by Trudy West (truwest@hotmail.com)

Title: Hidden
Author: Trudy West, truwest@hotmail.com
Pairings: Q/O, POV, First Time
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Explicit consensual sex. What a surprise.
Archive: MA, others probably OK, email to ask
Disclaimer: I don't own them, no money involved.
Summary: Recovering back at the Temple after the events on Naboo, Qui-gon keeps thinking about Obi-wan but has trouble figuring out why.
Author's Comments: Mellow!Fic. No histrionics. No crises. Only cluelessness, melancholy, and mild angst. You'd better like it inside of Qui-gon's head, because that's where the POV stays. Readers who prefer more intensity should stay tuned for an upcoming Hurt!Obi story that they may like better. 

Almost a year, and I haven't seen him yet. Not even talked with him. He's out on the Rim, and at those distances, realtime communications are exorbitantly expensive. A justifiable expense for urgent Council reports, not justifiable for personal missives to ex-masters. It's not necessary to see him and speak to him realtime. Delayed holo is just as effective. I have nothing to say of such importance that it requires realtime. Like his other friends, I will wait until he returns to Temple and we meet face-to-face.

But it feels strange to have him so remote. The person whom I saw, lived with, talked with almost every day for twelve years - unreachable now.

It's not his fault. It's mine. He's been back twice and came to see me promptly both times. Unfortunately I was indisposed on both occasions. I spent the better part of a half-year in and out of bacta. My injury was stubbornly persistent, as if the Sith refused to admit defeat even in his grave. The healers were uncertain if it was the severity of the wound, the aging of my body, or the poisonous touch of the Sith blade, but for whatever reason, the flesh refused to knit soundly, despite extended stays in the tank. Each time I came out only to relapse. Each time I was rushed back into the tank.

I'm afraid of the tank. Not very admirable for a Jedi master. As a child, I had nightmares of being submerged in a tank with a malfunctioning breathing unit, and drowning in the thick fluid while medtechs stood oblivious. My childhood fear resurfaces at the worst times, usually when I'm flat on my back, in pain, struggling to suppress my panic while the tank looms above, waiting for me…

The first time I came out of bacta, I had two concerns: Obi-wan and Anakin. When they told me Obi-wan was well, newly knighted, and off on a mission, I was enormously relieved. When they told me that Anakin was already in a training bond with another master, I was even more relieved. I had not planned to take another padawan after Obi-wan, but I would have done so if that were the only way that Anakin would be trained. He's too powerful to leave unguided. I know his new master, she's a good woman, strong in the Force. She will likely be a better fit for Anakin than I. She's caring and demonstrative, good for a lonely boy missing his mother. I am not as good in that regard, although I'm better than I was, thanks to Obi-wan.  

After my last bleedout, which occurred in the dining hall (an appetizing event for the observers), I watched the healers prepare the tank yet again while I fought to breathe, and I just wanted it to be over. Over, in any way possible. But to die without doing my utmost to mend would be an insult to those who had tried so hard to heal me. Mace told me later that he was more concerned about the look on my face than the hole in my chest. I failed to notice when he left the lab but when he returned, he had Yoda with him. My former master said nothing but came and took my hand, and I remembered nothing until they removed me from the tank many days later.

Either that last tank immersion worked, or Yoda did something, because the injury finally began to heal correctly.  Slowly, but soundly.

The two times that Obi-wan was back at the temple, the healers told me that he came to the lab immediately after reporting to the Council, still in his traveling clothes, and for hours sat in meditation or stood lost in thought, near the tank where I hung suspended in that sleep without dreams. I have no memory of his visits. I wish I did. If I could have had just had one interaction with him after the battle, after Naboo, it might have banished this uneasy feeling of mine. Unfinished business I have with Obi-wan. Force, I sound more like Yoda the older I get. Yet everything I have to say to Obi-wan, he already knows: that I'm sorry for our conflict over Anakin, that I'm proud of him, that I wish him the best in his future life. Why it would make such a difference to me to say it in person, I don't know. But it does.

In the dreary time that I was in and out of the tanks, I was able to send only one message to Obi-wan. 

My first time out of the tanks, released to my room with strict instructions to rest, I had checked my messages, sorting for Obi-wan's signature.  Six messages, the last one from just a few days prior. So he was alive, and well enough to send messages. I had worried about that. Everyone had kept assuring me that he was fine, but given my weakened condition, the healers might have conspired to withhold any bad news.

I watched the first two messages. They were in the style of typical ramblings from a friend, a mixed bag of comments about people met, places seen, complete with witty observations and asides. The only thing that was unusual was the sender. Obi-wan and I had always seen each other so frequently, there had been no need to send messages. Despite my rising pain, I kept watching.

That third message was different.

His image appeared, not standing but kneeling, head bowed, his contrite padawan posture. Without greeting or preamble, he said, "Master, I must confess something that it took me some hours of meditation to come to terms with. It's about my response to Anakin. I know I've already apologized you for my behavior, and you said there was nothing to apologize for, because I spoke my mind honestly. But I did not.

"It's true, I agreed with the Council that Anakin was too dangerous to be trained. I, like them, changed my opinion after the events at Naboo. What he did there made it clear that he can't be left loose in the universe. But the strength of my feeling wasn't due to your defiance of the Council. Force knows, you defy them often enough, and while it can get tiresome, it never disturbed me as much as this issue with Anakin. 

"I was the problem, nothing to do with him or with you. I resented him. You were so kind to him, believed in him so easily. You were never that way with me. There were times past I would have given an arm to hear you say to me the kinds of things you said to him. I was jealous.

"But I was also angry with you because I felt you were being cruel to him. To talk to him about becoming a Jedi, while knowing he was too old, that the Council would likely disapprove….you positioned him for a disappointment that no child should have to endure. I know because I'd experienced it myself, when I was sent away as a failed initiate. I thought that you were setting him up for a fall that would result in both him and you being hurt. But you wouldn't listen to me, and I expressed myself poorly, because I didn't understand my own feelings.

"I'm sorry I was not as insightful as I should have been regarding my own negative emotions. I wish to apologize, Master, for slighting both you and him. It pains me that I may have come to this realization too late. But I'm glad of the chance to confess it, even if you never hear this message. I'm sorry." The image winked out.

Although it seemed I could hardly think straight due to the pain, that message required an immediate response. I'd have to send it text only, because I didn't want him seeing or hearing me in my weakened condition. I dictated slowly to the comm:

"Obi-wan, thank you for sharing your thoughts. One of the things I've always valued about you is your willingness to open your mind and heart to others without reservation. Please be assured that you have done no harm to either Anakin or me. I'm sorry for my part in the pain that you suffered as a boy. You were - and are - as deserving as he. I know that in your youth I implied that the lack was in you, but that was wrong. The fault was in me. My reluctance had everything to do with my experience with Xanatos, and nothing to do with you. Over the years, as you excelled in every way, I came to realize that. I should have told you, but I am not as forthcoming as you in sharing my thoughts. Be assured that part of the reason for my encouragement of Anakin was based on my failure to properly welcome the boy you once were, a mistake that I determined never to repeat. Be well, Obi-wan, and know that I am happy for you in your new knighthood, and that I love you and miss you."

I remembered sending the message and feeling grateful that if I died, Obi-wan would know that I had heard him. It was the last thing I remembered. Mace told me that they found me collapsed on the floor in my sitting room, bleeding profusely. They dumped me back in the tank.

Later, much later, having escaped the tank for the last time, I finally got an opportunity to check my comm log and review my message. At least the wording was coherent and showed no sign of my poor condition when I dictated it.

As I heal, I write to Obi-wan, still text only.  Having started in that mode, it gives me an excuse to continue. Our subsequent messages are in the style of his initial ones, news of events, other persons, funny stories. Nothing too intimate. I refer to my injury only in a casual, passing way. I'm sure it doesn't fool him. He knows exactly why I send text while he sends holos, even if he never speaks of it. 

Recovery is tedious, more so than I would have imagined. I've never had an injury of this severity before, so I have no experience to compare. Tendays of inactivity, nothing permitted more strenuous than reading, or walking across a room. Yet those small actions leave me panting with exhaustion. My frustrations and impatience grant me no power over my body, other than to burden it further with negative emotion. I try to meditate, but it's difficult. Everything is difficult.

I dislike taking analgesics. I try to dispel the pain through the Force but often fail. I have trouble sleeping. Mace notices the circles under my eyes and reports it to the healers, who descend on me like carrion eaters, clucking and cawing. Poor Mace, to see me brought this low --his longtime sparring partner and thorn in his righteous Council-member side, now an invalid, perhaps even a permanent cripple.  He didn't dare argue with me for a time, but spoke in soft tones about innocuous topics. That told me more about the seriousness of my condition than a thousand healers ever could. I finally snapped and told him bluntly that I was more tired of his behavior than I was of my injury.  He flared up and we had a good satisfying snarl at each other.  I wish everything were as easily fixed as my relationship with Mace.

Sometimes the only reason I can think of for dragging my carcass through one more day is the possibility of a new message from Obi-wan. As with a favorite entertainment, I want to find out the next chapter of his life. He always has some amusing anecdote to relate, in addition to the more serious topics. After receiving a holo from him, I can actually feel that life can still be something to enjoy, rather than just endure.

Trying to fan that spark of optimism in myself-- the healers have frowningly said that my melancholy is not helping me -- I watch his messages over and over, until I've memorized the words. On nights when the aches are persistent, I've even set the audio to run in an endless loop while I sleep. I turn the sound down so I can barely hear his faint voice, murmuring like water over stones, yet still recognizably him. It seems to help.

