Sunlight streaked across the wide expanse of floor, painting broad strokes of reds and golds on the worn, smooth stone. For centuries, masters, knights, and padawans had stood there in that spot as Coruscant's magnificent sunset flooded the Council chamber with warm light. The Council as a whole seemed oblivious to the stunning view, their backs to the large plexi windows that afforded a privileged perspective on the skyline of the Senate complex.
"Thank you, Master Jinn, Padawan Kenobi. Your efforts on Hildass no doubt helped ensure the success of the peace talks between the factions." Mace Windu nodded approvingly at the two Jedi standing before the Council.
"To be commended, you are," stated Master Yoda, his eyes first meeting the blue eyes of Master Qui-Gon Jinn and then the green gaze of Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The sunset calming his frazzled nerves, Obi-Wan exhaled softly, relieved that they were back at the Temple at last. The mission to Hildass had been difficult for him, mentally much more than physically. Not only had the climate been miserably hot and humid, and their quarters woefully cramped and inadequate, but the Hildassians themselves were mean, manipulative, and ruthlessly dishonest. It had taken extreme self-control on his part not to resort to violence when dealing with several of the more spineless delegates he had been assigned to work with. Obi-Wan had always disliked politics, but at the moment he utterly detested politicians as a subspecies. Qui-Gon had, as usual, demonstrated unfailing patience.
/I have so much to learn yet about how to be a Jedi/, he thought. He was certain that no matter how hard he tried, he would never have the connection to the living Force that his master demonstrated on a daily basis.
/Ah, but now, we can finally relax./ He smiled inwardly, thinking of sleeping in his own bed, talking with his friends again - if any of them were around, and not off on missions of their own. Spending two interminable months on Hildass had left him homesick and in great need of a break. He certainly hoped he could find a few of his friends around. His eighteenth birthday was five days away, and he desperately needed to relax and enjoy himself, if only briefly.
Eighteen was the legal age of adulthood in most of the galaxy for humanoids, though most youths did not necessarily wait until that age to indulge in adult activities. In their rare free moments, many of his friends consumed various intoxicants, experimented with drugs, both legal and illegal, and explored their sexuality from a fairly early age. He, on the other hand, sipped one drink for hours while his friends became intoxicated, stayed away from narcotics completely, and had only been kissed a few times in his life. He had endured a great deal of teasing for his rather reserved behavior, but Obi-Wan had no desire to be a rebel. He had devoted his life to the Jedi, and was committed to following the Code.
And to help his master in that regard as well. He glanced at Qui-Gon briefly, as he was wrapping up the details of their report to the Council. Qui-Gon's rather loose interpretations of the Code, of the Council's instructions, and of the goals of their missions often frustrated him. He was sure that Qui-Gon thought he was a bit of a prude.
/Well, he'd be surprised to learn how I plan to spend my birthday/, he thought . He had decided during one particularly frustrating day on Hildass that he would drop all of his inhibitions for that one day, and experience everything that he could. The thought of what might happen sent a small shiver down his spine.
Qui-Gon glanced sharply at him. Obi-Wan winced -- was it that obvious that he was daydreaming? He straightened his stance and looked for the disapproving glances he was sure he would receive from Master Windu and Master Yoda. Thankfully, they were looking at Qui-Gon. /Yes, I just need a break, that's all./ Qui-Gon bowed briefly to the council. Obi-Wan did the same, and they turned to leave.
"Master Jinn, one more thing," Mace interrupted. Surprised, they both turned back to face him. "The mission that you requested..."
"To Primale?" Qui-Gon asked expectantly. Obi-Wan frowned slightly. He hadn't heard anything about Qui-Gon requesting a mission. He'd never even heard of Primale.
Mace smiled at Qui-Gon. "You may go."
Qui-Gon smiled, almost grinned. "Thank you, Master Windu, Master Yoda."
"You should leave as soon as possible. Put together a supply request and I'll make sure that's it's expedited for you."
Obi-Wan struggled to maintain his composure, but inside he felt like screaming at his master. /You requested a mission? After all that we've been through, and knowing that it's my birthday.../ He tensed his jaw and sighed softly as the realization hit him. /He's forgotten. Again. He's forgotten my birthday./ He had gotten used to Qui-Gon's lack of affection over the years, but this omission hurt him suddenly. Qui-Gon, of all people in his life, should have known how important this birthday was to him. And here they were, about to head off on another mission.
"Master Jinn, much thought have I put into this request," Yoda stated sternly. "Discreet, you will be. That you go to Primale, no one outside of this chamber is to know."
"Of course, Master Yoda," Qui-Gon bowed his head respectfully, carefully reigning in his earlier display of obvious elation.
"Do not discuss the details of the mission until you are on your way," Mace continued. He raised an eyebrow at Qui-Gon. "Not even with your padawan."
Obi-Wan looked up sharply at that, his curiosity piqued despite his growing depression. Where were they going? Why the secrecy? Why could he not know the details until they were on the way? /They don't trust me.../ His mind reeled at that. He looked at Qui-Gon, who sent a wave a reassurance over their bond. Their eyes met briefly. :_Trust me, Obi-Wan._: He could almost hear the words his master was thinking with that look. Obi-Wan nodded and looked away.
Mace smiled broadly at them both. "Go then." His eyes locked with Obi-Wan's. "May the Force be with you."
Confused, Obi-Wan followed his master from the Council chamber. His initial disappointment at being assigned a new mission had not faded, but he was curious about the apparent secrecy surrounding it. He desperately wanted to ask Qui-Gon what was going on, though he was sure his master would follow Master Windu's directive and not give him any important information.
"Patience, Padawan. All will be clear in time."
Obi-Wan sighed. Qui-Gon knew him well. He made up his mind not to be upset about the mission, his birthday... or lack of recognition of it. He would not get to spend his eighteenth birthday in a mindless state of debauchery after all, but perhaps that was for the best. After all, the things he had been thinking about doing were certainly unbefitting a Jedi.
/My birthday was just an excuse/, he thought. /This was meant to happen. The Force is guiding me not to make a mistake. I was going to abandon my self-control, and that would have been wrong./ He relaxed a little with that thought. /Besides, if I really decide that I want to feel what it would be like to not be a Jedi for one night, I can do it whenever I want. Why does it need to be a special occasion?/
He clearly needed some release, but was he looking for an excuse in order to not feel guilty about it afterwards? Was he questioning his commitment to the Jedi, or was this a normal exploration, a part of growing up? He was now thoroughly convinced that he ought to meditate on this issue further.
He was lost in thought when they arrived back at their shared quarters. Once inside, he waited briefly in the main room, hoping Qui-Gon would volunteer some information. Instead, Qui-Gon immediately busied himself with the supply request. Obi-Wan fidgeted.
"Padawan?" Qui-Gon asked without looking up from the data pad.
"I know that you have many questions about this mission, but you must trust me."
"Of course I trust you, Master." Obi-Wan paused, trying to decide if he should say what he was really thinking.
"But?" Qui-Gon set the data pad aside and waited. He looked up at his clearly sullen apprentice.
"I just... I'm very tired, Master, after the mission to Hildass. I was looking forward to having a chance to relax. The thought of going on another mission right now is... extremely unappealing."
Qui-Gon smiled. "Believe it or not, Obi-Wan, I understand. I too wish for some time to relax. That is why..." He paused, and Obi-Wan had the distinct impression that he had caught himself, almost saying something that he wasn't supposed to say. Their eyes locked, Obi-Wan struggling to read the expression on Qui-Gon's face. "That is why you must trust me, Padawan. This mission was something that I requested because it is... a unique opportunity..." He paused again.
Obi-Wan was sure now that Qui-Gon was struggling not to give any information away about the mission to Primale. He raised an eyebrow suggestively. "Yes, Master? What kind of opportunity?"
Qui-Gon picked up the data pad and attempted a scowl. "We must do our duty, Obi-Wan. Let's leave it at that. You of all people can appreciate that explanation." Qui-Gon winced even as the words came out of his mouth. He hadn't meant to sound quite so harsh, but he really did not want to give Obi-Wan any further information about the upcoming mission. He glanced up to meet Obi-Wan's gaze. The young man quickly masked the pain in his eyes and looked away. Qui-Gon sighed and put the data pad down again.
"Padawan... I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."
"No, Master. You're right. The Council has asked us to go on this mission -- sort of -- and we must do our duty. The Code demands it." He gazed intently at Qui-Gon for a moment.
/There's something else he wants to say, but he's afraid to say it/, Qui-Gon thought. He waited silently.
After a long moment, Obi-Wan smiled weakly. "I guess I'd better re-pack then." He headed quickly toward his room.
When the door closed, Qui-Gon sighed. /I should just tell him what's going on. I wanted to surprise him, but at this rate, he'll be too angry with me to enjoy it./ He considered this briefly. Obi-Wan was too uptight, had been for quite a while now, and needed a release. That was why he'd requested the mission to Primale, as soon as he'd heard from Mace that it was a possibility. He'd spent months begging and pleading Yoda to let him take Obi-Wan on this mission. /He needs this/, Qui-Gon thought. /Maybe he doesn't know it yet, and if he knew what was going to happen there, he might refuse to go./ He couldn't risk telling Obi-Wan any more, not after all of the work he'd put into this.
