Theory of Flight
by Cori Lannam
The monotonous rasp of the respirator continued, as it had for days. He would go mad from it soon, he was certain, if he had not already. But the prospect of the noise ceasing held far greater terror than mere insanity. Each wheeze of the precious and horrible machine scraped along his nerves; each pause between those wheezes stifled his own breath. Just when it seemed the pause had been too long, when he thought his lungs would stay frozen forever, the machine let out another asthmatic whoosh, and he inhaled with a gasp.
Artificial as it was, the rhythm of the breathing machine encouraged his mind to drift into a state of false peace. He dragged himself back with an effort. As soon as the blank trance left him, the reality hit again, and the terror returned. It roiled up through his gut and clogged his throat. He pushed down on it ferociously and shoved it back down until he could breathe again. He had long since given up on trying to release it into the Force. The Force seemed far, far away from where he was now.
He focused again, his strength heightened by the fear-induced adrenaline. The spell of the respirator eased, and he bent close to the still figure on the bed. Through what tenuous connection he still had with the Force, he sent his will, a desperate surge of waning energy, into his silent companion.
*Don't die, Master. Please, don't die....*
He looked up. Moments passed before he could refocus his attention, but he responded by instinct even before he fully saw the boy peeking through the doorway. "Yes, Ani?"
Anakin Skywalker took a few more steps inside, head ducked down, but eyes glued to the right of Obi-Wan. "How is Master Qui-Gon?"
His gaze followed Anakin's. "The same. No worse."
"That's good," Anakin ventured.
"Perhaps." He noticed Anakin biting his lip and sighed noiselessly. The child had nobody but him now; he should care for Anakin better. He had promised Qui-Gon. "Come here, Ani."
The boy looked up, a hopeful spark in his eyes, and Obi-Wan held out his arm. Almost too eagerly, Anakin ran across the small room and climbed up to squeeze into the chair next to Obi-Wan. Guilt flashed through him again as Anakin settled into the crook of his arm. Temple staff had been caring for Anakin since their arrival on Coruscant, and while Obi-Wan knew they had been gentle with him, all of his friends were far away. His arm tightened around the child, and Ani cuddled closer to him. Warmth and some comfort, at least, he could provide, no matter how cold he felt himself.
Together they looked down at the form on the bed. Obi-Wan felt himself mesmerized again by the artificial rise and fall of the broad chest. Qui-Gon Jinn showed no other signs of life, let alone the vitality of a Jedi Master in his prime. The ventilator mask covered much of his face, making the still, waxy features seem an obscene copy of his living visage, with all his nobility and intellect lost and buried somewhere beyond Obi-Wan's reach.
"I thought the bacta would cure him," Anakin said after a while.
"Bacta can only do so much." Anakin saw the regenerative gel as magical, even more impressive than any Jedi trick Obi-Wan had shown him on the long voyage home. Although Obi-Wan had seen little of Anakin's homeworld, he suspected that calling their medical technology primitive would be overly kind. Admittedly, his own faith in the bacta had been almost as strong as Anakin's, his confidence in Qui-Gon's recovery solid. Yet in the end, even the most advanced technology the Republic had to offer had proved unable to make Qui-Gon open his eyes.
"I thought he wasn't hurt that bad." The child's voice held an accusatory note, and Obi-Wan felt himself bristle. He had believed his own assurances, when he gave them. Several days in bacta aboard the ship on the way home should have easily healed Qui-Gon's injuries. Even the healers could not say why, days afterward, Qui-Gon still remained close to death.
"He wasn't. I didn't lie to you." His voice sounded cold and hard even to his own ears, and shame washed over him as Anakin stiffened against his side. "I'm sorry, Ani. I didn't mean to be harsh with you."
Anakin relaxed, then squirmed around until he could press his face against Obi-Wan's chest. "It's okay. You want him to get better even more than I do."
Of course, he almost replied, but stopped himself in time. The strain of the vigil was wearing on him. He needed meditation badly, and soon he would have to force himself to at least try. "We both want him to be well," he responded at last. His firm tone belied his shaky innards, but Anakin seemed satisfied. The boy twisted around again and used Obi-Wan's knees as a platform from which to clamber onto the narrow bed. Obi-Wan automatically reached to pull him down, but changed his mind and helped Anakin scoot fully onto the mattress instead. Qui-Gon had not moved since they had taken him out of the bacta. Nothing Anakin did could hurt him now, short of another lightsaber stroke.
"Master?" Anakin queried softly. Obi-Wan wondered if the child expected an answer, or if he thought Obi-Wan had not called for his Master himself a thousand times. Anakin put small hands on Qui-Gon's cheeks just below the respirator mask and patted softly. "Master Qui-Gon, please wake up."
Such a polite request, a contrast to the increasingly vehement and disrespectful demands he had hurled at his silent companion over the last two days. Not that Qui-Gon had listened. When had he ever listened to simple good sense, in spite of all his talk of partnership and mutual learning-
He surged to his feet and was leaning over Anakin in an instant. "What is it?" His senses, physical and mental, jangled with another adrenaline spike.
"He moved!" Anakin bounced with excitement, and Obi-Wan clamped his hands down on the boy's shoulders to hold him still. He could do nothing to calm the waves of exhilaration pouring from Anakin, and he fought against his own agitation as best he could. Anakin wiggled in his grasp, trying to touch Qui-Gon's face again. "Qui-Gon moved. Just a little, but I saw it."
Qui-Gon lay still now. Obi-Wan bent close, searching for any signs of wakefulness, but the unnaturally pale face remained as inanimate as ever. He reached forward and stroked the side of his hand along Qui-Gon's now heavily bearded jaw. Death, at least, brought an illusion of peace, but coma left only an impression of life stagnating in an empty shell. "Anakin...."
