That was the word Obi-Wan found running along the protruding bone of his hip when he pulled off his clothes to shower.
He had to sit on the counter to twist in the right direction to see it in the tiny refresher's mirror, though, and he needed to see it in the mirror.
As if that would make it less difficult to endure and provide some distance.
Obi-Wan had a soulmate.
He'd apparently run into them today, in the dozens of people he'd encountered...
And this individual had lied to him.
Anakin knocked at the door, startling Obi-Wan. “Hey. You going to be done soon?”
“Just a minute,” Obi-Wan called back, hopping in the shower, knowing Anakin needed sleep, not to wait a long time for the bathroom.
Who had said the word yes today, to Obi-Wan ?
He lay awake deep into the night, trying to catalogue the countless times such a simple word had been said while Anakin snored softly in the bunk opposite Obi-Wan's own.
* * *
He'd just unlatched his gorget to set aside the white armor that protected his throat and upper torso when Anakin made a noise, stepped close, and pulled down the back of his collar.
“Holy kark, Obi-Wan! You've got a soulmark!”
“What does it say?” Obi-Wan demanded.
Obi-Wan grunted, scowling, and pulled away from his Padawan.
“Are there more?” Anakin asked, following.
“Just one that says yes, ” Obi-Wan sulked. He'd been alone so long since Qui-Gon, was it so damn much to ask the Force to be clear ?
At least Qui-Gon's lies had faded with time, a pale gold in his skin. They'd been in places he could manage to hide, even from Anakin. He just made sure he was never shirtless around his Padawan, and always wore underthings that reached his knees. It might have been an odd quirk, but it was better than to have Anakin see those terrible, searing words and know.
“Ready to face his trials. Headstrong, but capable.”
And the one that had appeared hours after... the last one he ever received from Qui-Gon Jinn:
“I foresee you will become a great Jedi knight.”
Maybe I should just be grateful it's nothing hurtful this time, he mused, feeling morose. It was an undoubtedly good thing Qui-Gon had never realized Obi-Wan had been his match, since Obi-Wan's clothes coming off would have revealed so many, many small brands.
“I won't kill him. I'm not Falling.”
“I forgive you.”
“It wasn't your fault.”
“I don't blame you.”
“You did all you could.”
“This isn't about that.”
“I'm not taking Anakin because I don't want you anymore. You have nothing to worry about.”
A first attempt at lovemaking would have been... awkward. To say the least. Perhaps disastrous. Even though Obi-Wan had forgiven every tear the marks had ripped from his eyes even while his younger self sobbed on the bathroom floor, hand over his mouth so the man in the other room wouldn't hear.
“Hey. You seem sad,” Anakin murmured. “At least they're not embarrassing.”
“I want one more that will allow me to clearly identify them, and then I want them to never lie to me again,” Obi-Wan replied, feeling his throat close.
Anakin placed a comforting hand on his arm and caught his gaze before he offered, “We'll find them, Obi-Wan.”
And that had Obi-Wan fleeing to the refresher to check frantically all over his body to make sure Anakin wasn't the one.
He sagged against the wall with a shaky breath.
Thank the Force.
* * *
Obi-Wan choked in a gurgled breath, trembling with pain as his hand reached for the shrapnel that pinned him to the wall.
“Don't touch it!” a voice demanded, and his commander knelt, filling Obi-Wan's view. “Don't move until we can make sure we can stop the bleeding. Let Kix get here.”
Obi-Wan's head sagged back against the wall, vision swimming. “Continue the assault. We have to take the tower.”
If they didn't, Ahsoka and her men would be trapped without rescue. Obi-Wan wasn't going to be able to lead the rest of this battle, but Cody could. He knew he could. He had to.
“You will survive,” Cody swore. “Hold on, General.”
Obi-Wan recognized when Kix arrived. Saw the man stare at Obi-Wan's jaw and throat, then send a wide-eyed glance at Cody before sending a hypo's contents into the Jedi's bloodstream that would tow him under.
