Qui-Gon Jinn slapped his hands across the board, cutting off the communication feed, and contemplated slamming his forehead down on the console multiple times. He knew that what he had to report wasn’t going to be taken well, but at least they had two days’ grace before facing the Council.
How’d it go?
He smiled and then fought a yawn, the tiredness his younger partner broadcasted adding to his own exhaustion. The last twenty-six hours had been draining, to say the least. We get a reprieve. The communications array has been damaged. I can send transmissions, but not receive.
Great! I always did prefer to be yelled at in person.
Qui-Gon turned and walked away from the streaking starlight of hyperspace, flexing his left hand repeatedly. Obi-Wan had insisted upon healing his broken fingers the moment that the underclass of Tan’al had restored order. His injuries had been minor; Qui-Gon had been trapped in the company of the diplomats, trying to get them to resolve the conflict before it became a moot point. How’s your head?
Not bad. Hurts less. Only on the way back to their ship, when the hostilities had ceased, did his former Padawan admit that he’d been suffering near-blinding migraines for the past two days. The conversation had led to recriminations (on his part), swearing (on Obi-Wan’s part), and had only added to the list of fights they’d had while adjusting to working with each other for the last two years. Today was the first day they’d blown up at on another in quite some time, though, so perhaps that counted for something.
As if hearing the tone of his thoughts, Obi-Wan grinned as Qui-Gon approached. “I’m a redhead. I’m told it’s a natural warning sign of temperament.”
“Really?” he took the seat opposite Obi-Wan Kenobi, still the youngest Jedi Knight in the Order at the age of eighteen. The young man’s face was mottled with purple and black bruises that started at his temple and ran down to his collarbone. The Tan guards had not been kind to his partner during his arrest. “Then what’s my excuse?”
Obi-Wan opened his eyes and looked at him, and Qui-Gon winced in sympathy at the swaths of blood that still marred the sclera. The Healers were going to have a field day. “Sorry, you don’t get one,” Obi-Wan said, giving Qui-Gon a lopsided smile. “Unless your Wookiee-like stature is a signifier of non-human contributions to your genetic background.”
“Being that I have gone through no radical hair-removal procedures…” He watched his companion blink multiple times. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
Obi-Wan nodded. “Yes, absolutely, positively. I’m fine. I am not suddenly going to drop dead. Stop asking before I’m forced to find a stick and smack you with it.”
“You and Yoda have an interesting stick fetish going,” he said, smiling. “I still wish—”
Obi-Wan closed his eyes again. “Am I going to have to reiterate that it was a matter of priority? I was functioning just fine, as you’ve witnessed over the past day. Hands, meanwhile, hold lightsabers, and we’ve had need of them of late.”
“No, you don’t need to,” Qui-Gon said, shaking his head. “Sometimes it’s just hard to manage the sense of responsibility I still feel towards you. Were the circumstances different, you’d still be my Padawan. The habit does not die easily.”
“Tell me about it,” Obi-Wan murmured, though Qui-Gon suspected he was thinking of someone else—Anakin, perhaps. Then he shrugged. “Well, neither one of us are dead yet, and we’re not trying to kill each other, so things are still working well. Unless you think they’re not?” Obi-Wan ventured, eyebrows drawing together in concern.
“No, no. Things are…” Qui-Gon found himself chuckling. “Obi-Wan, I daresay I would not be having near as much fun if I were to venture off on my own again.”
Obi-Wan snorted. “Fun. Right. You’re not the one the Council is going to be yelling at for starting a war.”
“Wars have begun for less interesting reasons, that’s for certain,” Qui-Gon said blithely, and earned himself an irritated scowl that told him better than any words that everything was just fine between them.
* * * *
Mace Windu didn’t yell at them, per se, but his disapproval flooded the Force and made itself known. There was little doubt as to the true nature of his feelings on the matter. “We sent the two of you to Tan’al to re-negotiate several trade agreements. We did not send you there to start a revolution!”
Told you, said Obi-Wan, who was the direct target of Mace’s quiet wrath.
Qui-Gon raised one eyebrow in response but said nothing. Beside Mace, Yoda was sitting with his eyes mostly closed, listening, but his opinion of the matter of Tan’al was not yet forthcoming. The only other Council member in attendance was Yarael Poof, who was scowling even more than usual.
Their chances of escaping this Council meeting unscathed were sitting in the fifty-fifty range.
“Now, would one of you like to explain what in the hell you were thinking four days ago?” Mace said, sitting back and glaring at Obi-Wan.
“I didn’t instigate this, Master Windu. After all, I did not ask for Ran D’nl to kiss me in the public market,” Obi-Wan replied, outwardly unperturbed by the senior Council member’s displeasure.
“Which is how we discovered the laws that Tan’al has in place that prohibit any member of the underclass from having contact with someone of any other class—
something that I will point out has never been mentioned by the Tan representative in the Senate,” Qui-Gon added.
Mace lifted his head in surprise. “You didn’t indicate anything like that in your message,” he said, giving Qui-Gon a suspicious look. “Continue, please.”
“It’s not in their original charter with the Republic, either,” Obi-Wan continued, and rubbed the yellowing bruises on his jaw. “They don’t limit this restriction to their own people, as you can see. I took quite a beating from the Tan guard before being arrested with Ran D’nl, along with a handful of other members of the underclass who had committed the sole crime of standing nearby.”
“You are a Jedi Knight, and thus could have avoided such a beating,” Yarael pointed out, and through their pair-bond Qui-Gon could sense Obi-Wan’s desire to roll his eyes in response. “Or your Master, being present, could easily have intervened.”
“Easily, yes,” Obi-Wan replied. “But at that point, we needed more information, and the Tan weren’t providing it.”
“The diplomatic liaison for Tan’al was in absolute denial about the situation,” Qui-Gon said, shaking his head at the memory. “They were already in the midst of doctoring the security footage of the market when I politely demanded the return of the Republic’s other ambassador.”
Obi-Wan half-smiled. “They’re thorough, I’ll give them that. We didn’t even realize the size of the underclass populace until a few hours later, when all hell broke loose.”
“Since you’re the one who started that—” Mace began, but Obi-Wan cut him off.
“I’ve never been that comfortable with the idea of being gang-raped, so no, that particular jailbreak couldn’t have waited,” Obi-Wan snapped, his voice hard. “I doubt anyone else locked in that blasted place was fond of the idea, either. To be fair, it wasn’t quite what Ran D’nl’s people had in mind. Their goal was only to make sure the Jedi and the Republic learned that there was an entire caste of people who were being denied their rights. Seeing so many of their brethren freed at once just triggered a flash point. These people had long ago grown tired of their situation.”
Yarael Poof shook his head, muttering under his breath. Yoda, meanwhile, opened his eyes, giving them both his full attention as Qui-Gon took up the narrative. “On my side of things, I was confronting the Tan delegation about Obi-Wan’s arrest and getting nowhere, fast. As far as they were concerned, Obi-Wan was now a criminal as well as a new member of the underclass. They considered him…unclean.”
Qui-Gon paused; that still made him angry, for his partner’s sake as well as for the underclass themselves. How the Tan had hid this from him and Obi-Wan for the weeks they’d worked through the old trade agreements, he had no idea, but the deceit rankled. “They were utterly unwilling to recognize the underclass as part of their populace, and thus their accorded rights as Republic citizens. Not even when the underclass stormed the citadel.”
That part had been amusing, the only bright spot in the midst of a very trying day. The Tan delegates had begged him to fight the underclass off, to restore order, and had been less than pleased when he’d refused.
Qui-Gon had defended them, when the time had come, keeping the Tan underclass from killing anyone. They hadn’t been appreciative of that, either.
“Ran D’nl didn’t make a spur of the moment decision. That moment of physical contact had been calculated from the moment they’d learned of the impending Jedi visit to Tan’al. D’nl knew that no member of the underclass would be able to speak to the Jedi unless they did something drastic. The underclass of Tan’al have had no rights for over three hundred years, and they were more than ready to die to change that,” Obi-Wan explained. “Between Qui-Gon, myself, and Ran D’nl, we managed to keep casualties to a minimum.”
“They are maintaining that control, for now, and wish for a duly informed Jedi team, along with representatives from the Senate, to create a new membership agreement with the Republic. They would, of course, prefer one that recognizes their rights as sentient beings.” Qui-Gon smiled at Yoda’s approving look. “I told them that we would be more than happy to return with a Senate representative in a week’s time. They are also calling for their current Senator, Disa Val, to step down. She has ignored the plight of the underclass, as well as Republic law, for her entire tenure in the Senate.”
“All right.” Mace sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “One day I would really like to receive a mission briefing from the two of you that doesn’t result in a headache for me. It’s not every day that I get to tell the Chancellor that he’s got a rebellion on his hands on one of the Core worlds.”
“You both did well,” Yarael Poof granted at last, inclining his head. “You know that I disagree with your methods, but even I will admit that it is good that the entire populace of Tan’al will regain their rights.”
Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon glanced at each other before they both bowed to the elder Council member. Winning over Master Poof had been difficult after Obi-Wan’s Knighting, but the Quermian was no fool. Just stubborn.
“In the meantime, go down to the Healers’ Ward and get checked out. I’d also like it if the two of you could come back from a mission without looking like you fought off a herd of Rancors,” Mace said, giving Obi-Wan a sympathetic look. Qui-Gon had his own bruises, but they were not nearly as spectacular as his partner’s. “Get out of here. I’ll let you know the moment we have any new developments on the Tan. May the Force be with you.”
* * * *
Obi-Wan endured a fierce grilling from Jale Terza and half of the Healing Masters on staff when he went to them with still-visible bruises on his face. He answered their questions and wound up submitting to a full-body scan to make sure that nothing else was damaged. He acquiesced without complaint. The faster they ran the gamut of questions, the faster he could go home and go to bed.
He bided his time, listening to the faint stream of consciousness that came to him through the pairbond he had with Qui-Gon. The latter was busy swearing at a junior Healer that he was not going to be putting a cast on an already-healed hand, thank you very much. Obi-Wan smiled; their bond was developing by leaps and bounds, helped by the pre-existing path of the old training bond.
There was one other connection there as well, and he was thankful that Qui-Gon hadn’t noticed it. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to explain to his partner about anchor points. Or about having been dead, for that matter.
When they were done, Terza grinned and thrust a tiny wrapped box into his hands before chasing him out of the Ward. Abella met him at the door, eyed the gift in his hands, and handed him another wrapped box.
“Couldn’t you just have left them in my quarters?” he asked, uncomfortable with the sudden surge in gift-giving. His eighteenth birthday had been weeks ago, even if they’d been away from Coruscant on that particular day. As it was, Obi-Wan wasn’t sure he wanted to celebrate it, being that it was his eighteenth birthday for the second damned time.
Abella grinned, leaning in to nuzzle his cheek before taking his arm and escorting him to the turbolifts. “Well, with those security protocols you tossed onto your door, none of us can access your quarters anymore without the computer yelling at us to bugger off,” she said.
Obi-Wan sighed, because that meant another round of updates to the software. He’d be lucky if the damned program let him in. “Besides, the eighteenth birthday’s the important one for you humans. Enjoy it. I know for a fact that Garen got you brandy.” She gave him a gentle shove into the open lift, ignoring his immediate demand to be told if it was Corellian, and waved at him with a cheerful smile on her face as the lift doors slid closed.
* * * *
Garen Muln’s gift had indeed been brandy. Not the cherished Corellian Obi-Wan was besotted with, but it was a good year from Alderaan, and easier to procure when you were stuck on Coruscant. Garen dropped it off the next morning with a cheerful grin, taking a moment to lift Obi-Wan in a bear-hug off of the floor. Obi-Wan gasped out a laugh as his friend wished him a merry, wonderful, sextastic birthday.
“Thanks, though I do recall managing to give you the same wish six months ago without the sextastic part,” Obi-Wan said, once he had his wind back.
“Yeah, well, you keep puttin’ me off about that one,” Garen drawled, giving Obi-Wan a half-hearted leer. Then he deflated, looking down at Obi-Wan with soulful hazel eyes. “You could just go ahead and tell me no. It would be easier on me.”
Obi-Wan sighed, reaching up to grip Garen’s shoulder. “That’s because I’m not certain that ‘no’ is the answer. Remember, this is my problem, not yours. It’s just that—”
The door chime sounded, and both Garen and Obi-Wan swore. “See, every time you’re about to explain the holdup, crap like that happens,” Garen said, rolling his eyes. “Come on in, Master Jinn!” he yelled, raising his voice. “We know it’s got to be you— everyone else just barges in!”
“Garen,” Obi-Wan warned, trying not to laugh as the door slid open to reveal Qui-Gon, his expression mock-stern.
“Padawan Muln, I do believe you’re late for your ethics class,” Qui-Gon announced, palming the button that kept the door open. “You might want to run—Master Denaroth considers tardiness a minor ethics violation.”
“Oh, good. Nice to know I’m already screwed,” Garen said with far too much cheer. Obi-Wan considered elbowing him, then decided that it would just reveal more than he was comfortable with. “Good day, Master Jinn.”
“Good luck, Padawan Muln,” Qui-Gon replied, letting the door slide closed once Garen had made his escape. “Good morning, Obi-Wan.” He paused and stared at the new item of furniture that was parked in front of the couch. “Sleep well?”
“Sort of,” Obi-Wan said, heading back into the kitchen with Garen’s gift. Qui-Gon followed, probably to escape the sight of the table. “I slept wonderfully until Anakin woke me at dawn in a panic because he’d taken apart his lightsaber, and couldn’t remember how to put it back together.”
“Again?” Qui-Gon shook his head. “I hate to see him go through this.”
Obi-Wan nodded, his heart still aching at the memory of the misery on Anakin’s face, stressed as he was to find he couldn’t complete what he knew was a simple task. “The memories come and go for him. I just don’t push at anything, and hope for the best.”
All Obi-Wan could do was reassure Anakin that it was fine, help the boy fix his lightsaber, and send him back to the creche for morning practice. It didn’t feel like it was enough, but what else could he do? Obi-Wan knew in his heart that now was not the time to take Anakin as his Padawan, even if they were meant to walk that path again. If there was another option, he hadn’t thought of it yet. “And what about you? Anything interrupt your sleep?”
“I was up half the night with Tahl, discussing the One Five Eight treatise of Veranii,” Qui-Gon admitted. “The published version is dry as dust, but she found a copy covered in notes that revealed that at least three of the diplomats were using sex to get the thing written.”
Obi-Wan grinned. “That would have been much more interesting than the final product. With material like that, are you sure talking was all that you did?” He tried to tell himself that he was teasing, and not fishing for information…but he was just selfish enough to want to know. Damn it.
“Gods, why does everyone keep asking us that?” Qui-Gon responded, a touch of frustration in his voice. “What are we doing that keeps up those rumors?”
“Well, for starters, you stay up half the night talking about sex.” Obi-Wan just smiled as Qui-Gon glowered at him.
“You’re probably right,” Qui-Gon admitted, giving in. He leaned against the counter, watching as Obi-Wan shoved the bottle into the cold store. “Obi-Wan, what is that pink monstrosity that is now taking up residence in your living room?”
“Oh. That.” Obi-Wan shuddered. “That is Bant’s birthday present to me.”
“I gathered that, since it wasn’t here the last time I was. But Obi-Wan—what is it?” Qui-Gon wanted to know, his blue eyes bright with humor.
“I think it’s a table. It’s made from pink coral. It is hideous, isn’t it?
“I think that calling that thing hideous is a compliment.”
Obi-Wan nodded, pouring hot water into two mugs and handing one to Qui-Gon out of longstanding habit. Qui-Gon began raiding the tea collection, probably looking to find where Obi-Wan had hidden the red. To be fair, he stole from Qui-Gon’s tea stash just as often. “She left a note with it. Said that if I was going to be so remiss in buying furniture to brighten up this place, she was going to do it herself. She also said there was a matching chair, and if I didn’t acquire one on my own by next year, she was going to purchase it.”
Qui-Gon shuddered. “Then by all means, Obi-Wan, find a damned chair, or your quarters will look like the inside of a Sarlacc.”
Obi-Wan paused in the midst of taking a sip of tea. “That’s a disturbing thought.”
Qui-Gon put his mug down, letting a sachet of dark red steep. “My present isn’t going to earn you near as many colorful remarks,” Qui-Gon said, drawing a wrapped package from his robe. “Happy Birthday, Obi-Wan.”
