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Republic Date 5200: 12/30th

Jedi Temple, Coruscant

 

They split up upon landing:  Obi-Wan and Anakin to their old quarters, if only to prep for moving; Rillian to the new Initiates’ dorms to fetch the rest of her belongings, packed away after being found in the ruins of the old creche; Qui-Gon to the quarters they would all share, even if said dwelling was never designed to hold four beings, a cat, and a droid. 

At least, that was the plan.

When Anakin palmed open their door, Obi-Wan stared at the main room, head cocked, allowing himself a moment of intense bewilderment.  “That was our door, wasn’t it?”  At his feet, Teya sat down on his haunches, his ears flattened, very much unimpressed.  R2-D2, behind Anakin, gave a questioning beep.

Anakin nodded, tilting his head in the opposite direction as he regarded their barren, empty quarters.  “Same one it’s always been.”

“Huh,” said Obi-Wan, and thus was not very surprised at the ferocious roar he heard through the bond.

MICAH GIETT, WHAT IN THE FORCE HAVE YOU DONE TO MY HOME!?

“Run, Micah, run,” Obi-Wan murmured, which made Anakin snicker.  “Come on.  Let’s go see the Quartermaster about where we’ve been moved to before Qui-Gon burns down the Temple trying to find him.”

“I guess he’s rather attached to those rooms.  I mean, Master Qui-Gon’s had that living assignment, what, twenty years?” Anakin guessed, hoisting his pack back up onto his shoulder as he followed Obi-Wan to the turbolift.  Teya bounded along the corridor, sometimes outpacing them, sometimes lagging, but the cat always wound up where he needed to be.  R2, maintaining a decorous pace behind his master, took to electronically scolding the cat every time he raced ahead, which Teya pointedly ignored.

“Try thirty,” Obi-Wan said, flicking his fingers at the control deck to Force-push the buttons.  Frivolous, maybe, but he could feel Qui-Gon’s anger—and intense distress—like it was his own, and was hard-pressed to hold onto his temper in the face of it.  “Check to see if our trouble-maker is in residence, would you, Ani?” 

Teya stood on Obi-Wan’s boots, scowling up at him.  They had found out in short order that he did not like lifts.  Get used to it, my feline friend, Obi-Wan told the cat.  They’re a fact of life.  Teya ignored him, much as he had ignored R2.

Anakin slipped his datapad out, sliding it open one-handed, tapping the controls with his thumb.  How he could type with one digit, Obi-Wan had no idea, but like most things he tried, Anakin excelled at it.  “Nope,” his Padawan said a moment later, grinning.  “He and Master Tahl are both marked as off-planet.  I’ll betcha they’re hiding somewhere.”

The Quartermaster was out, too, leaving one of his primary droid assistants manning the housing computer.  The droid spent five long minutes staring at the screen, mumbling, before it announced that they weren’t in the system.

Anakin scowled at the droid.  “That’s ridiculous.  You’re only supposed to be ejected from the system if you’re declared dead.”

“Hmm,” the droid said, peering down at Anakin.  “Are you deceased, then?”

“Not lately,” Obi-Wan muttered, picking up his own pack and turning on his heel.  “Come on, Padawan.  Let’s do this the old-fashioned way.”

They met Qui-Gon two levels down, also on the trail of his missing belongings and looking like he could set things on fire with his eyes.  “I’m going to kill him,” the older man snarled.

“Easy,” Obi-Wan said, laying a hand on his mate’s arm.  “Let’s find our things, first.  Then we kill Micah.”  And calm down, love!  Rillian can hear you.

That caught Qui-Gon’s attention as little else might have, and he took a deep breath, letting it out and dispersing most of his tension with it.  “All right,” he said, taking Obi-Wan’s hand in a near bone-crushing grip.

They walked forward as a quintet, the humans taking turns pointing the way as they listened to the Force.  After ten minutes, a rolling walkway, and another turbolift, they found themselves in a corridor none of them could remember traversing before. 

“We’re in…the inner North tower, above the wilderness garden,” Obi-Wan said, consulting his internal map of the Temple.  Qui-Gon frowned and said nothing, but Obi-Wan smiled when he felt the first glimmerings of interest come from his mate.  They had all spent their entire Temple lives with windows that faced unending Coruscant traffic.  No matter what quarters they’d been given, the change of scenery alone would help Micah escape a sound thrashing.

Rillian appeared around the next bend in the corridor, giving the datapad in her hand a puzzled look.  She looked up as they approached, intense relief flashing in her green-gray eyes.  [Masters!] she barked happily.  [I guess I’m not lost, then.]

Anakin gave her a blank look.  “Lost?”

The Wookiee waved the datapad she held.  [Master Kuunhra said my other belongings were in a storage room on this level, but these aren’t storage rooms.  People live here.]

“Huh.  They are totally fucking with us, aren’t they, Master?” Anakin asked, amused.

“Completely,” Obi-Wan replied, smiling.  “We should put Jawa in Micah’s bed.”

“Awesome,” Anakin agreed.  “I wonder how big he is now?”

[Why in the Force did you name that snake Jawa, anyway?] Rillian wanted to know, falling into step with the others.

“He’s brown and clingy and wants to eat all of my food.  I thought it was perfect,” Anakin explained, shrugging.

Rillian’s datapad led to the last door in the corridor, which ended in a wall instead of a lift, as garden-space on the other side had taken precedence.  On the door was a hand-printed note, along with a new door-placard bearing all four of their names.

 

Qui-Gon,

Before you slaughter me, take a look.  If you still hate it, we’ll move everything back, though I think the others might protest.

—Micah

PS: Think of it as a wedding gift.

—Tahl

 

After a long, tense moment, Rillian ventured, [Is—is someone going to open the door?]

“I think we’re all afraid of getting pounced by something horrible,” Anakin said with a wry smile. 

Meff,” said Teya, swishing his tail.

Qui-Gon closed his eyes.  “There’s a cat making fun of me.  Gods.”  He palmed the door open, the panel blinking green at his touch as it recognized the pre-programmed bio-scan.  He walked in and stopped short, forcing everyone else to go around him.

“Holeeee shit,” Anakin breathed in amazement.

“Language, Padawan,” Obi-Wan said faintly.

“Teaching by example, Master,” Anakin replied.

“Fuck,” said Obi-Wan, and Rillian giggled.

Qui-Gon finally let out a low whistle.  “Who in the Force did Micah kill to get us into these rooms?  This is one of the retirement suites, for fuck’s sake!”

Rillian laughed again.  [Master Obi-Wan, you’re a bad influence.]

“Yep,” Obi-Wan agreed, letting his pack settle onto the floor against the inside wall.  Teya gave them all an impatient look and went to explore.  Behind them, R2 said something querulous in binary and gave vent to an electronic sigh.

The main room in which they stood was double the size of a standard Master-Padawan suite, and an entire quarter of the room was devoted to a trickle of water running down a rock wall.  The water flowed into a small pool, also composed of rock, all of it rubbed-down quartz.  Earth-tone tile surrounded the pool, keeping any splashes from ruining the soft carpet that covered the rest of the floor.  Above the pool, an artificial skylight was built high into the wall, letting warm light heat both pool and rocks.  Obi-Wan suspected that the room had once been designed for amphibian or reptilian occupancy. 

The couch from Qui-Gon’s quarters was stationed across from the pool, juxtaposed by the chair Obi-Wan had acquired to keep Bant from supplying more horribly pink furniture.  The square black worktable was in its usual position in front of the couch, but it had been joined by one of the much newer acquisitions Anakin had insisted upon—a side table that was perfect kneeling height for delicate mechanical work.  The four pieces should have looked ragtag together but didn’t, which was something akin to a miracle.

The kitchen was at least one-third larger as well, and Obi-Wan looked at it with glee.  One of the only things he’d ever grumbled about in his life was a lack of useful surfaces while cooking, and the new kitchen exceeded any expectation in that arena.

Some of their belongings from both quarters had already been placed, as if to reassure the four of them that this was, indeed, their quarters.  Both furniture and decorative objects relaxed some part of Obi-Wan that had tensed up upon seeing his former living space laid bare.  This would work.  This would work nicely.

There were two rooms that had been converted into Padawan rooms, which meant Anakin and Rillian would no longer have to share.  The Wookiee made cheerful hooting noises as she discovered her belongings in her new bedroom, complete with a hammock mounted from the ceiling; the elevated bed was much more in line with her species’ idea of comfort.

Anakin’s room had his bed, the quilt his mother had made, and all of his machinery experiments packed up in boxes.  A note left on one box, unsigned, explained the lack of progress:  We gave up, because we have no idea what half of this stuff is.  Uhm…Sorry.

Jawa was in a glass terrarium under a window that looked out into the gardens, sunning himself on a flat rock.  The snake seemed to recognize Anakin, wrapping around the Padawan’s wrist in slow, deliberate movements while broadcasting pleasure.  The little brown snake that Obi-Wan had inadvertently brought home from Kelin VI was now the length of Anakin’s arm, but still no thicker than two of Qui-Gon’s fingers held together.  Still a juvenile, still growing—Force knew what they would do with Jawa once the snake outgrew the terrarium.

The third, larger bedroom held Qui-Gon’s bed (thank the Force), made up with what looked like a brand new silk coverlet done up in the same shifting blues and greens as Obi-Wan’s tattooed sleeve.  He touched the coverlet and swore reverently under his breath, because it likely had cost someone an obscene amount of money.  He’d visited royalty that couldn’t afford that sort of quality. 

Boxes marked with their names were stacked neatly against the wall, holding the remainder of both of their belongings from each set of quarters.  There were two closets, as well, which was a hell of a surprise.  Qui-Gon’s clothes were already hanging in one, and Obi-Wan’s had been transferred into the other.  Except for one thing.  With a wide grin, he picked them up and turned so that Qui-Gon could see.

“Oh,” Qui-Gon said, his eyes lighting up.  “I guess I do still own those boots, don’t I?”

Obi-Wan grinned back, resisting the urge to caress the soft, worn leather.  “Yes, it seems that you do.”  He imagined that it was likely Tahl that had left them out for discovery.  She was sneaky that way.  “Want to break them back in?” he asked, perfect innocence in his voice.

Qui-Gon smiled at him with heat in his eyes, and the temperature of the room climbed several degrees.  “I think that could be arranged.”

“You guys have got to see this ’fresher!” Anakin yelled, and Obi-Wan shrugged and put the boots aside. 

Later? he suggested.

Oh, yes.

The ’fresher was worth the interruption, as far as Obi-Wan was concerned.  “Basking tub,” he said, and promptly climbed in, stretched out his full length, and let his head rest against the edge of the tub.  “Perfect fit.”

“For you, maybe,” Qui-Gon retorted.  “I’d still have to bend my knees to fit in this thing.”

Obi-Wan gave him a cross look.  “Qui.  Basking tub.  In our quarters.

“So you’re saying I’m not allowed to kill Micah?” Qui-Gon asked.

“Basking tub.”

Qui-Gon chuckled, and Anakin sat on the tub edge and gave his Master a sardonic look.  “Want me to turn on the water, Master?”

“Want me to fling you out into the gardens, Padawan?” he countered.

“Speaking of which,” Qui-Gon began, and the other two hurried to follow, just as curious.

Rillian had beaten them to it; the balcony door was open, and she was standing on a large, accommodating ledge.  There was a modest concrete railing to prevent falls, topped by iron bars, reaching about as high as Anakin’s chest.  The reason for the low railing was immediately obvious—the gardens were perfectly accessible from their level via a short drop.  The artificial breeze brought the scent of green, growing things to Obi-Wan’s nose, and he felt his heart swell in his chest with happiness.  This is perfect.

