Obi-Wan sat up and blinked, feeling much refreshed from the climb to the cave he was in. He stretched stiff muscles and looked over at his Master, who seemed to still be asleep. He wanted to touch his mind to verify it, but was afraid it would disturb him. He glanced toward the cavern they'd come from, but decided maybe it'd be best not to just leave in case Qui-Gon woke, found Obi-Wan missing, and worried needlessly. Besides, it wasn't smart to go exploring unfamiliar places alone without informing one's Master unless you were a fully trained Knight that could look after himself. Obi-Wan turned onto his stomach and settled in to wait. Inspiration hit and he pulled out the datapad he'd brought to read. But he found his mind wandering to Cerasi, and how she used to call Qui-Gon his "Jedi boss." She had mocked him for his current submissive attitude. But he had been right to be cautious, in the end. If he'd just listened to himself...He sighed.

"Something wrong, Padawan?" queried a low, drowsy voice.

Obi-Wan smiled at his Master. "Not anymore. No need to get up."

"Are you sure? You sounded...troubled."

"No. I mean yes. That is...Cerasi. She used to mock me gently for being so obedient to you. She thought it was a way for you to control me. I tried to tell her it was one way I showed you respect, but she had convinced me that it was a form of slavery. Somewhere inside, I had known she was wrong, but I couldn't figure out why at the time."

"Hmmm. I'm intrigued," came the soft reply. Obi-Wan watched as Qui-Gon shifted slightly and rubbed his eyes.

"No, no. Go back to sleep. It's not important."

"It's all right," Qui-Gon murmured gently. "The rest did me good. You're not depriving me."

"Oh. Okay." The boy smiled shyly.

Qui-Gon wondered at how he'd ended up with such a gentle apprentice. He could only imagine the Force felt sorry for him after Xanatos and gave him an extra good Padawan as compensation. "Have you worked out why it is important to obey me? And I'm asking you personally, not as a Jedi."

The boy inched close to him and took one of his hands. "Because we're a team. Because if I don't listen, I can inadvertently make a situation worse or wreck your plans born of years of experience. Because obedience means trust that you're thinking of my safety and best interests. Because obedience is the way a Padawan shows love." Qui-Gon's eyes filled with tears. "Master?" Obi-Wan looked alarmed.

"Padawan," Qui-Gon whispered, "what did I ever do to deserve you?"

"Master, that depends on whether you are happy or sad."

"Come, my little one." Qui-Gon pulled Obi-Wan so that he was reclining against his chest. Obi-Wan sighed contentedly and closed his eyes. Obi-Wan considered how he loved being called "little one" by Qui-Gon. He began to understand it meant something more when addressed to him rather than other little ones. "So this conflict about slavery. Perhaps it arose because as a Jedi, Padawans are obligated, honor-bound, to obey. You managed to list both practical and personal reasons that the rule makes sense. From a Master's point of view, I need to be certain you are going to cooperate on missions. Sometimes, it is a split second decision and if you don't listen, lives can be lost. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that if it comes down to yours or mine, I will do my best to ensure it is not yours that is lost. Even if I were not honor-bound to do so."

"No. Don't talk that way," Obi-Wan whispered in fear.

"You know it is a distinct possibility in our line of work to fall in combat. But you're right. No need to dwell on it just now. We have a bond to renew."

Obi-Wan looked up cautiously, and wriggled closer, pressing his ear to Qui-Gon's chest and listening to the regular heartbeat. Qui-Gon tightened his hold on him and lay his cheek against the top of Obi-Wan's head briefly. "It's not slavery if you want to do something. If you choose to. I forgot this. I could not articulate this to Cerasi, but even if I had, she would not have understood. She didn't know you, didn't understand the Jedi, and I was swayed by the idea that maybe I was being compelled because I couldn't define my own reasoning other than it was a Padawan duty to follow orders."

Qui-Gon made a sound of assent but seemed distracted. "I heard you. I'm sorry. I'm thinking how we should renew our commitment. The training bond is really what needs to be fixed. It is not broken, but it is not as strong as it used to be." Qui-Gon sat up and took Obi-Wan's hand, meeting his gaze solemnly. "Padawan, I promise to protect and train you to the best of my ability. I was committed to you before and I still am, will always be. I promise also that I will always love you." This last sentence was a hoarse whisper, but Obi-Wan heard perfectly clearly and squeezed Qui-Gon's hand in affirmation, pulling himself up to sit across from him.

"Master, I promise to never leave your side, not as long as we're together. I promise to learn from you to the best of my ability. And I pledge my undying love and loyalty. I cannot promise to always obey, however. Otherwise I would."

Qui-Gon chuckled but squeezed Obi-Wan's hand in acceptance. "I'm certain you will do so unless the situation is dire. Do you again accept me as your Master?"

