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Shadows in Starlight

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Years before the Rebellion dared to steal plans to a weapon whispered of as the Death Star, in the rim-world star system known as the Yamato Isles, there arose a dark warrior called Hitokiri Battousai.

An amber blade from the shadows, he killed sentients like a demon, slashing away the remnants of the old Republic. The Empire took hold in his wake, welcomed for a time by people weary of the corruption and self-absorption that focused the attention of the Senate and the Jedi Knights on wealthy planets like Coruscant, ignoring the powers grinding lesser worlds like Yamato, Albion, and Tatooine into poverty and despair.

But at the height of the Empire's triumph... Battousai vanished.

And with the flow of years, became no more than another chilling legend of the Dark Side.

Now, with the Imperial Senate dissolved by Emperor Palpatine, and rumors of Princess Leia Organa's exposure as a Rebel spy just beginning to reach the distant Yamato spaceport of Tokyo...

...this story begins.


 

I've got to do this. Kamiya Kaoru rubbed her palms dry on her tan haori, stepping out into the foggy Tokyo streets. She ignored the whispering bites of mist-midges along her wrists and neck; her small earnings as a martial arts instructor were still enough to purchase hashima, the raw herbs that warded off Miasma Fever.

And if she didn't find the man she sought, there would be more deaths than Miasma tonight.

Hira-chan and Satou-kun say I shouldn't do this. They say I might as well just turn and work for the Imperials. They say every Guard and stormtrooper the killer takes out is one less the Alliance has to face on missions. But these aren't missions. They're murder!

I've got to do this. If he is the Hitokiri Battousai, the Force assassin... There isn't anyone else.

Kaoru swallowed back fear, indulging in one moment of self-pity. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. She wasn't a Knight. She wasn't even really a padawan. Though her mother had been, and she'd passed along as much as she could, before-

Don't think about it. Remember what you're here to do. There is no emotion; there is peace.

A shaky peace, a far cry from what she could reach with meditation, but she'd take it. Kaoru drew in one slow breath, released it. Another. And another. She felt the Force trickling into her grasp, dissolving fear into calm.

There is no ignorance; there is knowledge.

Or there would be knowledge. Just as soon as she found-

Kaoru's head snapped up. What was that?

It was like a whisper, ruffling the hair of her ponytail. The barest shadow of a ripple in the Force. A flutter along the hairs of her arms, like a ghostly butterfly's wing. Hardly even there.

It was the best lead she'd had in weeks.

She bolted around the corner, heading for the ripple, student's saber alight and glowing azure. "Hitokiri Battousai!"

Small. Slight. Long scarlet hair bound at the nape of his neck, a few darker strands fluttering against the cross-shaped scar on his cheek as he turned to face her. Travel dust had darkened his red gi and turned his hakama pale tan, settling even on the slim, familiar metal cylinder at his belt.

Lightsaber, scar, almost invisible in the Force - it's him! I can feel it.

"For two months, you have murdered at will. Now it ends!"

Violet eyes went wide. "Oro?"

Force guiding her, she leapt.

What happened next was... embarrassing.

Her blade hummed through suddenly empty air. She blinked, turned, readied herself-

Crash!

Grip on her saber loosening in shock, Kaoru stared. Do Dark Lords of the Sith trip?

"Itai..." Groaning, the redhead sat up in the wreckage of empty amberwood boxes, rubbing the back of his head.

"This... is the Hitokiri Battousai?" Kaoru said uncertainly, flicking off her saber.

"Nope." The red-haired man smiled at her; surprisingly sweet, even as it flashed canines whose length had Kaoru swiftly revising her assessment from Yamatoan human to Yamatoan, mostly human. He leaned back against the weathered wooden wall of a warehouse, brushing a few yellow splinters off his gi. "This one is but a rurouni."

A wandering swordsman, Kaoru translated, surprised. Not so much by the title; most of her father's people adored blades, despising blasters as off-world cowardice, not suited for settling disputes between warriors or clans. Certainly not that he was speaking Yamatogo; despite the Empire's best efforts, most people outside the spaceport just refused to learn Basic. But she'd rarely seen a Fireryo-blooded human willing to walk into a city where pure Fireryo clans lived, with all their ancient pride....

And she'd never heard an accent so old before.

Pale fingers picked more splinters out of red hair, wincing as a few strands caught in jagged edges. "After just arriving in town, how can a murder be my fault?"

"Then explain this!" Kaoru snatched the lightsaber from his belt, activating it in a hiss of amethyst energy. "No one out this late should be carrying a-"

The pitch caught her ear; lower, less powerful than it should be. Incredulous, she touched the blade tip to the wall above his shoulder. Pressed gingerly, then harder.

Wood darkened, slowly scorching. But did not cut.

"...A student's blade?"

"How many people could one kill with this?" he shrugged.

"...Not many," Kaoru admitted. But he's the one. I know it. Battousai was an assassin who used the Force, and he's the only stranger I've felt the Force even twitch around since the murders started.

But if he was a Sith... wouldn't he have killed me by now?

And the Sith lived for power. For hate. There was no way a Dark Lord would be picking splinters out of his clothes in an alley, covered with travel dust, patiently waiting for her to give back his blade.

He's got to be just a sensitive. Like Dr. Gensai's granddaughters.

There were no shortage of those on Yamato; one reason her mother had bolted here in the first place, following rumors of a planet beyond the Old Republic's borders where the Force was known as ki, and any skilled swordsman might have it.

Don't be a needle in a haystack, Kaoru remembered her mother's soft, wry voice. Jedi tried that - and learned too late that haystacks burn, and all the Empire has to do is sift the ashes. Be a needle in a needle-stack.

Yamato was still just a border world, after all; so long as the spaceport ran and trade flowed, the Empire had neither the inclination nor the resources to waste destroying it. Still, Imperials tended to stick together and be very, very twitchy when they did venture beyond Tokyo. Hard to have an efficient crackdown on rebellious activity when half the people you were gunning for would somehow be elsewhere when you kicked in their front door...

Blaster fire split the night, accompanied by frantic whistles. "The Guard!" Kaoru tossed the amethyst blade up, bolting toward the fight.

"Ah - hey - oro-!"

She activated her saber, too worried to realize she'd never heard the rurouni's blade hit the ground.


 

I hate this port. I hate these people. I hate this whole stinking planet!

The graying Imperial sergeant fell back with what was left of his Guard patrol, pieces of slower patrolmen's ears and fingers sizzling on the ground. Blood dripped off the tall assassin's vibro-blade, bright as the glare of eyes from the dark helm. "You are all too weak!" the murderer growled.

So strong - he must be the legend, the sergeant thought, panic-stricken. Which means we're finished. What can we do against one of the Dark Lords-?

A shape of tan and azure leapt past him.

The Kamiya girl!

He'd seen her before; who hadn't? Running into their patrols every night for the past two weeks, fiercely unafraid of Imperial curfew, searching for the killer who claimed to use her family's sword-style. But she was a girl, barely seventeen; of age by this backwater planet's standards, but not by Imperial law! She didn't truly think she could-

Her glowing saber cracked against the killer's side; she skidded to a stop, spinning to face her enemy.

Bleeding.

Smirking, the killer advanced, backing the wounded swordswoman against a house wall.

She's going to die. And there's nothing we can do to save her-

A red blur swept under the killer's blow, snatching the girl in a rush of displaced air.

What in space? No one moves that fast!

A small, redheaded Yamato youth halted yards away, a dazed Kamiya in his arms. Met the killer's eyes.

"Feh!" The murderer's wild gaze broke away from calm violet; swept the patrol, freezing them in place. "I am Hitokiri Battousai! Master of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu! And you cannot stop me!"

The shadows swallowed him.

Trembling, the Imperials gathered together, picking up their wounded comrades. Breathing hard, their leader turned toward Kamiya and her strange acquaintance, determined to get to the bottom of this once and for all-

They were gone.

Small redhead, Yamato swordsman's outfit, worn as if he's been traveling a while, the sergeant noted on his datapad, preparing to send out a Be On the Look-out to every guard and troopers' station in Tokyo. Extremely fast, distinctive cross-shaped scar on his left cheek...

The sergeant stopped. Stared at what he'd written. Paled.

It couldn't be. They'd seen the killer. With a helmet and veil, of course, so no one could see the scar of legend, but-

The cross-shaped scar.

But the stories said Battousai was two and a half meters tall, with eyes that glowed like fire and-

Hair like flame.

But above all, Battousai was a Dark Lord, not a boy, who moved and slew-

Fast as the wind.

It just couldn't be!

Swallowing dryly, the sergeant canceled the BOLO before it was sent. If the redhead was just a sword-student of Kamiya's, he wouldn't be hard to find. If not....

Uramura's going to want to hear about this!


 

Near the former location of Alderaan


 

Hands shook with chill and pure exhaustion, as a worn figure curled into a forgotten corner of the Death Star and made himself small. Too close. Sithspawn, but that was too close.

There were shouts. Blaster fire. A bone-rattling thrum of engines, as Solo's rattletrap Falcon took the opening and bolted for freedom.

He wanted to hear none of it. After all, his life depended on the hordes of very angry stormtroopers thinking of this as just one more bit of empty corridor - and an empty corridor didn't hear.

It didn't hear, and it certainly didn't feel. Not hope that the children made it clear. Not fear for their safety. Not a dark, terrifying rage at the billions of lives snuffed out like candles, simply so Grand Moff Tarkin could exult in his own power.

There is no death, there is the Force.

Known, heart and soul. But the rage made it almost untouchable. How could the man have done this? How could he?

A black boot trampling an empty brown robe halted. Turned.

An empty niche. That's all. Cold, empty metal, just like the rest of this station....

Growling like metal torn apart, a black glove snatched up a fallen lightsaber and stalked away.

And after it had gone, a figure that was certainly not empty metal moved out of the niche, still shivering.

But rage or no rage, old habits of survival were whispering awake once more. Shelter. Water. Warmth. Food.

The map of the station still lingered in his mind, and he nodded absently. There was a place. Not far from here. So long as he was careful, and quiet, he should make it.

