torch, September-October 1999

Disclaimer: Lucas creates. I subvert. This is set pre-TPM, with no spoilers. It mentions characters from the JA books, but makes only one reference to specific happenings, and doesn't build on the books except for the borrowing of those characters and that one event, which is only mentioned in passing. Many thanks to ari, Kirby Crow, Misha and my WLU sibs, who encouraged and criticized and pointed out plot holes. I'm sure this would have been better if I'd followed all their suggestions. Feedback is appreciated: flambeau@strangeplaces.net. Do not archive this story without permission.

Crystallize

The hard-packed snow creaked under his feet as he walked. He could see his own footprints from the day before, and the day before that, and so on, overlapping with Obi-Wan's smaller ones from the evening circuits. The weather had been clear and calm for several days, but Qui-Gon would have known even without the weather satellite's morning warnings that the winter storms weren't over. He looked at the sky: pale grey overhead, but darkening rapidly over the other end of the valley. There was worse weather coming.

Reaching the final lookout, he stepped up to the post, tapped in an access code and waited for the cover to retract. A blue light winked at him, and the sentry recorder hummed to life. Qui-Gon breathed deeply, crossed his arms over his chest in the prescribed posture, and counted to ten before speaking. "Day fifty-one of the long snow, fifth year of Ateyinniah regnant, morning. All is quiet. The enemy does not come."

A soft beep of confirmation, another count of ten, and the protective cover slid back down. Qui-Gon dropped his arms and rolled his shoulders, stretching his spine, drawing cold air deep into his lungs. He took a moment to admire the view from this, the farthest and highest outpost on the perimeter. Qui-Gon stood partway up a steep, rocky slope. To his right, the valley stretched out in gentle undulations, wave after wave of white broadening and finally merging with the wide plains down below. To his left, it narrowed up into a mountain range.

Even knowing where the watchstation was, he could not see it from where he was standing, it was so securely tucked away. It was only when he used the force to search for it that he picked it out: a large snow-covered boulder-like shape that emitted entirely the wrong heat signature, and had carefully placed, non-reflecting windows.

That heat signature seemed to beckon to him, and he started back along the path at a pace that would keep him warm. Winter temperatures on Remis were at the low end of what human bodies could tolerate and survive, and only Jedi came here voluntarily, to the snow and the emptiness. To guard and to protect. Qui-Gon flexed his fingers inside thick gloves, and looked back over his shoulder at the threatening clouds. They'd already been snowed in once and had to dig free, early on in their stay. He'd commented that at least it made for a change in the routine, and Obi-Wan had lifted an eyebrow. Yes, master. More snow certainly makes for a change from all the snow.

The memory of a smile was on Qui-Gon's lips as he made his way down. In places the path was steep enough to be more of a rock-ladder, snow-covered and slippery, and made for Rem legs, not human ones. He moved carefully. The watchstation had a good healing facility, but to sustain an injury on a mission like this would be ridiculous. After walking this path every day for eleven days, he should know its dangers.

Once he reached more level ground, it was easy going and he could stretch his legs, enjoy the simple pleasure of unfettered motion. His body was restless; there was no room for any of the larger katas inside the watchstation, and they could not draw their weapons for practice outside its doors. It was too bad, really — the rock-strewn, snow-covered ground would have made for an interesting exercise — but for as long as they were guarding the Rem, they would abide by Rem laws.

A few snowflakes drifted down, catching on the ends of his hair where it spilled out from the edge of the hood. Qui-Gon wished he could bring one inside with him and meditate on its small, intricate beauty. It might help him with his restlessness, and with the dar puzzle. Reaching the entrance to the watchstation, he paused to take a final look at the valley. The enemy did not come; the snow did. There was a haze of white in the air over the other end of the valley, getting closer and closer. Come evening, he and his padawan would be shoveling their way out again.

The door slid open behind him, and he turned away from the snow and went inside.

Stripping off his outer robe and several layers of thermal insulation, he hung them up next to Obi-Wan's; the circuit along the upper part of the valley was shorter, and his padawan was always back before him in the mornings. Qui-Gon bent down and exchanged the Rem snowshoes for his boots. The watchstation was comfortable, but its floors were chilly. He brushed the drops that had been snowflakes from his hair and went into the next room, where Obi-Wan sat cross-legged on one of the large square stools, reading. Qui-Gon went to look over his apprentice's shoulder and recognized one of the texts from the fourth advanced mathematics course. "You've been through that three times now."

"Repetition is an excellent teacher," Obi-Wan said, not looking up.

"I thought you might find the Jeteri poetry I lent you a couple of days ago interesting." Watching closely, Qui-Gon could see a slight hunching of one of Obi-Wan's shoulders, quickly suppressed. "Perhaps later."

He went to take what had become, during this stay, his seat, a higher chair by the table. A small pile of data readers and old print texts waited for him, and so did the dar puzzle, all clean translucent edges. Most of the pieces were still waiting to be inserted. Qui-Gon picked one up, ran a fingertip over the dry, slightly dusty stone surface. The force in the puzzle spoke to him, had kept him working piece by slow piece since their arrival. Perhaps he would be able to finish it in their time here, find out what the crystal wanted to show him.

Qui-Gon tapped the short end of the piece against the structure he'd built so far, feeling for resonance. Sometimes a piece would fit in a place where it had already been tried and rejected, and he wouldn't know what would have changed between times: the crystals, his mood, the time of day...

He was too restless, and put the piece down. Instead he turned to one of the printed books. He was trying to teach himself to read Remi, something there had never been time for during his other stays here, and found it slow going. The volume of myths and legends was a simplified one meant for Rem children, but he thought there were interesting things to be learned from it about Rem culture, if he could only stop getting the verb tenses mixed up.

Turning his head to look at Obi-Wan, he saw that his padawan had given up on mathematics and was staring blindly into space, a small line between his eyebrows. Perhaps—

Qui-Gon cleared his throat. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Too well-trained to jump, Obi-Wan nevertheless looked slightly startled, but the look vanished quickly enough, to be replaced by something polite and distant. "I'd really rather not."

Qui-Gon thought about pressing the issue, looked at the way Obi-Wan's lips were pressed tightly together, and decided it could wait. "Very well, padawan." He keyed one of the data readers to the dictionary function, and immersed himself in the story of how the first Rem discovered fire and grilled their children... no, that couldn't be right. The Rem had discovered fire when the gods had sent lightning as punishment for some transgression, and — yes, they had burned their children as a sacrificial offering, in... gratitude? Fear?

As a childrens' book, Qui-Gon thought, this volume left something to be desired. He read on, and heard Obi-Wan get up and go into the kitchen, heard the sound of water being poured and the clank of kitchen utensils. The burned children returned as ghosts and taught the Rem to cook food. That struck Qui-Gon as being in extremely bad taste. He wished he could discuss the story with someone who knew it, to get the Rem cultural perspective on it.

Obi-Wan came out of the kitchen with two steaming mugs and set one down before Qui-Gon. He looked subdued. "I apologize for being so ill-tempered, master."

Putting the book aside, Qui-Gon leaned back in the chair and looked up at his padawan. "You have my permission to mope around with a broken heart for another five days," he said, "but if you go on for longer than that, I'm sending you to the Temple counselors when we get back."

Obi-Wan smiled faintly. "That will not be necessary, master." He put his own tea mug down, too, and took a chair at an angle to Qui-Gon's. "And my heart isn't broken."

"No?" Qui-Gon kept his tone light. "If it isn't, I'm cutting the time down. Another two days."

"I'm sorry. I know I've been difficult." Obi-Wan looked down at his hands, and Qui-Gon looked at them too, reading tension in their unmoving lines. When Obi-Wan looked up again, his eyes were determinedly bright. "Master, that puzzle you're working on — what will it be when it's finished?"

Qui-Gon accepted the change of subject, but privately resolved that if Obi-Wan would not voluntarily speak during the two days he had been given, Qui-Gon would ask. It was a fine line to walk — he wanted to respect, did respect, his padawan's privacy, but at the same time it was his responsibility to look into all things that could affect Obi-Wan's mental state. His responsibility to make sure that his padawan's mind and soul did not become mired in the trouble that kept him silent and brooding.

"I don't know," he said, picking up one of the rectangular crystal pieces and turning it between his fingers once more. "The Rem call it a dar puzzle. It is force sensitive, and responds to the emotions of whoever touches it." Brushing the piece at random against another, he was surprised to feel it slide into place. "When all the pieces are in place, it is supposed to show an answer to a question."

"You have to ask a question before you start?"

Qui-Gon shook his head. "No. 'The answer to the question that isn't asked,'" he quoted.

Obi-Wan looked interested, cocking his head slightly to one side and studying the delicate interlace of crystal. "I don't suppose there are any more of those around," he said. "I'd like to know—" Then he broke off.

"I'd like to know, too," Qui-Gon said mildly. "Perhaps the puzzle will tell me."

Obi-Wan went to get his mathematics text, and sat at the table with Qui-Gon, reading and eventually building models on a small projecting calculator, while Qui-Gon managed to place another two pieces into the puzzle. What he had built so far didn't look like anything. A lopsided snowflake, the model of some complex protein... as soon as he began to wonder about it, the crystals refused to cooperate, and he went back to reading.

Around midday, Qui-Gon went into the kitchen and steamed sala roots for them both, and made more tea. They ate together in silence, watching the snow fall outside. Winter duty on Remis was a perfect time for meditation exercises, yet today, Qui-Gon did not suggest it. He left Obi-Wan to his studies and took a turn around the watchstation, making sure everything was still in order, as if it would have changed since early morning when he had walked the same rounds. In the communications room he checked again on their real responsibility, the satellite link net that would warn of invasion.

