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Obi-Wan awoke slowly in the warm light, reluctant to open his eyes and face the day after the events of the evening before. Last night had been... had been painful. Painful to hear, yes, but far more painful to tell. Had he known how much it would cost Qui-Gon to answer, he never would have asked the question. But ask he had, and Qui-Gon had answered and suffered for it. From the revealed depths of the emotions, Obi-Wan had no doubt that what he'd heard was the Master's private version of the events; it was likely that no one else, not even the Council or Xan, knew the details that had been shared with Obi-Wan in the firelight.

/Now what?/ Obi-Wan wondered. /Now that I know his pain, have been made privy to his feelings of guilt... what happens next?/

Sighing, he scrubbed the heel of his hand across his eyes. Daring to squint at his surroundings, he tried to gauge the mood of the day before making some even greater error.

The sun shone through the tent, casting leaf-shaped shadows against the covering. Light spilled in through the side opening, illuminating the tiny shelter. And his companion.

Regardless Obi-Wan's time sense told him that it was late morning, the large lump beside him that was Qui-Gon did not stir. That alone was a bad sign, as Obi-Wan knew all too well that the Master was an early riser.

/He could merely be tired,/ he chided himself. /Small wonder he'd sleep late, once he finally got to sleep. Last night was very hard all around./ Obi-Wan's own recent reliving of traumatic events, courtesy of the Council's mindsweep, had provided a vivid reminder of how exhausting such emotions could be.

/Let the Master rest as long as he will,/ he decided instantly. /I'll just stay here, won't risk disturbing him./

Daring to crack open one eye, he saw that Qui-Gon had rolled over sometime in the night and was now facing him. The craggy features were relaxed in sleep, the lines around his eyes and across his forehead a bit finer than usual. His hair lay tangled across the cloak serving as a pillow, and his hair-tie had come half undone in the night.

/Like our new-found friendship, probably,/ Obi-Wan thought wryly. /One little question, and I muck things up. It figures./

A large hand lay out-flung and inches away from Obi-Wan's nose. Palm up, its fingers twitched in the sunlight, muscles bleeding off excess energy before its owner awoke. Thick callouses graced that hand. Obi-Wan knew their source, as his own hands carried the same collection, though not yet as thick.

/It looks like he knows how to use a lightsaber,/ Obi-Wan reflected. /I know it's a lot more peaceful here, though. Is this all the results of training and sparring, or is he as fierce in combat as my Master is? ...was.../

Memory returned like a solid blow, and his own pain settled into its familiar place within him. His Master was lost in the Force, and this one was probably now lost to him as well. /He didn't want me to fight beside him in the world we knew, and now I won't even get a chance to spar with him in this one./

Reaching forward, he dared to touch one fingertip, felt the familiar ridge of callous that had formed where Qui-Gon's forefinger rubbed against the upper guard of his lightsaber.

/After the agonised emotional bones I dug up last night, he'll probably want me out of his life and far away as soon as we get back to Coruscant. What would he have taught me, had things between us been different? Would I have been able to show him anything new?/

The long, thick fingers were familiar, but there were other marks on them, marks unfamiliar and mystifying to Obi-Wan. Raising up on one elbow, he leaned over and peered closely at them. Thin white lines crossed and recrossed the pads of Qui-Gon's fingers, fine and probably faded to all but the bright morning light.

/Scars?/ he pondered. /Oh, Force, they're scars./ A chill ran down Obi-Wan's spine as he remembered the conversation from the night before. /...He spoke of sharp, broken bones that he tried to piece back together with his bare hands.../

Hissing an empathic breath of pain through his teeth, Obi-Wan imagined what those cuts must have felt like, once Qui-Gon had become aware of them. On impulse, the younger man gently touched the pads of his own fingers to each one, traced them with sadness and regret.

/I wish I could make them disappear. I wish I could wipe away all of his pain. He said that having me here makes it easier, but I really can't believe that. I certainly didn't make anything easier last night by poking at old wounds./

Sighing, Obi-Wan placed his hand over Qui-Gon's for a brave moment, covering the scars and feeling the Master's warmth against his own skin. /I knew that the Force wouldn't let me stay with him very long, but I didn't realize that I would be the one to make him want me out of his life. I guess we all have talents. Mine must be to alienate my masters./

Immobility combined with pain and guilt proved too difficult for Obi-Wan to maintain this morning. Giving a final caress of a warm finger pad, he rolled over and out of the bed roll. Gathering his robes, he crept quietly from the tent, planning to collect water for tea and start the fire for breakfast.

Once at the water's edge and peering down at his reflection, Obi-Wan realized that the night had taken its toll on him, as well; his reflection looked just as weary and grubby as he felt. Being a clean Padawan as well as an efficient and attentive Padawan seemed a good plan this morning. Anything that might add to the positive column of today's reckoning seemed a good plan.

Shedding his robes, he waded into the water to take an abbreviated bath in the lake. Once immersed, he found it to be much colder than anticipated, and his thoughts toward cleanliness became very abbreviated indeed. A few quick splashes, a hasty sluice through the hair while he shivered, and he felt quite clean enough. Furthermore, the lake was occupied by any number of aquatic creatures that gathered curiously about him and nibbled at his skin while he make half-hearted scrubbing efforts. Eyeing the gathering fish, Obi-Wan was unsure if it was curiosity, food, or revenge motivating their actions. Swirling water at them with his hands seemed only to encourage more to join in the staring.

