Chapter Four

It was by far the strangest proposition he'd ever gotten, and he'd gotten plenty in his thirty-seven years. Considering her argument from all angles, he searched for a flaw.

The Force help me, I can't find one. Her eyes looked so hopeful, so eager for his approval and consent -- not to mention for something more. Reaching through the Force, he felt the eager bubble of innocent joy and hope dancing in her aura.

This isn't a sacrifice for her, he acknowledged. It's not a plea for the strangest kind of protection imaginable. She wants this, she wants me as a woman wants a man. Even if the current situation did not exist, she would still want me. To touch her, to love her, to save her.

No matter how Qui-Gon thought things through, all of Tengri's needs and desires -- not to mention her salvation -- brought him back to the same place.

He could have argued with himself that the princess had appealed once more for the Jedi Knight to protect her, could have argued that he was Code-bound to do so and silenced his conscience that way. But he didn't. She didn't want Qui-Gon, Jedi Master -- she didn't even know he was a Jedi Master, thought of him only as a lowly knight. She wanted the man, and that was what she would get.

Qui-Gon couldn't help himself: he grinned. Rising to his feet, he towered over Tengri where she still knelt, looking up at him expectantly. Taking her hands in his, he brought her to her feet, rubbed his beard against her cheek and murmured, "I believe you said something earlier about wanting a back rub?"

* * *

Ushering Tengri into his cabin, Qui-Gon left her standing in the middle of the floor while he palmed closed the lock, dimmed the lights, and pulled his bed further out from the wall to form a double bunk. The preparations were made quickly, almost too quickly, and then he was back to stand before her. Her eyes were calm, if a little worried at all the unknowables that were to come.

"It's not a very romantic setting, is it? Are you sure about this, Tengri?"

She nodded silently, looking far too serious.

Qui-Gon cupped her cheek in his hand, painfully aware that, no matter his intentions, his hand completely covered the side of her head. Even if she stood on tiptoe, she wouldn't have reached his chin. His size was a blessing in terms of being a Jedi: in terms of making love to a virgin, it could be a curse if he wasn't careful. She was so trusting, so small, and he wanted her so much. Would he be able to see this through without hurting her?

"If, at any time, you want me to stop, you have only to tell me."

"All right." Her voice was little more than a whisper. "But I'm not going to want you to stop."

He smiled crookedly down at her, knowing that she believed it, and also knowing that if he frightened her she could change her mind in less than a heartbeat. "Tengri... Have you ever seen a naked man?"

All of her supposed boldness fled; she could only shake her head and stare at the floor as a blush rose in her cheeks.

"Well, now. There's a first time for everything." Gathering his robe, Qui-Gon pulled it over his head in one smooth motion, and waited.

Her jaw dropped when she dared to lift her eyes. Her thoughts all but screamed at him, and he didn't need the Force to hear her. By all the gods, he's not wearing anything underneath!

Now she saw what he succeeded in hiding from the rest of the world, buried under layers of tunic, billowing sleeves and a black cloak: a lithe, streamlined muscular build that bore witness to years of training in whatever gymnasium accommodated the Jedi. A light-brown dusting of hair down the middle of his chest that ran to a very flat stomach and beyond -- but no, she wouldn't, couldn't look there. Her eyes skittered down his very long legs, then back up and up, until she met and held his gaze.

Please, can't we move along here? she asked silently. What do you want me to do with...this?

Taking pity on her desperation, Qui-Gon gathered her into a hug.

"It's all right," he said gently, taking her hands and feeling her tremble as his manhood moved against her bare thigh. "Everything will be all right, Tengri. Trust me."

"I... do trust you." Her teeth were chattering again.

"Here. Touch me. Like so." Capturing her small, trembling hand, he drew it slowly forward to place it against his chest, over his heart. Splaying her fingers, he stroked downward a little, then left her to do as she willed.

Reaching with subtle tendrils of the Force, he listened to her emotions. He could feel no fear in her, only insecurity that she would do something stupid, something that would embarrass them both. Below that was just a touch of anticipation.

Uncertain exactly what he wanted her to do, she scratched lightly at his chest hair, and Qui-Gon watched her nervousness transform into delight. Even as a flower opens to the sun, so she opened to the new textures and sensations before her.

