He did not have a name, or, if he did, none of them knew it. "He," was how they spoke of him always. "He," as in "_he_ will come for you, if you speak like that, if you're caught slacking, if you look at the Master in the wrong way." "He," with a dark shiver, a nervous look over the shoulder, a more hearty swig of beer around the communal table in the barracks.
"He." "It," some thought privately, though they did not say it aloud, except after long nights of drinking, or when a new recruit needed to be properly initiated through fear. Then, of course, the wildest stories came out, told with a casual boldness, as if the tellers themselves were not afraid. Veterans of all but six months' service could feel, for a few moments, like grizzled heroes, in the face of the white-faced terror of the new recruits.
"He wears only black. He is hooded, to hide the fact that he doesn't even have a face..."
"It's a monster. It wears clothes, but underneath it are talons and the longest teeth..."
"He's a devil, and the Master has sold him his soul..."
And then, of course, the tales of what he could do.
"Poor old Burrick, rest his soul, was torn to pieces for breaking a glass. All they found of his body could fit into this tankard."
"Come to think of it, has anyone seen Arken tonight? He was a minute late on sentry duty earlier. Three days in the cellar with _him_ is the punishment. The screaming... They are never the same after. Few live for even a week afterwards."
Although the men who told them would never know it, none of the stories were true. The truth, though, would have offered them no comfort whatsoever.
Three weeks after his rumoured death, Arken was worrying at a flap of skin beside his thumb nail.
He was on sentry duty, and he was bored. This was the worst of postings, he thought, darkly. At least, when guarding the main gate, there were colleagues to chat with, and the hope of a drunk or a loiterer to drive away with menaces and a touch of violence, while guarding the Master's quarters on the top floor gave the chance to gaze in awe at the opulence, and overhear stray comments - often very revealing, for these people never saw servants as human and spoke freely in front of them - of his guests.
This, though - this was nothing. Guarding a minor corridor on the ground floor, and a door that led to... nothing much. He thought perhaps he was still being punished - more of the captain's ongoing grudge caused by his lateness. That thought at least provided a little amusement, although it was tinged with bitterness. The look on their faces... "You're alive..." "The cellar..." "_Him_"
What had he done? Smiled, perhaps, and shrugged. "Got lucky." He had seen the white-faced boy in their midst, and knew not to ruin their story. Let the boys have their fun, and all that; terrifying green kids was one of their favourite sports. But afterwards, when the boy had gone to bed - crying for his mother, no doubt - he had taken them to one side.
"You really believe all that crap?"
They had frowned. Drink made them emphatic. An exaggerated look over the shoulder, a shiver. "Don't you?"
He was older than them, and had served here long enough to see younger men promoted over him. He thought he was wiser, and told them so. "He is real, and he is terrible, but he doesn't bother himself with the likes of us. We're nothing to him. It's not _us_ who need to fear him."
He wondered if the intruder know about _him_, for here was someone who _did_ have true cause to fear. He wondered what was so special about this intruder, that he required such unusual orders. He wondered if he had been bloodied yet.
Questions, questions... Stuck here in this backwater corridor, he knew he would have no answers. The lads would tell him over their beer, but there would be little truth in their words. Alcohol would lend the intruder glowing eyes and the strength of ten, yet make him cower at the feet of men who barely had the strength to lift their tankards and tell the tale.
Facts, he had few. Guesses, rather more. "An intruder is expected tonight," the captain had said, at the start of their watch. Arken had watched the spittle fly from his mouth, and schooled his face not to show his hatred. "He is not to be stopped. Our orders are to ensure that he reaches the Master's strongroom. He is not to suspect a trap, so you are of course encouraged to make a show of resistance if you see him. He is to be alive, but there is no need for him to be intact, boys." A forced laugh, a false attempt at jollity, of being one of the lads on his side. Stupid, when his next words showed him for what he was.
"Who is he?" one, braver than the rest, had asked.
"It is not for the likes of you to know. Just obey."
Bastard, Arken had thought. Captain Bloody Ranson, pretending he knew more than they did, when he knew nothing at all.
Arken remembered him as a spotty kid of eighteen, sobbing into his first ever beer as the men described the terrors of the guardsman's life. This was before _him_, of course, when the horrors were the more earthly ones of whips and the captain's sexual perversions. Soon enough, Ranson had willingly submitted himself to both, and won favour. And here he was, ten years later, a captain himself, acting as if he ruled the world. At least his punishments seldom drew blood, and were - he had to grudgingly admit it - mostly fair.
He _had_ been late, yes, and more than the minute that the others told. A week on the worst duties, denied privileges... He could moan about it off duty, but knew it was fair. But, after the week, it should have been over. Instead he got this. Oh, it wasn't officially a punishment, for all house sentry duties were considered equal, but Arken knew what it was.
"Still brooding on that," he muttered under his breath. The skin was still resisting, and he was tugging at it, drawing blood. And here he was, worrying at the same thought, the same resentment. So what if it was a punishment. If he did it without complaint, Ranson was fair enough to favour him again.
A sudden pull, and it came off. That task finished, he could return to the next one - the obligatory, meaningless patrol of the corridor - up, pause, down; examine the locks; pause and listen; walk again. Only for form's sake, of course. What was the point? Still, he would act as if Ranson was watching, and be the perfect guard, blaster ready in one hand, his bleeding thumb in the other - a deviation from drill order than no-one could accuse him for, for it in now way affected his readiness. He could even have some fun - make a game of this foolish charade of a sentry point.
Walk, yes... Footsteps a regular tap tap on the tile floor. Low light and patches of shadow... No-one hiding there. He laughed under his breath, low and throaty. Who could be? This was a patrol for appearance's sake only, like an actor miming on the stage, or a parent pretending to look for a giggling hiding child. Could he be under the tiles? No. What about behind the potted plant? No. What about behind the picture on the wall? Could it be? Could it? No...
He laughed again. Something to tell the boys, anyway. The worst hardships could make the best stories.
Not behind the picture, no - the sickly picture of the Master's hideous niece, painted by some famous artist who deserved to be shot. What was wrong with holograms, or even photographs? He shrugged. Who could understand the rich? They spent their money on such monstrosities, and thought it was wise to be in debt to _him_ by making him their glorified guard dog.
Doors now, though who could have unlocked them when he had been in the corridor these last three hours?
Doors... He froze. Surely the handle hadn't been like that, earlier, pointing straight down, unlocked... smeared with blood?
His throat was suddenly dry. He coughed. "Guys?" A joke - though surely they wouldn't dare.
He crouched down, suddenly seeing a further speck of blood on the tile further back along the corridor. It was not small. Until he had squinted at it, _really_ trying to see it, it almost... No, he was crazy to think it, crazy even the utter it aloud in his mind, crazy even to...
<As if it didn't want to be seen> he told himself, firmly. It couldn't be true. No harm in saying it, then.
He shivered. Had someone passed him... but how could they have passed him? How? He shook his head, curled his fist. He swallowed, then swallowed again.
Dark imaginings, once entertained, could not be silenced. The enemy, the intruder, pausing behind his innocent back, his weapon raised, his eyes glittering evilly. A heavy cudgel, an electropike, or worse, falling on the back of his neck. Laughter.
He wrapped his arms round his body. He wondered if he would ever feel safe again in an empty well-lit room, knowing that _this_ could happen.
He only hoped that _he_, whoever he was, would do his job well with this one.
He had gone under many names in his two and a half decades of life. One, long ago, that his mother had called him by as she had loved him, but he didn't know that - they had refused to tell him. Another had seen him through the next twenty years and more, but he seldom even thought of that name, and never said it aloud. And, in the most recent years, a good dozen different names, each one lasting for a few months, then being shed along with his identity. New home and new name, and that way no-one could find him.
He was Quarrel now, meaning the bolt in an ancient weapon called a crossbow. Striking sharp and deep to their target - he liked the connotations. His current persona had him frequent seedy bars - although he didn't drink - where the whores laughed at his name. "I'll have no quarrel with you coming with me, dearie." He would smile, and wave them away. He had no friends.
No-one knew he was here. No-one would mourn him if he died. The whores might wonder a little while, then make another their favourite. Only his landlord would miss him, and only when rent was due.
Once, it had been different - but had it ever really been different? Perhaps his mother had truly loved him, but she had given him away. The men who had raised him had only wanted him for what they wanted him to do - like a performing animal doing useless tricks. Once he had announced he would no longer perform, he was nothing to him.
Did they even remember him? Would any of them even care if heard, long after, that he had died tonight? Pressed into a recess in the wall, his hand pressed to the shoulder and blood welling between the fingers, he had never felt death so close.
A challenging job, he had known, but perfectly doable. Not to anyone else, perhaps, but he was a master, and knew it for a fact without any false pride. The stolen crystal was in the Senator's own mansion. The news had been common knowledge in every spaceport tavern - for it never ceased to amaze him how the lowest criminals knew truths that the self-styled wise were blind to, such as the true nature of many of their rulers. The Senator kept a whole household of guards, but to one of his skills they presented no insurmountable challenge.
But the moment he had entered the house, there had been.... something. He should have turned back then, but perhaps he had let himself grow over-confident, for he had carried on, doing the usual, passing guards who peering into other shadows, and muttered about rats.
And all the while a shadow pressing on his mind, like a dark blanket, muffling his skills and his senses.
Someone had spotted him and slashed at him with a vibroaxe. He had jumped away, but not enough. The guard had laughed, then had fallen back and laughed no more.
He should never have come. He could not go on. Strength seeping away from him with his blood, and the darkness growing ever more terrible in his mind... He shivered. Was it death, or darkness?
If they had found the body, they would be searching for him now. Dimly, he could sense the specks of light that were their minds, milling around like fireflies in the night. They were looking for him, eager and fearful. The guards were thick all the way up to the strongroom. Only the fact that, the moment he was wounded, he had ducked into a side room, and headed away from the stairs was saving him.
Not for much longer. He sent his mind upwards, shaking with the strain, and almost cried out. Darkness, there, waiting for him on the top floor, gleeful and seductive. <Come to me, and I will give you the world> it called, but its honeyed words were like something rotten and putrid, concealing a deadly trap and a desire to crush him utterly.
It cursed when it knew that he saw it truly. It cursed, and cried out - a man of darkness, vaguely familiar, and not darkness personified - and smiled a death's head smile. "New orders," he snapped. "All guards to hunt him, to the death."
It was a race for his life now. The darkness closed on his mind like a vice, and, oh, it was hard to think, hard to... hard to move, and his fingers were swollen and useless, and his legs were heavy as lead, and far easier just to lie down and close his eyes and rest. Yes. Far easier...
Laughter. <Ah yes...>
He shook his head fiercely, then slapped himself across the face, once, twice. A little of the compulsion lifted - a little, but not all. He found he could move. Locked in a dark room with no way out except the way he had come, and where, where?
He thought he heard a dozen pairs of booted feet, all eager to capture him.
Where? He looked round, left then right. Where?
Just enough Force left to him - a tiny thread of Force that he wrested for himself, away from the dark grip of his attacker. <Open air> he thought. <Freedom>
He cast about desperately. Someone was at the door, rattling the handle. He slammed the bolt home with the Force, and broke off the key in the lock. Safe, for a moment. Safe, and trapped.
He was breathing hard and fast. Each breath left him dizzy. How much blood had he lost?
<Freedom> he thought. <Please...>
...And found it. A long forgotten trapdoor under a tile - long ago an entrance to the basement, and long ago sealed up. It was just the smallest chance that he had found it - that little tiny _difference_ between the solid stone beneath one tile, and empty air beneath the next.
Force and nails together, he tore at the tile until his blood was flowing. Outside the door, two men now laboured, hammering with fists. They could blast their way through it in seconds, but feared they would be punished for destroying the Senator's usual over-ostentatious door. Small mercies...
The tile came up. Blood made his hand slippery, and he could not hold it... It crashed down noisily.
The hammering stopped. They would be getting out their blasters. They had suspected, and now they knew for sure. Any second now...
No time for caution. He simply jumped, hoping he could survive the landing. A second, two, he flailed in the darkness... and then he couldn't breathe. Something icy cold and dark and deadly was covering his face, his eyes, his mouth...
His arms flailed. He was close to panic, he knew. He heard a cry and a splash, and something brushed against his ankle.
<Water> he thought, clutching at the truth like a life line. Only cold water. Not a basement at all, but part of the city's underground water system, and the house built over one of the access shafts. He had swum it before, using it as escape. If he let the current take him, he would be safe. If he...
Something clutched at him again, then was ripped away. He was drifting away on water and pain, and had forgotten. A guard had followed him in and was swimming almost beside him, and once again was reaching...
<No> he pleaded, silently. He was too hurt, and he would not fight, not now, not in the water when it was death or nothing.
He spat out water. Though his shoulder threatened to tear apart with pain, he rolled onto his front, and swam. Once again, the guard's hand didn't quite reach him, but still he followed.
His hair dripped in his eyes. His cloak was heavy and weighed him down, pulling at his neck. He had lost too much blood. He was swimming with the current, and the water took his blood and made it swirl beneath his face, dark in the water. When he tasted water, it was like iron, and the taste was his own blood.
How long before the guard gave up, he thought? The other question he would not even think - how long before his own strength gave out and he would sink in the water and drown, or be held aloft to be taken back to his death at the hands of the dark man?
How long? And then nothing could stop him groaning aloud. Not long at all. Ahead was a grating, and debris hung thick about it. The gaps were the span of his hand. He would be brought up against it, and pinned there immobile, as much a prisoner as if he was chained in a dungeon.
It was over. It was over, unless...
He glanced up wildly, one side then the other. Ah yes. There were stars above. This part of the waterway wasn't underground, but in the open air. It ran at the base of a deep man-made channel, and the walls extended a good twelve feet above the waterline, but there, above him, was safety.
One last effort, and then he could rest. He called upon the Force, summoning it to give him strength. The darkness was gone from his mind, but the blood loss and exhaustion had cost him too dearly. It came, not like the usual surge of light, but like a whimper - a brief touch of strength, and then nothing. He raised himself from the water but three or four feet, then fell back.
The guard was closing now. Behind him, slower but tenacious, another one swam noisily.
Again. Two feet, one foot... He fell, swallowed water, and choked.
"Got you." The guard smiled with triumph.
Again.... and, no, it was useless. Again, for even when it was useless, he would never give up, and again...
...and found himself lifted, wrapped in an embrace of Force that was not his, nurtured, supported...
He gasped. Somewhere beneath him, the guard cried out.
Like a child in a mother's arms, he was held. He gave nothing himself. He could move, and did, wiping away the water from his eyes so he could see his rescuer.
A man stood on the bank, heavily cloaked and hooded. He was tall and commanding, and one hand was outstretched. The wind gently lapped at the hem of his robe. He looked like a statue, as if he had been here a long time, waiting.
Belatedly, given a few seconds to recover, he reached for the Force himself, augmenting the stranger's effort. It was a tiny amount - a candle flame compared to the sun - but, as he was set down on his feet beside the man, he could at least feel that he had had a small role in his destiny, and had not been merely a passenger. Hadn't it always been like that?
"Thank you," he said, when he could speak. He spoke little in this current persona of his, and, as always, made no friends, but he was always courteous.
The man said nothing. Jedi, presumably, since he had the Force, but he had saved him, and that was unusual, and there had been something very cold about the Force that emanated from him.
He licked his lips. "I..."
"Do not speak to me," the man said, harshly. Suddenly, amazingly, his hand whipped from his robe and slapped him resoundingly on the cheek.
He was weak and too hurt. He staggered and fell, only narrowly avoiding falling back into the water. He took his weight on his injured shoulder, and only the most supreme effort of will stopped him crying out.
"I saved you, but not from choice. I have nothing but contempt for you, Obi-Wan Kenobi."
And then he turned and walked away, leaving the man who was now called Quarrel, but had once been called by the name the man had said, bleeding on the bank.
Qui-Gon Jinn threw his robe over the back of a chair. "I've done it."
Ki-Adi-Mundi steepled his fingers. "Have you?"
"Saved his life, as ordered." <His wretched life> he added silently, but did not say - though they probably knew the truth. In from the darkness of the streets for the first time, he saw he had blood on the wrist of his tunic. _His_ blood. He grimaced, and tried to rub it away.
"Yes." Ki-Adi-Mundi nodded. "This time." He and Adi Gallia exchanged a look.
He knew what was coming. Surely they could not...
"The new few months will be deadly for him," Ki-Adi-Mundi said, in that damned infuriating calm tone that all Council members seemed to have perfected. "It is not enough to save him once."
He clenched his fists. "You said none of this earlier."
"Keep him safe, we said. He is walking into danger, we said. Keep him alive, we said. There was no mention of a time limit on the mission, yet you accepted it."
Because he had to. He had interpreted orders loosely, but had never outright disobeyed a direct order. Only four of the Council had been present when he had been summoned from meditation in the gardens and given this task - "go now. Now! It's almost too late" - but their orders still carried the full weight of command.
"Why him?" he asked, now. He looked Ki-Adi-Mundi full in the eye, confrontational. "He was _your_ padawan. Why use me for your personal agenda?"
A shade of... _something_ passed over Ki-Adi-Mundi's face. It could even have been guilt. Qui-Gon clutched belatedly at it, but it was gone, hidden under schooled shields. "Think of it as a personal agenda if you wish, Qui-Gon, but it is still an order."
He would lose this battle, surely, but he would not do without making his disgust known. "He left the Jedi, and you. He lives as a common thief. He deserves nothing, least of all protection we do not even give to our own."
"It is not for you to question this, Qui-Gon Jinn," Ki-Adi-Mundi said, sternly, but Adi Gallia leant forward, smiled her rare luminous smile, and said, gently, "he is not Xanatos, Qui-Gon."
Ah, but this was worse - far worse. A vicious attack veiled in a smile, but meant to wound. "Yet both left the Jedi. Both betrayed the Jedi. At least _I_ have accepted that it's over and cut all ties."
"By learning to hate?" Quiet, like a delicate dagger snaking under his ribs. "By hating Xanatos and all who remind you of him?"
His nails were digging into his palms. "I do not." Each word spat out between his teeth. Then, unable not to say it: "if I did, it would only be because he deserved it."
Adi Gallia smiled, with pretended sympathy. Qui-Gon saw the triumph there at what she thought was a victory won.
He was walking up and down the room, he realised, pacing angrily. He forced himself to stop and stand still, though he felt himself almost vibrating with tension. "Why ask me to do this, then, if that's what you think of me?"
"Who else could there be?" she asked, mildly, with a treacherous smile. "Who else has defied the full Council again and again? Who else will..."
Ki-Adi-Mundi flashed her a sharp look. Something passed between them - a note of warning. <Don't say too much.>
"Yet this is the Council asking me," he said, disingenously, scenting a chance. Something was not right...
"Yes," Ki-Adi-Mundi said firmly. "It is. And you are a Jedi, sworn to obedience, Qui-Gon Jinn."
What could he say? He was beaten. He would stretch the rules, but he would never challenge the Jedi outright. Xanatos had done that. Becoming like Xanatos was his worst fear. Perhaps he did hate him, but he was still a Jedi and secure in that.
He bowed stiffly. "Then I will do it, but I will not like it."
The last thing he saw, just before he left the room, was a small look of fear passing between the two Councillors. Interesting... He cherished that little look.
Half way back to his quarters, Qui-Gon paused, stood still a while, then smiled, slowly.
"He left. He did not turn to the darkness," Ki-Adi-Mundi had said, at that first briefing. And Adi Gallia, smiling so oilily, at the second: "he is not Xanatos."
He had his orders. Well, then, he would obey them. He would obey them scrupulously. Obi-Wan Kenobi would never set foot on the street without he, Qui-Gon Jinn, knowing about it. He would watch him, keep him alive... and prove that he had turned to the darkness.
"This is the kind of man you ask me to save," he would say, in triumph, throwing the snivelling wretch at the feet of his former Master. "Not turned, you said. Can you say the same now?" And then, when Ki-Adi-Mundi's face twisted in betrayal, and, yes, in hatred, he would murmur, oh so quietly: "still condemning _me_ for feeling hatred, are you, Ki?"
Let _him_ feel the pain of an apprentice turned to the darkness. Let him feel the sharp agony of betrayal lancing through the heart, and face that terrible stark cross-roads in the darkness: between self-hatred - <why? Where did I go wrong? How did I fail him?> - and anger - <it wasn't my fault. He was evil all along. How he betrayed me...> Let him face that choice that was no choice at all - for the choice of hatred left the rest of your life intact, while the choice of self-blame shook you to the very core.
Yes. Yes, let him regret the moment he had asked Qui-Gon Jinn to perform this task. All those dark looks and secrets... Let the hypocrites be exposed.
He smiled. A padawan looked at him with something close to fear, and passed quickly, almost pressed into the wall.
After a long silence...
"A risk," Adi Gallia said.
Ki-Adi-Mundi nodded. "But the only chance."
"You saw him. He is..."
"I know." Firmly. "We can only... trust."
"In the Force?"
Knowing a disingenuous response when she heard one, Adi Gallia looked away.
Six hours, he guessed, since he had left Obi-Wan Kenobi on the bank. In that time he had covered barely a mile, while Qui-Gon had returned to the Temple, and come back again, not hurrying. The fool hadn't even wiped away the blood stains. Using his eyes and the Force, it had been easy for Qui-Gon to follow the trail the thief had left.
Only a mile, and cowering now in a doorway like the miserable wretch he was. Qui-Gon stood in the shadows, calling the Force around him to conceal himself, and watched. Still alive, he saw quickly, for occasionally his head, which was thrown back to rest against the wall, occasionally moved a little, in small pathetic movements as if he was looking for something, but did not quite know what.
Perhaps he was planning to die here. He had heard that the Dark Side was like this. Its adherents had no courage and were afraid of pain. But, then, he had heard other things too. A generation before the Masters had first put a name to the darkness in the Force that they had always sensed, but study of the Dark Side was still new. New and glamorous, he supposed, which was why so many Jedi were falling.
Then, as if Kenobi had heard his thought and set about to prove him wrong, the young man moved again - a proper movement, and not that weak searching. For a second, his eyes seemed to rest on the place where Qui-Gon was hiding, but then passed by - for of course he wouldn't be able to see him, for he, Qui-Gon, was of the light, and righteousness was always stronger. The Jedi believed that, left alone, all things would turn out as they were intended, and steadily, and not without apparent reverses, there would be more and more light in the world, until the will of the Force was fulfilled and the world was an earthly paradise.
Not that he believed it, but he believed it in this, at least. Jedi who turned were seduced by the glamour of darkness, but only made themselves weak and paltry. They were no real threat to a true Jedi, and never would be.
And of course he was right, for the thief ignored him, and concentrated instead on standing up, very slowly and painfully. Qui-Gon caught glimpses of his face, through bars of shadow and a heavy hank of dirty hair, and it was twisted in pain and very pale. He heard no sounds, though, no cries and groans.
At last the thief was standing, supporting himself heavily with one hand on the wall. He had evidently rested, regained a little strength, and thought himself ready to attempt to reach his home. He thought himself unobserved. All his focus would go towards keeping himself upright.
Easy for Qui-Gon to follow, then. The easiest thing in the world. He could have laughed.
He kept it up for two hours, or so Qui-Gon guessed from the movements of the stars, behind their scudding clouds and the tall and ever growing towers of the city.
The thief walked slowly, and several times only luck kept him from falling and, Qui-Gon assumed, never getting up again. He instinctively kept to the shadows and darkness, moving utterly silently even though his step was so unsure. Long practice at assassination and murder in the night, and even when half dead he still moved like a criminal. He was so steeped in the darkness that he could do nothing else.
Qui-Gon pursed his lips and clenched his fists, and forced himself to walk slowly. This was not the time for confrontation yet, though he had all the evidence _he_ needed. He would follow him to his home, and then, if the thief lived through the night, would be able to follow him wherever he went.
He smiled grimly at the thought, then had to stop suddenly and with little grace. Kenobi had stopped abruptly, his palm resting flat on a plain wooden door. Filth an inch thick stuck to his boots. Of all the low places...
"Are you coming in?" the thief asked, suddenly, without turning round. His voice was strangely level.
Qui-Gon stiffened, but forced himself to stand still. It was a bluff. The man had no idea he was there, but was pretending that he did, to force foolish pursuers to give themselves up, thinking they were spotted.
"You. In the shadows. The Jedi." All without looking round. "You didn't follow me to kill me, so why else are you here?" He took the hand off the door, and it appeared again a moment later with a key. A rattle of metal, and the door opened. "So come in."
He frowned, wondering. If he refused, and simply stood silent, it could give the impression that he was scared. He had no fear of the darkness, or this man. Let him know it. "I will." He stepped out of the shadows.
The thief nodded once, then led the way painfully and slowly up the stairs that opened from the doorway, leaning heavily on the banister. Qui-Gon, following, looked down in distaste at the rotten wood, always sure if would never bear his weight.
"Strange place for a thief to live," Kenobi said, his voice right, as if he was gritting his teeth against the pain. "With all my pickings, I should be living in luxury, right?"
Qui-Gon, who had been thinking just that, pursed his lips, and said nothing.
They were at the top. The thief paused, his breath coming high and pained, then rested his hand on a panel. Qui-Gon had seen no door - not even thought to look for one with the Force - but there it was, hidden in the wall.
<There'll be luxury behind there> he thought, smugly, but there was not. It was barely a home. It was not squalor - on the contrary, it was clean and functional - but there was no warmth. A small barred window would give but meagre light in the daytime, and the only furniture was a bed, a table, one chair, and two chests.
"Why don't you sit?" Kenobi said, still not looking at Qui-Gon. He went over to the smaller chest and busied himself there. Qui-Gon, who remained standing, caught a glimpse of white bandages and other medical supplies. He stood watching while the other man walked over to the bed, shedding his filthy cloak with a grimace of distaste, and sat on the bed.
He wondered if he should say something.
The thief reached behind his head with his one good arm and tightened his ponytail - a useless gesture, for one thick lock had already escaped and, one-handed, could not be retrieved. Then he unfastened his tunic, and wriggled out of it.
Qui-Gon tried not to gasp at the wound in his shoulder - a bone-deep laceration that ran from collarbone almost to armpit, and would have severed the arm had it been a few inches different. Blood still oozed thickly from it, adding fresh stains to the dark smears on his pale chest.
<Do you...?> he almost said, then remembered who this was.
He stood, increasingly awkward, as the young man, who had apparently forgotten him, cleansed his own wound, tried to close it with the Force but failed, then stitched it up. He tried to ignore the beads of sweat that sprung up on the thief's chalk white brow, and the small gasping breaths that were almost whimpers. He tried to ignore how, the minute the hand lay down the needle, it grabbed at the sheet and held on so tight it was shaking. He tried to ignore the blood that stained the young man's teeth and lips.
Only when the wound was bandaged did he stop trying to ignore things. He was surprised to find his hands were shaking.
"You must be warm in that hood," Kenobi said, at last, his voice little more than a whisper. He was feigning unconcern. He was leaning back against the wall and only his eyes were moving, luminous and blue in the pallor of his face.
He said nothing, did not move.
Those blue eyes narrowed, and seemed to flash silver. "I would like to know who you are." Suddenly it was not a polite request, but an order. Qui-Gon had seen something of the same look in the eyes of Mace Windu, leader of the Council.
He folded his arms. "You have no right to ask that."
Kenobi closed his eyes, seemingly too exhausted to argue. <I should leave now> Qui-Gon thought, wondering why he hadn't done so earlier. He began to turn, but a sudden ripple of Force arrested him. His hood had been ripped from his head, and he stood exposed.
He raised his clenched fist. "You'll pay for that..."
"Qui-Gon Jinn," the thief said, apparently unafraid of his threat. "Xanatos's Master."
It was the only thing that could have stopped him from hitting the young man - and, maybe, it wouldn't stop him at all, if his answer was wrong. "You know Xanatos?"
The thief seemed to think about his answer, as if judging which lie to tell. "I knew him a little," he said, carefully. He was trying to appear neutral, to hide his true feelings. For a sudden wild moment, Qui-Gon was sure that the young man was trying to hide his dislike. He remembered that Kenobi had left the Jedi before Xanatos had turned, and would think he was still Qui-Gon's cherished padawan.
Well, he wouldn't disabuse him of this belief. What was the point? Why let his enemy know he had already faced darkness cloaked in an appealing body and innocent blue eyes, and knew how to recognise it, and hate it. Why invite him to think he had failed as Master, when he knew that the fault always lay with the padawan?
Without another word, he turned and left. He felt Kenobi's eyes, following him, but did not look back.
"Faster, Obi-Wan. Harder. Faster." A hand slamming on a table. "You can do better."
A thin high sound. Obi-Wan belatedly recognised it as his own voice. He blinked hard, and for a moment saw a familiar dark wooden ceiling, and dust in a thin beam of light.
<Not real> he told himself. <It's a fever, and you're Quarrel, not Obi-Wan.>
Bandages needed changing. He tried to sit up, but existence seemed to lurch to one side, sickening and shadowy.
"No, Obi-Wan. Always you fall short." Stern eyes that must surely lighten in affection for someone, but never for him.
He leant heavily on the staff, breathing fast. "Why do I need to train like this? The others don't."
"Because you have some small skill in it."
"But a Jedi never needs to fight."
"Knowledge is valuable for its own sake. It is our duty to develop any Force-given skill. Do you question that, Obi-Wan? Do you question my decisions about your training? If so, perhaps you should question whether you are worthy of the Jedi."
Darkness swirled. <Not real> he told himself, desperately, but the cold-eyed Master who had never once smiled upon him seemed to laugh, his eyes dark with cruelty. <Ah, yes, Obi-Wan. It's real, and you will never escape it.>
Shadows coalesced into a garden, with thorns and dark leaves dancing grotesquely before a fire. The wind carried conversation he was not supposed to hear.
"Did you see what you needed to see?" His Master.
"Yes." A voice he didn't recognise. "He is progressing well. I think he will perform as we wish. He will follow our script."
His Master's voice was dark with displeasure. "Oh, but I dislike..."
"Obi-Wan does you credit, Ki," a female voice said, firmly. "Feelings are second always to duty."
Then, instantly, in another place entirely, and on his knees, his clothes stained filthy from holding the child. "Please, Master."
"They'll _kill_ her. I promised her I'd help."
"You had no right to."
"I feel the Force led me to her."
"Then you are presumptuous."
He was almost crying. He could still hear the girl's sobs, though he had swathed her in blankets and tried not to let her hear the argument that would determine if she lived or died. "Please, Master..."
"You know what the Code says about deliberately acting in a way that affects any living thing. Everything turns out as the Force wills, and it is arrogant for us to presume we know better."
"I feel that the Force wants me to save her," he said again, his voice quivering.
"Do you think that the Force, in all its majesty, needs to use a frail mortal such as you to do its will? Perhaps it led you to her in order to test you. If you are to be a true Jedi you will follow the Code and walk away."
"I will not." So easy to say. He did not even hesitate.
"Have you thought about the consequences of what you're saying?" For a moment he caught a flicker of some intense emotion from his Master. Anger, probably, and the proper outrage at his rebellion.
"No," he said, truthfully. "I have not, but I do so now, and I stand by what I said." And, amazingly, he did. He was throwing away everything he had ever lived for, but felt only a sense of freedom. Surely this moment had been coming for a while. He raised his head. "I am not saying that the Jedi are wrong, and that I am right. All I am saying is that _I_ can no longer live as a Jedi, if this is what the Jedi must do."
His Master bowed his head and gave no warning. An explosion of Force and pain impacted on his skull, and...
...and darkness surged up and around him, pulsing like a fevered heartbeat. He saw the wood and the dust, and the place where Qui-Gon Jinn had stood. <No> he pleaded. <I want to stay here>
But back he was sucked, back and downwards, and back into a coiling tunnel...
Waking up to see his Master, where surely a moment ago, when barely conscious, there had been several faces, all watching him, and speaking.
"You are still determined?"
"Yes." He raised a shaking hand to his brow. His Master had never hurt him before, or not with anything more than words and silences. "Where...?"
"The Temple." His Master was heavily shielded, and spoke with supreme unconcern. There was not even cold disapproval, as if he didn't even deserve that. "The Masters have severed you from the Order, as you requested."
"Why?" Why hurt me, he meant. A two day journey back to the Temple, and why had he been unconscious throughout?
"I saw you were too determined. You would have found a way to save her, and until the Council performed the severance ceremony, anything you did would reflect upon the Jedi. But now you are nothing to do with us. Act as you like, it is nothing to us."
Strange unbidden tears rose in his throat, though he knew he did not regret his decision. But the _manner_ of it. Twenty years of life, and this was how it ended, with... nothing. Somewhere, a girl had died, cast out by his Master, and he too felt he was dying inside.
Nothingness. That was how it all ended. Just nothingness.
And it swallowed him now, although he screamed at it to free him.
Light blue eyes danced in a pale face, and a mouth that seldom smiled opened in a generous laugh. He saw deft fingers opening the fastenings on a dark tunic, and soft white skin on a smooth chest.
"How could you think I was of the darkness, Qui-Gon Jinn?" a warm voice said, whispering close to his ear as a hand caressed him. "What we are about to do - what you so want to do - is surely of the light."
And ecstasy like light exploded inside and around him, leaving him shaking...
...shaking with shame and bitter dark hatred, clawing sweat-damp sheets and crying aloud his denial.
He did not sleep again.
Foolish, he thought, and stopped mid-stride. What had he expected? Long hours of sleepless night, waiting for the moment of confrontation, longing for it more and more.
"What did you do?" he would shout. "How did you get into my dreams?" Then, shaking him and hitting and spitting his contempt, "keep out of my head, or I swear I will break you utterly."
Words that seemed so satisfying in the darkest hour of night - words that would take his feelings of shame and violation, and let them flow from him, healing them utterly - but were so hollow and futile now that day was come.
"So you dreamed of me?" the thief would say, in his sardonic way. "You want me, do you, but are scared to admit it?" Ludicrous words, of course, but merely by saying them, he would think he had won a victory. "Can't keep away?" he would say, smirking, when Qui-Gon followed him to expose his darkness. "Such passionate hatred you feel for me. Such... _passion_."
No, he refused to give a man like that a weapon of a lie to use against him. He was secure in himself, and that was what mattered. If Kenobi featured strongly in his thoughts - and he had not once stopped thinking of him since waking up - it was only natural, because it was his sacred duty to expose him for what he was, and duties were to be embraced whole-heartedly, whatever the sacrifice.
He would not confront, then, but watch and wait, and soon he would be rewarded, and free - free from the shadow of not one, but two dark men.
Something, some very small part of him, told him that he did not belong here.
<Nonsense> said the churning mists of laughing darkness. <This is your place, and we have you now.>
He saw things, whirling through the fog, passing close to him, then moving away.
He saw a man whom he called Master, folding his arms and turning away.
He saw a man with a dark brown hood over his face, and his arms too were folded, as he stood in the shadows and waited.
<Past> he heard. <Present... and future?>
A voice - his voice, he thought - raised with anger. "Like all Jedi, you are a fool, Qui-Gon Jinn. You do not see the power of the Dark Side, and that is why you lie there now. You think it puny and doomed to failure; you do not see that it is strong, and growing ever stronger. It is your blindness that will be your doom - all of you."
Then the fog gibbered and swirled, and became a rising cacophony of noise and image. Grasping hands and grating voices, and "steal" and "thief" and "scum." Axe and blade and knife in the darkness, and blood on his frozen claw-like hands. Guards, and a dark mind touching his, calling, calling...
"Danger," he heard, suddenly clear through the shadows, and he thought he knew the voice. "Danger from four sides, Obi-Wan. The one who smiles, who you have not yet met, and is danger for us all; the ones who have always known you, and will know you again; the one who is blind; and the dark one he will lead to you, unwittingly."
A hand clamped onto his brow, and eyes like fire drilled into his soul.
Two days passed, then the third.
Qui-Gon found his routine, though it was far from routine and full of burning intensity.
Darkness was the thief's time, so he stood watch through the night, returning to the Temple for a few hours' sleep over noon, and a quick meal. Afterwards, those hours seemed barely real, as if overlaid with a thin film. He felt incomplete then, itching to get back. Standing in the shadows, eyes burning into the small barred slit of a window that was the thief's room, he felt fully alive, enervated by his passionate desire for justice.
<Obsessed, yes> he acknowledged to himself, more than once, <but in good cause.>
He knew he had been adrift since Xanatos. He felt he had found himself again - that the Force had given him a chance to make amends.
Did they talk, in the Temple corridors? He was sure they did. "That's Qui-Gon Jinn, who couldn't spot the growing darkness in his apprentice. That's Qui-Gon Jinn. Perhaps he even sympathises with the darkness himself, which is why he let him escape. He's still at large, you know. His Master could have found him if he'd tried."
"Ah, no," he would say, proudly with his eyes, as he paraded his captured prize to the Council chamber. "I saw darkness here where Master Mundi could not. I saw it, and risked all to prove it. Dare you talk about me now?"