All was quiet, as quiet as in the snow-filled valley. There were some messages to be downloaded, one for him, three for Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon looked at the letter from Barkala and decided to save it for later. He wasn't in the mood for the mix of jokes and complaints that Barkala specialized in, and he suspected there might be gossip about Obi-Wan in there, questions he wouldn't and couldn't answer. He ran a diagnostics check on the net and waited patiently for all the lights to come up blue. Then he ran the same check on the valley sentry posts.

The last one, the one where he had paused to admire the view that morning, was a little slow to respond, although the lag was small enough to be within acceptable parameters. Qui-Gon keyed a separate diagnostic test for that one post, and got up to look out the window while it was running. The snow was falling more heavily now, piling up in soft drifts against the walls of the watchstation. It seemed that the wind was picking up, too.

When the console beeped, Qui-Gon turned his attention to the results scrolling up, scanning for orange lines in the blue text, grateful that the Rem had a primary Standard setting to their programs for the benefit of the Jedi; he wasn't far enough along in his language studies to decipher any complex error messages. The delay could be traced to a coupling in the post itself. He would ask Obi-Wan to take a look at it during the evening circuit. Qui-Gon shut down the diagnostics program and went back into the central room, where the projection from Obi-Wan's calculator had taken on a surprising resemblance to the dar puzzle.

Obi-Wan looked up, and Qui-Gon nodded at him. "I'm going out to dig the door free," he said. "The snow is falling fast. If we wait until it's time for the evening rounds, the drifts will be up above your head, padawan."

"I will come with you," Obi-Wan said instantly, setting his calculator aside.

Qui-Gon almost said that there was no need, but changed his mind; on the contrary, simple hard exercise might be just what Obi-Wan needed. As they could not spar, they would shovel. They went into the entrance hall and wrapped up in all the layers of their winter gear, taking care with each closure and fastening. "There are Academy stories about how some masters make winter on Remis an exercise in controlling body temperature," Qui-Gon said.

"Yes, and make their apprentices sit naked in the snow," Obi-Wan said. "There are also stories about using the force to move the snow each morning."

"And what do you conclude from this, padawan?" Qui-Gon tucked his hair securely inside the hood of his winter-weight robe.

"That I shouldn't believe everything I hear." They picked up their shovels, and Qui-Gon made sure that the inner door was shut before keying open the outer door. As soon as it opened, wind and snow reached inside to grab them. They had to clear a space to step outside in, and then the door slid shut behind them. "I hope you don't mean to ask me to strip now, master."

Qui-Gon laughed, and they began to work to clear the path. The lessons he had been taught on Remis as a padawan, the lessons he tried to teach on Remis as a master, had always centered around not using the force for mundane tasks unless it was absolutely necessary. It was something Obi-Wan had learned well, after some initial reluctance. Although if Obi-Wan were growing confident enough to predict his master's teaching methods, it might be time to surprise him on the next mission.

They packed the shoveled snow into the walls on each side of the watchstation entrance, pressing hard to prevent the rising wind from catching it again. It took time to dig out a clear space, and it was hard, sweaty work, lacking the precision and control of lightsaber training, but with some of the liberating qualities of meditation. Qui-Gon let his mind drift towards emptiness, existing in motion, free and strenuously easy.

By the time they were done, the light was darkening towards gray. The paths to the sentry posts would be buried deep now; it would take much longer for Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to make their evening rounds. Qui-Gon keyed the chrono in his comm link to check the time. "Obi-Wan," he said, pitching his voice to carry over the wind, and his padawan came up to him, pink-cheeked and pink-nosed with cold, looking much more cheerful.

"Yes, master?"

"It's getting late. We may as well set out now. When you get to the final post, check on the green four-b coupling. There's a lag in the link-up to the perimeter net."

"Yes, master."

They dug their way out between the two large boulders that shielded the entrance to the watchstation, and then parted company. Qui-Gon made his way towards the upper end of the valley, alternately tramping the snow under his feet and shoveling it out of his way. The first and second sentry posts were shielded by rocks and easy to get at, but the third was on the wind side of a boulder and barely visible; he had to dig it partly free and kneel down on hard-packed snow to access the panel. It answered readily enough, though. The posts were built specifically to withstand this kind of weather.

Approaching the fourth post, he saw a large, dark shape through the heavy snowfall, and stopped at once. Qui-Gon reached out with the force and felt the fuzzy animal mind of a jarak. He stayed where he was, perfectly still, with the snow blowing into his face. The jarak was scratching its flank against the sentry post, slowly and thoroughly. Then it turned, shook itself, and lumbered off, taking no notice of Qui-Gon.

He went up to the post and found that the jarak had dented the panel covering, and left strands of fur caught on the edge. If he went for tools to mend the damage, he might not be able to finish the circuit in the prescribed time. Qui-Gon used the force to straighten out the cover until it could be retracted, and rolled up the soft fur and put it in his pocket, intending to take it back and show it to Obi-Wan, who had not yet seen a jarak. He tapped in the evening code. "Day fifty-one of the long snow, fifth year of Ateyinniah regnant, evening. All is quiet. The enemy does not come."

The jarak did not count as an enemy, only as a nuisance. Qui-Gon was well aware that it could eat him in three bites, but in all the years that the Jedi had guarded the Rem during their winter sleep, there was only one recorded case of a jarak attack, when a padawan managed to provoke one of the animals by trying to frighten it off with his lightsaber. Jaraki were attracted to bright colors. Qui-Gon made sure that the cover slid back down easily and fitted snugly over the panel, then moved on towards the last post of the round.

The path was more exposed here, and as a consequence all but invisible. He moved carefully, digging his way, wondering if it would be snowed over again when he went back. At least the Rem snowshoes kept him from sinking into the softer drifts. Qui-Gon could only hope that there wouldn't be time for the snow to pack together and grow hard around the sentry posts overnight, or they'd have to 'saber the posts free. While such use of their weapons didn't fall under the Rem peace laws, they would run the risk of drawing the attention of the jaraki.

By the time he reached the last post, it was snowing so hard that he seemed to be walking through a series of white curtains; he could see less than a body-length ahead. This post was free-standing and had only gathered a small drift around the base. Qui-Gon shoveled the snow away, clearing the area down to the ground. It would at least save Obi-Wan a little trouble the next morning. After completing the ritual he turned to go back, and the storm hit him full in the face.

Winter storms on Remis. He'd been here several times, as padawan, as knight, as master, and knew these storms as well as any Jedi. Fierce, bitterly cold, but only lasting for a day or two... if they were lucky, they might wake tomorrow to clear skies. The wind bit into him, and he decided it was time to use the force to sustain his body temperature, after all. Thought about keying the commlink and telling Obi-Wan to do the same, but his padawan was certainly intelligent enough not to let himself freeze to death, and did not need the reminder.

Qui-Gon started back, tramping and digging. Snow was beginning to make its way inside the edge of his hood, melting in cold rivulets and running down his neck. He cast his awareness out as he walked; in this weather, he could walk right into a jarak before seeing it. The path he was reinforcing would be gone within hours. Still, he kept shoveling. It was part of the Jedi's promise to the Rem.

By the time he made it back to the watchstation, it was dark. Qui-Gon tried to brush off the worst of the snow before going inside, but it kept falling on him until he went through the door. He shook off all his outer layers in one corner of the entrance hall before hanging them up, then used the shovel to dump the resulting pile of snow in a bucket, and brought it with him into the station proper. Qui-Gon went straight to the central control panel for the station and activated the steam room. He set the bucket in the cooler outside the steam room door.

A short while later, Obi-Wan returned, rubbing at the tip of his nose as he came in from the entrance hall. "I didn't find anything wrong with the green four-b coupling, master," he said.

"I suppose it could have been a temporary glitch." Qui-Gon unclipped the commlink from his wrist and hooked it around his utility belt. "It was well within acceptable parameters." The system would set off an alarm as soon as any reading went over or under the safety margins, and so far, that had never happened. Unfastening his belt, Qui-Gon went on, "I thought we could use some time in the steam room before dinner."

Obi-Wan nodded vigorously. "I'll just go check on our hosts," he said, going towards the communications room, then past it. Qui-Gon went on undressing, listening absently to the muted clang of the access hatch and Obi-Wan's light footsteps going down the ladder to the vast underground caves. He put his folded clothing on one of the low stools, picked a towel from a shelf by the steam room door and went inside.

The heat wrapped welcomingly around him. He twisted his hair up in a knot and pinned it in place, spread the towel on a wooden bench and sat, relaxing with slow breath after slow breath. There was a fresh tangy smell of herbs in the steam, soothing and refreshing at once. He could feel his back muscles, stiff from digging, begin to relax. Closing his eyes, he slipped into a light meditative trance.

The cooler air that entered with Obi-Wan broke him out of the trance again, not too much later. Obi-Wan put his towel down one step higher, and Qui-Gon smiled; his padawan liked heat. "Everything is unchanged down below?"

"Yes." Obi-Wan shifted, finding a comfortable position. "Well, councillor Kerob has turned over in his sleep, and kicked off his coverlet. But other than that, all is as it should be. They sleep."

And would continue to sleep until the spring came, watched over by Jedi guardians, as they had been every winter for well over a century. The Rem had no enemies now that the tribes were united among themselves, and technology had rendered them safe from animal attacks, but Qui-Gon understood their paranoia. A species that must spend half its life hibernating is quite naturally worried that someone will move in and take over its home, its planet, while it's asleep.

They sat in companionable silence for a while as the heat and the herb-scented steam drove the winter chill from their bodies. Qui-Gon rearranged his towel so that he could lean back against the higher bench Obi-Wan had chosen. Glancing up, he saw that his padawan had slipped down into a sprawled position that looked nearly impossible, and was smiling blissfully, eyes closed. "You might want to check on the comm console at some point," Qui-Gon said. "You have some messages waiting."

