Migratory Passage

by Vermilion Flame (flame@slashcity.com)

Series: Sequel to Tiercel (here or at my site: http://flame.slashcity.com/index2.html)

Archive: Master_Apprentice, my page

Category: AU, Romance, mild Angst

Pairing: Q/O

Rating: NC-17 overall

Warnings: none

Disclaimer: The Star Wars characters included in this story are owned by LucasFilm. No profit is made from this story.

Feedback: Yes, please! Feedback, critical review, discussion - all are welcomed, both on list and off.

Summary: The story takes up shortly after Tiercel ends. When Obi-Wan resumes his duties with his master, the bond he shares with Qui-Gon has unexpected results, which become increasingly dire. After a pivotal event, Obi-Wan must determine his priorities, and what direction his future will take.

The story will make much more sense if you've read Tiercel. It's in the m/a archive, or at the url listed above. In case you have read it, but don't quite remember which story it was, here's the summary from that fic: Obi-Wan travels to Grathos to attend the padawans' mandatory classes in riding and animal husbandry. There, he is befriended by Master Animal Healer Qui-Gon Jinn. After Obi-Wan helps the healer through a crisis, Qui-Gon offers to teach Obi-Wan to ride, and introduces him to falconry. Soon the friendship develops into something more, and Obi-Wan is confronted with a momentous decision.

*Important Story Notes* - The first sections of this story include *selected* correspondence between the characters. Blocks of time pass, and we do not get to see every communication that passes between them. It may help to watch the dates, which follow 'lion's SW calendar (I still can't believe Lucas has not made up an official one). The dates go like this: year-month-day, with 50 weeks in a year and 10 days in a week.

Acknowledgments: This story has taken almost 5 months to write and polish, and Liz has been with me every step of the way. I thank her not only for betaing the story, but also for being a sounding-board, critic and cheerleader. Her contributions have made this a much better piece than it otherwise would have been. Thanks also go to Fox for her sharp-eyed beta of the final version. Her speed and accuracy are astounding. Being the stubborn fool I am, however, I ignored a few of their wise suggestions; all errors are my own.

1. Arrival

Qui-Gon Jinn folded his large frame onto his small chair, and for the millionth time fervently wished his predecessor had been a bigger man. Maybe then he would have inherited a decently sized desk, instead of these diminutive furnishings. He could go to the trouble of acquiring new fixtures for his office, but he simply never found the time. Instead, he banged his knees and silently cursed the stature of the previous Master Animal Healer.

"Messages," he growled to his comm unit. The screen activated, displaying a long list of mundane items screaming for his attention: foodstuffs to be ordered, advice to be given. But there, in the middle of the list, was a message that made his heart skip a beat - a message from his Tiercel.

He plodded through the minutiae foisted upon him, ticking off one message after another, keeping his focus away from the one that mattered. When at last it was the only comm remaining, Qui-Gon closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Kenobi," he ordered.

He leaned forward and read:

[[Coruscant]] [[24.986<36<02]]

Dear Qui-Gon,

I arrived on Coruscant late last night, after an uneventful trip from Grathos. The people on board the transport were subdued, preparing to reenter life at the Temple, as was I.

It seems all I have done since my arrival is talk. In fact, I have to keyboard this message to you because my voice is so hoarse that my own comm unit doesn't recognize me. I even had to palm open the door to our quarters!

I spent the entire morning telling Master Li about us. She asked for every detail and listened for hours as I tried to explain what had happened to me. It was difficult, because some things are still not very clear in my own mind. When I was finished, she embraced me and said she was very happy for us. (And no, I did not tell her quite *every* detail.) She has not asked about my decision to continue my apprenticeship, nor my intentions once I reach knighthood. Evidently, my presence here is enough for now.

Then Bant came by to visit. I've known Bant my whole life, or close to it, and she is one of my best friends. She was anxious to know all about my trip, especially since she has never been to Grathos. She is Mon Calamari and it's difficult for her species to learn to ride any terrestrial animal. She is specializing in underwater search and rescue. Anyway, she asked me, "So, Obi, how was Grathos?" Her eyes got wider and wider as I told her about us. It took twice as long to tell her the whole story because she interrupted me constantly with questions. It was so good to talk to her.

I passed on your greetings to Master Yoda, which he returns in kind. He didn't come right out and ask why I was relating a message from you, but I knew he was curious. (He always is!) So, I told him about our bond. His ears popped straight up, and he smiled that quirky smile of his. He was silent for a long time, and then nodded and said "Wise, the Force is." Master of the Cryptic Quote, he is.

I had a nice quiet dinner with my Master, and now here I sit in my room, thankful not to have to talk to anyone else.

It's strange being here in the Temple. I see my friends in the halls, and they expect me to be the same person I was when I left for Grathos, but I'm not. I have changed in so many ways. Nothing in my life is as it was such a short time ago. At times I feel like I am going through the motions of someone else's life. Grathos seems more real to me than this place does.

Qui-Gon, my love, to say that I miss you is like saying that the galaxy is wide or the ocean is wet. There is a hole in my soul that only your presence can fill. I know that I need to be here, and that it makes no sense for you to leave Grathos, but it hurts so much. I hope it will get easier with time, because I don't know how long I can withstand the intensity of this longing.

Master Li expects that we will be assigned a mission within the next day or two, for which I am grateful. If I am busy, maybe it will ease the ache.

Please send me news of Grathos and the ranch. How are Kee and Bartram? How are the birds? Give Storm a pat for me.

I love you, Qui-Gon.

Your Tiercel,


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Qui-Gon read the letter twice more, committing it to memory. He tried to imagine Obi-Wan sitting in his room at the Temple, but couldn't. He sighed, and slowly stretched his way out of his cramped chair. The lights dimmed as he exited the office, and he wove his way through the quiet stables. His boot steps sounded hollow as he climbed the steps to his empty rooms.

2. Injury

Obi-Wan limped across his room, his ankle protesting each painful step. He maneuvered a stool toward his work center, plopped down onto his chair, and elevated his foot with a wince. Carefully, he wrapped a cold bacta pack around the injured joint, and sought to release his tension. He focused his energy on healing, envisioning his ankle sound and strong. The Force seemed to skitter away from him though, and the throbbing eased only marginally.

He turned his attention to his comm unit. "Messages." A list of communications skittered across the screen. "New," he specified.

Notes from friends... announcements... a class cancellation... Qui-Gon!

"Jinn," he ordered, and all thoughts of his ankle fled as he dove into the comm.

[[Berythian Transport]] [[Ynle Sector]] [[24.986<36<08]]

My Tiercel,

It was good to hear from you, and to know that you arrived on Coruscant safely.

I am traveling now, delivering several horses and a pair of rontos to a breeder on Ynle III. Unfortunately, the ronto female has motion sickness. She made her distress clear in a number of messy and odiferous ways before I could get her sedated. I hope she will sleep for the remainder of the journey.

News of the ranch? Kee has gone off-planet for a term to do her training in infectious diseases. I have given some of her simpler responsibilities to C'idra, who has driven me to review my old Temple training on patience. So far, reciting the Meditation on Tolerance has kept me from throttling him, but it has been a close thing on several occasions.

Bartram and D'nar are well. They are busy preparing for the ranch's annual Hawking Day. We expect a large crowd to attend, from provinces all over Grathos. It involves much food, drink and frivolity, but promotes bird of prey conservation in the process, so I don't mind. We will release most of the passage birds after the event. I have decided to keep the tiercel gyr to breed with the eyas. He is strong and intelligent, and should make a worthy mate for her.

I have been asked to testify before the provincial authorities when I return, regarding the circumstances of the animal mill. The panel of judges who released the criminal "animal breeders" has been accused of accepting bribes in several cases. As difficult as it is for me to relive that day, I will do so gladly if it means those corrupt individuals will be removed from their posts.

Enough of Grathos. How are you, my Tiercel?

When I read your comm, I tried to envision you sitting in your room writing to me, and I confess that I could not. I realized how little I know of your world on Coruscant and your studies with your master. I am ashamed to admit that when you were here, I only thought of you as part of my world. I can be a selfish man.

Please tell me, what is your room like? What sort of oddments do you surround yourself with? Who are your friends? I would be most grateful if you could tell me these things, so that I could picture you moving through your day, as I move through mine.

I share the tremendous longing that you spoke of, although it has eased some in the past few days. My medical training tells me it is my midichlorians adjusting to the separation from yours, but as the man who loves you, my heart only knows the ache. I remind myself that it is for a short time, and then you will come back to me as we promised.

All my love to you, Tiercel.

Qui-Gon Jinn

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Obi-Wan was half-way through his second reading of the comm when he heard a knock on his door. He looked up to find Master Li striding across his room, exuding concern.

"Looks like a nasty one, Padawan," she commented after a cursory examination of his ankle. "Have you been to the healers?"

"Yes, Master. They say it should be fine by morning."

"Good. From the intensity of the pain spike, I was afraid you'd broken something."

Obi-Wan flinched and looked away, but not before his master caught the look in his eye. He could rarely hide things from her. She was too quick, and knew him too well.

"Don't chastise yourself, Obi-Wan, it only lasted a moment. Your shielding is fine."

"I'm sorry, Master, but I hate that my clumsiness caused you pain."

"Don't fret over things that can't be controlled," she scolded. She ran her fingers through her short hair, dissipating her frustration. When she spoke again, her tone was softer. "How did it happen?"

Obi-Wan shrugged. "I was working blindfolded on the rings. I reached out to where I thought the next one would be, and there was nothing to grab on to. I fell about twenty feet, and landed badly."

"Not like you to miss on the rings. I suppose everyone has a bad day once in a while. Take it easy for a couple of days, to be sure it heals well," she ordered, complete with one of her very meaningful looks.

"I promise," he assured her.

She nodded, and motioned at the comm screen. "Studying?"

"No. Just checking messages."

"Ah," she said, smiling. "Any message in particular?"

"Yes, I heard from Qui-Gon." Obi-Wan blushed, infuriated with himself for doing so.

"Good. I'm glad." She looked at him carefully. "How are you doing, my friend?"

"Better, but it's still difficult."

Li squeezed his shoulder. "You'll manage. There is a great strength at your core, Obi-Wan, and I'm certain you can handle this."

"Thank you, Master."

"I'm so tired I can barely keep my eyes open. I'm heading for bed. Keep that ankle elevated," she shot at him as she left the room.

Obi-Wan turned back to the screen and read the comm once more. He could just imagine Qui-Gon trying to get things done without Kee. Poor C'idra, faced with the wrath of an outraged Master Jinn!

He sobered at the thought of his bonded testifying about the animal mill. It made a chill run down his spine. Just bad memories he counseled himself, and stored the comm in his personal archive.

The young man closed his eyes, and leaned back in his chair. The ache of separation had eased, it was true, but it was still ever present. He reached for the bond, finding it faint but pulsing in the back of his mind. It was a comfort.

"I love you, Qui-Gon," he whispered into the growing darkness.

He turned off his comm unit and rose carefully to get ready for sleep.

3. Treasures

Qui-Gon brushed Marenga's white coat, the horse transfixed by her master's voice reporting the events of the day. Marenga was a good listener, and didn't interrupt with questions, so the healer often found himself confiding in his animal friend.

"I testified for two solid hours," he expounded, his muscular arm moving across the horse's flank in long strokes. "I told them every grisly detail I could think of. Showed them the holos, too. They sat there stony faced, like they weren't moved by the misery of so many life-forms. All they care about is the bribery, and where the credits went."

Qui-Gon moved up toward the horse's neck, changing to a gentler touch.

"Whatever it takes to get those pathetic excuses for judges out of office, I don't care. Sirrah Beryt may have a say in who replaces them, and he is a good man, isn't he Marenga?"

The horse recognized the name of the ranch owner, and whinnied in reply. She was fond of the short, rotund human who visited occasionally and brought her sweet tubers.

"And I have my ears and eyes open, don't I? I have my friends watching out for any sign of that scum setting up shop again on Grathos. They won't be able to operate anywhere in this sector, if I have anything to say about it."

Marenga stamped her foot in agreement.

Qui-Gon finished the grooming, and returned each brush and tool to its proper place. He sent the animal a mental wish for a good rest, and felt it returned with an equine version of a peaceful night - quiet, dark, and dry, clean hay.

The healer headed for the stairs, but at the last moment, detoured toward his office. If the Force was with him, today would bring a message from Obi-Wan. It had been several weeks since he'd received that first comm. Qui-Gon realized this was probably because his bonded had been sent out on some Jedi mission to save the world, but it was disheartening to check day after day and find nothing there. Maybe today.

The tall man bent over his comm unit and examined the screen. "New messages," he ordered, trying not to get his hopes up.

There! Qui-Gon's face flushed in embarrassment as he realized just how excited a small name on a screen could make him. He was acting like some foolish adolescent.

"Who gives a damn!" he told himself. "Kenobi!" The message opened before him, and he perched on his chair to read.

[[Republic Cruiser Arien]] [[24.986<40<02]]


It was so good to receive your comm, but please do not call yourself a selfish man. You are anything but that, my love. Maybe you didn't ask me about my life as a Jedi Padawan, but I didn't offer to tell you, either. I *wanted* to be a part of your world for that time.

You asked me to describe my room. I'll gladly do that, but don't imagine me sitting there. I'm on a transport right now, heading out on another mission. We have two days' travel before us.

There isn't much to tell you about my quarters on Coruscant. I share them with Master Li, of course. The walls of my room are pale green. I didn't choose the color, but I don't object to it. There is a weaving on one wall, a gift from an artisan on an outer rim world. I have a work station with a comm unit, data access and keyboard. There are two chairs, and a sleep couch. One closet. A few drawers built into the wall. Shelves for data pads.

I've never given my quarters much thought, to be honest. I don't think of my room as much more than a stopping-off place between missions.

The only thing special in my room is a collection of scrolls and books given to me by Master Li. Her lifemate was a Temple archivist, and they developed a personal collection of texts and manuscripts over the years. She gives me her books on special occasions, sometimes presenting one to me, and sometimes allowing me to choose. I like to take them down from the shelf and turn the pages, or unroll the rough fiber spools. I can read some of them, but many are in ancient languages that I have never studied. They remind me of the vastness of time and the universe.

The things I consider truly important, I carry with me in a small pouch in my belt. I think of it as my "treasure bag." Silly, I know, but I've had it since I became an Initiate. I will tell you what's in it, since you asked about my oddments.

There are seven items:

A tiny ring, made of silver-blue metal - I was wearing this when I came to the Temple as a child. It is plain, except for a small mark stamped into the metal on the inner side. My crèche mother kept it after my fingers had grown too big to wear it, and returned it when I moved up to the Initiates' quarters. She told me to keep the ring always, that it was a token of the care and love of my birth family. I look at the circle of metal now and think of it as a symbol of all the people who have cared for and loved me - my family, my crèche mother, Master Li, my friends, and now you.

A bit of paper - It is lumpy and rough, and it would be difficult to write on, but I made it myself. Just after I was apprenticed to Master Li, she took me to her family's village on Niota. The people there are dedicated to preserving the ancient ways, including crafts - like making dishes from clay, tools from iron, and baskets from plant fibers.

Master Li comes from a family of papermakers. She showed me how the plants were processed into pulp, poured into thin layers on screens, then left to dry in the sun. I tried my hand at it, and produced this pathetic thing. I keep it as a reminder of my master's village, and to be mindful of traditional ways.

A plastisteel rivet - Our transport crashed, and it was my fault. My master risked her life to save mine. I don't like to think about it, but I won't allow myself to forget it.

A gaming cube - I'm sure you can guess how rare it is for a Jedi padawan to be relieved of duty and given a chance to just have fun. This cube is from one of those occasions when I had a crazy, wonderful time with my friends. I will remember that evening always, for a number of reasons.

A grain of teosinte - This is from one of our most difficult missions. We were sent with a team of relief workers to bring food to a starving planet. They'd had a severe drought, and had outstripped the planet's ability to feed itself. It was so terrible, Qui-Gon. The stench of misery and death was everywhere. Our team worked as hard as we could, but thousands died. This kernel of teosinte reminds me never to take food and water for granted. Life is fragile.

A small animal fetish, carved from bone - A man who looked old enough to be Master Yoda's grandfather gave this to me. My master and I had been sent to document a primitive culture on a newly charted planet. A crinkled-up old man followed me around for days, talking to me, nodding his head and smiling a toothless grin. Unfortunately, I had no idea what he was saying. My master knows many of the old languages, and she said he was some kind of a holy man or seer. He gave me this fetish on the day we left. According to Master Li, he said it would protect me, so I carry it. I had not thought of this before, but now I think he really was a seer. The fetish is carved in the image of a hawk.

A small, flat stone - This is from the shore of the beautiful lake where my bonded first made love to me.

And that is all. Of course, I carry the bell with me always, in a separate pouch. I've wrapped it in heavy cloth so that it doesn't make noise. There are times when my movements must be silent. When the emptiness inside me becomes too great, I take it out and let the sweet sound fill me with memories and promises for the future.

I'm sorry I haven't answered all your questions, but I must close this now. I need to review the mission briefing, then get some rest. I will fall asleep thinking of you, riding Marenga across the grassy meadows of Grathos.

I love you, Qui-Gon Jinn.



Qui-Gon stared at the screen, lost in thought. The sky grew significantly darker before he finally roused himself and pressed the response button on the comm unit. He spoke a two-sentence reply, and hit the key to send the message.

