Shadows in the Desert

The next morning Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan rose early. That in itself wasn't unusual, but soon after their morning meditations Qui-Gon had left to speak to the Council. When he returned, Obi-Wan had breakfast waiting.

"Anakin's still asleep," Obi-Wan told him solemnly. "I thought he needed the rest after last night."

"Yes. Good." Qui-Gon nodded as he took a seat. Then he sighed. "The Council does not wish to allow us to go to Tatooine."

Obi-Wan made a face. "Did they say why?"

"Apparently I was too convincing when I said Anakin needed to be trained at the Temple for a while. I was told that, if we want to train him here, we cannot go on a mission. Especially not." He stopped and repeated the words Dorgen had used, "For such a trivial reason as a boy's nightmare."

"A nightmare? Didn't they even consider the fact that it might be a vision? Probably is a vision, with Ani's sensitivity to the Force."

"Yes, I know." He had argued that very thing for almost an hour. His instincts were telling him they should go to Tatooine. But he had been unable to get permission to do so.

Obi-Wan was looking solemnly at him. "So what do we do now?"

"I don't know, Obi-Wan. If we leave regardless...we would not be able to bring Anakin back to the Temple for training."

The threat had been clear, if spoken in double meanings and wordless expressions.

"If we don't go and Ani's vision turns out to be true and his mother is killed, do you think it will matter where he is being trained?" Green eyes looked at Qui-Gon worriedly and he could feel his lover's concern. "If we do nothing and Shmi dies, it'll destroy Ani."

"Obi-Wan, you needn't convince me. I know we should go. But I don't wish to alienate ourselves completely from the Order to do so."

Obi-Wan sighed and ran a hand through his hair in tired frustration. "We seem to be doing that lately without even trying. I'm not sure there is anything we can do to stop alienating them at this point."

Qui-Gon hesitated a moment, then offered the only option he'd been able to think of.

"We could leave Anakin here - as long as he is assured we will be returning for him. Master Silla has agreed to watch him while we are gone." He didn't care for the idea of leaving Anakin here alone, but he did not want to make any irrevocable moves. Yet.

There was a long moment of silence as Obi-Wan thought it over. "I don't think that would work, if it was any other situation but this one. But if Ani knows we're going after his mother..."

"There remains the reason we brought him here in the first place: his lack of training. He may not be ready to face whatever we find there."

"I'm not arguing. But it still won't be easy to leave him here alone."

Qui-Gon sighed. "I suppose it will depend on how Anakin reacts to being left here." He frowned, disliking that he did not feel comfortable leaving his Padawan at the Temple. Of all the places he should be safe, this should have been it.

A hand closed over his own and he looked up to meet Obi-Wan's gaze. "I know," Obi-Wan said. "I feel it too. And it scares me. If we can no longer count on this place as a sanctuary, where can we count on?"

"I do not know."


It was several hours later when a still-sleep-rumpled Anakin stumbled out of his room.

He came over and bowed to his Masters, then climbed into his chair and reached for a roll. He seemed calm and collected, bearing little resemblance to the terrified child who had clung to his teachers for hours last night.

Qui-Gon looked at him carefully then asked simply, "How was your meditation, Anakin?"

He was reassured to see that as Anakin looked up before answering, his face looked only concerned -- not afraid, and not exhausted.

"Good, Master Qui-Gon," the boy replied. "It.helped."

Qui-Gon nodded. He considered briefly waiting until later to bring up the next subject. But he knew waiting would not make the question any easier. "Anakin, Obi-Wan and I have been discussing going to Tatooine."

Anakin brightened immediately. "We're going after my mom?"

"Your mother is the reason for the trip, yes," Obi-Wan told him, holding his eyes solemnly. "But I'm afraid you can't come along this time, Ani."

Anakin's face changed, very slowly. He stared at Obi-Wan, then turned back to Qui-Gon. He didn't ask what he was very clearly saying.

"It is only a temporary situation, Ani," Qui-Gon tried to reassure him.

"You're leaving me here?" Anakin's voice was very small.

Qui-Gon reached over and placed his hand over Anakin's. "It is not by choice. But Obi-Wan and I shall be going to Tatooine on our own time. We do not want your training interrupted." He wondered if he was convincing Anakin at all. He thought, once more, that he did not have a good record with abandoning his Padawans, and suppressed a frown.

His former Padawan sent him waves of reassurance and love before turning his attention to Anakin. "If we could safely take you with us, we would, Ani. But it is too dangerous. Your training just isn't far enough advanced. Even if you'd been in training since infancy, this mission would be too dangerous." Obi-Wan reached out and touched the boy's hair affectionately. "We do not want to take a chance on losing you. You're much too important to us for that."

Anakin frowned. "Couldn't I go and stay on the ship or something? Stay with my mom? I wouldn't get in the way or into trouble or anything."

"I am sorry, Anakin," Qui-Gon said calmly. "You cannot go with us. But we will be back for you."

Obi-Wan nodded. "That is a promise."

Anakin continued frowning, but he nodded slowly. "I guess if you have to..."

Qui-Gon put his hand on Anakin's chin and raised the boy's head to look at him. "We are going for your mother, Anakin."

Anakin nodded mutely, obviously not quite ready to voice agreement but unable to keep arguing the point.

Qui-Gon left the argument alone though, knowing he could not convince Anakin. The boy would have to do that himself. His Masters had given him all they could and until they returned and proved what they'd said...there was little else they could do.

"Eat your breakfast, Ani," Obi-Wan said quietly, also dropping the argument.

Anakin nodded and began to eat.

Little else was said during the meal. When they were nearly finished and Anakin was about to leave for his morning classes, Qui-Gon told him about the arrangements he would make.

"Master Silla will be conducting your training while we are gone. Do you recall meeting her?"

Anakin nodded. "She seemed nice."

"I am glad you think so," Qui-Gon said honestly. "We expect you to do as she says, as you would us." Qui-Gon frowned, then. "Though I wouldn't growl at her..."

That finally drew a ghost of a smile from the boy. "I won't, Master. It would take far too long to explain."

Qui-Gon rather doubted it would take any time at all, but that he did not care to explain.

"That would probably be wise," Obi-Wan agreed, straight-faced, though Qui-Gon could sense his amusement at the thought of what Silla would do if Anakin did growl at her.

[She would think it charming. Then she would tease us for a decade,] Qui-Gon informed Obi-Wan. Not that he had any reason to know how long she would milk a joke.

[Of course not,] Obi-Wan agreed a bit too quickly. Qui-Gon found himself wondering just what Silla had been sharing with his lover. Then again, Obi-Wan had been partly responsible for two of the things Silla was teasing him about, even now.

Luckily for Qui-Gon's train of thought, Anakin stood to leave for his classes.

