Author: Katharine

Rating: PG

Summary: Qui Gon's last trip to Ithor. Sequel to my story Speaking Trees.

Disclaimer: Any recognizable names belong to George Lucas. I have no special
permission to write this story and am not making any money from it.

Thanks to: Kitty for editing and Jess Quinlan for plot consultation and brainstorming.


The ship came out of hyperspace and Qui Gon killed the power. Its engines
cooled, its running lights went out, and the nav computer slept. They hung inert,
unrecognizable to planetary sensors, among the blackness of space and the white corusca
gem points of stars. Qui Gon stared at the planet Ithor for a moment. Half full it filled the
windshield like a dome of vivid green and turquoise marble. Without a word he closed
his eyes and gave the small two-seated fighter a firm Force push towards the planet.

In the seat next to him, Obi Wan sighed. He didn't like it. This was against
Ithorian law, several of them in fact. Jedi or not, if someone caught them, they would be
arrested, but for his Master's sake, he would do it. Several other Masters had asked Qui
Gon to take a meditation mission, to go somewhere peaceful, safe for a while. This was
where Qui Gon wanted to go and he couldn't get here alone. Ithor's forest guards would
be sure to pick up something as big and unnatural as a ship like this hidden in the depths
of the forest while doing their surveillance sweeps. Obi Wan would help him without
comment.

But the jungle *was* dangerous, he found himself thinking stubbornly. Obi Wan
knew that nature and solitude nourished Qui Gon, but he *had* been hurt on Ithor before,
badly. He glanced at Qui Gon and tensed at the memory of a blood plague crazed relk's
bites, deep, ragged, and strangely X shaped, and the slow shaking pain its venom caused.
Obi Wan had no idea how his master had explained his wounds to the medics back at the
temple, and had never quite gotten together the nerve to ask. He had guiltily hoped that
the unmistakable marks would expose Qui Gon's covert trips to Ithor and a formal
censure would end them. Qui Gon did not need any more of either disobedience or
danger in his life. No one had known where he had gone, and if Obi Wan hadn't had a
vision of what had happened, no one would have ever found him. And now, weak and
troubled as Qui Gon was . . . . But he was a Master, strong in the Force in ways Obi Wan
thought he might never understand. Obi Wan couldn't refuse him, so he should let his
worry go.

And for Qui Gon's sake he tried to suppress the disapproving frown that wanted to
spread across his face. Because Qui Gon would probably notice. Never mind that his eyes
were closed and he was tired. After all these years with him, Obi Wan had learned that
even when he was sad, sick, hurt, or exhausted, Qui Gon was usually receptive to even
the subtlest elements of his environment.

The ship glided smoothly through space and Obi Wan was silent. The Force
swirled around Qui Gon, radiated from him into the ship, and trailed off it in a wake. Obi
Wan could almost see it, like wind blown aurora. The cockpit was filled with pale
starlight and planetglow, and the sound of Qui Gon's rhythmic breathing, roughened by
the lung infection that he was still fighting. Another reason for this retreat. Two barbed,
poisoned darts had struck him on the last mission. He had been almost completely healed,
but the ghosts of that injury still lurked in his body.

* * *

The ship fell through the clear atmosphere like a meteor, dropped from the sky in
a ball of fire, then skimmed gracefully over the sea of green treetops. Once they hung just
above the branches, Qui Gon thanked his apprentice, said goodbye, and opened the ship's
canopy, leaping out into the trees below, landing with hardly a sound. The moment he
ducked his head under the leaves he was in a world of green, gold, shadow, and vast
space below him. He hadn't realized how much he had adapted to Coruscant. Now that he
was in the middle of the Ithorian mother jungle, the oxygen rich air and the massive
storm of life force was enough to make him feel a little dizzy. Even hungering so much to
come here, he had forgotten how awesome it really was.