Sending soothing thoughts to his audience, Obi-Wan backed slowly out of the river toward the relative security of land and clothing. He eagerly shrugged back into the relative warmth of his robes, glad to abandon the chill water as well as its occupants and ignoring the fact that he'd dampened his clothing.

/So much for Padawan virtue in appearance,/ he decided, shivering again as his hair dripped water down his neck. /Usefulness is always preferable, anyway./

Snagging a few branches, he dumped them into the ring of stones and lit a fire. A quick return to the lakeshore for the forgotten cooking pan, a snatch at the Master's stores of tea, and Obi-Wan quickly set the pan over the flames. His next thought was for breakfast, preferably of a non-fishy origin. Not that there weren't fish to be had, but they seemed to have pegged Obi-Wan as the source of the disappearance of their relatives, and it seemed ill-advised to advertise the crime. If Qui-Gon wanted fish, he could work it out with the neighbors and deal with the consequences come bath-time. For now, Obi-Wan would find something else to sacrifice.

Haste precluded trekking about in the forest looking for vegetation volunteers. No, the only immediate source of sustenance would be that which the Jedi had brought with them. Namely, energy bars. Again. A bit of hot tea water, a few bars and some vigorous mashing, and Obi-Wan discovered that they showed no likelihood of dissolving any time during this sabbatical. Still, it offered a basis for something hot. And edible. /Mostly./ And it wouldn't poison them. Beyond that, Obi-Wan could offer no assurances. Adding a few nuts from his stash collected the day before, he eyed it dubiously, hoping his creation was accepptable.

Taking the tea from the fire, Obi-Wan was in the process of filling the mugs when a disturbance in the Force made him drop the pan and whirl, lightsaber instantly in hand.

Something was crashing through the woods toward him at high speed. It wasn't small, and it made no effort to hide its approach.

/Carnivore,/ Obi-Wan's mind supplied helpfully. /Large and fearless. But the Master told me specifically that we aren't in danger on this planet--/

No matter. The beast was nearly on him, and there was no time to warn his sleeping Master. There was barely time for Obi-Wan to check his footing and drop into a defensive crouch, lightsaber steady in his hand and blade activated, before the creature barrelled out of the woods.

Jedi reflexes prevented Obi-Wan from beheading the blue Twi'lek, but just barely. He aborted his strike and tipped the blade up just before she ran full into him. Her weight knocked him back so that both of them landed uncomfortably close to the fire--and she uncomfortably close to him. Her arms wound tightly around his neck while she continued scrambling for a hold as though wanting to climb into his own skin and stay there forever. It was not a comfortable state of affairs with a fire at his elbow, rocks underneath him and a very solid, rather heavy and rather bare female quivering on top of him. Loudly. "Sh'ra Jedi! Sh'ra Jedi!" she shrieked, her skin faded to pale blue, her eyes dark and huge in her terror.

"S'pex?" he croaked, wincing as her screams assaulted his eardrums. Having never held a mostly-naked Twi'lek, he wasn't certain where to put his hands, but expedience won out over discretion, and he settled for pushing solidly at her shoulders.

She rocked back, landing seated in the dirt, trembling violently and wailing shrilly. She was babbling so fast in her native language that Obi-Wan couldn't catch a word, was alternately burying her face in her hands and reaching out to grab at him.

Reassurance was nearly as difficult a choice for the Jedi as extrication had been. Hesitantly, he settled for patting her shoulder, which was safely covered with the there-but-not-there krylon mesh her race favored as apparel.

"It's all right. Slow down."

Deciding the first order of business was to try conducting the conversation from a more upright position, Obi-Wan climbed to his feet. Reaching down, he spanned her narrow waist with his hands and used a bit of the Force to stand her upright.

Whirling to confront him once she had her balance, S'pex refused to slow down her panicked monologue. Her tentacles - head lekku - quivered as she danced from foot to foot and reached for him again, all but wringing her hands when he stepped back. Yes, her culture demanded that she touch to communicate, but Obi-Wan just couldn't concentrate when she was that close.

A deep voice spoke from behind Obi-Wan, and his Master's presence was like a sudden, soothing wave at his back. "If you began at the beginning, S'pex, we might have more of an opportunity of understanding precisely what's wrong."

Obi-Wan turned in time to see Qui-Gon -- no, Master Jinn -- straighten and fold his arms as he exited the tent. The regal epitome of a Jedi Master, he had not a hair out of place and might have been ready to address the Council or Senate itself. Serenity cloaked the huge Jedi like a shield, reaching out to reassure Obi-Wan, regardless its target was the Twi'lek. Going to her, Qui-Gon laid one hand on her shoulder, the other across her forehead.

"Deep breaths, little one, and try to relax. Then tell us why you are here."

Obi-Wan stared at the older man, feeling him influence their visitor's emotions, send calm and grounding through the Force to dissolve her immediate panic. Last night might not ever have happened, so distant was the vulnerability the Jedi Master had shown.

/How can he do that? And could he teach me to do it?/ Obi-Wan wondered.