"This is soft, but you're... Your muscles are hard."

"Mmmm," he rumbled.

Laying her cheek against him, she asked, "Do that again?"

"Do what?"


He obliged, and she sighed her contentment, snuggled against him as though she'd been doing it all her life. Keeping her cheek where it was, she leaned against him. He bore her weight effortlessly, not even bothering to shift his balance back on one leg to brace them. Emboldened by her current success, Tengri stretched like a cat on a sunlit window ledge and reached high to smooth her hands up over his shoulders. She squeezed to feel the muscles bunched there.

"You're very big compared to other men, aren't you?"

"Mmmm," he repeated, as she seemed to like that. His arms encircled her, holding her lighter than mist, careful not to arch against her. The need can wait, he told himself. Must wait. These first moments are only for her.

She seemed to be confining her explorations to his chest, he noted, as though she dared not roam beyond the areas for which he had granted permission. Oh, she was a shy one. The look she gave him was one of pure wonder without lust, and he marveled that this innocent creature would place her heart, her trust, her most precious first time in his hands.

Reaching out, Qui-Gon captured her stroking fingers and relocated them to his hip. After a moment's hesitation, they began sliding over the planes of his flank, where the muscles attached in angular ways that were so very different to the curves of the female body.

Slowly and gently -- almost too gently -- she continued touching him. Her breathing accelerated and so did his. Quivering beneath her touch, he was determined to let her explore his side and stomach at will, yet it took every shred of control for him not to roar out his need and take her where she stood.

Seemingly oblivious to his growing desire, Tengri kissed and stroked and petted until everything in Qui-Gon cried out that something more was needed. The only problem was, she had no idea what that something was.

Entwining her fingers in his hair once more, she brought down his head to nibble on his ear. "Am I doing it right?"

Groaning aloud, he took advantage of the distance between them to arch strongly, regardless it brought little relief. Swallowing hard, Qui-Gon unwound her fingers from his hair, kissed each of her fingers, and smiled. Gathering his tattered control once more, he held his hands between his for a moment.

"You're doing it exactly right. But it's my turn, now."

"Your...turn?" Worried hazel eyes met his. What, exactly, did that mean?

"If I touch you here--" He nuzzled her lips, "If I kiss you like this, just so...." Taking her mouth a little more roughly than before, he finished by sucking on her bottom lip. "What do you think of that?"

Her eyes clouded over with passion.

"And should I move here?..." His breath whispered, warm in her ear, just before he captured her earlobe to nibble gently, suck lightly.

Her knees trembled. "Ungh...."

"Just so." He smiled and felt himself surge forward. "I feel the same about you."

She gasped to feel him more insistent against her thighs. She shivered under his touch, as though all her nerve endings were hypersensitive to his caresses.

Mine are, Qui-Gon mused. Perhaps hers are, too.

Still holding her hands captive, he reached with a finger and stroked down the side of her neck before letting his caress trail further down, into areas that had not yet known a man's touch. The V-neck of the borrowed tunic allowed him access to her cleavage and a little beyond, but Qui-Gon wanted access to more of her. Reaching down, he untied the rope belt.

Tengri shivered, half in anticipation and half in uncertainty when his hands slid inside the fabric and down the bare skin of her sides to encircle her waist. Sliding his hands further down, he easily cupped her hips and pulled her closer to him. Slipping between her legs, he was rewarded by her arching toward him, trying to meet him halfway in an instinctive dance that was older than time itself.

"Slowly and softly, little one," he murmured, caressing the small of her back.

"You're not...."

"Not what?" he rumbled against her, feathered kisses down her neck.

"Not... so... slow or soft or... little," she panted.

"We have all the time we need," he assured. "We have no need to rush."

His hands moved back around to her front. One large palm caressed her stomach, rose smoothly to cup her breast.

Whimpering, Tengri seemed to become conscious that her hands were free to touch him. Touch him, she did, stroking in ways that his hypersensitive need could not enjoy just then, not if he was going to maintain control for her. She needed a gentle, sensitive lover tonight, one who gave everything and asked nothing in return. For that, she had to let him lead.

