by Lilith Sedai (lilith_sedai@hotmail.com)

Series: The Elements

Archive: M_A, SWAL, OKEB, QJEB. Others need only ask.

Category: AU, drama, angst, hurt-comfort

Rating: R

Warnings: Cliffhanger ending

Spoilers: Jedi Apprentice 1 and 2

Summary: Qui-Gon Jinn fails to take Obi-Wan as his apprentice on Bandomeer, so Yoda does instead. After Obi-Wan is knighted, he and Qui-Gon are sent on a mission together and encounter personal conflicts as they attempt to work together. First in the Elements Series.

Feedback: yes, please, any comments welcome.

Acknowledgments: ULTRA SUPER-HUGE BITCHIN' THANKYOUS and CHOCOLATE JEDI to my much-abused beta reader Wolfling for her patience and textual advice and for squishing Evil Sith Commas!!!!! And huggles and to the ladies on #tpm and the Third Layer for editorial suggestions, nagging, encouragement, and tolerance of my artistic neuroses. :)

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.


On the eve of his thirteenth birthday Obi-Wan Kenobi sat in his quarters and attempted to meditate. Instead of a time for celebrating his birth, the morning would bring sorrow and failure and make the change in his life irrevocable. After Qui-Gon Jinn had left him to his new position on Bandomeer, he thought he'd come to accept the inevitable, but he had learned that there was a vast difference after all between an infinitesimal sliver of futile hope and the inevitable and final closing of a door of opportunity.

He folded his legs tighter, sighing, wondering why he bothered to strive for the semblance of Jedi calm when he would never become one. Perhaps it would be easier simply to forget; to become something else wholeheartedly, to abandon the useless training of his past, the training meant to set the foundation for him to become a Knight.

In spite of everything some part of him had always believed, somehow, that something would change, that things would work out, that Qui-Gon would change his mind and come back for him... He sighed suddenly, bitterly. That way lay madness; he could sit here and tell that particular lie to himself until he was three and twenty and it wouldn't change a thing other than to prolong his misery.

He might as well admit it. Qui-Gon Jinn was not coming back and tomorrow his lightsaber would be taken from him forever, leaving him a farmer.

The door chimed; opening his eyes, he unfolded himself reluctantly and rose, padding to answer it. He gazed out into the seemingly empty hall, blinking; only after a moment did his eyes move downward. When he recognized his visitor, he blinked again, disbelieving.

"Master Yoda! Please, excuse my rudeness. Do come in." Obi-Wan stepped aside politely to let the diminutive Jedi Master enter his small quarters. "How may I serve you?" Obi-Wan refused to let the bright flare of hope that lit inside him have free rein. Yoda had probably found himself near to Bandomeer and simply come to accept Obi-Wan's lightsaber himself, with a parting gift of apologetic but sage advice. Obi-Wan folded his arms, missing the Jedi cloak that would have hidden his hands.

Yoda stepped into the room, blinking mildly, gazing up at Obi-Wan for a moment. Sighing, Obi-Wan unfolded his arms and reached to his belt to detach the lightsaber, feeling a sudden sting of tears in his eyes. Too late. Too late. Oh, this was wrong, this was not meant to-

"Obi-Wan Kenobi," Yoda tapped his stick firmly on the fabricated metal floor, regaining the boy's full attention. His serene, sleepy eyes were intent on Obi-Wan's face, judging him minutely, the power of his gaze arresting the boy's motion. After a long moment, Yoda spoke again. "Will you do me the honor of becoming my Padawan Learner?"

Obi-Wan blinked, disbelieving his ears, the ritual phrase echoing in the room. It was not a question that was ever asked twice, and given his desperation to become a Jedi Knight, it was not one that he paused to consider.

"Yes, I will," he blurted, giving Yoda no chance to reconsider or withdraw the offer, falling to one knee and bowing his head, the ritual response reflexive. "You honor me, my Master!"

"Good." Yoda nodded with satisfaction, lips pursing. "Gather your things. Journey to Coruscant we must make, my Padawan."


"Confer on you, the Council does, the level of Jedi Knight." Outwardly Yoda seemed as serene as ever, but through their strong training bond, Obi-Wan could sense the small Master's satisfaction and deep, happy pride. As he had done on the night of his choosing he sank to one knee, offering the right side of his head. Yoda reached up, severing the Padawan braid with a small flicker of Force. Obi-Wan could not help but smile, gazing into the eyes of the small being who had turned his life back onto the course he firmly believed it had been meant to take, who had trained and shaped and built the man he had become.

"I thank you, Master. Masters." Obi-Wan rose, surveying the assembled Council with polite gratitude. He was exhausted; he had much to meditate on and needed time for rest and recovery. The Trials had been far from simple and were nothing if not disturbing, but for this moment his exhilaration carried him, and he met the smiling eyes of the Jedi Councilors with pride and happiness. He was aware of Yoda folding his braid into a small coil and knew it would be kept reverently with a collection of others, many from Knights long dead-- over twenty of them from humans alone, a symbol of the great Master's legacy to the Jedi.

Yoda tapped him lightly with his stick, signaling for him to exit the Council chamber. Yoda followed as well, somewhat to Obi-Wan's surprise, and they started for their quarters slowly. "Your first mission you may choose, Knight Kenobi." Yoda spoke softly, keeping pace at Obi-Wan's side. "But know you I do. You will choose to go to Torehir to bring the younglings Knight Azahei has found back to the creche, will you not?"

"Yes, my Master." Obi-Wan smiled slightly as Yoda read his intentions, bowing his head deferentially, out of long habit.

"Mmmm." Yoda nodded, keeping his silence for a long moment, pondering. "Royal wedding will there also be in this month between the Torehiri Prince and his chosen Livan consort. Much controversy over this there is. Hate the Livans, do the Torehiri. An ambassador the Senate wishes us to send, to protect the peace."

"I can easily divert to the wedding, my Master. We shall block two strikes with a single parry, shall we not?" Obi-Wan smiled.

Yoda tilted his head thoughtfully, his careful gaze judging Obi-Wan again. "Accepted, the ambassadorial mission has been, by Master Qui-Gon Jinn."

Obi-Wan stiffened almost imperceptibly, forced himself to relax as quickly, knowing that Yoda was attuned to his every emotion. He had encountered Qui-Gon Jinn only rarely in his time as a Padawan, but none of those encounters had been particularly pleasant. Especially not when he had faced the man in a tournament battle five years ago and been soundly and neatly -- but brutally -- defeated.

He became aware that he was being watched, and knew that every flicker of his thought was visible to the small Jedi at his side. Even now that he was a Knight, Yoda was still his master, still his superior, still bound to mentor him with either gentleness or sternness, as he required. He would strive to make this a case for the former.

"He is a fine fighter and an excellent diplomat," Obi-Wan judged serenely, exercising a bit of diplomatic tact himself. "And a good choice for the job to be done."

"Sympathize he may with the Livans," Yoda harumphed after a moment, apparently satisfied with Obi-Wan's recovery. "Not wise would that be. Neutrality should be preserved."

Obi-Wan took a slow, soft breath. Yoda had almost never shared his views on another Knight or Master's weakness with him when he had yet been a Padawan. It seemed his new status had altered his relationship with his old master after all. "What must I do then, to preserve it?"

"Balance Qui-Gon Jinn, you must." Yoda thumped his stick a little more irritably on the floor than was strictly necessary. "Always balance has he required. Too certain he is, too preoccupied by the Living Force. Too confident in his own strength. Too ready to disregard others. You can balance him well, Obi-Wan."

Obi-Wan shifted nervously, uncomfortable with the idea. "Would it not be better to send someone of equal rank with Master Jinn?"

Yoda chuckled suddenly, a flare of unpredictable humor. "Stand up to him, you will. Complement him your strengths do. Foreseen it, I have." His eyes were almost merry as he tilted his gaze up to meet Obi-Wan's. "Prepare for your mission, Obi-Wan."

He watched as Obi-Wan glided down the hallway after an obedient nod, his lips quirking upward with slow mirth. "Fled your destiny have you for twelve years, Qui-Gon Jinn," Yoda murmured, satisfied. "But find you it will."

The transport to Torehir was of respectable size, provided not only for an ambassadorial embassy but also furnished to shelter the ten or fifteen children Obi-Wan hoped to bring back to the creche for training. The generous size of the ship enabled Obi-Wan to discreetly avoid Master Jinn for much of the first two weeks of the journey. The young Knight was glad of that; he was still pondering what he had learned during his Trials, meditating and resting, recovering his physical and emotional center, preparing himself for the tasks ahead.

He was not altogether convinced by Yoda's confidence in his ability to balance Qui-Gon Jinn. The man had built a reputation as a loner who operated just on the edge of going rogue, blatantly disregarding the will of the Council. There were even muttered whispers questioning his allegiance to the Light; certainly it was known that he frequently used mental domination and other questionable techniques to accomplish his objectives.

In fact, Obi-Wan was nervous to be working with Jinn at all. By seventeen, the young man had heard enough muttered gossip about the reasons why the older Jedi's last apprentice had failed his Trials to be keenly grateful that Jinn hadn't chosen him as Padawan. He much preferred the stable, secure orthodoxy of Yoda's training and he had the benefit of training with many other Masters as well when they were at the Temple, and had even taken field missions with them once Yoda deemed him of age.

As a result he thought he was almost uniquely prepared to be a Knight, having mastered a wide variety of fighting styles, diplomatic interactions, spiritual insights and field situations. Through it all ran the calm grounding of Yoda's teachings, returning him always to the serene center of the Force.

Obi-Wan smiled with the pleasure of his serenity, feeling himself begin to float from the floor on the currents of Force that surrounded him. Levitation of self was a most difficult skill, only achieved with perfect peace and acceptance, perfect harmony with all branches of the Force.

Then the sense of another presence intruded and he thumped not-quite-painfully to the deck. Ignoring his own break in control, he opened his eyes. He gazed serenely at a pair of powerful thighs clad in brown leggings before moving his focus quickly up past powerful hips and pelvis, narrow waist and broad shoulders, to a stern face behind a graying beard, untrimmed hair dragged back severely into a long, thick tail that reached past the man's waist.

Very familiar and very alien. The face was older, harsher, its broad planes tight and forbidding, the broken nose still hawklike and dominant, but the sensual, full mouth had grown pinched and hard-set, less generous. Silver highlighted the long dark hair. The keen, deepset indigo eyes were opaque, cold. Any vestiges of kindness that he remembered seemed to have simply been... scoured away by experience and age. Or perhaps they had been merely the misguided imaginings of an innocent boy.

"To what do I owe the honor of this visit, Master Jinn?" Obi-Wan rose with conscious grace, unfolding his body without using his hands.

"We must coordinate our missions." Qui-Gon matched him serenity to serenity, and Obi-Wan nodded his head fractionally, acknowledging the necessity. "We will arrive on Torehir in sixteen standard hours," Qui-Gon stated. "Two days before the royal wedding. That does not leave sufficient time to gather all the prospective initiates before the ceremony."

Obi-Wan nodded noncommittally, leaving his head inclined in a posture meant to lead the older man to continue. He did not take the bait. "And your point is?" Obi-Wan prompted him politely after the silence grew heavy.

"That we should attend the wedding together and then seek out the new initiates." Qui-Gon looked at him austerely.

Obi-Wan carefully tamped down a flicker of irritation at the faint implication that he was unable to handle his own mission alone -- merely gathering and transporting children, at that. He soothed his bruised ego by reminding himself that Yoda had hinted that Qui-Gon, an experienced Jedi Master, would require his help and his balancing influence on this embassy. And despite his irritation, Qui-Gon's decision also raised a flicker of intrigue in him. Why would a confirmed loner -- one who had amply demonstrated his lack of interest in Obi-Wan -- suddenly request his company?

"Jedi typically travel in pairs," Obi-Wan agreed mildly. "The embassy will be the more respectable if known customs are met."

It was Qui-Gon's turn to spend a moment gazing silently at Obi-Wan and the young Knight wondered if the Master was stilling his own flare of annoyance. He could not read the man; his face was perfectly impassive and his shields were thick and firm-set. The young Jedi reviewed his own words and felt a moment of regret for the possibility that his sentence might sound as though he meant to bait the older man and taunt him about his customary solitude, but he had merely spoken the truth.

Just gazing at the older Jedi gave him an uncomfortable sense of disharmony; tendrils of discord were winding between them palpably even after such a short and uneventful interaction. This was a comradeship that had been doomed to failure from the beginning, Obi-Wan admitted to himself realistically. If they had failed to connect when Obi-Wan was young, malleable, and desperately anxious to obey and please, there was even less chance they would arrive at a mutual understanding now that he had developed his own mind, his own style, and been granted the authority of his own Knighthood. Yoda had often called him willful; Qui-Gon did not seem the sort to appreciate that particular quality.

Obi-Wan steeled himself in spite of his misgivings. He must not allow personal resentments to come between himself and the efficient performance of his duty. He would be wise to indulge the Master's ego, give him the respect that was due his rank and experience. However, even with that resolve, he still wasn't prepared for what came next.

"Yoda sent you to watchdog me on this mission," Qui-Gon spoke abruptly, eyes flashing. "Your swift agreement to attend the wedding instead of pursuing your own responsibilities is transparent. Tell your Master that I do not require the supervision of a new-raised Knight who hardly knows a field assignment from a training exercise."

The young Knight blinked mildly, taking a moment to seek his center, letting the accusation and insult slide over him like water. "I am sure that you do not," he agreed calmly. "As I do not require the supervision of a Master to gather a dozen toddlers and shepherd them back to the creche." Point, and counterpoint.

That was definitely a flicker of anger in Qui-Gon's eyes, though Obi-Wan had deliberately neglected to return the insult he'd been given. Obi-Wan read contempt in that hot blue gaze and it ignited a forbidden spark of genuine anger deep inside him. What had he ever done to be despised so deeply? He hadn't been granted a fair chance, not from Qui-Gon's first word to him as a child. Obi-Wan suddenly remembered battling draigons with no hope of survival, fighting as a full Jedi before ever turning thirteen or even becoming a Padawan. He remembered preparing to surrender his life for the older man's, and remembered being spurned afterward as though his achievements and offer of sacrifice had been utterly worthless.