"Pirates!" S'pex eventually managed to gasp after Qui-Gon had led her to a rock, knelt beside her, and waited out her hyperventalating. "Tried to board when I broke planet." She grabbed Qui-Gon's hands. "Not going back with them!" she hissed. "Not! Never again, slave! You promised!"

"I did, indeed. Never again will you be a slave," came the low reply. "We will make sure of that. Now, little one... Are they interested in your cargo, or only in your ship and yourself?"

She fell silent at that question, flushing a bright blue. Dropping his hands, she stared at her lap.

"Gursha," she said, offering no further explanation.

Creeping up on the other side of S'pex, Obi-Wan looked from the shivering Twi'lek to Qui-Gon and hoped for clarification.

"She's transporting gursha root for sale on the black market," Qui-Gon filled in quietly.

"But that's illegal." Obi-Wan frowned. "I mean, the aphrodisiac is legal on the regulated market if you have a prescription, but if you don't--"

Qui-Gon shrugged. "If you don't, you don't. Some try to obtain it through other avenues. Trade regulations, however, are not our concern." Rising to his feet, he brushed a hand over their young pilot's head lekku. "Our concern is seeing S'pex safely home."

Qui-Gon turned away, but S'pex's gaze followed him as though her world depended on him which, Obi-Wan realized, it now did.

"Surely the pirates tracked her down here," Obi-Wan ventured. "Her arrival was not planned with stealth in mind. Will they extend their efforts at acquisition to the village that supplied her?"

"Doubtful. Their objective is to board and steal both ship and cargo. It's not in their best interests to destroy their source. We will deal with this."

With that, Qui-Gon shifted his stance. Drawing himself up, he straightened his shoulders and lifted his head. While those blue eyes didn't harden, they did meet Obi-Wan's gaze with a look that was achingly familiar to the younger man. In a matter of seconds, this Master became the Qui-Gon Jinn that Obi-Wan had known. The Force thrummed with the power of a Jedi surrendering himself to its will and its direction. *This* had been the constant, heavy signature of the man who had claimed Obi-Wan as apprentice, had mentored and molded him. This was the man he'd fought beside, come to love deeply, and held as he had died.

/Two sides of the same dactare,/ Obi-Wan realized. /He's just gone into Master mode because there's a job to do. Sabbatical is over; he's a Jedi with a mission, and I'm going with him./

Shifting his own focus within the Force, Obi-Wan reached for the nexus of communication he knew would be there--reached for immediate connection with this man. The Force and Qui-Gon himself yielded willingly to his prodding, and Obi-Wan himself stepped easily, willingly back into the oneness that had died on Naboo. Tendrils of energy sparked from Master to Knight and back again, joining them in purpose for the mission at hand.


"Yes, Master."

They moved as one, in silence, to break camp. Bedrolls were folded, the tent was slammed via the Force back into its transdimensional cubing. Tossing the cube into his pack, Obi-Wan doused the fire, leaving breakfast and tea abandoned beside the ring of stones--the scavengers were welcome to it. Qui-Gon pointed at the skiff, sending it skittering across the water toward him and up onto dry land. A twist of his wrist, and it flipped itself over, secured until someone claimed it later. Shrugging into his cloak, Obi-Wan shouldered his pack and handed Qui-Gon his. As quickly as that, and they were ready to be on their way, with S'pex nervously leading the way into the woods.

"How did she know where to find you?"

"I've an open comm connection with her," Qui-Gon explained, moving swiftly to keep up and urging Obi-Wan to do so as well. "She was to return for us in a few days; I wanted to be sure we knew when she arrived."

Obi-Wan nodded in response to that logic. "Yes, Master. A very effective solution. I definitely knew when she'd arrived."

They reached the Twi'lek's freighter in only a few minutes, with neither the Jedi nor S'pex breaking stride as the gangway lowered at some silent command of its owner. Once aboard, they headed for the cockpit, with Qui-Gon halting at the archway to bow S'pex inside. The formal honor did little to settle her, but it did quirk a smile from Obi-Wan: Master Jinn was indeed firmly in control.

Shying past his bow to skitter within the command center, S'Pex flung herself into the pilot's seat, all but whimpering in her nervousness as her hands began flicking buttons, their dance over the console very much at odds with the rest of the trembling Twi'lek.

/She could miss something easily,/ thought Obi-Wan, taking up residence beside Qui-Gon and peering into the small cockpit as best he could. /She's not a pilot fit for the job just now./

Stepping inside the small space, Qui-Gon bent over the slender creature, stroked her forehead once more to send a calming and comforting her as though she was once again the child he'd rescued from slavers. Obi-Wan raised his shields slightly, not wanting to absorb the projection; he needed to be alert and totally attuned to Qui-Gon and the Force, not relaxed along with S'pex.

Fitting himself carefully between the pilot's seat and the controls, Qui-Gon maneuvered his bulk until he was able to bend down and whisper into the sense node serving as the Twi'lek's ear.

"Your world is this ship," he ordered, still stroking her forehead. "Only your ship. Your job is to fly her, and worry after nothing else."

A few seconds later, and a healthier blue flooded the Twi'lek's skin. Qui-Gon nodded in satisfaction.

"There's a good girl," he murmured, his beard all but brushing the side of her face. "You're doing just fine."

Straightening, he squeezed out of the narrow space and beckoned to Obi-Wan. "Fly with her."

