On Milara, ice kestrels once nested in the rocky cliffs next to the Bagdroon Ocean. During the fall, right before the onset of the forty-week-long winter, the birds mated and constructed their igloo-like nests, packing rock, mud, ice, and spiderweb moss together into an expandable shell to protect them from the harsh winter. To line it, the mother and father ripped out the female's feathers, rendering her flightless until they regrew -- a process that could last all winter. She stayed inside the shell, warming the eggs with her body, while the father was responsible for searching out what food he could find to feed them both, often scavenging meat from the bodies of other animals that died of hypothermia and starvation.
If the father died, the mother usually did as well, leaving the children to feed off her corpse. And thus, the children survived.
But on Milara, the people had not.
Obi-Wan might not, either.
Discipline helped Qui-Gon push the thought away; he told himself to focus on the moment. He laid his hand over the image of the bird carved into the wall, marveling at how large the creature had been, and wondered if any of them were still alive. He traced the edges with a finger, seeing how the stone had smoothed out over time, and felt an echo of that carving on his own back. Soft brush strokes on his skin, rather than a knife and chisel, but still, the similarities echoed within him.
And those similarities reminded him again of Obi-Wan.
Focus on the moment.
He covered the drawing with his hand, steeling himself against his own thoughts. He needed to function, to move on. Counting his failures served no useful purpose; the important thing was to survive, to make sure Obi-Wan survived, to make sure the Milarans survived.
He heard a noise and turned. Attendants bearing Obi-Wan on a rough-hewn litter struggled through the crowd of refugees gathered at the door, stopping just outside. Qui-Gon indicated a corner of the room near what turned out to be a hearth of some sort, once he had cleaned the debris away. He focused on the ritual of greeting, letting it carry him rather than looking at the battered figure that retained little sense of self. The Milarans were giving him the best they had right now, and it was his duty to be respectful of that.
They were a good people, warm and loving with their own, and they had done everything he asked of them and more. They called him Ser Jedi in the same tone that they used for their elders. To them, there was no difference. He was simply a man who had helped them destroy the mines, a man who had fought and bled at their side, whose loved one had suffered the same agonies as their own.
He did not look at the litter they carried, could not, until the formal welcome was complete. He kept his thoughts away from the dark hole that gaped within him, the wound throbbing and bleeding with each beat of his heart. He let his mind drift with the moment, let it move to other thoughts, other issues he should deal with, ones that were less...personal.
Well trained, his mind partitioned off the pain he felt and turned to other concerns. For three thousand years the people of Milara had lived in these caves. Now there were less than a hundred families to pick the pieces up again, should any want to remain. Most wanted to leave here, leave the place of their enslavement, but Qui-Gon knew there was no hope for them in space. The people were too primitive, lacking in all technical knowledge -- they would soon find themselves slaves once again, and Qui-Gon couldn't stomach the prospect.
It was harder and harder to set the pain aside, to keep himself present in the room. His mind drifted again; he hoped that he could convince them to stay. The land was beautiful, from what he had seen, and it would support life. The same could not be said of the streets and tower corridors of Coruscant.
He wanted to sleep for a week, to rest and relax, to have a chance to enjoy life once again. His eyes darted to the litter -- so many mistakes.
The crowd murmured something; he'd missed a response. Chagrined, Qui-Gon smiled wearily and started the last phrase over. The Milarans would not enter until the room was officially cleansed, which was taking far too long as far as Qui-Gon was concerned.
With a burst of concentrated energy, he finished the ritual and bade the group enter. The healer and the litter attendants were the only ones to cross the threshold, though the rest of the tribe continued to mill around the open door, muttering amongst themselves. A cold draught stirred the dirt in the room, carrying with it the promise of winter. At the touch of chill air, Obi-Wan turned fitfully, his fever obviously worse. His cheeks were stained red from the heat where they were not blackened with bruises, or pale from lack of blood. How had it come to this, Qui-Gon thought to himself. How had he let this happen?
Obi-Wan cried out, the words slurred and barely distinguishable: "Let me go."
Frozen by the sound, his body leaden, it seemed to Qui-Gon as if the gravity here were stronger than anywhere he'd ever been. The weight of his feelings pulled him down, pressing him into the ground; he fought for every breath he took, every move he made was a victory. Live in the moment, the Jedi said; in the moment, all he felt was cold, brittle, and numb. He could do little for Obi-Wan in the moment, knew he might not ever be able to make it right, and knew, too, that if he could not, he might very well shatter like the ice beyond.
The healer touched his arm, pulling him away from his thoughts. "He will sleep for a few more hours, and when he wakes, give him this." She handed him a packet of leaves and moss and bark, the raw sources of medicine in this place. "It will help, I think."
"Thank you." Qui-Gon forced himself to turn away from Obi-Wan's pallet and meet the deep brown eyes of the woman looking at him. He inclined his head, just as he would have had she been the ruler of a city-state, rather than the leader of a tribe of refugees. Yet even that small movement seemed to take more energy than he had.
Her eyes were wise and dark, as filled with the mysteries of her people as any Jedi Master he'd ever seen. "We have all known loss, Ser Jedi. May this one escape the welcoming fire." She patted his arm once more. "Mix it with water once the well is cleaned. It will be easier for him to take."
He nodded his thanks, slowly moving back to his Padawan to see if he could help.
The drone of the ship's engine accented the tension between them, the coolness of the recycled air the only thing keeping the flush from Obi-Wan's face. He sank back against the cushioned seat, glad that he no longer lay on a pallet and equally glad he no longer needed to stand. He glanced over at Qui-Gon sitting in front of the reader, catching up on correspondence received while they'd lived on Milara.
Obi-Wan scrunched his eyes shut, as if by not looking he could keep the vague images from invading his mind. It helped some, and he blinked a few more times till the room no longer had grey prison walls and the floor ash an inch thick. He could not stop his stomach from roiling at the bite of memory, nor the feelings that washed over him after.
Even now, after it was all over, he felt humiliated and unclean, unsure if he would ever be whole.
The mission had not been good -- it had ended in disaster, actually, with only the smallest group of refugees making it out of the mines alive -- but it was Obi-Wan's capture and imprisonment that preyed upon them both.
He did not remember much, knew the Crystlefire had enhanced his use of the Force, knew that in some way it had affected their bond. He assumed that he'd been under the drug's influence in the mines, that he had not been able to shield himself, that he'd fed every emotion he had through their link to Qui-Gon. He blushed, thankful that they had never had the gift of mind-speech; there were some things he never wanted Qui-Gon to know.
But Qui-Gon had apparently been aware of everything that had happened, probably felt more of it than Obi-Wan himself had. Even without the occasional violent storms of what had been their bond sparking through Obi-Wan's mind night and day, knowing that, knowing that Qui-Gon knew how he'd broken, how he'd cried...he could barely stand to look at his Master anymore, other than when anger or fear pressed him. The pain went beyond the merely physical.
He blinked again, and the room stayed as it was. Dull industrial carpeting, flat, shell-colored walls, and a few pieces of well-used furniture like the small, metal table across from him. He looked over at Qui-Gon, trying to gauge his reaction, see if he'd noticed anything.
But Qui-Gon continued to read. A thread of bitterness burrowed deep into Obi-Wan's gut. Qui-Gon's reaction -- or rather, his lack of reaction -- was the worst of it, the distance between them as sharp and cold as a sliver of ice, a distance Obi-Wan could no longer cross.
No matter how much he might want to. For Qui-Gon had done the unthinkable. He had closed off their bond.
A blankness existed between them now, not quite the absence of everything, not deadness, but a space into which every thought sank, an intense silence punctuated only by spasms of feedback and disorganized visions. The seizures hurt him, a physical shock that seared his body and his mind, leaving him gasping for breath.
Every time he or Qui-Gon had tried to see into the darkness, it brought on a spasm, echoed in Qui-Gon. His Master had finally insisted that they not try, that they leave it until they could speak to a healer. Neither of them could afford to waste what energy they had pouring it into a black hole.
It made sense, he knew, but the silence was killing him just the same. It felt...thick in his mind, rough and scaly, dry, dead and lifeless. Yet under that layer, there was a -- a liquid, almost, that resisted him and dragged at him as he tried to use it, as skin bled when it had been burned. He could not keep from touching it, picking at it like a freshly-healed scab, trying to get the liquid out. He knew if he kept at it that it would scar, yet he could not make himself stop.
Qui-Gon still read.
Obi-Wan looked away, pulling his feet up off the floor, curling around himself in the chair to rest his head on his knees. Worse than any pain was the simple absence of connection; he could no longer sense Qui-Gon's presence. He felt adrift and alone, a separateness that was maddening. His whole life, he had been with others. At the temple there was always someone around: a friend, a rival, a Master out meditating, a child taking the longest path home. And when he had become Qui-Gon's Padawan, they had created their own, unique bond, never far from each other's thoughts.
Now, just being in the same room as Qui-Gon could send a ragged spark through his mind, a throbbing headache that wiped out the world; each time the bond crackled, the static was like an electrical jolt to the back of his spine. He gritted his teeth and swore until the nothingness felt like an oasis when it returned.
He stretched back out with a sigh, letting go of his anger. What was, was. The past was the past, not the future. He needed some time to readjust, some time to take control of the matter. Some time of his own to heal.
At least until he could solder this broken link, make himself useful again. He glanced over at Qui-Gon; obviously the deadness didn't prey upon him the way it did Obi-Wan. It didn't eat into his life. When asked, he had said it was...an absence, an emptiness inside of him, but not...unmanageable, and he apparently no longer suffered the spasms. Bitter herbs to soothe the soul, at least. Obi-Wan needed more. Abruptly, he blurted his thoughts out. "I need to speak to the Council."
Qui-Gon looked up from his reading and turned to look at Obi-Wan. He reacted without haste, speaking in calm, clear tones, ever the solicitous Master. "Yes, I can see that. I will present myself to the Council, and you may--"
"No." Obi-Wan lifted his chin. The problem was his. His fault, his failure, his pain. He would be the one to fix it, he and no one else. He would speak to the Council; it was a matter of pride.
If Jedi ever allowed themselves to feel pride. "I do not need you to speak to them for me."
Some emotion, possibly surprise, flickered in Qui-Gon's eyes. "I did not intend--"
"I am no longer a child." Impatiently, Obi-Wan cut him off with a wave of his hand. "And I know that seven years of training makes me no Master, never fear that." He could not keep all of the bitterness from his voice, and he had to breathe and let the emotion pass through him. "But I can and I will speak to the Council alone."
The nearly invisible twitch in the fingers of Qui-Gon's right hand was the only thing that betrayed the anxiety within his apparent calm; Obi-Wan only saw it because he knew to look. The tremor was reassuring, in its way. It made Qui-Gon seem less the perfectly controlled Jedi Master.
"What is it you desire, Obi-Wan?"
Not Padawan. Maybe not ever again. "I wish to return to the temple for a while." He had done with this, and he needed Qui-Gon to understand, to know why he would ask such a thing. "It will not settle, my Master. Not as things are." He looked steadily into Qui-Gon's cool, clear eyes. "What happened must be dealt with."
Qui-Gon was nodding as he spoke. Good. At least there was some agreement there. "Yes, I will work--"
Again, Obi-Wan cut him off, not wanting to listen to soothing words or platitudes now. He needed something other than discussion and empathy -- and distance. "I am no raw apprentice." He spoke slowly and carefully, letting his determination show in his eyes and his voice, since he would not probe the bond any more and neither would Qui-Gon. "You cannot fix everything for me. This is something I must do on my own." Qui-Gon had been a good teacher, but his heart was too far away to heal the wounds that festered within Obi-Wan right now. He took a deep breath and sighed. "I am sorry, Master. I must go. I need time."
He closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall, shutting out the sight of Qui-Gon as the silence stretched between them.
Obi-Wan opened his eyes; Qui-Gon stood before him, his face pale. Good, Obi-Wan thought. Reaction at last. Qui-Gon was looking at him with that strange mixture of compassion and pity that made Obi-Wan feel worse than useless. Obi-Wan caught his gaze and held it, staring defiantly at him.
Qui-Gon looked away first. "There is a reader in my quarters," he said. "Feel free to use this one here to send your request."
As Qui-Gon left him, he paused at the edge of the door, his final words spoken softly. "I will take no other. You will return." His words seemed to echo faintly in the room, an aching reminder of the connection they'd once had, the solid, stable bond that no longer was.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes and turned his thoughts inward, setting himself on the meditative path that was his hope for inner peace, hoping that he might yet find the serenity that seemed to come so easily to his Master.
Twenty families left the planet with them. Obi-Wan returned to the temple on Coruscant, and Qui-Gon followed up with the itinerant Milarans, making sure they were settled as well as he could. For most of a year he tracked and helped them, losing three to the byways of the space lanes. Five died on other planets, victims of some virus for which they had no immunity. Three, he heard, fell to slavers, but the rest managed to find a place for themselves on the sparsely settled planets of the rim worlds, hundreds of light years from Coruscant.
One family even went home.
What was home to a Jedi?
Qui-Gon put down the crystal paperweight he'd been meditating on, the cracks and crevices in the rock reminding him that no matter how 'ordered' an approach the Jedi took to the Force, chaos existed underneath. He pulled his robe to him and stood, looking out of the small observation window of the shuttle into the eternity of space, letting its horizonless expanse remind him of the infinite possibilities and paradoxes that existed within a single breath of time, the infinite definitions of a word.
He smiled gently. Obi-Wan would indulge his philosophical meandering, but only to a point. He probably would have laughed at the thought. The image of Obi-Wan sitting and laughing with him in the sunlight formed in his mind, followed instantly by a searing pain that incinerated all rational thought.
Reflexively, Qui-Gon gripped the edge of the table so he would not fall, breathing rhythmically, mastering the pain within him. He had spent this last year doing just that, giving Obi-Wan the space and time he needed to heal himself, his time at the temple.
His time at home.
Qui-Gon unclenched his hands, watching as the blood flowed back into them, changing their color from a pale white to a slightly ruddy-pink. He'd learned to deal with his own pain in his own way while making sure that Obi-Wan was taken care of, that he got everything he needed while Qui-Gon kept out of his way. The spasms were not so bad now, not what they once were, the frequency far less. They had not affected his missions. Thanks to all the others involved, he could call each of them a success.
Perhaps it was time for him to go home as well.
Rumors reached the temple long before Qui-Gon's ship docked. Obi-Wan ignored them. In the past year, Obi-Wan had learned to ignore many things: the way eyes followed him, the questions in everyone's gaze, the awkwardness in every conversation. This was just one more chance to practice his resolve.