He hesitated at the door however. "You won't leave without telling me, will you?" he asked, with wide eyes.

"We won't leave without telling you," Qui-Gon assured him.

Anakin nodded and went to class then, leaving his two Masters alone.

Qui-Gon sighed after the door closed and Anakin could no longer hear him. He knew Anakin was not wholly convinced and he was, for a moment, concerned that he would never be.

"He fears that he is being abandoned," Obi-Wan said softly, staring at the door.

"I know. Unfortunately there is little we can do to reassure him that he is not." Qui-Gon looked at Obi-Wan, wondering what it was that made him Master so often to Padawans who were abandoned. Three of four, and even Suria had had her doubts at one time.

"It is human nature, I think, to yearn to be accepted and to worry about being rejected."

"Yes." Qui-Gon knew Anakin had good reason to fear his rejection. He was half-tempted to mind-whammy the boy, just to spare him the difficulties of working through it on his own, then sighed again. Things were rarely so simple.

"Simple would be nice," Obi-Wan agreed, stepping closer until he was able to wrap his arms around Qui-Gon from behind, his head resting in the middle of Qui-Gon's back.

Qui-Gon held him tightly, wondering, for a moment, how he could wish things simple when, to Qui-Gon's recollection, they had never been.

"We must make preparations to go to Tatooine," he said, not wanting to think of what obstacles the Council might put in their way.

"Yes."


In the end it was easier to simply make arrangements to go as if no one had objected. Qui-Gon contacted the shipmaster and requested transport knowing that the man would have no reason to verify the Jedi Master's claim they had reason to go to Tatooine.

The hardest part had been taking leave of Anakin. The boy had tried to be brave, but hadn't been able to totally hide his fear or his depression at being left behind. All three of them had smiled at each other and said the appropriate words and pretended that there was no uncertainty, but the look in Ani's eyes as they had boarded their transport would haunt Qui-Gon for a long time.

He had almost turned back, but only his conviction that taking Anakin would be worse had kept him from it. He consoled himself with the reminder that when they returned, his Padawan's faith would be restored.

Then he resumed his focus on the mission at hand.

Beside him he could feel Obi-Wan attempting the same, though his guilt at leaving Anakin behind seemed even greater. Qui-Gon suspected because it still wasn't that long since Obi-Wan had felt cast aside himself. That didn't do much for Qui-Gon's state of mind. He concentrated on letting it go, so he could focus on the moment. He realized even as he attempted it that there was little preparation to be done. They knew nothing about what they would find on Tatooine.

"Tell me what Mos Espa was like," Obi-Wan bade him, obviously also trying to focus on their self-appointed mission. "What can we expect?"

"It is a carefully-run town, and chaotic. A place for gamblers and thieves and worse, yet the Hutts keep as tight control on the town as is possible." He looked at Obi-Wan. "We can expect trouble."

Obi-Wan's answer was rueful. "So what else is new?"

Qui-Gon returned the half-smile. He still felt troubled and decided he needed to deal with it before they reached Tatooine. "I am going to meditate," he told Obi-Wan and stood to head for one of the empty cabins.

His lover nodded his acknowledgement. "I'll be here if you need me," he said, solemn eyes conveying more to Qui-Gon than the words.

Qui-Gon nodded and went. He settled on the floor of the first cabin and calmed himself.

For several minutes he sat there, searching for mental stillness. While there were no thoughts, there was the unease filling the corners of his mind. It kept him from reaching a true meditative state. After about an hour, he admitted defeat.

He lowered his head and wondered if going back to Obi-Wan would help. He didn't know that hearing from him what he had told himself would make it easier to believe and he didn't know that there was anything about the situation he was missing.

It didn't matter, though, as Obi-Wan opened the door.

"May I come in?" he asked, hovering on the threshold.

"Of course." Qui-Gon smiled. He felt better just with his lover in the room.

"I didn't want to interrupt," Obi-Wan said as he walked over and sat beside his former Master, "but it didn't 'feel' like your meditation was helping."

"It isn't." He reached over and brought Obi-Wan closer for a hug, burying his head briefly against Obi-Wan's shoulder. He felt better and yet he did not.

"You feel it too, don't you?"

Qui-Gon nodded. The dark presence was there again, at the edges of his awareness. They were going to encounter it again on Tatooine. Perhaps it was that which was coloring his feelings about Anakin.

But for the presence to have been felt on Coruscant...it would have to be very powerful.

"It's been lurking at the edges of the shadows for some time I think," Obi-Wan mused, eyes staring off into the distance as he tried to pin down the feeling. "I think this is what I felt back when we first were sent on the Naboo mission. I just couldn't identify it then. But I knew it was there."

"Yes. Its presence is always the same, dark and forbidding. Subtle as it is, it is difficult to see. More difficult to believe when it is not felt, it would seem. Perhaps this time we will find some proof for the Council." Qui-Gon frowned. It did not feel right that the Council had been ignoring so many warnings. Vague and unsubstantiated though they might be, they came from so many unconnected Jedi that the multiple sources should have leant sufficient weight to the warnings.

But even Yoda had only said they would keep watch and not that they would investigate. Though he had felt some reserve in his old master....

Obi-Wan sighed. "What, I wonder, would constitute proof for them? A dead Sith wasn't enough; what else do they want -- a live one?"

Qui-Gon almost laughed. Before he did, he realized that was exactly what this presence felt like. What he was feeling now, not the faint tones of evil that they had encountered in Yuion but the dredges of the dark, focused in shadows. He had been feeling it for some time, scurrying around in the back of his mind. Accentuating his doubts and fears.

It did not change his doubts or his worries for Anakin. It did not change the pattern he saw, in each Padawan he trained, of abandonment.

But it explained why he could not release his worries.

"What?" Obi-Wan asked, eyes narrowed. "You've figured something out."

"The presence...something of it has been here all along."

Obi-Wan was silent, frowning as he considered. "That would explain a lot," he finally said.

Qui-Gon said nothing. He was still disturbed and still did not know how to release it. Knowing what he'd felt only served to alarm him.

"There has to be a way to counteract it, now that we know that it's there. Doesn't there?"

"Not until we find the source."

Obi-Wan shook his head. "If we can't manage to shield against this relentless presence, we aren't going to be in any shape to do much about it when we do find the source."

"True." Qui-Gon wanted to rub his temples. After a moment he asked himself why he was resisting doing so, and brought his hands up.

"So, what beats back Darkness?" Obi-Wan mused, almost absently reaching out and pushing Qui-Gon's hands aside to take up the rubbing himself.

Qui-Gon smiled.

Yes. Now he was beginning to relax.

He heard his lover chuckle. "That wasn't quite the answer I was looking for, but you are right. This--" and he gestured at the two of them, indicating, as Qui-Gon knew, their relationship, "--could be our strongest weapon."