/Good plan. She could freeze or break under pressure up there, and we can't afford that. I don't think she's focused enough to be safe at those controls./

Stepping forward, Obi-Wan found himself fetched up against the tall Jedi's barrel chest. Hard muscle met hard muscle, they breathed the same air for a moment, and then Obi-Wan was squeezing past Qui-Gon, was climbing into the co-pilot's chair, to begin ascertaining what control did what.

"Master, hasn't she any laser cannon?"

"Her defense has been her speed." Leaning against the back of the chair, Qui-Gon laced his fingers together as S'pex hesitated, then muttered to herself and restarted her flight check.

"She fast," the Twi'lek offered, not looking up. "Always already in hyperspace before pirates get so much as single whiff."

"Not this time," Obi-Wan muttered.

S'pex wrinkled her nose and growled at Obi-Wan's percieved insult. "Not my fault. There *before* I cleared atmosphere. No room to run."

"The friction alone during transition would have dissolved the outer hull," Qui-Gon agreed.

"Ship is sound," S'Pex snapped at her rescuer, sounding even more peeved. "Fortuna is good ship. I fly her well."

Obi-Wan glanced behind him as S'pex guided the ship up out of the canopy of trees. His Master's huge hands were level with Obi-Wan's temple, were settled on the headrest as though the three occupants were taking only a slow drive in an air car down a Coruscant lane. Tranquility bled through the superficial bond the two Jedi had established. The ship's engines thrummed. The stratosphere was gained quickly, with clouds misting visual capacity. Reaching inward as his instincts and the Force warned him that a confrontation was coming, Obi-Wan felt adrenalin flood him. A few seconds more, and the freighter was outside the planet's atmosphere, free of Parthas's gravity and entering real space.

Obi-Wan's fingers danced across the controls, letting S'pex worry about the calculations for the jump to hyperspace. Her head was bowed over the navicomputer, trusting Obi-Wan to fly as she worked, so that she didn't see the scarred Corellian ship that loomed up on them from below and far too close for comfort.

/Away from here is a good plan,/ Obi-Wan thought. /We may wallow like skreeth in mud in subspace, but there's no need to make it too easy for them./ He forced the ship into a steep climb that made Qui-Gon tighten his grip on the chair and access the Force to keep his balance.

Hissing, S'pex clutched the arms of her chair, her eyes wide with fear, and her blue nails biting deep into the cushions. "You be kind my ship! She not fly for you!"

"I'm sorry. I'll apologise to your ship once we're clear of the company on our flank," Obi-Wan replied in as civil a tone as he could manage through years of combat experience before throwing the ship into a sharp vertical turn that made the engines scream as they tried outrunning the bigger ship. Qui-Gon's hands clenched on the back of his seat, and he thought he heard the breath of a laugh from behind him.

The rear shields rocked when the Corellian fired across the stern, making Obi-Wan strengthen the deflectors, regardless it was probably in vain.

Another outraged howl followed from the Twi'lek, but Obi-Wan trusted she was too busy to try to wrest control away from him. /She's going to be worthless in only a few minutes,/ he had time to think before starting to redirect the ship again.

"All stop," ordered Qui-Gon, as calmly as he might ask for another cup of tea.

Obi-Wan ignored S'pex's gnashing her teeth and reached to execute the order even as part of him wondered if he would have succeeded in outrunning them, had Qui-Gon given him just a bit longer.

"All stop, Master." His tone was as calm as the older man's, regardless it was far from what he felt. Taking his hands from the controls, Obi-Wan waited as the freighter drifted in an eerie silence, her engines shut down entirely.

S'pex looked from one Jedi to the other. "Stop? Not stop here! They board us!"

Qui-Gon nodded. "They will."

"I'm not going with them!" she shrieked, her fingers working frantically to release the safety harness and trying to scramble out of the chair.

Leaning down, Qui-Gon restrained her with only a hand on her shoulder. "Do you trust us?"

Her dark eyes flickered up at the tall Jedi. She hissed. "I not trust *them*."

"You came seeking our help," Obi-Wan pointed out calmly, one eye on the space outside the ship. /How will they strike? Where will they strike?/ "You must trust us. Master Qui-Gon, at least."

"And if you don't," the Master commented softly, "where is there to run right now that they will not find you?"

"Fortuna run before you gave her to them. Now trapped, and they coming." Giving a low moan, she slunk back down in the pilot's chair and glowered at Obi-Wan as though it was his fault she was in this predicament. Giving a deep sigh, she finally nodded, head-tails bouncing against her seat. "I trust you."

Obi-Wan had no illusions she was talking to him.

Qui-Gon nodded satisfaction. "Rear view, if you please, Padawan?"

He flicked the necessary control. There she was... the Corellian behemoth, with a smaller ship already underway, some distance from her.

"They come for us," S'pex observed in a voice filled with gloom.

"Indeed," Qui-Gon observed mildly. "You will stay in this cockpit no matter what happens, S'pex."

"Stay here? Nowhere to hide--"

"You will stay in this cockpit, and leave the rest to us. Do you understand?"

A sullen nod.

"S'pex?" he prodded.

"I stay. We dead already. What it matter where."

An amused smile ghosted across Qui-Gon's face, gone before Obi-Wan was even certain that he'd seen it. Then he turned to his P Padawan. "Obi-Wan."