He made his way to the hydroponics room as a matter of rote. The vegetable gardens provided most of the food for the temple, and with limited space; workers here used the Force to make the most of what they had.
It had taken a year to get this far, to the point where he trusted himself enough to use what he'd been taught even in this small way; he wondered if he would still be doing it a year from now. No traces of his anxiety showed; not even Yoda could feel a tremor in the Force around him anymore. He was told to take pride in the regrowth of his mental discipline -- so clearly, a Jedi could feel pride -- to accept his accomplishment, but all he saw was how much further he had to go.
Everything is based on mind, is led by mind, is fashioned by mind: the teaching of the Right Hand path.
He walked past the rows of full-grown plants and their long, dark green fruit to where the seedlings sat in racks of fibrous, spun-stone blocks. Letting the work calm his mind, he grabbed one flat and carried it over to the track wires, removing each plant from the fiber and threading the roots into the tube that would feed it as it grew. With a small application of the Force, he taught it to wrap around the tube, sensing when the change took hold, when the plant no longer wanted to run along the ground, but wanted to climb, instead, making sure the connection was perfect before moving on to the next plant.
A year of prayer and meditation, retraining in the ways of the Force, re-channeling his thoughts and energies to accommodate the changes that had been wrought, to try and fix the cup that had been shattered. Oh, it held water now -- even he could see that -- but it would never be displayed with the others, or give its owner a sense of pride. Always the reminders, the scars showing where it had once been broken.
He took the empty flat back to the planting station, then returned to the seedlings for another set. In the back of his mind he could feel an echo of the bond with Qui-Gon, but he still could not tap into it the way he remembered -- even had he wanted to. He wasn't in constant pain, and for that he should have been grateful; instead, he almost missed it. He felt the way he imagined blackblood patients felt, their intestines rotting away inside their bodies, pieces of them dying all the time.
When he came to an empty climbing wire, he settled the flat down and started adding in the new plants. The bond still felt like that at times -- not that he told anyone. There was no hope in it. Necessity taught him to shut it out, to stop his thoughts from bleeding down the line, to ignore the times the energy ate back upon itself with static bolts, to focus on the time that he was pain-free.
And now, Qui-Gon had returned.
With practiced ease, Obi-Wan pushed the thought away, focusing in on the moment. He liked it here. The hydroponics room was quiet, just the rustle of water as the plants were fed; few of the Agri-Corps trainees asked him about anything anymore.
He had much to do before Qui-Gon arrived, preparations to make, meditations to perform. He would be the perfect Jedi for Qui-Gon, reassure him that he was doing fine and that Qui-Gon could take a new Padawan learner without guilt. Maybe if Qui-Gon formed a new bond with another his own mind would stop trying to destroy itself. Obi-Wan felt slightly ashamed for wishing that would be the case.
Once Qui-Gon was settled with a new student, Obi-Wan could finally decide what to do with his own life. He already knew he would take no new Master; he did not believe that he could truly bond with another ever again, not with the scars that existed along that path. The rawness was gone, yes, but what was left...didn't work. Instead, he would approach the Council about what else he might do should the hole in his mind remain. As it was, the future remained clouded. Such things not even Master Yoda could foresee.
Qui-Gon stepped out of the shuttle, wearily following his escort out to the skimmer waiting to take him to the Jedi temple. As he watched the boy load his luggage onto the craft, he could not help but recall how Obi-Wan had looked when he was near this boy's age -- he shut off the thought.
He waved the boy on, telling him he would walk a bit before going to the temple, and smiled ruefully as the boy dejectedly got in and took off without him. He had obviously been looking forward to having some time alone with Qui-Gon...probably hoping to have a chance to talk and perhaps impress the Jedi Master with his cleverness and skills.
Perhaps to be taken on as a Jedi apprentice himself.
Qui-Gon set himself on the thoroughfare, the path before him a familiar one, winding through the mid levels of Coruscant, and let his mind free itself of the ropes that had held his emotions in check. Without emotion, there is peace, he told himself. Without passion, serenity.
His mind answered with the rasping hiss of the reikshaska's hunting cry, denying his own thoughts.
Two voices warred within him: the voice of his youth -- taken as he was in the time before the creches came into existence -- and the voice of his current path. Without passion, cried his inner voice, there is no joy, and without emotion, compassion does not exist. The training of his childhood, the teachings of the Left Hand path: the heart is the center of the Force.
The truth of it was he wanted no new apprentice; he wanted Obi-Wan back.
As Qui-Gon entered the temple, grit and sweat clinging to him from his walk, he was startled to catch a glimpse of his apprentice walking down the hall. No braid sat upon his shoulder now, though the hair was still there, unbound and masterless, just as the man himself was. Qui-Gon had to force himself not to stop him and demand he return. Instead, they smiled politely at one another and nodded, each of them following his chosen path.
Qui-Gon was unsure how he made it to his room, the passages and people a blur, but he'd had the same suite of rooms for so long, since taking Xanatos as a Padawan, that his feet carried him to his door without need of conscious thought. He walked through the common room of the suite to his bedroom, his eyes refusing to register how empty the suite looked without Obi-Wan's things. He closed the door behind him and dropped heavily on to the bed with a groan; no echo of Obi-Wan's thoughts had reached him as they met.
His greatest hope and his worst fear realized: Obi-Wan had found the answer he'd searched for during this past year, the way to shut Qui-Gon from his mind and travel his path alone.
Bitterly, Qui-Gon arranged himself for meditation to clear his mind of his own failure in this, for the injury he had dealt his Padawan, for his betrayal of their bonded trust.
A breath, two breaths, feeling the Force fill him and move with him, like air, like blood, centered on the beat of his heart. He let go of his surroundings, of his need to be in control, and opened his mind's eye. As if from a distance, he saw it again, the day he and Obi-Wan had set out on this path...
He had been sitting at this desk, in this room, scanning the briefing material, vaguely aware of the sound of the door opening and closing behind him. Obi-Wan settled against him, his warmth against Qui-Gon's back, looking over his Master's shoulder at the briefing material. "It's not a diplomatic mission, then?"
"No." Qui-Gon tapped the readout. "There is a drug, Crystlefire, that has found its way to Coruscant, and the Chancellor wishes us to investigate." He turned and looked up at Obi-Wan. "The Council does, as well."
"Why?" Obi-Wan leaned against the table next to him. "I mean no disrespect, Master, merely...why does this drug interest the Council?"
Asked a question, Qui-Gon found himself falling easily into lecture mode. "It enhances the user's ability to use the Force. Even those who are only mildly sensitive can manipulate it with ease once they have consumed the Crystlefire...at least, until it burns them out. Their lives are short, and their senses clouded from the drug, yet in that time, they have enormous and uncontrolled mental strength. The drug's power lies almost entirely in the dark side, acting on every negative thought and emotion the user has. With the mildest thought they can lash out in anger, incapacitating or killing others." Qui-Gon folded his arms across his chest.
Slowly, Obi-Wan sank down next to him, his arms curling around his legs, head tilting to one side, his mood no longer so curious. "I can see the cause for concern."
"It is very troubling, which is why we are being sent. Fortunately, the supply of the drug seems to be rather limited, but there is some fear that it can be duplicated. Master Yoda is concerned about what might happen should the drug be used on a trained Jedi."
"A trained Jedi? But, Master--!"
Qui-Gon held up his hand. "And there is some truth to his concerns. Can you feel the tremor when the idea is mentioned?"
Obi-Wan closed his eyes and concentrated. "Yes, some, but it is very faint."
"A mere possibility, only," Qui-Gon agreed. "Which is why we need to find the source of the drug and find out what can be done to destroy it, if anything." He turned back to the screen. "And failing that, what can be done to neutralize it."
Obi-Wan stood and brushed himself off. "I will check the pilot logs from the last planet where the drug was in use. Maybe we can check a few of the others, find a common source."
Ah, my Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon thought, his mind's eye closing, his own eyes opening to the emptiness around him. He blinked, adjusting to the change, sadness filling him. I should have seen what might happen then. Why didn't the future warn me?
Instead, he had focused on following up the leads they'd discovered, the two of them operating as a team, equals with each man's strengths bolstering the other's weakness.
Finally, they had tracked the source to a rim planet with a handful of colonists -- Milara. The smuggler with whom Qui-Gon had spoken said the world was a harsh one, but that the winter had been mild, and the colonists had been able to dig deep enough to find the Crystlefire. The man had sneered when he laughed, encouraging Qui-Gon to share the joke. "They didn't even know what they had."
Few of the people who had lived on the planet survived their exposure to the drug they mined, let alone their mistreatment by their captors -- and Obi-Wan had fallen early to the same fate.
Qui-Gon could not stop the convulsive shudder that wracked his body, the dry heaves that caused his stomach to clench and knot against the pain that arced through him; images swooped in and hovered on the edge of his vision, as if he could reach out and touch them.
He put his memories aside, for the hundredth -- the thousandth, the millionth -- time, determined not to fall into the trap of dwelling in the past. The feeling faded quickly, leaving him feeling shaky and drained. Right now, he couldn't even remember what Obi-Wan had looked like when they met in the hall; all he could see was the image of that unbound braid, as if the braid itself were all that Obi-Wan was.
Obi-Wan was more than just his Padawan, more than his role as a Jedi. He was an individual first. Qui-Gon had to keep that in mind.
What had happened could not be changed; only the present allowed him to act. He would not die from the pain of this separation, and neither would his Padawan; they would both be the stronger for it. It was simply time for them to come to terms with what had happened, as best they could, and to go on with their lives.
Arming himself against the absence of Obi-Wan's things, he sat up again and forced himself to unpack.
Obi-Wan's hand trembled as he opened the door to his flat, shutting it quietly behind him and leaning back against it. Qui-Gon had aged so much in the year since they had seen each other; for a brief instant, he had not recognized the other man.
When they'd seen each other, the bond had surged up within him, and out of habit, bracing himself for pain, Obi-Wan had quashed it, not projecting any of the joy he felt -- nor had he received any in return. Rather than the warmth of his Master's thoughts, only emptiness filled him, along with the calm, cool detachment he'd worked so hard to find. A smile, a nod, just as he gave all the Masters. And then each of them had gone his own way.
He stood up, but his knees felt weak, so he stumbled over to his spindle-backed bench and collapsed on it, his legs hanging off over the edge, his arm over his eyes, head braced against the small pillows he left there. He slept here most of the time, avoiding the bedroom for fear that he would simply pull up the covers and curl around the pillow like a child, seeking comfort in a security he could no longer find.
Slowly, he lowered his arm to his side and repositioned himself, listening to his breathing, letting the air flow in and out, allowing the rhythm to soothe him. Master Yoda had worked hard with him on this, finding a way for him to shut off all emotion, yet still use the Force. Peace without emotion, serenity without passion: his mantra this past year.
Resting there, he let the Force wash everything from his soul, leaving behind an emotionless slate, empty and infinite, an echo of the silent bond within.
Fight practice started early and went late. Many classes filtered in and out of the room while the students practiced. Some Padawans and Knights squared off against each other, but few Masters were teaching today.
Qui-Gon watched from the steps of the observation deck above the practice arena, the small classes going through their paces with more fury and energy than he could ever remember having. One boy -- Qui-Gon placed him as his driver from the night before -- was fighting a training droid, instead of a human partner, at the far end of the room. The boy was working on a complicated maneuver, a sidestep jump with a half-twist that would let the defender land behind his opponent--
He felt it the instant Obi-Wan stepped onto the arena floor. He could not stop himself, he had to turn and look, but Obi-Wan seemed completely unaware of him. Intellectually, Qui-Gon admired his ability to focus, but emotionally...he frowned while Obi-Wan removed his tunic and started through his warm-up paces.
Neat, clean, exact. Virtually perfect.
Those were the words that came to mind as Obi-Wan moved from basic stretches and katas to more complicated forms, completely unlike Obi-Wan's normal fighting style. He looked better than he had on Milara -- the shadows were gone, and the gauntness had left his face, his body leaner than before, but not wasted.
His pale skin shone with sweat as he worked, yet the movements looked alien to Qui-Gon's eyes. There was a hard-edged grace, but the sensuality was missing, the buoyancy that seemed to spring from a pact between earth and air, as if Obi-Wan were a bird that might at any moment choose to leap up and fly. These steps were more deliberate, more precise, the steps of a Master too careful to risk much at all.
What had happened in the year that he'd been gone? Where was Obi-Wan's fire?
The pain of that thought lanced through him; he needed to take a moment to quiet his mind, to make the searing agony recede. He knew where that fire had gone. He had spent the past year shutting out those memories along with the newer ones, but too often, Qui-Gon still felt it burn in the back of his mind...
Hands were on him again, stroking him, touching him, and in the long delicate fingers, a thin paintbrush, fine and equally delicate, carved from the bone of some other prisoner. "An artist signs his work--" The fingers caressed his face, turning his head so that he looked into the soulless, faceted eyes, "--so that others will know who created you. They will know you are mine."
The brush touched him, hot, sharp, fire eating into his skin...and Qui-Gon screamed--
He heard Obi-Wan scream, too.
His skin hurt so much, like it was alive and burning with its own fire, even the flow of air making him scream. Different hands touched his face, his body, tearing away his robes, leaving him lying naked on rocky black ground at the entrance to a mine. "Who the fuck sent you in there like that, miner? You know that the stuff clings to cloth. That's why the tyveroth suits."
He couldn't move without pain, and he didn't really care what happened at this point -- all he wanted was the cool relief of water, something to wash away the pain that seared every inch of his flesh.
He heard the guard's words, but couldn't quite understand them. "Stupid-ass shit." Water hit him then, covering him, driving the air from his lungs with the force of it -- and then he found he could not breathe. He tried to crawl away as the rocks cut into his skin, and the water shut off -- but the fire on his skin continued to burn.
Not just Obi-Wan's pain, but his own.
Several days passed with short glimpses of Obi-Wan's torment overlaying every sense he had, filling him with the claustrophobic darkness of a miner's life and the constant ache in his lungs and on his skin from breathing Crystlefire dust. The images from Obi-Wan's life seemed to take root in his mind, mixing and merging with his own memories -- especially those of his imprisonment by the Quong-sha. People dead for years would talk to him, smile at him, ask him to fight, during the visions. Qui-Gon lost reality, reliving old horrors, old missions, again and again. He couldn't predict when these fits would come upon him -- morning, night, war council meetings, meditation time -- every moment he breathed he was vulnerable. Obi-Wan lost all ability to control the bond, his desperation, his need, taking everything that Qui-Gon could give and more.
