Failure tastes a lot like dirt.
Dirt and soggy leaves, Qui-Gon thinks blearily, and his catalog of hurts goes far beyond bruised dignity. He feels like a sloppy, stumbling drunk who just happens to be sober, and he’s terribly nauseated. That, he knows for certain. Not much else.
Wherever Qui-Gon is now, though, he’s not here under entirely false pretenses.
To be fair, the backwater planet had been honest about its interest in the Galactic Republic’s assistance in alleviating a decades-long food shortage. And so had been dispatched Knight Jinn, still shiny about the edges and puffed with the pride of a learner’s braid freshly cut.
He’d been five minutes into his spiel on the AgriCorps’ environmental remediation programs when whatever they’d laced his tea with kicked in, and he’d blacked out onto his own pile of flimsi-brochures. He only has hazy recollections after that—being dragged through a damp moss-forest, a freezing cold, cut-stone altar somewhere within it, a headache, an apologetic magistrate—
—so sorry, so sorry, Knight Jinn—strayed too long from the old ways—Jedi—most worthy sacrifice—it is an honor, really—it won’t be—won’t take long—he hungers—merciful—
As far as first solo missions go, it isn’t the worst on record.
It can’t be, because, wherever he is and despite the nausea and screaming headache, he’s tucked beneath a pile of thick quilts. The air he breathes is warm and smells of crisp, dry leaves and tea; the Force here is peaceful, still, and he senses that he is alo—
The voice is within his mind.
Qui-Gon startles, eyes flying open and the world lurches and wobbles around him for it.
He’s in a small, shadowy bedroom with packed-earthen walls, the narrow bed he occupies accompanied by a wooden chair, and a plain wooden table with a flickering, wrought-metal lamp atop it. Qui-Gon recognizes his own belongings—including his lightsaber, bless it all—strewn across the table’s surface, as though someone had been rifling through them.
The whole place has a strange, hypnagogic quality to it—like a waking dream, perhaps, or as though at any moment he’ll step off some invisible curb and startle himself awake in his own quarters back at the Temple.
Or maybe it’s just the drugs.
Either way, when he finally notices his companion, it’s only by accident.
It’s not so much a being as the impression of one, a half-memory given form; diaphanous and copper-tinged, visible only from the corner of Qui-Gon’s eye. Its form drifts and flickers when he tries to stare directly, moving like reflections of filtered light at the bottom of an invisible pool.
Qui-Gon feels resonant warmth against his face looking at it, as though he’d turned towards the sun. He calms. Squints.
What year is it? the creature asks. There’s a faint echo when it speaks, not quite like the depth of a thousand voices as one, but of one voice speaking across a thousand years. Time passes differently in this place.
Qui-Gon swallows, finds his voice somewhere beneath his thick and cottony tongue. "Sev—seventy-nine twenty-five C.R.C.," he manages, words slurring at the edges.
It hums thoughtfully, the sound of it very nearly reverberating down to Qui-Gon’s bones. You’re the first offering they’ve sent in nearly two centuries, it says softly. Have things grown so terrible out there?
Qui-Gon throws up in his mouth.
Quite so, the creature murmurs. It glides closer, and what begins as a fog of sensory impressions is a man by the time it settles at Qui-Gon’s side—at least, the approximation of a man. He’s humanoid, but the outlines of him are hazy like waning sunlight on the horizon, all long hair and heavy robes drifting like carmine silk bound by no force of gravity.
Within the Force he feels like golden smoke—curling around Qui-Gon with a whisper of curiosity. A cup of water appears in the creature’s almost-hand, and it discreetly passes it over with a waft of warm air.
Qui-Gon drains the whole thing gratefully, not yet prepared to consider the physics of it all. The liquid is ice-cold and vaguely herbal; it cleanses away the taste and feel of sickness from his mouth. "I’m ill," he says over the rim.
"They—the villagers. Drugged me?"
