by Lilith Sedai (

Series: The Elements Series

Archive: M_A, SWAL

Category: AU, drama, angst, hurt/comfort

Rating: NC-17

Warnings: Pyrophobes and volcano-phobes, beware. There is some rather graphic imagery ahead, drawn from the dregs of my own most primal terror. Also, this story contains words. Stuff happens in it. If this is a problem, bail out now. I've warned for everything I think might be disturbing, but who am I to judge? I've already had one complaint for squicking a beta over something that doesn't even actually happen in the story! Argh! At this rate I'm going to end up in a rubber room, straitjacketed, writing on the walls using a wax crayon between my toes!

Spoilers: Jedi Apprentice 1 and 2

Summary: Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi try to uncover the cause of a serious shortage in lightsaber crystals while coping with their relationship difficulties. Fourth (and last after all, alas!) in the Elements Series.

Feedback: Yes, please. Positive responses, calm, reasoned constructive criticism, and non-flame comments welcome.

Acknowledgments: To Wren, Kaly, Maygra, Torch, Destina Fortunato, and LadyBD for feedback and suggestions, and to LapisLaz for being my geological consultant and invaluable final beta reader and plot adviser. Special thanks to Calysta Rose for gifting me with a print of Suzi Lovett's "Beloved Padawan," which has done much to inspire the completion of this story. :) Lastly, belated but special recognition goes out to Muse on IRC, who provided the vital and timely encouragement that originally set this whole series in motion.

Dedication: To all the shamefully unanswered feedbackers out there. This one is especially for you, with my apologies and gratitude.

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.

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

It was impossible to achieve and maintain full Force-enhanced speed on such rough terrain, but the two Jedi did their best, risking broken ankles and other injuries. Qui-Gon's pace quickly began to flag, his exhaustion apparent. Obi-Wan glanced aside for a split instant, calculating the width of the ash flow. They were not going to make it past the perimeter, even at their best speed. Apparently Qui-Gon agreed; he veered away, heading back toward the flow itself.

Obi-Wan hesitated, then followed him. "We can't risk the river!" The wind of their passage tore at the words in his mouth. Even if the extreme temperature of the gases didn't heat the water swiftly, there was the risk of floods of boiling mud from upslope.

"We have to take shelter. If not the water, then an enclosed area or a stone face..." they were nearing the river bluffs but the ash cloud was advancing rapidly; it would reach the cliffs before they could.

"This way." Obi-Wan tugged Qui-Gon aside. They had only seconds to spare. He had spied a thick extrusion of igneous stone jutting into the air. They flung themselves at its base, Qui-Gon shrouding them inside his cloak, pressing Obi-Wan tight against the damp dirt and cold, rough stone. The fabric of his cloak was specially designed to have strong insulating properties, and it was not flammable, but it had never been meant to withstand the searing heat of a volcanic eruption. Qui-Gon tucked his head in tight over Obi-Wan's, protecting as much of the smaller man's body as he could.

"Qui-Gon, you'll be burned!" Obi-Wan gasped, struggling.

"I can't shield us both completely. Too much surface area," he gritted, eyes tight-shut. Force surged to his call. "Watch what I do, and help me!" He plunged the energies he summoned into the ground beneath them, weaving a complex thermal barrier and heat-dispersing network. Obi-Wan reached tentatively to sense the pattern of energies and began to duplicate it.

Qui-Gon gasped and stiffened against Obi-Wan. Intolerable heat seared the knight's legs and boots, everywhere Qui-Gon could not cover him. The cloud poured over them just as Obi-Wan brought his strength to bear, quickly expanding the heat-dispersing barrier to protect their scalded legs, channeling the thermal energy safely away and into the ground.

Qui-Gon's breath was labored, his face agonized with the pain of summoning and maintaining the barrier. Obi-Wan realized that the older Jedi was wearied and hurt by his efforts to preserve his mental shields against the bond when their control slipped as he made love to Obi-Wan next to the river. His psychic exhaustion was almost complete. Obi-Wan understood with a sudden sick stab of guilt and fear that Qui-Gon might not be able to maintain the heat dispersal barrier for long enough to protect them-- he had no idea how long the heat-storm would last. Qui-Gon's arms tightened around him; clearly if the Jedi Master failed, he would die trying to use his body to shield Obi-Wan from harm.

The air in their breathers was stifling and the stone behind Obi-Wan's back had begun to warm slowly, temperature rising degree by degree. The ground under their bodies grew warmer as well, the thermal barrier unable to dissipate the intense heat swiftly enough. Qui-Gon was perspiring heavily, his tunics wet against Obi-Wan's chest, and his breathing rasped in his throat.

Obi-Wan struggled to draw more Force, pushing his efforts to the point of pain and beyond, bolstering the faltering heat-shield as much as he could. The pyroclastic flow seemed to last forever; the Force roiled in turmoil around them as rampant geophysical energies spent their strength. Obi-Wan realized that superheated ash was piling up around Qui-Gon's back and both their legs, increasing the difficulty of dispersing the thermal energy. He spared a whisper of power to push it away, squirming his hand free to flick his fingers and direct the Force. Qui-Gon trembled against him, his muscles cording, veins knotting in his throat. The Jedi Master was refusing to release the barrier. His heart-rate had increased dangerously; he might have a stroke or an aneurysm and die from the strain. Strain diminished the flow of Force he could handle, pinching it off like water backed up inside a bent pipe.

Obi-Wan could feel the older Jedi's pain... if the shield failed, Obi-Wan might conceivably shield himself enough to survive where he lay huddled behind the big man's broad, sheltering body, but Qui-Gon would surely die. "No, no, no..." Obi-Wan realized he was muttering incoherently against Qui-Gon's chest. He drew a shuddering breath and forced himself to relax, purging his fear with determination born of desperation. His instincts murmured, and he reached into their bond, extending himself through it.

Qui-Gon's mental shields were gone; he was directing his entire being into his failing attempt to channel the heat away, struggling to continue protecting Obi-Wan. The young Jedi lowered his own shields, his mind falling open to the Force Qui-Gon held. Awkwardly he extended himself into their bond and merged his own efforts with the flow that streamed through the Jedi Master. He took control of the failing pattern, rebuilding it, strengthening and adding to it, directing the energy that both their midichlorians channeled.

Power slid through him in a cool torrent. With calm clarity, Obi-Wan redirected their combined strength past Qui-Gon's injured mind, buffering the strain on him. He felt Qui-Gon gasp with relief, then as though it were his own he felt the searing pain down the man's back and shoulders where the bleed-through of heat from the sizzling ash had smoldered his cloak.

There was nothing to do but wait, wait and savor the strength of the power he was channeling with the help of Qui-Gon's own abilities. In time, the ash-storm would spend its fury. Already the wavefront had passed far beyond them. Slowly, cooling breezes were sweeping over the land toward them and the ash was settling to sear the ground.

It was beginning to grow easier to hold the barrier; the majority of the heat was passing. He lay quietly, soothing Qui-Gon with gentle words until he judged that the atmosphere was such that they could breathe and walk. Then he gathered the larger man in his arms and quickly stood them up, carefully redirecting the dispersal barrier to deal with the ankle-deep searing ash that drifted about their feet.

The trees and vegetation that remained in the path of the ash flow had been reduced to torches, flame fanned to angry fluttering streamers by the persistent, troubled winds. Qui-Gon coughed at the heat, blinking behind his grime-smeared mask. Obi-Wan examined his companion carefully, wincing at the severe burns on the man's broad back and the lesser ones on his legs. They were not incapacitating, and could be regarded as mild considering that both men would have died if the barrier had failed completely. Jinn would have to have bacta treatments. Hopefully Bretor kept a full medical facility.

"Can you walk?" he addressed Qui-Gon gently.

Qui-Gon nodded, struggling to control the spasms in his chest, his eyes streaming. His breather mask had not sealed properly against his cheek and it had let in sulfuric gas; Obi-Wan could taste the residue through the filter in his own breather. He gently reached and adjusted the other man's mask himself, helping Qui-Gon remain standing as his broad frame was racked by a second spasm of coughing.

"What did you do?" The Jedi Master was barely able to speak, throat abused by the heat and ash he had inhaled, but Obi-Wan could sense the intent of his question through the intensified bond between them. The bond... there would be time to worry about that when they were safe.

"We'll talk about it later." Obi-Wan kept his voice soothing. "Let's get back to the compound now."

Their progress was painfully slow. Qui-Gon's lungs were damaged by the volcanic gases, and he was reduced to a slow walk, leaning heavily on Obi-Wan when fits of coughing wracked him. The young Knight supported him and encouraged him gently, keeping half an eye warily on the volcano even after night fell, but it seemed to have spent its fury.

Obi-Wan would have liked to try to heal Qui-Gon, but he was not sure he could maintain both flows at once, and did not want to risk the consequences of failing at the attempt. His mind was in turmoil, his dismay held distant by the necessity for concentration to maintain the heat dispersal.

He had dropped his shields, had reached through the bond, accepted it and used it. Now their minds were cemented together through a strong, clear channel. He could feel it tugging at both of them now. He could hardly think of lifting his hands from Qui-Gon's body, and he could feel the ghost of the other man's pain and fatigue.

Qui-Gon labored bravely to bear up under the burden of his injuries, releasing his pain into the Force, drawing energy from some unknown reserve of determination.

It was well after mid-cycle when they reached the compound, and no one seemed aware that they had returned. Resisting the temptation to swear, Obi-Wan supported Qui-Gon with one arm as he consulted the installation's central computer to find the facility they needed. He led Qui-Gon into the deserted medical bay and eased him belly-down onto a cot. "Can you set a healing trance?" Obi-Wan stroked Qui-Gon's cheek gently, a few wisps of heat-singed hair crumbling under his palm.

"No," the shaking whisper was a ghost of Qui-Gon's normal, rich tones. "Psychic strain. I shouldn't try to touch the Force."

Glad of his thorough field-med training, Obi-Wan quickly washed his filthy hands and prepared an injection of strong anesthetic. "Then I'm going to sedate you." He administered the injection carefully.

Qui-Gon's rigid body relaxed gradually, but his breathing remained labored. Obi-Wan gently fitted him with a bacta-mist inhaler and gingerly began peeling back the partly-charred robe, tunics, and leggings and cutting them from the big man's body. Qui-Gon breathed shallowly, panting with pain in spite of the strong drug Obi-Wan had administered.

The young Jedi winced with sympathy, momentarily unsure where the burned garments ended and the seared skin began. For Qui-Gon to have held the shield as well as he had, in spite of such pain... for him to have made the torturous journey back to the installation on foot... he was incredibly strong.

"I have to clean the wounds before I can try to heal them," he explained softly. "I'm afraid it's going to hurt."

Qui-Gon nodded faintly, his eyes closing with weariness.

Obi-Wan applied cool wet cloths to the burns, carefully wiping the ash away, mingling Force-healing with physical manipulation to ensure that the grit and dirt were removed. There was relatively little danger of infection, he calculated-- the intense heat of the volcano should have destroyed any septic material in the ash and dirt that crusted the wounds.

The effects of the anesthetic were deepening rapidly, and he was able to increase the thoroughness and speed of his careful cleaning. Fortunately the burns were not so extensive as to require submersion in bacta; Obi-Wan settled for a topical application of bacta ointment and then placed dermaplast over the layer of healing gel.

When he had finished, he centered himself and laid his hands on Qui-Gon's abused back. The Force helped seal the artificial skin to the wound, interacting with the bacta to speed healing. Qui-Gon would still be more than usually sensitive to touch and temperature for some days, but he would live, and he was not badly scarred. In fact, Obi-Wan realized, he was sleeping now, exhausted, his breathing grown smooth and easy.

Obi-Wan turned Qui-Gon onto his unburned side to examine the front of his body for injuries. He pulled away the bacta mist breather and set it aside. Starting to cover Qui-Gon's bare body with a sheet, he hesitated. He reached timidly, tracing the curve of the man's lips, letting his fingers slip down to drift over the strong throat, over the sturdy chest, shyly circumnavigating the rose-brown of a nipple with his fingertip. Qui-Gon had saved him twice today. He had tried to continue shielding despite the psychic strain, protecting Obi-Wan from the volcano's murderous heat even when the Force began to fail him and all he could bring between the younger man and the killing ash was his own fragile body.

It was what a Jedi would have done, it was what a life-mate would do. Qui-Gon would be both of these things to him now. They would be both things to one another. What Obi-Wan had done to save them ensured that their bond could not be denied for much longer.

Obi-Wan blinked away the moisture that gathered in his eyes, unsure if it represented a reaction to stress or to his own fears that Qui-Gon might reject him again in spite of having been prepared to sacrifice so much to save him.

"Tamrin?" A voice registered behind him, sharp with disbelief. Obi-Wan turned to find Administrator Bretor staring at him with open shock. "We believed you and Master Jinn were lost."

"No," Obi-Wan hedged for a story. "A little toasted, but not lost. We found shelter under an overhang, and Jinn used his Jedi powers to shield us. He took the worst of the damage himself."

Bretor stepped forward to inspect Obi-Wan's work, raising an impressed eyebrow at the dermaplast dressing. "An excellent job. You are a man of hidden talents."

"He was still conscious until a few minutes ago. I'm sure he would have given me directions if I needed them." Obi-Wan forced sardonic amusement he didn't feel into his voice. He tried not to bristle protectively as Bretor touched Qui-Gon's shoulder, tipping the big body slightly in order to better examine the treated burns.

"You are somewhat the worse for wear yourself," Bretor observed, glancing at Obi-Wan. Releasing Qui-Gon, he touched a fingertip to Obi-Wan's brow, and the young man was vaguely surprised to feel a stab of pain from a burn he had not yet noticed. "Remove your clothes and let me tend you."

Obi-Wan shied away from the touch reluctantly. There was something in the administrator's eyes... "I'm not hurt. I just need a good shower and a long sleep."

"Are you in charge of this facility, or am I? Strip." Bretor's tone soured.

He obeyed reluctantly. Obi-Wan's legs were raw, sensitive pink; Bretor soothed them with brisk sweeps of his hands, trailing healing Force in the wake of his touch, lingering perhaps a moment too long on the upper thighs. Obi-Wan shifted uncomfortably, eyes darting to Qui-Gon; in spite of everything, he much preferred Jinn's touch to this man's.

The administrator washed Obi-Wan's face professionally and dabbed bacta gel on the burn over his eye. All the while Obi-Wan watched him, made uneasy by the conflicting signals he was receiving from the administrator and the Force. Something was not right with the man, but his efforts to care for Obi-Wan seemed sincerely concerned. His was not at all the aura of a man who had intentionally sent two nuisances out in hopes that the volcano might take them off his hands permanently... and yet there was an unmistakable feeling of guilt hovering around him, and his Force-aura was tinged with darkness. Just the touch of his eyes was enough to make Obi-Wan's skin prickle.

"Thanks for sending the Jedi after me," Obi-Wan spoke abruptly. "I wouldn't have made it without him."

"He wanted to go." Bretor gave him a sly smile. "You've gotten under his skin quite satisfactorily. I'm glad not to have to replace you or to explain his death to the Jedi Council." He winced visibly at the thought and tossed Obi-Wan his filthy coverall. "Keep up the good work, Tamrin. You're doing well with him so far." The administrator watched with open interest as Obi-Wan quickly clothed himself. "If you can keep him out of the way until we build production back up to normal, you'll find the rewards are substantial." Bretor confided to Obi-Wan quietly. "Keep him busy, or you may find you're needed for... less rewarding... duties than warming his bed."

"I'll do what I can." Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon, suppressing a shiver. He was glad that he had tended the man's burns himself instead of entrusting him to one of Bretor's medical personnel. Qui-Gon would have to learn of this conversation as quickly as Obi-Wan could arrange to tell him of it.

"Take some time off with him then, to 'rest.'" Bretor's voice insinuated far more than the seemingly compassionate words implied. He slapped Obi-Wan's shoulder. "He needs a good nurse, don't you think?"

"Yes," Obi-Wan agreed quietly, knowing that Bretor would misinterpret his meaning. "I'll take care of him for you."

"Good." Bretor moved toward the cot where Qui-Gon lay. "Can you get him back to his quarters?"

"I can." Obi-Wan drifted closer to Qui-Gon too, smoothing back a wisp of ash-streaked hair. The gray made Qui-Gon look old; combined with the paleness of his face it also made him look very vulnerable.

"Wake up," Obi-Wan touched Qui-Gon gently. "We've got to get you back to your quarters." Weary eyes opened and blinked; Obi-Wan helped Qui-Gon sit up and steadied him, wrapping him in a clean white sheet. Jinn was much steadier on his feet now. He spared Bretor a grave nod of greeting that was politely but coolly returned.

"I am glad you made it back, Master Jinn." Again, his tone was an odd combination of falseness and sincerity. "Tamrin has volunteered to take care of you until you are well enough to work again."

"My thanks," Qui-Gon nodded to Obi-Wan politely, dignified in spite of his circumstances.

"It's the least I owe you," Obi-Wan murmured, and guided him through the door, leaving the administrator in their wake. They rode the lift to the upper levels and Obi-Wan settled Qui-Gon into bed without bothering to bathe him, then climbed in next to him, lying down with the Jedi Master's head pillowed on his shoulder. He touched the bond, wondering if he might use it to tell Qui-Gon of his interaction with Bretor, but the older man was already asleep again. Sighing, Obi-Wan closed his eyes and followed Qui-Gon into dreams.

He awakened to the pressure of a gentle hand stroking his face. Shifting his body, he opened his eyes and gazed straight into Qui-Gon's slow, sleepy smile. They had slept through the day and well into the next night cycle; the shades were open and the windows were dark, a pale crescent moon beginning to rise over the horizon.

The fondness in Jinn's expression zinged through Obi-Wan like a laser bolt, igniting a blaze of heat in his groin and purging his mind of practical thoughts. He drew a shaky breath, unable to break the gaze, inexplicably unnerved by the unexpected openness he read on Qui-Gon's face. The bond thrummed between them, warm and inviting, tugging at them with that same persistent, unfulfilled ache. Stronger now, though gentler. Less overpowering but deeper, more persistent and sweet. He thought he could speak through it now, and remembering the surveillance and the interaction with Bretor, he tested his theory.

I accepted the bond and used it to enter your mind. I channeled Force through your midichlorians, Obi-Wan admitted, a little ashamed. His mind felt fuzzy with lingering sleep.

I know. Qui-Gon reached and touched him again, callused fingers smoothing his tousled hair. You saved us both. The touch of his mind was warm and accepting.

Obi-Wan realized he was lying perfectly still, holding his breath and waiting for the inevitable blow of rejection and contempt, but Qui-Gon kept looking at him with that same comfortable, lazy expression of fondness. There was no hostility stirring in the bond between them, only the gentle warmth of their mental voices.

