Archive: M/A only, please.
Feedback: Sure! On or offlist is fine, constructive criticism welcome.
Category: Angst, First time
Character pairing: Q/O
Disclaimer: I don't own 'em, I just play with 'em.
Summary: Qui-Gon is seeing things.
Oh, I loves dem little plot bunnies--
Bunnies what I loves to eat--
Bite they little heads off--
Nibble on they tiny feet . . . .
Again, not the sequel to "Good" which is coming soon, I swear. And here I thought I just sprayed for plot bunnies . . . .
No other sun has lightened up my heaven;
No other star has ever shone for me:
All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given--
All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee.
---"Remembrance," Emily Bronte
"What do you think?" Mace murmured, leaning close.
Qui-Gon subtly nodded in the direction of the young Initiate he'd been watching all morning. "That one there--with the laser beam eyes. I've forgotten his name, I'm afraid."
Mace looked around the standing-room-only exhibition hall of the salle. "I don't see Master Narset anywhere--he'd know."
Qui-Gon never took his eyes from the boy who moved with a fluid grace against his opponent, the Force flowing around him, through him. "It's Zani-something, I think."
Mace grunted. "It's only been three cycles since Sheresa was Knighted. Are you sure you don't want a longer break?"
Qui-Gon favored his friend with an indulgent smile. "I like having a Padawan, Mace. You should try it."
"Don't go Yoda on me," Mace muttered, and Qui-Gon smothered a laugh, turning back to the candidates.
The Zani-something boy handily defeated his opponent, a tall Sullustan girl, and saluted her with a quick, easy grin that made Qui-Gon's own mouth quirk. The boy was fast with his 'sabre, the Force moved through him well, and Qui-Gon had all but made up his mind.
He moved toward the edge of the combat ring, intending to give quiet congratulations to the boy, when a ripple in the Force distracted him. He paused, glancing over his left shoulder, and saw a young Knight standing across the room, his gaze fixed on Qui-Gon.
Qui-Gon stared, riveted to the spot by the electric, blue-green eyes. The man was quite young, just barely into his twenties from the look of him, but something about him seemed much older. His drawn hood revealed a glimpse of red-gold hair, and a short, neatly-trimmed beard of a darker shade covered a strong, stubborn jaw.
Qui-Gon felt an interest that was just this side of arousal, and opened himself to the Force almost unconsciously, seeking the other man's aura. What he felt made him draw in a sharp breath--the man was surrounded with an air of ineffable sadness and loss.
"Qui-Gon? You in there?"
He tore his gaze from the Knight and blinked at Mace, still reeling from the pain he'd felt from the man. "I--one second, Mace." He turned back to the Knight, but the young man was gone, lost in the crowd. He cursed softly, then made his way to the combat ring.
Two tendays passed, and Qui-Gon had nearly forgotten the sad, mysterious young Knight. He had missed his opportunity with the Zani-something boy, who turned out to be the Xana-something boy. By the time he'd made it to the combat ring, another Master had been chatting with him, and Qui-Gon felt he had no right to intrude.
But the Force wasn't leading him to anyone else.
"Maybe you're not meant to have a Padawan just now," Mace suggested over noonmeal one day.
Qui-Gon tore off a piece of his bread and contemplated it morosely before stuffing it into his mouth. "Maybe," he said around the bread. "But I feel a certain lack without one."
"Keep meditating on it--the answer will come to you."
He grinned at his friend. "Don't go Yoda on me."
Mace tossed a jurberry at his head, which he didn't bother to duck, feeling an odd yet famliar ripple in the Force. The berry bounced off his temple and tumbled into his lap unnoticed as he scanned the dining hall.
The hairs on the back of his neck rose as he spotted the young Knight again, standing motionless in the steady stream of Jedi traffic through the main aisle. Once again, Qui-Gon was assailed with the same sense of unimaginable loss, and, looking into those aqua eyes, he forgot to breathe for a moment or two.
Never taking his eyes off the Knight, Qui-Gon asked, "Mace, who is that?"
"Who is what?"
"That Knight there, by the Senior Padawans' table." Qui-Gon felt as if he were drowning in that unfathomable gaze.
"No, not Ailghren--the one with the beard."
Qui-Gon made a sharp, irritated noise and glanced at Mace to be sure his friend was looking in the right direction. "Look, he's got his hood up. He--" He looked back at the table, but the Knight was gone.
"Damn," he muttered, standing. He craned his neck, searching the dining hall, but the noonmeal crowd was at its peak, and he knew he was doomed to failure. He sat down with a heavy sigh, glaring at Mace. "For a Jedi, you're remarkably unobservant."
"Well, excuse the Sith out of me," Mace said in a mock-wounded tone. "What's the big deal?"
Qui-Gon slowly shook his head. "I'm not sure. I saw him once before, the day we were looking at Initiates. There's something very . . . haunted . . . about him."
"What does he look like?"
"He's very young." Qui-Gon picked at the food on his plate for a moment. "He probably hasn't been a Knight for long."
"If it's that important to you, you might try looking through the public files. Find out who's been Knighted recently."
Qui-Gon suddenly felt a bit silly for obsessing over a man he'd seen twice in a crowd. He smiled at Mace. "It's not that important. I'm probably reading more into his aura than what's really there."
But he wondered.
Another three tendays found Qui-Gon shivering in a mountainside cave on Lanota, taking shelter from both a blizzard and an attack by what the villagers called "battle demons." They weren't demons, just an under-developed and uncivilized native species, but the humanoid villagers were too terrorized to make such distinctions.
He drew his cloak around him more tightly, wishing he had a Padawan. Not that he would want any youngster to suffer through this experience, but it would be nice to have someone with whom to share body heat.
Sighing, he looked around the dimly lit cave at the assembled village. He'd come to teach them how to better preserve their crops during the harsh winters so that they could then pass the knowledge on to the surrounding lands. Winter famine was a common, consistent problem on Lanota, and the elders of several large villages had finally banded together to petition the ruling government for Jedi assistance.
