torch, November 1999 - April 2001 (May 2001)

Disclaimer: Me, I'm unreliable. I got these evil hand issues. I owe an immense debt of gratitude to elynross for not only providing the original inspiration, but also ranting space, encouragement, editing, continuity, and hand-holding; this story literally would not have existed without her, and I can't thank her enough. (If you don't like it, it's all my fault.) Thanks also to Rachael Sabotini for helping me find a certain word.

This is an AU. Reader beware. :-) It diverges from canon partway through JA 2, but nevertheless incorporates a lot of the Tattoine parts of the movie. Feedback to flambeau@strangeplaces.net, please. Do not archive without permission.

Meet another

The music was insistent, shrill and loud, running in hectic cadences over the clatter of glasses and goblets, over bursts of laughter and scattered words in a dozen different languages. Sound and scent filled the hall, pushing at the shadows. Oil drops spattered on a brazier hissed, first sweet, then burnt, and the air carried hints of several toxic and intoxicating substances. Breathing deeply, Obi-Wan got a lungful of tlao smoke and wrinkled his nose in discreet revulsion. He plucked a small skewer of diced vegetables from the tray of a passing server and bit into a chunk of keet tuber to kill the taste of tlao. A thin stream of tuber juice, not quite hot enough to burn, ran down his wrist and soaked into his sleeve.

Obi-Wan reached forward to take a pinch of herb-spiced salt from a small bowl and sprinkle it over his vegetables, and then wiped his fingers on the same damp sleeve. It would probably pass for good table manners here. No one was watching him particularly closely anyway, as the novelty value of having a Jedi around had faded after the first evening. He did his best to stay unobtrusive, to see rather than be seen; there was an elusive whisper in the force that told him that there was, indeed, something here to see for the observant, something it would be important for him to see.

It would be nice, he thought wryly, if he could get to see it soon. Being a guest in Jabba the Hutt's palace wasn't his idea of a good time, or his idea of a mission, either. Waiting silently through days and nights of riotous partying and unobtrusive business dealings... So far it had been nothing but an exercise in patience. It was undoubtedly good for him, and it was very, very boring.

He was leaning sideways to avoid the flying tentactles of a drunkenly staggering Tulkuth with a half-empty pitcher of zin wine when Jabba barked out a sharp command. The musicians fell silent. Obi-Wan straightened up in time to see two helmeted guards grasp the heavy tasseled cords to a drapery on the far wall and pull. The drapery parted to reveal a darkened doorway where bodies flowed like shadows before coming out into the light.

There were perhaps twenty of them. Most, but not all, were female. Oiled flesh shone in the red-tinted light, and gold-spangled clothing glittered. Not very much gold-spangled clothing, though. Obi-Wan watched with detached appreciation as the line of beautiful, beautifully painted pleasure slaves wound through the hall, watched as each of the slaves came to a halt in front of one of the guests. He nibbled on a fthek stick as he listened to Jabba's guttural comments, trying to pick out individual words — he could read some Huttese, but the spoken language still sounded like a gurgling drain to him.

Another reason why he was the wrong choice for this mission, he thought: he was a young, unpartnered knight who didn't know the language, sent off to negotiate with a syndicate that virtually owned this little rim world and everyone on it. Obi-Wan kept from shaking his head, only bit down a little harder on the fthek stick. He must have faith in himself. His master did — all his masters. He smiled faintly. It was only a recon mission. Jabba had asked to meet with a representative of the Jedi to discuss "issues of mutual interest," but so far, the discussions had mostly consisted of sly looks and self-satisfied chuckles on Jabba's part, polite silence on Obi-Wan's. The feeling that he was waiting for something persisted, though, and now it was growing stronger.

The translation of Jabba's rumbles came moments later through Bib Fortuna, who hovered by the dais, constantly looking up at Jabba, and then down again. "My master hopes that you will all enjoy his little gifts."

Jabba's rumbling laughter in the background made it clear what form he expected that enjoyment to take. Obi-Wan was pondering his possible responses to this, and how to wriggle out of the offer, when someone stopped in front of him. He looked up, mentally prepared for one of the spangled and painted beauties, and was stunned into silence.

This was no supple young pleasure slave. This was a man who had seen more than twice Obi-Wan's years, a tall man whose bare arms and shoulders had grown muscled through hard labor, a man whose skin showed the scars of a thousand fights lost and won over the years. He wore no silks, no spangles, no paint, only a pair of dirty breeches from some thick, rough cloth and a chain around his neck. Purely for the sake of effect, that chain, a part of Obi-Wan's mind said; it was the hidden transmitter that was the true symbol of slavery here on Tatooine, here in Jabba's palace. Barefoot and bruised, the man stood before Obi-Wan in an attitude that could best be described as serene. Which, considering the circumstances, and considering the man, was something of an achievement.

The hair was longer, shaggier, generously streaked with silver. The nose had been broken at some point and healed crookedly. The eyes, clear blue and as steady as lasers, were exactly the same.

Qui-Gon Jinn. Here. As a slave in chains.

Obi-Wan breathed deeply and kept his thoughts to himself, inside his head and off his face. His mind teemed with questions. He had last seen Qui-Gon on Bandomeer, fifteen years ago, when the man had made it clear that he was not going to take Obi-Wan Kenobi as his padawan learner. Half a year after their final parting, the Jedi master had made a brief visit to Coruscant, never to return again. Obi-Wan was aware that there had been any number of search and rescue missions during his apprenticeship and the first years of his knighthood; he had been part of one such mission, which had been disguised as a lengthy set of trade negotiations. The negotiations had fallen largely to him while his master concentrated on trying to find the missing Jedi. Obi-Wan had been successful; his master had not.

Now Qui-Gon stood before him on a planet half a galaxy away from where he'd disappeared. Stood before him a slave of the Hutt. When Obi-Wan reached out with his mind, all he could sense was the presence of a living body. Something was blocking him. Whatever it was did more than just keep the force away from Qui-Gon; it also kept Qui-Gon away from the force, made him invisible to all but ordinary sight. Try as he might, Obi-Wan could not touch Qui-Gon's thoughts.

Fifteen years of captivity, fifteen years of being locked away from the force... was it possible? Obi-Wan had to work hard to conceal a shudder. Was it possible to go through that and still be sane? He searched Qui-Gon's eyes for a sign — of recognition, understanding, complicity, anything — and got a clear, unreadable look in return.

"My master hopes you will enjoy your little pleasure toy, Jedi," Fortuna said. There was a roar of laughter from Jabba, and more words, like cold porridge being scraped out of a bowl. The pale Twi'lek smiled unpleasantly as he went on, "If you don't, or if you grow tired of him, we will send him back where we found him, of course. As soon as he has been properly punished for failing to please."

Obi-Wan hoped he was keeping his reaction off his face. Many of Jabba's guests were watching him and Qui-Gon with interest, amusement, scorn. The drunken Tulkuth was screaming with laughter, spraying everyone around him with wine. To them, it was supremely funny to see a Jedi presented with this slave, this choice. Obi-Wan sensed that most of them were expecting him to reject Jabba's gift, and that they couldn't wait to see what Jabba would do to him if he did. What Jabba would do to both of them.

Well, those expectations would not be fulfilled. There was only one response possible. Obi-Wan had to accept, had to keep Qui-Gon with him for as long as possible, to find out what had happened to the man all those years ago, and to devise a strategy for getting him out of Jabba's palace, off this wretched sand-heap of a world, and back to Coruscant, back to the Jedi, where he belonged.

Did Jabba know that Obi-Wan would recognize Qui-Gon, or did he think Obi-Wan was too young to ever have seen the Jedi master? Obi-Wan considered the possibilities. In either case, this was a danger and an insult, and he was going to have to be very careful not to acknowledge that. He'd been set up for this, and he was going to have to handle it, somehow.

"Not so little," he said, making a deliberate show of looking Qui-Gon up and down before turning to Fortuna, "but I believe he may clean up rather well. Please thank your master for me."

There was a mocking glint in Fortuna's eyes as he turned to his master, and Obi-Wan tried to make out what was said in the next flurry of Huttese, but failed; all he understood were the malicious chuckles that followed. Jabba was watching him speculatively. Jabba had asked for a Jedi, Obi-Wan reminded himself, and there seemed little doubt that this was what lay behind the request. This was a message; if he were not meant to recognize Qui-Gon, surely he would be allowed to communicate with those who would, or Jabba's coup would not be nearly so satisfying.

Jabba slapped a hand against his moist belly, and the music started up again.

Closing his eyes, Obi-Wan took a moment to calm his breathing and center his thoughts. Well, he had Qui-Gon Jinn. Now what was he going to do with him? He couldn't just grab the man and rush off to the nearest holocomm unit. Looking up again, he saw that many of the other guests were already making free with their gifts, pawing and groping. The Tulkuth was lying back with his head in the lap of a voluptuous Yarna woman, grinning blissfully as she poured wine down his throat. That, Obi-Wan thought in some distaste, was not how he wanted to spend the rest of the night.

Qui-Gon was still standing in front of him, but now he took a small step forward and knelt at Obi-Wan's feet. There was no humility in the gesture, but neither was there any arrogance; Qui-Gon might have been settling in for meditation. Until he spoke. "How may I serve you, master?"

In the flickering light, Qui-Gon's face was striped with sharp shadows; his cheekbones stood out, and despite the solidity of his large body, he looked worn. Obi-Wan put his fthek stick aside and picked up the skewer of vegetables again. "Fetch more food," he said. Bending forward, he wrapped his fingers around a strand of Qui-Gon's hair and tugged at it, pulling him a little forward, and spoke quietly enough not to be overheard. "Get whatever you like." Then he leaned back, flicked the strand of hair away as though he had been playing with it, and let go.

Watching Qui-Gon get up and move away, Obi-Wan bit into a cooling slice of grilled something-or-other, not tasting it. He wasn't sure if Qui-Gon recognized him. It had been a long time, and although Qui-Gon looked much the same except for the greying hair and the fine web of lines around his eyes, Obi-Wan had gone from a thirteen-year-old boy to a twenty-eight-year-old man. Without touching the force, Qui-Gon might not be able to sense the similarities beneath the surface changes. Not that it mattered, really. Qui-Gon would know what he was, would know him for a Jedi by his clothes and his bearing, and that was all that was important.

Obi-Wan darted a quick look towards Jabba, and found that the Hutt was fondling his favorite dancer, seemingly uninterested in what his Jedi guest and his Jedi slave were doing. That simply had to mean that they were being observed by someone else. Scanning the room with the lightest of force-touches, he found one of the guards keeping a careful eye on both him and Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan pulled back into his own mind and tossed the skewer away with half the food on it uneaten. No, he couldn't run off to the nearest holocomm, but he badly wanted to do it. He wanted to put in a transmission to the council. He wanted to talk to his master. He wanted to tell someone. He'd found Qui-Gon Jinn.

When Qui-Gon came back he was carrying a small pitcher as well as a plate piled high with food. Obi-Wan moved to one side on the couch, creating a free space, and Qui-Gon put the plate down there and knelt on the floor again, with the same grace and the same utter lack of deference. It made something tighten in Obi-Wan's chest, and he wanted to raise the other man up, seat him on the couch, and hand him the plate and watch him eat; wanted to treat him with the respect he deserved.

Instead, Obi-Wan picked at the food, selecting a small chunk of bread and chewing it slowly before nodding at Qui-Gon. "Eat," he said.

Qui-Gon's brows drew together briefly. "This food is intended for the guests, master, not for the slaves." Carefully, casually, with eyes lowered, "The guests may, of course, do what they please with the food."

And with the slaves, presumably, but what did that have to do with... ah. Obi-Wan tore off another chunk of bread, holding it out. Qui-Gon looked up, and their eyes met briefly. Then Qui-Gon bent his head and took the bread from Obi-Wan's fingers. Hoping that Qui-Gon would only have selected food items that he liked or at least tolerated, Obi-Wan went on feeding him, dipping the bread in hocha sauce, tearing the roast iribird breast into chunks small enough to chew. It was odd to feel Qui-Gon's lips against his fingers, and the occasional brush of beard. Obi-Wan picked up his mug and filled it from the pitcher Qui-Gon had brought, held it to Qui-Gon's mouth, and tilted it carefully to let the man drink at a slow pace. He could feel the guard's eyes on the back of his neck and leaned back, taking a piece of bread for himself and nibbling on it in a leisurely fashion, trying to project an air of relaxed indifference. Qui-Gon sat still and calm, but his eyes strayed to the half-full plate, and then back to Obi-Wan's face. Obi-Wan drank from the mug, swallowed, and asked quietly, "Are you still hungry?"

"Yes, master."

The words sounded wrong to Obi-Wan. He had once hoped to call this man master, and it was disconcerting to be in a situation where Qui-Gon would address him that way. Somehow, that phrase, spoken in Qui-Gon's warm, resonant voice, made him remember everything that had passed between them all those years ago, on the ship out from Coruscant, on the planet where they'd fought the draigons, on Bandomeer. It had been such a pivotal time for him, changing his life forever. He wondered if Qui-Gon even remembered it.

To distract himself, he picked up another piece of iribird and held it out to Qui-Gon, and went on feeding him until the plate was empty, only eating enough himself to maintain a pretence of still being interested in the food. Around them, the party went on, getting wilder and noisier. When Obi-Wan glanced up he saw that the Tulkuth had shredded his pleasure slave's clothing and drenched the remaining scraps in wine, and was alternately chewing on them and licking the woman's exposed skin. Others had gone farther than that — Obi-Wan averted his eyes, partly out of politeness, and partly out of a very real desire not to see a Toydarian in the throes of sexual ecstasy. Some of his fellow guests had retired, either into dark corners or to their rooms.

Well, then.

Obi-Wan put the mug aside and got to his feet with slow deliberation, leaving plenty of time for his movements to be noticed before he turned to look at Jabba again. The Hutt seemed to be ignoring him, but the moment Obi-Wan took a step away from where he'd been sitting, Jabba said something that made those around him laugh, and Bib Fortuna called out, "My master hopes that you will enjoy yourself."

"Please tell him that I fully intend to," Obi-Wan said; he was fairly certain that Jabba understood Standard, but he was willing to play along with the Hutt's pretense of needing an interpreter for the time being. "Good night."

He nodded at Jabba, unable to take courtesy far enough to actually bow, and snapped his fingers at Qui-Gon, gesturing for the man to follow him as he walked towards the nearest doorway. During the previous evenings he had stayed late, watching and listening, hoping to find out something of interest. Tonight he felt certain that nothing could be more interesting than to talk to Qui-Gon Jinn.

It was a relief to get away from the tlao smoke and the music. In the dimly lit hallway, Obi-Wan slowed down and turned to smile at Qui-Gon for the first time, over his shoulder, but didn't try to say anything just yet. His room was some distance away, and they walked in silence, meeting only the occasional house-droid.

After a while, Obi-Wan became aware that someone was following them. He touched the force currents and recognized the presence of the same guard who had watched them back in the hall. That wasn't entirely unexpected, but it was still annoying. Obi-Wan kept part of his attention on the guard as he walked along, Qui-Gon a silent shadow behind him. When they got to the room, Obi-Wan palmed the door open, went inside and stood still for a moment, listening, tapping into the force. The guard was still nearby, settling in somewhere... watching them.

Obi-Wan made an effort to keep from frowning. He could put the man to sleep, but there was monitoring equipment running as well, and if he disabled that, he would be acknowledging that he had something to hide. He couldn't afford just yet to shatter the pretense that there was anything going on here beyond a guest having been offered a pleasure slave for a night, even though he knew that Jabba knew that he knew that Jabba knew, and so on and so on, that there was far more to it than that.

Turning around, he fisted a hand in Qui-Gon's hair and dragged the tall man's head down, bit an earlobe and breathed, "We're still being watched."

"I see," Qui-Gon acknowledged on an indrawn breath, before saying out loud, "What do you desire, master?"

"Cleanliness," Obi-Wan said, thinking it was probably rather high on Qui-Gon's wish list, too. He let go of Qui-Gon's hair, unwilling to be more demonstrably forceful than he had to now that communication had been established, and made it clear with a brief gesture that he expected Qui-Gon to follow him into the next room.

There was a water shower there, an expensive luxury on this dry world. Obi-Wan unfastened his utility belt, laying it aside carefully, with the lightsaber still attached, on a gleaming inlaid-stone counter holding rows of jars and bottles. It had taken him half an hour, the night he'd first arrived, to find a simple cleanser to use that wouldn't make him smell like a prostitute, a rancor, or someone's overspiced dinner.

Behind him Qui-Gon said, "Master," in a tone of voice that wasn't quite a question, reminding Obi-Wan that he needed to keep giving orders.

"Strip," he said, pulling off his own shirts and folding them, separately, putting them down on top of the utility belt. "Get in there and adjust the water temperature."

How did people speak to pleasure slaves? Not that it really mattered all that much; he was here openly as a Jedi, it was to be expected that his behavior might be different from that of other guests. And there was something slightly disorienting about commanding a man to whom he would normally owe the deference of knight to master. A man he had last seen striding away across a plascrete docking bay floor in a spaceport on Bandomeer, silent and unacknowledging. So much had changed since then.

Turning, he found that Qui-Gon wore nothing underneath the rough pants. Nothing except scars and bruises. Obi-Wan frowned slightly and rummaged among the selection of jars again. There had to be something that would soothe aching muscles and help the abused skin to heal. He extended his force sense and let his mind drift along with his fingertips over lids and screwtops. The shower started up behind him. There was something that might work. He pulled out two bottles and put them aside, then grabbed the cleanser, stripped off his boots and pants, and stepped into the shower area to join Qui-Gon under the water.

It was oddly reminiscent of the communal showers in the temple training facilities. Obi-Wan scooped up some cleanser on two fingers and passed the jar to Qui-Gon, who was standing perfectly still with a strange expression on his face. After a couple of moments, when Qui-Gon still did not move, Obi-Wan began to rub the cream into a lather over Qui-Gon's chest. It turned a nasty shade of brown. He rinsed it off and started over. Qui-Gon was absolutely filthy. Obi-Wan wondered what kind of work duty would make the dirt and grime settle so deeply into a man's skin. He was rubbing at a dark streak on Qui-Gon's shoulder when Qui-Gon finally moved, closing one large hand around Obi-Wan's wrist. "I can wash myself — master."

Obi-Wan offered the jar again, and this time Qui-Gon took some of the contents. "I think it will go faster if we share the work," he said, and pushed at Qui-Gon's shoulder to get him to turn around.

Qui-Gon tensed, instantly, muscles tightening under Obi-Wan's touch. Obi-Wan stopped and looked at his own hand resting on Qui-Gon's skin for a few moments before looking up to meet Qui-Gon's eyes. There was a silence so loud that it completely drowned out the sound of rushing water, a silence that lasted for an immeasurable heartbeat, and then Qui-Gon very slowly and deliberately turned the way Obi-Wan's hand had asked him to turn. "Yes, master," he said in a low voice.

Faced with a large expanse of dirty back, Obi-Wan only hesitated for a moment before starting to scrub at it. He could feel the discomfort in the way Qui-Gon held himself, and ignored it, keeping his touch firm and businesslike. Skin peeled off as he scrubbed, catching under his nails. He wondered how long it had been since Qui-Gon had last had an opportunity to get completely clean.

At least the other man seemed to be physically all right. Dirty and battered, and rather too thin for his height, despite the muscle tone that had come with hard labor, but Obi-Wan couldn't detect any signs of recent injury or of illness. There were a few scabs here and there, scratches, bruises, nothing serious. Standing on tiptoe, running his hands into thick wet hair, he spoke quietly into Qui-Gon's ear. "We need to make a plan for getting you away from here. Jabba will be expecting it, though. Do you have any idea why he decided to do this?"

Qui-Gon shrugged minimally and tipped his head back as Obi-Wan massaged his scalp, working up a lather. "He hasn't confided in me. I imagine he likes to show off the fact that he has a Jedi in chains. He owns this world. The Republic has no power here."

Suppressing a desire to ask Qui-Gon not to state the obvious, Obi-Wan concentrated on untangling the snarls that his fingers had run into. It seemed to have been some time since Qui-Gon had last met with a comb. The hair at the back of his neck had scraggled itself badly, creating a clump as thick as Obi-Wan's wrist. He worked at it carefully, a piece at a time, smoothing in an oily cream. Qui-Gon had finished washing himself and just stood still under Obi-Wan's touch.

"I have a ship waiting at the spaceport in Mos Espa." Obi-Wan tugged on Qui-Gon's hair until the other man tilted his head back under the streaming water. Untangled, Qui-Gon's hair fell to the middle of his back; the ends were ragged and uneven. Obi-Wan rinsed it out and tapped Qui-Gon's shoulder lightly as a sign that he was done, then picked up the jar of cleanser. "Do you know where in your body the transmitter is?"

"No." Qui-Gon turned around and took the cleanser away from him and began to wash him, long-fingered hands brisk and impersonal on Obi-Wan's body. "Probably somewhere along the spine, but I was unconscious when it was put in. The force inhibitor is in the collar — the chain."

Obi-Wan blinked, then squirmed a little as Qui-Gon reached around him to rub over the ticklish places on his back. "But that chain is loose. You could just pull it over your head."

"Not... very easily."

"But you could do it?" Obi-Wan looked up into Qui-Gon's face and got an unreadable look in return. There had to be something more to it, then. He tried to touch the chain with the force to discover what held it there.

Only Qui-Gon's hands on his shoulders kept him from recoiling. Qui-Gon pulled him close, wetting his hair thoroughly, leaning in to say, "Two of the links are welded around my collar bones."

Obi-Wan nodded mutely, teeth clenched. The chain read to his senses like a force drain, an energy sink, a black power-eating hole. Now that he looked at it, he didn't know how he could have missed it. There must be a shielding field built into the chain that worked to disguise its true properties against a casual probe. And Qui-Gon was wearing that — that thing, that abomination, not merely around his neck, against his skin, but in his body. Shivers of horror crawled over Obi-Wan's skin as he leaned in and saw, now that the shielding field no longer affected him, the places where the metal pierced Qui-Gon's shoulders.

He took a deep, painful breath, collected his unruly emotions, and soothed them down into a low hum of acknowledged discomfort. It was all he had time for at the moment; he could meditate later. If Qui-Gon could handle this, then so could he. Obi-Wan closed his eyes and tipped his head forward as Qui-Gon knelt down to wash his legs and feet.

"What happens if the links are broken?" he whispered. "Would the removal of the chain trigger the transmitter?"

"So I've been told," Qui-Gon said against his right knee.

They had to concentrate on the transmitter, then, and neutralize it, or have it removed somehow, although Obi-Wan suspected it couldn't be removed in its active state without being triggered. But with the chain on Qui-Gon, separating him from the force, Obi-Wan couldn't scan the other man's body for the transmitter, let alone try to do something about it. It was a very neat trap. Someone, somewhere, had put a great deal of thought into it — someone who knew a lot about the force and a lot about Jedi. Obi-Wan didn't think Jabba, or anyone on Tatooine, had that kind of knowledge, although it was conceivable that the Hutt had bought it somewhere. Or perhaps he had just bought Qui-Gon and didn't know how the trap worked, only that it did.

Waiting until Qui-Gon rose up again, he leaned in against the other man's broad chest and asked, "Do you know where the transmitter control is kept?" Qui-Gon shook his head. "Does Jabba keep it himself, or is Fortuna in charge of it?"

"I believe they both have access to the control system," Qui-Gon said. He began to wash Obi-Wan's hair with leisurely care. "It would be best if we could find a way to disable the transmitter. To disable all transmitters. I cannot leave without—" He paused. "There is a woman — and a child."

Obi-Wan blinked and got cleanser in his eyes. He put his arms around Qui-Gon to steady himself as he tilted his head back and washed it out. "You have a child?" That was unexpected, and it would certainly complicate matters. It would be difficult enough to rescue Qui-Gon from this place and this situation. To try to rescue two more people would tip the scales a little further towards 'impossible.'

"Not mine," Qui-Gon said into his neck, shielding the words behind a double curtain of wet hair, Obi-Wan's and his own. "They are also slaves." Qui-Gon's voice dropped even lower. "I believe the boy may be the chosen one. The one we've been waiting for."

So many responses to that rose in Obi-Wan that he was incapable of speech at first. His hands ran along Qui-Gon's back in long unthinking caresses, moving as if trying to soothe and reassure.

"The one you've been waiting for," he surmised, working it out for himself. Of course he knew the legend of the chosen one. How strange for Qui-Gon Jinn to have such a belief in an ancient prophecy that he'd do anything to see it fulfilled — he who, according to Temple gossip, and even the few stray comments Obi-Wan had heard from his own master over the years, had always been so willing to bend the code and defy tradition, who saw most rules as guidelines and most absolutes as suggestions. It threw a whole new light on the man, Obi-Wan thought. He had to ask, "Was that why you refused me, Qui-Gon? Because I wasn't the chosen one?"

Qui-Gon ran his hands through Obi-Wan's hair, rinsing the cleanser away. They were firm and steady, and so was his voice as he said, "No." Obi-Wan's head was tipped back again, water pouring over him. "I believe we should get out of here before we use up all the water in the palace."

While it might be a deflection, it was also a perfectly valid observation, and Obi-Wan pushed his fingers through his hair to make sure that all the cleanser had rinsed out, and then turned the water off. The room turned silent. They'd have to stand close and speak quietly. Obi-Wan stepped off the shower tiles, and Qui-Gon followed him, only to walk past him to fetch a towel, obviously intending to dry him with it. Obi-Wan stayed where he was and wrung his hair out; Qui-Gon had wound his together into a wet knot at the back of his head.

"Bring more towels," Obi-Wan said, blinking water out of his eyes.

"Yes, master." Qui-Gon came back with a pile and set them on the edge of the counter, pushing a few jars aside. He took one and turned to Obi-Wan, who tilted his head invitingly.

While Qui-Gon dried his hair, leaning in close, Obi-Wan said, "How can you know what the boy is, when you can't touch the force?" In some ways it seemed like a cruel question to ask, reminding Qui-Gon of his enforced limitations, but Obi-Wan wasn't sure how far he could trust the judgement of a force-blind man focused on an ancient prophecy.

Qui-Gon sounded perfectly calm and untroubled as he answered, "I've seen what he can do. I know."

He finished with Obi-Wan's hair and began to dry his shoulders and back. The towel was finely napped, and Obi-Wan found himself missing the rougher cloth of Temple standard issue, missing the way it scratched his skin. When Qui-Gon came around to rub at Obi-Wan's chest, Obi-Wan leaned close until their skin touched and asked, "And the woman, you love her?"

"Yes," Qui-Gon said, sounding a little surprised, "yes, I do. She is — extraordinary." Obi-Wan leaned back to get a good look at the other man. The expression in Qui-Gon's eyes was almost clear: fondness, and renewed calm.

It didn't tell him all that much, though. Obi-Wan wished he could read the other man better. The force was no help to him here, and he had so very little previous knowledge of Qui-Gon's mannerisms and moods to draw on; besides, he wasn't sure how far he trusted his own twelve-year-old perceptions. His view of Qui-Gon at that time had been strongly colored by his own wishes and disappointments. He could not use it to judge the way Qui-Gon acted and reacted now. There wasn't much he could use at all — on top of the calm of a Jedi, Qui-Gon now had the carefully neutral expression of a man who had spent many years at the mercy of others' whims.

Looking down at the top of Qui-Gon's head as the man knelt to dry Obi-Wan's legs, Obi-Wan decided that he simply had to find a way to meet these two slaves, the child and the woman, himself and find out what it was about them that had led Qui-Gon to form such a strong attachment to them. The boy might well be force-sensitive. Even without being able to touch and use the force himself, Qui-Gon would know what signs to look for, and how to ask the boy what he was experiencing without alarming him.

It was a long step from finding a force-sensitive child to assuming that the child was the chosen one, though. Obi-Wan lifted each foot in turn, spreading his toes as Qui-Gon ran a corner of the towel between them. The chosen one, who would bring balance to the force. Obi-Wan had never quite understood how that was going to work. It implied that the force was unbalanced, a concept he couldn't quite grasp. The force was the force. It just was. He put a hand on Qui-Gon's shoulder and urged him to stand up again.

Obi-Wan took a dry towel from the pile on the counter and reached up to dry the remaining drops of water off Qui-Gon's face. He asked into the folds of towel that separated his face from Qui-Gon's shoulder, "Are they here in the palace?"

Drying Qui-Gon's throat was easy. Drying his shoulders was harder — it was difficult for Obi-Wan to overcome his revulsion, and Qui-Gon shifted away whenever he came close to the chain. Obi-Wan's touch grew tentative, and Qui-Gon took the towel out of his hands, taking care of the tricky area himself.

Then Obi-Wan took the towel back and pulled Qui-Gon's hair loose, letting it fall forward over the man's face. He began to squeeze the water from it between towel folds, as Qui-Gon whispered, "No, they live in the slave quarters in town. They're not Jabba's slaves, they belong to a local junk dealer, Watto. The woman's name is Shmi. The boy is Anakin."

Obi-Wan nodded. He would be able to find them tomorrow and form his own opinion of the child. But even if this Anakin were force sensitive, which Obi-Wan did think was very likely, there seemed little chance that the junk dealer who owned him would simply let him go in order to be trained as a Jedi, and even less chance that Watto would release the woman, an adult who was presumably at full working capacity and hence even more valuable. Obi-Wan didn't have the money to buy them, and he sincerely doubted that the council would agree to let the order pay.

That left either trickery or theft. Obi-Wan looked almost resentfully at Qui-Gon. Rescuing a lost Jedi from those who held him captive was one thing; stealing valuable property from an uninvolved third party something completely different. "You could come back for them," he suggested.

Qui-Gon shook his head. A strand of damp hair slapped against Obi-Wan's chest. "No. Anakin needs training. It can't wait."

What could wait, Obi-Wan decided, was this particular argument. He needed to contact the council, he needed to see this child for himself and talk to the mother, and he needed to come up with a plan to get Qui-Gon free of the chain and the transmitter. He needed to get Qui-Gon dry — well, most of the water had already evaporated. It was just the hair that kept dripping. Obi-Wan pulled it back over Qui-Gon's shoulders and went around him, catching the wet strands and toweling them carefully, trying to avoid creating any more snarls.

While he worked, he extended his senses towards their unseen watcher yet again, and found that the guard was still watching them intently. Obi-Wan didn't sense any particular concern, though, so their actions couldn't be all that far from whatever the guard had been told to expect.

By the time Obi-Wan put the towel aside, they were both dry. He flipped Qui-Gon's hair forward again and took the jar he'd picked out earlier from the counter, beginning to smear ointment over the scratches on Qui-Gon's back. Obi-Wan worked quickly and efficiently, fingers sliding over smooth and scarred skin, pausing at the small injuries he found, taking care not to press on the bruises. He knelt down to attend to the backs of Qui-Gon's legs, and his eyes were caught by a mark high up on the left flank, a patch of white and red keloid stripes that looked as though the skin had been torn repeatedly over a previous mark, almost obliterating it.

Obi-Wan touched a finger to it, trying to make out the original shape of the scar, but Qui-Gon tensed up and shifted away from him. Only a small motion, and then Qui-Gon instantly stopped himself, but Obi-Wan didn't try to touch that spot again. He got to his feet and silently rubbed ointment on to those places on Qui-Gon's chest that needed it. When he was done, he put the jar aside and gestured at Qui-Gon to precede him back into the bedroom.

It was darker there, just a small pool of light by the head of the platform bed. Qui-Gon walked over there, and Obi-Wan went with him, almost walking right into Qui-Gon's back as the other man stopped. When Qui-Gon turned around, Obi-Wan found himself face-to-link with the chain and grabbed on to Qui-Gon's arms to keep from backing away. Qui-Gon bent his head, hair once again falling forward to shield their faces. Looking up, Obi-Wan whispered, "Watcher's still there. We have to—"

"I know." Qui-Gon stroked his back, fingers trailing along his spine in an impersonal caress.

Obi-Wan wondered how he would have responded to such a touch in a normal situation — shifted his weight, arched his neck, touched Qui-Gon in return? He could not imagine a normal situation involving both sex and Qui-Gon Jinn, this long-lost stranger who was now tracing Obi-Wan's left shoulder blade with a callused thumb. He could barely imagine this situation.

"It feels odd." Not the bone-deep wrongness of trying to go against the will of the force, but strange and unsettling. Force currents swirled uneasily around them. With Qui-Gon shut away from the force, Obi-Wan had a feeling that he was only getting half the picture.

"As you said, we have to." The quiet words were completely matter of fact. "I've been a slave for a long time. I've done worse things."

Before Obi-Wan could decide how to interpret that, Qui-Gon pushed him down to sit on the edge of the bed, and slid down to his knees and bent his head, and then Qui-Gon's mouth was on him, sucking him in, tongue playing with him and coaxing him into a full erection. Obi-Wan drew a deep, shuddering breath. Earlier, in the bathroom, he'd almost managed to forget the reality of what they would have to do, to make this convincing. One thing to think that they could perform some casual sex act, another entirely to feel Qui-Gon's lips wrapped around his cock, to be serviced, there was no other word for it, by the kneeling man.

No way to stop it. Obi-Wan knew that, rationally. Qui-Gon must please him, or be taken away and punished, and they could not be separated now, before any definite plans had been made. He would not give Qui-Gon up to more ill-usage. Obi-Wan leaned back on both arms, spread his legs wider so that Qui-Gon could move in between them. They could do this. He could do this. It was necessary, and Qui-Gon's tongue was so soft... Obi-Wan closed his eyes and let those wet gentle touches work on him, try to drag him under.

He felt Qui-Gon's hands lying steadily over his hipbones, thumbs arrowing down towards his groin, stroking a little now and then, irregularly, as if the other man had to remind himself to do it. Felt the steady suction of Qui-Gon's mouth and throat, a degree of technique that suggested a certain amount of experience. Felt a slight stirring in the force as the guard, watching them, reacted to what he was seeing with a mixture of amusement and lust. Obi-Wan sighed and tried to let go of thought, to immerse himself in sensation. The sheer sensual pleasure of a mouth on his cock, heat, pressure without friction, it was good, and then the slightest scrape of teeth startling an unforced moan out of him... never mind why this was happening...

The next moment he was swallowed down deep, tight ripples drawing him in and in and he fell back on his elbows with a gasp. Electric jolts played along his spine. Pressure rose within him, building up and up. For some strange reason he pictured himself reporting to the council, saying seriously and soberly, I found Qui-Gon Jinn, and he's sucking my cock. Then he threw his head back and felt himself coming, mouth open in a silent cry as he spasmed over and over into the demanding wet heat.

When he finally opened his eyes, the room looked very dark. Obi-Wan looked down along his body to see Qui-Gon still kneeling in that one lone pool of light, head bent forward, lids lowered. The hands that had tightened on Obi-Wan's hips relaxed their grip. Qui-Gon's hair gleamed now that it was clean, shone subtly like dark wood grained with silver; it hung forward and almost obscured the chain.

Obi-Wan breathed in, and out, and levered himself up into a sitting position again, scooting back and drawing his legs up. He patted the freed space on the bed, feeling his own residual body-heat on the covers. "Come here. Lie down."

"Yes, master." Qui-Gon stretched himself out where Obi-Wan had indicated, still not lifting his eyes. It occurred to Obi-Wan that just as he had no idea how to behave with a pleasure slave, so Qui-Gon probably had no idea how to behave as a pleasure slave, and there was a watcher who would be judging their success at what they were trying to do. Putting a hand over Qui-Gon's heart, Obi-Wan felt it beating strongly, and read the tension in Qui-Gon's body from it.

"I am Jedi," he spoke out loud, to the hidden guard as well as to Qui-Gon, "and we do not make a habit of taking pleasure without giving anything in return."

Obi-Wan ran his hand down Qui-Gon's chest and over his belly, feeling tiny muscle tremors in response; he repeated the caress over and over, keeping it slow. After a while he straightened his fingers to brush over a nipple in passing, felt it tighten under his touch and continued to stroke down along Qui-Gon's body, following the trail of hair until he reached his goal. He curved his hand around Qui-Gon's shaft, feeling it grow against his palm, soft skin stretching over hardness in response to the gentle touch. Obi-Wan dragged his thumb over the satiny head, caught the first tiny drop of wetness welling up and spread it out.

It was easy to slip into a series of familiar motions, caresses meant to tease and enflame. The taut length of Qui-Gon's cock was eager against his palm, answering every stroke with a slight quiver. Like touching a lover... except that he wasn't touching a lover. Glancing up at the other man's face, looking at the tense lines radiating out from Qui-Gon's eyes, Obi-Wan was struck by sudden doubt and regret.

He was touching this man intimately under circumstances where there could be no refusal, coaxing a response from Qui-Gon's body that Qui-Gon might not be willing to give him. In essence, he was taking something that Qui-Gon, a slave for so many years, might not have had any chance to offer voluntarily for a length of time that exceeded half of Obi-Wan's life.

The first sex act had been unavoidable, and Obi-Wan did not regret it; it had been necessary to play along with Jabba and deceive Jabba's staff. Qui-Gon had chosen the act, presumably because he found it bearable. This, though... Was he forcing himself on Qui-Gon? It would be impossible for the other man to say no now. Obi-Wan slowed his hand, hesitant, unsure.

Perhaps he should — no, he couldn't stop now. That would be to pile unkindness on top of insult, and as if to underscore that, Qui-Gon thrust up ever so slightly against his touch. Obi-Wan ran his fingers down the thick shaft, stroked the sac that was tightening with Qui-Gon's increasing desire. He would go on, then. Feathering a light touch down over the insides of Qui-Gon's thighs, Obi-Wan watched the muscles ripple in response. He leaned forward into a more comfortable position and put his other hand on Qui-Gon's chest, grazing each tightly peaked nipple with his palm, then flicking the nearest one with a nail, over and over. Qui-Gon was quiet, so quiet, but the next breath was deeper and more unsteady.

Obi-Wan wrapped his hand around Qui-Gon's cock again, and it bucked into his slow caress. He found a rhythm, following the minute cues of Qui-Gon's body, the small shifts, the almost inaudible sighs. Qui-Gon kept his eyes closed tight, and the fingers of one large hand tensed and loosened, tensed and loosened, a tiny movement that almost hypnotized Obi-Wan. He felt as though he should be holding his breath, stopping his heart, anything not to disturb Qui-Gon's silent ascent into pleasure.

When he sped up the pace of his hand, he could feel the shift, the response. It wouldn't be long now, Obi-Wan thought. He watched Qui-Gon intently, watched the still face and the trembling eyelids, the pulse leaping in the hollow of the throat. One still-damp strand of hair had curled forward over Qui-Gon's shoulder, meandering like a dark river over pale skin. Qui-Gon's lips parted, just barely, no more than hinting at teeth and tongue. Obi-Wan moved his hand faster, moved his hand just so, and there it was, that muscle clench like a stutter of the body, the frown, the jerk of hips as Qui-Gon came with no more sound than a hiss of breath, spilling himself in hot bursts over Obi-Wan's fingers and his own stomach.

The smell, that rich heavy sex smell, rose off Qui-Gon like steam, hung in the air, almost tangible. Obi-Wan watched Qui-Gon's body relax into unaccustomed softness and lassitude. It looked good. He slowly released his grip on Qui-Gon's softening cock and lifted his hand to his mouth, tasting the wetness with the tip of his tongue. Bitter. Obi-Wan shifted down and climbed off the foot of the bed, crossing the room to pick up a dropped towel. He wiped his hand, then went back to the bed and started to clean up Qui-Gon, who opened his eyes again at the first touch, but said nothing.