It was only his name, but no more was needed. Leaping from the seat, he followed in Qui-Gon's wake as the Master left the cockpit, leaving S'Pex wailing and crooning to her ship.


Once clear of the narrow doorway, the Master turned and gestured the door closed with a flick of the Force. Activating his lightsaber, he plunged the blade into the locking mechanism, melting it and destroying its ability to open.

"They won't reach the ship's controls so easily now," he said quietly.

/He's also bought S'pex a bit of time in case we're delayed... or worse,/ thought Obi-Wan. "It will take no little work to get back in there without a lightsaber."

A screech sounded from behind the door heralded S'Pex realization of what the Master had done. The next moment, she was in full cry, followed by forceful pounding against the now useless hatch. Wincing, Obi-Wan observed, "I don't think she appreciates your efforts to protect her, Master."

"If you keep making that noise, they'll find you twice as fast," Qui-Gon called through the metal. The increase in volume made clear what she thought of his opinions and plans.

Another Force gesture, and a blast shield slammed obediently down across the door. S'pex's cries were effectively silenced.

"Special installation for just such an occasion." The Master touched the heavy thing as if in benediction. "Keep her safe until we return," he murmured, as if cold, unfeeling metal could be asked for favours.

"She'll be safe as long as we are, Master."

"Best we stay safe, then."

Giving a nod, Qui-Gon strode past Obi-Wan, who fell in behind him in the narrow corridor. His own hand went to the hilt of his saber. This was where he belonged, where he felt at ease. What he thought he had probably been born to do; to guard this man's flank.

"There are two ways onto this ship; the gangway we used, and the emergency airlock." Qui-Gon gestured as the airlock in question came into view, a good twenty meters down the hallway. "They'll access the lock first as it's faster. Depending on how many of them there are, they may use both."

"Shall I guard the gangway?" Obi-Wan asked, more than ready to accept the familiar challenge of combat.

"No." Stopping in the middle of the corridor and still some feet away from the airlock, Qui-Gon reached overhead to yank open the grill guarding a maintenance shaft. Turning back toward Obi-Wan, he swept an arm elegantly toward the small opening. "After you."

Giving a grim smile, Obi-Wan crouched and dove for the shaft. His boots scrambled for purchase on the slick walls as he sought to defy artificial gravity. Suddenly finding solid purchase, he realized that Qui-Gon was supporting him from below. Tendrils of the Force swirled around him, summoned by the tall Jedi as easily as he breathed. Bracing his boots on either side of the shaft, Obi-Wan reached for an overhead support and lifted himself further into the shaft to make room for Qui-Gon.

Leaping after Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon settled at the base of the shaft, raised his hand and watched as the grill obeyed his command, closing with a quiet click.

Closing his eyes, Obi-Wan listened for the first grinding and thunks against the outer hull. He hadn't long to wait as the pirate ship docked against the freighter, the impact of the smaller ship sending an unnatural shuddering jolt through the Fortuna. There was much banging and sounds of violence being visited upon the beseiged ship's hull, and Obi-Wan winced at the damage he knew was being done to S'Pex darling. Obi-Wan checked his position once more before settling his lightsaber firmly in his hand.

The airlock blasted back, sailing beneath their small space overhead to hit the bulkhead with a thud that made Obi-Wan's teeth vibrate. Glancing down past Qui-Gon's shoulder, he watched the motley crew troop past their hiding place. They weren't much to look at, if the vertical glimpse he got was anything to judge by. Obi-Wan got a sense of body armor, dreadlocks, and gutteral mutterings in Corellian.

He counted four raiders in all before Qui-Gon inhaled and gathered himself. Obi-Wan caught the warning of movement just before the Master smashed feet first through the grill. Landing as lightly as a M'rew, Qui-Gon lunged forward, lightsaber ablaze, clearing a space for Obi-Wan. The younger man followed, landing neatly at the Master's side.

Whirling at the sound of the lightsaber's thrumming, the pirates stared wide-eyed at the unexpected sight of two Jedi poised for battle. Self-preservation took over after a heartbeat, and two of the boarding party dove for cover while the remaining two hunkered down in the middle of the corridor, their blasters blazing.

Deflecting the fire easily, Qui-Gon ordered, "Stay behind me!"

/Not bloody likely,/ Obi-Wan thought, /I'm no first-year Padawan who needs protecting from a couple of blasters./ He finished the thought only to grimace as he remembered that he'd promised to obey this man's orders. /Figures... First fight out of the bag and he's trying to protect me. Predictable, but...not necessary. And not fair!"

Blaster fire scorched the floor beside Qui-Gon as Obi-Wan followed at the Master's back. Taking up position in the centre of the corridor, Qui-Gon effectively blocked his companion from taking any real action in the fight. Time seemed to slow as it always did in battle for Obi-Wan. His vision was more acute, his perception and anticipation of his opponent's moves was clear. However, it was hard to even see the fighting as Qui-Gon's broad shoulders effectively blocked any view of their opponents' actions. Obi-Wan was helpless in the narrow space to do anything but wait and wave his lightsaber about uselessly behind Qui-Gon, guarding his back from nothing in particular as the Master plunged into the fray.