He'd been making excellent progress, he thought, then the attack had come. Rather than fighting the creatures, the village elders had evacuated everyone to the caves. The so-called demons were busy looting the precious food stores while the villagers sat huddled in misery, wondering how they would survive the winter. Qui-Gon felt a very un-Jedi impatience with them, and realized the famine was due in large part to their own reluctance in fighting off the creatures.
He'd commed the Council with this latest development, and received the instruction that he was not to interfere by encouraging the villagers to defend themselves. They needed to come to that decision on their own, or perish.
So all he could do now was wait, along with everyone else, for the "demons" to finish their pillaging.
Movement near the cavemouth caught his attention, and he straightened in surprise at the unmistakable sight of brown Jedi robes. Had the Council changed their minds and sent reinforcements? He scrambled to his feet and started toward the figure.
Halfway there, he felt the ripple in the Force he'd felt twice before, and stopped in his tracks, staring.
The mysterious Knight lifted his hood back and fixed Qui-Gon with a calm, steady gaze.
A deep, soul-chilling cold flooded through Qui-Gon, one that had nothing to do with the weather. The Knight was no longer young--his beard and wispy hair were as white as the snow swirling behind him. But his eyes were the same. Blue and green and wise and sad.
Qui-Gon forced his feet to move forward, two steps, three, all the while never taking his eyes from the man's lined, weathered face. Pain and loss still emanated from his aura, but it seemed muted, somehow.
"Who are you?" Qui-Gon whispered. He didn't think the man could hear him over the howl of the wind, but he couldn't seem to make his voice any louder.
The timid voice came from behind him, and he whirled around, hand falling to the hilt of his lightsabre.
The wizened elder flinched back, ducking his head. "Forgive my intrusion--is everything well?"
Qui-Gon whipped his head around, but the entrance to the cave was empty of anything but snow and ice. He looked down at the snow piled up just inside, and saw no footprints. "Yes," he managed to choke out. "Everything's fine."
"What feel you from this man?"
Qui-Gon stared at the tea in his cup. "Sorrow. Pain. Loss. Regret." He set the cup down and looked up at his former Master. "Master, I've meditated until my knees are raw--what could the Force possibly be trying to tell me?"
Yoda closed his eyes and sighed. Qui-Gon felt the comforting, familiar aura of his Master seeking guidance. After a moment or two, Yoda grunted and leaned back in his chair, opening his eyes. "Clouded, this is. Seek answers from me, you should not."
Qui-Gon rubbed his eyes and tried not to dwell on his frustration. "I've yet to find any answers from an apparition, Master."
Yoda sipped his tea and smiled inscrutably. "Perhaps different, this one is."
Qui-Gon blinked at the screen and held back a yawn. He'd been searching the Temple database for hours now, looking for any clues that might yield the identity of his mystery Knight. He could easily have accessed the records from the unit in his quarters, but had chosen the library instead, perhaps hoping for another visitation.
No perhaps about it, Qui-Gon thought, flipping through an endless series of official identification holos. I want to see him again. He had to know if the man was real, or the product of his own imagination, which, while vivid, had never before produced hallucinations of actual beings.
A flash of red-gold on the screen caught his eye, and he studied the holo intently. No. The hair was the right color, but the eyes were true green, not the changeable storm of his Knight.
Without warning, his heart constricted, and he looked up to see the man seated across from him. He was young again, even younger than before. His hood was back, his hair cut in the distinctive style that marked all humanoid Padawans. A slender braid trailed over his right shoulder and down his chest, disappearing in the folds of his tunics. Long enough to be near the end of his apprenticeship, then.
The lovely eyes were red-rimmed, and the pain radiating from them cut through Qui-Gon's heart like the blade of a 'sabre. The young man was trembling from the force of it, looking lost and stunned and desolate.
"Please," Qui-Gon breathed, not daring to move. "Tell me who you are. Let me help you."
Tears spilled down the man's cheeks and he lifted a hand, reaching out to Qui-Gon.
His own eyes stinging, Qui-Gon moved his hand across the table, stretching his fingertips.
"Master," the man said in a broken moan, and Qui-Gon felt something give inside his chest. "Oh, Master."
"Qui-Gon! What are you doing here so late?"
Qui-Gon let out a soft cry, leaping up from the table to confront a very surprised-looking Knight, one of his agemates he hadn't seen in cycles. He didn't even have to look to know his ghost was gone. "Kralmer," he acknowledged in a shaking voice.
Kralmer frowned, putting a hand on Qui-Gon's arm. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I--" He tried a smile, but it felt more like a grimace. "I guess I've been here so long I'm seeing things."
Kralmer laughed uncertainly, and Qui-Gon excused himself as rapidly as he could, then fled for the safety of his quarters.
"What did Yoda have to say?" Mace asked, propping his booted feet on the low table in the common room.
Qui-Gon was so distracted he didn't even notice. "His usual cryptic natterings. To be honest with you, I don't think he knows what this is, either."
"I've certainly never heard of such a thing before." Mace swirled his glass of Sindaran brandy, then took a sip. "You say all you feel are negative emotions--could it be an attack of some kind?"
Qui-Gon bit his lip, thinking. "I don't think so. The emotions are negative, but not truly dark, like rage or despair or fear. He's just . . . he's just so sad."
"It would be helpful if you could get someone else to see him. That way, we'd know if it's a genunine phenomenon or just you."
Qui-Gon fixed him with a pointed look. "Well, I did try."
Mace ignored him. "I assume you've been to the Healers?"
"Yes," Qui-Gon sighed. "There's nothing wrong with my brain, other than the usual mess."
Mace polished off his brandy and set the empty glass down. "You know, you're not the first person to have seen a Force-ghost in the Temple, if that's what this is. I found records of reported sightings dating back to when the Temple was built."
"I don't think it is a Force-ghost, though." Qui-Gon ran a hand through his hair. "The man doesn't feel dead to me, just . . . lost."