"I'll get to them later, master." Obi-Wan rubbed a bead of sweat from his upper lip. "It's probably Bant, asking about Lilia — she must have heard by now."

And there it was, spoken of at last. Qui-Gon decided that the head-on approach might be the best. "Rumor has it that she came to the Temple and threw a plate of food in your face in the middle of the apprentice dining hall."

"Well, yes." Obi-Wan opened his eyes, but didn't tense up too badly. "I confess I was relieved to get away from Coruscant, although I suspect it's too much to hope for that everyone will have forgotten about it by the time we get back."

"And it will give you some time to come to terms with your own feelings," Qui-Gon said gently. "You've been very quiet. I understand that you were hurt by the break-up, but—"

"Oh, no." Obi-Wan pushed himself up on one elbow. "I mean, yes, in a way, but— Master, I was the one who ended the relationship. That's why Lilia was so angry. She felt that my motivation was... insufficient."

Qui-Gon didn't let his surprise show. He'd been sure that it had been the temperamental Lilia who had broken up with Obi-Wan, and more than half inclined to suspect that the relationship would be resumed when Obi-Wan returned from Remis, if his padawan apologized prettily enough for whatever had set Lilia off. There was no doubt in Qui-Gon's mind that the Vaheen diplomat's daughter was serious about Obi-Wan. But if Obi-Wan had broken up with her — that was a very different matter. "What was your motivation, then?"

"I can't love her the way she wants me to," Obi-Wan said simply. He was winding his padawan braid between his fingers, a childish gesture he reverted to in times of stress, but his voice was calm. "Lilia is — she deserves someone who will put her first. I am a Jedi. She doesn't want to understand what that means to me."

Qui-Gon shifted position yet again, so that he could see Obi-Wan more easily. "Obi-Wan, what does it mean to you? What is it about being a Jedi that would prevent you from having a relationship with Lilia? Do you believe that being a Jedi means that you have to live without love?"

Obi-Wan opened his mouth as if to make a quick answer, and then paused, and dropped his gaze; Qui-Gon could almost see him think, put things into words. "Master, no, I don't think that. I know it isn't so. Many knights and masters are married or in long-term relationships. But even more... are not." Qui-Gon, who fell into the latter category himself, could not argue with that. Obi-Wan sat up, crossed his legs and leaned forward. "It isn't easy to accept that your lover has chosen a life that means dying for strangers should it be necessary. Lilia wants all of me, and I don't have that all to give."

"She knew you were a Jedi from the moment she met you," Qui-Gon pointed out. "Perhaps you underestimate her. Give her some time to get used to the idea, and—"

"No." Obi-Wan shook his head. "When she understood that I was serious, she decided that she wasn't happy with me, in — many ways, and some other issues were brought up that— It's over, master. Really."

"Other issues?"

Obi-Wan dropped his eyes again. "I don't think—"

Conquering his curiosity with an effort, Qui-Gon said, "You don't have to tell me, Obi-Wan."

That made Obi-Wan look up again, with a small, rueful smile. "I have already told you so much, master. There was also the question of our sex life, which I suspect is also discussed all through the Temple, as she called me a cold-blooded wretch of a Jedi kashk before she threw the plate at me."

"I've never studied Vaheenian," Qui-Gon said. "I gather that it isn't a compliment."

"A kashk is a Vaheen lizard, about this big," Obi-Wan gestured with a distracted air, as if about to lecture on Vaheen flora and fauna, "that only mates once during its entire life span and is apparently quite traumatized by the business."

Qui-Gon was beginning to feel a little worried. It seemed he didn't know his padawan as well as he'd thought. And although Obi-Wan had kept his tone light, there was some hurt there, some uncertainty, old and deeply rooted. It made Qui-Gon feel reluctant to probe, but Obi-Wan was finally ready to talk, might even need to talk. So, "You don't enjoy sex?" Qui-Gon asked.

"I don't dislike it," Obi-Wan said. "I've just never... enjoyed it as much as my partners. And it was upsetting to Lilia that she couldn't make me feel—" He broke off.

"That she couldn't make you feel the way you made her feel," Qui-Gon finished for him. "Lilia is a warm-hearted, generous young woman."

"Yes," Obi-Wan said unhappily. "She is."

"Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon leaned forward and put one hand over his padawan's. "Do you love her?"

Now Obi-Wan looked even more distressed; nothing a stranger would have noticed, but Qui-Gon knew every expression on that seemingly calm face. It took some time for the words to come out. "I don't know." Obi-Wan let go of his braid, as if he'd just noticed he was holding it. "I don't know, and that's why I couldn't let things go on as they were."

"I understand." Qui-Gon squeezed Obi-Wan's hand, and sat back. "Now, I want you to think about what love means to you, and what role you think love should play in the life of a Jedi, and how this applies to your relationship with Lilia, and your previous relationships with others. I want you to meditate on this. And then we will talk again."

"Yes, master."

Qui-Gon got to his feet and opened the steam room door, picked up the bucket sitting in the cooler outside and quickly shut the door again. He picked up a handful of snow and tossed it at Obi-Wan, and fancied he could almost hear a hiss as the icy crystals met Obi-Wan's heated skin.

Obi-Wan, the sedate, controlled Jedi padawan, jumped and squeaked. Qui-Gon laughed. "It's time for us to clean up and cook some dinner," he said, setting the bucket down and picking up another handful to rub over his face. The shock of it felt good, and Obi-Wan followed his example a moment later, stroking the snow down over his chest and arms.

It melted quickly in the heat of the steamroom, though, and soon enough they went outside, turning off the steam and warmth before taking their towels along to the showers. There were five shower heads; the watchstation was usually not called upon to host more than four persons at one time, and that only when one Jedi team passed on watch duties to another. Qui-Gon washed with speed and efficiency, keeping his hair pinned up and out of the way of the water.

He was amused to see Obi-Wan linger under the water, head tilted back, eyes closed. There was a hedonistic streak hidden under Obi-Wan's placid exterior, something Obi-Wan kept tamped down in much the same way that he kept a tight rein on his sense of humor. Perhaps that resolute control was the reason behind Obi-Wan's apparent inability to fully let go with a lover and enjoy the moment. But that was secondary to the main issue. Love was more important than lust, and Obi-Wan must search his thoughts and feelings, must learn to know himself and understand his wants and beliefs.

Stepping out of the shower, Qui-Gon got himself dry and dressed and was in the kitchen area cutting up more sala root by the time Obi-Wan joined him. Steamed sala root was a staple of Rem cuisine, and Qui-Gon found it relatively tasty as well as nourishing, although he didn't object when Obi-Wan blended chigurra and spices into a hot sauce to liven up dinner. They carried filled plates and a pitcher of ice cold water out into the main room and settled by the table, pushing Obi-Wan's calculator and mathematics text aside.

Obi-Wan poured water for them both, put the pitcher down, and looked sideways at Qui-Gon. "Master? When we return to Coruscant, I would like to take the next applied astrophysics exam."

"That's why you've been working on the spatial projections again?" Qui-Gon wasn't surprised to see Obi-Wan nod. "We'll go over the material together in our remaining time here, then, but if you think you're ready, I believe you. You can send the exam application from here, any time you like."

"Thank you, master." Obi-Wan's smile was sudden and brilliant.

"You will not, however, revise for the exams to such an extent that you neglect the meditations I have charged you with," Qui-Gon said sternly. "You're very ambitious, padawan, and a good student. But you must take care that your mind and soul keep pace with your head."

"Yes, master." Obi-Wan bent his head and applied himself to his sala root. It was not until they had both almost finished eating that he looked up again to say, "And I will read my messages."

"Good." They shared a half-smile. "I'm sure Bant is eager to hear from you."

Obi-Wan cleared the table and went into the kitchen, and Qui-Gon went back to his reading. He was vaguely aware, as he read, of Obi-Wan taking care of the dishes, and then going to the communications room, but the Rem myths absorbed the larger part of his attention. Once he was past the child-sacrificing parts, he found a lot of material that explained early Rem culture, and some fascinating stories of talking jaraki. That reminded him of his encounter earlier in the day, and he got up and went into the outer hall to retrieve the jarak fur from the pocket where he'd stowed it.

When he came back in, Obi-Wan was just returning from the communications room. "I noticed you hadn't read your messages either, master."

"I only have one," Qui-Gon said, momentarily forgetting the first rule of inscrutability: never sound defensive.

"Now you have two." Obi-Wan had mastered the art of innocent impudence at an early age. Fortunately, he was distracted as Qui-Gon held out the jarak fur to him."What is this?" Obi-Wan took it and rubbed it between his fingers. "It feels wonderful."

"A jarak was using one of the sentry posts to scratch an itch, and it left a souvenir."

"Oh." Obi-Wan rubbed his cheek against the soft tuft of fur, eyes drifting half-shut. "I don't suppose jaraki would make very good pets. But I would like to at least see one."

"I'm sure you will," Qui-Gon said, resisting the urge to pat Obi-Wan to see if he'd purr. "Just don't try to cuddle it."

Qui-Gon went to bed early, and lay stretched out on his back in the huge Rem bed, letting his eyes unfocus, thinking about the Rem legends. The Rem were few, their nativity low; they treasured children. And at the same time, stories meant for beloved children described deliberate infanticide. The dichotomy teased at his mind, would not leave him alone. He was still thinking about it when Obi-Wan came in, silent as a ghost, undressed and walked over to the window, stood there staring out.

Closing his eyes, Qui-Gon fell asleep while his padawan stood naked and watched the snow fall.

* * *

They woke at the same hour, but followed their separate morning routines. Qui-Gon went to the kitchen for tea, leaving Obi-Wan to get up at his own pace. The light was muted inside the watchstation; there was snow piled up high enough to cover several of the windows. Tea mug in hand, Qui-Gon went into the communications room again and linked up to the weather satellite. The storm was over, and the weather promised to be calm for a while.