"Strongest shield," Qui-Gon replied, and he turned to give Obi-Wan a kiss. Strongest...something. He groped for the word he wanted and lost it as Obi-Wan smiled.

"We should work on strengthening our shields while we have the chance," Obi-Wan whispered, a sparkle in his eyes as he leaned towards his lover.

"Yes...we should definitely...." Qui-Gon was rapidly becoming breathless. Perhaps it was the look on Obi-Wan's face. Or perhaps it was that tone in his voice.

Maybe it was just that he loved him.

Then Obi-Wan's lips touched his own and he started having as much difficulty thinking as he was having breathing steadily. He instantly considered and discarded the consideration that they did not have time for this. They did, and they most definitely needed it. He raised his hand to cup Obi-Wan's head, holding him as they kissed.

Obi-Wan shifted his weight, moving even closer, and gently pressing Qui-Gon back until he was lying flat against the floor. The kiss continued the entire time.

Qui-Gon brought his other hand up to Obi-Wan's side, caressing him through the layers of cloth. He brushed his hand up once, then down, catching at the belt as he went. He felt a small stirring in the Force as Obi-Wan unfastened and removed his belt, leaving his hands free to continue what they were doing -- namely playing with Qui-Gon's hair.

Qui-Gon shivered, feeling himself relaxing and becoming aroused all at once. The invasive presence of darkness was shimmering now, flickering out of sight and out of reach.

In its place was a surge of other emotions, treasured and familiar.

[We can block it, fight it,] Obi-Wan sent, releasing Qui-Gon's lips only to start nuzzling his throat instead. Another stirring in the Force and Qui-Gon's tunic fell open.

[Together.]

He tilted his head back as Obi-Wan moved lower, moaning softly as he began to feel his lover's body against his skin. The touch of cloth reminded him he had done nothing to rid Obi-Wan of his own robes, and he raised a hand and gestured vaguely in the right direction.

He hadn't calculated the amount of Force he used however and Obi-Wan's clothes practically flew from his body in an enthusiastic cloth whirlwind.

Obi-Wan chuckled throatily. [Impatient, are we?] He leaned over and ran his tongue over Qui-Gon's left nipple.

[Not at all,] he replied calmly. His thoughts were very calm, floating on an ocean of sensation. His body was trembling with spikes of fire at each new touch. But at least Obi-Wan was naked now and everywhere he touched was hot and delicious.

His hands slid over Obi-Wan's back down to his buttocks and he was rewarded with a gasp and a moan at that particular touch, along with a provocative wriggle, encouraging him to repeat it.

He loved that wriggle almost as much as he loved certain other things he hoped to feel, hear, and have later. He kissed Obi-Wan's cheek and, as Obi-Wan turned his head back towards him, Qui-Gon kissed his mouth.

Maintaining the kiss, Obi-Wan lifted up slightly; there was another small stirring in the Force that dispensed with the rest of Qui-Gon's clothes. Then his lover lowered himself again.

Full body contact.

Skin on skin.

Qui-Gon shivered again. Then he blinked. [Bunk,] he instructed.

The bulkhead was rapidly growing too damned cold to ignore.

[Hmm?] Obi-Wan seemed distracted by Qui-Gon's ears. At least that was what Qui-Gon assumed had distracted him since he was lavishing very close attention on the left one.

He didn't mind the attention. As Obi-Wan bit gently, he groaned frank approval of the attention. Deciding that letting go of his lover and making Obi-Wan let go of him was not going to happen, he took care of the matter himself. With more judicious use of the Force he picked them up and lowered them gently onto the bunk. Obi-Wan was still nibbling.

Laughter rang in his mind. [I would've mastered telekinesis much faster if this had been one of the exercises.]

[I thought Master Yoda was your first instructor in telekinesis?]

Obi-Wan pulled back and stared down at him. "That was not an image I needed."

Qui-Gon looked at him with an expression of innocent confusion. "You brought it up." He tried to hold back his laughter and succeeded in holding back all but his smile.

"Though..." Obi-Wan looked thoughtful. "He was your first instructor as well, was he not?"

Qui-Gon grinned. "Where do you think I learned--" He got no farther.

It was, after all, difficult to continue speaking when one was being tickled mercilessly.

He held onto Obi-Wan as best as he could, though his lover slipped and slid all over Qui-Gon's body as he sought out the best, most ticklish spots. Qui-Gon squirmed beneath him without trying to dissuade or dislodge him. The joy had made the darkness vanish and he wanted to do nothing to stop it.

Finally, they collapsed into a tangled heap, sweaty, breathless and with the laughter still bubbling up.

Obi-Wan gave a contented sigh and snuggled closer. [We needed that.]

Qui-Gon held him tightly, wrapping his arms around Obi-Wan's waist and clasping his hands together. Obi-Wan quickly settled into one of his favorite spots. Qui-Gon closed his eyes enjoying the sensation of delight and the touch of his lover's body.

That earned him another contented sigh and a drowsy nuzzle against his chest. [I love you.]

[I love you, too.] He squeezed Obi-Wan and felt his lover relaxing further toward falling asleep.

Qui-Gon raised his head slightly and kissed Obi-Wan softly, then whispered in his ear.

"Grr."

Obi-Wan gave an amused but tired snort. "Grr," he repeated.

Qui-Gon waited a moment as Obi-Wan drifted. He caressed Obi-Wan's back with one hand, rubbing at the muscles beneath the shoulder blade and then down across the small of his back.

"Mmmm...feels good."

Qui-Gon responded by rubbing with both hands. Almost instantly he had a puddle of Jedi covering his body.

[I keep forgetting just how good you are at that,] Obi-Wan sent, as he all but purred under his lover's hands.

[I would think, as often as you get it...] But Qui-Gon continued rubbing. Then he half-stifled a laugh. [Another thing I learned from my Master.]

One green eye opened to glare at him.

"What?" Qui-Gon mustered an expression of extreme sincerity. "I did."

"What did Master Yoda do -- walk all over your back?"

"He really is rather good at such things, Obi-Wan. But actually, I rubbed his back. That's how I learned." He trailed off, watching Obi-Wan's look of distrust not wavering in the slightest.

"You know, you're lucky I learned early not to take you seriously."

Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow. "I am serious."

"Yes, Master." Humoring him.

He debated sharing with Obi-Wan a memory or two of the lessons in backrubs.

Then he decided to just tickle the impertinent man.

Afterward they lay tangled together on the bed. [It seems to have worked,] Obi-Wan said, neither moving his head from where it was pillowed on Qui-Gon's chest, nor opening his eyes.

He was right; the nagging darkness that had been dogging them for weeks -- months even -- had finally subsided. Qui-Gon had no doubt it was still there, but now their shields were holding.