A stray thought seized him -- /What if we get there, and he still refuses to participate?/ His Padawan was so careful, so reserved at times. He had hoped to give Obi-Wan the details gradually, adjusting him to the idea, so that when they arrived at Primale, he would be ready. /Maybe not. Maybe I should just keep him in the dark and then spring it on him when it's staring him in the face and he can't back down. He'll do his duty./ But he didn't want Obi-Wan to look on this as duty. He wanted him to relax, live in the moment, if just this once, to say to hell with the Code! He drew his attention back to the data pad. /Better to stick to the original plan./
Obi-Wan tried to relax, reaching out to the Force, to connect himself to it. He had been trying unsuccessfully to meditate for over an hour, and kept finding his thoughts slipping back to the mission. They had been traveling in hyperspace for almost two days now, and he still knew nothing more of their mission than the name of the planet to which they were headed. Frustrated, he opened his eyes and leaned back against the bunk in the small cabin on the transport. It was typical of ships of this size -- two bunks, one above the other, very little space in which to do anything but sit and think.
He had intended to spend this time meditating on his confusing thoughts from two days earlier, but the more he tried to sort them out, the more confused he felt. He stretched his legs out in front of him on the floor and pulled his torso down into a deep stretch. /There, that feels good/, he thought. /I wonder if I could meditate in this position?/
The door to the cabin slid open, revealing Qui-Gon with a data pad in hand. Obi-Wan looked up expectantly. Qui-Gon smiled and handed him the data pad. "It's time for you to learn about our mission to Primale, Padawan."
"Finally," Obi-Wan muttered, taking the data pad and crossing his legs under him. Qui-Gon stood in the doorway for a moment, as if he were unsure of whether to enter the room or leave. Finally he turned to go. "Come to the cockpit when you've finished it," he said over his shoulder.
"Primale," Obi-Wan said to no one in particular. "So what's the big secret?" He climbed up on the bunk, leaned back against a pillow and began to scroll through the report.
An hour later, he appeared in the cockpit and sat in the co-pilot's seat next to his master. Qui-Gon turned to his apprentice expectantly. Obi-Wan was quiet for a moment, a look of tired confusion on his face.
"Master, what exactly is our mission? I don't understand..."
Qui-Gon's smile became a grin. "First things first, Padawan. Tell me about Primale."
Obi-Wan nodded and thought for a moment. This was standard procedure on each mission. They would each read the Council's briefing and Qui-Gon would quiz him on the details. There was always something important that he had missed, and Qui-Gon would question him carefully until Obi-Wan understood the details of the mission completely. It was no longer intimidating; in fact, he was finally getting very good at reading the briefings on the level that Qui-Gon expected. However, this briefing had left him at a loss. He tried to relax, knowing that the ensuing discussion would clear up his questions eventually. Qui-Gon noted his apprentice's patience and smiled a bit more.
"Primale was settled approximately 900 years ago by colonists from the Borale system," Obi-Wan began. "The colony thrived, and after 100 years it peacefully won its independence from Borale Prime. The Primalians have isolated themselves from galactic politics, for the most part, but have recently petitioned for membership in the Republic. Their petition is expected to be granted in a few months' time. Primale's government is a democratic one, with a monarchy that plays only a formal role. The major industries are..."
"That's fine, Obi-Wan. You can skip the economic details. What can you tell me about the Primalian culture?"
Obi-Wan paused for a moment, surprised by Qui-Gon's interruption. Why didn't his Master want to make sure he understood the economic and political systems of the planet? Surely those were of critical importance to the success of their mission. Whatever their mission was.
"The culture is fairly traditional," he began again, "with an egalitarian kinship structure. Extended family members tend to live close to one another, with pair-bonded couples and children comprising a family unit." He paused to look at his master, wondering if this was what he was looking for.
"Our arrival coincides with the start of the Moonflower festival, a three-day event which is the largest annual celebration on the planet. It centers around the annual blossoming of the Moonflower tree, which occurs on the only night in the year that the orbits of Primale's two moons are aligned in the sky and both in full phase." He paused again, not sure what Qui-Gon wanted to hear.
"Tell me more about the festival."
Obi-Wan nodded. "The first day of the festival, called 'Firstnight,' begins at sundown... today, actually. This is the night that the Moonflower trees bloom. The people go in the evening to pick the Moonflower blossoms, which they make into wine."
"And what else?"
"They also dry the petals from some of the blossoms... but the report didn't say what they do with those."
"Hmmmm... I suppose we'll have to fill in that bit of information ourselves."
Obi-Wan stared at his master for a moment, trying to determine if that comment was a joke. He seemed serious.
"The second day of the festival, 'Secondnight,' begins at sundown the following day. Communities gather to crush the blossoms from the night before to make wine, and then have a feast. Following the feast, they drink the wine that they made the year before. Apparently it's only consumed on this one night. The festivities continue until dawn."
Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow. "Festivities, Padawan?"
"The report didn't give any more details than that," Obi-Wan replied, confused. What was he supposed to have learned from the report? He had quickly skimmed over the information about the festival, concentrating on the details that he had expected would be more pertinent to their mission. Whatever it was.
"Once again, a bit of information we'll have to research ourselves," Qui-Gon said, smiling.
Obi-Wan stared at him for a long moment before continuing. "The festival concludes with 'Thirdnight,' which begins at sunset on the third day and ends at sunrise."
"And what happens on Thirdnight?"
Obi-Wan sighed. He was really not doing well this time. By the grin on his master's face, he knew Qui-Gon was really delighting in this apparent failure.
"I don't know much more about Thirdnight, Master. Only that it is the most important night of the festival." He paused. "Master, what are we doing here? I don't understand."
"Obi-Wan, you don't know what our mission is because we aren't on an official mission." Qui-Gon paused, letting that information sink in. "We are not here as Jedi, but as representatives of the Chancellor. We are to enjoy the festival and learn more about Primale and its people."
Obi-Wan thought for a moment. "You mean, we're just going to the festival?"
"Exactly," Qui-Gon said with a smile. "After Hildass, I could certainly stand a chance to relax a little."
Obi-Wan began to smile. "Yes, Master, as can I." He began to feel some of the tension from the previous weeks melt away already. "Master, why did you request this... mission? Did you know in advance that our mission to Hildass would be so difficult?"
Qui-Gon smiled warmly. "Padawan, surely it cannot have escaped your attention that the third day of the Moonflower festival falls on your birthday."
Obi-Wan felt his heart jump in his chest, a genuine smile tugging at his lips . "Master, do you mean that this whole trip..."
"Yes, Padawan. Happy Birthday. Though it's a few days early." Obi-Wan's genuine pleasure at his gift was obvious, and Qui-Gon was relieved to see his apprentice happy again.
"Is that what all the secrecy was for, Master? To surprise me?"
"Well, to an extent. There are more surprises, though, which I'll let you find for yourself over the next few days. I think you'll find this 'mission' to be quite enjoyable... and memorable."
Obi-Wan grinned. Surprises? /He really does care about me, doesn't he?/ "Master... thank you, really. I thought you'd forgotten."
"No, of course not. This is quite an important birthday for you, Obi-Wan." He tried to appear serious for a moment. "You'll be an adult soon, so I want you to know that if you have any questions about being an adult, any at all, you can ask me."
Obi-Wan laughed. "I'm not a child, Master. I know quite a bit about a lot of things -- I'm sure you'd be surprised." He blushed as soon as the words left his lips.
Qui-Gon grinned. "Obi-Wan, I do remember what it was like to be 18 years old."
"But Master, that was so long ago..."
"Ha! Show some respect for your elders, Padawan!" Qui-Gon left his seat and pinned Obi-Wan to his chair in a fraction of a second, and began to tickle his apprentice mercilessly.
Obi-Wan laughed in surprise and eventually managed to squirm away. "Honestly, Master! Don't you think I'm a little old for this sort of game?"
Qui-Gon leaned back against the chair and smiled wistfully. "Yes, Padawan, even I have to admit that you're quite grown up now. You'll forgive me if I still occasionally see that 13-year-old boy that I got to know on Bandomeer."
Obi-Wan smiled and lowered his gaze. In truth, he was immensely enjoying this rare show of affection from his master. He hoped it wasn't about to end so suddenly.
As if he'd read his thoughts, Qui-Gon stepped closer, saying, "Are you too grown up to give your poor old master a hug?"
Obi-Wan grinned. "Of course not." He stepped into the embrace and pressed his cheek against Qui-Gon's chest. The older man ruffled his hair affectionately. Obi-Wan listened to the calm heartbeat in his master's chest for a moment before saying, "Thank you, Master." He wanted to say it aloud, but he became too self-conscious -- /I love you./
Qui-Gon squeezed a little tighter. "And I love you, Padawan," he whispered, feeling rather than seeing Obi-Wan's smile at his response to the unspoken comment. He had to admit that it was rare that he allowed himself to show his feelings for Obi-Wan so directly. Whenever he did, the boy soaked up the attention and returned it quite warmly. Now that Obi-Wan was nearly18, he realized sadly, these moments would be rare indeed. A wave of emotion rolled through his mind at the realization that time would begin to move more quickly, that Obi-Wan would now begin to grow away from him. /Now I start losing him/, he thought. /He's not a boy anymore./ A smile crept over his face. /At least he won't be after the next few days!/ He laughed at his own joke, and Obi-Wan pulled out of his arms.
"What's so funny, Master?"