This is therapy, Anakin corrected, a huge smile on his face.  Perfect therapy, though.

Obi-Wan walked over and took Qui-Gon’s hand.  “Think you could live here?”

Qui-Gon glanced down at him, his gaze serene, his entire aura at peace.  Never was his mate more at ease with himself and the universe than when he was closest to nature, the supreme example of the Living Force.  “Love, I think I could sleep out here.”

[Woohoo!] exclaimed Rillian, just as Anakin gave a flat, unequivocal “No.”

[Wuss,] Rillian teased.

“Blood suckers,” Anakin retorted.

When they ventured back inside, Teya greeted them, soaking wet and very pleased with himself, happy to report that there were No Intruders in the Water.  “Glad to hear,” Obi-Wan replied, toeing off his boots and letting his cat escort him to the rocky pool.  It was larger than he’d originally surmised, and could hold two adults comfortably.  Not as warm as a basking tub, but the concept of flowing fresh water was far too good to pass up.  He stuck in his foot, grinned, and then simply jumped in, able to submerge up to the bottom of his lower eyelids before his feet touched rock.

“You just ruined your commlink,” Anakin observed.

Do I look like I care? he asked, bending his knees and letting the water close in over his head.  It was cold, but the part of himself that had lived in a parched, scorching desert was too busy announcing its glee to all and sundry.  Anakin might have gotten over the novelty of water available whenever you wished, but Obi-Wan doubted he ever would.  His Padawan had only lived, both times, a grand total of nine years on Tatooine; Obi-Wan had dwelled in scorching heat for eighteen.  A single, five minute shower allowance per month had never been enough.

“Great.  You’re going to be living in the pool, and Master Qui-Gon and Rillian are gonna be out in the garden all the time.  Am I the only sane one here?” Anakin grumbled as Obi-Wan lifted his head back out of the water.

“If you have to ask, the answer is probably yes,” Qui-Gon told him, coming from the kitchen with a steaming mug of what had to be tea.  “Someone left the kettle on,” Qui-Gon confirmed a moment later, when Obi-Wan climbed out of the pool, dripping onto the tile and ridiculously happy.  “Glad there’s a drain built into the grout lines,” Qui-Gon said as he handed over the tea, giving Obi-Wan a look full of amused, loving tolerance.

“I needed a shower after riding that transport in, anyway,” Obi-Wan said, sipping hot red tea.  “’Fresher’s already fully stocked, so I am going to do that and hang everything up to dry.”

Qui-Gon had ordered dinner by the time he emerged, with both comm and lightsaber working.  (He’d sensibly built in a cyclical ignition-pulse when constructing the new blade, especially after his dunking on Naboo.)  Obi-Wan started taking stock of the kitchen by opening every door in an effort to discover just what the hell had been done with their cookware and dining utensils.  Rillian was in her room, cheerfully putting away her few belongings and muttering comments in Shyriiwook about the huge amount of space she had.  Anakin had gone to get the food, and arrived with it by the time Qui-Gon had re-dressed after his own shower, the ends of his hair still dripping and soaking his shirt.  Rillian took a turn at the sonics, and Anakin speed-showered.  Once everything was on the table—brand new and easily big enough to seat six—they were all clean, more or less dry, and ravenous.  Teya stalked around under the table, shamelessly begging for treats, and emerged at the end of the meal fat and sated.

The door chime sounded for the first time after clean-up was finished.  The four of them stared at each other, sharing the same thought:  The moment they answered that door, their year of rest was over for good.

“Can we pretend we’re not here?” Anakin asked, sounding plaintive.

“No,” Obi-Wan sighed, and got up to let in Mace Windu.

“Welcome back to Coruscant,” Mace said, after he had been plied with tea and a seat in the kitchen.  “Settling in nicely?” he asked, the hint of a wicked smile lurking in his expression.

“It’ll do,” Qui-Gon allowed, crossing his arms and glaring at Mace.  “I suppose you were in on it, too?”

“There were very few of us who weren’t in on this, Qui-Gon,” Mace replied, making an appreciative face as he sipped his tea.  “We couldn’t imagine stuffing all four of you into your old quarters, even if none of you minded.  There’s been a lot of shuffling this year, actually, and you’re not the only bonded couple that had to accept an upgrade to make room for your Padawans.”

“It still feels a bit…excessive,” Obi-Wan said.  “I’m not complaining, but aren’t there others who need these rooms more than we do?”

Mace shook his head.  “Not at the moment, thank the Force.  Besides, I had a soul healer, Terza, a Padawan, and Adi breathing down my neck, insisting that as far as need went, you and Anakin certainly qualified.  Fortunately, the rooms went vacant without any prodding needed.  Rigel and Marva Kel decided to finish their years together on Dantooine last month.  The timing couldn’t have been better, really.”

Qui-Gon paused in the midst of retrieving more tea.  “Force, Mace.  I had no idea that they were even still alive.”

The Councilor nodded.  “They’ve kept largely to themselves, since Traseeki tend to get irritable in their old age.”

“Which is a nice way of saying, ‘Desire to eat anything that moves,’” Obi-Wan told Rillian, who went wide-eyed.  “They can’t help it, but at least on Dantooine they’re unlikely to eat anyone.  Well, unless Marva decides that Rigel looks tasty.”

[Faugh.  And people say that Wookiees have weird customs,] Rillian said, nonplussed.

“Anyway, I did come here on official business.  I’d rather it wait until tomorrow, but the Reconciliation Council wants to meet with you first thing in the morning,” Mace said, and Obi-Wan sighed.  He’d been wondering when that particular sub-Council was going to rear its head.

“Of course they do,” Anakin said, resting his chin in his hand while narrowing his eyes.  “Gotta make sure we’re not going to Sith out or anything.”

“Given that there was a Sith operating right under their very noses, the Shadows and the Reconciliation Council are being overly cautious at the moment, and the High Council supports their decision.”  Mace explained.  “Granted, we did try to avoid the necessity, but Master Yarael is taking his turn in that seat.”

“Oh.  Delightful,” Obi-Wan said blandly.

“So is Plo Koon,” Mace added, and everyone at the table save Rillian and Mace gave vent to a relieved sigh.  “Myself, Master Yaddle, and Master Saesee will be rounding out the quorum, since Master Jidi is unavailable.  You’re not being called for judgment, just questioning.”

“Well, in that case, let’s get all of the horrid stuff out of the way at once,” Obi-Wan said, allowing Teya to jump up onto his lap when the cat pawed at his leggings.  “I want to go to the Industrial Zone tomorrow, Mace.  I want to see it.”

Mace gazed at him with a sober expression, light teasing vanishing in a heartbeat.  “Are you certain?”

“We’ve,” Obi-Wan gestured around the table, “discussed it already, on the trip here.  I don’t—I’m not ready to move on until I see that stupid Sith hellhole empty.”

“Very well,” the Councilor said, though he did not look pleased.  “I’ll arrange it for after mid-meal.”

Mace’s visit heralded a flood.  Within a few minutes after his departure, Garen and Reeft were at their door, arm in arm and grinning like a pair of fools.  “Welcome home!” Garen crowed, picking Obi-Wan up off the floor and squeezing until Obi-Wan’s ribs creaked in protest.

“Hi!” Obi-Wan wheezed back, pleased to accept a much more sedate hug from Reeft. 

Reeft looked unaccountably nervous, and no sooner had the hug ended than he blurted, “Master is preparing me for my Trials!”

“Well, that’s excellent!  Except that you don’t seem to think so,” Obi-Wan said, puzzled by the Dresselian’s obvious reluctance.  He, at least, was far closer to the standard Knighting age than the rest of their friends.

“Yeah!” Anakin chimed in, after Garen had finally put him down.  “That means you and Garen can pair up officially!”

Reeft hesitated.  “While that is a very nice concept, yes, I did not go through the—” he waved his hands, looking desperate.  “The Event, as the rest of you did.  I don’t understand why I’m being pushed towards my Trials now.”

Obi-Wan could practically hear the capital letters.  “So that’s how it’s being referred to, hmm?” Qui-Gon asked, amused.

Garen nodded.  “By those of us in the know, yeah.”

Obi-Wan shook his head, smiling, before he put his hands on his other friend’s shoulders.  “Reeft, I imagine that you are about to face your Trials not because of…ah, The Event, but because you pay attention, and you absorb knowledge like a sponge from those around you.  Garen has been Knighted a full year now, and that influence on your life is not to be discounted.”

“Even if it was mostly a lot of sex,” Garen interjected with a wicked grin.

Reeft smiled, bashful in the face of his partner’s blatant advertisement.  “There was quite a bit of that, yes.”

“But he’s also been a functional Knight in everything but name for the past three years.  Quinlan’s been Knighted for four years now, and Siri and Abella have both been performing at a Knight’s level for the past year.”

“Are you saying that I’m ready because I surround myself with good influences?” Reeft looked confused, but less nervous than before.  “And Siri’s up, too?”

“Yes, and if it makes you feel better, Adi says she’s hyperventilating,” Obi-Wan confided.  He’d learned of Siri Tachi’s impending Trials on the journey to Coruscant, along with Aayla Secura’s advanced, cobbled-together training that was now necessary.  Anakin and Rillian would be following along in the Twi’lek Padawan’s footsteps soon enough.  Of all the Jedi on Naboo for the Battle of Theed, only Tuuvino had escaped the intensity of the Sharing, experiencing it only as a vivid dream while sleeping in the temporary med center.

“Your Master would not recommend you for your Trials if he thought you weren’t ready, Reeft,” Qui-Gon added, giving the twenty-three year-old Padawan a reassuring smile.  “I think it’s a fine thing.  You’ve always been the most level-headed among your peers.”

Garen mock-frowned.  “I do believe I was just insulted.”

“I think I was, also,” Obi-Wan said, raising an eyebrow at his former Master.  “Paragon of innocence, thank you.”

“Paragon of stick-in-the-arse, you mean,” Garen said, and quite swiftly found himself up to his shoulders in the pool from a neat Force-toss.  He sputtered and grinned.  “Hey, this thing is awesome!  Let’s see how many people we can stuff in here!”

[I am not getting in there!] Rillian protested, looking alarmed.  [Do you have any idea how long it would take me to dry!?]

The door chime rang again, and Obi-Wan resisted the urge to put his head in his hands.  He should have expected this sort of invasion, given that it was their first night home.

There is always tomorrow, Qui-Gon sent, an easy smile on his face. 

Obi-Wan nodded.  There had better be, he sent back, along with a very explicit image of what he had planned.

He heard Qui-Gon swallow audibly as he opened the door, an innocuous grin on his face as he greeted Quinlan, on leave from Naboo.  Then he was being tackled by an enthusiastic blue Padawan, R2 started beeping in outrage as Garen splashed him, and Teya decided that hiding under the sofa was the better part of valor.

Best homecoming, ever, Qui-Gon said.  Amidst the chaos and happy chatter, Obi-Wan found he was in complete agreement.

 

*          *          *          *

 

The next morning, Obi-Wan was not so sanguine. 

“OVER MY DEAD BODY!” he roared at the assembled Reconciliation Council.  The Force actually manifested, sparking in the air around him like the pops of tiny fireworks.

“Now, Knight Kenobi, please,” Yarael Poof said, only to be cut off.

“Please nothing, Master Yarael,” Obi-Wan growled back, still riding the surge of protective anger that had erupted.  “You are not going to cross the buffer my Padawan has in his mind, protecting him from the bulk of his memories, just because you are curious!