And if I'm not... better to step into the path of a blast. I can't be caught. Not now.

Not with the Dark Side so very close.

Don't think. Don't feel. Just move. One step at a time.

You can change the universe, if you take it one step at a time.


 

Yamato


 

"Itai..." Wincing as she woke, Kaoru sat up, trying to piece together pain and sunlight and the unmistakable fact that someone had laid her out on her own futon. My gi is missing!

Or - not. Haori and gi were both resting beside her, blood washed away, cuts in the upper arm mended with fine black thread. Just as the flesh wound from the vibro-blade had been poulticed with something that smelled green and minty and a lot like Dr. Gensai's herbal simples, then gently wrapped in plain bandages.

Someone... took care of me?

Someone took my gi off!

Well. Her chest had been properly wrapped for fighting, so it wasn't as if-

Kaoru fought back a blush. Smack, don't smack; decisions, decisions....

Calm. The way of the Jedi was... calm. Not bashing helpful strangers over the head just because they'd stepped between her and her deadly foe.

Strangers? Kaoru drew in a sharp breath. The rurouni!

"No, no; I don't think we need that much," a gentle voice protested outside, trying to make itself heard over Ayame and Suzume's laughter.

Splash!

"...Oro."

Throwing on her gi, Kaoru hurried out to the engawa. The children! He- I-

"Ohayo, Kaoru-dono." A somewhat soup-dampened redhead smiled up at her, fishing a long radish out of the simmering cauldron. Three-year-old Ayame was wrinkling up her nose at various spices, yellow child's yukata dotted with bits of radish leaf, while her younger sister Suzume was gnawing on a purple carrot. "Your sisters told me it would be all right to borrow your garden for breakfast."

"They're not my sisters!" Kaoru drew in a lung-full of air to protest further, something along the lines of shouldn't be talking to strangers, don't know where he's been, not like picking up a kitten-

Space, that smells good!

Dr. Gensai's familiar presence approached, sandals soft on the path. "Did someone say breakfast?"


 

"Hmm... well done." Kneeling beside his patient, the elderly doctor re-wrapped Kaoru's bandages. "You've had some combat medic training?"

"This one has been on the road quite some time," Himura Kenshin smiled easily as he sat some feet away, drawing innocence around him like a cloak to hide from Dr. Gensai Ogumi's probing gaze. The man might not be ki-sensitive, unlike his young granddaughters, but time's wisdom had taught Gensai to look deeper into a soul than Kaoru might yet realize existed. "When many use vibro-blades at harvest, accidents happen."

The doctor rolled dark eyes. "You don't need to tell me about that, young man. Why, just last month during the garran fishing... they've had a good run this year, but you wouldn't know that from the way the crews go after each other on shore! One night, I had to patch up-"

"Right there!" Kaoru's fist hit the tatami with a muffled thud. "He was right there, and I almost had him!"

Kenshin hid a sigh. "Forgive this one, Kaoru-dono, but he almost had you."

She stiffened.

"A swordsman must be honest about his foe's skill and his own," Kenshin said frankly. "Surely you must know what would happen, should you face him again."

"He's right, Kaoru-chan," Gensai said soberly. "Why can't you leave this to the Guard? I know your school is suffering, but they will catch him."

"When?" Kaoru blazed. "A month from now? A year? Guards hunt down threats to the Empire first, you know that; as long as there are Rebels on Yamato, the rest of us just have to take our chances with murderers. And even if they were willing to go after him - he's Battousai. How can Imperial Guards fight the power of the Dark Side?"

How, indeed?

"It has to be me," Kaoru said, almost soundlessly. "I have to stop him."

Why you? Kenshin wondered. Assistant Master, your plaque in the dojo says. Though you do know of ki; I feel its flow around you. An odd flow, unlike any other he'd felt on this planet, drawn so heavily from the Light Side it felt pale. You have avoided the darkness in your own heart. Should you meet a true master of Darkness - I fear for you. You are not ready.

And you know it.

"Kaoru, I know your parents believed in... responsibilities," Gensai said, almost casually. "But you have one to your students as well. And those who may be your students, when they're old enough. Aggravating the authorities won't help anyone-" His glance fell on Kenshin. "Rurouni, do you mind? Call me a suspicious old grandfather, but Ayame and Suzume are being awfully quiet out there...."

Kenshin took the hint and headed outside, allowing himself to be pounced on by laughing little girls. Such bright little ki. So quick to throw open their hearts to a gentle smile, uncaring of scars or saber-callused hands.

I would I could lose myself, playing with you.

It wasn't hard, using ki to enhance your senses. Hearing, especially.

"Kaoru, you have to stop this," Gensai said soberly. "We can't all be out in the woods like Saigo-san-"

Saigo Takamori, Kenshin concluded, tickling girlish ribs. Leader of the last doomed rebellion on this planet. So. I seek out rumors of a killer... and land amongst rebels instead.

"-We need people in the port. People like you; like me. Places like this."

Any rebellion needs medical help. And a small dojo can host travelers, or "students" who train on an irregular basis, Kenshin thought. The perfect excuse for people to be where the Imperials believe they shouldn't.

"You can't draw Imperial attention," Gensai finished. "You of all people."

Kaoru's footfalls paced the floor, agitated. "I can't let a Sith keep killing!"

Sith? Kenshin faltered in his ribbon tug-of-war with Ayame, landing facedown on sweet-blooming catmint. Yamato knew those who touched dark ki as sorcerers, ninja, hitokiri. The only people who called the users of the Dark Side Sith were-

"You're not a Knight, Kaoru!"

"I know," she whispered softly.

Jedi, Kenshin realized, wide-eyed. She's Jedi.

Impossible! She's too young. Some padawans made it here, yes, that I well know - but she couldn't have even been born when Vader began his hunt. And one cannot fake that accent. She's of Yamato-

A Yamato with an off-worlder's blue eyes. Who carried a student's saber. Like his own.

Well, not quite like his own. His had been constructed here, by his own two hands, as so many of the ancient sword-styles still taught. Hers - someone had reworked the outer casing to seem Yamato, but the sheen of it whispered of an off-world alloy.

Some padawans made it here. Kenshin let Suzume pin his ankles, thinking hard. If one did, and passed on the teachings of Coruscant....

His hunt had suddenly taken on more urgency.

"Then if you can't wait for Sanosuke and Katsuhiro to get back into port, at least stay in tonight," Gensai pleaded. "Just for one night. So you can use a healing trance, and mend that arm."

"...You're right," Kaoru admitted at last. "I will."

Footfalls approached the engawa. "Well, I should be going," Dr. Gensai said pleasantly, walking out onto the shaded porch. "The clinic won't run itself, after all." He stepped down into his sandals, tying them on with slow deliberation. "Come along, children."

Small hands released Kenshin, hurrying after their grandfather. "Bye!"

"Bye, Rurouni-niisan!"

"Older brother?" Kenshin said under his breath.

"They're young." Kaoru smiled, then started. "Oh no! Maekawa-sensei!"

"Your teacher?" Kenshin said, deliberately clueless. Let her believe he hadn't looked over her dojo wall. "Hai, he must be late-"

"He's not late!" A small fist crashed onto his head with surprising force. "He's in his dojo!"

"Oro..." Eyes unfocused, Kenshin wobbled.

"I promised I'd help teach his students this afternoon, and I said I wouldn't go out tonight - that's the whole day! And I already told the Guard last night, and they wouldn't listen, which means I've got to go looking myself, and I couldn't last night because of that stupid Imperial decree on closing the gates after curfew, as if the smugglers in town hadn't carved out half a dozen other ways to leave the port-"

"Looking?" Kenshin rubbed the lump on his head.

"I've been asking some of my friends if they'd heard anything strange.... There's a dojo - well, more like an ex-dojo - on the outskirts of next town over. 'Kiheikan.' An ex-samurai took it over about two months ago. A giant of a man, almost as tall as a Wookie." Blue eyes narrowed. "There aren't that many men on Yamato that tall, and skilled with swords. But I have no proof, so the Guard will do nothing... are you going somewhere?"

"Forgive, but this one must," Kenshin bowed. "You look as if you wish to meditate, and this one would be an unwelcome distraction." A very pointed, laser-edged unwelcome; inexperienced she might be, but to linger near a student of Jedi ways while she was in trance and sensitive to the slightest ripple of ki about her... he was not in the habit of taking foolish risks.

Stop laughing at me, Shishou.

"And this one has an errand to run. Excuse me." He bowed once more, and made a swift exit.

Kiheikan dojo in the neighboring town, Kenshin thought, moving through the crowded streets at a steady, ground-eating pace. Yamato natives laughed and argued in the streets, meeting, buying, selling, or just strolling to watch their fellow sentients at work and play. Off-world traders stalked or slunk with more urgency; most human, a few aliens, almost all accompanied by protocol droids or shifty-looking translators as they met, made deals, and occasionally blasted each other. A comely Fireryo female walked into a teahouse in full silken-blue kimono, butterfly-bright obi tied behind her, silver-and-black hair trailing over her shoulders and steel-ribbed fan properly before her face. A squad of stormtroopers tromped by, white helmets searching those they passed for any sign of nervousness or guilt. Kenshin ignored them, vanishing into the throng with a twist of will.

No wonder there was nothing to find in Tokyo....


 

Leaving the former Alderaan system


 

Showered, reasonably hidden, and nestled into the warmth of some bedding filched out of the automatic dryers, a tired man lowered his empty drink-pack. Amazing, how much attention people don't pay to just who walks through an Imperial mess hall.

He hadn't taken any more chances than he had to; just a quick in and out to load up on the least perishable goods he could find during shift change, when the milling crowds themselves would cover one more busy soul in a filched informal uniform. He'd rather have rations, but given that rations were generally reserved for on-world use, they were kept in with other on-world supplies, such as blasters, and so, ironically, far more well-guarded than the mess hall.

This would do for now. In a few days... well, he'd see if he had a better plan by then. Right now, all he knew for certain was that he did not want to come in contact with armed guards. Not with the darkness still so close.

Though - and here dwelled further irony - that darkness was likely keeping him alive. If An- if Vader were still searching, he would be searching for light. Not another choking shroud of anger.