They were still sticky, but it would do until tomorrow. Obi-Wan hung the towel on the nearest corner of the bed, turned off the light, and climbed back into bed over Qui-Gon, trying not to put his elbows anywhere inconvenient. He fumbled for the thin sheet he'd been sleeping under the previous night, unfolded it, and spread it over them both. The room wasn't completely dark; a little light seeped in from a grate over the door. Obi-Wan could make out Qui-Gon's profile, the jut of his nose, the glint of silver in the bristling beard. It had been all brown fifteen years ago.

Fifteen years. It didn't seem possible. Obi-Wan tried to imagine being blocked off from the force for even a day, and couldn't fathom what it might be like; the closest he'd come had been during a severe illness some years earlier, and even then he'd been able to dimly sense the force currents, if not use them. To be completely cut off must be like not being able to breathe. Fifteen years — was it possible?

Something stirred at the back of his mind. He thought back, trying to remember when he'd first become aware of the search for Qui-Gon Jinn. There had been the mission two years ago, the one he'd been a part of, and the time before that when Master Yoda had surprised everyone by actually leaving the temple, and... a few other incidents sprang to mind, but they only dated back seven years, not fifteen.

Shifting forward, Obi-Wan put his head on Qui-Gon's chest. Stray hairs tickled his nose. He took care to speak as quietly as before, being familiar with the illusion that darkness muffles sound. "How did you come to end up here, Qui-Gon?" There was no answer. Obi-Wan breathed softly against Qui-Gon's skin. Muscles stiffened under his cheek. He persisted. "What was your mission?"

There was a long silence. Qui-Gon relaxed again, as if by a conscious effort, and that slow movement shifted Obi-Wan's head on Qui-Gon's shoulder until his forehead brushed against the chain. He jerked back, just barely catching himself before he'd leaped to the other end of the bed. Obi-Wan drew a deep breath and reminded himself that he was a Jedi, not a sand flea.

Raising a hand, he pretended for the benefit of their watcher to scratch at a spot on his chest; then he lay down again, keeping well away from the metal links.

When Qui-Gon finally spoke, quietly, into the top of Obi-Wan's head, what he said was, "So you became a Jedi after all." At that moment it felt to Obi-Wan as though it had been only days, or less, since Qui-Gon had refused him. "Who trained you?"

Their questions floated in the darkness, unanswered. Obi-Wan closed his eyes. Qui-Gon's chest was not the most comfortable of pillows, but it would do. Testing the force currents, he found that the hidden watcher was beginning to relax his attention, believing them sated and on the verge of sleep. Now would be the perfect time for a hushed talk about plans for the next day.

He thought about being abandoned by Qui-Gon on Bandomeer; he thought about his master; he thought about Qui-Gon's absence, Qui-Gon's undisclosed mission, and that mark on Qui-Gon's hip. And then he fell asleep.

* * *

When he woke, he was sweaty and a little cramped from lying pressed up against Qui-Gon all night in the same position. He wasn't used to sharing a bed with someone as big as Qui-Gon. The man's arms and legs seemed to be everywhere. Obi-Wan worked his hand free from under Qui-Gon's shoulder and sat up slowly, leaning back against the wall. Its rough surface was morning-chilly against his warm, damp skin; judging by the light that filtered in through the high window, it was still very early.

Qui-Gon asleep looked as guarded as Qui-Gon awake, as though years of slavery had taught him not to let his true face show even in sleep. The chain rested heavily around his throat. Drawn by morbid curiosity, Obi-Wan leaned forward to look at the places where the links pierced Qui-Gon's body. Metal disappeared smoothly into flesh; there was no redness or irritation, just the wrongness of it, a wrongness Obi-Wan did not need to use the force to know.

He felt ashamed of himself. Last night he'd shied away from the touch of that metal as he would have shied away from touching fire; yet Qui-Gon lay there sleeping under its weight, had worn it long enough to grow used to the terrible touch.

Obi-Wan gathered himself and vaulted lightly over Qui-Gon, landing on the floor on the balls of his feet. He stretched, rolled his shoulders, and went into the bathroom to relieve himself. Passing the mirror, he noticed to his surprise that he had small bruises, like a cluster of blue-black grapes, on his hips from the grip of Qui-Gon's hands. Also, his hair hung in his eyes, a tangled mess. That was less of a surprise.

Forgoing the luxury of another shower, he washed quickly in lukewarm water and spent a couple of minutes combing himself, shaving, and putting a little of the cream he'd used on Qui-Gon last night on his own bruises. It made them less noticeable, if nothing else. Obi-Wan rinsed his mouth with jad-flavored water and took another, longer look at himself. He'd come perilously close to being angry at Qui-Gon last night; the question about his master had brought up feelings Obi-Wan had thought long gone and forgotten.

On Bandomeer, he had been a child, uncertain of many things. Now he was an adult, a Jedi knight. The past was the past. It could not be changed. He hadn't even thought about Qui-Gon's rejection in years. Turning away from the mirror, Obi-Wan went back into the bedroom again. He caught Qui-Gon in the middle of an awakening stretch and had to smile at the sight. When Qui-Gon lowered his arms and caught sight of Obi-Wan, there was a flicker of something in his face, something beneath that calm neutrality that made Obi-Wan take an involuntary step forward. As quickly as that, though, it was gone again.

Something else took its place. The past was the past, but the recent past was very close. There was a physical tension humming through the room now, as if the air between them remembered what they had done last night. With Qui-Gon's eyes on him, Obi-Wan became conscious of his own nakedness, but he refused to feel any embarrassment. "Good morning," he said instead, and took another step forward, and another. Then he was right by the bed, and to his surprise Qui-Gon moved over to make room for him.

It was easy to slip back under the sheet, to settle in the crook of Qui-Gon's arm. The rusty "Good morning, master," that he got in return chased a little of the tension away, reminding Obi-Wan, perhaps reminding them both, of the game they played.

Obi-Wan turned his head, burying his face in Qui-Gon's soft hair. He felt the curve of an ear against his lips. "Will you be able to leave the palace with me?" he asked. "Or do you have work duties to keep you here during the day?"

Qui-Gon shrugged one shoulder, bumping Obi-Wan's chin. There had to be a more convenient position that would let them both talk without its being immediately apparent, and audible, to whomever was assigned to spy on them this morning. Obi-Wan reached over Qui-Gon's chest and tugged on his shoulder, rolling them towards each other until they lay face to face, with hair falling everywhere in tickling strands.

"I don't know," Qui-Gon said, lips brushing against Obi-Wan's cheek. "My instructions were only to please you sexually during the night. No mention was made of what might happen the following morning. But it would surprise me if Jabba didn't have a plan for it. For us."

That seemed very likely to Obi-Wan, too, but he felt uncertain of what that plan might be. He curled his arm loosely around Qui-Gon's shoulder and hoped they looked as though they were kissing. "That means we have to come up with a better plan."

But what? Obi-Wan toyed briefly with the notion of attempting to buy Qui-Gon from Jabba, of saying that Qui-Gon had pleased him so well that he wanted to keep the man. He didn't have the money, though; his knight's stipend would certainly not cover the cost of a healthy adult slave.

"Do you have anything to trade with?" Qui-Gon asked.

"No." Obi-Wan blew a strand of Qui-Gon's hair out of his mouth. "I doubt Jabba would let me trade for you. He may have some very specific price in mind when it comes to your freedom."

"I meant for Shmi and Anakin," Qui-Gon said. "I will not be leaving without them." Obi-Wan drew a deep breath, but Qui-Gon's fingers against his lips silenced him momentarily. "They're slaves. Don't you want to see them set free?"

The question was so serious and so earnest that Obi-Wan came very close to just agreeing; he caught himself just in time and found himself thinking that Qui-Gon must have been a formidable negotiator. After marshalling his thoughts, he said, "Do you know how many sentients live on Tatooine? Do you know how many of those sentients are slaves? Yes, I want to see your Shmi and Anakin set free. I'd like to see all the slaves set free, on this planet and every other planet. But that is not my mission here."

"Missions change." Qui-Gon didn't sound impressed. "You must be able to adapt to changing circumstances. When you came here you didn't know that you would find me; now you are planning to rescue me. Surely you can adjust your thinking to include the rescue of a woman and a child as well. What difference does it make?"

"It makes everything three times as complicated, for one thing," Obi-Wan said. The temptation to agree with Qui-Gon had just grown considerably less. "It is my duty as a Jedi to do everything in my power to free you and bring you back to Coruscant. It is not my duty as a Jedi to steal valuable property from local junk dealers." He borrowed Qui-Gon's gesture, put his fingers over Qui-Gon's lips. "Yes, I know that they are sentients, not objects. But—"

"I am a valuable piece of property," Qui-Gon said, biting off the words. "You're prepared to steal me, but not them?"

"Where does it stop?" Obi-Wan hissed back. "Don't all the slaves deserve to be stolen, to be freed? If I take these two, why not the next two, and the next two after that?"

"The boy is the chosen one. He is the one who will bring balance to the force."

"You think he is the chosen one. And you haven't been able to touch the force for—"

A sharp rap on the door made Obi-Wan bite back the rest of the sentence. He sat up and glared at Qui-Gon, considered wrapping the sheet around himself as a makeshift sarong and leaving the other man naked on the bed, then shrugged and got up to hunt for his pants. He didn't bother to put a shirt on; he wanted to make it clear that whoever was on the other side of that door had interrupted something. The surveillance tape would hopefully show that he and Qui-Gon had been whispering inaudible sweet nothings to each other. He was very taken with his pleasure slave, he reminded himself. Not annoyed. Not at all.

When he opened the door, Bib Fortuna's smirking face did nothing to soothe his temper. Obi-Wan simply stood and waited, staring back, until Fortuna stopped smirking and said, "My master wishes to see you. He invites you to breakfast."

Obi-Wan could think of few things that appealed to him less than watching Jabba the Hutt eat breakfast. He nodded. "I will come as soon as I am dressed," he said and closed the door again. When he turned around he saw that Qui-Gon was sitting on the edge of the bed now, sheet draped haphazardly over his lap. Their eyes met for a moment, and then Obi-Wan went into the bathroom to get the rest of his clothes.

He dressed quickly; although he didn't mind keeping Fortuna waiting, he did want to find out what Jabba had to say. Perhaps there would be a clue there to Jabba's true intentions, something that would help him come up with a plan for Qui-Gon's rescue, since Qui-Gon himself was apparently not going to be of any help.

Once he was dressed, he left the bathroom and headed straight for the door, but then stopped before lifting his hand to open it. While he stood there, trying to determine if the slight tug on his attention had come from the force, or from somewhere deep in his mind, Qui-Gon came up behind him, putting both hands on his shoulders, leaning forward to whisper in his ear. "You asked what my mission was." The words were calm and quiet, as though they hadn't come close to arguing just moments ago. "Offworld. Offworld Corporation, and Xanatos."

Obi-Wan drew in a deep breath. Then he just nodded sharply and opened the door. Fortuna was standing outside, a peevish expression on his fungus-pale face, and when Obi-Wan stepped outside, the majordomo merely turned and walked away, clearly expecting him to follow. Obi-Wan waited until he heard the door click shut behind him, then walked after Fortuna. His mind was spinning, turning over Qui-Gon's revelation. After Xanatos' and Offworld Corporation's actions on Bandomeer, it wasn't surprising that the Jedi would take a certain interest in both the man and the company, but Obi-Wan wondered exactly what Qui-Gon had been doing during those seven years, and where the initiative to his mission had come from in the first place.

Jabba's palace was quiet so early in the morning, quiet and dark, shuttered against the early sun as well as the drifting sand that, nevertheless, got in everywhere. Obi-Wan felt it under his feet, hissing under the soles of his boots. The small maintenance droids that whirred along the floors could never keep up, as the sand came whispering through windows and doors and tiny cracks in the walls, day after day. Free of all deliberate purpose, it was nevertheless utterly relentless, and Obi-Wan was reminded of the look in Qui-Gon's eyes. Was it possible to be following the will of the force when you could no longer sense the force?

So, Qui-Gon had been after Xanatos, rogue Xanatos who still carried his lightsaber in defiance of the Jedi, clever Xanatos who had left the order and built a financial empire stretching over a large part of the galaxy. Obi-Wan focused his eyes on one of Fortuna's tentacles. He wasn't going to frown. Obviously, that mission had not been successful. Qui-Gon was here, and Offworld Corporation was still in business, dubious practices and all. Obi-Wan wondered if anyone else had been sent after Xanatos, and failed, or if Qui-Gon's disappearance had discouraged further pursuit.

Jabba's throne room smelled of stale tlao smoke and spilled wine. Looking over Fortuna's shoulder as they entered, Obi-Wan saw that Jabba was up on the dais, sitting there as though he'd never left, seemingly absorbed in choosing the finest among the small yellow-skinned amphibians that crawled over each other in a round glass bowl. When they drew closer, Jabba looked up as if startled and said something, waving a stubby hand at a bench that had been placed in front of the dais. Fortuna looked back over his shoulder. "My master asks you to sit down and make yourself comfortable."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan said, looking straight at Jabba. He sat, wondering if Jabba really thought that a Jedi would be intimidated by something as simple as being seated on a lower level, although there was certainly an unpleasant optical illusion that the great bulk of the Hutt would fall forward and crush anything in its way at any moment. Perhaps it was just habit; Jabba probably did it to everyone.

Jabba spoke again, with his mouth full of amphibian, and Fortuna translated, "My master wishes to know if the pleasure slave was to your liking."

"Yes, very much so," Obi-Wan said at once, still ignoring Fortuna and keeping his eyes on Jabba, despite the tiny yellow leg that was sticking out of the corner of Jabba's mouth. He wasn't going to say anything that Jabba could take as a reason to send Qui-Gon away again. "Will he be at my disposal while I stay here?"

Jabba chuckled, flicking out a few inches of tongue to catch the stray amphibian leg and crunching down on it with slow relish. Only after licking his mouth yet again did he answer, punctuating his reply with more self-satisfied chuckles. "My master says that he will give the slave to you," Fortuna said, "in exchange for a small favor."

Obi-Wan tried not to look as surprised as he felt. It seemed he had misjudged Jabba's motives. This wasn't all about gloating, then; Jabba wanted something. "What kind of favor?"

"My master says," Fortuna paused, and Obi-Wan had time to think that he was growing rather tired of those words, "that he wants you to be present as mediator at a business meeting. Tomorrow. If the meeting goes well, the slave will be yours."

Obi-Wan dropped his eyes for a moment. This combination of blackmail and bribery was probably the only way Jabba could come up with to get a Jedi negotiator to work for him, but it begged the question of why Jabba felt he needed a Jedi in the first place. He looked up again. "And if the meeting does not go well?"

Before Fortuna had even finished translating the question, Jabba bit the head off the next amphibian and crunched it in a pointed manner. Obi-Wan nodded. It was difficult not to get the message. Jabba muttered a few words, once again speaking with his mouth full. "My master says that you will ensure that the meeting goes well, Jedi."

Obi-Wan considered his options. He could explain that it was against the code to use the force in order to manipulate negotiations to one side's advantage, and that the Jedi did not allow themselves to be either blackmailed or bribed into taking sides. Then he'd either get thrown out of the palace, or Jabba would decide to test his resolve, probably by doing something unpleasant to Qui-Gon. It would mean taking immediate action, coming up with some kind of rescue plan off the top of his head. Better to say nothing for the time being, he decided, and give himself until this meeting tomorrow to come up with a plan — and find a way of getting Qui-Gon to go along with the plan, short of hitting him over the head and carrying him off like an unwilling bride in a raid-of-the-Outer-Rim-barbarians holovid.

"Tell me about this meeting," he said. "What will the negotiations be about?"

"You will find out tomorrow," Fortuna said, without even the pretense of consulting Jabba. Jabba was nearly impossible to read, but Fortuna looked a little nervous.

Obi-Wan got to his feet, looking up at Jabba, trying to meet at least one of the large eyes. "How do you expect me to present your side of the argument without any information?"

Jabba leaned forward until Obi-Wan thought he really was going to tip over, and rumbled on at length, without any laughter, then broke off with a sideways glare at Fortuna and tossed the rest of the yellow amphibian into his mouth. "My master says that..." Fortuna fidgeted, and one of his tentacles fell forward. He wrapped it around his neck. "My master feels certain that you will know what to say and what to do when the time comes." Fortuna glanced up at Jabba, and then turned to Obi-Wan. "You are dismissed. Come with me."

Obi-Wan looked at Jabba for a long moment, then followed Fortuna through the hall and back outside. The palace was beginning to wake up; there were footsteps in the distance, clatter and voices. Instead of taking Obi-Wan back to his room, Fortuna led him the shortest route down to the ground level entrance where he had arrived a few days ago. Another guest was taking his speeder out, and the large door slid upwards with a grating sound — sand in the machinery, Obi-Wan diagnosed without difficulty — to let in the sunshine.

When Fortuna slowed down, Obi-Wan stepped up beside him. "I take it I'm not getting any breakfast."

"The slave will be waiting in your room when you return," Fortuna said, flicking his hand towards the speeder Obi-Wan had rented in Mos Espa. He turned to go.

"Wait," Obi-Wan said, putting a bit of force encouragement in his voice. "I would like you to tell me more about this meeting tomorrow."

Fortuna paused. "My master doesn't want me to talk about the meeting."

Obi-Wan lifted his hand, as if to push back his hair, wove the force currents into a simple push, and sent it towards Fortuna. "Tell me what you know about the meeting tomorrow."

"The meeting is important to Jabba," Fortuna said, his eyes slightly glazed.

"Who is Jabba meeting with?"

"A man he has done business with before. He doesn't want to talk about it."

"What is the meeting about? What is the man's name?"

"I don't know. Something to do with the spice trade." Fortuna shifted slightly backwards, and Obi-Wan knew he couldn't keep up the questioning. He relaxed, letting the force pressure dissipate, and nodded as if in thanks when Fortuna gave him a chilly look, turned, and strode off.

Everything on Tatooine had something to do with the spice trade, Obi-Wan mused. The spice trade, or gambling, or both. It was no surprise that the meeting might involve spice. But the real question remained: who was Jabba meeting with, and why did he want a Jedi on his side? Obi-Wan wandered over to his speeder and ran one hand along its scuffed side, feeling the marks of several years' worth of careless rental drivers. The Hutts controlled the planet. Jabba was the most powerful Hutt in the area. Republic law and Republic law enforcers were not welcome here, never had been. For Jabba to make it clear, in his own inimitable way, that he needed a Jedi, indicated a serious problem.

First, Obi-Wan decided, he had to contact the council. There had to be some place in Mos Espa where he could feel reasonably sure that the holotransmissions weren't monitored round the clock by Jabba's staff. Wouldn't take him long to get there... He stopped his hand right over a dent in the side panel, torn between the impulse to laugh and the impulse to scowl. Fortuna had led him here and left him. Jabba had known that Obi-Wan's first decision would be to get out and make a report.

Humor won, and Obi-Wan was smiling faintly as he jumped into the speeder and powered it up, calling out to the droid stationed by the exit to raise the door again. He'd be a fool not to contact the order and tell them about Qui-Gon Jinn just because Jabba expected him to do it. If the upcoming negotiations were a test that he might fail, it was all the more important that someone else should know what was happening here.

The sunshine flooded his eyes with color after the dim corridors of the palace. Heat rolled over him as he came outside, and the glare of the twin suns beat down on him. Not even the full glare, he reminded himself, picking up speed to get a cooler breeze against his face. It was still early; it would get much hotter later in the day. Just as well he wasn't wearing his robe.

It was a strange planet, this, appealing in its own way, with the sand and the rocks and the enormous, brilliant blue sky. There seemed to be more sky on Tatooine than anywhere else in the galaxy, Obi-Wan thought, perhaps because it seemed so large and overwhelming and beautiful contrasted with the flat dreariness of the planet's surface. Tatooine did not look like a planet that would support a crime syndicate; it barely looked as though it would support life at all. And yet there was so much life here, he could feel it, all around. Life, and the force, warm as the sunshine, dancing all around him. Obi-Wan touched the speeder controls with a light hand, went a little faster, and felt the wind tug at his hair.

This mission was turning out to be very different from what he had expected. When he'd been given his initial briefing, he'd speculated that there was some connection to the spice trade, perhaps that Jabba wanted information on whether the Jedi were planning to move on the smugglers who brought spice in from the rim worlds to the planets of the Republic. Never in his wildest dreams had he thought he would come across Qui-Gon Jinn again, much less find himself in a situation where he had to have sex with the man.

That was a little odd, too, Obi-Wan thought. If Jabba wanted to use Qui-Gon's enslavement as a way of blackmailing Obi-Wan into doing what Jabba wanted, surely a simple threat of violence to the helpless man would have been sufficient? The pleasure slave setup seemed unnecessarily complicated, unless the reason was only that it appealed to Jabba's perverse sense of humor and desire to demonstrate his power over Qui-Gon, and to some extent Obi-Wan. It could, Obi-Wan admitted, be intended purely to humiliate them. Jabba didn't know very much about the Jedi, after all.

When Obi-Wan reached Mos Espa, he took the speeder down to the spaceport district and parked it in the rental company's lot, where company security guards would keep an eye on it. Before he left the speeder, he took off his sash, utility belt, and outer tunic, put his belt on again, and the tunic over that, held together with the sash. There was no point to flashing a lightsaber around unless he had to, in this place. Checking that he could still get at the 'saber easily enough, Obi-Wan jumped out of the speeder and set off to explore Mos Espa on foot.

He hadn't seen much of the town on his arrival, except to note that it was very small for a place that boasted a spaceport. All the buildings were low, seemingly huddled together under the big bright sky, many of them painted a stark white that the sun rendered glaringly unpleasant. On the narrow dirt streets, pack animals nosed at the sleeves of offworlders in expensive environmental suits, while the occasional cargo freighter took off from the port, streaking a white vapor trail across the dome of cloudless blue.

Obi-Wan walked down to hangar five and slipped inside, avoiding the spaceport officials who had just collared a scruffy-looking woman in tattered coveralls and were accusing her of trying to dodge out of her docking fees. His ship was waiting where he'd left it, a small Ya'an Arrow that looked like scrap metal held together with rusty nails and flew like a dream. Going around it, he checked that no one had tried to tamper with the locking mechanisms or with his force shields. Everything was in order.

Of course, the way the Arrow looked, no one would want to tamper with it. When Obi-Wan had tracked down the saboteurs that had attempted to blow up the Ya'an Corporation's main factory during a tour for three visiting planetary leaders, Ya'an's grateful president had tried to give him a few battle cruisers as a reward. Obi-Wan wasn't certain how the ensuing explanations and negotiations had led to him being offered the Arrow as a permanent loan, instead, but he was definitely grateful to Master Windu for managing it. A small, fast, unobtrusive ship was certainly much more useful to a Jedi than a battle cruiser, most of the time.

He considered going into the ship to use the holotransmitter in the cockpit, but the crew over by the hangar entrance had let go of the woman and were starting to look his way, and there was a much higher docking fee if one wanted access to the ship between docking and takeoff. Paying for a call somewhere else in Mos Espa would be cheaper, Obi-Wan knew, and he didn't feel motivated to persuade the spaceport workers into making an exception from their unreasonable and exorbitant fee system just for him. Besides, he'd sealed the lock with an extra twist of the force, a fairly complicated piece of work that could be undone easily enough, but would take time and effort to reset.

Not worth the trouble, he decided, and walked away from the ship again, tugging on the hem of his outer shirt with one hand to make sure it covered his lightsaber. His intention was to keep a low profile around Mos Espa. Obi-Wan nodded politely to the hangar crew as he passed them again and went back out into the street, where he followed a few freighter loaders who seemed to be coming off their shift. They led him to a street lined with cantinas and food stalls; Obi-Wan paused and sniffed the air, trying to find something edible. The first thing he saw was a selection of the same amphibians Jabba had been enjoying for breakfast. At least these were grilled, not raw.

About halfway down the street, he found a seat under a makeshift awning and ordered a simple meal, mixed vegetable mush and bread. Obi-Wan ate slowly, listening to the conversation around him, which was carried on in a number of different languages. Most of it seemed to center around podraces, working hours, and the possibility of giving up life in the city and becoming a moisture farmer instead. When a sleek, predatory-looking being of a species Obi-Wan had never seen before passed in the street, the conversation grew hushed for a moment, and then resumed with greater fervor. So, that was one of those lunatics who risked his life on the podracing circuit. Someone had lost money on him, someone else had won, yet another someone just wanted to gripe about overtime and a projected increase in port traffic coming up.

Obi-Wan leaned back in the shade with his bowl of mush. He rather liked the small-town air that Mos Espa projected, even though he knew the place was larger than its low houses and primitive streets made it seem. A group of children ran by in the street, laughing, and one of the port workers called out a friendly comment to them. Nice. At moments like this, it was almost possible to forget about the spice trade and the slavery and the desert raiders and the gambling fever.

The water he'd ordered with his meal was stale, tasting of the metal container it had been tapped from. Obi-Wan drank it anyway. This climate leeched moisture from the body. The loaders were drinking challa tea, which encouraged water retention and provided an energy boost, and did long-term damage to the kidneys. More people on Tatooine were addicted to challa than spice.

Someone had heard a rumor about double shifts. Someone else said there were always rumors about large trade deals. Obi-Wan began to listen more closely, wondering if it had anything to do with Jabba's upcoming business meeting, but the conversation drifted on to other subjects.

While he was mopping up the last of the mush with the last of the bread, the port loaders finished their tea and got up to leave. The last thing Obi-Wan heard was a comment about the brand new Ya'an luxury cruiser that had docked early the same morning. He wondered if it was the same model as the prototype he'd seen during his mission. It had been an amazing piece of work, combining the best of military strength with the best of civilian luxury. Maybe he should have held out for one of those instead of the Arrow, Obi-Wan thought with a wry smile, then downed the last of his water and got to his feet as well.

He wished Qui-Gon had been a little more forthcoming with information. Walking briskly along the street, keeping an eye open for a place that displayed the sign that would indicate a public holocomm facility, Obi-Wan wondered where Watto the junk dealer conducted his business, and how he was going to ask to meet two of the man's slaves. Not that he knew exactly what he was going to do when he did meet them, either. Take a look at the boy, and then what? Unless Obi-Wan could prove that the boy wasn't force-sensitive, he didn't see how he could convince Qui-Gon that this Anakin was not the chosen one. And if Qui-Gon loved the woman, as he had said he did, there was no way he was going to want to leave her behind.

Obi-Wan felt his brows draw together and worked consciously at relaxing them. He slowed his pace. There was room aboard the Arrow for two more, easily enough room if one was a small child, but that didn't change the fact that he had no idea how to get them free. He needed to talk to the council, he decided, and get some advice on how to proceed both with the question of the two other slaves and with Jabba's attempt at getting a Jedi negotiator of his very own. Dodging around three eerily silent Jawas, he rounded the next corner and found himself on a larger thoroughfare, where a caravan of huge pack beasts was going by, their regular tread sending vibrations up through his feet and straight into his skull.

Obi-Wan paused to watch them. They were surprisingly shaggy animals for such a hot climate, he thought. One of the beasts was shaking its head fractiously. Fur hung down into its eyes, all the way down to distended nostrils, and as it came closer Obi-Wan saw that it was snorting white foam. That couldn't be normal. None of the other animals were doing it. No one else appeared to be paying attention; people were moving past the animals, intent on their own business. The big beast's next step was a staggering sideways lurch, barely missing the Jawas, who had followed and passed Obi-Wan. They scurried away. Obi-Wan began to walk closer. He looked around for whoever was in charge of the caravan, but saw no one. The handler must be up by the lead animal.

A deep honking sound, like a distressed brass instrument, called Obi-Wan's attention back to the animal, and he saw it stagger in the opposite direction now, and then toss its head more violently, stamping its front hooves, shaking all along its long body. The people in the street were finally noticing that something was wrong, shoving at each other to get out of the way. With another trumpeting distress cry the beast reared up, and Obi-Wan saw that there was a woman on the other side who was being pushed forward as others hurried to get clear. The pack animal, unbalanced by its burden and by whatever was wrong with it, was beginning to lurch, about to fall.

Running forward, full tilt, Obi-Wan dove under the flailing hooves, rolled, came to his feet by the woman's side and put his arm around her waist, sweeping her along. Her weight slowed him down, but he compensated with the force, managing a few more swift steps so that when the beast crashed down on its side, shaking the ground, its fur barely brushed the edge of the woman's long skirt. Dust rose in a heavy cloud. All the other pack beasts had begun bleating. The woman sneezed.

Obi-Wan brushed dust and grit out of his eyes with the sleeve of his free arm, and then put the woman down. She was short, but sturdy, and under the tan dust her hair appeared to be dark. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Yes." There was a pause as she shook her skirts and picked up the bag that had slid from her shoulder; it had been flung forward by their momentum, or it would have been lying under the large bulk of the animal. "Yes, I am fine."

"Good." Obi-Wan put a hand on the beast. Its life force was ebbing out fast, huge ribcage heaving with shuddering breaths. He sent a questioning force tendril into the big body, looking for the source of the problem.

A burly man came running down the street from the head of the caravan, carrying a heavy barbed pike in one hand. "Hey!" he yelled. "What're you doing to my khant?"

Obi-Wan waited until the man had reached them and come to a halt before he answered, "Your khant nearly killed this lady." The animal spasmed, almost rolling over onto his feet. "I believe it's suffering from severe dehydration. If you treated your animals better, perhaps they wouldn't die in the middle of the street."

"How I treat my animals is my business." The man looked past Obi-Wan at the woman. "But I guess I'm lucky I didn't end up owing Watto even more. Hey, tell him I'll be by in a few days." He turned to kick at the khant, which responded with a faint fading bleat. "Now I gotta get this out of the street."

"And you might consider apologizing to the lady," Obi-Wan said. The pain of the dying khant slid over his force-sensitized nerves like the rasp of a file.

The man looked over his shoulder, a blank stare. "Apologize to her?" He snorted. "And to the ground for landing a khant on it as well? Get out of my way, I got work to do."

Obi-Wan was about to phrase his request more strongly, when he saw in the corner of his eye that the woman was shaking her head, a 'let it go' message in her dark gaze. He turned to her instead, taking in the way she stood, the look on her face. It reminded him of something, though he couldn't pin it down. "Are you certain you're all right, ma'am — I'm sorry, I don't believe I caught your name."

"Shmi Skywalker," she said, looking a little amused. "I'm fine. Thank you for what you did." She hitched the bag up as it began to slide off her shoulder. "I must go. Watto doesn't like it when I'm late."

"I'll walk with you," Obi-Wan said instantly, falling into step beside her when she began to walk down the street. The force must have guided him in more ways than just allowing him to be in the right place to save a life. Her name was Shmi, and she had a connection with Watto. Hopefully, neither name was particularly common on Tatooine. "Shmi Skywalker, do you have a son named Anakin?"

"Yes." This time her look was faintly concerned. She shook the sand off her skirt with one hand as she walked. "Have you met him? What has he done now?"

"I haven't met him. Qui-Gon Jinn told me about you and your son."

They rounded a corner, leaving the caravan and the dying khant behind, although Obi-Wan could still sense its death struggles, growing progressively fainter. It was quieter here, and Obi-Wan listened to his own words. What was he going to say to this woman? Qui-Gon thinks I should free you, but I disagree? Qui-Gon thinks your son is the chosen one, a Jedi legend, so I'd like to take a look at him before I come to a decision?

"You are a friend of Qui-Gon's?" Her voice changed. Her face changed. Turning his head, Obi-Wan looked at her, really looked, took her in again beyond the quietness and the dusty clothes and the lopsided knot of dark braids at the back of her head. This time he saw that look on her face for what it was: the same serenity, the same strong calm, that he'd seen in Qui-Gon's eyes last night. Briefly, he wondered who had taught it to whom. "Then I am doubly pleased to meet you. How is he? It has been some time since he could come to visit."

It occurred to Obi-Wan that the least he could have done was to ask Qui-Gon if he had any messages for this woman. He had hoped that he'd be able to bring Qui-Gon himself to Mos Espa, though. As it was, all he could think to say at first was, "He is well." The details of how he had found out Qui-Gon's state of health were not something he cared to go into at the moment.

They walked on in silence for a while. Then Shmi said, "You are not a slave. Have you come for Qui-Gon, to free him?"

Instead of considering his answer, he just said, "Yes. If I can."

She nodded. "Good." Shmi began to shift her bag from one shoulder to the other; it looked to be heavy, and Obi-Wan reached out to pluck it from her grasp, shouldering it himself. There were hard sharp edges in there, one of which immediately started digging into his kidney. "This is not his place."

"No," Obi-Wan agreed. He watched Shmi as she led him along the narrow street, watched her short measured steps and the slope of her neck and shoulders, graceful without being bowed. It seemed as though the force slowed down around her, was quieted by her presence. At least marginally sensitive, then, and probably not aware of it. On an impulse, he brushed up against her, touching her force aura with his own.

Shmi turned her head and looked at him. "My place is with my son," she said, as if answering a question. "And you haven't found yours yet." Then she walked on.

Obi-Wan followed, feeling suddenly breathless and a little uncomfortable. It was no wonder, he thought, that Qui-Gon loved this woman.

The suns were higher in the sky now, and when they stepped from the shade of a wall into the sunlit center of the street, the heat fell like the lash of a whip on Obi-Wan's skin, sharp and burning. He thought that perhaps he should have worn his cloak after all. He couldn't even afford the luxury of wishing for a breeze; when the wind rose, it only blew sandstorms over Tatooine, not cool relief. A shifting dune could bury a house, a whole quarter of buildings. Sweat began to trickle down his sides, soaking into his inner shirt, and he spent a moment trying to coax his body into adjusting better to the climate. He didn't want to end up like the khant.

They were on a street in the commercial district now, where merchants sold most things from moisture farming equipment to sand-flea ointment to seden fruit. Obi-Wan looked around, seeing the crowds, the way people moved. Trade seemed to be flourishing. He turned his head in time to see Shmi walk through the low door of a storefront and followed her inside, into the cool, cluttered interior of Watto's junk shop.

It was a dimly lit cave of a place, and he blinked, letting his eyes adjust. Parts, as well as assembled mechanical items, were strewn everywhere in no noticeable order, and there was an open doorway at the opposite end of the room, probably leading out into a storage yard. On the left, a counter ran along part of the wall, and Obi-Wan put Shmi's bag down on it between a pile of half-rusted gears and a box full of nailgun cartridges. Shmi took a couple of steps forward and smiled. "Ani, come out. You shouldn't leave the shop unattended."

A boy rose from behind the counter. Even in the low light, his blond hair shone, and there was a white gleam of teeth as he smiled back, looking a little embarrassed. "I was looking for the ten-wedge grips. I knew it was you, Mom." He came around the counter with an eager bounce in his step and stumbled on a box on the floor, righting himself with something that Obi-Wan recognized as half natural balance, half force assistance. That certainly answered that question. Turning towards Obi-Wan, he said, "Can I help you, sir?"

Shmi also turned towards Obi-Wan. "This is my son, Anakin," she said, her voice full of love edged with the faintest worry. "Ani, this is a friend of Qui-Gon's."

"My name is Obi-Wan."

"Pleased to meet you!" Anakin said cheerfully and came forward to clasp Obi-Wan's hand, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

The boy had a pleasant, open face, marred by a scar that twisted along the right side of his jaw and partway down his throat. He had the awkward arm and leg length of someone who had been doing a great deal of very fast growing; Obi-Wan thought he looked to be in his early teens measured in standard years. That was entirely disconcerting. Obi-Wan had been expecting a small child, a toddler, not a boy who was probably too old to be chosen as a padawan, and with no training whatsoever. Qui-Gon knew very well that Jedi training had to begin in early childhood.

"I have fifteen of the new components," Shmi said, opening the bag, "unless they broke when I dropped the bag. I must ask Watto how soon he needs the other twenty."

"He's out," Anakin said, turning away from Obi-Wan to help his mother unpack the bag. "He got a message about someone wanting to see him about... something," Anakin shrugged with a quick smile. Looking at Obi-Wan again, he went on, "How is Qui-Gon? Is he all right? How do you know him? I've never seen you before. You're not from around here, are you?"

"Ani," Shmi said, chiding mildly.

"No, I'm not," Obi-Wan said, answering the last question first. There was something very engaging about Anakin, but at the same time, also something that disturbed him. Or perhaps he'd just picked up on the slight worry in Shmi's demeanor, without even knowing what she was worried about. "I knew Qui-Gon a long time ago, when I was no older than you are now, but I've never been to Tatooine before."

"Oh." Anakin scratched at his chin, stared at Obi-Wan, and then looked lower, at Obi-Wan's hip. "You're a Jedi knight, aren't you." It wasn't a question, and when Obi-Wan looked down, he saw that his outer shirt had become disarranged when he'd carried the bag; the handle of his lightsaber was showing.

"Yes," he said, seeing no point in trying to deny it.

Anakin's eyes lit up. He jumped up to sit on the counter, shoving the box of cartridges aside. "Have you come to free Qui-Gon? Have you come to free the slaves?"

For a moment, Obi-Wan had an inner vision of the two of them, Shmi and Anakin, sitting together in the evenings, in the mornings, during the long hot days, talking about freedom, wondering if Tatooine would ever be different, if the galaxy would ever be different, if anything would ever change. It made his throat burn, and he was irrationally furious at Qui-Gon for putting him in this situation. But although Anakin's words echoed Shmi's, there was a different thrust to them. Shmi's visions of change were peaceful, but Anakin sounded as though he wanted things to happen. He sounded so young.

"What I came for and what I will do may not be the same thing," Obi-Wan said. "But a single Jedi does not have either the authority or the ability to free all the slaves of Tatooine."

"Someone should," Anakin said, drumming his heels against the side of the counter. "It's wrong. Someone should do something about it, and about the spice trade, and the water cartels! What good is being a Jedi if you can't help people?"

"We can help people," Obi-Wan said. "But we don't have the right to decide for them what we're going to help them with. We go where we have been asked to go." As an explanation both of the Jedi order's charter, and of the Republic's policy when sending the Jedi on missions, it was so woefully inadequate that it made his head hurt, but it was, as far as it went, true. They went where they were asked to go. And sometimes what they were asked to do when they got there was sadly insufficient, but that didn't change the fact that they could not, by virtue of having abilities others didn't, decide right and wrong for the entire galaxy.

"Slaves," Anakin spat out, "don't have the right to ask for help."

"I know that." Less than five minutes, and the boy was already losing his temper. What was Qui-Gon thinking? That Anakin was force-sensitive seemed certain enough, but then, so was Shmi, and of the two of them, she appeared more temperamentally suited to the life of a Jedi, despite being much too old, rather than just a little too old. "And Jedi knights do not have the right to start revolutions."

"Qui-Gon says that the Jedi fight to protect the weak and uphold justice in the galaxy."

"Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan said, mentally consigning Qui-Gon to the ice caves of Hoth, "is right, but he oversimplifies. Bad things happen all the time, all over the galaxy, and we can't be everywhere."

"But now you're here." Anakin jumped down from the counter again and took a step forward. "If I were like you, if I could do what you can do, I would, I would—"

Obi-Wan lifted his chin a fraction, looking down at Anakin. "You would do what?"

"Everything!" Anakin burst out. He was flushing with emotion, and the scar stood out on his fair skin, a scarlet stripe. "Something, anything, it's not right to let us live like this. It's not right for things to be like this."

"Ani." Shmi touched the boy's shoulder, stroked soothingly down his back. "You cannot just struggle in all directions at once, like a widgecat in a trap."

"You don't struggle at all!" Anakin said hotly. "You just wait for things to happen, and they never do! I'm going to make enough money to free us both, and then—" He broke off, looking his mother in the eye, and then looked down.

"Your dreams are too big for your life just yet," Shmi whispered.