I can't feel his presence in my mind at all. Obi-wan's presence. It's disturbing. It could just be the physical distance, but I don't think so. Even after a training bond is severed, there should be a faint sense of presence regardless. The healers warned me that they couldn't fully predict the impact of having the training bond broken while I was deeply unconscious and suffering a near-mortal injury. There have not been many such cases apparently. This blankness is apparently one unexpected consequence. It feels as if he never existed. That's irrational, I know. Sometimes I sit in his empty room and remember it filled with his possessions, and it seems like a dream rather than a memory. Like something I read in a story long ago.

Equally frustrating is my mind's occasional imagined sense of him. Several times I swore I could feel him near me, somewhere in the vicinity. I even looked. Once it was in the library, and a dozen pairs of curious eyes watched me while I searched. He wasn't there, of course. I've heard that people who have suffered amputations can suffer from phantom feelings in the missing limb -- pain or muscle movement while knowing intellectually that there's no flesh there to feel. So I seem to suffer from a phantom training bond.  It is ironic that the thing which I resisted so strongly should now haunt me in its absence. Obi-wan would be amused.

He seems happy in his messages. Eager to be out on his own, making his own decisions about what is to be done, rather than having to abide by mine. He is capable, and he knows it, too capable to work willingly in a short leash, choke-collared by another. I remember what it was like with Yoda. I loved my old master but I was incredibly relieved to finally work on my own. That was one of the reasons I had refused to take a new padawan, any padawan: the knowledge that I'd be saddled with the responsibility of a young person for many years, unable to act as freely as I could alone. By the peculiar justice of the universe, I now sit by myself in my now-quiet rooms and miss that unwanted padawan.

I send him messages as well. Still text only, no visuals. I'm still not looking very well. I know that Obi-wan is getting reports on me from others (Mace for one), but there's no need for him to see how wasted this injury has left me. I took years of aging in that one blow from the Sith. Perhaps it's just my vanity, but I don't want him to worry needlessly.  My health and appearance is improving, no need for him to see the worst of it. Hopefully by the time Obi-wan returns, my hair will be grayer, with a few more lines on my face, but I won't look as though I'm at death's door. Perhaps I'll even be able to spar. Force, how far away that future seems.

He's growing his hair. With each holo, I can see it's a little longer. New knights frequently grow their hair, after years of a mandated hairstyle that many find unflattering. It never seemed unbecoming on him, but I admit that the longer hair is appealing, or perhaps it's his mannerisms. That length of hair falls into his eyes or across his cheek and he combs his fingers through it absent-mindedly, tucking it behind his ears. He hasn't mentioned his hair in his messages. I wonder how long he intends to let it grow, and if it distracts him when he practices or meditates, as mine initially did me.

I wonder what happened to his padawan braid. I wasn't there at his knighting ceremony on Naboo; or rather I was there, but confined to the medlab in a tank. Apparently Yoda took my role and cut his braid. Traditionally new knights give their braid to their master after she or he severs it. I assume Obi-wan gave his to Yoda. I haven't asked. I confess I had looked forward to keeping that braid. Only one of many things that were lost on Naboo.

They've finally let me begin a training routine. Thank the Force, it feels good to finally be able to move without immediate exhaustion or pain. Nothing too draining, everything at the slowest possible speed.  Only katas and such, done empty-handed. Obi-wan has my lightsaber and I haven't had the focus or energy to build a new one. I find it comforting that he has it. It served me well and hopefully will do the same for him. 

With my irregular sleeping hours, I've gotten in the habit of going to the training salles late in the Temple night cycle. I'd rather avoid curious gazes for now. The hole in my chest has scarred, which is unusual with bacta-treated injuries, but I'm grateful that it healed at all. The scar tissue is external and internal, I can feel it pull when I move through the positions. New scars are malleable, though, and I intend to get as much of my full range of motion back as possible.

I have to be honest with myself. While I'm still in the middle of my species' life span, and Force willing will have many more years of strength and good health, I was already slowing before the injury. My two fights with the Sith were proof of that. They challenged me as they would not have in years past.  The injury just hastened the day that I had to face this. I am no longer one of the best warriors in the order. That honor must pass to younger Jedi.

Yoda always said that he considered himself fortunate to be of a smaller species, since it meant that from the beginning he had to rely on the Force rather than brute strength. He mentioned that homily often enough in my youth, when I took pride in my height, size and speed. Now it seems that I have the opportunity to learn Yoda's lesson at last. If I heal sufficiently, the Council will return me to field duty, but it will be on the strength of my connection to the Force, not on the strength of my body. My body's best days have come and gone.

I have the dream again. It changes slightly each time. I'm back on Naboo, on the floor, with that weak, shocky, out-of-body feeling that comes on the heels of a serious injury after the adrenaline wears off. Obi-wan is there, cradling my head in his lap, looking down at me. He isn't anguished and crying, as he was in reality; in my dream, he seems peaceful, quietly happy. I look up at his beautiful face. His hand is over my injury. I can feel warmth and power flowing from his palm into my body, rolling down my torso like the pleasant burning that follows the swallow of an alcoholic drink. The wound doesn't hurt. I can feel his fingers against my skin. I could stay here forever.

I wake up with an erection, for the first time since the injury. I suppose that's a blessing.  My subconscious must identify with Obi-wan in his youth and energy. One more thing I have to thank him for. Although I will refrain from mentioning this specific example to him.

I've begun to worry that my fixation on Obi-wan is not healthy. I'm using him, or rather the idea of him, as a crutch for my own inability to deal effectively with my situation.

I don't want to talk with the healers about this. I have to deal with them enough as it is.

I consider talking to Mace.  He's had padawans and would have useful insights, as always. I dismiss that thought. I don't want to give a Council member any more evidence of my potential unfitness for duty. It's going to take long enough prove to them that I'm physically recovered without raising doubts about my psychological health as well.  And there's another reason I'm hesitant about talking with Mace. There's one trait that makes him an excellent Council member but an intimidating friend: his uncanny ability to smell hidden issues and drag them by their ankles out from their secret place and into the cold brilliant spotlight of his intellectual regard. I'm not sure what my hidden issues are on this topic, and I don't want them exposed by my ruthless friend Mace. Not yet. 

I finally decide that Tal is the person to ask for advice. I've been spending a good deal of time with her anyway, hoping that her wisdom and experience will aid me in my struggle with my negative emotions and weakened body. Although she's adapted admirably to her blindness, even taking a padawan, she still remembers the feeling of vulnerability that comes from having your body and future altered irreparably in a moment. She will be gentle with my hidden issues, no matter how twisted or pathetic they are.

Yet at dinner, I find myself hesitant to bring it up. Whatever my hidden issues are, they're shy even of kind Tal.  Finally during after-dinner tea, there is a pause in the conversation, and I jump into the breach.

"I find myself thinking of Obi-wan frequently."

Tal's expression is undisturbed. Her lovely eyes stare past me as she gracefully fingers her cup. "That's not surprising, is it? Given all that you've been through, that you are still going through, it makes sense that you'd miss the one person that you're closer to than any other being."

"Yes, I suppose. But, it seems a little, excessive...misplaced anxiety perhaps...projection of my own emotions...it seems it would be better for me to deal with these directly rather than channeling them towards him."

"I think it sounds perfectly normal, Qui. Most people aren't as self-contained as you are. They gladly reach out for love and support. Your independent streak has you worrying that your attachment to Obi-wan is a flaw in your personality."

"Still, it seems that it's trying to tell me something. Something I don't understand yet."

Her eyes narrow in concern. "Qui, what about the bond? They severed it while you were in the tank, and they said they weren't sure of the repercussions. Maybe this is a side effect."

"I can't feel him at all," I blurt out.

"That's odd."

"It's like he's dead, or never existed." I hadn't meant to say that. That sounded extreme. Sure enough, it put her on alert.

"Qui, you need to talk to the healers about this. You may have mental damage that they are unaware of. This could be important."

"Perhaps you're right." In a Sith hell will I talk to the healers. No more healers, thank you.

"Of course I'm right. You should talk to them."

"I will," I say. Lying. I am not going to have an argument with Tal. But I doubt that the healers would have the answer to this. After all, they scan me frequently enough at my checkups. If something were seriously wrong, physical or mental, they would already know about it. I sense this is something else. I just don't know what. I keep asking the Force, but it seems disinclined to answer me.

He'll be back within a tenday. I got his message today. The Council is finally giving him a reprieve and sending a replacement. Mace,Yoda, Avi and the rest of them refrained from mentioning it to me, so that I could hear it from him.  I'm not sure if I consider that thoughtful or annoying. He's to get an indefinite time at the Temple to debrief the Council, and to rest.

At least now I look and feel more like my old self. Not fully recovered, but near enough. I've been sparring for several tendays now, after I assembled a new saber. Green again, but darker green than my previous one. Perhaps that's symbolic, a hint from the Force. Mace says I'm sneakier in fighting than I ever was, and that makes up for my lost speed, but I suspect he's only trying to boost my confidence. Still, I'm able to hold my own reasonably well. Thank the Force. I love saber work and had missed it sorely.

Now that Obi-wan's actually on his way back, I have to think through the specifics. I could meet his ship when he arrives. A master with a returning padawan would do that. But he's not my padawan any longer, and I don't want him to think I don't know that. He's his own man, a knight, independent. Family members, spouses and lovers, usually meet their returning Jedi. That's definitely the wrong connotation. No, I won't meet the ship.

I'll send him a message and ask him to dinner a few days after his return. Give him a few days to sleep, catch up with his friends. I'll host him for much-belated knighthood congratulations and his birthday celebration. That will do very well.

There is the issue of the gift. Two gifts, actually: a knighting gift, and a birthday gift.  This will require some thought.

The birthday gift is easier. We have a tradition of my giving him a rock for his birthday, inadvertently started with that first rock back on his thirteenth birthday, only a short time after he became my padawan.  It's been rocks every year since.

