire planet had personally rejected you. Perhaps at a crucial moment, he would not even be permitted to manipulate it. At least he could rely on the Unifying Force, where his true strength lay.

The console of the aircar chirped, and Obi-Wan read the display. They had left the lands nominally claimed by the Torehiri, and were proceeding into an unclaimed belt of Livan lands claimed by small, scattered jungle tribes. So far the Avatar's activities had been contained to this area, perhaps because it wished to secure a base of power before risking government reprisals.

"Follow the river," Yoda suggested. Obi-Wan obeyed, decreasing both the vehicle's height and velocity. He settled their course over the center of the river and opened the canopy at Yoda's gesture. The small Master leaned over the side of the open aircar, white hair flying in the wind of their passage, and Obi-Wan suppressed a fond grin. He suspected his Master was secretly enjoying the chance to be out of the stuffy Temple chambers and Council meetings he usually frequented on sterile Coruscant.

Obi-Wan slowed and lowered their altitude again, letting Yoda enjoy the scenery of the winding brown river. Heavy tropical trees laced with lianas leaned far over its wide expanse, and bright birds flashed in the treetops. Huge lizards crawled on the ground, lifting three-eyed faces to the unaccustomed hum of the aircar, and small antelope-like bovines browsed and startled from the infrequent clearings as they buzzed past.

"Strong with the Living Force is this valley," Yoda mused. "Unsurprising that it has begun here." The words were whipped away, audible mainly through the training bond Obi-Wan still shared with Yoda, as nearly every Jedi did with his former Master. "Stop," Yoda directed unexpectedly.

Obi-Wan brought the aircar to a smooth halt, and Yoda pointed through a tangle of weirdly curling gray branches that partly eclipsed a stone structure, a crumbling pyramid of sorts, the top of which only barely crested the hundred-meter tree canopy. "Fly closer," Yoda instructed, suddenly almost childishly eager. Obi-Wan complied.

Small golden bushes with hanging clusters of red berries crept up the flanks of the abandoned structure, working sturdy roots into the ancient stone. Snakes and lizards basked in the sun on the bare patches of rock, especially upon a wide obsidian block that capped the structure. It looked tropical and treacherous. "Just like home," Obi-Wan quipped lightly, thinking of Dagobah, and Yoda gave him a mock-stern glance before returning his attention to the ruined temple.

"Here the Avatar has been," Yoda stated, eyes closing, hand reaching out as though to stroke currents of Force. "Find the nearest village, Obi-Wan."

"Yes, Master."

They landed as the sun sank toward dusk, and Obi-Wan surveyed the crude mud and rush huts with dismay. Livans of widely varying shapes, sizes, and ages emerged from them in silence, surveying the newcomers with caution. Eyes went wide as Obi-Wan lifted Yoda from the open car and then triggered the remote canopy. Children shrank back with small cries of fear, and Obi-Wan realized that these people had never seen many outworlders before, if any.

Obi-Wan set Yoda on his feet and felt calming Force immediately begin to emanate from his Master; round-eyed, half-naked Livan children peered out from behind their parents' legs and began to chatter interestedly at the Jedi as their instinctive terror of the unknown was dispersed. The adults were more resistant, but they relaxed slowly as well. Yoda gazed around the village serenely, questing lightly with Force.

Obi-Wan and his Master turned simultaneously just as the crowd parted and a Livan man strode through. "Ilvar," Obi-Wan spoke, recognition lighting his features. "I did not expect to find you here."

"Jedi Kenobi." Ilvar bowed. "I had hoped to meet with you. It is our good fortune to meet so soon; perhaps fortune has led us together." He smiled, bowing his head. "I could not remain in the capital when I learned that my own home was under attack, so I summoned as many good men as I could and came to protect my own."

"The Avatar has harmed no people yet," Obi-Wan observed mildly. "I do not think you need fear that it will do so, unless it is unwisely opposed by those who are not prepared to meet it."

"Perhaps you are right," Ilvar nodded respectfully to Obi-Wan. "I have seen the Avatar, and know why you have come." His voice was rich with meaning and he gave Obi-Wan an intent look. "I was patrolling with my men, and several of us saw him standing on the pinnacle of our ceremonial temple."

Obi-Wan sighed, realizing that Ilvar had probably identified Qui-Gon immediately. The Jedi Master's height and coloring would be highly distinctive on this world, not to mention his long mane.

"The temple is by the riverside several hours' walk through the jungle," Ilvar volunteered the information calmly "I have seen this being and I have full faith that the Jedi can stop him."

Obi-Wan bowed slightly, taking advantage of the movement to glance at Yoda. His small Master's response confirmed his own intuitions; Yoda was drawing graceful patterns in the dust with his stick. To the Livans they would mean nothing, but they formed letters of alien script; Yoda was cautioning Obi-Wan that his senses told him Ilvar had spoken at least one lie.

Obi-Wan wondered for a moment why Yoda had not merely used their bond to communicate, then understood-- it was possible that the Avatar might overhear them, if they used the Force for private communication.

Yoda scuffed through the letters, satisfied, not lifting his head, content to let Obi-Wan continue the negotiations. To Obi-Wan it was a familiar game; people confronted with this ploy tended to underestimate both Jedi, assuming that Obi-Wan was callow and inexperienced and disregarding his tiny, wordless companion almost entirely. After having defended the cannery fields under the Livan's gaze, Obi-Wan could not hope that Ilvar would disregard his abilities, but his assumptions about Yoda might prove useful.

Their ploy seemed to be a success; Ilvar's gaze had barely flickered over Master Yoda and his eyes were confident when they rested on Obi-Wan. "My people will be pleased to provide accommodations for you," he offered expansively. "There are several lodgings vacant. It is the season of growing, and many families tend their fields far from here."

"We are honored to accept your hospitality," Obi-Wan responded. Ilvar set off at a brisk pace, gesturing for the Jedi to follow, and of necessity Obi-Wan reached down to pick up his tiny Master, who lifted his arms like a child to be carried.

They were escorted to two small huts that stood adjacent to the eaves of the wood, far from the center of the village proper. Obi-Wan set Yoda down in front of the smaller, and took the larger for his own-- long experience had taught him that practicality was worth more than politeness in matters of accommodating his and his Master's relative sizes.

The huts were only sparsely furnished but well-built, and Obi-Wan took a moment to familiarize himself with the layout of his own before he went to join Yoda. Together they sat outside the smaller shelter, gazing toward the center of the village. As the evening fell, Livan children played and shouted around the huts, and their relatives silently tended campfires and prepared the evening meal.

"Master Qui-Gon did not trust Ilvar," Obi-Wan mused softly after a moment's relaxation. "I find that I do not, either."

"Lying, Ilvar is," Yoda nodded mildly, thoughtful. "About what, we must discover."

Obi-Wan nodded, brushing away a buzzing insect and gazing toward the fires in the center of the village, dusk darkening at the corners of his eyes. A night bird called in the forest and was answered by another. "Something else is odd here, something not right," he murmured.

"Too many empty huts there are, and yet there is no sign of damage or neglect. Recent, was this exodus. And no fields did I see, as we traveled, for missing villagers to tend." Yoda was drawing with his stick again, meaningless patterns this time. Obi-Wan knew that somehow the gentle motion helped the old Jedi Master attune himself to the Force in his surroundings. "There are too many old men and young women in this village. Unbalanced it is. Unnatural."

"Ilvar's men are the only young men here," Obi-Wan agreed softly. "And there are few of middle age from either gender..." he tilted his head, instinctively listening for the currents of the Living Force, but they remained silent to him. He had never before realized how much he needed the response of that discrete part of the energies that surrounded him.

"Find answers here, we will." Yoda nodded his head thoughtfully. "We were guided here by the Force."

Obi-Wan nodded agreement, unable to shake off a twinge of apprehension. Something tugged at his senses with a hint of dread and of pain to come. He knew that it would not be easy reclaiming Master Jinn. He had little doubt that Yoda could sense it, too.

"Sleep, you should." Yoda advised Obi-Wan, lifting heavy-lidded eyes. "Tomorrow will bring its share of both trials and answers."

Obi-Wan nodded obediently and returned to his hut, choosing the back room for his rest. Curling himself up inside his cloak, he fell asleep, dreaming uneasily of jungle vines and creeping animals and of the inexorable moving stone that had filled the mines on the news vids, all moving through the eerily silent Force, relentlessly pursuing him.

He awakened feeling chilled and stiff. Raucous birdcalls pierced the still, misty air though it was still deep steely gray outside his paper-covered window. Obi-Wan rose, leaving his cloak, and stripped to a single layer of tunics and leggings, deciding to take a jog around the village and into the forest in order to wake himself.

Though the Living Force was still closed to him, he fell into harmony with the Unifying Force easily, letting it guide his footfalls. He was nearly silent, ghosting through the mist, tendrils of silver brightening and curling around him as the dawn progressed. After about a mile, some half-felt sense caused him to slow his steps, and he fell to the springy loam behind a thick log, panting very slightly from his exertions. He removed his tunic and wiped his face, then draped it back over his shoulders, sighing with pleasure in his exertion and enjoying the serenity of the forest that surrounded him.

It was peaceful in the small dell formed by the fallen log, and he felt himself drifting toward sleep, so he was about to rise and resume his workout when the sense of a presence stopped him and his intuitions jangled like decompression alarms. He lay quietly back against the log, blanking his mind instinctively, becoming one with his senses and automatically recording every detail of what he was hearing.

He heard the crunch and slog of steps, and finally the breath of a faintly nervous voice, muffled damply by the lingering fog. "Livantanerai?"

The voice was immediately familiar: Ilvar's. Unsurprised, Obi-Wan stilled and sank even further away from himself, letting his mind go perfectly blank. He drifted instinctively deeper into the shrouding layers of Unifying Force that he'd drawn about his mind as he began his morning jog. The Avatar would be highly sensitive; he must hide his presence without error.

"Be silent, fool. There are Jedi about." Qui-Gon's soft-velvet tones were startling in their familiarity, the words hissed in annoyance.

"I am sorry, Livantanerai." Ilvar's voice was much softer now, frightened. "I meant to report Kenobi's arrival to you. His, and another Jedi's. The second Jedi is small, almost a child. He never spoke, and I believe he is--"

"I know of both their presence and their abilities." The Avatar cut him off sharply. "Far better than you, Ilvar. Be wary of them both, especially the smaller. Do not let his size deceive you. He is the most powerful of the Jedi Order. He has come for me."

Ilvar's next remark was too quick and low for Obi-Wan to hear; he suspected it was a curse. "You can defeat him, can you not?" Ilvar continued, a cringing tone entering his speech.

"I can defeat any ten Jedi." Obi-Wan could almost see the Avatar gesturing dismissively, and he had to suppress a pang of worry for his Master. "Go along with their plans, and when the time is right, I shall move against them. Now return to the village before you are missed."