Anakin raised a hand, tentatively, and put it on his mother's arm. "I'm sorry, Mom," he said. Shmi put her hand over his, and they stood like that for a while. Obi-Wan tried to be invisible. When Anakin looked up, his eyes were clear and light once again. He turned his head to look at Obi-Wan. "I'm sorry, sir."

Obi-Wan just nodded and tugged his shirt back into place. The lightsaber was a comforting weight at his hip, much lighter than the weight of the rights and responsibilities it brought with it. Stepping forward, he began to help Shmi unpack her bag, setting down a row of small speeder engine components on the counter in the space Anakin had left free. One, at the bottom of the bag, had broken, and the individual parts were bent beyond repair. Shmi sighed a little at it and handed it to Anakin, who turned it over carefully, and then shook his head and went and put it in a bin of scrap metal in the corner.

"When will Watto be back?" Shmi asked. "Perhaps I can bring another component this afternoon. He said he needed them today for a repair project."

"I don't know." Anakin looked unconcerned. "He said it might take a while. It's been very slow here this morning, though. I've been out there," he waved his hand at the back door, "working on the pod."

A shadow went over Shmi's face. Obi-Wan looked towards the sunny rectangle of the back door and tried to make out anything outside it through the glare of light. "Are you repairing a racing pod?"

"No, I'm building one. Come and look!" Anakin picked up the ten-wedge grip he'd been looking for before and went to the back door, throwing an eager look over his shoulder. Obi-Wan followed him, and after a moment, so did Shmi.

The back lot was larger than one might have expected from the size of the shop, and full of junk. In a carefully cleared area in the middle sat a racing pod, a rather small and battered-looking one, constructed to accommodate a relatively short racing pilot. Anakin went around it to where one of the side plates was propped open and tapped with the wedge grip at something that clanked hollowly.

"I would say that you have built one," Obi-Wan said. He went closer to study it. It was made of used parts, hence the battered appearance, but very carefully put together; solid work, Obi-Wan thought, running his fingers down a tightly welded seam. Solid, but unprepossessing. "I'm not sure it will sell, though. I thought podracers preferred flashier equipages."

"We're not selling it." Anakin's head appeared over the other side of the pod; there was a smear of grease on one cheek now, and he looked intent and happy. "I'm going to race it. There's a big race the day after tomorrow. If you're still here, you can come and watch."

"You race pods?" Obi-Wan kept the surprise out of his voice, but only just. He'd seen a holo of the podraces on Malastaire once, watched the pods sweep at tremendous speed over the treacherous racing course. It was fast and it was dangerous, requiring reflexes far above what most humans could muster. "That must be quite difficult."

"Yes." A trace of smugness crept into Anakin's voice. "I'm the only human who can do it."

"It's because you can sense things before they happen, isn't it," Obi-Wan said, considering it as he spoke. "You feel as though you're being guided by something." Not only force sensitive, then, but very powerfully gifted, to have survived so far, to have taken part in a podrace relying on the force to guide him and with no real training in its use. Obi-Wan wondered what the boy would have been able to do if he had been trained in the temple from an early age.

"Qui-Gon says I should trust it," Anakin said.

Qui-Gon would say that, Obi-Wan thought. Although as advice to a force-sensitive boy for living through a podrace, it was undoubtedly sensible. It made him wonder if Qui-Gon had already begun, in some ways, to try to teach Anakin. With Anakin so old, and their meetings of necessity not too frequent, and Qui-Gon force blind... Quite apart from going against Jedi precepts, it was an impossible endeavor. "What else does Qui-Gon say?"

"Lots of things." Anakin disappeared again, and there was a squeaking sound of metal working on oil-slick metal. "About how everything is connected, and he knows — ungh! — the greatest stories, about other planets and stuff." A clank, and the thud of something falling to the ground.

Obi-Wan sauntered slowly around the back of the pod, running a hand over the sun-hot metal. Building a functional racing pod was a remarkable achievement for someone as young as Anakin. It was impossible to doubt that the pod was entirely Anakin's work; when Obi-Wan sought deeper, below the surface, he could sense the boy's force signature all through the construction, saturating it so strongly that it tingled against Obi-Wan's fingertips. He walked up to Anakin, who had propped up one of the side plates and was halfway into the interior of the pod, tugging at something.

Looking over Anakin's shoulder, Obi-Wan resisted the temptation to help the boy out with the ten-wedge grip, which was a little too large for his hands, and instead said, "Those coils are fairly loose, compared to a speeder engine construction."

"I know," Anakin's voice echoed weirdly from inside the pod, as though he were wearing a metal helmet. "But with tighter coils, they overheat really fast, and then you need a much bigger cooling system."

Obi-Wan nodded, although Anakin couldn't see him. The design of this pod was very pared down, minimalistic. "That would make the pod too heavy?"

"Yeah," Anakin confirmed, and wriggled backwards until he could stand up straight again. "That and it's just one more thing that can go wrong." He grinned and wiped at the smear on his nose with his sleeve. "Some of the racers build bigger pods with bigger, stronger engines so they can handle the extra weight, but I don't think that's a good idea."

"Why not?" Obi-Wan bent down to look inside the pod. There was a heavy smell of engine grease and combustion fuel. "A stronger engine gives you more speed."

"Some." Anakin sounded as though he were still swiping at his nose. "But speed isn't everything in podracing. The bigger pods don't handle so well, and when you're racing on a course with a lot of tight spots, you have to be able to turn like that," Anakin snapped his fingers. "The bigger pods can take the lead out in the open, but then they get into the narrow canyons and crash. They're fast, but they don't fly so good."

"I see." Obi-Wan tapped a finger against the coils. "You could use a little more tension here. Give me the ten-wedge grip." He reached back with one hand and felt the grip press into his palm. "Thank you."

The grip fit his hand much better than Anakin's, and it was easy work to tighten the coil bolts until the coils sang with just the right pitch of tension. Emerging into bright sunlight again, he saw that Anakin was looking at him, head cocked. "I thought you didn't know a lot about pods."

"I don't. But I do know a few things about engines." He found it relaxing to do all the work on the Arrow himself, including mechanical tune-up and repairs. Working with his hands freed his mind to think of other things. It even made it easier for him, paradoxically, to connect to the living force.

"Great! Let me see what it looks like." Anakin pressed past Obi-Wan and ducked his head slightly to get under the raised plate. "I really wish Watto had a set of smaller grips." The boy's voice echoed hollowly from the inside of the pod.

All at once Obi-Wan felt the force stir, sweep past him like the heavy wing-beat of a large black bird, darkening the sky. He could see nothing, was blind to both time and space. The world did not lie against his skin. Heavy, wheezing breaths sounded in his ears, and the sound was painful to him, bone pain, the pain of failure. There was a flare of red light. Obi-Wan heard his own voice say, sadly, Only a master of evil.

He felt dizzy. Dropped back abruptly into his body, he staggered, and steadied himself with a hand against the side of the pod. When he could focus again, he met Shmi's eyes across the pod; she had stepped forward from the doorway and was watching him with intent concern. "Are you all right?"

"Yes." He glanced to the side to find that Anakin was also watching him, looking more perplexed than worried. Anakin's eyes were very clear, like the sky. Obi-Wan collected himself, setting his strange experience aside for the moment and concentrating on what he saw when Shmi looked at him. "I'm fine."

After holding Obi-Wan's eyes a moment longer, Shmi shifted her gaze to Anakin. "Ani, I must go. When Watto comes back, tell him that I will bring another component later this afternoon in place of the one that got broken."

"Yes, mom."

"And remember that you are watching the shop. Don't spend all your time out here working on the pod."

Anakin rolled his eyes. "You know I'll notice if anyone comes in, Mom. I'll be paying attention, I promise." He turned the ten-wedge grip over in his hands. "And Watto knows I'm working on the pod."

Shmi nodded, but she didn't look entirely satisfied. She smoothed at her skirt, brushing out the last of the sand and dust that had caught there, stirred up by the khant's fall.

Obi-Wan walked back around the pod again, catching her eye. "You are leaving?" She nodded. "If it's not too badly out of your way, could you show me where the nearest public holocomm facility is?"

"Of course," she said, shaking out her skirt a final time. "I would be glad to help you. Anakin, I will see you later today." Shmi turned and went into the shop.

Obi-Wan paused, half turned to look at the boy by the pod. The back yard was bathed in hot light, and he could barely recapture the sensation of darkness, cold, fear. The jagged pieces of scrap metal stacked all around looked harmless. "I believe we will meet again, Anakin Skywalker." Unwilling to meet Anakin's eyes any longer, he followed Shmi through the junk shop and out into the street on the other side.

The bustling street life of the commercial district surrounded him with the sensations of normal, everyday activity, clearing the last lingering sensations of the vision from his mind. Once again he adjusted his brisker steps to Shmi's shorter ones and walked beside her along the line of storefronts and awning-shielded stalls. He studied the wares on display, trying to see a pattern, but when breathing masks were followed by gloves and cooking pots, he shook his head and gave it up. Shmi hitched the shoulder bag up with a one-sided shrug, and it brushed against his arm.

"I'm sorry," she said.

Obi-Wan smiled at her and shook his head, disavowing the necessity for an apology. "Does Watto often leave Anakin to mind the shop?"

"Sometimes."

"He must trust you and Anakin a lot." Trust, between Tatooine slaves and slave owners, came enforced with a transmitter that could cause instant death. Nevertheless, Shmi and Anakin seemed to have a great deal of autonomy. Looking at Shmi, Obi-Wan could see how anyone might easily come to trust her; her presence was so honest. Surely it must be clear even to those who couldn't sense her in the force.

"Watto is kind," Shmi said seriously. "Considerate. He will give Anakin an afternoon to himself if business is slow and lets him take scrap parts to play with."

"Enough parts to build a racing pod?"

She looked away for a while, unnecessarily adjusting the shoulder strap of the bag. Fidgeting, in Shmi, seemed so unexpected that Obi-Wan sharpened his attention. "No, not this time. Ani thinks of the pod as his, but he is building it for Watto, and he will be racing it for Watto. He wants us to bet all our savings on the race, on him, so that we can buy our freedom."

Obi-Wan didn't know exactly what a slave's freedom was worth here on Tatooine. He didn't know how much money a slave might have to bet with, either. He didn't want to ask. The awkwardness of being free, the embarrassment and guilt of it that Anakin had tried and failed to trigger, woke in him at the simple longing in Shmi's voice. His lightsaber seemed heavier than ever before. He turned the next corner at Shmi's silent prompting and said, "So he had his own pod once." She nodded. "Was that how he got the scar?" Obi-Wan's fingers wandered along his own jaw.

"Yes. There was a big race on Boonta Eve, three years ago. Another racer cut him off, and he crashed. He was lucky," Shmi said, her voice trembling with subdued fierceness. "Many podracers die, or are permanently injured. Whenever he races... my heart is dying piece by piece."

She stopped, and Obi-Wan stopped with her, putting a hand on her arm. For once the living force was in harmony with him — or perhaps with her — and without really trying he could sense her pain, and the depth of her love for her son. Pain and love flowed together like the blue and green waves of a vast ocean. She was water in the desert. Obi-Wan blinked, shook his head to clear it. Looking over Shmi's shoulder, he saw that they were standing in front of a cantina, and there was a public holocomm sign by the door. He pressed her arm a little harder before letting go. "Thank you for showing me the way here."

"People should help each other," she said, and looked up at him. "I must ask you one thing. About Qui-Gon."

"Yes?"

Shmi spoke slowly. "Will the Jedi take him — back?"

"We will be glad to have him back," Obi-Wan said. "We've searched for him for years." Belatedly, he realized that that had not, perhaps, been exactly what she had asked him.

But she nodded, and smiled a little. "Then I am glad, also." Her lips did not tremble, nor did her voice. "Tell him that I am thinking of him."

"I will," Obi-Wan said, and found that he was speaking to her disappearing back. He stood where he was and watched her walk away down the street, step by careful step, getting out of everyone's way.

When he could no longer make her out in the crowd, he turned towards the cantina and checked quickly that his 'saber was still hidden. A few lazy drinkers sat outside, lounging at sturdy tables, but when Obi-Wan walked through the door, he found the interior almost empty of everything save dust motes, shadows, and a pervasive smell of stale sweat and intoxicants. Even so, it was cleaner and more decent-looking than all the other cantinas he'd seen in Mos Espa.

The bartender directed him to the holobooths at the back. The first was broken, the second took only local currency, but the third accepted his credit chip. While he waited for the call to go through, he rolled his shoulders back, trying to dispel a lingering tension. He might have slept wrong, with Qui-Gon taking up so much room in the bed. The holo clicked and whirred, and a blurry image jumped into existence in front of him, glaring at him with its one good eye.

Obi-Wan knew that glare of old and wasn't intimidated. He inclined his head respectfully. "Master Piell. I have news, and I wish to ask the Council's advice."

Even Piell snorted. "Just because you've got this comm code, that doesn't mean you get to use it every time you run into a problem. Is it really that important?"

"I believe it is." Obi-Wan marshaled his thoughts. He had not used this particular comm code lightly. "Jabba the Hutt did have an ulterior motive in wanting to discuss business with a Jedi; he wishes to blackmail me into using the force on his behalf, and—"

"So?" Even Piell broke in. "You've been in situations before where someone's tried to use you. What makes this so different?"

"What makes this different, Master Piell, is that the instrument of blackmail is Qui-Gon Jinn."

Even Piell leaned forward, his gaze pinning Obi-Wan in place over the light years. "Jinn? He knows something about Jinn?"

"Qui-Gon Jinn is here," Obi-Wan said simply, and sat back even before Master Piell held up a hand and told him to wait, and waved at someone out of range of the pickup to come and join him, and thumped a fist against his knee in slow astonishment.

The holoimage grew wider, and after a little while Obi-Wan was facing not just Even Piell, but also Yoda and Mace Windu. Piell was scowling, Windu looked intent, and Yoda... One ear was up, one down, and Obi-Wan sat up as straight as he could, bowed his head again, and then looked at them and waited for the questions. It was Yoda who began. "Found Qui-Gon, have you?"

"Yes," Obi-Wan confirmed. "He is a slave in Jabba's palace." Even with the bad holocomm reception, he thought he could hear a sucked-in breath, though he couldn't tell whose it was. "I didn't get to see him until last night, but it appears that he has been there for some time." He knew far too little, he realized, about how Qui-Gon had ended up where he was. "He has been implanted with a slave transmitter and a force inhibitor device. Any attempt to remove the inhibitor will cause the transmitter to explode. And any attempt to remove Qui-Gon from the palace without deactivating the transmitter—"

Obi-Wan let his closed hand bloom open. Yoda's eyelids drooped.

"You mentioned blackmail before," Even Piell said. "What does Jabba the Hutt want you to do, and how does it relate to Jinn's presence?"

"Jabba has a business meeting planned for tomorrow, and he wishes me to use a force suggestion to ensure that the meeting goes to his liking. If I do, he has said that he will deactivate the transmitter and give Master Jinn to me."

Piell shook his head. "Why don't you just take Jinn and get out of there? You have a ship."

"Not without knowing how to deactivate the transmitter," Master Windu said firmly. "We can't risk Qui-Gon's life like that now that we've found him again."

"Turn it off with the force, you could," Yoda suggested.

"I can't touch Master Jinn with the force," Obi-Wan said. "Not while he's wearing the force inhibitor. It works both ways. Besides, there is an additional problem." All three of them looked at him, and he reminded himself that he was a knight on a mission, not a padawan who had dyed Master Yaddle's tunics bright pink. He straightened his spine. "Master Jinn refuses to leave without two other slaves who live here in Mos Espa. A boy and his mother. Master Jinn believes that the boy is the Chosen One."

Even through the distance that the holotransmission and their Jedi composure lent the three Council members, Obi-Wan could tell that they were a little disconcerted. It cheered him a little, perversely, to be able to share the headache that Qui-Gon had given him. Finally Mace Windu asked, "And what do you believe?"

"I don't know, Master Windu," Obi-Wan said honestly. After a brief inner debate, he added, "I had a vision."

"Of what?" Yoda's ears rose a notch. It was Yoda who had taught Obi-Wan to recognize precognitive dreams and force-visions for what they were, given him the tools to handle and interpret them.

"I'm not entirely sure. A vision of darkness, and it involved the boy. I have the feeling that he is dangerous." Saying that, Obi-Wan felt oddly as though he were betraying Qui-Gon. But it was true; Anakin made him uneasy. "I think perhaps I need to meditate further on it."

"What you need to do is to get Jinn out of there," Piell said.

Mace Windu nodded agreement, though he looked more cautious. "Your first priority is Qui-Gon Jinn," he said. "If Jabba will really give him to you—"

"Use the force for the Hutt's gain, you think he should?" Yoda's voice was very dry. "Already does Jabba have a Jedi as a slave. A Jedi who works for him, he does not also need."

"We don't know that it would stop there," Even Piell said. "Jabba could try to string Kenobi along. One more negotiation before Jinn is freed, and then it'll be one more deal to be closed or Jinn will be tortured, and so on. The Hutts are treacherous, and they like to watch their enemies squirm. I'm surprised Jabba hasn't tried to humiliate the pair of them already in some way."

"He has," Obi-Wan said. "Master Jinn was presented to me as a pleasure slave, and it was made clear that unless he pleased me, he would be punished — tortured, essentially."

The three of them looked at him again, but he was more prepared for it this time. Yoda raised an ear. "Understand the Jedi, Jabba does not."

"No, he doesn't," Obi-Wan agreed. "That is why he believes that I am going to negotiate on his behalf tomorrow. If nothing else, it has bought me some time." He fought the urge to tuck a stray strand of hair back behind his ear. One did not fidget in front of the Council. "I suspect that it may be a particularly important business deal."

"Find out what you can." Mace Windu crossed his arms and looked serious.

"Take Jinn and get out of there," Piell growled.

"Listen to the force," Yoda said. "Lead you right, it will." Something very like a smile wrinkled Yoda's face. "And bring Qui-Gon back to us."

"Yes, masters." Obi-Wan bent his head again in respectful acknowledgement, and the transmission ended in a flicker of static. He flicked off the transmitter on his side and picked his card out of the slot, looking at the readout. There were enough credits left for a few more calls, should it prove necessary. The lack of specific orders from the Council was at once unsettling and exhilarating. He was on his own.

No, he wasn't on his own. He had Qui-Gon to consider. And with Qui-Gon came Anakin and Shmi, and a host of complications. Obi-Wan rose and left the holocomm booth. Passing the bar, he nodded at the bartender and tossed a couple of coins into the tip jar, taking care to make his aim look natural, not uncanny. The place was still very empty. Maybe it was too respectable for the daytime drinkers. About to leave, he paused as he felt the heat coming from outside and went back to the bar to buy a couple of water packs, hooking them onto his utility belt.

When he came out into the street, the first thing he saw was the heat-haze shimmering over the hard-packed dirt. There were fewer people moving around now, as everyone who could stayed inside and rested during the hottest part of the day. Obi-Wan looked up and down the street, quickly orienting himself, and then followed the narrow strip of shade that ran along the buildings on one side until he had to turn into the sunlight in order to head for the space port.

Down in the port district, the bustle increased. Interplanetary traffic didn't take siestas, and although Mos Espa didn't see the trade volume of Mos Eisley, it was big enough to have round-the-clock loading and unloading. Obi-Wan picked his way along the shady side of the street, what there was of it, and kept an eye on the crowd.

Outside hangar six, a crowd of gawkers were getting in the dockworkers' way: adults talking to each other in low knowledgeable tones, children who bounced up and down, frankly excited. Obi-Wan slowed down and slipped in among the others. When he worked his way to the front of the group, he could see in through the hangar doors.

It was a Ya'an luxury cruiser, the latest model, built in the simplest of the proposed styles, without any of the fancy customized exterior options. The interior might be a different matter. Large and confident, the cruiser sat in the center of the hangar looking as though it, or at least its captain, owned the entire planet. Obi-Wan sharpened his gaze, but could see no identity marks on the hull apart from a Veeri registration code, its elegant curlicues proclaiming legality and anonymity at once. The Veerians would let anyone register a ship out of Veeri, and as much as promised that they didn't enquire closely into ownership and identity.

"What do you think that's worth?" the woman next to Obi-Wan asked thoughtfully, and the man with her named a figure that Obi-Wan knew wasn't even a quarter of the true price. They both sighed and nodded.

He turned towards them, nodded a little too as if agreeing with their estimate and envious of whomever could afford it. "Do you know who owns the ship?"

The woman shook her head. "No. It's someone with private guards," a jerk of her chin indicated the helmeted figures in dark uniforms who stood by the cruiser, almost invisible next to its dazzling presence, "and enough cash to tell the dockworkers not to gossip. Rich bastard." Her eyes grew dreamy. "Isn't it beautiful?"

"Yes," Obi-Wan said, because it was. He tested the force currents, but they were sluggish and unresponsive and told him nothing; there was an elusive whisper of power elsewhere, but some deep instinct warned him against pursuing it. For a little longer, he stood just looking at the ship, taking in all that his eyes could tell him. Then he slipped out of the crowd again and continued past the hangars to the speeder rental lot.

His speeder was where he'd left it, neither stolen nor deprived of any vital parts. Obi-Wan paid the fee, in cash, got into the speeder and powered it up. He went out the back entrance of the lot and took off into the desert.

At this time of day, the dunes seemed to glow, as though the sun had heated them until they took on a light and warmth of their own to rival it. Obi-Wan set his speeder skimming over them, surfing the sand waves. Off to the left he could see a large oval structure, open at both ends, and on an impulse he went towards it. It loomed up out of the sand, heavy and silent, the first thing he'd seen on Tatooine that wasn't dwarfed by the sky. The closer he got, the smaller he felt. Rounding its curved side, going in through one of the open ends, he saw that he was coming into a vast arena. On both sides, tiers rose upward with enough seats for every sentient being in Mos Espa and half of Mos Eisley. Empty, like this, it looked eerie.

Obi-Wan flew slowly along one side of the central concourse, looking at what appeared to be empty service bays as well as sloping ramps up into the higher tiers. This must be where the podraces were held. He went through the entire arena and out the other end, and tried to guess what course a podrace would follow. There were no marks to indicate it, but something drew him across the stone-strewn sandy plain, and when he looked down he thought he could make out metal parts half-buried in the drifts, the wreckage of pods that had crashed or been forced off the course.

The terrain grew rockier as stone shot up through the sand like a stubborn plant growing in dry soil, with strange formations scoured by storms to form pillars and arches. Obi-Wan wove his way among them; it was rather like flying through a forest. He imagined the speed at which the podracers must navigate, and shook his head, looping lazily through and over a stone doorway leading nowhere. At a slow pace, it was enjoyable.

The rock formations closed up into cliff walls, and he was entering a narrow canyon. Very narrow. No wonder Anakin thought smaller pods had an advantage. Obi-Wan tasted the force, felt nothing but emptiness all around. He brought the speeder up as high as it would go and set it down on a ledge about halfway up the side of the canyon, shutting the engine down and listening with pleasure to the silence that followed.

Here, where the sun never reached, it was as cool as Tatooine ever got in the daytime. He leaned back in the seat and ran both hands through his hair, digging his fingers in to make his scalp relax. Closing his eyes, he let his breathing slow down, and attuned himself to the quiet and the stillness.

There was no sound anywhere, no motion. Obi-Wan sank deep into himself, into the steady place at the core of his soul, and rested there until it grew as perfectly clear as the force itself, until inside and outside had ceased to matter and all that remained was an unfocused, wordless awareness, as unselfconscious as birdsong.

He didn't know, nor did he care, how much time had passed when he began to ascend into thought again. The first thing he became aware of was Anakin, seeing the boy again with his inner eye, every gesture and word from earlier in the day replayed for his consideration. There was something very likeable about Anakin, something engaging; the boy was intelligent and passionate, cheerful, devoted to his mother. The passion lay close to anger, though Shmi seemed able to guide her son away from it.

Anakin was many years older than the oldest child ever brought to the temple as an initiate. Far too old, and completely untrained. To catch up on eight or ten years of training was not an easy thing, but it was more than that, Obi-Wan knew. More was taught during those years in the temple than the skills imparted through lessons. Initiates were shaped by their surroundings, just as Anakin had been shaped by his, and whatever he might be able to learn later, those early years would always be with him.

Despite the lack of training, Anakin was an instinctive force user. He had been encouraged by Qui-Gon to pay attention to his abilities and use them. Even if he were left to himself, his skills would grow, somehow, through trial and error. Impossible to say what he might turn into, unguided.

Obi-Wan picked out the memory of the vision in the junk-dealer's yard and examined it dispassionately, turning it this way and that, reflecting on what he'd felt and heard. The sensation of danger was clear enough, the connection to Anakin, as well, but there was nothing concrete in there, nothing specific, beyond the conclusion that at some point in the future he might be facing a great evil, and that it had something to do with the boy. Being mindful of the future, Obi-Wan sometimes thought, was an impossible and compulsive state. All he thought and did in response to what he saw would affect the possibilities — it was a peculiar madness, judging what present actions could or could not lead to an envisioned result.

He'd be a fool to ignore the warnings that came to him through the force, but he did sometimes wish that the force could be a little more clear. There was danger. So, he would be watchful. But was there danger in training Anakin, or in not training him, or was there danger in Anakin regardless? Obi-Wan tried to recapture the visionary state, not just the memory of it, tried again to find that trancelike fall and its unsettling gifts of not-quite-illumination, but it eluded him. He didn't struggle with it, just let the force flow through him and waited.

The next face that presented itself to him was Shmi's, calm and work-quiet and sensible. What a Jedi she would have made, he thought. Not as powerful as her son, at least not in the obvious ways, at least not from what he'd noticed, but she had the soul for it, the heart for it, the strength for it, he thought. Instead, she was a slave on a harsh planet. Obi-Wan looked at the feelings she'd awakened in him: admiration, liking, sadness, uncertainty, and unease. Admiration for her composure, liking for her kindness, sadness that she was doomed to this life of unfulfillment, but the reasons for the other feelings were less clear.

Perhaps it spilled into him from her, the worry she felt for Anakin. It was the one thread of unease in her calm, as obvious as a trail of blood on Jedi whites. Her son worried her, and that worried Obi-Wan.

He let the force balance him, so that he could hold all these thoughts at once and yet not be pushed and pulled by them. There was much to consider. There were decisions to be made, but he wouldn't make them here, alone, out in the desert. Obi-Wan drew himself together and began to surface from his meditative state, only to be stopped by a third image, a third face brought to his attention.

Qui-Gon Jinn. There was a complexity of feeling and intention there far beyond anything Anakin or Shmi woke in him. Obi-Wan could remember the days when all his dreams and hopes had revolved around Qui-Gon, as though Qui-Gon were the only master in the world, the only one that could teach him, and then, the only one who could save him from not being chosen.

That had certainly been proven false. After their final parting, Qui-Gon had been a memory of rejection and disappointment, the pain of it soothed and eventually blurred as he was chosen, and trained, after all. Qui-Gon's subsequent disappearance had been an odd kind of blow, unexpectedly painful, but somehow unreal, like a sorrow in a dream, remembered without understanding in the morning.

To meet Qui-Gon now, like this, was very strange. He couldn't dwell on that strangeness. The council had told him to bring Qui-Gon back, and he was going to do it.

Obi-Wan saw Qui-Gon standing naked on damp tiles, flinching away from an examination of the scar on his hip. He saw Qui-Gon lying stretched out on the bed, gasping quietly at the touch of Obi-Wan's hands. He saw Qui-Gon kneeling in the throne room, unbowed, unafraid. It was impossible to feel any resentment over the past. It was impossible not to respect such a man. What had happened on Bandomeer didn't matter. Hadn't mattered for a long time, really.

He remembered Qui-Gon lecturing him, Qui-Gon insisting that Shmi and Anakin be included in any rescue plans, Qui-Gon refusing him knowledge and information. Impossible not to be infuriated by such a man. Obi-Wan sighed, and with that sigh, became aware of his breathing and his being. He drew a deep breath, and then another one, recapturing his calm. Slowly, he rose to the surface of himself and opened his eyes.

Nothing had changed in the canyon except the light. Obi-Wan stretched, tensing and relaxing one muscle group at a time until his body felt easy again. Unhooking one of the water packs from his belt, he drank deeply. The water was desert-warm and tasted flat, recycled, but he could almost feel his dried-out cells popping back into shape.

He powered up the speeder, lifted off the ledge and dropped down towards the bottom of the canyon. Down there, surrounded by the high narrow rock walls, he could look up and see stars picked out against a darkened sky. Obi-Wan set the speeder skimming back out of the canyon, the way he'd come. It was time to return to Jabba's palace.

When he came out in the open, the light from the suns, standing low on the horizon, was in his eyes, and he squinted uncomfortably. This time he took no pleasure in navigating the rock formations, merely plotted out the shortest and simplest route. He passed to one side of the vast arena, and went around the outskirts of Mos Espa, seeing from a distance the cluster of cramped houses and huts that made up the slave quarters. Some of the houses at the edge of town looked as though they were sinking, with drifts of sand piled high along the walls.

Somewhere in that cluster, Shmi and Anakin and their dreams were penned up. Obi-Wan nudged at the speeder's controls, going a little faster. He watched shadows stretch out over the sand, lapping like dark tongues at the sunset-gilded dunes. There would be some special entertainment in the palace tonight, a new band would be playing; he was expected to attend, couldn't just shut himself up in his room with Qui-Gon and talk and make plans. In the distance he saw a small group of Tusken raiders, their long brown robes making them look strangely Jedi-like. They turned at the sound of the speeder and aimed their rifles at him, but he flew swiftly out of their range.

The sky was the darkest, richest, most beautiful blue he'd ever seen by the time he came to the big square lump of a stone fortress that was Jabba's palace. Obi-Wan smiled. He slowed the speeder down, managing the controls with one hand and flipping his hair off the back of his neck with the other; it was damp with sweat, starting to twist into curls. When he drew closer, he sent his guest code, and after a moment, the door began to slide up for him. The space inside where his speeder had been parked that morning was occupied now, but he found another, set the speeder down, and powered down the engine himself, ignoring the offers of a tech droid to take care of all the post-flight checks for him. Obi-Wan was sure the droid was competent, but he didn't trust its programmer.

Jumping out of the speeder, he noticed that his legs were a little stiff from the long time spent in the seat. He flexed his muscles slowly as he walked to the doorway that led to the interior of the palace. Maybe a workout would have been more useful than that long meditation. It had been several days since he'd taken the time to do more than the simplest exercises. As he strode down the corridor the smell of food came floating through the air vents and his stomach growled.

Obi-Wan checked his timepiece. It was a while yet until he had to be in the throne room. Time enough, at least, to take a leisurely shower and tell Qui-Gon what had happened during the day. The rooms and hallways were empty except for the occasional droid and guard, and Obi-Wan picked up his pace. Rounding a corner, he sensed something moving towards him and stepped to one side just in time to not collide with Bib Fortuna. "My master sent me to find you," Fortuna said, taking a step backwards and smoothing his robes. "To welcome you back."

Before last night, no one had cared about his comings and goings. Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow, but said, "I appreciate the courtesy." Fortuna gestured him along, and they walked side by side in silence until Obi-Wan continued, "Has your master decided to provide me with more information about the meeting tomorrow?"

"You have all the information you need," Fortuna said. "My master has full confidence in your abilities." A sidelong glance, sharp as glass, dared Obi-Wan to protest. "You don't want to disappoint him, Jedi."

Obi-Wan could not come up with a reply that combined honesty and diplomacy, and he felt no need to waste a lie on pretending to yield to the malice in Fortuna's voice. They were in a familiar hallway now, with guest quarters on both sides. "I hope Jabba will at least inform me of when the meeting is," Obi-Wan said, coming to a halt. "It would be very inconvenient if I missed it." He opened the door to his room, looked inside, then turned around before Fortuna could leave. "Where is the pleasure slave that was assigned to me?"

"He has been doing his other duties while you were away...Of course, if you need him..."

"His other duties?" Obi-Wan kept his voice carefully controlled. "I was under the impression that he would be assigned to me for the duration of my stay here. Do you mean to imply that I'm sharing his services with others?"

Perhaps not controlled enough, though, as Fortuna backed up a step before answering. "No. No. Just... ordinary work duties on the lower levels of the palace." Fortuna took another step backwards. "He will be ready to serve you when you come to the throne room."

"Good," Obi-Wan said, and in trying not to growl, he came down so heavily on the icy politeness side of things that Fortuna was almost at the opposite wall before nodding at him and turning to walk away.

Obi-Wan went into his room, shaking his head at himself. He could hardly get any less subtle if he tried. If it was his intention to hide how badly he wanted to protect Qui-Gon, he wasn't doing a very good job of it. The council's injunction to bring Qui-Gon back as soon as possible rested heavily on him, but that was no excuse for sloppiness.

Besides, Qui-Gon had been a slave for a long time, and would probably find the idea of anyone trying to protect him from the harsh realities of that situation more than a little absurd. Obi-Wan stripped out of his clothing, throwing it carelessly on the bed, and went into the bathroom. Servants had been there and replaced the used towels with fresh ones, wiped off the counter, refilled pots and jars. Obi-Wan turned the water on and stepped in under the spray with a shiver of pleasure at its coolness. It felt so good to get the sweat and sand off his skin. He washed himself, and felt an echo of other hands on his skin, Qui-Gon's hands last night, strong and efficient and completely impersonal.

They would have to talk later, and this time Qui-Gon would have to answer Obi-Wan's questions instead of avoiding them, if this mission were to have a chance at being successful.

Obi-Wan caught himself up short. He searched his mind carefully. Was there a slight feeling of glee there, some element of revenge in the thought that he of all people should be the one to find and rescue Qui-Gon, after Qui-Gon had refused and abandoned him? He breathed deeply, and then had to snort water out of his nose, and shook his head. He hadn't rescued Qui-Gon yet, he reminded himself, and Qui-Gon had long ceased to be important in his life, and he had presumably never been important in Qui-Gon's, and the best thing to do was concentrate on the situation at hand. They would have to talk later.

Getting out of the shower and drying himself off, he wondered idly if it were possible to use the force on Jabba to get the truth about tomorrow's meeting. He'd never heard of anyone successfully using the Jedi mind trick on a Hutt. Obi-Wan combed through his wet hair and pulled it back into a tail at the nape of his neck, leaving it to drip sweet cool drops down along his spine. He went into the guestroom and dug into his luggage for a clean uniform, or at least part of a uniform; it seemed impractical to wear more than one shirt. His master had usually insisted on formality regardless of climatic conditions. Obi-Wan grinned as he got dressed. It was good to be a knight and make independent decisions.

There was a little time left before he needed to go to the throne room, and he spent it oiling his boots, making sure the sand and heat hadn't cracked the leather. Scratches here and there told stories of encounters with rocks and thorns, and in some cases, animals. He'd need to requisition a new pair before long, he reflected, as these were getting old and it was hard to get a good gloss on them any more. Obi-Wan pulled the boots on, sighed, wished he could go barefoot on the cool tiled floors, but decided that in this case, dignity came before comfort. He wouldn't present himself to Jabba as a shoeless, ragtag urchin.

When he was ready, he checked his lightsaber, touched the force, and headed out the door. The smell of cooking was stronger now, and as he went towards the central parts of the palace, he heard voices and laughter, and a shrieking glissando of notes, like the sound a horn would make if it were a cat and you stepped on its tail, that might be one of the new musicians warming up. Obi-Wan already knew that he did not share Jabba's taste in music, and he wasn't looking forward to the performance this night. Particularly not when there were other things he'd rather be doing.

He slipped inside the throne room, trying to be unobtrusive, and found the party already in progress. Most of the others in the room were familiar to him from last night, and as he walked past them, Obi-Wan could feel them look at him, could feel the speculation in their eyes. He looked around, trying to find an empty seat and a tall, longhaired man.

But it was Qui-Gon who found him, appearing silently at Obi-Wan's elbow, kneeling in swift greeting before getting to his feet again and saying, "If you will consent to come with me, master, there is a place set aside for you."

Obi-Wan did consent, and followed Qui-Gon, walking around the edge of the room to an empty bench that looked a lot like the one he'd been seated on that morning, though farther away from the dais, set almost against the wall. He sat down, glancing towards the dais to see that Jabba was engrossed in a conversation with Bib Fortuna. Obi-Wan looked up at Qui-Gon instead. "Get some food," he suggested, then, remembering the previous evening, "lots of food."

Qui-Gon nodded and went off, and Obi-Wan leaned back against the wall and looked around the room, searching for new faces, wondering if the person he was expected to negotiate with tomorrow was here somewhere. There were more beings present now than last night, but he didn't feel an urge to look at any one of them more closely; they all appeared to be Jabba's usual crowd of sycophants. Certainly no one here looked like the owner of a Ya'an luxury cruiser.

Hand halfway to fiddling with his years-gone braid, Obi-Wan paused. He had no real reason to connect the cruiser with Jabba's business meeting. But the possibility, the possibility alone was enough to make the thought a very interesting one. Jabba was very nearly all-powerful on this planet, but for negotiations with a rich and influential offworlder, he might feel that he needed reinforcements.

When Qui-Gon came back, he was balancing two plates of food, a square bottle, a glass, and a loaf of fresh bread, moving easily among the milling guests and servants without dropping anything. Watching him, Obi-Wan felt an urge to tell Jabba, to tell everyone in the room, that this was not the purpose such bodily awareness and assurance was meant for. He wondered if Qui-Gon's usual work duties involved the kitchen, took the glass from Qui-Gon's outstretched hand, then the bottle as well. The plates were set down next to him on the bench, and Qui-Gon settled on the floor at his feet.

The band started playing. To Obi-Wan's ears they sounded much like last night's entertainment, except for having a singer, which was no great improvement. He began to feed Qui-Gon steamed tubers and chunks of bread, feeling less self-conscious about it this time, and after a while remembered that he was supposed to eat something himself as well. The bread was good, and the bottle turned out to hold a slightly bitter, pale green juice that he thought came from some spiny desert plant or other.

Qui-Gon was still wearing the same rough pants, but looked reasonably clean and still smelled, when Obi-Wan leaned over him to let him drink, faintly of last night's cleanser and creams under his own body-scent, so he'd probably not been set to any hard labor during the day. It was impossible to talk here, with all the noise and all the people. Obi-Wan looked at the band and wondered how much longer they would play, and how soon he could reasonably take Qui-Gon and leave.

They finished the food, with Qui-Gon eating most of it, and the band was still playing. Obi-Wan thought he should have worn his dirty shirt so he could have wiped his fingers on it. The singer gyrated to an insanely cheerful melody, wriggling this way and that and ending in a dramatic pose, two arms outflung, two on her hips, as the music crashed to a halt. Jabba clapped, the whole room clapped, and Obi-Wan tensed his leg muscles, waiting for the moment that would allow him to get up and leave. His hair was drying, and the shorter strands at the front had slipped free of the tail and hung around his face; he pushed them back behind his ear on one side.

It was a small gesture, but as though he'd jumped up and waved both arms, it attracted Jabba's attention, and Obi-Wan found himself under scrutiny from those big, glassy eyes. Jabba said something to Fortuna, and Fortuna made his way over to where Obi-Wan was sitting, as though to have a private word with him, but then spoke loud enough that everyone sitting around could hear.

"My master wants to know why you aren't touching the slave," Fortuna's gaze flicked down and then up again, dismissively. "If he no longer pleases you, we will gladly offer you another."

Fortuna actually reached out as though to pull Qui-Gon away, and Obi-Wan instantly clamped a hand down on Qui-Gon's shoulder. "He pleases me well enough," and he wasn't sure if the small shake of Qui-Gon's shoulder under his fingers was, incongruously, laughter, "but I prefer to keep some matters private."