Obi-Wan had sensed the shifting emotions in the older man, but he didn't push the issue. He was happy just to have the moment, very happy indeed.
A warning light began blinking on the control panel, signaling that the ship was about to drop out of hyperspace.
"We're there," Qui-Gon said simply. They strapped themselves into the seats. Moments later, the starlines shifted back to stars, and within minutes the sparkling blue and green globe of Primale hung in space before them. As they began to maneuver down to the royal complex at the center of the capital city of Solara, Obi-Wan began to focus his thoughts on the festival.
"Master, the Moonflower tree is unique to Primale, I believe. Since it only blooms once a year, I can see why it would be considered a special occasion to celebrate. But the information in the report seemed to indicate that this festival has a great deal of importance on this world. Is the flower somehow symbolic, or is there something more?"
Qui-Gon smiled. "Good question, Padawan. I can tell you that Moonflowers are more than just pretty blooms. They have some special properties that..." He paused and looked at Obi-Wan. /Better to let him find out for himself./
"Let me guess. That's one of the surprises."
"Very good, Obi-Wan." He did his best impression of Master Yoda. "Rewarded, you will be for your patience, hmmm?"
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes in mock disgust.
"One more thing. Remember that we are here not as Jedi, but as representatives of the chancellor. Therefore we can relax our usual formalities a bit. Call me Qui-Gon while we're here."
"All right... Qui-Gon. Does that mean that we are to conceal the fact that we are Jedi?"
"No, of course not. If anyone asks, you are free to be honest. We have merely been requested to be... discreet... at the festival."
Obi-Wan pondered this while Qui-Gon exchanged greetings with the atmospheric authorities. The transport was directed to a landing platform located approximately one kilometer from the palace complex. As the systems were being shut down, a question formed in Obi-Wan's mind.
"Qui-Gon... why have we been warned to be discreet? And why are we not here as Jedi? Is there something else that I have missed?"
Qui-Gon paused before answering. "Well, Obi-Wan... what I will tell you is that the nature of festivals like this one is... well, somewhat unorthodox."
Obi-Wan stopped running through the shutdown procedure and looked up. "Unorthodox?"
"Nothing to worry about, Obi-Wan, of course. I really don't want to say any more. I think you'll enjoy learning about these things for yourself."
Jalet Sal leaned back against the cushions on the bed and smiled, his dark eyes sparkling mischievously. His twin sister Jema sat in front of the mirror, applying subtle makeup around her eyes. Eyes that were identical to his own, though surrounded by thick dark lashes. She leaned forward to wipe a small smudge from the otherwise perfect visage she had created, wine-colored lips parting slightly with the effort.
"You look perfect, you know." He meant it, too. His sister was a stunning young woman, with her long dark thick hair, honey-bronze dewy skin, and that perfectly-shaped ridge tracing the gentle curve from the bridge of her nose to disappear in the coffee-colored freckles that framed her heart-shaped face. She stood and turned to face him, smiling seductively.
"Really, darling?" She swirled slightly, and the traditional Moonflower festival dress draped alluringly over her shapely figure.
"You are the vision of the perfect woman," he smiled. "If you like that sort of thing."
She grinned. "Well, if I can manage to be attractive to your eye, then I know I will catch the attention of every man at the festival."
"Only if they don't see me first," he teased, rising to his feet and moving towards her.
"Thankfully we compete for the same men so rarely." She smoothed his unruly dark hair down and adjusted the shirt so that the coffee-toned freckles on his chest were framed perfectly by the opening that extended halfway down his well-toned torso. She stepped back and admired him. /He is so beautiful/, she thought. His dark hair was a shorter version of her own, and framed his masculine face perfectly. "But this festival might be different..." she teased, squeezing his cheeks affectionately.
"Does that mean you're seriously considering my suggestion?" he grinned, pulling away from her playful embrace.
She raised her eyebrow thoughtfully. "Well, I have to admit it's tempting..."
"Please, Jem," he pouted. "You said you'd do it last year, and then you backed out at the last minute. You broke our hearts completely you know."
"Well, last year was only my second festival -- I wanted to choose someone who..."
"Yes, Jal. Your friends are quite charming, but they are yours, not mine. The festival is only once a year, and I want to... feel like a princess."
"You are a princess."
"You know what I mean."
"Okay, how about a compromise?" He waited to see if she was going to listen. She turned towards him, an expression of mild curiosity on her face. "If we find someone that we both like, who seems to like both of us, then we'll spend the festival together."
She gazed at him thoughtfully. "And if we don't find such a person?"
"Then we go our separate ways. Look, I'm just asking you to keep your options open. That's all. Agreed?"
She examined her reflection in the mirror. At the age of twenty, she was finally fully developed physically as a woman. From the age of 18, Primalians were allowed to participate in the Moonflower festival, and as the prince and princess, she and Jalet had embraced the tradition whole-heartedly. She had to admit that his proposal intrigued her, though she was reluctant to waste the precious nights of the festival hanging around with her brother's friends. She enjoyed their company, but she wanted something more.
"All right -- under one condition. This person, whom we will both like, must be someone that neither of us knows."
Jalet frowned, his internal planning stopped. "But I know everybody. That's impossible, Jem."
"It is possible. People travel from other cities to attend Solara's festival every year. You're just going to have to step out of your comfortable little circle and try to meet someone new." She turned back to face him. "Isn't that the whole point of the festival?"
He grinned. "All right, it's a deal then. But only because you think I can't spend a moment without my friends. You're wrong."
She smiled her challenge. "Then prove it."
Obi-Wan watched the sun begin to set from the balcony of his room. They had been provided with a large suite at the finest hotel in Solara. The suite was quite luxurious, and larger than their quarters in the Temple.
The city below was startlingly beautiful, unlike anything he had seen before. And he had seen quite a few cities in his life. The buildings looked... soft, for lack of a better word. They were made of a material that seemed to shimmer in the soft evening light, almost floating above the landscape. The architecture was gentle as well, lines flowing into each other in a way that was reminiscent of clouds, or of water... or flowers... yes, they were like flowers somehow, soft and shimmering and lovely.
He laughed softly at himself, thinking, /Where did that come from?/ He wasn't prone to that sort of romantic-poetic drivel. But there was something about this place...
A knock on the door to his room brought him out of his state of pleasant contemplation. "Coming," he called, heading back inside. Qui-Gon was waiting for him in the main room of the suite. The sight of his master dressed in such casual clothing brought a smile to Obi-Wan's face.
"Qui-Gon," he said, consciously forcing himself to use the man's name. "You look... relaxed."
"As do you, Obi-Wan."
They had been given clothing to wear during their stay to help them blend in with the local population -- loose-fitting trousers and shirts made of a dark-colored woven fabric that was quite comfortable. Obi-Wan felt a bit self-conscious in the shirt, which was open halfway down his chest, but he didn't complain. Qui-Gon, of course, looked as if he'd worn such clothes his entire life. His long hair was loose on his shoulders, and the way that the shirt fell open on his chest revealed a muscled torso that Obi-Wan envied on a daily basis. Qui-Gon looked good in everything. The bastard.
"Ready? The king and queen are waiting."
"What exactly are we going to be doing tonight, Mas... Qui-Gon?"
"I believe we'll be participating in the festival along with the people of Solara. Picking Moonflowers, I suppose."
"Sounds interesting," Obi-Wan stated sincerely, as they headed out the door. Anything was better than dealing with sleazy politicians, as he had been doing only days earlier. Hildass was far away, and this place was beautiful. He was feeling better already.
The streets were beginning to fill with Primalians of all ages, and the chatter around them seemed full of anticipation. The Primalians almost looked human -- they were the same height and size, and had various shades of golden-bronze skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. There were only two noticeable differences to Obi-Wan's eyes -- a delicate vertical ridge on the forehead and a smattering of dark freckles that framed the face. The men were dressed similarly to himself and Qui-Gon, and the women seemed to be wearing flowing garments made from the same fabric. Obi-Wan had read that the Primalians spoke a dialect of standard Boralian, but he suddenly realized that he couldn't understand the language that he was hearing.
"Qui-Gon, do you understand them?" He was starting to get nervous. Some fun this festival would be if he couldn't communicate with anyone.
"No, Obi-Wan, not really. They must speak a version of old Boralian, quite different from what we learned at the Temple." He felt Obi-Wan growing tense again. "Relax, I'm sure that most of the people can speak Basic. And if they can't, well..." He grinned at his apprentice knowingly. "There are other ways to communicate."
"What do you mean?" Obi-Wan asked blankly.
Qui-Gon laughed and put his arm around the younger man's shoulders. "Come on, we're late."
They arrived in the foyer of the palace ballroom on time, and were shortly joined by Queen Hemani and King Forak. The two of them appeared to be around Qui-Gon's age, and were both devastatingly beautiful people. They were dressed similarly to the people Obi-Wan had seen on the street, though their garments were definitely of higher quality. Qui-Gon bowed slightly and Obi-Wan mirrored him.
"Master Jedi," said the queen. "There is no need for such formality here, especially not during the Moonflower festival." She smiled at both of them warmly.
Her voice was enchanting, and it was a moment before Obi-Wan realized that she had blessedly spoken Basic. With a very sexy accent.
/Where did that come from?/ He forcibly cleared his mind as Qui-Gon continued with the introductions.