Poof frowned.  “You will calm yourself, Knight Kenobi,” he said, which did nothing for Obi-Wan’s state of mind.  “There is nothing to suggest that viewing Padawan Skywalker’s memories of…the Other,” he hedged, seemingly unwilling to use the word Sith, “will destroy this buffer, as you call it.”

“There is absolutely nothing to suggest that it won’t, either,” Obi-Wan retorted.  “My answer is no, Masters.”  Beside Yarael, Plo Koon was eying his fellow Councilor; Boda MonMassa, in charge of most of the Shadow operations, looked like she wanted to put her head in her hands.  Mace and Saesee Tiin had maintained neutral expressions, while Master Yaddle was merely raising an eyebrow at Obi-Wan to chide him for bellowing.  He gave her an apologetic look, realizing too late that the echo must have been harsh on her sensitive ears, given the small size of the Reconciliation Chamber.  Only Boda MonMassa and Saesee Tiin held permanent positions on this Council, while the others were serving a rotation.

“This isn’t your call to make—” Poof began.

“The hell it’s not.  Anakin Skywalker is my Padawan, and thus his health and safety, as well as his training, are my responsibility.”  Obi-Wan glanced at each member of the Reconciliation Council in turn, relieved to see that for the most part, they were agreeing with him.  “You may ask my Padawan questions, and he will answer you honestly and as well as he is able.  But that is all.  Unless the rules regarding the Master-Apprentice relationship have changed in the past year?”

Poof scowled but said nothing.  MonMassa quickly took charge of the proceedings.  “The point is acknowledged, and though the knowledge could be useful, I am in agreement with Master Kenobi,” she said.  “Anakin Skywalker’s loyalty to the Light has been vouched for by both of his Masters, many of his fellow Padawans, and members of the High Council.  We do not need to subject him to a potentially damaging procedure.”

Obi-Wan bowed to the senior Master.  He knew almost nothing of Boda MonMassa, for he had dealt with her very little in either of his lifetimes, but so far she was proving to be a very sensible woman.  “Thank you, Master MonMassa.”

“Thus we come to you then, Master Kenobi,” she said, and Obi-Wan noted the faint twist of disagreement that touched Master Poof’s features.  Though he had yet to be confirmed (or re-confirmed, really) by the High Council, Yarael Poof was the only one present who had not referred to him as a Master.  The subtle dig was amusing.  Obi-Wan really didn’t care what the hell the other Master called him, as long as Poof left Anakin alone.

MonMassa was glancing over the file on her datapad.  “I take it to understand that you both spent time under this Sith Lord’s tutelage.”

“Unfortunately, yes,” he said, trying not to let on that his stomach had turned into a hard knot the moment she uttered the words.

She nodded, giving him a sympathetic look.  She worked with the Shadow agents; he probably wasn’t fooling her one bit.  “I don’t claim to understand the experience you have documented for the High Council, though I do not doubt its authenticity.  I have read the reports, but I would like to hear, in your words, how you came to put yourself in such a situation, and how you got out of it.”

Obi-Wan lifted his chin.  This, he had expected, and had spent a great deal of his morning meditation preparing for it.  He spoke quietly, describing in some of the stresses and events of the war in order to better explain—and acknowledge—his state of mind at the time.  He detailed his meeting with Tyrannus, Sidious, and Vader, and Vader/Anakin’s see-sawing mental state.  The longer he talked about his time among the Sith, the harder it was to keep his voice steady, and by the time he’d reached Palpatine’s use of Force Illusion in the library, it was wobbling like an adolescent’s.

Not even the room’s shields could block the Lifebond.  Are you all right?

He stopped, and did his very best to collect himself.  No.   Yes.  Not in danger, not panicking.

Qui-Gon seemed to sigh, but then Obi-Wan was wrapped in bands of gentle warmth, and the scent of his mate was in Obi-Wan’s nose.  I’m here.  You aren’t there.

Thank you, he sent, more relieved than he’d expected to be.

The other Jedi in the room would have been hard-pressed not to sense the interaction.  “Are you all right to continue now, Master Kenobi?” Mace asked.

He nodded.  “Well enough, Master Windu, thank you.” 

It was still hard, but he managed.  It was when he got to the point of explaining how Mace and Yoda had built the block in his mind that Plo Koon spoke up.  “Do you know why Master Windu and Master Yoda would have done such a thing, Obi-Wan?”

He shook his head.  “I have nothing other than the words I heard them say during those few moments of consciousness, Master Koon.  Even that is questionable, as I was not in very good shape.”

MonMassa snorted.  “I’ll say.  That certainly was an…an inventive solution, Master Kenobi.  Appalling, but inventive.”

As far as his life was concerned, ripping out his connection to the Force ranked up there as the most reasonable and yet the most insane thing he had ever done.  Obi-Wan inclined his head.  “In that we are in complete agreement, Master MonMassa.”

“Thus, as per the reports, you had no knowledge of what lay behind the block until you encountered Senator Palpatine—excuse me, Darth Sidious—once more?” Saesee Tiin asked.

“No.  I had dreams that I could never remember upon waking, a set that cycled as documented by Master Healer Jale Terza,” Obi-Wan said.  “Nothing else.”  He paused, remembering something he’d forgotten.  “The Force actually tried to warn me about the Hand that we would meet on Naboo, Jeng Droga.  But because my memory of him was tied up behind the block, I couldn’t even remember that I had dreamed of him until after the block’s destruction.”

“And now?” MonMassa wanted to know, giving him an appraising stare.

“Nightmares, though unlike before, I remember their content.  Two panic attacks.  One instance, post-healing, of…” he hesitated.  “Dissociation would be the best term for it.  Awakening from sleep and not knowing where I was,” he clarified, when Master Poof gave him a questioning look.  “Also, the nightmares are random now, not the product of an arbitrary cycle.”

“Ah,” MonMassa said, nodding.  “So unlike Padawan Skywalker, you have no buffer.” 

“None,” he said sourly, not bothering to hide his feelings on that matter.  The frank response earned him a smile from the Master of Shadows.

“And do you feel that these side effects will hinder your ability to perform to the best of your ability?  Please answer honestly.  I’m sure you are well aware that having a panic attack in the field could put your entire team in danger.”  Plo Koon regarded him calmly, hands folded in his lap.

Obi-Wan shook his head.  “I have no idea.  The nightmares only occur when I’m sleeping, and one assumes I wouldn’t be doing that in the middle of a battle,” he said, and Mace smiled grimly.  “The panic attacks were caused by stimuli directly related to the Sith, and it is Knight Healer Abella’s opinion that the episode of dissociation was brought on by the same factor.  It is part of the reason I have plans to visit the Sith’s residence later today.”

“Glutton for punishment, aren’t you, lad?” MonMassa murmured.  “I take it you are hoping that the blatant stimuli will help you to find any remaining triggers?”  She smiled at the expression on his face.  “I train Shadows, Obi-Wan, those of us who see the darker sides of the galaxy far more often than not.  We’re used to that sort of therapy.”

“I would imagine so,” he said, refraining from sighing.  “Yes, that is the plan.”

MonMassa nodded, glancing over at Mace.  He could feel it when silent communication began, much as it occurred during regular Council sessions.  Obi-Wan usually didn’t find himself so drained after dealing with the High Council, though.  There was a reason that most Jedi in the Order whimpered when faced with the prospect of a briefing before the full Reconciliation Council.

It didn’t take long for a decision to be reached.  “I am satisfied as to your loyalty to the Order and to the Light,” the Master of Shadows proclaimed.  “But there are certain provisions you will fulfill before this Council approves your return to active field duty.”

“You will meet with your primary Healers, who will give you a final physical to determine your overall health,” Saesee Tiin said, and Obi-Wan had to restrain the urge to swear under his breath.  He’d been Healer-badgered non-stop for a year now, and was heartily sick of it. 

“You will not go alone to the Sith’s former stronghold, though I doubt Qui-Gon would let you.”  Mace pinned him with a glare.  “However, we are all in agreement that this idea has merit, even if it will likely be an unpleasant experience.  Your Padawans will accompany you, as well, for they will need to be as familiar with your history and reactions as you and Master Jinn.  Master Gallia and Master Mundi will be joining your team.  While the Sith’s residence has been explored and mapped, it is vital they be present to document any new discoveries the four of you might make.”

“You will see a Soul Healer before the end of this week, preferably the therapist who has worked with you in the past,” Plo Koon said next.  “This will give you the chance to recover if anything untoward should occur.  This Healer will then report back to us as to your expected competency, and we will send you a message to let you know the result.  At worst, you may end up in therapy with the Soul Healer longer than you might wish,” he added.

“You are dismissed,” MonMassa said.  “May the Force be with you, Master Kenobi.”  Obi-Wan returned the bow to the assembled Masters, noting the currents of the Force as he did so.  Yarael Poof seemed displeased with the ruling, but that was no surprise.  Some days he suspected that the Quermian Master was cantankerous just because he could be.

He escaped outside, let the heavy doors swing shut behind him, and then promptly collapsed onto the floor, back resting against the nearest wall.  He felt like he had been raked over hot coals, dumped in a freezing ocean, and hung out to dry.

Qui-Gon eyed him curiously from the chair he’d been waiting in, putting down the book he’d been reading.  “All right, love?”

Obi-Wan made a muffled noise before he forced himself to crawl over, climbing up into the chair to sit next to his mate.  “Never want to do that again,” he said, slumping down in the seat and letting his head fall back to thump against the wall.  “Never ever ever.”  Even with all of the trouble he and Anakin had caused the first time around, they had never had to face down the Reconciliation Council.

Granted, they’d been stuck with the full High Council instead, every time, and right then he wasn’t sure which was worse.

Qui-Gon nodded.  “I’ve said that before, myself.  And yet, it will be my fourth time walking through those particular doors,” he noted, and Obi-Wan made a strangled, horrified noise.  “Not for anything so strenuous as this,” he continued, smiling at Obi-Wan’s disbelieving look.  “Mostly providing eye-witness accounts for other Knights and Masters.  Once, after Thani.”

“And that wasn’t stressful?” Obi-Wan asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, it was almost three years after Xanatos left the Order when the Reconciliation Council finally managed to pin me down about the matter,” Qui-Gon replied, an amused glint in his eyes.  Obi-Wan smiled to see it; even six months ago there would have been a pensive, brooding look, accompanied by the echoing ghost of old pain. 

The doors opened again, with Mace stepping out just long enough to nod at Qui-Gon.  “Have fun,” Obi-Wan said.  The moment the doors shut, he forced himself to sleep, if only to gird himself against what the rest of the day would bring.

Which was how Anakin and Rillian found him, twenty minutes later. 

 

*          *          *          *

 

“I’m—sorry.  Let me see if I understand this.  You want me to spy on my spouse?” Qui-Gon asked, stuck somewhere between amused and incredulous.

“Spy is the wrong word,” Boda said, looking like she wanted to throttle Yarael.  “As Master Kenobi himself told us, he has no buffer against the Sith knowledge in his mind.  You are not a spy in this instance, but the first line of defense the Order has if he ever again succumbs to it.”  The look she gave him was sympathetic, but unapologetic.  “Just as Obi-Wan is our first defense against Vader, and young Anakin is our secondary against Venge.”

“Master MonMassa, you’ve spent too much time among the Shadows and their enemy-mine language,” Plo said, chuffing a laugh behind his mask.  “To put a more positive spin on it, Qui-Gon, you are all there to buffer and support each other.  This quartet of yours is your strength, and Boda merely wishes to utilize it.”

“An early warning system she wants, but…” Master Yaddle shook her head.  “If these Sith, Vader or Venge, were to return, a warning we would not need, I think.”

Qui-Gon felt a stark chill go through him at the diminutive Master’s words.  “May that never come to pass.”