"Sacrificed me to their—their harvest god." He pauses for a moment, brows knotting as his half-addled brain works to connect the pieces. "To—you? They sacrificed me to you?"
Qui-Gon still feels drunk. He frowns, and considers that whatever’s running through his system has also quashed his instinct for self-preservation. "Are you meant to eat me?" he asks. It’s a genuine question, and he senses the creature’s smile more than sees it.
Can you give me a compelling reason not to?
Qui-Gon burps and it tastes hideous. He pulls a face. That alone seems reason enough. "Can I—solve a riddle instead?"
I’m afraid I’m not one of the riddle-ones, the creature says. Its eyes are visible now, unnaturally bright and brilliantly expressive even to the Jedi’s foggy perception. Rock-flimsi-shivblade? it then proposes, Best two out of three?
"You’re—making fun of me."
Just a bit, the creature admits. It’s been so very long since I’ve had a calm one. Much less a funny one.
Qui-Gon huffs and rubs the heel of his hand between tired, dry eyes. "You’re not quite what I would have imagined an ancient harvest deity to be, you know."
Aren’t I? It seems to cock its head to the side. Look deeper, young one, it commands him softly.
So Qui-Gon does.
He breathes out through his nose and lets his awareness slip beneath the visible and into the Force. The creature is clear and bright as day there—fiery red and sunset-orange, flecked with motes of blackness and phosphorescence; an entity of neither light nor dark, both ageless and endless.
There’s a wellspring of power there, banked within the Unifying Force but freshly awoken, watchful; like a flickering holo-screen, for a few moments the creature’s teeth are longer, sharper; slender fingers curve into wicked, dark claws built for more ancient and feral days.
This thing could snuff Qui-Gon’s very life-force out between its fingertips, he realizes, yet he still isn’t afraid. He’s curious. "What do they call you?"
Qui-Gon wheezes out a laugh and it hurts like hellfire. "Ben? An—an eldritch harvest-god named—Ben?"
You’re welcome to call me by my given name.
It doesn’t speak again, but Qui-Gon hears anyway. He closes his eyes beneath the sensation that washes over his mind—a sunlit meadow within the Unifying Force, the turning of the leaves and the drying of the summer field-grass, the space between a hundred thousand shifting seasons. The creature's true name is the first bite of chill in the air, the bleaker bite of remembered hunger hovering just beneath it.
The feeling soothes away the worst of Qui-Gon’s headache as it recedes. He holds his eyes closed, lets himself drift in the resonance of it. "Ben it is," he murmurs.
When he opens his eyes again, he’s facing the solid form of a human man seated in the chair at his bedside, left ankle propped on his right knee beneath his heavy robes.
Handsome, Qui-Gon’s dumb, muzzy lizard-brain immediately supplies. Ben is ancient earth given shape in pale-golden skin and autumn hair and moss-forest eyes—he presents himself as young, perhaps younger than Qui-Gon’s own twenty-five years; it’s the confident, comfortable ease of his posture that belies his age—the most senior Council members have it, too.
Qui-Gon’s beginning to feel strange again.
"Thank you," Ben speaks aloud for the first time, his voice a single, smooth tenor now. "And what shall I call you?" The corner of his lip ticks up. "Aside from breakfast."
Ben’s fingers twitch, and Qui-Gon notices for the first time that the tips of them extend into long, obsidian claws. The inky color of them creeps down to stain the skin of his knuckles.
Almost human, then.
Qui-Gon swallows thickly. "Qui-Gon Jinn. I’m a Knight of the J—"
"—I know what you are, Jedd’hai," Ben interjects. "I knew it the moment they laid you out for me."
Some of the fog is lifting. Not much, but just enough for Qui-Gon to get a peep at the absurdity of his situation. "You’re a Force sensitive," he mutters. Some of the mystery falls away, but none of that dreamlike feeling that would soothe his nerves and see him curled up in this strange forest-creature’s bed. "Of course you are."
