Title: Male Gaze
Author: pronker
Era: Leia is sixteen.
Rating: M
Disclaimer: I am not George Lucas and make no profit from this fanfiction set in his Star Wars.
Summary: Leia enjoys Empire Day, to her surprise. Ferus doesn't
a/n: This is a continuance of "Song of Myself" and "Spring Fever," an intertrilogy series. In Jude Watson's YA series, "Last of the Jedi," Jedi Ferus Olin draws the same lot in life as Obi-Wan Kenobi: to guard and guide a Skywalker. It is as fun as it sounds.

IOIOIOIOIO
IOIOIOIOIO

"Have a good time, my sweet. Girn, not too much candy floss, even though she'll beg you for it." Bail pressed his hand to Leia's masked cheek, disregarding the bauta finery that muffled her response.

"Father, I'm not two years old!" At sixteen, Leia did not stamp her feet any more.

One hand on Bail's shoulder, Ferus regarded Leia. Carnevale on Empire Day meant Alderaani citizens masked themselves into new identities and because she loved tradition, of course his Princess had gone in for the whole bauta face mask, gilded from stubborn chin to sealed lips to golden brow. Eating candy floss or drinking Corellian ale or, stars forbid, that rotgut that every carnival Ferus had ever attended had sold out of illicit kiosks, would be impossible. She would remove the mask, its fine feathers cresting the gilt forehead, and would be attired only in her gauzy sharovary whose vest shaded her center, but whose slitted sides showed inordinate amounts of calves, flanks and ribs. Looking at her broke Ferus' heart. It ought to be illegal, the way that Carnevale masks allowed the wearer to break the bounds of propriety and interface with levels of society not their own. He could not picture Leia being inferior to any class; everyone else would always look up to her.

Bail sighed. "In some ways, my Leia, you will always be two years old to me." He traced the lipline of the mask and Leia leaned into the caress, her eyes smiling at her father through the mask's openings. Ferus had to look away.

Toric bowed to Bail, his periwig and domino seemingly glued onto his head. At least, they didn't slip with the courtesy. "We'll be in the audience of your last speech of the day, Bail." He bowed to Leia. "Come, milady."

As if from a nearly-muted holovid, Ferus replayed Amidala's final speech as Queen of Naboo. She'd said something worthwhile, something pithy, and she'd looked just like this, drowning in tradition and unnatural paint. He hiccuped. "Princess!"

Leia turned. "Fess. What is it?" She was as regal as Amidala, as intense as Anakin.

"C-Come back safe. Watch out for pickpocketses." Gah, he'd had too much to drink already and it was only two hours past dawn.

"Let's go, Leia. Your father will look after him." Toric displayed a well-turned calf in his knee-length white hose as he spun on his heel, cupping Leia's elbow, but she broke away.

"Are you all right, Fess?"

She's only being polite. "'M fiiiiine."

Bail hooked his arm around Ferus' shoulders, gripping the outer robe that threatened to slide off. "You two may leave. I'll see to him. He's unwell." He swayed Ferus over to a comm station set discreetly inside one of the reception hall's pillars. "Winter! Winter!"

"No, Bail, it's summer!" Ferus simpered with Fess' voice and Leia's posture shifted from concern to sudden, disgusted knowledge. Ferus was glad the bauta covered her final look of scorn as she stepped out with Toric. When Winter appeared, her sweaty unisuit suggesting she had been in the midst of a particularly challenging training session with Sabé, Ferus was not so tipsy that he mistook her for Leia.

"Here, this is for you, Fess," Bail said, handing him an unopened bottle of Whyren's Reserve from a niche on the opposite side of the pillar. "I've got to leave now. Winter, please see Fess to his home." Bail's face turned resolute and Ferus knew he was thinking of Breha and Leia and his responsibilities. Bail had not much time to bewail the state of his world today. He had duties to perform that must have been odious for him. Ferus teared up.

"Go, go, yes, I know you need to go, Bail. Winter, I'm coming, thanks for chauffeuring, wait for me by the speeder, 'kay?"

Wiping her perspiring face on her sleeve, Winter looked to Bail and he nodded.

"Very well," she said with no inflection. "South landing pad, the yellow SoroSuub flash speeder. Take your time." As she strode away with more dignity than most eighteens owned, Ferus thought glumly that with her eidetic memory, she probably remembered his Empire Day performance of last year, too, word for inebriated word.

"Bail - "

"Ferus, take the bottle with you."

"I was going to. But, Bail, why did you allow Leia to go to Carnevale with Toric? He's older, 'n he's, he's, after her, you know what I mean - "

Bail's face softened. "Ferus, I know that. I've protected her since before you arrived onplanet. I know she's approaching adulthood with the speed of light and yes, I've had The Talk with her."

Ferus ran a hand over his beard the way that Obi-Wan did sometimes. He thought hard, through drifting dunes of sludge. "Then why didja let her go?"

