Title: Simple Steps
Author: James Walkswithwind (
gila@jbx.com) and Wolfling
(
wolfling.msn@attcanada.net)
Archive: Yes to Master & Apprentice
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Q/O
Spoilers: none
Category: drama, au
Summary: Dark happenings disrupt what should be a simple mission
Feedback: is gratefully accepted :)
Notes: This is the latest in the "Grr Series" previous stories in this
series are (in chronological order) Training Session, Consequences, Spirit
of Duty, Firestorm, Trials of the Heart, and A Glimpse of Darkness. This takes
place perhaps a month after Glimpse. Thanks as always to Lorelei for betaing
(and fighting the evil sith commas!)

Simple Steps

By James Walkswithwind and Wolfling

Qui-Gon stood in the conference room, maintaining his sense of balance as best he could. It was difficult when he felt not only his own irritation and dread, but Obi-Wan's as well.

It was even more difficult when that irritation was directed at the Jedi Council. A group of people who were *supposed* to be wise. And yet they sometimes acted more like squabbling politicos than spiritual leaders.

Something that seemed to be happening more and more often of late. The stray thought came from Obi-Wan, but he might as well have thought it himself.

It was true; he'd always had his run-ins with the council, but lately it seemed as if they took the exact opposite stance of whatever he said.

[Almost enough to make one want to burn the wall tapestries?] Obi-Wan asked silently.

Qui-Gon smiled faintly. [Almost, Obi-Wan.]

They had tried to warn the Council, but their vague impressions had done little to convince. It was common enough for someone to be in touch with the Dark Side without being a Sith, they were told.

Evil was everywhere, even when only faint and undirected by the training of a Dark Lord.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had been unable to convince the Council that this was not one of those instances. Despite their lack of evidence, despite their own doubts, they had argued.

And failed.

And, though Master Yoda said it was not in retaliation for anything, they had been given what amounted to an assignment which could have been handled by a single Knight.

Even with the fact that they had a Padawan who was still very inexperienced, this assignment was rather below their abilities and skills. Which had irritated Obi-Wan more than himself, Qui-Gon knew.

They had been sent as diplomats to oversee a negotiation between warring clans who had decided, on their own, to stop warring. They wanted a neutral party to mediate, to ensure fairness and safety and good graces.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were required to be in the room -- but otherwise, there was nothing for them to do unless the ambassadors began arguing.

Which, so far, they hadn't. Had long tedious discussions about the minutiae of the truce, yes. Argue, no.

[I'm getting to the point where I'd almost welcome an argument,] Obi-Wan said. [I know I must've been this bored before in my life, but I can't think of when.]

[Patience is a virtue, Obi-Wan,] Qui-Gon reminded him. Then he sighed. [Or so I'm told.]

Suddenly one of the negotiating party for the Waltoo clan waved them forward.

[Ah, perhaps he wants us to do something other than act as decorations,] Obi-Wan observed as they obeyed the summons.

The short amphibian creature waited quietly as the Jedi went to meet him. Then he bowed. "To complete the initial round of opening remarks, we ask the Jedi to recite the "Cal Rok", to bless our negotiations and remind us to be at peace."

He held out a scroll to Qui-Gon, who accepted it. The Waltoo stepped back, and all the Waltoo and Dennid, the second clan, waited expectantly.

It was in a language he knew, barely. Qui-Gon knew he could read the words on the scroll, but was not convinced he could translate it accurately. Luckily, he didn't have to translate anything.

He looked up to make certain he was to begin, then read aloud.

"Rah tagk, allac ma re gon," he intoned solemnly. "Nar ron agamon tar grr arh."

He felt Obi-Wan's startled amusement, quickly suppressed. Ignoring it as best he could, he continued to read. Again, as he spoke the serious words, he felt Obi-Wan suppressing amusement.

He came to the final line, trying not to frown -- or laugh. "Allag oni goran garer, garon nar con grrr." He ended with the proper accent he'd been taught. Was it *his* fault it sounded so much like a dragon?

Obi-Wan's mental laughter echoed in his mind, though his former apprentice's face was properly sober.

Qui-Gon kept his face impassive as he handed the scroll back to the Waltoo. He accepted the scroll with another bow, and everyone was dismissed until the following day.

He managed to maintain his composure until they were alone in one of the corridors, heading back to their assigned quarters. He would've probably been able to continue maintaining it if Obi-Wan hadn't looked at him and said, quite clearly, "Grrr?"

Qui-Gon leapt.

One of the things he had learned, early on, was exactly where Obi-Wan was ticklish.

It was a good thing no one was close enough to hear their laughter and shouts. It would've severely damaged the "solemn Jedi" reputation. Qui-Gon, however, got them headed to their rooms by chasing Obi-Wan down the appropriate hallway.

When they got inside, Qui-Gon grabbed him again, intending to tickle him until he turned blue.

"I guess I have to go find someplace else to practice," Anakin sighed.

"Sorry, Ani," Obi-Wan said, composing himself, but not bothering to try and wipe the smile off his face or to move from Qui-Gon's arms.

Anakin sighed, and rolled his eyes -- but grinned. "I'm used to it, Masters." He jumped up and headed for the door. "Is it all right if I go down to the Mahjor Gardens?"

"Yes, Anakin. But do not stray from the grounds," Qui-Gon told him, also making no move to let go of Obi-Wan.

"Yes, Master," Anakin replied with another roll of his eyes.

Qui-Gon considered giving the boy a brief reminder about showing respect, then realized he and Obi-Wan were probably not offering ideal role models at the moment for proper Jedi behavior.

He waited until Anakin was out the door, then bit Obi-Wan's neck.

"You know," Obi-Wan said conversationally, even as he tilted his head to allow Qui-Gon better access, "Anakin is getting a far different picture of Jedi Masters than I did when you took me as your Padawan."

"Is he now?" Qui-Gon continued biting, glad he did not yet have to fight long locks of hair for the skin underneath. He'd thought about asking Obi-Wan to keep it short, but hadn't. It was his choice to grow his hair as he liked.

Though he had *seriously* considered pouting as it grew, until Obi-Wan got the hint.

"And what did you think of Jedi Masters?" he asked.

"That you were very proper and very serious and had no sense of humor." One hand reached up and began to play with Qui-Gon's long locks.