Sometimes I wonder what possessed me to give him a rock. It was one of those acts that seemed appropriate at the time, yet seemed ridiculous, even cruel, in later years. I remember my perfectly logical reasons at that moment. The rock was a lesson, a lesson in looking deeper, in appreciating the ubiquity yet subtlety of the Force, which is contained in the most common and humble of elements around us. It was also a lesson about the harshness of our chosen life -- it was important for the boy to know that luxuries were not part of the life of a Jedi, and even the rarity of an occasional gift should not be taken as an indulgence.  I also privately told myself that I didn't know him well enough to get a gift appropriate to his interests; a poor excuse, since a thirteen-year-old boy would prefer just about any gift over a rock.

Only much later did I come to believe that the gift said much more about me and my weaknesses that it did about the boy. My own hardness, my need to be unmoved and untouched, my refusal to indulge any perceived weakness, my insistence on turning everything into a lesson and staying firmly in the role of the teacher, the judge. Yet at the same time that rock was special to me: I had found it, kept it, loved it in a way. It meant something to me, represented some part of myself I had wanted to share with Obi-wan even then.

I know what Obi-wan thought of the rock at the time, for we talked about it after it was given.  He was disappointed; but after he discovered it was Force-sensitive, he decided it was a sign of my odd sense of humor. But I have no idea how his perception of it changed over time.  Our tradition of rock giving has become our private joke. Yet there is more to it than that, and always was. My Obi-wan has grown into a perceptive man. I'm sure he could tell me more about the meaning of our tradition of rocks that I could at this point.

In fact I have already obtained his birthday present. It is a large chunk of Force-sensitive crystal, called quartzenite, similar to the crystals used in lightsabers.  They are expensive, but someone owed me a favor and got a sizeable piece shipped to me. It had been sitting in the storeroom waiting for our return from Naboo.

I had it brought to my room. It is beautiful, a massive piece as tall as my waist, with six large fractured facets. It changes color, I have yet to discover why. Most often it is a cloudy grayish white. Sometimes a plume of red, purple, or some other color will appear and glow inside the column. 

When Tal first saw it - or sensed then touched it, I should say, given her blindness - she laughed and said, "A lingam, Qui - why, do you think he needs one?" 

"I don't know what you mean," I said.

She flashed a wicked smile. "It's a tradition on - well, a planet that you've obviously unfamiliar with. There's a river where perfectly shaped stones are found, polished by the water. Larger ones have these proportions, but those are oblong, not faceted like this. The stones are symbols of male potency. They're given to new husbands, or to men seeking to sire children, or to men who have erectile problems - basically to anyone who needs encouragement in that area." She grinned. "So is your padawan in need of encouragement?"

"He's my ex-padawan, Tal, and as far as I know he has no difficulties in that area. And you have an overly inquisitive mind."

"Oh, come on, Qui, you have to admit it's phallicly suggestive."

"That was not the intention."

"Hmpf. Too bad. You know, the size of the lingam is selected to reflect the capacity of the recipient. You've surely been in a position to make judgments about his capacity."

"Tal, you haven't been getting much sexual release lately, have you?"

"Why, Qui, is that an offer?"

"Do you want it to be?"

She laughed, then sobered. "Under other circumstances, Qui, yes, I would. But not now."

"Yes, I understand I'm not much of a prize at the moment. I'd probably pass out from the exertion."

"That's not what I meant. Anyone would be honored to be invited to your bed, even if the great warrior isn't as fit as he'd like to be. You'd manage all right. Muddle through somehow." She waggled her eyebrows. "No, you have some things to figure out, and I can best help as your friend, not your lover. Now - do you want to tell me what this rock really is?"  

The knighting present was more of a challenge. I have no ideas at all. I ask the Force for inspiration, but the Force hasn't been very informative recently.  Ever present, calm, comforting, powerful, yes, but not very inspirational on practical matters.  But then I've never been as strong with the future and the past, the Unified Force. It's the immediate moment and the Living Force that speaks to me. I must trust that the answer will be clear when the deciding moment actually comes.

The day that his ship arrives, I am uncommonly nervous.  I wouldn't even be seeing him today - he had accepted my invitation to dinner two days hence, with the insistence that he host it rather than me. He said that if it was his celebratory dinner, he would choose who would host. I wasn't going to argue it via messages.

To avoid obsessively watching the ship landing status on the screen in my quarters, I made sure to be out and about, running errands, loitering in the library. I am absent-mindedly reading a datapad while strolling - I know, a Jedi should be in the moment, not reading and walking into walls - when I hear a shout.


I turn instinctively and catch a glimpse of his face before he throws his arms around me.

The world becomes very quiet. I close my eyes. I can feel him, physically and mentally - Obi-wan's presence, his happiness.

Eons later, although it could only have been moments, the world starts up again. I hear noises and open my eyes. Passing Jedi are glancing at us with approval, glad to see the reunion of such good friends.

Obi-wan pulls back and looks up in my face. He keeps one hand on my arm. I feel that touch acutely, more clearly than the strike of the Sith.

"I've missed you, Obi-wan," I say.

"I've missed you too - more than you know," he says, giving my arm a squeeze.

We study each other. He seems older somehow - it must be the longer hair. That and his newfound assurance as a knight.

"You don't look half as bad as I was led to believe," he says with a smile.

"Little do you know," I say. "Your extended absence gave me extra time to recover."

"I would rather have been here. But the Council thought that -"

"-someone who had had contact with the Sith with be best for the mission. I know. It was right for you to go."

"Perhaps right in more ways than one," he says cryptically. "Are you available later, for tea after late-meal? I'm on my way to the Council to report, and it's likely to take a few hours, but they have to release me at some point. But perhaps you shouldn't stay up -"

"Late night has recently become my most favorite time. Stop by whenever you please. Don't worry about the hour."

"If it's too late, I won't come. Don't wait up for me," he says.

"Of course not."

"Later then, Master," he says, releases my arm, backs away. I miss him immediately, with only that short distance between us.

"Welcome back, Obi-wan, and you should call me Qui-gon now," I say, and he smiles and turns down the hall.

It takes me a moment to remember where I am and what I was doing.  It occurs to me that this corridor is not remotely on the way from any docking bay to the Council level. He must have had another errand that brought him to this area.  Lucky that he'd seen me however - the first meeting with its potential awkwardness was now over, and we could hopefully move along with transitioning our friendship from master-padawan to master-knight. Equals.

I don't need to buy his favorite tea to prepare for his visit - I'd already done so days before, in preparation for his return. I take my evening meal in the dining hall with a mixed group of knights and masters, and eventually drift back to my quarters.

I'm in a light meditative state when the door chimes.

Obi-wan. "Welcome back to your old haunts," I say, waving him in.

He looks around as I head to the kitchen to make tea. "You haven't redecorated in all this time I've been gone. What have you been doing in your many tendays of leisure?"

"Oh, but I have redecorated," I say over my shoulder. "I've reclaimed a delightful small bedroom. I finally got all the junk out of it and it's much larger than I remembered."

"Large?" he snorts. "Not likely." Then he sobers. "I'm sorry I moved my things out when you were still in bacta. It wasn't until after I had done it and was on the ship out that it occurred to me that it was a bad idea."

"Why was it a bad idea? You're a knight, you should have your own quarters."

"There was plenty of time to move them out later. Or you could have arranged to have it done, if you needed it for Anakin.  It wasn't a good thing for me to come into your rooms and change things around when you were ill and confined to a tank."

"These are - were - your rooms too, Obi-wan. You can do as you please here." But I'm touched. He need not hear how I sometimes sit in his room and imagine it filled with his things.

"How is Anakin?"

I'm glad that he brought the boy up first. I had already decided that it would not be me. "He's adjusting well in some ways, less so in others. He and his Master visit me occasionally, and she's has asked for my opinion more than once, given that I was the only one at the Temple who had been at Tatooine, seen the boy in his original surroundings. His inborn talent is enormous. Most people are little afraid of him. He usually charms his way past that initial reaction. He's well liked. But underneath, he's very calculating about it all. One might even say manipulative. Natural enough, given his background. It's a survival trait. But it is an impediment. If he can't learn to be open and to trust, he'll never be in full relationship with the Force or with other beings. That would make him very dangerous."

"I thought you were convinced he was the Chosen One, destined to bring balance to the Force."

"He has the potential, yes, but nothing is preordained. You're a knight now. You'll be more involved in training and evaluating initiates. Don't be surprised if his Master seeks out your opinion of Anakin now that you're back at the Temple. You've heard my opinion, now you can form your own. You've never been slow in that regard."

We sit on the couch and drink tea.  He launches into tales from his mission.  I'm content to sit, listen and watch. It's even more entertaining in person than it was in a recorded holo.  His voice rolls over me in gentle waves. I breathe it in, sink into it.

As he sits talking, it hits me like a bolt of lightning. I know that's a cliché, but I have in fact been struck by lightning before, and the experience was less life changing than was my realization at that moment, sitting there on the couch with a cup of tea in my hand.

I love him. I'm in love with him.

By all the Sith hells. This is wonderful. No, this is terrible.

Are you so lonely and desperate that you have fallen for your protégé, this talented and charismatic young man who has achieved his adulthood and his honors as much in spite of your teaching as because of it?

Oh my yes indeed. By all the whiskered gods. They should throw me back in the tank and lock the lid. I obviously have serious untreated dementia.

I have very little experience with this. The only semi-good experiences were way back at the opposite end of my lifetime. The experience with Xanatos could not be called anything but disastrous.

Force, I'm in love with him.

I am so distracted that he notices. A touch of concern enters his expression and he breaks off his story. "Qui-gon, are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm just, it's, sometimes it's harder for me to concentrate now than it used to be." First time the injury's been useful, I can blame it for this.

"I should go. You should rest."