"This will be the quick answer and if you want to pursue the subject when you're sober, we can, but Ferus, she's spreading her wings and will soon leave. I can't go with her, you can't go with her and maybe Breha would choose to if she were alive, but she isn't. The issue is trust. I trust Leia to do the right thing." And then he lowered his earnest gaze. "Ferus, I am her father and I want her to enjoy her life, even in this Empire of ours. She needs to learn that from me." Bail looked down on the wedding band that he wore even now. "I am also Viceroy for the Queen's wishes in this matter." He clasped his hands. "There will be many more men than Toric in Leia's life. She will handle them all."

"I don't unnerstan-"

"Ferus, go home and stop thinking, for once. Just believe that the Force you cling to will see you through today. Now, really, goodbye. I'll see you tomorrow -"

Ferus' robe slithered to the marble floor. He bent to pick it up and straightened with a wobble. "Day after."

"Day after, very well. That's the day of Leia's departure." Bail pumped Ferus' hand like the politician he was born to be and departed. Ferus' distress flared like a nova. He stifled himself on the long walk to the south landing pad, trailing the tie to his robes. No need for Winter to add tears to her memories of him.

IOIOIOIOIO

After three whirls on the Whirlabop, five sessions on the lighted-panel dance grid and two slow trips through the Tunnel of Distortion, Leia was considering the Giant Losregni of Doom looming over the line in which she was standing.

Girn tapped her shoulder. "We're next."

"Huh, yes. Um. You're sure about this?"

Girn's silver mustache had not yet wilted from the summer heat they had been out in all day long. Leia wondered if he used anything like the personal adhesive she used on her coiffures if they included hair extensions. She'd not ask, though; he was an elegant escort and that was all she craved lately. Let Fess stick to the walks through untamed fields and sudden thundersprites amid Nature's bounty; Girn appealed to civilized charm and breeding. He rarely laughed and did not do so now, merely smiling his courtly half-smile. "Yes, very."

And then they were strapped in together in one seat, the crash webbing applied and her hip ground next to his. The ride began, chugging through the dark entrance hall and out into the blinding sunlight. This was a single compartment ride, streamers on its rollbar, contrary-to-Alderaani-taste strobe lights flashing around its perimeter. Leia was certain this ride came from Corellia. The afternoon sun could not have outshone their car, and when Leia lay on her back next to Girn as the contraption pointed them straight upwards to the brazen bowl of summer sky, she closed her eyes, absorbing the moment. At the top of the arc, the car pointed straight down with a nauseating flip, Leia screamed despite herself and Girn's arms swept around her. He pressed her cheek to his, her mask flew off and she felt the tickle of his mustache and the rim of his domino. What does he use to keep it on, she thought dimly, and then they were into the subdued rolls of the rest of the course. When the ride was over with and they had found the shards of her mask, Girn kept one arm around her shoulders and she slid her arm around his waist, liking the way the sateen shirt felt on the sensitive skin of her inner arm.

"It's shattered." Girn lifted the edge of the feathers with one silver-buckled shoe. "It was a pretty thing."

"It was, but there will be other Carnevales, other Empire Days." Leia stopped, appalled at her words. Spoken like a true politician, she thought. Yet she had enjoyed the festivities. "I'm ready for the beach," she said shortly.

The salt-water lake's beach was an uncomfortable montane gravel, but Leia and Girn gamely spread their rented throw and pitched the umbrella. The buoyancy of the lake made Girn's swimtrunks billow comically when he waded into the water and Leia nearly burst out laughing as she stripped off her sharovary garb. Girn spared one look for her flesh-colored maillot, kited his domino and periwig to the throw and at last showed his teeth in a grin, his arms akimbo on his trim waist. "Modesty becomes you, my dear Leia."

Leia preened, practiced her suave look as she waded in herself. "You look nice, too, Girn." It was the first time she had used his given name. They stroked side by side in the warm water, diving shallowly and blowing like whaladons. An hour passed like a minute. Back at their umbrella, the long summer day threw lengthening shadows at last and Leia relaxed in the sun. She waved at Girn to continue swimming and as he dove gracefully into the waves kicked up by the afternoon breeze, Leia observed the rest of the beachgoers.

Pulling a pink blob off her candy floss, Leia looked at the human and near-human mens' wet outlined bulges and wondered if she could take them in when the time came. Or is that take them on, I'm thinking the situation will resemble a particularly tough debate. Some boys her age raced by, bopping a scramball from head to head. They looked well-developed, not puerile, despite the childishness of their pursuit. Now wait, Leia, Winter plays scramball and she's the most mature of my friends. I've got to think some more. Leia licked her fingers. It would seem to be a game, then, this ongoing match between the sexes, but there was no rulebook, only a playbook. Hnnnph. Everything I've read has been mechanics-oriented. I'm bored with picture books. A Praci rolled by on its way to the water, extruding appendages covered in sand. It would immerse itself in the salty infusion of lake water, the sand would wash to the lake bottom and it would join with the water as much as its osmotic barrier would let it. Could she join with Nature and retain her sense of self? Couldn't she turn off this path of thought? Couldn't she direct it? Not this day.