Qui-Gon blinked. "No sense of humor?" Then he realized the implication of Obi-Wan's words. "Are you saying I don't act like a proper Jedi Master?" He wriggled his fingers underneath Obi-Wan's tunic and tweaked a bit of skin.

Obi-Wan squirmed away from the tormenting fingers. "I never said that. Actually, I think it's probably good that Ani has no illusions about you."

Qui-Gon pulled back. "Did you?"

"I wasn't sure what to make of you. I knew you were a great Jedi and I felt privileged that you finally consented to take me as your Padawan, but..." He shrugged. "You were very much an enigma to me back then. And, I admit, there was part of me that kept wondering if you were going to decide you’d made a mistake accepting me."

Qui-Gon pulled his hands free, and took Obi-Wan's face gently between them. He didn't know what to say, what needed to be said. If, indeed, anything did. He knew Obi-Wan no longer doubted his place with Qui-Gon -- at least, Obi-Wan did not doubt his own worth. But he wished he could correct the mistakes he had made, mistakes which had needlessly hurt the young boy.

Obi-Wan smiled at him gently, reaching up to cover Qui-Gon's hands with his own. "I know better now. I have for a very long time. It was only the first few months that I truly had my doubts."

Qui-Gon leant forward and kissed him, softly. "I regret those first few months of doubt, Obi-Wan. Looking back... if I had accepted my fate, any of the times it was forced upon me...."

"You would not be who you are." Obi-Wan shook his head fondly. "You have never been one to just accept blindly, my Qui-Gon."

Qui-Gon wrapped his arms around Obi-Wan, and smiled at him. "Grr!"

"Grr," Obi-Wan replied, grinning back.

Qui-Gon nodded, solemnly. "Now that we have that out of the way...." He pulled Obi-Wan towards him. "We have no more duties until tomorrow morning."

"And Ani is out for the next few hours," Obi-Wan added helpfully.

"Hmm." Qui-Gon considered, carefully. "Shall we work on our Lai Shi forms?"

"I can think of more... fulfilling ways to pass the time."

"A game of Crondile?" Qui-Gon ignored the fact that Obi-Wan was already beginning to remove Qui-Gon's outer robe.

"Not stimulating enough."

"Meditation?" His robe was dropped, and Obi-Wan moved to his belt.

"What I have in mind is more relaxing."

"More relaxing than meditation?" Qui-Gon asked in surprise. He held his arms up a bit as Obi-Wan began removing his tunic.

"The end result at least," Obi-Wan said, leaning in and nuzzling Qui-Gon's chest once the tunic was removed.

"Well, if you think it best," Qui-Gon conceded. Then he moved quickly and soon had Obi-Wan stripped down to his pants and boots, as he himself was.

Obi-Wan grinned up at him. "I see you're getting into the spirit of things now."

"You haven't said what you want to do, though," Qui-Gon pointed out.

His former apprentice just looked at him steadily, with one eyebrow raised. "We're standing here, off-duty, half-naked and alone. I should think it is obvious."

Qui-Gon looked down at him. "You said you didn't *want* to work on our Lai Shi forms." He was working very hard not to smile, at this point, and had to exert himself to maintain some serenity. Exterior serenity, at least.

Obi-Wan heaved a heavy sigh, belied by the mischief in his eyes. "Well, if you insist, I suppose we can--"

"Very well." Qui-Gon nodded. He moved one foot back and stood in the first pose. Then he swept his other foot around, tripping Obi-Wan onto the couch behind him.

"I don't remember ever seeing that particular form before, Master," Obi-Wan said thoughtfully, even as he reached up to pull Qui-Gon down on top of him.

"I shall have to show it to you more often, then." Qui-Gon shifted slightly until he was lying more comfortably, without danger of squishing anything important or falling off the furniture.

Then he frowned.

"Qui-Gon?"

"Everything is in the other room."

"Oh." There was silence for a moment, then, "One of us will have to get it."

"Or we could go in there, where the bed is. And not worry about someone falling off the couch." Qui-Gon blinked, and realized that there was something that needed doing. He leant down and did it, rubbing his tongue over the spot he'd kissed.

"Mmmm," his lover breathed, eyes closing, and fingers tightening in Qui-Gon's hair. "Or we could just stay here and... improvise."

"Mmm?" Qui-Gon asked as clearly as he could with his lips pressed against Obi-Wan's jaw.

"Like that," Obi-Wan replied a bit breathlessly, arching up as Qui-Gon's hands went wandering.

Qui-Gon stopped. "Oh. Sorry, that wasn't improvising. That move was in the book--" He lost track of what he was saying as Obi-Wan demonstrated a few moves of his own.

When he was able to take control again, he was on his back, completely naked, and looking at a lover who was showing no signs of slowing down any more. He tried to think of something to say -- then he tried to figure out why he thought he needed to say anything. Obi-Wan certainly didn't need any encouragement....

Obi-Wan did something particularly inspiring with his tongue, and Qui-Gon gave up on thinking altogether. He did, however, manage to start making noise. He made loud, enthusiastic noises, a few of which seemed to create an interesting reaction in Obi-Wan.

He moaned again, low and deep, and felt Obi-Wan twitch.

Obi-Wan kept on doing what he'd been doing, though. Which was a good thing. Qui-Gon most definitely did not want him to stop.

He grabbed onto the nearest part of Obi-Wan that he could reach and held on. He held on tighter as Obi-Wan continued, tighter still as he tried to fight back a shout.

[I'd rather you shouted and let me have a little circulation,] Obi-Wan gently admonished. [That is not a squeeze toy.]

Qui-Gon let go immediately, and tried to look down at where he'd been grabbing.

Instead he saw what Obi-Wan was still doing, and fell back again.

His former apprentice was proving exactly how talented at improvising he was. Definitely one of Obi-Wan's strengths, he thought muzzily, as he shifted, trying to get Obi-Wan to... oh yes. Wonderfully talented. He moaned in appreciation.

And well-trained, too. All he had to do was wriggle, once more, just so....

Qui-Gon yelped.

Obi-Wan grinned up at him. [Stay still,] he advised. [You don't want us to fall off the couch after all.] Then he ran his tongue soothingly over the sensitive skin he had bitten a moment before.

[I am trying to stay still. If you would just.... ooo....]

*Very* well-trained. Even if thinking it would get him bitten again.

[Or spanked.]

Qui-Gon tensed. [Really?]