"Yes, Livantanerai." Ilvar's steps receded in the direction from whence he had come.

Obi-Wan lay as still as the log at his back, not letting himself experience the vaguest flicker of thought, remaining one with the motion of time throughout the forest, simply existing without independent essence. At last the Force tickled at him, letting him know that the Avatar had gone. Birds still whistled and the green vines and plants of the forest curled and thrived, blossoming luxuriantly ; Obi-Wan peered over the log cautiously to see an empty clearing lying before him. There was no sign that anyone had ever been in it.

A few faint rays of sunlight had begun to burn through the mist by the time he re-entered the village at a calm trot, and he headed straight for Yoda's hut. The small Master was waiting for him, standing on a box that he had dragged to his window, watching Obi-Wan's approach.

When the Knight ducked under the lintel to enter the earth-floored hut, Yoda was waiting for him, concerned. "Felt the Avatar's presence, I did." Yoda gazed keenly at Obi-Wan. "I felt you near it. Reckless, to go out alone." Yoda glared up at Obi-Wan. "Powerful being, is the Avatar. There is much risk in its capture." His ears curled downward. "It will take action against us today, I think."

"Yes," Obi-Wan agreed. "Master Yoda, Ilvar is the Avatar's ally. They spoke in the forest. Ilvar meant to warn it of our arrival, but the Avatar already knew of our presence."

Yoda's sharp eyes fastened on him and he nodded curtly. "Know, the Avatar does, that I am here. Reach out to it, I did, when I realized it had come near you." Yoda gestured Obi-Wan to follow him, and led the way into Obi-Wan's own hut, then began unloading his pack testily, tossing the gear carelessly about on the floor. "Sense your presence it did, in spite of my probe. I could not hide you fully."

"Do you think it is aware that I overheard?" Obi-Wan found that he had to suppress a smile in spite of the gravity of the situation as the small Jedi Master struggled awkwardly to clamber up and into the emptied backpack to be carried.

"Perhaps. Perhaps not," Yoda remarked cryptically. "Best to proceed as though it is."

Obi-Wan nodded a little shamefacedly and drew on his tunics. He would not need the cloak by day in the steamy heat of the jungle, so he left it and then picked up the pack, hefting his Master onto his shoulders easily.

He carried Yoda out into the center of the village where women had begun to prepare fruit for roasting in the coals of the previous evening's small campfires. On the central fire, a larger communal kettle was bubbling forth a delicious scent of vegetable stew. Obi-Wan's mouth watered and he reached into an untouched pocket of his pack, scrambled for a moment, and withdrew his hand triumphantly. He tore open the package of ration bars he had found, though he knew Yoda would be eyeing the kettle longingly. His Master had never been fond of field rations.

Yoda looked at him mournfully, accepting the bar, and Obi-Wan smiled at little. At length he managed to barter one of the ration concentrates to a curious teenager for a bowl of stew and seated himself to share with his Master, crossing his legs and relaxing peacefully. They passed the bowl between them until its contents were gone. Yoda sighed regretfully as Obi-Wan surrendered the empty bowl to the Livan girl who had filled it for them.

He drew out a portable data terminal and used it to access the latest video news broadcasts, Yoda watching over his shoulder and grumbling softly to himself. During the night, a major thoroughfare between the two nearest cities had crumbled and been replaced by trees that should have taken a century to grow. The incident was well beyond the previous perimeter of activity, and yet the Avatar's morning visit with Ilvar strongly indicated that he had not left the vicinity of the village and temple. Obi-Wan frowned. Clearly, the Avatar's ability to use its power effectively at a distance was growing as it became accustomed to using Qui-Gon's body and mind.

"Move quickly we must," Yoda observed soberly, and Obi-Wan nodded. Aside from the inconvenience that the acts of sabotage caused to the planet's industrialized citizens, the Jedi could not afford to let the Avatar's power increase further. It would be good to move quickly in any case; the being might even be weakened at present because of the stress of its previous evening's activities.

Obi-Wan grew aware of Ilvar gathering his men with subtle hand signals and was unsurprised when the man approached them, fairly buzzing with nervous energy. His eyes were wary, enough so that Obi-Wan would have suspected him without another shred of evidence. It appeared that he was under a great deal of pressure, caught between an unpredictable near-god and two Jedi. Obi-Wan found that he had little mercy for the man. No matter what had motivated him, his plight was a direct result of his own poor choices.

"So, Jedi Kenobi, what have you planned to do in your quest for the Livantanerai today?" Ilvar asked.

Obi-Wan hesitated to speak, using the excuse of his last mouthful of ration bar. Yoda simply waited, content to be left out of the conversation, his small clawed hand resting easily on the Knight's shoulder. "I had thought we might seek to negotiate with it, to discover if it might discuss terms for ceasing its hostile actions." Obi-Wan suggested at last, swallowing the last of his ration bar. "Do you have any idea where we might leave a message for it, stating our intention to parley?"

Ilvar hesitated, considering, his eyes flickering to Yoda again, nervously. "The Temple," he stated at last. "If you intend to leave such a message, that would be the best place to do it. My people..." he hesitated. "We leave offerings there, in hopes of appeasing him. Food, drink... when we return, they are gone."

Obi-Wan nodded, rising to his feet in a single fluid motion. "Perhaps we should set forth quickly then, so that the Avatar may be neutralized as rapidly as possible. I would not see any more of your people threatened or countenance further disruption of their way of life." He delivered the subtle barb with a perfectly guileless expression, meeting Ilvar's glance with serene, innocent eyes.

Ilvar merely nodded shortly and gathered his men with a curt gesture. Obi-Wan followed, calmly maintaining a distance of only a few feet from the Livan. The man began to sweat even before they reached the edge of the wood. Obi-Wan maintained his calculated serenity, easily ignoring Ilvar's obvious discomfort.

"I confess that I am unsure of the Avatar's motives," the Knight confided genially to the nervous Livan, projecting trust and ease. Using the illusion of sharing a confidence, he could plant seeds of doubt that might lead to the man examining his decisions from a new perspective. "It would seem that if it intends to destroy all evidence of mechanization upon Torehir, it would center its operations in a less primitive locale." Obi-Wan smiled, moving closer to Ilvar conspiratorially. "Perhaps it intends to build a following among the uneducated, who would be more easily swayed to serve its purposes because they are unlikely to realize how much civilization benefits them-- by providing medicines and communications equipment, for example. I know you are well educated, Ilvar, but it would seem that you are exceptional among your tribespeople. They may be vulnerable to the Avatar in ways that you are not."

Ilvar stiffened very slightly, offended; Obi-Wan might have missed it if he had not been watching the Livan alertly. "I mean no offense, of course," Obi-Wan continued smoothly. "The Jedi believe in balance, Ilvar. Your education and powerful position balance the weakness and vulnerability your people experience as a result of their lack. Meanwhile, their connection to the land balances you. You are there to protect them and they are there to ground you in your heritage."

Obi-Wan heard Yoda grunt softly in agreement. "A grave responsibility you have. Consider, you should, how to act in ways that will best benefit your people." Yoda spoke to the Livan for the first time. His eyes fixed Ilvar and the man met them for a nervous moment, then swallowed, nodded, and returned his gaze to the fore.

After the short discussion Ilvar's forehead creased with a frown and he increased his pace. He did not seem predisposed to listen with an open mind, so Obi-Wan relented rather than pressing on with a gentle lecture on both interspecies and interracial symbiosis. Instead, he spared his attention for his surroundings.

Before them and to their left the wide brown ribbon of the river curved into a meander that had partially eaten away and undercut a tall earthen hill, forming a long set of steep, sloping bluffs. They loomed ominously in a precarious balance of overhanging earth and stone, the yellow-brown mud of the soil only sparsely dotted with vegetation on their face and immediately in their shadow. Obi-Wan felt the Force tingling a warning at him as they neared the area. "Those bluffs look unstable," he commented lightly. "Perhaps we should detour around them."

"I have walked this path for many years. They are quite safe," Ilvar reassured him stubbornly, stalking ahead doggedly on a precariously narrow strip of land between the water and the steep bank of the bluff. Obi-Wan glanced over his shoulder and realized that many of the men who had accompanied them when they left the camp had simply melted away, and the others were lagging badly. Yoda's small hand squeezed his shoulder, and the Knight took a breath, squaring his shoulders.

He cast a glance at the sky as they neared the narrowest and most deeply shadowed part of the path, alerted by thinning sunlight to the gathering of thick, towering clouds. Ilvar noticed his glance and hastened to reassure him. "It rains in the forest every afternoon, Jedi. If we hurry, we will be sheltered by the overhang of the bluff."

Yoda's hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder tightened firmly in warning, but it was unneeded-- Obi-Wan too could feel the silent gathering of power, like a tsunami pushing the wavefront of cloud through the sky and lacing into the ground. He eyed the buildup of steep, darkening clouds warily, following close to Ilvar. The other man was sweating and spared Obi-wan only a quick glance as he hurried his pace again, clearly wishing the young Jedi would move further away. Tension hung over him like the gathering clouds in the sky.

Obi-Wan suppressed a wry smirk. There could be only one reason why Ilvar had not realized that the Jedi had already recognized the clumsy trap for what it was: preoccupation. The Livan had to be wondering if he was valuable enough to the Avatar for his own safety to be preserved... would his life be considered an acceptable trade for the elimination of Obi-Wan and Yoda? It was a crucial question, and it clearly occupied the majority of the Ilvar's mind.

Obi-Wan saw the mental weights and measures waver, totter, and then slide into place at last. He followed as Ilvar suddenly wavered away from the interior of the bluff. Rain had started to patter and a muddy veil of drops was beginning to cascade from the overhanging lip of the bluff. The Livan glanced upward, face haggard, and dove for the river even as Obi-Wan heard the earth begin to groan and the rainstorm abruptly roared into a fierce downpour. Obi-Wan took two steps after the other man, but Ilvar's form was already obscured by the opaque, pelting curtain of water drops. The Unifying Force whispered to him, and Obi-Wan acted without thought.

He leaped instinctively, Jedi-enhanced abilities launching him high, and felt his toes touch earth on top of the bluff even as it began to give way. Another bounce and somersault, Yoda clinging to him tenaciously, and Obi-Wan danced back from the sliding edge, struggling against a sudden heaviness in his body and in the air around him.

The leap that should have carried him clear of the edge kept him just ahead of the horrible roaring crumble, and he struggled, dodging the whipping trunks of hundred-meter trees as they too succumbed to gravity and the Force and toppled to increase the sliding fall of mud and stone. Another leap, this one even shorter as an unseen force shoved at him, pushing him off-balance and nearly tumbling him into the avalanche of mud, stone, and shattered wood.

He was drenched, unable to see in the rain, following the will of the Unifying Force by instinct alone. He could feel Yoda drawing on it as well, working to oppose the power that threatened to defeat their efforts to escape, holding the malicious will that directed the Living Force at bay. More of the ridge collapsed, and yet more; his worries for Ilvar and the other men of their group vanished in the necessity of preserving both himself and the precious burden of his ancient Master.