I couldn't have done what I did without you to show me how to do what was needed. Alone, I'd have died, Obi-Wan ventured. The silence stretched for a moment as Qui-Gon nodded very slightly, acknowledging their shared responsibility for being alive. "Are you feeling all right? Are you still in pain?" Obi-Wan broke the quiet again, feeling awkward and unsure, choosing to speak aloud.

"I'm fine." Qui-Gon's arm tightened slightly around him, his expression slightly absent. Through the bond, Obi-Wan could sense him experiencing their closeness, testing the strength of the connection that bound them now.

We must take care. Bretor is darkened. Obi-Wan experimentally pushed his memories of the infirmary conversation forward and felt Qui-Gon absorb them without difficulty or question.

The Jedi Master frowned, nodding slightly, but his expression remained abstracted and his arms stirred, pulling Obi-Wan close. He leaned in slowly, touching their lips together, and Obi-Wan did not withdraw. Obi-Wan let his lips part, but Qui-Gon did not move his tongue between them. Instead he sealed their mouths and breathed gently into Obi-Wan, who accepted the gift of breath and returned it softly before drawing back.

"You taste like ashes." Obi-Wan felt himself smiling a bit bashfully.

"I could use a bath." Qui-Gon raised himself on his elbow, grimacing at the threat of pain in his recently-treated burns.

"So could I." Obi-Wan admitted, grimacing. "And you're probably still stiff from the dermaplast. Let me help you." He raised himself and Qui-Gon accepted the offer of a hand to brace against as he lifted his body from the bed. Qui-Gon seemed steady on his feet, breathing deeply and easily. The dermaplast had taken well. Physically he seemed nearly recovered, though Obi-Wan suspected that he might still have some lingering psychic pain if he tried channeling Force in any significant quantity.

Obi-Wan led him into the 'fresher. The shower was a single unit of fused ceramic tile, not meant to accommodate two, but there was a narrow lip in the rear of the stall that could be used as a shelf or a seat. He settled Qui-Gon there, pulling away the dirty sheet still wrapped around the older man's body and dropping it to the floor. He averted his gaze, embarrassed by Qui-Gon's nudity.

"Do you need help or do you want me to leave?" he kicked at the sheet, shoving it into a corner where it would not be in the way when Qui-Gon emerged.

"We could help each other." The Jedi Master's voice was mild, and he began to unravel his ash-caked braid. Obi-Wan met his eyes for a moment, reassured to see nervousness there that rivaled his own in spite of the older man's calm tones. He didn't really want to leave, for the half-finished bond tugged at him more sharply the further he stood from Qui-Gon. Just moving far enough to kick the sheet into the corner had strained it.

He reached for the zipper of the stained and singed coveralls he still wore and realized that his hand was trembling as he drew it down. Turning his back, he made himself brush the fabric away from his shoulders, letting it fall to his waist and then pressing the elastic waistband past his hips.

Jinn's eyes were a tangible sensation on his skin, the warm gaze caressing him with a lover's touch. Obi-Wan shivered involuntarily as he stepped out of the ruined garment and straightened, shy although Qui-Gon had already seen him without his clothes and had even held him and touched him and brought him to orgasm. With eyes lowered, he turned and stepped into the tiny stall, closing himself inside it with Qui-Gon and activating the water jet. He chose a setting of low warmth in deference to Qui-Gon's mostly-healed burns.

The lukewarm water cascaded over his shoulders and streamed in rivulets down his chest, sending a shudder through his body, tightening his nipples. Qui-Gon leaned back against the wall with a sigh that resonated loudly inside the closed compartment, a faint scattering of spray beginning to gleam in glowing droplets on his hair and beard. Obi-Wan reached back and adjusted the shower stream downward so that it would not spray directly into the Jedi Master's face after he moved from where he now stood. Then he reached to dispense soap into his palm.

Rubbing his hands together, he lathered the soap and then hesitantly reached for Qui-Gon's shoulders, spreading it in small circles, taking special care not to rub the healing shoulder too hard. He could feel the unneeded fringes of the dermaplast sloughing away, and could gauge the sensitivity of the new, tender skin by the way Qui-Gon tensed very slightly as his palm slipped over it.

"Stand up," he requested softly, and Qui-Gon did. Obi-Wan reached around him carefully, moving downward along his back, working around the edges of the healing skin. He paused when he reached the narrow waist to rinse and take more soap, pouring some into Qui-Gon's palm in hopes that the man would wash his own front. Instead, Qui-Gon mirrored Obi-Wan's own actions, reaching to run his hands over the younger man's shoulders, working the lather down his back.

Obi-Wan shivered, glad of the lukewarm water's discouraging effect on his arousal as the large hands slid over him, working away ash and sweat. Partly resuming his own task and partly to keep himself from sagging against the comfort of Qui-Gon's body, he brought his hands between them and began to rub a shower cloth over Qui-Gon's collarbone. Its roughness would not harm the undamaged skin of the man's chest, and it was less arousing than touching Qui-Gon with his bare hands, though he could feel every contour and muscle through the thin wet barrier of the cloth.

He was merely delaying the inevitable. It was a voiceless understanding rooted in flesh and soul; the bond had sunk deep in both of them and the shields Obi-Wan held now only protected his composure, nothing more. And yet he would not have had it be this way, would not have had the consummation of the bond forced upon them by a desperate act made in defense of life. He would have had it be a gesture of mutual trust and sharing, unforced, offered willingly and with love.

Obi-Wan sighed, resigned, and maneuvered their bodies in a tight half-circle, turning them until the water cascaded directly into Qui-Gon's hair and soaked it, running steel-gray around their feet as it washed away fine cinders and grit. He poured more soap in his palm and he slid his hands into the heavy, tangled mass, working the lather through it. Qui-Gon's hands settled around the lowermost curves of his hips as the man braced against him and bent forward to give Obi-Wan access to his hair.

Obi-Wan could feel himself breathing harder in response to the caress, eyes closed and lips parted, spray cascading over his lips, bitter with the taste of soap and ash. He caressed Qui-Gon's hair as he dared not touch the more sensate parts of the man yet: reverently and sensually, rubbing and touching and stroking it as he finished lathering the wet, clinging mass and then helped the shower stream to rinse the soap away. Again and again he washed the heavy, wet mane, arms buried in it to the elbow, feeling almost as though he were buried deep inside Qui-Gon's body, the incredible intimacy of the moment threatening to overwhelm him.

Qui-Gon simply let himself be touched, sighing his enjoyment in Obi-Wan's ear. At last Obi-Wan pulled himself back, satisfied that the last of the soap was rinsed away after the final washing. Hesitantly he slicked his hands again and brought his palms to Qui-Gon's face, touching lips, nose, eyebrows and lashes. He smoothed away the dirt and grime of the volcano carefully, then placed his palm on Qui-Gon's face and gently lifted his chin, turning his face to the spray. Breathless, he watched the tender eyelids tighten against the stream of water, tilting Qui-Gon's face to cause the lather to sluice away from the mobile lips and short, wet beard. There was no resistance in Qui-Gon; he let himself be touched and turned, moved and manipulated, with perfect, quiet trust.

The man's soaked hair sluiced over one shoulder, trailing down his front and concealing his genitals from Obi-Wan's gaze, a protective barrier between them. With timid haste, Obi-Wan ran his lathered hands over Qui-Gon's buttocks, cleansing them thoroughly as well. His face flushed crimson as his fingers dipped into the cleft between the warm, smooth cheeks; Qui-Gon sighed against him, unresisting as he was touched and washed clean of the ashy residue that had worked its way onto the most private and intimate surfaces of his body. His penis firmed and rose as Obi-Wan touched him, emerging from the tangled, heavy mass of hair to nudge gently at the younger man's belly.

Obi-Wan trembled and withdrew again, lifting the wet fall of hair over Qui-Gon's shoulder and letting it stream down his back. "Sit down," his voice shook, and he maneuvered Qui-Gon around again and then knelt before him. The small size of the cubicle forced him to kneel between Qui-Gon's parted legs. He worked soap over Qui-Gon's feet with one hand on each, fingers sliding shyly between the long, boot-callused toes, fingertips trailing over high arches and tender bones. Then onward to the sturdy ankles and up the calves with their wiry thatch of hair to the knees, fingers finding the warm silky crease at the joint and lingering there.

He knelt in the spray for an infinite moment, mustering the courage to run his palms up the back of the long narrow thighs and then downward, over the sides, over the tops, moving in a slow, repetitive circuit with the shower cloth clutched in his left hand. Then he rinsed, leaning away and letting the spray strike Qui-Gon's body and flow downward, removing the film of soap and ash, leaving clean flesh glowing in its wake. Nearly finished.

He filled the shower cloth with soap and moved his palms slowly up the insides of the muscular thighs, one by one, then clasped the erected column of Qui-Gon's thick, sturdy penis in his hand. The contact of their flesh was buffered only by the thin cloth, and he stroked the sensitive organ hesitantly but thoroughly, intending to clean without arousing. Impossible; Qui-Gon was breathing deeply, the hint of a husky moan at the bottom of each exhalation. Obi-Wan tentatively drew back the man's foreskin and nervously used his bare fingers to stroke soap over the delicate flesh of the glans, which had not escaped the all-pervasive ash.

Relieved to finish without losing his control, he moved down to the slightly more neutral region of the testicles and washed them gently, finishing by ensuring that he had reached all the creases and folds where the powerful thighs joined the big man's body. His task completed, he pulled back and stood shivering in the spray that felt so cold against his flushed, overheated skin.

"Now you sit," Qui-Gon was rising, maneuvering Obi-Wan gently around and pressing him down to the narrow ledge, his heavy hands on the younger man's shoulders.

Bliss. Obi-Wan went boneless as those hands moved over him with a graceful delicacy that belied their hardness and size. Qui-Gon was cleaning him thoroughly, the wide palms making short work of the pleasant task. Warmer than the water that sluiced over Obi-Wan, they seemed to trail fire along his skin, causing goose-flesh to rise in their wake. He sighed involuntarily, leaning back against the cool, wet wall of the cubicle, letting the gentle hands have their way with his body.

Qui-Gon knelt between his thighs, reaching up to lather Obi-Wan's short hair, which was finally outgrowing his padawan-cut. Without bothering to rinse his hair, Qui-Gon moved slowly over his torso, tracing his nipples delicately, toying with the sparse growth of hair at the center of his chest. His eyes were dark and intent as he lingered there, lathering the wet mat of hair and tracing it downward meditatively. One broad fingertip dipped gently into Obi-Wan's navel, soaping it, then returned with the shower cloth.

Obi-Wan let his head tilt back so that the soap would not trickle into his eyes, trying to keep his breathing steady as the wide, gentle hands moved over his belly. His penis had a mind of its own, rising as though to meet them, but the hands parted, moving around it, and slid down his thighs. Qui-Gon's head bent forward, water trickling from his chin to drip onto Obi-Wan's heated length, but his mouth did not touch the eager erection.

He washed Obi-Wan's legs and feet much as his own had been washed, thoroughly and carefully. Then he stood the young man up and turned them till Obi-Wan stood under the course of the spray. Obi-Wan tilted his head back and let the water rinse through his hair and stream over his face. Qui-Gon's hand moved to his neck and he used the shower cloth to help pour water over Obi-Wan's body, slowly rinsing him completely free of soap and ash.

Hesitating, Qui-Gon gazed into Obi-Wan's eyes for a long moment, searching his expression. Perhaps not finding precisely what he wanted, but finding no rebuff either, he bent forward and began to follow the dispersing suds with light, hesitant kisses. Obi-Wan moaned softly, quiescent under the tentative touch. It was necessary; the bonding must be allowed to complete. He could sense it in both their minds. Resigned and aroused, he accepted Qui-Gon's kisses while trying not to abandon himself to them.

Qui-Gon trailed his mouth over Obi-Wan's throat and down to his chest, bending to tongue a stiffened nipple. The water was cold by comparison and Obi-Wan inhaled sharply in spite of himself, resisting the temptation to arch into the sensual heat of the soft mouth. Hands slid to his hips, pressing and turning him; Qui-Gon bit lightly at the nape of his neck and then licked down the column of his spine as far as he could reach.

Obi-Wan turned aside the stream of water, inwardly complimenting his own composure and presence of mind in spite of the older man's tongue tickling its way toward the small of his back. Qui-Gon drew away for a moment and Obi-Wan reached for a towel, dropping it over his head and beginning to rough-dry his hair, thinking that they would adjourn now to the bed.

Instead, Qui-Gon eased himself down and knelt behind him, his knees moving between Obi-Wan's ankles and pressing them apart. The young Jedi's fist tightened convulsively in the towel and he felt his muscles clench tight. Qui-Gon's hand smoothed over his taut hip and the Jedi Master's breath ghosted cool over his wet skin as he leaned closer. His mouth settled on the crease between Obi-Wan's hip and thigh, tongue teasing the flesh lightly.

Obi-Wan buried his face in the soft white towel, knees trembling as Qui-Gon slowly sucked a blush of blood to the surface of the tender flesh his mouth covered. He sank to brace his weight against the cold, slick side of the cubicle, one fist closing around the shower pipe for support. Obi-Wan's rational mind distantly approved his prudent bracing actions, splitting away from the temptation of pleasure and watching coolly, as though from a distance, while his body succumbed to what was being done to it.

The Jedi Master bit him gently and moved inward, licking and sucking again. Obi-Wan heard a keening moan and realized that he had uttered it himself. Qui-Gon's hands supported his trembling knees; the older man's tongue dipped into the shallow contour centered at the join of thighs and hips, probing softly against the outside of the cleft that was still clenched tight against him. Denied deeper access, Qui-Gon nipped softly at the round of Obi-Wan's backside, then began to bite and suck slowly along the crease of the other hip, his hands gently smoothing over the tension-quivering muscles at the front of Obi-Wan's thighs.

Qui-Gon moved upward without warning; his short beard nuzzled against the small of the young Jedi's back and strong hands closed around his erection. Obi-Wan flinched, gasping, but the hands merely finished washing him as Qui-Gon kissed softly at his back, mirroring what Obi-Wan's own hands had done to Qui-Gon earlier. The young man forced himself to relax, sensing that the building moment had broken; the thick fingers explored him gently but professionally, soaping him and rinsing him.

When the soap was rinsed away, Obi-Wan turned off the water. He stepped out of the shower when Qui-Gon released him, automatically turning and offering a hand to the older man, raising him to his feet. They toweled themselves dry, avoiding eye contact but remaining within arm's length. Qui-Gon wound his thick wet hair into a long rope, bending forward and tossing it over his head to squeeze water from it into the shower cubicle. Obi-Wan's throat seized, desire surging thickly in him at sight of the bent back and the exposed curves of the other man's strong buttocks, but he was too stunned by the force of the emotion to move, and Qui-Gon straightened quickly, wrapping his hair in a damp towel.

They moved into the other room together, surprised to find the bed made and the dirtied linens vanished. Obi-Wan suspected Bretor's serving droids had been at work while they bathed. The surveillance system was apparently still working efficiently.

Qui-Gon sat at the low work table, reaching for his hairbrush and unwinding the towel. He dropped it into his lap, covering his erection, and drew his hair over his shoulder. Not looking at Obi-Wan, he reached behind his shoulder for his hair. With some difficulty, he began to brush out the tips of the long wet mane with slow, patient strokes.

"Let me help you," Obi-Wan offered, inexplicably made miserable by the sight of the older man's quiet withdrawal. Qui-Gon let him take the brush and Obi-Wan began mimicking the careful, patient movements, working the snarls out of the hair from the bottom up until it was a long, silky flow of wet strands hanging over Qui-Gon's bare shoulders.

Obi-Wan stepped close, still brushing the beautiful hair, trapping his own stubborn erection between the wooden slats of the chair's back and his thigh. Combing the thick mane back from Qui-Gon's forehead, he separated it into three strands and braided it, wet, so that it would not tangle while they made love, as he knew they soon would. They must. Wordlessly Qui-Gon handed him a tie, which he looped around the bottom of the thick braid.

Letting the braid drop, Obi-Wan hesitated, hands falling on Qui-Gon's shoulders, and bent his head forward till his nose touched Qui-Gon's head. He inhaled the clean scent of the wet hair and the warm heat of the older man's body, hands sliding downward, wrists crossing over the broad chest, his palms covering Qui-Gon's nipples. Faintly surprised at himself, he nuzzled his lips against the older man's ear. "Let's go to bed."

Qui-Gon did not rise to comply. Instead he turned his head, gazing into Obi-Wan's eyes with sad dignity, and lifted his callused thumb to brush the younger man's cheek. "Perhaps in a moment." You said you would not risk the shields.

Obi-Wan flushed with shame, realizing that he still held areas of his mind closed, protecting them against Qui-Gon even though he was not fully shielded. It's hard to let go, he responded shakily.

It is hard for me, as well. Qui-Gon leaned his forehead against Obi-Wan's, hand sliding around the younger man's neck. We must try to trust one another.

Do, or do not. There is no try. Obi-Wan replied by rote, and Qui-Gon smiled at his response. Buoyed by the moment of sharing, Obi-Wan felt a surge of confidence. I trust you, he ventured, but he heard the fear in his own voice, realized it mirrored fear in Qui-Gon's own tone and eyes.

And I you. Qui-Gon's thumb moved to trace Obi-Wan's lower lip. The Jedi Master chuckled ruefully at the undertone of nervousness they could both hear in his unspoken words.

Obi-Wan gazed into the deep blue eyes so close to his own, sensing Qui-Gon's struggle to remain calm, to remain open. Yoda's voice rose in his mind, words their mutual master spoken of Qui-Gon on Torehir: Perhaps one day someone will be strong enough to stop his running, make him face his fear and overcome it. When he learns that all faith and trust is not folly, then he will know where he may stand firm. He will not run again after that, I think. Obi-Wan had promised to try to be the strength that Qui-Gon needed...

Stand at my side, Qui-Gon. He nuzzled close to the Jedi Master's ear. We can run no longer. "I want you," he spoke out loud, breathing the words to Qui-Gon sensuously, his voice breaking with hesitant passion. He pushed his chin forward, sucking the older Jedi's earlobe into his mouth and purging the barriers that remained in his mind simultaneously.

"And I have wanted you since the moment I saw you," Qui-Gon admitted shakily. The broad, gentle palms fell softly on the younger man's waist, and Obi-Wan inhaled, a sobbing gasp, tugging Qui-Gon upward.

Before he knew how it had happened they were together on the bed; he was facing Qui-Gon and they were entwined, both struggling to press closer. He hovered on the verge of kissing the older man, lips trembling. It was as though they had never kissed; the last barriers to intimacy were gone and they were new and vulnerable to one another, exposed and awkward.

Obi-Wan was keenly and uncomfortably aware of his relative inexperience at making love with another man-- a little youthful fondling, a few kisses, and his near-rape at the hands of the Avatar were all that he had to draw on. However, he was unable to resist the ache to be closer and leaned in for an awkward, stiff, open-mouthed kiss. He was shy and unsure where his lips should go, feeling them clumsy against Qui-Gon's as he received a kiss in return, equally hesitant and needful.