“Indeed,” Mace added, while Saesee Tiin nodded.  “But we have your agreement, Qui-Gon?”

Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow.  “We were already doing what you’ve asked in the first place.  This is like receiving official orders to watch each other’s backs.  In this instance, the Reconciliation Council asks something that I will gladly agree to.  But if you expect that it will be kept secret—”

“No, nothing so ridiculous as that,” Boda waved her hand.  “But I wish to be kept updated as to what your spouse learns as he searches for the missing Master Ood Bnar, as well as the new prophecy research your quartet and Master Tahl are doing.”

“You could have just asked him.”

Boda smiled.  “I could have, but I think Master Kenobi has enough to worry about.  Again, this is to be no secret, but I think he could do with one less responsibility pressing down upon him.  Reporting to me under my office of Master of Shadows shall be your responsibility, instead.”

“You’re being kind.  What’s the catch?” Qui-Gon asked, and Plo snorted laughter again.

“No catch.  I’m merely being practical.  I’ve learned it in my old age, Qui-Gon,” Boda said with a wry smile.  “I don’t play as mercilessly with my toys as I used to.”

Saesee made a stifled noise, which Qui-Gon noted and stored for later.  He rarely, if ever, had blackmail material on the Iktotchi Master.  “So noted, Master MonMassa.  Is that all?”

“Yes, for now.  And if the shite hits the fan, don’t hide from me for three years, this time,” Boda retorted.

“I’ll make it six, then,” he said, bowing quickly to hide his smile from the other Master.  They had been agemates, but never friends, and he had a feeling that might finally change. 

“May the Force be with you, Master Jinn.  Send Padawan Skywalker in; both he and Padawan Raallandirr have reported in to the Council Secretary,” Yarael directed.

And here I was going to tell them to run for their lives, Qui-Gon thought sourly, momentary amusement forgotten in light of the other Master’s pompous tone.  He stepped through the massive doors the moment they’d opened enough to let him pass.  Qui-Gon might have kept his tone and feelings on the matter light, for Obi-Wan’s sake, but if he never saw this particular room again, he would die happy.

Qui-Gon stopped short at the sight that met his eyes, a wide smile replacing the frown he’d walked away from the Council with.  Obi-Wan was on the floor, gasping for air, trying to dislodge the two Padawans who were tickling him senseless.

“Ger’off!” Obi-Wan yelled, trying to twist away from his apprentice.

“Hey, you agreed to the tickling-brooding clause!” Anakin replied cheerfully.

[And helping is fun!] Rillian added, using her nimble fingers to dire effectiveness on the young Master’s ribs.  Obi-Wan howled with laughter in response, then Force-dumped them both off.  

“Sleeping—s’not—brooding!” Obi-Wan gasped, collapsing in an exhausted heap and ignoring the disapproving look from the Reconciliation Council’s secretary. 

“Yeah, well, most people don’t glare in their sleep, Master,” Anakin said, kneeling on the floor and looking smug.  “Worked, didn’t it?”

“I’m revoking the tickle-brooding clause,” Obi-Wan said into the carpet.

“Too late, terms were set, negotiations are closed,” Anakin replied immediately.

“Hostile…takeover,” Obi-Wan retorted, getting up on his hands and knees.  “Superior tactics will carry the day.”

“Bring it on,” Anakin grinned back, while Rillian glanced back and forth, amusement warring with curiosity.  “Superior tactics can only stand so far in the face of superior numbers.”

“Superior numbers and superior tactics both fall to orbital bombardment,” Qui-Gon interjected.  “I win.”

“That’s cheating!” Anakin declared.  Obi-Wan laughed and Rillian grinned in delight.  “Besides, there are caves.  Caves defeat orbital bombardment.”

“Blockade starves you out,” Obi-Wan countered again, smiling at Qui-Gon as he accepted a hand up from the floor.  “How was it?”

“Intriguing.  We’ll all have to compare notes later.  Anakin, it’s your turn,” Qui-Gon said, noticing that Mace was standing before the open doors, waiting for the Reconciliation Council’s next victim.

“Populace learns to eat cave matter and creates underground hydroponics.  Stubbornness carries the day,” Anakin muttered back, giving Mace a tight smile as he entered the Council chamber.

[So, are we having fun, or is this a thought exercise?] Rillian asked when the doors closed.

“Both,” Obi-Wan said, ruffling the Wookiee girl’s short-cropped mane.

 

*          *          *          *

 

“How do you feel, Padawan Skywalker?” the Master of Shadows asked him.

Anakin glanced around at the gathered Jedi.  Master Poof was nervous, and wouldn’t meet his eyes.  Anakin had almost expected that.  The Quermian Master had always been tetchy about Anakin in the past, so this was nothing new.  The others, though—the others were simply regarding him as a Padawan, not a problem. 

It made him feel a little bit less like bait.

“I’m fine, Master,” he said at last.

“Carry a terrible burden, you do,” Master Yaddle pointed out.  Her syntax was never as garbled as Master Yoda’s, but she had her moments.  “Do you trust yourself in the face of it?”

“I wasn’t aware that I had a choice,” Anakin replied.  He wasn’t sure if his usual stark honesty would be best, but he could still be blatantly awful at diplomat speak.

And dammit, he shouldn’t have to be a diplomat, not here.  All they wanted to know was if he was mentally prepared for the challenge of being himself.  Well, that was what they were all going to find out.  “I’ll either be fine, or I won’t.  We’ve got plenty of time to see which one it ends up being.”

Master Yaddle smiled at him.  Dammit, he always, always missed it when she was testing him.  In about three months, he’d figure out what she’d been testing him for. 

“Do you want to be a Jedi Knight?” Master MonMassa asked him.

“Yes,” he said, because on that point, Anakin had never wavered.

“Right now?” she asked, giving him a pointed look.

Anakin blinked at her.  “I—I’m eleven.

“But you have the knowledge and, quite possibly, the skill of a Jedi Knight,” she replied, still gazing at him.  There were shadows in her eyes, a fair match for her title.  “I imagine we could toss you into the Chamber to face your Trials, and you would pass.”

I am not going into that room! his mind immediately gibbered.  He frowned, calming himself with a reassuring touch to the Force.  Plenty of time to figure out why he was afraid of the Chamber later.  He’d never even set foot in the room.

That you remember, an insidious inner voice whispered darkly.

Shut up, he told it.  “Sure, I guess I could,” Anakin said out loud.  “But it wouldn’t magically make me twenty-eight Standard, or fifty-three Standard.  Given what Master Obi-Wan had to put up with just presenting himself as a Knight at sixteen, I’d really rather not run around telling people I’m a Knight.  Not unless I want them laughing themselves sick, anyway.”

“Wouldn’t it make things…easier?” Master Poof asked him.

Anakin scowled.  “I refuse to answer that on the grounds that it’s a stupid question,” he said, which made Master MonMassa laugh aloud.

 

*          *          *          *

 

[I’d really rather not,] Rillian said, when Mace waved her towards the open Council chamber doors.  Master Qui-Gon seemed amused by the entire affair with the Reconciliation Council, but Master Obi-Wan was seething about something they’d done, and Anakin was miffed.  Force knew what they had in store for her.

“You’ll be fine, Padawan,” her Master said, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder and smiling.  Whatever else had been done, he believed what he said—Rillian could see it in his eyes.  If he believed, then so did she.

[All right,] she sighed, touching the pocket of her bandoleer where her lightsaber lay hidden as she walked into the room.

“You won’t need that here, Padawan,” Master Mace said in a soft undertone.

She rumbled something apologetic and ducked her head, mortified that she’d been caught pawing at her lightsaber before a Council of Masters.  They weren’t Sith, for Force’s sake!

She stopped in the center of the room at Master Mace’s nod, facing the five Masters.  The Shadow Master, Boda MonMassa, had the center chair, while Master Yaddle had the one to the far left.  Then there was Master Mace, Master Koon, and two other Masters serving a rotation from the High Council.  The Iktotchi had to be Master Tiin, and the long-necked one had to be the Poof Master that her Masters and Anakin always seemed to have a grievance with.  She couldn’t imagine why; he looked harmless enough, and felt that way, too.  Hypnotic, if he kept swaying his itty head back and forth like that and Force thank goodness Master taught me good shields, she thought in horror, realizing belatedly that her thoughts had not quite been appropriate.

“Padawan Raallandirr, how are you?” Master MonMassa asked.

[Fine, Masters,] she said, bowing as she should.  [And you all?]

Master Yaddle chuckled, a bell-like, pleased sound.  “Manners, you remember.  That is a pleasure.  We are all well, Padawan.”

“Quite, yes, thank you,” Master Koon said.  It was hard to tell with the mask, but Rillian thought her Master’s agemate was pleased with her, also.

“And how do you feel about having a former Sith for a Master?” the Poof Master asked.

Rillian gave him a bewildered look, startled by the suddenness, and impoliteness of the question.  [Far better him than you,] she retorted without thinking.  [Er.  Master.]

The Shadow Master chuckled.  “Oh, the girl’s taking after her Master already,” she said, then leaned forward in her chair, giving Rillian a calm smile.  “Raallandirr, we merely want to be sure that the Order does its best by you.  Out of the four of your quartet, you are the youngest, both in terms of physical age and experience.  To continue in such a unique circumstance, you must be comfortable with who your teachers are, and the environment you find yourself in.  To be otherwise is to invite disaster.”

“And despite what some of the young ones love to proclaim, we want all Padawans to excel in their training, arrive intact at their Trials, and pass them to become new Knights of the Jedi Order,” Master Tiin said.

[Oh,] Rillian said.  [The Force decreed that he was to be my Master, and I his Padawan,] she replied.  It was truth—she’d felt it just as vibrantly as Master Qui-Gon had, the night she’d stepped into his quarters and into his life.

And even if their pairing hadn’t been Force-blessed, there was no way she was going to give up her Master.  Sith, no Sith, or twenty thousand Sith!

“What if the Force were to be wrong?” the Poof Master asked, his head still weaving side to side. 

Rillian frowned.  [Well, the sky on Coruscant could be green, but I can look out the window and see that it’s not.]

The Quermian smiled and stopped moving his head back and forth.  “That is the most interesting answer to that question I have ever heard.  Keep such level thoughts in your head, young Padawan, and you will do well in this life.”

Rillian blinked repeatedly, caught off-guard yet again.  [I—Thank you, Master.]

“You are dismissed, Raallandirr,” Master Mace told her, just as the outer doors cracked open.  “May the Force be with you.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

“So the overall message seems to have been, ‘Don’t screw up,”’ Obi-Wan surmised over lunch.  They’d wisely decided to eat in their own quarters again, else risk being swarmed in the commissary.  While Qui-Gon knew they’d have to face that eventuality soon, today didn’t seem like the best time.

“Seems like it,” Qui-Gon agreed, while Rillian frowned and Anakin snorted, shaking his head.

“They could have called us all in at once and saved us some time, just by saying that,” Anakin said, stabbing half-heartedly at the food that remained on his plate.  With their appointment in the Industrial Zone now looming before them, none of them had much appetite save for Rillian, who would never let a case of nerves keep her from food.

“I imagine they wanted to see if we were all capable of standing as individuals, rather than relying on the support of a unit at all times.”  Obi-Wan hadn’t even bothered with lunch, and was ignoring a cup of tea that had probably gone stone cold.  “Stood up just fine, thank you.”

“Stood up so well you made the wall vibrate,” Qui-Gon pointed out, half-smiling when Obi-Wan gave him a suspicious look.  “Good job.”

“You yelled at them?” Anakin asked, grinning.  “What for?”