“Tell me it’s not another rock,” Obi-Wan said, taking the wrapped box from Qui-Gon’s hands and shaking it. “At the rate I’m going, I’ll have assembled a collection that would have geologists drooling.”
Qui-Gon laughed. “No, I promise, not this time. You only reach the legal age of majority once—well, usually just the once,” he amended, when Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow. “Regardless, it should be something noteworthy.”
When Obi-Wan opened the package, parts of his control frayed at the edges. He touched the dark leather with trembling hands, stunned into silence. He picked up the journal, thumbing once through blank white pages before burying his nose in the book and inhaling the heady scent of fresh paper and rich leather.
“Please don’t eat it. It was a bit too expensive to become an appetizer.”
He stuttered a laugh, lifting his face away from the pages and facing Qui-Gon with a broad grin. “I love it. It just—it triggered some interesting memories. I used to have several that looked like this.” He flipped the journal closed, running his fingers along the leather again. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Qui-Gon replied, resting his hand on Obi-Wan’s shoulder. His pulse rate doubled (damnable hormones) but he managed a grateful smile that didn’t show a hint of the things he hid away.
* * * *
Tahl knew that someone was at her door before the chime sounded, and smiled when she recognized the muted yet colorful presence standing outside her doorway. She stepped from her kitchen through the living room without a single misstep, despite the shifting clutter of her Padawan.
She opened the door, catching scents of clean skin and tea, followed by a tang of agitation. Ah. It was going to be one of those visits.
“I didn’t expect that you would be dropping by today. Hello, Obi-Wan.”
“Good afternoon, Master Tahl. May I come in?”
“Stop calling me Master Tahl and I’ll consider it,” she drawled. She was one of the few, she knew, who recognized that Obi-Wan Kenobi had to have been a Master of the Order in his other life, and she hated it when other Masters stood on formality around her. Obi-Wan had picked up on that, the lout. He didn’t want to be recognized as a Master, and she didn’t want precise formality in her life. Thus, they were at an impasse.
“I’m fond of being courteous, you know that,” he countered, and she could hear the smile in his words.
Tahl sighed and relented. “Insufferable brat. Come in, then. Tea?” she asked, heading for the kitchen as she heard the creaky spring give way on one of her chairs. Micah wanted to get it fixed, the silly idiot. Sometimes she needed her tells.
“Of course. I didn't gift you with the red tea for nothing, you know,” Obi-Wan said, and Tahl smiled as she found the third cabinet, bringing down the makings for tea and setting them on the counter with quiet sounds that also told her how much space she had to work with. When she’d first been blinded, Tahl hadn’t believed the reports she’d listened to that mentioned many humans without sight developed a unique sense of echo location. Now she was using it almost without thought. It made sparring interesting.
“Scamp. I thought it a little odd that you'd hand over something I knew you loved.”
“Well, it was sort a bribe so you wouldn't tell the quartermaster what really happened to your droid.” His tone was amused, but Tahl could hear that underlying agitation in his voice now, and it pinged her curiosity.
“Believe me, Obi-Wan, I have no intention of telling them about DJ’s unfortunate loss,” Tahl said, turning on the kitchen tap long enough to fill her teakettle, turning off the water when the weight felt right and the pitch of the water changed. “I still find it a relief to know that my belongings are where I've left them, and not where his dubious programming thought they should be placed.”
The heating element had water boiling in no time, and she poured steaming water over sachets of dried tea, breathing deeply as the familiar, spicy scent rose into the air. She brought two cups from the kitchen, handing one to Obi-Wan for him to take before sitting down with her own.
“Where's Bant?” he asked, then uttered an appreciative sigh as he drank.
“She’s with Knight Fisto. We can do a lot together, but Bant needs some fieldwork that isn't research-centric, and he's been kind enough to help us both in that regard.” She hesitated, then decided to go for it. “Out with it, you. I know something's bothering you.”
“Something is always bothering me, at least according to Qui-Gon.”
Tahl nodded. “He worries about you, Obi-Wan. It's a Master's prerogative, long after it's no longer our job to worry.”
He laughed. “I know. Believe me, I do. But...well, this is one subject matter that I'm really not in the mood to share with him.”
“Ah! It's about sex! Tell me more!” She grinned when he laughed. “Yes, I know. I sound like Padawan Muln, but I've always loved this particular line of gossip.”
“Funny you should mention Garen,” Obi-Wan said, and he released that pensive sigh that was becoming so familiar.
She could put two and two together with the best of them—or in this case, one and one. “He’s interested in you?” she asked, puzzled. “The last I had heard from my equally gossipy Padawan, Garen only had eyes for Padawan Reeft.”
“That’s still true,” Obi-Wan replied, “but you didn’t hear it from me. Reeft is oblivious, so Garen is eyeballing him from a distance. I don’t think he wants to push things. No, he—I—” She heard him pass a hand through his hair. “This is awkward.”
“He’s asking you to be his first,” Tahl guessed, and that agitation she sensed jumped before settling again. “I thought, from the way Bant discussed how your eyes wander, that sleeping with another male wouldn’t be a problem.”
He managed a wry snort. “No, that’s not in question. It’s just that—I’ve already done this. Er…that. With him.”
It took her a full minute to process what he meant, and Tahl was quite willing to lay the blame on sleepless nights instead of cluelessness. “Gods. That must be…” She paused. “You know what? No. I have no idea how confusing that must be for you.”
“What adds to the difficulty, Tahl, is that I’ve never told him what my Trials actually were. None of my agemates know, though I think Bant has guessed more than she will admit to.”
She nodded; Bant had indeed guessed some of it, and it was only out of Tahl’s respect for Obi-Wan’s privacy that she hadn’t confirmed her Padawan’s eerily accurate assumptions. “So, tell him.”
“Just like that, huh?” Obi-Wan didn’t sound convinced. “I worry that he’ll ask me something that I just can’t answer.”
“No one says that you have to tell him everything,” Tahl pointed out.
“I know,” Obi-Wan said, and she heard a sound that was either his hand or the back of his head hitting the chair.
Tahl grinned, and if Qui-Gon or Micah had seen the expression they would have been trying to silence her. “Was it any good?”
“You are shameless,” he muttered. “And I’m not telling you that. As it is, I feel like I’d be taking advantage of the situation.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Tahl said. “Even if Garen does seem to want to be taken advantage of,” she added.
Obi-Wan chuckled. “There is that.”
“What do you want to do, Obi-Wan?”
He released a frustrated breath of air. “I just want to get laid.”
Tahl laughed in startled surprise and almost choked on her tea.
* * * *
The fires were intense; it was only due to the mine’s grav fields and shielding that they both hadn’t caught fire long ago. As it was, his skin was burning, his breath rasping in his lungs, and his eyes were watering. He was not crying. There was no reason for tears. He was not crying.
The thing on the ground spat at him, howling, and something inside of him broke, gave vent to the agony he felt.
“You were the Chosen One!” he screamed hoarsely. “It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them. Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!”
The thing on the ground with Anakin’s face and fiery, insane eyes screamed back at him. “I hate you!”
His heart froze, but he could not stop now. “You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you!”
And with no hesitation, he walked away.
Obi-Wan awoke with a gasp, and realized in the next moment that it was dark and cool, not the furnace of Mustafar. He groaned and fell back in bed, wiping cold sweat from his forehead. “Fuck.” That was not the rest I was looking for.
He dressed in the dark, grabbed his lightsaber from the nightstand, and left the dubious comfort of his quarters for a training salle that was deserted. He had two hours until dawn, when he’d have to turn the room over to others, but for now he had the run of the place. He left his cloak draped over a bench and ran two circuits around the room, forcing his muscles to wake up.
When that was done, Obi-Wan started pacing himself through the old Mandalorian combat sets, swearing under his breath every time he missed a step. He never worked with these much. The Mandalore were dirty fighters, and they trained to hurt an enemy as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Some moves in the arsenal he knew well and had used, but he saved them for a last resort—never the first.
By the time he’d worked through all of the ones he remembered, his clothing was drenched and his eyes were burning. Today was the anniversary of his last visit to Mustafar. His entire life was full of anniversaries that marked terrible things, and even sleep was no escape from the remembrance of them. Alcohol was better for drowning things, but he was trying to be good, trying not to fall back into that habit borne of solitude.
Instead, Obi-Wan dropped further into the Force and started teaching himself how to mix the Mando’ade bag of dirty tricks into the ataru. The result would either be spectacular or ridiculous, and right now he didn’t care which it was. Movement and focus meant he wasn’t thinking about things best left buried.
He was at the height of an aerial when the Force whispered a warning, and not two seconds later his comm signaled him. He cut the move short and came down to rest with his fist just above the training mat, in the perfect position to slam into a body that wasn’t there.
He shut down his lightsaber before answering the comm. “Kenobi.”
“Don’t you ever fucking sleep?”
Obi-Wan grinned at the grogginess in his caller’s voice. “No, Garen. You must not be sleeping either, judging from the fact that you’re calling me far earlier in the day than usual.”
“Master’s orders,” Garen replied with a stifled yawn. “Council chamber, as soon as possible. I’ll meet you there.”
“What’s going on?” he asked, straightening. Alarm bells were starting to go off in his head, along with a sense of foreboding from the Force.
“I don’t know,” Garen grumbled back. “All I know is that there have been no less than four Council members in our quarters so far this morning, and all of them are wigging out.”
* * * *
Qui-Gon had been awake for less than two minutes before his comm started demanding his attention. He grabbed it and thumbed it on, already knowing that it was important. “Qui-Gon, I need you in the Council chamber in five minutes,” Mace ordered, terminating the call before Qui-Gon could so much as open his mouth to speak.
He felt a flash of irritation but let it go; when Mace Windu thought something was important, he wasted no time with pleasantries or explanations. If Qui-Gon wanted an explanation, he’d have to go and get one.
A quick touch on the pairbond told him that Obi-Wan was already awake. He caught a hint of agitation and apprehension but little else, and after a moment he lost track of that, too. Qui-Gon knew his side of the pairbond wasn’t nearly as developed as Obi-Wan’s, but that would come with time.
He had a feeling, though, that their time might be running out.
He made it to the Council chamber in less than five minutes, foregoing his tunics in favor of a dark blue shirt that was mostly hidden by his robe. Obi-Wan had arrived first, wrapped in his own robe, but his face was flushed and his chin-length hair was soaked in sweat. It hadn’t been a comm that had awoken him. Likely, Obi-Wan had already been awake for hours, spending his time in one of the training salles. Qui-Gon felt a moment’s sympathy when he noticed the pensive cast to Obi-Wan’s features. Dreams again.
Noticing his interest, Obi-Wan looked up and met Qui-Gon’s eyes, then lifted one shoulder in an abbreviated shrug. Translation: I have no idea what’s going on.
The rest of the Council, minus Even Piell, was assembled but not seated. Garen Muln was standing near the open doors, tracking everyone with quiet, watchful eyes. Being the Padawan of a Council member meant that he was long used to this sort of thing, but his frame was still thrumming with tension. Whatever was happening, he knew more than Qui-Gon did. Siri Tachi should have been with him, but Adi Gallia’s Padawan had made a rare visit to her homeworld for the wedding of a sibling, and it was unlikely that Adi would call her home.
Soon they were joined by Knight Lilit Twoseas and her Padawan, K’Kruhk. Master Tsui Choi followed them with his Padawan, Theen Fida. Master Dama Ro was the last to arrive, his cloak bundled in his arms. At that, Mace signaled for the great doors to be shut.
“Good morning,” he said, as the Council members settled into their chairs. Their normal serenity was not present, and as Mace kept speaking, Qui-Gon quickly discovered why. “A few hours ago, we learned that the Golden Nyss Shipyards were attacked and destroyed. A droid that survived the assault reported that Yinchorri vessels were responsible. All ships within the yards were either taken by the Yinchorri or obliterated.”
There was a sudden flurry of shocked whispering among those gathered. Qui-Gon glanced at Micah, who was drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair and scowling. “To my knowledge, the Yinchorri are warlike, but they had no plans on violating their treaty with the Republic,” Qui-Gon said.
“Do we know what happened?” Dama Ro asked, looking around at the assembled Council with ill-concealed anger.
“Aside from that event, we know very little,” Micah answered him. “We had no intelligence from the sector that any Yinchorri group were arming themselves. Even now, there is no word from the system beyond wisps of rumor.”
“The Yinchorri representative in the Senate, Gexall, claims to have no knowledge of this attack and seemed to be just as surprised as we were,” Adi said, her eyes glittering with anger. “For now, we believe her.”
“We’ve tried contacting the Council of Elders, but have received no response,” Saesee Tiin spoke. “The rumors from the sector imply, however, that this is a rogue fleet of Yinchorri pirates, so it may be that they are not involved.”
“Or it may be that they are offering assistance, if this rogue faction has acquired the kind of weaponry the Yinchorri crave,” Plo Koon continued. “Either way, our path is clear.”
“Everyone in this room has been chosen to accompany members of the Council to Yinchorri space. Starting at the remains of the Golden Nyss, we will seek out these pirates and deal with them,” Mace said, his voice hard. “The Judicial Forces will be providing transport as well as extra manpower, should it be necessary. In the meantime, we have dispatched Jedi Knight Naesh’ahn and her Padawan, Ebor Taulk, to Yinchorr. They are tasked with locating the Council of Elders and convincing them to call for these pirates to stand down. If the Council of Elders is involved, they are to gather evidence of their duplicity.”
“Clouded, the Force is. A hidden enemy, we have,” Yoda intoned, his eyes dark. “Cautious, we must be.”
“We’ll be departing tomorrow morning from the main hangar,” Mace said, giving them all a curt nod. “Be ready. May the Force be with you.”
They filed out of the room, breaking off into pairs except for Dama Ro, who disappeared into the nearest lift without a word. Qui-Gon walked along the promenade that led to the outer balcony. “You haven’t said a word.”
Beside him, Obi-Wan stared ahead, frowning. “Mmm.”
“That doesn’t count as a word.”
Obi-Wan glanced up at him, a ghost of a smile on his face. “Mmm-hmm.”
“Still not words,” Qui-Gon said, and despite his worry at the sudden, imminent threat just dumped on their heads, he found himself smiling back. “Care to grace me with your thoughts?”
“I suppose we’re not going to be returning to Tan’al,” Obi-Wan said, stopping and placing his hands on the balcony rail.
“I suppose not. It’s too bad. Ran D’nl will miss you.” He grinned when Obi-Wan offered him a glare. “Even I noticed that he was…ornamental, Obi-Wan.”
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes. “I’m afraid my tastes run a bit older. He’s only fifteen Standard, Qui-Gon Jinn. You are officially a dirty old man.”
Qui-Gon’s eyes widened. “Force, he certainly hides it well.” He shook his head. “I could have lived my entire life without knowing that and been happy. However, enough about my perversions. Tell me what’s bothering you.”
Obi-Wan lifted his face into the breeze that stirred, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, they were the color of storm clouds instead of the usual blue-green. “I know the names. Naesh’ahn. Taulk. I have never met them, but I remember their names. I just don’t know why,” he said, frustrated.
Qui-Gon considered Obi-Wan’s words. His partner had walked this path before, and if the names were troubling him, it was bound to be important. “If they were involved in this particular event before, perhaps it’s just a mental association,” Qui-Gon suggested, but even as he said the words he knew there was more to it than that.
“Maybe.” Obi-Wan bit his lip, staring out at the early morning cityscape of Coruscant. He barely looked his age, and was often mistaken for a much younger man. His features still held the roundness of childhood, though it wouldn’t be long before time chiseled it all away, leaving behind a man who would one day look like the fire-haired, bearded man Qui-Gon had once encountered in an unexplainable memory. He just had to keep reminding himself of that.
“It’s…damn. It was forty-two years ago, Qui-Gon,” Obi-Wan said at last. “I wish I could say that my memories of that time are clear, but they’re not.”
Obi-Wan nodded. “Meditation.”
They stood together for another few minutes, watching the upper levels of Coruscant awaken for the day. Forty-two years. Qui-Gon shook his head in disbelief. “You’re sixty years old.”
“You’re two years older than I am,” Qui-Gon said, trying not to sound miffed. He had not sought out Obi-Wan’s actual age after the young man’s Knighting, considering it unimportant. Having a concrete number was making his head spin.
“Weird, isn’t it?” Obi-Wan gave him a cheeky grin before pulling his hood up and walking away.