He felt Qui-Gon's hand slide behind his head with tense, strained tenderness, and then they were devouring each other with shuddering, desperate hunger, mouths wide, teeth clashing, tongues contesting for passage. Obi-Wan dimly felt tears on his cheeks. There would be no withholding some part of himself, no regaining control. He was Qui-Gon's now.

In spite of what had happened since the Force storm atop the Rilvani temple, he found that he feared the bruising grip and the careless roughness of the Avatar and the bluff sharpness of Qui-Gon's indifference. Those things had led him subconsciously to expect pain from intimacy with the older man. But as Qui-Gon began to stroke his body, he realized there was none of that in what was happening to him. Instead, Qui-Gon's fingers lovingly ignited flame everywhere they moved over him, exquisite pleasure seeming to burn through the blunt fingertips worshipping his body. The older Jedi's big hands floated over Obi-Wan's body with the same delicate care they had displayed in the bath, soothing the young Knight's memories of their bruising touch during sex.

This... this was easily as delightful as Obi-Wan had originally suspected that lying with Qui-Gon might be. That night on Torehir when they had first kissed... it had not been deceptive, the flame that kindled between them then. Yet in its own way, that was frightening as well. For mind and will to be subsumed in this ecstatic passion... how much of what he experienced now was truly his own pleasure, and how much was enforced by the bond? Would this sheer sensual delight enslave him to his lover, would it summon him back time and again to submit in the older man's bed even if he and Qui-Gon could not come to love one another as bondmates should?

The kiss broke for want of air and Obi-Wan managed to move out of range of Qui-Gon's mouth, pressing his cheek against the older man's, gasping for breath. Qui-Gon's eyes sought his, blazing with fierce passion, and Obi-Wan floundered for a moment, unexpectedly frightened anew by the intensity of the expression. The memories of the Avatar were too strong, too recent. His fears coursed through him, whispering that it was too late to reject Qui-Gon; already his body arched up against the older man's, begging involuntarily to be taken. The Jedi Master was reinforcing his control of Obi-Wan, proving his dominance. Obi-Wan was being used by him, used by the Force, used by his own desires...

Fear and regret writhed deep inside him, but though the bond lay open between them, strengthening with each touch, he did not reach through it to seek reassurance, fearing that there was none to find. Even unshielded he and Qui-Gon were still instinctively defensive, not sufficiently at ease to reach out and voluntarily share their minds. Then Qui-Gon's mouth covered his again and there was only animal passion rising between them, finding the channel of the bond without volition, sweeping them away together.

He was kissed again, kissed and kissing. Once more a part of his mind seemed to separate from his body, watching remotely. Qui-Gon's tongue was skilled, Obi-Wan noted clinically. The older man's eyes were shadowed with something like regret when he drew back to gaze down at Obi-Wan this time. Perhaps he too was closed off from what was happening here. Or perhaps fears had reclaimed him as well. The Knight still did not dare to reach out and discover the truth of it.

He felt his legs parting, felt the heavy weight of Qui-Gon's broad frame sink between them. Ecstasy. This was purest ecstasy, his body thrumming on the verge of release. He could feel the other man's erection against his own, feel himself bucking to grind them together. He was sweating, gasping. Gasping for air, gasping for Qui-Gon. He had to have both; which desire was most primal and overwhelming, he could not say.

And still those large powerful hands were not cruel on him. They were tender, almost diffident if such a word could be applied to such a compulsive joining. Qui-Gon was kissing his throat now, moaning low in his chest. Soft butterfly brush of lips over Obi-Wan's neck, his nipples. He ached to feel the other body inside him, mewled for it, faintly amazed by the desperate noises he was making. Qui-Gon moved lower and he clenched wildly at the hard hips to bring them back to him, but Qui-Gon gently moved his hands away.

"Let me love you like this," the man's voice was choked. "I want to taste you, I want to pleasure you. Let me, please." He moved back, kneeling between Obi-Wan's calves, those big hands gently framing his pelvis, the blue eyes in shadow, but caressing him nonetheless. Obi-Wan's body was lit by a shaft of moonlight, silver patterns flickering on his skin, and he could feel the sight of him driving his lover's desire. Jinn's passion blossomed and strengthened, the inevitable communion flaring into completion as Qui-Gon's mouth closed over him, the bond pushing their reluctant minds together.

Qui-Gon was in his mind and he was in Qui-Gon's. He realized that the fear of rejection and betrayal was real, that it lay in both of them, seeded darkly into their souls. With a shocked gasp, he let their mingled emotions flood him, each soul flayed wide open to the other man's senses. Recoiling from the fear together, they pushed their mutual awareness into sensation, hoping to silence their minds and partially obscure the dark emotions that tormented them.

Qui-Gon's mouth felt like liquid flame on Obi-Wan; he had never experienced such overwhelming pleasure. The older man worked him expertly, using teeth and tongue and skillful suction with the stamina and the control of a Jedi Master. Qui-Gon took the Knight deep inside his throat and swallowed around him. Obi-Wan moaned, helpless, the sensation indispensable, inseparable from his being. Inseparable from Qui-Gon's being. He could feel and taste his own erection through the other Jedi's mind, could smell his own musk through both their nostrils. He whimpered, terrible animal noises deep in his throat, the last vestiges of his control destroyed by the onslaught of the intensity of their joining.

Climax took him unawares; he failed to expect that such pleasure could heighten, but it did. His vision whited out and he could hear his own desperate cries echoing in the chamber. When he recovered, he was clutching Qui-Gon in his arms, kissing him softly, and the tears on his cheeks were not all his own. He almost expected to hear the fluid sizzling on his flesh.

Qui-Gon was hard against his hip, erection poker-stiff. His face was agonized with the effort of restraint. The Jedi Master wiped a trickle of Obi-Wan's semen away from his lips on the back of a shaky hand, then stared at it for a moment and licked it away. His tongue was deep rose, sparkling wet. The sight of it lapping at the smear of pale fluid on his hand was shockingly intimate. Qui-Gon's eyes closed at the renewed taste and a deep tremor ghosted through him, echoed in Obi-Wan's own body; the young Jedi felt his arousal returning.

Qui-Gon's eyes opened worriedly as Obi-Wan struggled out from under him, but the younger man was merely moving to finish what they had begun. His muscles, his mind, his body and spirit were all imprinted with the inevitability of this act. He understood what was required for them to be released, to satisfy the compulsion that had forced them together. It must come soon; he was melting under this onslaught, dissolving like a pearl in wine.

Obi-Wan knelt humbly, burying his face in his arms, spreading his knees to better expose himself, feeling his entire body beginning to tremble with balanced fear and desire.

Obi-Wan. Such longing, such tender torment in the husky, strained voice that resounded in his head, such uncertainty and want in the other man's mind even as he ran his wide palm along the smooth bow of Obi-Wan's back, unable to resist him, Force driving both of them to this completion. I'm sorry. If we could have waited until we were ready, I would have--

"Do it, just do it," Obi-Wan choked, words muffled against his own flesh. "Take me, Qui-Gon, don't make me wait!"

In response the thick fingers slid down to the small of his back, then further, tracing the cleft of his buttocks, touching the tender, sensitive bud that waited there. Obi-Wan quivered, biting his own arm, anticipating the pain again, but he felt warm liquid instead, realized that Qui-Gon had found oil and was applying it to him.

The animal moans were back, and he realized they were coming from himself. He pushed back against Qui-Gon's hand helplessly, aware of the man fumbling to cap the bottle that had been left on the night-table for them, felt the return of gentle fingertips. Then subtle pressure, entry, and slick fluid was smoothed inside him tentatively, carefully, and the finger pressed and stroked inside him, touching a place that sent shockwaves of ecstasy through his body.

Whimpering, he thrust back onto the finger; it felt too good to resist and the connection between them was flaring again, so he sought the mindlessness of pleasure and dove for it. Another finger and more slickness in him, then the finger's withdrawal and its careful, slow replacement by solid hard heat, a faint burn of pain almost entirely subsumed in the urgency of sensation rising again between them.

And yet the Avatar's voice whispered to him in that secret part of his mind that had split away and lay far beyond the pleasure. Perhaps it was buried so deeply that Qui-Gon could not hear the echo of his own voice through the bond, but it mocked Obi-Wan nonetheless, the remembered intonation cruel in the Avatar's throat: He would mount you like a pack-leader mounts a yearling, boy. To show his dominance. Nothing more.

But even that was fading under the onslaught of the bonding, minds fusing and bodies rushing together irrevocably. He was no longer quite sure where his pleasure ended and Qui-Gon's began; the separate sense of rational thought faded and there was only ecstasy now, a joint entity of its own purpose and action. He was driving back, and back, and back, feeling hard hips slap against the round of his buttocks, feeling trembling hands smoothing over him. Feeling the responsive shivers of his skin as it was touched. Feeling himself filled and stretched, feeling Qui-Gon repeatedly nudge that place inside him that ignited waves of ecstasy. Feeling exquisite heat surrounding him and milking him. Feeling the white-hot pulse of climax boil over them simultaneously like a tide of magma.

It was done.

They collapsed on the bed together, Qui-Gon's heavy frame driving the air from Obi-Wan's lungs. Gradually their minds re-integrated and separated. The fire receded, its fuel burned away, and their breathing slowed gradually, grew even and diverged as two bodies began to work independently again. The bond pulsed, a deep steady awareness between them. Obi-Wan could sense that if he reached through it Qui-Gon would open to him like a flower, willing or no. And he was the same, potentially vulnerable; he could be laid open like a butchered sacrifice before the other man with only a touch.

Qui-Gon's penis slipped from him and the larger man turned them, easing his weight off Obi-Wan's slim frame. Instinctively Obi-Wan nestled into his arms, still panting a little, and opened his eyelids shakily, gazing into the worried eyes of his bondmate. A gentle inquiry threaded through the bond and lingered politely on the fringes of his mind, laden with concern. Concern for him. The concern touched him, reassuring him, and he met it with tentative warmth, reassuring Qui-Gon in turn.

"I'd say we still have much to learn about one another," Obi-Wan strove for humor, but his remark was too shaky and too sincere, wry on his lips. And much to overcome.

"Yes," Qui-Gon agreed, stroking his palm absently over Obi-Wan's flank, his gaze troubled. "I'm--"

"As am I," Obi-Wan covered the kiss-swollen lips with a gentle finger. But it was the will of the Force, and we followed it. Let's not waste our time with pointless regrets. He smiled hesitantly. Let's forgive and move on.

I forgive you, their words came almost simultaneously, heartfelt, through the bond.

"It is a beginning," Qui-Gon murmured, his eyes suspiciously bright in the fading moonlight.

"Yes," Obi-Wan agreed softly. He nestled his head under Qui-Gon's chin, mouthing softly at the skin of his lover's throat, and was rewarded by warm arms tightening around his body, legs shifting to make way for his, drawing his own slim thigh between the warm muscular columns of Qui-Gon's. A tender kiss was nuzzled into his damp hair. Then they subsided, breathing gradually slowing, the rise and fall of their chests punctuated by deep sighs of relaxation as they succumbed to mutual weariness together and finally drifted into sleep.

Jedi Master Lamec Bretor sat with his hands folded in his lap, eyes still fixed to the small surveillance screen which displayed the now-resting lovers. Jedi calming techniques held his hands still and maintained his steady, relaxed respiration rate. Next to him, Akalif was not so composed; he was breathing harshly and a scent of arousal hung around him faintly.

"We could sell that surveillance tape for nearly as much as we're getting for a shipment of einkolt," Akalif commented shakily.

His voice roused Bretor from contemplation, and the Jedi Administrator reached decisively, deactivating the screen. "Or for more than that, given the right buyer. I regret being forced to initiate this deception," he mused. "Jinn was a fine Knight once. If we do not handle him carefully, he may remember that. If he remembers, what we have accomplished here will be our downfall."

"You said yourself-- it's well-known throughout the Jedi. Jinn's a rogue now, very nearly renegade. If you can't be sure he'd join with us, then it's best to keep him occupied." Akalif shrugged. "Surely Tamrin Al'w could make any Jedi forget the Code." Lust thickened his voice.

"And yet, when Jinn discovers that Tamrin has deceived him, he may decide to expose us for simple vengeance." Bretor steepled his fingers thoughtfully, gazing over them at the dead gray screen. "And should Jinn refuse to become our ally... if Tamrin discovers that we are at odds with the man who has just saved his life, may he not betray us?"

"Should I be ready to move before he can talk?" Akalif moved into Bretor's line of sight aggressively, his voice sharp.

"He does not yet know enough to cause our downfall. In any case, I still believe that Jinn can be bribed to join in our profit... or to ignore us." Bretor narrowed his eyes. "The Force moves as it will."

As always, Akalif chafed at the fatalistic pronouncement. "I would prefer to move to be sure that we will not be betrayed. After all, it isn't our fault that Alesko fell to the Hutt. We aren't really hurting the Jedi by mining einkolt."

"Benefit is in the eye of the beholder," Bretor warned. "We are using and risking Jedi resources to mine and distribute it, and the Jedi have been seriously inconvenienced by our recent poor performance in crystal production," Bretor reminded Akalif sternly. "The Council will not look tolerantly upon our enterprise. As for moving to be sure that Jinn will not interfere... the measures I have taken will be adequate for now. Do not concern yourself with them. If Tamrin Al'w truly cares for Qui-Gon Jinn, he will be inspired to spend more time in his company, which is to our benefit. I have made sure that he knows doing so will profit him."

Akalif bowed, seeming properly subdued, glancing covetously at the viewscreen for a final look at Al'w before he excused himself to tend his early morning duties. Bretor watched him go, then his fingertips danced briefly over the controls of the surveillance panel and the recording began to play through again. He licked his dry lips slowly, listening to Tamrin's passionate cries with hungry ears.

Obi-Wan Kenobi awakened slowly, without experiencing even a moment of disorientation. His sleeping lover's-- bondmate's-- aura was peaceful and content, wrapped around him warm and soft like their blankets. He had felt it as he slept and recognized it as he awakened. It felt like... home. Home, and more. Obi-Wan felt tender desire for Qui-Gon's touch begin heating with molten sweetness inside him.

His bondmate responded even in sleep, his shaft lengthening and firming against Obi-Wan's thigh. Slowly, ensuring that the barrier of the blanket remained between them and the surveillance camera, Obi-Wan shifted his hips, reaching and bringing their erections together between their bodies. He clasped them against his belly with his palm behind them, stroking lightly. Qui-Gon stirred, waking in gradual stages, nuzzling face and hips against Obi-Wan with a low, purring moan.

"Good morning," Obi-Wan murmured, nibbling at Qui-Gon's earlobe, free hand finding the dampness of the coiled strands of braid.

"Mmm. That's nice." Qui-Gon's voice was muffled and sleepy and he clarified his meaning by rocking his hips lazily, moving his erection more firmly into his lover's hand.

Forgetting to be shy of the camera, Obi-Wan increased the pressure and the pace a little, obliging the quiet request. The bond lay warm and open between them, encouraging this pleasure; there was no fear this morning as he caressed their bodies gently, only building enjoyment. Qui-Gon's arm slipped around his waist and the big man rolled abruptly, like a great lazy cat, bringing Obi-Wan on top of him. His eyes opened, sleepiness fading, replaced by contentment and passion. Obi-Wan slid his hand away and rocked atop Qui-Gon, enjoying the willing body spread out beneath him and the growing warmth between them.

Sunlight slanted over their faces, glowing in loosened wisps of Qui-Gon's hair. Obi-Wan rocked harder, lashes closing and breath quickening. Their minds flowed together through the bond, doubling sensation. Through Qui-Gon's mind Obi-Wan could feel the pressure of his own weight and the rising excitement caused by his slow, scorching pace. He used the sensations to guide him as he moved a little faster, enjoying the silk of Qui-Gon's breath against his cheek as he let his head sink lower for a kiss. Hard to feel reluctant or shy in the face of such warm, lazy bliss.

Climax built leisurely and pulsed forth in sweet, warm bursts of pleasure, echoed by the liquid advance and retreat of their tongues as they kissed deeply and then parted. Obi-Wan gazed down into sunlit blue eyes, touching the tip of his nose to Qui-Gon's almost bashfully. "I think I'll have to return to work today."

"Yes, I am well enough to resume my duties also," Qui-Gon agreed, his voice a low, sated rumble. "But I regret not having the chance to spend this day in bed with you."

"I suppose we could malinger," Obi-Wan darted his eyes meaningfully in the direction of the surveillance camera that lay behind his head, making it clear that he was playing out his assigned role of attempting to distract the Jedi Master.

A spike of dismay stabbed through the bond, and he realized Qui-Gon had perhaps misinterpreted his words and his glance at the camera as a statement that he would not want to spend the day lying in bed making love even if they could afford to. Obi-Wan instinctively opened himself to reassure his lover, but met rising shields and felt the bond dim between them. Surprised and also a little hurt, he blinked, unsure how to vocalize reassurance aloud without breaking his cover.

Before he could choose words, Qui-Gon half-lifted and half-squirmed his way out from beneath Obi-Wan, setting him aside firmly. The shields remained, solid and stubborn. It was the young man's turn to feel a pang of pain. Maybe he had misunderstood Qui-Gon more deeply than he feared. Maybe the Jedi Master was still afraid of opening up to him, still resented him, and planned to reject him. It was likely Qui-Gon had no intention of keeping the bond when they finished this mission-- probably Obi-Wan had merely been used for pleasure. His own shields slid up instinctively, muting the bond further.

Qui-Gon rounded stiff shoulders to him and moved to the dressing table, reaching for his brush and pulling the tie from his braid.

Obi-Wan took a fresh coverall and stepped into the 'fresher cubicle. Taking a hasty shower, he used a wet cloth to wipe their mingled semen from his belly with quick, harsh strokes of his hand, then finished bathing, ensuring that he removed as much of Qui-Gon's touch from himself as he could.

He dried himself roughly, donned his coverall, and left the 'fresher, stamping his feet into his boots, feeling the reassuring weight of his lightsaber waiting where it lay tucked into the heavy mining boot at his right ankle. Qui-Gon was standing before the windows now, brushing his damp, braid-waved hair with long, fierce strokes. The Jedi Master stared out at the ash-ravaged countryside without looking back at Obi-Wan.

Obi-Wan became aware of a vague vibration beneath his feet, a low tremor that swelled slowly until it became audible, skittering the lightweight bedtable faintly against the floor. He glanced at the half-ravaged cone of the volcano through the window over Qui-Gon's shoulder, absently noting the darkness and thickness of the belching pall of ash.

It had felt so good, for such a fleeting moment, to wake in Qui-Gon's arms and to make gentle, heartfelt love with him... Firming his jaw, Obi-Wan left the room with brisk, crisp steps, not looking back. They would deal with their fears later. Right now he had a job to do.

