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Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 11: Consultation

Qui-Gon remained sitting there by the rail, watching the sea, until the first candles began to gutter and flicker out. Their time here was almost ended. It had been cleansing, healing, and he did not begrudge a single moment.

The Jedi Master stood, eyes still gazing unfocused out across the waves. The sea seemed to mirror the sky, countless candles like twinkling stars against the sky of dark water. It was a shame that the light had to die, succumbing at last to the effects of time and burning. Then again, Qui-Gon knew that nothing lasted forever. Each had a time allotted by the Force, lived and then ended. That was why living in the moment was so very important, for no moment lasted, and each was precious.

In a way, he mused, every sentient life was a candle shining in the dark. We are given this length of wax to burn, so much and no more. Some have brighter flames or more colorful personalities, but all are priceless and unique. I wonder how the Council would respond to this insight, if I told them that all Jedi are no more than candles against the sea?

He smiled and made his way back to the bench where Obi-Wan now slept, head lolling against the wooden slat, arms crossed loosely across his narrow chest. Qui-Gon sat next to him, still savoring the sight of the candles as the cloud of light slowly began to diminish. The barge tipped slightly as the waves swelled, and Obi-Wan body shifted bonelessly with the movement, brushing Qui-Gon’s arm momentarily, then sliding a few centimeters back. Obi-Wan sighed sleepily and hugged himself tighter, face turning away, as if his dreaming mind wanted to respect Qui-Gon’s privacy and not intrude upon his grief, just as the boy had done awake.

Qui-Gon looked at him with a slight frown. The Padawan’s arm had been chilly against his, and even now the boy shivered minutely in the depths of the ocean night. It had not occurred to him before this moment that it was getting rather cool out here, but Obi-Wan had always been more sensitive to the cold than he. The boy’s robe lay loosely around him—perhaps he had fallen asleep before the temperature began to tell.

The Master hesitated for a moment, then reached over and adjusted the folds of brown cloth around the slim body of his Padawan, drawing them close and tight. He wrapped an arm around shoulders that suddenly seemed small and slight in the circle of his broad arm and pulled the boy against his side, holding him still in the shifting of the waves. Was it his imagination, or did Obi-Wan actually seem to melt into the half-embrace, leaning more heavily against the man’s side as he realized he was welcome there?

Qui-Gon smiled gently down at the boy, wondering when he had become so important to this sour old Jedi Master who used to prefer solitude. He wondered when it became so imperative that he see that brilliant smile every day, that those blue-green eyes should light with childlike pleasure in simple joys, that the young body should be warm and sheltered and at ease as much as was possible on their often dark and hard path of life, and the pure spirit should be comfortable and happy.

He didn’t know quite how and when it had happened, but somehow those goals had become first in his heart, no matter how duty and calling demanded his full attention. It was foolish, he knew, to attach so much of his own happiness to that of another. A Jedi could not afford to depend on anything but the Force, and part of him drew away from these unaccustomed sensations, no matter how pleasant they were. But a louder, more insistent part of his spirit reveled in this newfound joy, the filling of places long cold and empty, dry with dust and crusted with the salt of old tears.

More than one kind of cleansing had occurred tonight, he realized. Yes, it had been good for them both. The past had been honored and released, making room for the future. It was good to set aside their roles as Jedi for one night and be merely a man and a boy, healing from old wounds, separate, yet together in the most fundamental way.

Qui-Gon sensed a presence and looked up, drawn out of his musings just in time to see a dim figure sit on his left side. “Greetings, Mr. President,” he said softly. “My heart is with you on this night of grief.”

Rothis Hindegar nodded gravely at the traditional salutation. “And mine is with you, on into the morrow,” he replied. “We are honored that two Jedi would take part in our small, provincial rite.”

“We were honored to be allowed to join you,” Qui-Gon said, though a part of him sorrowed at his error, that the cloak of a Jedi could not truly be set aside even for a single night. It was too much what they were, he supposed, wrapping every fiber of the being. “My apprentice and I both have suffered loss in the past few months, and this was a most beautiful and reverent way to honor that. How are you and your daughter? Amora seemed to take it very hard.”

He was prepared to press this issue, aware of Obi-Wan’s perception that something was not right with the girl, and his own instinct of a darkness clouding her presence in the Living Force. It was arrogant of them to try to step in at this late date, perhaps, but they could not pass by suffering, be it physical or emotional, while there was any chance of helping.

But the president surprised him. He heaved a deep sigh and studied the Jedi closely in the dim light. “Amora . . . Amora is not doing well, Master Jinn. It has been nearly a full year since my wife died, and Amora still grieves. I fear that something deeper is wrong. But she will not speak of it, not to me, not to her friends, not to the grief counselor I took her to a few moon-cycles ago.”

Qui-Gon nodded, his gaze shifting to the dying candles. “Obi-Wan and I have both sensed something amiss in her. I meant to say something to you.”

“You are Jedi. You have seen much of the galaxy and no doubt encountered many troubles, political and personal. Tell me, do you have any idea of what else I can do for her?”

The hope in Hindegar’s voice made Qui-Gon wish that he could give him a simple answer, clear everything with a few words. This was a good man—he suffered because he saw suffering in his daughter. Qui-Gon wanted very much to alleviate that.

Unfortunately, nothing was simple. The Jedi Master sighed. “I can only repeat what you already know. Somehow, you must convince Amora to open up and talk to you about what is troubling her.” And who am I to offer such advice? he wondered suddenly. I’ve known for some time that something is troubling my apprentice, and I’ve made no move to discover what it is. How dare I presume to counsel this man when I cannot communicate with my own teenage charge?

But the president nodded slowly, as if the Jedi offered sage wisdom instead of the obvious observation it was. “Do you have any idea of how I can go about doing that?”

“It is necessary that you have a deep relationship, that you spend time together and trust each other. She needs to feel safe and secure with you.” Even as he spoke, he wondered, evaluating his relations with his Padawan. Did they have that? “From what I have seen, you and Amora do have that. I sense only peace from her where you are concerned.”

Hindegar’s shoulders sagged. “Then what can I do differently? Something must be done.”

It was like a flare of light across Qui-Gon’s mind, the sudden realization that their two situations were different. Obi-Wan was a strong and compassionate young man, working tirelessly to act as a Jedi should, to better the lives of all around him. Amora, by contrast, had shut herself away. Perhaps that was the answer.

And once again, Obi-Wan had shown him the way. The same sort of trick that had worked on Nibbi might very well be the key to unlocking Amora’s hidden self.

Qui-Gon sat a little straighter, taking care not to disturb the boy who slept against his side. “It appears that Amora has fallen into depression. She is isolating herself, correct? There are ways to overcome such sorrow. The first step is stop the isolation. She needs to respond to others’ invitations to be a part of life. The second step would be for her to seek out such opportunities. And the third would be for her to try to help others.

“I can understand that you would not want to force Amora into anything, but perhaps there is a way we can prompt this process to begin?”

President Hindegar smiled, sitting up straighter even as the Jedi had, hope bright his eyes. “I am eager to hear your suggestions.”

X

At first Obi-Wan's dreams were strange and unsettling. The ground beneath his feet was unstable, shifting in the wind that blew frost into his bones. Broken images flashed by his mind's eye: green eyes, pale hair, rushing water, a dirty street. He felt his breath and heart quicken, and though he did not know why he was afraid and could not control his body's reactions, he was ashamed of this baseless fear.

Then the wind changed. Though it still blew against his face, it had softened and warmed. The hiss of the surf in his ears became rhythmic, deep, even comforting. Though the surface he stood on still shifted, he felt sturdy and balanced, his stance secure.

Eventually he was aware of being carried, his body unresponsive and the movement not of his own volition. Normally this would have disturbed him, but somehow it felt right and natural. He was safe. All was well with the galaxy.

Still, Obi-Wan was curious. He pushed toward a groggy awareness, though he allowed his body to remain loose and limp and did not open his eyes.

It was Qui-Gon. His master, the wise, mighty Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, was carrying him. Obi-Wan heard the deep, steady thud of the man's heart vibrating through the bones of his face, felt the warmth of the broad chest sheltering him from the ocean chill, the strong arms holding him secure against that warmth. There was even a slight scent this near to the mighty Jedi, a hint of spice that laced the sharpness of cool air in the boy's nostrils.

His first instinct was to be embarrassed. How childish, to fall asleep and force his teacher to carry him like a baby. Not the best way to go about trying to impress his stoic master, being so weak, needing to be coddled. He was just proving how useless he was as a Jedi.

But the second instinct, following so quickly and strongly on the heels of the first that it completely overwhelmed it, was to enjoy this. This felt good—no, it felt wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. This was the way a parent would carry a child, wrapped firm and close in gentle arms. While Obi-Wan did not want to be seen as a child, he could not help but revel in this new sensation.

He knew it was an illusion. Qui-Gon would never see him as anything but a student, a burden laid on him by the Force. Again the embarrassment rose, and he quelled it, and the guilt that came for doing so. Obi-Wan let his mind slide back into a deeper sleep, once again refusing to acknowledge his confused emotions. He was getting rather good at that.

This feeling of warmth and security would never be a reality. But for now, he could pretend.

Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 12: Evaluation

“I can’t go in there.”

Obi-Wan looked down at his little friend. Nibbi’s small hands were wrapped around the young Jedi's forearm, just above the wrist. They were shaking faintly, reminding Obi-Wan of the dusty wings of night-flying insects

The two boys had been standing outside the clinic for ten or fifteen minutes, just watching residents of Onorda Street pass in and out of the small, unassuming building. Obi-Wan had wanted to give the homeless child time to work up his courage, but it appeared that he had only grown more nervous. Just then a young mother walked into the clinic, cradling her five-year-old son in her arms. The gentle swelling of her abdomen indicated the reason for this visit.

“Hey, I bet that little boy will be waiting in the children’s room,” Obi-Wan said, pointing at the little family disappearing inside the double doors. “You’d have lots of fun playing with him.”

Nibbi hid his eyes against the Padawan’s upper arm. “Can’t,” he squeaked out.

Obi-Wan gently cupped the little one’s chin with his free hand and turned to face him, dropping to one knee. In this position Nibbi’s head was a bit higher than Obi-Wan’s, but he ducked his head as if to diminish and hide himself.

Obi-Wan dipped his own head to maintain eye contact. “What is it, Nibbi? What’s wrong?”

Nibbi hunched his shoulders. “I don’t belong in there. I can’t go in.”

“Of course you belong, little friend. This clinic is here just for people like you.” He paused, studying the downcast eyes and trembling lips. “Why do you think that, Nibbi?” he asked softly. “What makes you different from that other little boy?”

“I . . . ‘m dirty.”

Obi-Wan blinked. He’d forgotten—after an initial struggle to ignore the grime caking the little one’s face and hands, to see beyond that to the deserving child hidden behind the filthy vrelt, he had forgotten all about it. “Oh. Well, I suppose you are.”

He lifted his own hands, looked critically at the dirt that had transferred, the residue of sweat dried in the faint crevices that would deepen with age and harden with training. “Looks like you’ve rubbed off on me a bit.”

He meant it as a joke, but the little boy did not take it as such, and Obi-Wan’s smile vanished as Nibbi’s face seemed to fall even further. “Oh, Nibbi, it’s not that bad,” he said hastily. “It’s pretty hard to be squeaky-clean when you’re living in an alley. It just makes us look like brothers, remember? Don’t worry. Nilla is used to homeless people coming in. A little dirt won’t hurt a thing.”

“But what if . . . what if someone makes fun of me?”

The Padawan hesitated, looking at his little friend with his head tilted slightly to one side. Perhaps he was going about this the wrong way.

“Tell you what, Nibbi . . . there’s a ‘fresher just off the lobby. Why don’t we go in and clean up a little? Then you can look in the mirror and see for yourself whether you look any different than that other little boy.”

Nibbi drew a deep, doubtful breath, then nodded. Obi-Wan smiled and rose to his feet, extending a hand. His smile broadened when the little hand slipped into his without the slightest hesitation.

In the refresher, Obi-Wan wet a couple of disposable towels, and the two boys took their time washing their face and hands. The young Jedi was touched by Nibbi’s diligence and enthusiasm in this task, and a bit saddened. After a time he gently removed the now-worthless towel from the little one’s hand and again knelt to face to him.

“Did I miss anything, Nibbi?”

Nibbi looked him over with small, wrinkled brow and pursed lips. He touched the side of Obi-Wan’s face, next to his right ear, and a patch of skin on his forehead. “Here, and here.”

Obi-Wan wet another towel and handed it to him, and Nibbi obligingly scrubbed the offending spots. Then the child shyly asked the same question. His forehead was still wrinkled, but in worry now. Obi-Wan washed the spots Nibbi had missed, carefully and tenderly, praising the job he had done.

With Nibbi’s permission, he lifted the little boy in his arms to look in the mirror. Two pale, shiny-wet faces peered back at them, young and open. Curiosity shone in both pairs of eyes, rich brown and bright blue-green, as they studied themselves and each other.

Nibbi’s face was much too thin and worried for a seven-year-old, Obi-Wan noted, but he looked very different without the ever-present dirt. The difference was akin to that between a clouded sky and one that was clear and blue, lit by the sun beyond. Even better would be a smile, or one of those wonderful little giggles, but Nibbi wasn’t ready for that. Obi-Wan vowed to do his best to earn one before their time today was over.