"Thank you, your Highness, for your most gracious hospitality. I am Qui-Gon Jinn, and this young man is my apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi."
She extended a hand to Qui-Gon, and Obi-Wan was stunned to see his master raise it to his lips and kiss it softly, never averting his gaze from her eyes. Obi-Wan glanced at the king, who laughed knowingly. "You'll fit right in, Master Jedi. I beg your pardon, but I must go and make certain that everything is ready for the opening of Firstnight, as I am the master of ceremonies this year. My wife will see that you are well taken care of." He smiled at them all and left the room with an aide following at his heels.
"Your Highness," Qui-Gon began again.
"Please call me Hemani -- or Hema, if you like."
"Hema. Then you must call me Qui-Gon."
Obi-Wan watched in disbelief as his master and the queen gazed at each other intently. Were they flirting with each other? He hadn't read about that particular cultural practice in the Council's briefing. /Perhaps/, he thought, /I should read it again./
"We are so pleased that you could come to participate in the Moonflower festival," the queen began, gesturing in the direction of a door.
"We are honored to be here," Qui-Gon replied.
They followed her down an elegant passageway as she explained the events of Firstnight. Obi-Wan found the sound of her voice hypnotically sensual, and wished he could simply close his eyes and listen.
"Tonight the residents of the city will go to one of the many Moonflower groves in the district. We have a particularly beautiful grove here on the palace grounds, and it is considered one of the highest honors on Primale to be invited to spend the Moonflower festival here."
"Your Highness, we are indeed grateful for the invitation, and look forward to learning more about the festival," Obi-Wan heard himself say. Qui-Gon smiled at him approvingly.
"We are honored by the presence of representatives of the Republic... and of the Jedi."
Qui-Gon corrected her gently. "We are Jedi, but we are not here as Jedi, your Highness."
"Hema," she corrected with a wider smile.
"Hema," Qui-Gon replied. Their eyes locked again. Obi-Wan tried not to feel uncomfortable at yet another obvious display of the attraction between the queen and the Jedi master. /What is he doing?/ he wondered quietly. It made him feel distinctly uncomfortable, but it was somehow more than the fact that it was a breach of decorum. It was... irritating for some reason that he could not quite pin down.
Hema led them out onto a wide veranda, beyond which the Moonflower grove was visible across the manicured gardens of the palace grounds. Night had fallen while they were in the palace, and the two moons shone brightly in the sky, reflecting an extraordinary amount of soft blue light onto the landscape all around them. Obi-Wan focused his gaze on the broad Moonflower grove in the distance. He could see spots of blue in the green trees, and as he watched, he realized that the spots of blue were appearing before his eyes.
"It's beautiful," he said softly. They stood quietly and watched the blossoms appear. Before long, the fragrance of the flowers reached them. Obi-Wan inhaled deeply. It was like nothing he had experienced before, definitely floral but... there was something more that he couldn't place. He found himself wanting to get closer to the source of the scent, to breathe it in more deeply.
He turned to look at Hema, and saw that she was watching them, fascinated by their reactions to the perfume in the air. He glanced at Qui-Gon, who had placed his hands on the railing and leaned forward, as if trying to get as close to the grove as he could. His eyes were closed, and the breeze that wafted over them stirred his hair gently. He appeared as relaxed as the apprentice could ever remember seeing him. And quite... beautiful -- it was quite obvious why Hema seemed so interested in him. Obi-Wan looked back at the queen to see that her gaze was focused firmly on his master. He swallowed down the twinge of irritation that rose in his throat.
"I must remember to thank the Chancellor for sending such handsome representatives," she said softly. She turned her gaze to Obi-Wan and winked. He felt his face flush slightly and looked back toward the trees.
They made their way to the grove at what seemed to be a frustratingly slow pace. Obi-Wan was seized by a desire to run towards the grove, but the queen strolled at a leisurely pace, a serene expression upon her lovely features. He could sense Qui-Gon's frustration as well, surprised that his typically calm master was so obviously impatient.
"The king will announce the beginning of Firstnight," Hema began, "and then we will all be free to wander about the grove, picking the blossoms."
Obi-Wan's mind was filled by a glorious anticipation. For some reason, the idea of just being in the grove amongst the Moonflower blossoms sounded irresistible. He couldn't imagine wanting to do anything else at the moment. The scent of the flowers grew stronger with each step, and he had to concentrate to keep himself from hyperventilating. His stomach twisted in a way that was akin to hunger, or thirst -- some deep-seated desire that he could not identify.
They reached the gate that led into the grove, and saw that a small platform had been set up nearby. The king stood on the platform, talking with a few people who looked to be palace aides. Obi-Wan glanced around at the crowd that had gathered. There were at least one hundred Primalians milling about, conversing animatedly. They all appeared to be adults; he saw no children in the crowd. He guessed that the youngest people he saw were about his age, and the oldest were nearly ancient in appearance, with every age in between represented. They were all dressed in the flowing garments that he had begun to suspect were traditional for the Moonflower festival.
A group of young women strolled by them, and Obi-Wan found himself captivated by their beauty. Dark hair flowed over bare shoulders, reflecting the moonlight in a way that made them appear almost luminous. He stared at them unabashedly as they passed, and several of them stared back at him, smiling. The garments that they wore were tied around their necks by a fine ribbon, the fabric draping down over their breasts and clinging to their bodies in an extremely appealing manner. The skirts flowed nearly to the ground, but the fabric was so sheer that he could clearly see the outlines of their legs as they walked. Unable to take his eyes off of them, he turned to watch them as they walked away. The flowing dresses revealed bare backs, the fabric that wrapped around their bodies dipping tantalizingly low. The dark freckles that framed their faces also trailed down their spines, disappearing into the skirts that seemed to defy gravity, barely clinging to the women's bodies as they moved.
"I wonder where else they have those freckles?"
Qui-Gon's voice startled him, and he turned to smile at his master. For a moment, they grinned at each other like schoolboys, and it struck Obi-Wan that he didn't feel the slightest bit self-conscious or embarrassed at having been caught leering. Or at realizing that Qui-Gon was doing the same. Blue eyes bored into his own for a long moment, and he felt something stir deep within him. /What is it about this place? These flowers.../
"The flowers are incredible, Master," he whispered. "I don't think I've ever experienced anything like it."
"Nor have I," Qui-Gon responded. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "I feel as though I could drink the air."
"Yes," Obi-Wan said, closing his eyes as well. "That's exactly it." He filled his lungs again, and the hunger he had felt earlier finally began to abate. It was replaced with a warm feeling in the back of his skull. The warmth spread through his body slowly. The sensation was amazing.
The king's voice interrupted his thoughts. He opened his eyes and listened, but the words were in the local language. Hema drew them close and whispered a translation.
"People of Primale, I am honored to welcome you all to the seven-hundred-and-twelfth Firstnight of the Moonflower festival. We honor the sacred bloom of this sacred tree over the next few days. I wish you all a most pleasurable festival."
The gates opened, to the cheers of the crowd. The king walked through the gates and disappeared briefly, reappearing with a blue flower in his hands. He brought the bloom to his face and inhaled its scent deeply. He closed his eyes and smiled, while the crowd waited in silent anticipation. When his eyes opened, he raised his arms above his head. The crowd held its collective breath. Obi-Wan found that he was holding his breath as well.
After a long moment, the king dropped his arms, and the crowd surged forward. Obi-Wan started to press forward with them, but a hand grasped his shoulder and pulled him back.
"Patience," Qui-Gon breathed into his ear. "The queen will show us what to do in a moment."
Obi-Wan nodded, swallowing down his distress at being prevented from getting closer to the trees.
When the crowd had thinned, Hema motioned for the two men to follow her. Just inside the gate, she handed each of them a cloth satchel. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon draped the straps over their shoulders.
"Now we pick the flowers," she said simply. "You can start with the ones that you can reach. As the night continues, the flowers will begin to fall from the trees and you can pick them up from the ground. The important thing is to gather them before the sun rises. Once the sunlight touches the petals, they lose their potency." She gestured to the large bins that were standing at the edge of the grove. "When your satchels are full, bring them here to empty them." She paused. "That's all."
Obi-Wan looked at Qui-Gon expectantly. Qui-Gon grinned and said, "Go, Obi-Wan. Enjoy yourself." The young Jedi practically sprinted into the grove. Qui-Gon and Hema laughed as he disappeared.
"Your apprentice is a charming young man," Hema said, seeking Qui-Gon's eyes. "Though not as charming as his master, I'm sure." Qui-Gon tried not to melt as her eyes locked onto his. The scent of the Moonflowers was becoming intoxicating, and the woman before him seemed to shimmer in the moonlight. He could not remember ever having felt the exhilarating blend of sensations that he was experiencing at that moment.
Hema took his hand in hers and pulled him towards a path in the grove. "Let's begin," she said, intertwining her fingers with his. He followed without hesitation.
Obi-Wan leaned back against the trunk of the tree, clutching his half-full satchel of Moonflower blossoms to his chest. He closed his eyes and breathed slowly, almost tasting the scent that filled the air, that filled his lungs, that filled his body. He was delirious with contentment. Had it only been the day before that he had been so miserable? At this moment, he couldn't imagine why he had been so unhappy. He could stay here, against this tree, forever.
He opened his eyes at the sound at the sound of a voice that was very close by. A woman was standing in front of him. A stunning woman. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen. In his life.
