Silent Faction

by analise and Kirby Crow ( and

Rated: NC17

Category: Q/O - O/f - Angst, Drama, First Time. Does not follow canon.

Warning: Graphic violence and scenes of torture.

Author's description: By the time Master Qui-Gon is sent to investigate Knight Kenobi's suspicious activities on the mining moon of Ramos V, he and his former Padawan have been estranged for 4 years. When they finally meet again, Qui-Gon discovers Obi-Wan has a new life, a new home, and a new love...

BIGGER Warning: Heavy story ahead. If you don't like a real plot with extra characters and things going on that are not directly related to 'gettin' the boyz in the sack', turn back now.

Archive: MA, Nesting Place, TOTO only. All others please ask. Fic Recs- yes, anywhere.

From Kirby: As always, working with analise is pure joy. Her hard-hitting prose, her talent for plot and background, and her affinity with the characters are truly awesome. This is probably the most work I've ever put into a piece of fanfiction. It was both challenging and humbling to work with someone as talented as she is, and I'm still out of breath from trying to keep up. Thanks, chickieepie! (g)

From analise: I totally agree on the whole 'most work on a fanfic' thing. Damn. This fic, however, would only be an empty paper bag without Kirby, whose incomparable talent for evocative prose breathes life into this particular Frankenstein. As always, I thank her a million times over for letting me take advantage of her incredible talents.

Notes of Thanks: To DBKate and Destina for their beta. We wouldn't have had the guts to put this into the light if it weren't for their efforts.

Posted in full at:

***Chapter One***

*Just once more,* the Jedi Master told himself. I'll look at it just once more, and then I'll go to sleep.

Stars floated in their black voids beyond the scratched window of the battered Guild transport, and he changed positions in his seat as the uncomfortable gravity shift rolled across him, signaling their jump into hyperdrive. The stars became long steaks of light and his stomach rebelled in sudden nausea as the engines engaged and the ship made the initial leap that would take them almost to the edge of Republic space.

*And the damn seat is hard, too.*

He willed his body to ignore the minor discomforts before returning his attention to the flat data disks in his hand and the small vid screen before him. He sighed.

A long arm encased in ivory muslin snaked out to depress the play button before settling back to watch, fingers steepled under his chin pensively. The features of a smiling young Jedi materialized on the vid. His hair was the longest Qui-Gon had ever seen on this particular man-- almost touching his shoulders, with a broad sweep of feathery bangs playing about his blue eyes as he stood on the sunlit patio and recorded his report to the Council, a long brushstroke of slender black uniform against the bland backdrop of Ramos V.

*... the Drey and the Venyyn, as always, struggle with the adversities of ethnic differences and diverse priorities. Both Clans are a practical people and I have no doubt they will continue to endeavor to overcome their disparity of accord to both their mutual benefit and ours.*

Qui-Gon frowned. Double-talk and political speak, from Obi-Wan? Something indeed was brewing on the mining moon of Ramos V. Yoda was right to send him. Obi-Wan was the most forthright person he knew. He would never resort to this type of verbal obfuscation unless the situation was serious.

*Knew,* he reminded himself. *You knew him once, four years ago. You may not know this composed and slightly oily Knight before you, who delivers his speech with all the back-alley syllogisms of a impoverished Legate looking to buy his way into the Senate.*

Still, the Jedi master admitted to himself that the orator was handsome. One was almost inclined to believe those bright, sincere eyes, the charming words coming from those curved lips, that thousand-watt smile...

So entranced was he with watching the play of expressions across his former student's face that he almost missed the one lapse in the monotonous stream of cliches and cheap, non-committal reassurances that issued from his lips. *... assure you that the situation on Ramos V is contained.*

Contained, is it? Qui-Gon almost smiled. Obi-Wan may have mastered subtle prevarication, but he was still a lousy liar. However, Qui-Gon had to admit to himself that almost no one besides himself would have noticed that infinitesimal lapse in his Padawan's cadence, the shift in tone that - to his ears - pinged back along the Force like a sour note on a harp. It was a lie. Obi-Wan was lying to the Council. Yoda had known it too, though he had not said as much.

Qui-Gon sighed again as he turned down the audio to simply watch, his eyes devouring a sight long denied him, for -- as he had promised -- he had never tried to find Obi-Wan. Had never kept tabs on his assignments, thus missing both progress and setbacks, failures and accomplishments . It had been a matter of pride to him that he had kept his word scrupulously in this, at least.

*I was wrong,* he admitted to himself for the hundredth time. *I should never have let this silence between us stretch out so long. I should have contacted him long before now, begged forgiveness, tried to explain, anything...*

He allowed his mind to conjure up the feel of a soft bristle of hair under his palms, a plaited braid sliding through his fingers like a silk ribbon, the feel of those wonderfully sculpted lips molding to his own as he crushed that slender, powerful body to his. Their first kiss, and - he knew now - their last.

And tomorrow they would meet again. Not as the Master and Padawan they had been, not even as the lovers they could not be, but as men who had grown apart with the directions of their lives. Misinterpretations and mistakes lay between them like fields of thorns, and in his mouth was a bitter taste that he recognized as loss, forfeited opportunities, renounced claims. No. Their reunion would not be the joyous one of separated lovers.

Perhaps, he thought, not even as friends.

Thoroughly depressed, he reached for the play button again. *Maybe just once more. Then I'll go to bed.*

The red lights danced. They skittered and twined, waltzing across the flat, glassine surface of the water, gilding the wet green reeds with a blushing skin as they performed for their primordial audience.

The Dancers, the natives called them. It was an apt name. They could hypnotize the watcher with movements that at times seemed almost choreographed. Practiced, artistic patterns of light blending into light, flaring and fading as they merged and ultimately died in the mating.

*A simple chemical reaction,* the young man told himself as he walked the narrow, creaking wooden pier. Nothing magical. Simply gasses from the rich, decaying soil of the marsh interacting with a floating combustible element in the air, a joining that caused a minute reaction that took only seconds to burn off. The lights bounced on the miniature currents of air above the cool water before fading into nothing, their lives not lessened for having been so brief.

What was it his master had once said? Ah yes, 'Knowing the science of it makes it no less beautiful.'

On a night like this, he was inclined to agree.

The sole of his boot slipped slightly on a damp, algae-slimed board, but he caught his balance easily, moving smoothly on, oblivious to the swaying of the old walkway beneath him. Overhead the raspy calls of the night jaks echoed and bounced off the fat, twisted trees and roots around him. A forest of chaotic shapes rising from the gloom of early evening, their serpentine forms blurred by the opaque mist rising from the water.

His internal sense told him that he was early, as he'd intended. He needed the solitude to prepare for what was ahead. Even though he knew that the metropolis of Guresh was more than five klicks away, he could still feel it. Them. The discordant harmonies of the hatred of two warring Clans.


His shoulders dipped slightly in defeat as he admitted to himself for the first time that he was very, very tired. The centennial of the Guild contract was almost up and these last few days were going to be trying. If only...

His senses pricked and he lifted his eyes expectantly to the scatter of stars in the sky, looking for the one point of light that would be moving. He spotted it within moments and quickened his pace. He was unable to still the surge of disquiet in his own soul. Although he had instigated this visit, planned for it, he was still not completely sure he was ready yet. Ready for the Council's interference. There were too many things that could go wrong and only three days left to work with.

The landing pad was a single square of plascrete sunk deep into the swamp, perhaps 40 meters on each side. Algae crept up over the edges and resilient swamp moss was steadily working at widening cracks that had taken centuries to weaken. He stopped at the edge of the harder surface, his boots still set on the slightly rotted wood of the walkway that led out to the pad, one hand lightly resting on the old synth-rope that wrapped along a rail.

Deep breath. Calm. He knew why the Council had sent someone. After all, he had sent his last missives with full knowledge that an envoy would be detailed out here. And he knew that he would have to walk a fine line now. A line that it was imperative he keep stable. This was a Jedi he would be dealing with and care would have to be taken. Only he understood the situation here, he reminded himself. The Council did not know. The Senate knew less. And the fate of this small moon and its natives would depend on how he acquitted himself here on this lonely square of plascrete and in the next three days.

He let one hand scrape the irritating fall of hair back from his forehead before tucking his fingers serenely into his sleeves of his black robe and settling himself into a peaceful stance. He would not misstep. He would give nothing away. If he was very lucky the Jedi envoy would learn what Obi- Wan needed him or her to learn, play the role he needed played, and everything would go off without a hitch. If he were unlucky -- and what did Luck have to do with it anyway? -- then sending those messages to the Council was the clumsiest move he had made yet in this political battlefield he was mired in. He hoped he would not regret it.

His lips curved in a small, bitter smile. He had hoped for something else once. Hoped for it for years, had it promised to him, and in the blink of an instant had it all snatched away. Before his very eyes it had faded to mist, a smokescreen of deception and lies. That haze of deceit had seemed such a fragile thing at first, but it had possessed the power to push him far away and set his feet on the path that had led ultimately to this lonely night in the swamps.

Maybe hope wasn't the best thing.

The dancers bounced gently around him as night jaks muttered and conversed invisibly from the covering screen of plaan tree leaves. Insects buzzed around his head but politely did not settle on him. He could hear the distant hum of the transport's engines now as it braked on exit from the upper atmosphere.

He had not spoken to another Jedi in several years, not since his permanent posting to the volatile and important moon. Of course, he had conducted many communications with the Council itself and with his own official envoy at the Senate, but looking at someone through a screen was a far different animal from a face-to-face encounter. Especially when it came to Jedi. There was the chance that this Knight would take one look at him and know everything. Force help him, he hoped not.

*What did I tell you about hope?* he chided himself. He almost reached up to push his forelock from his face again, but clenched his hands on his elbows instead. Calm.

He could hear the Transport clearly now. Another moment and he could see the worn Guild emblem on its belly as it hovered overhead and slowly maneuvered itself down to the pad.

He could do this. He had been a full Knight for only four years, but he knew that he was talented. It wasn't arrogance speaking, only simple fact. Whatever else his master might have been, he had been a superb Jedi and teacher. Nothing could change that. And he knew that he was a tribute to the man.

*Not that I could say the same in reverse.* The acid comment flashed through his mind before he quickly pushed the swirling negative emotions down, dispersing them harmlessly into the fabric of the swamp. Focus. Now was not the time to be distracted by what his master may or may not have done to lose his respect. Now it was time to work. Every life on Ramos V depended on how he comported himself during this visit.

That was enough to center him, and he found himself calming completely as the transport finally touched down with a roaring whine of repulsors and a rush of hot air that lifted his dark cloak up and away from his body.

He squinted into the dry gust of false wind, smelling the odor of atmosphere- heated metal and the sharp tang of ozone. Startled jaks burst out of the surrounding trees in a cacophony of angry shrieks and flapped eastwards, silhouetting against the massive yellow circle of Ramos' sister moon. The dancers skittered away across the water in a scattered cloud, blown like seed fluff from a dried flower.

A moment later the transport powered down with a fading whine and an occasional gentle puff of cooling steam from the repulsors. He simply stood with hooded eyes and waited for the plank to lower.

A crack of light in the darkness and the hiss of hydraulics. Calm. It was a man. A human. He could see by the silhouette. A tall man. A...

Oh, no.

His mouth went dry, and his heart nearly faltered to a stop. It couldn't be. Was it possible that the Force itself was against him?

Force or not, it *was* him. Tall, broad shouldered, perhaps a few more lines around mouth and eyes. The hair was a bit longer, slightly more silvered, the beard a little less scrupulously trimmed. But there was no one else in the Order who carried that natural air of command. That serene aura of complete and utter confidence. Of all the ones to send. Of all the times to have this meeting forced.

It took everything he had to step forward and bow his head dispassionately. All he could do to keep his face smooth and his brow from furrowing in panic. He would not give this man that pleasure. And it was more important than ever that he maintain his facade of calm. Of everyone in the order, only Master Yoda himself would have been a worse choice of envoy for his plans.

The tall Jedi Master bowed back to him, no sign of disquiet or even surprise on the man's face. Had he known who he would confront when he stepped off that ship? Of course he had. The tiniest hint of a smile - was it mocking?- crossed the older man's face. The voice that he still heard echoes of in his dreams sounded out, rich and deep in the thick air of the swamp.

"Good to see you again, Obi-Wan."

*** Chapter Two ***

The magg transport they used to shuttle from the landing pad to Guresh was antique enough to be quaint and loud enough to exclude all conversation. The brakes squealed as the egg-shaped, magnetically supported car slid along the charged repulsor ropes at a snail's pace. They glided just over the scummy green surface of the lowland swamp, close enough to see the eyes of predators and the wet gleam of their ivory teeth through the grimed windows. Iron girders whined in protest as they were jostled and bumped on the single hard seat. Once, the car rocked perilously on the ancient cables and threw the young Knight's weight against his side.

Qui-Gon's skin burned through his robes at the faint and unintentional contact, and although he scarcely heard Obi-Wan's mumbled apology, he did note that the young man quickly inched away from him as far as the narrow seat would allow. His heart ached at the message implicit in that gesture.

Obi-Wan's head was turned to gaze out the window, and Qui-Gon took the opportunity to study the curved outline of his aristocratic profile, noting the tense lines about his mouth, the gentle furrow between his silken eyebrows. His student was deeply worried.

*What about?* Qui-Gon wondered. *The Ramians? Surely not. The situation here can't be that bad.*

There was tension coming from the city, true. Even open hostility, close to hatred. But there were no brands of recent violence along the Force. No murder or rioting that would have left a stamp on the city's Force-energy like a watermark on paper. Perhaps Obi-Wan was disconcerted about something else.

*Could I alone have upset him this much?* The Jedi Master lifted his bearded chin a little as hope stirred. *Perhaps it's not too late. I never meant for matters to go this far. I wanted him to be independent, yes, but not isolated. Not cut off from myself and the Order. I've let the bond between us dry up and die from lack, like an orchid perishing for want of water. Blasted pride. I should not have let this happen.*

He had already opened his mouth to tell Obi-Wan just that when the magg car screeched and the illumination orbs set in the ceiling winked out, plunging them into darkness.

The car tilted precariously as it negotiated a steep curve, and again Obi-Wan was thrown against him. He reached out to brace his former student and catch him from falling. One hand encountered a shoulder clad in the impersonal dignity of rough Jedi cloth, but the other-

Qui-Gon's mouth went dry. The other encountered the lines of a strong throat and the brush of gossamer-soft hair against his skin. It was dark, but memory provided what light denied him. He remembered the sight of that throat. The cream-white skin looking soft enough to bite, the beads of sweat that would dampen the short ends of the honeyed red hair to amber spikes before rolling down to pool in the deep hollows lining his collarbones.

The car had stabilized but the noise and darkness continued. No need to hold on to the young man anymore. Yet his hands lingered. Qui-Gon noted that Obi-Wan had not attempted to move away a second time. He was pliable in the Jedi Master's grasp, neither hindering or helping him as he was pulled closer against his broad chest. Qui-Gon wondered if the hammering of his heart was loud enough to hear over the magg car's groaning engines.

*Madness*, he told himself. *What are you doing?*

He might as well have been talking to the bulkhead. His large hands slid slowly up the compliant body, reaching to tenderly cup the face and pull it closer, warm, feathery breath ticking his lips. He hesitated there, sight shrouded in darkness, going by touch alone, inhaling Obi-Wan's moist breath.

His lips had parted, tongue ready to pierce and delve, when the spell was cruelly broken. The lights sizzled and the car was suddenly flooded with greenish fluorescence. Qui-Gon's eyes flew open.

Obi-Wan was staring at him coldly, his mouth firmly clamped shut, anger trembling the corner of his lower lip. So Qui-Gon's lips would have found that mouth if he had continued, closed and passionless as a clamshell. His desire would have broken upon that hard countenance like tidewaters on a fortress shore. Qui-Gon's breath froze under the wooden contempt of his former student's gaze. He dropped his hands and recoiled as if Obi-Wan's flesh scalded him.