The words were transcribed into code, then disassembled into pulses of energy. They were sent flying through space, momentarily collecting at transfer stations, only to be flung off again to the next point of their journey. Finally, they reached their destination, a data storage unit at the Jedi Temple. There they were reassembled into the words sent by one lover to another, waiting to be read: "I am an incredibly fortunate man. I love you, my Tiercel."

4. Mews News

Obi-Wan examined the list of incoming posts, which included an audio comm from Qui-Gon. The padawan furrowed his brow, wondering why his bonded would deviate from his usual pattern of sending written comms, especially after he'd received a newsy message from him just yesterday. After closing the cubicle door on the transport to gain some modicum of privacy, he commanded, "Play."

Obi-Wan laughed as the bright, high-pitched voice pealed out of the commpad. Now he understood. Bartram had used Qui-Gon's account to send him a message.

Hi Obi-Wan. How're you? I'm good.

Guess what? We're going to breed the eyas gyr, and Master Qui-Gon says I am to have one of the chicks to raise myself. I'll have my very own longwing! And there's more. Master Qui-Gon says I can *name* it if I want. Usually he won't let us give the birds names because he says they're wild animals and not pets. But since this bird will be imprinted on me, he says I can name it. I haven't decided what to call it yet. I think I'll wait and see the bird first, and see how it acts.

D'nar and I let the passage birds go after Hawking Day. It was kind of sad to watch them fly away. I miss having them here.

I miss you too, Obi-Wan. I wish you could come back and cheer up Master Qui-Gon. He's grumpy.

I hope you are having fun being a Jedi.

Bye. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was amazing how a voice could bring back such a flood of memories. Obi-Wan marveled at how much he had learned from his young friend. And there was much more to learn, he knew, when he went back to Grathos. At least he was doing some research in the meantime. Obi-Wan picked up the falconry text he'd found buried in his master's collection. Sometimes being apprenticed to an ancient cultures specialist had side benefits.

The padawan immersed himself in the beautiful old book as the transport flew on, toward yet another destination, yet another mission.

5. Judged

Qui-Gon strode into his office, trailing mud and hay from the stable yard. He rapped his knee sharply as he dropped onto his chair, but he barely noticed. Such good news. He had to tell his bonded right away. Obi-Wan would understand the significance.

The healer queued up his comm, and composed a message.

[[Grathos]] [[24.986<44<09]]

My Tiercel,

I received wonderful news today. The pathetic excuse for a judiciary panel has been dissolved! The judges were convicted of accepting bribes in four cases. I did testify about the animal mill, but the prosecution would have been strong enough without my contribution. The new Chief of Civil Authority had extensive documentation regarding their illegal actions, so there really was no doubt in anyone's mind as to their culpability.

Kerol Beryt, the owner of the ranch, has been asked to serve on the Citizen Advisory Committee, which will have some say in appointments to the new panel. Kerol is a good, honest man, so I have faith that the Provincial government is sincere in its efforts to clean up corruption in the system.

Enough of my news. How are you, my love? Thank you for your last comm telling me about your friends. I hope to meet them someday, especially Bant. It sounds as though the two of you were a handful for your masters when you were young.

I wonder where you are now, Tiercel. Are you off chasing through the stars on another mission, or sitting in your quarters on Coruscant? Sometimes I suspect that you are in a neighboring sector, because I feel the bond buzzing in the back of my head, as though you were near. Probably wishful thinking.

I had something strange happen yesterday. I was Force- lifting an animal on to the examination table, and nearly dropped it. It was as though suddenly the Force was some slippery eel, sliding through my fingers, impossible to grasp. It was a very odd sensation. Luckily the animal was not injured, only startled nearly out of the few wits it has.

I'm sorry that I don't have time for a longer comm at the moment. There's a sick rinka awaiting my attention. I just wanted to share the good news about the trial.

I miss you, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

All my love,


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Qui-Gon sent the message, and decided to check for incoming comms while he was at his desk. He opened the appropriate module, but was met by... nothing. There should have been at least a week's worth of messages there!

He searched through his log, through his archive, through all the modules, but there was no trace. They were simply gone.

Qui-Gon could feel the tension spreading through his body as he mentally catalogued all the vital bits and pieces of information he'd lost. His jaw clenched as he tried to reason out how this could have happened. The system was quite reliable.

Might someone have fiddled with his account? Who would have access? The answer slowly dawned on him.

"C'IDRAAAAA!" bellowed the Master as he burst out of the small room, prepared to take revenge.

6. Suspicions Confirmed

Obi-Wan turned away from the tiny viewport in his quarters on the *Arien* and looked at the commpad in his hand. He read the message from his bonded for the second time, knowing what it said, but not wanting to believe it. The comm confirmed his fears.

Since leaving Grathos, Obi-Wan had experienced brief moments when the Force would not answer his call. At first, it was only in times of high stress or intense physical demand, which he had dismissed as a result of changes in his system from the bond. But the episodes were more frequent now, and less predictable. The note from Qui-Gon informed the padawan that he was not the only one so affected.

"I find that I also have moments when the Force ignores me," Qui-Gon had written. "It most often happens when I am trying to speed healing, or to diagnose an illness. The Force is simply not there. It is a strange sensation. Fortunately, I have been able to work around the deficiency by using alternative measures. I think you are correct about it becoming worse in recent weeks."

If Qui-Gon was having similar problems, that meant it was related to the bond. Was their ability to use the Force now dependent on their physical proximity?

Obi-Wan sighed. On the last mission, he had twice stumbled in performing his duties because of diminished Force capacity. He had to stop pretending it was just a loss of focus. This was real, and it had to be dealt with soon.

He tossed the commpad aside and turned back to the viewport. Fortunately, this mission to Althene was primarily ceremonial. He would explain the problem to Master Li when it was complete.

7. Missing You

Obi-Wan dragged himself into his room, filthy and exhausted from the dreadful mission to Althene. He considered flopping on his bed and into the blissful oblivion of sleep, but he had to check his comm messages, just in case.

"Messages" brought a long list of detritus scrolling across the screen. One entry burned into his brain.

"Jinn," he whispered, and read:

[[Grathos]] [[24.986<50<01]]

I miss you, my Tiercel.

I miss your spirit, your mind inside mine, your love enveloping me in soft, warm comfort.

I miss your smell, your heat, your lust.

If I close my eyes, I can imagine you lying beside me. I feel your fingers ghosting over my skin. Your lips tease me, and my cock stirs at the intentions I know you harbor. Your tongue meets mine, probing, tasting. Your mind speaks to me, murmuring lustful thoughts. I crave your touch. I crave your hard, sweet body.

If I close my eyes, I can imagine your tongue trailing down my chest from the hollow of my neck. I groan as you take my nipple between your teeth, teasing and sucking. I arch to your demanding lips.

You trail down my stomach to dip into my navel, to delve into the depth of my mind, whispering endearments as you assault my body with your gentle touch. I shiver under your fingers, wanting more.

Your tongue ravages the inside of my thigh. How can my skin be so vulnerable to a mere touch? Because it is you. Because it is my love, my Tiercel.

Up my thigh, and I spread myself like a wanton whore, mutely begging. You dive between my legs, seeking the tenderest skin where leg meets groin. You bury your nose and mouth down there, licking, sucking, driving me wild. Your fingers caress. I want more. Please, Obi-Wan, more.

And I moan wildly as your tongue invades my opening, erotic as anything I have ever experienced. My hands clench the bedclothes, and I gasp, keenly aware that I could come at any moment, but not wanting to. Wait. Wait for more.

I feel your braid tickle my leg as you move up, licking and kissing my sac, up to my phallus. Oh, your sweet mouth, tasting and teasing and sucking. Gods! I rock my hips into the love that engulfs me. My mind is in yours, feeling your arousal, knowing that your gift of pleasure is as exciting to you as it is to me.

In me, please, my Obi-Wan. Please. And you comply, burying yourself inside my body and my mind. We are joined in ecstasy. I don't know any more what it is that I feel, and what is yours. We are alone together. How can I bear this sweet passion? You thrust, probing my thoughts to maximize my pleasure. Reading me, changing your rhythm. Seeking me. Seeking us.

My mind explodes into yours, my body convulsing in its primitive response. My Obi-Wan, I love you so.

You hold me, telling me that you belong to me. That you will always return to me. My Tiercel.

I know it is not real. I know that you are not here. But if I close my eyes, I can imagine it.

Yours. Always.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Obi-Wan leaned back in his chair, hugging himself tightly. He bit down hard on his lower lip, but this time he lost the battle. Hot tears coursed down his cheeks.

8. Doubts

Li peeked into Obi-Wan's room, pondering the tangle of bedclothes and variously sized lumps on the sleep couch. If she tipped her head to the right and squinted, she could imagine that the longish protuberance in the middle was her padawan.


"Yes, Master?" one of the lumps replied.

"Are you well?"

"Yes, Master," the voice reassured her.

"Hiding from the universe this morning?"


Well, she supposed he deserved a lie-in after the events of the last week. She headed toward the pantry with hopes of finding something decent to eat.

Under the covers, Obi-Wan grudgingly admitted that she was right. He was hiding. After a turbulent night he had at last come to a decision, but he was not quite ready to face the world. On this particular morning, he did not want to be in his quarters in the Temple or anywhere on Coruscant. He did not want to be anyone's padawan. He was not even sure he wanted to be a Jedi.

On this day, he only wanted to be with Qui-Gon, or at least on a transport speeding toward Grathos.

He had been awake most of the night, dealing with the devastating effect of his lover's latest comm. Qui-Gon's words had precipitated a crisis between the part of him that was Jedi, and the part of him that desperately longed for his bonded. It had been almost four months since they'd parted and he felt the ache of separation with every fiber of his being. After hours of painful struggle, he decided that he must listen to the pounding message that threatened to overwhelm him. He had to be with Qui-Gon, and as soon as possible.

The choice was made, but now he had to explain the decision to his master. He knew she would eventually understand his need to see Qui-Gon, but the rest of the situation would be more difficult to discuss. He needed to disclose the whole truth. He needed to confess his difficulties accessing the Force.

*Time to face reality,* he told himself, flinging the covers off with a sweep of his arm. He threw his legs over the side of the bed and stood, swaying momentarily while he gained his equilibrium. He pulled the bell from under his pillow, rang it once more, and tucked it safely into its designated place on his utility belt.

Obi-Wan stripped off his nightclothes on the way to the 'fresher, and indulged in a luxurious hot shower to wash away the dirt of the abominable mission just ended. He wrapped a towel around his waist and switched on the mirror, prepared to finish his morning routine.

As he smoothed bacta cream over the lacerations on his face, Obi-Wan was briefly given a disembodied, objective view of his own reflection. It startled him. It might as well be a stranger looking back. Dark circles pooled under his eyes, and his cheeks were gaunt. He knew he had lost sleep in the past week, but now he realized he had also lost weight. In fact, he looked like he'd been dragged behind a tauntan for the better part of a day.

What would Qui-Gon think of him looking this way, he wondered. What did Qui-Gon see when he looked at him anyway? He knew his lover considered him attractive, but wasn't really sure why. Obi-Wan turned his head left and right, contemplating his features. He realized he wasn't ugly by human standards, but except for the dimple in his chin, he'd always considered his face rather plain.

It would be different if he had accepted the Marks of Accomplishment, as his master bore. Although she was a small woman, Master Li was intimidating to look at, especially to those who understood the distinctive Marks identifying her as a Keeper.

Li was Niotan, a culture in which proficiency in one's chosen field was recorded by tattoos on the face and neck. His master bore fine blue marks curling from her cheekbones to her temples, over her forehead, disappearing into her hairline. Many times, Obi-Wan had heard her explain what each line represented: an archaic language learned, an ancient weapon mastered. The elaborate design weaving around her face was impressive to anyone in its ornate beauty, awe-inspiring to those who could read the tale it told.

Now, Li was fulfilling part of her responsibilities as a Keeper by passing her knowledge on to Obi-Wan. The padawan ran his fingers over his forehead, remembering the choice Li had offered him upon mastering his first weapon. He'd suspected she was disappointed when he declined to be marked. He'd told her that he felt it was a private issue, something that was personal between the two of them. Li had quietly acquiesced, and had not asked him again.

Sometimes, Obi-Wan wished he had chosen differently. If he had taken the Marks, he would by now bear an intricate pattern similar to his master's, indelible proof of his knowledge and abilities. If he ever left the Order, by choice or by circumstances beyond his control, he would always be Li-tzu, his master's student. The Marks would forever represent his training and dedication.

Instead, it was his secret. Not even Qui-Gon knew the skills he possessed. There was so much about him that his bonded didn't know.

Which was just one of the reasons he needed to leave, today if possible.

Obi-Wan stood in the door leading from his room to the common area, fully dressed and ready for the day. Li was where he knew she would be, sitting at the dining table, an old text propped in front of her to be skimmed while she ate her morning meal.

He squared his shoulders and spoke resolutely. "Master."

The tone of voice made her look up quickly, spoon frozen in mid-air. Her eyebrows raised questioningly.

"I don't think I can do this any longer."

"What brought this on?" she said, returning spoon to bowl. "When we spoke last week, you said you were coping well."

"I have been, at least when I'm busy. If my mind is occupied, I can keep it under control. But the nights are always difficult. Last night, there was a comm from him, and everything just came crashing down around me."

Li's eyes narrowed, considering. She pushed her breakfast away, and motioned to the chair beside hers. Obi-Wan crossed the room and dropped into the seat with a soft thud.

"Padawan, do not let one unsuccessful mission color your perspective."

"Unsuccessful? Master, we narrowly escaped with our lives!" Obi-Wan's incredulity side-tracked the conversation.

"Considering that we were called to Althene under false pretenses, that's not surprising. The Althenium assured the Council that all factions had agreed to have the Jedi observe the opening of the Ancestral Chambers. We had no way of knowing that the Pentathenes were so violently opposed to our presence."

"But the Pentas have a reputation for deceit," Obi-Wan argued.

"Yes, we know that now. But even if I had known of the potential for such danger, I still would have accepted the mission. The risk was worth it."

She leaned forward, eyes shining with something akin to avarice. "Think of it Obi-Wan. The Chambers haven't been opened in a thousand years. The recordings, the texts, the holos - it's an event on a scale I'll never see again in my lifespan. The weapons in the armory alone could generate a lifetime of challenges for you."

It was true. The rumors of armaments lost to current civilizations were incredibly tantalizing. Obi-Wan had fairly drooled when he'd found out they had been appointed to attend the ceremonies. Ancient weaponry was a key interest he shared with his master. It was, in fact, what had drawn him to her as an Initiate.

Li sat back, considering her student carefully. "If, of course, this is still the type of challenge you seek."

Obi-Wan studied his hands. "Yes. I suppose that's a legitimate question."

"Tell me, Padawan." Li placed a forefinger under his chin, pulling his face up so that she could meet his eyes. "What exactly is it that you are asking for?"

"I want to be relieved of duty temporarily, so that I can visit him."

"Why does he not come here?"

Obi-Wan shook his head. "It's hard for him to find someone to take over care of the animals for more than a day or two. Besides that, he hates Coruscant. He says he can't tolerate a place so out of tune with the Living Force." He leaned forward and took her hand. "Li, the pull is so strong. Everything in my being tells me I have to go to Grathos."

"Are you saying it is the will of the Force?"

Obi-Wan was painfully aware of the part of the story he had yet to disclose. One thing at a time, he counseled himself. "I can't say that for sure. It may be. The feeling is as strong as some Force-compulsions I have had in the past."

"How long would you be gone?" she asked.

"I'm not sure."

The words hung in the room.

"Do you plan on returning?"

Force, she could cut to the point, couldn't she? Whether he returned depended on the answers to many questions - answers he wouldn't have until he was with Qui-Gon. He needed to be in his lover's arms while he determined his priorities, and discovered the nature of their bond. Maybe his master could answer one of his questions.

"Do you know when my trials will be?"

Li blinked at the change in topic, but gave a direct answer. "I have already recommended you to the Council for testing. I do not know any more than that. One or two of the Council members may be willing to give me an indication if I ask."

Obi-Wan nodded in acknowledgement. If she had already recommended him, perhaps the testing would be soon. Then he could begin the next phase of his life, whatever the Force might hold for his future.

Li seemed to follow his thoughts. "Padawan, what will you do after you earn the rank of Knight?"

Obi-Wan searched for the most honest answer. "I don't know, other than spend time with Qui-Gon. We had such a short time together after we bonded, I need to simply be with him for a while. I don't think I can make a decision on my future until I've done that."

Master Li was silent, her forehead creased in thought. After a long moment, she spoke again, deliberately.

"Obi-Wan, knighthood is a beginning, not an end. It is the beginning of a lifetime of commitment to the Force, and to serving the good of the citizens of the Republic. You will be expected to take vows to that commitment at your knighting ceremony. If you don't think you can do so, I have to wonder if you should continue as a padawan."

A cold grip twisted Obi-Wan's stomach. "Master?"

Her eyes searched his, as though she might read his soul. "Why do you want to continue as my padawan if you are not sure that you will accept the duties of a Knight?"

Damn. She was right, of course. Ever since his conversation by the lake with Qui-Gon, his goal had been the successful completion of his trials. It was what drove his every action, his commitment at the start of each day, for when the trials were over, he could return to his bonded. But of course he would be asked to commit to service to the Order. How could he have not thought of this?