So much anger.

Help me, Master. I'm so lost....

"Trust your feelings, Padawan. Even now." A blue glow shimmered into a familiar hawk nose; a wry, gently amused smile. "Just don't let them rule you."

The living man shook his head, unwilling to meet the spirit's warm gaze. "Anger is unbefitting a-"

"Anyone would be angry after what you've seen, my padawan." The spirit seemed to lean against a bulkhead, brown-robed arms crossed. "Even Yoda."

"I should go to him," the tired man breathed. "He'll be so disappointed."

"Go to Dagobah as you are now, and you will be lost," the tall spirit said sternly. "The Darkness there hides Master Yoda, but it weighs on his spirit, and even more on his body. Strong as his race are, I fear even he will not outlast it many more years." His voice softened. "No, little one. Trust in the Living Force. You know where you need to go."

The younger man couldn't suppress a tired sigh. "I know. The children-"

"Or perhaps you don't." The spirit gave him a look askance. "Think, Padawan. Why should the Emperor need to resort to such deception to find the Rebel base? It should shine like a beacon in the Force...."

"Unless there is Darkness to hide it there, as well." The living man kneaded his brows. "I can't just leave them, Master."

"No. Not yet. But you won't be able to stay." The ghostly voice lowered. "You need healing, little one. In a safer place than the middle of a revolt." A quiet laugh. "Somewhat safer, anyway."

"A backwater Outer Rim world no one's ever heard of. I wouldn't exactly call that safer."

"So you did find it." A broad smile. "I hoped you would."

"The bounty hunter's report to Grand Moff Tarkin?" A reluctant nod. "But it was so old, Master. On the list to be deleted. It can't possibly be important now-"

A ghostly brow arched.

"Attachments are forbidden," the living man muttered.

A quiet chuckle. "The entire Order was an attachment, even if none of us admitted it." A translucent hand rested on his shoulder. "Go, little one. I won't say you'll like all of what you find - but you may find more than you dared hope for."

The Force shifted, and he was gone.

Alone again in the dim-lit storage closet, the fugitive regarded the small data-crystal he'd palmed before this whole mess started, full of information most in the Death Star would consider trivial, or irrelevant. Such as the location of the tractor beam controls... and a decade-old report dragged up by an impulse, when he'd typed in the name of one left behind when he was barely a toddler. "Owen."

Grand Moff Tarkin: CoreSec records of the individual you seek lead to a little-known system mostly frequented by smugglers, near the Ison Trade Corridor....


 

Near Tokyo


 

Stars spangled Yamato's night sky like scattered flamegems, shining down on a dojo that had definitely seen better days.

"Hello."

Wind rustled the trees, blowing away the few mist-midges that would venture out on this clear a night.

"Hello."

And a small, travel-worn swordsman stood just outside the bamboo gate, hands folded inside the sleeves of his red gi as he waited for a response.

"Hello. Hello. Hello-"

"Spirits of space - shut up!" The gate slid open, shoved aside by an agitated, dark-haired ronin in a patterned gray kimono, toothpick clenched between his left teeth. "Who the hell are you?"

Kenshin kept his gaze innocent, guileless. "Is the sensei-?"

"Master Hiruma is out!" The ronin sneered down at him. "Come back later!"

"Ah, so his name is Master Hiruma," Kenshin nodded.

Brown eyes creased, confused. "You didn't know-?"

A faint, wry smile touched Kenshin's face. So her suspicions were right after all. Kaoru-dono is either lucky, or better trained than I thought. "This one thought his name was... 'Murderer Battousai'."

The man bit through his toothpick.

"What's up, Nishiwaki?" Footsteps, from the shadows and the dojo inside. "Who's the runt?"

At least two dozen, Kenshin saw and sensed. All ronin. All angry. Armed with staves, knives, the odd stick of heavy wood....

And swords. A host of swords. Most vibro-blades, but one or two hissed with silver and green energy. Lightsabers.

"Not even a runt," Nishiwaki grinned. "Get rid of it."

Hidden by darkness, violet eyes gleamed blue as steel.


 

I took too long!

Dragging his prisoner, Kenshin raced through the night, avoiding Guard patrols with casual ease. A wall loomed before him, easily twenty feet of plascrete; he drew on ki to clear it and land in Tokyo proper, never breaking stride.

The man in his grip whimpered.

"Quiet," Kenshin ordered, controlling his contempt for one who'd planned to profit by death. His mind was already racing ahead to a glow of the Light Side, now ringed by darkness and hate. He could feel fear, so much fear; even as a terrified mind tried to find the calm and peace that would let it grasp bright power.

She will not touch the darkness. Even to save her own life. Jedi to the last.

Kenshin moved through the space where bamboo should have been, barely registering that Kaoru's visitors had left the gate open.

Don't let me be too late. Please-

"Mastery and death!" Hiruma Gohei's rough voice sneered inside the dojo. Darkness swirled through the man's ki; fed by blood and hungry for more. "That is what a sword is for!"

She's alive.

Gohei laughed, thick and triumphant. "Who wants to be the first to taste this chickadee's flesh?"

Coldly, Kenshin set Nishiwaki down. Inclined his head toward the screen.

Shuddering, the ronin opened it.

Darkness hesitated inside, surprised. "Nishiwaki?"

"I'm... sorry, boss..." White-faced, Nishiwaki collapsed.

Expressionless, Kenshin stood in the doorway, taking in the startled mob facing him. No bruises. No broken bones. She didn't get one blow in against them. Even a fully-trained Jedi would have had difficulty facing down three dozen ronin, but he would have expected some injuries.

One soot mark on Gohei's left glove. Lightsaber... there, in the corner. Casing's damaged. Ki swirled unbidden around him, the Light Side trying to help its student by blazing the scene into his mind.

Swaggering at the front of his men, Gohei breaches the peace of the dojo. Cracked cup of tea discarded at her side, Kaoru rises from her meditation, arm half-healed; trying, as Jedi ever try, to negotiate.

Gohei slashes down, laughing.

Kaoru blocks, strikes - only to have her blade caught by a gloved hand; ametrine leather, like Gohei's cuirass, chestnut gleaming with hints of green and violet. The tanned skin of a wily Yamato forest-dweller, usually only seen in samurai gear, and rarely if ever exported off-planet.

Ametrine resists even a true lightsaber's blow. Kaoru's blade barely sears it.

Gohei yanks the saber from her weaker grip, deactivating it with one slash of his vibro-blade, and tosses it away like a used tissue. The murderer switches his blade to his left hand, using his right to snatch Kaoru into the air. Holds her, speaking of blood and darkness, eyes lingering on her bound chest with a fire of tainted lust....

Blue eyes met his, fear pierced with surprise. "Rurouni...!"

"Forgive my lateness." Kenshin stepped onto the polished floor, sandals barely stirring the dust brought in by so many unwashed feet. "He told me everything."

Everything, babbling in the night as they ran. From Hiruma's first glimpse of a young dojo-master speaking with known rebels, to hatching the plan to murder innocents and Imperials alike, driving off Kaoru's students and turning both Empire and neighbors against her. A plan they'd meant to finish tonight, slaying her and claiming her dojo as reward for killing a rebel spy.

Poised here, on the edge of Tokyo, this dojo is perfectly placed. For a rebel... or a trader in degradation, dealing in flesh, and drugs, and misery. They would make this land a pit of darkness.

And whether they know it or not, killing her would choke the light here as sure as if they were Sith.

"You again," Gohei growled. "You here to talk about the 'swords that give life', too?"

"...No," Kenshin said softly.

Kaoru flinched.

"A lightsaber is a weapon," the rurouni said evenly, eyes lowered, stepping forward with a slow, measured pace. "Call it ki, or the Force; call the user hitokiri, samurai, Sith, Jedi... the art of swordsmanship is learning how to kill."

Confusion roiled through bloodlust. At the edges of the crowd, where Gohei couldn't see, Kenshin sensed men drawing back.

"She has never bloodied her hands," the rurouni went on. "To dare to wield a sword - to protect, and never kill - that is sweet and innocent talk even the most gentle Jedi would not have believed."

Gohei's sneer bared ivory teeth. "Rurouni...." Kaoru whispered.

"But in the face of such selfish darkness," Kenshin looked up, and smiled, "I much prefer the hope for light of Kaoru-dono's sweet and innocent talk, that I do."

Blue eyes widened.

"If this one had but one wish..." Careful now. Keep moving slowly. Keep them off balance. "It would only be that the best of her ways became the truth of the universe once more."

Yes; now the whispers were beginning.

"...What the hell's he talking about?..."

"...Jedi?..."

"...No way; those child-stealers never came here!..."

"...Vader killed 'em all, anyway... one good thing the Empire did...."

"He's boring me, boys!" Gohei turned back to his captive, leering. "Kill him."

Tears glimmered in Kaoru's eyes. "Rurouni, please - run!"

Kenshin's hand lowered near his saber. "This one would prefer not to hurt any more people this night. Anyone who does not wish to visit the hospital, please leave. Now."

"Nobody's gonna get hurt!" A ronin snickered as the mob swarmed closer. "Somebody's gonna get dead!"

As you wish.

Calm within him, Kenshin charged.


 

So fast!

As if from a distance, Kaoru felt her captor's grip on her collar slacken with surprise. Vibro-blades had whined, plunged forward-

And the lightsaber snapped into the rurouni's hand, singing to life. Not violet. Blazing, steely blue.

Four leaped at him. Four fell back as if blasted by a whirlwind, vibro-blades a ringing fall of alloy pieces.

That's not a student's blade!

Red blurred through the mob of ronin, scarlet hair flying, violet eyes set and angry. Blades and bodies flew.

"Sorcery!" Gohei gasped.

Not sorcery; speed! Kaoru realized. She called on what little Force Sight she'd managed to train, and blinked back tears at the blaze of power. Speed of sword and body; speed at reading the flow of the Force, of seeing what-would-be before it is, so he's always one step ahead of them....

The speed of a Jedi!

The ronin were down, weapons shattered and useless. The redhead stood with his back to the two left standing, lightsaber humming in his left hand, breath slowing. "Oh. One thing...."