And then it was over. There was nothing left to fall; the hill had expended almost the entirety of its height. Obi-Wan collapsed wearily on a half-buried log, muscles quivering with effort, feeling a surge in the Living Force; the downpour slackened and ceased abruptly. He made himself stand to face it, bedraggled and muddy, leaves and dirt clinging to his boots his body, his face and neck. Turning, he stared straight into the eyes of the Avatar, standing on the other side of the same fallen log, just beyond the lip of the slide. It was naked, as wet as Obi-Wan, long dark hair plastered to its body in tangled wet ropes. Its eyes burned with angry blue fire.

"Another time, Jedi," it addressed them with ill-concealed annoyance, and turning, vanished into the forest. Yoda caught Obi-Wan's shoulder again as the Knight tensed to spring into pursuit.

"Let it go, Obi-Wan." The command was calm. The small Master's head turned and Obi-Wan followed his gaze. Alerted by the crash of thunder and the rending groan of the earth, a small band of Livans was approaching them cautiously, peering through the forest at the Jedi and at the destruction that lay beyond the point where they stood.

There were no familiar faces; these were different Livans than those they had met in the village. Obi-Wan tallied them with Jedi care. They were different in very interesting ways-- their ages did not range far toward either elderliness or youth. The single exception was one old woman who led the band, moving toward them and leaning heavily on a carved staff. There were also two young women and a young man who seemed to be in their teens. Obi-Wan felt Yoda's sharp interest; it matched his own.

"Observe the distribution of age, Master," Obi-Wan suggested softly, and Yoda nodded.

"The missing population from the village," he agreed, never taking his eyes from the advancing group.

The old woman who led the oncoming Livans gestured sharply, and several of her charges began to pick their way out onto the swampy, treacherous new mudflat, their efforts made particularly dangerous by shattered, protruding tree limbs. "Was anyone caught in that?" she snapped peremptorily.

"One man may have been," Obi-Wan answered. "A Livan called Ilvar. He dove into the river just as the cliff gave way."

"Search downstream!" Several more of the natives hurried off to obey her command. "Ilvar?" She looked keenly at Obi-Wan, distrustful, then her eyes widened slightly as her gaze shifted to include Yoda, whose appearance was even more alien in comparison to the indigenous species of Torehir. "A native of Rilvani would be far too wary to walk in such a place."

"But he did." Yoda answered her calmly and Obi-Wan watched her make a careful estimate of the small Jedi Master, her sharp eyes betraying her fierce intelligence. Her expression tightened, and Obi-Wan felt the Force stir weakly as she probed at Yoda, sensing his power in a way that Ilvar could not. "Ilvar guided us," Yoda serenely accepted the tentative probe, making no effort to thwart it.

"We were very nearly engulfed by the slide," Obi-Wan added.

"The land demands a sacrifice." The woman shook her head, troubled. "Never before in my life has it been so."

"A sacrifice?" Obi-Wan asked doubtfully. Ilvar had spoken of offerings previously, but the woman's sober tone seemed to imply more than simple leavings of food and drink.

The woman cast a mistrustful look at Obi-Wan. "What do you care for our traditions, offworlder?"

Yoda touched the back of the Knight's neck to quell him. "Jedi, we are. Come to help you."

She eyed Yoda again, cautious interest flickering in her eyes. "I know nothing of Jedi."

"As we know nothing of your traditions," Yoda responded. "Help each other we may, but knowledge we must share as well, I think."

"After we locate Ilvar." The woman's eyes flashed with pain.

"Of Rilvani he is, you say." Yoda murmured compassionately.

She hesitated for a long moment, eyes moving past the Jedi to search the tangle of shattered trees and torn earth. "He is my brother's son," she said simply, and began to make her way around the outskirts of the destruction.

"Wait," Yoda called to her. "Set me down, Obi-Wan."

Obi-Wan obeyed and Yoda emerged from his pack, moving forward to extend his gimer stick over the mudslide. Obi-Wan felt his Master reach into the Living Force. The whole area seemed to shiver as a wavefront of power emerged from the tiny Jedi, working its way outward in a slow semicircle. Yoda's head bowed and his eyes closed as he extended his senses into the thorough probe. Obi-Wan watched the woman's eyes widen with shock and awe; clearly she could feel something of what Yoda was doing.

At last the probe's boundary reached the river, and Yoda let it dissolve, straightening wearily. "Ilvar is not buried." The Councilor raised his head decisively. "Seek him in the river, you should."

With a shout, she recalled the digging searchers, redirecting them toward the silt-freighted, murky waters of the wide river. The obstructed water, which had already risen far enough to trickle around the wide finger of shattered earth and resume its seaward flow, implacably scouring away at the boundary of the mudslide. Visibly relieved by the increased likelihood of Ilvar's survival, she turned back to Yoda. "Come back to the village with me, Livantan?"

Obi-Wan recognized the word from his preliminary research into Torehiri cultures; it was an honorific, a title given to Livan shamans. Increasingly Obi-Wan suspected a link between the term and Force users. Yoda seemed to recognize the link as well and inclined his head politely, accepting the courtesy title. With dignity he returned to the Knight's pack. Settling his Master on his back, Obi-Wan fell in behind the woman.

They made a short journey through the forest, arriving in a tent campsite arranged around several burned-down bonfires. "You have left your village," Yoda observed. "I am wondering. What causes this?"

"We seek to appease the land," she responded. "It is not pleased that we settle and build, that we shape paths and roads and plow fields and build other things. And so we choose not to do these things. We serve the will of the land now, moving where it leads us."

"Pilgrims, you are," Yoda commented thoughtfully. "The Living Force-- has it manifested to you?"

She eyed him sharply. "I am not sure what you speak of."

Yoda paused, considering, and she led them into a small tent, the entrance curtained by strings of bone beads. "Have you encountered a concentration of energy... a centering of power... around a place, or an individual?" Yoda resumed the discussion thoughtfully. "Visions or other manifestations you may have been granted, or perhaps some among your people?"

"I am a High Priestess of Rilvani, and I will not discuss these matters with you," she stated stubbornly. "Such things are sacred to us." Her words were curt, defensive. "They are not the concern of outworlders."

"But they have become our concern," Obi-Wan offered persuasively, and Yoda nodded.

"Seen such a thing I have, and has Obi-Wan." Yoda did not wait for his former apprentice to remove the pack, levering himself out and using clawed hands and feet to clutch at Obi-Wan's tunic like a rope ladder that he used to descend to the earthen floor of the tent. Obi-Wan smiled a little at his Master's independence and enthusiasm, waiting until he stood free before shouldering out of the abandoned pack.

The woman's eyes cut quickly at Obi-Wan, measuring him anew. "What have you seen?"

Yoda eyed the Knight serenely, waiting, and Obi-Wan took the cue to speak. "A man. An outworlder like myself. He wields the power of the life-force of Torehir," Obi-Wan spoke reluctantly. "He is tall," Obi-Wan lifted the palm of his hand some distance above his own head, demonstrating, "with long dark hair, graying, and blue eyes...." his voice trailed away; he realized the woman was staring at him with shock and fear.

"An Avatar he is, Priestess. A vergence in the Living Force." Yoda gazed at her sternly. "Taken unwilling he was, by the Living Force of Torehir. We have come for him. Have there been other such possessions in the history of your religion, Priestess?"

It seemed that she could not rip her eyes from Obi-Wan, mesmerized by his short recital, as though he had seen visions of a god that had been denied to her. "In legend," she agreed. "Strong Livantani may be taken..."

Yoda nodded, ears pricking forward. "Livantan is the Avatar. A powerful Jedi, was Qui-Gon Jinn."

"Then all the Jedi are Livantan?" She pondered Yoda's words for a long moment, doubtful. "The Avatar... my people call such beings Livantanerai. They are chosen from the most powerful of the Livantani."

Yoda nodded. "All Jedi use the Force. Seen, you have, what I can do." Yoda turned to regard Obi-Wan. "Knight Kenobi?"

Obi-Wan bowed his head obediently, and lifted his hands, summoning two strands of the bead curtain inward and into his grasp. It was the most innocuous of abilities, but when he re-opened his eyes, the High Priestess was staring at him with a mixture of awe and fear.

"Few Livantani among us have such power," she admitted. She looked down at her fingers for a moment, hesitating, then abruptly surrendered the last of her resistance to discussing religious matters with Yoda. "It will take a great sacrifice to appease the will of the land, and to satisfy such a powerful Livantanerai as it has chosen," she whispered. "We have none that is suitable to offer, and the best of us... they have begun to wonder if it would not be better to appease him through obedient service. Like--" she faltered to a halt, glancing at Obi-Wan again.

"Like Ilvar," the Knight stated gently.

Her eyes flashed at him, hostile, fear underlying her aggression. "Ilvar is no longer of the Rilvani! No Rilvan would abet in the willful attempt to take a life!"

Obi-Wan sensed growing eagerness in Yoda as his former teacher considered her words, and felt his Master's desire to speak further with the Priestess alone. He rose to his feet with a polite nod to the Livan woman, retrieving his pack. "The Jedi value life as well, High Priestess. If you will pardon me, perhaps I may be of more use with your men at the river. I can help to locate Ilvar quickly. I think we would both like to speak with him."

She gave Obi-Wan a courteous, dismissive nod, re-centering her attention on Yoda. Obi-Wan stepped out into the light, leaving the bone-bead curtain swinging behind him, and turned his face toward the river.

"Your pardon, Livantan?" A shy whisper at his elbow, and Obi-Wan turned to find one of the two teenage girls he had noticed before following him, her head bowed. She had the same delicate features, pale complexion, and slight height he remembered from Princess Livarin. He smiled, trying to reassure her, but she did not raise her head.


"There is someone here who wishes to speak with you." She ghosted away without another word, not looking to see if she would be followed. Obi-Wan pursued her to the edge of the woods, sensing no threat from her or from the Force. Obi-Wan sensed the presence of another person a moment before they rounded the first thick-boled tree.

He lifted his head, eyes cool, and the other man spoke.

"Jedi Kenobi?" It was Ilvar, his clothing wet and bedraggled from his time in the river, his face and hands badly scratched and his body streaked with wet mud. He had lost one boot and his pack, and his face was ashen, drawn with fear "I ask you for amnesty and for the protection of the Jedi."

"For what reason should the Jedi succor you?" Obi-Wan gazed at him keenly, knowing the answer before it was given.

"I have done nothing to deserve your protection, but I have nowhere left to turn. I can..." Ilvar swallowed, glancing nervously around them in the forest. "I can offer information," he whispered, almost too low to be heard. "I have learned that I cannot trust him, and I have thought about what you said as I led you to the cliffs. You are right and I was wrong." His proud eyes flickered with shame and a moment of half-hearted resentment.