"Of course, of course," Fortuna said, "as long as you don't give us cause to misunderstand you. If the slave pleases you as much as you say, I'm sure you would regret it if we accidentally punished him because you seemed unwilling to... accept him."

"I am not the only one who would regret it," Obi-Wan said clearly, then felt Qui-Gon's fingers brush against the back of his hand and silenced himself with some effort. Fortuna looked at him, he looked back, and not until Fortuna began to turn away did Obi-Wan tug at Qui-Gon's shoulder. "Come up here, then."

Obi-Wan got to his feet and settled Qui-Gon in his place on the bench, and then sat down again between Qui-Gon's legs, leaning back against the broad chest. He hoped he looked sufficiently enthralled, or at least possessive, for Jabba's taste. "This might be better. We can talk," Qui-Gon said in his ear.

"Yes." Obi-Wan shifted, trying to get more comfortable and not to make it too obvious that he was desperate not to lean against the chain. It brushed against his shirt all the same, and he flinched; Qui-Gon's hands on his arms prevented him from moving too far, too fast. "How did you meet Shmi and Anakin? Did Watto visit the palace and bring them here with him?"

"No. I've been sent on errands into Mos Espa," Qui-Gon's breath stirred Obi-Wan's hair, making it fall forward again, "as I'm one of the few who can walk the whole distance there and back again in one day, in the heat. I met them when the drainage system needed work and I was sent to buy new parts."

Obi-Wan nodded and was about to ask a second question when the band launched into their second set and all conversation had to be suspended. He drank some more juice, reaching up over his shoulder to share it with Qui-Gon, hoping that they looked involved enough in each other to pass Jabba the Hutt's scrutiny. He did not want any further disturbances. To be on the safe side, he pulled one of Qui-Gon's arms around his waist and held it there, linking their fingers. Qui-Gon had calluses in many places, not the clear pattern of 'saber calluses that Obi-Wan had himself, and some of his nails were cracked. Obi-Wan made a mental note to find some more softening cream in the bathroom later and tried to look as though he were listening to the band.

The party grew more raucous, just as it had the night before. A Yarna woman got up to dance, and Obi-Wan thought he recognized her as the one who'd been drenched in wine by the Tulkuth. She was skilled, and her performance distracted him from the music and the singer's voice, which was beginning to grate on him. After a while he became aware that Qui-Gon's hand was moving on him, just a little, thumb gliding up to stroke his breastbone through the thin shirt, fingers stretching as though to measure the strength of his stomach muscles. Obi-Wan tensed.

"Sorry," Qui-Gon whispered in his ear, "but I'm attempting to add some verisimilitude to our performance."

"Yes, but please don't add it right there," Obi-Wan hissed back. "I'm ticklish." He closed his hand around Qui-Gon's roving fingers again and settled them firmly in one place. Qui-Gon's voice speaking low in his ear reminded him of what had been said in the morning, before they'd parted, and he wondered how best to bring up the subject. After a while he began, "I spoke to the council today. They will be very glad to have you back."

"Who did you speak to?"

"Master Piell, and Master Windu, and Master Yoda." And because Obi-Wan knew that Yoda had been Qui-Gon's own master, once upon a time, he wished that he had some special message from Yoda to Qui-Gon, but perhaps that wasn't necessary; perhaps Qui-Gon would know anyway how Yoda had looked, hearing that Qui-Gon was found again. So he waited for a while, taking in the quality of Qui-Gon's silence and watching the dancer, whose hips moved as though they were on ball bearings. Then the question he really wanted to ask refused to be put off any longer. "Did it really take you seven years to track down Xanatos?"

The Yarna dancer spun and twirled. Cymbals crashed. "I was trying to shut down Offworld Corporation," Qui-Gon said, "but the force would not let me walk a straight path towards that goal. There were other injustices that needed to be righted along the way."

Spun and twirled, bent so that her hair brushed the floor and then straightened up and flipped backwards, one leg at a time sweeping through the air... upright again, she swayed slowly, turning in a circle like sand stirred up by the wind.

"You spent seven years," Obi-Wan said, incredulous, "making up your own missions? And the council let you get away with this?"

"Essentially, yes." Qui-Gon shifted, and his hair fell over Obi-Wan's shoulder. "I take it you feel that they should have stopped me. Controlled me. Do you believe that suspicion is better than trust?"

Obi-Wan breathed deeply, considered his answer before speaking. "The Jedi order needs discipline. If ten thousand force users were all to follow their own initiative, the galaxy would be plunged into chaos."

"Are you saying you do not trust in the guidance of the force?"

"The force, yes," Obi-Wan could not entirely keep the tartness out of his voice, "but not, perhaps, the decisions of ten thousand beings who, for all their abilities, still have flaws, and personal interests, and the occasional bias. Where would the line be drawn between following the will of the force, and following one's personal preference?"

"Yet you trust in the council, flaws and all," Qui-Gon said, "to make decisions for you."

"Someone has to make those decisions." Obi-Wan shrugged. "It may not be ideal for the many to be ruled by the few, but I do believe a structured chain of command is better than the alternative. Without organization, without a recognized and cohesive structure, we would be less effective as mediators and peacekeepers."

Qui-Gon was not to be stopped. "And when the council makes a decision for you that you cannot support, what will you do then?"

The dancer turned faster, obedient to the drumbeats that drove her. She rippled in a single perfect moment from the tips of her gilded toes to the ends of her long hair. Her outflung arm undulated to a sharp pipe trill, as though waving a last frantic farewell—

—and then she stopped, and the music stopped, and there was a heartbeat of silence before Jabba clapped, and everyone else clapped and hooted and called out ribald comments in many languages. Obi-Wan clapped as well.

"I don't know," he admitted, at long last. "I don't know. But it hasn't happened yet." He took a firmer grip on Qui-Gon's hand, ran his thumb over the fingertips, feeling the uneven edges of the nails. "I think we can leave now."

He got to his feet, pulling Qui-Gon along with him, and moved towards the exit. Hearing the unmistakable rumble of Jabba's voice, followed by laughter, he glanced back over his shoulder to see Jabba watching them, chuckling fatly, but at least this time there was no translation, no comments from Fortuna. Just a look from both of them that repeated the same old threats about Qui-Gon and 'failing to please,' a look that said that they knew what Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon would be doing, that they'd better be right.

The laughter of Jabba and his guests fell away when they left the throne room. There was no guard following behind them as they went towards the guest quarters. Obi-Wan wondered if he ought to have groped Qui-Gon right in front of the dais, just to make his understanding of Jabba's terms perfectly clear. It was a juvenile power game, he thought, unexpected from someone with Jabba's reputation as a hard-headed and ruthless business dealer, although now that he had seen the people Jabba surrounded himself with and the entertainment he chose, Obi-Wan was less surprised than he might have been. Power sometimes bred pettiness.

They didn't speak on the way. Qui-Gon walked behind Obi-Wan, slightly behind and to one side, like a padawan — that association made Obi-Wan smile. He lengthened his stride, feeling curiously comfortable at having Qui-Gon there, as though to protect his back. At the door, he opened it slowly, stepped inside and stopped, testing the force currents, while Qui-Gon closed the door behind them. Obi-Wan could hear very faintly the hum of surveillance equipment, could sense the presence of a guard, watching, the same guard as the night before.

Qui-Gon put his hands on Obi-Wan's shoulders from behind, slid them down his arms, and leaned forward to whisper, "Are we being observed?" Obi-Wan nodded. "Then I suppose we'd best get this over with." The last words were muffled against Obi-Wan's throat, just before Qui-Gon bit him, not too hard, teeth tugging at the sensitive flesh just below the ear. Qui-Gon pressed Obi-Wan's hands with his own and then let go, starting to unbuckle Obi-Wan's belt and untie his sash. He took the belt and sash in one hand and stroked Obi-Wan's chest with the other, in under the shirt, callused thumb rubbing over a nipple, shooting sparks right down into Obi-Wan's groin.

Obi-Wan couldn't hold back a shiver, and there was really no reason why he should hold it back. He took the belt and sash from Qui-Gon, intending to go and put them somewhere, at least put the lightsaber somewhere safe, but then Qui-Gon had two hands free to touch him, and the hand that wasn't on his chest immediately slid down to curve against the front of his pants, rubbing his cock through the cloth with a simple, demanding motion. And Qui-Gon was flicking his nipples — calluses could feel very good — moving back and forth between them.

When Obi-Wan was just about to thrust up against Qui-Gon's hand, Qui-Gon stepped back, pulling Obi-Wan's shirt off and reclaiming the belt and sash. Obi-Wan stood where he was and watched Qui-Gon cross the room and put shirt, belt, and sash down on the low table by the wall, taking proper care with the lightsaber; watched him come back and kneel on the floor and begin to unbuckle Obi-Wan's boots. When Qui-Gon touched the leather, Obi-Wan could smell the oil he'd rubbed in earlier in the evening.

He stepped out of the boots, lifting one foot at a time in obedience to Qui-Gon's light touches, stood still again as the boots were put aside, and Qui-Gon unfastened Obi-Wan's pants, tugging them down, tugging the close-fitting linens down at the same time. The cloth pooled around his ankles, and Qui-Gon leaned in, hands on Obi-Wan's hips, right over the bruises from last night, as he ran the flat of his tongue all down the length of Obi-Wan's cock in a single hard lick.

Obi-Wan felt light-headed. He stepped out of the pants, and Qui-Gon took them and went to put them with the rest of Obi-Wan's clothing. Then he held Obi-Wan's eyes for a moment and began to unfasten his own pants. Today, as yesterday, that was the only garment Qui-Gon was wearing. Stripped naked, he was big and handsome and half hard, and as Obi-Wan watched, Qui-Gon touched himself, closing one large hand around his own cock and stroking it, bringing it to full erection, that hand moving at a measured, deliberate pace that seemed familiar and long-practiced.

Qui-Gon glanced towards the bed, and Obi-Wan nodded. As Qui-Gon had said before, it was best to just get it over with. At the same time, it probably wouldn't do to seem to be too efficiently brisk about it; they had parts to play. Obi-Wan thought of something and waved his hand in a stay-there gesture at Qui-Gon before going into the bathroom.

All the jars and bottles stood there just waiting for him. He made a quick search, looking suspiciously at unfamiliar oils and creams, until he found an oil that was scentless and had a pleasing consistency when he rubbed a little between his fingers. Obi-Wan sniffed it, licked it, force-probed it, and decided it was harmless. He went back into the bedroom, rubbing the oil on his fingers into his stomach, to find Qui-Gon on the bed, lying propped up on one elbow, stroking himself lazily with the other hand.

That looked good. Obi-Wan went to the bed, holding up the bottle in a gesture that was half question, half suggestion, noticing as he did so that he'd left the stopper behind on the broad stone counter. After a barely perceptible pause Qui-Gon nodded, and began to roll over on his stomach. The movement looked easy enough to Obi-Wan's eyes, unconstrained. But for the first time, he saw something in Qui-Gon's blue gaze that might be uncertainty, or reluctance.

"No," Obi-Wan said, bending to put his free hand on Qui-Gon's upper arm, wrapping his fingers around muscle and skin. He tugged until Qui-Gon turned over on his back again and lay flat. That was better. He wasn't going to do anything that would make Qui-Gon look like that. If they had to do this, it should at least be bearable, for both of them. Obi-Wan sat down on the bed and trailed his hand along Qui-Gon's torso, a slow stroke, breastbone to hipbone. There was so much to read on Qui-Gon's body, so many experiences written there, on the skin, in the movements. Obi-Wan felt new by comparison, unscarred, although some of that was due to bacta, he reflected wryly.

Qui-Gon's erection had flagged. Obi-Wab brushed the back of his hand against it. He steadied himself by putting his hand on the other side of Qui-Gon's hips, bent down, and drew the head of Qui-Gon's cock into his mouth and sucked on it, just the tip, swirling his tongue around and around until he heard Qui-Gon make a sound, an actual noise that spoke of pleasure. Then he straightened up again and tipped the oil bottle that he'd been warming in his hand, pouring a thin stream into Qui-Gon's navel, flooding it until the oil began to spread over Qui-Gon's stomach. Obi-Wan only stopped pouring when he thought the oil would start to spill over on the sheets and caught the last few drops on his fingers before setting the bottle aside.

He reached around and began to oil and stretch himself with the ease of long practice, using his fingers as well as trained muscle control to relax, dipping several times into the oil pooled in Qui-Gon's navel. Obi-Wan took his time, watching the light catch in prismatic sparks on Qui-Gon's oiled skin, watching those sparks move in time with Qui-Gon's deep, steady breathing. He wanted this to be as easy as possible, for both of them. He slicked up Qui-Gon's cock, smoothing oil over it in slow gentle strokes. Then he knelt over Qui-Gon's body, meeting the other man's eyes, once again seeking agreement to the act they were about to perform. The acknowledgement was there: do it.

Obi-Wan moved back, positioned himself, felt the snub pressure of rounded hardness against his opening. Ready for him to use. He pressed down. This... was no hardship. This was more than just bearable. This was a spine-sizzling, disturbing pleasure. Qui-Gon's cock felt so good in him, stretching, burning, wonderfully filling. Obi-Wan rocked on it, sliding down all the way until they were locked together in an intimate press of connection. He held still for a little while just to get used to the feeling, to the idea, of having Qui-Gon inside him, in his body.

A slow movement up and down brought a shiver, heavy waves rolling through him. Obi-Wan shifted, trying to find the perfect angle. He put his hands on Qui-Gon's chest, so that his fingertips just barely brushed Qui-Gon's nipples, and every time he moved up and down on Qui-Gon's cock his fingertips slid forward a little, and back again, making the soft skin pebble into tight hardness. Qui-Gon panted a little, losing the measured pace of his breathing, and Obi-Wan drew trails of oil up from Qui-Gon's navel, stroking, teasing. He painted a gleaming picture on Qui-Gon's chest, using his own motion, sliding up and sinking down, drawing lines heavy with lust.

Under his fingers, Qui-Gon's muscles tightened and grew tense, and they began to move together, not just Obi-Wan moving over Qui-Gon, but the two of them finding a rhythm. It was a little like sparring, Obi-Wan thought, with an unknown opponent, advance and retreat, searching for a pattern, learning the other's style and idiosyncrasies.

Obi-Wan tried to brace himself more securely against Qui-Gon, and his hands slipped in the oil. This was a good position to go slow in, but slow wasn't what he wanted any more, and neither did Qui-Gon, to judge by the forceful way his hips lifted to meet Obi-Wan's on every stroke. Obi-Wan pressed down a little on Qui-Gon's chest, a stay-there gesture, and rose up, swiveling his hips and feeling a slight pang as Qui-Gon's cock slipped free.

He lifted one leg and stretched it, easing the knee, then swung it over so that he was on the inside of the bed, between Qui-Gon and the wall, and could stretch his other leg before he moved again. Looking at Qui-Gon, who had pushed himself up to lean on one arm, Obi-Wan lay down on his back and pulled his legs up to his chest, one hand behind each knee. Qui-Gon sat up on his knees, and slid his large hands under Obi-Wan's hips and lifted them even higher, lifted him to exactly the right height and pushed inside, sinking deep on the first stroke.

And it was all deep and hard from that moment, at a steady pounding pace, every thrust forcing the breath out of Obi-Wan, and then he had to gasp for air. Qui-Gon's hands held him so steady, and Qui-Gon felt so good in him, and at the same time something felt a little strange... oh. It was strange, very strange, to have sex with someone he couldn't touch with the force. Good, but strange, and for one moment he felt as though he were in bed with just a body, as though he were using Qui-Gon as a sex toy, nothing more. But then he looked up at Qui-Gon's concentrated face, at the bright blue eyes, and saw the man there, the soul, the mind, the presence.

There was so much, Obi-Wan breathed out on a groan, pleasure flooding his body in a wave that sent tingles all the way out into his fingers and toes, so much that remained untouched, so many things about Qui-Gon that he didn't know, but he knew they were there, locked away behind Qui-Gon's eyes, and somehow that made him feel good rather than frustrated right now, rolling his head on the pillow, wishing he could push back better into those relentlessly deep thrusts. Good, because it meant that Qui-Gon had kept his self intact through years of slavery and force-deprivation and was there, all there, deep inside, somewhere behind those eyes the color of the evening sky over Tatooine.

Perhaps Qui-Gon could sense, in the abortive movements of Obi-Wan's hips and legs, what Obi-Wan wanted, because he leaned back, pulled out, took hold of Obi-Wan, and flipped him over, and Obi-Wan rolled with it, the whole thing as smooth as though they'd practiced. This was much better, Obi-Wan thought, on his elbows and knees with Qui-Gon's hands splayed over his ass and Qui-Gon shoving into him almost clumsily and Obi-Wan shoving right back, so much better...

Qui-Gon fucking him with deep intense strokes that fit right into the space between one ragged breath and the next: it was perfect, it was bliss, and Obi-Wan arched his back and tilted his hips, wanting more, craving it. His whole body was taken over by that lovely, heavy feeling, and he clenched his hands on the bedcovers, trying to brace himself against the pleasure so he could take more, and more. It filled him, the pressure building higher and higher, until he wasn't large enough to contain it any more and it all exploded out of him, flowing like a cascade of stars, bright and startling and beautiful.

Dazzled as he was, he still moved back against Qui-Gon's fast, hard thrusts, until Qui-Gon choked on a noise that was half growl and lunged forward, burying himself deep, shaking with a quake of the flesh that Obi-Wan could almost feel, too. Obi-Wan clenched his muscles around Qui-Gon, and then he relaxed, sinking forward until his cheek pressed against the bedcovers, and Qui-Gon slumped forward as well, over him, blanketing his body, warm and sweaty against his back and that was good, until a wave of horror and nausea hit and Obi-Wan convulsed, the back of his head slamming into Qui-Gon's face.

The chain. That chain against his bare skin, pressed into him by Qui-Gon's weight. Shamefully, Obi-Wan whimpered.

He felt Qui-Gon withdraw abruptly from his body, scramble away from him until they were no longer touching anywhere, and then Qui-Gon said, in the flattest, most expressionless voice imaginable, "I'm sorry."

Obi-Wan gathered himself and managed to roll over on his back. Qui-Gon was kneeling on the foot of the bed, hands on thighs, chest gleaming with sweat, softening cock gleaming with oil, face a mask of nothing, lids lowered to keep anything from showing in his eyes. There was a red mark on his left cheekbone that would probably turn into a fine bruise. Taking a deep breath, Obi-Wan wheezed, "Don't — worry about it. I'm... fine."

Qui-Gon still would not meet his eyes, said instead, "I'll get you a glass of water," and moved off the bed, walking a little stiffly towards the bathroom. Obi-Wan lay still, breathing with slow deliberation to settle himself down. When the first rush of nausea had passed, he gingerly pushed himself up, away from the wet spot, and sat cross-legged in the middle of the bed. Deep breathing helped, and as soon as he could touch the force again, he did, clutching at it rather in the manner of a night-frightened child with a favorite toy.

A few moments more and his rational self told him that it would not be taken away from him, and he relaxed. Reaching out more concentratedly, Obi-Wan could feel the presence of the watching guard. He brushed against the man's mind, wishing he were stronger in the living force, and felt a trace of boredom. Movement. The guard was leaving. Obi-Wan waited until he was sure the guard was gone, and then touched the monitoring equipment instead; that was easier. He nudged a couple of things, wondering if the effect would be attributed to mechanical error, sloppiness on the guard's part, or traced to its real source.

Qui-Gon came back; he had washed most of the oil off. He had a glass in his hand and held it out, looking extremely ungracious about it. "Thank you." Obi-Wan accepted it gratefully, sipping at the water, settling down. He looked at Qui-Gon, and at the chain.

All the times he'd touched it, it had been a surprise and a shock, particularly this last time when he'd been softened by pleasure, his defenses low. He'd been completely unprepared for the creeping horror that was the chain. Almost unwillingly, he lifted his hand, reaching deliberately this time, just to find out, to see if he could—

Qui-Gon moved as fast as if his reflexes were still force-guided, and seized Obi-Wan's hand in his own, gripping it hard, pulling it down. "Don't." Qui-Gon's voice was strained and rough. He squeezed Obi-Wan's fingers together, and Obi-Wan used his deliberate concentration, his preparation for pain, to keep from wincing at that, instead. "When the chain was put on... I was not myself for a long time. I don't want to see you — I don't want to see anyone else feel even a part of that."

All Obi-Wan could do was nod; he felt, obscurely, as though he should apologize, but he wasn't sure how or for what. He still couldn't take his eyes off the chain where it lay against Qui-Gon's skin. To live with that — to not just live with it, but to rise above its constraints and feel and function and think of other things — was an accomplishment that increasingly awed him the more he learned about how the chain felt. He opened his mouth with no real idea of what he would be saying, and was stopped by a look in Qui-Gon's eyes, a sudden alertness. Qui-Gon glanced towards the ceiling, towards the far wall... Oh, that was right, to where Obi-Wan had indicated, last night, that the guard and the monitoring equipment were hidden.

"The guard's gone," Obi-Wan said, trying not to sound too obviously reassuring, "and I disabled the audio pickup. Visual's still on, but they won't be able to listen to what we say here tonight." He didn't think Qui-Gon would have wanted anyone else to hear that moment of openness, the confession about the chain and how it had felt. And if Obi-Wan had anything to say about it, they would be discussing several sensitive issues later during the night.

Qui-Gon nodded, and dropped his eyes, and then, as if only then seeing that he was still holding it, let go of Obi-Wan's hand. Obi-Wan's fingers were almost white, and he wiggled them as soon as they were free, feeling them tingle as the blood began to flow again. Qui-Gon had a strong grip. Shifting so that he could shake his hand without hitting Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan felt that Qui-Gon's semen was seeping out of him, creating a second wet spot. He unfolded his legs and stood up with only a slight wince, and headed for the bathroom.

The air seemed cooler in there. Once again Obi-Wan concentrated on his breathing, trying to collect his thoughts and put some of them aside for later. His body was still tingling with conflicting sensations; being thrown from extreme pleasure into shaking nausea had unbalanced him. He centered himself, reasserting his dominance over his body and its reactions, actually going so far as to put both hands just below his rib cage as an aid to focusing.

When he felt easier, Obi-Wan cleaned himself up. At first he was just going to wash the relevant parts off, but he was sweaty all over, and the shower too much of a temptation. Standing under the running water, he recalled Anakin's words about water cartels, felt wasteful, and washed himself as quickly as possible. He was a bit sore, and judged that he would be even more so the next day. Once past that initial reluctance, Qui-Gon had been a vigorous lover.

Dropping the jar of cleanser, Obi-Wan bent very slowly to pick it up. That had not been the right word. Partner, perhaps, enforced partner in this, and for the entire mission. He would do well to remember that. But it was too bad, he reflected wryly, that the best sexual experience he'd had in a long time had been the result not of love and attraction, but the whim of a power-mad and perverted Hutt.

Obi-Wan rinsed himself, turned the water off, and reached for a towel. He really had nothing to complain of; this would have been much worse if he and Qui-Gon had for some reason not been physically compatible. Drying himself, he discovered that he had a few new bruises to go with last night's. Mostly compatible, he amended, if Qui-Gon would just stop digging his fingers quite so hard into whatever part of Obi-Wan happened to be nearest at hand. The man had a very strong grip. Obi-Wan hung the towel up neatly and went back into the room.

While he'd been getting himself cleaned up, Qui-Gon had stripped off the soiled bedcovers and put them at the floor by the foot of the bed. He was sitting against the wall, drinking the rest of the water in the glass he'd fetched. Obi-Wan wandered over to the bed and flopped down on his back, stretching and then relaxing. He felt warm and a little sleepy, although it couldn't be very late. Staring at the ceiling, he concentrated on not closing his eyes; he wasn't going to fall asleep.

"So, who did train you?"

"What? Oh." Obi-Wan rolled over on his stomach and propped his head in his hands. "Luxewa ya Dthon. You probably won't remember her."

Qui-Gon frowned a little. "There's no Master ya Dthon that I know of — Luxewa? Luxi? She was Yaddle's padawan. She wasn't even knighted."

"She passed her trials just after we — just after I'd left Coruscant, back then. Mopping up after the mess on Bandomeer was her first mission. Agricorps assigned me to fill her in on what had happened, since I'd experienced so much of it first-hand, and she took me as her padawan." Two days before his thirteenth birthday. "We were on Bandomeer for half a year before we got back to the temple."

Qui-Gon was still frowning. He leaned over Obi-Wan to put the empty glass aside, and then sat back again. "The council does not usually encourage new-made knights to take padawans."

"No," Obi-Wan agreed, "that would be why we were on Bandomeer for half a year before we got back to the temple, while Yaddle and Yoda talked the rest of the council into agreeing to it." He smiled a little. "Not that I minded. I got to spend more time with Si Treemba, for one thing." And they'd had a lot of fun together. Towards the end, he suspected that Agricorps had been just as pleased to lose him. Before he could lose himself in recollections, Obi-Wan made an effort to steer the conversation onto more immediate topics. "You didn't tell me that Anakin was so old."

"I didn't think it was relevant. He is the chosen one. And he is still young enough to be chosen as a padawan, if you want to be formal about it."

"It's not a question of formality," Obi-Wan said. "When initiates are chosen as padawans, they've had nearly ten years of training. Do you really think he can make up for that? He'd always be behind, different from the others, and he does have something of a temper."

"We're not discussing whether or not he's suitable." Qui-Gon crossed his arms. "Anakin must be trained. Now that you've seen him, surely you understand — you've seen who and what he is."

"I saw something," Obi-Wan said, holding up his hand when it seemed that Qui-Gon would interrupt him. "Yes, he's force sensitive, there's no doubt about that, and since he has raced pods and is still alive, he is very talented. But there is something about him that disturbs me. When I looked at him, I saw a vision of a dark future."

His memories of that vision were still vivid, although the vision itself was so vague. Obi-Wan closed his eyes, seeing once more the darkness, and the flare of red, like fire; heard his own voice and tried to understand its tone, to grasp the nuances of the words.

"The future isn't set in stone." Qui-Gon's tone was close to lecturing. "Even if you did see a true vision, you can't know which choice would lead to that future. You must make your decisions in the here and now. You must listen to the force," and Obi-Wan wondered how much it cost Qui-Gon to say that, "and heed what it tells you."

"I did listen to the force," Obi-Wan said. "It sent me a vision." Hearing his own doubts about the usefulness of prophetic vision echoed by Qui-Gon made him perversely more inclined to believe in the importance of what he'd seen. He opened his eyes. "Do you have a plan for getting them away from Watto?"

"No." Then Qui-Gon shrugged. "But my stipend has gone untouched for seven years, accumulating interest, unless the order decided to cancel my account. I'm not sure what the exchange rates are now, but it's possible that I could afford," Qui-Gon's mouth twisted, "to buy them."

"I don't suppose you could afford to buy yourself as well?" Obi-Wan suggested, and succeeded in wiping the bitter look off Qui-Gon's face.

"Unless the temple has changed its ideas of how much a Jedi knight needs for his personal expenses, I don't think it will stretch to three," Qui-Gon said, much more lightly. "We could at least contact Watto in the morning and find out what he would ask for them. How are you at marketplace bargaining?"

"Not as good as I could be, I expect," Obi-Wan said, "but I'll do my best." He rolled his head from one side to the other, trying to work out a few kinks in his neck. "I can understand that you want to get them away from their present situation, and I certainly can't argue with that. But Qui-Gon, you do realize that the council will never allow the boy to be trained as a Jedi."

"I will train him with or without their permission."

"Has it ever occurred to you," Obi-Wan said, "that you might be wrong?" His voice came out sharper than he'd intended, but he forged ahead anyway. "You're force-blind. You think he's the chosen one, but you're just guessing. I've listened to the force, and I tell you, the boy is dangerous."

Qui-Gon turned his head to look straight at Obi-Wan, and his eyes seemed to turn even more blue, as if lit from the inside. "And having been knighted for all of a year or so, you know everything about the will of the force. Don't you want to wait until the council has pronounced an opinion on Anakin, before you dare to have one?" Qui-Gon levered himself up, clambered over Obi-Wan, and crossed the room, going into the bathroom and closing the door.

"Four years," Obi-Wan muttered, then let himself fall face-down on the bed and ran both hands into his hair. "Four years, and I think that when my master pronounced me ready, she overestimated my diplomatic abilities."

He rolled over on his back and stared up, wondering how Qui-Gon Jinn would have dealt with having him for a padawan, how he would have coped with having Qui-Gon Jinn for a master. It certainly would not have been boring, Obi-Wan thought, but the question of whether that was a good thing or a bad thing remained unanswered. Would Qui-Gon have tried to teach him to be so casually dismissive of Jedi tradition, to disregard the council's wishes if they did not agree with his own, even to neglect or ignore force-granted visions?

No, that was unjust, that was the peevish reasoning of an offended child. There were no doubts in Obi-Wan's mind, or in the minds of anyone that he had spoken to within the order, that Qui-Gon had been a great Jedi, in touch with the living force in a way that few had ever been able to match. It would not have been possible for such a man to teach anything that went against the will of the force.

Qui-Gon came back with his hair trailing in a neat braid over one shoulder, looking clean-scrubbed and as contrary as ever. He looked icily at Obi-Wan, who sat up in response to that look before he could even think about it, like a padawan caught napping during an important lecture. "Do you require anything else of me tonight, master?"

"There is one more matter we should discuss," Obi-Wan said, deciding that it might be wise not to comment on the way Qui-Gon had just addressed him. Qui-Gon knew perfectly well that the audio-based surveillance was off. Qui-Gon also knew perfectly well how to use sarcasm to make a point. "Have you heard anything about a business meeting that is planned for tomorrow?"

"Jabba rarely informs me of his schedule." But Qui-Gon sat down on the bed as well and flipped his braid back. "I assume you know something about this meeting."

Obi-Wan leaned forward, putting his arms around his knees. "Yes. Jabba wants me to negotiate a business deal for him at this meeting, although he won't give any details about the nature of the business. It seems clear that he expects me to use the force to make events come out in his favor."

"Unless things have changed vastly at the temple since I left," Qui-Gon said, "using the force on behalf of an unethical Hutt would definitely go against the council's wishes."

With an effort, Obi-Wan did not give in to his first impulse, which was to roll his eyes. "Yes," he said, in what he hoped was a neutral tone of voice. "The unethical Hutt in question is providing some added incentive by threatening to torture you if I don't comply, and promising to give you to me if I do."

Unexpectedly, Qui-Gon smiled. It made him look younger, and almost mischievous. "And which possibility do you find more appealing?"

"Don't tempt me," Obi-Wan muttered. He straightened up a little, elbows on knees, chin in hand. "The meeting is important. I have a strong feeling that I ought to be there." That, at least, was an argument that would make sense to Qui-Gon. "If the meeting doesn't prove to be successful, I believe it would be possible to... persuade... Bib Fortuna to deactivate the transmitter. The problem would be to keep him from reactivating it later on."

"The transmitters are keyed to a specific control device," Qui-Gon said. "You could get him to give it to you, and take it away with you. But that still leaves the problem of Jabba. Hutts are..."

"Notoriously difficult," Obi-Wan agreed.

"Not happy about having their possessions taken from them. If the meeting went badly, Jabba would have a very strong incentive to track us down. We would have to leave Tatooine immediately. Your ship is waiting in Mos Espa?"

"Yes. It's ready for take-off." Obi-Wan could almost feel the familiar controls of the Arrow under his hands; he wanted nothing more than to plot a course for Coruscant and leave this sandheap of a planet behind. But he wouldn't do it unless he had Qui-Gon on board. Which meant that other matters had to be dealt with first. "I will call Watto tomorrow and find out what his asking price is for Shmi and Anakin. How much money do you think you have?"

Qui-Gon shrugged. "I really don't know. Bargain him down as much as you can, and settle for that. The force will provide."

"Does that mean you're going to try to borrow from me?" Obi-Wan stretched and yawned. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and put his feet down on the floor. It was chilly now, as night fell and cool air drifted in through the small, high window. Too chilly to sit naked on the bed in any comfort. "Get under the covers," he suggested, and got to his feet. "I'll be right back."

He padded into the bathroom to relieve himself, wondering when, exactly, he had agreed to help free Shmi and Anakin. He had his doubts about the boy, but Qui-Gon wasn't leaving without them, and Obi-Wan wasn't leaving without Qui-Gon. The question of what should be done with Anakin could be resolved later. Obi-Wan cleaned his teeth and made a half-hearted attempt to comb his hair. He picked up the stopper to the oil bottle and took it with him when he went back.

Qui-Gon lay under the covers, on his back, taking up most of the bed. His eyes were closed and his breathing slow and regular. Obi-Wan sighed. He stoppered the oil bottle, turned out the light, and crawled in under the covers as well, pushing gently but firmly at Qui-Gon to make room for himself. After deciding to provide him with such a large bed companion, Jabba ought in all courtesy to have provided a larger bed. Obi-Wan succeeded in making himself relatively comfortable, and began to drift off.

He passed through a shadowy landscape of waking dreams, where the faint moonlight on the wall shone on the faces of those he had met during the day. Raiders danced gleefully around the rock formations of the podracing course, their steps a brisk parody of the funeral rites on Dapni III; Anakin disappeared under the metal plates of his pod, and when Obi-Wan went to look for him, there was only a hollow shell left; Shmi turned her face towards the sky and stars fell into her eyes; the dying khant cried out, again and again, until it dried up and blew away on the desert wind. Obi-Wan tried to catch hold of Qui-Gon, but Qui-Gon was slippery with oil and eluded his grip... only to turn around abruptly and plant an elbow in Obi-Wan's ribs.

Coughing with surprise and pain, Obi-Wan discovered that he was awake, and that the elbow in his ribs had been only too real. He grabbed hold of Qui-Gon's arm before he could get his kidneys bruised or his nose broken. "Wake up!" Qui-Gon flailed, and Obi-Wan clutched at him and shook him. "Wake up!"

"No," Qui-Gon said, but he stopped fighting, and when he moved again it was only to untangle himself from his braid, which had wound itself around his throat. He'd probably dreamed that he was being strangled, Obi-Wan assumed, and made a mental note not to grow his own hair that long. It seemed impractical. "I'm sorry."

Qui-Gon spoke in the same flat voice that he'd used when he'd apologized to Obi-Wan earlier, after they'd had sex. Obi-Wan thought that he would really rather not be apologized to any more; there was something about that tone of voice that made him feel he never wanted to hear it ever again. "That's all right," he said, and then went on, against his better judgement, "Did you have a bad dream?"

"I won't bother you again," Qui-Gon said, and Obi-Wan hadn't thought it possible for that voice to get any worse. Pulling his arm out of Obi-Wan's grip, Qui-Gon turned over on his side to face the wall, and Obi-Wan was left staring through the darkness at the wide expanse of Qui-Gon's back.

Slowly he shifted forward and laid his hand between Qui-Gon's shoulder blades. He could feel Qui-Gon's heartbeat, steady but fast. Muscles tensed under Obi-Wan's touch; Qui-Gon wanted to be left alone. Obeying that unspoken statement would probably be a wise thing to do. Obi-Wan ran his hand down Qui-Gon's back and settled it over his hip, intending to pull Qui-Gon over on his back again, to see his face, to talk to him.

Qui-Gon grew perfectly still, and Obi-Wan realized that he'd put his hand over the scar, the one Qui-Gon had shied away from having examined the night before. Very cautiously, he traced it with his fingers, felt the stripes that cut across some other, almost obliterated shape, tried to find that first shape with his fingertips. It was rounded, he thought after a little while, like a crescent moon — no, almost like a circle, but not a whole one. There was a piece missing. The circle was broken.

His touch grew even lighter, just one fingertip drifting around the curve of that half-erased mark. Obi-Wan remembered that symbol, the circle that did not quite meet. He remembered seeing it on the boxes of explosives, and on the panel by the sealed door, down in the mine on Bandomeer when he'd been so certain, so very certain that he would die, and then for a moment so very certain that Qui-Gon Jinn would choose him for a padawan learner, and he'd been wrong on both counts. Still, he knew whose sign this was.

"Xanatos," he said, and now Qui-Gon's muscles were locked together so tight that the man was almost shaking. Obi-Wan ran his hand along Qui-Gon's back again, up and down, long slow strokes. He felt painfully inadequate, and his own back muscles were beginning to tense up in sympathy. It seemed to be very cold in the room now.

"I didn't find him," Qui-Gon said to the wall. "He found me." Obi-Wan listened to Qui-Gon's breathing, slow, deliberate breaths. "A contact I'd made in one of Offworld's subsidiaries gave me up to him. I never knew if I'd been betrayed, or if she had been... persuaded." Obi-Wan couldn't stop moving his hand. He didn't think he could lift his palm away from Qui-Gon's skin. "I was drugged, and when I woke up the transmitter was in place, and they were," deep breath, "putting the chain on me."

"And no one could find you," Obi-Wan whispered, half to himself. No wonder Qui-Gon Jinn's disappearance had been so complete. Force inhibitors were nothing new, but inhibitors that removed all trace of a person's presence from the force had only been a vague rumor up until now.

"It must have appeared as though I simply vanished from the force. No sign of my life or of my death." No sign at all of what had happened, and the Jedi had searched for this man, Obi-Wan knew that, never giving up on him, but unable to discover where in the wide galaxy he was, how he was held captive, and what was being done to him. "I was with Xanatos for several years. Eventually, he turned me over to Jabba."

Obi-Wan waited for the next words, but they didn't come. It was so quiet, when Qui-Gon was no longer speaking, that Obi-Wan thought he could hear grains of sand rustling against each other on the floor. He thought about all the years that lay hidden behind that 'eventually,' about how Qui-Gon's voice, when it was flat and hard like that, lay like ice over dark, cold water.

The lighter stripe of night along the wall that was a reflection of the moonshine moved as they lay there in silence. Qui-Gon's heartbeat slowed down, but he was tense to the touch, unyielding under Obi-Wan's hands. Perhaps, Obi-Wan thought, he should try to give Qui-Gon a little of the privacy he wanted. Slaves had none, and Qui-Gon wasn't free to choose to go, not yet.

"I have to sleep now," he said, not adding anything about Qui-Gon's own need for sleep. He settled himself down close against Qui-Gon's back, laying his face against Qui-Gon's shoulder blade, drawing in the scent of Qui-Gon's skin every time he breathed. "But please wake me if..."

"I imagine I will," Qui-Gon said bleakly, but he made no move to shrug off Obi-Wan's touch. Obi-Wan drifted off to sleep on the rhythm of Qui-Gon's heartbeat, listening to the quiet susurration of Qui-Gon's breath.

* * *

Something tickled the end of his nose. Obi-Wan sneezed and opened his eyes to find that the end of Qui-Gon's braid was lying over his face. He was flat on his back, and Qui-Gon was on his side with one heavy arm draped over Obi-Wan's chest. Qui-Gon was also snoring ever so slightly. Obi-Wan's sneeze hadn't made him so much as twitch an eyelid.

That was good. Obi-Wan didn't know how long Qui-Gon had lain awake last night, but he probably needed his rest. Sliding carefully out from under Qui-Gon's arm, Obi-Wan sat up on the edge of the bed, rubbed at his eyes, and yawned. The morning air was still cool, and the skin on his arms and legs began to pebble. He stood, stretched, rolled his neck and then his shoulders, and headed for the bathroom. It was early enough, and the air was cool enough, that a hot shower would be pleasant. Or at least a warm shower. Tepid.

Obi-Wan turned on the water and watched the steady spray for a little while before stepping into it. He had spent time on water worlds, visited floating cities and subaquatic civilizations, but after only a few days on Tatooine he had adjusted to thinking of water as something rare and precious. When he tilted his head to let the water wash over his face, it felt like both a blessing and a curse.

