"A new hope"
Unedited and probably pretty horrid in proof reading
Started 27 February 2000; finished 17th April 2000
He was Master of the Chosen One. There had been pride in that, once.
Sometimes, as he paused in his labour and surveyed his callused hands, he wondered if everything that had happened had been punishment for his pride.
He had loved the Chosen One, his padawan, glorying in his quick smile and his lithe movements and his eyes so full of life. He had loved him, fiercely and protectively at first, for it had been he who had found the child and identified his immense potential, while the Council had alternated between denying it, and fearing it. Then the boy had worked his magic, and he had loved him for himself.
Oftentimes, alone in his cell in the wilds, he curled his fists and swore never to love again. What had love done but blinded him, like an old fool, to the truth? He, Master of the Chosen One, had loved when Jedi did not love, and this was his punishment.
He had fallen so far. Alone, unhonoured, hunted, grieving...
He would cry to the unfriendly sky, "what did I do to deserve this? I fell, yes, but this... this punishment exceeds _all_."
Then, recognising the truth - this was not his punishment, but his _fault_, and no punishment could be too great for him - Qui-Gon Jinn would turn, slowly, and walk back into his cell.
There had been a third sin, once - his terrible trilogy of treacherous emotions.
He had allowed himself to feel hope.
"Dying, I am, Qui-Gon," Master Yoda rasped, without preamble.
Qui-Gon stood, hand on the door frame, motionless. He had never thought to see any of them again. That Yoda had travelled here... How...?
A small ironic smile twisted the Master's face, aged so impossibly in the past year. "Die, I will, and, in that moment, will hope be born. You, Qui-Gon." A thin trembling finger, needling into his soul. "Nurture it, you will."
He waited a year after Yoda's death. Then, assuming the dark cloak that hid his Jedi robes, he took up his staff and prepared for a journey.
It had been so easy. If Yoda's words had planted the first seed of hope, the ease with which he had found the boy had been the second. Surely the Force willed this, he had thought. He was being given a second chance - a second boy, strong in the Force, to rear towards a great destiny.
"He is just one year old?"
The mother nodded, shrugged. "Yeah."
Born as Yoda had died - perhaps even, in some way, nourished by Master Yoda's essence, returned to the wellspring of the Force at the moment this boy took his first breath.
A derisive lazy laugh. She was a prostitute. How could she know?
And so he touched the boy for the first time - this child whose Force sensitivity had spoken to him like a beacon as soon as he had entered the city.
He touched him, and he knew...
A low cry of horror, of revulsion.
His padawan, wild with grief and anger, striding through the war-torn streets like a living fury. Closing his eyes, he saw his father, dead, and his Master, disengaging his lightsabre and saying, with calm apology, "I am more sorry than I can say, padawan, but it was necessary." Then, fury blinding the vision, and tears...
"You need some comfortin', love?" A flash of white breast, and tanned thigh, and swirling dirty silks.
Furious dark coupling, desperate and with no comfort in it, none at all. He peaked, and it was like molten red fury, burning him from within. There were red marks on her shoulders afterwards, and his gold coins spilling from her stomach onto the soiled sheets.
Yet, beneath those scattered coins, a new life had been planted.
"His son," he gasped, aloud. His padawan's son. Xanatos' son.
Afterwards, he scarcely remembered what he had said, how he had explained, cajoled, begged... Had he used to Force to deceive her, or had she been as negligent of her son as he remembered her as being, casually handing him over to a stranger?
One thing only he remembered.
"Luke," she said, almost as an afterthought, pausing with the door half shut. "His name's Luke."
"No." He shook his head, touching the face of the sleeping child. "His name is hope."
He was Master of the Chosen One, and he had been given a second chance.
Now, looking back, he could see how all his pride, all his foolish blind love, had not died with Xanatos' turning. After two years in the wilderness, they burst forth gleefully, eager to trick him, to trip him up.
He would look at Luke, as he grew from a baby to a young child, asking so many questions, and he would feel pride. Xanatos's turning was not his fault, could not be his fault, for, if it had been, would the Force have guided him towards this boy, entrusting the son of the Chosen One to his care?
He was forgiven; he was redeemed.
Luke was his hope. He had found and raised the man who had become Darth Vader, servant of the Emperor and slayer of the Jedi Order. But, at the same time, he had found and raised the boy, his son, who was as strong in the Force as his father, and who would, he so fervently hoped, one day save them all...
And save Qui-Gon most of all.
A Jedi does not feel hope, for hope is a passive thing. A Jedi does not feel hope, but takes action to _ensure_ that the future turns out well.
Hope had been his third sin, and the most grievous.
"No!" He held the boy's broken body, wailing his denial to the stars. "No, oh no, no..."
Young Luke, dead at the age of six, savaged by a wild beast after disobeying an order and wandering alone into the woods.
Young Luke, only a boy - but, when he looked at the bloody pale face, he did not see a boy at all. This was hope dying, shattering his wounded heart. This was the galaxy in perpetual night, in the grip of the Empire. This was his final condemnation - <You caused the Chosen One to turn. How could you think you deserved forgiveness, or hope, or to ever love again?>
"No!" He wailed to the cold empty universe, and the echoing cry was his heart splintering into a thousand pieces.
Hope had died, then, and he would never let himself feel it again.
Fourteen years, and he had lived alone, as, an impossible distance away, his padawan and his new Master tightened their grip of terror on the galaxy. News filtered in slowly, and every word of it was his fault, and his punishment.
Whole planets under an oppressive yoke, Palpatine's stormtroopers and battle droids killing all who resisted. Force-sensitive children taken from their homes and killed, or worse... Rumours that Vader liked his playthings to be men who could have been Jedi, and as young as he had been when the Jedi betrayed him. In their screams, he heard the screams of his Master and his kind.
Once, only once, Qui-Gon _had_ screamed at the news, wondering how much he could bear before his shredded soul just died.
After that, he was always silent, reading the messages and handing over a coin to the frightened boy who bore them. He resisted the temptation to skip words and hide from the horror. While he lived, this was his punishment.
Twenty years after his padawan had turned, Qui-Gon Jinn was awakened from shallow dream-tormented sleep by an explosion of pain through the Force, and a rending crash.
He pulled on his robe. It was raining outside, and the hair was plastered to his face within seconds. He blinked.
The ship had missed his house by yards, scraping deep gouges in the grass in front of his door, before crashing into the trees.
He stepped forward.
The explosion was almost gentle, like a warm breath on his face. Within seconds, he felt a life snuffed out like a candle flame, and then another. He felt no pain - the dead had been unconscious and at peace.
He waited, frowned... There were no other survivors in the small ship. He could see the Imperial markings on the hull, grotesquely blackened and illuminated by garish red. Acrid smoke caught in his throat, as the rain met the flames.
He sighed heavily. Someone would need to be told, and he lived quietly and almost secretly. If there was an Imperial investigation, his identity could emerge. He had shielded his presence here for so long; when he stopped and asked himself why, he could no longer answer. What was he staying alive for? Why was he staying free? He could think of no good reason, but the thought of exposure had always stirred something deep and buried within him, as if his treacherous pride and hope still believed there was a task before him before the end.
He spread his hands. The Force could, perhaps, lessen the flames before they spread to the trees. There had been nothing else he could do. Not even Master Yoda had been able to stop an explosion, or hold back death.
Some time in the night, later, he heard scratching at his door. In the trees, the wind was moaning.
The body fell heavily onto his legs. He flailed, reaching for the support of the door, but failing to stand. Gracelessly, he fell backwards, ending up sprawled on the floor, the body slumped across and between his legs.
He swallowed hard. How had he missed this one? There was no mark of fire on him, but deep lacerations and bloodily broken limbs showed that he had been in the crash - thrown free, perhaps, just before the end. With the Force, he had only scanned the wreckage for life, and not the whole area, missing this one who still lived. Some time in the night, the wounded man had crawled, agonised and desperate, to the haven of this front door, only to find it locked.
As carefully as he could, he eased himself out from under the body, and touched the man's neck. He was still alive, though barely. Bloody flesh showed all too often through the tears in his black close-fitting clothes, and at times the white flash of bone.
On his breast he wore the only sign more feared than the Imperial insignia - the badge born by Vader's Hands.
Perhaps this was what he had stayed alive for, these long dark years. Perhaps he was to kill this man.
He felt as if hours had passed. In reality, perhaps, it was merely seconds - a few shaky agonised breaths of the unconscious man beside him.
<Kill> he thought. Was it possible?
With shaking hands, he pushed the blood-soaked hair off the man's face, wondering what it was he suddenly dreaded - that he would find only a wounded man, and be unable to do anything other than help him, despite his evil calling; or that he would find some reminder of Xanatos there, and that terrible temptation would be redoubled.
The man's face gave him no help. The eyes were closed and he could not see the colour. Like Xanatos, his skin was pale, but he did not have his former padawan's dark hair.
A small sound escaped him, almost like a moan, or a sigh. He rested back on his heels, his hands limp at his sides, and wondered.
<He's unconscious. He won't know anything. It won't hurt him> he thought, his hands wrapped around his morning drink. Steam bathed his face.
The terrible rattling breathing was like a torment to his soul. He wanted to press his hands to his ears and cry "no more!"
Then, in incessant tormenting denial, <I am a Jedi, and perhaps the last of them. Shall I betray the teachings of my Order and commit murder? Then the Jedi are fallen indeed.>
<They are fallen anyway, and because of him and his kind.>
<He is not Xanatos, and Vader's Hands are to be pitied more than feared.>
Biting his lip, he cried aloud in torment.
He had carefully splinted the broken legs, and cleansed the cuts. If he did nothing more, perhaps the man would live. Perhaps...
It would take so little to kill him.
He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the man was looking at him.
His eyes were very blue. Looking at him, suddenly Qui-Gon knew - this man was a master of deception. Dishonesty flooded his sense, along with something else impossible and strangely at odds with it.
No. He shook his head. This man could not be pure. The purity was the mask he wished to portray; weakened by pain, it was a flawed mask, incapable of hiding the true treachery within.
"You," Qui-Gon hissed, clenching his fist.
It was the final trigger, and he was grateful of it, for it took away the need to choose.
Xanatos, too, had worn this mask of purity, blinding him to the viperous heart that lay within. Oh, but he had twenty years to live with the aftermath of that betrayal, and never the chance to strike a blow in return.
Now was his chance.
He was at the man's bedside in an instant, cold fury in his heart. Xanatos, he saw, with blue deceiving eyes. Xanatos, and the laughing ghosts of his own guilt and horror and twenty years of barren life, alone. This was no man; this was his own life torn apart, and a galaxy tormented.
With the flat of his hand, he slapped the man across the face as hard as he could. Once, then again, and again.
The man moaned. Something flickered deep within his sense, and then was silent.
Unconsciousness only fed his anger. Where had been the sweet refuge from his _own_ pain, these last twenty years. "You can't run," he hissed.
Another blow, and the blood snaked from the man's mouth to pool onto the pillows. Another... He saw dark bruises on the cheekbones.
He curled his fist. He would break those bones. Xanatos still laughed at him in the mark-like features of his man, and he would smash him.
He raised his fist high...
Then everything shifted, changed.
Dark bruises.... He saw them again as if for the first time. Dark bruises on the man's cheeks, and - lifting his hand and holding it like a suddenly fragile thing - the mark of unkind restraints on his wrists.
He had seen it all, yet, somehow, not seen. He had bound the man's wounds, and seen the bruises that were older than the crash, yet not seen them.
It was easier to hate.
Uselessly, stupidly, he lowered his fist, still raised above his head. He looked round guiltily, almost as if scared someone had seen him.
He had no rage left inside him, and part of him mourned it. Rage had a focus. What refuge did he have for this shame?
He sat vigil. He did not weep.
"Here." He offered him water.
The young man - now he let himself see him as a person and not as an enemy, he saw he was very young - struggled weakly to drink. Hating this closeness, he had to snake a hand beneath his neck and hold his head, coaxing his lips towards the cool liquid. Then he gently, resentfully, wiped his chin.
"I..." The man ran his tongue over his lips. Even talking was beyond him.
<Don't talk> Qui-Gon wanted to cry. He bit his lip, and did not.
"S... safe?" he managed, in a cracked voice.
How could he answer that? He clenched his hands tight enough to hurt. "Why were you on that ship?"
Again, that terrible surge in the Force that told of an imminent deception. "Prisoner," those bloodied lips mouthed.
"Why?" There was a snag in the wool on the sleeve of his robe. It felt very important to study it. "Why are you wearing those clothes?"
"J... Joke." A painful swallow. "Escort p... played games with... with me."
Like a knife worrying at thick hide, those words worried at the armour of his heart. He would not let them penetrate - _must_ not. The boy's sense was such a strange mixture of truth and deception.
"You..." A cough. He winced, and for a moment seemed to almost pass into unconsciousness. Qui-Gon felt a sharp stab of disappointment when he did not. "You... you hit me because you thought... I was one of... one of them?"
Oh, but how could he answer that? It was too much - far too much. His hands were hurting. "What is your name?"
A small frown, a pause, as if the boy was searching for something. Then he gave a small sigh, a barely perceptible relaxation. "Obi-Wan Kenobi," he murmured.
He slept then, and Qui-Gon was glad.
His earliest memory could not truly be a memory, he knew, for he had never met a man who could remember his time as a baby with such clarity. Perhaps he had merely been told, and in his mind the scene had assumed clarity of a true memory. Or maybe the incident had not happened at all, but, some time later in his long lonely childhood, he had created it, drawing comfort in it as a concrete first chapter in his life, and the start of everything.
Whether true or not, it had a strange dream-like clarity. He saw it more as observer than participant.
Not yet one, the young Obi-Wan Kenobi had his eye on the pears on shelf in the kitchen. Perhaps his mother was busy and had neglected his feed, or perhaps, with the grasping single-mindedness of the young, he merely wanted one, and was not hungry at all. Whatever the reason, he craved one, with a longing that eclipsed all thought. He could not walk, and the high sides of his cot imprisoned him so he could not even crawl.
Perhaps he cried, and no-one came. In his memory, though, he did not cry, knowing, with a sudden intense certainty, what needed to be done. There was no struggle, and no sense of awe. How could he know that what he was doing was a marvel? When the pear entered his outstretched hand, he saw only its ripe juiciness. The means of acquiring it were of no more account to him than breathing.
He took a bite, and the juice ran down his chin. He giggled.
He took another bite, and then the pear was violently dashed from his hand. Someone was screaming.
"No!" A woman, his mother, with her hands pressed to her face, surveying him in horror. "Oh, Obi. Oh, no!"
He blinked, tears filling his eyes. He did not understand what had upset her, but she was angry - she, who normally was all warm words and kisses - and he did not like it.
"My son. Oh, oh no..." Then, almost pale with terror, he knelt beside him and took him by his narrow trembling shoulders. "No, Obi. Never again. Never, you hear me. _Never._" A shuddering sigh. Tears were pouring down her face. "They'll take you away from me, and how... how could I bear that?"
He cried. He understood little, but knew what "away" meant, and his mother was warm hugs and food, and he did not want to be without her.
And then, perhaps, he slept. Perhaps, for at some point his father came in, and his mother had told him everything in scared whispers, and he opened his eyes to see his father's face, and it was dark outside.
"Bad." His father's large hand hit him in the side, enough to hurt if not to damage. No-one had ever deliberately hurt him before. "Naughty boy!" Another blow. "Bad!" Another. "Bad!"
He wailed. He had no way of relating his father's anger to his mother's earlier tears, and even less of relating either to the pear. Only over the years, as the pattern was repeated again and again, would he slowly learn what it was he was doing to provoke both.
"No." His mother, in tears, grabbed his father's hand. "Stop. Please..."
"I have to." A sorrowing face, as if his father had aged immeasurably in this day. "He's too young to understand any other way. You know the consequences if he fails to learn and this is discovered." His hand closed on his wife's wrist. There was a terrible fear beneath his anger, Obi-Wan would realise later. "_You know the consequences._"
She nodded miserably. It would be years before anyone thought to tell _him._ For years, he would think he was playing a game, with no real danger in it.
Afterwards, too, he would know the depths of their love for him. If they had turned him over to the authorities there and then, they would have received a reward and protected status. Concealing him, they condemned themselves to death, should he ever be discovered.
"Oh, Obi," his mother wailed. She scooped him up, soothing the reddened flesh with her fingers and her lips and her love. Her husband's fists had broken something between them, and she would seldom smile again. "Why you? Why us?"
He sniffled into her shoulder, knowing only that he was no longer being hurt, and that he was loved. Soon, he found a way to stop the pain, and he slept.
That was the beginning of all things, for him.
"Oh, but you're a strange boy, Obi-Wan Kenobi," his mother said, crouching down beside him.
He was, perhaps, six or seven years old. His mother's cajoling and his father's fists had long ago taught him not to make things move without touching them, though nobody had tried to teach him why it was forbidden. A child's world is full of inexplicable prohibitions, and this was no different.
"Why are you so emotionless? You're... you're almost otherworldly. I wonder sometimes if you have feelings at all."
He blinked in surprise. He had feelings - of course he did. He had sometimes wondered if he felt too much. Certainly, when his mother held him and said how much she loved him, and he poured out a silent message of his happiness, she only seemed to stiffen in disappointment. He flooded her mind with his appeals, but she never answered.
"I... I've never seen you smile."
That was more than he could understand. "I can smile. Look," he said, and did so, filling his sense with happiness and warmth, as he had felt from his mother when she had taught him the word.
"Oh, Obi-Wan." With tears in her eyes, his mother touched his mouth with shaking fingers, turning up the corners. "That's a smile."
The strange detail of the face, and not the feeling? "I didn't know," he murmured. A terrible creeping loneliness began to fill him. Could his mother not hear him when he spoke to her in his mind? Was she deaf to his feelings unless he put them into inadequate words or showed them on his face?
Needing it not to be true, he asked her. "Can you feel this?" he whispered, and showed her all his fear, his need.
"Oh, Obi-Wan." Her face took on the pinched angry look born of her fear. "You know you're not allowed to do that."
"What?" He was choking on his tears. The terror, the loneliness, of knowing he would never be fully understood was almost more than he could bear. "I don't understand. What?"
A quick furtive flicker of her eyes, as if looking for silent spies. "Use the Force," she said, at last.
"I don't know what the Force is."
His mother sighed, and in that moment she looked as if she almost hated him. "You're different from other boys, Obi-Wan."
Different. He knew that. It was why he wasn't allowed to play with the other children, when his brother Owen, two years younger, could.
"There are things you can do that no-one else can do - moving things without touching them, reading people's minds... other things that I will never know about, perhaps." She sighed. "I know so little about what the Jedi did, and who can I ask now?"
He thought he understood. "I'm not allowed to do any of them?" His lip trembled. Inside, though his mother could not see it, he was all wailing loss and confusion. "How do I know what I can't do and what's all right?"
His mother looked as if he had struck her. "You don't know?" She passed her hand over her eyes, roughly wiping away tears. "I thought it was hard for the Jedi to use their powers. I thought they needed training. I thought... I thought they _knew_ when they were using the Force and when they weren't." She grabbed his shoulders. "Doesn't it feel different? When you move something without touching it, doesn't it feel different?"
"No," he said, honestly, then, thinking hard about it - for his mother was crying, and he knew what answer she wanted - "yes. A little."
Only afterwards would he be able to pin down the difference. He would come to think of them as his "normal" living, and his "different" living. Both just... were. Both he could do without thought. Yet there was something very different about the way they existend. His normal living _merely_ was; his different living _was_, almost as a living thing, an existence most marvellous. Both were so easy to use. If his mother had never challenged him, perhaps he would never been seen the differences.
His mother smiled a watery smile. "So you know what you mustn't do."
He nodded. The part of him that was still a child sent out a tidal wave of despair, so desperately needing her to notice. It was the best, the richest parts of his life. It was the colour, and without it all would be monochrome. It was his only hope of ever being anything other than truly alone, unable to communicate in anything other than pale shadows.
But he nodded. The part of him that was, even at so young an age, already an adult, knew that his mother was afraid, and that he would have to bear his misery alone, and she must never know or she would cry again, and his mother must never be made to cry.
Or perhaps on that, too, he was still being childish, and neither as adult or noble as he liked to think, afterwards. The children were laughing outside, and if he promised, perhaps he would be deemed "normal" and be allowed to play with them.
"And you will never use the Force again?"
He smiled, and said yes.
How long had he endured? Two years? Three? Afterwards, he had little memory of these years. He had played and laughed with the other children, but how could he ever feel anything other than alone, speaking only in words, never once able to probe their true feelings?
He was living with only half his being. All colour had gone out of his life.
"I'm not lying," Owen cried, his face a picture of sincerity. "Dad wants to see you."
Obi-Wan hesitated. Over the years, his father had become more and more hot-tempered. Disobeying a summons would likely result in a beating, but interrupting him without permission could have the same result. Owen had grown into a mean-spirited seven year old, whose jokes were seldom amusing to anyone but himself
<If only I could still use the Force> he thought, with an almost physical ache.
"Obi-Wan. He _does_."
He looked round, furtively. No-one else was watching. No-one would know.
Tentatively at first, he summoned the Force, almost laughing aloud at the sweet sensation, never-forgotten and never not missed. It flowed at his command, as easy as breathing, and as vital. How had he lived without this? How had he lived?
Strange that he had never considered disobedience before. Strange that, as soon as he had disobeyed, he knew that, one this, he would never obey ever again. To deny this was to deny his own life.
"You're lying," he said, without certainty.
After that, deception came as easy to him as using the Force himself. He learnt what not to say - he could sense other people's emotions, but say nothing about what he had learnt, merely cherishing the knowledge deep within himself. He could ease his pain and find peace even in the midst of his father's beatings, but he knew to feign tears and to howl.
Over time, he even learnt how, with nothing more than his mind and his words, to convince people that they had not seen him do something he had done. He knew that was risky, though, and only did it when necessary, when caught out.
In this way, two years passed.
Although he felt complete in a way he had never felt before, he could not be called happy. He was different, although no-one would ever know why. "Old before his time," the parents said, while their children just pulled faces and said "weird."
He was very lonely.
He almost lost his balance in amazement when he saw the man.
He was eleven, alone on an errand and straying off his route. The city streets were always a curious mix of comfort and torment to him. The seething mix of emotions and experiences there were interesting, though they only reinforced his own isolation.
And then he saw the man.
He was dressed in close-fitting black, stalking through the streets with a tightly controlled confidence that he found fascinating. His hair was pale, sleekly combed back from his high brow. His eyes seemed to spill brilliance onto the rest of his face.
And he was using the Force - using it constantly. It flowed from him in an almost visible aura, like waves of shimmering light. Every step was infused with the Force, every glance of his eyes enriched by it. Like a blessing, he was shedding his Force over the City that surrounded him, touching everyone.
His breathing quickened. Without realising it, he was clutching the cloth of his tunic at his breast, digging in tightly. Didn't this man know? Didn't he know that it was forbidden to do this? Hadn't his parents told him? He could sense an unhappiness deeply buried in the man's sense.
He took a step forward. He should tell him. He would tell him... and what then? Would the man smile? <I didn't know. I thought I was the only one. I felt so alone...>
He found he had tears in his eyes. In all his life, he had never thought that there might be another like him - that he would not be condemned to a life of loneliness, the only one of his kind.
<I am here> he sent, through the Force, quietly at first, and not sent directly at the man. <I am Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I am here.>
Nothing happened. The man strode on. Obi-Wan felt the shivering touch of his mind pass over him, linger not at all, and move on.
<I am here...>
He felt fear, too - fear from the crowds as he passed them. Like him, the man was enclosed in his own bubble of loneliness; the crowd stepped back barely perceptibly, giving him space. No-one met his eyes.
This would be his fate, too - always different, no-one ever getting close to him, prompting fear wherever he went. The fear in his mother's sense, when she looked at him, was almost palpable.
<I am here.>
Nothing. Desperate, both for this doomed man and himself, he drew more strongly on the Force, framing a personal cry sent straight to the man's mind....
And a hand closed on his shoulder from behind, and a dark voice hissed "boy," in his ear, and his knees buckled.
"How dare you?" His father's fist landed on his jaw, snapping his head back and filling his vision with stars. "Do you want us all to die?"
He flailed wildly for the peace of the Force, and did not cry, although his lip was trembling and he could taste blood. "I... I... don't... know."
His father made a low noise, like a hiss. He had dragged him all the way home, harsh fingers digging into his wrist, his silence full of dark waves of fear and anger. Only as the door of home closed behind them did the waves break. The fear was greater than the anger, Obi-Wan felt.
"Do you know who that was, boy?" he asked through his teeth, more menacing than any shout. "_Do you_?"
He frowned. "Who?" he lied. Only one man had truly existed in that city street, drowning all others with his brilliance, but he was not allowed to use the Force, so was not supposed to know that he was special.
His father passed his hand over his brow. He gave a strange shuddering sigh, but Obi-Wan didn't allow himself to relax too much. Another blow could still be coming. "The man in black. You really don't know?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. The man had been so lonely, so full of fear deeply hidden.
"Obi-Wan." His father crouched down to his level. Although he was almost twelve, Obi-Wan had not yet started to grow towards his man's height. Sometimes he felt as if all his strength was going into his burgeoning skill at the Force, leaving none for his physical growth. "Obi-Wan, my son." So deeply weary. "He was one of Vader's Hands. He was looking for you."
He swallowed. "For me?" A wild hope rose in him, that this man had known of him and had wanted him. He had been alone for so long. His father only feared this man because, like Obi-Wan, he was different.
Fingers digging into his shoulders. "To kill you, Obi-Wan, and to kill us for concealing you."
"Kill?" He wanted to laugh. The Force was something marvellous. How could one so strong in the Force ever be able to do evil? Surely his father was mistaken.
"This is not a game you're playing, Obi-Wan." His father was dark and serious. "This... skill you have is outlawed under the Empire. Anyone showing signs of it is to be handed over to the authorities and killed. Vader's Hands patrol the Empire, using their own skills to hunt out those who have been concealed. They can sniff out anyone using the Force, even when they're miles away."
<He didn't sense me> he thought, first, then <he had the Force, and _he_ hadn't been killed.> "I don't understand," he said, aloud, unable to say either of his true thoughts. "Who are they?"
His father seemed immeasurably old. "I said everyone with Force abilities was killed, but that's not true. Not all of them." He closed his eyes, as if unable to speak of the dark tales he had heard and see the innocent face of his son at the same time. "Some are... kept. Vader trains them to serve him. I... I don't know what he does to them to break them. They end up hunting their own kind, and liking it."
Tears began to well in his eyes. The man had been so sad. "Broken," he murmured.
His father opened his eyes. "Do you understand?" For the first time in as long as he could remember, his father's admonishments did not come with a blow. "Now do you know the risk?"
He nodded, and did not tell the truth.
That night, he woke in terror, sure that someone was calling to him, seeking him, wanting him...
He saw that sorrowing terrifying face of the black-clad man.
<I saw you> he was saying. <I _did_ sense you, but I am biding my time. You are mine for the plucking whenever I wish. I will come when you least expect it. Never fool yourself that you are safe.>
He screamed into his pillow.
Months passed, and the dream faded to the faintest of memories, and no-one came.
Vader's Hand had left the planet after only a few days, leaving behind three dead children, but taking no-one with him back to his dark Master.
For a few weeks, Obi-Wan had been scared to sleep and had started at every shadow. Then his mother's gushing protectiveness had forced him to hide his fear and laugh with the other children as normal. After a while, he had found he was no longer scared.
No-one came. It was a dream, he thought, when he remembered it. But, as the months passed, he remembered it less and less.
When he was fourteen, at last he started growing, quickly attaining his adult height. He would never be tall, but neither would he have cause to worry on that score again.
Girls started to smile at him. He looked over his shoulder, the first few times, wondering who was standing behind him and attracting their attention. He found it hard to believe they were interested in _him_. The only thing that made him special was the Force, and that was something they would never know about.
But he smiled back, shyly at first. He exchanged a few kisses, but nothing more. He knew he was doomed to being alone - that he would never feel truly close to any other living soul.
He was wiping a cup dry when he heard it - a sharp intense cry through the Force.
The cup shattered. Heedless of his mother's wondering cry, he was out of the door in an instant.
The boy could not have been older than five, backed into a corner by older boys and their dogs. He was crying real tears, but they were nothing. Almost deafening to Obi-Wan was the keening cry he was sending through the Force.
<I am here. You are safe> he sent, reassuring, in reply.
The cry did not abate.
"Leave him alone," he shouted, putting all the strength of his seventeen years into his stance, and investing his voice with the Force. It seemed to echo in the alleyway. "Leave him."
The assailants blinked, as if fighting some impossible command in their minds.
Obi-Wan lowered his hand. He knew there would be a temptation to go to far - to make the boys walk away by ripping away their own volition. Perhaps they deserved it, but it would be bullying far worse than anything they were doing, using his strength on boys who were powerless to resist it.
"Leave him alone," he said, more quietly this time, relying only on his own age and strength, and not the Force at all.
The oldest of them was only ten, and, like most children, they recognised the voice of adult authority. A moment ago they had been tormentors, feral and cruel. Now they were sullen boys, scuffing their feet, ashamed yet trying not to show it.
He knew their names - he never forgot a name or a face - and the names of their Masters and parents. They knew that too, and knew he could make trouble for them if they resisted.
He didn't need to utter another word. Heads down, they slunk away.
Curled in a ball, the boy did not look up - did not even appear aware that his tormentors had left.
Obi-Wan crouched beside him, sending a flood of warmth through the Force. When nothing happened, and the boy made no sign of hearing him, he frowned, then tried again. This time, he carefully constructed a clear image of the boy's sense in his mind, and targeted his reassurance specifically for _him_.
<I am here, little one. You're not alone. You're safe.>
The boy sucked in a breath. Slowly, wonderingly, he raised his tear-streaked face. "Safe?" he whispered.
Obi-Wan smiled, nodded.
"Kovi. Oh, my poor boy.."
The boy's mother was almost fierce as he snatched the boy's small hand from Obi-Wan's. She lived on the outskirts of the city, where the houses were widely spaced, half in the wilds. The boy, Koveras, had told him that his father had left when he was a baby.
Her hands were shaking as she pulled him close and stroked his hair. Unsettled by his mother's tears, and the relief of the reunion, the small boy started crying again, his face buried in his mother's breast.
"I'm a good mother, really I am. He just... He wandered off. I've told him so many times," she stammered, when she finally remembered Obi-Wan. There was a desperate defensiveness in her sense.
Obi-Wan smiled gently. "I know you are. I know what children are like."
She did not smile back. "Thank you." Then, when he didn't move, "I have nothing I can give you."
"I don't want anything."
She swallowed hard. "Well... Thank you, Master..."
"Kenobi," he supplied. "Obi-Wan Kenobi."
She turned to her son again, and he felt a desperate fluttering of fear in her sense. She knew what her son was, he realised, and was terrified that Obi-Wan, if he stayed, would guess the secret and betray both of them.
He knew he should leave. It was unfair to provoke her fears. Better, perhaps, to leave and never look back, and let her relax with her son, safe in the certainty that his secret had not been discovered.
But the loneliness.... Could he do that to Koveras? He had been alone for seventeen years, and had almost grown used to it, but this little boy was just starting out. He could be the boy's friend and mentor. The whole journey home, the boy had clung to him, inseparable in his mind.
"Obi." The boy wrenched out of his mother's arms. "Don't go..."
He made his mind up in that instant. Long afterwards, after everything that resulted from this decision, he could still not bring himself to regret it. For two years - and this was the truth and not false pride speaking - he would be the little boy's lifeline and true friend.
"I know," he murmured, crouching down beside the two entwined figures. "I know what he is." And then, as she cried out in horror and would have struck him, "I know, because I am, too. I know, and I swear I will never tell."
He was aware of the risk he took. What mother, with Vader's hunters close, would not try _anything_ to save her son, even betraying someone else to divert attention.
He was aware, but... No. He did not regret it, and never would, despite what grew out of that moment.
"Vader's Hand is here," his father said, casually.
He paused over his stonework. Knowing that he could never do what his heart most desired, and live a life ruled by the Force, he had merely followed his father into work, as a craftsman of stone. He was good at it. He had a horrible feeling that he would be good at everything he tried.
"Oh," he said.
He had known, of course - how could he not? That mixture of hatred and sorrow called out to him like a beacon, and he was intimately aware of the man's progress through the city. It shadowed his day and tormented his sleep. He remembered his childhood dream, and, though he knew now it had only been a dream born of his own fears, the shadow remained.
"You'll be careful?"
He nodded. His father had mellowed, ever since that day when Obi-Wan first saw Vader's Hand, and the fear had finally emerged from the shadow of the anger he had so long used to mask it.
His father had impulsively touched his hand. "We were right, Obi-Wan, to act as we did." It was almost a question. "Better to live without it, than to die."
He was silent for a very long time. "Yes," he whispered, at last.
It was a lie. Living without the Force was no true life at all, not for someone born to the glory of communion with that immense wellspring of power. Out of love and concern for him, his parents had tried to stifle the most important part of himself. Yet he could feel no anger. What choice had they had? Would not his death have been a greater evil still?
"We have always loved you, Obi-Wan. Never forget that."
He smiled. Afterwards he would wonder if this had been his father's first and only touch of prescience - that he had initiated this farewell, this final peace between two men whose relationship had always been troubled.
"I know," he said, through tears.
Before even he heard the scream, he knew it was inevitable. He sensed the Hand's presence, and knew where he was, and what his dark gleeful intent meant.
<Kovi> he called in his mind, throwing aside his blankets and barely pausing to pull on a tunic and boots.
Half way out of the door, he felt the boy's scream.
"No!" he cried, aloud. "No!"
The boy's mother was sprawled across the doorway, dead, one pale hand reaching out desperately into the night.
He had no time even to close her eyes.
To the west, out in the wilds, was a boiling turmoil of emotions. Koveras was hurt and running. His mother's sacrifice had bought him time, and he had run, but the overwhelming strength, the power, of the dark man who hunted him was close, so close...
<No!> he bellowed, with all his strength.
He ran as he had never run before, guided by his friend's thoughts like a beacon. <I'm coming. Kovi, hold on. I'm coming> he sent, a constant wave of reassurance.
The boy was so weary now. Wild hope flickered in his sense, but Obi-Wan could read the Hand, too, and knew he was confident of victory, playing with the boy like a cat played with a mouse. This awareness, though, he locked deeply away, away from the boy.
Nurturing that hope, coaxing it, feeding his own strength through the link...
A cry of pain, and then a red explosion of terror.
He saw them, then - a black-clad man bending over a crumpled heap that was the boy. Moonlight shone down on them. He could see Koveras's pale face, and the Hand's teeth bared in a smile.
"No!" he cried, aloud. The time for secrecy was over. Raising his hand, he summoned the Force, and pushed with all his strength.
As if struck a physical blow, Vader's Hand flew backwards, landing awkwardly on his back.
"Run," Obi-Wan cried to Koveras. "Towards me. Run!"
A clawing hand reached out. The boy clawed his way to a half sitting position, tried to stand, then sank back. Obi-Wan could feel the determination in him as he summoned the Force, but it was weakened by his terror and he only managed to crawl, painfully slowly, one hand in front of the other.
Vader's Hand began to stand. Almost lazily, he reached out a hand.
"No!" Obi-Wan cried again. He spread his fingers, and, palm downwards, pressed down.
The Hand gasped. As if pressed down by a blanket of lead, he was flattened to the ground and lay there, immobile and gasping. His brilliant eyes met Obi-Wan's, and they were full of mingled hatred and wonderment. "You," he mouthed.
"Kovi," Obi-Wan called. Still holding the Hand to the ground, shaking with the effort of holding back his retaliation, he stepped towards the boy.
Koveras's eyes widened in horror. "Obi."
Something heavy fell across the back of his shoulder, driving him to his knees. Another, and he sprawled. Dust filled his mouth.
He met the boy's eyes and held them. In the dirt, his right hand was extended, shaking, still maintaining his hold on Vader's Hand. Nothing else existed for him. He was dimly aware that his body was screaming in pain.
Boots passed before his vision. He saw a man bend over the Hand, and heard hissed words - "...kept alive...."
His fingers convulsed. There was a sharp pain in the back of his neck, and something cold ran through his blood. Clouds danced before his vision. With the last of his strength, he threw everything he had into maintaining his hold on the fallen man. Koveras _must_ be allowed to escape.
Metal flashed across the darkness. He thought he saw a smile. Bubbling blood on the dirt, and Vader's Hand stopped resisting his hold. There was a knife protruding from his back.
"There." The man who had wielded the knife stood up, brushing the dirt of his hand. He shrugged, as if arguing with someone else - and there _was_ someone else, Obi-Wan realised, whose hand was twisted in his hair, forcing his neck back, and whose knee was digging into the small of his back.
The man's lips continued to move, but he no longer saw them.
Darkness took him.
He awoke, and was without the Force. Compared with that terror, the pain that flooded his body was almost an afterthought, as was the fact that he was cold and his hands were bound, and the metal beneath his body was humming with movement.
Despite himself, he groaned.
A boot in his cheek awakened him, some time later. Although he cried out inside, he was silent, motionless, deeming it safer to pretend he was still unconscious.
"Still out," a voice grunted.
"Perhaps we should just kill him."
"No." Vehement. "We need him. Vader will be pleased with this prize, especially when we tell him that he killed Gorion."
"He'll know the truth. This one will tell him. Even without him, he would know." An audible shudder. "What were you thinking of?"
"He would have killed Gorion himself, for being defeated by this boy. He likes them strong."
"He will know." Stubborn. Even without the Force, he could sense the fear in this man. "He'll know you killed him only because you hated him."
"Well." An angry shout. "What does he expect? He tortures his Hands and makes them what they are, and they torture everyone unlucky enough to serve them. What Escort doesn't hate their master and wouldn't do the same if given a chance?"
Boots shuffling. "Don't talk like that."
"Violence breeds violence." Another harsh blow. It was all he could do not to make a sound. The man laughed - a chilling sound. "I feel like some violence."
"He will be a Hand. Look at him, and see the men who have abused you for so long." Fingers closed on his battered face. He went limp, but could not stop the hitch in his breath. The man didn't seen to notice. "This is a Hand. Don't you want to strike back? _Don't you_?"
Almost whimpering, desperate, at long last came a small, shuddering, "yes."
He woke, once, to cruel hands on his body, ripping away his blood-stained clothes.
"No," he moaned, although he had sworn himself to silence. He felt the absence of the Force with an agony far worse than any physical pain. "No. Oh no..."
"Yes," a voice hissed in his ear. "Yes. Oh yes..."
At some point, he had been dressed in black.
"Not so powerful now, Vader's Hand," a mocking voice taunted. A needle pricked his neck.
Later, he heard them muttering between themselves.
"I feel so much better now I've struck back at them. I feel... empowered."
"I don't. I feel worse."
<What about me?> he wanted to howl.
The ship was shaking violently. He heard screams. Bound and unable to resist, he was thrown into a bulkhead. Then, a tearing sound, and he was falling, falling...
He never felt himself land.
He woke to pain, and the smallest flicker of the Force.
It was so small, but it was enough. He could not stop the pain, or slow the bleeding, but he could reach out to the metal cuffs at his wrists, and coax them apart.
He heard a small click as they separated, and it was like a red explosion of sound in the dark agony of his head.
Free, he fell willingly into the darkness.
Next time, the Force was stronger, the drug ever weakening in his system.
His legs were shattered scarlet agony, and he could not walk. Remembering Koveras, who must surely be dead now, he started to crawl.
Somewhere ahead of him, sunk in a deep but troubled slumber, he could sense a life. He had been taught not to trust, but... Oh, but he hurt. Too hurt. He was too hurt to stay alone. Too hurt...
He found he was sobbing - tight silent sobs of agony.
He crawled on arms and elbows, dragging his limp body behind him, though every inch was torment.
Soon, nothing existed for him - nothing - but that.
He pressed his face against the wood of the door, bloody hands clawing wildly.
The person inside drifted slowly towards wakefulness, heard him, dismissed him as of no account, and slept again.
At that, he could no longer stave off the darkness.
He was wrapped in warmth and blankets, though something in the air of the room was very cold.
Blinking through painful eyes, he saw the source of the coldness at once. A man, his unkempt long hair marked with grey, was hunched over a cup of some steaming liquid. His sense was like Vader's Hand's - mingled darkness and sorrow. The Force sang in his being, but it was muted and strangely grey. He had learnt his lesson now and knew that this was no reason to trust him.
Although he wanted to moan with the pain of it, he mustered his strength, throwing it all into his old practised deception. <I am normal> he willed the man to believe. <I do not have the Force.>
"You," the man hissed, clenching his fist. "You."
Darkness surged in him, and some terrible deep grief. Casting aside his drink, heedless of the warm liquid that stained his clothes, the man moved to his bedside. With the flat of his hand, he slapped Obi-Wan across the face, again and again.
He couldn't help it. He moaned. His last sight before he passed out was the inside of the man's callused palm, heading towards his face.
It was some grotesque joke. His last sight had been the man's cruel hand, and that hand was the first thing he saw when he awoke, wrapped round a mug of water.
"Here," he said, contrite.
He struggled. Touching him as if he was something repulsive, the man put an arm under his head and helped him, wiping his chin when he spilled.
He struggled to speak. "I..." Despite the water, his lips were dry.
The man said nothing, but he could sense his fear. He remembered the blows, and the emotions he had sensed from him, and could almost laugh. Would he ever escape this terrible cycle? His father had hit him as an outlet for his fear and hatred of the Empire. The Escorts had abused him as outlet for their own pain and abuse, seeing not him, Obi-Wan Kenobi, but the face of the man they had served. This man, too, had hit him for reasons of his own. He had been the eternal scapegoat.
<I am me> he wanted to cry. <Obi-Wan Kenobi. Hurt me if you like, but because of what I _am._>
Then - for he was hurt, so hurt, and had been ill-treated and abused and lost everything he had ever known - he almost started crying. <But I would rather not be hurt at all. I just want to be safe...>
He thought he spoke. Perhaps...
"Why were you on that ship?" the man asked, his face cold.
He stiffened, suddenly terrified at what was coming. "Prisoner," he managed, hiding with all his strength the truth about _why_ he had been there. Never again would anyone know his secret, even though he would be alone for ever afterwards. "Prisoner," and perhaps he said more, prompted by those cold cold questions.
Only when the man asked his name did he dare to probe further, seeking past that coldness to the loneliness and grief that was closely entwined with it and inseparable. He would lie to his man in every other thing, but could he trust him with this truth?
That grief touched him. Perhaps he would be forever doomed by his tender heart, trusting again and again when the whole galaxy was full of evil, but how could he resist? Even Vader's Hand had been an innocent boy like him, once, long ago. This man had a pure light soul, deeply imprisoned. He had seen the light of the Force, and how could such light ever be truly extinguished?
He gave a small sigh, and felt the weight of shadow lessen on his soul. He had been a scapegoat for too long. He didn't know who the man saw when he looked at him, but he would force him to see himself.
He told his name.
Perhaps he smiled, hesitant and shy. The man did not smile back.
After a while, he slept.
The young man slept, and for a very long time, Qui-Gon sat without moving.
At last, slowly, he reached out and touched his battered face.
"Heal," he murmured, bathing the boy in soothing healing Force. Closing his eyes, he coaxed those broken bones to begin healing, and eased the worst of the lacerations. It could not be a full healing trance, not in someone who had no skill with the Force themselves, but it was a start.
The boy would heal quickly, and then he would leave, and he would be free of him, and alone again.
"I feel... I feel better." The boy smiled shakily, his eyes inviting Qui-Gon to smile back.
Qui-Gon nodded curtly. "Yes. You heal fast, and your injuries weren't as severe as they seemed."
He had been taking a risk, healing him as he had, for he knew the danger of revealing that he had the Force. But the boy was surely ignorant and stupid, and he had been too close to death to mark and catalogue his own injuries, or to know that he had slept in a trance for two days. This small deception would probably suffice.
The boy raised his hand, then ran the fingers of his other hand over the pink almost-healed marks at his wrist. His mouth opened as if he had been about to speak, but then he was silent, only shuddering minutely.
Qui-Gon turned his back and began to prepare dinner, reaching for a knife to cut vegetables. "Why were you a prisoner?" he asked, over his shoulder.
There was only the slightest pause. "One of Vader's Hands was killed. His Escort... relished the brief freedom. I took their fancy. He had... abused them, and they wanted... they needed...."
The knife paused in mid cut. Then, clumsily, he laid it down entirely, clutched the edge of the table with his hands. His weight suddenly seemed very great, almost more than he could hold. "So they..." He swallowed. "They..."
"Yes." Very very small. He knew that, if he turned round, he would see that the boy was crying. "But... It... It wasn't me."
He closed his eyes for a long moment, not knowing what to say. Emotions warred within him - pity for this young man who had been hurt so badly, but relief, too. He felt the boy's sincerity on this. He really _was_ nobody - some poor rustic with a pretty face who had been picked up by abused men who had suddenly found themselves free to be the abuser. Vader would not be looking for him, and neither would Qui-Gon be called upon to protect him. In a few days, when he was healed enough, he would leave.
"It wasn't me," the boy said again, his voice tremulous but strangely sure. "It wasn't me they were hurting, in their mind. It wasn't me..."
"And that gives you comfort?" he snapped, before he had even realised what he had been about to say.
"Yes." It was little more than a breath. "I... No. I... I am trying."
Qui-Gon winced with pain. What did that say about him, who had hurt this boy while seeing someone else in his mind? What did it say about him, when Vader made his Hands scream, all the while hurting his old Jedi Master in his mind?
"Do or do not," he said, harshly. "There is no try."
For an instant, it was as if he stood outside his body, floating above himself, or seeing through the eyes of the young man. <Is this what you have become? So cold and cruel...>
Only for an instant... He shook his head almost fiercely. No-one should ever depend on anyone else. He had placed all his trust in Xanatos, and been betrayed - and betrayed the padawan who had trusted him. He had placed all his hopes in Luke, and lost him. The only safety lay in being truly alone. The quicker the boy learnt that, the better for both of them. And in a few days he would be gone.
"Are you hungry?" he asked, briskly.
He heard the sound of blankets moving, and the quick harsh breathing that spoke of silent sobs.
He remembered holding Xanatos when he had been a boy, crying at some childhood upset. He remembered holding Luke as he woke from some nightmare, or when he fell and scuffed his knees.
Almost angrily, desperately, he turned around, wincing physically when he saw the curled ball of misery that lay on his bed. Two pale hands clutched the blankets close at his neck, trembling with the strength of that grip. He whole body was shaking.
He cleared his throat. "You're safe here."
He took a step forward, and then another, until he was close enough to touch him, if he reached out as far as he could reach, and touched him only with the tips of his fingers. He didn't touch him, though. If the boy had suffered as he said he had, he would not want to be touched ever again.
He sat down and folded his hands in his lap. "Safe."
But the boy cried for a very long time.
He stood in the darkness of the forest, his palm resting on the broad trunk of a tree.
With a stranger lying in his house, it was no longer a home to him. Every time he opened his eyes, the boy was there, and the sight of him was like a physical pain - a deep unsettling ache. He was the same age as Luke would have been, and his eyes had the same vibrant brilliance as Xanatos'. When he spoke, Qui-Gon had to clench his fists tightly to stop himself shouting in anger, or crying out in pain.
He raised his eyes to the stars. Someone out there, on one of those points of light, was Xanatos, like an eye looking down on his every move. And, scattered amongst the heavens, at one with the Force, were the ghosts of the Jedi he had killed. Did they ever watch the Master of the man who had killed them all? Did they blame him?
Yoda had not. But Yoda had spoken of hope, when hope was treacherous, and Yoda, in his dying words, had betrayed him.
"There is no hope," he said, aloud. "No hope, and no love, and no pride. We are alone - all alone in the night."
"I taught you better than that, Qui-Gon."
His throat dried to dust. Standing before him, invisible yet with an aura almost palpable, was his own Master. That aura was dark with disapproval, yet bright with unconditional love.