“There’s no way you made it to that age without being named a Master by the Council!” Qui-Gon called after him.
Obi-Wan just waved without turning around. “I’ll see you later, Master!”
Qui-Gon found himself grinning. Impudent, sneaky bastard.
* * * *
Obi-Wan returned to his quarters and considered pacing for a full minute before he decided that it wouldn’t accomplish anything. He dumped his robe over a chair, exchanging sweat-stiff clothes for a hot shower and clean tunics. By the time he knelt down in front of a window for meditation, he felt less stir-crazy and more like the Force was nudging him in a certain direction.
Before long he had tranced down, settling into the currents of the Force as if he had never left. Some part of him was always here, always aware, but it was the background whisper of countless voices. Now he immersed all of himself in the Force, allowing it to take him wherever he needed to go.
It was a relatively simple matter to seek out old memories and make them clearer, even though Obi-Wan usually did not like what he found. The first time he’d lived through his eighteenth year, it had started with funerals.
Started with funerals. He frowned even as he went deeper. Time. Something was wrong with the timing of this. He temporarily dismissed the notion of Naesh’ahn and her Padawan, found memories of his younger self’s life in the days before the attack on the Golden Nyss. He’d remembered what happened to the shipyards the moment Mace had mentioned it. Funny, though, how the prevalent memory he had of that time was the dust of Yinchorr—and the means by which Lilit Twoseas, Theen Fida, and Micah Giett had died. Twoseas’ and Fida’s pyres had been held on Yinchorr, for they didn’t have access to stasis containers, and there was no getting out of the Yinchorri system before rot set in. Micah’s pyre had been…unnecessary.
Then they’d returned to the Temple, weary and sore, to discover that four more pyres were waiting to burn. Obi-Wan sighed; another lost memory. He was going to have to warn Yoda. If he was thinking of interfering with the events of the Yinchorri Uprising, might as well go all out and defend against the Temple incursion, too.
The Yinchorri attack on the Golden Nyss shipyards, in his memories, had happened three months ago, and nothing Obi-Wan had done since the age of sixteen should have altered those events. Something was wrong.
When Obi-Wan opened his eyes again sometime later, he knew why memories of Naesh’ahn and Taulk had refused to surface. He also knew that there was a new element to the Yinchorri Uprising. He just had to find it. He didn’t have much time, either—Yinchorr was only ten hours out from Coruscant.
* * * *
When he cleared the lift in the tower that afternoon, the Council secretary stood up as he strode past. “Knight Kenobi, the Council is in session. Whatever it is that you want, it’s going to have to wait,” Esna said. “Er—well…” the senior Padawan trailed off when Obi-Wan turned and gave her what Anakin had once called the ‘I’m the Jedi Master here, Padawan’ look. “Well. Uhm. Let me just see if they have a moment for you.”
Obi-Wan shook his head and waved his hand, triggering the doors. “Sorry, can’t wait,” he said, walking through the moment there was clearance. Yoda lifted his head as Obi-Wan entered, giving him a curious look that was touched with disgruntlement. Other Council members voiced their displeasure with his breach of protocol without words, and disapproval swirled around him. He shook it off, unimpressed. Mace chose only to glare at him. Micah, meanwhile, looked like he was ready to twitch himself out of his chair. The Combat Master hated being stuck in a Council session when a mission was looming.
“Masters,” Obi-Wan greeted them, giving those assembled a half-bow once he reached the center of the room. “My apologies for my hasty entrance, but I believe time is of the essence.”
“Very well, Knight Kenobi,” Depa Billaba said, inclining her head. “You may speak.”
“You must recall Knight Naesh’ahn and Padawan Taulk.”
His statement was met with another burst of displeasure, which he ignored. Mace and Yoda exchanged glances before Mace turned back to Obi-Wan. “And your reason for this rash request is?”
“Because I don’t wish to see them on a pyre come morning,” Obi-Wan retorted. “I also doubt that Chancellor Valorum wants to begin his day by having two bodies delivered to his office by courier.”
“Blasted Sith hells,” Micah said, sitting up in his chair. “Are you sure?”
“More from your vision, Knight Kenobi?” Yarael Poof asked, his head swaying back and forth. “Surely that is no longer relevant.”
Obi-Wan felt an intense flare of irritation. Master Poof seemed to be dead certain that Obi-Wan’s Knighting meant that no other element of his experience would occur.
Hopefully, this will make him realize otherwise. “I know it is my policy not to share events with you that may not come to pass, but this one is happening, right now. What concerned me is that I have memories that say this should have happened three months ago.”
Obi-Wan pulled a holographic emitter from his belt. “I would have been here sooner, for Knight Naesh’ahn and Padawan Taulk’s sake, but I was worried about the difference. I found this.” He activated the emitter, and the piece of the puzzle he’d spent hours searching the public databases for appeared.
Delay. Acting now will ensure failure.
Sway more to your cause. Act when your military strength is greatest.
The sector will be yours.
“The timestamp is dated three months previous, and was sent to Yinchorr from a public terminal on Coruscant. I even went to the trouble of trying to identify the sender, but the security camera for that particular terminal was non-functional for most of the afternoon before anyone discovered the problem. There was no I.D. attached to the message. It was sent to a public terminal on Yinchorr, but it was bounced, and I can’t track its final recipient from here.”
Mace stared at the words floating in midair, his jaw clenched, and then he turned to Adi. “Recall them. Get them out of there.”
Adi nodded and opened up the console imbedded in the arm of her chair, already working on sending the recall signal to Naesh’ahn’s transport. Obi-Wan shut down the emitter, breathing out a quiet sigh of relief. One problem down, one to go.
“In the meantime, we still have no idea of what’s going on in that system,” Plo Koon said. “If they really have amassed an army, we’re not going to know the size of it until it’s attacking us.”
“I have a solution for you.” When no one spoke, Obi-Wan continued. “Send me to Yinchorr, instead.”
Saesee Tiin gave him a disbelieving look. “You have us recall an experienced Knight and her Padawan, but ask us to send you? You’re either foolish, or you have a death wish.”
“Neither, Master Tiin.”
Mace held up one hand, halting Saesee’s reply. He stared at Obi-Wan, eyes flashing with annoyance. “Before I tell you how out of your mind you are to even suggest such a thing, I’d like to hear your reasons,” he said.
“For starters, I wouldn’t be going in as a public Jedi presence. They’re going to be on the lookout for us, so it would be unwise to announce my identity. I can slip into Tol Kashorn, and speak to the smugglers there. If anyone has the latest intel about Yinchorri activities, they will. From there, I can seek out and confirm the locations of any Yinchorri battalions or ships and pass them along to you.”
At Mace’s faint, disbelieving look, Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes. “I can speak Huttese and two of the minor trade languages. I’ve run contraband cargo and at least will know what I’m talking about if I need to play a role. I’m also the least recognizable Jedi out of the Yinchorri group. If I’m there alone in the guise of a new smuggler, the Yinchorri will likely not give a damn about my presence. It’s far better than going in blind.”
“This is a big risk you’d be taking,” Micah said, leaning forward. “What’s so important?”
Obi-Wan hesitated before answering. “Master Giett: The last time I went to the Yinchorri system, we had current intelligence and a good idea of what the Yinchorri were up to. Seven Jedi still lost their lives.”
Micah sat back in surprise. Yoda lowered his ears but said nothing, and Obi-Wan felt the whispers of communication begin. Adi and Plo Koon, he knew, were appalled by the very notion of his departure. Depa and Mace, he sensed, were in the midst of an argument. Micah seemed inclined to agree. Yoda he couldn’t read at all, and the troll kept giving him inscrutable glances.
Stop that, he sent.
Worried about you, I am, Yoda replied, the words whispered through the training bond that should not even have existed between them, formed as it was in another life. A heavy burden, this is. Sure, are you, that the right thing, this is?
As much as I would like to say otherwise…yes, I’m sure. He smiled faintly. I see little other choice. We need information.
Hmm. True, this is. Yoda sighed. Deliberations, finished they are. More you will need to sway them, Obi-Wan.
Mace turned his attention back to Obi-Wan, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Knight Kenobi. We have to say no. While the intel you could gather would be invaluable, the situation is just too dangerous to send in someone who has, to us, limited experience working solo. If we’re not going to risk Knight Naesh’ahn and her Padawan, we’re not risking you, either.”
He managed not to grind his teeth. He should have expected this to occur sooner or later, but the timing was fucking awful. They didn’t have time for this, and he did not want to play Council games. Obi-Wan lifted his chin, staring back at Mace. “You consider it merely a question of experience?”
Mace frowned, and after glancing at Depa and Saesee, nodded. “We do.”
Obi-Wan felt long-familiar bitterness well up as he walked over to Even Piell’s empty chair. He touched the panel, triggering the sensor that activated the computer. His personal code would not exist, of course, but there were others. Once, long ago, Mace had drilled him, made sure he could enter the codes in his sleep if need be. In his other life, he’d used them while surrounded by corpses.
Now, he entered them without looking at the console, activating the holographic emitter in the center of the room so that the others could watch.
[Temple base codes accepted. Access to all systems is now available. Welcome, Councilor.]
“Son of a bitch,” Micah whispered.
Obi-Wan looked at Mace, who was visibly stunned. “Is that enough experience for you, Master Windu?”
* * * *
Qui-Gon had barely raised his hand to hit the door chime before he was noticed.
Just bloody well come in already.
The argument waiting on his lips died; Obi-Wan could sound far more agreeable in battle than he did in that moment. The door slid open at his touch, and he stepped inside to subdued lighting. The atrocious table had been shoved up against the wall, far less pink when cloaked by shadow.
He found Obi-Wan standing in the open doorway of his small balcony. The space was a far cry from the one Qui-Gon enjoyed, but the view was, in many respects, better. His partner was standing with his arms crossed as he glowered out at Coruscant’s night traffic.
“Say it and get it over with, or have a drink and listen,” was Obi-Wan’s next statement. Qui-Gon noticed the table was playing host to the bottle of brandy that Obi-Wan had acquired yesterday from Padawan Muln.
Qui-Gon debated those options and then realized that, whatever was going on, Obi-Wan was not in the frame of mind he’d expected. This was not a senior Padawan going on his first solo mission, full of contained excitement. This was an angry Jedi Knight, and discovering the source of that anger was far more intriguing than giving vent to a rant that would ultimately have no point.
He found a glass in the kitchen and returned to pour a small measure, noting with a moment’s concern that the bottle was already half-empty. “This is not one of my favorites,” he said.
“Alderaanian wine is a bit out of my budget range right now,” Obi-Wan said, surprising Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan glanced up at him and smiled, but he seemed distant. He glanced back out at the night lights. “On a night rather like this one, perhaps a week ago in my memories, you let your secret slip. Of course, instead of the wine, you were consuming that gods-befouled Malastare slop that Master Giett prefers.”
Qui-Gon paused before he could sample the brandy. “There is only one reason I would subject myself to that vile excuse for alcohol.”
A preference or not, suddenly Qui-Gon was glad for the liquor in his hand. He drained the glass in one shot, not even registering the burn. “Micah. Mace had said that you mentioned the timing of this was off.” Obi-Wan nodded again.
Qui-Gon’s view of the world tilted as he tried to comprehend it. He’d recognized that the Force was speaking to him of Micah’s fate for two years, though the whispers had come and gone, never materializing into certainty. I do not want to keep watch over my best friend’s pyre, he thought. Nor was he inclined to welcome the necessity of a bottle of Malastare ale.
And then: I do not want to see Tahl stand watch over Micah Giett’s pyre.
“Force,” Qui-Gon whispered. Following the strands of the future was not his strength, but he followed them now, and frowned as he encountered a massive tangle that consumed the paths before them.
Beside him, Obi-Wan raised his glass to his lips. “That’s what I noticed, too.” The young man could read the eddies of the Force as easily as most beings breathed. “Right now things seem to be in a state of flux.” He paused, and that frustration returned. “It happened after I approached the Council this afternoon. Yoda thinks it’s funny. I do not.”
“Is that why you’re angry?” Qui-Gon asked, shoving his worry for Micah aside. For now, there was no way of knowing if Micah was destined to die on Yinchorr. He didn’t trust phantom threads of the future—he trusted the paths he could actually see.
“No. It’s a good sign, and at least it’s not a paradox,” he said. “I don’t know how to fix those.”
Qui-Gon smiled but remained silent, and at last Obi-Wan sighed. “I have sometimes been frustrated by the fact that my experiences and rank are not a part of the Temple’s memory. I know what I am capable of—you’ve seen some of it. I have not for one moment regretted being your partner, Qui-Gon, but it has cost me in terms of visibility. Our successes are still, for the most part, viewed as your successes. Granted, I am not out there risking my life for recognition. I don’t want to be famous. Famous people get shot at more often.”
Qui-Gon found himself laughing at the unexpected comment. “We do indeed.”
“But that lack of recognition has never made me angry until today.” Obi-Wan sat his glass down on the balcony ledge. “I went to them with a valid proposition that was dismissed because of that perceived lack of experience. I’m sure even you recognize the benefits of the plan, even if you don’t like it.”
Qui-Gon inclined his head. “No, I don’t like it. I have your word that you have worked solo before, but for me, I have never seen it. You’re right; the problem lies with the perceived lack of experience.” He stepped back into the living room long enough to retrieve the bottle, adding more of the brandy to his glass. Obi-Wan picked up his glass and held it out as well, not motioning for the pouring to stop until it reached the rim. Qui-Gon eyed the very large amount of liquor but said nothing; he’d learned last year that Obi-Wan could drink like an oxygen-starved fish.
“I just can’t help but remember that every time we are separated on a mission, you’re the one that gets shot at the most, despite my notoriety,” Qui-Gon said, offering his partner a wry smile.
“Just lucky, I suppose,” Obi-Wan replied, raising an eyebrow in response. He made the first quarter of the amber liquid disappear, frowning down at the brandy. “I don’t like being pushed, Qui-Gon. I hated that I had to push back.”
Qui-Gon nodded. “Ah. Yes. Micah mentioned that you had a rather spectacular counter for them, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. He said that I should ask you.”
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes heavenward. “Of course.” Another quarter of the brandy went away. “You were curious about my age and possible Mastery, Qui-Gon?” He looked at Qui-Gon again, and despite the poor lighting, there was a surprising amount of bitterness in Obi-Wan’s eyes as he spoke. “I was granted my Mastery at the age of twenty-seven.”
His eyes widened. “Twenty-seven?” he repeated, bewildered. “That’s—that’s very young.” He hadn’t attained his Mastery until the age of thirty-five, and then only because Kimal Daarc had been several years into his apprenticeship before becoming Qui-Gon Jinn’s Padawan. The only other example of early Mastery that came to mind was Mace Windu, but Mace’s people were gifted in their contact with the Force, and his early advancement had come as little surprise. “Anakin must have been an excellent student, to have gained the rank of Knight with so little time to train.”
Obi-Wan’s mouth twisted, but the emotion behind the expression was lost to him. “Anakin was indeed an excellent student, but he remained my Padawan for another five years.”
Qui-Gon found himself speechless. Knights had attained the rank of Master in the history of the Order without training a Padawan to Knighthood first, yes, but the event was rare, and spoke volumes about the character of the promoted Knight. It was a stark reminder of Obi-Wan’s changed midichlorian count, and the raw power that lay untapped in that wiry, compact frame.
He stood there, drink forgotten in his hand, as Obi-Wan went on. “I don’t know what they were thinking, considering I was fighting the Council tooth and nail regarding Anakin’s training, the mission rotations, restrictions…” He shook his head. “Mace kept telling me it was because they’d watched my abilities accelerate as I trained Anakin, since it was quite a job to keep up with him.”
“If that was what you told the Council, I am no longer surprised—or angry—that they approved your solo mission to Yinchorr,” Qui-Gon managed. Gods. It should not still surprise him, the things he learned of Obi-Wan’s past. The fact that the young man was apparently one of the strongest Masters in the Order just fit in with the fine level of control that a sixteen year-old with haunted eyes had once demonstrated before the full Council.
To his consternation, Obi-Wan flushed. “Er, no. I didn’t actually mention any of that to them. I lost my temper and went the Idiot Sabaac route.”
“Oh?” Qui-Gon gave Obi-Wan an appraising look. “This I can’t wait to hear.”
Obi-Wan rubbed the bridge of his nose and then gave Qui-Gon a mischievous smile. “Tell you what. When this Yinchorri uprising is over, I’ll tell you what I used for my Idiot’s Array.”