Anakin looked up at him, his round face wrinkled with anxiety. "He did, Obi-Wan. I saw him. His head moved to the side, and his eyelids flickered a little."
Obi-Wan breathed deeply and closed his eyes. "Anakin, it isn't right to-"
"I saw it! I'm not lying to you."
He felt the hurt and the truth as equally palpable entities between them. Anakin believed what he said, but children so often saw what they wanted to see, no matter what the truth was that lay before them. He certainly had. "I know, Ani, I know you're not lying." He took another breath and opened his eyes, doing his best to smile at the child who was now on the verge of tears. "Why don't you go find some dinner? It's getting late."
Anakin gave an uncertain nod of his head, then pulled away and slid down from the bed. He ran to the door, then stopped and looked back. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."
Obi-Wan settled back into his chair and rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. The child was sincere, and remarkably sensitive. Qui-Gon would want him to be kind. "It's all right, Ani. I know how much you want to help."
"He'll be okay." Anakin lifted his chin and met Obi-Wan's gaze as if he knew Obi-Wan would not believe him again, but was confident he would be vindicated in the end. "I can feel it now."
He did not know how to reply. His attention was already veering back to Qui-Gon when Anakin slipped from the room. The respirator continued to wheeze breath into Qui-Gon's lungs. No other part of him moved. Obi-Wan felt himself slipping back into his exhaustion-fueled trance state, back into his litany of desperate pleading. This time he directed it at the Force itself; he knew Qui-Gon could not hear him.
*Please don't let him die. Please don't let my Master die....*
His eyes flew open. The voice was raspy and muffled, but familiar, and so dear. He must be hallucinating, worse than Anakin, but there was Qui-Gon, eyes open, weakly struggling to remove the respirator mask from his face. In an instant, Obi-Wan found himself again leaning over Qui-Gon. One hand carefully disengaged the mask while the other supported his master's head. "Master," he heard himself saying as Qui-Gon coughed and the disengaged respirator blared an alarm. "Master."
Anakin had been right.
"I want it," Anakin said with awe.
"You want to fly it?" Qui-Gon smiled down at the boy sitting cross-legged on the bed beside him, staring with enormous eyes at the rotating hologram floating above the projector in Qui-Gon's palm. Obi-Wan wished Qui-Gon would lie down and stay there, but the lighthearted play seemed to be doing him almost as much good as sleep.
"No, I want to build it." Anakin squinted at the scrolling text beneath the image, absorbing the specs and history of the pictured ship. He absently picked a small fruit from the lunch tray in front of Qui-Gon, but seemed to forget about it before it reached his mouth. His hand dropped to his lap, still clutching the fruit, as he peered closer at the holofile.
Obi-Wan moved around to Qui-Gon's side and slid the tray out from under his elbows. Only scraps and a few of the fruits remained, and Obi-Wan hoped that Qui-Gon had been the one to consume most of it. The doctors had confined Qui-Gon to bed for the majority of the past week to recover his strength, and Obi-Wan had appointed himself responsible for making sure that happened. So far, he had gotten many exasperated sighs, but surprisingly little argument.
Qui-Gon kept his gaze locked on the tiny speed cruiser Anakin was examining, but reached out and squeezed Obi-Wan's forearm in thanks. Obi-Wan smiled and took the tray out to the recycler. He came back to find himself pinned by an enigmatic look just as Qui-Gon spoke. "Ani, did you know that Obi-Wan desperately wanted a ship just like that when he was your age?"
Anakin tore himself away from the holofile long enough to grin up at Obi-Wan. "You did?"
He smiled at the memory of his own childish exuberance on the subject. "I did. Very badly. It was all I could talk about for weeks outside of training."
"Did you ever get to fly one? What was it like?" Anakin was looking at the ship again, but sneaked eager glances at Obi-Wan, clearly hoping for stories.
"No, I didn't." Obi-Wan shook his head and felt his brow furrow. He felt strangely guilty and inadequate for disappointing the boy with his lack of exploits.
Anakin stared at him with his full attention for the first time. "How come?"
Obi-Wan shrugged. "I never had time. There were always too many more important things to do."
With a frown, Anakin turned to Qui-Gon. "You didn't let him?"
"I didn't stop him," Qui-Gon replied mildly, his gaze still on the spinning blue ship.
Unable to either find a retort or shake his discomfort, Obi-Wan leveled a questioning look at Anakin. Obedient to their established signal, the boy sighed and hopped off the bed. He cast a final, longing glance at the holoimage. "Can I come back later, when Master Qui-Gon isn't tired?"
"I don't recall saying I was tired." Qui-Gon shot a sidelong glance at Obi-Wan, who ignored him. He did not expect Qui-Gon to remain ignorant of his unsubtle caretaking; he did expect Qui-Gon to stay quiet and go along with it for his own good. And obligingly, Qui-Gon clicked off the holoprojector and tossed it to Anakin. The boy caught it in both hands with a crow of delight. "There's more in there you can look at. When you come back, I'll show you some other ships Obi-Wan never flew."
A flash of hurt shot through him even as Anakin waved and left their quarters. If Qui-Gon wanted to give Anakin the impression that joyriding in speed cruisers should take precedence over serious Jedi training, that was his affair. Anakin would find any such misconceptions swiftly corrected when he began his formal apprenticeship.
"I suppose I should consider myself fortunate to have such a vigilant nursemaid."
The dry tone grated on his nerves as it usually did not. "You should consider yourself fortunate to need a nursemaid at all," he replied. He modulated his tone to hide his irritation, although he knew Qui-Gon would still feel it. "Instead of a eulogist."