He dropped to a big lower branch, ran along the pebbly gray bark a few paces,
then jumped as if gravity were an illusion. Plunging blindly through the tropical air until
the force caught him and he landed with a soft thump. Qui Gon looked up to the leaf
veiled sky, seeing it in his mind as Obi Wan gathered the force and hurled the ship back
into orbit. He would journey back to the temple, wait for two weeks, and then return in
secret to bring Qui Gon back.

He was grateful for Obi Wan's help with these sojourns to Ithor. His Apprentice
understood somehow that they were vital to him in a way that was not completely logical
or expressible. Understanding had become such a rare and precious thing between them
lately. Qui Gon knew Obi Wan had been tempted to turn him in for violating the
protection Ithorians placed their forest under, sometimes out of anger, sometimes simply
because he felt it was his duty to. That was his choice and his right, but so far Obi Wan
had said nothing. He wondered how long it could last, though. The separation between
them was growing as Obi Wan got closer to knighthood. He wondered how long it would
be before his peace stopped balancing against the weight of the code and he lost this
sanctuary. He might not have much longer to experience Ithor so intimately, or share the
companionship of the forest dwellers. Not much time . . . . He turned and headed into the
forest with every sense open.

By nightfall he came to a place of twining vines and tree ferns, a second forest
under the high trees, down where it was dim and damp and cooler. The trees grew in
clumps of tough hairy trunks, raising fiddleheads like spiraling fists and spreading
feathery fronds covered in soft and prickly silver fuzz. The vines wound round the trunks
and squirmed thought the fronds like snakes. He found a clump of tree ferns, thick with
foliage like a secluded green chamber, and knelt in the lush grasses and moss to perform
a healing meditation. He had already entered a trance twice since returning from Kolchis,
and Jedi who were specially skilled at healing had attended to him, but the poison had
been very stubborn, settling deep into his flesh like sludge, and the wounds had been
slow to heal. It was mostly his fault, he knew. It was his anger that had really hurt him.

As dusky green twilight filled up the forest Qui Gon remembered that mission. He
lived in the moment but he had a very good memory and the memory was still fresh. He
remembered so many other missions like it. Sometimes all the suffering he hadn't been
able to stop seemed to gather over him like a weight. He sighed heavily and the deep
breath brought two hot aching flairs of pain in his chest.

It was a sickening trend. Across the galaxy a rumor was spreading among
mercenaries, gangsters, terrorists, and corrupt leaders: that if a lot of people died at once
it did something to the Jedi. Didn't stop them, but shook them up somehow, slowed them
down, left them vulnerable for a few valuable seconds.

The raiders had started killing their hostages, hoping that the outcry in the force
would allow them to push Qui Gon and Obi Wan back and escape. Qui Gon had felt the
deaths in the middle of battle; they had kept coming like fire from a repeating blaster. He
had been in agony, but he had also been immersed in the illuminating fire of battle sense,
opening himself to the force and gathering strength from it, even the strength to deal with
the empathetic misery it brought him. He had withstood the pain and Obi Wan had too. It
hadn't worked, or at least not the way the raiders had meant it to. But Qui Gon had gotten
angry. He was old enough to know that anger was not only of the dark side, but often
useless, helpless, but his soul just wanted to howl at the senseless waste of life. The
senseless waste of life used as a weapon against him. He had mastered his anger well
enough to avoid acting on it, well enough to rescue the heartbreakingly small number of
surviving hostages, enough to capture most of their killers, but when he had been
wounded, the anger had poisoned his healing more than the toxin on the darts' barbs.

The anger was gone now, and the guilt had burned down to low embers. He
though he would finally be able to heal here. Living things focused and gathered the
Force and nature would give strength to those who knew how to accept it. There were
some truly amazing stories about Jedi being saved from death or performing feats of
unimaginable strength, because they had a forest or grassland or vast river to feed them
energy, and of the opposite, Jedi pouring their own life force into damaged ecosystem to
restore it and being everafter psychically tied to that environment.