The compound was a beehive of activity, miners and administrators scuttling bout industriously in the wake of the tremor, compiling seismic data from various computers and instruments. Obi-Wan approached his supervisor, waiting for Akalif to finish assignments to a handful of other personnel. His eyes ranged over the sensor bank idly as he waited his turn.

The seismograph showed a variety of tremors for the morning's activity; he had not been trained to read them but Obi Wan frowned slightly, feeling the Force tickle at his senses. The readings differed somewhat from the ones he had observed on the mountainside the previous day. Perhaps that was due to the distance deferential, or perhaps... he stared at the slowly scrolling sheets, wishing that he had been trained to interpret the data they held. The Force was trying to tell him something important here, something he couldn't yet grasp.

Akalif interrupted his thoughts, stepping between Obi-Wan and the array of gauges. The young Knight realized that his supervisor had been standing behind him for a long moment, watching him, but Akalif showed no sign of suspicion as he began to speak.

"Tamrin, after the latest quake, we're preparing to evacuate the lowest levels of the mines on a moment's notice. We had thought the pyroclastic activity yesterday would diffuse the worst of the pressure building inside the mountain, but it seems it wasn't enough." He scribbled furiously on his data reader with a light-pen. "The mountain's still grumbling, and it's as likely to worsen as it is to subside." He accepted a report from a rushing subordinate and surveyed it briefly, tucking it under his arm with a decisive nod.

"The natural caverns held firm during this morning's quake, just dropped a few rocks here and there, noting too serious. There's some damage to the ore conveyor system and the early-warning sensors need checking. We're pulling out of the lowest levels later today. A twenty-meter segment of especially promising ore still remains to be excavated and carted out in Theta sector, but after that we're abandoning that area of the mine. I want you to go down there and make sure everything is in perfect working order, especially the early-warning gauges. We don't want to lose anyone to carelessness or delay in repairing critical equipment." As he had the previous day, Akalif handed Obi-Wan a map detailing the route to his assignment. "As soon as mid-shift arrives, pull them out even if they aren't finished," he concluded.

Obi-Wan nodded, approving the precaution. He accepted the map with a quick glance, still half-distracted by his earlier glimpse of the seismic monitors. He left the room at a quick trot, infected by the urgency of the others around him, not pausing to glance at the swirl of dark chocolate Jedi-cloak he glimpsed rounding the nearest corner.

Qui-Gon spied Obi-Wan vanishing around the curve of the central lift shaft as he approached the work areas in the lower half of the complex, but did not pursue the younger man in spite of a pang of regret. He should not have shielded his momentary distress from his bondmate; he had upset Obi-Wan. Now both their shields lay between them again, dimming the new bond to a flicker of awareness once more. He would have to learn how to make trust manifest in action, how to share his concerns with his young mate instead of sealing them inside himself.

He would have to seek Obi-Wan out and apologize, but not now. At the moment his duties were paramount. Qui-Gon sighed regretfully, glancing into rooms as he passed, searching for Bretor. The compound was scurrying with activity, unsurprising in the wake of the morning's seismic disturbance. At length he found the administrator sitting in a small area that evidently served as a central monitoring station. Various screens displayed activity throughout the complex and the mine.

"Master Jinn. I am glad to see you have recovered," Master Bretor commented formally. "I was relieved when you and Tamrin returned. I trust he cared for you well?" His smile grew sly.

Qui-Gon nodded absently in the affirmative and gazed about the room, evaluating the activity on each screen. "Evacuation?"

"Our seismic surveys indicate that it is too dangerous to linger in this location," Bretor responded coolly. "We've already selected the site for our next facility." He handed Qui-Gon a data reader, and the Jedi skimmed it briefly, committing the major relevant data to memory. "There should be adequate mineral resources there to satisfy all our needs," he caught Qui-Gon's eye with a gaze that was perhaps too significant.

Qui-Gon met the man's stare serenely, wondering what lay behind the cool eyes. "Needs vary," he laid the reader aside. "As long as the needs of the Jedi are met, perhaps that is all that matters."

Bretor smiled broadly. "We think alike, you and I." Jovially he switched off the monitor he had been using, his hand moving to cover a data chip that lay beside it. "The sooner we move, the sooner we can satisfy the Jedi Council."

"Perhaps I can be of help to you." Qui-Gon moved forward, folding his hands.

"I could use someone with a Jedi's keen attention to detail," Bretor agreed. "Soon we'll begin moving personnel and equipment out of the mines. Would you care to wait at the lift shaft and conduct an inventory? I would not see you do heavy work so soon after an injury." He began to fish around through a pile of readers.

"That is one way I may be of help," Qui-Gon agreed coolly. The Force whispered to him, urgent promptings of time running out. This moment felt critical-- Qui-Gon understood that if he were to convince Bretor of his complicity, he must do it now. He cast his trust out to the Force, acting as it moved him, feeling his way into the conversation via instinct. "But there are others."

"Oh?" The administrator raised a cautiously inquisitive brow.

Qui-Gon stepped forward, obeying the Force's subtle prompting even as he felt his stomach twist with reluctance as he realized what he must say and do next.

"Though your plan to distract me has failed, it's fortunate that you sent Al'w to grace my bed," he smiled unpleasantly at the administrator. "He's a very interesting and capable young man, isn't he? I'm glad I took the risks that were necessary to earn his trust. I've learned some rather important things about him, much more important than how loudly he screams when he's fucked." His hand struck like a snake, catching Bretor's and pinning it in place over the surveillance data chip. "That's all you've learned, isn't it?" His smile was smug and mocking.

This was too easy, felt too familiar-- riding on the edge of light, touching and weaving tendrils of darkness as he pursued the goal of his mission at all costs. He suppressed a shudder, forcing himself to meet Bretor's eyes. "Tamrin Al'w is a Jedi agent," he hissed contemptuously. "He's been sent to investigate us both, Master Bretor."

The administrator's face paled and his eyes grew wide.

"You needn't worry about him, of course," Qui-Gon's smile hardened. "He's just a child. It was very easy to crush his will." He stared intently into Bretor's face, measuring the administrator's reaction. Relief predominated-- Qui-Gon's guesses were right, his impulsive risks were paying off. This would earn him the man's trust, at least as far as thieves could trust one another.

"Now tell me what you're doing here," Qui-Gon purred, making full use of his momentary advantage by pushing a step further. "Because if you don't, and if you don't cut me in for a share of the profits, I'll tell the Council what I know and I'll let Tamrin tell them what he knows. I might even make him think he knows more than he does, just so they'll find enough when they search his mind that I can be sure they'll destroy you." Qui-Gon's lips thinned in a harsh smile. "Then I'll ask to be placed in command of this facility myself, and I'm quite certain Akalif will be... more than cooperative, when he discovers that what has happened to you could happen to him next. I won't even have to tamper with his mind to persuade him, will I, Lamec?"

White-faced, Bretor swallowed, his hand spasming in Qui-Gon's cruel grip. Confronted with a stronger darkness, he crumbled almost immediately into fear. "We're mining einkolt," he faltered, fear permeating his aura like a shroud of ash. "We have to mine very deep and blast for it. Blasting at such deep levels frequently disturbs nearby volcanoes, and we have to relocate."

Qui-Gon nodded coldly. "I suspected something of that nature." The mineral was surpassingly rare and difficult to obtain; if memory served, Qui-Gon thought he recalled that usually great quantities of ore must be processed in order to obtain enough of it to be useful. "Do you have some of it here?"

Unfortunately, einkolt was not only prized for making fine jewelry, but had a limited Force-attunement. In quantity, the substance resonated to strong emotional currents, enhancing the power and clarity of both positive and negative emotions for even low-level Force-sensitives. As a Jedi Master, well-grounded in serenity, Bretor probably thought himself immune to such effects. But he had his weaknesses-- and from observation, Qui-Gon could tell that hedonism and greed were among them. The metal had probably encouraged him to succumb to the allure of self-indulgence increasingly as he was exposed to its effects over time.

Sure enough, the Jedi administrator fumbled in his pocket and retrieved a shapeless silvery-gray mass the size of his fist, dropping it into Qui-Gon's palm. Closely linked with the Living Force as he pursued the crucial interaction with Bretor, Qui-Gon could feel the resonances of his own emotions and of Bretor's intense fear singing around the heavy cool object he held, considerably amplified.

Refined but unworked, the lump he held in his palm was probably worth enough on the black market to buy a square mile vertical of prime Coruscant real estate. Made into fine jewelry, it would easily be worth ten times as much. He turned it over, savoring its heft with a wry smirk, wondering exactly how much money Bretor had stashed away already in preparation for his eventual retirement from active duties. Quite a substantial sum, most likely, hidden in various coded accounts both inside and outside the Republic. The Jedi Council could put such funds to good use once they were tracked down and appropriated. "I'll expect a half-share, of course." Qui-Gon let his mouth curl into a predatory smile.

"You shall have it, and more!" Bretor practically babbled in relief, again responding to the amplified siren song of Force inside the lump of metal.

"Beginning with this," Qui-Gon pocketed the lump smoothly.

"It takes tons of ore to refine into a nugget that size," Bretor protested. "That one is--"

"Mine, now," Qui-Gon interrupted him smoothly. "Consider it a payment on the arrears you owe me. And I think it would be in both our best interests to proceed with the evacuation immediately. I understand you now, Bretor. We do not want to lose a single miner, do we?"

"No," the administrator agreed, not without a half-angry, half-longing stare at Qui-Gon's pocket, where the nugget now lay.

"Then let us proceed as though nothing unusual has occurred." Qui-Gon weighted the words subtly with Force.

"The inventory," Bretor remembered shakily, and Qui-Gon nodded calmly, releasing Bretor's hand at last and giving the man a moment to compose himself. The administrator scrabbled about at a loss, searching among his things. Qui-Gon took the opportunity to retrieve the surveillance chip, secreting it away in another pocket. He reached calmly to accept the data reader Bretor finally selected and extended to him. He scanned the list of personnel and equipment, conscious of relief. It was simpler than he had expected.

"There will be a few stationing discrepancies in the lists of personnel who will be in and out of the mine and the compound, but we can check them quickly when we're ready to depart," Bretor assured Qui-Gon. His voice grew crisper and less distressed as he resumed his administrative authority. "The equipment rosters will probably be less fluid and definitely less critical. The most valuable pieces of equipment we have are the sensors. They should be easily tracked as they come in; picks and breathers and ore barrows will probably go in and out but each miner is responsible for his own pick and breather and we can count the barrows easily when we're prepared to leave."

Qui-Gon tucked the data reader into his pocket. "When will I be required?"

"You may take up your post at the bottom of the lift shaft as soon as you like." Bretor handed Qui-Gon a commlink. "Check in with Akalif and he'll give the order for men to begin bringing out the equipment and ore they've assembled so far this morning."

Qui-Gon gave Bretor a mockingly polite half-bow and rode the lift down into the topmost layer of the mine. Palming the commlink, he signaled for Akalif. "On Master Bretor's authorization, you may proceed with the evacuation when ready."

"Master Jinn?" the Second Administrator's tones were surprised.

"I'll be conducting the inventory." Qui-Gon responded. "And I am ready to begin cataloguing men and materiel."

A long pause. "Yes, Master Jedi. You should begin receiving crews shortly." Akalif signed off.

The Second Administrator spoke truly; soon Qui-Gon was busy entering data into the reader, keeping track of the men who were entering and exiting the mine with loads of sensors and ore. After a time the stream thinned. Nearly all of the mining crews had reported in, bringing seismic and temperature sensors with them as they cleared their assigned digging areas. Now the early-warning sensors were coming in from the most remote outposts of the mine. During a lull in the flow of personnel, Qui-Gon tapped the data reader, concerned. A single mining contingent was still unaccounted for amidst the dwindling tallies of equipment and workers who remained inside the mine.

He had seen no sign of Obi-Wan; presumably his bondmate was within the compound, working to service and stow the influx of equipment from the mine. He reached out to touch the shield-blocked bond hesitantly, seeking a sense of his lover's safety. There was nothing; Obi-Wan's mind remained remote and well-guarded.

The lift opened behind him and he turned to find Akalif there. A slight sheen of sweat was immediately apparent to Qui-Gon's clinical eye; Akalif's respiration was elevated, indicating an unusual level of nervous tension. "Master Jinn, we've become aware that one of the mining teams is having technical difficulties with their commlink. Apparently they haven't received the call for evacuation."

Qui-Gon nodded, his own observations confirmed. "Theta team," he pointed to the roster.

Akalif took it from him, scanning it. "It compares nicely with the tally I've been taking above," he complimented Qui-Gon's work. "A good job, Master Jinn." He shook his head, running a fingertip over the list of names in Theta team. Qui-Gon watched him narrowly, noting that the signs of unease did not decrease.

"I'll have to go out to contact them verbally," Akalif shook his head. "They're in a very remote part of the mine. We'll need to get them back as quickly as possible. The new man's with them too, Tamrin Al'w. I sent him earlier when I first suspected the commlink difficulty. I wonder why he hasn't returned with them yet?"

Qui-Gon frowned, feeling the Force stir around him in subtle warning, reinforcing his own sense that something was amiss. Clearly Akalif was lying. "I could reach them as quickly as anyone," he ventured, curious to test the Second Administrator's response.

"That would be excellent," the Second Administrator replied quickly. "If they've encountered trouble, I'm sure Jedi assistance would be invaluable." Akalif smiled toothily, his aura tinged false, sickly yellow. Just as Qui-Gon had suspected, his suggestion met with Akalif's overwhelming approval. The Force pulsed at Qui-Gon, and he could feel it simultaneously warning him of Akalif's dishonesty and pulling him toward his bondmate. Danger.

"I have a map," Akalif produced it smoothly. "We're nearly ready to evacuate. You should hurry."

Qui-Gon accepted the map and handed over his data reader, maintaining the coolness of his expression, and flicked the switch on his commlink. "Master Bretor."

"Bretor here." The voice was sharp with preoccupied stress.

"Theta team is missing, along with Tamrin Al'w. Administrator Akalif has suggested I seek them immediately and return them to the compound." Qui-Gon let false blandness fill his voice.

"Theta team? Al'w?" Bretor's voice sharpened. "Master Jinn, let someone else go for them. You are needed here."

"I think you are correct," Qui-Gon agreed, "But I am needed there even more, I suspect. Al'w is mine, and I do not take kindly to this transparent attempt to remove him... and to be rid of me." His voice harshened with a threat that was entirely sincere. "I will not be disposed of easily. We will have words about this betrayal when I return with Al'w, Lamec." He spoke slowly, evenly, his eyes fixed on Akalif, who had begun to sweat. "If the complex must move before I return, I expect to find transport awaiting my convenience when I emerge."

"Master Jinn, Akalif has done this without my knowledge. Don't go. Have him call me immediately!" Bretor's serenity had cracked badly.

"I'm going," Qui-Gon informed Bretor coldly. "If something should happen to me, I trust the Jedi Council will investigate the circumstances surrounding my death quite thoroughly."

"Qui-Gon--" Bretor tried again, but Qui-Gon deactivated the commlink, ignoring him.

"Your supervisor wishes to speak with you," Qui-Gon stared at the Second Administrator coldly as he deactivated his commlink and tucked it back into his belt. "As will I, when I return. Have no doubt of that." "Master Jinn--" Akalif's color was flushed and hectic; he ignored the summons of his own commlink, chirping softly in his pocket. "I assure you, I..." but Qui-Gon had rounded his back and was already running along the barrow rails, following his faint sense of Obi-Wan without bothering to consult the map, the Force whispering its urgent intimations of danger inside his head.

Obi-Wan made his way down into the mines quickly, vowing to have the miners he'd been told to supervise out well before mid-shift, if possible. He had not yet been as deep into the facility as his map indicated he should go; it was a long way to the outskirts of the charted mine. After he passed beyond the active regions of the upper mine, Obi-Wan risked a bit of Force-enhanced speed, trotting deeper into the stone, guided by the infrequent glow-lamps and the luminous paint at every branching.

After pausing to examine several sets of sensors, he was rewarded by the sound of excavation: the ping and whine of laser picks and cutters and the deep rumble of ore barrows. He slowed, gazing around. A frown pinched his forehead; this tunnel was not naturally formed, as he'd assumed it would be. As it had when he was gazing at the seismograph, something about the situation troubled him. He was still missing some subliminal clue, or clues, that he urgently required.

He walked into the light and found miners hard at work there, cutting deep into the heart of the stone and lifting chunks of slag-gray ore into the barrows. He reported to the group leader and assumed authority, moving about to check the sensors, proceeding afterward to inspect the ore barrows and the magnetic conveyor rails that moved them. Finding nothing amiss, he relaxed and posted himself near the farthest end of the chamber, keeping a wary eye on his own hand-held sensors. He didn't like the temperature down here. It seemed excessively hot. Wiping sweat with his sleeve, Obi-Wan wondered whether it was usually so warm in this portion of the mine. Even the caged birds hanging from the corner of the personnel transport barrow seemed oppressed, sitting huddled quietly together.

Obi-Wan wandered over to them, chirruping to them softly, checking their level of alertness. Though depressed, they seemed in good enough health. "How much more is there to excavate?" he questioned the group leader.

"Ten meters. We should finish right on time."


"It's cursed hot down here today. I don't like it," the huge Hillac confided to Obi-Wan. "Mountain's heating up below us. Lava nearby, or I'm not a miner."

Obi-Wan nodded, extending his senses into the Force. Sensing the Living Force was not his strength, but with patience, he began to become aware of some of the composition of the stone around him. Fairly solid, split by a few prominent cracks and... Obi-Wan frowned. He re-checked. There was no sense of crystalline growth, no resonance in the signature of Force-energy that made lightsaber crystals unique. Instead, the lode they were tracing felt like... metal.

"Why are we mining here, particularly?" Obi-Wan asked casually.

"Best einkolt vein we've hit for over a sun cycle." The leader wiped his grubby brow, lifting his protective helmet. "Grubbing crystals for the Jedi isn't profitable enough to keep Bretor happy, I'm thinking."

"I guess it wouldn't be." Einkolt? Obi-Wan frowned, gazing into an ore barrow. If he remembered rightly, it was a rare commodity, a dense metal much prized by the wealthy, frequently used in the manufacture of jewelry. It was supposed to enhance experiences, especially pleasure, though he'd always doubted the truth of such rumors.

This could not legitimately be part of the crystal mining operation; it must be closely related to the facility's difficulties. Why would Akalif have sent him here, then? Surely he was not to be trusted with such sensitive information. Not so soon. The Force nagged at him, a feeling of instinctive dread thickening in his stomach.

The Second Administrator would not trust Tamrin Al'w with such crucial knowledge. Then why had he been sent here? He lifted a stone, gazing into the barrow. Some of the rock-edges were rough, not smooth like the cuts that the men with laser picks were making. "How was that stone cut?"