Li continued, her voice colored by sympathy. "My Padawan, I do not mean to be harsh. If you choose to leave to be with Qui-Gon, I will accept that decision. I know that you will live a meaningful life, whether as a Jedi Knight, or cast in some other future. Because I love you as a friend, I wonder why you put yourself through this hell of separation if you are not sure that you want to be a Knight?"

"Qui-Gon said I shouldn't try to determine my entire future just now. He said I should make a commitment to passing my trials, and then together we would decide what to do with the rest of our lives."

"Qui-Gon is not a Jedi," she replied. "I know that he is a master healer, and that he trained in the Temple, but he does not truly understand the demands of the Order. I wish his advice were sound, Obi-Wan, but I have to ask you to make a commitment. Otherwise, I will rescind the recommendation for your trials."

Obi-Wan's head spun. It was true that he had considered leaving the Order to live with Qui-Gon, but he had always assumed it would be his choice, to be made on his terms. He never expected to be confronted in this way.

Then there was the other issue. Maybe his increasing difficulty using the Force was a sign that he was not meant to be a Jedi. Maybe he was meant to find a life on Grathos. It was all so confusing.

His master's words brought him back to focus.

"I believe the Force has set a challenge before you, Obi- Wan, but it is not insurmountable. Yes, you are now bonded, but why should that change your chosen path? Why do you think you cannot be a Knight and be bonded to Qui- Gon?"

Obi-Wan closed his eyes, knowing it was time to reveal his greatest concern. "It may not be a choice I have any control over."

"There's something else, isn't there?" she probed.

"Yes." He took a deep breath and plunged on. "I'm having difficulty accessing the Force."

"What! How long has this been going on?"

"It started when I returned from Grathos, but it only happened when I needed to use the Force intensely. High demand situations. In the past few weeks, it's become more chronic. I reach out to the energy, and it just slips away form me. It happened again on Althene, while we were evading the Pentas."

"Why have you not told me?" A mix of strong emotions - anger, disappointment, hurt - colored the master's words and her face, making her tattoos stand out sharply against her skin.

"In the beginning, I was hoping that it was just a loss of focus - distraction from missing Qui-Gon so much. I convinced myself I just needed to concentrate harder. But I know now that's not it. I'm losing my Force-sensitivity. The timing of my trials may be a moot point," he surmised miserably. "I don't even know if I could pass them."

Li's scowl registered deeply. There were few things worse than facing her disappointment. "I'm so sorry, Master Li."

Obi-Wan watched as his master ran a quick hand through her hair, dismissing her emotions into the wholeness of the Force. Her manner once again became calm and reassuring. "Obi-Wan, let's not jump to conclusions. Diminished Force capacity can be caused by something as simple as a virus."

The padawan shook his head. "No. Qui-Gon is experiencing it, too."

"It has something to do with the bond?"

"I think it's a result of the separation. The longer we are apart, the worse the problem becomes."

Li considered the explanation. "It is not unheard of. You should see the healers for tests. There still may be another reason. Has Qui-Gon been tested?"

Obi-Wan gave a wan smile. "No. He's not the type to go to the healers."

A soft beep interrupted Li's reply. She acknowledged the signal, and the holoimage of Adi Gallia snapped into focus before them.

"Master Li, we just received an urgent communiqué from Althene. The Althenium reports that the tribes have settled their dispute, and all parties now agree to Jedi presence at the unsealing of the Ancestral Chambers. They request your immediate return so that the ceremony may proceed as scheduled."

Li spoke crisply. "I understand. I will be ready to leave within the hour."

Obi-Wan shook his head as his master rose from her chair. "I don't like this, Master. They can't have come to an agreement already."

The small woman began to clear the table, dodging Obi-Wan as he inadvertently blocked her way. "It's suspicious to me too, but I must go. They have asked for my presence, and the Council has agreed. It is my duty."

No, this wasn't right. This was not the way it was supposed to be.

"I'm going with you," Obi-Wan asserted, following his master into the kitchen.

Li whirled around and confronted him. "No, Obi-Wan. You just finished telling me that you want to be relieved of your duties. You should be finding a shuttle to Grathos."

Obi-Wan knew deep in his core that disaster waited on Althene. His instincts were screaming at him. "You're not going back there alone. It's not safe!"

He knew as soon as the words left his mouth that he'd said the wrong thing. His master straightened her spine, drawing herself up to her full five feet in height, and stepped forward into his personal space. Obi-Wan had to control the urge to step away.

"I am a Jedi Master, in case you have forgotten. I think I can take care of myself."

Obi-Wan melted under her glare. "I didn't mean it that way, Master. What I mean is, I belong at your side."

"You can't be at my side and with Qui-Gon, too," she snapped. "Make up your mind, Padawan Kenobi! Do, or do not!"

There was no way he was going to allow her to go into this situation alone. He had a sworn duty to his master, and he was not going to forgo it. He clenched his jaw, and spoke with conviction.


"Good." The caring friend transformed into mission commander. "Have you unpacked?"


"Fine. You run to the healers' and have them take blood and tissue samples. Tell them to do a complete screening for diminished Force capacity. I'll grab our bags, and meet you at the lift to the upper level transport bay. Hurry!"

Obi-Wan turned and ran out the door.

9. En Route

A sense of unease had troubled Qui-Gon all day. It crawled around on his skin, poked uncomfortably into his brain, and left a bad taste in his mouth. Something just wasn't right, but he couldn't quite determine the problem.

After wrapping up his responsibilities for the afternoon, he squeezed behind his desk and flipped on his comm unit. As the incoming messages flew across his screen, his discomfort drew to a tight focus. Obi-Wan. Something was wrong with his Tiercel.

Driven now, he scanned the list of messages until he found the one that mattered. He read:

[[Republic Cruiser *Arien*]] [[24.986<50<09]]


I only have a few moments to write. I am en route to Althene with my Master. We are returning to the planet after a mission that nearly ended in catastrophe. I have to tell you, Qui-Gon, I have quite a bad feeling about this. My instincts tell me that it is not going to go well. But it is our duty to obey the orders of the Council, so we go to Althene.

I finally told Master Li about my problems with the Force, and at her insistence, left blood and tissue samples with the healers before we left Coruscant. Please, love, have yourself tested for diminished Force capacity, so that we can correlate the results of the tests and perhaps learn more about what is happening to us.

I don't know what the next few days will hold. I will be in touch as soon as possible. I just had to tell you that I love you with all my heart. With all my soul. I am your Tiercel.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The dire comm set Qui-Gon's nerves buzzing. He sought the subtle mental tingle of the bond, which persisted no matter his physical distance from Obi-Wan. His shoulders drooped with relief when he found the link, soft but present. His love was alive. He knew this much, at least.

Qui-Gon rubbed his hands roughly over his face. He knew his bonded was a Jedi apprentice, sometimes at risk on assignments that sent him sailing across the galaxy. That jeopardy was easy to minimize though, since most of the missions he shared with Master Li seemed to relate to cultural history. How could Obi-Wan's life be endangered on a history trip?

The words glowing bleakly from the screen made it painfully obvious that he had been naive. His love was truly a Jedi, never knowing when he might be thrown into a life or death situation. And now he was admittedly handicapped by his inability to reach the Force. Qui-Gon's chest hurt.

The bond is there, he told himself sternly. He focused on the link, determined to keep it in the forefront of his mind as he finished out his day. "Come back to me, my Tiercel," he whispered.

He took a deep breath and turned his attention to the remainder of the messages on his comm.

10. Decisions

The First Day

Damn it, *why* couldn't C'idra put things away where they belonged? Qui-Gon sorted through the disorderly pile of tools, equipment and medicinals, searching for the precise pair of clippers he needed. If he'd told the boy once, he'd told him a million times, if you put it away when you are done with it, you will be able to find it when you need it.

The animal healer's breath clouded in the chill air as he returned things to their assigned spaces, rather more forcefully than necessary. He lifted the lid of the chest that held the heavy-duty trimmers and clippers, transferring things into it while he grumbled. At least Kee would be back tomorrow.


The unexpected voice from behind made the healer jerk up suddenly, slamming his head into the low shelf immediately above him. He staggered, blinded by stars swimming across his field of vision.

Hands pawed at him annoyingly, while a voice apologized and asked for assurance that he was not hurt.

"Let go! Leave me alone!" Qui-Gon ordered, pushing away the clawing hands and grabbing his head in an attempt to stop the world from spinning. Thankfully, the person did as he was told, allowing the healer a moment to regain his bearings.

He opened his eyes carefully, registering on the floor. After a moment when the straw seemed to ripple over his feet, he managed to bring things into focus.

His eyes met with a pair of brown boots standing several feet from his own. He brought his eyes up slowly and cautiously to see a pair of tan leggings above the boots. They looked very much like a Jedi padawan's leggings.

Qui-Gon raised his head quickly to look at the face of the person before him, a move he instantly regretted. The world swam again, and he clutched the sides of his head, cursing under his breath.

It looked like Obi-Wan, he thought as his vision once again began to clear. Impossible. He was off with his master on a dangerous mission. Besides, he would have sensed if his bonded was near.

He blinked. He looked again. Disbelief warred with the evidence confronting him. It was him. It really was.

"Obi-Wan?" he whispered.

"Hello, Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan answered. A grin consumed his face.

The healer stood rooted to the spot, trying to comprehend what was happening. "What are you doing here?"

"It's a long story, but Master Li sent me. She said I needed a dose of Qui-Gon."

He was really and truly here, standing in the workroom. Right in front of him. At last it sank in.

"Tiercel!" he gasped, and in one stride, his love was in his arms. He pressed Obi-Wan to him, soaking in the contact with the sweet, hard body. Obi-Wan's chest rose and fell against his own, legs pushed back against his, strong hands gripped the muscles of his back. Thank the blessed Force!

A kiss. He had to have a kiss. He bent his head and melted into his lover's lips. The taste of him, the familiar smell, the tongue inside his mouth - it was a sensual assault. It went straight to his groin. He kissed Obi-Wan as if he could devour him. His lips tingled as his lover moaned. Qui-Gon broke away, raising his head just enough to be able to absorb the wonderful sight of the man in his arms.

Harsh breaths became visible, little puffs of passion swirling in the brisk air. Qui-Gon felt anything but cold; just one kiss had inflamed him. He knew from Obi-Wan's wide eyes, and the hard swelling pressed against his thigh, that his Tiercel felt the same way. Gods, he could just throw the man down in one of the empty stalls, rip his clothes off and take him right there. The look on his bonded's face said that Obi-Wan would not only allow it, he would revel in it.

But, no. Obi-Wan deserved better. They both did, after the long separation. They need time for renewal and to delve into each other's . . . minds?

Qui-Gon pushed Obi-Wan to an arm's length away. "Tiercel, why can't I feel you? Where is the bond?" he asked worriedly.

Obi-Wan smirked. "I was wondering when you'd notice. I've been practicing my shielding."

"Congratulations, you've improved. Now stop it."

Obi-Wan laughed, and a look of concentration formed on his face.

Qui-Gon felt for the familiar tingle in his brain that was the long-subdued connection to his love. The tingle grew into a surge, followed suddenly by a blow of such stunning force, it sent the healer reeling backwards, unable to gain his balance until his back met with the solid wooden wall. He leaned against it for support as he desperately tried to calm the storm raging in his head.

Obi-Wan was in there, a whirling conglomeration of thoughts, emotions, and memories all mixed together with his own. It was as though he had been lifted suddenly and deposited into someone else's brain, without leaving his own behind. Mentally he grabbed for the ragged edges of his own shielding and tried to pull them together. He could tell Obi-Wan was doing the same.

Slowly their struggle had some effect, and they unwove their minds, meticulously sorting out whose thoughts were whose. The throbbing in Qui-Gon's head and chest eased, but his legs gave out, and he sank to the floor.

He looked across the room to see how his Tiercel was faring. Obi-Wan was sitting on a tool chest, bent over, with his head between his knees. He was breathing deeply and deliberately in an obvious attempt to keep from passing out.

Qui-Gon closed his eyes for a second and reinforced his control. That was better. Obi-Wan was there, accessible, but separated from him. Ever so softly, Qui-Gon touched the searing light that the bond had become. The sensation sent a shiver down his spine, and he saw his lover flinch.

"I don't remember it being like this," Obi-Wan rasped out. He'd finally sat up, but was slumped against the wall, breathing raggedly.

Qui-Gon shook his head. "It never was." He was surprised to notice how rough his own breathing was. "The bond is far stronger. I think the midicholorians are having their revenge on us for separating."

"I don't think that's quite the way it works," Obi-Wan retorted, and rubbed his temples. "This is going to take some getting used to."

That was an understatement. "Definitely. We'll need to figure this out a little at a time. Just don't drop your shields totally again, Obi-Wan, please. At least not for a while."

"Don't worry," Obi-Wan agreed.

Qui-Gon could still hardly believe it. Obi-Wan was sitting there grinning at him, dimpled chin and all. He was such a sucker for that grin.

"Come here, Tiercel." Qui-Gon reached his arms out to his love, who obligingly crossed the room and sat between his legs, his back against the healer's chest. Obi-Wan dropped his head to the larger man's shoulder as Qui-Gon enfolded him in his arms.

They sat quietly for several minutes, allowing the bond to settle, allowing the reality of their reunion to become tangible. Qui-Gon gloried in the physical contact, feeling the strain of the separation slowly draining away. At last, Qui-Gon thought, he was beginning to feel complete again.

Who would have ever guessed that today he would be sitting on the floor of the workroom, with his lover in his arms? Just moments ago....

"Hell's bells! The eopie!" Qui-Gon jerked up in a panic, pushing Obi-Wan forward.


"I came in here for a pair of clippers, thinking I'd go right back," Qui-Gon blurted as he struggled to his feet. "I left the gate open!"

He was out the door at a dead run, a laughing Jedi padawan at his heels.

"It's not funny, Tiercel. Have you ever tried to catch an eopie on the loose? I spent half the morning getting that thing indoors."

Obi-Wan tried unsuccessfully to contain his mirth.

They reached the animal's stall. Empty. The two men quickly surveyed the aisle immediately adjacent to the pen, but there was no sign of the wanderer.

"It can't have gone far, it has an abscessed foot," Qui-Gon tried to reassure himself. He cast out with his Force sense, and thought he distinguished a trace of the animal to their left.

"This way," he ordered. They cut over to the next set of stables, boots slipping on the loose straw as they ran. They panned up and down the aisle. Nothing. On to the next row.

There they saw an eopie posterior, its short tail wagging as the animal headed for the beckoning outer door as fast as its big, flat feet would carry him. Despite its disability, this was decidedly faster than the two men could run.

"Stop, beast!" Qui-Gon flung out with a strong measure of the Force. The animal hesitated under the command, breaking its stride to look back at the healer in confusion.

"Get the door, Obi-Wan!" Qui-Gon yelled as the two men sprinted forward. He was relieved to see the padawan gesture quickly with his hand, Forcing the door closed before the animal could escape.

They approached the eopie from opposite sides, containing it with a measure of Force until Qui-Gon could tie a rope to its halter. Then they stood for a minute, catching their breath.

Obi-Wan was beaming, and Qui-Gon felt nothing less than exultation flowing from him. Why would he be so happy about catching an eopie?

"What is it?"

"The Force, Qui-Gon! It came to me when I called for it. It was there, just as it should be. The diminished Force capacity is gone."

Qui-Gon stared at his bonded. He was right. He had also experienced his former degree of control, the power of the Living Force surging through his body. He'd reached for the energy, and it had snapped into place. The healer laughed and nodded in shared relief.

As quickly as Obi-Wan's joy had come, Qui-Gon felt it replaced by a stab of troubling concern, bordering on fear. The sudden change of emotion made him dizzy. He moved around the big animal, keeping one hand on the eopie to steady himself until he'd reached his bonded's side.

"It *was* the separation," Obi-Wan said miserably. "I can't leave you without losing my connection to the Force."

Qui-Gon knew the implication. What good is a Jedi without the Force?

He sighed and took his love into his arms. "Don't, Tiercel," he murmured. "Please, let's celebrate our reunion before we deal with the problems to come. Whatever it is, we will work it out together."

"You're right." Obi-Wan offered a weak smile. "Right now, I need to just be with you."

Qui-Gon nodded as he felt the sorrow drain away, replaced by a resolve to live in the moment, but a residual sadness hung in the air. This wouldn't do.

"Would you please tell me exactly why you were laughing a moment ago? Do you find my difficulties so funny?"

Obi-Wan relaxed and smiled his perfect smile. "No, Qui- Gon. I was just imagining what C'idra is going to say when he finds out the master animal healer left the eopie's gate open."

Qui-Gon's eyes flew open. "You wouldn't! Don't you dare tell him." The boy would never let him forget it.

"I think after all you've put him through, he deserves to know," Obi-Wan teased. He took a deep breath and started to yell, "Oh, C'iidd...." but never quite got it out. Qui- Gon sealed his lips over his lover's, swallowing the end of his call. The healer had always been a quick thinker.

*Not so easy to silence me, you know,* Obi-Wan spoke through the bond. *You have to come up for air sometime.*

*Perhaps I can distract you.*

Cautious of the enhanced connection between them, Qui-Gon shared one of the fantasies he had indulged in during their separation. He sent his bonded an image of the two of them naked by the glacial lake, Obi-Wan astride his body, head thrown back as Qui-Gon thrust into him.