Once again capturing her small hands in but one of his, Qui-Gon continued to caress her breast with his free hand. Disapproving, Tengri twisted her hands in an effort to get them free.

"Qui-Gon, let go."

"Not yet. Let me guide you."

No, he wasn't small, and he knew exactly what he was doing. So overwhelmed was she by his size, his desire, and her own feelings that Qui-Gon knew it was up to him to control the pace of their lovemaking. Obedient and biddable though she may have been, Tengri was awakening fast, learning her power and how good it felt exercise it -- even over him.

Qui-Gon was determined to kiss her gently, but she pressed her entire length against him, wriggled, and succeeded in turning his simple kisses into something else. Gasping, he backed away from her and abandoned all attempts to keep their lovemaking vertical as he knew he'd probably have more luck at maintaining control if they changed locations. And so, lifting her effortlessly, he carried her to the bed, laid her gently across it, and then sat down to stare at her.

Stormy displeasure was reflected in her eyes: she wanted more kissing, and wanted it now. Reaching up, she tugged on his hair in a non-too-subtle demand that he come down to her level. When that didn't work, she tried whimpering.

Qui-Gon's eyes bore into hers, but he didn't move. A few seconds later, she seemed to figure out what he was waiting for. Sitting up, she unwound his tunic around her and discarded it as he had his robe. Lifting his hand, she placed it back on her breast.

Is this what you want? her eyes asked, uncertain.

With deep reverence, he cupped, caressed, and bowed his head to kiss a trail where his fingers had been. With great gentleness, he took her other breast, smoothed over the erecting nipple, and repeated the most intimate touching. Laying back, Tengri brought his head down with her and arched as his mouth dipped lower to feather kisses over her stomach.


"I'm here."

He was strong, he was gentle, and she felt as though she would shatter with need before he was done. The sensations curling inside her grew stronger and stronger, making Tengri all but writhe and beg him for something she didn't understand, yet was certain that he could give.

He felt her vulnerability through the Force, let her reach for him and knew that, for better or worse, it was probably the first real choice she had ever made. Qui-Gon was big, he was protective, but he was her teacher as well as her lover this night. He was also screaming for release, but that didn't matter. What mattered was loving her, tenderly and safely, and showing her how special she was, how greatly he valued the gift she was offering him.

"I need you, Tengri." He breathed the words into her mouth and she captured his lips fiercely, roaming her fingers over his back and not caring one bit when he crushed her against the mattress -- unavoidable, really, given his size and weight. Supporting as much of that weight as possible, he shifted onto his elbows and moved his hair from her eyes. No matter how he tried to avoid it, his mane always ended up across his lover's face.

She wanted him, too; he could see it in the way her eyes had darkened, could smell it in the scent of her surrounding him. She wanted, he needed. There were vast differences between the two. Qui-Gon hesitated, drawing a deep breath and seeking balance within, seeking to regain control from the high emotion swirling between them.

Protect her, his instincts insisted past his throbbing arousal. Protect her, and her innocence. Let there be no regrets for this time.

Being taken by violence was a cruelty, and he could spare her that, at least. The gods only knew what her fate would be eventually at the hands of her bastard of a brother, not to mention Vol if she were forced to return home. If worst came to worst -- and it might -- Qui-Gon could at least give her one night of being loved and cherished.

Somehow -- and he wasn't quite certain how, except that she'd been beautiful and brave, had conquered her fears and made it clear that she valued him as a man and not just as her protector -- this little slip of a woman had eased past his decades-old defenses, had shouted down all of his instinctive refusals, and now found herself in his bed where only a select few were ever admitted. Certainly, none of his diplomatic charges had landed there before. If only in that accomplishment, Tengri was totally unique.

She was unique in many other ways as well, needing both noble knight and man as her lover tonight. Well then, he'd please her... and please himself, too, if he could. When all of the elegant, honorable Jedi reasons were stripped away, the fact of the matter was that he wanted her something fierce, no matter his motivations. It didn't matter that she was a virgin -- she was Tengri and that was enough. She came alive beneath his hands, was flushed with a powerful need that he had created, desire that he had awakened in her for the first time. She needed him, wanted him in ways she had never known possible, and by the gods he would answer that need and make her glad she had known him.