The young Jedi also noticed scars—a long thin one across the delicate cheekbone, a thick one like a half-drawn square on the side of the jaw. A fist wearing a ring, Obi-Wan decided, feeling sick. A belt-buckle.

“My hair’s still dirty,” Nibbi said.

“I’ll bring cleanser tomorrow, and we’ll take care of it,” Obi-Wan promised. “You know what, Nibbi? You’re a nice little boy, just like the one we saw earlier.” You deserve to be happy and loved as much as any other child.

“You think so?” Hope and disbelief warred in the big, dark eyes that watched the Jedi from the mirror.

Obi-Wan nodded firmly. “I know so, little brother.”

A tiny, crooked smile, and Nibbi leaned back against Obi-Wan’s shoulder, pressing his freshly-scrubbed cheek to that of the older boy for a moment. A sharp spark of warmth pierced through Obi-Wan’s chest at the small, fleeting gesture. “You wouldn’t lie t’me?”

“Never.”

Nibbi nodded slowly. “’Kay. ‘M ready t’go in now.”

X

“We feel that we must be up front with you, Master Jedi. We are looking into joining the Republic at this time for several specific reasons, and we would appreciate your input as to whether or not the Republic will be able to assist us with these problems. Now would be a good time to speak of them, I think, in this private meeting.”

Rayel Tooks, the Sylelian Chief of Security, looked Qui-Gon frankly in the eyes as he spoke. His hands were folded in front of him on the conference table, hiding the personal communicator that the Jedi had never seen him without. His shoulders were military-straight, dark eyes piercing and commanding, even as his words spoke of supplication. It was indeed a private meeting of only three: the chief, the president, and the Jedi.

The Jedi Master nodded gravely. He had expected something like this when he noticed Tooks’ bearing sharpen when he had mentioned that his apprentice would not be joining them for the talks this afternoon. The security head obviously had something on his mind that he didn’t want to express in front of the Padawan.

“You can trust me with your concerns, as you can trust any Jedi,” Qui-Gon said.

A quicksilver smile flashed across the middle-aged human’s face. “You refer to your apprentice? I do not distrust him, far from it. But the matters we must discuss are not meant for tender ears.”

“I see.” Qui-Gon sat back slightly, folding his hands on his chest. He was mildly astonished by how quickly Tooks had picked up on his subtle defense of the boy, but more astonished at his own quick instinct to do so. One would have thought the Jedi Order itself had been disparaged. “What did you wish to discuss?”

Tooks closed his little communicator in one fist and used to his other hand to punch up a holo image on a small console set into the dark wood of the table. A model of the Sylelian system flickered into existence in the air and spun slowly: warm yellow binary suns, six planets, a small asteroid belt and a larger one. The chief’s blunt finger indicated the larger belt, between the fourth and fifth planets.

“We have heard unpleasant rumors about criminal activities occurring in this region of the system. Historically, Sylelius has wielded jurisdiction only over the planetary surface, and there is much resistance to expanding the government’s role. The people are conservative, and they dislike the idea of so much power being held by one man, even one as good as President Hindegar.”

The president’s mouth quirked, and he gave his head of security a brief nod.

Tooks nodded back, not a hint of a smile on his expressive features. “Unfortunately, this leaves the other planets of the system open to . . . undesirable opportunists, to say the least. Lately the rumors have been growing more frequent and detailed, and we fear that the activities are increasing.”

Qui-Gon sat forward, studying the hologram as if the fuzzy blue and white lines could reveal the secrets of space beyond. “What kind of activities?” he asked, though he could make a shrewd guess.

Rayel Tooks sighed, but spoke frankly and firmly. “Brothels. The illegal kind. The kind that keep slaves . . . underage slaves. We don’t want their kind here, Master Jedi. Not only are they harboring criminals from all over the galaxy, but they are also a threat to the vulnerable of this planet, our planet.”

Qui-Gon nodded grimly. He understood their desire for a private meeting now, and for Republic assistance.

“They are hiding under ancient Sylelian laws that prevent us from interfering with the rest of the system,” Hindegar said wearily, “but if we were to join the Republic, this region of space would automatically fall under Republican jurisdiction. And then you could move in and sweep the asteroid belt, with the Sylelian Constabulary Force, if need be. At least, that is our understanding of the situation. Are we correct?”

Tooks’ fist tightened around the communicator, and the faces of both men were intense, waiting.

“We’ve had a rash of unexplained kidnappings in the last few months,” the security man said quietly. “It is not good, Master Jedi.”

Please tell us you can help, his strong face pleaded silently.

“Your basic evaluation of the circumstances is accurate,” Qui-Gon said, glad that he could give the right answer to this question. “There are particulars to discuss, but that would, indeed, fall under the control of the peace-keeping arm of the Republic, perhaps even the Jedi.”

Both men relaxed almost imperceptibly in relief, and the Jedi smiled warmly, again pleased to find himself in the company of these honorable leaders. Had he grown so used to dealing with corrupt and misguided leadership, that coming in contact with noble men in power was such a sweet breath of relief? He supposed he had.

“Are there any other potential security problems you wish to discuss?”

Apparently there were, but that was the worst, and had weighed most heavily on both Tooks and Hindegar. At mid-afternoon they took a break to walk the grounds of the capitol building, refreshing their minds and spirits with sunlight and cool breezes and the sight and scent of innumerable flowers blooming in a riotous glory of color.

Again Qui-Gon meant to question President Hindegar, but did not have to. Rothis was eager to discuss his troubles with one he trusted to understand and give worthy counsel. “I talked to Amora this morning,” he began, once Tooks had walked far enough ahead to be out of casual hearing range.

Qui-Gon smiled, touched by the guarded excitement in the man’s voice and demeanor. “How did it go?”

“I’m still nominally in charge of her schooling, so I was able to pass it off as an academic assignment, this need to volunteer daily somewhere. I gave her a list of potential organizations and sites that need and can use untrained volunteers and told her she had three days to choose one. But I think I already know which she will pick.”

“Truly?” Again, Qui-Gon didn’t have to push. Hindegar was happy to share.

The president nodded cheerfully, apparently feeling much more at ease now that something was being done to help his daughter, no matter how slight and potentially risky. “I think she will choose the clinic on Onorda Street. She’ll be least likely to meet any of her friends there.”

“You’re not worried about her getting into trouble in such a seedy area?”

Hindegar quirked a smile, looking up into the tall Jedi’s face. “It’s not so bad. Ambassador Grenik is a very touchy man, I’m sure you’ve noticed. But I would have an IS squad escort her to and from wherever she chooses to go, as always.”

“You trust your Internal Security to care for Amora?”

Again the cheerful, relaxed nod. “I trust them with my life. And my daughter is my life, Master Jinn. Make no mistake about that.”

“Oh, I don’t,” Qui-Gon said softly. “That is readily apparent to anyone with eyes to see.”

Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 13: Conversation

Obi-Wan still looked much too tired, Qui-Gon decided, surreptitiously studying his apprentice as they sat eating a quiet dinner together in their rooms. For once there wasn’t an evening banquet or reception or symposium that they needed to attend, so they had a few hours just to enjoy the Sylelian culinary arts.

Maybe the boy was going through a growth spurt. Qui-Gon had heard that teenagers were often exhausted by the rapid physical changes in their bodies, and needed more sleep than most adults could fathom. Obi-Wan was a bit on the small side right now. Perhaps that was the answer. It would probably be a good idea to have him get a full physical once they returned to the Temple.

Qui-Gon was more concerned by the hidden troubles he sensed when he looked at his apprentice. The boy wasn’t shielding particularly strongly, and he saw nothing to justify this instinct that something was deeply wrong. Yet he could not dismiss it.

His words to President Hindegar about how to encourage his daughter to open up came back to him. Did Obi-Wan feel safe and secure with his master? Qui-Gon wondered. How often did they just talk? Not very.

"Did your visit at the clinic proceed well?" he asked, and had to still a grimace. Very smooth, Jinn. Could you possibly be a little more formal? Why not just turn this into a Council inquisition?

But Obi-Wan smiled pleasantly, looking up from his forkful of thick, chewy noodles in some kind of creamy sauce that they could not identify, but found very delicious. “It went well, once I got Nibbi inside. It was a bit of a struggle.”

“How so?”

Briefly, the boy explained. “I hope I said the right things,” he finished with a slight frown. “Sometimes I’m not sure. I don’t have your wisdom, Master—I wish I did. I told him that all the dirt was on the outside, but I’m not sure he understood me. Or believed me.”

“It sounds like you handled it very well, Padawan. You’ve made amazing progress with the child in only four days.”

Obi-Wan looked startled. “Is that all? It seems like so much longer . . . .”

“The days have been very full, I know.” Qui-Gon chuckled. “We have done a great deal in a short time. Perhaps now the mission will calm down a bit.”

The apprentice shrugged, turning back his food. “And how did your day go?”

See, Jinn? That’s the way you casually start a conversation. “We discussed matters of security.” He wished he could say more, share freely as the boy had done, but Tooks was right—this information should not burden the young.

Obi-Wan unconsciously drew back a little, and Qui-Gon silently rebuked himself. This had to go both ways—he could not close himself off and expect the boy to reveal everything. “Did I ever tell you, my master and I once had a run-in with a street child, too? It was not quite the same as your experience though.”

The boy looked up, eyes wide and bright, a quick smile playing on his lips. “No, Master, you never mentioned that.” Of course he hadn’t. Qui-Gon had never voluntarily shared any of his past with his Padawan before, not even these innocuous adventures from his own apprenticeship.

Qui-Gon smiled and settled back in his chair, falling easily into the story. The story of a small con-man and two gullible Jedi. “Afterward, Master Dooku always insisted that he knew all along that something wasn’t quite right, but I knew better . . . .”

It was a humorous story, with as many twists and turns and reversals as any good holo-show. Obi-Wan frowned in thought, laughed in delight, and even teased his Master for his lack of insight. Qui-Gon grinned affably and bore it, content in the easing between them, in the glow of pleasure that illuminated his young student. Talking wasn’t so very hard, after all—why hadn’t he done it before?

They cleared the dishes aside for the hotel service to pick up and meditated together, having missed their evening sessions for the past few nights. It was good to calm the mind and the spirit in tandem, to listen to the peaceful currents of their shared connection and bathe in the living power of the Force. Obi-Wan almost dropped off to sleep in the middle of it, so weary was he, but he held himself partially alert with a tenacity that impressed the older Jedi.

Still, Qui-Gon ended the meditation earlier than he might have, entirely willing for the boy to get a few extra hours abed. Obi-Wan immediately slumped out of his straight-backed pose, pressing his fingers to his eyes as if to tear away the sleep weighting them by sheer force of will. Qui-Gon touched his shoulder, and the boy looked up, chagrined.

“No shame, Padawan,” the Master said gently. “You have been unusually weary lately, but I don’t see how it could be your fault. Are you ready to sleep?”

Obi-Wan nodded slowly and struggled to his feet, swaying slightly. Qui-Gon rose with him, a supporting hand still on his shoulder.

The man frowned to himself. He would not force this issue, would not endanger the trust that was growing between them, but it was time to speak straightforwardly. “Something has been troubling you for some time, my Padawan. Will you share this burden with me? It is my duty—and my pleasure—to assist you in any matter that I can.”

Obi-Wan’s eyes sought the floor. He hesitated, but finally shook his head. “I . . . I’m sorry,” he whispered. “It—it’s not something you can resolve for me.” He looked up momentarily, his face drawn with regret. “But thank you for offering, Master.”

“Will you at least tell me what it is?” Qui-Gon pressed gently.

Again the blue-green gaze dropped to the thick carpet, dull with weariness and inner pain. “I—I’d rather not. Please?”

Qui-Gon squeezed his shoulder, breathing out a small sigh. “Very well. But know that I am always here for you.”

Obi-Wan nodded, but Qui-Gon was not sure if he truly understood. Or believed him.

X

The days passed like that, comforting in their routine, even on this far outer world on a mission that Qui-Gon soon discovered was much more complicated than they had suspected. They rose early and performed familiar katas, ate a light breakfast, attended meetings or observed in increasingly strange and distant corners of Sylelius, then had luncheon with some group or organization interested in meeting the Jedi. In the afternoon they often parted ways for a time, Obi-Wan going to Onorda Street for a few hours, Qui-Gon sitting on strategy meetings and planning sessions that disquieted him more each day.

The best part of the day, for the Master at least, were these quiet evening talks. As Obi-Wan grew accustomed to the routine, he spoke more and more freely, telling the tale of their time apart with all the vim and animation of an eager youngster. Soon Qui-Gon didn’t even have to ask how his day was—the boy began to speak spontaneously, out of the outpouring of his heart. Like another burdened person Qui-Gon knew, it seemed that he had only been waiting for someone who was willing to listen. And he had found that person in the tall Jedi Master.