Obi-Wan simply nodded, understanding. "I will take you to make your petition to Master Yoda."

They moved into the tent village, Ilvar's presence and condition drawing startled eyes and gasps. Obi-Wan sensed the intensity of Ilvar's shame and felt sorry for the other man, but he led him toward the Priestess's tent quickly, not sparing the time for merciful reassurances.

"Master Yoda, Ilvar has come to parley with us," he called softly, and the High Priestess emerged from her tent swiftly, glaring at Ilvar, who practically cowered under her fierce gaze.

"And so your precious leader cared nothing for your life, as he cares nothing for ours," she said at last. Ilvar bowed his head.

"There is more." Ilvar steeled himself, eyes dull. "Jedi Kenobi, I was responsible for the initial attacks on Torehiri industrial facilities." Ilvar was deflated by shame, his shoulders slumped. "I had hoped..."

"You have always let your desire for Livarin overcome your better judgment," the Priestess snapped. "Livantan Yoda has told me of the destruction you wrought at the reefs. Truly, you care nothing for our people or our world, Ilvar! It is not surprising that the Livantanerai rejected you."

Obi-Wan's eyes widened. "You hoped to stop Livarin's marriage," he realized, watching Ilvar thoughtfully. The Livan man slumped, his shame intensifying. "You knew that the factions would blame one another for what had happened..." Obi-Wan shook his head. Ilvar's selfish action had cost many lives and losses. It was difficult to feel sympathy for such a selfish individual, but somehow Ilvar's dejection touched his heart. Embarrassed by his own sympathy, Obi-Wan reluctantly laid a soothing hand on the slumped shoulder. Perhaps once he would not have understood, but recently, he had begun to learn the pain of frustrated desire, and of rejected love-- .

He blinked, startled by the thought, and let his hand fall away. Love? For Qui-Gon Jinn? It was an unexpected notion, and a decidedly unwelcome one. However, he could sense its truth. Little though he liked it, he must meditate deeply on these thoughts. Later. He set them aside with determination.

Yoda emerged from the High Priestess's tent sedately, interrupting Obi-Wan's moment of dismayed introspection by parting the curtain with the tip of his stick. "Fear leads to loss of wisdom," he spoke mildly. "Realized his errors Ilvar has, I think." He planted his stick firmly and gazed a challenge into the tall man's eyes. "And more, perhaps."

"I only meant to stop the wedding. I did not expect the Jedi to become involved." Ilvar sighed. "It is not right that Livarin should have to marry without love--" his voice broke.

The choice was hers to make, Ilvar, and she made it for the betterment of her people, as you did not. You are shamed, son of my brother." The Priestess spat at him and he wiped it from his cheek silently, along with tears. "Leave our village. You are no longer Rilvani."

Yoda reached for Obi-Wan imperiously and the young Jedi picked him up, settling him neatly into the pack. "Master Yoda, Ilvar has asked for our protection."

Yoda stared over the young Knight's shoulder, contemplating the shamed, beaten man before him. "Regret your actions, do you? Hmmf." Yoda made himself comfortable and extended his stick, poking the Livan's shoulder. "And well you should. Will you act with us to stop the Avatar?"

Ilvar swallowed, looking sick with fright. "I can call my men away from him and I will do that much gladly." He swallowed hard. "I have no wish for them to die as a result of his indifference."

"Hardest lessons are often the most well-learned," Yoda mused. "Come with us you may, and protect you we will, to the best of our ability. Unless you prove that we should do otherwise."

"I will not betray you again," Ilvar promised, and Obi-Wan could hear sincerity in his words.

"Then we will proceed to the temple, as we had planned." Yoda patted Obi-Wan's shoulder, and the Knight turned obediently, looking to the horizon to gain his bearings.

"The temple?" Ilvar's face went white.

"Yes. And on the way, gather your men we must."

Ilvar hesitated, glancing at the High Priestess, but her face was resolutely turned away. He glanced back at Obi-Wan, who was already moving across the gathering of tents, made his decision, and caught up quickly.

By late afternoon they gathered nine of Ilvar's fifteen men and determined that at least a few of the others had returned to the main village. Dusk was already threatening when the last man was located, and Obi-Wan remembered how quickly night had fallen the previous evening.

"Master, perhaps we should return to Rilvan," he suggested. Due to detouring after the men who had fled from the falling hillside, they had not yet reached the temple. Presently they rested in a wide clearing, an area of thin soil and scattered stones with a solid layer of underlying bedrock that prevented the growth of trees.

Obi-Wan moved to sit on a stone outcrop and wiped sweat from his brow. Several of the men wandered over to drink from a slow stream on the far side of the clearing. Ilvar gazed up at the angle of the sun, calculating the time until dusk. Obi-Wan removed his pack carefully, mindful of Yoda's comfort, and propped it against the stone. "It will be dark long before we could reach the temple and return to the village."

Yoda seemed distracted, nodding absently, the tips of his ears curling slightly downward, a sign of worry. Obi-Wan quickly delved into the Unifying Force, reaching for a sense of what might be troubling his Master.

"The Avatar is coming," Yoda stated suddenly.

Obi-Wan surged to his feet, weariness forgotten. "Prepare to defend yourselves!" He called a quick warning. He could feel the Force-surge himself now, wild and uncontrolled, raw green power concentrating itself around a point just at the edge of the wood. Obi-Wan turned in time to see the tall, feral form of the Avatar emerge from the greenery and stride toward the center of the clearing.

The entity in Qui-Gon's body tossed a quick look over its left shoulder, eyes roving in a circle, counting opponents and estimating their positions. The fierce gaze finally came to rest on Yoda, eyes narrowing slightly, head tilting as the being judged the threat presented by the deceptively tiny Master.

"Avatar," Yoda nodded politely. "Sought you we have. We ask that you return Qui-Gon Jinn to us."

The Avatar tilted its head almost as though it did not understand language, gazing at Yoda for a long moment, and then malice gathered in its aura, well-honed muscles tensing, one arm rising with its hand extended.

Yoda responded by raising his own arm serenely. The living Force almost seemed to spark between them, wills clashing, and Obi-Wan winced, spying a trickle of perspiration working its way down Yoda's scalp beneath his sparse white hair. The grass between the Jedi Master and the Force-entity flattened and Obi-Wan's own hair stood on end as near-tangible power crackled through the clearing, whipping the leaves on the trees, scattering silver-backed green shards over them all, then whipping the leaves into flight again.

The Avatar's other arm rose and the wind screamed, buffeting at Obi-Wan, tumbling men across the meadow. Obi-Wan watched helplessly as Ilvar struck a rock and lay still. Yoda tottered a step back under the assault, blinking against the lash of dust and grit, but did not falter. He braced against the sturdy stone, Obi-Wan's pack flattened against it at his side. Obi-Wan glanced between the two of them desperately. Yoda was holding the Avatar at a standstill so far, but their allies had fallen or fled and there was no backup waiting. His muscles tensed and he crept forward, eyes on the tall, bare form. He could sense something of Qui-Gon there, sense the Avatar probing Jedi memories for knowledge of how best to defeat Yoda. Perhaps if he could...

"Padawan!" Yoda's agonized cry was simultaneously an entreaty and a warning, directed at two. The Master's eyes never flickered, but he dropped his stick and his other hand rose, shaking slightly, the frailty of his slight body emphasizing the struggle behind his efforts.

Obi-Wan had never heard the gravelly voice so stressed; he would have to move quickly. As he was the only other Jedi present, he was the only person with a prayer of reaching Qui-Gon's consciousness or resisting the Avatar if Yoda failed.

He reached for the Force to aid Yoda, but it eluded him; Living Force boiled around him, blocking away the Unifying Force, and he could not grasp its power; it was now entirely closed to him. That Yoda could even continue to draw it in opposition to the being before him was little short of a miracle; it spoke of the aging Jedi Master's strength and control.

Obi-Wan crept another foot forward, lightsaber in his fist, and the Avatar spared him a warning glance. The light was fading quickly and Obi-Wan could feel the roots of his hair prickling, could taste ozone in the air and knew that black, roiling storm clouds had begun to gather. Ah, so that was how Yoda was holding it at bay; the being's concentration was divided and working the weather was not a simple task even for a Force-Avatar.

Obi-Wan had to strike before the lightning could. But what could he do? His lightsaber was virtually useless if they hoped to capture Qui-Gon alive... and he did hope to do that, he realized. Very much so.

The electricity in the air began to surge exponentially; their time was running out. Instinct prompted and Obi-Wan leaped. Even as he flung himself forward he felt Yoda cry out, knew that a stone had broken through Yoda's guard and struck the tiny Master, making him slump to the ground, body hunched with pain. The Avatar raised his arms toward the sky, but lightning did not come; as Obi-Wan hurtled forward he saw the man's feet begin to sink into the solid stone on which he stood.

His arms closed around the bare dirty ribs as he struck Qui-Gon's body in a flying tackle and he wrapped his legs around the man's thighs, holding on desperately. They had to hold the Avatar here; perhaps Ilvar would recover the sense to fire his stun weapon while it was distracted with Obi-Wan. But they were sinking swiftly; he was enclosed in the being's radiant aura of power. He felt the rock flowing ominously around his legs. It was already too late to let go.

It seemed to take forever, and yet it was only a heartbeat. Strong arms came down around him, intensifying the Force that wrapped him, and the stone flowed away to admit them. Obi-Wan had time enough to gasp a deep, terrified breath and bury his face in the taller man's neck before the stone closed over his head, shutting out air, sun, light, and life.

He did not know how long they sank, the living stone giving way before them, clasping them in a gentle flow, but he was aware when they stopped, for he could no longer shift even slightly. The resistance against him was complete and even. He had only the space afforded by the slight flexibility of flesh and bone to move in, had only the heat of the dirty body against him to remind him that he yet lived.

He would have trembled, if he could. Did Qui-Gon... or rather, what he had become... intend to kill him, to stay here until Obi-Wan perished, then leave him entombed in the stone that would not part for him?

Obi-Wan felt his heart pounding-- too fast, using up his precious lungful of air. He dug his fingers into the other man's broad back, struggling against the panic that claimed him. He could feel the other man's heart, slow and calm and steady. He was sweating, the rough, beard-stubbled neck was wet against his face.

There was nowhere to go, only the channel carved around his body, the stone enclosing even the fine lines of his eyelashes.

He had to anchor himself somehow, and the body he held was live, strong, and felt deceptively normal against him. He focused on the slow beat of the strong heart, forcing his own heart into rhythm with it, trying not to squirm against the obdurate prison that enclosed him so unforgivingly. Qui-Gon's body was far more pliant, very warm in comparison to the icy damp chill of the surrounding stone.

Obi-Wan realized he had to focus himself, try to reach the Jedi master where others had failed, even Yoda. He had to find some flicker of the man that he knew lay within the confusion of Force, will, and mind-- enough to convince the Avatar not to leave him here, not to kill him.