"Zih? B'din shva?" she said.
She looked like the queen, he thought, but younger. And more beautiful, though he would not have thought it possible.
"Alhi bahn d'vam," she said, stepping closer and touching his forehead with her fingertips. He felt a current pass through his body at her touch. Her dark eyes held him against the tree, unable to move or even to breathe. She stroked his cheek and smiled. "Imma, yal fironz d'vam."
Obi-Wan suddenly realized that he hadn't understood a single word she'd said.
"I... uh... I'm sorry. I don't understand."
She looked startled for a moment, and then blushed slightly, but didn't move away.
"I apologize," she said in Basic. She had that same accent that the queen had. And the same sexy, enchanting voice. "You are not Primalian." She touched his forehead again, fascinated by its smoothness.
The current passed through him again. He inhaled sharply, finding his breath at last. She pulled her hand away.
"Did I hurt you?"
"No," Obi-Wan managed to breathe. "Not at all. Quite the contrary."
She smiled broadly. "My name is Jema Sal. Welcome to Firstnight, and to Primale."
"I'm Obi-Wan Kenobi, from Coruscant. I'm here as a representative of the Republic."
"Ah, yes," she said. "The Jedi, of course."
That comment surprised him. Qui-Gon had said that they were to be discreet. Did the entire city know that they were here?
"You are human, right?" she asked, staring at his forehead again.
"Yes," he said. Her voice was captivating. He wished she would speak more. He decided to ask her a question to encourage her to do so. "Have you ever seen a human before?"
"No, but I have seen holos of humans," she said. She shifted her gaze to his eyes. "Your eyes," she said, apparently entranced. "They are so beautiful."
/My eyes/, he thought, /beautiful?/ No one had ever described his eyes that way before.
"Do all humans have green eyes?"
"No," he replied. "Human eyes are of many colors -- brown, blue, violet... green is actually somewhat rare."
"Like a beautiful jewel, then," she said softly. She smiled again. Her wine-colored lips parted softly and she sighed.
Obi-Wan thought he would melt into the ground. No woman had ever looked at him this way before, and he wanted to savor the moment, afraid that the shimmering form before him would simply fade away with the moonlight.
"You are... so beautiful," he said, reaching out to caress her cheek with his hand. He was a bit surprised at his own boldness, but it suddenly felt so natural to reach out and touch her.
Her smile broadened. "I thank you for that compliment, Obi-Wan Kenobi," she said.
"Just Obi-Wan is fine," he said, trying to feel his legs again. He straightened up slightly, and stepped closer to her, still cradling her face in his hand. She was only a few centimeters shorter than him.
They stared at each other for a long moment. She took his hand in hers and stepped away, pulling him with her.
"Come, Obi-Wan," she said. "There is someone I would like for you to meet."
He allowed her fingers to intertwine with his, smiling at the way that their hands fit together so perfectly, and followed her deeper into the grove.
Qui-Gon reached out for a shimmering blue blossom that hung above his head and plucked it gently from its place. He held it in his hand for a moment, still captivated by the silky petals that were a shade of blue that he could not have described. He wasn't sure if the color was the result of the moonlight, or if the blossom was really that blue. The petals weren't wet, but they glistened as if they were. He lifted the blossom to his face and inhaled the intoxicating fragrance deeply. He immediately felt the warmth at the base of his skull, and felt it spread down his spine slowly. He exhaled and opened his eyes to see Hema smiling at him.
He strolled towards her and tucked the blossom into her dark hair. "I'm not sure which is more beautiful," he said softly. "This flower... or you."
She smiled at his compliment. "Qui-Gon, you flatter me needlessly. I already intend to spend the entire festival with you." She leaned forward and kissed him softly, stroking his cheek with her hand.
He closed his eyes and drank in the entire moment -- the grove, the moonlight, the breeze, the feel of her lips upon his. When he opened his eyes, he saw her smiling at him quizzically.
"I apologize," he said softly. "I do not have many moments like this in my life, and I want to appreciate every second that I spend with you."
"Is it a lonely life, as a Jedi?"
"Yes, and no," he responded. "No, because I have Obi-Wan, and he... is my closest friend, I suppose. With him I have a sense of family, a constant companionship." He paused, suddenly finding himself enveloped in emotion, centered around one padawan in particular. "But, yes, because... I don't have anyone in my life with whom I can share myself so intimately."
He paused, thinking of what he had lost for a moment. When Tahl had died, a part of him had died with her. He had known that he would never find another who so closely shared his very soul. But even if she had lived... "Such attachments are forbidden for Jedi. They are... disruptive to the nature of our work, and so we do not risk forming them."
She considered this for a moment. "Then, do you not have any intimate relations at all?"
He smiled. "Well, I wouldn't say that, either. Some in the Order choose celibacy, but it is not a requirement. Some are quite promiscuous, though they are discreet. We hold a position of power, and we are obligated not to abuse that power."
"And so you are not one of those who chooses to remain celibate?" she asked, smiling suggestively.
He grinned in response, and pulled her close. She closed her eyes in anticipation of a kiss, but he kept a sliver of air between their lips, tantalizingly close. "I trust I am not unduly influencing your actions?" he whispered. "I don't want to be accused of abusing my power."
She gazed up at him invitingly. "As the queen, I should be asking you the same question."
After a long moment, he pressed his lips against hers hungrily. She kissed him back with an equally strong desire, then drew away breathlessly.
"Qui-Gon, we are getting ahead of ourselves, I think."
"I apologize, your Highness." He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her palm softly. She gasped at the sensation of his tongue tracing the width of her hand.
She pulled away, smiling. "Thirdnight," she whispered, and returned to picking the blossoms from the trees.
Jema led Obi-Wan on a winding path through the grove. She paused suddenly to look at a man's face in the moonlight, and then started walking again, pulling him farther down the path.
At last she found who she was looking for. A group of young men were standing not far away, laughing amongst themselves and plucking flowers from the tree above them. She pushed Obi-Wan under the overhanging branches of a particularly thick tree, saying, "Wait here." She disappeared into the branches.
Obi-Wan stood still for a moment, trying to comprehend what was happening to him. This was not like him, following a beautiful young woman through a grove of equally enchanting trees, getting lost in physical sensations that he had not experienced before. Strangely, he did not feel uncomfortable, or concerned. It was just different, but it felt absolutely right. "Live in the moment, Padawan." How often had Qui-Gon said that to him? /I think I finally understand what he meant/, he thought.
Jema reappeared suddenly, pulling a young man with her. He almost looked like a masculine version of her, with the same sparkling eyes. /Damn/, Obi-Wan thought. /Is everyone on this planet beautiful?/
"Obi-Wan Kenobi, this is my brother, Jalet."
He could hear the excitement in her voice, and was quite pleased that she was so enthusiastic to introduce him to someone in her family.
Jalet seemed to be appraising him silently. After a moment, a smile spread across his features.
/He has the same smile as Jema/, Obi-Wan thought.
"I am pleased to meet you, Obi-Wan Kenobi," he said. His eyes seemed to smolder suddenly. "Very pleased indeed." Jalet reached out to touch Obi-Wan's forehead with his fingertips, as his sister had. Obi-Wan was surprised to feel the same surge of current flow through him. He inhaled sharply, causing Jalet to pull his hand away quickly.
"I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?"
"No... quite the contrary," Obi-Wan replied. Hadn't he had this conversation already?
Jalet smiled and reached out to stroke Obi-Wan's cheek. Obi-Wan closed his eyes, unsure how to explain the sensations he was suddenly feeling. When he opened them, the two Primalians were staring at him intently.
"Doesn't he have the most beautiful eyes?" Jema asked her brother.
"Yes," he breathed. "He most certainly does have beautiful green eyes."
Obi-Wan smiled, flattered by the attention. He felt drawn to the two Primalians. They looked so much alike, he reflected, and they appeared to be the same age.
"Are you twins?" he asked.
"Yes, we are," said Jalet. He pressed his cheek against his sister's firmly. "Of course, I'm the beautiful one," he said, winking at Obi-Wan.
Jema pushed him away teasingly. "Well, that's debatable."
Obi-Wan laughed, thrilled to feel a connection with the twins, excited to be there in the grove with them.
"Obi-Wan and I were just about to fill our satchels, Jal. Would you like to join us?"
For a moment, the twins exchanged glances. Obi-Wan began to wonder if they were telepathic.
Jal turned his gaze to Obi-Wan, seeming to search for something in his eyes. Obi-Wan was mesmerized, and found himself just as unable to move as he had when Jema had held him with her eyes earlier. A slightly mischievous smile spread across Jalet's face.
"I would love to join you."
Two hours later, satchels stuffed, the three friends strolled down the main path towards the gate. In the short time since they had met, Obi-Wan had grown extremely fond of the twins, and felt a connection with them that he hadn't felt... ever? He wasn't sure for a moment. The faces of his friends from Melida/Daan flashed through his mind. That had been five years ago, but at this moment, it felt like a lifetime ago. Yesterday seemed like a year ago. He looked at his companions thoughtfully. /Have I really only known them for a few hours?/ It wasn't possible.
Jalet suddenly grabbed Obi-Wan's arm and pulled him from the path. Surprised, Obi-Wan lost his balance briefly and fell against Jalet. The young man caught him in his arms, laughing. He pulled Obi-wan to his feet, supporting him for a moment.