Obi-Wan moaned. Qui-Gon felt his lover's hands wander from his back down to his rear, pulling and kneading his body through his heavy clothing. Gods, it had been so long. The fantasy combined with the groping hands and searing kisses sent his arousal spiraling upward. He pressed his hips against Obi-Wan, his phallus responding enthusiastically to the contact. Perhaps the closest empty stall would not be such a bad place, after all.

The eopie nudged Qui-Gon in the back.

Damn. The healer released his bonded, stepping away while he tried to clear his lust-clouded vision. "Tiercel," he said in frustration, "there are several animals I really must treat today. Why don't you go to the mews and see Bartram and D'nar? I will finish more quickly without you here."

"And I thought you were supposed to be distracting me," Obi-Wan retorted. "I'll go, but promise me you'll work fast."

Qui-Gon gave him his assurance, and after a quick kiss, Obi-Wan walked away. The healer watched appreciatively. Force, the back view was almost as wonderful as the front.

"Don't be too long!" Qui-Gon called out.

"I'll be back before evening meal."

A small, guilty thrill passed through Qui-Gon as an idea occurred to him. Maybe Obi-Wan would cook! His stomach growled at the enticing possibility.

Obi-Wan laughed. Qui-Gon didn't need the bond to feel the wave of love that washed over him as his lover strode away.

Obi-Wan pressed down on the latch, pushed the door open, and stepped through. Entering the mews was like coming home. There were differences, to be sure. There were no birds in the weathering area on this cold afternoon, and several new hutches had been built against the eastern wall. But the smell, the energy, the essence of the place greeted him like an old friend. Obi-Wan sighed contentedly as he started toward the small workroom in search of his friends.

He had only a moment's warning before he was attacked from behind. "Obi-Wan!" The cry pierced the air as Bartram launched himself onto the Jedi's back. Without any chance to prepare himself for the projectile of enthusiastic boy, Obi-Wan lost his balance and they both tumbled to the frozen ground.

"You're back!" the mews apprentice yelled as he pummeled his friend. Obi-Wan laughed and flipped them both over, engaging the boy in a bit of a wrestling match. They both ended up breathless and sweating, despite the temperature.

"What are you doing here? How long are you staying?" Bartram queried as he got to his feet.

"I came to visit Qui-Gon and all my friends here at the mews." He ignored the second question as he stood, shaking the dust from his wayward cloak.


The unfamiliar voice made Obi-Wan spin around, wondering who would be in the mews that he didn't know. His greeting froze on his lips. Obi-Wan stared open-mouthed at the dark-haired man striding toward him from the workroom. He moved with the natural grace of a person comfortable in his own skin. He was only slightly older than Obi-Wan, of similar build and height.

And, he bore fine blue tattoos - delicate lines scrolling across his cheeks, between his eyes, and over his forehead.

"This is Master Von. What's the matter, Obi-Wan?" Bartram tugged at his sleeve.

"Have I done something wrong?" the man asked.

Obi-Wan finally realized he was gawking, and snapped his jaw shut. "No, I'm sorry. I just didn't expect to see someone I didn't know," he stammered. "Are you Niotan?"

Now the stranger's face registered surprise. "Yes, I am." He held out both hands in a traditional greeting. "My name is Von."

"Obi-Wan Kenobi." He returned the greeting properly, grasping the man's hands with his own.

"I take it you are a friend of Bartram's?" Von asked.

"Yep!" answered the boy, "and D'nar, and Kee, and Master Qui-Gon. He's really good at hawking, too."


Obi-Wan could almost hear the mental whirring as the man tried to figure out just who he was. Qui-Gon had obviously not told him about his bonded. If that were the case, Obi- Wan would not divulge it now.

"Not really. I'm only just learning," he answered. "I was here this summer for training, and got to spend a bit of my free time working with the birds."

"Von's an eagle-hunter," Bartram supplied, plainly of the opinion that these two were not getting down to the important information fast enough.

Obi-Wan was impressed. "So that's what the new hutches are for? They look larger than the others."

Von nodded. "I brought two birds with me. I will be working here for the next year at least, filling in until Qui-Gon can find someone to permanently fill the position as Master of the Mews."

"So you're not..." Obi-Wan began, but was interrupted by Bartram's enthusiasm.

"Do you want to see them? They're ever so beautiful." The boy grabbed his friend's hand and pulled him toward the supply shed. "I still have your glove."

Obi-Wan smiled apologetically at Von as he allowed the boy to tug him away. He felt the stranger's eyes lingering on him for several long moments before Von stepped back into his office.

It was wonderful to spend the afternoon immersed in the happenings of the mews. Bartram was certainly right; the eagles were beautiful, powerful beasts, intimidating to hold on the fist. Obi-Wan thoroughly enjoyed becoming reacquainted with the various birds he'd handled months before, and polishing his rusty skills. D'nar greeted him with a hug, and spoke enthusiastically of all he'd been learning from the temporary mews master. It seemed the Niotan was a popular addition to the staff.

"Are you going hawking while you're here?" the older boy asked.

"I would certainly like to. Are any of the birds ready to hunt?"

"Let me check with Master Von." D'nar jogged over to the workroom and stuck his head in the door. After a moment, he returned in the company of the man he'd consulted.

"The russet buteo is at a favorable weight if you want to take her out tomorrow," Von proposed. "Have you flown a broadwing before?"

"No, but I'd love to learn. Let me talk to Qui-Gon and see if he can go out in the next day or two."

Von raised an eyebrow, but did not reply.

"If Master Qui-Gon can't go out with you, I will," D'nar offered. "Maybe Von could come, too."

"I could probably work it into my schedule."

"Hmm." Obi-Wan was noncommittal. It was illogical, but he did not want to share his hawking trip with the eagle- hunter. The only reason not to like the man was that he was new, but Obi-Wan very much wanted things on Grathos to be as he had remembered them.

*Obi-Wan?* The voice bellowed in his head, making him wince.

*Not so loud!* Readjustment was definitely going to take time.

*I'm finished here if you're ready to come back.* That was better. Obi-Wan sent a quick mental affirmative, and turned to his friends. They were studying him curiously.

"Time for me to head back to the stables. It was good to meet you," Obi-Wan said. "I would like to learn more about the eagles while I'm here."

"I would be happy to spend time with you - let you work them some," the mews master replied, focusing on the padawan's eyes.

"See you soon." Obi-Wan headed off with a wave of his hand.

Von watched appreciatively as the Jedi made his way to the gate. "Yes, I will be sure to see you again," he murmured.

Obi-Wan jogged back to the stables, hoping to return in time to catch Qui-Gon in the 'fresher. The young man's need for a physical connection with his bonded had been growing since his arrival, until now his body thrummed with it. He knew the healer usually cleaned up at the end of the workday, and he planned on taking the opportunity to pounce on him.

He entered the building, turned toward the left, and bounded up the winding stairs two at a time. He opened the wooden door at the top without knocking, set one foot into Qui-Gon's quarters, and stopped short. A black, furry beast with a mouthful of very serious looking teeth barred his way. A menacing growl oozed from its every pore.

"Qui-Gon?" he called softly.

"Yes?" The healer entered from his bedroom, his voice muffled by the thick gray sweater he was pulling over his head. He pulled his damp hair out from under the collar before noticing his lover's predicament. His eyes flew open.

"Loca, come!" he commanded.

The animal was reluctant to obey. He sniffed at the intruder suspiciously, but with a parting snarl, trotted to his master's side.

Obi-Wan crept into the room, staying close to his avenue of escape. He wasn't really frightened of the beast, but didn't see any reason to aggravate it.

He watched as the healer went down on one knee, taking the large, shaggy head between both hands. Qui-Gon stared at the animal, touching his mind, Obi-Wan knew, conveying his personal assurance that this new person was a friend, and he belonged in these quarters.

The tension left the dark form finally, and with one last glare at the interloper, he moved off to settle on a scrap of old rug.

"New pet?" Obi-Wan asked dryly. It seemed there was no end to the changes on Grathos.

"I needed someone to keep me company while you were gone."

"So, I've been replaced by a.... What is it, anyway?" Obi- Wan stared at the animal skeptically.

"A kanid. He's really quite friendly when he's not being territorial."

"I'll take your word for it." Obi-Wan finally turned his attention to his lover.

He'd missed the shower, he realized with disappointment. Qui-Gon was clean and dressed. He was very attractively dressed, as a matter of fact: dark trousers, gray sweater, short black boots. He looked incredibly handsome. It was almost a shame, Obi-Wan thought, that he was just going to have to take it all off again so soon.

The young man crossed the room and wrapped his arms around Qui-Gon. He opened enough of a mental connection to allow his love - and his lust - to carry over their bond. Qui- Gon obliged by meeting his lips for a soft, exploring kiss. Obi-Wan pressed his hands into the soft sweater, feeling the muscular beneath it.

Qui-Gon pulled back, picking up the padawan's braid and toying with it as he spoke. "Good news," he said with suspiciously forced cheerfulness.

"What now?" Obi-Wan asked guardedly.

"We don't have to cook."

"I wasn't intending to," Obi-Wan said with a sly grin.

"We've been invited to dine at the main house with the Beryts."

"Fine," Obi-Wan conceded. "Tomorrow."

Qui-Gon shook his head. "Tonight. When he heard that you had arrived, Kerol arranged for several of the local community leaders to join us for evening meal. I'm afraid it's an invitation we really can't refuse."

"Why not?" Obi-Wan winced at the whine he heard in his voice, but continued. "Qui-Gon, I've been onboard ship for five days. I'm tired, I'm dirty, and I have not been alone with you for more than 30 minutes. I came here to be with you, not attend social functions."

"You will be with me. We will both be at the dinner."

"You know that's not what I mean." Obi-Wan grabbed Qui- Gon's rear and squeezed the tight muscles there. "I want to *be* with you."

"I know, Tiercel, I feel it too. We will have our time together, I promise. But the dinner tonight is not just a social nicety. There is a purpose for the gathering."

"I don't like the sound of this already. What is it?" he asked resignedly.

"They want to speak to you as a Jedi. There are some odd things happening in the provincial government. Kerol thinks there is a new influx of the criminal element, and I agree with him. The evidence is strong and the implications troubling."

"Qui-Gon, I came here to get away from being a Jedi. Besides, why would they want to talk to me? I'm only an apprentice."

"They don't care if you are an apprentice, a knight, or a revered master. They see you as a means of getting their concerns sent back to the Council. They don't trust the Senate. Please, Tiercel?"

Obi-Wan stood toe to toe with his love, put his hands on the taller man's hips, and leaned forward so that the top of his head rested against the broad chest. Obi-Wan could feel the thudding of his lover's heart as Qui-Gon brushed his fingers over his short hair.

"Do you promise that we will spend tomorrow together?" Obi-Wan spoke into the healer's sweater.

"We will, I promise."

"And we will go hawking?"

"Yes, as long as I am back by mid-afternoon. Kee is returning, and I want to meet her transport when she lands."

That was understandable. "Very well." He straightened up, and looked into his lover's compassionate face. This was hard for him, too, Obi-Wan reminded himself. "Do I have time to get cleaned up?"

"If you hurry." Qui-Gon grabbed his hand when he started to turn away. "Thank you, my friend."

Obi-Wan grumbled as he picked up his bag and headed for the 'fresher.

After several days of sonics on board the transport, Obi- Wan was grateful that Grathos was a green world with plentiful water resources. He didn't feel the least bit guilty for standing overly long under the solar-heated spray pounding his skin. He only turned off the faucets when he felt a mental nudge from Qui-Gon, reminding him of the time.

The heat lamp evaporated the beads of water from his skin as he rummaged through his pack. If he had to act the role of a Jedi when he was supposed to be on leave, he at least was not going to do it wearing his standard issue tunic and leggings. He pulled out dark blue trousers and a shirt which complimented them, feeling a bit defiant as he dressed.

Qui-Gon's expression as he entered the living area showed his lover didn't miss the uniform one bit. "You look..." the man began, but couldn't find the words to complete his thought. He didn't need to. The look on his face said more than words could have.

Obi-Wan picked up his cloak, ready for the short walk to the main house. "What do I need to know before meeting with the others?" he asked.

"Nothing. Kerol will explain the situation to you." Qui- Gon slid his arms into a soft leather jacket.

"Who will be attending?" Obi-Wan pressed.

"I don't know precisely. He didn't tell me."

"Qui-Gon, I don't like going into a situation unprepared. I...." The quizzical look on his lover's face stopped him.

"It's just dinner, Tiercel, not a Jedi mission to Grathos."

"But you said they wanted to speak to me in an official capacity."

"Just be yourself. They only want to talk to you."

"If you say so," the padawan acquiesced, but he still didn't like it. Certain things were just ingrained in him, and one of those was being as fully prepared as possible for any given situation. He felt vulnerable, somehow, meeting with strangers who had expectations of the Jedi solving their problems.

Loca rushed past the two men as they descended the stairs, racing to be sure he was the first one down. The kanid gave his master a pathetic look when he was told to stay at the stables, but Qui-Gon was firm. The animal stood at the door, watching as the figures disappeared into the gathering shadows.

The evening was not what Obi-Wan expected. The extent of the Beryt land holdings, the expensive breeding stock, and large, well-maintained buildings had given him the notion that the family home would be designed to display their wealth. His preconceptions were peeled away layer by layer as the evening progressed, beginning when he walked through the front door.

Instead of a servant, they were greeted by Mirrah Beryt herself, a tall, lean woman with crow's feet around her eyes, which deepened when she smiled. Obi-Wan bowed formally upon entering the house, but she put an arm around his shoulders, and told him to call her Cait, her given name. Obi-Wan recognized her from around the ranch, but had not realized she was the Sirrah's wife. He had seen her working beside the ranch staff, doing everything from repairing fenceline to mucking out stalls.

She steered him into the living area, letting Qui-Gon trail behind. Sirrah Kerol Beryt stood and greeted the new arrivals with warmth, introducing Obi-Wan to the guests who had already made themselves comfortable in the rustic wooden chairs that dotted the great room. Beryt was a short, round man with a florid complexion, and a talent for putting others at ease. The Jedi was soon ensconced in a deep chair, sipping a hot beverage handed to him by Cait. The first taste surprised him as he felt the spike of alcohol warm his throat and spread through his limbs.

Cait noticed the faint coloration on his face. "Just the thing for a cold evening, isn't it?" She realized her assumption then, and asked worriedly, "The Jedi are allowed to drink alcohol, aren't they?"

Obi-Wan laughed. "We are *allowed* to do almost anything. I don't drink intoxicants very often, but you are right. It is just the thing on such a cold night."

He glanced at Qui-Gon, who sat across the room from him, entirely too far away. The master was not drinking, he noticed; maybe he should also have refused. He reminded himself to keep his wits about him. There was business to discuss eventually.

Dinner was served, and Obi-Wan took an active part in the light conversation accompanying the meal. His many years of attending functions with his master had made him an accomplished dinner guest. He knew how to behave in a wide variety of situations, even when it was not so pleasant as at the Beryt home. In contrast, Qui-Gon was quiet, sitting across the table from his love, speaking only when he was asked a direct question. He felt awkward, Obi-Wan realized - almost shy. He caught his eye occasionally, and managed to wink at his bonded when he thought he was unobserved.

The food was simple, but plentiful, served on what looked to be old, hand-made pottery plates and bowls. Most of the furnishings in the house appeared to be hand-made, Obi-Wan noticed. Rugs, table, chairs, baskets - all of the accoutrements spoke of the land and its resources. Of course. These were people who made their living from their ties to nature. He should have known better. Qui-Gon would never have worked so long for people who bore their wealth ostentatiously. In fact, the only signs of affluence were the bunches of flowers stuffed into jugs and pitchers, perching on sideboards and tables all over the house. In this season, they must be the product of a hothouse located somewhere on the ranch.

As Obi-Wan ate his spicy stew, he surveyed the dinner guests sitting around the large wooden table. Besides Qui- Gon, himself and the Beryts, there were eight humanoid men and women, and several non-humanoids whose gender he could not ascertain. They were all obviously familiar with Kerol and Cait, and their stories told of the long relationships between the various families represented.

"This is a beautiful old table," Obi-Wan remarked, fingering the scarred wood. "It looks like it could tell a few interesting tales."

"An astute observation, but I suppose the Jedi are known for such things," Kerol said. He leaned over and whispered melodramatically, "Family legend has it that three generations of Beryts have been conceived on this table."

Kerol waited for his reaction. Obi-Wan was taken aback for only a second or two, then simply chuckled and shook his head, making the Sirrah laugh in return.

The dinner concluded with an extravagant confection of berries and cream, whipped and frozen into a sensory delight. After complimenting their hosts on the wonderful meal, the group adjourned to a smaller room warmed by a blazing fire. Obi-Wan waited for Qui-Gon to choose a seat, then quickly took the chair next to him.

Kerol stood before the hearth, surveying his guests. "Well, Obi-Wan, what brings you to Grathos?"

"I came to visit Qui-Gon," he answered.

The Sirrah seemed both surprised and mildly disappointed. He glanced at Qui-Gon for a second, but returned his focus to the padawan. "You haven't come in any sort of official capacity?"

"No." Obi-Wan moved to place his hand over Qui-Gon's on the arm of the chair, but the healer moved his hands to his lap, folding them neatly. Obi-Wan felt embarrassment thread through the bond.

The rejection hurt. Was Qui-Gon ashamed of their relationship?

"We had hoped that the Jedi had heard of our small problems here on Grathos, and sent someone to make inquiries," one of the women explained.

