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Diverging Paths, Part III

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Diverging Paths Part III

 

Republic Date 5199, 11/3rd

Naboo Orbit

 

The hangar bay they’d arrived in was below, but its contents were a vast change from two hours before.  Droids were everywhere, heavily armed, and great swaths of them were being efficiently packed away into waiting armored transports.  The Radiant VII was long gone, escaping to safety the moment the Trade Federation had turned on them all.

Ventilation shafts were not meant for someone of Qui-Gon’s size.  Even with his head turned awkwardly to one side, his skull was wedged against the ceiling of the shaft.  Obi-Wan knelt in front of him, working on removing the bolts from the grate that blocked the exit.  Anakin was pressed against Qui-Gon’s back, his chin wedged into Qui-Gon’s opposite shoulder so that he could see what was going on.

I had wondered why you told Captain Madakor to raise the ship’s shields as we left, Qui-Gon sent.  He had worried at the time that the gesture might be taken as an insult by the Trade Federation, but Qui-Gon no longer believed the Trade Federation had ever planned to negotiate the Naboo blockade.  Poison gas, battle droids, destroyer droids—there was no doubt that the Federation wanted them dead.

I was hoping it would be a frivolous waste of energy, Obi-Wan replied in a grim tone.  The last bolt came free, but there was no way the grate would fit into the already-crowded shaft. Obi-Wan made a face and then allowed the grate to drop, muffling the sound of its fall with the Force so that no droid heads turned in their direction.

Qui-Gon had to admire his partner’s restraint, knowing the events that were lining up, and still standing back and letting the Trade Federation choose to act.  He would never have expected such a bold move from the Nemoidians; hells, he’d said so, not five minutes before the Federation tried to kill the three of them. 

One at a time, they dropped several meters to the hangar bay floor.  Qui-Gon caught Anakin, who smiled his thanks as Qui-Gon set him down.  They hid behind a high wall of stacked cargo containers, a perfect vantage point to watch the droids without being discovered.

 “It’s an invasion army,” Qui-Gon whispered, still not quite able to believe it. 

“Yes,” Obi-Wan replied, unsurprised.  “Someone is trying to force the signing of the new treaty.”

“Someone?”  Anakin looked up at Obi-Wan with troubled eyes.  “If this is the Trade Federation’s army, then they’re the ones making the Queen sign it.  Right?”

Qui-Gon shook his head.  “Obi-Wan is correct.  The Trade Federation doesn’t have the courage to do something like this on their own.”  It would take one hell of a push, though.

More transports were arriving in the hangar, ready to be loaded with deactivated droids.  “We’ve got to warn the Naboo, and contact Chancellor Valorum,” Qui-Gon said.  Technically, they were acting outside of Republic authorization, but Finis would need to know of this new development as quickly as possible. 

“Stow away aboard separate transports.  We’ll meet back together on the surface.”

Obi-Wan nodded, a funny smile on his face.  Qui-Gon had the disturbing feeling that he’d just said exactly what Obi-Wan expected him to. 

“Take Anakin with you,” Obi-Wan said.  “I have a feeling I’m going to get a rough ride on the way down.”

“Pick a different one,” Qui-Gon suggested.  Obi-Wan glanced at him, surprised, and then shook his head with a soft laugh.

“That’s probably a good idea,” Obi-Wan admitted.  “Take him with you, anyway.  You know how much I hate flying in zero-g.”

“You just don’t want him to see you throw up,” Qui-Gon couldn’t resist teasing.

“No,” Anakin refuted, shaking his head with a wide grin on his face.  “He just doesn’t want it to land on me, and really, I’m okay with that.”

The ride down was uneventful.  The transport disgorged its contents in the woods; Qui-Gon and Anakin escaped before the droids activated, but wound up caught in a stampede as every living creature in the area ran in a panic from the mechanical army.  Qui-Gon tossed Anakin over his shoulder and followed the wildlife, surrounded by the thunder of hooves and feet.  Anakin clutched Qui-Gon’s robe and hung on for dear life.

They were free of the stampede just in time for Anakin to swear and point out a new threat.  They both ran on foot, pursued by a scout flyer that had no compunctions about firing at them.

“Stay with me!” Qui-Gon ordered.  “Go where I go.”  Anakin nodded, darting along at Qui-Gon’s heels.

“Master Qui-Gon, there’s someone up there!” Anakin shouted.  Qui-Gon saw the tall figure and realized that whoever it was, he was not getting out of the line of fire.  In fact, Qui-Gon was almost certain that he was about to wave and greet them.  No survival instincts whatsoever.

“Move!” Qui-Gon roared, and received a bewildered look for his efforts.  He and Anakin glanced at each other before they both started yelling for the creature to get the hell out of the way.

Dammit, he grumbled, and tackled the oblivious fool to the ground in a move that would have done the rough-and-tumble sports teams on Corellia proud.  Anakin plastered himself down next to Qui-Gon just as the scout roared overhead.  Lasers sizzled in the air, tearing up the earth all around them.

Qui-Gon sprang up, ordered both his charges to stay put, and took his lightsaber from his belt and ignited it in one smooth motion.  The scout went down from a reflected bolt, but another was approaching—and with it, thankfully, Obi-Wan. 

Duck, he sent, and Obi-Wan complied, water droplets flying off of him.  The other scout joined its brethren in a smoking pile.

“What happened to you?” Qui-Gon asked, leaving the long-eared creature (a Gungan, he was almost certain) to babble at Anakin in a mix of panic, delight, and thankfulness.

Obi-Wan brushed strands of wet, dripping hair away from his face.  “Managed to pick an even worse ride down than before,” he said.  He smiled and touched his lightsaber, still hanging at his side.  “We all went for a swim when the transport malfunctioned.  I used up a great deal of energy giving myself an escape route.”  Qui-Gon nodded, reassured; the power cell would recharge in short order. 

In the meantime, the Gungan had reached Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, with Anakin trailing along behind, looking amused.  “Yous’un saved me!” he said joyfully, throwing his long arms around Qui-Gon in a hug.  “Thanken yous!”

“You’re welcome,” Qui-Gon replied, accepting the thanks and politely ignoring the fact that he had nearly broken his collarbone saving the Gungan’s life.  He hoped it was youth that had kept the Gungan from realizing the danger he was in, and not dim-wittedness.  “You should get out of here,” Qui-Gon told him.  “More of those droids will be heading this way.”

“More?” the Gungan blurted in horror, raising his eyestalks in a panic.  “More, did you spake?”

The Gungan, who introduced himself Jar Jar Binks, decided that if more droids were approaching, they all should return to his city.  He led the way, chattering non-stop without seeming to care if anyone was listening or not.  Anakin trudged along behind Jar Jar, with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan following just after.

“Where the hell are we?” Qui-Gon asked, trying to figure their location based upon descent and his knowledge of the local terrain.  The Naboo had forests like these on several continents.  They had no geological locator—like most of their gear, it was still aboard the Radiant VII.

“We’re on the continent opposite the capital,” Obi-Wan told him with certainty.

Qui-Gon considered his internal map of the planet, committed to memory some days before. “There are almost no colonial settlements on this continent because of the Gungan tribes.  The Trade Federation is going to cross the North Sea to invade.”

Obi-Wan nodded.  “They’ll be in Theed before anyone has the chance to react.”

Qui-Gon frowned.  The tactics were simplistic, but effective.  The Naboo had no standing army to repel a full-scale ground invasion.  The air-borne defense force would be surrounded and useless before their pilots received an order to fly.

“All of this, just for a trade treaty?” he wondered.  There just didn’t seem to be enough for the Federation to gain to make their actions worthwhile—especially if Lott Dodd was going to try to convince the Senate to overlook their invasion of the planet.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with a fucking treaty at all,” Obi-Wan spat, but would not elaborate further.

Jar Jar Binks didn’t mention that going back to his home city would get him arrested.  Qui-Gon’s estimation of him climbed a few notches from where it had been sitting near the bottom.  Self-preservation did not seem to be the Gungan’s strong suit, but he was loyal, and full of good intentions.  So it was that their group gained a member, an unfamiliar undersea vehicle, and a shortcut to Theed through the ocean vents that surrounded the planet core.

Anakin piloted, listening with a cheerful smile as Jar Jar told them all about how he’d managed to get himself banned from Otah Gungah.  From the sounds of it, it involved quite a bit of hapless property destruction.  There was useful information about Gungan society mixed in; Qui-Gon discerned that Naboo-Gungan relations were not as amiable as the Republic had been led to believe.

The back of the craft was not designed for two passengers.  It meant close quarters, something Qui-Gon was not opposed to, but the moment Obi-Wan’s shoulder rested against his, Qui-Gon became aware of just how drained the younger man felt.

Qui-Gon lifted his arm in invitation, and Obi-Wan willingly pressed in against his side.  It was a milestone in their potential relationship, one Qui-Gon would have been much happier about if he wasn’t so worried.

He ran his hands through Obi-Wan’s long hair, soothing with touch as he had once done for his much younger Padawan—and touching his partner in any way made him ridiculously happy, even in the depths of his concern.

What’s wrong? Qui-Gon asked.  A bad landing shouldn’t be enough to leave you feeling like this.

Obi-Wan sighed, resting his head on Qui-Gon’s shoulder.  The fact that he did not also tighten his shields, Qui-Gon counted as a victory. 

It’s Jar Jar.  I know him.  Anakin does, too, though I’m not certain if he remembers.  He’s—well.  Funny; Jar Jar seems far less annoying, this time.

Qui-Gon looked at the Gungan.  Jar Jar’s ears were waving about in time with his hands while he talked.  Jar Jar Binks must be an acquired taste.

It isn’t just Jar Jar, is it? Qui-Gon hazarded.

No, Obi-Wan admitted, shifting his position so that he could look up at Qui-Gon.  There have been many times that we’ve run into people that I remember.  I want to greet them as friends, not the strangers they know themselves to be.  It’s—it’s hard.  Here on Naboo, it’s going to be so much worse.  Here there are people that I’ve known for years, not just a few days or weeks.

Qui-Gon nodded his understanding.  He’d tried, over the years, to picture himself in Obi-Wan’s place, failing each time.  He just couldn’t imagine walking the same part of his life twice over—Force knew it had been hard enough the first time. 

Worse, Qui-Gon thought, was the temptation of it all.  Qui-Gon didn’t know how Obi-Wan withstood the desire to simply grab someone’s hand, to tell them not to do what they were about to, as it would lead to dire consequences or death.

This is it, though, isn’t it?  This is the event you told the Council about.  He’d suspected as much, considering Obi-Wan’s words on Coruscant, but Obi-Wan had still been inclined to caution.

So far, yes.  Obi-Wan’s eyes were a clear gray, a sign of deep concern.  There is still a chance, as small as it is now, that I’m wrong.

Qui-Gon stared into his partner’s eyes.  There was something there, some unknown fear.  Obi-Wan:  Right or wrong, I’ll still be here.  Whatever happens, we’ll see it through together. 

On a whim—or, perhaps, Qui-Gon was responding to the warmth that filled Obi-Wan’s eyes at his words—he leaned forward, just wanting to kiss the lips that were so maddeningly close.

Of course, that’s when Jar Jar Binks screamed bloody murder.  The pod jolted; both he and Obi-Wan were thrown forward, almost colliding with the seats in front of them.

Qui-Gon recovered his seat first, glancing over to find Obi-Wan staring up in mild alarm at something outside their craft.  Qui-Gon followed his line of sight to find a sea monster (there was no other word for it) roaring at them, gigantic mouth gaping wide.

The noise from the panicked Gungan was worse than any sea creature.  Qui-Gon placed his hand on Jar Jar’s shoulder, meaning only to calm the frantic youth.  “Relax,” he said, while Anakin concentrated on getting them away from the threat.

Qui-Gon drew back his hand in surprise when Jar Jar slumped in his seat, nearly unconscious from the gentle Force touch.  He gave Obi-Wan a baffled look.  Never had he seen such a mild Force suggestion cause such an extreme reaction.

“I think you overdid it,” Obi-Wan said, smiling at him.  If he had any problems with the fact that his partner had just tried to kiss him, he was keeping them to himself. 

Qui-Gon cursed the Gungan, the sea monster, the ocean, the rocks, the water—anything he could possibly think of that might have had a hand in current events.  There was no reclaiming that moment, not right now.