Qui-Gon? Obi-Wan opened his mind timidly, feeling his body begin to reach the last of the desperate breath he had drawn, his heart pumping harder, his lungs aching. Please, Qui-Gon. Answer me.

There was no response, and Obi-Wan squirmed in spite of himself, feeling the first confusion of dizziness. Qui-Gon, please. Can't breathe. He reached for the Force, but it eluded his fading control.

No response again and Obi-Wan struggled harder, knowing it was useless, knowing it shortened his life, but unable to stop himself. He let his brain flicker desperately through images that might rouse some sense of the other man. The dead boy on the pavement, the child with her pet, the living beauty of the reef. Nothing. He struggled desperately for something that they had shared between the two of them, but Qui-Gon had been so cold, so aloof, so...

Obi-Wan realized that was not entirely true. There was one intense emotional event they had shared. It was only a moment, a spark-- the slightest flicker of sharing, but it was theirs and nobody else's, and they had both felt its intensity.

Reluctantly, he called up his memories of their first night on Torehir.

There was dizziness and a sweet flutter in his belly as Qui-Gon lifted and swung him unexpectedly quickly through the forms of the dance, the warmth and the sensation of the bigger man's hands and arms more pleasant on him than he'd let himself admit. He felt a quick, rapidly-denied twinge of sultry heat in his groin at the suggestion that they might have to deepen their ruse in the gardens. His senses drowned in the unexpected passion in their single shared kiss.

The Avatar pressed for more, and Obi-Wan helplessly sank into memories of the moments of his and Qui-Gon's togetherness, hastily stripping away the defenses he'd erected in his own mind against what Jinn's touch and presence had threatened to do to him. Helpless, he felt himself firming as he remembered the delirious sensation of lying powerless in those strong, unyielding arms and being kissed.

He freed all his emotions, admitting to his pleasure in them, aware that awe-filled memories of watching Qui-Gon's nude form were ghosting through his mind as well. But that was not all that he was giving. The Avatar was powerful and subtle, and it extended into the Living Force that inhabited Obi-Wan; nothing could be hidden from such an intimate connection. He was revealing all of himself, even things he had half-hidden from his own mind and heart after he realized how much Jinn disliked and resented him.

He winced as the Avatar uncovered his intrigue at the idea he might simply be taken when he had awakened and found the Jedi Master standing over him in the night, half-clothed. Tears stung his eyes as the Avatar dispassionately examined the moment when Ilvar had revealed his motives and Obi-Wan first recognized the love he had hidden inside his heart-- love for Qui-Gon Jinn. He would have slumped in defeat if he could as the Avatar saw that he had abandoned thoughts of his lightsaber in the clearing above, realizing that he could not bring himself to harm Qui-Gon's body.

Obi-Wan struggled to shield himself as his mind was plundered, but he could hide nothing. Not even the secret, half-denied sense of comfort and pleasure that had kept him in the older man's arms and bed after the painful convulsions had ceased on the night he first battled the Livan terrorists. Nor could he conceal the flicker of deep, guilty pleasure he'd felt when he was presented with his own opportunity to cradle an unconscious, nude Qui-Gon in his arms and share the warmth of his life with the injured man, offering the wondrous small comforts of holding and being held. He'd had to suppress an erection in that moment, and now Qui-Gon would know about it. All of it.

He knew everything now.

Obi-Wan blushed painfully, trembling at the sensation of the Avatar thrusting deep inside his mind, sifting his thoughts and dispassionately examining these deeply private things, exposing him to the likelihood of the other man's scorn. If Qui-Gon returned, he would be fully aware of them all. Including the times, many of them rather inappropriate, when Obi-Wan had stolen a few precious moments to fall behind the Jedi Master and gaze at him speculatively, all while remembering the flare of his own desire when he had first felt Qui-Gon's erection searing his hip with hard, demanding fervor. He shivered, feeling terribly exposed and vulnerable. But it hardly mattered any longer, did it? In moments he would die of asphyxiation, suffocated by the terrible, obdurate chill weight of the surrounding stone.

Even as he despaired, he realized that he was feeling that long, powerful hardness swell against him again, heating and straining. A bright spot of hot moisture welled where the erection prodded him at the seam of thigh and belly. Something had reached that far into the vestiges of the man at least, and Obi-Wan felt a flare of hope in his fading consciousness as he reached out with one final, desperate plea: Please, Qui-Gon. Don't let me die.

Slowly the rock loosened its hold, flowing away from them, leaving a pocket of air around his head. Obi-Wan gasped in as much breath as the clasp of stone around his ribs would permit. Not enough, and the stone eased further, the warm strong arms that wrapped around him stirring against his body as they too were freed.

At first he just lay in those arms and breathed, terrible lung-searing gasps, until he finally got enough, finally ceased to panic. He wondered distantly where the air had come from-- the Avatar had probably channeled it through the stone to them. Had Qui-Gon heard and responded to his pleas, or was the Avatar merely toying with him now?

As his frantic gasps calmed, he felt the stone flow again, felt himself lifted slightly, and the hands came with him, moving up to the sides of his face, strong fingers tracing the lines of cheekbone and jaw.

"You were not a mate to him," the voice was familiar, but the tone was not. It was meditative, mild, and its intonation was ever-so-faintly alien. "I had thought you were, but you are not."

"And yet I am enough to him that you brought air to me," Obi-Wan ventured, still feeling that vivid hardness against him. "Enough to awaken him in you, enough to..." he paused. "Arouse him," he finished almost nervously, licking his dry lips.

"That is true," there was a soft laugh. "You are foolhardy, Jedi, to risk so much for one who is not your mate."

"Please release him," Obi-Wan breathed.

"Why?" The tone was amused.

Obi-Wan hesitated, unsure how best to proceed-- perhaps by trying to reason with the Force-entity, since his attempt to reach Qui-Gon had not been fully successful. "Avatar, I have the utmost respect for what you are and what you represent," he ventured, uncomfortably aware of that solid body still held tight against him from the waist down by the unyielding stone. "But you unwittingly do harm. The Torehiri and the Livans are live things as well, and you harm them. You destroy their sources of food, water, and shelter."

"I know," he swallowed nervously, sensing a flicker of irritation, "that the cycle of death and birth is natural to you. There must be predators and prey, and unfit species perish, to be replaced by others. And I realize that sentient species do not always practice proper respect for the land and the beasts that live on it." He sensed that the Avatar was listening in spite of its irritation, and he pressed ahead stubbornly. "And I know that you have seen in Qui-Gon's mind the horrors of what has been done to the environment on Coruscant and other industrialized planets and nations." Obi-Wan faltered for a moment in his plea. How could he overcome such horrific images of civilization's destructive potential?

"But the Livans and the Torehiri respect you, Avatar, each in their way," he managed at last, summoning images of the beautiful cities and parks they maintained. "They cultivate you where they may, and do a minimum of damage where they must. As a predator feeds on its prey, so must sentients feed on the land. But the Livans and the Torehiri each permit the land to renew itself, just as the natural cycle permits plants to grow each season and provides for animals that are prey to breed swiftly and thrive."

"You are wise, Jedi," the Avatar commented thoughtfully. "But why should I surrender this body, when in its form, I can make sure that they continue to respect me? When I can assure that I will not be abused?"

Obi-Wan licked his lips nervously. "Because you have taken something that does not belong to you," he squirmed a little, feeling the weight of rock pressing in around him almost tangibly even where it had receded. The Avatar's arousal had not subsided, either, and he was beginning to fear what it might ask of him. "Master Jinn is his own man, with a right to his own life-- a life that you know he has spent in service to the Living Force on many worlds."

"And I have given him power in return for our co-existence," the Avatar countered, voice rich with pride.

"But not his freedom," Obi-Wan whispered. "You resist being prisoned by machines, manipulated, shunted aside. Holding him against his will is against all that you stand for."

"And who are you to say it is against his will?" The Avatar's voice held a silky thread of anger.

"I am one who knows that what you do contradicts much of what he believes in," Obi-Wan felt himself sweating, eyes flickering desperately around in the blackness. He feared the pressure of rock enclosing him once more, feared how it might choke him, crush him.

"He does not think that you are such a one," the inexorable voice was not appeased. "He thinks you know nothing of him. He has told you nothing of himself."

"His actions have told me more than he knows," Obi-Wan countered stubbornly.

"You know nothing."

"I know how much he wants this," Obi-Wan whispered, a calculated risk, and leaned forward, feeling his nose awkwardly bump against the older man's before he settled his mouth to the soft lips beneath it, kissing them passionately.

He could feel shock from the entity he kissed, shock and an immediate response; the Living Force could not deny the energy their contact incited. The Avatar would probably take him now, he realized. Sex and mating were as much a natural part of life as birth and death. But what if he was wrong? What if Qui-Gon didn't really want this, what if it only pushed him further away?

But even as fears whispered to him, he could feel the balance of power shifting within the thrumming, vital presence that felt so much like the group mind of the reef, only unimaginably broader, deeper, and given form and speech by the mind and intellect of Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon... the Living Force wavered, focus shifting, and he realized that the man's consciousness was there, confused but intact, watching cautiously from beneath the slowly thinning layer of formless life-energy that had overcome him.

Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan felt hope kindle inside him, hope... and something more. He lifted his chin, nudging the kiss forward, and felt the sensual mouth open beneath his, hot and soft. He flicked his tongue inside it, squirming his right thigh as much as he could against the sturdy, hot length that pressed against him. Qui-Gon.

The kiss suddenly sank deep as both the Jedi Master and the Living Force that had overwhelmed him galvanized against Obi-Wan in passionate response. A flicker of Qui-Gon's sense broke through the cool power of the being that inhabited his body, a thin tendril of longing reaching out to touch Obi-Wan's mind almost timidly. The young Jedi moaned at the intimate touch of minds, arms tightening, desire spiraling in him with unexpected, irrational force. He opened himself to the other man's essence, eagerly welcoming Qui-Gon's return... but his eager welcome was met with alarm and fear, and then the sense of Qui-Gon's individuality quickly evaporated until it was eclipsed once more by the impersonal power of the Avatar.

Obi-Wan's desire ebbed involuntarily, the kiss cooling, and he could feel the Avatar's annoyance with his dimming enthusiasm. The body Obi-Wan held broke the kiss, and he felt the erection against his leg fading. "You are fascinating to speak with, but in the end, you are a fool," the Avatar mused coldly. "He would mount you like a pack-leader mounts a yearling, boy. To show his dominance. Nothing more." Rock began to flow again, trickling between Obi-Wan's chest and the body he held, a bar of stone quickly expanding between them, forcing him away.

"No!" Obi-Wan cried helplessly, but his arms were ruthlessly torn away from Qui-Gon's body and the cold, merciless stone flowed back upward to clasp his ribs, rising toward his head. He gasped another desperate breath before it rose over his mouth and then enfolded him completely. He flailed with his mind, pleading and begging, but the Avatar was gone.