Obi-Wan leaned forward and focused on the group, whose members had grown serious. "I'm sorry, no. Why don't you tell me what's been happening?"

"Several months ago," Kerol began, "a new Chief of Civil Authority was elected for this province. There was evidence of significant corruption in the previous government, and we were glad to see the new Chief move swiftly to rid the administration of their influence. Qui- Gon testified at the trial of several judges, who were dismissed from their posts."

"Yes, he told me about that."

"We thought things would take a turn for the better. Instead, there have been a series of rulings and policies instituted which have been encumbering local commerce. Businesses are being harassed for contrived violations of previously unheard-of rules. Even the permit renewals for our ranch are being questioned because of supposed health violations. Can you imagine? This ranch has operated for five generations without a blemish on our reputation. Now this! It's ridiculous."

Another of the guests spoke up. "Most of the local officials have been removed, and off-worlders appointed to fill their positions. Suddenly strangers are ruling the province."

"It seems as though you have not elected the best person to fill the Chief's position, but it does not sound like criminal activity," Obi-Wan commented.

"There's more," Qui-Gon said quietly. "Several businesses and warehouses have been closed, or even condemned, due to accusations of tax evasion and safety infractions. Appeals to the courts are overruled by judiciary panels appointed by the new Chief. Most troubling, there is evidence of contraband substances moving on and off planet. We suspect the confiscated buildings are being used for illegal processing of goods."

Cait spoke up. "When Kerol last talked to the provincial authorities regarding the permits for our business, they implied that they would be approved if we would pay an additional 'processing fee.' In other words, they are awaiting a bribe."

"Frankly," Sirrah Beryt said, "we're afraid of losing the ranch. Who knows what this unknown power could do with a large tract of land? I don't know how to defend myself against false accusations when the judiciary is corrupt."

One of the non-humanoid guests spoke through a translator, his words made more dire by the monotone of the electronic voice. "It's happening elsewhere, as well. The neighboring province just had a government scandal erupt over accusations of bribery."

"Wherever we look, there are signs of corruption. It's so hard to understand. Why would anyone want to bother with sleepy little Grathos?" Cait asked.

Why, indeed? Sadly, Obi-Wan had seen similar cases. A small, out-of-the-way planet, which hardly anyone paid attention to, was easy pickings for greedy criminals.

"What would you like me to do?" Obi-Wan asked.

"Will you take our concerns to the Jedi?" Kerol replied. "We have spoken to our senator, but he doesn't seem the least bit interested. He may be involved in what's happening here, for all we know. We hope that the Jedi will send someone to look into the situation, and see that justice is done."

"If we act soon," Qui-Gon added, "it may not be so difficult to put a stop to it."

"I will certainly report your concerns to the Council. I cannot tell you what sort of action they will take, if any. I can only promise that they will hear what you have told me."

"That is all we ask," Cait said. "Thank you, Obi-Wan Kenobi." The others nodded and murmured their gratitude.

With the real business of the evening concluded, the guests began to take their leave of the Beryts. They drifted away in ones and twos, expressing appreciation to their hosts for the good meal and the chance to speak to the Jedi. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were among the last to leave.

"Dinner was wonderful. Thank you for inviting us," Obi-Wan said in parting.

"It was a pleasure to spend time with you," the Mirrah replied, and pecked him on the cheek.

"How long will you be staying?" Kerol Beryt asked.

Obi-Wan guessed that he was really wondering how long it would be before he gave their information to the Council. He then noticed that Qui-Gon had turned toward him, awaiting his answer. They hadn't discussed this, Obi-Wan realized.

"I don't know exactly. Several days, at least."

"Well, I hope you enjoy your visit. Let me know if you have any questions about our discussion here tonight."

"I will." He walked through the door, hearing Qui-Gon add his thanks for the evening before following him into the cold night.

Qui-Gon was immensely relieved that the evening with the Beryts was over. They were nice people and generous employers, but he always felt uncomfortable at dinner parties - crowded, as it were. He much preferred the company of animals.

Clouds covered the moon, hanging low in the sky. He breathed in the sharp, crisp air. "Smells like it may snow," he commented.


Obi-Wan walked beside him, lost in thought. Qui-Gon tried to take his hand, but it was inaccessible, tucked with its mate inside the Jedi robe's voluminous sleeves.

"You seem preoccupied."

Obi-Wan turned, then, to look at his love. "Sorry, I was just thinking about the situation here on Grathos. Is there any evidence that the Hutts have moved into this sector?"

"Not to my knowledge." Qui-Gon really didn't want to talk about this any more. He wanted to leave that behind, now that dinner was out of the way, so that the two of them could concentrate on each other.

They walked down the narrow path to the stables, arms brushing when it was possible to walk side by side. The healer pushed at Obi-Wan's mind through the bond, but met with shielding. He would not intrude. He had asked his lover for help, so he would be patient.

Qui-Gon's feet were cold by the time they reached the stables. His dress boots were not made for warmth. Loca bounded up and down, greeting the pair when they reached the circle of illumination cast by the single outer light. The animal had evidently decided the newcomer was a friend, as he included Obi-Wan in his enthusiastic welcome. The three of them filed into the barn, where it was at least marginally warmer.

Qui-Gon stopped and took Obi-Wan by the shoulders. That was patience enough. He pulled the young man forward for a kiss.

It was like falling into a summer day, tasting the man he loved. The touch of lips on his own was better than any intoxicant. He pulled the hood of Obi-Wan's robe back so that he could run his hands over his lover's hair, fascinated by the brush of soft spikes. He wished his hands weren't so callused, so that they would be more sensitive to the sensation.

He took Obi-Wan's hand to draw him to the steps. He wanted to be upstairs. He wanted to be undressing his bonded, carrying him to the big bed. Obi-Wan resisted.

"Qui-Gon, I'm sorry." The padawan rubbed his hand over his forehead. "I have to get this down while it is fresh in my mind. May I use your comm unit?"

The healer knew that he was frowning, and wished he could stop. "Of course," he heard himself say, and led Obi-Wan into his office.

"You can go upstairs. I won't be long, I promise."

There was no way that he could separate from his bonded at his point. "I'll wait," he said, and took the chair across from his desk.

Obi-Wan sat down and made a few entries into the unit. Qui-Gon watched as the Jedi closed his eyes, sitting very still for a full minute. He felt the mental connection between them grow dull - present, but almost dormant.

As Obi-Wan's eyes opened, his posture changed; he sat stiffly upright as he began to speak. It was almost like watching a different person, Qui-Gon thought. The voice was clipped and emotionless as the Jedi began his report.

He started with the events of his earlier visit to Grathos, when the animal mill had been discovered, but those responsible for the criminal activity had gone unpunished. He spoke concisely of the events from that time forward, including a recitation, almost verbatim, of the after- dinner conversation. The full name and description of every guest was included in the narration.

Qui-Gon watched in an almost horrified fascination. Was this his Tiercel? Was this what he was like while in his Jedi world? It was almost like listening to a droid. No wonder Obi-Wan was struggling so between the two worlds, that of the Jedi and that of Grathos.

Obi-Wan drew to a close, finishing the transmission with his opinions of the possible source of criminal activity, recommending nearby planets be checked for infiltration by the Hutts. He signed off with, "Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi, apprenticed to Master Li a'Niota." He then addressed the message to Master Yoda of the Jedi Council.

Strange, Qui-Gon thought. Why not Master Li?

With the report finished, Obi-Wan slouched back into the chair. He suddenly looked very tired. Qui-Gon moved to kneel at his lover's feet, placing his hands on the young man's knees.

"Why did you send the message to Yoda instead of to your master?" There was something important there.

Obi-Wan swallowed hard. "Because my master is in the infirmary, probably still floating in a bacta tank."

Qui-Gon felt the surge of distress, and shook his head. "I don't understand. I thought she sent you here."

"It was the last thing she did before the healers took her away - make me promise to come here. She knew that otherwise I would not leave her. Li's injuries were nearly fatal, and it was my fault." Obi-Wan's voice quavered. The pain in it was palpable.

Qui-Gon rested his head on his lover's lap. "Tiercel, there is so much I have to learn about you."

"Yes, Qui-Gon, there is. And there are decisions I must make. That is why I'm here."

Qui-Gon looked up again. He let his love spill over the bond, as much as he thought they could both tolerate. Obi- Wan closed his eyes and sighed.

"Will you come upstairs? Will you come with me to our bed?" Qui-Gon whispered.

"*Our* bed?"

Qui-Gon nodded.

"Yes, love. Let's go." He led them from the office and up the stairs.

They didn't bother to turn on the lights. Shadows played across their bodies as they experienced the joy of rediscovery, of touching physically and mentally. Worries and tension were shed along with their clothing. Their hands wandered, both men relishing the contact that was familiar, yet new. It had been far too long.

Qui-Gon slipped under the heavy covers, and his Tiercel followed. The healer pulled the smaller man on top of him, and Obi-Wan positioned himself so that they lay perfectly matched, at least as closely as their height difference would allow. Arm rested on top of arm, hand on hand, leg atop leg, with Obi-Wan's head tucked onto Qui-Gon's shoulder.

Carefully, they each allowed their shields to drop. Little by little, the barriers dissolved away, until they were lost in the enormity of their bond. They fell into one another, glorying in the saturation of their love. It was the balm they needed to begin healing the scars of separation. They breathed deeply of each other's souls, and drifted into sleep.

The Second Day

Qui-Gon awoke, nerves tingling. Someone was watching him. His skin crawled as he felt the strong, heavy gaze pierce the breaking darkness. It wasn't Obi-Wan. His felt his lover's back pressed tightly against his own.

The healer lay perfectly still, eyes closed, and searched for a Force signature. He found it after only a moment, and laughed quietly at himself. Loca.

The creature's floppy ears perked up instantly when his master's eyes opened. Sure enough, the big kanid sat beside the bed, his long snout resting on the mattress, eyes fixed on the Opener of Doors and Source of Morning Meal.

Loca danced around Qui-Gon's feet, whimpering, while the master donned a robe to ward off the chill. Getting outdoors was Loca's highest priority, so Qui-Gon crossed through the living area and let the animal down the stairs. The healer stopped to look out the window on his way back to the bedroom. A black figure ran full-tilt across a field of white. Snow had covered the ground during the silence of the night.

Qui-Gon's ankles cricked with each step as he hurried back across the cold plank floors. He crawled under the heavy quilts, waited a moment for his body to lose its chill, and then spooned up behind his slumbering Tiercel.

Skin against skin, the feeling made him wriggle contentedly. He wrapped an arm over his lover's body and stroked lightly down his chest. Indistinct mumbling resulted. His hand strayed over Obi-Wan's hip and along the length of his flank, relearning the nuances of his lover's curves. Those hips captivated him. He loved to watch them move, even when hidden by leggings and tunic.

He moved his hand forward, searching until he found the limp phallus, sleeping, too. Qui-Gon was pleased; he reveled in bringing his love from this state to full arousal, but he'd rarely had the opportunity. Usually Obi- Wan was beyond the need for that sort of stimulation when they began their lovemaking.

He lifted the flaccid cock gently. The skin was as delicate as that of a nynx kit. He twirled his finger around the tip, fascinated by the velvety softness. He pulled the foreskin down and rubbed a finger over the head, finding it dry and warm. Part of him wanted to burrow under the covers and take it in his mouth, but he didn't, knowing that his love would awaken. He wasn't ready for that. He wanted to continue to touch and measure his progress by the slow degrees of change in his lover's body.

Qui-Gon kept up the light caress, his fingers whispering over their prize. Soon he felt a twitch, and the phallus began to move, stirring and swelling under his ministrations. Obi-Wan pushed back, unconsciously seeking to increase the contact between them.

He heard his lover's breath quicken. He released his own breath in a ragged shudder. Obi-Wan was not the only one becoming aroused -- Qui-Gon felt a needy ache gathering in his groin. He had to restrain himself from rocking against his lover's backside.

The change was remarkable, Qui-Gon thought, as the phallus under his fingers lengthened and became fully erect in his grasp. He left off the soft touches to stroke in earnest, nuzzling into his bonded's neck, kissing and nipping the tender skin there. Obi-Wan moaned as he struggled to climb up out of his dreams, his hips now rocking reflexively into Qui-Gon's fist. He increased the pace of his strokes, encouraging the response.

Obi-Wan awoke, immediately reaching through the bond into his lover's mind. *Qui-Gon!* he gasped in impassioned surprise. His hips bucked forward once more and he came, crying his release into the light of dawn.

Qui-Gon held his lover tightly as the spasms of orgasm faded and his body relaxed. Obi-Wan pushed against him, wanting to roll over onto his back. Qui-Gon inched over to make room, and then took advantage of the change in positions to offer an early-morning kiss.

Obi-Wan did not reciprocate. He was still trying to overcome the grogginess of sleep, but Qui-Gon sensed it was more than that. His lover was definitely not in a favorable mood. In fact, Qui-Gon realized, he was angry.

"What's wrong?"

"What did you do that for?" Obi-Wan snapped.

Was this a trick question? "I ... wanted to bring you pleasure."

"You might have woken me up first so that I could enjoy it."

Qui-Gon pulled his messy hand out from under the covers, smiling as he held it up before them. "I thought you did enjoy it."

Obi-Wan frowned. Qui-Gon sighed.

"I'm sorry, Tiercel. You were lying there, looking so beautiful, I just had to touch you, and then I just kept touching you, and...." Qui-Gon shrugged. How could he explain it?

Obi-Wan just glared.

This didn't make sense. They were together, in bed, with no interruptions or responsibilities for most of the day. Qui- Gon was at a loss. He reached into his lover's mind, past the anger, finding confusion and sadness. *Tell me, Tiercel, what is it?*

"Qui-Gon, that was the first time we've made love in months, and I slept through most of it! I wanted the first time to be tender, and drawn out, and I wanted to make you moan, and.... Oh, it all sounds stupid now." Obi-Wan rolled over, his back a wall between them. "Nothing is the way I thought it would be," he muttered.

This, Qui-Gon suspected, was getting closer to the real problem. "Nothing? What else?"

"It's all changed. There's Von, and Loca, and the Beryt's problems. It's just not what I'd imagined."

"Nothing stands still, Obi-Wan. Change comes to even our little planet. We may not be at the heart of the galaxy, but we do move forward in our own small ways."

He rolled over, trying to cuddle close to his love, but found the younger man's body taut and unyielding. At least he didn't pull away. "Could it be that you've idealized this place, making it into your imaginary perfect world?"

Qui-Gon waited through a very long silence before Obi-Wan responded, quietly, "I suppose."

"I'm sorry if our reunion isn't all you thought it would be, but I can tell you one thing that hasn't changed." Qui- Gon kissed the back of his neck.

"What's that?"

"My love for you." He hugged his bonded tightly, forcing the rigid muscles to give in to the pressure. "I love you, Obi-Wan Kenobi."

Gradually, the stiffness dissipated, and Obi-Wan relaxed back into the body that held him. "I love you, too," he whispered.

Qui-Gon pulled on his shoulder, persuading his love to turn over so that he could look into his eyes. "Make love to me, my Tiercel. Please?"

Obi-Wan brushed the back of his fingers over his cheek. "Yes, Qui-Gon, I will."

Qui-Gon lay back as Obi-Wan slid over him, straddling his waist under the heavy covers. The young man looked so serious, so intense.

"Open your mind to me, like last night," Obi-Wan urged. "I want this to be within the fullness of the bond."

Yes, that was exactly the way it needed to be. Qui-Gon let go of his mental strictures, feeling the wash of Obi-Wan's mind entering his. They were still careful to go slowly, but the scope of the bond was getting easier to tolerate. As he felt the edges blur between his mind and his lover's, Qui-Gon reached into the Force to anchor their lovemaking.

All the months of separation and suppressed desire came to the surface and focused tightly. The need to seek and give pleasure pulsated in them both as their arousal cycled upon itself through the mental joining. It was incredible, Qui- Gon thought, feeling his lover's excitement as fully as his own. He wondered if he'd ever before felt so sexually stimulated. Or was that Obi-Wan's thought? Either way, he knew that it was true.

Slowly, Obi-Wan leaned toward him, and their lips brushed. His moustache tickled, Qui-Gon realized. What a strange sensation. This connection was much deeper than what they had previously shared.

Obi-Wan drew back and stared into Qui-Gon's eyes, revealing the image through their bond. They were a much darker shade of blue than what he normally saw in the mirror, Qui-Gon thought. Were they always that way when they made love? Obi-Wan nodded.

More. Forceful kisses, with open mouths and exploring tongues. Lips bitten. Whose? It didn't matter. Gasps for breath with quickening heartbeats.

Obi-Wan inched down Qui-Gon's body, his hands firing sparks across his skin as they caressed his chest. The healer's big hands kneaded his lover's shoulders. He was surprised at the sensation this produced. Were his hands really so rough? He started to draw them away, but Obi-Wan prevented it. *Don't. I love your hands.*

The tongue on his nipple made Qui-Gon arch. His lover moaned from the feedback. Obi-Wan's body jerked in response to the other man's pleasure as he sucked hard, just to the point of pain. Qui-Gon could do little but hold on, feeling the sensations crossing and rebounding between them.

The quilts bulged and moved as Obi-Wan disappeared under the covers. Qui-Gon's hips snapped up as his bonded bit down on the inside of his thigh, but he was then gentled by the caress of a tongue licking and sucking as he settled back to the mattress. The weight of the heavy quilts pushed against Qui-Gon's naked body. He rocked into the needed friction of the fabric brushing against his phallus, but Obi-Wan stilled him, pushing down on his hips.