Anakin got them out of the tunnel without allowing the sea creature to snack on them.  As he turned the pod to put on speed, another, bigger creature came along and had the first one for dinner.

“There’s always a bigger fish,” Obi-Wan said softly.

“You know, I think that’s my line?” Qui-Gon replied, disturbed.  He had been thinking the exact same thing.

“I don’t care which one of you was supposed to say what,” Anakin called, a frown of concentration on his face.  “Just tell me which way to go, because our Gungan navigator isn’t going to be much help anytime soon.”

It was a relatively simple matter to find their way through the passages that surrounded the planet core, at least when they avoided inhabited burrows.  Anakin was the one to find the tunnel leading back to the surface, following the currents and a hint of sunlight. 

Theed was gorgeous, a sprawling, architectural gem that had incorporated the area’s natural water features in its design.  It was also crawling with the Trade Federation’s droid army.

Finding the Queen’s entourage turned out to be easier than Qui-Gon had expected.  They were being marched down the street, under heavy guard.  Obi-Wan, close at his side, already had his lightsaber hilt in his hand, a tense expression marring his features.  Anakin was just behind his Master, with Jar Jar following, trying not to whimper too loudly.

Qui-Gon took a quick look over the stone walkway.  The height was not bad, and would allow them to get the drop on the droids guarding the Naboo.  “Anakin, can you handle this?” he asked.

Anakin poked his head up to take in the view and ducked back out of sight almost in the same breath.  “Yeah, it’s not bad.  I can roll if I can’t stick the landing, and you guys will probably have the droids dismembered before I have to worry about it, anyway.”

Obi-Wan gave his Padawan a faint smile.  “Don’t worry, Anakin.  I’m sure there will be plenty more where those came from.”

Qui-Gon nodded.  “Let’s go.”

They freed the Naboo, leaving the remains of the droid battalion lying in the street.  The Naboo Security Forces commander, Captain Panaka, led them to the hangar after Qui-Gon kept Sio Bibble from starting an argument over procedure at exactly the worst time.

Would you please stop that? Obi-Wan begged as they darted for cover, keeping watch over the unarmed handmaidens.

Stop what? Qui-Gon asked in confusion, motioning the Queen forward when the way was clear.  It was interesting; Panaka was doing his job well, but his eyes darted towards the girls far more often than seemed necessary.

Quoting! Obi-Wan replied, which made no sense at all.

It took a few minutes of argument to convince the Queen that it was necessary to come to Coruscant.  Obi-Wan didn’t say a word, but he was developing a tic under his eye that led Qui-Gon to suspect he was doing more “quoting.” 

Once that was done, there was still the matter of the droids guarding the ship and the piloting crew.  Would you like to break them, or shall I? Qui-Gon asked, striding through the hangar as if he had every right to be there.  It was almost surprising how often that confidence worked better than skulking about.

Oh, I’ll take care of it.  Why should we deviate from the script now? Obi-Wan returned at his most caustic.

The pilots were freed, the droids were destroyed, everyone was on board the ship that needed to be, and no one got shot.  Even Jar Jar managed to get inside without tripping up himself or someone else.  Qui-Gon directed the Gungan into the maintenance bay, told him to stay put, and made his way to the cockpit.  Obi-Wan was already there, looking grim.

“Still can’t get a signal out,” the pilot said.  “That must be one hell of a jamming system.”

“Not orbital at all, then,” Panaka said with a frown.  “I bet it’s the entire system they’ve closed down, Ric.”

“There’s the blockade,” Ric said, looking up at the viewscreen.  “Hang on.”

They came under fire within moments.  Anakin arrived just in time to hear the news that the shield generator was hit.  “Oh, no,” he muttered.  “That’s bad, that’s close to a lot of important stuff.”

The maintenance droids rolled out at Ric’s command.  All but one were sacrificed before the damage was repaired.  The pilot kept up a running commentary on their status, which was almost hard to hear over Anakin and Obi-Wan’s dual chant:  Not the hyperdrive, not the hyperdrive…

“The hyperdrive is leaking.”

Balls, Anakin grumbled, and went to see to the drive in question.

Obi-Wan sighed and sat down at the navigator’s helm.  He brought up a chart of the quadrant to look for landing sites just as Qui-Gon mentioned that necessity aloud, winding up on the receiving end of Panaka’s full, attentive ire in the process.

Fuck.  Dammit. 

Qui-Gon glanced behind him.  What is it? he asked, and then he saw the planet listing that Obi-Wan was staring at.

 

*          *          *          *

 

“If she’s truly the Queen, I’m going to sit down and eat my boots,” Qui-Gon muttered, collapsing onto the part of the bunk that Anakin wasn’t already curled up on.  The berths were not large enough; while his back lay on the surface, his knees were bent, and his boots rested squarely on the floor.

The boy had a broad grin on his face.  “Good news, Master Qui-Gon.  You won’t have to eat them.”

“Oh?”  Qui-Gon glanced up at Anakin, who looked far too mischievous for his own good.  “And what is your opinion on this matter, Padawan Skywalker?”

Anakin shrugged, pretending nonchalance.  “Padmé.  I guess I’m cheating a little bit, but if you watch her and the woman dressed as the queen, you can tell she’s doing more than just advising.”

Padmé.  Qui-Gon knew that name, though it had been years since he’d heard it. 

He sat up, giving Anakin his full attention.  “She’s the Padmé that you remembered?  From before?”

“Yeah.”  Anakin put down his datapad, starting to look uncomfortable.  “I never forgot her, unlike a lot of the other stuff.  I’m just—I’m not sure how to talk to her.  Some kid showing up and speaking about things she hasn’t told him yet is going to be creepy, and I don’t want to be creepy.”

“Anakin, while you are many things, creepy is not one of them,” Qui-Gon said in reassurance, ruffling the boy’s hair.  Anakin ducked away, smiling. 

“What else do you remember?” Qui-Gon asked.  Perhaps between Obi-Wan’s caution and Anakin’s vague recollections, Qui-Gon might gain a better idea of what the hell was going on.

Anakin halted in the midst of reaching for the datapad again.  “What do you mean?”  Underneath his further attempt at unconcern was a great deal of nervousness. 

“I suppose I was wondering if seeing your Padmé again had caused you to remember anything else.”  Qui-Gon noted the sudden tense set of Anakin’s shoulders.  “I’m not going to press you, Anakin.  I was just curious.”

Anakin bit his lip, and when he looked up at Qui-Gon, his eyes were filled with dread.  “You won’t mention anything to Obi-Wan, will you?  Please?  I mean—I know I shouldn’t keep anything from my Master, but you’re my Master, too, and as long as I say something to one of you—”

Qui-Gon shushed him with gentle fingers, trying to still Anakin’s rising panic.  “Easy, Ani.  If there is danger involved, I may have no choice, but I won’t tell him yet, as long as you explain what’s wrong.”  He hugged Anakin close, understanding that his shared Padawan needed the contact.  Sometimes physical reassurance was more important to Anakin than words.  “If it can wait, I will let you tell him when the time is right.”

“Okay.  I mean, I think I’m okay with that.”  Anakin snuggled closer, so Qui-Gon draped his arm around the boy.  “It’s just—I’ve been having a lot of dreams for the past couple of months.  Most of them are okay, but there are some that…they’re frightening.  No, it’s worse than that.  Master Qui-Gon, they frighten the crap out of me,” Anakin said, and Qui-Gon hugged him tighter when gooseflesh broke out on Anakin’s arms. 

“There’s someone doing horrible things to people, and sometimes I think I’m doing horrible things to people, too.  Except that I’m not really me anymore.  Then there are dreams where Padmé and I are married, and we’ve got kids, and all of us are living happily together near the lake, here on Naboo.  Except that one’s a lie.  I always wake up upset from that one because I know it never happened.”

Qui-Gon realized Anakin was crying, sniffling in misery.  He reached into his belt pouch and fished out a wad of clean cloth, giving it to the boy.

“Anakin, it will be all right.  You know that none of that has to come true.”  Except for those parts I suspect you might still want, he thought, remembering the adoring way the young Padawan had gazed at the Handmaiden/Queen they were discussing.

“I know, and Obi-Wan knows that, too,” Anakin said, his expression tear-stained and utterly serious.  “But I also know that now is not a good time to tell Obi-Wan about any of this.  Please don’t say anything.”

“Anakin, you’ll have to tell him sometime.  This is important,” Qui-Gon reminded him gently.

“After Naboo, sure.  After Naboo, I’ll tell him that I dance in the nude like a Killi bird if you want me to.  Just don’t make me say anything yet.  He doesn’t need that kind of …of distraction,” Anakin said, frowning.

Qui-Gon stared at the boy in front of him, feeling the currents of the Force swirl around them in upset.  “Ani, what happens on this mission?  What’s wrong with it?”

Anakin shook his head.  “I don’t remember, Master Qui-Gon.  Honestly, I don’t.  It has something to do with you, or him, or maybe even both of you.  I know that it’s bad, just not what.”

On impulse, Qui-Gon drew Anakin into another embrace, crushing the boy against his chest.  “I’ll watch over him, I promise you.”

Anakin wiggled against Qui-Gon’s tunics, putting up a token struggle of protest.  “I know you will.  And I bet you’re wondering where he is.”

“Yes, that was going to be my next question,” Qui-Gon said, smiling.

“He’s helping Padmé clean Artoo.”

R2-D2, the droid that had repaired the ship’s shields.  Qui-Gon looked down at Anakin.  “He’s something else that is exceptionally familiar, isn’t he?”

Anakin nodded.  “Yep.  Artoo is something else, Master Qui-Gon.”  He grinned his thanks when Qui-Gon shed his cloak and laid it over Anakin.  Nearly five years of Coruscant living, and still Anakin always felt cold on transports.  His Master was the same way.

“You should have kissed him anyway, you know,” Anakin said as Qui-Gon palmed the door open.

Qui-Gon glanced back over his shoulder at Anakin.  “Oh?”  He was trying to sound casual, as unconcerned as Anakin over mention of Padmé—probably failing badly, too, given that his heart was trying to pound its way out of his chest.

“Yeah.  I’m sorry I managed to pilot into the only inhabited burrow in the sea wall, but you shouldn’t have let a little thing like a screaming Gungan keep you from that.  It was important,” Anakin finished, as if he had the final say on the matter.

Maybe it was.  “I’ll keep that in mind, young Padawan,” Qui-Gon said, giving the boy a low, sweeping bow.  Anakin giggled.  “Finish your coursework for the week, and you can show me all of your old haunts on Tatooine when we get there.”

“Yes, Master Qui-Gon,” Anakin said.  He picked up his datapad with renewed cheer.

The droid was already clean, though still in Padmé’s company.  They had both been cornered by Jar Jar Binks, who was once again spewing verbiage at garbled high speed.  R2-D2 was making half-hearted beeps; Padmé was giving the Gungan her full attention.  It was possible, given the bias that Jar Jar had spoken of earlier, that he was the first of his species that Padmé had ever seen.

Seeing Qui-Gon, Padmé waved at him, and pointed in the direction of the ship’s observation lounge when Qui-Gon gave her a questioning look.  He nodded and took his leave before Jar Jar sucked him into the conversation, as well.

Interesting, that she’d so quickly understood what it was that Qui-Gon had wanted to know.  There was no mention of the Queen of Naboo’s midichlorian count in the public files, but Qui-Gon would eat his boots and his cloak if she turned out to be a null. 

Obi-Wan was standing alone in the lounge.  He was watching the stars go by, their pace appallingly slow.  Having a malfunctioning hyperdrive made it long trip, turning a hyperspace journey of a few hours into several days of travel.  The ship was capable of short jumps, coaxed along by their pilot in an attempt to conserve fuel, but Obi-Wan was certain that the motivator was going to be fried by the end of it all.

Qui-Gon had meant his first words to be of greeting, or of Anakin.  Instead, Qui-Gon found himself asking, “Why Tatooine?”

Obi-Wan turned to face Qui-Gon, and there were lines of stress around his eyes that had not existed a few hours ago.  “The Force said it was the way to go.”

Qui-Gon stepped closer, sensing that Obi-Wan would not be averse to company.  “You don’t sound pleased about that.”  Anakin seemed happy to be visiting his former home; Obi-Wan looked as if he wanted to set things on fire with his eyes.

Obi-Wan gave vent to a frustrated sigh.  “No, I suppose not.  May I tell you about my first visit to Tatooine, Qui-Gon?”