Damn. He cursed frantically, terrified and beaten. He should have known-- every time he had grown even slightly close to connecting with Qui-Gon, the other man had retreated. But it was only his methods that had failed him, not his instincts; there was more of Qui-Gon in the Avatar than it fully realized. Enough to make it flee him instead of expressing its desire.

Enough to cost him his life, if Force and skill failed him.

Obi-Wan reached out along the single bond of contact that remained to him, finding Yoda's mind waiting for him at the end of their link. He ignored his Master's shock and relief. He had to pass along what little information he had gained in case he did not survive until rescue reached him. As his mind opened to Yoda's he could sense pain and weariness, but the Unifying Force was there, and he felt it reaching for him, embracing him with strength and reassurance.

"Digging I am," Yoda's sense was urgent, reassuring. "Hibernation trance you must enter." He felt a surge of Force energy along their bond, received a vision of the wizened Jedi Master determinedly hacking at the stone with his small lightsaber, levitating away the pieces he cut free. There was gray-green blood at the corner of his mouth, and there were two Livans hesitantly assisting him, shoveling away loose earth and clumps of dislodged grass with their hands.

The extra Force Yoda wrapped about Obi-Wan was just enough to calm his fears and he settled into serenity gratefully, drawing on his Master's strength and guidance, letting Yoda help send him deep into a hibernation trance.

He was barely aware, some hours later, of rock crumbling gently to dust around his body and of being levitated out onto the cool, dewy grass of the meadow. The freedom of air on his skin felt like heaven, rousing him gradually. He drew a deep breath, setting his internal rhythms to warm slowly back to regular levels of function, and felt Yoda's small hand stroking his brow as he slipped into natural sleep.

Obi-Wan wakened in the morning, unsure how he had arrived back in his own hut. He lay quietly, watching a fat spider crawl slowly over the ceiling and out through a jagged tear in the oiled paper window. Shaking himself from his lethargy he rose at last, stretching sore muscles and blinking stone dust out of his eyes.

He took a few minutes to go and bathe in the river, washing away the clinging dust and chill of his stone prison in the lukewarm water. Returning to his hut he dressed and finally ventured out to find his Master in the communications shed. Yoda was listening to a crackling transmission on outdated equipment. his ear-tips were drooping, a bad sign.

"--nevertheless, the Alesko facility is no longer viable," Windu's voice was dark with worry, a rarity for the composed Councilor. "You and Kenobi are the closest Jedi to Juyoren. I don't need to remind you that the situation is critical."

"I will do what I must, Master Windu," Yoda pondered for a moment. "Dispatch another team if you do not hear from me in a day's time."

Obi-Wan lowered himself to the ground, crossing his legs and waiting for the conversation to end.

"It will take several days for an alternative team to prepare and arrive," Windu pointed out. "How soon do you think the situation on Torehir will be ended?"

"Mmm." Yoda uttered a soft, meditative grunt, eyelids sinking shut. "Difficult to say." His eyes opened again, gleaming at Obi-Wan. "Perhaps soon."

"We have yet to gather the children I was dispatched for," Obi-Wan pointed out serenely.

"Issued orders I did for them to be brought together in only a few places," Yoda gave Obi-Wan an apologetic look. "That task was less pressing. Recovering Qui-Gon Jinn must be your first mission as a Jedi."

Obi-Wan sighed a little, resigned. He recognized that tone in Yoda's voice, knew that Yoda had foreseen the future, and was well aware that the stubborn Master would not discuss what he had learned.

"Master, I have been thinking," Obi-Wan murmured, and Yoda watched him expectantly. "Livarin once spoke a ritual blessing to me, saying the earth, fire, air, and water must be unified for the land to be appeased and made joyful and fruitful. Do you suppose that is a part of the Rilvani religion?"

"Raised in Rilvan Livarin was," Yoda nodded. "Told me, the Priestess did: Livarin was her daughter. When Torvan sent out his call for a Livan bride, the Force moved her to offer herself to him. She had been trained to become the next Livantani for her village."

Obi-Wan nodded thoughtfully. "When I was in the stone, Qui-Gon responded to me," he spoke softly.

"Thought he would, I did," Yoda spoke softly. "Qui-Gon's greatest mistake it was, leaving you on Bandomeer."

Obi-Wan shook his head a little, not seeing the relevance of the comment, and Yoda relented, smiling very slightly, the tips of his ears rising, his expression fond.

"Meditate on this you should, Obi-Wan." Yoda touched his former Padawan's brow gently. "Let the Unifying Force guide your actions. Trust in it... and in Qui-Gon." Yoda sighed. "Always has Qui-Gon pursued his goals single-mindedly. He knows no moderation." He raised a reassuring gaze to Obi-Wan. "When come to his senses he does, he will recognize his errors and change them."

Obi-Wan frowned a little, but he trusted in his Master, and he made himself relax. They stood there together quietly for a long moment until another thought occurred to the Knight. He reached out to the Living Force and felt it ghost through his mental fingertips, silent and unusable.

"Master..." Obi-Wan hesitated. "Is the Force...?"

"Closed to me as well now, is the Living Force," Yoda confirmed reluctantly, the moment of warmth between them passing. The corners of his mouth pulled down. "Strong we both are with the Unifying Force, but the Avatar is stronger." Yoda coughed, lifting his hand to his lips, patting at them with a tiny fold of cloth.

Obi-Wan glimpsed color in the small square of material and reached out with concern, touching his Master's mouth where he had seen blood in his vision as he lay trapped in the stone "Are you well, Master Yoda?" His voice was taut with worry.

"Well enough, I am. Too old for this rough fieldwork." Yoda gently pushed Obi-Wan's hand away, but not before the Knight had read the Force in his body and understood that his Master had indeed been injured. Perhaps a cracked rib, jagged edges nicking at his left lung.

Obi-Wan reached for Yoda again, this time with both hands, gathering the small body carefully into his arms. He needed the Living Force for healing, but the Unifying energies responded also, albeit sluggishly, and he concentrated them, slowly closing the small wound he had perceived inside his Master's body. The rib was still damaged; it was beyond his ability to heal. If Yoda moved about, the wound could re-open.

"I will find a solution before morning, or we will return to the capital without Qui-Gon so that a proper healer may tend you," Obi-Wan stated flatly, brooking no opposition, and rose to his feet.

Yoda just gazed up at him inscrutably for a long moment and then nodded acquiescence.

True to his word, Obi-Wan spent the afternoon in meditation on the problem, and by nightfall he had found the answers he sought.

He slipped from his hut and took the aircar to speed his journey, piloting it above the quiet, moonlit river to the wide clearing left by the mudslide, where he landed it and began to trek through the trackless jungle, his steps unerring. He knew where he was bound, and why-- the Unifying Force had spoken to him, thrumming in his veins and spirit with a quiet surety. He was safe in the night, reconciled to the Force and its will, aware of all the immediate potentials that lay before him and the beings that surrounded him. He was able to sense even the vast tapestry of Living Force in all its eerie silence, sidestepping venomous snakes and gnarled roots that menaced him in the night.

The small camp village they had previously visited had moved, and now the cluster of tents lay several thousand meters closer to the ruined temple. Livan men and women had pitched their tents downstream of the dam created by the mudslide and were burning felled trees for their smoky campfires. Obi-Wan stepped into the circle of dim, hazy light, and dozens of pairs of eyes turned to him, reflecting the orange of the flames. They seemed to be expecting him, and he was not surprised.

He stepped to the edge of the ring of ragged, muddy Livans who squatted around the largest of the fires. He could feel the Force strong about him and knew that he had chosen the right path.

"I have come to provide a sacrifice to the life-force of the earth, as the signs demand." Obi-Wan spoke clearly, his serene voice belying the fear in his heart. "I am Livantani, a fit consort for the Avatar; I bring a strong body and a willing heart. Let me be given to appease the wrath of the land. Take me to the Temple."

The Priestess he had spoken to the previous day stood, her withered body bent, leaning on her carved staff with the skull of a viper fastened to its top. "Prepare him," she instructed. She asked no further questions and Obi-Wan realized that she had already known that Obi-Wan would come. Perhaps she and Yoda had even shared foresight of his action on the previous day... Obi-Wan stood straight, resolute in his intentions. The Force demanded this of him, and he would give it willingly.

The three young people he had seen the previous day moved forward and clasped Obi-Wan's arms, leading him into a small tent. He realized one of them was the acolyte who had spoken to him the previous day regarding Ilvar's return. He gazed around warily. There were a few animal furs on the ground, and he was pressed down to sit upon them. One of the women went out; the other two acolytes stripped Obi-Wan professionally and folded his clothing, tying it into neat bundles.

The first acolyte returned with warmed water contained in an intricately crafted wooden bowl of delicately carved interlacing leaves. Setting the basin carefully on the furs, she dipped a wet cloth into it and began to rub it over his chest, beginning the process of cleansing his body.

Leaning over her, the male acolyte drew out a razor and began to shave Obi-Wan carefully, paying particular attention to the cleft of his chin, which was difficult to shave properly. Obi-Wan watched the gleaming bronze blade with caution. He held very still, not wanting to be cut as the sharp edge scraped smoothly across his vulnerable throat.

The third girl knelt and used tongs to withdraw a gray coal from a small metal box. She blew gently on it until it flared orange, then used it to light three piles of a sweet-smelling substance laid out on a bronze platter. The low blue flame that resulted released lazy curls of scented smoke into the air. He tried to relax; the scent was sweet and musky and the sensation of being washed gently from head to foot was quite pleasant.

The last of the warmed water in the basin was used to wash and rinse his short ruff of hair; the sensation of fingers massaging his scalp made him sigh involuntarily. Now that the razor had been put away, he was able to rest at ease. Opening his eyes, he watched as an acolyte gently began to oil his body, her hands arousing him slightly as she touched his penis and then moved between his legs.

He bit his lip, embarrassed by his response and slightly distressed that his sense of arousal had shivered his calm. He turned his head aside as her fingers stroked over him intimately and then slid within him, oiling him inside his body. He had to remind himself that it was a courtesy and a mercy, one he was sure he would appreciate shortly. Though he had been with women and men, he had never before permitted anyone to enter him, as he was sure the Avatar would do. He shivered, suddenly feeling chilled, and they raised him to sit upright again, drying his short, cropped hair with a surprisingly clean white cloth. His calm was shattered, but it was too late to turn back now. The will of the Force must be obeyed.

He steadied his breathing with difficulty, remaining still as his nipples and penis were touched softly with points of perfume. Then the male acolyte lifted the narrow platter of musky incense and wafted its sweet smoke over him with one hand as the women sat back on their heels, chanting. Obi-Wan realized he was still trembling, and not from the temperature inside the tent. He tried to comfort and ready himself with a lovely, arousing vision of Qui-Gon's bare body, but in his heart all he could hear was the coldness of the Avatar's voice. All he could feel was the sensation of icy stone flowing in to clasp his body in a death-grip when the entity had abandoned him, entombing him to die in solid rock.