As he'd suspected the night before would be the case, he was much more sore this morning, and when he'd finished his shower and dried himself off he applied more soothing cream, rubbing it in carefully and feeling a surprising twinge of remembered arousal. From the height of this cool clear morning he looked back into the depths of the night and considered his reaction to Qui-Gon's touch, the readiness of his response. He could feel his cheeks heat up a little.

Perhaps he'd let his body overrule his mind, taking an unseemly amount of pleasure in an act born of sheer necessity. There had been nothing in the force to steer him away or warn him, but then, the daylight reminded him with shocking clarity, Qui-Gon and Qui-Gon's feelings were locked away from the force and could not affect its currents. As far as the force was concerned, Obi-Wan had been having sex with an inanimate object last night.

So all he had to go on was what Qui-Gon himself said. And Qui-Gon did not say very much.

Qui-Gon had fallen asleep, and had a nightmare.

Obi-Wan picked up a comb and yanked it through his hair, taming every knot and tangle, the teeth of the comb scraping against his scalp with every vigorous stroke. Things would change today. He was going to get Qui-Gon out of the palace, one way or another. He was going to get both of them out of this impossible situation. The meeting later in the day was important, he felt certain of that; he would follow the guidance of the force and trust it to lead him to the right choices. Just in case it didn't, though, he'd probably better come up with a reserve plan.

Fortuna was the weak link in Jabba's household. He could be force-nudged, or perhaps just bullied, into deactivating the transmitter. But unless they could bring the control with them — no, even if they did bring the control with them — Qui-Gon's freedom would only be temporary unless they could leave Tatooine immediately. Which meant that Shmi and Anakin had to be free and ready to go as well. Obi-Wan didn't know if there were any special rules for the buying and selling of slaves on Tatooine. There might be a generally agreed-upon time delay between a sale and the actual transfer of ownership. He made a face. To stand there and idly consider the buying and owning of another was like wading in raw sewage.

It was Qui-Gon, he reminded himself, who would be the real buyer and owner, and presumably only for as long as it took to set the boy and his mother free. Obi-Wan was the one who was going to have to place a call to Watto the junk shop owner this morning, though. And this was exactly the same plan that they'd discussed last night, and he was adding nothing new to it, and very nearly pulling his hair out by the roots. Putting the comb down, he tucked his hair back behind his ears and walked back into the bedroom, heading for the low table where Qui-Gon had laid their clothes.

Obi-Wan pulled on linens, pants, and shirt before turning towards the bed. Qui-Gon had rolled over on his back, one arm flung out in relaxed freedom over the space Obi-Wan had vacated. The bruise over his right cheekbone was coming up nicely. Obi-Wan put a hand to the back of his head and felt some mild tenderness, nothing more. He stretched his spine, felt as though he were fidgeting, and slipped without conscious thought into the third moving meditation, a slow and simple exercise that energized the body and calmed the mind. There was just enough room between the table and the door, and Obi-Wan concentrated on the movements, letting them flow through him, letting himself flow with them. Harmony was not something that came naturally to him in the mornings, but gradually, he began to relax.

He went through the meditation four times, and then stopped. The air coming in through the window was warm now, and the patch of sunlight on the wall had moved lower. Obi-Wan reached out and force-nudged Qui-Gon, first a gentle touch, and then a more firm one, until Qui-Gon shifted and opened his eyes. Qui-Gon lay still until he had caught sight of Obi-Wan; then his eyes cleared, and he yawned, and sat up in bed. His braid looked fuzzy, haloed with hair that had worked itself free of the plaiting. He lifted one hand to his cheek, touched the bruise, and frowned, eyebrows drawing together.

"I'm very sorry about that," Obi-Wan said. "I just..."

Qui-Gon waved a hand at him, apparently not willing to listen. He got out of bed and strode towards the bathroom, looking unnaturally well coordinated for someone who had just woken up. Obi-Wan looked at the unmade bed and at the tangled covers that lay in a heap on the floor at its foot, still smelling of sex. He wanted to leave this room.

Instead, he smoothed out the sheets and sat down in the center of the bed with his legs crossed, wondering if he could manage a short meditative trance while Qui-Gon went through his morning ritual in the bathroom. Despite the ease that the moving meditation had given him, deep inside he still felt tense and uncomfortable with himself. It was an elusive feeling, slippery as a fish in water. He could not get as close to it as he wished, but it had something to do with having had sex with Qui-Gon.

Discomfort shouldn't be part of his response. Obi-Wan did not see, looking back, how he could have resolved the situation they'd been placed in any other way, did not see how he could have acted differently. It had been necessary, and he didn't feel as though he had done anything wrong, at least not intentionally, but still there was a disturbance in him, deep down, as though something had not gone the way it was supposed to go. There was nothing new in that, Obi-Wan told himself. Things rarely went exactly as planned. The force that swirled around him in unsettled eddies was no help at all.

He wrenched his thoughts away from sex and confusion, and set himself to work out how much money Qui-Gon might have in an account that had been untouched for seven years, calculating upwards from his own stipend to estimate that of a master, and what that would come to in local currency, given the very bad exchange rates for Republic dactariis on the rim. It might, he thought when he'd worked it out to his satisfaction, be enough for two slaves.

Provided that Watto did not become suspicious or contrary, and set an unreasonable asking price. Provided that Watto would be willing to sell at all. He must value these two, Obi-Wan thought, must value them very highly. Shmi was obviously a skilled worker, and Anakin, despite his youth, was competent enough to be trusted with minding the shop, and a podracing pilot to boot. The latter was probably the most important thing about his value to Watto, if the boy really had a chance to win a race.

Qui-Gon came back, clean-scrubbed, moist, and with dripping hair. Obi-Wan realized that he hadn't even been close to a meditative trance. He watched Qui-Gon's small grimace of distaste at having to put on the same dirty pants again, then stretched his legs, scooted to the edge of the bed, and began to pull on socks and boots.

"There's a comm just down the hall," Qui-Gon said somewhere above his head. "Watto usually opens early."

"Good." Obi-Wan buckled his boots. Then he discovered that his left sock had bunched under his instep and so he had to unbuckle that boot again, straighten the sock, and do the buckles up one more time. It took him a while to finish, and when he straightened up, Qui-Gon was already standing by the door. "Let's go, then."

There were cleaning droids roaming the hallways, the whirr and click and whisk-whisk-whisk of their passing the loudest sound in the palace. Obi-Wan strode along, glancing down at Qui-Gon's bare feet. He pictured boots there, too, and then pants, shirts and sash and cloak, the lightweight, comfortable, concealing garments of a Jedi. Qui-Gon really needed something clean to wear. With a shrug, Obi-Wan settled his own shirts more comfortably into place. He wanted to look like a respectable customer.

Which was a futile wish, he realized a moment later as they stopped by the alcove that held the holocomm, because what he looked like was a Jedi. About to step into the alcove, he was stopped by Qui-Gon's hand on his shoulder. "Here."

It was a business card, wrinkled and rather grimy from having been stashed away in a pocket of Qui-Gon's pants, and it had the holocomm code for Watto's shop on it. Obi-Wan nodded his thanks. He stepped in front of the comm, adjusted the pickup range, and checked the code again before placing the call. Jabba's comm console was newer and sleeker than the one he'd used yesterday in the cantina, and without any interplanetary lag to contend with, the call went through almost immediately. The signal blinked two times, three, and then the call was accepted.

Obi-Wan hadn't known what to expect, not having thought to ask what species Watto was, and he really should have thought about this possibility, but nevertheless it startled him when Shmi answered. For one brief moment he wondered what the code of behavior was when you called up to inquire about someone's going market price and they answered the comm, but then he got a good look at her face.

She was pale under her Tatooine tan, pale with blotches of pink on her cheeks, and her eyes were red-rimmed. She'd bitten her lower lip until it bled; the holoimage was good enough that he could see the smear where she'd wiped blood off her chin. Her knot looked more lopsided than yesterday. "Watto's—" Then she recognized him, paused, and started over. "How may I — help you?"

Obi-Wan leaned forward, intent on her face and the misery he saw there. "What happened?"

Shmi looked over her shoulder, then turned back to the comm. "Watto has sold Anakin. The meeting yesterday... He came back and told us that he had been offered a fortune f-for a podracing pilot. I don't understand it." Her face was bleak. "He always said that he would never separate us."

A hard grip crushed Obi-Wan's shoulder, and Qui-Gon leaned forward over him. Obi-Wan tapped a few keys to adjust the video pickup. "The right price changes a lot of minds. Do you know the name of Anakin's new owner?"

She shook her head. The movement made her braids slip free of the pins and begin to uncoil. "No. Watto wouldn't tell me." Shmi drew a deep breath, visibly collecting herself. "But he bought both Anakin and the pod for a very high price, so he is rich, and no one here has ever expressed an interest before, so I believe he is a stranger."

"There is a Ya'an luxury cruiser in the spaceport," Obi-Wan said. "Docked yesterday." There might be other rich strangers in town, but that was a place to start. "Veeri registration code, but it might be possible to trace it."

"Better if we find him before he leaves the planet," Qui-Gon said. "There aren't all that many places that hold podraces. He might be planning to stay for a while."

Shmi took hold of her braid and wound the end around her fingers. "There is a race. Tomorrow." Again she glanced quickly over her shoulder before continuing, "Anakin is already entered as a racer. If this buyer stays, he will let Ani race. It is a festival celebration race. Lots of prize money, and the betting is always heavy on those races." Shmi bit her lip, the same spot, and another bead of blood welled up. "Ani was planning to—"

Her voice broke. Obi-Wan thought he knew what she had been going to say. That would be the race that Anakin had wanted to bet their savings on, to buy their freedom. Even if Anakin had any money of his own to bet with now, it would be fairly safe to assume that his new owner would not want to sell. And as for Shmi herself, it certainly wasn't the first thing on her mind. Obi-Wan rolled his shoulder under Qui-Gon's clenched hand, not trying to shrug it off, just to ease the grip a little.

"Knight Kenobi is coming into Mos Espa later today," Qui-Gon said. "He will contact you and find a way to help you."

"We're both coming," Obi-Wan amended, sparing half a reassuring smile for Shmi before looking up at Qui-Gon.

"That's not entirely certain." Qui-Gon tightened his grip on Obi-Wan's shoulder again. "We don't know how the meeting with Jabba will go. The boy is more important than I am." "No," Obi-Wan said flatly. He heard a gasp from the holovid. "I will do everything I can to help Shmi and Anakin, but my mission here is to free you. I'm not leaving the palace without you." He tilted his head farther back in order to be able to see Qui-Gon's face. "Master Piell would skin me alive, for one thing."

"You have too much respect for authority," Qui-Gon growled. "As a Jedi master and your superior in the Jedi order, I command you to leave me here and find and rescue Anakin Skywalker."

"The council still outranks you," Obi-Wan said. He drew a deep breath, uncertain whether he wanted to scowl, or, for some insane reason, grin. But he was well aware of the worry coming from Shmi, and the worry coming from Qui-Gon, even though he couldn't actually sense either of them. "We will find and rescue Anakin Skywalker." He turned towards the holocomm again, towards Shmi's image. "We'll be there later today."

"Thank you." She stiffened, turned fully around to look at something beyond the scope of the vid pickup, then quickly turned her face towards them again. "I have to go." Obi-Wan saw her hand reach out, and then the transmission was broken.

He turned the comm off on his side and got to his feet, pushing himself upright under the weight of Qui-Gon's hand. When he looked at Qui-Gon's face, he could see determination just about to break forth into a fresh argument. Obi-Wan had never attempted to rescue anyone quite so uncooperative before. Before Qui-Gon could begin to talk about the importance of going after Anakin again, Obi-Wan said, "Do you think that any of the servants or slaves might know more about the mysterious meeting today?"

"No." Qui-Gon turned him around so that they faced each other. Obi-Wan was expecting another heated argument, another repeat of the accusation that Obi-Wan was a council yesman and cowed by authority, but to his surprise, there was something else in Qui-Gon's eyes, a look so far from what Obi-Wan had anticipated that it took him a moment to recognize it: the quiet professional assessment of a colleague. "I'll go down into the kitchen and ask. But I think you're going to have to improvise."

"This meeting is important," Obi-Wan said, feeling a need to explain himself now that no explanation was being demanded. "I can feel it."

Qui-Gon nodded briefly, and finally let go of Obi-Wan's shoulder, and they left the alcove together. Two steps down the hallway and Obi-Wan turned back, ducking into the alcove again and tapping at the holocomm keys, wiping the call record clean. There was no time to make a thorough job of it, but there was no point in making it too easy for Jabba and his staff to find out everything about their activities, either.

When he stepped out again, he saw Qui-Gon disappearing into the shadows of the far end of the hallway, probably headed for the kitchen. Obi-Wan took a deep breath and started to walk back towards his room. He didn't particularly want to spend any more time there, but if Qui-Gon were to come looking for him, he'd better be in a place where he could be found. As he walked he tried to calm himself and open up to the force, turn to it for guidance, but he felt on edge and strangely distracted.

Back in the room, he paced. Over to the far wall, looking up at the window; back to the door, waiting for it to open. Every time he passed the crumpled sheets piled at the foot of the bed, he glanced at them, and then away again. He had to be ready for the coming meeting and for whatever it was Jabba expected of him. Had to be prepared for whatever might happen. Obi-Wan broke off his pacing to put on his outer shirt and straighten his clothing, adjusting sash and belt and 'saber until he was perfectly comfortable and sure that nothing would hamper his movements.

As though he were preparing for battle. He frowned and strode back to the window again, catching a glimpse of blue sky. Since he didn't know what he was preparing for, it made sense to be ready for anything and everything. The feeling that there was something significant about this meeting remained stable in him, despite his inability to settle down and read the force currents for any trace of what the future might bring.

Obi-Wan drew his brows together as he looked at the sky. He'd had enough of troubling visions of the future for one mission. The memory of the darkness pierced with flashes of red, of the hollow voice taunting him and his own sad reply, sat in his mind like a fresh bruise, tender and unpleasant every time he touched it. He was going to concentrate on the present, on the meeting later in the day, on getting Qui-Gon out of the palace. After that, they'd have to find out what had happened to Anakin, and... he was trying to plan ahead again, to anticipate possibilities. That was the way his mind always worked.

A knock on the door made him turn swiftly. Surely Qui-Gon couldn't be back already. Surely Qui-Gon wouldn't knock. Obi-Wan went to the door and opened it, and found himself face to face with Bib Fortuna.

"Jabba wishes to see you now," Fortuna said, sounding more tense and less affected than Obi-Wan had ever heard him be before. "Come with me, please."

"Is it time for the meeting already?" Obi-Wan asked. He wondered if he could somehow tell Qui-Gon where he was going, but couldn't come up with a way of doing it, short of carving a message into the wall with his lightsaber.

"Come with me," Fortuna repeated, and turned to walk away along the hallway, leaving Obi-Wan with no choice but to follow. He caught up with Fortuna, walking beside the Twi'lek rather than behind him, but forbore to ask any further questions. He'd get answers soon enough, or whatever passed for answers with Jabba.

This morning, no one had cleaned up the throne room from the previous night's party. Benches were scattered over the floor, chairs had been overturned and never righted, Obi-Wan had to step around the remains of a broken bottle on one of the steps, and to judge by the smell, someone had been sick in a corner somewhere. Dust and smoke hung in the air. Jabba sat on the dais, a bloated, brooding presence. Obi-Wan walked up to stand in front of the Hutt and waited to find what he would be told.

The silence was short, or at least shorter than he'd expected. Jabba broke it with a low rumble, a sound that hovered between menacing and businesslike. Obi-Wan kept his eyes on Jabba while Fortuna translated. "My master says that you will use your abilities to make sure that the meeting goes the way my master wants it to go. If you do not, the Jedi will receive a holographic recording of your activities during the past two nights."

Obi-Wan shook his head. "The Jedi council is aware of those activities," he said. "Such a recording would merely confirm my report." He tried not to think about Master Yoda or Master Piell watching a holographic projection of himself having sex with Qui-Gon Jinn.

Jabba gestured with one short, stubby arm and said something else, ending with a fat chuckle. "My master suggests that the recording might be put to other use instead. Such as being duplicated and sold in every sex shop on the outer rim."

That, Obi-Wan reflected, could be somewhat embarrassing. But embarrassment didn't change the basic fact that Jedi did not allow themselves to be blackmailed in this fashion. "I'm sorry to hear that your business is going so badly, Jabba," he said. "But do you really think a blurry holo with bad lighting is going to sell well enough to allow you to recoup your losses?"

Jabba leaned forward and said something long and angry, whipping his tongue out in the middle of it in what seemed to be a gesture of contempt. Once again, Obi-Wan found himself wondering about his own diplomatic abilities. He preferred annoying Jabba the Hutt to upsetting Qui-Gon Jinn, though. Looking to Fortuna for a translation, he was surprised to see that the Twi'lek was shaking his head, and said something back to Jabba in Huttese. The two of them went on talking intently for a while, and Obi-Wan listened, trying to pick up on a word or two. All he could sense was tension.

After a long, agitated exchange, Fortuna turned to Obi-Wan and said, "The man who is coming here will make demands that Jabba does not wish to comply with. You will make sure that those demands are withdrawn. By any means necessary." Jabba rumbled; Fortuna nodded. "I have the control to the pleasure slave's implant here," he said and held up a short, stubby data rod.

Obi-Wan regarded it thoughtfully. He would have to get it away from Fortuna somehow, use it, and then destroy it so that Qui-Gon's implant wasn't reactivated before it could be removed. Was there a backup copy somewhere in the palace? Was there a way to find out? And what, exactly, did Jabba and Fortuna mean by 'any means necessary'?

Then he felt something, like a cold current in a warm sea, like a cloud shadow passing over a sunlit meadow, and turned in time to see a dark-cloaked figure step into the throne room.

"Isn't this pleasant," a cool voice drawled in flawless Standard. "It's always a joy to meet old friends again."

Obi-Wan drew a deep breath. "Xanatos."

Xanatos pushed back the hood of his cloak and came strolling down the steps from the door, moving with the confident grace of a trained fighter. He had changed since Obi-Wan had last seen him, fifteen years ago; there were creases around his eyes and mouth, and his face was a little broader, fleshier. His black hair was cut short now, showing a square jaw and small, lobeless ears. When he smiled, his teeth gleamed. "I didn't think you'd ever manage to become a Jedi," he said, looking Obi-Wan up and down with what seemed to be measured amusement. "Not after the way Qui-Gon treated you."

"Considering that you tried to blow me up, I didn't think you cared." Obi-Wan was tempted to say something about the way Xanatos had treated Qui-Gon, but then he realized that he didn't want to go into that, not here and now, perhaps not ever. Instead, he glanced at Bib Fortuna and Jabba. "Now, will someone tell me what this meeting is all about?"

Fortuna fidgeted. The light was dim, as no sunshine ever penetrated into the depths of the palace, but Obi-Wan thought that the Twi'lek seemed even more sickly pale than usual. "My master wishes—"

"I'll tell you," Xanatos interrupted smoothly. "I'm here to conclude negotiations that were begun the last time I was here, and come to an agreement about Offworld's presence on Tatooine."

Jabba growled and thumped his tail twice on the dais, a clear warning signal. "There can be no agreement," Fortuna said. "The Hutts will not accept that Offworld Corporation establishes itself here."

"How ungenerous," Xanatos said, sounding at once mildly regretful and utterly bored. "After all, I offered you excellent terms."

"The Hutts don't want Offworld here on any terms." Fortuna looked extremely nervous, glancing back up at Jabba as if for reassurance. "It is the considered opinion of the Hutt syndicate that Offworld Corporation would damage the Tatooine economy."

Xanatos was a rival, Obi-Wan mentally translated, and the Hutts didn't want any rivals; they wanted to remain in sole control of the Tatooine economy, legal and illegal alike. Exactly what Xanatos wanted was less clear. From what little Obi-Wan had learned during his previous encounter with Xanatos, it was usually difficult to judge his motives. While Fortuna looked nervous, and Jabba as unsettled as a Hutt ever got, Xanatos was eerily calm.

"I would ask if that is your considered opinion," Xanatos said, "but it took you so long to arrive at it that I can only conclude that it is. It is just as well that I have other interests to amuse me here on Tatooine."

Jabba began to talk again, but over the thick outpouring of Huttese, Obi-Wan asked, impelled by something he couldn't explain, "And what interests are those?"

"Tatooine really only has two things to offer." Xanatos smiled at Obi-Wan. "Since I am apparently barred from entering the spice trade, I thought I would involve myself in podracing instead." He glanced over his shoulder, back at the doorway through which he'd come, and snapped his fingers. A small figure appeared and came shuffling down the steps, dressed like a miniature copy of Xanatos, all in black, but with blond hair that shone even in the gloom of Jabba's throne room.

"Anakin," Obi-Wan breathed, and the boy looked up at him with miserable blue eyes. "Are you all right?"

Anakin looked as though he didn't know whether to nod or shake his head. Obi-Wan thought he could answer his own question, anyway: of course Anakin wasn't all right, separated from Shmi and in the hands of Xanatos. Xanatos might claim that he had bought Anakin solely for the boy's podracing skills, but Obi-Wan didn't even try to tell himself that Xanatos might have missed Anakin's extraordinary force potential.

"I'll be in Mos Espa for a little while longer," Xanatos said, looking up at Jabba, "in case you should happen to change your mind about my proposed joint business venture. There is a podrace tomorrow, and I wouldn't miss it for anything, now that I have such a talented pilot to cheer for."

"My master will not change his mind," Fortuna said with unexpected firmness. Obi-Wan wondered why Jabba and Fortuna had insisted on his presence here; it didn't seem as though they wanted him to speak for them, after all, even had he known what to say. "Jabba wants—"

"Oh, and one other thing." Xanatos flicked a finger lazily, and Obi-Wan felt the wave of power in the force that made Fortuna fall involuntarily silent. "I left some property with you a while ago that I thought I might as well take back now." He smiled and ruffled Anakin's hair with one slender, black-gloved hand. "That particular item has some rare qualities. You could say that I've become something of a collector."

Jabba said something short and succinct, coughed wetly, and spat onto the floor in front of the dais. "The property that you gave to Jabba is now promised to someone else," Fortuna said, his voice reedily hoarse now, as though Xanatos' temporary silencing had constricted his throat. Obi-Wan felt a tingle down his spine. "My master has promised to give the slave to Knight Kenobi."

"You can't give away what isn't yours," Xanatos said reprovingly. "Circumstances forced me to leave that slave here, but I still own him, and I plan to take him back." His eyes narrowed, and his hand twisted in Anakin's hair; the boy winced, and tears of pain rose in his eyes, but he said nothing. "Don't make more of an enemy of me than you already have, Jabba. It would be unwise."

"If you try to claim the slave that has been promised to Knight Kenobi, you make an enemy of the Jedi," Fortuna said, looking at Obi-Wan rather than Xanatos, "and the Jedi are formidable warriors."

Obi-Wan began to suspect the purpose of his own presence at this meeting. He wasn't a negotiator, he was a bodyguard. Xanatos still carried his lightsaber, and Jabba, presumably, wouldn't go up against Xanatos without another 'saber wielder at his side, in case things got ugly.

Xanatos laughed. "Do you think to make me fear a knight who's barely out of his padawan robes? I made an enemy of the Jedi a long time ago," he said, "and bound their greatest warrior in chains."

"Your exaggeration flatters me." The words were softly enough spoken, but made everyone else fall silent. Qui-Gon came out of the shadows at the other end of the throne room, padding quietly on bare feet, his eyes fixed on Xanatos. Obi-Wan wondered how long he had been standing there, listening. "But then, I suspect your true purpose is to indirectly flatter yourself. Capturing me was hardly your finest hour, Xanatos."

"Perhaps not, "Xanatos said, "but keeping you captive certainly had its moments."

Obi-Wan flexed his fingers. He could still feel against his fingertips the knot of scars on Qui-Gon's hip where Qui-Gon must have cut again and again into his own flesh to try to eradicate Xanatos' mark. When he shifted his weight, turning to keep both Xanatos and Qui-Gon in view, he was very conscious of the weight of his lightsaber. At the same time, he could sense everything else in the room with preternatural clarity: the exact dimensions of Jabba's bulk behind him, the rhythm of Fortuna's nervous breathing, the wine stains behind Anakin's right foot. He felt poised on the crest of a wave about to break.

"I'm touched to hear that you missed me." Qui-Gon folded his arms, fingertips neatly aligned with his elbows, and Obi-Wan was almost bewildered by that traditional Jedi gesture, coming from a bare-chested man with a tangled braid. It looked both wrong and right. "Since you did, I suppose I'd better come back to you. You can have me, but leave Anakin here."

Obi-Wan looked at Qui-Gon, at the set of Qui-Gon's mouth and the look in his eyes, and swallowed hard, feeling as though he were choking on ground glass. This was what he was here to prevent. Xanatos could not be allowed to take Qui-Gon back again. But neither, Obi-Wan thought, could he leave a child like Anakin in the hands of someone who had given a Jedi master nightmares.

"Oh, Qui-Gon." Xanatos sighed fondly, shook his head, and smiled. "This misguided nobility of yours is sweet, but pointless. You can't trade yourself for him. I own the boy, and I own you." He shook Anakin by the hair again, and then let go, and Anakin edged away from him, half a step, and then another half a step.

Jabba began to talk, and Fortuna spoke over his master's words, "You own the boy, but you gave Qui-Gon to Jabba, and Knight Kenobi has staked a claim to him."

"Oh?" Xanatos looked Obi-Wan up and down with knowing, scornful eyes. "A Jedi claiming a slave. How unusual."

"We don't abandon our own," Obi-Wan said. "Not unless they choose to abandon us, which Master Jinn," stressing the name ever so slightly, "did not."

Xanatos' mouth tightened. He turned his head with impatient abruptness and looked at Fortuna. "This stalling is useless. The slave belongs to me, and I'm taking him with me. Deactivate the implant and then wipe the code from the control rod." Fortuna stared back nervously. Xanatos raised his hand. "Deactivate the implant," he repeated, and Fortuna's eyes glazed over.

The Twi'lek took the control rod out of his pocket and began to tap its keys. "I will deactivate the implant," he said in a flat voice, ignoring an annoyed gurgle from Jabba.

Glancing at Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan saw a momentary glint in the other man's eyes, and nodded infinitesimally back. Since Xanatos wasn't having the code transferred to a control rod of his own, it seemed likely that he planned on controlling Qui-Gon by physical means alone. Xanatos carried a blaster as well as a lightsaber, and Qui-Gon was still wearing the force-inhibiting chain.

"I'll have the implant recoded once we're back at the ship," Xanatos said, as if to confirm this. "I find my own private coding to be much more secure and reliable than some Tatooine hack job. I just thought you might enjoy a short taste of freedom, Qui-Gon."

"I am free," Qui-Gon said, and his eyes locked with Xanatos'; Obi-Wan thought he could almost see that look, blue on blue, sizzling and burning like two 'saber blades meeting. "I have always been free."

Xanatos smiled. "You called me master, Qui-Gon." The control rod beeped in Fortuna's hand as the code was deactivated. "And you will call me master again." Xanatos' hand went to his belt, and he began to walk towards Qui-Gon.

Faster than thought, Obi-Wan moved to put himself between the two of them. His lightsaber was in his hands, humming steadily, and the grip of his fingers around its familiar hilt felt like the simplest and most perfect thing in the universe. He met Xanatos' eyes, looking there for the man's next action and reaction; they faced each other over Obi-Wan's blade for a drawn-out moment of silence, and then Xanatos raised his lightsaber as well. Its vibrations were pitched slightly lower than Obi-Wan's, and the sounds created an eerie harmony, like the opening chord of a battle hymn.

The last time he'd faced Xanatos across a lit 'saber blade, he'd been twelve years old and frightened and angry enough to go on the offensive, needled by Xanatos' derisive comments, driven by his deep desire to prove himself to Qui-Gon. Not that that had worked very well, Obi-Wan reflected. They had fought side by side then, but when it was all over, Qui-Gon had once again been distant and silent and no more inclined to take an apprentice than he ever had been.

This time, Obi-Wan held still and waited. He opened himself up to the force, feeling its warmth surround him, trusting in its support and guidance. When Xanatos moved, Obi-Wan was ready, and met the first quick slash with a simple parry. Their 'saber blades scraped together, a screechy unpleasant rasp that was familiar from a thousand exercises, sparring drills, competitions, and demonstrations. Obi-Wan had wondered as a child why he spent so much time sparring against others with lightsabers, when the only people who used lightsabers were Jedi. The first time he'd faced Xanatos, he'd been deeply grateful for all that practice. Now, he was even more grateful that he'd faced Xanatos that one time. This wasn't a training exercise; it was as real as anything would ever get.

He stayed where he was, in a simple defensive posture, and waited for Xanatos to come to him again.

The attack, when it came, was fast and subtle. Xanatos was lighter on his feet than Obi-Wan had expected. His style was pure, classic Jedi, seemingly drawn directly from a kata demonstration. Obi-Wan countered unthinkingly with the next logical move, only to find Xanatos slipping aside in a movement from another exercise. Free-form sparring. No. Fighting. He had to clear his mind of all preconceptions.

Xanatos came at him, and everything shifted; Obi-Wan didn't know if he was moving faster, or time more slowly, but every movement and moment was filled with the force's subtle whisper. His awareness narrowed down to the movement of Xanatos' lightsaber through the air, and widened to sense the breathing and pulse of everyone in the room. One of them was moving. Anakin, slipping farther away from Xanatos, gravitating slowly towards Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan blocked a high blow, twisted, pressed his advantage, and drove Xanatos back a couple of steps. The presence that was Anakin was almost behind him now.

Two quick steps to the right, the second one longer, to avoid a slippery patch on the floor. He tried a feint, but Xanatos didn't fall for it, and soon they were in the middle of another flurry of exchanged blows, their blades leaving wavering light trails in the dimness of Jabba's throne room. Jabba growled something, and Fortuna said, "You will regret going up against Jabba the Hutt, Xanatos. But you will not regret it for very long!"

Obi-Wan was tempted to flip over Xanatos' head and turn the fight around, but decided to stay on the ground and keep himself between Xanatos and Qui-Gon, Xanatos and Anakin. Anakin must have reached Qui-Gon; there was an odd hum of force around him. So Jabba was hoping that Obi-Wan would kill Xanatos. That made a certain amount of sense, and only a Hutt would hope to be able to use a Jedi as a pet assassin. Obi-Wan parried another familiar move from Xanatos, keeping his own 'saberwork defensive.

The hum of force coming from Anakin intensified. It felt like hot sunshine on Obi-Wan's back, like high noon in the Tatooine desert. He wondered what the boy was doing, and in wondering, realized that there was an untrained, and very powerful, force user behind him, building up to doing something—

Xanatos' eyes were wide. "No," he said, and with the word came a wave of force from him, too, slamming into Obi-Wan and nearly pushing him off balance; what saved him was that the wave was aimed just as much at Anakin. "No!"

Obi-Wan didn't know what was going on. He couldn't spare the attention to find out what Anakin was doing; he put everything into beating Xanatos back again, turning from defensive moves to offensive ones, pushing the other man step by step towards the other end of the room. Force filled the room, thick and syrupy, and it felt as though they were both slowed down, weighted down with it, even though Obi-Wan knew their true speed. Glass crunched under Xanatos' right boot. Parry. Lunge. Xanatos' next move was classic — textbook — right out of a demonstration kata — stupid, Obi-Wan thought, and went with the equally classic defense—

—and Xanatos moved completely the wrong way and jerked his arm up, and it was only by throwing himself backwards that Obi-Wan avoided getting a lightsaber handle slammed into his chin.

He rolled across the floor, felt the shattered glass cut through his shirt and into his skin. Stupid, he thought again, and put some force into his own motion, came upright again. There was a long ugly burn mark where his 'saber had scorched the floor. He'd have to learn that move, learn how to counter it. To his right, Xanatos was already moving towards him again. To his left, Qui-Gon was kneeling on the floor and Anakin had his hands on Qui-Gon's shoulders, and blood was running down Qui-Gon's chest.

The force stirred, shifted. There was a moment of silence, and then Obi-Wan raised his arm almost casually, blocking Xanatos' next strike. Anakin couldn't possibly know what he was doing, and if no one managed to stop the boy, Qui-Gon might end up torn to pieces, physically or mentally, by what Anakin was bringing to bear on the chain. But if Obi-Wan let Xanatos get past, who knew what he'd do, to Anakin or Qui-Gon.

Spin. Block. Thrust. Obi-Wan started to push Xanatos back again; this time he was the one to step on the remaining glass shards, the ones that weren't embedded in his shoulder. He leaped over an overturned bench and the downward sweep of his saber blade sheared the hood off Xanatos' cloak. If he could only fight Xanatos to a standstill, disarm him, then...

What then?

A wave of pressure came through the force, crested, broke. The air shivered and broke apart, shattered by a soundless scream. Obi-Wan jerked back, and so did Xanatos. Obi-Wan had the oddest feeling that his ears were ringing. He glanced over his shoulder and froze. Qui-Gon was lying on the floor, his chest heaving with rapid painful breaths, the chain in a heap beside him. Anakin knelt by Qui-Gon's side, grinning hugely, even though his hands were covered with blood. "I did it!" he said, meeting Obi-Wan's eyes. "I did it!"

Obi-Wan stared and nodded, too stunned to say anything, then twisted quickly to face Xanatos again. He expected another attack, but Xanatos was staring, too, with wide shocked eyes. Several heartbeats passed before he seemed to collect himself. "Anakin." Xanatos dug into a pocket with his free hand and drew out a control rod. "Come to me. Now."

Anakin glared rebelliously over Qui-Gon's prone body. "No!"

Xanatos lifted the control rod higher, thumbing casually at it. "Yes. Either you leave this room with me, or you leave it in a sack, in tiny pieces."

"I'd rather be dead," Anakin said, and though his voice was thick with boyish sulkiness, the sentiment sounded honest enough.

"Very well." Xanatos shrugged. "I don't care one way or another. I can find something else to amuse myself with. I've been thinking that it may have been a mistake not to buy your mother as well."

"No!" Anakin leaped up, shaking with anger; Obi-Wan could feel it pulsing through the force with dangerous strength, pounding at his temples like a headache. Jumping over Qui-Gon, Anakin stalked towards Xanatos, one reluctant step at a time. "Leave her alone. I'll come with you, if you leave my mother alone!"

"Don't be so ill-tempered," Xanatos said, grabbing Anakin's arm as soon as the boy was close enough; his voice was kind, but his fingers dug bruisingly hard into the boy's fair skin. "There is much you could learn from me." The words were chilling, and Obi-Wan wanted to protest, but he felt pulled in two directions at once, to go to Xanatos and take Anakin away from him, to go to Qui-Gon and make sure he was still breathing. "And you, Qui-Gon. Get up and come with me, or the boy and his mother—"

Obi-Wan had never been even mildly synesthetic. The wave of red sound that rolled over him with a touch like clawed velvet knocked him to his knees. He was drowning in the blood-ripe taste of it, deafened by its vivid color. "Stop," he breathed, and tried to anchor himself in the force, but the force was a whirlwind of tangled light around him, dancing crazily through the room. "Stop..."

Far, far away, Jabba was shouting, and Anakin screamed, a short high burst of sound that was mercifully free of taste or texture. Obi-Wan concentrated on that sound and forced his eyes to focus on the ordinary world, though the force battered at him from all sides, with unpredictable random violence. On the dais, Jabba was bright green and hazy as a gas cloud; Obi-Wan shook his head to clear it, and abruptly, everything snapped back into place. The world looked and sounded normal again, everything the same shape and color as before.

Xanatos was dragging Anakin away, one hand locked around the boy's wrist, the other holding the control rod. Before Obi-Wan could take even a step forward, they'd disappeared into the shadows, out of the room, and Fortuna's voice rose over Jabba's steady grumbling. "My master is very displeased."

He's not the only one, Obi-Wan thought, and for a moment he could taste the dryness of the words, but that small resurgence faded when he turned and got a good look at Qui-Gon. The bleeding had slowed to a trickle, and Qui-Gon had pushed himself up to kneel on the floor, putting a little distance between himself and the broken chain. He looked a mess, dirty and bloody and with a tremor running through his shoulders and down his arms. He was shining with force, lucent with it: it streamed through him like light through glass.

Obi-Wan strode up to the dais, powering down his lightsaber but keeping it comfortably in his hand. He yanked the slave implant control rod out of Fortuna's hand and dropped it to the ground, crushing it with his boot heel and a bit of force. "You will delete the control codes to Qui-Gon's implant and purge all traces of them from your system," he said quietly.

"Jabba is very displeased," Fortuna tried again. "You have not held up your end of the bargain. We cannot allow you to take the slave."

Looking up into Fortuna's flat, frightened eyes, Obi-Wan thought that he probably didn't need to use the force for this. "Delete the control codes," he repeated evenly. He could hear Qui-Gon stand up and take a couple of steps in his direction. "I will come with you and watch you do it."

Jabba heaved his great bulk forward and said something glottal and furious, punctuating it by thumping his tail against the dais. Fortuna swayed visibly, caught between his master's will and Obi-Wan's. About to grasp Fortuna by the arm and pull him away, Obi-Wan felt the force move to another's bidding. "Be quiet," Qui-Gon said, and Jabba sank back, stunned into silence; one short arm attempted to reach towards a set of buttons, then dropped into immobility.

With a small sound of distress, Fortuna looked at his master, at Qui-Gon, and finally at Obi-Wan. He got down off the dais and pulled himself into a semblance of dignity, adjusting his left tentacle and straightening his robe. "Come this way," he said and walked around the edge of the dais, into the shadows behind it. Obi-Wan followed just in time to see Fortuna push a small lever, and part of the wall slid soundlessly aside. Behind it was a small room filled with the hum of electronic equipment.

Fortuna went to the nearest computer bank and started pressing symbols on a small touchpad. Obi-Wan watched, trying to make out the symbols before Fortuna's fingers hid them. He didn't entirely trust Fortuna not to attempt something that would shift the balance of power again. Now that Qui-Gon was free, he was going to stay free.

"And the surveillance records," he said. "Wipe them. Destroy the holo." Blackmail issues aside, it wouldn't look good for the Jedi if he and Qui-Gon became unwilling porn stars on the outer rim, and Obi-Wan wouldn't put it past Jabba to release the holo out of sheer spite. "Where are the guards? Why didn't they come rushing as soon as the fight started?"

"My master made it clear that no one was to interfere." Fortuna's mouth crimped. "He was depending on you."

"And he's still alive," Obi-Wan pointed out. The text on the screen was in Huttese, but he could read that pretty fast by now and everything that scrolled by seemed right, nor could he feel any deceit from Fortuna, only sour anger. "I tried to negotiate for him. The other party wasn't willing. This concludes our, ah, business association."

Fortuna made a derisive sound in the back of his throat, entered a final command, and turned away from the terminal. "There. Everything has been deleted, as you asked. And you have made an enemy of Jabba the Hutt today."

Shaking his head, Obi-Wan took Fortuna's elbow and steered him out of the small room again. Jabba had never liked the Jedi. This changed nothing. But the small attempt at intimidation seemed to cheer Fortuna up, and it was better to have him think that the departing Jedi were running scared than to aggravate him into suggesting a full-scale pursuit to Jabba.

"Let's get out of here," he said to Qui-Gon, to strengthen the impression. When he glanced up at Jabba, he found that the Hutt was still in a force-induced stupor. "Let's just leave."

Qui-Gon nodded, turned, and walked away without a single backwards glance.

Obi-Wan followed, but with a quick glance over his shoulder at Fortuna, who was hovering by Jabba's side. No one tried to stop them or speak to them as they went down to the ground level. It was still early, and there were few people about, but even the guards they encountered backed away and disappeared around the corners. Obi-Wan kept looking at Qui-Gon, trying to reconcile the man whose body he had come to know with this incandescent presence in the force that swept all obstacles out of its way.