I can get loose, Kaoru realized, gingerly easing her gi out of gloved fingers. If Gohei stays distracted just a minute more-

The rurouni turned toward them, violet eyes narrowed, glinting with hints of blue steel. "Hitokiri Battousai doesn't use Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, or whatever you've pieced together from true sword-masters. He uses an ancient style, born when a Jedi of the Old Republic was first lost on our planet in the Sengoku era... Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu." The lightsaber glowed, a finger's breadth from the redhead's shoulder as he watched them. "Did ki not restrain the blade's power, the body count would increase tenfold."

Shock hit Kaoru like a stunbolt. No.

The man who'd saved her life. The gentle soul who'd cooked her breakfast, played with Ayame and Suzume, bound her wounds...

...Who'd believed in her....

A tear fell from her eyes. "You... are the Hitokiri Battousai?"

"Ha!" Gohei threw her aside; Kaoru winced, feeling the impact reopen her slashed arm. "I thought you were just some rag-tag wanderer last night. Not even worth fighting. Too bad!"

"Indeed," the redhead said evenly. "Unlike you, this one doesn't care for violence. If only I had faced you earlier."

"You're confident - or just vain." Gohei's lips curled as he glanced toward the groaning bodies on the floor. "No one's dead! Whatever you're using, it can't be a lightsaber."

But it is, Kaoru knew, fingers almost touching a shard of slashed vibro-blade. Mother said once - there was a crèche story about an old Jedi technique. A legend, lost centuries ago... a way to use the Force to cushion the strike, so a master could slash through armor, but do no more damage to a living soul than a student's blade.

"I am the only Battousai!" Vibro-blade humming, Gohei struck down.

Battousai was gone.

"Over here."

Listening to her feelings, Kaoru looked up a fraction of a second before Gohei; gaze catching the moment that the swordsman reached the top of a twenty-foot leap, and came hurtling back down.

And for one heart-stopping instant, both eyes and blade gleamed amber.

Striking his armored shoulder like a thunderbolt, the lightsaber drove Gohei head-first through her dojo floor.

"I have no love of the name Battousai," the rurouni said into the sudden silence, switching off his blade. "But I can't allow the likes of you to wear it."

I could run, Kaoru thought, struggling to her feet. I could call Sano's contacts, tell them I caught the assassin the Rebellion's sought for years; he's got to be exhausted after that, enough of us could take him. I could-

"Forgive this one, Kaoru-dono." Violet met her gaze with a gentle, sad smile. "I did not mean to lie, but... it is usually better if some things are not known."

Not known? But - he was honored by the Empire! Some of them still call him a hero-

"Farewell." With another old-fashioned, formal bow, he turned to go. Ten feet from the door.

"W-wait...." Kaoru managed.

Five feet.

"Y-you-"

Three.

"You jerk!"

He froze.

Kaoru held a hand against her reddening bandage, trying to tell herself it was only the pain bringing tears to her eyes. "Do you think you can tear up my dojo, leave me with a lightsaber I might not be able to fix, and just walk away?"

"Um..." Was it her imagination, or was the man actually starting to sweat?

"You told me I couldn't face him," Kaoru said sharply. "You were right. And he wasn't - wasn't even a Sith...." Oh space, but that hurt. She'd tried, oh she'd tried. But I don't know enough. I just don't. "You say you believe in what the Kasshin style's trying to do. Help me."

"This one's help would not be good for you," the rurouni said, hand on the sliding door. "Not you, nor any Jedi. This one is... not of the Light, but of Shadow. Now and always. You know who I am-"

"I don't care who you used to be!"

Violet went wide. "Oro?"

She brandished sliced blade-alloy almost under his nose. "This! The gentle blow. The technique you can use only if you don't want to kill!"

Speechless, he watched her cast it aside.

"I don't know how you fell into the Darkness, and I don't care," Kaoru said fiercely. "You got out. I'm not asking Battousai to stay! I'm asking you, the rurouni, to...."

The wanderer. No.

She whirled away, heart aching. "Forget it! If you want to go-"

A soft step of sandal.

"But... you could at least tell me your name," Kaoru said, trying to sound strong past the sudden lump in her throat. "Your real name, not the Sith assassin's-"

The door rattled closed.

Gone.

"Kenshin."

Wha-? Kaoru whirled.

"Himura Kenshin." The rurouni leaned slightly against the junction of wall and door, a shy smile on his face. "That is my name... today."

He's....

"This one has been wandering a long time. It could be that the currents of time will set this one adrift again, soon... but perhaps you would not mind my intrusion. For a little while."

Kaoru swallowed back tears. He's staying. Another Force-user. Someone who understands me. Even if it's just for a little while-

A groan from the floor caught her attention. "Um...."

Mischief glimmered in his gaze as Kenshin retrieved her lightsaber, offering his own in its stead. "If Kaoru-dono allowed this one to sit quietly elsewhere - perhaps in a storeroom? - it would be quite easy to com the Guard, this one would think."

Kaoru took the Yamato-crafted lightsaber with reluctance. "I've never handled a full-power blade." She thumbed the switch to ignite - and blinked at a blade once again violet and innocent.

"There is a certain twist of will and ki that shifts the blade's strength," Kenshin said matter-of-factly. "You will not trigger it by accident, that you will not."

"Stellar!" Kaoru breathed. And blushed. "Um-"

"It is technology. Not Light, or Dark, or Shadow. One would have no qualms teaching that." Bowing, he headed for her storehouse.

"Wait a minute!"

Halfway out the door, he stopped. "Oro?"

"If you were fighting when the Empire took power - just how old are you?" He can't be forty! He barely looks older than I am! Though her mother had said that masters strong in the Force could live a long, long time....

"How old, indeed." Thoughtfully, Kenshin started counting on his fingers.

"You don't even know your own age?!"

For the first time since she'd met him, Kenshin grinned.


 

Nearing Yavin


 

The fugitive rubbed absently at the data-crystal in his pocket, mulling over the report's scant facts yet again as he made his roundabout way through busy corridors to the shuttle pilots' locker room. Outer Rim world, the bounty hunter had written of the place his quarry had gone to ground. Few imports, some small-scale luxury exports, mostly to Zeltros; kinu cloth, erotic woodblock prints, various medicinal herbs and intoxicants, others. Contacted by the Republic less than a century ago, yet archaeological evidence indicates it may have been settled over three thousand years ago, in the wake of the War of the Star Forge.

Or as certain dwellers on Coruscant would have put it, in the wake of the Second Sith War. One of the first Jedi Purges in recorded history, if his memory of the Archives was right; a slaughter of Force-sensitives that had shaken him to read, even as he'd so blithely assured himself nothing like it could ever happen again....

And then had come Palpatine.

Don't think about it.

Better to think of the pair who had been the main archaeologists gathering that evidence; a Corellian woman named Sain, identified in CorSec's reports as ship-married to one Mori, who'd put his ancestry on record as mongrel, born in space somewhere on the Trade Spine, who cares?

Sain and Mori-

No. Don't think of that name.

Reading between the lines, they'd spent decades on that little backwater world, excavating on one of its great grasslands. Long enough to have two sons; the older named Owen, the younger....

He shook his head, catching sight of his own wry smile in a corridor panel whose mirror-bright gloss grumbled that cleaning it - with a dental brush, no less - had been a punishment detail. A smile no longer hidden by a beard, given the clean-shaven militants he was hiding among... nor by the Force-cast illusion of age.

That illusion had been necessary for another Owen, to allow its wearer as close to the boy he guarded as he'd been allowed to come. Fringers knew how harsh life was on their untamed worlds. It would never do to spend near two decades among them and seem untouched by time.

Yet he had been. Force alone knew why.

The Living Force, most likely; taking a cruel revenge for all those times he'd ignored his Master's pleas to heed it, in favor of the Unifying Force, and the Council's will. A Council that had wished to wait, negotiate, and follow its visions; visions that had been fatally clouded by the darkness, when acting might have saved them-

Might have, he reminded himself. Palpatine fooled us all. And the Force does not take revenge. You are needed, so you live.

Still. It was a particular flavor of hell, to wake each day and know his people - his family - were gone; and unlike Yoda, he did not even have the hope of time bearing him after them.

Yet if this report were accurate, some of his original family might yet live.

If, he reminded himself sternly. We were - Owen was orphaned well over half a century ago, on the planet. And that's all the report found. The bounty hunter might well have meant to dig deeper, but an Imperial Security addendum stated his corpse had been delivered back to the Tokyo spaceport in thirty-seven news-flimsy bundles, and if the Grand Moff cared to know something Security could not find for him, would he be so thoughtful as to hire someone who had better sense than to bandy about the word Jedi? Yamatoans apparently tended to carry vibro-blades, stalk in angry mobs, and froth at the mouth at the very mention of the so-called child-stealers like a pack of rabid vornskr.

And this is supposed to be a quieter place, Master?

Well. Given it looked as though they might be heading to Yavin IV, where the Massassi Temple still held Dark traces of the ancient Sith Lord Exar Kun - yes, a few raving mobs would be easier to handle.

Later, he told himself firmly. Right now - I'm calm enough to think, so I'd better get to it. Fast.

The children had escaped, after all - which had been the entire point of distracting Vader. For him. But not for them. So far as that young firebrand Leia was concerned, his sacrifice had been utterly and only for the Rebellion, so that the Death Star plans could finally make it into Alliance hands.

So like her mother.

And if the plans had made it - which, given the Falcon hadn't shaken itself to pieces in hyperspace, they should have by now - one of two outcomes could happen. Either there was no weakness to be found, and the Rebellion would be evacuating Yavin IV with every rattletrap excuse for a ship they could find-

Or there was. Which meant the denizens of this station were about to get a sudden, and likely fatal, surprise.

Either way, he had to get off this metal rock.

Because I am calming down, he thought wryly. Oh, the anger was still there, just as it had been decades before, after he'd seen his own master cut down by a Sith saber. But it was manageable now. Mostly. And the calmer I am, the more Light drifts in about me in this Dark-haunted station... and the more likely it is Vader will land on me with a whole battalion of troopers.