If he was in prison, he wanted Qui-Gon there, too. But Qui-Gon escaped. He learned to shut out the pain. He had to.
The people of Milara were dying, but they wanted to survive. They sent scouts to look for weaknesses in the smuggler's defenses; none of the troops came back. The group of two hundred that had survived the initial sweeps dwindled and sank by a dozen, two dozen, more. They did not condemn Qui-Gon for the fits, just looked at him with their sad, knowing eyes.
"Maybe, when you are better, you can help."
If it had been only his old memories, he could have dealt with them as he had been taught, or so he told himself. If it had only been Obi-Wan's enslavement, he could have lent his support, helped Obi-Wan deal with the drug, or so he hoped. But between the two, one fire fueling the other into infinity, Qui-Gon was going mad.
He learned to shut out the pain.
Late one night, when the others were asleep, Qui-Gon deliberately, methodically closed off the bond. Screams echoed in his mind, Obi-Wan's despair matched only by his own.
Obi-Wan took everything that night, battering at him, trying to keep the bond alive. He ripped through Qui-Gon's shields like they were water, draining him, sucking at Qui-Gon's soul in his desperation--
And still, in the end, Qui-Gon shut him out.
He came back to himself and found Obi-Wan staring back up at him, his gaze as soft as a caress, no longer moving through his paces, the rest of the room staring up at him as well. Obi-Wan had remembered little of what happened, and for that, Qui-Gon was thankful. He swallowed and stepped away from the observation platform, leaving Obi-Wan to practice with the others in peace.
The fact that the bond remained was a puzzle to the Council. It should have shattered on Milara at the moment Qui-Gon closed off his side. Instead, the wound had been left open, the unstable bond a constant drain on Obi-Wan's mind. It would not heal, and the council had finally agreed upon drastic measures. A clean amputation was considered the best course.
Qui-Gon found himself unwilling to accept the decision, even though he knew it was what Obi-Wan wanted. Since his arrival, he'd had scarcely any time to himself without some Master or Council member lobbying on Obi-Wan's behalf.
"Break the bond, free the boy. Simple is it, if you will it," Master Yoda said. He sat with Qui-Gon in the star map room, the worlds spread above and around them, giving a sensation of connection and peace. "Your choice, as well as his."
A good place for an argument, one long in coming. "Not so simple, I'm afraid," Qui-Gon said softly, bowing his head at the old Master's words.
Yoda looked up at him, his wide eyes blinking slowly. "Simple, if you care not. Care too much, Qui-Gon, and the bond will never break."
"So I have learned." Qui-Gon smiled wryly. "But if the bond remains as it is, he cannot take a new Master." He looked down at Yoda. "I have heard that even you tried."
Yoda shook his head, folding his hands over his staff. "Not all apprentices are to become Jedi."
Qui-Gon's breath caught in his throat. "Are you saying that we will lose him?"
"Cannot say." Yoda tapped the ground gently as he looked down then back up at Qui-Gon. "You are his last Master. That much is given. The rest..." Yoda's ears twitched. "Always in motion, the future is. A Padawan and too many paths." He nodded his goodbye to Qui-Gon. "Teacher, you must be. Break bond, seal bond, find the right path. Let not your fear decide."
Qui-Gon did not watch as Yoda left the room. Rather, he kept his mind and thoughts on finding patterns in the stars above him, letting himself drift with their changes, finally letting himself acknowledge that he was the reason the bond was still open, that he was imposing his will on events instead of seeking out their pattern and accepting whatever emerged.
He would have to let the boy decide.
He paused at the thought, backing up and replaying it, twisting the emotions it generated around in his mind, turning the words around and looking back at them, examining the phrase in fine detail. Obi-Wan was not a boy any longer, had not been for several years. And 'let' the boy decide? The man was in charge of his own life, made his own choices. It was Qui-Gon's role to teach him, yes, but he could not force his student to walk only one path. He meditated on that thought, letting it fill him, and felt for the edges of resonance within that would lead him to truth.
With truth, came action. Qui-Gon let himself drift deeper into trance, let each breath carry him forward, searching within himself as if on the wings of a bird.
The invitation was plain, as befitted the occasion, merely a time and a place to meet: midday in the meditation garden of the conservatory dome, the room of a thousand fountains. Obi-Wan folded the paper and set it on his desk, puzzled by the formality of the language and the fact that the invitation was written on paper in the first place. He placed his hand over it, trying to fathom the reason behind the meeting, but as usual with anything that concerned his former Master lately, he could sense nothing.
Time was when they could each feel the other without resorting to such crude communication, but that time was at least a year in the past. He reminded himself to focus on the moment.
Obi-Wan picked up the paper again and unfolded it, contemplating the elegant curves of his Master's handwriting. Almost, he could feel something in the letters. Almost, they had an energy to them, an image, a picture, something he might have glimpsed in the past--
And then nothing.
In frustration, he nearly threw the paper away, but it would be impolite to treat his Master's letter in such a careless fashion. Instead, he set it aside and rubbed at his eyes; he was getting a headache again, probably from thinking about Qui-Gon. Master Yoda had said that until the bond was fully severed, such things would happen. For the moment, all he could do was distance himself from his emotions, letting them pass through him rather than allowing them to cause him pain. He curled over so his head was on the desk, his arms shutting out all the light. Still, he could see pixilated jags of light dancing around his eyes, feel the throb of blood in his temples and at the base of his neck. He breathed slowly and carefully, the chill air and relative darkness easing his pain somewhat. Slowly, too slowly by his reckoning, the pain receded, leaving him exhausted.
He stood carefully, trying not to jar himself as he found his way to his pallet and lay down. He would rest a bit, then meet his Master in the garden. Between them maybe they could find a way to cut through the bond, freeing him from this life-stealing pain.
Weeping Yanties cedar lined the entrance to the room of a thousand fountains, their large branches and cascades of dark-green leaves providing a natural screen, lending an aura of isolation to the room, sealing off the heat, light, and noise of the corridors from the meditation gardens.
Obi-Wan pushed the branches out of the way, inhaling deeply as he did so, the sharp scent of the trees centering him and soothing his nerves. The door shut behind him the moment he was inside. His feet brushed the ground softly as he walked down the designated path, a mosaic of painted tiles set in a river of dark brown clay, imported from somewhere off-world. The sound of running water echoed through the space, and the room itself felt humid, the air thick with water and heat, the source of life and the essence of the Force.
It was peaceful here. Spurs jutted out from the path on occasion, leading to smaller meditation areas -- some near pools, waterfalls, or simply other gardens. There were a few screened off areas, places that welcomed in-depth examination, designed to encourage the petitioner to dwell entirely in the moment. Occasionally, one of these 'rooms' was used for negotiations or discussions, when the Jedi needed to talk in a place that vibrated with the Force.
Obi-Wan caught sight of Qui-Gon's symbol on the path leading to one such room, separated from the main area by a lattice of rattan bamboo. In neat gold lettering, the image danced on a long red card, gently twisting in the breeze created by the room's ventilation system. A welcoming, or a warning? Obi-Wan wasn't sure.
Taking a deep breath, he re-centered himself and made his way up the path.
Qui-Gon had let himself believe he was settled and focused on the preparations he had made while waiting, but the sound of the stream beside him could not hide the faint echo of Obi-Wan's feet on the clay path. He'd willed himself to stillness, to not force the future by looking too hard for Obi-Wan, but rather to let the moment be as it may...yet he could not help but notice the hesitation in the footsteps, the way the soles dragged with each step.
He turned away from the entryway, surveying his work. Pillows surrounded the low table, a concession to the amount of time he thought the discussion would take. The tea was warmed and ready for straining, dark brown, almost black sekani cups warmed. He knew he had made too much food; he had set it aside where it would not be seen, the tray replete with small bowls and plates containing the things he remembered that Obi-Wan had liked...but did he still like those things now? The tastes of a thirteen-year-old boy and a twenty-one year-old man were remarkably different.
Obi-Wan's boots crunched on the rock landing right outside the meditation space. Heart beating faster, he looked up just in time to catch Obi-Wan removing them before stepping down into the clearing. "Qui-Gon." He bowed formally.
"Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon returned the gesture. "Please, sit. We have much to discuss."
When they had met in the hall, Obi-Wan had had little time to note the details of the changes in his Master, and now he was almost saddened to see how many there were. The long hair was greyer, as was the beard, though much shorter than Obi-Wan remembered. Qui-Gon's cheekbones stood out in sharp relief from the rest of his face, and his eyes looked like they had sunk deep within their sockets, leaving brilliant blue lights surrounded by darkness, as if he had not slept in months. He had obviously lost weight, making his muscle definition sharper, but leaving the skin on his neck and hands stretched tight. He didn't look exactly human, anymore, more like some giant ogre stepped out of myth to come and have tea with him.
Yet despite the changes, he still looked the same, all passionate features and visionary eyes. Obi-Wan plucked uncomfortably at his robe, like a child. Who had been looking after Qui-Gon for this past year? Who had fed him, tended his clothes? Made him sleep? It bothered him that none of these questions had crossed his mind the entire time Qui-Gon had been gone. Obi-Wan had just assumed that there would be someone for him, that another would step into what had been Obi-Wan's place.
Clearly, no one had. He wasn't sure who he was more angry with at the moment, himself, or Qui-Gon, for letting it come to this. Obi-Wan caught himself picking at his robe again and forced his hands to his sides, smoothing out the nubby brown fabric.
He looked back up at Qui-Gon, who seemed involved in pouring them both tea. There was one other change: Qui-Gon was wearing a black tunic, rather than his regular attire. He couldn't help the bitter grimace that came to his lips, but he quickly hid it away before Qui-Gon saw. What a difference the year had wrought -- his Master had changed what he wore.
A flicker of pain, and Obi-Wan winced. Peace without emotion, serenity without passion, he reminded himself. Above all, adhere to the code. He did not want to make any mistakes that might put Qui-Gon to shame.
Qui-Gon's impression of Obi-Wan from the training room held. His actions were slower, more deliberate, controlled. Even picking up a cup of tea required at least three distinct movements -- hand to cup, hand grasp cup, cup to mouth. Qui-Gon closed his eyes, swallowed, and re-opened them again, trying to release his tension. It was like watching the initial programming on a training droid, each step a labor, repeated endlessly until someday it ran at speed.
At speed. Not fluid, not graceful. Not warm, not welcoming, not whole.
Yet his Obi-Wan had to be there, somewhere, hidden beneath the too-careful deliberateness of his movements. He smiled as he used to -- but the smile was equally perfunctory. His eyes lacked their mischievous nature. Everything looked to be a chore.
This then, was the final result of his decision on Milara, to shut Obi-Wan out. Sitting across from him was the embodiment of that decision, and his secret hopes of the last year died. In shutting down the bond, he had broken something, torn it so badly it couldn't be repaired. He needed...needed to accept that. Maybe with another, Obi-Wan could form a bond again, find a way to make it work.
A painful stillness crept over him at the thought. Qui-Gon tried to center himself, tried to release it and find acceptance, but his eyes kept drifting back to Obi-Wan and his too-exact touch.
His eyes followed the teacup's laborious path from table to mouth, and the way Obi-Wan oh, so carefully drank it. Words poured from his mouth as if directed by the Force itself. "Don't worry about spilling it."
Obi-Wan looked at him and blinked, his confusion apparent. "Ma-- Qui-Gon?"
"The tea. Don't worry about spilling it. Everything can be cleaned."
Obi-Wan smiled that lifeless smile again, his hand fluttering at the table and the room. "I would hate to mar the perfection you've created."
The word twisted like a knife in Qui-Gon's chest. Perfection? There was nothing about him that was perfect. He was an impostor; he only needed to look at Obi-Wan to know that. Qui-Gon had failed him on Milara, another instance of trying to work his will, rather than letting the Force have its way. Obi-Wan was as scarred as he himself was and might never reach his full potential as a Master. And all of it because of what Qui-Gon had done.
No, he was nothing to be idolized or modeled. He was a man, nothing but. Qui-Gon just wished that there was some way that he could teach Obi-Wan that.
"The bond must be broken." Obi-Wan could hear the slight edge of desperation in his voice and hated himself for it. Peace. Serenity. Let your emotions flow through you. He took a deep breath and centered himself, acknowledging that his headache had returned, proud that he had not let it distract him from what needed to be done.
Even if no one knew exactly how to go about it.
"Where would we start?" At least Qui-Gon sounded as tired as he felt. "It's not something that there is an advanced class on. No one teaches the art of eliminating a bond."
"The mind workers--"
"Know as little about this as we do."
"What about when...a Padawan becomes a Knight? You remove the bond then, don't you? Or if a Padawan...leaves the order?" A flush of anger started to creep into his cheeks, but a deep breath pushed it away. "You were not still bonded to Xanatos, were you? Once he left the order."
Qui-Gon could not meet Obi-Wan's gaze anymore and glanced back to the stream. "What I knew how to do I tried on Milara. I know nothing else."
"So this is my problem. My concern."
"Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon reached out for him, but pulled his hand back before touching him. "I will do whatever I can."
"But it is not enough, is it, Master?" The world splintered again, and this time Obi-Wan could not stop it. He pressed his hands to his temples, rubbing them, trying to stop the pain, but he was too tired and hot to have complete control over it.
He knew Qui-Gon was calling to him, but all he could hear was the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears. His skin burned with energy, and his stomach rebelled against the tension he'd been holding at bay -- he lost his battle to keep its contents in place.
Qui-Gon practically leapt over the table. Obi-Wan stopped heaving quickly. Qui-Gon knelt and pulled Obi-Wan into his lap. Tremors wracked Obi-Wan's body; his colorless skin felt clammy to the touch. Qui-Gon lifted him up, kicking the pillows into a roughly human-shaped pile, and laid him down on them. This was so much worse than he had expected. Helplessness surged through him, and again, he was on Milara, holding Obi-Wan as he waited for another spasm to pass. Water had helped then, and Qui-Gon took off his cloth belt, dipped it in the nearby stream, and used it to wipe Obi-Wan's face.
His eyes fluttered open, intelligence surfacing in them, instantly followed by...shame. Obi-Wan rolled away from him, not looking at Qui-Gon, as if embarrassed by what had happened.
As if it was wrong to be seen like this, vulnerable and open and in pain. As if it made him less than...perfect.