The speeder was where Obi-Wan had left it, and powered up smoothly, its sharp engine whine echoing off the walls. The droid guarding the exit obeyed his order, and the heavy door slid up, letting in air and sunshine, letting them out. Obi-Wan flew straight and fast, skimming the dunes, until he'd put a little distance between them and the palace. Then he veered to the right and slowed down, looking around, until he found a place in the shadow of a twisted rock formation where he could put the speeder down again.

Qui-Gon shifted. The small speeder was a cramped ride for two people when one of them had long legs. "Why are we stopping here?"

"We can't go into town looking like this." Obi-Wan rummaged through the compartment under the controls until he found the rental firm's first aid kit. "Especially not you."

He sacrificed his stole and one of the water bottles on his belt to wash the blood off Qui-Gon's chest. The holes left by the chain links looked deep and nasty, an infection waiting to happen, and he splashed on disinfectant from the kit — Qui-Gon's eyes narrowed and a muscle in his jaw jumped — and then smeared antibacterial ointment all around before taping on bandages. The padded rectangles looked very odd, taped so symmetrically over Qui-Gon's collarbones, like some new form of body art. "Thank you," Qui-Gon said gravely.

Obi-Wan pulled off his shirts and twisted in the speeder seat, turning until his back was towards Qui-Gon. "Do you think you can get the glass out of my shoulder? There's a needle in that kit somewhere."

"Hold still," Qui-Gon said, and Obi-Wan felt a tingle and a quick sting of pain. Qui-Gon was using the force to dig the glass out. A delicate task like that would not have been Obi-Wan's first choice to let Qui-Gon reacquaint himself with the details of fine force-manipulation, but he set his jaw and said nothing.

Staring out beyond their patch of shade, he watched the air swirl in lazy heat shimmers above sand and rock. The sand had an uncountable number of colors, each grain slightly different. When his eyes unfocused, it all became dull, hazy. When he sharpened his gaze again, the subtle differences were there, showing him unexpected beauty. Obi-Wan breathed. "About Anakin... you were right."

"You believe now that he is the chosen one?"

Obi-Wan hesitated. "I don't know about that. But you were right in saying that he must be trained. With abilities like that, the boy needs a guiding hand, and Xanatos wouldn't be my first choice. Ow," he added mildly as Qui-Gon's focus wavered and one of the glass fragments dug deeper.

"We have to hurry," Qui-Gon said. "Xanatos could be taking the boy offplanet while we sit here."

"I'd prefer it if you didn't rush this." Obi-Wan gripped the edge of the speeder seat a bit more firmly. One of Qui-Gon's large, rough hands took a grip at the join of Obi-Wan's neck and shoulder, bending his head away and stretching the muscles and skin uncomfortably. The glass splinters popped out one by one, each leaving a moment of tiny bright pain behind. Obi-Wan kept quiet, not wanting to disturb Qui-Gon's focus.

"There," Qui-Gon said finally, and without warning rubbed a compress soaked in disinfectant over Obi-Wan's shoulder. "I don't think it needs covering up."

Obi-Wan nodded and squirmed around in the speeder seat again. All the cuts had been shallow, and the pain was negligible. He was more concerned about Qui-Gon's injuries. He pulled one of his shirts back on, and handed the other one to Qui-Gon. "I know it's too small, but it's better than nothing. It will make you a little less eye-catching."

Qui-Gon poked a finger through the rent over the right shoulder, where the fabric was stiff with the brownish-red of dried blood, but said nothing. When he pulled the shirt on, there was another rip of tearing fabric, and the ends of the sleeves didn't come anywhere near his wrists. Still, Obi-Wan thought, packing up the first-aid kit and putting it away, it was better than nothing. There were many poor and strangely dressed people in Mos Espa, and too-short sleeves were probably fashionable somewhere in the galaxy.

When he powered up the speeder engine, several small animals that had ventured forth skittered back into their hiding places again, little tan-on-brown ghosts, only visible in motion. A fine cloud of sand rose around them, and then they left it behind as the speeder shot forward. The heat felt more intense than the day before, or perhaps it was just that he felt it more clearly through only one thin shirt. Obi-Wan increased their speed until the wind lifted his hair off his shoulders and rushed coolingly down his back under the sweat- and blood-soaked fabric.

There was no sign that anyone had pursued them from Jabba's palace. Obi-Wan was inclined to think that Jabba would let them go. Under other circumstances the Hutt might have wanted to retaliate for a perceived loss of dignity, but not while Xanatos was still around. From Jabba's perspective, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan would make a good distraction for Xanatos.

Beyond the next dune, Obi-Wan saw the first buildings appear. He circled around the outskirts of Mos Espa, as he had done the day before, coming up on the space port district. For a commercial area, it was inexplicably low-key; not even the rental agencies had adopted the large, garish signs that Obi-Wan normally associated with competitive marketing strategies. He parked the speeder in the same lot as the day before and jumped out. Turning, he saw that Qui-Gon clambered out a bit more slowly. Obi-Wan frowned, but before he could say anything, Qui-Gon waved a hand dismissively. "I'm fine."

"There is a luxury cruiser docked over in hangar six that I think may be Xanatos'." Obi-Wan waited for Qui-Gon to come around the speeder before he started walking. He assessed the other man's movements: a little stiff, a little slow, but only a little. Qui-Gon didn't look too flushed. Not feverish, then, at least not yet.

"If it's still there." Qui-Gon fell into step beside him. "He must know it's in his best interests to take the boy and leave as soon as possible, particularly now that I am—"

Obi-Wan waited, but Qui-Gon didn't finish the sentence. They left the lot and went into the street, crossing it to get to the shady side. There were more people around than there had been yesterday, Obi-Wan noticed. The hum of excited talk in the air seemed more intense. When they got to hangar six, the crowd outside the hangar doors was smaller, but still there. Obi-Wan looked up at Qui-Gon, who was staring over the top of a Yuznan's wheezy environment suit, eyes gone coldly granite. "I take it it's the right ship."

"Same registration code," Qui-Gon said. "Careless."

Obi-Wan stepped to the side, getting a better view past the Yuznan's shoulder. "It doesn't seem as though they're getting ready to leave just yet." Two crew members in the dark outfits he remembered from the day before were going over a landing strut, pointing out areas here and there to a woman in mechanics' coveralls with a hydrospanner in her back pocket. "Not if they're in the middle of a maintenance overhaul. And there is the podrace tomorrow to consider, too."

"All the talk about podracing may have been a smokescreen." Qui-Gon glared at the Ya'an cruiser. "We must find Anakin." Obi-Wan drew a deep breath. "I don't care what your orders are. I'm not leaving without him. We're going to have to find out where Xanatos is staying."

Before Obi-Wan could say anything, Qui-Gon walked away from him, pushing his way through the crowd until he was at the hangar doors. A guard came up to stop him, and Qui-Gon gestured emphatically with his right hand. The guard frowned, reluctant or resistent, and Obi-Wan wasn't surprised. Qui-Gon was sweaty and tangle-haired, and in his battered pants, with bloodstained bandages insufficiently hidden by a too-small, also bloodstained shirt, he looked neither respectable nor confidence-inspiring. Obi-Wan was well aware that he wasn't much more presentable himself.

The Yuznan turned to leave, and as Obi-Wan moved out of the way, he came up against a short woman who was studying a flimsy printout list. "I'm sorry," he said, and then, getting a closer look at what she held, "Excuse me? Are those the most recent odds for the podrace?"

She nodded. "Got them over at the betting office just now. This is the final list, there's been some changes." The woman steadied the flimsy and tapped her thumb near the top of the list. "Parreeth isn't starting after all. Sebulba's still the favorite, but I think Ynn Rarr has a good chance."

Obi-Wan tilted his head, scanning the list. "What about Anakin Skywalker?"

The woman shook her head. "Not a chance. Humans can't fly racing pods. The kid's only been in two races before, and he didn't finish either of them. I'm surprised he's even trying again after that last crash."

"But he's still entered," Obi-Wan said, catching sight of Anakin's name down at the bottom of the flimsy. With odds like that, it was no wonder Anakin had thought he could buy his freedom if he won.

"Yes, and some rich idiot's been betting heavily on him, too. Have you ever noticed how rich idiots rarely remain rich, but they always remain idiots?" The woman snorted, and Obi-Wan nodded absently, half-turning to see where Qui-Gon had gone and if he'd had any luck getting into the hangar. "What's he going to do, walk home when he has to sell his fancy, customized, over-polished excuse for a space yacht? Anyone who registers out of Veeri is hiding something, and this guy's sure hiding his intelligence real well."

Obi-Wan turned back abruptly. "This — the man who owns this cruiser has placed a bet on Anakin Skywalker?"

"Yup. Some goon wearing his staff uniform, anyway, but the hired help never has that much to play with." She folded the flimsy and stuffed it into the side pocket of her jacket. "It's his money and it'll be his loss. Me, I'm betting on Sebulba, and so should you."

The woman walked away. Obi-Wan caught sight of Qui-Gon, who was coming his way again. He turned as Qui-Gon reached him, and they moved out of the crowd, stopping further down the street. Qui-Gon looked grave. "They don't know where he's staying. They don't even have a comm code for him."

"But he is staying," Obi-Wan said. "He's placed a large bet on Anakin in the podrace tomorrow." He resisted the urge to scratch at his shoulder. "We should be able to find them there, if not before. Anakin's former owner might know something, depending on what method of payment Xanatos used. But first—"

"We must talk to Shmi," Qui-Gon said.

"Yes, and the council. But before we do that, we need to buy you a new shirt."

The spaceport district was full of holes in the wall that dealt in shoddy second-hand objects. It didn't take them long to find a place that provided well-worn, but at least also well-washed, clothing. Qui-Gon picked out a long, loose shirt that reached to mid-thigh, with sleeves he actually had to roll up over his wrists; the slightly washed-out grey fabric was thick and dark enough to hide the bandages, if he buttoned it all the way up at the throat. Obi-Wan bought a couple of plain laborer's shirts for himself, as well, while Qui-Gon tried his way through the entire selection of boots and shoes without finding anything that fit him. "I've gone barefoot for a long time," he said finally. "It won't hurt me to go barefoot a while longer."

While Obi-Wan felt that footwear would have made Qui-Gon look, at the least, a little more respectable, he had to admit that he couldn't force the man to buy something that didn't fit just to keep up appearances. He paid for their purchases, and they went back outside into the midday heat. It wasn't far, Obi-Wan thought, to the cantina where he'd placed his call to the council the day before, and so he turned that way.

It did seem as though the pace on the street was faster, the voices a little louder, more people were moving this way and that, and now he understood why that was: Mos Espa was filling up with those who had come to see the podrace tomorrow. The cantina, when they reached it, was crowded and humming with talk and laughter. Obi-Wan pushed his way through toward the bar, when he was stopped by Qui-Gon's hand on his bandaged shoulder. He looked back. "I thought we could get rooms here," he said, "and contact the council."

"I want to speak to Shmi first," Qui-Gon said.

"Of course," Obi-Wan said, a little too quickly. He changed course and walked towards the back of the cantina instead, to where the holocomm booths were. Local calls should be cheap. He dug into his belt pouch and fished out the card, stopped outside a free booth, and handed the card to Qui-Gon. "Let me know when you're ready to contact the council."

He began to step away just as Qui-Gon muttered, "That might take a while," and reached out to snag Obi-Wan's sleeve. "We said we would both be in touch with her. It's better to call. Watto might object if we came over to talk to her and didn't buy anything."

It was a tight fit for two on the thinly padded bench in the booth. Qui-Gon's elbow jabbed into Obi-Wan's ribs as he punched in the comm code. Obi-Wan watched the little animated logos for various rental agencies and tourist traps march around the screen; one of them, for an all-you-can-eat restaurant, looked suspiciously like a round, cute little Hutt with a bow on its tail. Then the ads blinked out, and Shmi was looking at them. As soon as she saw who they were, she leaned forward. "Have you found Ani?"

"We have discovered who bought him," Qui-Gon said. He glanced quickly sideways at Obi-Wan. "And Anakin is still entered for the podrace tomorrow."

Her mouth was a thin line of worry, lips whitening with tension. "You have to find him." Shmi looked to the side, her eyes wide with the unfocused stare of someone trying to keep the tears from spilling over. "To at least see him and know if he is all right. This feels so very wrong."

"Shmi," Qui-Gon began, and Obi-Wan kicked at his bare foot under the bench. Qui-Gon turned his head to look, Obi-Wan looked back, and they argued silently for a while. The bench creaked as Qui-Gon shifted his weight.

"You're not wearing the chain," Shmi said from the screen. "Qui-Gon, how did that happen? Did Knight Kenobi remove it? Are you — free?"

Qui-Gon held Obi-Wan's eyes for a moment longer, and nodded, a tiny movement that would have been easy to miss. He turned back to the vidscreen. "Anakin did it," he said. "We have seen Anakin today, and his new owner, and it was Anakin who freed me from the chain."

"He freed you," Shmi said quietly. "You know Ani always said when he was younger that he wanted to free all the slaves of Tatooine. All the slaves on the Rim, even." One tear broke free from the inner corner of her right eye. "You saw Anakin today and he freed you, and you left him with the man who bought him. Is there more?"

"There is more." Qui-Gon's voice was perfectly steady. Obi-Wan couldn't make himself shift, or straighten up, or even move. "The man who bought Anakin is Xanatos, the one I — was with — before I came to Jabba."

Shmi didn't make a sound, not one that was picked up by the comm unit, anyway, but she looked as though she were about to be sick. Her eyes were locked with Qui-Gon's, and they sat staring at each other through the blue-light relay of a comm screen. Obi-Wan felt his own skin crawl. Still, it was better to tell her the truth, to let her know what had really happened. At least he'd thought it would be better, until he saw that look in her eyes.

When neither Qui-Gon nor Shmi had said anything for a long time, Obi-Wan leaned forward. "We know where his ship is docked, and we know he'll be at the race tomorrow. He's got to be keeping the pod somewhere, too. We'll find him."

"And what will you do then?" Shmi asked, in a thready, frighteningly calm voice. She stood up, the chair scraping the floor before the comm console, and Obi-Wan saw her hand and the long light sleeve of her dress, and then the call was cut off.

Qui-Gon didn't move a muscle, yet Obi-Wan would have sworn the man slumped in his seat, and he himself could not speak just then, with Shmi's face, Shmi's eyes, so vivid in his memory. A knot of complex emotions burned in his chest. This could be happening anywhere and everywhere on Tatooine right now, or on any other world along the Rim. A child sold away from his mother. A man sold away from his wife. And everywhere that same terrible silence, the grief of those who have no safety and no power.

No freedom.

It all seemed too big for him at that moment, too much to grasp, and every word he had spoken to Qui-Gon about Shmi and Anakin hollow and foolish. Obi-Wan pressed his hands together, and started slightly when Qui-Gon touched his shoulder.

"This is where we are now," Qui-Gon said, and Obi-Wan looked at him. "This place and this time. Because we can't help everyone, everywhere, should we refuse to help one person who needs us?"

Obi-Wan closed his eyes. He wouldn't leave a child in the hands of someone like Xanatos, no, and he wouldn't let a rogue Jedi get away with having imprisoned and enslaved Qui-Gon, no, but beyond that, there was something in what Qui-Gon said that went counter to every pragmatic notion he held, and answered the pain he felt, looking into Shmi's eyes. He couldn't put any of that into words, and finally he just nodded.

When he looked up again, Qui-Gon was about to rise. Obi-Wan put a hand on his shoulder in turn and pushed him down again. "The council," he said.

"The council can go to hell," Qui-Gon said, and Obi-Wan was startled into a brief choke of laughter.

But then, still pulled this way and that by conflicting feelings and considerations, he sobered and said, "There are many who will be happy to hear that you are free. It won't matter what else you say to them, if they get to see you again."

The contentious look in Qui-Gon's eyes faded. After a while, he nodded, as Obi-Wan had. "Make the call."

Obi-Wan leaned forward and began to tap in the request code for an interplanetary call, checking his card, which was starting to run low. The animated logos jumped around on the screen again, as cheerful as before. It would be barely past dawn in the Jedi temple on Coruscant, he calculated, but many of the council members were early risers. When he sat like this, twisted sideways, he could feel the scabbed skin pull over his shoulder, feel some of the small cuts break open again. He was glad he'd bought those shirts.

Glancing quickly sideways at Qui-Gon, he wondered what the council would see. The bruise, the tangled hair, the bitten lip — when had Qui-Gon bitten his lip? — the rough shirt and the untrimmed beard. Or perhaps just the eyes, where blue flame still burned. What Obi-Wan saw, when he looked at Qui-Gon, was a shining presence, shifting like a column of fire in the wind: a dancing pillar of force. He dropped his eyes to Qui-Gon's hands, folded on the tabletop. Those hands had touched him last night.

The comm clicked and beeped, and the call went through and started to send its signals. One, two, and then it was answered by a droopy-eared Yoda perched on an antigrav seat. "Abuse the privilege of an emergency code you should not, young Obi-Wan. For urgent matters—"

Obi-Wan had never before heard Yoda break off like that, in the middle of a sentence, nor seen his ears rise so abruptly. He leaned back on the bench, and Qui-Gon leaned forward. "It is good to see you again, my master."

"Qui-Gon." Yoda pushed the antigrav seat closer to the screen, almost leaning into it. "A long time it has been since I have seen you. Much missed you have been, Qui-Gon."

"It has been a long time," Qui-Gon agreed, and there was silence for a little while. Obi-Wan tried to slip back a few years into his best invisible-padawan persona. "I ran into some trouble on that mission."

"Looked for you, we did." One of Yoda's ears curved, sagged a little. Obi-Wan thought that later he would tell Qui-Gon just how much they had looked. The way Qui-Gon and Yoda watched each other now, though, he could not bring himself to call attention to his presence in any way. "Freed you from Jabba, Knight Kenobi did?"

"No. I was freed by a child, master. An untrained boy who is powerful enough in the force to be able to break my chains. I believe he is the chosen one that the prophecies speak of."

"Chosen one, hmmm?" Yoda tapped his gimer stick against the edge of the comm screen. The sharp rap was oddly distorted as the comm unit picked up its own internal echoes. "Discuss this, we will, when you return."

Qui-Gon shook his head. "I will bring the child back with me. He is the most powerful force user I have ever seen," and there was a heavy pause as he looked at Yoda and Yoda looked back. Obi-Wan wondered if Qui-Gon was stretching the truth. He hadn't been able to gauge himself exactly what Anakin had done or how he had done it. "He must be trained in the use of the force by the Jedi."

"Why?" Everyone knew what it meant when Yoda tilted his ears like that. He was about to dig his heels in. "Why say you that?"

Obi-Wan knew he had succeeded in being invisible, since when he leaned forward, both of them shot him a surprised look. "Because right now he's about to be trained by Xanatos, and that would be a disaster," he said.

"Xanatos!" Yoda spoke louder than before, and in the background, Obi-Wan caught glimpses of movement. Maybe they'd have the whole council listening in in a little while, though he sincerely hoped not. "Xanatos is there?"

Obi-Wan sat back again and let Qui-Gon talk, briefly about his capture and enslavement, much more about Anakin and Anakin's abilities, and about the events of the day. Everything was related with a different slant from how Obi-Wan had experienced it, but not in any way that made him want to dispute it. It really was something like being a padawan again, he thought wryly, except that he had grown used to second-guessing how Luxewa perceived events; Qui-Gon's perspective and priorities were new to him. He shifted his shoulders very slightly. The scrapes and cuts on his shoulder itched.

Plo Koon had come to stand behind Yoda now, and Mace Windu, as well, and Yaddle, perched on another antigrav seat so she could see the screen. Even Piell came up behind her. "Come back to Coruscant at once, Master Jinn," he said. "We'll send a team after Xanatos."

"You already have a team here," Qui-Gon said. "By the time anyone else gets here, Xanatos will be gone, and he'll have taken the boy with him." He put a hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder. "We have started to investigate Xanatos' activities, and we have a chance of finding him."

No longer invisible, Obi-Wan perforce raised his chin and looked the council in the eye. "Knight Kenobi." That was Mace Windu, leaning forward next to Yoda. "Is it your opinion that you and Master Jinn can track down Xanatos?"

"I think," Obi-Wan said carefully, "that at this moment we are the ones who stand the best chance of doing it." He shifted one leg, not so incidentally jabbing the bony part of his knee into Qui-Gon's thigh. Mission parameters were shifting rather abruptly, here. "It seems likely that Xanatos will move on after the podrace tomorrow and take the child with him."

Master Windu's eyes were cool and thoughtful. "Do you also believe that the child is the chosen one?"

What Obi-Wan believed most strongly, at that moment, was that there was no end to the trouble Qui-Gon Jinn could get him into. Qui-Gon's fingers were digging into his shoulder again; it was starting to be a familiar sensation. "I'm not as familiar as Master Jinn with the prophecies regarding the chosen one," he said. "The boy is, yes, one of the most powerful force users I have ever met," he slanted a quick glance at Yoda, who was unreadable, "and to leave him to be trained by Xanatos would be a tactical error."

It was a dispassionate assessment, and a true one, and he saw Shmi's face again, heard the raw tone in her voice. He wasn't leaving Anakin in Xanatos' hands if he could help it, regardless of how he had to formulate his opinion in order to make it seem reasonable to the council. To judge by the press of Qui-Gon's fingers, Qui-Gon thought he was being much too conservative, but Mace Windu nodded slowly. "The boy and Xanatos together could be a threat to the Jedi."

"Yes," Obi-Wan agreed, because it was true. Xanatos' grudge towards the order guiding Anakin's raw ability could lead to serious danger. The Jedi could not afford two enemies like that.

"Careful you must be, Qui-Gon," Yoda said. "Certain, are you, that you can do this? That you are recovered already from an ordeal of several years?"

"I'm fine, my master." Qui-Gon's voice was quiet.

Mace Windu looked closely at him all the same, and then looked at Obi-Wan. "Knight Kenobi?"

"I'm quite healthy as well," Obi-Wan said blandly, and felt more than heard the small chuff of sudden laughter from Qui-Gon.

Yoda tapped his cane. "Report in every day, you will." Even through a low-quality comm screen, across light years, Master Yoda's presence could be overpowering. Obi-Wan nodded. He lifted his eyes to look over Yoda's shoulder and exchange a quick, small smile of greeting with Yaddle, while Qui-Gon made their good-byes to the council, still in the same quiet, polite voice. The screen flickered off, and Obi-Wan retrieved his card.

"When I was just knighted, I was told that young knights barely past their knighting didn't talk back to the council," Qui-Gon said, letting go of Obi-Wan's shoulder.

"When I was just knighted, I was told that you hadn't listened. You left a legacy behind for a new generation of Jedi knights to live up to." Obi-Wan tucked the card into his belt pouch. He slid off the bench and out of the booth, and waited for Qui-Gon to follow.

Qui-Gon swung his legs out and stretched them, wiggling his bare toes. Then he stood up and leaned over Obi-Wan. "You surprised me. Maybe you wouldn't have made such a bad padawan after all."

Looking up, Obi-Wan noticed that Qui-Gon's beard grew unevenly on the right side, and was greyer there. "Perhaps you can ask Luxewa about it, since you never got round to finding out for yourself. I'm going to get a room for the night. I think you'd better stay here." He looked Qui-Gon quickly up and down. "You don't look entirely respectable."

Obi-Wan walked away. "You've got blood on your shirt," Qui-Gon said, behind him, but Obi-Wan didn't turn.

The truth was that in this cantina, it didn't matter what you looked like, it only mattered what your money looked like. In the spaceport district, a man with blood on his shirt was nothing new, and the cantina owner wouldn't have looked twice at Qui-Gon, either, regardless of the bandages and the bare feet. Obi-Wan haggled for a while, realizing that their next call to the council had better be paid by the recipient. He had neglected to ask Qui-Gon whether he would stay with Obi-Wan, or spend the night at Shmi's home. The free rooms none of them had less than two beds, so at least he didn't have to go back to ask.

As he settled on a reasonable sum with the Txinxi cantina owner, Obi-Wan regretted his impulsive overreaction. What had happened on Bandomeer all those years ago was over and done with, and he knew that. Obi-Wan leaned his elbows on the scarred stone ledge of the bar top and breathed slowly, surprised at himself. He could remember so clearly what it had been like to be that child, to be full of his own wishes, and the hopes that had sprung up when he had encountered Qui-Gon at what seemed to be the last moment. He'd been so sure that that meeting had meant something.

Obi-Wan signed the guest log with a barely readable squiggle and accepted the key to the room. He turned and leaned back against the bar, and saw Qui-Gon lounging against the wall over by the comm booths. It was past. It was all in the past. He wasn't that child any more, and he'd do better to concentrate on Anakin. It was already late afternoon, and the race would be held at noon the next day; the podracers would be in the arena from early morning. Taking another slow, deliberate breath, Obi-Wan walked back to Qui-Gon.

"I'm going to change my shirt," he said, and went past the booths and through the doorway beyond them, hung with ropes of blue and green beads. The cantina only had six rooms for rent, all of them off this one corridor. Obi-Wan unlocked the door and went in, and Qui-Gon followed him, sitting down on one of the beds. Obi-Wan pulled a shirt out of the package the clothes dealer had wrapped for him. "Will you be staying here, or with Shmi?"

"What?" Qui-Gon looked up blankly. Then he shook his head. "Right now she blames me for not rescuing her son. I don't think I'd be much of a comfort to her. I assumed you meant for both of us to stay here."

Obi-Wan unfastened his belt and sash and took his shirt off, looking at the rips and bloodstains over the shoulder. He didn't think it could be salvaged. Dropping it on the floor, he craned his neck and tried to see his shoulder. There was no mirror in the room. He ran his fingertips over the marks. The skin was a little hot and tender, but not unreasonably so. "Perhaps she'll come to see things differently," he said. "You weren't in a position to stop Xanatos. If anyone is to blame, I am."

"I'll be sure to blame you when I talk to her again," Qui-Gon said with a tired smile. "Stop picking at that or it won't heal."

"I'm not picking at it." Obi-Wan put on one of his new shirts. The weave was coarser than that of his old shirt, and he could feel that it would itch. He tied the laces at the wrists and throat. "It might be possible to trace Xanatos' movements either from his ship, or through the podrace arrangements. If Anakin is registered as racing for him now, he must have made contact somehow."

"Probably through one of his crewmembers." Qui-Gon got to his feet. "He's not likely to have appeared himself. But it's a place to start."

Obi-Wan put his belt back on, forgoing the sash, and followed Qui-Gon out of the room. The cantina was starting to fill up, he noticed as they went through it, with people talking about podracing. Out on the street, the change in pace and mood was even more perceptible than earlier. It was like the eve of a festival day. Obi-Wan wondered how often podraces were held. That information hadn't been in his crash course on Tatooine.

The sun was low, and the light seemed redder and warmer. They went to the hangar, where the admiring crowd had thinned out, and found nothing; Xanatos' crew might be inside the ship, but they weren't loitering around to be talked to, and the hangar crew had no information about the ship or its owner. The Ya'an yacht just sat there, looking sleek and expensive, with its weaponry hidden beneath smooth polished plates. Not as fast as the Arrow, though, Obi-Wan thought, if it came to that.

With more people on the streets, more grit and sand whirled up in the air, and by the time they reached the speeder rental lot, Qui-Gon's pants were tan to the knees, and sand had trickled down over the tops of Obi-Wan's boots. The guards at the rental lot looked, but did not comment or try to keep them out. Perhaps they recognized Obi-Wan from before. He took care to display the access card with the rental agency logo as he walked across the lot.

They took the speeder out and went around the edge of the city. By one warehouse, a work crew was digging a wall free of sand, trying to hold the desert off. The city had probably moved over the years, Obi-Wan thought, revolving like a lopsided wheel around its central sources of water. Most of the new warehouses were on the other side of the spaceport district, in what was currently a more sheltered area.

Obi-Wan steered the speeder away from Mos Espa and out to the podrace arena. The distance wasn't much, in a fast speeder, and the arena could be seen from a long way away. It looked like a very large toy dropped in the middle of a very large sandbox, and its shadow ran broad and black out over the dunes, stretching like a river away from the setting sun. Obi-Wan flew up as close as he could get and parked the speeder near the arena opening closest to Mos Espa. When he looked back, he could see the first lights begin to come on in the town houses' small windows.

Around the arena, a crowd of beings bustled this way and that, unintimidated by its bulk. Vendors were already setting up their stalls in preparation for the next day, and raggedy-looking mechanics were wandering around hoping to be hired at the last minute by one of the pod crews. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon made their way to one of the main entrances and looked inside. The offices were closed. Not the betting offices, those wouldn't close at all this night, but everything to do with administration and management was shut down already. They walked through the working crews and the milling crowds, trying to pick out administration staff. In the area of the pit hangar set aside for Anakin's pod, there was nothing as yet. "We could stay here tonight," Obi-Wan said. "Sooner or later, they'll show up."

Qui-Gon looked thoughtful, then shook his head. "It would be better to find them someplace less crowded. We can always come back early tomorrow morning." Some of the mechanics working on the other pods were giving them suspicious looks, and Obi-Wan was reminded that podracing frequently involved sabotage and dirty tricks.

They walked around a while longer, talking to anyone who'd stand still long enough and buying some food off a Twi'lek with a sweet-rolls cart. Obi-Wan poured extra green sauce on his roll and watched one podracing crew wax side panels, while another was lifting out the entire pod engine and looking worried. The sauce dripped down on his fingers, and he licked it off. It tingled on his tongue. Some children were playing at podracing, running through the sand; every now and then one of them would fall over and scream "Boom!" and throw up clouds of sand with thrashing arms and legs.

The other racing crews hadn't seen Anakin, knew nothing of him, and thought very poorly of his chances in the race. Obi-Wan talked idly to everyone he met between bites of sweet roll, and Qui-Gon bent the full weight of his force-heavy stare on them, but there was no information to be had. No one seemed to know that Anakin had been sold; no one had seen a work crew in black uniforms. The sun slipped below the horizon, and Qui-Gon tossed the last piece of his roll to a small, scruffy jerz hunting for scraps along the outside wall of the arena. "This is useless," he said. "They must still be somewhere in town."

Walking back to the place where they had left the speeder, Obi-Wan noticed that he had sand between his toes. He unhooked one of the small water containers from his utility belt, drank slowly, and handed it to Qui-Gon, who finished it. One drop ran from the corner of Qui-Gon's mouth down into his ragged beard, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand.

Someone had put fliers for a betting agency on the speeder's dashboard. Obi-Wan handed them to Qui-Gon, checked that no one had siphoned off fuel, and took off. On the way back, he watched the stars come out. Shmi would be home by now, away from the distraction of work, all alone with the knowledge that Anakin was gone. "Are you sure you shouldn't go to her?"

Qui-Gon folded the fliers and dropped them on the floor between his feet. He rubbed the back of his hand against the bruise on his cheekbone. Despite the hum of force around him, he looked tired. "Are you uncomfortable, after what we did?" he asked quietly. "Or is it just that I snore?"

"You don't," Obi-Wan said, a little startled. They were going past the part of town that held the slave quarters, and the small houses packed tightly together seemed to huddle, sheltering against each other, as if for comfort. "I was thinking about what it would be like for her to be home, alone."

"She has friends among the neighbors." Qui-Gon turned his head and looked at the town, where lights showed in more of the small, deepset windows. "Women who understand this pain better than I ever could." His mouth twisted a little. "I led Xanatos to Anakin. He came here to find me. I haven't been much of a friend to her."

The speeder's fuel gauge was almost at the red line. Obi-Wan skirted close by the houses and warehouses, taking the shortest possible route to the spaceport district and the rental agency's lot. The work crew that had been digging sand was gone now. Only the spaceport workers had night shifts to contend with.

The lot was much emptier than before, he noticed as they parked the speeder. The spaceport looked busier, too; several ships had landed as they came in. The night shift would have much to do. The rental agency office was still open. Podracing might mean more off-planet customers looking for local transportation. Obi-Wan jumped out of the speeder, and Qui-Gon swung his long legs over the side a bit more slowly. The lot attendant was reading a betting sheet, doing little calculations in the blank spaces, but she promised to have the speeder refueled at once.

The streets of Mos Espa were crowded, and became more so as they moved away from the warehouses and in among the cantinas and bars. Laughter and smoke and music spilled out from open cantina doors. Hangar six was closed, and they couldn't get in. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon wandered along the streets looking, listening, testing the force currents and stepping carefully out of the way of drunken dockworkers who were celebrating their anticipated win this night and might be drowning their sorrows the next. They wandered into cantinas and looked for the black uniforms Xanatos' crewmembers wore. Walking from place to place was not enough to get the tlao smoke out of their clothes. After a while, they split up to cover more ground.

Obi-Wan went into the dark alleys, the narrow streets behind warehouses. He walked quietly past a couple kissing in a doorway, and frightened two street children going through the trash behind a cantina. They took off, bare feet kicking up sand and dust, before he could try to tell them that it was all right. He looked into all the secluded, hidden places he could find, and interrupted three drug deals and two prostitutes trying to do business, but there was no sign of Xanatos' crew.

It seemed unlikely that they would be on the other side of town, in the slave quarters. Obi-Wan walked right out to the edge of the town and stood there, looking out over the sand dunes, hearing the whine of engines as another ship landed in the spaceport. The warehouses and loading docks were a solid presence at his back. Obi-Wan closed his eyes and slowed his breathing.

He knew his connection to the living force was sometimes tenuous, less under his control, less intuitive for him than the workings of the unifying force. Yoda had told him many times that until he stopped thinking in terms of controlling the living force, he never truly would master either it or himself. Here under the stars, he took a step in and a step out, and tried to sense the force currents to see if there was anything they could tell him.

At first there was nothing beyond the awareness of life and more life in the city. No trace of Anakin, no breath of darkness or threat from Xanatos. Nothing strange at all. Then a flicker at the edge of his awareness grew stronger, and he concentrated on it. This was no darkness, though. This was warmth, and strength, and a rock-like core of certainty.

Obi-Wan knew that certainty; he could see it every time he looked in Qui-Gon's eyes. It had been there to see long before Qui-Gon regained his connection to the force. It was just all the more powerful now, shining like a beacon and attracting anyone even marginally sensitive to it. Obi-Wan pulled away slowly. Away from Qui-Gon, the desert night seemed cold, as though the chill of space was seeping down from between the stars. Obi-Wan drew back into himself, into the shelter of his own body — and felt as a parting touch the deepest of cold darkness, sliding down his spine like the blade of a black iron knife.

He staggered. Straightening, turning, he saw nothing but a sandy street and a warehouse wall. Obi-Wan put a hand to his back and felt rough cloth and under that, uninjured skin. Nothing had touched him physically, but then, he knew that. He stepped back and leaned against the wall, digging his heels into the ground. The sand yielded under his boots until he was almost rooted in it. There was something out there. Obi-Wan stared up at the stars. His pulse quieted as the startlement wore off. Shaking his sleeves back, he put his hands together palm to palm and reached out again.

And once again, there was nothing. The life of the city, the force currents that swept over the surface of the planet, the unmistakable presence of Qui-Gon, but no Anakin, and not a trace of the dark presence that had touched him before. Braced to encounter it once more, Obi-Wan found only the ordinary swirl and flow of life. He shook his head, slipping back behind his eyes once more. Those with a strong connection to the living force could walk in its currents day and night, their awareness of it like an additional sense, or so he was told. That was not how it was for him.

Obi-Wan pulled his hands apart. A couple of his fingers were still sticky from the sauce. He crouched down and rubbed sand into the stickiness, and then scraped it off. A little better. Straightening up, he stepped out of the shallow depression in the sand that he'd made for himself and walked back in among the houses. He wasn't straining to touch the living force any more, but he found that he had a clear idea all the same of where to find Qui-Gon. There was a subtle tug in the air, more a memory of connection than anything else.

The children were back behind the cantina, picking through the refuse, and this time he ghosted past without disturbing them. Out on the more crowded streets again, he listened for anything that might snag his attention as he moved through groups of locals and travelers. A small girl was selling banners and flags for the more popular podracers from a tray. When a dockworker staggered sideways towards her, Obi-Wan tugged her out of the way, and only a few flags fell off the tray into the sand. She smiled up at him; her eyelids were heavy, her eyes overbright. "Shouldn't you be in bed?" he said.

"I have to sell all this first." She straightened the piles of banners and looked at the crowd with a jaded eye. "Everyone just wants Sebulba banners, and I'm out of those. Kasht always thinks people will buy more flags and banners for Undai'a just because he bets on Undai'a himself." The girl shot a quick, apologetic look at Obi-Wan and tugged her arm out of his grip. "I gotta get back to work."

"Kasht, that's your employer?"

"My owner." She tucked strands of sand-colored hair behind her ear. Her eyes turned wary. "Look, I really have to go. I, uh, don't have time to stand around and talk."

Obi-Wan stepped back carefully. He fished in his pocket for spare change and got out a handful of small, thin coins. "Is this enough for a flag?"

The girl snorted. "That's not even enough for half a flag." Obi-Wan started to tuck the coins away again, and she stopped him with a hand on his arm. "But you kept them out of the dust, I can let you have one cheap. Which d'you want?"

"This one," Obi-Wan said, picking one at random. He put the money in the girl's hand and watched her dart into the crowd on the street again, crying her wares in a thin, tired voice. Looking down, he saw that it was one of the Undai'a flags, and he didn't even know who Undai'a was. Obi-Wan rolled the strip of flag around the plastine stick and tucked it in his belt, and walked off.

He met Qui-Gon outside the cantina where they were staying. Qui-Gon looked weary; there was a shadow over his face. His hair was coming out of its braid. Noise spilled from the cantina door, and Obi-Wan wished they could be out in the quiet places under the stars, away from the town. Instead, he squared his shoulders and they both went inside, pausing for a while in the raucous crowd that filled up the cantina bar to listen to what was said and yelled. No one wore a black uniform, and no one talked about the Ya'an yacht, or about Anakin.

Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon, who nodded, and they went down the short hallway with the comm booths, through the thin beaded drapery, back to the corridor with the cantina's few rooms. Qui-Gon stopped at their door, Obi-Wan unlocked it, and they went inside. The brick and plaster walls of the cantina, as in most buildings in Mos Espa, were thick, and shut out most of the sound.

"I haven't found anything," Qui-Gon said. "Have you?"

"No trace of Anakin or Xanatos." Obi-Wan sat down on the room's only chair and began to unbuckle his boots. "But there was something, when I touched the force." He paused to undo another couple of buckles, but Qui-Gon said nothing. "I felt something dark. Something very powerful."

Qui-Gon sat at the foot of one of the beds, facing Obi-Wan. "Could you tell what it was? Where it came from?"

Obi-Wan shook his head. "It vanished completely."

"It could have been Xanatos. At least that means he's still here."

Tugging off his left boot, Obi-Wan considered it. "I suppose it's possible," he said quietly. He tugged off the right boot, too, and flexed his feet, stretched his toes. His socks were full of sand. "I don't know." There had been something about that touch that spoke of a colder and more remote cruelty than anything he'd felt from Xanatos, but then, his experience with Xanatos was limited. Qui-Gon would know such things better.

Obi-Wan peeled his socks off and shook them out. The floor was already sandy. The skin on his feet had chafed red in several places, and he rubbed at them, wishing for a little of the ointment he'd used back in Jabba's palace. Obi-Wan unbuckled his belt, and the Undai'a flag fell into his lap. It was a cheap print, Undai'a's name in white on red cloth. He picked it up and twirled it between his fingers. Thinking back to the selection on the girl's tray, he didn't think he'd seen any banners with Anakin's name on. He could easily call up an image of the boy's face, sunlit and smiling, but then it was followed by the shadows of yesterday's vision.

