Stolen On the Wind

A Vignette by LuvEwan

PG

Disclaimer: Nothing belongs to me.

This is based on a plot bunny devised by the evil Athena Leigh . I didn't want to do it, because I obviously have others to work on, but it was just toooooo tempting. So thank you. It was a beautiful idea, but very difficult to get down on paper. I know I didn't do it justice, but it was a nice experience.

A pivotal event plays out a bit differently in the lives of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, that proves to test the limits of forgiveness. Partial AU.

Main Characters: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn

The leaves fell first.

It wasn't the wind that drew them from the branches, to drift in almost pearlescent scraps of emerald to the ground. No, the air stirred up afterward, and sent them in spirals, a brief reprise, only to drop back to the grasses again.

By then, the waxy green was mottled, rotten black.

For the outcroppings of the Teaplisi tree were completely dependent on the wood to which they were joined. Once plucked, their tiny, delicate systems went into a frenzy, and shriveled to their death. If some cruel assailant didn't interfere, their fate remained the same. The leaves would detach, at a time imbedded in their verdant little veins, and suffer the quick effects of their separation.

The leaves fell first, and then the wind came, perhaps in nature's attempt to boost them up to their intended place once more…or, maybe, it was but a surprised gasp. In either case, no one could explain what brought the breezes.

Obi-Wan Kenobi was only thirteen years old, so he supposed his guess wasn't quite as good as any. But, he was pretty certain what jumpstarted the massive suicide of this Teaplisi's shroud. As soon as he settled himself against the trunk, he saw the first leaf rebel, rocking downward, ends already tingeing with shadow.

Thirteen?

He sat up in a skull-wracking burst, the diluted landscape of the forest replaced by open space and heavy blankets. Obi-Wan eased back on his elbows once the jolt from dream to awareness gave way to clarity. Thirteen? He blinked and wiped his eyes. Now where the hells did THAT come from?

His room was painted in midnight, and even with Force-enhanced vision, he could barely make out the objects littering the darkness around him. It stood as a perfect canvas, on which anything could be vividly depicted, to emerge from the black blur. Ghosts sprung from such fertile soils. A decidedly non-Jedi-like thought, but some things gleaned plausibility when the moon was still high and fresh nightmares pulsed behind the eyes.

He blinked in the pall as the scattered pieces floated into their original composition, and the full remembrance slammed against him. Beyond the dark leaves on the whirlwinds, before he sat beneath the skeleton of the Teaplisi.

It was THE moment. The event that divided his life, labeling the 'before' and 'after', sanity and madness, heaven and the hottest circles of hell. The thickness that so often rose in his throat. The tightness that bound his bones and stole his breath.

The ultimate terror of his dreams.

Obi-Wan laid flat on his back and pressed a finger over his eyes to prevent the next stage of this familiar cycle. He always found it strange that his mind chose to replay the aftermath, that afternoon of emptiness and full heartbreak, instead of the instigator of it all. But it didn't matter, really. In cognizance, he always supplied that.

When he was sure the moisture was sealed, the young man slowly opened his eyes, felt them sting.

"You don't deserve the tears, Obi-Wan."

His world was suddenly balanced on a spindle, and turned at a dizzying clip, while he remained unmoving at the nexus, frozen. He stared at that face, lines drawn in contempt, lips curled in a snarl. His heart seized up. "No." He whispered into the void of his chamber. "I don't."

And he knew it. It was blazed into the forefront of his mind, the rasping little echo that was there to remind him he was not worthy of the release. There was never a slip. Not that first day, not when the ash was carried on the wind. And never, never when he woke from the nightmare.

He was without consolation, even in those lapses, when his weakness conjured the fantasy that the pillows and sheets he burrowed in were the warm circle of an embrace. Because he was constantly aware that it was only a product of his imagination, and the warmth of the blankets had been leeched from his body. He was alone. And when a room was jammed with lifeforms, his friends-his teachers, he stood in the cordon of that immortal moment.

It was his punishment. He accepted it, knowing that the crime outweighed the burden he bore. A very slight burden, when he thought about it. He didn't deserve the tears--no, he didn't deserve this place, the honor of a Jedi title, the plaited strands that brushed against his ear and coiled at his neck.

He was a thief. And everyone, everyone, knew it. The words trembled at each mouth, but no one had said it outright-yet. But perhaps that was another level of torment he was meant to receive, the grind of silence, spread out over the years. How many was it now? He could dwindle it to a heartbeat, a sound he recognized, as it pounded away in the silence. His own meter of life, the bittersweet cadence of his own time. A solitary sound.