Qui-Gon nodded, and Obi-Wan began to speak.  There was a bitter thread in the tale, one whose origin Qui-Gon couldn’t trace.  Obi-Wan explained how they had arrived, how he had volunteered to stay with the ship.  There were repairs that needed to be completed aside from the hyperdrive, and Obi-Wan seemed to be the only competent mechanic among the entire lot of escapees from Naboo. 

That was true this time, as well.  The exact sameness of their circumstances was enough to leave Qui-Gon chilled. 

The hyperdrive motivator was the critical element, though, and that was what Qui-Gon, Jar Jar, R2-D2, and the handmaiden Padmé went into the settlement of Mos Espa to retrieve.

“Padmé, the Queen,” Qui-Gon said, amused.

Obi-Wan smiled.  “I take it Anakin told you?”  When Qui-Gon nodded, he went on.  “You discovered four things at once that day:  Toydarians are immune to Force suggestion; they don’t take Republic credits on Tatooine; this particular Toydarian had the motivator we needed; and…you found Anakin.”

Qui-Gon felt his eyes go wide.  “Force, Obi-Wan,” he whispered.  Suddenly, so much about this mission made sense.  It wasn’t just about the Trade Federation’s unusual tactics, but about the Order’s discovery of the Chosen One—almost five years too late to be accepted for training.  Tatooine no longer seemed like such a random place for Obi-Wan to have lived.  That planet was acting like a pivot point for fate.

“I take it the Toydarian in question is Watto,” Qui-Gon guessed.  “I can see now, what you meant about his taking care of Shmi and Anakin.”  Most slave owners didn’t hold onto their merchandise for that long, not without some element of compassion involved.

Obi-Wan nodded.  “You sent me a blood sample that night by transmission, with very little explanation of what you were up to.  You and the others were staying in the Skywalker home in the slave quarter that night, on Anakin’s invitation.  I ran that sample three damn times.  Twenty-three thousand.  Sometimes I still have trouble believing it.”

Qui-Gon had a moment’s guilt, thinking of his partner’s altered midichlorian count, a fact he and the Council had kept secret from Obi-Wan.  They should really have made mention of it before now, but this wasn’t the best moment to reveal that particular truth.

“You told me you had an idea for getting the parts.  You did not tell me,” Obi-Wan said, giving Qui-Gon a crooked smile, “that it involved betting on Anakin’s participation in a pod race.”

Qui-Gon stared at him, agog.  “I did what?

“Oh, that’s not all,” Obi-Wan said, his eyes dancing with suppressed laughter.  “Anakin did volunteer, mind you, but since it was his pod, and he was a slave, he needed a sponsor to enter the race.  You entered into a bargain with Watto—he would sponsor the boy, and you provided the ship—this ship—as collateral for the entry fee.  If Anakin won, you got the parts and the ship, while Watto collected the prize money.”  He didn’t mention what would have happened if Anakin lost, but that was quite unnecessary.

“Force gods, I’m a manipulative bastard,” Qui-Gon whispered, still not quite certain if Obi-Wan was being serious.  “But Anakin was a child, an untrained child.  I must have been—”

“Desperate,” Obi-Wan finished for him.  He was no longer amused.  “You were desperate.  Not only did we need to get the Queen of Naboo to Coruscant before the Trade Federation stripped the planet bare of people and resources, you had a boy in front of you who should have been with the Jedi from birth.  As it was, Anakin was a self-trained, Force-using child with enough power to shut down a sun if he thought about it hard enough.”

“I take it Anakin won the pod race,” Qui-Gon replied in a faint voice.  He knew that Obi-Wan believed that Qui-Gon was not quite the same person at this point in time, not like Obi-Wan remembered from before, but this—

“I don’t care how desperate I was.  I could have gotten him killed.”

Obi-Wan’s expression softened.  “If it’s any consolation, Anakin had been in four previous races, and survived them all.  He didn’t finish any of them, either, but that didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for the sport.”  To my intense regret, he added.

“It’s not much of a consolation, no,” Qui-Gon said, still reeling from what he’d been told.  “Obi-Wan, what have you changed?  In these last four years, what have you changed?”

Obi-Wan seemed to understand his urgency.  “Anakin.  You were with me for that.  The Yinchorri uprising, and Micah—he would have died during the war.  You were there for that, too.”

“Yes,” Qui-Gon whispered, reaching up to touch Obi-Wan’s left shoulder, where the scar began, the one he had earned by saving Micah Giett’s life.  “When it looked as if both of you were going to die, that wasn’t exactly a bright spot.”

“No.  I guess not.”  Obi-Wan stared back at him, hands loose at his sides, as if waiting.

“What else?” Qui-Gon asked.

“I haven’t changed anything else.”

“You—” Qui-Gon hesitated, as he realized he didn’t know what to say.  “Nothing else?”

“Not a thing,” Obi-Wan said with a slight shrug, the barest hint of movement under Qui-Gon’s hand.  Qui-Gon realized he had, perhaps, allowed his touch linger too long, and let his hand fall back to his side.

“It sounds strange, I know.  I thought there would be something else, and then it never happened.  It hinged on choices that others made, and I didn’t need to do anything at all.”

Qui-Gon knew there was still much he was not being told.  “Will you tell me what happened, then?  Could it hurt now to tell me of things that are now in the past, for both of us?”

 Obi-Wan hesitated, shaking his head as he took a step back.  “That’s really not a good idea, especially right now.”

“It isn’t as if we don’t have time and opportunity,” Qui-Gon countered, thinking of the long days ahead.  “Please, I—when once you said that I was different, I didn’t take you seriously.  I see now that you were being truthful.  I need to know what happened, that I could become a man who would send a child to perform a task that would be dangerous even for a Jedi Master.”

Obi-Wan closed his eyes briefly, as if Qui-Gon’s words had pained him.  “All right.”  He held out his hand; Qui-Gon took it, feeling no little amount of trepidation as Obi-Wan led him to one of the wide, cushioned benches.  “I will tell you,” Obi-Wan said as they seated themselves.  “You will not like it.”

Qui-Gon didn’t doubt that at all.

He listened as Obi-Wan told him of Micah’s death.  That one was not a surprise, not after what had happened two years ago.  The circumstances were a bit different, but in the end, the outcome…

Then Obi-Wan told him of Tahl’s death, a year after Micah’s, and some of the things that came after.  Even that barebones summary was almost too much to bear. 

When Obi-Wan had finished speaking, Qui-Gon thanked him and walked, wooden-legged, from the room.  He didn’t know if Obi-Wan watched him go, but the pairbond was filled with regret, as if Obi-Wan wished he had never spoken of any of it at all.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Qui-Gon wanted to spend the next three days in meditation, to be on even keel again when their mission to safeguard the Queen resumed with their visit to Tatooine.  He did meditate, sometimes, but far more of his attention was taken up by dealing with the Naboo contingent aboard ship.  Qui-Gon spoke with each of them in turn, learning things that were of interest, some of which might actually be helpful if the Nemoidians magically changed their minds and decided to negotiate.  Doubtful, but stranger things had happened.

Anakin and Obi-Wan were doing much the same as he was, though Anakin was having the most success.  The boy had finally gathered the courage to speak to Padmé, and was now chattering away at her about Naboo, about the Senate, about his Jedi training, about her family, about his family—any subject the two of them could come up with.  It wasn’t just patience on Padmé’s part, an older girl dealing with a precocious child; Padmé and Anakin seemed well-matched.  There was, more often than not, a wide smile on the young Queen’s face, and a bright-eyed grin on Anakin’s.

She had not been all that annoyed by Anakin having guessed that the girl wearing the ceremonial robes and makeup was not actually the Queen of Naboo.  Qui-Gon, listening through the training bond, learned that the other girl was named Sabé, the handmaiden closest in appearance and voice to Padmé Naberrie.  Obi-Wan had his own conversations with the false Queen, never letting on that he knew of her true identity, but he always made sure that Padmé was nearby so that she could hear what was said.

When Padmé was busy with Sabé and the others of the Naboo contingent, Anakin went to the cockpit to spend time with Ric Olé.  Ric had adopted the Padawan the moment he realized that Anakin was already as much of a pilot as he was, despite his youth.  The other rescued starfighter pilots had followed suit, turning Anakin into their mascot.  Discussing ships and piloting and space lanes and shortcuts gave them all something to do during the long journey, when tedium could have led to mutiny.

Panaka was the only Naboo remaining that was still stand-offish, but the man still sorely felt his failure to protect the Queen during the initial invasion.  He was formal with the Jedi, and made it clear that he was an ally to their cause as long as their cause remained devoted to Amidala’s safety.  Panaka also had no qualms sharing his opinions; he believed Qui-Gon to be foolish and Obi-Wan to be young and inexperienced, especially in regards to their choosing Tatooine as a safe harbor.  Anakin escaped Panaka’s criticism by simple virtue of being too young to warrant the Captain’s attention.

When Qui-Gon had time alone, when maintaining the ship and scrounging among limited supplies for the too-large crew didn’t eat up the day, he just wanted to rail, to scream—anything but sit down and continue to be rational about his own feelings.  It didn’t feel reasonable to be told about things he had never done, that had never happened.

There had never been anything rational about the life Obi-Wan had dreamed—and Qui-Gon firmly believed that it wasn’t a dream, wasn’t a vision at all, no matter what Master Yarael had to say on the matter.  The Force had granted Obi-Wan two lives, and four and a half years later, Qui-Gon was still the one who was having the most trouble coming to terms with it all.

Qui-Gon could admit, after long hours on his knees as he meditated his way through a night cycle, that his primary source of frustration was himself.  The decisions Obi-Wan had said Qui-Gon had made, the darkness he had nearly fallen to after Tahl’s murder in that other-when—he could see himself following that path.  Qui-Gon had almost lost himself to it after Xanatos had tried to kill him, albeit in a different way.  Losing people he loved had always had a significant effect on him.  He was honest enough to admit it was because he did not let people into his heart easily.  He had many companions, but few close friends, and even fewer lovers.

It was the anger Obi-Wan had spoken of, anger that Qui-Gon had turned on his own Padawan, that bothered Qui-Gon the most.  Obi-Wan had almost been radiating guilt as he had spoken of Tahl’s death.  It sounded like something his other self had either ignored, or…encouraged?

That thought disturbed him greatly. 

Enough, Qui-Gon thought, and climbed to his feet.  At that point, he was accomplishing nothing more than spinning in mental circles.  Only a few hours remained before making planetfall on Tatooine.  With the hyperdrive now silenced, he wanted to take a closer look at it.  Qui-Gon was not a gifted mechanic, not like his partner and their Padawan, but he could diagnose problems well enough.  Maybe they would get lucky, and the hyperdrive had survived the trip with minimal mechanical breakdown.  Small replacement parts, infinitely easier to come by than a new motivator for a Nubian J-27, would be a blessing from the Force right now.

Qui-Gon was not surprised to find Obi-Wan already up to his elbows in hyperdrive components.  They did tend to consider the same problems at similar times.

Obi-Wan offered him a cautious smile of greeting, and only then did Qui-Gon realize that he had been effectively avoiding his partner for much of the journey, a feat that was not easy to accomplish.

“Where’s Anakin?” Qui-Gon asked, as he rolled up his sleeves. 

“Asleep,” Obi-Wan replied, handing him two spanners and pointing to the secondary casing for the motivator.  Qui-Gon resisted the urge to sigh, knowing without needing to be told that the motivator had failed, after all. 

They stripped the drive in short order, laying out parts and turning the pristine royal viewing room into a mess of metal and grease.  The small replaceable parts Qui-Gon had hoped for were also present, cataloged by R2-D2 as they worked. 

Qui-Gon looked at the projected parts list and frowned.  The fuel would be the cheapest of it.  “Damn.  That’s an expensive list, even if Tatooine accepted Republic currency.”

Obi-Wan looked at him, mischievous smile in place.  “Good thing I asked Mace for half Republic, half Cho-Mar.”

“What did Mace say when you asked him for Hutt funds again?” Qui-Gon wanted to know.  Truget was slowly replacing Cho-Mar, thanks to another Hutt power struggle, but Cho-Mar still held much of its value. 