He sat down at one of the consoles and looked at his messages. The second one was from Adi Gallia, asking him to hold a series of lectures to the most recent crop of knights — the lectures he privately thought of as The proper care and feeding of young padawans. That was no hardship, and Qui-Gon sent back a simple yes. It was very important to make sure that knights were fully aware of the responsibilities involved in taking on a padawan learner, and did not see it merely as a necessary step towards becoming a master.

Then he turned more reluctantly to Barkala's message. As he had suspected, it was full of dry comments on the occasional obtuseness of students, particularly those in Barkala's An introduction to Jedi history class. Random gossip: Tuara Kanwathe and her padawan had returned from Yahadee after successfully negotiating a peace treaty, and celebrated by passing on Yahadee bug flu to half the Temple; Py Thesd had passed the trials; Ch'Ca'taou was reorganizing the library again...

And everyone is still talking about how interesting your padawan looked, wearing clath paste all over his face and tunic and blushing like a sunset on Taya, although the general opinion seems to be that only a blush would be even more becoming. You should tell him to pick less temperamental girlfriends, Qui-Gon. They will try to quarrel with him, and he has no idea how to handle it. Obi-Wan is an excellent young man in many ways, but I don't believe he knows what he wants, or would be able to deal with it if he did know. Temporary celibacy might be the best solution.

Qui-Gon sighed, and sipped at his tea. He should have put off reading this message even longer. He didn't want Barkala, or anyone else, telling him how to handle his padawan, much less making suggestions about Obi-Wan's private life. At the same time, Barkala's message suggested a pattern that Qui-Gon had not been aware of, that he should have been aware of. Was it possible that in trying to grant his padawan sufficient freedom and privacy, he had gone too far, leaving himself blind to things it was his duty, as Obi-Wan's master, to know? He pondered the question as he ran the morning check on the satellite net, and decided all he could do at the moment was ask Obi-Wan about it all.

The meditations on love that he had set his padawan ought to be a good starting point, whether Barkala was right or not. There was a quiet shield of self-containment around Obi-Wan that made him seem older than his years, and Qui-Gon considered for the first time the possibility that he had not looked far enough past the surface, into the depths of emotion that were undoubtedly there. That he had trusted Obi-Wan to show him all that was important, without realizing that Obi-Wan himself might not know what that was.

Blue light let him know that all was well with the satellites, and he started the check on the sentry posts. There was the same slight lag on the last post, and he ran a diagnostic on it again, finishing his cold tea while he waited for the result. The same green four-b coupling. Qui-Gon frowned and walked out into the central room, where Obi-Wan sat at the table, hair spiky-wet from a shower, eating cold sala root.

"When you checked on the coupling yesterday, you found no trace of anything wrong?"

Obi-Wan chewed and swallowed. "Nothing, master. Is there still a lag in the link-up?"

"Yes." Qui-Gon sat down and stole a piece of sala root from his padawan's plate. "I'll check on it again. I suppose the fault could lie somewhere along the link itself, except that the diagnostics keep pointing to that coupling."

"It could be a routing error," Obi-Wan suggested. He looked a little tired, and Qui-Gon wondered how long he had stood awake at the window the night before. "I could look into the link setup after morning rounds, unless you find the problem with the coupling when you're out there."

"We'll do it together," Qui-Gon said. He bit into the sala root. "Obi-Wan, are you by any chance doing some obscure religious penance I am not familiar with?"

"No, master."

"Then you'll have no objection if I heat up your breakfast. This is revolting." Qui-Gon took the plate and went into the kitchen, heated the food, got out the remains of the sauce from last night and some flat unleavened bread, and poured himself another mug of tea for good measure.

He came back to find Obi-Wan leaning in close to the dar puzzle, almost pressing his nose to the crystals. "It looks a little like a landscape."

"It does?" Qui-Gon set the plate between them. "I thought it was more like a complex molecule of some kind... Obi-Wan, before Lilia, you were seeing Soo Lith, weren't you?"

"Yes," Obi-Wan said, in a tone that made it almost a no, and sat up straight. Qui-Gon kept his eyes on Obi-Wan's face, and after a little while Obi-Wan went on, "There was someone else in between, but that was more... casual."

Qui-Gon dipped a piece of sala root in the sauce and pondered the best approach. "Tell me about the ones that weren't casual. Who were they?"

"Hana Kerstona, Soo Lith, and Lilia," Obi-Wan answered readily enough. He cocked his head to one side. "You've met them all, master."

"Yes." Qui-Gon considered what he knew of them, what he'd seen of them with Obi-Wan, and how that compared to what Barkala had said in his message. "Now tell me what they have in common."

Obi-Wan registered surprise with a faint twitch of one eyebrow, and drank a little tea from Qui-Gon's mug before answering. "Ah... they're all female, human or humanoid, relatively young..." His voice trailed off. "I'm not sure what it is you want to know, master."

"You can do better than that, Obi-Wan. You're a trained observer, and you've been taught to see patterns that elude others. Tell me again: what do they have in common?"

Closing his eyes, Obi-Wan drew a deep breath and tried again. "Hana is a Senate lobbyist, Soo Lith is a junior diplomatic aide at the Thurran embassy, Lilia is a diplomat's daughter and unofficial apprentice. They are... were all attracted to me," faintest trace of embarrassment in the crisp voice, "and actively pursued the relationship. They are strong-willed, intelligent, passionate, argumentative individuals." Obi-Wan smiled a little. "They're beautiful. A little unconventional, perhaps, as much as those involved in political and diplomatic circles can ever be. And," he opened his eyes, "they all wanted more from me."

Qui-Gon nodded. "Did Hana and Soo Lith quarrel with you? About that, or other things?"

"Well... yes, a little."

A little probably translated into a lot, knowing Obi-Wan. "Now tell me about the casual affairs, and what they have in common."

"Xi Pau," Obi-Wan said, looking down at the table, "Bruck Chun, Ferenc Tuc, Larmin Anza..."

Qui-Gon did not choke on the sala root. "As in knights Pau and Anza?" he enquired mildly.

"Yes." Obi-Wan was still keeping his eyes on the table top. "Xi and Larmin are knights, Bruck and Ferenc are padawans, they're all male, human or humanoid, relatively young... I'm not certain what else applies to all of them, except for having had sex with me."

"What attracted you to them?"

Obi-Wan shrugged. "I don't really know, master. They were there, and made it clear that they wanted me, at the right moment. There was never anything more serious behind it." He looked up, finally. "This isn't going to get Xi and Larmin in trouble, is it? It was a while ago, with Xi, but — I was old enough to know what I wanted."

"I'm not entirely sure of that," Qui-Gon said, then shook his head as Obi-Wan's eyes widened. "No, I'm not going to wrathfully accuse Xi Pau of corrupting my virtuous young padawan, years ago — I take it it was several years ago?" Obi-Wan nodded, to Qui-Gon's relief; Xi Pau was about to celebrate the four-year anniversary of his marriage to a Temple healer. "You needn't concern yourself with that. Is there anything else you can think of that your lovers have in common?"

For a moment it seemed that Obi-Wan was going to go back to staring at the table again. "I think that they all felt — although not all of them said it outright — that there was something — lacking. In me. Because of the sex thing." Deep breath. "Perhaps they're right."

Qui-Gon reached across the table and ruffled Obi-Wan's drying hair. "Relax, padawan. I don't believe that there is anything wrong with you. But I do believe you need to think more about yourself. By your own account, all your lovers pursued you, wanted you. But what about what you want?" Qui-Gon smiled at Obi-Wan's outright look of astonishment. "You're allowed to want things, Obi-Wan. And," carefully, "you don't have to sleep with people just because they want you, and tell you so."

"I haven't," Obi-Wan began to say, and then fell silent, yesterday's small troubled line reappearing between his brows.

"Meditate on love, Obi-Wan, and what you really want. Do you think there is a reason why your casual affairs are with other Jedi, and your long-term relationships have been with people outside the Temple?" Qui-Gon wondered how far to push. "You've said yourself that your lovers don't understand your vocation, yet you choose not to pursue any serious committment with another padawan, who would be most likely to know what it's like for you."

Qui-Gon stopped there; Obi-Wan was looking stricken, almost overwhelmed. They finished their breakfast quickly, as neither of them had much of an appetite, and put things away in silence. In the entrance hall, Qui-Gon kept an eye on Obi-Wan as they dressed, concerned that he might have gone too far too fast in his attempt to make up for several years of neglect. Obi-Wan was sunk deep in thought, and said nothing as they once again shoveled snow away from the watchstation entrance and cleared the open space in front. But he roused himself enough to smile a little at Qui-Gon as they parted.

Reassured, Qui-Gon concentrated on digging out the path. Under a high cloudless sky, without snow blowing into his face, it was pleasant work; his back muscles ached a little. The first two sentry posts were nearly buried beneath snow drifts, and he spent time clearing the snow away down to the ground. After that, the path climbed upwards and the angle of the slope had prevented any heavy buildup. At the third and fourth post, he only had to trample the snow down into a solid platform to stand on.

"Day fifty-two of the long snow, fifth year of Ateyinniah regnant, morning. All is quiet. The enemy does not come." The air was pleasantly crisp, with the clean feeling that comes after a storm. Qui-Gon started the climb up towards the fifth sentry post with a smile on his face. Winter on Remis had its beautiful sides.

At the fifth post, he spoke the traditional message and then tapped in a code before the cover could slide down. First, a simple self-diagnostic. That showed nothing wrong. Qui-Gon unscrewed the left half of the panel and delved into the interior of the post, checking the coupling manually. Nothing wrong. Finally, he touched it with the force. Nothing. Probably Obi-Wan was right, then, and there was a routing error interfering with the diagnostic system.