Qui-Gon sat back on his heels, his mind whirling. Why wouldn't he see things that way? It was what the Master taught him do, how the Master behaved. Show no fear, no weakness, no emotion. Project a blank slate.
It hurt, to think about how he'd showed Obi-Wan to hide everything that happened to him behind a mask of calm insight. When he'd been rescued from the Quong-sha, he'd done the same, taken his pain and hidden it, letting it stay and fester and grow. So many times in his life he had done that, had sacrificed a part of himself to maintain the surface calm. Yet none of those sacrifices had truly helped him attain the ideal of the Right Hand path, perfect control over his mind and his emotions. He'd had to learn to accept and move on. To live in the moment, rather than in the failures of the past.
Had he ever, ever, let Obi-Wan see any of that? Or had the boyish worship been so soothing that he could not show Obi-Wan that a man lay behind the mask?
In four years, he'd never mentioned anything to Obi-Wan about the imprisonment, or what had happened, had merely told the boy he'd been injured during the assignment. Small things, quickly covered up, never letting his apprentice see just how badly he'd shattered -- and that he'd survived. Never shown him that sometimes things that were broken could end up stronger than they were before.
His hands trembled as they went to the fastenings on his tunic. "Obi-Wan," he said softly, capturing Obi-Wan's gaze with his own. "You did nothing wrong."
My failures. My mistakes. Not yours.
"Let yourself heal. You're still suffering from what happened on Milara." Confusion registered in Obi-Wan's eyes as Qui-Gon slowly undid the fastenings on his jacket, letting his tunic fall open. "We all live with what has been written on us."
The cloth pooled around him, and Qui-Gon refused to look away, finally letting Obi-Wan see what he had hidden for four years, let him see how the glass had been shattered.
He had failed before, failed others. Obi-Wan needed to see exactly that.
Scars. From waist to chest, Qui-Gon's body was covered in scars. Not tiny ones, not the scars from laser burns or knives or blasters or anything that Obi-Wan could remember seeing but...scars shaped like animals and trees, sitting, standing, or in flight--
All of them beautiful.
Obi-Wan stared at Qui-Gon, shock pushing him to his feet. "Master! What...when..." He swallowed hard, his gaze locking with Qui-Gon's. "How?"
The last word was a command and spoke more of pain and disappointment than Qui-Gon could bear. "You were sixteen at the time and due for a rotation assisting with the creche children. You stayed at the temple, and I was sent to negotiate a treaty with the Quong-sha."
"The Quong-sha? But...they're raiders, aren't they?"
"Now, they are." Qui-Gon paused. "They used to control a small system of planets." He shrugged, trying to lessen the weight of the memories, keep his distance for a little while longer. "They wanted to control more. As the Republic's Ambassador, they thought I might know more of a nearby system's defenses than I did and where the Heir might live." He nodded back at the table, indicating that Obi-Wan should sit, folding himself back down to serve more tea. His hands trembled as he did; he watched Obi-Wan glance at them as he poured, knew that Obi-Wane could read his tension in that as easily as if it had been spoken aloud. "Their plan was to kill him and take his sisters hostage as bargaining chips for future negotiations. They decided to persuade me to help them in their quest."
Obi-Wan seemed to be unable to tear his gaze from Qui-Gon's skin, finally shaking his head to break the spell before settling down at the table. "It looks like...you look like...like someone used you as a canvas for a painting."
"They did." Qui-Gon acknowledged Obi-Wan's insight with a slight smile before he went on. "Denshi, Lord of the Quong-sha, took a particular interest in me. The guards flayed the skin from my feet to make sure I could not walk without pain if I some how managed to escape."
Carefully he poured the tea into cups and set one at Obi-Wan's right hand with a small clay dish of spiced guarnam on his left. He focused on performing the tasks precisely, all at once understanding that this must be how Obi-Wan felt, what drove him to be so precise, as if the slightest variation could bring the whole thing crashing down on him again. "My arms were then locked over my head, and Lord Denshi would come in to inspect his work of the day before. What he liked, he kept, and what displeased him...he painted over with neuplast."
His voice drifted. He had not spoken of this to anyone save the healers four years ago; perhaps his own shame was what had lead to Obi-Wan's pain. Perhaps his desire to shield Obi-Wan, to block those memories, meant that the bond had never fully formed, though he believed it had. Their bond had started deep, but lacked the mind speech of the perfect Master-Padawan bond, and that had not changed since the day he had accepted Obi-Wan as his apprentice -- again, something contrary to common wisdom. The bonds were supposed to strengthen over time, as Master and student grew to trust each other. Perhaps his own inability to trust had been the start of what went wrong on Milara, leaving the bond unstable and open to the force of the Crystlefire.
Obi-Wan was looking at him, his eyes full of concern, and Qui-Gon was no longer certain of his own choices. Telling this story would be a first step, and he wanted -- needed -- to make sure Obi-Wan understood what had happened, needed to try and mend what he had broken through his own ignorance and pride, needed to try to...give him some hope.
He took a deep breath and let it out, centering himself. "I stood, the soles of my feet aching and torn, while he waited for it to heal, but I was not allowed to move; he would paint over his favorites from the day before, adding more detail, perfecting it." He tried to stop himself from grimacing, but thought better of it and let himself show his true emotion for the first time. It needed to come out; Obi-Wan needed to know he was not alone. "Once the neuplast set, he would paint a different image on his canvas, creating new shapes and forms of whatever pleased him." Pain lived in him again, and Qui-Gon found himself sweating from the memories, his mouth dry, the glide of the brush on his skin echoing in his mind.
This was too much right now; he needed to bring back his distance. It was too hard to keep talking calmly. He carefully speared a piece of guarnam and popped the bite into his mouth, savoring the pungent flavor, letting the juice give him strength. "As to the how, I never knew. A form of acid, the healers said, though it never ate away his brush. It merely ate through my skin."
His eyes focused on Obi-Wan's face as he tried to explain why it had taken him so long to speak of this. "I screamed each time he painted me, Obi-Wan, and each morning when my feet were torn. I cried openly, unable to find within myself any sort of calm. I was as a child." Another slow deep breath, another slow exhale, centering himself in the moment, letting his fear wash through him and back into the Force. "There is no shame in what I did, nor in what happened to you. We survived. We live with what happened and count ourselves lucky to still have a life to go back to."
And deal with whatever consequences come.
He picked up his cup and sipped at his tea before carefully setting it back in its place. "I sought to protect you from what had happened, and for that, I am sorry. I was able to hold the barriers through everything, but I should have let them down when I returned. You had a right to know."
Obi-Wan looked at him, his gaze softer than it had been before. "What happened to the Heir?"
"They found him and killed him." He closed his eyes and swallowed, the memory of the boy's torn and broken body still etched in his mind. The child had been the same age as Obi-Wan at the time. "His sisters also died."
He caught the way Obi-Wan kept looking at him, equal parts fear and fascination written on his face. Qui-Gon wanted to laugh, but he knew that would be inappropriate at the moment, his own fears evaporating and leaving him a little light-headed as Obi-Wan showed nothing worse than empathy and concern. He stood and threw his arms wide. "Come, touch them. They are nothing more than skin."
Obi-Wan stood and hesitantly ran his hands over the scars where the flesh had re-knit itself, leaving behind a pale ridge of tissue. "Why do you keep them?"
The words were gentle, curious, undemanding. Tentatively, Obi-Wan's fingers ghosted across his flesh like a benediction, a blessing. There was no censure in his touch, no anger -- no disgust. Something fell away within Qui-Gon, a treasured fear he hadn't even known he'd hoarded: that Obi-Wan would see his torn flesh and turn away in horror.
But his calmness, his gentleness, belied that fear, and Qui-Gon felt the dragon die. "For one, Lord Denshi honored me with his work. These are the images he drew the most deeply into my skin, his favorites, and there is a type of grace in them, despite the pain they caused." He took another deep breath as Obi-Wan's touch grew more aggressive, more sure, as if memorizing each line etched in his flesh. "For another, they are a lesson, a reminder of my own arrogance. And finally," he paused, feeling at the edges of his words, finding the truth in them, "once I finished healing, this was all that was left of my ordeal. It changed me." Qui-Gon laid his hand over Obi-Wan's, stilling the restless stroking. He curled his fingers around Obi-Wan's, embracing them, then releasing them. "I have become what I am because of them. They are a part of me." He slid his hand up Obi-Wan's arm. "I accept them and have learned to appreciate their beauty."
Just as I have learned to ignore yours.
Obi-Wan could not tear his eyes away from the pictures carved into Qui-Gon's body. Strong fingers cupped his chin, forcing him to look up from the marked flesh and into his Master's eyes.
"Not everyone is so lucky. Not all scars can be seen."
The intensity of his Master's gaze drilled into him, igniting a fire left untended too long.
"There is no disgrace in having scars, Obi-Wan, only in letting them channel your life in a direction you would not otherwise choose. Do not follow my example in this. Do not learn to hide yours."
The connection between them -- sharp, tight, and ill-used -- stretched and trembled under the intensity of shared emotion, almost as if it were trying to re-tune itself, only to twist and shatter, leaving Obi-Wan with a pounding headache that throbbed with each beat of his heart. He dropped his eyes from Qui-Gon's and turned away, his hand coming to rest at his side, his thoughts a morass of a thousand different things.
He needed to get out of here, get away from the heat and the water for a bit, have a chance to breathe before his stomach rebelled again. He grabbed onto the first thing he thought of: "I will fetch dinner."
The hand fell away, and Qui-Gon's voice was gentle when he spoke, soft with disappointment...and pain. "I will wait."
Obi-Wan nodded, not looking at Qui-Gon in any way, nor at the small bowls of uneaten delicacies left sitting on the table. He fled the room like a first-year student, unwilling to deal with what had not been said.
He brought back bowls of rice and a clear broth soup, plain and simple fare. Qui-Gon had dressed again in his new black robe, but there was no belt to wear with it now. The old bowls had been cleared away and the ledge cleaned; all that was left was the scent of the cedar trees.
Qui-Gon had moved the table closer to the stream, where it was cooler and the ventilation better. Obi-Wan set the tray down on it and sat next to Qui-Gon, neither one looking at the other.
They ate in silence, listening to the soothing restlessness of the water as Obi-Wan tried to piece his thoughts together. Qui-Gon's words had changed something for him, and he found himself looking around the room, filtering what he saw through new eyes. The room still held the beauty it had before, but now he found himself focusing on the tiny flaws and imperfections that he had not seen, and to him, they seemed...beautiful.
The room was constructed so that it had a regulated growing season, a natural cycle for the plants that lived here, tended by the younger of the Jedi-in-training, getting them used to the feel of the Force in all living things. In the far corner, the flowers had died, wilted on the vine. To the left, what should have been a perfectly smooth rock showed its cracks, marked by the weather of its home planet, enhancing its character. The path that led to the garden was imperfect, as well, the glossy surface and mosaic pattern irregular in places, showing the marks of craftsmanship, rather than manufacture, and the rattan walls that partitioned off the various meditation rooms were weathered and grey from the terraformed rain.
Obi-Wan contemplated it all, seeing how the variations added to the solace of the place, rather than tearing it apart. The scars added a type of harmony to the environment, showing the places where nature walked in a world that owed more to multiple facets of engineering than any sort of stewardship.
They finished their meal, companionable at the last, and formally bowed to one another.
The bow was one of equals.
Spring brought the thaw, and the living ice kestrel young were raised by any and all of adults in the rookery, taught to fly and to hunt, and to evade predators. At the beginning of summer, the adults migrated to lush hunting grounds inland, while the young were left on their own.
The strongest ones survived.
Still thinking, Obi-Wan walked slowly back to his room. What did it all mean, that Qui-Gon would reveal this at last to him? And how had he managed to hide the scars for so long? Since Obi-Wan was sixteen...
A smile crept onto his face as he remembered that year and his growing fascination with sex. It was only natural, and everyone assumed that he would develop a crush...or two. And there might be a few dozen dreams...his brow furrowed in thought. He quickly shook his head and paced back to his room. That was how Qui-Gon had managed to hide it, because at sixteen, Obi-Wan had been given his own room, Qui-Gon requesting the suite be remodeled so Obi-Wan would have his own bathroom. He'd assumed it was because Qui-Gon was being solicitous of his privacy, which was true, but it had also allowed Qui-Gon to have more privacy of his own. Every world they were on for the next three years they'd had separate quarters, and on transports, as well. In fact, the only time they'd shared a room was...Milara, right before the rescue.
That time was such a blank to him, from the drugs and the fever of withdrawal, that he could barely remember a thing. A few flashes of sound, some faces, the image of a bird -- he assumed that it was the bird on the wall that Qui-Gon had told him about, but in his mind, the bird looked different. Smaller, for one thing, maybe the width of three fingers, rather than the spread of Qui-Gon's hand.
He needed to think, to meditate, to understand the reason for this -- change. Something had changed between them in that room, and Obi-Wan was determined to find out why.
Unfortunately, the necessary serenity for a trance eluded him. Obi-Wan's mind jumped from image to thought to sound to sensation at a Force-enhanced pace. Part of him felt betrayed at Qui-Gon's lack of trust in not mentioning this earlier, and part of him felt soothed that Qui-Gon had been so concerned about him that he had hidden his pain away. He smiled wryly to himself. Perfect trust, perfect love -- no one lives an ideal.
Accepting the inevitable, he rolled out of the seated meditation position and stood, pacing over to the window in his flat. From here, he had a view of one of the large inner courtyards; he watched a few people moving through the space. He was lucky, he knew, to have drawn this room -- luck, and a little bit of rank, truth to tell. If their Masters recommended it, older Padawans were offered new rooms as they became available, and then it was simply the luck of the draw. So now, he had a perfect spot from which to view temple life, to watch the Masters, Padawans, and Knights flit by beneath him, each of them focused on some particular goal.
What was his goal?
He turned away from the window and paced back to the center of the room, his arms folded around himself. He wanted to be free of pain, but that seemed an almost futile wish. Pain pointed to a problem, a weakness that should be dealt with, something that needed to be resolved. He had spent the last year doing just that; yet the pain remained. Lesser, no longer constant, but it remained. To want the absence of something seemed very negative, and negative was always wrong.
He was wrong to want his own freedom from pain; he should learn to accept. He shook his head and walked to his common room and sat down on the bench. He rested his hands on his legs, then closed his eyes, trying to think.
What was it permitted to want?
Peace, Love, Happiness. An end to suffering. He smiled wryly and ran his hand through his hair to the ends of his unbound braid. Just not his own suffering.