The acolytes gave him no clothing, but each of the women took a bundle of his things and the young man carried his lightsaber along with them when they ushered him out of the tent.

The crone was waiting, leaning on her staff, her eyes gleaming in the firelight. Behind her, the villagers formed into two lines with a torchbearer and a drummer taking places at the head of each line. Obi-Wan was surprised by the number of villagers who were now assembled, villagers of all ages, some of them clearly having come from the huts in order to join their nomadic friends and kin. Perhaps everyone but Obi-Wan had sensed in advance what would happen tonight.

Torch-bearers scattered themselves at regular intervals along the lines when he appeared and a soft, eerie chant began, punctuated by the dour thumping of the hide drums. The Priestess stepped forward, inspecting him, lifting his arms and hands, casting a keen eye over his body to ensure that he was a fitting sacrifice to the Avatar of the powers she served.

At last she was satisfied. Obi-Wan responded to a sharp gesture of her staff, moving to the head of the procession. Slowly they wound their way into the fringe of the forest, singing mournfully. As they journeyed he could occasionally see the temple looming against the canopy; the mudslide had opened a gash in the trees. It looked stark and forbidding, and he could feel Force-currents intensifying as he approached nearer.

They made their way to the base of the ruined structure, the mournful chanting growing thin and eerie in the cleared spaces. Drumbeats echoed off the tall stone structure, providing a surreal counterpoint rhythm that made Obi-Wan shiver in spite of himself. He watched as his belongings were laid reverently on a stone at the base of the tall, partly-crumbled stair that led to the top.

In spite of her age, the High Priestess climbed nimbly, using her staff as an aid. Obi-Wan trailed in her wake, followed by the three torch-holding acolytes. The climb was strenuous and it took them several minutes to reach the top, loose pebbles and mortar crumbling away ominously under their feet as they proceeded higher.

The moons were rising over the tree canopy when they arrived at the last level, and Obi-Wan gazed nervously at the obsidian altar that awaited there. Deep grooves in its surface hinted at a time when it might have been used for the sacrifice of life; he glanced nervously to ensure that no stone knives waited to plunge at him, but it was as he had foreseen. His body was to be the sacrifice, hopefully not his life. Only he or Yoda could seize Qui-Gon's consciousness and hold onto it long enough for the Force-entity to weaken its hold on the Jedi's body and disperse. In any case, he knew that he alone could tempt the Avatar to come for him and linger to take him, thus giving him the chance that was needed.

The acolytes set their torches into slots in the stone and moved forward, herding him before them. His bare hips touched the icy rock of the altar, and he steeled himself to lie down upon it. Each of the four Livans who accompanied him took one limb, wrapping his ankles and wrists in leather bindings that they fastened to rings set at the corners of the altar. They tied him so that his hips rested near the edge of the stone and his legs jutted over the edge, knees bent. His ankles were fastened to the base of the altar rather than its top; his body must be accessible to the Avatar, the physical manifestation of their god. He shivered, feeling the cold obsidian against his skin.

After a short prayer, the High Priestess lightly tapped his nipples and navel with the tip of her staff, the cold sharp fangs of the viper's skull prickling at his flesh. The Livans moved away and started down the stair, taking the torches with them. It took them a long time to reach the bottom, but eventually he could see the line of small, flickering lights and worshippers winding away into the forest, chanting mournfully, leaving him alone.

Obi-Wan lay beneath the moonlight on the wide capstone of the ruined pyramid, waiting quietly, knowing that the Avatar would come. Deep carvings ran the length and width of the sacrificial altar, creasing his skin. He was left to contemplate his earlier suspicions that they were intended to channel away blood; this was a sacrificial altar nearly as old as the jungle itself, made for ritual pacification of the often angry forces of nature. He tugged automatically at the leather straps that bound him, but skilled hands had tightened the ropes that now held him here; short of using Force he could not escape. Soon he would be a sacrifice to the ancient Rilvani land-gods now embodied in Force and a single being: the Avatar.

His bare body shivered, goose-flesh rising on his arms and legs, his belly shining under the moon, stretched taut, waiting. He cleared his mind fully, stretching out his senses. The Living Force was still silent to him and he could not grasp it. The Unifying Force filled him instead, whispering its intimations of futures, letting him sense the strong entity that prowled around the wide base of the pyramidal structure. He drew more Force to himself instinctively, knowing that he could not match the Avatar's strength, but he was unwilling to release his only hope of defense.

The Avatar. Even as Obi-Wan sensed the entity, it began the awkward climb up the tall blocks of the side of the structure. It did not take long for the Avatar to reach the top; long powerful legs were well-suited for climbing and it reached the ledge that housed the altar within minutes.

Obi-Wan could hear the quiet footsteps of the being approaching him. The Avatar would know that the Knight was utterly alone and it might be able to sense his purpose and intent through subtle currents in the Force. He raised his head to watch the Avatar's slow approach, stilling his mind as completely as he could until all that remained was a low chittering of fear.

"An offering, a sacrifice. How amusing." The velvety voice greeted him lightly, colder than the rock on which he lay. "I had thought you would survive when I left you, Jedi, but I wonder what you hope to accomplish here." A broad solid hand fell on the flatness of his belly, stroking him slowly. "You know that you are powerless against me."

"I come to bargain," Obi-Wan nervously wetted his lips, gazing up into the wide pale blue orb of the moon. "I offer you the pleasures of my body in return for the freedom of Qui-Gon Jinn."

"I don't need your body." The voice rumbled deep in the sturdy chest. Obi-Wan suppressed a flicker of dismay. The Avatar paused, hand warm on him. "But perhaps I shall do as you suggest, and have you. Sacrifices offered here are mine by rights, whether or not I choose to honor the prayers and petitions that accompany them."

Obi-Wan swallowed, biting his lip. "I told you he wanted me." He made the words casual and triumphant. "There is more of Qui-Gon in you than you realize, Avatar." And it was true-- the being was using a mind formed by Qui-Gon's thinking and by his training, the preferences and habits of over fifty years' living impressed on malleable flesh.

A flicker in the indigo eyes accompanied a surge of anger and malice in the Living Force. Obi-Wan faced the stare bravely, chin quivering with the effort of muscles holding his head aloft. The Force could be dark as well as light. Why hadn't he remembered that when he made this absurd plan? He felt Unifying Force gathering in himself, an automatic defensive reaction, and he deepened his concentration and contained the power, drawing as much as he could summon, but he was reluctant to use it; it would not have availed him.

Obi-Wan let his head fall back, shifting his ankles in their bindings. He was suddenly afraid, gazing up into the brilliance of the moon, which was abruptly eclipsed by the dark shade of the Avatar's head. Wisps of long hair tickled at his face. He could feel the deep-shadowed eyes raking him hotly.

The warm wide palms of strong hands fell on the rounds of his forearms, stroking the vulnerable skin of his inner arms and moving toward his shoulders until they reached his body. Then they continued without hesitating, trailing further along his ribs. Obi-Wan felt his body jump, his penis hardening in spite of himself. It was difficult to admit that he wanted the touch of those powerful fingers so badly, but he could imagine the sight of those thick, hard hands on him, and the knowledge of the identity of the shadowed face... he swallowed, agonized. He was relatively sure Qui-Gon Jinn would not deliberately hurt him, at least not unreasonably at any rate, but the Avatar...

He made himself breathe evenly, passively accepting the exquisite sensation of those hands on him, the electricity of raw power vibrating in the air around him. The thick, hard-callused thumbs detoured in a curve around his navel and he felt dizzy from the scent of the body leaning further over him. Then he was startled by the brush of the hard erection against his cheek. Obi-Wan gasped and struggled against his bonds, turning his face away from the tempting caress of velvet-skinned hardness in a desperate attempt to salvage his dignity. This wasn't Qui-Gon. This was a dangerous and unpredictable being that might do anything...

Anything. Anything at all. The Avatar's hot mouth closed over his shaft unexpectedly, sucking fiercely. Obi-Wan cried out, fear and desire mingling in a desperate, hoarse shout. Then the mouth released him and he cried out again, this time a whimper of protest against the loss, arching his hips upward helplessly, unable to deny his passion.

"And you want him, too," the voice was fierce, feral. The Avatar moved around him like a great stalking cat, stepped easily between his spread legs, harsh hands on his hips jerking them to the very edge of the stone altar. "You want his body now as well, but you've always wanted his soul. You want that just like you did when you were a boy, don't you? Want him to accept you, and to prove it by taking you inside his heart." The Avatar drew back, hair a wild moonlit nimbus around his shoulders. "You can't have that, do you hear? Jinn feels nothing for you."

Obi-Wan's lashes fluttered at the unexpected words, a low protest rising to his lips. "No," he denied, but the Living Force knew truth, and he was only lying to himself. But was truth being offered to him? He reached out, feeling Qui-Gon's essence swirling chaotically amidst the Living Force, and could not be sure which of the two had spoken to him, could not be sure if the words spoken were a lie.

The moment seemed to slow to a still as Obi-Wan struggled with the dilemma and the Avatar stood over him, returning the pensive regard. Moonlight now struck the savage planes and angles of the face above him, silvering the tangled mass of hair and the long lines of the nude body. Lids closed thoughtfully over glittering eyes, and the Force stirred, washing over his body, sensing him thoroughly.

"Ah, you are prepared. That is most wise." The eyes opened, gleaming lustfully down at him, the deep chest swelling and contracting quickly with shallow, passionate breaths. Without further preamble, the Avatar caught his pelvis with powerful hands and sank its thick length to the hilt in his body, piercing him fiercely, utterly without regard for his inexperience.

Obi-Wan screamed, thrashing. The moment seemed to last eternally as he felt himself stretched and filled, and the Unifying Force he held unexpectedly rushed through him in wild, chaotic surges of agony and ecstasy. He felt his wrists wring in the restraints as he struggled to move freely in response to the terrible rapture of the penetration and to the wild currents driving through him.

He realized that somehow he was providing a conduit for the Unifying Force... its raw power was gathering in him, crackling between his fingers, looking for ground. It danced and struggled with tendrils of Living Force like intersecting magnetic fields, the opposing energy resistant but responsive, intensity surging and cresting, both energies looking for ground, with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at the heart of it, the focal points of unimaginable power.

"Qui-Gon!" he gasped, incandescent with energy and desire as his body and soul responded to the intimacy of their joining. He reached out with his mind, power, pain, and pleasure sizzling in his thoughts and words as he struggled to seize the other man's presence and anchor it to him. "You're there, I know you are!" He was ignored; the Avatar was lost in the moment, lost in the magnitude of the Force-surge. It slammed into his body again, scraping his back across the rough rock with the power of the thrust.