And the voices - and the voices inside his own whimpering soul, too - would be silenced. He would be pure again.
It sustained him. So often he thought it, and so often he smiled, even though it remained imaginings only.
Obi-Wan Kenobi did not once leave his lodging. Day and night, there was the same dim artificial light from that window, and never a shadow passing before it.
It started to prey on him. <He's leaving now> he would think, as he paused in the Temple refectory to eat a quick meal. Then, edgy and unable to join in the muted conversation of his peers, he would eat as fast as he could, and hurry back to his station.
Nothing. The waiting only made his devotion, his commitment to catching this man in the very act of darkness, more intense. It burned like a flame inside him. There was nothing else. Obi-Wan Kenobi's face danced before his vision when his eyes were open, and when he eyes closed. No-one else truly existed.
At last, on the morning on the fourth day, he turned away to walk back to the his aircar, took ten steps, twenty, then stopped.
A small smile played over his lips. He waited, ducked into a doorway. Five minutes, then ten... Long enough? If Obi-Wan Kenobi had been watching him and waiting for him to go, he would waste little time about leaving.
Ten minutes, yes. No longer. Shielding himself with the strongest of shields, he walked back.
There were footprints at the doorway.
Even the voices had died away.
For an age, an eternity, he floated on a raft on a vast ocean, his hands bound to his sides. The sun beat down. He was unable to move, to steer, to drink. Salt clung to his lips.
Then - when? now? real? - a dark shadow passed before the sun, paused, then rushed towards him. It had hands that grabbed, and he could not breathe. It had eyes that impaled, and pain exploded in his throat.
It was as if reality - or was it unreality? - simply tore. A great rent opened in that vast sky, and, through the blue, there was something else entirely.
"So easy to kill you," a voice said, laughing, and this voice, too, he knew.
Staff in one hand, robe gathered in the other, Qui-Gon tiptoed up the stairs. The damp wood muffled his steps.
The door at the top was open a crack. He heard noises through it, and the sound of a scuffle.
<He's killing someone> he thought, and outrage, hot and very fierce, flooded him.
No time for stealth - and he was no low thief, to hide in the shadows. He burst through the door, shouting incoherently. He knew he could kill.
Then he paused, just for a moment, frozen before the tableau inside. Obi-Wan Kenobi was in bed, clearly naked beneath the thin tangled sheet. His skin was very white, marred by a large splash of red on his chest, and the black gloved hand that was closed round his throat. His lips were slightly parted, and he was gasping for breath, his eyelids almost closed. One hand was closed round the wrist of the hand that was strangling him.
The other man had one foot on the floor, and the other knee resting on the bed, between Kenobi's legs. He was clothed all in black, his hood completely covering his face. One hand held the thief's throat, the other was clenched in a fist, raised to hit him again on the bandaged wound.
Neither moved. Except for the frantic heaving of Obi-Wan's chest, there was utter stillness. Then Qui-Gon shifted his perception slightly - and it was so subtle as to be like frowning, to bring something into focus - and became aware that a battle was being fought. No, not a battle, but a murder.
Obi-Wan Kenobi was using the Force in desperate, unprincipled assault, but he was alone. The other man had no weapons other than his fists.
"No," Qui-Gon gasped, and moved forward. He raised his staff, and brought it down, slashing at both the arms - the pale skin and the black cloth. At the same time, he reached out with the Force, battering at the thief's mind, trying to prise him off. He would check the other man, too, cursorily, to make sure his clothing didn't hide insidious wounds.
Suddenly, Kenobi slumped away, falling bonelessly back onto the bed. Qui-Gon found it hard to turn away. He heard footsteps, and knew that the other man had gone. Why, he wondered. He didn't look round.
"Thank you," Kenobi whispered, his voice very weak and ravaged. "That's the second time."
He frowned, not understanding. Then, hotly: "I didn't save you." Saved the other man, more like.
"Whatever." The thief looked deeply weary, as if nothing really mattered much to him. But he attempted a small smile. "Are you staying this time? It's just that I prefer my visitors to announce themselves, and all I need now is a wash."
"I'll stay as long as I need," he said, coldly. Let him deduce what he could from that.
Kenobi looked at him, and for just a moment, Qui-Gon thought he saw something very young and vulnerable beneath the sardonic facade - though his true core, existing beneath the facade, was darkness, of course. "How long...?"
He didn't understand, yet found himself answering. "Four days."
"Oh." Again, that little flicker. He hated it. It reminded him of his dream, and the young man lying naked beneath a barely adequate sheet, gleaming with sweat, and still breathing heavily, as if from passionate exertion....
He looked away, and when he spoke again he voice was harsh. "Get washed, then."
What meaning was there in those pale eyes? "You're staying?"
He sat back and watched as the young man struggled out of bed - his limbs were shaking, he saw, and he swayed when he stood. He folded his hands in his lap when the thief pulled the sheet round his hips, and when his hands fumbled and the thin fabric showed more than it concealed. He didn't watch at all as he walked towards the door beside the bed, and closed it to - not completely closed - behind him, and found himself exhaling deeply when the sound of running water told him he was safe.
He closed his eyes. His hands were shaking, too.
"That's better," he heard, after a while. "The stink of sickness, and the stench of darkness..."
He sat up straight. <The stench of darkness....> "What are you talking about?" But perhaps the young man couldn't hear him through the water.
He stood, and walked to the door, back ramrod straight, and steps tight with coiled fury.
"What did you say?"
Steam hung thick in the room, and he was sweating. Through steamed glass he saw the young man, face tilted back, as if he was letting water just pour over his face and into his open mouth - as if he needed to seep himself in water.
This was a chance at an interrogation, he knew, and he smiled to know it. He was in control. The young man was obviously sick, and at a disadvantage. He could exploit it, and crush him entirely.
He leant, with feigned casualness, on the door to the shower cubicle. "What did you say about the darkness?" he asked, hissingly, and used to Force to make his words reverberate, menacingly, off the glass.
The water stopped. Their voices were suddenly loud in the silence, and even their breathing was audible - fast and heavy. "The darkness... the assault..." There was nothing strong about the voice. This was not the assured thief he had followed home, but someone who knew his secret was discovered, and was squirming about it. He sounded very scared, as well he should.
"Tell me more," he said, his voice low.
"What do you need to know?" It was suddenly high and desperate - a cornered man using anger as a last defence. "That I woke from four days of delirium to find a Dark Jedi trying to kill me? That I...?"
"You're lying." Suddenly furious, he pulled open the glass door, and stepped forward, pressing the young man against the glass. He heard him gasp. One hand on each shoulder, pinning him. The thief's eyes were panicky with the knowledge of his own end. "I sensed no darkness in him, and no Force sense. Only _you_..."
"What do the Jedi know about the darkness?" Kenobi spat. "What do they know about anything? Call themselves so wise, and they know _nothing_ about what happens out here, in the world. Why else do I do what I do?"
"But they'll know now. They'll know you." He smiled, and squeezed harder. "Rest assured of that."
The young man lowered his eyes. Something passed across his face, and it looked like defeat - like bone-deep exhaustion, and long years of loneliness and despair.
"How dare you?" he shouted, enraged beyond all seeing. Red flames and darkness swirled before his vision. "How dare you try and make me feel _sorry_ for you? How dare you pretend this?" He wanted him defiance and screaming his hatred. He wanted a snarling animal to wrestle into chains, and drag through the Temple, his captor. He didn't want a meek broken man, and a "you were wrong, Qui-Gon. You must have been wrong. He did no harm, and see how he has suffered..."
"I... I don't care what you think of me," Kenobi whispered. "I..." His lower lip quivered.
Qui-Gon lunged forward and kissed it, sucking on it, biting it. He moved one hand up, cupping the thief's chin, forcing his head up. Damp hair tangled in his fingers, and he pulled it. Images danced in his mind - his dream; the young man naked on the bed, barely wrapped in a sheet, his eyes half closed and breathing fast; the knowledge that the man who had haunted his every moment for four days was naked and quivering and utterly in his power...
He pulled away, just long enough to shift his position - one hand snaking round the back of his neck, the other on the bone of his hip, pulling him closer. Then he kissed him again, full on his lips.
Just for a second, perhaps, the younger man responded, then he went utterly limp.
<I can do anything> Qui-Gon thought. <I can carry him to his bed and take him any way I want. He's too weak to fight. I'll mark him as my capture. Then I can stop longing for him...>
He kissed him deeper, his tongue exploring an unresisting mouth, his fingers kneading into damp soft flesh.
<No> he heard, somewhere in his mind, like a lost child, whimpering in the darkness.
As if burned, he stepped back, releasing him. The young man's knees sagged. Qui-Gon got the impression of someone who needed to fall to his knees, to sob, but was standing tall only by the greatest effort of will.
Qui-Gon wiped his brow with his shaking hand. "I..." What could he say? The man was a fallen Jedi, but in these last minutes Qui-Gon had fallen to the darkness almost as much as Kenobi ever had.
"Get out," the thief said, his voice very low, very enunciated. "Leave me. Now."
Qui-Gon stepped backwards, then again. He was held by the young man's wide blue ravaged eyes. Even as he fled, he could not look away.
He stood for a very long time, palms pressed against the glass. He saw smears on the condensation where Qui-Gon Jinn's robes had brushed against the glass.
It had really happened, then. That, and his swollen tingling lips, were his only proof. He blinked away water from his eyes, and still the smears remained. It was so easy to think it just another delirium.
Eventually he dared remove his hands from the glass, but too early, and he fell to his knees. He looked like a picture of humility, on hands and knees, naked, and looking up longingly. But he knew he was not observed. Then he shivered, perhaps with dread, perhaps with something else. Qui-Gon Jinn had watched him, presumably for days. He could never think himself safe - never assume that those deep blue eyes were not watching him.
"I don't care what you think of me," he had said. He said it again, now, testing the truth of those words. "I don't care what he thinks."
But Qui-Gon Jinn had kissed him. He had looked upon him with passion, such fierce strong emotion in his eyes, and had kissed him.
"I don't care..." His voice was trembling.
So many years with his Master, and never once had he seen any emotion at all in those eyes, neither pride, nor love, nor even hatred. In his whole life, no-one had ever cared for him, or even felt him important enough to bother hating. Had his Master reproached him and denounced him, his departure from the Jedi would have been so much more bearable. Instead, he had just turned away, not caring.
And Qui-Gon Jinn had kissed him. There had been no love in the kiss, he knew that. It was a kiss of hatred, an exercise of power. It was a kiss of lust, too - lust intermingled with hatred, but still very real.
And he had responded, just for a moment, wanting nothing else in the world but this man's kiss.
"What does that make me?" he asked himself, in disgust and fear. A man who would enjoy his own rape? A man so starved of human contact that he could long for an assault? A man so scarred by the past that he longed to be hated, simply because that meant he was noticed, that he was worth expending emotion upon?
He had known the intent of the kiss, but he had felt the soft demanding lips and the large hands and the overwhelming strength of the body, and he had responded. He had known it was an assault, but he had felt lust.
How he had thrilled when he had headed for the shower, and Qui-Gon Jinn had said he would be staying. It felt warm, and exciting. Naked, and a powerful man who could overwhelm him physically so close to him. Wounded, and a strong man cared enough about him - cared through hatred, and not love, he knew, but it was still caring - not to simply walk away, but to stay there, thinking about him. He had been everything in Qui-Gon Jinn's thoughts and feelings, and he had never been that to anyone, ever.
"What does that make me?" he asked, again. He shook his head. "Not what I need to be."
His life had been ripped apart, by Qui-Gon Jinn and a Dark Jedi. His home was not safe from assault. His _soul_ was not safe, not if Qui-Gon Jinn could find him again...
<Find me again> he whimpered, longingly, then curled his fist, stern and disgusted.
He had fallen, by feeling what he had felt this day. He could blame the fever, he could blame Qui-Gon Jinn, but he knew the fault lay in some flaw in himself - a flaw he could never again allow to come to the surface. He had built a life, and had a job to do. It was best if he was invisible, passing briefly over people's awareness, then fading away with barely a memory.
He stood up, forcing himself not to fall.
A new house, and a new name. Ben, he decided, impulsively. Ben, who was not Quarrel, and had never met Qui-Gon Jinn, and was certainly not, and never would be, affected by him.
"What have you done?" Ki-Adi-Mundi came up behind him with a hiss.
Qui-Gon didn't turn round. Hands flat on the stone parapet, surveying the city - the tall skyscrapers that grew every day, the smaller steepled roofs of the older quarters, the distant silhouette of the ever decreasing forest. Almost full, Coruscant's moon illuminated everything silver.
He swallowed hard. "I saved him once, and he says twice. He ordered me to leave him alone."
Nothing more. Nothing about how such an order simply inflamed him with the desire, the need, to find him again and again - the fire in those blue eyes, the dark presumption of giving an order to a Jedi. It haunted his dreams. But the _cause_ of that order - the knowledge that he had almost fallen and could be tempted again... _That_ was what kept him away. _That_ was what made him spend long hours in meditation, trying to forget that he had ever known Obi-Wan Kenobi.
"I have prescience, of a sort." A hand closed round his arm. "I saw two dangers closing in on him. Now I see four." The hand tightened. "So I ask you again, Qui-Gon Jinn. _What did you do?_"
Nothing. He dug his fingertips into the stonework. "Get someone else to do it, then. Do it yourself. I have done all I will do."
Footsteps sounded on the gravel, suddenly close. Ki-Adi-Mundi gave a strangled sound of outrage, and left, quickly and silently.
Qui-Gon didn't turn round. The newcomer came close, paused a little, and walked past.
His name was Ben. Many knew him by sight - his dark clothes, if not his face - though few really consciously remembered him. Perhaps it had been around two months ago that he had first started walking the streets of this quarter, but no-one really marked the day. He became a part of the furniture - noticed by the eyes, but never by the heart.
He told himself he liked it this way. Two months. Two months, and if, at times, he found himself wandering the riverbank where he had first met Qui-Gon Jinn - if, at times, he even travelled to within sight of the fringes of the Jedi Temple itself... Well, he could not expect total healing all at once. The wound on his shoulder and chest was slow to heal. The two wounds would heal together, he told himself.
Two months. The Dark Jedi had not come for him, and he had not revisited the Senator's House. Qui-Gon Jinn had not left the Temple, at least when he had been watching. No-one had kissed him or held him, or wanted him, or hated him - and why should they, for no-one ever had.
Black leather and black cloth protected him, and no-one touched him.
It was as it should be. It was as it should be, he thought, one night, alone in a crowded tavern, like an island of cold in its heat.
Conversation flickered around him - stray words from first one person, then another, reaching his ears, saying nothing of import, and being forgotten. Drink, and sex, and thwarted love... Nothing for him.
He almost turned away, almost made his way back to his solitary home - another night with no job. Someone brushed against him, and spilled beer. An elbow jammed into his side. It could just as easily have been a knife. Anyone who knew who he was could kill him as easily as anything in this place - he knew it, yet every night he did it.
"I'm sorry," he heard.
He nodded, not making eye contact.
"That's all I need," the voice said, though not to him. Someone else murmured sounds of comfort. "Spilling my drink. Can't even drown my sorrows..."
He stopped. Probably nothing, but many things had seemed like nothing, but turned into a job.
"Not that I should be drinking, not when Dorcas is with _him_."
"There's nothing you can do," the other man said, though Obi-Wan could sense his nervousness.
"Has he raped her yet? Is he ill-treating her? He says she's a housemaid and it's his right as our lord to use her in any way he wishes to. It's... it's slavery. It's _rape._"
He clenched his fists, recognising an all-too-familiar story. The city was a strange and uneasy mix of old and new - new technology with its towers and spaceports, co-existing with an almost feudal social order in the old quarters of town. Old and blessed by the Force, the Jedi would say. Old and too often used as a cloak for cruelty, Ben knew. Some lords were responsible, but others used their powers to legitimise sadistic cruelty. There were laws to protect the weak, the Jedi and the Senate said, but those most in need were precisely those who never dared report their wrongs, fearing the vengeance of their lords. Besides, the Senators themselves came from the lordly class and, faced with a well-dressed member of their own class who protested his innocence, and a dirty stinking pauper in rags, it was obvious who they would believe.
"It's... it's only a year."
"A year!" the man exploded. "A single night is too long with that monster. My poor little girl..."
"You've saved some money up - enough to set yourself up somewhere he'll never find you. Why don't you help her escape, and you can..."
"How can I do that? You know how well guarded Constantine's house is. They say he likes to keep his girls locked in a secret room, and not even the other servants know where it is. And" - a bitter groan - "he found the money and took it, when he came for her. I have nothing now. Two hundred gold..." A sob. "I was going to take her away this weekend. I hadn't realised he'd already noticed her..."
"Come on." He saw an arm wrap itself around the weeping man's shoulders. He still couldn't see the face of the man who had been speaking. "Let's get you home..."
Ben waited just a little while, and then followed them. Like water seeping through an arid desert, he felt life returning to him. The danger of a break-in, the goal of a mission, the satisfaction of knowing a life had been saved by his action... It was enough. It could almost make him feel alive again.
Ben closed the door silently, and stopped dead in the shadows behind, every sense alert for pursuit. He forced his heart to slow, his breathing to still. No sound. No sound at all, but the soft eerie whisper of some alien pot plant.
Heavily guarded, yes, but nothing he had not been able to cope with. No other thief had the Force. He could levitate easily into high open windows, and creep was guards who saw him move in their peripheral vision, but were easily convinced it was nothing.
There had been traps, too - new machines that fired blaster bolts and fireballs, triggered by the slightest touch of the booby-trapped area. As he walked, he cast a net of the Force around him, and saw them.
He felt very alive. He enjoyed this work, and was not afraid to admit it. An active life suited him; he had never been cut out for the contemplative life of a Jedi, even if he had agreed with their philosophy. Although he never lingered long enough to hear the fulsome thanks of the people he helped, the memories of their teary smiles were sometimes the only thing that sustained him in the dark lonely nights.
He walked forward, instinctively using the Force to mask his footfalls. The polished wooden floors in Constantine's mansion amplified every sound.
A secret door, that's what the man had said. With his eyes and with the Force, he looked constantly for darker patches of panelling, or hidden switches. At the same time, he sought for minds that were scared - an imprisoned girl, weeping in the darkness.
Nothing yet. The Force pulsed strangely in this house, variously vibrant, then dead and muted. He thought the plants - those thick and fleshy plants that were in every room and whose leaves moved in response to his own movements - might have something to do with it. Once, he caught himself about to take a sample, as if he was still a Jedi, finding an interesting new specimen for the scholars to study.
Gold he had found a plenty. Constantine made no attempt to hide his riches; strange and ornate relics from Coruscant's ancient civilisations stood in every room. He had taken none. Two hundred gold pieces, that was all he would take - enough to return what was stolen. That was always his way.
He never took anything for himself.
One step further, though, and he knew that this would change. There, on a round polished table, resting as if it was the least important thing in the world, was the one thing he knew he _had_ to have.
He was caught by it, held, mesmerised. He took another step, never once taking his eyes off it. "Oh," he said, aloud - a gasp more than a word.
It was... He didn't know what it was. All he knew was that the Force sang in his head like a hundred choirs, and he could no more _not_ touch this thing than he could stop breathing.
<Yours> he heard, in a voice that spoke to his soul. <Take it...>
It was a short metal cylinder. It lay so deceptively on the wood, and... oh, the floor tile before the table was trapped. He smiled as he stepped past it.
As he took it in his hand, though, he did not smile. This was a moment of rapturous intensity. He closed his fingers round it, then pressed the small button that he knew instinctively would what he needed to press.
A blade of brilliant blue light shot out of the end. A sword. Now, and ever after, he smiled, turning around so the blade cut the air in a full circle. It pulsed in his hand as if alive, and the air sang. He knew it would cut through anything. Moving as if in a rapturous dream, he deliberately stepped on the trapped tile, then swung the blade round and sent the fireball effortlessly back into the wall that had dispatched it.
<Yours> he heard again.
Another pass, and another. He could have stood there all night, learning the feel of this living weapon he had been given. He could have...
"No." He shook his head, fiercely. He had a job to do, and he was sworn never to steal - never to steal anything that had not already been stolen from its rightful owner.
With something close to a sob, he put it back where it had rested, and walked away.
He was stronger now, and harder. He had spent two months in meditation and felt he could resist the dark and cunning allure of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
He had seen his emotions like real and tangible things, and assessed each one, before deciding whether to keep them, or cast them out. The burning desire for justice... Yes. Hatred... Yes, that too, for hatred of the darkness led to the proper zeal for its eradication. The need to heal the scar left by Xanatos... Even that could stay, for it was only natural to want to heal and return to a state of light wholly untainted by darkness.
The base lust, though... That had gone, cast aside repeatedly until he was left cold and dispassionate. He was as he had been, before the first dream, when Obi-Wan was only a man to hate and to expose.
He was strong again, and unsullied.
There was one flaw only - one tiny chink in his armour. At night, and only sometimes, he would dream of the thief - never again, thank the Force, in a sexual way, but in a way that might be even worse, showing, not that he was being tempted, but that he was weakening in his resolve.
For, in those dreams, he saw again that fleeting glimpse of vulnerability that he had seen - or been tricked into seeing. He saw a young man, pale and close to death, collapsed in a busy street, while everyone just sneered in disgust, and stepped over him. His hand was outstretched, pleading, his blue eyes locking onto Qui-Gon's own and seeming to reach his very soul.
<I'm innocent> those eyes said, and his brow was furrowed in puzzlement - why did everyone condemn him when he had done no wrong? <Why does no-one care? Why has no-one ever cared?>
In his dream - oh, and it was difficult, as if his dream-self was warring with his conscious self, the one of them wanting to help, the other one knowing better... In his dream, he always, in the end, turned away and left him there. As he should do, and that was good.
But the very fact that he had dreamed it, the very fact that he could see Kenobi that way... He was not quite there. He was strong, but flawed.
But he was growing stronger. For a week, he had not dreamed of him in any other way than to plot his capture, to envisage it in a thousand different ways.
He was ready. It was time to face the thief again, and this time he would win.
<There> Ben thought, and pressed the button. The door opened.
The girl screamed, and slapped him hard across the face, then raked at him, her nails catching him in deep scratches down the side of his neck and throat. She kicked him, too, shouting and sobbing.
"It's all right," he murmured. He caught her wrist, firmly but gently, then the other. He sent out soothing waves through the Force, though this room was as strangely muted as the rest of the house, and he could barely sense her, and certainly not her fear. "I'm here to help you."
Slowly, her screams gave way to sobs, and then to the merest hitch in her breathing. Her body was a woman's, but her face was a young girl's - though not many years younger than he was, and sometimes he felt infinitely old.
"Dorcas?" he asked. He felt blood on his neck. Ironic, really, to have walked through a house of dangers unbloodied, and to be wounded by the girl he was rescuing. Of course, that was the reason; he had been off-guard.
She nodded, shyly. Now her fear was over she was looking at him appraisingly, and moving closer than she needed.
He released her wrists, realising he should have done it earlier. "My name is Ben. I heard you were in trouble. Are you...?" He let his eyes say the rest. He had little experience with people, and this was what he always found hardest - dealing with the victims, handling their pain and their gratitude. Pain he could solve was one thing, but memories could not be taken away.
"I'm fine." She gave a smile, a small attempt at bravery. "He was planning to come for me tomorrow. Did my father hire you?"
"Yes," he said, simply. Better she think it so - not that her secrets were being spoken of freely in the tavern for anyone to overhear, and not that he was doing this unasked, without thought of a reward. It was hard to bear the weight of other people's gratitude.
"So..." A small playful smile. "Are you going to take me away from all this, Ben?" She was a young girl pretending - needing, for herself, to pretend - to be brave. She was flirting, but because she needed to be in control again, not because she wanted him.
<Not like Qui-Gon Jinn> his mind supplied, unwanted.
"I'll take you back to your father," he said, firmly, to silence both his own thoughts and hers.
She shivered. "Will it be dangerous?"
"I'll keep you safe."
"Really?" someone said, and he turned round to stare into the barrel of a blaster.
Qui-Gon opened his door, clothed for the outdoors. He was going hunting.
Ahead of him, walking with their usual firm silent tread, were a group of dusky-clad confessors.
He stiffened. What...?
"Behind me," he hissed, urgently, gesturing fiercely at the girl. Then he turned a placid face on the attacker. "Are you going to shoot me in cold blood?"
Just for a moment, the man's expression flickered, the blaster trembled. Then he thrust his chin forward. "I will."
Ben spread his hands, showing that he was unarmed. "Then do it."
The man's finger tightened on the trigger... and nothing happened. He tried again, then cursed in fury, throwing the useless weapon to the ground.
"I did it to your weapon," Ben said, quietly. "I could have done it to you." It was not a threat, but let him think of it as one.
The man swallowed hard. "You... you're lying."
Of course he would think so. The Jedi hid their powers away in the seclusion of the Temple. Most people had never even heard rumours of the Force, and the things a man could do with it. If they knew what the Jedi could do, he had sometimes wondered, would they fear them, or would they hate them, for refusing to use their powers in the service of mankind?
"I am not," he said, reaching out with the Force to the man's mind. He could do a flashy demonstration, melting the blaster, or levitating it, but what was the point? All he needed was to persuade the man to flee, without being forced to damage him. He seldom killed, but if it was a direct choice between killing a guard, or letting him kill an innocent girl, he would make the only choice he could.
"No." The man frowned. "You're not lying." He touched his brow with a hand that trembled.
Behind him, Ben could feel the girl's fast breathing, and her hands shake as they grabbed his hips. Not just behind him, but clinging to him.
It was time to end this.
"You will leave us," he said, firmly, still reaching for the man's mind. It was an unusually chaotic mind, and hard to hold onto, but he thought he was managing it.
The man looked puzzled. "I will..." Then he moved suddenly, lunging in a desperate dive towards a button on the wall. At the same time he pulled a short club from behind his back. He swung it blindly, more like a wild flailing to keep his balance than a deliberate attack, as he plunged towards the button. Ben would have jumped back. but the girl was hampering him. The end of the club hit him in the ribs, and hurt far more than it should. <Studded with metal> he realised, strangely detached, as his own gasp of pain was drowned out by the wailing of an alarm.
"They're coming for you," the guard gasped, smugly. Ben blinked, and saw that he had fallen. His desperate dive had been without control, and his success with the club only luck. He had plunged head first into the wall, and now lay, dazed. "You can kill me, but they will kill you." He thrust out his chin, and his eyes burned with the righteousness of a martyred hero.
Ben pressed his hand against his ribs, hissed in pain, and let it fall to his side again. Too late, the girl had released him, and fluttered close behind, guilty and solicitous. He turned his back on the fallen guard, and instead faced her.
"I can face danger. I want to stay with you." Her words echoed what he had been about to ask her - this could be dangerous. If they start shooting, you might get hurt. You might be safer if you stay here, while I draw them off.
He nodded, accepting her right to choose after everything she had suffered. "I will protect you with my life," he said, "but I can make no promises to keep you safe." Needlessly dramatic. He rebuked himself. He had seen the signs of hero-worship in her eyes, and this would do nothing to ease it.
"I know, but you will do what you can, and I am braver than I look." This with the jutting chin of a child, pretending bravery that was more than she felt.
While talking he had been casting about with the Force. Guards, gathering weapons and running... A minute away only. The fallen guard half unconscious, thinking he had done his part heroically and now it was for others to take over. The escape route back through the house covered. A small window, high in the sloping ceiling - this room was in the apex of the roof - and a ledge outside, wide enough to stand on...
"I can lift you up to that skylight," he said, gesturing with his chin. "Then..."
She nodded, almost eagerly, as if she trusted him implicitly. He didn't like it. She didn't even seem to wonder how he could lift her so high. She seemed to have him labelled as her heroic rescuer for whom nothing was impossible.
Thirty seconds... He could hear feet pounding on the stairs, and the wailing of the siren was pulsing along with the pain in his ribs.
No time. No time for reassurances or explanations - for him to convince her that he was mortal and flawed and no man to admire. He simple reached for the Force, and lifted her.
She gasped, and then smiled.
Men watched them pass, and shivered. Quick glances were exchanged. <Not for me> they said, but, at the same time, <but who?>
Jedi were sworn to obedience and non-interference. Small infractions were tolerated - how else had he, Qui-Gon, survived in the order so long? Only the most serious sins called for the Confessors, Jedi skilled, amongst other things, in the art of finding the truth from the most unwilling of minds. They could be a mild - someone to hear confessions of temptation and to suggest a course of meditation to cure it - but it was rumoured that they knew how to be terrible.
"Who?" he asked, despite himself, looking towards another Jedi he knew a little by sight. There were few he knew any better.
"Councillor Mundi himself," the man replied, in a hoarse whisper, "or so they say. He is a traitor to us all."
They were close. He could stay and fight - instinct called upon him to do this, to hold them back, to repel them. She was so vulnerable; even a badly aimed blaster could hit her. How could he run away and let them pour into the room, firing?
But he was unarmed, and what could he do? With the Force, he could disable one weapon, or two, but not so many. It would be a foolish gesture only - the prideful folly of a man who could not be seen to run away. If he died, who would protect the girl?
It was a decision of barely a second. One glance down the corridor, past the triumphant eyes of the fallen guard, then one glance up at the girl, her face a pale silhouette against the skylight.
It was a choice that was no choice at all. He leap upwards, augmenting the jump with the Force, and then he was there, clutching the edges of the skylight with his fingers, edging himself through.
She caught hold of his sleeve, pulling hard, meaning to help but almost pulling him off balance. His breath hissed through his teeth, but he didn't say anything. Then a blaster bolt slammed into the window frame an inch from his body, close enough for him to feel the sting of its passage. She gasped, and snatched her hand away, then apologised profusely, hands all over him.
He was through, standing on the ledge beside her, breathing heavily.
"Down," she said, and she was the one to pull him down, in an unruly tumble on the narrow ledge, where only sheer chance and a last desperate effort kept them from plunging the four storeys to the cobbled ground.
Blaster bolts cut through the darkness, just where their heads had been. From the way she was looking at him, the way her hands were touching his face, chaste yet demanding, he doubted safety had been in her thoughts when she had pulled at him.
He swallowed hard. He felt he was losing control of the situation. He, who could take on a dozen guards and houses that no other thief could enter, could not begin to cope when faced with a mere girl - <or with Qui-Gon Jinn> a silent unwanted voice reminded him.
"This is exciting," a voice murmured in his ear. There was warm breath on his cheek.
He pushed her gently, and she resisted. If he pushed hard, if he used the Force - and part of him only wanted to push her away desperately, crying out his fear and confusion - he feared he might over-estimate her strength and push her from the ledge entirely.
"Dangerous," he said, trying to be firm.
"Yes." She sounded gleeful.
He took hold of both her wrists, and held them as firmly as he could, very aware of her pulse just under her skin. "Let's get you to safety. Quickly." The blaster bolts were lessening. They would be running outside to cover their landing. They only had seconds, and he told her so.
She nodded, chastened. "Yes." She might like danger, as long as if was ultimately safe. She didn't want to risk death or captivity.
He found he was sighing, a shuddering sigh of relief. If she had refused to co-operate, he had no idea what he would have done. He couldn't fight her, or leave her, but when she touched him he felt close to panicking. How treacherous his emotions were. Qui-Gon Jinn had kissed him in an assault, but part of him had only craved more. This girl's innocent fumblings were so very different, yet made him feel as trapped as any rape. Was he so warped that he could deal with hatred, but not gratitude and admiration?
"Ben?" Her voice was trembling. It was cold up here, and she was wearing only a thing shift. The wind made it cling to her curves.
He said nothing, simply took her in a firm, dispassionate grip with the Force, and began to lower her to the ground.
Why was he shocked? He had already known, surely - known it when Mundi had ordered him so bluntly to save the life of a criminal. Obi-Wan Kenobi had turned, and the Master had turned with him, or turned long before and taught his apprentice well.
"Was he alone?" He thought of Adi Gallia, who was certainly in on any conspiracy, and the two other Councillors who had sat silently in the room when he had first received his orders. It was his duty to tell.
The other Jedi shook his head. "I don't know. I..." He looked around, anxiously. "We shouldn't be talking like this."
He frowned. "We need to know about the fallen, surely. The Jedi have always shared knowledge among themselves."
The man's hands were clasped tightly. He seemed to shiver. "That was before we knew about... about the darkness. It does not do to talk about such things."
Qui-Gon looked after the Confessors, at the almost palpable cold fear that they left in their wake. How many more had they come for, he suddenly wondered, and no-one had spoken about it, and few had known?
It had never crossed his mind that the Jedi could have secrets. Yes, the darkness was terrible, and the young ones needed protection, but... No, it was not bad, what the Council was doing, but... Well, it was not what he had thought he had known.
He shook his head, as if to banish the disloyal thoughts. The light was under assault; the Jedi had been betrayed by Ki-Adi-Mundi, who had tried to embroil him, Qui-Gon, in his schemes. _That_ was all that mattered.
Exposing his fallen apprentice would be his own little revenge, his just punishment. Let Ki-Adi-Mundi see him, humbled and captured, from his penitent's cell. Let him see.
It was always easier to levitate others than to levitate himself. Crouching on the ledge, still and stable, he was able to lower her smoothly and gently. She landed on her feet, as if she had stepped down merely one step.
For himself, conscious that the guards were closing, all he could do was jump, then reach out for the Force to slow his descent. He landed safely, but harder than she had. As pain jolted through his damaged ribs, he almost lost his balance and stumbled.
The girl grabbed for him. "I'm fine," he said, quickly, and she laughed. He was aware of what a sight he must look - a black-cloaked thief who was scared of a girl.
"Where do you live, Ben?" she whispered, as he took her arm firmly and led her towards the gap in the hedge that had been his entrance. He kept his face averted. "I'd like to come and say thank you properly."
"It's not necessary." He was aware of how cold he sounded. He wanted to repel her advances - it was gratitude only, and a young girl's infatuation with an idealised image of her rescuer, and not genuine - but not hurt her. He softened his words. "Knowing that you're safe is all the reward I need," he said, then cursed silently, realising how it sounded. Perhaps it would be better if he behaved abominably, and tarred himself forever in her memory, but he could not quite bring himself to do it. The rest of the world, and Qui-Gon Jinn, already thought him a monster, and he often told himself he didn't care, but he probably did.
He covered his confusion by crouching, pushing aside the branches, and helping her through. "Where does your father live?"
"Oh, not far." She pushed through, and stood, an arresting silhouette against the night. Ben, on his hands and knees - the very branches in the hedge seemed to be reaching for him, scratching and hindering his passage, could only look up, frozen. "Not far at all."
She stepped aside, and there, his hands on his hips, was a tall man in rich green and bronze. Behind him, in the same livery, was a ring of guards, all with blasters pointing at his head.
The girl walked to the man's side, and linked her arm in his. "Only he's not my father, Ben."
Ben said nothing. There was no escaping. He could ask questions, but he suspected he was going to get answers whether he asked or not, and asking would put him in the role of a petitioner.
The man's eyes were very green. "I knew you were listening in the tavern, Ben." There was a slight pause before his name; the man was making it clear he knew it wasn't his true name. "That's why I said what I said."
Very carefully, Ben stood, brushing fallen leaves from his clothes. His ribs hurt very much indeed. He narrowed his eyes, but could not recognise the man; in the tavern, his face had been hidden. The man who had comforted him, though, was visible, standing beside him, slightly behind.
"And now you must be wondering why I did it."
The blasters did not waver. Ben pretended not to see them. He merely nodded, just a little. He would not ask, but it was useless to pretend not to care. He knew there was a very real chance that he could die this night.
The man smiled, suddenly, showing teeth that were very white. "But I forget my manners." He gave an ironic bow. "My name is Constantine."
"You wanted me to break into your own house?" Ben asked, surprise making him forget his resolution to stay silent. The strong and silent thief, who never felt emotion. He supposed he had always known that it was a mask, just like any mask he might wear over his face on a job.
"Yes." Constantine nodded. He moved his hand slightly – a deliberate gesture meant to show the long knife he wore at his waist. The handle was carved of some dark wood that seemed to glow with an almost living light.
Ben spread his hands. Why pretend, now, at the end? What could be gained by playing a part? "So now you're going to kill me."
Constantine laughed. "Oh no, Ben." The girl, standing at his side, shot Ben a look a undisguised admiration, as if not everything she had said had been an act. She was older than he had thought – something around his own age. He supposed he had seen what he had expected to see when he had seen an inexperienced girl. "Dorcas, my… associate would be most put out if I did that," Constantine said, smiling in a way that was probably supposed to look indulgent and fond.
Ben shivered suddenly. "Then why?"
Constantine shook his head, suddenly solemn. He continued as if Ben had not spoken. "Though you may die, nevertheless. This is a deadly business. You see…" He stepped forward and touched Ben's wrist, with a hand that was surprisingly warm and strong. "It was a test, and you have passed, and now… now I wish to hire you."