"We used a blasting charge," was the response. "We're about set to blast again, to get a head start on the last ten meters."

"Blasting?" Obi-Wan asked slowly. "Do you do that often?"

"A couple of times the day before yesterday, once already this morning." The Hillac shrugged. "I don't like doing it, but we listen to Akalif."

The day before yesterday? Obi-Wan remembered the seismic tremors that had occurred after he repaired the broken sensor... the ones that had presaged the pyroclastic flow which had almost taken his life and Qui-Gon's. If he had been trained to read the seismograph, he might have recognized the difference between blasting and natural volcanic tremors... Obi-Wan winced as a shrill whine split the air; two men were holding a laser drill, preparing a channel in which to seat the blasting charge.

"They're getting ready to drop it now." The Hillac gang-boss touched a control and the ore barrows began to trundle away. Eight of the ten miners followed, clearing the blasting zone. It left Obi-Wan with a clear line of sight to the blasting charge.

The moment he laid eyes on it, the nagging tickle of warning he had felt building in the Unifying Force solidified into an urgent clamor; Obi-Wan's danger-sense peaked. "You can't set that off. Don't set it off." He stepped forward, speaking with authority. "Stop drilling. We're all leaving this mineshaft now."

The Hillac laughed gruffly. "Don't let the tunnels give you the shakes. You're just new to this, that's all. We'll be finished in less than two--"

"I mean it. Put down the charge and return to the surface." Obi-Wan put Force behind his words and the miners obeyed; only the Hillac, who had not been the direct target of his will, hesitated. As the remaining miners joined their fellows, Obi-Wan's danger sense continued to clamor. It was not enough merely to retreat. His sense of impending disaster shrilled at him unmercifully.

"What do you think you're doing?" The team leader laid a rough hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder, but the young Jedi turned to face him.

"Run," he commanded, hand rising. The Hillac stumbled backward under the influence of Force and fled with Obi-Wan hard on his heels. "Get on the conveyor," Obi-Wan snapped. "I'd wager my left leg that charge is going to go off eventually whether we tell it to or not, and we'd better be far from here when it does!" Obi-Wan was certain that having failed to bake him in the pyroclastic flow, Akalif would take no further chances in trying to rid himself of Tamrin Al'w. And, if possible, Qui-Gon Jinn.

The miners milled confusedly, boarding the conveyor cart around him. Patience at an end, Obi-Wan began pushing at them with his hands, throwing the transport activator switch with a touch of Force and helping the laggards lumber along and scramble onto the conveyor. It chugged slowly upward, weighted by its cargo of heavy ore and miners.

Obi-Wan despaired; there was no way of telling when the charge might go off. He was only certain that it would happen well before mid-shift, when he had been told to withdraw himself and his men. Shouldering his way through the tightly-packed miners, Obi-Wan made his way to the leading edge of the transport barrow and swiftly began levitating the heavy chunks of ore from the barrows in front of them, dropping the stones at the side of the conveyor track.

He ignored the miners' shouts of fear, anger, and bewilderment, persisting in his task. With each stone he removed, the velocity of their conveyance increased slightly. Lurching violently, the barrows began to ascend a long vertical shaft. Obi-Wan continued dropping ore, listening to it clatter down the narrow confines of the conveyor track.

"You're a Jedi, aren't you." The Hillac team leader's hand fell on his shoulder, more hesitantly this time. "You've seen the future?"

"Yes," Obi-Wan responded tightly, still struggling with the stones. "I think Akalif means to be rid of us, to cover his tracks from Jedi investigation. He doesn't care who he sacrifices." He had removed most of the ore, but the carts were not increasing in speed.

"You can stop now, the carts won't go any faster than this," The group leader's voice was gruff with fear. "When we get out of this vertical shaft, we'll send some of my men ahead. Some of them can run faster than this thing will go-- the Wookiee and the Mecosians can, but the rest can't." He angled his head at a squat Gamorrean who huddled near Obi-Wan against the leading edge of the barrow, grunting with fear.

"Then let the ones who can run go on ahead." Obi-Wan fumbled out his map. "The faster they can get out, the better their chances." They reached the top of the vertical shaft and he handed the map over to one of the three Mecosians, who were vaulting out to the left of the barrow and beginning to run uphill. "Stay with the conveyor track, if you're injured or exhausted we'll pick you up when we arrive!" Obi-Wan called after them, then turned to the Hillac, who was listening to the single Wookiee's wailing growls.

"Eefsha has decided to stay with his comrades," the team-leader reported.

"No," Obi-Wan shook his head, revising his plans rapidly. "I need you to find Master Qui-Gon Jinn, Eefsha. He must know about the einkolt, and that Akalif means to destroy the evidence with that blasting charge." He paused, staring into the shaggy face.

The Wookiee towered over him, staring down for a brief moment, then nodded. With a bark that must have been agreement, he vaulted out of the barrow, disappearing into the gloom.

Obi-Wan gazed at the seven others who remained in the barrow with him, some staring with glazed terror at the receding shaft behind them, some watching the anxious creeping progress of the foremost barrows like their only fading hope of heaven. They crept a hundred meters, then switchbacked and began to climb anew, entering a slow-widening natural cave-channel cut by a long-dried subterranean river.

Remembering the bond suddenly, Obi-Wan reached out instinctively to touch Qui-Gon's mind, hoping to warn him of Akalif's treachery and of the impending explosion and probable consequent eruption. A moment's resistance yielded to a sudden sense of the other man; Qui-Gon already knew of the treachery and was rushing toward him. Qui-Gon's earlier attempts to communicate had been thwarted by Obi-Wan's own shielding. The young Knight cursed both their stubborn fears, but there was nothing that could be done to remedy their mistakes now. He could only hope that it was not too late.

Even as the thought registered in his mind, the Force surged, shrilling an unmistakable warning. "Take cover!" Obi-Wan lunged at the nearest miner, bearing him to the dusty floor of the cart as the shockwave of the detonated blasting charge surged over them.

Qui-Gon touched the Force carefully, alert for any sensation of weakness or pain in his mind. He had not drawn directly on the Force since exhausting his abilities during the pyroclastic flow. The psychic damage he had incurred when Obi-Wan nearly crushed his shields had worsened when he failed to protect them from the ash cloud, and such things took time to heal.

He used the energy he contacted to hasten his pace, resisting the impulse to use the einkolt to speed his motion further. Instinct warned that later he would need all the Force and resilience he could muster-- more than it would avail him now. He moved at a rapid lope, long legs devouring the distance between himself and his bondmate, dropping his shields and reaching out along their bond for the touch of Obi-Wan's mind. His lover was still shielded against him, but he could feel faint flickers of distress and resolve in the younger man's mind. Something was clearly amiss.

Qui-Gon ran harder, air beginning to rasp in his lungs. Time was running out, he could feel it. His eyes narrowed. There were miners ahead, Mecosians, running frantically though there was no sign of pursuit. Doubtless they were part of Theta team, the letter was emblazoned on the coveralls they wore. With their long legs, they could outdistance their comrades easily.

"Evacuate," Qui-Gon barked as they raced past him, but they did not hesitate to discuss the self-evident order. The tunnel narrowed and dimmed, Qui-Gon sensed another being approaching him at high velocity and called out.

A Wookiee roar answered him and he recognized Eefsha; just at that moment Obi-Wan's shields fell fully and Qui-Gon read the danger in his mind: an explosive charge set to detonate at an uncertain time. He sent the sense of his approach to his bondmate across the distance that separated them, but the warning in the Force was shrilling now. Just as he finished, he felt bomb detonate. The shockwave of the blast rolled outward, engulfing Obi-Wan in seconds. Qui-Gon had just enough time before it reached them to snatch Eefsha's thick, furred arm and to throw himself and the Wookiee against the wall. Then the blast struck.

The mineshaft seemed to collapse around their heads, dust and rock tumbling downward and bouncing off their bowed shoulders, but for the most part, the roof where they knelt held firm. The rumbling of the ground subsided to angry mutters at last, leaving a quiet that clamored in Qui-Gon's ears. He could sense that not all of the mineshaft was so stable as this part; in some places the ceiling had descended. They would have to dig through.

His sense of danger had not dispersed; he reached down the bond hastily. Obi-Wan's life-force continued unabated from further down inside the mine. His bondmate did not respond immediately, preoccupied by the chaos caused by the shockwave, but he was still coming, struggling to marshal his men and resume their upward progress. Qui-Gon blinked dust from his lashes and lifted his head. The artificial lighting had gone out; a luminous tunnel-marking was visible far away and to his left, but that was the only light. Eefsha shifted underneath him and he rolled carefully off the Wookiee, reaching to his belt for his lightsaber.

The white-green glow of the weapon gave the tunnel an eerie, sickly cast, illuminating and partly incinerating a steady fall of dust sifting down from minute cracks in the stone above them. In several places, falls of broken stone had blocked the barrow track and would have to be moved or climbed over in order to progress in either direction through the shaft. Obi-Wan's men would have to abandon the conveyor cart and resume their climb on foot.

Qui-Gon hesitated, torn between ensuring Eefsha's safe exit from the tunnels and pursuing his sense of his bondmate. He snatched out his commlink, "Theta team, are you there?"

"Master Jinn. This is Akalif's doing. He and Bretor are mining for einkolt using depth charges. The blasting is responsible for the increased volcanic activity." Obi-Wan released the information in terse phrases so that his testimony would be recorded on Qui-Gon's commlink chip. "He thought to dispose of me."

"To dispose of us both," Qui-Gon responded, and touched the bond again. He knew I would come after you.

Obi-Wan's shields were down now; Qui-Gon reached hesitantly and contacted the surface of Obi-Wan's mind, briefly sensing what he saw. Six other miners still lived, all injured, one too badly to walk. "Can you travel?"

"The shaft is blocked. We're working to clear it." Obi-Wan sent an image of his companions, redly lit and sweating, working with laser picks and hastily placed graviton braces. "I don't know how bad it is between here and the surface. There are at least three blockages that I can sense between us and you."

Qui-Gon acknowledged the message, distracted by a sense of reticence in Obi-Wan's communication. Redly lit...?

Obi-Wan. His mental voice throbbed with tension as he recognized the only possible source of the light.

"The shaft floor is splitting. I think the tremor opened a lava tube right beneath us." The tones were weary and he sounded resigned at his failure to withhold the grim information. "The charge Akalif set us up with was intended to bring down the entire shaft where Theta team was working, and it's weakened the structure of the subterranean strata. They're giving way in a chain reaction, and I think it's speeding up as it goes. You'd better get out, Qui-Gon. This mine is about to become Juyoren's newest active crater."

"Eefsha, head for the surface," Qui-Gon commanded tersely, scrambling in his pocket and pushing the lump of einkolt into his comrade's furry hand. He had no time for worry, and must rely on the legendary honor code that frequently prevailed among the natives of Kashyyk. "Someone has to get out. If I don't survive, send a communication to Master Yoda at the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. Give this to him. Tell him I said to--"

The Wookiee yowled angrily in the negative, chuffing and shaking his head, and Qui-Gon changed tactics. "This is of the utmost importance. You must..."

A low, insistent rumble silenced him. Time was creeping away and he had no more leisure to argue. "You may well choose to forfeit your life if you choose to follow me," he snapped. He began to trot down the shaft with determination, not looking back to see Eefsha padding after him.

"We're through the first blockage," Qui-Gon's commlink sounded tinnily. "Go to the surface, Qui-Gon. We can make it." The mental shield was back; the Jedi Master ran tendrils of thought over its smooth surface, looking futilely for a way in.

"Then we'll make it together," he lifted the instrument to his lips and spoke softly.


"Not without you." He spoke the words with quiet, firm finality and shut off the commlink, replacing it in his pocket. He and Eefsha had arrived at the first of the remaining two blockages that separated him from his bondmate; heedless of possible instability, they began to dig. They had no graviton braces so they proceeded slowly, Qui-Gon using his lightsaber to bisect boulders that were too large for Eefsha to lift easily.

They made a hole barely large enough for Eefsha to wriggle through and continued into the bowels of the mine, picking their way amidst tumbled rubble. Eventually Qui-Gon's danger sense began to prickle again and he extended a cautious tendril of Force into the stone around them. Another tremor was building, imperceptible but growing, beginning to work its way through the stone with fine subsensory tremors and then swelling without warning, shuddering the stone around them.

"Take cover!" Qui-Gon and Eefsha crouched by an overhanging stone as detritus tumbled around them, a savage hail of loosened stone. Qui-Gon's teeth jarred together and he clenched his jaw, sparing a hand and drawing on Force to ward away some of the larger stones that descended.

A terrible flare of pain enveloped him; instantly he realized it was not his own and reached through the partly re-opened bond in a futile, belated effort to shield Obi-Wan from harm. The tremor was not stopping this time, it continued with only slight remission. An eruption, an unstoppable flow of magma from deep beneath the crust.

Qui-Gon tugged Eefsha upright and they ran along the half-obscured barrow tracks, his lightsaber pointing the way along the littered ground. The final blockage halted them, dust motes dancing jaggedly in the air. Qui-Gon attacked it with fingers and lightsaber, desperate to claw his way through the rubble to reach his bondmate's side. Obi-Wan. His lover was not gone, but unconscious; there was no response to his frantic call. Eefsha laid a cautious but gentle paw on his shoulder and Qui-Gon's frenzy abated. He stepped back, wiping grime and sweat from his face with the sleeve of his cloak, trembling.

Obi-Wan. Until this very moment, he'd never been forced to admit how much his young lover meant to him. If it came down to Obi-Wan's death... a harsh lump choked his throat, and he reached for the bond again. It still lay silent between them, Obi-Wan's presence a muted throb at the other end, his pain barely penetrating the dark shroud of unconsciousness.

Qui-Gon remembered how empty and gray his life had been before Obi-Wan entered it, remembered the bleak feeling of promising himself that he would not grow old and die an invalid, alone and embittered. He shuddered at the idea of growing old alone. They had been together for such a short time, so much of their interactions reluctant and conflicted... but how bleak it would be to live without Obi-Wan at his side, to go on without his bondmate and lover! Without his... beloved.

My heart, he caressed the silent bond, rare and unexpected emotion threatening to overcome his control. He was glad that he had given the nugget of einkolt to his Wookiee companion; he did not think he could have borne for this emotion to be enhanced. He was glad to know that it had not been: this feeling was wholly his, pure in the Force, strong and clear and not open for debate. If you die here, so shall I.

He resumed his attack on the mound of stone and dust, cool rationality replacing his earlier frenzy. Sounds of digging scratched and pinged faintly on the other side of the cave-in; he wavered between pleasure and distress. Obi-Wan was still relatively far away. Why had his comrades left him? Had he been trapped beneath another stone-fall?

A flutter of consciousness trembled through the bond and Qui-Gon cradled it gently in his mind, digging automatically as he soothed Obi-Wan slowly back to awareness. Rest easy. I'm coming.

Qui-Gon. The sending was faint, strained by pain. Are the others...?

We're digging to meet them now. Then I'm coming for you.

No. Get them out. Don't worry about me. My leg is trapped, but I'm all right.

The magma.

We made quite a bit of progress before the tremor hit. It's several yards below this level yet. I think I can... Obi-Wan trailed away for a moment, then when his thoughts returned, they were sober and subdued. No, I can't get to my lightsaber. It was in my boot. I think the stone has crushed it.

And it would have crushed Obi-Wan's leg, as well. Qui-Gon winced. The young Jedi could not cut himself free.

Can you levitate the stone?

And risk bringing the whole mine down on us all? The tenor of the humor in his thought was bitter. This thing is gigantic. Just... take care of them, Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan tried not to let the despair in his thoughts enter the bond, but he could not entirely conceal it. The older Jedi clenched his fist, nails digging into his palm. His duty was to care for the innocent... he must do this before he could tend his personal wishes, must protect his charges before he could help his bondmate.

At that moment Eefsha trumpeted a triumphant yodeling growl, and Qui-Gon glanced to see a pudgy clawed hand gripping the wookiee's furred one. We've broken through. As soon as I'm sure they're out, I'm coming back for you. Qui-Gon sent the fierce pulse of his devotion through the bond.

Thank you, but... the response was shy and warm, but there was loss and pain behind it, as well. Again Qui-Gon glimpsed his bondmate's despair and knew that he was being thanked for showing his feelings, not for his promise. Qui-Gon...?

Don't give up, Obi-Wan.

Don't come back. Obi-Wan's mental touch was soft with bittersweet affection and despair. I love you. He closed his mind very gently.

Qui-Gon's eyelids flickered open and he stared forward, agonized. He barely saw the first grunting Gamorrean struggle through the narrow passage they had scratched at the top of the cave-in. It was followed by another and another, then two humans and a Hillac who bore the chevron of a team leader.

"You left Tamrin," Qui-Gon accused, stepping forward, anger blurring the edges of his vision, his Jedi serenity shattered.

"We could not reach him! The floor split between us. There was a chasm, and the magma was rising..." the Hillac sounded miserably guilty; Qui-Gon realized his fist was clenched in the being's coverall, dragging its head down toward him. "He did not answer our calls. We could not help him, Sir Jedi. The cavern was filling with fire."

The hellish image of the cavern where Obi-Wan had fallen was easy to capture from the Hillac's agitated mind. Qui-Gon felt his stomach boil with nausea, and he dropped the fistful of coverall numbly. Fire. One of the worst possible ways to for a man to die...

"Let's get moving. NOW. No delays!" He was aware that his Jedi calm was suddenly gone beyond immediate recall, but he didn't care. Eefsha gathered up the wounded Gamorrean and they began to trot upward. Qui-Gon tried to calm himself, reaching for the Living Force to divine their path. There were four blockages now to be dug through, only one of them serious.

For a mercy, the trembling of the surrounding stone did not worsen as they climbed; Qui-Gon could hardly discern the shudders and separate them from the hammering urgency in his mind. Obi-Wan. The bond was closed but there, and as long as his lover lived, he would not give up hope. They moved slowly up the torturous, interminable switchbacks of the conveyor track, their speed hampered by the injured and by the fallen rock. Together, laser picks and lightsaber sliced through tumbled stone blockages in the narrow cuts. They toiled upward together through an eternity of darkness and panting, grunting effort. Each second carried him further from his bondmate, eating away inexorably at Obi-Wan's slender chances of survival.

Qui-Gon felt his jaw lock, grim resolve filling him, as they cut through the final blockage. "Eefsha..." the Wookiee looked at him soberly, unspeaking. "There are no more obstacles. Get them out. There should be a transport waiting; if there is, get it in the air and hover until you judge you cannot risk waiting any longer. I'm going back for Tamrin. If I do not survive, contact Councilor Yoda on Coruscant. Tell him what has happened here. He must replace the entire staff at the Juyoren installation."