“Master Yarael wanted to be granted permission to go spelunking through Vader’s memories,” Obi-Wan said, a glint of steel appearing in his eyes, turning them flat gray.

Anakin’s grin wilted.  “Oh.  Thank you for saying no.”  He paused.  “You…did say no, right?”

“I believe the specific words were, ‘Over my dead body,’” Obi-Wan confirmed.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Despite the warm weather the Temple District was enjoying, the air outside the hidden entrance to Sidious’s lair was chilly, dank, and still, even with the fan in place to blow warmer air into the gateway.  One of the guards on duty, Aermal, nodded at Qui-Gon’s expression.  “’Tis always like this,” the Knight said, pulling his own robe more securely around his shoulders.  “It could be boiling hot a klik away from here, but on top of this damn hole, it’s always cold.”

Rillian burrowed her way under Qui-Gon’s arm, shivering.  [I should have worn Master Tyvokka’s cloak,] she murmured softly, radiating gratitude when Qui-Gon opened his own cloak enough for the girl to slip inside, plastering herself to his side.  Despite the lump of fur suddenly attached to his hip, the extra warmth did little to deter the feeling of standing on hard-frosted ground.

Obi-Wan was waiting on the second stair, staring down at it as if puzzled.  It took Qui-Gon a moment to remember what significance it held, and when he did he had to fight the urge to shiver.  “What are you thinking?”

Obi-Wan turned to face him, and though he looked pale and tired already, there was no hint of ice in his eyes, and his smile was still full of warmth.  “Just hoping Dooku isn’t currently doing anything foolish.”

“You mean aside from what he’s already done?” Qui-Gon countered, making his slow way forward in deference to the Padawan at his side.  “You won’t see him here again, love.  That, I’m certain of.”

“Thank the Force for small favors, then,” Obi-Wan replied.  “Anakin?”

Anakin had taken only a few steps away from the speeder.  Adi Gallia and Ki-Adi Mundi were flanking him, Adi with a concerned look that spoke volumes about her willingness to step forward and help, if needed. 

“I’m—I’m okay,” the boy said at last, blinking and throwing off whatever ghosts had held him to that spot.  He strode forward with a determined expression on his face, cloak billowing out behind him.  “I just remember more of this place than I expected.”

“You were still fighting,” Obi-Wan said softly, reaching out to take his Padawan’s hand.  “Ready?”

“I was just gonna ask you that, Master,” Anakin said with a lopsided smile.  “Yeah.  Let’s do this and get it over with.  Maybe when we’re done they’ll fill the entire place with duracrete.”

“Perchance to dream,” Obi-Wan muttered.

The main hall was exactly as Qui-Gon had seen in Obi-Wan’s memories, but thankfully someone had taken down the flags and tapestries.  The change left the vast room stark and barren, and sounds echoed crazily because of the smooth, bare stone walls. 

“We’ve gone through everything,” Adi said, almost startling Qui-Gon.  It was easy to forget that they were being followed by the other two Masters, especially when most of his concentration was on his spouse and their shared Padawan.  “The only thing left relatively untouched are the hssiss.”

“They’re still alive?” Obi-Wan asked, half-turning to Adi in surprise.

“You didn’t kill them?” Anakin added, incredulous.

“There are laws against killing endangered species, Sith poison or not,” Ki-Adi replied, shaking his head.  “We don’t know how to approach them without chancing instant death, Padawan Skywalker.  Even if we could, how do we sedate them?  How do we transport them to Korriban without someone dying in the process?”

[And it’s not their fault they’re evil,] Rillian said to Anakin.  [We can’t just kill them because of what they are.]

“We can’t tame them either, Rillian!” Anakin retorted angrily.

“Not all things need to be tamed,” Qui-Gon said, laying his left hand on Anakin’s shoulder.  “They’re not what they are by choice, but by design.  If they still exist, then they deserve the chance to be freed—in a safe environment—and nature allowed to take its course.”

“Korriban isn’t the best place to let nature have its way with anything,” Anakin pointed out.

“No, but it’s the best we can do without risking the lives of countless others.  It was their home once before.  It can be so again,” Qui-Gon said.  Anakin’s shoulder slumped under his hand, but it was acceptance, not frustration, that he felt through the training bond.

“Right.  Well, then.  First problem to confront.  Living things take precedence,” Obi-Wan said with false cheer, making his way towards the far end of the hall.

“Obi-Wan, this way—” Ki-Adi started to say. 

“Only if you want to take the long way,” Obi-Wan replied.  He was already standing before a blank wall, ignoring the obvious exit.  He lifted his hand, palm out, and touched one particular spot on the wall.  It was not marked, and looked no different from the rest of the black stone, but the moment his fingers brushed the surface, a mechanism sounded, and a turbolift opened where no door had been present before.

“Force blast it all,” Adi swore.  “How many more places like that are there?”

Obi-Wan gave her a quick look, his lips pressed to a thin line.  “Too many.”

It was Anakin who showed them the room next door to the hssiss’s chamber, where a wide, one-way viewing window provided ample opportunity to see the slinking, reptilian creatures.  Despite the close proximity, none of the animals seemed aware of their presence.

“The room’s shielded,” Anakin explained, gazing at the hssiss with narrowed eyes.  “They can’t sense us, we can’t sense them.  If one of Sidious’s people stumbled into the room by accident…” Anakin shrugged.  “If you lived, excellent.  If you died, he didn’t have to feed them that week.”

“How did he feed them?  And why this sort of setup?” Adi asked, watching the hssiss with more than a little morbid curiosity.  Qui-Gon had to admit to the same feeling; the hssiss were beautiful, in their own draconic way, and all the more deadly for it.

Obi-Wan touched a control inset in the wall next to the transparisteel, and sound filtered into the room—the snapping of jaws, hissing mutters, the sound of scales sliding over sand or rock.  “They were his pets, Adi.  He liked to watch them, especially when it was feeding time.”  What was left unspoken Qui-Gon could almost hear in Obi-Wan’s thoughts:  Especially if the meal was a living being.

“As for how—well.  If you were the Hand that had performed the worst that week, in Palpatine’s eyes, you were the unfortunate soul who got to open the outer door and toss in dinner.”

Ki-Adi shook his head.  “That’s revolting.”

“I suppose if there’s no other way, we can build a Force-shield across the doorway to keep them from escaping, or hurting anyone,” Adi said, making notes.  “What do they eat, anyway?”

Anakin snorted.  “Anything, Master Adi.  They don’t care.  They’re roaming, poisonous, armored Sith garbage disposals.”

Obi-Wan continued to open hidden doors for their escorts, which led Adi to swearing viciously and more extensively under her breath with every new doorway they were faced with.  Some were only more hidden lifts, allowing faster access to parts of the dark labyrinth.  Other doors opened onto rooms that no Jedi team had yet to explore, and Ki-Adi was keeping a vocal tally on the amount of time it would take to safely investigate each new place.

“I almost wish you’d stop doing that,” the Cerean Master said at last, looking around a laboratory that was abandoned, but still full of empty equipment and covered computer consoles.  “We’re up to six months of extra work, and that’s just a base estimate.”

Qui-Gon eyed the computers thoughtfully, but said nothing.  More than likely the data had been wiped clean, just as the library had been emptied.  Palpatine had never struck him as one to leave loose ends lying about, especially when he’d started executing his own people just to keep them from the Jedi.

“Concrete’s still an option,” Anakin said, his arms wrapped around himself as he looked into a room across the hall from the lab.  There was nothing in it, nothing to explain Anakin’s reaction, until Qui-Gon flashed on the memory of Sith language lessons.

Rillian howled in sympathy and abandoned her Master’s side to hug her fellow Padawan.  [There’s nothing useful in there, no matter which way, or which when, you look at it.]

“Yeah,” Anakin agreed, turning away from the room with a sigh.  “When did you turn into the smart one, anyway?”

Rillian smiled.  [At birth, Skywalker.  Besides, one of us has to be.]

Qui-Gon ruffled his Padawan’s short-cropped mane in silent thanks as he went to retrieve Obi-Wan, who had wandered farther down the hall while the other Masters made notes on the new room’s contents. 

His search led him down two side passages and through a dark tunnel, one whose lights were barely operational.  He found Obi-Wan past a row of Temple-sealed doors, staring at the blank wall at the tunnel’s end.  “What’s wrong?” Qui-Gon asked, when Obi-Wan didn’t move or turn to acknowledge his presence.

“There’s supposed to be a door, right here,” Obi-Wan said, his voice so low that his words were little more than a hiss.  Qui-Gon blinked in surprise, realizing as he stepped close that there was burning anger in his mate’s eyes.  “Where.  In the hell.  Is the door?

“Perhaps it hadn’t been constructed yet?” Qui-Gon suggested gently.  He could feel little of Obi-Wan’s current ire, and was both relieved and frustrated by the fact.  Neither of them kept specific shields over their bond, but Obi-Wan excelled in channeling his emotions away from it, so much so that sometimes he did it without realizing.  “The library was only half its size, remember?”

Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes, then pressed himself up against the wall.  Qui-Gon could feel the currents of the Force stirring as Obi-Wan examined the stone with all of his senses.  By the time the others caught up, Obi-Wan was swearing and looking like he could chew through the black granite with his teeth.  Easy, love, Qui-Gon sent.

“What?” Anakin asked, glancing around the tunnel curiously.  “Huh.  I don’t remember this place.”

I know.  Trying.  “You wouldn’t,” Obi-Wan said, his jaw clenched as he worked to rein in his temper.  “He never brought you down here.  He didn’t want you to know.”

“What are—oh,” Anakin breathed, wide-eyed.  “The cloning chamber.  It’s down there?”

Obi-Wan nodded.  “Yes.  But he’s sealed it off—the ’crete is at least a meter thick.  And I don’t remember if there’s another way down.”

Anakin grinned.  “Pfft.  Who needs a detour?” he said, flicking his wrist at the wall.

Qui-Gon bit back a sharp gasp as the Force flooded into being at Anakin’s call, roaring through the passageway and turning the blocked wall into a sheared extension of the tunnel in less than three seconds.  Adi went pale, while Ki-Adi swore under his breath as the pocket formed and passed.

[Skywalker!] Rillian roared, rubbing at the fur on her arms as it tried to stand on end.

“That was abominable.  You’re to work on fine control for the next month,” Obi-Wan said, glaring at his Padawan.

“You don’t complain when Garen bulldozes his way through things,” Anakin groused back.

“Six months,” Obi-Wan said.  Anakin opened his mouth to protest, noticed the look in his Master’s eyes, and promptly shut up.  “And Garen doesn’t create a massive pressure wave in the Force when he does so.  He channels all of it properly, Padawan.  He doesn’t gather up the Force like a big, unwieldy ball of explosives.”

Surprisingly, Anakin paled.  “You want me to study with Garen?  Please, not that.  I’d rather spend a year in the Archives with Jocasta Nu, Master!”

Obi-Wan gave his Padawan a merciless grin.  “Oh, I think studying with Garen and learning proper bulldozing techniques will serve you well.”

“He’s even more of a tyrant than you tend to be!” Anakin complained.

Obi-Wan tilted his head.  “You could stand some more tyranting, I think.”

Anakin sighed and nodded at his Master, giving in.  “Right, then.  Six months of tutoring with Master Garen,” he agreed.  Qui-Gon hid a smile; he’d harbored some concerns about Anakin’s continued training now that his memories were largely intact.  It seemed, however, that there was little to worry about. 

“Muln?  Tyrant?” Ki-Adi asked, confused.  “Are we speaking of the same Knight that I’m accustomed to?”