Obi-Wan nipped.

[Maybe I'll lie here quietly and let you do as you wish and not say a word?]

[You've always been a wise man.]

Qui-Gon lay there silently, then, and let Obi-Wan amuse himself. After a moment, his eyes began to roll back in his head again. He began to lose track of individual details then, as everything melded together into one large, jumbled, extremely pleasurable experience.

He shouted, then. Loud, and long. More than once, if you counted the stops for breath as cutting the outcry into distinct countable parts. Qui-Gon didn't, because he couldn't count. Not just then. All he knew was "Yes."

Which might have been what he was shouting. Or it might have been something else.

He could be speaking in tongues, prophesying the future of the Jedi, for all he knew. Not that he remembered what a prophecy was right then. Or a Jedi. Or a... no, he definitely remembered what a tongue was. He shouted again.

That one he recognized. It was Obi-Wan's name.

At least it was supposed to be....

A year or two later, he remembered how to breathe. And about a century after that, he remembered how to think. He opened his eyes to see Obi-Wan sitting astride him grinning smugly.

He tried to think of something wise, witty, or profound to say to wipe that smugness off his lover's face. Qui-Gon blinked, then reached out with his finger and wiped the other stuff off Obi-Wan's face.

Then off his chest. Out of his hair.

"Do you need a towel?"

Obi-Wan blinked then laughed softly. "Is that all you're going to offer me?"

"If I could move, I'd gladly lick you clean," Qui-Gon replied.

"And how long do you think it will be before you can move?"

Qui-Gon thought it over. Morning? Seemed true but he suspected that would get him tossed off the couch. "Now?" he tried.

The smile that earned him seemed to suggest that that was the right answer.

He sat up, took hold of Obi-Wan, and spun them both. Obi-Wan landed on his back, with Qui-Gon on top of him.

Qui-Gon began to clean his lover off... and soon Obi-Wan was making noises that sounded suspiciously familiar.

Not to mention wriggling.

He decided he rather liked the wriggling, and set out to induce more of it. Just as long as they stayed on the couch; he put one hand on the edge of the couch to brace them both before continuing.

Things were coming along rather nicely, he thought, until Obi-Wan's restlessly moving hands finally came to rest on Qui-Gon's head. Or, more precisely, entangled in his hair. And they were still moving restlessly.

"Ow." He glanced upwards and saw that Obi-Wan was not likely to have heard him. Or understood. He tried to move his head out of reach, but that... moved his head out of reach. He frowned.

Well, he'd make Obi-Wan brush it out. He went back to what he was doing.

It didn't take much more of that for Obi-Wan to be pushed over the edge, shouting Qui-Gon's name when he came... and yanking hard on Qui-Gon's hair.

Qui-Gon thought seriously about giving himself his old Padawan haircut as he eased Obi-Wan through his release. In one sense at least; he still hadn't let go of Qui-Gon's hair by the time he collapsed.

Long moments passed before Obi-Wan got his breath back. He went to raise his hand, only to pull Qui-Gon's hair again before visibly realizing he was still holding it. [Sorry,] he apologized, immediately disentangling his fingers and smoothing the hair back into a semblance of order.

Qui-Gon smiled at his lover, remaining in place, lying low across Obi-Wan's body. He waited. Obi-Wan looked wonderful like this, relaxed and satiated and grinning like a love-struck bantha.

"A what?!" Obi-Wan asked, obviously trying for outrage, but unable to keep the laughter from his voice.

"You do." Qui-Gon rested his chin on Obi-Wan's stomach. He made no attempt to move, though he had to use the Force to slightly brace himself against slipping sideways off the couch. That gave him an idea which he decided to explore sometime when they had much more time, and padded floors.

[I'll add it to the list, right below the acrobatic training room at the temple.]

Qui-Gon blinked. "List?" He hoped the squeak he heard in his voice had been his imagination. Last time Obi-Wan had kept a list, he had kept it on his datapad.

He saw the smug look on Obi-Wan's face and bent his head to bite him.

There was a warning tug on his hair. "That's not a chew toy either."

"Isn't it? I distinctly remember you asking me to--"

Another tug. Harder.

He looked up. "Yes?"

"No biting. At least not *there*."

Qui-Gon moved upwards and found a better spot to bite.

"Mmm..." Obi-Wan shifted slightly, one hand now petting Qui-Gon's hair. "You know everything is still in the bedroom..."

"Mm?" Qui-Gon asked before he bit.

"For... you know."

"Lai Shi?"

He was never exactly sure where the pillow came from that Obi-Wan whapped him with.

***************

They had managed somehow to finally retreat to the bedroom, and were cuddling on the huge bed. Obi-Wan had dutifully brushed out Qui-Gon's hair, nearly lulling him to sleep.

The mental flash of surprise and anger from his Padawan propelled him wide awake.

Obi-Wan's eyes were wide. "Did you--"

Qui-Gon was already reaching for his clothes. [Anakin?] He reached out for the boy. He felt urgency, then, along with the anger. But no fear or worry. Anakin didn't seem to be in danger. [Anakin?] he sent more strongly.

He was answered with a chaotic burst of emotions and images.

[Focus, Ani,] Obi-Wan sent. [Tell us what's wrong.]

It took a moment for the emotions to settle enough for them to understand him. Finally they heard, [They're going to take him. They say they'll kill him if--] The words were lost again in a swirl of anxiety.

They were dressed by that time, and heading for the door.

[Take who, Ani?] Obi-Wan asked even as they ran towards the gardens where the boy was.

[Kardel. Doraeen's son. They're going *now*, Masters!] Anakin added with a mental shout.

And they were still several minutes away, even at Jedi speeds.

There was no hesitation in Qui-Gon's command. [Follow them, Anakin. Do what you can.]

[Yes, Master,] came the boy's reply; then they both sensed his attention turning elsewhere.

Qui-Gon hid his concern from Anakin, though he didn't bother trying to hide it from Obi-Wan. Anakin might find himself faced with something he could not handle. Despite how well he had taken to his training, he was still inexperienced.

[He'll be all right,] Obi-Wan reassured him, though Qui-Gon could feel his doubts as well. [He only has to hold them for a few minutes.]

Qui-Gon didn't think of what could happen in only a few minutes. Instead, he let his doubts and worries fade so he could focus. Ready for whatever they found... They burst out into the gardens and followed Anakin's presence, weaving quickly through the manicured paths to a building on the other side.