"Master," he gasped. A child again, he fell to his knees.
At first he had lived for this moment - longed for it. All the Jedi dead, wiped out by the padawan _he_ had trained. Just to hear one of them, just for a moment, utter the words, "you are forgiven..."
He felt the sorrow in his Master's sense, and pity too. "I have such little time, Qui-Gon, and you need so much to hear the things I could tell you... Oh, my padawan." A soft sigh, like breeze in the leaves. "All I have time for is this: they are coming. You must leave now."
"Leave?" He had nowhere to go - nowhere at all.
"Yes." A soft touch on his cheek, as of old dry fingers infinitely soft. "Leave, and take Obi-Wan with you."
Obi-Wan? He frowned, then remembered. The boy. He had forgotten his name. He would be leaving soon, so what was the point of remembering? "Why?"
"He..." A sudden rush of emotion. "Oh, my padawan. _You_..." The aura flickered, and almost became visible, then it weakened. It was fading away; he had so little time. Qui-Gon could have wept at it, holding out his hand beseechingly to hold him back. "Holding on, Qui-Gon." A sorrowful smile. "Always holding on to the past. Let go, my padawan, my Jedi Master. Let go, and feel hope."
He laughed aloud, cried... laughed. "How can I do that?" he wanted to say, bitterly. "How, Master," he almost did say, but knew before he opened his mouth that it was too late.
His Master had gone. His Master had gone, and he was alone in the night, and his cheeks were wet.
Dawn was already lightening the sky when he had the strength to move. He felt immensely old and weary, sure that his face was pinched and grey.
Shakily, he stood, almost surprised when he stood unsupported and without swaying. There was no after-image of his Master's presence. It was almost as if he had imagined it, or dreamed it. Only the stiff feeling of dried tears on his face told him that he had not.
Wearily, he turned and walked back towards to house, only to stop in frozen shock after only a dozen steps.
Leaning heavily on sticks, the boy was standing immobile, staring at him with those terrible brilliant eyes.
A surge in the Force had awakened him - a beautiful aura of immense age and boundless love, mingled with the jangling grey sense that was the man who had healed him but never told him his name.
He felt words exchanged, and emotions. He felt the love of a parent, and the returned love of a child. Knowing that this was a deeply personal thing and not for him, he did not probe further.
To his surprise, he found that he was crying. The ebb and flow of the Force around him reminded him of his own parents. For the first time, he placed the sense of emptiness in his soul.
His parents were dead, unequivocally. Had the Escorts killed them, fulfilling that much of their duty - to execute anyone who knowingly concealed a Force sensitive? He thought they would have taunted him about that, but they had been busy, and done worse.
And then he almost laughed, brokenly and through tears. That he could ask why, or think of his own suffering now... His parents were dead, like an empty space in his heart. Owen lived, his distant ghostly sense discordant and full of mingled grief and hatred for the brother who had killed his parents.
He had killed them. Heedless of his father's last admonishment to be careful, and his last tender statement of love, he had revealed his ability... and had destroyed everyone he had ever loved.
Weeping, he clutched the blankets, taking long deep calming breaths, but failing to find any comfort in them. Emotions swirled inside him like a maelstrom, and the Force skittered out of reach.
Perhaps that was for the best.
Hours later, perhaps, or maybe just minutes, he flashed on a memory - words and images as clear as if they were here and now.
"It wasn't me," he was saying, and tried so hard to believe it. "It wasn't me they were hurting, in their mind. It wasn't me..."
"And that gives you comfort?" the man snapped.
<And that gives you comfort....?>
Fiercely, he wiped at his eyes. "It wasn't me," he said, aloud. His father had struck him, when the real target of his anger - a target he could never strike at - was the Empire. He would not make the same mistake himself. His parents were dead, and he would bear the sorrow and guilt for that to the end of his days, but their true murderer was the Empire.
He could _not_ feel guilty for having the Force, or for doing all in his power to save Koveras. The Force was a gift, and if, through fear and guilt, he stopped using it, then his parents' death was all for nothing.
"I will fight," he swore, clenching his fist like an oath. "One day, somehow, I will fight." And then, for he was still hurt and so very alone, he felt his face crumple again.
He wished he could bury them, and say one last farewell.
When the thought came to him, he clung to it wildly, realising that, in so many ways, it was _right._
He could not bury his parents, but he could bury them in his heart, and say farewell.
Close by, in their burned ship, were the men who had hurt him, driven by suffering of their own. It was wrong, wrong, that they lay in twisted burned agony, unburied. If he buried them, he would grant them peace, and, for himself, gain some sort of closure in his wounded heart.
Wild, crying - fully aware that his actions were not quite rational but needing to do this with all his heart - he pushed back the blankets and struggled to stand. He almost fell at the stabbing agony of his half-healed legs, but the man had tersely laid some sticks by the bed - "for when you're ready to leave," he had said, making it clear that he wished that day would come as soon as possible.
Fumbling for the sticks, summoning the Force as best as he could, somehow he managed to stand, somehow he managed to edge towards the door. His legs would heal. Until he did this, his heart never would.
He was dry-eyed as he buried them, even as his tortured limbs screamed in agony.
In all his life, even if he met someone he could trust and love and feel close to - even if he met someone strong in the Force who knew everything there was to know about him - he knew he would never tell _anyone_ what had been in his heart as he had thrown the thin soil over their burnt bones.
They were his parents. They were his past. They were wounded men, who would rest in peace. They were the men who had hurt him and they were dead and could never hurt him again. They were the killers of his parents, but in the end they had been granted peace and forgiveness.
_He_ was the killer of his parents, and, if they could find peace, then perhaps - _perhaps_ - so could he.
There were no flowers, but gently he laid a leafy branch on each of the graves.
"Be with the Force," he murmured, improvising a blessing.
The men had been abused by the Empire, and, through abuse, had learnt to be men of violence themselves.
By this small gesture - but how important to him! - he was declaring that the Empire would never win - could never totally claim a man's soul. After death, where was the power of the Empire then? After death, everyone was the same, in the arms of the Force.
On impulse, then, he took the branch and turned it on its end, plunging it into the soil. Some branches sprouted thus. Some severed branches grew into trees.
As a child, his deception had always been against his parents and _their_ prohibition against using the Force. Even when he knew the truth, he never once thought, while using the Force, that he was fighting the power of the Empire. He was just being himself.
With this burial, he was stating his first defiance to the Empire - one so strange and personal than no-one would ever comprehend it, and only he would see the significance.
But, just as severed branches sometimes grew, his defiance would grow, and one day, perhaps, not even Vader would be able to ignore him.
"You buried them?" Qui-Gon echoed, incredulously.
The boy's face was so pale. Still half-healed, how had he lifted the twisted panels of the ship and carried out the bodies? How had he dug the graves? His limbs were almost palsied in their exhaustion. He looked on the very point of collapse, only held up by willpower alone.
"You wouldn't," the boy said, his voice scarcely there at all.
"My people always burned their dead." His voice was terse, momentarily shaken by the truth. Men had died in agony close by, and he had tolerated their bodies so close to his home, never once considering removing them from their twisted metal tomb. What had be become?
"I wanted to," he said, and there was something in his eyes - some dark emotion. Perhaps it was surliness. Certainly it was defiance.
"They're coming to retrieve the wreck, and you wouldn't want them to find you, would you? Questions will be asked. Perhaps they will think _you_ killed the Hand whose clothes you wear. Perhaps you _did_?"
The boy didn't ask him how he knew they were coming. He merely looked down at the ground, his shoulders heaving with slow shuddering breaths.
Qui-Gon told himself not to strike him. Guilt needled at him - guilt that he had not thought to bury themselves himself. Guilt, and anger. Hadn't the stupid boy _thought_?
"I was going to leave this morning, and make out that the house was deserted," he explained, voice tight with anger. "I have ways of hiding my tracks. They would have thought nothing of it - just two men who crashed next to an empty house. But now they'll see the graves, and know someone was here, and come after me."
"You can still go," the boy said, sulkily. He did not apologise. "I'll stay and tell them it was me."
Qui-Gon sighed heavily. All the magic, the pain, of his Master's appearance, and the boy had shattered the memory utterly. <Take Obi-Wan with you> his Master had said, but now he remembered only the bald words, and not the feelings that had come with it. "Don't be stupid, boy. I can't just let them take you. You're coming with me." He passed his hand over his brow, weary and exasperated. "We'll go to the city. You can get a transport home, and I... I'll find a new home where I can."
The boy raised his face, and those intense eyes met his. For a sudden wild moment, Qui-Gon was sure he was about to speak, saying words that struck at Qui-Gon's very soul. Then he blinked, and was just an ordinary, boy again, stupid and nothing. "Yes," he said. "Home."
He trembled then, and seemed on the verge of tears.
When he saw him waver, Qui-Gon almost let him fall, but instinct took over, and he lunged for him, using the Force and his own strength to scoop him up in his arms as easily as if he was a child. The boy gave a small shuddering sigh, and rested his head on his shoulder. His eyelids fluttered shut.
Qui-Gon felt insane impossible tears rise up his throat. He swallowed hard, suppressed them, and walked with his burden into the house.
Obi-Wan woke slowly, feeling the soft warm touch of blankets, and for a languid pleasurable moment he thought he was still a child, still in the care of his mother.
"You're awake? Good."
Harsh clattering noises, and he opened his eyes reluctantly, knowing that, as soon as he did so, the image of his mother's face would fade away and never return. He could have cried, but he felt wrung out, unable to shed any more tears. His desperate ritual in the night seemed like a dream, shot through with intense emotions he was too weary to feel now.
"They're coming. I'm all packed up and ready to go. Can you stand?"
He flung back the blankets, swinging his legs to the ground before the loss of their warmth registered. He tried a shaky smile. "It seems so."
The man's lips were a tight clenched line. He inclined his head a fraction. "Good."
He swallowed. Still this feeling of unreality, as if something was cutting him off from his emotions. The man's coldness was causing it, he knew. Afterwards, he would realise that this had saved his life. Had the man been a fraction less cold, he would have broken down and wept, pouring out all his grief for his parents and his own abuse, and he would have been useless, incapable of fleeing.
"Where are we going?" he asked, fastening the ties of the too-large tunic the man had laid out for him. He had a dim memory of the man speaking to him in the night, but last night scarcely seemed real to him.
The man reached past him and bundled up his blankets, doubtless planning to hide or destroy them like the rest of his possessions. It was hard to believe that anyone had ever lived in the empty wooden shell of a room. "There is no 'we'," he said, tersely. "Our way lies together as far as the city, and then we part."
He nodded, though he was strangely hurt. From the start, he had felt the Force in the man's sense, although it was grey and subdued and seldom used. Almost more than his parents, he missed Koveras - a companion, strong in the Force, who could understand him more truly than any family. There was light in the man, and long-buried warmth.
Oh, but he was so alone...
He spoke, more to end the silence than anything else. He had a sudden wild urge to talk endlessly, pouring out his soul - anything to see the man soften and smile. "Thank you," he said, merely.
The man looked discomforted. "It's not for you." He looked down at the blankets. "I am in more danger than you are, if they come."
Like the first shaky steps of a new-born puppy, he reached out with the Force, wildly and a little desperately. <I know> he said, in his mind. <You have the Force. So do I. I... I'm very scared. Can we help each other?>
He knew he was risking everything; not everyone with the Force was a potential friend, and some were his worst enemies. But he had lost everything, and what else was there to risk? If the man had answered in his head, like to like, he thought he would have fallen to his knees and wept in glorious relief. Loneliness was the most terrible thing in the universe, he thought.
The man merely frowned with dark anger. "But don't think you can betray me. I have lived here too long, and am not coming back. You will never be able to lead them to me."
He dug his nails into his palms. "I wouldn't betray you." He found he still had tears to cry after all. He blinked hard and forced them not to fall.
He had made his advance, and been rejected. Why did it hurt so much? Who was this man to him, that it could hurt so much?
Just for a moment, the man seemed to soften. "No," he said, shaking his head, and something almost tender flickered in his eyes. "I think I know that. I know you have no cause to love the Empire. I... I'm sorry." And then the moment passed. He physically drew himself taller, more erect. "Do you need any money? I would not abandon you without resources."
No, he would accept nothing from this man - nothing but the one thing he most craved, which was the one thing the man would never give him. How low had he fallen, that he craved his man's friendship so much, regardless of the risk, simply because he had the Force? Would he go on his knees grovelling to the next Hand he met, whimpering, "love me. Be my friend. Abuse me as you wish, but don't let me be alone"?
"Do you?" Louder, and angry.
Miserably, he shook his head, but, with a sigh and a look of contempt at what he deemed to be stubborn pride, the man pressed some gold pieces into his unresisting palm "That should get you transport home," he said.
<I have no home. My parents are dead> Then, asking from naked inexplicable pain, <far enough away that you can forget me?> What was happening to him, that this man could hurt him so?
It was not life-long companionship, he realised - nothing like that that he so needed. They were both strong in the Force, and had been hurt. Both of them were hunted men. They should have been able to meet, their minds meeting like beacons in the night, share a few days of succour, and separate, both stronger for it.
What had he done wrong? He had confided what had been done to him, and the man had offered no comfort. After a while, he had trusted the man utterly by showing him that he had the Force, and the man had ignored his revelation utterly, continuing cold and distant.
Even rejection from a stranger could hurt keenly. Trusting, he had offered everything, and received nothing. The man hadn't even told him his name.
The man was frowning at him, a small furrow between his brows, looking genuinely puzzled.
Obi-Wan wrapped his arms around his body, wishing it was as easy to pull his emotions back under control. "Let's go," he said.
The man had been prepared. Somewhere, in a secret store, he had kept two speeder bikes, which he produced. His face dared Obi-Wan to ask why he kept two.
Obi-Wan said nothing. Relief and disappointment warred inside him. His legs were not up to the long walk, he knew, and a journey on foot would be a terrible painful torture to him. But, at the same time, a journey on foot would be several days with this man - several days in which he could penetrate his coldness just a little, perhaps.
"We will be there before nightfall," the man said, tersely.
He was taking no possessions with him but the clothes he was wearing. A shimmering cloud of Force radiated from a strange metal cylinder hanging at his belt. Obi-Wan thought the Force was meant to conceal it and wondered whether to tell the man he could still see it.
Instead - for the man was old and probably tired and not as strong as he had been - he subtly reached out with his own strength and wrapped his own layer of concealment around the object. His own Force and the man's existed side by side for a while, then seemed to mingle seamlessly.
He had to look away.
The man looked at him quizzically. Then, without a word, he powered up his speeder bike and set off into the trees.
<Don't you care that you're leaving your home?> he wanted to cry. <Don't you care about _anything_?>
At nightfall, they arrived at the city, and parted with no more words than a mumbled "thank you," and a gruff, "goodbye, boy."
<Well, that's over> Qui-Gon thought. The relief he had expected to feel was tempered with... with something else.
It was only to be expected that he would feel something, he told himself. Yoda had died in that house, and Luke had filled it with his aura of hope. He had lived there for six years, and existed there a further fourteen. It was not a home - what would ever be a home to him, in this hostile universe? - but it had memories.
As the last sliver of sun faded over the horizon, he allowed himself a moment with those memories, then ruthlessly suppressed them. <Let go of the past> his Master had said. <Let go.>
He could not do that, for every day, every second, that he lived in exile was a reminder to him that the Empire existed, and that its roots lay in his own past. He could not do that, but his Master had always been wise. Nothing could ease the guilt and the regret for the past, but what else had he done with this life?
Regret for the past did not need to mean inactivity. Was that what his Master had meant - that he had stagnated in the woods, dwelling on the past, when he had been a Jedi and should act like one? Even under the Empire, people needed healing, and he could be useful as a healer, even without revealing that he had the Force. His healing of the boy had shown him that much.
Is that why his Master had told him to leave the house - so he could make a new start in a new home where the memories were not so thick, and slowly, hesitantly, start to serve the community again.
<Let go, and hope> his Master had told him. <Hope...>
Part of him was still a padawan, unable to disobey that voice. "Hope," he repeated, slowly, letting the word linger on his tongue. "Hope..."
The Jedi are all dead, part of his mind told him harshly. Yes, the Jedi are dead, some other voice replied, in his Master's voice or his own - he did not know. The Jedi are dead, and you are the last of them - the last flowering. What is best - slow stagnation and cold despair in hiding, or doing good?
The Empire rules, that dark voice retorted. Yes, the Empire rules, and even if that can't be changed, is it not a wonderful thing to improve the quality of even _one_ life, even under its yoke?
<Xanatos betrayed me. Luke died, and he was all my hope.> More insistent now, the voice of his soul these last fourteen years.
<Hope comes mostly from within.> His Master again, he was sure of it. If only he could open his eyes, he could see him, touch him, feel him...
He shook his head violently, breaking the spell of the vision - if it was a vision, and not his own thoughts speaking in his mind. He felt no presence of his Master - nothing like the previous night.
He was alone. He was alone, but, perhaps, he knew what he had to do.
Leave this place - this place where the memories of Xanatos were so thick. Leave this place, and set up a new home somewhere far away and strange to him, and serve.
Tomorrow, he thought. He would go tomorrow, finding a transport and going wherever it would take him.
Let the Force decide.
Head bowed, Obi-Wan stared into his drink. He had held it so tightly and so long that his hand had lost all feeling. His throat was parched; he had not drunk much from it, though he had ordered it over an hour before.
Emotions swirled around him like a palpable thing - like boiling water at the turn of the tide. Men discussed violence here, and women and boys offered pleasures to those lustful enough to pay for them.
He felt a small rueful smile play on his lips. Of all the places he could have come... But he had been tired, his legs aching terribly, and he had felt as if his heart had been ripped out and trampled upon. Almost falling, he had clung to the doorway of the first inn he had found, taking whatever room he was offered.
Glittering eyes had watched the gold he had flashed. Only one piece, though. Although only nineteen and still living with his parents - even at the end, his mother had tucked him in at night and kissed him - he had seen something of life in the seedier parts of town.
Enough to survive? Perhaps. He had no illusions about that. He was ill-prepared for life so utterly alone. Oh yes, he had been alone in his heart for his whole life - for even the companionship of Koveras had been a pale thing, close, but of necessity lacking in so much. No-one revealed the true secrets of his heart - his fears and insecurities - to a six year old boy who needed a mentor. But, though intensely lonely, he had still been physically cared for by his parents. He had never had to find his own food and housing, or seek a job.
He had never been so intensely aware of how young he really was. His skill in the Force had made him an adult before his time in so many things, but it had left him a child in the things that mattered now, here, on the street. Over-protective, his mother had kept him at home. Two years younger, Owen had already left home, sharing a house with two other young men and finding his own work.
"You look as if you could use some company," someone said, softly.
He looked up, his eyes level with the woman's ample breasts, overflowing a tight bodice. Wearily, he shook his head. She held his eyes for a moment, then seemed to read something in his eyes that told her there was no gain to be found in arguing. With a small sigh that could have been disappointment, she moved onto the next table.
Somewhere, there were raised voices. A brawl over a game of sabacc, perhaps. Anger swirled thickly in his head, but no true thoughts of murder.
Would he stay here? He swirled his drink, and the blood began to return to his hand with a faint ghostly tingling that would soon be pain. Would he stay? Perhaps. Where else could he go?
"Take a transport home," the man had said, but what home did he have now? Everyone he had cared for at home was dead, and he knew his brother hated him. He could take a transport somewhere else, somewhere new, but what was the point? Better be alone here, where fate had thrown him, than travel - travel, almost as if he was seeking something - almost as if he hoped that, if he searched, he would find a home that could be truly his.
"They are coming," the man had said, and that was something to consider too, but a small thing. Perhaps the Escort had reported back to their base and said that they were bringing him, but he doubted it. More likely, the search party was looking for their two missing Escorts, would find them dead, and that would be the end of it. It was more than likely that no-one else knew of the prisoner they had been transporting, and, if they knew, did not care over much. He was just one more child with the Force, who would be picked up on the next cull.
And, if a Hand came, he would sense him, and knew he could hide. He had hidden from two before, and this would be no different. They were so strong in the Force that he could sense them, but his skill was small enough that he was next to invisible to them. He was sure they wouldn't find him.
He gave a grim smile, simultaneously waving away the young boy who, seeing his rejection of the girl, had walked sultrily to his table.
Yes, he thought. He would stay here. That much was decided.
What he would do here, how he would live.... Oh, how he would live... His smile died utterly, and his stomach twisted with pain. He was alone and the galaxy was so very very big. If only he had a friend to guide him...
The boy, not deterred, smiled at him.
He flashed suddenly on cruel hands pawing at a pale boy's flesh, and it was all he could do not to be sick, throwing up all the small amount he had managed to eat and drink that evening.
"No," he managed, desperately. He stood up, and was almost blind as he pushed at the table, pushed at the boy's reaching arm. His legs were a pain that filled his whole world, and he stumbled, and almost fell.
Something wet drenched his legs, and the low rank smell of cheap drink filled his nostrils.
"No," he said again, almost a moan. He wanted to run into the darkness outside, but he would be no more alone there, and nothing would be different.
Weakly, he sank back onto his chair, and the drink dried and cooled on his aching legs.
Uninvited, the boy sat beside him. Other eyes watched him with ill-concealed predatory interest. He had shown himself weak and foolish. He could be dead by the morning.
He wondered what had come of his foolish night-time swearing to defy the Empire and make a difference, and could have laughed - bitter, hopeless, and closer to tears. Everything had seemed so different then, when he had been almost fey and wild under the power of the Force. He had thought he had laid the memory of his abuse to rest, and said farewell to his parents. He thought he had sworn an oath to be strong, and dared to dream of the future - defying the Empire, with, perhaps, a friend at his side.
How could he defy the Empire, when he was too inexperienced to survive a single night by himself in the city, simply living as so many countless millions of people lived without a second's thought?
If he could have gone back, perhaps, he would have uprooted that foolish branch from the graves and snapped it, casting the fragments to the wind.
"Darth Vader was born here," the boy said, at last. "Did you know that?"
Obi-Wan raised his head wearily. He made no reply.
"He was the son of our last King. The King was cruel and drove his people to rebel. He was not called Vader then, and was with the Jedi, but he returned home and would have fought at his father's side. Not long after his father was killed, he changed his name to Vader and... and then there was the Empire."
He said nothing.
"He has never returned. Some say he had sworn never to return - that the place has too many memories for him. But still we feel his hand from afar." A sound of swallowing. "His name was Xanatos."
"Isn't this treason that you speak?" he said, grudgingly. "You should guard your words in front of strangers."
The boy raised his chin, defiant. "I only speak what I have heard. I am only seventeen. It happened before I was born."
"Why are you telling me this?" he asked, still deeply reluctant to speak, but forced to by the boy's trust.
"You are like me," the boy said, and his eyes were too old for his face. "I can see it. You too have been... used."
He clenched his fist against anger, and an even stronger pain. Desperately, he quested, but he could find no trace of the Force in the boy. Perhaps this was some more primitive thing - some empathy shared only by the abused. "I... I don't want to talk about it."
The boy nodded, understanding without the need for further words. "Shall I show you the Palace ruins and tell you stories of the past?" He touched Obi-Wan's sleeve. "Stories and histories about things that are not your own life, and are not _here._" He touched Obi-Wan's chest with the very end of his finger.
He swallowed. "Why?"
The boy leant closer, then closer still. Obi-Wan almost flinched, then realised what the boy was doing. To those watching from the inn's main room, it would have looked as if they were kissing, but, though the boy's mouth was close enough for him to feel his breath on his cheeks, his lips moved only in quiet whisper. "It's obvious to everyone here how green you are. More than one here will be planning to rob you, or worse."
"I know," he whispered back. "And if I go with you, they won't?"
The boy pulled back, and his eyes were grim. "I... know people. Don't think of me as useless or a slave. Perhaps I was coerced into what I do for a living, but I freed myself, and now it's my own choice. It's good money." His expression dared Obi-Wan to see anything dishonourable in it, as well as coolly showing him that he expected payment for his company this evening, even if it was only a chaste walk in the darkness. "I'm one of their own. I doubt they'll hurt you if you're with me."
He probed with the Force, but only slightly; over the years he had grown more and more uneasy about probing too closely at those who were ignorant of his touch. It seemed like a violation. The boy had secrets, he could tell, and a hard streak of ruthlessness in him, but in this, he thought, he was telling the truth.
He tried to smile. "My name's Obi-Wan..." Kenobi, he had been going to add, but the boy stopped his mouth with his hand. "Only first names," he admonished. Then he took his hand. "I'm called Ben."
"I can't walk far," he admitted, as soon as they were outside in the night.
"It isn't far," Ben replied.
They walked a little way in silence. Obi-Wan was very aware of eyes watching him in the shadows, and the fact that he had no weapon, nor any experience of using one even if he had.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked, at last.
Ben's sense was different, out in the dark. There had been bright surge of relief as they had left the inn; that had mellowed now, but was still there, almost as if he had risked danger to catch his fish and now only needed to reel him in. But there could be other reasons, he told himself harshly. He would not be driven by what had happened to him to distrust everyone without giving them a chance. Do that, and the Empire would have won, driving all humanity from him as successfully as if they had made him a Hand.
"I told you," the boy said, with exaggerated patience. "To keep you safe. There are dark and secret places in the ruins of the Palace grounds, and everyone will know why we're going there. They'll let me have you, for tonight. Because of it, you'll live until tomorrow."
Something in the way he looked reminded Obi-Wan of the time he had rescued Koveras - of a small boy cowering in the alley, incapable of defending himself, until an older boy came to his rescue. This time, he was the small boy, and Ben, in his own eyes at least, was the rescuer. Was that all it was - one boy helping another boy, because he saw something of himself in him and wanted him to be safe?
He shook his head, and tried hard to believe it. There was something more pointed, more personal in the boy's relief. And every step took him further away from the non-hostile eyes, and further into the night.
"I'm not going to rob you," Ben said, sulkily. He sounded surprisingly hurt, and Obi-Wan realised how clear his unease had been. "Or rape you. Or hand you over to the men who took me when I was thirteen and enslaved me and sold my body and..."
His voice was rising higher and higher. Despite his cool wordly-wise exterior, he had been very hurt, Obi-Wan could see.
"I know," he said, quietly. He considered leaving it at that, but it was time to be honest - to demand honesty. "But you want something from me, don't you? Money? Many men in the inn had more, and would have paid you willingly."
Ben stopped quite still. At his side, his surprisingly delicate hands flexed convulsively. He swallowed hard. There was a knife sheathed at his belt. "Yes," he said, at last, little more than a whisper.
Qui-Gon woke in the night, and stared at the low wooden ceiling. Somewhere, a cat prowled, her paws a soft padding on the floor. Machinery was humming at the edge of his hearing.
He saw and heard each of them deliberately, one after the other, thinking that, perhaps, they would quieten the memories.
But memories danced in his mind, dark and taunting. There would be no stilling them for tonight.
Sighing, he sat up. His movements were quiet, and the woman who had sheltered him slept on, snoring gently. He didn't know her well, but she had been his contact over the years, buying things he needed, and sending her son the carry him news. He couldn't even remember how he had met her. Luke, he thought, when they boy had been very small and he had gone more to the City. He couldn't remember who had made the first overtures, but, pregnant with her own son, she had been charmed by the boy.
"I'm leaving," he had said, simply, the previous night. "Tomorrow."
She had nodded, accepting. "You'll need a bed, then." Without waiting for his reply - maybe she had known that she would not have got one - she had made up a rough bed on the floor.
Those same blankets seemed to cling to his limbs, now, hot and painful. His legs hurt, and his throat felt dry. Memories ripped at his mind as if they had living rending claws.
"One last time," he said to himself, as he pushed aside the blankets and stood. One last time to remember, here where it had all happened. One last time, and then he would move on and never return... One last time - as if he could remember things, and then lay the past to rest and move on... He almost laughed, bitter and dark.
One last time...
He knelt in the darkness, and closed his eyes, surrendering to the Force. This would not be mere memory. At the mercy of the Force, deep in meditation, he would live again in the past, seeing again those terrible events that he had never forgotten, but never before dared to remember so completely.
"Xanatos," he said, aloud. "Xanatos", as the darkness swirled and he was in another place entirely - but here, always here.
"Master," his padawan said, his eyes terrible. "He's my _father_. I have to help him."
"You are sworn to the Jedi now, Xanatos." He touched the young man's arm paternally. "The Jedi is your family now." He had always thought that the boy, although far older than a baby when he had been taken from his family, had grown to think of him as his father.
Xanatos's eyes blazed, and then he subsided. "I know, Master." He passed his hand over his face, deeply weary. "But it's so difficult. Why did they send us here?"
What could he say? He had asked the same question, furious, demanding to speak to the Council themselves and brooking no opposition. "Is it a test?" he had shouted. He had always known that the Council watched Xanatos too closely, blind to his innocent blue eyes and touching ignorance of his true power, but seeing him only as a potential for immense danger.
"A test?" Mace Windu had nodded, his fingers steepled. "Every day is a test, Qui-Gon Jinn. Every day, and every mission."
"But to send the boy back home..." He had clenched his fist. "He was not a baby when he left there, they are not strangers to him. You yourselves..." A deep breath. "You have expressed concern on this many times. Why send him back now, when the situation is so... difficult?"
"Have you not trained him well enough, Knight Jinn? Are you worried about his loyalty?"
"No." And no, he had not been. Xanatos loved him and was beyond reproach in everything. "I am worried about the Jedi who claim to be wise and who lead us, that they can do this."
"Be careful how speak, Qui-Gon Jinn." Ki-Adi Mundi had leant forward in his chair, eyes like steel. "There is much that you do not know."
But they had not told him.
He sighed, touching the young man's hand. "It is not for us to ask, padawan, but only to serve." He could not keep the small note of bitterness from his voice, but there was no story there that his padawan did not already know.
His clashes with the Council had grown more frequent over the years, and every time over his padawan. They wanted another Master to share the teaching of him, thus weakening the bond that was so important to the boy. They had held him back when Qui-Gon had wanted to him to learn things normally reserved for padawans far older, when it was ability and not age that should rule these things. Other padawans, jealous of Xanatos's skills, had told tales to their Masters, saying he was arrogant and that the darkness was whispering in him.
Every time he had defended his padawan - his Chosen One, his discovery, his son and beloved. Every time, a little more of his frustrations with the Council came through to the boy, though he knew his duty as a Master was to teach loyalty, hiding his own doubts.
Xanatos drew himself up tall. "With all respect, Master, I can't take the side of the Jedi against my father. Everything else, but not that."
"No-one will ask you to, padawan. We're only here to negotiate between him and the rebels. You've been with me at enough negotiations before to know that we never take one side over another." He sighed. "If you're being tested here, padawan, it's a test to see that you can be impartial, not if you can side against your father. Any peace settlement we negotiate will be in the best interest of all sides, you know that."
"The rebels hate him so."
"You must see their side, too, padawan. See both sides, and genuinely desire peace, and both sides will end up thanking you. You serve your father better by helping his country find peace, than by taking his side."
A shaky smile. "Truly, Master?"
"Yes." He smiled in return, and opened his arms to his padawan as if he was a child again. "I promise."
Xanatos gave a strange shuddering sigh, and relaxed into his embrace.
Days later, he remembered those words, and could have wept.
"No," he said again, firmly, despite the blaster digging into his back. "No, your Highness. You can threaten me with death, but I won't do it."
He had only himself to blame, he told himself. Returning to his quarters late at night, he had been lost in his thoughts about the deeply troubled negotiations. Hatred ran so deep on both sides, and neither side was prepared to yield any concessions. Earlier that day he had narrowly thwarted an assassination attempt against the King, but by refusing to allow the King's men to tear the assassin apart in vengeance, he had only ensured that both sides distrusted him. So, distracted, he had not noticed the King creep up on him in the gardens.
"It doesn't matter," the King said, airily. From the first time he had seen him, long ago, Qui-Gon had known that he had some small ability with the Force. It swirled around him now, dark, and stronger than he had suspected before, though not strong. "I'll just kill you, and blame a rebel assassin. My son will take your place in the negotiations, and he will rule for me even if you won't."
"Xanatos is a Jedi," he said, with conviction. "He will do what is right." But his voice wavered a little. <Xanatos> he called in his mind. <Hear me.>
The blaster dug deeper. Through the Force, he suddenly had an image, immensely vivid, of the King's finger tightening on the trigger. And, with the image, a sudden vision of darkness - darkness in the mind of the man who would kill him, and darkness in the orders he would give afterwards - orders that would kill countless thousands of his subjects.
"No," he cried. In an instant his lightsabre was in his hand, a glowing green light in the darkness. Quick as thought, he whirled around, thrusting all the light on his Force at the darkness that assailed him. "No!" he cried again, swinging his weapon. He heard a clatter as the blaster fell to the ground.
He fell down to one knee, on the ground before even the man he had killed. He touched his face. Had he meant to do this? he asked, his first thought. Yes, he thought, for a Jedi only killed when it was necessary. Yes, for it was self-defence against a man who had given him no chance. Yes, for he had felt the darkness and seen the death that would result from letting him live.
Yes, he thought. Yes.
And then he heard the horrified betrayed gasp, and looked up to see his padawan's frozen eyes.
He reached out his hand. "Xanatos.." A useless cry, carried away by the wind.
Xanatos turned and ran.
Lost in meditation and the past, the kneeling man in the dark robe neither saw nor sensed the men who crept up behind him, blasters in their hands.
"Stop!" Instantly alert, Obi-Wan grabbed Ben's wrist, cutting off the boy's confession. "Ahead. There."
Ben cocked his head. "I don't hear anything."
Obi-Wan called the Force to him, but it only confirmed what he had already known - a dark disturbance in the Force like an acrid taste in his mouth, as men plotted murder. The Force ran deep around the man who would be their victim, too, but it was... strange - no other word sufficed. It was like nothing he had sensed before, as if the man had been carried on the wings of the Force far far away, and was here only in body.
Shaking off Ben's restraining hand, ignoring the pain in his legs, Obi-Wan ran forward, instinctively silent. Dark leaves blocked his view, but as the wind shifted them he saw glimpses of a man, darkly cloaked, kneeling in the ruins of the Palace. Moonlight gleamed on the weapons of the men who closed on him in a loose ring.
"No," he mouthed, as horror filled him. He knew what it was to be captured and to suffer. How could he stand by while any other man suffered the same? How could he stand by?
Taking a deep breath, he raised his hand...
And found that hand grasped by strong cold fingers.
"No!" Ben hissed in his ear. "Leave him. What can you do? Would you rather it be you?"
Filled with an intense anger such as he had never felt - he only knew that this was necessary for his own emotional survival as well as the man's safety - he whirled on the boy. "Leave me alone." He pushed with the Force as he spoke, and Ben's eyes widened with horror as his hand was ripped from Obi-Wan's arm, and he stumbled back. Only a hasty cushioning of the same Force that had repelled him stopped him from falling.
Ben passed his hand over his eyes. His face was suddenly white, his lips moved uselessly for a while, as if he was struggling for words.
"I have to," Obi-Wan said, suddenly deeply weary, yet sure, too. This was essential to his soul. If, through fear, he could walk away and let a man be killed without even trying to save him, then the Empire had won, warping him in its own dark image. Perhaps he would never make a difference, and his declaration of defiance over the graves was just the stupid conceit of a child, but it _was_ important, to him, that he stayed true. Better die, doing good, than live a long life doing evil.
He stood up straight, reaching out with his hand. In that moment, he felt as tall as a giant, and immensely sure.
<No> he thought, his thoughts like arrows. <Leave him>
Beckoning gently, as to a lover, he called the first man's blaster towards him. The could only look up, stupefied, as his weapon, with soft but irresistible force, was pulled from his hands, and then as the working of it were crushed. Long seconds after, he gave a low cry.
The other men whirled round. With shaking hands, the man who had lost his weapon pawed at his waist for a knife.
Obi-Wan took a deliberate low slow breath. When Koveras had been attacked, he had thrown himself forward wildly, and they had both paid the price. This time he would use stealth. The Force was not blinded by darkness or the concealing cloak of leaf-heavy trees.
Measured, almost like a dance, he moved one arm in a steady arc, and then the other, his palms outwards and spread. One man fell, then another, their arms flailing, their weapons flying. Although his hands were beginning to tremble, he kept them there, their faces in the dirt.
<Wake up> he called desperately to the man, whom he thought was beginning to stir. But perhaps it was only his own wild hope, and the wind stirring the folds of his cloak, for he did not respond, nor reach for a weapon, nor stand.
The man he had first disarmed stepped moved in a faltering circle, as if searching. The kneeling man forgotten, he searched now only for Obi-Wan. He had no more strength to hold him. When he bent and picked up his fallen comrade's blaster, Obi-Wan could only hold still, trusting to his normal human abilities to be silent.
Perhaps the leaves parted then; perhaps his own fearful shuddering breathing carried on the wind. Or maybe the man was simply lucky, guided by his own dark luck in the way that Obi-Wan thought he was sometimes in the hands of the Force. Whatever the reason, Obi-Wan almost died then, as the explosion of a blaster filled the night. Leaves burnt to ashes. Only a desperate lunge to one side saved Obi-Wan's life, but he fell heavily on his wounded legs, and his side was on fire and burning.
He flailed, and for a moment the Force eluded him. In momentary panic - hands pawing at his naked skin and the cold sting of a needle - he closed his eyes, expecting to feel cruel hands pulling him forward, or the second roar of a blaster to consume him utterly.
"No," he moaned, as, far away as a distant stream, he felt the Force awakening.
Someone cried out.
He opened his eyes, and saw only dark leaves and a sky still darker.
Something tickled in Qui-Gon's mind, irritating and distracting.
He fought it, deliberately seeking the memories.
Xanatos, laughing as he killed men who had taught him and sheltered him. Mace Windu's eyes closed forever, and the floor of the Council chamber nothing more than blackened twisted rubble.
Like a sleeper awakening from a dream, he moaned. The memories were still there and vivid, but they were not as before, when he had lived in them as if they were now and present. Now, they were just memories, capable of immense hurting, but he was no longer part of him.
Who had disturbed him?
He raised his head, blinking in the sudden explosion of light in the darkness.
Alert in an instant, he whirled round, taking in the situation in one glance. Three men, one crouching ready to shoot into the trees a second time, and the other two clawing at the ground, struggling to rise. Darkness was unmistakable in their sense.
He raised his hand, and it was only a matter of a thought to him to pluck the blaster from the man's hand. Then, feeling rather than seeing that one of the other men was close to grasping his own weapon, he lashed at him with the Force, smashing him to the ground. He heard the sound of something snapping, and a cry of pain as the man landed.
Another man fumbled for his blaster, with dropped it, his sense spiking darkly with fear. He tried to step forward, but stumbled on his own feet and fell. Qui-Gon could sense his panic as he grappled to rise, and his sharp fear as he ran.
The man he held cried out, his eyes burning with hatred. They were clear blue, almost silver in the moonlight. As Qui-Gon watched, his face seemed to waver, and he was seeing Xanatos, as he had been in his memory of this place twenty years before.
He was dimly aware of the second man fleeing, crying out in short high cries of horror.
Only now did he stand, his hand outstretched like a challenge, keeping the man held. He did not speak; his face was a mask. He tensed his fingers, and the man whimpered. He stepped forward, suddenly wanting, _needing_, to feel his lightsabre in his hand, ignited and pure. Who would tell the tale, or who would believe them?
Smiling grimly, he summoned his weapon to his hand. The Force flowed between him and his weapon, joining them intimately as it always had done. The Force, and his own power, was a circle of green light in the darkness, and the green-lit terror in the man's Xanatos eyes.
Someone was calling out, crying a desperate "no!"
He raised his weapon...
And something _stopped_ him. Foolishly mid-swing, his arm was held, incapable of movement. Red anger sheeted his vision. He struggled, and it gave way a little, but his own Force strength was discordant and strange and hard to grasp. "No, you don't want to kill him, you don't want to kill him, you don't want to kill him," a voice was saying over and over, like a constant flow of water, and it was not just a voice but as assault on his mind, eating away like acid at his own volition.
"No...," he managed, choked. Horror and anger filled him. He had been held like this before, long ago, by his Master who was teaching him, and in his Trials, and knew the feel of a Jedi as strong as himself or stronger opposing him in Force battle. But, while the effects were the same, there was nothing of the Force, neither light nor dark, in the power that was assaulting him - nothing at all.
The man he had held clawed himself to his knees, and, his eyes wild, ran. He was clutching his right wrist close to his chest.
He felt he was lost in a nightmare.
"Are you hurt?" a voice said, and it could have been an eternity later, or maybe just seconds.
He found he could move again. Breathing out sharply - almost a growl - he whirled round, and saw the boy he had healed, standing pale-faced and wavering with his hand on a tree.
He swallowed hard. His hand was moist, and, as he returned his lightsabre to his belt and considered telling the boy he had never seen it, it almost ached for the sudden lack of the weapon.
"Yes." He nodded. "They have." He could have laughed at himself, standing in the darkness and conversing as casually as women in the market place.
The boy was very pale. How much had he seen? "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I was afraid you'd..." He stopped. He looked very unsure of himself.
Qui-Gon narrowed his eyes. "What?"
"Kill him," he whispered. "I... I didn't want them to hurt you, but it's wrong; to kill them, or we're as bad as they are."
"Wrong?" He strode forward until he was close enough to the boy to touch him, intimidating him with his height. Who was this child to tell _him_, who had been a Jedi, what was wrong?
Then something else registered, arresting his anger for a moment, then transmuting it into an anger equally intense. "_You_ stopped me?"
Like a young child caught out - mingled shame and defiance - the boy mumbled, "I'm sorry. I stopped them too."
Remembering how the assailants had seemed to stumble and lose their weapons, and how, when he had first awakened, they had been on the ground, he did not doubt it. This boy was not one of his attackers, and was doubtless sincere in what he said. But, even so...
"How?" He grabbed the boy's wrist, dragging him close. "How did you do it?"
He had expected to see fear, or defiance. Nothing had prepared him for the sudden flash of utter confusion that suffused the boy's face. He blinked several times, and stammered, "the... the Force. I thought... I thought you, too...?"
The Force? No, never that, for he would have sensed it. Knowing that the boy was lying, or deceived, he lashed out with his hand, closing his strong fingers on the boy's brow like a vice. Closing his eyes, he ripped into the young man's mind.
Barriers fell before them like paper, for the boy's shielding would have shamed a padawan. Emotions swirled beneath those pathetic shields - fear, pain, betrayal, the sharp cry of disappointed hopes... Nothing more. Even the deception he had sensed earlier was gone now.
Shaken, he lets his hands fall limp to his sides. It had been years since he had had any close communion with the mind of another, and it left him feeling sickened - naked and violated.
"The Force?" he said, more quietly now. "Show me." He raised his hand, and was ashamed to see that it was shaking. "Push against my hand." His voice rose. "Now."
With a look close to misery, the boy did so.
Was it only minutes - minutes in which his whole world was ripped apart at the foundations?
Qui-Gon passed his hand over his eyes. <It is the Force.> He shook his head. <Why can't I sense it?>
He had tested the boy thoroughly, making him move objects, and hold them, and speaking to his mind through the Force and being understood. The Force was the only power in the universe, so what else could it be?
"Why can't I sense you?" he asked, not really speaking to the boy at all. He sank to his knees. He felt utterly broken, with all his certainties shattered. Was his mind falling apart, that he could not sense him?
The boy touched him gently, and he wanted to shake him off in fury and rejection. Did the boy realise what he was doing to him - overturning the life he had created for himself, making him _feel_ again?
He started back; he couldn't suppress a cry. the touch in his mind had been the boy's, and it had been vivid, in clear words, not just a suggestion of a thought. Only Yoda, strongest of them all, and those he had been bonded to had ever spoken thus.
<I thought you could.>
He pressed his fist to his mouth. Everything was falling apart - everything. the boy was so strong in the Force, yet was somehow able to conceal it, and had been brought to his very door by some twist of fate... Cruel and treacherous hope, tormenting him. Never again would be let himself hope and be deceived. Better far that the boy had been a nobody, so he could leave him without backward glance.
<I know how to talk to you now, now I know you.>
The touching of their minds, his... his violation, for he knew it now for what it was. How his weapon had turned against him, setting up this contact, letting the boy know him...
Desperately, he slammed up shields, forcing the boy from his mind. But he could not know - oh, he could not know. The boy could be invading his very soul now, using the Force with all his strength, and he had no way of knowing.
He felt naked.
Without a word, he turned and walked away. His whole soul cried out to him to run, but he was still enough of a Jedi to have dignity.
Such strength in the Force, coupled with utter deception, could only end up serving evil, he told himself, calmly and firmly. Yes, that was it. He had not fallen far enough that he would kill the boy, but best leave him now, alone and untrained. It would be for the best. It was a rational decision - the decision of the Jedi.
The Council had wanted Xanatos not to be trained, after all.
Yes, he thought, as he walked away.
He thought the boy was calling to him, but he did not look back.
It was only the night-time dew that made his face damp.
He found his hand was still outstretched, pleadingly into the night, reaching for a man who would never return.
Tears poured down his cheeks. He felt as if his mind had been violated, red and bleeding, but when the man had walked away, he had felt empty, bereft. In that moment's touch of minds, he had sensed the man's own pain and a grief long cherished. He was not evil, and hurt only because he was himself hurting far worse. Obi-Wan could never hate him. Knowing that he, too, was strong in the Force, he only craved his friendship.
Night had never seemed so dark as if did now, alone in his mind again after such a brief moment of communion.
Heaving a shaky breath, pressing his hand against his burning side, he turned away. He would not run after the man, for how could he bear a second rejection?
Deeply weary, red clouds of pain pulsing in his head with every heartbeat, he walked away.
"Ben?" he called, softly, wondering if the boy had stayed to watch. Ben, too, had seen evidence of his powers. Despite the boy's confession, he had no illusions about his nature. Betrayal was always a possibility.
There was no answer. He had never felt more alone.
He walked on, then a pulse of pain made him stumble. He flailed wildly, but caught only a frail leaf at the end of a thin branch. It came off in his hands, and he fell, landing heavily. His face hit the ground, and his vision wavered. Only the sudden sharp stab of dread as he smelt the blood under his face forced him to cling to consciousness.
Blood. He frowned, reaching out a tendril of Force, probing it. Blood. Ben's blood.
Guilt stabbed like a physical pain. All his focus had been on saving the man who wanted nothing of him and who had rejected him twice. All the while, a young boy who had offered him friendship had been attacked so close by, and he had been ignorant of it, not once thinking about him.
He moaned aloud, forcing himself to his feet. He looked around desperately, one way then another, questing with his senses and through the Force.
"People have been disappearing," Ben had confessed, his sense dull and sincere. "Boys. Young men. The authorities don't care, because we're nobody - until a trooper wants someone to warm his bed for the night, and he's glad of us."
"Who have you lost?" Obi-Wan has asked, seeing through the bitterness to the pain beneath.
"My brother. He's only thirteen. He's been missing for a week."
He had seen Koveras, then, innocent and so very alive, and in that moment had thought he would swear anything, offer anything, to help save this boy.
"I have... ideas," Ben had said, cautiously, twisting his hands and not meeting Obi-Wan's gaze. "Places I want to go. I just want someone I can trust - someone to keep watch outside, to cover for me. I daren't ask anyone who belongs here. I know them. They'd betray me in an instant, for money."
Immense sadness had filled him, and pity. What had he suffered, after all? He had been lonely, but loved. Across the Empire, so many boys had been forced to grow up in places where every smile could hide murderous intent, trusting no-one. Without even the Force for strength, they had suffered, and survived.
"I could tell you were different. You needed my help, and that meant that you could give me help."
Because he was too new and innocent not to do what was right, and hadn't yet learnt never to help others. Smiling ruefully to himself, he had found himself hoping that, even if he stayed in this place for years, he would remain that way. "I'll help you," he had said.
"I'll help you," he had said, despite sensing the boy's deception - and shame at the deception. "I'll help you," he had said, knowing that the boy had thought he was signing his own death warrant with the words, and that he had felt guilt at that, though, more than guilt, had felt victory, and hope.