Kneeling on the bed, he carefully lowered himself against her. She opened her legs as he did so, holding his gaze and never flinching when he lay between them.

"Tengri, there will be pain."

"I don't care."

"You might. I will stop at any moment you wish it." He prayed silently that she would not wish it, and that he would be able to stop if she asked it.

"I won't," she assured him with innocent confidence. Entwining her fingers in his hair, she kissed him gently. "I love you, Qui-Gon. Please... can't you love me just a little, too?"

On a moan, he slid upward. Her fingers dug into his back when he pressed himself hard against her. She trembled at the strange, intrusive touch and wanted to do something with the new sensations, but he was so much taller than she that his mouth was far out of reach. Nervously turning her cheek against his solid chest, she encountered his nipple. Nuzzling against it, she returned the gentle contact that he had given her own breasts moments before, and sucked experimentally.

It was the worst possible thing she could have done at the worst possible time. Arching fiercely, Qui-Gon broke abruptly through her barrier, only to freeze when she yelped and stiffened beneath him.

"Tengri!" he gasped, half-panting with the effort it took not to keep thrusting. "I'm sorry--"

"Don't move!" she hissed, sounding and feeling more upset with herself than with him.

"I've hurt you--" Shame for that momentary lapse in control flooded through the Jedi Master: he'd done exactly what he'd sworn would not happen. At least one objective of the night had been achieved: she was no longer a virgin. It was small consolation, however. He began to withdraw, but was rewarded with ten fingernails digging into the tender flesh of his backside.

"Don't you dare leave! You haven't hurt me -- it's... it's stinging a little, but it's not serious. Just... give me a minute and let me breathe, please? Let me get used to this."

Wrapping her arms around as much of his broad torso as she could embrace, Tengri clung so close that Qui-Gon had no chance of retreating.

"If you weren't so tall and so far out of reach," she continued, "I'd bite your nose. So just stay there, please?"

"Yes, Tengri," he replied humbly, through gritted teeth. You have no idea how difficult it is for me to give you what you are asking. But give it, he would.

Settling cautiously, he waited while she dealt with the pain. Within only a few moments, she was experimentally stretching against him, holding her breath and testing, then letting go her breath as the stinging seemed to have eased.

"Ohh,..." she sighed with the building sensations. "Now, this is interesting," she murmured against his chest.

Qui-Gon blinked in the dim light as delicious tendrils of feeling made him pulse within her, and she began arching in earnest, setting a rhythm and... purring beneath him.

"May I..." A gasp interrupted his words. Swallowing hard as he thickened and surged uncontrollably inside her, Qui-Gon shook his head to uncross his eyes and tried again. "May I move, Tengri?"

"Do... whatever you want...."

He matched her rhythm for rhythm, feeding her hunger as she fed his. Once again, her fingers were playing with his hair, and he made a mental note to inquire about her obsession with that -- just as soon as he was capable of speech again. Higher, harder and faster he took her -- or was she taking him? -- until she screamed beneath him, raked her nails the length of his back, and tightened so hard around him that he had no choice but to follow her. She cried out his name as he came within her, filling, surrounding and trying to protect her from his weight even as he ground her hips into the mattress. His universe tilted momentarily, took forever righting itself, and he felt the same, vague sadness he always did that such intimacy ended so quickly.

"You beautiful, beautiful man..." she murmured, slurring the words and wriggling slowly upward after Qui-Gon had collapsed on one arm.

Once more able to look him in the eye, she smoothed back the tendrils of damp hair obscuring his vision. Her eyes dark with passion, her lips swollen with his kisses, Tengri had a new depth to her gaze, which was no longer that of an innocent young girl. Snuggling closer, she planted a soft kiss on the tip of Qui-Gon's nose.

"You won't bite me now, will you?" he rumbled, sleepy and sated.

"No, Qui-Gon."

He stroked her face gently even as he studied her intently, silently praying that there would be no regrets. All he felt from her was a most contented lover from whom flowed a steady stream of love, satisfaction and wonder. He could find no pain and definitely no regrets, thank the gods.

