VIII.

Progress was being made. I thought. This week, anyway.

My classes ended -- both the teaching and the learning -- and we were returned to the mission roster's last rotation. We drew some light duty -- treaty observations and helping to build a few towns -- so that I was been able to be with my Master much of the time. We spent the last two weeks played carpenter side by side, helping to build roofs for the Glanishc who just joined the Republic. They were exchanging peat roofs for real roofs, and we'd been helping the Republic builders because otherwise we'd just be in the way. I fetched planks and nails and learned to drive a mean nail or ten myself into the roofing.

"Gods, but you're easy to be with," I told him impulsively when we took a xenith break.

He looked startled and laughed, pulling off his bandana and wiping the sweat from his forehead. "What made you say that?"

I poured out a deep cup of water and offered it to him first. "We're hot and sweaty, working our butts off, and you've just spent the morning teaching me how to build a roof. Not once did you get impatient or complain that I'm not learning fast enough. You've never done that, but other Masters have. I just... I guess I just want to say thank you, Master, only it came out sideways."

He gave me a sweaty hug before retrieving his tools. "For what it's worth, Obi-Wan, I think you're easy to be with as well."

We returned to work then, with a warm glow effusing the training bond that hadn't been there before. A few clicks later, and my Master began to hum -- a sound that I hadn't heard in a long time. Casting me a sly glance, he then began singing a bawdy song that we'd heard some time ago on a distant planet.

"I can't remember all of the words, Padawan. Do you?"

"Um... give me a minute. Yes, Master, I think I do."

He prompted me when I forgot a line, and I prompted him. In no time at all, we had all of the lyrics together and were teaching the other workers. It wasn't quite the help the Council had in mind when they'd sent us here, and the men's wives wouldn't thank us, but we had a good time.

Yes, I think that was progress.

I've noticed that it seems easier for my Master to set aside his sadness when we're off-planet, when he can bury himself in the moment and not be haunted by the past. He takes pleasure in the little things, like our having to bathe that night in a local swimming hole fed by a hot spring. We were handed rough, scratchy towels and promised privacy by the natives, so that we headed off with a single bar of soap and no worries. He soaped my back and I soaped his, sharing a naked togetherness. Of course I had an erection; he was oblivious or polite in not noticing it, I'm not certain which. I was neither oblivious or polite; I noticed his. A damn fine one it was, too, large and thick and inviting. I looked forward to becoming better acquainted with it one day.

We sat cross-legged on the bank, towels draped across our laps while we watched the sun go down. He repaired my braid, and I returned the compliment by combing out his wet hair.

"It's getting long. It will need to be cut it when we return home," he remarked idly, tossing a pebble into the pool and watching the rings ripple outward.

"I wish you'd let it grow longer," I remarked, going up on my knees behind him to pull the usual portion back and fasten the small leather thong. Leaning down, I pulled the knot tight with my teeth, as both of my hands were needed elsewhere to secure the damp hair that seemed determined to fight me this night.

He looked across at me when I thumped down beside him. "How much longer do you think it needs to be?"

This was new. Usually, he just pointed out that longer hair could be dangerous in a fight, and we left it at that.

"As long as I could get you to grow it." It seemed a day for honesty.

My Master looked away and fell into thoughtful silence, and I knew not to push the issue. He hadn't refused, and I chose to take that as assent. When I trimmed his hair upon our return to Coruscant, I planned to snick off only a minimum of hair. With a bit of luck and a lot of silence regarding the matter, I thought he'd let it grow for me.

I was starting to learn that the silences between us were telling. Over and over again, experience seemed to have taught my Master that words simply didn't cut it in an intimate relationship. On the other hand, just living might. If I stayed as close as he'd let me, consistently and gladly for a very long time... if I took care of him and dominated his time as a companion as much as possible, perhaps he'd be immune to any knights who came along when we got home, wanting to intrude on the intimate relationship I was trying to build with him.

We were sent from Glanishc to Koolinara, where we found ourselves officiating at the coronation of their boy-king. It wasn't a difficult mission, but it was wearying in terms of standing at attention through a series of boring ceremonies conducted in an ancient ceremonial language that neither we nor the populace understood. Still, it pleased the priests who would support this king.

As the day of the coronation drew nearer, we were asked to take turns helping to guard the king's chamber, to use our Force senses against any hint of dark thought or an assassination attempt. Of a consequence, this meant that Qui-Gon and I were unable to sleep together the entire time we were there.

"I'm exhausted," I confessed to him while we broke our fast one morning; I was just coming off duty, while he was going on.