The story about his brother was true, he was certain. The rest of it, though... was setting him up as bait. His plan was that Obi-Wan would be taken, and he would hide, and watch, and follow... A rash plan, done out of loyalty to his brother. Obi-Wan could bear him no malice for it.
And now Ben, too, had been taken, his plan shattered before it had even started.
It had been quick. Sometimes, through the Force, he could read after-images of emotions, lingering around a place like a miasma. He felt no fear here.
Wind whispered in the trees, like murderous assailants watching him. He shivered. For the briefest moment only, he considered calling to the man through the Force, then dismissed it. He was not wanted, and help would be offered only unwillingly, or not at all.
No, he was on his own on this - alone in the night in a hostile city, and hurt.
Ben, and his brother, were out there somewhere, and he would do everything he could to find them. He owed the boy that much. He owed _himself_ that much. He refused to let the man's rejection crush his own self-respect. He would continue to do what he thought was right. The Empire, and the man, would not defeat him.
He started walking. Pain pulsed from his side, and the pain in his half-healed legs was a constant gnawing ache. His hold on the Force was tenuous, erratic. For ten, twelve, steps he could walk steadily, strengthened by the Force. Then it all slipped away, and he could only bend forward, staggering like an old man, gasping aloud with pain.
He wondered if the blaster had hurt him more than he knew. He wondered if broken legs, mostly healed through the Force, could break asunder again. He wondered if Ben was alive, and if the man was thinking of him at all.
He wondered. He found he was sobbing - silent wrenching gasps of breath.
The Force eluded him. He reached out, as if it was a physical thing to be grasped. He reached out, and almost fell forward, sinking into the soft embrace of the grass where he could close his eyes and let the darkness bathe his tear-stained cheeks.
When the club impacted with the back of his head, and he _did_ fall, he was unconscious long before he reached the grass.
Men spoke, but he did not hear them.
He woke, and for a moment he felt hands on his body, ripping at his clothes, pawing at his flesh. He thought he felt the low vibration of a ship's movement, through his cheek as it lay on the cold floor.
Terror such as he had never felt before flooded him, red and blinding.
<Not again!> he shrieked, silently, desperately. <No, oh no...> His throat dried up and he could not utter a sound aloud.
His head pulsed with dark agony, ripped apart from his terrified flailing thoughts. He struggled, pulling at the bonds at his wrists, too lost in fear to even attempt to use the Force. His legs hurt. Even when he opened his eyes, he saw only darkness.
"No," he moaned, aloud. "No..."
It had never been dark on the ship, and the men had done their work in blinding light, "the better to look at his body and see his fear". The air was cold, but no hands touched him, and no-one else breathed close by.
Slowly, breathing steadily and measured, he forced himself to quieten his fear, though still he breathed in small low whimpers.
<People have been disappearing> he heard in Ben's voice. He remembered blood on the ground, and the sense of evil following him, and the whistle of air as a club descended onto his head. He imagined the men wielding it - twisted and evil, with cruel hands - <the men who took me and enslaved me and sold my body...>
"No," he moaned, again. This was no old nightmare reborn, but a new horror. Fear fluttered in his heart like cold dark wings. The Force was there, just, but he could not reach it, oh he could not reach it...
<Help me> he cried aloud, into the silence of his own mind. <Please...>
Dawn was grey in the sky and he had just drifted into a troubled sleep, when the cry - no, not even a cry but some deep elusive sense of _need_ - penetrated his dreams.
Qui-Gon's eyes snapped open.
<My padawan's in trouble> he thought, instinctively, and knew in that moment that he would dare anything to save such a strong innocent young man, who needed him and admired him.
He shook his head abruptly, angrily. He had no padawan; it had been nothing more than the vision talking, his mind still half lost in the memories of the past that had so consumed him. He had no padawan, but yet....
"I want one," he whispered, aloud. How right it had felt, in that one short moment when he had been a Master again, and his padawan had needed him. He had been strong, needed - a Jedi Master who could rescue the innocent and protect his own. In that one treacherous moment, he had been Qui-Gon Jinn again.
He found he was weeping - he who had been dry-eyed for a decade.
He missed Xanatos, he realised. He missed Xanatos, and he missed Luke. Being alone was the only option for him, for everyone he had been close to had left him or betrayed his hopes, but... Oh, but he was lonely.
He had never been so happy as in those years before Xanatos had turned, never alone, teaching an eager young man the ways of the Force. Pride had been part of it, of course, but not all. Simply the joy of companionship, and the sense of being needed... It was a wonderful thing. It was a thing he would never dare to experience again - nor could he - but it was still something to be mourned.
Just one illusory call for help in the night, and how everything changed....
"I miss you," he said, aloud, not really knowing who he was speaking to. Xanatos, as he had been, perhaps... In all the guilt and anger, he had never let himself mourn the padawan - to mourn Xanatos, before he had changed and become Vader.
Perhaps the remembering in the ruins had been his funeral for that padawan - his final farewell, and mourning, and his final acceptance that he missed the time he had had a companion.
"Padawan," he murmured, his voice low with low and tears.
He lay back down, and stared at the ceiling, and tried to sleep.
He was in a grey limbo, torn between the lures of both darkness and light. He was not truly awake, he thought, and could choose either way.
Voices spoke, and hands touched.
The darkness called him, for it was the sweet forgetfulness of unconsciousness. It was a refuge, where he did not need to ask or know what was being done to him. It was justification, for it was a <how could I have done anything to stop it, for I wasn't even awake?>
"Pretty," he heard. "Yes."
The light called him, for it was consciousness and awareness. It was knowledge and truth, however terrible. It was hope, for, aware, he could look for an opening, and use the Force to escape. It was his duty, for he had promised Ben he would do everything he could to find his brother.
"You were right to take him. Put him with the others."
He flexed his painful swollen fingers - pain would help him stay aware, he thought - and chose the light.
Nothing changed; his world was still grey. Voices still ebbed and flowed, as if he was not truly awake, and his vision was still blurred. Worse, the Force around him was troubled and erratic, as if it danced close to him, teasing him with its touch, and then slipped away before he could grasp it.
It terrified him more than he could have thought possible. He had been awake all along, even as he had made his choice. Had he chosen the darkness, he would have found himself incapable of finding that refuge.
"You hit him too hard," someone said, but his voice was tinged with amusement. Someone kicked him and, when he moaned again, he heard the laughter of several men.
Hands like claws closed round his upper arms, a pair of each side, and arms snaked under his armpits. Harshly, he was pulled to his knees, then higher - not quite standing, for they were cruel and gave him no chance, but slumped forward, his feet trailing. His head throbbed excruciatingly, and his stomach heaved.
"If you puke on my shoes...," someone hissed, dark with menace.
They started moving, dragging him. He flailed weakly with his legs, trying to take some of his weight, but the men moved too fast, and his legs were too hurt. His shoulders strained, and his bound wrists were dragged apart, the restraints digging into the newly-healed wounds.
He was scared to try for the Force - scared to find that it would never again come to his call, and that he was truly alone.
The men came to a flight of stairs upwards, and didn't stop. His shins smashed against the sharp edges of each step, and scraped along, then the next step, and the next. His side was on fire. He found he was making small whimpering noises, like a wounded animal, and wondered for how long.
Then a door opened, and blinding sunlight pierced his head. Dimly, through a pain-soaked haze, he saw the vehicle that would take him away. Then the grey swelled to encompass all, and he could see nothing... nothing at all.
"Thank you," Qui-Gon said, and for a moment he let his eyes rest on the women and see her, truly see her, for the first time in years.
Not a young face, nor beautiful, but pretty in its humanity and warmth. Lines in her face told tales - laughter lines, a small scar, the mark of the sun... Someone who knew her would know how to read them. From her sense Qui-Gon felt only her surface thoughts - uncertainty about why this man, usually so silent, was looking at her so, and about how she should say goodbye.
"Thank you, Rena," he said, again.
She was about to wrap her arms around her body awkwardly; while she would usually embrace a friend on parting, she thought he would reject any physical contact.
For some reason, he felt strangely piqued by that.
Almost fiercely - who was she to judge him and find him wanting, who had felt things as deeply as she ever had? - he grabbed her hand, arresting her mid-movement, and shook it.
"Thank you." Was there nothing else to say, that he just said the same again and again? He was leaving the home of twenty years, and there was only one person to say goodbye to, and no more words to say.
Could this be right? he thought, suddenly, strangely. Had this really been right?
The woman gave a strange shy laugh, pulling with no real sincerity against the grip of his hand. "I don't even know your name."
Physical contact seemed to bring her mind closer to his, and he had a sudden image, with the clarity of a vision, or her life at the centre of a web. She was touching him, but how many more people she touched... Her children, her neighbours, her friends - all were bound to her by invisible threads, and touched by her.
If he could see the same vision of himself, he would find himself alone. No threads bound him to anyone. There was only the strong and unbreakable chord that tied him to the past. His ties were all to the dead; no-one alive knew he was alive, or would care if he died. If he fell down dead at her feet, this women would shed a small tear, as for a passing acquaintance, and move on.
<Safe> he thought, as he snatched his hand away. <Safe> and, with sudden misery, <punishment. Self-punishment>
"No," he said, gruffly. He picked up the small pack that was all of his life he wished to take with him.
He was alone, and he missed his old life when he had a companion, but it had been his own choice, and it was safe. Better be alone, that give your all to someone who betrayed you. Better to be alone, than see the innocent face of a boy who placed total trust in you, and be unable to save him from harm.
As he walked away, he wondered why it was so much harder to believe it, now, in daylight, than it had been in the darkness of early dawn.
He was dimly aware of movement, but it was like an awareness beyond a dream. Far more real were the monsters with rending claws that leered out of the darkness, pawing at his flesh with their clammy palms. Their faces ebbed and flowed, changing from one monster to the next. Sometimes they appeared as men - men he had known as Escorts, and men he had yet to know.
<A dream> he told himself, wondering how he could be awake enough to realise this, yet still unable to banish the visions. <Only a dream...>
Someone laughed. "A dream? You wish, boy."
Thoughts and perceptions came in short sharp bursts, like the stabbing of a dagger. A hand closed round his chin, fingers digging into his flesh. Something dribbled from his mouth onto that hand, and the man cursed. The movement stopped. If he opened his eyes even a tiny bit, something white and harsh blinded him and sent pain stabbing through his head. There was a strange tower with a vast man on its top, dark against the light.
And then the monsters were taking him, holding him, dragging him. He stumbled and his face slammed into the ground, his cheek scraping on something rough. Pulling, and his arms hurt, his head hurt, his side... Somewhere close by was the sound of engines and many voices talking.
<Help me> he thought, weakly, desperately. <Please help me.>
He remembered - was it only last night? - standing tall in the darkness, keeping the bad men away with the power of the Force, and saving a man's life. He remembered the same man's mind touching his, more intimately than anyone had touched him before, and then - <don't walk away. Don't leave me alone. Please, don't...>
Strange that he had never known the man's name, when their minds had touched, and he knew all his inner goodness, and the shield he had erected around it. Or perhaps he had known, and had just forgotten. Thoughts slipped from his mind like water, impossible to hold onto.
He tried to move his hand to touch his brow. There was something wrong with his head, perhaps, he thought. Maybe sleep would ease it.
He tried to sleep.
"Put him with the others," a voice said. "We transport tonight."
Who was that? He was in the Palace ruins, and the man whose mind he had touched did not speak like that, surely.
The white light beyond his closed eyelids disappeared and became almost darkness. Perhaps it was safe to look now. Perhaps.. Soon...
He didn't think his feet were touching the ground at all.
<Will you be my friend?> he thought to the man, who had touched his mind, and who, he thought, was touching him still - a fleeting touch like a whisper. <I've been so lonely.>
"Don't know what you're smiling at, boy," someone said, a cruel streak to their voice.
"He's out of it."
"I told you you hit him too hard. Can't have him dying before he's earned for us."
"He'll live. He'll just be docile for the transport. Can't have them screaming for help, can we now?"
His head fluttered weakly from side to side, trying to track the voices. The words had meanings by themselves, he thought, but he couldn't put them together.
<Where?> he heard in his mind, incongruous and strange. <Where are you, boy?>
He thought he would sleep. He thought...
<Where?> It was like a slap, impatient and angry with him. <Obi-Wan, where are you?>
He didn't like people being cross with him. The bad men had hurt him. The voice in his mind was angry. He just needed to sleep.
<Engines> he said. He thought images with the words, wild and shot through with streaks of lurid light. <Transport. Bright light in my face. Tower with a man. Monsters with claws. My head hurts.>
<Enough> Terse. There was something beneath the terseness, he thought. It made him want to cry.
<Did I answer right? Can I sleep now?>
<I think you should stay awake. Don't you?>
He felt a ripple of Force around him and through him, and everything became a little clearer. He knew he was being carried, by men who meant him harm. He saw a door opening, and saw Ben and several others, chained to the wall, looking up with pale scared faces. He knew his head was very badly hurt, and this moment of lucidity could be his last for a long time.
He knew he had the Force, just for this one moment. He knew there were men worse than monsters who would hurt him, unless he used this tiny chance to the full.
He didn't want to be hurt.
"No," he moaned, though he had intended it to be a cry of denial, strong and commanding. "Let them go!"
He tugged against his bonds, spreading his fingers, and heard the metallic clank of chains falling free, and the sharp cries of fear and delight as the boys, adapting quickly to their release, stood up and prepared to fight.
"No," he said again, and his own bonds fell to the ground. The man holding him tightened his grip on him, and he reached for the Force to push him away, but his head hurt and it was beyond him.
He licked his dry lips. "Run," he managed, and his eyes, for the briefest moment, locked with Ben's.
Boots were clattering on stone. "Where?" Ben asked, laughing bitterly.
Someone wrapped their hands round his throat. He clawed at them with fingers and the Force, but strength was seeping from his body, and the Force was like the distant memory of a dream.
Voices jabbered, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing...
"...good money for him..."
Spots danced before his eyes. He heard fists landing on flesh - dull wet thuds - and cries of pain. The sound of metal pierced his skull.
"...can't do his tricks when unconscious..."
"...away from the others..."
And then there was nothing.
<So this is it> Qui-Gon thought. He folded his arms around his body, his pack resting against his feet, and looked up at the sky. Transports and starships criss-crossed his vision; before him was the lowered ramp of the transport that would take him to his new life.
No-one to say goodbye, and no-one to miss him. Twenty years living in the same place, and he had only one pack to take away with him. Not that it mattered, of course. He had made his mark on the galaxy, twenty years before, and his mark had been nothing but evil.
He sighed, picked up his pack, and began to walk.
Shadows fell across his sunlit path - tall ships blocking out the sun, and the spaceport administration centre, topped with its towered statue of the Emperor. Despite himself, he shivered as the Emperor's shadow fell upon him, imagining the man's touch.
<Turn round> he felt, like a chilling touch in his mind. He fancied he saw the oily smile of the man who had been Chancellor Palpatine. <Look.>
He was half way round before he was even aware of it, seeing a low row of dilapidated warehouses. Something was tugging at his mind, pulling at him, demanding that he come closer.
He clenched his fists, suddenly angry, and turned back, glaring darkly at the Emperor's statue. He started walking again.
As if pulled by an invisible chord, he stopped again, and stayed perfectly still for a long time, listening, questioning.
There were no words in the call, but only a formless sense of need, as clear as words. Perhaps it was a trap, but <my padawan's in trouble> he thought again, instinctively. He could almost feel his heart beating faster, his blood coursing through his veins, strengthening his limbs and his fighting arm.
He reached out with the Force and probed the building. Fear sparked darkly in the sense of place, and dark avarice. A vehicle outside bore the logo of the city guard, and a sentry outside wore the same uniform.
<So no-one questions them> he realised, suddenly.<Travellers will watch them unload their prisoners, and never question. Even if they did, who would get involved, in this cruel world the Empire has created?>
He shook his head, sadly. What could he do? There were so many injustices, and the biggest one of them all was the Empire, but there was nothing he could do. There were dozens of terrified prisoners in there, but how could he save them, when he was only one man, and everything he had touched in the past had turned to poison in his hands?
His transport was waiting for him.
<I've been so lonely...>
The thought came with such an intensity that it brought tears to his eyes, and, in that moment, he recognised it. It was the boy, young Obi-Wan Kenobi - the boy with that immense, terrible talent.
Perhaps he could _try_, at least. Although he knew was such skill in the Force could lead to, he had been a Jedi long enough to want to preserve anyone with such strength. Moreover, the boy had, perhaps, saved his life, the previous night in the ruins, and, as a Jedi, he had never knowingly turned his back on suffering, not when there was something he could do.
Even if he did help him, that would be the end of it, he told himself. His transport was leaving soon, and he would enter it alone.
<Where are you?> he asked, reaching out with his mind to touch the boy who had called to him.
He felt only fear and confusion. Something was very wrong with the boy's mind, and for a moment he felt a sharp spark of anger that anyone could do this to him. <How dare anyone hurt my padawan?>
<Where are you, boy?> he asked again, angry at everything - the boy's silence, the men who had hurt him... and himself, for letting the past so overlay the present that he had thought of the boy - a stranger who was nothing to him - as his padawan.
Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to calm down, knowing that the anger was weakening his grip on the Force. <Where are you, Obi-Wan?> he asked, using the boy's name for the first time.
Silence, as if the boy was wondering what the question meant, and then a flood of images assailed him, terrifying in their intensity: the sound of engines; the yawning maw of a transport, waiting to swallow him; terrible painful sunlight; the Emperor's statue; monsters... and oh, his head hurt. His head hurt so much....
<Enough> It was all he could do to collect his thoughts enough for that one word. Tears pricked his eyes. He remembered Luke, and how his body had felt cradled in his arms, his tears gradually quietening and his pain easing as Qui-Gon's touch.
<Did I answer right? Can I sleep now?> he heard.
It did nothing for the treacherous tears. <I think you should stay awake. Don't you?> he managed.
But he asked no more, knowing he would be unable to bear the contact and the emotions raised. Emotions undermined his use of the Force, so it was wise to withdraw from the boy's mind. It was all he could do.
Instead, he reached under his cloak, seeking the lightsabre he so seldom used, and walked forward. Getting past the sentry would be easy - just a little manipulation of his mind with the Force. Beyond that, he could only try. The boy's inadequate answer had told him nothing he didn't already know. Inside the building, he could be anywhere.
Master Yoda used to say that "there is no try", but Yoda was dead. Trying was the important thing, he realised. It didn't really matter if he succeeded or failed - the boy was doomed, sooner or later, as was everyone born with the Force in the entire Empire.
But the fact that he was trying was important, somehow. It was the first step in his new life, when he would try to help small people in small ways, and ease their lives, even though he could do nothing to undo the past and end the Empire. He could have no great goals, and there would be no great consequences of his failure, but, with the small tasks he undertook, he would at least try.
He found he was smiling as he approached the sentry.
Someone was touching him, raising him.
He tried to cry out, but had no voice. He tried to swallow, but the pain of that was almost enough to drive him into unconsciousness again.
Someone hushed him with a soft sound. Their voice was not unkind.
He tried to open his eyes, and the attempt was such that, while trying, there was no room in his mind for anything else. When they opened, he caught a glimpse of long greying hair close to his face, and a lined hard profile.
He let himself relax. "You've come back for me." Perhaps his lips moved, but perhaps he only thought it.
The boy settled into his arms, cheek pillowed on his shoulder, trusting him entirely.
Sharp pain shot through him. What had he done to deserve this? But the boy was hurt and helpless in his arms; he couldn't drop him.
"What are your injuries?" he asked, needing something to say - something else to think of other than the feel of the boy's warmth against him. His voice was strangely gruff.
The boy's eyelids fluttered. His lips moved, as if struggling to remember how to speak. "Head," he whispered, painfully. "Throat. Legs. S..side..." An attempt at a smile that was painful to see. "It's not too bad."
"Nonsense," he said, gently. "Bravado is foolish. You must learn to admit your weaknesses." Then, realising what he had said - this boy was not a padawan, to learn from him - he cleared his throat, signalling the end of that exchange.
He hefted the boy's weight in his arms. A few moments to get used to his weight, and to call the Force around him, and he would be ready to go. The guard at the cell door he had sent to sleep; the sentry outside had a weak mind, immensely suggestible. He foresaw no problems.
The boy's arm was dangling loose; now he moved it, grasping Qui-Gon's tunic near his throat. "Have you freed the others?"
He shook his head. "No time."
"No!" It was surprisingly strong. The boy seemed to be rallying. A moment of wondering, and then the shocked realisation: since the moment he had first heard the boy's appeal, their minds had been linked in some strange way. He had been pouring his own strength into the boy, nourishing him with the Force, and totally unaware of it.
The boy's talent made his flesh crawl. Such power, wielded totally invisibly...
Almost fiercely - <mine!> - he wrenched himself out of the boy's mind, reclaiming his strength. Let the boy slump in his arms unconscious... It would be better for him. He needed rest, and he would not cry out and compromise the rescue.
"We must..." Undiminished, the boy was pushing at his chest, struggling to free himself. "_I_ must..."
He was about to object, then wondered why. This boy was nothing to him, so why save him yet leave the others? Better to save them all, and walk away from them all. And their suffering was as great as the boy's. He had found the boy in a room apart from the others, but had sensed fear, like a dark cloud, in the rest of the building, down corridors he had not once thought of entering.
"All right," he said, his voice gruff.
The boy smiled, the winced with pain. "Can I...?" He swallowed painfully, and for a while Qui-Gon thought he was about to pass out. Would he have even lived, had not Qui-Gon not unwittingly lent some of his strength? He didn't like to think of that. "Can I walk?" he managed, at last.
Qui-Gon laughed mirthlessly - "I think not" - but the boy met his gaze with his pure blue eyes. "I couldn't, but then you came. I... I was too afraid to use the Force. Now I'm not afraid."
He almost hated him, then, that he could be using the Force and he, Qui-Gon, did not know.
He set him on his feet, holding on awkwardly for a while to see if he could bear his own weight. They stood like that for a while, the boy neither standing nor being held. Then the boy blanched and almost fell. Qui-Gon lunged instinctively and caught him, but his hand struck the boy's side, and a low cry of pain burst from his lips.
Tangled together, they fell gracelessly to the floor, as they had that first night. The boy was barely conscious, but Qui-Gon managed to support him, keeping his head and shoulders protected. Even on the floor, he was still held close.
"Your side," Qui-Gon murmured, remembering. With one hand he supported the boy's head; with the other he gently turned him, seeing for the first time - but not the first time, surely - the burned fabric and the red and angry flesh beneath it. "You got this when helping me?" he asked. He felt awed and reverent, and if his life had suddenly shifted focus.
The boy made no sign, gave no answer. His lips were parted and his breath was steaming slightly in the cold room.
But, "you did," Qui-Gon said, and it was not a question. Emotions warred in him, and he wasn't sure how to feel. <I don't deserve this> he wanted to cry, and <don't do this to me. I knew what my life was, before.> Those, and a thousand other cries, impossible to express.
The boy tried to stir, but it was beyond him; even though Qui-Gon knew he was calling on the Force with all his strength, he could do nothing more than raise his head just a little. "Please help them?" he asked. His voice rose doubtfully. What could he see in Qui-Gon's mind?
He let himself touch his face, just for a moment. His skin was soft. "I will." And then, understanding suddenly that the boy needed reassurance on this point - "and I'll bring you with me."
As he stood, a thousand different emotions warring in him, though he had sworn long ago never to feel any, he found, to his surprise, that he was laughing - a wry strange laugh. The boy was unable to stand, yet had been able to get him into such a fool errand - fighting for the release of a dozen prisoners without a hand free to draw his lightsabre.
Some deeply buried part of him liked it, he thought. Once, his every day had been about impossible odds.
But it was foolishly easy in the end. There were three rooms of prisoners, but only one was guarded. There had been a recent struggle there, he sensed.
Somewhere in the building was a guardroom, and he could sense excitement and avarice from the men gathered there. The brief rebellion had been quashed, and they thought their prisoners were more than adequately guarded with chains. Perhaps they were armed with blasters, but the guard outside the cell had only a club. Reluctant to cause permanent damage to the merchandise, he thought with disgust, for all the boys he released were young and pretty and he had no doubt about what their fate would have been.
"Stay quiet," he urged them, as they stepped over the fallen body of the guard. He would shepherd them to the outside door, watch them as they got out of sight, and then his involvement was over.
No-one resisted. No-one would, he was sure. He had forgotten how easy things could be, to a Jedi with the Force on his side.
In his arms, the boy stirred weakly. He tried to quieten him with a thought, but he would not obey. "Safe?" he asked.
He nodded, then noticed that the boy's eyes were still closed. "Yes," he said.
"No." The boy opened his eyes at last, his dilated pupils darting from side to side. He struggled against Qui-Gon's grip, moving his hands in a curious gesture. Qui-Gon read it as hysteria and tried to hold on tighter. "No," the boy moaned again.
Two things happened then - the boy tensed for a moment, then went limp in his arms; and something thudded behind him. A guard with a blaster, slammed into the wall, slumping with dazed eyes...
"Oh." A small sound of chastened astonishment. He had been complacent, and had stopped sensing the distant presence of the guards. He quested out now with the Force, and knew that the others weren't coming, yet, but he could not longer rely on that.
"Quick," he urged the boys.
He stayed at the back, alert now for pursuit. In his arms, the boy Obi-Wan was unconscious, exhausted by that last invisible use of the Force. For a terrible moment he thought he wasn't breathing, then let himself feel the soft rise and fall of the body pressed towards his.
They ran, and no-one came, no-one stopped them. Arrogance, he thought, sadly. Would it have been like this in the Republic? Under the Empire, everyone was too scared to care. Boys could be sold into slavery in full view of the authorities, and there was nothing to keep them safe.
"Will you...?" a boy said, hesitantly. "Sir?"
He wrenched his thoughts back to the present. A youth walked beside him, his eyes dark with smudged kohl and his clothes torn but gaudy. A whore, he thought, with distaste. Many of the boys were innocents, but not all.
"What?" His arms were beginning to ache from holding Obi-Wan, and his head felt fuzzy from such sustained use of the Force after years of using it sparingly.
"Why did you help us? Do you want a reward." This with a suggestive smile, though he sensed only deep weariness in the boy's sense.
"No." The boy was pretty enough, and he had been without physical comfort for so long, but the thought repulsed him. He would let himself get close to no-one, but if he did, it would be to someone worthy. Intimacy with this boy would be... <disloyal> his mind supplied, incomprehensibly.
Obi-Wan stirred slightly in his arms, gave a small moan, and settled down again.
"Will you look after Obi-Wan?"
He was going to shake his head, but the boys eyes were earnest, and would darken in disapproval if he did so. "Why do you ask?" he asked, instead. He knew Obi-Wan and the had been strangers to each other before yesterday.
"They know he has... he has..." The boy looked awkward. "_Powers_" he said, at last, "like yours. They'll not worry too much about losing us - there are many more boys out there. But _him_... They won't let such a prize go without turning over the city to find him."
And the Empire was looking for him too, he realised suddenly. They had come to investigate the crash, but they had done so knowing that a young man with a special talent had been on the ship. Even if a Hand had not been sent yet, one would come soon.
"Why do you care?" he asked, gruffly, though perhaps the question was more to himself than to the boy.
"I would have betrayed him. I think he knew that, but he still agreed to help me." The boy met his eyes squarely, though there was a quiet shame in his sense. Then he laughed, awkwardly. "And he's such an innocent. Even with his powers, he wouldn't' survive a day by himself. That he could trust me, for one thing..."
"I need to be alone," Qui-Gon managed to say.
They were outside now. Many of them boys had silently slipped away, grabbing freedom when they could. Only this boy remained, and a younger one who walked beside him.
"_He_ doesn't," the boy said. "No-one does."
He shivered, though full sunlight fell on his face. The boy Obi-Wan's hair was golden in the sun, and his skin so very pale, as he rested, trusting as a child, against his chest.
Oh, but he would surely regret this a thousand times over, but what could he do? The boy was badly hurt, and there was no safety for him here. If nothing else, he thought, remembering how the boy's shields had collapsed under his touch like ripping paper, the boy needed a Master to teach him how to shield his emotions.
He looked at the transport that awaited him, almost ready to take off. He looked at the whore with the pretty face, and the face of the boy in his arms. He blinked, and seemed to see the face of a padawan who had turned, and a small child who had died in his arms.
He found he was almost crying.
"Yes," he said, and the boy took his arm and squeezed it. "I'll take him with me."
"What now?" he said, more to himself than the unconscious boy on his bed.
Obi-Wan stirred slightly, coming close to wakening. He stilled him with a touch, but not before he spoke, in a bleary slurred voice: "What's your name, Master?"
He hesitated, wondering how to answer. Beneath him, engines roared as the ship took off. There was no going back now. He thought he would withhold an answer, or even lie.
Yet, when he spoke, to his surprise, he spoke nothing but the truth, "Qui-Gon Jinn."
"Qui-Gon Jinn," the boy repeated, but his eyes were closing, his sense fading. His lips curved in a small smile.
Qui-Gon found he was smiling too.
End of part one
When he half closed his eyes, he no longer saw stars. Light and darkness merged. A million stars against the blackness of space, but when he looked at them just so he saw only a vast expanse of muted light. Each bright star blurred and blended, becoming one with the whole.
Qui-Gon Jinn had sometimes thought that this was the closest he would ever see to the Force. Gentle light binding the galaxy together, reaching even the deepest expanses of darkness.
Were the Jedi who had died - friends he had known and old heroes whose stories he had been told - part of this light, stretched between the stars?
He pressed his palm against the viewscreen, fingers spread. His eyes were half-closed still, and his fingers blurred, losing their focus. They, too, seemed to merge with the one light beyond.
<Master> he found himself thinking, an ache in his throat.
Would that it were so easy - to simply reach out and touch those long-dead Jedi and see their eyes soften in forgiveness.
Would that it were so easy - to reach out and touch.
Sighing, he drew his hand back, clutching his other arm above the elbow, digging the fingers into his robe. His other hand clutched equally tightly at his side. He was hugging himself tightly, for it was cold in space.
He blinked, and that beautiful all-encompassing light became only stars - countless thin lines of light - and that too was only an illusion of hyperspace, and they were only the tiniest pinpricks - against the darkness that was everything.
There were soft sounds around him and apart from him - other passengers enjoying the viewing screens. A man stood with his grown son, resting a companionable arm on his shoulder and smiling at some silent joke. A couple stood with their arms around each other's waists, locked in their own shared private world. A young man was alone, but seemed to be waiting for someone, running his fingers through his hair nervously.
Still clutching his robe close to his body, Qui-Gon turned his back and walked away.
Later, in the corridor, he stopped outside the cabin that would have been his own, had he not been able to take advantage of a fellow traveller's non-appearance and claim the vacant room.
He wondered if he should go in. The boy, Obi-Wan Kenobi, was out of immediate danger, but was very far from being well. Perhaps he should check on him... but the boy needed his sleep, and solitary healing at one with the Force was very valuable.
As he had done on the viewscreen, he pressed his palm against the door, feeling again - an awakened memory - the same ache in his throat as he had felt then. The door was cold under his touch. He remembered how warm his hands had been when he had touched the boy's brow and gently eased him into healing sleep. The warmth had dissipated after merest minutes.
<Do you need me?> he asked, quiet as a whisper. Through his hand on the door he listened for sound and sensed through the Force.
He heard no movement, no soft whimpers, and that was good. He sensed nothing through the Force on his surface touch, and would not probe deeper. Though the boy had such an unprecedented ability to hide his use of the Force, he had no skill at all at hiding his emotions to anyone who chose to look. His shields were like paper, and would collapse before Qui-Gon's will.
As they had already done so, he remembered with sudden shame.
No, he thought, surprisingly fierce. He would not fall like that again. He would not probe the boy's emotions or reach for him with anything more than the lightest surface touch of the Force. He had asked if he was needed, and been met with silence. That was all he could do. Let the boy reach out to him, if he wanted him, and then he could decide how to respond. Let the boy reach out... and if he did not, it was his choice, and not Qui-Gon's failing at all.
Better for the boy that way, surely. Far better.
As he walked away he folded his arms, tucking his hands deep into his robe in a vain attempt to warm them.
Obi-Wan lay in the silence, staring at the back of the door and wrapped in solitude.
He had woken in terror, pulled out of his Force-induced healing sleep by harsh voices that called him "pretty" and cruel hands that pawed his naked flesh. His head had pounded in time with his panicky breathing, and for a moment he had nearly sunk into the darkness that granted nothing of rest or healing.
"Help me!" he had cried aloud, in that first moment of abject fear. He had called on the name of the man who had twice saved him. "Qui-Gon Jinn. Please..."
No-one had come. Then the dream had released him, and he had stopped calling - though in his mind he called him still. He was alone, just as in prison he had been alone. He was bound to a bed by the head injury that would not allow him to move, as effectively as he had ever been bound by chains. Food and water lay beside the bed, so he could feed himself without need of company.
He was cold.
<Do you need me?> he heard. He closed his eyes, and saw an image of Qui-Gon Jinn, standing with his hand outstretched. He could almost hear his breathing and the soft shuffle of his feet as he shifted, unsure.
<Do you want me to need you?> he thought, biting his lip against the sharp stab of pain - for he knew what answer he would get, as soon as he framed the question. But perhaps he had fallen too far, and was useless and needy - a boy who had grown to love being abused and rejected - for he could not stop himself calling out, in softest anguished whimper, <Yes. Yes, I need you...>
But he heard only the sound of Qui-Gon's footsteps, walking away.
He stared at the door until tears blinded him and he could see it no more.
Qui-Gon slept badly, tormented by dreams.
A Jedi still, he had a padawan, and he loved that padawan with all his heart, though his nature was not to speak of it. The padawan was strong and able, dazzling in combat and quietly wise. He was not far from taking his trials. When he passed, he would become one of the greatest of Knights, Qui-Gon knew. He should have felt happy for him, but instead he felt only cold fear, clutching at his heart like a fist.
<He doesn't need you any more> he heard, in the sound of his padawan's lightsabre as he triumphed in contests.
<I will leave you, and you will be forgotten> he saw, in his padawan's shining eyes as he mastered a challenging exercise.
<Unneeded and alone> he felt, hammering at his heart, as his padawan and not himself made the breakthrough on a mission and received the honour of all.
He thought back to the times when the padawan had been young, needing him intensely and trusting him utterly. With a word or just by his presence alone, he had been able to calm the boy's fears. When suffering with illness or dreams, the boy had cried only "Master", needing no other.
Why had he never realised, then, that he had needed the boy just as much as his padawan had needed him?
<Stay with me> he wanted to cry, to beg, to plead. <Need me as I need you.>
The years ahead loomed like a void, dark and terrible. It was such a terrible thing to be alone, needed and loved by no-one, to be the centre of no-one's world.
He woke up echoing that cry, warm tears still wet on his cheek. No-one hastened to his side to ask if he was all right. Nobody heard him, or knew, or cared.
For long years now he had thought that was good. Alone meant no-one could betray him. Alone meant there was no-one he could let down.
<No-one?> Still half asleep, his mind wandered as if still in a dream. He saw the face of Obi-Wan, now, though the voice wasn't his. <Alone meant that you pushed him away when he needed a friend. Alone meant that you abandoned him in the city when he was too hurt and too innocent to protect himself. Alone protects you; never pretend you do it for others.>
"No!" he cried, more in pain than denial - for the voice was his Master's, and how could he disbelieve it?
He saw the beloved padawan, and this time he knew him to be Obi-Wan - the padawan he would have taken later in life had the Jedi not been wiped out. He saw him smile and gently take his Master's hands. "I will always need your love, Master, and will never forget you. Never doubt that. Whatever happens to me, and wherever life takes me, you will always be my Master."
Then images changing, flashing from that happiness to rending pain...
He saw a hand protrude from thick dirty water, pleading pleading for the one person who could save him, then saw that hand go limp and sink away. He heard his own cry of intense anguish at wasted chances - a young man dying, still believing himself unwanted.
He saw an empty bed one morning, cold and not slept in, and heard himself gasp in sudden realisation that _he_ had caused this, by never once showing that they could be _two_ in this, that they could go into this danger together.
He saw an explosion, and felt something snap in his mind, and - <too late!> - knew true loneliness, and could only weep for his blindness in all those years when he had willingly sought this.
<Remember> the voice of his Master said. Then again, softer, for he was awakening, <remember...>
He woke - truly awake this time, not the wakening within a dream of before - and lay still for a very long time. For a moment, he clung onto the visions, but, inexorably as most dreams, they faded. For a little longer, he heard his Master's voice, but nothing of the Force lingered in the aura of the room. Not a vision, then, he told himself. A dream. Just a dream. There was no reason to learn anything from it.
But, oh, the feeling - so strong that he could almost touch it - of aching terrible loneliness...
The boy was awake, though even his periods of most wakefulness were barely lucid. His blue eyes were the colour of a lightsabre crystal.
Qui-Gon swallowed hard, folding his hands tightly. "How are you, Obi-Wan?"
The boy seemed about to speak, then seemed to feel he could not. A look of pain darkened his face.
There was something about the boy in his dream, he thought, though the memory had already slipped away from him like water held in cupped hands. The feeling of terrible loneliness still clung to him like a miasma, but it was even stronger here, in the boy's room, than it had been in his own solitary cabin.
"You're healing as well as can be expected," he said, gruffly. "Is there anything I can bring you?"
The boy's eyes were bleak. Again, he seemed to be about to speak; again, he was silent. Then, with a small shuddering sigh as one accepting a risk, he spread one pale hand. "Nothing. Except..."
He leant forward eagerly. "Food? Water?"
The boy's eyes were clear, though even without probing Qui-Gon could feel the fear that fluttered in his sense. "Heal me. Please. I can barely feel the Force. Heal my head, and then I can do the rest myself. I..." His voice shook. "I need to be free."
The sense of loneliness thickened and darkened. "Free?" he echoed, hoarse. Of the rest of the boy's words, he would say nothing, yet.
"This..." The boy's hands plucked at the sheets. "It's a prison. Trapped... I can't move. I can't sense any life around me except you, and barely even you. One room in a ship..."
Qui-Gon touched his panicky hands, holding his fingers just for a moment. "You're safe now, Obi-Wan."
"But..." Then the boy took several deep breaths, as if he _had_ to calm himself. When he spoke, Qui-Gon got the impression that he wasn't saying the words he truly wanted to say. "I would feel better if I could leave this room." His voice was dull and strained.
"You're too sick." As soon as he's said it, he cursed himself, knowing what was coming next.
"Please heal me," Obi-Wan asked, infinitely humble.
That nearly undid him, as nothing else could have. He drove his nails into his clenched palm. "I'm doing all I can."
And it wasn't a lie, not really. The Force could heal in its own way, even when used on someone who was not Force sensitive itself. But the true healing powers of the Force were only shown when one Force sensitive healed another, their two minds merging in the Force, their two souls meeting on a plane that had nothing to do with fleshly things.
He had done the first way, healing with all his strength, to the full extent of his duty. The second way was impossible. How could the boy ask it?
"I can't do more," he said, looking only at his clasped hands.
The boy said nothing - did not rail at Qui-Gon's failures, or reproach him. All he said was, "oh", like a quiet whimper, and fall silent. Qui-Gon could hear his shaky breathing, and felt his disappointment as an almost tangible thing.
Deep within him, his anger raised its head. Who was this boy to make these demands? "You must be patient," he said, tersely.
When he dared look up, the boy was nodding weakly. He looked very young. "Could..." He ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. "Could you stay with me a little more?"
Qui-Gon found he was looking desperately round the room - a trapped man looking for an escape and finding none. The boy had him trapped. Was that a triumphant smile he saw on his lips?
"I wonder that you trust me," he said, sharply. "After what has happened to you, how can you be alone with anyone?" He felt his lips curl into a snarl. "I could hurt you now, and who would ever know? And why are you in such a hurry to sense the others on the ship? Men worse than the ones who took you could be out there, waiting for someone like you. At least when you're in here alone, no-one can hurt you."
Words poured from his mouth. Part of him was horrified, but part felt strangely purged, healed. He made no effort to stop.
"Have you learnt nothing from what happened to you? Or are you so eager to be abused again that you will throw yourself at everyone you meet, giving them your naive and stupid trust? That someone so stupid was you can be so gifted in the Force..."
A small sound finally stopped his torrent of words. He blinked slowly, then again. He felt as if his head was as heavy as lead, moving horrendously slowly as he turned to face the boy on the bed.
What he saw only made it feel heavier. The boy's blue eyes were swimming with unshed tears. His fingers clutched the sheets, and they were white and trembling.
Qui-Gon swallowed hard. "I... I'm sorry," he managed, uselessly. What could his words do to heal? In this universe, it was so easy to destroy, with one word or action, but so impossible to heal, even with a thousand.
"Perhaps it's not... logical," the boy began, and when he blinked the tears fell from his eyes, but no new ones took their place. His voice was calm, his expression strangely dignified. "But it's what I feel. People can hurt me, but being alone hurts me more. I am prepared the take a chance. I just..." The control faltered, rallied for a moment, then broke. "Don't leave me alone, Master, not without the Force..."
The loneliness he had felt since waking up swelled to a peak. What could he do? What could he say? At a loss, he said merely, "don't call me Master."
"Master Jinn," the boy murmured. Then, with the air of someone who was miserable but trying not to show it - trying and failing - he asked, "what shall I call you?"
"Nothing," he said, instinctively, but then he softened that. "Qui-Gon."
"Qui-Gon," the boy repeated. "I _do_ trust you. You came back for me and saved me. You have the Force, as I do, and _they_ have hurt you too. I feel safer when you're here."
Oh, but he could cry out at the pain of it.... <Don't> he wanted to wail. It was only with the greatest effort that he reminded himself that the boy didn't say it to hurt him.
But there was nothing he could say - no comfort, no promises. Though the thought revolted him, he took the only escape route he could see. If the boy's head injury was healed so he could heal himself in solitary trance... If he was well again and could find friends amongst the other passengers...
"I will try to heal you, Obi-Wan," he said, quietly.
Obi-Wan gave a small sigh, and relaxed into the pillows.
The Force swirled around him. Qui-Gon closed his eyes, and placed his hands on Obi-Wan's face, one palm on each cheek, his fingers curving round onto his brow.
The boy was a picture of trust and submission, his blue eyes wide and clear. The sight of it stabbed like a knife. He wasn't worthy of this, surely - had never been worthy of it.
"Master?" the boy murmured, then smiled wryly. "Qui-Gon."
He felt a touch in his mind, then - muted and darkened with pain, but unmistakably there. There was no sense of the Force about the boy's reaching for him. He wondered if he could ever grow comfortable with this - if the boy's unnatural secret use of the Force would always sicken him even as it awed him.
"Qui-Gon," he heard, invitingly, though whether through words or the Force, he couldn't know.
It was his turn now to act. The boy had opened his mind to him, revealing all his damage and all his soul. It just remained for Qui-Gon to reach out, to clasp the boy's mind in his own like two hands reaching over a chasm..., to heal.
Oneness through the Force for healing.... He had done it before, with Xanatos, with his Master, and once with a fellow Jedi he had possessed no bond with. It had been draining yet exhilarating, but not hard.
He took a deep breath, then another. His fingers felt warm and uncomfortable. Deliberately he sought out those parts of his mind that bore his memories and fenced them off, keeping them apart from the coming joining.
As he did so, he touched a forgotten memory - a dream image of a hand reaching from the thick muddy water, pleading for his help. <Yes> he thought., impatiently. <I know he's waiting for me. I'm doing all I can.>
The Force seemed fractured and damaged. He forced himself to calm, then reached for it, reaching at the same time for the young man's mind. They would join through the Force, and the boy would he healed, and he would be free.
And he wanted to be free, he thought, as the Force darkened and pulsed with loneliness and fear and cold realisation. Free and alone...
<Please?> The hand slipped into the mud and was gone.
Why did he want to cry out? Why did he hear an anguished cry, in the memory of his dream, and why was that cry in his own voice?
<You have failed, my padawan> he heard, low and sorrowing.
But he had reached out, hadn't he? He had reached out, and left his body, and now wandering in the vast expanse of Force between the stars, where his Master looked at his with grave eyes.
<Not one, but _two_ would have been healed, had you succeeded. Why can't you let yourself be healed, Qui-Gon?>
"I tried," he protested. "I did try."
His Master blinked away, and he was alone in the Force - but even the Force turned its back on him, and he was alone in the darkness of space between the stars, and the light was unattainable however much he reached.
"Not alone. _Together_ there is light, and healing," he heard, distant but unmistakable.
With a shaking hand he reached out to that voice. With a shaking hand.... but his body was too heavy, and his hand would not obey, and it was too far, too far....
He sank back into the darkness of his own mind.
Qui-Gon's hands tightened on his face like claws, then fell limp.
Obi-Wan felt drained, and his head throbbed appallingly, as if the pain had sensed how close it was to being banished and now triumphed gleefully.
So close... He had opened himself to Qui-Gon's mind, to his healing, needing nothing so much as to be whole again. The pain was nothing; he could live with the pain. But with the pain in his head came powerlessness. He was trapped in a prison, unable to sense the life forms around him, unable to move, unable to heal the lesser wounds of his body. He was powerless as a baby, and terrified.
<Heal me> he had begged, and had thrown his whole soul of Qui-Gon's mercy, knowing that no sacrifice was too great if the reward was healing. <Please...>
And, for a moment, perhaps, Qui-Gon had almost done so. For a moment, he had felt the whisper touch of his soul through the ghostly Force. For a moment, he had rejoiced...
And then it had all slipped away.
Qui-Gon had slammed up barriers, maybe not even consciously. <Mine!> he had said, of his mind, of his soul. <Mine! Stay away!>
It had been like a series of metal doors slamming shut over a fortress, leaving Obi-Wan outside, only able to paw at the metal with bleeding fingers and grovel in the dirt, whimpering with loneliness and cold. He could have pushed, but then the result would have been violation, not healing. Healing was soft balm, without coercion on either side.
<Please?> he'd asked, just once, knowing it made him pathetic, but unable not to try this one appeal.
But Qui-Gon's mind had slipped away utterly. Obi-Wan had had a sense of overwhelming darkness and loneliness...
"No," he'd called, though his heart was close to breaking. He was still in his own prison, still trapped. He'd called out wordlessly in his mind, sensing in that moment how lonely and lost Qui-Gon was within his walls, even though his walls were of his own making - even though he was scarcely aware of it himself. "Take my hand," he'd urged. "Together we can heal ourselves."
For a moment, he'd thought that, perhaps, Qui-Gon was trying. But he'd still been so hurt, and his control of the Force so weak, and he'd been unable to keep on reaching for him... His own failure. The Force had slipped away from him, and he'd been alone and bereft in his bed, with the hands of a stranger on his face, but no mental connection between them at all.
Qui-Gon's hands tightened, then went limp. After a long moment, he sat up, passing his hand over his brow. "I... I tried. I'm sorry," he murmured.
Obi-Wan tried to smile. "I... I think I'll sleep now." It was a lot to ask, but he was too hurt to pretend, too hurt to do otherwise. "Can you help me sleep?"
Qui-Gon seemed to jump at the chance eagerly. "Of course." Then he seemed about to say something else, something that troubled him, but instead he shook his head, as if to say, <nothing.>
He raised his hand, and used the Force, and Obi-Wan was grateful.
He scarcely remembered what he had done that day. Perhaps he had wandered the ship and looked at the stars. A smiling woman had attempted to talk to him, but, feeling like a caged animal, he had walked away from her. Several times he had paused in front of Obi-Wan's room, but never entered.
Ten more days ahead of him, confined on this ship, jostled by the bodies and souls of strangers. Ten more days with a too-trusting boy who made such demands of him...
"I will take him with me," he had promised, but what did that promise mean? Had he done his part when the ship took off? The moment they landed on Tasceron - a destination chosen for no other reason other than that it was the next transport available - could they go their separate ways, promise fulfilled?