Leia gave up and gave in. She rolled onto her stomach and let her mind roam as freely as the afternoon wispy breeze. It seemed that it wanted to explore the gutter so, bemused, she unleashed her soul, too. Well, self, where will we wind up today? Giles told me at our last blaster training session that not all matters can be settled by Senatorial debate, and that I need to choose my own path. A Besalisk couple strolled by, four hands entwined. Huh. Wonder what they do. Leia blushed with more than sunburn. I'm competitive, she thought, and aggressive. Was that so bad? I need a leg up - Leia giggled at her choice of phrase - in the political arena and in the personal life arena, too. Could they be combined somehow? Not even Winter had intimated that she ever felt this way. Leia gazed into the shaded sanctuary of her crossed arms and dreamed and got a little aroused in the sun. She went for a quick dip, but her nipples got even harder in the cool waves. At the beach's concert pavilion, she took Girn's hand as they listened to Bail's final speech of the day, nodding with the crowd as if she agreed with his subdued praise of the Empire. Girn released her hand to link his arm through hers paternally when Bail's glance found them amid the multitude.

IOIOIOIOIO

"It's Empire Day. Again." Ferus swigged from the Whyren's. "And Laylay is attending Carnevale again, this time with Turmeric." The headache Ferus had pretended to Bail turned to reality as he sprawled on his bed, too disillusioned and forlorn to activate the holoviewer. Let others commemorate the beginning of Palpatine's Empire. 'Empire' was the only important word he and Obi-Wan could use unrestrainedly on their clandestine conversations, and that made him feel sicker than he already did.

Obi-Wan leaned into the holotransmitter. "You've shaved."

"So what."

"The moustache is a neat touch."

"Baby st-steps in making changes, Mistress always said. I want to talk to her."

Obi-Wan looked wistful. "As do I."

"She does not really know me. Mistress knew me. I miss her, and the fountains and running through the salles, remember how we Learners would run with our swords straight out in front so we could learn how not to spear ourselves when we practiced?" Ferus belched. "She would not have made a good Pad- "

"Partner, I think you mean to say. A partner in learning the ways of the Power."

Ferus almost didn't care any longer about security. "Have it your way. How could she want to go with him, O-Siri? He is evil." He downed another shot. "I thought she would have made a dedicated Learner, but I was wrong. Sh-She is a child."

Obi-Wan shrugged. "Tradition says that heirs to the House of Onan must complete one term. You know how Laylay loves traditions. And Feri-Wan, Turmeric is not evil, I've heard around the cantinas. He is merely cupiscent and a dandy. He is not our sort."

Ferus wished that his Koann Kondominium had not included furnishings, because the waterbed churned when he turned over and his stomach churned with it. Obi-Wan's blue form made a dizzy arc over his head as he dumped the holotransmitter onto the pillow beside him. "Don't feel well."

"Who would know better than I? Rest now, young man, and let the past remain past," Obi-Wan said kindly.

I feel worse, not better. "She's left me, she's gone where I can't follow, I have a bad feeling about this, Ob-Shiri-"

Obi-Wan slammed something at his end and Ferus jumped, then held his head, then his stomach. "Stop this at once, Feri-Wan."

"I know, I know -"

There was the sound of pacing on a gritty stone floor. "You need a job."

"Have a job."

"It's changed, and like the suns setting, we can't stop change, but we can adapt." Obi-Wan shoved his face next to the holotransmitter. "I need you to breed my eopie with me."

"O-Siri, you and I are able to access the Power for many purposes, but not even we can create life like tha- "

"What are you saying? I bartered some liquor for a container of championship eopie semen today. It has a one week lifespan in its special cooler. I need your help, Trouble needs the experience and you need" - Obi-Wan peered at Ferus' woebegone blue face in his hand - "a vacation. Come to me to Toonie. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing." Obi-Wan looked down, appearing ashamed, or acting as if he did. Ferus couldn't tell. "I must sell Trouble's colt for funds to refit all my vaporators. I repaired them when I moved here, but sixteen years' sunslight wears the mechanical parts. I'm afraid I did a poor job initially, too."

Trust Obi-Wan to hold the point of view that glossed over the man's own raw pain at that awful time. Leia is out of my hands. I can do some good for someone. "Very well. What about Wormie?"

"My having company won't affect our intermittent relationship. Wormie hates the Satrapy, but what can he do about it? He worked with Larzinsky the Elder all day today because it is his school vacation. He may visit his friends in the evening, if Larzinsky the Minor has her way. Perhaps you will even meet him at some point. Larzinsky the Elder doesn't hate you."