“Nibbi talked to Nilla for the first time today—I mean truly talked, not just whispered hello or good-bye. Nilla started it, and at first Nibbi seemed scared, and he sat close to me, you know? But then she started calling him a pet name, and he relaxed. I don’t know, I wouldn’t have liked it, but it made him smile. ‘Nibbi-kins.’ What kind of name is that? He even told me once that ‘Nibbi’ isn’t his actual name, so that’s like a nickname already, isn’t it? But Nilla . . . Anyway, he seemed to like it. I don’t understand it, but that’s all right. Maybe he’ll keep going there after we have to leave, if he feels comfortable with Nilla. She’s really sweet, Master. I bet you would get along well. . . .”

Another day he started talking almost before they were in the room, so confused and unsettled was he by the day’s events. “Amora Hindegar was at the clinic today. She’s volunteering, too. It’s very strange, Master. I could see her sort of freeze in place when she saw me. Her eyes grew very large. But she didn’t say anything, and I didn’t have a chance. She’s working in a different part of the clinic, organizing files or some such, though Nilla said that at first she had said that she wanted to help with the children, as I am. She must have changed her mind because of me. That makes me feel good about myself. What should I do?”

Qui-Gon didn’t have any definite answers. The best thing, he strongly suspected, would be for Obi-Wan to continue being the caring, sweetly clumsy young man he was. He did not see how anyone could resist this boy’s guileless charm, least of all a hurting girl. “Be persistent, but careful,” he said at last, unsure of how to communicate this intuition, or if he even should. “You have learned much from your interactions with Nibbi. Listen to the Force, and your own heart.”

In return for these confidences, Qui-Gon told stories. Some from his apprenticeship and young knighthood, some from the creche, pranks and adventures, lessons learned and insights found. Obi-Wan listened with the same wide, bright stare as the first night, his expressive face encouraging the Master to continue.

Then they meditated, sinking deeply into the river of power. Qui-Gon led his apprentice on paths he had yet to tread, and Obi-Wan’s fresh gaze leant new power to the sight, amazing the Master anew with each journey. It was always calming and exciting, cementing their bond and sharpening their perception of each other and the Force that guided them.

At the end of every night Qui-Gon asked, very gently, “Will you tell me?”

Every night, Obi-Wan sadly shook his head.

Qui-Gon could have ordered him to reveal this burden, and every night, he had to refrain himself from doing so. Obi-Wan would have obeyed. But that was not the way Qui-Gon wanted it to happen. He knew that it would only destroy all the good done in these quiet evenings.

Obi-Wan’s weariness continued, indeed, may even have increased. Every night he staggered to bed and tumbled immediately into sleep, gathering several more hours than Qui-Gon himself needed. Yet every morning he rose bleary with fatigue, struggling to conceal his yawns, reviving only slightly as the day continued.

He was beginning to falter on the katas, missing the mark as exhaustion weighed his limbs. He did his very best, always, but his body betrayed him, and his best was less than he used to reach with barely an effort. It frustrated and shamed the boy and worried the Master. Something else had to be done, he knew, but he did not know what it was.

A full week ambled by, both too quickly and too slowly for the two Jedi. In three days they would depart from Sylelius, and they had much yet to accomplish.

Then the separate focuses of their afternoons crashed together in a single hour of horror and pain.

Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 14: Laceration

Obi-Wan left Nibbi in his box and strode toward the entrance of the alley, lifting his face as he unconsciously yearned toward the softened late-day light illuminating the street beyond. He didn’t like the dark and closeness of the alley, the feeling that the walls were leaning in, the damp mugginess and the faint scent of rotting refuse. Again the urgent need to get Nibbi out of this situation pricked him, but he shook his head, knowing that he was making progress. Tomorrow he would ask the child, once more, if he was willing to accept help.

He paused just before he reached the street, instinctively shrinking back, pressing his right shoulder to the damp wall as the Force shrieked a warning. His hand strayed to his ‘saber hilt, hidden in the folds of his tunic. Something was deeply, dangerously wrong.

Casting out with his senses, Obi-Wan felt the intense focus of Amora’s four-man guard spread across the street beyond. They were dressed in casual attire, he knew, engaging in innocent, pedestrian activities, except the one who always pasted himself firmly to Amora’s side, pretending to be her older brother. The young Jedi hadn’t even needed the Force to spot the undercover IS guards that first day he saw them—long training in the warrior’s arts had given him eyes to see that indifferent poses held muscled readiness, and unfocused glances were actually intensely aware of every nuance of their surroundings.

Amora was heading home, a few minutes later than usual—perhaps something had held her up at the clinic. Her sense in the Force was relaxed, slightly wandering, though as always it held that core of impenetrable sadness. Something was amiss with her, as Obi-Wan had known from the beginning, but she was not the source of the current threat he sensed.

The darkness at the edge of Obi-Wan’s perception drew tighter, black and opaque, a burning edge of night leaking a slow spread of poison across the day. He gasped involuntarily, a sharp inhale of dank, miasmic air that almost choked him. It was danger, hungry, thirsty, needing, lusting, and it was, it was . . .

It was heading straight for Amora.

Obi-Wan hurtled out of the alleyway, his lightsaber a shaft of pure brilliance in his hand, and flung himself between Amora and the darkening threat. Without a conscious thought, the bright blade flashed before his face to deflect the blue bolt that flew out nowhere, slinging it harmless toward the sky to disappear against the blue. But that wasn't the only one.

"Get down!" the boy screamed, but the guard next to Amora had already pulled her down to the pavement, covering her body with his own.

Amora struggled, yelling incoherently, then stilled as the guard murmured something in her ear. Two of the other guards had already been taken down, red bolts this time, smoking holes in a smooth forehead, a muscular chest, laying as still as Amora did now, but not by choice. The fourth guard crouched behind a vendor's stall, blaster in his fist, grim determination hard in mouth and eyes. The rest of the street had emptied already, Obi-Wan noted. Good.

Obi-Wan swallowed. Already the 'saber was wavering slightly in his shaky fist—so slightly that he hoped no one else could see. The exhaustion was overtaking him, as it always did about this time of day. He turned slowly to assess the area, lightsaber on guard before him, and breathed in a deep, slow breath, drawing in great, thick streams of the Force with the thin air. His fist steadied somewhat, though he could feel the weariness lurking in his bones, waiting to leap on him and drive him to ground.

Not yet. Not yet. There were five of them, two on the rooftop, one in the alley to the north, one approaching from each end of the street. Obi-Wan brushed one of their minds and encountered only a vague sense of duty—a hired gun. Another mind, and he shuddered convulsively, fingers tightening on the metal hilt. These were no political foes, seeking to kidnap the President's daughter for leverage in some fanatic cause or game of intrigue.

These were corrupt businessmen looking for prizes, high-quality merchandise to hire out to customers always greedy for a new experience, a new thrill. And they were looking for children.

More blaster bolts, firing in stuttered synchronization. Obi-Wan spun, lightsaber weaving a ribbon-dance of protection. He tried to deflect the bolts back whence they came, but was too busy flashing to meet the next to see if he succeeded.

The guard behind the stall was firing back, and the one covering Amora raised one hand to assist, though Obi-Wan could see that it was difficult from his position on the ground. He leaped and flipped from one side to the other, trying to use the lightsaber economically, moving it neither too far nor not enough, keeping it centered over Amora as much as possible.

Still he wasn't good enough, wasn't fast enough. The weariness crept from his bones to drag his limbs slowly toward the earth, like an ugly creature clinging to him, pulling him down. The guard grunted as a bolt slipped through Obi-Wan's defenses and struck the man's leg, and the Padawan could have cried in exhaustion and defeat. Not enough . . . can't hold on . . . please, please, please . . .

He didn't know what he was begging for, mind spinning too painfully even to articulate his need, except to know that he could not do this much longer. Two more deflections, heavy arms swinging the lightsaber like an axe instead of a beam of pure energy. Then he all but sobbed in relief as his plea was answered, and they began to back off. This prize carried too high a price for savvy businessmen—they left behind two dead, one on the rooftop and one on the street. Obi-Wan didn't know whether Amora's guards had accomplished this or he had done it himself with a deflected bolt, and at the moment he could not muster enough energy even to be curious. He would care later. Much later.

The Jedi apprentice sank to his knees, panting, and finally extinguished his lightsaber before it sank to the ground and rolled away from his nerveless fingers. Amora fought her way out from under the wounded guard, her face red and streaming tears. At the sight of the panting Jedi she sat heavily on the pavement, face draining of color, mouth moving silently.

Obi-Wan stared back at her, vision starting to blur and fracture. He had nothing to say.

The unwounded guard reached them, comlink already to his mouth as he called for back-up and medical assistance. Dark spots began to converge on Obi-Wan's peripheral vision and he squeezed his eyes shut, pushing them away by main force of will. He didn't have time for this. Something . . . something else, he had to do something else, protect someone else . . .

He shot to his feet, sucking in a breath as if to yell, but it escaped him in a whimper. He didn't have to go back in the alley to know. Nibbi was gone.

X

Master! Nibbi has been kidnapped!

Qui-Gon sat up straight in his tall conference chair. “Close the spaceports.”

Rayel Tooks tossed him a curious glance from across the wide, polished wooden table. “What did you say?”

“Close the spaceports!” Qui-Gon stood abruptly and fought to keep himself from pacing in agitation, holding himself still through iron control. But his fists, clenched in the folds of his robe, were quivering imperceptibly.

Tooks flipped his communicator up from where it rested in his palm, thumbing the activation button, and set it to his lips. While a distant part of Qui-Gon was gratified by the swift action, another part of him screamed that it was already too late. He could feel Obi-Wan’s fear and sorrow weeping through the bond.

They had communicated by mind before, in moments of great need, but never across such a distance. And never had he felt his Padawan so vividly, as if the boy were standing beside him at this moment. Unconsciously Qui-Gon reached out to touch him, fingers grasping only air.

President Hindegar had been hastily assuring the other members of the current council meeting that all was well, that the Jedi Master was not mad, but had received some sort of instruction from the Force. Then he stood, his gaze locked on Qui-Gon’s.

“Shall we take my speeder?”

He nodded, and they went.

Throughout the short drive to Onorda Street Qui-Gon focused on the bond, trying to send his apprentice calm and assurance. We’re on our way. Everything’s going to be all right, I swear it. I swear it, Padawan.

It was not a Jedi trait, to swear. Most lived by the creed that their word was their bond: yes was yes and no was no. But in this instance it felt like the right thing to say. Obi-Wan needed more than mere words. He needed the weight of a promise.

Gradually the Padawan’s agitation diminished, and Qui-Gon almost felt the small, shaking fingers against his. Obi-Wan knew. Somehow, without sitting on these afternoon strategy sessions, without hearing about the Sylelian asteroid belt and what happened there, somehow he had divined for what purpose his little friend had been stolen. He had every right to be afraid.

I’m coming, Obi-Wan. We’ll find him.

He felt the brush of warm air against his ear in a single whispered word. Hurry.

Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 15: Salvation

Once they reached the clinic, it was hard to say which man jumped out of the speeder first, Qui-Gon Jinn or Rothis Hindegar. The president had received a detailed com call on the way over, so they knew exactly what had happened. Amora stood against the wall, but she straightened quickly at the sight of her father. He rushed to her and snatched her to his chest in a fierce, protective embrace. She clung to him, shaking.

Obi-Wan had been pacing nervously, but turned as Qui-Gon hurried to him. The boy’s eyes were wide and stricken, but he held himself with Jedi calm, hands clasped white-knuckled over his stomach. Qui-Gon turned his head slightly as he heard Rayel Tooks descending the speeder behind them, much slower than the two who had young ones trapped in this horrid situation, but his gaze flickered away from his apprentice for only a fraction of a second before he faced him fully.

“Padawan,” Qui-Gon murmured, trying to say much, much more than a single word could ever contain, cramming it full of everything he had.

“Master.” Obi-Wan blinked. “Master, we have to hurry.”

“I know. I know. We will.”

“Master Jedi!”

Qui-Gon turned toward the brisk voice, quickly but reluctantly, his hand instinctively finding Obi-Wan’s shoulder as he pivoted. A constable with a captain’s badge stood there, snapping into a reflexive salute under the Jedi’s grim stare. Qui-Gon felt Obi-Wan straighten under his hand, pulling himself together, and gave the slender shoulder an approving squeeze.

Behind the captain, constables were pouring out of uniformly painted speeders to secure the area, and medics were heading for the wounded man on the ground. A fresh squad of IS guards surrounded the president and his daughter. The man’s arm was still tightly wrapped around the shaking girl as he spoke to the IS commander.

Qui-Gon took all this in without breaking eye contact with the constable before him. “You have news, Captain . . . ?”

“Captain Anjize, sir. All of the spaceports are secure. No ships have been allowed to take off since Chief Tooks issued his directive, and local security are preventing anyone from leaving. If you’ll come with me, we’ll go directly to the nearest port to begin a search. Chief Tooks said you would want to be personally involved.”

Qui-Gon nodded a quick affirmation and moved to follow, his hand falling from Obi-Wan’s shoulder. Then he was caught short as a young hand grabbed his sleeve, and he turned back to the boy’s earnest eyes and shaking head.

“Not the nearest spaceport, Master. The farthest.”