He clenched his fist uselessly, almost moaned aloud. It was not so. He knew it was not so. Both the boy Ben and Obi-Wan expected more from him. A few weeks, perhaps... Maybe he could get away with only a few weeks, observing Obi-Wan's progress from a distance, watching him until he established his own life and ensuring that they had not been followed. Only then could he be alone again.
A month, perhaps? A month from now, or a little more, and he could be free, alone... alone? He thought he would count the days.
But, for now, he had his duty.
"Obi-Wan?" he called, gently, pausing at the boy's door in the evening. "Can I come in?"
He thought he would go away at the silence, but found he was opening the door instead, suddenly needing to see the boy's face.
Obi-Wan was still asleep, the food and water untouched since the morning. His face was flushed, and his sense, when Qui-Gon reached for it, was distorted and weak.
He fell to his knees by the bedside. "Obi-Wan." He took the boy's limp hand in his own, and the heat of his skin was deeply shocking.
He was surprised at the pain he felt.
It was a nightmare time for Obi-Wan, lost, always lost.
He thought he was on fire, and flames reached for him gleefully, burning him. Fire sheeted his vision. Somewhere beyond that wall of flame was a man who could help him, but he couldn't reach him, oh he could not reach him...
He thought he was drowning, pulled down into the quicksand by the water's grasping hands. "Help me!" he called to the tall man who paused in his walk to look down at him dispassionately. "I'm stuck. Please...." But the man just shook his head and walked on.
He thought he was trapped in an eternity of emptiness, stretching white to the very edges of existence. He screamed and screamed, but there was no-one to hear his cries. No-one...
"Help me!" he pleaded, desperate and so scared. "Please..."
Oh, but how could he have missed this?
Qui-Gon sat by the boy's bed and cursed himself for a blind selfish idiot. The boy had been mending, slowly it was true, but mending. What had caused this sudden fever? Was it the disappointment of a healing that came so close, and then was snatched away? The strain of living every second with his fear of being confined and alone?
He had been twelve hours away from him, and had ignored his pleas, and this was the result.
The boy cried out suddenly. "Hush," he murmured, gently. "I'm here."
If anything, the boy's distress increased. His breathing was rapid and scared, and his eyelids fluttered, bringing him close to a wakefulness that was only the nightmare existence of fever.
"I'm here," he said again, and reached out with the Force, touching, ever so fleetingly, the boy's fever-ridden mind. <I am here> he tried again, catching glimpses of fire and quicksand, and an immense terrifying solitude.
<Truly?> he heard, and, though he could not answer, he held on to that touch, and, slowly, gradually, the boy's breathing eased.
Qui-Gon found he was shaking, exhausted as if he had fought a long battle. But he knew the battle was only just beginning.
It was several days before the boy was lucid. For most of the time, he slept, either the peaceful rest of the Force, or the troubled unconsciousness of fever.
Qui-Gon could not leave him. At first, he railed at that, thinking himself trapped into a duty and closeness he did not want.
That first night, he made a bed for himself on the floor, but did not sleep in it, for the boy was still in danger and he could not relax his guard for a minute.
The second night, he slept a little, though his sleep was troubled with dreams in which he wandered in a crowded city and bewailed his fate.
On the day that followed, he looked up once and found that hours had passed since he had last been fully aware. He had simply sat there, holding the boy's hand in his own, and thinking.... what?
When he pulled his hand away, the boy cried out in genuine fear, and would only calm when Qui-Gon held his shoulders and pulled him close. Even after the boy fell peacefully asleep, he still held him for a little longer, just in case he was about to wake up. Then, gently, he laid him down on the bed, and say back, his eyes closed and his heart troubled.
The next morning he woke up to find himself sitting on the floor, slumped forward with his cheek resting on the edge of the boy's bed. As if burned, he pulled back, scrambling to his feet. His cheek felt suddenly cold.
Once, when the boy was sleeping quietly, he dared to leave him alone and went for a walk around the ship. As the door closed behind him, he leant back against the cold metal and closed his eyes, and murmured, "freedom." But, outside, the eyes were cold and the hearts were all hearts of strangers. As he walked alone, he felt cold and empty. Only when he closed that same door again, and once again rested a while on it, did that feeling leave him.
He was four days closer to the day he would be free, he told himself. He felt a small pain when he thought of it. But it was not so very long, surely. The time would come soon.
That was the day he started talking to the boy, knowing he was asleep and could not hear him. He talked of things he had never told anyone - little things at first, about the course of his days in the wilderness - how to find food from the plants, and reading the shapes of the stars. After a while, he talked, a little, of his life as a Jedi. "You would have trained as a Jedi, had things been different," he said. "Perhaps I would have trained you."
He took a drink of water, paused a long while... "Xanatos," he said, at last, rashly. "That was his name. My apprentice. I made him turn to the Dark Side and he became Vader. Now you know the truth. Do you still want to stay here with me?"
The boy was silent, still unconscious, not hearing any of it. He wondered if he would have the courage to say those words again.
That night, he slept in his chair beside the boy's bed, and did not dream. He woke to a feeling of soft white peace.
When he looked up, the boy's blue eyes were looking down at him, clear and wondering.
"You were there," he managed, at last. He felt there was so much more he should be saying, but he almost lacked the strength to say even this much. His muscles felt weak as water, and his throat was ravaged and dry.
Qui-Gon nodded. He looked different, somehow, but Obi-Wan did not know him well enough to place the change.
Obi-Wan licked his dry lips, intending to say more - what? Thanks? Pleas? - but Qui-Gon got in first. "You will be well, now." It almost rose at the end, like a question, but not quite, perhaps.
Obi-Wan nodded carefully, answering even if he was not supposed to. "I... I think so."
He almost said more, but did not. <I will be well, as long as you stay with me, and talk to me like you did.> He had heard Qui-Gon's voice in his fever wanderings, not as individual words; now, upon waking, he had no knowledge of what had been said. All he remembered was that Qui-Gon's voice, like a soothing stream, had flowed around and beside him, showing him he was not alone, healing him.
"You were so close to..." Qui-Gon's knuckles were very white. <Dying> his silence said. His face seemed suddenly very pale and lined.
"But I didn't," Obi-Wan said, quietly. He held Qui-Gon with his gaze. "You saved me, Master."
"No." Qui-Gon's face twisted with something that could have been pain, could have been anger. "I tried that, and failed. I... I didn't, couldn't, try that again."
Obi-Wan clenched his fists under the sheets. Qui-Gon would not see how he was shaking, even though his voice was firm. "You saved me." It had not been that single explosion of the Force, healing through an intense joining of minds. It had been slower, gentler - simply being there in mind and voice, showing Obi-Wan a way out of the fever-ridden darkness. Without Qui-Gon, he knew, he would be wandering there still.
He wasn't sure what he expected - anger? denial? Qui-Gon simply looked, for a moment, very young and lost. "Did I really help?"
Obi-Wan smiled. His strength was so little, and this moment of wakefulness that had been granted to him so short, but he knew he _had_ to stay lucid for a little while longer. He knew instinctively that more than his own healing was at stake. "You did, Qui-Gon." With a hand impossibly heavy, he reached for him, touching his arm gently. "Thank you."
For a moment, an answering smile danced on Qui-Gon's lips.
His eyelids drifted shut; it was impossible to open them again. He felt he was in some deep consuming mist, and already it had eaten his limbs, losing them in numbness. "Need to sleep now," he thought he managed to say, though surely he was still smiling.
He felt a soft hand touch his hair. "I'll stay," a voice said, though he knew he had not asked.
Then the numbness consumed everything, but he was not afraid.
The Force could heal, Qui-Gon knew. The Force, and prompt action, and medical technology.
He had never thought that mere words could heal.
"You helped me," Obi-Wan had said. "Thank you."
As the boy slept under his touch, he felt his eyes ache with tears that wanted - needed - to be shed.
He had helped him, simply by being himself, and flawed.
<What?> he asked himself. <What did you expect?>
He shook his head, wondering. How was it that he could hear just a few words, and suddenly everything seemed different, as if a veil had been removed from his vision?
He had let himself be governed by extremes, he saw. After creating Vader and failing to save Luke, he knew he could never let himself get involved with great events, for his judgement was too flawed to be trusted with such things. After betraying, and being betrayed by, Xanatos, and letting down Luke, he could never allow himself such dependency on another person - or allow another to depend on him. These truths still held, and he still believed them.
But it was not a case of all or nothing. He would not act in great events, so he had refused to act at all. After his Master had spoken to him the night before he left his house, he had realised this error, and resolved - weakly, perhaps, and without conviction - to at least act in small matters, helping individuals even if he dare not help the resistance.
He had made that resolution, unaware that, in affairs of human emotion and closeness, he was still stuck in a world of extremes. He would not grow dependent on another, so he had refused to allow even the most fleeting of contacts, as if to say even one friendly word was to create a Xanatos - a boy who had stolen his soul for so many years, then broken him.
He was like a girl who would not even talk to a boy or smile, for fear that one word could commit her to a lifetime of marriage.
The boy, Obi-Wan, was not demanding his life. He was not a padawan, to be trained to the exclusion of all over for a dozen years - to become son and friend and all in the world to him. No, he was only a young man, hurt and alone, who wanted a friend for a little while, in his greatest need. It was not a lifelong sentence with no going back. Qui-Gon could give that friendship now, and return to his habitual solitude when it was over.
Even without giving his whole soul - without doing _anything_ that lessened him in any way, or threatened him - he had helped heal the boy. And the boy was content with that.
He thought that, if he cared about anyone, he would have to give them everything of himself, since Xanatos had taken that much. He had thought that, if he let anyone else need him, they would need so much more than he could give, and, in the end, they would be betrayed.
He had never thought that when Obi-Wan said "stay with me," all he had meant was "stay with me just for a little while, as you are, flawed and yourself." He had thought he had meant "be my saviour in all things and forever" and knew that was something he could never be. He had never thought that simply by being there - his own inadequate broken self - he could make a difference.
He smiled. He found that the tears had escaped his eyes and now bathed his cheeks, falling further still and landing on the sheet on Obi-Wan's bed, and his pale unconscious hands.
Oh, but it was marvellous that Obi-Wan wanted him, not to do any impossible deeds, but simply as himself.
"Oh yes," he murmured, letting Obi-Wan's soft hair run between his fingers. "I'll stay."
Although Obi-Wan could not see him, he found he was smiling again.
When he woke, the time after, it felt as if it was the first time in an eternity that he had been virtually without pain. His head ached, but it was a distant ache only, and he knew that, as long as he did not move hastily or feel fear, it would stay that way.
"You've slept for a whole day and a night," a voice said, gently. "How do you feel?"
"Better," he said, without hesitation. He did not probe further, feeling that, if he did so, some forgotten pain would resurface. He knew he wasn't quite awake, caught in some strange unreality where Qui-Gon spoke to him with affection and he felt at peace and safe, but for now he was happy to accept it.
He opened his eyes, and, though the light made him wince, his head did not explode in pain. He saw Qui-Gon, tired and drawn, yet softer somehow. His eyes were deeper, as if they spoke of emotions for the first time since Obi-Wan had met him, and his mouth looked as if it knew both how to smile and cry. "You should rest," he said, quietly. "Eat. Take a walk."
"Leave you?" Qui-Gon's face was unreadable.
Obi-Wan's mouth felt suddenly dry. Was that hope in his eyes? But he nodded, slowly. "I'm better. I don't need... watching."
Still Qui-Gon made no move to stand. "Is it... that you'd be better off alone?"
Something in the older man's eyes made him pause. It was almost as if... as if Qui-Gon was afraid of rejection, scared that Obi-Wan would say he no longer needed him. He felt a small surge of weary anger. For days the man had been pulling away, hurting and rejecting him again and again. Now, if he had changed, how could Obi-Wan keep up with the changes? He had been too hurt, and was too exhausted, to second-guess the man if he could not admit to his feelings. All he could do was tell the truth about his own.
"No," he said, at last. "Your presence here has helped me more than you can ever know, Qui-Gon. If you were by my side in the days to come, I... I would like that very much. I have needed a friend, very much indeed." He found, to his surprise, that he was shaking - small barely perceptible tremors of his hands beneath the sheets. He took a deep breath and continued. "But I don't wish to keep you here against your will, and..."
"It's not against my will." The words sounded unintentional, somehow, as if Qui-Gon was surprised to be speaking aloud - and equally surprised to be thinking them at all.
Obi-Wan smiled briefly, grateful, but knowing now was not the time to speak further on Qui-Gon's troubled feelings. Neither of them were up to it, and he knew suddenly that, if he spoke too much on them, Qui-Gon, feeling threatened, would retreat behind his walls again and this time, perhaps, for ever.
"I'm glad," he said, his voice low. "But I can see how tired you are. You need some time to rest, to eat, to stretch your legs, even if just for a few hours. And...." He feigned a yawn, but it immediately took over and became real. He was very tired indeed, he realised, and still as weak as a new-born. "I need to sleep."
Qui-Gon was silent for a very long time. Caught between the overwhelming need to sleep, and his need to hear the older man's final decision, Obi-Wan could only struggle, fighting the urge to say something, to hurry his answer.
"Yes," Qui-Gon said, at last, when Obi-Wan, despite himself, had almost given in to sleep. "I'll leave now, but I _will_ come back." His voice went suddenly hoarse and lower. "I promise you that, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan tried to answer, but sleep stole the words from him, and, a moment later, all thoughts as well.
"Where are we going?" Obi-Wan asked suddenly.
It was towards the end of the third day since his wakening, and it was the first day he had spent more time awake than asleep.
Qui-Gon had found himself almost dreading this day, unsure of whether he still knew how to interact with another person. The whole time he had been with Obi-Wan, the boy had been hurt or unconscious, and conversation limited to essential matters. Now Qui-Gon had promised to spend the rest of the journey with him, and the small cabin could become a prison for him. Would Obi-Wan talk too much and pry into secrets he was not ready to talk about? Would they spend hours in awkward silence, with nothing to say?
The truth was neither. They spoke little - with their entire past lives off-limits, there was really little they could say - but the silence was companionable, and Qui-Gon found it strangely nourishing. Obi-Wan had a ready smile, trusting and vulnerable. Simply having Qui-Gon close by him made a visible difference to his strength and happiness.
The question came after a long period of silence. Obi-Wan's eyes had been drooping, and Qui-Gon had thought he'd been on the verge of sleep.
"Where?" Qui-Gon echoed, suddenly scared. Where was this going? What was their future? How could he answer that? How could the boy demand even that he think of it?
The boy gave a ghost of a smile, but there was something sorrowing in it - as if he had guessed Qui-Gon's reaction, and the reason for it, and it had saddened him. "Where is this transport going, I meant. I was in no state to ask, when you brought me here."
Qui-Gon was left temporarily at a loss for words. That the boy had just trusted him, letting himself be carried over a week towards an unknown destination, without once asking... That trust touched him, but angered him at the same time. Would the boy always be so passive, letting his fate be decided by everyone around him, looking up to Qui-Gon for all decisions?
"Tasceron," he said, when he could speak. He tried to keep the anger from his voice, but perhaps it showed.
"Oh." Obi-Wan looked briefly at his folded hands, then met Qui-Gon's eyes again. "I've never heard of it. What's it like?"
He frowned, thinking back to the place he so dimly remembered, cataloguing the planet to still his emotions. "Quiet. Temperate climate. Lots of trees and rivers. Fairly backward, but very beautiful, in a strange way." He shrugged. "But it might have changed since then."
"You've been before?"
He nodded. "Once, a long time ago. Very briefly, and on a different landmass from our destination. It might not be the same at all. This was before..."
"Before the Empire?" Obi-Wan's voice was quiet, and his eyes were intense and horribly full of sympathy. He fought a sudden wild urge to slap that face, to push it away for ever. He had never asked for this.
But, before he could even move - and surely he would not have done this, surely... - Obi-Wan grabbed hold of his sleeve, leaning forward, needy. "What was it like, before?"
He tried to pull away, and Obi-Wan let him. But, although the younger man no longer held him with his hand, his eyes never once lessened their grip. Qui-Gon passed the back of his hand across his eyes. "Why ask me? Surely someone's told you. Your parents..."
"I was born less than a year after the Empire. My parents... told me some of it." His eyes were merciless. "I mean, what was it like for people like us?"
He swallowed hard. "Jedi?"
The boy shook his head, wondering. He almost seemed about to smile. "Is that what we're called? My mother mentioned the word once or twice."
"No." His voice was harsh. That the boy could smile at this, and be so wrong... "You are merely a Force-sensitive. Not everyone sensitive to the Force became a Jedi. The training was rigorous, the tests challenging. It was a moral code and a way of life. Jedi were sworn always to the service of others, and to the light. They were the Knights of Light, and defenders of justice."
For a terrible moment, he saw pity in the boy's eyes. If the boy opened his mouth and spoke now - asking what had happened to the Jedi or probing cruelly into his past - he would turn and leave him without another word.
But the boy only asked, with infinite gentleness, "are you a Jedi?"
"Are", not "were." Was it deliberate, or was it just luck, that once again the boy had said the one thing that could ease the pain - the one thing that unmanned him, and kept him here by his side. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I am."
And he was. All the other Jedi were dead, but he had sworn his oaths to the Order, and had never been released from his promises. He _was_ a Jedi. He had brought about their destruction, but, as long as one Jedi still lived and was true, the Order still lived on. Perhaps the worst betrayal of all would be to live on, untrue to his vows - the last relic of an betrayed order, cruelly fallen from what he once had been.
He raised his head. Unconsciously, he pressed his hand to his chest - a gesture of resolution and pride. "I am a Jedi."
Obi-Wan's eyes were alight with undisguised admiration. "I... I think I would have liked to have been one, too."
He looked at the boy - really looked at him, for the first time, perhaps. He remembered how strong he had been in the light, when he had intervened to save the attacked Qui-Gon had been tempted to kill. He remembered how, even though badly hurt, he had insisted on going back to save the other boys - and how his strength in the Force and attentiveness had saved them, when Qui-Gon himself had failed to sense the guard approaching.
Not passive - not passive at all, he realised, and the last of his small anger from before dissipated. Strong, even when hurt, and unfailingly of the light.
"I believe you would have been, Obi-Wan," he said, gently. "One of the best."
Then, suddenly, he could speak no more of it. It was too much - everything was too fast. Accepting the boy was one thing; thinking over much about his abilities and his massive potential... No, that way lay disappointment. Qui-Gon would live true to the Jedi Code, but he would never again attempt to make a difference, nor would he place any hopes in Obi-Wan doing so either.
Obi-Wan was a boy, not a Jedi.
Taking a deep breath, he started - something, anything... "It was almost forty years ago that I was on Tasceron. I was still with my Master..."
And Obi-Wan listened, and asked no questions.
It was the evening before they were to arrive on Tasceron, and Qui-Gon watched, just as, that morning, he had watched as Obi-Wan left his cabin for the first time, raising his head and spreading his arms with the sheer joy of being finally free, and young, and strong. Qui-Gon had stood at his side, ready to support him if he had needed it, then, when his help had not been called upon, had unobtrusively slipped away.
Obi-Wan had not called for him since. Alone in his own private cabin, Qui-Gon had told himself that this was it, and he was free - for on Tasceron he would only have to keep an eye on the boy from a distance and not live very close to him at all.
The hours of the day had dragged so very slowly, he thought.
Evening had brought him here, wandering without any real course. The view screens to see the stars, perhaps... Maybe that had been his destination, and the sound of laughter had diverted him, making him curious to find out what Obi-Wan had found to laugh about. Certainly he had not come looking for the boy, even though his cabin had been so cold...
And so he watched, one hand on the side of the doorway, feeling... what?
Obi-Wan sat with a young boy, their faces close. The boy's face showed signs of recent weeping, but now he was all smiles, though it was the smile of one still close to crying, punctuated with hitching sobs that could have been laughter, could have been tears. Obi-Wan's voice was low, beyond Qui-Gon's hearing - and he had no wish to intrude and listen uninvited. His emotions projected nothing but a desire to comfort, and he laughed frequently, flashing the boy a smile Qui-Gon had never seen from him before - wide, sincere and exceptionally beautiful.
Qui-Gon found himself swallowing hard, the sight physically painful to him. How readily Obi-Wan gave himself to the comfort of a stranger... How Qui-Gon had helped heal him, but had never made him laugh or smile that like, nor once thought to even try... or even noticed that laughter was something lacking.
As he watched, he scarcely saw the man push past him, though the man was violent and heedless and it was only luck that prevented a collision. But he saw only too clearly the young boy's face when the man rushed up to his side - joy and relief. The man was close to tears himself. Qui-Gon heard a few words - reassurance that the boy was loved and how could he have been so silly as to doubt it and run away. There were thanks, too, for Obi-Wan, whom the boy still clung to, even though his other hand was tightly enclosed in his father's.
As if sensing the boy's reluctance to fully pull away from the young man who was so clearly his new hero and idol, Obi-Wan bent close, whispering something conspiratorially in his ear. The boy smiled. Apparently perfectly content, he released Obi-Wan's hand.
Qui-Gon wondered what Obi-Wan had said, and how he had known to say it. He supposed, once, he too would have known.
He closed his eyes, caught once again by the snares of the treacherous past. When he opened his eyes, the boy and the man were hand in hand, passing him. Obi-Wan looked after them, naked longing on his young and immensely readable face.
Qui-Gon looked away. Perhaps he should go. Whatever had caused that look, it was private and not for him to pry into.
Yes, he would go. He started to turn.
"Master?" It was like a cry for help from a drowning man.
Arrested, he turned back. Obi-Wan was crying. Why was Obi-Wan crying?
He stepped forward. Part of him wanted to run - to dare anything to be at his side and the one to stop his tears; part of him wanted every step to last an eternity.
"Master. Qui-Gon." Obi-Wan's hands were clenched so tightly they were shaking and white. Already he was far beyond mere tears. Massive sobs wrenched him, ugly and terrible, but almost silent. Qui-Gon almost staggered at the force of the emotions that radiated from the boy like a physical wave. Oh, but he would have to teach him shielding before he taught him anything else.
Then, horrified by his unguarded thought, he stopped, and could only stand and watch Obi-Wan's silent agony.
"The boy..." Obi-Wan said, the words distorted, and surely not meant for Qui-Gon at all. "Kovi. So like him... I let him die, Master."
Something touched him, then - sharp and painful. <I let him die...> He had wailed those words silently over Luke's lifeless body.
"How?" he asked, hoarsely. "What happened?" Then, and perhaps more for himself than for Obi-Wan, "but only if you want to tell me."
"I do. I..." More sobs. "It hurts..."
He told him.
He wasn't sure what he had expected. To hurt, perhaps, as he told of things that were painful even to think about. To heal, maybe, as he shared his story with another.
Instead, he felt nothing - nothing different. The pain was just as bad, neither eased nor worsened. His sobs lessened, perhaps, with the telling, but tears still scoured his eyes, seeking release.
"My father hit me. He was scared for me - for all of us - and this was the only way he could show it..."
Qui-Gon's lips pressed together into a thin hard line.
"Kovi... He died. I tried so hard to save him, but not hard enough. There must have been something else I could have done..."
Qui-Gon closed his eyes. He couldn't even bear to look at Obi-Wan.
"And, on the ship, they... they touched me. They..." <Say the word, Obi-Wan. Say it. It's true, even if you don't say it.> "They raped me..."
Qui-Gon's face was all hard lines and planes. He had to be very disgusted.
"I know my parents are dead. They were killed because of me. Why did I survive?"
Qui-Gon's arms were wrapped very tightly around his body. It screamed "keep out."
"They called me pretty. They would have sold my body. I was alone..."
And Qui-Gon heard it all, dispassionate and cold, and hated him for it.
Shakily, he tried to stand, to walk away, to... to anything... Where? Away from here. He had told, and... and now... Nothing.
Obi-Wan seemed to stagger, falling heavily against Qui-Gon's arm and shoulder. He pulled himself away with a look of almost fear, mumbling apologies, and that he was going, he was going, it's all right Master I'm going...
The words hit Qui-Gon like blows. He had thought himself frozen with the cold horror of what he had been hearing. Only now, when it was too late, perhaps, did he realise that what, to him, was horror at an innocent boy's suffering, had perhaps looked to Obi-Wan like condemnation.
"Obi-Wan." He grabbed at the boy's sleeve, and was pained to see Obi-Wan's flinch, almost as if expecting a blow. Was that what he had become, that Obi-Wan could truly think this?
He knew the answer was yes. His heart cried out that he was still a Jedi, and still of the light, and would never willingly hurt another soul, but his behaviour had him damned.
So many things to say, and no idea at all how to say them, and where to start.
Obi-Wan weakly tried to pull away, and Qui-Gon's grip slipped, sliding down from his sleeve to his hand, and then to his fingertips only.
Fresh tears rose in Obi-Wan's eyes, but hope, too. Knowing that it was _his_ fault that the hope had been extinguished - that he had hurt Obi-Wan as much as any of his other abusers - made answering tears rise in his own eyes.
"It wasn't your fault, Obi-Wan," he said, and meant it. He knew the agony of guilt and blame, and knew that all other things could be recovered from, but never that. "You did all anyone could ever have been expected to do. You didn't even think of your own safety."
"He died." Dark misery.
"It wasn't your fault."
Scarcely knowing what he was doing, but only knowing that he _needed_ to do this, he pulled Obi-Wan close, enfolding him stiffly in his arms. He spoke - low and scarcely coherent words of comfort and reassurance.
Is this what it could have been like for him, he wondered, if he had still had a Master or a friend when Luke died. Would they have held him and let him cry out his guilt, and reassured him that Luke had died in a tragic accident, and none through his own failings at all? And, if he had heard it, would he have believed it?
"And my parents..."
He stroked Obi-Wan's hair. The boy's body was shaking against his own, sobbing and warm.
It hurt. It was right that it hurt. The boy looked up to him as saviour and comforter, but Obi-Wan put Qui-Gon to shame. Qui-Gon had lost Luke, and his guilt had led him to vow that he would never again let another person depend on him. Obi-Wan had lost this Koveras, but, though it had hurt him terribly, had given everything he had to give to a boy in need. Qui-Gon had looked at Obi-Wan, and seen only his own fear of getting close, and his own long-held wounds; he had never thought how Obi-Wan, too, had been deeply wounded.
Obi-Wan had every reason to fear closeness and to live the rest of his life in broken bitterness, hating the world that had abused him. But Obi-Wan remained so strong in the light, still innocent and idealistic despite the abuse he had suffered, still giving.
"I've nowhere to go..."
"You can come with me," he said, without thinking.
For a moment, he almost pulled away, horrified by his words. But, at the same time, something warmed him. One day, perhaps, he would confess his past to the boy, and maybe the boy would hold _him_ as he cried, assuring him that it was not his fault. One day, he might even see the boy's enchanting smile, and know it was all for him.
The boy's sobs were almost stilled now, though occasionally his breath would shudder a little, and the shoulder of Qui-Gon's tunic was damp from his tears. "With you?" he asked, ever so quietly. "How?"
Qui-Gon had no idea how he would answer. He was silent for a very long time. Then he simply closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and let the words choose themselves. "To live."
Obi-Wan stiffened. "As...?" Dark jangling fear darkened his sense. "Like...?"
He understood, and was sickened by it. Obi-Wan was deeply scarred, and he must never forget it, even though he hid it so well. "No, Obi-Wan." Gentle. He stepped back, raising Obi-Wan's face so he could look at it. "Not like that. I would never hurt you in that way. Never."
Obi-Wan swallowed hard. "Then how?" There was hope in his blue eyes. "As my Master? Will you teach me to be a Jedi?"
What could he say? He could not say yes, and raise the boy's hopes, leading him to dream of a day when he could stride the galaxy with a lightsabre, righting the wrong that was the Empire. "The Jedi are no more, Obi-Wan," he said, gently. It was not an answer and he knew it.
"But I would like to learn," Obi-Wan said, quietly, then looked away, as if he knew that nothing more could be said on the subject.
"But I'll teach you about shielding," Qui-Gon offered. It was a weak gesture, and he felt shamed and undeserving when Obi-Wan emotions flared, revealing hope and gratitude.
Obi-Wan pulled away, and wiped roughly at his face with the back of his hand, erasing the traces of his crying. He straightened his tunic, and, though he could not sense it, Qui-Gon knew he was pulling the Force around him like a beggar pulled on a cloak. Despite his reddened face and crumpled clothes, he radiated strength and dignity.
Qui-Gon found he was closer to tears in that moment than he had ever been, even when Obi-Wan had been telling his tale.
He cleared his throat. "Have you seen the stars from here, Obi-Wan?"
Obi-Wan shook his head.
"Then I'll show you."
As they left the room they were side by side, not touching. But, still, Qui-Gon felt that some part of them had touched, and was still touching, and separation would be difficult.
He would think about it, and see if he liked it.
The weeks passed, and Qui-Gon sometimes found himself wondering how he had lived, before, without Obi-Wan.
It was not that they became close, or that the boy became all to him. The secrets of Qui-Gon's heart remained his own, and he doubted he would ever confide them, to Obi-Wan or anyone.
Obi-Wan confided enough for the two of them, showing his feelings in words and on his so open face. Although Qui-Gon taught him mental shielding, and he seemed to learn quicker than anyone, Obi-Wan seemed loathe to actually use it. His emotions were open to Qui-Gon, pouring against his own shielding like water on an unyielding stone. Sometimes Qui-Gon was strangely touched by this; other times it annoyed him intensely.
But, for the most part, he accepted Obi-Wan, and found he was drawing a kind of contentment from his presence.
<I am home> he found himself thinking, one night, when he opened the door from the stormy outside, although, despite Obi-Wan's best efforts, the house still showed signs of what it had been until they had come - a ramshackle hut. <This is my home.> A young man looking up and smiling, helping him off with his wet robe and bringing him tea... Someone asking him what he had done that day, and actually caring... Objects surrounding him that had memories attached to them, and not bad ones...
The first memory was a smile - Obi-Wan's first totally unguarded, sincere, smile from the soul.
"Master," Obi-Wan greeted him on his return, gleeful as a child. "Look."
They had been on Tasceron a week. For several weeks more, Qui-Gon would try to cure Obi-Wan of the habit of calling him "Master," before giving it up as a lost cause - or else a habit he no longer had a desire to change.
Qui-Gon stopped. "A chair," he said, unnecessarily.
"I made it. Everything, from chopping the tree down, to this."
Qui-Gon looked, but could find nothing dark about the pride that shone in Obi-Wan's eyes.
"It's yours." The smile came then, brilliant - though he had been smiling before, Qui-Gon had thought, just nothing like this. "I made it for you."
Qui-Gon swallowed hard. "It's... it's beautiful, Obi-Wan." He ran a hand across the smooth back, savouring the smell of wood. It seemed to pulse beneath his fingers, almost alive with the emotions Obi-Wan had put into it - love, and gratitude, and devotion to his Master and saviour.
And even then Qui-Gon had not had the heart to feel disapproval, even though he knew they had known each other for so short a time, and it was far too soon for Obi-Wan to be feeling this love, and he would realise soon that he did not truly feel that way at all.
"Our first furniture. I'll make you a bed next."
He cleared his throat. "Make yourself a chair, Obi-Wan."
What was strange, though, was that, although at the time he had felt shadows and misgivings, in his memory all he would see was Obi-Wan's smile, and the peace that ever afterwards he would feel when he sat in that chair.
The second memory was tears, and, more than that, the calm that followed tears.
The sound of crying woke him, long enough after Obi-Wan had made the chair for them to both have beds. For a while he lay there, unsure - and afraid - about whether he should intrude. Then, very quietly, he crept into Obi-Wan's room, ready at any moment to withdraw.
"No..." he heard. "No. Please no..."
He started to speak, then realised that Obi-Wan was not even awake. Asleep, and bound tightly by the sheets he had knotted in his struggles, tears were pouring down his face. His fingers like claws pawed at his own body, as if seeking to push away some assailant and expunge his touch.
Qui-Gon bit his lip, wanting to walk away and leave Obi-Wan his privacy. In the morning, he would say nothing, and Obi-Wan would never know that he had seen.
"Master. Stop him... Why did you leave me...? Please..."
He stopped, frozen, as if struck. Then, ever so slowly, he crossed to Obi-Wan's beside, and touched his brow with trembling fingers that several times almost withdrew.
"I'm here," he murmured.
He moved his hand down, touching those clawed hands and gently uncurling them, soothing them into restful slackness. Then - minutes later, perhaps - he stroked the boy's back, feeling the tremors of sobs slowly give way to peace, and the deep breathing of sleep.
He found he was crying. That his simple touch could have so much power... That Obi-Wan could call on him, and need him... and that he could give what was needed, and bring peace with his touch...
He almost took Obi-Wan in his arms and held on to him, crying and confessing everything.
Even though he did not, some of the peace he had given Obi-Wan that night stayed with him, throughout the night and into the next day.
Afterwards, he found a thread on his sleeve, from Obi-Wan's coarse woven blanket. He laid it beside his bed, and kept it.
As the weeks went by and became months, just looking at it filled him with a faint echo of Obi-Wan's restful peace that night.
The third memory was the crystal, and it was... unsettling.
"Obi-Wan," he called, as soon as he opened the door.
As soon as he had seen the crystal on the market stall he had envisaged this moment - telling Obi-Wan, and how he would react. Several months had passed, and Qui-Gon now told Obi-Wan everything - not about his past, and not about his feelings, but about things he had seen and heard and done that day. Soon, he thought, a thing would not seem truly real until he had told Obi-Wan about it.
Obi-Wan was not inside, but had been close enough to watch Qui-Gon's approach, for he appeared silently at Qui-Gon's back, his hair damp from outside. "Master?"
"I found something."
Qui-Gon closed the door. Now the moment was here, he wondered if he could do this. Obi-Wan would not understand, _could_ not understand the whirl of emotions that filled him now.
"What, Master?" Very gentle and sympathetic. Obi-Wan guided Qui-Gon to a seat by the fire.
Qui-Gon took a deep breath. Instead of speaking, he simply pulled his left hand out of his sleeve, unfolding his hand to reveal the pure blue crystal he had held close now for hours.
It was only later, much later, and after many reverses and backwards steps, that he would realise the significance of this moment. That he was willingly showing Obi-Wan something that filled him with such mingled memory and pain...
"A crystal." Obi-Wan did not understand.
"A lightsabre focusing crystal." He let the blue light speak for itself, shining pure and enriched by the Force. "How it came to be here..." He shook his head. "No-one knew what it was that they were selling. They thought it a pretty ornament only."
"What's a lightsabre?" Obi-Wan's voice was very low, as if he knew he was probing deeper than Qui-Gon had ever let him before.
"The weapon of a Jedi. A beam of pure energy, focused through a crystal like this one." Oh, but he must have been half delirious that night, for he used the Force to call his own weapon to his hand and ignite it.
Obi-Wan's eyes were wide. Green light illuminated everything, but his eyes were as blue as the crystal. For a moment, Qui-Gon thought he was about to ask to learn how to use it, and he would have had to say no, and the growing contentment between the two of them would be shattered. But Obi-Wan only bit his lip for a moment, as if struggling with words, then asked, "what will you do with it?"
Qui-Gon frowned. He hadn't thought... He had only seen it, and known that he _had_ to have it. Seeing it hurt - what had happened to the Jedi whose lightsabre it had been? When he had first touched it, he had been shaking, suddenly afraid that, upon touching it, he would see that Jedi's death, caused by his own failings. But it would hurt far worse to know that someone else had bought it, not knowing what it was.
"Keep it safe," he said, at last, heavily.
He wasn't sure if he could bear to see it every day. The crystal was beautiful, and his memories of the Jedi were pure and light, but memories of past happiness were sometimes worse than any pain.
"Would you keep it?" he asked, suddenly, thinking only to keep the thing safe, but not need to see it himself.
Obi-Wan nodded solemnly, looking as if he had been granted a great gift. Perhaps unconsciously, he fell to his knees, taking the crystal like a Jedi receiving his Knighthood. His eyes were idealistic and eager.
Qui-Gon had to look away, but ever afterwards he would see something of the crystal's aura when he looked at Obi-Wan. Pure and beautiful and so strong in the Force, but with such an enormous innocent capacity to wound.
And countless hundreds of objects and places and things, each rich with the memories of their developing life...
Qui-Gon began to build up his position in the community, using the Force and the skill with herbs he had developed in his long years alone to be considerably in demand as a healer. Obi-Wan was quick to learn and had a natural empathy with vulnerable people, and before six months were out Qui-Gon had started taking him with him on most of his visits. When he did not, people invariably expressed disappointment and asked after his young apprentice.
These were the days when Qui-Gon needed to be alone, at least for the hour-long walk into town, and sometimes long meanderings late into the evening, though sometimes Obi-Wan himself requested to stay at home, to make or repair some item about the house. He never seemed happier than when making something with the skill of his hands, and some evenings Qui-Gon would return deliberately early and silently, just to watch the young man bent over his work, intent and transported.
Apart from healing, Obi-Wan asked for, and received, little instruction in using the Force. If he was honest, Qui-Gon had to admit that there was little he could give. Obi-Wan used the Force instinctively and immensely powerfully, and, unable to sense it, Qui-Gon would be next to useless as a teacher. He taught shielding, though he hoped it would never be used - only against another Force sensitive would it become necessary. He taught something of meditation techniques and calming fears, but he was always too aware that, in this, he was far from being the ideal teacher.
He never once, after revealing the crystal, talked of the Jedi, or their Code.
Yet, he thought, he was close to being content. Whole days went by when he didn't once think about the past and the shadows that lay there. He was Healer Jinn, with a loyal and able apprentice, and was respected and knew he was doing good in the world. He had a home, and a companion who would listen when he talked, and talk when he only wanted to listen.
He was content. He was living only half a life, but he was content.
And then it all came crashing down...
"Can I stay at home today? I want to make a case for your herbs," Obi-Wan had said, with a small smile. "You need better than those pouches."
It had taken him the whole of one day, and the next, and then a third. He hadn't shown Qui-Gon his progress, but Qui-Gon had not really thought to ask, nor to wonder why it had been taking so long. The fourth day he'd said nothing, but simply told Qui-Gon he once again he would be staying at home. The fifth day, he had simply stayed, without a word of explanation. Qui-Gon had noticed how pale and drained he had looked, and had resolved to come home early bearing food. It had been too long since Obi-Wan had truly smiled.
He opened the door silently, that afternoon of the fifth day, thinking to see Obi-Wan bent over his work.
What he saw caused him to cry aloud in shocked betrayal.
Obi-Wan stood in the middle of the small room, his face a picture of serenity. One arm was outstretched as if for balance - though nothing could have unbalanced him then, Qui-Gon knew at once, not even an earthquake - and in the other he held a lightsabre. It was blue and pure, and, although the metal of the handle was a little coarse, the blade was perfectly focused.
Suddenly furious, Qui-Gon sprang forward and grabbed Obi-Wan's wrist. Obi-Wan gasped, his face a picture of horror and tremulous defensiveness - as well it should be, for this was a betrayal most terrible. How it _hurt_ to see this... "Who gave you that, Obi-Wan?" he demanded.
Obi-Wan extinguished the weapon, though his eyes burned just as blue. "I made it, Master."
If he _dared_, oh if he _dared_ how the pride and pleasure that he so often showed after making something... But Qui-Gon saw only fear - fear and a betrayal that echoed his own.
"Made it? That's impossible."
Obi-Wan swallowed. "It took me all week. I used yours as a model. The crystal was easy, but it was... It was hard to form the metal."
Qui-Gon could have laughed - could have fallen to his knees laughing and screaming. He remembered the long days of concentration and meditation that had gone into aligning his own crystal - the times he had almost despaired and thought he would never succeed... And he had had his Master to advice him, and lessons, and generations of precedents to draw upon.
Did Obi-Wan even know how impossible, how incredible, a thing he had done? Did he knew how much he had hurt Qui-Gon - but he had to, for why else had be kept it secret?
"Why?" he managed to rasp, at last. "Why did you do it, Obi-Wan?"
"I thought..." The boy blinked hard, like one who was fighting tears, or else nervous about lying or perpetuating a betrayal. "You said I could be a Jedi. You said I could have the crystal. I... I thought you'd want this."
Oh, but the boy was deceiving him. He lunged forward and closed his fingers around Obi-Wan's chin, cruelly harsh. He forced the boy to look at him, head dragged unnaturally forward and upwards, his neck pushed back. "So why didn't you tell me?"
A painful swallow, thought his strained throat. He licked his lips. "I wanted to... to surprise you."
If they continued like this, he knew, they would have to talk about why it upset Qui-Gon so. He did what he could, and changed the subject to another of Obi-Wan's betrayals. "You went out alone into the town to get the supplies, without telling me?"
Obi-Wan's eyes seemed to be overflowing with liquid, but his voice was almost surly. "I didn't know I needed permission."
Qui-Gon laughed harshly. He scarcely recognised himself, knew he was wrong, but was powerless to stop. The alternative was the break down utterly. "I'm surprised you survived. The first time you stray away from your mother's apron strings, you get captured. You leave me in the city, and get captured again. I haven't _trusted_ you to go out alone. You're stupid and too naive."
Although Obi-Wan's eyes seethed, there was a quiet dignity in his voice as he said, "Once, perhaps, but I have grown since then." Then, before Qui-Gon could soften to him at all because of the dignity of that response, he struck another blow, as harsh as anything. "Why does it hurt you so, that I made the lightsabre?" He reached up and touched Qui-Gon's lips gently. "I know you're only cruel when you're hurting."
Oh, but it was too much... "So you did it deliberately to hurt me?"
To his horror - he had said it without truly believing it - Obi-Wan did not defend himself. "Perhaps... perhaps I did. Perhaps I... I couldn't bear it any more."
"What?" Harsh. His hands were tight balled fists of fury and pain. Obi-Wan only had to say one wrong word, and he would hit him, he knew that.
"You not telling me. The Jedi... I know they were your life, and they were wiped out by the Empire. I know their loss hurts you terribly. I... I just..."
"Intruded," he snapped. His fist was shaking. So close, oh so close...
Obi-Wan shook his head. He looked very young and very lost. "I told you everything about my... about things. I knew you weren't ready to talk. But it's been almost a year... I can't... It hurt so much, living with only half a man."
"I..." He needed to be angry, but all he could say was a deflated, "I thought you'd been happy."
So often had he lamented Obi-Wan's reluctance to shield his emotions - how Obi-Wan bathed him in a constant flood of love and gratitude and contentment. Now Obi-Wan was undermining all that. Maybe he _had_ been shielding all along - shielding his own pain, except in those occasional nightmares, and instead showing Qui-Gon all his love and trust, hoping, hoping only that his Master would respond and give trust for trust.
Oh, but the deception was too much... Hiding pain was the path to the Dark Side. Emotions had to be open, and addressed. Dishonesty was a betrayal of all trust.
Obi-Wan gave a weak smile. "I have been, mostly. A bit. But I... I get so lonely. You never confide anything at all about your past, or your feelings. You're barely here at all with me."
"So you sought to provoke me by building a lightsabre - to _force_ me into reliving all that, and telling you." This time he _did_ hit him, lashing out with the back of his hand and striking Obi-Wan on the cheekbone. Obi-Wan swayed, but did not fall. "What right had you?"
"No right." Obi-Wan's voice was very small. "I didn't want you to know yet. When you had told me of your own free will, I thought... I wanted to show you that there was hope. I wanted to show you that the Jedi are never gone, as long as there remains one to teach, and one to learn."
"You know nothing," Qui-Gon hissed derisively. What did the boy know of the futility of hope? What did he know about anything?
The boy fell to his knees. Maybe it was weakness; maybe it was an expression of humility. "Then teach me, Master. Tell me." His whole right cheekbone was reddened and angry.
That, and only that, made Qui-Gon pause. "You don't know what you're asking," he said, heavily and sick at heart.
Obi-Wan's whole soul was in his eyes. "Can't you trust me enough to tell me?" <Please> his eyes said. <Give me your soul. Tell me all your secrets. Lose yourself in me...>
"I can't." The words tore out of his throat and physically hurt him. "I'm not like you, Obi-Wan, who trusts anyone and everyone, and keeps no secrets, and are... like a whore, Obi-Wan, giving what should be private to everyone who asks."
He was not even shouting. His low, rueful voice made his words even more hurtful. Obi-Wan gasped, and Qui-Gon allowed himself to regret the wording. "I don't," Obi-Wan murmured. Then something else that could have been, "only you."
Suddenly deeply weary and needing nothing more than to get out of this stifling house and be alone under the sky, Qui-Gon sighed. He passed his hand over his face. "My words have not been well judged, Obi-Wan," he said - the closest to an apology that he could manage, or want. "But there are some things I can never tell you. If you can't live with that, then perhaps we should go our separate ways."
Obi-Wan looked as exhausted and weak as he had ever done in his sickness on the ship. "I..." he began, but could not finish.
Unable to see any more, Qui-Gon left.
Obi-Wan stood totally still for a very long time. Then, moving as stiffly as an old man, he bent and picked up his lightsabre, too heartsick to use the Force.
<There are some things I can never tell you.> Qui-Gon had said. <If you can't live with that, then perhaps we should go our separate ways.>
"I can't live with that," he said, aloud, sorrowing.
Perhaps it had been a naive dream, that dream that had sustained him throughout his lonely childhood - that one day he would meet another person skilled in the Force, and they would become two parts of the same mind. All his life, he had lived only half a life, communicating with words but never with the true closeness of a mental touch.
Then fate had led him to Qui-Gon's door, and he had seen all his dreams personified. A man, older and wiser, who could teach him about the Force. A companion who could comfort him, and let himself be comforted, and share everything...
He had let himself dream. He had let himself be blind.
Qui-Gon had been deeply hurt, he knew, and his hurt manifested itself in coldness and harsh words. But, below that, he told himself, there was still a generous soul. He would be above reproach, lavishing Qui-Gon with his trust and love - for, yes, he _had_ loved him, even if that love was only for the image of his childhood dream and not the man himself. He would be content with the small amount of his heart that Qui-Gon had to spare, knowing that, soon - weeks, perhaps, he had thought in those first blind days - Qui-Gon would respond and show him his whole soul.
Then, only then, would he be complete, living his childhood dream. He would be close, and loved, and he would love. He would learn the ways of the Jedi at Qui-Gon's side, and, fighting in perfect harmony, they would go out and make a difference.
Impossible dream, he knew now, and laughed harshly - or was it tears?
Weeks had become months, and at night his beds were so cold as he curled beneath the sheets, loneliness like an ache in his heart and the unshed tears of the day still scouring his throat.
On the surface all was well. Qui-Gon came to him in the night, he knew, and comforted him after those terrible dreams of his past rape, and a dark-haired man he did not know who laughed as he touched him. In the evenings, they talked - little things about how they had spent the day - and Obi-Wan liked those talks, revelling in any little bit of closeness and companionship he could find.
On the surface... But inside he was screaming, crying out to Qui-Gon to speak to him, confide in him, tell him...
His dream was crumbling. He had half of what he had dreamed of, but half was worse than nothing at all. <We could have been everything to each other> he saw, when he looked at Qui-Gon, <but I will never let that happen. You must only reach, reach, and never hope to touch.>
Stiffly, he walked to his bedroom, and reached blindly, fumbling, for his pack. So little to take with him - so little to show for this year. His lightsabre - that sweet terrible torment of shattered dreams. Clothes. Nothing else. All the furniture he had made and ornaments he had crafted had been for Qui-Gon - for their house _together_ - and to look upon them again would sicken him.
<If you can't live with that, then perhaps we should go our separate ways> Qui-Gon had said.
"I can't," he said, again. "I thought I could, for I thought it would change. I only wanted to be near you, and I thought everything else would come afterwards."
Naive. Naive, blind and stupid - Qui-Gon was right. Childhood dreams were foolish and should never be pursued into adulthood. All dreams faded away like dust.
It was almost full dark now. As he opened the door, he felt a sudden wild foolish hope that Qui-Gon had not gone very far - that he would still be outside the door. Then he would look up: "Obi-Wan? Where are you going?" Tears would spill from his eyes. "I'm sorry I said what I did. I can't bear to lose you. I... I'm ready to tell you everything. Will you listen?"