Qui-Gon didn't seem to be in any particular hurry to engage the invaders. His style of fighting was almost leisurely compared to the Qui-Gon he was accustomed to fighting beside. This Qui-Gon seemed content to deflect blaster fire, as though waiting for the exact bolt to come along before taking offensive action.One pirate was down and writhing in pain as he clutched his shoulder where Qui-Gon had sent a deflected energy beam to penetrate the vulnerable point where the armor joined. Patiently, the Master returned fire, his broad back guarding Obi-Wan, who felt a frantic panic rising within him as he was helpless to do anything but watch. Again.

It was all too much the same scene as in the melting pit on Naboo. The Master's long hair flew behind him, his long limbs drove his opponents further down the hall, he deflected endless fire and worked to wound the remaining three opponents. Two were down now; the second would never get up again. They passed the first fallen intruder, and Obi-Wan, grateful to be able to do *something* useful to protect his Master, summoned the Force, caught the man's mind in a solid grip and pushed. He fell back, unconscious on the cold, hard floor, would remain so until Obi-Wan commanded him to awake. Which would not be anytime soon.

Beyond that, all Obi-Wan could do was stay out of the way and follow QG's orders. He didn't dare disobey after what the former Padawan had done. At the same time, Obi-Wan was terrified that he was going to watch Qui-Gon die. Watching the man fight, Obi-Wan knew it was an unreasonable fear -- this Master's skill with a lightsaber was every bit as proficient and efficient as the other Qui-Gon's had been. Still, blasterfire did occasionally get past his guard, though he half suspected Qui-Gon allowed deliberately, so that Obi-Wan might have something to do. Seizing the infrequent opportunities, Obi-Wan deflected them quickly away from them, sending them sizzling into the walls.

It would take only one bolt getting by Qui-Gon, one that Obi-Wan might miss, and this Qui-Gon would also have a hole burned into him, through him, scorching cloth and flesh-- Obi-Wan forcefully yanked his mind away from such thoughts and memories crowding ever closer and waited for another bolt that needed deflecting.

Bellowing, one of the two remaining pirates barrelled down the corridor toward them, vibroblade raised and slashing menacingly as he bore down on the Master. Backing up a pace and nearly stamping on Obi-Wan's toes in the process, Qui-Gon grounded, twirled his saber, and waited. The vibroblade descended, and Obi-Wan tensed. Raising his hand, the Master halted the pirate in his hurtling, froze him in place long enough to slice through the vibroblade, melting it.

Obi-Wan's brain stalled. He'd never seen his Qui-Gon do such a thing, wondered now if his Master had been capable of it. Or if the idea had even ever occurred to him. This combination of Force and saber together left the Jedi much less vulnerable than in Obi-Wan's universe, where Force and weaponry had been used separately.

/Except by the Sith,/ Obi-Wan recalled, a shiver running down his spine. /That horned demon used it against us./

The bellow of another combatant reached them, and both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan turned toward the sound. Qui-Gon glanced back toward his paralyzed opponent before summoning the Force and gesturing to slam the pirate head first into the bulkhead. Obi-Wan heard the sickening crack of bone hitting titanium before the man slumped down in a tangled heap.

/Is he dead?/ Obi-Wan wondered. Qui-Gon was clearly not going to spare time on any nicities during combat, not when his attention was needed elsewhere. Battles needed dealt with swiftly and firmly, and Obi-Wan could sense through their superficial bond that Qui-Gon wasn't about to spare those who would harm S'pex. She was under his protection, and protect, he would. Beneath that determination thrummed another: to protect Obi-Wan as well. Battles would end swiftly, certainly, if Qui-Gon had anything to say about it.

Growling, the Master held his saber at the ready and stalked down the corridor like some great-maned M'rew intent upon ending its enemy's life. Force energy roiled around him, ready to be summoned to do the Master's bidding. The hair on Obi-Wan's neck stood straight up as the energy crackled around him, recognised him, and backed off at Qui-Gon's command. Obi-Wan couldn't remember ever having sensed such power before. Still, any Jedi capable of channeling the Force directly through him or her and wielding it at will as Qui-Gon was doing wouldn't have publicised it. No Master would.

Patterns of Light swirled around the Master, setting him aglow and eclipsing the stark, eye-burning artificial light of the corridor with its more brilliant radiation. Clearly it was visible not only to Obi-Wan, but to the pirate as well. Backing away from the Jedi, he dropped his blaster and raised his hands in surrender. His face was chalk-white beneath a filthy, tangled beard, stark terror glinted in his eyes, and Obi-Wan thought the man had probably already wet himself. /Some pirate./

The barest gesture, and Qui-Gon sent the blaster skittering across the floor and safely against Obi-Wan's feet. Gesturing again, Qui-Gon muttered in Corellian. "Sleep."

The intruder's eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed, boneless as a Trogellian bloodworm. Drawing a deep breath, Qui-Gon visibly relaxed and released the power of the Force he'd summoned.

"How did you--" Obi-Wan began, only to break off and whirl in place as much bashing and crashing sounded down the corridor behind him.

"They've gained access at the gangway," Qui-Gon observed.

Adrenalin flooded Obi-Wan's frame. The pirates were here. On the ship, and at his back. It was time to take the fight to them, before they reached the joining corridors and gained access to the rest of the ship. Obi-Wan knew that kind of freighter had only three corridors on this side, and if he and Qui-Gon could hold the first turn, they could keep the intruders dammed up in the gantry-way.