"You think it might be a temporal anomaly of some kind?"
Qui-Gon shook his head, looking through the balcony doors at the red sunset glow of Coruscant. "I don't know what I think. All I know is that the man looks at me like he was drowning, and I'm not sure how to save him."
"Qui-Gon, this doesn't sound like your usual stray problem." Mace rose, putting a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You might not be able to save him."
"I know," Qui-Gon said softly, though he hated to admit it.
Mace showed himself out, and Qui-Gon sat where he was, pondering. He couldn't adequately explain to either Mace or Yoda the connection he felt to the man, the palpable anguish that emanated from him. All he wanted to do every time he saw him was hold him and pet him and tell him everything would be all right.
But how could he, when he didn't even know what was wrong?
He stood, scrubbing his face with his hands before running them through his hair. He didn't even know what the man was, much less how to solve his problems. The next time, he would--
The hairs on his arms rose and he turned, very slowly, toward the balcony.
A lone figure in brown robes stood at the railing, watching the sunset.
Qui-Gon swallowed his fear, silently repeating Yoda's favorite litany, and moved without a sound to the door.
When the door slid open, the figure lifted its head, but didn't turn. Qui-Gon eased out onto the balcony and took three cautious steps forward.
The man raised his hands to his hood and pushed it back, turning to face Qui-Gon.
The pain wasn't as sharp as the last time he'd seen the man, but it was still there, oh yes. He was bearded again, and appeared to be the same age as Qui-Gon--in his late twenties. The depthless eyes studied him calmly as he neared, closer than he'd ever been able to get before.
Qui-Gon's heart seemed to be trying to pound its way out of his chest. The light of the setting sun touched the man's soft waves of hair, setting it aflame with all the colors of red and gold that existed. "Are you real?" Qui-Gon asked in a hoarse, trembling voice.
The Knight's lips curved, and Qui-Gon felt a lessening of the pain. Without speaking, the man took Qui-Gon's hand in his. A slight tingle flowed through Qui-Gon at the contact, but it was far from an unpleasant sensation.
He placed Qui-Gon's hand on his chest. Underneath warm, solid flesh, Qui-Gon felt a strong, steady beat.
Qui-Gon let out the huge breath he'd been holding, feeling somewhat dizzy. "Who are you?" he asked, his voice a bit more firm this time.
Still holding Qui-Gon's hand against him, the Knight took a step forward, tilting his head back, his eyes never leaving Qui-Gon's. "Yours."
Mine, Qui-Gon thought, blood roaring in his ears. The man was close, so close, his eyes boring into Qui-Gon's, his scent filling the air--he smelled of tea and desert winds, of deep space and Coruscant, of love and ashes.
Qui-Gon realized with something akin to shock that he wanted to kiss the man, very, very badly. Gathering his fast-departing wits, he cleared his throat. "What's your name?"
The Knight reached up and brushed his fingers over Qui-Gon's mouth, and he had to bite back a groan of pure lust. "Call me Ben."
"Ben," Qui-Gon whispered. He was still astute enough to recognize an evasive answer when he heard one, but it would do for now. "What can I do to help you, Ben? Or did you come to me for help?"
Ben's remarkable eyes darkened, and renewed pain flared through Qui-Gon. "There is no other who can help me." Seeming to gather himself, he released Qui-Gon's hand and stepped back. "May we go inside?"
Qui-Gon mourned the loss of contact, even as he stepped back himself and opened the balcony door.
Ben moved through the quarters with an almost proprietary air, glancing at the bedroom recently vacated by Sheresa. "Where is your Padawan?"
"I don't have a Padawan." Still shaken by the near-kiss, Qui-Gon was occupied with standing upright, and so didn't notice the sharp look Ben gave him.
Qui-Gon found the corner of the sofa and leaned on it, grateful for its stability. "My last one was Knighted a few cycles ago, and I have yet to take another."
"How many cycles ago?"
Qui-Gon was taken aback by the intensity of the question. "Just over four." He frowned, regaining some of his equilibrium. "Why does it matter?"
"Four," Ben murmured, pacing in a tight circle. Qui-Gon took the opportunity to study him more closely, noting the lithe, compact build, the line between his brows that made him look quite intimidating, the slender, elegant hands. "And you've seen no other Initiates in that time? No one you thought would make a good Padawan?"
"There was one, as a matter of fact. Another Master beat me to him." Qui-Gon folded his arms across his chest, feeling more in control. "What does any of this have to do with you?"
Ben took a step forward, a look of wary hope on his face. "What was his name?"
"Who? The Master?"
"No, the Initiate." Ben's hands were twisting in the folds of his robes, and Qui-Gon wondered why the answer seemed so crucial to the man.
"Xana-something, I believe."
"Yes, I think that was it." Qui-Gon straightened in alarm as tears filled Ben's eyes. "What is it?"
"That might be it," Ben said, hastily wiping his eyes. "That might be enough."
"Enough for what?" Qui-Gon's frustration returned in full force. "Please, please tell me what is going on here?"
Ben walked to where Qui-Gon stood, still leaning against the sofa, and touched his cheek. "I'm trying to save someone."
"Who?" Qui-Gon whispered, his arms going around Ben of their own volition.
"Me," Ben breathed against Qui-Gon's lips.
Qui-Gon had a fraction of an instant to wonder what in all the hells he was doing, then his head was lowering and he devoured Ben's mouth, sinking into the soft, wet heat. Warm, strong hands slipped around his neck, pulling him closer, deepening the kiss, and Qui-Gon was amazed at how neatly the man's body fit against his, almost as if he had been made to go there, and there, and . . . .
The shrill beeping of the comm unit caused both men to start, and Ben stepped out of Qui-Gon's embrace. Qui-Gon glared at the infernal machine, then turned back to Ben.
He was gone.
Mace blinked at his friend. "You did what?"