Now he actually felt relaxed enough to focus on the mission at hand. Before he did so, however, he gave Obi-Wan a light squeeze and indulged himself in the sheer sensation of holding him.

[Mmmm, nice.] Obi-Wan snuggled closer.

[Yes. But we cannot stay like this much longer.] Qui-Gon consulted the timepiece set against the bulkhead. [Only another hour,] he said with as much seriousness as he could.

[I will take what I can get.]

Qui-Gon smiled.

It was actually a half-hour before Qui-Gon stirred, knowing they should get ready for their arrival on Tatooine. He wanted them both to be ready to face whatever dark presence they encountered and the shield they'd made was sufficient for defense. It was not, however, sufficient for attack.

His lover sensed the turn of his thoughts and with a small sigh of regret sat up. "I suppose we should plan out what we are going to do."

"Yes. It may be enough to find Anakin's mother; we may have arrived before the attack Anakin foresaw."

"In which case we can just purchase her freedom and be on our way." Obi-Wan sighed. "Why do I suspect it's not going to be that easy?"

"Because the darkness grows stronger as we draw closer to Tatooine."

Obi-Wan grinned. "That would probably be the reason then."

They sat in meditation for a bit, each trying to locate the influence of the darkness and to prepare for meeting it again. Qui-Gon was able to come out of his trance with a clear, sharp mind and without the doubts which had been plaguing him.

His lover was still meditating and he watched for a moment, relishing the chance to simply look his fill.

Obi-Wan was smiling when he opened his eyes. "You were staring."

"Of course," Qui-Gon replied mildly. It wasn't something he ever cared to deny.

The other man nodded and they both turned their minds back to the mission. "We should be coming out of hyperspace soon."

"And then...."

They would see.


Their arrival on Tatooine was fairly uneventful. The cruiser landed at the Mos Espa port without any trouble. The strength of the dark presence was the only thing remarkable about it.

"So," Obi-Wan began as they exited the ship. "You're the one who has been here before -- or who at least got to leave the ship. Guess that means you lead."

Qui-Gon gave him a glance for the comment, but headed away from the port. He wondered if he should mention he hadn't made it to this part of town and he would be allowing the Force to guide him.

No. Obi-Wan would figure it out, the first intersection they came to.

"Where do we begin? At her home?"

"Hmm." He considered. Shmi's quarters were located north of here. But he felt as if he were being led...east.

"This way," he said, following the Force's direction.

Obi-Wan obeyed without comment, though the look he shot his former Master and the raised eyebrows that went with it were probably comment enough.

[What?] he demanded anyway. He knew perfectly well what, but he wanted to hear what Obi-Wan would say. That and he wanted to hear Obi-Wan, not have Obi-Wan's silent presence at his side, though it was usual at this stage of a mission.

[What, what?] Obi-Wan responded innocently.

Qui-Gon rolled his eyes.

Obi-Wan grinned and then said, [If you don't ask silly questions, you won't get silly answers. You could've told me you didn't know this area.]

[And ruin my reputation?] Qui-Gon made another turn, and continued down a street as the Force instructed.

[Reputation for what? Being stubborn as a bantha?]

[How many banthas have you known?] Outwardly, both of them were serene and focused on making their way through the crowds.

[Oh, several. Serain, Dorgen...]

Qui-Gon was hard put to keep his amusement off of his face as his lover began naming council members.

Then he frowned mentally. [Are you saying I'm as bad as they are?]

[Only in stubbornness. Which is probably why you are such a thorn in their sides. Because you can and will stand up to them on a regular basis.] The words were accompanied by a surge of pride from Obi-Wan.

His response was cut off by a slight disturbance. Qui-Gon turned his attention toward it. It was not close, but whatever it was, was growing: either closer or in strength, he could not tell.

[I feel it too,] Obi-Wan confirmed even before he had a chance to warn the younger man.

It was coming from the same direction they'd been heading, so they continued toward it, on their guards.

They moved through the streets, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Yet there was something, some unseen tension in the air that even the non-Force sensitives were feeling. Everybody seemed to be on edge.

From the snatches of conversation they overheard there was nothing to pinpoint what might be happening. Nothing had been building then, at least nothing the locals would talk about.

That put Qui-Gon on alert even more.

Suddenly the slight disturbance spiked greatly. Both Jedi stopped, searching the area with eyes and Force.

[I have a really bad feeling about this.]

[You always say that...right before something bad happens. Perhaps you should stop saying it.] But Qui-Gon headed towards the source of the disturbance, moving more quickly.

[Perhaps you should take me seriously when I do say it.] Obi-Wan moved beside him, matching his pace perfectly.

Qui-Gon sped up, weaving through the crowds. No one seemed interested in impeding them.

[Except you said it once right before Yoda came into the room and found me--] Ahead of them, near the other end of the street, was a building surrounded by cloaked figures. None of the locals were giving it a second thought.

With a start Qui-Gon realized it was because none of them were seeing it. Or at least acknowledging they were seeing it. He exchanged worried glances with Obi-Wan. To utilize such a wide ranging Force suggestion...

[We cannot simply walk up. We must find another way in.] He was grateful for the bond that allowed them to communicate so deep inside their shields that the ripples in the Force would not be felt by others.

Obi-Wan nodded and they circled the building, all the while carefully maintaining the illusion of a casual walk.

There were no unguarded doors or easily accessible windows. Qui-Gon did not want to risk forcing their way in past the guards and alerting whoever was at work here of their presence.

The only other option, then, was the roof.

Obi-Wan glanced up at it doubtfully. [It won't be easy.]

[Which is no doubt what they are counting on. We must be careful,] he added unnecessarily. He scanned the nearby buildings and saw one three buildings down that would do for initial access.

[It might be better to wait for nightfall,] Obi-Wan said, but he started moving towards the chosen building nonetheless.

[I think we must be in sooner than that,] Qui-Gon replied. Nightfall was only two hours away, but he felt the urgency beginning to press at him.

Obi-Wan nodded; he felt it too.

They made their way to the building and found an entrance easily. People were coming and going and their own arrival raised no comment. It was a bit more difficult to slip unnoticed up the stairs, but it was nothing the two Jedi couldn't handle.

They made their way to the roof and jimmied the access door easily.

[You know if we ever gave up being Jedi we could probably make quite a comfortable living as burglars.]

Qui-Gon laughed. [Don't let Yoda hear you say that. He has a lecture half an hour long on the virtue of living the right life...]

[His idea of paradise is also a swamp. Not much temptation in a swamp.] There was a pause. [Though if you were there naked...]

[Leeches.] Qui-Gon made his way across the rooftop, checking for any sign they had been or might be spotted.

[I'd forgotten about those,] Obi-Wan replied. Then, after he too had checked, [It's clear.]