Qui-Gon mock-growled. “That is not fair.”
Cheeky grin. “Yes, Master.”
He sighed, and realized that his glass was empty again. Perhaps he could discover a taste for brandy, after all. “I still wish I was going with you.”
“I do, too,” Obi-Wan said, his face settling back into the pensive mask Qui-Gon had seen that morning. “This is not going to be pleasant.”
* * * *
They met the next morning in the hangar bay, standing around the motley collection of transports—their own, and those belonging to the Republic Judicial Forces. Obi-Wan stepped close to the first Consular-class cruiser, the Radiant VII. He ran his hand over the hull in greeting; the last time he’d seen the cruiser, it had been dust on the floor of a Trade Federation droid control ship. He glanced up to see Captain Madakor standing in the cockpit, giving him a flirtatious grin. He waved in response and rejoined the others as he noticed Mace and Yoda approaching.
Mace didn’t waste any time. “We got Knight Naesh’ahn and her Padawan out of there just in time. We received word last night that the Yinchorri have taken Mayvitch 7, Amador’s moon. We don’t have confirmation yet, but we’re almost certain that nothing remains of the colony.”
Qui-Gon glanced at Obi-Wan, who was busy running through a monologue in Huttese under his breath. “Expected?” he whispered.
“Expected, but faster than before.” This wasn’t his fault, Obi-Wan knew, but it was hard to believe that at the moment.
“It has come to our attention,” Mace continued, looking at Obi-Wan, “that the Yinchorri have acquired Cortosis armor. Some of you know what that means, but for the rest of you, Master Giett will demonstrate why you should be concerned.”
They watched as Micah locked an armored gauntlet into place over his left forearm. “Padawan K’Kruhk,” he said, noticing the Whiphid’s curious gaze. “Ignite your lightsaber, please.”
K’Kruhk glanced uneasily at his Master. Lilit Twoseas nodded, smiling, and K’Kruhk stepped forward, igniting his yellow blade. “Yes, Master Giett?”
“Strike the gauntlet with your lightsaber,” Micah instructed.
K’Kruhk’s eyes widened. “Your pardon, Master Giett, but I’d rather not disarm you. Literally.”
Micah grinned. “Trust me, that won’t happen. Strike as hard as you can,” he said, holding up his arm. “Make it fast. The Judicial crews are getting tired of waiting on us.”
“All right,” the Padawan said at last, taking comfort in the fact that no one was yelling at the Council member to stop. He stepped forward and swung his lightsaber in a fierce strike that collided with the gauntlet—
—and his lightsaber died on contact with the metal, sparking once before shutting down.
“Oh, bloody fuck,” Garen muttered, watching as his Master took off the gauntlet. “Lightsaber immunity. Wonderful.”
“Not a true immunity, Padawan,” Micah said in response, tossing the gauntlet back and forth in his hands as he spoke. “Cortosis Shield, as it is known in this form, is susceptible to repeated pinpoint strikes from energy weapons. Given the nature of combat, however, that’s not the best defense you’ll have. Cortosis will not damage your lightsaber; it merely overloads the circuits. Within a few seconds, your blade can be ignited again.” K’Kruhk breathed a sigh of relief at that, reattaching the hilt to his belt as Micah motioned for everyone’s attention once more.
“Listen,” he said, expression turning serious. “We believe we will likely be facing the Yinchorri in combat. If you find yourself fighting against armored Yinchorri, look for the gaps in the armor. Aim for joints and weak points. Cortosis armor is also vulnerable to repeated blaster fire, if you have to resort to that. They are fierce warriors, the Yinchorri, and worse, they’re immune to Force suggestion and many of our basic mind tricks that deal with perception. Be careful. Guard each other’s backs. Think, but let the Force guide your actions, for that is the best defense you have.”
Micah glanced over at Mace, who nodded and spoke. “You all know which ships to take. The majority of us are going with the cruisers to the Chalenor system. There is a chance we may catch the Yinchorri there if they plan to attack Amador as well. The rest are going to the shipyards to meet up with the remaining Judicial ships and Master Even Piell. The Judicial Forces have been gathering intelligence in the region, and should have updates on the Yinchorri fleet’s activities when we arrive.”
Adi Gallia stepped up next to Mace, pinning Garen with a stern look. “Padawan Muln, repeat your Master’s instructions, please.”
Garen stood up straighter as he became the focus of attention. “I’m skipping the Golden Nyss and heading straight to Yinchorr. Upon arrival I will do a quick dust-landing and unload my cargo—”
“I am not cargo,” Obi-Wan interjected. Beside him, Qui-Gon’s shoulders twitched with restrained laughter.
“—and retreat immediately to Yinchorr’s second moon, which by smuggler intel is supposed to be a massive, dead rock with plenty of hidey-holes. I stay there, out of sight, unless my cargo signals for an evac. If an evac is called for, I snag him and retreat to the shipyards.”
“Good. We’re holding you to that, Padawan,” Adi said, nodding. “Take care of yourself. While this is not your first solo piloting mission, the danger is great.”
“Yes, Master Gallia. I’m not keen on dying any time soon,” Garen said, giving the Master a lopsided smile.
“That’s everything. Board your assigned transports, people,” Mace said, raising his voice to be heard over the curious murmur of conversation as those gathered realized that Obi-Wan’s destination was different from their own. “May the Force be with us.”
They scattered, Qui-Gon giving Obi-Wan a quick, one-armed embrace before he joined Micah in heading to the Acceptance. For a moment Obi-Wan watched as they fell into step together, the working pair-bond they’d established as children lighting with a quick flare in the Force. That was one of the things he wanted to protect—a friendship that had withstood five Padawans, forty years, a Council seat, and the aftermath of Xanatos’s Fall.
Yoda’s hoverchair hissed as it settled into place next to Obi-Wan. “Strange it must be, hmm?” the ancient Master asked.
“Strange is one word for it, Master,” Obi-Wan replied. Qui-Gon Jinn—living, breathing, alive, and happy—had been a near-constant presence at his side for two years. He held back a grim smile, hoping he wasn’t about to go out and prove the Council correct, after all.
“Fine, we will be,” Yoda said, nodding, and reached out to pat Obi-Wan’s arm. “Quinlan Vos, spending time with Jude Rozess he is. Instructing her on the finer points of Temple Security, he will be.”
Obi-Wan smiled. “May their shifts be boring,” he said. And free of suicidal Yinchorri pirates.
* * * *
Obi-Wan watched the flash of light fade out after the last cruiser jumped to lightspeed. Don’t die, he sent, trying for a light tone. Training your replacement would be bothersome.
I should be saying that to you, Qui-Gon replied, the connection getting fainter as the distance between them increased. Force be with you, Obi-Wan.
And with you, he said, pulling back from the connection before it got too hard to maintain. The pair-bond wouldn’t die, but with so many light years between them, it would be nothing more than a background hum until they were in the same system again.
Obi-Wan turned in his seat to find Garen staring ahead with unfocused eyes, probably in the midst of a mental conversation of his own. He looked at the young man in the pilot’s chair, who always seemed more at home in the leather freighter’s coat and trousers he wore than he ever did in Jedi tunics.
For a brief instant, the memory of a much older man overlaid what he saw, and Obi-Wan’s heart clenched. The Force always did seem to like playing games with Obi-Wan’s life. He wasn’t going to get to avoid Garen’s question any longer, that was certain.
Obi-Wan shook his head, glancing down at the navicomp as it beeped to announce their readiness to depart for Yinchorr. “Garen?”
Garen blinked, turning his attention back to the ship and his passenger. “Yeah, sure, I heard. Sorry. Master Micah was giving me the rundown on how not to blow up you, me, the ship, Yinchorr, and anything else he could think of. I think he’s certain we’re going to get into trouble.”
He’s probably right, Obi-Wan couldn’t help thinking, fighting hard not to smile. “It’s a Master’s prerogative to worry, Garen.”
“Yeah, he said that, too,” Garen retorted, grinning. “No stuffiness, you. I have you all to myself for the next ten hours, and I intend to pursue you to the best of my ability.”
Obi-Wan couldn’t tell if the sudden rise in temperature was lustful agreement or apprehension. He still wasn’t looking forward to the conversation that had to happen. “What if I hide in the ’fresher for the entire trip?”
“You’d be bored,” Garen pointed out. “Unless you hide in the shower, in which case I’d be happy to join you,” he said, his eyes dancing with humor and heat.
He swallowed hard. Well. Being reminded of that particular moment was certainly helping to convince his body that this was a fantastic idea. “Get this ship moving, and then we’ll talk,” Obi-Wan said, trying not to shift in place. Blasted, annoying, damnable hormones!
Garen busied himself at the controls, and after a moment the pinpoints of stars became streaks of white as the ship leapt into hyperspace. “What if I said ‘Less talk, more fucking?’”
Obi-Wan crossed his arms. “The answer would likely be, ‘More talk or zero fucking.’”
“Sometimes, Obi-Wan, you are no fun.”
The ship they were using was a light shuttle, on loan from the Judicial Forces because it had a double set of transponder codes—one Republic government, one not. It was also small, with only one cabin for passengers and crew to squabble over.
They sat together on one of the bunks, and Garen went from swaggering confidence to quiet thoughtfulness, intelligent enough to know that what he wanted hinged on the choices he made next. Obi-Wan had always admired that trait in his friend, one that had usually been glossed over by people who only saw Garen’s wide, friendly smile and Wookiee-like stature.
You don’t have to tell him everything, Obi-Wan reminded himself, and spoke. “This is going to sound like an odd question, but I want you to think about it. When was the last time you can remember seeing me without a shirt on?”
Garen quirked an eyebrow. “To be honest, that’s been one of the biggest teases of the past couple of years,” he said. Then he narrowed his eyes. “Come to think of it, you haven’t stripped for a sparring session since your Knighting. Aalto wanted to say it was because you were a Knight and therefore being uppity, but Bella pointed out that being Knighted sure hasn’t stopped Quinlan from stripping off every stitch of clothing he can manage every chance he gets.”
Obi-Wan sighed. Aalto would have thought that first. The boy had improved a lot since his disassociation from Davrin, but he had a long path to walk before he stopped being an ass. “I’m about to show you why,” he said, standing up and ditching his belt. It was the only way he could think of to start, and it still felt like lunacy.
“Worst seduction technique ever,” he muttered under his breath as he pulled off his tunics.
Garen laughed. “Yeah, I’m sure there have been better—holy shit.” He stopped mid-sentence, staring at one of the scars that marred Obi-Wan’s arm. “That’s a lightsaber scar—son of a…fuck me,” Garen breathed. He reached out and touched the knife scar that decorated Obi-Wan’s abdomen, and Obi-Wan hissed in a breath.
“Tickles!” he blurted, when Garen gave him a worried look.
“Right, tickles,” Garen said, staring at the scar in question, but at least the tickling stopped. “What did you do, fall in a giant blender?”
Obi-Wan was hard-pressed not to smile at the thought. It was almost accurate. “You should see the one on my right leg. Compound fracture and infection.”
“Fucking hell,” Garen said, yanking Obi-Wan back down onto the bed and diving for Obi-Wan’s right boot. He pulled it off, ripped off Obi-Wan’s sock, and shoved up his trouser leg.
“Wow,” he said, fingering the texture of the scar. “Okay, forget blenders. Shit! Obi-Wan, this is crazy. You and Qui-Gon haven’t been involved in missions that would leave this kind of damage. Bella hasn’t done enough stress-shedding, which means either she hasn’t seen it or she doesn’t know.”
“She didn’t see it—she was attending a Healer’s lecture on Dantooine with a group of Padawans when most of this happened.”
Garen, with permission, stripped Obi-Wan of his other boot and sock, turning his attention to Obi-Wan’s left foot. “Crush damage,” Obi-Wan explained, as Garen traced the webbed scarring. “Building collapse.”
“Right.” Garen bit his lip. “Is this what you meant by it being your problem and not mine? Because Obi-Wan, this isn’t going to change my mind about what I asked. I’m in the ‘scars are sexy’ camp. Just—tell me how this happened?”
Obi-Wan waited, watching as Garen shed his coat and boots before sitting back down next to him. “The Force gave me…memories,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “After Taro Tre. You remember the time I spent in the Healers’ Ward afterward?” Garen nodded. “I remember things that might or might not happen. These memories, when I experienced them, they…translated,” he said, meeting Garen’s eyes. “Any memory I have of being injured, there is a corresponding scar.”
Garen took Obi-Wan’s right hand in both of his own, turning it over to look at the shrapnel scars. “It looks like you remembered a war,” he whispered.
He nodded, his mouth dry. “Yes.”
“Is that why you have nightmares?”
Obi-Wan grimaced. He’d suspected that his friends knew about his recurring insomnia, but not that they had known about the dreams. “Yes. But I also remember other things.”
He reached out, tracing the curve of Garen’s ear before letting his hand trail down his neck, stopped by the collar of Garen’s shirt. Garen’s eyes half-closed in bliss, and Obi-Wan smiled. “You always did like that.”
Garen opened his eyes, staring at Obi-Wan in consternation. “Uh…oh. OH. You mean—oh.” He ran a hand through his hair, ducking his head. “Am I awful at it or something? Is that why you don’t want to give me an answer?”
Obi-Wan jerked his head up in surprise. “What? No! Not that.” He shook his head. “I’m handing this badly. Garen, I have very fond memories of our times together.”
“Times, multiple?” Garen asked, a smile starting to form.
“Times, multiple, at different points in our lives. It never affected our friendship,” Obi-Wan said.
“Well, then what’s the problem?” Garen scooted closer to Obi-Wan, letting their shoulders brush. “If you’re already familiar with my kinks, then let’s skip the awkward stage and get right to the fun stuff.”
Obi-Wan grinned. What the hell was I worried about? This was Garen. One lifetime or another, his friend was the same man Obi-Wan knew and trusted. “Have I ever told you that I absolutely love your pragmatism, Garen Muln?”
“Less compliments, more touching?”
“We have eight hours,” Obi-Wan said, leaning in close and breathing in the scent of skin and hair, memories intertwining to remind him of other things. “Plenty of time for both.”
* * * *
They dropped out of hyperspace nine hours after leaving Coruscant, and found themselves facing a massive blockade.
“What the hell!” Micah growled, bracing himself as Captain Williams pulled the ship off-course, climbing away from the assembled vessels. “Well, that confirms that they’re going after Amador.”
Williams’ co-pilot, a Talz named Siedel, grumbled something unintelligible and leapt up out of her seat to go arm weapons. Williams grimaced and reached over to boost their shields.
Qui-Gon frowned and took over the co-pilot’s station, running his hand along the console to shut down the blare of the proximity alarm. Williams gave him a grateful nod. “One of those ships looks like Golden Nyss work,” Qui-Gon noted.
“I see it.” Micah pointed at another ship. “This one’s Yinchorri, but it’s just older converted Nyss work, too. I’m guessing the Yinchorri were buying them first, then got tired of forking over credits.”
The other two cruisers formed up on either side of their ship. Adi Gallia, Plo Koon, Lilit Twoseas, and Padawan K’Kruhk were on board the Causality, while Mace, Even Piell, Tsui Choi, and Padawan Theen Fida were acting as crew for the Starlight.
It only took another few seconds for the ships to respond to their presence. Their comm squawked to life. “Unidentified vessels,” a reptilian voice hissed. “You will depart.”
Micah and Qui-Gon exchanged glances. “Not even going to pretend their intentions are noble, are they?” Qui-Gon murmured.
Micah gave him a fierce smile, leaning over to toggle the comm. “Unidentified vessel, this is the merchant vessel Callileo, along with our sister ships, the Genevive and the Tailspin. We’ve got business down there on Amador. You mind letting us through?”
Their answer was delivered by a new voice, and the message was clear. “Vessel Callileo. You will all depart, or you will be destroyed. You have five seconds to comply.”
“Okay, okay!” Micah yelped, mimicking the panicked trader he was pretending to be. “We’re going, we’re going! But my guild is going to hear about this!” He shut down the comm, motioning for the Captain to put distance between themselves and the Yinchorri blockade. “I guess that answers that question.”
Qui-Gon nodded. “Indeed.”
They launched into hyperspace after Williams punched in the coordinates for the former location of the Golden Nyss Shipyards, their pre-designated fallback point. The blockade was going to require planning to remove it, though Qui-Gon suspected that Mace already had ideas. “I hope that’s the entire fleet and not just part of it.”