Qui-Gon sighed, sinking back into the plush sofa in Mace's quarters. "I kissed him. Or maybe he kissed me. The end result was the same."
"You kissed a ghost." Mace's tone was flat, unbelieving.
Qui-Gon remembered the steady heartbeat, the solid heat of the man. "He's not a ghost."
"You don't know that, Qui-Gon." Mace's voice was getting louder, and Qui-Gon began to wonder if he'd made a mistake in coming here. "He only appears to you, he pops in and out of existence, or reality, or whatever you want to call it, he might be a threat to the Temple or the very fabric of time itself, and all you can think to do is kiss him?"
Mace was practically yelling now, and Qui-Gon couldn't quite hold back a smile. "You'll make a great Council member one day."
"This isn't about me!" Mace yelled. "This is about you being reckless with the safety of every Jedi in this Temple!"
One of Qui-Gon's brows lifted. "I hardly think my lips are that deadly, Mace. And even if they were, you're fixating on the kiss when you should be analyzing what he said." His eyes narrowed. "Are you jealous?"
His friend's face went utterly blank. "I'm not going to dignify that with a response."
Yes, indeed, Qui-Gon thought. A fine Council member.
"I will say this, though--whatever this thing is--"
"He's not a 'thing,'" Qui-Gon interjected quietly.
"Fine. Whatever this phenomenon is, until we know more about it, you need to be more circumspect in how you deal with it. If he shows up again, comm someone immediately."
"That won't work, Mace--he tends to disappear when others get too interested. Besides, what if I'm off-planet? He seems to find me wherever I am."
Mace shook his head in exasperation. "Then maybe you need to stop pawing him and start asking some probing questions."
Qui-Gon stood. "I think I"ll start now."
Mace was on his feet instantly, trying to look everywhere at once. "What? Is he here now?"
Qui-Gon threw back his head and laughed, long and loud. "No, but I wish he was, just to see the expression on your face." He picked up his cloak and walked to the door. "I think I need to talk to Master Akilah's new Padawan."
Master Akilah's new Padawan had the unenviable luck to be on creche duty the next morning, and so was quite relieved to take a few minutes out to talk with Qui-Gon.
"No," he said, slowly shaking his head. "I've never seen anyone like that. You say he was there the day my Master chose me?"
Qui-Gon let out a small sigh. "Yes, but you were understandably preoccupied." He smiled at the boy. "How are you getting along with Master Akilah?"
Xanatos' fierce blue eyes lit up. "Oh, she's wonderful, Master Jinn. She's taught me so much already, and in two days we leave on our first mission together." An arm shot out to snag a rampaging toddler, expertly steering the child back into her playgroup.
Qui-Gon laughed, quelling a small pang at the boy's obvious excitement. He would have loved to train someone so eager to learn. "If you're as good at negotiating as you are with children, you have a bright future ahead of you."
Xanatos ducked his head, cheeks flushing. "Thank you, Master Jinn."
"You have your hands full--I won't keep you any longer. Thank you for your time." Qui-Gon turned to leave, wondering who else he could talk to that might give him some clues.
As he approached the end of the playroom, his attention was caught by three youngsters sitting near the door. One of them, a humanoid boy of no more than four, was busy relentlessly poking another boy, and being studiously ignored for his trouble. The remaining child, a tiny Calamarian girl, was in the process of bandaging a doll's leg.
Mildly curious, Qui-Gon drifted closer. The girl was speaking in low, soothing tones to the doll, and he thought she might make an excellent Healer some day. The boy in the middle, the one being poked, held a stuffed wookiee doll and was evidently in the midst of telling it a story while he stroked its fur--from the sound of it, something about draigons and pirates.
The third boy, the poker, kept up a continuous drone in his victim's ear. "I wanna see, let me see, give it here, I wanna see, gimme, let me see, come on, give it here, lemme see."
Sensing a drama about to unfold, Qui-Gon folded his arms across his chest and waited. After only a moment or two, the boy in the middle patted his wookiee on its head, then calmly bashed the other boy in the face with it.
Clapping a hand to his mouth to stifle his laughter, Qui-Gon swiftly descended on the trio before mayhem ensued. The white-haired boy, the poker, looked more stunned than hurt, but Qui-Gon recognized the tightening of his jaw that meant serious business. The Calamarian girl had collapsed in giggles, and the other boy was once again petting the wookiee, perhaps checking it for damage.
Gently scooping the white-haired boy up, Qui-Gon took him to another corner of the playroom and set him down before an array of toys. "What's your name, little one?"
The boy looked up at him with wide eyes. "Bwuck. And I'm not little."
"Right you are." Qui-Gon picked a toy out of the pile, a simple puzzle designed to test critical thinking abilities. "Can you show me how this works?"
"Sure!" The boy plopped down on the floor and set the puzzle in his lap, his pudgy hands already moving the pieces into their proper alignment.
When the boy seemed sufficiently engrossed, Qui-Gon went back to the other two. The boy's burnished-gold head was bent low over the floor, where the Calamarian girl had laid out the wookiee doll. Apparently, it required surgery.
Qui-Gon squatted down next to them. "How's the patient?"
The Calamarian girl looked up at him with wide, solemn eyes. "He needs bacta, but he'll be okay."
"I'm glad to hear it." Qui-Gon put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "How are you holding up?"
The boy raised his head and all of Qui-Gon's breath rushed out as he looked into the eyes of his ghost.
Qui-Gon sat back heavily on the floor, trembling. How could this be? The other children were seeing his ghost!
The Calamarian girl's eyes got, if possible, even wider. "Are you okay?"
"I--" Qui-Gon's voice cracked and he cleared his throat, realizing he was frightening the girl. "Yes, I'm fine, little one."
The boy, his tiny little ghost, reached out a hand and stroked his hair, much as he had petted the wookiee's fur. "Are you sure? You're awful light."
Light? Qui-Gon blinked at the boy before realizing he must have meant "pale." "I--yes, I'm sure. I'll be fine."