"What were you thinking about so hard?" he asked.
Obi-Wan started to speak, but was suddenly aware of Jalet's arms around him. He looked up at his friend's face. Jalet's expression softened and Obi-Wan felt himself drawn into the man's dark eyes. He opened his mouth, but his words stuck in his throat. He felt a second pair of hands touch his back and then slide around to his chest.
"Come on, boys," Jema breathed into his ear.
The sensation of her warm breath against his cheek sent a shiver down his spine. /What is happening here?/ he thought. The twins pressed against his body on both sides, and the sudden warmth and pressure felt... intensely erotic.
He inhaled, aware again of the scent of the Moonflower blossoms filling his lungs, the buzz in his head, the pressure of Jema's breasts against his back and Jalet's chest against his.
He exhaled, leaning back into Jema and slipping his arms around Jalet's shoulders, pulling him closer. He pressed his forehead against Jalet's, feeling the ridge on his friend's forehead press into his skin.
He inhaled, felt Jema's hands slide across his chest, tightening the embrace, her hot breath on the back of his neck, her lips brushing against his flushed skin.
He exhaled, felt his hands slide up to the back of Jalet's neck, pulling the young man's face closer. Their noses brushed against each other, and he felt Jalet's breath on his cheek.
/What am I doing? What am I feeling? What is happening here?/ His mind swirled, lost in the physical sensations coursing through his body, sinking into the thick air, the scent of the Moonflowers everywhere, pressing into his mind.
He felt hands cradle his face.
He opened his eyes.
Jalet was staring at him.
He blinked slowly.
"Obi-Wan, are you all right?"
"Yes... I think so." He paused. "Why am I on the ground?"
Jema's face joined her brother's. "You passed out. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes." He blinked again. "I passed out?"
They smiled. "Yes."
He felt himself flush, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I... I'm not sure what happened."
Jema helped him to his feet, brushing dirt from his backside. "It's your first time doing this. The Moonflowers can be really powerful when you're not used to them," she said. "We shouldn't have overwhelmed your senses like that."
He paused. Was that what happened to him? The last thing he remembered... he looked at both of his friends. Had that really happened? Had he been pressed between them like that, feeling what he felt? Or was that a dream?
They smiled at him. "Come on," Jalet said starting down the path. "We have to finish picking the blossoms before the sun rises." Jema looped her arm through his and tugged in the direction her brother was walking. He smiled and followed.
They soon reached the front of the grove. People were emptying their satchels into the bins, and the scent of the flowers was quite strong. They poured their flowers into a bin that was half full. Obi-Wan suddenly felt dizzy, and looked at Jema.
"Just concentrate on breathing," she said. "You'll be fine."
He nodded and reached out to the Force to help steady his mind. As he did, he felt a familiar presence -- Qui-Gon was nearby, emptying his satchel into a bin. The twins looped their arms through his and, surprisingly, pulled him towards his master.
Qui-Gon looked up at the group, smiling at his apprentice broadly. "Obi-Wan," he said in greeting. "I see you've made some friends."
Obi-Wan grinned, feeling steadier already.
"Jema, Jalet, I see you've found our guest." Obi-Wan suddenly noticed the queen standing beside Qui-Gon. Had she been there all along? He smiled at her blankly.
"Yes, Mother, we met Obi-Wan a few hours ago," Jema replied.
Obi-Wan turned to look at his friend, suddenly realizing why the resemblance to the queen had been so strong.
"Oh, you're... I..." He felt flustered, and stepped back from them for a moment.
"Yes, we're the prince and princess," Jalet said, waving his hand in a mock flourish.
Obi-Wan looked at Jalet and back to Jema. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Jalet laughed and put his arm around Obi-Wan affectionately. "Because we didn't want you to react like this!" Jema slid in against him on the other side, giggling and slipping her arm around his waist.
Qui-Gon smiled at the trio, pleased that Obi-Wan had found friends his own age.
Obi-Wan suddenly realized he had not introduced his new friends to his master.
"Jema, Jalet, this is Qui-Gon Jinn, my..." he looked at Qui-Gon, not sure what to say.
"Friend," Qui-Gon finished for him. "Pleased to meet you both."
Obi-Wan smiled at Qui-Gon, pleasantly surprised at his choice of word. Qui-Gon smiled back and winked.
"Run along now," Hema said, suddenly sounding very motherly. "There are only a few hours left until sunrise."
The twins pulled the young Jedi away, back into the grove. He flashed a grin at his master before they vanished.
"Well," Hema said, "They seem to be getting along well." She nudged Qui-Gon playfully.
"Yes, they do indeed," he replied, gazing at the spot where the trio had disappeared into the trees. He had a feeling that Obi-Wan's birthday was going to be even more of an adventure than he had originally anticipated. For some reason, he was suddenly worried about his apprentice. Was Obi-Wan really ready for this? He turned back to Hema and forced himself to smile.
The Moonflower blossoms were beginning to fall from the trees now, drifting to the ground slowly in a shower of shimmering blue. The falling blossoms made the landscape even more ethereal, Obi-Wan thought. They began to busy themselves with scooping handfuls of blossoms from the ground and quickly filled their satchels again.
After another hour, the ground around them was clear, though there were still quite a few flowers on the trees. Obi-Wan wondered if they would manage to gather them all before the sun came up.
"What happens to the flowers you can't pick in time?" he asked.
Jema shrugged. "We try to get as many as we can, but we can never gather all of them. Once the petals are touched by sunlight, it's too late." She smiled wistfully.
Obi-Wan looked up at the tree again. He stepped closer to the trunk, placing his hands on the rough bark. He reached out to the Force, finding himself in it, focusing his attention on the tree. To his surprise, he could feel the Force flowing strongly through the tree's veins, as it did his own, and he stepped closer to press his body against the trunk, literally hugging the tree. He felt the tree's roots, deep and wide, and felt the strength that the tree gathered from the planet, from the air, from that place. He touched the flow that he felt there, and the tree touched back somehow, revealing its strength to him. He followed the living Force through the tree, through its branches, into its leaves, and into the blossoms. He could suddenly feel all of the flowers at once, perched on the tips of the branches, ready to be released from their places when the next breeze came.
He gave the blossoms a little push.
He heard the twins gasp in wonder nearby, but he did not break his concentration. In his mind he saw the blossoms falling all around them, swirling down like large snowflakes, engulfing the twins in a waterfall of color and fragrance. He felt a small shiver run through the life-force of the tree, and in his mind it appeared as a wet animal shaking off excess water. He laughed, realizing that the tree was somehow relieved to be rid of the blossoms.
Obi-Wan pulled his focus back to the scene around him, and watched breathlessly as his friends were being slowly showered with Moonflowers. In the soft moonlight, they almost looked like children, twirling and giggling with sheer delight. Unable to resist, he used the Force to swirl the blossoms up and around them again. They continued their dance for a few more minutes, finally collapsing into the flowers, still laughing.
He walked to crouch beside them on the ground, amazed by the stunning beauty of his friends as they lay on the bed of Moonflower petals, faces framed by moonlight, smiling up at him dreamily. He wanted to freeze the moment so that he could stare at them forever.
Jema pushed herself up on her elbows, smiling. "You did that," she said simply. It was not a question, or even a statement of surprise, merely a casual observation.
"Yes," he said looking up at the tree again. "The Force is very strong in this place. I think I understand now why these groves are so sacred to your people." The irresistible draw of the grove that had driven him earlier made complete sense to him suddenly. /Of course/, he thought. /I feel so safe here, surrounded by the flow of the Force through and between the trees./
The twins nodded, as if his words were obvious.
They gathered the blossoms from the ground, laughing and tossing them at each other occasionally. Jema crept up behind Obi-Wan and dumped the entire contents of her satchel over his head, giggling as he staggered from the sudden assault to his senses. He stepped back laughing, shaking the blossoms from his hair. He used the Force to gather them from the ground and swirl them around her body and up into the air. She watched the flowers around her in wonder, and closed her eyes as he released them. She held out her arms and twirled in slow motion as the blue blossoms floated gently down around her.
Obi-Wan found that he could barely breathe at the sight. He wanted desperately to go to her, to take her in his arms and hold her, kiss her, but his feet were anchored to the ground. He felt arms encircle him from behind and pull him into a warm embrace.
"She's breathtaking, isn't she?" Jalet whispered in his ear.
Obi-Wan leaned back against the young man, the combination of the vision before him and the warmth at his back exhilarating.
"Yes," he whispered. "She is indeed."
"She likes you very much." The warm breath against his ear sent a shiver through him. "Do you like her?"
"Yes," Obi-Wan breathed. "I do like her."
Jalet pulled him tighter, and Obi-Wan felt the man's lips brush against his ear softly. He closed his eyes at the sensation.
"Do you like me?" Jalet asked, his lips lingering to just barely trace the edge of Obi-Wan's ear.
It was all he could do to speak. "Oh, yes," he said, his whisper barely audible even to his own ears.
"Good," Jalet whispered. "I like you too." He gently released Obi-Wan from the embrace and slid out from behind him, pausing for a moment to draw his finger along the younger man's jaw. His eyes locked onto Obi-Wan's and he smiled. "We both like you very much."