He felt himself pull the sheets away, and his feet landed on the carpet, toes curling in. Mostly his room was his cell, and he preferred it to the world outside the closed blinds and low ceiling. Sometimes, he wondered if it had always been so near to the ground, or if perhaps his spirit had sucked in the quarters, and were gradually twisting them into dilapidation.

But that could be fixed, when so many other things couldn't. He wouldn't worry about that. Indeed, not with all the shadows that had long before taken precedence in his thoughts.

Obi-Wan slipped into the comforting dimensions of his robe, waiting for the sleeves to fall over his fingers before he moved to the door. He pent-up a breath as the customary panic jagged, and that lonely rhythm pushed to a fury inside him.

Calmly, he shut his eyes, and envisioned deserted rooms and hallways, through which he could pass undetected, never having to stop and force conversation, or meet sapphire eyes that would, so painfully and brutally, want to know.

What was he doing? Where was he going?

And it wasn't the questions he needed to avoid. It was the tone. Without mirth. Without care. A machine spurred to speech by some programmed trigger. Obi-Wan had heard the shrieks of agony more than he could count in his life. But he would rather be locked away in a vortex of ceaseless death-cries than listen to that voice.

So he was careful, ensuring slumber possessed that voice, and stalked from his room, an apparition among the black. The Temple lights were dimmed, and his footsteps resounded in the corridors.

Step, step. Perfectly spaced, like the beats that reverberated in his chest.

And then faster, as he ran, the tail of his cloak flapping.

Then he was there.

He could no longer smell the flowers. He couldn't be sure if it was simply because his senses were so accustomed to the aroma, after his visits had begun to grow to their present frequency. Or, if it was another small facet of his life, diminished, victim to the Void.

Yet, he could still see them, and he clung to that as he would a single star in the pitch sky. Obi-Wan walked through the Gardens, arms crossed and pressed to his chest. The trees, the ivy, the thousands of blossoms vibrated in the Force with sweet simplicity. When he dared reach out and rub his thumb along a petal, or a leaf, he could feel a ripple of their presence. And, for that fleeting instance, the voices retreated.

He wandered through the trails, stopping when a dewy cluster caught his attention, or his robe snagged on a branch. Other than that, he moved without thought. He wanted to live in that trance. Maybe his Master would be proud--for that would be the ultimate definition of living in the moment. No tomorrow.

No yesterday.

A shaft of ache swept through him, and Obi-Wan paused under a willowy canopy, shoving his fingers over his eyes.

It was then that he realized, with a horrible shudder, that he wasn't alone.

Someone was here, a fellow night dweller, traipsing through the flora. Someone Obi-Wan never expected. Someone that the young man had-mistakenly-dismissed as deep in sleep.

Qui-Gon Jinn was in the Gardens. Worse, he was only about a hundred feet away from his stalled and stricken student.

There were approximately a million potential escape plans that flitted through his mind. He could wait for the other Jedi to tire of the scenery and leave. I could run. Very quickly. To a transport heading for Malastaire.

He was taken aback by the sliver of humor-it wasn't familiar to him anymore.

In the deliberation that took barely three seconds, he decided he would do his best to dampen his proximity in the Force, and head, with exaggerated caution, to the apartment.

Qui-Gon's back was turned to him, leaned against a bench, broad shoulders squared, chestnut mane gleaming against the faint lights. Obi-Wan was halted by the image. His Master. Teacher. Mentor.

He wished there were more to their relationship, but Obi-Wan could count on one hand the friends he could honestly claim…and Qui-Gon was not among them. He could rationalize it, before the pain clutched him up. Qui-Gon wasn't his friend because he didn't want him to be. For his Master, it would be a betrayal. For Obi-Wan, it would be a gift he was unworthy of receiving.

And he couldn't bear another.

He pursed his lips and took a steady breath. Alright. Just back away. He won't notice. He WON'T notice…

"Obi-Wan."

Never did he hate his name so much, as he did when his Master spoke it. It was like the man adding salt, grain by grain, syllable by syllable, to his own wounds.

Dutifully, Obi-Wan stepped forward, even when the rest of him screeched to abandon obedience, and rush out into the night, away from the accusation, away from the pale thinness of their bond.

He walked the pebbled path as though he were approaching a cliff, and a sea of pointed boulders after the plunge.

At least that would have been less uncomfortable.

"Obi-Wan."