"Let's make our plans quickly," Obi-Wan heard the chill in his own voice.

Qui-Gon silently accepted the proffered datapad and together they began working out a formal schedule of appearances.

It did not go well.

After two hours, Obi-Wan's best attempts to hold his fraying temper below the level of outright hostility were growing steadily less successful; Qui-Gon seemed determined to undermine his self-control by refusing to commit himself to any firm agreement for a schedule of responsibilities. Obi-Wan had met him more than halfway and had been rewarded with frustration and resistance at every turn, even when he offered to agree to a schedule completely set by the other man. The passive-aggressive techniques Jinn employed were definitely getting old.

At last his patience vanished and he drew a deep breath, deleting the latest rejected schedule with a deceptively gentle tap of his finger. He lifted a cool gaze to the older Jedi. "My Master once told me that when working in a group, it is better to be nice than nasty," he commented, unable to hold his silence. "If you are nice, you will have friends and allies to cover your back. If you are nasty, you will have enemies from which you must defend it." It was a harsh truth, but it was one he judged the older man needed to hear. And after all, Yoda had subtly encouraged him to stand up to Jinn.

Qui-Gon's eyes widened almost imperceptibly at Obi-Wan's insolence, and he stepped back. "Is that a threat, Knight Kenobi?" His tones were deceptively dulcet.

"It is not. I am not your enemy, and I will defend your back willingly if you have need. But you are far from making a friend this day, Master Qui-Gon Jinn." Obi-Wan held his dignity carefully. "Still, your forthrightness is refreshing." He turned aside with smooth grace to retrieve the datapad that contained the mission briefing. "I choose to offer my own in return. I have indeed received instructions to ensure, should political faction infighting of any sort occur, that neutrality be strictly maintained. And in my capacity as a Knight, I shall indeed accompany you to the royal wedding and all consequent functions that you choose to attend that I deem advisable, official and unofficial."

When he looked back, Qui-Gon's eyes had narrowed, gauging him tightly. After a long moment of silence, the Jedi Master turned and stalked out.

"I am no longer a fawning whelp that you can shove aside with your boot," Obi-Wan commented softly to his receding back. "You may as well become used to that." He lifted the data reader and surveyed the list of diplomatic events on its screen. "If I have to go to every one of these Force-forsaken gatherings with you, I will do as I promised my Master."

If Obi-Wan had expected matters to grow better when they arrived on Torehir, he had been mistaken. Qui-Gon remained silent and aloof as they left the ship and made their way into the Palace. Obi-Wan lengthened his stride to remain at the taller man's side, keeping his face impassive and keeping up stubbornly when Jinn quickened his pace again, and yet again.

"Oh, Sirs, I'm so sorry!" The mistress of hospitality greeted Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan nervously when they presented themselves to take up their lodgings. She all but wrung her hands, anxiously glancing from one impassive face to the other. "We were notified of the coming of only one Jedi. The entire palace is quite full of wedding guests."

"A single room will be fine," Obi-Wan spoke calmly even as Qui-Gon opened his mouth. "Have the servants lay out a pallet for me on the floor." He was secretly pleased by the arrangement; Qui-Gon would find it all the more difficult to evade him if they shared a room. Furthermore, he had reviewed his behavior in meditation and decided that he would try not to give the older man the satisfaction of penetrating his composure again. What better way to prove himself to the Master than to endure his hostility with good grace and kindness, even in close quarters?

The servant began to flutter her relief immediately, fawning over Obi-Wan with gratitude, forestalling Qui-Gon's protests. Unspeaking, they carried their meager luggage up a set of stairwells. They entered the large suite with servants coming in on their heels, preparing Obi-Wan's pallet, tucking it away beneath Qui-Gon's large bed where it might be easily drawn out in the evening.

"I hope you don't snore." Obi-Wan's attempt at a cheerful sally fell flat and he shrugged mentally when he was ignored, setting his bag in a corner of the room's wide closet. He tugged his data reader out of his pocket. "The first reception is in two hours. I assume we're going?"

Qui-Gon again remained silent, carelessly toeing his bag into the opposite end of the closet from Obi-Wan's and beginning to unpack it in order to hang up his formal robes. Obi-Wan imitated him, feeling the vestiges of his determined good humor evaporating. Surely Qui-Gon hadn't been so dour when Obi-Wan was just a lad. Had he? Somehow Obi-Wan did not remember him so. Perhaps he had been so desperate then that any Jedi Master had seemed like a shining beacon of hope.

Obi-Wan thought gratefully of Master Yoda's even temper and quiet, cryptic patience. On the return journey from Bandomeer to Coruscant, Yoda had openly told his new apprentice that he believed Qui-Gon had made a mistake and denied the will of the Force when it came to Obi-Wan. "You are meant to become a Jedi," Yoda had told him simply, and Obi-Wan had known it was true. Suddenly a pang of sympathy pierced Obi-Wan. If Qui-Gon were still defying the will of the Force, it was little wonder that he was discontented in his life.

Obi-Wan lifted a sincere smile to the other man. "I'm ready for dinner," he confided. "And you must be starving as well. You skipped noon mess aboard the transport, didn't you."

Qui-Gon ignored him again, with determination of his own.

Obi-Wan sighed and pulled out his pallet, folding his legs and sinking into meditation to pass the time till the reception. There was little enough point in bashing his head against a stone wall.

The time for the reception eventually arrived. Obi-Wan rose when the Jedi Master first stirred, and made it to the door first. He and Qui-Gon set out without a word. He realized that if he let the older man make all the decisions it would seem as though he were tagging along like a puppy and he decided to take a more aggressive role in determining their agenda the very next morning.

They entered a wide room crammed with a variety of beings and joined a receiving line to officially greet the young couple. The Livan princess made a lovely bride, Obi-Wan thought, watching narrowly as Qui-Gon made his pleasant self-introductions to the couple, carefully introducing Obi-Wan as well with a surprisingly sincere cordiality. When the man decided to stop sulking, Obi-Wan thought wryly, he could certainly muster considerable charm.

The diminutive Livan princess was half Qui-Gon's height, if that, gazing up at the tall Jedi Master with worship that made Obi-Wan distinctly uneasy. Her pale aqua skin flushed deeper under her near-white hair as she watched Qui-Gon make his cordialities to her betrothed, and she barely noticed Obi-Wan in spite of all the courtesy he could muster. The young Jedi progressed to the Torehiri Prince in his turn, made the requisite pleasant noises, and was through the receiving line at last.

He trailed unobtrusively in Qui-Gon's wake as the larger man proceeded to the buffet table. Obi-Wan's stomach was growling by the time they arrived and he was glad to take his portions and begin the search for a place to sit and eat. Qui-Gon sat before he did and chose a place where Obi-Wan could not join him. The Knight accepted that with good grace-- it also meant that the Princess would not be able to pursue the Jedi Master on her own. Obi-Wan observed the Prince watching the tall Jedi coolly and his heart sank. He'd hoped that Torvan had been too preoccupied to notice his bride's obvious interest in Qui-Gon.

Obi-Wan finished his meal quickly and neatly. There was to be dancing, and he thought it might be wise to intercept the Princess, if possible, as soon as he saw her heading for Qui-Gon. And he was sure she would.

Downing the last of his wine, he gave his emptied plate to a servant and settled his cloak around his shoulders. Moving to the end of the table where Qui-Gon sat, he joined the milling knot of people there, gazing out calmly across the dance floor. A large band, more of an orchestra, was tuning very quietly in the corner and the earliest arrivals from among the diners were already waiting for the Prince and Princess to start the dancing.

"Would you care to dance, Jedi?" A friendly young Torehiri woman smiled at Obi-Wan and he returned her gaze with growing interest.

"Apologies, milady, but I'm afraid my lover will be dancing with me." An arm slid around his waist familiarly and Obi-Wan flinched before he could stop himself, shocked by the warm, cordial voice at his ear. So Jinn had noticed the Princess's indiscreet attention too. Well. His action was certainly an effective approach to a solution, surely not the one Obi-Wan would have chosen, but in all probability it would solve the problem handily.

"You startled me, Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan covered his surprise smoothly and leaned up to brush a dry-lipped kiss against the taller Jedi's cheek. He'd be damned if he'd let the older man outdo him in serene adaptability, but they were going to have a serious talk about this presumption when they got back to their room.

"I very much regret that I must decline your kind offer," he told the woman courteously, lifting her hand and brushing it lightly with his lips. "But I am sure that a woman of your beauty will have no trouble finding partners." He smiled and she blushed, curtsying, slipping away.

That arm hadn't moved and the closeness discomfited Obi-Wan. Unbidden, the rumors of Qui-Gon's failed Padawan rose again in his mind and he suppressed a frown at the knowledge that he'd be sharing a room with Jinn this evening. But he was no insecure Padawan, vulnerable to the power-politics of unwanted seduction. He reassured himself that Jinn's earlier hostility meant there would be no attempts; this was merely a convenient ruse.

The Prince finally offered his hand to his Princess and she rather sulkily accepted, letting herself be drawn out. The orchestra began to play. Obi-Wan felt firm pressure on his waist and stepped forward, turning as large arms slid around him. He met Qui-Gon's eyes coolly, smiling only with his mouth. "I don't know how to dance," he spoke through his smile.

"Then I will lead you." The words were similarly chilly and Jinn's eyes were remote.

Qui-Gon was as good as his word and Obi-Wan caught on quickly, keeping half an eye on the other dancers and relying on his Force-skills to anticipate quick changes. A particularly rapid swoop left his stomach dizzily in his toes-- Force, Qui-Gon was strong, lifting him so easily-- and Obi-Wan gasped a little, involuntarily, bracing his palm against the older man's chest to steady himself.

"Recover." The Master's head bent over him solicitously, but the word was curt. "Princess Livarin is still watching."

Obi-Wan resentfully recovered his equilibrium, stiffening inside the warm circle of arms that had drawn him embarrassingly close as the music slowed again. His lack of ease did not improve his dancing and his boot scuffed over Qui-Gon's toe.

"Dance, or I shall be forced to take you out into the gardens instead," Qui-Gon threatened, his voice very soft.

"Perhaps that would be best," Obi-Wan returned tartly. "I'd prefer it to being manhandled." Qui-Gon had bent, holding him close, and his mouth was next to the larger man's ear.

Qui-Gon's light laugh in response was incongruous, meant for the ears that surrounded them, but his voice was still aloof when he spoke again, hostile words soft against Obi-Wan's ear. "Have you seen what's occurring in the gardens? I think we both would prefer not to have to extend our ruse so far. Continue dancing."

Obi-Wan glanced out as their progress brought them past a window, and picked up his feet with renewed determination, swallowing involuntarily. No, he didn't want to have to submit to false kisses from his unpleasant partner. Dancing was far preferable, even this close dancing, hot and awkward though it was with his robe still hanging from his shoulders, Qui-Gon's strong arms slid inside it to guide him unobtrusively.

Under other circumstances, with a woman or with a different man, the dance might have been quite enjoyable. Qui-Gon was an adept partner, light on his feet and able to cover deftly for Obi-Wan's awkwardness. Obi-Wan tried to relax. It was only a momentary closeness of bodies, a sacrifice required by their mission. Their minds were as far apart as ever.

"I must admit, this is one aspect of my training that seems to have been neglected," Obi-Wan admitted, hoping that a little light talk would speed the time until they could make a polite retreat. And perhaps the older Jedi would finally unbend. But it was no use; Qui-Gon remained silent and the dance entered the promenade phase, separating them.

Two more lengthy dances, with a pause between for them to remove the hot, stifling cloaks and take goblets of wine, and Qui-Gon finally judged it was late enough to retreat gracefully. He caught their cloaks under his free arm, silently refusing to release Obi-Wan, leading him up the wide polished marble stair that exited the ballroom into the first level of guest quarters, the very picture of a courteous lover.

As Jedi, they were VIP's and had been given quarters near to the festivities so they did not have far to go. They had paused at their door and Obi-Wan had reached into his pocket for the key code, when he was suddenly swept up in powerful arms and a hot mouth descended onto his aggressively. He uttered a muffled yelp, struggling, but was held even more fiercely, the mouth relentless on his own, opening over his, a hard hand sliding behind his head and a heavy body forcing him against the wall, bracing him to stillness.

Respond! The command was sharp and angry inside his head, accompanied by an image of the Princess watching them suspiciously from the head of the stair, and Obi-Wan blinked with sudden understanding, then slid his arms around Qui-Gon with alacrity. He'd be damned if he'd be beaten at this game. He groaned loudly and locked one hand in the strands of the older man's long tail of hair, bringing the other behind his hips and dragging them close. He opened his mouth and Qui-Gon jerked slightly, surprised at the sudden depth of the kiss. Obi-Wan tasted wine on the other man's tongue, felt the cloaks Qui-Gon held slide to the floor, and the Jedi Master's arms tightened around him involuntarily. Obi-Wan writhed in Qui-Gon's arms convincingly, reaching out his senses toward the Princess, gauging her reactions coolly.

She watched for a moment, her pulse rate speeding with a mixture of disappointment and desire, and then abruptly whirled, stalking back down the stair.

Obi-Wan immediately dropped his arms from around Qui-Gon's neck, expecting to be released, but he was not. Qui-Gon's tongue was hot inside his mouth, dancing insistently against his palate, and Obi-Wan blinked again, struggling to work his palms against the older man's chest, to shove him away. Qui-Gon merely shifted to press more firmly against him and Obi-Wan froze, feeling masculine hardness grind suddenly against his hip. His hands curled reflexively where they lay against the broad chest, trembling, and for a long moment he was helpless in the older Jedi's arms, letting himself be kissed, then he mustered Force and shoved the man away so hard that he bounced against the far wall.

"You will not do that to me again," Obi-Wan wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve, leaning against the wall, unsure of his shaky knees. He was surprised that his voice was so quiet, so polite, almost conversational. "Is that understood?" Qui-Gon hesitated, nodding abruptly, and Obi-Wan turned, activating the key code after two abortive tries, and entered their rooms.

"I... am sorry." Qui-Gon's wintry voice might have frozen steel and his inflection was purely emotionless. Obi-Wan didn't turn to face him, just nodded curtly to accept the apology, sensing that it had cost the older man dearly to offer it.