Ben swallowed hard. The pain in his ribs seemed to pulse strangely, surging gleefully towards the man's touch, then retreating. "And if I refuse?"
Constantine's eyes glittered, and looked strangely familiar, though Ben knew he had never seen him before. "You won't."
Constantine passed him a glass of some rich amber liquid. "Why do you do what you do, Ben?"
Ben took it, but only pretended to drink. He swirled it and looked into its depths. He did not answer. He had not attempted to explain himself even to Qui-Gon Jinn, although an explanation might have eased his hatred and replaced it with something else entirely, and another kiss even more intense.
"Well, tell me if I judge you correctly." Constantine leant back in his chair and steepled his fingers.
The friend who had played the role of comforter in the tavern sat behind, in the shadows, his face thin and cold. To the right, in a chair of dark red velvet, Dorcas rested her chin on her hand, leaning on the arm of the chair, showing him the curve of her breasts beneath her low cut shift.
"I believe," Constantine continued, "that you find much injustice in this world of ours. You see corruption and evil done under the cloak of the law. You see rulers who are either part of the system of corruption themselves, or, like the Jedi, are blind to true evils, and stand back and let things unfold."
Another swirl of the liquid. It was true. Every word was true, but he refused to show it. How did this man know?
"You want to do good. The Jedi did not offer you this chance, for, for their own reasons, they condone the evils in the world. You decided that the best way you could help people, in this corrupt world of ours, was to live among the lowest parts of society, seeking out injustices, and using your talents to fix them." He raised his eyebrows, as if to ask "is that right?"
Ben swallowed hard. Very true, yes. But he was held prisoner by six pairs of eyes, and a house of enemies. He knew not to trust mere words.
"Now, I understand you, Ben. I have tested you... " A casual wave of his hand. "Forgive me for that, but I had to. I had to find if you were truly motivated by a desire for justice - if you had the moral rectitude not to steal for your own gain, and to put the lives of others before your own. Any man can say that, but only when tested does a man show what truly lies in his heart."
He shifted position, and then again. He was truly uncomfortable, and not just because of his ribs, though they hurt like a deep and blazing fire.
Constantine gestured at the silent men behind him, who stood and left the room. "So silent, Ben," he said, turning back again. "Drink. It will ease your pains."
Very deliberately and obviously, Ben held the drink tighter in his hands, not raising it at all. He would have put it down entirely, but his hands needed something to clutch, and the swirling amber was strangely soothing, like a Force-enriched mirror for meditation.
"As you wish," Constantine said, with a shrug.
"What do you want me to do?" Ben asked, suddenly, gruffly.
Constantine spread his hands, as if to say <I'm coming to that in time.> "You are a man after my own heart, Ben. I share your principles. I, too, wish for nothing more than to eradicate the corruption of this world. Your enemies are my enemies. The lords in their high towers who think only of profit and building higher, regardless of who they oppress..." His face twisted in distaste. "I am against them with all my heart."
"What do you want me to do?" he asked again, coldly, making no promises that he would do it.
Again, Constantine ignored him. Dorcas gave a strange knowing smile. "My way is not your way. I have not your... skills." He gestured at the rich furnishings of his room. "My way may appear easier, but it is a challenge nevertheless. Living always a lie, having to associate with men I despise, talk like them..."
Ben pursed his lips in distaste, thinking he understood. A hypocrite rich man who paid lip service to social justice, but still lived in luxury.
"No." Just a moment, Constantine's eyes were very dangerous. "How dare you judge me. You, of all people, should know that the first impressions of a man seldom reflect the true soul within." Then he softened. "But it is only to be understood. I, too, was not without distrust. _I_ thought _you_ were a hypocrite, liking to tell yourself that you were stealing only to help others, and using it to justify your crimes. I tested you, and found I was wrong." He spread his hands. "Test me."
Light reflected in the amber. "How?"
"Use this Force of yours. Touch my mind - I know you can. Sense my sincerity. I am no Jedi; I have no defence against you. I am kneeling powerless at your feet, for you to plunder." His voice was low. "Test. Me."
Ben swallowed hard. His knuckles were white and trembling on the glass. "I might, while we talk," was all he said.
Constantine exhaled, and passed a hand over his brow. Ben became aware how the tension in the air had been almost palpable, like tiny sparks rising from the living flesh, and the air pulsing with the sound of a heartbeat. "That is your right."
The door opened, and Ben started a little, but it was only the other man, entering silently, with a small casket under his arm. He passed it to Constantine, who did not open it.
"I am trusting you with a secret no-one knows - no-one, but these two," Constantine said. Ben hazarded the faintest little reach of the Force - not enough to sense anything, but enough to feel ignorance. Constantine had no idea what he was doing. This was no trained mind he was touching. "A secret that could be my death - which is only fair, since I can be your death. I only need to call the Watch..."
Not a threat, Ben thought - not quite. A reminder of their mutual obligation. He stiffened a little with rising anger. _He_ had not requested this obligation. He felt very young and very trapped. He was a master at entering houses and opening locked doors, but strong men could always overpower him with words.
"You oppose the system from outside it, Ben, as a thief. I oppose it from within. I am trying for the position of a Senator. After that, I hope to rise. I hope to become Chancellor in time. To do so, I will live, outwardly, as the worst of them live. I will buy their favour and friendship. And then..." He smiled. "When in power, I will knock them down like a tower of cards. I will make us a Republic in more than name."
Another probing tendril of Force, and <yes> he thought. <Yes. He really believes this.> He felt sincerity in intention, at least. He sensed no darkness. This was no mere cover for a tyranny, or an excuse for living as he did.
"But..." Constantine lowered his head humbly. Dorcas was no longer looking at Ben, but at Constantine, loyalty like zeal shining in her eyes. "I need your help, Ben."
"How?" Again, no promises.
"You are a thief. You have skills I do not - skills no-one I know possesses, except for the Jedi, and they do not have your intentions. And I - and our cause - needs something stolen."
"As you may have seen, I am a collector - or I was, before I realised what my future was to be. I have studied the ancient civilisations that lived on Coruscant, and paid adventurers to collect their relics. One relic, though, had been beyond the reach of all who have sought it. Many have died..."
Lights danced in his glass. Danger, yes... When else did he feel fully alive? If there were other ways - memories of a kiss... - he had never had a chance to find them. Yet, when he spoke, he said nothing of this. "I will not use the Force on something so base as a rich man's collection of trinkets."
The other man almost stood up, fist clenched, eyes dangerous. Constantine stilled him with a quick wave of the hand. "Fair enough, but you heard what I said before. That's how I was. Now I have a new mission in life. But..." He spread his hands, as if showing he had no secrets. "I need money to buy influence, and I need... I need more. Have you heard tell of the stone they call the Soul of Fire?"
He shook his head.
"An old legend, but, like many legends, based on truth. The stone existed, thousands of years ago, in the civilisation that then flourished not far from here. It had pride of place in the Temple, and... oh, it was only a stone, only a pretty stone, but in the eyes of the people it was so much more. It was their luck, their strength. It kept them safe, or so they thought."
"What happened to it?" It was Dorcas who spoke, her moist lips slightly apart.
Constantine smiled. "It's still there, or so I believe, if I read the histories rightly. As you may know...." - this to Ben - "that civilisation collapsed when the capital was overwhelmed by a volcano, and the rest of the empire just crumbled to enemies, without guidance from the centre. But people still remember... The Jedi will know of it." His face twisted slightly with distaste. "It will be one of their little facts that they study, and sit upon, and tell no-one about. But the people still know - oh, not in the City, where men forget their roots and who they are, but in the countryside - what's left of it. They still remember what it means."
"You think you can come forward with the Stone, and they will greet you as some sort of... of saviour?"
"I would never pretend that." Another brief touch with the Force, and Ben knew he was telling the truth. "But it will... help. It will give them hope. Hope is a very valuable thing, Ben."
"So..." Ben looked at the drink, and its thick liquid seemed to boil like lava. "You want me to go to the lava fields and find a way through to the ruins beyond - ruins no-one has ever been able to enter in... well, _never_."
He laughed - a thin high sound. "You can't..."
"You can do it, Ben. You, and no-one else."
His fingers were itching. He was trapped, but... but the challenge, and to be out, alone again, in the open, in a world where there were no words. He had seen the lava fields from above, once, with his Master - and seen the noxious fumes that hung like a blanketing pall above it, and made even access from the sky impossible. He had felt drawn to them even then, and the secrets that lay beyond, hidden forever behind the fire.
He cleared his throat. "Why should I do this thing?"
Constantine opened the casket. "For your own reasons, because you believe it's right - because you believe in the good I intend to do if you bring me this Stone, and other riches." Then, almost casually, "you can have this."
It was the sword of light - the one that had called to him so strongly, so wonderfully. His fingers itched again. He thought he would be strong and not reach for it, but a sudden coldness on his leg showed that he had half-reached anyway, and spilled his drink.
"I..." His voice was hoarse. "I won't be bought."
"It is a gift, Ben. It is the least I can do, for what I ask you to do could well kill you." A small smile. "And it is a weapon. It could save your life. It could keep you alive so you can help countless other people, in the future..."
Despite himself, he found himself nodding. Yes. Yes, he had a point. It would help him serve others for longer. It was a fair exchange for the danger he was about to undertake for this man. It was... Oh, it was wonderful and it called to him and the Force meant him to hold this thing.
"He called it a lightsabre," Constantine said, as Ben's hand closed round the handle, and he felt as if he was coming home. "It was the personal weapon of a man like you - a Jedi who could no longer stay silent while the Council quoted precedent as an excuse to ignore evil. Like you, he used his skills to fight for justice. He is long dead, but he was briefly my friend. He wanted me to give it to someone who was worthy." He shook his head, fondly. "He was called Karris."
"Karris," Ben echoed, and, as he held the lightsabre and smiled, he knew he was bought.
One last time. He knew he could die, but knew, too, that he nothing much to live for. Yes, he was helping people, but he was not arrogant enough to think that the world would be a very different place without him. Anything he could do was but a tiny scratch on the vast dark surface of the world.
And, for himself, what was his life? Solitary days and nights, and whole months between seeing one smile and the next. A Master who had simply said "I don't care" when he had wanted to sever their link. No-one who would remotely care if he walked into the night, and died, and never came back.
No-one. Nothing to bind him to life, and a future that offered... what? A terrible risk that Constantine asked him to undertake, and a short time, at least, of living on the edge, his blood running vibrantly in his veins. At worst, he would try, and fail, and die, released from a life that offered nothing; at best, he would succeed and do his part to help a man who at least seemed to be sincere in his desire to help the world.
He touched the lightsabre at his side. No, he wasn't bought. This was his choice. He was taking a risk, but there was no reason not to.
One last time. He blinked, and for just a moment the Jedi Temple blurred, as if seen through tears. Then he turned and walked away.
For a moment, he found himself wondering if Qui-Gon Jinn thought of him, ever. But, if he lived to return from this, he would never look at look at the Temple again, or think of the man.
Was it luck, or the Force? At first he thought it was only his fancy - his treacherous dreams appearing to be made flesh - and he rubbed his eyes, shook his head.
The figure remained. Obi-Wan Kenobi, dressed in his usual black, standing still as a statue and watching the Temple.
When the young man turned and walked away, Qui-Gon narrowed his eyes, fixing his position in his mind. Nothing else mattered. The Confessors and their captor faded into oblivion. Only Kenobi mattered, and he would follow him, and this time he would win.
"I go alone," he had said, sensing that Constantine had been about to offer the unwanted help of his guards.
Constantine had nodded. "Of course."
Apart from the lightsabre, Ben had accepted only three things - the brief service of a healer to bind his bruised ribs, a rough map culled from ancient histories and legends, and the loan of a land speeder.
"Take your time," Constantine had said, but "I go now," was all he had said. He had no affairs to set in order, and no friends to say farewell to, as the other man must surely have known. A quick visit only, to collect a few supplies from his cold home, but that had been all.
The last sight of the Jedi Temple had been an indulgence - the only weakness he would allow himself. After that, he merely drove the landspeeder quickly and unobtrusively through the streets of the City, under the shadows of the new skyscrapers, and the sprawling new developments of the fringes.
Lights and shadows crossed the sky above him - nowadays, aircars were a more popular mode of transport in the City, but Ben preferred to travel by land. He felt the Jedi were like the aircars, travelling through life on what they thought of as a higher plane, removing themselves from real life. At least on the ground he could hear children crying, and smell the stench of their slums, and sense the life of the earth. It showed him both what he wanted to remedy, and what he wanted to be.
It was two days' travel to the lava fields - over a thousand miles. He stopped for the first night in open scrub land beside the highway. Like winter branches against the sky, cranes still moved late into the night, working on some new development not far away. He lay awake and watched them, and watched also the stars, marvelling at their beauty; it had been years since the stars had been visible in the City. He felt himself smiling like a child, safe in the dark and invisible to prying eyes.
The second night, he stopped just outside the lava fields, close enough to smell the sulphur, and hear, faint as a breath, the periodic venting of poisonous gases. That night, he lay awake and saw orange against the blackness, and wondered if he would live to see another day.
Unbeknown to him, he was not the only one who did so.
On the morning of the third day, Ben got up early, and drove to the very edge of the sea of lava, close enough for his skin to smart, and his lungs to feel thick and heavy with the heat.
He frowned. He stood there for a very long time.
Then he drove away, far away, up to the mountains.
He could have crept up on him in the night, and confronted him. He could have smashed his sleeping face with his staff and done a good deed.
Instead, he had stayed back, too far away to see, and too far to sense, almost, if he hadn't focused all his strength and very life force on the thief, at the time of that brief glimpse outside the Temple.
A small part of him wondered if it was fear - if he feared his own weakness, and feared he would soften in his resolve if he saw that alluring face and body in the innocence of sleep. But then he told himself, rightly, that he was waiting for evidence that no-one could deny. He would catch the thief n the act - though what dark purpose he could be seeking to fulfil here, in the lava fields, he couldn't guess... unless.... He gasped. Unless the thief knew he was followed, and had led a false trail, planning to assassinate him, Qui-Gon, out here in the wilds and let the lava take his body.
Well, if that was so, he would not let him do it, not without a fight. He looked down with satisfaction at the weapons he had been able to procure - a blaster as well as his staff, and a vibroaxe. He had no training in their use, but was sure he could use them well enough to kill, if he needed to.
His hand over his mouth, he looked down. Immediately heat hit him like an assault. He gritted his teeth.
This was the way, he was sure. He had searched for hours, and seen no other possibility. The ancient city had rested at the foot of a mountain, in innocent ignorance of the fact that it had been a dormant volcano. When it had erupted, the whole side of the mountain had torn loose, two great crevasses from its side, cutting through the land on either side of the city. Lava had flowed like two great waterfalls, inundating the city. At the same time, lava from deep in the earth had bubbled up, catching the city between death from above and death from below. It bubbled up still, though the mountain itself, its deadly work done, was only dead black rock.
At ground level, lava still totally surrounded the site of the city on three sides. Above, though, was the ravaged black mountain, forming the fourth side. It should be possible to climb or jump down, through the scorching air, through the pall of gas, and down into the ruins.
He leant back, rocking onto his heels. He could have laughed. "Possible?" he said, aloud. Possible for those with a death wish, for fools... Possible for men who only wanted to land, and didn't much mind if they landed alive or dead...
But... And he shook his head, sobering. It was his only chance.
He leant forward again, looking down through the shimmering orange heat. The side of the mountain had slid downwards, and he stood on the very top. Beneath him, almost vertical, was a ravaged irregular cliff, as if a giant hand had ripped the mountain in half, leaving a ragged edge. He could at least attempt to climb it. It would be scorchingly hot, and he would have to use all his Force skills to regulate his breathing - the air would be thick and noxious and could erode his lungs from within. He had no rope, and any mistake would mean death.
But it was the only way. Taking his last wonderful breath of fresh air, he lowered himself over the edge, took all his weight on his fingertips, and started climbing down.
Qui-Gon reached the top of the mountain, and stopped, instantly suspicious. His still-living sense of the man told him that he had gone over the edge, but that must surely mean instant death.
It was a trick - it had to be. Kenobi knew he was here, and had used some Dark Side trick to make Qui-Gon think he had gone. He, Qui-Gon, would run to the edge, look down in puzzlement... and be struck from behind and pushed to his death.
Black rock was all his vision. Thick orange gas and burning dust made the air almost unbreathable. He fought the urge to choke.
His arms trembled. His fingers were slippery with sweat and blood, threatening to lose their hold. Once, one hand did, and he hung from one hand only, his body slamming into the rock, making his ribs burn with a fresh pain. He flailed wildly, and just as he was about to fall completely, he found the hand hold again. For a long time - too long - he just clung there, too scared and hurt to move.
"I will not be tricked," he said, aloud. He took one careful step forward, then another, the staff in one hand and the blaster in the other.
Something hit him in the back, and he sprawled forward, the blaster flying from his suddenly nerveless hand and over the edge of the cliff. He clung onto the staff, just, but all he could taste was dust.
He saw a flutter of black robes.
Dark anger, like a surging assault.
Something flew past him, turning and turning in the air like a dying bird. It shone like metal.
He looked up, but his eyes stung and he could see nothing.
Fear and anger roared in Qui-Gon's ears. He felt as if there was a great weight on his back, pinning him down.
His face hooded, Kenobi crouched and seemed to be surveying him. He thought he caught a faint glimpse of a smile, but he could not see his face. A black gloved hand touched his face briefly, like a mocking expression of love and farewell, doubtless reminding him of when he had kissed him in the shower.
Then he stood, and Qui-Gon could only gasp, useless and pinned down by a strength like nothing he had ever thought to feel, as his hand went to his belt, and he pulled out a weapon. A long red blade of light cut through the thick air.
Qui-Gon knew he was about to die. Strangely, he found he didn't mind that so much, but the thought that Kenobi had won... Impotent fury filled him.
The blade was raised high, a pale pure red, not like the thick orange of the air. Two seconds, one...
"No," he heard, hoarse and desperate.
The man in black whirled round. Another figure stood there, at the very lip of the cliff, and he too bore a sword of light, though his was a beautiful pure blue.
<Kenobi> his mind told him, though surely that must be wrong.
He thought he would shut his eyes for a while.
It was the dark man. He felt the tendrils of darkness reaching for his mind, and knew them immediately. <Come to me> he had heard, from his same mind, as his life had bled away two months before. <So easy to kill> he had heard, as a hand had closed round his throat and almost killed him.
"No," he cried now, through the choking gas in his lungs, and the exhaustion of his hasty climb. His fingertips were raw and bleeding, but the Force still flowed pure and true. He felt he knew instinctively how to wield this lightsabre against the red of his foe's.
"Yes," the man said, gleefully. "I have been hunting you. Him..." - a dismissive gesture with his foot at the fallen Jedi - "is just a route to you."
Aware of the edge behind him, Ben stepped to one side. Let the dark man follow him, always away from Qui-Gon Jinn - and he refused to let himself wonder what _he_ was doing here, refused even to think of it any more.
"Why?" he asked. It was not just to draw the man away. Every second of talking was a tiny bit of strength regained. Right now, he felt it was all he could do to just to stay upright.
"Because you escaped me before, and no-one escapes me."
He sensed dark fury in the man, and thought he was probably telling the truth. He, Ben, was nothing to him in himself, but his pride had been hurt when he had escaped him. Yet he still needed time. "Is that all?" Another step back, sideways, along the cliff edge. He would need to step forward soon, if they were to fight, but too soon and he would force the engagement before he was ready.
"Oh no." A laugh. "But there's no need to tell you the rest. Only that some enemies of mine have their hopes pinned on you. Naturally, I wish to thwart them."
He licked his lips. This couldn't be true. No-one had their hopes pinned on him. No-one even really knew he existed. He knew his Master had been involved in some plan to manipulate him, but he had escaped their clutches, and he hadn't been important after all, for they hadn't even cared.
His hand was sweating on his lightsabre. He reached out with the Force, and sensed the thick band of dark Force linking the man with Qui-Gon Jinn - how he was holding him down and unconscious, and how he had been able to see through his eyes. How was it possible that the Jedi hadn't sensed it?
The dark man laughed. "Useful, isn't it? I'll kill him anyway, after I kill you."
"No!" It was a wild cry. He flung himself forward, and a small detached part of him wondered why this should enrage him so, when nothing else the man had said had really touched him.
The man swung his lightsabre round, and attacked.
Qui-Gon half opened his eyes. He thought two blades of shining light were dancing.
He thought he saw Kenobi, holding the blue. But he knew it had been Kenobi with the red blade, so what did he know about anything?
He closed his eyes again.
Ben had never fought with a lightsabre before, but his Master had trained him well with the quarterstaff, and the Force seemed to guide him.
His opponent seemed equally inexperienced, as if this was his first time as well. They fought clumsily, swinging their weapons and twirling in the air, but several times almost dropping them.
A formidable weapon, Ben thought, as his opponent's blade sliced through a rock just where he had been standing. As he had suspected, they cut through everything, though when the two blades met they resisted, with a surge of energy that travelled right up his arm.
They were locked once, face to face, and he could see the fire of the other man's eyes, and feel his breath. Then they were flying apart, and he was flailing suddenly, aware that his left arm was over nothing at all but an immense hot void, and his feet were only inches from the edge.
His opponent laughed. He tried to press his advantage, but Ben, in a desperate sudden urge to save his life, somersaulted over him and landed behind him. Now it was his enemy who was flailing, almost falling.
Ben took the chance to take several deep breaths, restoring his strength. He shot a quick anxious glance at Qui-Gon Jinn, but he was still groaning, his eyes dazed.
"Let him go!" he shouted, suddenly furious. He launched himself at the man.
He sensed rather than saw a smile. "If you wish."
It was almost visible, the black hold that pulled back from the fallen Jedi, coiled back to the man's fist, then reached instead for Ben. It felt like probing fingers on his throat, his mind.
"No!" he cried, suddenly disgusted and outraged. He had no particular need to live, but refused to die like this, at the hands of the darkness he had lived his life to fight. In furious denial, he reached for the Force, pure and light and vibrant. He felt strength flow through his veins like soothing cooling water. He could almost see it, like a white translucent shield around his skin, against which the dark assault lapped uselessly like water against a sea wall.
The dark men cried out in fury, and slammed the darkness back towards Qui-Gon Jinn, hurling him into captive unconsciousness. Then he raised his weapon, and rained a furious series of blows towards Ben's body.
Ben moved as if in a dream. The Force informed his every movement. He saw the very edge of the red blade burn his forearm, but that was nothing to him; it was as if it had happened to someone else. He saw his own blade, weaving expertly through the air, getting past the man's guard again and again. He saw the man's hood slip slightly, and saw the whites of his eyes and his grimace of fear and exertion as he flailed wildly, again and again, to avoid blows that should have disarmed him.
And then he saw a black-gloved hand spread wide against the orange sky, as a silver lightsabre spiralled away from its clutch, and out into the abyss.
He heard a cry of fury. "No...."
He raised his own weapon high.
And then he saw the faintest, deeply hidden, signs of fears - signs of a disarmed man he would be murdering in cold blood. "No," he said, quietly, and extinguished his own blade.
Then, as the man began to smile in triumph at a foolish enemy tricked, he reached with the Force for the rock that had felled Qui-Gon Jinn, and hurled it at the dark man's own head.
His knees crumpled and he fell.
To his surprise, Ben found himself on his knees as well, breathing heavily, aching in every muscle, sweat and grime obscuring his vision.
He blinked, as slowly the fog cleared.
He remembered falling, and someone laughing. He remember Kenobi, murder in the red light of his weapon. But he wasn't dead yet, so someone, or something, had saved him.
His struggled, and managed to roll over onto his back. It hurt as if deeply bruised, but he could feel no other injury. His mind felt sluggish, as if it had been assaulted. Concussion, probably.
Someone made a sound - small stones moving, and the sound of feet in the dirt. He looked up, and saw Kenobi looking down on him, his face smeared with dust.
"Are you all right?" the thief asked, as if talking hurt him.
Qui-Gon nodded, then remembered: he shouldn't speak to this man. Just looking at him put him as risk of falling again.
Kenobi looked very young and very vulnerable. "Tell me his name."
He didn't answer, but he did manage to push himself up into a sitting position, hiding the way his mind was still sluggish. He followed the direction of the thief's gaze, and saw another man, black-cloaked and taller than Kenobi, lying on the cliff edge.
"Dead?" he asked.
Kenobi shook his head.
There was something about him... Qui-Gon knew immediately that _this_ was the man who had attacked him, and not Kenobi. He kept silent, though. Kenobi had saved him for his own reasons, and he refused to even acknowledge it, to say anything that would put him in debt.
"Tell me his name," the thief demanded again. "There is such a link between you."
"No there isn't," he snapped, suddenly angry - though why was he even bothering to answer such a ridiculous claim?
"He's very strong in the Dark Side of the Force." Musingly.
"No he isn't." He took a deep breath. "No." A rock had hit him, he realised now, and there had been no other assault. Kenobi used the Force, but the other had not. Only one man here was strong in the Dark Side.
Kenobi sighed. "How can you be expected to know?" He seemed deeply resigned, almost hurt and frustrated. He looked like a man who had long since given up on ever finding understanding or trust. "You Jedi... You know nothing of the Dark Side, or the evils in the galaxy. You hide yourselves away from it, and can't even recognise true evil when you see it."
He narrowed his eyes. "I can." Meaning, <I can see you.>
"No." Kenobi suddenly frowned, looking distant, as if quoting words of some half-forgotten lesson. "Like all Jedi, you are a fool, Qui-Gon Jinn. You do not see the power of the Dark Side, and that is why you lie there now. You think it puny and doomed to failure; you do not see that it is strong, and growing ever stronger. It is your blindness that will be your doom - all of you."
"Is that a threat?" He still had his staff. He closed his hand around it, and waited for the moment when Kenobi would turn his back.
"No, but..." It was a sudden wail, like a sob. "Why won't you let yourself see?" Suddenly dark with emotion, Kenobi reached for Qui-Gon, dragging him forward through the dust. Qui-Gon clawed with his hands, and managed to support himself, so he could at least crawl without injury. The moment they stopped, he would attack.
"Who. Is. He?" Kenobi hissed, reaching down and pushing aside the fallen man's hood.
And then Qui-Gon froze. It was an assault, a desperate, crushing blow. There, unconscious before him, was his apprentice, Xanatos.
"Xanatos," Qui-Gon Jinn gasped.
"Xanatos," Ben repeated, and this time he, too, recognised the man.
He thought he understood a lot. He saw how broken, how hurt, the Jedi's face was. No wonder he was so quick to hate another man who had left the Order, and so quick to see the Dark Side. It explained, too, how Xanatos had been able to find him, using his old training bond to see through Qui-Gon's own eyes as the Jedi had watched him. Qui-Gon's own ignorance of the Dark Side had made the link only one-sided. Like so many of his Order, the Jedi was simply incapable of recognising darkness where he saw it.
"He turned," Qui-Gon murmured. He looked at Ben, and for a moment his face was pleading, as if genuinely seeking help. "Why couldn’t I sense him?"
"Because you don't know about the darkness. None of the Jedi do," he said, quietly, though already the Jedi's face had closed up and darkened with anger - already he had regretted asking, and remembered who Ben was, or who he thought he was.
"And you do, of course," the Jedi said, bitterly.
He nodded. "Yes." Ah, but he was sick of it - fed up of being misunderstood. He knew there was no chance for him of ever finding happiness, but he was not ashamed of what he did, and tired of playing a part. "Because it's what I fight every day of my life. I have seen darkness in many forms." He shivered. "And there is so much more, more terrible, that I still do not know."
Qui-Gon's eyes narrowed. "I can't accept that." But the fire of his hatred was gone, and Ben couldn't help but regret that. The Jedi looked back at Xanatos, and _there_ was feeling in his eyes. When he looked at Ben it was only detached disinterest.
<Look at me again> he found himself wanting to plead.
"Will you be all right?" he asked, quietly, and his voice only shook a little bit. "I..."
"Yes." Distant. He thought he saw tears falling on Xanatos' slack face, but maybe it was only sweat from the hot fumes coming over the edge of hell.
His hand moved weakly. "I..."
"I said no." Even that was dead. Qui-Gon Jinn stood and walked away, standing with his back to both of them, facing back towards to City and his life as a Jedi - a life that no longer included one of them, and had never included the other.
Instinctively, Ben reached out with the Force, not to probe, but to comfort. In that moment, he focused on nothing else.
"I said no!" Qui-Gon Jinn whirled round, eyes burning with dark fury and horrified rejection.
<He finds me repulsive> Ben realised, sickeningly - though what had he expected. He could only stare as the Jedi's mouth opened in an outraged cry of denial, as he lunged forward, his staff raised high above his head.
He wouldn't fight back. What was the point? He had lived too long, alone among people who didn't care. What was the point of anything?
"No!" he heard. Qui-Gon Jinn was a whirl of brown robes, upon him and past him. The staff whistled through the air, and he heard the sickening sound of impact on human flesh. Someone screamed. It could have been Qui-Gon Jinn - he was breathing fast, close to sobbing.
Slowly, slowly, he dared to turn round.
"He tried to attack you," Qui-Gon Jinn said, his voice low and bitter. He was alone on the cliff edge; Xanatos had gone. "He would have pulled you over. Attacking from behind."
Then, after one quick poisonous look, he turned and walked away.
He was very still for a very long time.
Qui-Gon Jinn was standing there, his arms folded tightly round his body, staring into the distance. Ben couldn't begin to guess what he might be feeling.
He walked over to his side, a step behind, and not touching, though he found he wanted to, very much. "I know you are hurt," he said, and found he was shaking inside. "I would like to help you, but I... I don't know how to. I never do." He swallowed hard, and stifled a sob. "And I know you don't want my help. I know what you think of me, and know that my presence is the last thing you would ever want."
Nothing. No response at all; no sign that he had even been heard.
"I know you have transport. I know you can get back to people who can help you - people who care. If you are low on supplies, use mine." The wind lifted the Jedi's hair, but that was the only movement. This was as cold a statue as his Master had ever been, though, unlike with his Master, he knew Qui-Gon Jinn _could_ feel, just never again for him.
He sighed. What else could he say? He didn't know the man, but this felt like the greatest farewell he would ever say. "I'm going back down."
Nothing. Slowly, he walked away, back to the edge. Slowly... Several times he looked back, but saw nothing.
<Do what you like with your life. I don't care> What he saw was Qui-Gon Jinn, but what he heard, in his head, was his Master's voice.
He closed his eyes, seeking strength, then once again started to climb.
He had killed his apprentice. He had killed Xanatos.
He had killed a man he had hated for two years.
He had killed a boy he had once loved like a son.
He had killed his apprentice, and found his whole life dissolving into ashes, burning burning in the acrid air.
He had thought he had hated Xanatos, but what was hatred but an attempt to hide the pain? What was hatred but an emotion that denied humanity? He had hated the image of the apprentice who had betrayed him, but Xanatos was human, not an image. A human, and when he had seen him, he had felt... what? Pain, regret... hatred, too, but...
"Pain," he said aloud, his hands wrapped tightly around his body.
He hated what Xanatos had done, but he did not hate Xanatos. How could he? It had not been an act of hatred, killing him, but necessity. He had done the only thing he could do to prevent an act of murder.
Xanatos had fallen into the fire and been burned, and, with it, Qui-Gon's life had burned away and been cleansed - and oh how the burning hurt...
<You are blind to the darkness> Kenobi had said, and Qui-Gon knew now how true this was - though not in the way Kenobi had meant him to think.
His own hatred had been pushing him close to the darkness. It was right to want to bring his apprentice and Kenobi to justice, but not right to hate them. If he had killed Xanatos out of hatred and not out of necessity - and how easy it could have been to do that - he knew instinctively that he would have fallen irreparably, and would never have known it. He would have confused hatred with justice, and never again seen the difference.
Hatred was... He found he was sobbing, crawling on his hands and knees towards the edge. His thoughts were dissolving. He tried desperately to bring them under control, to keep them coherent.
He had killed his apprentice.
"Your Master had been taken by the confessors," he found he was shouting, leaning over the edge, his voice hoarse with the hot gas. "They will have no mercy on him. It's your fault."
He had killed his apprentice.
"I hope you fall. No-one will mourn you." His eyes were streaming with the heat.
He had killed Xanatos - killed him to save this man, this Obi-Wan Kenobi, this thief.
"I hate you!" he screamed.
No, not hatred. Hatred was wrong. Hatred was dark.
He dug his fingers into the cliff edge, a hard black stone dug into his flesh.
"No, I don't hate you. I just don't care at all. You are nothing. Just die."
Then he drew his legs up to his chest, curled tight, and sobbed and sobbed.
He had heard everything.
He stood on a narrow ledge at the bottom of the ragged cliff. Beneath him was a cliff as smooth as glass, eroded by the thick noxious gas that had drifted upwards for thousands of years.
He had heard everything. His eyes were streaming, and he knew he was entering the hell of legend.
There was no climbing downwards, not any more. There was only one way.
Spreading his arms, trusting himself to the Force - and not caring very much if it betrayed him - he jumped.
His face was stiff. The heat had dried his tears and he felt as if he was wearing a mask.
Slowly, Qui-Gon uncurled. He felt weak as a new born, sure that his legs wouldn't hold him. Like lava had once flowed through the city below, emotions had poured through him and from him, leaving him a ruin.
"No," he said, aloud, almost immediately. Not a ruin. He was a Jedi and he would be strengthened by this. All things were ruled by the Force, and were for the best. This was a burning, and he would grow.
He pushed himself shakily to his hands and knees, wincing at the waves of heat that pulsed over the cliff edge.
Oh, but it was hard. He had lost everything he had thought he had known - his anger at Xanatos, his own confidence in his moral rectitude. His hatred, even his burning sense of justice... Pain. All along, it had been but a mask, a coping mechanism, for his own pain of betrayal.
That pain had made him what he was today.
He remembered. Once, before Xanatos, he had had friends. He had been warm and giving, slow to give his heart, but quick to give comfort and the light of a smile.
He had been slow to judge, too, and eager to help. Many times he and his Master had had words about it. His Master had loved him and had never even come close to accusing him of treachery, but Qui-Gon had known that at times he had despaired of his apprentice's willingness to those who appeared to need it. He had clashed with the Council many times about this same issue, always urging that the Jedi did more, when the Council every year ruled that they do less and less.
<That's what I'm like> he thought, almost plaintively. <I am.>
He touched his face, stiff with dried tears. A mask, and rightly so. Xanatos' betrayal had changed him, made him less than he truly was. It had made him a bitter angry man, full of hate, hating those who had not yet suffered betrayal, and those he thought had betrayed.
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," he said, aloud.
"He is not Xanatos," Adi Gallia had said, understanding - and his heart twisted in raw pain at the thought that others had understood him, had known.
For Qui-Gon had seen, not Obi-Wan, but Xanatos. He had looked at him, and seen an apprentice who had betrayed his Master and turned to the dark. He had seen his own pain, his own bleeding betrayal. He had hated without evidence.
Kenobi claimed that he fought the darkness every day of his life and that the Jedi knew nothing of it.
<He's a thief> he told himself, sternly. <A criminal. A killer.>
A thief who apparently kept no riches for himself, and lived in poverty. A killer who had defeated Xanatos, but refrained from killing him. An assassin who had saved Qui-Gon's life at the risk of his own, and left without demanding any reward or any dark price of gratitude.
A man who had left the Jedi - and why had he left? What was the story behind that? He had merely _assumed_ he had turned to the darkness and left in anger, as Xanatos had done.
A man he had assaulted. A man who had struggled, wounded and bleeding, while Qui-Gon had only watched, gleefully. A man who had climbed down into the very mouth of hell, with Qui-Gon's childish hate-filled words echoing off the stone.
"I was wrong," he said, standing shakily to his feet. Wrong to judge, at least. Wrong to hate without evidence. Wrong to hate at all, probably, for he was a Jedi.
Perhaps Kenobi _was_ of the darkness. Perhaps he deserved only to die. Perhaps he did, but Qui-Gon would give him a chance. He owed him as much. He didn't think he could ever like him, or ever like what he did, but at least he could do him the honour of judging him for what he _was_, and not merely seeing him as another Xanatos.
And... No. If he was honest - and he would aim always to be honest with himself now - this was not for Kenobi's sake, but for his own healing.
He could collapse utterly, and break under Xanatos' betrayal, or he could rise from the ashes, stronger and more pure. The day he could look upon Obi-Wan Kenobi and see _him_, not a trace of Xanatos in what he saw and how he reacted... Only then would he be truly healed.
Xanatos would win no more victories over him.
He was urgent, desperate, to heal. He crawled to the edge and started climbing.
He flew like a bird on the thick air, held up by the Force and the rising hot air.