Qui-Gon nodded. They moved ahead toward the next rooftop.

The jump was no bigger than some on the training courses back at the temple. Both Jedi made it easily. The next rooftop was as easy to cross; they stopped at its edge, however, to peer across at their target.

[They could have guards up here too. Just out of sight.]

[Use the Force, but as subtly as you can. Let it absorb and reflect back upon you without conscious thought. We should be able to get a picture of what is there without drawing any attention.]

[Like a mynock's sonar. Good idea.]

They settled themselves in and became almost invisible. The Force swirled about them, echoing dark passages before them. It took some time to search this way, time to get a complete mental map of their surroundings and possible areas of trouble. But eventually it was done.

They compared maps and discovered they had each settled on nearly the exact same route. The differences were easily negotiated and soon they had a route, if not an actual plan.

[You mean 'jump in without knowing what's going on' isn't a plan?]

Qui-Gon chose not to respond -- but only because Obi-Wan had heard it all before.

[Yes, I have and very creative some of it is too.]

[Which only puts pressure on me to create new responses. There, let's go.] The way was clear and Qui-Gon moved forward even as he spoke.

Silently Obi-Wan followed as they leapt across the last gap and landed noiselessly on the roof of the dark building.

They made their way quickly to the door; Obi-Wan stood guard while Qui-Gon picked the lock. [Burglars, indeed,] he mumbled as the lock slipped open after only a second.

[We would make a fortune,] Obi-Wan agreed as they quickly slipped inside.

[Until we gave all our fortunes to the needy because our consciences wouldn't leave us alone.] Qui-Gon led the way through the dark room, easily making his way for the door.

[You know, you have a way of ruining a good fantasy.]

[Not only did I not ruin your last fantasy, I believe I embellished upon it.] Qui-Gon found the right corridor and led them down it.

[Maybe if I added sex to my burglar idea, you'd embellish that one as well?]

[You have a sexual fantasy about being a burglar?] The corridor was still empty and they were able to move quickly. However, when they reached the bottom of the first flight of stairs, the chance of encountering someone would rise greatly.

Obi-Wan paused for a second, hand raised as he sensed something near them. After a moment he shook his head and they both continued moving. [Not really, but I'm sure I can incorporate it. My imagination is very...flexible.]

[I know,] Qui-Gon replied, ruefully.

[Luckily, so is my lover.]

They made their way down the first flight of stairs in complete silence, concentrating on detecting any other presence. There was none and they reached the next floor. Dim lights were on here, making their approach that much more dangerous.

Still there were no people though, only the ever increasing feeling of dark oppression. The only good thing about the strength of the feeling was how easy it made it to home in on. Qui-Gon felt sure he could walk right up to the exact spot that was the source of the darkness. He would rather not have to, but he knew that he could.

[If we don't get caught first,] Obi-Wan reminded him.

[I wish you wouldn't say things like that.] Qui-Gon ducked into a shadow; Obi-Wan immediately did the same.

When he realized that nothing was coming though, Obi-Wan emerged, giving his lover a dirty look. Qui-Gon returned it with a very bland expression of his own. He continued walking down the empty hall, with Obi-Wan half a step behind, only to nearly stumble when he was goosed a second later.

[Grr!] Obi-Wan grinned and moved past him.

It wasn't until they reached the third floor above ground level that they encountered anyone. The first time they hid, allowing the man to walk past. The second time, they were caught with no easy hiding places available. Different action had to be taken.

Qui-Gon grabbed the man, placing a hand over his mouth to ensure no alarm was raised. Obi-Wan moved behind and rendered him unconscious with a single, swift blow.

[Now what do we do with him?] Obi-Wan wondered, looking at the body and at the lack of anywhere to put it that it wouldn't be quickly found. They could either take the time to hide it or leave it and make haste. Sooner or later they would be spotted, though. Qui-Gon preferred it be later.

[Agreed. But, somehow leaving him in the middle of the corridor seems...unprofessional.]

[We'll put it in our report.] Qui-Gon moved on down the corridor. Someone was coming.

A moment later they were leaving two bodies lying in the hall.

[Most people would be satisfied with leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.]

Qui-Gon stifled his snicker.

They ended up leaving a nice, visible trail of bodies for the entire next floor. As they reached the third flight of stairs, Qui-Gon cautioned, [We will be discovered soon. We must hurry, but be careful!] The warning was hardly necessary. Obi-Wan leapt into danger no more often than he himself did. Perhaps slightly less often.

[Not that much less often,] Obi-Wan countered. [But mostly because I'm following you.]

They started down the flight of stairs, but both froze as they heard the sound of voices moving closer below them. They made no move until the procession came into view. Five this time, no chance of dispatching them silently.

Obi-Wan's hand slid to his saber. [This is where things are going to get interesting.]

[We could tell them we're just here for their stereos.] Then one man looked up and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan took their sabers in hand and leapt.

It was over in a few seconds, but the damage had been done. Their attack, while efficient and effective, had not been silent. They heard distant shouts being raised and then an alarm started sounding.

Not even giving the order to move, Qui-Gon moved forward at near-top speed. Obi-Wan matched his pace and they moved through the corridors and down another flight of stairs. They were getting close...and the source of the darkness was moving closer even faster.

[What -- who -- is that?] Obi-Wan asked, seeming barely aware he was projecting the thought.

[We will find out soon enough,] Qui-Gon replied. There were guards approaching now. In a few more moments five armed persons would be coming around the corner...

Even with the advance warning, the guards didn't provide them with much of a workout. The Jedi were able to dispatch them fairly quietly. But the guards' arrival indicated that someone knew that the Jedi were there. Time in which to make their foray was running out -- and they still didn't even know what was going on.

[So what else is new? Seems like we operate more in the dark than we do with all the facts.]

Qui-Gon didn't reply; they'd reached another flight of stairs. Just below, somewhere nearly within reach, was the source of darkness. Surrounding it lay a multitude of fear.

[Victims.] Obi-Wan's tone matched his grim expression as they started down the stairs.

There was no need to warn Obi-Wan to watch out for them, to be on alert for their enemy's using the innocent as shields. They moved forward cautiously, and came out into a large open room. There were shuttles and surface vehicles scattered everywhere, with crates of all sizes stacked in-between.

Fifty yards away from the foot of the stairs, facing them, was a figure in a green cloak. In his hand was the hair of a woman kneeling at his feet, crying. This was the center of the Darkness, but not its source. Qui-Gon could sense that even as he strengthened his shields and stepped forward to challenge, Obi-Wan at his side as always.

Qui-Gon moved forward, ignoring the various personnel watching them; his entire focus was on the single figure. Everyone seemed to be waiting, as if knowing the battle would belong to their cloaked lord.