The planet, he was somehow sure, would take care of him. Qui Gon made himself
transparent to the Force, dissolving into the light. He was part of the ground, the trees, the
sky, little bits of him riding with animals skittering through the oncoming night. The
power of all the things he was part of came back to him and his self burned more brightly
than ever. As darkness fell and mist spun itself out of the night air the Force actually
became a soft silvery glow around him, frosting the enclosure of vines and fronds.
Entapeeds and monkey frogs and other tiny creatures hiding in the leaves and the
darkness watched him curiously, his reflected light making their tiny eye glow like a
constellation of jewels.

He didn't come out of the trance until morning, and then he came out of it slowly.
When he opened his eyes he felt prepared to go to the Ithorians and the trees.

In the late afternoon Qui Gon started to enter the part of the forest where the
Ithorians lived. They had discovered though patterns that masked the presence of a
sentient mind and the forest hid them, even from a Jedi, so they were invisible to him. He
could tell they were all around him, though. They knew he valued seclusion, so they
would remain hidden like the animals of the forest for a while.

The jungle started to seem familiar, the smell of the trees and the plants was
different here than anywhere else. He made his way out of the mists and ferns down the
rocky, river carved foothills into the dryer hotter valley where the bafforr trees grew. Qui
Gon found his way to the grove of tree where they had first met Jezzack seven years ago.
The wild Ithorians were many now, nomadic, thinly spread over the continents so their
presence wouldn't strain the jungle, and to Qui Gon they were like rarely seen family.
The trees had multiplied, too, sending up slow growing saplings from their interwoven
roots. He moved through the grove like a ghost, the trees shifting color around him.
Suddenly he stopped cold.

*No*, he thought and shut his eyes, head bowed.

Two of the forest Ithorians stood side by side among the dark blue trees, watching
him with serene, liquid dark eyes. Chitta'me, one of the oldest in the jungle, and another
he had never seen before.

"Sorry, Qui Gon. Lightening."

The tree he had first communicated with all that time ago was dead and fallen. Its
trunk lay on the forest floor, split down the middle, charred, black and blistered by the
lightning, bare branches spread out like a scattering of bones.

"It's alright." He said softly and walked slowly towards the two Ithorians. "Show
me what else has changed."

They each took a place on one side of Qui Gon and led him on through the grove.
Chitta'me showed him a clump of hanging mushrooms that they had thought were extinct
for years. They saw the golden shadow of a leopard spider passing through the leaves, an
animal that would have been hunted into oblivion for its soft, thick pelt on almost any
other world. She gave him some bright purple bittersweet pfanar fruit to eat and her
friend, who was named Tegue, told him about how his gardening had become more and
more elaborate and overwhelming until he realized the tangle of growth in and around his
home was only an invitation to something more profound and could not fill his heart. She
showed him a tree that had been completely covered in thirsty moss since he had last seen
it. He had, he realized, been away a long time. Qui Gon walked through the jungle all day
between Tegue and Chitta'me, mostly being quiet. The sun set, the forest green deepened
and they met up with a few others and slept for the night in an old bowerbeast's nest.

For two weeks he worked with the Ithorians, a guardian angel of the land. He
absorbed the forest with them in attentive awe, filling himself up with it for the time
when he would return to Coruscant, his forest of transparasteel and duracrete. He told
what was happening in the larger galaxy, something that sometimes saddened them,
sometimes amused them. He found a plant growing in the clumps of tree ferns that
somehow seemed special and friendly to him. His sense of the force told him it might be
medicinal, or at least wouldn't make him any sicker and he swallowed a handful of its
leaves. He meditated twice more the way he had the first day he had come to the
rainforest. At the end, as he was about to leave, the Ithorians came and brought him
botanical samples as anonymous gifts to the sky-city dwellers.

He was saying goodbye to some of the younger Ithorians when Chitta'me came
into the clearing out of a tunnel of branches. Seeing her as just a shape against the backlit
green emphasized her inhuman movements, and it was obvious she was carrying
something bulky. She came into the sunshine amid the broad-leafed plants in front of Qui
Gon just as he was about to leave. In her arms were two bafforr tree seedlings, their roots
bundled up in big leaves. Their thin trunks, really only sticks, were the pale blue color of
glacial ice.