Qui-Gon looked at the smaller fingers entangled in the fabric over his arm, remembering another youngster who had grabbed his protector’s sleeve when he felt anxious and unsettled. For a moment the recollection almost unmanned him, and he dragged his gaze back to the strangely vulnerable face of his Padawan. Obi-Wan was doing his best to hold it in, but Qui-Gon could see. “All right. The farthest.”

He looked at Anjize, who nodded readily. Whether or not the Sylelians trusted the instincts of a thirteen-year-old boy, they would listen to the Master. And Qui-Gon had never had a reason to doubt this boy’s insight.

Obi-Wan did not seem to realize that he still held his master’s sleeve as they followed the captain to a speeder, fingers bound tightly in rough cloth, and Qui-Gon made no attempt to shake him off. If the boy needed this small, inadequate reassurance, he was welcome to it. Halfway there Tooks fell in with them as if he belonged with the Jedi, and before they got in the speeder President Hindegar held up a hand for them to wait.

Tooks halted with one foot up on the speeder, and Anjize turned back, waiting. Hindegar grabbed his daughter’s shoulders, looking her firmly in the eye. “I want you to stay in the clinic. Let Lt. Berol look after you. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

She nodded, blinking back tears. Hindegar released her and turned to Berol, issuing last minute commands. Qui-Gon saw a small middle-aged woman moving toward the girl from the direction of the clinic, and assumed that she was this “Nilla” Obi-Wan described in such glowing terms. Amora let the older woman take her arm, inclining her head slightly to listen to gentle words being murmured in her ear, and offered a hesitant nod.

Hindegar smiled, then turned to the four waiting by the speeder. “What are we waiting for?”

Obi-Wan’s fingers tightened in Qui-Gon’s sleeve, but he did not express the despairing impatience the older Jedi felt thrumming through the slight frame. “Nothing at all,” the Master said smoothly.

To the Padawan’s carefully hidden relief, no more words were needed.

X

Once they reached the spaceport on the outskirts of the far side of Reshifc, it was Obi-Wan who led the way, and the men let him. The Jedi apprentice seemed unaware of them, every iota of his being focused on a distant point they could not see, as if every molecule in his body was an iron filament straining toward magnetic north, quivering to reach it. Tooks spoke quietly on his communicator, hearing reports from the on-going searches in the other spaceports, but Qui-Gon and Hindegar held themselves in silence, watching the boy’s intense, tightly controlled search.

Obi-Wan walked with smooth, brisk strides, not a centimeter wasted, his head turning sharply but gracefully this way and that. It was the march of a soldier, the prowl of a hunter, and the rush of a frightened boy in one. Bright eyes seemed to take in everything in an instant, immediately dismissing what was of no help. The smallest movements were taut with purpose, and one purpose only.

Only Qui-Gon saw the minute tremors that possessed the strong young body, a chill breeze rippling the calm surface of a lake. He could feel Obi-Wan’s steadily worsening exhaustion, behind his politely raised shields. He could not ask the boy to stop, take a break, give himself time to rejuvenate—but he wanted to.

They walked down the row of individual docking bays, passing the spaceport guards stationed at intervals along the passage to keep anyone from trying to escape the quarantine. Truly, it was impressive how quickly and thoroughly Tooks’ orders had been carried out, Qui-Gon reflected absently. He’d seen much worse security on Core worlds.

Obi-Wan’s brisk pace faltered, and he halted outside Bay 48, his hand on his ‘saber hilt. He gave Qui-Gon a meaningful glance, unable to speak. It seemed as if the task of forming words and sending them out would take too much effort for the boy at this point, would break his closely guarded concentration.

“This one,” Qui-Gon translated quietly.

“Are you sure?” Tooks asked carefully.

“Yes.”

That was enough. The president, the security chief, and the two Jedi walked into the bay. A burly man stood outside a lowered ramp, arguing viciously with the ‘port guard, who was slowly lowering her blaster rifle to point at her antagonist. This was about to get ugly, fast.

Tooks stepped forward, jutting his chin authoritatively. “Your ship will now be searched for contraband, just like every other ship in Reshifc during the current lockdown. You are not being treated unfairly. Harassing a guard with a rifle will not make your position a micron more tenable, I assure you.”

The man hauled his bulk around to face this newcomer, florid face bulging as he prepared to burst into another tirade. Then he froze. President Hindegar himself had come to inspect this ship. Escape was no longer an option.

Qui-Gon felt his Padawan shudder beside him, felt the building tension and panic, and knew what was coming. He leapt forward and caught the desperate fist before it touched the Sylelian head of security, jerking it behind the man’s back and pulling it upward to immobilize him. He had felt the brush of this one’s slimy mind, just as his apprentice had, and knew that he was no petty thief or smuggler, but an acquisitions man with a despicable stock of trade.

The man hissed sharply as his hand was forced up between his shoulder blades, but made no other move to resist. Like most evil beings, he knew when he was beaten.

“Are there any others on board?” Qui-Gon asked in a low, dangerous voice.

The bulky head shook frantically, double-chins wobbling. Qui-Gon quickly turned his custody over to the spaceport’s guard, who had already removed her cuffs from her belt, and the four men hurried into the ship.

Again Obi-Wan led, all but running through the metal halls. Qui-Gon kept his senses sharp for more depraved minds, but suspected that most of them were still on the streets. Hopefully now, with the constabulary force alerted, any more kidnapping attempts would be foiled.

Obi-Wan reached a locked metal door and barely refrained from throwing himself against it. “Here,” he gasped out, turning pleading eyes to his master.

Qui-Gon turned to the keypad by the door, beginning to get a feel for which numbers were used frequently, but quickly lost patience with the slow process. He could feel the panicked, traumatized young minds locked in the dark beyond that door as well as his boy could. He tossed Obi-Wan a grim smile and ignited his lightsaber.

“Stand back!” Obi-Wan yelled at the door, and followed suit.

It was just a regular door, not a security bulkhead or vault, and the two glowing blades made short work of it. Obi-Wan barely had time to extinguish his ‘saber before his arms were full of a frantic, sobbing little boy.

“Obi, Obi! I thought you wouldn’t find me! I thought you wouldn’t come! Obi!”

“Nibbi!” Obi-Wan closed his arms around the little body and lifted it, and the child wrapped his legs about the Padawan’s waist and his arms about his neck, still wailing against his tunic. “I came, Nibbi. I would always come for you if you needed me.”

“I did, I did! I really did!”

The little one was rapidly falling into hysterics, but Obi-Wan rocked him and soothed him as gently as he knew how, his eyes closed in gratitude and relief. They hadn’t hurt the boy. They’d frightened and threatened him, obviously, and perhaps there had been some rough handling, but Nibbi was not too broken to receive comfort. Everything was going to be all right, eventually, just as Qui-Gon had promised.

Nibbi had been the only kidnapped child brave enough to come to the door after it was torn apart so strangely. Qui-Gon and Hindegar went in after the others, Tooks again speaking rapidly and concisely into his communicator. There were four of them, three girls and a boy, ranging in age from about five to eleven. The oldest two recognized their president, so it was not hard to convince them that all was well, and this truly was a rescue. Soon all four were standing in the hall, staring about with wide, uncomprehending stares.

Qui-Gon’s heart ached with simultaneous agony and joy. They had saved these five little ones before they suffered a fate worse than death. But how many like them had been taken in the unexplained kidnappings over the past seven months, and even before?

Hindegar seemed to guess something of his thoughts. He placed a supporting hand on the large Jedi’s shoulder, offering a sad smile. “Let’s take them back to the clinic. We can contact guardians from there, and it should be somewhat anonymous. We’ll be able to avoid some of the inevitable media attention, at least for a time.”

Qui-Gon nodded, grateful for the calm presence and sensible advice. A small, cryptic part of his heart doubted, though. This had been a relatively easy rescue. It couldn’t be real, could it? Somehow, nothing felt settled.

Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 16: Relaxation

“You look uncomfortable.”

Obi-Wan looked up, his head wobbling slightly, and stared at Amora in shell-shocked surprise, too weary to question her presence. He sat cross-legged on a couch in the lounge at the clinic, Nibbi a warm little bundle in his lap.

The child’s legs still straddled the Padawan’s waist, small hands loosely gripping his tunic, dark brown head a soft weight on Obi-Wan’s neck and shoulder. At Amora’s voice the little one made a distressed sound in his sleep, twitching in reflexive fear, and the Padawan wrapped his arms more tightly about the little frame.

“As long as Nibbi is comfortable, I’m fine.”

The corner of Amora’s mouth twitched. “No offense meant,” she half-muttered, half-apologized. She shifted from foot to foot, and he glanced away, not wanting to embarrass her further. He didn’t know what to say to her. Apparently she had the same problem.

“I brought you this.”

Obi-Wan looked up, staring at the blanket Amora held tightly in both hands. It was thick, dark blue, fuzzy, slightly worn. His confused gaze flicked to her face, and she shrugged.

“It’s from the shelter part of the clinic a level down. Nobody is there right now, except the kids Chief Tooks brought back. Not sure why you aren’t down there, too. It looks like it might be awhile until the constables can take your statement and you look really tired, so . . .”

She cut herself off with a grimace, looking slightly nauseated by her own babbling.

“Nibbi didn’t like the basement,” Obi-Wan said, though he didn’t know why he felt any need to explain his actions to her. “I think he might be a little claustrophobic—bad memories or something. He was starting to panic again, so I brought him up here. The couches aren’t as uncomfortable as they look.”

Amora nodded and wordlessly held up the blanket, asking permission with her eyes. Obi-Wan nodded, and she carefully draped it over the two boys. After a slight hesitation, she adjusted it around them, tucking warm folds of fabric between Obi-Wan’s shoulders and the back of the couch, moving it so that Nibbi’s mouth was not covered.

“Thanks,” the young Jedi said softly as she stood back, eyeing her handiwork critically.

Amora offered a halfway smile, then turned to go. Before she moved deeper into the clinic, she paused at the doorway and looked back. “Thanks,” she echoed, just as softly. Then she slipped away.

Obi-Wan rested his cheek against Nibbi’s hair. It still smelled faintly of the cleanser from the hotel, clean and gently herbal. He drifted, not sleeping but not fully alert, either, relaxed now and much warmer with the weight of the thick blanket. The murmured conversation of the guards at the outside door—a constable and an IS man—wove through his awareness but did not register. Something about the watch on the streets and the search of the spaceports, nothing else turning up . . .

He felt himself tipping slowly to the right, the ever-present weariness increasing the pull of gravity until he was no longer able to resist it. He ought to catch himself, he supposed muzzily, but could not dredge up the energy to do so, nor even to care about his inability, his weakness. All the world was this warmth, this heaviness, the pull of the earth and the murmur of the sea, this longing to succumb to the peaceful gray of sleep.

Then his shoulder caught up against something warm and solid, halting his slow downward slump. A sleepy protest—or apology—lumbered from uncooperative lips, and Obi-Wan felt a large arm circle his shoulders. A huge, warm palm covered his forehead and eyes, stilling the restless movements of eyelids struggling to open, too weak to overcome inertia.

“Shh, Padawan. All is well. You can sleep if you like.”

Obi-Wan subsided, letting his body fall back into loose-limbed submission to his weariness. He felt himself being shifted, the big hands careful and gentle, so that his back was against Qui-Gon’s side, his head sheltered in the slight dip between chest and shoulder. A long, slow sigh slid away from him, emptying him further of any need to protest.

“That’s it.” A blunt, callused thumb brushed his cheek. “Rest now. I’ll watch over you and your little friend.”

Obi-Wan tightened his grip on Nibbi, which had been slightly jostled in the maneuvering, but it was an instinctive act. He knew he was safe, and so was Nibbi. Nothing bad could ever happen to them here.

X

Qui-Gon sat with his sleeping apprentice curled against his side, gazing unseeing at a painting on the opposite wall as he pondered these new feelings and impulses surging within him. He looked down at the tousled reddish mop that rested peacefully just below his chin, at the dark little head tucked just a little lower, beneath a smaller chin. His eyes trailed across the length of his arm, which passed gently around a narrow shoulder to brace an even smaller back beneath the thick blanket, and knew that beneath the warm blue folds little hands clutched Obi-Wan’s tunic, and the young Jedi’s arms held the little body secure.

The Jedi Master’s eyes lingered on his forearm for a time, remembering young fingers that twisted desperately there. And like the dream of a dream he remembered again the tiny fingers that had clutched his Padawan’s sleeve, seeking comfort and protection.

Parallels. Qui-Gon’s gaze returned to the opposite wall. Nibbi had fallen asleep in Obi-Wan’s arms, at last feeling safe, protected by his Jedi friend. And here was Obi-Wan asleep in the circle of Qui-Gon’s arm, allowing himself finally to rest after struggling desperately to stay awake in the hours since they had rescued the children from the kidnappers’ ship.

He wondered, suddenly, if Obi-Wan might have some of the same needs as his little friend. And having made the resolution never to neglect his Padawan if he could help it, Qui-Gon wondered if he ought to be doing more to fulfill those needs.

And he wondered what they were. Wondered if this new ache in his chest, so strange and sweet, might have a companion within his Padawan.

“Why are you so weary, my apprentice?” he whispered. “What a heavy burden you must bear, to tire you so, though you are strong in body and spirit. I wish you would let me help you carry it, or take it from you altogether.”