"From a certain point of view," Ben croons at him, almost sing-song. "Though I had my name before the Force did." With the rustle of fine silk, he leans forward and taps on Qui-Gon’s forehead with a matte black talon. "And long before you, my young friend."
Qui-Gon’s skin prickles where Ben touched it. "Are you going to sass me to death or eat me?"
"My dear," Ben says with an elegant, gentle sort of disdain, "you’ve rather the look of a feral, half-drowned wharf rat about you at the moment. Considering your current state, both options would be in and of particularly poor taste."
"What a relief," Qui-Gon mumbles. He struggles to sit up, pawing at the heavy quilt, trying to shake off the clinging, intoxicating aura of Ben’s presence. "Then I’ll be out of your way, just—just need to get to my ship—"
Ben hums. "Yes, about that. I’m afraid your villagers set it on fire."
Qui-Gon falls back. "What?"
"Also," Ben adds, voice dropping into something low and velvety-soft, "the fate of those villagers belongs to you now, Jedi, and you belong to me," he pronounces. "Or had you forgotten so quickly?"
It’s not a threat, but a simple statement of fact, and Qui-Gon senses no danger. Amusement, yes, and that ancient, simmering Force-presence that holds what feels more like a promise than peril.
A beat passes. "Well," Qui-Gon finally mutters with feigned airiness, "if you can keep the bloody plants alive…"
Ben’s laughter is genuine, sunset-crimson-warm, and it makes the air in Qui-Gon’s mouth taste of spice. Qui-Gon is addled and the corners of reality feel blurry and honey-slow in this place, but it’s not such a hard thing to believe, in that moment, that there might be ancient, green-eyed Force-dwellers who toy with the hearts and minds and livelihoods of the galaxy’s sentients.
"I find I’m rather intrigued by you," continues Ben. "Keep me company while you recover, and I may see you safely to the port and not the pot."
Qui-Gon rolls his head on the pillow, staring up at the being with an assurance he didn’t know he had left in him. "Give me your word, ab’endrot." He’s not sure how the word comes to him, but it rolls off his tongue with the ease of his native Basic.
Ben’s green eyes flare molten copper in response to the ancient honorific. The temperature in the room spikes for a breath. Then Ben’s fingers tighten on the arms of the chair, claws digging welts into the varnished wood. "I shall do more than that, hir’aeth," he says, deadly serious now. "With one condition."
"What is that?"
"I’ll spare your life and protect the harvest, but for one year only."
Ben arches a single, aristocratic brow at him. "You may return to renegotiate."
Qui-Gon can very nearly hear Master Dooku berating him from half a galaxy away for his foolishness. The Force is laughing at him, but not maliciously—and the feeling of that is far more compelling than any imagined admonishment. So, to whatever end—perhaps his own—Qui-Gon trusts in the moment and says, "Very well."
The room’s hazy light gutters, synchronal with the slow-blossoming smile across Ben’s face—nearly a thing of rapturous pleasure. He leans down, so close that the lines of him are firm and real, down to the early crow’s feet of his eyes and dusting of freckles and moles over his skin. "Wonderful," Ben murmurs, and seals their bargain with a kiss.
It’s dry, close-lipped, nearly chaste. And completely enthralling—maybe not entirely naturally so. Qui-Gon doesn’t care, though, because he wants this and pushes up to meet the kiss. He rakes his fingers up into warm, auburn hair, and curls his hand around the back of Ben’s head to hold him close.
It earns him a soft, surprised noise, and—just for the blink of an eye—Ben’s teeth are a bit too sharp, the edge of his claws that much more wicked, the lines of his form flickering and unsure.
This time around, Qui-Gon just finds it captivating. He draws back, still cradling the back of Ben’s head, thumb pressed to the tiny mole on his right cheekbone. "And how should I find you again, when I come to renegotiate?"
Delighted, Ben laughs against Qui-Gon’s lips, twitches one dark talon against Qui-Gon’s throat, and answers with words that taste like clove and evening-autumn air. "Same as you did this time, Jedi," he says. "You’re my sacrifice."