He only hoped he was calm enough to carry out his plan. He was sick of death... and the Dark Side was still far too close for comfort.

Release the fear, he told himself gently as he stepped through the door into the locker room, reaching out with his feelings once more to be certain he'd timed it right, and there was only one straggler left behind. After all, if all goes well, you'll be saving his life.

Not that he's going to thank you for it....


 

"On your way to your station?"

Lieutenant Per Latten nearly banged his head on the bottom of his locker shelf at the sudden, strange voice. Granted, there were too many people on board for anyone to know them all, but so far as he was aware, Coruscant natives weren't usually trusted enough in the Imperial Forces to gain high rank, much less be posted to a secret project like this one! And that was definitely a Coruscanti accent, even if it did seem sand-papered at the edges by time on the rougher worlds of Huttspace.

Relax, Per, the pilot told himself, hunting around for the last bits of his gear. Yeah, we had those crazy Rebels running around here a few shifts back, but they're long gone. Nobody would make it into this section who wasn't authorized. "Aren't we all?" he grumbled. "Don't see what the point is; if we handle this place the way we did Alderaan, they're not going to need shuttles going down...." He shivered.

"You didn't like what happened."

"Space, no!" He'd heard some of the bridge crew boasting in the mess a while back. It gave him chills. "I mean, I know they were building these secret weapons bases in the capital - but Stars' End, isn't that what infantry's for?" He took his hand out of his locker just long enough to wave a warning finger. "You didn't hear that from me." Come on, come on, clip-light- Ah! There!

"Certainly not." The stranger sounded oddly amused. "Weapons bases on Alderaan. The planet of peace." A quiet sigh. "Make the lie big enough, and anyone will believe it."

"Lie?" Last bits of gear in hand and pockets, Per backed out of his locker and swung it closed with a handy elbow. "Listen, I don't know where you were posted last, buddy, but word of warning? Moff Tarkin doesn't let sedition like that slide. So unless you want to get shipped off to Kessel-"

"You don't need to worry about it." The stranger smiled wryly at him, hand making a small, odd gesture. "Believe me, Kessel would be the last place they'd send me."

"I don't need to worry about it," Per said blankly. Which... part of him registered was odd. After all, the stranger's auburn hair was cut short, but not regulation-length, quite. The ship maintenance uniform fit, but loosely; since when were Imperial soldiers underweight? And the eyes... those oddly compelling, sea-blue eyes....

Too old for the face. Old in the way the most experienced instructors back at the Academy had been old; haunted by death and horror their innocent cadets could never imagine.

"You're a little worried about something inside your craft," the stranger went on, eyes holding his, "and since there will be time before launch, you asked me to look it over."

"I asked you to look it over...."

"We're old friends who haven't seen each other in a while."

"Old friends...?"

"You have a stronger will than you know," the stranger mused, crossing the distance between them. "I'm Ben. And you are?"

"Per Latten," the pilot said dazedly. Absently, he knew he really should be reaching for a blaster. Or at least his survival knife. "Wait - what are you-?"

"This shouldn't hurt," Ben said softly, pressing light fingers against his temples. "I hope."

The world faded.

Easy, young man. I don't mean you harm, you can feel that. Which means you truly don't need those alarms going off in your head, hmm? So let me mute them, only for a little while... Well, well. Luck seems to run with you sometimes, does it? Just as well I'm taking you out of this. Vader's temper cannot be good of late, and sooner or later he would sense that little flicker within you....

Per blinked, oddly convinced he'd missed something important. "Ben, what-?"

"I said, we have to get moving before your commander notices we're later than usual," the ragged maintenance tech repeated patiently. "What have I told you about jet juice the night before a mission?"

"Hey! Not my fault they decided to call an emergency...."

Bickering amicably, Per followed his old friend through the bustle to the shuttle hangar. Of all the luck; to run into Ben, here? And what timing! He'd really wanted to get that odd little flutter in the starboard sensor controls looked at before the next on-world mission.

Still. He couldn't help the nagging feeling that he was missing something....


 

Tokyo


 

"Another day, another bribed customs official," Sagara Sanosuke grinned, knocking at Kaoru's gate. Just in case. Never knew when a stray bokken might come sailing nose-ward out of a dojo, especially when it was this dojo. The smuggler re-balanced his pack of various off-world goodies on his shoulder; Kaoru might not approve of flouting Imperial law just because, but she didn't object to him spreading a little goodwill in the neighborhood. Especially when goodwill came in the form of medicines, thermal capes, and scrounged bits of inner-world tech. "Sure you're not gonna come in for lunch?"

Tsukioka Katsuhiro gave him a wry, dour look; about as close to smiling as Katsu ever got. Already his fellow smuggler had the slightly distant look which meant Katsu was working out how to transform the bits of rumor, fact, Rebel and Imperial propaganda they'd picked up on their run into the next issue of the Meiji Inter-world Dispatch. "Do I look suicidal?"

"You just say that 'cause the last soup turned you green."

Katsu didn't bother denying it. "See you back at the Sekihoutai." He paused. "I hope."

"Coward," Sano grumbled, opening the gate to saunter inside. "So it's burned. And off-spiced. And too bland on top of that. It's still food."

Weird. The air sure didn't smell like burnt rice. More like the green growing things from Kaoru's garden, and a clean scent of- laundry soap?

Slush. Smush. Splash.

Huh. Gensai run short on bandages, or something? Sano wondered. Kaoru's not usually washing stuff at this hour of day. "Hey, K-"

Washtub. Gi and yukata in the wash. Small, slight figure bent over and scrubbing.

Only the long hair tied back in a kendo ponytail was red, not blue-black.

Suspicion thrummed through Sano's veins. That's it, they must have caught her, I told her not to get mixed up with Saigo's people! "Who the hell are you?"

"One is a rurouni." The young man didn't look up, voice light and cheerful. "Are you looking for Kaoru-dono?"

Gwahuh? Sano thought intelligently. Red hair means off-worlder, but - samurai outfit, even if it saw better days years ago - and if that accent's not straight out of some hole in the backwoods that's never even seen a speeder, I'll eat a motivator. What the hell-?

Wait. Is that hair two shades of red?

Subtle, but there; swathes of lighter red strands, broken up by thinner strokes of darker crimson, giving the whole a fiery life he'd never seen on an off-world head. And that ever-so-faint hint of gold to pale skin....

I'll be damned. Fireryo blood, but not Fireryo. Meaning somebody way back married out into humans, and never had a chance to marry back in... real backwoods samurai. Where the hell did Kaoru dig you up?

"Sano!" The troublemaker herself hurried out of the dojo, sweaty and happy and-

"You got hurt!" Sano stopped just on the first step up, oddly conscious of the rurouni's raised brow. Right. Dojo etiquette. No shoes on the engawa.

"This?" Kaoru waved a hand near the bandage bulking up her sleeve. "It's all right, really. It was days ago, I should really be taking it off today... We got him!"

Him? Him who? Sano wondered. Then smacked himself. Who, indeed. Who else would Kaoru risk taking a knife to catch? "We?"

"Oh, right... Sagara Sanosuke, this is Himura Kenshin." Kaoru smiled at the redhead. "He's staying here for a while."

"He's what?" Pure, big-brother type protective instinct had Sano whirling on the little guy, suds and all, hand closing on the grip of his blaster-

And missing.

The familiar weapon was no longer in his thigh holster, but instead floating in mid-air between them, muzzle pointing safely at the ground.

Kuso! Samurai, all right, Sano realized. Old school, no less. Didn't know any of 'em still risked coming into Tokyo - those damn stormtroopers tend to shoot first and ask questions of the smoldering wreck later when somebody shows off ki. Well, I've seen that trick before-

His blaster shivered a little, and- clicked apart.

Standing, Kenshin caught the pieces in cupped hands, careful not to get soap on the blaster's inner workings. "Dangerous, these are."

Sano blinked. Twice. Hell. I haven't seen that one before.

The redhead set the disassembled blaster on the engawa, regarding Sano with a calm gaze. "Has this one done something to offend, Sagara-san?" A hint of pure mischief glimmered in violet. "Or was Customs unusually efficient today?"

"How did-" Sano cut the words off, glaring down at the smaller man. Blaster, tough boots for stalking the soil of a hundred other planets, black jacket with a defiant white aku on the back - even Sano would admit it was pretty obvious he was a spacer. And granted, the line between independent trader and smuggler got redrawn every time local Impies took it into their head to tax something else. But for this little ki-strong twerp of a samurai to assume a sweet young miss like Jou-chan was automatically mixed up with a smuggler - well, it grated. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Definite mischief in violet, as the redhead gestured at the tied-back sleeves of his red gi. "One would think that would be obvious, that one would."

"Samurai don't do laundry," Sano said flatly.

"Sano!" Kaoru hissed.

"It's all right, Kaoru-dono; that it is. Those who hold to honorable names among our people are rarely found in the humbler tasks, so many of them being drawn into the vast dance of politics that now rules our world. But this one is only a rurouni, whose skill for dealing with the great and powerful is frail and clumsy as a noodle-maker granted a sushi knife. So one must get by the best one can, that one does." Bowing slightly, he turned back toward the tub.

"He's got to be kidding," Sano said in a flat undertone, stepping near enough to Kaoru that casual ears wouldn't catch it. "Nobody that good is just wandering around doing odd jobs." He bent a scowl on the young dojo-master, dropping his voice even lower. "Damn it, if Saigo's foisted him off on you to spy around here-"

"He's... not with Saigo." The blue gaze shifted guiltily away from his.

Kaoru can't lie worth a damn, Sano thought wryly. Which means he really isn't with that Rebel lunatic. But something's up with this guy. "Jou-chan. What's going on?" Replaying a bit of their conversation in his head, he frowned. "And what do you mean, we caught him? Why'd a guy like this risk helping you out with an assassin like Battousai?"

"He wasn't Battousai."