Questions regarding strategy surged up, but were dismissed as Obi-Wan reached for the point of balance where reaction and training took control of his body, where his will and his lightsaber joined as one. /How many intruders are there? Are they armed? Have they weapons more powerful than blasters? Are they all Corellian or have they other species with them? Can we reach the corridor in time? They will not reach my Master. Not this time./

Focusing on speed and totally immersed in intercepting the intruders and protecting the man at his back, Obi-Wan sprinted for the turn in the corridor.


He skidded to a halt at the urgency in that voice, was commanded just as much by the fear spiking abruptly through the bond. Turning in place, he bounced on the balls of his feet and stared back down the corridor at his companion, was startled to see that Qui-Gon hadn't followed him. His late Master would have made great use of those long legs, pelting down the corridor with his Padawan to engage the battle, just as this Qui-Gon had stalked the intruders only moments ago, bringing the battle to them with all possible speed.

But now, this Qui-Gon stood immobile and stared at him with... with....


Yes, fear. Obi-Wan could read it in those blue eyes, even at this distance.

What was this? This Master was no stranger to battle, and he'd already shown himself to be more than competent in combat. How could he be afraid? But those eyes were filled with alarm. Confused, Obi-Wan froze where he was.

/Obi-Wan.../ A whisper, a plea through the bond. Those worried blue eyes now reminded him of other eyes that had held his gaze on a far-away planet as the light had died from them. "Don't leave me.

He was never certain, later, whether Qui-Gon had spoken aloud, or through their bond. The connection between them shimmered with the Master's emotion, overwhelming Obi-Wan's own focus on the conflict, on their mission, on engaging the enemy. The Master's emotions followed, impacting like a physical blow. Yes, Qui-Gon's fear was genuine, but it wasn't for himself. The great wave of concern/protection/fear/loss was all centered around Obi-Wan. For this new Padawan.

Obi-Wan had left Qui-Gon standing alone. Fighting alone. It was just like on Naboo, only this time Obi-Wan had been the one to bolt off and abandon their teamwork. Never mind that was how he'd been taught to fight with his Master, how they had managed in skirmishes and altercations for years. They would meet the conflict and Obi-Wan would position himself either close beside his Master or on the far side of the threat, to pin it between them. This Master didn't fight that way, or didn't understand what Obi-Wan was attempting to do. Obi-Wan knew that he'd made a critical error, leaving this Master standing alone and unprotected.

He could hear heavy boots tramping toward them now; they were so close that Obi-Wan could make out whispers in Corellian and hear their battle armor creaking. A few more feet, and they'd round the corner with the Jedi in plain view. Weapons were set to deadly force, cocked and ready.

The Force tingled, warning Obi-Wan that the enemy was only spans away. Time was short. Decisions should already have been made, strategies should have been in place. Still, he and Qui-Gon stood multi-spans apart in the corridor, divided by memory as well as space.

This tactical error was massive. Obi-Wan had positioned himself in the crossfire that was to come between the Jedi Master and their attackers. As if that were not bad enough, whatever Obi-Wan could not personally handle would strike down Qui-Gon, because the older man could not properly defend himself with Obi-Wan standing in the way. If anything got past Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon would go down. He would die, not only because Obi-Wan hadn't been good enough to protect him, but also because Qui-Gon wouldn't endanger Obi-Wan by returning fire to save himself.

Mistakes brought death. Obi-Wan had just committed a mistake that could lead to the death of Qui-Gon. Again.

Fear surged upward, whispering toward panic as he watched Qui-Gon standing alone, focused solely on his newest-- /stupid/ -- padawan. Was there time to right this? Obi-Wan had to try.

He took a step back toward his Master. Another, and then another, and then he was ducking his head against his chest and Force-sprinting frantically back the way he'd come, uncaring that he'd turned his back to the enemy, uncaring that he was entirely vulnerable to attack. It didn't matter if the pirates nailed him, so long as he reached Qui-Gon's side and the Master was free to fight in his own. He ran just as hard as he'd run on Naboo in a failed attempt to reach his Master, with every nerve alive with the memory of that failure as well. He could hear the whine of the blasterfire behind him, could feel the laser-bolts pursuing him that last, fateful stride.

This time, the Force was merciful. This time, Obi-Wan reached Qui-Gon in time. Skidding to a stop just before he crashed into the older man, Obi-Wan spun hard and went down on one knee to flash his saber overhead and intercept a furious series of blaster-fire raining down on them. He felt Qui-Gon in motion behind him, felt the green blade whistling and vibrating in concert with his own, cutting the air over his head. The Master was a brilliant swordsman, whatever the universe; it felt right to Obi-Wan, this dance they shared. Their union through the Force was seamless--a private, deep kind of joy, even in battle. But the pirates were many, and as the latest wave of bolts broke over them, Obi-Wan knew without a doubt that, had they not been together, they would not have been able to avoid all of the fire. /Because I didn't wait for guidance,/ Obi-Wan realized, /I nearly watching him die again./

It would *not* happen again.