Trust Obi-Wan, too, to revert to our codeword 'Satrapy' when Luke says something negative about the Empire. "Um. Uh. You may not want me as a guest. I didn't like Toonie the first time. No offense, O-Siri - "

"The place is fixed up. You can shower now."

"That'll help, but - "

"No buts. Come." And because he really did need a helping hand on the reins of his life, Ferus agreed to all points of Obi-Wan's argument. It felt better than he thought it would have.

IOIOIOIOIO

The second day after Empire Day, Toric maintained a sabacc face as Ferus quizzed the Senator over the pilot's references. "You've never flown a starship, Ilee," Toric said finally. "I have. This pilot is competent enough, but I have raced in the Vorzyd 500 and the Chommell Cup. I'll take over when we're onto the Commenor Run." The man neared Ferus' personal space barriers. "Leia will be safe with me." Ferus stood his ground as Toric leaned even closer. They were nearly nose-to-nose. "I'll take over, now."

His thoughts righteously indignant, Ferus bit back any number of retorts about piloting starfighters before, during and after the Clone Wars. The last time he'd flown anything solo larger than a swoop had been to arrive at Aldera from his home in the planet's hinterlands nine years ago, his lumigrass etchings filling the backseat of his duraflivver. And before that, the debacle that was Operation Moonstrike, ending with a restorative sojourn with Obi-Wan. But the Senator from the Vorzyd Sector would never know these things.

"She's precious to ... His Highness. He needs her to come back safely." I need her to come back safely. Ferus refused to accept the glimmer of sympathy in Toric's green eyes.

"Three months will fly by, Ilee. Now farewell."

Then had followed his ghastly leavetaking of Leia, she who would have qualified as his Padawan had the galaxy remained sane.

Choking back tears, Bail had retreated to the palace's promenade to watch his daughter's departure in solitude. Ferus stood alone with Leia near the landing ramp. He closed his eyes, opened them, then blanked his mind to all but his words to her. "Men want In. They will do or say anything to get In, because a standing cock has no conscience." I've used the word 'cock' in a lecture. I am a failure. But Ferus was a survivor and he struggled onward. "Bail is your father and sees you differently. I am not your father." Ferus' chest and throat nearly closed in his need to warn her, to guide her, to make her safe. "Please hear me, Princess. Be careful."

Leia's mouth dropped open. She backed away. "Give me my bag. Go back and tell my father that he should have told me these things instead of you. I, I don't know what to think of this." She turned away from Ferus, straightening her spine as she hefted her bag. "Leave me alone."

As she strode up the boarding ramp, Ferus stared at Leia from two and then six and finally seven meters away until she stood at the top, so backlit in glare that he could not make out her form clearly. She turned back once. "I'll be all right." Then she was gone.

IOIOIOIOIO

Ferus looked up from the holovid that Obi-Wan had shoved into his padd, once greetings were over. "Today?"

"You look fit. Come on, the sooner we get this done, the sooner we can start this vacation of yours. I'm thinking a brisk walk in the evenings just before we retire, doesn't that sound good?"

"All right. I suppose I have the gist of the breeding technique, and you can tell me from Trouble's reactions at the head end if I'm doing something wrong." The semen sample rested in a cannula, ready for applying to the proper spot of Trouble's innards. After Ferus stripped off his travel tunics and washed, Obi-Wan led the way to the paddock, weaving his way around some spare parts that Ferus supposed were outdated vaporator workings. The next group of wandering Jawas would be eager to trade for them. Trouble's hinged skull dipped her proboscis up and down in greeting to her master. She ignored Ferus.

"Here you go, Trouble. Time to work." Obi-Wan cinched Trouble's headstall to a paddock post, pointing to a ladder already in place. "Get up on that. I've got her steady."

"The holovid said to lube myself first." The suns were hot on Ferus' pale skin, though this was Tatooine's winter.

"Ah, yes, that's right." Obi-Wan indicated a supply shed.

Ferus slathered his right arm with enough lube to satisfy a bantha, stuck the cannula to the gel along his forearm and rested its tip near his index finger. He climbed the ladder one-handed. Thanking the stars that eopies had no tails, he spied the correct opening and coned his fingers, going up and then straight in as the instructions dictated. He rested his left arm on her spine and was about to push the plunger near his elbow when Trouble exploded.

"Hold her!"

"I'm trying! Trouble, calm, girl, calm, listen to my words, Trouble, no one is going to hurt you - "

Trouble bawled as she reared, pawing her front legs to the sky like a maddened thing. She snapped her headstall rope, shoving Obi-Wan aside as she walked two steps on her hind legs. The ladder tilted forward and down, Ferus' arm slithered back into the winter air, and he fell to one side. Trouble's frantic gallop towards the gateposts missed Ferus, but crushed the cannula into the grit of the paddock's surface.