He silently cursed himself for dawdling, and hurried to stand behind Qui-Gon, a body span away. "Master?" His voice was unintentionally harsh, from lack of use. He cleared his throat.

Qui-Gon started to turn…

And the abject misery scrawled on that proud face nearly brought Obi-Wan to his knees. He had not spoken, merely took a step closer to the banked flame of the cooling funeral pyre, but his Master had sensed him.

Obi-Wan swallowed, but still, words were a foreign notion. How did one speak to the surviving victim of their incredible selfishness and stupidity, let alone apologize?

I'm sorry. It was all he could think, but more than he could say. And totally inadequate. Obi-Wan stared at Qui-Gon, wrapped in his dark cloak, posture bowed, tears dried on his rough cheeks. I've ruined his life. His eyes widened within himself, within his heart. I killed her…and I'll kill him too. It'll just take longer.

Qui-Gon Jinn was staring at him, with his shadow-ringed gaze. Looking at him. Nothing else. Obi-Wan couldn't gauge his feelings, beneath that mournful exterior. Their connection was stifled, unsurprisingly.

A lingering spark crackled in the background, and the boy flinched, dampness finally pooling in his eyes. Everything blurred. The ash that had once been a talented and beloved woman. The lilies encircling the pyre.

Obi-Wan blinked, and as he did so, he heard it.

"You don't deserve the tears, Obi-Wan."

And when he opened his eyes, he was alone. He thought he would be beaten down under a barrage of screams-or fists. He had prepared himself for that.

He wasn't prepared for this, standing here, the air rich with death.

He wouldn't try to tell her how mortified he was, how he would impale himself on his own blade, if only it would bring her back, how, in the crazy, distorted moments after that day, he thought he would do it, even if it couldn't grant her resurrection…

He wouldn't further terrorize either of them. He loved them. Or at least, the closest version of love possible. He couldn't truly love two people, and then tear their world apart.

Obi-Wan knew he had cared for Qui-Gon and Tahl more than anyone in the Universe.

And this is what I've done to them.

So it was plainly evident he was incapable of love, of emotion that deep and pure, selfless.

What kind of creature functioned in that bland, disgusting state? What sort of demon would reduce a quick-witted, intelligent, compassionate woman to a mound of ash and smoke? And then have the audacity to stay in place, beside the man who had adored-and lost-her?

The Temple was buried in sorrow. Masters, Knights, Padawans and crechelings shuffled from the main building to the pyre, arms entwined, expressions severe.

And Bant. She'd been there, too, off in a corner, her braid clutched in quivering fingers. The flames had reflected in her wide, welling eyes. The fire…it was everywhere.

Later, when he tried to sleep, huddled in his bed, it sizzled and licked around him, the stench clogging his senses and filling his mind.

It would never leave him. It would never forget what he'd done.

And the years contained a sharp memory as well. Mornings would glow as embers, so he kept the window covers staunchly closed, and slept as long as schedule and his nightmares would allow. His Master woke early and went to bed late. Two of the day's three meals, they ate together, but it was a cacophonic symphony of clicking utensils and soft swallows. Rarely did conversation intrude on the silence.

Obi-Wan's training was on track, in that he passed the exams he was required to pass, and mastered every form of battle and kata he was presented. He never failed, because he didn't want his Master to fail.

The man had sacrificed so much for him--and Obi-Wan had done enough to hurt him. He wouldn't do it again. He would die first. He would die…a fate that was not entirely unsavory to him. But he would do it the right way. Once his Master's job was done, the final bead woven, the last Trial championed.

Then he would be free. His Master's chains would unlock, at last.

It wouldn't be long now.

He stood behind Qui-Gon, head down, waiting to be addressed.

A sigh fell away from the man. "Padawan,

"Come sit with me."

The urge thrummed up in his toes again, to bolt from the Gardens and the excruciating circumstance. But he moved, rounding the corner of the bench, and lowered himself to the very edge, as far from Qui-Gon as he could manage. He kept his eyes on his hands, tangling his fingers.

But his treacherous eyes began to stray, darting a glance at his teacher.

In profile, Qui-Gon was still the portrait of venerable stoicism, with strong lines carving out his cheeks and jaw. He looked as though he were deep in study of a bed of prismatic meadow-jems. But then, the man spoke, and Obi-Wan knew the focus of those eyes belied the vacancy beneath. "Why are you awake?"

Obi-Wan's belly lurched, but his voice was stable. "I…wasn't tired." He wanted to ask in return, Why are you awake? Why are you here? , but knew it wasn't right to poke into his Master's business.