* * *
He awoke in a medical bed, Anakin leaning over him, holding out a mirror.
“Who was there, when you were hit?” his former Padawan asked, voice not quite steady.
I'm not dead? I'm not dead. Huh. That was unexpected.
Obi-Wan tried to make his voice work and found it took significant effort. “Cody,” he rasped.
A nod. “Then Kix.”
The mirror moved up, and Obi-Wan found his own exhausted eyes blinking back at himself. And almost-black words curving from his lower cheek down over his jugular, “You will survive.”
“Clearly I wasn't the only one to think my luck had run out,” Obi-Wan mumbled.
“Don't joke, Obi-Wan. We've got him. It's either Cody or Kix.”
Cody's frantic expression. Kix's shocked one turning to his brother.
Oh... oh, kark.
Was he doomed to have morally confusing soulmates?
At least I dodged the bullet with Anakin.
His sixty-year-old master, and now a subordinate officer. Who was technically twelve years old.
Obi-Wan recoiled back into his pillow with a barely-muffled groan.
Anakin looked confused. “They're both wonderful men, Obi-Wan.”
Wonderful, enslaved men who have been brainwashed into thinking their sole purpose in life is to please their Jedi Generals.
If he'd been able to, he would have concealed their soulmate status from Cody until the war was over, the man was free, and there were no more obligations involved.
To where Cody could consent, for kark's sake.
Unconsciousness tugged at him again, his reserves depleted for the moment.
* * *
When he next awoke, it was Cody sitting by his bed, eyes worried, face drawn tight with anxiety.
“Commander,” Obi-Wan rasped.
“Thank you for lying clearly this time,” Obi-Wan found himself saying. Damn did he hate pain meds. “I'd been wondering for a while now who the words could belong to.”
Cody's eyes widened. “I— I'm sorry. Sir.”
“For lying, Sir.”
“Would never have found you, otherwise,” Obi-Wan pointed out.
Cody winced. “Lying to a superior officer is wrong. Sir.”
“I can't say I'm sorry that your code on that point is stronger than the last man I was bound to.” Qui-Gon Jinn had certainly had no difficulty in lying to his Padawan. A lot. Since the very beginning.
Obi-Wan remembered the first mark he'd ever found, high up his thigh, the morning after Qui-Gon Jinn had agreed after all to teach him. The elation of that moment faded into cold pain when he read: “I changed my mind. You're worth fighting for.”
Cody lied to comfort me, same as Qui-Gon.
But somehow it all felt different.
Obi-Wan found the words You will survive being burned where the entire universe would always be able to see them strangely appropriate. He even felt an odd urge to shave, to make the you more clear.
No one ever thought I would. But I have. Even when I haven't wanted to.
Maybe someday they would be right, and he'd have his peace.
Or maybe he would keep surviving by the skin of his teeth, perhaps long enough to see the war over and the clones freed.
“Commander, I want you to know that my respect for you as a man and a military officer remains unchanged,” Obi-Wan murmured, and felt peace knowing those words would not appear on Cody's body somewhere.
“Are you rejecting me as your mate?” Cody asked, something vulnerable and sad in his eyes.
Obi-Wan considered his answer, wanting to never put words on this man's skin. Ever. Though he probably already had, at some point. Had they been vague enough that Cody hadn't known who at the time? Or had he always known?
“I value your basic human rights,” Obi-Wan said at last. “I want to do this right. Not because I want to match the regulations to the letter, but because I don't want to take away what you were never taught was yours to keep.”
Tears obscured Cody's eyes. “Sir? That may be the prettiest thing you've ever said. And you have a beautiful way with words.” He stood, moved closer, and Obi-Wan found his own heart thundering in response. “Teach me these rights you speak of, so that when you finally accept that I want to forever and always be yours, you can love me without the cloud of self-doubt. I will wait as long as you need.”
Obi-Wan felt to his core those words would not be there for his next shower. He lifted a shaking hand to caress the scarred cheek, and Cody leaned into his touch.