He half-expected Qui-Gon to reprimand him for the disrespect, but his master only gave him a fond smile as he lay back against his pillows. "My protective Padawan," he said, knocking two of the pillows aside. He had been protesting since his homecoming that his head, although graying, had no need for such an extreme amount of cushioning. "You should consider taking your own Padawan as soon as possible, so that you have a more appropriate channel for your maternal instincts."
Obi-Wan replaced the pillows with a look that dared his master to displace them again. "I should? I don't think the Council would take well to the idea of someone acquiring an apprentice before he is even a Knight himself." Not that it would have stopped Qui-Gon, but Obi-Wan held that back. He already knew what was coming next.
"That won't be a problem for much longer, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon looked at him solemnly. "Indeed-"
"-you had been meaning to speak to me about it." His lips quirked to see Qui-Gon's mouth snap shut. It was good to know he could still catch his master off-guard. "So why haven't you?"
Qui-Gon lifted his eyebrows. Had he been a few years younger, Obi-Wan knew he would have received another rebuke, but Qui-Gon seemed only amused. "My Padawan, even your master occasionally has trouble holding serious discussions with you while unconscious and on life support."
A chill passed through him at the memory. Qui-Gon spoke altogether too blithely of it. "You've been awake for almost a week. You certainly seem to think you're well enough to tramp around the Temple looking for abandoned machinery for Anakin to play with."
"You disabused me of that notion quickly enough." Qui-Gon smiled again. Obi-Wan did not return it, and his master grew solemn again. "You are ready, Obi-Wan. I have felt the surety of it growing for some time now."
He had worked for most of his life to hear those words. Now that he finally heard them, they seemed almost ordinary, but he could not help a flush of pride. "You keep telling me how much I have to learn."
Qui-Gon laughed. "It will take you the rest of your life to learn all you are to learn. I keep telling you that, as well."
Impatient and abashed at once, he felt Qui-Gon's steady affection breaking down his built-up annoyance. He fought it, then sighed. "There isn't much to discuss now. I can do nothing until you recover." An excuse, but a true one; a master must be present for his student's trials, if he lived.
"You should start to prepare now," Qui-Gon said, voice firm. "I will not be off my feet for much longer."
Obi-Wan remained silent and looked away. Everything he had to say on the subject, he had said before Naboo, and Qui-Gon could judge the current state of his feelings without any explanation from him. Qui-Gon would do as pleased him, and Obi-Wan would obey his master's word as he was beholden to do.
"You are ready, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon's stare bored into him until he gave into the compulsion to meet his master's eyes. He felt instantly better from the contact, as he always did, even when he wanted not to. "I am telling you the truth. To delay your advancement now would be no kindness."
He nodded reluctantly. "I understand, Master. I will do as you say."
That Qui-Gon would make sure of that himself was left unsaid, but it was no less obvious for that. Obi-Wan wondered if he had already spoken to the boy on Obi-Wan's behalf, like a matchmaker in some bizarre courtship ritual. "I've given Anakin no reason even to like me, let alone want me as a master."
"Oh, I'm aware of that," Qui-Gon said. "Nevertheless, for whatever reason he is quite fond of you and respects you very much. And you would be good for each other."
"No." Obi-Wan shook his head. "I could not teach him as you could."
"And that is why you must." Large knuckles tapped Obi-Wan's foot to emphasize the point. "You were right, before, in thinking I indulge his frivolity too much. I always tried to encourage a bit more of it in you, but that is not the kind of teaching he needs. A master and apprentice must balance each other."
Obi-Wan smiled despite himself. "As we have. Anakin is much like you."
Qui-Gon let out a soft huff and shifted against the pillows. "He is. I should not be surprised that the Council do not wish to train him." He huffed again and shook his head. "No, Anakin and I will be great friends, but I would not be a good master for him."
"Are the two supposed to be mutually exclusive?" He had long thought of Qui-Gon as the dearest friend of his life; that his master would not return the sentiment--or worse, find it inappropriate--was painful to contemplate.
"Hardly." A full smile warmed Qui-Gon's eyes, and he lay his hand again on Obi-Wan's foot. "You are the friend closest to my heart. And I have long felt that friends should be the best teachers to each other, even as Master and Padawan must learn together."
His throat closed, and for a moment he could not reply. "And what is it you think Anakin will teach me that you have not managed?"
"That it is permissible to be happy, I hope." His astonishment must have shown on his face or in the Force, for Qui-Gon laughed. "Don't act so surprised. You were already such a little grown-up when you came to me. So solemn and dedicated. Fine qualities in a Jedi, but I have never seen you be purely happy."
He stared at Qui-Gon, still flabbergasted. "I have always been happy with you."
"That's not what I mean. I know you are satisfied with your life. I know you are proud to be a Jedi, that you love me, love your other friends." The hand on Obi-Wan's foot lifted and gestured distractedly, as though Qui-Gon were trying to put words to a thought he had been formulating for a long time. "But happiness has always been something you worked at like any other task, not something that came from within you."
Something within him felt small and numb, and he wished he could ask Qui-Gon how that was supposed to promote happiness. "I have always worked hard at everything, as you taught me. I have to. Things don't come as easily to me as they do to you. Or to Anakin."
"Things of the heart especially, I think." Qui-Gon held his attention fast, sympathetic but unrelenting.
"The heart requires work as much as any other aspect of being. More, even. You've said it yourself many times. Why do you criticize me for it now?" He tried to glare, but suspected he only looked bewildered and rather pathetic. If he was truly that close to his trials, it was hardly fair of Qui-Gon to try to confuse him now.