Qui-Gon didn't smile, but the gleam was there, a tiny one, in his eyes. "You look about as tired as I am.

"And I'm dead tired, Obi-Wan."

Obi-Wan swallowed. Suddenly, he found a bruise on his wrist entirely absorbing, and tried to narrow his perceptions to the purpled spot. He was on the verge of success when a touch scraped against him, and it was only his Jedi control that saved him-barely-from catapulting to his feet in shocked recoil.

Qui-Gon held his hand with large, roughhewn fingers, brushing the tips along Obi-Wan's skin.

And then he pushed down. Hard. The Master applied pressure until actual pain shot up his student's arm, and the area was flushed red. Just when Obi-Wan thought his bones would crush, Qui-Gon relented.

Obi-Wan didn't confront him, or even inquire what had brought about the peculiar attack. He simply stared at Qui-Gon, bewildered.

Qui-Gon's face, even in the most somber of situations, wore a mask of tranquility. It allowed him to disappear under countless guises, to disarm the suspicious and soothe the weak. But that façade had slipped away. Obi-Wan was looking at a harder exterior. Deep ridges and thick shadows. Anguish. "Obi-Wan, I hurt you."

Yes. The younger man's lips were solidly compressed. It seemed, more and more, he was limited to internal responses; the sound died before it could ever drift up to his throat.

"I hurt you," Qui-Gon continued, when he knew there would be no reply, "And you let me. You let me hurt you, without asking why or, hells, asking me to stop. You didn't pull away or defend yourself, Obi-Wan," He paused, knuckle going to his chin, "I don't understand."

Obi-Wan stared down at his Master's fingers, still around his wrist in a lax cradle. What could he say? There was no explanation that would satisfy the man. Qui-Gon Jinn never settled for anything less than the truth. And of all Obi-Wan would willingly offer up to his teacher, honesty was the one exception.

That was his to endure, in the private chambers of his heart, walking grounds of black leaves and mortal dust.

He looked at Qui-Gon's thumb, rubbing in circles over the upset bruise. He didn't like to be touched, and for the majority of the time, his silent wish was granted. Now, his muscles were miserably tensed, and his hand began to retract, as though independent from sense.

Qui-Gon held it in place-- Obi-Wan could feel the Force, awash in his Master's unique palate and tones, funneling in, cleansing the mark until it faded.

And then Obi-Wan had to yank himself away, a great strobe of shame igniting red within him, staining his face.

When his Master's hand moved to brush against his jaw, Obi-Wan had to swallow sharply. Whether it was the shifting acids of his stomach or a sob he kept at bay, he wasn't sure.

"I don't understand, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon sighed. "You know that a Master does not have absolute command over his pupil. You have the right to your objections. If I hurt you, you should stop me. You should defend yourself, Obi-Wan. Would you allow an enemy to run his blade through you, without taking up arms against the threat?"

Obi-Wan struggled to hear the words over the crashing storm of his heart. "N-No." He whispered.

"Then why would you abide me aggravating your injury like that? And for Force's sake, why would you chafe at the healing, but not the pain?"

There was a multi-colored, winged insect perching on a corner of leaf. Obi-Wan watched the crisp fluttering, hoping that if he stared long enough, the entire situation would evaporate, and he could return to his comfortable, routine reality.

Qui-Gon straightened the braid, rested it against Obi-Wan's shoulder. "I think maybe I know. Do you want to know why I pushed on your bruise, Padawan?"

The insect lifted from its green platform and disappeared into a thick chaos of vines.

Obi-Wan watched it go.

"I wanted to know if you…if you could still feel." Qui-Gon paused, seeing a small flinch strain his apprentice's features. "I needed to know if there was something of you left inside."

And of course, there was. The part of him that needed his Master's approval, even after all that had happened. Disappointment. That was what he was--if one were putting it kindly.

He thought back to those rare moments when Qui-Gon would seek him out, asking him to join in a friendly spar or dinner at a grease-soaked diner. The invitations would spark in him, and for an instance, he would feel luminosity burrowing through the murk.

But then another black veil would descend, and he would decline, sensing his teacher's frustration--then, as the years wore on, his lack of surprise. Still, Qui-Gon never stopped asking.

He felt fingers trace his spine, and that baritone hushed on the air. "You were so full of potential. In the Force. And I'm proud of you, Obi-Wan, for what you've achieved."