"Cuttings." She explained. "Two trees for every one fallen. Jezzack saved them
for you before he moved on south. Do what you want with them, Qui Gon." She said, and
held the young trees out to him. He took them reluctantly. He didn't want to go too deep
into the loss of the tree, he just wanted to be content with his memories and know that
nothing was forever. But there was no doubt on Chitta'me's face as she waited for him to
take the cuttings. Well, he thought as he carefully tucked the little plants into the satchel
he wore along with the other samples and cuttings and rootstocks they had given him,
what was he afraid of? He couldn't honestly say at this point in his life that he was in the
business of sparing himself sorrow, and he'd mourned for beings with less moral value
than a semi-sentient tree.

The grove was still and quiet, or at least as quiet as a forest gets. There were tiny
sounds of life all around. The jungle was empty of sentient beings except for Qui Gon
and the stand of trees. He stood looking at the fallen tree silently, with the cuttings,
clones, but not really the same tree at all, cupped in his hands. Chitta'me and her friends
had left, following the wide muddy green Two Mothers River down towards its delta
where they would disperse. They had left these colonies of bafforr trees to themselves for
a while. Qui Gon bent down on his knees and sat in front of the old jagged stump. The
tree had sheared off at ground level when it had fallen, and the crystalline roots were
beginning to decompose, coming apart into rich grainy black soil with the occasional
cloudy chunk of blue wood left in it. He set the tiny trees aside and began to dig with his
hands among the roots, the earth and soft wood coming away easily.

He put one plant in the shallow hole he had made, scooped dirt over it pressed it
down around it. As he finished and drew back his hands, one of them accidentally
brushed up against the thin ice colored branches. Unexpected, the delicate vegetal charge
startled him, even though it was nowhere near as overwhelming as going mind to mind
with an adult tree. The seedlings were young, tiny things, and had not yet become
intertwined in the mind net of the grove. Like jingling whispers in the blood the plant
voices pulsed through him and phantom senses caressed him briefly. The difference
between standing in river rapids and being brushed by thick mist. Qui Gon stared at his
hand, almost as if he had expected it to be burned. Faintly, very faintly, he had felt the
essence of the old tree, deep and subtle.

He buried the other plant and molded the soil around its stringy roots, careful not
to touch it, then took a moment to look at his work. The two seedlings growing out of a
raised corona of half rotted roots looked like some kind of odd, primitive altar, perhaps a
shrine made by pagan children. The small pale green leaves glinted in the speckled
sunlight like translucent emeralds. Qui Gon settled back to sit with his legs crossed and
took a deep breath. He could smell decay and leaves and the musky scent of purple
flowers that he didn't know the names of that were blooming throughout the whole
canopy.

He'd come to Ithor whenever he could over the last seven years, especially when
he was physically or spiritually drained or needed time to heal, and snuck down onto the
continents to visit the forest and the close knit group of Ithorians. He was, as far as he
knew, the only outsider to have contact with them. He was deeply grateful for this: he
knew that it was an act of supreme compassion for these unfailingly gentle, non-
aggressive beings to take in a warrior, even a Jedi warrior, like him. He admired the
courage and sensitivity it took for them to leave behind their whole lives, go against
everything in their culture, when the jungle called them. He respected and shared their
love of the land. He liked the feel of their minds, they felt like the minds of Jedi. He felt
at home among the group of Ithorians, one who had been a mechanic, one a lichen-artist,
one a merchant, one a farmer, one a poet, one a bio-technician, one pilot of a space-faring
herd city, one a janitor, a sense of deep belonging he didn't always feel among other Jedi.

Each time he came back he had been drawn to this grove where he had first met
Jezzack, slept here even in the rainy season, entered the trees consciousness again and let
his own mind be swept away, eaten the fruit that fell from the trees, or simply meditated
under the tree that had now fallen for hours.