"No, you don't have to go. I won't be able to get to sleep for hours anyway."  I'm uncomfortable in his presence, but I don't want him to leave.

"You have trouble sleeping?" he accuses. I shrug and he is annoyed. I admit my weaknesses grudgingly, he should be used to that.

"Why don't you try to sleep and I'll see if I can help," he suggests.

"What, put a Force-induced sleep command on your old master, to make up for the times I did it to you?" I ask, but with a half-smile so he knows I'm teasing.

"No, I won't command you unless you ask, you'd never forgive me. Besides, you seem to have enough access to the Force to send yourself to sleep if you wished. You must have your reasons for not doing so, and I won't insist that you share them with me. But humor me and get ready for bed and see if you can sleep." At my resisting face, he adds, "I'm the new knight here. Consider it a courtesy to a new knight."

"You've been milking this new knight routine for all it's worth, I can tell," I grumble, but head to my bedroom nonetheless.

He grins. "Of course - shortly my first year as a knight will be up, so I'd best get all the good out of it while I can. I've been neglected. Nobody out on the Rim gave a damn."

"What, no expressions of admiration from fawning admirers, no swooning maidens," I say, pulling off my tunics.

"No, just more work, responsibilities and worry, and if anyone's going to fawn I'd prefer it be men rather than maidens, as you should know," he says, giving me a severe look.

I lie down and adjust the covers. It's true that Obi-wan's liaisons, those few that I knew about, were with men, not women. But he had never mentioned it, and I had never asked.

And now I'm in love with him. I shield that thought very carefully. The last thing I need is him overhearing that and believing that his old master is senile as well as debilitated.

"The scar doesn't seem to pain you," he says. I am so accustomed to undressing in front of him, I hadn't remembered that he had only seen my injury in its freshest condition.

I roll my shoulder to demonstrate. "No, it doesn't hurt. It does pull somewhat, but I've got most of my movement back. As much as I'll ever get." I look at him, no hiding this. "I was slowing already, you know, before the blow. Before the fight."

"I know," he says. "It happens to us all."

I laugh. "Not to you for a long time yet."

"Maybe," he says.

Suddenly he steps forward, too quickly, sits on the bed and touches the knotted tissue. My breath catches. His fingers run over the twisted skin, but the scars seem to have just as many nerve endings as undamaged flesh. I need him to stop touching me. I need him to keep touching me.

He says, "I'm sorry," and his voice hitches.

I'm so surprised I forget to be aroused. "For what?"

"This was my fault. If I had only been faster, if I hadn't fallen earlier and gotten too far behind, I would have been there, you wouldn't -"

I take his hand. Force, it's trembling. My intrepid Obi-wan, unflinching in the face of Sith or Council, gone maudlin over the sight of his scarred master. I say, "Stop this. This was not your fault. If anyone's, it was mine. I ran ahead rather than waiting for you. Even after I had fought with it before on Tantooine and knew that it was beyond my power to defeat single-handedly. I overestimated my ability and paid dearly for it. And almost made you pay as well. We would both be dead, Obi-wan, were it not for your skill. You earned your knighthood well that day."

"I still feel guilty." One tear runs down his cheek, but his voice is steadier. I ignore the tear, as he would want me to do.

"Then stop. Release it to the Force. Don't let this burden you." I reach out to his shoulder. "Let this go."

He sniffs, adorably (ah, I am lost), and turns his head away.

"Yoda chided me, you know," I admit, to distract him.


"He said, 'Too impatient you say your padawan is. Too eager to rush in. Who the impatient one on Naboo was, eh? Your fear behind this was, Qui-gon.'"

"What did he mean, your fear?"

"The Sith had almost bested me on Tatooine. My greatest fear was that it would kill you. I rushed to finish the fight in the hopes of preventing that. And in so doing, I almost caused the very outcome that I feared."

He sits quietly and looks at me. Beyond a time that's comfortable.

In desperation, I say, "I thought you were here to help me sleep, not keep me awake with emotional topics, my pada - I'm sorry, Obi-wan, I didn't mean -"

He laughs. "It's all right, Master, it's a struggle for me to remember to address you by your name, as you requested. Old habits die hard."

"And this one had twelve years to take root."

"More for me," he says. "I had noticed you years before you noticed me. Go to sleep, Qui-gon. I'll watch until you do."

I take a deep breath, slide down on the bed, and prepare to lie wakeful as I have for so many nights. Instead I fall asleep almost instantly. If it was Force suggestion, it was so subtly done that I didn't detect it.

When I wake, there's a message from Obi-wan asking me to join him for a saber session that day - assuming that I felt well enough. 

I arrive in plenty of time for a complete warm-up before our sparring. In my younger days, I looked upon warm-ups more as a ritual than a necessity. Privately I thought they were inappropriate. Sudden violence in the field doesn't give you time for warm-ups. But the older I get, the more grateful I am for the opportunity to listen to my body's quiet communications without requiring it to scream in exhaustion or injury before I pay attention.

Obi-wan arrives and with a nod, begins his own warm-up routine. He includes acrobatics and aerials, as fits his preferred fighting style. I wonder how old he'll have to be before his joints complain from the impact and he chooses to become more earthbound.

We face each other across the practice ring. "Half speed to start?" he asks, igniting his saber.

"Not on my behalf," I reply.

He smiles. "It's not for you, it's for me. I've been out on the Rim for a year with no practice partners aside from slavers and pirates. And none of them seemed to know the forms very well."

"Field combat keeps one fresh."

"Really? Where have I heard that before? But it does mean my duo repertoire is rusty. So half-speed until I'm sure I remember how to do this. Knowing you, you'll be pressing me hard to prove that you're in fighting form, and I'd rather not lose my first bout to a recuperating master twice my age."

"I never went easy on you as a padawan, what makes you think I should do so now?"

"I should have known better than to expect mercy from you," he sighs. "Very well, here we go then."

He comes at me, and we trade a few blows before breaking apart. Straightforward stuff. His eyes are watchful, assessing. I know he is measuring my performance: speed, control, reflex, range of motion. Odd to see that judging gaze directed at me, looking for flaws, for weaknesses, rather than for an example to emulate. Life comes full circle and the pupil becomes the teacher.

As Mace had told me earlier, I've gained a few tricks. As we continue to spar and he becomes bolder in his attacks, I feign a slight slowness in defending my left rear quadrant. It's the logical place for a weak spot, given the location of my injury, and so I've worked especially hard to master it. He doesn't know that. He knows less about my fighting skill at that moment than he has in years, and I'm happy to take advantage of his ignorance. He should know better than to let his assumptions about an opponent's weakness dictate his strategy.

We move more quickly. He becomes more confident that he can push me. He dances around, using aerials to break off encounters, but I refuse to chase after him. A few of his moves are sloppy, and when he gives me an opening, I take it.

My blade slides against his down to the hilt, twisting his wrists at an awkward angle, and I push past his defensive plane and get inside his reach to drive my elbow towards his throat. He's quick but I still manage to connect soundly with his jaw as he ducks down and leaps away, managing to retain his grip on his saber.

He gives me a disbelieving look and lunges back into the fray, not holding back. By cracking his skull I gave him permission to go full throttle. We battle furiously with scarcely a moment's pause. At last he leaps away on a high arc, but this time I follow him with a jump of my own, on a lower trajectory. He sees me moving and adjusts his stance midair, but I land and roll on my left shoulder and catch him across the back of his thighs as he descends, his saber intersecting mine just a instant too late.

He stumbles away, rubbing the scorch marks on his leggings. "You've become more devious with age, Master. I would not have believed it possible."

"Yes, I've quite enjoyed sparring with all my sympathetic friends who generously offered to assist an invalid with his recovery. If it makes you feel better, Mace looked even more outraged than you did when I clipped his ear our first time out." I manage to remind Mace of that at every opportunity.

"Sometimes I think it's a miracle you have any friends," Obi-wan says, parrying.

"I'd rather have my friends fight with all their energy rather than tiptoe about, afraid to overtax the injured man. I'll decide when I can't spar anymore, rather than have opponents pulling their strikes to give me the illusion that I'm capable. The most convincing way for me to communicate that is to smack people around until they believe it."

"Why does this not surprise me?" he mutters, but he has a smile on his face.

We continue to trade blows, both of us occasionally making observations about the others' moves. I compliment his aerials, which are even more impressive than usual, and he, pleased, says that they were one of the few things he was able to improve with solo practice. I recommend that he offer an advanced seminar during his time back at the Temple.

At last I power down my saber. "That's all I'll do today. A kata and I'm finished." It has been more than an hour, and I'm tired but not exhausted. Quite a difference from my first pathetic attempts at sparring.

After completing one of the shorter, contemplative katas, we sit in silence for a few moments then rise and move towards the door.

"Dinner tomorrow then, Master? My rooms, at sunset?"

"I'll be there, Obi-wan."

Entering the dining hall for dinner that same day, I see Obi-wan at a table with several of his friends, Bant and Garen and a few others. Tal, Bant's master, is among them. Obi-wan is in mid-sentence and gives me a wave as I pass by.

Ki-Adi-Mundi intercepts me, wanting my opinion on a Council matter. There is a campaign under way to recruit me to the Council, or just to pick my brains, it's not clear which. This is the longest stretch I've been at the Temple in a long while, so it's given the members ample opportunity to poll me on a wide variety of topics, everything from initiate training standards to Senate political shenanigans.

After our meal concludes, I notice that Tal and Obi-wan are alone at their table, deep in what now appears to be conspiratorial conversation, since they're close in each other's faces with intense expressions. We mutually ignore each other as I walk past.

The next day and it's time to get ready for Obi-wan's dinner. I find myself wondering what I should wear, a rare consideration for me. I could wear civilian clothes. I have some of those, not too many. I've worn a variety of civilian clothes on one mission or another, but I almost always get rid of them afterwards. A Jedi has no need of a closet full of clothes that he'll never use.