“He asked me if I thought it would be necessary.”  Obi-Wan sighed.  “I told him that I hoped it would not be.”  He put his elbows on top of the hyperdrive casing, resting his head in his hands.  Such gestures made him look so very young, despite the faint lines of early stresses that marked his face, and the knowledge that hid behind his eyes.

Qui-Gon swallowed, struck by a surge of such protectiveness, of such longing, that it almost stole his breath.  “I’m sorry.”

Obi-Wan did not pretend to misunderstand what Qui-Gon was apologizing for.  “Don’t be, Qui.  You have done nothing wrong.”

Qui-Gon hesitated.  “I don’t know if that’s true.  Some part of me did you wrong, some when, and I’m the only version of me here that can say anything to you.”

Obi-Wan straightened and came out from behind the discarded casing, standing less than an arm’s length away.  “I accept your apology, Qui-Gon Jinn, for the meaning you wish it to convey,” he said, and then smiled at him.  “You aren’t ever going to let it go, otherwise.”

Qui-Gon smiled back.  “No, I wouldn’t have.  I’ve done a lot of thinking, Obi-Wan.  Ultimately, I find that for now, I only have one question.”

Obi-Wan raised one eyebrow.  “And what’s that?”

“What happens next?”

Obi-Wan grinned, the sober mood between them broken.  “We go to Tatooine, bargain for the hyperdrive motivator, and get the hell out of there as soon as we possibly can.”

“And we’ll be roasting while we’re at it,” Qui-Gon added, thinking with dread about the twin suns.  He had not liked the planet’s intense heat.  “Do you think Watto will have that same motivator again?”  The chances had to be astronomical, and yet…here they were.

Obi-Wan shrugged.  “Whatever it is we need, it’s down there.  The only way to find out for sure is to go look.”

“That’s a Yoda answer,” Qui-Gon accused with a smile.

“Well, it’s a better response than, “I don’t fucking know,”’ Obi-Wan countered, his eyes bright with humor.

They stared at each other, conversation sudden grinding to a halt as that moment spread out between them.  Qui-Gon realized that they were both waiting.  While he was almost certain of what he was waiting for, sometimes Obi-Wan was more difficult to read than any Jedi alive.

Qui-Gon had almost made up his mind to do something about it, and to hell with the consequences, when he was interrupted.  Again.

Panaka stuck his head in the viewing room doorway, and frowned at the mess before giving them both an imposing stare.  He must have been satisfied by what he saw, because he spoke in a less gruff tone than usual.  “We’ll be landing shortly.  If either of you knows of a good place to park on this gods-forsaken rock, Ric would be glad to hear it.”

“Yes, I’ll tell him,” Obi-Wan said.  “There are several cities down there, even though it looks inhospitable.”  Panaka gave Obi-Wan a dirty look, which Obi-Wan pretended not to notice. 

Qui-Gon waited until they left, tightened his shields, and then gave mental vent to some of the foulest invectives he had ever been taught.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Tatooine was hotter than he remembered.  Qui-Gon didn’t think that was even possible.  It made his decision to throw a burnoose over his regular clothes in token bid to keep their identities secure seem utterly foolish, especially compared to what Obi-Wan had done.  His partner had stripped off tabards, overtunic, belt, and sash, borrowing a much simpler leather belt from one of the pilots to wear over his shirt.  His lightsaber he’d stuffed in his boot.  The simpler garb made him look like a local, whereas Qui-Gon looked to be exactly what he was—an offworlder trying to avoid notice.

Padmé had long practice at avoiding attention, it seemed, and was wearing clothes that would blend in on half a dozen worlds.  She was coming with them, but not at her own insistence like before.  Obi-Wan had made the offer for her to join them in Mos Espa, and Padmé had quickly accepted.  Panaka gritted his teeth, but handed the girl a small holdout blaster which Padmé had tucked out of sight inside her clothing.

Anakin had been given a shirt from their sole female pilot.  It was the same shade of blue as Padmé’s tunics, fell to his knees, and made them look like a matched set of visiting offworlders.  There wasn’t much to be done about Anakin’s Padawan braid, but it was still short, so Anakin left it unbraided and tucked behind his ear in hopes it would just be overlooked.

Qui-Gon ordered Jar Jar Binks to stay with the ship.  He understood the Gungan’s curiosity, and sympathized with the youth’s disappointment at not getting to see a new place, but Force, if anything could turn this trip into a disaster, it would be Jar Jar.

R2-D2 was waiting by the ship’s ramp as they prepared to leave.  Upon seeing them, he whistled cheerfully and signaled the boarding ramp to lower.

Qui-Gon eyed the droid.  “I suppose if I told you to stay here, you’d ignore me?”

R2-D2 regarded him, beeped three times, and rolled down the ramp.  Qui-Gon bit back a smile, wondering what a droid with a smart-ass streak was doing in a Queen’s retinue.

The long, hot walk to Watto’s shop was uneventful.  Qui-Gon decided to be grateful for small favors.

Watto was glad to see them again—or at least, he was genuinely glad to see Anakin.  “Ani, my boy!” the Toydarian exclaimed in Huttese, his wings flapping in a furious bid to keep his bulk aloft.  “It’s good to see you!  How are you?”

He gave the startled Padawan a hug, which Anakin returned in bewilderment.  “Uh—I’m fine, Watto,” Anakin stammered, trying to shake off his confusion.  “It’s good to see you, too.  The shop is doing great!”

“Yeah, yeah!  So it is,” Watto said proudly.  Then he caught sight of Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, and his smile was replaced by a thunderous frown.

“Greetings, Watto,” Obi-Wan said, granting the Toydarian a short bow.  “The years have been kind.”

“You!” Watto roared in Basic, pointing a bony finger at them.  “If you came looking for more slaves to buy, I’m fresh out!  Go bother someone else!”

“You know this…creature?” Padmé asked, managing at the last moment to provide a word more diplomatic than whatever she may have been thinking.  “And you made a purchase?”

“Of course they did,” Anakin said, dismissing her concerns with a smile.  “Where do you think Watto knows me from?”

“You were a slave?

While Padmé processed that realization, Qui-Gon caught Watto’s attention.  “We’re here to make a regular transaction, I assure you,” he said.  Watto’s frown eased, and he flew closer, curious.

“We’re looking for parts for our ship, and believe you may be able to help us.”  Qui-Gon said, bringing out a small holoprojector and turning it on.  “Our astromech droid has a full list of the parts we need, but our primary concern is a hyperdrive motivator.”

Watto peered at the display of the Queen’s transport, scratching at the dark stubble on his chin.  “Nubian, Nubian…I think I’ve got some of the things you need, but my motivator might not work for you.”

Obi-Wan, in the middle of conferring with R2-D2 about the parts list in question, glanced over at them.  “Oh?  Something Anakin could fix?”

Watto cackled and rubbed his hands together.  “Maybe!  I see you Jedi make use of the boy’s natural talents, as well.  He’s a good kid, Ani is!  But this, I don’t even know if he can fix.  Let me show it to you.” 

They all followed the Toydarian out into his scrap yard.  R2-D2’s beeping went from curious to desultory.  Anakin told them that he was complaining about all of the sand.  Qui-Gon didn’t really blame him at all, wincing as he was under the renewed assault of the midday suns. 

When Watto showed them the motivator, Qui-Gon wanted to curse.  It was obvious that it was useless.

“Anakin?” Obi-Wan beckoned for their Padawan to come closer.  “What do you think?”

Anakin looked at it before slowly shaking his head.  “It’s—I don’t know what happened to it.  It looks like someone tried to blow it up while it was in use.  It won’t do us any good.  I can’t fix something that’s missing most of what makes it work.”  And I don’t get it, he added.  This isn’t even the same motivator that Watto had the last time.  What changed?

You did, Anakin, Obi-Wan sent, a pensive frown on his face.  You haven’t been here for the past four years.  You’re the variable.

Well, shit, Anakin said, earning a swift reprimand from both of them for language unbecoming a young Padawan.  Er, sorry.  What do we do now?

“What are our other options, then?” Padmé asked, looking worried.  “We can’t get back to Coruscant without a hyperdrive.”

“And there are no planets closer that wouldn’t turn you over to the Trade Federation,” Qui-Gon added.  The ship didn’t have the supplies remaining to make another long trip, anyway.  Padmé was more than likely well aware of the direness of their situation. 

Padmé glared at him.  Qui-Gon recounted his words and realized that he had inadvertently told her that he knew of her true identity, also.  She looked at them all, her eyes narrowed.  Anakin shifted his feet and tried not to look guilty.

“I suppose you know, too?” Padmé asked Obi-Wan.  He smiled, dipping his head in acknowledgement, and she sighed.  “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  I’m surrounded by Jedi, after all.”

“Don’t feel too discouraged, Your Highness,” Obi-Wan said, his voice soft in deference to Watto’s proximity.  “Sabé does an excellent job.  Not even Sio Bibble noticed the difference, and he works with you every day.”

Padmé nodded.  “I have to admit, I’m surprised you asked me to come along, knowing who I was.”

“You either would have had Panaka order us into it, or followed along on your own.  This seemed much safer.”  Obi-Wan grinned at her.

Padmé grinned back.  “I guess so,” she said, and then sobered.  “What are we going to do, honestly?”

Anakin tilted his head, considering the matter.  “There are other junk shops we could check.  In the meantime, we can buy the other parts we need from Watto.  He’s got everything except the motivator.  If I go back with the parts, I can make it all work.  Whether it wants to or not,” he added, almost as an afterthought. 

Padmé leaned over and planted a quick kiss on the boy’s cheek, making Anakin light up like a bonfire.  “You’re willing to go back to the ship so soon, after everything you told me about this place?”

“It may be my home, but it’ll still be here when all of this is done.  I can always come back,” Anakin replied, utterly serious.  “You’re my first priority.”

They stared at each other, smiling, and Qui-Gon sensed what he should have noticed from the start.  Force, the bond between them!  Do they know what that means? he asked, amazed. 

Obi-Wan touched Qui-Gon’s hand.  One day, they will.  For now, they are children with more than a bit of a crush on each other.  Everything else will come as it may.

 “I—I might be able to tell you where another motivator is,” Watto spoke up.  They all turned to see the Toydarian rubbing his shoulder with one hand, looking nervous.  “J-27s have dried up around here, and it’s the only one I know about in the entire region.  Before I tell you, you promise me you won’t take those two with you,” he said to Qui-Gon, motioning to Padmé and Anakin.  “It’s no place for children.  It’s no place for anyone!  But it sounds like this thing is really important…”

Obi-Wan stared hard at Watto.  Qui-Gon felt him reaching out with the Force, testing the currents that surrounded them.  Whatever he sensed made his eyes widen. 

“I promise they will not go,” Obi-Wan vowed.  “Anakin, promise me that you will not follow us.”

Anakin looked up at him, concerned and confused.  “But I—”

“Please, Anakin,” Obi-Wan cut him off.  He glanced down at Anakin, the full weight of his strength in the Force in his gaze.  “You know that I would not ask you to stay behind unless it was necessary.”

Anakin swallowed hard and nodded.  “Yes.  I know that, Master.  I promise I won’t follow.”

“Padmé?”

Padmé stared at Obi-Wan, a little startled by his sudden change in demeanor.  Before, Qui-Gon knew, she would only have seen the side of Obi-Wan that he used in public.  He bantered with people; he wasn’t afraid to get dirty when there was building to be done, or when it was time to tear something down.  He was as open with non-Jedi as he could be, and he tended not to use the Force around them in blatant displays unless they said or demonstrated that it didn’t bother them—and it bothered many. 

Now, she was seeing the Jedi Master.  The Force was collecting in enough strength that even someone who was Force-blind would have known something was about to happen.

“I promise,” Padmé said at last.  “If what Watto is saying is true, I wish that you did not have to go.  But my people have to come first, and I must ask you to get what we need.”

Obi-Wan nodded.  “You must do your duty, and we must do ours.” 

Padmé stepped forward and gave him a swift hug.  “Take care of yourselves.  Please.  I want no blood on my hands.”  She embraced Qui-Gon in the same way.  He found himself liking the young Queen even more.  There was strength to her, hiding behind the guise of youth, much like it did in Obi-Wan.

Qui-Gon didn’t realize it at the time, but the Queen of Naboo had just proclaimed herself their ally for life.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Qui-Gon halted the rented speeder on a cliff overlooking the valley below.  It was rock instead of sand, with the hint of a road leading up to the closed gate of Jabba the Hutt’s massive palace.