"I do not criticize you, Obi-Wan, but you misunderstand what I have said." Qui-Gon thumped his hand on the bedcovers, and Obi-Wan barely repressed a startled twitch. "You must work to know your heart and act on it. The Force speaks through our feelings, and if you ignore them, or restrict them only to what you think you should feel, you are ignoring the Force and dishonoring it."
"My feelings are real, Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan said. "Just because I don't indulge them the way you do-"
"I know they are real," Qui-Gon said, his voice gentling. "But they are not free. You deny so much of what the Force would give you."
"With due respect, Master." His chest tightened, and he breathed deeply to dispel it, lowering his legs and straightening his back. "My emotional state is fully appropriate for a Jedi, and I have striven my entire life to make it so. I do not understand what else you expect of me."
Qui-Gon sighed, and Obi-Wan swallowed the urge to apologize for being difficult. "Obi-Wan." He reached up and gave a quick tug to Obi-Wan's braid. "You have worked hard to regulate your temper, and I am proud of you for it. But part of regulating emotion means knowing when to follow positive feeling, as well as when to empty yourself of negative feeling. It can guide you as truly as negative emotion can steer you wrong. That is the Force."
He shook his head. "I do-"
"-what you are required to do. Yes, I know. And you do well. But you can do more." Qui-Gon leaned forward again. "When was the last time you did something purely because it brought you joy? Not because you thought I wanted you to do it, or because you thought it was logical. Only because you wanted to do it."
Frivolity again. It was harmless enough in small doses, he supposed, but Qui-Gon seemed determined to adopt it as a lifestyle. "But that serves no purpose. Even children's play promotes learning."
"This is another sort of learning. Think of it as an active meditation, to commune with the Force and accept the gifts it wishes to give you, to learn what it has to show you about yourself." Qui-Gon smiled and rubbed his thumb gently on Obi-Wan's brow between his eyes. "But don't think so hard."
"If I am not to think," Obi-Wan said with blatantly faked patience, "then what would you have me do?"
His master's smile broadened, as though he had won a victory. "Just look inside yourself. Right now, right in this moment, what do you want to do more than anything else?"
"Knock you upside the head." He needed no thought at all for that.
He received a flash of teeth in response. "Pick something else."
"Nothing makes you happy," Obi-Wan said, but he could not help smiling. They had gone through the same discussion on too many topics and occasions for him to count. Aggravating as it was, he loved his master for it.
"I am always happy," Qui-Gon countered. "I want you to be happy, too. The Force is in your heart: listen to it. What would make you happy right now?"
No thought, just feeling. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift into the idea of happiness. It felt strange, foreign, but frighteningly good. The feeling welled up, pulled at him, and he followed, blanking out the part of him that screamed against losing control. Then he felt only the bristle of hair and the softness of lips as he found himself kissing the source of his joy.
Qui-Gon's shock broke over him in a wave, but he lingered another moment, awed by the texture and taste, and how it made him feel. When he drew back, he laughed at Qui-Gon's stunned expression and his own giddiness. "I'm glad to know I can still surprise you."
"I-" Qui-Gon cleared his throat. "You amaze me every day, Obi-Wan."
Their proximity suddenly seemed awkward; Obi-Wan slid off the bed. "I should heed the rest of your advice and begin meditating on my trials," he said and bowed. He suspected he would also have to meditate a great deal on how it had felt to kiss Qui-Gon, but the Force had taught him enough about himself for one day. "If you will excuse me, Master?"
Qui-Gon nodded silently. He had an odd look in his eyes, and Obi-Wan felt the weight of his gaze for a long time after he left the room.
He was ready for his trials. Despite Qui-Gon's insistence and his own pride, he had harbored doubts. He hoped this surety was all that Qui-Gon had intended him to achieve in his meditations, for he could not think of anything else he could do to prepare. The Force gave little but quiet reassurance, humming as it always did just outside his skin, but offering no further guidance. He was ready. He was done.
Yet he did not rise from his knees. The meditation room was sunny and quiet, and if he left, he would have to go back to their quarters. He would rather not. Although the healers had released Qui-Gon from his bed confinement the previous day, he was still likely to be at home. He supposed avoiding his master was immature, but he hated the awkwardness he felt around the man ever since his loss of control earlier in the week. A flush of heat ran through him at the thought: half irritation at Qui-Gon for pushing him into such a display, and half excitement at the memory of how it had felt.
Maybe Qui-Gon was right. Perhaps he had repressed too many emotions, the good along with the bad, in the quest for serenity. Bant had once called him a prude, when she was fourteen and just discovering the joys of physical pleasure. He chided her for letting her new obsession take her focus away from her training; she gave him a bottle of hand lotion for his birthday and told him he needed to jerk off more. At the time, he had resented it. His body had needs of many kinds, and he cared for them all with equal attention. Nor did he shy away from intimacy, either with friends or lovers, but becoming a Jedi took precedence over all other personal concerns, as it must. He had achieved what he thought was an admirable balance. Qui-Gon did not seem to agree. He sighed with frustration as he began to surface from his trance. Passion or serenity: did he have to choose? Maybe that was the final lesson Qui-Gon was trying to impart. Or maybe his master was just playing one last joke on him to test his anxiety level before his trials.
The instant before he opened his eyes, he became aware of another presence close by. He blinked, and slowly, the small figure kneeling in an awkward imitation of his posture came into focus. "Anakin?" he said. The boy had been inseparable from Qui-Gon lately, due largely to Obi-Wan's frequent absence and subtle encouragement. He wondered if Anakin had picked up the undercurrents of the situation.
"I'm sorry," Anakin said, shifting uncomfortably, then making a visible effort to still himself. "I didn't mean to disturb you."
"You didn't. I was done." They knelt in silence for a moment. Anakin stared at him speculatively until Obi-Wan felt an unknightly urge to snap his fingers in front of the boy's face. "Did you need something, Ani?"