A brief mindtouch and Obi-Wan also fell back, though only a step. He might be ready to let his former Master take the lead, but was obviously not willing to stay out of the battle entirely.

And Qui-Gon didn't wish him to. [Someone has to take care of the other twenty guards.]

[You always give me the easy jobs.]

[Next time we'll trade.] Qui-Gon walked up to stand before the cloaked figure. The woman was still crying, not hysterically, but Qui-Gon could sense she knew she was about to die.

Well, not if he had anything to do about it. He took another step forward, feeling a malevolent gaze rest on him from the depths of the cloak's hood.

Qui-Gon held his lightsaber easily at his side, ready the instant the other moved. Obi-Wan was behind him, keeping an eye on everyone else. The figure did not move; the woman reached up at grabbed at the hand holding her. Though he couldn't see the figure's face, Qui-Gon got the distinct impression of a contemptuous sneer, then the figure twisted the hand with which he held the woman's hair.

A Dark surge in the Force was all the forewarning they had before bolt after bolt of blue lightning ran through the woman's frame, its crackling nearly drowning out her dying screams.

Qui-Gon was moving the instant he felt it; he knew he would be too late even as the dark figure's hand came up, saber lighting. He could attack and defend himself, or save the woman.

He dove past, slicing at the man's arm and felt as the woman dropped away. She was still breathing, her life force still faintly flickering. Qui-Gon ignored the burn on his own back, a deliberate sacrifice which had allowed him to free her.

He heard the sound of a major scuffle and the distinct thrum of a lightsaber being swung and knew without looking that Obi-Wan was covering his back, taking on the guards who had attacked the moment he had moved. Trusting his lover to handle the task, Qui-Gon turned his full attention back to the cloaked figure.

The woman lay forgotten, the edge of the cloak spilled over her as her captor stepped toward Qui-Gon. The red-bladed saber swung and Qui-Gon raised his own to meet it. In half a heartbeat they moved again and the hiss of the blades filled the air.

Qui-Gon felt a brief touch of reassurance from his partner as Obi-Wan moved quickly and deftly, keeping the other guards on the move and with no clear target. Then his entire concentration was taken up in his own battle. He struck and parried with blinding speed, having no time or energy to spare for anything but the next attack.

Their blades met with each strike, but soon Qui-Gon's blade began to parry each attack a bit closer, a bit sooner. His own attacks were parried a bit later, a bit slower as he gradually began to out-fight his opponent.

And then a parry was fumbled and Qui-Gon's blade struck home, slicing cleanly through muscle and bone alike.

Qui-Gon held the saber in place for a mere instant, then pulled it free and struck again before the dying figure could summon the will or strength for a final, if clumsy, attack.

As it fell to the floor, Qui-Gon whirled and joined Obi-Wan, only to find his lover dispatching the last of the guards.

At least the last who were already present.

[There'll be more,] Obi-Wan said, echoing his own thoughts.

[Then we should get these people out of here while we can.] He turned again, surveying the frightened faces watching them. There were fourteen human adults huddled together; among them was the woman the cloaked figure had held. She was being supported -- by Shmi.

She looked up and met his gaze then, her own remarkably calm for what she obviously had been through. Her only question though was, "My son...is he here? Is he all right?"

Qui-Gon held out his hand, and helped her get the other woman to her feet. "He is safe, he remained at the Temple. Come, we must get these people out of here before reinforcements arrive."

[And before you say it, yes, we must also have my injury tended,] he said to Obi-Wan.

[Did I say anything?] He moved forward to pick up the injured woman that Shmi was supporting.

Shmi gave him a questioning look, then looked to Qui-Gon.

He nodded towards Obi-Wan. "This is my companion, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi. Shmi Skywalker," he added for her benefit -- Obi-Wan had already deduced who she was from overhearing Qui-Gon's thoughts.

"Do you know someplace we can take these people?" Qui-Gon asked her.

She thought for a moment, then nodded. "A place out in the desert that Ani used to practice podracing. No one else knows about it."

"Then let us be on our way."

The three of them got the other prisoners moving and soon they were headed out, away from the building and away from Mos Espa. By nightfall they were all ensconced in the hidden cave that Shmi had directed them to.

All of those rescued were slaves; Shmi explained that the person Qui-Gon had killed had arranged for their purchase -- and then planned on using their dead bodies in some plan he had not deigned to reveal.

"Would you be willing to come with us to Coruscant and tell the Jedi Council your story?" Obi-Wan asked intently. The Council wanted proof? Well, here it was.

"Of course," Shmi nodded. "I cannot tell you who that person was, but I felt the evil in him. And I saw him communicating with someone else, cloaked all in black. The one who held us called him 'Lord'."

"I think we've met. Briefly." Obi-Wan's mind was filled with the encounter he had had on their last mission, an encounter that had almost destroyed both his and Ani's minds. Worse, it had ended in an innocent's death.

Qui-Gon nodded. [We must convince the Council to attend to this matter before it is too late.] He surveyed the group now cowering in the back of the cave, trying to share body heat for warmth and to keep each other calm.

They had nearly been too late to rescue these people. If it hadn't been for Ani's warning...

Qui-Gon took a moment to allow Obi-Wan to dress the burn on his back, slight though it was. Shmi moved forward and joined them where they sat near the entrance to the cave..

"How is Ani?" she asked softly, love and concern for her son coming off her in waves.

"He is fine. Doing quite well, in fact." Qui-Gon considered whatever shortcomings Anakin had in his training to be those of his training, and not of Ani himself.

"He is a wonderful child," Obi-Wan added, a smile coming to his face as he talked. "We have both grown quite fond of him."

Her smile grew wider and they could feel the relief and delight coming from her. "His training then, he is doing well? He is learning -- I know he's very intelligent, but the Jedi training, he...he's learning?" She stumbled for a way to ask the obvious, without offending the two Jedi.

Qui-Gon nodded. "He is learning all he can, as quickly as he can. He will be an excellent Knight one day."

Obi-Wan continued, "He soaks up knowledge like a sponge. There is much he has to catch up on, having started his training so late, but he is making progress in leaps and bounds. I have no doubt he'll be successful." He paused and then added diffidently, "It was Ani who sent us here. He saw you were in trouble."

She nodded, not surprised. "You came just in time. Thank you." She glanced at the others, then asked, doubtfully, "But what now?"

Obi-Wan exchanged glances with his former Master. [Good question. Do we have any answers?]

[We must get these people to safety...but I fear we will not find safety anywhere on this planet.]

Refugees could be easily relocated -- if it weren't for the matter of the explosive implanted in each slave's body.

[There has to be a way to find and remove them,] Obi-Wan pointed out. [Or at least shield from any signals that would trigger them.]