Sliding his arms tightly around her, he wrapped her safe and close. Breathing together on a sigh, they both fell asleep surrounded by love.

* * *

He awoke disoriented, wondering why his legs were all entangled with the blankets, as well as with someone else's legs. The next moment, he remembered Tengri. She'd never moved throughout the night; they'd slept facing each other and she was still curled against him, her head resting on his outstretched arm.

The gentle chiming of the com console told him that someone was waiting to talk with him. Easing his arm out from under Tengri, he stretched across her to get out of the bed and succeeded in waking her up.

"Good morning."

"What's wrong?" she asked sleepily.

"Incoming message." He planted a brief kiss on her lips before completing his climb from the bed. "It's probably the Council. Again."

Retrieving Tengri's borrowed tunic that he'd discarded on the floor the night before, Qui-Gon shrugged into it. Not bothering to search out a pair of trousers, he exited the room.

Tengri reflected that his nakedness would probably be all right; the com camera wouldn't broadcast more than his head and shoulders. She decided not to tell him that his hair was a tangled mess.

His waking tone was vastly different from that of her lover last night, she noted. This morning's voice was dry, tight and tense. Very tense. Whatever was happening, Qui-Gon obviously anticipated that it would not be pleasant. And if it worried Qui-Gon, it must be serious.

Wrapping a blanket around herself, she padded after him, determined not to miss whatever mayhem was awaiting them now.

"...more serious than you imagine," Mace Windu was saying heatedly as Tengri stepped just inside the room, well out of range of the comlink camera. "The Senate leadership has been advised of your actions. Only this morning, Chancellor Valorum has requested that the Jedi Council consider stripping you of your Mastership."

Tengri stumbled against the bulkhead, stunned as the meaning of the angry Jedi's words sank in. Strip Qui-Gon of his mastership? Mastership? He's a Jedi Master? I just slept with....

Worse, I've just ruined the career of a Jedi Master. And he knew I would. Oh gods, what did I just do?

Windu continued in the same vein, but Tengri heard him only peripherally, until certain words caught her attention.

"You may be the best swordsman in 400 years, Qui-Gon, but you know as well as I that politics have never been your forte, and you're truly in it now. I don't think even Master Yoda can save you this time. The Force knows I've already tried, but no one will listen to me."

Tengri felt the blood draining from her face. Not only is he a master; he's the best warrior among the ten thousand- something they've got and they sent HIM to help me? HIM? It's not enough that he rescued me from Erachnis and began a war. Now, we've slept together. I can just hear the gossip now: "Whatever you do, don't entrust your daughter to a Jedi Master!" No matter what happens to me, his life will never be the same. And he did it all just because he wanted to help me. Just me...and that's nobody special. Nobody worth losing all of this for. She buried her face in her hands. Oh, Qui-Gon, why didn't you tell me you were a Master? I would have left you alone, if you'd told me.... Oh gods, why didn't I just stay with the spiders?

My mother got him into this, and it was supposed to be a simple mission. The Council would never have risked someone of his talents on a dangerous one. I'm the one who messed everything up. I had some grand ideas about having a life of my own, and now I've destroyed his in exchange. A Jedi Master in exchange for a useless little girl. A stupid little girl, too.

Tears started to flow as she struggled to make her stunned mind work quickly through the shock and the shame. Well, then, I'm just going to have to unmess it, aren't I?

Narrowing her eyes at the image of Mace Windu that was still berating her erstwhile lover, Tengri straightened her shoulders and tried to think more clearly.

If he's been that willing to fight for me, if he thinks I'm worth all of this risk... If he's willing to kill a bunch of nasty spiders, face down two planet governments, the Senate and Master Yoda -- never mind the rest of the Jedi Council -- and not worry about what might happen to him, then I really think that I ought to take some responsibility for HIS life, too.

They are NOT going to do this to him. They WILL NOT! A rage and protectiveness that Tengri had never known surged upward. Rising to her feet, she stormed Into the next room where the verbal execution was taking place.

Slipping in front of Qui-Gon, she interrupted Mace Windu in full flow, her eyes smoldering with fury.