His smile faded, the bleak humor drying up as fast as it had fallen. He had no goals, no dreams at the moment. All he'd wanted was to be a Jedi, to be someone's apprentice and then a Knight, helping where his talents fit best.
But it hadn't been just anyone's apprentice, had it? He'd wanted to be Qui-Gon Jinn's. A man who trusted rarely, who had many acquaintances and few friends, whose first apprentice had turned to the dark side and tried to destroy them, a man who kept a thousand secrets hidden away where they could never be seen. A man for whom the highest form of praise seemed to be "acceptable."
No wonder they had never formed a proper bond.
He pushed a couple of the pillows behind him, staring at the wooden floor as he thought. Was he still looking for that perfect bond, the one where they could mind-speak to each other? Is that why he couldn't let go? There had to be something more.
His black humor returned, and Obi-Wan laughed at himself. It would be so easy, wouldn't it, to blame Qui-Gon? To deny his own responsibility in this, to lay it on Qui-Gon's broad -- and willing -- shoulders. No, for the bond to form the way it had, there had to be secrets on both sides. His job should be to ferret out his own thoughts.
He closed his eyes and drew in a breath, remembering the moment Qui-Gon had started to remove his tunic. He searched through himself, letting his consciousness focus on his own reactions at the time -- hurt, betrayal, a touch more surprise, astonishment, joy --
Surprise propelled him up off the bench, and he whirled around to stare at it, as if he had just been bitten. How long had those feelings been with him? Had that really been the reason he stayed? He was Jedi because he had to be to stay at Qui-Gon's side.
The instant he thought it, he knew it wasn't the entire truth. He was Jedi because -- because he needed to belong. For the last year, he'd focused on that goal, working as hard as he could to be the perfect Jedi, to be able to remain in some form within the order.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught an image of himself in the mirror on the closed bathroom door, his own body swaddled in the near-shapeless Jedi garb, only neck, head, and hands really exposed. He looked at himself as an outsider for once, seeing only the symbol of his station and not the person beneath. How long had it been since he had allowed himself out of the uniform, since he had allowed himself to be other than a Jedi?
His reflection drew him like the flicker of candlelight as Obi-Wan tried to see something in himself that was not defined by the role he had taken. He reached out his hand to touch the glass, feeling how cool it was where the image of his cheek and his lips would be. He turned his head to the left and the right, looking for something, anything, that made him an individual separate from the other Padawans -- but all he saw was a variation on a thousand others, a formless, shapeless man, a rack for the clothing of a Jedi.
Was this perfection, he wondered, to be indistinguishable, interchangeable with another, to lack all identifying marks--
He turned his head and saw it, the mole that flawed his skin. He'd seen no other Jedi with that. It became a race, somehow, for him to strip out of his uniform and find the few marks and scars that had not been erased, the bits and pieces of imperfection that proved to him that he was real and human, and not a drone.
He stood naked in front of the mirror, breathing fast, his hands skimming over his own body, smooth skin of his chest, unscarred with achingly beautiful pictures. How different he looked from Qui-Gon.... His hand drifted lower, and he began to touch himself, stroking his slowly growing erection.
What would Qui-Gon look like if he were the one in front of the mirror now, stroking himself like this? With his reserve set aside for once, letting himself be watched? Or perhaps doing the watching?
The images were exciting, just the thought of Qui-Gon being so...naked made Obi-Wan's heart pound. Naked physically, yes, but more. He remembered the look on Qui-Gon's face as he had taken off his robe, how open and vulnerable he'd been, stripping like that. He could not remember ever seeing his Master--
Before the pain could start, he diverted his thoughts. Qui-Gon, he thought to himself. Images overlaid themselves in his mind -- his own naked body reflected in the mirror, Qui-Gon's form as he'd seen it four years before, perfect and idealized with the softened edges of time and teenage worship, and the way he'd seen him today, tired and worn, with scars painted on his skin.
In his mind, the images merged, leaving a vision of Qui-Gon naked in front of him, healthy, strong, and scarred. The power of his own reaction shocked him, his cock hardening completely, his almost negligent touches turning insistent.
Yes, he wanted this, wanted Qui-Gon.
He brushed his nipple with one hand as he abruptly fisted his cock with the other, then slid his hand down his chest to cup his balls. Qui-Gon's words in the garden had somehow released something he'd bottled up inside himself, something he'd forgotten he'd wanted, something he'd never noticed in Qui-Gon, his 'perfect' Master.
Need and desire merged in his mind, his hands stroking, pushing him closer to the edge. His head lolled back as his breathing churned itself in large shuddering gasps. He felt his balls tighten as he imagined Qui-Gon's hands on him, and he wondered, briefly, intimately, what Qui-Gon's body would feel like under his own...and what his body looked like when he came.
The thought, the final trigger, pushed his body to its peak. He could feel the liquid pulling up out of his balls, felt his cock harden more in his hands, jerked and thrust with the power of orgasm. His eyes fluttered open and shut, his body hot and tight as if caught in a beam of light -- then it all tumbled down.
His legs weakened, and Obi-wan slipped to the floor, gasping like a man who had nearly drowned. His vision splintered again, but this time, there was little pain. He waited patiently, let himself come back together, his muscles stabilizing, his breathing regular, before he even attempted to sit up.
The image of Qui-Gon was gone now, only his own image stared back. Obi-Wan couldn't help but grin and laugh at himself; he was a mess. He rolled onto his side, stood, and stretched. He hadn't done that in a while, he thought, not any of it. He opened the bathroom door and walked to the shower, turning it on as he sifted through his memories.
Back in Qui-Gon's suite, the quiet seemed louder than blaster fire, and his novel far from distracting. The remnants of yesterday's dinner sat on a plate next to him, reheated and allowed to grow cold once again while his glass of ice water had grown warm. Qui-Gon found himself unable to focus on anything tonight, not food, not entertainment. He just could not let go of the day's revelations. His mind replayed everything that had happened on Milara over and over, showing him how he had failed. If only he had not been so weak, there might have been something he could have done.
He was the Master, after all. His was the burden if anything went wrong.
His was the need to be perfect.
A flicker of anger surged through him; he automatically re-channeled the feeling into positive thought.
He could not drive the memories from his mind and finally had to accept that this was his night's entertainment. He turned from his desk and settled himself on the floor to meditate, hoping that it would lead somewhere. His memories of that time were tainted. They had merged and blended with the ones that Obi-Wan had sent him -- unshielded and drugged, his projection at ten times the normal force -- and he could not separate the two.
Qui-Gon wandered in a world of his own nightmares.
His mistake. His failure. His thrice-damned legacy to the one he loved above all. His throat tasted of ashes at the memory, and Qui-Gon forced himself to relax. He'd tried to repair the damage, once he was no longer under mental assault, only to learn exactly what had happened while Obi-Wan had been in the smugglers' care. His regret had weighed upon him like a grinding stone as Obi-Wan's pain and despair laid themselves over him like a sackcloth, his Padawan's mind capable of asking only one thing: Please. Let me go. He had cried, then, not able to touch what was now so broken, had tried to repair what he could...to no avail. When he could not stand the despair any more, he had finally given in.
Jedi lore said that when a perfect bond was broken, the two Jedi who carried that bond died instantly. Such hubris to place his trust in a fairy tale, such arrogance to believe their bond to be perfect. Was it any wonder that he had failed? The rescue ships had arrived less than a day later, to find them both comatose and near death. How lucky they both were to have survived.
His choices after that seemed to only make matters worse. He had let Obi-Wan go because he could not bear to see the reminders of what he had done, of how he had failed them both. He'd believed -- wanted to believe -- that the healers at the temple could correct what he had done, heal the shattered bond. But seeing Obi-Wan here, feeling his pain, knowing that he himself was the cause....
The Council was right. All remnants of their bonding must be eradicated; this broken, scarred bond was slowly killing them both.
This time, the ache he felt was far worse than when he'd found Obi-Wan in the tunnels, worse than when Obi-Wan declared his intention to go. He knew the emptiness would diminish in time -- as it had so many times before -- but for now he sought his peace in ritual, hoping that by re-grounding himself in the Force, he could find some island of peace in his sea of unease.
Obi-Wan entered the practice field hall, a little startled to find it nearly deserted. He removed his outer robe and took care to stretch, letting his muscles warm up. He couldn't help smiling, as if his spirit were taking flight after a long winter, yet nothing new had happened.
Nothing at all, except he and Qui-Gon had talked. That in and of itself seemed a small blessing of the Force.
The door opened again, and Obi-Wan looked up, watching as Qui-Gon strode into the room. A ripple of contentment went through him; even though they'd had no plans to meet on the practice field, it was as if he'd been expecting Qui-Gon to appear. He looked the same as yesterday -- no, not the same. The slightly hollow look was gone, though he still didn't look like he was sleeping. Obi-Wan nodded at him, and Qui-Gon nodded back; they would fight each other, something they had not done in a year.
Qui-Gon removed his robes.
A few gasps and the buzz of conversation among the other combatants surged like a wave through the room. Qui-Gon looked nowhere else, only at Obi-Wan, as he started his own stretches.
Qui-Gon had kept this hidden for years. Why was he so open about it now? Ashamed, wishing that in some way he could match Qui-Gon's openness, he glanced away -- only to immediately be drawn back by the mere presence of his Master.
Was Qui-Gon so open? Obi-Wan considered the question, his optimism from last night dissipating under the cold light of day. Qui-Gon made no move to talk to him now, kept to himself at the far side of the arena. Perhaps there was something more. Obi-Wan turned away, running through their last conversation in his mind, picking it apart, applying the techniques of clear thinking to what had been said.
Then he turned those same processes to what had gone unsaid. Qui-Gon had given him the perfect gift, a chance to see someone else who'd been broken, who'd learned to accept it calmly and rationally and integrate it into his life.
Except -- that's not what he had seen. The scars showed him a man tied to his past, who couldn't let go. He'd carried his imprisonment with him for four years and had never mentioned it to Obi-Wan at all.
This from a man who'd practically abandoned his Padawan after a similar event. What was going on? Why was he making the choice to show them now? What had changed--
Or were they serving another purpose?
Obi-Wan focused intently on Qui-Gon and realized that right now, all he saw were the scars. He had to force himself to look away, to look at the man behind them. He thought about that idea for a moment, about the scars as a form of disguise. The surface calm, the chaos underneath; Qui-Gon was as fragmented as the meditation gardens. The more he considered it, the more certain he felt.
His Master had something to hide.
Obi-Wan drew a breath, waiting for the pain...less this time, thankfully. Why, he wondered again, standing fully upright, preparing himself for battle. Why before, and why now?
Too many concerns for the moment, since it was their turn to take the field.
The scars suited Qui-Gon, moving as he moved, like a predator bird taking flight. Obi-Wan noticed it absently as they started through their paces, moving faster and more surely the longer they were together, pieces meshing almost perfectly, but not quite, as if a gear were slightly off true. Intoxicated by the freedom of movement he allowed himself, he wanted to laugh. He tried a leap he would not have used with anyone else and sailed by Qui-Gon, who moved a little too slowly to catch him in time, landing behind him and turning before Qui-Gon could attack.
He froze as he caught sight of one of the birds painted there -- and his mind splintered again, his blood pounding in his temples, the world shattered and receding around him. Voices echoed within him, just as they had when he'd had to mine Crystlefire. "There is no other answer, Ser Jedi. You must leave him. All of the miners--"
That was a woman's voice, not young, not old, and his mind fed him the image of the Milaran healer. "They die, Master Qui-Gon. The drug drives them mad, and they die. There is no hope for it."
"I will find him, I will bring him back." Qui-Gon's voice, assured...yet not. Strange how he could remember nuances in the tone that he so rarely heard in reality: pain, anguish, frustration, reassurance. More than that, though, the words had etched themselves in his mind, bypassing thought and connecting straight into his soul.
It was as if he'd never heard Qui-Gon speak before, as if his voice had somehow gathered all the colors and depth of a painted landscape and fused them into his speech.
The image frustrated him, strained and angular like the rest of his world. Obi-Wan wished he could see his Master, but nothing was clear -- except for the voice. He had to guess at what he saw.
"How?" The woman's voice had grown quiet, and she laid an arm on Qui-Gon's shoulder. "Through your dreams? They are from dust, not a true vision." She handed Qui-Gon a comlink. "Call your ships. If they are fast, there might be time. Better to save a few than lose them all."
He strained to see more, and the world shifted again, this time becoming...an elsewhere that Obi-Wan could not remember ever having seen. A man with long black hair, faceted eyes, and sallow skin, his features long and sharp as knives, holding a brush in his hand. "An artist signs his work."
A movement, a feather light touch against his skin, inscribing a figure -- a bird -- nestled against the base of his cock. The brush felt soft and gentle, stroking some sort of liquid on his skin. The liquid lay against him as it had been painted, growing hotter and more painful as the seconds past, searing his skin until he knew that blisters were forming, his flesh weeping as it tried to save itself, save him, from that fire...
His cry was answered by another. "Obi-Wan. OBI-WAN."
Qui-Gon's voice called to him, but it was different now. The texture and depth was gone, and only a fraction of the emotional resonance remained. Obi-Wan realized that there were hands on his shoulders, shaking him, holding him -- and that the world was coming back into focus. "I'm all right," he whispered, pulling away from Qui-Gon's touch. "I'll be fine. It's been worse."
His horizon became a dozen pairs of feet, the other combatants from the field. They pulled away, letting him rise by himself, not offering their assistance.
He probably would have snapped at them if they had. He'd certainly done enough of that this past year. Master Billaba had pulled Qui-Gon aside and was talking to him in a low voice. Obi-Wan wasn't sure if it was about his seizure, or Qui-Gon's appearance, or even a little of both, but Qui-Gon had his arms crossed in front of his chest like a recalcitrant child, and Master Billaba stabbed at the air with her fingers.
Feeling stable, Obi-Wan waved off the healer's questions, his mind already searching through what he'd just experienced. This attack had been different from the others he remembered, yet there was something that nagged at him, similar to something that had happened before.
He looked back at Qui-Gon, who was staring back at him, determination in his face, the scars covering his body.
He'd never seen the scar he'd felt, knew that had never happened to him.
It had happened to Qui-Gon, four years before, with the Quong-sha.
How had that memory come to be his? What exactly had happened on Milara?
He settled back against the wall of the practice hall, out of the way of the other participants, and took a deep, centering breath. He let go of his feelings and his need to be aware. This room was safe; no harm would come to him here. A light trance was easy to slip into -- he'd been doing it for years -- and it took only a few more breaths to move him into a deep trance state.