Qui-Gon reattached the panel and watched to make sure the cover slid into place. Trying to sense if anything was wrong with the post as a whole gave him nothing beyond a vague feeling of things working; a talent for dealing with the living force did not lend itself to investigating possible mechanical errors. With an inner shrug, he turned back and climbed down the slope. Halfway down, the tracks of a jarak crossed his freshly-cleared path and he studied the imprints for a moment, taking in the half-circle of claws around the big round pads. A very large jarak, possibly the same one he'd seen in the upper end of the valley yesterday.

It would leave soon, Qui-Gon guessed. The valley was almost empty of potential prey, and jaraki needed to eat a lot in winter. He stepped over the tracks and continued back to the watchstation, striding briskly, reaching out with the force to sense the life in the valley. The jarak was up behind him somewhere, hungry and a little ill-tempered. There were small signs of life elsewhere, tiny thoughtless animals burrowed down, hiding from the predator. A clear, bright, focused presence ahead: Obi-Wan. And down below, deep in the earth and stone, the huge sleeping awareness of the Rem, dreaming steadily through the winter.

He came back to find Obi-Wan going through a simple stretching exercise in the clearing by the watchstation door. Qui-Gon joined in. He could feel all the muscles he'd used, digging. After stretching out the kinks, they moved together into a slow kata, Open Hand, that fit into the small space perfectly, making the rocks and snow backdrop rather than confinement. Qui-Gon could sense the force flowing through them both as they moved, an invisible counterpoint, substance and shadow, shadow and substance. It filled him beyond thought, and left him, when they'd come to stillness, standing calm and happy, looking down at the nape of his padawan's neck.

He flicked the short pony tail with one finger. "I believe you're right about the routing error, padawan." They turned towards the watchstation door, and Obi-Wan keyed it open. "We'll have to check the entire setup."

"I'll get started while you look in on the Rem," Obi-Wan offered, stepping inside and unfastening his robe.

Qui-Gon nodded agreement and began to strip off all his winter layers as the door closed behind them. It might be an excessive reaction to such a small problem, but he had a feeling it was important. Buckling up his boots, he checked himself for traces of snow before going through the inner door. Qui-Gon strode through the main room, past the door to the communications room and into the small chamber that held the access hatch to the caves. He unsealed and opened it; it swung aside under his hand with a dull metal clang. Soft lights came up to show him the steps of the ladder and he began the descent, one hand on the handrail.

Down below, there was the kind of silence that is really the whirr of near-soundless machinery. The corridor sloped downwards and he walked with long quick steps, coming out on a walkway over a large cave where thousands of Rem lay in deep peaceful sleep, securely closed away in a carefully controlled environment. He could see them from above, through the clear glasscrete, and from that height they looked like chubby, furry dolls. Councillor Kerob, so jealous of his dignity, would not like that thought... there he was, with the covers down around his feet, as Obi-Wan had said. Most of the Rem thought covers during hibernation were a vanity and a foolishness, and slept without.

Beyond this cave was another, and beyond that still others, and others, and great doors that would not be opened until the spring thaw. Qui-Gon was not concerned with that. He headed for the screens and panels of the control center, the heart of the complex system that kept the Rem comfortable and safe. It was the work of a moment to initiate the standard checks, but Qui-Gon started a secondary diagnostic as well, obeying whatever inner prompting had caused him to look more closely into the lag in the sentry post linkup. The standard checks said that nothing was wrong. Qui-Gon frowned. The secondary diagnostic, slower to run, eventually also said that nothing was wrong.

He looked more closely at it, checking the specifics of the readout. Then, mouth set in a grim line, he changed the parameters of the error search and ran the diagnostic again, and this time it came up flaring orange, flashing urgently at him. The climate controls were being fed conflicting information; although the satellite net clearly said that it was winter, there were other readings coming in that said it was summer.

No wonder councillor Kerob had thrown off his coverlet. The climate settings were affected, the temperature was beginning to fluctuate, and... Qui-Gon keyed a request for more information... yes, the individually tailored health and nutrition programs were affected, too.

This was the real threat to the Rem as they slept — not animal attacks, not enemies swooping down from beyond the stars, but a breakdown in the advanced technology that cocooned them. Qui-Gon quickly rerouted control of the cave systems to the consoles in the communications room of the watchstation, and strode back towards the ladder, as fast as he could without actually running. He climbed up and let the hatch down with a loud thump, and went into the communications room, where Obi-Wan sat staring intently at a screen.

Obi-Wan turned as soon as Qui-Gon entered. "It is a routing error, master," he said. "The real error originates in—"

"One of the climate readers," Qui-Gon said. He sat down by the next console, calling up the systems he'd rerouted. "It's already affecting the climate controls. We must repair it immediately, before it affects the Rem."

Obi-Wan nodded, fingers flying as he entered code after code. Qui-Gon concentrated on the details of the climate control system and how it used the readings from the satellites and the sentry posts. Information was taken from each source in turn, on a regular schedule. The message from most of the sources was winter, sleep, but from one of them it was summer, wake, and the conflicting input was beginning to wear down the system. It was only a question of time before either the climate controls or the nutrition programs would be seriously disrupted.

"I've found it, master," Obi-Wan said. "It's in the same sentry post as the coupling that isn't malfunctioning. It should be a simple matter to replace some of the components."

"We're running short on time." The orange was overtaking the blue in the readouts. "I think the system can function for a while if I set it up to bypass one of the sentry posts, but it will require some additional manual corrections at the climate control panel down in the cave."

"I'll go out," Obi-Wan got to his feet as he spoke.

"Hurry," Qui-Gon said. He was already starting to construct an alternative reading pattern for the climate controls. Obi-Wan nodded and vanished without any further comments. Qui-Gon, intent on the console, only dimly registered the sound of the door opening and closing. The jury-rigged version of the system that he was setting up now wouldn't hold out forever, but it would at least buy the Rem another day, in case the repairs turned out to be more complicated than Obi-Wan had anticipated.

He worked with complete concentration, losing track of time, and had almost completed the new setup when his commlink was activated.

"This shouldn't take long," Obi-Wan's voice said calmly. "Can you shut down readings from the post while I'm working?"

"In a moment." Qui-Gon double-checked his work, then activated the new reading pattern. "There. The temporary system is in place."

Through the open link, he heard the clink of the panel being removed, the scrape of metal against metal. "Some parts are almost burned out. Someone's been sloppy. Did you shut down the—" A loud crackle of electricity drowned out Obi-Wan's next words, and Qui-Gon could guess what they would have been. He cursed silently at himself. Having shut the sentry post away from the system, he couldn't access it now without reactivating the old reading pattern. "My apologies, padawan. The main circuit breaker is to the left of the red grid sensors."

"It lit up like a firework, master," Obi-Wan said a little breathlessly. "I think it may have burned itself out completely." A moment of silence. "No, it's all right."

"Good." Qui-Gon transferred control of the system back down to the cave, and got up from the console. He had to get down to the caves again and feed the new set of codes manually into the climate control core reader, or the new version of the system would be useless. Opening the hatch again, lowering himself into the hole, he'd all but forgotten that the commlink channel was still open, until halfway down the ladder he was startled by a loud roar coming from it, and a shouted exclamation from Obi-Wan.

Then there was a short burst of static, and complete silence.

Qui-Gon bypassed the last ten steps of the ladder, dropped down to the floor and keyed the commlink. There was no response. Obi-Wan's link had gone dead.

The silent hum of machinery around him seemed louder than ever before. Thousands of Rem, sleeping, defenseless. Qui-Gon drew a deep breath and opened himself up to the force, let go of his feelings. He ran down the corridor and out onto the walkway. Over at the control center, all the screens were beginning to flash orange, and the first blare of a distress signal started just before he reached the panels. A recorded voice was saying something in Remi over and over.

Qui-Gon ignored it. He dropped into the seat by the climate control screens and called up the program that would let him access the core reader. Safety protocols, passwords — his fingers flew over the keys until he could finally log in at the level he needed. He had the authorization, as senior Jedi at the watchstation, but had never used it before. Qui-Gon cleared his mind of everything but codes and numbers, called on the force to sustain him, and got to work.

Lines scrolled over the screen too fast for an untrained eye to follow. A single mistake at any of the prompts would mean that he'd be booted out and have to start over. As sequence after sequence was recoded, the orange glare around him began to soften, the distress signal slowed to a regular beep and eventually died away altogether, and the Rem voice fell silent. Qui-Gon kept working, until the last code had been altered and the core was accepting data from the adjusted climate control system. That would hold up for a day or two, enough to repair the faulty climate reader. Then the codes would have to be changed back.

Qui-Gon came out of his force-driven hyperstate and sat for a short moment just staring at the console and its time readout. He had been coding for well over an hour. Getting up, he went to the other consoles and looked over the readings coming up, all blue. Everything was within acceptable parameters, and although that didn't reassure him as much as it might have before the discovery of the routing error, it was probably the best he was going to get. He ran two quick general diagnostics at different levels, and both told him that the new system was holding up.

Then he keyed his commlink again, calling Obi-Wan, and got an error message. Link not operational. Not operational. It wasn't shut off, it wasn't set to private (as if his padawan would have a privacy setting that excluded his master); it was broken. The commlinks were designed to withstand a great deal of wear and tear, but of course it was possible to damage them. Qui-Gon turned away from the control center and went along the walkway, not looking down, and turned left into the corridor, following its slope up to the ladder.

Climbed up, shut the access hatch carefully, went past the door to the communications room and looked in to see that there were no further orange error messages scrolling up on a screen somewhere. The readouts all glowed blue, so he crossed the main room in four long steps and went out into the entrance hall, put on his winter gear, tugged off his boots, laced up the snowshoes. There was a small medikit by the door and he clipped it to his utility belt before closing his robe and turning up the hood.