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Obi-Wan said cryptically, turning to lead the way into the short tunnel Anakin had created.  Lights were on ahead where the hall resumed, revealing a narrow stairwell.  “Garen might seem reckless when it comes to his own safety, but you put Padawans under his watch and he will make damned sure they learn what is needed to survive and flourish.”

Why? Qui-Gon asked, feeling Rillian’s hand creep back into his own as they all descended the staircase.  Conversation had ground to a screeching halt the moment the small group passed through Anakin’s new doorway.  The atmosphere had become even more oppressive than it was above, and the air wasn’t just cold, but actively being chilled by machinery somewhere distant.

Because he’s terrified of seeing someone die under his watch, especially if it’s a student, Obi-Wan replied.  It’s why he never took a Padawan, before.  Part-time instruction was one thing, but Garen knew that fear would negatively affect someone he was teaching if he had a training bond with a student, as well.

The actual chamber, where four cloning vats had rested in Obi-Wan’s memory, was empty.  The duracrete floor was smooth, as if it had been prepared for use but never built upon.  Qui-Gon knelt and ran his fingers across the stone, feeling the whispering impression of something come back to him in the Force, but he couldn’t decipher what it was.

“Creepy,” Anakin said, shivering visibly.  “What do you think, Master?”

Obi-Wan turned in place, head cocked, listening to the same faint hints that Qui-Gon had heard.  “I—yes.  They were here,” he said, closing his eyes.

“Somehow, I’m not surprised,” Adi said, frowning.  “This place is simply too new.”

Qui-Gon could feel it when his mate twined himself in the Force, touching upon the multitude of possible paths he could always see, when he wished.  Most of the time, Obi-Wan didn’t want to see all those myriad strands; he claimed they were overwhelming if he tried to keep up, and their influence could mar current events with the overlay of negative potential futures.  It was how he’d upset Anakin so badly when they first knew each other, and Obi-Wan had no desire to repeat the lesson.

“Oh.  Oh, fuck,” Obi-Wan said a moment later, opening his eyes.  “Adi, you need to call Master MonMassa.  Her Seekers need to know that any genetic trail they find is useless.”

Qui-Gon felt his blood run cold, and knew he wasn’t the only one.  “He’s body-jumping?”

“At least once,” Obi-Wan said, nodding faintly.  “It makes sense.  He has no reason to stay in his original body—if that even is the original,” he said, his left hand curling into a white-knuckled fist.  “Of the four bodies he had in here, only one was his.  The other three were all different, but they all felt like him.”

“Oh.  Oh, sweet Force,” Adi shook her head.  “No, I can’t just call.  This is too important for that.  Ki, can you finish up here?  I need to go see her, now.  I know at least one of her Shadows is on a genetic trail, and it may be leading him directly into a trap.”

“Go,” Ki-Adi agreed, his eyes glittering with repressed anger.  “The five of us are safe enough in here.  It’s out there that’s dangerous, now.”

Qui-Gon looked at Obi-Wan, who gazed back with his lips pinched into a thin, white line.  They were both sharing the same thought, and knew their Padawans were, as well:  Palpatine could literally be anyone, now.  With his ability to hide in the Force, masking his presence, there would be no way to know of a trap until it was too late.

Out of unconscious desire, or conscious decision, the throne room was saved for last.  Anakin took one look at it, declared that he had had enough of that place for one lifetime, and left.  Rillian and Ki-Adi went with him, leaving Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan alone.

Obi-Wan stood at the bottom of the stairs to the dais, motionless.  Qui-Gon let him be, and for a long time neither of them spoke.  Obi-Wan was aware of his presence, but his eyes were distant, his thoughts elsewhere.  He was keeping his feelings largely to himself, but he hadn’t dropped firm shields over the Lifebond.  There was no sense of trauma or panic.  Beyond that, Qui-Gon was left to guess at what his mate was thinking about.

“Are you all right?” he asked at last, when the chill of the Sith’s lair began to overcome any attempt he made to warm himself.

Obi-Wan finally turned; the track-marks of tears were evident on his bare cheeks, but his eyes were clear.  “Surprisingly enough, yes.  I actually think I am.” 

Obi-Wan came willingly to him when Qui-Gon lifted his hand in invitation, and Qui-Gon flinched and swore when he contacted chilled skin.  “You’re freezing,” he chastised, gripping Obi-Wan’s icy hands in both of his own in effort to share warmth. 

Obi-Wan blinked and glanced down, surprised.  “I just…hadn’t noticed.  I was well and truly worried about other things.  But now that you mention it, let’s get the hell out of here.  I am freezing my ass off.”

Qui-Gon grinned and pulled Obi-Wan close, walking out of Sidious’s mock throne room much as he’d walked into the Sith lair with Rillian pressed against his side.  Within moments, Obi-Wan began to shiver as his body finally realized it had been starved for warmth.  “Bath,” Qui-Gon said sternly.

“Heaven,” Obi-Wan agreed, pressing even closer when his teeth chattered.  “Had enough of this place.  Not coming back even if they paid me, Qui.”

“In that we are in firm agreement,” Qui-Gon said, relieved when the weak sunlight that trickled in through the main doors came into view.

“Yeah.  And…”  Obi-Wan looked up, a hesitant smile on his face.  “There’s someone I want to go see.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

“She’s over there—the one with her nose pressed into a book,” Master Kuunhra said, smiling.  The old Trandoshan Master was looking more and more like a doting, reptilian grandfather with every day that passed, now, but he still knew the scents of all of his charges, and exactly where to find them at all times.  “Settle in next to her instead of trying to get her attention outright.  She treats those books like a meditation, and it makes her jumpy and nervous if she’s startled out of it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Obi-Wan replied, making his way to the appointed area.  A little humanoid girl with an unruly, wiry mop of hair on her head sat in the corner, snub nose indeed tucked into a book.  It was one of the digital page-turners, and every so often she’d use a chubby finger to sweep the next page into place, completely absorbed. 

For a moment he only studied her, noticing the differences between an eighteen year-old Padawan and the three year-old toddler Jeila Vin was now.  Her hair was so dark that the blue appeared almost black, even in the bright creche light, unlike the paler coral blue he’d known.  The olive skin was the same, though, as were her determined green eyes and the faint hint of stubbornness hinted at by the furrow of her brow.

I watched you die, once, he thought, and his lungs seized.  He took a moment to relax, calming himself and grateful that he’d thought to shield heavily before entering the creche.

I told you I should have come with you, Qui-Gon said, and the soothing scent of his mate was in his nose, the feel of him a presence that draped Obi-Wan like a comforting, beloved blanket.

And next time, you will, Obi-Wan replied, breathing easier as the steel bands around his chest eased.  Remember: the Reconciliation Council wanted to see if we could each stand on our own, as well as stand by each other.

He could practically feel the other man’s smile.  You win this round, love.

Obi-Wan finished taking the final few steps to Jeila Vin’s little corner, moving aside a stack of children’s digital datapad books to sit down in front of her.  She ignored him, at first, still reading her story.  Then, gradually, she became aware that there was a shadow in front of her, and looked up, bright green eyes flashing with interest.  Hello.

Obi-Wan’s eyes widened in surprise.  Hello, Jeila Vin.  Master Kuunhra hadn’t mentioned that Vin was a blatant telepath.

You talk in my head! the little girl said excitedly, getting up and plopping herself right down again in Obi-Wan’s lap.  No one else does that.

Obi-Wan opened his mouth and then stopped as her words caught up with him.  Uh oh.

Jeila giggled.  Uh-oh, uh-oh! she chanted, sing-song, then tilted her head. Why uh-oh?

Cautiously, Obi-Wan opened part of his shielding and touched the currents of the Force, examining the patterns that surrounded himself and the toddler.  “Oh.  Oh…Force,” he said at last.  It wasn’t what he wanted to say, but Rillian had already warned him he was a bad influence.  He didn’t want several irate creche Masters hunting him down for teaching a three year-old naughty language. 

Hee! Jeila said, grinning up at the swirling patterns, as if she could see them, too.  Then again, considering their level of instant communication, it was possible that she could.

Anakin?

Hmm?  What’s up? Anakin asked, with the faint hint of distraction that meant he was probably tinkering with one of the Temple mouse droids again.

Is it wrong that I’ve already found your successor?

Well, sure it’s—wait, what? Anakin blurted, as Obi-Wan gained his full attention.  There was a quiet moment, the sense that his Padawan was poking at him through the Force, and then a spurt of raucous laughter.  Hah!  You are so, so screwed, Master!

What?  No worries about being usurped? Obi-Wan drawled back, not sure if he was amused or aggravated with the turn the evening had taken.

By a toddler?  Not likely, Master, Anakin said, still chortling. 

Don’t you laugh at my Obi, Jeila put in, a pout on her green-tinged lips.  Master Khu taught me how to hit boys in the dangly bits!

Obi-Wan almost swallowed his tongue to keep from laughing out loud, especially in light of Anakin’s startled, indignant, sputtered protests. 

A fighter already?  She’ll certainly keep us busy, Qui-Gon added.

You heard? he asked, while Jeila tilted her head in curiosity at the new voice.

Yes.  And you’re about to be mauled by Kuunhra and Master Yoda, Qui-Gon sent.

Obi-Wan looked up; Kuunhra was indeed on his way over, followed by Yoda, who was grinning practically ear-to-ear.  Oh, no.

Yoda! Jeila shrieked, and bolted from Obi-Wan’s lap to flock to the old Master, just like the rest of the toddlers were doing.

“Saved by a flood of younglings,” Obi-Wan murmured, smiling. 

Lesson one: volume control, Qui-Gon said, sounding pained.  And new shielding, if you’re going to be stuck with an already-active second training bond.

And won’t that just give Yarael fits, Obi-Wan mentioned, unable to keep the grin off his face as he began the process of reassuring Master Kuunhra that no, he wasn’t in the midst of making off with one of the Initiates under his charge. 

Plenty of time for that later.

Once Kuunhra had agreed to send him periodic updates on Jeila’s progress, Obi-Wan tried to slip out of the creche, only for the Wookiee Master Terrilanar to get the drop on him.  He sighed and put up with her broad smile and incessant teasing that Obi-Wan was trying to start his very own clan.  He retorted that there was no try, he had one, and now birthday and holiday shopping was going to cost him two limbs and a kidney.

[Hah!] the elder Wookiee barked, clouting him on the shoulder.  [You’re going to run out of those if you don’t watch out.  Has my little furry Abella had her wicked Healer’s way with you, yet?]

“Nooooo…” he began, and then noticed the furry, evil being in question peering out from behind Terrilanar, a carnivorous grin on her face.  “No, Bella.”

“Either now or seventh hour tomorrow,” she replied smugly, crossing her arms.  “Pick one, Mister Late Riser.”

Obi-Wan eyed both senior creche Master and new Knight Healer.  He wanted to retort that he wasn’t a late riser, but then Abella would make accurate guesses as to what kept him abed, and they were not discussing that.  “You planned this.”

“No, we took advantage of the fact that you and Master Qui-Gon seem to be attracting Padawans the way Anakin collects mouse droids,” Abella said, still grinning wide enough to show off every point of her sharp teeth.  “Come on.  Can’t wait to have you at my mercy again, Obi.”

He narrowed his eyes at her.  “Wench.  One day you’re going to have a mate of your very own.  When I meet him I’ll apologize profusely, and he’ll have no idea why.”

She laughed.  “Oh, if he’s still clueless at that point, I’m not doing it right.”

Terrilanar closed her eyes and shook her head.  [There are disadvantages to knowing all of your students from cub onward,] she said.  [Go discuss your mating habits somewhere else, brats.]