“Ugh.  It’s worse than I remember,” Obi-Wan muttered.

“I have to admit, the aura of that place is unpleasant,” Qui-Gon agreed.  He was possibly more than a little distracted by his partner’s warmth, pressed up against his back.  A speeder bike had been their only means of discreet transport, but Qui-Gon was not complaining. 

His surprise had been realizing that Obi-Wan had no intention of piloting, insisting instead that Qui-Gon be the one to fly them out to the Hutt’s residence.  It had taken only a moment’s consideration to understand why.  If something happened, Qui-Gon needed to be able to find the way back to Mos Espa.  Obi-Wan, meanwhile, would know his way back blindfolded.

“How should we handle this?”

Obi-Wan pointed at the road.  “We go to the front door, knock, tell them we’re Jedi, and announce that we have business with Jabba the Hutt.  Then we hope he’s in the mood to be reasonable.”

Qui-Gon shook his head.  “I don’t like that idea.  Why announce our identities?”

“Jabba likes to play with his guests, and the less important he believes you to be, the longer he’ll draw things out.  I don’t want to be here a full ten-day, trying to wheedle a motivator out of him,” Obi-Wan explained.

“Why don’t we just steal it?”

Obi-Wan laughed, a soft breath of air against Qui-Gon’s ear.  “While it amuses me to hear you suggest such a thing, it’s a really bad idea in this case.  Jabba’s Palace is a maze, and it’s full of people.  We could be in there for days looking for the damned thing.”

Qui-Gon sighed, knowing that Obi-Wan was right, but unable to shake a sour feeling in his gut.  “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Qui, everything associated with Jabba is bad.”

They parked the speeder a short walk from that sealed metal entrance.  Obi-Wan knocked, and received a brusque response from the answer-droid built into the door.

“We’re here to see Jabba the Hutt,” Obi-Wan said in Huttese.

The answer-droid laughed at them.  “Two Jedi to see Jabba the Hutt?” it replied in the same language.  “You must be complete fools.”

“Nevertheless, we still want to see him.  Now,” Obi-Wan added, glaring at the answer-droid’s single visual port.

“It’s your funeral, stupid biologicals,” the answer-droid retorted, withdrawing back into the door as the metal grate began to rise.

A male Twi’lek, overweight and jaundiced, gestured for them to come inside.  “I am Bib Fortuna, majordomo for the Mighty Jabba.”  For someone so young, the Twi’lek’s health looked to be failing badly. 

When the door sealed behind them, Qui-Gon had to force his eyes to adjust to the poor lighting.  A B’omarr monk was to his immediate left; Qui-Gon resisted the urge to jump back. 

Yep, still creepy, Obi-Wan said, his eyes on the spider-like perimeter droid with its attached brain-jar.  That observation made Qui-Gon feel a bit better.  At least he wasn’t the only one who found the disembodied monks disturbing.

“Normally, we would send the Gamorreans to greet you,” Fortuna confided in a quiet voice, leading them through the perpetual darkness of the palace.  The monk, to Qui-Gon’s relief, did not attempt to follow.  “But, to receive two Jedi!  This is a prestigious honor.  The Great Jabba will be happy to see you at once, though he is curious as to why a Jedi would come to see him.”

“It’s a business transaction,” Obi-Wan replied, still using Huttese even though Fortuna was speaking in Basic.  Qui-Gon was content to allow Obi-Wan to take the lead in this.  He could understand Huttese well enough, but had never mastered more than basic words and phrases.

Bib Fortuna gave Obi-Wan a narrow-eyed look.  “So you say.  You are not the first Jedi to visit us in the last two years.  One called Ki-Adi Mundi came before the Great Jabba.  His visit was not a pleasant one.  I hope that yours will be much more…well-mannered.”

“But of course,” Obi-Wan said, refusing to rise to the bait Fortuna had so poorly laid out.  “As long as the Great Jabba is willing to be reasonable, we will be reasonable, as well.”

Fortuna didn’t like that answer, but did not speak further.  He led them into the throne room, a vast cavern lit by wall-mounted torches—definitely far underground, given the way the ground had gently sloped as they walked.  Qui-Gon understood now what Obi-Wan had meant about the palace being a maze.  He could find his way out if they were forced to flee, but finding a small hyperdrive motivator in this place would prove difficult.

The majordomo left them in the center of the room, while he went to stand by his master’s side.  Jabba the Hutt was corpulent, like most Hutts in positions of power, but for his relatively young age, he was immense.  Jabba, along with two other Hutts, controlled the entirety of Huttese operations throughout the galaxy.  The Hutt Council of Nal Hutta was trying to overturn that power base, but was having little success.

Don’t stand on that part of the floor, Obi-Wan told him.  Qui-Gon looked down, noticing the metal inlay that decorated the floor just in front of them.  It’s a trap door.  He thinks it’s funny to send visitors through it, usually to become dinner of whatever creature he has caged up beneath us.

That’s vile, Qui-Gon replied, startled.  While Hutts were known to be less than ethical, he was beginning to understand why Watto had insisted that Padmé and Anakin stay well away from here.  “He likes young girls, pretty girls,” Watto had said, his discomfort evident as he spoke.  “Especially bipedal ones.  The other Hutts think he’s degenerate for liking humanoids so much, especially when they discovered that sometimes he likes pretty young boys, too.”  Granted, as a hermaphroditic, self-reproducing species, most Hutts considered all sexual activity to be sordid.  Jabba’s proclivities would definitely be looked upon as foul. 

There were several humanoid females in the Hutt’s entourage, bearing predatory airs while wearing only the barest of clothing.  Some of them even looked happy—or were so drug-addled as to not care.  Aside from Bib Fortuna, they were the only members of Jabba’s entourage who were allowed to be close to the Hutt.  They were lounging on various pieces of furniture, or lying directly on the dais itself. 

Only one of the females, a young girl, was broadcasting desperation.  She wore a metal collar attached to a silver chain, the end of which was clutched in Jabba’s hands.  She was seated at Jabba’s tail, curled up with her arms around her knees, trying valiantly to hide behind her hair.  Qui-Gon could see her eyes through that thick black curtain, and they were bright with fear.

“Greetings, Jabba.  I am Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi.  This is my companion, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn.”  Obi-Wan introduced them in rapid, if polite, Huttese.  His eyes flickered around the room, cataloging potential danger. 

Qui-Gon spied at least three different well-known bounty hunters and hoped he would not have to draw his lightsaber.  If a fight erupted, they would be hard-pressed to escape.

Jabba tugged on the girl’s chain as he regarded them.  The girl suffered in silence, as if used to such treatment.  “Greetings, Jedi,” he rumbled at last.  “I am honored by your visit.  What can I, a humble merchant, do for you?”

Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow at the blatant lie.  Obi-Wan ignored it.  “We have been told by those dwelling in Mos Espa that you are the only being on Tatooine that possesses a hyperdrive motivator for our ship.  We wish to purchase it.  The profit would be great, and an honorable increase to your present wealth,” Obi-Wan said.

You’ve spent too much time among the Hutts, if you know how to talk of profit as they do, Qui-Gon sent.

You have no idea, Obi-Wan replied.

“Hmm.”  The Hutt smiled, gazing at them with deceptively dull eyes.  “A hyperdrive motivator, you say?  I have many of those, young Jedi.  Tell me what kind of ship you have, and perhaps I can help you.”

Obi-Wan smiled at Jabba, a fierce, predatory expression that made Qui-Gon’s hair stand on end.  He didn’t think he ever wanted that smile directed at him.  “If I told you that, Great Jabba, you would be far too interested in the ship itself.  That information is not for sale.  The model number your employees should look for is jay-tee-six, nine-seven-four, Nubian in origin.  The Stalthos class of the same model would also be acceptable.”

Bib Fortuna leaned in close to the Hutt’s mouth, listening to the great hulk whisper under his breath.  Jabba was well-versed in keeping his secrets; try as he might, Qui-Gon could not discern what was being said.  Fortuna nodded and disappeared into the darkness behind the Hutt’s dais.

“You are quite knowledgeable, young Jedi,” Jabba said, looking at Obi-Wan in blatant interest.  “I could use someone of your…talents.”

“He’s not for sale, either,” Qui-Gon told the Hutt, glad that he managed to reply in Huttese without tripping over his own tongue.  The thought of Jabba using Obi-Wan, as he was obviously using the girl, was more than enough to anger him.  Qui-Gon wanted out of this palace, quickly, before he lost his damned temper.

“A pity,” was Jabba’s response, unconcerned with Qui-Gon’s refusal.  “He is very pretty.”

“Thank you, Jabba,” Obi-Wan surprised Qui-Gon by saying.  “It is kind of you to say so.”

Jabba laughed, loud and booming in the small room.  His courtiers tittered along with him, as if sharing the joke.  “And he is so well-mannered!  Master Jedi, whoever winds up holding the leash of this young one will be fortunate, indeed.”

“Indeed he will,” Qui-Gon replied.  Obi-Wan gave him a sharp look.  Relax, Qui-Gon said, trying to reassure his partner.  I know that if I try to get any more complicated than that, I’m going to get us into trouble.

That’s not what I—never mind.  Obi-Wan terminated that line of conversation as Bib Fortuna returned.  He was being followed by a massive Gamorrean, who was pulling a hoversled with the hyperdrive motivator sitting on it.  Qui-Gon prodded it with his senses and was relieved to find it to be new, or so new as not to matter.  Without taking damage, the motivator would serve the Queen’s ship for several decades.

“What kind of compensation would the Great Jabba prefer for this transaction?” Obi-Wan asked.

Jabba let out a dark chuckle, one of the least reassuring sounds in the galaxy.  Then he spoke in Basic.  “I desire only five thousand credits.  Cho-Mar is acceptable, if you have it.  Republic is not.  But…that is not my only condition.”

Obi-Wan flinched, a movement so imperceptible it would be unrecognizable unless it was witnessed by someone who knew him well.  Qui-Gon gritted his teeth.

“What is the other condition?” Obi-Wan asked, still as agreeable as if this were a standard business negotiation.

The Hutt licked his lips, leaving a trail of thick slime behind.  That explains the dullness of his eyes, Qui-Gon thought.  A Hutt’s primary reaction to consuming too much spice was a thickening of saliva.

“My other compensation is…a kiss.  From you, young Jedi.”

Qui-Gon wanted nothing more in that moment than to stride forward and tell the corpulent Hutt to go to hell.  What stopped him, aside from a desire not to get them killed, was the knowledge that this was their only option.  Without the motivator, they were trapped on this planet, and the Naboo suffered.

Obi-Wan’s shoulders stiffened.  “You ask for something very personal, Jabba.”

“But that is my condition, Jedi Kenobi,” the Hutt said with another pleased chuckle.  “Will you pay me?”

“The Great Jabba knows that if it is a motivator we wish to purchase, then we have little choice in the matter,” Obi-Wan replied in a low voice, finally switching back to Basic.  “You know full well that I’ll pay you, you bastard.”

Jabba laughed harder.  “And I will enjoy every second of it, Jedi.”

Obi-Wan stepped forward, stopped by Qui-Gon’s hand on his arm.  “You don’t have to do this,” Qui-Gon whispered, aware that everyone in the room was watching them.  “Perhaps we can find another way.”

Obi-Wan looked up at him and managed a faint smile.  “I appreciate that thought, but you and I both know that there is no other way.  Just be ready to ask your favor,” he said, and walked to the dais, skirting the metal inlay of the floor. 

Qui-Gon watched him go, amusement warring with his apprehension.  Obi-Wan already knew he was going to ask to buy the girl.  There was no one in the galaxy who knew him better.

He wanted to look away and could not.  It was like watching a speeder wreck in the skies above Coruscant—it was horrifying, and there was nothing to be done but watch it unfold.  Jabba ensnared Obi-Wan around the waist with his free hand, pulling him close.

“I will remember this for a long time, pretty Jedi,” the Hutt said, his breath a foul rush of air that blew Obi-Wan’s hair away from his face.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it,” Obi-Wan replied bluntly, not bothering to hide his distaste.  He then placed a gentle, lingering kiss on the Hutt’s mouth.  Qui-Gon felt Obi-Wan bring the Force to bear, and knew that the Hutt was getting more than his money’s worth.  There were things you could do with a Force touch that made others pale by comparison.

Qui-Gon suddenly wanted to hit Jabba and laugh at the same time.  He was jealous of a Hutt.