He wasn't sure what had just happened inside Qui-Gon's head, but his own loss of control frightened him. When he'd felt the older man's arousal... he swallowed dryly, disconcerted, shifting his own hips uncomfortably, glad that the skirt of his tunic covered his own reflexive response to Qui-Gon's embrace. For a moment the punishing kiss had nearly overwhelmed him and he'd been insanely tempted simply to go limp in the older man's arms and allow himself be ravished. And he was equally certain that had he chosen not to resist, it would have happened, and it would have been... delightful. Force, he must be mad.

It was all probably true about Qui-Gon then, the rumors he had heard whispered about the real reason behind Xanatos's failure. Clearly the Master had little or no sexual self-restraint in a crisis. Obi-Wan shuddered, thinking how close he had come to being this Jedi's helpless, dependent Padawan.

"I believe I should sleep on the couch instead of the pallet that was prepared for me," Obi-Wan stated coldly. "I am not altogether sure it would be wise to share a room with you."

"Fear not. I will not touch you again." The voice was still icy, but it was somehow hollow. Obi-Wan frowned slightly, running mental fingertips over the threads of Force that twined in the room. Not quite dark, no, not that... but gray, graying. Like the scattered threads of pale color in the older man's hair. His aura felt... desolate, empty, abandoned. It hinted of an old grief, a wound badly scarred. Obi-Wan suddenly wondered how long it had been since the older Jedi had let anyone close to him, how long it had been since he had shared a lover's body or even tasted the simple sweetness of a kiss.

Fidgeting uncomfortably, ashamed by the angry words he'd spoken, he wondered just how much the grudging apology had cost the Jedi Master. This was another Jedi, after all, and perhaps the lapse of his control was excusable. He couldn't have been expecting Obi-Wan to obey the mental command with such... seeming enthusiasm, after all. Kenobi flushed. More enthusiasm than he cared to admit, even to himself.

Surely now that they were both prepared, both aware, their mistakes would not be repeated. He had been harsh with Qui-Gon and he'd promised himself he would not let the man get under his skin. Obi-Wan sighed, repenting. "Perhaps the couch is over-hard," he muttered, and glided abruptly into the bedroom.

A tug of Force summoned the pallet, brought it up against the wall of the room furthest from Qui-Gon's bed. Obi-Wan kicked off his boots and peeled out of his belt, stole, and one tunic, hesitated, then hung them away and left the undertunic and leggings on, sliding under the blankets and turning his back to the bed.

Qui-Gon stepped around him to get to the closet to put his own clothing away, shedding his tunics and boots, taking out a pair of sleep pants. He stepped away and Obi-Wan heard a moment's rustling, then Jinn stepped back in and hung the leggings over the closet bar. Obi-Wan stubbornly left his eyes closed. There was the sound of the Master tending his long, sleek hair, and finally he heard the springs of the big bed protest under the heavy weight of the large body.

After half an hour, Obi-Wan permitted himself to relax and sleep.

He was never quite sure later if the memory was a dream or reality, but at some hour in the night he became aware of silent scrutiny, and opened his eyes to find Qui-Gon standing over him.

Faintly lit by the torches that still flickered in the gardens beyond their terrace, Qui-Gon's skin had a deep, muted golden glow. His loose hair hung nearly to his thighs, curling faintly at the tips, much of it hanging over his shoulders, but several thick strands trailed in gentle waves over his bare chest and abdomen. The flannel sleep pants he wore clung to his legs and hips, and his feet were hidden by the rim of Obi-Wan's pallet. The sense of remoteness and desolation Obi-Wan had felt earlier in the older Jedi's aura seemed only to have increased. He almost felt that he had unwittingly startled a scarred, grizzled wolf from its den, and that the two of them now stood frozen, locked eye to eye in a moment of instinctive and mutual judgment to see who was in control here and who must wisely flee.

Stirring further toward wakefulness, Obi-Wan wondered sleepily but without much fear whether Qui-Gon had come to try to seduce him, and whether Obi-Wan would let him succeed. Perhaps he would. The man looked beautifully feral, his craggy features painted with golden light and impenetrable shadow. The strong column of his throat worked once in a silent swallow, his huge hands flexed slightly.

Obi-Wan closed his eyes and fluttered them open again to make sure he wasn't dreaming, but Qui-Gon wasn't there when they opened, the torchlight falling unimpeded on the wall. The young Jedi yawned with faint regret and nestled back into his pillow, dismissing the dream-image.

When he awoke Obi-Wan could hear the shower running. He decided he had time to work in a stretching routine to wake himself; stripping off his tunic he stepped out onto the balcony and ran through several warm-up katas, stretching his sleep-stiffened muscles and speeding his body slowly. He heard Qui-Gon emerge, and he eased the routine to a stop, drawing on his undertunic and re-entering the room.

He glanced in the mirror and decided that he could use a shower himself. As he turned, his gaze wandered past Qui-Gon automatically. The big man wore reserve like a cloak, but it was all he wore; a wide bathsheet was wrapped around the dripping mass of his hair, but his body was fully bare, hips nestled into the tangle of bedsheets and blankets.

Suddenly Obi-Wan realized his eyes and body had stilled, and he could not tear himself from the sight of that big, bare body. His mouth was dry as he remembered the hardness of that now-limp penis shoved against his hip. He hadn't realized it was... so large. As large as the rest of Qui-Gon Jinn. Large as that wide, muscular chest, faintly furred with a dusting of bronze and grey. Large as those long, sinewy thighs, those broad fingers... the huge hand that had covered the entire back of his head.... The dark curls between his hard-sinewed legs were still untouched by gray, and he realized that his eyes had returned inevitably to that unbelievable masculine organ, as though drawn by a magnet.

Obi-Wan shuddered faintly, not quite certain how to react. Qui-Gon turned his head with conscious dignity, regarding Obi-Wan in silence; the young man became aware of the regard and ripped his eyes away, shame flushing his cheeks. Wordless, he nipped into the 'fresher for his own shower. When he emerged, carefully swathed in another of the large towels, Qui-Gon was waiting for him, standing fully clothed in the middle of their parlor.

"There is a State breakfast, and an afternoon tour, and another evening reception," Qui-Gon stated flatly. "During the afternoon tour, there is also a diplomatic conference regarding relations between the Livans and the Torehiri."

"I think I can trust you to cover the breakfast," Obi-Wan quipped mildly, receiving a dark look in response.

"I've already ordered in. We have a pretense to maintain." Obi-Wan received the words with a nod, and realized that his pallet had been neatly made and stowed back under the large bed. He flushed suddenly.


A diffident knock at the door announced the arrival of breakfast. Obi-Wan seated himself on the edge of the big bed as though it were his own, letting the towel fall partway open, exposing the lines of chest and flank so that the servants could see that he was casual with his body near Qui-Gon. He sat quietly as though awaiting the Jedi Master, aware that the servants' eyes carefully avoided his partial nudity.

The servants bowed their way out and Qui-Gon lifted a slice of melon in his fingers, crunching it calmly. His eyes flickered past Obi-Wan with a casual indifference that made Obi-Wan's face heat with half-resentful shame at the memory of his own indiscretion in the matter of examining the Jedi Master's nude form.

"The Prince and Princess are leading the tour. Their fathers are leading the conference." Qui-Gon's calm eyes taunted Obi-Wan momentarily. "Shall I accompany the Princess on her tour so that you may ensure that neutrality is served?"

Obi-Wan felt his mouth tighten at the implicit taunt. "It would of course be wiser if I take the tour," he remarked, perforce, referring to the Princess's attraction to Qui-Gon. It was not as easy as he had anticipated to manipulate the older Jedi, and he chastised himself for overconfidence, knowing that he, on the other hand, had just been manipulated quite easily. He rose, leaving his towel, and moved to don his leggings.

"Have a care that she does not fall for you, as well," Qui-Gon remarked with just the slightest hint of an edge to his tone, surveying him coolly.

Obi-Wan felt his temper flare, and deliberately turned to Qui-Gon without pausing to cover himself. "I do seem to be hard to resist." He did not quite succeed in removing the amusement from his voice, and Qui-Gon glared at his face sharply.

"Hardly," he commented acidly. He cast his contemptuous gaze quickly over the length of the young man's body, broadcasting sheer indifference, a pointed contrast to Obi-Wan's earlier dazed stare at him. "Don't flatter yourself, boy. A moment's lapse after wine and dancing does not mean that you have made a conquest."

It was out in the open then, acknowledged as a lapse-- but it was a lapse that had just been made inconsequential by his easy indifference to Obi-Wan's body. His pride stinging, the young man nodded thoughtfully, standing his ground with confidence, but anger was kindling in him, taking control of his tongue. "That is well," he responded lightly, without thinking. "For unlike you, I take no pleasure in making unwanted conquests."

A positively thunderous expression spread over the Master's face and Obi-Wan was simultaneously satisfied and shamed that his cruel barb had hit home. Shutting his mouth, he turned his back, stepping into the leggings, bending to catch the waistband and pulling them up snugly around his hips.

"Don't taunt me, boy." A hard hand caught his arm and jerked him fully upright, and ferocious blue eyes stared down into his. "You are a Knight, whether you deserved the chance to become one or not. But you are not my equal and you owe me your respect. You will pay it or I will report your conduct to your Master and to the Council when we return to Coruscant." Qui-Gon fairly spat the words, cold anger radiating from him.

"And you owe me respect as well." Obi-Wan stared furiously up into those hard, forbidding eyes. "Because I am a Knight, even if you didn't find me worth your time and teaching, and I have earned my right to be a part of this mission. I will not be treated like an Initiate fresh from the creche."

"Then don't act like one." Qui-Gon did not release him, towering over Obi-Wan, his sheer mass intimidating even without the force of his eyes and personality.

Obi-Wan tugged his arm away from the painful grasp, meeting the angry blue eyes resolutely. "If you will permit me to dress, we each have a job to attend," he stated flatly, wondering if it was too late to demand that he be given a second room, away from this man. Force, even a broom closet would do just fine.

They parted without further words, each proceeding to his designated task.

Princess Livarin established her claim on Obi-Wan early into the tour, and used her position on his arm to grill him sweetly but thoroughly about Qui-Gon. Prince Torvan ignored them resolutely, acting the very soul of polite host to the tour. When the tour wended its way out of the city and down to the pristine beauty of the shoreline, Livarin used the excuse of her dainty shoes and the heavy yielding sand of the beach as an excuse to fall behind, with Obi-Wan on her arm.

Torvan spared them a cautious, warning look and Obi-Wan returned it with a hint of apology, escorting the Princess carefully to a weathered stone bench. He brushed it clean of the iridescent sand and helped her find her seat, then sat a polite distance from her side, gazing out over the rolling ocean. The jagged standing stones that circled the cove where white quartz, veined with shimmering rainbows of opal, and the freshwater sea cascaded against them with an endless susurration. Tall dunes rose quickly behind the bench, and on them tall, sturdy grasses blew in the breeze, one broken, leaning frond tickling Obi-Wan's cheek. The Princess sighed, looking pensively over the calm sea.

"This is how Torvan would have you believe the Torehiri live," she mused. "In unspoiled, pristine beauty." She cast Obi-Wan a keen glance. "But my people know better."

The young Jedi lifted a brow slightly, inviting her to go on.

"Always Torehiri lands are kept inviolate, while the lands of the Livans suffer. Their refineries, mines, factories... they have encroached on our lands, our waters, and have fouled them, fouled the air, from time immemorial, while they preserve these sanctuaries and point them out proudly to visitors." She smiled a little wryly. "I wish Master Jinn had come, so that he might hear me speak of these things."

Obi-Wan considered her words, decided they were not entirely romantic in intent. "Master Jinn is highly attuned to the living Force," he commented with restraint, very diplomatically. "And he values all things that generate and bind it." In theory, anyway. He bit back the uncharitable remark.

"I know." She blushed a little, a deeper blue shade suffusing her cheeks. "He is silent, but it is plain to see in him to anyone who values life." Now the warm, distant fondness was back in her eyes as she thought of Qui-Gon.

Obi-Wan politely restrained a blink. He couldn't remember seeing any evidence of such caring in the cold Jedi Master, particularly not on this mission. Perhaps Livarin was Force-sensitive and could sense Qui-Gon's attachment to the Living Force in a way that Obi-Wan's own shields did not permit.

"Why are you marrying Torvan?" he asked slowly, aware that it was hardly a diplomatic question.

She lifted her chin proudly. "My people hope that our issue will come to care for the land, will build a bridge between the Livans and the Torehiri, will protect our lands and our people from further damage," she explained, so softly he nearly couldn't hear her voice. "Torvan is the first Torehiri ever to embrace this desire."

"Then perhaps your admiration of Master Jinn is not the wisest emotion to reveal on the eve of such an important step between your peoples." Obi-Wan murmured the words sympathetically, searching her eyes.

They filled abruptly. "Master Jinn's spirit shines in him and Torvan's does not." She lowered her face, a tear trailing down her cheek. "You are lucky to be his lover, Knight Kenobi. I..." she flushed again. "I followed him last night, wishing speech with him. I saw the two of you kiss in the hall outside your door."

Obi-Wan shifted infinitesimally, uncomfortable, raising his shields against the picture she unconsciously projected, but not before he was treated to the sight of himself dwarfed by the tall broad body, caught and bent back by those huge hands, being devoured. His soft cry of surprise, then himself galvanizing to pull the older man close, a wild groan escaping him, his head tilting back even further as he let his mouth open and accepted the older man's tongue... Force. They had been convincing. The picture was so powerful that his body stirred in response to it, even after the morning's argument. He swallowed, setting it aside determinedly.

"You must love him very much," she whispered, and Obi-Wan started to speak, only to find himself without words. Instead, he dampened his dry lips with his tongue, tasting sand from the stiff ocean breeze. He realized that she was crying silently, so he reached and brushed a tear from her pale cheek.

"Livarin, I would like to see the joint factories you mention," he spoke at last. "It is difficult to negotiate well without knowledge of both sides."