Guards. A camp. The Crystlefire ore. The way it burned his skin, lungs, and eyes. The red-tinged eyes staring at him from a hundred corpses. Burning the bodies, the ash mixing with the drug, scattering over the camp like feathers, or snow, smothering them, everything the same, dark and cold, even in the heat of summer--
Other than the light of Qui-Gon's fire.
His eyes snapped open. The images made no sense, and while he'd been looking within himself, Qui-Gon had slipped away. He stared at where Qui-Gon had been. There was a riddle here, something hidden that wished to be revealed. The Force would have its way.
From the back of the arena, Qui-Gon watched the healers approach Obi-Wan. His first instinct was to go over himself, to see if there was something he could do, but Master Depa Billaba was quite explicit. "Leave him alone. He had not had an attack in months until you arrived. Your presence is causing whatever is left of your bond to act up."
So rather than do as he wanted, he did what he was told, as he had so very often, and left the arena. He had not managed three paces away from the training arena before she called after him. "Qui-Gon Jinn." Her words caught him in mid-stride, her strong, low voice carrying easily through the halls. "I would have a word with you, Master Jinn."
What words now, he wondered. He sank back against the wall of the hallway and waited for her to catch up, accepting her right in this.
He'd been -- pleased -- to see Obi-Wan at the practice arena, and gratified when Obi-Wan indicated he wanted to fight. They were moving forward, and Qui-Gon had not wanted to do anything that might stop that momentum.
He had wanted this morning to be like it used to be, when they'd first sparred together on the temple grounds. Instead, he'd been treated to a dramatic presentation of why things were not normal and probably never would be again. He closed his eyes and waited, listening to Master Billaba talk to the healer just outside of the arena grounds, letting the cool marble wall support him with its slow-moving Force. The cold seeped into his shoulders and back, traveling down to his legs and feet, rooting him, calming him in stillness. It was as the Force willed it.
The noise of her boots rang out in the hallway, and Qui-Gon stood up again, his eyes open and clear. As long as Obi-Wan came through this, let himself be human again, that was all he could hope for. The mechanical creature he'd first met at the temple made him shudder, remembering the softness of Obi-Wan's smile and the warm sexual grace he'd once exuded as he moved.
The grace had still been there when he practiced, but the playfulness, the mischievous charm in it, had all been gone. The Jedi had too many dour Masters as it was; he did not want Obi-Wan to join them...
Master Billaba was staring at him. "You know your duty in this, Master Jinn. Why do you shirk it?"
Trapped, Qui-Gon turned in the hall to face her, threading his hands across his chest and into the sleeves of the over-tunic he wore. "Master Billaba. I thought you had finished your lecture in the training room." He nodded toward the door out of which she had just come. "You made your views quite plain."
"Not plain enough, I think." Her dark eyes sparked with fury. "Your apprentice is your responsibility."
He held up his hand. "I know. And I made sure the healers--"
"That is not what I am talking about, and you know it. These deliberate misunderstandings are beneath you."
Qui-Gon grabbed her arm and gently pulled her out of the path of a group of students filing into the training room. "I think it would be best if we held this discussion elsewhere, Master. Unless you care to have the whole of the temple knowing our business."
"The whole of the temple already knows about this, Master Jinn, and none of us have any stomach for it. You have overstepped your bounds, you know, treating him the way you have. You must let go of the bond." Her voice softened. "Can't you see it's killing him? It's time to let go." She laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Let him be free."
"I have done what I can."
"Have you?" she looked at him steadily. "You swore for so many years never to take another Padawan, struggled and fought it, even knowing that that was the will of the Council -- Obi-Wan had to be special for you to break your vow."
"Obi-Wan has been a good student, a fine apprentice. He will make a great Jedi some day."
"Qui-Gon -- he is a great Jedi," her voice hardened. "Midichlorians don't lie, the possibility exists within him. He must be allowed to reach his full potential." She lifted her chin and glared at him. "You are holding him back. As long as your bond lays upon him, he is hampered, hobbled like an animal in a pen. You cannot keep him at your side forever, you know. He has to move on."
"Don't you think I've tried?"
"No, Master Jinn, I don't. If you truly wanted to set him free, you would have by now. The fact that this bond remains -- despite what you've seen it do to him -- is just a sign of your own selfishness." She flipped her cloak away from him as she stepped back into the hall. "Have a care that such self-serving behavior does not lead you to the dark side."
She turned and left him, her condemnation as just, meet, and right as anything he'd ever heard. Anger flared again -- anger at Master Billaba, Obi-Wan, the world, and himself; Qui-Gon quickly contained it. He was the Master in this; his was the duty, the sacrifice. There had to be something that he'd missed. Some teaching, some story, a legend perhaps...
...something from his childhood. The stones whispered to him, told him what to look for. The iron and steel in the walls lent energy to him, speeding him on his way. Light and glass and the dust in the air fueled him, moving him, and Qui-Gon found himself running for his rooms.
The Left Hand path. He had been one of the last to be taught those beliefs, before he had been caught up in the creation of the creches and the standardization of the Jedi way. Turn to the mind, insight and logic to lead all.
This, though, was a matter of heart.
He soared to the door of his suite, not noticing anyone in his passage. He flung off his overtunic and turned on the reader, trying to find the records from the small temple on the planet where he'd been born. The Master there had been an old woman, trained in the Left Hand path. Perhaps her records might lead him to other sources, other texts that might show him how to help.
At least it gave him a place to start. He would do whatever he could to ensure Obi-Wan's survival.
Obi-Wan turned off his reader and sat back in his chair, rubbing at his eyes. He wasn't sure how long he'd been reading, but it was far longer than was wise. He stood up and walked into the kitchen, pouring himself a glass of water and gulping it down. His eyes ached, and his neck hurt from being hunched over for so long as he read; why had he never adjusted the desk and chair so it would all fit?
He had read through his old medical records and every record they had of Milara. And once he'd done with that, he'd read about the Quong-sha and what had happened years ago.
The whole thing made him sick. It was worse than Qui-Gon had let on in the garden, and that alone was enough for a lifetime of nightmares. Why was it impossible for his Master to ever ask for help?
And why was it so hard for Obi-Wan to offer?
Qui-Gon had looked after him after Milara. He had never been abandoned. Throughout his medical records were notes of conversations between the healers and Qui-Gon, requests for status reports and evidence of concern for what Obi-Wan needed. Not once had anyone mentioned it to him.
Not once had he bothered to ask.
Where was that perfect Jedi calm that he'd spent the last year working on? Right now, all he wanted to do was grab Qui-Gon and shake him and insist he tell the truth about what had happened, all of it.
He was shaking so hard, he clenched his hands around the glass trying to let the feelings go. He felt sick at heart at what he had not read in the records. There was no history of Qui-Gon's attacks, yet in the reports he'd read of Qui-Gon's last missions, the evidence was there. Not as bad as Obi-Wan's, but bad enough.
Jedi didn't get angry, though. Jedi found a way to understand.
So, what was he missing? He set the glass back down on the counter and picked up a tablet of paper from his desk, then sat back down on the bench, stylus in hand. Sometimes, words confused an issue, made it harder to see. He closed his eyes and centered himself, opening his mind's eye to the Force. He let himself be directed, let his hand move across the paper, copying down the image that was given to him.
When he opened his eyes again, he'd drawn a small picture -- a bird in flight. It resembled Qui-Gon's scars in some vague way, yet it was not any of those he'd seen.
He stared at it, his stomach turning to acid. He knew where this scar would be, knew, too, that it was no longer there.
How did he know?
He tried to calm himself, pulling his legs up and tucking them under himself as he stared at the paper. He had to have gotten that image from the bond, yet Qui-Gon insisted he'd stayed shielded. So how had he--?
Eyes wide, the hair standing up on the back on his head, Obi-Wan swallowed convulsively. In the mines, he'd reached out time and again for Qui-Gon, he remembered that. He'd always assumed there had been no answer...
He stared at the picture he'd drawn, wishing he could erase it, erase what he knew. So at least once, he'd been answered.
But he hadn't been able to listen.
The invitation was plain, the paper hand-made: meet me in the garden at dusk. Qui-Gon carefully folded it back along its original creases and placed it in a position of honor on his desk, next to the small basket of stones he had found in the rivers of many worlds. He pulled his robe closed and contemplated the meaning of the note: Obi-Wan wished to meet again.
While part of him took flight, the rest of him felt as heavy as the rocks, sinking deeper into the water of his emotions. He'd found hints of what he wanted, but it wasn't enough. He couldn't be sure that any of it would work. He looked down at his notes, to see what he would need to do--
Qui-Gon laughed, a low, rumbling sound that he hadn't made in a long while. Written at the top of his paper was the first lesson of the Left Hand path: The Force existed before language, words, or any definition. It existed before time and space. To understand it, look inside your heart.
He would have to trust his feelings. Oh, Yoda would love that.
He didn't bother with paper this time, merely left a message for Obi-Wan agreeing to meet, but asking that it be in his suite instead. He needed to be centered for what would happen, to be grounded in the present to untangle the past. His room had a shield that could be activated, so that they could both talk freely and experience the depth of their emotions -- an uncomfortable prospect, given their history.
But once the wound was lanced, it could heal. Qui-Gon hoped that the cure would be worth the price.
Obi-Wan stood outside the door of Qui-Gon's suite, his heart pounding against his ribcage. All he had to do was knock.
Actually, he didn't. The door opened before he could do anything; Qui-Gon was waiting.
"Obi-Wan. Come in." Qui-Gon sounded both relieved and anxious.
Good. At least that meant that they were starting from the same place. With a nod and a formal bow, Obi-Wan stepped past him, walking through the narrow entryway into the main common room, and pulled off his boots, setting them near Qui-Gon's. He wanted to look around, to see if Qui-Gon's suite was as empty as his own flat felt. He hadn't been in here since before Milara; the healers had gotten his permission to move most of his personal items to the new place as soon as it had become available.
For the last year he'd believed that Qui-Gon had requested the move; the records, though, revealed that the healer had insisted it was a necessary for his treatment. 'Less chance to spark an attack' read the note. How thoughtful and solicitous everyone had been not to ask what he might want.
"I have some fruit juice and fresh bread if you want them. I promise nothing fancy this time."
Qui-Gon left him, and Obi-Wan stepped into the center of the room. The place looked barren, even though there were many things here. The furniture was as he remembered, the desk that Qui-Gon had built still looked as it always did, inlaid wood gleaming under a coating of hand-rubbed wax. Several brightly colored wall hangings gave the room some warmth, while the rich hand-woven rugs scattered across the floor helped make the place looked lived in -- yet everything seemed too neat. Nothing out of place, nothing in disarray, no chaos.
Funny, he never before would have thought to use those terms to describe his Master.
"You wished to meet." Qui-Gon had entered the room with a tray and set it on a small table in front of the sofa.
Obi-Wan realized he'd been staring and turned around to look at Qui-Gon. "I do," he said carefully. "I have some questions I need to ask." He gestured at the couch. "But it might be best if we sat down."
Qui-Gon nodded. "Let me activate the shielding, first."
Puzzled, Obi-Wan watched as Qui-Gon opened the control panel and punched in a few codes. They hadn't needed to shield the suite in years, not since he was a young Padawan and had not been able to control his emotions. Was Qui-Gon afraid that he could not control his feelings now?
Turning away from the panel, Qui-Gon caught his eyes. "Some of what we must talk about will probably be uncomfortable for me." He took a deep breath and released it, as if already anticipating what would happen. "I would not want to share those feelings with the rest of the temple." He moved deliberately to a spot on the floor opposite Obi-Wan's seat and knelt down before him. "You may ask me anything in here, and I will answer. Our paths must be clear for any healing to work."
Obi-Wan stared at him, at the way his long hair spilled around him unconfined, his black tunic wrapped lightly, so that the scars could be seen. Compassion and vulnerability were written in his eyes and in the pulse of the Force around him; it was a heady feeling, like a drug.
"I cannot promise not to hurt you," Obi-Wan said softly.
Qui-Gon responded in kind. "All I ask is that you be open with me."
"I will." The words held the weight of a vow, and Obi-Wan knew the time had come. He pulled out the picture he'd drawn and laid it on the table. "Last night, when I was meditating, I saw this." He ran his finger over the paper, tracing the outline of the bird with his index finger. "Somehow, I knew that this was one of the scars he'd drawn on you. I remember seeing it happen."
He looked over at Qui-Gon, needing to know. "It's gone now, isn't it? You had it removed."
"Yes." No arguments, no distractions, just a simple statement of fact. "I didn't want to be marked as his property."
He'd thought the words would hold enough power that he could let this go, but it was as if his own skin held the memory of what had happened. Obi-Wan needed more than to know with his mind that it was gone; he needed to see it, feel it, know deep inside himself that it was gone. "Would you -- take off your clothes and let me see where it was?"
There was no hesitation in Qui-Gon's movements as he stood, unknotting his belt and setting it aside, but Obi-Wan couldn't stand to see him looking vulnerable again. "Let me help," he said, offering this time, not needing to be asked.
"Thank you," Qui-Gon said softly, brushing his fingers on Obi-Wan's cheek. "It will make it easier, I think."
Obi-Wan slid his hands up Qui-Gon's chest, his hands folding under Qui-Gon's robes, letting the soft material caress the backs of his hands. Hesitantly, as if he were unwrapping a fragile gift, he edged the material off Qui-Gon's shoulders and let it drop to the floor, surrounding them like a muddy lake. He scooped it up and tossed it on the chair, adding a hint of chaos to the too-perfect room, knocking a pen and a brush off the desk at the same time. He then grabbed Qui-Gon's pants from him and did the same, adding a sheaf of papers to the pile.
Qui-Gon stood naked when he turned around.
Obi-Wan swallowed. For some reason, he felt more hesitant now, as if in discovering how much he desired Qui-Gon, his body had become off-limits. He looked, but didn't touch this time, almost as if he was awaiting permission. The scars were etched down Qui-Gon's legs and up his arms, across his back, chest, and flanks.
But the one he was looking for wasn't there; he knew it was someplace else.
He knelt before Qui-Gon, and looked up at him, his mouth dry. "May I touch you?"
There was a hitch in Qui-Gon's voice, an almost pleading sound that Obi-Wan felt more than heard. "I -- would not mind -- your touch."