The Wookiee nodded, laying his wide palm on Qui-Gon's shoulder in encouragement. Qui-Gon covered it with his own and then sprinted away without further speech, touching the closed bond. Still there. He speeded his pace, drawing on the Force carefully, husbanding his strength with care. He would need all he could muster soon.

The hard weight of his lightsaber thumped against his thigh; if he could make it to Obi-Wan he would get his lover out even if he had to cut the man's leg off. Risk be damned. He would succeed or die.

He ran onward through darkness, past walls of somber gray stone, his internal vision fixed on the slender thread that connected him to his bondmate. So hard to reconcile the dark barren stretch of this mineshaft with the scene of horror he had glimpsed in the Hillac miner's thoughts-- with the inferno where Obi-Wan now lay trapped, waiting to die.

Don't give up. I'm coming. Ignoring the faint ache developing behind his temples as he drew on the Force, he reached out to enhance his speed. He hoped against hope that Obi-Wan would hear his desperate projection and would continue to fight to survive.

Obi-Wan closed his end of the bond that linked him to Qui-Gon, hoping that it would be enough to convince the man not to return. There would be no point in both their lives being lost. He drew a shallow breath of the searing air, trying not to choke on the fumes from the rising lava, and lifted himself on his elbows to survey his position.

The tremor had opened the cavern floor in several places; at the worst of them, steel rails from the barrow tracks protruded over a red-glowing chasm. He could not see the magma yet, but the tempered steel of the tracks had begun to glow a sullen dull crimson where they stuck out over the rising heat, and an occasional lick of flame gushed up where volatile gases entered the heat bubble over the rising flow. He sat up quickly, scrabbling at his trapped legs. He was buried under stone nearly to his hip; his right leg was badly broken. Even if he were to find some way to cut himself free, perhaps by amputating the worst-trapped limb, he could not vault the chasm or make his way to the surface unassisted. He would only prolong the agony of his death.

He scrabbled at the smaller loose stones that lay toppled around the huge slab that had pinned him, crushing his right ankle and calf against the floor. He could free his left leg, but the right... Moving the small debris confirmed his guess; the floor was stained with dark glittering blood seeping from the compound fractures in his crushed leg.

Levitating the smaller fragments away, he placed them to form a dam between himself and the chasm where the magma crept upward inexorably. He could see spatters of liquid rock now, flung up from bursting bubbles on the surface of the flow. They rained down with a horrible crackling noise at the edges of the crevice. One smoking pebble skittered against his arm; he hissed in pain and flicked it away with Force. There would be more, and worse. He would die by inches, magma creeping closer, roasting him alive. The slope of the cavern floor meant that it would reach his midsection first, working its way slowly up and down his body... he would not let that happen. He would hold it away until the last moment and then let it engulf him quickly, a relatively merciful death by any measure.

He swallowed hard, throat abraded by the harsh fumes. His breathing mask had been torn off in the quake and it had vanished; there would be no more clean air. Perhaps he would suffocate before the fire reached him.

It was a perversely comforting thought.

He lay back, thinking rapidly of options, defenses, desperate plans. Desperate love. He had glimpsed so many emotions in Qui-Gon through their last contact... if only he had known how much Qui-Gon truly cared about him, before this! He would not have struggled so long and so hard to resist his own feelings for the other man. The bonding would have been so much easier for them both. But now, of course, it was too late, there would be no more bond. No more warm living skin against him. No more passionate nights or gentle mornings of sweet lovemaking. He would even miss the tension of their disagreements, the anguish of their misunderstandings...

He very nearly reached for Qui-Gon again, to show him the measure of his love in a final farewell... but he could not. Must not. If he gave that gift, Qui-Gon might sacrifice his own life in a doomed attempt to return and save Obi-Wan. The gift of Qui-Gon's life was more precious to Obi-Wan than the chance to reveal his own love.

He lay back, feeling the heat of the cavern floor radiate up into his body through his back and shoulders. 'There is no death, only the Force.' He smiled to himself bitterly. The steel rails glowed cherry red now, shading to black well away from the chasm; the tips of the rails wept white-hot droplets of steel into the magma where they protruded over it.

At the lowest part of the break, he could see the liquid stone now; ugly, fat, viscous bubbles rose and burst in the dull orange fluid. Glowing fragments of stone pattered the ceiling and the floors; he warded them away instinctively, his raised hand directing channeled Force.

He looked toward the single exit from the cavern, hungering for the escape it offered in spite of his resolve to meet death calmly. A vein of some flammable compound had ignited in the wall, burning fiercely with a clear blue hue. Perhaps it was some form of coal. He traced the vein of the burning substance to the point where the magma had risen high enough to touch and ignite it.

There was no hope that Qui-Gon would come for him now. Not that he had really hoped, not that he had truly wanted Qui-Gon to sacrifice himself in a misguided attempt to save Obi-Wan-- even if he had been unable to vanquish selfish hope. The miners must be protected first, and it was too late for him now; the tunnel to the surface was an inferno.

The magma crept upward, beginning to spread across the floor, dulling to reddish black at the cracking edges, but more crackled through the blackened crust and pushed past the cooled surfaces, poured out and formed new cooling boundaries which were bypassed in turn. He laughed suddenly, hysterically, watching it come for him. He should have trusted the truth of Qui-Gon's foresight on the transport from Torehir. He'd been arrogant and foolish. If he'd listened then, perhaps he would not be here now.

Pain lanced through him, and he realized he was jerking at his trapped leg, mindlessly struggling to free himself, choking in the fume-thick air. He lay back again, shoulders flinching at the contact with the hot floor, the beginnings of a burn twinging in his skin. He channeled the heat away as Qui-Gon had shown him how to do, trying to control the spasming of his lungs as sulfuric vapor began to fill the cavern.

The lava had risen perhaps another foot; soon it would arrive at his makeshift dam of fragile stones. He could see the glowing wave of its relentless onslaught through chinks in the pitiful barrier he had erected. He'd been fooling himself, really, occupying a doomed mind to keep it from panic.

"No death. Only Force." He panted the words aloud, trying to make them true with the force of his belief, but the Code had forgotten one crucial fact in that little apothegm... there might not be death, but there was pain. He could picture his flesh being seared away in slow, merciless stages, bone crisping to ash... blood boiling as the lava crept forward...

He flung the thought from his mind, struggling to control himself. Would Qui-Gon feel his pain as he died? He had heard that the Old Ones could disperse their bodies and consciousness into the Force voluntarily when their time came. He wondered how it was done-- he must ask Yoda sometime, must make a point to learn it. But of course, he couldn't, could he? He already needed the skill, but he didn't have it.

It must be linked to deep meditation somehow. If he could achieve calm, peace, release himself into the Force... but his eyes were fixed on the rising crimson tide that was coming to engulf him; it had reached his pitiful barrier and glowing fingers were threading through, coming to devour him.

He struggled, reaching for them with Force, dispersing the heat out of the encroaching trickles of fire, making them seal the cracks in his little dam. But there was nowhere to properly disperse the heat anymore; the temperature of every stone in the cavern was building to saturation and beyond. All would soon melt into the merciless flow. He was quickly nearing the limit of his ability to channel the heat away.

Concentrating on holding back the advancing molten stone, he missed the bursting of a gas bubble and pellets of glowing stone pelted him, sending wisps of smoke up as they seared instantly through his clothing. He writhed, screaming, struggling to slap the searing pebbles away. He was losing his concentration, losing his control; the lava would take him soon...

Obi-Wan! Was that his name, shouted over the horrible rending groan of the molten rock? He couldn't hear, coughing helplessly, struggling to hold back those horrible little crimson runnels that sought him hungrily, reaching to drag him down into hell. The lava slid a greedy finger around the end of his dam, beginning to tug at the structure, slowly pushing it aside. The bond flared to life as his shields crumbled; his bondmate was racing toward him, smoldering cloak raised as a pitiful shield against the blue-burning coal vein...

Qui-Gon, go back! He screamed, mentally and aloud, air searing his throat, eyes streaming as they turned toward the blue blaze that filled the passage to the surface. The surface of the billowing flames bulged outward and burst, resolving into a stumbling figure; Qui-Gon flung away his disintegrating cloak and slapped at his flaming tunics with blistered hands.

Not without you. He raised his eyes to his bondmate, their gazes meeting through the heat shimmer over the lava flow. Qui-Gon raced forward, launching himself in a tumbling somersault over the river of fire, the end of his whipping braid kindling in the blast of heat.

Ignoring the flames, he landed lightly on the near side of the rift and pressed forward, boots barely seeming to touch the liquid fire under his feet. Obi-Wan could see his skin tightening and reddening, the glowing hair billowing around him in a blazing aureole, tunics singeing, boots and leggings smoking even though Force flowed through him, channeling the killing heat away as much as could be done. On he came, impossibly, his eyes fixed on Obi-Wan, ignoring the lava that was now ankle-deep.

Obi-Wan felt tears leaking from his eyes and steaming off his cheeks instantly as he scrabbled to sit up; the lava was oozing around his dam in quantity, beginning its final advance toward his body in earnest. He did not have Qui-Gon's power with the Living Force, could not hold it back for much longer. He shoved it back desperately again and again, hanging on. Qui-Gon sprang lightly across the remaining distance, lava-caked boots landing on either side of Obi-Wan's legs, and stabbed his saber hilt-deep into the stone, cutting free the wedge immediately above Obi-Wan's trapped right leg, face contorting with effort of forcing the lightsaber through the dense igneous rock.

Obi-Wan launched himself upward as far as he could reach, trying to slap out the flames that ate at Qui-Gon's hair and clothing, extinguishing the burning tatters of his leggings and his stola. The humming moan of the flashing green blade as it drove through the stone that covered his leg was the most wonderful sound Obi-Wan thought he had ever heard, and Qui-Gon the most welcome sight his eyes had ever found.

Pieces of rock flew away and splashed into the river of lava; Obi-Wan barely felt the hot stone spatter that seared past his cheek, staring up at Qui-Gon, who continued impassively slicing away at the huge boulder that held him pinioned. His jumpsuit flamed and he smacked the small fire out, shrinking from the inexorable progress of the lava. Qui-Gon freed Obi-Wan's leg and extended a hand to the younger man, snatching him upright.

Ignoring the pain from his crushed limb, Obi-Wan dragged himself up to lean against the gigantic boulder's baking-hot surface, minimizing the area that he must protect from the oncoming lava as Qui-Gon sawed carefully, loosing a vast slab and cutting it free, levitating it to fall across the chasm. Extinguishing his blade, the Jedi Master jumped down and scooped Obi-Wan up, his arms going beneath the younger man's knees and behind his back. The Jedi Master vaulted them forward immediately across the blazing ocean of fire, leaping from stone to stone on his makeshift pathway.

Obi-Wan felt the hair on his arms crisp and his skin bake as the unbearable heat hammered at him; he nestled his face into Qui-Gon's tunic, unable to help himself. Qui-Gon faltered, but only once; Obi-Wan reached with Force to steady them. He extended himself through the bond and took Qui-Gon's pain so that he could continue to protect them, so that he could get them out.

Blazing agony flooded into his mind and he gasped, barely retaining the sensibility to slap again at their burning hair and clothes as they reached the verge of the fiery river. Broiled hands clutched him close; Qui-Gon spared an instant to glance down into his face and their smoke-reddened, streaming eyes locked. Not without you. It pulsed between them again, mutual devotion and determination. Qui-Gon summoned the ruins of his cloak; burned to tatters, it could not protect them. The blue fire howled in the rush of wind that its burning sucked into the tunnel.

"Cut off its source of oxygen; it will go out."

We won't be able to breathe. No voice would emerge from Qui-Gon's seared lungs.

We won't need to breathe much longer anyway if we don't make it out. Obi-Wan smiled faintly, ironically, then closed his eyes; the ground rumbled as the far end of the passage sealed.

The flames fluttered, the roaring sound abating; they still burned, but weakly, and Qui-Gon tucked Obi-Wan against him again and ducked forward, stumbling his way blindly into the passage. Obi-Wan mustered what Force he could to help shield them both, protecting vulnerable faces and eyes from the crippling heat. A push of Force shattered away the thin barrier Qui-Gon had brought down; the flames roared furiously behind them again as they staggered through into the relative cool of the next cavern. Qui-Gon very nearly dropped Obi-Wan, falling to his knees and sagging forward. Again Obi-Wan extinguished burning hair and cloth with his hands, wincing at the thought of the charred skin he touched.

"Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan murmured with misery, gazing up at the reddened, cracked skin of his lover's face. "You should not have come back." I love you. He sent the full force of his love and gratitude soaring through their bond, letting it eclipse fear, pain, and sorrow.

Qui-Gon's bloodshot, cinder-bleared eyes, their lashes partly singed away, opened and met Obi-Wan's, and the man struggled painfully to regain his feet once more. Obi-Wan reached for Qui-Gon's pain again, channeling it into himself and out into the Force. He replaced it with his own energy, his own strength. Qui-Gon stepped forward, eyes never leaving Obi-Wan's pale, soot-smeared face as he staggered forth, carrying his bondmate toward the surface.

Obi-Wan held Qui-Gon's lightsaber aloft to illuminate their path until they reached the first blockage. He made Qui-Gon crawl through the narrow tunnel first, wincing at the sight of his burned, stone-crusted boots, visible in the single wavering glow-bulb that still functioned here. Tears rose to his eyes as he imagined the state of the feet that lay beneath. He crawled behind, biting his lip against the pain of his shattered leg. It was nothing compared to what Qui-Gon had endured for him.

When they reached the other side Qui-Gon could not stand; he tried and failed, curling into himself in misery.

"Let me." Obi-Wan was calmer now, his fear receding, his rationality and Jedi training reclaiming his mind. He cradled Qui-Gon carefully in a cocoon of Force, levitating the Master gently a few inches above the tunnel floor. He crawled forward on his hands and knees, forcing the pain from his consciousness, holding his precious burden precariously with the strength of his mind until exhaustion and agony prevailed. Then he eased his lover down and held him in his arms. The rumbling of the stone had increased again, slowly; at any moment the lava might break through here as well. They had come perhaps half of the distance they must cover.

"Rest," he murmured to Qui-Gon, drawing sweet, clean air into his lungs and luxuriating in the sensation of cool stone against his scorched face and body. "We'll move again, in a minute."

"Obi-Wan." The voice was barely a whisper of air husked through bleeding lips; Obi-Wan looked at Qui-Gon sorrowfully. Qui-Gon was a seared wreck. The luxuriant hair the young Knight had admired so much was raggedly scorched to perhaps half of its length. The Jedi Master's legs were charred and his face tight and baked shining red, beginning to blister. Go on without me. I'll be along in just a while.

Obi-Wan laughed, tears choking the sound of reluctant mirth. "What kind of fool do you think I am?" He touched the heat-crackled skin of Qui-Gon's lip with shaking fingers. "Not one who would leave you, any more than you would leave me." He bent his head and brushed his lips against the baked, parchment-dry skin of Qui-Gon's least-burned temple.

He reached and took Qui-Gon's lightsaber from his belt again, feeling the stressed leather threaten to crumble as he detached it. Lighting it, he surveyed the Jedi Master's injuries more closely. Severe burns; he would require a bacta immersion. Obi-Wan's own leg would have to be set and the bones sealed. He might wind up in bacta himself at this rate, though he was much less burned than his bondmate.

He drew Qui-Gon against his chest and began to hitch them along the cave floor with his left leg, ignoring the pain as the broken bones in his right leg grated together. They had to be out of the volcano and far away before the rising magma caught up to them. Perhaps he could--

A loud rumble resounded in Obi-Wan's ears and he flinched, thinking that the magma had begun to encroach on them again, but then light blossomed and there were silhouettes against it. Blinking against the light, he realized that the echoing bellow that had frightened him was the triumphant shouting of Theta team, a Wookiee roar overwhelming them all. Obi-Wan collapsed with relief, still clinging to Qui-Gon, and they were borne up and out of the caverns together, Eefsha supporting their backs and the Hillac team-leader lifting their ankles as the others kept the path clear of fallen stones.

The remainder of the trip seemed absurdly short; Qui-Gon quickly lapsed into merciful unconsciousness. As they emerged from the narrow vertical opening that had once housed the compound lift, Obi-Wan swore aloud-- the whole installation was gone, excepting the paved area that had once formed the landing site. But a shuttle sat waiting there, perhaps the most welcome sight Obi-Wan had ever seen.

Not questioning their good fortune, he allowed himself and Qui-Gon to be bundled aboard and insisted on being carried to the cockpit. He piloted them away from the site himself, trusting the Force to help him evade treacherous thermal air currents. His skin prickled with sublimated relief as he watched the ground beneath them convulse in waves as the seismic tremors worsened once more, rending the land with sudden violent force. The aft viewscreen showed a sudden jet of magma spattering forth from the abandoned compound site; they'd barely made it.

He locked on to the relocated mining facility's homing beacon automatically, cursing the lack of options. He'd rather carry Qui-Gon into a den of snakes than return to Bretor's care, but the shuttle was not an interplanetary craft and there were no options-- his lover had to have medical attention fast. He attempted to raise Coruscant on the comm, but discovered quickly that it had been disabled. His mouth set in a grim line as he stared at the horizon, watching for the first glimpse of the resettled compound.

If anyone tried to harm Qui-Gon Jinn, they would have to come through Obi-Wan Kenobi to do it, broken leg or no. He could not let himself assume that love was the only-- or even the predominant-- motivation for Qui-Gon's refusal to leave Obi-Wan to die in the volcano, but he was sure now that love had grown to be mutual between them.

He wished he had leisure to dwell on the sense of astonished wonder that swelled in response to his new certainty. For the first time, he had seen that their tentative respect and caring was more than he had ever dreamed-- together, they could truly deepen their feelings into the fulfilling commitment expected of bonded mates. Perhaps all that would be required was the time to come to know one another and to trust each other with their emotions.

He glanced down at his leg, where blood was drying in an ugly red-black crust on his coverall. He had suppressed the riotous agony so far, but would not be able to do so indefinitely. The crushed leg would not be easily healed; Jedi healers could tease together fragments of shattered bone with relative ease but a regular healer would need to operate on the leg to restore it. He set his jaw. Unless he could be given a local anesthetic, the leg would have to wait until Qui-Gon had recovered enough to defend himself. The Jedi Master's lightsaber swung at Obi-Wan's belt now; he would use it even against Bretor, if necessary, to defend his bondmate.

"Take me back to Qui-Gon," he requested of Eefsha, who grunted assent and carried him.

He felt the landing rather than seeing it, and was sitting up straight when the door to the passenger area opened, revealing a white-faced Master Lamec Bretor.

Obi-Wan straightened his spine proudly, hand going to the lightsaber that dangled on his hip. "Master Bretor," he commented politely. "Allow me to introduce myself properly. I am Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Knight. As acting emissary of the Jedi Council, I assume command of this facility."