His arms were spread; his cloak billowed behind him like an extra pair of wings. It kept him aloft, but it was one layer one clothing less to protect his body from the hot sparks.
He blinked through the thick gas, trying to find a landing place. Gas glowed thickly orange. He thought he saw a place where there was something paler, but he couldn't be sure.
No, he _had_ to be sure. He was falling ever closer; he had to take this chance. There was no going back, none at all.
He pulled the Force close like a cloak of feathers, and tried to make for that place...
And then it hit him. Like fire from a dragon's mouth, a wave of immense heat hit him in the face. His eyes streamed. Despite himself, he gasped, and the searing gases went into his lungs.
He struggled desperately for consciousness, but blackness was surging, surging closer, and he was falling, arms flailing wildly, and nothing could stop him, nothing...
Qui-Gon climbed. Tendrils of the Force seemed to cling to the cliff face, and... <strange> he thought. The Force seemed stronger now, already, than it had ever seemed in the last two years. If he closed his eyes, he fancied it as a visible white wisp in the orange air.
The Force marked the way for him. <Here> it appeared to be saying. <Here is a hand hold. No! Not that one. I almost fell there.>
Like a ghost, the white illusion coalesced, and for a moment he saw Obi-Wan Kenobi, making his own descent before him.
"No," he said, sharply, and the illusion disappeared.
Yet he still followed the hints of Force, still put his hands and feet exactly where Obi-Wan Kenobi had done before him.
Ben opened his eyes, and pain bolted through his skull.
He flexed his fingers - that at least didn't hurt - and felt warm stone. He blinked, and saw a tall honey-coloured tower, disappearing into the red haze.
He coughed, and felt something warm and liquid run from his mouth, down his neck and into his hair. He tasted iron.
When he tried to breathe, his lungs screamed with pain. The air at least was fresh - warm but wholesome. The gases rose from the lava on all sides, and, above him, created a deadly pall, but at the ground it was pure.
He tried to stand, but could not. He grimaced, even laughed, a sharp and painful bark of laughter. His dying would be slow, then, and mocked by the fact that, had be been stronger, he could have lived.
Qui-Gon paused on the edge of the sheer cliff, his hands flexing, taking several deep long breaths.
Flickering in front of his eyes was the vision - Obi-Wan Kenobi soaring above the fire like a bird.
He laughed suddenly, bitterly. When young, he had been told an old folk tale about a girl who had to save her love from an enchantment by following him wherever he led her - through a burning wood, and a deadly swamp, and finally leaping off an immense cliff of glass. Once, she had been kind to an old beggar woman, and this woman, who had powers of her own, helped the girl through the first obstacles. For the last, though, she merely had to have faith. She simply trusted herself to love, and threw herself into the void...
And awakened in her lover's arms.
Why was he thinking this at this time? _That_ was what he was laughing at. He was following Obi-Wan Kenobi off a cliff, knowing the fall would very likely kill him, but he was trusting, not to love, but to the Force, and he was doing it to save himself, and no-one else.
And so he jumped.
He frowned. Something... He had felt _something._
His eyelids were heavy. He was broken on the stone and could not do anything to walk away from death, but this at least he would do.
With all his strength, he focused; with all his strength, he saw.
A figure, arms outstretched and cloak billowing, was plummeting through the orange cloud, and he was moving fast, too fast...
"No!" he gasped.
Only afterwards did he notice that he stood at this point - he who had been so sure he could not stand. Arm outstretched, he called for the Force, and hurled it at the falling Jedi.
Gradually, too gradually, his falling slowed. Gradually... and, oh, but he couldn't hold it, couldn't stand, couldn't _live_ for this... Slowing, floating, protected by a bubble. The heat couldn't touch him; he breathed easily - two men's Force strength working together to be greater far than any one's could be.
The last thing Ben saw was Qui-Gon Jinn touch the ground, with barely a jolt, and remain standing. Such a strange look in his eyes...
He looked at the young man who lay crumpled on the ground. He tried to move, but somehow couldn't.
He looked up and around - his head at least could move. He saw tall towers, their surface eroded and pitted by hot ashes, but still standing. He saw high walkways and bridges and elevated arenas. Beneath and around he saw the lava, but for the most part the lava was like a moat around a castle, enclosing the ruins but not destroying them.
The silence was eerie. For a moment, he almost expected to see laughing people round the corner, still living the life they had always lived, regardless of their enforced seclusion. But then, with a jolt, he saw that the pale stone ground came three quarters of the way up the ground floor doorways of the towers. He saw a glimpse of vision, or imagination - screaming people mired down by a grey falling blanket of ash, that enclosed their bodies in everlasting twisted death, and then solidified over the years.
He was standing on a mass grave. He shivered.
And then his horrified eyes swept back and close, and once again he saw the fallen body of one who still lived, perhaps. There would be no running away.
Slowly, he approached him. Slowly, he crouched down beside him, and touched his chest with fingers that trembled - why did they tremble? The limbs were whole. He thought there had been a blow to the head, but, when he lifted the slack eyelids, the pupils of those startling blue eyes were healthy. When he took his hand away, though, the heel of it was stained with blood, from where it had brushed against Kenobi's lips.
Lung damage, he thought, grimly. There were broken ribs; he unfastened the young man's tunic and saw both old bruises and new. Whether a rib had pierced a lung, or whether it was damaged by inhaling noxious scalding gas, he didn't know.
He looked round anxiously. Instinct was to move him, but where to? The blocked doorways meant that the towers were inaccessible except to the most active, and it was not as if he would suffer from cold and rain out here. The air was warm, but pure.
Besides, he thought, running his tongue over his lips, he didn't really want to have to hold that body close in his arms, to enfold it in his arms, to carry it, with the head falling back and that soft white skin of the throat exposed. He thought it would tempt him in ways he must not be tempted.
He would leave him here, then, and he would sit vigil, watching but not close, and what would happen would happen. That was ever the way of the Jedi.
But silence brought dark thoughts.
Xanatos's mocking laugher echoing off the black mountain. "You are not even beginning to heal, Master. Why are you scared to wake him? Why are you scared to touch him?"
<Scared?> he thought. Surely not.
"I will heal," he said, aloud, standing up with his fists clenched. He was not scared to hear what Kenobi had to say for himself. He would hear the words only, and not merely an echo of Xanatos. He was strong enough to support him, if his words showed that he was still of the light, or to condemn him if his words showed he deserved condemnation. It would be a judgement based on truth, and not on past pain.
He needed it _now._ He had been living a wounded life for two years, without knowing it. He would prove to himself that he had healed. Just a minute longer was unbearable.
_He would heal._
"Kenobi," he said, sharply, gently slapping his cheek. "Wake up." Harder. He took hold of his shoulders and shook him. "Wake up, Kenobi."
The young man gave a quiet moan, and his eyelids fluttered, but he did not wake.
"Why did you leave the Jedi, Kenobi?"
Again and again, shaking, shouting, demanding...
He. Would. Heal.
"Why did you leave the Jedi?" he heard, as someone shook him and hurt him and shouted. "Why?"
He thought perhaps he was dying, and this was the Force demanding account of his life, before deciding his fate - or had the Jedi got it all wrong and this was some vengeful god after all? Then he thought that the voice was perhaps the only thing pulling him back from death, dragging him back to consciousness. But if the voice left him alone, he could sleep, and that would be free of pain.
He heard a high thin noise - himself, moaning. He wished things would make sense.
"Tell me, Kenobi. Why?"
He forced his eyes open, and saw the face of a living man. Qui-Gon Jinn, he remembered. "Why?" he asked, hardly recognising his voice. There was something thick and wet bubbling on his lips. He coughed, but it didn't go away, and his voice got no stronger. "Why do you want to know?"
Another hard shake, and the sound of breath hissed through teeth in exasperation and anger. "That doesn't matter. Just tell me."
Maybe if he told him, he would stop hurting him, and let him sleep. He thought he might once have had a reason not to, but couldn't remember what it was. "My Master," he mumbled, then realised he was saying it all wrong. <My Master didn't care about me...> That was a reason for his unhappiness, but not the reason he'd left. "Wanted to help," he said, instead.
"Who wanted to help?" Fingers like steel in his shoulders.
"Me." He tried to laugh, then wondered why ever he had wanted to. "A little girl. Master wouldn't let me help her. She died."
"Ki-Adi-Mundi wouldn't let you help a girl?" Qui-Gon's voice was sceptical and hostile. "I don't believe you. That's not like him."
He bit his lip, fighting a groan. How it hurt to breathe, to talk. "'S true," he managed.
"And what have you done with your life since you left? What do you do?"
He thought there was nothing human in the voice that demanded so. He wondered why he answered. He thought, perhaps, he was still a little confused as to whether this was Qui-Gon Jinn, or some immortal power judging his life. "I steal." He clenched his fists, and forced his eyes open. On this he had no shame. "To help. Reclaim things that are wrongly taken. Find people who have been taken against their will."
Another harsh laugh. "The law exists to do that. Who are you to judge?"
He blinked, and Qui-Gon's face came into focus, brutally clear. "Who are the Jedi? What do they know? There is injustice and corruption that you Jedi are blind to. The law is no help. The Jedi are no help. I do what I can."
Qui-Gon looked at him very strangely. Already his face was wavering, as rising pain interfered with his vision. "Why are you saying this?" he said, his voice strained and painful. "Why lie?"
He hands flexed, then relaxed, very deliberately. He didn't think he could hold on for much longer. "I am not lying, Qui-Gon Jinn," he said, very measured and more level than he could ever have thought himself capable of. "Why should I, when I don't care what your opinion is? Think of me whatever you wish. I don't care."
Darkness surged. Very deep down, something was sobbing. <I do care>
Qui-Gon sat very still, his fingers still digging into the shoulders of the young man who was no longer conscious.
There was blood on his fingers. He thought it would be better, more appropriate, if they looked like claws, like the cruel talons that they were.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, too late. He laid him down gently, and passed his hand over his brow, as if he could ease him so easily with the Force.
He had attacked him, demanding the truth for his own reasons, thinking never of Kenobi - of how he was hurt, and his own needs. The young man had saved him twice, and the second time it had been while hurt, and at the risk of his own life. How many of his injuries had been exacerbated while saving Qui-Gon? Wasn't that evidence enough that he was no assassin? The rest, the other explanations, should have come only when he was ready.
"I'm sorry," he said again, though Kenobi couldn't hear him. He had gone from shouting hate, to demanding explanation - from a passionate need to detest, to a passionate need to understand. Both needs had everything to do with him, and nothing at all to do with Obi-Wan Kenobi. He had wronged him as much by seeking understanding as he had by seeking to destroy him.
He closed his eyes, and called the Force towards him, using it tentatively now, and gently, probing the young man's injuries. That was all he could do. The Force flowed through him only weakly, erratically. His mind was too troubled.
"I'm not of the darkness," he said, plaintively. "I'm not..."
He remembered how pure and beautiful the Force had felt, just for a second, when Kenobi had reached for him as he fell. Their two minds had touched, and the power had blossomed, immensely powerful and bright.
"And neither is he," he found he was saying, aloud. It surprised him. He had no idea he had come to that conclusion. He thought he was with-holding judgement, waiting for time to talk and observe.
And the story was still troublesome. Ki-Adi-Mundi preventing him from saving a girl? It was not the Ki _he_ knew - not the Ki who had ordered him, Qui-Gon, to save the life of his former apprentice, even though such an order was verging on the illegal. Councillor Mundi had always been one of the more vocal members of the Council, urging the Jedi to change their ways and get more involved - at least, he had been, before taking on an apprentice ten years earlier, and falling silent.
And the allegations of corruption that was ignored, even condoned, by the law and the Jedi...? His initial reaction was to deny it, but he had to be fair and admit that he didn't know. The Jedi lived in an ivory tower. Qui-Gon himself had sometimes clashed with the Council, arguing that they sat back and let evils happen. He had helped someone, and been rebuked by cold men who said their suffering had been the will of the Force, but every instinct in his body had shouted at him that the Force wanted that person helped.
Possible, then. _Possible_ that he told the truth. And likely, he realised, that he told what he _thought_ was truth.
"Think of me whatever you wish. I don't care," Kenobi had said, bleakly, before losing consciousness. That look had made him shiver. It was the look of a man who expected to be judged badly - who expected to never in his life find understanding, or any person whose opinion would matter to him.
It was a look that said <I do care, though I shouldn't. I do care, and the condemnation I see in your eyes is nothing more than I expected. I do care, and it hurts me. I do care...>
It was the look of a terribly lonely man, and a look he thought he might sometimes have seen in the mirror, had he not let himself believe he had felt only hatred.
Almost he touched Obi-Wan then, his fingers running feather-light over his cheek. He stopped himself just in time, but still his fingers brushed the air.
He found the Force was flowing stronger now, and in healing. He wondered why.
He thought someone was looking after him, but that was something he had never thought to see, so surely he was wrong. This was delirium. This was his dearest hopes given illusory flesh and used to torment him. When he opened his eyes, it would all fade away, and he would be alone.
He wondered whether he should. If he kept them closed, he could enjoy just for a moment the illusion of care. He could fancy that he had a Master or a friend, holding him and caring whether he lived or died.
But it would be an illusion only, and he knew that. It would be soured and unreal.
Fiercely determined, he opened his eyes.
"Stay still," someone said, gently. A hand touched his shoulder, and when he blinked it was still there. The face looking down at him did not waver and float away like a wisp of air.
Qui-Gon Jinn, and surely he was sick and delirious for he was looking at him with concern, touching him gently and not just with his hands. The Force too was bathing him in soft healing waves, issuing from Qui-Gon's mind. Vision could be an illusion, but the Force never lied.
"Real?" he murmured, incredulously.
Qui-Gon nodded, a strange rueful expression on his face. "Rest, Obi-Wan."
He did, and this time it was not darkness that came rushing up to meet him, but light. He surrendered to it, and it was good.
For a long time, Qui-Gon laboured in healing. Few Jedi could heal with the Force, but Qui-Gon had always been one of them. Once he remembered how to do it - and it was truly wanting to reach out and touch the other's soul that was always the heart of it - he found it came easily.
He could not heal the young man utterly, for only time could do that. But he could ensure that he would live, though his breathing would be harsh and painful, and any serious exertion could start him bleeding inside again.
It was enough, though. Drained, he stopped, though still he sat and watched. Several times, he almost fell asleep. Each time, he caught himself with his hand on the young man's hair. At first, shocked and guiltily, he snatched his hand back. The third time, he simply let it lie.
Despite everything that had happened this day, he felt strangely content.
Ben flexed his hands, digging his fingers into the ground. Then he pushed hard, and managed to sit.
Almost he felt a flicker of touch, as if someone was withdrawing their touch. When he blinked and focused, he saw Qui-Gon Jinn sitting back on his heels, hands hastily folded in his lap. There was a strange look of trepidation on his face.
"I'm sorry," Qui-Gon began, while Ben was still struggling with sitting, and had not yet begun to think of how to speak. "I'm sorry I forced you to speak."
He only had a hazy memory of what he was talking about. He remembered someone making demands and shaking him, cruel, but what else could he expect? He swallowed. "Don't worry about it," he said, stiffly.
Qui-Gon held his hands very tightly clenched. "I was wrong. For what it's worth, I believe you."
He had no idea what to say, how to react. Emotions warred inside him. Elation - here was someone who saw that he was good inside and understood him. Fear - being solitary and misunderstood was a kind of safety. And there was anger, too - anger that Qui-Gon Jinn felt he had the right to sit there and judge him, and anger too that his words could affect him so.
Anger won. "I..." Qui-Gon began, but Ben interrupted, loud as he could, hoarse and painful. "I don't need your belief. I told you before: I don't care. Why do you think it could make any difference to me, when you oh-so-graciously grant me your belief?"
Qui-Gon looked at him, his eyes dark. "But it does."
Furious at being so transparent - <of course it does, and that's what I hate. To be so needy that I know I would do anything for a man who just looks at me with approval, with the smallest flicker of emotion> - he balled his hands into fists and flew at the older man. "Don't do this to me. Don't..."
And he still hurt too much, and soon he was sobbing too, his breath catching painfully, anger and pain spilling out of his mouth. He didn't know what he said. "Leave me alone," perhaps, and "stop standing in judgement over me," and "what do _you_ know about anything?"
He shouted, words spilling from him, doing nothing to heal the emotion that still seethed inside him, painful and terrible. After a while, strong impassive hands closed round his wrists, transmitting strength and peace. A little while after that an arm snaked around his shoulder.
"It's all right," a voice was crooning.
He was naked and exposed. Qui-Gon Jinn had healed him, and in doing so had touched his soul. He had no secrets. When he shouted in anger, Qui-Gon only saw the true weakness and need that lay beneath it.
It was terrifying; it was intoxicating. He was... Oh, he was too hurt, and he had been lonely for so long, and he would regret this forever, but he simply collapsed, seeking this man's embrace, clinging to him, needing him...
"Obi-Wan," he heard. Lips pressed into his hair, his forehead, his cheek, then, hot and urgent, his mouth. He returned the kiss eagerly, needing it. He was alive, and he was real, and, in this moment only, he mattered, just a little, to someone else. It was validation, and he hurt so much. It was weakness, but perhaps he wouldn't hate himself too much for it.
Cupping his face with his hands, Qui-Gon pulled away with a groan. "This isn't right."
He licked his upper lip. "But I want it."
Qui-Gon looked at him, then away. Then, as if he had been fighting a battle with his own gaze and had lost, he looked back at him again. "So do I," he said, as if it was an admission of the deepest sin. "So do I."
It was that and only that that stopped his need, freezing it cold. If he pushed, Qui-Gon would yield, obeying the urges of his body, and his own loneliness - for he knew that Qui-Gon Jinn, too, had been starved of human contact and understanding. One look at his face as he had surveyed Xanatos had told him that. To lose an apprentice to the darkness... To be so closed off that he could not even sense Xanatos in the Force... Qui-Gon Jinn was as scarred as he was, if not more so.
He would not push him, and could not, for Qui-Gon did not want it, and would hate himself - and hate him - if he gave in.
"But we won't do it." He shook his head, and took his reward in the look in Qui-Gon's eyes - like a condemned prisoner given a reprieve. But when Ben drew back, Qui-Gon's hands twitched, as if seeking for him, and that was something different entirely, and strange...
"Soon... Later... Again..." Qui-Gon said, plaintively. Then, "we'll talk," as if this was what he had meant all along, and not the other meaning that Ben understood.
He nodded. "Yes."
Something miraculous was happening, and something terrible. He had healed Obi-Wan, and in that communion had come to know him. Oh, not his every thought and secret, but something of his feelings. He saw the damaged hurt soul that lay within, and understood it.
When Obi-Wan had shouted, Qui-Gon had known the pain that lay beneath it. Anyone with half an eye could have seen it. Obi-Wan hid his feelings badly. Qui-Gon thought he had become so used to living alone, to thinking that no-one even noticed him, that he had no need to stay hidden.
When Obi-Wan had hungrily sought his embrace, he had seen the need, and his heart had bled for it. This was a man who had never been held, and needed to feel wanted. This was a man who could be healed with a kiss.
And so he had kissed him.
But, no, that had not been his reason. Oh course not. Even in his own thoughts he was justifying, making himself appear more selfless than he was.
He had kissed him because he had wanted to. So long, so long, since anyone had wanted him. So long since he had been so physically drawn to someone. So long since he had felt this almost physical spark when he touched another man's flesh. So long since he had been needed. So long...
And then, horrified, he had pulled away. "This isn't right." Wrong, so wrong, to exploit this young man's need, when he had sought only comfort and not passion. Wrong to feel as he did. Wrong to fall like this...
"But I want it."
And he had been sobbing inside with his own need, and his own denial. What sort of a man was he? He had killed his apprentice, and this man was a stranger with secrets yet to tell. Why did he feel like this? "I do too," he had moaned, hungry and full of self-hatred.
And this, wondrously, Obi-Wan had pulled back. <Thank you> he had breathed, and <Come back...>
He scarcely knew what he had said. All he knew was that he wanted to kiss him again, and feared to - that he knew they were both damaged and this was no true union, but oh how welcome and beautiful it could be...
"Yes," Obi-Wan had said, and his voice had been a wistful promise.
"Can I ask you something?" Obi-Wan said, at last, shyly. He looked very young, like the apprentice he still would be, by his age, had he stayed with the Jedi.
Qui-Gon nodded. This was safe. Talking was safe. Perhaps... If they talked, they might even find they liked what the found out about each other, and then the attraction he felt would be legitimised.
"You said my Master..." - a pause - "has been taken by the Confessors..?"
Fresh shame twisted inside him. Obi-Wan had heard the cruel and unforgivable words he had shouted down the cliff. "Yes. I did," was all he said.
Obi-Wan's pain was almost palpable. "Why?"
"I don't know," he had to admit. Then, gently, "were you very close?"
Obi-Wan gave a sharp bark of laughter, painful to hear. "I admired him very much. I was so willing to love him. He, though... He barely noticed I was alive."
Qui-Gon frowned. He wondered whether he should speak, then decided he ought to. "That night we first met," he began awkwardly, "it was your Master who sent me to find you. He'd obviously been keeping a close eye on your future in the Force, and he said you were in danger. It seemed very important to him that you were kept safe."
Obi-Wan froze. On his pale face Qui-Gon read first shock, then wild hope, then confusion. "He wouldn't..." He took a deep rasping breath, winced, then spoke again. "When I left, he said he didn't care at all what happened to me."
"Then he was lying." Then he remembered how wrong he had been about Xanatos. "Or maybe he said what he thought was true, but then realised he _did_ care."
"Oh no." Obi-Wan shook his head. "He never once showed any sign that he cared. None at all. Not when I performed as he wished, and not when I defied him."
"I used to know him - not well, but well enough," Qui-Gon said. "He was so different. He cared a lot about things - more than was considered appropriate. He always argued that the Jedi should seek to change, should be more actively involved with the world, doing good."
Obi-Wan looked as if he had been struck. "That's why I left - because _I_ thought that, and he didn't. He..."
"Then either something happened to change him" - and he knew only too well how a person could change - "or he was pretending to be something he was not."
Obi-Wan shook his head, looking very lost and hurt. "I don't understand." Then he gasped suddenly, and cried out. "Unless..."
"What?" He touched those painfully clasped hands, just briefly. His fingertip felt very intensely alive. Unwise, he thought.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, as if his thoughts were too painful to see. "You say he was keeping watch over me, yet he told me he didn't care. He did everything he could to make me dissatisfied and unhappy. He refused to let me help that girl, when you say he would have been the first to argue that she needed help..."
Was it the still-there empathic connection left from the healing that made Qui-Gon understand, or was the evidence just too strong? Whatever the reason, Qui-Gon finished the young man's thought for him. "He wanted you to leave. He wanted to push you away, but not because he didn't like you..."
"I overheard him talking, once, about some secret design, some plan that I was a pawn in. I thought he was using me. I thought I'd escaped that." Obi-Wan's voice was very tight. Qui-Gon found himself longing to comfort him. They were a Master betrayed by their apprentice, and an apprentice betrayed by their Master. Perhaps this was meant to be. "But what if their design was precisely that - that I leave? What if I've been dancing to their tune all along?"
Qui-Gon shook his head, at a loss. "I don't know..."
Obi-Wan slammed his fist into his knee. "Force, it's..." He shook his head, as unable to find a word strong enough.
Qui-Gon understood. He wanted so much to be cared for, to find he had been important in someone's life, but not like this. To find that years of rejection was only part of a design - that his feelings had been sacrificed to some unknown project... Qui-Gon couldn't begin to comprehend how it might feel. "It might not be true," he offered, tentatively.
"It is," Obi-Wan said, very cold and bleak. He struggled to his feet, fists clenched. "And from now on, I live my own life." He was strength and resolution personified, but then the effect shattered - he was young, and wounded, and very hurt. He seemed to crumple in on himself. "But how do I know what that is? How do I know when I'm free, or when they're pulling my strings? Even this" - a harsh gesture towards Qui-Gon, as if he was alluding to the attraction they shared - "could be scripted."
"I think not," he said, quietly, though he was not so sure. Why had Ki-Adi-Mundi chosen _him_ to save Obi-Wan? Why?
Well, he too would no longer dance to another man's design.
Ben took a deep breath. Forget the things that hurt, and just do his job - it was what he had always done.
"What are you going to do?" Qui-Gon asked, with a look almost of trepidation.
He laughed harshly. "You think I'm going to declare war on the whole Temple? Confront my Master?" He shook his head. "You're scared it will incriminate you - force you to take a side that might expose you?"
Qui-Gon shook his head. "No. I..."
"I won't do that," he interrupted. He was digging his fingers into his palms, forcing himself to be calm, seeking the Force. "I won't let them rule me any more. I will neither be manipulated, nor allow them to hurt me, or be ruled by anger towards them."
"That's very admirable," Qui-Gon said, quietly. "But, for your own peace of mind, surely you need answers." He continued to speak with his eyes after he had fallen silent: <I suffered by closing my mind to the truth and not asking the right questions.>
But he was adamant. "My Master has ruled me for too long." He would not say further - would not say how the years of his apprenticeship had been a grey nightmare of rejection and hurt; would not say how every single day since then he had heard those parting words echo in his mind. <You are not a man anyone can like> those words had come to mean to him, making him shun company, making him fear, yet long for, any expression of liking.
Qui-Gon nodded. "I know. I have lived it, with Xanatos." He swallowed hard. "But shouldn't you even find out what cause you suffered for? Wouldn't knowing make it easier?"
He frowned. "Easier to hate him, if the cause was evil?" <Become like you were?> he meant, but would not say.
Qui-Gon seemed to hear the silent meaning, but all the reaction he showed was a slight tensing around his mouth and eyes. "Easier to forgive, if the cause was just."
"You said my Master was taken away as a traitor."
"Yes, but traitor to whom?" Qui-Gon shook his head. "I don't know... I'm thinking of this as I go along... I'd never have let myself even think _this_ far, but..." His fingers played with the edge of his robe, and they were white and tense. Yet, as he played, the some of the tension seemed to leave him, and the unsureness.
"What?" Whatever Qui-Gon was about to say, Ben instinctively realised that this was something momentous for Qui-Gon Jinn.
"You are too young," Qui-Gon began. "You don't remember how it was. When I was an apprentice, the Jedi were as they are now - a contemplative order, who did not get actively involved in the world. But they were not so... so enforced, so cold." He shrugged. "They had not long discovered the Dark Side. I know they have been studying it intensively. Maybe that necessitated the change. Maybe it was defence... I don't know...
"But they started telling us that the Darkness was weaker than the Light - the, if everything was left alone, the Force would cause the light to win. They said it was an offence against the Force to interfere."
Ben nodded. He knew this - had heard it as a child, though seldom from the lips of his Master. He believed it less now than he ever had.
"Now, Ki-Adi-Mundi has always been one of the more vocal Jedi in favour of intervention. Then he takes an apprentice - you - and suddenly falls silent. He starts acting in a way that drives you away. Why?"
He didn't want to answer. He didn't want to think of it; he longed to think of it. "Because, like me, he thinks the Jedi way is wrong. Because arguing from within didn't do anything, so he changed. He pretended to agree, and secretly moulded me to..." Anger and frustration suddenly overwhelmed me. "But why all that effort for me? What can I do? He could have left the Jedi himself, any time."
"Some men are cowards, and prefer to use another man for their ends, than to risk themselves," Qui-Gon said, weakly, meaning <I don't know.>
The anger would not go away. "I said I don't want to talk about it," he snapped. "What do we know? We're only guessing. 'What ifs' and 'maybes.' I have a job to do."
Qui-Gon folded his hands, and seemed to make a deliberate effort not to argue. "Why did you come here?"
"I was asked to find a jewel called the Soul of Fire. A man needs it. I can't tell you his name, but I'm convinced that his intentions are honourable."
He stood up. Farewells were normally so easy. He would mumble a few words, wave away expressions of gratitude and disappear into the night without a backward glance. This one felt... terrible. Maybe that was why he had allowed Qui-Gon to talk as long as he had - simply wanting a few minutes more in his company.
But all promises were empty. Qui-Gon had hinted that he wanted to get to know him better, physically as well as emotionally, but everything always came down to an <I don't care.>
"Any ideas where it is?" Qui-Gon asked.
He waved his hand, vaguely. He found he was incapable of looking away from Qui-Gon's face. "Somewhere."
"You really think it's important?" Qui-Gon touched his sleeve. "You're far from healed. You really should go back home."
"I'm well enough." Though, really, it did hurt a lot.
Qui-Gon opened his mouth to speak, but then said nothing.
"Really, I'm fine." Why was he looking at him like that?
"You shouldn't go alone."
Almost he laughed. <Who would come with me?> He knew not to let himself hope. How stupid he was to say those bold words about his Master no longer ruling him. Even when he looked at Qui-Gon's dark blue eyes, all he heard was his Master's <I don't care.>
Qui-Gon looked at the ground, looking suddenly almost shy. "May I come with you, Obi-Wan?"
And Ben could only stare.
After a while, Qui-Gon knew he wasn't going to get an answer. He understood Obi-Wan only too well. He thought he would feel much the same if an eager young man asked to be his apprentice - torn between joy and hope that he could be wanted again, and terror that it would all go wrong.
"Where do you think it is?" he merely asked. He would act as if he _was_ coming along, and Obi-Wan could argue if he wished. He doubted he would.
Obi-Wan shook his head. He still looked half in a dream, shocked. "The Temple."
Qui-Gon looked around, blinking through the thick air. "Would that be the tallest building, do you think?"
"Probably." Distracted. Then, as if he was making a conscious attempt to focus. "I think so." He gave a wry smile. "Probably the furthest away. It always is."
The smile made him look so young, so luminous. Qui-Gon felt an ache deep inside. He clenched his fists, and reminded himself that he was still a stranger. He might know something of his mind through healing him, but he did not know the true man.
He wondered, suddenly, if even Obi-Wan did.
"Then let's go," he said, and his voice was strangely hoarse. He glanced at the sky - a faint suggestion of blue far above the red haze. "It's getting late."
They walked awhile. Obi-Wan walked carefully and deliberately, but his pain was evident in his very efforts to conceal it - the too-careful way he placed his feet, and the measured slow breathing. Qui-Gon had to fight the urge to offer him support.
He felt they should be talking. The silence of the place was immense and eerie, and made all the more so by the distant sound of the lava moving deep under the ground. He was very aware of the dead beneath his feet, and the fact that the buildings were preserved just as those once-dead had seen them so long ago.
This was no place for a man to be alone.
"So many dead." Obi-Wan spoke suddenly, his voice strained and painful. He had one forearm pressed against his stomach, and his eyes were haunted. "I can feel them. They're under every step..." He shivered.
The words so closely echoed his own thoughts that Qui-Gon could only nod. He had a sudden flash of vision - a young man, _this_ young man, pale and shaking, deeply disturbed by something he had seen. He sought the arms of a man he called Master - the man whose duty and honour and pleasure was to be the one who comforted him. _He_ was that man.
But the only man Obi-Wan had ever called Master had sacrificed him to some unknown cause, and the only boy who had called Qui-Gon Master had betrayed him. These things could never be, and never _should_ be.
"Yes," he said, his arms stiffly by his side. "Perhaps we should leave this grave undisturbed."
"Perhaps..." Then Obi-Wan shook his head, fiercely. "Not at the cost of the living. The dead should be honoured, but if by taking this Soul of Fire, people still alive, or people not yet born, can be saved..."
He thought about it. "I know. I know, but..."
"It's hard. I know. I never said my life was about easy choices. You didn't need to come."
For a moment, Qui-Gon almost answered angrily. But perhaps today he was cursed with too much understanding, as if his own pain at Xanatos' death made him excessively attuned to other people's. How much simpler it would be if he could just hate, and walk away, and never have to think about his feelings.
But he wasn't quite ready to make an apology. "I chose to," he said, and walked forward, deliberately showing no distaste at the grave beneath his feet.
"Perhaps it's good," Obi-Wan said, after a while. "They lived in such beauty and majesty, and died with such horror, and no man has ever known. Perhaps it's good that someone knows. It gives their death... not meaning, but honour."
"Though who can we tell? What good is it that _we_ know?" For the first time, he realised that this was not knowledge he could share with the Jedi. By his actions today, perhaps he had severed himself entirely from the Order. Strangely, he felt little regret at this. Before Xanatos, he had counted himself apart, and after him, consumed with hatred, even more so.
Obi-Wan gave a small rueful smile. "All knowledge is of worth, for its own sake... Isn't that what the Jedi teach?" Then, before Qui-Gon could reply: "There is no need to tell anyone. It can be just you, and I." He touched his own chest when he spoke of himself; he almost, but not quite, touched Qui-Gon's when he spoke of him. "We can say words over their graves - commend them to the Force. _That_ matters, and would even if we were alone."
He nodded. He would never have thought of it, but it seemed intensely right. He shivered at the sudden image - the two of them, side by side in this vast grave, murmuring solemn words as long-dead spirits danced through the ruins. They could do it with the Soul of Fire held between them, as offering and promise - they would be remembered, and good would come of this. Good.
A strange sort of peace had come over him then. He had walked by Obi-Wan's side, through a field of dead, but it had seemed right. Where before he had seen the horror of the place, for a while he had seen the peace - a thousand souls at one with the Force.
It had lasted... how long? Half an hour, perhaps?
Afterwards, he would understand. He had lived as one sort of person for two years, then had killed his apprentice, and the horror had led to a reaction. He was changing too much and too fast. A lot of it came from shock, and not truly knowing who he was and what he wanted. He was one thing one minute, something else entirely the next. It would be weeks, if not months, before he settled down and truly knew who he was.
At the time, all he knew was that he was watching Obi-Wan more and more intensely, more and more angrily, more and more painfully.
Obi-Wan was not doing well. The way got harder. "There," Obi-Wan had said, pointing through the haze to a tall pyramidal building that towered over all the others. "That's where to start."
The way started to climb, and Obi-Wan's breathing was laboured. Then it ended entirely in a broad river of lava, narrow enough for a Jedi to jump, but only just. A broken archway overhung it, and, without speaking, Obi-Wan clambered painfully to the top, then launched himself towards the other side, arms flailing, cloak trailing in the lava and burning away to nothing. He fell heavily and gracelessly on the other side, slamming into the stone and taking most of the impact of his landing on his chest and stomach.
Qui-Gon found himself suddenly, and, at the time, at least, incomprehensibly angry. He did the leap himself, quickly and easily, and landed crouched at Obi-Wan's side. Still lying on the floor, Obi-Wan started to push himself up. There was a fresh trickle of blood running from his lips, and he was very pale.
"Why?" Qui-Gon pushed him back down, his hand on the young man's back. Obi-Wan wanted to resist, but could not. He really was very weak, and still badly hurt. He really should have ordered him back, he thought - he was a Master and had a duty towards an apprentice, to keep him safe.
Obi-Wan just lay there. After a while, he started fighting again, but this time only to roll over, so Qui-Gon let him. He lay on his back, on the very brink of a river of death, staring up into Qui-Gon's eyes. Qui-Gon was crouched over him, one hand on his shoulders, both supporting himself and keeping Obi-Wan from trying to sit.
"Why?" he asked again. With his other hand he brushed Obi-Wan's face, and showed him with blood on his fingertips, accusingly. "Why do this to yourself?"
"I have to."
"But why?" He truly didn't understand, and the boy's stubbornness left him frustrated. Perhaps it was because he had been forced to kill one young man, and seeing another, who had no need to die, push himself with no thought for his own safety was just too much. "Why now? You can heal, and come back later. You can tell your employer it's too difficult. You can..." And then, suddenly, he thought he knew. "Is it a pride thing? You can't give up?"
"No." Obi-Wan looked hurt, and his eyes were troubled. His pallor suited him. For the first time, Qui-Gon became aware of how close they were, and how they were positioned, as if he was about to ravage the young man. Yet he didn't withdraw.
"Then why?" he asked, more gently. He genuinely wanted to know, this time. It was not like it had been just before.
Obi-Wan ran his tongue over his lips. "Why are _you_ here?"
And <why?>, he echoed to himself, pinned by the young man's gaze. Why? Drawn by their physical attraction? Perhaps, but he hoped he wasn't that shallow, and the attraction had been there before, when he had still hated. Because he believed Obi-Wan's cause was just? Partly, for he was now convinced that he did a job that needed to be done and had left the Jedi for no dark reason, but he knew nothing about this Soul of Fire, and the intentions of the man who wanted it.
Because he had hated without cause, and wanted to atone. Because he had killed his apprentice, and wanted not to be alone. Alone, the pain would overwhelm him. At least now he had a companion at his side, and a goal to aim for, however tenuous.
<Because it's something to think about, to keep the pain away> he realised, with a painful twist of understanding.