Outside it was still clear, sunny and beautiful. Qui-Gon took the path down the valley, casting his awareness out like a net. He didn't have to go far. He sensed Obi-Wan and saw him almost at the same moment, coming around a snow-dusted outcropping. Obi-Wan was limping; he held one arm cradled against his chest, and his robes were torn and bloody. Qui-Gon lengthened his stride and was in time to catch Obi-Wan as he began to stumble. "Easy, padawan."

"Yes, master." Obi-Wan leaned against him for a moment, then straightened up and began to limp along again. Qui-Gon stayed by his side, putting an arm around him for support. "I'm afraid my commlink is ruined." Digging into his robe, Obi-Wan took out two buckled and twisted pieces of metal. "I had to cut it apart with my lightsaber to get it off. I think it saved me from a broken wrist."

"What happened?"

"It was a jarak." One of Obi-Wan's knees gave way and he pitched forward. Qui-Gon caught him, straightened him up and then calmly leaned him backwards until he could get an easy grip and pick Obi-Wan up. "Master, please — you don't have to carry me, it's only a sprained ankle, I can walk."

"Are you arguing with me, padawan?" Qui-Gon hefted Obi-Wan more securely into his arms; the young man was a solid weight of bone and muscle. He started back along the path, feeling his snowshoes sink deeper with the added weight. "It was probably the sparks from the sentry post that attracted the jarak."

Obi-Wan moved a little in something that could be interpreted as a shrug. "I think it was very hungry," he said. "And I underestimated its speed at first. I couldn't frighten it off; I'm afraid I had to kill it."

"Your lightsaber couldn't have frightened it," Qui-Gon said. "Didn't you read about what happened to Kendrik Wtac?"

"Yes, I did." Obi-Wan was silent for a long moment. Glancing down to make sure his padawan was still conscious, Qui-Gon met a troubled look. "I didn't think, I only reacted. Perhaps if I'd shouted at it—"

"I wasn't criticizing you, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon turned sideways to get himself and Obi-Wan through the narrow passage between the rocks. "If you'd shouted at it instead of using your lightsaber, it would probably have eaten you." He put Obi-Wan down and keyed the watchstation door open. "I know the jaraki are a protected species on Remis, but although hunting is forbidden, self defence is not."

Obi-Wan limped inside and began to fumble at his robe fastenings one-handed. "At least I've repaired the climate reader," he said. "Did you have any trouble switching the system over, master?"

Qui-Gon stripped out of his winter layers even faster than he'd put them on, and turned to help Obi-Wan. He peeled his padawan like a sala root and urged him towards the inner door. "No. Now come here and let me take a look at you."

The above-ground medical facilities in the watchstation were not advanced; there was a fully equipped medcenter down in the caves, complete with bacta tank, but Obi-Wan's injuries weren't serious enough to require bacta immersion, as Qui-Gon saw once Obi-Wan had taken off the rest of his clothes. A sprained ankle, a bumped knee, a cut and bruised wrist, a row of nasty-looking cuts across the shoulder and chest where the jarak's claws had scored. Smaller grazes and bruises all over. Considering what a jarak could do, Qui-Gon felt that Obi-Wan had acquitted himself well, and gotten off lightly.

He made Obi-Wan sit on the cot as he cleaned the cuts, put on antiseptic cream and lightweight bandages. "I think one of my toes is broken," Obi-Wan said, wiggling his foot. He breathed deeply, but showed no other sign of discomfort as Qui-Gon pulled the toe straight and taped it up. "Thank you, master."

Qui-Gon put the medical supplies away while Obi-Wan pulled on pants and shirt again. Turning back, he saw his apprentice take a few stiff steps towards the door, and went to intercept. He put his hands on Obi-Wan's shoulders, moved by an impulse he couldn't explain. "Padawan. You know I love you, don't you."

And Obi-Wan looked up at him with eyes the color of water, looking as steady and whole within himself as if he'd just spent the day meditating on serenity. Smiled faintly in secure, trusting acknowledgement. "Yes, I know." Then he gathered up the rest of his clothes, and Qui-Gon followed him to the bedroom and watched as Obi-Wan lay down and sank easily into a healing trance, bright eyes closed, still body humming with force and life.

He would be all right, and so would the Rem. Qui-Gon went to the kitchen and made himself some tea, but decided to forgo food in favor of work. He took the mug along to the communications room and sat down by the nearest console, and spent some time setting up a repeat diagnostic to run through the entire climate control system, and another to check on the climate reader that Obi-Wan had repaired. If the reader was showing no signs of trouble by tomorrow morning, he would switch the system back, and the repeat diagnostic would alert them to any problems that might arise before that time.

Checking messages, Qui-Gon found that he had none, but Obi-Wan had two new ones, one from Bant — again — and one from someone at the Vaheen cultural attache's office. Lilia, then. Qui-Gon sipped at his tea and thought about answering his own message from Barkala, but he decided to put it off. He was grateful to Barkala for making him aware of a problem that had to be addressed, but at the same time, he felt a little disturbed that Barkala had noticed something about Obi-Wan that Qui-Gon, as Obi-Wan's master, should have been the first to know. Besides, he could not discuss his padawan's private life with another master.

Instead he went out into the main room, to his Rem books and the dar puzzle. The translucent beauty of the dar pieces called to his fingers. He closed his eyes and ran his fingertips lightly over the crystal structure, feeling its shape, the gentleness of its edges. The force provided no clues, but a sense of purpose. Qui-Gon blinked, and took up a piece, and slotted it in among the others. Then, another. There was something, every time, something like the opposite of a ripple — a closing into place, a settling, something growing definite and still.

With every piece he picked up, his movements grew more assured. He slipped into a rhythm of certainty; the pieces knew where they would go, and all he had to do was move with them. Qui-Gon watched the puzzle grow without any thought of what it looked like, without trying to tease out its meaning, just seeing the rightness as crystal met crystal. The stillness grew, as an infinity of possibilities coalesced into a singular presence.

When he placed the last piece, there was a stillness and silence that was almost tangible, reaching out towards him with a touch as pure as the crystals. Then the strange fragile structure he had built shifted before his eyes, its separate parts melding into fluidity, taking on a new shape. A shape so well known that Qui-Gon could only stare in disbelief.

Yes, he knew this: that arch of brow, the resolute mouth, the cleft chin. Knew those eyes even transparent and unliving. It was more than just a likeness, it was a perfect image, and Qui-Gon could not stop himself from touching it in his amazement. Force sang a silent song against his fingers. Obi-Wan's face, caught in a moment of great determination, as if before some dangerous mission. Beautifully rendered, detailed, clear.

And then there was a tremor under his touch, and the force currents shifted, and the crystal dimmed for a moment, hardened, changed. Turned back into plain sharp-edged puzzle pieces, tumbling down over the table with a clatter that startled him so, after the silence, that he could only catch the one that practically fell into his hand.

It lay there in his palm, an ordinary unmoving object, as if it had never held another shape. Qui-Gon stared at it and tried to see something else than his own reflection in its smooth surface. He wasn't sure what to make of it all. If this was an answer given to him, what had the question been? He looked towards the room where Obi-Wan lay resting, and then down at the crystal again. He would need to meditate on this. Qui-Gon wished the image had not dissolved so quickly. It had been the most extraordinary portrait of Obi-Wan, capturing essence as well as likeness, spirit as well as features.

His tea had, as usual, gone cold. Qui-Gon drank it anyway. The afternoon had slipped away. It was almost time for the evening patrol, and Obi-Wan was still in trance. Qui-Gon took his tea mug to the kitchen and rinsed it, then went to the entrance hall and put on his winter layers. Obi-Wan's torn and bloody robe hung askew on its hook. That would have to be cleaned and mended, a pleasant domestic task for the long winter evenings. Looking out the one small window, he saw that the weather held steady, so there was no need to bring a shovel.

Outside, the brisk cold cleared some of the confusion from his mind. He would find out what the dar puzzle meant to tell him; if the force currents in it could read the answer from his mind, then surely he could find the question for himself.

Qui-Gon went up the valley first, the shorter of the two perimeter rounds, setting a fast pace over snow that was now packed solid and easy to walk on. As he walked he watched the landscape, seeing the subtle changes that came with each snowfall. Features were hidden or revealed, blurred or reshaped in new ways by the new drifts. Yet the rocky bones underneath did not change, waiting for spring to reveal them in all their stark sameness.

The first three posts gave him no trouble. At the fourth one, the cover that the jarak had bent was a little reluctant to slide back, and he found that a little fur had been caught in the groove and carried back up into the mechanism. Rather than take the entire post covering apart, which he didn't have the time for, Qui-Gon teased the strands of fur free with subtle application of the force, then buried them in the snow. Some bird would find them and use them for nesting material come spring.

All was as it should be at the fifth post, and Qui-Gon turned back turned back again as the sky first began to grow hazy and turn to twilight. He kept his pace quick but at the same time unhurried. He would be able to finish the rounds within the prescribed time. Passing by the giant boulders that hid the entrance to the watchstation, he reached out and sensed Obi-Wan still deep in trance. Tomorrow his padawan should be recovered enough to take up his share of the duties once more.

Following the path down the valley, that eventually led up the mountainside, he realized that he could chart Obi-Wan's limping progress by the scuffled footprints and the occasional drop of blood. It seemed that Obi-Wan had fallen in two places before reaching the spot where Qui-Gon had met him. Qui-Gon spoke the required message into one sentry post recorder after another, tramping the snow by the posts down into greater firmness.

It was growing dark as he approached the fifth post. The vast bulk of the dead jarak could almost have been another boulder, only lightly dusted with snow. Walking up to it, he saw that the head was nearly severed from the body, dangling down towards the massive front paws. The body was relatively undisturbed apart from the clean lightsaber cuts. A small carrion eater was worrying at a hind paw, but it fled at Qui-Gon's approach; unlike the jarak, it was winterwhite and found easy cover on the rocky slope.