"Qui-Gon says that you're going to be my master."
"Did he?" His face remained impressively calm even as he growled mentally. He wondered when his master had become an old village woman without him noticing.
"Yes," Anakin replied simply. "Do you want to be?"
He wondered what he was supposed to say. The answer was, not particularly. But he could not say it. "Do you want to be my Padawan?"
Anakin paused for a long moment. Obi-Wan waited tensely, wishing he knew what the boy was thinking. It had never been like this with Qui-Gon. He could not remember a time when he had doubted their connection or the rightness of their partnership. "Yes, I would." Anakin waited, but Obi-Wan still did not know what to reply. "Master Qui-Gon says you'd be a good teacher, and he says I could help you, too."
"And what do you and Master Qui-Gon intend for you to help me with?"
"He says you can be pretty stodgy." Anakin looked at him with complete innocence and sincerity. "He thinks I can help loosen you up. I think I could definitely do that."
"Anakin!" Obi-Wan sputtered. "You shouldn't repeat things like that that Master Qui-Gon tells you, even to me."
"Oh, he told me to. He said the best way to get to you was through your pride." The boy flashed him an infuriating grin. "And he said you'd say that, too."
"Oh," Obi-Wan said. He knew he sounded faint. He knew he should say something to the child who looked up at him expectantly. "I am not stodgy."
Anakin giggled, and Obi-Wan could not help smiling. His amazement and annoyance at Qui-Gon still lingered, but Anakin's good humor was loosening him up already, bit by small bit. He thought he could imagine being friends with this one. "Okay." The boy scrambled to his feet and started to leave, then remembered to turn back and bow. "I hope you will be my Master. I think I'd like that. Hi, Master Qui-Gon."
He heard the chuckle even before he swiveled his head abruptly toward the doorway. Qui-Gon leaned against the jamb, eyes focused on Obi-Wan, although he reached out to pat Anakin's shoulder as the boy went out. "Hello, Ani. Hello, Obi-Wan."
"Hello." Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes at his master, then closed them. The muted thump of soft-soled boots let him track Qui-Gon as he approached; then he heard and felt the rustle of fabric as Qui-Gon lowered himself to the floor at Obi-Wan's side. They sat together, and Obi-Wan listened to the soft hitch of each breath Qui-Gon drew, still too raspy for his peace of mind. But he would not let that distract him. "I can't believe you said I was stodgy."
"You are stodgy." Qui-Gon sounded perfectly calm, the model of everything Obi-Wan had tried to emulate. "But don't take it so hard. Many Jedi are. Indeed, most of the Council-"
"Just stop," Obi-Wan said wearily, and Qui-Gon chuckled again. "At least Anakin doesn't seem to mind the thought of a stodgy old master."
"I didn't call you old." Qui-Gon's voice turned smug, and Obi-Wan resisted the urge to open his eyes and see the serenely insufferable look he knew so well. "And I knew he liked you."
"Then you both know something I don't."
"Hence the saying that the padawan always knows who his master is to be, and the master knows who his padawan's padawan will be."
"So it's only we poor stodgy slobs in the middle who have to suffer. I see."
"You need to let that go." The dry tone softened. "While I talked with Anakin, I began thinking of when I met you. Do you remember that?"
He kept his eyes closed, but his lips curved upward. Those memories were blurred with time, but warm. "A little."
"You were barely three years old. I suppose it was a very long time ago for you." He felt Qui-Gon change position beside him with a sigh and rustle of robes. "You saw me carrying a book through the courtyard, and you asked me what it was. I tried to explain Jagann Farr in terms you could understand, and we ended up talking together for the entire afternoon."
His smile widened. "I still don't understand Jagann Farr."
"Neither do I," Qui-Gon confessed. "But I had never had so much fun trying as I did with you. At the end of the day, I didn't want to take you back to the creche. You were the prime age to find a master, and for a brief moment, I fantasized that it could be me. But I told myself you deserved better than me, a master without constant reprimands from the Council, who could offer you the opportunities you deserved. So I took you back to the dormitory and laid you down for your nap. I left thinking I would never see you again."
"Yes," Obi-Wan said. "I remember that now. I lay there for days, it seemed like. I was so wide awake, I was convinced I would never sleep again. I spent the whole time trying to stop myself from running after you."
Qui-Gon laughed softly. "That is one battle for control I am most grateful that you lost, my Padawan." A hand squeezed Obi-Wan's fingers where they lay on his knees, and he felt the warmth from it travel up his arm. "I continued my interrupted trip to the library and sat down at my usual table in the back to read my book, but I couldn't concentrate well enough to make sense of a picture book, let alone Jagann Farr. I was staring at nothing, completely oblivious to the growing buzz of conversation around me, when I felt someone trying to climb up my leg."
He ducked his head, damning his coloring for the flush spreading across his face. Other people had told him this part of the story. Many other people.
"I looked down, and you were hoisting yourself up onto my knees, looking at me with that little frown that I know now means that I've been very trying. All I could do was sit and stare at you, wondering what I was supposed to do with you. You stretched up and kissed my cheek, then plunked yourself back down on my lap. You wrapped your arms around me as far as they'd go and went right to sleep." Qui-Gon laughed again, but this time it held a note of wonder. Obi-Wan shivered and his heart skipped at being so regarded. "I decided to let you stay for a while, and suddenly I could concentrate on the book again. The next thing I knew, it was late evening, and Master Zofia was standing next to me, offering with many apologies to take you off my hands. I told her that would not be necessary."
Obi-Wan laughed. "Poor Master Zofia. I don't think she'll ever forgive me for scaring her like that."