"Trouble! No, girl! Come back here!" Obi-Wan pressed a hand to his head, obviously trying to Call her with the Force, but Trouble bounced off the gate and dashed a crazed circuit around the fenced perimeter. Not even the Force could stop such stubbornness.

"You all right? Ow."

"You all right? Ow."

Ferus surveyed two bedraggled Jedi. Obi-Wan favored his left arm, while he felt two bruises forming on his knees.

"She's never done that before. Why would she do that? She was not in pain, I would have noticed - "

Ferus picked up the broken cannula and his dignity. "Come on, even I can tell it's a lost cause for today. Let's go inside. I'm getting sunburnt."

Settling on an ancient chest in the gloom of the common room, Obi-Wan wasn't getting past this misfortune. "I have more semen, that's not the problem, it's that she'll never trust me again, I would never hurt her -"

"We'll try again. As for Trouble, I think that she was experiencing 'discomfort,' as the medics say, rather than outright pain." He looked around. "Say, is there anything in that chest for discomfort or even pain?"

Obi-Wan sat on the chest like a doiseybird on its nest. "No. There's nothing important in this chest." He brightened like a doiseybird himself. "I'll tell you what, let's do a Force Laying On Of Hands. I'll start." He crossed to where Ferus sat on the bed. "Hold still." Obi-Wan pressed his right hand to one of Ferus' knees, then the other. Ten minutes later, Ferus felt better.

"Thanks, it's improved." Ferus presented an elbow. "This hurts, too." Obi-Wan smoothed a tanned hand over the scrape, easing pain there and along Ferus' left side.

"Do me?"

"I would like nothing better than to do you, Obi-Wan, but I've not accessed the Force for a very long time for Healing. I'm not sure I remember how."

Obi-Wan smiled into Ferus' eyes. "No matter." He grazed his right arm along his left, allowing Ferus to absorb whatever technique he could from the proximity to the act. "You know, Anakin had trouble with Healing, too. I used to help him him any way I could."

Something to brighten today, something, anything .. ah. "Speaking of cooling containers, I brought some of Leia's farewell banquet with me. Let's eat." He rousted out the meal, Obi-Wan set the plates and they shared a remnant of a feast.

"I demanded you come here. You're supposed to be relaxing."

"Give it up, Obi-Wan. As I said, we'll try tomorrow."

"I had only one cannula. I thought you could do it all at one go."

"I tried. And, Master Yoda or no, that's all I could do."

"Any ideas?"

"Is giving up in your vocabulary?"

"Not an option. You saw the broken vaporator parts in my yard."

After Obi-Wan handed him a dessert pallie, Ferus said, "Obi-Wan, you don't need to go to this much trouble." Obi-Wan's beard was thinner, Ferus had observed in the harsh sunslight, and his pink scalp was beginning to show through his temples. The man's eyes were kinder, more rueful, just more Jedi than ever before. Sixteen years' sunsllght has worn you, too, my friend.

Obi-Wan patted his stomach. "Nonsense. I enjoyed myself and you know you did, admit it."

"Um, was the meal too rich for you?" Ferus hadn't thought of that. He Observed-Without-Looking the distance to the 'fresher. Ten Obi-steps. Of course, Obi-Wan in his youth had dined with the best trenchermen in the galaxy, but for sixteen years he'd eaten simple fare. His spare frame showed the results.

Obi-Wan chuckled. "I'm fine. You always did worry inordinately."

The glow of an evening spent with a part of his past presided in the room. Ferus rubbed his double chin. "And you, as well." In their mind's eye, the specter of Vader shimmered in the far corner. The two men sobered. "She's almost grown up, Obi-Wan." It came out sadder than he'd thought. "She's working, for stars' sake." Leia was in Imperial City by now. Ferus raised a helpless hand. "I can't accompany her. It feels strange." He crossed his legs, a difficult feat since he grew a larger stomach.

Obi-Wan's gaze contained sympathy. "You did all you could to stop it. And she is warier about men, thanks to you."

"Ach, Bail contributed as much as he was able. They spent every minute last week together, planning and practicing her initial speech. When Toric accompanied Leia to Carnevale on Empire Day, I heard Bail tell Leia she needed to blow off some steam. I don't understand Bail, sometimes."

"He's her father and sees more of her than you do. It's a natural thing to want your child to experience all facets of life, including simply inviting one's soul to enjoy a Carnevale." Ferus remembered the intrigue of the Galactic Games of his youth that seemed innocuous now. He thought that perhaps Obi-Wan glossed over the dreadful meaning of Empire Day. Empire Day on Alderaan to him meant strained smiles, forced cheer and a load of speeches. Obi-Wan perhaps had not even heard one fatuous speech in his time on this planet of exile. Ferus only stayed at the palace then to guard Leia, and when she persisted in associating with that Toric, he may as well have stayed home. There was a scramball final he could have watched.