"Is your ship ready to leave?" Qui-Gon asked, dispelling the memory-image. He was leaning back on his hands now, rolling his head, legs stretched out across the floor so that his bare feet almost touched Obi-Wan's discarded boots. "If we can get to Anakin before the race starts tomorrow, we can leave with him."

Obi-Wan frowned. "Xanatos will be there, too. And what about Shmi?"

"I'll call her now," Qui-Gon said, "and ask her to meet us at the ship tomorrow." He got to his feet, standing straight as though he'd never sprawled across a bed in his life. "I know Xanatos will be there. He's too well hidden for us to find him tonight. It's our only chance."

"The Arrow is ready to go," Obi-Wan said slowly, "and she can outrun Xanatos' yacht easily enough. But we can't take her to the arena. Even if we get Anakin away from Xanatos, we'd still have to get from there to the hangar, and Xanatos will have his people all over the spaceport." Although none of them had been visible tonight.

Qui-Gon, at the door, paused and looked over his shoulder. The braid hung like a length of fraying rope down his back. "Do you have a better idea?" Obi-Wan had nothing to say to that, and Qui-Gon's hand went to the door handle. "Trust in the force, Obi-Wan," he said and went out.

"I don't think the force objects to a good backup plan," Obi-Wan muttered. He got up, too, and stretched. His torn old shirt was still on the floor by one of the beds, and he went over and picked it up, folding it and putting it on the chair, and his sandy socks on top of it. He righted his boots and put them by the wall. The room was small, and untidiness would make it seem smaller still. The beds were to either side of the low window, the chair was by the door, and that was it.

Prickles of tired restlessness ran down his back. There wasn't enough room on the floor for any of the moving meditations. Obi-Wan sat down on one of the beds and pulled his legs up, straightened his spine and relaxed his shoulders. He wished he had a clean pair of socks. Everything he'd brought to Tatooine had been left behind at Jabba's palace. Obi-Wan pushed his hair back out of his face; there was sand in that, too. He brushed his fingers against the coarse bedcover, counting threads with his fingertips.

The door creaked a little. Qui-Gon stood in the doorway, still straight-backed and square-shouldered, still looking tired. "She wasn't there. I'll get hold of her tomorrow." He looked around the room. "Is there—"

"End of the hallway," Obi-Wan said. "One ri of water per person per day is included in the room price. It's measured out by the wall unit when you punch in the room number."

Qui-Gon nodded and closed the door again. Obi-Wan closed his eyes. There was a faint breeze coming in through the window. This room was unusually hot; he wondered if it shared a wall with the cantina kitchen. Sinking into himself, he breathed in long, slow, calming breaths. He had to be ready, they both had to be ready, for whatever would come the next day. He didn't believe that Xanatos would leave Anakin unguarded before the race.

He hoped Shmi was with friends who would support her.

The muted sound of people talking and laughing in the cantina sounded almost like distant running water. Over it, Obi-Wan heard Qui-Gon's returning footsteps, and he looked up when the door opened. Qui-Gon had trimmed his beard, and cut a hand's breadth off his hair, which hung loose and heavy over his shoulders; he no longer looked quite so ragged. He hadn't bothered to put his shirt back on for the short walk along the hallway, and Obi-Wan was pleased to see that the bandages over his collarbones showed no signs of bloodstains. "A ri is not a lot of water," Qui-Gon said, came into the room and closed the door.

Qui-Gon sat down on the other bed and leaned forward, elbows on knees. He sat like that for a while, and Obi-Wan watched him wordlessly, until Qui-Gon straightened up and began to braid his hair again for the night. He did it very fast, strands slipping so quickly between his fingers that Obi-Wan wondered how he kept track of them. When he reached the end, he tied the braid off with a thread that looked to be ripped from Obi-Wan's torn shirt.

Obi-Wan got up and left the room in his turn. Out in the hallway, he could hear that the cantina guests were singing something. It was mournful for a drinking song, slow-paced and in a minor key. Obi-Wan slipped into the bathroom and cleaned himself up quickly, washing his face and his hands and his feet. He knew he would never get all the sand off, not with just a ri of water, and sure enough, when he walked out again he could still feel sand between his toes. The same song still echoed through the hall as he went back into the room.

The overhead light was off, but light from outside fell in through the window, laying a pale bar across the floor between the beds. Qui-Gon sat up in bed, leaning back against the wall, loosely wrapped in a sheet. Obi-Wan began to undress, taking off his utility belt and the new shirt and putting them on the chair. He loosened the lightsaber and left it uncovered so that he could get to it easily should the need arise. Then he paused. "Perhaps I am a little uncomfortable," he admitted. "This situation is new to me."

"It's new to me, too," Qui-Gon said, and for a moment he sounded wryly amused, then he turned serious. "What we did was by necessity, Obi-Wan. You were as courteous and considerate as it was possible to be under the circumstances."

Obi-Wan took off his pants but kept his linens on. He went to the empty bed and slipped under the sheet, stretching out with his hands under his head. Qui-Gon was only a shadow at the edge of his vision. Only that morning he had woken up tangled in Qui-Gon's arms. The intimacy between them had been artificial, created by situation, not by choice, but nevertheless, it had left memories behind, in his body and in his mind. "Yes, Master Jinn," he said.

There was a brief pause. "I think it would be better if you called me Qui-Gon." The sheets rustled as Qui-Gon scooted away from the wall to lie down. The sound of someone else settling down for the night in a bed next to his own reminded Obi-Wan, as always, of the initiates' dormitory. When Qui-Gon spoke again, his voice was very quiet. "When Anakin broke the chain, there was a moment when nothing happened. I thought... I had been cut off from the force for so long. I thought it might never return to me."

Obi-Wan shivered. Those words tasted like sand and ashes. "But it did," he said, and then felt foolish for offering reassurance to a Jedi master who knew perfectly well that it had.

Qui-Gon moved again, and the bed creaked under his weight. "It did," he said, too, and Obi-Wan took the soft joy in Qui-Gon's voice with him into sleep.

* * *

The smell of lye woke him; the sheet was over his face, and it smelled of cheap detergent. Obi-Wan sneezed. He pulled the sheet away and blinked at the bright sunlight. Not much reached in through the window, as the walls were so thick, but the small square of light fell right over his face and shoulders. In the other bed, Qui-Gon slept on, undisturbed by sun or sheets.

Obi-Wan stretched, and sat up. The cuts on his shoulder itched badly, so they were probably healing. The skin between his toes felt abraded, and he pulled up a foot and started to brush the sand away. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Qui-Gon, who was sleeping on his stomach with one arm up over his head. The braid trailed over the edge of the bed. Obi-Wan smiled faintly, brushed the sand off the sheet, and pulled up his other foot. The sun was warm on his skin.

No raucous sound filtered through the walls; the cantina was quiet. Obi-Wan tried to remember the tune of the mournful song he'd heard the night before. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and ran his hands through his hair, getting it out of his face. Qui-Gon stirred in his sleep, moving his hand restlessly. The sheet slipped down and Obi-Wan could see Qui-Gon's back, heavy with muscle, marked with a few scars. The nape of Qui-Gon's neck looked bare and vulnerable. Obi-Wan got to his feet and took the two steps that separated his bed from Qui-Gon's and stretched out his hand. Then he hesitated, changed his mind, pulled on his pants, and went out of the room.

At the end of the hallway, a sleepy-looking Rodian was already waiting in line. Obi-Wan stood beside him and waited, too. When it was finally his turn, he hurried, using only a small part of his water allotment for the day. It seemed likely he'd need it more later. His hair felt lank and dirty — sandy, really — but he ignored it. Xanatos was hardly likely to care how presentable he was.

By the time Obi-Wan came back to the room, Qui-Gon had woken up by himself and was loosening the dressings over collarbones to look underneath. "You should leave those be," Obi-Wan said. "Staring at it doesn't make it heal faster. Or so the healers always told me," he added quickly as Qui-Gon looked up at him.

"They always told me that, too," Qui-Gon said, quite mildly. He pressed the bandages back into place, but one of the tape strips wouldn't fasten. The top right corner of the bandage kept flopping forward. Obi-Wan sat down on the foot of his bed and brushed the sand off the soles of his feet, shook his socks out, and put them on. "If you let me have your card, I'll call Shmi again," Qui-Gon went on.

"Yes, Master Jinn." Obi-Wan pulled his shirt on. It smelled of the same cheap detergent as the sheets, he noticed now, only not quite as strongly. It could not really be lye; wood was a luxury material on Tatooine. He reached for his belt, only to have Qui-Gon take hold of his wrist.

"I thought we agreed that you would call me Qui-Gon. I'm not a stickler for the forms, and the situations we've found ourselves in have hardly lent themselves to formality."

Obi-Wan looked at Qui-Gon's hand around his wrist. Qui-Gon's fingers were tanned from years of exposure to the Tatooine sun, his own skin much paler. "The situations have been unusual," he said. "That's precisely it. The intimacy between us has been enforced, not real."

There was a pause, and then Qui-Gon let go of Obi-Wan's wrist, got off the bed, and walked over to his own pile of neatly folded clothing. "Very well, Knight Kenobi." He pulled on pants and shirt and walked out of the room; a few moments later, Obi-Wan heard another door open and close at the end of the hallway, and the faint rumble of the wall unit measuring out water.

Obi-Wan finished dressing, shook sand out of his boots before putting them on, and did up the buckles with slow care. The new shirt was less comfortable than the torn uniform one, and not designed for freedom of movement in the same way, but the seams were old and worn and would probably give way rather than constrict him, or so he hoped. He stood in the middle of the room and stretched his arms this way and that, rotating his shoulders, careful not to stress the fabric unnecessarily. The room seemed more cramped now, in daylight, than it had last night. The beds were very close, and there was no space for him to practice even the smallest of katas.

A soft knock on the door made him turn a little too quickly, and he felt a seam begin to give over his right shoulder. Obi-Wan went to the door and opened it, and found himself face to face with Shmi Skywalker. "I want to talk to you," she said. "And Qui-Gon, is he here?"

"He'll be right back," Obi-Wan said, stepping aside to let her into the room and hastily removing his torn old shirt from the chair to offer her a seat. "He was about to call you."

Shmi shook her head at the chair and remained standing. "Something will happen," she said. She looked unsettled, as though her center of gravity had shifted unexpectedly. "I can feel it." Shmi swayed on her feet, and Obi-Wan put a steadying hand under her elbow. "We need to get out to the arena."

Obi-Wan was about to seat Shmi on the chair whether she wanted it or not, when Qui-Gon came back. Shmi turned abruptly towards the door, pulling away from Obi-Wan's grip, and a complex look passed between her and Qui-Gon; then she nodded, and swayed again, and Qui-Gon stepped forward and caught her in a comforting embrace. Qui-Gon curved one hand around her head and held her against his chest, and Obi-Wan, once again very aware of the smallness of the room, turned away and looked out the window. The sun was higher, the patch of light that had fallen across his bed gone.

Behind him, Qui-Gon and Shmi talked so softly that he was probably not intended to listen, but he'd never mastered the skill of voluntary deafness. Obi-Wan folded his arms and watched a jerz sneaking around the garbage cans as Qui-Gon spoke soothing words of comfort and Shmi repeated her conviction that something was about to happen. She'd found them through the record of yesterday's call; when Qui-Gon asked about the previous night, she said she had been with a neighbor.

The jerz was small and thin, its ribs standing out beneath matted fur. It reminded Obi-Wan of the children he'd seen scrounging for food last night. He wondered if they were slaves, but thought they were more likely to be street orphans. He wondered if freeing all the slaves, as Anakin dreamed of, would create a new underclass and cause increased poverty for those who already had so little. His thoughts felt like an echo of all the classes on history and economics he'd ever taken, and the jerz overturned a garbage can with a loud rattle, grabbed part of a stripped iribird carcass in its jaws, and ran off. Obi-Wan cleared his throat and turned around. "I believe it might be time for us to leave for the arena," he said.

Shmi had pulled out of Qui-Gon's arms and was standing more securely on her own two feet. She turned to look at Obi-Wan, and her gaze was level, determined. "Yes. It is far to walk."

"We have a speeder." Obi-Wan was glad Shmi was a small woman. Speeder seats were not designed to accommodate more than two people at most. "I think we'll all fit in it." Another thought struck him. "Forgive me, but — you aren't working today?"

Shmi shook her head. "Today is a free day. Nearly all the shops and business places in Mos Espa are closed. Only a very harsh owner would make someone work on a podracing day." She smoothed a hand over her skirt, tugging out a wrinkle only she could see. Obi-Wan thought it was the same skirt she had worn two days ago, when he had swung her out of the path of the dying khant, but he wasn't certain. If it was, she had brushed all the sand out. "We need to get there early. Anakin must not enter the race."

"Come, then." Qui-Gon held the door for her and turned his head to meet Obi-Wan's eyes before following. With a last look at the back alley and the garbage cans, Obi-Wan left the window and crossed the room in four long strides. He closed and locked the door, and hurried to catch up with Shmi and Qui-Gon. His hair fell in his eyes.

The cantina was almost empty. An overturned chair had been left lying in the middle of the floor. Behind the bar stood a sulky-looking Txinxi youth who looked to be the proprietor's son. His whiskers were drooping, and he barely acknowledged their existence as they nodded to him before going out. This day felt almost hotter than the previous one. Sunshine beat down on a few people hurrying along the street. Qui-Gon, Shmi and Obi-Wan walked along briskly towards the speeder rental lot. Obi-Wan thought that he had never heard Mos Espa be so quiet before. No songs spilling out from the cantinas, no street-stall owners crying their wares. No children running and shouting.

When they arrived at the speeder lot, it, too, was empty and quiet. The attendant's booth was closed, and so were the gates. The fence around the lot wasn't all that high, though. "I'll climb in," Obi-Wan offered.

Qui-Gon nodded, and Obi-Wan made his way up the metal rails that made up the gates, swinging himself over the spikes at the top and landing on the balls of his feet on the other side. He hurried over to his speeder, almost the only one left in the lot except for a couple of wrecks over in one corner, rusting quietly. Business must have been good last night, with many off-planet customers requiring transportation out to the arena. Jumping into the speeder, Obi-Wan powered it up only to have the engine die again at once. He frowned and tried again; the engine gave a faint cough, then was silent.

Obi-Wan looked at the fuel gauge in sudden suspicion. It pointed to empty, just as it had last night. Promising himself a long talk with the lot attendant later, he jumped out of the speeder again. A quick look was enough to tell him that the wrecks in the corner weren't going anywhere any time soon, and certainly there was no fuel in their tanks. Obi-Wan grabbed the fuel container from under the speeder seat and ran back to the gate. He tossed the container over and waited to see that Qui-Gon caught it before climbing up and over himself. The seam of his shirt tried to catch on one of the spikes, and he had to tease it free before jumping down. Obi-Wan landed in a small cloud of sand, and Qui-Gon held the container out to him again. "What is wrong?" Shmi asked.

"No fuel," Obi-Wan said briefly and ran down the street towards the nearest refueling station, hair falling in his eyes again. The fuel container slapped against his leg as he ran. When he got there, the station was closed, and all the fuel pumps were locked. A hand-written sign in Huttese said, CLOSED ON RACE DAY. Obi-Wan looked through narrowed eyes at the pump locks, but they appeared quite complicated, and there was an alarm system. He hoisted the fuel container higher and ran on.

The next refueling station was closed, as well, but it had two automatic pumps. Obi-Wan slotted in his card and filled up the container. The harsh smell of speeder fuel slapped him in the face as he bent to screw the lid back on, and he sneezed, picked the container up, and headed back as fast as he could.

Qui-Gon and Shmi stood waiting for him, both with their arms folded, and they might have looked serene to anyone else, but Obi-Wan could feel the weight of their looks as he came running. When he came to a halt, Qui-Gon said, "It might have been wise to refuel the speeder yesterday."

"I told the lot attendant," Obi-Wan said, not quite through clenched teeth, remembering her cheerful agreement. "She must have forgotten." Pushing the fuel container into Qui-Gon's hands, he clambered over the gates for the third time. The side seam of his shirt caught and ripped. As soon as he came down on the other side, Qui-Gon tossed the container over, and Obi-Wan caught it with a little bit of force-help and went back to the speeder.

Pouring the fuel into the tank with his head turned away to avoid the fumes, he couldn't help but notice that there were traces of blood on the speeder seat. Obi-Wan screwed the lid back on the container and pushed it into place under the seat. The blood must be from his shoulder. He'd have to pay for cleaning the speeder seat, or possibly to have it reupholstered. Obi-Wan frowned at the amount of sand on the speeder floor, straightened up, and was seized by sudden dizziness. Stood up too fast, he thought, and then blood and sand whirled across his vision. Blood and sand, sand and blood, and a deep echoing darkness. A distant sensation of cold laughter. He staggered and knew his hands were holding onto something, though he couldn't see it.

Obi-Wan remembered everything Master Yoda had ever taught him about visions: how fleeting they were, difficult to interpret. How to sink into them, try to make them last, memorize every detail so that it could be pondered later. How to give himself over to what the vision was trying to say.

He concentrated on the grip of his hands, the sensation of something hard under his palms, tried to remember to breathe, and dragged himself forcibly back into the here and now. The shadows faded. He was on one knee, gripping the side of the speeder. The lingering smell of fuel in the air combined with the remembered scent of blood from the vision made his stomach churn, and he pushed himself upright and past the speeder, bent forward, and was sick. He hadn't even had any breakfast to throw up, he thought and spat, and breathed deeply away from the fuel fumes.

Fumbling for the small water bottle at his belt, Obi-Wan straightened up and kept breathing in slow and careful breaths. He rinsed his mouth out twice, then drank a little to try to settle his stomach. A rattle of metal made him turn around. Qui-Gon was climbing over the gate. Obi-Wan waved a hand in an I'm-fine kind of way, but Qui-Gon jumped down and came towards him in long ground-eating strides. "What's wrong?"

Obi-Wan waited until Qui-Gon was standing next to him. He pressed his lips together and swallowed hard, determined not to be sick again. "It might just be the heat." Looking up at Qui-Gon's stern face, Obi-Wan sighed. "I had another vision. Something bad is going to happen." Shmi's words sat oddly in his mouth. His occasional brushes with the future prior to this had never felt so ominous.

Qui-Gon curved a hand around Obi-Wan's arm. "What kind of thing?"

"I don't know." Obi-Wan shied away from touching the memory of that vision. "There is a darkness..." His words seemed small and inconsequential compared to the horror he'd felt. There was no way for him to adequately convey the urgency that had come over him. "I think we should hurry."

They both got into the speeder, and Obi-Wan took it over the gate. Qui-Gon got out to wait with Shmi while Obi-Wan went down to the refueling station once again and filled up the fuel tank at the same automatic pump. His card beeped when he took it out of the slot. He had almost nothing left. Getting into the speeder, he powered it up and checked all the gauges and warning lights, unwilling to be caught short halfway to the arena by some other deficiency. Everything looked to be in order, so Obi-Wan nudged the speeder into motion.

Shmi had her arms folded more tightly around herself, and her head was bent as if the weight of her braided hair had become too much for her to hold up. Qui-Gon swung her over the side of the speeder in a swirl of heavy skirts and clambered in after her. It was a very narrow fit for three, especially when one of the three took up as much room as Qui-Gon did, and Obi-Wan had to hold his arms at an awkward angle as he steered the speeder away from the spaceport district and out over the sand. The sun stood mid-morning high, and he pressed his lips together. They were late.

The city lay quiet to their left, without any noise or bustle. No one spoke during the ride. Once, when Obi-Wan looked to the side, he saw that Shmi was holding on to Qui-Gon's hand with a white-knuckled grip. He wondered if her feeling of impending doom was the same as his. Nudging at the controls, he pushed the speeder to go faster.

The area around the arena looked different, and it took Obi-Wan a few moments to realize why: instead of stretches of bare sand, he was seeing closely parked speeders and sandskimmers, and a few larger ships and floating yachts. Arena guards on small hoverboards were directing the traffic. A hum of sound rose out of the arena itself, loud enough to be heard over the speeder's engine. "Get up close," Qui-Gon said, gesturing at the right side of the arena's massive curved wall, where the entrance for pilots and mechanics was.

Obi-Wan went that way, but as they got closer, in among the parked speeders and skimmers, they were slowed down by others who were also trying to get as close to the arena as possible. Attendants wearing yellow shirts were waving their arms in complex signals that seemed to mean 'go away and park somewhere out in the desert'. Obi-Wan tried to push the speeder higher, to go over the parked vehicles and aim straight for the entrance they wanted, but the sharp change in angle flooded the speeder's engine, and it coughed, ground, and stopped. They landed with a teeth-rattling whump, and Obi-Wan flung out an arm to keep Shmi from being slammed forward into the speeder controls.

"Are you all right?" he asked, and she nodded. Behind them, someone began to yell, and a claxon bleated and honked. Qui-Gon glared at Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan glared back. One of the yellow-shirted attendants was heading their way on his hoverboard, and Obi-Wan quickly scrambled out of the speeder, holding out a hand to Shmi, who was a little hampered by her skirts.

Qui-Gon got out, too, and they set off on foot through the rows of speeders. The arena loomed over them, its shadowed side looking dark even in the middle of the day. Glancing up, Obi-Wan saw that the sun was almost directly overhead, and the race was going to start at midday. He lengthened his stride. Shmi, used to walking on sand, had no trouble keeping up with them, though he could hear her breathing grow faster and more strained as they got closer to the side entrance they wanted. When he looked back, he saw that the speeder was being dragged away, and the line that had built up behind it was being redirected.

At first Obi-Wan thought that the three hulking Couresians standing by the entrance were part of the arena security team, but as he came closer he saw that they were wearing a familiar black livery. The entrance was a dark arc behind them, high and wide enough to fly a racing pod through. Obi-Wan slanted a look sideways, met Qui-Gon's eyes over Shmi's head. Qui-Gon drew ahead, and Obi-Wan could feel the force moving, like sand blowing against his skin. The Couresians turned towards them and drew together, blocking their way. Shmi took hold of Obi-Wan's arm, and he put his hand over hers.

"You will let us pass," Qui-Gon said. Two of the Couresians scowled, and the nearest one swayed on her feet. Qui-Gon moved his hand, the smallest of gestures. Obi-Wan felt every hair on his arms and the back of his neck stand on end. "You will let us pass."

The sounds from the crowd in the arena and all the speeder engines behind them seemed distant and distorted. The shadow of the arena fell over them, muffling everything. Obi-Wan kept hold of Shmi's hand and walked forward. The Couresians' eyes glazed over, and they moved aside. Qui-Gon strode ahead, and Obi-Wan and Shmi followed. They knew their way around most public parts of the arena, and some of the private ones, from the night before. The large maintentance hall where most of the pods had been kept overnight was straight ahead. They hurried, their footsteps echoing against the arched ceiling, and came out into the hall to find it empty. The shapes of some of the pods were outlined in oil and grease on the floor. Obi-Wan looked at the space that had been allotted to Anakin's pod and saw no sign that it had ever been there.

At the other end of the hall, large double doors stood partly ajar. A cheer came flowing through them, and Obi-Wan deduced that the pods were lining up for the final pre-race checks, in full view of the audience. Shmi's grip on his arm tightened, and she pulled him forward, towards the double doors. "Anakin is out there," she said.

Obi-Wan dug his heels in and looked back at Qui-Gon. "Master Jinn," he said, and got no reaction. "We need a plan."

"You don't have a plan? I'm disappointed." The silky voice came from the double doors. Obi-Wan turned his head slowly to see Xanatos standing there, leaning casually against one of the doors, balancing a small metal object on the palm of one hand. "I must admit, I had higher expectations."

Obi-Wan prised Shmi's fingers off his arm, stepped away from her, and unclipped the lightsaber from his belt. The back of his neck prickled, and he shifted his fingers on the familiar lightsaber handle. Shmi walked backwards out of range of his sword arm without taking her eyes off Xanatos. Qui-Gon came up behind her, and Obi-Wan felt a first stirring in the force. "Your expectations have rarely matched reality," Qui-Gon said.

"Sad, isn't it," Xanatos agreed. "Then again, neither have yours."

He bounced the metal object in his hand once, twice, and then threw it straight at Obi-Wan. It unfolded in flight into a fine-meshed metal net; the change in shape changed its trajectory, and though Obi-Wan tried to dodge, it landed half over his face, half on his throat and shoulder, and terror exploded through him. He staggered, and fell.

It was icy nausea and white-hot horror at once. It was like being dropped headfirst down a deep well. Obi-Wan wanted to bring his hands up and claw the mesh away, but he wasn't even sure he was moving, didn't know if his eyes were open or closed. The room around him had vanished; the floor had ceased to support his feet. It was as though all his senses had been cut off and he couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn't feel. Everything was gone. In some small sane corner of his mind he knew what had happened, but the rest of him was screaming.

The darkness he'd felt during his vision seemed to be all around him, and he couldn't breathe. He would drown here. He would die. He clung to the thought that he would die, because the alternative was so much more horrifying. Everything was cold; he thought his bones would freeze. He tried to close his hand around the hilt of his lightsaber, but could not even feel his own fingers.

Another ripping pain, as though his head were torn open, a rattle of metal against concrete, and Obi-Wan gasped for air. There was feeling again — warmth, and a steady embrace. He made a small sound, twisted, and was helped over on his hands and knees so he could throw up. Again, he thought, coughing up bile. His stomach convulsed again, despite being empty, and the bile burned his throat, and then he pushed himself away from the mess. Up on his knees, Obi-Wan swayed dizzily, and Qui-Gon caught him and eased him down.

"It's all right," Qui-Gon said, running one hand slowly up and down Obi-Wan's back. "It's gone. It's all right." His voice sounded real, and echoed against the walls, so the world must be back.

Obi-Wan opened his eyes and blinked against the light. The first thing he saw was the metal mesh, lying by the wall as if thrown against it. He suppressed a shudder. Next to that, Shmi's booted feet and the folds of her skirt. As he looked at her, she pushed away from the wall and came closer, walking carefully around the place on the floor where he had emptied his stomach. Obi-Wan was curled up, leaning one shoulder against Qui-Gon's chest, legs drawn close to his body. He reached for the force and felt it whisper of trouble; felt it, felt its presence all through his mind and body, and breathed a brief sigh of gratitude.

"Are you feeling better?" Shmi asked softly.

Obi-Wan nodded and straightened up, away from Qui-Gon, who stopped rubbing his back and instead offered a hand for him to push against as he got to his feet. The dizziness returned briefly, but after a few deep breaths, Obi-Wan felt much steadier. Qui-Gon got up off the floor, too, and Obi-Wan looked up at him. For a moment, Qui-Gon seemed like a wall he could lean against. "It must have been so much worse for you — having it in your body. I don't know how you survived and stayed sane."

"I think there are those who would debate the last part," Qui-Gon said lightly, but he brushed a hand against Obi-Wan's shoulder before moving aside.

Obi-Wan fumbled at his utility belt, grabbing the one remaining water container. There wasn't much water left in the small bottle, just barely enough for Obi-Wan to rinse his mouth out again. He felt light-headed, as though he had just recovered from a high fever, but otherwise well. His 'saber lay on the floor, and he bent down and picked it up and clipped it to the belt. "Xanatos?"

"He went out." Shmi was once again moving towards the double doors, one small step at a time, and her voice was almost soundless with tension, all air. "It's close to midday."

"He probably hoped to delay us until the race had already started," Qui-Gon said. "When he left he said that this would be the most memorable event of Anakin's podracing career. He must have bet heavily."

Obi-Wan frowned. "He should have tried to stop you, not me."

"You're the one with the lightsaber." Qui-Gon took a longer step over something lying on the floor, and Obi-Wan looked down to see a second metal mesh net. "He was too slow with the second one. I was warned by what happened to you."

Obi-Wan touched the handle of his lightsaber. He touched the force, too, eager for its familiar presence, but it only made him more uneasy. There were echoes everywhere, small traces of his previous visions that seemed to cling to him like lint. "I'll try to distract him. You try to get Anakin out of here somehow." It wasn't a plan, more of a heartfelt wish. Qui-Gon nodded, and they all went through the doors.

The noise was deafening. The heat was stifling. They came out onto a sandy stretch of concrete leading directly out into the arena. On either side, walls sloped down, and Obi-Wan could just barely catch a glimpse of the audience tiers, packed with beings in their best clothes who were cheering and singing and laughing and shouting as they waited for the race to start. Mingled scents of sweet rolls, grilled meat, and salty roasted strips of tuber peel flavored the air. The voice of the announcer overlaid all other sounds like oil on water.

There was a cluster of people at the entrance to the arena. Looking for Xanatos' dark hair and dark clothes, Obi-Wan didn't spare much attention for the mechanics and guards and vendors. Children ran this way and that, playing tag with the guards. Obi-Wan walked forward, with Shmi and Qui-Gon following him. He caught a glimpse of bright eyes and tangled hair over by one side; it was the girl from last night, her tray piled chin-high with flags and banners, trying to shoo off a jerz sniffing at her ankles without tipping any of her wares off the tray.

"There," Qui-Gon said, putting a hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder as well as directing his attention with a soft force-nudge.

Xanatos was standing with some of the guards — they were his guards, wearing the same dark uniform as the yacht crew, carrying their blasters openly. There was no sign of the arena staff. Obi-Wan headed for Xanatos. He touched the handle of his lightsaber again, and as though that were a signal, Xanatos stiffened and turned his head. Their eyes met. Xanatos said something quiet to one of the guards and stepped forward to meet Obi-Wan, though he stopped well out of the reach of a lightsaber blade. "I didn't expect to see you on your feet already," he said lightly.

Obi-Wan considered the distance between them, the placement of the guards, Shmi's and Qui-Gon's position behind and slightly to one side of him. It was like an exercise in strategic geometrics, predicting the motion of bodies in limited space. "Let us pass," he said. The sun was almost overhead; here down between the high walls, it seemed that they were standing in the only shade that fell on Tatooine.

Xanatos looked at him with eyes that seemed darker than before. "Don't be tiresome. You have no business out there." With a quick turn of the wrist, Xanatos held his lightsaber in his hand, unlit, just the handle, looking like the tool at the bottom of the toolbox that no one can remember what it's for. "Anakin is going to start in the race." The 'saber blade leaped into existence with a low red hum.

The announcer was naming the podracing pilots as they lined up out on the concourse. Obi-Wan tilted his head slightly to one side, trying to see past Xanatos and the deep shadow out into the sunlight, and at the same time not lose track of that lightsaber blade. "You knew we would come after you. Yet you stayed on the planet, you're doing this, because you want Anakin to win a podrace?"

"I have great hopes for him," Xanatos said lightly, and took a step forward.

Obi-Wan reflexively took a step back, the same length, and his lightsaber hummed to life before he'd thought about it. Out on the concourse, the air shimmered with heat, and it looked like melting glass. Obi-Wan went into a defensive stance and looked at Xanatos, instead; he couldn't let himself be blinded by the sunlight.

When the attack came, it seemed half-hearted, and Obi-Wan reacted automatically before remembering Xanatos' way of turning standard Jedi attacks and defenses on their heads. His inattention cost him a piece of his left shirtsleeve. He retreated another step and sank into the second guard position, reminded himself that this was nothing like sparring, and looked at Xanatos over the spit and hiss of his 'saber blade. He could not allow himself to be taken by surprise again. For all he knew, Xanatos had yet another of those meshnet balls ready to throw at him. Obi-Wan balanced cautiously on the balls of his feet. Xanatos raised an eyebrow and advanced a step. His guards stood quietly behind him, each with a hand to a holstered blaster, obedient, Obi-Wan supposed, to some earlier instructions.

A signal blared over the loudspeakers, telling the support staff to get off the concourse. Qui-Gon and Shmi were behind him, waiting to get past. Obi-Wan launched himself out of the defensive position into an attack from a different fighting style, and Xanatos met him and stood against him, a flicker of startlement in his eyes. Obi-Wan pressed his attack, leaped to the right to come at Xanatos' weak side, and almost winced as his 'saber cut a gouge in the nearest wall. These were close quarters for fighting. There was no room for Qui-Gon and Shmi to get past.

There was not enough time. The air quivered like something stretched beyond bearable tension, about to snap. Obi-Wan moved faster. He made himself feel the air, all the spaces where Xanatos' lightsaber wasn't. His skin prickled and his head felt hollow. When the right spaces were empty, he moved to fill them. His blade hissed down, and Xanatos jumped backwards, not far enough, not fast enough.

Xanatos swayed on his feet, his face white and shocky. His lightsaber fell, the blade winking out of existence as his fingers lost their grip on the handle. It bounced with a clatter on the hard ground. The cut over Xanatos' shoulder joint was deep and smelled of cauterized flesh. Obi-Wan tensed himself to leap past the injured man and run out to the line of podracers when a low Couresian voice growled, "Stop. Or I'll kill her. Back off."

One of the big Couresian guards behind and to the right of Xanatos had grabbed the little girl with the tray full of flags. He held a blaster to her head; she tried to bite his fingers, squirming and scratching, and he pressed the blaster to her temple. Obi-Wan caught her eyes and willed her to be still. He powered down his lightsaber and clipped it to his belt. "Let her go," he said, spreading his hands persuasively, trying to grasp the force energies that leaped around him like a scattering of lightning bugs. "She's just a bystander, a child, she has nothing to do with this."

The Couresian's flat eyes did not waver. "One step closer, and she dies."

There was a moment of silence, as if the whole arena held its breath in response to the threat. Then there was a roar of engines, and the audience screamed, and the announcer crowed gleefully in a burst of static. The race had started.

"Too late," Xanatos said, a note in his voice like laughter. The other two Couresians came forward and took hold of him, and one of them touched his shoulder, where the singed cloth fell apart over the wound. Obi-Wan watched unconsciousness slide through Xanatos like a wave that smoothed out the lines of ambition and concentration, and left only those of pain. If Xanatos didn't get immediate medical treatment, he'd lose the use of that arm. One of the Couresians picked him up, and the other covered Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon and Shmi with his blaster and talked into a wrist commlink as they backed away. Obi-Wan wondered, seeing Xanatos hang limply in the Couresian guard's arms, if that touch had been an accident or a kindness.

The roar of podracer engines had faded, but now another engine whine rose to take its place, almost drowning out the announcer's exclamation of outrage. A small open land yacht whirled up a cloud of sand and dust right at the edge of the concourse, and the guards handed Xanatos up and jumped after him. The Couresian with the little girl let her go, shoving her towards Obi-Wan, and ran towards the ship. He leaped up, barely made it over the railing, and the yacht took off, followed by two arena guards on speeder bikes.

The girl stumbled into Obi-Wan and grabbed him around the waist, fingertips digging in. She buried her face in his shirt and started to shake. She was so thin that he could feel her bones.

Qui-Gon strode down to the edge of the concourse and looked after the vanishing ship, shading his eyes with one hand. Obi-Wan bent over the girl and stroked her hair, stroked down her back, trying to soothe her. He looked over her head at Shmi, who stood by the wall, one hand clenched at her chest. Her lips moved, but he couldn't hear what she was saying, and the look in her eyes was eerily remote. The sound of pod engines had died away in the distance. The announcer's voice was fading in and out of a loud static buzz, and the crowd was grumbling.

"...techical difficulties," came in a brief moment of clarity, "but observers along the course have called in to report that Sebulba is in the lead, closely followed by newcomer Ynn Rarr." The next words vanished in another loud sputter of static. "Local pilot Anakin Skywalker appears to have dropped behind the others due to engine diffczxcczxtctzr—"

Shmi stepped away from the wall and went down to stand with Qui-Gon, looking out into the arena and down along the race course; Obi-Wan knew they were watching for the racers to return, but he could see nothing himself except for a space of sunlit sand and the other half of the arena on the other side. He curved his hand protectively around the back of the girl's head, and she began to relax her death grip on his shirt. "They're gone," he said softly, pitching his voice to her ears alone. "He's gone, no one's going to hurt you."

The little girl shivered convulsively. After a few more moments, she leaned back and looked up at him. There was a red mark at her temple where the blaster had pressed in, and her lower lip was beginning to swell up. "I dropped my tray."

"It's over there." Obi-Wan nodded towards the place where she'd been standing before. "Let's go pick your things up." The speaker system crackled. The audience was starting to sound angry. Maybe the visual link was down, too. Something was wrong, something more than just these technical problems, something beyond the wrongness of Xanatos' escape. The force felt like a skittish animal. Every time Obi-Wan tried to touch it, it danced back out of reach.

The tray had fallen pretty much straight down, and only about half of the flags and banners had fallen off, the stacks tipping forward in a neat cascade. Obi-Wan went down on one knee, picked up the heaps of garish cloth and shook the sand off them, and settled them back in orderly piles. He lifted the tray, and the girl slipped the strap over her neck again and looked a little less lost, back in her familiar role. "I gotta go back up there," she said, nodding at the audience tiers. "I gotta finish selling this stuff before the race is over."

"Be careful," Obi-Wan said. He got up and brushed the girl's hair out of her face, and she gave him half a smile, tired and frightened, but as collected, again, as a child of her age could be expected to be. As collected as a Jedi child of that age might be, Obi-Wan thought unexpectedly, changed by responsibility and expectation.

They walked together down to where Qui-Gon and Shmi were standing, while the announcer said that Ynn Rarr was gaining on Sebulba. The girl slipped around the corner and started to walk up towards the higher tiers, licking at her swollen lip. Obi-Wan looked at Shmi, whose open face was full of fear. She looked halfway to running off somewhere, her body seemingly in motion, on its way to follow Anakin out into the desert.

"Now that Xanatos has left, we can find Anakin as soon as the race is over," Obi-Wan said, aware that Qui-Gon had probably said the same thing already.

She shook her head wordlessly. She didn't look at him, her eyes were fixed in the distance as she waited for the podracers to return from their first circuit. The loudspeakers crackled. "...trouble. The technical difficulties should be solved in a moment. And it seems, unbelievably, that Ynn Rarr is engine to engine with Sebulba!" The audience exploded into cheers and boos, drowning out the next few words. "...picking up speed again. Anakin Skywalker may yet catch up to the—" Shmi swayed, made a sound, and began to crumple. "Anakin Skywalker has crashed! Onlookers say they're seeing an explosion and a cloud of sand and smoke from Skywalker's last known position!"

Qui-Gon dropped to his knees, supporting Shmi. Her skirts spread out in a puddle around her, like blood, covering the sand. Her hand came up to clutch at Qui-Gon's shirt. Qui-Gon looked up at Obi-Wan with eyes turned hard and sharp. "Go get the speeder. We have to go out there."

Obi-Wan opened his mouth to say something about the wisdom of flying an ordinary speeder across the path of a podrace, looked at Shmi's face, and closed his mouth again. He nodded, turned, and ran. Back into the depths of the arena's substructure, through the empty rooms, and he leaped over the puddle of metal meshnet on the floor, grimacing faintly at the sour smell of his own vomit. He raced past an arena official in one of the hallways, but didn't stop to explain his presence. The echo of his footsteps seemed loud.

When he came out on the other side, there was no sign of any Couresian guards. Obi-Wan looked around. Their speeder had been towed, and finding out from the attendants where it was, and then going to get it, would take time he didn't have to spare, not with Anakin lying injured out in the desert. The arena staff would send out a medical team, but that knowledge did nothing about the cold feeling down his spine. Obi-Wan surveyed the nearest row of speeders and sand-hovers, picked what looked like the fastest one — a mishmash of engine and body parts that looked like some crazy young kid's pride and joy — and vaulted into it. It took him ten heartbeats to get the engine going; whoever built this thing hadn't been focused on security. The attendants spotted him and yelled at him and steered their hoverboards in his direction just as he took off.