The boy was waiting for them by the doors. [They went in there!] he said, broadcasting anxiety and relief all at once.

Qui-Gon spared only a moment to acknowledge Anakin, then checked the doors. They were not locked, so he carefully eased one open. There was no immediate sign of whomever Anakin had seen; they went inside cautiously, Anakin between the two of them.

With little more than a look, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan made the decision to split up to complete the search more quickly. Qui-Gon kept Anakin with him.

He felt Anakin trying to calm himself as they searched. Calm and focus, until he was almost a mirror-image of his Master. Qui-Gon nodded his approval as he kept his own attention on the rooms ahead. The hallways and open areas gave numerous places for someone to hide or escape detection by someone searching only with their eyes.

Qui-Gon detected something ahead and moved towards it. Then, distantly, came the sound of voices, though they were still too far away to make out any words.

He let Obi-Wan know what they'd found, then he and Anakin headed after those voices.

The sound of arguing grew more clearly as they drew closer.

"He's late! We can't just sit here and wait for him!"

"That is *exactly* what we do. If you want to get paid, that is!"

A third voice spoke up. "I still say I don't like this! Nobody said nothing about selling no kid!"

Qui-Gon motioned for Anakin to stay back as he moved forward to peer around the corner. Three Waltoo stood there, arguing.

At their feet, tied and gagged, was the missing child, eyes wide and terrified as he listened to his captors fight.

[He's there, isn't he?] Anakin asked, shifting restlessly from foot to foot.

[Yes.] Qui-Gon tried to determine what could prevent their simply stepping out and rescuing the child.

Nothing, he realized. If they waited, the unknown fourth party might arrive and worsen the odds.

Qui-Gon stepped out, Anakin stepping bravely out beside him. Qui-Gon didn't yet bother drawing his lightsaber.

It took the Waltoo several seconds to realize that they were there.

"What the--?"

There was a scramble as they dived for their weapons.

Qui-Gon ignited his lightsaber. "I think you should release the boy." He felt Obi-Wan's presence, coming up behind the Waltoo.

"Why would we want to do that?" the one who was obviously the leader scoffed.

Qui-Gon spotted movement in the shadows behind them as Obi-Wan, quiet as a shadow himself, slowly made his way towards the boy.

"To avoid any injuries... to yourselves." Qui-Gon stepped to the side, drawing the Waltoo's attention further away from the trussed child.

Obi-Wan reached the boy, scooped him up, and faded back into the shadows.

Anakin grinned.

The Waltoo stared at Anakin with looks of startlement. One of them glanced over.

"Hey! Where'd he go?"

The other two spun to look.

"Wha--"

"How--?"

"He was right here! There's no way he could've--"

Qui-Gon waited for them to decide what to do next. They looked at each other, obviously trying to decide the same thing.

Finally, one of them sighed and threw down his weapon. "This was a stupid plan anyway."

Qui-Gon looked at the other two, ever-so-slightly aiming his lightsaber their way.

"Frak," one said, and threw his weapon down as well.

The leader looked from Qui-Gon to his two cohorts and back, and finally relinquished his weapon as well. "Bunch of incompetents," he muttered, glaring at the other two.

"Thank you," Qui-Gon told them, relieved this had been done the easy way. It was easy enough for him and Anakin to bind the three while Obi-Wan tended to the child.

They made their way back to the main center where the negotiations were held, and where Kardel's father would be waiting. They found Doraeen just beginning to panic at his son's absence. "Kardel!" he shouted in relief when he saw them.

Kardel, who was still shivering at his near-miss and clinging to Obi-Wan with all his strength, shot his head up at his name and immediately squirmed to be let go. Obi-Wan set the boy on his feet and watched as he ran to his father.

The reunion was tearful, Kardel babbling to his father about what had happened, details and names getting confused, but Doraeen didn't seem to care. He held his boy until Kardel calmed, then, still holding him closely, he came to meet the Jedi.

"Thank you, Esteemed Jedi. There is no repayment for the gift you have made. The resources of the Dennid are yours."

Qui-Gon returned the bow and addressed him equally formally. "It is our duty, Sub-Clan Chief Doraeen. We are grateful we could return your son unharmed."

"I'm glad he's okay," Anakin spoke up earnestly.

Doraeen gave Anakin a smile. "Thanks to your quick actions, I am to understand, little apprentice. You do your Masters credit." He turned back to Qui-Gon. "But what of those who took him?"

"They are being held, Doraeen, and questioned. Clan Chief Gana of the Waltoo has denied any involvement."

"If you wish to do something for us, you can make sure this doesn't affect the negotiations," Obi-Wan spoke up quietly. "That would be giving the kidnappers what they wanted."

Doraeen nodded. "Yes, I understand. If Gana truly is not involved...." He frowned and held his son closer.

"We will be assisting the investigation," Qui-Gon told him.

"We will have some questions later," Obi-Wan said, "but for now, we'll give you some time alone with your son." He smiled at Kardel, who smiled shakily back.

Doraeen gave them a half-bow, and carried his son away; four Dennid bodyguards fell in ahead of and behind them as they went.

"So much for a quiet, boring little mission," Obi-Wan commented wryly as they started the long trek back to their quarters.

"Is Kardel going to be safe now?" Anakin asked.

Qui-Gon considered. "Whoever else is involved may well discard their plans now that they have been uncovered." He frowned. He didn't think that was true, but he had no reason for the thought other than a vague sense of unease.

The look Obi-Wan shot him told him he wasn't alone in his suspicions.

"We should consider whether a guard on the boy will be necessary," Qui-Gon began.

"I can do it!" Anakin offered eagerly.

Qui-Gon regarded him seriously. This was not like the last time, when the job was intended to keep the boy safe. Whoever was still out there presented a severe danger.

But to leave Kardel unguarded would be foolhardy.

"If you and Obi-Wan--"

"Qui-Gon--" Obi-Wan immediately interrupted.

As Qui-Gon had expected him to.

[So I'm predictable. I don't care.]

[What would you prefer we do, Obi-Wan? Leave Kardel unguarded, or Anakin?] Qui-Gon asked. He and Obi-Wan were the two most able to protect themselves, and anyone around them.

[Doraeen's own guards–]

[Against...?] He thought of the presence they had both felt.