"As am I." I was startled to hear him admit it. His next words startled me even more. "Given the many hosts who see fit to furnish us with only one bed, it seems that you and I have grown used to each other's company in ways we have never realized. Numerous times in the night, I find myself waking up and reaching for you. I'm disturbed that you're not there." He sounded vaguely bewildered, but accepting.

"I feel it too, Master."

Taking my braid between his fingers, he caressed the length of it. "Only a few more days, Obi-Wan. Then we can go home, where sleep is never a disturbance."

Home. Not just back to Coruscant, but home. To our quarters, where our vibrations had obviously mingled in such a way that we were always together, sensed that togetherness, and could sleep soundly. My Master had realized it first and seemed to be taking it in stride. I wondered if there were any unrealized bonding implications in our resting uneasily when we were too far apart.

I hoped so.

The coronation festivities concluded, and my Master told me to book passage home at the Council's orders. Quite deliberately, I booked us onto a ship that I knew had a five-cycle layover on a distant moon. I also knew that Qui-Gon wouldn't inquire as to the details of the passage before we got on board. The two of us were seated comfortably in the guest lounge when the transport docked against the moon. Looking up from his datapad, Qui-Gon arched an elegant eyebrow.

"Where are we?"

I rose to my feet and gathered my cloak. "Do you trust me?"

"Implicitly, but what has that to do with where we are, Obi-Wan? What have you planned?"

I pulled a scrappy flyer from my pocket, unfolded it and handed it to him. "I thought you might enjoy attending this."

His eyes scanned the words. "An antiquarian book exhibit and sale? Obi-Wan, we haven't time--"

"We have five cycles before the ship leaves." Scooping up his cloak, I set it on his shoulders and circled around to tug on his hand. "Come on, before all of the books are gone."

He shook his head, still staring down at the flyer even as he got up and let me lead him off of the ship. "How did you learn of this?"

"One of the guests at the ceremonies is exhibiting here. He mentioned it, that's all."

"That's all?" Waving the flyer before him, my Master caught up and walked beside me down the gangway. "Obi-Wan, this took a bit of deliberate planning, didn't it? You booked us on a ship that you knew would stop here."

"The Council won't mind," I defended. "The rates were a little lower than a non-stop transport. Will the Order begrudge us five cycles of freedom?"

"No, but my credit account might, given the books advertised at this gathering. Obi-Wan...."

"Yes, Master?" I bit my lip in uncertainty. "Have I done something wrong? You don't want to go?"

He loomed closer, invading my private space in a way he'd never done before to drape a companionable arm around my shoulders and settle me against him. "Not want to go? Of course I want to go. It's just.... It was a very thoughtful thing for you to have done, Obi-Wan, and totally unexpected. Thank you."

I was squeezed so hard, I thought my collarbones might crack. The anticipation and happiness in my Master's eyes was unmistakable.

"Then what's the problem, Master?"

"The problem is that you shall be bored stiff."

"No, I won't."

"Yes, you will."

"Fine, Master. If you sense that I am, you can teach me about books the way you taught me about roofing and saber drills."

"It's not the same thing at all."

"I'm eager to learn, Master. Teach me."

He laughed then -- a full-bodied, deep and joy-filled sound that I had heard only a few times during my entire apprenticeship. I shivered to think that I'd been the one to inspire it this time. Sliding my hand boldly around his waist, I nestled closer and looked up at him. He smiled down at me, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners.

"I'll teach you what ever you wish to learn, Padawan. Just see if I don't."

/Then teach me how to love you./ It was on the tip of my tongue, but I dared not say it.

The book show didn't bore me. My Master was contented, and I was basking in the blissful feelings vibrating across our training bond. I didn't understand quite why ancient tomes enraptured him so, but that didn't matter. Qui-Gon was happy; that's what was important.

"Are you sure you're not bored?" he asked on an average of once every ten clicks.

"I'm sure, Master."

He found a number of volumes to purchase, and I willingly volunteered to carry them while he searched for more.

"Are you sure you're not--"

"Master," I said soothingly, "why don't you explain to me why you find brittle paper encased in leather-bound boards so enticing?"

He gave me a strange look. "Ah... so that's it. You don't understand."

"Right. But I'm not bored." I waited expectantly for the lesson that was surely to come.

He seemed to gather his thoughts before speaking. "Your holovid collection... what is the name of one of those mindless, escapist adventure serials you like so well?"

"Mindless?" I laughed. "Escapist? They serve their purpose, Master. They're relaxing."

"And addictive, I've noticed. Well? Come now, Padawan: a name."

"Crimson Pirates of Corellia," I reported obediently, if a little embarrassed.

"Hmmm," my Master said, turning away to wander further down the aisle and letting his hand hover over the nearest bookstall's offering. "And here we are." He thrust a medium-sized volume at me, almost under my nose. "Smell this."