A few leaves fell from above and landed in Qui Gon's lap. It was dim under the
canopy, with only a few shafts of sunlight making their way through the leaves, branches,
vines, and air plants overhead. Still, there was some brightness, the illumination rich
toned tropical light, hazy with moisture and pollen. It was like being in a cathedral, like
being under still water among thick weeds.

His breathing, now easy and painless, slowed and the oxygen rich, warm and
humid air was pleasantly heavy and palpable in his lungs. The life force of Ithor and his
ability to find peace with himself had succeeded where trained Jedi healers had failed. He
would remember the anger though, he thought. It was surely poison, but it came from a
true place and it was a part of him.

He had hoped the forest would cure him. He had not imagined something might
happen to the tree, or how much that would touch him. Did the trees mourn when one of
them fell, he wondered, or was their consciousness not constructed that way? Even after
all these years of exploring and absorbing them he didn't know enough about them to tell
for sure. He probably never would. But even Obi Wan, his far-seer, would agree that the
collective mind would never be the same again.

Soon he was quietly meditating and did not know it. Qui Gon had had the habit of
unintentionally slipping into deep or shallow meditation while in the middle of something
else all his life, and it had started to happen more often as he got older. All he knew was
that the sapphire pillars of tree trunks, spreading green leaves, the secret, sacred places
between them, the small hidden movements and creatures, the split and burned tree that
was older than he was lying on the ground, and the two, new little plants right in front of
him were all there was for him, in his senses and in his mind. Another leaf drifted down,
fluttering back and forth in mesmerizing arcs and landed on his hand.

* * *

Strangely enough, being up here was like being in a wide flat grassland. The
silver gold Ithorian sun blazed down brilliant and hot over the canopy like it did over the
tropical savannas of Alderaan. The chemistry in the cells of orchids and vines sat in the
heavy sun and dried first after the rain hummed to the same tune as it did in cactuses,
succulents and tropical cane. The spreading azure sky hugged the earth's curvature. A
few immense trees emerged through the canopy and stood like high green towers or
pillars, like the world trees of ancient mythology. Vines and the saplings of smaller trees
grew on them like banners and spires. On the horizon to the north luminous purple gray
rain clouds loomed, with dark veils of rain hanging underneath them. Wind came racing
out from the shadows and veils of rain and rippled the leaves on the roof of the forest like
they were waves of grass.

Qui Gon crouched in the uppermost branches of a mozari tree, looking up towards
the sky. The branch, barely large enough to support his weight, bounced in the wind, but
he held on easily, adjusting his balance faster then thought. The sun was hot on his head
and back. He liked the paradox of being up here, that a grassland could have a forest
underneath it. He enjoyed it while he could, it wouldn't be long before Obi Wan arrived
to take him back to Coruscant.

He sensed the ship approaching before he saw it. It was coming from the north,
skimming through the clouds and lightning, but he couldn't sense Obi Wan's unique
energy yet. Why was Obi Wan hiding himself? After a few moments he called out to his
Padwan along the Force, but the call echoed away to nothing. By the time he realized
something was wrong the ship had broken though the silver gray banks of clouds and
mist and was upon him. The emerald green veridium hull plating of a forest guard ship
flashed in the sun. Double voices like echoing thunder boomed from a loudspeaker.

"Stay where you are. If you make us follow you into the forest, it will be much
worse for you."

Qui Gon stared up stunned at the patrol ship whose shadow he was trapped in.
The ship must have run across him by chance during a daily flight to observe the forest. It
had appeared as suddenly, unluckily, and meaninglessly as the lightning that had killed
the tree. He thought about ignoring their warning. If he dove down into the understory,
they would never find him but he had already been seen, he couldn't escape punishment
forever. And he respected the Ithorians. He would break their law, but he would also take
their punishment, even though that meant the end of everything, banishment from Ithor.