*Please, Tiercel.* Qui-Gon begged, sharply focusing on his desire, eliciting a groan from under the covers.

*Not yet. Soon.*

*Damned Jedi control.* The muffled snort of laughter from under the covers echoed in his mind.

Warm wetness on his sac, taste and scent of himself in his brain. Heavy, male scent, with a surge of arousal pushed through it. Qui-Gon lay with his legs splayed, biting his lower lip as soft, sensual touches moved across the most sensitive areas. Too much. He whimpered; he was so close.

Obi-Wan crawled back up his body, braid tickling his hypersensitive skin. Qui-Gon felt the younger man extend his control to encompass his response, and the pressing urgency abated.

*Breathe, love,* his Tiercel coached. *Feel the Force complete us.*

The Force was there, forging the connection between them, bringing their love into this union of minds and spirits. It made it all so perfectly right.

Except that suddenly, it was too hot. Their passion had overridden the chill of the morning, making them both break into a sweat. They threw the covers off, and Qui-Gon could at last see his naked lover, sitting upright astride his hips. Incredible. Love surged between them like a power jolt, manifesting itself so sharply that Obi-Wan threw his head back, arching his body, pushing his hips and his full erection forward. It was the most erotic thing Qui-Gon had ever seen.

He reached to the small stand beside the bed, and after a moment's fumbling, secured a bottle of oil. He slapped it into his lover's hand, with the command, *Now!*

The cold oil pooled in Obi-Wan's palm. It had a delicate smell, and a slickness that Qui-Gon could sense on his own fingers, sensations he associated with their lovemaking. Qui-Gon started to move so that Obi-Wan could slide back down between his legs, but another image trickled into his mind. He groaned his approval.

Obi-Wan rose up on his knees, closing his eyes as he slid his hand between his groin and Qui-Gon's stomach. The oiled fingers disappeared into his body. His braid swayed against his chest as he rocked up and down on the fingers. Qui-Gon's breath hitched, watching the tip of his lover's tongue ride against his upper lip as he prepared himself. Qui-Gon could feel Obi-Wan concentrate on loosening the muscles, making himself ready, wanting - needing - his bonded inside him. Anticipatory shivers rebounded across the bond.

His lover's eyes opened and locked onto his. He moved back. He stroked Qui-Gon's erection once to coat it with oil. Then slowly, he impaled himself on the hard cock.

Qui-Gon gasped; Obi-Wan shuddered. He stayed still, lips parted, panting slightly while he adjusted to the fullness. Then he placed his hands on his thighs, rose up, and slid back down again.

Blinding pleasure rocketed through them. The sensations were shared: hardness and heat, softness so tight, impossible fullness, and most of all, a craving for more. Qui-Gon could no longer hold back. He thrust his hips up urgently. Obi-Wan took over the movement, seeking the rhythm that gave them both the most pleasure. The strong muscles in his legs flexed as he rose and fell. He began keening as he found the angle that sent stars of delight shooting through them both with each stroke.

Qui-Gon reached for his lover's phallus, but Obi-Wan pushed his hand away. He grasped his own cock, thrusting into his fist as Qui-Gon stared.

There was his Tiercel, eyes glazed, totally abandoned to passion. He was splendid: his strong body, his flushed face, his huge cock. The sight sent Qui-Gon spiraling, carrying his lover with him to the edge of ecstasy. They hung there for a heartbeat, and another, and then the wave of orgasm took them.

Both men cried out at the shock of pleasure, woven in an intricate mix of shared sensation. Their movements continued beyond their control as the burst of passion rolled through them, every fiber, every cell, it seemed, sharing in the ecstasy of their fulfillment. Slowly the thrusts diminished, the spasms receding to a gentle tingle pervading their bodies and minds.

Obi-Wan collapsed onto his bonded's chest, physically and emotionally spent. Qui-Gon felt his lover's mind begin to draw away, the connection remaining, but not at such an integral level. He was both relieved and disappointed at the separation. Opening to the totality of the bond was incredibly fulfilling, but also taxing.

Obi-Wan let out a contented sigh. "That was perfect. I feel whole again."

It was what he had needed, too, Qui-Gon realized. "I'm sorry I didn't stop to think earlier."

A forefinger pressed against his lips. "Ssh. It's forgotten."

They rolled over, side by side, gazing at one another. Obi- Wan looked wonderfully decadent in the early morning light, cheeks flushed, hair mussed, his gray eyes only half open. Beautiful, Qui-Gon thought, kissing him lightly on the forehead.

*No, not me,* Obi-Wan objected. *You. Nisha, that's what you are.*

"Nisha?" Qui-Gon asked aloud, not sure he'd heard correctly.

"'Beautiful man,' in Tewint, one of the obscure languages my master taught me. Quite lovely, actually." Obi-Wan threaded his fingers through Qui-Gon's hair. "Nisha nameho'tatse. Beautiful man, I love you."

Qui-Gon flushed. He was unaccountably pleased by the endearment. He was not sure he liked being called beautiful, but as long as it truly was an obscure language, no one would be likely to discover the meaning.

"Love you, too."

As wonderful as it was to lie with Obi-Wan after their love-making, Qui-Gon was not accustomed to spending the morning in bed. He was ready to be up and about, especially with the enticing prospect of riding through the pristine blanket of white he'd glimpsed through the window.

"Do you think I can coax you out of this warm bed?"

Obi-Wan's eyes snapped fully open. "Only if we are going hawking."

"I'll take you riding across the glistening fields of Grathos."

"What do you mean?" Obi-Wan asked, pushing into his mind for the information.

"It snowed last night."

"Really?" Obi-Wan's face lit up, and he scrambled out of bed to look out the window. "Oh, it's lovely. It looks like a storyland."

"We should get moving, or it will be midday before we get out into it," Qui-Gon said as he rose.

Obi-Wan agreed. They each made a quick trip to the 'fresher for minimal morning needs, and began to dress for outdoor activities. Qui-Gon felt little surges of excitement from his Tiercel through the bond, and had to admit that he felt an almost childlike enthusiasm himself. With Von to oversee the mews, Qui-Gon had not spent much time with the birds of late. It had been too long since he'd taken a morning to go hawking.

"When is Kee's ship due in?" Obi-Wan asked, as he tugged on a boot.

Qui-Gon was searching for his heavy socks. "Shortly before sunset. I'm anxious to see her. She wrote several times, but really didn't give me many details about how her studies off-planet were going."

"Why don't we ask her to share evening meal with us?"

Aha! The quest was successful. "Are you sure?" Qui-Gon asked as he pulled the thick socks on. "You don't want us to be alone?"

"No, it's fine. I'd like to see her, too. I'll even cook."

Qui-Gon's eyes gleamed. "I don't have much in the pantry. You'd better make a list of things you need, so that C'idra can pick them up while we're out."

Obi-Wan headed to the cooking area, and Qui-Gon subsequently heard him rummaging through the cupboards. "Fix something special," he called out. "Don't worry about expense. Sirrah Beryt won't mind if we charge things to his account for a welcome-home dinner for Kee."

By the time Qui-Gon entered the living area with a bundle of warm clothes in his arms, Obi-Wan had just finished tapping a list into a commpad.

The healer eyed Obi-Wan critically. "I don't think you're going to be warm enough in what you're wearing, and your cloak will be cumbersome for hawking. Try this." He chose a thick sweater and held it out.

Obi-Wan obediently pulled the garment on, and fished out his braid. The sweater was big on him, but not huge. He rolled up the cuffs, smiling.

*Smells like you. It feels like I'm wearing a hug.* He wrapped his arms around himself, reinforcing the concept.

Qui-Gon stared. He looked so endearing. So handsome. Sometimes it felt like his heart would burst, he loved this man so much.

Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow. "Well?"

Time to get organized. "Horses or food?"

"Horses!" After a quick kiss, Obi-Wan headed down the stairs to ready their mounts. A heartbeat later, Qui-Gon heard a scuffle and a muffled curse, then Loca burst into the room, shaking off snow and looking for breakfast.

The healer filled the kanid's bowl before pulling out foodstuffs for the field. He collected simple items that would hold up to jostling in a leather satchel - dried fruit and meat, hard cheese, crusty rolls, nuts, and chocolate. He brewed tea, and filled an insulated container with the hot beverage. When he was sure he had discovered everything suitable his pantry might produce, he packed it all into two saddle bags, and added a couple of metal mugs for the tea.

"That should keep us from starving," he said to Loca, and clapped his hand against his thigh to signal the animal to accompany him down the stairs.

Storm remembered him, Obi-Wan was glad to discover. The mare had whinnied and nodded her head in greeting as he approached her stall. Even though it had been months since he'd done so, it took the padawan only a few minutes to fall back into the routine preparations for riding. He was pleased the movements still felt natural to him.

Once Storm was ready, he walked her to Marenga's stall, where he had a more difficult time readying the bigger animal. She was accustomed to being handled by only a select few, and Obi-Wan was not on that list. She expressed her displeasure by holding her breath while he tried to cinch the girth, making it impossible to tighten it properly.

Just as he was on the verge of getting really frustrated, Qui-Gon appeared. "Marenga! Be nice to Obi-Wan," he scolded. She turned sorrowful eyes on them, and Obi-Wan could just feel her pleading innocence. Horses were simply too intelligent at times.

Qui-Gon's efficient movements soon had the uncooperative member of the group ready to depart. He mounted the horse as Obi-Wan looked on, easily taking control of the powerful animal. The padawan was struck by how natural the man looked astride the mare, and how handsome. The two of them were the epitome of rugged, natural grace, he thought.

Obi-Wan took up the reins, swung into the saddle, and quickly realized that the morning's activities may have not been the best choice to precede a riding expedition. He winced.

The creak of leather announced the presence of Qui-Gon and Marenga at his side. "Stand up," Qui-Gon ordered. That sounded like quite a fine idea to Obi-Wan. He obeyed willingly, if not a tad painfully.

A large hand touched his rear, and Obi-Wan felt a soft, healing flush overtake the soreness of strained muscles. He blushed, embarrassed by the idea that his bonded was attending to such an intimate complaint.

"Oh, stop it, Tiercel. I am a healer, after all," Qui-Gon scolded.

"An animal healer!"

"Since when aren't humans animals, hm? A strained muscle is a strained muscle. Just say thank you, and forget it."

"Thank you," Obi-Wan mumbled, still not happy with the situation. He had to admit, though, his seat on the saddle was far more comfortable.

They exited the stables toward the back of the building, where Obi-Wan took a few minutes to circle the exercise ring. He concentrated on flowing with the movements of the horse, reminding himself to become an extension of the animal. By the fourth trip around the paddock, he was feeling comfortable again, and Storm was responding to his mental guidance.

He pulled up beside his bonded, smiling unabashedly. He had missed this so much. It was going to be a wonderful day. Qui-Gon whistled for Loca, and they started out.

Marenga led the way to the mews. The horses stamped their impatience when the riders dismounted and headed for the gate in the enclosure. Qui-Gon reassured them it would only be a moment. Loca was instructed to stay with his equine companions.

Obi-Wan followed his bonded across the empty weathering grounds to the supply shed. As he helped gather the things they would need for the day, a voice carried across the mews, sounding thin in the chill air.

"Nice morning!" Von called.

They turned and greeted the mews master as he strode across the snow-covered ground. With chores to be done, he was also an early riser.

"Obi-Wan told me that he was going to coax you into spending the morning afield, but I did not quite believe he would manage it, Qui-Gon. He must have been quite persuasive." Von focused on Obi-Wan as he spoke, and, to the young man's astonishment, winked at him.

Qui-Gon missed it, but glared curiously at Obi-Wan as he felt the shock ripple through him. "It wasn't too difficult," he replied to Von. "A ride in the brisk air will do me good. Is the russet ready?"

"Yes. She should handle well for you."

As Qui-Gon moved off to a hutch in the corner of the enclosure to fetch the bird, Von slid over to stand at Obi- Wan's side.

"You will find it quite different hunting with a broadwing. I am sure you will enjoy it. If I was not so busy, I would invite myself along." Von smiled, and leaned just close enough for his arm to press against Obi-Wan's.

"No!" the Jedi said a little too quickly. He stepped away, trying not to look obvious. "I couldn't ask you to interrupt your plans."

What was going on here? Was he reading too much into what might simply be friendly gestures? He didn't know the man well enough to decide.

"I'd better go see if I can help." He trotted toward Qui- Gon, feeling Von's eyes watch his back. Or was that backside?

The two men prepared the hawk for the hunt. The master healer allowed Obi-Wan to switch out the leather jesses tied around the bird's legs to those used for hunting. He handed the bells and bewits to the padawan next, which Obi- Wan secured to the bird's legs.

Obi-Wan scouted around the area, looking for a hood to cover the broadwing's head, but found none. "No hood?" he asked.

"Not with the broadwing. It's a different hunting style. You'll see."

Obi-Wan pulled his own winter glove onto his right hand, and then slid a thin liner over his left, followed by the heavy leather gauntlet on which the bird would ride. He held his hand in front of the buteo, and she hopped onto his fist willingly. She ruffled her feathers and minced a bit on the glove, bells tinkling as she got comfortable.

Qui-Gon touched his shoulder and hung something around his neck when he turned. Obi-Wan looked down to see a tubular piece of metal hanging against his chest, suspended on a chain.

"It's a whistle," the master replied to Obi-Wan's questioning look. "This bird is trained to return to the fist when it hears the sound."

Qui-Gon picked up a long, curved bag containing a collapsible perch, and pulled a leather satchel over his head so that the wide strap rested across his shoulder and back, the pouch against his side. With that, they were ready to go. The men crossed back across the yard, their feet crunching the dry snow. They did not see Von again, to Obi-Wan's relief.

"Loca!" Qui-Gon called as they exited the mews. The kanid came tearing up to them in a flurry of snow. Obi-Wan balanced the broadwing awkwardly as he boosted himself up into the saddle, but managed to get settled quickly, and took up the reins. In a second, Qui-Gon was astride Marenga, and they were off.

They walked slowly westward, heading to the edge of the Beryt property. The buteo focused her attention on Loca, tilting her head from side to side as she monitored the kanid's movements.

As they moved down the trail, Obi-Wan mulled over the mews master's curious behavior. "Qui-Gon, does Von have any idea that we are bonded?"

"I doubt it. Why do you ask?"

"Just a strange feeling I'm getting from him."

"Strange in what way?" Qui-Gon asked.

"I think he's flirting with me."

Qui-Gon looked surprised, then amused. "Well, at least he has good taste!"

Obi-Wan laughed, resolving to be extra observant around the mews keeper until he discerned what was going on. Maybe he'd quiz Bartram - the boy would be a good source of inside information. That issue decided, he put it out of his mind and concentrated on hawking.

Although Obi-Wan was riding well, the russet felt edgy on the glove, as if she were ready to fly off at any moment. In fact, the young man suspected that the bird wanted to do just that. The longwings he had handled had all been hooded as they rode to the hunting grounds, so they had sat quiet, but alert on the glove. It was odd riding with a bird that could see its surroundings, and appeared to have intentions of taking off on its own.

"How about filling me in on the differences between hunting with the broadwing and the falcons?" Obi-Wan asked.

They had just turned uphill, the horses breaking through the blanket of untouched snow as they moved along a narrow path. The woods here were sparse, with widely scattered thickets of shrubs. The few dead leaves left clinging to the trees rattled in the dry air.

"In a few minutes, I will have you slip the russet off, and you will be able to see the difference for yourself. The kanid and the bird do all the work. We get to watch." Qui- Gon's cheeks were bright pink, but almost obscured by the cloud his breath made as he spoke.

"Just let me know what to do."

They continued on, much further west than the areas he'd hunted on before. It was unfamiliar territory, far away from Obi-Wan's favorite spot on Grathos.

"So we're not going up toward the lake?" he asked.

"Too much snow. It's had snowpack for a month or more, and it will be too deep for the horses. The lake is frozen over anyway," Qui-Gon responded.

Of course, he should have thought of that. Another little daydream burst. Well, don't dwell on it, Obi-Wan reprimanded himself. Enjoy the day for what it is, not what it isn't.

Loca had kept close to Marenga's side as the party made their way into the woods, looking frequently up at his master. The further up the slope they went, the greater his expectation seemed to be.

Obi-Wan saw Qui-Gon rein Marenga in, and stopped next to him. The buteo began to prance on the gauntlet, moving left and right within the limits of her jesses. Her body tensed, knowing something was about to happen.

"Ready, Tiercel?" Qui-Gon asked.


"When I give Loca the word, you cast the bird off." Qui-Gon turned to the kanid, who sat before Marenga, tight as a coiled spring. "Hunt, Loca," he commanded softly.

As the dark animal dashed off into the woods, Obi-Wan felt the bird's muscles bunch in preparation for flight. He drew his arm back and tossed the hawk up, timing the boost well. The buteo lifted off with a sweet ching of bells.

Obi-Wan followed Qui-Gon into the woods, both men hanging back at a reasonable distance from the hunting team. Loca bounded into the dense patches of shrubs, wriggling under them and sniffing for scent of prey. The hawk followed from tree to tree, alert for any likely looking target that might dart out.

The fresh snow made Loca's job more difficult, but at the fifth or sixth patch of vegetation, he made his find. He disappeared almost totally under the shrubbery, and a merrix dashed out from the opposite side.