I do have one set of shirt and leggings, dark blue, made of an expensive soft cloth with a heavy drape. I almost never have cause to wear them. Obi-wan mentioned once that it made me look decadent and it matched my eyes. I wasn't sure what color coordination had to do with decadence, but it was the kind of casual outfit that a rich man would wear. It had that look of expensive simplicity. I last wore it a few tendays ago to take Tal to a restaurant in the city, and she exclaimed over the feel of the cloth.

This is ridiculous. What would he think if I showed up in that? No, I will wear my usual tunics and robe. It's what he's used to seeing me in. It's what I'm comfortable in. It's what I am.

I dress, feeling obstinate, which is better than feeling like a silly boy getting ready for a date. I walk out the door with a bottle of wine and the quartzenite stone floating obediently in my wake in a Force grip, draped with a cloth. It looks like a cleaning droid fetching dirty towels from the locker room.

Obi-wan greets me at his door. He's dressed in a beautiful green tunic and leggings that show off his coloring to good effect. Perhaps I should have worn my blue. He notices my look, takes it for surprise or criticism, and says "This is my party, I'll wear what I like."

"I have no objections," I say. "You look very handsome." It sounds strange coming from me. I almost never mention his looks.  I had thought it wrong to overemphasize his appearance. He was a handsome boy, a handsome man. He knew it, although he never flaunted it, as Xanatos had done.

"What's this?" he asks, confronting my silent escort.

"It's your birthday present."

"A floating towel rack -- just what I've always wanted," he says solemnly. "But you can't fool me. There must be a rock involved."

"Clever boy," I say, and remove the cloth.

For a moment he is speechless with delight. I am inordinately pleased with myself.

"It's Illian quartzenite, an excellent specimen! How by all the Force did you acquire it?"

He knows what it is, and is better able to judge its quality than I was. Full of surprises, Obi-wan. "Friends in key places," I say.

"So it is true, what's said about them?"

"What is said? I don't know much about them. This is only the fourth one I've ever seen."

"It's said they absorb and reflect the life energy of those around them. What did you sense when you meditated on it?"

"I didn't. It was meant for you, not for me."

"Well then," he says, and folds himself down in front of it. "Dinner needs a few more minutes. Make yourself useful and pour the wine while I investigate my new rock." He closes his eyes.

I pour the wine and check on dinner. It turns out to be one of my favorite dishes, not his. The man seems to have missed the point of a knighthood celebration dinner. But as he keeps telling me, it's his dinner, not mine, and he'll do as he pleases. I sit on the couch, deliberately not looking at him, drinking the wine and watching the sunlight fade, the room becoming dimmer, softer, cloaked in shadow.

I sense he's ceased his meditation and turn to see him looking at me speculatively. He says, "You didn't tell me about how difficult your recovery was, or how much pain was involved. Not that it surprises me. I always suspected that your messages were omitting the issues of most relevance to me."

"You got that from the rock?"

"That, and a few other things."

"A tattletale rock. I should have left it in the storeroom next to Yoda's smelly barrels."

"It probably liked it there," he says, touching the stone. "It resided in a forest for some time. The deepest imprint is of plants, generations of plants growing and dying and growing again."

"Like Dagoba?" I say, teasing. I'm not fond of my old master's home world. I love the strong sense of the Living Force there, but I dislike the humidity, the mud, and the bugs.

"No, more like," he hesitates, "more like parts of Naboo."

"I hope your rock gives you pleasanter memories of that place than either of us have."

"Thank you, I'm sure it will," he says politely and rises. "Shall we eat?"

The food is delicious. I don't know how he learned to cook like this. Not from me. Our discussion wanders from one topic to another in an easy flow. We used often to sit and eat together in silence. When you spend almost the entire day within arm's reach of each other, there's not much to catch up on. Now we are trying to catch up on an entire year's worth of days. I was right, he is happy to be out on his own, full of thoughts about the meaning of events, where they might lead, how they might be influenced. His political insights are good, as always. His boyish tendency for action without reflection has long passed.

He sees me watching him, knowing my mental wheels are turning, and asks, "So, Master Jinn, do you approve?"

"Of you? Always. Now more than ever. I'm very proud of you, Obi-wan."

"That reminds me -- I have something for you." He rises and returns with a small packet, which he hands to me.

I say, "I was thinking while you meditated that you had entirely missed the point of a celebratory dinner, and you prove me right again. You're supposed to be receiving gifts, not giving them."

"This is an exception. You'll see when you open it," he says.

It is handmade paper cunningly folded into a container, without ties or adhesive. I gently pull and twist it in several directions, and it pops open, leaving a shape like a flat-bottomed vase with the paper edges sticking up all around. In the paper is a coil of hair. That red-gold color gives it away. His padawan braid.

"So Yoda didn't get it after all," I say.

"If you wondered, why didn't you ask him, or me?" he says.

I shrug. "I assumed I would learn the answer in time. Or not. You know, some master-padawan pairs cut the braid in two and each keeps a piece."

"I know," he answers, and he lifts off the top half of the coil. The braid has already been cut in two pieces, its loose ends tied off with ribbon.

"Thank you," I say. "I had always hoped that I would have this to keep. I remember thinking on the floor at Naboo, when I saw it behind your ear, that someone else would have to take it."

"No, no one else," he says. "If you had died, I would have burned it."

We sit in silence for a moment. Then he rouses himself with a shake. "Enough of that. Enough of the past and what might have been. Now let's discuss what is and what might be. Starting with tea on the couch."

We move to the couch and drink tea. Our conversation becomes more leisurely, with long spaces of silence.  The sunlight is long gone and it's full night, as Coruscant has it, meaning that the room is a chiascuro of darks of varying intensities with occasional beams of artificial light from the transports outside.

I say, "I have something to confess, Obi-wan."


"I failed to find you a knighting present."

"What about the quartzenite?"

"That was your birthday present, of course. It is a rock, after all."

"It's big enough for two presents."

"I intended to give you something else. I just couldn't think of what."

He quirks his mouth in a mysterious expression and sets his teacup away. "As it happens, I have an idea of what I would like."

"By all means, share this with me."

"You may think it odd, but I'd ask you to be patient and go along with a new knight's whimsy."

"There's nothing I'd deny you, you know that. What is it?"

He stands and offers his hand. I take it automatically and he pulls me to my feet, away from the couch, then tugs down on my elbows. "Kneel down for me, Master."

"You want me to meditate? I would have thought you'd seen enough of that to last you a lifetime."

"Just sit on the floor and relax. You don't have to do a thing." He steps behind me and kneels on the floor himself. He puts his hands on my shoulders. "Just close your eyes and relax. Don't think. Don't meditate. Just breathe."

Closing my eyes, I take several slow deep breaths, feeling my muscles relax, my weight centering and settling down into the carpet.

His hands leave my shoulders and I feel his fingers combing through my hair, loosening the braids that restrain it. He says, "I'm growing my hair, you know."

"I noticed," I reply. "And you want advice on how to keep it?"

The fingers keep twining. "Not at the moment. You can be exasperating. All those times you kept quiet when I was desperate to talk, and the once I ask you to keep still, you won't shut up."

"I'm sorry, I'll behave." I have no idea where this is leading, but it's obviously important for him, so I acquiesce.

His hands continue stroking my hair for several minutes, finally forming it into a tail and draping it forward over my left shoulder. His hands return to my shoulders and began to rub, hard.  It's almost painful and it feels wonderful. His fingers dig into tissue and roll flesh against bone rhythmically. He works across the top of my shoulders and moves down across my blades, stroking towards my spine. At each touch I feel the initial bite of his fingers, muscle protesting then relaxing into bliss.

We'd massaged each other's sore muscles often enough in the past, but he had never shown skill like this. "Obi-wan, you've been holding out on me."

He chuckles. "Not at all. I met a medtech who specialized in massage. She knew dozens of exercises for different purposes. I learned a few of them in my spare time."

"Remind me to thank her, when I regain muscle control."

The next period of time passes without my noticing.  My body is melting. It's so quiet I can hear the blood flowing through my veins. Slowly, slowly, I become increasingly aware of Obi-wan's body behind mine. His knees are straddling and pressing against my hips. I feel the heat from his body against my back as clearly as I can feel his hands on me. Those hands shift to my arms and ease their way to my biceps. My breathing is deep and even. I'm not meditating unless a perfect attention to firm hands with liquid strength could be considered a meditation. I wouldn't trust my voice to speak now even if I could think of something to say. Those hands sneak over the point of my shoulder and drift over my collarbone to the edge of my tunics. Fingers curl over the edge of the fabric and begin to coax it open.

I must have twitched, because the hands still. "Shh," comes a whisper on the back of my neck. "Just let me touch you."

My sash is loosened, tunics pulled open and back over my shoulders, sliding down my back, coming to rest draped over my elbows. The cool air feels good; I'm radiating heat. Those hands ease back to their original starting point on my shoulders and begin the massage again, gentler this time, stroking rather than pressing. Whether it was the effect of the massage or my arousal, my skin feels extraordinarily sensitive. I can feel every callus on his hands, feel the bones at the base of his thumbs as he rolls his palms against my back. He draws his nails against my skin, marvelous, soothing but stimulating.

What is this to him? A call to intimacy. But of what kind? A desire to reconnect after so much time apart. A need to prove by touch that we, and especially me, are both still in this world and not the next. A compulsion to claim and to own, after being parted by a chance, a Sith saber blow and the natural unfolding of life and time. A loneliness that has turned back to the closest human connection that he has ever had, no matter how conflicted our relationship had been. Any of these, all of these, I will let him take what he needs and be glad of it.  From now on, our time together will be short and rare. Any memory I keep from this will be precious.