Obi-Wan's face lit up. "With all my heart." His eyes shone with so much affection.

Qui-Gon nodded and moved behind Obi-Wan, his fingers poised to undo his braid. He ran his fingers over it and combed through the strands slowly. He caressed Obi-Wan's hair rhythmically. "Focus on the motion of my fingers. Let it relax you. You must trust me so the bond can be strengthened. Remember our promises, our places in the team."

Obi-Wan nodded and shut his eyes. He touched their bond and held it gently in the forefront of his mind, while thinking of their commitment and how his braid symbolized service to his Master, himself, and the Force that brought them together. He felt Qui-Gon's fingers finish combing his hair and beginning to replait it, while simultaneously feeling the bond touched by his mind. Qui-Gon stayed there, waiting, until Obi-Wan's mind touched his. They held this position internally until Qui-Gon finished with the braid and dropped its end over Obi-Wan's shoulder. Obi-Wan touched it and found that a new bead was added to it. He felt pure joy at this discovery. Obi-Wan craned his neck to look back at his Master, who touched his shoulder and murmured, "No" and moved around to face him. "Now it gets interesting, little one. How much do you trust me?"

"Completely," was the boy's drowsy reply.

"Truly? Ideally, I would have to hold you quite close. I could probably do this with some distance, but the bond would not be as...um...solid."

The boy nodded, as though this was obvious. "I'm sure you wouldn't, um, abuse your power, Master," he murmured softly, still sounding very relaxed.

"Would sitting or lying down be more relaxing?"

"I'm already quite relaxed, but...Lying, I think, but it may run the risk that I fall asleep. If you need me to be awake, sitting might be better."

"You're certain you're okay with this?"

"Do you not trust my word?" Now there was a touch of annoyance in the tone.

"I'm sorry, Padawan." Obi-Wan felt Qui-Gon's regret instantly down their bond.

Obi-Wan shook his head. "No, Master. This should be a time of joy." He stretched out on their quilt, his head in Qui-Gon's lap. Qui-Gon looked down at Obi-Wan. So vulnerable. Obi-Wan heard the thought, since their minds were still in contact with each other. Qui-Gon lay beside Obi-Wan and pulled him so his back was against his chest, his arms encircling him. Obi-Wan leaned into the contact, and Qui-Gon felt only a sense of safety and fulfillment emanating from him, as though this was exactly what he always wanted and where he always belonged.

Little one, came the whispered thought from Qui-Gon.

I love you, was Obi-Wan's reply.

"That's it. Keep that feeling. It is the best one for creating and strengthening a training bond. Training bonds, as you know, are part Force created and partly from love or obligation. Some Master-Padawan pairs are merely for the mutual attainment of goals, and that is fine as long as both parties agree to that."

Obi-Wan thought about how glad he was to have Qui-Gon for a Master, how considerate and caring he was, how he loved Qui-Gon's compassion and hoped that when he was a Knight, he'd have even a quarter of it. He thought how he admired Qui-Gon's poise and calm when people were being rude. And he imagined Qui-Gon leaping, lightsaber spinning, the sound of his gentle laughter and soothing voice.

"Obi-Wan...You honor me."

"Good."

Obi-Wan felt Qui-Gon's mind enveloping the bond now, rather than just touching it. Obi-Wan's mind was also enveloped, which was somewhat disorienting at first.

"At this point, it's possible to involve our Force signatures. That anchors the bond and makes it very difficult and hazardous to break. But it's risky, should one of us die suddenly. You would know it instantly and it can be traumatic. Psychologically, I mean."

"Master, I think our Force signatures are already involved, if I could summon you on Bandomeer."

"Hmmm. Good point. The idea frightens me a little. That our bond goes that deep. But I do trust you. You need to do what I just did. That will complete the bond and stabilize it, so it is strong both ways."

"I'm not certain how."

"I will see what I can do to help. You must think of the bond not as a comlink, as you're doing now, but something integral to your mind. A part of you, not separate but attached. It occurs to me that we were supposed to do this earlier in our relationship, but perhaps it is for the best we're doing it now. I don't think the necessary trust and affection were there before. Not that we didn't like or trust each other, but there were still...inhibitions. It will be as meaningful as it should be since we're working on it now."

Obi-Wan nodded, and pulled on the bond, but it didn't quite do as it was supposed to. Frowning, he tried to imagine it wrapped in Force energy and began to feel curious currents flowing back and forth. He dropped the bond in alarm.

Qui-Gon stilled abruptly, amazed. "Obi-Wan, we've just gotten confirmation that our Force signatures have anchored this bond. It is now unbreakable. Or rather, consequences will be dire should the bond be broken before one of us actually dies. If you or I are killed or die naturally, the bond will not break. But if it is forcibly severed, it will damage us both. Perhaps permanently. And in these kinds of cases, when one partner dies, the other...They will move on, but it will always hurt them. Their spirit will ever feel the loss until they are reunited in the Force."