Obi-Wan closed his eyes, holding still while Jabba brushed his large tongue over Obi-Wan’s face in contentment.  The slime glued long strands of Obi-Wan’s hair to his face.

“Well worth the price,” the Hutt sighed in satisfaction, his eyes glazed.  “The part is yours, Jedi.  I hope that, one day, we will conduct business again.”

Obi-Wan backed away from the dais, still maintaining his dignity in the face of the catcalls pouring in from Jabba’s entourage.  He scrubbed his face clean with his sleeves while Qui-Gon took the hoversled’s control box from the Gamorrean.  The Gamorrean grunted at Obi-Wan, sniffing at his clothes in blatant curiosity, before Fortuna snapped a command at the guard and made him retreat.  Fortuna collected the Cho-Mar from Obi-Wan, smiling over the pile of credits, before returning to Jabba’s side.

Still trying to get what he had just witnessed out of his head, Qui-Gon took a step forward, stopping at the edge of the metal inlay to avoid the trap door.  “Great Jabba,” he called, hoping that his use of Basic wasn’t going to anger the worm at this point in the game.  “It is most unexpected, but I have another transaction to ask of you.”

Jabba waved his hand in languid permission.  “You have provided me with more entertainment than I expected this day, Jedi.  Make your request.”

I’d happily kill you for what you just did, Qui-Gon thought, and tried not to grimace.  He had not had such difficulties controlling his feelings in many years.

“The girl who sits at your feet, whose chain you hold.”  At Qui-Gon’s words, the girl peered up at him, hope and terror warring for dominance in her eyes.  “You seem fond of her, but I know of others who would also find her company welcome.  Would you consider parting with her?”

Jabba’s eyes, narrowed to slits in pleasure, widened.  “She is dear to me, yes, Master Jinn, but money!  That is dear, also.  I have used her well, and I fear she no longer welcomes my touch.  For fifteen-thousand trugent, I would give you her chain.”

“If she has been used, and fears you, then fifteen may be too much,” Obi-Wan said, stepping up next to Qui-Gon.  “We will offer you eleven Cho-Mar.”

Jabba frowned.  “Thirteen Cho-Mar.  That is my final offer, or I will keep her for myself.”

“You strike a hard bargain, Mighty Jabba.”  Qui-Gon inclined his head.  “For thirteen thousand Cho-Mar, you have a deal.”  It was the last of their non-Republic currency, but in this case, Qui-Gon would take on the Council’s accusations of frivolous expenditures and smile through the entire lecture.

Jabba laughed.  “Yes, today has certainly been interesting!  You may go, with my blessings, Jedi.  She will treat you well, or she will regret it.  Won’t she?” Jabba added, giving the girl’s chain another fierce yank.  She made a desperate noise of protest; Jabba pulled again, hard.  There was a sharp crack, audible even over the noise of the crowd, and the girl fell back onto the dais, lifeless.

“No!” Qui-Gon shouted.  He stepped forward and was yanked back by Obi-Wan’s grip on his arm. 

“The door, dammit!” Obi-Wan yelled, and the trap door fell open, just as Qui-Gon would have stepped on it with his full weight.

Jabba laughed, mocking them.  “Oh, Jedi.  So very entertaining.  So very easy to make them fall prey to their own whims.  Do you still want her, Master Jedi?  She would be pliant, I assure you!”

Qui-Gon placed his hand on his lightsaber, but a sudden rush of fury flooded the pairbond, halting him mid-motion; it was Obi-Wan who acted.  He held out one hand, palm flat, and curled his fingers.

The dais jerked in place, causing Jabba to utter a surprised curse.  “What is that?” he yelled.

“I know that you’re immune to Force suggestion, Jabba,” Obi-Wan said in a soft voice.  “But you’re not immune to the Force itself.” 

The dais jerked again and then rose into the air.  Jabba howled in surprise.  His closest companions jumped to the floor as the dais ascended.  Jabba was trapped on the floating platform—a Hutt falling even a short distance could be fatal.

“Put me down, Jedi, or you will pay for this!” the Hutt roared.  The click and clatter of many blasters being drawn and armed filled the room.

“No,” Obi-Wan growled back.  “We are going to walk out of here with what we came here for, and you are going to let us.  Because I can guarantee,” Obi-Wan’s voice became fierce, and Qui-Gon felt chilled, “I can drop this dais before you can give the order to fire.”

Jabba eyed them with a fearful expression.  “Very well, Jedi.  It seems I have misjudged you.  But you should pray to your Force that we never meet again.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Obi-Wan said.  “Tell them to let us pass.  When we leave your palace, I promise that you will come to no harm.”

“Let them pass!” Jabba shouted the instruction in Huttese, then again in Basic.  “Let them leave this place, or I’ll feed you all to the sarlacc!”

The sarlacc must have been considered more frightening than Jabba.  The weapons that were trained on them vanished.  Qui-Gon grabbed Obi-Wan’s arm with one hand, and operated the controls for the sled with the other.  The sooner they left this place, the better.

No one bothered them in the dark hallways, and they weren’t followed.  When the metal door closed behind them with a muted bang, it still wasn’t enough.  Qui-Gon was almost dragging Obi-Wan in his wake, though Obi-Wan didn’t protest. 

It was the work of moments to attach the hoversled to the back of the speederbike.  Obi-Wan climbed on behind him without a word, and Qui-Gon floored the accelerator.

They were several kilometers away, in the shade of the cliffs, when Obi-Wan finally spoke.  “Qui—Qui-Gon, stop.”

Qui-Gon brought the bike to a slow halt.  He turned and had to reach out and catch Obi-Wan when the younger man tried to dismount and fell, instead.  Obi-Wan shook him off, knelt in the sand, and began to retch.

Qui-Gon held him through the spasms, concerned.  “What’s wrong?”

“Did—did you know that spice concentrates itself in—in Hutt saliva?” Obi-Wan asked in a light, pondering tone, just before he started to vomit again.

“Force,” Qui-Gon said, unable to think of anything else to say.  He hadn’t known that, no, but considering how much spice Jabba had ingested, it didn’t surprise him very much.  Biological reactions to spice varied; Vishnoorells could carry active spice in their bloodstream for years.

His partner wheezed out a strangled laugh.  “Vishnoorells aren’t nearly as ugly.”

Qui-Gon shook his head.  There had been no sign of loopiness, no glazed look to his partner’s eyes as they had fled Jabba’s palace.  These symptoms were many steps beyond that.  “You shouldn’t be hitting withdrawal so soon—”

When Obi-Wan could speak again, he nodded.  “I’m forcing it out of my system, best I can.  Unless you want to be the one to explain to Anakin and Padmé how I managed to get loaded up on spice.  ‘Sorry, but Obi-Wan had to kiss a Hutt.  Literally.’”

Qui-Gon couldn’t help it; he burst out laughing.  The play on the old figurative curse was so appropriate.  “Obi-Wan, that’s so—”

“Funny?” Obi-Wan suggested, just before his body convulsed.  “Oh, my.  Shakes and convulsions.  We’ve done this before, boys and girls.  Though I suppose that there are just boys here.”

Ah.  There was the loopiness Qui-Gon would have expected. 

Obi-Wan rubbed his face with loose sand, ridding himself of Hutt slime and sick.  “Hells, Qui, this isn’t going to be pleasant.”  He paused, a reflective light in his eyes.  “Thank all of the little Force gods, I can’t taste the bastard anymore.”

Qui-Gon agreed that such a thing had to be a blessing.  He pulled Obi-Wan up from the ground.  Obi-Wan was starting to shiver, despite the heat of the evening.  For some people, spice addiction was instantaneous, and withdrawal from long-term use was hell on the body.  Withdrawal from such a small amount of spice should be minor, but Qui-Gon was almost certain the symptoms Obi-Wan was demonstrating were indicative of something worse.  Purging the spice from his system with the Force shouldn’t be creating this dramatic a reaction.

“Can you hold out long enough for us to get back to Mos Espa?  We can’t stay out here all night,” Qui-Gon said, thinking that they were going to need a ready source of water.  If Obi-Wan went through the worst that withdrawal had to offer, he could dehydrate.

Obi-Wan nodded, his eyes flashing with forced good cheer.  “I’ll make it.  If I don’t, just tie me to the damned speeder.  It’ll be like having a really expensive hood ornament.”

Qui-Gon chuckled again.  “Stop that.  Stop trying to make me laugh.”

“So who’s trying?” Obi-Wan asked.  He stepped forward when Qui-Gon opened his arms, allowing himself to be held.  “Just get me out of here, Qui.”

Qui-Gon nodded, holding his partner.  He could smell unpleasant hints of Jabba’s Palace in Obi-Wan’s hair, but the scents of salt and sand and wind overpowered the worst of it.  “I will.  I promise.”

They made it back to the settlement at dusk.  By that point, Qui-Gon was afraid that he really was going to have to tie Obi-Wan to the speeder just to keep him upright.  Obi-Wan was still holding on, but his grip was lax, and he leaned against Qui-Gon, losing awareness of their journey with every minute that passed.

Qui-Gon trusted his instincts, and took them both to the slave quarter.  It was doubtful that the Hutt’s minions would think to look for them there.

The old woman who offered them a bed, and access to water, was the same fruit stand vendor they had come across during Anakin and Shmi’s retrieval four years ago.  She remembered them, and had been a friend of the Skywalker family, as well. 

Jira waved away their offer of payment, showing them to a cool, comfortable room with a soft sleeping pad on the floor.  It was wide enough to cushion them both, if they slept close.

She brought them another blanket when Qui-Gon asked.  “It’s from my own bed,” Jira said, shaking her head when Qui-Gon would have refused it.  “If my eyes don’t deceive me, you’re going to need it.”  She gestured at Obi-Wan.  “Seems like you picked up one bad batch of spice, lad.”

“Not intentionally, I promise you,” Obi-Wan replied with a strained smile.  “Not ever.  I value my liver too much, Lady Jira.”

“Don’t call me a Lady, for I’ve never been one,” Jira replied with a wide, toothless smile.  “The shakes are the worst, unless you’re allergic…and I’d say you are, the way you’re sweating.”

Obi-Wan nodded.  “I am.  It’s not that bad—not fatal, at least.”

Qui-Gon stared at him, resisting the urge to groan in frustration.  “When were you going to tell me about this?” he asked.  Obi-Wan being allergic to spice itself was not so bad, not when he hated the drug in all forms and refused to indulge, but there were medication allergies to contend with because of their chemical similarities to spice.

Obi-Wan looked at him in honest bewilderment.  “I haven’t?”

Qui-Gon sighed.  Judging by the slight list Obi-Wan was developing, this was not the time for such discussions.  “Don’t worry about it.  We’ll talk about it later.”

“Okay,” Obi-Wan said.  “I hope you’re all right with the fact that I’m going to keep you awake tonight.”

In other circumstances, those would be the best words ever, Qui-Gon thought, amused.  "It's fine, Obi-Wan.”

Jira gave them a knowing look.  “I’ll leave you both to it, then.  Don’t stint on the water, as there’s plenty in the cistern.  If you get dehydrated, it’ll be worse,” she reminded them, and disappeared into her bedroom.

Obi-Wan sat on the sleeping pad with a grimace, reaching down to unbuckle his boots.  His hands were shaking so badly that he couldn’t manage it at all.  Qui-Gon knelt in front of him, gently knocked Obi-Wan’s hands aside, and removed his boots for him.  Then, despite Obi-Wan’s faint protests, Qui-Gon took off Obi-Wan’s belt and wrapped him in the blanket that Jira had given him.  Obi-Wan looked as if he were about to voice his thanks, and then his features tightened in pain.

“Water first, and then you lie down,” Qui-Gon suggested, attempting to sound cheerful.

Obi-Wan nodded.  “You’re going to have to help me,” he said.  “I think at this point, I’d just bathe myself with it.”

“I can do that.”  Qui-Gon filled a cup with water from the cistern, taking a moment to slake his own thirst.  A day in the desert was harsh on the body—he felt sunburnt and tired, and his day was far from over.

He filled the cup again, bringing it to Obi-Wan.  It took all four of their hands on the cup to hold it steady.  During the second cupful, Obi-Wan’s body seized up mid-swallow, and he nearly choked on what he’d been trying to drink.  “I can’t,” he whispered, shaking his head when the cup was reoffered.