"Excuse me, sir, but you can tell my brother and Prince Val to go to hell, though the charming Prince Vol won't have very far to go, since he lives there anyway. Let me tell you what my beloved brother wanted me to do: marry a spider that weaves commercial building material out of its butt. My brother wanted those materials badly enough to sell me in exchange for them, which means that he sold me for nothing but spider shit."

"Tengri--" Qui-Gon rumbled behind her, standing so close that she could feel his voice in her chest. His fingers were wrapped around her neck and tightening in a less-than-subtle warning: Don't speak to a Jedi Master like that, much less an honored member of the Council. The short version was that she wasn't helping the situation.

Oh? Well, Master Windu's intruding in my life, not to mention trying to order BOTH of us around, and that's really disrespectful, too. Anyway, I think they've got it coming because they're on my brother's side. She sent the thought with such force that she knew he'd catch it. He was a Master, after all. Being polite wasn't getting you very far, was it?

Once more, she focused on Master Windu. "Other options were available, but my brother was just too impatient or too lazy to use them. Or maybe he just wanted me out of the way. Far better to sacrifice his ignorant little sister than actually have to negotiate or spend credits, right? Well, as of this morning, if the King wishes to solidify his relations with a bunch of spiders who would probably rather eat him than trade honestly with him, then I suggest that he genetically engineer a 6-foot spider and mate it with Prince Vol because as of this morning, I am off of the trade market. I deserve better than to be raped by an Erachnid. No matter how much you, Master Yoda or the Republican Senate spit and fuss, I am not going back to Prascene, much less Erachnis."

Straightening her shoulders beneath Qui-Gon's hands, she continued. "As of this moment and with Master Qui-Gon Jinn as my witness, I officially renounce my Prascene citizenship. If I have to renounce my membership in the Republic, I'm prepared to do that as well. Do I have to?"

"" Windu sputtered.

"Good. I'm glad to hear that I don't. Right now, anyway. Let me know if you and the bureaucrats decide that's a requirement for me to freely live my own life."

"Changes things, this does not. Signed, the agreement was," Master Yoda's voice came from the region of the floor. A moment later, the com-camera refocused to reveal him standing at Mace's feet. "A citizen you were when it was signed. Legal it is. Binding it is. Fulfill your part of the agreement you must. Dictated it is, by Republic law."

Tengri had the distinct impression that this Master was a late addition to the conference. So be it. Bring on your big, Jedi. Even if they are short. I can handle this.

She actually grinned at the little green guy. "Is it really, Master Yoda? Even if I wanted to, I can't honor it. You see, the agreement to which you're referring also claims that I'm a virgin. I'm not." She shrugged. "Nobody bothered to ask me about that little detail. So no matter how you look at it, that document is null and void; Prince Vol won't want me."

That finished it. There's no way out of it now. Oh, sweet Tengri, Qui-Gon thought, practically cringing behind her, did you have to tell them that just this moment, when you've apparently forgotten that you're standing here addressing two Jedi Masters in nothing but a blanket from my bed? We will deceive no one with this masquerade.

Qui-Gon wasn't surprised when Yoda stretched out his clawed hand toward the screen and closed his eyes. When next those bug-eyes opened, it was to look beyond Tengri and nail Qui-Gon with a stern look.

"Speak to you of this, we will."

Tightening his jaw, Qui-Gon bowed slightly, acknowledging his actions, his responsibility, and accepting what was surely to come.

"Do you admit to taking the Princess as your lover?" Trust Mace Windu to cut right to the chase.

Tengri sputtered. "I'm not a princess. Not any more."

Yoda silenced her with a sour look. "You were then, Princess."

"I admit it," Qui-Gon said quietly, firmly.

"Far from sorry, you are," Yoda growled. "Believe you that this is part of serving her honorably as a Jedi?"


"Don't you dare yell at him for decisions I made!" Tengri all but shouted at Yoda, who rocked back on his clawed feet and stared at her as though he'd never been addressed in such a manner.

The green ears were coming down and the eyes were narrowing; a very bad Sign indeed. Qui-Gon pressed his fingers harder into his lover's collarbones in some faint hope of deterring further damage. In one angry movement, she twisted out from under his hands and clutched her blanket tightly to her with one small, white-knuckled hand.