[We don't know that anything like that is involved,] Obi-Wan argued, but his answer held a great deal less heat.

[And if it is? We cannot risk the child's safety because we want to be together, Obi-Wan.]

He watched as Obi-Wan struggled with his fears. Green eyes suddenly came up and bore into his with an intense fire. [You will be careful?] Obi-Wan demanded.

[Of course, Obi-Wan,] he answered easily. He looked down to find Anakin staring up at him, having remained silent throughout their discussion.

"You will stay with Obi-Wan. Do as he tells you," he reminded his Padawan, unnecessarily, he knew.

Anakin nodded soberly. "Yes, Master Qui-Gon."

"I will attempt to find out who else is involved. You two should return to Doraeen and Kardel."

Qui-Gon reached out and took Obi-Wan's arm briefly. Then he turned and walked out. If he didn't, he would waste valuable time.

That's what he told himself, at least.

He went first to the building where they had rescued Kardel. He didn't expect to find anyone, but he hoped to find traces, at least, of something which would tell him about the identity of the second party.

At first there was nothing unusual, just the impressions any building of this type would carry. But then...

The images were vague, and indistinct. But they were there. Qui-Gon closed his eyes and focused, letting the tiniest impression float into his awareness.

Something Dark and horribly evil shot out like a flash in the night.

He pulled back quickly but not before it left him feeling in need of the psychic equivalent of a shower.

[Qui-Gon?] Obi-Wan's concerned voice in his mind was almost as good.

[I am all right,] he responded immediately, letting Obi-Wan in as much as he wished, to verify it. [Whoever, whatever it was, is no longer here.]

He felt Obi-Wan looking over the memory of what he had touched so briefly. [We've felt that before.]

[Yes. We must convince the Council this time that the threat is a serious one. Even if we have nothing more to go on.] Qui-Gon focused once more on the building around him, skimming over the taint he had felt to search for other clues. There were none to be had.

[What next?]

[I think--] He broke off as the sound of gunfire echoed through the empty halls.

Qui-Gon ran.

[It's coming from the ambassador's quarters,] Obi-Wan told him. [The guards here are leaving to check it out.]

He didn't bother telling -- or asking if -- Obi-Wan and Anakin were staying with Kardel. He simply headed for the source of the gunplay.

[We're staying put,] Obi-Wan's answer to the unasked question came. [Just be careful.]

[Of course,] Qui-Gon answered, faintly amused. When he was 120, and doddering around, Obi-Wan would still be chastising him to be careful. He didn't need a sense of the future to tell him *that*.

[That's because you have a history of *not* being careful. If you would just--] Obi-Wan broke off in mid-word, distracted by something.

Qui-Gon held himself back from demanding explanations. Obi-Wan would tell him as soon as he could. He angled towards the ambassador's quarters, now only one hallway down.

Then he felt a growing alarm in his lover. [Qui-Go--] Obi-Wan started to say and was suddenly cut off.

There was a brief flash of anger/fear/pain and then nothing.

He changed his direction without thought, heading directly for Obi-Wan.

He had caught sight and feel of the situation in the ambassador's quarters, half a dozen guards all feeling more confused than anything else.

No sense of danger, no sense of anything more than wondering what had happened.

He reached out again to Obi-Wan and Anakin both; he could sense absolutely nothing from either of them. They were either deeply unconscious or...

He couldn't complete the thought, but ran even faster.

When he came around the corner, he stopped for one very brief moment.

There were bodies slumped to the floor all around him, looking like so many discarded dolls. Sprawled closest to the doorway was Obi-Wan, his lightsaber hilt clutched in his lax right hand. It looked like he had sensed whatever it was and had moved to confront it when they were cut down.

Qui-Gon's heart shouted and he moved forward, senses alert to everything.

He resolutely ignored, for now, Obi-Wan and Anakin, checking the room instead, searching for whatever had done this. The only sign was the overlain psychic stench of evil.

The same that he'd felt before, when Kardel had been grabbed.

Kardel, who was again missing.

And whoever had him had passed an entire building full of alert guards and a Jedi Knight. Qui-Gon's mouth thinned to a frown.

He considered for a moment following the trail, then realized that if he or she had got past a Jedi Knight so quickly, then a Jedi Master would be little more threat. He returned to Obi-Wan's side and knelt.

Obi-Wan's eyes were half-open, but there was no awareness in them, and Qui-Gon still couldn't feel anything from him. Both his heartbeat and his breathing were strong and regular, which was a relief. It was just his mind that was...not there.

He moved to check Anakin and found much the same thing. He pushed himself away, pushing away the fear as well, and went to check on the others in the room.

Doraeen and one of the Dennid guards were beginning to stir.

The sub-clan chief groaned and his eyes flickered open, staring up at the ceiling blankly. "Wha--"

"What happened?" Qui-Gon asked, more to focus the Dennid's attention than to get information. He doubted Doraeen could tell him anything substantial. But if he could speak, think coherently, and Obi-Wan and Anakin could not -- yet -- it would tell him exactly what sort of attack this had been.

Doraeen frowned in concentration. "There was... a cloaked figure... at the door..." His eyes suddenly widened and he bolted upright. "My son! Where is Kardel? Is he all right?"

"I don't know yet." Qui-Gon sent a calming to him, watching him lean back, dazed. The guard was at his side now, and Qui-Gon left Doraeen to him for the moment.

He returned to Obi-Wan's side and called to him.

[Obi-Wan?]

Nothing. No response.

He pulled Obi-Wan closer to him, cradling him gently as he moved deeper into Obi-Wan's mind. He swallowed against the emptiness he felt.

[Obi-Wan?]

One blow, even from a Sith, couldn't damage Obi-Wan's mind permanently. Even unexpected, even if caught off-guard, Obi-Wan should be strong enough....

Qui-Gon cut off his mounting fear again.

Finally he felt... something. Just a spark. It wasn't awareness. Not quite. But it was something.

He pulled himself farther in, sending his feelings out ahead of him like fingers in a dark room. A dark bed, he thought with faint amusement. Searching for his lover....

[Obi-Wan, please.]

[...]

There was that spark again.

He grabbed at it as gently as he could, determined not to let it slip away. It was like trying to catch a strand of silk -- or a bug out of a cup of water, as he recalled for some reason sitting in a primitive camp with his Padawan, trying to catch the tiny gnat to avoid drinking it. Obi-Wan had watched him for several moments before losing control and laughing hysterically at him.