“I love you, General. And I love that you won't say it back unless you know it won't mark my skin.”
Obi-Wan blinked back tears. “I don't know if I will ever be able to give you what an ideal soulmate would, Cody. I haven't had the best of luck with soulmates in the past.” He heard his own pained chuckle.
“Just let me keep your trust, General. Let me watch your back. You saw me as a person when no one but my brothers ever had. Your trust is a gift of infinite worth, and even if it is the only gift you ever give me, it alone would be—”
“Don't say it,” Obi-Wan whispered, voice choked, “please, don't— ”
“It alone would be enough. I am content with completing you wherever it is that you need completing. If your soul needs something other than a lover, I will be there. If you need a brother instead, I will be there. If you do need to fall in love...” a gentle smile touched Cody's lips. “I'm still here.”
Obi-Wan felt like he couldn't breathe as Cody strode from the door.
Impossible, and he couldn't bear another promise being seared into his flesh, to have to see its falseness every day—
Anakin, sensing his despair, raced in, and when he insisted, helped him into the refresher and out of the med gown.
He checked Obi-Wan's back while Obi-Wan searched every inch of his skin he could see, waiting to find just where the words had settled.
“Obi-Wan,” Anakin whispered, voice broken, and Obi-Wan suddenly realized his mistake. But he couldn't twist around to see his back in the mirror, and he couldn't wait to heal—
“Don't. Just. Are there any black ones—?”
“No. Only the one that says no on your neck.”
And there was nothing down his sides or his front— and he even checked between his fingers and toes.
“He told the truth,” Obi-Wan choked out. “He told the truth. ”
He turned around, footsteps tottering and forgetting he was naked, and leaned into Anakin, shuddering as hesitant arms came up to hold him tight. A tear rolled down his cheek.
No expectations. No demands.
Just two people, fitting together the way the Force itself had directed.
Cody didn't need or want Obi-Wan to be anything.
Perhaps, in spite of his wretched upbringing, Cody had a better grasp on love than the rest of the galaxy's interest-means-date-means-sex mantra.
Anakin was smoothing his hair and crying softly.
Why was he crying?
“I had no idea,” Anakin sniffled. “Force, Obi-Wan, I'm so sorry.”
“You didn't do any of this to me. Most of it predates you.”
“I'm still sorry. You shouldn't have had to suffer this way.”
And hearing Anakin say those words, Anakin, who had always resented him and believed Obi-Wan wasn't good enough and that Obi-Wan could never get it right, drained the last of the strength from Obi-Wan's bones. He sobbed as his former Padawan draped his med robe back around him, lifted him, and carried him back to the bed with tender care.
What had Obi-Wan done to deserve two such beings in his life who seemed to love him in spite of his terrible, terrible failings?
“No,” Anakin murmured, brushing the tears from his cheek. “Force, no, Obi-Wan. Forgive me for adding to your burden. I never realized what I was doing.”
Dear, ridiculous Anakin, to think he needed to apologize.
Any fault you had was mine, since I was the teacher. Qui-Gon knew all along there was something wrong with me. He couldn't quite keep his eyes open, weariness lulling him to slumber.
* * *
And Anakin, horrified by the glimpses he'd seen into Obi-Wan's heavily-scarred soul, pressed a kiss to his forehead before leaving him to sleep.
Obi-Wan was not quite ready to believe in hope. Certainly not ready to believe in himself.
But if there was anyone who could quietly affirm Obi-Wan as a person simply by being in the room, it was Cody.
And Anakin had no intention of leaving the whole burden of Obi-Wan affirmation to Cody alone.
There were so many good things about his master, things he valued, things he relied on, every day...
It's about time I told him. And don't stop telling him until they ring just as clearly as the cruel things I've said in anger in the past.
* * *
For once, Obi-Wan did not dream of pain and weeping and death.
He found rest in a quiet, beautiful forest, his head in Cody's lap. Calm and peace granted his mind a respite after so long a battle, instilled by the silent belief that he didn't have to be anything.
He was already enough.