“Me, too,” Micah said, sitting down in the navigator’s chair behind Williams. “If they’ve got any more ships involved, we’re going to need half the Temple just to shut them down.”
* * * *
“Nice coat,” Garen said, appraising the leather knee-length duster with a wide smile when Obi-Wan stepped out of their shared cabin. His tunics were wrapped up and stashed in a storage compartment, but his lightsaber was tucked in his boot, hidden from sight. “I especially like what’s inside of it,” Garen continued.
“You’d better, considering that what’s inside of this coat was just inside of you,” Obi-Wan drawled, then grinned at the floored look on Garen’s face.
“Holy—he makes dirty jokes, folks!” Garen sputtered, recovering and running to catch up with Obi-Wan before he could reach the cockpit. “Miracles do exist!”
“I’m just as dirty-minded as the next man, Garen,” Obi-Wan replied, settling into the co-pilot’s chair. “I just don’t advertise it as much.”
“No kidding,” Garen said, sitting down, resting his hands over the hyperdrive controls. “Ready to do this?”
Obi-Wan took a deep breath and released it before nodding. “Ready.”
Garen grinned. “Oh, good. I’m not,” he said, and dropped the ship out of hyperspace on the first warning chime. Yinchorr appeared before them, dull and brown and uglier than Tatooine had ever considered being. It made some of Obi-Wan’s old memories strengthen, though the last time he’d seen the planet from this approach, they were ducking Yinchorri fighters who were doing their best to blow them out of the sky.
Their comm crackled to life. “Unidentified vessel, this is Yinchorr Ground Control. You have entered Yinchorri space and must identify with vessel name, transponder code, and purpose of visit.”
“All yours,” Obi-Wan said. “Time to get rid of your cargo.”
Garen released a nervous chuckle before turning on the comm to reply. “Yinchorr Ground Control, this is the Scything Blade requesting temporary docking in Tol Kashorn. I have one passenger who will disembark, here to seek contracting work in the capital. After that I’m out of your space for the foreseeable future, Control. My transponder code is beaming out now.”
They waited for a long, tense moment, though Obi-Wan sensed no danger. Well, no immediate danger. The Force was full of warnings and portents and possibilities, and that tangled mess of threads wasn’t going away anytime soon. Garen tapped his fingers on the controls, a habit he’d no doubt picked up from his Master.
“Scything Blade, this is Control. You are cleared for docking in Bay Seventeen at the southern end of the capital. Look for three sets of green and yellow landing lights on your approach. Welcome to Yinchorr. Mind you don’t piss off the locals.”
“Noted, Control. Scything Blade out.” Garen turned the comm off, looking at Obi-Wan. “That was sort of anti-climactic.”
Obi-Wan said nothing, letting Garen fly the shuttle down through Yinchorr’s atmosphere. Tol Kashorn came into view, glittering in the dark. In the Force, the lights were brighter, but he noticed strong touches of Darkness here and there, and wondered.
Garen touched down without the ship registering so much as a twitch. “Time for you to get going, and for me to get the hell out of here,” he said, but he wasn’t smiling, and his hazel eyes were full of concern. “You sure about this?”
In answer, Obi-Wan leaned across the small space and kissed Garen long and deep, savoring the moment. When he pulled back, Garen’s pupils were almost blown. Again. “See, that’s not a great answer,” Garen managed, though it took him a few seconds to recover. “That’s what’s called being a tease.”
“And you’re not?” Obi-Wan countered, smiling. “I’ll be fine, Garen. Keep an eye on your comm. I’ll be in touch. And if you don’t hear from me in twenty-six hours, head to the shipyards.”
“I am not leaving you here,” Garen retorted, growling.
“Garen, if I don’t contact you in twenty-six hours, you’re either going to need help to get me the hell off of this planet, or…” He trailed off, thinking. “I have an idea, one that will at least let you know if there’s anything left to rescue.”
“Not funny,” Garen muttered. “What is it?”
“Pairbond with me,” Obi-Wan said, and was struck by a powerful wave of déjà vu. They’d pairbonded before, on this very same rock, while fighting off Yinchorri pirates and generally running for their lives. “It doesn’t even need to be permanent,” he hurried to say, for the circumstances were not quite the same. “But you’ll know if I’m all right.” And if something goes wrong, I’ll be able to find you, he thought.
“Yeah, like I’d want to ditch the chance to pairbond with my best friend,” Garen smiled, holding out his hand. “Bond away, Obi-Wan.”
Obi-Wan smiled, touching the Force as he reached out to clasp Garen’s hand. The response wasn’t what he’d expected; when their skin touched, his stomach turned over as the Force crested.
He blinked away spots from his eyes from a light that had never physically manifested to find the pairbond complete and settled between them—as if it had already been there.
Garen looked stunned. “Is it supposed to do that?”
Obi-Wan shook his head, knowing he looked just as shocked. “No. It—I’ve never felt anything like that.” In a moment of paranoia he double-checked the bond, confirming that it was indeed a pairbond and not anything else.
Fates intertwine, Obi-Wan. Sometimes whether we like it or not…and sometimes even when it doesn’t make sense.
His breath caught as he remembered Qui-Gon’s words, one of the last things they had spoken of after seeing the destroyed remnants of Alderaan. Obi-Wan wasn’t sure if the lesson applied, but he didn’t have much else to go on. “Memory and recognition,” he murmured, gripping Garen’s hand tightly in his own.
* * * *
Obi-Wan had never seen much of Tol Kashorn before, but he remembered enough, and the maps downloaded from a public terminal helped. He wandered the streets, keeping his eyes and ears open, his senses alert. The smugglers that were known to frequent the city wouldn’t be out advertising. This was still a Republic world, even if it was a world in the midst of trying to start a war.
He found a cantina that was full to bursting with patrons, most of them off-worlders. There were a few Yinchorri in the mix, but unlike other areas of the city, here they stood out from the crowd. He slipped inside after shoving a credit chit into the hand of the burly, sour-looking human manning the door. He waded through the crowd, felt or sensed several hands checking his outer jacket pockets for valuables. One enterprising soul even tried for the blaster strapped at Obi-Wan’s side and earned a broken finger for his trouble. Obi-Wan felt a moment’s guilt, but if he was here to establish any sort of reputation, being nice wasn’t going to earn him points.
Besides, maybe it would let the poor man know that his skills needed work. If the pickpocket had tried that stunt on anyone else, a broken finger would be the least of his worries.
Obi-Wan shoved his way into a space at the bar, wedging himself in between a Barabel and an Aqualish, both of whom gave him dirty looks before turning back to their companions.
“What’ll you have?” one of the three bartenders barked at him. This one was human, and someone had done something very unkind to his face in the past. He had one good eye, one good nostril, and his lips were drawn back in a permanent grimace. Acid, most likely.
“Corellian brandy,” Obi-Wan said, doing a quick mental tally of the credits he carried with him and deciding that it was worth it.
“You got money, kid?”
Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes. “No. I routinely walk into bars, sit down, and order one of the most expensive drinks outside of the Corellian system for fun. I especially like the part when I’m tossed out through the nearest window.”
The man laughed in response. “Discount for the first one, kid, then you pay full price for the rest,” he said, snagging a bottle from the wall behind him and pouring the first shot. He didn’t try to short Obi-Wan on the amount, and the brandy hadn’t been watered down, either. Bliss.
A moment later, the precious brandy almost came up and out of Obi-Wan’s nose as he overheard the Aqualish’s conversation. He turned and studied the man for a moment before turning back to his glass, shaking his head. Ponda Baba. Ye gods.
May we never meet again on Tatooine, Baba, he thought, draining his glass instead of savoring it as he’d originally intended. The bartender walked by and nodded his approval when Obi-Wan signaled for a refill.
His elbow was jostled as a human woman shoved herself in between Obi-Wan and the Barabel, shouting for a Nar Shaddaan flameout and two Rylothi ales. She grinned at Obi-Wan, tucking a lock of shoulder-length black hair behind her ear. “Well, you are definitely new,” she said, her dark eyes flashing in the dim light. “I’d remember a redhead with your eyes, believe me.”
Obi-Wan smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be tarnished in your eyes soon enough.”
“Witty!” She nodded as the drinks were set down in front of her, peering with near-manic glee at the flames licking across the first glass. “What’s your name, new boy?”
“Ben Kenobi,” he said, the name falling from his lips as if he’d never stopped using it.
“I’m Eve Koh,” she said, holding out her hand. He took it; her skin was the color of warm ivory, but he could feel calluses that matched heavy blaster work, and there was grease under her fingernails. Career, this one, and not a bit ashamed of it. “What brings you to this lovely chunk of rock, Ben?”
“I’m a contract worker,” Obi-Wan explained, nodding his thanks as brandy was poured into his waiting glass. “No prospects at the moment, but I’m looking. I’m good with my hands, too,” he said, deliberately emphasizing the innuendo.
Eve grinned. “I’ll bet you are. Grab this, Ben Kenobi,” she said, shoving one of the ales into his hand. “And get your glass. Help a girl out, and I’ll introduce you to folks.”
“Glad to,” he said, and followed Eve through the crowd. She led him into a secluded area near the rear of the cantina, and as they passed under an arch he sensed the noise-dampening field. Most of the chaos of the cantina fell away, and he sighed in relief at the near-silence.
“I pay good money for this space, so enjoy it.” The speaker, a red-skinned Devorian male, stood up from a table in the center of the room. There were three humans in the room aside from Eve, along with a Wookiee showing the signs of advanced age. “Eve, who’ve you latched onto now?”
Eve handed the flameout to the Devorian, the ale to the Wookiee, and snagged the last ale from Obi-Wan to keep for herself. “This is Ben Kenobi, Villie,” she said, and the hair on the back of Obi-Wan’s neck stood up. “Says he’s a contractor looking for work, and you were just saying we might need another set of hands.”
“True enough,” Villie grinned. “Where are you from, kid?”
“Ator,” Obi-Wan replied, glancing around at the others once more. If there was anyone in the room who couldn’t fire a blaster in their sleep, he’d eat his robe.
“Yeah, I’ve been there. Like Coruscant, except it’s boring as hell unless you hit the club scene.” Villie stretched out his hand. “I’m Vilmarh Grahrk.”
I know, Obi-Wan thought, but he smiled in response. “Pleasure. I didn’t expect to get noticed so soon.”
“Eve’s got an eye for talent,” Vilmarh said. “Have a seat, Ben. You’ve already got a drink, and if I don’t miss my guess, you’ve got good taste, too.”
Obi-Wan nodded, sitting down next to the Wookiee. “Corellian is the best. I’m just off of my last job, or I couldn’t afford it.”
“Expensive taste is a bitch.” Vilmarh nodded. “The walking carpet you sat down next to is Grrranth. He doesn’t say much, but he’s a hell of a mechanic. Eve you’ve already met. This is my Second, Jones,” he said, pointing to the greasy-haired blond sitting to the left of the Wookiee. “Behind us is Elias, and that’s her brother, Pel. You fly, Ben?”
“Been known to,” Obi-Wan admitted. “I know some who are better at it, but I can skip through the Maw without dying.”
Eve whistled, and Vilmarh sat up in his chair. “You’d better not be pulling my leg, Ben,” the Devorian said, his voice low and dangerous. “That’s not something we’re casual about in this business.”
“Yes, well, I wasn’t casual about making that particular trip, either,” he retorted. Skipping through the Maw with Garen during the war had frayed their nerves to the breaking point as they’d led Confederate ships into the trap of the black hole clusters. “I’ve run blockades, too. Personally, I prefer the blockades.”
“Same here,” said Jonas, nodding. “Lasers that stay where they’re aimed are a hell of a lot nicer to deal with than gravity wells that don’t like to stay put. What was your last contract, Ben?” he asked. Grahrk’s Second spoke in a neutral tone, but his eyes were glittering with suspicion.
“My last contract was running live cargo within Republic borders. Each of us who flew under the contract did so anonymously, for obvious reasons.”
“Brave,” Vilmarh said, leaning back in his chair.
“Or foolhardy,” Eve pointed out. There was an angry light in her eyes that told him just what Eve Koh thought of slavery, and it made his estimation of her character rise several notches.
“Well, we did skip out two days before the Judicial Forces came screaming down on the operation,” Obi-Wan said. If Grahrk was paying attention, he’d know exactly what Obi-Wan was referring to. He could even reference anything the Devorian would want to know. Depa and Eeth Koth’s full reports had been available three days after mop-up.
Vilmarh was grinning. “Oh, yes. I heard all about that little debacle. Gates was being idiotic, as usual, and got caught for it. Anything else, Ben of Ator?”
“Little bit of spice for the Hutts,” Obi-Wan said, taking a gamble. The name he was going to drop was already well-known. However, what he’d learned before of Villie Grahrk told him that he was still in safe territory. “Skipped over a decent blockade, the Hutt provided the ship, cargo was transferred, everyone went home happy.”
“Which Hutt?” Jones wanted to know.
Obi-Wan smiled. “Jabba. Tried to double-cross me for my payment afterward. Last Hutt contract I ever took.”
Vilmarh snorted. “Never did like Hutts. Black-hearted bastard worms, the lot of them. Not a loyal bit of slime in their bodies.” He studied Obi-Wan, his eyes sharp. “How old are you, kid?”
“Eighteen Standard. I’ve only been flying eight months. Still looking to make a name for myself, which means contracts have been sparse,” he explained. It was a typical story for a young smuggler. Until you became famous—or infamous—there wasn’t much work for a pilot without a freighter.
“Damn. I had you pegged as a grungy sixteen year-old.” Eve grinned. “At least you’re legal, though I prefer my men to be clean-shaven.”
“Shame,” Obi-Wan grinned back. “I prefer my men any way I can get them.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Eve swore, while Jones and the Wookiee laughed. “Every damned time I find a newbie, he’s into men!” She looked at Obi-Wan beseechingly. “Please tell me that you’re flexible about your sexuality!”
“I have been persuaded, on occasion,” he conceded, and Eve’s eyes lit up.
“EVE!” Vilmarh barked. “Please, refrain yourself from flirting with everything that moves while you’re still sharing my bed!”
Eve rolled her eyes, unfazed. “Villie, you sleep with me because I’m a flirt. It’d get damned boring if I stopped now.”
For a moment, Obi-Wan thought that Grahrk might be angry with Eve, but then he smiled, draining his glass. “True, Koh. So!” he said, turning his attention back to Obi-Wan. “I might be able to use a pilot for a new run that we’re toying with. We’ve got the ship and the cargo lined up and ready to go. There’s just a bit of an…initiation, first.”
There was a gleam in Grahrk’s eyes that Obi-Wan didn’t like. He glanced up at the Wookiee, who was grinning. “Please don’t tell me it involves the Wookiee beating the hell out of me,” he said, letting a touch of fear enter his voice. He did not want to get tossed around by the mechanic, old or not.
Vilmarh laughed. “Nah. Grrranth’s harmless! He’s a big, lumbering hulk, no finesse to him. See, here’s the thing,” Vilmarh said, leaning forward in his chair and pinning Obi-Wan with a hard stare. “I like to know that my employees can take care of themselves if the need arises. This is a tough business, you understand. I don’t need you on the bridge screaming and pissing yourself if we get boarded by Judicial or a competitor.”
Jones smirked. “That’s what one of our first contracted pilots did. Poor stupid sod.”
“You any good with that blaster you’re carrying?” Vilmarh asked.
Obi-Wan tossed back the rest of his brandy, sensing what was coming. “I can hit what I’m aiming at.”
Vilmarh nodded. “Glad to hear it. How good are you without it?”
His answer was amusing enough to the Devorian smuggler (“Depends on if I’ve already been shot.”) to gain him access to the docking bay that Grahrk’s people used. A second Devorian was waiting next to the only ship, being fawned over by two female Yinchorri. There was another Yinchorri female perched on a loading crate, watching over the three of them indulgently.
“This is my cousin, Olmar Grahrk,” Vilmarh said, slapping the second Devorian on the back. “These are his new wives, Jenk and Fewn. The prettiest one over there is Vooma.”
“Charmed,” Obi-Wan said, and in the next second ducked a punch that was thrown with enough force to take his head off at the shoulders. “What the hell?” he yelled, as Olmar advanced on him with a huge grin.