"Obi-Wan, I --"

He never got the chance to finish. The magg car came to a jolting halt and Obi-Wan rose, hands folding smoothly into his sleeves, Jedi calm settling over him like armor. A weather-worn and rusted depot loomed beyond the scratched plex of the window.

"We must change cars here, Master Jinn." The formality of the address was not lost on Qui-Gon, and again his heart sank. "Hopefully there will be no more power outs. This line is run by the Drey and sometimes the Venyyn cut the lines in random acts of vandalism against them. The next magnet car will take us into the city proper. Please follow me."

Qui-Gon wanted to protest, to insist that they settle this here and now, but Obi-Wan's face was averted and his answer was clear in every line of his stiff form. It was a refusal.

Qui-Gon stood heavily and drew about him the ragged ends of his own dignity, thankful that the car was small and he was much larger and Obi-Wan obliged to exit the car first and allow him the room. It gave him the seconds he needed to collect himself. When his boots touched the rust- pitted platform he was as forbidding as any 13-year old Padawan could dread.

He saw Obi-Wan react when he joined him on the depot steps, and marked the flicker of unease in his heavy-lidded eyes that had nothing to do with what had just transpired. Qui-Gon reminded himself why he was here, and that -- while Obi-Wan would never fear him -- he might have every reason to fear a Jedi Master cloaked in the authority of the Senate.

"By Rama, look at that!"


"Look, there, past the slot vendor, it's Kenobi."

"Ah. I see him. Who...or *what* is that with him?"

"That's another one. *Another* Jedi. The clothes are a different color, but the same style."

"What...what do you think that means?"

"Well, it can't be a coincidence. The contract's coming to an end in just a span of days. That Drey flunky has been trying to hide it, but he's been meeting more regularly with the Guild...this new Jedi *has* to have something to do with that."


"I don't know. But Ludarr will want to find out why this new one is here. Kenobi is planning something. We have to find out what it is. There's no way we can let the damned Drey have one up over us."


"I'll follow them. You go tell Ludarr."

"Be careful. We know Kenobi...we don't know this new one."

"We will."

By night the energetic city was alive and bustling with activity. Gaslights shone on open-air markets that were attended by vocal hawkers. The wide streets -- jammed with foot traffic -- were little more than broad wooden walkways swaying over the marshy ground below. Flat, rectangular alloy slots stamped with the seal of the Trade Guild -- the local coinage -- traded hands rapidly. The slots were snatched greedily from palms and thrust into sleeves and pockets under the yellow light. Tight singlets and bare feet seemed to be the uniform of the day, although they passed a few crystal miners, both Eri and offworlders, in their blue Guild jumpsuits and the sickle tattoo on their chins. Everywhere there was haggling, arguing, and rapid commerce. It was, in many ways, a future metropolis still in infancy, regardless of the fact that it had been brutally mined for over two centuries.

The dichotomy of Guresh slipped by almost unnoticed for the young Knight. It was as common as the heavy reek of the decaying swamp and the ever-present throb of the massive Crystal Cutter that squatted in the center of the city. His home now for almost four years.

Obi-Wan refused to look at the man at his side as they navigated the narrow streets, he refused to do so even surreptitiously. Childish, perhaps, but he was holding a precarious enough grip on his emotions as it was. He couldn't afford to let anything slip. Certainly not with so much more than just his own personal feelings on the line.

Bastard, he thought grimly. What Sith-spawned kind of test had that little scene in the magg car been? Tiny shooting tendrils of pain were creeping up his arms and he realized that he was gripping his forearms tight enough to bruise within his sleeves. He forced himself to relax, to let his mind clear of the confusion and the anger that were sudden and obtrusive invaders in his mind. Was Qui-Gon trying to throw him off? What could such a maneuver mean?

He could still feel the heat of the man's fingers on his throat, hear the soft, shallow intake of breath that might have meant desire, smell that familiar musk of sandalwood and Qui-Gon that would always mark his former master. Even in the swaying, formless dark of the car interior.

Why? Certainly, it was not what it seemed. Why would the man have cast him aside so long ago, cut all ties to him, if he was only going to make a pass at him at the first given opportunity? A teenager groping a potential first lay in the dark. There was no understanding it, and so, he reasoned, there was an ulterior motive.

Qui-Gon was trying to unsettle him. The Council surely suspected that he had been hiding things, he had intimated as much in his latest messages. He should have foreseen that they would send the one man they knew would be able to ferret out their truths for them. He felt his heart harden just a little more. Indeed. There could be no other explanation. He would have never thought it of the man, would never have dreamed him capable of that level of manipulation... but then...

But then he would have never believed his master able to lie to him as he had. Clearly he had seen the man through the blue glass of hero worship as only an inexperienced Padawan could. It had taken a brutal lesson to teach him the reality of things, but he had learned it. And learned it well. He would not make the mistake of trust again.

He would have to push down all the feelings that had risen so shockingly and suddenly to surface again. Feelings that he had believed he had managed to vanquish. Apparently they had only sifted to the bottom, not disappeared as he'd hoped. They made him weak at a time when he could ill afford it.

Ramos needed him now in a way that Qui-Gon never had. His former master's presence would hopefully change nothing in the long run. He wouldn't allow it to. He would be polite and unaffected if it killed him. He must not forget that Qui-Gon Jinn could be the Jedi he needed as well as anyone else.

He turned a sharp corner up Ulten 6 row, not bothering to make sure Qui-Gon followed. Distantly, he wondered what the Jedi master's impressions of Guresh were. He knew that his own initial look at the mining town had not shown him a single one of the many levels at work here. Would his master's greater experience tell another tale? How much had the man studied up on Ramos before he had come?

Did he know of the Venyyn and the Drey? Did he know of those two Clans' long enmity? Obi- Wan was certain that if his master knew anything, it was of the Guild's control of crystal production...of Eri's investment in their colony moon. These were the things the Senate of the Republic would care about...and by extension, the Jedi Council.

Lately it had been worse than ever. Small incidents, minor disturbances, offensive vandalism like the cutting of the power to the magg cars...these things had been levering the ever-present tensions even higher. The coming end of the Guild contract only made things even more volatile. He could almost feel the taut nerves of the city like a tangible thing, both Clans' hatred of each other. Their suspicions. Back and forth.

A shop window would be broken in a Drey shop and the Venyyn would be blamed. A Venyyn worker was beaten on the streets and the Drey were blamed. It never seemed to end. A snake eating its tail. They should be concentrating on what they were going to do when the Guild left in three days. When they were deprived of their economy for good.

But it was hard not to feel for their frustration. They could not channel their anger at the Guild who handed them their meager pay or at the Eri who eagerly took it right back out of their hands. So they hated each other instead. It was easy, Venyyn had been fighting Drey since they had colonized the moon over 500 years before.

Old habits die hard.

He watched his master out of the corner of his eye as Qui-Gon skimmed his hand over a fence in passing and rubbed the residue between his fingertips with a frown.

"Does all this pollution stem from the erium mining, Pad-- Obi-Wan?" he asked.

Obi-Wan decided, after a moment, to ignore the slip. It was a place he didn't feel comfortable going. There was a part of him that wished he were still a Padawan to be called such, still desperately in love with his handsome master, still oblivious to the betrayal that had waited for him. But he would say nothing on the subject.

"Yes, Master Jinn," he said coolly, absurdly proud of the impassive tone of his voice. "The mining here has been hard and fast. The Guild wishes only to extract as much erium crystal as it can from the moon as quickly as it can. The Cutter," he gestured vaguely back towards the omnipresent throbbing sound as he moved onwards up the street, "uses a very primitive method of power generation. It burns a local petroleum found in great quantities in the swamp. It is very effective in running the crystal blades, but it has the unfortunate side effect of pumping particulate waste into the air." He snorted softly. "They use the same methods to run the drills in the mines."

The fact that his master did not inquire further confirmed his guess that Qui-Gon already knew the background politics of Ramos. He was only here to determine what Obi-Wan was up to. Hopefully, if all went well, he would learn only the things that he needed to. The things that Obi- Wan needed him to.

"We are almost there. I hope you don't mind that I arranged for you to stay with the Drey Clan leader. If you feel it is too compromising, I have also made sure that you can house with the Guild while you are here, if you wish." Obi-Wan glanced up at the tall man, finding nothing but a calm acceptance there. "If you are worried about the Venyyn, don't be. They couldn't care less about where you stay as long as it's not with them. I can tell you that you will be more comfortable with Rivyyn than with the Guild." He stopped himself before he could add that he didn't care one way or the other if his master bunked in the swamp itself.

*Bitterness should not be a Jedi trait,* he reminded himself tartly.

Qui-Gon bowed his head slightly, meeting his eyes with careful neutrality. Was this the same man who had tried to kiss him in the darkness of that magg car?

"I trust your opinion, Obi-Wan. You have been here far longer than I have."

He wasn't sure why those words sent a slight flush of heat down his spine. Perhaps it was because he still treasured every glimmer of a compliment from this man, though he hated to think that was the case. *Well, he was your master,* he reminded himself, *it's only natural to want his praise.*


Praise. Of course, he thought sourly, what exactly did that mean to him coming from Qui-Gon? They continued on in silence for several more minutes, passing deeper into the more sprawled residentials of Guresh.

"Kenobi." They were not quite into the Drey Quarter when he heard the sound of his name. He knew the voice, and he stifled a tiny smile of triumph. Perfect. Thank the Force that Ludarr was so predictable. A facade of oily calm slid down over Obi-Wan before he turned to face the tall man who had hailed him.

Ludarr Venyyn was perhaps only a few years younger than Qui-Gon. A big man, hardened from a lifetime of labor and tension on his moon, he was the leader of the Venyyn Clan. Much like every other Ramian, he was both stubborn and narrow- minded. His hard-headed view of the world was inbred into him as a child forced to work in the crystal mines, like most Ramians, just to make enough money to pay the inflated Erian prices on food and shelter. Neither the Venyyn or the Drey were a cheerful people, and neither found things such as hope and humor to be worth any more than spit on a sidewalk.

Now he glared at the two Jedi flanked by four of his Venyyn, none of whom looked particularly happy to see either of them.

"Ludarr Venyyn." He bowed slightly, letting a slightly greasy half-smile slide across his lips, making him look like he was in on a joke that no one else was smart enough to get. He had practiced the smile in the mirror. He knew it unnerved Ludarr. Made the mistrustful man even more suspicious of him. "This is Qui-Gon Jinn, Jedi Master and Envoy of the Council." he said smoothly.

He watched as Ludarr tried not to let himself show his disquiet or his curiosity, but the man was not a politician. He was leader of his Clan, true, but only through merit and family name. He was incapable of being disingenuous.

"What are you doing here, Jedi?" He growled gruffly at Qui-Gon, folding his arms across his chest and lowering his brows. "Come to interfere with our world, too? Isn't one of you enough?"

Ludarr was a plain spoken man, not given to sly threats or innuendo, but it was clear that he was trying very hard to find out why this strange Jedi was on Ramos without asking directly.

Obi-Wan definitely wanted to keep him guessing. He interrupted before Qui-Gon could speak for himself.

"He is here on Council business, and none of yours, Ludarr. Not to worry. As soon as the contract is up, we'll all be out of your hair."

The Ramian only glared at him them, narrowing his eyes.

"Good. The sooner you leave, the better for all of us. Cursed outworlders. Why can't you just mind your own and leave us ours?" It wasn't a question Obi-Wan was meant to answer, nor did he try.

"A fine idea, Ludarr, since neither I nor my order has any interest in 'yours'." He bowed again as if in farewell. " And perhaps we can find the time to share a meal while Master Jinn is here?" The young knight chuckled inside at the very thought of the xenophobic Venyyn inviting the Jedi to dinner. Ludarr didn't seem to find it funny at all. Instead, he turned with his small retinue and stalked off into the night, his frustrated anger trailing him in a dark cloud.

Obi-Wan could almost feel sorry for the man. But not quite. The young Knight had been rather closely involved with the Drey for the years he had been on Ramos, and it was hard not to have a bias against the Venyyn. Especially with all that they had been doing lately to up tensions between the Clans. If it got much worse, Rivyyn was going to finally lose her temper and bite back. His plans would be ruined if that happened. Force, just three more days.

He could feel Qui-Gon's questions about Ludarr practically bubbling in the Jedi Master, but he pushed ahead, not ready to explain the point of the little scene they had just had. Not yet.

Obi Wan felt slightly buoyed by the encounter. He had *hoped* that Ludarr was paying close attention to his activities, and the fact that he had been confronted so soon after Qui-Gon's arrival was very encouraging.

"That was the leader of the Venyyn. Ludarr." Obi-Wan explained, trying to keep the silence between them filled, trying to keep his master from asking his questions about Obi-Wan's attitude towards the Venyyn leader. "Later I will take you to meet the both the Erian representative, Jaarahn Bos; and Remoran Krunn, the Guild Representative." He could not keep the blatant distaste out of his voice as he spoke the two names. Qui-Gon did not miss the inflections.

"You speak as if you hate these men as much as the Ramians must."

Qui-Gon's voice was mild, but Obi-Wan was immediately alert to the barbs in the statement. He almost _almost_ smiled, but staved it off. He *had* given the Council the impression that he was, perhaps, losing his objectivity. But he knew that he couldn't really lie to his former master. He had always been terrible at it, and he couldn't honestly remember a time that he had managed to lie to Qui-Gon and get away with it.

"I do dislike them." he said simply. It was the truth. "Mostly I feel contempt for their greed, for what they are doing to the people here. The Guild has a chokehold over Ramos with this contract that is, essentially, entirely to their benefit. The Ramians make nearly nothing from the environmental rape of their planet, and what is left, the Erians take in rent and for supplies that the Ramians cannot manufacture themselves." He shook his head again. "It's a grim situation. Ramos can do nothing really, they have no money with which to escape the Guild's grip. Eri takes anything they might try to save. The Guild mines, and the Ramians work."

"This is nothing new, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon's voice was still mild, almost lecturing. "This has happened on a hundred thousand worlds. The strong dominate the weak. It is something that will never change."

To that, Obi-Wan had nothing to say. He wanted to tell his master then, he wanted to tell him that Ramos would not fit that pattern for much longer. And he almost did. But there was still a wall of mistrust between them, and he was not entirely certain that he could ever make himself trust Qui- Gon again.

The conversation seemed to be over then as he gestured at the door looming ahead, set back into a modest but large two storied home. He waved up to Irina on the roof as they pushed through the entranceway and she lifted her slender laser rifle in return before settling back to her guard post.

The lights were dim, telling him that Rivyyn wasn't yet home. He looked up and around the large family greeting-room, a place where he had spent most of his time on Ramos. The walls were painted with a gold-green that seemed to shimmer in the low light, and hung with a number of clan portraits including one of his favorites. One of Rivyyn with her father, Senay.

The flat holo had been taken only a few month before Senay's death, but one would never know that a wasting sickness was in the process of destroying his body. His black eyes were bright and discerning under a shock of brushy white hair, his face worn but full of energy and spirit. Obi-Wan had teased the old man frequently for his striking resemblance to Chancellor Valorum. Once, during a particularly difficult series of negotiations, Obi-Wan had threatened to dress Senay in Senatorial robes and use him as a shill to force the Mining GuildÕs hand.

Rivyyn was clasped close to her fatherÕs side in the holo, and she was looking up at him, her profile tilted, her hair still long and tumbling in russet waves down over her shoulders. She appeared to be caught in the moment of saying something to him and Obi-Wan had always been fascinated by the frozen snapshot of time the holo presented. A stolen moment of life and joy, captured forever to hang on the wall in a museum of similar vignettes.

He glanced up at Qui-Gon again to see that the man was perusing the main room carefully, letting his eyes skim the sedate, tasteful furniture, the mix of old world and new, the collection of paper books and artifacts on the shelves along the back wall.

Standing in the warm light of the room, seeing his master in the context of what had been his home for over three years, noting that the big man was just as magnetic...just as alluring as he had always been, he abruptly whirled and stalked from the room with no warning.