They were silent in thought as Obi-Wan led Ferus out under the spangled night sky. By chance, all three moons were full and the ground glowed magically, the far-off dunes a silver mystery. Trouble had ceased her escape attempts and eyed them. Obi-Wan approached her and Ferus hung back, hearing the murmur of comfort from an impossibly guilt-stricken Jedi. Trouble allowed a new rope on her headstall and walked slowly behind them as they strolled around the paddock for exercise.

Ferus broke the silence. "Well, what do you suggest to complete this job? I've got another week until Bail expects me to start back. We're planning next year's Empire Day commemoration." Which I will not attend, either.

"So soon?"

"It's bureaucracy's finest hour, Obi-Wan. The Imperial flimsiwork must be filed as soon as possible after the current Empire Day."

Obi-Wan's eyes glazed, Ferus imagined. "No matter. I'll ask Babsie to help."

"Who's that?"

"My friend who lives in the alley. I told you about her."

"The one who gave you the nightie?"

"As you will see tonight, it's a sleep shift, and yes." Obi-Wan smiled, his teeth glinting in the moonslight. "She's helped me before."

Do I want to know? "So what can she do that I can't?"

Obi-Wan led Trouble on another circuit, explaining as he walked. "She'll hold the ladder while I encourage Trouble at one end and you attempt to breed the other. Successfully, this time." He patted Trouble goodnight, unfastened her headstall rope and opened the gate. "And we'll hobble this beast tomorrow, I think."

Trouble narrowed her eyes at Ferus through the fence and he reciprocated. "Tomorrow it is, then. We'll get this job done, Obi-Wan."

"Good. I need something else from Babsie, too."

IOIOIOIOIO

Babsie's dwelling between Tosche Station on Anchorhead's outskirts and the city proper showed ingenuity: the scraped-thin hairless hide of an entire bantha draped over a sand-scoured inverted T-16 skyhopper carcase, its corners supported by ceramic lengths of what Ferus thought were sewer pipes. Babsie sat outside her home in the cool dawn. She smiled at them and Ferus saw she had nearly all her teeth.

"Ben!"

"Babsie."

She swiveled to Ferus. "Who?"

"My friend, Fess. He's a botanist."

There was courtliness in her seated obeisance. "Pleased to meet you."

Ferus bowed from the neck only. "And I, as well."

Obi-Wan settled on the sand-flecked ground next to Babsie's tanned bare feet. There were no other places to sit, so Ferus did the same. A glance inside the open flap of the shelter showed boxes of what resembled plumbing fittings stored neatly upright in blue bins. There was a rug, a bedroll that had been furled for the day, one pair of sandals and little else. He dragged his focus back to the conversation.

" ... yes, yes, I'm well. That cough was nothing. Not that I'm complaining, but why did you set up a meeting for this morning? I thought you were going to breed Trouble this week."

Obi-Wan flicked an embarrassed look at Ferus. "I forgot something. I need your scavenging expertise, Babsie. Do you have anything like a cannula?"

Babsie twisted one gray curl around her forefinger. "Yeeeeesss ... Yes. I do. It's even sterile, because it was designed to inject fuser oil into a franistan supraorbitor valve, and you know how temperamental they are." She dipped into the shelter for a minute, rustled some things and came back with a plastine-wrapped tube nearly a meter long. It had a red plunger at one end and was two centimeters in diameter.

Obi-Wan fingered the slender cannula thoughtfully. "This is even better than the other, Fess. Trouble should have no difficulty with its dimensions. The breeder gave me one that was for multiparous eopie dams, and of course Trouble is virginal."

Ferus blinked. "She told you this."

"Yes, Ben, how did you realize it? It isn't as if virgins have their status emblazoned on their foreheads."

"You'll simply have to accept the fact that I have become knowledgeable about fertility, in the same way that you, Babsie, know about separating male and female pipe ends and you, Fess, know about stamens and pistils," Obi-Wan said loftily. "I spend my spare time doing something, you know."

"So, you want my help with this? I'm up for it, Ben."

"If you would be so kind, Babsie."

Ferus' vacation was turning into something approaching the bizarre. It was better than moping, however, and he brightened. "Let's do this thing! Today!"

Babsie smacked a fist into her palm with a laugh that rattled the alley. "Yes!" She slipped back into her shelter for her sandals, and Ferus caught sight of an aurodium tea service between her furled bedroll and the east wall. Its small teapot would hold enough water for two steepings of tea and there were two dainty cups on the tea tray. Ferus heard a small sigh from Babsie as she pressed the 'standby' sensor on the teapot's lid. Three minutes later she stood, a nearly-threadbare robe over her simple tunic and trousers and a Verpine blaster holstered where her waist used to be. A flask of something dangled from the other side of the belt. "Come on! Day's not getting any younger!" She led the way to the speeder, hopping into the back seat with a spryness that belied her years.