Obi-Wan nodded, as if he read all this on Qui-Gon's face - and maybe he could, for Qui-Gon fancied he could read the other man this easily. He said nothing, but his silence seemed to say <Yes. That's why.>
And Qui-Gon saw then, in a flash of vision, what his life had been. Sitting alone in his bleak room, having been forced away, by coldness, from the only life he had ever known, what did he have left but his work? He gave himself utterly to his self-chosen tasks, since that alone gave meaning to his life, that alone kept the pain at bay, that alone made him feel a scrap of self-esteem - that he had been _right_ to leave the Jedi and do what he did. If he faltered just a little, he would count himself lost.
The last of the anger faded away. For a second, he almost leant forward, almost kissed him - <there are other ways of keeping pain and loneliness away> Obi-Wan quested forward a little with his head, as if he too wanted the kiss, but Qui-Gon instead moved away. It was not the right time, or the right reason.
"I understand," he said. "But," and he shook his head, uselessly, "at least let me help you."
Obi-Wan looked at him along while, then smiled his too-rare smile, and nodded. Something, some hidden pain, seemed to lift a little from him.
Qui-Gon found himself hoping he could make him smile like that again, and again, and many times more.
<Foolish> he chided himself, but, then, he couldn't bring himself to regret the thought.
"Well, this has all been very easy," Ben hazarded, with a tentative smile. He had never really experienced what it was like to have a companion, and was unsure, shy even. They could talk about serious issues and their course of action, but if he said anything irrelevant he wasn't sure how it would be received.
Qui-Gon looked at him, seemed to consider, and then smiled back at him. "Oh yes, Obi-Wan. Very easy. Just look at yourself."
The shared smiles were like something... something strange, and warm. It was as if something very bright and golden was flowing between them. He almost fancied he could see it.
And then, suddenly terrified that, before his eyes, it would break and shatter, he looked away. He would say only what was necessary.
Qui-Gon spoke, and he too was all business, thinking the same thing, perhaps. "You think this is the Temple?"
Ben looked at it. A large building shaped like a stepped pyramid, with a flat top. A large doorway at the base was flanked with pillars, but there were no windows. It had an almost palpable presence in the Force - a sort of gravitas, rich and resonant. The Jedi Temple felt the same, regardless of the policies of the men who ruled it.
"It must be."
Their path had taken them high, weaving through the buildings, and now they stood in an opening that had once been two storeys above ground. The stonework was ornate. If Ben closed his eyes, he could imaging the long-dead royalty, standing here in their box, watching the rituals at the Temple.
The Temple itself was across from them, on the far side of a wide arena. The blanket of ash was thinner down here. Sometimes bleached skeletal arms reached pleadingly out of the ground, and elsewhere there were whole skeletons, blackened and broken by fire. The whole surface of the arena was pitted and malformed, as if, once, lava had made it a lake.
"Are you up to jumping?" Qui-Gon asked him, and Obi-Wan could almost have imagined that he, too, was a little shy.
He nodded. "Yes." And then he remembered how he had helped Qui-Gon jump from the cliff, and what it had felt when he had accepted the older man's support after his last jump - sweet surrendering and trust. "No. Will you help me?" And then he looked at his feet, feeling himself flush.
"Of course." As if it was the most straight-forward thing of all.
Ben stepped on the edge, looking down. Not very far. Simple. But pain stabbed like red jagged spears across the white light of the Force for him. If he could barely breathe right, how could he land well?
"Ready?" Qui-Gon asked.
"Ready." And he surrendered himself to the gentle embrace of Qui-Gon's Force strength. It wrapped around him like arms, and supported him, and guided him. <You are not alone> he thought it whispered in his ear, but of course it did not.
He did a little himself, offering what Force he had as a gift, and needing to do this. His own strength was like a small whisper to Qui-Gon's almighty shout, but he knew this was only because he was hurt. Both whole, they would have been equals, he thought, and well matched.
He smiled. Qui-Gon gave a strange wry laugh, and he looked up and realised he was on the ground, and had been there for a while, simply enjoying the feel of being whole-heartedly helped with the Force. When Qui-Gon saw his eyes focusing, and knew he realised this, he released him, but only then and not before.
Ben felt strangely cold and bereft, standing alone, below him.
Qui-Gon landed easily at his side, but he still felt alone. "All right?" the older man asked.
He nodded. He turned and took one step across the arena, and then another...
And froze. A fireball a foot across was hurtling inexorably at them, yellow at the edges and a deep orange, almost red, at its heart. It sparked as if came, and the sound of its passage was a low roaring sound.
Quick as thought, he grabbed for his lightsabre. With one hand, he pushed Qui-Gon behind him; with the other, he ignited the weapon. He had no time to assume a proper defensive posture. It was desperate and unplanned, the wild lunge he made, impaling the red fire with the pure blue of his blade.
Nothing happened. What had he thought? That the blade that was rich in the Force would someone neutralise the dark and angry red? All that happened was that it sparked angrily, and spots of fierce pain erupted on his hand. He leapt back desperately, and only that prevented the fireball from impacting full on his face. It was without thought, and he almost fell.
"Obi-Wan." Hands were upon him, from behind, both holding him erect and pulling him back towards safety. Still he stumbled, and the whole of his back was pressed against Qui-Gon's body.
The fireball changed direction. It hovered for a little while, then came back, straight at him.
"No!" he cried, for he saw again that there was another way, another chance. With a strength he didn't know he had, he pulled away from Qui-Gon and lunged with his weapon, this time not impaling, but striking it with the side of the blade.
He cried out. Pain blossomed in his wrist, and he heard the crack of bone snapping - though maybe he didn't, and only felt it, for the fireball, deflected, struck the side of the building, and exploded in a shower of charred masonry and immense noise. Dust choked him, and he coughed. He was unable to open his eyes.
Hands were clawing at him. A voice... a voice was speaking, demanding.
"Give me the weapon."
He shook his head, bewildered.
"Now, Obi-Wan. There's another one..."
His fingers went limp. He didn't think he could have held on to it, anyway.
He was dimly aware of Qui-Gon, standing tall and strong as a hero of myth, facing down the heart of living fire as if he had no fear in the world.
He held the weapon, and the Force seemed to course through it like a living thing. It was like the essence of light, the heart of the Force, blue and perfect in his hand.
<This is a weapon fit for the Jedi> he thought, in awe, even as he stood and faced fiery death. Jedi bore no weapons, except for a wooden staff, for self-protection when research took then to dangerous places. He knew the real reason for this, but in this moment all he could think of was that they bore no weapon because they had never found a weapon worthy.
He found he was smiling.
"Qui-Gon," he heard, broken with pain and fear - fear for him, he realised suddenly, and that too made him smile.
He held the weapon firmly with both hands. Obi-Wan had faced the fireball unprepared and had paid the price; Qui-Gon was stronger and taller, and faced it with every muscle braced and ready.
And then it was upon him. Fire exploded in his vision, red sheeting his whole world.
The impact was terrible, jarring his wrists painfully. He found he was crying out wordless, in a wild war cry. The red flared, halted on the thin pillar of blue light, and sparked angrily. He smelled charred fabric.
His arms trembled. With all his strength - and it seemed to take long minutes, to him, although it was only less than a second - he pivoted on his feet, and swung with all his strength, sending the fireball away from them, into the wall. It impacted with a mighty explosion, a large blackened hole bored in the side of the ancient building. Stonework trembled, and dust billowed up, thick and choking. A low groaning filled the air, as the if the whole vast building had been weakened by this second attack, and was about to fall.
"Run," he gasped, looking around blindly in the choking dust for Obi-Wan.
"I'm here," he heard, although he hadn't asked. Obi-Wan was at his side, plucking at his cloak with his good hand.
They ran together, half way across the arena, away from the dust, and far enough away to watch the building shiver one last time, and fall still again, still standing.
Qui-Gon coughed, and coughed again. "Your wrist..." He turned to Obi-Wan and took his unresisting arm in his right hand; the weapon was transferred to his left, still ready and alert. He made his fingers gentle and tender, and sent a ripple of Force through Obi-Wan's arm, feeling the jagged break.
Obi-Wan's lips were parted. He gave a strange, almost sensual sigh, as if the touch was more real to him than the pain.
"We should go back?" He had meant to sound firm - a Master giving an order. Instead it came out questioning.
Obi-Wan swallowed, then shook his head. "We're so near now."
He found he accepted that, and was even glad about it. "But can I keep hold of..."
"The lightsabre?" Obi-Wan looked at it, and his eyes shone with a sort of possessive joy. For a moment, Qui-Gon thought he was going to demand it back, jealously asserting his ownership. But then he smiled one of his rare smiles, and it was still beautiful, even though his face was streaked with dust and pain. "Yes. Yes, of course."
There was no time to say what he thought - <I'll look after it> or even <I'll try to be worthy of such a weapon.> He nodded once in acknowledgement, and turned away, surveying the arena. "I can't see any others."
"Then let's go in."
Still Qui-Gon stood. He felt suddenly sure that they must delay this moment - that whatever they found inside would change them and they would never be just as they were ever again. He wanted solemnity. He wanted himself and Obi-Wan to walk hand-in-hand into the final test, and the final fruition of their mission. He wanted to say the right solemn words of companionship and farewell.
He wanted such foolish things. They were strangers and this was but a short coming together. The moment they left this place, they would go their separate ways and forget each other.
Maybe, he thought, maybe _that_ was why he delayed, why he felt this reluctance to come to the end. He was hurt and lonely, and Obi-Wan was here; he was hurt and lonely, and Obi-Wan was attractive and they had kissed. He was weak, and wanted to cling onto this illusion of togetherness.
He cleared his throat. "Come on," he said, gruffly, and walked doggedly forward.
There had been no ash inside, or only the faintest dusting of it. The lava had once risen to the Temple steps and pitted them with angry black, but the inside was pristine. Hot gases in the air outside had kept the dust of ages from falling, and prevented decay. Inside, the place looked as if it was still a living place, that had simply lain down the previous night for a short sleep.
Ben felt the hair prickle on the back of his neck. He had a sudden insane urge to reach for Qui-Gon's hand and hold it tight, but, even if the idea had not been foolish, he could not have done it. His left hand held the wounded right hand close to his chest.
"This way?" Qui-Gon whispered, and Ben thought he was speaking only because he needed to hear the sound of a voice, and to remind himself that he was not alone.
For the same reason, he answered. "I think so."
They were following a path made of red tiles cut into pentagons and neatly tessellated. It ran through the middle of the vast pillared chamber, leading to a smaller door at its rear. When Ben looked up, he saw carvings of serpents with feathers, and two-headed dogs, their eyes made of shining jewels that seemed to pierce his soul.
"It may be trapped."
He nodded. "Yes." But he thought not. He thought the fireballs had been the trap. The Temple would have been a place of sacred peace, and traps would be a taint, implying distrust and violence.
Together, close enough to touch but not touching, they walked through the smaller door. The lightsabre was a blue beam in the red expectant air, and it seemed to tremble a little, as if not even the light of the Force could remain unaffected in this place of death.
It was Qui-Gon who saw them first, then; Ben had been watching the lightsabre, though perhaps that had been a deliberate desperate attempt to delay seeing what he had surely known would be there.
"So many dead..."
He wrenched his eyes around, and saw them. The bodies here had not died buried under ash, but of slow suffocation or long starvation, huddled around the Stone they had thought would protect them. For a while, he almost fancied that they too had been preserved, and lay as if sleeping, their lips still red, their skin still supple, the flesh still on their pleading hands. But then he blinked, and he saw that they were white skeletons, tightly packed, their arms still around the shoulders of their loved ones. Even those at the front, close enough to the Stone to touch, had refrained from touching it; their skeletal fingers brushed the base of the pedestal, but no closer.
"They came here," he said, his voice dreamy and distant. He shivered. "Death fell from the sky and surged from the ground. Those who could, came here, seeking safety. They thought the Stone would keep them safe. They begged and prayed, but they died." He gave a shuddering sob. "All of them."
Qui-Gon's hand rested briefly on his shoulder. "Yes."
He saw the Stone, and, even from this distance, could see that it was a round crystal, as wide as the span of his hand, with a coiling heart of fire. It seemed alive, constantly moving, and was the only thing that had moved in this chamber for a thousand years. There had not even been motes of dust dancing in the air, or the life of sunlight. "I can't take it," he said, shivering with revulsion.
"You can," Qui-Gon said, his voice low.
He turned to him, frowning. It would be so easy to fight - the let out all that pain and grief in anger. But, even with his Master, he had always managed to avoid that manner of falling.
"You said you would earlier," Qui-Gon said, patiently, with only the slightest tremor in his voice showing that he too was affected by this place. "And, now the time has come, you will do as you said."
So easy for him. He was a Jedi, not a thief. He could fold his arms and watch as he, Ben, invited the wrath of whatever spirits haunted this place, and finally fell from the path of righteousness. Whatever else he had done, he had never done a job that had not felt entirely right.
"If you decide something is right in principle, and then lack the heart to do it in reality, then that is the action of a coward."
Insufferable. He whirled on him and spoke in a hissing whisper; anything louder would seem sacrilegious. "It's not cowardice."
Qui-Gon folded his arms, and looked exactly as he had imagined, a moment before, watching him take the stone and be damned. "You thought it was right to rob the dead of this treasure. It should not be any different now that you can see the dead. If it is, then you are a hypocrite, robbing only those dead who are conveniently buried and out of sight. If something is right in principle, then it should be done, however hard it is, however painful, however much it haunts us afterwards."
"You are not my Master, to speak to me of these things," he said, hurt.
Qui-Gon shook his head. "No. I am nobody's Master." He said it with a simple sorrow, and, for the first time, Ben wondered if he was talking about Xanatos all along, and the pain of his killing.
And, with that thought, came understanding. He saw more clearly, and saw the tense lines on Qui-Gon's face, and the pain. He saw a man who was as affected by the sight of the dead as he was, and was coping in his own way.
He took a deep breath - the first deep breath he had hazarded in this place, where he irrationally feared that even a whisper of air could make the bones crumble to dust. "I do think the Stone is needed."
He had thought Qui-Gon would nod in smug triumph, saying <there you are, then> but he had misunderstood the man. "Why?" Qui-Gon asked, quietly.
"The City fell, but the Kingdom lived on for a while. It fell to conquest, but the ordinary people lived on, under different Masters. They still remember the Stone, and tell tales of its return, bringing hope and rebirth."
Unconsciously, his voice deepened, grew more resonant. It was as if he was telling the vast company of dead, and not just Qui-Gon Jinn. Qui-Gon, his arms folded, merely raised his eyebrow, and said nothing.
"These will be the people of the countryside - the small farmers who have been powerless, these last few generations, to protect their smallholdings from the big businesses and developers who seize their land and build on it. Left with nothing, they pour into the cities seeking work, scraping a pittance, their lives at the whims of the lords. They are the dispossessed, the people most in need of hope."
"Have you heard them speak of it?"
He shook his head. "No, but they are superstitious and distrustful of strangers - as well they ought. I am not one of them. I help them when I can, but by overhearing their need, seldom by them asking. Their hope will be a privately cherished one."
"And will the hope be a real one? Anyone can wave an empty symbol, and offer nothing more concrete?"
"I believe so. The man who wishes to use it speaks fervently of his desire for justice and equality. I tested his truthfulness with the Force, and he seemed sincere."
Qui-Gon inclined his head. "Good intentions don't always come to anything."
"But unless we try, we will _never_ have anything," he said, hotly. "The people will languish in the dirt and the darkness, and no-one will help them. The rulers are corrupt, the Jedi are blind, or too arrogant to care. At least he _wants_ to help them."
"And you to help him?"
Suddenly disgusted, he turned away. "I don't want to talk about it. It's wrong, arguing like this in front of them." He meant the dead. This place seemed to demand silence and respect, not this flow of words and disagreement.
"Perhaps this is the best possible place to do it." Again that maddening calm.
Ben tried hard to remember that Qui-Gon, too, was suffering, and only that kept the anger at bay. Then, with the anger gone, he was free to think, to really think, about the words. Eventually, and only after as much as a minute, he realised the truth of them.
"Yes," he said, at least, quiet and regretful. Suddenly he hated this life of his - one that made him ask these questions, and live forever with the haunted questions that he could have been wrong. "You're right, Qui-Gon. I need to be utterly sure, and where better to ask these questions than here, surrounded by those whose treasure I steal?"
"If they thought it would aid their descendants, I'm sure they would give it to you freely," Qui-Gon said, quietly, and once more touched him on the shoulder.
Ben looked at him, and saw his face was tender, his eyes were shining, as if with unshed tears. For a wild moment, he wondered if everything he had heard these last minutes had been a delirium, an illusion brought of by stress. _This_ man would not have folded his arms and spoken so calmly, even cruelly. Surely not.
But there were many things he did not know about Qui-Gon Jinn, and every man reacted to pain in different ways. He, Ben, had made himself silent and cynical, living only for his work; Qui-Gon, he thought, liked to strike out and tell himself he had an enemy. Perhaps both of them could learn that there were other ways to make pain bearable.
"Yes." He nodded, meeting Qui-Gon's eyes. "I think they would."
He made as if to step forward, but Qui-Gon suddenly pulled him back by the corner of his robe, his eyes urgent. "No."
"What?" There was some silent message there. He didn't know the other man well enough to read it.
"It wasn't true, what I said." Qui-Gon looked awkward, even embarrassed. He couldn't meet Ben's gaze, but looked at the ground, swallowing convulsively. "I said they'd give it to you. I meant... What if I meant that they would give it to _us_...?"
He was amazed. In this day of revelations, this was surely the most marvellous, the most unexpected. "You're a Jedi; I'm a criminal. If you take it..."
Only now did Qui-Gon look up, looking him full in the eyes. "I know what I mean. I mean what I say."
Ben was incapable of speech. Qui-Gon was offering to share the responsibility for deciding to take the Soul of Fire, but, at the same part, that was but the smallest part of what he was offering. The truth was in his eyes. He was offering partnership in this mission. He was aligning himself with a man and an act that were, if not immoral, very definitely illegal.
He was breaking with the Jedi.
And there was nothing Ben could say about it. He wanted to argue, to argue with all his heart that this life of his was nothing Qui-Gon would want, and he should stay within the fellowship of the Jedi and find what happiness he could. He wanted to say that his was the choice to take the Stone, and his would be the nightmares of doubt afterwards, and his would be the blame after death, if the decision was wrong.
But Qui-Gon was an adult, and a Jedi, and knew what he was offering. It would demean him to argue, and make what he offered seem paltry and tawdry.
He found his voice, eventually, and it was hoarse. His throat ached, as if from some lump of unshed pain. "I thank you, Qui-Gon Jinn." There was nothing more he could say, but nothing more was needed. Qui-Gon, he knew suddenly, read the truth, just as he read the truth that lay in Qui-Gon's soul.
"Then let us take it, you and I," Qui-Gon said, very solemn, though, at the same time, almost smiling.
They walked forward, together at first, then separating, weaving their own separate paths through the dead. Ben's wrist throbbed terribly, and his chest was on fire. Several times he almost fell, then almost cried aloud in horror at the hallucination of what would have followed, had he really fallen - his broken wrist unable to hold him, and he fell face-first into the dead, who were not skeletons after all but rotting flesh, with accusing dead eyes and hands that rose up to point and call him a thief and damned...
"Obi-Wan," he heard, then.
Not alone. He looked up and met Qui-Gon's eyes, dark with concern, from his own path. Separate, but not alone.
After that, he walked more truly, and reached the pedestal first - though maybe Qui-Gon had held back a little, to allow him this.
The fire of the stone moved in a twisting living spiral, never still. Ben, who knew he was the first living man to look upon it in a thousand years and more, shivered.
"Ready?" Qui-Gon whispered, close to his side.
His undamaged left hand and Qui-Gon's right touched the stone at the same time, and their fingers touched. The stone was alive, but somehow felt cold and dead compared with the warmth that tingled in Ben's hand where Qui-Gon's skin touched his.
He knew what had to be done. Without moving, he raised his voice, amplifying it with the enchantment of the Force. "I swear to you, all you who died in the place, that we are taking the Soul of Fire to bring hope to your children's children. We have seen how you died, and will tell your tale to those who still live. If, through the Force, we can help grant you peace, then we will do so."
He looked at Qui-Gon, who was looking at him with a strange look in his eyes, as if he was seeing him for the first time. "Yes," Qui-Gon said, his voice quiet, and not amplified. Yet he, too, seemed to be speaking to the dead. "Yes, we will." He looked troubled, unsure of himself. Ben wondered if he had over-reached himself, taking control like this and making his oath without asking Qui-Gon. But Qui-Gon, although older, was not his Master, and the Force, which was Master of them all, had made it seem right.
"This I swear," he said, and this time was careful to say "I" and not commit Qui-Gon to things he might not agree with. Just because Qui-Gon had offered to take the stone with him didn't mean they were as one. "And thus I take." He gestured at the stone, quietly burning everlastingly deep. "And thus I give."
As he spoke this last, he raised his right arm, despite the broken wrist, and cast out with the Force, touching first one skeleton, then the next, then the next... It was a gesture only. He was only a man, and not even a full Jedi, and had no illusions about his power. No man could grant peace to the dead, or give a blessing that was anything more than a symbol. But symbols were powerful, and this was something he needed to do.
The Force looked like a white coiling mist, like delicate fingers, touching the white bones.
"Obi-Wan," he heard, like an awed exhalation.
Another, and another... When he reached the end, he raised his arm higher, and cast the Force out, like fine droplets in the air, letting it fall like dew throughout the City. Let it seep through the solid rock and reach those who had died beneath it, when the rock had been choking ash. Let no body be untouched. This was his gift, his gesture.
"Obi-Wan." More urgent.
He let his arm fall, and let out a great breath. Almost he sagged to his knees, drained beyond all thought. He turned his heavy head, and saw retreating tendrils of fire, coiling round his wrist, then pulling back into the stone. Even then they had been like an imagination, and surely not real, just like the white manifestation of Force had been a pain-fuelled illusion.
Qui-Gon was looking at him very oddly, with something that could have been awe, but could have been fear.
He was suddenly very tired, and wanted nothing more of this place. "Come on," he said, his voice rusty. "Let's go home."
As he walked from the Temple, Qui-Gon knew that he had lied.
"I know what I mean," he had said, and it had all seemed so simple then. He would break with the Jedi who counselled non-interference, and throw his lot in with those who sought to change the world for the better. Whether that meant he would fight alongside Obi-Wan, alone, or with strangers, he couldn't yet see, but _that_ course at least was clear.
Now he knew that he had known nothing at all. He had been as blind as Obi-Wan had often accused him of being.
Obi-Wan had raised his hand and the Force had flowed, strong and almost visible. Almost he had fancied that the spirits of the dead had half-risen from the empty houses of their bones, arched into his touch, then sighed and fallen back, in eternal peace.
<Can he really be doing this?> he had wondered, awed. Then, <can _I_ do this? Can any Jedi?>
He had wanted to look trembling at his own hand, and raise it, and try to join his power with Obi-Wan's. He had wanted, but been afraid to. Why, he wondered now. Because he feared to fail? Because he feared to _succeed_? The latter, he thought, for he didn't think he was so vainglorious as to need to succeed at all things. But, if so, why?
<Because I'm afraid such strange and unheard-of Force use must be of the darkness?> he thought, at first, and then dismissed it. He had seen enough of Obi-Wan to know his work was not evil.
No, he thought. It was simply because it _was_ unheard of. The rot went deeper than he knew. The Jedi were a contemplative order, studying the Force and sharing the discoveries with all their number. So why hadn't he ever been told of this powerful use of the Light Side?
That was the heart of it, he realised. What else hadn't he been told? What other powers lay within the potential of the Jedi, but were not being taught? He had thought the Council to be sincere, if misguided, in their code of non-interference, but had never before suspected them of lying to the Jedi, or keeping things from them.
He looked at his hands, the right one still clutching that marvellous weapon of light and mystery. Darkness lay within his power, perhaps, but he wanted to be taught of it, to know how to avoid it, and to recognise it. And wondrous light, more powerful than anything he had ever done, lay in his power, too.
He threw back his head, and was surprised to find himself smiling, though tears were moist and warm on his face. He wanted to fly free.
They had walked the length of the City, and Qui-Gon felt he had walked from one life into another one entirely.
When he had come here, he had been the sort of man who leaned over the edge of a dark stone cliff and shouted with blind hatred at a man who did not deserve it. Now he had come to respect that man, even to like him, to feel fickle pangs of lust and tenderness. Through talking with him, he had learned to challenge the Jedi Order and their place in the world, and to think searchingly about his own motivations.
It seemed wrong, then, that they returned through the ruins so quickly. He had come so far, it was as if the city was a thousand miles across. Almost before he knew it, they were back at the foot of the cliff. Barely a mile, barely half an hour, even with the obstacles and Obi-Wan's weakness.
There were no more attacks.
Obi-Wan walked silently at his side. Occasionally, Qui-Gon had attempted to talk - small things, that might lead onto his great question about Obi-Wan's new use of the Force - but Obi-Wan's replies had been listless and monosyllabic, as if he was at the very end of his strength. Realising that he _was_, and also cowardly glad of any excuse to avoid the subject, Qui-Gon had not pushed it.
Now, stopped at the base of the cliff, Qui-Gon looked again at Obi-Wan, and had a sudden irrational fear. <He's being diminished.>
Obi-Wan bore the stone - he had simply taken it, never questioning his right, and Qui-Gon too had not questioned it - and had carried it first in his uninjured hand, then in a black pouch at his waist. Qui-Gon remembered how the fire from the stone had seemed to coil around Obi-Wan's wrist, and how the young man had slumped forward, exhausted. The stone was shrouded in black now, but, within, it still burned. He felt suddenly sure it was burning with stolen strength, parasitically sucking at Obi-Wan's life force to keep itself afire.
And then he shook his head, and the wild fancy appeared for what it was - a foolish illusion born from the horrors of this place. Obi-Wan was pale and close to collapse, but it was because of his injuries, and the pain of both his chest and his broken wrist. He needed sleep, and food, and someone to look after him and provide comfort.
"I can't climb that," Obi-Wan said, his voice simple and small. "Not now."
Qui-Gon pulled himself out of his reflection. The danger was for from over. They stood at the bottom of a cliff that had nearly claimed Obi-Wan's life, and could have claimed Qui-Gon's too, had not Obi-Wan sacrificed himself to keep him safe.
"Then I'll help you," he said. "If I can." No attempts at false promises, for this would be dangerous, with no guarantee of success. But they would either both come out of this place, or neither would.
He had come so far in the City, in this strange lost otherworld. He would emerge from the top of the cliff and return to the old, real world, but he would _not_ fall back into his old ways. This was no unreal interlude - decisions made in this place that had no relevance outside. He had changed forever, he thought.
They managed it. That was all he swore to let himself remember. They managed it.
He would not remember how he had been forced to find the words to say, "I'll go first" knowing that it was easier to use the Force to guide Obi-Wan up towards him, than to stand below and push him away.
He would not remember how Obi-Wan had looked at him with those pale tired eyes, and nodded acceptance. He would not remember how he had wanted to grab his arm and say, "I _will_ bring you out. You do believe that, don't you?" but had not, in case he had seen doubt in Obi-Wan's eyes, and a resigned acceptance of being left behind.
He would not remember using the Force as he never had before, raising himself up through the thick pall of red gas. He would not remember the long minutes in which he had not even breathed, but he would remember the marvel of finding that he could do this. Never before had a Jedi needed to.
He would not remember the feeling of another man's strength coiling around his own, like a small hand slipped into his big one and offering support. No, he would remember the offer, for it was another thing binding his life to Obi-Wan's and that was surely something to be treasured, but he would not remember the pain of it, the terrible feeling of knowing that Obi-Wan was offering more than he could give, and sacrificing himself yet again.
He would not remember clawing his way over the lip of the cliff, and lying, gasping, so close to the place where he had killed Xanatos, and shouted such childish hateful things down the cliff. He would not remember shivering with exhaustion, and just knowing that he could _not_ spare the strength to bear Obi-Wan.
He would not remember standing and summoning the tattered remains of his Force around him like a ragged cloak. He would not remember lying down again, knowing that even the small amount of strength that went into keeping him on his feet was needed to help Obi-Wan.
He would not remember envisaging the Force like a shining rope, stretching down into the void, and lower, lower, through the gas and smoke until it found Obi-Wan. He would not remember the pain and the impossible <I can't do it. Oh, I can't do it...> Lifting something he could not see... A burden where the smallest slip could mean death.
He would not the remember the vast eternity of calling Obi-Wan towards him, of trembling, of shaking, of fearing, of having his whole mind and body cry out to him to give up and let them rest. He would not remember crying out, aloud, "I can't go on," and "help please help," and the sharp pang of guilt when he realised that Obi-Wan had heard him, and blamed himself, and tried to give more when he was already giving all he could give.
He would not remember feeling Obi-Wan's mind flutter away into unconsciousness, and the sudden terror of realising how much Obi-Wan had been helping. It was a weight suddenly doubled, when he had hardly been able to bear it before.
He would not remember the sudden blind panic, and knowing he could _not_ lose him now.
He would remember, and would always remember, seeing Obi-Wan rise slowly above the cliff, and feeling his real living flesh under his hands and he pawed at him, hauling him to safety. He would remember the relief of it, but not the way he had held him and wept, not the way night had gently fallen around them and he had noticed, not the way soft rain had fallen and mingled with the dust and smoke on their skin and made them filthy.
They managed it, and that was all that mattered. He would not think of the rest.
Or, maybe, it was that he would never stop thinking of it.
They slept that night in the back of Obi-Wan's landspeeder, neither of them strong enough to go further. They had staggered there, supporting each other and barely standing, as the rain had thickened around them. Qui-Gon's speeder was closer, but "blankets," Obi-Wan had murmured, his mouth close to Qui-Gon's ear, both because his head needed the support of his shoulder, and because his voice would not carry further.
Qui-Gon had been slow to understand, thinking it was a plea for warmth and comfort, then had realised. Obi-Wan, far more used to an active life than Qui-Gon, had equipped his vehicle well; Qui-Gon had merely left the Temple in his wild blind pursuit, bringing nothing but himself and his foolish useless weapons.
The blankets were only for one, of course, and they shared, huddling together in a closeness that was entirely chaste. Qui-Gon felt no stirrings of lust, but rather a deep and growing tenderness that was so much more precious.
"Home," Obi-Wan murmured, when they had lain together in silence for a long time. "Let's go home, I said." He gave a sad rueful laugh. "I have no home."
Qui-Gon thought of the Temple he had always called home, and the fact that the teachings that echoed in its halls were cold and alien to him now. He thought of a time when his own chambers had been warm with the quick smile of a young man who had needed him utterly, and the cold betrayal that had come after. He thought of his life these last few years, sure everyone was blaming him, cold, lashing out in anger and driving away even those friends he had once had.
"Neither do I," he said. "Not any more."
Neither of them said what could perhaps have been said - that this would change, that they could find a new home in each other, for a home can be a person and not merely a place, and brings with it a sense of living as your true self, without masks. Neither said it, and perhaps it was too early even to think it.
Did Obi-Wan think it, Qui-Gon wondered. _He_ had - just a tiny whisper of a thought instantly repressed, but not to be forgotten.
Ben stirred just once in that cold night, rising briefly to the surface of consciousness. There was pain, yes, in his wrist and his chest, but somehow it seemed distant and not entirely real. Overlaying it all, and far more important, was a sense of security and warmth. It came from the body he rested against and the arm that surrounded him. Still half-asleep, he didn't really know who it was, or why they were there, but he _did_ know that it felt right.
He let himself sink back into sleep again, smiling a little.
Morning brought cold awakening. Perhaps it felt right to discuss deep issues in the lost unreal city, perhaps it was right to entertain elusive thoughts of home in the night, but daylight demanded that they think only of practical matters.
"We should stay together," Qui-Gon said. "Both travel in the same vehicle. You're in no state to drive by yourself."
Obi-Wan's eyes had lightened with something that could have been hope, or could have been fear. Then, realising that Qui-Gon had been talking about nothing more than their travelling arrangements, he just nodded. Qui-Gon didn't know if the blankness in his eyes came from disappointment or relief.
"No need for you to move. I'll drive your speeder, and attach mine to yours, and tow it home," he said, reaching for the short rope he had already found in the back of Obi-Wan's vehicle.
"What about Xanatos'?"
His fingers tightened on the half-uncoiled rope. "Leave it."
Obi-Wan adjusted the blanket that was still wrapped around his body. Only the very tips of his fingers protruded, startling pale against the dark coarse weave. "We should not," he said, looking at his fingers, and not at Qui-Gon.
He didn't want to approach it. That part of his life was over, and Xanatos would no longer rule him. If he touched it and sensed something of the apprentice he had once taught, and wept, then Xanatos had won. If he touched it, and sensed nothing at all, then that too was a victory. He wanted to forget it all. Couldn't Obi-Wan see that?
"There are many people out there whose lives could be changed by something as simple as having a speeder," Obi-Wan said, earnestly. "Why let it rot here?"
The rope was trembling between his taut hands. "Because, unlike you, I'm no thief."
Obi-Wan did not flinch, he did not cry out, and that was worst of all. By small nuances of his expression and the look in his eyes, Qui-Gon knew the young man was hurt by his words - but, worse, that it was no shock to him. All along, he had expected eventual betrayal, and for it all to fall apart.
He let the rope fall and fell to his knees, his eyes on the level of Obi-Wan's as he huddled in the back of the speeder. "I didn't mean that, Obi-Wan, but..."
"It's hard for you, I know." And Qui-Gon thought that Obi-Wan _did_ know. Both of them were still deeply hurt by a figure from their past, and knew how the memory of a past betrayal could affect every thought, every action, in life. "I'm sorry for suggesting it."
"No." He shook his head. "I'm the one who should be apologising..."
"Leave it," Obi-Wan said, surprisingly firmly for one who was still so weak. He gave a weak wry smile. "There's not enough rope to tow two speeders, anyway."
And Qui-Gon, who knew that this was a lie, clung to the proffered lifeline, and accepted it.
Nothing more was said about Xanatos.
Nothing more was said.
For the most part, Obi-Wan slept in the back, and Qui-Gon wasn't sure whether to be pleased about that, or disappointed. He knew the young man was healing, and that was good, and he was spared from the need to talk, and that was probably good, too. He instinctively felt that talking here, on a simple journey in the real world, would be a very different thing entirely from talking in the intense unreality of the lost city. He wasn't sure he knew how to do it.
They had two nights, and each one followed the same pattern. Obi-Wan would stir, alerted by the sudden cessation of movement, and Qui-Gon would lean round in the driving seat and hush him with the Force. He would use gentle healing, pushing him into a healing trance, and making sure he was comfortable.
Then he would build a fire, and stare into the flames. After that first night, there was no rain, and the pure darkness surrounded him. On the horizon, cranes moved in their ceaseless dance, and ugly metal frames that would soon be buildings reached up to touch the sky. It seemed dead, to him - like tree branches reaching into the darkness, but devoid of life. Strange, though, for he had never been able to sense the life in a simple tree branch, though surely all such things were linked through the Force.
He fought different emotions. He was restless and unsettled. One part of him thought he was content - out in the world with no obligations, except for a wounded young man who was a pleasure to tend to. That part of him wanted to prolong the journey for as long as possible, until Obi-Wan was well, and then longer, so they could learn, in their hesitant awkward way, how to talk to each other.
The other part, though, was counting the seconds until the journey ended, and wanted to push on, even driving through the night, until he was free from the temptation and weakness of the first part.
This was the part that said no good could come from getting to know Obi-Wan - that he was drawn to him for the wrong reasons, seeing only a pretty boy, and a man who had made him think about his own life. He was a symbol, only - a catalyst. Obi-Wan had taught Qui-Gon how to be free, to question the Jedi who had always ruled him and the past pains that had imprisoned him. Qui-Gon must not confuse the message with the bearer. If he clung to Obi-Wan himself, then it would merely be another form of dependence. Obi-Wan had taught him to question his future with the Jedi, and he still agreed with that need, but he needed to do so with an open mind. _His_ rebellion might take a very different form from Obi-Wan's.
Always, those two sides warred.
He would pass a shanty town where immigrants from other planets lived in squalor as they worked on some gleaming new spaceport. <Obi-Wan's right> he would think, fiercely. Almost he would wake Obi-Wan up, and ask him to show him, to guide him. Obi-Wan had worked amongst the poor for over two years, and was infinitely more knowledgeable that he was in the ways of giving aid.
And then he would pass a city of polished stone, that was as beautiful as he had ever imagined and had always known. He would see the rich transports of cultured men who would always respect the wisdom of the Jedi. Obi-Wan said they were corrupt... Maybe they were, he thought, but surely there were other ways than stealing. Perhaps _his_ way would be diplomacy. They could both serve the same cause, but in such different ways, living in worlds that never met.
The former, he thought, when he looked on Obi-Wan's pale face, the lips slightly parted as he breathed, and knew that _he_ had caused his healing, and his were the arms that held him in the night.