Obi-Wan slept on. Their bond had been more vibrant and strong than ever since their extraordinary communication earlier this evening, and Qui-Gon sent a gentle probe trailing along it, faint enough that it would not the disturb the young one’s slumber. He sensed contentment and peace, the healing that sleep was beginning to accomplish for the worn young body.

Yet with this new openness, he could sense something else below that, something buried deep and constrained with a powerful control that was almost awe-inspiring in one so young. Qui-Gon could not get a sense of what it was, however, only a clear conviction that it was very strong, and growing stronger. Soon it would be too much for the Padawan to contain, even with this amazing discipline.

Qui-Gon withdrew, troubled and un-enlightened. This could not be allowed to continue. Obi-Wan was exhausting himself trying to control something that could not—and probably should not—be controlled. It was dangerous and unhealthy. If he did not share this the next time Qui-Gon asked, he would have to order him to reveal it. The Master did not want to do that, but he could not allow the youngster to continue on a course that was only going to harm him, if it hadn’t already. Even disregarding his masterly duty to care for his Padawan’s safety, a part of him just really, really disliked the idea.

He couldn’t articulate his feelings beyond that. He simply really hated the notion of Obi-Wan being hurt. In any way.

“Master Jedi?”

Qui-Gon forced his eyes to focus, and turned toward the quiet voice. “Captain Anjize.”

The constable officer still stood military-straight, though this many hours into the crisis, many were beginning to relax into the stance of soldiers under siege. Even Tooks had shed his heavy official coat and taken to reclining against the counter in the back room where the temporary communications base was set up, drinking a cup of strongly brewed tea. When Qui-Gon had realized that his presence was no longer needed for the coordination of the continued search efforts, he had quietly left to find his Padawan. Just in time, too.

“We’re ready to debrief your apprentice, and the little one there,” Anjize said quietly, his eyes gently touching the two boys curled up asleep like a basketful of pups. “We apologize for the wait. Chief Tooks wanted to take care of the children who had parents first so they could go home.”

Qui-Gon sighed. “I understand. I’d rather not disturb them—they desperately need this rest—but better to get it over with. Will it have to be done separately?”

“I’m afraid so. But they needn’t be alone during the debriefing—Miss Crolin has volunteered to sit with Nibbi, and you are welcome to join your boy.”

Miss Crolin . . . ? Ah, Nilla. She caught the Jedi’s attention with a quick step forward from where she’d been standing in the doorway, smiling tenderly at the sleeping children.

“I wish we didn’t have to wake them. Such a lovely sight they are. Too bad I don’t have a holo-camera on me.”

Qui-Gon grinned lightly, imagining Obi-Wan’s mortification if such a holo were to be taken, and he came across it later by some mischance of destiny or the Force.

Shaking off the image, he turned to gently wake his Padawan, brushing his hand over the soft, sandy-red spikes. “Obi-Wan. Up now. Just for a little while, and then you can sleep again.” He sent the lightest of nudges along their bond, lacing it with his own strength to bolster the boy’s failing resources.

Obi-Wan stirred, craning his head back against Qui-Gon’s chest as he strained to open his eyes, the lids fluttering erratically. Do I have to?

I’m sorry, Padawan. But yes, you have to. Just for a short time, young one.

The boy woke with a jerk, face flushing with embarrassment. He hadn’t realized that Qui-Gon could hear his thoughts. “Sorry, “ he mumbled.

“No need,” the Master said softly. “I wish you didn’t have to wake up, either. You’re not the only one who is entirely comfortable in this position.”

Obi-Wan seemed to realize then where he was, lounging against his master’s solid warmth. He looked up briefly, cheeks flaming yet more hotly, and struggled to sit up, putting some distance between them. Qui-Gon supported his shoulders until he rested against the back of the couch, and Obi-Wan deliberately didn’t look at him again, instead turning to wake Nibbi with the same gentle techniques Qui-Gon had used. Of course he had seen Anjize standing there and instantly understood why they were being wakened.

If it were possible, Nibbi woke even more reluctantly than his thirteen-year-old friend had. He didn’t seem to wake completely, but allowed himself to be passed into Nilla’s ready arms and quickly nuzzled his face into her throat, little arms twining trustingly about her neck. Nilla smiled tenderly down at him, running her fingers through the dark, over-long hair, and accepted the blanket Obi-Wan held out for her to wrap around the little one.

Obi-Wan wobbled a bit as he stood, and Qui-Gon was quick to rise with him and pass an arm about his shoulders. The Master looked to the captain, inclining his head slightly.

“Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Anjize nodded. “It shouldn’t take long.” He offered Obi-Wan a rueful smile. “You’ll be able to go back to sleep soon.”

But as with so many pat answers easily given, that statement turned out to be quite, quite wrong.

Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 17: Interrogation

Most Sylelians revered the Jedi. Just their luck that the one assigned to take Obi-Wan’s statement was part of the one-half of one percent who didn’t.

“Let’s go over this one more time.” The lieutenant arched one eyebrow at the drooping Padawan, leaning over the table between them with his clasped hands under his chin. “You raced out of the alleyway before a shot was fired because you knew Miss Hindegar was in danger.”

Obi-Wan nodded wearily. “I felt the danger in the Force.”

“And you led the way directly to where the kidnapped children were hidden, going across a city, through a spaceport, and into one particular room aboard one particular ship without once losing your way . . . how, again?”

Obi-Wan sat up straight at the confrontational tone, firming his shoulders and looking his questioner directly in the eye. “I knew where to go. The Force directed me. I was so tired that I could barely think, much less walk, and I just threw myself entirely over to the Force. That’s the only way I could have made it through those hours.”

“Mm hmm. I see.” The man made some notes on his datapad. “And when you were fighting the five men on the street, you simply knew where the bolts were coming from.”

“Yes.” Obi-Wan shifted in his seat, almost rocking in agitation. Qui-Gon threw him a concerned glance. “That’s how Jedi reflexes work. The Force shows us things before they happen.”

“Right.” The skeptical eyes flipped up for a second to stare at the youngster, then looked back down at the pad. “If you just know things before they happen, why didn’t you know this even earlier? Why couldn’t you have saved that homeless child before he was kidnapped?”

Obi-Wan’s shoulders slumped suddenly, and he scrubbed a hand over his face. “I—I should have known. I . . . I felt as I was leaving Nibbi that, that, I needed to get him out of that place, but I shrugged it off . . . . And, and I still might have been able to save him, if I’d fought better. If I had been faster, more in control, aimed better, maybe I could have ended it sooner, gotten back to him . . .” His voice trailed off into a low, miserable whisper. “But I didn’t.”

Qui-Gon put a hand on his shoulder. He tried to send comfort and reassurance across their bond, but it was suddenly choked and silent, closed off by the Padawan’s self-blame as he instinctively drew in on himself. Not good.

The lieutenant just looked at the young Jedi for a moment. Then he sighed and spread his hands as if in conciliation, though his eyes remained sharp. Exasperation laced his tone. “Look, kid, you’d better not be trying to play me. You knew everything beforehand because you were part of it, weren’t you? You were in on it all along.”

“Enough!” Qui-Gon jumped to his feet and leaned over the table with both hands braced on the cool surface, his face centimeters from the lieutenant’s. He was gratified to see the constable lean back a bit. “Obi-Wan told you what happened. This is a debriefing, not an interrogation. You have no right to treat him like a suspect. We are your allies in this, and I find your attitude toward a young boy who has had a very difficult day already distasteful in the extreme.”

The man sputtered something, but Qui-Gon ignored him, turning back to pull Obi-Wan to his feet. “We’re finished here.”

The boy was shaking. He followed Qui-Gon into the hallway and leaned against the wall for a moment with his eyes closed and his arms wrapped around his torso, fighting for control. Qui-Gon stood next to him, continuing to pour warmth and support through the narrowed bond.

“I’m proud of you, Obi-Wan,” he said quietly. “You acted exactly as a Jedi should. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You trusted the Force, and you saved Nibbi from a horrible life of slavery. I don’t have words to tell you just how proud I am.”

Obi-Wan’s eyes opened to slits, murky and distant. “He was right, though. If I were truly a Jedi, I would have saved Nibbi earlier.” The blue-green eyes widened, staring at the Jedi Master. “They touched him. Nibbi told me, while he was crying so hard just after we left the ship. Those . . . creatures . . . laid their hands on him, in places no one should touch. Like buyers inspecting their wares.” He shuddered. “It shouldn’t have happened.”

Qui-Gon grabbed his shoulders, pulling him away from the wall, and bent slightly to look him in the eye. “Padawan, it wasn’t your fault,” he said fiercely, willing his conviction to transfer over to the boy who shivered beneath his hands. “You did all you could. No one can do more than that.”

“But I should have—I should have . . .”

“Should have, shouldn’t have—Obi-Wan, listen to me. Look in my eyes.” He waited until the blue-green gaze met his, watery and wavering as it was. “Not even a Jedi can see every possibility, prevent every harm. Nibbi is going to survive this. He already proved that he was able to overcome past abuse and trust you, who were a stranger to him two weeks ago. Just now he attached himself to Nilla with the same childlike faith. No, it shouldn’t have happened. Nothing like this ever should. But that doesn’t mean that you are to blame any more than any other being in the universe.”

He drew in a deep breath, continuing to hold the boy’s gaze, refusing to let him look away. “By the Force, Obi-Wan, blame me for not being there. Blame Chief Tooks for not clearing this problem away earlier. Blame President Hindegar for failing to control every happenstance on this planet. Or, place the blame where it belongs—on the criminals who dared to hurt your little friend, and in so doing, hurt you as well.”

Obi-Wan winced and tore his gaze away, unable to bear the weight of his master’s eyes for another moment. His hands were wadded into trembling fists. “I . . . I’m not going to be able to sleep now,” he whispered. “Not for a while. Master . . . I need to . . . be excused, please.”

Qui-Gon released his shoulders gently, straightening to his full height again. “Very well. I saw a refresher just round that corner at the end of the hall.”

Obi-Wan nodded and walked shakily away, holding himself upright by force of will alone. Qui-Gon watched him go, feeling weary himself, as if he had just a fought a battle or run a race and still did not know the outcome. Had he won or lost?

“He’s hiding something from you.”

Qui-Gon turned to face the Sylelian woman. She stood looking at him with her head cocked to one side, Nibbi propped on one hip. The child looked more alert now, eyeing the Jedi with dark eyes both solemn and bright, tousled head still leaning on the clinic worker’s shoulder.

“I knew it the moment I saw him,” Nilla continued. “Something in that child is closed off, silent and sad. At first I thought he was being mistreated.” Humor lightened her voice. “I think I even asked him if it was an uncle.”

“Silly Nilla,” Nibbi said around a yawn, lifting his head to look at her. “Uncle Quig’d never hurt our Obi.”

Nilla laughed softly and turned her head to rub her nose against the little boy’s. “I know that now, my Nibbi-kins.”

He grinned back, then laid his head on her shoulder again, one small hand touching the warm skin of her throat as if to assure himself of her continued presence. Nilla’s sharp gaze found the Jedi again. “Something’s wrong,” she said seriously.

“I know,” Qui-Gon said, and was unsurprised to hear the waver in his voice. “I’ve known for some time, now. He won’t speak of it to me, no matter how many times I ask. I’ve just now decided that I’m going to have to order him to tell me. He’ll obey. I just hope it doesn’t destroy the trust we’ve begun to build.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “Sometimes you have to hurt in order to help.” A warm grin spread across her friendly features. “Not too often, though, we hope.”

Qui-Gon sighed, glancing at the door he had exited in as close to a fury as he’d been for many, many years. “Is Nibbi going to give his statement now?”

At the woman’s nod he drew himself together, carefully packing his concern away, though not very deeply. “I’ll sit with you. I want to make sure that lieutenant treats Nibbi kindly.”

Nilla’s forehead wrinkled inquisitively, but she accepted with grace. The lieutenant’s eyes widened slightly as the big Jedi darkened his door once more, and his questions were very gentle and non-intrusive. Still, Nibbi clutched Nilla more and more tightly as the debriefing continued, both his voice and his body trembling. Nilla held him close and murmured comforting nonsense in his ear, and the little one told his story bravely despite it all.

At one point Qui-Gon thought he felt a muffled spike of distress through the choked bond, and he jerked slightly, but decided not to intrude on his Padawan’s privacy just yet. Knowing Obi-Wan, he had probably lost what little he’d been able to eat in the past few hours. Better to let him regain his composure a bit before Qui-Gon pressed another confrontation on the exhausted boy. But it could not wait much longer. He knew that.

When the tale was told, Qui-Gon walked them to a back room, one meant for counseling sessions, and left Nilla to settle Nibbi on the couch with several blankets and a stuffed toy she had produced from somewhere. The child asked after “his Obi,” innocent face suddenly taut with concern, and before he went Qui-Gon told him gently that Obi needed some time alone, but he would be back to see him soon.

Before chasing down his apprentice, Qui-Gon made his way slowly to the kitchen room where Tooks and Hindegar still sat with cups of tea, trying to coordinate constables all over the city by means of a dozen or so communicators. They really ought to relocate to a new base, and they probably would within an hour or so, once the children were taken care of. Already parents and guardians had been contacted, and even as Qui-Gon stood there one pair arrived, frantic to see their little girl, barely listening to assurances that she was safe and unharmed.