Obi-Wan watched Jalet walk back to his sister and begin to help her refill the satchels. His mind swirled, and for a moment he was afraid that he was going to pass out again. He steadied himself against the tree trunk and calmed his breathing, eventually feeling his mind find an anchor in the wash of sensations coursing through him. The way that he felt around the twins was confusing, though not uncomfortable. He was drawn automatically to Jema, but in the moments when Jalet's body had pressed against his, he had felt something unexpected.
He leaned against the tree, watching the twins gather flowers, laughing and chattering in their native language. They were both so stunning, so full of life. When he stared at them like this, he realized that he didn't see gender at all, only... beauty, and passion, and sensuality. They seemed to be two manifestations of the same spirit -- a spirit that had captured his heart completely.
He reflected on that for a moment. When he looked at them both, gender was not the first thing that he was aware of, or that he found attractive, that was true. But if he followed his feelings to their logical completion... He paused that thought, momentarily uncertain if he wanted to continue down that path. Both of his friends had stirred his desire, and he could only imagine that they had felt the same. But did that mean that they were interested in him sexually? He did not know very much about the Primalian culture at all, he realized. Perhaps sexual contact outside of marriage was forbidden. Perhaps it was encouraged. Perhaps sexual contact between two people of the same gender was forbidden.
He mind reeled at that thought. Was he really thinking of...? He had never felt so clear an attraction for another man before.
A few years earlier, he had questioned his strong feelings for his master, suspecting that he had a crush on the older man. He had poured out his confusion to his close friend Bant one afternoon in the Temple gardens by the waterfall. She listened patiently, as she always did, absorbing his words carefully. After he finished, she gently reminded him that it was fairly common for padawan learners to develop such feelings for their masters. They had all grown up without parents in the Temple, and the experience of forming a close emotional bond with an adult at the same time as they were beginning to develop adolescent awareness of their bodies and of their budding sexuality frequently resulted in difficulty sorting through their emotions. Bant's words had helped ease the turmoil a bit, and he later meditated on his feelings for Qui-Gon at length.
The matter cleared itself up completely a month later, when he and his master went on a short mission with another master-padawan pair. The padawan was Jussa-Kim Bel, a human two years older than Obi-Wan. And she was amazing -- vivacious, funny, strong in the Unifying Force, and beautiful -- taller than he, long reddish-blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes... He was so enraptured by her that he had difficulty maintaining his concentration in her presence, resulting in more than a few stern lectures from an amused Qui-Gon. She was aware of Obi-Wan's crush, and finally rewarded his adulation at the end of the mission, on the way back to Coruscant, with the door closed in the small cabin he shared with Qui-Gon -- with his very first real kiss. Not another one of the frantic childish pecks he had experienced playing "spin the lightsaber" with his friends, but a real, deep kiss. When he felt her tongue slide across his, he thought he would melt into the floor. It hadn't occurred to him to question his sexuality since. What he felt when he looked into Jussa's blue eyes was vastly different than the affection he felt for his master.
But now... He liked women, unquestionably. When he looked at Jema, he could immediately identify the longing that stirred deep in his belly. He could imagine himself making love to her, pressing her body into the grass, gazing into those dark eyes. He closed his eyes, letting the fantasy drift through his mind. But Jalet's eyes were identically enchanting. He shivered slightly, recalling the way that Jalet's chest had felt pressed against his back, the feel of his warm breath, the brush of his lips against his ear... But then what? /What do I really want from Jalet?/ He was generally aware of what two men did in bed together. Was that what he wanted?
"Obi, are you all right?"
Jema's voice brought him out of his thoughts abruptly. The twins had filled the three satchels and were standing, waiting for him to join them.
"Yes," he said, walking towards them. "I was just... thinking."
Jalet laughed. "You seem to do that a lot."
Obi-Wan laughed with him. "I suppose I do."
The sky had grown noticeably lighter in the time that it took them to make their way back to the bins at the front of the grove. They emptied their satchels into the nearly overflowing containers and made their way through the gate into the palace gardens. As the light brightened, more people began drifting out of the grove.
Obi-Wan found himself growing irresistibly sleepy. The twins yawned simultaneously, which made him yawn as well. He sank into the grass at his feet, and stretched out on his back. The ground was surprisingly comfortable, he thought. /I could just sleep here, maybe./ The hotel was so far away. The twins joined him on either side, their heads resting on his shoulders, arms draped across him and around each other. He felt his mind drift, his body surrounded by warmth. The pressure of his friends' bodies against his was so comforting...
Qui-Gon stood for a long moment after he found them, smiling at the intertwined limbs of his apprentice and the twins on the ground. He had not seen Obi-Wan appear so peaceful and content in a long time. Hema slipped her arm around his waist and leaned into him, tucking her head under his chin.
"I really hate to wake them," she sighed. "They seem so happy together."
"Yes, they do," Qui-Gon replied, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. "Like a pile of sleeping wuttles, somehow."
"Mmmm, yes, that's it." She glanced at the horizon. The swath of pink and orange draped languorously across the sky was growing lighter as sunrise approached. "It will be quite warm in an hour, though," she noted. "They won't be so comfortable then."
They gently shook the three friends awake and helped them to their feet. Obi-Wan smiled sleepily at Qui-Gon.
Qui-Gon reached out to brush a few stray blades of grass from his apprentice's hair. "Good morning indeed. Ready for bed?"
Obi-Wan nodded. He turned to Jema and Jalet, who seemed to be standing only by supporting each other.
"We'll see you tonight," Jema said, stifling another yawn.
Obi-Wan smiled. "Tonight." Qui-Gon pulled him gently in the direction of the hotel, and he followed in a daze.
He wouldn't remember later exactly how he got back to the hotel, or that he fell asleep on Qui-Gon's shoulder standing up in the lift. He wouldn't remember collapsing on the bed in his room, wriggling out of his clothes, and pulling the soft blanket around his body. He would only remember that he was deliriously happy to be lying down, drifting off to sleep at last.
The first thing that Obi-Wan was aware of was his stomach. It growled, demanding his attention, drawing him out of a rather pleasant dream involving Jalet and... chocolate sauce? He stretched and opened his eyes, feeling mild disorientation at the brightness in the room. Judging by the amount of light, it was probably mid-afternoon.
His stomach commanded his attention again, growling more insistently. /Sith, I'm starving!/ When had he eaten last? He couldn't remember.
A knock on the door finally brought him to full consciousness. "Come in."
Qui-Gon's face appeared. "Hungry?"
"How'd you guess?"
"There's food in the main room. Someone is taking good care of us." It was a private joke, the last sentence. On so many missions the conditions were harsh, and physical comforts were rare. When the level of discomfort reached a new low, one of them invariably made the remark, with the other sarcastically noting:
"We must remember to commend our hosts on their hospitality." Obi-Wan smiled at the joke, and at the knowledge that it wouldn't quite have the same meaning to him again.
"Sleep well?" Qui-Gon asked.
"Yes, very well," Obi-Wan replied, sliding to his feet and running fingers through his tousled hair. Qui-Gon was eyeing him curiously. "Master?"
"Tell me, Padawan, do you always sleep in the nude?"
Obi-Wan froze for a second, and then blushed as awareness seeped into his mind. He spun to face away from Qui-Gon, not so much feeling self-conscious about being naked as embarrassment at having been so unaware of it. "I... Sorry, Master."
Qui-Gon laughed and backed out of the doorway. "Nothing to be embarrassed about Obi-Wan. It's not as if I haven't seen you naked before."
Obi-Wan spun back to face the door. "When have you seen me naked?" But Qui-Gon had disappeared, and there was no response. Obi-Wan quickly pulled on the wrinkled clothes from the night before and composed himself. He'd always been a modest person, and had been particularly self-conscious in Qui-Gon's presence for the last few years. His master was physically impressive, a fact that he'd been reminded of frequently over the years by the attention that the man received from women and men alike. Even his friends at the Temple, during more raucous moments, would make lewd comments about Qui-Gon's physical attributes, seen and unseen. Oh, c'mon, Kenobi, you've lived with the man for years. We know you've seen him naked. How big is it anyway? Usually accompanied by giggles and hand gestures indicating specific guesses.
Obi-Wan had always felt like a child in his master's presence, particularly when Qui-Gon was on the receiving end of such admiration. Though he had matured physically, it was difficult not to make the comparison to the older man. That combined with normal adolescent insecurities had driven him to a near-obsessive level of self-conscious modesty.
But he hadn't felt so self-conscious standing there, he reflected. It was more surprise that he hadn't even noticed that he was naked. He had been so comfortable in his own skin for those moments, for the first time since he was a child.
And his dream about Jalet had left him somewhat aroused, so hopefully Qui-Gon had at least been a little impressed, he thought with a grin.
When Obi-Wan emerged from his room, the sight of the spread of food on the table drew his attention back to his stomach. Qui-Gon was already eating some sort of pastry, his attention on his data pad.
"Wow," was all Obi-Wan could say before stuffing an entire pastry into his mouth.
Qui-Gon rolled his eyes in mock disgust at his apprentice's complete lack of table manners. "Hungry?" he asked dryly.
"Mmmpff," was all Obi-Wan could manage. He did sit down, however, before swallowing. He grinned and picked up a piece of fruit. "I'm absolutely starving. I don't think we've eaten since we got here. I can't believe I wasn't hungry before."