"She searched for hours, apparently, until someone thought to mention to her the little tot they had seen toddling his way most determinedly across the library," Qui-Gon said. "I don't know whether she was more relieved that she finally found you or that I wanted to keep you."
"I remember that part of it." He opened his eyes at last and turned his head. Qui-Gon sat beside him, facing him, looking at him with an expression that sent another flush across his cheeks. "I remember being so happy."
"So was I," Qui-Gon said and leaned forward. "And have been, every day since."
Warm breath brushed his face, and then they kissed, long and sweet. Qui-Gon's mouth moved over his as though discovering a long-sought secret, and he opened willingly beneath the pressure. The Force rushed between them and through him until he thought it would sweep his whole body away, then calmed. His tongue flicked out to taste a hint of warmth and dampness before their lips finally parted. When Qui-Gon pulled away, the withdrawal was almost painful. "Master...."
"You are ready. The trials will be tomorrow." Qui-Gon brushed his thumb across Obi-Wan's lips, then stood and folded his arms into his robe. "Spend the night in meditation, and I will see you in the morning."
He left, and Obi-Wan touched his fingers to his lips. He suspected he finally understood what Qui-Gon had been trying to tell him. And it was bliss.
"Look at that cliff, Obi-Wan!" Anakin skipped over to him, excitement shining from every pore. A few feet from them, the ground dropped away, leaving only an endless yawning chasm beyond. "I think I'm gonna jump off it."
"I don't think that's a--Anakin!" His heart contracted violently in his chest, and he surged forward just as Anakin leaped gleefully toward the abyss. He seized Anakin's arm, but the boy slipped from his grasp as though greased and sailed, kicking and shouting exultantly, into empty space. "Anakin!"
A hand touched his shoulder. He turned to see Qui-Gon beside him, peering over the edge of the cliff. "So he jumped, did he?"
"Master, I--" The words caught, and he had to fight to keep from turning his head away in shame. He could not have failed more spectacularly. Qui-Gon's ward, his own perhaps apprentice-to-be, the reputed Chosen One of ancient prophecy... and Obi-Wan had just let him jump off a cliff.
But Qui-Gon was smiling. "That looks like fun. We have time--shall we try it?"
"What?" Obi-Wan gaped at him in disbelief. Madness had clearly overcome his master, and Obi-Wan took firm hold of Qui-Gon's tunic, lest the man should decide to throw himself to his death. The chasm plunged down so far he could not see the bottom, far too high a fall for even a Jedi Master of Qui-Gon's caliber to survive. Despite the legends, Jedi could not fly.
"We do not fly, as a rule," Qui-Gon said. "But that doesn't mean we cannot. Look!"
He pointed off into the distance, and Obi-Wan followed his line of sight. Squinting against the sun, he spotted a speck moving across the horizon. The speck grew larger, dipped and turned. Obi-Wan's knees went weak with relief, and he realized he had unconsciously braced himself to feel the snuffing of Anakin's life when the boy hit the ground. The pain had never come, for there Anakin was, soaring, arms outspread. As he came closer, Obi-Wan could see him laughing.
Anakin swooped by and shouted to them. Obi-Wan could not make out the words, but Qui-Gon laughed and called back, "We'll be right there." He looked at Obi-Wan again. "Well, are you coming, Padawan?"
"You're both insane," he said and tightened his grip on Qui-Gon's tunic. He held on as hard as he could, but Qui-Gon pulled away as easily as Anakin had and took two running steps before launching himself into the empty air.
Obi-Wan flung himself onto hands and knees to look over the edge of the cliff. Qui-Gon plummeted down away from him. Panic screamed through every nerve ending until at last Qui-Gon abruptly leveled off and began to move upward and away from the cliff wall. Anakin's whoop of joy, faint with distance, reached Obi-Wan's ears just as he sat back heavily, weak with relief.
He pulled himself to his feet and shaded his eyes against the sun. If he concentrated, he thought he could make out the rippling currents of Force that buoyed and carried the airborne pair. Anakin spun and twisted merrily. Qui-Gon followed at a more sedate pace, robes billowing; when he neared the cliff again, he beckoned for Obi-Wan to hurry and follow.
Looking down again, Obi-Wan swallowed hard. He still could not see the ground, nor what lay beyond. The rational part of his mind still insisted that human beings could not fly. But Qui-Gon and Anakin were getting farther and farther away, and Obi-Wan dreaded losing sight of them. They were going somewhere he could not follow, unless he gained the power of flight as well.
He looked down at his body. Solid and sturdy, it was not meant to be airborne; yet it had been, many times. He had jumped and twisted and vaulted great heights with less effort than it took to run along the ground. The Force propelled him, cushioned him, guided him, and he had never doubted it. He reached inward, testing what his instincts told him to do.
His instincts told him to hurry.
Without second thought, he launched himself into the air. And fell.
He plunged so quickly there was not even time for fear. The cliff wall blurred as he passed it, and he fought to keep from flailing his arms and legs. The Force surrounded him; all he needed to do was allow it to catch him. He stretched out his arms and leaned backward. If he was to die smashing into the ground at great velocity, he did not need to watch it coming.
Between one strangled breath and the next, he realized his motion had changed. His descent slowed, and the cliff wall grew smaller with distance. He felt the Force buffer him; he pushed against it, lifting himself upward and outward. The wind whistled past his ears. He soared.
Laughing, he made an experimental turn and found he could maneuver himself easily. He played for a while, drifting ever farther from the safety of solid ground. Although he could not see Qui-Gon and Anakin, the urgency had left him. They would wait for him, now that he could fly, too. The streams of Force around him laughed and agreed.