No sooner had Terrilanar stepped out of the way than Abella hooked Obi-Wan’s arm with her own, looking up at him with a too-sweet smile.  “Let’s go!”

For once, the evil smile had been a true harbinger of things to come.  She escorted him with more or less friendly chatter back to the Healers’ Ward, ensconced them both in a private room, and promptly tried to schedule surgery dates.  Obi-Wan disagreed immediately; he had no wish to spend another few months trapped off-duty, especially when he was fine.

She argued back that he wasn’t, listing multiple reasons.  Half of them were even good ones.

He countered them all.

Bella wasn’t having it.

Thus, they wound up in their first patient-Healer screaming match.

“And the tradition lives on,” Terza muttered under her breath as Obi-Wan stalked out of the Ward, fuming.

“Sod tradition!” he yelled back.  “She can carve my innards back open when I come in fucking well bleeding enough to warrant it!”

Terza only laughed and went back to her rounds, which told him she’d probably known of Abella’s intentions, and had merely been waiting for her former Padawan to put her foot in it.  The realization made him feel a little bit better, but he still owed Bella an apology.

Tomorrow.  When he was less infuriated at being bossed around by his new primary Healer.

You must pass muster, if she’s willing to put you back under the knife already, Qui-Gon commented.

Obi-Wan snarled under his breath, yanking his hood up for privacy when a few senior Padawans passing in the hall gave him a curious look.  I didn’t even think to ask.

Medical clearance for you is actually already in our in-box, Qui-Gon said after a moment.  With a note.  “Don’t come crying to me when someone poisons you and your kidney can’t handle it.”

She’s just like her Master, Obi-Wan grumbled, realizing as he stepped out of the lift that he’d gone to the wrong. Damn. Tower.  Where the fuck do we live again!?  Sod this day.  This day needed to be set on fire.

You are in a mood, his mate sent, teasing.  North Tower.  Not East.

Fuuuuuuuuck, he swore, setting off in the appropriate direction, since he’d need a new damn lift as well.  His head was starting to throb, both from Jeila’s earlier loud shrieks (physical and mental), and from losing his temper with Bella.  This is going to be hard to get used to.

And here I was hoping for just hard, Qui-Gon said.

Obi-Wan paused, his hand just shy of touching the new lift’s control.  What was that?  Qui-Gon had sounded far too innocent.  That tone meant that he was making trouble.

It doesn’t always!

He grinned, grateful for the hood so that he wasn’t confusing his fellow lift passengers.  Qui, I’ve known you for a long, long time.  That “innocent little me” tone has always meant trouble.

Miffed mental snort.  Name one time, Qui-Gon insisted.

Cardova II, he replied, stepping off the lift.  This was definitely the right hallway.  It was like he could smell the Wilderness Gardens, even through the walls.

…Name a second time.

He laughed out loud, placing his palm on the biolock for their quarters, thinking that their old quarters hadn’t sported such a device.  Sith, he realized, and then rolled his eyes.  If the Quartermaster and the Council thought a biolock would keep out a determined Sith, they were fooling themselves. 

Kelin VI, Obi-Wan said, happily contemplating a strong, hot cup of— 

—boots.

Qui-Gon, leaning against the kitchen counter, one elbow propped on the stone countertop, raised an eyebrow at him.  “You know, I could actually hear your brain short-circuit.”

Obi-Wan stared, all thoughts of tea—or anything else—completely forgotten.  The knee-high leather boots that he’d been introduced to via flat pic, and then by memory, fit Qui-Gon like a second skin, emphasizing both length and musculature.  The black leather was topped by brown trousers, just as snug as the boots and leaving little to the imagination.  The loose black shirt Qui-Gon wore was rolled up to his elbows, unbuttoned down to midchest, and gaped enough to reveal smooth, well-tanned skin.

By the time Obi-Wan’s perusal made it all the way up to meet Qui-Gon’s eyes, he was so hard his teeth ached.  “While the blatant staring is gratifying, I was hoping for something with a bit more activity involved,” Qui-Gon said.

“Uh, yes,” Obi-Wan snapped his jaw shut before he managed to drool openly.  “I—Padawans?”

“Gone for at least two more hours,” Qui-Gon affirmed, his eyes glinting with amusement.

“Interruptions?”

“I programmed the door to show that we’re unavailable, once your bio signature hit the lock,” Qui-Gon replied, shifting his weight on his feet and Sithfully aware that he had Obi-Wan’s undivided attention.  “If it makes you feel better, we can toss furniture in front of the door.  However, I’d like to not waste the time we’ve been granted,” he continued, a rakish smile appearing on his face.

“You were a pirate in another life,” Obi-Wan said, mesmerized by both expression and ensemble.  “You’re a complete, total rogue.”

The smile went even more lopsided as Qui-Gon crooked a finger at him, beckoning Obi-Wan forward.  He obeyed happily.  “And what does a pirate do with a captive Jedi, then?” Qui-Gon asked, stopping Obi-Wan with a gentle hand to his chest.  Their bodies were just shy of touching, their breath close enough to mingle.

“Hopefully fucks him senseless,” Obi-Wan whispered.  Captive was definitely the right word.

The blatant request was enough to shake the other Master’s calm, and Qui-Gon shivered noticeably.  “Well, that can certainly be arranged,” he breathed, and Obi-Wan almost melted in a useless puddle right then and there as that warm, large hand left his chest and pressed itself against his groin. 

“Why, Master Kenobi,” Qui-Gon purred in his ear.  “Is that for me?”

“Ah, well,” Obi-Wan swallowed when his voice emerged as nothing more than a squeak.  “I suppose that depends on if you want to take, or if you want to be p—mmf,” he said, as Qui-Gon simply seized Obi-Wan’s head with both hands and kissed him.

I’ll not have your abominable puns in the midst of a perfectly good seduction, Qui-Gon growled at him.

You started it, Obi-Wan replied, opening his mouth for the questing tongue at his lips.  Slick warmth slid along his tongue, darting and teasing, and he sighed into the kiss, headache forgotten.  He stood on his toes, wrapping his arm around Qui-Gon’s neck while his left hand sought the gap in Qui-Gon’s shirt, quickly finding hot skin and nipple.

Qui-Gon hissed into his mouth, arching into the touch.  Obi-Wan purred at the response, taking the final, slight step to press them together, body to body. 

The kiss broke, if only for Qui-Gon to give him a quizzical look that was still full of barely restrained fire.  “Who’s taking who, here, hmm?” he asked, bending his head to bite Obi-Wan’s neck, clamping down with gentle pressure on the tendon line.

Obi-Wan moaned, caught somewhere between loss of rational thought and complete mindlessness.  He fumbled with his right hand, catching the edge of his cloak and practically yanking it off.  “You, me, and this unblemished counter,” he managed to say, trying to kick his boots off without loosening the stays.  They wouldn’t go, so he swore and did it with the Force, hearing a muted thump as he sent them straight into the far wall.

“Oh, gods,” Qui-Gon murmured, lifting his head before re-taking Obi-Wan’s lips in a swift, brutal kiss.  “It’s been, what, ten days?”

Two for packing, eight on the transport, twenty-six hours or so home.  “Eleven,” Obi-Wan gasped, finding the hidden zipper to the infuriatingly tight brown trousers Qui-Gon wore.  He peeled the waistband down and then shoved his hands inside, wrapping his fingers around the prize he sought.

Qui-Gon choked off whatever he’d been about to say, groaning.  And here I had a long seduction planned, he sent.  The words were mournful, but the tone certainly wasn’t.  The raw heat of it made Obi-Wan’s entire body light up, an electric thrill running through him.  He rubbed his thumb across the head of the large cock he held, slick with vast amounts of pre-cum.  He grinned and used his hand to spread it down the length of Qui-Gon’s shaft.

“Long seductions later.  Fucking me against this countertop: Now.”

Qui-Gon shuddered and turned Obi-Wan in place, pushing him into position with a gentle, insistent hand.  The pressure, the touch, the positioning—all served to make Obi-Wan’s breath quicken, his skin prickle, his pulse skyrocket.  Then he felt those same large hands tug at the waistband of his leggings.  Obi-Wan closed his eyes and thought that he might come right then and there.

“Don’t you dare,” Qui-Gon ordered, sliding the soft material down his ass and halfway down his legs.  “Not this time, not after you’ve been teasing me since last night.”

Obi-Wan grinned, then sighed at the feel of the blunt cockhead against the curve of his ass.  “I guess you’d better do something about it, hmm?” he said, purposefully wiggling his hips, nudging the cock and feeling slick heat slide against his skin.

Qui-Gon swore viciously, his hands coming down on Obi-Wan’s hips in a tight, near-brutal grasp, and then he was inside in one swift thrust.

Obi-Wan froze in place, the breath leaving his lungs in momentary shock as white sparks danced in front of his eyes.  “Gods,” he choked out.  It hurt, a bit, accompanied by the burn of a near-lubeless penetration, but that was nothing compared to the delirious joy he felt whenever they joined like this now.

“All right?” Qui-Gon asked, the words a whisper of breath and warmth next to Obi-Wan’s ear. 

He nodded, clenching the edges of the counter with his hands.  Yes!  “You know I am, just fuck me, already!”

Qui-Gon growled, pulled back, and then drove in fiercely, hard enough to shove Obi-Wan against the counter edge.  The cloth of his tunics kept the hard line from biting into his skin.  Obi-Wan shouted encouragement when Qui-Gon hesitated, fearful of causing true hurt.  You won’t.  You can’t!

I can, Qui-Gon replied, the words almost indistinguishable because of the blood-rush in his ears.  But I won’t.

The Lifebond unfurled, shields falling away unneeded, and suddenly Obi-Wan could feel what Qui-Gon felt, the sensations as sharp as his own.  His mate’s cock, entering him fully with each thrust, nudging his prostate, mirrored by the sensation of plunging, over and over again, into tight, blazing heat—

“Oh—oh, gods,” he gasped, feeling everything below his waist begin to burn with tingling fire.  So. Close.  “Qui!”

Qui-Gon needed no further encouragement, pounding into him fast and hard, his fingers clenched tightly enough to bruise.  Each thrust was a counterpoint to the blood singing in Obi-Wan’s veins, bringing him closer and closer to the edge.  He hit that plateau and hovered there for one moment, eyes wide, knowing that he couldn’t go back and yet, he couldn’t quite go forward—

Then the hand attached to his right hip let go, snaked down, and squeezed Obi-Wan’s cock mercilessly.  He opened his mouth, a harsh, silent scream pouring out as he came, shaking and helpless in the throes of it.

Qui-Gon shouted Obi-Wan’s name and seized him about the waist with both hands again, and through his own bewildered haze he felt the backwash of orgasm hit.  The sensation of Qui-Gon’s orgasm swamped what he could feel already, and stars danced in front of his eyes as he slumped down onto the countertop.  He was, in effect, completely spent.

Qui-Gon collapsed on top of him, his breath the harsh rush of the bellows against Obi-Wan’s ear as they both panted for breath.  “I tol’ you…no puns,” he slurred.

Obi-Wan managed a faint smile.  “Perfectly…acceptable…language.  Not m’fault…you thought of the word’s…dual properties.”

“If you can mince…words like that…” Qui-Gon’s breathing began to settle, though his words were still a rasp, “I didn’t fuck you hard enough.”

Obi-Wan grinned, riding high on the euphoric wave of an excellent double orgasm.  “You’ll just have t’try harder next time,” he wheezed, his lungs realizing at last that Qui-Gon weighed quite a bit more than he did.  “Off.  Being smushed.”