Bretor's tongue slicked his lips nervously and he cast a quick look at the unconscious Qui-Gon. "We shall see what Master Jinn has to say when he recovers," Bretor blustered, unwilling to give up.

Obi-Wan merely nodded serenely. "And I shall see to it that he does recover," he stared the administrator down calmly. Though Bretor might still entertain hopes of evading the Council, his fate was decided.

Obi-Wan held his guard as they were carried into the complex, prepared to defend Qui-Gon at an instant's notice. In the medical bay Qui-Gon's injuries were quickly assessed. He watched intently, monitoring the intentions of the medics and the integrity of the equipment and chemicals they used as the Jedi Master was stripped and lowered into a bacta tank with all possible haste. Obi-Wan's eyes stung with tears and he blinked fiercely at the sight of the ravaged body. The legs and feet were worst. Qui-Gon was completely covered from toe to knee with third-degree burns; dead flesh sloughed from his feet and ankles as his boots were carefully peeled away, leaving burned bone visible in places.

"How fully will he recover?" Obi-Wan addressed the 21-B droid that monitored the tank.

"Bacta response for human Jedi is often complete recovery." The droid turned its vocoder toward Obi-Wan. "However, his burns are severely critical, sir. My databanks do not contain a precedent for this case."

Obi-Wan nodded helplessly, all too aware of Bretor watching at his shoulder.

"We must tend your leg, Knight Kenobi," one of the medics touched his arm.

"No anesthetics," Obi-Wan brushed aside the hypodermic the medic carried. "I can control pain and manage reflex responses." He lifted his calm gaze to Bretor, who remained silent, watching Obi-Wan under hawk-like silver brows.

Bretor never spoke as Obi-Wan's burns were lavished with bacta gel and his broken leg was operated on, set, and bound in bacta packs. Obi-Wan submitted to an injection of antibiotics after testing the currents of the Force for treachery. His pain had peaked and would now slowly recede. He directed the medics to push his cot next to the bacta tank where Qui-Gon hung suspended, the ragged remains of his lion's mane of hair now completely unraveled from its braid, waving gently in the currents that circulated throughout the pale reddish fluid.

"I trust you are now convinced that my intentions are benevolent," Bretor spoke at last after the medics withdrew to tend other less severe injuries among Theta team and the remaining evacuees.

"When on assignment away from the Temple, A Jedi trusts nothing and no one but the Force." Obi-Wan leveled a calm stare at Bretor, inclining his chin politely.

"I could have let you both die, had I wished to be rid of you."

Obi-Wan lifted his hands, palms open, in a gesture of gratitude. "I am grateful that you did not." He hesitated for a moment, sensing that this was a crucial time for his well-being and Qui-Gon's. Let Bretor think he was weak. As Yoda had often demonstrated to him, it was sometimes useful to be underestimated.

Obi-Wan let his eyes move toward Qui-Gon, his expression growing slightly slack, eyes hazy. He carefully modulated his voice, flattening it slightly as though repeating a phrase that had been suggested to him. "I am very fond of Master Jinn."

"You will yield the mission to Jinn when he recovers?" Bretor sounded more confident now.

"Qui-Gon Jinn is in charge of the Juyoren mission. I will defer to the orders he gives me." Again he used a slightly flat tone, the phrasing chosen to parrot words used by another.

"That is well." Bretor fidgeted. "Master Jinn was carrying a stone with him when he left to save you. Did you see what happened to it?"

"No," Obi-Wan frowned, resuming his normal responses. "Why should we have been concerned about a stone?" He shrugged. "It was probably in his cloak pocket; the cloak burned and we left it."

Again Bretor's eyes weighed him carefully; he could nearly taste the administrator's indecision. Did Obi-Wan know of the einkolt, or had he failed to uncover the information before the eruption began?

"Akalif gave him this stone," Bretor spoke at last. "I have reason to believe it may have had some importance to your investigation."

"Then you suspected Akalif as well." Obi-Wan relaxed, putting a flicker eagerness into his expression. "Have you put him in custody?"

"He vanished during the evacuation." Bretor was smooth and glib again, the taut set of his shoulders almost completely relaxed to normalcy.

"Then that is nearly as good as proof that he was behind whatever was going on." Obi-Wan looked at Qui-Gon. "The two of you seem to have uncovered far more than I." He looked uncertain for a moment, as befitted a new knight meddling in the expert investigation of his betters. "Master Bretor, I apologize for my rash words in the shuttle and for my rudeness here."

Bretor shrugged gracefully. "Wise precautions, young knight." He bowed his head with seeming deference, moving forward to touch Obi-Wan's face confidently, examining the bacta treatments. "Let us postpone further action until both you and Master Jinn recover. There is no way for Akalif to leave Juyoren. He will be found. I shall begin re-establishing our mining operation. The Order badly needs our crystals."

"An excellent plan." Obi-Wan made himself relax. "As acting emissary for the Jedi Council, I approve it."

Bretor nodded and left, a confident spring in his stride. Obi-Wan wished that he could communicate with Qui-Gon and learn what groundwork the Jedi Master had laid to enable him to succeed so easily in his disingenuous facade, but it would have to wait.

Obi-Wan turned his eyes once more to the naked figure floating in bacta. Already the first-degree burns were beginning to fade to nothing and the second-degree blisters looked slightly less angry than they had. The deep chars would take more time to heal, but Qui-Gon would live, and perhaps he would heal fully. Obi-Wan had only to wait and be vigilant in case he had not fooled Bretor so completely as it seemed he had.

Long days stretched, more than a week, and though Obi-Wan's leg had healed and he was now able to put weight on it and walk, he refused to wander from Qui-Gon's side. He could touch the Jedi Master's mind now, though Qui-Gon's thoughts were sluggish, and they shared the information that had previously been known only to one of them. There was no talk of their relationship; the sharing of their infrequent mental conversations was limited to mission-critical information since Qui-Gon required rest and concentration to help heal the terrible burns on his body.

Most of the injured master's time was spent in a light healing trance, the two bondmates working together to augment the working of the bacta. The 21-B droid cautiously updated Qui-Gon's prognosis first to "hopeful" and then to "good." Obi-Wan was pleased by the evidence of his own eyes, which showed new and unscarred flesh growing to cover what had been bare bone.

He would never forget what Qui-Gon had endured to save him: the sacrifice, the risk, and the agony. Obi-Wan pressed his open palm on the cool polymer of the tank, gazing at the closed lids and wet raggedly singed lashes above the breather mask Qui-Gon wore.

Bretor seemed glad enough to be rid of them; his visits were infrequent and fairly formal. Surprisingly, of Theta team, only the Hillac leader visited the Jedi. He and Obi-Wan shared their names, and Trallk seemed genuinely interested in his welfare and Qui-Gon's.

The wookiee did not visit, a fact that stirred some concern in Qui-Gon during his lucid intervals. Obi-Wan concurred. It seemed that the temptations of a fist-sized nugget of einkolt weighed more heavily even than the fabled honor of Kashyyk.

Obi-Wan had a greater concern, though: he did not dare leave Qui-Gon long enough to locate the comm center and make an encrypted transmission to the Council. His preliminary reports were composed on data readers and courteously transmitted by Bretor. Obi-Wan kept them fairly uninformative, playing the role of ignorance he had adopted and laying many of his suspicions on Akalif. However, he did deliver a full report of Qui-Gon's condition, and he enclosed innocuous codewords of warning that would alert Yoda that his reports were being reviewed by hostile eyes.

Obi-Wan anticipated that a Jedi transport would arrive shortly and relayed a short version of unfolding events to Qui-Gon. In response, the older Jedi slowed the process of his healing, malingering in the tank as they waited for backup to arrive.

Obi-Wan was resting, pondering whether he should rise and exercise his mending leg when Qui-Gon's eyes snapped open inside the tank and the Jedi master signaled for the 21-B droid to release him.

Obi-Wan hurried to his feet and helped Qui-Gon peel off the breather mask he wore. Qui-Gon winced at the sensation of weight on his newly-healed feet, swiping back his soaking hair impatiently. A curt gesture with the blade of his palm silenced Obi-Wan's inquiries.

The Jedi are arriving. Master Windu is among them, Qui-Gon explained curtly. We must move swiftly.

Still naked, the Jedi Master took one look around the medical bay and shrugged off the approaching medical staff. Gathering his bondmate with a glance, he stalked into the complex, ignoring the stir his sodden and unclad appearance caused the miners who were returning to their quarters after their daily shift. "I will go out," Qui-Gon snapped, bullying through the resistance of the medical technician who still clung to his arm.

Together he and Obi-Wan rode the lift down to the landing level, stepping onto the landing platform. Qui-Gon's pale body gleamed wetly in the sun, and Mace Windu's brows climbed to what should have been his hairline as he stepped out of the shuttle and found the naked master awaiting him.

"What is the meaning of this!" Bretor's voice boomed from behind them, and he stamped out, squinting. "Master Jinn, you should still be--" his sentence broke off suddenly. "Councilor Windu," he spoke in much less certain tones. "You are welcome on Juyoren, Coun--"

"Lamec Bretor, you are under arrest by authority of the Jedi Council." Qui-Gon turned smoothly, interrupting the corrupt administrator, immediately discarding his cover of complicity with the other man's plans. Clad only in his dignity, he was nonetheless impressive. "You have operated a Jedi facility for personal profit, to the detriment of the Order."

Qui-Gon's accusation was enough for Windu, who nodded sharply to the three Jedi that accompanied him. They spread out, flanking the administrator cautiously. Bretor's mouth worked with thwarted fury, and his eyes widened at Qui-Gon and then narrowed with anger and betrayal. His hand closed around his lightsaber instinctively.

Obi-Wan, highly conscious of the weakness of his newly-healed leg, stepped between the men, hand moving to Qui-Gon's lightsaber, which still hung at his hip.

"Lamec Bretor, you will be disciplined far more lightly if you forebear to draw a weapon against your fellow Jedi." Mace's voice was soft but deadly cold.

Bretor looked at the Councilor, eyes darting huntedly between the assembled Knights and masters as he calculated his chances. He disengaged the lightsaber from his belt and Obi-Wan's finger twitched over the ignition control of his own saber, but Bretor tossed down the weapon, his shoulders slumping.

Obi-Wan was grateful; both he and Qui-Gon were still kitten-weak in the wake of their healing. They were not in any condition for battle. He opened his hand and called the disgraced master's saber to himself, then carefully handed Qui-Gon back his own.

Two knights moved forward and placed a Force-inhibitor circuit on Bretor's temple, gently binding his hands and leading him aboard the transport.

Obi-Wan watched ruefully, keenly aware of Bretor's despair. Perhaps the corrupted master was not wholly darkened. At least, he hoped so. Bretor's greed had merely led him astray from the path of Light. There was a chance he could still be redeemed and eventually take up a place of honor among the Jedi once more. Obi-Wan hoped that the administrator would find his path again, now that the temptation of wealth and petty power would be removed.

Mace moved quickly and donated his cloak to Qui-Gon, who donned it absently, sparing a welcoming smile for his superior. Mace returned the smile with a faint air of surprise, eyes moving speculatively between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. "You seem changed, Qui-Gon," he commented, and the Jedi Master nodded, a flicker of memory momentarily clouding his brow.

"I am changed, old friend." Qui-Gon looked warmly toward Obi-Wan, who moved to stand at his side. "I have come out of shadow into light." The Knight slid his arm around his bondmate.

Just in time. Qui-Gon's knees wavered with a surge of weakness as adrenaline failed him. Obi-Wan caught him as he nearly fell, lifting the much larger man with the aid of the Force.

"Clear the way," Windu snapped, parting a gathering crowd of stunned miners. "Healer Mentan, attend us." Obi-Wan followed the councilor, carrying Qui-Gon Jinn back into the medical bay.

Obi-Wan watched anxiously as Mentan anesthetized the weakened Jedi Master in order to examine Qui-Gon's body. The examination proceeded further, the Jedi Healer questing the injured master's mind. At last Mentan looked up, meeting Obi-Wan's obvious concern with a smile.

"He's mostly recovered, but he's still weak. Those burns took a lot out of him." Mentan shook his head. "It's hard to believe they were as extensive as the records show, given his recovery. Are you Knight Kenobi? His bondmate?"

Obi-Wan nodded.

"You should have the depth of your bond checked. Master Yoda's briefing said the two of you were forming a pair-bond, but given his age and his remarkable recovery..." Mentan shook his head. "I don't mean to pry, but that indicates a stronger bond than I was led to expect. I think your life-energies have augmented his." The healer turned back to cover Qui-Gon, considerate of Obi-Wan's surprise at the revelation, all professional detachment.

"He'll need some intensive physical therapy and moderate psychic rehabilitation before he's back to normal." Mentan turned back to Obi-Wan and smiled again, more widely. "He's got a reputation as a stubborn man. I think it will serve him well. I believe that with your support, Knight Kenobi, he'll regain the full physical abilities and psychic strength he had before the damage was incurred."

"Thank you, Healer Mentan." Obi-Wan bowed deeply, showing his gratitude.

"I'll take care of him now. You look like you could use some rest, if you'll take it, but I'm sure you and Master Windu want to begin the process of installing Knight Ritma as the new head of operations."

"Yes." Obi-Wan glanced at Councilor Windu. "There is much that we must oversee."

The next days were spent ensuring that Knight Ritma was on top of all the required operations involved in crystal mining, from establishing amicable relations with the miners and administrative staff to cutting new mining tunnels and hauling out the first barrow of ore. Obi-Wan spent much of the time resting and undertaking the relatively undemanding duty of investigating the paper trail of Bretor's corrupt business endeavors.

Complacent in the knowledge that he had personally reviewed Obi-Wan's reports and that Qui-Gon would support him against the young knight when he recovered, Bretor had taken relatively few security precautions. Obi-Wan succeeded in tracking down a vast amount of money for the Jedi to reclaim and put to good use.

Akalif was a lesser matter, but still one of concern; the junior administrator had indeed vanished without a trace during the evacuation. There was no known way offworld; likely he was hiding in the wilderness and hoping for Jedi vigilance to blow over. Mace dispatched two knights in Bretor's shuttle to search for him.

Mentan soon gave Qui-Gon permission to move about the complex and the Jedi Master immediately undertook a variety of light duties, refusing to be gainsaid. To keep him from doing too much, Windu placed him in charge of sorting through the mining personnel, interviewing them, reviewing their records and deciding which of them should stay and which should go.

Obi-Wan did some investigating on his own and found that Qui-Gon's interview with Eefsha had taken three times the allotted time period. Afterward, the wookiee was released from his service to the Jedi. In his work records there now stood a commendation for extreme bravery and honorable service to his comrades, but Obi-Wan sensed Qui-Gon's depression over the matter.

"He tried to hide the einkolt you gave him?" Obi-Wan guessed.

Qui-Gon nodded, not much inclined to discuss the details of how he had retrieved it. "He asked that he be allowed to track Akalif, to reclaim his honor," Qui-Gon revealed wearily. "I agreed. He has joined the search."

Obi-Wan nodded, touched by Qui-Gon's weariness and approving his sympathy for their rescuer. He gently coaxed the Jedi Master off to their bed without pressing for more information. Their duties were taking up the majority of their time, leaving them too exhausted even to consider making love when they collapsed into bed together at the end of each day's work.

"The transition is a success." Mace Windu smiled at the Jedi who had helped to make it so. "Crystal ore production levels are well-above the norm, new workers are in place and working well, and Ritma assures me that everything is fully under his control. The first shipment of processed crystals is already on its way to the Temple at Coruscant."

A round of pleased murmuring greeted the final announcement; Mace lifted his hand to quiet the talking. "I'm going to leave Ritma in charge and M'rin and Takel will remain and search for Akalif. Mentan and I will be taking Bretor back to Coruscant to face trial." His solemn face abruptly creased with a smile, turning his attention to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. "You two are ticketed on luxury berths out of Prinasi, courtesy of your mutual master. We'll divert the transport to take you there."

Obi-Wan cast an amused glance at Qui-Gon, who returned it with a wry smile and a shyly affectionate look. Apparently Yoda intended their journey home to be a honeymoon of sorts.

"We accept," Obi-Wan spoke, after finding agreement in Qui-Gon's eyes.

"Then let us make our announcement to the miners, and be off," Mace suggested. Together, the Jedi took leave of their friends and colleague, then assembled and boarded the transport.


It was well past mid-cycle, but Obi Wan Kenobi was not sleeping. He sat up in the wide bed he shared with Qui-Gon Jinn, knees drawn up to his chin, arms wrapped around them. He stared into the heart of a candle-flame, lit by the power of his mind. He snuffed it, then lit it again. Such a paradox-- warmth and destruction harnessed in an ironically fragile form. The fire troubled him, its flickering glow reminiscent of the hellish caverns they had so recently escaped, and yet it attracted him as well, seeming symbolic of the volatile connection between himself and Qui-Gon Jinn.

The transition from an intensive work schedule to leisure time was welcome, but it was proving personally uncomfortable. They had come aboard earlier in the evening and settled into their quarters, feeling shy and uncertain of what to do and say around one another, just beginning the process of recovery from the physical and emotional traumas they had suffered together.

Fortunately they were both tired enough that they agreed to go to bed. Obi-Wan understood that though rest was necessary, it had also been another excuse to postpone the inevitable discussion for just a few more hours. They could not delay forever, though. Now that duties were not pressing, he and Qui-Gon must confront the difficulties of their relationship.

Obi-Wan glanced at his sleeping bondmate. Qui-Gon's luxuriant mane had been damp and bound in a tight braid when he entered the mines; nevertheless it had raggedly singed to perhaps half of its former length. Despite the intensive bacta treatments, his face and body still bore the fading redness and soreness of partly-healed burns, as did Obi-Wan's own. After physical therapy, the Jedi Master could walk as far as he wished but only with pain and difficulty, for the newly-regenerated tissue on his feet was tender and uncallused.

They'd had sex when they crept wearily into bed together, bodies touching in lovemaking for the first time since they nearly lost one another, craving contact and closeness in spite of their small pains. Their union had been wordless, slow, and tender, responding to the warm yearning of the bond and achieving a mutual climax of luxuriant pleasure-- all the more to be savored, for neither of them had expected to survive to touch this way again.

Obi-Wan considered their joining in retrospect. After gentle, passionate foreplay, Qui-Gon had gone to his hands and knees, wordlessly inviting Obi-Wan to take him. He had accepted his young lover into his body for the first time, a gesture of trust the younger man had not expected. Obi-Wan wondered what the differences in that joining from their previous ones might mean.

He was still unsure how much caring that Qui-Gon's physical gift implied. The sour Jedi Master had changed so much in such a short time! Obi-Wan had barely begun to know him when it seemed that all the rules had suddenly changed. Though Yoda had promised him it would be so, he found himself floundering in the face of an apparent devotion that he could not quite bring himself to believe.