He jumped higher in little bursts of speed, then glided for a while before repeating the process. Piloting a speeder or even a fighter would always be a pale experience after this. He had never felt such direct guidance, such a strong connection with the Force, even in his deepest meditations. Surely this was as close to complete unity and freedom as one could achieve outside of death.
After a while his face began to burn from the sun and wind, and he began to tire. His sense of Qui-Gon's presence strengthened, and he drifted toward it. Soon he could see another shelf of solid ground, the other side of the vast canyon. Two small figures stood near its edge. They grew more distinct as he drew closer. Anakin was waving and shouting, but Qui-Gon watched his approach with an expression of great amusement. Obi-Wan realized with a mix of dismay and resignation that he had no idea how to land.
The end result could not have looked graceful by Jedi standards, but his awkward stumble had its own advantages as it brought him directly into Qui-Gon's waiting arms. He let Qui-Gon support him, although he did not need it. The Force sang through his blood and the air around them, and he was content to rest his head on his master's shoulder and enjoy the moment.
Qui-Gon laughed next to his ear. "Will you admit now that I was right?"
"You've had moments." Obi-Wan smiled without lifting his head.
Laughter and bemused affection lingered even as the beating of the sun cooled into chill dimness, and the bulk of his master faded and left his arms empty. He no longer stood, but knelt, and he raised his head to meet the impassive gaze of a long-dead Jedi Master--Drixar Bet, whose philosophical works were still required reading for young Jedi. He contemplated the legendary visage for a moment, then crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. He had never liked Drixar much anyway.
He went out through the far door. He pulled up his hood and ignored Drixar and the other dead Jedi who looked down on him from their places on the high sloping walls. Their faces bore expressions frozen into eternal serenity laced with disapproval as they stared down upon generation after generation of hopeful Knights. He chose not to be intimidated.
The adjoining room resembled the other in size and shape, but no forbidding icons marred the simple beauty of its curves and lines. In the center of the mosaic floor, Qui-Gon Jinn knelt, still deep in trance. Obi-Wan took a moment to enjoy the way Qui-Gon's robes fell gracefully around him to pool on the tiles, the utter stillness of their folds highlighting the aura of concentration that surrounded Qui-Gon.
Then he knelt before his master so that their knees barely touched. He watched Qui-Gon's face for a moment longer, then folded his hands into his sleeves, bowed his head and waited. Qui-Gon would still be communing with the Council, evaluating Obi-Wan's performance and advocating his Padawan while the Council mulled their judgement.
He had slipped into a light trance state again himself by the time he felt Qui-Gon stir. His mind snapped back into full awareness, but he stayed perfectly still until Qui-Gon's hand touched his chin and nudged it upward. Qui-Gon cupped Obi-Wan's face briefly, then lowered his hood. Obi-Wan met his gaze calmly; he had prepared himself to accept any outcome, but Qui-Gon's eyes shone with quiet satisfaction. "Welcome, my brother Knight," he said, and he kissed Obi-Wan softly on the cheek.
As confident as he had been, he did not expect the relief that flooded him so powerfully his eyes closed. He barely felt the soft snick of the knife severing his apprentice braid, but he opened his eyes in time to see Qui-Gon winding the length of hair around his own wrist. Obi-Wan reached out and traced the smooth loop; then Qui-Gon caught his hand and pulled him into his arms.
Their lips met as though to kiss were the most natural continuation of their small ceremony. Obi-Wan lifted himself to slide onto Qui-Gon's lap, where he fit perfectly. A strong arm anchored him tight around his waist; Qui-Gon's other hand cupped the back of his head to guide him as he tasted his master's mouth for the second time. Their exploration moved slowly, the soft kisses coming one after another as he smoothed his hands over Qui-Gon's hair. When they came to rest below Qui-Gon's neck, he pulled back enough to smile into his master's eyes, then leaned in for another kiss. Their noses brushed, and Obi-Wan smiled and repeated the affectionate gesture. He pressed his cheek to Qui-Gon's for a moment before his face slid down to rest against Qui-Gon's neck.
"Are the Council still watching?" he asked after a while of enjoying the movement of Qui-Gon's lips and the tickle of beard against his head.
Qui-Gon's laughter rumbled along his torso. "Oh, I do hope so. This is just what my reputation needs."
He could not tell if the remark was facetious, but it did not seem to matter. Qui-Gon only hugged him tighter on feeling Obi-Wan's contented smile against his skin. His master was who he was, and Obi-Wan was, too; for the first time, that seemed entirely good and right to him. "Was it really you?" he said, giving voice to the other question tickling at him. "Were you really there?"
"Of course I was there," Qui-Gon answered. He pulled back enough to trace a finger over the line of Obi-Wan's brow. "I told you I would be with you the entire time."
"No, I meant-" Obi-Wan broke off and laughed. He was not likely to get a straight answer either way, and he could think of better uses for his mouth and breath-such as seeing if Qui-Gon's mouth tasted as good as he thought it had. "Never mind."
Qui-Gon's chest rose and fell with slow, even, natural breaths. A hint of a snore punctuated each inhalation. Obi-Wan smiled.
He lay his hand over the bare expanse, the rise of a nipple pressing into his palm. Qui-Gon murmured, but did not wake, and the gentle snores resumed. Obi-Wan kept still, watching the movement of his hand in time with his lover's breaths. The Force thrummed around and between them. Obi-Wan suppressed a laugh at the quiet bliss rushing through him.
He had not expected to feel any different after his knighting. The process was not a transformation, but a transition, an authentication of what he had already become. But now that it was done, he had never felt so powerful or so grounded. Whether it came from his knighthood or from loving Qui-Gon, he neither knew nor cared. He only hoped it would last.