“You weren’t complaining a minute ago,” Qui-Gon teased, but moved.  Obi-Wan sighed and then allowed himself to slide off the counter, coming to a boneless, ill-dressed heap on the floor.  There was a white, pearlescent splatter on the counter wall that made him grin.

“Marking territory, are you?” Qui-Gon rumbled, neatly pulling Obi-Wan into his lap to cradle him.  How Qui-Gon recovered so quickly, post-orgasm, Obi-Wan had no blasted idea.  He still was trying to figure out sitting upright again.

Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes.  “Eighteen to go, is it?” he repeated the thought that had almost escaped his notice.  “I may be marking, but I’m not the one who took up a count of things to have sex on.”

Qui-Gon raised both eyebrows, expression reflecting utmost innocence.  “That tub you’re so fond of is on the list.”

“Ah.  Well.  If the tub’s on the list…” Obi-Wan managed an equally nonchalant expression for an entire three seconds before breaking out in another wide, silly grin.  “I love you, Qui.  I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but I’d happily do it again one hundred times over just for this moment.”

Qui-Gon put his finger on Obi-Wan’s lips, the crooked smile back on his face.  “Don’t say shite like that.  You’ll give the universe ideas, and it has plenty on its own.”  He sighed, finding Obi-Wan’s hand and gripping it tightly.  “I love you.  I don’t know what I did that made you want to spend the rest of your life with me, but I’ll be grateful forever.”

Obi-Wan smiled back.  “You were you.  That’s all I ever needed.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Qui-Gon awoke sometime during the night, long after the entire household had gone to bed, to the sound of harsh, rasping breathing.  His heart lurched in his chest; he wasn’t surprised, but it was still something they had both hoped to avoid.

Even Obi-Wan had remarked, only a short time ago, that he was amazed their visit to the Industrial Zone hadn’t pissed off some remnant of the block.  Qui-Gon had nodded; when he’d closed his eyes that night, he had taken a moment to program his body to keep his sleep light.

He turned on the lamp, rolled over, and bit back a harsh word.  Obi-Wan wasn’t having a nightmare, as he’d initially thought.  His mate’s eyes were open, but not seeing.  One of his arms was wrapped around his stomach, as if pressing against a wound underneath.  His other hand was at his neck, which was marked by fresh red gashes and furrows as Obi-Wan clawed at his throat.

Flashback.  A bad one, if Obi-Wan’s struggle for breath was any indication.

Qui-Gon immediately curled around Obi-Wan, protection and reassurance, and pulled Obi-Wan’s hand away from his throat before he could do himself further damage.  “Obi-Wan,” he murmured the words against the other man’s ear.  “It’s all right.  You are not there.  You’re here, with me.”  There was no response, but he didn’t expect one, not right away.  He had been well-schooled by Terza and Abella about what to watch for in the days after the block had first fallen. 

Qui-Gon repeated the litany, sending the same comfort through the Lifebond, holding Obi-Wan through long minutes while his mate was trapped in memory, struggling against unseen assailants before he became, quite simply, frozen in terror.  Worse, though, was when Obi-Wan started fighting against Qui-Gon’s hold again.  This time he made a harsh sound that, Qui-Gon realized, was his mate trying to scream.  Was actually screaming, almost silent but howling in pain as if he were being pulled apart.  Oh, gods.  Obi-Wan, Force, what happened?!

He stroked Obi-Wan’s hair, his face, with gentle touches, slowly leading him out of it.  The flashback ended, not with gradual awareness, but with a gasp.  “Oh, fuck,” he rasped, blinking up at Qui-Gon, his eyes running with shocked tears.  “Qui, gods, I’m sor—”

Qui-Gon shushed him with a single finger to Obi-Wan’s lips.  “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, smiling to take the sting out of his words.  “Just breathe.  Just be here with me.”

He continued to hold Obi-Wan while he trembled and shivered, shocked and exhausted by the very real fight he’d just gone through.  Qui-Gon brushed his fingertips along the gashes on Obi-Wan’s throat, healing them both for Obi-Wan’s sake and because Qui-Gon couldn’t bear to look at them any longer.  Further gentle caresses gradually calmed his mate, though it was more than an hour before the worst of it had passed.

“What happened?” Qui-Gon asked, when Obi-Wan had been lax against him for some time, breathing steadily again, awake but quite willing to be lulled.  “Was it something from Sidious’s hellhole?”

Obi-Wan sighed, promptly snuggling closer.  That made Qui-Gon relax further, easing his worry that Obi-Wan might try to bury it, or hide from the memory.  “Yes.  I’d forgotten.  I don’t know why.  It’s not like it was any more terrifying than anything else in that fucking place.”

Qui-Gon could sense that Obi-Wan was gathering his thoughts, getting ready to speak of that moment without even being asked.  He waited patiently, filled with relief that he didn’t have to coax the memory forth.  That kind of setback would not have boded well for either of them.

“After Sidious used the Force to beat the shit out of me that first time, but before he tried to trick me with Force Illusion, I had been having an on-going staring match with one of the Hands, the only one that didn’t avoid me,” Obi-Wan said at last.  “I don’t even know his name.  We would pass each other in the hall, and he would glare daggers at me.  I knew he was trouble, but had no idea what he expected to do about me.

“At that point, I was run down, tired—most certainly not at my best.  The next time I saw him, he wasn’t just passing in the hall.  He was lying in wait, and I missed the warning.  I’d just gotten so used to everything sounding awful in the Force.  By then, the Hand was practically background noise.”

Obi-Wan sighed.  “You know things are bad when being stabbed in the gut is a relief,” he said, and Qui-Gon found Obi-Wan’s hand and twined their fingers together.  That was a feeling he understood far too well.  “He caught me completely off-guard, and made a concerted effort to eliminate his competition.  The blade was poisoned, and for good measure he was using the Force to choke me.  I’m not sure if I was that tired, that dazed, or if I was, on some level, trying to let the Hand kill me.”  He snorted out a laugh.  “If there is one sentence that shouldn’t be spoken, it’s ‘Sidious saved my life.’”

Qui-Gon imagined there had to be a floored expression on his face.  “He did?”

“See what I mean?” Obi-Wan nodded without looking up.  “He did.  Came from out of nowhere, howling like a demon.  I’d never seen him truly let loose with the Force before, and in that moment he was like the old legends of the Sith Lords.  Glowing eyes, violet lightning, the air practically on fire with the Dark energy he was projecting.  He was terrifying,” Obi-Wan whispered the last part, shivering in Qui-Gon’s arms once more.  “Sidious swooped down on the Hand, who seemed to only then realize that he might have erred by trying to kill me.  I’m not sure, but I think I heard Sidious scream that none of them were to have laid a finger on me.”

“How…flattering?” Qui-Gon ventured, his stomach a sour knot.  Obi-Wan had postulated before that Sidious might have been interested in him as more than just a Jedi to corrupt, and this certainly went a long way to confirming the theory.  It just wasn’t a comfortable one.

“Not at that moment, it sure as hell wasn’t,” Obi-Wan retorted, more of his familiar spark returning.  “He tore that Hand apart, Qui-Gon.  There was nothing left of him.  No clothing.  Not even ash.  Nothing.

“Then what?” Qui-Gon asked, if only so his mind wouldn’t dwell on the thought of a human being reduced to nothing more than scattered atoms on a Sith Lord’s whim.

“I—”  Obi-Wan shook his head, squeezing Qui-Gon’s hand.  “I’ll just show you.  I don’t think I can actually talk about that just yet,” he said, and lowered his shields, letting the memory filter through their bond.

 

He doesn’t think he has it in him to move, but listening to the Hand scream out his death is impetus enough for anyone.  Obi-Wan struggles to scuttle back on his hands and feet, stopping only when his shoulders are firmly pressed against the stone wall, digging into his skin even through three layers of cloth.  His throat is raw and angry, his breath coming in sharp, pathetic gasps, but the bleeding wound in his gut will kill him faster than oxygen deprivation will.  He isn’t sure what the Hand put on the silver blade, but it’s certainly doing the job.  At this point, adrenaline fueled by terror is probably the only thing keeping him conscious.  He can still hear the Force, but cannot grasp it, probably due to whatever poison is currently rushing through his veins.

Sidious kneels down in front of him, eying him with a frown, disdain blended with disappointment.  “You defeat Grievous, Dooku, Ventress, even Vader, yet you let one of these pathetic worms kill you?” The Sith’s voice is but a whisper laced with malice, and the sound of it makes Obi-Wan clench his fingers around the blade’s hilt, still in his hands from when he pulled it free of his stomach.  “I should let you die.”

“Probably,” Obi-Wan says, because it’s pretty much what he expects.  Then Sidious reaches out his hand, as if to touch Obi-Wan’s face.  He is swinging the dagger through the air without thought, and actually slices Sidious’s palm open with the blade before the Sith can react.

Sidious rears back in surprise, but he doesn’t seem to be concerned with the wound, or with being poisoned.  A momentary flare of hope dies; the Sith has probably immunized himself against anything one of the damned Hands could come up with.  “Hmm.  Still fighting, General?”

Obi-Wan pulls in another breath, blinking against the spots that dance in front of his eyes.  “Force of habit,” he says, and has to resist the urge to laugh, because he’s in hell and still making awful puns.

He swings again when Sidious reaches for him once more, but this time the Sith is better, and simply catches Obi-Wan’s wrist.  Obi-Wan is weak enough now, from poison and blood loss, that just a firm grip on his arm is enough to make him defenseless.  Sidious plucks the knife from his fingers and tosses it away, the blade landing in a clatter somewhere farther down the passage.  “You’re like a cornered wild animal,” Sidious says, a grim, pleased smile on his face, “that refuses to be defeated.  I do so admire that in you.”

Obi-Wan shudders.  Sidious means it as a compliment, but it’s a repugnant thought, coming from the Sith.  “Either go away and let me die in peace or put me out of my misery, so I don’t have to listen to your drivel any longer.”  Obi-Wan would prefer it if Sidious were deceased before he was, but death currently sounds more appealing than listening to the Sith Lord make creepy, baffling, horrifying attempts to flirt with him.

“But then I will be bereft of your company, Obi-Wan,” Sidious whispers, and all of the spit dries up in his mouth, and there is a cold lump of ice sitting in his belly, competing with the burning stab wound.  The hand on Obi-Wan’s arm squeezes, tight and painful.  “You will leave when I say, die when I wish it, not before!”

Sidious puts his hand on the stab wound, and the touch is not gentle; Obi-Wan hisses out a pained breath, and blood stains the Sith’s gnarled, pale hand.

 “No,” Obi-Wan whispers, trying desperately to call upon the Force as violet sparks form around Sidious’s hand.  He’s not a complete fool.  Sith know how to heal, he knows, and everything he’s read tells him that it’s horrible.  “No, don’t you dare, no, no, no—”

Then there is no more protesting, because Sidious does not care, and is healing the wound anyway.  Pain floods his limbs, nerves light up, tissues flare, his bones shiver.  He can feel each individual tooth in his head and every tiny bone in his ears.  He can hear a roar that’s not a roar at all.  Obi-Wan is screaming, high and shrill.

It’s like being burned alive.

 

Qui-Gon jerked them both out of the memory, sweating and feeling like he was going to be sick.  “Gods, Obi-Wan,” he gasped, wrapping both arms around his mate and holding on tightly.  Obi-Wan was shivering again, pale with shock.  “Tell me you’re all right,” Qui-Gon whispered, sending love and reassurance down the bond, sensing that Obi-Wan was on the verge of another panic attack.

I am.  I am, Obi-Wan insisted, but didn’t stop shaking.  Just hold me, and I will be completely fine.

Qui-Gon nodded; that, he could do.  As long as you want, love. 

“As long as you want.”