"I had hoped the Jedi would ask this." Livarin brightened, gazing at Obi-Wan with hope. "Your spirit shines in you as well, Knight Kenobi," she said thoughtfully. "You are of air and water and spirit, I think... and Master Jinn is of earth and of fire and of all that lives." She smiled softly, wistfully. "A fine pairing." She caught Obi-Wan's face between her small, delicate palms. "Let the waters rain down upon the earth," she whispered, a ritual blessing, "so that the fires may be quenched and all that lives may drink. Let the airs move over the land, so that all that lives may breathe. Let the earth be renewed in spirit and bring forth joy."

Obi-Wan felt a weak shiver of Force trickle down his back along with her blessing. He shifted guiltily. "I... thank you, Princess." He could not be sure if the flicker was spontaneous, or if she had caused it herself, but she would bear future watching, and so would her relatives. There might be Jedi potential in her family.

She rose from the bench and Obi-Wan could see Torvan's party of wedding guests trudging dutifully back up the shining beach. Livarin stepped out to meet Torvan, kissing his cheek and taking his arm for the first time that afternoon. Torvan gazed at her with mild surprise, and then gave Obi-Wan a courteous nod that was not entirely devoid of gratitude. The young Knight returned it politely and melted back into the crowd, where he belonged.

Infuriating boy. Qui-Gon Jinn closed the heavy wooden door of the conference chamber behind himself with a light but crisp snap. The audacity of him! Kenobi had been headstrong, persistent, quick-tempered, and ill-advised as a boy, and age hadn't changed him-- if anything, maturity and rank had given him confidence that only made the qualities worse. Qui-Gon was surprised that Yoda's influence had not moderated those tendencies further. He was surprised that someone with such a sharp temper had been allowed to pass the Knighthood trials. Or maybe he brought out the worst in the boy-- he and Kenobi didn't have the best of histories.

Qui-Gon regained control of his emotions, using the enforced serenity to ponder Obi-Wan objectively. Yoda had been Qui-Gon's Master too, and the small Jedi's training had not succeeded in eliminating his own rebelliousness, his pride, his tendency to defy the accepted, his silent insistence on self-reliance and solitude. And Qui-Gon liked himself that way. He was an effective and highly successful Knight, or the Council would have called him to heel long ago. Perhaps those qualities in himself-- some of which he was forced to admit that he shared with Obi-Wan-- were needed by the Order.

All in all, he preferred not to rely on others. All too often such faith was misplaced and misplaced faith could cost lives as well as mere emotional pain. He flinched instinctively away from the pain of the memories associated with the last person he'd trusted. His apprentice, Xanatos.

As for Yoda and Kenobi-- well. When he'd been a youth, Yoda had taken him by choice, not merely out of pity because Qui-Gon could not find a Master. He sighed, blinking with surprise at himself. Pride of that sort was unfair and potentially harmful. Kenobi had thoroughly jarred his complacency.

The effortlessness of the boy's inroads into Qui-Gon's composure had only added insult to injury. He couldn't understand why he was so emotionally vulnerable to Kenobi. The physical lapse could be explained easily enough-- Qui-Gon had merely drunk too much wine, and when that was combined with the sixteen or more years since he'd taken a lover... well. Given that the young man's mouth had opened under his with unexpected, seemingly ardent sweetness and that the strong slender hands had felt eager when they pressed him close to the youthful, squirming body.... It was little wonder that he'd momentarily misjudged the boundary between pretense and reality, and permitted himself to respond to the purely physical stimuli. He was only human, after all.

The unexpected contact and the need for emotional and physical closeness it had awakened in him had shaken him badly. He couldn't deny that. Unable to sleep, he had finally risen and stood in the shadows over Obi-Wan's bed, determined to chase down the troublesome emotions and eliminate them, for the good of himself, Obi-Wan, and their mission. He'd watched the young man sleep for a long time, critically tallying all the flaws in his appearance. The mousy, indecisive color of his hair, the narrowness of his shoulders, his unimpressive height. The too-slim frame, the slender, delicate wrists and ankles that might shatter under the weight of a saber-strike from a powerful opponent. The flaws in his skin on his right cheekbone and on his brow. The too-severe, unflattering haircut, the cleft in his chin with its faint dusting of stubble where he had carelessly shaved... the delicate shading of light on his pale, smooth skin where the delightful curve of his slender, tight-muscled chest receded away into shadow under the concealing cloth of his tunic...

Qui-Gon had held himself very still, re-focusing determinedly on the flaws, on the small inconsistencies in the young man's physique, the faint asymmetries and half-perceived coarsenesses there. But his mouth had come alive with the taste and feel of the young Knight from earlier in the evening, and his penis had slowly firmed and burned against his thigh, hot and hard and insanely insistent. He couldn't ever remember wanting someone quite so quickly, quite so badly, quite so helplessly... and quite so resentfully. Not merely as a lover, but as a companion. Someone to talk to when winter evenings grew long and gray. Someone to smile with over a shared joke. Someone to watch quietly, admire, and wonder at. Someone who would laugh to quicken his flagging spirits. Someone who would understand how hard it was to be Jedi, and who would be there to stand with him when the load was too much for one man to bear.

No. He wouldn't give in to the weakness of wanting someone to mollycoddle him, not at his age. No matter how pleasantly it might begin, companionship ultimately led to weakness and betrayal, not pleasure and support. His foolish faith in Xanatos had certainly proven that. Qui-Gon Jinn hadn't wanted this boy tagging at his heels twelve years ago, and he certainly didn't want the man there now. Allowing emotional connection was a leisure a Jedi could not afford. Best to leave well enough alone.

Qui-Gon had finally tensed his muscles slowly, on the verge of stepping back...

...And then Obi-Wan's eyes had fluttered open, squinting up at him, half-dreaming, life flooding drowsily into the sleep-swollen features. He'd had to Force-push the boy back to sleep, and had retreated to his bed guiltily, sleepless and resentful, awaiting the morning.

He shook himself from his reverie, tuning into the droning voice of the Livan King. The list of grievances was long, and Qui-Gon had already investigated most of them before ever setting foot on the transport to Torehir. The advancement of technology through industrialization was always a double-bladed sword, and the damage to the environment had to be balanced against the benefits to the people. The Livans didn't seem to know it, but Qui-Gon had seen many, many worlds on which the effects were far worse and less equitable. The Torehiri were more concerned with the world around them than the Livans gave them credit for, and the Livans were too reluctant to compromise. They wanted all the benefits of civilization without any of the drawbacks...

Qui-Gon sighed as the Torehiri Minister spoke on his King's behalf, answering the Livan's accusations of imperialist exploitation. Some of those were true, with regard to territory and labor at any rate, and there were racial tensions hiding in the words that Qui-Gon didn't like, lurking in the wings and leftover from long generations. He made a signal indicating that he wished to speak next. He must defuse the confrontational atmosphere and maintain neutrality, if at all possible-- a task that he was fully capable of, no matter what Yoda and Kenobi might think.

While he was talking, he noticed Knight Kenobi slipping into the room-- apparently the city tour had ended. Kenobi made himself unobtrusive, listening with quiet attention. Good. All he needed was for the boy to start interfering in the discussion without adequate knowledge. He finished his commentary and seated himself, sensing the reduced tensions in the room with relief.

Tea and other mild stimulants were served as the delegates spoke quietly among themselves and Qui-Gon let his mind wander. The jibe Obi-Wan had launched this morning about his pleasure in conquest had rankled him deeper than he cared to admit. Thinking of its cruelty, he didn't want the young man in his sight, much less in his rooms. He was well aware that it was rumored in the temple that he had sexually abused Xanatos, thus causing him to fall to the Dark, but nobody had ever had the unadulterated gall to throw that untrue accusation in his face before. Not even the Jedi Council.

Xanatos had turned to the Dark Side of his own accord and for his own reasons; Qui-Gon had never laid a finger on the boy inappropriately. He'd never actually entertained sexual desire for Xanatos, not even after the boy reached his maturity-- he'd loved his padawan dearly and trusted him implicitly, as a friend and valued comrade. Xanatos had been both son and brother to him and he'd trusted the boy with his life and soul. An innocent fool's confidence, but nothing more. Nothing dark, nothing that the innocent fool Qui-Gon had been would ever have believed could turn so horribly hurtful and wrong.

The results of his mistaken trust had impaired his ability to function as a Jedi. For a long time, he had been centerless, hollow and distracted. Easily angered, frequently depressed and indifferent. As he slowly recovered and realized how slack he had become in his duties, he had determined never to indulge a similar weakness. Now this young upstart dared to resurrect those old, painful memories and accuse him of the vicious rumor to his face, out of bitterness at having been rejected himself, out of vengeful temper at having been maneuvered into a lesser responsibility. Qui-Gon repressed an angry snort. The young, inexperienced Knight had no business with Qui-Gon on this mission in the first place. If racial tensions flared as he suspected they might, Qui-Gon would probably have to protect the boy and he didn't need an extra responsibility on his shoulders. Particularly not one that he'd already evaded once. If there was anything Qui-Gon disliked, it was having to go out of his way and neglect his duties unnecessarily. That was especially true if he had to cover for the weaknesses of others or repeat a job that he had already taken care of. In this case, it looked like he would have to do both.

As the delegates huddled among themselves for a brief moment of recess, Obi-Wan slipped through the room and settled into the empty seat at his side; Qui-Gon smoothed his face to perfect impassivity. "I trust the tour was enjoyable."

"It was interesting." Obi-Wan was entirely inscrutable. "The Livan Princess wishes us to tour several Torehiri emplacements on Livan lands."

"You didn't agree, I trust, without consulting me?" Qui-Gon leveled his gaze on the young Knight. Obi-Wan's serenity flickered, chagrin evident in his eyes for a moment, and Qui-Gon sighed, feeling a weary headache begin to throb in his temples, knowing what the next words would be. He forestalled them.

"Did you not stop to consider that such a private agreement could be considered biased?" Qui-Gon lowered his voice warily, keeping it even with great effort. "We have a complete holographic record of the major Torehiri installations in Livan lands, together with environmental impact analyses, right here." He patted his pocket.

"You neglected to share it with me." Obi-Wan met his gaze, setting aside shame at his own misstep. "How could I make an informed judgment when you withheld necessary information?"

Qui-Gon sighed, forcing himself to let his anger disperse into the Force. The boy had a point, but he had also made a mistake worthy of a very new Knight with little field experience. He'd have expected better of a student who'd undergone Yoda's training. Perhaps the little Councilor was finally growing old. If that were true, the Jedi Order had far more to worry about the problems of one rash and inexperienced Knight, and an aging, jaded Master.

"I am not accustomed to working as a team." The admission tasted bitter on Qui-Gon's lips. "I did not expect to do so on this mission. I assumed you too had been provided with the necessary information."

Obi-Wan sighed. "I regret that I was not, and I should have informed you of the omission." He bowed his head with polite formality.

"We will have to discuss what may be done to balance your commitment," Qui-Gon sighed, releasing his annoyance with an effort. This was an unwelcome revelation-- the distraction he'd feared had begun before he was aware and his preoccupation with personal emotional concerns was already working to the detriment of the mission. It was preventing him from working effectively with Obi-Wan, and it seemed that if the lad were left unsupervised, he would simply run amok doing whatever came to mind, just as he had when he was twelve. That, too, would be an impediment to Qui-Gon's effectiveness as a Jedi. He had to walk a careful path then, balancing himself between rejection and acceptance of the callow Knight...

The negotiations resumed almost immediately and Qui-Gon buried himself in diplomacy with a bone-deep sigh.

Obi-Wan watched, humbled, as the older man mustered his charming presence and spoke to the factions alternately, weaving a thread of delicate tact and pressing forward with it. The young Knight was mortified to realize that he had done the very thing Yoda sent him to prevent Qui-Gon from doing. Suddenly he began to wonder if his Master had not told him what he did merely to keep Obi-Wan from siding too heavily with the Livans himself, not because Qui-Gon was prone to do so. Was there something else then, that he was required to do in order to balance Qui-Gon? He frowned speculatively. He would not put it past Yoda at all. His Master's machinations were always intricate and frequently incredibly subtle.

Surely Qui-Gon Jinn was not siding with anyone now. Obi-Wan was increasingly impressed by the way Qui-Gon deftly mediated disagreements, smoothed over frayed tempers, and subtly turned the discussions away from potential petty squabbling. Watching the Master at work, he began to feel very childish and awkward, inexperienced and unneeded. He knew the theory of what was being done, but he did not have the practice and instinctive ease that Qui-Gon had. He watched attentively, feeling himself warm slightly to the older man against his better judgment. Qui-Gon was a highly skilled negotiator. For all his gruff exterior, he'd obviously been exceptionally well-trained in the art of diplomacy.

Yes, now that he made the effort to humble himself and watch Qui-Gon objectively, Obi-Wan could see some of the qualities Princess Livarin had described. He forced himself to set aside his pettiness, the opinions of hearsay, and the vicious rumors about Xanatos, examining the Jedi Master with unbiased eyes.

He learned as he watched, hours slipping past slowly. The man had a fiercely keen intellect, the ability to adapt instantly and effectively to new situations and information, and a deep-seated personal grace that shone quietly in his courteous manners and speech. It was hard to believe that this was the same man with whom he'd already had so many rough, angry confrontations, so many harsh and hurtful words.

Remorsefully, Obi-Wan wondered how much of the trouble between them he had caused on his own, out of injured pride. Qui-Gon had had every right to refuse to take an apprentice, and in the end, Obi-Wan did not know the motives that had prompted him to do so. Furthermore, he had suffered relatively little because of that refusal, and had even come to be grateful for it. He decided that he owed the older man an apology. No, several. His revelation that Yoda believed Qui-Gon couldn't maintain neutrality on this mission had been particularly cruel.

Obi-Wan's rueful ruminations were interrupted as a minister slipped through the door. The Livan King leaned to accept a whispered message and stood abruptly, signaling for quiet, triumph on his face.

"Jedi Kenobi has agreed to view installations wrongfully placed upon Livan lands," he announced smugly. "I suggest we adjourn. My attache has prepared a tour of the westernmost mining facility for the evening."

Obi-Wan stood hastily, and all the heads in the room turned to him as one.