"Yeah, right; like that kid would know?" Sano said skeptically. "Which reminds me; Katsu and I did some poking, and you'd better have a talk to some of your contacts. Most of the guys who ever saw the assassin didn't survive to make a report, but rumor has it he worked straight for Katsura Kogorou - not just killing people, but as a bodyguard. And Katsura had plenty of meets with Okubo and Saigo before the Impies took over and he croaked. Okubo's a damn lost cause, but Saigo ought to be able to get you a better description than Wookie-tall, blood-red hair, and a cross-shaped scar-"

Oh. Hell.

Sano didn't think; just moved.

His punch hit air; suds sloshed, absent their stirrer. Sano didn't take the time to swear, just turned and swung again, where a blur of red had been-

"One has no wish to fight you."

Almost in the tub, Sano took a second to regroup, studying the rurouni with fresh eyes. Small, yes; but under the damp gi, wiry as Kaoru herself. Red hair. Cross-shaped scar on his left cheek, white slashes just touched with Fireryo silver, like snow in moonlight. A well-used lightsaber clipped to his obi, built in a style even Sano could see was far older than any other blade in Tokyo.

And for all his young looks, violet eyes were deep and ancient as twilight.

Sano swallowed dryly, determined not to let the shiver down his spine be visible. "Hitokiri Battousai."

"That name died on the field of Toba Fushimi," the redhead said levelly. "This one is only a rurouni, adrift in the winds of time."

"Name, maybe," Sano shrugged. "But I hear Takamori's got a reward on your head. With or without the rest of you attached-"

Mind carefully blank of intent, Sano moved.


 

Over Yavin IV


 

"Son of a Hutt-" Per Latten banged three dials in succession, gripping the shuttle controls tight as the magnetic field tried to throw them right back through the Death Star's hull. With or without a docking bay there to catch them. "What the hell are we doing out here?" Vaguely he recalled blasters, yelled orders, taking off just before a flight of TIE fighters-

I took off. Without orders?

But Ben had made it sound like a really good idea... even as he'd blanched in the copilot's chair, and muttered something about flying being for droids.

Oh, space. The commander's gonna kill me!

Assuming the Rebels didn't do it first. How many X-wings were there up here, anyway?

Something blew off their upper port side, and Per flinched. One less, looked like.

Well. He was in the dogfight, like it or not. Technically he ought to join his fellow pilots and kick Rebel jets all over what was about to be left of this system.

"Weapons bases on Alderaan. The planet of peace. Make the lie big enough, and anyone will believe it."

But... his commanding officers had said....

A tower blew on the Death Star's surface, and Per automatically rolled them out of the trajectory of flung debris, hands setting a course for Anywhere But Here. Hell with it - this is a shuttle, not a fighter! I'm getting out of here!

Now if he could only figure out how he'd gotten out here in the first place-

"Use the Force, Luke...."

Say what?

"Let go, Luke...."

That voice. That same Coruscanti accent that had caught him in the locker room; that had held part of him, in a way he couldn't describe; a hold that was only now loosening from his mind as the voice reached out to... somewhere else.

"Luke... trust your feelings."

Per stared at the worn, thin stranger in the copilot's seat, suddenly aware he'd never seen this man before today. "What in blazes are you?"

Blue-green eyes blinked; cleared, giving him a wry glance. "I suggest we vacate this part of space, Pilot Latten. Things are about to get very interesting."

"No way," Per said flatly, turning the controls for home base. "I don't know who you are, or how you did that, but anybody who turns as green as you did just blasting off is not flying this ship without me-"

Which was about when a whole asteroid belt seemed to fall on his head.


 

The Kamiya dojo


 

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

Leaning back against the engawa step, Sano blinked, taking in the light fragrance of jasmine and soap that hung around Kaoru's worried blue eyes. "Tuwoo... tree...?"

Kaoru groaned. "Wait right here, I'm going to get Dr. Gensai-"

"Nuh-uh." Sano blinked again, trying to sort out just why Jou-chan sounded worried and exasperated all at once. That was his line....

At least, that had been his line, before some jerk with a grudge had pounded him good with a planet-sized meat tenderizer. Now, how had somebody snuck that up on him?

Red blew in the wind in the corner of his eye; a slight, violet-eyed figure bowing humbly. "One will find him for you, Kaoru-dono."

Red hair, Sano registered. Red gi. Red that could be an unseen blur when it felt like it. "You... stay right there."

"Oro?"

Translation: I'm an innocent, gullible backwoods type who doesn't even know which end of a lightsaber has the switch on it, Sano thought wryly. Yeah, right.

More of the fight was filtering back now. Such as it was. Some samurai could read thoughts, so he hadn't thought. Just let trained muscles do what they had to, kicking and punching and doing his level best to grind the little bastard into a red pile of mush.

And not one punch had landed. None had even come close.

Himura had just been a feather-leaf in the wind, a paper's-width away from every blow. Empty-handed, he'd let Sano chase him around the courtyard half a minute, then vanished - to swoop down out of the sun with an activated violet blade that hit like the durasteel bar from Hell.

Sano had shaken that off, barely; stalked after the redhead with murder in his eyes-

Only to have his breath blasted from his lungs by the little swordsman's rapid-strike, pounding ribs, organs, and what felt like every square inch of his torso like a mustang dragonmount with a frenzy-weed hangover.

Ow.

He'd still stood after that, shaking, glaring, ready to give it one last shot....

Which was when Himura had switched off the lightsaber. Clipped it back to his obi. Given his opponent a look, the way Captain Sagara had when a much younger Sano had pulled a little kid's stubbornness over good sense-

Sano winced now, and rubbed his aching jaw. Ki or not - who'd have thought a little guy like that could punch so hard?

Kaoru growled something under her breath, obviously restraining an impulse to add her own lump to his collection. "Scorch it, Sano; you're hurt! You need a-"

"Why?" Sano bit out. Why are you here? Why's Kaoru defending you?

Why didn't you kill me?

"Do you remember life under the Shogunate, Sano-san?" Deep in violet eyes, steel-blue flickered. "Under the Republic, who allowed the Shogunate to rule this world, as it had for centuries? For such, they said, was the will of the people... or at least, of the people they believed mattered."

Sano bristled. "I heard about it-"

"But you do not know."

"Space, no! I wasn't even born when-"

"When the Supreme Councilor became Emperor, and those on this planet such as Okubo, Katsura, and Saigo, who had invoked his name for almost a decade before and during the Clone Wars as they fought to bring freedom to those not samurai, finally destroyed the Shogunate." A wry wisp of a smile. "To install an Empire in its stead."

"Whoa... wait a...." Sano swung his head toward Kaoru, looking for the denial in her eyes.

There wasn't any.

It can't be true. "But... the Republic believed in freedom!"

"Many in the Republic believed in it," Kenshin agreed, dipping his head. "Yet if they had truly believed their own ideals, why did they not let the Separatists go, and only fight to defend those planets who did not wish to be forced to join them?"

"How should I know?" Sano growled. "I'm not a fracking intergalactic historian-"

"Ignore the galaxy." Steel slipped into that gentle voice. "Learn of Yamato. Where the Republic allowed the Shogunate to rule, because that was the government who held power when their traders found us. A government where justice was bought by birth and power; where those of your blood would never have the right to bear a family name. A government that allowed murder, corruption, slavery...."

"Oh, like that's any different from the Empire?" Sano blazed.

A slight, red nod. "Indeed."

And that hit harder than any punch.

He's saying... but I know Rebels, they're like Kaoru. A little idealistic, maybe, but they just want something better than what we've got now. And the Imperialists - they can't have been like that....

Except Saigo had been an Imperialist. And now he was a Rebel. And before his untimely death, Katsura had been helping him.

But they just can't have been! Because if they were, that would mean Battousai is like Kaoru, and that would mean-

Samurai, ninja, hitokiri, sorcerers - ki-users were ki-users. Legend said some were gentle and kind so long as they lived, yet evil and pain might push anyone over the edge. And most ironic of all, legend said, it was usually the gentlest hearts who fell into the deepest darkness.

Kaoru...

"One does not say," Himura went on softly, "that what we... what I did, was right. It was not. Yet we tried. We tried to create freedom from slavery. Equality where there had only been power. Justice where we saw only lies. That revolution has not ended."

Say what?

"It is true that twenty years ago the fighting stopped, and a new order was installed. Yet those of us who desire a better world still find ourselves trapped in a galaxy where the weak are exploited." Himura's hands spread, open and empty. "And whether it will be a year, or ten, or an eternity before a true Revolution is complete, none can say. For now, this one can only wander, using this blade to protect those who are in need. A small thing, that it is; done by one unworthy of the peace you have found in your own heart, aiding the Rebellion. Yet it is the only way this one can atone for those lives taken by the Revolution. Lives taken by... Hitokiri Battousai."

Peace? Star's End, I'm not peaceful - I'm ticked as hell! Kaoru's the one who's peaceful, and she drives me right up the wall worrying... and an assassin, atone? Yeah, right. And I've got a nice piece of marsh to sell- Sano sneaked a glance at Kaoru. Who gave him a raised, impatient brow in return.

Sithspit. He's telling the truth?

Great. Now what should he do? It'd be one thing to let a guy with a story like that just walk on by on the road, or in a busy port - but this guy was staying with Kaoru! Talk about your living examples of what not to do with ki-

And maybe that's just what she needs, Sano realized. She's the swords expert, you're not. She's got Maekawa to show her some of what she should do; maybe she needs to see some of what you don't do, and why. Don't the formal sword-styles do something like that for people who want to make master? Trials, or something.

Okay, Kaoru. I still think you need your head examined more than I do - but you want him, you got him. Sano fixed a glare on the redhead. "Words are cheap."

A red brow went up.

"If Kaoru's not turning you in, I'm not going to," Sano said flatly. "But if you say you're not him any more - you stick around and prove it."

"Oro?"

"You heard me." Slow and painful, Sano got to his feet. "You say you're not like those other Imperialists? Fine. I want to see it. So don't you go wandering off again without my permission... Kenshin."


 

"Come on, come on, we've got to get going," Katsu muttered under his breath, batting away a late-night mist-midge as he ran the last of the Sekihoutai's pre-flight checks. "I don't care if she does feed you for free; it's not worth two weeks of food poisoning..."

"Hey, Katsu!"