The boy regarded him solemnly for a moment, then picked up the wookiee and tucked it in the crook of Qui-Gon's arm. "You hold him for a while. You'll feel better."
Qui-Gon looked down at the matted fur of the doll and suddenly felt like crying. "Thank you."
"Welcome." The boy rose to his feet and peered into Qui-Gon's eyes, then put his hands on either side of Qui-Gon's face, patting the short beard. "Your fur's soft. What's your name?"
"Qui-Gon." He touched the boy's hair, pure gold with just a hint of the red it would no doubt darken into. His fur was soft, too. "What's yours?"
"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon breathed, feeling something akin to a click in his head.
"I'm Bant," the Calamarian girl piped, picking up the doll with the bandaged leg. "And this is Teela."
Qui-Gon inclined his head. "I'm very happy to meet all of you."
Obi-Wan clambered into Qui-Gon's lap and settled back against his chest as if he belonged there. Perhaps he does, Qui-Gon thought, still reeling. "Tell us a story," the boy said, pulling the wookiee back into his own arms.
Racking his brain, Qui-Gon launched into what he hoped was a suitable tale, one involving the search for a magical amulet, with plenty of draigons and pirates thrown in for good measure. While he talked, he sent subtle tendrils of the Force out to examine Obi-Wan's aura, and was stunned at what he saw.
This was no ghost--this was an actual, living, breathing child, one that shone more brightly in the Force than anyone Qui-Gon had ever encountered before. There was not a hint of darkness surrounding the boy, and except for a muffled yearning for his mother, no sadness or grief either.
Obi-Wan turned his head and fixed Qui-Gon with an accusing glare. "You stopped at the good part."
Apologizing for his appalling breach of etiquette, Qui-Gon resumed his story, all the while examining possibilities in his mind. If this was the actual Ben/Obi-Wan, what did that mean? Was Qui-Gon meant to take the boy as his Padawan? He was far too young still. What had happened to this bright, shining child to leave him so shattered with grief that his spirit sought out Qui-Gon? And could he somehow prevent it?
Qui-Gon looked down at the golden head, remembering the old man in the cave on Lanota. Whatever had happened, it had evidently stayed with Obi-Wan throughout his life, which promised to be long, if not joyful. His own grief tore at his heart at the thought of this brilliant light being dimmed.
"Master Jinn? Everything all right here?"
Qui-Gon looked up to see the Creche Master smiling down at him.
"He told us a story, Master Dioma!" Obi-Wan said, fairly vibrating with joy. "It had draigons and pirates and a ama--amy--a magic rock!"
"That's wonderful, Obi-Wan," Dioma said, winking at Qui-Gon. "But it's naptime now, so you and Bant need to let Master Jinn go."
Bant stood obediently, and Obi-Wan let out a theatrical sigh. He pressed a soft kiss to Qui-Gon's cheek, then climbed out of his lap. "Thank you for the story, Master Kwi-Bon. Will you come see us again?"
Qui-Gon smiled, his skin tingling where the boy's lips had been. "I'll certainly try, Obi-Wan."
A blinding smile wreathing his dimpled face, Obi-Wan leaned close and whispered, "Will you bring me a magic rock?"
"I'll see what I can do," Qui-Gon whispered back in the same conspiratorial air.
He rose to his feet and watched Dioma herd the little ones away, thinking it was time for more tea with Yoda.
"Too young, this boy is," Yoda pronounced. "Take him as your Padawan, you may not."
Qui-Gon leaned back against the trunk of a syppias tree in the meditation gardens, where he'd found his old Master. "I'm not proposing that, Master--I just think perhaps I should spend time with him when I can."
"Special treatment, he should not receive--even for one strong in the Light." Yoda poked Qui-Gon's shoulder with his gimer stick. "Think how you would feel, if Master came to visit you in the creche. Make you feel superior to agemates, hmm?"
Qui-Gon's jaw dropped. "You were in the creche every other day when I was there!"
"There to see all the children, I was. Not you."
"And when I was transferred to the Initiates' Ward, you came to see them every other day as well. A remarkable coincidence, my Master."
Yoda's eyes narrowed and he grunted. "Too smart for your own good, you always were."
Qui-Gon didn't let the backhanded compliment deter him. "Master, if I can do something the change the outcome of this boy's life, then I feel I should. I just--I can't bear the thought of him suffering like that, and for so long."
Yoda sighed. "So tender-hearted, my Padawan. Know you the cause of his suffering?"
"No," Qui-Gon admitted, "but--"
The gimer stick thumped down in the dirt. "Then rush in, you should not! More harm than good you might cause!"
Qui-Gon's shoulders slumped as he realized the old gnome was right. Until he knew what the problem was, anything he did to try to correct it might only make things worse.
"Know well I do how you hate to see beings in pain, my Padawan." Yoda put a stubby hand on his head. "Watch little Kenobi, we will. No harm will come to him."
"Yes, my Master." And, Qui-Gon thought, watch for his ghost, I will.
As "Ben" had only spoken to him in his quarters, Qui-Gon stayed in as much as possible, only going out for Temple duties and the occasional meal. After a tenday, he decided he'd been mistaken and spent most of his time out, either in the Temple or some of his favorite places on Coruscant.
That didn't work, either.
Nearly a full cycle passed with no sign of the ghost, and Qui-Gon finally stopped second-guessing himself and simply went about his business as usual.
He had a mission coming up, and though he had tried to stay away from the creche, he was likely to be off-planet for several cycles, and wanted to see Obi-Wan again before he left.
A short visit couldn't hurt, he told himself in the lift on the way. Another story, a pat on the head--where's the harm in that?
He entered the creche office, hearing the increased noise level from the rooms beyond, and checked in at the desk with one of Master Dioma's assistants. When he stated the purpose of his visit, the Malastarean girl's middle eyestalk rose.
"Obi-Wan's very popular today."
Qui-Gon frowned. "What do you mean?"