“All right.”  Qui-Gon used the edge of the blanket to mop them both dry.  “It can wait,” he decided, investigating Obi-Wan’s body with the Force.  His partner was still so used to desert life that he had not suffered much from the day’s heat.

Obi-Wan looked at him, his eyes glazed and bloodshot, but still aware.  “I’m sorry about the girl,” he said through the tremors that were starting to shake his entire body.  “If I’d known what he was going to do—”

“Don’t,” Qui-Gon said, drawing the younger man into his arms.  “Don’t.  Neither of us realized what he intended.  It’s no one’s fault.”

“Who’re you tryin’ to convince?” Obi-Wan said, his voice slurring.  “Me, r’you?”

“Both of us,” Qui-Gon admitted, still feeling the shock of that sudden loss of life.  He didn’t even know the poor girl’s name.  If there was family waiting to hear word of her fate, he would never be able to grant them that comfort.

“Come on, then, lie down,” Qui-Gon said, joining his partner on the sleeping pad.  It wasn’t the softest surface he had ever laid on, but it would serve.  Lying under two blankets, with a companion radiating heat—that was going to be the uncomfortable part. 

Qui-Gon curled up around Obi-Wan, who sighed into the embrace.  Under his hands, Qui-Gon could feel constant, fine tremors as muscles clenched and released of their own volition.

“Tell me what to expect, Obi-Wan.  I need to know what to do.”

“Y’ever walked someone through spice detox?” Obi-Wan asked.

“Once or twice,” Qui-Gon said.  It had never been pleasant.

“Same thing,” Obi-Wan told him, and then lurched in Qui-Gon’s hold, a muscle spasm striking so harshly that he cried out.  Qui-Gon held on, pinning Obi-Wan’s arms to his sides and throwing a leg over Obi-Wan’s thigh to hold him in place.  Withdrawal patients could break their own bones if left to detox without restraints, the muscle spasms were so violent.

“Glad I asked,” Qui-Gon murmured, as Obi-Wan gasped for air when the spasm passed.

“You think you’re so funny,” Obi-Wan grumbled, and then he screamed as his body tried to fold itself in half.  Qui-Gon held on, thinking grimly that this was only going to get worse.  There was a great deal of strength in Obi-Wan’s slim body; it was taking all of Qui-Gon’s weight and effort to keep him pinned.

“Is there anything else I can do?”

“Just hold me,” Obi-Wan wheezed.  He already sounded exhausted.  “I—just hold me, I—” Whatever he was trying to say was lost to another pained shriek. 

“Fucking planet,” Obi-Wan hissed when he got his breath back.  “Fucking stupid motivator, damn Jabba, that…that…villainous fat fuck—”

Not that Qui-Gon disagreed with the sentiment, but he decided it would be best to get Obi-Wan onto a less virulent line of thought.  “Have you done this before?” he asked.

“Yes,” Obi-Wan said after a moment, the shakes resuming in earnest.

“Tell me.”

Obi-Wan seemed to be collecting his scattered thoughts.  “First time—I think…Corellia,” he said at last.  Heat was still pouring from his skin, along with a copious amount of sweat that soaked them both, but he was shivering so much that his teeth chattered as he spoke.  “There was…an arms deal.”

Another spasm hit, though thankfully it was not as bad as the others.  “Me.  Depa. Anakin,” Obi-Wan went on, focusing on his story.  “It was CorSec who called us in, with others from the Corellian Temple.  Someone…diverting weapons from CorSec evidence rooms.  We thought—thought that was all there was to it.”

Obi-Wan tensed in his arms, all the warning Qui-Gon had before he was screaming again, long and hoarse.  Every muscle in Obi-Wan’s body seized and forced him to arch back.  Qui-Gon, startled, lost his grip on Obi-Wan’s arm, and there was a flash of sharp pain as Obi-Wan somehow managed to hit him on the temple.

Qui-Gon gritted his teeth, grabbed the offending limb, and held it in place.

“Sorry, Qui—Master.  Sorry,” Obi-Wan gasped out.

“Shh, shh.  Don’t worry about it,” Qui-Gon soothed him, taking stock of the injury.  It would bruise, but it wouldn’t hinder.  “Just tell me what happened on Corellia.”

“Corellia?” Obi-Wan repeated muzzily.  “Which time?  There were several times on Corellia.  I think one of them involved heavy drinking.  Lots of drinking.  Oodles of drinking.”

Qui-Gon hid a smile in Obi-Wan’s hair.  “The arms deal.  You, Depa, and Anakin.”

“Oh, right.  That one.  We thought diverted arms were the entirety of the problem.  We were wrong.  They had partnered…with—well, Jabba, I think.”  Obi-Wan uttered a soft laugh.  “I think that’s supposed to be ironic.  There was spice involved.  We discovered it when I fell off a catwalk in a factory.”

“Fell?” Qui-Gon repeated.  Obi-Wan would not have fallen without help.

“Middle of a firefight sort of deal,” Obi-Wan said in explanation.  He was still shaking, badly, but shaking was easier to deal with than trying to wrestle his pain-oblivious partner into submission. 

“There were crates below me that broke open when I fell on them.  Spice went everywhere.  I mean, there was tons of the stuff.”  Obi-Wan shuddered, but Qui-Gon sensed it was in reaction to the memory, not his current misery.  “It got in my sinuses, in my eyes, down my throat—I was choking on it, and in the blink of an eye, I was…” 

Damn, Qui-Gon thought.  Between his spice allergy and the sheer amount of what he would have ingested, it was a wonder that Obi-Wan had survived that moment.

Obi-Wan shook his head.  “I’ve never felt so bloody intense in my life.  I would’ve given anything to come down off that high.  Couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t think.”  He sighed.  “Thank the Force Anakin was there, ’cause Depa had never seen anything like it, had no idea what to do.  Anakin had been a slave for years, so he’d seen it before.  Forced me to swallow half a bottle of Corellian brandy.”

“The horror,” Qui-Gon drawled, well aware of his partner’s first alcoholic love.

He could tell that Obi-Wan was smiling.  “It worked.  I came down enough to think.  My first words were to complain about the waste of good brandy.”

“Doesn’t sound like a waste to me,” Qui-Gon said.

“In retrospect, no,” Obi-Wan was saying—in the space of a blink, he was howling in agony, the worst of the muscle seizures tearing through his body in a never-ending wave.  He bucked free of Qui-Gon’s hold, his head coming up and driving itself into Qui-Gon’s chin.

Qui-Gon almost blacked out, but one of Obi-Wan’s flailing arms smacked the bridge of his nose hard enough to make him see stars.  He swore aloud, feeling his face protest both strikes and nausea stir in his stomach.  Weight and strength were not enough.  He clamped down on Obi-Wan with a Force-hold that would have made Yoda proud.

The shakes from the latest spasm seemed to last for hours.  By the time it was over, Obi-Wan was as limp as a rag in his arms.  “For—forgot,” Obi-Wan said, barely audible.  Qui-Gon propped himself up on his elbow to check on his partner, and found tears running from Obi-Wan’s closed eyes.  “Forgot how much…how much it hurts,” he whispered.

Qui-Gon ran his hands through Obi-Wan’s sweat-soaked hair, trying not to feel helpless.  “How did Anakin deal with your withdrawal from the spice?” Qui-Gon asked, hoping to keep Obi-Wan talking.  Obi-Wan passing out right now could be dangerous.  Because of the way his muscles were seizing, there was a slim chance the withdrawal could stop his heart.  It was a damn rare side effect, but Qui-Gon was taking no chances.

Obi-Wan opened his eyes, blinking a few times, but not really focused on anything in particular.  “He—he had Depa get me out of the factory.  There was a med center.”  He paused long enough to take a few deep, halting breaths.  “Anakin knew the basics, but the center had…had a setup.  Full-body restraints and a water immersion tank.  Stimulants pumped in with an intravenous line, to stay awake through the withdrawal.  Worked like a charm.  It was hell,” Obi-Wan said with a tired chuckle.  “This is…this is bad.  That was worse.  Almost—almost nothing compares.”

Qui-Gon couldn’t even begin to imagine.  “The amount of spice in your system must have made the withdrawal last for days,” he said, planting a kiss in Obi-Wan’s sweat-soaked hair.  He wasn’t sure that Obi-Wan even noticed.

“Yeah.  Four, maybe five days.  I don’t really remember.  I do remember waking up, and I wasn’t in the tank anymore.  Mace was there.  He looked at me, and I looked at him.  I wasn’t sure what he was waiting for.  Finally, he said:  ‘Congratulations, Obi-Wan.  You have managed to crack a spice ring that has been plaguing CorSec Authority for two years, but you picked the worst fucking method to do it that they have ever witnessed.”’

Qui-Gon smiled, because it sounded exactly like the words Mace would have chosen.  Then he laughed, because of course it sounded exactly like Mace.  These were Obi-Wan’s memories of his other life, and they were talking about events that hadn’t happened.  Yet.

That realization stopped him cold.  “Obi-Wan?”

“Hmm?”  Obi-Wan was starting to drift, no longer shivering.

Qui-Gon swallowed.  “What happened on Naboo?”

If Qui-Gon had even an inkling as to what Obi-Wan’s answer would have been, he would never have asked.  “You died,” Obi-Wan said, his voice thick and full of grief. 

Qui-Gon felt his blood run cold.  Oh, gods—

Obi-Wan shivered again, as if still stuck in the full force of the spice withdrawal.  More tears fell from his eyes.  “You died, and I never forgave you for it.”

Died.  The word rang in Qui-Gon’s mind, resonating with such a pale, final note.  He closed his eyes, pulling Obi-Wan close.  “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry, Obi-Wan.”  Sorry he’d asked, sorry that his partner still felt such grief over Qui-Gon’s loss—

Obi-Wan sighed.  “You shouldn’t have asked me, Qui, gods, why did you have to ask?”

“I don’t know,” Qui-Gon whispered, horrified with himself.  “I just wanted—Obi-Wan!” he yelped, startled, when Obi-Wan escaped from his loose hold and flipped them over in a move that was pure Mistral.  Qui-Gon found himself trapped under Obi-Wan’s weight, with Obi-Wan’s hands pinning Qui-Gon’s arms against the floor.

“What do you want from me?” Obi-Wan shouted at him, tears running unheeded down his face.  “Please, for gods’ sake, just tell me!  I’ll do it!”

Qui-Gon stared up at him.  This was a loss of control he hadn’t seen from Obi-Wan since he was a child.  He was almost certain it wasn’t just spice-related. 

“Obi-Wan, why are you angry with me?” he said in a soft voice.

“Because you asked something of me that you had no right to ask,” Obi-Wan whispered, his lips trembling, his fury gone as quickly as it had arrived.  “You asked me that…and nothing else.” 

Obi-Wan collapsed forward, his eyes rolling back in his head as he fell.  Qui-Gon caught him, cradling the unconscious man against his chest.  A quick check with the Force told him that all was well—or as well as it could be.

“I’m sorry,” Qui-Gon said again, trying not to tremble as his own exhaustion, physical and emotional, made itself evident.  “I don’t know what I once did, but I promise I will make it up to you, my love.”

He lowered Obi-Wan back down onto the sleeping pad, covering him with one of the blankets, and pressed a kiss against unresponsive lips.  Sleep would have been fantastic, but Qui-Gon still felt the need to stay alert.  Even if all of the withdrawal was over and done with—please, by the Force—there was still a potential for danger from a thwarted Hutt.

At least one of us will be well-rested, Qui-Gon thought, and then snorted his opinion of that likelihood.  Obi-Wan was going to awaken feeling like seven Sith hells.

Then again… Qui-Gon touched the bridge of his nose, wincing at the sharp flare of pain.  He didn’t feel all that great, himself.  He crossed his legs, rested his palms on his knees, and sank deeply into a watchful meditation.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Somehow, Qui-Gon managed to fall asleep anyway.  He awoke to a crick in his neck and Obi-Wan sitting in front of him, peering at him with an amused look on his face.  “How can you sleep like that?” Obi-Wan asked.

“No idea,” Qui-Gon replied, wincing as his neck cracked when he tried to stretch.  “How are you feeling?”

Obi-Wan tilted his head, considering the question.  ‘Like you used me as a hood ornament for that speeder, and then hit every single wall in Mos Espa.”