Obi-Wan quickly brushed his hands over some of hardened tissue, searching where he had not looked. He ran his hands up the hair on Qui-Gon's thighs, brushed his hands against Qui-Gon's flaccid cock, moving it aside. He hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath until it came out in a long, deep sigh.
He leaned over and kissed the place it had been.
Qui-Gon gasped, then stilled, as if the kiss had struck him like lightning.
Obi-Wan looked up; Qui-Gon was staring back down at him, his eyes bright as the midday sky. Their gazes locked. Obi-Wan touched where the scar should have been, felt a hint of moisture left behind by his kiss. "It was right here, wasn't it?"
Another terse answer. Qui-Gon's voice sounded strained, and Obi-Wan realized that he had not spoken during the examination. No wonder he had activated the shields; thinking about what he'd endured had to be painful. Force knew Obi-Wan had grown sick of telling the healers everything he'd known about Milara.
Which, right now, didn't really seem to be all that much. The fact that the bond had been traumatized was documented, but not anything else. Not that he had re-lived Qui-Gon's imprisonment--
He felt a chill creep up his spine. Qui-Gon had probably re-lived his imprisonment, as well. They had both been caught up in the maelstrom of each other's minds.
"An artist signs his work," Obi-Wan muttered softly, stroking the outline of the bird no longer visible on Qui-Gon's flesh. "I'm sorry," he said, standing. "I know that the memories still hurt. But why only this one? Don't the other scars come from being property, as well?"
"Not in the same way." Qui-Gon swallowed again and looked away, but after a moment, he looked directly at Obi-Wan again. "No, I said I would tell you whatever you asked. That one was his mark, his personal badge of ownership. I was his slave."
"Just as I was a slave in the mines of Milara."
"Yes." The word was clipped out, and it gave Obi-Wan pause, like a seeing a crack in what appeared to be a smooth rock. Water had dripped here, worn away the stone. He pressed the issue a little bit more.
"You could not accept that you were owned." Part truth, there, but there had to be more. He opened himself to the Force, let it dictate what he said: "He loved you, didn't he?"
"In his way. As one loves a thing that has no will of its own."
And what, exactly, did that mean? Obi-Wan stood and turned away, picking up the picture he had drawn, a bird the width of three fingers. He set it down again, not quite sure if he were talking about himself, or Qui-Gon, Milara, or the Quong-sha. He wasn't sure that any of it mattered. "Did you love him?"
That answer was direct and emphatic, rebellious and heart-felt. Qui-Gon hated the Quong-sha lord, but he had not had the scars removed.
Because...Jedi don't hate.
Yet Qui-Gon did.
"So you showed your scars to me because you thought--" He ran his hands through his hair, his back still to Qui-Gon, unable to look at him right now, his mind still digesting that last contradiction. "I don't know what you thought. You didn't tell me anything, you just took off your robe and let me see them."
"I thought if you saw them, you'd know."
Obi-Wan turned to face him, unwilling to let the past destroy what they might have. "Know what?"
"Know I wasn't perfect." Qui-Gon's eyes were lit with compassion, a feeling Obi-Wan considered misplaced.
"Then why didn't you say that?" He stalked up to Qui-Gon, tired of all the subtle conversational games. He folded his arms across his chest and stared at Qui-Gon, his feelings almost tangible now. "I saw him paint this, Master, felt it etched into your flesh. What else was I supposed to see, other than a perfect Master dealing perfectly with his failure?"
"I don't know. I just thought...hoped...it would help." Qui-Gon looked stunned, as if it had never occurred to him that Obi-Wan might read something else into such an impulsive act.
"Well, in a way, it did." Obi-Wan smiled wryly at him. "It got me to thinking, at least, even if that wasn't quite what you intended."
Qui-Gon smiled ruefully. "Such are the ways of the Force."
Obi-Wan took a deep breath and pressed on, wishing that he could reach out to their bond and know what Qui-Gon felt; he felt like he was encased in an environmental suit while he tried to do some delicate work, everything large and thick and unresponsive. "Before you told me about the scars, I already knew they existed. I saw them in my dreams, the ones I had after Milara."
He wanted Qui-Gon to tell him he was wrong, that he could not have seen what he thought he had seen, because the only place it could have come was from Qui-Gon's mind -- and the only time that could have happened was on Milara. "In my dreams, I saw."
Qui-Gon looked away, offering no reassurances. "I wish--"
So, it was true. "You wish what?" Obi-Wan tilted his head to the side, his eyes flashing with fire as his stomach ate at itself. "Last night, I read the briefing materials from Milara. Everyone assumed I'd already read them, but I couldn't remember what they were. I didn't really remember the drug and what it had done to me at all."
Obi-Wan perched his hip on the edge of the desk and looked at the ceiling, recalling the exact words he'd seen. "'Crystlefire has made it to the markets of Coruscant. It can enhance a pilot's senses and put them in tune with the Force, as well as those of dock workers and artisans, and anyone else who takes it. The high is reported to be exceptional. Within a day, the addiction has set in; within a week, the mind is usually destroyed; within a month, the user is often dead. A few races last longer, some less, and some are not affected at all.'"
He looked back at Qui-Gon and swallowed. "'In theory, it would enhance the power of a trained Force user immeasurably and take away all control.'" He slipped off his perch and strode forward, his eyes fused with Qui-Gon's. "Is that what happened, my Master? Is that why you tore apart our bond?"
The words were sharp as broken glass and cut more deeply than a laser. Yes. Qui-Gon wanted to shout it, but he couldn't make his throat work; part of him knew it was a lie.
It wasn't just the drug, or the need to protect the Milarans that made him close down the bond. It was--
He swallowed convulsively.
Every vision he'd had, every time Obi-Wan had been in his mind on Milara, he'd taken something. Some thought, some memory, some dream; he had not been allowed to say no. The visitations had been almost--
No, he wouldn't think of it in those terms. That was hysteria and madness, not what had happened.
He had not been raped.
Obi-Wan had needed him. And Qui-Gon had given what he could; it had not been enough.
Obi-Wan waited; Qui-Gon said nothing. Qui-Gon was living in his own head right now, and Obi-Wan wanted to do something to drag him out. Instead, the silence grew. Qui-Gon slowly bowed his head as Obi-Wan looked at him, no longer meeting his gaze, eyes focused on the floor. His shoulders slumped, and Obi-Wan thought he saw them starting to shake.
Still, Qui-Gon said nothing. There wasn't much to say: 'I destroyed you so that the drug could be contained and the people of Milara set free.'
If that were so...Obi-Wan would understand. It was part of what they lived with as Jedi, that at some point, they would each be sacrificed for the good of all. Why couldn't Qui-Gon simply say that?
A whisper of Force spoke to him. Maybe...because Qui-Gon hated it? Hated that he had done it? Hated himself for having done it? Just like he hated the Quong-sha.
He kept the scars.
Pain was very precious to his Master.
He closed his eyes to meditate on the thought. With his eyes closed Obi-Wan felt something else. He centered himself and listened carefully, trying to make out what he heard.
Infinite sadness, despair.
Obi-Wan's eyes flew open, and he spun around to stare at his Master. Qui-Gon looked...defenseless. More than that, shattered, standing naked, alone, in the middle of a nearly empty room. The reason for meeting here dawned on Obi-Wan, the true reason for the suite's shield. Qui-Gon had dropped all his barriers, leaving himself open to whatever came out of the emotional turmoil that existed between them.
Energy swirled around him, tangible to his touch. Hot and cold, welcoming and hostile, gentle breeze and raging tempest, a lattice work of reds, greens, blues, and yellows, color more true than physical sight. Qui-Gon stood in the middle of the room, knowing that if he wanted to, he could reach out and touch the energy threads that danced around him, bring them to him and use them. Make them do what he wanted.
Qui-Gon turned aside the temptation. He needed to explore his emotions, not act on them, nor deny them. He realized he'd been standing for too long, his body locking rigidly in one position, while he let Obi-Wan guide their encounter.
There was nothing to be gained from staying silent; he protected no one like this. The time had come to be present and speak the truth, and to be open to the truth in turn.
Thought made action; Qui-Gon removed his shields.
Anger turned inward, Obi-Wan thought. That's what happened with our bond.
The thought rippled from him out into the Force, and with some astonishment, Obi-Wan felt it slip seamlessly past Qui-Gon's outer shields, into his inner space.
No, not slipping past his shields; there were no shields.
Obi-Wan argued with himself. No Jedi removed all their shields.
Yet Qui-Gon had. He shivered with the strength of his own reaction. He couldn't let Qui-Gon do this alone. "One moment," he said, taking a deep breath and centering himself. "Give me a moment please."
Obi-Wan focused within himself, opening the doors he kept locked, stripping himself down to his most elementary nature, reaching deep within his own mind.
The outer ones fell easily, as did the ones that were linked to his mind. But the heart-center shield eluded him, slipping out of his grasp as if it had a will of its own. Startled, Obi-Wan's concentration broke, his shields only partially removed.
Yet -- he smiled. Mild pain, but fading, and he could feel Qui-Gon.
Shields gone, the sudden connection startled Qui-Gon, like the sound of a 'saber in a deserted training room. A trickle of Obi-Wan's own Force presence pressed into him -- not the bond, no, not that intimate a touch, but at least it wasn't the deadness he'd felt for so long. He wavered where he stood, a tingle of relief inching its way up his spine; his legs felt like they'd collapse underneath him. "May I sit?"
Obi-Wan went to him and put his arm around him, guiding him to the couch. "I'm sorry. I should have done this earlier. I could see you were exhausted." He grabbed a blanket and pulled it over Qui-Gon. "Let me turn up the heat."
"In a minute." Qui-Gon grabbed his wrist so that Obi-Wan wouldn't pull away. "Would you sit next to me, please? What I'm going to say isn't easy."
"I know." Qui-Gon let go of his hand, and Obi-Wan sat next to him, not touching him, but close enough that Qui-Gon could feel him. "Tell me what happened. Tell me why you closed off the bond."
Breathe. Experience your emotions. Feel them. Accept them. He knew the litany, but it didn't make it any easier. What he felt about Milara was --
Deep, passionate anger. Anger at what he had done, for what he'd had to do. Anger, as well, for what had been done to him. His mind counseled him to release his feelings, to let it all go, but he felt the pain of it all dragging on him, as if he had been wearing lead weights for the past year. He just wanted it to stop.
A wall within him snapped, and the words tumbled out before he could stop them, cold and calm and deadly. "I closed the bond because...I could not find a way to give you what you wanted. You had to take it from me."
"What?" The word was breathless, Obi-Wan's eyes wide.
"You took my memories and replayed them for me, trying to reach me, to connect with me on your own. I couldn't tell reality from fantasy anymore, and....I became afraid. Afraid for you, afraid of you, afraid that I would not be able to finish my task." He leaned his head back against the couch. "It started simply -- you were hurt, I offered you support, tried to ease your pain. It wasn't enough."
Obi-Wan thought back and nodded, some snippets of memory making so much more sense now. He reached inside himself, to see what he felt from that time, and was surprised at what he discovered.
Anger toward Qui-Gon. For closing the bond, for letting him leave. For never asking how he was.
For making him feel...unwanted.
He needed to belong.
Obi-Wan reached out for Qui-Gon's leg, the physical touch reassuring him as he sought within himself for answers. "I remember, I think. I remember you giving me--"
Harsh words broke his concentration.
"You needed more than I could give, and I was not strong enough to save both you and the people of Milara. So I chose to sever the bond. I think I hoped that I would die." He stared back at Obi-Wan. "But I am happy that you lived."
"I am glad you did, as well. Master, forgive yourself. It had to be done."
"No! There should have been another way."
"How? After I broke through your shielding like that?" Obi-Wan sighed. "The Crystlefire is unpredictable in what it can do. I do not blame you--"
"Don't blame yourself." Qui-Gon snapped back. "You were battered, abused, and starved. You mined the ore. You lived with it, breathed it. It covered your skin, your lungs. You nearly died from withdrawal. You did nothing wrong."
"Neither did you."
They glared at each other, and slowly Obi-Wan's mouth curved into a smile. "We are evenly matched, aren't we, Master?"
Qui-Gon stared at him and felt his anger recede, slipping out into the Force. He shook his head and smiled back at Obi-Wan. "We are."
And because he felt giddy, lighter than he had for the past year, now that the burden of his own anger was manageable once again, he reached out to touch Obi-Wan, letting his hands roam up Obi-Wan's leg to his chest, and felt the way Obi-Wan's heart beat beneath his hand.
A single moment existed between them then, time stretching to encompass all of them, their needs, their hatreds, their fears. A single touch could disturb the balance, tip it away, and Qui-Gon wanted to do just that. But after so long, he could not trust himself not to cause Obi-Wan pain.
The moment passed.
"I am to blame for what happened after. When I tried to help you manage the withdrawal on Milara, my anger somehow warped the bond. I nearly killed us both."
"That is your fear, Master. My fear was that you would leave me, so I reached out to tie you to me as best I could."
Qui-Gon drew back, startled.
"Your anger would not have caused this if I had not pulled it to me, tried to make you share even that." Obi-Wan laid his hand over Qui-Gon's. "I needed to feel something of yours so much, and your anger was all I had. I wrapped it around me like a cloak, and for the past year, I have lived with that." He stroked his hand upwards and grabbed Qui-Gon's arm. "I no longer need to do that. How do we correct what happened?" He looked down at his hand, as if surprised to see it there. "Would you care to get dressed?"
His skin burned where Obi-Wan's hand touched it, as if a craving had been too long denied. He blinked twice before realizing he was naked. Well, that was as it should be, according to what he'd read of the rituals. Obi-Wan would need to be naked as well. "Actually, I need you to get undressed."
"Yes." He wouldn't let himself process that thought and imagine Obi-Wan naked. Instead, he fell into his teacher role, grateful for the opportunity to lecture and distribute information, keeping his logical mind occupied, keeping his anxiety at bay. "According to the texts I've found about the rituals of the Left Hand path, most of them were performed sky-clad. You will need take off your clothes."
Obi-Wan didn't ask any questions, just did as Qui-Gon had asked. Qui-Gon helped him out of the clothing, folding it neatly and setting it with his own, talking all the while, keeping busy, helping them both to be at ease. "The problems on Milara seem to have come from two different areas, both of them highly emotionally charged. For me, it was my anger at myself for not being able to do more for you and for having been so weak that I needed to shut you out. For you, it was your need to be with me, to not be alone." He reached out and pulled Obi-Wan to him, wrapping his arms around him and pressing their bodies close together. "Would you say this is so?"
"That seems to be the gist of what were just discussing."