The latter, he thought, immediately after, his arms suddenly stiffening as he held him. He wanted to be free to make his own decisions, and if he was influenced by something as base as lust, then his whole future would be worthless.
He was still torn as they entered the outskirts of the City. Then, as they entered its heart and he saw, as if in slow motion, the slums and the towers and the pinnacles of the Temple, he decided.
Someone was shaking him.
"Obi-Wan," he heard, in a gentle voice, tender and strangely regretful.
He opened his eyes, shaking off the gentle blanket of Force that urged him to sleep and heal. His wrist ached with a dull pain, but nothing like the scarlet torment of before. His breathing was easier, too, with only a small tug of pain on his ribs.
"We're back..." A small pause. "Home."
Qui-Gon. Ah yes. He felt he was surrounded by the sense and smell of him - seeping into the blanket that still held him, and the Force that had healed him, and his every breath. He had thought it would seem like a prison, but it just seemed.... <Nice.>
He smiled. "Thank you."
Qui-Gon lowered his eyes, his lips pursing. When he spoke again, his voice was tight. "Where shall I drop you off?"
Oh. Yes. He had expected it. Why did it feel like a knife snaking between his ribs and stabbing him in the heart? Why did he shiver, and find the image impossible to shake off - the way the light gleamed on the metal and how his blood flowed...
He blinked hard, and forced himself to focus. He saw where he was. By chance, Qui-Gon had brought him close to Constantine's house. Close enough, anyway. "Here will be fine," he said, trying to keep his voice level and emotionless.
"Are you sure?"
He nodded. The stone was still in its pouch, and he was tired and weak as a child, but strong enough to make the delivery. And then he would return to his lodgings and sleep for a night and a day... And cry a little, he thought, irrationally. At first, he had wanted nothing from Qui-Gon, then he had _expected_ nothing. Nothing had changed, so why was this so hard?
"Where are you going?" Qui-Gon asked, still not looking at him. He was playing incessantly with the material of his robe, his fingers white and restless.
"I can't tell you that."
"You don't trust me?" He sounded hurt. How could he sound hurt?
<Oh, but I think I did. Despite myself, I was beginning to.> He was grateful that the blanket hid how his hands were trembling. "It is not my secret."
"You're going to your employer?" Qui-Gon paused, as if awaiting a reply, but got none. "Not your home?"
Why was he persisting with this? Did he want to know where he lived now? If so, why didn’t he ask? He wanted to tell, but would not unless asked outright. "We'll take the stone together," Qui-Gon had said, and he had been fool enough to think he had meant something then. He would not make the same mistake again.
"No." He merely shook his head.
"I want you to know," Qui-Gon burst out, suddenly, "that I don't regret anything. I'm going to... to question the Jedi. I expect I'll end up leaving. I'll challenge Ki-Adi-Mundi and get the truth from him. I need to do it my own way, by myself, but I don't regret coming with you or what we shared."
<But you won't take it any further> he thought, heart sick. How sad, how ironic, that only know did he fully realise what he wanted. Things that had been clouded to him now seemed clear. For the first time, he realised, truly realised, that he desperately wanted a friend who would share his life, and arms that would comfort him when he cried, and a man who would love him and be loved by him. The idea was too new to him, and he could not be sure that Qui-Gon Jinn was the man he wanted - perhaps Qui-Gon had merely been there at the right time, and it could have been anyone - but he thought he was.
He didn't know how to talk to people, but he wanted to learn - with Qui-Gon Jinn, he wanted to learn. He didn't know how to trust anyone with his heart, but he wanted to try. He didn't know how to grow past the pain of his past, but he wanted to reach out and take Qui-Gon's hand, and the two of them together would find out how.
He wanted so much, and he had never realised. Only now, now it was too late.
"Stay safe, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon said, and for a moment there was a glimpse of true feeling in his eyes - or maybe it was his imagination.
He nodded. "I'll try." Though what did it matter if he did not? He had come on this mission half expecting to die, and not really caring if he did, for he had no-one who would mourn him. Now he had been offered a treacherous teasing glimpse of an end to his loneliness, only to have it snatched away. How could he return to his old life when he had seen, just for a moment, how different it could be?
"Well..." Qui-Gon looked at him, then looked away. He seemed intensely awkward. "Goodbye."
Ben tried to say goodbye, but could not. <Perhaps he'll wait and wait, and just wait until I say something> he thought, stupidly, but Qui-Gon, pursing his lips, merely climbed into his own speeder, and drove away.
He felt as if his whole soul was suffused with grey. Before, the loneliness had often overwhelmed him, but never like this. He felt he was only half alive.
What did anything matter?
He fought insane foolish ideas. "I'm the one who robbed you," he would say, laughing, to this lord, or that. "Me. Not the organised gang you thought it was. Just me." He would chose one whose guards were trained to kill with one shot, and not to capture alive. One blast of fire, and then blissful oblivion.
He was walking, weaving through the streets as if drunk, though he was not. He had left the speeder where Qui-Gon had left it. He had tried to touch the controls, but the after-image of Qui-Gon's sense there had almost overwhelmed him, making him cry. He was unsteady on his feet; his wounds still hurt, and he knew he was far from well. Tears blurred his eyes, and he wiped at them fiercely.
He hated himself, that he could fall apart like this, at the final loss of a hope he had never even realised he had entertained. When his Master had sent him away with such uncaring words, he had felt bleak and cold inside, but had not cried.
<No> he told himself, sternly. He would hold himself together. He would be strong and quiet and dignified, and would hand the stone over the Constantine, and free himself from his last obligation.
And then.... And then... what?
"Ah." Constantine rubbed his hands together. "You have it."
He didn't sit where offered. He stood, wrapped in his black cloak, still stained with dust and smoke and blood. He brought a cold breath of night into the polished warmth of this man's living room, and was grimly glad of it. It was apt. It was all he was, and would ever be - an outcast creature of the night.
"Good." A thin hand with bony fingers reached out of the green velvet sleeve. Dorcas and the other man leant on either side of his chair, their eyes bright with expectation.
Ben took the pouch from his belt and shook the stone into the outstretched hand. "This is all," he said, remembering that he had been asked to bring back other riches, too. "Nothing else."
Constantine didn't seem to hear him, or care. His eyes were alight with reflected fire.
Ben turned to go. He felt suddenly lighter - certainly not happy, but the grief was more bearable. He supposed it was because he had performed his last duty, and was now free to think about how to pick up the pieces. His wounds hurt less, too, and he felt a fresh energy coursing through his body.
"Stop." The word was smooth as honey.
He turned round.
"What happened to my gift?"
The lightsabre. Qui-Gon still had it. He realised it with no surprise at all. It was as if he had already known, but had chosen to say nothing, not even to voice the thought. Qui-Gon would realise, and his sense of honour would lead him to want to return it. There was still hope.
He fought to keep the smile from his face. Already, things seemed brighter. There was a small light of hope of cling to, like the glowing heart of fire in the stone. "It's safe," he said.
A small sound alerted him. He turned to face the door again and found it closed and locked against him. While he had been distracted by thought of the lightsabre, the other man had silently slipped from Constantine's side and shut the door.
For the first time, he felt the creeping tendrils of fear. Not long before, he had entertained foolish thoughts of suicide. He realised how that he wanted very much to live - or at least to die on his own terms.
But Constantine was still smiling, so maybe he was over-reacting. It was only natural for Constantine to make sure that no servants could overhear, if he was about to talk of something sensitive and ask him to perform another task.
"What do you want from me?" he asked, trying to make his voice both placating, and a vague threat. He had no weapons, but he had the Force, and thought he could still escape, even if Constantine meant murder. None of the people who faced him were armed.
Constantine steepled his fingers. "What I asked for."
"I gave you the stone."
A smile. "But it is defective. Incomplete."
He flexed his hands, and they were damp with sweat. "It is as it was. I took it from the very hands of the dead for you." Oh, but it was too soon, too terrible to remember. His voice was showing his emotion, and that was bad.
"Yes." Another thin smile. "But long dead bones can't provide the other half."
Dorcas walked towards him from one side, the man from the other. Constantine sat in the chair, his eyes glittering, and the stone burning on his lap.
"The Soul of Fire, did I call it? It had another name. The Heart of Blood." As if answering to this name, the orange fire at the heart of the stone pulsed fleetingly red.
Constantine's eyes were dreamy. "They nourished it with their heart's blood, and in return it protected them... or so they thought." He stood at last, and seemed in that moment immensely tall, clad in green and timeless. "It was not fashioned to protect, but to destroy. They were foolish and prized their stone structures above all things. It laughed when they fell."
He tried to turn, but was frozen. He tried to move, but could not. Hands closed around his upper arms, digging in cruelly, and they were sharp and brittle and not like human hands at all.
<No> But even his voice was silenced. Desperately, he reached for the Force, only to recoil with silent imprisoned screams...
For it responded. The Force, immense, impossible, chaotic, rushed laughing at his command. It pulsed with life and emotion and fractured impressions. It was the ecstasy and agony of a birth, and a lover's union, and the cry of a tortured soul dying, their blood seeping back into the soil. It was both light and darkness, and there was nothing gentle about it.
"Yes," he heard, and even his very eyeballs seemed seared with pain. Constantine was vast before him, barely human, like coiling rivers of chaotic laughing Force. Only his hand was human, and it was cruel and hard as a tree branch, reaching from the green that had been his robe, reaching for him...
It ended in a deadly point, and he was powerless before it, powerless as it impaled him, snaking between his ribs above his heart and teasing him, then, with a mental smile - <No. Too quick. - withdrawing. Instead it moved to his throat, running its tip over the skin there, then suddenly, shockingly, impaling him.
Blood gushed. His own blood, dark and fresh from his heart, gushed from the severed artery. Ben couldn't even move to press his hands over the wound, couldn't dare to use the Force to heal it. He could only stand, held up by the merciless hands of Constantine's associates, and watch as those deadly hands held the stone against his flesh, and as his blood gushed forth and touched it.
It consumed his blood. The blood seeped into the heart of the stone, and the fire slowly reddened, until it burned, intensely bright, and deeply red.
"Enough," Constantine said, at last, in that inhuman voice that seemed to speak into his very soul. "It has fed, and now it is ready."
The hands released him and he slumped forward, like an empty sack, drained of blood and life and hope. With an enormous effort of will, he managed to move his right hand enough to press it against the surely mortal wound, trying to stop the blood. A meaningless gesture. The wrist was still broken and weak, and he had no strength to put the necessary pressure on it.
It seemed to amuse Constantine. "Save yourself, if you can. There's nothing you can do to stop me."
"What...?" he managed to choke out. "What.... you.... doing?"
"As if I would tell you, you pathetic fool." That at least sounded human. "Die, or live, knowing you have caused your world's destruction."
He raised the stone, and it burned so intensely red that Ben cried out, his hands shaking and the blood gushing out afresh. His eyes, his throat, his very soul felt burned by this fire.
He fell, screaming, into the oblivion of the flames.
Half way back, Qui-Gon suddenly remembered. The weapon, the thing Obi-Wan called a lightsabre, was still at his side.
He stopped. He would have to return it to him, of course. That meant he would have to see him again.
He wondered what he felt about that. Even as he wondered, he found he was smiling, as if his subconscious had already made up its mind.
Yes, he wanted to see Obi-Wan again - he knew he did. The part of him that was emotion derived pleasure in the young man's company, and his attractiveness, and the beautiful bruised soul that could blossom if only given the correct encouragement. It was only the other part of him, the part that was his conscience and his intelligence and his rational thought, that feared this attraction, fearing it would warp his decision making.
But wasn't he stronger than that? Couldn't he see the young man at times, as casual friends, without selling his soul utterly to his cause? He would leave the Jedi for his own reasons, and make his own life, but that would not be imperilled by at least _seeing_ Obi-Wan occasionally.
Perhaps, he thought, part of him had already known this, and had kept the lightsabre deliberately to force him to this decision.
Still smiling, he almost turned then and went back. He remembered that first night, when he had been cruel and blind. Then, Obi-Wan had been wounded and had left a clear trail of pain in the Force, easy to trail. He was still hurt this night, and his pain would linger like a miasma around the speeder he drove, as well as Qui-Gon's own sense, from the days he had driven it. It would be harder than following a man on foot, but possible, perhaps.
Then - <No> - he changed his mind. If he was going to confront both Ki and the ruling Jedi, these next few days would be grim and comfortless indeed. He would be severing himself from the only life he had ever known, and would see distrust and disappointment in the eyes of men he had once called friends. He would be facing a future adrift and homeless, searching for a new course in life.
He thought it would all be a little more bearable if he bore that wondrous weapon at his side, imbued as it was with a little of Obi-Wan's strength of purpose and rectitude. He thought he would survive it, if he thought of the reunion awaiting him at the other end. He would think of how Obi-Wan would smile - a tiny moment of light in the grey uncertainty of his future.
And then, only a little later, he stopped again. This time he was not smiling.
He felt it, distant and weak - a mental scream of horror and agony. It felt imprisoned, as if the man who cried out so would have cried aloud, if he could, but was forcibly silenced. It was weak, but only because he, Qui-Gon, was no capable of hearing it; in reality, he knew instinctively, the cry was immensely strong - a whole soul crying out its anguish.
<Who?> he thought, desperately.
It was just so new, so unexpected. Even with Xanatos he had never had such a direct impression of another man's thoughts. As far as he knew, no Jedi did. They could sense a presence in the Force, and maybe a little of emotions and veracity, but that was it.
Once again he was struck with the longing and the pain of it. There was so much about the Force he had never been taught - so much about the connection with other people, and the pulse of their thoughts and their lives. He had been taught the study deep answers, and the flow of the Force through time and the connections of all things. But, at the same time, he had been taught to remove himself from living beings, never to interfere in their lives, never to truly care about what it was like to be them.
But he had healed - and only now did he let himself remember how unusual that was, how he had never been taught it, how Jedi did not know how. He had healed, and touched Obi-Wan's mind, and been intensely aware of him as a living being in the Force. It _had_ been the Force, although nothing like the Force he had been taught about.
That was the Force, and this was the Force, and there was a whole vast world of potential out there for him to discover. He would learn to see the beauty in every living thing and every life, and learn how to know another human being utterly.
And then the silent cry screamed out its anguish once more, and it was like cold ice in his veins. He had been _smiling_, excited by the implications of feeling this call. He had been smiling, while the one who cried this tortured cry was suffering, and needed him.
It was Obi-Wan. Of course it was.
<I'm coming> he called, though he was so new to this and surely Obi-Wan wouldn't hear.
Obi-Wan's mind flared red with pain, then black, and then was silent. Qui-Gon felt immensely cold.
At first, he sought Obi-Wan with all his mind, but all sense of his presence disappeared, leaving him alone in the night, bereft and empty.
<Obi-Wan!> he called, concentrating as hard as he could, but there was nothing, not even the tiniest hint that Obi-Wan's call had been real, and that he had heard it.
Fear crept through him then, and now he sought Obi-Wan with all his heart, but it was a heart dark with desperation and fear.
<Obi-Wan!> he called then, wild and desperate and terrified that he would not find him, would never find him, and he would die alone and calling for help. His heart twisted with pain and regret, but still he felt nothing.
Then, and only then, did he force himself - and oh how difficult it was - to let go of the fear, and simply to _feel._ He did not think; he merely reached out with his soul, opening himself to the Force, filling his memory with the sense of Obi-Wan...
The first time he had smiled, his face turning intensely beautiful. The sudden sharp feeling that had suffused him - that he wanted to make him smile again and again...
The way he had stood amid the dead and raised his broken hand, and let the Force flow amongst them and give them peace...
Waking up on that first rain-drenched night in the speeder, and feeling another body warm against him, and pulling him even closer, keeping him safer. And, that night, a thing he had never even let himself remember - how he had pressed a kiss into his hair as he slept, and wept over him.
Memories, and he offered them up to the Force, as if to say <this is your child, Obi-Wan Kenobi. This is who he is. Please would you lead me to him.>
And the Force responded.
Perhaps it was heretical to need reassurance, but this strong vibrant Force was too new and awesome to him. It had led him here, then left him, but the sight of Obi-Wan's landspeeder outside was a reassurance he clung to. It both confirmed that he was in the right place, and confirmed the strange and wondrous Force that had opened up to him was no dark trick and would lead him true.
Without thinking about it, he drew the lightsabre, but did not ignite it yet; the plants cast thick shadows in the grounds of the house, and the pure blue light would be too obvious.
His feet whispered gently on the lawn. There was no paved path to the door, only grass. It was strangely bumpy underneath, as if it had once been cobbles. Leaves rustled in the breeze, but that was the only other sound.
The door hung limp on its hinges - dark dead wood that seemed strangely mournful. He couldn't shift the idea that to touch it would be a desecration, like touching a corpse. Then he shook his head, and the idea left him.
Almost fiercely, he pushed at the door, opening it. He heard a hiss, like an animal realising that it hated him and snarling in impotent threat. But, when he looked, nothing was there. Maybe it was just his own breathing, gasping and tense. Now he was no longer opening himself to the Force to find Obi-Wan, all the unease and fear was coming to the fore, and he was nervous and over-alert to every sound.
He walked on thick green carpet, as springy as a fresh-cut lawn. It made his steps silent, but the hairs on the back of his neck were prickling with the sense of someone watching him. Several times he whirled round, lightsabre ignited now, but saw nothing except the gently waving leaves of the pot plants.
There were no guards. The Force surged strangely. One moment, it seemed to him as if the house was packed full of living beings, the next it seemed bleak and empty, almost unreal. In those moments, he blinked hard, almost expecting to see the very walls fade and disappear, leaving him alone in an empty expanse of night.
He shivered, and walked on. Along the first corridor, then to the right, through another dark wooden door. This one was gnarled with knots, as if it had been fashioned from a twisted root, but something about the knots suggested rich carvings, like some strange after-effect of an illusion.
He touched the handle, and his mouth was suddenly dry. He saw hands like branches emerge from the wood, and clasp his hand in deadly embrace, pinning him forever to the door handle. Then he blinked, and there was nothing of that illusion there at all. There was just a hand on a door handle, and nothing more.
He swallowed hard, and went in. He never questioned how he knew. Something in this house stopped him using the Force to find Obi-Wan, but still he seemed to know. He had walked past several doors without opening them.
"Obi-Wan," he gasped. The lightsabre fell from his slack hand, falling to the floor and switching itself off harmlessly. Strange that he should focus so, and watch the metal cylinder fall, bounce, and land still. Strange that he should waste seconds.
Maybe he was afraid, and that was shameful. Maybe he was in shock, and that was just as bad. Maybe, in that moment of fearing him dead, he realised just how much Obi-Wan could come to mean to him, and the idea of losing him before he had ever truly known him was just too terrible to contemplate.
"Obi-Wan," he gasped, again. Like a sleeper awakening, he ran over to his side, and touched him, hands, face, chest, everywhere.
He was breathing still, though how? He lay in a pool of blood, though Qui-Gon instinctively knew he had lost yet more. He had so little left, surely not enough to keep him alive. His skin was white and cold as bone, and his lips were blue. His poor wounded right hand lay against his throat, as if he had tried to stop the bleeding, but now it lay slack and not even touching.
He wanted, needed, to scoop him up and hold him close, but at the same time feared he would break if touched. Instead, he searched his desperate mind for what he knew of healing. Pressure on the wound, yes... The blood was still wet and oozed through his fingers, though some natural too-late clotting had begun. The Force helped, though it was strange and chaotic here and hard to use. It made his head throb sickly, but he persisted, and the bleeding stopped.
What else? His hands fluttered uselessly, his mind seeking answers. Fear made him foolish, his thoughts sluggish. He was used to the measured life of contemplation, and not this sort of crisis.
Ah yes. He should elevate the limbs and allow the remaining blood to stay in the vital organs. He did so, but then Obi-Wan, deeply unconscious, started to shiver - no, not shivering, but massive terrifying tremors that racked his whole body and fought Qui-Gon's attempts to move his limbs.
Qui-Gon found he was shaking too, though his tremors were minute. This was too much for him - too much for anyone. There was only one priority and that was to get Obi-Wan out of here and into a medical facility that could help him.
He took Obi-Wan in his arms, and managed to stand awkwardly. Several times, he almost fell. Obi-Wan's head lolled against his shoulder; Qui-Gon only had to lean forward just a little to kiss his porcelain cold brow. This he knew because he did it.
"Come on, Obi-Wan," he murmured, though he was sure he couldn't hear him. "I'm taking you home to the Temple."
Obi-Wan gave one last shiver, and stopped breathing.
Heedless of anything, he simply ran into the Temple, Obi-Wan so still in his arms. Perhaps people stared; what of that? Perhaps people recoiled at the sight of him, wild-eyed and stained with blood and a week-long trial, but let them think what they liked.
"Heal him," he demanded, his voice violent, but his movements so gentle as he laid Obi-Wan on an empty bed.
Three times on the way Obi-Wan's heart had stopped. Three times, Qui-Gon had used the Force to beseech him to cling to life. <I want to> he thought he heard, in the voice of a wounded child curled in the corner for warmth. <I want to, but I'm just so tired.> Three times, Qui-Gon had despaired of getting Obi-Wan to respond and live on his own strength, and had forced him, using the Force to keep his heart beating.
The healer's eyes narrowed. She had been about to touch him, but now stepped back in disgust. "He's not one of us."
Almost he grabbed her by the wrist and held her, boring his command into her soul: "Heal him." But violence would only make her resist, and the Confessors would come for him, and, as they fought, Obi-Wan would die. He forced himself to sound calm, all the while intensely aware that every faint breath could be Obi-Wan's last. "He was raised a Jedi."
She wrinkled her nose, and looked very young, almost a child. "I know. Obi-Wan. I remember him."
They were probably of an age, year-mates as initiates. He wondered what tales had been told to the apprentices about his departure. What lies were being told about this young man who was unequivocally of the light?
He took a deep breath. This was a test, he suddenly realised. Were the Jedi locked forever in blind ignorance, or was it full of souls open and yearning for the truth? "He'll die within minutes if you don't help him. Would you become a murderer?" He sent with his mind pictures of Obi-Wan smiling, laughing, vibrant and beautiful. She would feel it as a faint wisp of memory, and not know its source.
Her hand half rose to her brow, then fell to her side again. "I... I'll do what I can."
He let out a long breath, limp with relief. As with her, so it would be with many - Jedi who had never been shown the truth, resolving that things must change. It was one thing to preach non-interference, but quite another to stand and watch a fellow human die. Most Jedi had never been tested this way. He felt suddenly light and hopeful, sure that most of them would face the challenge and make the right choice.
And then her hands were upon Obi-Wan's body, attaching tubes, shouting orders to the droid to bring blood, and he rebuked himself for the worst kind of blind fool. He heard her decision to help Obi-Wan, and thought, not of Obi-Wan at all, but of the implications her decision had for the future. He had reacted as if Obi-Wan's life was not important - as if he was only a symbol.
What did it matter if the other Jedi would react as she had? Obi-Wan had a chance of life, and that was cause enough to rejoice.
He smiled quick and fiercely, and moved to her side to offer help.
Obi-Wan would live. Hours later, slumped in the chair beside his bed, Qui-Gon thought he was almost too tired to feel the true joy of that.
Obi-Wan would live. Transfusions - a terrifying amount - had brought his blood volume up to normal, and his heart had survived the shock. He was still deeply unconscious, but it was the unconsciousness of anaesthetics and not near death.
Qui-Gon knew he should retire and get changed, but he didn't want to leave Obi-Wan's side. He wasn't sure why - he hardly knew the boy, after all - but the cold terror of his almost dying in his arms refused to leave him. It had created a connection, and would have, even without these last few days together. He couldn't truly be at peace until Obi-Wan opened his eyes and saw him.
He dozed, not quite asleep, but barely awake either. If Obi-Wan stirred, he would be instantly alert; everything else was tuned out as unimportant.
He didn't hear the door opening, or, if he did, it was dismissed as unimportant and not worth remembering. He didn't hear the urgent angry steps walk over to Obi-Wan's bedside, and hear the sharp intake of breath. He didn't hear his name called the first time, but he did hear the second, accompanied as it was with a sharp shake.
"Why did you bring him here?" Adi Gallia demanded, shaking him angrily. "Why, Qui-Gon?"
His own anger rose to meet hers. "To save his life. Would you have him die?" He was furious with the lot of them - Jedi who sat back arrogantly and let innocents suffer, and cut themselves off from the best part of the Force.
"Of course not," she snapped. But she was one of the ones with Ki-Adi-Mundi when he had been given his covert orders, so how could he trust her? Ki had unforgivably betrayed his apprentice.
He said as much to her, but she exclaimed furiously. "You know nothing, Qui-Gon Jinn. And by bringing him here, you put him in worse danger than ever before."
_That_ got through to him, if nothing else could have. "Danger?" He shook his head. "Here?" He had learned to distrust the Jedi, but not to suspect them of any real evil.
"Yes." And he saw she was not angry at all - or rather that she was, but it was an anger born from deep fear. He sensed her tentatively, using his new skills, and knew that she was aware of it, and that she, too, quested towards him.
He looked at Obi-Wan, still unconscious on the bed, but a healthy colour and breathing on his own. He looked at Adi Gallia, who had given him no reason to trust her, except for that fact that his instinct and the Force cried out to him to do so.
"Can he be moved?" she asked, and this time he could see the tenderness in her eyes, as well as the urgency.
He looked around. The healer had left, and no-one was watching him. He hesitated, but only for a second. "Yes," he said, and reached to disconnect the monitors.
He had a thousand questions crying out for answers, but one look at Adi's unforgiving back told him that he would not get answers yet. And Obi-Wan, he sensed, was moving closer to consciousness, and would pick up on his anger and peremptory demands. He concentrated on projecting calm.
The Force rippled around them. He had an image of Adi, like a ship cutting through the ocean, a wake radiating from her passage. Jedi touched by the wake blinked, and seemed not to really see them - or to see them, but not the unconscious body he bore, or the blood on his clothes.
Until so recently, he knew, he would not have seen the trick for what it was. He would have been one of those who stood, tricked and blind, and blinked in foolish ignorance. He shivered. The Jedi would fall like wheat beneath the scythe, should anyone ill-intentioned use the Force in its full potential against them.
Adi stopped suddenly, and held up her hand, as if to admonish silence. At that same moment, Obi-Wan stirred, moaning quietly, and Qui-Gon soothed him. He took his attention from Adi just for a second, and did not see how she did it. A door had opened where before there had been just wall, and men with blasters faced him.
"Friends," Adi said, curtly, but they did not relax. Qui-Gon followed where she led, stepping over the threshold and past the guards. They did not give, and he had to turn sideways and stoop to get past their unyielding weapons. He gave them a long sharp look.
The door closed and they were in darkness.
"Follow," Adi hissed, and set off at a brisk pace. Qui-Gon felt his anger rise again. He needed all his focus to keep track of her in the darkness, and the corridor was narrow and far from smooth - like a tunnel in a cave rather than a part of the Temple. The top of his head brushed the ceiling at times, and that he could forgive, but once Obi-Wan's legs slammed into the wall, and that was too much.
"Almost there," she said, shortly, just as his anger was going to explode in angry demands and protestations. His instincts told him of no danger, but how could he be sure? He had sensed no darkness in Xanatos, and was horribly aware of his ignorance about the Force.
But he bit his lip, and said nothing. Obi-Wan was stirring restlessly in his sleep, closer and closer to waking.
Then there was a sound and a narrow sliver of light, bigger, then even bigger. A door opening, he recognised belatedly, and wondered if he was cursed to be forever foolish and ignorant this day.
"Qui-Gon," he heard. He blinked in the light of the chamber beyond the door, and recognised Ki-Adi-Mundi. He was sitting in a chair and looked grey and drawn, and too weak to stand. His words were for Qui-Gon, but his eyes were only for Obi-Wan, and they were tender as he had never seen them before.
Somehow, that annoyed him more than anything. If he had truly not cared, then perhaps there was an excuse for him, but if he had cared deeply, and deliberately said nothing, knowing how much it hurt Obi-Wan... Oh, but that was too much to forgive.
"I thought they'd brought you to justice, Ki," he said, scornfully.
Ki-Adi-Mundi's face twisted with pain. "They did. I escaped." His eyes shone darkly. "Yes, Qui-Gon. I am a wanted man. Do you wish to betray me?"
He thought of the guards at the door. "I presume you would stop me, if I tried. I presume I am a prisoner here."
Ki shook his head, and leant back in the chair, wearily. His voice, though, was still strong and incisive. "What are your intentions with regard to the Jedi?"
He swallowed. He had thought about this moment, and decided to tell no lies. He would stand fearlessly in front of the whole Council and announce his beliefs, and force them to hear him. He would do no differently now.
"I intend to leave them," he said, his head high. He still held Obi-Wan in his arms, and the strain of that was showing on his muscles, but he refused to let it show. "Obi-Wan has told me enough to convince me that there are better uses for our gifts than merely to waste them in seclusion, studying the Force, but never using it to help."
"Ah." Ki-Adi-Mundi nodded, looking satisfied. But, like an assault, Qui-Gon felt other minds snaking out and probing him, holding him upright in a woven net of interrogation. He shivered; he almost cried out angrily. But then they were gone, and it was all he could do to stand.
"Forgive us," Ki said, regretfully. He nodded to the Jedi nearest to him, and he moved forward, offering to take Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon refused the offer. He sank to his knees, and, instead of standing, he knelt in the middle of that chamber, Obi-Wan resting across his knees, his head against his chest.
Obi-Wan's eyes fluttered, then closed again.
"We wanted to trust you before," Ki said, "but we have to be so careful. You were always so ready to challenge the Council and argue that we should be helping people, but we couldn't be sure that it was from genuine belief, or just..." - a quirky smile - "naturally perverse and rebellious."
He thought he should bridle at that, but perhaps it was fair. He knew how he had been these last few years, and knew he had not invited trust.
"I'll go back to the beginning..." Ki paused, and someone offered him a drink of water. He took it gratefully. He did seem very tired and hurt, Qui-Gon thought. Yet he continued with his story. "As you know, I used to argue passionately that the Jedi should change, and then I... I stopped."
"When you took Obi-Wan as your apprentice," he said, coldly, remembering the betrayal.
Ki nodded, and his eyes seemed to darken with guilt. Qui-Gon sensed that there was an apology there, too, but that would wait for Obi-Wan to be ready to hear it. "But there's more to it. I am gifted with a degree of prescience. One night, I was meditating in the gardens, and I knew a certain truth. I would take an apprentice, and that apprentice would save both the Jedi, and the whole world."
Instinctively, he tightened his grip on Obi-Wan. He was suddenly aware, and very sure of the fact, that Obi-Wan was now awake, and that not even his old Master was aware of this fact. He stroked his face, sending silent support, and kept his secret.
"Yet I also knew that he could only do this if he wasn't my apprentice. He needed Jedi training, but he needed to be free of the prison of Jedi thinking. I needed to train him, then let him go."
Obi-Wan gave a small sound, almost a whimper. Ki looked sharply at him, but then Obi-Wan settled back again, apparently asleep. His Master was slow to look away, and, when he spoke again, was still looking at him.
"I couldn't see who it would be. I studied all the initiates who were coming up to thirteen. I didn't know if it could be _any_ of them - whether I could just close my eyes and choose one at random, and the destiny would be fulfilled - or if there was only one, and if I made the wrong choice, all would be lost.
"The Council intervened, then. I was assigned an apprentice. I looked at him, and something about him made me shudder. I knew immediately he was not the one. I didn't see evil in him, but I knew he was wrong for me, wrong for this destiny." He looked at Qui-Gon, and this time to apology was for him. "It was Xanatos."
He stilled Obi-Wan's reaction, pressing him firmly against his body and bidding him to lie still. Only by focusing on him, on stopping his outcry, could he stop himself from crying out. Xanatos...
"Despite my attitude, I still had influence. Xanatos was very strong in the Force and considered one of the best catches as an apprentice. Yet I persuaded them to change the allocation. You were given Xanatos; I was given the apprentice assigned to you."
"Obi-Wan," he breathed. It was a wonder, and it made something deep inside him ache. The pain of hearing about Xanatos was quite erased by the sweet regret and question. <Obi-Wan... What would it have been like?>
"He was the only initiate rated higher than Xanatos. But it wasn't just his strength in the Force that made me think he was the one. He had such a warm generous nature, and a natural empathy with people. I knew I could make him leave. I knew he would care enough about the people's sufferings to truly want to risk all to save them."
The anger was back. That Ki-Adi-Mundi was saying all this to him, and never to Obi-Wan... It was so wrong, and repulsive. And to hear him talk of Obi-Wan's gifts, when his own coldness had done their best to drive those qualities from him - to replace "warm generosity" with an insecurity that left him scared to approach people in case he was rejected.
Ki shook his head. "Yes, I know I wronged him, Qui-Gon. There's no need to look like that. But I _had_ to. I had to drive him away, and for the right reasons. I had to have him burning to help people, and chafing at the Jedi who stopped him. I had to argue philosophies I hated, both to direct him down the path of rebellion, and so that none suspected."
He completely expected Obi-Wan to open his eyes at that point and look at his Master with solemn reproach. But Obi-Wan stayed so still for a moment he wondered if he had imagined the fact that he had awakened at all. Minute tremors seemed to run beneath his skin, but that was all.
He found himself sick at heart, loath to hear any more. This should be between Obi-Wan and his Master, and it was wrong, _wrong_, of Ki to speak of it thus, before Qui-Gon and the other silent watchers. Instead, he would speak of the present, and the future they shared. "Why is Obi-Wan in danger in the Temple?"
Obi-Wan's Master closed his eyes, as if lost in some private guilt. Qui-Gon felt no sympathy. "I couldn't keep the truth from them," he said, at least. "The Confessors." A small shiver ran through him, and Adi Gallia stepped forward, both to offer strength, and to shoot a sharp accusing look at Qui-Gon.
But it was not _his_ fault, and he would not back down. "What did you tell them?"
Ki opened his eyes again, and they were terrible, haunted with cold purpose and dark guilts. "I did not tell them, Qui-Gon Jinn. They reached into my mind and extracted the truth. I fought, but they are terrible." His hands were like white bones on the arms of his chair. "They know about Obi-Wan, and the destiny I foresaw for him."
He frowned. He didn't like the Confessors, but was this a bad thing? He said as much.
"You don't get it, Qui-Gon," Ki hissed. "He is to save the Jedi... from themselves, Qui-Gon. From the self-styled leaders who keep the rest of us in ignorance for their own dark purpose."
"Dark?" He shook his head. Surely not...
Ki-Adi-Mundi curled his fist. "They discovered the darkness, they studied it, and they learned that they liked it. Why else do you think they started enforcing the non-interference code so severely? Why did they teach us that the Light will conquer the Darkness as long as we just sit back and do nothing, and close our minds to the sufferings in the world?" His voice rose to an overpowering shout, and, despite himself, Qui-Gon cowered. "They laugh as the Republic falls into corruption and misery, because they _like_ it. And we, the Jedi, who can best help, they keep in blindness and ignorance, bound into non-interference by a false code."
He thought of the Council, and most of all of its leader, Mace Windu, smiling as he folded his hands with a finality that signalled the end of an audience. He had been willing to think him blind; was he willing to think him evil? It was too much. He was lost, floundering. Once, not long ago, he had thought everything was certain.
"It was not always thus," Ki said, gently, as if understanding how he was feeling. Perhaps he, too, had felt the same when he had learnt the truth - and, strangely, as he would realise later, it never occurred to him to seriously doubt that it _was_ the truth. "The Jedi were pure once, striving always to learn the ways of the Force and to follow them. I have every hope that they will be pure again, walking a new and wonderful path of the Light, out in the world and not enclosed in our glass tower."
"If Obi-Wan fights your battle for you," he said, his voice bitter. He would not be won over by soft words.
"Not my battle. _Our_ battle."
He opened his mouth to speak, but Obi-Wan stopped him, stirring in his arms. He released him, and could only watch as Obi-Wan sat up, his blue eyes open and fixed on no-one but his old Master. "You should have told me, Master." His voice was rusty, but far from weak. "If you'd explained, I would have left the Jedi, but if I'd known I'd gone with your blessing..." He made a small sound, close to a sob. "It would have made such a difference to me."
Ki-Adi-Mundi's face twisted with pain. "I longed to tell you, Obi-Wan. I knew how hurt you were. But I could _not_ risk it. If it was simply my battle, I would have told you, but it's the future of the Jedi, of the whole world..."
"I would not have betrayed you." His voice was tight. Qui-Gon felt a surge of impotent anger, that the Master was still hurting his apprentice, even now.
"Not willingly, no. But do you know what happened to you when you asked to leave the Jedi, Obi-Wan? Do you? They tested you. It was cruel, terrible. The Confessors probed you to find your motives, and to perform the severance. You will remember nothing of it, for I knocked you out before it, and removed your memory after it. If you had known, they would have found the truth."