He'd told Qui-Gon that it was taking the rescue of pathetic lifeforms too far.

Qui-Gon smiled, and focused. Obi-Wan was *here*, dammit. Somewhere.

[...master...?]

Qui-Gon nearly laughed. [Padawan?] he called back, rushing towards the source of that weakened thought.

[...don't...yell...head...hurts...] The thoughts were still thready and weak, but getting stronger.

Qui-Gon didn't respond, merely wrapped himself around Obi-Wan and held him, in thought and body.

With each passing second, he could feel Obi-Wan's presence getting stronger and stronger. Finally, after long uncounted moments, Obi-Wan blinked and looked up at Qui-Gon with eyes that were awake and aware.

Qui-Gon leant down and kissed him softly. And briefly. "Wait," he instructed and set Obi-Wan down. He moved to Anakin's side and repeated the process.

And ignored the order in which he had done so.

If anything, Ani's mind was even more dark and empty than Obi-Wan's had been. Qui-Gon searched long minutes but could find no trace of Ani's essence.

"Obi-Wan, I need your help."

He heard the soft rustle of cloth as Obi-Wan moved to his side, then felt his lover's presence, strong and bright once again, join with his.

Together they entered Anakin's mind, searching as Qui-Gon had done for Obi-Wan.

For long moments there was nothing.

Then, like there had been with Obi-Wan, there was a spark. Together, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon caught and held it, feeding it strength and encouragement until Ani was back with them.

The boy awoke with a cry, then threw himself forward into both of his Masters' arms, trembling from fear and reaction.

"Easy, Ani. It's all right," Qui-Gon spoke soothingly. But he shot a look at Doraeen, and knew they had to move out, soon. He was torn, then, at leaving Anakin behind or keeping him at their side, within reach.

For the first time, he doubted what he had done. He kept it deep, a barely formed emotion where no one would detect it. He stood. "If you two are able, we must go after Kardel."

"Ani?" Obi-Wan asked gently, still holding onto the boy.

Anakin pulled back, face pale, but expression determined. "I can make it. I won't slow you down, sirs, I promise."

Obi-Wan hugged him tightly once more before releasing him and getting to his feet. "We know, Ani."

Qui-Gon glanced at Doraeen once more, and saw that there was little more they could do for him. Except find his son again.

He focused instead on the fading sensation of darkness, and followed it.

Beside him, he could sense the tense unease in both of his companions. Not just Anakin, but Obi-Wan as well, though his was far more well-controlled.

Qui-Gon took note of it and continued trailing the boy and his abductor. They were headed towards a part of the building Qui-Gon had only seen on the brief initial tour: the kitchens, servitors' quarters, and supply rooms.

He accepted, then ignored, his own sense of unease.

They were passing a closed door -- probably a closet -- when Obi-Wan came to a stop and held up his hand. [Wait,] he said to both of his companions. [There's something...] He trailed off, coming to face the closed door.

Qui-Gon waited, lightsaber out but not yet on. Anakin stood behind him.

Qui-Gon reached out and felt what Obi-Wan had.

It didn't bode well.

With a deep breath, Obi-Wan reached out and triggered the door open.

A small crumpled body fell out at their feet.

Kardel.

Qui-Gon crouched next to the boy's body when Obi-Wan remained standing where he was, staring mutely at it. He discovered quickly that the boy was dead, mind wiped clean.

"Is- is he--?" Anakin asked, voice trembling.

"Yes, Anakin," Qui-Gon said gently. "Come, we must find whoever did this." He took up the trail once more, though it was fading quickly. He wasn't convinced they would be able to catch the one responsible.

He spared a brief touch to both his companions' minds; Anakin was shaken, but seemed to be dealing as well as could be expected at this point, Obi-Wan...

Obi-Wan had pulled his shields so tightly closed that even Qui-Gon could not see past them.

Yes, Qui-Gon told himself. He would be feeling guilty. No time to deal with that now, however. He led them down the hallways after the assailant.

Only to have the trail disappear at the building's entrance.

Frustrated, Qui-Gon searched with every sense he had, instructing Anakin to do as well -- assuming Obi-Wan would do so without being told. But the silence from Obi-Wan was beginning to worry him.

"I don't feel anything, Master," Anakin said after a few minutes.

"Nor do I." Qui-Gon looked at Obi-Wan.

Obi-Wan didn't answer, jaw set, staring off into the distance with haunted eyes.

"We must return and tell Doraeen what has happened." He reached out and took Obi-Wan by the arm.

The younger man didn't respond for a long moment. Then he glanced at Qui-Gon and nodded silently.

They headed back into the building, Anakin walking close to Qui-Gon's side, Obi-Wan walking some distance away. Farther than he ever normally placed himself when given a choice, Qui-Gon noticed.

The trip back to Doraeen's quarters was both much too long and much too short. When they entered the room, the sub-clan chief jumped to his feet and approached them with a hopeful, worried expression. "My son...?"

Obi-Wan spoke then, for the first time since they had found the boy. "We found him. He's dead. I'm sorry."

Doraeen froze. He stared at the Jedi in disbelief. Qui-Gon moved forward. "He was killed before we came upon him; I am sorry."

The Dennid turned away, and in the silence Qui-Gon realized that they had been dismissed.

Obi-Wan reached one hand out to the grieving father, then let it drop with a weary sigh. He turned and looked at Qui-Gon, and the Jedi Master for one second felt the turmoil his lover's emotions were in. Then the shutters fell back down and he could once again sense nothing.

Qui-Gon took Anakin and Obi-Wan from the room then, and headed for their quarters. None of them said anything until Qui-Gon closed the door.

"I will call the Council, and inform them what has happened," Qui-Gon said. "Anakin, come with me."

He took the boy with him, leaving Obi-Wan alone in the outer room.

"Master Obi-Wan blames himself, doesn't he?" Anakin asked sadly, looking back over his shoulder at the room where Obi-Wan still stood.

"Yes," Qui-Gon answered. "As would I, had I been in his place. But it does not change the fact that it was *not* his fault. Being a Jedi does not mean you are invulnerable." He gathered Anakin close and told him, "You must not blame yourself, either."

The boy heaved a huge sigh that caught on a half sob. "I would've saved him if I could've," he said softly.