"Stop it! I'm not going to do what you want me to. What any of you want me to do. I'm going to live my own life, is that clear? I'm going to say what needs to be said so that all of you interfering Jedi will just back off! Again, I'm telling you: Don't punish Qui-Gon for decisions I made."

"You made?" Mace questioned. "But surely Qui-Gon advised you--"

"Advised me, yes. Recommended options to me, yes. But all of the choices, all of them, were mine." Fisting one hand at her side, she glowered a challenge at the two masters.

As for Qui-Gon, he backed up a step, away from the maelstrom of emotions.

"I asked Qui-Gon for help. I asked him to find a way to guarantee that I would not be sent back to that -- that hormonal monster. Our sleeping together was the only absolute, guaranteed way. I asked him to do it. As a Jedi, he was already committed to my protection; he did what he needed to do.

Closing his mouth, Yoda raised his head and stared at the girl. Folding his arms, Windu retreated into meditation with the Force, probing and feeling his way through the threads of energy to discover how much was the truth. Bowing his own head in meditation, Qui-Gon opened to the Jedi, letting them capture the images as they would of the last two days.

Alarmed, Tengri glanced in growing anxiety as the three Jedi became immobile, doing something in a realm in which she had no place.

"The truth, she speaks," Yoda said quietly with more than a hint of wonder a few minutes later. "Protect her, Qui-Gon did. Protect him, Tengri does now. No more, no less."

Opening his eyes again, Mace Windu stared at the fragile creature who didn't even come up to Qui-Gon's chin. She met his gaze head on, with the strength of the love she carried for Qui-Gon astonishing and thrilling Windu, though he hardly would have confessed it to Yoda. It's about time you found somebody who loved you as fiercely as you can love others, my old friend.

Sighing, Yoda dropped his chin. "Decide, she did. Protect him, she does, as must the Council. But condone this coupling, we cannot."

"Where is it written that Qui-Gon or I have to ask anyone's permission before deciding to sleep with someone?" Tengri asked through gritted teeth.

Yoda stared at her outright, his pointed ears rigid and mouth open.

"You've got him there," Qui-Gon muttered from behind her. They've never cared who I bedded before this. Since Tengri has renounced her citizenship and her royal position, she can no longer be expected to honor any legal entanglements from Prascene. Neither the Council nor the Senate has any jurisdiction over her whatsoever, except as a citizen of the Republic. It's no crime to change your mind or to lose your virginity, and since she's not a Jedi, they can't tell her what to do with her life. As for my problems with the Council, I think she's already taken care of that.

Turning slightly, Yoda looked up at Mace, who didn't bother to hide his grin this time.

"It's over," Windu said cheerfully to Yoda. Turning back to the view screen, saluted Tengri. "Young lady, you've won this argument, hands down. More than that--" He all but leered at her. "You've gotten your lover out of trouble."

"Not just her lover," Yoda pointed out, leaning forward on his stick. "A Jedi Master."

Tengri tilted her head and considered the breathless delivery of that news. "So you think that I should be in awe of Qui-Gon's station, accomplishments and talents -- the very things that made him your perfect choice to protect me -- and use that awe as an excuse to avoid any future... emotional entanglements?" She laughed softly. "I'm sorry, Master Yoda, but it's far too late for that sort of intimidation to work on me -- though it probably would have if I'd known at the start that he was 'Master Qui-Gon'. I was under the impression that he was simply a Jedi Knight -- one of hundreds under you -- sent to deliver me to my new home. The first I knew of his rank was when I heard Master Windu mention it this morning."

Yoda deflated, visibly.

Windu just grinned wider. "In a subtle effort to offer more protection at your mother's request, we deliberately neglected to inform anyone of Qui-Gon's ranking."

"I believe that was Master Yoda's plan," Qui-Gon spoke quietly from behind Tengri.

The ancient Jedi glowered through the view screen. Still, Qui-Gon thought that the laugh lines around the old master's eyes were threatening to deepen. Yes, there it was... a smile was definitely beginning to twitch at either end of his toothless mouth.

"Nothing happens by accident," Qui-Gon concluded.