Blood stained the snow dark before the sentry post. Qui-Gon stood for a moment looking down at the churned-up drifts before touching the panel cover, making his report. "All is quiet. The enemy does not come." Behind him the jarak loomed silently, a presence even in death.

He turned away from the sentry post to look at the animal again. Qui-Gon pulled off his right glove and laid his hand against fur that was still just as soft, a fleecy wonder. One of the Rem legends he had been reading came into his mind. The Rem had been threatened by the anger of dark gods, their lands in chaos, and so they had made a terrible decision. They would offer up the most valuable things in their world as a sacrifice. Their children, precious and beloved beyond words.

What had seemed strange to him was becoming much clearer. The Rem had been willing to send the spirits of their children as messengers to the gods, hoping that love had given the children strength enough to prevail. Even so had Qui-Gon, choosing to remain below in the cave and save the Rem's lives, been willing to let Obi-Wan die.

Yes. He was was willing to sacrifice Obi-Wan to the world, just as Jedi must always be ready to give up not only their own lives, but what was infinitely more precious to them, the lives of others. Masters must be prepared to sacrifice their beloved padawans, give them as gifts to a universe that might break them rather than treasure them — indeed, that did more often than not. It was a harsh lesson to learn, but one the Rem had known for millennia.

Qui-Gon stroked the soft fur once more, pulled his glove back on, and headed down the side of the mountain. His steps felt oddly light. He felt as though some basic truth had been reaffirmed within him, grounding him more securely in who he was. If their roles had been reversed, he could not doubt that Obi-Wan would have made the same choice. This was what it meant to be a Jedi. And this, Qui-Gon realized, was what Obi-Wan had despaired of making his lovers see.

It was almost completely dark by the time he reached even ground. Qui-Gon wondered as he started to walk back if this moment of renewed insight was what the dar puzzle had been trying to lead him towards by showing Obi-Wan's face — Obi-Wan who seemed to have an instinctive understanding of the depth of a Jedi's committment to his vows and beliefs. But then, Qui-Gon had never doubted or wondered about that understanding. He had known, ever since that day in the mines on Bandomeer, just how dedicated Obi-Wan was. Perhaps the answer belonged to a different question.

The snow made comforting creaking sounds underfoot. Above there were stars, few and far between. Qui-Gon walked on and thought instead about what could be done with the sala root for this night's dinner. One knight he had shared winter duty with years ago had taught him to mash it very soft with butter and just a hint of chigurra. Obi-Wan would like that.

Returning to the watchstation, he got a shovel and bucket from the entrance hall and went back out for a moment to remove the patches of snow where Obi-Wan had dripped blood. The stains might attract predators or scavengers, and Qui-Gon had no desire to find either outside the watchstation door. He backtracked for some distance along the path he'd come, until he was satisfied that the small trace no longer led directly to the gap between the boulders. Then he realized that this was the stretch he had carried Obi-Wan, and checked his own robes as he went back, looking for telltale spots but finding none.

When he came into the entrance hall, he put the shovel in its rack and set the bucket aside; he'd pour the melted remains down the drain tomorrow. This time he felt no urge to bring the snow inside and throw it at an overheated padawan. Qui-Gon took off his robe, trying to be patient with the need for putting on and taking off so many layers, so many times. Winter duty on Remis taught patience. Winter duty on Remis could, he thought, teach many things.

The first thing he saw when he entered the main room was Obi-Wan, wearing a long tunic and thin leggings, sitting cross-legged on his favorite stool, reading the Jeteri poetry. Obi-Wan looked up as Qui-Gon came in and his brows drew together slightly. "You should have woken me, master." He uncurled himself and walked over to Qui-Gon with only a slight limp. "There was no need—"

"Obi-Wan."

"My apologies, master." Obi-Wan accepted the rebuke with equanimity and went on, "I have heated up the steam room for you."

"Thank you, padawan." Qui-Gon rolled his shoulders, still a little too stiff, and crossed the room, taking off his belt and sash as he walked. "You should join me, the steam will be good for your bruises."

"Yes, master." They both stripped, and Qui-Gon snagged two towels from the shelf by the steam room door. Inside it was blessedly warm. He drew a deep breath, felt the fresh herbal scent soothe him. Relaxation, dinner, then meditation. He ran his hands back through his hair, rubbed a little with both thumbs at the base of the skull.

Obi-Wan had settled a step up from Qui-Gon yet again, curled like a cat in the sun, eyes closed. Seeing the easy posture did more than anything Obi-Wan might have said to assure Qui-Gon that his padawan would be well enough tomorrow to resume his duties. He leaned back and closed his eyes as well, content to let his mind drift. After a while he asked, "What do you think of the poems?"

"They are like kitsu pastry," Obi-Wan said, his voice a sleepy drawl. "Layers upon layers." Then, after a longer moment, "Some of them are very good. With others, there is a feeling that... the poet is trying to be clever, rather than honest. Or perhaps the intent is masked by the words."

"Truth is not always obvious." Qui-Gon shifted, stretching his left arm. He rolled his head from side to side, encouraging his neck muscles to relax. "Give the poems as much time as you would take to puzzle out a difficult astronavigation problem."

"Yes, master." Obi-Wan's voice hinted at self-mocking humor. Qui-Gon, wanting to see if it was echoed in Obi-Wan's face, opened his eyes.

Time stood still.

He saw Obi-Wan's face, the trace of a smile, half-lowered lids, shadow of a bruise over one cheekbone, and overlying it the same face in sheerest crystal, the dar's answer. Saw the curve of sensitive lips, the spark of amused intelligence glinting beneath lowered eyelashes. The determination, the courage. The crystal face and the living merged into one, and Qui-Gon Jinn gasped for breath.

He had said it himself: truth is not always obvious. Truth is not always just one thing. They were Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, master and padawan, Jedi on a mission, and they were also two men naked together in a small, hot room. Drops of sweat beaded on Obi-Wan's fair skin, slid slowly down over shoulder and chest to pick up speed on the slicker surface of waterproof bandages. The line of his throat, the sleek muscular sweep of his back was pure sensuality. Desirable — and desired.

The pain of that realization rolled through Qui-Gon, an unstoppable tidal wave, the awareness of an innocence lost. What had been a closed bud within him had burst into full flower and could never again return to its former shape.

Sinking back into silence again, he spoke sternly to his body, over which at least he could exert some control. About his mind he could do nothing — knowledge cannot be un-known. He concentrated on every part of the present but his own physical reaction to Obi-Wan, sat there feeling the air hot on his skin, the steam sweet in his lungs, the softness of the towel and under that the firm wood of the steam room bench.

He wasn't foolish enough to regret, for more than a fleeting second, having found and used the dar puzzle. A Jedi must know himself, strengths and weaknesses. But Qui-Gon acknowledged to himself that sometimes the reason a question is not asked is because one does not wish to know the answer. There is no ignorance, there is knowledge, he thought wryly. And sometimes knowledge can be both a gift and a burden.

After a while, he rolled his head again, feeling for tensions in his neck and shoulders, and decided things were better. Qui-Gon got to his feet and picked up his towel. "I'll get started on dinner, it's my turn to cook," he said. "You can stay a while longer."

"Mmmmm." Obi-Wan seemed more than half asleep, but then he blinked his eyes open. "No, I'll come and help you, master. You did my work for me earlier. Besides," Obi-Wan rolled into a sitting position and wiped at his face to keep the sweat from his eyes, "I'm getting hungry."

So they went together to the showers, and Qui-Gon deliberately did not look, until Obi-Wan, hampered by his bandages, asked for help in scrubbing his back. This had been such an ordinary matter between them, Qui-Gon thought, lathering up a washcloth. There was hardly any part of each other that they had not at some point helped to clean, or bandage, or examine for insect bites. And he had never seen that beneath his deep love and affection, his simple appreciation of Obi-Wan's strong, healthy body and pleasing face, something else was growing.

He used the washcloth, careful not to disturb the edges of the waterproof bandages, and then handed it back to Obi-Wan with a semblance at least of calm. It was childish to wish that things would have remained unchanged between them, much too childish a thought for a grown man and a Jedi master to entertain. Everything changed, that was the nature of the universe. He had loved and respected his padawan. Now, he loved, respected and desired him. Obi-Wan turned his head and smiled at Qui-Gon over his shoulder, and Qui-Gon stepped away rather abruptly to wash his hair.

Later, dry and dressed, they went to the kitchen and peeled a large amount of sala root. Qui-Gon made the spicy mash from Aia's recipe while Obi-Wan brewed them tea, and they shared a quiet dinner. Afterwards, Obi-Wan brought out his texts and asked a question, and they spent the rest of the evening working out a problem in applied astrophysics, building complex projections on Obi-Wan's little calculator. Things were much as they'd always been, except that now and then Qui-Gon would look at the shape of Obi-Wan's head or the line of his jaw, and it would be familiar and at the same time entirely new, something beyond beauty created again and again for him to see. Something he did not want to tear his eyes away from.

They had gone through several mugs of tea each by the time they were done, and it was late. "We will continue tomorrow," Qui-Gon suggested, turning the calculator off after saving the latest results. "You'll certainly be ready for the exam by the time we leave Remis."

"Thank you." Obi-Wan twisted where he sat, turning more fully towards Qui-Gon, and tipped his head slightly to one side. Qui-Gon, familiar with this body language, knew a request was coming. "Master, I would like your permission to spend the night in meditation. I have given some thought to what you said — about love — and this feels like the right time."

"Are you certain that's wise? You were injured today, you need your sleep."

"If you advise against it, master—" Obi-Wan's voice said it all for him.

Qui-Gon smiled. "No. If it feels right, do it. You must trust your instincts, padawan." He got up and took their mugs out to the kitchen, rinsing them in cold water.