“Hey, this is one thing I don’t just take people’s words on,” Vilmarh said, smiling as he, Eve, the Yinchorri, and the rest of his crew formed a haphazard ring around Olmar and Obi-Wan. “Don’t even think about going for that blaster—Jones will take your head off before you get the chance to fire. Stay alive for the next five minutes, or figure out how to take my cousin down without killing him, and you’ve got a job.”
“You could have warned me!” Obi-Wan groused, shedding his coat and tossing it at Eve, who caught it and bundled it up, crooked grin on her face.
“That’s not near as much fun, Kid! Come on, do us proud. Olmar, kick his ass!” Vilmarh roared, and Obi-Wan danced out of reach as his new opponent aimed a kick at his jaw.
“Yeah, keep dancing, boy!” Olmar crowed. “If I hit you once I’m going to crush you like a bug!”
I’ve been taunted by things far scarier than you, Obi-Wan thought, throwing himself into a forward roll. He leapt up, spun around before Olmar could move, and placed a boot into Olmar’s backside, shoving him into Jones’s arms and eliciting a round of laughter from their observers. Olmar was big, strong, and fast, but if anyone had trained him to fight, the Devorian hadn’t been paying attention—which was how Obi-Wan had managed to subdue the man the first time around.
Olmar snarled and charged Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan held his breath, sidestepped at the last possible moment, and then grabbed Olmar’s arm as it passed over his head. He flung himself down at the ground while holding on.
The Devorian’s shoulder dislocated with a sharp crack that was swallowed up by Olmar’s howl of distress. He reacted faster than Obi-Wan expected, though, and in the next instant Obi-Wan’s face was a mass of white pain that left him stumbling.
They circled each other while the smugglers shouted encouragement and insults: Olmar, with his left arm hanging useless by his side, and Obi-Wan, who was trying to ignore the fact that his nose was broken and streaming blood. The next time Olmar threw a punch, Obi-Wan was ready. He met it with a block, twisting Olmar’s arm around and sliding in close. He hooked his forefinger into the Devorian’s right nostril and pulled forward.
Olmar froze, his eyes already starting to water. “And now you’re my best friend, aren’t you, Olmar?” Obi-Wan crooned, smiling and putting more pressure on the nerve cluster.
“Fuck you,” the Devorian sputtered, then whimpered as the pain increased. “Ahh! Fuck!”
Vilmarh made a disparaging noise. “Olmar, I can’t believe you let him do that to you,” he said, while his crew jeered and booed. “I wanted to see someone lose consciousness.”
“Fuck you, cousin,” Olmar retorted, his eyes running freely now. “Call off the damned match before he decides to rip my nose off!”
“Fine,” Vilmarh sighed. “Olmar, you look pathetic. Let go of my cousin, Ben. The job’s yours.” Vilmarh grinned. “Drinks are on me, kid. Let’s go back to the cantina and put a dent in that bar.”
* * * *
After scouring the space for listening devices or other pleasantries, Obi-Wan settled onto the bed in the small room he’d rented in Tol Kashorn and pulled out his commlink. “Gar?”
“Oh, bloody hell, I was starting to get worried,” Garen’s voice came back, distorted by distance and possibly a half-kilometer of rock. “Are you all right, Ben?”
“Got punched in the face by a Devorian the size of a house,” Obi-Wan replied, touching his still-sore nose. Resetting it had been a bitch and a half, but it wasn’t like he’d never had practice. “On the plus side, I got a job out of it, so it’s been a productive night.”
“A job already? Damn, you work fast,” Garen said, whistling. “When do you head out?”
“Three days. You’ve got plenty of time to relax between now and the return trip.”
“Eh, take your time. The atmosphere up here is relaxed, and I’m hanging out in a really nice bar the other smugglers have put together. They keep wanting me to play Sabacc, but I’ve pled poverty and told them my bedmate has all of my credits.”
Obi-Wan grinned. “That’s true enough. Enjoy yourself; I have it on good authority that you’re hanging out with Vilmarh Grahrk’s people.”
“Don’t know the name. Should I?”
“Get used to hearing it. That’s my new employer. Good night, Gar.”
“Night, Ben. Keep in touch. I’ll get lonely if I don’t hear from you again soon. And you know what I do when I’m lonely,” he purred.
Obi-Wan smiled. “Good night, Gar.”
He shut off the commlink, lying down in bed after toeing off his boots. His head was throbbing, but he reached out to the Force and the pain eased. He couldn’t heal his nose, not without attracting far too much attention, but he could keep the damage from getting any worse.
One night here, and he’d already run into the man who’d been held responsible for creating a smuggler’s alliance with the Yinchorri. Olmar Grahrk had used that power to incite the Yinchorri to war. Now Obi-Wan understood why the Force had pushed him so insistently onto this path, for the timing couldn’t have worked out better.
He rolled over and forced himself to go to sleep, and with his last conscious thought wondered how Qui-Gon’s evening was progressing.
* * * *
Qui-Gon Jinn was not a happy man. He gritted his teeth and held on as the Acceptance skipped through Amador’s upper atmosphere, while Captain Williams swore and pulled back on the stick, trying to keep the cruiser from losing any more altitude. There was a giant crack in the viewport, and Qui-Gon was sitting right in front of it, holding the transparisteel together with the Force. If they lost that viewport, they lost the cockpit—and their lives.
“This plan, it is not working out so well,” Tsui Choi said over the comm. He and Micah were riding in the gunner’s pods the cruiser was equipped with, firing at the Yinchorri starfighters that were still trying their best to blow them out of the sky. Siedel was running back and forth in the hold, regulating power as best she could and shouting instructions back at Williams in Talzzi.
“These damned things are tough!” Micah yelled.
“The fighters, they are difficult to destroy,” agreed Tsui Choi.
“Heavily armored, maneuverable little gnats!”
“Indeed,” said Tsui Choi. “My batteries, they are draining fast. A decision must be made soon, my friends. Our options, they are dwindling.”
Padawan Fida, who was watching the sensors in the rear of the cockpit, muttered under his breath before speaking up so the comms would broadcast his voice. “Masters, another one of the Yinchorri cruisers is turning, and it looks like it’s headed this way.”
Williams glanced over at Qui-Gon, waiting for a decision. Qui-Gon looked down at the planet below. “Down it is, Captain,” he said, taking a moment to strap himself in.
Williams nodded, but he looked grim. “I don’t know if I can keep this ship together for re-entry, Master Jinn. She’s taken a lot of damage.”
“I’ll worry about that. You just find us a place to land,” Qui-Gon said, drawing on the Force to keep them intact while Micah and Tsui Choi worked to keep them defended.
“You mean crash,” Williams clarified, smiling despite their situation. “Hang onto your robes, people. We’re going in.”
* * * *
“Sith Hells. Mace, we’ve lost the Acceptance!” Adi’s voice sounded in his ear.
Dammit. Mace risked a quick glance down at the sensors. The cruiser was still in tracking range, but it had entered Amador’s atmosphere and was falling fast. He shook his head, exchanging a quick look with Saesee Tiin. The Iktotchi Master veered the Starlight sharply to the right to avoid another volley of cannon fire from the swarm of Yinchorri fighters.
“Too far gone,” Saesee confirmed. “There’s no chance that we can use this ship to give them higher lift, even if we could get through this mess!”
Mace nodded, grim-faced. They’d taken serious damage, though the Acceptance had borne the brunt of it. The battle had started out well, with their five cruisers well-matched against the six Yinchorri capital ships that made up the blockade. Even after the Yinchorri hangar bays had ejected dozens of fighters, all of them heavily armed and armored, the odds had remained in their favor.
Then ten more Yinchorri capital ships had dropped out of hyperspace, with only a moment’s warning from the Force. The ships had lined up with dark efficiency, releasing hordes of fighters that had overwhelmed their cruisers. Not even Jedi could keep this pace up for long. “People, it’s time for a strategic retreat,” he announced, shielding his eyes from the fireball as a fighter that had slipped in too close exploded when their gunner pummeled it.
“Dammit, Master Windu, we don’t leave our people behind!” Lilit retorted from the Causality. “The Yinchorri fighters are right on the Acceptance’s tail!”
“At least the capital ships aren’t still raining fire down on them, Lilit!” Dama Ro said, coming up in the Trident Moon to take his place on Saesee’s wing. “They’re safer than we are right now. If we don’t get the hell out of here, they’re going to turn us into dust.”
“We’re down to four cruisers against thirteen capital ships and a swarm of fighters,” Mace said. “Backtrack to the yards. We don’t have the firepower to deal with this.”
“Thirteen?” There was a pause; when Even Piell spoke again, he sounded satisfied. “At least we accomplished something, Mace.”
“Let’s hope it’s enough,” Saesee murmured, and started a strafing run to give the Causality the chance to escape to hyperspace.
* * * *
Jorek, First Speaker of the Council of Elders, walked through the stark halls of the y’tineer. He was joined after a few minutes by Sothek, Second Speaker, though at first Sothek kept his silence.
“Is it really him?” Sothek ventured at last.
Jorek nodded. “It is. Now that you have joined me, we will speak to him together.”
They entered the communications center for the y’tineer, where a protocol droid waited next to a holographic emitter. “Activate it,” Jorek ordered.
The emitter came to life, revealing the image of a man who buried his features in a hood, leaving all in shadow. Jorek was not sure of the man’s species, but it didn’t concern him much—all bipedals looked alike to him.
“Greetings to you. This is quite an honor,” Jorek said, dropping his head in a human-like bow.
“Greetings, First Speaker,” the man said, and his voice was rough and cold, harsher than the winds of Yinchorr in winter. “I take it all is going as planned?”
“Yes. The Jedi have engaged the blockade around Amador. We allowed them to press their advantage for only a few minutes before bringing in another portion of the fleet. We have confirmed that they lost one ship on Amador. Our fighters are pursuing the survivors as we speak. We lost three capital ships in the attack, but our numbers are still far greater than theirs.”
“Excellent,” he whispered, and though he seemed pleased, Jorek felt the temperature in the room drop. They had never met their benefactor before, since he had always sent others in his stead. “It is time to consolidate your power, First Speaker. Your alliance with Grahrk has reached the end of its usefulness. Only the Council of Elders must hold sway in the Expansion region.”
Jorek shared a look with Sothek, who was frowning. “Elder Kardek will not be pleased, nor will Elders Volk and Petak. They gave their daughters in trade for this alliance,” Sothek said.
“That is not my concern. If you wish to restore the Yinchorri honor and rule this sector, sacrifices are called for. Clear the hurdles from your path, or fail. The choice is yours.”
Jorek lowered his head in acknowledgement. For the future of the Yinchorri, he would do whatever was necessary. “It will be done, Lord Sidious.”
* * * *
The ship was dark and quiet. Through the broken viewscreen of the Acceptance, Qui-Gon could see the first stars of evening appearing overheard, one by one. He turned in his seat, looking for Captain Williams, and was surprised to find no one there. For a moment he considered panicking, before dismissing it as a useless gesture. His next step should be to get up, to look around, to search for Micah, Tsui Choi, and the others…but he couldn’t. He just didn’t seem able to muster the energy it took to stand.
Time passed, and he felt no discomfort, no concerns. In a matter of minutes he saw proof of the cold form and freeze on the controls, though he felt no chill. Ah; he was dreaming.
With that realization came the appearance of his partner, kneeling beside Qui-Gon in the space between captain’s chair and copilot’s chair. But this Obi-Wan was not the young man he’d been working with for two years. This man was older, wearier, and his eyes were haunted by unfathomable losses. His hair was longer, but the bright copper had faded, and there was white at Obi-Wan’s temples and in random strands here and there. This was the Jedi Master who existed behind that young face and mischievous smile, the one Qui-Gon still had such a hard time acknowledging.
“Qui,” he said, smiling, as he rested his hands on Qui-Gon’s knees. “You are going to hurt when you wake up.”
Strange. Never had Obi-Wan addressed him so casually. “After the way this ship crashed, I’m not the least bit surprised,” Qui-Gon replied, discovering that it hurt to speak. Oh yes, he thought. Some part of my body is not the least bit happy with me.
Obi-Wan looked up at him, and light streamed in through the broken viewscreen and bathed his face. In that light his eyes were full of warmth, love, and no small amount of playfulness. “Don’t worry. You’re not going to slip off and make friends with the dead just yet.” Then the playfulness vanished, and he turned serious. “When you wake up, Qui-Gon Jinn, you get the hell off of this ship. Run. They’re coming for you, and they won’t stop until you’re all dead.”
Qui-Gon hesitated, torn by questions of how Obi-Wan could have known that. Then again, this was a dream.
Obi-Wan leaned in, close enough for their lips to brush (were Qui-Gon so inclined) and stared into Qui-Gon’s eyes. “Wake up, Qui. Wake—”
“—UP, damn you!” Micah was shouting. Qui-Gon jerked awake and then swore viciously as something pinning his right shoulder jabbed him with cruel fingers.
“Better!” Micah said, grinning with far too much cheer as he ignited his orange lightsaber. “Now I know that you’ll hold still while I lop this off.”
Qui-Gon glared up at him, then looked down to see the stabilizer bar that had gone straight through the meat below his right shoulder, pinning him in place against the seat. There was only enough of the bar visible to make it recognizable—the rest had to have emerged through the other side of the chair.
Later, he would remember that moment and spend a long period of time in the ’fresher, trying to decide if he was going to vomit. For now, a strong sense of urgency made him ignore the pain. “Hope it cauterizes the wound as you pull it out,” Qui-Gon muttered as the lightsaber passed through the air in front of him, trimming off the rest of the stabilizer a bare inch from his tunic.
“That’s the idea,” Micah replied, shoving the remains of the stabilizer out of the way. “There wouldn’t be much point in letting you bleed out on me, would there?”
Qui-Gon took a deep breath and then gripped Micah’s hand, steeling himself. “Pull,” he said, and then howled in pain anyway as Micah yanked the bar free. He bent over double, panting and seeing white and dark spots compete for dominance across his vision.
“Are you all right?” Micah asked, touching the place on Qui-Gon’s back where the strut had pierced through. The warmth of the Force came with that touch, and Qui-Gon almost sobbed in relief as the pain ebbed.
“F-fuck,” Qui-Gon managed through gritted teeth.
“You’re in great shape if you’ve got the breath to swear at me. You never swear at me, Qui-Gon Jinn. Makes me feel special.”
“Wasn’t swearing at you, Mic,” Qui-Gon said, grabbing the edge of the destroyed console and pulling himself to his feet. “Where are the others?”
“They’re in the back, gathering supplies. Tsui Choi is tending to Siedel, who took a hell of a knock to her head. Theen Fida has a few burns, but except for some great bruising, the rest of us are fine. We’re in good shape, Qui-Gon.”
Qui-Gon shook his head. “No. We have to get off of this ship, right now,” he said, stumbling forward. “They’re coming.”
“Sithspit,” Micah swore. He turned and leapt through the cockpit door, which was far more off-center than Qui-Gon remembered it being. He followed his oldest friend, ignoring the blood that was starting to stain his tunics. Not a full cauterization, then, but that didn’t matter. He wasn’t bleeding badly enough to die from it. He would die a lot faster if the Yinchorri found them.
“Let’s move it, people!” Micah was yelling as Qui-Gon made it into the main hold. “The Yinchorri are on their way! We need to get off of this ship.”
Williams shook his head. “Siedel can’t walk, Master Giett. Concussion, and it’s left her a bit rough,” he said. Siedel growled something at him in her own language, probably saying otherwise.
“I’ll carry Siedel,” Micah said, turning and pointing at Theen Fida. “Padawan, did you find the medical kit?”
“I’ve got that, Master Giett, but the rations are gone. Unless the Amadorians are willing to feed us, we’re going to get hungry.”
“Then we’ll get hungry. Tsui Choi, may I task you with covering our exit?”
The Aleena Jedi Master grinned. “My friends, they will never trace our path.”
* * * *
The next day dawned hot, dry, and miserable. Obi-Wan woke up to a dull ache in the bones of his face and a stunning amount of nostalgia for the desert air. Who would have ever thought he’d miss Tatooine?
There was also the matter of a dream that he couldn’t quite remember, but he didn’t feel a pressing need to dig it out of his subconscious. If it was important, the memory would return.
He was at Grahrk’s private docking bay in record time, nabbing a quick breakfast from a Yinchorri woman in the public market. He wasn’t sure what he’d eaten, but at least it had been cooked first. She seemed well-used to serving clientele that weren’t local, which was fortunate, as the Yinchorri tended to eat their food while it was still alive and screeching.