"Always." He would gently touch his Master's face. "Speak with your heart or with your voice, and I will always be there for you."
He could almost hear the words, almost feel Qui-Gon's skin under his fingers...
He blinked hard. Was it the sudden cold in the air that made his eyes itch so?
The darkness was vast, and so terribly empty.
Hefting his pack on his back, he walked.
Qui-Gon had not slept. He'd walked in the mountains until his muscles screamed, without the heart to use the Force to warm himself or ease him.
Once, below him and far away, he had seen the small golden glow that was the window of their house, and had known that Obi-Wan was waiting up for him. He wasn't sure how he felt about that.
He knew he had been harsh, cruel even. He knew it, but he could not bring himself to regret the meaning of his words, even if the expression had been wrong. He had let Obi-Wan into his life far more closely than he had ever thought to do with anyone again - and far more closely than he had wanted to, when he had first agreed to take him with him to Tasceron. It was wrong for Obi-Wan to expect more.
It was wrong, he found himself thinking, once, very late into the night when he was very tired, to want more himself.
<Confiding> that wisp of a thought told him, as he sat on an outcrop and drifted as close to sleep as he would come that night. <Sharing pain with another. Sharing. Easing...>
It was then that he saw Obi-Wan's face, trusting and beautiful, and his smile. He saw his hands, and how they would feel on his back and his hair as they soothed him and told him none of it was his fault. He saw the lightsabre once more shine in Obi-Wan's hands, as he strode out to bring hope to his Master's heart, and a future to the Jedi.
He curled his fist. He cried his denial out loud, to the stars and the darkness. Long ago, over the body of a small boy, he had seen the end of hope, and sworn never to let himself feel it again. Even longer, he had felt the rending pain that came from letting another person into your heart, and trusting utterly.
<But Obi-Wan isn't Xanatos> that treacherous voice whispered.
He moaned aloud.
He moaned, and the comfort of the Force slithered away from him like oil, and faced the night alone.
In the morning, stiff and hurting, he did the only thing he could do - went into the town as if nothing had happened, and visited his patients.
On the way to the third, a man stopped him, looking unsure and hesitant, as if he feared Qui-Gon would shout at him for intruding.
He nodded, but said nothing. Let his silence encourage him. Everyone always talked and confided and pushed at him, whatever he did.
"Your apprentice... I... overheard something about him that I thought you should know."
Overheard? Deliberately eavesdropped, no doubt. People were like that. He tightened his lips, and said nothing.
"You know young Arren and his friends? The ones who are behind most of the trouble round here?" He spat on the ground. An old man, fond of lamenting the sins of the young - though the boys he spoke of deserved his condemnation, Qui-Gon knew. "I heard Arren tell his friends that his mother had found young Obi-Wan sleeping rough, and had offered him a bed for the night. Arren was mad as Hell. You know what they think of Obi-Wan."
He shook his head. "No."
"Their girls like him too much. He's gentle, sensitive. They love his smile. He talks to them as if he cares about their response. The boys hate him."
He hadn't known. He hadn't know any of it. He leant forward, suddenly interested. "And?" he prompted.
"They said they'd give him a beating he'd never forget. _Four_ of them." Was there a trace of glee in the man's face? "Arren said Obi-Wan has no idea they hate him, and thinks he's a friend. 'He'll follow us anywhere we want to take him. We can do anything to him,' they said."
Qui-Gon almost groaned aloud. This was his Obi-Wan - trusting, too trusting. He supposed he would have to get him out of trouble.
He sighed. "Where did they go?"
Obi-Wan sensed them through the Force before he heard them, and long before he saw them.
Four young men, about his own age. One of them was Arren, who had shared his breakfast that morning in his mother's house. The others he only knew by sight.
"Obi-Wan?" they called. He turned round slowly and saw they were smiling. "We've got something to show you."
He had nowhere else to go - nothing left in life and no-one to be with and no-one to care.
He did not nod or speak, but he let his eyes show his consent.
Arren flung his arm around Obi-Wan's shoulder, in casual companionship.
Obi-Wan thought of Qui-Gon, and shivered.
It was not hard to follow them. Arrogant and lazy, the boys had made no effort to hide the path they had taken out of town. What they had done to Obi-Wan would be no secret.
<Obi-Wan?> Qui-Gon quested out with his mind, seeking him.
He sensed nothing - nothing at all. Either Obi-Wan was heavily shielded against him, so much so that not just his emotions but his very presence was hidden - an immensely difficult task and one that went against the young man's open nature. But the alternative - that he was dead, or so deeply unconscious as to be close to death - was too much to even contemplate.
For the first time, Qui-Gon felt the prickings of real fear. He quickened his pace, running with the aid of the Force, climbing the overgrown and rugged mountain path. It was the shortest route to the capital city, for one travelling on foot. Part of his mind registered that, if Obi-Wan had come this way, he must genuinely have been leaving him, leaving him alone.
<Obi-Wan?> he called out, more urgent now.
Almost simultaneously, he sensed it, off the path and to one side. Emotions hung thickly there, like a rank miasma. He sensed fear and some pain, betrayal and the shocked cry of someone whose plans were crashing down before their eyes.
And, right in the middle, unmoving, an area of total blankness, devoid of all life - devoid, even, of any suggestion that life had ever existed there.
He found his mouth was dry, his hands cut from pushing wildly through the undergrowth. "Obi-Wan!" he called, aloud. "Obi-Wan!"
Nothing. There was no sound, and no pulsing of living breathing fear. The dark emotions he could sense were like ghosts - echoes of strong feelings that still left their shadow on this place.
He was too late. Oh, please the Force, let him not be too late...
And Obi-Wan looked up mildly, his eyes cold and dead. "Master Jinn."
Time seemed to slow. He moved his head, looking steadily around the small clearing, seeing the bodies that sprawled in the dirt, one, two, three, four. For a moment, he felt his face freeze into a mask of horror - <Oh, Obi-Wan. How could you do it? I never truly believed that the darkness would find you so easily.>
Then, a second or an eternity later, he saw the chest of one fallen boy rise and fall in the breathing of easy slumber, and everything changed again for him. Obi-Wan had not hurt them, or barely. Using the Force and overpowering suggestions planted in the mind, he had sent them to sleep. One, only, had he hurt, pushing him backwards with the Force and sending him crashing into a tree. Blood trickled from the back of his head, and his face was slack.
"You thought I'd killed them."
The voice was dead, like an automaton. Obi-Wan's arms were wrapped tightly around his body, in something Qui-Gon immediately, terribly, recognised as a grotesque parody of his own habitual pose. _He_ was the source of that terrible sensation of deadness, so effectively shielded that Qui-Gon could sense neither his emotions nor his very life force.
Shaken, Qui-Gon swallowed hard. "No. I... Just for a moment."
If Obi-Wan was hurt by his words, he gave no sign. Qui-Gon felt he was stumbling in the dark, talking to one who was already cold and dead.
He struggled for some pretence of normality, changing the subject to the practical. "How will you explain this when they wake up? They must surely know your... your secret."
Obi-Wan crouched beside the nearest body. His face was averted as he reached out his right hand and gently touched the youth's forehead. "I was going to make them believe I had a stick. Is that..." And for a moment, his voice wavered, though there were so chinks in his shields. "Is that acceptable behaviour for a Jedi?"
His fingers were trembling more than Qui-Gon had thought possible. For a moment, Qui-Gon fought the urge to close his larger hands around those pale fingers and still them with his strength.
He forced himself to stay in control. "I believe it is acceptable, in the circumstances." Cold. It sounded so cold.
Obi-Wan bowed his head. His fingers stilled and became calm. Although Qui-Gon could not sense it, he knew Obi-Wan was calling the Force to him. He shivered. When, after long seconds, Obi-Wan looked up and said it was done, he only had his word for it.
Silently, he watched as Obi-Wan moved to the next youth, and the next, and then the last. He was paralysed; he did nothing to help.
"Why are you here?" Obi-Wan said at last, his voice harsher than Qui-Gon had ever heard it. "Why did you come?"
He thought the harshness probably hid a terrible hurt, but he had no way of telling, had no way of knowing how to react. Obi-Wan had always been so open to him before. Or he had _thought_ he had been open, he realised, with sudden pain. For a year, he suspected, Obi-Wan had projected only half of his feelings, hiding the pain. He had made the year a lie. And now he was cold and hiding, hiding in the blankness of his impossibly powerful shields.
Qui-Gon was lost.
"Why?" Obi-Wan's fists curled impotently. He was not good at this at all. He could blank out his feelings, even his presence, in the Force, but his face and body gave everything away. Qui-Gon knew without a doubt that he had deeply hurt the younger man. "Tell me, Qui-Gon."
What did he want to hear? <I came back for you, Obi-Wan, because I realised I couldn't live without you and I want to tell you everything now.> No, it was a lie, and he could not say it. "I heard these boys were planning to attack you - that you thought they were friends. I couldn't let that happen."
Obi-Wan folded his arms again, horribly tight. "You thought I needed help? That I wouldn't know they were a threat to me? What a low opinion you must have of me."
Defensiveness made him harsh. "They said you trusted them. I know what you're like. I..."
"Still believe what you said last night." Obi-Wan's voice was low and bitter, and like a stranger's. "You called me a whore, trusting everyone, revealing what should be private to anyone who asked."
Repeated back at him as a weapon, the words seemed unutterably cruel. "I... I didn't mean that." But he had meant it, he knew - and he had still believed it this morning, when it had never occurred to him that Obi-Wan would realise Arren's true intent and take action to protect himself.
Obi-Wan's face, too, showed that he knew the truth. Without another word, he walked away, picking up his pack. Qui-Gon could no longer see his eyes. He thought that, if he could, he would see that they were full of unshed tears.
"Obi-Wan!" he called out, unable to stop himself, and not sure he wanted to.
Obi-Wan stopped but did not turn round.
Oh, but Obi-Wan was lessened - so unutterably immensely lessened - by being like this. Qui-Gon remembered his ready smile, his grace, his energy. He remembered how his emotions were always so visible on his face, and how generously he gave his feelings to those in need, making him such a gifted healer. Standing there, his heart closed off so tightly that it was as if he was no longer alive, his arms folded defensively round his body, he was no longer Obi-Wan at all. He was a shadow, only half alive.
He was a shadow _he_ had created, crafting him in his own image.
He saw a twin image, then, overlaid upon the memories of Obi-Wan smiling and vibrant. He saw himself laughing with friends, ruffling the hair of his padawan, singing tunelessly but full of love to a small baby. He saw himself coming home weary at the end of a long mission, and feeling the weight lift from his heart as he told the story to his Master.
He saw the man he had been, and, in Obi-Wan, he saw the man he had become.
"Obi-Wan," he called again, and this time his voice was cracked and not like his at all - like nothing he had ever said in the last twenty years.
Obi-Wan turned, and perhaps he sensed something then, for his shields began to waver. There was resistance there - only one night, and already his shields had been taking possession of him, becoming entrenched and spreading their cold poison to his heart. There was resistance, but through it, slowly and inexorably, the sense of Obi-Wan grew, banishing that terrible blankness in the Force. He sensed his presence, and never thought he would find such joy in it.
Qui-Gon reached out a hand, and, like Obi-Wan's, it was shaking.
"I didn't..." Obi-Wan seemed to stumble, to shake, and his words were scarcely coherent, as if he was waking from a nightmare. "You were wrong... Only you..."
He didn't understand. The distance between them was the width of the whole clearing, and it was too much, too great.
Obi-Wan clenched his fist, and for the first time Qui-Gon fully sensed his emotions, dark as well as light. There was deep hurt and betrayed love there. Even if they got past this day, Qui-Gon knew, nothing would be the same. Obi-Wan had loved him with the innocence of a blind dream - as hero or a dream personified. That could never be so again. Perhaps something stronger could emerge from the ashes, or perhaps nothing would remain at all.
He found he wanted to try. "Will you...?"
"Only you," Obi-Wan almost shouted, and there was a desperate anger in his sense now. It was like a challenge - <this is what I am. Either accept it, or leave now. Just don't raise up any false hopes ever again.> "Not just anyone. Not them." A savage gesture at the unconscious boys. "Not anyone. Only you." He struck himself savagely on the left breast, above the heart. "You know things about me that no-one else knows. _No-one._"
Stilled, he could only nod, his mouth suddenly dry. "I know. I know that now."
The anger trickled away like water. Obi-Wan looked very young, very tired. For the first time it occurred to Qui-Gon to wonder if the boys had hurt him at all. There had been a stiffness to all Obi-Wan's movements. "Well, just so you know," he said, weakly.
Qui-Gon closed the gap between them. Gently, hesitantly, he took Obi-Wan's hand, not missing the instinctive half-withdrawal, the tightening of the younger man's face as if he expected betrayal - closeness offered, then withdrawn. "Will you come home with me, Obi-Wan?" he asked, ever so softly. "We need to talk." Then he corrected himself. "_I_ need to talk."
He closed his eyes. He knew it would hurt, but he was a healer, and all healers knew that, sometimes, cleansing a wound hurt worse than the initial injury, but that it was the only way to healing.
When he opened his eyes, Obi-Wan was nodding, his eyes infinitely tender.
They were both beyond words, then.
He told, and every word of telling, every nuance of Obi-Wan's reaction, told him how wrong he had been.
"I thought he was the Chosen One, and persuaded the Council to agree. I trained him. I felt pride in being Master of the Chosen One..."
Unbidden, Obi-Wan reached out and squeezed his hand, just once, in comfort that lay beyond words.
"I loved him. I let myself be blind to all the hints that all was not as it should have been. I turned down all offers of help..."
No condemnation lay in Obi-Wan's deep blue eyes. He was still, listening to all, passing no judgement.
"And when I killed his father, it was the start... the start of everything. He turned to the Dark Side. Xanatos is Vader, Obi-Wan. I created Vader."
"No." Just a single soft word, but spoken with such certainty. And, although Obi-Wan did not and could not know, he found the pain easing, just a little, and found he had the strength to go on, to say the rest of it.
"He wiped out the entire Jedi Order. I still don't know how I escaped. I had no real desire to. The Force seemed to guide me. And when Master Yoda came to me and said hope was being born and I was to nurture it... I allowed myself to believe that the Force had kept me alive for this purpose, to atone..."
<You still can> Obi-Wan's eyes seemed to be saying, imbued with the Force and wise beyond his years. Or, maybe, <you have nothing to atone for.> And, although he believed neither, simply having someone who could tell him that was like a soothing balm on the wounds he had long born.
"So I raised Luke, and placed all my hopes of forgiveness upon him... But I didn't take good enough care of him, and he died. He was only six."
Obi-Wan gasped then, and for the first time his own pain shone through, just for a moment. Then it was gone, and he was once again the healer, the listener, all his emotions subordinated to another's needs.
"If Yoda was right, Luke could have saved us all, but I let him die. I killed him. I killed all hope."
Obi-Wan was distant, as if listening to some distant call of the Force. "Perhaps he was not the one Yoda meant," he said, almost dreamily. Then, more normally, his eyes clear again, "you told me I mustn't blame myself for Kovi's death. I tried to believe you."
Feeling as drained as after a gruelling battle, Qui-Gon just sat, and looked at him. He was too old, and Obi-Wan too young. Obi-Wan could not take him in his arms and speak to him like a father or a Master, saying with all the authority of greater age, "it wasn't your fault." There was no point talking about it further. Obi-Wan could not grant forgiveness.
Yet, at the same time, just talking about it, just this once, _did_ make a difference. One person alive, and only one person, knew the whole truth about Qui-Gon's past, and, knowing it, did not recoil in disgust and blame, but sat close, and - yes, and leant close and placed a soft hand on his cheek, warmth in his fingers, and tenderness.
He closed his eyes and exhaled long and slowly.
"I'm glad you told me," Obi-Wan said, and emotions travelled through his touch, showing the truth of his words.
Qui-Gon didn't know how to reply, but something seemed to take him over, making him say words he was sure he had not intended, but could not bring himself to regret. "I am too, Obi-Wan."
The hand caressed, moving up through his hair and to the back of his head. It pulled gently, and Qui-Gon, limp as he had never been before, did not resist, allowing himself to be drawn into Obi-Wan's embrace, his head resting on the younger man's shoulder.
Obi-Wan spoke, voice close to his ear, and hoarse. There was a note of pain in his voice, and regret. "Words, only. You're not ready to show me..."
It was not a question. Frowning, Qui-Gon wondered what Obi-Wan meant. Obi-Wan was holding him close and comforting him. On the ship, he remembered - after Obi-Wan had confessed his past and Qui-Gon had almost failed him in his reaction, so unlike Obi-Wan's own reaction to his confessions today - Obi-Wan had bared his soul to him, showing him all his pain, sharing everything. His confession had been thick with tears and pain; Qui-Gon's had been all cold control, reciting it as if it had happened to someone else.
Recklessly, almost angrily - Obi-Wan dared him to be something he was not, and mourned when he couldn't do it - he tore down the shields in his heart.
<There! Feel this, then!>
They fell like paper, that had seemed like inviolable metal for so many years. Over a year, Obi-Wan had eroded them so much more than he had ever known, until they were flimsy things indeed, only pretending to be strong.
He had thrown his emotions at Obi-Wan as a weapon. Now he marvelled, found himself weeping. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Obi-Wan walked through his emotions like a healer in a field of blood, taking up his grief, his guilt, his fears, and - not healing them, for they _were_ part of him and that could never change, but _easing_ them, making them bearable.
He would never truly hope again, he knew. He could never be happy, for the Jedi _were_ dead and nothing could change that. But, he knew suddenly - and it was like light breaking in the darkness - that with someone else beside him to share all this, nothing would ever seem as terrible. Obi-Wan knew the whole truth about him now, and chose not to reject him.
Despite his cruelty, he was wanted; Obi-Wan still wanted him. That youthful admiration had been burned away by a year of disappointments and the events of the previous night, and Obi-Wan no longer loved him as a saviour and a figure from his childhood dreams. He knew his flaws now, and knew what he had done. He knew he would have to give comfort as much as receive it - be the adult and not just the child. He knew all this, but still he wanted to be with him.
Overwhelming gratitude and thankfulness overwhelmed him. He found he was crying - great tearing sobs, unsoothed by Obi-Wan's soft hands in his hair, and massaging the back of his neck.
He found he could not stop. He found he did not really want to.
And, slowly, slowly, everything faded, until he felt he was walking in a featureless mist, severed from both self and the past, and the only thing that existed was Obi-Wan's touch.
After that, beyond the mist, was sleep.
Qui-Gon slept in his arms, his face still wet with tears.
Obi-Wan's muscles were stiffening, but he could no more think of moving than he could of stopping breathing.
He was deeply weary. Qui-Gon had given him what he had wanted, had answered his dream. Qui-Gon had told him the secrets of his past, and revealed the secrets of his soul. Their minds had touched. Obi-Wan had almost fallen under the weight of that twenty year burden of pain and guilt, but could not regret having wanting it, or asked for it.
He didn't dare move, scared to wake the man who was perhaps enjoying his first moment of rest and peace in half a lifetime. He felt immensely old, holding a sleeping child in his arms, he felt immensely young, unsure of how things would be in the morning, and not knowing how to give the comfort Qui-Gon needed.
His side throbbed. One of the boys had got in a good blow before falling, though he had told Qui-Gon he was unharmed. Keeping secrets, he thought, heavily. The very thing he had reproached Qui-Gon with.
There would be more secrets to come, he knew. Qui-Gon had told, and that was a start. But telling was a very different thing from healing. Qui-Gon still believed he was to blame, and still believed he had killed the boy who was the galaxy's only hope.
<No> he had heard - felt, lived, _breathed_ - <it was not Luke. You, Obi-Wan. You.>
He had been transported far beyond the stars to a place where blue fire pulsed with the light of a thousand men's eyes. Starlight shivered, like a hand placed on his head and another on his shoulder, in benediction and admonition.
<Not yet, but soon.>
He had woken as from a dream. How long had passed? But Qui-Gon had been looking at him, the echo of the word he had been uttering before Obi-Wan had been called away still hanging in the air. He had said... something. Something about Kovi, perhaps, and guilt. He had scarcely known. Perhaps he had said something else. Perhaps he had said something of what he had seen, throwing it out like a lifeline, hoping Qui-Gon would pick it up and talk to him about it.
But Qui-Gon preferred to live without hope. Hope tormented him. Hope made him run scared, sure that it would be betrayed.
It was too soon. He had too many wounds in his heart, too many beliefs to change. "Xanatos was not your fault," Obi-Wan murmured to the sleeping man. "He wronged you terribly, but it was his failing and not yours." A terrible impossible wound to heal. "Luke's death was an accident, and not your fault."
Impossible wounds. Perhaps the best he could do was simply share the pain of them, and, by sharing, lessen them, though never heal them. There were some days now when he didn't even think of his rape, when Qui-Gon was close to him and friendly. He would try to do the same.
But more than that, offering hope... No, it was too cruel. Not until he was sure. Not until he knew he could do it. Not until Qui-Gon could look upon him wielding his lightsabre, and do so without pain.
He could shield, and knew he could do it well. He would be honest in all things, but not in this. Qui-Gon would not know that he lived now for a future destiny. Qui-Gon would not know that contentment in obscurity with a companion - everything he had ever dreamed of - was no longer his fate.
<Not yet, but soon> the voice had said to him, and he had seen images, terrible portents, of power coursing like fire, and the dark-haired man from his nightmares, and pain unimaginable, and... and he couldn't bear it, surely he couldn't bear it, and the Empire would live on and all would be lost...
<Not yet, but soon. Soon...>
Qui-Gon would not know how deeply, how terribly, he was scared.
He woke up to the first light of morning, and there was a warm body beneath his cheek, and he felt limp and wrung out, but strangely content.
"Obi-Wan," he murmured, stirring stiffly.
"Qui-Gon." Obi-Wan's reply came readily, as if he had already been awake. "How are you feeling?"
Experimentally, he pushed himself away from Obi-Wan, feeling the dawn air cold on his nakedly exposed cheek. "Not bad."
He knew what had happened. He never doubted that, never thought even for one moment that it had been a dream. The events of the previous night were etched as if in blood on his mind. He would never forget them. Part of him - the part of him that was hastily, desperately trying to rebuild his shields - wanted to withdraw utterly: <I've told you. You got what you wanted. Now we return to normal.>
Just for a moment, he was tempted, but the other part of him was stronger - the part that knew that the course he was setting himself on was going to be riddled with pain, but that, perhaps, the rewards would be worth it. With a mixture of shy hesitation and defiance he reached out with his mind, touching Obi-Wan's, and _showing_ him. "Not bad," he said, again.
Obi-Wan smiled, looking genuinely glad despite the shadows that clung to his eyes.
Qui-Gon touched his face. The two of them were as hesitant as two uncertain lovers the morning after passion had carried them away. "And you?"
Another smile. "I'm glad you told me. Very glad. I only wish I could help you heal."
He almost replied to that, then realised what Obi-Wan had done - how he had deflected the conversation from what Qui-Gon had intended. "I meant, how are you, Obi-Wan? I hurt you so much."
"Now I know what you've suffered, I'm surprised you didn't hurt me more," Obi-Wan said, with surprising vehemence. Then his voice softened, growing reflective and tinged with regret. "I wanted too much. All my life, I would dream of meeting another person skilled in the Force, and how close we would be. You were the first. I just saw my dream; I didn't see how you weren't ready to give what I demanded - nor should you have been."
Maybe so. It hurt too much, now - mingled healing and pain - but one day, he hoped, he would be able to say <you were right to demand it, and I am glad you did. You saved me, Obi-Wan, from a prison of my own making.> Seeking something else to say - something to cover that terrible inadequate silence - he noticed that Obi-Wan used the past tense. "Have I driven you away, Obi-Wan? You no longer want it?"
"Oh yes." It came without thought, and his eyes flashed with intensity, and something that could have been pain. "I want closeness, but I want it with you, Qui-Gon Jinn. Back then, a year ago... I don't think it was you I really wanted at all. It was what you symbolised. I didn't see you as a person at all. Now I do. Now, more than ever, I want..."
Silence. There were tears in Obi-Wan's eyes. Qui-Gon touched them with his fingers. "What?"
Obi-Wan's voice was painful. "You to feel hope." Yet Qui-Gon got the impression that this wasn't Obi-Wan's real answer at all, though it was undoubtedly truthful.
"I'm not sure I can," he said, gently, and felt like a murderer saying it. But he had shown Obi-Wan the whole truth the previous night, and was now sworn to total truth. No false hopes; no impossible dreams.
Obi-Wan's fingers dug into his palms until his arms were shaking. "I know."
"But you did help me," he said, helplessly, inadequately.
Obi-Wan said nothing.
The younger man smiled weakly. He passed a hand across his face. "I'm just so very tired, Master," he said, his voice suddenly like a child's. "I hurt."
And Qui-Gon found there was a desperate intense comfort in being the strong one, the one to give comfort, the one to carry a needy young man in his arms like a small child and lay him on the bed and watch him as he slept.
In that moment, and just for that moment, his heart swelled with a love so great it almost overwhelmed him.
On the surface, little changed. They continued their work in the town, and grew in reputation. The possible crisis caused by Obi-Wan's defeat of Arren and his friends came to nothing, for there were few in the town who did not rejoice at their discomfiture. Obi-Wan's standing in the eyes of the community rose to a new level.
At home, for weeks, then months, they lived as they had always lived. They seldom spoke about Qui-Gon's past, though Qui-Gon found that it hurt far less, ever after that night he had finally confessed it. Obi-Wan was no longer so exuberantly open with his emotions, though Qui-Gon sensed that the feelings he was sensing were more sincere than the youthful love the boy had deliberately bombarded him with in their early months together in a vain attempt to induce him to talk.
For his own part, and hesitantly at first, Qui-Gon found himself talking to Obi-Wan about all things, big and small. They discussed ethics and philosophy, anecdotes about their days, history. Obi-Wan spoke of his childhood, and Qui-Gon listened, readily revealing the impotent anger that the tale inspired in him.
One day, after several months, Qui-Gon looked at himself in the mirror, and realised that Obi-Wan probably knew as much about him as did the person looking back at him in the glass. In a mirror, the world of perception doubled and was made of all light. In the same way he found that his own life was twice as rich because of sharing it with Obi-Wan than it would ever have been without.
Obi-Wan looked at him with growing love. It was not the blind adoring love of a boy, but the love of someone who truly knew the object of his affections, and knew all their faults, yet still loved them, still wanted to be with them.
He could not understand it. He couldn't understand it, so he said nothing about it.
As summer passed, he was almost happy.
Winter brought the shadow.
In the last days of summer he had first seen its beginnings, but he chose to ignore them, dismissing them as a fear born only of his imaginings.
As autumn turned into winter, and the leaves browned and fell, he had no choice but to face it.
Obi-Wan was growing restless.
"The Rebellion," he said, once, one autumn night when it was still warm enough for them to sit outside after dinner, but only just. "It's growing."
Neither of them had spoken of it before. Alone in seclusion, Qui-Gon had not even known it had existed. In recent months, though, reports had filtered in even to their small town on their backwater planet. The Rebellion was an organised force now, stretching across the Empire. In recent months it had won two decisive victories over the Empire - small outposts of the Empire, it was true, but the victories were worth so much more for morale than in strategic terms.
"Yes," Qui-Gon said, tersely.
"I was wondering..." Very hesitant, his eyes darkened by some deep fear. He twisted his fingers in his lap. "Should we...?"
"No." Cold fear gripped him like ice in his heart. Cold fear, and anger - how could Obi-Wan ask that, knowing him as well as he did, and knowing what he could still not bear to talk about?
"The story is never over," Obi-Wan said, very gently. "The Jedi can still rise again. The Empire could be only a twenty year dark period in the long history of the Republic."
He balled his hands into fists and pressed one against his face. "No. No, Obi-Wan. How can you speak of it?"
Obi-Wan looked as if he was about to argue, but then he pursed his lips, forcing silence.
For the rest of the evening, discontent hung between them. But, in the morning, Obi-Wan was all smiles again, and Qui-Gon, taking it as an apology, acted as if nothing had happened.
They had two more weeks of sunshine after that, and then the frost set in.
He found Obi-Wan with his lightsabre once, practising outside in the cold.
For a moment he just stood and watched him, marvelling in his untaught skill, the grace of his movements, the sheer power that, invisible, coursed through him. His hands itched. <Not like that, padawan.> He would stand behind him and close his hands over Obi-Wan's, correcting his grip, guiding him into the correct movements. <There.> And Obi-Wan would turn towards him, his face so close, and would smile...
And then the vision faded, replaced with anger and a wrenching pain.
He strode forward. "Why? After the last time, Obi-Wan, why?"
"Please teach me, Master." Obi-Wan's voice was humble and pleading. "Please..."
He took several deep breaths to control his anger. He could not let it turn out the way it had the last time. He had no desire to lose Obi-Wan because of it. "You know it hurts me, Obi-Wan."
"I know." But there was little apology in his eyes. Obi-Wan believed he was doing what was right. "I would give anything to stop it hurting. I wish it didn't. I wish you could... could hope again."
<I wish I could too> he almost said. When he spoke, it was with regret, and not anger at all, though his words were harsh. "I've yielded so much to you, Obi-Wan. Can't you be content with that? Why do you always demand more?"
Obi-Wan tightened his grip on his lightsabre. "I won't demand more, Master." Then, incomprehensibly, "I wish we could face this together, but it's... it's too much..."
That made him angry as nothing else had. "What do you mean, Obi-Wan?"
Obi-Wan pushed his sweat-damp hair back from his face. His lightsabre was still ignited, blue and pure. "I don't want to hurt you, Master. I... I just wish..."
"Then stop hurting me," he snapped. "You say one thing, but do another. You believe you love me, but you just keep on and on, demanding things from me, wanting me to change from the man I am. I... It's more than I can give, Obi-Wan. I don't _want_ to give it."
He wasn't sure what he had expected - for Obi-Wan to cry? To plead? Instead, for the smallest moment, a flash of pure pain darkened Obi-Wan's face, but then he pulled his dignity around him like a cloak, and said, sure as any Jedi, "I know that, Master. I was wrong to let you see, or to ask you. But I will still practice, and still learn."
"And join the Rebellion?" He grabbed Obi-Wan's wrist. "Go out there, another young man who believes he will save the universe, only to face the pain of disillusionment and shattered hopes?"
"You speak as if you want to protect me." Soft. "Or is it that you seek only to protect yourself?"
Almost, again, he slapped Obi-Wan, but things had changed, and this time the pain was stronger than the anger. He did not hide his emotions. Let Obi-Wan be assailed with his churning feelings of betrayal and pain, and know that he had caused them. "I seek to protect both of us, Obi-Wan. I have tried, and failed - failed so utterly. And you... You are scarred and untrained. They would make you a front-line trooper, like a slave, and you would die within days, and know the truth of my words." <I don't want you to die> he added, silently.
"That is not what I want to do," Obi-Wan said, quietly.
"Then you're practising with this..." - a harsh gesture at the lightsabre - "just to hurt me?"
Obi-Wan winced slightly, but remained standing, in control. "Long ago, I swore to challenge the Empire, in any way I could, one day when I was stronger and knew how to."
A childhood dream, and only one of many, each one cheapened by not being unique. "I thought you dreamed only of finding a friend," he said, bitterness hiding the hurt.
"I want that most of all. But I _need_ to do this."
Scarcely recognising himself, he walked to Obi-Wan's side and touched his cheek. "What do you want most of all?" he whispered.
For a moment, Obi-Wan's control almost broke. He looked as if he was fighting a desperate battle within himself. Qui-Gon thought he sensed fear. "You... For you to come with me," he managed, hoarsely.
Qui-Gon's hand stiffened into rigid fingers. He was still touching Obi-Wan's cheek, and now he pushed at it, driving Obi-Wan's head back, making him step backwards to stop being off balance. "Then you will have to choose, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan's hand twitched, as if he was fighting the urge to reach out and touch. "You... You'd never come? Not ever?"
He folded his arms. "No. Neither help you, nor come with you, if you choose this course."
Obi-Wan understood. It was not a rejection, not of him, simply of the foolish course he wanted to embark upon. When Obi-Wan came to his senses, everything would be the same as it had ever been. He was still fond of the boy - as fond as ever. Obi-Wan knew all this.
Without another word, he returned to the house.
Late that night, dosing in his chair - why hadn't Obi-Wan come back? - a wild desperate call tore through Qui-Gon's mind, full of pain and terror.
Rain pounded on the roof of the house like bullets.
After that one terrible call, there was nothing at all, even when he quested with all his strength, until he was sagging and exhausted.
<No> he heard again, in the wind in the trees and sound of the first falling rain, and <No> he saw in the welling dark clouds and the terrible beauty of sunlight just before storm. <No. I won't come with you.>
He had asked, and he had been answered.
As Qui-Gon walked away, he wanted to fall to his knees, to plead: <I don't know what to do. Help me, Master. Show me. Come with me.> But to say so would be as cruel as attacking him with a lightsabre. He had tried to plant the seeds of change, but for Qui-Gon, hope was still a torment, doomed to betrayal. He had found a degree of peace in himself at last. What right had Obi-Wan to shatter that contentment, raising taunting spectres of a future that might not be?
None, he thought, and as he mouthed the word his outstretched hands fell to his side, limp and bereft.
His destiny was his own, and - <how can I do it? How? I don't know, and how...?> - and it was only selfish desire that caused him to want Qui-Gon at his side throughout. Better for Qui-Gon if he slipped away quietly, then, if - _if_, and how could that be? - he was successful, he could return and present Qui-Gon with a hope already realised.
He found his hands were shaking; his mouth was dry. Too much thought of this and he would collapse utterly, torn between the beauty and wonder of that voice that had told him <you are the one>, and the terror of the fire he would have to walk through on the way to redemption.
But <not yet> the voice had said. <Not yet, but soon...>
Time. He had time to live in seclusion with the only man he loved. He had time to learn and grow stronger. He had time... time to change Qui-Gon's mind and teach him to hope? But, no, never that. Perhaps, _perhaps_, but from now on, in his mind, he would be prepared and ready for that not to happen, and never to happen.
At the end of all things, he would be alone.
To seek to deny his destiny was beyond thinking. The voice had been so real, so intimate, so... so _true._ He could not even rail against it. The Force - for that was surely what it was, though it had spoken with the voice and the eyes of a thousand thousand wise men - had chosen him, frail as he was, and the Force would surely guide him.
But, oh, he needed more than a destiny, more than the Force. Was it heresy to think it? Was he even now falling from the level of the Jedi and damning himself forever? He needed soft hands on his, guiding him. He needed a smile in the night, warming him. He needed love, and another at his side, grounding him, even as he faced death and the Force without flinching.
"Need?" he said aloud, scornfully, miserably. Rain showed on his robe like specks of darkness. "_Want._" Just a weak, shameful desire.
For a wild moment, he almost cried out where he stood, tearing off his clothes, running towards Qui-Gon in passionate surrender. <I need you. I love you. You are all I need.> Sully himself enough with love and the flesh, and the Force would frown at him, cast him aside, and move on. Someone else would be chosen. Someone else, and he could be fallen, and happy.
He would wrong Qui-Gon, himself, and the Force that had nourished him. Wrong, impossible... but so tempting...
He found he was crying, hot tears mingling with the cold rain. He found he was walking, heedless of direction, blinded by pain. Into the mountains, away from Qui-Gon. He had known - of course he had known - that he would never do it. The voice of the Force spoke, and he obeyed.
But, as the drops of rain merged and became a continuous sheet, and his clothes clung to him as if there was not a thread of dryness in them, he knew he could not face seeing Qui-Gon again, not yet.
The rain fell as it had never fallen before. Within minutes he had been soaked; hours later, and he was no wetter, although not even the Force could prevent him from shivering, cold through to the bone.
He had not had the heart to shelter. What was the point? When enough rain to full an ocean had flowed over his body, perhaps then the pain would be washed away.
Darkness coiled around him. Leaves fell like dead flesh, cold and wet, brought down from the autumn trees. Newly bare branches clawed at him. Water tore down the path like a flowing stream up to his ankles, making his steps treacherous. One false step, and he almost fell. Struggling to regain his balance, the water again clutched at him and this time he _did_ fall. Water splashed around him, into his eyes, his nose, his mouth. He spluttered. Beneath the water, the path was uneven and stony, and he scraped his hands bloody on landing.
Hurt and cold, he pulled himself to his feet, and then suddenly, bizarrely, he laughed. What was he doing here? He had walked, and nothing was different. He had walked, and still Qui-Gon would not come with him, and never would.
He might have years, but he might have only days - days before the Force called to him and told him the time was now. Why spend those days in the cold, alone and hurting? He could make those days special, drawing pleasure from the amount of companionship that Qui-Gon _was_ able to give, not lamenting that which he could never have.
Pulling himself to his feet, he turned to face the valley. The rain was too thick and he could not see the light in the window as Qui-Gon waited, but he reached out with his mind, soft as a whisper and even more hesitant, and knew that he was there.
This was his home. For twenty years, Qui-Gon had let his past poison his present, and now Obi-Wan had almost let the future - the fear of the future - poison the present for both of them.
He feared the future, and he would be so lonely when it came, but Qui-Gon was his home.
He walked, and, strangely, the rain seemed so much colder now his heart was full of thoughts of home than it had ever seemed, before, when inside he had been as cold and hurting as stone.
Halfway there, and the minutes dragged like hours.
He called the Force to him and summoned it, using it to reach out - a moment's glimpse, as detailed as a picture, of Qui-Gon in the light that was their home. Like water to a parched man, it would nourish him and give him strength.
<Qui-Gon...> He reached...
... and found something else entirely.
Panic, he felt, and pain. There were four distinct souls, but they all cried out in one terror.
Heedless of anything else, he ran.
Rain lashed at his face. He heard the rumbling roar of cascading water, growing ever louder. Above it, as weak over the sound of water as the cries of a tiny animal, he heard the first hoarse cries of human terror.
Several times he almost fell, slipping on the mud, plucked at by the water that cascading down the path. His breath tore in his lungs; his heart hammered in his head.
He saw them then, but only barely in the darkness. Four figures clutched together on an outcrop of stone, perilously balanced in the middle of an angry torrent that had, until a few hours ago, been a gentle stream. White water pounded at the stone - a whole ledge of mountainside detached and born down with the water - like a living thing seeking prey. It lurched in time with the movements of the water, as weak as gossamer in the vagaries of the wind.
They had seen him and cried to him. Three had the voices of children not yet grown into men - fourteen year olds, perhaps. The fourth was Arren.
He looked around, desperately, uselessly. They were far too far away to reach with his outstretched arm, and to enter the torrent, even with the Force to anchor him, was certain destruction.
The rock jolted again, and shifted a few feet downstream. One boy staggered and almost slipped; another fought to regain his balance only for the whole edge of the ledge to break off under his feet.
Obi-Wan acted on pure instinct, knowing that he had no time for any other plan. Pushing his hand forward, he thrust with the Force, holding the boy still in the air, caught between the rock and the water.
The boy cried out. Water lashed at his ankles and sought to pull him down. Obi-Wan could feel it fighting his own Force power, like a dark and living thing.
He raised his hand. He closed his eyes, for, one with the Force, he did not need his eyes to see. He felt the boy's terror, and knew it was more for the power that held him than the death he had so narrowly escaped. He felt it, absorbed it, and did not let it distract him.
And slowly, smoothly, the boy moved towards him, borne on the wings of the Force. Across the water it bore him, and to Obi-Wan's side, where, gently and carefully, he was laid down. When the Force released him, his knees buckled and he fell to the ground, gasping in horror and awe.
"Everything will be well," Obi-Wan murmured, touching the boy's hair just for a moment.
Still on all fours, the boy looked up at him bleakly, silently, as if he doubted that anything could be well again.
"Yes," Obi-Wan said, and this time he did not touch him, but, his hand held out before the boy's face, he called on the soothing healing Force, just a little, just enough to heal the worst of his fears.
It was all he had to give. Three more to carry over, and already he was shivering and close to exhaustion.
Closing his eyes, he reached out again.
He left Arren to last, not because of any desire for petty revenge, but because he knew the youth, and knew that the other boys had only been brought out here into the danger of the mountains in a storm because the older boy had dared them, or forced them.
The three terrified boys, looking far younger than their years, huddled behind him. One of them was openly sobbing. There was nothing more he could do for them, not without leaving himself drained and empty, unable to save Arren.
Somewhere, a long away above, there was a distant rumble, as if some monster stirred from its sleep.
He had no time to wonder what it was.
Closing his eyes, reaching out his hand - but now it trembled as if in a palsy, and his limbs felt weak as water - he enclosed Arren in the Force, and bore him over.
"You," Arren spat, when he was close enough to see through the darkness. "Why?"
He could not answer, and would not. Almost there... Almost there, and then, like a puppet with its strings cut, he would collapse to the ground and sleep a while.
Arren's sense was sharp with hatred. Knowing it was his pride's way of hiding the fear that filled him, Obi-Wan understood, and accepted it. "What will you give to stop me telling the officials, Obi-Wan?"
He thought one of the boys spoke, his voice shrill with protest, but all other living things were as if seen through a veil. The Force flowed between him and Arren, and nothing else was truly real.
"Or maybe I'll tell anyway." A harsh laugh. Inside, and hidden from everyone but Obi-Wan, he was whimpering and crying with fear. "You won't drop me. I know you won't drop me."
He spoke at last. "No." Then, as the rumble swelled and grew until it filled the world, and three boys cried out in sudden terror, he cried aloud with all his strength: "No!"
He sensed, rather than saw. Far above them, something had torn. Twice as high as a man, a wall of water tore down the narrow valley, thick with mud and flying boulders. They had no time, oh they had no time...
"Run!" he shouted, imbuing his cry with all the Force he could spare. Simultaneously he _pulled_, turning the soft wings of Force that bore Arren into grasping claws that plucked him from the air and hurled him onto the safety of the muddy ground. "Run!" he cried again, reaching out to all four of them and implanting his words like an order, impossible to disobey.
Part of his mind sensed them, scrambling up the valley sides, tearing their nails on the rocks and leaving behind a trail of blood. They were too slow. Surely they were too slow...
He thrust both palms forward, linking them like a barrier, an impassive wall. "No!"
Just for a moment, the water slowed. His wall of Force was like a dam of flimsy membrane, holding for a while, but straining, straining...
He knew he should run, but he lacked the strength. He fell to his knees. His whole body was shaking; pain pounded in his head. Oh, but the Force had never been like this, never...
"Run," he mouthed, with lips that, even in the water that surrounded him, felt dry and broken.
He sensed them, tenuous as spider's threads. Sobbing, one reached the high ground and collapsed on a rock, too drained to do anything more. Another one joined him, and closed his eyes, hoping he would open them again to the warmth of home. The third faltered, but Arren bore him up and helped him to the brink. There they stumbled to the ground in a jumble of limbs.
And the water burst through, and he could not hold it, he could not hold it....
<Master!> he screamed, as the water engulfed him.
For a moment, he thought he felt Qui-Gon stir, firelight warm on his face, and reach for him. Just for a moment, and then he hit a rock, and there was nothing at all.
Pausing only to grab his robe, he ran from the house, clumsily pulling the dark material around him as he ran. It was raining and very cold, though, as he ran, the rain seemed the ease in its fury. A few dozen more steps and it had almost stilled, as if it had swelled to a peak, achieved some goal, and had no further need to linger. Soon, perhaps, the clouds would part and there would be starlight.
<Please let there by starlight> he found himself praying, calling on anything he had ever believed in. Light to see; light to defend...
There was no trace of Obi-Wan's living presence in his mind, nothing _there_ to guide him. Instead he ran by instinct alone - or what, long ago, he had thought was the guidance of the Force. He ran into the mountains, ankle-deep in fast flowing water. At times he scrambled on his hands, cutting them. He detected a faint echo only - like the soft human perfume that only a lover can distinguish - and knew that Obi-Wan had passed this way.
That illusory closeness almost undid him. "Obi-Wan!" he called aloud, and through the Force. "Obi-Wan!"
Nothing. Nothing. Just the aching silence of a life without him.
He thought of Obi-Wan dying now, when Qui-Gon's last words had been words of rejection, not knowing that he had become all the world to an old man who had been in the cold for so long. He thought of Obi-Wan, and for a moment he almost thought he sensed him, hurt and scared and so very cold.
He thought of himself after Obi-Wan's death, and knew he could not bear it. Another life lost because of him. A year of so-painfully achieved closeness ripped away in a moment, leaving only a heart that once again would swear never to love again, and this time would stay that way until death.
He thought of himself, and for a moment he froze, paralysed by the terrible magnitude of the empty future that would face him.
He thought of himself, and he was alone in the night, without even the faintest ghost of an instinct to guide him to Obi-Wan.
He was still.
He woke, and it was the thinnest sliver of consciousness - enough to know his name, and that he was hurt, and nothing more.
He tried to breathe, and scarlet agony tore his chest apart and something bubbled in his mouth. He tried to cry out - "Master!" he mouthed, desperately, and that word and the face behind it was another thing he knew - but how to put a voice to that cry was something beyond him.
Something was roaring around him, then further and away. He thought, once, he had been moving, born on the wings of something terrible. He thought, perhaps, it had cast him aside to lie here, alone, to die.
He opened his eyes and saw blackness, but whether of night or of blindness he did not know. Or perhaps he had not opened his eyes at all. Thoughts were sluggish. He knew there were things he had once done without thinking that were now an impossibility to him, caught in this unreal limbo between _before_, and death.
Perhaps the blackness was death. It seemed to want him, to offer him dreams of peace and the loving embrace of its touch.
Perhaps he should move. Towards it? Away? He thought it was calling to him - <Obi-Wan. Here will you be cherished.> It was calling, and nothing spoke up to refute it, nothing called him back. It was calling, and he hurt so much...
He closed his eyes, and surrendered.
The pain ceased.
The hand reached out pleadingly, uselessly, to the night sky.
Half-buried in wet mud, Obi-Wan lay like a fallen rag - just one piece of detritus cast aside by the flood. His ribs were broken; around his mouth, the mud was stained dark red. His feet were bare and vulnerable, the boots torn away. His right hand was startling pale and undamaged.
For one second more he reached, then, slowly, inexorably, he sank backwards into the mud, and his chest stopped rising.
"Obi-Wan!" he cried aloud. His heart was splintering. Surely there had never been pain like this. This was justification of all his years of solitude. This was the end of everything.
He fell to his knees and wailed, clenched fists pressed to his face. "Obi-Wan!"
Simultaneously, and all gentleness where his own cry was all raw anguish, he heard it: "Qui-Gon."
He looked up. "Why show me?" Then, as sudden wild hope gripped him. "It hasn't happened yet? I can stop it?"
"No." His Master shook his head, gravely. "It happened as you saw it."
Then Obi-Wan was dead. He turned his head away, not wanted even his Master to witness how he died in that moment.
A ghostly touch on his shoulder. Perhaps there was sympathy there, but the voice was stern. "Go to him, Qui-Gon."
"But he is dead." Tears almost blinded him.
"For the Jedi, nothing is ever without hope. In the Force, no wounds are without healing."
He found he was pressing his hand against his chest. <Here, _here_, there is no healing.>
"Believe that, and then it will become true, for you." His Master was only a voice, now. Behind him and in him, he sensed a vast emanation of Force, like a thousand eyes watching him.
"But there is no hope." Miserably.
"Go to him, Qui-Gon," his Master said, infinitely gentle. "Go to him, and learn the truth."
And his Master left him, and he was alone on the mountainside, alone and weeping.
"Is this death?" he wondered out loud, to the web of light that suspended him like filaments.
He had thought death was all darkness.
"Is this my death?"
Light caressed him and spoke to him. Just out of reach - <there. Yes, there...> - was the answer to all things mankind had ever wanted to know. The Force was strong in this place, but not only strong in this place: the Force _was_ this place.
"It will be," he heard, or felt, or knew. "Not yet, but soon."