"I have a great curiosity to see the progress shared by the Torehiri and the Livans, and indeed expressed my wish to inspect joint Livan/Torehiri industrial ventures," he stated smoothly, aware of Qui-Gon's sudden tension, but the older Jedi was not the only one who had been trained in diplomacy. "However, I believe my request has been misinterpreted by your advisers, your Majesty." Obi-Wan bowed courteously.

"I am honored by your preparations," he continued smoothly, "but as independent and neutral observers, the Jedi have no position on the placement of industrial installations. We would prefer to visit equitably chosen locations, three in number." Obi-Wan smiled charmingly. "I suggest that both the Torehiri and the Livan delegations each select the single installation they most wish for us to inspect. While these decisions are being made, the seneschals of Torehir and Liva may work together to prepare for their Kings a list of all the shared facilities. When a satisfactory listing is ready, the names can be mixed and an independent representative will draw lots to randomly determine which is the third facility we tour, and what order in which the visits shall occur."

He could feel Qui-Gon's grudging approval of his plan and was relieved by it, but he did not reveal his nervousness by glancing at the older man.

"A wise suggestion." The Torehiri King stared at Obi-Wan levelly. The expressions on both his and the Livan monarch's face were closed. The Livan King nodded slowly, reluctantly agreeing. The Livans were not best pleased, but clearly they would acquiesce. Obi-Wan bowed deeply and returned to his seat, wincing slightly. He was well aware that he'd jumped in impulsively and run rough-shod over Qui-Gon's quiet suggestion that they discuss their next move before making it. Obi-Wan sighed. It figured. Just as soon as he'd begun to develop genuine respect for the older Jedi, and right after they'd taken their first true steps toward communication, he had to go and risk the fragile foundation of words that they were finally building.

Obi-Wan straightened his spine. Well, his suggestion had been a good one, and it had been his responsibility to mend the matter since he had made the bad call to begin with. Certainly after his name had been taken up as a weapon by the Livan leader he could not remain silent and permit the tirade to continue. Qui-Gon would have to see the logic behind that.

At length Obi-Wan's suggestions were carried out, and Qui-Gon stepped in gracefully to arrange for the first tour to proceed apace. Obi-Wan was grateful that they would be spared another reception; he didn't really feel like re-enacting last night's uncomfortable scene. After a hurried supper, he found himself at Qui-Gon's side in an air transport. He sent the craft hurtling along the coast into the sunset, tracing a wide rippled streak of molten gold light across the clear blue waters of the wide port bay that touched the beach he'd visited earlier in the day.

After discussion, it had been agreed that the Jedi would go on their tours alone; the manager of the facility they would visit this night had been contacted and was prepared to meet them. Obi-Wan had thought the Torehiri King was most pleased by his choice having been made the initial selection.

The shining sands of a white beach were approaching, and Obi-Wan could see the tall framework of a factory structure set just back from the shoreline. The factory was one used in preparing canned and frozen food. Vast underwater fields lay beyond the narrow, curled horn of sandy coast that segregated the bay from the marshes and the open ocean beyond.

Obi-Wan banked the transport as the landing pad came into view, arrowing for its center with consummate piloting skill, settling to the metal with hardly a whisper. Qui-Gon didn't appear to notice. Aside from a curt directive to "Let me do the talking," he hadn't spoken to Obi-Wan since the interlude during the conference. Obi-Wan sighed, releasing his lap restraint. Well, fine. This mission would be over in a few days and the Jedi Master would doubtless make sure they were never paired together again, that was the long and short of it. Obi-Wan was a little surprised to feel a flicker of regret at that thought.

He keyed open the hatch and Qui-Gon gravely preceded him down the sloped ramp, dark chocolate robes swirling gently, boots printing the skim of sand that had gathered on the flat of the landing area. Obi-Wan followed mildly in his wake, reaching out automatically with his senses. A sudden frown creased his brow.

"Qui-Gon, something isn't right--" he began, and was shushed with a curt gesture. The plant manager emerged from a door with a companion and greeted them cordially.

"I am called Toronai, and this is my assistant Ilvar. It is an honor to entertain Jedi." He bowed deeply. Obi-Wan sized him up quickly. He was probably Torehiri-- his hair had a pale hue of lavender, and his features were broad. He was also taller than most Livans, and had faint traces of webbing between the bases of his fingers. Yes, definitely Torehiri. "We can visit the production and canning lines, if you wish, or I can take you to the growing fields," he offered, smiling anxiously.

"Knight Kenobi will view the fields and I will tour the plant," Qui-Gon stated smoothly, and Obi-Wan rankled, knowing that he was being set aside so that he would not get into trouble. He still had that nagging sense of danger in the back of his mind, and he opened his mouth to speak further to the Jedi Master, but Qui-Gon turned away, disappearing into the factory with Toronai. The second manager, Ilvar, was left with Obi-Wan, gazing at him nervously, and the young Jedi sighed. From a certain point of view, he supposed he even deserved this.

"Shall we visit the fields?" Obi-Wan smiled reassuringly. Force willing, he would find valuable information there after all.

Half an hour later, he and the assistant manager were wading through the wide shellfish beds that formed the first tier of the agricultural complex. Obi-Wan stepped carefully; he'd changed out of his formal robes and into a worker's thermal wetsuit, and he worried that the sharp edges of shells might slice through the durable rubber soles. The tide was out and he stepped around the razor-sharp shell clusters as carefully as possible. He'd clipped his saber to the suit's utility belt, and was reassured by the cool thump of its weight against his thigh. The underwater power source hummed very faintly; Obi-Wan had deemed it best to be ready for anything. In spite of his current boredom, his sense of imminent trouble had not decreased.

Still, it was peaceful in the shellfish beds and the Livan assistant manager was good company, pointing out to Obi-Wan the pearl-fish, describing the variety of edible qualities as they crossed boundaries between hatchery beds. The assistant pointed out the organic fence that surrounded the growing fields, dipping into the sea without a break, land-growing plants twining into the rubbery arms of seaweed. Ilvar bragged that its tensile strength approaching that of steel combined with amazing flexibility allowed for it to resist breakage when the ocean currents strengthened during infrequent storms. Obi-Wan nodded politely, only half-listening.

The rest of his attention was focused on enjoying the scent of the marsh and the soft swish of wind through the low grasses. In the last fading light, he could see the darker blue of open water in front of them, and he reached to take out his breathing gill, following Ilvar, sloshing into ankle deep water that soon rose to his waist. The chill worked its way slowly through the protective wetsuit he wore.

They ducked beneath the gently rolling waves, following a faint luminescence that gradually blossomed into blue-glowing spheres, casting soft light over serene, waving fields of seaweed and other food-producing aquatic plants. Obi-Wan sighed mentally, hoping that Qui-Gon's tour was more productive then his.

Even as he began to relax his guard, a flicker of motion captured his attention and he glided to a halt, catching Ilvar's shoulder. They drew back into the shelter of a tall seaweed tree with broad, bubbled leaves as wide as a man.

Swimmers in gray wetsuits quickly slipped into the gently-waving seaweed forest, abandoning small submarine jetcraft. Obi-Wan could see the soft blue light catching on metal blades, and was not surprised as the tall, waving fronds of the seatrees began to topple and fall under cunning strokes from the invaders' blades. There were at least fifty of them, and Obi-Wan did not know whether to curse Qui-Gon's absence or to be grateful that the older Jedi had inadvertently arranged for one of them to be here to intervene.

He caught Ilvar's attention and made a pressing motion to the Livan's shoulders, indicating that he wait in safety, then he slid out into the light. Obi-Wan angled away from the destruction toward the small jetcraft, watching as yet more of the invaders moved into other fields, releasing inky bubbles of something that streamed into the currents and slowly spread, withering the lush growth as it moved. He winced. Such large-scale, indiscriminate destruction would not be confined to the fields alone.

He made it to the invasion fleet without being observed, but there was a guard waiting. His lightsaber flashed a brilliant gem of blue, slicing through the water, snicking neatly through the guard's breathing apparatus. The figure dropped his knife and pushed for the surface, but Obi-Wan did not follow him; he could sense alarm and anger and knew he'd been observed.

Throwing himself astride a jetcraft, he started its engine. Its speed would be an advantage. He kicked in the throttle.

The poisoners had finished their grim work and they moved forward to intercept him while the others continued flailing at the seatrees, cutting a wide swathe into the field. Obi-Wan flipped the craft into a tight roll, evading darts from the small, hand-held weapon each swimmer held, trusting in the Force as he nicked his saber through air hoses and breathing tanks, darting and flickering his blade rapidly through the water. A stray dart struck his skin, numbing his leg, and he jetted to one side, realizing it had come from above, from a dispatched opponent who now kicked toward the surface quickly. He'd taken about fifteen of the fifty men in the initial burst and more were closing in; the dart burned in his leg and he snatched it out before it could pump in more poison, adjusting his metabolism to flush the foreign substance away.

He could taste more poison in the air from the gill, feel it burning his eyes, and he paused to snatch goggles from a man whose hose he had just clipped, flipping them over his face quickly, feeling an automatic pump feed the water out. He blinked, relieved, and yanked the handlebars of the jetcraft, pulling it into a screaming turn. Now there were other craft converging on him and laser blasts from them sizzled through the water; he turned them on his blade without looking, accelerating. He hoped that Ilvar had gone for help, he was badly in need of it. How long before reinforcements might arrive?

There wasn't time to wait for them. Obi-Wan turned the craft down a long row of gently waving seatrees, blasting upward, bursting through a lashing whirl of leaves, bringing his small vehicle back down in the midst of men wielding the chopping metal blades that had been methodically devastating the forest. His finger touched the trigger, lancing down a line of laser fire that sent the destructive swimmers flailing for cover.

Two more jets were still on his tail and they didn't care who was in their way, keeping up a steady fire at Obi-Wan from above even though their shots hit several of their own companions. Another jetcraft peeled in to join the pursuit, sending bolts in from the side, one sizzling through the housing of Obi-Wan's engine, causing it to cough and sputter. Obi-Wan somersaulted off before his craft could plow a deep furrow into the ocean floor, and for the first time became aware that there were swirls of pale blood rising into the water. He suddenly wondered about the perimeter fence-- it had probably been destroyed or cut to allow this terrorist force access to the field; the blood might draw predators through the breach.

Predators that could be used as allies.

Obi-Wan reached out with his senses even before his feet touched the bottom, felt that life had left one of the bodies drifting on the current. With a mental wince, he summoned the body, caught the machete from the lifeless hand and ripped it through the wetsuit, releasing a gout of crimson into the water. The billow of blood shielded him for a moment from the laser fire, a distasteful metallic scent burning his nostrils as the gill struggled to filter out the particulate matter.

He reached out as best he could-- working deeply within the Living Force was not his greatest skill-- and searched for the small predatory minds, summoning them, wafting the blood scent to them. He could feel the living net that circled the field, feel the gash torn in it, and he showed it to them, feeling them brush through, then push through, then tear the hole wider, huge sleek sandsharks following the summons he had sent.

He struggled against the resistance of the water simultaneously as he called them, parrying laser shots, feeling more darts penetrate his skin, the numbing poison flowing into his veins faster than he could purge it. One struck his left wrist, and Obi-Wan felt his hand grow numb around the hilt of his saber. A small sand shark cruised past him, bumping experimentally at the floating corpse he'd gutted. The situation had quickly grown desperate; he pretended to falter, taking another stinging hit, and the three swooping jetcraft narrowed in on him like the circling sharks.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the sharks cruising, more of them now, larger ones. The swimmers had abandoned their chopping, backing away cautiously, retreating to the jetcraft; one shark worried a body between its teeth and others converged on it, snapping and thrashing.

Obi-Wan sank to one knee, only half-pretending; a jetcraft darted in toward him and at the last moment he twitched his saber in a bright arc through the swirling water.

An eerie, bubbling scream filtered to his ears as the driver's arm severed from his body and was snapped up by a shark as thick as Obi-Wan's waist. The injured man toppled from his jet, which lost power and skidded to the ocean floor, snagging amidst a tangle of downed seatrees. The young Jedi started for the injured man, but before he could move more than a meter, a shark cruised between them and Obi-Wan remembered the frenzy of snapping jaws too near by. He changed direction, moving quickly to the jetcraft instead. Now his other pursuers had abandoned him, shooting at the sharks; the water was full of blood, stirred sand, and shredded vegetation.

Obi-Wan paused and reached out with the Force, jerking free the air hoses of the swimmers nearest him, but the poison was working in his veins and he knew he had to make good his escape. Wearily, favoring his injured arm and leg, he climbed onto the jetcraft and pressed the throttle. The sand sharks gave him only passing interest; he gently urged them away with the Force, aiming for the rip in the net and slipping out.

There was a rip in his wetsuit; icy water sluiced in, driven by the pressure of the forward motion, chilling his skin and slowing his forward motion. He wriggled his way out of the thick rubber shirt, dislodging several of the stinging darts in the process, and pointed the nose of the small craft toward shore.

When he surfaced the surf capsized the small vehicle, tumbling Obi-Wan far up onto the clinging, wet white sands. He struggled out of the constrictive rubbery fabric of the bottom half of the wetsuit, the tight dark shorts he wore underneath his only remaining garment. He cast a quick glance back at the sea to ensure that he hadn't been followed, then set out at a quick limping trot for the processing plant.

The sea grasses whipped and cut his legs, but a sense of urgency drove him; surely the fields were not the sole target of this attack and Qui-Gon had disregarded his attempt at warning. He did not pause to consider that perhaps the elder Jedi did not deserve his concern, speeding his pace, racing toward the landing beacon that marked where he had parked their transport.

The plant looked quiet and peaceful, but Obi-Wan was not reassured. Stealthily, he slipped in through the door where Qui-Gon had entered, listening for sounds of conflict. There were none, but he could sense Qui-Gon, sense the gathering clouds of the drug from the darts thickening, and summoning his failing strength, he pelted up a set of narrow metal stairs, bursting onto a wide railed causeway overlooking steaming vats. His vision doubled, then settled; Qui-Gon stood where a conveyor belt interrupted the railing over a boiling vat stirred by a huge paddle, leaning forward politely to watch produce falling into the bubbling water. The Torehiri manager stood at his side, hand reaching toward the big Jedi's shoulder as though to push...