Neither of them had been given a choice about the formation of the bond they shared, but Obi-Wan suspected that left undisturbed, it would grow too strong to be broken. Mentan's comments had confirmed a quiet suspicion in Obi-Wan's mind: they had resisted unity for so long that when they had reluctantly accepted it, the pressure of consummation had bound them together more deeply than expected. Or perhaps the commitment Qui-Gon made in risking everything to rescue Obi-Wan had deepened its strength. Obi-Wan didn't know.

Indeed, perhaps what they shared was no longer even an extremely deep pair-bond. Very likely it was already becoming something more. Perhaps if Obi-Wan had died in the caverns, Qui-Gon would have eventually withered and died as well, even if he had not returned to save his bondmate. The young Jedi plucked at the coverlet, creasing and uncreasing it between his fingertips. Was that the real reason why Qui-Gon had risked so much to save him? Bond-compulsion? Surely not.

He snuffed the candle again, darkness falling over his concentration-drawn features. Qui-Gon shifted, rolling next to him, seeking out his warmth and presence. In spite of himself, Obi-Wan ignited the candle once more and looked down at the sleeping form of his lover and bondmate. Drowned deep in slumber, Qui-Gon was vulnerable and beautiful, his harsh features softened into innocence. Obi-Wan had once believed him to be a possible molester of children and perhaps also a practitioner of dark arts. Now he was bound to the man forever, and his experiences and the touch of Qui-Gon's mind had taught him that those beliefs were wrong. He would never believe such things of Qui-Gon Jinn again. If only he could make himself believe that his bondmate loved Obi-Wan as deeply Obi-Wan loved him...

He released his clasp on his knees and lay back, sliding his legs under the rumpled blankets, looking at Qui-Gon's worn face more closely. Lines that he had once thought cruel now merely spoke of past pain. Obi-Wan reached out softly and smoothed the creases from the man's forehead as he had smoothed them from the coverlet, his touch relaxing the older Jedi. Snuffing the candle again, he slipped into his lover's arms.

"Sleep, Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan murmured, brushing a kiss against the man's beard. "I'm here."

Qui-Gon's leg slid over him and the Jedi Master drew him close possessively. The closeness felt good after so much enforced distance. Obi-Wan sighed softly, a combination of contentment and lingering anxiety. He hardly knew this man, but already he loved him more than he had ever loved another being. Qui-Gon had come to him through the fire, but though he had felt some of Qui-Gon's emotions through their bond, words of love had not yet been spoken by his bondmate. Would he continue to deny his feelings and their mutual need for unity now that the crisis was past?

His bondmate's lips nuzzled against him like a baby searching for the breast; they sent shivers of longing through the young knight's body, but a fine line formed in his forehead nonetheless. Qui-Gon's big hand was lazily moving over his belly toward his wakening erection; there could be no question that their desire, at least, was mutual. But what did Qui-Gon like, what did he find distasteful? What did he enjoy, what did he love? Obi-Wan simply didn't know. The Knight swallowed hard, trying to accept his fear and release it into the Force.

"You're troubled." Qui-Gon's voice was muzzy with sleep.

That was another thing. The deepening of their link had nearly eliminated privacy, at least when they were touching. Obi-Wan sighed. Since they came through the fire together, they could shield the specifics of their thoughts, but he was learning that they were each particularly sensitive to the other's emotional disturbances.

"It's nothing. Go back to sleep." Obi-Wan stroked the long, silky hair soothingly.

Instead of obeying Qui-Gon roused further. His hand stroked gently over Obi-Wan's belly and ribs and he lifted himself on his elbow. The candle guttered to life at the touch of the master's mind this time, illuminating them in its low golden light. "It's not nothing," he looked sadly at Obi-Wan, blinking the last of the sleepiness from his eyes. "You're upset about us. About this."

"Yes." Obi-Wan admitted softly.

"Do you still want the bond to be broken?" Qui-Gon gazed at him soberly, the wide, warm hand falling still on his body.

"I don't know," Obi-Wan whispered. "There's so much for us to learn about each other." He reached and brushed his fingertips over the coarse, short beard and the soft lips it guarded. Would Qui-Gon still want the bond to be severed? The possibility nearly broke his heart.

"Will you give me a chance-- give us a chance-- to learn it?" The Jedi Master's voice was soft, filled with hope.

Obi-Wan's throat closed with a dull ache, and he held himself very still, searching the words to ensure that he had not misunderstood their meaning. He had never heard such tenderness or yearning in the velvety voice before, such warmth and earnest pleading.

Qui-Gon's gentleness gave him the courage to ask the question that had hovered on his lips ever since the Jedi Master apologized on his knees in front of the Torehiri Court. "The Avatar told me you would mount me like a yearling pup just to prove your dominance," Obi-Wan's voice broke just a little. "It said you cared nothing for me. Is that true? This bond forced me on you. Would you be rid of me again, Qui-Gon Jinn? Am I only a body to be used for your pleasure? Does the bond compel you to share yourself with me?"

Qui-Gon inhaled sharply. "No!" the word was a sharp bark, but Obi-Wan held steady, watching Qui-Gon's eyes. "The Avatar lied, Obi-Wan. I was afraid of you." Qui-Gon's eyes dipped, avoiding Obi-Wan's, his expression tightening with shame and discomfort. "I was very much afraid of what you made me feel. What you make me feel. It knew my fear and my love, and lashed out at you because of that."

"And what do you feel?" Obi-Wan's voice was so soft it was nearly inaudible.

"I don't yet know the extent of all I feel for you." Qui-Gon admitted, painful honesty stark in his voice. "I reach for limits, and they are not there. It's been so long since I let myself feel anything at all. But I do not feel as the Avatar said. Never. I..." he paused uncomfortably, seeming incongruously shy. "I care very deeply for you, Obi-Wan Kenobi." His thumb brushed very softly over Obi-Wan's lips. "Shall we give the bond a chance? Give ourselves the time we need?"

The Knight hesitated, looking up into deep blue eyes, trying to fathom the emotions he saw there. Qui-Gon opened to him, the man's fear, hope, and tenderness pulsing through their bond along with the caring he had offered. Tentative and a little diffident but rich and warm, it was one of the sweetest things Obi-Wan had ever known. He reached for it, opened himself to run fingers of thought and feeling through it, meeting and matching the caring there shyly with his own. Mingled, the emotions gained assurance and blossomed, coalescing into something new and tender and wondrous between them.

Obi-Wan gasped very softly, amazed and awed by the gentle, intimate sharing. So much potential in such a deep, delicate touch! How very much they could hurt as well as cherish, if they chose. Like fire, love was a wonderful servant and a terrible master. Together, they could make it serve them now.

"Yes," he replied softly, knowing he had never meant the word more than he did now. Qui-Gon embraced him, a sob hitching in his broad chest.

"Qui-Gon?" Obi-Wan's cheeks were wet, and there was a sparkle of moisture on the older man's face as well. "Let's make love," the knight requested softly, leaving the bond open between them.

"Yes," Qui-Gon whispered, and took his bondmate's mouth tenderly. The request meant a great deal to him; always before Obi-Wan had withheld himself and agreed to lovemaking with at least faint reluctance, obeying the demands of their bodies, submitting to the cravings caused by the bond. This time Obi-Wan's lips opened readily, without reservation. Qui-Gon felt a wash of love shiver through him and into Obi-Wan through the connection that bound their hearts into one. He accepted the invitation into the younger man's mouth, tongue-tip gliding delicately against Obi-Wan's soft palate.

A low moan greeted the sensual touch, and his lover's hips shifted, nestling deeper into the soft mattress and closer to Qui-Gon's own. The Jedi Master slipped his hand behind Obi-Wan's head, sliding his fingers into the still-short hair, enjoying the tickle of the silky strands between his callused digits. After a long moment of savoring Obi-Wan's mouth, he drew back, gazing down on the young Knight's candlelight-gilded face.

So beautiful. How had he ever looked at such beauty and seen only flaws? The fingertips of his free hand moved to explore shyly, tracing the fine arch of a brow, covering the freckle at the crest of a cheekbone. His thumb grazed the narrow lips, smoothing away the mingled moisture of their mouths. Obi-Wan's nose was perfect, straight and patrician, and the cleft in his chin nearly made Qui-Gon's mouth water with his longing to press a kiss there and taste the tender flesh with his tongue.

So he did. The man who lay beneath him was his now, for this moment at least, body and heart given freely together for the first time. His hand moved to caress the faintly stubbled throat, thumb pressing lightly at the indentation in Obi-Wan's collarbone. He watched the pupils in the clear pale eyes dilate as he leaned in to take another kiss, pressing his lips delicately against the silk that awaited him, then covering Obi-Wan's mouth with his own and tugging at the pliable flesh with his lips. Rising need threatened for a moment to overwhelm his restraint and he slid his thigh over Obi-Wan's legs, half-blanketing the young Knight's body with his own.

Before he could think better of it and draw back, Obi-Wan's arm snaked lazily around his neck and tightened, holding him still for more kisses; the young man's tongue flickered through his parted lips and he licked his way lazily into Qui-Gon's mouth. Whole-hearted surrender to sensuality, trust and unabashed passion... he heard himself groan with need, a deep rumble in his chest, and let his hand slide to Obi-Wan's waist, then curved his arm around the younger man's back, bringing him closer.

Obi-Wan was hard already, his erection cradled in the furrow between his thighs, half-trapped under Qui-Gon's weight. Qui-Gon slid his hand down over his bondmate's firm, rounded hip, drinking in the sensation of sleek, tense muscle under his hand, muscle that worked subtly now as Obi-Wan squirmed against him, seeking more contact.

Fire gathered in their kiss, burned in the heat that pulsed through their veins and gathered between their bodies. Qui-Gon craved it, yearning for it to burn away the coolness that had lingered between them, and he flipped the coverlet over their heads, making a cocoon of sultry, moist heat for them to share together.

Obi-Wan was vital and alive under his body, vibrant under his hands, passionate and warm and responsive against his tongue and mouth in a way that he had never been before. His skin tingled where the young Knight's fingers brushed over it; his hardness swelled and wept ecstatically against his bondmate's thigh in anticipation of their joining.

Might it be this way every time they made love? Qui-Gon was surprised that the heat and joy in his body did not cause him to glow with Force-energy, illuminating the inside of the blankets they shared now in quiet, dim intimacy. He slid his palm back over the rippling velvet of Obi-Wan's hip and teased lightly across the warm cleft that waited for him, swallowing the purring gasp his fingertips produced. He would love to take Obi-Wan like this, warm and passionate and willing. Reaching tentatively through their bond, he sensed that he would be welcomed, but Obi-Wan pulled away slightly, lifting his fingers to brush over Qui-Gon's kiss-swollen lips.

"Wait," the admonition was warm, with a hint of mischief.

Qui-Gon lay back as Obi-Wan's strong palms pressed at his body, levering him onto his back and holding him there while the young Knight slowly kissed his way down Qui-Gon's chest and belly. The Jedi Master arched, gasping. Obi-Wan had never kissed him this way, either-- never worked his way down over his chest with his talented mouth, lingering lovingly over the places that made Qui-Gon catch his breath and shiver, lips and tongue drawing rosy dapples to the surface of his skin. He had never felt the warm velvet of Obi-Wan's mouth closing over his nipples or the exquisite pang of sensation when his lover's even white teeth closed and tugged on his sensitive flesh.

Then Obi-Wan's fingers found him, his palm sliding warmly around Qui-Gon's needful length, and he arched into that clasp, lifting the smaller man's body with the strength of his physical plea. He was rewarded as his bondmate's mouth slid lower, tongue dipping into his navel and working in and out of the small depression slowly. Obi-Wan purred, a sound of pleasure, and Qui-Gon lifted the tent of blankets, letting enough light shine in that he could see the expression of enjoyment and determination on the young, handsome face as Obi-Wan's sharp, skillful tongue delved there for every trace of Qui-Gon's sweat and musky flavor.

Obi-Wan glanced up at him in that moment, eyes dilated and glazed with tenderness and passion. He lifted his face, mouth curving in a wicked and yet almost beatific smile that made Qui-Gon's heart falter and then race, his muscles going to water as Obi-Wan rapidly slid the last few inches down his belly.

The blankets slipped from Qui-Gon's nerveless fingers when the faint rasp of stubble and the heat of a cheek nestled against the blade of his penis, pressed there by the careful, loving hand that had been cradling him and stroking him lightly. Obi-Wan pressed a kiss to the shaft, a spot of burning wet heat, then another and another. Patiently he trailed down to the nest of curls and nuzzled them with that perfect, patrician nose before working his way upward even more slowly, pausing to scent and savor, tickling the tip of his nose against the ridge at the base of the crown.

Qui-Gon whimpered faintly, low in his throat, almost mindless with need. He was humbled beyond anything he had ever experienced by the trust and desire this act represented, emotions he had almost despaired of earning from his Obi-Wan.

His Obi-Wan. His bondmate. He could feel those eyes rising to look toward his face again as the thought was sensed, and he knew that he was owned as well-- he was Obi-Wan's Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan's bondmate and lover and beloved.

He lay back, the peace of that revelation lacing into his passion they shared as Obi-Wan pulled down his foreskin gently and touched the tip of his nose to the tiny furrow at the end of the crown, traced it first with nose-tip and then with tongue-tip. The wet heat made Qui-Gon shiver involuntarily, an ecstatic spasm that tingled through his toes and rose through his body until it slid through his fingertips and electrified his scalp.

His sense of Obi-Wan's vitality and passion had expanded; it had moved inside him, infusing him with energy. The Living Force sang with joy in their union, vibrated with pleasure in their passion. He gasped as Obi-Wan sank down over him, wet heat and suction engulfing him, charging him with pleasure until his penis felt like a lightning rod made to draw pleasure from nothing, channeling the vitality of their union between them.

He thrust up gently once, twice, again, hands twining into the silky hair-- too short to be shaggy, too long for a proper padawan cut. He realized vaguely that it, like Obi-Wan, lay somewhere between youth and maturity. And then he lost his ability to think rationally as Obi-Wan slid all the way down, lips pressing against the wiry curls, nose nudging gently against Qui-Gon's lower belly. They were one aura, one entity, one Force signature fused in bliss, climax gathering inexorably as Obi-Wan swallowed carefully around him and Qui-Gon's hands tightened in his lover's hair.

He cried out, a baffled wail, as the warm mouth was suddenly withdrawn from him, reaching out blindly to grope for his lover's touch, but Obi-Wan was tossing the blankets aside, kneeling, pillowing his head on his folded arms. "Now," Obi-Wan turned his head, gazing at Qui-Gon where he lay, his pale blue-green eyes smoky with passion. "Have me, Qui-Gon."

"Yes," Qui-Gon agreed huskily, rolling and forcing himself up on wobbling knees, shaking with unfulfilled passion. "Yes, Obi-Wan. Yes." He managed to maneuver himself between the spread knees and run his trembling palm over the quivering muscle in Obi-Wan's calf. Quivering-- but no longer with fear or reluctance; quivering with need. Filled with desire that matched and met his own.

He bent forward, teasing the sensitive skin of the cleft between Obi-Wan's hips with the roughness of his beard, sliding his tongue into the warmth that waited there. Obi-Wan cried out, jerking with surprise and want. Qui-Gon spread him gently, palms closing over the perfection of the sweet hips. He nosed lower, licking slowly downward, gently controlling Obi-Wan's helpless jerking motions at each new, persistent advance of Qui-Gon's tongue. And then he arrived at his goal and Obi-Wan was moaning, incoherent, plaintive syllables of need as Qui-Gon's tongue darted and danced against him, exploring him intimately inside and out.

"Please..." was all that Qui-Gon could make out, but he pressed one last gentle kiss to the warm, wet muscle and raised himself again, catching Obi-Wan's waist in his palms and pressing himself up against the younger man. Still wet from Obi-Wan's mouth, he slid in slickly, easily, stretching him open with slow care.

"Ohhhh." Obi-Wan shivered, the motion twisting his body sensually, and he pressed back eagerly, tightening himself around Qui-Gon. The tight glide burned into both of them, leaving Qui-Gon bent forward over his lover, arms wrapped around Obi-Wan's waist and chest. He wished his whole body could sink inside the younger man and take up residence inside that tight warmth, inside that rich, wondrous aura of love and life.

It was as though they had never made love before, only the pale shadow of it. They had known only the partial, half-guilty ecstasy of near-rape and the anxious pleasures of lust and sex, not the acceptance and sharing of mutual commitment to what would become a lifetime of lovemaking. They moved in tandem, perfect unity, thrust and withdrawal, rocking slowly, a sheen of sweat spreading over their bodies and shining in the fading light of the guttering candle as it burned low.

Qui-Gon kissed Obi-Wan's shoulder blade, then speeded the pace slightly and felt his motions echoed without thought. They seemed to absorb the flame of the dying candle, the brilliance of sensation increasing even as the shadows drew close around them. Thrust, soft grunt, and answering inhalation, half-voiced moan. Faster, hips slapping softly together, slick sound of bodies joined in pleasure.

He reached forward, catching Obi-Wan's erection and engulfing it in his hand, stroking quickly in time with their breath and their rapid shared motion. "Obi-Wan." His voice was the barest whisper, but the pleasure inside him reached flash-point as he spoke and swelled to supernova, melding mind and being tightly. Communication and love pulsed forth in flesh and spirit as the bond, now fully accepted, sank deeper than body, deeper than bone, deeper than mind, binding soul to soul.

He turned them to their sides as they fell, clasping Obi-Wan close inside the curl of his body. Perhaps not even death could separate them now. He didn't know or care; all that mattered was that they were together. He nuzzled at the damp neck, the sweat-soaked hair sleek and plastered tight against the fine curve of Obi-Wan's skull. The Force sang softly across their bond, fulfilled at last, and Obi-Wan's chest filled and swelled with breath, then sank as he exhaled in synch with Qui-Gon.

"I love you," Qui-Gon whispered, lips feathering against Obi-Wan's nape, and heard the answering whisper in tandem with his own. He caught Obi-Wan's hand and laced their fingers together. They lay quiet for a time, bodies entangled in the aftermath of love, listening to the melody of their new soul-bond with wonder and awe.

"I love you too," Obi-Wan responded again at length, his voice thoughtful. "It will not be easy for us, Qui-Gon."

"No," Qui-Gon agreed. There were still many obstacles to overcome. The enemies he had made while he was darkened, the difference in their ages, the independent and dominant nature of both their minds... "It will not be easy. Things that are worthwhile rarely are." He heard amusement and acceptance in his voice.

Obi-Wan smiled in the darkness and he could feel the expression as though it moved his own mouth. "Are we going to lie awake all night worrying?" Obi-Wan's teasing humor warmed him anew, reassuring him that he and his bondmate could overcome the obstacles they feared. Together.

He gathered his young lover and bondmate in his arms and turned them to their sides, the two of them snuggling their bodies into comfortable alignment. "No," he decided, nuzzling his lover's shoulder with his beard. "There will be plenty of time for that tomorrow."