"Good." Qui-Gon dropped his arms and sat on the floor. "Since the feedback is related to our emotional issues, the practices of the Right Hand path, those related to the Master/Apprentice training bond, didn't really apply."
"Qui-Gon, if it's an emotional concern, don't you think you're being rather clinical about all this?"
He sighed. Obi-Wan was right. "Probably. It's how we've been trained, to follow logic and distance ourselves from how we feel. We must delve within ourselves to find the start of this emotional tangle and gently unweave it in order to deal with the bond." He looked at Obi-Wan.
"I need to know if you feel strong enough to do that."
Obi-Wan looked back. He'd promised Qui-Gon he'd be open, that he would be honest about his feelings. Maybe it was time he be honest with himself as well. "I am...not well, my Master. I have not been since I was taken. What happened, what you did...it was a kindness."
Qui-Gon cupped his hand around the back of Obi-Wan's neck, pulling him close. "I wish I could ease what happened, make it right." He whispered softly in Obi-Wan's ear. "I think I can finally help."
"Maybe you can." Obi-Wan took a deep breath and let it back out. "I have not been open to you since Milara. Maybe...if I try..."
"Yes." Qui-Gon sat down on the floor, his legs crossed underneath him, and motioned for Obi-Wan to do the same. "Knees touching, please."
"With the healer, when we tried something similar to this...she suffered much pain and collapsed. I was afraid I'd killed her."
"On Milara...I thought I'd killed you." He brushed his hand over Obi-Wan's face. "I want to repair this, as best we can, whatever the cost. I enter into this with my eyes open, Obi-Wan. Do not regret whatever happens."
Obi-Wan opened his heart and held out his hands, left palm to the earth, taking strength, right palm to the sky, seeking wisdom.
Qui-Gon stared at his hands. "No," he said softly. "Reversed. Here, like this."
He spread his hands so the left pointed skyward, the right to the earth. "Cover mine with yours."
Facing him, Obi-Wan did as he was asked, his hands hovering for a moment over Qui-Gon's. His hands looked so small in comparison. Their palms touched, and it was like an electric spark. Obi-Wan waited for the seizure that always followed, but this time, he felt it dissipate, drain away, the feel of the Force shifting, turning the opposite way.
He looked questioningly at Qui-Gon. "What is that?"
Qui-Gon smiled, as if he had just witnessed a miracle. "That is the feel of the Force, Obi-Wan. If one is on the Left Hand path."
When he visualized the Force, Obi-Wan thought of it as a great river flowing around him, with current and rapids, eddies and pools, an infinite supply of power. This time, though, Qui-Gon asked him to look through his heart, rather than with his mind's eye. He wondered if that would make a difference.
Breathe in, breathe out. Center and control. Seek out with his heart, rather than with his mind. Deep within a trance state, Obi-Wan opened his eyes.
The world was a tapestry, knotted and tied together; if he looked close enough, he could see the individual strands of the Force that made the picture. He touched a green thread that attached to him, and felt the pulse of all the flowers and plants in the Hydroponics room, the ones he'd cared for, the way their energy flowed from them, though the temple, to connect with him here.
That's what the threads were -- the energy of all of living things that he'd ever connected with in his life. Their lives affected his, and he theirs, an interdependent web, their individual threads woven together into the Force.
He looked at Qui-Gon, saw the threads of his life surrounding him, layers upon layers surrounding him. Obi-Wan sorted through them, touching a few, to see what he could read. Most of them were the same, people and friends he'd cared for, lending him strength -- then Obi-Wan hit one that seemed so cold as to burn his hand. Deep, dark, and black as an eclipse, taking without giving anything in return.
The connection was still there. 'There is no death, there is only the Force.'
He turned away from Qui-Gon and back to himself, searching for the thread that connected the two of them. He focused on it, and slowly, the rest of the tapestry receded, leaving that one thread in place.
Qui-Gon's hands covered his. Together, they slit the skein and pulled the thread apart.
Obi-Wan jerked back as a wave of pain surged through him, feeling the echo of it wash over Qui-Gon. He heard Qui-Gon's gasp, then felt the pain re-directed, felt it being passed out into the Force -- another part of the tapestry.
Qui-Gon's hands trembled; Obi-Wan held them, and the pain passed for them both.
They started sorting through the threads, working from their outermost levels in, finding the pieces that had tangled with one another, smoothing them, working it through, repairing what they could.
The work was ugly and brutal and drained them both.
At one point, Obi-Wan felt a spark of desire in Qui-Gon, then felt it channeled back out into the Force, as inappropriate to the moment; his own desire remained tightly locked behind his inner shield. He was not yet ready to reveal that part of himself to his former Master, he decided; that was why the shield would not come down. In an instant, he had accepted it and moved on, turning to work another thread.
Slowly they untangled the skein of their connection and re-wove it into something different, stronger than what had been there before. The scars still existed; there was no way to paint over them, the way one could with a physical scar, yet the fibrous tissue was more durable and longer lasting than what had been there before.
Obi-Wan smiled as he slipped out of hyper-awareness into the normal state.
They were a mess. Qui-Gon glanced at Obi-Wan. Sweat plastered his hair to his body, and his eyes seemed dimmed by exhaustion. He acknowledged his own thirst and rolled onto his knees, grabbing the tray of food and water off the table and setting it on the floor between them.
"Have something." His voice sound cracked to his own ears, as if he'd spent days on a highly polluted world.
Obi-Wan nodded. "Thanks." He crawled around the tray and leaned back against Qui-Gon, before pouring them both a cup of water.
Qui-Gon drank. How good the water tasted, cold and sweet and clean.
How good it felt to have Obi-Wan in his arms.
Qui-Gon let the ends of Obi-Wan's hair run through his fingers, enjoying the silken feel. "Do you miss this?" he asked softly.
"I miss you." Obi-Wan folded his hand over Qui-Gon's, holding it there. "It will need to re-braided," he said softly and turned his back to Qui-Gon, the unbound tail of hair spilling down his back. He half-stretched, half-crawled to the brush that had fallen to the floor and handed it to Qui-Gon.
Qui-Gon felt dazed. Was this all that was needed, just some simple honesty between the two of them, for the pain to start sorting itself out? He brushed at the fine strands, getting them to lay right. Soft as feathers, the hair slid through his hands as Qui-Gon plaited the length of it, just as he had so many years before, when he'd first taken Obi-Wan as apprentice.
The plaited hair lay against Obi-Wan's neck, curling onto his chest, braided, bound, and mastered -- but still not tamed. Qui-Gon looked deep into his Padawan's eyes, seeing the wild bird that lay beneath the civilized depths, the way it beat against its cage, wanting to be free, needing to soar.
Within himself, Qui-Gon felt an answer to that need, from something he'd kept caged within his heart.
Let not your fear decide.
He took a deep breath, leaned over and brushed his lips against Obi-Wan's.
Obi-Wan wasn't sure if he was surprised by the kiss, or not. Old hungers, old dreams were wrapped in that dry press of lips against his, a slow caress, a new invitation. The first kiss was quickly followed by a second pass, the lips more eager now, making his body tingle with interest, heightening his awareness. Obi-Wan let himself be kissed, felt the way Qui-Gon's lips pulsed against his own, part of his mind cataloguing the fact that they were broken and cracked.
His last inner shield fell. He wanted more.
Qui-Gon pulled away, and Obi-Wan snapped back to himself, no longer willing to let his mind be in charge. He wasn't going to let his Master get away so easily; he would crawl into his lap and sit on him if he had to, to make Qui-Gon stay.
His imagination supplied the feel of Qui-Gon's thighs underneath him and the press of that thick, hard cock at the entrance to his body; Obi-Wan groaned.
Surging forward, he forced Qui-Gon's back against the edge of the couch, demanding his attention, displaying his own desire. A brief shiver rippled through him as Qui-Gon opened his lips and welcomed him. Obi-Wan threw his legs over Qui-Gon's and sank onto his lap, Qui-Gon's half-rigid cock brushing against his own.
Skin on skin...Obi-Wan reveled in it, in the way his body molded to Qui-Gon's, feeling the muscles in the arms that wrapped around him and lifted him, resettling him in what must be a more comfortable spot. He thrust half-heartedly, felt an almost electric crackle when their cocks touched. Qui-Gon growled, his large hands coming up to frame Obi-Wan's face. Clear, observant eyes stared into his own, and Qui-Gon licked his lips. "Obi-Wan..."
Fire searched him where Qui-Gon's hands lay against his flesh, and Obi-Wan reached up to cover them with his own. "I want you."
Desire and need and joy and pain and love filled him as he fell into a kiss, his lips instinctively seeking Qui-Gon's. His hands wrapped into Qui-Gon's hair, pulling him forward as Obi-Wan opened his mouth and sent his tongue questing past his Master's lips. Warmth and wetness and fever and hunger filled him as he devoured Qui-Gon's mouth, and as Qui-Gon devoured his.
Oh, this was good. This was very, very good.
His last shield had guarded the root of his body, the base, near-animal need for food and for sex. Primal and ancient, hidden desires flooded though him, leaving him taut, an incessant craving for Qui-Gon's body stealing all common sense. He needed both Qui-Gon's mind and his form, his body, mind, and heart. Needs and feelings burning in time merged with the reality of the present, and Obi-Wan surrendered himself to the moment.
His nipples, stomach, thighs were touched and stroked, fondled and explored; Obi-Wan did the same, running hands and mouth and tongue freely over Qui-Gon's body, finding the places that made him gasp, and the ones that made him howl, and the ones that made his cock weep with need.
The wet rasp of Qui-Gon's tongue scoured him, and Obi-Wan moaned out his need. "In me," he gasped. "Please."
Qui-Gon shoved him away.
Before Obi-Wan could think, he was being picked up off the floor, Qui-Gon's eyes ablaze. "My bedroom. Now."
Not always the perfect Master.
His hand locked around Qui-Gon's wrist, Obi-Wan ran, Qui-Gon stumbling after, as if his legs had lost the ability to co-ordinate with his mind. They collapsed on the bed in laughter.
Dizzy, now, his earlier exhaustion obscured by the rush of desire, Obi-Wan pulled Qui-Gon on top of him, fitting the lengths of their bodies together. He felt the velvet warmth of Qui-Gon's kiss, his own hands running over Qui-Gon's body, lingering over each of the scars. Sensual contact, the hardened ridge of flesh next to unmarred skin, a feast of sensation. He ducked down and let his tongue roam over the first one he found, following the line of the tree up to Qui-Gon's nipple, hearing his Master gasp as Obi-Wan bit down on it.
Long and low, his name hung on the air between them, then Obi-wan found himself pushed back against the mattress, staring into his Qui-Gon's brilliant eyes.
The intimacy of Qui-Gon's gaze seared him, burning him in its intensity. "Is this your desire?" he asked softly
Obi-Wan reached out and brushed Qui-Gon's hair from his face. "Have no doubts."
Qui-Gon pulled himself off the bed and stalked over to the corner of the room that held his meditation supplies. Obi-Wan watched, his body shivering with need, as Qui-Gon sorted through the bottles of oil there -- oils which, when heated, gave off a scent that helped the mind to focus. Qui-Gon picked a red bottle, and Obi-Wan smiled, recognizing it as Alderanian Fire. Its purpose was to focus the mind on passion -- not that they needed the help.
Obi-Wan just wondered why he'd never noticed that bottle before.
He rolled onto his stomach and shoved pillows under his hips as Qui-Gon sank onto the bed. He moaned as he felt the thick fingers inside him, stretching him, making him ready. He heard Qui-Gon's muted rumble, felt the rasp of Qui-Gon's tongue at the entrance to his body, jerking upright at the sensation. Oh Force, that felt good.
The tongue vanished, and Obi-Wan felt the weight of Qui-Gon's body pressed hard against his back, felt the head of Qui-Gon's cock pressed against his ass.
"Do it," he panted, his body singing with need. This was what he had missed, what he had wanted -- to be totally and completely enveloped by Qui-Gon, surrounded by him, head, heart, mind, and body, knit together as if they were one.
Qui-Gon sank into him, opening and stretching him, filling the emptiness he'd had inside. "So good," Qui-Gon managed, and Obi-Wan felt him start to thrust, each movement breaking him, shattering him, remaking him into something stronger than he'd been before. "So...so good."
Obi-Wan pressed himself against the mattress as he was filled completely. It was enough.
Gasping in passion, he thrust into the bed, rubbing and moaning as he reached for completion, turning his head up and to the side; Qui-Gon kissing, biting at him, nibbling at his lips, his neck, his shoulder, whatever he could touch, still thrusting, searing him with fire until his skin burned.
Obi-Wan cried out as he came, his cry echoed in Qui-Gon and the warm slickness of Qui-Gon's desire pulsing into him.
Legs tangled together, skin slick with sweat, passion's breath shared between kisses, they lay on the bed entwined, neither one ready to part.
It felt like eternity.
But at last, they separated, leaning back against each other's arms, contentment for the first time in what seemed like a year...and was.
Satiated and drowsy, Qui-Gon stroked Obi-Wan's face, where he lay nestled against his chest, unable to let go of how easy it had all been. When his hand got too close to Obi-Wan's lips, his fingers were playfully nipped. "Wanna sleep."
"Shhh... Rest. I have to make a call." He moved to slide out of bed, but found his wrists caught in a vise-like grip.
"I'm not leaving you. I just thought..." He looked down at his body, at the scars he carried, and shook his head. "You're right. There's no point in keeping these. I let them tie me to the past, held them as precious for far too long. I need to let them heal."
Obi-Wan's grip relaxed as he lay back against the bed. "Can you keep one?"
Qui-Gon blinked. He hadn't expected that. "Which?"
"This." Obi-Wan laid his hand over a small bird, its wings outstretched in flight, centered on Qui-Gon's lower back. "It moves as you move, and it reminds me of a bird in flight."
Qui-Gon considered and nodded. "Since you wish it--"
"I will. But why?"
"So I can leave my mark on you, as you have left one on me."
Qui-Gon brushed his hand across Obi-Wan's cheek and let his fingers rest on Obi-Wan's lips. "I will leave it, but there is no need to keep it. If I have laid my mark on you, so you have laid yours on me." He moved his hand, leaned in, and gently brushed Obi-Wan's lips with his own, entwining the fingers of their left hands.
The hands closest to their hearts.
With fall, the ice kestrels of Milara returned to the cliffs near the Bagdroon Ocean, the air filled with their cries as they sought one another, sky white from the feather display, courtship rites begun.
The kestrels bonded for life.