He stood there, knowing that he was putting off finding Obi-Wan, and he shouldn’t do it much longer. He was loathe to break the fragile equilibrium they had found, loathe to demand more from a boy who had given more than anyone could rightfully expect in this long, treacherous day. But this could no longer be ignored.

Then came the urgent cry over a bond that was abruptly wide open once more, though it transmitted only pain and distress. Master! I need you!

Qui-Gon stood quickly from where he’d been leaning against the wall. Obi-Wan? What is it?

Bring President Hindegar with you! Please, Master!

I’m coming, Obi-Wan.

Without a word, he grabbed Hindegar’s elbow and hustled him out. And the president let him, after a startled glance.

It was not hard to find the Padawan. His presence was a beacon in Qui-Gon’s mind, a deceptively tiny candle-flame that shone with the power of a neutron star. He was nothing but Light, this boy, Light brimming over to spill in generous waves over everything he touched. At the moment, Obi-Wan was intensely focused on someone else, and his pain was sympathy. No, even deeper—it was empathy.

The apprentice was feeling the pain of another. It was a rare quality for one so young, and Qui-Gon marveled. But it was also dangerous—an empathetic Jedi could get lost in the constant sorrow that could be found on every planet in the galaxy. This would have to be dealt with, too, and Qui-Gon suppressed a sigh. My poor Padawan. Didn’t you have enough to contend with already?

They had entered the medical portion of the clinic. Most of it was dark and silent now, patients and personnel departed for the night. But not far ahead the Jedi and the president could see warm yellow light spilling from a half-open door.

A young boy’s voice, taut with worry, sharp with urgency, gentle with pleading. “You have to talk to somebody. You can’t keep doing this.”

A young woman’s voice, high, angry. “What makes you think you can tell me what I can and can’t do? You don’t know anything about it! You couldn’t possibly understand! There’s no way you could ever understand!”

The two men reached the door and stepped inside, but the young people didn’t even glance up. They were completely embroiled in their private battle, Amora sitting on the exam table, Obi-Wan standing beside her. Obi-Wan held Amora’s wrist in his left hand, a blood-stained cloth in his right. Hindegar’s breath caught at the sight of long cuts littering the girl’s inner forearm, perhaps a dozen of them in various stages of healing. Qui-Gon leaned heavily against the doorway, knees suddenly weak.

Obi-Wan blotted at the two new cuts near Amora’s wrist, his hand trembling delicately. “But I do understand,” he whispered. “I do.”

Fractured thoughts whirled through Qui-Gon’s mind. Obviously, when Obi-Wan went to the refresher, he had discovered Amora harming herself. The boy had been right all along. But what did he mean, that he understood how she felt? He truly did—Qui-Gon could tell. Obi-Wan understood. Qui-Gon did not, and neither did the man beside him, judging by the confused horror and pain that spun out from his presence in the Force.

“It’s like pressure building up inside you,” Obi-Wan said. His voice was very quiet and still, yet every word seemed to ring in the small exam room. “You stare at the wall, or look up at the sky, and all you feel is the pain under your skin trying to get out. It doesn’t go away. It just gets worse and worse, every day. So you think, ‘If I just had a little hole in me to let it out, that would help.’ You fight it for a long time, but one day you just get so very, very tired. You cut. And it helps. That pain is on the outside. You can see it. It has a shape and a color and a smell. It distracts you, and you think that everything will be all right now. But the pressure inside is still there. It doesn’t take long to come back.

“So you cut again. And again. It helps. But only for a little while. And it just keeps coming back.”

Carefully, he bent back to cleaning Amora’s cuts, then reached for the bacta strips set on the counter beside them. The girl stared at him with watery blue eyes, her mouth slightly open in shock and comprehension.

“Did you . . . did you ever . . .”

“No.” He glanced up, then quickly down again. “But I thought about it.”

“But you’re so young . . .”

Obi-Wan smiled mirthlessly and shook his head. “It’s not only about your mother, is it? But it’s connected to her.”

Amora drew a deep breath and nodded slowly, her eyes on the bandage the young Jedi gently wrapped around her wrist. “She was the only one who knew . . . knew about Korbin. She told me to tell Father, but I was afraid. Before she died, she made me promise to tell. But I couldn’t. And now Korbin is dead—dead on the street with a blaster bolt through his head.”

“Korbin?” The name lurched from Hindegar’s lips in a soft groan, and he stumbled forward to stand by his daughter, his shoulders bent and head bowed. “Your chief guard . . . for five years I trusted him . . . . What did he do to you, Amora?”

Her golden head drooped and she pulled her bandaged wrist from Obi-Wan’s loosened grip, hugging it to her chest. “Oh, Daddy . . . I saw him die. I thought it would die with him. But it didn’t. It’s still there!”

The last statement was almost a scream. Rothis reached out for her slowly, and when she didn’t jerk away at the first tentative touch to her shoulder, he pulled her firmly against his chest. “Oh, my darling, my darling,” he whispered, his lips against her hair. “Tell me. Please, tell me.”

The man’s actions seemed to break Qui-Gon’s shell of paralysis. He stepped forward to grab Obi-Wan’s arm, drawing him away and out of the room. As strongly as he felt that the two Hindegars needed to be alone, another urge drove him. He pulled Obi-Wan back toward the counseling section of the clinic, and the boy followed without a word, though he stumbled slightly as Qui-Gon’s haste proved too much for his weary feet.

The Jedi Master barely noticed. Another room, like the one he’d left Nibbi and Nilla in, a big, comfortable couch. He sat, dragging Obi-Wan down with him, and held the thin, shaking shoulders in his big hands, more firmly than gently. “Tell me,” he demanded softly.

“What?”

“Tell me. Please, Obi-Wan. The fact that you even thought about . . .” He trailed off with a shudder. “Please. Tell me what is causing you such dreadful pain. I can’t stand it any longer, my Padawan. Neither can you. You can’t deal with this alone. Tell me.”

Obi-Wan stared at him for a brief, trembling moment, then dropped his head into his hands.

Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 18: Revelation

“Obi-Wan? Please answer me.”

The boy uttered a muffled sound of distress and began to rock slightly where he sat. His face was still hidden in hands so tight with anxiety that the slender tendons stood out, the knuckles blanching white against the gold-hued skin. Qui-Gon realized that his grip on the Padawan’s shoulders had stiffened to the point that it was probably hurting the boy, and let go at once.

Qui-Gon reached down and pulled the rigid hands away from the pale face, folding them tightly in one of his own. Obi-Wan tried to grip back, his fingers seeming to spasm in pain and need. Qui-Gon’s other hand gently curled around a cool, sweat-damp cheek, his thumb brushing over a red mark left by those frantic fingers.

That at last, seemed to elicit a response.

“Can’t,” Obi-Wan half-gasped, half-whimpered. “Sorry, Master. Please forgive.”

Without any other idea of what to do, Qui-Gon continued to stroke the clammy cheek with his thumb, wordlessly trying to encourage that dimpled chin to tip upward, those luminescent eyes to meet his.

“Why?” he murmured. “What makes you think that you couldn’t share your burden with me, my Padawan? You can tell me anything. Why do you feel that you cannot?”

Obi-Wan gasped for air, choking on the words. “Because—I’m . . . wrong. Wrong, Master! It’s wrong inside . . . .”

He turned his head, straining away from the Master’s touch, and tried to free his hands with a convulsive jerk. Qui-Gon was not to be so easily dissuaded, though. He released Obi-Wan’s hands, but only to lean forward and envelope the young face between his broad palms. “It doesn’t matter,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter how wrong you feel, Padawan, you can always tell me. I would never turn you away. Please tell me what is causing such suffering in you, my son.”

Obi-Wan froze.

Slowly he let Qui-Gon urge his face upward, his eyes wide, features lax in shock. “Wh . . . what did you call me?”

Qui-Gon had to think about it. “I . . . I called you my son,” he said slowly, marveling, feeling the words on his tongue and lips, sensing the weight of them in the air between them.

Obi-Wan squeezed his eyes shut, a single tear coursing down his cheek to wet the Master’s fingers. Qui-Gon’s heart twinged.

“Would . . . would you rather I didn’t say that?” he asked hesitantly. “Did I hurt you?”

“No!” It was a quiet shout, an anguished wail, all the more intense for its near silence. Obi-Wan began to weep in earnest, a hoarse sob ripping from his chest. “Master . . . help me . . . I don’t know what to feel anymore . . .”

“Oh, Obi-Wan.” Qui-Gon leaned forward just a little more and folded the boy into his arms, tucking him under his chin. Obi-Wan did not resist, but actually seemed to relax a little, allowing his master to hold him. “Is that what this is about? Feelings?”

The still-tense young body seemed to flinch at the word, and Qui-Gon felt the tiny nod against his chest.

“Why can’t you tell me? Can they be so terrible?”

Again the minute twitch. “Ashamed,” Obi-Wan managed, his voice breaking. “Afraid.”

“Afraid of me, Obi-Wan?” Qui-Gon could not keep the dismay from his voice. This was like earlier, when they were walking back after the fist-fight, but ten times worse. “Why? Why would you fear me?”

Obi-Wan’s voice hitched as he fought to bury his sobs. “Because . . . about . . . you. All about . . . you.”

Well. Now they were getting somewhere. Qui-Gon only realized that he had been unconsciously rocking the boy when surprise caused him to suddenly stop, and an involuntary jerk from his apprentice urged him to start again. So the thing he had sensed buried in Obi-Wan’s psyche was a feeling about him.

Could it be that the boy was angry about those early rejections and didn’t know how to deal with it? Oh, Force, what if it truly was fear? That would be . . . terrible, to have this bright young boy fear him. Or . . . could it possibly be even worse, darker? He certainly couldn’t blame the boy, whatever it was. He had made enough mistakes in their first few months, hurt the hopeful child enough, to justify any of those.

Dread tightened Qui-Gon’s chest, and his arms about the shivering body that lay against him. “If you can’t tell me, do you think you could show me?”

Obi-Wan’s hands had been laying still, curled up and crushed between the press of their two bodies. Now they turned and twisted in Qui-Gon’s tunic, and the boy’s breath came faster, his shoulders rock-hard with tension beneath Qui-Gon’s arm. “All . . . all right.”

The bond blazed between them, bright with trust and dark with pain, the two mingled in weeping sparks of pure power. If they could purge this bond of the things that choked it, it would be incredible indeed, far stronger than any bond Qui-Gon had shared before, perhaps even than any he’d heard of in the current age.

As Obi-Wan focused entirely inward, trying to open himself as much as possible, Qui-Gon leaned back into the couch and pulled him fully into his lap, holding him as the boy had held Nibbi. It would be easier to meld this way, and would prevent any mishaps while they were unaware of their physical bodies. Obi-Wan didn’t seem to notice the shift—his head lay limply against Qui-Gon’s shoulder and neck, the tension in his body easing slightly as all of his failing energy turned inward.

Qui-Gon drew his awareness into a thin thread and carefully poured himself down the bond, ready to slow or draw back if Obi-Wan panicked at the mental invasion. But the Padawan let him in, not quite with eagerness, but at least with acceptance. He knew that this was the best—and perhaps only—way to free himself of the chains that bound his spirit.

Here, Master.

Obi-Wan led the way deeper, past surface thoughts, past memories and burdens and grief, down into deep-seated desires—desires to please, to make his teacher proud, to be a good Jedi and strong man. And here, at last, they reached the problem. This thing had been greedily sucking Obi-Wan’s strength away like a spacer guzzling a drink, weakening him, crippling him, demanding more and more as it burgeoned with the passing of every hour.

It was a box. Obi-Wan had made it himself, Qui-Gon saw—the youngster’s Force-signature shone there, inexperienced and pure. The box had begun a decent size, and had bloated since, straining against the powerful control that suppressed it. And it contained . . .

Something huge, Qui-Gon knew. Something with the ability to blow him away, out of Obi-Wan’s mind and into a netherworld of forgetfulness. It would have to be handled with great care.

Feelings, my Obi-Wan? Did no one ever teach you how to release them to the Force?

It was an irrelevant question, uttered out of a stunned awe at just how big this problem was. But Obi-Wan answered, his mental voice small and ashamed.

I—I never could figure it out. I always tried to release my emotions, especially the anger that was always tripping me up, but I never quite managed. I finally found a way to make them go away, but now I see that it wasn’t release. I was just hiding them from myself. They’re all still here.

Let me show you how, Qui-Gon said gently, trying to soothe the boy’s crushing sense of failure with warmth and acceptance. No one ever showed you, did they?

No.

The overwhelming relief flooding from the apprentice pricked the older Jedi’s heart. That something so small could make such a difference for his poor Padawan . . . No more neglect, he vowed. Obi-Wan should not suffer for lack of such simple guidance any longer.

Together then, my Obi-Wan. This is too much to deal with all at once. Release your control very gradually, do you understand? Let out only a little bit at a time. Too much could cause permanent damage, not only to your mind, but also to mine.

A shiver rocked the inward space as Obi-Wan trembled at the magnitude of this task. I . . . I understand. I’ll do my best.

That’s my Padawan. That’s my brave boy. I’ll help you. Everything will be all right.