"Drop your things anywhere, Master Jinn," he threw over his shoulder tightly through gritted teeth, "I'll make you some tea."

In the spacious kitchen, Obi-Wan absently reached for the ceramic teapot, his mind still troubled by the sight of Qui-Gon's imposing silhouette filling his favorite room, exactly like he had secretly fantasized so many times...

He reached for the iron kettle to heat water in, but his hands fumbled and the slim handle slipped through his fingers and clattered noisily on the stone tiles. "It's fine!" he called out to Master Jinn before he came to investigate. He filled the kettle with water and set it on the heating unit, then leaned his forehead against the cool, polished wood of a center beam. He had to put an end to these thoughts, this ridiculous longing that had no hope now of being fulfilled and never had. His life had taken another path, and that path was going to be home any minute, and she was no fool.

*Rivyyn is not going to like this,* he foretold ominously. *Not at all.*

*** Chapter Three ***

Fingers trailed lightly over the mantle as he walked along it. Holos and trinkets, the gentle clutter of a lifetime of random collecting. No dust, but the memories were thick. He could feel an old grief here, long healed. A death? Perhaps the old man in the holos? A wood fire crackled and snapped in the grate below, sending the occasional spark sailing into the room to char to black in the overabundance of oxygen. Obi-Wan was here too, tied into the fibers of the room almost as surely as the baubles on the shelves and the photos on the walls. His former apprentice's bright threads intertwined with the Force of the house, lovely and vibrant in that way that Obi-Wan had of making everything he touched more alive. More beautiful.

He shrugged out of his cloak in the warmth of the fire and refused to allow his mind to veer back to what had happened in that darkened magnetic car. Only years of self-discipline let him succeed. It was very hard to make himself disregard the look of contempt that had been pressed across such usually amiable features.

A moment later the tight weave of his control frayed and unraveled completely. He picked up the last holo on the mantle.

His apprentice was pictured there, autumn-gold hair only slightly shorter than it was now, gilded with sunlight, his thistle-gray eyes glittering with that unique mix of impudence and intelligence. The soft curve of his mouth was half-parted, forming around a word that Qui-Gon could never guess at, and his arms were wrapped tightly around a beautiful young woman who gazed out of the picture frame with a blazing challenge in her black eyes and the promise of a fight to any who might take her on. He held the holo loosely in nerveless fingers for a long moment, simply staring at it. This was why Obi-Wan's spirit was so strong here.

He wasn't sure he was breathing properly as he forced his fingers to uncurl from the frame. He had known, of course, that this would happen. He would have been cruel and selfish to wish that it wouldn't. But Force help him, he had hoped...

"So." The word came from the arched entryway into the greeting-room and Qui-Gon spun sharply about, his eyes finding the very woman in the photo standing, arms akimbo, in the hallway.

"You're the watchdog Jedi? The one come to spy on Obi?" She asked, her eyes glittering dangerously, one dark red eyebrow lifted. She looked very much like her photo, only her hair was shorter. It was clipped loosely to her skull in soft curls and waves that hung over her forehead. There was a dark reddish tattoo under her right eye in the shape of a crescent moon with both points facing upwards. She was of a height with his former apprentice, her body slender and tight with muscle. She was currently wearing a fitted brown jumpsuit that was smeared thickly with oily residue, her skin painted with it, her hands gritty and stained.

She strode into the room before he could speak and thrust her hand out to him, refusing to break eye contact. She wasn't even slightly intimidated by either his height or his Jedi stature as so many often were and he wondered briefly if that was a Ramian trait, or simply her own. He took her hand without hesitation, knowing that she was using the fact that her hands were filthy as an attempt to immediately set him off guard. He had to smile faintly at her aggressive stance, and she narrowed her eyes slightly, peering up into his face with a lack of respect for his personal space that was slightly unnerving.

"My name is Rivyyn Drey. Leader of the Drey. You are...? Obi said he didn't know who they would send."

By the tone of her voice, Qui-Gon got the impression that she had already guessed who he was. Had Obi-Wan talked about him?

"I am Master Qui-Gon Jinn." He said softly, bowing over her hand before taking her attempt to offset him and negating it by lifting the grimy set of fingers and pressing an old-fashioned kiss to them.

She seemed surprised for a moment before her lips quirked and then bloomed into a smile so sharp it cut.

"Well, well." She said, pulling her hand back and refolding her arms. "How interesting that your council chose to send *you*."

Qui-Gon said nothing to that, having nothing to say and knowing full well what she meant.

"It is normal for the Council to send someone to check on our field operatives every now and then. Especially if they have been stationed in one place for such a length of time as Obi-Wan has been." His voice was smooth as he settled on the low couch, never letting himself break eye contact with the girl, oddly unwilling to allow her any small victory whatsoever.

She grinned at him again, showing her teeth like a predator before she strode over to the fire, finally looking away from him as her hands went to her filthy tunics and began to strip them away.

Asking no permission, she quickly shed her oil-crusted jumpsuit and tossed it into a bin against the far wall. Qui-Gon took note of the fact that she reached out and straightened the holo of her and Obi-Wan that he had disturbed. Clad only in a tight, white sleeveless undershirt and a pair of fawn-colored breeches, she turned towards him again, leaning her slender, athletic body against the mantle.

"How was your flight?" She asked. The question was a stall. For some reason she was unnerved by his presence. Her lovely face was calm, almost expressionless, but Qui-Gon could have sworn that he detected the faintest trace of a quiver at the corner of her mouth. Fear? Anger? He didn't know her well enough to guess.

"It was lengthy. You are a long way from Coruscant out here." he said mildly, suddenly determined to squash the green monster that was coiling in his belly. It was difficult. Very difficult with her standing limned in the firelight, so beautiful, so passionate. So young. Very much like his Obi-Wan. Something inside him trembled.

Dark eyes lined with thick black lashes emphasized by strong graceful brows, flicked over him again before skittering past him and suddenly lighting up in a way they had not since she had entered. The openness of her face was gone in another moment, but Qui-Gon already knew who she looked at. He realized in an instant that Rivyyn, for all her strong-man posturing, was as lost now in his apprentice as he had always been.

"There you are," Obi-Wan said, welcome in his voice as he walked into the room and set a silvered tray onto the narrow tea table. "I see you've already met." Obi-Wan's voice was oddly stiff as he moved to stand next to Rivyyn. The Jedi Master was almost pained to see the softening of his former student's features when he looked at the young woman. Obi-Wan had looked at him that way, once.

Qui-Gon reached over and busied himself with pouring tea as Obi-Wan exchanged a long kiss with Rivyyn.

"I understand," Qui-Gon said, wanting...needing to break the silence, "that Ramos V's contract with the Crystal Guild is nearly up. What do the Clans plan to do after that? The erium crystal deposits are almost dry, the Guild will not renew the contract."

Rivyyn snorted and broke away from Obi-Wan, sinking to the floor opposite the seated Jedi with a grace that spoke of youth and energy to spare. He passed her a cup of tea that she accepted as if it were expected that he serve her. It was almost enough to make him smile. She had confidence and arrogance to spare, she was a good match for his headstrong apprentice, and he forced himself to be gracious. He just hoped that Obi-Wan wasn't compromising his neutral position here by allying himself with one side or the other. Perhaps this relationship was part of the reason the Council was worried about his former padawan.

"I don't know what we're going to do, Jedi. None of us do. We have nothing on this moon but mud and rock. We used to have crystal, but we won't have that for much longer. As soon as it's gone, we'll have our moon back from the Guild, but we won't have anything else but Eri continuing to bleed us dry. And we can't stop them, they own us. We have no rights of our own." She took a sip, eyeing Obi-Wan where he stood at the fireplace, his hands folded into his sleeves. At the start of the conversation his face had gone suspiciously blank. It was an expression that Qui-Gon had learned to be wary of over their years together. An expression that usually meant trouble.

He was given no opportunity to study the youth further as they were interrupted by the chime of the door. It startled all of them, but it was Obi-Wan who sprang into movement, gesturing all of them back down.

"I'll get it," he said, already sweeping out of the room, allowing Qui-Gon to watch his slender form surreptitiously. He caught an intriguing glimpse of a blue tunic outside when Obi-Wan opened the door, but was not able to see a face before his former student simply slipped outside and shut the door behind him. He frowned slightly, his instincts tingling, but he was forced to interrupt his curiosity a moment later when Rivyyn cleared her throat. He looked back at her to find her staring at him with hard eyes.

"Do you mind if I'm open with you for a moment, Master Jinn?" She asked, setting her tea cup down with a clink of ceramic on wood. His mouth twisted in something that was a cross between pain and amusement.

"I doubt that you have any other way. Speak if you will."

She leaned forward, meeting his eyes solidly as she rested her elbows on the black wood of the low table.

"I know you hurt him. Obi has never told me details, but they aren't really important, now are they? I expect the Council chose you because they know you can get to him, hmm? Well, I just want to warn you right now that I won't let you twist him around your little finger again."

Qui-Gon felt himself getting angry, not necessarily at her words, but at the circumstances which had caused them. She was protecting Obi-Wan from *him*!

"Trust me, Madame, I did not train him to be so easily manipulated," he said stiffly, his blue eyes cold. She did not back down, instead she only leaned closer, her voice dropping even lower.

"I don't care about your empty words, Jedi. If you hurt him again.. well.." she leaned back and picked her tea up, "..I protect those I love."

A threat. She was threatening him. He would have laughed at the thought of this slender slip of a girl promising him bodily harm if it wasn't for the tearing pain in his chest. She was Obi-Wan's avatar now. She was his as surely as Qui-Gon ever had been.

It hit him hard then. The reality of it. Force. What had he done? What had he lost?

Obi-Wan walked into the room, smelling of cold swamp air and the tang of the cutter residue. The young man stiffened slightly as he came up behind Rivyyn when he felt the tension in the room, but Qui-Gon barely noticed. He managed to get up and give his goodnights before he vanished down the hall, following a hastily summoned servant to the relative isolation of the room he had been given.

He had thought of himself as a martyr those four long years ago. Now he was starting to see himself as more of a fool.

Lying sleepless on the bed in the room allotted to honored guests, which was on the almost subterranean lower floor, Qui-Gon heard a series of rhythmic thumps begin a staccato beat on the ceiling.

*Oh, no...*

He covered his forehead with a weary hand. * I'm being punished. I know it. I must have done something quite, quite terrible in a former life, to be so tried. I must have been a monster, a lecher, a defiler of virgin goats...*

He rolled over and pulled the covers up over his ears, trying to shut out the sound. The room was chilly and his skin felt branded where he had touched Obi-Wan in the magg car. That fleeting contact had felt so promising to begin with, until he had seen those eyes...

He snorted and turned over again. *What did you expect? You haven't seen him for four years. Haven't called, haven't sent a letter. Ten minutes off the transport and you're accosting him in a dank little car over a swamp. How did you think he would react?*

The staccato became a syncopated rhythm, and he sighed loudly in annoyance and jerked the blanket over his head yet again. Of all the trials visited on him so far in this mission, this was by far the worst, to have to listen to this lively -- and obviously very athletic-- young couple express their affections to each other when his own body was drawn tight as a bowstring and -

*"Oh, yes! Oh, yes, yes, AH!"*

His eyes flew wide. Slowly, the covers were pulled down in disbelief . He stared at the ceiling in the dim half-light and listened with a shrinking heart. He knew that voice. He had imagined it calling out to him in passion a hundred nights during their partnership, and a thousand nights since their parting.

Was this petty revenge or outright cruelty? Was Obi-Wan even capable of that?

*And why should he believe you would care, one way or another? Didn't you make it abundantly clear that you did not want him in your bed, would never want him, had never wanted him? Why should he even imagine this would affect you?*

When it became apparent that the thumping was not going to stop immediately, Qui-Gon resisted the urge to cover his ears and forced his mind to other things. Tallying the mid-quarter expenses for the Padawan hall, or going over those Ramian percentages he had attained from the Guild representative. Anything. Anything not to conjure a mental image to illustrate those sounds that seemed so vital they must be in this very room...

Now a second voice was added to the first. Breathless, higher, more urgent but yet more restrained than the male voice.


*Damned, that's what I am. Damned.*

Twenty minutes later he was still casting about for something mundane, disgusting, or absorbing enough to take his mind off the sounds of rapture that seemed to reverberate in every corner.

*Is he going for a record or something?*

He smiled in spite of himself, at the cold irony of his situation, and realized that he had been trying so hard to ignore the emanations and sounds that he had been making them all the more present in his mind.

*I knew he was capable of great passion. It's one of the reasons I was finally convinced to accept him as my Padawan. Who could have known those passions would turn to me?*

Who could have known I would turn out to be such a cursed idiot when they did?

He folded his hands over his breast as he laid perfectly still and allowed his mind to turn the key to the iron door of his mind, to look behind the shuttered gateways to the place he avoided like the plague. The only action he had ever taken as a Jedi that had been beneath him...

It had been late, the sunset Coruscant sky was swept clear of clouds by a recent storm, and he had left the Temple early after making last minute preparations for Obi-Wan's Knighting ceremony. It was to be at dusk the next day, but despite the joyous occasion, his heart had been heavy. He walked the stone path back to his quarters with a leaden step.

*I will have to tell him. Soon the bond between us will be broken in a way he would never have thought possible, nor I. I was right. He *is* passionate. Too much so. That trait could destroy us both, drown us willingly in its sinuous grip. He alone is not to blame. I helped him, may the Force forgive me. Together we forged chains of desire between us, and now I must break those links, though it will be like tearing out my own heart.*

He took perverse comfort in the knowledge that he would suffer as well, though Obi-Wan would be unaware of that fact. His apprentice must grow and learn to stand on his own. He could not be his safe harbor forever. One day he might be forgiven...

He had opened the door to his quarters to find Obi-Wan waiting for him, and the love and longing and -- Yes, say it, old man! -- the lust were stamped on his young body in marks plain enough for a child to see.

Thinking back, Qui-Gon smiled a little as the sounds of the lovers above lanced into him like sharpened knives.

Yes, young woman. He desired me once, as he desires you now. Yet... I think what you have is only a shadow of what he gave to me. For all that, I think you are the more fortunate, for you were not fool enough to refuse him.

He still remembered the look of joy and apprehension on Obi-Wan's face when he had entered his quarters. He knew instantly why he was there, had smelled the scent of freshly-shampooed hair and still-damp skin, and the subtle cologne he had used on neck and wrists. His Padawan had decided the waiting had gone on long enough. He had bathed and prepared and come here with his heart in his eyes to offer himself to him.

Oh, gods... Obi-Wan. Forgive me.

He had taken one step toward him, and then two, and then they were in each other's arms. He'd pulled the young man to him and fastened his mouth on his, arms reaching around to crush that slender, muscled form to him, palms moving over his back and through his hair, tongue flickering out to taste deeply of his mouth. Oh, Force, he was so sweet! And it was so little to ask, was it not? One kiss. One kiss for all the years that would be denied him. One kiss in recompense for the path of loss and pain that stretched out before him...

And then he had told him. He had cupped Obi-Wan's face in his broad hands and pretended that the kiss was an apology. Then he had told him the rest of it. He watched as disbelief washed over the fine, beautiful features, then anger, and then -- for the barest instant -- something that bordered on ripping both sanity and light from him. He watched in pride as Obi-Wan conquered the darkness that beckoned him and then viciously shoved him away. He had turned and fled, but not before casting a look back at him, a bolt of pure hate and betrayal, with only the wild tears streaming down his face to tell of the anguish behind it.

Two days later, Obi-Wan left for his first solo mission, and Qui-Gon informed the Council that he was taking a year's sabbatical. Only he knew it for what it was truly was -- a mourning.

Many times during that year he had remembered that kiss. Like poking a sore tooth, he had conjured up images in the night, the sweet, aching promise of that mouth pressed to his, the trembling body arching innocently into him. The suspended instant of bliss before it was all torn down.

A sudden crescendo of sound brought him back to the present. He was not surprised to feel his own hand caressing the flat expanse of his belly, tracing the ridges of muscle with a fingertip before reaching to grasp the thick wand that lay hot and rigid against his skin.