The light pulsed like a thousand smiles. "Soon, in that all the tomorrows of mankind are 'soon' to us."
But the last word was not 'us.' It was 'us' and 'me' and yet it was neither - a sense of identity that lay far beyond all conception of person. The voice spoke to his mind; only his human frailties compelled him to hear it in words. One day, he would be part of it, and would no longer need words.
It spoke again, immensely solemn. "The time is now, Obi-Wan."
In that moment, light coursed around him easing even the faintest memory of pain. He knew it as consolation for the pain the words would cause him in the future - knew it, yet still let himself fall into that peace.
"You have been scared," it said, and it did not judge him, did not find him wanting because of it. "You do not know how to do this thing that is asked of you."
"No," he replied, though it knew his thoughts both voiced and unvoiced, and the secrets of his heart that not even he could know of.
"Our son Qui-Gon Jinn can tell you how you are different. This, and your own past sufferings, will show you the way forward."
<I need more help!> he cried, silently. <I need strength. I need to be older. I need Qui-Gon to come with me.> But he said none of it, and being that had spoken, which surely knew of his thoughts and knew his fears and his weaknesses, granted him with a touch of benediction, a proud word, a blessing.
"Be true, my son."
The light faded, and he was alone and bereft on a hillside, trapped in a body that was screaming.
Something guided him, true and sure.
He scrambled, down a hillside scoured by flood water, down paths that no man had trod.
He saw a tree, first, half snapped at the base by the water. He saw it from above; in his vision of Obi-Wan's death, it had been leaning low towards him, like a broken hand, mockingly offering him rescue.
"Obi-Wan!" he called. But surely he was dead. Surely... "Obi-Wan!"
"Master," he heard, as broken as a shard of glass.
And there he was, kneeling, falling, at Obi-Wan's side, reaching out to him, touching, touching...
Obi-Wan gasped. His face was a mask of pain. Blood still trickled from his mouth; his ribs were still broken. But he lived.
"Oh my Obi-Wan..." Tears poured down his face. He pushed an arm under Obi-Wan's neck, and another under his knees, and pulled, pulling him free from the muddy water that still eagerly sucked at him. Water drenched and stained him. Obi-Wan coughed weakly, and fresh blood bubbled from his mouth.
"Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan mouthed, then turned away, pressing his face into Qui-Gon's shoulder.
He thought they could stay there for ever, Obi-Wan held in his arms, just saying each other's names as if they were the only things that needed to be said. He was sprawled on the floor without strength, holding Obi-Wan close with both arms, tight enough that he would never feel unwanted again, gentle enough not to hurt him.
"Master?" A spike of concern - how, so close to death, Obi-Wan could still feel concern for him, for the turbulent emotions he could not shield... "What's matter?"
He stroked his sodden hair, gently pushing it away from his brow. "You..." No, not <you died>, for it could scare Obi-Wan to know he had been part of a miracle. "I was so sure you were dead, Obi-Wan."
And there were so many more things to be said - <I love you. I have been taught by a miracle to hope. Losing you would have been a tragedy; losing you without once having told you I loved you, or once allowing us to be happy together, would have been beyond imagining.>
So many thing to be said... and he said the only one that _had_ to be said, now, this moment, as night clung to two exhausted men on a blasted hillside. "I love you, Obi-Wan."
And Obi-Wan convulsed in his arms and passed into unconsciousness, but Qui-Gon knew he had heard, and was glad he had spoken.
Everything would be different now. Every moment with Obi-Wan was a gift granted by the Force; every soft breath the young man took was a reminder of the lesson he had been taught.
For the Force, nothing was without hope. It had been arrogant and blind for him to believe otherwise. The wounds in his mind had festered not because they _could_ never heal, but because he had allowed them to. By granting him a second chance with Obi-Wan, the Force had shown him he was forgiven - as long as he could forgive himself. One day, perhaps, Obi-Wan _would_ die and it would be like losing half of his soul, but worse, far worse, would be the willing denial of that part of his soul, by letting fear of that future drive them apart.
"Obi-Wan," he murmured, as he had done so endlessly over the hours.
He had carried him home in his arms - a nightmare journey in which he feared that every jolting step would see Obi-Wan's chest still, and this time for ever. He had carried him home, using the Force to give him strength and endurance, and Obi-Wan still lived. Then, once home, he had so gentle removed the young man's clothes and washed him under the pump, his heart clenching as the mud flowed off him and livid bruises and angry lacerations showed through.
"Obi-Wan. Can you hear me?"
He had laid him in his own bed, pale and unconscious in a cocoon of soft blankets. He sat there now in eternal vigil, one hand on Obi-Wan's brow, the other on his chest, ever so gently. He had called the Force to him - and how new, how marvellous, the Force felt to him now, as if he was using it for the very first time - and eased the broken ribs, the wounded lungs, as well as he could. True healing would require Obi-Wan's co-operation and consent.
"Obi-Wan." More insistent now. Fragile and vulnerable, the young man had been unconscious for far too long. He needed to heal him; he had so many marvellous things to tell him... "Can you wake up? I... I need you to help me heal you."
Obi-Wan's eyelids fluttered. His lips moved. He mouthed something that looked like "time?"
"Obi-Wan." Both hands on his face, now. "You're very badly hurt. Do you hear me?" A small nod, eyes wide and scared. "Will you let me heal you? Will you let me in?"
He remembered the time on the ship, when Obi-Wan had begged him to heal him and he had tried, but had found himself unable to lower his shields sufficiently to fully touch Obi-Wan's mind. This time he would give his whole soul to Obi-Wan, willingly and eagerly, bathing him in the healing of the Force and his love.
"Will you, Obi-Wan?"
Someone was reaching for his mind - Qui-Gon, his mind gentle with love and the desire to heal.
He hurt so badly.
"Master," he wanted to say. "Master," and throw his arms wide as he opened himself utterly to the man he loved. Qui-Gon would enter his mind and heal his body; Qui-Gon would enter his mind and know all his secrets and the burden he bore, and he would never be alone again.
Qui-Gon would share the burden.
He moaned, unable to stop that small sound escaping his lips. Qui-Gon would know, and the knowledge would be torture to him.
<I don't want to cause him pain> he thought, and felt it with all his heart.
But Qui-Gon looked at him with such hope, and such a desperate desire to heal him, and he hurt so much... Carefully, he erected walls in his mind, concealing the truth of his visions and the knowledge of his future, and the fear - such terrible fear - that he felt.
Then, "yes," he said. "Please heal me, Master."
For a moment, he thought they touched - two souls connecting and becoming one, focused only on one healing.
So close... It was two hands reaching across a chasm, and their fingertips entwining. It was the Force coursing between those fingers like a vibrant blue light. It was soothing water.
He smiled. "Heal," he whispered, and turned his gaze to those broken ribs, running his fingers of the Force along them from the inside, coaxing them to wholeness. "Heal, Obi-Wan."
He thought he met walls, then, like cold glass, solid but surely breakable. He curled his fist and struck one, but it did not even splinter.
Across the chasm... - and where was he: in Obi-Wan's body, or in facing glass walls, or leaning across a bleak rock chasm? In the Force, he was all these places, and none. Across the chasm, Obi-Wan turned a tear-streaked face towards him. His hand twitched, pulling against his own, trying to withdraw. "I can't, Master..." His mind drifted away. Like solid metal now in his mind, Qui-Gon could feel his walls. His fists pounded against them bloodily.
"No!" A desperate howl. He would have bludgeoned his way through then; only the knowledge, pure as a light, that this was _never_ right, even in such a good cause, held him back.
And he was in his chair again, and Obi-Wan was looking at him with wide shamed eyes, as blue as the Force.
"Why?" he demanded, when he could speak again. The feel of those walls against his fists... "Why, Obi-Wan?"
Obi-Wan ran his tongue over his lips.
He took deep breaths, calming himself. He was shaking, betrayed - and he knew it was wrong, so wrong. He had built walls against Obi-Wan for the whole time he had known him. He had no right to feel hurt when Obi-Wan did the same.
"Can't you let me close, Obi-Wan?" he asked gently, touching the back of his hand. "You'll heal so much quicker."
"I'll heal, in time, without it."
His heart bled at that. Such misery in those eyes... He knew the truth, then: Obi-Wan had gone into the mountains believing himself unwanted, hearing Qui-Gon say that no, he would not go with him. He believed himself unloved and rejected, and was already erecting defensive shields, so Qui-Gon would not see his pain, and would not have the power to hurt him again.
There was so much he had to say - the miracle he had seen and the realistions he had come to - but for now all Obi-Wan needed to hear was the truth of his love. He stroked Obi-Wan's brow, letting the hair run between his fingers. "You are so wanted, Obi-Wan. I love you." Words he had once thought he would never be able to say; words that, now it was the right time for them, came so easily. "I was so cold and closed-off. You taught me joy again. You've taught me love."
Obi-Wan's eyes filled with tears. He seemed to wince, to turn his head away. Qui-Gon knew he thought himself unseen, as he bit his lip with some silent pain, as silent tears leaked from his eyelids.
For the moment, he would grant him privacy. But he would speak again, and never stop speaking - never, until Obi-Wan believed it, and knew he was loved and wanted.
And then, ever after, he would never stop speaking at all.
"I love you," his Master had said. "I love you," and he had turned away, biting his lip to silence the scream that wanted to tear from him.
<Not now, Master. Please. Not now I have to leave. Not now it can never be...>
Qui-Gon sat and was silent, and did not leave.
"Master," he said, at last, marvelling at how calm his voice could be. "I love you too."
He almost hated himself at the wild hope that rose in the older man's eyes. Once, this moment would have been all his happiness, too. Now he knew it was only the tormenting ghost of a future together that they could never have.
He was a child again, unsure and hesitant. "Can I..." His hands fluttered. "Can I... kiss you?"
Eyes infinitely bleak, Obi-Wan nodded.
Qui-Gon leant forward on his chair, then slipped off it entirely, falling to his knees at Obi-Wan's bedside. He bent and pressed his lips to the curve of Obi-Wan's cheek, chaste and gentle.
With a low moan that could have been pleasure, could have been agony, Obi-Wan turned his head, arching up into Qui-Gon's touch. Their lips met. For just a moment passion coursed between them, and Obi-Wan's lips on his were sweet and perfect as light.
"Oh," he managed, dazed, as he was released. Obi-Wan's eyes were closed. A pulse fluttered in the pale skin at the base of his neck.
He touched that pulse, letting his fingers move to its rapid rhythm. "More," he said, hoarsely, "when you're well?"
Obi-Wan nodded. Still his eyes were closed. "I would like that very much." There were still tears on his right cheek; on his left, Qui-Gon had kissed them away.
Temptation was to seize that beautiful body and ravish it with kisses, but he would never forget that Obi-Wan was still very badly hurt. They would have a lifetime ahead of them to explore each other and be together. He would cherish Obi-Wan; only when he truly believed he was cherished and no walls still stood in his mind would they take the next step.
"Sleep now, Obi-Wan." He knew not to attempt the healing again, knowing that Obi-Wan was still not ready. It took more than a word and a single kiss to ease the wounds of the heart. "Sleep."
He awoke feeling stronger. Although the healing was not as powerful as it would have been had they touched minds and performed it together, he had done some self-healing when asleep, and he recognised Qui-Gon's touch, too.
When he opened his eyes, he knew, Qui-Gon would be sitting there as if he had never moved, and his eyes would be shadowed from lack of sleep and unstinting labouring at solitary healing throughout the night.
He opened his eyes, and there he was.
"How are you, Obi-Wan?"
Qui-Gon frowned, but there was a fondness in his eyes. "Not fully better, Obi-Wan. But I am glad."
"You should sleep." He fought the urge to touch his lip. Was it still as sensitised as if felt, still responsive to Qui-Gon's kiss? He wanted to touch it and hold that memory inside for ever.
He moved exploratorily. His ribs were far from healed, but his breathing was easier. He no longer tasted blood in the back of his throat. How long before he could walk? If it was not soon, he was in danger of being lost. Too long with Qui-Gon talking of love, and the frequent touch of his lips, and the moment of leaving would become almost more than he could bear.
He should not have allowed the kiss. For the sake of his sanity, he would allow no more. Better to distance himself now, for what was to come.
Oh, but he could sob aloud for the pain of it...
"Master," he started, and kept his arms by his side, his voice calm. He had been told to do this. It was weakness to think of himself as a boy, hurt and needing cherishing. He had a task to perform, and had to face it unflinching and with strength. "Am I different from the Jedi in some way?"
Qui-Gon flinched as if struck. Still unable to hope, still hurt by any mentions of the past that had wounded him so deeply... Nothing had changed.
Qui-Gon took a deep breath, then another. His sense was all turmoil. "Yes," he said at last, and the word sounded like an arrow ripped from his flesh.
Hating himself, he held in the trap of his eyes, and said nothing.
"You use the Force, and... Obi-Wan, I can't sense it at all." Qui-Gon shook his head. "It's like nothing I've ever seen before." Then, "why do you ask?"
"I've... suspected something, in your reaction to me," he lied. Then he frowned. "Can't sense it?"
Qui-Gon seemed to be struggling for the words to explain it. "What am I doing?" he asked, at last. He closed his eyes and called upon the Force, using it for calming and focus. It flowed through the air to his command, and broke upon his presence like waves on a beach.
"Calling on the Force," he answered.
Qui-Gon let it go. "But if you did the same, I would sense... nothing. If you used the Force to lift that cup over there, I would... I would see the cup moving, but I would sense nothing - _nothing_ - to show it was the Force."
"I don't..." He flexed his hands, his studied calm leaving him. He felt panicky and unsure. "I didn't...."
"No." Qui-Gon smiled grimly. "Whether you were born with it, or whether learnt it in your childhood, when you used the Force and swore that no-one would ever know, I don't know. But it undoubtedly saved you, when you first saw a Hand. The second one never sensed your Force use; he only saw the results, as something he could not sense pinned him to the ground."
"Oh." He had no heart to say more. The words of his vision echoed in his mind - ask Qui-Gon, and remember your past sufferings...
He thought he knew. He chased the germ of that idea, and then he _did_ know. His way was clear. He knew how he could challenge the Emperor and Vader.
He knew... and all he wanted to do was scream, to scream until he was hoarse...
He sensed Obi-Wan slipped away from him on the surging black wings of terror. He sensed it, and he did not begin to understand it.
"Obi-Wan!" He slapped his face, harsh yet gentle, trying to call him back.
<What did I say?> he was wailing in his mind. <What started this? What did I do?>
Was it the mention of the Hand, and the memory of what had happened to afterwards? Was that it? It had to be. Yes, it had to be.
"You're safe now, Obi-Wan," he crooned. He touched Obi-Wan's face, but nothing more, knowing that comforting physical touch was what he needed - but, at the same time, it could be the thing that scared him most. "Safe with me, and loved. I'll never hurt you."
"I know," Obi-Wan moaned, wrenchingly. Then, fractured, something about the Hand..., they said... they said about the Hand...
"It's all over."
Obi-Wan bit his lip. He seemed to moan a desperate miserable denial. But, at the same time, he seemed to be fighting for control. His breathing slowly eased. The turmoil of his sense stilled. At the end of it, Qui-Gon knew, he was terribly closed-off, but perhaps it was necessary, for now.
"It's over, Obi-Wan," he crooned, over and over.
How long he would have sat, Obi-Wan pillowed against his arm, he did not know. The Force warned him of the men's approach, well before he heard the knock.
Obi-Wan stiffened. He had been drifting close to eventual much-needed sleep. Instinctively, Qui-Gon reached towards him with a soft suggestion of the Force, sending him fully asleep. Then, gently, he laid the young man back on the bed and stood up, stretching his stiff limbs and straightening his clothes.
"Good morning," he said, opening the door. He nodded in greeting. "Galen. Ryan."
The two men did not smile back. "You know why we are here," the older one, Galen, said without preamble.
"No." He gestured for them to come in, then pressed his hand to his lips. "Can we speak quietly. My apprentice is hurt and sleeping."
The two men exchanged looks. "He's alive, then."
"Yes." He felt a spike of alarm. What did they know?
Galen looked awkward and unsure. He seemed about to launch into a practised speech, but scared, now, of how to start. Finally he took a deep breath and began, not meeting Qui-Gon's eyes. "My boy Arren... He came home last night after the storm ended, scratched and terrified. Ryan's son did the same, and two of his friends. Only the young ones cared to tell us the truth - how they had been about to die in a flood, but your apprentice had rescued them. It was hours before they admitted it was possibly at the expense of his own life."
He found himself sitting down suddenly, hand pressed to his heart. "I... I didn't know." He had thought he could never love Obi-Wan more; he found he had been wrong.
Galen's face was grim. He was very angry with his son, Qui-Gon realised, for running away and leaving Obi-Wan to die. But there was something more, too - some terrible shadow in his eyes. Qui-Gon knew, in a flash of insight, that the next words would change everything for him.
"They also claim that Obi-Wan carried them through the air without touching them, and that he held back the flood until they were safe." He mimed with his hands, pushing forward with both palms like a man pushing against a great weight.
"They were scared," Qui-Gon tried. "It was dark."
"They know what happened," Galen said, firmly. "And there are many among us who remember the Jedi, and know of the Force of theirs." At last he met Qui-Gon's eyes. "Your apprentice is one of them, isn't he?"
He raised his chin. He said nothing.
Galen shook his head. He seemed at once very lost, very old, who was normally such a strong man. "We remember the Jedi, and with respect, Healer Jinn. You think of us a small backwater, and perhaps we are, but that has served us well. The Empire has little sway over our hearts, and has not troubled to rule us over much. None of the boys' parents intend to report Obi-Wan."
Qui-Gon swallowed. "You know the penalties." He thought of Obi-Wan's parents, and the fate that they had met.
"Death. Yes, we know. But Obi-Wan had helped us over the months, and he saved our children. We owe him too much." Then, with sudden vehemence. "Even if we owed him nothing, I would never betray someone simply for a gift they are born with, not for any wrong they did."
"Thank you," Qui-Gon said, simply.
Galen heaved a sigh. "But Arren thinks differently. I wonder how I raised a son like him. Obi-Wan saved him, but still he hates him. His mother and I are doing what we can, but... We can't keep him locked in his room for ever, Healer Jinn."
"I understand." He understood, and it grieved him. Even if Arren did not report Obi-Wan, the tale would spread and soon the whole town would now. Even without deliberate malice, such a secret could not be kept. Just one traveller to overhear something in an inn... "Thank you, Galen. We will leave as soon as we can."
"I'm so sorry." Galen looked deeply shamed, almost in tears. As Qui-Gon stood, he lunged for him, grabbing his sleeve almost hungrily. "Are you a Jedi from... from before? When I was a child I always dreamed of meeting one."
For a moment, he almost met the man's eyes and said, "yes. Yes, I am a Jedi." He was the last of them, and it was a glorious heritage he bore. He _was_ a Jedi, and for twenty years he had denied it, denying part of himself. To stand there in front the world and say, "I am a Jedi..." To show the Empire that the Order was not dead, as long as one remained, true to the Code...
But how could he do that to Obi-Wan? If news of Obi-Wan's skill reached the authorities, they would look for him, but only as one Force sensitive among many. He doubted they would pursue his trail very far. If they knew a Jedi Knight still lived, they would hunt without mercy. He had made no secret of his name. Xanatos would find out, and would come in person to find him. To protect Obi-Wan, they would have to split up.
"No," he said, aloud, shaking his head. "I am no Jedi. I knew of Obi-Wan's skill, but I share none of it."
He was denying the Jedi, but he felt no shame for it. He felt the Order that had died would know his reasons, and would approve of them.
Galen's hands fell to his sides. "Obi-Wan... Will he be all right? Can... Can we see him?"
Suddenly defensive, Qui-Gon said, "he's asleep." Then, softening, "he'll be fine. It was very close for a while, but he _will_ recover. I'll take him to a safe place and he'll be fine."
"We will pray so," Galen said, fervently. "He is a remarkable young man."
"I know." Qui-Gon meant it, and so sincerely. He could only thank the Force that he had been awakened in time to know it.
"Obi-Wan," he said, much later, when the young man awakened. "Something has happened."
Obi-Wan blinked, and was instantly awake. Once again he must have used the Force on himself while asleep, healing himself with remarkable speed. There was an edge of intensity to his desire to get well.
"The boys saw you use the Force, Obi-Wan. The authorities don't know yet, but we have to act as if they will find out, sooner or later."
Obi-Wan moistened his lips. "We must leave? Together?"
"Of course together." He forced himself to smile, knowing that Obi-Wan still needed reassurance of his place in Qui-Gon's life. "We'll find another place like this, and live just as we did here, together. We don't need anyone else."
A shadow of pain passed over Obi-Wan's face. "No," he said, but it could have been either agreement, or denial.
Qui-Gon kissed him, to silence that pain.
Tonight. Obi-Wan lay in the darkness, and knew the truth. Tonight. It had to be tonight.
Every moment had been a revelation. He had seen Qui-Gon's face and had the joy of learning it afresh - learning how smiles brought light to his face; how love enriched his eyes. He could have learnt that face for a lifetime, he thought. Instead, he had but one short day, and a lesson and a memory that had to last him through the coming darkness.
<The time is now> the voices of light had told him. <Now...>
Now, before Qui-Gon wanted them to leave together, in some other direction. Now, before the love in Qui-Gon's eyes forced him to confess everything, and see the love turn to pain as cruel false hopes tormented him. Now, before the fear paralysed him and he could never move again.
He was far from well, he knew, but the journey would be long, and he could heal himself on the ship - if the Force came to his command at all when he was so scared and hurt and alone...
All his resolutions had been swept away - to refrain from physical touch, to distance himself...
"I love you," he had said to Qui-Gon, clinging to him passionately. He had known even then that this was their last time ever, their last chance. "Please..."
"Not until you are well," Qui-Gon had said, gravely, though his eyes had shown that he, too, had wanted this. His body had responded to Obi-Wan's.
"I want it now. It will make me well."
"So eager..." Tender laughter, and hands on his face, his hair, and neck. "But you're hurt, Obi-Wan, and scared. I need to know you want this, you want me, as equals. I can't take advantage of your need. You're so young, Obi-Wan."
"Not so young," he had said, hoarsely. "Twenty-one next week, and no boy." And he had kissed fiercely, to show the truth of his words.
"No." Qui-Gon had ever so gently peeled his hands away. "We have the whole future to learn each other. Until we have shared our whole minds, we can't share our bodies. I can't do that to you." A darkening of fear, as he remembered the agonising touch of lust without love. "Here" - a touch on his brow, then another on his heart - "and here, are you not yet ready. I know part of you is still hurting, locked behind barriers."
"But I still love you." He had been almost crying. He could _not_ reveal all the secrets of his heart, for Qui-Gon's sake. Yet with all that he was, he loved this man and needed one single pure memory of joy to bring him light in the darkness that was his future, alone.
"I know." He had pressed his fingers against Obi-Wan's lips, immensely gentle. "And I you. I you, Obi-Wan."
They were the last words Qui-Gon would ever say to him, he knew.
He was glad those last words were of love.
He woke in the morning, late, to see sunlight streaming in through the window. For a long moment, he simply lay there, staring vacantly at the ceiling. He had slept long and uncharacteristically deeply. His mind felt as if it was cocooned in white cotton.
He listened for Obi-Wan, and heard nothing. He quested out with the Force, but it was as if he was alone in the house, with no other living being within miles.
Not yet alarmed - everything had a sense of unreality about it - he pushed his covers aside and stood.
"Obi-Wan?" he called.
On bare feet he crossed the room, his footfalls unnaturally loud in the silence of his mind.
He staggered then, clutching at the door frame for support. His vision doubled - two images overlaying each other, horribly the same, yet different. A bed, cold and unslept in. He had _seen_ this before, long ago - seen it, not understood it, and forgotten it.
"Obi-Wan," he moaned. He let go of the door, and found he was not yet strong enough. He fell to his knees.
White paper fluttered from the empty sheets, disturbed by the air currents as he fell. With fingers that shook he reached for it.
"Never doubt that I love you," he read. "I need to do this. I have no choice. Please, Master, never blame yourself."
"Do what?" he cried, crumpling the paper, and "do what, Obi-Wan?" as he desperately smoothed it again, those words that were the last thing he had left of the young man he loved.
The white paper, crumpled and unchanged, gave no answer.
He would find him, he resolved, much later, and still sitting where he had fallen, slumped on the floor of the room that had been Obi-Wan's.
He could not have got far, hurt as he was. Either he had walked, or someone in the town had provided him with transport. Obi-Wan could shield, but Qui-Gon was a Jedi, and this was something he wanted as intensely as he had ever wanted anything in his life.
He would find him.
Had he gone for safety, scared by the knowledge that the authorities might know of him, but wishing to hide alone, to save Qui-Gon? Qui-Gon frowned, and considered it, and, knowing Obi-Wan's generous nature, decided it was true.
But before even the night of the flood and the miracle - far before that - Obi-Wan had been restless, talking of joining the Rebellion and fighting. While his departure might have been motivated by a desire to keep Qui-Gon safe, he doubted Obi-Wan would have sought obscurity. He would have headed, not for the wilderness, but for the City, where he would seek to make contact with the Rebellion.
So it was there that Qui-Gon would follow him.
He would follow him, and he would find him.
Several days later, Obi-Wan boarded a transport, alone. He curled into the darkness of his cabin, and tried to heal.
The Force danced away from him. His dreams were full of a dark man who smiled and awaited him.
End of part two.
The air was heavy with alcohol and blue aromatic smoke. Music touched his mind like fingers, while voices of all timbres blended, making a music of their own. New metal blended with the old dry stone of an older construction, the smells mixing in awkward alliance.
Qui-Gon Jinn had never been so aware of smell. Smells and sounds and the living presence of all things... At first it had been a conscious effort, entering a room and deliberately producing a mental inventory of its every nuance. Now, after long arid weeks, it came more naturally than breathing. He entered a room, and he instantly _knew_ - an intimate awareness of the place and everyone within it.
It was a connection with the living Force such as he had never before thought possible. At any other time, he could have marvelled.
Now the living Force was only cold failure, empty to him.
He knew the life that pulsed in a hundred thousand men and women, in the rats under the streets, in the stone of their houses. He knew them, but it was like touching death to him. However much he reached, there was no Obi-Wan - no smell or sound or sense or echo of him.
For the briefest moment, he leant forward, pressing his brow into the heel of his hand; the other hand held his drink, almost tight enough to shatter.
He knew men were watching him - they always did. Four weeks of entering inns and talking on street corners a little too loud. Not enough to incriminate him in the eyes of any Imperial spy who was listening, but enough - he could only pray to the Force that it was enough - to arouse the interest of anyone on the fringes of the Rebellion.
The Rebellion was organised, he knew, with leaders of high lineage. It was not a rabble, at home only in the slums and common drinking places, but it must surely have contacts there, collecting information, sowing the seeds of propaganda, doing deals with smugglers. They would surely know soon enough that he was looking for them.
And then, one day - and every night, walking rashly and apparently unarmed in the darkness like a naive stranger courting disaster, he hoped that it would be _this_ night - they would apprehend him. They would take no chances. He would be a prisoner until he convinced them of his intent, but he had his own weapons and did not fear that.
He would be honest: "I'm looking for a young man. He may have contacted you the same way I did, not long ago. I would like to take him home again. But, if he still wishes to fight with you, I will fight at his side."
And if they said no - said that Obi-Wan had not come here...
No. He shook his head, almost speaking aloud. No. He knew Obi-Wan might have chosen to leave Tasceron and attempt to join the Rebellion on a larger planet, nearer the centre of civilisation. He had asked at the docking bay, of course, and no-one had remembered Obi-Wan, but that was not unexpected. To Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan was unforgettably beautiful and vibrant, and would stay forever in his memory from just one glance, but he knew that was love talking. To the outside world, Obi-Wan would have been just one of so many young men, seeking a transport with no questions asked, and he had his own ways of ensuring that no-one remembered him.
So, yes, he _could_ have left Tasceron, but even if is _was_ so, it was still better for him to seek him here, still on the planet. Once he was trusted by the Rebellion, he could travel through the whole organisation, seeking Obi-Wan.
And he would find him. He could believe nothing else. For twenty years he had refused to let himself hope, and his life had been so bleak and cold, and not really like life at all. Even if he died, alone, twenty years in the future and still seeking Obi-Wan in vain, those twenty years would have been more rich, full, as there were, of love and hope, than those bleak twenty years that preceded them.
He would never give up hope. But, oh, the emptiness of a city that pulsed with life, but not one of those lives he could sense was the one he most lived for...
<Now> he had time to think, bracing himself slightly, yet yielding, too. For long minutes, the Force had whispered to him; he was intimately aware of the men who had followed him into the shadows - their dedication, their skill, and the past pains that clung thickly to them. He had felt their eyes glitter in the darkness.
They grabbed him, one on each side, neither brutal, nor needlessly soft. Hands dug into his upper arms; the cold metal of a blaster pressed against the back of his neck.
<Now> he thought, and <at last.> If they had not held him, if he had not had a part to play, he might have fallen to his knees in gratitude and relief.
He let them lead him.
The man crossed his legs elegantly, one ankle resting on the opposite knee. He steepled his hands. Qui-Gon was suddenly reminded of Mace Windu - all nonchalant elegance, but veiling an incisive mind and a body tuned for instant action.
"You've been asking about the Rebellion?"
The two men who had arrested him still flanked him, but neither touched him. He had used the Force on them only once, when he closed their perceptions to the lightsabres at his belt, both his own, and the blue one he had retrieved from the mud the day after Obi-Wan had left, guided off his path by some call of the Force.
He had wept upon finding it.
"What is your interest?"
He kept his arms rigid at his side, returning the man's gaze of casual intensity with one of his own. "I have reason to believe that a young man who is in my charge has sought to join it." That, and no more, yet. The Rebellion could have found him - but, equally, he could be speaking to a servant of the Empire, trying to trick him into treason.
There was no change on the man's face, but Qui-Gon read the darkening of disapproval that passed over his sense. "And you wish to bring him back home with you? To punish him?"
Taking his lead from that small glimpse of disapproval, and nothing else - if he was wrong in this, he could fight his way out - Qui-Gon spoke the truth. "No. He left without telling me, but that's because he misunderstood my reaction. I just want to be with him. If he wishes to join the Rebellion, I, too, will join."
The man raised his eyebrows. "No statement of great loyalty, that... on either side."
Qui-Gon kept his chin high. "There was a time when my whole life was devoted to fighting for the cause that the Rebellion fights for now. I have done my part and bear my own scars. I am old now, and wish to rest. That alone, and not any wavering in my loyalty to the principles the Empire abhors, is the reason for my reluctance."
"Ah." The man nodded slowly. His eyes sparkled. "But for one so scarred, you trust readily. Too readily. How do you know what cause _I_ serve?"
And that, too, was an answer. He said so: "I don't, but I think the Empire would have killed me before now, and would not ask such questions."
The man laughed. "True." He was confident. He did not fully trust Qui-Gon, but he was in his own headquarters, and Qui-Gon, his men had told him and his own eyes confirmed, was unarmed and alone. "So, if you join us, what can you do?"
"I find my friend first. Until that, nothing."
For a moment, the man looked as if he was going to fight. Then, with a smile - a smile with an edge to it, showing that he only granted Qui-Gon's request because it pleased him to - he nodded. "What is his name?"
"Obi-Wan Kenobi." He could have described him in a thousand words and still not done justice to him. Instead, he said the only description he could convey, without the Force and his love - bald facts of appearance that said nothing about the man Obi-Wan was. "Aged twenty one. Hair sandy and shoulder-length," and so soft between his fingers, soft as the air. "About so high. Blue eyes." Blue eyes, the colour of the Force and his lightsabre, and so beautiful and deep...
The man frowned. As Qui-Gon had suspected, his feigned indolence became crisp activity in an instant. He stood up and crossed to a computer, repeating Obi-Wan's name verbally, then visibly tensing as he received his reply in words on the screen.
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," he repeated. Qui-Gon knew that, for the first time, he had the man's full attention. "Arrested a year and a half ago, aged nineteen. His family executed for knowingly concealing one skilled in the Force. No record of his execution, but matches the description of no known Hands."
Qui-Gon fought to conceal his sudden fear - and really it was no fight at all, not for a Jedi. "You keep records of things like that?"
"When we can." The man's eyes narrowed. "So how did he come here?"
For a moment, he considered lying, but only for a moment. "The ship bearing him to Vader crashed on Telos, where I was then living. He was the only survivor. I knew they would be searching for him, so I brought him here, for safety."
The man ran his tongue over his lips, hungrily. "And he's really skilled in the Force?" His thoughts were transparent: of the use Obi-Wan could be to the Rebellion, as a weapon in war.
He could lie - use the Force, perhaps, to make himself believed - but then he would lose this ally in the search for Obi-Wan. Or he could tell the truth, in, by doing so, ensure that this man at least searched for Obi-Wan almost as fervently as he did so himself. "He is, but..." - and this said with all the command of his training and the Force - "no-one outside this room must know."
The man frowned. "No." A steady look at both guards. "No talking." Then, to Qui-Gon, "we understand the need for secrets and are used to never fully trusting anyone." For a moment, he looked deeply weary, deeply hurt. Everything else was show, Qui-Gon realised in that moment - the necessary show of a leader. This was the real man. Even after the moment passed, he would never forget it.
Qui-Gon's voice was soft when he spoke again. "Would you ask the Rebellion on other planets? He may have travelled off-planet before seeking contact." Then, pre-empting the man's doubts: "If we find him, I assure you I won't prevent him from fighting for you, if he wishes."
The man smiled. "I will do more than that. I'll ask the other local leaders to look out
for him. I won't tell them why, but I'll tell them he's a recruit to be obtained at all cost, and kept safe. He may not have made contact yet, but if he's looking for us, anywhere that we have a presence, we'll find him."
There was no doubt in those cool green eyes. Qui-Gon knew in that moment that this man had been aware of his presence in the city from the very first time he had asked about the Rebellion, in a low-ceilinged tavern four weeks earlier, but had chosen to observe him before responding.
It was a strange realisation. For the first time, he fully understood that the Rebellion might have a chance. For a man so unused to hope, it was a heady realisation, and almost one to make him laugh out loud.
"Yes," he echoed, and for a moment the two men - last of the Jedi, and Rebellion leader on a small planet called Tasceron - shared a smile that was utterly sincere and full of understanding. "Yes. We will find him."
But certainty was a fragile thing. A week passed, and then two, and still no sign of Obi-Wan.
"Are you _sure_ he was trying to join us?" the man asked. He was Anton, and close, now, to being... not quite a friend, but a colleague, fighting in the same cause.
"Yes." Even after six weeks, Qui-Gon had never doubted that. "We would argue about it, before he left. He had a... a passionate need to use his gifts to oppose the Empire that had hurt him so. He spoke several times of joining you; I said that I would never support that decision."
"Why?" Anton asked, then shook his head, his eyes mild with apology. "Because of the scars. I know what it is like to believe in the futility of hope."
Shaken at being so easily read, Qui-Gon stammered a defence, only to find it was no defence at all, but only fresh condemnation. "Then things changed, but I had no time to tell him I no longer thought that way..."
Anton - and it was the real Anton he saw always, now, and not the facade of their first meeting - reached over suddenly and grabbed his wrist. "You're a Jedi, aren't you?"
He met those eyes. "Yes." He had denied it once before, but only to protect Obi-Wan. He would deny it no more.
Inside, Anton was tense, as if every breath would shatter him. But he smiled, even though he knew Qui-Gon was not fooled for a moment. "And I'll wager you're not unarmed, either."
In answer, Qui-Gon pushed back his robe, showing the two lightsabres. It struck him as marvellous, suddenly, that he was trusting this man, who until a few months age had trusted no-one. After he had loved Obi-Wan, he had thought it would be the two of them, loving each other but still distrusting the rest of the world. But Obi-Wan had a magical touch, and had thawed not only the part of Qui-Gon's heart that he had touched, but all the rest of it, too.
Anton poured himself a drink of water, with hands that shook slightly. "If we never find Obi-Wan, what will you do then?"
"I only came here to find him," Qui-Gon said, quickly.
"I know." Anton's eyes showed that he knew - had known right from the start, perhaps, what Obi-Wan was to him. "But I am thinking now that you would stay and fight, on your own account, even if there was no Obi-Wan." He could no conceal his hope, but there was no pressure in his voice. He longed for a Jedi to join his cause, but he would not compel anyone against their wishes.
Perhaps it was _that_ that decided him, or perhaps he had already decided, two weeks before, when first they had smiled as one person. "I think I would."
And, although the absence of Obi-Wan was a gaping whole in his soul, he felt fully healed, fully a Jedi and forgiven.
He dreamed that night, in a bed that still felt cold, although he never shared a bed with Obi-Wan, never been able to grow used to the warmth of another body beside his in the night. He dreamed, and, though every night he longed for a vision to unveil itself like a conduit between him and Obi-Wan, it was not a vision but a memory...
A memory of death.
"Die, I will, and, in that moment, will hope be born. You, Qui-Gon." Yoda, one breath away from death, pointing with his thin finger to Qui-Gon's very soul. "Nurture it, you will."
Hope will be born...
Pushing the blankets clumsily to one side, he slid to his knees, his head bowed in meditation.
"Yoda," he murmured. Every year, on the anniversary of Yoda's death, he murmured the ritual words of remembering the dead, though a thousand other voices should have echoed beside his. Preoccupied with the search for Obi-Wan, he had forgotten, and, although he felt little guilt - he had been taught by a miracle that his focus should be on the living, not the long-dead past - he would still honour the one who had been Master to them all.
He whispered the words, the chants.
Then, suddenly, froze, all words drying up in his mouth. suddenly robbed of strength, he clawed at the bedclothes, and almost fell.
"Obi-Wan," he moaned. "Oh my Obi-Wan..."
It was so easy to put in words, so overwhelming and terrible in its truth.
"I now have reason to believe that Obi-Wan might have gone to Coruscant, to face Vader and Palpatine alone."
Anton gasped, visibly blanching. "That's suicide."
He clenched his fist tight enough to hurt. "I hope not."
It was so simple, so terrible. "Twenty one next week," Obi-Wan had said, lightly, the night before he had disappeared. He had been born the same week Yoda had died, promising the birth of hope. He had never known Luke's exact birthday, but had just assumed he was the one. "Perhaps he was not the one," Obi-Wan had said, dreamily, and he had scarcely listened.
He had scarcely listened, when it had been the most important thing Obi-Wan had ever said to him... (More important than, "I love you"? Oh no, not to him, never to him...) Obi-Wan, with his unique immense talent, was the one Yoda had talked about - and, somehow, he knew it. He thought he had a destiny to fulfil, and the strength to fulfil it. Not wanting to risk anyone else, he had gone alone.
How scared he must have been, how scared...
"How sure are you?"
He swallowed. "Fairly sure."
"Coruscant's six weeks away."
Six weeks... He could be arriving now, alone and so scared, facing a destiny that could kill him, or lead him to pain unimaginable...
Anton, every inch a Rebellion leader although he was also a friend, leant forward intensely, his fingers steepled. "We don't have a presence on Coruscant. Too close to the Emperor." A pause. "I know nothing of the powers Vader yields. If Obi-Wan confronts Vader and the Emperor, has he any chance of succeeding? Or is this just a foolish boy we're talking about, who needs to be rescued."
Qui-Gon thought of that incredible ability to use the Force invisibly; of the courage that never failed even in the face of suffering; of the immense compassion for the suffering of others. "Oh yes," he said, mingled sadness and awe. "I believe he has a chance."
Anton nodded, accepting it without argument, deferring, as all good leaders do, to one who knows. "I'll have to tell the High Council. They could arrange an attack on Coruscant to co-ordinate with Obi-Wan's effort..." But his voice showed his doubts.
Qui-Gon shook his head, knowing suddenly that he could not stay here for a moment longer, could not hear another word. "I'm going to Coruscant after him."
He would have walked out then, but Anton darted at him, grabbing his wrist. Almost he struck him then, with fist or lightsabre. He was a gibbering monster, a dark man serving the Empire... something, anything, keeping him from Obi-Wan for one second longer than was necessary.
Then he blinked, and Anton was himself again. Close to collapse from shame and fear, Qui-Gon could only open and close his mouth, dry and silent.
Anton's eyes were full of infinite understanding. "Take my ship," he said, quietly. "And I'm coming too. I'll tell the High Council once we're en route."
Still unable to speak, Qui-Gon could only nod.
It had been the first truly reprehensible thing he had ever done. Even with Koveras, which still pained him with guilt despite all Qui-Gon's words, he had tried hard and been pure of intention, although he had failed.
This, though, had been a violation, shameful and repulsive.
The boy had been scared, fleeing from a dark past to a future that offered little else. He had needed a friend, and, in Obi-Wan, he had thought he had found one.
"Tell me about it," Obi-Wan had urged him, gentle and understanding.
And the boy had told, his mind full of images and memories and tastes and smells. The boy had told... and, like a cold cruel finger, Obi-Wan had slipped into his mind and violated him, plundering his emotions when he had been all unwitting. Yes, the boy had derived true comfort from the telling, and the friendship Obi-Wan had shown him, but that changed nothing. Obi-Wan had used him for his own ends, abused his trust... worse than raped him.
Before the end, he knew, he would commit worse acts, worse crimes, until there was nothing worth saving of Obi-Wan Kenobi at all.
Yet, even so, his head was high as he descended the ramp and stepped onto a landing platform in Coruscant.
Commander Alberich hated talking to Vader. All day afterwards, he knew, his skin would feel as if it crawled with small dark insects.
"Run," he had almost said to the boy. "Run now, and I'll not say anything." Or even just, "run now", and then a quick mercy shot with the blaster in his back. He was a good shot and well trained, and would have killed him without pain - just one explosion, and then peace. Perhaps he would have done it, too, but none of them truly knew how much Vader knew. He saw truths that men had never dared utter; treasons that they had not even voiced in their own minds.
Alberich was scared of him, though he showed no visible signs of fear in his presence. He thought Vader sensed the true fear he felt, though. Sometimes he felt this was the only reason he had advanced in Vader's personal guard at all.
Vader had no interest in those who felt fear and showed it, despising them as weak, and there was no triumph in breaking a weak man. Men who neither showed nor felt fear were either stupid, or strong enough to be a threat; they tended to be shipped out to the front lines, where death quickly found them. But with men like him - men who felt fear but were strong enough to hide it - Vader had the pleasure of knowing he was forcing a strong man to serve him against his inclinations.
He was scared of him now, announcing himself at the door to Vader's audience chamber. He was scared, though his head was high, and, as he had seen so many times before, Vader's handsome mouth curled in a small chilling smile at the sight of him.
"What do you have for me today, Alberich?"
He hustled the boy forward, the dull silver manacles whispering together softly. The boy raised his head and looked Vader full in his face, his lips openly slightly.
"He approached us at the barricades, saying he had come a long way to serve you."
Vader's eyes narrowed consideringly. "Did he now."
Scared for the boy - he had seen Vader strike a man suddenly, painfully dead, with less warning than he was giving now - Alberich stepped forward. "He's not armed."
"I can see that." Very cold. Alberich shivered inside. "Is this true, boy?"
The boy's eyes shone with the adoration he had professed, earlier, to the disbelieving guards. "I've heard about you. So powerful...." He licked his lips - an unconscious gesture of nerves that made him, standing in the sunlight in his black clothes, look beautiful beyond measure. "I have dreamed of nothing but serving you."
"Is that so." It was not a question; it conveyed nothing of doubt, nor of acceptance. One thing only did Alberich see - the predatory gleam in Vader's eyes as he raked the boy's body with his eyes. He had seen it before, and seen many young man end up bruised and screaming.
"Yes, my lord." The boy fell to his knees, his hands still bound before him. "Please let me serve you."
Vader laughed. "Not something I get asked every day..." Then, his black-gloved hand lashing out suddenly and closed round the boy's chin, hard enough to hurt, and a lot: "What's your name, boy?"
The voice was strained past the grip that pulled his head forward and stretched his throat. "Ben, my lord."
"Well, Ben." Vader smiled, and once again Alberich almost pulled out his blaster and shot the boy there and then. 'I thought I saw a weapon,' he would say, and, if Vader knew the truth as he surely would, what loss was there if he died? But fear and a long habit of obedience made him craven, paralysed. He could only watch as Vader touched the boy's face, and said his name like a caress of a soft whip.
"And so I will test you, Ben, to see if you are worthy."
Ah yes, he thought, the insects would crawl on his flesh tonight, and worse than ever before. He thought he might be sick, later, alone in his quarters and imagining the boy's white body writhing tormented under Vader's black-clad hands.
He had known it, really. Surely he had known it. Vader was the dark-haired men from his dreams - the man who, night after night, would hurt him and rape him. Yes, he had known it. It was why he was here, expecting it. It was going to plan. It was...
<Master help me. Force help me. Please stop it from hurting too much. Please...>
He had never been more afraid. Never had it been more important to hide that fear, locking it in the one tiny part of his mind that could remain Obi-Wan Kenobi, that could cry to the man he loved, and fear, and plan.
Vader could have been called handsome, but to Obi-Wan he was only hideous, with cold eyes that loved power and inflicting pain. But he smiled admiringly, running his tongue over his lips in open invitation. Ben thought Vader the most handsome man he had ever seen.
"Oh no." Vader chuckled, and placed a cold finger over Obi-Wan's lips. It looked like a gesture meant to silence, but then he dragged the finger down, angling it so the tip caught Obi-Wan's lower lip. Just for a moment, he held that between his fingers. "Not yet," he whispered. "Not until you've been tested."
All tenderness vanished in that instant. Vader was all hard eyes and cruel incisive power. Obi-Wan felt him summon the Force like a black stinking cloud, almost saw it billow around him for a moment - a miasma of black - then reach out towards Obi-Wan with probing fingers.
This was it. This was the moment.
<You use the Force, and... Obi-Wan, I can't sense it at all> Qui-Gon had said. He had only wild trust, and the word of the voices of light in the Force - words he could have misunderstood - to cling to now. How was it possible that his lips were still? He thought he was praying with all his strength, over and over, <let him not sense it. Please let me pass...>
And then the Force touched him, raking through his mind.
"So, Ben, who are you?" he heard, in a voice that was cold steel, but had none of the darkness of that mental touch. "Tell me a little about yourself."
Vader could not read his whole mind with a touch. He was sure of that - he _had_ to be sure of that. He could read glimpses of surface thoughts - emotions, of course, and images from his mind. The true Obi-Wan, locked behind shields as strong as anything he had ever built, he _must_ not sense. The whole rest of his mind he flooded with the images he had taken from the boy's mind on the ship - images of a childhood on a farm, a disappointed love, coming to Coruscant for a new start... And all the while he talked, outlining the boy's life in words, as if he was ignorant to how little Vader was listening to the words his mouth uttered, how much he was listening to his mind.
<Please let it work> the true Obi-Wan pleaded. <I only want to serve Vader. I love him, so powerful...> he felt with the whole of his heart that was Ben.
It felt like an eternity, that dark touching, walking through his soul like an invader. He wondered if he should shiver. Surely even those not skilled in the Force could feel _something_ of this invasion. But the boy on the ship had been apparently oblivious to what Obi-Wan had done to him. He had not shivered.
So Obi-Wan stood firm, a look of nervous hopefulness of his face. <Please let him be satisfied. Please let him like me. I want to serve him so much.>
Just for a moment, Vader smiled. Just for a moment, the touch of the Force withdrew, just a little, from his mind.
Obi-Wan swallowed hard. He must not, _must not_, show his relief.
"So you're not a spy? Not used, even unwittingly, by my enemies?"
"No." He shook his head fervently. "Oh no, my Lord."
The dark Force returned them, on his body this time, not his soul. It was cold fingers on his naked skin. It was the flat blade of a dagger, running over his body, threatening at any point to turn and hurt him with the edge. He _felt_ it, dark and terrible, probing his body for hidden weapons, for transmitters embedded deep in his flesh. And then, when it didn't find them, it ran over his body with invasive lasciviousness...