The sudden quiet in the room caught his notice as he drifted back from his thoughts. A warm hand closed over his, and he looked up to meet his lover's sleepy gaze. "It's the night before your trials you're not supposed to sleep," Qui-Gon said, lips curving slightly upward. "Not the night after."
"I always was a backwards student about that sort of thing," Obi-Wan joked. He levered himself up using their clasped hands on Qui-Gon's chest, looked down at his master, then kissed him lightly. Even in the dark hours of the morning, Qui-Gon tasted better than anything he had ever known. "Besides, I feel too good to waste it on sleep."
Qui-Gon chuckled drowsily, then came more fully awake as Obi-Wan lowered his head and began mapping Qui-Gon's shoulder and chest with tiny touches of lips and tongue. Each dab of heat was met with a sigh of appreciation, until Qui-Gon pulled himself up to sit back against the pillows. "Have you given any more thought to what I asked you to consider?"
Obi-Wan pulled his hand free and rested his head on it to look bemusedly up at his lover. "You've been very thorough in ensuring that I not think at all the last few hours."
"I'm still surprised you don't want to teach him yourself." He bent his head again to lick the closer nipple, which stiffened and scraped against his tongue.
Qui-Gon's breath caught, but he did not give in to Obi-Wan's distractions. "Oh, no," he said, arching up as Obi-Wan's mouth moved lower. "I'm done with such responsibility. I intend to devote the rest of my life to debauchery with beautiful young Knights."
"Oh, do you?" Obi-Wan slid his tongue along Qui-Gon's hip, his nose brushing the tight curls around the phallus that was already thickening and lifting for him. "And from where do you intend to procure these beautiful young Knights?"
"I suppose," Qui-Gon said, then gasped as Obi-Wan scraped his teeth across the sensitive skin of his inner thigh, "that I shall have to put out a notice for beautiful young Knights to aid me in my debauchery. Do you think I'll get a response?"
Obi-Wan made a non-committal sound before he put a stop to the conversation by closing his mouth over Qui-Gon's hot, swollen flesh. He would cheerfully dismember any beautiful young Knights who laid their hands on his master and lover. Qui-Gon would call it a personality flaw; he called it simple good sense to have an effective deterrent. He made love to Qui-Gon slowly. Lips and tongue and hands stroked every inch of flesh within reach, staking his claim. Qui-Gon trembled, and his hips jerked minutely with every slow sucking caress to his shaft. Obi-Wan held back the moans welling in his throat, although his back arched from each wave of sensation his lover experienced, rolling through his own body. Big hands clutched at his head and shoulders, pleading for more, faster. He could not help but obey, his own body beginning to overload simply from the reverberation of Qui-Gon's pleasure. His hips thrust his erection frantically into the mattress. Every touch to Qui-Gon's body assaulted his own control, until a tiny whimper from his lover made him give it up entirely. Hot liquid flooded his mouth, and he pumped his own release into the bedclothes.
He must have swallowed Qui-Gon's semen, but his awareness blurred until long moments later. His face pressed into Qui-Gon's hip, his cheek against the softening member still wet from his mouth. Qui-Gon's hands lay still on his shoulders, except for the occasional twitch that might have been an attempt at a caress. "I love you," he murmured against salty wet skin.
Fingers hooked under his biceps and tugged in gentle encouragement. He again obeyed the unspoken urging and pulled himself farther up onto Qui-Gon. Cool air swirled across his damp skin, then warm arms closed around him, and he settled, content. Heavy satiation wrapped around them, and Obi-Wan marveled at how their natural empathic rapport had intensified during their lovemaking. Even Jedi control had been no match for the power of his lover's climax. Whether the physical intimacy had led to the emotional intimacy or the other way around, he had no idea. He would talk about it with Qui-Gon, when he could talk again.
He dozed for a while. When he drifted awake again, fingers were combing through his hair, warm strokes across his scalp. He murmured his appreciation and nuzzled closer. The fingers rubbed a few more times, then stilled, curving along his head. "Have you thought any more about Anakin?" Qui-Gon asked.
Laughter burst out in an almost painful snort. Qui-Gon was more persistent than a gnawing pup. He supposed it was a noble quality. He lifted himself up enough to give Qui-Gon an incredulous look. "Anakin has not been the focus of my thoughts tonight, Qui-Gon, I must confess."
"That's a good thing, I'm sure," Qui-Gon replied mildly. "But you meditated so much before your trials, I thought perhaps you might have spared a thought or two for him."
Lying down again on Qui-Gon's chest, he let out a noisy, long-suffering sigh. He could feel Qui-Gon waiting, but he held silent. He counted off the seconds until Qui-Gon would give up and begin to drift again, then said, "I will train him."
The jolt of surprise he felt travel through the torso beneath him was satisfying. "You will?"
He smiled. Qui-Gon lifted his head to look down at him, but he kept his head ducked against the other man's shoulder. "Yes, I will."
"Yes, I'm sure." He finally looked up, enjoying the flummoxed expression Qui-Gon wore. Surprising his master twice in one week was not a bad record. Stodgy, indeed. He would make Qui-Gon take that back, sooner or later. "Not as sure as the two of you, but sure enough. Don't act like you didn't expect me to give in."
"I expected to have to cajole you more. But it's just as well. I have other ways I would rather spend the time." Qui-Gon gripped the back of Obi-Wan's neck and brought their mouths together deeply, sweetly, for a long moment. "I retract my previous comment," Qui-Gon said when they broke apart, a little breathless. "You are not in the least bit stodgy."
Well. He had thought it would be harder than that. "Thank you."
"Perhaps the slightest bit stodgy."
"Be quiet." And then he kissed him to be sure of it.
-- Don't forget to send feedback! :-)
Date:Tue, 13 Jun 2000 23:49:26 EDT
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