* * *

The tree was the oldest in the city. It had so many branching trunks, so many
humped snaking roots and old stumps that it looked more like a small, rough, brown hill
with a grove of trees on top. It was the historic site of dozens of important treaties,
orations, judgments, and meetings. If Ithorian law was not as humane as it was, dozens
would have been hanged from it throughout the city's lifetime.

Thick tough cushions of lichen-moss grew in hollows and over ledges. The elders
perched on stumps and sat enthroned between twined spreading roots. Qui Gon stood
before them on the ground, durasteel binders cold and gray on his wrists. They were only
symbols, everyone knew he could have snapped them like strands of spider web. The cell
they had detained him in had not been oppressive, had been comfortable, compared to
most prisons in the galaxy. It had in fact been very much like his quarters at the temple.
Living things other than the prisoners and guard were not permitted in the cells and his
room had been a weatherless box, not open to the sky. Even the food they had given him
didn't appear to have ever been alive. That was what made it prison to the Ithorians.

*Ramkon*: Ithorian word for prison.

*Ram*: Ithorian word for desert.

*Kon*: Suffix meaning 'exaggerated to an unnatural extreme'.

"Jedi master Qui Gon Jinn, you have wounded our land. You have diminished the
sacredness of a thing much greater than yourself. This planet is now scorched and salted
earth to you. You may never return, not for any reason. We release you to the floating
temple's custody. From there you must leave Ithor before one rotation."

Qui Gon did not lower his eyes but did not look at the elders, gazing off into
middle distance. He didn't know whether to rant at being expelled, or tell them how
earnestly grateful he was to have experienced their planet. Perhaps he should just laugh at
the absurdity of being banned from one of the most patient, contemplative worlds in the
galaxy. Certainly one could not impress a cantina full of spacers bragging about the
warrants and blood prices and royal vendettas against them by saying one was not
allowed on Ithor. He thought of telling them about the bliss of the last moments in the
bafforr grove, how they would endure and glow like exquisitely toned and faceted gems
in his memory, show them that he loved this earth too. But the elder's words, scorched
and salted earth, made him shudder inside. The image made it impossible to tell the
memory, shadowed it. Perhaps latter, in private, in deep space or on Coruscant, it would
be green and blue and moist and alive again. Whether he had done wrong or not, this had
been a sacred place to him and now it was spoiled for him. They agreed on that. It's the
end, that's all, he told himself. But he was so close to agreeing with the elders that he
couldn't defend himself.

"I am deeply sorry." He said, bowing more to the loss than the Ithorians. "I hope
that you and your forest will forgive me."

Then an old forest guard led him away down a twisting path of sand towards the
skimmer that would take him to the Ithorian Jedi temple. Obi Wan was waiting there to
take him back to Coruscant. No one had suspected his part in all this and he must have
projected the apropriat indignant surprise when the council had informed him of his
master's capture. Qui Gon looked down through the skimmer's transparasteel dome at the
crowns of the trees sweeping by below, patched with glossy dark green, emerald, grass,
silver green, gold green, like a field of verdant clouds, and thought that really he had lost
very little. So much living force magic in the universe, even if there was nothing quite
like this planet that he would never see again.

* * *

In a little less than one and a half Coruscant Standard Years, or almost exactly one
Ithorian year, or going by how most Ithorians really measured time, when the gold moon
was in partial eclipse over the Great Northern Island, after the leguanas had spawned, but
while the thornbeans were still ripe on the vine, before the bafforr trees flowered again,
Qui Gon would die. Not many years or cycles of whatever kind you cared to count after
that, all like him would be slaughtered with brutality that even nature, which doesn't care,
can't produce. The war machine of the empire that killed them would send star destroyers
out of deep space to Ithor. They would reach down with turbolazars to burn the forests
until the Ithorians gave up their nonviolent resistance and became slaves. That would
end, but many cycles after that, because of the bafforr trees as the Unifying Force would
have it, a new war machine would flood all of Ithor with poison till nothing was left
living there, or ever could be again. The blue speaking trees would still grow elsewhere
in the galaxy, and so would Ithorians, and Jedi, in one form or another.