The hawk moved swiftly, maneuvering gracefully through the sparse trees as she followed her prey. The small brown animal darted and swerved, sensing its vulnerability. Even though the merrix was exposed, the russet had only a narrow opportunity for success. She had to capture the animal before it could burrow under another tangle of shrubs and vines.

The two men urged their mounts forward when the chase began, challenged to keep up with the hunt. Loca returned to Marenga's side, heeling to the horse rather than take up pursuit.

Ahead, Obi-Wan saw a flash of rust-colored wings as the predator dove. He and Qui-Gon reached the bird a few seconds later, finding her staring under a particularly thick jumble of vines. She screeched her frustration, ducked her head and peered between the twisting brown stems. The merrix was safe for now.

Loca ran forward to flush the animal again, but Qui-Gon called him back. "You lost this one, Loca. Let it be." He instructed Obi-Wan to call for the bird.

Obi-Wan placed the whistle between his lips, and for a second thought it might freeze to them, the metal was so cold. He blew two short blasts, and was somewhat surprised when the buteo turned to look at him. He held up his fist, and she immediately returned to the gauntlet. As Obi-Wan adjusted the jesses, he could feel the bird's frustration and a driving urge to try again. She didn't like losing. Obi-Wan could sympathize fully. Just like an avian Jedi he thought.

"Let's go on a ways before we let them try again. I think all the potential prey have been warned off here," Qui-Gon said.

They turned their horses' heads back toward the trail, Storm leading the group further up the slope. The sun had risen far enough now to drive the worst of the chill from the air. The rays brushed Obi-Wan's face and penetrated the sweater to warm his chest. He felt so alive - such a part of the Living Force. He turned to look at Qui-Gon, and could tell by the expression on his face that he shared the sentiment.

It was the third pursuit that proved successful. The kanid rousted a fat ssofit from a patch of brambles, and the hawk had it in her talons before the animal could even swerve from its dash to the next bit of cover. She hunkered down over her victim, spreading her wings to protect it from any who might try to steal her prize.

She surrendered the catch reluctantly to Qui-Gon when he strode up to her. The master deposited the limp ssofit into a pouch, postponing the buteo's reward until later. Obi-Wan leaned forward to present his fist to the bird, and with a short hop, the hawk settled back onto the glove. There was a measurable change in her demeanor, now that she had caught her prey. The anticipatory tension was gone, replaced by what Obi-Wan was tempted to call pride, if a bird could feel such an emotion.

"I don't know about you, but I could use something to eat," Qui-Gon said as they settled back onto their horses. Obi- Wan agreed heartily, and followed Qui-Gon and Marenga as they moved more quickly now through the woods. They trotted up to a ridge, and clearing the rise, Obi-Wan saw a small plateau. It would be a meadow full of wildflowers in the spring, he thought, but today was a field of wind-sculpted snowdrifts.

They headed across the open expanse to the far side of the field, where large boulders seemed to pour down from the slope above them, deposited by some great force shaping the landscape eons ago. Once they found a suitable lunching spot, Qui-Gon wedged the portable perch into a rock crevice while Obi-Wan switched the hawk's jesses to a pair which could be attached to the swivel on the perch. The buteo hopped onto the sisal-covered ring, and turned to face the sun's rays. Loca set off to investigate the local scents.

While Obi-Wan relieved Marenga of the saddle bags, Qui-Gon swept his arm across the top of one of the larger boulders, sending the loose, dry snow sparkling through the clear air. He leaned forward, then, spreading his hands over the rough surface. The sun's rays warmed his back, and he allowed the energy to accumulate in his body, building until he felt the Force within him hum with the solar radiation. He focused outward, becoming a conduit for the energy, and the heat passed through his hands. The rock warmed slowly but steadily, until it was pleasantly toasty.

He heard a chuckle over his shoulder as Obi-Wan walked up. Qui-Gon merely raised an eyebrow. It may be that warming one's seat was a somewhat unorthodox use of the Force, but he considered it eminently practical.

The two men clambered up to the boulder's top. It made a comfortable human perch, flattened by the grinding pressure of a glacier in some ancient time. They sat side-by-side, their legs dangling over the edge, only as far apart as necessary for the food to be tucked between them. Obi-Wan helped himself to bread and cheese, but Qui-Gon went straight for the chocolate. The lovely rich sweetness burst over his tongue.

"Save some for me," the younger man protested.

"Of course, Tiercel. I just felt the need for some high- energy food."

Obi-Wan snorted, but withheld comment.

They stared off across the landscape, eating quickly and without conversation. Both of them were truly in need of the calories on this cold day. Except for the harsh glare of the sun bouncing off the snow, the view was worthy of a holocam. When their hunger pangs had been staved and their bodies warmed by the strong tea, they relaxed, simply enjoying the luxury of doing nothing together.

It was a comfortable stillness for a time, but the unknowns nibbled away at Qui-Gon's peace of mind. There were questions to be answered, and stories to be told, and this was as good a time as any. He steeled himself to whatever he might hear, and broke the silence. "I am ready to listen, Tiercel, if you are ready to talk."

Obi-Wan turned and produced a small smile, showing his appreciation for the offer his lover was making. His gaze returned to the snowy landscape before he spoke.

"There's so much to tell you, I don't know where to start."

Qui-Gon moved his hand to cover his love's, offering support. "Why don't you tell me why you're here."

"So many reasons. I'm here because I was in so much pain without you - because the need to see you had become unbearable. I came to see if my Force deprivation was actually a result of the separation. I came because you need to understand who I am, and what I do. I need to know if that knowledge will change the way you feel about me. And if it doesn't, if the bond is still as strong, I need to decide my future. I need to decide if I still want to be a Jedi knight."

Many reasons indeed, and many questions that would not be easily answered. Obi-Wan was shouldering quite a burden, Qui-Gon realized. He vowed to himself that he would help his love as best as he could, but knew from his own life experiences that the decisions would have to be Obi-Wan's. He would not tell him what to do, only help him to discover his own truth. He just hoped the answers would include a master animal healer from Grathos.

"Tell me about your trip to Althene, and how your master was injured."

He felt Obi-Wan's mental flinch a half-second before he saw his muscles twitch. The sudden tension in his shoulders reflected the strong reluctance he felt through the bond. This was too fresh, too close to the surface to talk about without pain.

"Get the most difficult thing over first, and then the rest will be easy," he urged.

Obi-Wan gave him a dour glance. "Sometimes I just hate that you're always right."

Qui-Gon squeezed his hand, but said nothing.

With a deep breath, Obi-Wan began. "You have to know something of Althene in order to understand what happened. Althene is one of the truly ancient worlds. Its society is hundreds of thousands of years old. The people are divided into nine tribes, ruled by a representative body called the Althenium. The ancestral archive is one of the focal points of their culture. They open and update it only once a millennium, and this happens to be the year for the opening.

"The Althenium contacted the Council to request Jedi observers for the ceremony. They also promised that we could study the archive and document its contents. Since Master Li is an ancient cultures specialist, the Council chose us to represent the Order.

"What we didn't know was that one of the tribes - the Pentathenes - were opposed to Jedi presence at what they considered a private ceremony. The week prior to the actual unsealing of the archives is mostly a series of ceremonies and honorariums. One day, Master Li and I were part of a processional from the capital building to the Temple, with Pentathenes as our honor guard.

"We were halfway to the Temple when the guards turned on us. There were twelve of them, a number that we would normally have been able to deal with, given a chance to use weapons. But we had not been authorized to use force of any kind. We did defend ourselves, and after a bit of a struggle, broke free from the crowd around the procession. No one came to our aid. There seemed to be a shift in the thinking of this mass of people, and there were cries of 'Outsiders!'

"And then shots were fired."

Qui-Gon felt a chill run down his spine.

"Li is a wonderful master, and I love her dearly, but she has absolutely no skill as a negotiator. She knows languages and history, and she is a fierce fighter, but she couldn't settle a dispute over what to fix for evening meal. So, we headed for the ship. We tucked our tails and ran. It was embarrassing, let me tell you, but, in hindsight, it was the best decision. We weren't going to do anything productive there, anyway.

"Unfortunately, the Pentathenes had set up a guard around the *Arien.* We found cover, and waited for a chance to slip by. We could have subdued them, but Master insisted that we not risk harming anyone. She's very cautious.

"While we were waiting for an opening, I noticed an object attached to the belly of the ship." Obi-Wan sighed and scrubbed his hand over his forehead. "It gets even more complicated from there, but it was two days and nights - with little food and no water - until we were sure we could successfully get away with only a slight risk of injury to anyone. When we did run for the ship, we were fired on. I drew my saber to defend and the Force slipped away from me. If it weren't for the Pentathene being a lousy shot, I would have been hit.

"We got up and away, and made it back to Coruscant. When I finally got back to my quarters, your last message was there. It was all suddenly just too much. I spent the night agonizing over what to do, and finally decided I had to see you. I told Master Li next morning, and she asked me some tough questions."

"Save that for later, Tiercel," Qui-Gon interrupted. "Tell me what happened when you went back to Althene."

Obi-Wan nodded, and went on. "I knew something was wrong as soon as I heard we had been asked to return. It was too quick for such strong opposition to our presence to have been settled. Master Li knew it too, but she was obedient to the will of the Council. After telling her that I needed to see you, Li was going to go by herself, but I just couldn't let her. I couldn't let her go into that situation alone." Obi-Wan sounded apologetic, as if he thought Qui-Gon would be hurt by his decision.

"Of course, Tiercel. You had a duty to her," Qui-Gon reassured him.

Relieved that his lover understood, Obi-Wan continued. "We had been granted permission to use deadly force if necessary. I would normally not have been so worried, but with my access to the Force so undependable, I was afraid that I was not up to the task.

"And I wasn't. The trouble began soon after we landed. We disembarked, and were met by guards sent to protect us. We came under fire about a quarter of the way to the capitol. We again drew our sabers and defended, but my Force-ability slipped away quickly. I was struggling, trying to cover Li's back and protect myself. The guards came to our aid, but they were really not trained for anything more than ceremonial duties."

Obi-Wan's voice had become raw with emotion. "We fought our way back toward the ship, and were almost there when Li was hit. Everything happened so slowly, almost as though time itself had expanded, exaggerating my helplessness. She took blaster fire to the chest. I saw it coming, and swung to deflect it, but was far too late. She was on the ground by the time my blade came to the proving point. I scooped her up and ran, hoping that the guards would cover our retreat. More than anything else, I got lucky in the end.

"I took off, put the ship on autopilot, and got her stabilized. Once we were back at the Temple, the healers brought her out of stasis, and she made me swear that I would come here. And, here I am." He shrugged, the gesture belying the pain that rolled from him.

"Do you know if she is recovering?"

"I had a comm shortly before I arrived that she was still in the bacta tank. Right now, I know she is alive. I would sense it if she weren't. More than that, I can't tell from this distance."

"Tell me about her."

"Master Li?" Obi-Wan smiled. "She's humanoid.... "

Qui-Gon interrupted. "Show me." He closed his eyes, and saw projected into his mind the image of a small woman with dark hair and eyes to match. She was perhaps a little older than Qui-Gon, but it was difficult to tell. She was not smiling. She looked ... intense. Her face bore a somewhat familiar pattern.

"She has tattoos like Von's," Qui-Gon said.

"That's because she and Von are from the same culture - Niota. She's a Keeper, like he is, and so she has the Marks of Accomplishment on her face."

"A Keeper? What is that?"

"The Niotan society is dedicated to preserving the ancient ways - crafts, technology, history, languages - just about anything. People study specific subjects, and then undergo a testing. If they prove their proficiency, they become a Keeper of that particular item, and are Marked. The blue tattoos on Von's face are his Marks, one line for each special bit of knowledge he's preserved. His probably have to do with falconry. My master's Marks are mostly for languages, cultural history, and weaponry."

"Von's never mentioned it to me."

"That's because you didn't ask. It's actually kind of insulting that you haven't, as long as you've known him. Niotans are very proud of their culture's role in preserving the past. That's one of the reasons they are tattooed for everyone to see."

"But for the knowledge to be truly preserved, it must be passed on."

"Yes, that's one of the responsibilities of a Keeper - to find a repository for their knowledge. I am Li-tzu, one of the learners Master Li has passed her knowledge to. I am Li-tzu for two extinct languages and two cultural histories, but I've mostly focused on the weaponry. That's really our common interest."

Qui-Gon glimpsed a fleeting recollection of a much-younger Obi-Wan, working side-by-side with the small woman, each thrusting with a short, black blade while watching in a mirror.

"How did she choose you as her apprentice?"

"She didn't really choose me, or at least not in the way you'd imagine. When I was still an Initiate, I used to see her carrying these extraordinary weapons through the hallways. One day I followed her to a practice room and watched her making the most incredible moves. I thought if she could do it, so could I. You see, she was so small, I thought she was a child, too! Every once in a while she would leave a weapon in the practice hall, and I would sneak in and try to copy what I'd seen her doing.

"I was caught twice, and punished for using weapons I was not authorized for, but I kept doing it anyway. Then I injured myself."

Qui-Gon caught the memory. Obi-Wan had sliced open a long, nasty gash in his shin using some sort of curved blade. The healer had wondered what that scar was from.

"Li scolded me severely, but realized I was not going to stop. She allowed me to train with her, so that at least I would learn to use the weapons safely. I met with her almost every day that she was at Temple. I learned quickly, and she enjoyed teaching me. This went on for months - close to a standard year.

"Then one day we were walking down the hall and Master Li stopped to talk to a friend. They were chatting about ordinary things, and he reached down and squeezed my shoulder, being friendly. He asked Li why she hadn't given me a padawan braid yet.

"I remember exactly the look on her face - like someone had just snapped on a light or focused a holo. Here, like this."

Qui-Gon saw the image of a younger Li, looking downward as if at a child, with an expression of shock and realization on her face.

"She knelt down right there in the hallway, and asked if I wanted to be her apprentice. I was so happy I could have burst. I told her I would be proud to be her padawan, and she started my braid right then, in the Temple corridor. We've been together since. She's been a wonderful master. I've learned much from her."

Qui-Gon could feel the respect and pride Obi-Wan held for his teacher. He had a sudden urge to meet her, so that he could understand more about who and what had shaped his bonded's character. He had a hard time meshing his sense of who his lover was to some sort of Jedi super-soldier. The two images were incongruous.

"Tiercel, when you say weaponry, what do you mean? Of what kind?"

"All kinds, but mostly things that are not commonly used any more. Some primitive, some technical, some purely mental, and a few hand-to-hand techniques."

Obi-Wan turned, his expression intent. "This is one of the things I want you to understand about me, Qui-Gon. I am a weapons expert. I know hundreds of ways to defend myself, with the obvious extension of knowing an equal number of ways to attack other life-forms. Even if I left the Jedi to stay here, I would continue this area of study - not only because I am bound by my responsibilities as a Keeper, but because I am interested in the subject."

Qui-Gon looked at his bonded, sitting in the sunshine. He thought about Obi-Wan lying in his arms, warm and sated. This gentle man was an expert in knowing how to kill others? Maybe he was making too many assumptions. "Is this knowledge that you actually use, or simply preserve?"

"Both. There are times my master and I are sent on missions simply because of our skills. That's why authorization of deadly force is such an issue for Li. The knowledge we hold must be used wisely. She insists that we receive clear instruction from the council before every mission, and she will not be swayed from their directive except in the most extreme situations."

Qui-Gon tried to process this information. Why would his Tiercel want to expend so much effort in learning how to hurt someone else? It was anathema to him. Qui-Gon had devoted his life to healing, and saving life.

"Why does this interest you?"

"Oh, it's fascinating. The choice of weaponry reveals so much about a culture." Obi-Wan gestured broadly with his hands, speaking animatedly. "Some choose big, shiny blades that they spin about, flashing in front of their foes. Others use tiny darts dipped in the most potent poison, shooting them with such stealth that they are almost impossible to detect. There's an armory in the Temple at Althene, and I wanted so badly to see what was in there. It would explain so much about how the culture has evolved over the millennia."

"All this from how one life-form chooses to kill another?"

Obi-Wan shifted, turning to face him. "I'm obviously not explaining it well. Qui-Gon, I have killed within my duties as a Jedi. It is something I am loathe to do, but I have little choice in the matter. If I stay with the Order, I will probably be called upon to take life more often than other Jedi because of my knowledge. But I don't study weaponry to be able to kill others. I study weaponry to understand them."

Obi-Wan sat staring at Qui-Gon, his head tilted to the side. He was waiting for a response, Qui-Gon knew.

It was just so difficult to imagine this man in his other world. Obi-Wan was kind, and sensitive, and loving. Yet, by his own admission, he had and would take the life of another if it were his duty. The memory of the previous night cropped up, and Qui-Gon recalled how different Obi- Wan had seemed while making the report to the Council. There truly was a side to this man that he had never seen, and was far from understanding.

Tension began to weave through the bond. Obi-Wan was worried by his silence.

"As I said last night, there is much I need to learn about you, Tiercel. I confess I do not understand the life you lead as a Jedi, but I want to. Thank you for telling me all this."

The tension did not abate. "Does it change the way you feel about me?"

"Only in that I realize there is a part of you I need to understand better. I know you are a good person, Tiercel, because I have seen into your mind and into your soul. Nothing will change my love for you."