Together they touched the chained box, held it firmly in an envelope of Force power. Carefully, slowly, Obi-Wan loosened the chains, just a fraction. He pried up the lid just enough to let out an ephemeral wisp of smoke, dark gray, shining red within.

Pain. Terrible, gut-wrenching pain. All caused by whatever else was in that box. Qui-Gon captured the wisp in a mental hand before it could expand to fill this place, immobilizing the boy. He molded it into a small, quiescent ball, holding it firmly.

Feel it, Padawan. Allow yourself to feel it. You must acknowledge and understand yourself, and this is part of you, as hard as it is.

Obi-Wan reached out and touched the ball with a mental finger, shuddering as the pain passed over and through him.

That’s it, my Obi-Wan. Now, you know what it is, and you don’t need it any longer.

Carefully, Qui-Gon breathed on the gray-red thing, changing it into a weightless puff subject to the winds and currents. And he let it go, floating away in the Force that flowed through Obi-Wan, as it flowed through everything.

These are only images to help you understand what is happening within you, just as these bodies we wear in this place are only projections, not reality. Eventually you’ll be able to feel and release your emotions with a passing thought. But for now, we will go through this process slowly, step by step, to let you get used to it.

Again that overwhelming relief, a warm shining in the boy that spread a gentle smile through Qui-Gon’s spirit. Yes, Master. Thank you. Thank you so much.

You’re welcome, my Obi-Wan. That wasn’t so very hard, was it? Let’s continue.

Shame came next, so powerful that it licked over Qui-Gon as well, turning his innards to stone and his mind to a burning, spinning spark. They dealt with it as quickly as possible. Then guilt, partially wrapped up in the shame, a deep, dark blue that wanted to sink to the floor. It took quite a lot of effort to transmute that weight, enable it to float away.

Then came questions and doubts like a horde of stinging, buzzing insects. “It’s all wrong, isn’t it?” “I’m violating the Code.” “Jedi don’t have this feeling.” “Will I ever be rid of it?” “This can’t be right.” “Why can’t I control myself?” “I’m a failure!”

For a moment both Master and Padawan were entirely occupied with simply slapping the big, dark things away before they landed and stung. Then Qui-Gon gathered in a great breath and blew them away with a powerful wave of the Force, banishing them. Obi-Wan didn’t need to feel those fully, he decided, frowning darkly. They had already done enough damage to the tender psyche.

Yet the box did not seem much diminished. Only one emotion remained, Qui-Gon knew. This was the heart of it, the feeling that had caused all the others, that had started Obi-Wan on this downward spiral and had been troubling him for weeks. It was incredibly powerful, and growing stronger every day. It could not be ignored for another heartbeat.

Obi-Wan hesitated with his hand on the latch, his heart in his eyes as he stared at his master. Another stinging doubt flickered into existence, and Qui-Gon blew it away immediately, before it could touch his Padawan.

All is well, my Obi-Wan. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it together.

Obi-Wan nodded shakily. In the physical world, his arms slipped around the Master’s neck, tightening desperately as hot tears surged and fell. He thought Qui-Gon would push him away once he saw what was within that box. Qui-Gon pressed him closer, firmly denying that fear.

Hurts.

I know. Let it go, my son. Let it go.

That was the push Obi-Wan needed. He only lifted the lid by the slightest margin, but this last emotion was too powerful to be constrained. It burst out, forever obliterating that tiny box in a flash of heat, and flooded instantly through every corner of Obi-Wan’s mind, bright and pure and blazing white.

But it did not expel Qui-Gon’s presence. It enveloped him, folding around him in liquid waves of warmth and welcome, rejoicing in the fact of his existence. Admiring him. Cherishing him.

At last Qui-Gon understood what it was, and the realization drove him gasping to his knees. It was love. Pure, blinding, complete. The love of a student for a much-respected teacher, of a child for a parent.

Of a son for a father.

Qui-Gon’s first reaction was awe. His second was humility. This boundless devotion, this depthless admiration . . . What could he have ever done to deserve this?

Oh, Obi-Wan.

Even in the ether, the blue-green eyes were watery with tears. I’m sorry, Master.

Whatever for, my Padawan?

Obi-Wan sank slowly to his knees, exhaustion creasing his features in deep, ragged lines. This wrongness in me. My failure to control my emotions. I’m sorry.

Qui-Gon shook his head in stunned disbelief. My Obi-Wan, look around you. How could something so beautiful be wrong?

Jedi aren’t supposed to . . . supposed to . . . The boy lowered his head into his hands, huddling in himself even within the shelter of his own mind with the beauty of a thousand stars gleaming around him. Can we release this, too?

No. it’s much too powerful. And it’s constantly being renewed. You would tire yourself out trying to be rid of it as much as you have trying to hide it.

I’m sorry, Master. If it were possible, the boy sank even lower, his voice a mere wisp.

Qui-Gon crept forward and wrapped himself around the boy mentally as he had physically. I’m not. I’m deeply honored. And humbled. Amazed, awed, happy to the core of my being . . . but not sorry.

Obi-Wan didn’t seem quite to hear him. That’s very kind of you to say. I know that you are a true Jedi and could never care for me as I’ve been longing you to. It’s too much to expect and I would never ask for that. I didn’t want you to know—I didn’t want to offend you. I’m sorry for that, sorry that I couldn’t . . . couldn’t . . .

Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon interrupted with infinite tenderness. The boy stilled immediately, quivering like a small, trapped animal, his face hidden against Qui-Gon’s chest. Oh, my Obi-Wan, my precious Obi-Wan. Would it shock you very much to learn that I already care for you in that way?

Even the trembling stopped as Obi-Wan froze, rigid in Qui-Gon’s arms. Silence spun out between them, fathomless, fraught with unspoken questions.

What?

That one word, barely audible, seemed to contain all of the questions, all of the boy’s hopes and fears, his darkest dreams and brightest aspirations.

I love you, Obi-Wan.

Still the stunned silence. The Padawan seemed entirely unable to move or speak.

Here, let me show you.

Qui-Gon had only allowed a corner of his mind to enter his Padawan's, to minimize the inherent risk in such an encounter. Now he took the time to deliberately widen his end of the bond, as the boy had already done, opening his mind as much as he could, lowering well-kept shields that had stood untouched for what must have been endless ages, so crusted they were with time and bitter loss. Yet they fell easily enough, once Qui-Gon put his mind to it. They had been slowly crumbling for months, the cracked, frozen blocks of stubbornness melted and perforated by the boyish warmth that had steadily beat against them.

But Obi-Wan did not move to explore the wide-open bond, perhaps still too shocked, perhaps too weary to perform even that simple mental exercise. So Qui-Gon picked him up and carried him there, with the ease of a river carrying a leaf. Qui-Gon held him secure and showed him something that had been hidden from himself, unsought and unrecognized, until the boy's revelation had made him realize what he carried in his own spirit.

It was just as deep and boundless as Obi-Wan's, though steadier, anchored, slow to develop and slow to ignite, though it had finally managed to do so. It had been building for weeks or months now, steadily and inexorably, without Qui-Gon noticing. That strange, sweet ache in his chest, the foolish, unthinking desire to shield the Padawan from all hurt, to heal even the tiniest wounds the moment they appeared—it all added up to exactly the thing Obi-Wan had been longing for with all the quiet desperation of his lonely young heart. The fathomless love of a father for a son.

You see, my Padawan? We are perfectly matched. Do not doubt the ways of the Force.

Obi-Wan responded with overwhelming relief and joy, an outpouring of love that spread a grin across Qui-Gon's face and made his heart ache at the same time. Then a sudden hitch, a hesitation, doubt rising once again. But . . . attachment . . . the Code . . .

We will discuss that more tomorrow, Qui-Gon deflected gently. But right now, my Obi-Wan, my son, you are too tired even to think clearly, as you told that lieutenant. This has been a very long and hard day for you. Sleep.

He didn't have to use a Force-suggestion. Just the mention of sleep was enough to send Obi-Wan tumbling into the restful, peaceful depths of a healing slumber. Free at last of that draining box within him, this sleep would finally begin to restore the weary boy.

Qui-Gon carefully untangled their minds, keeping the bond open between them, and left Obi-Wan to his rest, rising carefully out of the formless world of mind and spirit to blink with gritty, sleep-worn eyes. Obi-Wan slept in his arms, his damp face still pressed against the Master's neck, thin arms still twined about him. He was completely limp now, at last, every bit of tension drained away.

It took a bit of tricky maneuvering, but Qui-Gon managed to get out of his robe without moving the boy and wrapped it around his Padawan, still shivering slightly in his Sylelian garments. Obi-Wan made a small, contented noise in his sleep and nestled into the warmth, settling even closer to his master, if that were possible. Qui-Gon smiled gently down at him, firming his grip around the slight form.

Before long, he, too, was fast asleep and dreaming of pleasant things.

Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 19: Celebration

Sometimes they didn’t know if they were speaking aloud or in their heads. They were completely entwined, and perfectly content to stay that way for as long as possible. Whether they were awake or shared a dream was irrelevant. They were together, working as one to heal all the wounds, large and small, that had kept them from this wonderful haven of peace and joy before this time.

Both apologized, though the other was quick to insist that it wasn’t necessary, and both forgave, whole-heartedly and without reservation. Both wept tears of sorrow and regret, followed swiftly by tears of joy that made the first tears only a ghost of a memory, forever powerless. Both listened to the wisdom of the other, and they came together to a place of understanding, peaceful and complete.

“Love is never wrong,” Qui-Gon explained gently, the complete openness of his emotions removing any sting there might have been in this rebuke-that-wasn’t-a-rebuke. “You should not hide it. You should not fear it. It does not make you weak, or a failure, or less of a Jedi or a person. It makes you stronger. It makes you more.”

Obi-Wan rested in the warm outpour of his master’s unveiled spirit, utterly content. “I see that now. I feel a little foolish for thinking otherwise. Thank you for showing me a better way. I guess I was just so focused on following the Code, on never making another mistake ever, that I did not pause to consider the other wisdom I’ve learned. I let my fear guide me, and that was wrong.”

“But perfectly understandable.” If it were possible, the affection streaming from Qui-Gon to his apprentice increased in warmth and intensity. “I see now that you don’t need the criticism of the Council. You are hard enough on yourself for a dozen oversight commitees. I wish you wouldn’t judge yourself so harshly—you don’t deserve it.” Humor lightened his tone. “Please stop trying to correct yourself, my dear Padawan. I’m going to feel quite useless and superfluous if you don’t need a Master to help guide you.”

“Oh, I will always need you, Master. Never fear on that account.”

“And I will always be here for you. Never hesitate to bring your troubles to me in the future. Are we agreed?”

A soft, happy sigh. “We are agreed.”

They talked more about the Code, about how attachment and unconditional love were two different things. The first held the shades of greed and jealousy, and the fear of loss, which was a path to dark side. A Jedi was encouraged to feel compassion, deep caring for all who lived, but he must be ready to let go at any time, for life and the Force were unpredictable, and grief could easily lead to anger and darkness. It was not merely a rule, just another line in a dusty set of them, but a necessity for those who lived by the light side.

One day I will die, my Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon said very gently, softening the blow of these hard words with a tender kiss to the boy’s forehead, now wrinkled in pain as he considered this inevitability. You must be ready for that. Of course you will be sad, of course you will grieve, but it must not stop you from living. You will have to remember that I am one with the Force, and that your sadness is not for me, but for yourself. And then you will let that go and continue as the wonderful Jedi I know you will be, for you will be as selfless then as you are now. Do not fear death. It is only another step into a larger world.

I . . . I understand. Obi-Wan drew in a deep breath, felt Qui-Gon’s ghosting through his hair. But now, you are here, and for a long time to come, I hope. Can we think about death later?

Qui-Gon’s chuckle rumbled deep in his chest, vibrating in Obi-Wan’s ear. Ah, I do believe that my apprentice is asking me to focus on the moment, live in the here and now. How can I refuse such wise advice?

He let the subject drop, knowing they would come back to it eventually. For now, the moment was too sweet to spoil with such gloomy foresight. Time enough for hard truths when the boy was rested and well, not beaten down as he was by weeks of unending strain.

For now, Qui-Gon was perfectly happy simply to aid in the healing of his Padawan’s exhausted spirit and mind. It was not a difficult task. Rather pleasant for both parties involved, actually. Qui-Gon had once loved another as a son, but that one had not returned his feelings with such immense joy, such innocent, unabashed freedom. It was a new sensation, this childlike love that poured into him. Words did not exist to describe how much he enjoyed it, how it continually astonished and humbled and exalted him, how the light of it in his once cold and dim spirit was like that of the Force itself, though infinitely more personal, carrying the unique flavor and scent that was this bright young Jedi who had earned a place in his soul.

Then again, perhaps Obi-Wan was not the only one being healed by this time of intimate connection and sharing.

They talked, they sat in silence, they slept, they reveled in this newborn closeness. The bond had been purged, and it was as strong as Qui-Gon had suspected it would be. It was amazing. Everything was.

X

“Obi?”