The dour smuggler dropped down onto the entrance ramp, taking a quick glance around the shadowed hangar before he went eye to eye with his partner. His bruised partner. "One day. I leave you alone in port one day."

Sano grinned, walking in just a little stiffer than usual. The regular port rats probably hadn't noticed a thing. "You should see the other guy."

Katsu tried not to roll his eyes. "I know, Sano, I know...."

"No, really; you should see the other guy." Sano's smile turned serious as he held his hand out palm-down, roughly chest-high. "Little redhead, only about this tall... Who's she?"

Katsu turned in time to catch a glimpse of long dark hair as Takani Megumi vanished back into the shadows of the Sekihoutai. "Pay-as-you-go passenger."

"Katsu!"

"Not like that!" Katsu defended himself. "Come on, Sano, you know me better than that." Though stars knew, there had been some hungry times when even that trade had looked a little tempting. Better hungry than without a soul. "She says she's a medic. Where we're going, they could probably use one."

Sano frowned, taking in the fact that nearly all of their stuff had already been stored back onboard. "And where are we going?"

"Oh, here, there...." Ask when we're in space, Katsu's shrug said plainly. "Deal's good, cargo should be just about here - only sticking point is, we've got to get it moving tonight."

Sano crossed his arms. "And the cargo is...?"

Katsu stepped near enough to whisper in his ear, then leaned back and raised a dark brow.

From the look of him, Sano didn't know whether to gulp or drool first. "Sweet. But - us?"

"Making friends in the area pays off," Katsu smirked. Not that Sano helped out around Kaoru's neighborhood with good PR in mind. For such a tough fighter, his partner had a surprising soft spot for those not quite able to claw their way into prosperity. But heck, if it dropped a decent chunk of change like this into their laps, Katsu wasn't about to let the opportunity slip through his fingers.

Sano grinned back, then turned serious, glancing toward the hangar entrance. "That them?"

"Better be." The Sekihoutai could pass inspections, even without a bribe; but an Imperial visit at this time of night wouldn't be just an inspection.

Nope. Not Imperials. Not a glimpse of white armor to be seen; just a pair of too-carefully dressed in dark casual clothing local guys, escorting a repulsorlift loaded with sealed crates. Katsu frowned at that, but Sano beat him to it. "Break it open," the tall fighter growled.

The shorter of the guys shook his head. "Your client's orders are-"

"Our client hired us because he knows we're good, and he knows we don't cheat," Sano stated. "We don't take on cargo blind. Period."

"These are delicate," the handler objected. "We're paying a great deal-"

"For your cargo to get there in one piece," Katsu said coldly. "And it won't, if some Imp sympathizer has slipped in a beacon, will it?" He listened to a breath of their silence, and nodded. "Come on, Sano. Sooner we break these open, the sooner we can send these gentlemen on their way."

The mortified expressions on the go-betweens' faces as Sano grabbed a pry-bar was funny; almost as funny as their outright shock when Katsu donned protective gloves to handle the delicate merchandise. Idiots. How do you think we got a reputation for making solid deliveries? Sano pried; he sorted, folded, and pointed to things for Sano to run the scanner over, so as not to risk getting grime on the gloves. Their client had good reason to want precautions taken with this kind of cargo. How'd Saigo even get near this stuff? Either he's got a major in with the merchants here, or there are more sympathizers away from Tokyo than I thought.

"Good," Katsu declared at last, taking off his gloves as Sano tamped the last lid back down. "Tell your boss we should have it there within his timeframe." If everything went well. Then again, if everything didn't go well, he and Sano would likely spend the rest of their lives in the spice mines of Kessel. The Empire was so touchy about untaxed luxuries.

Which, to be honest, was one of the main reasons he was doing this. Stick a needle in the Empire's eye and make a profit? Nothing better than that.

Nothing that doesn't involve shooting the white-armored bastards, Katsu thought darkly, loading crates on board. But Sano's got this hang-up about shooting people who haven't tried to shoot him first. "So a little guy beat you up?" Katsu asked, trying to get his mind off all-too-tempting violence. "Did you turn him over to the medical center for attempted suicide?"

Sano grinned darkly. "I doubt they could hold him."

Katsu raised an intrigued brow. Sano was an optimist, but not a fool. His partner knew full well the kind of resources Tokyo's Imperial Medical Center had at its disposal; resources that included force fields, a standing stormtrooper guard, and sedatives that could knock out a flight of storm-dragons. "Oh?"

"You're not going to believe this, but-" Sano tensed.

Oh, hell. "Where?" Katsu murmured.

"Dunno."

That was enough to send chills down Katsu's spine. Maybe Captain Sagara hadn't had time to give his young charges more than scattered bits of samurai training before he'd been executed, but it was enough for Sano's hunches to be right more often than not. "Nothing out here we can't launch without," Katsu muttered grimly. "Let's go-"

Whirr- thwack!

Ninja dart, Katsu realized, catching a glimpse of the spiral-carved lump that had embedded itself in Sano's quick-drawn blaster. Only a glimpse; Sano was firing back at shadows as Katsu bolted inside for the bridge-

Firing the engines, he felt the entrance hatch thump closed. Sano's curses floated before him as the Sekihoutai snarled awake, eager to fly. "Katsu, get us out of here!"

What the frack do you think I'm doing? Their ship lifted light as a lion-tooth puff, turning on its axis to bolt out through the hangar opening.

Sano stumbled into the bridge as the ship shivered a bit; Katsu's usual takeoff performance for the Imperial spaceport authority, meant to convince them that while the Sekihoutai might be space-worthy, it was nowhere near nimble enough to be a smuggler. "Vape me!"

Katsu took his eyes off the controls long enough to get a good look at the dart still stuck in Sano's blaster, and nearly swallowed his tongue. "That's-"

"Kyoto-style onmitsu work, or I'm a Bothan," Sano said grimly. "Who the frack is Takani Megumi?"

"Um..." You mean, this wasn't about Saigo?

Though it still could be, no matter what Sano's hunches might be saying. Sure, the Empire would have first dibs on anyone associated with the Rebel. If they knew about it. But Saigo had ticked off his share of people on the shadier side of the law, too. The kind of people who might hire ninjas.

But Saigo wasn't onboard to ask questions of, and Takani was.

Shaking his head, Sano punched in the coordinates Katsu had pulled up for their first jump. "Soon as we're in hyperspace, you, me, and her are going to talk."


 

Yavin IV


 

"Mmph...."

Setting his burden down on the night-chill stone of the Massassi Temple's enormous steps, the weary fugitive patted the bound Imperial on the shoulder with a wry grin. "A word to the wise, Pilot Latten. Just because a man doesn't like to fly - doesn't mean he can't."

"Mmph!"

"I am sorry about the gag. But someone should find you here. Very quickly, I imagine."

"Mmph mrr m-mm-" Per blinked up at the plasteel glow of Yavin IV's twilight; as close as this place got to night while it faced the pale orange giant of Yavin Prime, true darkness would not come until Yavin Prime eclipsed the sun. "Mrgh?"

There was a truly lost note in that mutter; the fugitive glanced up to see the first thin trickle of shooting stars. "Yes, I imagine that was the station. Let's hope the rest of the pieces aren't much bigger, or we'll all have a bit of trouble heading our way." He stepped back, and gave the man a formal bow. "I thank you for my life, Per Latten. Remember that you chose to spare life rather than take it. And the Force will be with you. Always." A second bow, and he faded into the night.

Quite literally, from Per's point of view.

A risk, to use the Force so close to the shadows here, the tired man knew, retracing his way past alert Rebel sentries into the jungle once more. So close to the children.

But the youngsters were quite busy throwing a party to match anything in the wake of the Naboo incident, if that bright warmth from the Temple was any indication. Even if that frail bond he seemed to have with Luke held true, the young man should have no more sense of his presence than a ghostly, approving touch on his shoulder.

Which was as it should be.

Even if the bond has formed - I cannot take a padawan. Not now. So much anger within me... I cannot risk tainting our last hope. I can't-

I can't betray Anakin that way.

He made it back to the shuttle, through the little deadfalls and tripwires he'd set up half on instinct, and up the steps into the entry hatch-

Which was about when his knees gave out, and he barely caught himself on the edge of the entryway.

Water, you fool. Just because you're not being baked dry in a desert, doesn't mean you can't boil to death here without it.

Space, his grasp of the Force truly was rusty. A few hours without water, even in the day's heat, shouldn't have drained him so.

He made it to the tiny galley, drinking deep of deliciously cool liquid. Leaned his head against a glass, and ruefully realized it'd been far more than a few hours. There had been the time to land and camouflage the shuttle, the time setting defensive traps, the time sneaking to and from the Temple the first time so he'd know where to leave Per to be found - there seemed to be a particularly cranky species of foot-long rodents on this planet with a taste for meat and no qualms about it being human. He'd had to find a spot that the guard patrol would walk through within a quarter-hour, or risk leaving the pilot to a fate far worse than a clean death in space. As it was, he'd carefully nicked Per's bonds just before he'd left; by this time the pilot was either in Rebel hands or free in the jungle and living at his own risk.

Top all that off with the time needed for his tense return with the cranky pilot....

Idiot. You know better than this.

It'd just been so very long since he'd operated under wartime conditions. He'd forgotten how to pace himself; how to hold back just a little energy no matter how bad the emergency seemed, because there would always be another worse one behind it.

I'm not fit for war. Not yet.

But whether he was fit or not wouldn't matter; not if Mon Mothma knew he was alive. She'd been a friend, yes - but she was a politician first, with all their keen grip on power and determination to gain more. Allow her to know he yet lived, and he'd be a talisman, an idea to be invoked; one of the great generals of the Clone Wars, reappeared to guide the Rebellion in its darkest hour....

No. Clinging to the past is what destroyed the Republic in the first place. To lead the Rebellion, Mon Mothma has had to abandon what she was; to become a Rebel, rather than a Senator. If I allow her to cling to what I was - the great general, the Negotiator - then the old pattern will repeat. And the Rebels will be as doomed as the Jedi.

"Possibly not quite that doomed," a familiar voice said softly. "But you are right, my padawan. That path might seem better lit to start, yet it could lead into still greater shadows."