Obi-Wan leaned forward. Qui-Gon wrapped his hand around the back of his head and kissed him, a gentle, loving touch of lips, punctuated by the brush of cold noses. A ripple of love washed into his mind, and gratitude for his acceptance, if not understanding, of all that had been revealed.

A shiver shot through Obi-Wan as he leaned away. "I'm getting cold. We either need to warm up our seat again, or head back."

It was beyond mid-day, Qui-Gon judged by the sun. "We should start back. I need to check on a couple of animals before Kee arrives."

They made short work of packing up the remains of their meal and jumped softly down from the rock. The horses were ready to get moving again, especially since they sensed they were returning to their stalls and the possibility of an early meal.

Obi-Wan drew on the gauntlet, and took the buteo on his fist while Qui-Gon disassembled the perch and tied it snugly against the saddle. The hawk settled herself with a flicker of wings and a two-step up and down the glove.

Qui-Gon whistled loudly, and Loca bounded up, his thick fur matted with burrs.

"What did you get into?" Qui-Gon asked in exasperation.

Loca told no tales, just sat with his black and pink tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

"You won't be so self-satisfied when we have to pick those out of your fur!" Qui-Gon commented as he swung into the saddle.

The kanid yipped his opinion. He seemed to think it was worth it.

The master led them down a more direct path back to the ranch. He wanted to save time in returning, but was chiefly motivated by the simple pleasure of riding through untrammeled snow. He noticed a few animal tracks in the path, where some creature or another had dashed through the open space. He pointed a few of them out to Obi-Wan as they rode, explaining how one could identify the species by the tracks it left.

Bartram greeted them at the mews, anxious to hear news of the hunt. Obi-Wan handed the buteo over to him along with the ssofit. The catch would be used to feed several of the birds.

Once they were on their way again, the horses increased their pace, motivated by proximity to the stables. They were soon back in their stalls, contented by a quick rubdown and a treat of sweet feed.

Qui-Gon met his bonded as he came around the corner from tending to Storm. "Why don't you go on upstairs, Tiercel. I've got to check on a ronto and the eopie I treated yesterday."

"And I need to get the meal started," Obi-Wan agreed, and headed for the steps to Qui-Gon's quarters.

Obi-Wan found a bulging sack at the base of the stairway, left in the chill air. Good. C'idra had been able to get the mussels he'd put on the supplies list. They must have cost a small stack of credits, having to be shipped from a warmer latitude than where he stood, but he knew they were a favorite of Kee's. Qui-Gon had said not to worry about expense.

He hoisted up the sack, getting a whiff of the pungent odor, and headed up the stairs. As he made the turn at the top, he saw an object hanging from a hook on Qui-Gon's door. A commpad. Strange place to leave it, he thought.

The screen blinked a priority message from Coruscant, addressed to Obi-Wan Kenobi. He dropped the sack and grabbed the unit, a spike of anxiety surging through him.

*Tiercel, what's wrong?*

Obi-Wan felt for the link to his master. He should have known immediately if the bond had been broken - if Li had gone into the Force - but his connection to Qui-Gon had become so strong, he just wasn't certain. He found it; the training bond was there, faint but steady. He clung to that reassurance.

*Tiercel!* Qui-Gon demanded.

*It's a message from Coruscant. It's probably about Master Li.*

The comm was from the healer overseeing his master's case. He scanned the message quickly, and sighed with relief. *She's out of the bacta and healing well. She will have to go through therapy for her injuries, but they expect her to recover fully.*

Obi-Wan closed his eyes and leaned back against the door, sinking down to the step as the adrenaline in his system faded. She was out of danger. She would recover. She would be fine. He started to tremble. He drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, trying to stop the shaking. He hadn't ruined his master's life. She would be fine.

A warm hand caressed his cheek. He opened his eyes to find Qui-Gon before him, and immediately the worst of the tension drained away. How could the mere presence of this man be such a comfort? How was he ever going to do without it?

"I won't let my deficiency endanger her life again," he said with fierce conviction.

Qui-Gon nodded. "I know you won't."

"What am I going to do?" he whispered.

"We will find a way, Obi-Wan. Whatever it takes, we will fix this. I promise."

There was such certainty in his voice, Obi-Wan began to hope it might be true. He took a deep breath, and released his worry, trying to set his mind to solving the problem, not dwelling on it.

"Good, Tiercel. Your focus determines your reality."

"There is no try, right?" he offered a weak laugh.

Qui-Gon nodded, and exaggerated a sniff. "There is, however, a terrible odor. What is in that sack?"

A real laugh this time, and Obi-Wan grabbed the bag of mussels as he stood. "Dinner."

The healer shook his head. "If you say so. I trust your culinary talents."

"Go see to your patients, Master Healer Jinn, while I ply my skills in your kitchen."

But when Obi-Wan expected him to turn down the stairs, Qui- Gon's eyes locked onto his, and he felt a quick probe of assessment. It was very fast and somewhat shocking. It was the sort of thing he'd seen the healer do to an animal in pain.

Before the tingling in his mind had faded, he was grabbed into his lover's arms, and delivered of a fierce kiss, powerful and assertive. He leaned into it, answering the sudden compulsion for a connection. He opened his mouth, allowing his lover's tongue in, meeting it, tasting the passion. Large hands roved over his body, grabbing and squeezing.

The bag of mussels plonked onto the stairs.

Obi-Wan clutched at Qui-Gon's back, groping to feel the muscles through the leather jacket. Despite the thick clothes, he could feel the heat rolling off of his bonded. A moan escaped him, caught by his lover's mouth.

Obi-Wan pulled his bonded closer and ground their hips together, arousal surging from the contact. He then felt his lover shift his weight, balancing as he wrapped his left arm around Obi-Wan tightly, and then lifted him from the step. Oh, gods. He wrapped his legs around Qui-Gon's hips.

"What are you doing!"

"Getting you inside, so that I don't take you right here on the stairway."

"Oh." He had meant it as a reply, but it came out as a moan.

Qui-Gon did get them inside, but just barely. He fumbled for the latch, pushed the door open, and stepped in only far enough to allow him to kick the door closed with his heel.

Then they were on the floor, kissing and biting roughly. Several to-be-bruises later, Obi-Wan ended up on his back with Qui-Gon kneeling before him. He watched the big man strip off his jacket and throw it aside, then move straight for his waist, feeling him fumble through the layers of clothing in search of the tie to his leggings.

Obi-Wan wondered fleetingly how such large fingers could move so swiftly. He lifted his hips, allowing his bonded to expose him, and flinched at the avarice he saw in Qui-Gon's eyes.

His lover leaned forward until he could see only the top of his head. Obi-Wan held his breath in anticipation of what he knew was coming. He howled at the pleasure as his cock was taken into Qui-Gon's mouth, sucked with rough strokes and scrapes of teeth. It felt so good. He moved his hips, trying to build a rhythm, but it didn't last long enough. Qui-Gon had gotten his own pants undone.

His bonded straightened up, kneeling before him as pulled down his trousers, displaying his arousal. Qui-Gon stared into his eyes as he took his own cock into his fist, stroking for Obi-Wan to watch. Oh, by the sweet Force, it was incredible. He watched the large hand ride over the hard flesh, and his own cock twitched at the sight. He wanted that hardness inside him.

"I thought you said you were going to take me."

"So I did." Qui-Gon grabbed his hand and pulled him up to his knees. He yanked Obi-Wan's leggings down as far as the boots would allow, and pulled him forward to straddle his lap. The constraint of the fabric made it tight, but the restriction only increased the young man's excitement.

Qui-Gon stuck a finger into Obi-Wan's mouth, which he sucked eagerly, rolling his tongue over the callused tip and down the length of it. He moaned, and felt Qui-Gon shiver in response. The finger went from his mouth to another opening, and Obi-Wan pressed down against it just as eagerly. He gasped at the promise of things to come.

Then he was lifted, pulled forward, and slowly, slowly lowered, taking Qui-Gon into his body. Obi-Wan opened his mind and reached for his lover's as the two men knelt locked together on the floor. Lust fueled by love. It drove their desire. It fed their intense need for each other.

Qui-Gon began to move. He rolled his hips and Obi-Wan rocked with him. Obi-Wan wrapped his arms around his lover's shoulders, kissing and biting his neck. The young man shifted his hips until they found just the right angle, and he was pierced by pleasure. He arched toward Qui-Gon, thrusting his cock against the rough fabric of his lover's shirt as that sensitive spot was touched again and again. The pressure built quickly. The power of their love made every nerve ending fire. His orgasm surged up and spilled over, marked by a triumphant shout. Qui-Gon tensed and froze, a look of ecstasy on his face, and then he thrust hard again, releasing himself into his lover.

Obi-Wan leaned into Qui-Gon's embrace, falling mentally into the comfort of the bond. He knew now what Qui-Gon had seen during the quick probe of his mind. He'd needed this connection. He'd needed the powerful assertion of their love. Whatever obstacles arose, he knew now that it would be all right, because he didn't have to solve them alone. They would find the answers together.

A moment more, and leg muscles began to protest their awkward position. Obi-Wan leaned back, and realized just how close to the doorway they were.

He struggled to his feet, looking not at all graceful, he was sure. "Next time, Nisha, let's try to at least make it to the furniture."

Qui-Gon accepted the proffered hand for a boost up. "Agreed." He groaned as he stretched his cramped legs. He started to put his clothes to rights, grappling with the various layers.

Obi-Wan looked on with vague disgust. "Aren't you going to clean up?"

"When I get done with the animals. There's no sense doing it now."

Obi-Wan blinked, scrunched up his nose, and headed for the 'fresher.

*Prude,* Qui-Gon teased as he walked away.

He made it to the bedroom doorway before he realized he'd left the dinner entree on the steps. He turned back just in time to hear a chiding voice. "You forgot something!" was followed by the thud of mussels meeting floor.

He did another pivot. Shower first, then dinner.

Obi-Wan rolled up his sleeves and dumped the mussels into the sink. He'd pulled on clean leggings after his shower, and taken the liberty of borrowing one of Qui-Gon's well- worn shirts. He'd liked the feel of wearing his lover's sweater earlier in the day, and decided to indulge himself further by pulling a soft green tunic over his bare chest. The smell and touch of it made him feel ... loved.

He picked up a stiff brush and began to scrub the shells quickly to remove the worst of the grit. They made a good- sized mound on the cupboard when he was done - bigger than he'd expected. He was going to need a large pot to steam them in. He thought he'd once seen such a thing in Qui- Gon's cupboards, but a thorough search revealed no such item.


*Hm?* distractedly.

*Do you have a big cooking pot, like this?* He sent Qui- Gon a mental image.

A flush of embarrassment came back to him. *I've been mixing animal feed in it.*

Oh. Well, he needed something. *Is it useable?*

*If you scrub it out, it should be fine. I'll send it up.*

*Thanks.* Assuming C'idra or one of the other stable assistants would arrive with it, he went on to clean the winter vegetables he would serve with dinner, along with mixed grains and fruit. He'd just begun the chopping phase when he heard the door open.

"Just bring it in here," he called out, and was surprised at the deep tenor of the voice that answered.

"Yes, my sirrah!" Von appeared in the role of delivery boy, pot in hand.

The Niotan's eyes swept over Obi-Wan, sending the Jedi's detection system to high alert. Although, Obi-Wan had to admit, the man looked quite dashing, with his big grin and dark eyes flashing in amusement.

"I did not realize you were staying with Qui-Gon," he said as he set the cooking pot on the counter.

Obi-Wan rolled his eyes at the vegetables. Was the man dense? "Yes. I stayed with him when I was here last time, too."

Von leaned back against the counter, as close as he could get to Obi-Wan without getting an elbow in the ribs. He frowned slightly as he crossed his arms over his chest, staring at the green-clad arm moving beside him. Obi-Wan figured he was probably trying to decide whether he'd seen the shirt before - on Qui-Gon.

"I heard you had a good day hunting. Did you like hawking with the buteo?"

This was safe territory. "Yes, it was fascinating watching the bird and the kanid work together. Not much for me to do, though."

"True. It is mostly trying to find a good place for the hawk and the flusher to work."

Von snagged a cube of jicama, another treat from warmer climes. "If I may ask," he said as he munched, "how did you know I was Niotan?"

Obi-Wan continued chopping as he spoke. "I saw your Marks. My master is Niotan."

"Your *master*?"

"I'm a Jedi apprentice. My master is Li. She comes from a family of papermakers, but she left as a child to be trained at the Temple."

Von nodded vigorously. "I know the family. I remember hearing about some sort of a scandal about one of the daughters leaving."

Obi-Wan's hand stilled as he stared in surprise. "Scandal? I hardly think that leaving to devote her life to the Order is a scandal."

"You obviously did not grow up there. Niotans do not think highly of people abandoning their culture."

"But she didn't. She's a Keeper, just not of the papermaking arts. " Obi-Wan knew he was being defensive, but he resented the implication that Li didn't take her duty to family and culture seriously.

"She is a Jedi Keeper? Of what?"

"Ancient cultures and languages mostly, and weaponry."

"Worthy subjects," Von approved. "Does she have Li-tzun?"

Obi-Wan cringed, and went back to attacking the vegetables with his knife. He knew where this was headed. "Yes. I am Li-tzu for several cultures and languages, and all of her weapons. She has several other Li-tzun for the rest."

A quizzical look had developed on Von's face as Obi-Wan spoke. Here it comes, the padawan thought.

"You are Li-tzu? Why are you not Marked?"

Obi-Wan stabbed at a tuber. He resented having to justify such a personal decision. This was a matter between him and his master, no one else. Not even another Keeper. "I chose not to take them. My knowledge is ... personal," he asserted.

"You should be proud! You should let the world know of your commitment," Von argued.

Obi-Wan was not going to discuss this. He went for the distraction tactic. "Tell me your Marks." It was something he needed to ask anyway, to be polite.

Von took the bait, and began his recitation, pointing at the appropriate Marks as he spoke. "My first was falconry, of course, and then bell making, and then hood making and design." His finger moved to the opposite side of his face. "This is leather tanning, and then eagle-hunting, and this is Nasholan language. I have Nasholan ancestors - that is a family Mark. Somewhere along the way I picked up archery."

"Really?" Obi-Wan asked. "I have archery, too."

Von was pleased to discover something they had in common. "We should get together and target shoot while you are here. I have a range set up behind the mews."

"Sure. I could use the practice. So, do you have Von-tzun?"

Von nodded, chewing another appropriation from the cutting board. "I have already passed off falconry several times. I have one Von-tzu for hoods, and one for archery. I have yet to find someone for bell making, though. It requires much patience, and steady hands with strong fingers. I have been searching, but so far have not found the right person."

He was silent, watching as Obi-Wan peeled a large tarao.

"Would you be interested?"

"Me?" Obi-Wan was shocked. It was an unusual request for a Keeper to make of someone he barely knew.

"Why not? You obviously understand the commitment, and you look like you have the right hands for it." Von's hand moved over Obi-Wan's, stroking it lightly. Obi-Wan froze.

"I could Mark you myself." The hand moved up to his cheek, and traced an imaginary line over his temple and across his forehead. "You have such a strong face. You would bear the Marks well."

Enough of this. Obi-Wan stepped back and turned to confront Von. "Look, there is something you need to understand," he said, punctuating his comments with the sharp knife. "I'm here on Grathos because of Qui-Gon. We're bonded."

Von was taken aback. "Bonded? What does that mean?"

"A bond is a connection between two Force-sensitives. There are different kinds of bonds, but they all develop because of a special sort of relationship. It makes them very close - allows for telepathy, and empathy. Qui-Gon and I have a lover's bond."

The man's eyebrows arched. "You and Qui-Gon?"


"He never mentioned it."

"I assure you, it's true." Was it so hard to believe?

Von was silent for a long moment, processing this unexpected information. "Is a bond permanent?" he finally asked.

"Not necessarily. I share a training bond with Master Li. When I am no longer her padawan, that bond will dissolve. The bond I have to Qui-Gon will last as long as our love for each other lasts."

Another pause. More processing.

"So you and he have taken lifevows?"

"No. We haven't had time for that. It all happened fairly recently."

"Are you planning to?"

"We haven't discussed it yet. Listen, this is getting a bit too personal. I just want you to understand that I'm committed to Qui-Gon."

"Point made." Von shrugged. "You can't blame a fellow for trying, can you?"

"I suppose not." Obi-Wan smiled, relieved to have cleared the air. He turned back to the counter, to discover a suspiciously small quantity of vegetables for all the slicing he'd done. He made a mock threat toward Von with the paring knife. "If you don't stop eating as fast as I chop, there's not going to be anything left for dinner.

Von held his hands up in surrender. "All right, I will leave you. I have things to do anyway. Will you at least think about being Von-tzu for bell making? I really do think you would be good at it."

"It's intriguing, and I'm honored that you asked, but I don't think I can. I'm probably leaving in a few days. I don't know when I'll be back."

"That is a shame. It seems our timing is off - in more ways than one. I still think the Marks would be beautiful on you." He leaned close and brushed a kiss over the Jedi's cheek, then left without looking back.

Obi-Wan stood before the counter, staring, but not seeing, as he fingered his cheek. Yes, there were moments when he wished he had chosen differently. There were times when he imagined himself standing beside his master, both of them bearing the Marks. She would be proud of him, he knew. Still, something inside of him cringed at the idea of putting his knowledge on public display. With a shake of his head, he reclaimed the knife and attacked a fat solanum root. It was not a problem he need solve today.

Go on to the next part...