When he returned to the main room Obi-Wan had already settled himself into position — on the low stool, Qui-Gon noted with some amusement, rather than on the cold floor, but that was only sensible. Qui-Gon stood for a moment watching Obi-Wan, who wore stillness like a second skin, and then went into the bedroom. He sat down on the bed he'd been using and leaned back against the wall. It was cool against his shoulders.

Winter duty on Remis. He had applied for it, thinking it would be just right for the two of them after the strenuous mission to Twa-ikku. A time for meditation and study, a time for peace, away from the distractions of the galaxy and the crowds of the Temple. A time for master and padawan to deepen their bond. A time, it would appear, for a master to discover how he truly felt about his padawan.

Qui-Gon sighed. Obi-Wan sat in the room outside, meditating on love. He knew he should meditate himself on the same subject, but thought kept getting in the way of reaching for calm. The knowledge that Obi-Wan would want to talk the next morning about whatever conclusions his meditations had led him to didn't help. Remis had given him no peace. How could he advise Obi-Wan, knowing this about himself?

Thinking of all he had said to Obi-Wan previously, the advice he had already given on love and desire, wanting and being wanted, he closed his eyes in real pain. It had been sound advice. Whatever Obi-Wan wanted, he would have to figure it out for himself, rather than accept whatever he was given from those who wanted him. Even had Qui-Gon believed it to be ethical, he could never approach his padawan now — only wait for the impossible to happen, for Obi-Wan to make the first move. It had to be Obi-Wan's choice. And Qui-Gon would bet his lightsaber that Obi-Wan had never had any such feelings for his master in his life.

At the same time, Qui-Gon wondered, was it right for him to keep his own feelings secret? Qui-Gon knew as surely as he knew anything in life that trust was the most essential quality of the master/apprentice bond; he started and ended his lectures to the young knights by emphasizing that. Not just the trust and faith that let master and padawan stand back to back and side by side in battle and other dangers, but the trust and faith that made honesty natural and easy and forbade secrets and shame.

Now there would be something unspoken between them, and that was wrong. Qui-Gon knew that, but he wasn't prepared to share his discovery. He could not tell Obi-Wan this. Not this. Not now. Not yet. He needed time to learn the true depth and nature of his emotions before he could decide whether this was something that should be spoken of or not.

He had had similar feelings before, of course. He'd loved before, been in love before, felt desire before. But new loves were not patterned on old ones; old loves did not make the new less real. Staring at the bed across the room from his, Qui-Gon pictured Obi-Wan's sleeping body there as he'd seen it so many times over the years, and wondered when this had happened to him, and why he'd never noticed, why it had taken a toy from a snowy world on the edge of the galaxy to show him the truth.

He'd loved before, but it had been a long time ago. There was something new in his life, and he wasn't sure how it would affect the shape of things. All he felt certain of at the moment was that he would not be able to sleep, alone in here with his new knowledge while Obi-Wan meditated on the other side of the wall.

Getting up again, Qui-Gon walked to the window and stood looking out as Obi-Wan had the night before. There were no whirling snowflakes to catch his eye and distract him, just darkness outside, and a lesser darkness that was the snow-covered ground. He should sleep, but he couldn't. He should meditate on love, but he couldn't. He might as well make himself useful.

Qui-Gon left the bedroom, walked past Obi-Wan without looking and into the kitchen, to get himself yet another mug of tea, more out of the habit of having one on hand than because he really wanted it. He brought it with him to the communications room and settled in front of the console he used most often, called up the climate control program, tapped in his entry codes and patiently began to undo all the work he had put into altering the reading patterns.

It was dull work, pleasantly so now that the lives of an entire species did not hang in the balance, and he paused frequently to sip his tea and make sure his mind didn't wander. The hours passed as he coded slowly, checked and double-checked, not wanting to leave any irregularities in the system that might start to act up eventually. Knowing how to improvise in a stressful situation was a useful talent, but knowing how to be thorough when there was time was just as important.

When the old system was back in place, he went down into the caves and tackled the climate control core reader once more. This time he worked at a normal pace, and as with the system recoding, checked everything more than once before proceeding to the next stage. The presence of the Rem hung around him like a slow, warm force current. Qui-Gon made a mental note to leave them some suggestions on how to upgrade their system and put in additional safety checks. What had happened with the faulty climate control reader should not have to happen again.

While running a secondary and tertiary diagnostic check, he called up the instructions left behind by the Rem as they went underground for the winter to see what they said about exactly how to report climate control errors. Once he'd checked that he went on reading for the sake of having something to do, and found that tucked away in the section on the valley ecosystem was a set of instructions for what to do on finding a dead jarak. Qui-Gon assumed that the instructions also covered what to do on killing a jarak, and committed them to memory. He'd never tried to skin such a large animal before; he and Obi-Wan would be busy tomorrow.

Today, he corrected himself. It was morning; the night had passed. The diagnostics results came up in blue. The system was working as it should once more. Qui-Gon got up and stretched, and went out on the walkway, leaning on the railing and looking down at the sleepers. Generations of Jedi had watched over generations of hibernating Rem, had walked up and down the valley through snowstorms and sunshine, had stood as he did now and reaffirmed their pledge: no harm shall come to you while we are here. To this day, they had kept their promise.

Qui-Gon smiled a little. Battling computer codes and a faulty reader wouldn't make for an exciting story to tell when they returned to the Temple. Obi-Wan had had the more glamorous part of the adventure, and would have the scars to show for it, probably. With a last look at councillor Kerob, Qui-Gon let go of the railing and went slowly along the walkway, turning up into the corridor and leaving the cave behind. He climbed up the ladder and sealed the access hatch behind himself, and came into the main room to see that early sunshine was pouring in through the windows and Obi-Wan had made breakfast and put it on the table and was standing there, smiling.

"Good morning, padawan," Qui-Gon said, his voice a low rumble after so long silent. He came over to the table and they both sat down to flat bread and fruit and tea and little fried cakes that turned out to be made from the remains of last night's mashed sala root. They were quite tasty, with a pinch of salt sprinkled on top.

When most of the food was gone, Obi-Wan leaned back in his chair, holding his tea mug cupped in both hands. "I have been thinking, master, about the results of my meditations."

"Yes?" Qui-Gon said, mildly encouraging.

"I have realized that I have conflicting feelings about commitment — it is something I want, and at the same time do not want." Obi-Wan looked down into the tea mug. "Looking at my relationships with Hana, Soo Lith, Lilia... there is a pattern. It's as though I will only let myself feel a deeper attraction when I know it will probably not work out."

"And have you thought about why you feel that way?"

Obi-Wan nodded. He blushed a little. "I want—" He broke off. Qui-Gon just waited, peeling a small red fruit. "I want so much from love," Obi-Wan admitted in a low voice. "I want it to be perfect, and I don't believe it can be perfect, and so I look for something I don't believe I can find, and take care to look for it where it's least likely I'll find it."

"Love is seldom perfect, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon said, cutting his red fruit into smaller segments. "One of the Jeteri poets says that love is 'the most beautiful compromise in the universe'. I don't believe you've given your lovers enough credit. You've just assumed that they couldn't live up to your dream, whatever that dream is."

Obi-Wan looked up from his tea mug, and there was trouble and guilt in his eyes. "I haven't been fair to them — any of them. I think I would do well to stay away from relationships for a while."

"If you feel that it is the right choice for you, then do it," Qui-Gon said. Then, speaking directly to the look in Obi-Wan's eyes, "You're young, padawan. There's time enough for you to find love. You feel that you've used your lovers, don't you?" At Obi-Wan's embarrassed nod, Qui-Gon went on, "By your own account, they all sought you out, and I don't believe you ever lied to them, or promised them anything you knew you couldn't give."

"No." But Obi-Wan still sounded hesitant. "Not in so many words." He put his mug down and rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead. "Master, may I ask you a personal question?"

Qui-Gon suspected what that might be, and took the easy way out — which was, fortunately, the right way. "No, padawan." Obi-Wan glanced up, surprised. "You need to find out some things about yourself, and my personal experiences can't guide you. I can teach you many things, but not what to feel and not how to feel it."

"I understand, master." It was Obi-Wan's most subdued voice. He stared down into his tea mug again, and Qui-Gon left him there, going off to take a shower.

Standing under the hot spray, he reflected that Barkala at least would be pleased, as it seemed that Obi-Wan was really about to do what Barkala had recommended. Although Qui-Gon would wait and see when it came to that: it was easy enough to decide on a period of celibacy when you were half a galaxy away from all your potential lovers. Obi-Wan might feel differently when he returned to the Temple. Obi-Wan had not yet, to the best of Qui-Gon's knowledge, seen his message from Lilia.

They would be here for another eighteen days before the next team came to take over. That was at least some time for Obi-Wan to begin to come to terms with his feelings. And for Qui-Gon to come to terms with his.

Dressed again, he pulled his hair back into a utilitarian braid for once, and went into the main room to find that Obi-Wan had cleared away the breakfast dishes and was waiting by the door to the entrance hall, looking more collected now. They went through the door and dressed as they had every morning on Remis, careful with fastenings and folds of cloth. Today they wouldn't need to carry shovels, but Qui-Gon got out the skinning knives from the storage locker in the far corner and fastened them to his belt.

Obi-Wan was looking curiously at him. Qui-Gon acknowledged it with a half-smile. "We have a jarak pelt to take care of," he said.

They went outside and the door closed smoothly behind them. The sky was clear, the light on the snow dazzling. The hard-packed surface in the small space outside the watchstation bore no traces of blood. Qui-Gon reminded himself that when he came back, he'd have to empty the bucket still standing in the entrance hall. For now, they had other work to do. He took a deep breath, felt the cold air fill his lungs, and watched Obi-Wan's face in the sunlight.

It was a beautiful day.

* * *

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