*Why not?*

Then a heavy, gravid silence came into the Force, spiraling into his presence like a red serpent. He could almost *feel* the orgasm strike through Obi-Wan's body as he spent himself into his willing lover. To anyone with an ounce of Force sensitivity it was like an engraved invitation to come and see. He trembled in his cold bed and resisted that temptation with a will that made beads of sweat pop out on his brow. He would not look, would not share in it. He would not be wanted.

Obi-Wan would never want him again.

Qui-Gon took his hand away from his throbbing member and rolled over onto his side, closing his eyes and willing his yearning body into an unsatisfied sleep.

*** Chapter Four ***

The sweat of their passion had long dried on their bodies, gluing them together where they still touched. Neither of them had fallen asleep. Instead Rivyyn had rolled over, picked up a datapad and began going over the numbers again. The same numbers. As if they were going to magically change and provide answers for her doomed world. Obi-Wan had simply lain awake, staring at the ceiling as he idly traced a path along her thigh with his finger.

He did not feel the drowsiness, the sated comfort that he normally indulged in after such a round of lovemaking as they had engaged in. Instead his heart felt pinched, as if there were a fist squeezing it ever so slowly. He had shut his eyes to that old wound for four years. Somehow he found himself surprised that it was still there now that he had bothered to look again.

"Obi-Wan? Are you listening to me?"

He jerked his head to one side, slightly startled, his unfocused blue-gray eyes finding Rivyyn's black ones. She was frowning at him, her data reader resting in her lap on the blankets. She took one look at his face and let a long breath out of her nose.

"He *is* the one you told me about, isn't he? Your old master? I knew it as soon as I saw him. As soon as I saw him look at you." she finally said, setting the datareader on the bedside table with a hollow thunk and folding her arms across her chest, making her breasts swell enticingly.

Obi-Wan, for once, did not notice.

"I'm sorry, Riv. What did you say?" he asked, still looking over at her without really seeing her. She threw up her hands and pushed out of bed, pulling her robe on as she stalked across the room to where she kept the liquor, her body a sharp blade of motion and kinetic energy as it passed through the swath of pale gaslight that stretched in the open balcony doors. Her shadow briefly blocked his eyes from the brightness and he let his gaze land on the trail of crumpled clothing that led to the bed.

Seeing his own tunic rumpled and abandoned on the floor where he had flung it earlier reminded him of the raw need with which he had stripped her of her clothing and thrown her on the bed. He had not admitted to himself yet just why he had been so intense in his passion. Just as he had not admitted to himself that it had not been Rivyyn who had sparked it in him. He turned his gaze back up to the ceiling where it had been for the past half hour, tracing the patterns of the cracked plaster idly.

"Are you going to talk about it?" she asked with a sigh, most of the sharp impatience gone from her voice now. He looked over again to see that she was leaning against the doorframe of the balcony swirling a tumbler of green Iriki brandy around and staring at him thoughtfully through the darkness. Her dark hair caught the moonlight in a halo of russet, but cast her features in sharp relief, making it hard to see her expression. He firmed his lips and let out a long breath of his own.

"You already know the story." he said softly, one hand coming up to brush his hair impatiently out of his eyes.

"I know what you told me. Which is pretty damned little." She lifted the glass to her lips and took a sip, lifting one slender leg up and scratching her knee with her toe. The robe fell open, exposing the creamy curves of her body to the moonlight. She really was beautiful, he thought with a smile, momentarily distracted from his troubling thoughts. He couldn't believe his luck sometimes. Times when he wasn't thinking about what might have been had things been different.

Not to mention other unexpected developments. He closed his eyes then, bringing his knees to his chest as he sat up, resting his chin on them. He could still see his Master as he'd come off that transport, blue eyes boring into him...seeing through him...just like they always had. He'd almost fallen at the man's feet then. It was only pride that kept him upright and every bit as collected as Qui-Gon was.

"There's no more to tell. There never was. He didn't want me. He lied to me. End of story."

"You know I don't believe that's all there is to it. Even if I don't know the man, I do know that no one could discard *you* like that. And I don't think that a man with a reputation like his, with the wisdom he's supposed to have... I just have a hard time swallowing that he would do such a retarded thing." Her voice was getting sharper again and he smiled at her, tilting his head on his folded arms and blowing his hair out of his eyes again with a little puff of air. Rivyyn got easily worked up when she thought something wasn't going the way she thought it should.

"Well, I was a slightly different person back then, you know. You didn't know me..." he said with a weak chuckle. She cut him off with a slash of her hand.

"Bah! You couldn't have changed that much. There's something you aren't telling me. Spill it, Kenobi." She downed the rest of the brandy in one swallow and set the glass onto the dresser with a dull clink before stalking back over to the bed, her robe still hanging open. With a grace worthy of a Jedi, she settled onto the end of the bed, folding her legs under her and sitting back against the footboard. She wasn't going away.

He sighed, finally caving.

"He'd..." he swallowed and rubbed the furrow between his brows, letting his gaze fall onto the curves and patterns the light made on the relief of the blankets. "He said that once I was a Knight I would be free to love him as a man. He told me that for two years...maybe longer. And then, once I was a Knight he told me the truth. Turns out it was all a lie to keep me focused. To keep me aiming for my knighthood. He hadn't wanted me. He never had."

"That's...horrible." There was a light of disbelief in her eyes now and he lifted one hand to wave it at her, unable to keep a short mirthless chuckle back.

"I went to him the night before, actually. The night before I was to be made a Knight." His voice was harder now, like cold gravel. "He had almost died in a terrible battle a short time earlier, and I'd nearly lost him. It gave me the courage to act prematurely..." he snorted softly, impatiently. "After all, I was going to be a Knight the next day. I couldn't wait any longer. I couldn't sleep, and I...I had loved him for so long." The Jedi let out a breath that was close to a sigh and closer to a shudder.

He fell into silence then, his eyes staring holes in the soft blankets of the bed. He was quiet for such a long time that Rivyyn reached out her hand to touch him, running one hand down his cheek, not surprised to find it damp. She simply withdrew back to her place and waited, giving him time.

"He gave me some empty words about how I was still too young to know what I wanted. That what he had told me those years before was, essentially, bait. He knew, he said, that I would be distracted from my studies, from the Order, if he hadn't taken my desires and pushed them ahead. Used them to help me focus on a goal. And then he said that he had never intended on following through with what he had promised. To top it all off, he told me that I was going to be a great Knight someday and that he was very proud of me." Obi-Wan gave a mirthless snort that sounded closer to a sob. "He still thought of me as a child. He never thought of me as anything else. He probably still does."

Obi-Wan sighed again, this time letting some bitter steel creep back into his voice.

"I asked for the first off-planet mission I could get and never looked back. I hadn't seen him since he cut my braid off...till today."

They were both silent for a long while, sitting on opposite sides of the bed, staring across the expanse of tumbled blankets and different worlds. Finally she grunted. Outside, a night jak shrieked indignantly at something and the sound of a large creature splashed in the swamp.

"He doesn't deserve you then," she said firmly. "If he lied to you, strung you along and then turned you down, he is the biggest fool in the Galaxy. I pity him." She grinned then, her teeth white in the gloom. "Besides, I suppose I should thank him. He's the reason you're mine now."

Obi-Wan snorted, reaching out finally and pulling her slender body across the bed to tangle in his arms. He was silent for a long time, his fingers carding through her silky short hair idly before he finally broke the silence again.

"There's still unfinished business between us. It's not over for me yet, Riv. I realized that as soon as I saw him today. It will never be over. Not until I hear it from his lips. An explanation. An apology or a ...a ...something. But I have to hear it. I should have ended this a long time ago, but I've been too cowardly to face him. And he's done an exemplary job of keeping his distance."

Her lashes tickled his neck as she pressed closer, her voice getting sleepy in the comfort of his embrace.

"I do have to tell you one thing, Obi. When I saw him look at me tonight... just for a moment, I saw something in that cold Jedi Master veneer. Something that looked a lot like jealousy."

His body rumbled under her ear as he snorted again.

"Not possible." he said, his voice slurring too. He was drained from the unexpected reunion more than he would have ever guessed. Weariness was seeping into his bones.

"Not possible...." he repeated to the still, humid air of the room, and he drifted in his mind. Sleep darted around the edges of his consciousness, playful as waves on a shore. Grainy colors blurred and blended into familiar shapes and sounds as his eyelids finally closed...

The crackle of the razorwood fire, the dappling of light and shadow on the walls blending with the omnipresent, distant throbbing of the Crystal Cutter in the center of town. In that disconnected, slow motion manner of dreams, he felt himself drawn into the cozy warmth of his memories.

An old man sat in a broad chair by the crackling fire, oblivious to the hissing greens and blues that the pollutants in the wood produced as he sorted through several stacks of flimsies. There was a blanket tucked around his thin knees that must have been placed there by the loving hands of his daughter. Of a certainty, Senay would not have thought of it himself. A telling wicker basket by his side held a sad pile of crumpled tissues - each hiding the black-stained evidence of the wasting lung-sickness that was slowly eating him alive. Warm black eyes lifted from the flimsies and a sallow hand gestured him inside the room.

"What are you lurking about in the shadows for, dear boy? Come. Sit. Grab a datapad and help me sort through this muck."

He smiled at the invitation and entered the room, pulling up a low stool and settling himself onto it as he accepted a slim stack of flimsy. Senay went back to poking at the datapad with a mixture of good humor and irritation.

"The Mining Guild is trying to squeeze another half percent from the southern region workers." he explained. "The profits would be paltry and it means almost nothing to them, but to many Drey families that half percent is the difference between want and starvation. We must find a way..." Senay trailed off, his brow furrowing slightly as he compared one page to another.

Obi Wan let his own eyes fall to the task at hand, happy to simply be given something quiet to do. The numbers were depressing, but he took comfort in the fact that Senay would find some way to squeeze by. He always seemed to. He felt eyes on him and he looked up with a half-smile on his face and a lift to his brow. The old man was gazing on him contemplatively.

"I had hoped you would be free to discuss the Guild negotiations last night after dinner, but it seems you were engaged otherwise. I could not find you anywhere."

It was with effort that he kept his face blank then, trying very hard not to flush red with the all-too fresh memories that suddenly bloomed in his mind. "I apologize. I had matters to attend to." Senay's thoughtful expression did not change beyond lifting up one side of his mouth in a half- grin.

"Hmm. Well... I sought my daughter's counsel when you were unavailable, but it seems she was engaged elsewhere, too."

Those shrewd eyes saw too much, and Obi Wan's instinct told him when he had to accept defeat. He slowly set the flimsies down, squaring his shoulders, and looked Senay directly in the eye. Rivyyn had wanted to tell her father, but he had not been certain it was a good idea. It appeared that the choice had been taken from both of them. He should have known that Senay would be too sharp for them.

"I mean no disrespect, sir." He prepared himself to defend Rivyyn, if need be, but Senay only chuckled at his alarmed expression and waved his hand in dismissal.

"Rivyyn makes her own choices, dear boy. Certainly it is none of my business. I make it a point to let her do her own thinking. She could certainly do worse than you." He paused a moment to hack almost violently into a fresh tissue and then spent a moment waving Obi-Wan's fretful attempts to assist him away.

A moment later the old man subsided back into his chair and it was as if he had never been struck with coughing. He smiled fondly at Obi Wan. "I wondered if the pair of you would finally get past all that arguing. Like I always say, shouting is just one small step from screwing."

Obi-Wan felt his face heat into a full flush at Senay's blunt words, but could not keep a smile from his lips.

"She does tend to be a bit confrontational," Obi Wan admitted with a weak chuckle. "It comes from that unshakable honesty."

Senay laughed, grinning openly at the young man, the datapad forgotten in his lap. "You won't find a lying Ramian, my boy. Lying does no one any good. It could be that very bit of misguided honor that got us in so deep with the Guild and their blasted contract. Because certainly, there are others who do not feel as we do about dishonesty."

A cold hand closed over Obi Wan's heart then, his smile fading like sunlight from a darkening sky. Senay's shrewd eyes did not miss the change in his expression.

"No," Obi-Wan agreed, his voice tired. "There are certainly others who do not follow that code."

The silence pressed around them for a span of moments, the fire, the crystal cutter, the simple quiet of a house.

"Do you want to tell me about it, Obi-Wan?" The voice was gentle, pressing him not at all, offering only the simple healing of relieving a burden. He had never told anyone about it, not even Rivyyn. He couldn't. It was too painful. Too ... humiliating. And it was still too raw. He found himself looking back at Senay without making a conscious effort to do so. The old man was simply waiting, still leaning back, compassion evident on his features. Not pity, never that.

He took a deep breath and let it out again. Senay was the closest thing he had had to a father. His master was not that, had never been that, was not supposed to be that. His master had been his guide, his mentor and his teacher... but never his father. Never a figure to which one could unload a weakness or a simple trouble with no price. His master had been there for him to fight beside, to pull strength from, to mold him - but not to simply accept him. That was not the place of a teacher. Senay was offering something he had never had. The gift of unburdening his soul with no judgement passed or lesson urged. Senay would not tell him to meditate on it or accept it or let his feelings into the Force. Senay would only listen and share.

He let his head fall back down between his shoulders, and in his dream he began to speak...

Obi Wan jerked violently out of sleep, his heart beating raggedly. His lips were on the verge of forming a word... a name. He knew it. He uttered a whispering moan and turned over, snuggling closer into Rivyyn's warmth, his life - his *real* life, not a shadow of the past- recalled to him. This was where he belonged.

Wearily, he closed his eyes and sought sleep again, mumbling an ancient children's chant against bad dreams...

The leader of the House of Drey customarily rose hours before dawn and grabbed a cold cup of tea and a bit of whatever was left from last night's dinner before meeting first with the household guards to discuss her schedule and then with her mining bosses. After that it was -- in descending order -- petitions, worker grievances, debtors, those accused of infractions of either clan or miner laws, and lastly, bureaucrats.

Not this morning.

Obi-Wan awoke to the feel of a warm body curled sinuously around his torso and legs. He moved closer into the heat, not quite awake, murmuring gently under his breath, his mind a clouded tangle of half-dreams with a tinge of old hurts haunting the edges of memory.

"What was that?"

Obi-Wan's eyes flew open to meet a pair of heavy-lidded black eyes staring down at him with hard amusement.

"Riv?" Obi-Wan blinked. "What are you still doing-"

"Those words you were whispering," Rivyyn continued. "One sounded almost like *master*."

Obi-Wan was fully awake now, and sat up, pushing his hair out of his eyes. "I think not," he said. "You're imagining things."

He was sorry the moment he said it. Rivyyn of Drey was many things, but she was *not* prone to imaginings.

*Neither*, he thought to himself, *Was she prone to insecurity. Yet what is that in her eyes, if not jealousy and ... fear?*

He reached for her, but she nimbly evaded him and rolled out of bed. "Best to get up," she said briskly. "It's going to be a long day."

The first shaft of orange sunlight struck through the glass casement and glowed like firelight on her nude body. Obi-Wan watched as she pulled on her singlet and boots with that sparse economy of movement that had first attracted him. The second thing that caught his eye was right before him, and his gaze lingered wistfully on the curve of breast and belly and the slide of taut muscles in her arms before they were covered by the plain gray singlet. Over her clothing she belted a brown tunic embroidered with a silver horned- moon badge; the standard the Drey. The color of the tunic identified her as much as the badge. Blue for the Guild, green for the Venyyn, and brown for the Drey.

Obi-Wan threw the covers off and reluctantly got out of bed.


She cut him short with a chopping movement of her hand. "Stow it, Kenobi. I'm not interested in being anyone's ball and chain. I don't own you, even if I act like it sometimes."

She smiled then, and stepped close to trail a finger down the center of his breastbone, digging in slightly with her nails when she reached his navel. "I don't mind a little baggage in a relationship. It's normal, and it's natural. I didn't expect you to be a monk before we met... oh wait, you *were* a monk."