Hanging back, Obi-Wan blurted, "Eopies reach maturity at six years and I have owned Trouble since she was five. That's how I knew she was virgin. What did you think, Ferus, that I am some crazy old fossil?"

For the first time since he had known him, Obi-Wan needed reassurance. Ahhh, I've offended him. One of my only two friends. Leia doesn't count. "Well, if you are, then I want to become one in fourteen years." Ferus decided to jolly Obi-Wan out of his mood. "What do you suppose she has in that flask? Whyren's, so we can all toast the successful end of this mission?" He poked Obi-Wan's ribs.

"No. It's personal lubricant." Obi-Wan levered himself down into the passenger seat. "I've seen it in her home before."

"Oh."

They set off. Ferus got tired of the oldies' station after a while, but allowed them their sedate fun. Babsie took one look at Trouble and ordained that the animal need more time between attempts and they postponed their efforts until nearly sunsdown. Ferus spent the day getting to know Babsie. She was open to a fault about most things and shuttered about how she got to where she was in life. Ferus suspected Obi-Wan didn't know, either. All their politics agreed, and between the three of them, they spent a relaxing, chatty day.

IOIOIOIOIO

Ferus grimaced at his arm slickened with Babsie's lubricant and withdrew it from Trouble as slowly as the holovid had advised. He scrabbled down from the ladder as Trouble tried to cock a hobbled hind leg to kick him. "She doesn't want this, Ben."

"I feel it's what's best. She is not sentient, Fess."

And I Sense that was a strained admission for you, so I must say this. "Ben, if you need funds, I'll see what I can do -"

"Unnecessary. I'll utilize my resources," Obi-Wan said crisply. "'Use it up, wear it out, make it do.' A Tatooine axiom with which I agree." He patted a broad flank. Trouble ceased shuffling her hind feet and bleated. "We tried this the natural way, but her doesn't like that awful male, duzzer?"

Aghast, Ferus cast about as much as he could in the Force as he ascended the ladder and slid his arm in again. Had he missed that the old man had gone around the bend? No. Obi-Wan relied on this creature for transport, never allowing her to be overburdened while he cared for her with almost an unseemly amount of solicitude. This creature was the man's pet. Oh. It's his only companion, most of the time. At least it's an actual living creature he's barmy about and not a holovid collection. 'Trouble' is the name he gave her, but that doesn't fit any more than 'Lovey' would. If the galaxy had stayed in its proper order, Obi-Wan would have been eased out of active missions and allowed a pet to further his connection to the quieter side of the Living Force. Perhaps he would have sought a retirement home, on Coruscant or elsewhere. The kite that was Obi-Wan Kenobi would have had its strings attenuated and when the final one snapped, his connection to his Order would have ended, and his fuller connection to the Force would have begun. Ferus waxed poetic as he pictured his friend at final peace in the Force, no longer tethered to the concerns of the living, not even in an emeritus capacity. True retirement, Ferus rhapsodized. A dream come to fruition, a dream earned.

Obi-Wan's next words dropped Ferus back into the moment. "Make her like it, will you, Feru-, Feri-, erm, Fess? Stroke her from the inside."

From her position securing the ladder, Babsie snorted. She hadn't said much through this entire session, merely tickling Trouble's ears with a muttered, "Steady, girl."

"Sure thing. I never thought I'd be turning on an animal, though. The life of a" - Jedi - "botanist is a wondrous thing, always learning, never satisfied, continually waiting for the next inexplicable event - "

It was Obi-Wan's turn to snort. "Well, you can hardly turn on a plant, now can you? Get on with it. I'll calm her." Obi-Wan rubbed Trouble's proboscis. "Relax, Trouble. You'll like being a mother, I promise."

And how would he know, Ferus thought as he strummed Trouble's internal plumbing. Then he remembered Anakin, and knew that Obi-Wan's experience was tantamount to parenting, and that Trever and Lune had been Ferus' own legacy to the next generation. There had been help along the difficult way from Roan and Ry-Gaul and Garen, just as Anakin benefited from Soara Antana's tutoring. Clutching Trouble's pale hide with his free hand as he groped with the other, he lost himself in memory despite his awkward position until Trouble stopped quivering, her cervix softened and her sides heaved less with her quietening breaths. Ferus squeezed the cannula's plunger and the deed was done. He extracted himself from her while Babsie undid her hobbles and backed off quickly. Ferus leaped away from her hind end with a smidgen of Force power, wary for kicks, but Trouble's head had drooped onto Obi-Wan's shoulder. Obi-Wan supported her silently until she gathered herself. "Now then, Trouble, back to ordinary life and an extra ration for you. That'll do, girl. That'll do."