Obi-Wan visibly shivered. "But that girl died for your charade."
Ki waved his hand, almost dismissively. "You think I'd let her die? Of course I didn't, Obi-Wan. I knocked you out so you wouldn't see me save her."
"All those lies," Obi-Wan said, quietly. Qui-Gon had expected him either to rail and fight, furious at being manipulated, or rashly promise to fulfil his destiny and save the world. Instead he seemed... older, somehow, as if a little piece of him that still remained innocent had just shattered. His voice was weak, his sense one of dull defeat.
<I like you for what you are, now what you might do> he sent, quickly and fiercely. <I will stand at your side.> And then he felt foolish, not sure where the thoughts had come from, and very sure that Obi-Wan would not hear them.
"I do not ask forgiveness," Obi-Wan's Master said, almost curtly, "for the cause I serve is too important, and my own wishes are nothing. I only ask that you do not now walk away from the task that has been laid upon you. I only ask that you fight for this cause."
"I'm not sure I _can_ forgive," Obi-Wan whispered. He was trembling, and Qui-Gon instinctively moved to support him, putting one hand on the small of his back and the other on his arm. "I have seen you show more emotion tonight than in eight years as your apprentice. I was so sure there was something deeply wrong with me, that you couldn't care for me, or ever feel any pride in me."
"I know I wronged you, but I had to." It was the same words as he had used before, justifying himself to Qui-Gon, and the same almost smug tone. This was token regret, Qui-Gon thought - genuine, but dismissed as being nothing to the cause this man thought he was serving. Perhaps the Council leaders had turned to the Dark Side, Qui-Gon thought, but they could hardly be more arrogant and manipulative than this so-called saviours of the Light.
"Yes," Obi-Wan said, vaguely. He gave a small strange laugh. "You had to."
Ki-Adi-Mundi opened his mouth as if to speak, but then a voice rose high and clear in alarm: "they're coming! Flee! Now!"
Somewhere not far away blasters were firing.
Ben was drowning in a whirlpool. There were so many thoughts and feelings clamouring for recognition, and he was just cowering in the middle, lost and numb. He wanted to press his hands to his ears, sobbing, begging them to leave him alone, to give him space to be alone and silent.
He had lain in Qui-Gon's arms, and heard the truth. He had lain in Qui-Gon's arms, and found that everything he had ever known in life was a lie.
Somewhere, like a very small creature nudging him for attention, there was hope and joy. He was not unworthy. His Master had cared for him and been pleased with him. He had chosen him and seen great worth in him. He was a good person, and not a failure.
But the small creature was standing alone against the storm. He had become the sort of man he was purely because of his Master's rejection, and it was all for nothing, all of it for nothing... Certainties were revealed as lies. He had no truths left. He had been betrayed, manipulated, and had nothing.
"I had to," his Master said.
Qui-Gon could have been his Master. Qui-Gon, the first man to look at him with emotion, could have been entrusted with his heart, and been the one he loved with all his naive childish soul. Qui-Gon was flawed, and he knew that - he would not turn him into some idealised perfect Master - but surely he would not have been as Ki-Adi-Mundi had been. If _he_ had been the one with the vision, he would have found some way to fulfil the destiny without hurting him. He knew that instinctively and with certainty.
"Yes," he said, sadly, understanding so much. "You had to." It was understanding, but not forgiveness. His Master had acted as he did because of the sort of man he was. He was all cold duty. His cause was just, and he used that knowledge to justify any sin.
He blinked, but it made no difference; tears swam before his eyes. The room wavered and swayed. Perhaps it was weakness, perhaps it was the tears. Qui-Gon touched him gently, then froze.
A voice shouted something... what? He was aware of nothing more than his Master's cold eyes and the matter-of-fact cold apology that was no apology at all, and Qui-Gon's touch.
"Go," his Master shouted, urgently. He didn't move - Ben wondered suddenly if he _could_ - but he raised his arm and pointed straight at his former apprentice. "Obi-Wan, go!"
<Sending me away again> he thought, with a bitter smile. Some part of his mind was aware that his reaction was not entirely rational. Some part of him heard the blasters firing and saw a guard's body fall forwards into the room. Some part of him was here, and twenty-three, and in danger, but at the same time he was twenty-one and leaving the Jedi with his Master's uncaring words like ice in his heart.
"Obi-Wan!" That was Qui-Gon. His hand closed round his arm, pulling him to his feet. He blinked and shook his head, and at least some of the cloudiness lifted. The rational part of his mind knew that he was still very weak, and still in shock, and that was the reason for how he felt.
"Go!" his Master hissed, pointing at the wall behind his chair. Jedi fought at the existing doorway, holding it shut against the attackers. Where Ki-Adi-Mundi pointed, a new door opened up, revealed by the Force where it had previously been concealed.
Qui-Gon didn't pull at him. Ben just stood.
"Obi-Wan!" His Master's face twisted with an urgency that was close to hatred. "I've been through so much to bring you to this day. Don't you _dare_ throw it all away now. Go! Live!"
And, suddenly, he was alone in a vast plain, with watchful darkness stretching above his head, and the last whisper of a wind that had once been a hurricane faded away and leaving him in silence. It was the stillness of certainty, after the whirlwind of confused emotions. He knew what he felt, and he cherished that emotion closely. He would say what he had to say.
"No." It was anger, but not even that. It was cold, not hot, and it was infused with certainty, and not the chaos of darkness. It gave him strength, and he found himself standing tall, shaking off Qui-Gon's support. The battle at the doorway faded away and became as nothing. All that mattered was this new certainty, and his Master, small and broken in his chair.
"No." His voice was quiet, yet utterly sure. "_You_ suffered, you say. Maybe so, but _I_ suffered to, and, unlike you, I had no choice. This is the end, Master. I will no longer dance to your tune. Everything I am is because of you, but no more. My life is my own now, and I make my own choices."
"Obi-Wan, I order you!"
He advanced. "You don't get it, Master," he said, his voice a low hiss, deliberately echoing his Master's earlier arrogant words to Qui-Gon. "You can't order me any more. I am no longer your pawn. I will fight for your cause, but for my own reasons, because _I_ think it is right. If I can fulfil this destiny of yours, then I will do so, but I will do it with my eyes open, not like a blind fool."
Someone cried out. He dimly heard the sound of a body falling to the ground, and the flicker of blaster fire, closer now. It was splintering the door, which was close to falling.
"You say the Council have turned to the darkness and keep the Jedi in blind ignorance. I say that you are little different from them. You kept me blind. You kept all the Jedi blind. You knew this about the Council, but did you ever attempt to open their eyes? No, you and your little conspirators kept silent, smugly confident that, through me, you were doing your bit."
He was intensely aware of Qui-Gon at his side. He thought he felt soft earnest messages of support and approval, and he drew strength from that.
"And now you want me to run and turn my back on your friends. Will they be allowed to run?" He was close enough to his Master now to feel his breathing. They were face to face, and he was in control. Ki-Adi-Mundi's eyes were dark with impotent outrage. "No," he answered for him, spitting the word out as if it tasted bad. "You will close the door behind me, and everyone in here will be captured, or killed. Anything, any evil, is justified as long as your precious cause is preserved."
"The cause is just."
"I will not do evil in the name of good."
"You already have," Ki-Adi-Mundi spat. "You have lived as a criminal, stealing, and sometimes killing innocent guards who were only doing their job, because you thought the cause was just."
That hit hard, and upset his flow. The certainty faltered. He wanted to cry out that it was different, but perhaps it was not. Perhaps he was speaking from pain, and not from a moral high ground. Perhaps he was as bad, as arrogant, as his Master. So many of his actions since leaving the Jedi had been influenced by the pain this man had caused, and it was hard to see anything clearly any more.
"We are not enemies, Obi-Wan," his Master said, gently. Ben thought it was because he sensed his advantage. "I have always cared about you deeply. I beg you to flee now and save yourself, so you can live to fight the next, greater, battle. Please..."
He was lost. On the vast plain, the wind rose again, buffeting his body, howling in his head. He glanced around wildly, seeking guidance. Qui-Gon's face was unreadable; his Master's he could read all to well. <Help me> he wanted to cry, not to his Master, but to the man who could have been his Master. <I don't know what to do.>
And then the door burst open and the guards rushed in, and it was too late to make any choices. The enemy had found them.
Flanked by guards with blasters, Mace Windu strode into the room. Two hooded Confessors followed him.
Outnumbered, Ki-Adi-Mundi's follow conspirators fell back, just a little. Like all Jedi, they were without weapons, except for wooden staffs. The two guards from the end of the passageway were both dead.
Qui-Gon watched all this, surprisingly dispassionate. He felt like a spectator in a theatre, vaguely interested in how the battle would turn out, but not really emotionally invested in it. For more immediate was the battle being fought within Obi-Wan's soul. How awesome he had been when he had confronted his old Master; how terrible it had been to see that sureness crumble and confusion take its place. Had things been different, Qui-Gon thought, he would have struck Ki-Adi-Mundi, and struck him hard.
"You are arrested as traitors to the Jedi," Mace Windu said, his voice cold and ringing. "For disobeying the Code, and aiding the escape of a traitor." He looked contemptuously at Ki-Adi-Mundi, then at the others, one at a time, Adi Gallia last and longest.
"I am no traitor," Ki-Adi-Mundi said, raising his chin. Despite himself, Qui-Gon had to admire his dignity. "I have always remained true, when others have not."
He seemed weak and tense with strain, more than he had been before. Qui-Gon, frowning, realised that he was summoning the Force, willingly the Council leader not to see Obi-Wan at all. He looked at Obi-Wan, wondered if he had sensed it, and, if so, what he thought about it, but Obi-Wan gave nothing away.
"Come peacefully. If you do not, they will shoot, and shoot to kill."
Adi Gallia stepped forward, offering her hands to be bound, the wrists touching. One by one, the others followed. They were doing it willingly, Qui-Gon realised with something close to awe. They too were shielding both Obi-Wan and himself - why him? - and offering themselves as willing sacrifices to cover their escape.
This was something new. He had misunderstood them, he realised. He had thought them cowards, plotting in the safety of their secure positions in the Order, leaving all the danger to Obi-Wan, their unwitting pawn. He saw now that every last one of them was prepared to die for their cause. It made him feel a strange sense of regret and longing. _He_ had never found a cause worth dying for.
He glanced at Obi-Wan, who was frowning faintly, his sense distant. Suddenly, and with no warning, Obi-Wan stepped forward, tearing through the wall of concealment that the others had wrought as if it was but paper.
"No," he said, and his voice was strong.
Ki-Adi-Mundi cried out in fury and despair. Adi Gallia looked at Obi-Wan as if she hated him, for deliberately making her sacrifice worthless, invalidating her surrender. Mace Windu, though, looked at Obi-Wan, seeing him fully for the first time, and his eyes narrowed.
He had scarcely realised he was going to act. The shock and injury left him light-headed, and he seemed to hear voices. They told him things, made him intensely aware of truths, and made him act. So it had been when he had confronted his Master, and so it was now.
"No," he said, walking forward.
Mace Windu turned to face him, and his eyes narrowed. He looked like a spider regarding a fly.
"No," he said, again.
He envisaged a deep dark river, and himself standing on the bank. He knew it would be cold and terrible. He knew he would shiver and that his life would be in danger, but still he plunged into its icy depths. So it was with Mace Windu's eyes. He looked at them, forced himself to _truly_ look at them, and poured all his soul and sincerity through that gaze.
Mace Windu blinked, but did not look away.
"There is no darkness in you," Ben said, with quiet certainty.
Standing frozen, watching the sacrifice of Adi Gallia and the others, he had absently probed the man, and realised this truth. Not even his Master knew as much about the darkness as he did. He had lived two years in the underworld, as familiar with the stench of darkness as he was with his own body. For all his rebellion, Ki-Adi-Mundi still lived in the Jedi's ivory tower, cut off from the world. He had been unable to see the darkness in Xanatos, and, while he had deduced the darkness at the core of the Jedi, it did not come from a true sense.
Master Windu's sense was of the same stamp as Ki-Adi-Mundi's. He believed what he was doing was right, and that the hurts he was causing were justified. He genuinely believed the teachings about Light triumphing over the Darkness, and intervention being a sin against the Force. He was blind to the Darkness of those who sat beside him on the Council, whispering their deceitful words in his ear, and pushing him unwittingly along a dark path of their making.
This he knew. He knew, also, that he was the only one who did. His Master was almost as blind as the rest of the Jedi, and all of them had been kept from their true potential. All had the ability to see as he did, but none could. It made him suddenly, achingly sad.
"There is no Darkness in you," he said, again, and this time his voice was sorrowing. "Yet you come here in dark purpose, manipulated by others who have made their choice and willingly chosen the Darkness." His heart twisted in sympathy. He knew what it was like to be a pawn.
"Mind how you speak to me," Master Windu snapped, and his fist clenched as if to strike him.
He stepped closer. "It _is_ true. Shall I show you?"
Afterwards, he would wonder how he knew what to do, and how he had ever dared it. For a while, he would think that the Force had controlled him, guiding him down the right path, and he had been without volition, and still a pawn even though this time the pawn of the most worthy Master of all. But, later still, he would realise that even then he had been acting out of pain. He had been in shock, everything he had ever believed about his life in ruins. His thoughts and feelings in tatters, he had acted on impulse only, knowing that he had had nothing further to lose.
Then, though, he had known nothing of this, and not even wondered. He merely stepped forward and took Master Windu's hand, then closed his eyes. He thought only to teach, only to share something of the truths he knew. He would open Master Windu's eyes to the evil around him, and all would be well.
At the time, it seemed only wonderfully right, and not foolish at all.
Obi-Wan took Mace Windu's hand, and closed his eyes.
Silently, a Confessor started forward. Quicker than Qui-Gon could see, a thin metal rod was in his hand, raised high over his head, then coming down towards the back of Obi-Wan's neck.
Quick as thought, Qui-Gon was upon him, moving faster than he had ever moved in his life. Obi-Wan's lightsabre was in his hand, the pure blue light slashing through the air, and the rod of metal lay in two halves on the floor. Clutching the weapon, Qui-Gon stood bodily between Obi-Wan and any who dared harm him.
Mace Windu pulled away from Obi-Wan's touch, his eyes clouded. "Is it true?" he murmured. He turned and looked at the Confessors, and the undisguised menace of their stances. Then he looked hard at Qui-Gon and the blue blade in his hand. He touched his brow, and for a moment looked very confused and lost. Then he shook his head, and was the strong Council leader again.
"I need to think on this." He looked at the guards, and nodded sharply. "Take them all into custody. The Confessors as well." When he turned back, a deep dark anger burned in his eyes, and Qui-Gon found it hard to believe Obi-Wan's contention. "I will question all who advise me and seek to bind me to their purpose. _Everyone._" His eyes left no room for doubt. Ki-Adi-Mundi, and Obi-Wan, were as suspect as the ones they accused.
Obi-Wan nodded. "That is fair." He looked deeply tired, as if he was only slowly waking up from some drug-induced trance. It as almost as if he was wondered where he was, and what he was doing - as if the Obi-Wan who had acted and spoken and taken charge these last few minutes was a different men entirely.
A guard moved forward and cuffed Adi Gallia, while one of his fellows moved towards the first Confessor. Mace Windu stood over the scene, tall and commanding, and a dangerous man to cross.
"Are you all right?" Qui-Gon mouthed to Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan nodded weakly. He looked as if he was barely standing. Only hours before he had been so close to death.
Then Obi-Wan's eyes widened with horror, sensing something through the Force that Qui-Gon was still deaf to. A second later, Qui-Gon heard the cry of agony, and knew the danger for what it was.
The second Confessor had pulled out a rod of metal, and pressed it against the guard's neck. The guard was screaming in unalloyed agony, paralysed and unable to move way from the cruel metal touch.
"Stop that," Master Windu barked, commandingly.
The Confessor showed no sign of hearing him. Almost casually, the other one stepped forward and drew a knife. Mace's eyes widened at the sight of it, just as two blaster bolts hit him in the back. His eyes still wide, he fell.
Obi-Wan cried out, and fell to his knees beside him. His fingers shook as they touched his neck. He counted a few seconds, his lips moving silently, then shook his head. "Dead." His eyes were swimming with tears. He had never known the man, surely, but who knew what connection had been formed in their too-brief mental contact.
Qui-Gon felt his own eyes prick. He blinked to clear them, then - "Obi-Wan!"
The Confessor with the metal rod had released the guard, and was so close to Obi-Wan now, the guard's blaster in one hand, the rod in his other. Bent over Mace, Obi-Wan did not see, and the back of his neck was so exposed and vulnerable...
He swung the lightsabre, fury and desperation burning read in his mind. <He's been hurt enough. Don't you _dare_ touch him...> But the lightsabre slipped from his fingers. Something, some impossible irresistible force, was pulling it from his hand, and he could not hold it, he could not resist. His finger wrenched.
He wailed his grief and reproach. He was too weak. Obi-Wan would die, and he was too weak...
A blaster bolt flew, directly at Obi-Wan's face, and he closed his eyes. Nothing he could do. Nothing at all... But then someone cried out in pain, and it wasn't Obi-Wan. There was no sharp pull of pain in his mind, in the place he had felt Obi-Wan's silent call when he lay dying in the mansion.
He dared to open his eyes, and he saw as if in slow motion, ever detail infinitely clear.
Obi-Wan stood astride Mace's body, and the blue lightsabre was in his hands, swinging and lunging until it looked as if he was surrounded by a flickering nimbus of blue. The Confessors and four guards, all with blasters, faced him and were firing on him. Three more guards were fighting _them_, but falteringly, as if the sight of the Council leader's death had convinced them that this was the true foe, but they had not yet been able to fully overcome the reluctance to fire upon men who had once been friends.
Every bolt that came close to Obi-Wan he deflected, mostly harmlessly into the wall, but not all. He was trying to spare lives, but not absolutely. His priority was to save the innocent, and not the guilty. One bolt, heading straight at Adi Gallia, he lunged at wildly and deflected into a Confessor's shoulder. Another hit a guard full in the chest, and a third hit a guard's blaster, destroying both the weapon and the man's hand.
Qui-Gon's mouth was dry, with awe and fear. Once again, he felt this was not truly real. There was nothing he could do but watch.
As he watched, a guard fell - one of the enemy. Adi Gallia reached out her hands and summoned the blaster towards her, firing it despite her cuffed hands. Her face was cold and determined, and a Confessor fell, shot without remorse straight through the heart.
Qui-Gon felt shamed. He shook his head, and a sense of reality returned. He smelt the smoke and the acrid stench of warm blood, and the smell of fear. He heard cries, and fast breathing, and the silence of death. He felt sweat on his hands, and the small pain there where Obi-Wan had wrenched the lightsabre from his hands and pulled one of his resisting fingers. <This is real> he told himself, and then hated himself that he even needed to say so. Of course it was. Did Obi-Wan have to die in order for him to come to his senses?
Fiercely, then, he followed Adi's example and snatched a blaster from the floor, and joined in the fight. He felled a guard, and felt nothing for his death.
In his mind, though, he heard Xanatos' dying scream. _That_ had been his first kill, and the most terrible. That had been the thing that had shaken his life to its very core, showing his life, and the Jedi, to be different from how he had always believed. That was the source of his feelings of unreality. The Jedi he knew never fought and never had to. From the moment he had killed Xanatos, he had departed from this model, and life had been like a dream - a dream in which he learned things about the Jedi, and met Obi-Wan, and had seen horrors and marvels.
Not truly real...? Ah, that was the defence - a defence from the horror of the past week, and a defence against the allure of Obi-Wan. This was immensely real, and immeasurably serious. Everything could rest on this moment. Everything.
"You can stop now," he heard, gently.
He was slow to come back. His thoughts rippled around his head, slow to recede. When he was finally able to, he focused and saw that the room was silent and smoking. Only he still fired, firing blindly towards the enemy, as if they were still standing. His bolts only cut through the empty air above their bodies, and impacted on the far wall.
He found he was shaking. This was not how it was supposed to be, he thought, heavy with shame. Then - "Obi-Wan...." He looked round stupidly. Where was Obi-Wan?
"He's fine." He thought that was Adi Gallia. Someone touched his shoulder in perfunctory sympathy.
He found he had been kneeling. He moved his head stiffly from side to side, and saw Mace's staring dead eyes. He couldn't see Obi-Wan.
"Obi-Wan," he said, again, almost pleadingly. All he could think was that he had killed his apprentice and killed a stranger, and both times it had been to save Obi-Wan. He didn't resent it, but it made him _need_ him. It had to mean something.
"Can you give him what he needs?" Adi asked, and for a moment her brusqueness was softened with pity.
He saw him then - or perhaps he had seen him all along, but chosen not to. Obi-Wan knelt on the floor, and tears were pouring down his face. In his arms he held the dying body of his Master.
"It was the only bolt he let through," Adi said, quietly. "And there were so many..."
<Oh, Obi-Wan> His heart twisted with pain. How much more sorrow could Obi-Wan be expected to take? But he could not go to him, could not say it aloud. He had known Obi-Wan for only a few days, and it was presumptuous to think that Obi-Wan would need his comfort now.
"Master," Obi-Wan was saying, over and over, holding his hand and weeping. "I'm sorry..."
Ki-Adi-Mundi's lips moved. "I am proud of you, Obi-Wan."
Feeling like the worst kind of eavesdropper, Qui-Gon looked away. But it was as if he was locked in a world that contained only himself, Ki-Adi-Mundi and Obi-Wan. All other sounds faded to nothing. However hard he tried, he could not stop himself hearing the words that were whispered between Obi-Wan and his Master. Even when he pressed his hands over his ears, he still heard.
"I'm sorry I said what I did. I'm sorry I didn't stop it hitting you. I'm sorry..."
"Hush, Obi-Wan." His face twisted in pain. Blood was bubbling at his lips. "There's nothing to be sorry for." Then his eyes met Qui-Gon's and they contained a summons. "Qui-Gon...."
Qui-Gon froze. Obi-Wan did not look up, seeing only his Master, but somehow - and Qui-Gon didn't know how he knew this - intensely aware of Qui-Gon, crouched on the fringes, listening.
"Thank you for saving him," Ki murmured.
"Why me?" he asked, and it was almost a wail. Why had he been given this terrible burden and this immense gift?
Ki-Adi-Mundi gave a twisted smile. "Because you were defiant, and would do it." Then serious again, and Qui-Gon suspected that this was the true reason. "Because he should have been your apprentice, and, by taking him, I robbed you both of happiness."
Obi-Wan looked at his Master, and smiled as if an immense burden had been removed from his soul. "Truly?"
His Master nodded. "Truly, Obi-Wan." His hand closed round Obi-Wan, and weakly lifted it, as if he was offering it to Qui-Gon. Before Qui-Gon could even be sure of it, and certainly before he could move to take it, Ki-Adi-Mundi fell back limply, and died.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes. He did not wail, he did not sob. Qui-Gon thought he would have found it more bearable if he had.
He was dimly aware of movement around him, and now he looked. The second door had been opened, and he saw the wisp of a cloak as at least one Jedi disappeared through it into the darkness beyond. Blasters fired, and he knew that Adi Gallia and several others were firing at the doorway that led back towards the Temple, firing until the ceiling fell in the passageway and blocked it entirely.
When he turned back, Obi-Wan had not moved. His eyes were closed, and he was very pale.
<Truly?> he had said, right at the end, as if it was the best possible gift his Master could have given him. Qui-Gon wondered what it meant. Then, suddenly, he thought he knew. Ki-Adi-Mundi had asked Qui-Gon to take care of Obi-Wan, and it was partly because of his history of arguing the need to help people - partly because he thought Qui-Gon was likely to be on his side in the battle he was fighting.
But this was not the main reason. Even if Qui-Gon had been likely to betray his cause, he thought Ki-Adi-Mundi would still have done what he had done. At the very end, and ten years too late, the Master had considered Obi-Wan's feelings, and put them before the cause. By assigning Qui-Gon, Ki-Adi-Mundi had been apologising for all he had done to his apprentice, by taking him from his intended Master. He had been offering him - offering them both - a second chance of happiness. An unbending man, sure of the justice of his cause, he had been unable to voice his apology, yet he had still felt it, and sincerely.
It _was_ a gift, and, suddenly fervent, he swore he would not let it slip through his fingers.
Without a word, he stood up, and moved to Obi-Wan's side. Then he knelt down and wrapped his arms around him from behind, holding him close, yet making no effort to pull him away from his Master's body.
Obi-Wan gave a small sigh, and relaxed into Qui-Gon's embrace. Ki-Adi-Mundi's slack dead hand slipped from his grasp, and Obi-Wan made no attempt to reclaim it.
"I'm here for you, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon murmured, his lips close to his ear. "Always, or for as long as you want me."
Obi-Wan froze, not breathing. When he breathed again, he was trembling. "Really?" It was tremulous with hope, as if he could not really believe that anyone would want him. Ki-Adi-Mundi had done that to him, and, though he knew the man was dead and that his last words had been a sort of apology, Qui-Gon could still feel angry at him.
"Yes," he said, and he felt very sure of it. They had known each other for a few days only, and Qui-Gon had started off by hating him. They had both been through a lot, and their emotions could not be trusted. Who knew what the future would hold? But, even knowing all this, Qui-Gon felt certain that this was right. He was Obi-Wan's chosen Master, and right from the start they had been drawn together.
He fought the urge to kiss Obi-Wan - to pull him round and take his face in his cupped hands, and pull his lips towards his own. He would kiss them before everyone, and stake his claim, and show everyone that anyone who hurt this beautiful young man would have him to deal with. But that was wrong. Obi-Wan needed to know that he was offering more than physical attraction - that his emotions ran deeper than this.
Instead, then, he pulled him close, enfolding him in his arms like a Master would do to a child apprentice, holding him safe from the world. Obi-Wan's face nuzzled his chest, and his fingers dug into his robe, as if holding on for his life. Just for a moment. One second, two, then Obi-Wan drew back, and there was no trace of tears on his face. There was only one gesture of closeness - his hand, which reached for Qui-Gon's hand and held it tight.
<Are you ready?> Qui-Gon asked with his eyes.
Obi-Wan nodded, and hand in hand they stood.
"I'm ready to go now," Obi-Wan said to Adi Gallia, and he managed to look both immensely dignified, and like a prisoner walking to the gallows.
For a moment, her expression was one of sympathy, and he sensed that she and Obi-Wan had a brief moment of connection, sharing their grief for Ki-Adi-Mundi's death. But Adi Gallia was too like the man she had followed, and any grief was subordinate to the cause. A moment later, her gaze was dispassionate. "But the paths we follow are different." She gestured to the new doorway. "Together for a while, and then we part."
Obi-Wan swallowed, and nodded. "Will you bury him?"
"If I can."
"No." There was steel in Obi-Wan's voice. "Bury him, or I do nothing."
Anger flared briefly in her face, but then she nodded, looking for a while almost young, and defeated. "I will bury him, but I would prefer to do it before the whole Jedi, who see clearly and give him his due."
Again, Qui-Gon had the sense that there was a communication that he was not party to. He felt again that wild yearning to learn, and the sense of the vast amount he did not know. At last, Obi-Wan spoke. "I will try. That is all I can swear."
She took his hand, suddenly fervent. "You can do this, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon knew it was his still-injured right hand, and knew that, when Obi-Wan tightened his grip on Qui-Gon's hand, it was from pain as well as a need for reassurance.
When she released him, Obi-Wan turned away, away from the body of his Master, and walked towards the door. His hand still held, Qui-Gon let himself be led.
The last thing he saw as Adi Gallia's hand raised in brief farewell.
They walked a while in silence, following the twists of the dark passageway. When they emerged, it was to a place Qui-Gon didn't recognise, somewhere in the city. The passage came out in a cellar, and the cellar beneath a small house guarded by a suspicious-eyed man who did not challenge them, but did not speak. Outside, it was just a house like any other, in some part of the city not far from the Temple, but unwalked by the Jedi.
There was enough light from the tall buildings for Qui-Gon to see Obi-Wan's face. "What are you thinking?" he asked, gently. He wondered if the younger man wanted to talk about what had happened.
Obi-Wan shrugged. "Names. My name."
He didn't understand.
They were walking forward. Obi-Wan seemed to know where he was going - but, then, his eyes were vague, so perhaps he was just walking blindly, going wherever chance took him.
"You call me Obi-Wan," Obi-Wan said, his voice almost detached. "Did you know that, since leaving the Jedi, I have never once thought of myself as Obi-Wan Kenobi."
He had not known, and the thought was strangely shocking to him. "What name do your prefer?"
Obi-Wan shrugged again. "I have had lots of names. I change it every few months, to keep myself anonymous and safe. But..." - and only now did he look at Qui-Gon - "I have never truly felt that any of them were me. I haven't really thought of myself as having a name at all."
He wanted to hold him tight and weep for him. It said so much about the lonely man Obi-Wan had become. He didn't even think he deserved a name or any real identity. Perhaps names were only really necessary if there another person in your life who could use it.
"Obi-Wan was my Jedi name, and I had no desire to be the sort of person the Jedi wanted me to be."
"And now?" he asked.
Obi-Wan shook his head. "I don't know. My Master says the Jedi were pure once, and that they can be so again. When that happens, perhaps I can be Obi-Wan again...." His voice trailed off, then he shook his head abruptly. "But you call me Obi-Wan, and I am still enough of a Jedi that I _want_ to help change them. I can't walk away from that. I guess Obi-Wan's as good as anything."
Qui-Gon stopped walking and tugged at Obi-Wan's hand, pulling him round to face him. He touched his face, looking deeply into his eyes. "I hope you are soon able to feel proud of that name, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan gave a quick tight smile. Perhaps it was of gratitude, but there was still something else troubling him. Qui-Gon knew there was all the grief and confusion of what had happened, but there was also something else. Obi-Wan was taut with fear and dread for the future.
He remembered what Obi-Wan had promised to Adi Gallia, and her talk of the different paths they must walk. "Where are we going?" he asked, when Obi-Wan started walking again.
"You heard my Master." Obi-Wan gave a wry smile, but there was something very bleak about it. "I've got to save the world."
"What? Tonight?" And then he realised how foolish he sounded, and wished he could call the words back.
Obi-Wan was no longer smiling and perhaps that was good - there had been something very grim and terrible about his smile. "It's only right that it's me. I'm the one who's caused the threat."
Where were they walking? Weaving in and out of dark and stinking alleys, far below the lives of the city's rich and the rulers... He was holding the hand of a man who was still a stranger, who thought he could save the world. But the stars were still in their place, and the sounds of the city were as they always had been. Once again, he fought the sense of this being a dream.
"The man who asked me to get the Soul of Fire..." Obi-Wan shuddered with some remembered horror. "I tested him and thought I could trust him. I delivered the stone into his hands, and he used my blood to make it a thing of immense power. _He_ has power, too, like something I've never felt before. He said the world was doomed, and my Master said the same."
"You believe that?" he said, incredulous, then cursed himself. <Used my blood...> How Obi-Wan had suffered...
"There are more powers on earth than the Jedi know," Obi-Wan said, grimly. "I don't know what Constantine plans to do, but I do believe the threat. The Force showed my Master the truth, and I trust the Force." He did not say that he trusted his Master. That had been forever fractured, Qui-Gon thought sadly.
"How do you propose to do this?" Then, seeing something die in Obi-Wan's eyes, he stopped again, once more pulling him to face him. "I'm saying 'you', Obi-Wan. I _will_ come with you, in whatever you propose. You do know that, don't you?"
Obi-Wan had not - he realised that instantly, when a small fierce spark of light illuminated his face. It was hope, he realised - another tiny fragment of hope and security in that immeasurably damaged soul.
This time when Obi-Wan smiled, something in it seemed real. It was still wry and self-deprecating, but not bleak. "I have no idea at all, Qui-Gon."
"Ah well." He made himself laugh, too, thinking it would be difficult, but finding it extraordinarily easy. "We can learn it together, then, this saving the world thing."
Obi-Wan laughed, and it was so precious to hear.
Then, later, Obi-Wan stopped, sniffing the air like some wild animal. He held up his hand, cautioning Qui-Gon to stay silent.
"Something's wrong," he said, at last. "There is fear in the street."
He looked with distaste at the piles of refuse and the dark shadows, each large enough to hold an assassin. "Is it any wonder?"
"No." Obi-Wan shook his head emphatically. "I have lived in places like this for two years. I know the sense of it. There's poverty, yes, and some violence. But nothing like this."
He swallowed. He felt very weak and very blind - only a Jedi, when the Jedi were so much less than they could have been. "What is it?"
Obi-Wan stood very still, and Qui-Gon knew he was questing forth with all his senses. Suddenly he shivered, and went very pale. Thinking he was fainting, Qui-Gon rushed to hold him, but Obi-Wan recovered himself and remained standing. Qui-Gon was left, awkward, holding him in a rough parody of a lover's embrace.
"I don't know." Obi-Wan didn't appear to notice. He didn't look at Qui-Gon at all. "It's something very.... very _primitive._"
Qui-Gon stepped away, removing his hands from Obi-Wan, feeling foolish. "What's primitive?" he asked, to cover his confusion. "The thing causing the fear? Or the fear itself?" Obi-Wan was talking about saving the world, and he was fumbling like an embarrassed adolescent. He felt so lost and useless in all of this.
Obi-Wan frowned. "Both." Then he shook his head, as if waking up from a dream. "I know where we can find out, though." He headed for the building that a broken scrawled sign declared to be a tavern.
It was impossible not to admire him, Qui-Gon admitted. Obi-Wan knew how to blend into a crowd, leaving little memory of his presence, yet emerging with every scrap of information that was going. He was an expert eavesdropper, and knew just the questions to ask to loosen a tongue without appearing to be probing.
"Monsters," he scoffed, after he had stood a while in the street and taken deep breaths of fresh air - for even the rank air of this dark alley was better than the mingled smells of smoke and sweat and rotten ale inside the tavern.
Obi-Wan nodded. Men had seen monsters. At least, one had had seen one, and another man remembered that a friend had seen one, and, after a few pints, everything was sure that they had seen one too.
Qui-Gon was inclined to believe none of it. "They're drunk."
Obi-Wan looked at him searchingly. "Sometimes alcohol makes men speak of truths they are afraid to utter when sober." Then he raised his eyebrow sardonically. "Sometimes..."
He felt an irrational urge to giggle, although he had only drunk one pint of the dark bitter liquid. Obi-Wan had drunk none. "We have to save the world from monsters?"
"They spoke of an old evil resurfaced. They were _scared_. These are the very people who remember the old tales - superstitious, perhaps, but maybe with a degree of truth in them. They say there are portents."
Qui-Gon wondered how Obi-Wan had found this out. _He_ certainly hadn't.
"They say there are spirits their grandfathers' grandfathers spoke of, who wandered the woods when they were young. They speak of the one who rules them, who pretends to be a friend but is an enemy. They speak of seeing these servants this night, and fearing that the Master has come. That is why they drink, Qui-Gon." Obi-Wan's voice rose, loud and fervent.
There was something wrong with his eyes. He blinked hard and his vision cleared. He wondered how much Obi-Wan had drunk, that he would speak like this.
"Where would Constantine go?" Obi-Wan mused.
Qui-Gon shivered. "Perhaps he didn't go anywhere." He wasn't sure why he said it, but he was seized with an image, a memory, of the creeping menace of the place - the way he had been so sure that door was reaching out to grab him, and the whispering evil of the plants.
Obi-Wan looked at his sharply. "Why do you say that?"
Qui-Gon shrugged and tried to explain. He said what he remembered. As he spoke, his words seemed foolish. The alcohol had affected him more than he had thought, and he was raving.
"It was not like that when I was there," Obi-Wan said, this voice tight but his eyes burning. "The plants were there, but the doors were painted gold, and there were cobbles outside."
He rubbed his eyes. "I saw what I saw."
"Yes," Obi-Wan said. "Yes, you did." Then he grabbed Qui-Gon's arm, and they were away.
They ran. Qui-Gon had wanted to return to fetch his speeder from the Temple, but Obi-Wan it was too dangerous. The men who had killed his Master would kill him, and would do so gleefully. He knew the streets well, even though the sense of fear hung heavy in them, making them strange and dark.
Could it really be true that he could save the world? His Master had thought so, and his Master...
<No> It was like a massive wall slamming down over his thoughts. There would be confusion there, and pain, but this was not the time to think of him. He let himself see him one last time, and spoke <Master> in his mind, cherishing the feel of the word. Then he let it . It was pushed behind the wall, and there it would stay until he was alone again and had the leisure to break down.
The other demons in his mind gibbered cheerfully, pleased that they had more space to play in.
Why was Qui-Gon with him? But that, too, could be pushed behind the wall. Whatever the reason, the situation was too urgent to waste time in questioning him. Two pairs of hands were better than one, so he would just accept him. In the aftermath of the broken world, he could ask, and watch as Qui-Gon walked away.