Obi-Wan's eyes widened in surprise. "I...did not know Jedi could have attachments. This is no mere attachment. This is something I truly hadn't heard of before. It must be incredibly rare for a Master-Padawan team. Luckily for me, what you said about the consequences to the partner who remains alive is no surprise. Even without the bond, I knew that is what I'd be facing should your dire pronouncements of death in combat come true. But what about the Knighting Ceremony? Don't Jedi usually break training bonds then?"

"That decision is up to the pair in question. A true spiritual or signature bond is just rare, period. Perhaps it has been attained by close family members or lovers, but I have not heard of Master-Padawan teams managing it."

"I guess we have our answer. That counts as forcible detachment while we're both alive."

"Exactly." Qui-Gon nodded.

Obi-Wan looked relieved. "I would have been sorry to lose this." Again, he took up the bond and thought of his mind wrapping around it. He felt the currents pulsing through it. Like a heartbeat, he suddenly realized. "This thing is alive!" he exclaimed. "That's why if it's cut, we might never recover. No wonder it frightens you."

"But you are reliable," Qui-Gon murmured gently. "Your feelings about me, about us, will not change."

"Now I feel even worse about Melida/Daan. Not only did I betray you and the Jedi who raised me and that I was supposed to be committed to, but I broke our living bond."

"I am not certain it was living at the time. You could not have left if it had been alive. You would have been compelled to stay by my side if at all possible. Our distraction and dysfunction without each other was probably from our own hearts and not our bond. At any rate, the bond worked this morning, so you didn't break it. If I had not taken you again as Padawan, perhaps then it would have broken."

"Then, it's good we're here now," the boy murmured, as the entire length of the bond was finally enveloped by his mind.

"Well done. Now you must do that with me."

The boy drew back mentally, though kept a firm hold on the bond. "How? That's...It's disrespect."

"Did you feel disrespected when I did it?"

"No. It was a little disconcerting at first, but I grew used to it, and found that I enjoyed it. I felt safe and cared for. But you are my Master. It is your right and your place to touch my mind that way."

"No, it is not. I did so for the sake of the bond, which you had agreed beforehand to help to strengthen. I absorbed your mind, but endeavored not to go rummaging around, though we could not help hearing each other's surface thoughts. You have permission to enter my mind and must do so, or the bond will be imperfect."

"I still feel like it's some kind of violation," Obi-Wan complained sadly.

"Do you not wish me to hear you?"

"No, it's not that. It's unfamiliar. Intimate."

"And yet, you let me hold you like this."

"I love it," Obi-Wan smiled timidly.

"Why don't you try holding me? Maybe the physical action will help your mind to follow."

"I...I don't think I've ever done that. Maybe that's my problem. Okay." He gently disengaged from Qui-Gon's grasp and turned over to face him.

"No, Padawan," came the gentle admonishment. "Behind me. You're to become the protector now."

The boy froze. "You're sure? That requires a lot of trust."

"You watch my back in combat. Don't see how this is any different." Qui-Gon argued reasonably.

The boy moved to press his back to a wall, then gently cradled Qui-Gon's head and shoulders against his chest, stroking his brow with one hand and beginning to twine his fingers through the long hair. Qui-Gon's eyes drifted shut in an attitude of relaxation, and Obi-Wan marveled that he did indeed feel protective in this position.

Qui-Gon chuckled. "It's nice, isn't it?"

Obi-Wan's hand stilled on Qui-Gon's brow, and his mind began twining around Qui-Gon's, also making sure to cover the entire bond. His hand slid to caress Qui-Gon's cheek, and he let his heart fill with all the compassion and value he felt Qui-Gon was worth. He heard Qui-Gon sigh comfortably.

"I feel the same way about you, Padawan," was Qui-Gon's quiet comment. "Now you must complete the renewal by merging with me. Currently, your mind holds mine as your arms hold me. But we need a fusion, not a separation. If it is done correctly, you will know."

Obi-Wan sent an experimental probe and encountered no resistance. But he frowned. "There's still delineation between us, but I worry that it will hurt you to get rid of it."

"But you're not getting rid of it. You are melding with it."

"That is getting rid of it."

"No. It's simply chemistry. A mixing of components to create something new. You and I will still be our own people. But we should be able to discern each other as easily as we feel ourselves, just as we are able to fight together as one unit."

The boy gasped, and suddenly, he understood. Everything clicked. Qui-Gon felt Obi-Wan's mind quiet, felt the Force being pulled around them as though Obi-Wan were preparing for meditation, felt him achieve serenity. He heard Obi-Wan recite the Jedi Code, saw flashes of images when they'd moved in tandem during training and missions. And Qui-Gon did the same, meeting Obi-Wan in the Force and magnifying its presence. "Master. Let's train."