"No!" Obi-Wan yelled, surging forward, his lightsaber in his fist, and all eyes turned to him with shock as he stumbled forward, shoving Qui-Gon back from the edge with a rough body-block. He slumped against the older man as dizziness from the sudden heat and the lingering effects of the darts overwhelmed him. They tumbled against the wall together, Obi-Wan's head swimming.

"Kenobi!" Qui-Gon's voice cut sharp like a whip. His eyes met Obi-Wan's. "What in the name of the Council is going on?"

But Obi-Wan was collapsing, lightsaber rolling from his nerveless fingers, his knees giving way.

Qui-Gon caught him in a powerful arm before he could fall backward into the vat, caught his saber with a hand of Force before it could roll from the platform and drop into the heated liquid. He noticed the marks from the darts on Obi-Wan's body.

"Manager Toronai, it is possible that your fields may be under attack," the Jedi Master observed calmly. "I believe you should summon the local constabulary." He lifted the limp body of the young Knight into both arms, stretching an exploratory tendril of thought into the young man, judging his physical well-being with his keen sense of the Living Force. Midlevel amounts of a relatively mild neurotoxin, a harsher herbicidal poison, slight bloodloss, expenditure of Force energy. He did not require immediate, urgent care, but Qui-Gon found himself reluctant to abandon the younger man without knowing what he had gone up against, or who might have caused the conflict. Obi-Wan had seemed quite distressed when he entered, he might have needed to give messages to Qui-Gon, but the poisons had prevented it.

"To the viewing room," Toronai gasped, hurrying, and Qui-Gon loped easily after him, still bearing the young Knight's limp weight. Inside, he set Kenobi down, pulled off his cloak, and wrapped the young man swiftly in its folds while Toronai rewound the surveillance tapes.

The viewing cameras, abandoned because the plant's evening staff had been pulled out into more visible tasks to impress the Jedi, told a grim story. Toronai played through the conflict from a variety of angles, pausing only to make quick comm calls to direct the coastal police to round up the swimmers who had been left adrift without breathing apparatus.

Qui-Gon sat very still, watching the video record of Obi-Wan taking on the terrorist force single-handed and defeating them, watching him slip away as the few survivors organized a rag-tag retreat. He replayed the main camera view again when it was finished, unwilling admiration for the young Knight swelling in him. He would have to revise his estimate of the young man's skills. He'd battled fifty armed men and only seventeen had escaped him. Impressive. And he had directly caused very few deaths in the process, and those only when he had no option. More men had been killed by their own forces than Obi-Wan had even injured. Perhaps he was not as inexperienced as Qui-Gon had arrogantly assumed.

The comm unit signaled and Toronai consulted quietly with the coastal police. "They've picked up fifteen of the swimmers and are still airlifting more. They'll be questioned in the morning." He spoke hollowly, eyes still fixed to a frozen image of the razed swathe of wilting foliage that had been his finest seatree groves. "If not for Knight Kenobi, we'd have lost everything."

Qui-Gon made a mental note to be present for some of those interrogations, glancing down at Kenobi's still form. "If your factory and fields are secure, I must attend to Knight Kenobi," he said gravely. Perhaps five minutes had elapsed since Obi-Wan had collapsed in his arms. He moved from his chair to kneel at Kenobi's side, laying his palm on the fevered forehead, the short, spiked hair damp under his hand.

"Manager Toronai!" A wet, haggard man burst in. "Raiders, in the..." he paused, eyes falling to the floor, where Qui-Gon knelt. "He escaped, then?"

"You were his guide." Qui-Gon fixed Ilvar with cool eyes. The assistant manager had not even made a pretense of coming to Obi-Wan's aid and the timestamp on the tapes indicated that more than fifty minutes had passed since the attack began, twenty of those since Obi-Wan had burst into the cannery. Far more than enough time for Ilvar to have made his way back to the plant, even if he waited till the last of the terrorists left the grove.

"I feared for his life." Ilvar knelt next to Qui-Gon. "When the blood cleared, he was gone. I searched for... for his body." He swallowed. "But the sharks took most of the dead..."

"We did not see your search on the video record," Qui-Gon remarked calmly.

"I..." Ilvar looked sickly pale. "I was afraid to move out of the grove because of sharks. I looked using these." A pair of submarine macrobinoculars was slung at his neck, still dripping water from the casing. "Surely you do not suspect me in this, Sir Jedi."

"I must tend my companion." Qui-Gon ignored the question, focusing his energies into Obi-Wan. The young man's shields were high, exceptionally resistant. The Jedi Master frowned, probing harder. A definite defensive response, probably to be expected, given their hostile relationship. However, he could sense without direct mental contact that a metabolic purgation was already in progress, and that little else was wrong with Obi-Wan that time wouldn't cure. The poisons would be unpleasant while they purged, but he judged he could take care of the young man himself.

He sat back on his heels, reassured but faintly irritated that he was blocked out so fully. Obi-Wan's mind might have contained details that the vids missed. Details such as Ilvar's expressions and actions. He'd have liked to sift through those at leisure, while Obi-Wan's conscious mind was unaware. He might have overheard some accidental thoughts as well. Maybe even what had been in the man's mind when he stepped in from the patio this morning and his eyes had immediately wandered to Qui-Gon's lap and stayed there--

The Jedi Master blinked suddenly, shocked at himself. He'd thought his new understanding of the situation between himself and Obi-Wan would help bring those impulses under control, but it seemed his new respect for Obi-Wan's fighting abilities had stirred his unpredictable feelings loose again. He frowned deeply, withdrawing into himself, folding his arms.

Obi-Wan's eyes chose that moment to flutter open and focus weakly on his scowl. The young man's face flickered with a moment of hurt that quickly receded to Jedi impassivity, and he struggled to rise. Qui-Gon laid a firm hand on his chest, preventing it.

"The attack is over and I've seen the security tapes." He kept his voice austere. Best that the boy continue to believe that Qui-Gon was frowning at him. Best not to invite or to indulge incautious emotional attachments. "Seventeen of the terrorists escaped." The moment the words left his mouth, he understood his own cruelty.

Obi-Wan's lips pinched at the implicit criticism. "I regret failing to bring their leader to you on a golden platter with an apple in his mouth!" His voice was slurred, but he slapped Qui-Gon's hand away with surprising strength, then looked chagrined at his own outburst, realizing that Ilvar and Toronai were staring at him with shock.

Obi-Wan directed a blue-laser stare at Ilvar. "Go get my clothes." He glanced down at the robe wrapped around him and his mouth tightened more as he recognized it to be Qui-Gon's. "Quickly."

Ilvar fled before the tone of ice.

"You're ill," Qui-Gon commented coolly. "You will have to rest."

Obi-Wan ignored him, struggling to regain his feet.

"The darts you were shot with contained a mild neurotoxin," Qui-Gon commented. "Your motor control is fading quickly. It will return by morning, but I do not recommend that you attempt to stand."

Obi-Wan glared at him, subsiding. Qui-Gon realized that he was noticing the sweep of pale young flesh disappearing beneath his own cloak instead of monitoring the boy's health and he easily slid his gaze away, back to the viewscreens. There was little more that the Jedi could do here tonight; he had to get Obi-Wan back to the palace and to bed. Preferably quickly; those neurotoxins were unpleasant and soon the physical reactions would worsen. It would harm the prestige of the Jedi for Obi-Wan to be seen and tended by civilian physicians.

Ilvar rushed in with an armful of beige and brown, boots dangling from two fingers, and Qui-Gon majestically ushered him back out again, and Toronai with him. He knelt by the young Knight, who glared at him furiously, chest heaving as he struggled for his breath. His limbs were trembling faintly; Qui-Gon knew that the paralytic phase was setting in fast. Next would come convulsions. He hoped to have Obi-Wan hidden from public view by then.

Qui-Gon quickly hooked his fingertips into the clinging, soaked black shorts Obi-Wan had worn under his wetsuit and the Knight uttered a furious sound, unable to articulate as the muscles in his throat seized. Qui-Gon yanked unsympathetically, peeling them down, tugging them over the slender ankles. He resisted the temptation to rake his eyes over the young, bare body.

"I'm getting you dressed and we're going back to the Palace," he stated flatly. "Your symptoms will subside, as I said, but for the moment you require care."

He lifted the young man's underwear and hooked it over his feet and ankles, quickly drawing it up, carefully raising the waistband at the crucial moment so that he had no need to touch the young man's body and disentangle him from it. He used a bit of Force to lift the hips, setting him back down quickly, repeating the journey with the pale leggings. His mind clamored from behind tight, relentless shielding, trying to linger on images of what he was seeing, but he ignored it, and quickly the leggings were settled over the fine-drawn, muscular calves and thighs, laying flush against the narrow, smooth hips, protectively cradling the-- Qui-Gon determinedly shut down the train of thought and reached for the first undertunic as he lifted a stiff arm, sliding it through the sleeve.

Silence. Control. Thick shields. He slid the other arm into the sleeve. Added the second tunic, and the third. Wrapped the sash and belt around the narrow waist, and then wrapped the young man in his own cloak. By the time he'd finished, Obi-Wan was incapable of any controlled movement, so the tall Master scooped him up gently in his arms and carried him through the cannery and onto the transport, Obi-Wan's furious blazing blue eyes fastened on his face, half-unfocused, like a baby's. He strapped the young man into a seat as a precaution against convulsions and lifted the ship, screaming back across the bay at full throttle. There wasn't much time.

Obi-Wan's body had begun to tremble hard by the time they landed, and he was jerking helplessly when Qui-Gon set him down to open their door. Picking the Knight up again, Qui-Gon kicked the door shut and laid him gently on the big bed, hurriedly shrugging out of his cloak, tunics, and boots. He had to use Force to hold Obi-Wan still enough to undress him similarly. Then he lay down behind the young Knight and curled himself around the smaller body protectively, soothing the intensity of the cramping motions with his warmth and cushioning the man's body with his own flesh, clasping the Knight close. It was a standard Healing technique for uncontrolled muscle spasm, recommended to soothe and reassure a frightened patient, and even though he could feel Obi-Wan's anger and resistance at being held in this way, he felt justified in using it. It would not do to allow the Knight to injure himself further.

And he had to admit that in spite of Obi-Wan's reluctance, on some level it felt warm and comforting to have someone in his arms; it had been more years than he cared to count since he had shared a bed. He'd had to share on occasion with Xanatos, but that had been different. He hadn't ever held Xanatos this way, hadn't ever wanted him. Kenobi... if he let himself think of it, the mere heat of Kenobi's body would become a torment to him. He tried not to notice the texture of the neck and throat as the other man's head arched back against him helplessly, his heels jerking.

He could feel fear in Obi-Wan; the pain was increasing fast. "It will pass," he reassured the Knight and laid his face softly against the man's neck and cheek to steady his head, moving his leg over the other man's, pressing them down gently. He could feel Force twining between them as he reached to ease the wildly beating heart under his palms, his hands nearly vibrating with the sensation of pure tensile power in Obi-Wan's shaking muscles. He spread his palms over Obi-Wan's chest and sent a calming pulse of Force into the younger man's body, helping fill the tortured lungs. Obi-Wan was helpless; the Knight needed him. The knowledge shivered him to his core with a combination of fear and tenderness.

Qui-Gon no longer trusted his voice to remain steady to speak words of comfort. He tried to accept his emotions and feed them into the Force, ensuring that he would only let his hands move and caress in order to soothe knots of pain. He lay still and gently held the Knight, accepting the sharp pain when a heel or elbow connected solidly with his flesh.

At last the convulsions peaked and receded until they were merely shudders, then slight tremors, and then they were gone. Kenobi lay stiffly in his arms, sweat drying slowly in his leggings, and Qui-Gon moved his leg and waited for the young man to push away, to get up, to seek his own bed. But he didn't. Perhaps he was merely too exhausted and weak. Finally, the Jedi Master drifted into deep, restful sleep, indefinably comforted by the sensation of holding the young Knight clasped chastely against his body.

He woke early, remembering his resolve to attend the interrogations. Kenobi slept peacefully, the tension ebbed from his slim frame at last, his warm body snuggled tightly against Qui-Gon's. The Jedi Master hesitated, then slipped away from the Knight stealthily, tucking the covers back around the young man. He brushed his hair quickly and tied it back, re-donning his tunics and cloak. Kenobi would awaken bone-sore and weak as a day-old kitten, but he was as comfortable as he could be where he lay on the soft mattress. Qui-Gon quietly keyed in an order for a light, nourishing breakfast and left, sparing only a single glance behind him before closing the door.

He was mad. Mad. Force, he had begun to care about Kenobi. He cared for him and wanted him. And what did he think he was doing, coddling the boy by ordering breakfast? Playing fond master? Did he expect some kind of reward-- the boy's respect, his acceptance? He cleared his throat wryly. After the last harsh exchange of words the previous evening, he'd be lucky even to get a civil look out of his companion again.

He caught hold of himself sternly. They would remain aloof from one another and that was a good thing. And after the things Kenobi had said to him, civil words would be laughable, and Qui-Gon would disdain them. He was a fool for caring about someone who had such a low opinion of him.

No, he wouldn't topple to weakness this late in his life. Even though the man was like a siren-song, those clear blue-grey eyes, that smoothly graceful body, the wry humor... and even though he'd never seen such a young Knight fight so hard and so well. Kenobi thought Qui-Gon had condemned him, but he was wrong. Thirty-three attackers neutralized with only two kills, and the only injuries he'd sustained were from a few small darts that had penetrated his guard...

Qui-Gon shivered suddenly. His guard had been penetrated too, and far worse than Obi-Wan's.

Emotions aside, it was clear to him now that this man would be a great Knight when he grew seasoned. A formidable opponent. It occurred to him suddenly to wonder when he had begun to think even of other Jedi in terms of opponents and battles. He closed his eyes, rubbing weariness from the bridge of his nose. He could not remember. Probably some time around the year he had left a clear-eyed boy to his fate on Bandomeer.