The tired man raised a ginger brow. "Are you determined to just pop in and out as you like, Master?"

The translucent figure in Jedi robes laughed softly. "Allow the dead their amusements, my little one."

"There is no death, there is the Force."

A ghostly grin. "So there is." The tall spirit leaned back against the galley wall, eyeing his green-smeared Imperial informals. "And while it might not allow me to give you the clearest advice-"

"It never does," his former apprentice muttered.

"-It does allow me to listen." Intrigued brows rose. "So what have you decided to do?"

Rummaging through the galley stores to pull out a packed meal, the fugitive shook his head. "At the moment, I only know what I can't do. This beast of a vessel may have a decent hyperdrive, but without coordinates to Yamato, I can't simply take off. Not to mention the spaceport on that planet, or any other, would have rather pointed questions regarding my registration. A pity I don't have a smuggler's skills to change it...."

His ghostly companion listened, silent as a breeze.

"Solo would know," the living man said slowly. "Or he'd know those who would know. And while approaching that young scoundrel might be dangerous - Chewbacca knows my scent, and I do not need Luke asking questions - if one smuggler is working with the Rebellion, others may be as well-"

The ghost was gone.

"Thank you, Master." A worn smile touched his face. "That just might work."

The very finest of tremblings in his bones warned him, and he bolted for the shuttle's viewers. Tiny pieces of space station streaking down as shooting stars were nothing to worry about, but that felt like something much larger.

It's a ship.

Not as large or - ahem - custom-fitted as the Falcon; rather on the small side of tramp-freighter size. In fact, it rather looked like-

The fugitive blinked, and rubbed his eyes, feeling a sudden, odd leap of delight. Rounded rear hull, traces of a broad red stripe from port to starboard, visible turbolasers and likely a concealed repeating blaster for evacuations under fire... It's a Rim-Healer ship!

At least, it had been; the outer hull was a bit battered, and the inside might well have had its emergency medical equipment yanked out for more cargo space. But under it all was still one of the small, fast vessels oddballs in the Jedi Medical Corps had used to travel between dust-scrabble colonies, bringing a bare level of medical aid to those who would otherwise have had none.

Very odd folk, indeed, he recalled, shaking his head. Still, they were good folk. No few Knights and Masters had traveled with them, from time to time; especially when a group of healers might be allowed to pass where formal negotiators would not.

"Were good folk," he reminded himself grimly. "I doubt its current owners acquired it legally."

Which would make them smugglers - and so precisely the type of people he needed to see.

Force. Logic. He suppressed a very childish urge to roll his eyes. I do detest it, sometimes.

Detest it or not, they appeared to be coming down all but on top of him.


 

"That's it, lady," Sano crooned to the Sekihoutai as he set her down. "Gentle, gentle..."

Her landing gear kissed the ground, and Sanosuke started the shutdown. "Oi! Megitsune! How you holding up back there?"

"Don't call me Foxy, Rooster-head!"

"Well, keep your eyes peeled," Sano shot back, grinning; he much preferred this sharp-tongued, harassed healer side of Megumi to the tall, dark-haired ghost of a woman who'd tried to stay out of his sight after takeoff, not even coming out for a glimpse during their short visit to trade on Zeltros. Though his grin dimmed a little as he walked away from the controls and heard Katsuhiro's weak snarls; so far the sick co-pilot had cursed fate, onmitsu, and the Miasma in general, and now he was starting on the Empire in particular. "Might want to keep that down, Katsu. There's a Lambda T-4a sitting out there; so far they haven't pointed any blasters our way and I'd like 'em not to start."

"A what?" Megumi poked her head out of the small infirmary that had been left after he and Katsu had rigged temporary bulkheads to increase the Sekihoutai's cargo space.

"Shuttle," Katsu said, gray and feverish under a pile of blankets on the infirmary bed. "We're not... in line with the fixed cannons, right?"

"Do I look like an idiot?"

Katsu glared.

"All right, all right... no. And I didn't exactly point any of ours too close to them, either; they might be tied in with our contacts, here." Though Sano kind of doubted it. Not with the Imperial-gray paint job the scanners had picked up. But Katsu was stressed out enough at the moment, what with the Fever flaring up now, and hey, there was a lot of wreckage in Yavin IV's near-space, which kind of implied any Imperials in the general vicinity might still be in shock. Not to mention, whoever was over there hadn't taken any shots at them yet, right? "I was going to go say hi."

Katsu levered himself up long enough to shake his head, long dark hair limp with sweat. "We've got a cargo to deliver-"

"And we will," Sano cut him off. "You haven't lost that much time. I'm just going to drop by, figure out who they are, then take the cargo to the rendezvous. Relax." He shrugged at Megumi. "Come on, Fox-lady. Let's get you a cup of chamidori so lazybones in there can swear at all doctors without you hearing." He waited until they'd closed the hatch and taken a good few steps away to ask, "So how is he, really?"

"Not good," the young doctor said flatly. "How could you take off without a full stock of hashima? You know anyone who's had the Fever can relapse fast-"

"You know, I kind of remember dodging a whole slew of ninjas back there. While we were still loading up?" Sano crossed his arms, raising one eyebrow. "You want to talk about that?"

Biting her red lips, Megumi looked away.

"I didn't think so." Sano sighed. "Look - we've still got enough to knock it out once, but not twice. So keep him on the fever-reducers, keep him quiet, and I'll go get the deals done. Then we can dose him and jump straight for home, okay?"

"So the money comes first," she muttered.

"You think I like that?" Sano bit out. "We live on our reputation, Takani. Skip out on this deal, we may not get any others; not the kind anybody sane wants to take, anyway. You want to try this traveling doctor idea of yours? Then you don't want us having to take... really illegitimate cargo."

As in drugs. Or slaves.

I'd starve first. Katsu, though - sometimes I don't know about Katsu. He's a good guy, but... there's always a shadow in him.

"So!" Sano dusted off his hands. "If I'm not back here in an hour, tell Katsu, okay?"

"Don't worry, I'm sure he'll notice me screaming," Megumi deadpanned.

Chuckling, Sano opened the ramp and headed into the jungle night. Whoof. Hot as a Tokyo summer out here. An odd, twilight kind of night, dark enough that he was glad he'd brought the clip-light... and then doubly glad, as he stepped carefully around a hidden snare. Not bad. Not bad at all. Didn't think they taught Imperials that kind of thing at the Academy. "Oi! Anybody alive in there?"

"Hello there."

Sano played the light up the shuttle ramp, careful not to shine it into the ginger-haired man's eyes. No need to threaten the guy. Yet. Hmm... somewhat grimy Imperial castoffs, reddish hair a bit longer than soldier-standard, and a very tired look on that pale, desert-worn face.

Not to mention a relaxed, ready stance that all but shouted swordsman. Though there wasn't a vibro-blade or lightsaber in sight.

Huh. Sano added up the details, and relaxed a little. Either we got a really good Imperial onmitsu here, or he really is an escapee. Imperial or Rebel, hardly mattered at the moment; either way, the guy probably wasn't going to be quick to call stormtroopers down on anyone's head. Which was all that really mattered. "Sanosuke Sagara," he used the usual Basic ordering of names; weird people, putting self ahead of clan. "And if you don't mind my asking, you'd be-?"

"Obi-Wan-" the swordsman started, then stiffened.

Sano let out a breath of pure relief, dropping into Yamatogo. "Man, are you a long way from home! How'd a born-Edokko wind up in the middle of this mess? Come on, let's get you fed - whatever that skyhopper you lifted has in the way of supplies, it can't be tasty-"

"I'm... sorry," Obi-Wan said gingerly in Basic, one hand gripping the edge of the hatch as if it were all that kept him upright. "I don't think I quite understood what you said." He blinked, as if hunting a memory. "Furusato... home?"

"Home port," Sano corrected, curious. Try keeping it simple. "Namae wa?"

"Kenobi Obi-Wan desu...." Blue-green eyes looked at him in sharp surprise.

Hell. That's a little kid's accent. Put together with the foreign clan name, and the rest of this mess... Sano let out a soft whistle. "Gentlesir," he said in blunt, polite Basic, "I don't know when your family decided to pull up stakes, and to be honest, I don't really care. Sometime way back, we used to be neighbors. And neighbor to neighbor-" he jerked a thumb in the general direction of the massive stone edifice they were supposed to have landed at, "-there's something really creepy over that way. You want a lift out of here?" The smuggler ran an appreciative eye over the shuttle. Class 1 hyperdrive, multiple shield generators, reinforced durasteel/carbon fiber hull, five visible blaster cannons, and a cargo capacity of 80 metric tons... oh yeah, this could work. "There's people over there already expecting to cut a deal with me. I bet they'd love to add this to the pot. Probably won't get near what she's worth at a strip-yard, but I'll cut you in for twenty percent of what I get-"

"Sixty percent," Obi-Wan said dryly. "What makes you think I won't go there myself? Or just take off again?"

Darn. He's not as out of it as I thought. "Twenty-five," Sano countered. "If you wanted to see these guys, you'd have been over there already; that hunk of rock isn't easy to miss. And no offense, but if you're not running on fuel cell flickers and pure sword-swinger stubborn, I'm a Takeo monkey."

"Fifty," came the thoughtful counter-offer. "I'm not carrying a sword."

"Twenty-seven," Sano shot back. "Off-planet? I wouldn't either. Not in the open, anyway. Stormtroopers get a little twitchy about samurai. Something to do with dead stormtroopers turning up in back alleys, sometimes."

"Forty-five." Curiosity flicked in that sea-green gaze at the word samurai, but Obi-Wan set it aside. For now. "Why should you be safer than I am, if there truly is something... malevolent, in that direction?"

"Thirty, and I throw in a free trip off this steam-bath to someplace with decent weather," Sano said firmly. "And I'm going to be very quiet going over there. Nothing personal. Just business. You - no offense, but you look like if you weren't so damn tired, you'd be trying to carve up something that didn't move fast enough." He held out a hand, Republic-standard manners. "We got a deal?"

With a quiet ghost of a smile, Obi-Wan shook it. "I believe we do."