I learn that he seems to have even greater intimacy in mind. His hands trail their fingers around to my chest and brush my nipples. A damp touch on my back from his mouth and tongue. Blatantly sexual.

My mind, which had been floating along on the rhythms of the massage, jolts back into sharp awareness, the transition from sensuality to sexuality. Mutual comfort was one thing. This was something else. Obi-wan was not one to take his pleasures lightly with another. What had happened to him out on the Rim this past year, that he would need this so badly? Or worse, that he thought he needed to offer it? Had he somehow read his foolish master's hidden desires and decided to respond with his usual generosity? What had Obi-wan perceived that night when he watched me sleep, or when he meditated over the quartzenite stone?

His hand drops down the centerline of my body to my navel, and one finger presses inside. That tip of finger slips past the outer planes of muscle, into the underlayer of my abdomen. My erection kicks upward in response.

No, no, no. This isn't right. This is too far outside of the norm for Obi-wan. I don't know how he typically seduces, but I also don't know everything that happened to him over the past year. I won't do him the disservice of responding unthinkingly to a sexual overture that may be a mistaken attempt at some other kind of connection or healing.

I seize his hand in my own, harder than I intend. "Stop, stop now," I say. His other hand ceases its teasing and flattens obediently against my skin.  "What is this?" I ask, my voice gruff.

I feel his breath against my shoulder as he answers. "While I'm not very experienced at this, I find it hard to believe that I'm so inept that you have no idea what I'm doing."

"What are you doing, Obi-wan?" I ask, persistent.

He sighs, a puff of air against my back. "Of course, the Force forbid that we do anything without discussing it first. I am trying…hoping…inviting you into a sexual encounter." I hear the warm affection in his voice.

I want to look him in the face to evaluate what he said. Grasping his elbow, I exert a steady pull that he obeys, shifting around to my side. He wears his characteristic half-smile, a touch more self-conscious than usual.

"Why?" I keep my expression neutral, impassive, falling back into my role as the master.

"Because I discovered, after much introspection, that I want this with you," he says. "I had intended to wait indefinitely, perhaps forever…I had no reason to think that you might be open to this. But since I returned, it suddenly seemed that it might be within the realm of possibility."

I stare into his eyes, and he looks back at me steadily.  Our training bond was gone, but when I reached out through the Force, he drops his shields - not completely, the expanse of his mind is revealed, but his core still protected, like a man standing naked with hands modestly covering his most private parts. I look closely for any sign of unbalance that might have led him astray, and find none. Love, loneliness, desire for closeness in mind and body, all that is there, but openly acknowledged and no serious threat to the peace of mind that was essential for a Jedi. If I rejected this, rejected him, he would grieve for a future that would never be, and resolutely put it behind him. Obi-wan had known disappointment. I have no doubt that he would overcome this, as he had his earlier challenges.

He takes my silence as refusal. "I'm sorry. This was poorly done," he says. "Let's forget this awkwardness, Master. I would be honored if we could end the evening in meditation together."

That twists my heart. If we close this door now, we will likely never open it again. "No," I say, still gripping his elbow.

He gives me a questioning look, showing obedience to his senior in the Order. But no, now he is not an apprentice responding to his master. He is a man deferring to a reluctant lover.

"I can't do this lightly, Obi-wan," I say.

There is a flash of emotion across his face. "This is not done lightly for me either. For over ten years, you were the most important person in my life. You still are. And will continue to be, perhaps until the end of my days. Nothing changes that for me. The only question is the form that importance will take. You know what I want. What do you want?"

"You can have anything you need of me," I say.

"I understand that, and I appreciate it. But it's your wants and not your generosity that I'm interested in. What do you desire?"

For answer I lean forward and kiss his mouth, gently. He accepts it passively for a moment, uncertain if this is brotherly kiss of platonic sympathy. I coax his lips open so he realizes my intent. We explore each other's mouths carefully.  It's been a long time since I felt the velvet heat inside another being's body. The kiss deepens as we ease into the erotic. My free hand finds the back of his head, caressing that wonderful silky hair, slipping under its new length to touch the nape of his neck. He murmurs something indistinct into my mouth. It sounds approving.

I want to feel his whole length against me, enjoy his full body's embrace. I lean against him, bearing him to the floor. The solid mass of his torso contrasts with the soft yielding of his mouth. Arms and legs around me, anchoring me to him. I feel the unmistakable ridge of his erection, then his hand insinuates itself between us, and grasps my own hardness. That touch is enough, even through the layers of cloth, to almost bring me up off the floor.  His fingers explore my penis carefully, probing the head, the length of shaft, as much as he can reach through the cloth. A few moments of this and I'm shaking, but I'm determined to wait until he makes his desires known. I can probably climax only twice for him tonight, so I'd rather wait to make it count.

I'm about to tell him that I can't take much more, when his voice says in my ear, "I want you inside me."

I'm shocked. Yet not. Once again Obi-wan jumps ahead when mere mortals hesitate. From welcome-home to anal sex in one swoop. I'm beginning to think that this was rather too well planned. "Yes," I say, rather indistinctly, as I seem to have a mouthful of his shoulder.

"Bed," he says. Oh yes, a bed would be welcome right now. Obi-wan's bed with Obi-wan in it. We pick ourselves up off the floor and move towards the bedroom, spinning around each other like the two partners of a binary star, casting pieces of clothing like meteors around the room.

The bedsheets are cold, and I clutch Obi-wan for warmth. He Force-calls something to his hand, something from a drawer, which bangs open loudly with the strength of his mental pull. "Control, Padawan," I chide absently, kneading his flesh under my hands like bread dough. I'm losing control of my mind and my metaphors.

"Efficiency, Master," he replies, and rolls over onto his stomach. "Sorry, I need to do it this way until we've had a little more practice," he says, looking back at me over his shoulder.  I can't grasp the idea of doing this once, much less multiple times. Any position is fine by me, so long as I can have maximum contact with that beloved body. I'm not sure I could stand doing this the first time while looking him in the face, anyway. This is already too intimate, without gazing into his eyes while I struggle to control my own needs so I can satisfy his.

He opens the vial he called to his hand, tips some clear liquid in his palm, and reaches back to his rear opening, calm and methodical. It's all the more obscene for being done in such a commonplace manner, and I stiffen unbearably. How many times had I seen him naked, yet never noted how extraordinarily beautiful he is.

"Shouldn't we slow down, for a few more preliminaries?" I ask, realizing that we're bypassing the usual steps to intimacy, from kissing to groping, to manual and oral stimulation.

He looks askance at me. "If you're even half as aroused as I am, we don't need any more preliminaries, we need the main event, and quickly. Don't worry, I've practiced this already, and we'll do lots of postliminaries afterwards." I knew he seemed suspiciously well prepared, and here he was admitting it in spades. I'm so distracted at the sight of his fingers buried inside that well-shaped ass that I don't really listen to what he's saying. He removes his fingers and reaches over to touch my penis. His hand is warm and the lube is amazingly slick yet dry, with none of the oily gloppy sensation of typical lotions. Not that I'm overly familiar with the varieties of sexual lubricants.

"Now," Obi-wan says, spreading his legs as he tucks a pillow under his hips. I move to kneel between his open thighs and think through the logistics of the position. I grasp the joint of his hip, then I move that hand flat on the bed beside his torso, so I can lean my body on it as I balance over him. I want to be fully in control of my weight so I don't bear down and into him too abruptly.  With the other hand, I position my ferociously erect member in his crease, get my bearings on that small hole with one finger, slightly correct my angle, and roll my hips forward.

I expect the penetration to be difficult, a little rasping at least, but instead it happens so quickly I don't notice the instant that I slip in. All I know is that I go from being poised outside of his body, to being more than halfway inside, with no apparent time in between.

I freeze, worried that it happened too fast, that it startled or hurt him. "All right?" I manage to say.

"Um, yes," he says. "You all right? You stopped."

"It seemed to happen too fast," I respond. "I couldn't tell if it hurt."

"No, doesn't hurt. Just take it easy at first. Told you I had practiced. With different lubes, too. Decided I'd rather be overprepared than underprepared." 

I glide in and feel only him, the lube pleasantly undetectable between our skins. Following his instructions, I don't thrust hard, just move my length deliberately in and out. From my vantage point above him, I have an excellent view of the proceedings, from his mussed hair, down his shapely back, down to where we join.

After a few minutes, he's gotten more comfortable and begins to move, inside and out. He undulates his body and tightens around me internally, clenches the rings of muscle in his anus. I take his cue and pump harder, rotating my hips to try different angles. When he gasps and says, "That's it, there," I know I've found the right place, and I keep thrusting while I feel him falling apart underneath me, shuddering and bucking. He shouts as he climaxes, a guttural wordless bellow such as I've never heard from discreet Obi-wan, and I let go the close grip I've kept on myself and come instantly and forever, our bodies rocking and surging like boats on the waves.

The next few hours are an entirely different variation of training exercises. Just when I think I'm finished for the night, I find a new reserve of stamina. The bed gets a serious workout, and the floor, and the fresher as well, as we wash off several times in order to start again clean. It reminds me of those strenuous missions where endless, multi-day-and-night negotiation sessions mean a quick shower and change of clothes and back to the bargaining table. Except tonight it's back to bed with Obi-wan, and the typical agenda item is a discussion of which sexual act to try next.

When we've exhausted ourselves, at least temporarily, I still have no desire to go to sleep and miss a single moment of this experience. He seems to feel the same. We lie shoulder to shoulder, near legs entwined, hands resting in comfortable nooks of bodies.

I don't say anything. What does one say at such a time, when the initial lust has burned off, and the significance of the event begins to sink in?

Obi-wan breaks the silence, and on a topic I least expected. "When do you expect to return to the field?"