[We should find out what type of device they are and where they are -- that will let us know whether we can even attempt to remove them.] The problem was how. It was a sure bet that such attempts had been made hundreds of times already by desperate slaves.

[But how many of those were fully trained Jedi?]

[Couldn't have been more than two.]

[Yes, but they weren't us, were they?] Obi-Wan grinned confidently at him. [It won't be easy, but we should be able to use the Force to pinpoint the devices' locations.]

Qui-Gon simply nodded. They had nothing else to do but try. [Don't let Master Yoda know I said that though.]

[I'll try not to.] He grinned again.

Qui-Gon returned the smile. Then he looked at Shmi, serious once more.

"Shmi, we will have to search for the restraint devices. We must remove them or render them harmless before we can attempt to get any of you out of here."

She nodded. "Do you think you can do that?"

"We will not know until we attempt it. I...would you allow me to check you first?" He felt oddly more at ease working with someone he knew, though he only knew her slightly. But she was Anakin's mother and that made her...nearly family.

"What do you want me to do?" she asked.

"Just sit there quietly. I am going to use the Force to see if I can locate and identify the device."

Shmi nodded again, visibly trying to relax.

Obi-Wan reached out and touched Qui-Gon's arm gently. [Go as deep as you need to. I'll be here to pull you back if needed.]

[Thank you.]

Qui-Gon composed himself, dropped into a shallow level of meditation, then reached out with the Force. He felt Shmi's life force, powerful and shining, before him. He touched it gently and asked it to guide him. Immediately it flared up, bubbling eagerly, seemingly eager and happy to comply.

Qui-Gon 'told' it what he was searching for -- and quickly as that, he found it.

He looked at it closely, trying to figure out if there was any way he could deactivate it with the Force. There was. It was complicated, and as he used the Force to explore the device's every working, he knew it would be a delicate maneuver.

But it was possible.

Maintaining his concentration, he performed the delicate manipulations he needed to deactivate the device. He felt it resisting at first; as he progressed it began to falter, weakening. Finally, after one last push, it failed completely.

Qui-Gon released his tightly held focus then, letting himself become aware of his body and his surroundings again.

Opening his eyes he found both Shmi and Obi-Wan staring at him. Obi-Wan had a slight smile, proof that he had followed what his former Master had just done. Shmi just looked expectant.

"It is done. The device has been deactivated."

Shmi blinked. "That's all it took?"

Qui-Gon nodded, not bothering to explain the difficulty and effort involved. It would be possible to perform the task thirteen more times, but it was not as simple as it appeared.

[Do you want me to do some?] Obi-Wan asked. [I watched how you did it.] He sent the impression of looking over Qui-Gon's shoulder while the older man had been working.

[If you wish.] There was no reason to share the load and no reason not to. Except that if he said no, he'd have to explain to Obi-Wan *why* he was saying no when saying 'yes' was just as good. He hadn't been frowned at, pouted at, or argued with for seven days now and he was enjoying it.

Obi-Wan's smile widened as he caught that thought. [I must be losing my edge. I'll have to work at that.] Then he became all business, softly calling over one of the other women.

Looking at Qui-Gon he asked, [Do you want to check my work this first time?]

Qui-Gon replied by moving into position both physically and mentally. He anchored himself firmly and 'held' onto Obi-Wan carefully.

[I'm trying to beat my last record,] he offered, once he was ready.

[And how long was that?] Obi-Wan squirmed slightly, settling in.

[Thirteen days.] Qui-Gon gave the next slave, a scared young woman, a reassuring smile. Shmi was at her side, explaining that she would feel hardly anything at all and that it would not hurt a bit.

A frown creased his lover's forehead briefly. [I don't remember. When?]

Qui-Gon composed himself, maintaining an expression of confidence for the young woman's sake. Mentally he squirmed.

With a last, [I'll figure it out eventually,] Obi-Wan turned his full attention to the matter at hand, sinking down into a meditative state with the ease of long practice.

Qui-Gon kept his attention on Obi-Wan, watching to see that he encountered no problems with deactivating the device. The concentration allowed him to try to not think about those thirteen days.

Not that that would do him much good in the end. His lover was nothing if not tenacious.

And extremely competent, he thought as he watched Obi-Wan quickly locate the device and deactivate it with a delicate, deft touch. Just as if he'd been doing this all his life.

[Very well done. You may do the rest.] He could feel in Obi-Wan's response just how much his praise meant to the younger man even now.

He sent a wave of love mingled with pride to Obi-Wan before settling in again to watch. He anchored Obi-Wan while Shmi calmed the next refugee.

While he waited for the next to get settled, Obi-Wan returned to their former conversation. [I'm still waiting for you to tell me when the thirteen days were.]

Qui-Gon experienced a brief memory of the occasion, but squelched as quickly as it arose. He knew he hadn't been fast enough, but opted for dignified composure rather than admitting he'd been caught out.

[Somehow I don't think it counts when I'm away for eight days in the middle.] His lover's tone was amused.

[Does too.]

Obi-Wan smiled. [Does not. And I do believe that ends the current streak of not being argued with.] Before Qui-Gon could reply the young man was gone into trance, searching for the next device.

Qui-Gon muttered to himself as he kept a metaphorical eye on Obi-Wan.

The rest of the deactivations proceeded as smoothly as the first two had and in very little time they were all completed.

[Done!] Obi-Wan sent as he finished the last one. Qui-Gon couldn't help but notice the slight undertone of weariness in the mental voice. [Do we go for the ship now or wait?]

[I will see if it is safe,] Qui-Gon began. As he felt the beginnings of Obi-Wan's objection to his use of the word 'I' and not 'we', he added, [I will not go far, and you must remain here to guard these people.]

Obi-Wan still looked like he wanted to object, but all he said was, [Watch your back.]

Qui-Gon nodded. He turned and headed towards the mouth of the cave, already tuning into the Force, searching the surrounding area for any sign of danger.

All he could sense was sand, sand, and more sand. The Darkness still hovered at the edge of his awareness, but there was nothing close or immediate of a threatening nature.

He moved away from the cave, staying carefully in whatever shadows he could find. The wind had already obscured their tracks, and there appeared to be nothing but the few living creatures that called this patch of desert 'home'.

He was still uneasy though. There was just something about this whole thing that was leaving a bad taste in his mouth.

He continued to search the immediate area, moving only as far as he could get away with. Even with a broken record, he could start over. Besides -- there was nothing the Force couldn't tell him about the area for over a mile in any direction. There was no need to see with his own eyes.

What he saw was the same as what he sensed: nothing that shouldn't be there, nothing overtly dangerous. Just...desert.

He gave the area one more look, concentrating on the subtlest of reflections in the Force. All he felt was the unease without focus. He turned then and went back to the cave.

Obi-Wan met his gaze as he entered. [Anything?]