Mace Windu laughed outright. "Qui-Gon, you're incorrigible."

The Jedi bowed solemnly. "I do what I must."

Sighing deeply, Yoda twitched down his ears in surrender. "Know that, we do. Matters we have with the Senate to smooth over. Protect you, we will."

"Both of you," promised Windu. "Just do us a favor, please, and don't tell anyone else that Master Qui-Gon was the one who... er... initiated you?"

"As you wish. I will send a formal, untraceable statement to Prascene and Coruscant regarding the renunciation of my citizenship," Tengri volunteered. "No one should suffer for my determination to live my own life. Agreed, gentlemen?"

Yoda's ears came up at that statement, which had all of the earmarks of being part of a lecture delivered by a Jedi Master. "Taught you well, Qui-Gon has."

"Well, he is a Jedi master! "Tengri snapped. "It's part of his job, and who better to teach me? If you combine my renunciation with your own statement, I believe you'll discover that my brother and Vol are true cowards at heart. I've no doubt that Vol still wants desperately to sell huge quantities of whill to Prascene. Again, I seriously suggest that you pressure my brother to clone a bigger, better spider. I'm sure Prince Vol would be most interested in marrying such a virgin which would be infinitely more suited to his needs. I'm still not sure if I was slated to be dinner or the evening's entertainment."

"Very well, Princess. We'll do that." With a final nod Qui-Gon's way, Windu severed the link.

The minute the screen went black, Qui-Gon whirled Tengri around, grabbed her up, and hugged her within an inch of her life. As her feet left the deck, she found herself nose to nose with him, and he was grinning.

"I am so very proud of you."

"I thought you'd be mad at me," she protested. "Did I get it right? Did we win? I mean, really win?"

Qui-Gon's eyes crinkled at the corners as he slid her back down to the deck and smiled down at her. "We won. You're free to go anywhere, do anything you wish. You even managed to rescue me, which is something that I assure you has not happened in a great many years."

"Good. That was my main concern when I jumped in front of you." Worried hazel eyes searched his. "Qui-Gon, would the Council really have stripped you of your rank?"

"Probably." At her skeptical look, he shrugged. "At the very least, there would have been a formal misconduct hearing. My job is to keep the peace, not incite a war, nor have liaisons with innocents in my keeping."

"You gambled with your life, and I won?"

He nodded.

"My knees have gone all wobbly; I need to sit down." Sinking into a chair, she rested her head in her hands as the blood deserted her head and her vision began darkening. "I don't feel very well."

"You probably need breakfast."

Blinking past the stress headache that was throbbing just behind her eyes, she stared up at him. "You took a terrible risk, Qui-Gon, and you know it."


"Yet you're just standing there, looking calm as ever. Don't you realize what you almost lost?"

Another shrug. Folding his arms before him, he bowed slightly and managed -- even in his half-dressed state -- to project total self-confidence and mastery of the situation.

"Things happen the way they're meant to happen," he said softly. "There's no use concentrating dwelling on what might have happened. Besides..." He spread his hands and offered a crooked smile. "You saved me."

Tengri sighed. "I do not believe that I'm sitting here having this conversation with a half-naked Jedi Master."

"If it would make you feel better, I will put some clothes on."

"That would not make me feel better!" Springing to her feet, she approached him with fire in her eyes. "Qui-Gon, do you have any other secrets you'd like to tell me?"

He stood his ground and all but looked down his nose at her. Of course it was impossible for her to intimidate her. In the first place, she was too short. In the second, what could she possibly do to threaten him? "No secrets that I can think of at the moment. And my being a Jedi Master wasn't a secret. It just hadn't been mentioned yet."

"Hadn't been mentioned?" she echoed in rising irritation.

"Did you ask?" he replied reasonably.

"How would I know to ask that? Is there anything else I should know to 'ask' about? Anything else that just hasn't been mentioned yet?"

"Not that I can think of."

"Good. Because if you ever keep something as major as your mastery of the Force from me again, I'll... Well, next time I just won't rescue you."

Capturing the hand that seemed intent upon stabbing him painfully in the sternum, Qui-Gon kissed it. "Next time, sweet Tengri, you won't have to rescue me."