Obi-Wan tried to take a breath, but could only shudder. "Master, you don't--"

"But there was more that I thought would be uncovered, as you grew. Your wonderful sense of humor. Your passion. Your amazement, in the simple manifestations of the Force you found around you. I was so excited, I felt so privileged, to be there, to witness it. The person, the Jedi, you would become." Qui-Gon studied the slumped figure beside him, weighed completely down, the youth and innocence long since fled from his spirit. Suddenly compelled, he cupped the bowed head in his hand and stroked silken auburn locks. "But I've never met that person. We were only just getting to know each other…" A gasp rattled in his throat, "And then you were gone."

Obi-Wan couldn't look at him. Couldn't move. Couldn't think. "I'm right here." He rasped, through numb lips. "I haven't gone anywhere."

"But you have, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon argued gently. "You've gone somewhere far from laughter or…happiness. Somewhere where no one can reach you. I can't reach you.

"And I miss you, Obi-Wan." He gripped his shoulder. "I want you to come back."

Obi-Wan forced himself to gaze into his Master's eyes, and in their depths, swam the intensity of his plea. Here he was, telling Obi-Wan he needed him…after what happened…after what he did

His head dropped into his hands and he couldn't collect a breath, panting and choking.

He could still hear the explosion, bursting through the atmosphere. He could feel the rumble under his feet, his Master's body thrown over him, to shield him from the massive chunks of flying, flaming debris.

And Qui-Gon's ragged wails, once he knew what the misdirected missile had cost him. What his foolish, back-stabbing apprentice had cost him.

The tears sprung warmly to his eyes, and Obi-Wan warded them off with bruising force.

This wasn't right. This wasn't the way of their relationship. Doors were meant to be closed between them. They had survived just fine as strangers.

But Qui-Gon's arm wound around him, pulling him close, so that every word spoken was a gust of breath on his skin and a puncture to the ruined flesh of his heart.

"Losing Tahl was…a pain beyond definition. For so long, I couldn't function, I was so totally overcome by the grief." The man began, "And it didn't come to me then, that I had lost you too. I was too busy pounding my fists into walls…I didn't see you slip through my fingers. Then, I thought maybe it was a phase," A sad, ironic smile hung on his face, "Just a stage of mourning. I-I know you loved her, too."

Bright, blinding pain riddled Obi-Wan's mind. "Master--"

"And I know, too, that you've convinced yourself you didn't love her. To make it easier, perhaps." He framed the pallid face in his hands, "But it hasn't been easier, has it? You've locked yourself away from everything. You're killing yourself, Obi-Wan. Every time you push a full plate away, forge ahead with the next level of kata when you're already drenched in sweat," Qui-Gon swallowed, and there was genuine vulnerability in his voice "Turn away when someone stretches out for you."

Obi-Wan looked at the tender expression, the hands caressing his face. And, finally, the last leaf detached itself, smothering him in the dark carcass of his willing demise. "Please, send me away. I can't do this anymore. I can't pretend…I can't let you pretend that I didn't kill her."

Horror widened in the Master. Shadow clung to the lines of his weathered countenance. "What?"

Anguish broiled inside him, but Obi-Wan maintained a semblance of composure, able to respond without breaking. "I killed her. You must know. You were there. When I wanted the ship, and when you wouldn't give in, I tried to run…b-back to those people. And you followed me." It was strange, hearing his own narration of the single strand of time that defined everything, that obliterated his life, and branded him a murderer. "Th-The Young mistook the ship Tahl was on for an enemy craft, and because I slowed you down, she was…she was…"

Qui-Gon's hands clutched the sides of his face, demanding his attention. "Tahl died because of that stupid, age-old war, Obi-Wan. And if you had been on the ship," He stopped, to seal his eyes and take a breath, "You would have died with her.

"But you didn't. I'm endlessly thankful to the Force for that. I--I thought we would be alright. It took me awhile to realize what was really happening."

Obi-Wan sniffed. "W-What?"

Weariness circled his eyes. "There are two kinds of people, Obi-Wan. Those that think too highly of themselves. And those that think too little. You've spent these years thinking you weren't worthy of being treated as a human being. You've blamed yourself for her death, but no one else has. Do you understand that, Obi-Wan? NO ONE else."

Obi-Wan shook his head wildly, the Gardens awash in his desolation. "But you--"

Qui-Gon laid a finger over the quivering mouth. "I never said that, Obi-Wan. I never said you didn't deserve to cry."

But Obi-Wan couldn't believe that. How could this thing that had tormented him for ten years be disproved by mere words, dashed as old crumbs from a tabletop? No. No. He had heard it. "Then wh-who? Who said it?"