"He's already had two visitors--Master Yoda and Knight Melidaan."
Watching little Kenobi indeed, Qui-Gon thought darkly, striding toward the main playroom. Halfway there, he paused, turning back to the desk. "Did they come together?"
"Hmm? Oh, no--Master Yoda came right after firstmeal, and Knight Melidaan just left a few minutes ago."
Melidaan--the name was vaguely familiar, but Qui-Gon couldn't put a face to it. "I'm afraid I don't know Knight Melidaan--has he or she been here before?"
"He. And no, I've never seen him before."
An amorphous worry tickled the back of his mind. Who else would be interested in Obi-Wan, other than Yoda? "What does he look like?"
"Humanoid." She gestured at Qui-Gon's face. "Hairy, like you."
That wasn't terribly helpful. To a smooth-skinned Malastarean, "hairy" could mean someone with bushy eyebrows. Qui-Gon thanked her politely and continued on his way.
A few minutes' search of the playroom revealed Obi-Wan on a low stool in one corner by himself, laboriously reading aloud to his wookiee. Qui-Gon was pleased to note they gave the children actual books to read, not the bulky datapads he loathed.
He stood quietly to one side, watching as the boy struggled over difficult words, occasionally checking to see if the wookiee was still paying attention. A surge of affection warmed Qui-Gon's insides, then he realized he was fooling himself.
Affection my ass, he thought. You love the child. Just admit it.
Obi-Wan turned a page and glanced over his shoulder, crystalline eyes widening with delight. "Kwi-Bon!" He threw the book down and launched himself off the stool, hurtling into Qui-Gon's waiting arms.
Qui-Gon hugged him fiercely, opening himself up to the Force, basking in Obi-Wan's unadulterated radiance. "Hello, little one."
Obi-Wan planted a wet kiss on Qui-Gon's lips, wriggling with happiness. "Did you bring me a magic rock?"
Oh, hells. "Well . . . ." he began, his heart plummeting at the sight of Obi-Wan's crestfallen face. Seized with a sudden inspiration, he set the boy down. "As a matter of fact, I did."
Obi-Wan hopped up and down, transported with joy. "Where is it?"
"Patience, Obi-Wan." The boy stilled immediately, but his eyes sparkled with anticipation. Qui-Gon dug through the pouch on his belt until his hand closed around the smooth, Force-sensitive stone his Master had given him years ago.
He set the rock in Obi-Wan's hand and closed the little fingers around it. "Concentrate, Obi-Wan. Can you feel it?"
Obi-Wan closed his eyes and a thunderous frown appeared on his face. "Ohhh," he breathed. "It is magic!"
Qui-Gon ruffled the boy's hair. "It's fhe Force. There's no other magic like it."
Obi-Wan threw his arms around Qui-Gon's knees. "Thank you, thank you!"
"You're quite welcome, my Obi-Wan." My Obi-Wan? Oh, Jinn, you are doomed, Qui-Gon thought.
Obi-Wan carefully tucked the rock away in a pocket of his tunic. "Master Yoba brought me a present, too, but I ate it already."
Qui-Gon tried not to smirk. His Master was as big a sucker as himself, evidently. "What about your other friend? Did he bring you any presents?"
"No, he just told me stories." Obi-Wan sat on the floor next to the stool and picked up his wookiee.
Qui-Gon eyed the stool, then opted for the floor himself. "What kind of stories?" he asked, dismissing as unworthy a tiny prick of jealousy that another Knight could hold his Obi-Wan in thrall.
"Really good ones, with draigons and mines and rescuing people and stuff." Obi-Wan smoothed the fur on the wookiee's head. "He told me a really sad one, too, about the Siff."
"The Siff? I've never heard of that before."
Obi-Wan made the wookiee walk the length of Qui-Gon's thigh, before settling it near his hip. "They're the bad Jedi."
A tiny chill wormed its way into Qui-Gon's heart. "You mean the Sith?"
Why in all the hells would a Knight tell a four-year-old child stories about the Sith? A quick flare of anger swelled in Qui-Gon. The boy would probably have nightmares tonight.
Obi-Wan looked up at him warily. "Are you mad?"
Qui-Gon swiftly released his anger to the Force. "No, Obi-Wan. I just think some stories should wait until you're older."
The wary look disappeared, replaced by apprehension. "I didn't get Ben in trouble, did I?"
Qui-Gon's mouth went dry. "B-Ben?"
Obi-Wan nodded. "That's his name. He told me some other stories, too, not just the sad one. Don't be mad at him, okay? I like him."
Qui-Gon's mind was trying to run in a thousand different directions at once. "I won't be mad." He took a deep breath, calming himself. "What was the story about? Can you tell me?"
"It was about a really big fight between the Siff and two good Jedi. One of them was the best fighter of all the Jedi, and he had a Padaban there helping him. He loved the Padaban a lot, and he didn't want him to get killed by the Siff, so he tried to fight it by himself. But the Siff killed him instead, and the Padaban got so mad, he cut the Siff into pieces and saved everyone." Obi-Wan looked up at Qui-Gon with big, solemn eyes. "I guess it had a happy ending, but I didn't like that the good Jedi fighter got killed."
"It happens sometimes, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon tried to puzzle out the meaning of the story. Had it truly been meant for Obi-Wan's ears or his own?
Obi-Wan climbed into Qui-Gon's lap and settled himself comfortably in the circle of his arms. "You're not gonna get killed, are you?"
Qui-Gon wrenched his focus back to the here and now. He didn't want to frighten the boy, but he didn't believe in lying to children. "I might. But for Jedi, there is no death--only the Force."
Obi-Wan fiddled with the front of Qui-Gon's tunics. "What does that mean?" he asked in a very small voice.
"It means that even if I died--which I'm not planning to--my spirit, my energy would become one with the Force. So I would still be all around you, every day."
Obi-Wan gazed up at him, looking far too wise for his four years. "That's not really the same, though, is it?"