Force. The tension of crackling power built in him, quickly pushing him toward the verge of insanity, struggling for natural ground... he had to overcome the Avatar's resistance, or it would destroy him; Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon's minds would be lost forever, their bodies given over to the primal powers that raged through them. Instinctively he reached out into the Unifying Force, gathering it to him until he felt he would explode from the fullness of it in his mind, just as he felt that his body might burst from the pressure of the Avatar's wild thrusts. A trickle of intent, and he made the bonds slide from his wrists. Obi-Wan struggled to his elbows, his body almost aflame with desire, lifting his mouth in blatant invitation, struggling to reach the man who was leaning over him.

"Qui-Gon." Obi-Wan's voice vibrated the stone of the temple, shivering it, and dark blue eyes opened, dazed, staring into his, half-lost. He saw Qui-Gon flicker in those too-blue eyes and lunged with both mind and body, capturing the familiar soul of the Jedi Master. His hands struck at the Avatar like a snake, driving energy deeply into its being just as it drove itself into his body again. His hands were wreathed in a shining blue nimbus as they caught the man's head and dragged the wide, sensual mouth down to meet his even as the big body drew back, preparing to lunge into him once more.

Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan clung to the confused spirit stubbornly, binding them together with shining tethers of Force, anchoring the Jedi Master's essence in the physical and spiritual simultaneously. The Knight plunged his tongue into the warm, sweet mouth, stroking its velvet depths. Abruptly the Master's mind re-centered in the broad body, owning it once more. He jerked back from the kiss and startled recognition flared in his eyes, and his hips jerked forward in a convulsive thrust. He exploded into sudden, shocked orgasm, and the Living Force shivered, hanging free for a moment, and then galvanized, meshing with the Unifying Force Obi-Wan had summoned. Obi-Wan released the power he held, retaining both his physical and spiritual grip on Qui-Gon. Balanced and freed, the currents arced to ground.

Wildly twining filaments of blue and green energy sizzled and writhed around the two Jedi, flaring up from the temple like ground lightning. Obi-Wan shrieked, dragged into climax by the psychic residue of Qui-Gon's pleasure, head falling back, his body pulsing in time with the release of his own orgasm and the accompanying surge of wild, raw Force-power. Through it all he clung to Qui-Gon tenaciously, body and soul, riding the waves of pleasure with him, the complementary powers channeled through the two Jedi, Living Force cleaving to Unifying Force, twinned with it, mated to it at last.

The Force-storm seemed to last an eternity. The wild crackling of velvet power around them subsided slowly, actinic flares of energy arcing from stone to stone in tandem with the aftershocks of orgasm, then seeping away into the land around them, leaving a thrumming residue of Force to hum about the altar. The Avatar had dispersed.

Qui-Gon's eyes were locked with Obi-Wan's and he remained frozen even as Obi-Wan's hands fell from his face. The moment stretched in uncomfortable silence as he held Obi-Wan in his arms, his eyes wild with a combination of confusion, lust, and fear, his hips flush with the young Knight's, their bodies deeply joined. Slowly he lowered the young man to the cold stone altar, letting his trembling hands slide over Obi-Wan's chest and belly as he straightened, his head bending forward, eyes falling into shadow again. Abruptly he pulled his hips back, his softening erection leaving Obi-Wan's body.

The Knight struggled to sit up, his frame weary and aching from the torrents of power that had scoured through him, his lower body sore and bruised from the battering force of the Avatar's savage entry and taking. "Welcome back," he spoke, a little unnecessarily, but Qui-Gon ignored him. The Jedi Master turned his back and began the slow climb down the face of the pyramid. Obi-Wan moved to catch up with him, wincing a little as he lowered himself to the tier of broad stone blocks beneath the altar level.

Qui-Gon descended the stair-step blocks that formed the front of the temple and took Obi-Wan's cloak as though it were his birthright, shoving his arms into it with sharp, stabbing motions. The cloth drew tight over his broad shoulders and he pulled it shut around his body, his bare calves and ankles emerging beneath the hem. "The Avatar told you the truth." He stared down at Obi-Wan, eyes opaque in the silvery moonlight. "This changes nothing between us." Qui-Gon turned and strode in the direction of the river, long strides increasing the distance between them rapidly.

"Like hell it doesn't," Obi-Wan whispered, setting his jaw hard, taking refuge from pain in anger. It might have changed nothing for Qui-Gon, but it certainly had for Obi-Wan. Tears ached in a hard knot at the back of his throat, an instinctive reaction to the half-forced sex and Qui-Gon's ungrateful coldness, but he refused let the older Jedi see him cry. He jerked on his leggings and tunic and shoved his feet into his boots, stamping to settle them. Then he snatched up the remainder of his clothes and followed the Jedi Master, rushing his pace until he passed the other man and broke the path through the jungle for them, making an oblique line through the forest toward the mudslide, where transportation awaited them.

They made the trip in hostile silence and when they arrived at the aircar Obi-Wan climbed into the pilot's seat, readying the vehicle with sharp gestures, ignoring Qui-Gon beside him as he made the mandatory preflight check before setting out down the river. Eager to end the unpleasantness of the night as quickly as possible, he accelerated until the engines screamed.

Yoda was waiting for them in the cleared area adjacent to Rilvan, leaning placidly on his cane, watching their descent with thoughtful eyes. The Rilvani High Priestess stood behind him.

Obi-Wan climbed from the aircar and her eyes flickered from Qui-Gon to him, a small, reverent smile curving her lips. Obi-Wan tensed uncomfortably, realizing that her reverence was directed at himself, not at Qui-Gon. That was not what he had expected.

"Kneel," Yoda's voice brooked no opposition as he stared up at Qui-Gon. The tall man knelt reluctantly, enduring the touch of Yoda's hand on his forehead, submitting to the Councilor's gentle probe. "Well you will be. There is a hut for you on the outskirts of the village, Qui-Gon," the small Master raised his gaze to Jinn's, expressionless. "Clothing you will find waiting there." He turned, dismissing Qui-Gon summarily. "Obi-Wan," his voice was gentle. "Come to my hut you will."

"Yes, my Master." Obi-Wan followed him, never looking back at Qui-Gon. After a long moment, the Jedi Master turned on his heel and followed the Rilvani Priestess, who led the way slowly toward his own shelter.

Obi-Wan was aware of him through the Force as he turned and moved away. Whatever had happened tonight had left some sort of connection between himself and the man that would perhaps take time to subside. Even after the Jedi Master was lost to sight Obi-Wan could feel his presence distinctly. He could have pinpointed the man's location without even pausing to think.

He shuddered, pulling up his shields and reinforcing them till that disturbing presence dimmed to a soft buzz. It was still distinct, but muted enough now to be ignored. Obi-Wan did so resolutely, just as he ignored the tingling ache in his body and the sharper sting from his raw wrists.

Yoda turned to him as they entered the Councilor's small shelter, eyes luminous with sympathy. Obi-Wan went to one knee before his Master, his eyes downcast as Yoda spoke. "Felt it, I did. Know what you offered, and how it was taken. Like sunlight over the river delta, was the energy storm." The tips of Yoda's ears drooped in sympathy. "Your sacrifice was not a vain one, my Padawan." Yoda reached out, offering a rare physical comfort to the young man, laying his clawed hand on Obi-Wan's knee.

"Perhaps not, my Master." Obi-Wan was dimly startled to hear the depth of bitterness in his own voice.

"Always have I said that fear leads to suffering," Yoda removed his hand and turned, moving slowly away. "No different this time. Qui-Gon's fear brings you both much pain." The wizened Master sighed deeply, huskily, gazing up and out of the hut's single window toward the slowly sinking moon. "Rash were Qui-Gon's words and actions. I believe he will repent of them."

Obi-Wan felt himself drawing inward defensively at the idea. He had held such hopes himself once, but Qui-Gon's cruel disregard this night had taught him the error of his optimism. Time and time again he'd opened himself to Qui-Gon and been slapped away. Perhaps Yoda had known Jinn well as a Padawan, but Obi-Wan believed that the man had changed since then, hardening his heart against his peers and comrades. Perhaps the only things that did not threaten him enough to cause him to withhold his sympathy were children, pets, and the dead.

If Qui-Gon thought an apology was his duty, he would probably force himself to offer it... but Obi-Wan wanted nothing of Qui-Gon's sense of duty. He'd done what he'd done out of his own sense of duty, and with no expectation of thanks. He just wanted to let it be and forget that it had ever happened, forget that he had ever met Qui-Gon Jinn.

"Hurt you, he did," Yoda's voice was very soft. The Jedi Master stepped close to Obi-Wan again, reaching out to touch him for a second time, lids closing as cool pulses of healing Force flowed from his hands and into Obi-Wan, easing the sting in his wrists and the dull ache elsewhere. "In body and in heart, I think."

Obi-Wan simply nodded, not meeting Yoda's eyes.

"The one is easily mended. The other will take time." Yoda removed the comforting hand at last. "Your pack, blankets, and hot water have been brought for you. Stay here with me will you, Obi-Wan?"

"Yes. Thank you, Master." Obi-Wan was grateful, relieved that he would have company besides that nagging sense of Qui-Gon that lingered in his thoughts and on his skin. Of course Yoda had understood both of those things, and had moved to remedy them. His heart filled with fondness for the small being who still loved and cared for him so kindly, he moved into an anteroom to bathe the ugly memory of unwanted sex from his body and prepare for sleep.

Obi-Wan slept safe and dreamless on the earthen floor next to Yoda's tiny pallet, lightsaber close at hand, until a brilliant beam of morning sunlight from the open window crept across the floor and into his eyes. Blinking, he awakened, yawning and scrubbing at the faint stubble of his beard, tucking the blankets more firmly around himself and huddling against the dawn chill.

The sense of Qui-Gon's presence was still strong within him. In fact, it was...

His eyes snapped open and connected with Qui-Gon Jinn's. The tall Jedi sat meditatively against the far wall, legs together and knees drawn up, eyes fixed on him, graceful and easy once more in his own clothing, body cleansed, hair washed and combed and woven into a long braid that lay over his shoulder and curled in his lap. Obi-Wan's borrowed robe lay neatly folded on the hard-packed dirt next to him.

Obi-Wan resisted the impulse to clutch his covers protectively to his body, forcing himself to lie perfectly still. Qui-Gon rose, noiseless except for the faint crackle of his knees, and lifted the robe. He moved forward and laid it next to Obi-Wan's elbow, then stepped back, folding his long arms across himself characteristically. "I thank you," Qui-Gon murmured neutrally, almost soundlessly, and slipped from the hut, silent as a ghost.

Obi-Wan rose silently, mindful of Yoda's peaceful, sleeping form on the small bed behind him, and picked up his robe, letting the flowing material trail from his hand as it fell out of its neat folds. He glanced uncertainly at the door from which Qui-Gon had exited, then rolled the robe hastily and stuffed it unceremoniously into the bottom of his pack. Somehow, he didn't feel much like wearing it anymore.

to be continued in Elements III: Air