"Oh, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon grazed the dimpled chin with his thumb, "If you look inside, without the guards, without your convoluted convictions, you'll know."

And again, he was there, in the empty pit, the wind twisting around him, the cinder glowing on her final bed. He had been alone.

He had been alone--and he alone had said those words, that rose from the wound, like blood from a deep laceration, or curse from a brewing pot.

He had been alone…ever since.

And he had learned to live that way, in silence and ready sacrifice. He adapted to the ramifications of his sin, never calling out when in the grips of a nightmare, or cracking a joke. He trained himself to live in strict parameters, in solitary.

Above all, he never cried.

So it was incredibly odd that now, with permission from his Master, in the first seconds after revelation, that he couldn't unleash the sorrow. No, the guilt was sewn And his eyes were dry.

"I should have told you all this sooner." Qui-Gon said quietly. "And I would have, but…I just didn't know how I could. I knew, every time you woke from an awful dream, and sat in the common room or the Gardens. I knew you were suffering. What I didn't know was how I could help you." He blew out a leaden breath, and rested his fingers against Obi-Wan's neck, steady when the Padawan jumped at the touch. "And I still don't. Not really. But I had to do something, Obi-Wan. I couldn't go another day, watching you deteriorate, apart from the rest of the Universe. Apart from me."

Obi-Wan looked hard at his hands, gripped together, the bones of his knuckles nearly jutting through his skin. How often he had studied the hands, each line, crease, vein.

He wondered where those hands had gone, and how they had been replaced by these foreign appendages, trembling and deathly pale.

He wanted to cry. Lower his shields, long enough for the swelled agony to be purged, to lament the lives twisted by his mistake. Somewhere inside himself, he needed to mourn that person his Master spoke of, the Obi-Wan Kenobi slain on Melida/Daan.

If only for a moment, he wanted to move beyond the cold clustered in his soul, to laugh out of mirth, to cry out of selfishness, to be what he once was.

The young Jedi blinked, gazing up at his Master's exhausted face. He remembered having fun with the man. Nothing poignant, or life-altering. Just pure silliness, at the white sand lip of a beach, or the faded carpet of their apartment. It was then that he thought that, perhaps, he would come to see Qui-Gon Jinn as his family. His father.

But that was a fantasy crippled by his own foolishness, massacred by the years of separation.

They were very little to each other. Obi-Wan knew that. And there was no turning back. Underneath the responsible, compassionate Master, there was a man. A man widowed by a roaring bomb and stupid boy. As much as he respected Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan was certain no being, no matter how upstanding or rational, could come to care for the person who killed what was loved most in their life.

It was time to confront that.

It was time for Obi-Wan to join his soul, long since banished from the Temple. He would go.

He somehow found his way to his feet, gray spots vibrating in his vision. I have to do this. I've waited for this. I've--

His first step was halted by arms, wrapping around him and solidifying as cement. Qui-Gon pressed his temple to Obi-Wan's, and whispered fiercely in his ear. "Don't leave me, Obi-Wan. It isn't too late." He pulled the rigid body against his chest. "Gods, it wouldn't be fair. You've wasted years on this. I-I never thought that when I lost my wife…I would have to lose my son, too."

Obi-Wan felt the rumble of his Master's sorrow, reverberating against his own chest, hot tears dropping in his hair and sliding down his face.

His stomach wrenched. "No, Master. This isn't fair. Don't…don't call me that. I don't deserve--"

"Obi-Wan!" The shout seemed to quake the very walls. Qui-Gon's eyes were ablaze with fervent fury. "Don't tell me what you don't deserve. I was there. I saw how everything happened. If you would have gone along with me to begin with, there was still no guarantee the ship wouldn't have been shot down." He braced Obi-Wan's face with huge hands, "And if I had to choose…" The Master gulped down a sob, "I would choose you, my Padawan. I would always choose you."

Qui-Gon stroked the cropped spikes of hair, "And I choose you now, Obi-Wan. I choose you over complete desolation and the futility of a lonely life. I choose you because I know you still exist, beneath the false guilt." He reached out and, with acute tenderness, embraced his student. "I can't let you leave. I still believe we can find you, Obi-Wan."

Obi-Wan's head was tucked under his Master's chin, and for the first time in a decade, he felt…but then it vanished, under the mounds of ash. As he knew it would.

He leaned against Qui-Gon, and listened to his heartbeat, gradually bringing his arms around the man's waist.

Qui-Gon dissolved in his grateful weeping, so he didn't hear the tiny little murmur, stolen on the wind.

"I can't."