"No," Qui-Gon said softly. "I suppose it isn't."
Obi-Wan nestled his head against Qui-Gon's chest. "Don't die, Kwi-bon. Please?"
Qui-Gon swallowed the sudden tightness in his throat. "I promise, Obi-Wan. I promise."
"The Sith have been extinct for--"
Qui-Gon cut Mace off. "A millennia, yes, I know. I'm not expecting a swarm of them in the creche, I simply wonder if this is meant to be a warning of some kind."
"So sure, are you, that this storyteller was your ghost?" Yoda asked.
Qui-Gon stopped pacing and sank down onto the bench outside the Council Chamber. "There's no record of a Knight Melidaan in any of the Temples, past or present, and Obi-Wan said his name was 'Ben,' which is the name he gave me the last time I saw him. The description Master Dioma's assistant gave me matches his appearance--how much more evidence do I need?"
"Why would he appear to Obi-Wan this time and not you?" Mace asked.
"He is Obi-Wan--I've told you that."
"According to you. I think you're assuming too much, based on something as flimsy as eye color. For all you know, it might be a brother, or a cousin." Mace looked at Yoda. "I assume we've checked Kenobi's records?"
"Yes. One brother he has."
Qui-Gon put a hand to his forehead, rubbing at the small pain that had formed behind his eyes. "One brother who isn't Force-sensitive and therefore wouldn't appear to me as a Jedi Knight, don't you think?"
"I'm not the one who isn't thinking here, Qui-Gon." Mace glared at him. "At least I'm doing it with my head."
"Look," Qui-Gon said, trying to smooth the fraying ends of his patience, "if you'd seen him, you'd know. I know it in my head as well as my heart, and I know it in the Force as well. He's obviously still trying to alter events somehow--whatever it was that . . . changed him. Perhaps he decided he'd have better luck with the child he was than with me."
Yoda got to his feet. "Act we cannot, without more information. Assign your mission to another, the Council will. Need you here for now, we do."
Qui-Gon stood and bowed. "Thank you, my Master."
Yoda paused outside the Chamber door. "Spend more time in the creche, you should." The tips of his ears rose and his eyes narrowed. "Likes llyrfan pudding, Obi-Wan does."
Cackling, he stumped through the doorway.
Qui-Gon copied a passage from one of the ancient texts spread over his bed onto the dataslate propped on his knees, checking carefully to make sure he had done so accurately. Something about the passage triggered the memory of another reference, and he pawed through the pile of books until he found the source he'd been thinking of.
He was attempting to catalogue every relevant piece of information he could find about the Sith, specifically what signs and clues to look for that would signal their return. So far, the ancient scribes had proved maddeningly vague.
He entered the cross-reference on the dataslate, then sat back against his pillows, sighing at the mess he'd made of his bed. Glancing at the chrono, he decided he'd had enough for one night, and began tossing books off the bedcovers into haphazard piles on the floor. He'd tidy up in the morning--he was too sleepy now.
When the bed was clear, he set the dataslate on top of the nearest stack, then flopped back on his pillows and pulled the blankets up. "Lights off," he murmured, and the room went dark.
Random thoughts drifted through his mind as sleep stole over him. The old man in the cave. The Siff and the Padaban. A golden-haired child who loved his wookiee and his magic rock and his Kwi-Bon. The way Ben's lips had felt against his. Soft and hot and wet, warm breath ghosting over his eyelids and cheeks, the gentle scrape of a beard against his neck, fingertips brushing his nipples, smooth skin gliding over his.
He let out a soft sigh and pulled his pillow closer, drifting along with the dream, arching into the touch of silken hair and lips, thrusting up into tight, slick heat, and he heard a sound, a rough, guttural moan, realized it was coming from his own throat, thrust again into that molten fire, ah gods, it was so good, and again, such incredible heat, and again, he'd never had such a vividly sensual dream, and again, and--
Jedi don't dream.
His eyes snapped open and he gasped, although he couldn't tell if it was from the wracking pleasure coursing through him or the sight of his ghost, his Knight, his Ben, limned in the faint, silvery glow of Coruscant night, kneeling astride him, his head thrown back, his lithe body sheened in sweat.
If the entire Temple had fallen in on his head at that moment, Qui-Gon wouldn't have been able to stop, nor did he particularly wish to. He grabbed Ben's hips and thrust hard, mindless with need, an explosive cry torn from his lips as his body spasmed with ecstasy. Ben slumped forward onto Qui-Gon's chest, and Qui-Gon made a soft, mournful sound as his softening shaft slipped from its home.
They lay quietly for a moment, gasping, then Qui-Gon tightened his arms around Ben and rolled him over, covering his face with kisses, reaching out with the Force to touch his aura. While still overlaid with a patina of sadness, there was a deep, quiet contentment radiating from him now, and below that, far below, Qui-Gon found the glowing ember of the Light he'd first seen in the creche, the Light surrounding a tiny boy.
He smoothed sweat-dampened hair back from the untroubled brow, and ran a trembling finger down one bearded cheek. "Obi-Wan?" he whispered.
Those unmistakable eyes fluttered open, a tiny smile curving perfect lips. "Kwi-Bon."
Qui-Gon felt like laughing and crying at the same time. His fingertips skated the planes of Obi-Wan's face. "How? Why?"
Obi-Wan let out a deep, contented sigh, one hand stroking the length of Qui-Gon's arm. "How? Let's just say the Force owes me a bit. As for why . . . ." A shadow of pain crossed his face, and Qui-Gon felt it reflected in his aura. "I told a story earlier today."
"So I heard," Qui-Gon said quietly. "Is it a true story? Are the Sith returning?"
A long moment of silence followed, then a whisper so low Qui-Gon could barely hear it. "Yes."
Qui-Gon blew out a long breath and lay back on his pillow. "Then we'll just have to stop them. What form--"
"Qui-Gon." Obi-Wan raised himself up on one arm and looked down at him. "They cannot be stopped. It's meant to be. Their return will bring balance to the Force."