Obi-Wan grinned, thinking her placated, and was leaning down for a kiss when she dipped her hand and seized both of his balls in her palm and squeezed. He yelped. Truly, she was not hurting him, just putting enough pressure on his tender organs to let him know how much it *could* hurt if she wanted to.

"_But_..." she continued, her voice gone to iron. "I don't tolerate lies, Obi-Wan. Your feelings for your master are one thing, lying to me is another. If you still want him, you'd better let me know. I can understand the attraction. Hell, I'll invite him up for a tumble with us if you like. The nights are cold, and he's not a bad-looking old guy."

"Understatement of the year," he breathed, and grunted when she tightened her grip. A shadow passed over her face, a rare moment of open fear and weariness before she suddenly released him and turned to gather up the rest of her articles. She had to be strong for so many, for the Drey, for him ... and for herself, sometimes it was easy to forget how tired she must be.

He reached out for her, refusing to let her maneuver her way out of showing any tenderness simply because she had put her tough-guy armor on. He could understand fear. He had lived it, he didn't want her to suffer as he had. This time he caught her arm and pulled her close, molding his mouth to hers, reveling in the fact that as hard as she was, she always softened for him. The kiss was brief, but he could still taste her uncertainty. She was still afraid when she pulled abruptly away from him a moment later, her armor settling neatly back over her.

"I have to get this day rolling. Even if I can't fulfill the rest of my morning duties, I have to at least meet with the mining bosses before your Jedi watchdog begins to suck up my time. I'd better get to it. The *pair* of you can join me in my office when you're ready."

"He's not-" Obi-Wan began, but stopped when Rivyyn strode to the door and abruptly exited, leaving him standing nude with his jaw open.

Twenty minutes later, showered, dressed and shaven, Obi-Wan strode into the morning room, his mood already thoroughly soured, to see Qui-Gon standing by the fireplace, reaching for a piece of firewood in the bin with his bare hand.

"Stop!" Obi-Wan shouted. Too late. Qui-Gon had already grasped the black- barked split log in his hands. He hissed in pain and dropped it instantly. The seemingly harmless kindling landed on the floor with a thud and Qui-Gon was staring at sliced palms that were beginning to run with red.

Obi-Wan hurried to a cabinet and took down a large lacquered box. He froze for only a moment when he saw that the comm unit in the corner was on, the blank screen and flashing prompt telling him that a message had been sent. *Probably a message to the Council about me*, he thought, frowning just slightly. His heart skipped a few beats as he realized that he had not remembered to erase his communication log files from the morning before. Had Qui-Gon seen them? That would definitely raise questions in the older man's mind. Questions he couldn't answer just yet.

Pushing aside vague fears, he went to Qui-Gon and led him to a chair, seating himself beside him and taking one of the broad, callused hands in his own.

"Razor wood," he explained as he opened the box and withdrew a small bottle with a spray nozzle affixed to its tip. "Didn't you see the gloves beside the firebox?" He quickly sprayed both of Qui- Gon's injured palms with the painkilling coagulant and wiped them off with a sterile strip of bandaging from the box. The bleeding stopped and did not return.

"It appears I did not study my planetary briefings as well as I should have," Qui-Gon said. His voice was neutral. "The fire was dying. I was trying to be helpful."

Obi-Wan reached for another bottle from the box, an antibiotic from the markings on its label. "It would be helpful if you did not lose your hands to sepsis while you were here. Razor wood grows in the lower swamps, the really polluted ones. We spray it, but it's still full of some very nasty bacteria when it goes into the fire. See the filter-hoods above the fireplace? They're to protect us from the airborne contaminants released by the burning that temperature does not kill. Too, this is a very underdeveloped world. I would not want to trust my health to the medical facilities here."

Qui-Gon peered into the depths of the lacquered box and saw the assortment of bottles, syringes, and pills stored there. "Still thinking ahead, I see."

A harmless sentence. It could have meant nothing, or everything. Obi-Wan declined to reply, avoiding Qui-Gon's blue eyes, which were sparkling with warmth and something Obi-Wan refused to speculate on. He affixed a few strips of bacta tape to the shallow injuries. "There." He tried to release Qui-Gon and suddenly found his own hands gripped tightly.

He had started to rise. Qui-Gon pulled him back down with unrelenting strength, despite his resistance. "Obi-Wan... we need to talk."

"We... I..." Obi-Wan stuttered, then flushed, more in anger at himself than embarrassment. Why did this man always make him feel like a gawky adolescent on his first date? "I... there's nothing to talk about. It's over."

Qui-Gon shook his head, a bemused expression on his aquiline features. "What is over?"

Obi-Wan looked down at their joined hands, feeling as if his heart were about to thud out of his chest. His breath seemed to stick in his throat. "Don't play games with me. Not again. I can't --"

The flow of words stopped when he found himself abruptly released. Qui-Gon stood and walked to the fireplace, his back to him. "No games, Obi-Wan. I promise. But perhaps," he turned and gave him a sad smile. "Perhaps we can address this later."

Obi-Wan felt like throwing the box at his head. He wanted to force Qui-Gon to look at him so he could shout into his face that he was no longer a boy to be manipulated. It was just like Qui-Gon to think that he could. He was a smug, lying, pompous, infuriating old -!

Qui-Gon placed his hands on the mantle and leaned forwards, his head bowed, ropes of silken gray hair sliding forward to hang down on either side of his face, curtaining his expression from view. Obi-Wan's throat went dry as he stared at the line of his back, the broad triangle of his shoulders, the trim hips tapering into the strong muscles of his legs. His illusions of maturity faded like smoke.

*Right. Nothing to talk about. Like hell.*

"Use the gloves next time," he said brusquely. "And be more careful."

Qui-Gon did not look at him. "I will try, sir Jedi."

Was that mockery of humor? Could he trust the obvious affection in that voice, or was it just another studied artifice to get under his guard?

Well, he had worked hard on his armor these last four years. It was going to take more than a few smiles from this particular Jedi to earn his trust.

Obi-Wan closed the box and replaced it in the cabinet. He purposely did not look again at the Jedi Master. "Rivyyn is waiting in her office. She requests that we join her after we've eaten, and then I've scheduled us to tour the Toran mine facilities. Is that acceptable to you?"

Qui-Gon turned and made a half-bow to Obi-Wan, Knight to Knight. "It is acceptable."

Obi-Wan strode into the kitchens, but not before he saw the disheartened look Qui-Gon directed at him. The line of Obi-Wan's smooth brow hardened as he deliberately pushed away the unwanted emotions.

Oh yes, it was going to take more than that. A lot more.

*** Chapter Five ***

Toran Mine was almost an hour from the city by magg train. Obi-Wan stood with Qui-Gon, packed upright in a large group of perhaps twenty five miners, all heading up into the mountains for the day. Each wore the brown of the Drey, but there were a few in blue, all offworlders, all virtually segregated into the front of the oblong space. None of the Drey paid the blue-tunic workers any mind, but Obi-Wan could sense the resentment buried just under the skin, like hidden spines never breaking the surface.

It was hard to feel anything but antagonistic towards workers that were paid twice what the Ramians were for jobs that were considerably less dangerous. It was the Guild, of course. They brought in their own workers for the higher- paying jobs. They had medical benefits within the Guild's protection and they enjoyed a number of other, less, prominent perks that became clear after only a few days of working alongside them. Of course, the Guild loved to state that any who wished could become a member. You only had to pay the rather extravagant fees that seemed to only apply to Ramians. No Ramian of either Clan would ever be caught dead in a blue tunic, that much was clear. Though the moon was definitely getting the short end of the stick, her people still had their pride.

In spades, they had it.

Obi-Wan grimaced to himself, reaching up to rub at the bridge of his nose unconsciously. Sometimes it felt like it was never going to end. Sometimes it felt like he was rolling a ball of slippery mud uphill. The thing that lay between him and his former master now was only adding water to the mix. He would have to continue on schedule, distracting Jedi Master or not. It would have been so much easier had the Council sent anyone but this one.

"Are you feeling alright, Obi-Wan?" The voice was pitched low and perfectly polite. He glanced up into blue eyes that seemed far too close. Qui-Gon was nearly pressed against him in the train car, both of them clinging with one hand to the frayed rope that strung along the top of the compartment. All around them, miners stood and swayed, muttering and mumbling in a muted rumble of idle conversation. He let the hand he had been rubbing his face with fall back to his side, the smooth countenance of a Jedi slipping back into place. It was getting easier to do, he thought. Perhaps he could get through this after all.

But not if he kept slipping like that in front of his old master. That would end this entire thing a little too quickly. The thought of it all crumbling so close to completion was enough to urge him to stretch a false smile across his lips.

"No, Master Jinn. I'm just a little tired," he said evenly.

Qui-Gon tilted his head to one side slightly, studying him, and Obi-Wan turned away, pretending to watch the passing scenery of the rocky talus slopes beyond the dirty windows. They had passed treeline and there was little vegetation beyond, only a few scrubby bushes and the occasional shock of yellow alipi grass. He could almost feel Qui-Gon's gaze on him like a heated touch to his skin. It was disconcerting.

Had he *really* whispered 'master' to Rivyyn this morning? What kind of repellent irony was that? All Qui-Gon had to do was set one foot back into his life and suddenly he was going back to the dreams that had plagued him in his last years as an apprentice. Pathetic, Kenobi. What sort of weak-willed creature was he?

He crushed the nymphs of his fantasies under a mental boot-heel. Even if Qui-Gon had come here to Ramos on the bent knee of forgiveness, even if he *wanted* to forgive the man...he *still* had to do what he had to do. Nothing could change that now. He had worked too long...and too much was at stake.

Not to mention Rivyyn herself. He wouldn't hurt her for the world. He knew that she was more than fully capable of handling herself, but he couldn't live with himself if he had ever been as dishonest with someone as Qui-Gon had been with him. And she deserved so much. She would get it, he vowed to himself grimly. Even if he hadn't already promised her father...she would get it.

Thoughts of Senay lifted his spirits a little. He wondered sometimes if Senay were watching him. If he would approve. He hoped so. He slid his hands into his robes and gripped his elbows, relying on the Force to keep him upright in the swaying car. Outside now he could see the approaching black stain on the sides of the cliffs that spoke of the exhaust pipes, several 10 meter-wide duranium conduits through which most of the crystal-drill waste billowed out of the mines themselves. It coated everything in the vicinity with a greasy, black film.

"We're here," Obi-Wan said softly, hating the look of the Toran Mine now as much as he ever had. It was an abomination against nature. In a day and age when there were any number of clean methods for removing the valuable crystal from the mountain, it was vile that these people burned petroleum to run their tools. Not the Ramians, he corrected himself. Never the Ramians. They would have been happy never mining at all. It was the bad luck of the draw that had landed their colony on a rich energy crystal deposit. It had changed who they were as a people overnight, and they were still fighting that change now. Even two hundred and fifty years later.

Obi-Wan could see Qui-Gon's immediate distaste and horror at the sight of the mine itself as soon as they stepped off the transport onto the platform. He remembered his own reaction four years earlier, and he suspected that he had not been as controlled in his revulsion as his old master was.

His gray eyes shifted from the Jedi Master to scan the wide platform. It was emptying as the workers filed unenthusiastically towards the mines, but he hesitated. He couldn't remember a time when he had exited that car here and Rivyyn had not been waiting for him, her arms folded, her slim hips canted and her face alight with a sharp grin that tended to frighten most people. She was busy, he told himself. And she got a late start. But still, he knew, deep down, that she was troubled by Qui-Gon's presence.

*No*, he amended to himself. *Not by Qui-Gon's my reaction to it.* And she had every right to be uncertain. He himself was uncertain. He needed to deal with it, and quickly, before everything he had tried to build here fell apart. Damn the council. Damn them for sending this man.

The platform was empty now and he knew that Qui-Gon was going to ask him, any minute now, what they were waiting for. The magg train left the depot with a screech and a wail of rusted metal, heading back down the mountain for another load.

"This is the Toran Mine," Obi-Wan explained uselessly. She wasn't coming. She had said for them to meet her in her office. She must have meant it. "It's the largest of the Drey holdings. They run it, as much as it is in name only. The Guild controls most of the day-to-day operations through their own members." He shook his head slightly. "I'm sure you read about it already."

Qui-Gon was still looking around at the gutted valley they stood in, his own hands folded serenely into his sleeves. The black smoke blocked out most of the blue of the sky, and the natural golden blush of the rock's color was matted out by the grimy, greasy film. The mine's opening itself sat about two hundred yards away, a gaping, manmade cavern that was both roadway and walkway. Men and machines clogged the mouth, uniforms both blue and brown mixing into a hodgepodge of color against the grim, darkened landscape.

"I've ... " he began quietly. "I have never seen such terrible pollution from a single source before."

Obi-Wan had nothing to say to that, the sight before them spoke for itself.

"Well, that's always reassuring to hear."

He hadn't realized just how much he had been hoping to hear that wry voice until it sounded out behind them. He turned, a smile breaking across his face before he could hide it. She had come after all.

Rivyyn never walked anywhere. She stalked. It was a trait she shared with her late father, Senay. Both of them together had been something. A whirlwind was one way to put it. Some called them a meat grinder. Her own face was alight a rare open expression of emotion. They did not touch as she came up to them, they didn't need to. He could feel the fire in her through the Force, a warmth that had always attracted him like a moth to light. He had especially needed her blunt heat, the lure of her utter and complete honesty. After Qui-Gon had crumbled his world with a single lie.

"I saw you standing down here and I thought I would walk you inside before I meet with the Guild repairmen. We have a broken drill bit that's shut down the entire J Quadrant. But all that aside, I've arranged for a tour of the new T Quad. Herall will take you both down into the mine itself, Master Jinn. If that's alright with you."

She lifted her eyebrows up at the Jedi master. Why did she have to make such a simple statement into a challenge? Obi-Wan thought with faint amusement. He found himself interested to watch how his master interacted with Riv, and his eyes slid to the older man's face curiously.

Qui-Gon merely nodded his head, his eyelids hooding slightly. Was that a flicker of annoyance? Or something else? Had Rivyyn really said he had seemed jealous the night before? It seemed hard to believe now, in the light of day. The man was like a Hoth glacier.

"Of course. Thank you for taking the time, Mistress Drey."

Mistress. That was rich. He couldn't refrain from grinning at his lover then.

"Sounds good to me, too, 'Mistress'. Not that you asked *me* if it was alright." He linked his arm with hers and they began to walk towards the mine. She gave him a sidelong glance that let him know his attempts to put right the tension between them were not going unnoticed, but neither were they working. She turned her head back to Qui-Gon instead.

"No one calls me anything but Rivyyn. I suggest you do the same."

The tall man inclined his head in amused acquiescence even as they pushed into the bustle surrounding the entrance to the mine. Obi-Wan could see the Jedi Master's mild attitude annoyed her, as if she had expected to make more of an impact upon him. Obi-Wan smiled wryly, turning his head to hide the expression. Qui-Gon had faced down killers and Sith and such humans that to call them pure evil would be more than kind. But only he knew how very much Qui-Gon could be affected. Only he knew how good Qui-Gon was at hiding his true feelings.

Too well.

Several high-output white light sources were set up along the ceiling, lending a sharp-edged cast to everything, highlighting features and clothing in stark relief. The sounds of machinery and the duller throbbing sound of the crystal drills seemed to vibrate through the rock itself.

"Here!" Rivyyn shouted after she had waved a worker over with a couple of helmets. "Put these on. The mine is perfectly safe, but it's Guild regulations."

Almost immediately an older man, broad in the shoulder and waist, built like a barrel, came trotting up, nodding his head respectfully at Rivyyn. He wore the brown of the Drey with a small badge on his left shoulder that denoted him as a Mining Boss.

"This is Herall. He'll show you around!" She yelled over the noise of the equipment. "Don't worry. It gets a little quieter below! Meet me back in my office when you're done!" One of her slender hands, smudged with black grease along the back, reached out to touch Obi-Wan's hand, and then she was gone, purposefully weaving her way through the masses of workers towards a set of suspended steel stairs.