Vilmarh Grahrk had yet to make an appearance, but Eve was there. She offered him caff with a grin. “Early riser, or haven’t been to bed yet?”
“Early riser. I’m guessing you haven’t slept,” Obi-Wan said, sipping the caff and trying not to make a face. Not even Garen would have been impressed, and he at least liked the stuff.
“Not yet, Ben,” she replied cheerfully.
“Can I ask you something?” he asked, setting the caff down on the same crate that Vooma had used last night.
“Go for it,” Eve said. “Just watch your questioning. You know how paranoid some of us can get.”
“No, it’s not about Vilmarh’s work,” Obi-Wan said, shaking his head. “I heard rumors in the cantina last night that the Yinchorri had destroyed the Golden Nyss.”
Her smile faded around the edges. “That one’s not a rumor. It’s truth. The Yinchorri have put a fleet together. We’ve heard that they plan to take control of the entire sector.”
Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows in feigned surprise. “Aren’t you worried about that? I mean, if the Yinchorri are going to be waging a war right over our heads, this probably isn’t the safest place to be.”
Eve pursed her lips, considering, before stepping in close to Obi-Wan. “I like you, Ben. Villie considers us family, but you’re new. Don’t ask so many damned questions. We’re not worried about the Yinchorri, and you shouldn’t, either.”
Obi-Wan held up his hands. “Forget it. Instead, tell me how Olmar has managed to snag three Yinchorri wives.”
Eve laughed. “Oh, that. From what I’ve heard, they’re the ones who pursued him. We’ve been making jokes about Olmar’s prowess for months now. Now then,” she said, stepping even further into his space, close enough that her breath wafted across his skin. “We’re going to discuss business later. No word on our projects to anyone else, not even to your little boyfriend hanging out with the other crews on the moon.”
He grinned. “I figured you’d monitor my chatter.”
Eve nodded. “We haven’t survived this long without keeping an eye on our new recruits, Ben. What’s the deal with the two of you?”
“We’re together, but he’s taking this round of work off. Burnout. He stayed around in case I didn’t find work so I wasn’t stranded on this rock. And Gar’s not little, Eve. Not in either sense of the word.”
She chuckled, sending pleasant warmth against his ear. “Holos, or I don’t believe you.”
“EVE!” Jones roared, appearing on the ramp of the ship. “Stop humping the newb!”
Eve grinned and sauntered off, while Obi-Wan collected his caff and forced himself to take another sip. The last time this disaster had wrapped up, Olmar Grahrk had been imprisoned, charged with creating the alliance between the smugglers and the Yinchorri. His marriage to the daughters of several council elders had cemented the deal. That had paved the way for Olmar’s smuggling group to have first claim on any smuggling or trading contracts in Yinchorri-occupied space.
Except: It was quite obvious that Olmar was not in charge of this particular smuggling group—Vilmarh Grahrk was. Olmar might have gotten several marriages out of the deal, but Obi-Wan was willing to lay his lightsaber down on the fact that Vilmarh was the brains behind the alliance. What bothered him, left him with an uneasy feeling in his stomach, was that he knew that Adi Gallia had once questioned Vilmarh with her lightsaber held to his throat. After an intense set of questions, she’d proclaimed him innocent of any involvement.
Vilmarh had managed to lie to a powerful Jedi Master. Obi-Wan glanced up at the ship; Grahrk and his cousin were sleeping somewhere within. Both of them bore watching, but it was Vilmarh who might prove dangerous.
* * * *
That afternoon, when more respectable smugglers chose to rise for the day, he sat down with Vilmarh, Jones, Eve, and Olmar to discuss the smuggling run that Ben Kenobi would be flying on their behalf. “You familiar with the Perlemian Trade Route?” Jones asked.
“Intimately,” Obi-Wan said, nodding. He’d only spent six months sitting on top of the damned thing.
“Good. I want you to skip over it here,” Jones said, pointing through the hologram at one of the Mid-Rim junction points of Tynna. “You’ll hit Malastare from the back end and meet a Sullustan there named Shaggy.”
A Sullustan named Shaggy. Now there was a contradiction in terms. Obi-Wan smiled. “What’s my cargo?”
“In this case, a classic. Twenty metric tons of Muon Gold.”
Obi-Wan made a face. “That spice blend is foul, Vilmarh.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Vilmarh agreed, chuckling. “Which is why I only sell it to Bimms and Screes. Their physiology chews up the nasty bits and is as good for them as Grey Gebaki is for us. I want to keep my customer base, not kill it off.”
He nodded, giving the Devorian an approving glance. “Smart choice.”
Vilmarh grinned, while Jones pointed back at the map. “Your first drop is here,” he said, pointing at Kalarba. “The tourists make for good business. We leave half of the shipment there. Your contact is Veem Kaldora, a friend of Eve’s. The second drop is on Gyndine. You’ll leave half of the remaining spice on a private satellite. One of my contacts will pick it up later. You’ll come back here for refueling, and then you drop the rest of the cargo on Borleias. Another of Vinnie’s contacts will pick it up, because from there we skip it into the Corporate Sector, and that’s a whole other grav-ball game.”
“Out of a matter of politeness, we don’t play in their yard,” said Olmar, giving Obi-Wan a smile that tried to be friendly and ended just outside of sour. His shoulder had been relocated, but his arm was still resting in a sling. Obi-Wan guessed that the massive Devorian wasn’t used to losing those introductory bouts.
“All right. And then what?” Obi-Wan asked, glancing at Jones.
Jones smirked. “Well, then, newb—then you come home, and Villie decides on whether we keep you or not.”
Obi-Wan was considering a retort on the subject on whether he’d be willing to be kept when Grrranth raced in, distress in every line of the Wookiee’s body. He bent down close to Vilmarh and spoke, not realizing that Obi-Wan would understand every word.
[Villie, our people on the moon are under attack!]
“What?” Vilmarh’s face dropped the friendly mask, anger lighting his features. “What do you mean?” he demanded.
[The Yinchorri have gone after the smuggler’s moon, Villie,] the Wookiee growled back. [They’re in the midst of blasting it to pieces!]
Some of the anger became shock, and in Vilmarh’s eyes were the first traces of fear. “Are you certain?”
Grrranth gave him a disgusted look and pulled out a datapad. On it was the frozen image of several Yinchorri vessels surrounding the second moon. There were blurred streaks of red impacting the cratered surface.
“We need to get out of here,” Obi-Wan said, standing up as Jones deactivated the holographic map. The Force was trilling its own warning at him, telling him that it was time to move.
“We don’t need to do any such thing,” Vilmarh tried to say, but he was cut off by Grrranth’s howls as the Wookiee told him off in a colorful and anatomically incorrect fashion.
“What the hell’s going on, Villie?” Eve said, her blaster appearing in her hand, though it looked like she couldn’t decide who to point it at first—Obi-Wan, or Grrranth.
“The Yinchorri have attacked the smuggler’s moon,” Obi-Wan told her. “What, I didn’t tell you I can understand anything Grrranth says?” he said, blinking with innocence when all four of them rounded on him in surprise.
“It has to be a mistake,” Olmar insisted. “Vooma!” he yelled, turning and running for the docking bay offices.
The docking bay doors that led out into the street were hammered on next, and several hissy, reptilian voices spoke. “Vilmarh Grahrk!” they called. “You and your crew should join us quietly! If we have to come inside, we will make you pay!”
Obi-Wan looked at Vilmarh, who was staring, wide-eyed, at the door. “They promised,” he whispered. “This is not part of the deal!”
“I think your deal’s been cancelled,” Obi-Wan pointed out, then pulled out his commlink and thumbed it on. “Gar?”
“Busy busy busy busy!” Garen yelled, and even through the limited range of the comm Obi-Wan could hear the sound of laser fire.
“Summarize!” Obi-Wan barked, ducking on instinct when a loud thump sounded outside the docking bay doors. The Yinchorri were trying to get in. If not for Vilmarh’s paranoia and the reinforced doors, they would already be inside.
“Moon’s destroyed, Yinchorri chewed it to bits with no warning!” Garen said, and now Obi-Wan could hear the scream of the shuttle’s engines, straining in protest at what Garen was demanding of them. “I’ve got some of Grahrk’s folk with me. I’m skimming Yinchorr’s atmosphere now, but this ship is going down hard.”
“Hold on as long as you can,” Obi-Wan replied. “I’m coming.”
“Come on, you lot!” Jones was shouting. “Get on this ship and let’s blow this joint before they break down the doors!”
Obi-Wan turned and ran, a grim-faced Eve at his side, as they raced up the ship’s boarding ramp and entered Vilmarh Grahrk’s ship, the Inferno. [Strap in,] Grrranth told them both, already belting himself into a seat that looked like it had seen several years’ worth of Wookiee hair. [We’re jumping the bay doors once Jones blows a hole in them!]
The ship shuddered as the weapons fired. Obi-Wan was pressed down in his seat, straps only half in place as the Inferno rose up from the bay. There were several jolts to the ship as the Yinchorri on the ground fired on them, and then they were clear.
“It’s not safe to head out,” Obi-Wan said, dropping the straps as Eve unbuckled her own.
Grrranth nodded as he released his restraints. [Villie will head to the opposite side of the planet and wait to hear about the others in orbit. We’ll be able to see the Yinchorri coming, if they do, and get the hell out of here.]
After a few minutes of waiting and worrying about Garen, whose distress he could sense through the pairbond, Obi-Wan saw Vilmarh and Jones approach, both of them angry. “Ask that boy of yours about my pilots!” Vilmarh bellowed at Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan activated the comm again, wincing at the squeal of a signal that someone was making a half-assed attempt to jam. The signal cleared up as he and Garen both switched to a pre-designated bandwidth. “Gar?”
“I’m on the ground,” Garen answered, and there was pain in his voice. “Went down harder than I thought. My leg’s broken, so I’m not walking out of this wreck. Grahrk’s pilots are bleeding in a few spots, but we’re all alive.”
“Did anyone else get out of there?” Obi-Wan asked, before Vilmarh could yell the question himself.
There was a pause, followed by the shuffle of someone else stepping into pickup range. “Villie—we’re it, Boss. Every other ship I saw make it out of the moon was taken down by the Yinchorri.”
Jones’s face darkened with anger, while Eve spit out something in Huttese that even Obi-Wan wasn’t familiar with. Vilmarh, though…Vilmarh Grahrk just shook his head.
“Your luck’s run out then, Adams. We’re leaving.”
“What the hell—” Eve stared at Vilmarh as if he’d lost his mind. “We don’t leave our people behind, Villie!”
“We are not leaving them,” Obi-Wan said, over the roar of anger from Grrranth and the horrified denial of Villie’s pilots coming from his comm unit.
Jones gave them a dispassionate look. Vilmarh just shrugged, offering them a smile full of teeth. “That’s the way it is in this business, boys and girls. Time to cut our losses and run.”
Obi-Wan shook his head. “Fine, but take me back down there and drop me off. I don’t leave my people behind, and I’ll fetch yours while I’m at it.”
“Ben, I’m sorry, but that’s not happening. When we get where we’re going, I’ll be happy to let you off my ship. But I’m not going back down there,” Vilmarh said, still smiling, but his voice was harsh.
“I see.” With one swift movement and assistance from the Force, Obi-Wan had his lightsaber in his hand. He ignited the blade, leveling it at Vilmarh’s throat before Jones’s blaster could clear its holster.
“Oh, fuck me,” Eve sputtered, her eyes widening.
“I don’t think you understood me,” Obi-Wan said, smiling in return, but his expression was far colder than anything Vilmarh could come up with. “You’re going to take me back down there. You’re going to drop me near the crash site of their ship, and I’m going to save my friend and your people. What you do after that, I don’t give a damn.”
Vilmarh recovered quickly, laughing at him. “Ben—if that is your name—Ben, my dear Jedi, don’t be foolish. I know that you can’t kill me, not without getting in trouble with your Council and the Republic. What kind of a threat is this?”
Obi-Wan’s smile vanished. “You initiated an alliance between yourself and the Yinchorri, and encouraged them to go to war against the Republic. Those are some very serious charges, Villie. I could kill you right now and the Judicial Forces would thank me for saving them the cost of the trial.”
“Bah! The only thing you have is your own word, and you’re not old enough to have the reputation for that to be credible evidence,” Vilmarh spat.
Obi-Wan edged the lightsaber in closer to Vilmarh’s skin. The Devorian winced at the heat and stretched his neck in an attempt to evade the blade. “In your haste to save your own ass, Villie, you left dear cousin Olmar behind. I’m sure he and his lovely brides would be willing to testify against you, since you’ve left them to the Yinchorri’s tender mercies.”
Vilmarh’s defiance vanished. He must have known, as Obi-Wan did, that Olmar didn’t have the stomach to withstand Jedi interrogation for long. He swallowed, glancing over at Jones. “Jones, get this ship down on the ground.” When his Second hesitated, Vilmarh roared at him. “Now!”
“Sure, Boss,” Jones said, holstering his blaster and giving Obi-Wan a furious glare before disappearing into the access corridor for the cockpit.
“Gods and spit,” Eve said, still staring at Obi-Wan.
Grrranth, however, was starting to laugh. [You must be one of Reynaar’s students.]
Obi-Wan glanced at him, though he didn’t lower his blade. [Indeed. He’s a good teacher, but it was one called Chewbacca who prompted me to learn the language in the first place.]
The ancient Wookiee nodded. [I’ve known Reynaar for a long time. He tries to avoid me now, since he’d have to arrest me.] He chuffed another laugh. [Lives take us down strange paths, young Jedi.]
“Don’t they ever,” Obi-Wan replied, smiling.
Eve’s shock had faded, and now she glared at Obi-Wan. “Fucking Jedi. I should have known. What are you going to do, arrest us all?”
Obi-Wan shook his head. “I wasn’t on Yinchorr for you. I was only looking for information about the Yinchorri. I’m not interested in arresting smugglers for hauling low-rate spice. As far as I’m concerned, you can all leave with Vilmarh.”
Eve opened her mouth, closed it, and then looked at Vilmarh. The Devorian was staring down at the blue blade hovering under his chin, trembling. “Did you mean what you said, about saving our people, too?” she asked.
Obi-Wan nodded, noticing the way her eyes narrowed as she regarded Vilmarh. She was thinking something through, and the results would probably shake up Villie Grahrk’s little smuggling ring even more than the Yinchorri execution of his fleet.
The ship rattled as it settled in for a landing, and a moment later Jones reappeared. “That’s as close as I can get to the crash site without making us a giant target,” he said, fuming. “Now get the fuck off of this ship.”
Obi-Wan smiled. “Of course. However, if you go for that blaster as I depart, I’ll make certain that you can only masturbate with your left hand for the rest of your life.”
Jones swore at him, but kept his hands well away from his blaster as Obi-Wan stepped back, leaving Grahrk to collapse against one of the hold’s control systems. “Goodbye, Vilmarh. I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
“I fucking well hope not,” the Devorian retorted, touching his throat with his fingertips.
Obi-Wan turned to go and then paused, prompted by the Force. He glanced back; Eve approached Vilmarh, smiled, and stood on tiptoe to place a kiss on his cheek. “I quit, Villie,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll miss you, but I’ll have my honor to keep me warm. We look after our own, you bastard. And if I ever see you again, I’ll put a blaster bolt through your skull.”
Vilmarh scowled at his former Third as she sauntered past Obi-Wan, hitting the controls for the boarding ramp as she did so. Obi-Wan smiled, followed her, and heard the unmistakable sound of the Wookiee’s steps as he joined them.
“For gods’ sake, Grrranth. Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” Jones yelled.
[With them,] Grrranth replied, not even bothering to turn around. [Jedi are much more interesting to hang around with than cowards. I’ve wanted to rip some arms off of those Yinchorri twits since we arrived on this miserable rot-hole.]
Obi-Wan stepped down onto the hot sand, his boots sinking in, and it was a comforting feeling. The moment Grrranth had both feet on the ground, the ramp began to close. Jones lifted off without bothering to wait for the hatch to seal and engaged the sublights. The Inferno streaked off towards the heavens, leaving the three of them standing alone in the desert.
[Asshole,] said the Wookiee.
* * * *
The Yinchorri pirates were hounding the citizens of Amador. Qui-Gon and Micah did their best to keep their group hidden from view, but that was becoming harder by the hour. Several times they were spotted by Yinchorri squads and had to fight their way free, gaining more injuries as they went.