[Nothing specific. Nothing nearby. We should move out as soon as possible while we can do so safely.] He looked at the faces turned towards them; dirty, tired, but trusting. Their duty was clear.

[Our best chance would be to skirt the town and come up to where our ship is from the other side. Less chance of random confrontations that way.] Obi-Wan was already gathering his things and standing.

Qui-Gon simply nodded and went to Shmi, explaining the plan. She helped him get the freed slaves to their feet, reminding them all they would have to move quietly and quickly. Her calm demeanor seemed to lend strength to the others and they were ready to leave in far less time than Qui-Gon would have predicted.

As they moved out, Qui-Gon said, [Take the lead. I shall take the rear.]

[Promises, promises,] his lover shot back with a mischievous wink before obeying and leading the refugees out into the desert.

Qui-Gon mused that one day he would have to have a serious talk with Obi-Wan about the proper time and place for lewd comments during a mission. No doubt half an hour after he had it with himself.

As the group moved out, he quickly debated and discarded the option of using the Force to wipe out their trail. The use of the Force would be as much of a beacon as footprints to the sort of being likely to replace the adversary they had dispatched. They would have to count on speed and luck to keep themselves from being discovered.

For the first hour their progress was without incident. They made fair time, nothing fabulous, but covering more ground than Qui-Gon had counted on. The ship was still over an hour away, however, and as they skirted the city, the danger of discovery increased.

Qui-Gon wasn't the only one aware of this fact; not only could he feel Obi-Wan's increasing vigilance and concern, but also noticed the worried looks Shmi and some of the others were sending his way. There was nothing he could tell them for reassurance other than, "Keep going."

When the ship came into view across the short dunes, he felt it. Something was approaching.

[Qui-Gon!] Obi-Wan's warning came with a sense of direction. He turned and looked and saw the ambush lying in wait for them.

[Get them behind the dune,] Qui-Gon directed. [While we draw their fire.] He was already moving forward to attack as he spoke.

Obi-Wan directed the freed slaves in the indicated direction, relying on Shmi to keep them together and moving, then joined Qui-Gon with his saber drawn.

The forces came clambering over the dune, throwing sand and angry shouts as they came running. Qui-Gon was grateful for the balance the Force would give him and Obi-Wan to keep them from slipping in the slick sand.

The first shot was fired and the battle was then joined.

As always, time seemed to slow down extraordinarily during the fight, while at the same time it seemed to gallop along at twice its usual speed. Qui-Gon fought with Obi-Wan by his side, each compensating for the other's weaknesses, each guarding the other's back. There was a certain joy in this kind of situation, where only his and his lover's skills stood between them and certain death. It was an unholy joy that one must be careful not to enjoy too much.

He allowed himself to pull back slightly, centering his focus on the battle and not his ally. He knew where Obi-Wan would be at each step, so he need not spend any energy keeping track of him.

Qui-Gon glanced back towards the ship, seeing the first of the refugees reaching the lowered ramp. Obi-Wan was also aware of that and, as one, they started slowly backing up towards the ship to escape themselves.

They were almost there. The forces attacking could not break through the shield created by the Jedi's lightsabers. Qui-Gon felt for a moment they would escape, but then he felt the ripple in the Force, warning danger. One of those attacking raised a large weapon to his shoulder.

Qui-Gon had to dart ahead, to attack the man in order to prevent his firing the weapon and disabling the ship. The move left Obi-Wan to block the blasts from their other opponents alone, if only for half a minute.

Half a minute in a melee such as this could be an eternity.

Just as Qui-Gon reached his target he felt a surge of denial, grief and anger from his lover, but he could not let himself be distracted until his opponent was dispatched.

He leapt. As he landed, the front end of the weapon landed on the ground. He spun as soon as his feet touched the ground and the man wielding the now-useless weapon was down, as well.

Qui-Gon ran back to the ship then, using Force speed.

The sight that greeted his eyes nearly knocked the breath out of him.

Obi-Wan was still standing in front of the ramp, furiously deflecting shot after shot, chaotic emotions radiating off him in waves. Behind him on the ramp, two of the refugees were dragging the body of a third who had been shot up into the ship.

The person who had been shot was Shmi.

He didn't need to reach out, to feel that her life force was gone. As he hurried up the ramp he grabbed Obi-Wan and dragged him behind; with the other hand he helped the last of the refugees get onboard.

As he and Obi-Wan stepped inside, Qui-Gon hit the control to close and lock the ramp and door behind them. Without comment, Obi-Wan immediately went forward and started preparing for take-off. The emotions Qui-Gon had sensed off him were now locked tightly behind Obi-Wan's strongest shields, which let only the barest trace of his presence leak through.

For his part, he dropped to his knees beside Shmi.

Her face was composed, no signs of fear, only determination.

"She pushed me out of the way," one of the refugees said quietly. Qui-Gon looked up into a young girl's face. Tears were running down her cheeks. "If she hadn't, that would've been me..."

Qui-Gon nodded and rested his hand briefly on her arm, offering her a slight comfort. He reached for Obi-Wan and found him still blocked off, so he bent over and picked Shmi up.

He carried her to a small room, where he laid her on the bunk. He smoothed her hair and arranged her arms at her sides. Then he covered her with a blanket and left the room.

'We are going to have to tell Ani. And hope....'

He heard the engine start and felt the ship take off in a controlled but rapid ascent. He checked once more on the other refugees then headed for the cockpit and Obi-Wan.

He found the other man starting resolutely forward, concentrating on getting them out of the airspace above Mos Espa as quickly as possible. Qui-Gon said nothing until they had reached clear space.

Then he touched Obi-Wan very gently on the shoulder. "Obi-Wan?"

There was no answer.

He waited.

Obi-Wan remained silent until some time after they had entered hyperspace. But, finally, Qui-Gon's patience was rewarded when his lover whispered in a barely audible voice, "How can I face Ani?"

Qui-Gon tightened his grip on Obi-Wan's shoulder. "We will face him together, Obi-Wan. The blame is not yours; she moved into the line of fire to save another's life."

"Because I failed to block the shot." The very monotone of the statement highlighted Obi-Wan's pain.

There was nothing he could say to that. He had not been there and he did not know exactly how it had happened. He knew Obi-Wan would not have let a shot by if it had been at all possible to block it -- Obi-Wan was as good a warrior as a Jedi could hope to be.

"Not good enough, this time..."

"Then it was the will of the Force," Qui-Gon reminded him. It sounded cold to those who had not been trained to believe as the Jedi did. But it was, from the Jedi's point of view, the truth.

He had a suspicion that Anakin would accept the words even less well than Obi-Wan.

Obi-Wan gave a bitter laugh. "Cold comfort that will be to Ani."

Qui-Gon shivered. He suddenly had a very, very bad feeling.