"Come on then!" Herall shouted at them, lifting one hand in a gesture to follow. Obi-Wan glanced once at Qui-Gon and then gestured him in front of him. A moment later, they were entering the lift that would take them down into T Quad.

They were in the mine all of twenty minutes before the explosions began.

If the pollution had been bad outside, it was even worse inside. The walls were glistening darkly with the residue of the drills and before they had stepped off the lift. Harall had handed them mini- respirators, and they had walked only a fraction of the length of the tall tunnel when the floor seemed to tilt under them and the black-slicked walls were rocked by a distant thunder.

The steel walkway above their heads clattered and swayed as its cables popped like string. A split second to catch their breath before his master gripped Obi-Wan's arm, and then another explosion, this one much nearer. Dust drifted from the ceiling as events slowed to a crawl.

Qui-Gon, giving him no time to think, pushed him roughly to the nearest supported wall and flattened him against it. Another *boom*, and the entire mine seemed to tremble. Workers ran screaming in blind panic. Metal shrieked as it was ripped apart, and the stench of sulfur and burned oil became heavy.

Obi-Wan glanced up at the ceiling, noting the heavily fortified girders and praying they would hold. Being buried under a million metric tons of molten steel and dirt did not appeal to him. A quick look at Harall told him that there would be no help in that quarter. The man was almost gibbering in fear.

Qui-Gon was crushing him against the wall. He uttered a muffled complaint and fought briefly with heavy robes and strong arms before he got partially free. "Can't breathe!" he protested.

Qui-Gon released him immediately but still kept him steadied against the wall, his blue eyes gone wide as he tried to sense every detail around them, probing for the source of the explosion, trying to estimate the extent of their danger.

Belated reality hit Obi-Wan like a sledgehammer. Had the damage come from above? Had it originated on the main level? A mental image of the thin plexi window of Rivyyn's office overlooking the main floor flashed through his mind as he felt his mind flaring into panic.

Qui-Gon was standing very close to him, still scanning with his senses for further instabilities. Without thinking, Obi-Wan tried to push past him, his eyes fixed on the sagging gantry that led towards the steel-doored lift to the upper levels.

"No!" Qui-Gon pushed him back against the wall hard enough to send the breath out of him in a whoosh.

"Let me go! I have to find her!" He knew his eyes were wild, he knew he looked out of control and he didn't care one whit. He shoved at the larger man, trying to slip past him, but Qui-Gon's grip came down hard around his arms like manacles of duranium.

"Just think for a moment, Obi-Wan! You'll never get through!" The voice was growled directly into his ear, echoing in his brain, piercing the temporary hysteria.

It was true. The elevator was being mobbed by the panicked Ramians, and the weakened gantry was bowing under the weight of hundreds or workers pouring across it, seeking for any way to the surface. The cacophony of their voices was almost intolerable, the sensation of their frenzied efforts to escape only heightening his own dread and alarm.

"We can't let her die!" He spat the words out, still struggling helplessly, feeling the bite of Qui- Gon's fingers into the flesh of his arms. He would have bruises there in a few hours, but at the moment, he could only fight.

"People are already dead, Obi-Wan. Hundreds. All those that were below us nearest the cutter. Can't you feel them?" The voice was that of reason. The Force echoed behind it, calming him, forcing him to return to reality. To what he was.

He could. His gut twisted inside him as the emanations of terror and pain washed over him. Burning. So many of them had burned to death. Below. Qui-Gon had said below. Not above. Then, with that unique Force-sense that sometimes attuned him to those closest to him, he saw Rivyyn's face. She was grimacing in pain, a red gash in her temple, struggling - as he was struggling - with a body that would not let her pass. Durvan, by the span of his shoulders.

*"I have to go to him!"* he heard her shout and curse, fighting violently with those that held her back.

"I ...have to go to her..." His words were calmer now. She was alive. She was not dead, not burned. He blinked, letting his eyes refocus on the man who held him so tightly.

Qui-Gon planted a splayed hand against his chest and shoved him back against the wall again. He pointed to the screaming mass near the elevator and thrust his face even closer to Obi-Wan's. The young knight let himself relax, feeling his hands tingle with lost circulation from Qui-Gon's grip.

"Where is your training? There are people here right now, right in front of us, who need our help. We cannot forsake them and run away to chase our own desires, no matter how dear they are to us. We live to serve. Remember?"

He did remember. He would never forget.

Rage boiled up in him. He choked it down, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. But Qui-Gon was right, damn him. Above all, he was Jedi.

"What do you have in mind?" he asked, gritting his teeth so hard he feared they would break.

Qui-Gon nodded and clapped a hand on his shoulder, his eyes offering both approval and regret. "Follow me."

Hours? Perhaps more. The emergency generators finally kicked in, getting the lifts working again and allowing rescue workers access to the damage. Qui-Gon himself had used a combination of bullying, cajoling and the Force to get their own level under control. By the time the lift doors slid open, he and Obi-Wan had most of the wounded separated from the healthy and receiving what first aid they could give. There were very few fatalities in their immediate area, but the weight of the dead below was almost a presence all of its own.

He straightened at the first sign of emergency teams, feeling his spine crackle from too much time spent in a crouched and bending position. The air in his respirator tasted stale and foul and his skin felt greasy and gritty with residue. He couldn't remember the last time he had wanted to see the sky so much.

Without even thinking, his eyes skimmed the tightly crammed pack of humanity for his apprentice. It had been pleasing, he thought, to know that he and Obi-Wan could still work so smoothly together. They had fallen into old patterns without even being conscious of it, carrying, calming and caring for the panicked people with an ease that spoke of just how long they *had* been a team. Once.

His gaze picked out the form of his old student almost immediately, slumped against a wall, his head bowed into folded arms. He looked as weary as Qui-Gon felt. With an effort that seemed to take more out of him than he would have suspected, he began to move down the tilted, but stabilized, gantry towards the young man.

He knelt beside him and extended his hand, then aborted the gesture twice before finally laying his palm on Obi-Wan's shoulder. He reached and gently tipped Obi-Wan's face upwards and looked into stormy gray eyes that were swimming with tears. For the space of an instant Qui-Gon was hit with a wave of guilt and self-loathing so strong that it sent an icy shock through him, momentarily stunning him into frozen silence.

Only for a moment, and then it was gone, so tightly shielded that the older man wasn't sure he hadn't simply imagined it. Guilt? Could Obi-Wan blame himself for the accident? Ridiculous.

Regardless of what he had thought he felt, his student was grieving, guilt-stricken or not. Tiny shudders were rippling under his light touch and he squeezed gently.

"So many lives," Obi-Wan whispered. "I felt some of them go. They were snuffed out one by one. Like lamps. They were so tired, Qui-Gon. So very tired of life."

"You have seen this before, Obi Wan. You know that the Force has a pattern that all life follows. It may make you feel as if you ultimately have no power or place in the Universe, but eventually you will see that you fit into the pattern too."

Obi Wan was shaking his head from side to side slowly, his mind mired in shame. So much guilt. It was inexplicable. But he could sense that his student had heard his words and he had faith that the young Knight would make use of them.

"Ssh," Qui-Gon soothed him, offering his comfort easily to his apprentice out of old habit. He wiped the falling tears away and slid his hand through the silky hair, now grimed with dirt and soot and the blood of others. "Release your sorrow into the Force. Let it pass through you. You have done well today, Knight Kenobi."

Obi-Wan nodded slowly, his brows drawing together as he considered. "Yes. I have done well." His voice had lowered to harsh whisper, forcing Qui-Gon to lean closer still. As if he had triggered a proximity alarm, Obi-Wan suddenly raised red-rimmed eyes to his, pinning him with a bruised stare. "I have done well indeed to abandon my lover at my master's command. To think of Jedi duty first and those that I love and that love me last."

Qui-Gon realized that Obi-Wan was not only speaking again of his old deception, but he was using anger to divert both his teacher's attention and the powerful guilt that Qui-Gon knew had not been his imagination. Diversion or not, he recoiled at the mingled venom and grief in the young voice. The Jedi Master opened his mouth to speak, to ask how Obi-Wan could possibly feel responsible for the explosion, to beg him to see reason, then shut it with a click of teeth.

*What's the use? He's in no condition to listen right now. Later.*

Obi-Wan was staring at him with eyes gone hard as stone. "I follow in your footsteps, Qui-Gon," he said. "I am truly your student."

Qui-Gon sighed and stood, turning his back and walking away before he did what his heart told him to do and gathered the young man in his arms. He knew he would be rebuffed.

He headed for a huddle of wounded gathered near an accessway, but before he was halfway there the lift doors slid open with the second load of emergency teams and he watched as the unmistakable figure of the Drey Clan leader pushed her way to the front of the car and began scanning the wreckage almost frantically. He stopped, taking note of the rather naked fear in her eyes, the thorny self-possession she normally wore was in tatters around her.

She saw Qui-Gon first and the panic flared more sharply when she saw that he was alone. He took pity on her and gestured in Obi-Wan's direction, almost hating himself for his own good graces. The transformation in her was astounding. Before his very eyes, she was once again the same cool, confident young woman that he knew she was. All it took was one glance to see that Obi- Wan was alive. Qui-Gon knew that sensation. He had experienced it himself many times over the years of the young man's training.

Rivyyn was walking, albeit quickly, across the rubble strewn floor, dropping to her knees in front of his student and reaching out to touch his arm almost tentatively. Qui-Gon wanted to turn away, but forced himself to watch as they curled tightly into each other's arms, the relief they both felt seeming to emanate from them in waves he was incapable of not noticing.

Then he did turn away. He needed to see it, needed to make himself move on - but he didn't need to torture himself. The lift was working again and there were questions he had.

He took the next car down to the damaged level with the emergency teams, tightly packed in amongst grimly silent Drey workers.

"Stand back for a moment, sir." One of the men said as they approached the damaged level, lifting up a long crowbar as the level indicator lights flashed at S and stopped. Lifting the bar, he levered the doors open onto a scene of hellish proportions.

The explosion had sucked all the oxygen out of the level, turning the contained space into a firestorm that would have left no one alive. Even through the respirator the stench of charred flesh and roasted metal was terrible. Solemn workers here and there walked among the dead like concussion victims and Qui-Gon recognized the first stages of shock setting into some of them. Clearly, none of them had ever experienced anything like this. And there were so many dead.

"Why," his voice sounded obscenely loud in the face of such a grisly tragedy, "why were there so many workers down here?" He asked the man who had wielded the crowbar. "It seems that there are far more than were on our level."

The man nodded grimly.

"The broken drill bit over in J Quad shut down production over there. A lot of us had been diverted over to T and S. This is a new sector and we're close to what we hope is a new vein. There's been talk that it might be big enough to get the Guild to renew our contract."

"I thought that the Ramians wanted the Guild gone." Qui-Gon frowned in confusion.

"Oh," The worker turned a grease stained face towards him, the expression in his eyes bleak, "Make no mistake, Jedi. We want them gone. But we need them. If the Guild doesn't distribute the crystal, who will?"

The man was right. It would have been different if they were an independent world with rights of their own. If they were members of the Republic. But they weren't, and from the looks of things, there was no way they would allow them entrance even if they bid for it. They were a squabbling, fighting people with no real economy as soon as the crystal vanished. Right now, the dog collar of the Guild was more acceptable than being set free in the woods to die.

"What about Eri? Won't they help you? Maybe loan your people the funds to develop your own shipping lines?"

The nameless Drey turned eyes full of contempt towards him then.

"Eri? They've been draining us of what little profit we've made for centuries. You think they would want to lose such a resource? They couldn't care less about us. They dump their industrial waste on our lower continent. That's about as far as their concern goes. 'Loan' indeed. The last thing we need up here is any meddling from them. Trust me, they wouldn't lift a finger to help us. And frankly, we don't *need* outsider help." He said the last pointedly, staring at Qui-Gon before grabbing a body-bag from a tall, wheeled bin and pushing past him.

Sighing to himself, the tall Jedi moved quietly down the ruined and twisted gantry, careful not to touch the still smoldering residues that covered every surface. The cutter's pollution must have had flammable properties. The dead Drey hadn't known what had hit them.

He traveled closer towards the source of the explosion, finding the bodies to be fewer and fewer. It was interesting, he thought, mentally going over the tapes Obi-Wan had sent the Council. Those records that had spurred them to send him out here. The things that Obi-Wan said spoke generally of conflict here and there, nothing specific. Nothing like this. He said the 'situation' was under control, and it was there that he had lied. Looking around now, it was clear to see that nothing was 'under control'. Because there was no doubt in Qui-Gon's mind that this was no accident.

Even now, testing the strands of the Force, the weave of intentions that had been burned into the wall like relics of the past preserved for future generations, he could feel the bad intentions. One, or many, he didn't know. But he could feel the Dark Side here as surely as he could smell the death around him.


*** Chapter Six ***

The ride back down the mountain would always be remembered as one of the worst hours of his life. He sat slumped on a narrow bench against the wall with Rivyyn sitting stiffly next to him as Qui-Gon whispered his suspicions of sabotage to them. Rivyyn was unmoving, her eyes as hard as onyx itself, her skin bone pale. He might have questioned if she even heard what his former master was saying to her, but knew that she heard all too well.

As did he.

And so. This was the price that he paid. Fourteen hundred dead in the explosion that he had not foreseen. Had not taken it into account.

He knew who was behind it. Not the Venyyn, as Rivyyn was so assured it was. As she was meant to believe. No. He had miscalculated the degree of ruthlessness in the Eri. For it was the Eri who had set the explosion off, he knew it as surely as he knew that he was responsible for not stopping it.

Here, he had been so proud of himself for his intricate plans, for his plotting and his manipulation. He had prided himself on thinking of every contingency, of every tack that the myriad factions on Ramos might plot their course through. He had even realized some time back that the Eri might try something like this. But he had not done his job thoroughly enough. And now he had the weight of fourteen hundred dead Drey on his shoulders for the rest of his life.

Of course, there was a reasonable part of him that knew that he could not have been expected to know that the Eri would do such a thing. That there was no real way for him to have even guessed. And that the Eri were reacting to the coming end to the Guild contract, not to anything that Obi-Wan might or might not have done on Ramos.

*They very likely sabotaged the drill some time ago*, the reasonable voice in his mind whispered. *Even if you had guessed they would act in such a brutal way, you couldn't have prevented the accident.*

The truth of that did not make him feel one whit better. The fact was that he had suspected the Eri would try something to push the clans into war before the contract ended, and he had said nothing to anyone. Not just because Rivyyn would have never believed him, but because it would have ruined the delicate threads of his plans. Plans that were still viable, even with the accident...depending on how Rivyyn reacted to the tragedy.

The three of them rode the rest of the way down the mountain in utter, icy silence -- packed in amongst the wounded. Rivyyn was a statue, and he knew that she would not act until she was in the safety and security of her home. He knew already that she thought the Venyyn had done it. Of course she did. That was what the Eri wanted her to think. And now he had to try and anticipate her actions.

And he found that he couldn't. He honestly had no idea what she was going to do next.

He did know that he had never seen Rivyyn so angry in all his time knowing her. Even once she reached the safety of Drey House, cleaned up and had asked the servants to bring tea into the common room, she did not rage or shout. She simply sat and stared at the fire, her newly washed hair lying in damp curls at the back of her neck, her face set in stone. Her slender hands clutched her mug of cooling tea like it was a lifeline, her fingers white with the pressure of her grip.

He could only wait for her to come out and accuse the Venyyn.

Ludarr Venyyn was as intractable and ruthless in his own way as Rivyyn was, but he was no murderer. He cared too much about Ramos, just as Rivyyn did. The Clan *always* came first, but deep down they were all Ramians together against the rest, and that was something every last soul on the moon had in common.

No. Ludarr would not do such a thing. Any more than any Ramian would.

And only now, while he waited for her to move, he slowly began to wonder about the other small incidents that had increasingly stirred tensions between the clans in the past few months. The power outages, the beatings, the vandalism, the offensive graffiti. All of it.