Qui-Gon pulled his cloak closer, feeling an ache of cold seeping into his bones. He was a fool and he was getting old. An old fool. Tempted by a specter of lost youth, lost innocence. Caring about Kenobi wouldn't give him his youth back, and sleeping with him would certainly not make either of them any happier or more innocent. It would just tie Qui-Gon down to the burden of seasoning the young man, or lead to a painful scene of cutting him free, or both. Or even worse, Kenobi might wind up facing him down in hatred, like Xanatos had. That was all too likely-- it seemed they could hardly complete a conversation without savaging one another.

But the sheer physical impact of those clear gray eyes, the sly smile, and the slim round hips... Force, what a lecher he'd become. He was old enough to be the lad's grandfather; he was going to have to find himself a lover when he got back to Coruscant from this mission. A temporary lover, a peer, someone indifferent-- someone he would not hurt who would not hurt him, someone to remind him how quaint and ludicrous the ways of the flesh were, and steel him for the long lonely days ahe--

Qui-Gon sighed to himself, listening to his own thoughts. He'd never thought of himself as lonely. After he'd come to accept Xanatos's betrayal, he'd grown to enjoy his freedom and his independence. He was just getting soft in his old age, that was all. A few weeks without that burdensome youngster tagging at his heels and his thinking would straighten itself out again. Best to get this mission over with quickly. He'd escaped the young one's innocent appeal once; and now he was older and wiser, able to resist the less childish wiles the young man had developed in the interim. Kenobi didn't need him anymore. Qui-Gon wouldn't take up with a beautiful young lover only to become a burden himself...

He clamped his jaw bitterly, slamming the door on that train of thought. He already knew his destiny. There would be no old age for Qui-Gon Jinn, no slow creeping weakness or merciless devouring senility. When he went, he would go alone and honorably, in battle. He'd make sure of that.

Obi-Wan Kenobi woke in Qui-Gon Jinn's wide bed, stiffening, half-expecting to feel the Jedi Master's disturbingly soothing touch against his skin even as he shifted his shoulder to check what lay behind his back. He was alone in the bed and the silence in the rest of the rooms let him know that Jinn had gone.

He settled back onto the mattress, weary from the simple effort of sitting up to listen. He'd been unable to resist Qui-Gon's care at first, and later he'd felt too sick and weary to struggle free and rise. And he had to admit, Qui-Gon had kept his touch relatively impersonal and protective. If not for that consideration, Obi-Wan would have left the bed as soon as he was able in spite of his exhaustion.

It was very comfortable here now though, and someone had left breakfast on a tray at the bedside, where he could reach it without rising. Good. He was famished. He reached and helped himself to a slice of toasted bread, spreading it thickly with creamy butter. He finished the bread quickly, startled at his own hunger, and began on the fruit.

After a few minutes, a knock sounded at the door and he groaned, forcing himself up on wobbly legs to open it.

It was one of the Torehiri diplomats, gazing at him dubiously. "Is Master Jinn available?"

"I believe he's gone to investigate the raid," Obi-Wan hazarded a guess. "What do you require?"

"An emergency conference has been called regarding the raid on the facility you Jedi visited last evening and similar raids on several others." The Torehiri gazed with a little embarrassment at Obi-Wan's bare chest. "Will you come, Knight Kenobi?"

"I will." He ushered the diplomat in. "Please wait for just a moment while I dress."

The day went downhill from there as the Torehiri and the Livans each blamed one another for the raid. By lunchtime Obi-Wan was near-frantic with self-doubt, wishing that Qui-Gon would return, but he suspected that even the older Jedi could not have halted the downward spiral of the negotiations, which had already resulted in the indefinite postponement of the wedding ceremony. Obi-Wan nearly groaned. That meant they'd be stuck here even longer, probably until someone figured out the mystery of the motive behind the attack.

He was hardly able to muster the enthusiasm to eat, so he drank several cups of stimulant tea instead, gratefully welcoming the thready flush of energy it granted him. At least he'd been able to keep the discussions from coming to blows and several times he'd averted threats of a walkout.

When Qui-Gon entered the room and sat at his side he looked up blearily. The older Jedi frowned at him and Obi-Wan sighed, not wanting to know what he had done to displease the man this time. Probably Qui-Gon had already learned of the postponed wedding and blamed him for it.

"You should not be out of bed." The gentle hand that fell softly on his shoulder came as a complete surprise and Obi-Wan blinked. "Have you been handling the negotiations?" Obi-Wan nodded warily, almost unwilling to admit to his activities and give Qui-Gon ammunition to condemn him.

"I'm surprised they're still talking," Qui-Gon murmured soberly. "You've done well."

The young Jedi hardly believed what he was hearing and he changed the subject, embarrassed by the unexpected compliment. "What have you learned?"

"Less than I'd like," the Jedi Master remarked cryptically, his voice nearly inaudible. Obi-Wan could almost sense him withdrawing, as though distancing himself from the momentary concern he'd just demonstrated. "There's a large organization of terrorists out there somewhere and I believe there will be more attacks. I'm not sure which faction is behind this, but I believe someone wants to be sure that the wedding does not proceed."

"It's been postponed," Obi-Wan admitted wryly.

"That was inevitable at this point." Qui-Gon nodded absently. "Are you well enough to continue the talks?"

"I believe you would do a better job here than I." The admission was difficult for him, but he made it. "I'm sure there are formalities to be attended that I could handle merely by being there."

Qui-Gon hesitated, then let the compliment drop, unanswered. "There is little to do until nightfall. I already toured the facilities that were attacked. All were coastal." There was a hint of anger in his voice. "The poison used in the attack you stopped eventually destroyed the leaves on the remaining seatrees and then dispersed. Before it was spent, it had killed a three-mile width of coral reef."

Obi-Wan flinched, dismayed. "I wasn't fast enough."

"I watched the surveillance tapes," Qui-Gon reminded him. "There was little more you could have done without aid. I should have been with you." Qui-Gon glanced to the faction tables. "At the other two facilities, the seatrees were all cut and will have to be re-grown. It will take years. At one of them, seven miles of reef were destroyed, along with schools of fish." His anger was clearly evident now and Obi-Wan could sense his surface-memories of the dark disturbances in the Living Force, could almost see the gray, dead ocean floors Qui-Gon had witnessed. He could sense destruction fanned over the living reef in ugly tendrils, and the silver-bellied fish floating on the surface of the waves, thousands of lives wasted.

Qui-Gon seemed not to realize that his shields had fluttered; perhaps he'd meant for Obi-Wan to see. The young Jedi sighed. He couldn't help but suspect that the Torehiri were behind this...

"Master Jinn." He caught the older man's sober eyes, lowering his voice. "Were the raiders..." he did not finish his sentence, raising his brows in a question, tilting his head toward the Torehiri faction, and the other Jedi understood. Obi-Wan watched, startled, as Qui-Gon's eyes drifted significantly and came to a rest on the Livan table.

For once, food did not soothe frazzled nerves and accusing tempers; for once it seemed that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon were more in accord than anyone else in the room. At last Qui-Gon suggested a recess until the morning, and was accepted with alacrity. He reached to steady Obi-Wan's arm as he rose, watching the Torehiri minister leave with a vindictive glance back at the Livan contingent.

"There will be hostilities," Qui-Gon predicted softly. "I'll have to go out into the city tonight. Perhaps I can prevent the worst of the rioting."

"Rioting?" Obi-Wan stirred from his half-meditation, trying to disguise weakness and draw strength from the Force. "You think there will be riots?"

"I'm sure of it," Qui-Gon spoke low. "I observed the beginnings as I returned to the palace. The city is dividing along racial lines-- the Torehiri blame the Livans and the Livans accuse the Torehiri of deserving the devastation. Within days the loss of the seatree harvests will be felt and there will be food shortages." Qui-Gon sighed. "They will be worse if further raids occur. Security has been raised, but the majority of the Torehiri Guard had to remain to defend the city from its own people." He looked weary and disgusted, worry haunting his eyes.

"I'll come with you." Obi-Wan began to rise to his feet.

"No, I don't think so." Qui-Gon casually caught the young Jedi's arm, supporting him until he steadied himself.

"Then I'll go out alone as well," Obi-Wan lifted his chin defiantly. He reached out and drew on the energy of the Force, firming his strength, and stepped away from Qui-Gon's arm.

"Very well," Qui-Gon acquiesced at last, a little sharply, turning away. If the boy wanted to be stubborn, then there was little enough he could do about it. At least if he agreed to Obi-Wan's company, the young Knight would be where someone could keep an eye on him. "Accompany me, but do not get in my way."

They made their way out into the streets, joining the military police force that was congregating. It was made up solely of Torehiri Guardsmen, but it was the only available force for preserving order locally, so they had to accept the appearance of bias. Qui-Gon centered himself visibly, reaching out with his mind.

"A mile south," he announced, and they trotted away in the direction of the disturbance he'd sensed.

It was a long night. Long and bloody, as Livans and Torehiri clashed in the streets, fought and looted and burned. The Jedi and the police struggled to quiet the worst of the rioting and wound up fighting for their own skins more often than not. Obi-Wan was weak and weary, but he was able to draw on the Force for strength and acquit himself well enough while keeping an eye on Qui-Gon. He'd expected the man to be a fine, savage fighter, but was surprised that Qui-Gon spent most of his time talking to individuals, kneeling to heal the injured, observing subtle patterns in the crowd and advising Obi-Wan and the troops on how best to exploit them. He seemed to be tireless, present everywhere he was most needed, crisp voice calling commands, competent hands dealing death and healing.

Obi-Wan stepped to Qui-Gon's side during a lull, gazing at the pain in his expression as the older man softly reached with his broad hand, delicately closing the eyes of a dead boy who lay on the sidewalk. He looked to be barely into his teens, the body crushed and trampled in the press of the mob. The Knight laid his own palm compassionately on the older Jedi's shoulder. It was hard to preserve resentment in the face of such honest emotion.

"If not for you, many more would have died this night," he murmured. "Let it be, Qui-Gon."

The tall man rose abruptly, not looking at Obi-Wan. "Let's go, or more will die," he said simply, and rushed back into the press of battle.

Obi-Wan did not hesitate before following him.

When dawn came, it was Obi-Wan who finally pulled Qui-Gon away from the rubble-heaped streets. His knees were watery with exhaustion and Jinn was little better, practically staggering with the expenditure of energy and Force that had flowed through him. Even so, the man paused to heal the injured as the two Jedi made their tortured way back to the palace; Qui-Gon refused to ride in the transports with the troops.

Light had brought an end to battle, at least temporarily, or the man might have continued until he collapsed.

Obi-Wan watched him uncertainly, ambivalent emotions warring in his heart. This was not at all what he had expected from the gruff, irritable Master. The longer he associated with Qui-Gon, the more certain he became that he and the other Jedi had at least partly misjudged the man. This side of Qui-Gon was clearly responsible for the gentle, patient touch of arms and body he'd experienced when Jinn had brought him into his bed and held him gently through the long night, helping him breathe, soothing him even when he kicked and elbowed, helpless in his convulsive pain.

The contradictions in Qui-Gon's nature were not something Obi-Wan knew how to reconcile easily. He'd spent his teen years cherishing those mistaken rumors of Jinn's darkness as a salve to his wounded pride. But the reality was that the Jedi Master had not entirely fulfilled the dire predictions. He was gruff and untrusting, occasionally arrogant and frequently harsh, but he had not taken advantage of Obi-Wan's incapacity to force closeness on him out of some half-repressed, predatory sexual feeling. No, Obi-Wan was beginning to believe that the other man had sincerely cared enough to want to lessen his pain, in spite of the animosity that lay between them.

And the desire.

Obi-Wan was no child and there had been enough small, unwilling hints to make him suspect very strongly that Qui-Gon Jinn desired him, just as he had come to feel ambivalent, uneasy desire for the older man himself. It was a rather ironic joke, actually. The Master who had spurned him as a child now inexplicably wanted him as an adult. If Obi-Wan's suspicions were correct, their feelings were probably partly responsible for both his and Qui-Gon's irascible tempers. The Jedi Master probably wasn't any more comfortable with feeling lust than Obi-Wan was with returning it or with being its target.

Obi-Wan smiled faintly at himself, glancing for the other Jedi just in time to see Qui-Gon bend over a small girl who cradled her pet protectively in her arms. When he laid his hand on the animal's head and Obi-Wan felt the stir of Force, that was more than the Knight was willing to put up with. He diverted to the Jedi Master's side and caught his arm when he stood back up, faltering slightly.

"You are not stopping again until I put you to bed, and if I have to lie on top of you to keep you there, I'll do it," Obi-Wan informed him, a wry smirk curling his lips. "Turn about is fair play. Now come on."

He didn't have to carry through with his threat even though he caught Jinn's eyes following him as they entered their rooms and was certain that the Master would not have objected too strenuously to the notion of sharing the wide bed. Instead, he pulled his pallet partway out from under the big bed and collapsed into it without even bothering to pull his boots off. He too was weary; he'd done his own share of battle and healing and planning tactics during the night, and he'd already been exhausted. Satisfied that Qui-Gon would have to step on him if he made any attempts to escape from resting, Obi-Wan yawned deeply, turned to his side, and sank into deep, dreamless slumber.

He was awakened several hours later by fingertips brushing his cheek. "It is midday," Qui-Gon spoke quietly, leaning over the edge of his mattress, gazing down at Obi-Wan. "The talks will not resume until tomorrow, but there is much to be done." The big Jedi's eyes were shadowed and his face was still pinched from lack of sleep. The hand moved away quickly, unobtrusively.

The young Knight yawned, lifting himself on one elbow. He felt a smile curve his mouth. "Your cover is blown, you know," he remarked conversationally. "I shan't believe you're a dreadful ogre any longer. Not after that last healing."

Qui-Gon rolled onto his back, huffing with surprise. "I don't know what you mean."

"I think you do." Obi-Wan couldn't see the big Jedi any longer, but he knew Qui-Gon was listening. He smiled lazily, stretching a little, unable to resist the impulse to tease. "I don't know what you think you're hiding yourself from, but I've seen through you now."

"I assure you, there is nothing to see through." Qui-Gon's tone was frosty and Obi-Wan laughed.

"As you wish." He struggled to his feet, discarding the covers, and made a mock deferential bow.