"Yes, Ani. I know. As would have Obi-Wan, or I." He said nothing more, letting the boy come to whatever terms he could, on his own. Later Qui-Gon would talk to him again, ensure he was handling it.

He opened his thoughts to Obi-Wan then, to let him know he was there, and called the Jedi Council.

His report went just about the way he’d expected it would; the council expressed shock and disbelief, and ordered them to return to Coruscant as soon as possible.

Wasting no time arguing with them now, he shut down the commsole and turned to Anakin. "Will you be all right here alone for a moment, Ani?"

Obi-Wan had not responded, apparently ignoring him completely.

Anakin nodded solemnly. "I'll be fine, Master. I'm not the one who needs you right now."

Qui-Gon gave him a smile. He left Anakin there with a light brush of his hand through the boy's hair, and went to find Obi-Wan.

It wasn't a difficult task. Obi-Wan was seated in the middle of the room, eyes closed, ostensibly meditating.

Qui-Gon knew he was not. He went over and stood behind him, waiting to see if Obi-Wan would acknowledge his presence.

For long moments it seemed as if he would not. But then he slowly straightened, opened his eyes and turned his head to look at Qui-Gon.

Qui-Gon could see nothing in his eyes, feel nothing through the closed shields. He sat down beside Obi-Wan and waited.

Without changing expression, Obi-Wan slowly held out a hand to him.

Qui-Gon took it and held it tightly. The fears he had forgotten came back to him. Obi-Wan, lying there on the floor, as if--

[Obi-Wan.]

That was all it took. Obi-Wan's mental barriers all came down at once and he flowed forward into Qui-Gon's arms.

Qui-Gon took him and held him close, almost mirroring the embrace he'd held him in earlier when he'd been trying to reach his young lover's mind.. He let Obi-Wan's emotions wash over him, the doubts and guilt, then let them go. He concentrated on Obi-Wan.

[I'm sorry,] Obi-Wan said, hanging onto Qui-Gon with all his strength, mentally and physically.

[It's all right, beloved. There is nothing to apologize for.]

The words themselves were meaningless, nothing more than what Obi-Wan could have told himself. But Qui-Gon let him feel the words, feel how much Qui-Gon believed them, feel the absolute absence of acrimony.

[I should've sensed something earlier...]

[Why? Were you distracted? Not paying attention?] Qui-Gon knew such wasn't the case, he knew Obi-Wan too well to think he would have not been doing his utmost best.

[But it wasn't enough, was it?] Obi-Wan's words were bitter and full of self-castigation.

[And if it wasn't? What good will blame do?] Qui-Gon kept his thoughts calm. [The boy is dead, and it is one thing to grieve. It is another to think you might have stopped what could not have been stopped.] It was not the first time someone had died during one of their missions. Not the first time someone had died while under the Jedi's care.

[Never one so young though.] This time the tone was one more of sadness and regret and less of blame.

Qui-Gon said nothing to that. He simply held Obi-Wan.

They sat like that for a long time. Finally, Obi-Wan stirred, pulling back enough to look into Qui-Gon's eyes. "Thank you," he said softly, aloud.

Qui-Gon smiled. [I love you.] He leant forward and kissed Obi-Wan lightly.

Obi-Wan sighed, closed his eyes, and kissed him back. [Thank you for that as well.]

Qui-Gon grinned and glanced up. He waved to Anakin, who was peeking through the door.

"Is it safe to come in?" the boy asked hesitantly.

Obi-Wan managed a smile, even if it was still a bit wobbly. "It's safe, Ani."

Anakin ran forward and nearly threw himself into their arms. A slight bit of repositioning, and all three sat in an embrace.

Qui-Gon could feel that Anakin was still shaky, upset by the attack as well as by finding Kardel.

He wasn't the only one who noticed it. Obi-Wan reached up and stroked the boy's hair soothingly as he asked, "How are you doing, Padawan?"

"I'll be all right," the boy muttered, face pressed against Obi-Wan's arm.

Qui-Gon remembered what he had not let himself feel, and let go of it before the thoughts could form again. He would have to speak to Obi-Wan, but not now.

"Yes, you will," Obi-Wan affirmed. "But how are you right now?"

Anakin looked up at him. "Scared. Is he... whoever that was. Coming back?"

"I don't know, Ani. But I doubt he will come back here in the near future. And we will be leaving for Coruscant in the morning," Obi-Wan added, proving that while he might not have been responding, he had been paying attention to Qui-Gon's report to the council.

[Yes. They still do not believe the severity of the situation. But that is for tomorrow.]

Obi-Wan nodded in agreement. "You think you can get some sleep, Ani?" Without nightmares, was the unspoken part.

"I *think* so," he replied, frowning slightly. Qui-Gon could see the hope clearly on his face, even had he not felt it. He looked over at Obi-Wan.

"Would you feel better if you weren't alone?" Obi-Wan asked, gently brushing Anakin's hair off of his forehead.

Anakin nodded quickly, and pulled himself closer into their embrace.

Obi-Wan just hugged him closer, meeting Qui-Gon's eyes with a rueful glance. [I know I wouldn't be getting any sleep tonight alone.]

"Then we should be glad the bed is a large one," Qui-Gon said mildly. He sensed Obi-Wan's sudden amusement and suppressed comments at that, and even Anakin snickered slightly.

He raised his eyebrow at Obi-Wan. It wasn't like Obi-Wan had never had to sleep on *top* of him, in his years as a Padawan.

[Yes, and looked where that has brought us,] Obi-Wan replied, chuckling mentally.

[You were fourteen.]

[Yes, and I had a huge crush on you. I was so afraid I'd embarrass myself that I didn't sleep a wink.]

Qui-Gon stared at Obi-Wan, eyes going wide. He didn't say a word, just looked at him, surprised. Anakin was still stifling his giggles.

[What, you didn't know?] Obi-Wan asked, caught between surprise himself and amusement.

Qui-Gon held his look of shock for a moment longer, then was unable to hold back his smile.

A sudden yawn from Anakin interrupted the teasing. "Bed, I think," Obi-Wan said out loud. "It's been a long day and tomorrow is not likely to be much better. We all need the rest."

Qui-Gon nodded, and soon they were under the thick blankets, cuddled together. Anakin fell asleep almost instantly. Qui-Gon leaned over the boy to give Obi-Wan a kiss.