"Take off your clothes, boy," Vader said, suddenly.
Obi-Wan almost started. Vader's voice seemed so quiet, so ignificant, against the reality that was his Force touch. He swallowed hard. Surely even Ben would be nervous. "Yes, my lord."
He thought his fingers would shake. He thought he would scream, would confess everything - <I've got the Force and I've come here to kill you.> Better die now than to suffer this. Better, oh better by far...
He forced himself to breathe steadily, and to count his breaths. One, he counted. One, two, three.... Twenty, and he was almost surprised to find himself fully naked, his dark clothes crumpled at his feet. He kept his head high.
Vader's eyes raked his body. His eyes glittered, and he made no effort to hide his desire. Obi-Wan braced himself for the assault, but got only words: "how did you get those scars, boy?"
"A river burst its banks. I almost died." And that was no lie. Falling, rushing, tumbling, drowning... Lying in the mud and knowing he was surely dying... Images in his mind testified to the truth of his words.
"And the blaster burn?"
"A fight with some local boys." He shivered, and filled his mind with the solitrary fear od being surrounded in the woods by Arren and his friends. Sunlight glittered on a stolen blaster.
Vader nodded. He risked it - there had to be a first time, and when was better than now, when at least, if he failed, he had not yet suffered? - and reached out with his own little tendril of Force, touching Vader's mind, just fleetingly. He sensed satisfaction there, and knew his story had been beleived. He sensed lust... but that was what he had expected, surely. He sensed, also, a horrible gleeful intention...
This ignorant boy has a crush on me, Vader was thinking. He thinks he loves me. What an amusing toy he will make, for a while. How pleasant it will be to see how far I can push him and still have him love me. The others hate me, but still have to serve me. How pleasant it will be to have someone who loves me even as he squirms in agony under my boot.
As if burned, he pulled back. "Can I get dressed now, my Lord?" Oh, but it was the hardest thing he had ever done, to keep his voice steady, not to run...
Vader smiled. "Oh no, boy. I think it's time for you to perform your first service."
He raped him then, on the cold floor of the audience chamber.
He raped him, and Obi-Wan could not cry, could not scream. His cries, his moans, had to speak of nothing but the pleasure of a dream fulfiled.
He saw his splayed hand on the black stone floor, so white. He saw a crack in the stones. He saw a single mote of dust.
Afterwards, he saw Vader's dark boots as he walked away and left him there.
Even then, he could not cry.
He crawled, at first, away from that spot of stone that had been decorated with his own blood. Just a short distance, and with his discarded clothes clutched in one hand.
Just a short distance, but, in his heart, he thought he would never ever leave that place.
"I didn't give you permission to get dressed."
Vader's voice was like a honeyed slap. Obi-Wan looked up leadenly. He sat so close to the place he had been thrown down then discarded, knees drawn up to his chest, eyes staring into a distance that Vader could never know. It was no act. Even if he had been free to try, he doubted he would have summoned the energy to move from this place.
He was dead inside, soiled, unworthy of living, after all this was over. <Only my body> he had told himself, over and over on the ship. <And it's necessary, and in a good cause. There's nothing shameful in it.>
But he had been a boy, then, knowing nothing. Since then he had let a monster paw his naked flesh, and cried out in pain and pleasure. Since then, and again and again in the future, he would cry out - small purring sounds of a boy who loved pain and worshipped the man who inflicted it. How could he do that, even as Ben, and not be changed?
"Ah, but you're right, boy." All soft words, but Obi-Wan could read the danger beneath them. He would be punished for this, and maybe soon, though after Ben had been lulled by falsely gentle words not to expect it. "I can't have others seeing your charms, when you're mine, after all."
Only then did Obi-Wan look up, seeing what he had already sensed - Commander Alberich, his sense one of well-concealed awkwardness. He bore something in his hands.
Those dark boots strode to his side, that gloved hand seized his hair, pulling his head back. A ripple of Force caressed his throat. Ben had no knowledge of the Force, and his eyes widened in surprise at this invisible touch. It was all Obi-Wan could do not to cry out. "And you _are_ mine, aren't you, boy?" A voice of seductive menace.
Ben moistened his lips, even seemed to swell with pride. "Yes, my lord."
"So you won't mind if I mark you? If I take steps to keep you at my side, like the precious thing you are?"
"Oh no, my lord." Ben, foolish Ben, really believed he had a choice. Obi-Wan could only hear the dark amusement in Vader's voice. Pain was very close now.
Vader snapped his fingers and the officer stepped forward. He bore a collar, Obi-Wan saw, of thin pale metal, and intricate workings invisible within.
"Bare your throat for him, Ben."
For a moment, he hesitated - <I can't do this. I've tried. I can't... Oh, I can't...> If Vader coerced him - if ten men with weapons had held him down and overpowered him - it would have been bearable. But to be asked, with words only, to damn himself like this... It was more than he could endure, and still want to live.
He swallowed, and bared his throat, pushing his hair back with his fingers. In that moment, he felt more naked and exposed, for all his clothes, than when naked under Vader's insistent cruel body.
He thought, perhaps, he half expected a knife. Blood would cascade to his wondering hands, and he would have tried and failed, and it would all be over, over...
"This collar" - cold on his skin, and sealed without a lock, and he would _never_ be free of him now, even when alone in the darkness and crying - "is simply to keep you at my side. If you try to leave this building, it will kill you, and very painfully."
He let his hair fall back, lowered his hands to his side. "I'll never try to leave you, my lord," Ben protested, with voice trembling.
"No?" Vader crouched at his side, his breath playfully caressing Obi-Wan's ear. His voice was no more than a whisper. "But you understand my position, Ben. I haven't got to where I am now by trusting people. If I started trusting too easily, I'd risk being killed. You don't want me to be killed, do you, Ben?"
"Oh no, my lord."
"So you understand why I need to do this, don't you, Ben? You allow it? You want it?" Inside he was laughing. Obi-Wan knew without doubt that, if he said yes, he was consenting to far more than the collar.
The muscles of his shoulders were shaking. "Yes, my lord," Ben said, fervently, with only the smallest tremor to his voice.
"Good." Victory won, Vader stood up. He raised his voice, calling for Alberich. "Break his fingers."
Ben gasped, a trust betrayed. Alberich betrayed none of the revulsion he felt inside. "Which ones?"
"It's all right, Ben." Gentle, again. "I just need to be sure you can't cause mischief in my headquarters. You understand. You said you wanted it." Even a small darkening, as if he was hurt by Ben's betrayal. "And you don't need your hands to serve me, Ben. Such a sensuous mouth..."
Wide-eyed, shaking, Ben nodded, then again, over and over, protesting that he understood, that he was sorry for doubting, that he was Vader's to do with as he wished, and sorry, I'm sorry my Lord, I won't doubt you again.
Vader waved his hand, dismissively, growing bored already. "All of them," he said, casually, to Alberich.
Alberich stepped forward.
He took him in his own bed that night - the narrow pallet that had been assigned as Obi-Wan's own.
Obi-Wan knew the intentional cruelty of that - knew that, ever afterwards, the bed would be sullied with the memory of violation and the rank miasma of Vader's lust. He would not even have a room to call his own - not a bed, not even a small square of unsullied sheets a few feet square. Only that small beleaguered piece of his mind would remain unsullied and true.
All this Obi-Wan knew. Ben, ignorant was free to cry out in pain - a tiny blessing, Obi-Wan thought, like the smallest of lights in the darkness. No treacherous cries of pleasure had to issue forth in his voice this night. The living agony of his broken hands swamped Ben's whole being until no coherent thought remained.
He saw flashes of skin, and demanding hands at the back of his neck pushing his mouth onto sweat-slicked flesh. He closed his eyes, and saw only flashes of red pain, swelling, surging until his whole world became one red.
"Boy," he heard. He could not read the voice.
Scarlet battered at the walls in his mind, and the barriers between Obi-Wan and Ben... they could not hold, oh surely they could not hold...
White sheets - how could they be so white, when the... the _thing_ that was performed on them was black, so black? White sheets, snagging his fingers... Light flashed behind his eye lids. Pale skin... Vader has such pale skin, and dark clothes still half covering him, and blood all rotten and stinking in his veins...
He heard a hoarse cry. A hand closed round his wrist, strained... strained, and that was all he knew, all he would ever know, ever in his whole shameful life... For the scarlet agony peaked at that touch, and he cried out, Ben and Obi-Wan howling in one agonised voice - cried out, and... and...
...and he was floating on a sea of blood, lapped by its waves, and rocking, rocking until his head throbbed. He felt sick.
"Just ease the pain," he heard.
Lost... Who was he? Obi-Wan or Ben? But he hurt so much, and the voice spoke of easing his pain. "M... Master?"
"And not set them?" A stranger's voice. Like a single flower in a desert, he sensed compassion, still blooming though a vast eternity of fear surrounded it.
"Do you question me?" And this was Vader. It had been Vader before, too, and he almost cried out in horror at the magnitude of the error he had almost made.
"No, Lord Vader." The flower withered, overwhelmed by the desert night.
Obi-Wan opened his eyes. He lay, half-dressed, in the tangled ruins of his own bed. Vader stood, black and grim, at his bedside, and a small man with greying hair was preparing a needle of thick fluid.
His mouth suddenly dry, he swallowed, then again. There had been a needle on the ship, long ago, and the Force leaving him, and hands, hands pawing at him...
"It will ease the hurting." The man laid a hand on his brow, his hand dry and cool. His eyes did not connect.
"So you can better serve me, Ben," Vader said, slowly, as to a child. "I can't have you fainting again, not when we have only started."
Ben nodded his gratitude. <Thank you, my Lord. Thank you for sparing me the pain. Oh thank you...> Obi-Wan's mind gibbered in terror: <He knows. He knows, or he suspects. It's not to ease the pain at all. I'll offer my arm willingly to the needle, and he'll rob me of the Force, and I'll be his for ever, and all for nothing, everything for nothing...>
"Ben?" The healer massaged a patch of skin above the elbow, preparing him for the needle.
The liquid caught the light. It could be a respite from the pain. It could be that scarlet agony stilled, and his mind his own again, able to apply all its strength to his shields, and the thing he still had to do, later. With pain like this, he was useless, virtually without the Force, even the strength to shield...
And it hurt. <Oh, Master, it hurts so much. Forgive me. Please?>
He offered his arm to the needle, and did so willingly.
"Better?" Vader said, much later.
He looked at his hands, misshapen and streaked black and dark red. They hurt with nothing more than a distant dull ache.
The drug was meant to be his prison, his ball and chain. The whole following day, he got none of it, and the ache in his hands swelled to a roaring fire that consumed everything.
He could access the Force, but barely, and all the strength he had left went to the barriers in his mind. He had nothing left for his own healing, and far less for the task he had ahead of him.
All day long, he was left alone in his small room, where the sense of Vader hung heavily in the very air. Sickened by the touch of his sheets, he sat in the corner, his knees bent to his chest, his hands held motionless before him. By evening, his arms trembled with the immense strain of holding them thus, supported by nothing but the strength of his own muscles.
No-one came. He lacked the strength to probe with the Force and see if he was being monitored.
He wondered where Vader was. At every sound of footfalls outside, he stiffened with dread. By later afternoon, he stiffened still, but it was almost with hope.
"Next time I come, I'll bring more of the drug," Vader had murmured, as he had climbed off his bruised and exhausted body, as he had run his leather fingers over the small of Obi-Wan's back in a tender gesture that was wholly of possession and not of love at all.
<Next time I come...>
A night and a morning had passed before Vader came. Ben cried out in relief and desperate need; Obi-Wan, shamed and betrayed, felt that cry reverberate in his own mind.
"Drug," Vader announced, his eyes like coals. Two strides and he was at his side, wrenching his head back, plunging the needle straight and deep into the vein at the base of Obi-Wan's throat.
Obi-Wan felt a small trickle of blood trickle down his skin, across the collar, and continue its path over his collar bone.
"Ready?" Hoarsely, almost like a bark of anger. Impatience and fury was churning in Vader's blood, barely checked. Obi-Wan knew he was not the source - knew, too, that he would be the scapegoat.
He swallowed. "Yes, my lord." He moved his hands, just a little, and for the first time all day the pain didn't assail him like a hammer between the eyes, threatening to fell him.
"I was gentle with you before, Ben," Vader all but hissed. "Today, _this_ is what I need."
He touched Obi-Wan's cheek, then lower, then more.
Even Ben sobbed, cried, whimpered into Vader's shoulder, biting his mouth to stop the sobs turning into the screams that, deep inside, and so deep he would surely never come out, _ever_, Obi-Wan was howling to the unheeding sky.
Afterwards, he was almost tender. "I must leave for a while, Ben."
His voice was little more than a whisper. He wondered if he would ever have the strength, the will, to speak louder. A man who whispered could hide his shame in the shadows, and never be seen, never again have anyone's eyes rake over his flesh.
"You can't come with me." A touch, almost a caress, on the collar. Vader's face looked almost regretful. "Await my return."
"How..." He licked his bloodied lips. "How long?"
"As _my_ Master wills it." A mocking smile. "A few days, perhaps." Or maybe more, or less. Vader shared his plans with no-one.
Ben, shameful, fallen Ben, clung closer. "Will you still want me when you come back?"
"You want me to?"
Vader chuckled. The amusement was not feigned. He was only a toy to be played with until he was broken - and then, perhaps, played with all the more _because_ he was broken. It amused Vader to play with his toy, to feel the needy love in the boy he had hurt and abused so badly.
"Yes, my Lord." Fawning, disgusting - no, not disgusting, but deeply pitiful, immensely sad. Too many boys were taught that love was only expressed through domination and the inflicting of pain. His own father could have taught him that lesson, had they both been different.
"Never fear." That cruel tender hand touched his hip, and, for a moment, pulled him closer. Obi-Wan froze; Ben moaned. "I'm nowhere near done with you, my Ben."
Only when that hand withdrew would he think again, could he calm the roiling panic in his true hidden mind. "What shall I do when you're away?"
<Heal> he pleaded. <Heal. Hide... Leave Ben aside just for a moment and be Obi-Wan again, whole and free from his taint.> An impossible dream. Vader had touched Obi-Wan as much as he had touched Ben, and both were irredeemably scarred and dirtied.
And an impossible dream, too, twice over. There would be no rest for him here, no healing. He was here for a purpose. Ben was the means to the end - the way into Vader's trust and his most secure base. Only at the every end could he shed Ben like a beggar shedding his rags, and be wholly Obi-Wan, putting his whole being into the fulfilment of his destiny.
"Stay here," Vader said, all casual cruelty masked in a gentleness that Ben believed. "No drug, for you know I have to be careful who I trust." Ben nodded. "Once a day you can walk to get food and drink from the refectory. Only once." A possessive touch on his naked stomach. "You're mine now."
"Yes, my Lord."
And it was the truth. His mind was his own, and he was sworn to the Force to kill this man, and the moment he felt himself wavering in that, he would kill himself, tearing a bed spring away with the Force and ripping his own veins open with the jagged metal. But his body was Vader's, and the part of his mind - a growing, living part - that was Ben belonged wholly to him.
Even at the end, he would never be free from the taint.
Afterwards, long after Vader had left, it was _that_ he wept for - for the young innocent boy called Obi-Wan Kenobi, who was loved by Qui-Gon Jinn.
Qui-Gon would never see that boy again.
Four days, he endured, and lived, and obeyed.
The first day, he had no strength even to walk to get food - and no inclination. He simply lay still - not on the bed, never on the bed - and maybe he was half unconscious and fainting, or maybe it was a healing trance.
His hands darkened into something black and twisted, and nothing like whole flesh at all. With the Force and his own strength, he could have eased those broken bones - not healed them utterly, but aligned them straight, and set them on the slow road to healing.
He dared not. Vader had meant to cripple him, to make him useless as a free man or a saboteur, partly for his own security, and partly just because he _could_. If Vader returned and saw healing straight bones where he expected crippled fingers still livid with living pain, he would... No, he would not think of that. All that mattered was that it _could_ not happen.
But Vader was not here. In his absence, he could at least ease the pain a little, imitating the action of the drug. He could not lower the shielding in his mind for a moment, but he no longer needed to pour so much of his strength into them. _Some_ Force at least was available to him, and he could use it, and did.
The second day found him a little stronger, and able at least the stand, even to put one put before the other without the jarring in his hands driving him to his knees.
But he almost fainted when he reached the refectory. He staggered, swayed... and no-one came to hold him up, even though many eyes watched him, and not all the officers shared the cruelty of their Master.
One man saw him, froze for a moment, then fled.
Coldly - he, too, had received his orders - a member of the kitchen staff hurried up to him, and dropped a hunk of bread and a bowl of stew before him. His eyes were cold and blank. Droids could have, should have, performed this task, but Obi-Wan had seen no droids in Vader's service. He preferred to break men and use them.
"Thank you," he murmured, impulsively. However cold, however cruel, he would treat all Vader's servants as human, and give them the respect that they would never be able to give to him, Vader's toy, pitied and despised, or just plain ignored.
The servant made no acknowledgement. Sighing - what had he expected, anyway? - he let himself notice the smell of the food, and to realise that he was very hungry. His whole life had collapsed, his soul and body shattered, but still the treacherous needs of his body made their demands, as if all was well.
He ran his tongue over his dry bruised lips...
And realised the final twist of Vader's orders. He had no hands to eat with. It was grasp the bread between the heels of his hands and eat, risking touching his broken fingers with his own face, or it was lowering his head to the table and eating like a dog, here in front of all the people.
He went hungry that day, and the third.
The fourth, after a night in which hunger cramping his stomach and the pain of it was almost the equal of the pain in his hands, he knew he had no choice. He had fallen so far already, giving his whole body to the lustful hands of an enemy as if he was nothing. He _was_ nothing. What shame was too great for him? How could he have any pride left?
This time, that evening of the fourth day, the servant dropped the food on the floor.
Obi-Wan stood still for a long moment. <I could lift it with the Force, and, all without touching it, put it to my mouth and eat it. How his eyes would widen at that...> It was a genuine temptation. "You saw nothing," he would say to the servant, afterwards, and who would ever know?
Temptation was a luxury and a cruel torment. To risk everything just because his pride was too great to eat like this, on his knees like an animal... No.
Almost fiercely, he knelt, then bent forward, his weight falling onto his elbows, his hands protectively spread and not touching the floor.
He lowered his head and ate. He ate, and thought the stew was only just mediocre, it was rich and as welcome as a king's banquet. He _would_ derive that small pleasure, even in the middle of so much shame and pain. For his whole future, all pleasures would be such tiny frail things; if he did not cherish them, did not let himself derive comfort from them, he would go insane with despair.
So, yes, the stew was good. Ben was grateful for it.
"Hey, pretty boy."
He had a flicker of warning through the Force, but pretended he had not, falling under the sudden kick, falling to one side. He twisted, and his hands remained off the floor. He blinked, looking up at his attacker, and saw him laughing.
"An animal. Vader's pet." Another laugh, and then, suddenly, a violent kick. The man spat, his spittle falling on Obi-Wan's exposed throat. "On your knees, waiting for him to take you. Or can any of us take you?"
Other voices joined in, laughing. Obi-Wan tried lots of replies in his mind, then said none of them. Silence was best. Ben was silent, not telling him what he would do. Whimper, perhaps, and protest that he was his Lord's and his Lord's alone. Maybe he would say it in a moment.
"Maybe I shall try..." A twist of cold amusement, and no lust at all.
"Leave him." A quick sounding of military boots, and Alberich was at his side, sharp with anger and with something more. "You know Vader will kill you if you touch him."
But that was not his true reason, Obi-Wan knew. As he could only lie there, breathing high and fast and scared, he knew the man's mind. Guilt, most of all, that he had been the one to bring Obi-Wan to this life, and that he had been the one to hurt him so badly. With the guilt was mingled anger. Obi-Wan could not let himself feel relief in this rescue. Alberich could hardly bare to look at him, almost hated him, for being the innocent cause of his guilt.
After a long time, all tense confrontation, his assailant nodded. He muttered something about "only a bit of fun", and covered his defeat with another sharp kick. His friends drifted away, suddenly all unable to look at Obi-Wan, still lying where he had been pushed, on the floor in a lake of spilled stew.
Alberich's eyes were more averted than any. There were quick glances only, and nothing more, and he helped Obi-Wan to his feet, and no glance at all when a wrench at his hand caused an involuntary cry to escape Obi-Wan's lips.
Obi-Wan would force the man to confront him. He would _make_ him. He had seen Qui-Gon run from guilt and seek refuge in coldness and anger, refusing to face the cause of his guilt. He would not see another man wounded in the same way. "It wasn't your fault," he murmured, leaning close - though mostly that was for support, for his head felt horribly light and his hands throbbed, all awakened pain.
"No?" Alberich snapped, his voice terrible. Then something seemed to pass over him, smoothing out the pain as it passed, leaving behind a cold mask of a soldier. Only Obi-Wan, with the Force, knew that it was a mask only, and that inside nothing had changed. "Can you make your own way back?"
But Obi-Wan was persistent. He had thawed Qui-Gon's defences, after all. "I need someone to help me clean up. I... I can't even change my clothes."
Not quite true. Vader had surely intended for him to come to the refectory still half naked, in those torn rags of clothes that had clung to him after that last terrible taking. But, with immense concentration through the Force to ease the pain, and not without wrenching silent cries of agony, he had been able to get changed. He could do it again, though it would cost him terribly.
"I can't do that," Alberich said, firmly. But something had changed inside. He _could_ not, and Obi-Wan had not really expected him to, not wanting the man to suffer Vader's wrath. But, despite himself, Alberich wanted to, wished he could help.
"Oh." Obi-Wan lowered his eyes, then raised them again, the picture of a boy disappointed, but bearing it well. "Thank you, anyway, for helping me."
Alberich swallowed. "Your hands..."
"It's..." And the he stopped, caught out by sudden horror, close to betraying everything. Never had Ben been so distant from him, so almost forgotten. It was with an almost physical effort that he forced Ben back into his consciousness, made himself speak with his voice. "I understand why he did it. He did it because he doesn't want to lose me."
Alberich looked away, clenching his fist. For a moment, he almost spoke - <he doesn't, boy. He means to break you utterly. Run, die... Just do anything you can to escape him.> But then he simply turned and strode away.
The fifth day saw two disobediences, and, though neither were very great at all, one of them would escalate, and end up destroying everything.
Alberich's was the first - and, really, it was no disobedience at all, for he had never been ordered _not_ to help the Obi-Wan eat. No real disobedience... though not really so at all, for Alberich, just like all of them, understood their Master's cruelty and knew his intention when he sent Obi-Wan, with broken hands, alone to the refectory to eat.
"Here." His voice was gentle. He met Obi-Wan in the corridor, mid way between his room and the refectory. In his hands he bore a hunk of soft bread, and a beaker full of some thick liquid with a straw in it. "Survival rations," he explained. "Very nutritious and filling."
Obi-Wan thanked him simply. He could refuse, but the damage had already been done. Alberich must surely have been seen leaving the hall, if not in the offering itself. As Alberich stood patiently, he drank the liquid, then eat the bread from his hands. Another small shame, but such a little one.
Afterwards, their eyes met. Both Obi-Wan and Alberich knew that Vader would see disobedience in this. Ben, who probably believed that his Lord had merely forgotten that he did not have the hands to eat, was still grateful.
For a moment, time seemed to slow. Perhaps he had only minutes... only seconds, he feared suddenly. Seconds, and this one small moment, before Vader came back and he was prisoner in mind and body and everything was lost.
"Does the Emperor ever come here?" he blurted out, knowing it would sound bad, but too suddenly scared to stop it. Perhaps Ben, who had a crush on powerful men, had given a part of his heart to his Master's Master, too. "I would like to see him."
And, thank the Force, Alberich replied, did not cry aloud and denounce him for treason. "He has his own headquarters and Vader has his. They seldom meet, but at times the Emperor summons him to his side." He frowned. "He's come here once or twice, I think, when campaigns have gone very wrong. He comes without warning, and sweeps in with that red escort like an avenging angel. What he says to Vader, what he does..." A shudder, and his words dried up.
He nodded. "I would like to see him again," he said, simply. No comment on what he'd heard - no comment on anything at all, for surely talking of such things was disobedience confounded, and if he said nothing, perhaps no-one would know what Alberich had risked for his simple question. "I hope I do."
"I hope you don't," Alberich said, fervently. "Last time, Vader killed thirty men after the Emperor left." Then, with an almost visible flicker of fear, he stood up, clicked his heels together, and was all officer again, all loyalty. "I must attend to my duties."
"Yes," Obi-Wan said, and, "thank you."
He wished, so fervently wished, that he didn't have to betray this man.
The second disobedience was Obi-Wan's, and, in its way, it was less of a disobedience than Alberich's, for Vader had only told him that he could leave his room to get food, and not that he had to go straight back again afterwards.
He walked, careful of his hands, down austere metal corridors. At first, he thought, wondering which way to go. After a while, he just closed down all conscious thought, letting instinct guide him. Those voices of light must surely be watching him still, and, though he knew success still rested on his own strength and choices and ability to endure, the Force would guide him.
If it guided him at all, it took him to a closed door, of simple dark metal, with no writing on it, no warnings. A small door.
He closed his eyes, raised one broken hand before him and pressed it almost against the door, though a few inches away, touching only the empty air... and the sense of the place beyond it.
Then, gently lowering his throbbing hand to his side, he turned and, very quietly, walked away.
On the fifth night, Vader returned.
...Not to Obi-Wan, not at first, but soon, too soon, he came to him.
He smiled. His eyes raked Obi-Wan's body, from shadowed eyes to twisted bruised hands. As he lingered on the latter, his smiled deepened.
"Missed me, Ben?"
Careful. Just enough longing in his eyes, but a small touch of fear too. "Yes, my lord."
Vader sat on the bed, and seized Obi-Wan's body with a strong tendril of Force, dragging him bodily to his side. Their two bodies fell entwined, and Obi-Wan cried at the sickening pain in his hand. Vader only laughed at that. He had no drug. "Show me what I've missed, Ben."
He waited. No, not now, not yet...
Vader's thrusts grew more insistent, more urgent. Obi-Wan could sense him reaching his climax. He lay quiescent beneath him, and, insanely, the worst thing of all seemed to be that his hands were broken, and he could not even have the relief of clutching the sheets, and balling them in his agonised fists until they tore, and his hands were white and shaking.
Vader's sweat dripped onto his back. His own tears moistened the sheet beneath him, for even Ben could cry, now. Faster and faster, and he closed his eyes, reaching out with his mind behind the barriers... reaching, reaching...
Demanding hands on either side of Ben's hips, pulling him up and closer. Obi-Wan's mind was before a small dark door, reaching through, probing...
Nails in his skin, teeth in his shoulder, drawing blood, tearing...
Ben whimpered. Obi-Wan saw the machine behind that door, and the buttons and levers, and, touching each one intimately with the Force, knew the purpose behind each one.
<There> he thought, as Vader slammed into Ben one last time, dark tendrils of ecstasy entwining his sense. <There>
With the Force, he touched, and squeezed and melted, and it was like his own ecstasy in its way. He thought perhaps he cried out, or sighed, a small sound of release. Like a retreating finger, his sense travelled back through the corridors, silent and invisible, and was back in the body that, for a while, had housed only Ben...
And was there, just in time to feel Vader push himself onto his elbows, suddenly alert. "What...?"
"That's strange," Anton said, suddenly.
Qui-Gon passed his hand over his brow. He was deeply weary, using the Force to guide the small ship through hyperspace, guiding himself to Obi-Wan's side in half the time it would have taken otherwise. He scarcely slept, even more seldom ate, and spoke little. "What?" he managed now, tersely.
"Our... contact, watching Coruscant. He says the planetary shield wavered for a few minutes, almost went off."
"Oh." Something tickled in his mind, like a warning. Was this Obi-Wan's work? "How could that happen?"
"The shield is controlled in three places," Anton explained. "Vader's headquarters, we think, and Palpatine's, and another. If any one of those was shut down, the shield would weaken, like this, as the other two struggled to cover the extra load."
"And you think that's what happened?"
Anton curled his fist, rounding on him with an anger that was not real at all, and was only frustration. "I don't know."
Qui-Gon let his mind drift. "I think it was," he said, distantly. Then he closed his eyes and reached more distantly still.
Ben lay limp and discarded, trying to push his weak body onto one elbow, to watch his Lord as he dressed.
Vader didn't look at him, snapping orders into a communicator, dark with fury. "Who was guarding it?" and "Get it back on, _now_!" and "if I find out it was your negligence..."
"My Lord?" he hazarded.
Vader ignored him. Ben wanted to ask again, but Obi-Wan stopped him just in time, knowing that Vader had let himself be seen by the boy, caught out by the fear of a sudden reverse. Better far to shrink into the sheets and be inconspicuous, invisible.
He bit his lips, and scarcely even breathed.
And then something touched his mind, distant, like the softest of touches...
<Obi-Wan?> he heard. Love, such love, and concern...
Qui-Gon, Master, beloved... Just for a moment, he smiled, enjoying that tiniest moment of contentment, with a man in his mind who loved him. Just for a moment, and a moment that could kill him, could kill them all...
<No!> Although it would destroy him, would make him weep and weep in the darkness for every solitary moment ever afterwards, he repelled Qui-Gon with all his strength. <No. He'll know you. He'll know you, and kill me, and it will all be for nothing. All this for nothing... Oh, Master, I couldn't bear that, couldn't....>
And he was alone in his mind, all alone, and Vader was looking at him, eyes narrowed with suspicion.
Qui-Gon slammed back in his chair as if he had been thrown. He was breathing heavily; cold sweat stood out on his brow.
He covered his face with his hands, not caring how it looked. "He's there," he said, his voice leaden. "He's there, and he's in danger, and.... and I can't risk contacting him ever again."
Anton just looked at him, and had no words at all.
"What did you do just then?"
Obi-Wan licked his lips. "Nothing."
He had forgotten everything, _everything_... Just the need to repel his Master - oh, and the desperate intense urge to give in to it and revel in that touch.... Repelling with all his mind, all his strength, heedless of Ben, who could feel none of these things.
"I talked to you, Ben, and you didn't seem to hear me. I sensed nothing from you at all."
Nothing... Oh, thank the Force, nothing. His whole being had been Obi-Wan, behind the shields, leaving nothing of himself to be Ben. Worse, far worse, if Ben, too, had done the repelling, filling his mind with the touch and the memory of his true Master.
"I... My hands hurt. I think I almost fainted for a while." He projected hurt and confusion. It was not a lie, not really. The pain of being so close to Qui-Gon, and having to push him away, was worse than the pain of a thousand broken fingers.
"No." Vader's eyes were cold pits of anger, and infinitely cruel. "I think you deliberately hid from me. I think you're wavering in your love for me."
"No, oh no," Ben protested. Even with his broken hands, he lunged for Vader's hands, trying to pull them close, to kiss them. Given the chance, he would have kissed his boots. "I love you, my Lord."
Vader smashed him brutally in the face, augmenting it with the Force. Ben slammed into the wall at the far end of the bed, blood spraying from his mouth and nose, his head splitting in sudden agony.
"This is your first punishment for inattention," Vader hissed, standing up. He flexed his knuckles. "There will be more. I need to attend to something first, but I _will_ return."
Although his body cried out to him to let it fall forward, to curl up on the sheets and rest, Ben kept his head up, desperate to show that his attention was not wavering one little bit. He deserved the punishment, surely, for not loving Vader as much as he deserved. He would fear it a little, but he would look forward to it.
And Obi-Wan, too, though he feared it more, could find little to regret in it. Better far to be punished for inattention, than for Vader to know the truth. Vader could flog his flesh from his bones, but still he would be thankful...
...And still, he thought, would it hurt less, far less, than that moment when he had pushed Qui-Gon away, when his whole bleeding soul cried out for his touch.
"Tell me why you are being punished, Ben."
A whole day later, perhaps. His face was stiff with long-dried blood, his eyes heavy with not sleeping - not daring to sleep. He was against the wall where he had been thrown so long before, his arms spread like one pinned, though nothing but Ben's desperate need to please his Lord was keeping him thus.
He ran his tongue over his crushed lips. "Because I let my attention wander. Because I made you think I didn't love you as much as I really do."
Footsteps on the floor. "And you still love me?"
"Oh yes. I do. I do, my Lord. I'm so sorry."
Nothing touched him, not yet. There was a deadly stillness in the room. "Are you begging, Ben? You want to avoid your punishment?"
"No. Oh no, my Lord."
Eyes flickering desperately, mingled adoration and fear. He deserved this punishment, for letting his mind drift elsewhere - go where? Punishment would hurt, but it was Vader's immense power that had first attracted him to the Lord, on his quiet farm, dreaming of the day he could serve such a man. Every time Vader dispensed punishment, he was only showing himself more powerful, more worthy of his love. And, besides, his Lord only hurt him because he wanted to keep him at his side, loving him, ready for him to take at his will, always and for ever.
It came without warning. Just a raised black hand, eyes like fire, and a sudden red agony, blazing through him, melting him, killing him...
He screamed. His eyes screwed shut...; when he opened them, just for a minute, he saw gouts of lightning issuing from Vader's outstretched hand, lancing through the air, encompassing him.
And then, just for a moment, blessed relief, his nerves on fire, his breath heaving in his chest, the horrible smell of charring in his nostrils. At some point he had fallen over, onto his side on the bed, and then further, onto the floor. He lay there now, curled round his agony, dry eyed but sobbing.
<No. No, please stop, oh please...> "If you wish it, my Lord." His voice was a stranger's.
A satisfied nod - Vader was pleased with his answer - and the fire blazed forth again, and again, and again...
...And became a smear of blood on the floor, and a tangle of sheets, and his own pale naked forearm beneath his cheek.
He opened his eyes. He moved his head, winced, and rolled over onto his back. Dust seemed to spark near the ceiling, dancing in residual electricity.
He was alone. How long had passed?
He blinked, lacking, as yet, the strength to move any more. The small part of him that was still Obi-Wan - a small part that had almost died, he thought, for a moment - knew that he had been lucky. Ben's punishment had not truly been about himself at all, but an expression of fury by a man who had seen a very important device sabotaged, and could not understand how it had happened. Vader had already killed three men before coming to Ben's chamber. Had he not done so, it would have been worse, so much worse for him.
<Worse?> He laughed at that suddenly - hard terrible laughter that was closer to sobbing. Worse? As it was, it had been bad. Very bad.
But - and, as he thought so, he raised his broken hands and looked at them wonderingly - perhaps, now, he had the final piece of his answer.
He dreamed, later, lying still where he had dragged himself, flat on his back and half naked in the middle of the floor.
He saw three men, innocent men who had maintained and guarded a room full of computer and machinery. He saw them gasp, protesting their innocence - "it wasn't me, my Lord. I swear it. And no-one came in. Look at the surveillance cameras, my Lord..."
He saw Vader's eyes narrow with the fury of knowing that they were right, and at their audacity at saying it.
He saw them gasp again, this time a strangled sound of men who were choking, unable to breathe.
Vader's gloved fist closed in the air, tighter, tighter...
He saw them die, innocent victims of his own actions.
In his dream, he wept, and when he woke up, much later, he would find his cheeks stiff with dried tears, so perhaps it had been real too.
In his dream, then, he travelled amongst the stars, questing, searching... "Am I doing right?" he called to the dark expanse of space, seeking, longing for, that shimmering expanse of light that spoke to him and called him son. "They _died_. If this is wrong, please stop me now, tell me, cast me out, damn me... Just..." - and he wailed at that - "just _tell me to stop this._"
Silence. Only silence, and nothing more. A silence of condemnation, or a silence of consent?
He thought - but it was only his desperate hopes, surely - he caught a distance glimpse of those voices of light far distant from him, watching, grieving for him. <We can't come to you, child. _He_ will sense us if we do.>
And then only the solitary blackness of space.
And then was a bad time for Obi-Wan and Ben, both.
Days and night flickered, blending into one. The windowless room admitted no light; only Obi-Wan was aware, so distantly aware, that in a place outside the sun rose and swelled and slipped away into another night.
Obi-Wan wandered, searching, through the darkness of his dreams, crying out for a benediction, for just one tiny sign that he was on the right path. Dead men howled in the night and called him murderer with their cold sightless eyes.
Ben's eyes occasionally fluttered open. At times, a silent man tended him, not unkindly but yet with no tenderness, bringing him water, cleaning him up. Ordered by Vader, Obi-Wan knew - keep him alive for now, but allow no comfort.
Vader himself did not come, or, if he did, he did not remember it.
No-one spoke, alive or through the Force. No-one spoke to him, and he spoke to no-one. Only that desperate crying, crying in his dreams that got no answer.
An eternity later... <Which day is it?> - and that in itself was a sign that the time of darkness was over, that he could even ask this question, or even think it.
Two weeks, he would find out much later. Two weeks since he had become Vader's, and... what? five days? six? - already had the days started blurring even then - since the attack with the red fire.
It was morning. Outside, he could sense with the Force, the sun was just rising over a planet that had lost all touch with the passage of seasons.
He was lying on a roll of blankets on the floor, and they were clean and not touched by Vader. Dimly, and shamefully, he remembered screaming, screaming - and he was still hoarse from it, surely - when the healer tried to bear him to the bed. "No! Not there! Not there where he touched me, and it smells of him still...!" But if that was true, and the grim-faced healer talked, then Obi-Wan had betrayed Ben already - betrayed himself and his Master and everyone in the galaxy.
But he lay alone now. Vader had not come, to hurt him, to rape him, to kill him.
He was alone, and was still Obi-Wan, and the darkest path still lay ahead of him.
His calls had been answered, his course still unblessed. He could take the silence as condemnation, and leave today, using the Force to over-ride his collar. He could leave on a transport within an hour, and be back in his Master's arms, which loved him and demanded nothing, and would be kind to him even though he had failed.
He sat up. With fingers that were stiff and immobile but hurt only as a distant shadow of their former pain, he touched the collar, and wondered.
Almost he did it.
"Master..." Not his lips moving at all, but his whole soul crying out for guidance...
...and then, almost brutally, cutting off that cry, knowing that he could cry forth silently, but his Master's reply could be sensed by Vader, who knew him, and hated him.
He was alone in this.
And maybe that was the lesson the Force had been teaching him, with its silence, he wondered, much later, when he could think again. Those voices of light were of immense power, yet they had not reached out and destroyed the Empire themselves. Instead they had entrusted the task to him, a frail human, little more than a boy, untaught and, though he had a little skill, untrained.
The destiny of mankind lay in human choices, both big and immensely small. Choices had created the Empire; choices would end it, if it was to be ended.
_His_ choices. The Force would not, _could_ not, guide him in every step of his journey, or the very redemption of the old Republic would be just another sort of tyranny - dead Jedi forcing their will on the living.
He was alone, and only he could decide whether to go on like this - whether the deaths he had caused were a price worth paying, and a price to be paid again and again.
And, <yes> he thought, much later still, when outside a whole day had passed and the sky was rich dark grey.
He bore some guilt for the men's deaths, and would never forget that, but _Vader_ had killed them, and the Empire he served. Three deaths now, and more, to save the millions that the Empire would kill in the future, so many more of them innocent soldiers who had only been doing their job... or parents seeking to hide their much-loved gifted children.
<Yes> he thought, wearily, hating it. The Force had not guided him, and this was his own choice. He had wronged a boy who trusted him, violating his mind, and he had wronged three men in the worst possible way, by betraying them to their deaths. And he would cause the deaths of many more, if his plan worked.
But he would still do it, still hate the thing he had become, and yet still be unable to regret it.
He _was_ Vader's, now, tainted and dark, contemplating a path far darker. And if it was in the name of good...? _He_ was still damned, one way or another.
He would never see that light again.
Another day, and still Vader did not come. He had no orders to stay in his room. Hours before he dared risk it, but then he opened the door, every movement stiff and sore and his limbs like water, and walked, just a little, down the corridor.
No-one stopped him.
Evening, and he made it to the refectory, where he ate with crippled unwieldy fingers, and no-one seemed to notice him. Alberich was not there, and the other guards ate dully, with little conversation. Fear hung over the room like a cloud.
He did not even presume to ask the Force for guidance, afterwards. Instead, he used his eyes and his mind, following a path down corridors until he came to another door, another room. Something hummed further beyond.
He didn't even stop, merely slowed his pace, just a little, while his mind reached out and probed beyond the door, asked, and found his answers.
Back to the refectory for breakfast, and there, surrounded by so many men and surely beyond all suspicion, he reached out again, with oh such gentle destructiveness.
Then he took a mouthful of bread.
Alarms sounded. Somewhere, through the Force and repulsive, Vader howled in rage and fury, and fear, too.
Obi-Wan swallowed. He looked at the door. He was suddenly intensely aware of his collar.
He could walk away now - walk away and not look back. The complex's security system was down, his collar just a piece of dead metal. <You could go> he thought, heavily, looking at once guard, then another, all frozen in their eating, white with fear.
He did not move. Slowly, though he thought the food would sicken him, he took another bite.
Lethargy threatened - if it worked, it worked, and if not... well, he was damned anyway.
Obi-Wan felt he had been half-deadened by the fire, everything that mattered burnt away until only dust remained.
Ben wondered why his Lord didn't come for him, and feared he had been forgotten. He didn't want to be forgotten. He walked the corridors like a ghost, seeking him... and seeking other doors, too, though he did not understand why.
Obi-Wan grew to fear Ben almost as much as he feared Vader.
Two nights before Vader came, and everything, _everything_, ended...
Alone in his room, reaching out... He had done both, one after the other, shield then security system. Perhaps he should have done them when in a crowded place again, but, really, how could he be under suspicion? And he had lost the taste for human company - for being seen by anyone, and strangers' eyes on his.
Alone, then. Ben was pining for his Lord, and the sweet torture of his touch.
Hours had passed... The fury, and - <there!> - a life snuffed out, of a man whose last thoughts had been of the touch of his daughter's small hand on his cheek, long years before and the girl long-dead and still mourned. He had murmured ignorant prayers, not knowing how the Jedi talked to the Force, or if indeed it was proper to do so. The Force gave him no guidance, so this - this, and all other lives sacrificed to his cause - he would pray for.
<Grant them peace.>
And never a prayer for himself, for the man who bore all deaths on his conscience. No peace for him, here, or ever.
Chasing the dead with his mind in the Force... <find peace, oh please, I'm so sorry...>
Only Ben heard his Lord's approach, and looked up with cautious hopeful eyes from his cold nest on the floor.
"I'd quite forgotten you, Ben."
"Oh my Lord.."
Cold eyes meeting his, and <know that you died for a good cause. Know that> Though how could it make a difference? What else could he say?
Vader was barely there at all for him. He let Ben do the talking.
"But now I remember, boy, and what reasons can you give me to stop me forgetting again?"
"I am yours, my Lord, however you want me."
"Ah, yes." A cruel smile. "So how shall I use you today, I wonder..."
Late, and perhaps too late, he returned fully to himself, and saw deadly danger. <Careful> he warned Ben. Vader was all smiles and polished cruelty, but inside he was boiling with fury, so barely contained. He almost gasped to touch it with his mind - and perhaps he _did_ gasp, but Vader's eyes narrowed, and as he reached for his belt that fury almost burst out.
He had to know - _had_ to. "Please my Lord...", purring in just the right mixture of longing and fear. A mouth encompassed his, and it was all teeth, and demanding, suffocating...
Deeper, further... It was like the fiery pain of the lightning, hot and at once so dark. Deep, deep into the man's mind, through the surface thoughts of lust and amusement at a boy who allowed it... He saw his naked flesh through another man's eyes, and knew he would never look in a mirror again. But then through that and deeper, deeper still...
"Tomorrow." The voice had been of an evil that made Vader's look like a moon before a star. "Look for me then, my slave, and know your punishment."
And Vader - this man - had grovelled, unseen by anyone but his dark master. "I'm in control of it, my Master." <Don't come!> his whole soul had begged. To writhe in the torment of those flames another time...
"You are in control of nothing. Three times it has happened, and you have no explanation at all, or way of stopping it."
<Tomorrow> he heard, and though the dark torment of touching such fury was repulsive, sickening beyond imagining, he could almost smile.
Tomorrow, and the time had come. Tomorrow, and he could lay aside Ben and stand tall and proud.
Tomorrow, and he would die.
But then, half way into the act of rape, Vader stopped. As if the dark fury in his mind responded to Obi-Wan's probing touch like Ben responded to his violator's - arching towards it, hating it - a tendril of it surged forth, passing fleetingly over Obi-Wan's mind, then passing into the very air, like a living thing.
Vader's eyes blazed.
He gave a barely human grunt, backhanding Obi-Wan with almost casual brutality. "I grow tired of this. It no longer amuses me."
"No!" Obi-Wan cried out, his cheek bruised and bleeding. "Don't cast me aside, my Lord..." And, although the voice was Ben's, the pleading was all Obi-Wan's - <not now. Not now I'm so close. Just one more night...>
He pawed, and it he had even the facade of Ben to hide his shame. Lips, hands, body... all were Vader's, coiling against him, pleasuring him, pleading him. "Please, my Lord. Oh my Lord... Please..."
Vader clenched his fist. Fury barely contained was like fire in his sense. No amusement, or even much pleasure. What was the grovelling of one pathetic boy to assuage even the tiniest part of his anger and fear. He could smash him now like a fly.
He raised his fist.
"No, please no..." He was all Obi-Wan now, and wholly shamed. "I can serve you through the night. And tomorrow... If you need me tomorrow..."
And, like a tendril, a small desperate planting of Force in a mind he had never before _dared_ to influence...
<burning, screaming under the dark fire of his Master, hating him, _hating him_... Only blood would ease this pain; only suffering unimaginable...
<and a boy, white naked body spread and ready for him, eyes so trusting... Then hands, fists, Force, weapons, fire, all falling, falling on him, and the white skin turning one red, and the mouth a single gaping O of betrayal and agony beyond imagining...>
Vader's hand froze. "Ah, yes," he said, with a slow curling smile. "You're right, boy. I will want you tomorrow."
Ben, foolish Ben, allowed himself to relax. Obi-Wan did too. Neither expected what came next.
Hands and the Force, dark and grasping, reaching for him, for his hands, his throat... His hands exploded into fresh pain. He clawed - <no!> - but was powerless as a child in that overwhelming grip.
Half naked, and even that clothing he had little more than rags from previous ill-usage, he was dragged from the room, past eyes that pretended not to see him, thinking only <better him than me. Say nothing. _See_ nothing. That's the way to stay alive.>
"No," he pleaded, though his throat was constricted by ropes of the Force and black leather hands at his wrists pulling his arms, straining them at their sockets. His body limp on the ground. He struggled with his legs, vainly trying to get a purchase there - to do _anything_ to ease the pain of being dragged - but Vader was too fast and the ground too smooth and he was powerless, useless, broken.
The whole time, the whole endless journey, Vader spoke only once: "For later."
He was limp and breathing, in out in out in out... Even his breathing felt broken and damaged. The floor was beneath his cheek. Vader padded silently like a predator, and his hands made sounds of metal clinking together.
Once only did Obi-Wan look up, raising his head just enough from the ground to see. Once, and only once. He saw dreadful terrible things.
The floor was sloped towards a small drain. That - and even with his eyes closed he knew that was there, by the tilt of the ground beneath him - was the worst thing of all. His blood would well and flow and then, mixed with water, would coil and coil around that drain, and trickle away utterly, and he would be forgotten.
"For tomorrow," Vader said, again, almost purring in his pleasure.
He crouched down, and with a hard caress at Obi-Wan's chin, he raised his head, forcing him to look at his Lord. His other hand bore chains, though not the worst of the things in this room, not by a long way. That one tiny glance had showed him scourges and electrodes and spikes and racks and a hundred other devices for causing pain unparalleled.
He could lash out now, strike out with the Force, take Vader by surprise, and escape all this.
Deliberately he curled his broken fingers, forcing that terrible bone-deep pain to impale him. Pain. Pain like a red haze between him and the Force, so he couldn't use it even if he tried. Pain, and it was _his_ choice that caused it, _his_ choice that had brought him here. There was no escape but the very ending of it, tomorrow.