I sniffed. "Um... it's musty and moldy. A bit nasty, really."

"It's old. Older than both of us put together." He took the book from me and laid it in the palm of his hand. "You already know this book, Padawan. I believe it's the first in your HV series."

He tilted the cover and revealed the title page. An illustration opposite was revealed in vibrant blues and greens. "High adventure and treachery on the outer rim," read the caption. A bountifully bosomed lady pirate had the scowling, black-haired hero lashed to the bulkhead of a scarred starcruiser. Her blaster was fully trained on his temple, his trusty first officer lay bleeding and unconscious at his feet.

Qui-Gon didn't linger over the illustration. Instead, he turned to the first page and began reading. "'I was but ten years of age when my father sold me as a cabin boy to the captain of the 'Rogue Warrior'. My place was at the captain's side, which I never left except briefly and at his order, and I slept in a corner of his cabin on the floor. Over the next two years, I was initiated into a life of blood, hidden treasure, murder and black intrigue on the outer rim. The Rogue was a fine old ship, for all that she's gone now....'"

I closed my eyes, the better to listen as my Master's voice drew me into one of the fantasy worlds that I'd loved since I was a boy. The ship was described in vivid detail, as was the captain -- a bold, strong man, determined to protect his crew and his ship at all costs. Qui-Gon's voice died away and it took me a minute to realize that he didn't intend to continue past the few paragraphs he'd shared. My eyes shot open.

"Why did you stop? There are details in there that the HV's don't show!"

My Master all but smirked. "That, my Padawan, is why I find brittle paper encased in leather-bound boards so enticing." Snapping closed the book, he offered it to me. "It's twenty credits, a bargain for a third imprint. Do you want it?"

I practically snatched it from him and couldn't hand over my credit chip fast enough to the amused female Dug weaving behind the table.

"Stay and read at my stall," she urged my Master with a glint and a grunt, while running my credit chip through her machine with alacrity. "More books we'd sell."

"Alas, I am already employed." He refused her with a smile and a bow, and put a hand to my elbow to urge me along after my purchase was returned in a solid, protective little wrapping. It was only then that I noticed the crowd that had gathered around us, presumably to listen to my Master read.

"Jedi," The whispers surrounded us. "They're Jedi."

Qui-Gon waved his hand before us slightly. I felt the Force ripple a bit at the manipulation. "Our presence is of no consequence. Be at peace, and continue to enjoy your day."

The crowd dispersed. I went on ahead to look for more pirates in other bins. "Master, I've found three more! This one hasn't even been made into a vid!"

He stood close to look over my shoulder in the crowded aisle. "How much are they?"

"Um... this one's twenty. And these... are twenty-five each. I can't afford all of them!"

"That's the joy of books, Obi-Wan. They wait patiently somewhere until such time as you can afford them."

"But I want them all."

He squeezed my shoulder and gestured with his other hand, indicating the entire room full of books on display. "Now you know how I feel."

My Master continued on his amused way. Replacing my good finds in the bins, I shook my head sadly at the dealer behind the table.

"Not enough credits, not even to haggle," I apologized before hurrying to catch up with Qui-Gon. "So what do you do when you want something you can't afford?"

"I save my credits until I can afford it."

We continued cruising the wares until I hit on the brilliant -- if belated -- plan to write down the titles to my series that I was finding but couldn't afford. The Master and I split up for awhile, with me lagging behind to scribble my notes while he went on ahead to in search of his own treasures. In time, I found a crumbling pulp edition of another one in the series, but nothing else I could afford. Circling back to the original Dug dealer whose books I'd coveted, I was dismayed to discover that the three volumes I'd found were gone.

I searched again, just to make sure, but without luck. Yes, they were definitely gone. Sadly, I went in search of my Master, who was seated close to the door and already absorbed in one of the tomes he'd purchased. Sinking down cross-legged beside him, I added my two small purchases to the hefty stack he'd accumulated in my absence.

"Did you find anything good?" Qui-Gon asked.

"Not really, no." I showed him my second, sorry purchase.

"Obi-Wan, this won't do at all," he said. "Look, some of the pages are loose and here, you're missing two. Not only that, this corner looks like it's been gnawed on by a previous owner."

"It's all I could afford."

"Then it's best to wait until you've the credits to afford what you want, rather than what you feel you must settle for." He handed the sorry little book back to me. "This volume won't last; it will disintegrate in your hands as you read it, and you'll not have the pleasure of reading it again."

"You're right. There's much I have to learn about book collecting."

Rising, Qui-Gon handed me half of his purchases and took the other half to carry himself. "I'll be happy to teach you, Padawan. The first rule is to be patient and to never buy in haste. There's always a better book."