Just like Riv was now, he had simply *assumed* that the Venyyn had been behind it. After all, who else hated the Drey? But now he wasn't so sure. What would the Venyyn *gain* from sniping at their enemies the way that they had been?

The answer was 'nothing'.

His brow furrowed with renewed anger at his own blindness. The clues had even been there for a blind man to see. The Eri had been working at tensions that had always existed, probably from the very start of all of it several months ago. So much planning, and he had let himself become mired in subjectivity. He had let himself be influenced by Rivyyn's bias.

Oh Force, those dead miners *were* on his conscience. Even now if he succeeded in the remaining days, there would always be a price here that he had paid with the blood of others. Not for the first time, he began to feel like a spider caught in the weaving of his own web - strangling on the silken strands, getting drawn deeper and deeper into the darkness of his creation.

No. He could not crumble now. Not if he didn't want those Drey to have died for nothing. He only had a little longer. Now he had to do something to keep the Eri quiescent until then, and it was almost time for his final meeting with the Guild.

Late afternoon sun spilled through the windows on the front of the house. Qui-Gon still sat at the desk against the wall, silent, going over documents that Obi-Wan might or might not have wanted him to see. He was just about to force his tired body to get up and see what Qui-Gon was so interested in, when suddenly, after almost a full hour of sitting like a statue, Rivyyn set her now cold, untouched tea carefully onto the low table and stood. He could sense that she had decided what to do.

"Riv?" Her slim body was taut with her contained rage, but the eyes she turned on him were eerily cool.

"I am going to see Remoran Krunn. Now."

"The Guild Rep? Why?" He stood as well, frowning at her. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Qui-Gon look up, but he forced his full attention on Rivyyn. She was the one who needed him, he reminded himself.

"I'm going to declare Blood Feud on the Venyyn. I want Krunn to support me."

It was exactly what the Eri wanted, he thought with a sinking heart. A Clan War. He had hoped that she would be more reasonable than that, but what right did he have to deny her her rage?

"Riv, that's.. that's insane." It was all he could manage. He set himself firmly in her path, his own brow like a thundercloud. He could match her temper, he knew. It was exhausting, but he could do it. She stared at him.

"Fourteen hundred." she said softly. "Do you hear me, Kenobi? Fourteen hundred. Dead. Drey." Her eyes were like shards of glittering onyx. "Fourteen hundred!" She shouted now, loud enough to rattle the holos on the wall.

Force. He heard. He could still hear them dying in the back of his mind.

Across the room Qui-Gon pushed to his feet with a scrape of his chair. Without even looking around, she lifted an arm and pointed at him. "Sit. Back. Down. Jedi. This is no concern of yours."

Qui-Gon folded his arms in his sleeves and regarded her inscrutably. It was plain that he thought her hysterical beyond reason, and so he did not try to persuade her. It was the Jedi way, to let a people choose their own destiny, for good or ill. Influence they would use, yes. Sanctions. Trade embargoes. Political muscle. But they would not use their Jedi powers to force leaders into seeing matters their way. To play god with history was like the road to Hell - they were both paved with good intentions.

He could almost feel his teacher's honorable thoughts from where he stood and he fought back a hysterical bray of shameful laughter. If only Qui-Gon knew what his student was doing now...what he would do yet.

Rivyyn's attention was still firmly on Obi-Wan. "Nor," she added more softly, a whisper that cut like a blade, "is it any of yours. This is a Drey matter, and though you live in my Clan home you are not Drey."

That hurt, salt on an open wound, but he didn't let it show. She was angry, very angry. And under it all was a grief and a guilt so deep he wasn't certain it wasn't eating her soul.

"Rivyyn Drey," he spoke firmly, knowing that she would not respond to wheedling or pleading. "You are the leader of your Clan. You are responsible for them. Vengeance is not going to bring back the dead. This you already know. What you do not know is whether the Venyyn were even the ones behind the explosion. Would you condemn people to die on a biased suspicion? Not only would a Blood feud be insane, but there is no way the Guild will ever take sides. They don't care about your vengeance. They don't care about anything except the crystal."

He could not tell her about the Eri. Not yet. Though it cut him deeply to keep the secret. She would not believe him, and even if she did, exposing the Eri would accomplish nothing for Ramos.

"I know that. I plan on offering them part of our cut of the crystal for their support."

*Oh Rivyyn.* He blinked at her. Once. Twice. And then, without even thinking any further on it, he lifted both his hands, cupped her face between them and looked directly at her.


She did, slumping gracefully into his arms as if all the bones in her body had gone to water. He held her against him for a moment, his face pressed into her clean, soft hair before he laid her gently back onto the couch, trying not to shake too much from the sensation of his bones turning to ice. It seemed as though with each new act he tangled himself further in his own weaving. This move had most certainly severed the once-strong tie of trust between them.

But he had gone too far now to be able to let her vengeance ruin everything.

He refused to look at Qui-Gon, though he could feel the older man's stunned surprise from where he stood. He spread a nearby blanket over the sleeping woman and slowly straightened, trying to calm his thoughts before he spoke.

"She isn't thinking clearly. She doesn't want a war." He said the words quietly despite the trembling in his gut. Despite the fact that he knew he was right.

"Knight Kenobi," the words were soft. "What are you doing? Is this what use you make of the training I gave you? Is this how you solve problems?"

Obi-Wan finally looked over at his master, his face placid. "You don't understand anything, Qui- Gon." He said, fighting for calm as he tucked his shaking hands into his sleeves.

Blood Feud. His gray-blue gaze lifted to Qui-Gon's then, his heart twisting painfully at the grave disappointment he saw reflected in those blue orbs.

He wanted to steel himself to it. It was only going to get worse. And yet...

"Master," Obi-Wan gave Qui-Gon his old title at last, his voice shaking, and somehow poignant in its pleading, his control broken in a way that no argument with Rivyyn ever could. "Please... trust me." He bowed his head, suddenly afraid that Qui-Gon would see through his plans as easily as through gauze.

He thought Qui-Gon's shoulders slumped a bit. "I will always trust you, Padawan, although you have given me little reason to on this mission."

*He* had given him little reason to trust? He glanced up quickly, an accusation on his lips, but when gray eyes met blue he had to admit that Qui-Gon was only speaking the truth. Their own shattered past had no place in this mission. "Fair enough," he said, then clamped his jaw shut before he could betray himself further.

He knew what he had to do next. Now, while Riv was asleep. Looking at Qui-Gon in all his stern, admonishing honor had switched a light on in his brain. All this time he had been bemoaning the all-too-personal reasons he had had for not wanting Qui-Gon to have been the Envoy. But there *were* benefits to this particular Jedi. Not just because he had been his master, but because of the older man's unique, independent way he had of doing his duty to the Council. His eyes trailed back over to his master then almost without thinking. There was no reason that he couldn't make the most of that trait.

For the first time since he had seen Qui-Gon set his boots on the damp landing pad the night before, he was *glad* it was this particular Jedi that had been sent. No other Knight in the Order would trust him enough to let him get away with what he needed to do with Jaarahn Bos.

"I have to see the Eri representative immediately," he stated, lifting his chin as if issuing a challenge.

"I will come with you." Qui-Gon said in a voice that brooked no debate. Obi-Wan might have smiled at the tone. His master thought he was cracking up.

Well. Whether he was or not, if it made Qui-Gon come along, all the better.

*** Chapter Seven ***

Mid-afternoon now? Hard to tell through the thick cloud of greasy smoke from the huge Cutter, a thick right cloud of both pollution and incessant, pounding noise that seemed to hover over the center of town. They were walking deeper into it and he could almost feel the grit of pollution in the back of his throat. The grime of corruption. It was all around him, interwoven with the brighter strands of the Ramians themselves.

Obi-Wan found his own thoughts a swirl of controlled motion. This would work.

It would.

His eyes did not slip towards his master's imposing form at his side. He could feel the man's every movement, sense the tightly reined control of Qui-Gon's own emotions. He had held his breath for a moment back there, hoping and praying for his master to trust him, knowing that he had not earned that trust with his actions since his master had arrived. But he felt no regret for his lack of honesty. If Qui-Gon had given him any one thing in those final days together, it had been the knowledge of when to mislead and when to dissemble. The value inherent in simple non- disclosure.

Briefly, Senay's face surfaced before his inner eye, the old man's dark eyes still snapping with spirit within a landscape of sallow, parchment-pale skin. The feeling of that slender box in his hands, the shocking burden that had come with it. Those thin lips whispering to him, eking a promise from him that, while it had been a terrible burden, he still knew he could have never turned away from.

Pieces of a puzzle, Senay had said. 'The minds of the Ramians are simple,' the voice rasped in his head like dried leaves skittering along a sidewalk. 'But they are stubborn beyond reason. Speak left and they will turn right. Hope is non-existent to us. It is both our greatest weakness and what has kept us pure. It also makes us suspicious and mistrustful. Keep this ever in mind, Obi-Wan, if you wish to succeed. Use this information. I know that you can. I know that you will. I have no doubt. You will not fail us. You will not fail her.'

His teeth were tightly clenched as he remembered that promise yet again. He had not forgotten it for a single moment in all the days and months and years since Rivyyn's father had died. But it was almost over. It did not occur to him that he would fail, he had seen to it that he wouldn't. He never failed.

His eyes did slide towards the profile of his master then, a twinge of regret and pain slicing into him.

Well, almost never.

The massive government building that the Eri occupied crouched in an ugly scattering of dull, dirty boxes slabbed together out of rusted metals. It was appropriate, he thought, grimacing up at the hulk as they drew nearer, that the Eri held 'court' in such a place. It was as vile and tainted as their very presence on the planet. The Guild offices were just as bad.

Qui-Gon had not spoken a single word on their trek, and he did not speak now. Perhaps he was waiting for his student to explain himself, to offer an apology. The thought made his heart twist slightly. It was not Qui-Gon or even the Jedi Order itself who deserved the apology for what he was doing on this hopeless moon. It was Rivyyn. And for more reason than just sending her to sleep against her will.

But that was an issue for another time.

The younger knight finally broke the silence, turning to the big man just before they entered the Eri Quarter. The Jedi Master's presence was going to do the job for him, true, but only if the man didn't ask questions. This was a tricky bit. Qui-Gon was not exactly malleable.

"I asked you to trust me back at the house," he said, taking a slight breath and folding his arms tightly into his sleeves. "I have to ask you again. When we take this meeting, I beg you not to speak a word beyond the necessary. I have..." he paused, trying to find the words that he could use without giving himself away. It was like tiptoeing through a thermal-field trap. "I have worked for some time at the relationships here and they could unravel very easily." There, that was true enough. Qui-Gon would detect no lie.

His former master's eyes narrowed slightly, but after a moment during which Obi-Wan felt certain those blue eyes had ferreted every last one of his secrets out into the light, the leonine head shifted minutely in a nod. The gaze that trapped his spoke of limited patience, however, and Obi-Wan could sense that he was working off of the good graces of their past relationship only. The Jedi Master would take little more of this without explanation.

That was fine. It would all become clear soon enough.

The meeting with Jaarahn Bos took very little time and went better than he could have hoped. Qui-Gon stood shrouded in his stony authority and let Obi-Wan make his veiled threats. Threats stating that the Republic might become involved in Eri's affairs if matters on its colony moon became any worse. They were empty words, but the presence of a Jedi Master in his office made the Erian more than nervous. And it gave Obi-Wan the credibility to make any sort of threat at all.

He could *feel* Bos wondering just why the Jedi Council, and perforce the Senate, would have sent a high ranking Jedi to his insignificant corner of the galaxy in the first place. Obi-Wan's insinuation that the Republic was on the verge of sticking their fingers into the business of one of its members was enough to make the thin, sharp-edged man wary.

A wary man would not instigate the two Clans further. At least for two more days. And that was all the time he needed. Once the contract was up, if all went well, the Eri would not be a factor on Ramos anymore.

Bos showed them out of his office with a greasy smile and falsely-sweet assurances that there would be no reason for the Republic to 'assist' the situation on Ramos. Obi-Wan let himself revel in the small victory, even if it was only a stopgap solution. It would hold for long enough.

He and his master walked back out into the late afternoon light of Guresh, and he found himself enjoying the basic, much-missed pleasure of having a partner again. Even if it was illusory. Even if it was all based on lies. It still felt good to have that tall presence at his side.

The false sensation broke completely apart a moment later when Qui-Gon turned a suspicious gaze upon him. It was cool and calm yet, but he could sense his teacher was angry. Qui-Gon had obviously already gathered, from the short conversation with Bos, just *why* Obi-Wan had just threatened the man. He had realized for himself who had orchestrated the Toran Mine accident.

"I suppose that you weren't going to tell me about your little revelation about the Eri being behind the sabotage at all? How long have you known?" Qui-Gon's deep voice was wary and more than a little tight when they reached the street. Obi-Wan wondered if it was the misdirection he was mad about or just the fact that the good little Padawan hadn't confided in his all-knowing master right away. He bit the inside of his cheek, reminding himself that everything did not have to come back to the bitterness between them. Qui-Gon was well within his rights as Council Envoy to ask the question.

"There was no time to explain everything in detail," he said, stopping to face his master with as much honesty as he was capable of. The stony expression on his face would have been enough for most to back off from, but Qui-Gon didn't even budge. Instead the big man folded large biceps before him and stared right back.

"This is not a game, Obi-Wan. There are lives at stake here. If you knew that the Eri were behind the sabotage, why did you not say so immediately? Why did you not tell Rivyyn this instead of switching her off like a child's toy?"

The young knight gritted his teeth in frustrated exhaustion.

"You don't understand anything." He was repeating words he had spoken back at the house, but he didn't care. They were as true as anything he had ever given voice to.

"Then help me to understand." Qui-Gon's voice was suddenly gentle, the hand on his shoulder a warm weight that seemed to offer a much needed bulwark to bolster him. "You don't need to bear this alone." Obi-Wan twisted out from under the contact, unpleasantly hyper-aware of the man's touch.

"Can you find your way back to the house on your own?" he asked suddenly, icy cool -- avoiding both his master's offer and his touch for the sake of his own calm. He glanced up at the afternoon sky, taking note of the time. There was still one more visit he had to make. Unlike the meeting they had just taken with the Erian, this one had been a part of his plans since the first. It was time for the final stitch in his pattern. And this one had to be alone. "I have an errand to run."

The obvious suggestion that he come along sprang to his master's lips and Obi-Wan could almost see the words forming before the older man simply let them die. Qui-Gon looked into his apprentice's eyes for several heartbeats before nodding very slowly.

"Do not be long. I believe there are things that we still need to speak of." The voice was gentle and Obi-Wan felt his veins run hot with the honest affection that seemed to swim in his master's tone. Honest.

Right. That's what he had thought before. Still, he had to work much harder to keep up his antagonism, and it worried him slightly.

He managed a nod and turned, striding as quickly away from the tall man as he could without running. He was deeply ashamed of how easily he could feel himself sucked in by the smallest amount of affection the Jedi doled out. 'Please sir, may I have some more?' It was pathetic. Qui- Gon couldn't possibly be inferring what it felt like he was. The attempted kiss in the magg car, the hundred looks and glances, the tender words and the gentle touches. It was all impossible. Why would Qui-Gon have discarded him all those years ago if he had actually *wanted* his little puppy of a Padawan?

Obi-Wan viciously ignored the distraction of that ridiculous hope, deliberately letting his footsteps carry him openly and visibly through the Venyyn Quarter before turning towards the billowing smokestacks of the Cutter and the massive dark monolith of the Guild Headquarters itself.

"There he is again, should we set someone on him?"

"Are you kidding? Of course. You know what Ludarr said."

"I'll go, he'll never see me."

"Just keep your head down."

"I will, but I do have to wonder what the point it. We *know* where he's going."

"Ludarr still wants to know *why*. I think he's about ready to do whatever it takes to find out."

"Fine. I'll be back."

"Be careful. There are two of them around now and I don't like the feel of things...all the more reason to be wary."