He must be thinking about how long we have together. I reply reassuringly, "Oh, in perhaps three or four tenday's time, if Force, body and Council are willing. I've had invitations to stay here on a more permanent basis. But it's important for me to get back to the field. I need new experiences in between me and the events at Naboo.  If I stay at the Temple, I'd become more hesitant about fieldwork, seeing Sith everywhere and startling at my own shadow. I need to get back out there as soon as possible."

"Any idea where or doing what?" Obi-wan asks.

"Something not too taxing, that relies more on diplomacy than action. My career is in its downward swing, Obi-wan, from here on out it's more and more meetings, droning diplomats and stuffy conference rooms. Life will become like an endless sequence of Council meetings. I might as well just join the Council itself and be done with it."

"You've been asked to join the Council?" he says, intrigued that I might be co-opted.

"Not officially, but Mace and Adi keep hinting about it. Yoda, of course, is too canny to actually issue an invitation and have me decline. He'll let me stew until I come ask him for permission. 'Guided by the Force you must be,' he'll say. In fairness to them, it's the right move, although I may not be the right person. The Council is always at risk of becoming too insular, too removed from the rest of the Order and the broader world. They need a maverick or two to keep them honest."

"You've been filling that role for years."

"Yes, and they may think that I've had my wings sufficiently clipped to be happy of a reason to stay home. I haven't talked to any of them about my determination to get back in the field quickly. The risk is that the Council will think I'm too vulnerable to be trusted to operate alone any more. They may refuse to give me an assignment, or insist that I be paired with someone."

"What would you think of being paired with me? In the field, that is." Obi-wan's eyes twinkle but the rest of his face is a pleasant mask. He shows no expectation one way or the other.

I stare at him thoughtfully. "It hadn't really crossed my mind. I had thought that perhaps we'd work together occasionally after your knighting, but I hadn't thought it would be so soon. Most new knights are happy to slip the leash and run off on their own. I appreciate your offer, though. You don't have to make it. I'm sure I'll be approved for field duty one way or another."

He says, "I didn't make the offer just to save you from being stuck at the Temple. I believe that we worked well together, and I thought perhaps you missed that, as I did." His eyes narrow. "Slip the leash, eh? Is that how you think of yourself? An animal trainer? Reining me in, making me learn tricks and jump through hoops?"

"It is called training. You have to learn things, and many of them are not easy to learn."

"I always wanted to learn. With every lesson I learned a little bit about you, as well as about the Force and myself. I valued all of it."

"The Council never would have approved you for knighthood otherwise. They take a dim view of candidates who see the whole process as nothing more than an obstacle course. It shows a lack of understanding of the training process, indeed the whole nature of life. Life continually presents us with opportunities to learn, and we must embrace that. Thinking of learning as a life stage or a burden to be endured is not a good mindset for a Jedi." I break off. I'm being didactic, falling into a masterly lecture. Obi-wan doesn't need this from me anymore.

He tracks back to his original question. "So you would be willing to work with me in the field? As partners?"

"I would be honored. Are you sure that you want your former master dogging your footsteps?"

"I'm sure. One thing that I learned in the last year, speaking of continued learning, is that I'm more effective working with you than without you. Our skills compliment each other. The universe needs the best the Order can offer, it seems wrong to refuse to provide it. Besides, in case you hadn't noticed, I enjoy your company. Especially recently."

"Ah, well, that's the rejuvenating effect of a certain young knight of my acquaintance. So you think the effect sits well on me?"

"I think you're rejuvenating in more ways that this. I predict that you won't have much trouble being effective in the field, even those missions with physical challenges."

"Oh good, I would hate to fail in meeting my responsibilities."

"Speaking of responsibilities, what about the implications of this change in our relationship?" he asks. Here it comes. The second half of our conversation after the massage, now resumed since we've sated our sexual urges.

"You know that our personal commitments can never overshadow our duty as Jedi. But after that, as your lover, I accept responsibility for ensuring your physical and sexual satisfaction."

I feel through the Force as a slow wave of pleasure rolls down his body.

"Well, that's a relief," he says with mock solemnly. "I was worried about that."

"I am devoted to that cause."

"Unfortunately that's only one of my minimum requirements. I am underwhelmed."

What? I looked at him. He was teasing, but his underlying message was serious. He was trying to communicate something. While I would have said that I knew Obi-wan extremely well, the fact was that I knew nothing about him as a lover. I needed to pay attention and learn. I decided to respond in the his same flippant manner.

"You're saying your expectations have not been met at this point? How unfortunate. As a Jedi Master, sworn to advise and protect, I ask you to confide your expectations to me, so I can consider best how to assist you in your dilemma."

"Well then, esteemed Jedi Master, I find the term 'lover' to be a poor expression for my intent."

"You object to the terminology? Fixation over specific words can be an obstacle to any agreement. In this case, fortunately, the other party is completely flexible as to terminology. Describe your preferences in this area and they will be followed."

"I prefer partner, mate or spouse."

My breath catches a little. "Well, words are easily said. Some words have deeper connotations than others, however."

"I'm well aware of that." He sounds unflappable.

"What other expectations do you have that are as yet unmet?"

"I had in mind an arrangement more of a contractual nature, instead of a transactional one."

"In reference to...?"

"Both length of time and depth of commitment. My expectations, or I should say my hopes, since expectations is too strong a word, was for a binding agreement of indefinite, ideally infinite, period of time, for full commitment and obligation of resources on each side. In short, life vows and a soulbond."

Force, it's like something out of a textbook. And I thought that I could sound didactic. But then he probably got that from me. My mind is wandering wildly to avoid facing the main issue. "Ah..." I say unintelligently.

"Let no one say I don't have ambitions."

"Yes, you've always been a young man with aspirations."

"So advise me, my learned Jedi Master. Can I expect that my ambitions will be fulfilled? Or should I scale back the nature and scope of my demands in order to come to terms successfully with the other party within the boundaries of known time and space?" He's still joking, still smiling, but there's discomfort in his face. If it were me, I could never have taken it this far. Obi-wan is much braver than I in bearing his soul, and has had more practice in doing it gracefully, but this is a far reach even for him.

Of course a part of me wants very badly to say yes, immediately. But post-coital bliss is a bad time to think clearly about the long term. The last time this opportunity arose for me, it became entwined with the fall of my last padawan, which led to greater evils than I can ever hope to atone for in my lifetime. The young think that such bonding is all about desire and good intentions. The old know that it's as explosive as it is seductive and can create far more damage that one can imagine at that originating moment.

Obi-wan waits patiently through my silence. I can sense him preparing himself for rejection.

I take a deep breath. "As your advisor, with your best interests at heart, it is my duty to bring to your attention the drawbacks inherent in your position."

"Proceed." He relaxes slightly, no doubt relieved that I'm at least willing to keep talking, rather than breaking off the conversation and stalking out of the room.

"This seems a hasty decision for such a extensive commitment," I say.

"Not at all. This has been years in the building."

"Really?" He nods. Either I must be chronically oblivious, or he has been subtle. Probably both. Definitely the former.

"I must point out that committing your resources in an exclusive and permanent arrangement, without fully evaluating your other options, would be a mistake." He has no business thinking about life vows at this point in his life. He should enjoy his freedom as a knight, spent time with other people, especially people closer to him in age.

"Other options have been fully considered. These two parties are the best match, both strategically and tactically."

"In what sense?" It's like I'm drilling an initiates' class in basic negotiation skills.

"In the sense of any good partnership, where there is a common shared set of objectives, mutually understood priorities, proven effective operating arrangements, with strengths and weaknesses well paired."

"Ah." He's way ahead of me, or at least sounds like he is. I've never considered any of this before, not even remotely, and he sounds like he's been thinking of it for some time. I can't get comfortable with this without having more time to think it through.

I'm losing my ability to couch this in facetious diplomatic niceties.

"I'm too old for you, Obi-wan."

"You weren't having that thought a short time ago."

"My higher brain functions weren't engaged at that point. They are now."

"What was it you were saying about rejuvenation?"

"That was a joke. There's a difference in making jokes about my sexual performance and taking life vows with a person twice your age."

"And you think I have a self-esteem problem. By the Force, Qui, think clearly for a minute. You're less than half through your probable lifespan, if you can stay out of the way of rampaging Sith. You will likely live another eighty to a hundred years or so. That's about the same length of time as I have left. Your brand of human lives a little longer than average, mine a little shorter. It's no obstacle."

"How do you know about my race's lifespan?"

"I looked it up. I told you that I've been in process on this for years."

"So you did. I didn't know about your race's lifespan. I'm sorry."

He snorts. "You're off topic. Again. For a Jedi Master, your mind wanders deplorably."

"Yes, I'm just beginning to see how much my mental acuity was lacking in past years."

He knew what I was talking about. One advantage to taking old friends, or ex-padawans, as lovers is that they already know you very well. "Not your fault. I never gave you any sign. None intentional, anyway. It would have been a pointlessly awkward conversation because the time wasn't right."

"And the time is right now?"

"What do you think?"

"You're young, Obi-wan. You should enjoy your maturity and freedom for a few years."

"I know my own mind, thank you very much, and I won't be sent off to chase my tail, or other's tails, just to kill time until I'm older. If you don't want this, any of it, then say so. But don't make excuses based on what you presume to be my best interests." He's right. I'm hiding behind concern for him, rather than confronting my own worries. It's time to declare myself.

I say, "Obi-wan, I'm inexperienced at this. I've never had any sexual relationship that lasted more than a few months."

"I'm perverse enough to be grateful for that, because otherwise you'd no longer be available."

I clear my throat and revert to our previous style of discussion. "I would recommend that you demand full disclosure of past events before finalizing any binding arrangements."