How could he save the world? How stupid and laughable it was; how horrendous and terrible. Every choice could be the wrong one, every step could be just a little too slow, and everything would end, and it would be his fault.
He wanted to shudder, but knew that, if he started, he would never stop.
How many ways could the world end? It could be quiet, and metaphorical. Tonight, Constantine might do something to secure his position as an Emperor. Tomorrow, life would seem the same for everyone in the Republic. The sun would still rise and set, and women would still give birth, and men still die. But, slowly and inexorably, the Emperor's clutching bone-like hand would enclose the world, and his grip would tighten, tighten...
It could be fire, and the fiery heart of the stone, nourished with his blood, would whirl like a vortex and escape the crystal prison that held it. It would swell, and cities would burn. In the veins of man, blood would boil - fire meeting blood and becoming one. The ending of everything would be red.
But in the tavern, men had spoken of an ancient evil reawakened. Perhaps death would come from below, and the ground would pull back to reveal the awakened dead. They would emerge through the floors and the carpets and the gilded corridors, dark eyed and terrible. They would claim the world for their own, and the living would fall before them like grass before a scythe.
He blinked, and images flashed before him, each one faster and quicker and more cruel. He saw the stars falling and burning the earth; he saw disease and children dying in the street... He saw the end of all things, in fire and water, in disease and violence.
How would it start? Had it started already? The quiet cry of a woman heard through the open window of a house.... Was that the first cry of the coming death? Did he run and make himself foolish, when people were already dying far away?
He wanted to cherish every sight of the beautiful, squalid, corrupt city. He wanted to embrace the people he had always kept himself apart from - every single flawed and precious soul of them. He wanted to stop and touch that stone there, and this cobble, and that old statue, half eaten away from pollution. He wanted to breathe the air and know it. He wanted to swim in the water and climb the highest tower, and descend to the lowest depth.
He wanted so much, and each desire he carefully cherished for a tiny moment, then pushed behind the wall. If he thought too much he would break entirely. He would fall to his knees in the street and weep and wail for the world that was going to be lost, and the terrible burden of being the one who could stop it.
Best, he thought, if he didn't let himself feel at all. He would be all cold fire and determination, and his only thoughts would be of the fulfilment of his goal.
His mind felt so heavy with walls.
Qui-Gon grabbed his arm, and at first it was nothing more than a very faint irritant. "How far?" he heard, barely. He walked gingerly through the walls, and allowed himself to see again, focusing on where he was, and the man he was with.
"How far?" Qui-Gon asked again. He was breathing in fast anguished breaths.
Obi-Wan tried to answer, then found he could not. He had run past the point of exhaustion, he realised, with surprise. He had ceased to be aware of his body - of how claws of pain clutched at his chest and every step was torture.
And then he found that he had stopped, and was slumped forward, heaving for breath. His whole body was shaking. His vision lurched terrifyingly, and for a moment red darkness rushed up to cover him.
"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon soothed, but there was a note of frustration in his voice. "Why wouldn't you stop before?"
He willed the darkness to recede, and managed to stand up a little more. He blinked, and saw where he was. They had run for an hour, and far further than he could have hoped for. He could not even have begun to recount what route they had taken, though he had led them.
Careful, careful... "There's not enough time." He had to find Constantine and stop him. There was something else there, too, but that was behind a wall and could not be thought of.
Qui-Gon briefly clenched his fist, in wordless anger. Then he pointed across the street. Speeders for hire. "And I have enough credits," Qui-Gon said, with a triumphant smile.
Obi-Wan nodded. "Fine. Get one, then." He was not up to speaking more than that. Perhaps it sounded brusque, but the shuddering breaths between each word softened them. It truly was all he could say.
Qui-Gon took two steps, then stopped. "I'm not leaving you out here, alone."
Another deep breath, and this time he willed it to last, to let him speak. "I've been alone on these streets for two years." Just saying that made him dizzy.
Strangely, Qui-Gon looked as if he was hurt by these words. His mouth tightened, and there was something dark in his eyes, like anger." Yes," he said, sharply. "And you shouldn't have been, and you won't be any more."
Obi-Wan almost fought, but what was the point? When Qui-Gon took his arm and led him, and he totally surrounded his will to the other man's, it felt guiltily good.
He looked at the pale face of the young man beside him, and wanted to speak. He didn't know what he believed. That the world could end tonight? Surely not. Yet, still, he felt the creeping sense that _something_ lay in wait for them at the end of their journey. Whether the world was at risk or not, the two of them could die this night.
He felt he should know the words. He should turn to Obi-Wan and make his speech, and it would sum up his feelings, and leave promises for the future. It would be both a farewell, and a statement that they would never be apart. He would gently smile and tell Obi-Wan his worth, and how glad he was to have found him, and yet at the same time he would be sober, aware of their danger and speaking of it.
They were outside tall walls of stone - and yet, when he blinked, it seemed as if they were made of entwined black branches heavy with thorns. He shivered. <I have no wish to enter that place> he would say, <but, since I do, I am glad it is with you, Obi-Wan.>
But who was he to speak such words? He was a Jedi, locked in blind ignorance, deceived by dark leaders and excluded from the glory of the Force. He had gone to pieces in a battle, and now he was here, and why? Not because he thought he could make a difference; not because he believed in the threat. This was a strange adventure, and he still felt he was dreaming. How could he speak such words as a hero might say to his comrade of arms as they faced some mighty destiny? How could his voice utter anything that was not hollow?
"There." Obi-Wan's eyes were very large in his pinched white face. Their blue was totally lost in the blackness.
They had both been paused, still and silent without talking about it. Now, when they decided to walk forward, they again did it as one mind. Neither of them took the lead, or suggested in words that they walk.
So now they were moving again, and the moment was gone forever. Qui-Gon felt a strange aching regret. They had been standing at the very brink of doom, and he had chosen not to say the words that were in his heart. The moment they stepped through the walls, everything would change and it would be too late.
There was a gate in the walls, hanging loose on rusted hinges. The rust moved like blood, like a living thing, consuming even as he watched. Neither of them wanted to touch it. It was open just enough for them to slip through one at a time. It was only as Obi-Wan's fingers slipped from his grasp that Qui-Gon realised that they had been holding hands from the moment they had stepped from the speeder.
And then Obi-Wan stepped through, and for a wild terrible moment he thought he had been swallowed up by the darkness and lost to him. He cried out. Almost he thought that the walls leant a little closer, their thorns reaching for him. They were enjoying his fear and arching towards it like a cat to a stroking hand.
"Qui-Gon?" he heard.
Heart pounding, he followed Obi-Wan through the gate, and there he was, alive and unchanged. He had merely stepped into shadow, for the height of the walls allowed no moonlight to fall here, while outside the gates Qui-Gon had been standing in full silver light.
"The house," Obi-Wan murmured. There was a faint tremble to his voice.
Qui-Gon looked, and saw a terrible marvel. He had walked through the halls of a mansion, seeking Obi-Wan, and he knew this was the same place. Only the faintest ghost of that house existed now. At first glance he saw it, his mind supplying what it had seen before. When he blinked, though, he saw only trees, their branches twisting and touching until they formed a vague house shape.
Shadows seemed to skitter, laughing, between the trees. The air shimmered grotesquely. He saw movement, and whirled towards it, gasping, only to see a branch, as sharp as a blade, force itself through the rusted metal that had been Obi-Wan's landspeeder, as easily as if it was moving through water.
This he saw with his eyes, and heard with his ears. There was another sense too, but he was suddenly scared to heed it. It was his new and emerging Force sense, and it was no sense he ever wanted. It was all creeping menace. It was hair standing up on the back of his neck, and a physical ache in his chest. It was terror and wrongness, laughing and warped. It was right that the Jedi were blind, he realised suddenly, if _this_ was that hidden other aspect of the Force, this... this monstrosity.
"Do you feel it?" Obi-Wan whispered. He looked close to collapse.
"No." Brutally. "And you shouldn't either."
"It's the Force." His face was a mask of horrified realisation.
Just hearing that made him realise the folly of his own fear. His new Force sense was allowing him to feel the evil of this place. It didn't mean that the Force itself was evil, that it was wrong. It was a medium only, and remained pure, even when it showed him such horrors. He said as much to Obi-Wan, stumbling over the words.
"No." He hadn't thought Obi-Wan could go any paler, but how he did so. He looked as if his whole world had just been destroyed. "It _is_ the Force. This..." He gestured at the mutated trees, a look of revulsion of his face. "This... this selfish wrongness is the Force."
<I don't understand> he wanted to say, and <how can you be sure?> Instead, he looked back at the other side of the gate, only a few steps away, but such a vast expanse of eternity. "Shall we go?"
"No!" Obi-Wan surprised him, shouting it aloud like a battle cry. His hands clenched into fists. "I'm going on." Then, quiet again and very bleak: "What choice do I have?"
Qui-Gon looked at him for a long time, while shadows and skittering evils danced on the fringes of his vision. "I'm coming too, then." Then he fought to insane urge to laugh. They were two madmen, clad in dusty blood-stained rags, walking hand in hand into the maw of hell.
So that was how it would be. No bold speech, no well-chosen words. Only the foolish laughter of an idiot, and the melancholy determination of a young man who was too courageous and selfless to ever be happy.
Surely it was greater within than from without. Qui-Gon thought this quite rationally. Perhaps when you saw the remarkable too many times in one night, it just became ordinary. Or maybe he was somehow protecting his mind from the truth. Too much of this reality, and he would simply go insane.
"It's bigger," Obi-Wan said, and his voice was not only calm, but even casual. It was as if he was observing the relative sizes of two household items, and not being swallowed ever more deeply into an immense wood that, from the outside, had seemed no bigger than a house.
He almost looked back, but found he could not. He remembered an old legend of a man who had walked through the underworld, and, merely by looking back, had lost his one true love. But that man had been leaving hell, and behind him were horrors; for him and Obi-Wan, looking behind would show the sweet world of the living.
Maybe that was why he couldn't bring himself to do it. It the real world was like an open doorway of light, it must surely now be dwindled to the merest candle flame. It he looked back and saw no light at all, but only the black trunks of these unnatural trees, immense and everlasting, it would be more than he could bear.
"Perhaps we're going down," Obi-Wan murmured. "Perhaps this is underground." Qui-Gon remembered that this was why he had wanted to look back in the first place - nothing more than to see whether the land behind them was higher. But why would that make it any better? This place would still defy belief, even if the house of trees did but guard the entrance to an underground cavern full of trees.
Still, he looked up. The thick canopy of twisted branches and leaves hid the sky. It could be stars, or cold damp stone. The City could be around them, or above them, or nowhere at all. He was suddenly struck with the certainty that the canopy covered nothingness. This forest was the last place of all, outside time and space, a bubble in the void.
"I would like to think we are underground," Obi-Wan said suddenly, very slow and surely.
Qui-Gon understood him. Surely they were not walking down hill. Surely they had not gone through a doorway or cavern entrance, and descended from the level of the City. The air was no colder here, as if sunlight warmed it during the day, the same as anywhere. But he, too, thought he would believe they were underground.
The darkness here was not complete. Now his eyes were used to it, he could just see the pale smudge that was Obi-Wan's face, and tree trunks that were like thick black slashes against the dark grey and green. He didn't know where the light was coming from, but thought it might be growing, very gradually.
Occasionally, he thought he saw quick creatures dart between the trees, and once the light cause on an exposed fang and a yellow eye.
"Monsters," Obi-Wan said, and Qui-Gon wished he hadn't; he wanted to have imagined them. But monsters were the talk of drunken men in the taverns, so perhaps he could draw comfort from that. Monsters were not real. These were shy woodland animals, and the menace of this place was not their fault. Perhaps they too were trapped, and would run singing into the sunlight when Obi-Wan did what he had to do.
But his feelings were fickle, his certainties non-existent. Just a moment later, one came close, emerging from the darkness and moving as if on patrol. It stopped, and he heard it sniffing. No, he realised a second later. It made no sound, and neither did it move its head like one searching the darkness with eyes and hearing. He did not hear it sniff, he _felt_ it. Its yellow eyes were blind, and it had no ears. It sensed only with its mind.
He stood very still. He seemed to sense its questing like a visible wave of warped air, passing over and through Obi-Wan without a pause, then touching Qui-Gon. He was engulfed by it; the creature stiffened, sensing something, but not sure what.
Suddenly disgusted, he reached for Obi-Wan's lightsabre to kill it, but Obi-Wan's hand closed round his wrist. "No," he whispered, his voice strangely dull. "Its Master will know. If we kill, he will have warning of his coming."
"Are you sure?" He was sickened by the touch of the creature's mind. He felt as if he was hanging suspended in filthy water, unable to breathe for inhaling it.
Obi-Wan shook his head. "No, but I think so."
"It knows I'm here anyway." He shivered. "Surely it will tell anyway."
"Don't think of it."
And suddenly, even though his eyes were strangely dead, Obi-Wan leant forward and kissed him on the lips. Desire flared brief and strong, and then the reaction. <Not yet> and <not now.> That would be for the future, if they lived. If they were to survive this at all, only this present moment mattered.
When he was aware again, the creature had moved on, and he was free from his touch. He had no idea what had happened. He blinked, half lifted his hand to touch his tingling lips. "Wh...?"
"I didn't know," Obi-Wan said. "I wasn't sure... I thought maybe you were bound together in your thoughts - you aware of it, and it of you. I though if you broke the connection..."
He shivered, both at the memory of being held, and the kiss. "It seems to have worked."
"Of course," Obi-Wan whispered, as starting to walk again. "Every step might kill. Small insects, even the leaving grass crying out to him..."
Qui-Gon did not follow him. "What do you know?"
"Nothing." Obi-Wan turned to face him. Qui-Gon could see every detail on his face now, although it was washed over with dull shadow. Then he shrugged, and looked very young and lost. "Just that this place is alive with life. Every smallest leaf throbs with it, more than any man I have ever known." Yet he shivered.
"You said it was the Force."
He nodded, but there was nothing of the horror he had shown before. Even this he seemed to have absorbed, hiding the pain somewhere deep within him, when really it should have hurt as much as ever. "Can't you feel it? It's the Force - the part of the Force that flows in all living things, in their blood and their mind and their thoughts. But at the same time it's terrible and warped. It has no... no moderation. It's not how it's supposed to be."
As he was speaking, they were walking. Qui-Gon's feet sank shallowly into springy moss that gave low hissing whispers. Remembering what Obi-Wan had said, he shivered.
And then, without any warning, they were at the end of their journey. He wanted to cry out. So many things he wanted to say to Obi-Wan, and now there was no time. But, at the same time, he knew they could have walked for a hundred miles and a century, and he would not have said them.
The end came without pain. It was a tugging at their clothes - soft insistent wind ruffling their hair. It was a swirl of mingled dark and light, like a summons, or maybe just a thick barrier and they walked through it. He thought he was flying. Then he thought that roots were anchoring his feet to the ground, and he had never moved at all.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a nightmare.
Surely it was an eternity later when he spoke, in hushed breathy whisper to Obi-Wan. "What is it?"
That was the strangest thing, he thought afterwards - how the two of them seemed to exist in a bubble, able to speak and listen, but not be noticed. He felt suddenly sure that they could shout out loud, and they would still remain completely invisible to the creature at the heart of the circle. Or perhaps it was only his most desperate wish. The thought of being in the same world as this monstrosity was too horrible to bear.
"What is it?" he asked, then, but still whispering, not quite able to test his belief.
Obi-Wan's face was unreadable. "He called himself Constantine."
"That's no man," he said, with feeling.
Obi-Wan flinched. His voice was tight with pain. "He was able to appear as one." Qui-Gon remembered that he, Obi-Wan, had been fooled by the illusion, and had handed this creature the key to the world's doom.
He looked again, and once again his eyes wanted to skitter away from the sight. It was just too much, too terrible.
Once, when still an apprentice, Qui-Gon had seen a woodcut in a very old book. It showed the being the country folk called the Green Man, and both worshipped and feared. He was the personification of nature, of the crops they sowed and depended on, and the woods that surrounded their homes. When he was bounteous, he gave them life. Yet, to live, they killed his creation. They took scythes to the strong proud crops that were nourished with his blood. Every year, at harvest, they killed him. Always, they lived in fear of his anger, and a spring when he would withhold life from the dark earth.
It was a legend, of course - a legend of times past, for buildings marched across the fields, and the men of the country had moved into the cities, where there was no green. It was a legend, yet it had haunted his dreams for years, that man wrought of twisted leaf and branch, two needle-sharp eyes burning in the face, and sharp thorned fingers.
Now he was facing his childhood fear, a hundred, a thousand, times worse. "I saw a man made of leaves," he would say, and those hearing him would shrug, perhaps even smile. Nothing evil and menacing in that, surely...
But this creature was creeping horror. He was never still. At one moment he was almost a man, the next he was all tree, the next he was swirling green energy, clinging to a shocking indefinable illusory shape but possessing none of its own. Every change wrenched at his mind, making his head pound, and it changed every time he blinked, and even faster. The sight was the smallest part of the horror. Terror and an outraged sense of wrongness screamed in his skull at the sight of it.
"The green man," he said, to Obi-Wan, knowing that he had to say _something._ If he spoke, he was still alive and sane. If Obi-Wan could hear him, he was not alone.
Obi-Wan's eyes were wide with understanding. "The Force... The living Force personified, but infinitely warped."
He couldn't stop thinking about the legend. If there was a spirit that personified the life of the countryside, and every green thing and every man, woman and child who was born and wept and smiled, how angry he would be. The green places of Coruscant were disappearing. Trees were felled, and metal was fast covering the surface of the earth. He would have few men left to worship him and fear him, and the living things who bore his blood in their veins would be killed, or turning against him.
"The stone." Obi-Wan's voice was strangled. His hand twitched, as if he wanted to reach towards it, and he was fighting it. It contained his blood, Qui-Gon knew. Did it call to him, blood to blood?
He hazarded one last glance, and that was enough to see. The creature that had been Constantine stood in the heart of a circle of stone. Trees bent towards him as if in frozen obeisance, the tips of their branches almost touching him head, like a floating crown. Flanking him, on either side, were two other creatures that looked like him, but were as children to him. They were weak parodies of him - a child's picture of a green man, but with none of the horror. Yet they too could kill, he knew with certainty.
The stone was in Constantine's two cupped hands, cherished in a bowl of woven branches that were his fingers. It shone in the green light with an inner red fire, like blood leaking onto moss.
Qui-Gon turned away then, but he could still hear. Constantine started chanting in a voice that he did not hear with his ears but his heart. It was in no language that he knew, but he knew it spelled the world's doom.
Then fire flared in the stone, and, even though his face was turned away and his eyes were closed, he would still see it.
He forced his eyes open to look at Obi-Wan, but Obi-Wan had gone.
The fire was calling to him, tugging like a compulsion in his blood.
As if in a dream, he stood. As if in a dream, he walked forward, while Qui-Gon sat with his face averted and his eyes closed and did not see.
<Goodbye> he thought, mournfully. <I could have loved you.>
And then Constantine saw him, and nothing else existed at all.
"No!" he cried.
Obi-Wan walked towards the circle, his arms limp at his side, looking neither right nor left.
"No!" But he could not move. It was as if the bubble of unreality that had held them had yielded enough to let Obi-Wan out, but still held him trapped.
Obi-Wan moved between two tall lowering stones, and was inside the circle. He stopped, then, one hand moving upwards to rest on the surface of the stone, pale on the lichen-covered grey. His fingers were slightly splayed, and Qui-Gon saw every detail with cruel intensity.
"Ah." The being that had been Constantine saw him, and the eyes glittered. There was a suggestion of cruel laughter about him. "My thief, my pet fool. So you are come."
"Yes." Obi-Wan's voice was surprisingly strong.
"You think you can stop me? If I had thought you could stop me, would I have let you live?"
But Qui-Gon thought he was learning to read the strange currents of Force in this place. They were like visible swirls of colour in the vortex of energy that was his creature's true form. He seemed to see a surge of sickly yellowish green, and he thought it was fear.
<He meant Obi-Wan to die> he realised, and felt a wild surge of hope. <And he would have, except for me.> The lonely thief Constantine had hired would have died within minutes; the man Obi-Wan had become in the lost city did not.
At the next words, his hope died.
"I do not seek to stop you." Obi-Wan spread his hands. "I know I can not. I only wish to understand." His voice trembled. "You took my trust and my heart's blood. Can't I know why, before I die?"
The two other creatures started forward, snarling. Qui-Gon realised there was a vast circle of yellow-eyed beasts squatting on their haunches, or erect on two legs, ringing the circle, several deep. They were watching intensely, breathless, and quivering with the desire to rip Obi-Wan apart. They didn't appear to sense Qui-Gon at all. Remembering how the beast in the forest had failed to sense Obi-Wan, he knew that both of them could have watched this in uttermost safety, had Obi-Wan not walked forward and forced them to notice him.
It was the same as the chamber beneath the Temple, when Ki-Adi-Mundi had made Obi-Wan invisible, but he had refused to accept the gift and had spoken up. Mace Windu and Obi-Wan's own Master had died after that. This time, the death would be Obi-Wan's own. His heart twisted at the thought - that this could be a deliberate atoning.
Constantine's sense surged gleefully. Qui-Gon refused to watch him, and watched only Obi-Wan, in these last few minutes of his live, before his futile meaningless death.
"I will wipe all mankind from the earth," the creature said, and Qui-Gon wanted to cry out with the pain of that voice. "He has turned away from nature. The love of metal has made man forget to worship me. Long have I slept, nourished by my hatred. Now I have the Soul of Fire as a tool, I will unmake the earth. Let the plants of the earth rise up and strangle the cities. Let the unfaithful be impaled on their thorns. Let buildings crumble like dust. The age of man is over. It is the time for nature to reclaim its own."
As he spoke, he raised the stone aloft, and fire flared brighter than a sun. Too late, Qui-Gon closed his eyes; when he opened them, he saw only darkness. He cried out, instinctively raising his hands to touch the world around him, but there was only the thick air, pulsing with menace.
He was blind and invisible, and he was lost.
The stone flared, but the light was nothing. It struck his eyes and stole their sight, but that was such a small pain. Far greater was the torment that raged in his blood. The stone had fed on him, and still thought it owned him. It burned, and his blood boiled, powerless against its call.
"No!" he whimpered, sobbing. Then, clenching his fist so he could feel the blood well, "no!"
The stone owned him; Constantine owned the stone.
Slowly, like a man clawing his way up a vast mountainside with only his bleeding fingertips, he reached for the connection with the stone, and sought to control it.
His blood screamed.
"No!" he heard Obi-Wan whimper, and "no!" he heard Obi-Wan cry.
He was blind and invisible, and no-one would notice him. The world would crumble around him, and still he would crouch here, useless and overlooked.
But that was his past. He had been a Jedi, cut off from the world, letting events unfold without him. He was a Jedi no longer. If this was the last time in his life he could make a choice, he would make the right one.
He stood. Walking with a sureness he didn't feel, guiding himself by hearing and sense alone, he went to Obi-Wan's side.
"He is not alone," he said, his head high and his voice defiant. "Face me as well."
Distantly, he heard Qui-Gon speak.
He was climbing again into the lost city, assailed by fire and choking, burning. He had come so close to dying. What had saved him? The burning summons in his blood made his memories fractured and impossible, but one thing alone was left to him: Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon's Force strength holding him aloft above the fire, lifting him to safety. Qui-Gon, who offered his strength like a shining rope of light.
He reached for him with all his strength - and, oh, how little he had left... <Not alone> he thought. <Two of us> and <two to conquer.>
It was enough. The summons of the fire flared agonisingly bright, then disappeared. It still burned, but now he was the Master. It did his bidding, and he held it to his will.
An eternity, locked in a grotesque triangle.
If he was not blind, what would it look like? Chains of red fire on the one side, green darkness on the other, and his own strength, like the blue of his weapon. A stone, a spirit and a mortal man, bound together by their own attempts at mastery.
He was shaking, trembling with the effort. He was holding the stone to his will, but only just. He couldn't last much longer. "Qui-Gon!" he wanted to cry, but he knew he had no voice left at all.
A long time ago, he thought he had heard Constantine say, "ah, another fool to stand beside the first" as if it amused him, but it meant that Qui-Gon was still there and it had not been his imagination.
But something had to break soon, and he feared - no, he was certain - it would be him.
He blinked, and rubbed his eyes, and after a while saw the faint outlines of vision.
Obi-Wan was on his knees, his hands pressed to his brow, knuckles digging into the flesh on either side of his eyes. He was trembling, and tears were trickling down from his closed eyelids.
He had no idea what he was doing.
He was dying, crushed, a failure...
"No!" he shrieked, when Obi-Wan fell. "No....!"
He ran forward, lashing out with the Force and snatching the lightsabre into his hand. Howling, thinking of nothing but his desperate pain, he brought the blue blade down, severing the place where Constantine's neck would have been.
Constantine bellowed in fury and outrage.
He saw a man, falling crumpled on the ground.
He sensed it. With the last of his strength, he sensed it...
Qui-Gon had struck with the lightsabre, with pure blue Force. Constantine had cried out, and the explosion of his outrage was agonising and terrible. Fury and pain pulsed in the Force, threatening to explode within him until nothing was left.
But there was one thing, one small little hope that he snatched to him and jealousy guarded, clinging onto it even through the worst of agonies.
Where the blade he touched the green energy that was Constantine, something had felt right.
He was breathing fast, smiling tightly in triumph.
Constantine lay broken on the ground, now wholly a man, his neck severed almost through. He rest, he started thinking, had been only an illusion. He was a skilled man only, and no spirit or childhood monster. In death, he reverted to his true form.
"Obi-Wan," he started to say, looking up...
And seeing the dark glittering eyes and furious boiling vortex that was the true creature, severed forever from the confines of its human form. He was as nothing before it, mortal and immensely tiny. He did not cower, though, even as it filled the whole world in its fury at him, the fool mortal who had thought he could kill it.
"Qui-Gon!" he gasped, knowing even without sight that Qui-Gon had only seconds left to live.
There was no time to think. That small moment of insight had to be enough. It was the wildest of hopes, but what else did he have?
<Union> he thought, fiercely. <Reunion. Oneness. Completeness.>
Constantine's fury was the Force, just as Constantine himself was the Force - one aspect of it grown twisted and chaotic by lack of balance. Light needed darkness to balance it; light unmitigated had been in the fire that had blinded him. In the same way, the Force that ran in the blood of all living things needed balance in the Force that ran like a soothing river through time and all things. The Jedi knew only of the latter Force, and knew nothing of the former; their lack of balance had made them cold and blind and unwittingly cruel. Constantine was the former without the latter, and was chaotic and terrible and even more cruel.
"No more," he said aloud. This was the time for union. When the living Force of Constantine's sense had met the pure blue of the lightsabre, the moment of impact had seemed deeply right and immensely strong.
The Force had two sides, light and dark. But, within the Light Side, there were two aspects. They had been severed too long.
"Be one!" he cried, and threw his arms back, embracing all the power that was Constantine....
Then he opened his mouth and screamed.
"I don't care," his Master was saying. But that was all a lie, and the life that had been forged as a direct result of those words was a lie. Nothing was certain any more.
"I am proud of you," he was saying. But that was when he was dying. He was dead and there would never be explanations and apologies now, and never would he see him Master smile for him, never.
Qui-Gon was kissing him, and pushing him away, and leaving him. Words of fury shouted down a cliff. "I hate you!" and "I don't care!" Hands holding him close, and if he surrendered to them, wouldn't he only be betrayed? Qui-Gon couldn't really like him. He was made for loneliness and never for happiness.
His Master was dead, and his life was a lie. Everything had been for a destiny, and now he was failing, failing...
Someone was sobbing - great heaving sobs - and he knew it was himself.
He was being consumed in a vortex of memory, and it was worse than any fire.
Great streams of blood ran down Obi-Wan's face; his curled nails had gouged into his flesh. He was sobbing. Gingerly, desperately, Qui-Gon reached for his mind, and cried aloud in pain. Yet he held firm, holding onto that connection.
<He did care> and <he _was_ proud of you> and <I will never leave you.> He murmured them again and again, like a mother soothing a terrified child. He touched another's mind like he never had before, and strangely it did not feel like a violation at all. It felt right, and true, and, even though Obi-Wan was in torment and this was the end of all things, he found himself smiling.
In his life, he had done one thing right. Before the end, he had found this.
Like a tiny whisper at first, Qui-Gon's voice reached into his mind, easing him.
It was not enough - it would be years before it would truly be enough and he would think of his Master without pain - but it was a start. He had been like a creature curled on the floor, sobbing, and now that creature tentatively raised its head.
The pain was terrible, like an explosion in his soul. He knew this, and knew the cause. He had willingly called the living Force into his own soul, embracing it. It was too much for him. His mind and body could not contain it. He was living too fast and intensely, and would soon be simply destroyed.
Constantine laughed gleefully, knowing he would soon break, waiting to reclaim his power.
<No> He clawed at the floor, and managed to raise himself into a kneeling position. He felt arms around him, holding him there. It was too much for him, but Constantine would not have it.
And then - <the stone! Oh, I forgot the stone!> - fire flared impossibly bright, and Constantine was again its Master.
<The stone!> he heard, in Obi-Wan's mind. <Please...> And then Obi-Wan's body went stiff, his eyes rolling into their sockets, his mind overwhelmed.
"What do you want me to do?" Qui-Gon begged, but Obi-Wan could not answer.
He simply had no strength left to keep his body breathing or alive. Somewhere within that empty house, his mind still lived, overwhelmed by the invasion of the living Force.
He saw it as if he still had a body. In this vision, he was standing on an immense cliff top, his arms full of light. Clouds lowered above him, reaching down dark fingers to strike him from the edge, but Qui-Gon held him firm and safe.
He smiled his thanks. Then, desperate but smiling, he opened his arms and threw the living light to the air. It flowed upwards first, then the winds took it. In small glowing pieces, it fell through the air, falling first on one upturned face, and then another, and then another. Their eyes filled with tears, and they wept.
Then, looking down, he saw one small fragment of light, that had somehow been left behind. He picked it up with his fingers, and would have thrown it likewise to the wind, but Qui-Gon stopped him. "Keep it for yourself," he said, his voice tender. But Obi-Wan shook his head. "I have it already. You, Qui-Gon. You take this."
Qui-Gon took it gently in his fingers, and smiled. Then, still holding it, he kissed him, and was still kissing him when Obi-Wan fell to the ground, falling into the darkness.
"No, Obi-Wan." He held him tightly, and spoke words that came from instinct and no true understanding. "Don't sacrifice yourself. Don't do this."
He caught a fleeting glimpse of a cliff top, and Obi-Wan handing him a piece of light, and how good it felt. In that vision, he kissed him, too.
When the vision faded, he knew nothing would ever be the same again.
They were coming...
He understood. For the first time, he sensed the fiery burning of Obi-Wan's blood in the stone, and felt sickened by the travesty. For the first time, he sensed the wrongness in the forest. It was like a person with one limb grown to immense proportions, and the other one atrophied to nothing.
It was wrong, and the stone was feeding the wrongness.
Gently, he laid Obi-Wan down, and then he stood.
The creatures watched him, predatory but bound to harmlessness. Their Master still hung in their air like a gigantic executioner, but he seemed like nothing more than smoke and mirrors now. Obi-Wan had somehow robbed him of his power, and way he was only beginning to understand. He was brutally glad that he had not even noticed the moment it had happened. <Let _that_ show how much you difference you made to the world> he thought.
He closed his eyes. His vision was still blurry, and it seemed fitting that he did this, this last request of Obi-Wan's, while guided by the Force alone.
He raised the lightsabre over his head, and brought it down on the stone. Perhaps it exploded in a fury of orange and blue, but he did not look. Let this, too, have a death that was unnoticed and unremarked upon.
But when he opened his eyes, he saw a vast and spreading pool of blood on the forest floor.
He held Obi-Wan in his arms. For a terrible moment, he had thought him dead, but the young man still breathed. His mind had suffered an immense strain, and he was exhausted, but he had been able, gently, to touch his mind and knew it was undamaged. This was a healing sleep, and he would not disturb it.
Above him were stars, faint behind the lights of Coruscant. They were in the ruins of a fire-destroyed mansion, open to the skies. He could see no plants. So it had been when he had wrenched his eyes away from the pool of Obi-Wan's blood. He had not noticed the change.
And then the people started arriving.
Adi Gallia first. "You did it." She gave a genuine and very pretty smile.
Qui-Gon stroked Obi-Wan's hair. "He did it."
They came in ones and twos then. One came with a book still in his hands. Many came still robed for bed and barefoot. All came with their eyes wide and their hearts wondering.
"What was it...?"
To each one, Qui-Gon gave the same answer. He was only slowly understanding himself, but was sure this was right. "It was this one here, Obi-Wan Kenobi. He has given the Jedi that which they should always have had."
Somehow, he knew, Obi-Wan had been able to take the living Force that was Constantine, and spread it amongst the Jedi. Each one was touched by it. Minds that had been closed and blind for a millennium were now open, marvelling at the wonders of the world that were now open to them.
Somewhere close he felt two Jedi tentatively touch minds, then laugh aloud in the joy at the intimacy of the connection.
It was be no immediate miracle - or, rather, there would be no second miracle. They had been opened to the glorious potential of the living Force, but they had still been taught from birth not to go out and be involved with the world. Their new empathy with all living creatures would make them open to change, but he knew it could be a slow process.
It was a battle he wanted to fight. Not long ago, he had thought himself to be a Jedi no longer. Now he knew he would always be a Jedi.
He, too, had had his eyes opened by Obi-Wan's gift, and still wanted to weep at the glory of it. There was so much life around, and so much suffering. The world had been saved from destruction on this night, and he thought it so infinitely precious. He would spend the rest of his life fighting to preserve life.
He would be one of the first Jedi of the new order, and proud of it.
Not all the Jedi came to that ruined mansion that night. Some, too many, stayed behind.
When the marvelling band returned in wonder and triumph to the Temple, they found it empty.
All the Confessors, and eight of the Council, had gone. Carved in the floor of the Council chamber were the words, "We name ourselves Sith. You will meet us again."
There were many tears shed that night, and much laughter. Hopes were expressed, and fears. Men spoke of changes, and swore new promises. Some, like Adi Gallia, immediately tried to organise. Others were content merely to sit in silent contemplation, exploring the marvels of the new aspect of the Force.
Most, though, went to their chambers in twos and threes, and talked, and made their first tentative steps at touching each other's minds. Masters and apprentices found the beginnings of new deeper bonds, and lovers found new and wonderful ways of closeness.
When dawn came, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, who could have been bonded in one of these ways, and had felt the possibility of the other, sat silently beside each other, just one more pair of people finding their way in this new order of things.
"So I am to be a Jedi again," Obi-Wan said. He had slept for hours, long after Qui-Gon had carried him back to the Temple, and his voice was still very weak.
Qui-Gon nodded. "If you wish it."
Obi-Wan thought about it. "I do."
There was something else he wasn't saying. "But...?" Qui-Gon prompted.
Obi-Wan looked at his clenched hands. Since he had woken up, they had never quite stopped shaking. His vision, too, was slower to recover than Qui-Gon's, and he was still half blind. "Would you be my Master?" he asked, in a rush. He blushed, and it was the first colour Qui-Gon had seen in his face.
He closed his hands around Obi-Wan's. "No, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan gasped, then cut the sound off abruptly. He bit his lip, and was making a deliberate and desperate effort not to show his pain. So he must always have been with Ki-Adi-Mundi.
Cursing himself for the worst kind of idiot, Qui-Gon touched Obi-Wan's chin and lifted his face until their eyes met. "I can't, Obi-Wan. There is nothing I can teach you. If anything, it is you who can teach me - and teach all of us."
"That doesn't matter." Obi-Wan's voice was heated, and hoarse with unshed tears. "I want a Master and I want it to be you. I want to..."
"I know." And Qui-Gon did know. How wonderful it would be to be able to say the words "my apprentice" without thinking of darkness and betrayal. "But..." He decided to take a risk, and this time it was he who was blushing. Worse than a boy with a crush, he chided himself, but strangely he felt little shame. "On one condition."
"What's that?" A smile played round Obi-Wan's lips, as if he already knew - and perhaps he did. All the Jedi felt the emotions of all others very intensely. It was a marvel, now, but Qui-Gon knew that the first thing they all needed to learn was how to shield their minds. Not that he wanted to shield himself from Obi-Wan, he realised.
Qui-Gon took Obi-Wan's face in his hands, cupping it gently. "We can be Master and apprentice, Obi-Wan, but I would also like us to be something else to each other too."
Obi-Wan blinked in pretended innocence. "What could that be, Master?"
Qui-Gon's heart warmed to hear that word on Obi-Wan's lips, but he did not speak. Instead he just leant forward and kissed him deeply, showing him that way.
"I think I could live with that," Obi-Wan said, some time later.
Then Qui-Gon pulled him down again, and for a long time there was no speaking.