Qui-Gon flashed a rare, brilliant smile that lit up his eyes in joy. Up they leapt, lightsabers active, and Obi-Wan felt his own pulse and heard the Force sing. Obi-Wan let go and let his body go on autopilot, trusting now that Qui-Gon had things under control. He realized that at this moment, he felt only Qui-Gon, not himself. His body did what Qui-Gon's did, without his having to sense it. Through training katas they moved, and Obi-Wan felt the exhilaration of movements he could not yet achieve on his own. In a flash of insight, Obi-Wan took Qui-Gon's stone and threw it to him. Qui-Gon's hand shot out and closed around it, and at that moment, Obi-Wan felt a change in their bond. It was a part of them now, like the Force, not a temporary entity grafted on for the sake of efficiency on missions. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan stopped simultaneously, deactivated their weapons, and Obi-Wan leapt into Qui-Gon's arms, eyes shining with joy. Qui-Gon held him close, and Obi-Wan was trying to squeeze him to death. Obi-Wan felt Qui-Gon's rumbling chuckle, and somehow, he had the strange thought that he was home.

"Here, Padawan," Qui-Gon said gently, handing over the stone.

Obi-Wan cradled it against his heart, feeling its heat that somehow didn't burn. "Master, did you know this stone would be important to us?"

"No. But it was of great help to me for many years. I hoped it would serve you well. I did not dream at the time this is what it'd be used for, but the Force told me to give it to you."

"I knew there had to be more to it when you gave it. You wouldn't just give me something ordinary. But it's remarkable how unassuming it is. I have always cherished it, since it helped me to keep my memories. The fear of losing them prompted me to complete the ritual on becoming a Padawan as well, in case I never told you."

"I'm glad. I can always count on you to fulfill your responsibilities."

"I'd have thought something this precious would already have been given away. Not that I don't appreciate it, but if you didn't want to give it to me and only did so because you were told to, you should take it back."

"Pardon?" The tone was low, dangerous.

Obi-Wan swallowed convulsively and stepped back, looking up pleadingly. "You've had this stone for many years. It must be precious to you for you to have kept it since you were my age or nearly so. I can't imagine giving this away to anyone, especially not someone I didn't trust completely but had to give something in honor of a birthday."

Qui-Gon frowned darkly. "Did I not tell you my hope that it would be of use to you?" The tone was still threatening.

The boy nodded meekly. "Please, Master," he said softly, "I mean well. You can still use it."

"But it was given to you." Qui-Gon's tone was gentler, but still displeased.

Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon, then walked over to his pack and put his forgotten datapad back inside and sat down by it. He put the stone back in his pocket. Qui-Gon came and sat beside him. "Obi-Wan, what are you asking? Why I didn't give it to Xanatos? Why I gave it to you if I didn't wish to give it to him? Do you perhaps wish to return the stone, but want to do so politely?"

"No! You gave it to me!" the boy cried without thinking. "Why did you not give it to him? And why don't you want it back?"

"Padawan, why did you not simply ask that?" Qui-Gon murmured wearily. "You'd have saved me a lot of heartache? How would you like a gift that meant a great deal to you thrown back at you, with the implication that really, it's not that great and honestly, you'd rather have had a crystal for your lightsaber or something? How would you feel if a gift given from the heart was returned?"

Obi-Wan looked at Qui-Gon and whimpered softly. "I...I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. Really. I love it."

Qui-Gon pulled Obi-Wan toward him, and he buried his head in Qui-Gon's robe. "Xanatos did not deserve a gift as rare as that stone. Truth be told, the thought never occurred to give it to him. He'd have scoffed or thrown it away in disgust, complaining that it was unworthy of him. When I gave you the stone, you were curious. Why would I give you something so ordinary? Unless, of course, it wasn't. You turned it so it caught the light, and you noted its beauty appreciatively. You promised to love it. Later, you understood better, and it has become something essential to you. You say you carry it everywhere?"

Obi-Wan nodded emphatically, then hid his face again.

"Make no mistake, little one. I want you to keep it, to have it. You deserve it. You deserve a gift that is equal to you as a person, as a Padawan. Your gentle heart, keen mind, raw talent, humble spirit, and your drive to be your very best is going to stand you in good stead for the rest of your life."

"Master, you honor me," the boy whispered in awe.

"Then I've returned the favor. Excellent." He released Obi-Wan with a gentle squeeze to his shoulder. Obi-Wan reached up and pulled Qui-Gon toward him, placing a quick kiss to his forehead. Qui-Gon smiled gently. "I love you, too."

Obi-Wan's face was radiant. "I didn't expect this when we came here. And now it's a day I won't forget."

"Shall we go home?"

"I'm already home. But yes, I'd like to see our rooms again."

"I'll lead this time."

"I hope you always will."