"Why? I've never believed that the future had to be dictated by the past."

"Perhaps not, but the past is often the best predictor of the future."

"Except when it's not," he points out.

"Yes, the universe is unreliable that way."  This conversation is sounding more and more like our friendly aimless debates of the last few years. Except this conversation is anything but aimless, with Obi-wan behind it.

"So -- disclosure? I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours." He raises an eyebrow.

"All right," I say. "My most emotionally rewarding relationship turned out to be with the one person who remained a close friend."

"So I know him, her --"


Obi-wan is unmoved. "Doesn't surprise me at all. You two bicker like old married people."

"We do not bicker. We argue. Energetically. That was the attraction. We've always been competitive, always knew how to get each other stirred up. Mix in adolescent urges, and it ended up in bed once. Or rather on the training room floor. It was on again, off again, after that, for a few months."

"What happened?"

"It ended when we realized we made better friends out of bed than in it. That competitive edge made for great sex initially. Then it got tiresome, and we couldn't break the cycle. At some point we both realized it wasn't what we wanted. We ended it with no regrets on either side. It was a long time ago. Both of us were younger than you are today."

"Any others?"

"Very few, all a long time ago. None worth mentioning."

"What about Xanatos?," he asked. "I had always wondered if there was something between him and you." I should have expected that, yet I hadn't. My heart contracted.

"In a moment," I say. "Didn't you say something about showing yours, if I showed you mine?"

"So I did." He rolls over onto his back, folding an arm under his head.  "Although mine sounds very similar to yours. Experimentation, not frivolous, but not too serious, with a few friends. Garen is the one you know best."

"So why was he not a keeper?"

"That was never part of the plan. It was more a mutual arrangement of convenience. Hands-on sexual research. Figuring out how our bodies worked so we'd know what to do when it mattered." Obi-wan the well-prepared, planning ahead. Force preserve us. I could never imagine doing such a thing myself.

"How efficient of you," I say.

"I needed to know. Sex is such a powerful drive. I didn't want to be blindsided by it on a mission. I wanted to know what was possible and how it felt. No forbidden fruit."

I knew all I needed to know about Obi-wan's sexual history. "Is this topic ready to put away yet?" I ask.

"Except for one item...Xanatos."

"Ah." I took a deep breath. Follow his example; no hiding, a straight declaration. "In what turned out to be the half-year right before he turned, I went from loving him as a padawan to being in love with him as a man. He knew it before I did. I planned to wait until after his knighting to declare myself, although it wasn't forbidden to become involved as long as the Council was informed. But he pushed the issue. He insisted that our intimacy would be a greater help than hindrance to him at that stage of his training, and I allowed myself to be persuaded. He could be very persuasive. We began a physical relationship, but things moved too fast in a questionable direction, and when I objected, we argued."

Obi-wan eyes me, quizzical. "There's more to this than what you're saying. What do you really mean?"

"Xanatos resented the Jedi and our, as he put it, joyless lifestyle and mindless obedience. He used our encounters to express his frustration. He dominated, aggressively. Initially it seemed harmless, even exciting, but then it disturbed me. I tried to cool things down, but only succeeded in enraging him. He accused me of being repressed, sexually inexperienced - which I was, somewhat, but he was always clever at twisting the truth to support his own objectives. I was a fool. After he turned, I went to the Council, confessed everything, destroyed my saber, and resigned from the Order. When I went to my rooms to change out of my robes into civilian clothes, Yoda locked me in and didn't let me out until he had convinced me that I owed the Order a debt that I could best repay by staying a knight. I acquiesced but swore two things: I would never take another padawan, and I would remain celibate until death. Both of which I have now broken."

"I'm sorry," said Obi-wan. "I didn't know that you were pledged to chastity, or I would never --"

"Hush," I say. "It benefited no one in the keeping. I vowed due to my own maudlin feelings at the time, not for any other purpose. I blamed myself for Xanatos."

"It wasn't your fault. He chose to turn and continued choosing, every day until he died. You were not responsible for that. If you think that your sexual encounters caused or encouraged his turning, then you're more egotistical than I thought."

"It was part of the chain of events."

"He was a senior padawan, an adult, and on his own path. He proved it by what he did to you: the abuse, physical and verbal. It was an indicator, but no one could have anticipated his decision." 

"I agree with you, but I was his master --"

Obi-wan shook his head irritably. "What was it you were telling me the other night? 'Let it go'? You've held on to this for decades, Qui. Let it rest. By the Force, do all Jedi Masters have such an overdeveloped sense of responsibility? Or should I say expectations of omnipotence?"

"It's an occupational hazard."

Obi-wan said under his voice, "Note to self: try to avoid developing martyr complex when promoted to master." I laugh. I have no excuse for feeling as good as I do. Obi-wan's calm acceptance of it all is doing wonders for my state of mind.

Persistent as always, Obi-wan returns to his original topic. "So, distinguished Jedi Master, what is your final advice to me on my situation? I should advise you that I've compromised further discussions. I've broken every negotiation rule in the book. I've revealed my bottom line to the other party -- in more ways than one - and I've admitted my true objectives, I've communicated my best alternative to the agreement --"

"You have? I missed that part," I say. "So what is your best alternative if the other party refuses you?"

"I'm very stubborn. The other party knows this. I'll wear him down. I've done it before. And I hope that a taste of the goods in advance would provide extra incentive." He flashes me an impudent tongue.

"Dirty tricks in negotiating? I'm shocked," I say, still thinking of that tongue. 

"I learned from the best. You still haven't answered me."

"What I recommend? What I want?"

Obi-wan nods.

I concentrate on guidance from the Force. "Lovers, yes. Work together, yes. In the field together, yes. The rest of it...will come soon enough in its own time."

He throws himself on top of me and clamps his mouth over mine.  The world contracts down to lips, teeth, and tongues.

Finally he pulls back, heaves a sigh. "Thank the Force. Finally. These long negotiations are tiresome, Master Jedi. I'm in need of some recreation." That wicked grin is back. He grinds his hips into me, so I can feel the hardness of his erection. "Can I interest you in some mutual entertainment?"

We were breakfasting in his quarters, dressed and the very image of a proper knight and master, when the door chimed. Tal.

"Good morning, you two. So the lingam must have worked, ah, Obi-wan?"

"I don't know what you mean," he says.

"Ask Qui. He can tell you."

"Tal, what are you doing here?" I ask.

"I went by your quarters to meet you for breakfast, and when I found them empty, I came here."

"How did you know I was here? I thought I was shielding well enough."

"I didn't need the Force to find you. And heavens yes, I would hope that you two have been shielding. Otherwise you'll likely be getting some strange looks as you go about your day."

"How did you know I was here?" I was still baffled.

"Wild guess, Qui." She directs her blank gaze towards Obi-wan. "You know, I love him dearly too, but really I wonder sometimes how you put up with this limitation of his."

"He's an acquired taste," Obi-wan says.

"Just stop right there, if you please." She helps herself to a cup of tea.

"So did you uncover your hidden issues related to your fixation on Obi-wan, Qui?" she says as she pours her tea, giving me a wink from one unseeing eye.

"Yes, I believe that I have. Or have started to, anyway. It would seem to be more than one night's work."

Tal said thoughtfully, "Remember the quote of the revered Master Ch'nxx: some work all their lives to achieve enlightenment, then it is achieved in an instant by a goatherd seeing the moon reflected in a pail of water."

"I'm a goatherd?" I ask.

"You've always loved animals, Qui," she says.

"I've never known you to be so outrageous, Tal."

"I'm happy for you, that's all." She sips her tea.

Changing topics, I say, "Obi-wan and I were discussing working together as a field team."

"Good," she says. "Mace was wondering which one of you would bring that up with the Council first, and how long it would take. I have a small bet on that, so I'd appreciate it if you could do it sooner rather than later. Today would be perfect."

"You have a bet? With Mace?"

"No, with Bant. I am so fond of that girl. But I have more inside information on you, Qui, than she does. Not that I will permit her to cancel the bet because of that. It'll teach her not to gamble, especially against her own Master."

"But Mace --"

"He expected you to ask for assignment before now, Qui. He knows how antsy you get when you're at the Temple too long. He's been screening assignments with you in mind for several tendays already. But for some reason, I suspected that you'd wait until Obi-wan came back. Again, I had a little more inside information than did Mace. Damn, I should have placed a bet with him as well. Too late now. Won't take long for this to get around. Don't worry, I won't say anything. I won't have to." She returns her cup to the table. "I'm meeting poor unlucky Bant at the salle in a few minutes. I'll be going now. Remember what I said about telling the Council today. If you do, I'll buy us all a nice dinner. Bant too."

At the door she turns. "Oh, and don't be surprised if the healers know all about it. Your interest in Obi-wan, that is."

I say with mild annoyance, "If the healers knew about it, why didn't they say anything to me?"

"Because that isn't their job. Their job is to help your body and mind mend to some acceptable level of health. If the healers went after everyone who showed up in medlab with some kind of emotional blockage, we'd have a Temple full of psych records and we'd all be very well-adjusted, but get nothing else done." She breezes out the door.

Obi-wan says, "I've always liked her. For a long time I expected the two of you to get together."

I look at him. He looks back steadily, wearing the self-contained mask of a well-trained Jedi Knight. If I hadn't witnessed last night myself, I would have never have known that it existed, a passionate, playful and very private version of Obi-wan. But I've realized I'm not the most accurate judge of people and what they might do.

"So, Obi, best we approach Yoda now before the Council meetings get underway for the day, and tell him that we'll be requesting a mutual assignment."

"Not Mace?"

"No, I'd rather my former master know first. He's despaired of me at times. Something about my being emotionally obtuse, whatever that means. I'll enjoy surprising him for once. And if he has a bet going, I want him to know he'd better split any winnings with us."