Qui-Gon half-opened one eye, barely enough to see dimly by the faint light entering from the corridor. Nibbi stood just inside the doorway, hugging a stuffed bantha to his chest and dragging a blanket behind him. His eyes seemed even wider than usual, probably because of the unusual sight of two Jedi sleeping on a couch, slumped upright and wrapped in a single robe.

Obi-Wan stirred against the Master’s chest, hauling himself out of sleep to respond to his little friend. Qui-Gon felt no need to move at all. He was entirely comfortable just as he was, thank you kindly. Obi-Wan finally managed to lift his head slightly, though.

“Mmph. Yeah, Nibbi? ‘M here. D’you need me? What ‘z it?”

“I just wondered where you were,” Nibbi said meekly, slowly making his way closer to the couch with the blanket trailing behind him.

“Well, here I am.” Obi-Wan stifled a yawn against his palm and turned slightly to lift a corner of the robe, waving a hand for the child to join them on the couch. Nibbi hurried the rest of the way and clambered up next to his friend, hauling the blanket and bantha with him.

The little one stood on the thick cushion beside them, peering closely into the Jedi’s faces. “Were you cryin’, Obi?” he asked in a sympathetic hush. Qui-Gon felt a small hand brush his cheek, tracing the path of dried tears, and knew that the same little fingers had just touched his Padawan’s face. “I told Nilla that Uncle Quig’d never hurt you. Did I do a fib? Huh?”

Obi-Wan shifted uncomfortably, jabbing an elbow gently into Qui-Gon’s stomach. The Master didn’t react.

“It was happy crying, Nibbi,” the boy said hesitantly. “You understand what happy crying is, don’t you?”

“Oh, sure.” The child leaned confidently against them, half on Obi-Wan and half on Qui-Gon. “That’s what I woulda done if my real mama and papa’d ever come and taken me back from that foster home.”

“That’s right. And you know . . . uh . . .” Obi-Wan lowered his voice to a bare whisper. “Quig isn’t really my uncle.”

“Oh, I knew that, Obi. He’s more like your papa, isn’t he? ‘Sall right. You’re Jedi. You don’t hafta tell me everything.”

“I’d like to, though.”

Nibbi sat down beside them, wriggling down into a comfortable position and pulling his blanket over himself. Obi-Wan reached over to share the robe, and pulled the blanket over Qui-Gon and himself so that all three were encased in a double layer of warmth. A bit sluggishly, Qui-Gon drew his arm back and wrapped it around the little boy, pulling him against his side and Obi-Wan’s leg.

“’Sokay, Uncle Quig,” Nibbi whispered loudly. “You c’n go back to sleep now. ‘M fine.”

“Very well, little one,” Qui-Gon whispered back, and let his one half-open eye slide shut again.

He heard the boys whispering a bit more, felt the jostling as they squirmed until they were comfortable, now with one of Obi-Wan’s arms around Nibbi as well. Obi-Wan told his little friend their true names—though Qui-Gon suspected that Nibbi would always call them by the ones he’d first learned—and explained something of their purpose here.

Nibbi asked a few questions, like any child interested in the famous order of warriors and diplomats, and Obi-Wan answered in as much detail as he could, his voice slurring as weariness returned. But it was natural now, the ordinary reaction of a youngster trying to keep himself awake far past a decent hour. That worrisome exhaustion was finally defeated, and Obi-Wan was fast regaining his equilibrium. Eventually the boys stilled and quieted, breath evening out, and Qui-Gon knew they were asleep.

Qui-Gon opened his eyes, just for moment, to gaze down at the two children who slept so easily and trustingly against him. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. But this joy seemed too deep for a smile, somehow. Too deep for words, for petty little phrases and gestures. This was the kind of joy that tumbled mountains, that moved oceans, that ignited stars. He could not quite explain why he believed there to be such power in this, but he knew it was there.

A figure stirred in the doorway at the corner of his vision, and he sleepily turned to look. Nilla stood there, leaning on the jamb with her arms folded over her stomach. “Oh, where is my holo-camera?” she murmured loud enough for Qui-Gon to hear, then walked away.

Qui-Gon closed his eyes and slept once more. Soon enough the waking world would demand the attention and assistance of the Jedi. They would enjoy this interlude of quiet for as long as they could.

Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 20: Embarkation

“No, I don’t wanna stay here ever again,” Nibbi murmured.

They stood in that dank alley a couple of blocks from the clinic, staring at the little box that had been Nibbi’s home for far too long. The box was empty, the top broken in, and the Jedi robe was gone, no doubt stolen during the street vrelt’s absence. Obi-Wan had his arm wrapped around the child’s shoulders, and he gave them a squeeze, offering wordless encouragement.

“I felt safe here for a long time,” Nibbi said, looking up into the Jedi’s face with wide dark eyes. “No one bothered me here, ‘specially after you fought Tronak for me. But then those men came and dragged me out . . .”

Obi-Wan felt an echo of that memory, the terror and confusion, the rough hands grabbing slim arms and legs with bruising force, heard an echo of the child’s scream instantly cut off by a callused palm that almost suffocated him. He shuddered as the little boy shuddered. Nibbi’s arms slipped around the Padawan’s waist, tightening convulsively.

“Let’s get outta here, I don’t wanna stay here . . .”

They hurried out of the alley, Obi-Wan fighting the urge to simply pick up his little friend and carry him. This return had been by Nibbi’s request, and Obi-Wan understood the need to look back, to understand what had happened. But he was just as glad that the boy didn’t want to stay. He didn’t have any good memories from that place, either.

“Where ‘m I gonna go now?” Nibbi whispered. He didn’t seem to be asking anyone in particular, his gaze far away.

Obi-Wan gently untangled their arms and knelt on one knee to face the little one, completely serious. “Nilla will find you a good home. Will you let her help you? You know she would never do anything to hurt you, or put you with anyone who would.”

Nibbi took a couple of deep, shaky breaths, blinking rapidly, then nodded slightly, just once. He lunged forward to wrap his arms around the young Jedi’s neck, trembling. “’M scared, Obi. Really scared.”

“Of course you are,” Obi-Wan said gently, rocking the child in his arms. “Big changes are always scary. But this is for the better, Nibbi. I know that truly—the Force tells me so. Do you believe me?”

Nibbi nodded against the older boy’s neck, his grip loosening not at all. “I b’lieve you. You’re a great Jedi, and you’d never lie t’me.”

“That’s right. That’s right.”

Nilla was waiting for their return to the clinic, her face opening in relief when the two boys came back in the double doors. While Nibbi chattered out the story of why they had needed to leave, she picked the little boy up and set him on her reception desk, offering him a lolly from the jar she kept by her datapad. He sucked it, legs swinging, and solemnly requested that she find him a good home.

The woman agreed, just as solemnly, then grinned widely, her entire face shining. “I have the flimsies right here.” She picked up the small pile setting on the desk next to the child. “We’ll go through it together, make sure you agree to all of it, all right? Now, first off, I need you to tell me your full name.”

Nibbi made a sour face, despite the stickiness beginning to spread over his cheeks from the lolly. “Renibferth Delancrox.”

“Ah.” Nilla nodded gravely, writing the information with a stylus. “I can see why you prefer ‘Nibbi.’”

Obi-Wan hid his mouth behind his hand, stifling a squeak of laughter. Now he understood why the little one liked nicknames.

“Now, here, the names of your new foster family,” Nilla continued, tapping the flimsy thoughtfully with her stylus. She wrote something, then held it up for Nibbi to see. “How does that look to you?”

Nibbi took a few moments to work it out, his lips moving soundlessly as he processed the syllables. Then his eyes widened, bright with joy. He turned to the clinic worker with a huge grin and threw his arms around her, sending the flimsies flying. “It looks great!”

Nilla hugged him back gently, eyes sparkling, apparently unaware of the lolly that was now stuck in her hair. “I think it’s wonderful, too.”

Obi-Wan picked up the flimsies and looked for the name, curiosity all but eating him alive. Ah. Riger and Nilla Crolin. Yes, the young Jedi found it perfectly wonderful, as well.

“I’ll be your Nibbi-kins for a long time, right?” Nibbi’s question was muffled against the woman’s shoulder.

“Oh, a very long time indeed,” Nilla said. “Even after we find the perfect family to adopt you, you’ll still be my Nibbi-kins. How does forever sound?”

The little one sighed happily. “Just fine.”

They had to depart for the refresher to get the lolly out of Nilla’s hair. Obi-Wan leaned against the desk, whistling an old tune, utterly content. Nibbi was going to be all right. He carried wounds that would scar as they healed, but at least the healing would come. Obi-Wan had managed to accomplish some good, even if it wasn’t enough.

“Obi-Wan?”

He looked up, surprised and pleased. It was the first time she had used his name. It sounded nice. “Hello, Miss Hindegar.”

She smiled, cautiously moving closer. It was a genuine smile, a true expression of greeting, gratitude, even . . . fondness? He’d never seen such from her. That was nice, too.

“I . . . I wanted to thank you, Obi-Wan. You were right. Everything you said was exactly right. You saved my life twice, yesterday. Maybe three times.”

Obi-Wan flushed, his gaze dropping to the floor. “You’re very welcome. I . . . I hope things go well for you.”

“They’re starting to.” Amora’s voice was very near, now. He could see the edge of her colorful skirt in the corner of his vision, still fixed on the floor. “I’m starting to understand. Korbin . . . what he did . . .”

“You don’t have to tell me.” Obi-Wan looked up quickly, earnestly, to meet her gaze. “I know it’s hard. You don’t owe me a thing.”

“You deserve to know, though.” She drew in a deep breath. “My father was elected president of Sylelius when I was twelve, and Korbin was the IS commander in charge of my safety. He used that position of authority against me, using me for his own gratification, for about a year . . . it gets a little fuzzy in my memory. But it hasn’t gone away, not at all.”

She paused. Obi-Wan wondered if she was done now. He meant what he’d said—she owed him no explanations. But he was willing to listen to whatever she had to say.

Amora looked him in the eye. “I’m sorry for the way I’ve treated you these past couple of weeks—you were just trying to be a friend, but I wanted nothing to do with you. I’m sure I hurt your feelings. It wasn’t you, truly. I was reacting to the idea of any boy showing interest in me. It’s been my pattern for years, and only now have I come to understand why.” Her mouth quirked in a smile. “You learn a lot in that first counseling session—rather exhausting, it was.”

He smiled back, rather sadly. “You’ll be all right. Your father loves you a lot. He’ll help you.”

“I know.” Amora hesitated for a moment, biting her lip. Then she grabbed the astonished Padawan in a fierce embrace, much as her father had done with her. It seemed to be a Hindegar trait. “You’re amazing, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” she whispered against his ear. “I just wanted you to know.”

Obi-Wan felt his cheeks flaming as he nervously returned the hug. “Not so much,” he squeaked out, not entirely in control of his mouth.

She rocked him slightly, then pulled back, holding his shoulders. “Yes, you are,” she insisted, her blue eyes earnest. “I think everyone knows it but you.”

As seemed to be the general state of affairs around this brilliant young woman, Obi-Wan had no idea of what else he could say.

X

“Master, may I go for a walk?”

Qui-Gon looked up, a small grin tugging at his mouth. “Outside?”

Obi-Wan’s laughter sparkled in the small cabin, bright and childlike. “Yes, Master,” he said, grinning. “Outside, please.”

“Will you stay within six blocks?”

“The clinic is only three blocks away, so that would be a yes.”

Qui-Gon looked through the hatchway to the cockpit, catching the attention of the small transport’s pilot. “How long do we have?”

“Twenty-five minutes, Master Jinn.”

“Can you be back in twenty-five minutes, Padawan?”

“Yes, Master. I just want to say good-bye to Nibbi.”

“I suspected as much. Go on, then.” He aimed a playful swat at the boy as he swung down the ramp, purposefully missing. Again Obi-Wan’s laughter trailed behind as he jogged out of the docking bay.

Qui-Gon watched him go, his broad grin fading to a soft smile. After a moment he moved into the cockpit and sat in the co-pilot’s chair, gazing out the windscreen, seeing beyond. The bond was brilliant almost past the bearing now, strong and open and pure. Neither of them had bothered to shield at all in the past three days.

Perhaps eventually they would tire of this ceaseless sharing. It was exhausting, and could be a bit disconcerting, to feel another so completely. Eventually one of them would feel the need to draw back a little, and the other would accept that need. It was part of maintaining long-term relationships, the desire for privacy and introspection. Nothing lasted forever.

But for now, the moment they lived in required only giving and acceptance. It was entirely pleasant. Qui-Gon would enjoy this for as long as possible.

They had said most of their good-byes to their Sylelian friends. There had been several luncheons and banquets, a few more meetings, and a number of ferocious Hindegar hugs. Now Obi-Wan made his last farewell, the hardest of the lot. Qui-Gon almost felt that he was there.

You won’t forget me, will you, Obi?

I could never forget you, little brother.

Yeah, I figured you’d say that. I’ll miss you, though.

I’ll miss you, too. Let me know how it’s going. You have my holo-comm frequency, right?

Yeah, I think you wrote it down ‘bout five or six times . . .

Qui-Gon smiled and closed his eyes, just watching the bright beacon in his mind as the boy left the clinic and began to head back to the ship. Deceptively small, but so very bright, indomitable and beautiful. Like a candle against the sea . . .

(End)

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