Babsie was already ahead of the Jedi pair, and when they entered to take turns at the 'fresher for cleanup, she had finished her wash. She tapped the semen container with a sandaled toe after they rejoined her in the common room. "You're not going to waste this, are you, Ben? It might fetch a good price at tonight's mart."

"Wait," interjected Ferus. "What if it didn't take? We might need to do this again." He quailed at the thought of rushing through the procedure with a deadine of expired semen in the offing.

The Force was in the room as Obi-Wan got that look on his face, the look Ferus had seen time and again. It was the look of supreme knowledge. "Oh, it took, all right."

Obi-Wan turned to Ferus. "Tonight's the night for the midweek swapmeet. It's how I got the semen on Empire Day. Now there was a swapmeet." He smiled reminiscently, and Ferus got a good idea of just what made Obi-Wan smile these days. Bargains were as far from Ferus' life on Alderaan as could be; Bail's resources seemed limitless, at times. He supposed being born a prince was a good situation in life, almost as good as being born Force-sensitive. "I got the fittings to fix the shower, too, though the price was high."

Babsie finally decided on the bed as her seat. As he perched upon the battered wooden chest, Ferus noticed that she seemed right at home, one leg crossed with the ankle atop a knee, head thrown back as she supported herself on both elbows. Ferus saw her biceps bulge through her thin robe and knew her for a very strong lady. He wondered how she had wound up living in an alley. He wondered at the salvaged plumbing parts he had seen at her dwelling. Likely she made spare wupiupis from their sale, or bartered them for favors. He wondered at the aurodium tea service.

"Not too high, Ben, right?"

Obi-Wan lifted an eyebrow. "Oh, no, not yet."

"You did change my luck, you know."

Obi-Wan smiled as he seated himself a decorous arms-length away from Babsie. "In my experience, there is no such thing as luck."

"We're never going to agree on that, Ben."

"We don't have to."

Ferus cleared his throat. "I could take it to the swapmeet for you, Ben. I've never been to one."

Two pairs of eyes regarded him, both veiling themselves to differing degrees. "You'd do that for me, Fess?"

Ferus met Obi-Wan's gaze squarely. You said you'd tell me if there were anything important to share. In your convoluted, cryptic way, you're telling me something. "Sure thing. Where is it?"

Babsie spoke up. "Right down the street from my home, just turn right at the end of my street, a left, two rights and you're there. It's where the old pallie-seller's kiosk used to be two years ago, you can't miss it."

"Make a right turn at the end of your street, Babsie, or do you mean make the left turn directly at the end of your street or - "

"Fess, follow the noise. And you may have to hustle to get there before the virility window expires. The semen won't remain motile forever." Obi-Wan rose and placed the container in Ferus' hands. "Here. And I thank you."

Babsie diddled with the throw on Obi-Wan's bed. "Yes, thanks a lot, Fess. It's been a few days since Ben and I could visit."

Ferus threw in a little of Fess' giggle while he was at it. "Visit, erm, yes, I see. I'm always up for a visit, myself. Now, Ben" - Obi-Wan's face was as blank as Ferus had ever seen it - "Ben, this'll take about two hours, I think - "

"Make it three, to be on the safe side."

Is that a blush, Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, sir? "Three it is." Uh-oh. "Um, how are you getting back home, Babsie? I'll be returning late."

"It's all right, Fess, I'm used to - "

"Trouble and I will see her home, if I've not returned when you get back don't worry, the Tuskens are at the far end of their migratory route away from us, the womp rats hibernate at this time of year, your speeder has a half tank of fuel left so that's not a concern and goodbye, Fess. Thanks again." Obi-Wan poked Ferus' back as he shepherded him up the stairs into the cooling evening. "Don't sass me. I mean it."

"I'm sorry. I couldn't help it. Fess has too great a hold on me." Anakin would have been spitting in fury by now. but Obi-Wan limited himself to a Masterly glare. Ferus plopped himself into the pilot's seat, exaggeratedly careful with the container as he strapped it in beside him. "How much do you want for this, or what would you like in trade?"

The glare subsided to a fume. "I'd like a full peggat, if you can't get that then no less than three truguts and fourteen wupiupis. Trade? Hmmm, a new or gently used full set of robes, including boots, obi and undergarments. Size 402 average. Socks, too."

Ferus flicked the ignition chip. "I'll do my best."

"As shall I." At Ferus' astonished glance upward, Obi-Wan laughed, an actual laugh that was not a chuckle or chortle. Ferus discerned that the evening would be well-spent, on both their sides. The happy glow continued right on up to after he'd concluded the deal to Obi-Wan's specifications and was headed back to the hut. A vision of Leia handling an issue as profound as a sea change danced upon the moonslit dunes then, and his vacation shaded to a jagged gray of apprehension.

IOIOIOIOIO

TBC