The controls were very responsive, and Obi-Wan shot up and around the curve of the arena's great bulk a little faster than he'd anticipated. He gentled his touch, slowed down, leveled out, and came out into the concourse just as Ynn Rarr and Sebulba came racing in, pod engines screaming, the air whipped up from their passage almost unbalancing the light speeder. Obi-Wan veered abruptly to the side, flying so close to the edge he thought the side of the speeder scraped stone. He could have reached out and touched the faces of the nearest spectators. The audience was shouting, and so was the commentator, and a handful of guards leaned out over the side a little distance ahead and waved signal flags at him. He pulled up so as not to hit them, slowed and dropped back down once he was past, and felt the speeder shake as another wave of air and exhaust fumes from the pods hit it. Qui-Gon and Shmi were waiting. Obi-Wan hit the brakes and made the speeder hover, hands dancing on the controls to compensate for the weight shift as Qui-Gon almost threw Shmi in and jumped after her. They took off as another pod screamed past, trailing a ruptured cable and a spray of sparks and sand. A spatter of sand hit Obi-Wan in the face, and he blinked, spat, cursed, and kept flying. The rest of the racing pods were coming up behind them. The speeder picked up speed quickly, and when they came out of the arena, they were going fast enough that Obi-Wan swung out in a curve to the left, looked back over his shoulder to where the last few pods were coming through, two of them trying to overtake a third, hoped that the distance was enough to keep them alive, and threw the speeder to the right and straight across their path.

There was barely time to hear Shmi's startled cry and the roar of the engines. A stretch as short as that across the race course had never seemed so long. They made it with about a speeder's width to spare, and the pods roared past behind them, with the racers probably cursing their names and planning to lodge a complaint with the management, Obi-Wan thought. He steered the speeder straight ahead, then veered a little to the right, cutting across the circle of the racing course and heading for the place where Anakin's pod had crashed.

The terrain was difficult for flying. He'd noticed it when he had been out here before, but he'd been going much more slowly then. It was what made the races such a challenge, and Obi-Wan wished every sand ridge and tricky cliff formation to the other end of the galaxy. He flew in as straight a line as he could manage, fitting the speeder through narrow gaps, grateful that the controls were so responsive. The balance was slightly off, with Qui-Gon's weight all to one side and Shmi almost on top of him. They flew around an outcropping where sand had scoured the stone into a sharp overhang, and came out into a wide, shallow, flat-bottomed canyon where columns of reddish crumbling stone pointed to the sky like leprous fingers.

Smoke still rose into the air, and the wind carried a smell of singed metal and melting plastic. Anakin's pod had crashed in the narrow space between two rock formations, and one of them had broken off at the impact, falling sideways, partly on top of the crashed pod. Obi-Wan flew closer, maneuvering the speeder carefully, and setting it down at a little distance from the crash site, as near to it as he could get without disturbing anything. Shmi jumped out almost before the speeder came to a halt, and Qui-Gon followed her, trying to slow her down with a hand on her shoulder.

Obi-Wan took a moment to check the speeder's seat compartments for a first-aid kit, but didn't find one. He got out, too, and walked over, listening for the sound of engines, for the medical team, for the return of the podracers on their second circuit. Anakins's pod was barely recognizable; the metal had crumpled like paper where the explosion hadn't twisted it apart or melted it right into the rock. There was a low hiss from two still-sparking wires. Shmi was leaning forward into the foul smoke, coughing, her eyes running. In what was left of the pilot seat, there was no sign of a body. Obi-Wan looked for body parts, but all he saw was debris.

"I — I can't sense his presence," Shmi said, and coughed some more.

There was blood, a thin spatter of it on one of the rocks, much more on the sand below. Obi-Wan bent down and touched his fingers to it. A lot of blood for a child to lose. Scuff marks in the sand. The sand was too loose to hold any recognizable tracks; his own footprints were only shapeless indentations. He looked up and met Qui-Gon's eyes through the haze of smoke. "There are a lot of scavengers on Tatooine."

"Chialla birds," Qui-Gon said. His mouth twisted sideways. "Or Jawas."

Obi-Wan picked his way carefully to where Shmi stood. The pieces of wreckage were sharp enough to cut through his boots, hot enough to burn through the soles, even. She was as close to the pilot seat as she could get, leaning forward, and he got to her just in time to grab her hand as she reached out to touch. "You'll burn your fingers to the bone."

"I don't care." Shmi left her hand in Obi-Wan's, though. Despite the heat of the day, her fingers were cold. "I just want to feel — I could always feel his presence. Always."

One of the metal plates clanged, a buckle popping as the material cooled. The hollow sound reminded Obi-Wan of standing in Watto's back yard and watching Anakin work on the engine. Memories of the vision whispered in his mind. In the midday desert heat, he felt an impossible chill. Obi-Wan opened up slowly to the force currents that swirled around the crash site. He could feel the disruption the explosion had caused, a secondary, invisible disaster area. "There is some kind of presence," he began to say, and then he felt the currents shift in response to something.

It was Shmi, pushing clumsily at the force with her untrained mind, reaching desperately for something that wasn't there. Obi-Wan tried to catch her uncontrolled push as he had caught her hand, but the currents moved, started to whirl around them both, and the world echoed hollowly with a scream caught under the metal plate of the sky. All he could sense was darkness, and Shmi's hand in his, and when he tried to touch the force, an avalanche of grinding, tearing pain fell on him. Fire ripped him open, sharp metal edges cut him apart, his bones reverberated with a jarring shock, and all through it he felt Shmi's fingers grip his own and heard her cry out.

Beyond the tight grip of pain, the darkness was very, very cold.

Obi-Wan flailed for balance, trying to find himself, to find Shmi, to find any lingering trace of Anakin. He couldn't tell in from out, and his ears rang with soundless screams. The air smelled of hot oil and burning flesh, and the fire was so cold, as cold as he'd ever imagined space to be. He could feel his bones freeze and granulate.

Somewhere in this icy chaos was the truth of what had happened to Anakin, but he couldn't even breathe; he had lost all control. The only thing he could feel past the cold was Shmi's fear. Then she was gone, too, like water from a clenched hand, and he thought he had lost her to the darkness and pain and reached out wildly to the place where she had been—

—and touched warmth. A warm steady presence, a brilliant light in the darkness, bright as a sun and immovable as a mountain, and completely unmistakable. He grasped at that presence, it grasped at him, and he was torn free of the darkness and emerged once more under the high desert sky to the familiar sensation of Qui-Gon's fingers digging into his shoulders. He half expected Qui-Gon to shake him, but all he got was a long look as cutting as a welder's torch. "Jedi masters have died trying to do what you just did, you young idiot."

"I only followed her," Obi-Wan said a little breathlessly. The words brought him back to himself, and he looked around quickly for Shmi, saw her kneeling in the sand a little to one side, looking pale, but present. "I didn't think that she would be able to touch — that. It wasn't what I expected."

Qui-Gon's grip eased a little. His thumb rubbed a small circle on Obi-Wan's shoulder, right over an itching, healing scratch. "Death rarely is."

"He's not dead," Shmi said. "I would know." Obi-Wan saw that she had burned her right hand after all, but not badly, not the way he'd feared. There was a line of red across her palm, a blister near the thumb. For the first time since he'd met her, she hunched forward, her shoulders slumping in a curve that had no pride left in it. She seemed weighed down by every piece of burnt-out wreckage scattered around them.

Qui-Gon looked at Obi-Wan in silent question. Obi-Wan shook his head. His lips felt numb. That deep cold seemed to have frozen his nerves. "I don't think anyone could have lived through that."

"Anakin isn't dead." Shmi struggled to her feet. A drop of blood beaded on her lower lip. Obi-Wan had heard that tone before in the voices of parents refusing to believe that their child was gone. She didn't look certain, and she didn't sound certain, and yet there was that about her that made him look again at the crashed speeder and the spatter pattern on the rock and the empty space where the body should be.

"I saw this before," he said without thinking. "The darkness, the blood on the sand and the—" He broke off, catching up with his tongue at the last moment, before he could mention the sensation of burning in front of Shmi. The darkness his visions had hinted at coalesced into this, and it felt strange and unsatisfying and pointless. "Perhaps I should have been more mindful of the future."

"The future changes in response to the present," Qui-Gon said, and his hand hovered over Obi-Wan's shoulder for a moment. "You have to deal with the present first." He turned away and went to Shmi and put his arms around her, and she collapsed against his body, her smaller frame almost entirely hidden by his. Only her skirt flared out, hiding Qui-Gon's bare feet.

Obi-Wan went over to where the blood had soaked most deeply into the sand, and looked more closely. There was a shallow crater, as of something making a heavy landing, and he thought Anakin's body might have been flung free of the speeder at the moment of impact. He looked at the remains of the speeder and the angle at which it had hit the rock formation, calculated the possible trajectories. A body flung forward at an angle would have landed somewhere around there. He crouched down to study the marks in the sand. Something had been dragged off, he could see a shapeless furrow in the loose sand, but then came a patch of harder, rocky ground, and the track was lost. The marks around the furrow were too unclear to be identifiable as boot prints or paw prints. Most desert-dwellers wore robes long enough to blur their prints into unrecognizability.

He went across the patch of stony ground all the same, to see what was on the other side. The sand had been disturbed here, too. Marks of something walking, marks of something being dragged, and down in the shadow of the next spiky rock protrusion, an odd fan-shaped pattern in the sand, and a much larger, heavier indentation.

The thin whine of a pod engine cut across his concentration. He turned around a heartbeat before Qui-Gon called out, "Obi-Wan!" The racing pods were coming around again for the second circuit. The medical team should be arriving any moment, too, and possibly the arena guards, after the disturbance they had caused.

Obi-Wan scrambled back over the rock and trudged through the sand to the speeder. Qui-Gon lifted Shmi onto the middle of the seat and climbed in after her. Obi-Wan got in on the other side and worked on getting the engine restarted. The engine cooler kicked in and blew out a spray of air in front of them, like an animal snorting. Sand stirred in response. The sound of pod engines was much closer now, growing from a whine to a roar, drowning out the speeder's engine sounds, and Obi-Wan brought the speeder up to skim height and turned it back the way they'd come. He wove between the stone formations at a slower pace this time, grateful that he hadn't managed to emulate Anakin's accident. In the distance, he saw a sand skimmer that had to belong to the arena's medical team, heading for the crash site at a much slower pace.

Halfway back to the arena, it occurred to him that they would not be very welcome there after staging a fight, disrupting the race, and stealing a speeder. "Where should we go?" he asked.

Shmi shifted beside him. Her skirt was once more covered with sand, tiny grains grinding their way in between the fibers. "I want to go home," she said.

Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon over the top of her head, then nodded. He changed the speeder's course to an angle that would let them cross the podrace course well away from the arena. It loomed in the distance, one of the biggest buildings on the planet, filled with beings who didn't care that a child had been lost during today's race, except for the few who had bet on him. Obi-Wan wondered if the little girl with the tray had sold all her banners and flags yet.

He slowed down and listened carefully for engines before speeding across the racecourse and continuing towards the town. He could feel Shmi shaking, a bone-deep tremor that pressed into him and almost made him feel as though he were shaking, too. When his hand brushed against hers as he reached for some customized controls, Obi-Wan could feel how shock-cold she was. Qui-Gon's arm was around her shoulders, but she sat straight, didn't lean into him any longer. Her shoulders pressed hard into the seatback, where there were no bloodstains.

The slave quarters looked more huddled together and less well kept this day. The paint was dingy, no blazing white here; the doorways were low. Sand piled up along the walls in soft encroaching drifts. "You'll have to give me directions," he said quietly. "Tell me where I can put the speeder down." They couldn't take the speeder all the way to her house. The streets were all but deserted, but they were too narrow to risk even the possibility of meeting someone.

Following Shmi's gestures and brief words, Obi-Wan landed the speeder at the line between city and desert, not far from where two wrecked sandskimmers had been turned into a playsite for children; someone had painted the scavenged skimmer shells to look like happy imaginary monsters, though the bright colors were already fading, worn down by wind and sand, and one monster's smile had turned into a threatening scowl. They got out, and Obi-Wan realized that it wouldn't take long before this speeder was taken apart as well, unless the owner had a tracker installed. He bent over the panel to check, and found a small blue light blinking steadily under the control board, almost unnoticeable. He closed up the panel where he had hot-wired the speeder and added a twist of force to keep it shut a little longer, hoping it would be enough. Mos Espa was empty, and perhaps all would-be speeder thieves were at the podrace. He straightened up and followed the others into the slave quarter.

Walking through silent narrow streets, they were all silent, too. Obi-Wan fell behind a little and watched Shmi as she walked. Then his gaze shifted to Qui-Gon. They both walked as though they were tired, as though their feet were starting to feel numb with fatigue. They walked apart, an arm's length of air between them.

Shmi's house looked much like all the other houses. A little neater, perhaps, a little more carefully kept. Paint flaked from a patch at the side of the door, but the edges had been evened out and flakes had been swept away off the sandy ground. She walked inside without a word, and Qui-Gon followed. Obi-Wan stopped outside for a moment, though the door stayed open. He looked around the street and tried to picture Anakin there, running and laughing with friends, or building something complicated with engine parts he'd wheedled out of Watto, or planning how to raise money and buy his freedom. The flashfire anger he'd sensed in the boy seemed like the obvious other side of the coin: all that energy, all that intelligence, and nowhere for it to go. Shmi's son had not inherited her patience; the rebel streak in Anakin had gone clear to the bone.

Obi-Wan looked along the street, not even aware that he was counting the houses until he found himself multiplying by the number of streets he'd seen, trying to estimate the size of this part of town. He shook his head slowly. He had the statistics available to him on board the Arrow, and could easily find out how many slaves there were in Mos Espa, and how many there were on all of Tatooine, and how many there were in this part of the galaxy, though that would only be an approximation, given that a lot of rim planets were not familiar with the concept of a census. Any numbers he came up with on his own were likely to be more guesswork than anything else.

Across the street, at one of the low doors, stood a plant in a crude earthenware pot. It looked like some kind of ligneous succulent, clearly non-native to the planet. It was half-withered and dying. Two of the branches had turned completely brown. Obi-Wan wondered how the people living in that house had ever had the water to spare to start with.

He turned and went inside. Shmi's home was unexpectedly spacious and cluttered. The furniture was simple, but seemed sturdy and well made, and there were several objects on shelves and hanging on the walls that seemed purely decorative. Obi-Wan looked into the different rooms. Shmi was standing by a workbench, looking down at a scattering of mechanical parts, her hand moving slowly from one to the other. Both the bench and the chair by it were adult height, so Obi-Wan assumed that this was where she spent her working hours while Anakin helped out in the shop.

Like most buildings on Tatooine, this one had low, small windows that could be shuttered against a sudden sandstorm. The light was bad, and he couldn't see her face. Obi-Wan looked around for Qui-Gon and found him standing in a doorway, looking into another room. This one was even more cluttered, and Obi-Wan knew he was looking at Anakin's private space. It was a good-sized room for a child to have, and full of half-finished projects, broken toys, things that had been picked up in one place and put down somewhere else. The bed was unmade. In one corner sat a gold-colored droid, complete except for the left leg, which lay disassembled in the middle of the floor. Anakin had a surprising number of belongings, and he must have been able to spend a lot of time working on them.

As if hearing the way Obi-Wan's thoughts turned, Qui-Gon shook his head a little, braid shifting against his shoulders. "In Jabba's palace," he said, "the favorites have rooms larger than this house, and sleep on imported silk sheets. And the kitchen drudges sleep ten or twelve all piled in together, when they do get to sleep, on thin nufoam pads on the floor. He owns them all."

Obi-Wan drew a breath and let it out. He could see Anakin in this room, easily, working and laughing and calling out to his mother. A little hesitantly, he put his hand on Qui-Gon's arm, and Qui-Gon brushed across Obi-Wan's fingers with his own before turning away and going out into the main room. "Shmi."

She came out from her workroom with a slow measured tread. She had taken off her boots; Obi-Wan could see her bare toes peek out under the hem of her long skirt. It made her look much more vulnerable. She tugged at her hair with one hand, and the knotted loops of braid came uncoiled and fell forward over her shoulder. "He's not dead."

Qui-Gon lifted one hand, as if to reach out and touch her. The shadows of his fingers spidered across the tabletop. "We will buy your freedom," he said. "You can come with us to Coruscant." Obi-Wan mentally fitted the three of them into the Arrow's cramped space, wondered about provisions.

Turning away from them, Shmi walked past the table in the center of the room and into the light from the door Obi-Wan had left open. Her profile was limned in sunlight for a moment, and then she turned back. "I would know if he was dead," she said. "My heart would be certain, not feel this nothingness."

Qui-Gon bent his head. Lines of distress appeared around his mouth and then smoothed out, as though through an act of will. "You feel emptiness because he is gone. Shmi, I'm sorry. The force—"

"He's not dead." There was no compromise in her eyes, only a new kind of stillness. She made no move towards him. "I know you are going to leave, but I will wait here for him. This is the place where I should be."

Obi-Wan moved slowly, silently backwards until he was in Anakin's room again. He crouched down and looked more closely at the droid's disassembled leg, trying to see what Anakin had been doing to it, while part of his mind tracked the rise and fall of voices outside the door. There would be room for the three of them in the Arrow, he was sure of it, but Shmi's voice sounded implacable in all its gentleness. She must have felt the same things he did, there in the desert at the foot of the fallen stone column. She must be more force-sensitive than he had thought at first, to be able to step into the force-memory and drag him along with her. And in spite of that, she was refusing to entertain any other possibility than that Anakin was still alive. She held her conviction as a shield against grief.

It seemed that Anakin had been working on a way to make the droid's sensitive knee joints sand-proof. Sand was probably the most common cause of mechanical failure on Tatooine. The fine grains seeped in everywhere. Obi-Wan knew he had sand in his boots again, sand in his socks. He could feel the grittiness against his skin, knew it would raise slow welts and blisters. He looked down at his hands. There was sand under his fingernails. Obi-Wan reached for the fiberpliers lying on the floor, because he could see just what Anakin had intended to do next, but as soon as he touched them, he shook his head and straightened up. Shmi would never forgive him.

All these unfinished things, all these tasks left undone, were Anakin's legacy. Obi-Wan moved around the room and looked, but did not touch. Anakin had been tinkering with household appliances, trying to make them more efficient. He had also built some things from scratch. Obi-Wan wondered if they worked as intended, and whether the patents would belong to Anakin's owner. He thought he would have liked to teach a child like this, someone who enjoyed taking things apart and putting them together again to make them better, although he wasn't sure what Anakin's questioning mind would have made of the Jedi order's strict rules.

He was studying an intricate model of what could either be an advanced water storage unit or a new type of bacta tank, when Qui-Gon spoke from the doorway. "Obi-Wan." Obi-Wan turned around and looked at Qui-Gon's impassive face, reading the quiet signs of unhappiness. He nodded, stepped carefully over the droid leg and the tools, and went out of the room.

Shmi was still standing by the table. Her braids were twisted from being wound in the knot, and trailed like tame snakes down across her collarbone. Her face was impossibly still, and Obi-Wan found himself wishing for grief, for rage, for anything except this passive certainty that was going to trap her on Tatooine forever. He walked up to her, and she took his right hand in both of hers. "Thank you for what you tried to do," she said, the warmth in her voice subdued, but genuine. "Now you should take Qui-Gon to the place where he belongs."

Obi-Wan looked down at their hands, feeling her calluses against his skin, and then back into her eyes again. The words had the sound of a burial rite, as if Shmi were saying goodbye to Qui-Gon in place of Anakin. Perhaps it was the solemnity in her voice that made him feel as if he had been given a task of great importance to perform, rather than just told to do what he would have done anyway, get in the Arrow with Qui-Gon and return to Coruscant. Something about all this felt shadowy, tainted with the darkness that he'd sensed before; perhaps it was her unacknowledged grief that fell like a thin veil over everything. He didn't ask her to change her mind. If Qui-Gon had not succeeded, Obi-Wan knew that he wouldn't, either.

"It was an honor to meet you," he said instead, and bowed over her hands in a gesture rarely seen on Tatooine. When he straightened again, she kissed his cheek and let him go.

The door still stood open, and Obi-Wan walked out first, not looking back, but Qui-Gon came directly behind him, and he heard the sound of the door closing. The street was still unnaturally empty and quiet. The race must be over by now, Obi-Wan thought, looking up at the sun. Most probably Sebulba had won.

Qui-Gon walked past him and crossed the street in a few long strides, to where the plant stood in its pot, and crouched down to touch it. He ran his fingertips along the stem, and Obi-Wan thought he sensed a faint whisper of the living force, thought he saw the water-starved branches shiver in response. Qui-Gon looked up over his shoulder, a trace of something sad and defiant in his eyes. "It won't make a difference," he said. "Not in the long run. The plant doesn't belong here; it will die."

He got to his feet and fell into step beside Obi-Wan, and they went down the street together, between the small huddled houses. As they turned the corner, Obi-Wan said, "I thought she would come with you."

Qui-Gon shook his head. "The tie to a child is much stronger than the tie to a friend." Obi-Wan glanced quickly at Qui-Gon's profile, but saw nothing beyond a statement of fact. "As long as she believes that Anakin is still alive, she'll stay."

It was a long walk to the spaceport district, and Obi-Wan had to lengthen his steps to keep pace with Qui-Gon, even though Qui-Gon was still barefoot and the unpaved streets were rough. Heat shimmered between the low white houses. They walked in the shade when they could, but it was midday and the sun was directly overhead. Obi-Wan felt a trickle of sweat run down his spine. At first they hardly encountered anyone: the occasional grandparent sitting in the shade of a doorway minding a small child, a messenger from an offworld delivery service with a stack of parcels. Obi-Wan saw a work crew repainting a house and guessed that they were slaves who had not been granted the traditional day off.

But while they walked, Mos Espa came alive around them again. The streets filled up with people, bars and cantinas opened, the air began to smell of food as those who hadn't squandered their money on sweet rolls at the arena came home and began to cook a midday meal. Children ran around in groups pretending to be podracers, screaming out engine noises. Obi-Wan turned his head before he could see one of them fall over and crash.

As they came closer to the spaceport district, there were fewer children and more cantinas, and the occasional spice addict or beggar slouched on a street corner. A group of Shjabree walked along with their tails linked together, singing what sounded like a war song; Obi-Wan kept a wary eye on them until they rounded a corner and disappeared from his sight. Someone had dropped an Ynn Rarr flag, and it was half tramped down into the sand. Obi-Wan looked around, wondering where the little girl with the tray was now that the race was over, and if there was someone who would comfort her after what she'd been through.

Outside the cantina where they had spent the night, Qui-Gon slowed his steps, and Obi-Wan looked up at him, and then glanced at the cantina door. "Did you leave anything behind here?"

"I left your old shirt," Qui-Gon said, "but I don't think you want it back." He tugged a little at one long sleeve, and the unbuttoned neck of the new shirt slid sideways so that Obi-Wan caught a glimpse of one of the bandages. The punctures seemed to be healing well; Qui-Gon showed no sign that they were causing him any discomfort, and the shoulder that Obi-Wan could see looked neither reddened nor swollen. On Coruscant, the healers would find and remove the transmitter, wherever it was. The lines around Qui-Gon's eyes seemed more marked. He looked tired. "Where is your ship?"

"This way." As they walked away from the cantina, Obi-Wan heard the sounds of raised voices and breaking glass. It was only early afternoon, but the party had already started. Some of the beings they met were unsteady on their feet. Obi-Wan led the way down a narrow alley to a smaller, less crowded street, and they walked side by side again, matching their steps. Obi-Wan watched the ground, cautious of glass or pottery shards that might have been thrown out into this back street along with the refuse; Qui-Gon, though barefoot, didn't seem to be paying much attention. Obi-Wan had to steer him away from a broken jar with a touch to his elbow.

The back street was shadowed, cooler than the wider street they'd left, if a bit on the fragrant side. Most of the house walls facing it were windowless and blank except for the back doors. As they walked, the house walls grew higher around them, residential quarters and cantinas giving way to storage units and warehouses. They met no one until the street ended and they came out just by the main loading dock for hangars six and eight. There was almost no activity on or around the dock, and the large free loading space looked oddly empty. Two dockworkers were stacking sacks into a crate at a pace that suggested they'd much rather be doing something else, and a woman in coveralls sat on an empty box in the shade of the hangar six loading ramp, smoking a tlao stick. Obi-Wan thought she looked vaguely familiar.

"You're not supposed to be back here," she called out to them lazily, making no move to get up. "This is a workers only area. You could get in the way of all the people here doing their hard, hard work."

"We'll take the risk," Obi-Wan said gravely, and she grinned at him, showing a gap in her teeth. Obi-Wan looked at the angles of the buildings. If they cut through the loading area, they'd come out across the street from where the Arrow was docked. There was something, though... Obi-Wan slowed his steps, picturing the woman with a spanner in her back pocket. "Weren't you working on that Ya'an yacht out of Veeri?"

"Up until the moment it left, I was." She stretched her legs straight out, wiggling the toes of her heavy, dusty boots, then let them swing down again. "Got paid double overtime for it, too." The woman shook her head, her voice heavy with tlao-tinged amusement. "But the thing is, they wanted the work at double speed. I think we should've gotten four times the overtime."

Obi-Wan nodded absently, not about to try to untangle either her mathematics or her work ethic. "What was their hurry, anyway? I thought they came for the race."

The woman shrugged. She had stripy reddish hair pulled into a haphazard tail low on the back of her head. Sweat darkened her shirt over the breastbone. "I suppose. All I know is the deadline for the upgrade was today."

Qui-Gon stepped forward, braid swinging over his shoulder, fatigue put aside for the moment. Obi-Wan met his eyes for a moment, then turned back to the woman, keeping his voice casual. "They upgraded a brand new luxury cruiser? With what, its own podracing arena?"

That got him a dry chuckle, ending in a smoke-heavy cough. "I swear there was enough room for one. At least before my crew knocked out a couple of walls to make the sickbay bigger. I think the guy who owns it must be a hypochondriac or something. Either that, or those guards get beat up a lot."

"I think that's quite possible," Obi-Wan told her.

"They loaded up on bacta like they were going into a war zone, that's for sure." The woman blew a thin stream of tlao smoke to one side of Obi-Wan. "More than enough for the extra tank they put in. And they bought enough black-market sedatives to knock out a rancor. I think they forgot to stock up on food, they were so busy laying in the med supplies."

"Maybe they're getting the food through another contractor," Qui-Gon suggested.

The woman shook her head. "No one delivers on the day of a podrace, and they took off not that long ago. I can't believe that guy came all the way here for a podrace and then took off almost before it was over." Then she added charitably, "Maybe he got sick or something. They carried someone on board."

With instant bacta treatment, Xanatos' wound should heal quite well, Obi-Wan thought. There would be scarring, perhaps some reduction of range of movement in the shoulder joint, depending on the depth of the cut, but it was quite possible that surgery could fix that. Obi-Wan did not doubt that Xanatos could afford the best medical care possible. No permanent damage had been done. Not to Xanatos.

"It could have been a fight," Qui-Gon said. "A lot of those private guards are brawlers."

"They sure are. Hey!" The woman's eyes narrowed as she looked at the handlers loading the crate. "You can't stack them like that! How many times do I have to tell you guys that there's no up in zero-grav freighter storage space?" She jumped down and tossed the stub of her tlao stick to one side. "Let me explain it to you. Again."

The woman strode off to put the fear of space into her co-workers, and Obi-Wan turned to Qui-Gon. "Did Xanatos ever show any signs of precog—" He broke off on seeing the remote look on Qui-Gon's face. Qui-Gon looked after the woman, who was gesturing at the two handlers, her back to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, and then swung himself up on the loading ramp and walked in through the wide bay doors, his movements a little more stiff than usual, before he disappeared into the shadows.

Obi-Wan kicked a little sand over the still smoldering tlao-stick stub, checked that the three dockworkers weren't watching, and followed.

Inside hangar six, it was quiet, with the kind of silence that suggested sounds would bring hollow echoes. Xanatos had paid for a lot of space for his yacht, and left a lot of emptiness behind. There was a spill of oil on the ground, outlining the foot of a support strut, and a large part of the hangar floor had been blown clean of sand at takeoff. Qui-Gon stood in the middle of the empty space; he'd stepped in the oil, and it had left a dark smear across his toes.

Obi-Wan tested the air, touched the force, trying to brush against it carefully, though there should be nothing here that could suck him in as the accident had. He could feel a lingering echo of Xanatos' presence, manifesting as a heavy pressure in the air, like the heat roil above a volcano, but mixed in with it somehow was the cold darkness of the crash site, waiting to suck him in once more. Obi-Wan pulled back, dismayed that the incident had been so deeply imprinted in him that it was still warping his perceptions. It was deeply unnatural to him to be wary of the touch of the force, to approach it so cautiously.

Walking up to Qui-Gon, he kept his steps quiet, as though Qui-Gon's silence were some form of meditation that shouldn't be disturbed. At his approach, Qui-Gon shifted, slowly, to look at him. "You felt his death, didn't you."

Obi-Wan breathed in. The memory of that darkness was still too close to the surface of his mind for comfort, particularly since he was somehow feeling its echoes in the force here as well. Nothing about its touch had felt like life, and Anakin's presence had vanished completely, as though it had never been. Obi-Wan could not doubt, despite Shmi's conviction, that the boy was gone. "It was... painful."

Qui-Gon's expression turned even bleaker. "I had such hopes for him," he said, and Obi-Wan thought Qui-Gon was talking about Anakin, but he wasn't entirely certain. He rubbed his fingertips together, remembering the shape of the scar on Qui-Gon's hip. It was no wonder, really, that Qui-Gon had not wanted to take another padawan fifteen years ago. And it was a shame that Qui-Gon would never get to teach Anakin. The look on Luxewa's face on the day he'd been knighted was one of Obi-Wan's most treasured memories. He would have liked to see Qui-Gon look like that, for someone, no matter whom.

Wrapping himself in the silence, in Qui-Gon's stillness, Obi-Wan sought the peaceful places inside himself. Aware of the hollow feeling of the hangar's walls and space, the way they wrapped around him distantly, he sank into his own greatest density, the core of self. The experiences of the past few days were layered in his mind like the sandstone of Tatooine's rock formations, as though he had lived through a geological age since coming to the planet. He could see all the events in order, knew that he would be able to bring them back perfectly for the mission report.

This was no mission report. Obi-Wan let the memories touch him. The unfinished droid slumped in a corner, one leg missing. The khant in the street, dying from dehydration. Shmi reaching her hand towards scorching hot metal plates. Qui-Gon kneeling before him, bare-chested and calm. The little girl's face as the blaster pressed into her temple. The sound of Xanatos' laughter and the silverglitter of a mesh net flying through the air. The weight of Qui-Gon's arm across his chest as they slept.

All these things swirled through him, cut momentarily free from their places in his sequential experience of the past, as solitary and fragmented as two-dimensional images. Two visionary experiences in two days had shaken him more than he had realized; his previous brushes with sensing what lay beyond the present moment had not been nearly so brutal nor so vivid. He sought recourse in these other moments, refuge perhaps, seeing them for what they were, tiny pieces of his life that had burned themselves more deeply into memory.

When he got back to Coruscant, he would talk to Master Yoda about the visions. For now, he closed them away carefully, before he could reexperience them, too. This was not the time, not the place, for that. The visions could wait. Obi-Wan blinked, slowly, and focused his senses on the present again.

There was still a lingering remnant of fuel fumes in the air. The dust had not quite settled. If they'd looked up, walking through the streets, perhaps they would have seen the white takeoff trail across the blue sky as Xanatos' yacht departed. Qui-Gon stood very still in the center of the empty space where the yacht had been, head slightly bent, eyes closed, hands turned palm up. His lips moved once, in a single word Obi-Wan did not try to make out. Then he looked up and caught Obi-Wan's eyes for a moment before turning and walking towards the hangar doors that led out into the street.

Obi-Wan followed. There was a guard by the door, bored and uninterested, who barely looked at them. Outside, music blared from a speeder that had been parked across the street with its engine running, and a fight was breaking out down on the corner between a humanoid female wearing Ynn Rarr's racing colors and a thin, scruffily dressed Zabrakian. Hangar five was the other way, and he touched Qui-Gon's elbow to show him, aware suddenly of having done the same thing before, as though it was a habit that had grown on him without thinking, something done hundreds of times rather than just once or twice. He stretched his legs and walked faster, feet in time with the music for a couple of steps before he outpaced the beat. Behind them, the mournful howl of a jerz rose towards the sky, drowning out the curses and shouts from the fighters.

The guard at the entrance to hangar five, a burly Shjabree male with a mottled tail, recognized Obi-Wan and let them in with just a nod of greeting. "We're leaving," Obi-Wan said. "I need the bay doors opened."

"You're paid up for another three days," the guard said, reaching back to tap a sequence of buttons on a panel to one side of the door with his tail-tip. "You can't get that back, you know. Company policy. What's your hurry, anyway? Bad luck at the podrace?"

Obi-Wan could not immediately answer. In the shadows of the hangar, behind the guard, he saw Shmi's face as he had last seen it, wearing a mask of certainty, porcelain smooth and porcelain frail. It was Qui-Gon who said, "Yes. We had bad luck."

"Shame, that." The guard paused in the middle of the coded sequence and swung his tail around to scratch himself on the back of the neck. "You're clear to go, there's not much traffic."

The space here was different. Hangar five was smaller, its echoes were less noticeable. The guard entered the final code, and the bay doors began to open with a slow creak. Sunlight poured in, as most of the far wall of the hangar turned into a vista of sky and sand. Hidden behind that clear blue was the black nothing of space, open and waiting. Obi-Wan nodded a thanks to the guard and led the way to the Arrow. It was just as he had left it; none of the alarms had been tripped, none of the subtler force imprints disturbed. There were advantages to flying a ship that looked as though it would fall apart if the pilot sneezed too hard.

When he touched the keyplate, it responded to his palm and his force-presence, and the hatch opened with a low hydraulic hiss. Lights came on in the ship's interior, and the systems began to hum along a pre-programmed sequence. Obi-Wan put a foot on the ramp, feeling the sand between his toes. He glanced over his shoulder at Qui-Gon, who nodded, and they went into the Arrow together. The top of Qui-Gon's head almost brushed the ceiling. Obi-Wan pressed another plate, and the ramp pulled up behind them, moving smoothly and easily. There was no sand in the mechanism here.

The interior of the Arrow was pared down, minimalistic, but well designed. Obi-Wan led the way, Qui-Gon followed; Obi-Wan almost forgot Qui-Gon's presence there behind his shoulder as he took the pilot's seat and looked at the scrolling results of the preflight check already in progress. All systems were performing to their usual standard. All drives were operational, and the air recycling was functioning at plus twenty. The water tanks were full. Obi-Wan looked at the comm system, but there were no logs of incoming calls or recorded messages while he had been away from the ship. As he watched, though, a signal came in, and a light blinked insistently at him. The call origin came up, and he nodded to himself. "The council wishes to speak with us," he said.

"Already?"

"The comm system sends an automatic transmission to Coruscant in response to my palm print on the door lock. They must have been watching for it." Obi-Wan looked up at Qui-Gon, saw shadowed eyes and a tired mouth, but Qui-Gon nodded, and Obi-Wan pressed the button to accept the call. The screen flickered to life, and they were facing Yoda, perched cross-legged on an antigrav seat, gimer stick laid across his knees. The room behind him was shadowed, but no other council members seemed to be present. Obi-Wan tried to calculate what time it would be on Coruscant, but didn't manage to narrow it down to more than late at night.

"Concerned about you, I have been," Yoda said directly, not bothering with a greeting. "An uneasiness in the force, I have sensed. Tell me about it you will, hmmm?"

Obi-Wan drew a slow breath. He had not expected to have to make a report at this moment. He wondered if the uneasiness that Yoda had sensed was anything like the persistent darkness that haunted him. "Xanatos was wounded in a fight, but escaped; he has already left the planet."

Yoda's right ear twitched. "And the boy?" He leaned closer to the screen, peering at them.

Memories tried to push their way up again, cold and dark and painful, and Obi-Wan pressed them down, reinforcing the mental wall that held them back. He didn't want to relive the visions; he didn't want to relive standing over the smoking metal, holding Shmi back. He didn't even want to see Anakin's sun-bright smile, knowing that it was gone forever. "There was an accident during the podrace."

"The boy's pod crashed," Qui-Gon said, his words overlapping Obi-Wan's, grief in his voice. Obi-Wan didn't have to look at him to know what expression would be in his eyes. He could feel it all the way to his bones. Yoda's ears drooped, and he nodded slowly.

Obi-Wan looked down at his hands and up again, putting his thoughts in order. "We could still catch up with Xanatos," he said, plotting it out as he spoke. "We aren't far behind, and his ship has to stop on either Lun Yari or the free port on Gath Five for supplies; they have no food." He could feel the plates under his feet humming, straight through his boots; the Arrow was all power and very little comfort. It was ready to take off, to shoot into space, fast as a thought.

"Jedi on Lun Yari there are. Contact them we will, when the council has discussed the matter." Yoda tapped the gimer stick against his leg. He looked very serious, as though still sensing the uneasiness he had spoken of before. "Return to Coruscant. Enough you have done, Knight Kenobi, and too long you have been away, Qui-Gon. Others there are who can pick up your burden."

Qui-Gon drew a deep, audible breath, and Obi-Wan thought that he would argue and disagree and speak up and be contrary. But after a long moment, all he said was, "Yes, my master," and all the exhaustion of the past seven years bled through in those words.

Obi-Wan felt cold when he thought about how they had lost Anakin, but at least he had found Qui-Gon, at least Qui-Gon was free, at least something had gone right. And he could bring Qui-Gon back to Coruscant. "Yes, Master Yoda," he said, too. He would put together a bare-bones report and send it to the Jedi on Lun Yari during the trip, to give them an idea of what they were dealing with. After that, it would be out of his hands. That was a strange feeling, though he had handed over missions before.

"When you return, come to see me." The slow, clever gaze encompassed both of them. Yoda nodded once, decisively, and reached out to tap with his gimer stick at the comm panel. The screen went blank.

The cut comm channel hissed a moment's static. Obi-Wan closed it down, making sure the call was logged. Then he turned around.

"Qui-Gon," he said. "Let's go home."

Obi-Wan held out his hand, and Qui-Gon took it, linking their fingers together easily, loosely, for a brief moment of connection before letting go. Obi-Wan returned his attention to the ship. The controls were familiar and responsive under his fingers, and he took the Arrow off the ground so lightly that Qui-Gon, still standing up, didn't even shift his weight.

Out through the open bay doors, out into the sunlight, and Qui-Gon dropped down into the copilot seat; his knees bumped the console in front. He reached out and put a hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder, and Obi-Wan smiled a little to himself. The Arrow rose into the atmosphere, flying straight and high, higher, ground dropping away below them. At first everything seemed tidier, the gridwork of buildings an orderly pattern. Then as they got higher, Mos Espa turned into a blur on the viewscreen, pale against pale sand, growing smaller and smaller before it vanished. The surface of the planet turned featureless, sand and rock blurring together, mountains and deserts meshing into a haze of tan and brown as the distance grew.

Then they were outside in the black weightlessness of space, and Tatooine hung like a small golden-brown ornament on the screen, its heat distant. It looked like any one of the insignificant worlds scattered around the galaxy rim, its resident population small, its drifters many.

Obi-Wan looked at Qui-Gon, meeting his eyes. The smile was gone, but he could feel the steady weight of Qui-Gon's hand where it rested on his shoulder, and Qui-Gon's gaze met his own in calm agreement. He keyed in another sequence, shifted his hands on the controls, and the planet fell away beneath them. They were gone.

* * *

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