Obi-Wan sighed and moved closer, reaching out and entwining his fingers with Qui-Gon's. "I'm glad you're here," the younger man whispered softly.

"Where else would I be?" Qui-Gon asked, knowing what Obi-Wan meant. He squeezed Obi-Wan's hand.

Obi-Wan squeezed back and smiled, which was marred by a large yawn. "Sorry," he apologized, even as his eyes were closing. "More tired than I thought."

"Go to sleep, beloved." Qui-Gon smiled as Obi-Wan put his head down. He brushed his hand through Obi-Wan's hair, growing out for the first time in so many years. It looked odd, still, to see him with hair so long. But it suited him. Reminded Qui-Gon he was his Padawan no longer.

"Mmm..." Obi-Wan breathed contentedly, his lips turning faintly upwards as he slid quickly into sleep. [Love you...] he sent to Qui-Gon just as he drifted off.

Qui-Gon stayed there, watching the two of them sleep for several minutes. He watched as the lines of grief and worry faded from each of their faces; Anakin's cleared more quickly, but a wave of love to Obi-Wan tended to that.

When he sensed that both were deeply asleep, he eased himself off the bed and sat down nearby to meditate.

There was much which he had to consider, to come to terms with. The evening's events had shaken him as badly as it had shaken the other two, he just hadn't let himself feel it. Until now.

Behind his closed eyelids, he called up the image of what he had seen when he had entered the sub-clan chief's quarters: apprentice and lover, both lying on the floor, perhaps dead. This time he did not try to suppress the feelings the scene brought up.

Fear. He expected that. It flooded his mind, filling him until he was almost certain there was nothing more. Heart-pounding, breath-stopping fear, making everything in the vision fade.

But there was also grief. And guilt.

It was the last he focused on, knowing it would be the hardest to come to terms with. Knowing that the reason behind it was something he must deal with -- and objectively, not blinded by emotion.

He had to wait for the strength of the emotion to fade somewhat before he could try to focus on its reason.

Obi-Wan and Anakin, lying there, felled by a blow none of them could have foreseen.

That wasn't it. He knew that wasn't it.

That he had been forced to leave them, when the three of them together might have withstood the attack -- there lay the path of his guilt.

But what could he have done differently, really? Someone had to investigate the kidnapping attempt and someone had to guard the child. The Force granted a lot of things, but it did not grant one the ability to be in two places at once. They had had to split up.

The problem was that they could not have. Not and remain as strong as they needed to be. And *that* was not how Jedi should be trained.

Obi-Wan had been able to be on his own from the moment he had left the Jedi Temple. He had been nearly thirteen, a good four years older than Anakin was now. He had had a lifetime of Jedi training before even embarking on a mission.

Anakin had none of that. He was learning at an incredible rate, yes, but he was still behind other apprentices his age who had had the benefit of training almost from birth. Oh, given time, Qui-Gon was certain that the boy would not only catch up, but surpass his yearmates, but that was just it. Given time. Time which Anakin had not yet had.

Anakin needed to be at the Temple, Qui-Gon realized. To study, to learn, without the dangers and distractions of the missions they'd been sent on. Qui-Gon wondered briefly if the Council had known, and been selecting these missions -- these supposedly simple missions -- for that reason.

But it hardly mattered, now. Now that he knew what had to be done. Not that there was any great hardship in it -- he and Obi-Wan would still be Anakin's Masters, still be at his side training him.

Wouldn't they?

There was still the other guilt there....

Behind him he dimly sensed Obi-Wan, more asleep than awake, rolling away from Ani and reaching for him. And then Obi-Wan waking fully when all he touched was cool sheets.

[Qui-Gon?]

Obi-Wan. No longer his apprentice, but a Knight. A Jedi, skilled and able and not dependent upon him the way a Padawan was. The way Anakin was.

Obi-Wan, to whom he had run, before Anakin, when he had seen them both lying there. Obi-Wan, whom he had reached for before even thinking of looking to Anakin.

Qui-Gon bent his head.

A soft rustle of sheets preceded the equally soft touch to his shoulder as Obi-Wan got up and came to kneel beside him. He didn't say anything though, just sat there quietly, lending his strength and his love, waiting for Qui-Gon to acknowledge his presence.

Qui-Gon wasn't sure he should, yet. Not with everything still so sharp in his mind. The guilt that he had left his Padawan in favor of another -- no matter his excuse, his duty should have been to Anakin.

The fear that he might yet have to choose.

The feelings, if not the reasons behind them, bled through their link and he suddenly felt a wave of love, belief, and assurance in return.

Qui-Gon moved then, and drew Obi-Wan's arms around him. He leant sideways into his beloved's embrace and let the mix of emotions ease.

Perhaps, if they took the time to train Anakin in the confines of the Temple, they could search for the balance that seemed to be missing.

*******

It was a somber trio who boarded the transport back to Coruscant the next morning. Doraeen had been among those officials to see them off, and just being in the same room with the grief-stricken parent was almost enough to overwhelm the shields of all three of them.

There had been little enough to say, on any of their parts. The negotiations were delayed until the Dennid period of mourning had ended. It would be months before any dialogue between them and the Waltoo could begin again.

Fortunately, the Jedi had been able to convince Doraeen that a third party had been responsible, and the negotiations *would* continue. Eventually.

Anakin seemed to revive a little as they left the planet behind them. The pilot's offer to let him pass the flight up in the cockpit helped even more.

That left Qui-Gon alone in the passenger compartment with his lover. He sat, feeling suddenly very weary. He wanted to drop all his shields, all his focus, and rest.

Obi-Wan reached out and absently played with a lock of Qui-Gon's hair. "You didn't get any sleep at all last night, did you?"

"No." He could not, even when Obi-Wan had finally taken him back to bed and held him closely.

"Will you talk about it?"

"Yes." [Once I figure out what to say.]

The hand left his hair, sliding down to entwine fingers with Qui-Gon's. [Just say what you feel.]

"I am afraid." Qui-Gon looked at Obi-Wan, seeing the calm steady gaze fixed on him. He could feel the love and support in his heart. He was not afraid of changing that, losing it, or even disrupting it for a moment. But he was afraid of letting it go.

[And must you let it go?]

[I don't know. I must let *something* go. I do not know what it is. But--] he stopped, though he knew Obi-Wan had already heard the words. [This is not working.]

The End

To be continued in Balance