*** Chapter Eight ***

Rivyyn was pacing like a caged cat when he returned only a scant hour after Qui-Gon had gotten back. Her fury hung in the air in a palpable cloud, and he wondered what had kept her in the house once she had surfaced from her sudden and abrupt descent into sleep.

He shut the door behind him and leaned against it, his eyes finding hers and trying to return her gaze. It was like taking hold of a red hot poker with his bare hands. She had frozen a few feet away from him when he'd entered and he realized then that the only reason she hadn't left the house was because she had wanted to be there when he got back.

"Riv..." he started lamely, not certain at all how to handle her in this state, not certain he could justify his actions just now without completely destroying the suddenly cracking, deteriorating foundation of their relationship. The truth was, there was no justifying what he had done. He had taken her choice from her, rash or not. He had, as Qui-Gon had so aptly put it, switched her off like a toy. How could she ever forgive him for that?

Perhaps...perhaps it was better that way. In the next day it wouldn't matter so much anymore. He had already guessed what the results of his remaining actions would be for the both of them, but he had rather naively thought that they would get through it. Now that everything was at hand and betrayal snapped at him from those dark eyes, he was no longer quite so certain *he* could get through it.

Not like he could stop it now. Not now.

"Don't." She held up one slender hand, taking a deep breath. He could see she was trembling slightly and he swallowed in a throat suddenly thick with pain. Suddenly he was seeing himself standing across the room, staring at the one man he had trusted with his love, watching as it all cracked and shattered around him like a carnival mirror. "Don't come any closer." Her voice was so hard. So sharp that her words cut into him. She folded her arms tightly in front of her and took another deep breath. "Why?"

"You know why. Blood Feud is not the answer." His voice was soft, but not placating. Rivyyn did not respond to placating.

"You..." she swallowed, her eyes glittering suspiciously, " don't have the right to make that decision. You are not Drey."

It hurt her to say it, but it cut him more deeply. Even though he was not Ramian, Senay had taken him into his home like a son, taken him in when it seemed that no one else wanted him. He had been made a part of the family. And when he found that he loved Senay's daughter, it had seemed to be enough to make him belong. But he never really had. He had always known that, deep down. So had Rivyyn.

"Do you *want* to be Drey, Obi?" It had taken courage for her to ask, he could see it in her face. But she had never been a coward.

His lips parted, words he could not find tumbling about in his head. The silence in the hallway was like a cold presence of its own. An answer all by itself. He felt like he had been punched in the gut. He did, he had always...he wanted to say it. But he couldn't.

He simply couldn't.

Now the moisture in her eyes spilled over, silently slipping in liquid grace down her fair cheeks and gathering under her pointed chin in a crystalline drop. He had not seen her cry since her father had died. He took another step towards her, his own heart slowly clenching into a tiny, hard lump in his chest, but she lifted her hand again to stop him.

Was this how Qui-Gon felt when he'd broken his apprentice's heart? Had he stood across the room and watched a young man's love turn black with betrayal? The thought did not help him empathize, it only made him hurt more. Tears of his own were swimming just behind his eyes.

Rivyyn swiped at the moisture impatiently, leaving her eyes tinged red before she turned away from him, finding a spot on the floor to hold her gaze.

"So that's that, then. I suppose he walks in the door and suddenly everything that was between us becomes a lie." Her tone was fury now. She didn't enjoy feeling out of control. It always made her angry.

But now he could feel his own ire rising.

"How can you suggest something like that! You know I never lied to you!" But as soon as the exclamation left his lips he wondered if it was true.

"Didn't you?" She spun around and stared at him, her features under control again behind the comforting mask of her ire. "I've always known you were carrying him around in your heart like an old blanket you couldn't bring yourself to part with. I knew it, and you knew it and..."

"Don't try to invalidate what we had, Rivyyn." He snapped, then heard his own words with horror. *Had.* The past tense had come so easily to his lips, had slipped through them before he could stop himself.

The impact was not lost on Rivyyn. She gave a short, bitter laugh and turned her eyes to gaze out the hall window.

"Denying what we... what we had won't make this any easier." He took a deep breath then, temper for him was hard to come by and it was even harder to hold on to. It simply wasn't in his nature. "This is just a hard time. We're both under a lot of stress...and the contract is coming to an end-"

"Cut the crap, Kenobi! We both know *exactly* what started this whole thing and he's sleeping in the guest room!" She hissed the words at him. He didn't know when the conversation had turned to Qui-Gon. Perhaps it had always been there.

She flung up her hands and stomped towards the stairs.

"Look at you! You still don't know! How could I have ever fallen for someone so daft!?"

Anger again.

He strode after her, his own voice rising in retaliation, his feet lifting onto the treads of the stairs.

The argument was pointless. Both knew that what had happened was a terrible blow to their relationship, and it had happened in the first few moments of the conversation.

But neither wanted to admit it out loud. Not ...just...yet. And fighting seemed the only way to continue past that fact.

Not for the first time, as he lay there in his sterile -- and solitary -- bed, trying to shut out the sounds of acrimony leaking through the very walls, he allowed himself to think about it. To play "what if" once more.

What if, when he had cupped that beautiful face in his hands, he had not spoken the words that shattered his apprentice's belief in him?

What if he had drawn him closer instead, covering those trembling lips with his own, and then kissed his way across the silken cheek to the pink shell of an ear that begged to be circled with his tongue. What if he had nibbled and sucked the cream-white column of his throat before sliding the rough muslin cloth back from those slender muscled shoulders... what if he had bent his head to lap the rose-colored nipples into hard peaks...

He was not surprised to feel his traitor hand straying low to take his aching cock in its saber- callused grip. His eyes flew open at the intense pleasure the enveloping tightness provided, but it was not enough. He was tired of playing 'what if'. He wanted to play 'what next'. For the first time, Qui-Gon admitted fully to himself that he wanted Obi-Wan back, and not as a platonic apprentice.

Far from it.

He wanted him as lover. In his bed, at his side, living back on Coruscant if necessary. Anywhere, so long as they were together.

He knew he could accomplish it, if he were of a mind. If he would stoop to use a lifetime of schooling in human nature and weakness to get what he wanted for himself. What he wanted so badly that the word 'ethics' was beginning to sound like an obscure and scholarly concept that had little to do with him. A dusty term for parched old men with such tender hungers far behind them. Certainly not for him. Not for he whose blood sang and whose very tissues burned from within.

Could he ignore his conscience? Did he want Obi-Wan back so badly that he would use his talents and his teaching to push Rivyyn out of the way so that the path to his love would be clear? Could he do that to her, to that strong- willed, noble young woman? Could he betray her hospitality by stealing her lover?

Yes! his body screamed. His mind told him a different tale, and his heart was at war with both.

Obi-Wan still had feelings for him, that much was plain. He could arrange to be alone with him for a short period of time, without Rivyyn...

Simply being who he was provided him with a host of excuses to meet with Obi-Wan on official Senate or Council business, which would automatically exclude a non-Republic Ramian leader. He could ask Obi-Wan to spar lightsabers, or to perform a meditation, both of which Rivyyn could not participate in.

Then again, he thought wryly, you could just take that magg car ride again, and pray for a power outage.

Oh, there were a thousand ways. He knew he could do it, too. Sharp as she was, Rivyyn of Drey was no match for a Jedi master. Not if he put his mind to the task. Not if he threw out all of his scruples and his pride and actively pursued Obi-Wan with all the power of their tangled past at his fingertips. He knew every one of Obi-Wan's buttons, all of his vulnerabilities and sore spots. Knew him better than he knew himself, for he had been linked to that bright mind for more than ten years. There was no one, not even Rivyyn, who had such intimate knowledge.

At the same time he could manipulate Rivyyn's anger against her until Obi-Wan saw her as little more than an impetuous, angry child trying to fill a chair too big for her, and resorting to violence when she could not.

He could open Obi-Wan's eyes to the pathetic and shabby reality of Ramos V, how it was doomed as a hundred other small worlds were doomed, sentenced to an early death by the fat, top-heavy bureaucracy that they both served under and battled against. He could make him long for the golden spires of Coruscant once more, for a space of beauty after long years of darkness and grime and separation from the brotherhood of fellow Jedi.

Could he do all that, to attain the simple ecstasy of a young man in his arms? Qui-Gon sent these queries into his soul as he stroked himself roughly and quickly to completion, his repressed body needing little stimulation to bring him to the pinnacle before he gasped out a name and tumbled down the crest, grasping at elusive visions of blue-gray eyes and a smile that could melt the sun.

Qui-Gon sighed and rolled over, pulling the covers up over his sweating body, which had grown chilled in the damp air.

His conscience, at least, was at peace, for he realized that he could not find it in himself to employ any of those methods that the darkness whispered to him. Not and remain Qui-Gon Jinn afterward. As his semen dried to a white scale on his belly and sleep continued to elude him, Qui- Gon promised himself that when the time came he would approach Obi-Wan without guile.

And he would accept whatever verdict Obi-Wan handed down. He would accept any answer from him, so long as it was an honest one.

They had suffered enough lies between them.

Sleep evaded Qui-Gon. He let it for a while, listening to the pain between Obi-Wan and Rivyyn fade to whispers and finally to silence. Heavy footfalls clumped up the wooden stairs, and he listened in dread for the now-familiar thumps on the ceiling, but soon realized that there would be no such noises tonight. There had been just too much fracturing between the couple. He doubted if they could overcome it, and then stifled the sudden, shameful rush of hope that flooded his chest.

*You wish Obi-Wan heartache simply to soothe your own hurts? Some master Jedi you are.*

Qui-Gon sighed and threw off the covers. He stood, nude, and padded to the chair to gather up his clothing. He began to dress in the darkness, refusing to reach out for Obi-Wan's mind and inform him of his plans.

*Let him sleep for once. He looks like it's been weeks since he had a decent rest.*

He smiled wryly. *Maybe he should concentrate on sleeping more and fucking less. Whups, what did I say about Jedi masters? Ah yes. We have foul mouths and appalling morals. For shame.*

He threw his Jedi cloak over his shoulder, shrugging to settle the heavy material into elegant folds, and exited silently into the hall. He was not surprised to find the outer doors guarded by armed patrols.

*That's what Jedi abilities are for. That's it, my girl. You heard nothing out here after all. Trot on back to your post.*

Qui-Gon slipped through the gates and into open street, finding the dark city still bustling with activity. He blended into the milling crowds, ignoring the few questioning looks he received that told him the spectators were aware that it was not an ordinary brown cloak he was wearing, but the raiment of an elite order. He hurried away from them to the end of the avenue and turned onto Lash Gathon Street. *The street of worms*, he mentally translated, and grimaced. Force, what a name. And what was that stench? Augh! Disgusting. Force, what a place. How did my bright, vibrant Obi-Wan come to love this dank, filthy world?*

For love it he did. Qui-Gon saw it in his fierce loyalty to Rivyyn, in his grief over the Drey miners, and in his rage at the condition of the spoiled Ramian ecosystem. But then, Obi-Wan always loved the underdog.

*He loved you, didn't he?*

Qui-Gon muttered and pulled his cowl closer over his face to hide the forbidding expression. He walked faster and turned into an alleyway, his focus directed inward, walking aimlessly, no direction in mind.

There were so many things happening here, and he could feel his apprentice's hand in nearly every level. Obi-Wan *was* planning something, and he was doing it with both a finesse and a deviousness that his master found slightly disturbing. He had seen the worried look that Obi-Wan had directed at the comm unit that morning, could practically hear the concerns that had bloomed there. And indeed, Qui-Gon *had* seen the log files on the Comm unit. But they had made no sense to him. Why on earth would Obi-Wan be making secured, encrypted calls to upper level members of the Senate? What could he possibly have to say? It obviously had to do with Ramos, but Ramos was not a member of the Republic, and therefore they would have no say in any of what went on there. They had *interest*, true, because of the crystal. The crystal was the very reason that Obi-Wan himself had been initially posted here. A token show of support for the Guild by the Senate.

But why would Obi-Wan be contacting Senators? He wished that he'd had the time to get the logs decrypted, but he could not have done that without revealing whatever it was that Obi-Wan was hiding to the Council. Why did the young man not want the Council to know what he was doing? Qui-Gon's lips thinned then. That, at least, was obvious. He was interfering with Ramos far more than any Jedi would approve. His relationship with Rivyyn was walking the line as it was, but after that demonstration of his student's guile with the Erian Representative earlier, he would be well within his right mind to simply report the youth to the Council.

Such a thing would not have been his style, of course. Even if it hadn't been Obi-Wan. He needed to learn more. Needed to understand what it was that the young Knight was doing. It was more than clear that he wasn't going to get any answers from the man himself.

He did not see four blue-suited figures step into his path, nor the booted foot that shot out to trip him up and throw him sprawling to the wet pavement.

Qui-Gon broke his fall with the Force, cushioning his hands from scraping against the rough pavement. He threw the cowl off his head and glared up at the men surrounding him, then froze. There was a sickle-shaped tattoo on each of their chins. The sickle was the sigil of the Eri homeworld.

Their faces were set and hard, and in one black shining eye there was a glint of savage pleasure. Qui-Gon realized he was about to be attacked. How fortuitous.

"Well, well. Reminds me of the walla fish that jumped into the net, boys. Look what we have here."

"And what is that?" Qui-Gon asked, dangerously quiet, not rising, making no move to defend himself. He would wait and see if there was an opportunity to be had. Personal safety was not a consideration wherever the mission was concerned. And in this case, he needed to understand a few things. Things that Obi-Wan was not telling him.

One of the men, a short, muscular man with a thug's face and a broken nose, nudged his side with his boot-toe. "A meddler."

Another nudge, this time from the right. "An outsider."

"Telling us our business." And the third attacker punctuated the last word of his sentence by kicking him in the stomach.

Even prepared, the force of the blow was enough to double him into a tight knot. Another kick sent him into a coughing fit, the taste of bile rising in his throat. A boot to his temple made him see stars.

It took every ounce of his self-control not to fight back. He could have laid each of his attackers low within moments, but then he would have nothing to show for it but unconscious men. He needed talkative assailants. The Eri, he told himself. Perhaps word of the visit he and Obi-Wan had paid to Bos had gotten out. Perhaps Obi-Wan's threat had backfired? Or were these simple malcontents angry with the lot that had thrown them onto this Ramian backwater?

Dimly, he felt his arms grasped and he heard the leader of the Eri bark out an order to stand him up, to brace him against the stinking wall.

"Tell your little pet Jedi that we don't take to trespassers coming into our colonies, getting chummy with the locals, worming their way into the Clans, *threatening* us," a thick voice hissed into his ear. He almost gagged at the stench wafting across his face, the rotted breath of the leader. A hand worked its way into his long hair, knotted the strands around his fist and tugged at his scalp, shaking his head to accent the accusations spewed at him.

"You tell pretty boy he better hope we never catch him outside of Drey at night. Tell him to stay inside and hide behind Drey's skirts, because that black uniform won't protect him from what we've got planned for the snooping little bastard. Who does he think he is? Pretending he's good enough to threaten an Erian, sneaking around with the Guild rep on the side... I wish I had him here right now!"

Even through the pain, Qui-Gon snorted. "No you don't. He'd tear your-- ah!"

He almost doubled over from the blow to his midsection, was yanked upright again by his hair.

"You Republic types from the inner worlds think you're better than us. Well, we're citizens too, and we'll decide what's to be done with our provinces, not you. Not the Republic. Not even the Guild! Stay out of our business!"

And they began to beat him. Work-hardened fists found the soft places in his belly, his shoulders, his face. A punch landed square on his nose and he heard a wet *pop*. Warmth flowed down his lips and chin and his thoughts grew muddy and confused.

He heard a scraping of steel on stone, and desperately tried to summon his scattered faculties. The Force obeyed, but too late. The steel bar crashed against his skull and his world went dark... darker than Erian pollution on Ramian faces ... darker than the poisoned black water of the swamps... darker than his future without Obi-Wan...

He slumped to the pavement and his attackers flowed away into the crowds like bugs into the woodwork, leaving him to the mercy of the Ramian night and his own grim dreams.

Go to Chapter Nine