Qui-Gon studied him quietly before explaining. "The Moonflowers are responsible for you not feeling hungry. We should have eaten something before we went to the palace, but regrettably, I didn't think about the effect that the blossoms would have on us with empty stomachs."
Obi-Wan considered this for a moment. He had become aware at some point of the mind-altering effect that the fragrance had on him, but he hadn't had time to process the implication.
"So the Moonflower fragrance contains some sort of ... narcotic?" He squirmed a little, suddenly not sure how he felt about the previous evening's events. Had he been so heavily under the influence of a drug? Had Jema and Jalet...?
Qui-Gon interrupted his thoughts. "Narcotic isn't quite precise. There is an unusual chemical in the Moonflower blossom that has a very strong effect on humanoids. The chemical is present in the fragrance and, to a lesser degree, in the petals of the flowers themselves." He paused for a moment, trying to gauge Obi-Wan's reaction. "I had a chance to learn a good deal about it and the festival from the queen last night. I was just working on the report. Perhaps after we freshen up I can go over the details with you more thoroughly."
Obi-Wan immediately felt embarrassed. Qui-Gon had spent the evening with the queen learning about the details of the festival? /I merely enjoyed myself, perhaps too much, and he is carrying out the mission alone./ He flushed further as certain events from the night before flashed through his mind, suddenly lamenting his lack of self-control.
Qui-Gon could almost read the thoughts flickering across his apprentice's face. "Padawan, do not think that you've shirked your duty in the slightest. We came here to relax, remember?"
"We also came here to learn more about the Moonflower festival. I certainly haven't helped you any so far in that regard."
Qui-Gon smiled knowingly. "On the contrary, you have learned a great deal about the festival. I'm sure that your perspective on the events of Firstnight combined with mine will make for a... an interesting account."
Obi-Wan looked away, even more embarrassed. He wasn't sure that he wanted to share any of his experiences with his master. /What would he think if he could have seen me there, between the prince and princess, feeling.../ The image returned to him with great clarity -- Jema's breasts pressed against his back, Jalet's lips centimeters away, the palpable heat that their three bodies produced...
An image of the threesome seeped into Qui-Gon's mind, and he instantly knew that it was not intended for his eyes. He knew he ought to warn Obi-Wan that he wasn't shielding his thoughts very well, but decided not to give the boy any more reason for embarrassment.
"Besides, Obi-Wan, it's your birthday, and I specifically recall ordering you to enjoy yourself."
"I may be enjoying myself a little too much," Obi-Wan sighed, resting his forehead on his palms.
"There's no such thing. Not even for a Jedi," Qui-Gon remarked, receiving a confused look from his apprentice. "Relax, Obi-Wan. Even Jedi can take a few days off. I think you are long overdue for a break."
Qui-Gon relaxed on the sofa, legs crossed beneath him, as he added details to the report on the data pad. He sipped his tea slowly and found his mind had wandered back yet again to that image Obi-Wan had unknowingly projected to him, along with the accompanying desire that it had evoked in his apprentice. He allowed it to swim about in his head for a moment before guilt forced him to cast it away yet again. /I'm just meditating a bit on the events as seen through the eyes of my apprentice/, he thought carefully. /Liar. It's voyeuristic and a breach of Obi-Wan's trust./ He tried to bring his focus back to the data pad.
But there was something about that image that he found he couldn't stop himself from returning to. /Why am I so interested in my padawan's sex life?/ He contemplated that thought for a moment, replaying the image in his mind. It made him slightly uncomfortable, but... He realized that he found the image arousing, but what could be troubling him about it? He should be pleased that Obi-Wan was participating in the festival to this extent, especially considering that it was a new experience for him.
He was certain that Obi-Wan was inexperienced sexually, or almost certain. Six months earlier, on a long, boring return trip from a successful mission, in the cramped cargo hold of the transport -- after having reviewed every detail of the mission thrice, written an extremely thorough report, meditated, exercised as best they could, analyzed the lessons learned from the mission in the context of Obi-Wan's training -- they realized that they had two more days to travel. Finally, the bored 17-year-old approached him shyly, fidgeted a bit, and then asked the older man about his interpretation of the Jedi Code on personal relationships. It soon became clear to Qui-Gon that what Obi-Wan was actually interested in was Qui-Gon's opinion on sexual relationships.
They'd had the obligatory talk when he was 13, accompanied by mortified expressions, fidgeting, and whining on the boy's part. Two years later, he became aware of Obi-Wan's crush on him, and though he had almost expected it, he did not know what to do. Obi-Wan never said anything, but from the way he looked at him, and stray thoughts that Qui-Gon picked up, it was clear. Qui-Gon had found it very difficult to walk the fine line between showing the boy affection and encouraging his inappropriate fantasy. When they were assigned a mission with Master Reena and her padawan -- /she really was adorable, wasn't she?/ -- the stars in Obi-Wan's eyes had been obvious. Qui-Gon had caught them kissing in his cabin, sitting on the bed with the door closed, at the end of that mission, but he was so relieved that Obi-Wan had found another person to bestow his attention upon that he had simply closed the door and left them alone. /Master Reena would not have been so kind/, he thought with a smile.
But the discussion on the transport was especially interesting in that Obi-Wan wasn't just asking about sex, he was asking about relationships. In particular, he wanted to know whether or not Qui-Gon thought it was appropriate for a Jedi knight to engage in a sexual relationship.
"Well, it depends on the situation, I suppose. Is the person another knight?" He wondered if Obi-Wan was fishing for information about his relationship with Tahl.
"Perhaps. Perhaps it's someone who's not in the Order at all."
"Well, the Council's position on formal attachments is clear. But as for informal, temporary ones, it's not so clear. We are left to use our own judgment to make the best decision in any given situation."
"But Master, I'm asking about what you think."
"All right then. In my opinion, as long as one does not use one's position of power, or authority, or any other undue means to initiate said relationship, and as long as it does not interfere with one's duties, then I see no reason not to pursue an affair occasionally."
"What about love?"
"Love?" Qui-Gon had repeated, surprised. Now he knew his apprentice had him backed in a corner. He had loved Tahl, with all his heart, and regretted deeply that their relationship had not had the chance to move to a more physical level. Did Obi-Wan know that?
"Yes, love, Master. What if during said affair, one was to fall in love? Would that be considered an attachment? Do you think falling in love is... inappropriate for someone who has committed his or her life to the Jedi Order?"
Qui-Gon exhaled slowly, stalling. "Obi-Wan, I don't know if I can answer that question."
/You know why not./ "I..." He paused, wanting to ask his apprentice if he'd ever been in love, if he had any idea what it was like. Did he know how it could be so wonderful and painful, and dangerous? And to tell him to not think about love at all, if he wanted to live his life as a Jedi. He closed his eyes and pushed the sudden emotion in his throat down. This wasn't fair, and Obi-Wan knew it. He knew how Qui-Gon had felt about Tahl, and he also knew that Qui-Gon didn't like to talk about it.
Obi-Wan must have felt the shift in Qui-Gon's emotions, for he had then changed the subject slightly. "So if formal attachments are not allowed and informal ones are not exactly encouraged, then what about the master-padawan bond? That certainly seems like an attachment to me. I mean, I'm quite attached to you, Master."
Qui-Gon smiled at his apprentice. "As I am to you, though it's quite different from the types of relationships you are thinking of."
"But Master, is it really? We're not related, and though I look upon you as a father figure in many ways, I also look upon you as a partner. I love you, and I know that you love me. We have spent most of the last five years together, every moment of every day. We have a bond that I cannot imagine my life without. Other than the fact that we are not sexually involved, how is our relationship different from the non-sanctioned kind?"
Qui-Gon nearly choked on his tea. "Obi-Wan, what are you getting at, exactly?"
Obi-Wan's eyes widened a bit, and he laughed. "Oh... no, Master, you're getting the wrong idea!"
Qui-Gon felt himself flush, noting that Obi-Wan did not seem uncomfortable at all. He relaxed a little, sensing the boy's genuine interest in discussing the issue and in Qui-Gon's opinion. /Does he need my approval?/ he thought.
"I'm just saying," the younger man continued, "that I don't understand why the Council differentiates between loving relationships that involve sex and those that don't."
"It's not that simple. We both know that there are master-padawan pairs who are more to each other than that. The Council do not approve, but generally look the other way when the pair are discreet."
Obi-Wan nodded. "But that seems unfair, doesn't it?"
"Do you think that there are no knights in the Order involved in personal relationships? Because I can tell you for certain that there are -- again, they are discreet."
"But what do you think?"
"Padawan..." He paused, trying to decide if he ought to ask the question he wanted so badly to ask. "Is there any reason that you are asking me this?"
"No, Master." Obi-Wan looked away. "I'm just curious."
"You can tell me anything, you know. You know that I support you in every way I can, but my approval of your personal life is not necessary. Your conscience and sense of duty are stronger than my influence will ever be."
"Yes, I know."
Qui-Gon took a deep breath. "Obi-Wan," he began, using the boy's name intentionally, "Are you in a sexual relationship with someone?"
Obi-Wan looked mortified. "No, Master, I..."
"Are you... thinking about initiating such a relationship with someone?"
Obi-Wan met his master's gaze steadily. "I have been far to busy with my training to think about such things. I'm not... I haven't..." He looked away again.
Worried that he had pushed too hard, Qui-Gon changed the subject again, before he lost this rare window to speak so frankly with his apprentice.