"But . . . that's the prophecy of the Chosen One." Qui-Gon stared up at him, aghast. "Are you telling me the Chosen One is a Sith?"
Obi-Wan rested his head on his hand and let the other trail down the hard planes of Qui-Gon's abdomen. "He will be."
"Who?" Qui-Gon whispered.
Obi-Wan shook his head. "He's not even born yet, and it doesn't matter. I'm not here to circumvent prophecy. I'm only here to try to . . . mitigate some of its effects."
The pain flared again and Qui-Gon touched the soft copper hair. "Tell me."
Obi-Wan leaned into the touch, closing his eyes. "With only two exceptions, the Sith destroyed everything and everyone I ever cared about." He opened his eyes. "I asked the Force for one more exception, and it was granted to me."
A clear, high voice echoed through Qui-Gon's memory. He loved the Padaban a lot, and he didn't want him to get killed by the Siff, so he tried to fight it by himself. But the Siff killed him instead . . . .
"Oh gods," Qui-Gon moaned. "Obi-Wan . . . ?"
Tears fell onto his upturned face. "Defy the Council," Obi-Wan said in a shaking voice. "Break the rules. Take him out of the creche and get him into your life, before--" His voice broke, and he paused, swallowing hard. "And don't ever, ever leave him behind again, do you understand me?"
Qui-Gon was incapable of speech. To think that he could be loved so much, so fiercely, that another soul would reach out to his across the boundaries of time and space . . . . He wrapped his arms around Obi-Wan and pulled him close, burying his face in the soft skin of his neck, holding him as tightly as he could.
And then he wept.
When he woke up, he was alone.
Obi-Wan looked around the common room with wide, disbelieving eyes, clutching Qui-Gon's hand as tightly as his wookiee. "Who else lives here?"
Qui-Gon tried not to laugh. "No one. It will just be you and me, little one."
Obi-Wan leaned against Qui-Gon's leg, as if seeking reassurance. "It's so big."
"Don't worry--you'll grow into it." He led the child through the common room to Sheresa's old bedroom. He'd had the bed replaced with a child-sized one earlier in the day, and, following Master Dioma's advice, had purchased a few toys. "This is your room."
Obi-Wan kept a death grip on Qui-Gon's hand as he looked around. "I'll sleep here? All by myself?"
The note of near panic in his voice took Qui-Gon aback. Of course--the boy was used to sleeping in a room filled with other children. "If you'd like, we can move your bed into my room for now."
Obi-Wan nodded vigorously, and Qui-Gon knew full well the boy would find his way into the bigger bed for the next cycle or so. He resigned himself to waking up to a face full of wookiee fur until Obi-Wan grew accustomed to his new surroundings.
Qui-Gon perched on the edge of the small bed, and drew Obi-Wan into his lap. "A very nice lady named Tahl will be joining us for latemeal tonight. She'll be taking care of you while I'm away on missions."
Obi-Wan's lower lip trembled. "You're going away?"
"Not for a long time, and not until I absolutely must. But the Council needs me to do things for them, and they've made a very gracious exception for us in allowing you to stay with me. When you're old enough, you can come with me."
Obi-Wan leaned his head against Qui-Gon's chest. "When I'm your Padaban?"
"Yes," Qui-Gon said softly, stroking the fine hair.
Obi-Wan sighed and relaxed into the touch. "Kwi-Bon? How come?"
"How come what?"
"How come you choosed me, if I'm still too little?"
"Because I made certain promises to someone, and I intend to keep them." Qui-Gon kissed the top of Obi-Wan's head and rested his cheek against the soft hair. "All of them."
Qui-Gon heard the anguished cry behind him and nearly froze, which would have been the death him. Twenty years, twenty long years of preparing for this moment, and he had still rushed ahead, acting on instinct instead of the Force, leaving his Padawan behind. He got his 'sabre up in time to parry the vicious downward slash, but there was no finesse involved, only brute strength and desperation.
He heard the high whine of the lasers cycling up and Force-shoved the Sith backwards, throwing himself back across the threshold of the buffer struts. The red wall slammed into place, and he stared through it at the Zabrak, who glared back with an expression both bemused and contemptuous.
Panting, Qui-Gon made his way down the service corridor to the preceding wall, where his Padawan waited on the other side. Obi-Wan shook his head, the look on his face promising his Master quite the talking to when they got out of this.
Qui-Gon was looking forward to it.
He had just enough time to get his breathing back under control and center himself before the lasers cycled again. Obi-Wan was at his side in a flash, and both Jedi brought their 'sabres up as the Sith hurtled toward them.
In a reversal of their usual style, Qui-Gon went low and Obi-Wan went high, which was enough to push the Zabrak off balance the tiniest bit. Green and blue beams whirled through the air from opposite directions, and the Sith had just enough time to look surprised before collapsing into smoking pieces on the floor.
They stared at the body, then at each other, gasping for breath. "Well, that wasn't so hard," Obi-Wan panted, and Qui-Gon managed a weak laugh. He took a step forward, intending to retrieve the creature's deadly staff, when a long-forgotten ripple in the Force made him pause, looking up.
Obi-Wan stood near the center of the service corridor, massaging his side where the Sith had kicked him earlier. Behind him, outlined in shimmering blue, stood three figures--an old man, a young, bearded Knight, and a heartbroken Padawan, almost indistinguishable from the way his Obi-Wan looked now. As Qui-Gon watched, not daring to breathe, all three glided toward the vibrantly alive man before him. The shimmering auras merged, becoming blinding in their intensity, then the light surrounded Obi-Wan before fading into nothingness.
Obi-Wan cocked his head to one side. "What was that?"
"What was what?" Qui-Gon whispered.
Obi-Wan looked all around, frowning. "Did you feel something?"
Qui-Gon turned away, to hide the tears of joy welling in his eyes. "No," he said, picking up the dead Sith's lightstaff and smiling. "I didn't feel a thing."