Dodging the hail of returned blaster fire, the pirates retreated back around the corridor. Resetting his grip on the saber hilt, Obi-Wan took advantage of the first lull in the fire. Getting cautiously to his feet, to his feet, Obi-Wan sent a wordless query through the bond. /Advance, Master?/

He felt the older man's approval and crept steadily down the hall, with Qui-Gon close at his back. Now, the Knight was in the front. Now, the larger man was all but trapped behind him, unable to do more than offer superficial defense - a fact that Obi-Wan was all too conscious of. Still, Obi-Wan was the first line of defense, and that was important to him. He wasn't in the crossfire this time, and if he went down, Qui-Gon could easily save himself.

Three of the bolder members of the boarding party popped back around into the corridor facing them. Jaw locked in grim determination, Obi-Wan did not hesitate to engage the three new intruders, returning as good as he got. Unfortunately, these three didn't seem nearly so inclined to give up the fight as quickly as had Qui-Gon's opponents. Obi-Wan knew all too well that the reason for that probably lay in the fact that they were facing a younger, much less intimidating opponent. Still, the Force flowed around him, slowing time once more as Obi-Wan centered in the bond and within himself. He felt no anger -- that had been left behind at the melting pit on Naboo -- but a tenacity and a certain resolution guided him. The attackers would *not* get past him, they would *not* hurt the man who had proven so vulnerable in spirit and so powerful in battle, following so close on his heels.

On some level, Obi-Wan knew that it would have made more sense for him to have simply stood aside and let Qui-Gon handle this crew as he had the last. But this was *his* job. He was a knight, and while he might fail at many things, he could handle a lightsaber. Had he not battled the Sith and held his own? At least for a while? He was not nearly so important to any world as was Qui-Gon: Obi-Wan was not the master of the Force, he was merely a knight with a blade. As such, his place was in the face of danger while the Master stayed safe behind him. Qui-Gon was simply not going to die again on Obi-Wan's watch; he would do what was necessary to protect the man he was coming to love.

/I can do this,/ he thought. /I CAN./

Contented to deflect the odd energy bolt into the bulkhead, Qui-Gon deliberately settled within the bonded circle they had generated and let Obi-Wan take over. He watched in what was fast approaching wonder, for he'd never seen any Knight or Master defend as Obi-Wan could. Vibroblade or blaster, it made no difference; the younger man had clearly learned from his battle with the Sith, and from watching Qui-Gon himself only moment before.

Force-stunning the leader of the pack, he drove another invader back with a series of deflected bolts that the pirate was hard put to avoid. Dancing backward, the pirate invaded his companion's space, tromped on his toes, and won a series of shouted expletives that distracted every Corellian.

Pressing his advantage, Obi-Wan Force-leaped between two of the invaders and kicked out to break one's nose. At the same time, he slashed the other, severing the hand holding the blaster and sweeping his saber around to take the other hand that was raising a vibroblade.

The man screamed to see his hands fall to the deck, the wounds instantly cauterized. Falling to his knees, the pirate continued wailing while Obi-Wan danced backward. His leader bent double and growled as blood poured from his nose, and Qui-Gon attempted to lunge past Obi-Wan, to finish what the Knight had begun.

But Obi-Wan was allowing no backup. Spinning his Master's old lightsaber, he somersaulted over the fallen ones and came up with a whirling lightsaber in the middle of the small knot of intruders. His airborne, aggressive arrival into their midst was accompanied by the humming, glowing menace of a constantly spinning blue blade that was intimidating as well as visually confusing.

The strategy worked; they hesitated for just that fraction of a second, fingers frozen on the trigger of the blasters. Qui-Gon seized the advantage Obi-Wan had bought, Force-yanking the weapons out of their hands.

The spinning lightsaber moved in a wider arc, and Obi-Wan wielded his blade twice more. And so it was that two more sets of hands fell to the deck, with their owners standing in stunned shock, staring down at the still-twitching appendages.

Crashing to his knees, the leader folded his hands and raised them in supplication, babbling his surrender.

"Sleep," Qui-Gon murmured, coming up behind Obi-Wan and touching the pirate lightly between the eyes. "Leave his hands intact, please?" he murmured mildly.

Obi-Wan panted, but didn't back down his defensive stance. His lightsaber thrummed in his hands, the gamma blade a bright, bold blue.

"Yes, Master." There was obedience in that tone, but no particular approval of the request. The man could still be a danger, and that was not to be allowed.

Qui-Gon leaned momentarily against the Jedi, rested a calming hand on his rigid shoulder and felt Obi-Wan shiver under the unexpected touch.

/By the Force what a warrior/ the Master thought. /Barely more than a Padawan, and yet he handles combat like a veteran three times his years. /What has this boy faced to have become such a fierce fighter? And *this* is the Padawan who feels that his Master went into battle alone because the apprentice wasn't 'good enough' to help him? Gods, the boy is stunning.

Qui-Gon surveyed the carnage at opposite ends of the corridor. /Two dead. The rest wounded, and some permanently disabled. Unable to harm anyone ever again. 'To defend and protect...'/ Qui-Gon remembered the Code. /No quarter given from this one,not until it's asked, by me or by the attacker. Did his Master teach him this defense? Independent, strong, capable. But obedient. This one yields with only a word from me. How unlike my Obi-Wan, and what an incredible knight he will be./

Giving Obi-Wan another reassuring pat on the shoulder, Qui-Gon moved past him to peer around the corner into the now empty ship docked to the gantryway. "Shall we make certain we have no other guests?"

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