"My... my Lord?" he managed, which were the only words Ben lent to him.
No words now. The hands lashed out, and the chains closed round his wrist, one, two. He was elevated by the Force, lifted, and hung, chains looping over a hook in the ceiling. All in one second, before he could truly cry out, before he was even aware of it.
The broken fingers uncurled, and the pain of them had been such a little thing after all. All his weight on the chains at his wrist, and his feet just brushing the ground, only just, like a torture of almost-there, and no support at all. Blood ran down his arms; his shoulders screamed, and he could not bear this, surely he could not bear this at all...
"For tomorrow," Vader whispered, sensuous as a true lover, as he tore the last of Obi-Wan's clothes from his hanging body, as he ran his hands caressingly over his naked hips and thighs.
Obi-Wan moaned. He couldn't help it.
Vader stepped away, and folded his hands, looking for all the world like a man confiding something to a colleague, something a little shameful. "I'll be honest with you, Ben. I wasn't looking forward to tomorrow. But now, when I think of you, all strung up and ready for me... I think it won't be as bad after all. Thank you, Ben, for serving me in this."
Not even Ben had any words for this. Not even Ben could smile, or love, or feel anything at all that was not pain.
"So, as I anticipate, I shall let you anticipate also, Ben." He waved his hand, and, through flashes of pain, Obi-Wan saw the lines of devices arrayed on the table, impossible to hide from. "Which shall I use on you first?" he mused, though the words were unnecessary; the devices spoke for themselves, asking that question and a hundred others, worse. "What will it feel like? How long before you die? How long will that be after you _beg_ to die?"
Ben died in that moment.
Obi-Wan blinked, and blinked. He would not cry. No, not now, not ever, not now he was Obi-Wan entirely, and no longer adoring, loving his pain and never having to pretend again.
But still concealing; still with secrets. Still Obi-Wan, and not broken, even as his tears, betraying him, dripped from his chin and into his chest and lower.
But by then he was alone.
He lost so many things that night. Ben, first, and him not mourned at all. Awareness, next, and conscious thought - everything that made him a man. His world was only pain and need, everything else stripped away with his clothes, and bleeding away with his tears.
He had no knowledge at all of how long he had been hanging there, like meat from a hook - and flesh was all he was, all he had made himself, the day he had given himself to Vader. He no longer cared. An hour, a night, a week, an eternity... All that mattered was that he was there _now_, in this instant of agony. Past and future were nothing.
Blood dripped down his arms.
He saw a blade with serrated edge, almost beautiful as it rested in the table. He saw a whip with iron spikes in the leather, dark with old blood. He saw a glove with claws in the fingers.
Distant and far away, he felt the Force, nudging his mind like a gentle reminder.
He laughed harshly, and turned his face away.
Later - a moment of pain that was in itself a whole reality, and later only in that it came _after_ - he was babbling in his mind, speaking to one who would never hear him.
<Master. Oh Qui-Gon my love, my saviour, my life... It hurts, Master. It hurts so much. I can't... I can't bear it...>
Blades and knives and the torture that would come after...
<Tomorrow, Master. It was to have been tomorrow. He's coming tomorrow. Tomorrow it would have all been over. Tomorrow...>
Silence in his mind. The Force seemed to flow, as it mocking him with its uselessness.
And then, pouring it all out to the man he most longed for, and the man he would never seen again... Words and thoughts and images, and emotions pouring from him like a wave...
<...and then he raped me, Master. Not just once. I had to pretend I liked it, even as he savoured my blood on his slow tongue. I _had_ to. And he hurt me. He had my fingers broken. He's going to kill me...>
Silence, and the emptiness of his mind. But silence was patient and did not judge. If his Master truly could hear him, he would push him away in disgust.
His mouth was open, and he was crying aloud, a high keening sound of grief and pain.
<I'm so scared, Master.>
Qui-Gon Jinn had done many impossible things in his life, but this, surely, was the worst, the hardest, the most terrible.
To sit silent...
To sit silent, while the young man he most loved called to him, and needed him, and was in pain unimaginable...
"I can't." He was crying, sobbing, and Anton, who fluttered around him anxiously, was nothing at all to him, like a man of paper. "Oh, Obi-Wan, I can't." Nails in his palms, drawing blood. "I can't, not without betraying you. I'm so close now. Vader will sense me."
Words only. Words, aloud, and heard by the wrong person. For Obi-Wan he had nothing at all.
<I'm so scared, Master.>
Almost, then, did he turn to Anton, grab his wrist and _order_ him: "If I close my eyes, if I seem to drift away from you, strike me, knock me out... just _stop me_."
But, even as he thought it, he saw the shame in it. It was the coward's way - sparing himself from the pain of hearing those cries, sparing himself from the temptation of answering them. Obi-Wan had endured so much. This, he would endure.
He moaned. This moment, this pain, he would _never_ forget. "Be strong, Obi-Wan," he murmured...
And then, much later and bereft - <Obi-Wan?> - found Anton tugging at his clenched hands and slapping his face, sharply gentle. Had grief so unmanned him? He thought, perhaps, he had tried so hard not to reach out to Obi-Wan that he had imprisoned himself deep within his own mind, almost losing himself.
"What happened?" Anton's voice was harsh, but his white face testified to his worry. Qui-Gon wondered how long it had been, and every minute another eternity of suffering for Obi-Wan.
"Obi-Wan." Even his voice was weary. He raised his arm to rub at his face, but it heavy, resisting. "He called to me. He... he is suffering very badly."
Anton's eyes darkened just for a moment in sympathy. "Did you tell him we were coming? Can you communicate with him again. If we can co-ordinate with him..."
"No," he said, baldly. Such an untold story of grief in that word... He took a deep breath; he owed his man an explanation, at least, and every word was a moment of not-silence. "I can't contact him. If I used the Force to reach him, Vader could sense it. He would know me, and through my sense would know the one I was reaching."
A pause, while Anton's quick mind processed that. "You knew Vader, before?"
A nod, and no more than that.
It was acknowledged, and moved past. "But he can't sense Obi-Wan reaching out to you?"
"Obi-Wan is different," he said, and there was something close to despair in his voice, though a little pride too, despite what being different has cost his Obi-Wan. "Stronger, and with a special gift. Vader doesn't know him yet."
"Then there's still a chance."
Abused and tortured and broken... Despairing and lost. <A chance? Oh Obi-Wan...>
But he nodded. He could do nothing else but nod.
Only silence in his mind now.
Once, a very long time ago, he had called to a man who had not been there to hear him. That was how foolish, how stupid, he had been then. He could almost laugh at it now.
Even before then he had been loved by his Lord. No, not that, he thought. Loved and betrayed. Betrayed...
But he had been the one doing the betrayal, pretending love, but all the while loving another man, and planning to kill the Lord who lay with him...
And he _did_ laugh at that. How long ago it had been. He must have been a child in understanding, to think he could do that. All things ended here, heavy flesh dangling on a hook. There was nothing else.
There were patterns of his blood on the floor now, as the chains had turned under his weight, and the blood had fallen like a child's first clumsy designs with a paint brush.
When Vader came, the thin lines would become a gushing torrent, and his life would flow forth, too slowly, to the drain in the floor.
When Vader came...
...And, slowly, oh so slowly, that thought blossomed, grew like a living thing.
<When Vader comes...>
The Force caressed him, like a small animal nuzzling up to his mind.
Blood dripping, and when Vader came...
He had seen himself through Vader's eyes - <a boy, white naked body spread and ready for him, eyes so trusting... Then the white skin turning one red, and the mouth a single gaping O of betrayal and agony beyond imagining...>
He moaned, and then, much later, he asked himself why he had seen this, and, even later, remembered that he had put the image there, and why.
Slow and sluggish, it was no dazzling revelation. Like drops of blood over time making a lake, tiny realisations came to him, and pieced together.
His suffering here was the price - oh such a terrible price - of staying alive one more night. The instruments that gleamed with stories of future agony were not for him. When the night was over and Palpatine came, he would finally allow himself to use the Force - not earlier, never earlier, in case Vader came back, or had him monitored - and would free himself, and then confront Vader and the Emperor, together.
Even the final truth came slowly, insidiously. He did not groan aloud in horror when he realised how pain and the fear of those sharp instruments had so made him lose his sense of time that Palpatine could have been and gone without him knowing... or only an hour could have passed, and, in the endless hours ahead the pain could once again, and again and again, rob him of this truth.
Only a quiet sound in his throat - a tiny small "oh."
Pain was like dark red streaks of fire keeping him from the Force. He reached first for healing; if he eased the pain, he would be stronger for the rest of it. But the Force danced out of reach, impossible to grasp.
Still he hung, bleeding, his hands and arms screaming.
Almost he gave up then. He had tried and failed - gambled and lost. The pain he had been made to endure in order to live another night was such that he no longer had the ability to access the Force. He would fail, and Vader would come, and those instruments would do their work. He hoped death would not come too slowly.
But, beyond the fire, beyond the rending agony of that future, the Force still danced, waiting for him.
One more try... No, not just one more. He knew, in that moment, that he would never give up, not until he drew his last breath. He would try and try and try, reaching out to the Force, trying and trying... Even if he never reached it, even if he was still reaching when Vader shut the door behind him and closed on his naked hanging body, still, still would he reach...
He closed his eyes. Not for healing this time, but for knowledge. Vader. He would touch Vader's mind, and know if Palpatine had come. He would....
And the red flames fell away, and the Force flowed, strong as ever it had been. He touched Vader in that instant, and the touching was easy. He kneeling on a hard floor, forced to look into eyes that lacked all humanity.
"Palpatine," Obi-Wan murmured, aloud. Already here. Arriving when, weak, he had not looked for him. Almost too late...
Still the blood flowed.
He had no Force for healing. When he tried, that red pain blinded him, and the Force flowed away from him. Was the Force itself guiding him, allowing him only to perform those acts that were essential? Or did healing, by its very nature, mean that his mind was so aware of the pain that it would only whimper, far from the peace needed to fully access the Force?
This he wondered in an instant, then dismissed. Healing was not important. He could drag his bleeding body through the complex, blood pouring from a thousand wounds, and it would not matter, as long as he had the strength for that final confrontation.
Freedom, first - a touch with the mind, and the small sound of metal released. He fell, used the Force to steady his landing... and fell anyway, his whole body screaming and the Force pulsing around him and away from him like red lightning.
He sobbed aloud. Both arms useless and alive with an agony beyond imagining, both cold and pale, but warming now, screaming, as the blood flowed back. Both arms useless to take up the ragged wrists, torn almost to the bone by the sharp chains, and hold them close to his chest and nurse the pain.
He bit his lip against a scream, and even this small pain was another torment, although the pain in his arms should have been a blazing sun that swallowed up all other pains, rendering them nothing. Even the cold of the floor against his naked skin was a hurt, and he moaned.
How long was it? Long enough, at last, to ease enough that he could thing; long enough that, shakily and whimpering all the while, he could stand. Blood splashed on his bare feet.
With arms that only just moved and fingers that had stiffened into dead sticks, he pulled the torn rags of clothing around his body. Then - and even his head was drooping; even for this he could not keep his head high - he reached out with his mind and the Force, and touched the lock on the door.
Vader had never foreseen this, he thought, and could almost laugh at it. It was either that, or weep.
Vader's cruelty served Obi-Wan now, when nothing else could have. A bleeding half-naked man stumbling through the corridors was no rarity. People glanced, their eyes tightened, and then they looked away. No-one stopped him. He caught wisps of their thoughts - a punishment, to walk like this back to his room, and Vader will punish anyone who intervenes. The thought of a broken boy escaping Vader's personal prison was an impossibility to them.
Every step was a torment. If he had had to use the Force to cloud men's minds so they let him past... He doubted he could have. Only Vader's cruelty had brought him this far.
He thought perhaps he _did_ laugh. He knew that he wept.
Wrists, hands, arms all a ruin and useless at his sides, and no strength at all to spare for his own body...
He walked. One step then another, silent tears bathing his face...
Vader was in his head always - another unintended gift of Vader's cruelty, but this one, for all its necessity, repulsive and sickening to him.
They were bonded, a cruel unnatural bond. With him Vader had been all raw emotion - ecstasy and hatred and fear, when touching his body, around and within him. He had not shielded, for he had seen no need. As he had reached his climax in Obi-Wan's body, a seed had been planted, and, fed by his own seeking, had grown into this bond. Obi-Wan _knew_ Vader, and could see through his eyes almost as easily as through his own. All his life he had longed for closeness, soul to soul, and all he had was _this._
If he could have lived to bond with Qui-Gon, this bond would have been first, rank and corrupting. The dark man lived in his soul.
He shuddered. He shuddered, but he sought that bond, _needed_ that bond.
<Pulled to his feet by the Force, his body aching from the first small touch of the punishment, his mind hating, _hating_ how he had to serve this man and take it.
"Come," his Master said, voice all oily cold. "Show me what was sabotaged, and what is most at risk from future attempts." _I_ will solve it, even though you failed, his eyes said.
But he bowed his head, the dutiful servant. One day he would kill this man. "Yes, Master.">
It was worse than all pain, to endure this.
And still he walked.
He fell at last, and it would be the first of many, he thought.
Instinct was to throw out an arm to catch himself, but his arms were useless, obeying no commands. Even the little twitch they managed sent a bolt of pain through his body, causing him to suck in his breath, and, unexpectedly, consciousness to waver.
He fell, and the fall took forever, it seemed. Comparing to the falling, the landing was nothing - a simple soft impact against something that did not yield, but barely hurt.
Just for a moment, he let that near-fainting take him, allowing his vision, his very thoughts, to blank out. A tiny moment of rest and forgetfulness, and infinitely precious, though it couldn't last.
A voice brought him back. "Ben?"
He blinked, and pain and awareness flooded back. A blurred face peered into his own. He blinked again, and the face resolved into one he knew. "Commander Alberich?" His voice was the soft dry rustle of dying leaves.
Alberich was fighting a war - or else had already fought, and reached an ending, and still wondered if he had won or lost. This he knew, though the man's words were gentle and sure. "I can't watch this another moment. Let me help you, Ben."
Another gift; another precious moment. He closed his eyes, and felt the tender hands on his body, and let the concern and sympathy lap around him like water. Like sand eroding a rock, it could do nothing against the dark heart of his soul that was Vader, but, for a while, perhaps, it could ease it. He had forgotten there were more things in the world than cruelty.
"Thank you," he managed, at last, and the thanks were for far more than Alberich could ever know. "Just help me up. That's all."
Alberich cried out. He had struggled so long to reach this moment, and knew this one show of pity was a rebelling that could kill him. To die for so little was unbearable.
"No," Obi-Wan said, quietly. For a while he was silent, needing all his strength simply to stand, even with Alberich's help. Then, leaning heavily and almost pressed against the man's body, he summoned the tattered remnants of his Force strength, and imbued his next words with it. "No," again. "Let me go on alone, and leave this place, as quickly as you can."
Alberich blinked, frowned. His arm twitched, and almost he touched his brow, questioningly. Had he done so, Obi-Wan thought he would have fallen again, still not ready to support his own weight.
"I'll leave," Alberich echoed, at last.
Obi-Wan smiled, and stepped away from the man's support. "You have made such a difference, Alberich. Never forget that."
Still smiling, he walked away. A few steps, still in the aura of the man's compassion, and then, like stepping through the walls of a protective bubble, he was past it...
...and there was only Vader; only darkness.
How long? The bond guided him - a guide of darkness, and not the Force at all. There was nothing of the light about him now, and that too, perhaps, was fitting.
He paused only once, before the door of the place that was to be his battleground and his grave. There he shed the last of the dross, almost physically putting it aside and laying it down.
The need to stand tall, to walk... Nothing. He lay it aside, and slumped and almost fell.
The need to hope for the future... Nothing. That, too, nothing and useless and a waste of his strength. He could almost weep, but emotions, too, were nothing, and not needed in this place. They too he laid aside.
The need to reach out to Vader.... Nothing, and unwanted. The bond still lived, but the need to see through his eyes, now or ever again... Nothing.
The shielding in his mind... Still there for a second, but soon that, too, would be nothing. Like clothes unbuttoned but not yet discarded, he readied it for the moment what it, too, would be nothing.
He laid them all aside, like a pile of neatly folded clothes at his feet. He was stripped of everything superfluous, everything that could drain his strength and distract from the one thing that really mattered.
And then he stepped forward.
Every instant stretched into an eternity. He saw every moment in minute detail, as if he had a year of his life for this task.
Some of it he saw _before_ it happened, knowing exactly how it would be.
Palpatine... Vader could not sense Obi-Wan using the Force, but the Emperor was his Master, and stronger. Perhaps Palpatine had sensed him throughout, smiling as he watched his pathetic progress, his vain hope. As he walked through the door, Palpatine would turn to face him, his mouth curling in a smile. "I've been expecting you." He knew that voice from Vader's mind. "Now die."
The Emperor's fire was blue.
And then he saw the other reality, and the same truth in the detail of every image. Palpatine could not sense him, but he could sense the emotions of those red robed guards outside his door. They saw and intruder and started forward, though the boy could barely stand and was surely no threat. They reached for their weapons, but before they could even touch them, they were thrown back, one then the other, by an invisible hand. They struggled against it. Almost stumbling, the boy walked to the door, and through it, and away.
Palpatine sensed all this and turned round. "I've been expecting you," he lied, recovering quickly, and already prepared, even in that single instant of warning. He smiled, laughing at the audacity of such a frail boy who thought he could challenge him. He raised his hand, and fire lanced out.
Obi-Wan could not stand against it.
Realities, vivid and clear, between one step and the next... between the moment the red robed guards saw him, and the moment they started forwards, blasters almost in their hands.
He could not raise his hands; the extremity of his need gave him the ability, and the shedding of everything else _but_ the strength for this moment, and the far greater moment that lay after it. Power coursed from him as if his hands were spread, palms outwards, thus, and thus.
The men fell, red robes spilling like blood. His own blood was flowers on the floor.
And he walked, shambling and broken, his head bowed, his course swaying. He was clad in rags; his arms were broken and dead at his sides.
It was not as he had envisaged it, over the weeks and months of his planning. Head high, he would face them, dignified and strong. Not like this - not like a beggar, broken and barely alive. Not like this, as he opened the door and passed through. Not like this, as he sealed it behind with a single thought.
Not like this, as Palpatine and Vader turned to face him.
He laid down the last of it then, shedding even his shields. He wondered even that he was breathing; all else had been shed for this moment, so he lived only for the strength he would need.
No time for talking. It was a second only, and no more, though it seemed like a lifetime.
Vader ran his tongue over his lips nervously - a strangely human gesture. His fear tweaked in Obi-Wan's mind. Palpatine smiled.
Obi-Wan raised his arms - and now, at the last extremity, there was no pain in that, as if he had laid aside even his ability to feel that much. He did not even close his eyes, but simply drew on the strength of his Force - the only thing he had left, and the only thing he lived for now - and let it forth in sudden wild fire.
He sensed him now, and fully. He was a dying man, whose whole remaining strength was husbanded for one last shuddering breath.
<Obi-Wan!> he cried, and, unhesitating and with his whole heart, he hurled himself at Obi-Wan, in mind and soul and strength.
It coursed through his fingers, and broke them anew. It flowed from the ragged flesh of his wrists, and blood splattered in an arc.
Vader threw up a hand as it to resist it, his other hand half-splayed to return the fire. Then both hands fell limp to his side. "Qui-Gon," he gasped, horror etched on his face.
Obi-Wan did not know why.
Fire blossomed from Palpatine's hands, blue like Obi-Wan's own fire.
Neither saw the truth. Neither saw that Obi-Wan struck, not at them, but at the generator at the heart of the massive chamber. Neither threw up any protection; neither blanketed the device with any protection.
As the Emperor's fire hit him and drove him to his knees, as he screamed aloud and knew that this was the very moment of his death, the generator exploded in blue fire and red.
This was the end. This was the culmination, and the end of all things.
He sank, not into darkness, but into a massive, rending light.
He heaved himself up onto his elbow, then collapsed again, curling into a rigid ball on his side.
"Obi-Wan," he moaned.
<My fault> he feared, he knew. He rocked himself, again and again and again, against that litany. He had not _thought_. Only fearing, he had thrown himself at Obi-Wan when he had _known_, when Obi-Wan had told him and repelled him and begged him...
<Qui-Gon> Vader had spoken, in recognition, both of his old Master, and of Obi-Wan. <Qui-Gon>, and Vader had spoken, and Obi-Wan not at all, not even hearing him - not even possessing anything in his mind that _could_ recognise him.
All for nothing, and only betrayal.
He sobbed round the solid core of pain that would not, could not, dissipate...
...And, much later, it seemed, was aware of Anton touching his shoulder gently, rousing him to wakefulness as he had done once before.
"It's time, Qui-Gon."
He blinked stupidly. He had betrayed, and there was nothing left.
"He's done it. It's all down. The shield wavered again. We struck at the same moment, and got through." His eyes were shining. "The war's begun."
"He's done it," he echoed, a long time after, or so it seemed. Slowly, painfully, he pulled himself to a sitting position. "How?"
Anton shook his head briskly. "I don't know." Then, already anxious to be away to a plan of battle he had hidden so thoroughly from Qui-Gon, he pressed Qui-Gon's shoulder for a moment. "Do you want to go down there?"
There was only one answer. "Yes." Heavily. Obi-Wan had succeeded, but at what cost? If his intervention killed him at the very point of victory... The despair, the guilt of the last twenty years would be nothing, if that was so.
And, all the while, calling, calling to Obi-Wan in his mind, and hearing only silence.
How could anyone have lived?
Hours later, and he was climbing through the wreckage of the massive complex that had been Vader's headquarters. Bodies seen, glanced at, and dismissed. None were Obi-Wan, though all had suffered, and he thought he ought to care.
Far above and out of sight, battle raged. The streets were full of fear and disorder; neither the Emperor nor Vader, nor any of his officers, had appeared to lead the army.
Anton was at his side - a short internal argument, and then that quick decision. There was a role in a war where he was but a minor leader - commander of a small planet on the fringes of the Empire. Or there was a place at the side of the man who sought to find the young man who, by his sacrifice, had saved them all.
Qui-Gon knew he should feel grateful. Afterwards, perhaps, if Obi-Wan lived, then he would. All he knew now was that Anton offered him an arm he did not need, and saw tears only Obi-Wan should see him shed, and bent over bodies and shook his head, saying "dark hair", or "too old", when Qui-Gon still needed to check them for himself afterwards.
He called and called in his mind, and was not answered...
And then, horribly, there _was_ an answer, but not the one he had looked for.
He gasped, and this time he _did_ need Anton's hand; only his sudden grasping hold stopped him from falling.
"Vader," he said, simply.
He did not seek Vader, though that long-silent voice in his mind had once belonged to a young man called Xanatos, whom he had loved.
He sought Vader only in that where Vader was, he would find Obi-Wan.
Scrambling, crawling through wreckage, fingers bleeding. Some men lived, too broken to stop him. Others just watched with silent eyes, and struggled to stand, to walk away.
He used the Force and his own strength to raise girders, following that siren call that was Vader, deeper and darker into the hell of the explosion. His face was stiff with dust on dried tears.
Far above, lives were being snuffed out in battle, and men screamed. It seemed like an image from a story, or a long ago past that was not truly real. All that was real was here, in this ruined nightmare of dust and death.
On, and further on. Two men dead in a swirl of red, almost buried. Further, and lifting, and blood on his own face now, and his lungs clogged with dust and breathing difficult. Lifting and searching, and then a sudden gasp from Anton, fallen to one knee and reaching down, down out of sight to a body almost buried.
"Palpatine," he breathed. "Dead." He did not smile; his face was a mask of white horror, dazed, as if he could not believe that this was truly real - that the tyrant lay dead and his mortal hands were the first to touch him, the first to see the blankness of his eyes.
Qui-Gon looked once, then away. A step further...
A flash of white, then, so small and frail. A hand.
He crouched down. "Obi-Wan." Hopeful; he wasn't yet sure.
One finger, shaking, touched that hand, twisted and broken, and not white at all, now he was close, but rather bruised and bleeding from deep within.
<He had my fingers broken....>
And he was scrabbling at the wreckage, digging, not caring if he broke his own fingers too. There was Obi-Wan's dear face, and his shoulders, white with a streak of black, or torn fabric.
He was warm beneath his trembling touch, and his chest moved, though scarcely at all. Alive, and he reached out with the Force, seeking more, and felt and merged with a touch that was already there. His own ghostly presence, his Force touch from before, when he had thrown his whole soul towards Obi-Wan in response to his desperate need. Obi-Wan had not sensed it, but it had found him, surrounding him, cocooning him, giving him strength.
Fresh tears coursed through the dried dust on his face. "Oh, Obi-Wan..." <I didn't kill you. I didn't kill you. I didn't kill you...>
But even in that he was being selfish, he thought, as if it mattered less that Obi-Wan lived, than it mattered that he, Qui-Gon, was not guilty in this - that his own rash reaching had saved Obi-Wan, not condemned him.
"Obi-Wan," he whispered, again - just that name, over and over.
His hands fluttered over his face. He was exposed to his chest, and not below, for he was buried and half crushed by a girder, and he feared that moving it would kill him. Just this one small moment of touching him and knowing he was alive, before facing that. Just one moment....
A scrabble of falling rock, and harsh wet breathing. Anton cried out wordlessly.
"Qui-Gon Jinn," he heard, mocking and despising.
He looked up, just once, then back to the precious young man who lay so still beneath his touch. "Vader."
Vader laughed, and it was wet and terrible. He was barely standing, Qui-Gon had seen in that short glance, and wounded as badly, or almost so, as Obi-Wan was. Only hatred sustained him and fed his veins with blood.
Qui-Gon sensed Anton move, and looked up again, though still not removing his hands from Obi-Wan's face. "No," he said, sharply, then again. "No."
Anton subsided, but the blaster remained in his hand, ready at an instant.
"I'm the Master now," Vader rasped. "Palpatine is dead." A scornful look. "So arrogant. He couldn't conceive how this boy could be a threat to him." But not fluent, and punctuated with heaving gasps. "Even at the end, he thought only to strike him down. He never thought to protect himself, like I did."
Obi-Wan had not, either. Qui-Gon would sorrow for that for ever, he thought - that Obi-Wan had expected only to die, and had left no reserves for his own preservation. Only Qui-Gon's intervention had saved him even this much, and he could still die.
Vader walked forward, his lightsabre in his, ignited and sickly red. "He's yours, this boy? I fucked him, Qui-Gon."
A momentary stiffening, and that was all. "I know." Quiet. He stroked Obi-Wan's hair. "And he's not mine, though I love him." There was no weakness in the confession. It was something to be proud of, loving a man such as this. "This was his work alone." And not mine to take any credit for, he meant.
Vader's eyes narrowed. He nodded.
Were Obi-Wan's eyelids fluttering? He thought it was only his deceiving hopes, imagining it. But there it was again, and blue eyes openly just for a moment, and his lips moving, but saying no words for blood trickled forth with the movement.
"Obi-Wan." So infinitely tender. "I'm here, Obi-Wan."
"Obi-Wan," Vader snarled, and almost Qui-Gon regretted speaking thus, giving Vader a name he could violate. Quick as thought - and nothing warned him, not even a whisper of Force - he raised his lightsabre and threw it, guiding it, red and deadly.
But not without warning, he would realise later. In the very moment between the intention and the action, Obi-Wan's eyes flickered towards Vader, and the weakest tendril of Force touched Qui-Gon, not pushing, for it was not strong enough for that, but guiding him around and away.
So he was ready, not even standing but still kneeling, both hands sweeping wide in an arc. Left hand out and upwards, snatching the whirling weapon from the air as the tip of its blade was a hairsbreadth from Obi-Wan's throat; right hand to his own weapon, igniting it and swinging it in one action, one thought.
Cut across the middle, Vader fell.
Qui-Gon knelt, breathing heavily.
So often had thought about this moment, wondering what he would do if he was forced to confront Vader. Would be beg him to turn back again, offer him another chance? Would he willingly end his life on the blade of the man he had created? Would he seek to kill and ever find joy in it?
But as Vader fell, he felt nothing. No relief, no catharsis, no grief. Handsome still, and so like Xanatos if death, without that cruelty twisting his expression. He looked at him, looked at him again. <Xanatos> he told himself, as if trying to force a reaction from his numbed mind. <Your padawan, then Vader. Killed by your hand.>
Nothing. Still he felt nothing. Anton stumbled forward and spoke words, but he did not hear them. Xanatos had died with his mouth half open, as if had some message still.
He would not hear it.
"Obi-Wan," he said, heavily. He turned away, from the body of the man who had ruled his past for so many years, to the most precious young man who was his life and his present and his future.
Only then did he weep.
One word, one breath, and then he was still.
It was a keening wail of exquisite, inhuman grief.
Alberich stopped, knowing instinctively what it signified. One step more, and he saw - the tall man whose path he had followed knelt in the wreckage, rocking to and fro over the body of the young man, mourning.
He spoke despire himself. "No."
Other eyes met his then - the tall man's companion with a blaster and suspicious eyes. He did not shoot, but hurried across the wreckage, unsteady on the surface. His blaster, though, was always steady.
Alberich blinked, wondered where those tears had come from.
"Why?" the man asked, in hoarse whisper.
Alberich knew what he meant: why this grief? He moistned his dust-dried lips. "Ben," and a gesture with his too-late hands towards him. The boy whose fingers he had broken. The boy he had allowed to walk here to his death, while he had simply turned and walked away, away from the building that had been his base and home for so long.
The blaster was high; he saw down the barrel and knew it could be his death. "The Emperor and Vader are dead."
"Yes." He nodded, and, surprisingly, thought he had already known - known, and dismissed. It was of immense importance, but it touched him not at all, not yet. Except that it meant he was free, and could live again as a man he was proud of, and could mourn this boy, last victim of Vader.
Oblivious, the tall man - though so immensely small, now, curled round that broken body - wailed again, wordless and despairing.
"He killed them." The man's eyes were softer now, as if he read much in Alberich's expression, though the blaster was not lowered. "Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom you call Ben. He had Jedi skills. He sacrificed himself to this purpose."
He shook his head, wondering what difference this made. He thought he should feel anger - he had not broken the fingers of an innocent foolish boy, but a calculating spy and assassin. No need to waste his guilt on such a one.
But such thoughts carried no conviction. <Sacrificed himself> Not an assassin, but a saviour, and he had used his Jedi skills on _him_, surely, although he had been too weak even to stand and all over blood, and had saved his life by doing so. Many other had died - men he had eaten and fought beside for years - but he thought, perhaps, that fewer would die in the future, now, because of it.
"Are you the Rebellion?" he asked. He should kill this man on the spot, he knew. His hands remained stiff at his side and immobile.
The man nodded.
<Can I join you?> perhaps he should have asked, or else sought ways to kill him. But frozen, caught between warring emotions, he simply stood, and said nothing.
And all the while the boy he had known as Ben, pale and cold and mourned with a grief that was scarecely human.
<Soon> the voices of light had told him, the first time he had seen death.
"Now," he murmured himself, as he drifted into that blue light of the Force, free from pain and reaching out to that tantalising, so-close peace. "Now..."
The light danced away.
Then a dark twist of fear and disgust. He had lost all hopes of this place. He had killed, and killed with dark fire, and his mind was bleeding with the severed threads of an unnatural bond. The blue light would turn dark and cold, and the voices would speak, not to welcome, but to condemn and cast him out.
He would spend eternity in the black void of space, cold and dark.
"Child, do you really think so?" he heard, infinitely gentle.
He nodded. Surely he had no body here, but it seemed as if he dug his nails into his sides and drew them deeply across his stomach, gouging deep and hurting - a foolish gesture that did nothing to ease the pain of facing that darkness.
He thought a hand, or a thousand thousand hands, caught his wrist, mild as silken bonds. "No." And he thought they too were weeping and mourning, as if for him. "You have done so very well, child, and suffered so much for it. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
Light pulsed around him like a cocoon of silk; he was a child in the all-over comfort of his mother's arms. Trembling, longing, he reached for it. Just for a moment, it touched his fingers, more beautiful, more intimate than ever before, then it withdrew.
"Not yet," the voice said, and he cried out at it. "Once before, we restored you to life when you should have died. Then, it was for our own purposes, and you have suffered immensely for it. One more time, we send you back from the light, so you can live your reward." The light smiled, mournful and rueful. "The third time, and there will be no going back."
"I don't want to go back," he cried, consumed with pain of memory. Body and mind tainted, and his Master would surely hate him. And he damaged and filthy, and, if Qui-Gon _did_ want him, how would he be able to give himself to him, now, as he was?
The light merely seemed to weep for him. "You will, child."
It could have killed him then, condemning him to a blackness eternal, for this rebellion, but did not. It would not, he knew, too. If he stood he, proud and dark, and swore to rule the vastness of the Force, it would not. It had not even struck down Vader, merely setting him on the path for it, and leaving it to his choices.
He thought, perhaps, he could hate it for that. Then he thought rather that he would weep, and seek comfort in vain, when comfort would never now be his lot.
"Oh, child." And it knew his thoughts, his blasphemies and his crimes, and seemed only to sorrow for him. "Even healing of the spirit is not for us, but lies in your own power only. But remember this: you have done well. You are the best of us."
And, with one last caress - <no, please, no...> - the light faded and there was darkness and dust, and it was all shot through with scarlet pain.
Someone was weeping.
He felt movement under his despairing fingers, and knew it to be the illusion of desperate despairing hope.
He saw the hell of devastation limned with blue light, and knew it was his eyes, so scoured by weeping that they could barely see.
He felt the Force flow, and laughed harshly through his tears that it could come so late, so paltry, so mocking.
He heard a voice, and it was of the Force and in his mind yet mortal, too, and just as it had ever been. "Qui-Gon Jinn."
Oh but he was lost, surely, in an unreality born of his own deepest wishes. Obi-Wan stirring beneath hands that had sworn to never touch another living person again, and blue eyes meeting his, that had seen the death of love. Obi-Wan, and the Force flowing, and this one here and speaking to him.
As lined as ever and formed of blue, but his eyes were tender now, and the words did not seek to strike at Qui-Gon as they would have, long ago. "Truly I spoke, Qui-Gon. In that moment was hope born."
Obi-Wan's eyes fluttered, struggled to stay open... fought, but failed. His breathed was laboured and horrible, but still he breathed.
Qui-Gon knew he had been dead. For minutes, hours, a gaping eternity, he had mourned him.
"What was given, now is returned."
He understood, and thought he mourned it, or maybe rejoiced for it. Obi-Wan's strength in the Force had been a gift from Yoda at his death. Now his task was done, it returned to Yoda. Obi-Wan, twice saved by a miracle, would be the ordinary boy he had once so needed him to be, without that immense ability, without a destiny. Just ordinary, to be loved in obscurity and peace, as he had dreamed.
"It is returned," Yoda said, and even though he was of the Force, his eyes would still sparkle with mischief. As he had always been able to, Qui-Gon saw through it to the deep compassion that lay beneath it. It was closer to love, this time, and awe. "It is returned, yet diminished, he is not." A soft touch on Obi-Wan's brow, like a benediction. "His strength was his own."
He knew he should share that quiet awe, but all he felt was love, fierce and abiding. "Even without it, I would love him." Then, in simple joy, "he's alive."
And what else did he need to say? How could the future be anything other than wondrous, in a world that was full of miracles, and in which Obi-Wan lived?
Yoda's eyes darkened. "Scarred he has been. Difficult his future will be."
He sighed. "I know. But..." - and his words were for Obi-Wan, far more than Yoda - "I will stay with him, and love him, and help him heal. He brought me back to life; I will do the same for him." Tears welled up and ran over; he could not see but continued blind. "And even if he has been too hurt to be able to love me, or let me hold him, then still will I stay at his side, still will I love him."
He blinked and the tears cleared. He thought to see the blue light of Yoda, but saw only another blue. Obi-Wan's eyes, drenched his pain and wonder, and looking at him.
When the blue light faded, Alberich found himself on his knees. The other man was too, blaster limp in his nerveless fingers.
Their eyes met, and spoke in that moment of a kinship undeniable. They had seen what man had never seen - on the fringes, but still touched by it.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
Alberich looked at the boy he had known as Ben, and knew he would serve him or his cause until death.
He looked at the boy, silently pledged his loyalty, and walked away. Now was not the time. He was an intruder here.
As he walked away, he found he was weeping. Once, he too had been loved.
So many things to say, and he said the only thing he could. "Let me heal you, Obi-Wan."
Once, before, he had tried a complete healing, but had been unable to give enough of himself, to complete the joining. Later, and not long ago, Obi-Wan had been the one to hold back, knowing what was in his future, and believing it would hurt Qui-Gon to know.
"Please, Obi-Wan..." The massive weight over his body... Death was still so close.
Obi-Wan sobbed - a tiny hitching breath. His lips seemed to move - nonsensical words. "Too late," and "I laid it aside" and "lost it."
"Obi-Wan." He reached out with the Force, desperate and needy. He only knew that Obi-Wan was not responding, not in any way at all. His whole mind was a barrier.
Blood trickled from his mouth.
He glanced around uselessly, but what help could there be? He had done so once before, and could do it again, and protect Obi-Wan with the Force even the boy gave nothing in response.
He kissed Obi-Wan's lips just once, chaste and full of promise, and Obi-Wan did not pull away - but maybe it was merely weakness, for something flickered in his eyes.
Then he began to free him.
He lived, but part of him did not.
Days he had been like this.
Obi-Wan lay with his face to the wall, listless, more close to death in mind than he was in body.
Men came, spoke, and walked away.
Bail Organa, leader of the Rebellion and acting leader of the nascent Republic. Even he looked awkward. He had come to offer Obi-Wan the highest honour, but what honour - medal or title - did not look tawdry, an insult even, compared with what Obi-Wan had suffered, and what he had done.
Offering words only, he moved away and spoke instead to Qui-Gon in low whispers - the plans for a new Jedi Temple; whether Qui-Gon believed the Hands could be loyal; advice in the war and the new government. While Obi-Wan slept, Qui-Gon was surprised how much his mind returned to these issues, as if he actually wanted a prominent role in the new Republic. So much had he changed - so much had Obi-Wan, and a miracle, changed him.
A man called Alberich came and knelt, offering fealty. Obi-Wan scarcely seemed to care. "He should not," he merely murmured, after the man had left, and closed his eyes.
Qui-Gon mourned him. The bright trusting boy whose naivete had been at first irritating, and then charming, had died at Vader's hand.
He knew more than he had ever said; he would not force Obi-Wan to talk about it until Obi-Wan himself was ready. He knew what Obi-Wan had suffered, and how repulsive he would find physical contact or the invasion of another reaching into his mind. He would not push.
He knew too how Obi-Wan blamed himself for all who had died, and for killing with Force lightning, as no Jedi had ever done. That he could address, and did, telling Obi-Wan's silent back again and again how well he had done, how many lives he had saved, how proud he was of him.
"I know," Obi-Wan said at last, painfully and almost fierce. "They told me."
His hands were so tight in his lap. He didn't ask who Obi-Wan was talking about: he thought he knew. "But you don't believe it, Obi-Wan."
"I... Yes. Yes, I do. I think I do."
Just for a moment, he seemed alive again, though his voice was still painfully weak and not out of danger. He still resisted Qui-Gon's healing, and the Republic's base was little more than a military camp, lacking facilities.
"Then why...?" He reached for Obi-Wan's hand, hesitated, then touched it, feather-light across the back of his fingers. But as he touched, it seemed as if his voice faded away. How could he ask, when he knew the answer? Even a question was a demand, and a demand a violation.
And so days passed, and Obi-Wan lay silent, and Qui-Gon sat at his side, and waited, waited for a moment that never came.
Sometimes he thought he was still chained to the hook, still bleeding, still trapped.
<Help me> he screamed silently, to the man who sat outside, in the land of the living and the free. <Please help me...>
He felt as if his mouth had been stapled shut and locked with chains. Saying what he needed to say was an impossibility. <Love me, Qui-Gon. Touch me. Reach into my mind and erase Vader's touch. I can feel him there still...>
He longed for it; he feared it. Frozen and immobile between the two, he could only wait, and hope.
<Qui-Gon, force me.>
He had been raped, abused, violated. Worst of it all was that he had asked for it, presenting himself to Vader like a whore, moaning in pretended pleasure. At times, he had truly _been_ Ben.
_That_ was the result of choice - body and mind sullied and dirty, and blood on his hands. Choice was pain. How could he ask aloud for hands to touch his flesh, and his Master to touch his dirtied mind?
<Force me> he begged, heavily, through his pain. <Please...>
And, ever afterwards, he could pretend he had never had the choice.
And then, once, shockingly, he screamed it.
"What did you say?" Qui-Gon said, long after that wild cry had faded into last echoes, then silence.
Obi-Wan looked like a caged animal, his eyes vast in his pale face, and dark with fear.
Only now abandoning soft speaking and not-touching, Qui-Gon grabbed Obi-Wan's forearms, tight above his half-healed wrists. "What did you say, Obi-Wan?"
Very still, Obi-Wan fought for a while, all his torment shown on his eyes. Still so easily readable, even after everything. Then, with a small sigh as of defeat, he spoke. "Force me, Qui-Gon. Please."
He dropped Obi-Wan's arms as if they hurt him. "Force you?" <_Rape_ you?> he thought, horrified and sickened.
Thick heavy tears welled up in Obi-Wan's eyes. "Hold me." A desperate gesture at his head. "Touch me here."
Incredulous. "You want that?"
"No." It was a barely human wail. Then, "yes."
He thought he understood. Oh, but he had to tread carefully here - so carefully. "I can't force you, Obi-Wan," he said, so gently.
Just for a moment, before Obi-Wan turned away, he saw his pale face as a mask of utter despair.
"No, Obi-Wan." He touched Obi-Wan's hand - a gentle touch that was no threat to him, or coercion. "I love you. I want to hold you. I want us to be in each other's mind. But only when we both want it. Only when you make that choice."
"Maybe not, Obi-Wan." Even if Obi-Wan would not sense it, he bathed him in his love, with a silken blanket. "Maybe not yet. But one day, and I will be with you until that day and after, you will heal from this. But only you can make that choice."
A long silence. Then, amazingly, a small rueful smile. "They said that too."
But no more. No movement to touch, or small voice requesting healing, or closeness. Just silence.
Days became weeks. Obi-Wan was sitting up, and then, with Qui-Gon at his side, took his first faltering steps.
Long hours he would stand in the window high over Coruscant, and look at the sunlight and the stars.
At last, when the sunset bled red through the sky, he whispered, not even turning round, "heal me, Qui-Gon. Please."
He swallowed hard. "Heal you?" Time had mostly healed Obi-Wan's body already, and there was little more he could do, even if they were bonded.
Obi-Wan nodded. His arms were wrapped tightly around his body, and, standing behind him, Qui-Gon could see how his shoulders trembling with tension.
"Heal you," he echoed again. "Properly? You know what it means?"
"I know." Almost gruffly.
His body scarcely needed healing. It was a request for closeness, for a merging of their two souls, phrased in the only way Obi-Wan was able to manage. Scared, even now, to ask for what he wanted, he asked for this.
Moved almost beyond bearing, Qui-Gon stepped forward.
Hesitant as new lovers, they were.
"I'll have to touch you..."
"I don't mind."
"Closer. Can you relax into my touch?"
"I... I think I would like that."
And then union.
Obi-Wan's battered soul was tremulous and fearful. It had cost him dearly to make this request, and he was half terrified, half longing. Qui-Gon coaxed it towards him, gentle, pushing nothing that was not requested or welcomed.
Dark tattered threads of Vader's touch met their mate, and, in meeting, were eased. Both bore scars from that man's touch, and the ghost of a bond that could never truly be erased. Both minds bore it; both minds could heal, healing their like.
Closer, he touched, and closer. His own soul was far from whole, and the contact was mutual healing, strong to weak, each to their needs.
<Can you really love me, as I am, like this?> he heard, felt, Obi-Wan ask, thoughts tinged with self-loathing.
<I can, and do.> And not even a thought or a word. He felt it, and so Obi-Wan knew it. No barriers here in this place. He thought it was a marvel, this thing he had feared so long.
<I love you, Master.> Ever selfless, Obi-Wan knowing that he bore his own scars.
Oh but he had never known anything like this. He had healed Xanatos when the boy had been hurt, merging minds like this... but not like this, not unless a candle flame is like to a sun. Xanatos had held something back right from the start. Only now he saw the true whole could he see this, and know a further truth: something had been rotten in Xanatos from the start. Perhaps he would have turned whatever Master he had. So long, he had thought he had taken a perfect boy of immense promise, and broken him.
If it was possible in this world of no flesh, he thought he laughed, even as he cried. Healing, too, for him.
<For both of us.> He wasn't even sure who had uttered that. Their thoughts were one.
And, far away and scarcely part of him at all, except that he knew of it and was glad, his fingers moved on Obi-Wan's skin.
Afterwards, like lovers, they were drowsy, although the touching had been chaste and the only union was of their souls.
"What shall we do?"
He shook his head. He was sitting on the floor, back to the wall, and Obi-Wan sat between his legs, leaning back against his shoulder. Their four hands were loosely clasped, one upon the other, on Obi-Wan's lap. "I don't know, Obi-Wan."
"I heard Bail Organa speaking." That surprised him. "I know there are... thing we could be doing. Useful things."
A soft kiss on Obi-Wan's hair. "You have done so much, Obi-Wan, and saved us all. You deserve your rest now."
"In a place like Tasceron, living as we did then?"
"Yes." Another kiss. "But with no need to keep what we are secret, at least not after a while."
A long silence. Still those shields slipped up every now and then, as Obi-Wan was scarcely aware of them - or if he needed just to reassure himself that he could. "Do you want to stay?"
"I want to be with you. I'll go where you choose."
"I don't want to choose." Obi-Wan's reply was a fast, as heated, as Qui-Gon's protestation. Qui-Gon could feel his suddenly fast heartbeat. When Obi-Wan spoke, though, he was reassured. "You have suffered too, Qui-Gon. You too are recently healed. You too have... needs."
"I go where you go," he said again, and meant it. "That's the extent of my needs."
But, even as he said it, he wasn't sure it was true. Those talks with Bail Organa had been precious much-needed reminders of the days when he had been able to make a difference, when his actions mattered. He had thought he was never feel that way again. Now he wondered if he could ever stop feeling that way, or give it up for obscurity, when he was the only Jedi, and the new Republic was fighting for its life.
"If we went to Tasceron," Obi-Wan said, voice distant and musing, "and the Republic fell, it would be no safe retirement for us..."
"We could hide."
"I'm not sure I want to..."
Sunset faded into darkness, and nothing was decided.
Darkness outside, and darkness in the room. Obi-Wan's skin was a pale blur in the shadow, unimaginably soft beneath his fingers. When he turned his head, his cheek was warm against Qui-Gon's shoulder. When he tilted it and leant back, his breath was like a caress on his neck.
Qui-Gon kissed him, infinitely tender.
The kiss was an eternity. When it ended, their closeness did not. Qui-Gon pressed his lips to Obi-Wan's eyelids, his cheeks, his throat, soft and fluttering, promising a boundless love.
Turning against his body, Obi-Wan knelt between Qui-Gon's knees, facing him. Qui-Gon cupped his face in his hands, and Obi-Wan's body was limp, supported by nothing but those hands, and his own hands, pressed against Qui-Gon's shoulders.
<This, and only this.> Qui-Gon understood him without words. <For now...> The words not a rejection, but a promise: one day he _would_ want more.
One more kiss. He ran his thumbs across Obi-Wan's cheek bones, and closed his eyes.
And, with the kiss, once more their minds met, and spoke, and understood.
Everywhere, there was light.
Who first said it? Who heard it, and agreed? Their minds were one, and they would never know. It was a choice made together, and a choice that would be faced together.
"We'll stay and help build a Republic," Obi-Wan said, afterwards, and it was the dawn of a new day on Coruscant.
And, hand in hand, they watched the sun.