Nodding, I trudged along behind him out of the sale. Thankfully, my first lesson hadn't been too expensive. "There's one other thing, Master."

Turning, he waited for me to catch up, then strolled along beside me on our way back to the waiting ship. "What's that, Padawan?"

"I wanted to make a list of the books that I found, so that I could keep track of what I had gotten and what I was missing. But when I backtracked to one of the stalls, the books I'd found were all gone."

"Yes, they can be snatched up in your absence."

"It's most disappointing. All I wanted to do was to list them."

"The temple library should be able to furnish that information. There will be other volumes at other sales, Obi-Wan. Half of the fun is in the hunt."

"But the other half of the fun is in the reading," I said petulantly. "If I can't find them or afford them, how am I to read them?"

He slid his arm around my shoulders again, hugging me tightly against him and not letting go. I very much liked the feeling of his solidity against me. "You must trust that you'll find them again when you can afford them. For now, would you like a snack to take the edge off of your disappointment before we reboard?"

"Yes, Master. I think I would. Even if I can't afford a book, I can still afford to eat."

"Well said, Padawan, though some philosophers would argue that literature is just another form of necessary nourishment."

 

IX.

"I have something for you," said Qui-Gon when we'd returned home and were ready to retire to our separate chambers in hopes of getting some long-needed and much anticipated rest. Digging into his hold-all, he emerged to hand me three books.

I stared, incredulous, at the spines. In my hands were the three volumes I'd lost to an unknown buyer only a few cycles ago. "These are.... You bought these for me? Master!"

He stood there grinning in a gleeful, open a way I'd never seen before, all teeth and satisfaction. "And that, gentlebeings, is how one renders a Padawan speechless."

Speechless perhaps, but not non-responsive. On impulse and carefully, so as not to injure the books I still held, I slid my arms around him and hugged tight. My cheek went against his chest, my hands burrowed into his robes. "Even if you were sneaky about it, thank you so much, Master."

He hugged me fiercely in return, molding our bodies together and even seeming to rest his chin on the top of my head. His hands were warm where they caressed my back, and his chuckle reverberated deep in my own chest.

"You're most welcome, Obi-Wan. I hope that they bring you many hours of pleasure. I give them to you in celebration of my converting you to the fine art of collecting musty old volumes."

"I have something for you as well," I murmured, not wanting to leave his embrace, but knowing that if I stayed and clung, it would most likely wreck the moment. At the very least it would spark some confusion on Qui-Gon's part. Drawing away, I went to my duffle and retrieved a flat, slender box. Handing it over, I stood with my hands behind my back and awaited his reaction.

Opening the box, he unrolled its contents and stared.

"Parchment, Obi-Wan? And a fountain pen?" He laid the writing materials carefully on his desk, ran a finger over both. "These aren't gifts, Padawan, they are priceless treasures. Where did you find them?"

"There was a little booth in the back, lurking in the shadows," I said, pleased with his reaction and knowing that he was pleased as well. "The paper is handmade, and I've a bottle of ink to give you as well, once I unpack and make sure it hasn't spilled on itself."

"Obi-Wan...." He stood there for a moment, as if at a loss as to what to do. And then, giving a crooked smile and looking rather sheepish, he opened his arms to me.

I'm no fool: I dove in for another hug. This time, I was almost certain that he pressed a kiss to the top of my head. Force, but he felt so good to be near. If Mk'Zil was right and I did smell like my Master, then I smelled of heaven.

Closing my eyes, I took a good, deep breath to fill my senses with him. I was hardening fast, growing aroused just by the scent of him, by the firm muscles of his back that I could feel shifting beneath my hands, and the delicious knowledge that I'd made him happy. He might fall back into depression the moment he entered his chambers and went to bed, he might miss Dagan's lovemaking something fierce, but I felt certain that Dagan hadn't ever taken the time to give his lover a gift like that.

"I will cherish these things always," he rumbled against me, not showing any signs of wanting to let go. "I'm most hesitant to use the paper, it seems so precious."

"There's always more paper, as there are always more books, Master," I said into his tunic, wishing I dared nuzzle my way in to press my lips against his bare chest. "We'll have to haunt galactic book sales until we find that vendor again. Or perhaps there's one closer to home?"

"Perhaps. Coruscant has many surprises in its shops." My Master's fingers sifted gently through my hair, and then he was stepping back, letting me go. I felt bereft of his body heat, but the contentment smoldering in those blue eyes warmed me all over again. "Thank you, Obi-Wan."

"You're welcome, Master."

I think we both slept well that night, and not just because we were home again.

 

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