Qui-Gon reached out with both hands; Obi-Wan lowered his head and submitted to the Force probe without complaint.  He still felt exhausted to Qui-Gon’s senses, but there was no trace of spice remaining in his system, and no hint of those damn spasms.  His eyes were bloodshot, but clear, and he waited patiently until Qui-Gon withdrew.

“Do I pass inspection, Master?” Obi-Wan asked with a cheeky smile. 

Qui-Gon felt an echo of last night’s chill at the title.  “No, but it’s better than it could have been.  We have time for a healing trance—”

“No.”  Obi-Wan shook his head, and then clasped one hand to his temple.  “Ow, but no.  We need to get back to the ship.  I can trance out on that uncomfortable bunk in the berth we were assigned.”

Qui-Gon wanted to argue, but Obi-Wan was right.  Now that he was paying more attention, the Force was prodding him, suggesting that time was short.  “Very well.  Water first, though.”  I am not making the trek back to the ship without being well fortified, he thought.

“No arguments there, Qui—oh.  Oh, dear.”  Obi-Wan reached up and brushed Qui-Gon’s left temple, then his nose, with cautious fingertips.  Both areas of Qui-Gon’s face protested the gentle touch.  “Did I do that?”

“Yes, but not on purpose.  They’re fine, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon said, shaking his head and disrupting his partner’s attempt at healing the moment his skin began to warm and tingle with applied Force energy.  “Enough,” Qui-Gon told him, smiling to take the sting out of the command.  “You need to be able to walk back to the ship.”

Obi-Wan’s lips quirked in a pained smile.  “I can walk.  Just don’t ask me to dance.  What happened last night?”

Qui-Gon smiled back.  “It wasn’t as bad as Corellia.”

Obi-Wan shut his eyes, rubbing his face.  “I told you about that.  You must have thought it terribly funny.”  Qui-Gon nodded, his smile widening.

“Great,” Obi-Wan muttered.  “I don’t remember anything beyond trying to figure out why I couldn’t take off my boots.”

They met their hostess at the door, who looked Obi-Wan up and down before pronouncing him fit to leave her home.  “You were lucky, I think,” Jira said, and thrust a container at them.  “Water for your journey.  There are pallies floating in it, so you can eat them after you drink the water.  Or before, it’s all the same to me.”

“Thank you,” Obi-Wan said, bending over to give her a shaky kiss on the cheek.  He was still unsteady on his feet.  “You have been very kind.”

“Bosch,” Jira protested with a curse, but she was smiling.  “We all do what we can, lad.”

“Jira,” Qui-Gon began, holding out the pouch that held the rest of their non-Republic credits.  “We don’t have time to return the speeder that we rented in town.  The man’s name was Reed.  This will be enough to cover the expense of returning the bike.”

Jira took the pouch, hefting its weight.  “I think it’s quite a bit more than that,” she retorted.  “But since I know you want it to be helpful, I’ll make sure the credits go where they’ll be put to the best use.  You lads take care of yourselves.  There’s a storm coming, and it’s not going to be pretty.”

Qui-Gon hesitated at the door, remembering that Jira had said much the same to him on his first visit to Tatooine.  He did not think she was referring to a sandstorm, though—not this time.

Followed by those prophetic words, they stepped out into the morning sunshine together.  Obi-Wan covered his eyes with his arm, moaning at the bright light.  “This will be fun,” he said, giving Qui-Gon a sickly smile. 

When Obi-Wan reached for Qui-Gon’s hand, Qui-Gon took it, twining their fingers together.  The motion felt so natural, so right, that Qui-Gon barely recognized its significance. 

“I’ll lead,” Qui-Gon offered, “until you adjust to the light.  I’ll take the most direct route through town that I can, but it’s later in the day than I thought.  It’s going to be busy.  Are you ready?”

“More than ready, Qui.”  Obi-Wan stepped forward when Qui-Gon did, shielding his eyes from the glare of the twin suns.

It was a long walk, but not as unbearable as it could have been.  Despite Obi-Wan’s obvious reluctance to be exposed to so much sunlight, no one gave them a second glance.  When they reached the outskirts, Obi-Wan dropped his arm.  He blinked a few times but trudged onward, even if he still looked pained.

“Jabba’s throne room,” Qui-Gon said, as they crossed from sand onto the rock of the long plateau where the ship was parked.

“Vile,” Obi-Wan replied.  He was breathing hard, but refused to slow their steps.  “What do you want to know, Qui?”

Well, in for a credit… “Would you have killed him?  Jabba?”

“He’s one of the cruelest beings the galaxy has ever known.  Slavery, drugs, smuggling, murder, blackmail—the list is almost endless,” Obi-Wan said.  “If it’s dirty, he’s got his fingers in it.”

Qui-Gon glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes.  Obi-Wan was squinting against the glare of the suns, but Qui-Gon was almost certain there was anger shining in his partner’s eyes.  “That doesn’t answer my question,” he said.

“Truthfully, Qui-Gon?”  Obi-Wan shook his head.  “I don’t know.  It was certainly tempting.  There was nothing else I could think of to do, and if Jabba had not been frightened by what I did?”  He frowned.  “I’m sorry, I really don’t know.  Though, I almost wish he had pushed me that far,” Obi-Wan said, rubbing his mouth, as if even the memory tasted bad.

Qui-Gon nodded.  “Force knows I certainly wanted to,” he admitted.

Obi-Wan halted and looked at him.  “But you did not act on it.”

“No,” Qui-Gon said, “and neither did you.”

They stared at each other.  Without another word spoken, they both marked the subject closed and moved on.  That distinction, that willingness to see the line but not cross it, was what made them Jedi.  It meant having the strength of will to rise above the harm it was sometimes so tempting to unleash.

The ship was just coming into view, a silvery, mirage-like smudge on the horizon, when Qui-Gon drew up short in surprise.  A dark presence lurked somewhere out in the wastes.  The hoversled came to an obedient stop behind him, programmed as it was to follow their every move.

Qui-Gon scanned the desert, one hand drifting towards his lightsaber.  Obi-Wan was at his back, taking in their surroundings with the Force.  “Obi-Wan?”

“Qui-Gon, run,” Obi-Wan said.

“What?  Why?” Qui-Gon whirled, trying to sense and discover what was hunting them.

“Run!” Obi-Wan yelled, shoving Qui-Gon forward with his hands to emphasize the instruction.  Obi-Wan took two steps and almost fell to his knees, his body weakened from a night of pain.

Qui-Gon grasped his partner by the arm and got them both moving at a shambling jog, a speed that would never impress anyone.  Obi-Wan sounded awful, his breath like the rasp of sandpaper, but his urgency was contagious.  Qui-Gon didn’t know what they were attempting to flee from, but that dark presence was getting closer.  He hesitated, ready to scoop his partner up into his arms to hasten their escape—

“Too late,” Obi-Wan gasped, and that darkness appeared before them as if from nowhere.

The figure was cloaked head to toe in black, and faced them with no trace of fear.  There was a glint of yellow from beneath his hood, despite the shadows that hid his face. Looking at that dark figure was like gazing at emptiness personified.

The cloaked figure bore a lightsaber in his hands.  The hilt was longer than standard, and the dark figure carried it like he knew how to use it.

Qui-Gon had never seen a Sith before in his life, but he would go to his pyre swearing that he was seeing one now.

“Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon said, knowing that his partner would understand his intent.

Obi-Wan ignited his lightsaber, holding it without a hint of the physical weakness that Qui-Gon knew he felt.  Qui-Gon’s emerald blade joined the sapphire one, and together they faced a creature that had been a part of a crecheling’s nightmares for thousands of years.

The Sith attacked without saying a word, igniting a lightsaber the color of fresh blood and flying at them like an unleashed whirlwind.  Then there was a second snap-hiss; Qui-Gon looked in disbelief at the lightstaff the Sith bore.

Qui-Gon blocked the first strike, while Obi-Wan’s lightsaber was slammed by the second.  At that distance, he could just barely make out red and black skin, and the distinct horns that marked an Iridonian Zabrak. 

The Sith leapt again and landed between them, separating them, spinning in place with the blade and forcing Qui-Gon to counter at a speed that was damn-near terrifying.

Force, Qui-Gon thought in blank amazement.  He’s as fast as Obi-Wan.

It was only due to their intense sparring sessions that Qui-Gon lived through the first few seconds of the duel.  His old Form IV standards were not enough, not for this.

The Sith was going to obliterate them at this rate.  They weren’t prepared for this sort of battle, and Qui-Gon was aware of the fact that Obi-Wan was on the verge of collapse.

When the Nubian transport roared over their heads, ramp extended, Qui-Gon acted.  The Sith was distracted for a brief second by the ship.  Qui-Gon sent him flying with a well-applied, brutal Force-shove.

Anakin appeared on the ramp, a grim look on his small face.  He knew without being told that the hyperdrive motivator was his first priority.

Just as Qui-Gon became aware of his own peril, Obi-Wan screamed.  There was a flash; Qui-Gon spun around—the Sith was on his knees, howling in pain and rage with his fists pressed against his body.  His lightsaber was gone, and there was a horrible, choking smell in the air, reminiscent of burned meat.

Qui-Gon moved to finish the battle, to end the threat before it could gain influence over them.  Then Obi-Wan dropped to one knee, his face ashen, and Qui-Gon realized that now was not the time.

He seized Obi-Wan by the waist, making the leap into the ship for them both.  Anakin followed a moment later, the motivator cradled in his arms.  Qui-Gon glanced back just before the ramp closed to see the Sith standing alone in the desert, staring up at their retreating ship.

Qui-Gon collapsed to the deck in relief, gasping for breath and aware that Obi-Wan was doing much the same.  Anakin dropped the motivator into crash webbing strung along the wall and hit the intercom next to the ramp.  “Get us out of here!” he yelled, cutting the signal without waiting for an answer.  Beneath Qui-Gon’s hands, the deckplates thrummed with sudden acceleration.

“What happened?” Anakin asked, falling to his knees beside them.  “What the hell was that—what happened to you?” he burst out, seeing his Master’s pale skin and shaking hands.  Qui-Gon suspected that he didn’t look much better.

“Never mind that right now, Anakin,” Qui-Gon said, pointing at the hyperdrive motivator.  “That must be installed, and you’re the only one who can do it.  We’ve got to get out of here.  If that thing has a ship, he’s bound to follow us.”

Anakin bit his lip, torn between wanting to help Obi-Wan and knowing that repairing the ship was the best way to do so.  “Okay,” he said.  “But you’re going to tell me everything!” the young Padawan declared as he retrieved the motivator from the webbing.

“Anakin, wait,” Obi-Wan called after him.  Anakin paused, glancing back at his Master with a worried expression on his face. 

“The ship…was that your idea?” Obi-Wan asked.

“Yes, Master,” Anakin said with a nod, glancing back and forth at them.  “Did I do okay?”

Obi-Wan gave him a faint smile.  “You did more than all right.  That was brilliant, Ani.”

Anakin smiled, ducking his head at the praise.  “Thank you, Master.  I’ll go make sure this gets done as quickly as possible.”

“I’ll help him,” a quiet female voice said.  Qui-Gon only then realized that Padmé was present, lingering in the corridor junction with her own concern for them shining in her eyes.  She gestured for Anakin to follow her to the viewing room, leaving Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan alone in the small cargo bay.

“Well,” Obi-Wan said, his voice still a hoarse rasp, “That was a really bad way to start the day.  Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Are you all right?” Qui-Gon asked, getting to his knees. 

His partner was shaking with exhaustion as he slowly pulled himself into a sitting position.  Obi-Wan rubbed his eyes, and then his mouth, wincing as his lips cracked and bled.  “Yes,” he said, a bald-faced lie if there ever was one.  “Are you?”

“I think I’ve just been frightened out of my wits,” Qui-Gon replied bluntly.  “Obi-Wan, that—that was what I think it was, wasn’t it?”

“If what you’re thinking is that it was a Sith—well, I’m terribly sorry.  You’re right.”  In that moment, he seemed both terribly young and frightfully old, all at once. 

“I wanted to be wrong,” Obi-Wan whispered.

Qui-Gon stared at him as the true depth of Obi-Wan’s words sank in.  “Oh, gods.  You’re talking about the return of the Sith.”  It would mean the return of war, the likes of which the galaxy had not seen in a thousand years.

Obi-Wan shook his head, his eyes dark with memory.  “No.  I’m talking about the end of the Jedi.”