Qui-Gon raised himself to sit up, backbone ramrod-straight. "I find your attempts at levity curious in the extreme," he commented, his eyes piercing. "You have made serious accusations against me that are grounded only in rumor and a malicious desire for vengeance. You have denied me proper respect and have taken liberties with a mission that was assigned solely to me-- to a senior Jedi." His eyes never wavered from the young Knight as he dispassionately delivered his statement. "Therefore you must pardon me if I decline to accept this familiarity." Qui-Gon rose with dignity and padded into the 'fresher, as serene and remote as a distant star.

Obi-Wan blinked, shaking his head with disbelief. It was a cold, blunt, and somewhat cruel statement... a clear rejection and a definite distancing, but simultaneously it requested pardon. The conflicting messages merely strengthened his suspicions. He was sure that the man would continue to be difficult, possibly exceptionally so, but Obi-Wan was convinced of his guess. There was far, far more to Qui-Gon Jinn than met the eye. Let him hide himself if he wanted. It was really none of Obi-Wan's affair, but it would be interesting to stay alert for opportunities to peer through the gruff exterior and find the man who lay beneath it. And he had to admit the older Jedi had a point. They hadn't gotten off to a good start together and a great deal of that was Obi-Wan's fault.

It was time to deliver the apologies he owed.

When Qui-Gon emerged from the 'fresher Obi-Wan hurried in, rushing his bath and emerging to dress quickly. Qui-Gon was in the parlor, aloofly granting him privacy, and the young Knight skinned into his clothes, dragging his cloak on as he stepped into the living area.

Qui-Gon did not acknowledge him, so Obi-Wan moved to the older man's side, going to one knee as was proper for a Knight offering penitence to a Master-- a padawan would have knelt fully. "Master Jinn, I ask forgiveness. My words were thoughtless and cruel, and I retract them fully. My actions were ill-considered and reckless, and I shall endeavor to mend them. I acted with conduct unbecoming a Jedi."

Cautious blue eyes rose to gaze at him, deep wariness washing over the tired features. Qui-Gon considered Obi-Wan at length, plainly indecisive, emotions ghosting through his eyes so quickly that the young Knight could not identify them. Obi-Wan waited patiently. Qui-Gon was under no obligation to grant the pardon he had requested. He could rise and leave the ritual incomplete if he wished.

"I am not faultless in the matter myself." The Master's words were reluctant. "I have provoked you, Knight Kenobi." In spite of the promising words, his large hands did not stir from his lap to close the ritual.

"Let us start anew," Obi-Wan suggested. He saw Qui-Gon's hands lift at his words, beginning their journey to clasp his head as the ritual required, and he smiled, letting warmth and relief wash over him. "With respect and friendship," he added hopefully.

Unbelievably, the hands halted, then retreated. Qui-Gon Jinn stood abruptly and strode from the room, leaving a shocked, hurt Knight behind him, apologies rejected.

After a long moment Obi-Wan straightened his knees and rose. The man was simply impossible to understand, that's all there was to it. He dusted at his robe wryly. Qui-Gon hadn't even bothered to tell him what remained to be done. With the wedding postponed and the talks recessed, there was little that remained to be done at the palace. Obi-Wan shrugged, left to his best judgment. The man could hardly complain if he took independent action after this. There was damage from the attacks, and from the riots. Though he was not as strong a healer as Jinn, Obi-Wan could go and tend the wounded in the hospitals.

Qui-Gon pulled up his cowl and hid his hands in the sleeves of his robe, gliding swiftly through the palace. He'd meant to accept Obi-Wan's gracious apology. Instead... instead, the Knight had pushed him too far yet again. He would not accept a friendship with the young man. If Kenobi could not become a neutral comrade, then they would simply have to remain at odds.

Too tempting, that offer of friendship, and the guileless warmth behind it. Let Kenobi find his hopes elsewhere. Let someone else dash them for him, let someone else teach him the harsh truths that Qui-Gon had learned with age. He was tired of crushing this young one's optimism. He only wanted to be left alone.

His feet led him out into the city and the wheeling of sea-birds guided him toward the docks. He had a job he wanted to accomplish. Best not to have Obi-Wan along, to see him if he failed.

Qui-Gon rented a hoverboat and set out across the wide surface of the bay. The chop worsened as he entered open ocean, but he compensated, directing the craft south and west, toward the wounded reef. His tour had shown him the perfect location, and he trusted the Force to guide him to the spot in his memory, an area where a sandbar approached within a mile of the band of living coral, a site situated approximately midway between the damaged areas.

Arriving, he realized the tide was too high, but that was not a problem. He could use some time to meditate and draw strength for the task ahead. Qui-Gon moored the hoverboat and slipped off his cloak, folding his legs and sinking deeply into his mind, finding the connections to the Living Force that awaited him there.

Obi-Wan felt the first stirrings in the Force in mid-afternoon and he lifted his head, frowning, sensing the currents swirling, eddying, and then backflowing like water when an earthen dam bursts, answering a powerful call.

It had to be Qui-Gon Jinn. Only a Jedi Master could summon such power, and Qui-Gon was particularly strong with the Living Force.

But what could he be doing that would require so much power?

Obi-Wan washed his hands, almost unthinking, feeling that tug on the Force in his bones, feeling threads of power pulling at him like a tide. Nodding to the medical personnel, he let the Force draw him out of the hospital, onto a transport, and across town. He could almost see the solid ropes of energy coiling and pulsing in the sky, seeping through the ground and over the land, all converging toward a single focal point.

He halted at the docks, momentarily baffled by the broad expanse of blue water. The currents were a siren song; he felt as though he might levitate out over the bay amidst them if he did not take care to keep his feet on the dock. Impossible, this amount of power, a simmering three-dimensional web the likes of which he had never seen.

Obi-Wan cast about, finding a vendor who rented hoverboats, and leaped into one. Once he had roared away from the jetty, he could give himself over to the currents, letting them sweep through him, keeping him pointed in the right direction. He automatically angled over the waves, hardly thinking of them as he opened his senses, letting them ride the pure rolling waves of Force into the focal point... and the Force brought him a vision.

Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon, standing naked in the sun on a firm spit of sand, wavelets lapping about his ankles. Another hoverboat rocked on the waves, moored nearby. Qui-Gon raised his arms, his hair loose, being whipped out to one side by the sea breeze, glowing curls of power sizzling around his legs and his body, coiling about him in an amazing spinning vortex, filtering the golden sunlight into dappled emerald over his face and bare body. The energy vortex whirled faster, faster, intensifying.

Obi-Wan opened the throttle full-out. Impossible to control such power! Qui-Gon's affinity with it let him coax it to him, suggest what it might do, but if he faltered, it would consume him. The young Knight wasn't sure what he could do to help, but he was caught in the brilliant race, could no more have resisted the Force-currents than he could have walked barefoot on a sun.

And then in his mind's eye Qui-Gon threw back his head, and the Force vortex consumed him, tightening around his feet, roaring up through his body and out through his hands, crackling out over the sinking top of the slowly dispersing tower and arcing across the sky, plunging into the water and lacing into the ravaged reef.

He could feel the poisons breaking down, dissipating into harmless organic molecules, the tiny corals suddenly bursting with life, reproducing at a fantastic rate, the water temperature fluctuating rapidly to encourage the burst of life. A dozen years' worth of it. Twenty. Fifty. A hundred. The reef bloomed and swelled with life. Elsewhere he could feel the seatrees growing also, the smaller vegetable plants, the fading poisons. He was green, leaves and air reaching for the light, he was pale white and deepest rose, his tiny mindless self striving to answer that irresistible call. He was Qui-Gon, with the sense of the billion lives he touched roaring through him on the tide of the Living Force. It was out of control but irresistible, inexorably eroding away mind and thought even as the power ebbed and fluttered to a trickle, the mass of it dispersed into the reef and rippling back out into the ecosystems from which he had drawn it.

Obi-Wan opened his eyes, shaken, and banked his craft about. In the crisis of the moment he'd overshot by a few hundred yards, following the Force toward the healing reefs, but he could see the sandbar now and the other hoverboat. He eased his craft in until it scraped the sand and then leaped out, racing through the ruffled waters to the crumpled heap that lay unconscious there, pale skin shining in the golden sunlight. The tide had receded and Qui-Gon lay on a narrow spit of wet, exposed sand, his long hair soaked and tumbling into the nearby water, lapped out like trailing seaweed by the waves. His skin was cool and almost clammy to the touch. Shock. Obi-Wan thumbed open an eyelid, found the older man's pupils shrunk to pinpoints, unresponsive.


Obi-Wan struggled to lift the massive, awkward length of body. Sand clung to Qui-Gon's bare skin and his hair hung down to trail in the water, dripping as Obi-Wan wrestled him to the hoverboat and managed to bundle him in.

He draped Qui-Gon's own clothes over the wet, chilled form, disregarding the water in the bottom of the boat, and climbed in himself, reaching gently to the older man's mind. Shock, deep green shock. Almost no flicker of identity, of memory. The reef, and the Force. They had consumed him.

Obi-Wan reached deeper, but he did not have the anchor of a bonding with the Master, and had little knowledge of him to reach for or rely on. Desperate, he summoned the mental picture of the dead boy from the riots, of Qui-Gon's sorrow, of Obi-Wan's hand on his shoulder. He felt the faintest flicker of recognition, then weariness, and Qui-Gon sank fully beyond reach, night falling over his mind gently.

Hope surged in him; the shock might wear off, given careful treatment and complete rest.

Obi-Wan felt the sun paling and looked up to find that streamers of mist were sweeping in, probably generated by the abruptly-changing temperature of the waters over the reef. A wide fogbank was encroaching, with angry-looking clouds above it. He judged he had perhaps a quarter of an hour before the storm hit.

Obi-Wan frowned down at Qui-Gon. He needed warmth quickly; it was at least an hour's rough journey back to land. While the fog should not be troublesome to a Jedi, the storm was another thing entirely. Obi-Wan was not at his best in a marine environment; he'd had little experience with boats and navigating, and now he was not being led by Force currents. His eyes fluttered indecisively back to the Jedi Master, then to the storm. A stab of crimson lightning suddenly decided him, driving into the water perhaps a mile away. They had to get back to the land and find shelter.

He vaulted out of the boat, catching his own craft and tying it securely to the stern of Qui-Gon's. Jumping back in, he eased the boat back from the bar and opened the throttle, making full tilt for the bay.

The first fat raindrops fell ten minutes later, and Obi-Wan stopped briefly to tuck his own cloak around the still form of the unconscious Jedi Master for what little protection it might offer. The waves were rolling their craft hard by the time he finished and he set out obliquely. They wouldn't be able to put in at the city.

Rain stung him as they set out again on a different tack, catching the waves headlong instead of sideways. Obi-Wan winced at each rough jolt, but held their speed. He didn't want to weather the lightning exposed on the bay, and he didn't have skill enough with the Living Force to influence such a strong, unnaturally-caused storm.

He confused the crash of breakers with the rolling of thunder and nearly turned the boat over in the surf, coming in too quickly. Though one of the hoverboats rolled, the weighted one ground to a halt upright, rain half-blinding Obi-Wan as he groped to pick up the Jedi Master and stumbled out onto the beach, abandoning the small craft. He had to find shelter for the man as fast as possible, but there was little to be had amongst the dune grasses and shrubby bushes.

He laid Qui-Gon down under one of the larger bushes and trotted back to the boat, retrieving the rest of the man's clothing and rolling it into a wad that he could stuff down the front of his tunic. He thrust the heavy boots into the side of his belt and returned to the pitiful shelter of the dripping, lashing bush, wincing as thunder exploded in his ears. He lifted Qui-Gon again, heading for an outcrop of cliffs he'd spotted through a lull in the rain.

There were no overhangs or caves, but Obi-Wan chose a stone that provided a lee from the wind and hurried back to the beach. The waves were battering the boats together, but he managed to muster Force enough to drag one onto the sand and set all his muscle power into dragging it up the beach. The wet sand clung, making it heavier, trenching beneath the boat's weight, and Obi-Wan finally had to use Force to half-levitate it, stumbling back to the cliffside where he'd laid the unconscious Jedi Master.

"You won't appreciate this a bit, will you," he gasped in Qui-Gon's direction, sweat pouring off him with the rain, the faint salt of it stinging his eyes. "I should have found us a mansion and a seven course meal, with deep feather mattresses..." He heaved, tipping the boat up against the top of the stone, "... and a fireplace!" He shoved at the heavy craft, trying to push its far side up against the cliff to brace it where it would stay. "... and warmed slippers for your feet. So you could say they weren't the right size, and refuse to wear them." He finally succeeded, and leaned against the hull for a moment, gasping, sweeping water out of his eyes.

He dropped to his knees and crept under the boat, dripping. "And then you'd look at me like you couldn't decide whether you hate me or want to devour me." He suddenly felt tears stinging in his eyes. "And you'd turn your back on me and wouldn't talk for the rest of the evening, no matter what I said." He shouldered out of his cold, wet clothing. Qui-Gon was still bare inside the water-resistant cloaks, which were damp but far drier than anything else the two men possessed.

"If you've destroyed your mind, will that be my fault too? Because you were in disharmony after our last words?" Obi-Wan bit his lip, opening the cloaks and slipping in next to Qui-Gon to warm him, twining arms and legs around the big, still body. "Was I responsible for your weariness, your pride?" He cradled the larger man sadly. "I could have strengthened you, you know. Anchored you, fed you energy to control the Force, but you went alone, you wouldn't ask, wouldn't accept my apology or my friendship." He was babbling, trying to distract himself from the solid body in his arms, pressed against him all the way down.

"What does someone have to do to be good enough for you, Qui-Gon Jinn?" Obi-Wan looked into the pale, still face, all the rejection of his childhood rising to choke his heart. There was no answer; the lids and their long lashes never even fluttered, the pulse beneath the waxy, clammy skin remained slow and thready.

Obi-Wan laid his cheek against the wet beard, feeling sand grate uncomfortably between their faces and bodies. He summoned Force, warming himself and feeding the gentle warmth into the larger man's body. Their cloaks steamed faintly, lightning burst in actinic flares around them and the thunder jarred the boat and the cliff face against which they lay. Obi-wan ignored it, quietly repaying a favor in kind, despairing of ever coming to know the man whose body he held pressed to his own.

to be continued in Elements II: Earth