Theen Fida was using his right arm to support Siedel, though a blaster score marked his crest and he’d taken a bad hit to his left arm. The Talz was not faring much better. They had defended her well, but she couldn’t walk unassisted. Her leg wound, earned during a confrontation with the Yinchorri, was paining her just as much as the concussion, though she refused to admit it.
They stopped behind the dubious refuge of a building that had caved in during the Yinchorri’s aerial bombardment of Amador. Micah tore a strip from his robe and began wrapping his hand, stilling the blood from the knuckles he’d split after punching through weakened Cortosis armor. “How’s your shoulder?” he asked Qui-Gon.
“Hurts,” Qui-Gon answered, holding his lightsaber in his left hand as he stood watch. The entire area screamed danger, even though no Yinchorri squads were in sight. “I’m fine, Mic.”
Micah grinned. “Sure you are. And I still have all of my hair.” He tied the makeshift bandage into place, then retrieved his lightsaber from the ground and held it in his right hand. He’d already lost the other; Micah had set his lightsaber to overload and shoved it into the rear of a Yinchorri transport. The resulting explosion had covered one of their many escapes. Now he was a Jar-Kai practitioner without a second blade, but he was also a Form VI Master, and far from helpless.
“They’re coming,” Qui-Gon said, catching a glimpse of the pale green of Tsui Choi’s lightsaber as it flash-ignited to signal them.
Williams was in the lead, grimacing as he loped across the terrain at the highest speed he could manage. He’d twisted his knee in the crash, and a Yinchorri fighter had scored a mark on his hand that had left it damaged and useless. Qui-Gon felt intense sympathy for the Captain. If the injury couldn’t be healed, his piloting skills would be in doubt. It wasn’t a good position to be in when piloting was your livelihood.
“We’ve got a lead on a shuttle,” Williams said, bending over and resting his hands on his knees as he caught his breath.
“Indeed,” said Tsui Choi. “There is a docking bay not far from here. The ship, it is unguarded. Time is of the essence, my friends. We must go.”
Micah and Qui-Gon exchanged glances before looking back at Siedel and Theen Fida. [Ready,] the Talz insisted, holding up the blaster she carried in her right hand. [We go now.]
“Ready, Padawan?” Tsui Choi called.
Theen smiled, exhausted but confident. “Let’s get out of here, Master.”
* * * *
They crept up on the shuttle, which was easy to track—Garen had left a debris trail almost a klik long. Even then, they were too late; the Yinchorri scout ships had already landed, taking up position around the downed shuttle.
“I’m here, Garen,” Obi-Wan answered his comm. “We’re close, but the Yinchorri are a lot closer.”
“I know.” Garen said. “I guess we’re past that whole subterfuge thing now, huh?”
“Looks like it.” Obi-Wan smiled. “I made a couple of new friends, so it’s not all bad.”
“Sounds great!” Garen replied, trying to sound cheerful, but it couldn’t mask the pain in his voice. “Listen, I—I really don’t know what to do, here. Do you have the means to fight your way through the Yinchorri? Because we sure don’t.”
Obi-Wan hesitated, torn between encouragement and the truth.
Eve held up her blaster. “We could take them,” she said, confident in her own abilities.
It was Grrranth who put his paw on her weapon, pushing it down. [No, girl. They’re wearing Cortosis. You’re good, but they outnumber us.]
After Obi-Wan translated for her, Eve sighed. “And you left your bowcaster back in the docking bay,” she pointed out, frustrated. “What about you, Jedi?”
Obi-Wan shook his head. “There’s too many of them. It’s suicide if we go after them now.” He was about to flick outgoing signal back on when the Force whispered. He listened, and when he spoke again he knew how he was going to save his friend.
“The Yinchorri are executing Grahrk’s people, Garen. When they board the shuttle, tell them who you really are.”
“And they’re going to just believe that I’m not one of Grahrk’s pilots?”
“If you’re waving a lightsaber at them, yes,” Obi-Wan grinned.
“Good point. What about Grahrk’s people? They don’t look too happy about this whole ‘execution’ thing.”
Obi-Wan glanced at Eve Koh, then up at Grrranth. Their expressions were hard, ready and determined to do what it took to get their friends out alive. “They’d better learn how to be Jedi, fast,” he said. “Tell the Yinchorri that the other pilots are from the Temple, same as you. The Yinchorri aren’t into subtleties—they’re going to want to know how Jedi snuck onto their home planet without notice. They won’t kill you until they’ve interrogated you.”
“Right. Interrogation.” Garen uttered a watery chuckle. “You mean torture.”
Obi-Wan gripped the comm in his hands until his knuckles whitened. Garen had gone through the basics, same as every Padawan in the Temple, but he wasn’t ready for this. Force!
“Listen to me, Garen Muln. I will find you. That’s what the pairbond is for, remember? No matter where they take you, I can find you. And no matter what they do to you, I’ll be right there, just a thought away. Do you understand me?”
“You’d better come save my ass, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Garen replied, and there was a smile in his voice again when he spoke. “You still owe me shower sex. Oh, Sith take it, they’re coming in,” he said, and there was a garbled squawk from the comm as Garen either shut it down or destroyed it.
They watched the Yinchorri board the shuttle, and even from their distant vantage point they could hear shouting. Obi-Wan didn’t think to breathe, tension gripping him as he waited to see whether or not he’d just killed his best friend.
After three minutes had passed, the Yinchorri pushed the first pilot out of the twisted back end of the shuttle. “That’s Thol Heeniir,” Eve said, identifying the Firrerreon man.
Another human was shoved out, none too gently, and the unfortunate man wound up on his face in the sand. He struggled to get to his feet, spitting something unintelligible at the Yinchorri. [Adams,] said Grrranth. [If he doesn’t stop swearing, the Yinchorri are going to shoot him anyway.]
Last came Garen, who was thrown out of the shuttle to collapse onto the ground. Even at this distance, Obi-Wan could see the dark stain on his friend’s left leg. Fresh blood. The Yinchorri weren’t doing that broken leg any favors. Heeniir helped Garen to his feet, though it was obvious Garen wasn’t going to be upright for long.
Garen? Obi-Wan called, reaching through the link. No, no—don’t try to find me, he sent, as Garen’s head snapped around to search for Obi-Wan.
Sorry, Garen replied, and his mental voice was soft, a far cry from his usual boisterous self. Not used to this.
You’re doing fine, Garen. Can you tell me what they’re saying?
I wish. They’re hissing at each other in their own language. Arguing about something, I think.
I’m guessing they’re going to stash all three of you in a transport, but haven’t decided what their destination will be. We’ll follow as best we can. Obi-Wan noticed Adams was spouting off again. And tell Adams to shut the hell up before the Yinchorri rip his head off for fun, he added.
Garen turned and spoke while the Yinchorri made threatening gestures, and Adams fell silent, though Obi-Wan didn’t think he’d hold his temper for long. They took my lightsaber, Obi-Wan.
We’ll get it back. The squabbling ceased; the Yinchorri guarding Garen and the pilots motioned for them to walk to the nearest scout ship. Heeniir glared at the nearest guard before picking Garen up off the ground, carrying him to the ship.
I think I love this guy.
Be well, Garen. I will find you as soon as I can. Force be with you.
And with you, Obi-Wan. Just make it fast, huh?
Obi-Wan turned and focused his attention back on the smugglers. “We need a transport.”
Eve nodded. “There’s a settlement not far from here. Let’s go.”
Dusk saw them overlooking a Yinchorri bunker, their stolen speeder bikes stashed behind a line of boulders. They stood together, tracking the battalions of soldiers that were marching within. The setting sun threw the Yinchorri shadows into sharp relief, making them seem even larger, more intimidating, than they already were.
[Busy little bastards,] Grrranth commented. [No wonder Villie felt so comfortable making a deal with the Yinchorri. They sure as hell look like they could take on the Republic.]
Obi-Wan nodded, studying the layout of the complex. It was well-guarded, yes, but the Yinchorri were expecting to defend against a military force, not a strike team. That left him with options.
“We’re not getting in there without a battalion of our own,” Eve said, crossing her arms. “Or we could blast it from the air with a ship.”
“Option one is out. There are far too many Yinchorri ships wandering around for option two.” Obi-Wan smiled, thinking of the improvisations he and others had thrown together during the war when equipment had gone scarce and the Separatist threat had loomed over their heads. “But I have an idea.”
* * * *
Obi-Wan leaned against the outer wall of the bunker, the shadows keeping him hidden from view. The Yinchorri were overconfident, and had set no external sensors. Only cameras were being used for exterior bunker security, and those were easy to avoid.
When the first explosion tore through the darkness, he waited until he could hear the sounds of running feet before leaping up and over the wall, landing with a muted thud on the duracrete on the other side. He took a moment to smile at the flames shooting up from the main gate. Grrranth’s drive-by thermal detonator had certainly gained the Yinchorri’s attention.
Another explosion tore through the night, and this one crumbled part of the bunker’s retaining wall on the far side from where he stood. That one was Eve, applying detonator tape to a seam under the cover of darkness.
The bunker was to his right. Obi-Wan darted across the short space, unnoticed in the ensuing chaos. He rested the hilt of his lightsaber against the wall and ignited it, gritting his teeth as he forced it up and over, carving a door out of the durasteel. He kicked it in and ducked inside, and to his relief, found no one waiting in the hallway.
Obi-Wan’s sense of Garen told him he needed to go down at least one level, but he didn’t have time to go searching for a lift. He shoved his lightsaber into the floor and spent another moment cutting a hole large enough to let him pass through, taking out part of the power to the base as he worked. The lights flickered on and off, and alarms brayed inside and out.
He dropped down and almost landed on top of a Yinchorri guard, and with the first pass his lightsaber shorted out when he missed the armor joint. The guard hissed and raised his blaster, firing at point blank range.
Obi-Wan deflected it with his hand, wincing as the heat from it blistered his flesh. Right, he thought, as the Yinchorri halted in surprise. That’s why Anakin always wore gloves for that trick. He re-ignited his lightsaber and swung, taking the guard’s head off before he could recover.
He picked up the guard’s blaster rifle and walked further down the corridor, stopping in front of a junction. Garen was unconscious or asleep; he was getting nothing through the bond except for his friend’s presence. He turned and went left, and dealt with the next Yinchorri by shoving him down the hall with the Force, slamming him up against the far wall before letting him drop to the floor in a senseless heap.
Garen was behind the door the Yinchorri had been guarding, as was Thol Heeniir. The latter looked up when he entered, managing a smile of greeting when he saw the gleaming lightsaber in Obi-Wan’s hand. The pilot looked like he’d been beaten for hours, but his species were a strong, resilient lot.
“Greetings,” Heeniir said, his voice a rasp. “I take it you’re Kenobi?”
“That’s me,” he said, nodding as he tossed the Firrerreon the blaster rifle he’d acquired. “Where’s Adams?” Obi-Wan asked, bending down to kneel next to Garen.
He frowned, touching Garen’s face with gentle fingers. Garen was bruised and bleeding, but looked as if he’d endured nothing so far other than fists and a lack of medical treatment. The bones in his face were fractured but not distorted. At least three of Garen’s fingers had been broken, and others were dislocated. Nothing else was damaged save the wounds Garen had suffered in the shuttle crash. Obi-Wan breathed out a quiet sigh of relief, grateful that things hadn’t been worse.
“The Yinchorri barely focused on me, for all I look like hell,” said Thol, standing next to Obi-Wan. “That boy kept running his mouth, trying to make sure they focused their attention on him and not us. Worked for a while, but Adams couldn’t stop yammering. Once the Yinchorri realized that Adams had nothing else to offer them, they killed him.”
“I’m sorry,” Obi-Wan said. He reached for the Force and found the broken bones in Garen’s leg trying to infect. Obi-Wan quelled that and pinched a nerve, giving his friend some relief from the pain. The harsh lines on Garen’s face eased, though he didn’t regain consciousness. The rest would have to wait.
The Firrerreo gave the blaster a once-over, familiarizing himself with the weapon. “Who else is with you?”
“Eve Koh and Grrranth. They’re doing their best to distract the Yinchorri, but that won’t last long. We need to go.” He hung his lightsaber from his belt and gathered Garen in his arms, standing up and turning to face Thol.
Heeniir made a face. “Just between the two of us, I’d rather have you swinging that lightsaber than rely on my blaster rifle to save us. I’ll carry him.” Together they managed to get Garen draped over Thol’s shoulder. It wasn’t perfect, but the smuggler would still be able to fire as they went. “Now, we go,” he said, and let Obi-Wan precede him out the door.
* * * *
“So, you come here often?”
Quinlan Vos opened his eyes and gave the Jedi Knight standing in front of him a disbelieving stare. “That is the worst pick-up line I have ever heard.”
Jude Rozess laughed and sat down on the steps next to him, resting her hands on her knees. “Better than my asking if you were tired from running through my dreams all night.”
“But that one has a history! It’s a classic!” Quinlan grinned, stretching his legs out of the traditional meditation posture.
“The other one is also a classic, just less imaginative,” she pointed out.
“Are you bored, Knight Rozess?”
Jude collapsed back onto the carpeted stairs in a sprawl. “Gods, yes, Quinlan. Your company is wonderful, but three days of high alert status is starting to get to me.”
“If you’re getting that tweaked, you should call in your replacement,” Quinlan advised, his senses stretched out as he listened to the sounds of the Temple at midnight. Never did the Jedi Temple of Coruscant entirely sleep, for Coruscant was a busy world, and at least a quarter of the Jedi in residence were nocturnal. Still, it was quiet at the foot of the Grand Stair. He could hear the flow of air from the recyclers, and a distant droid bleeping as it tended a worn power coupling. Other than that, there was nothing. It had been uneventful since Master Yoda had assigned him as a temporary addition to Temple Security, though he got the feeling the ancient Master hadn’t been doing him a favor. There was some background hum that kept rising and falling, warning of a danger that had not yet come to pass.
“I’m not that out of it yet, though give me another two days and I’ll be considering it. Besides, I still have to convince you to come have breakfast with me when our shifts are over.”
Quinlan glanced over at his companion. “Quit inviting me to the commissary and I might consider it.”
“Picky, picky,” she replied, staring up at the massive, echoing space over their heads.
“Sorry, Jude. I’m with Obi-Wan on this. If I want food, I’ll buy it and cook it myself.” He grinned. “Or convince a charming young blonde to take me out for a meal.”
“Not on my salary,” Jude retorted, and her expression shifted into wary curiosity. “You know Knight Kenobi well?”
“Well enough,” he replied, standing up to continue stretching. It was almost time to do their rounds again, and he looked forward to being on the move. Sitting on his ass for half the night was something he was loathing to repeat again tomorrow. “We’re not best friends, if that’s what you mean, but you tend to get to know the Knights in your age range.”
Quinlan had worked with Obi-Wan on two occasions before casual friendship had taken root. Once had been when Obi-Wan was several weeks shy of his sixteenth year. Quinlan had been charmed by the boy three years his junior. The Padawan Obi-Wan had been was still learning his way, and a wry sense of humor had made up for a couple of stumbles during that shared mission.
The second time they had met, on Ragoon VI, Obi-Wan had been Knighted for eight months and had just turned seventeen Standard. That meeting stood out in Quinlan’s memory with stark clarity; there had been a frightening amount of knowledge lurking in those changeable eyes. Quinlan had taken one look at Obi-Wan’s face and all concerns he’d had over the younger man’s too-early Knighting had fled in a heartbeat.
The sense of humor was still there, though. That trait saved Obi-Wan from seeming too otherworldly to Quinlan’s eyes. Also, that boy could drink.
After their first meeting, young Quinlan had given idle thought to dating an older Kenobi, one who’d passed the stumbling stage but still possessed that wit and that glorious copper hair. Knight Kenobi, however, was someone Quinlan couldn’t even conceive of flirting with. He was simply not ready for the things that lurked below the surface of those glittering eyes. Every time he looked too long, Quinlan had the disturbing sense that Obi-Wan knew all there was to know about Quinlan Vos, including things that Quinlan had yet to figure out, himself.
Besides, if Master Tholme was to be believed, Obi-Wan’s interest had already been captured by someone else.
Jude was studying him, curiosity replaced by concern. “Are you all right?” she asked. “You look like someone just danced across your pyre stone.”
“I’m fine,” Quinlan said, trying to smile, to reassure. “I’m sure there are plenty in the Temple that wonder about Kenobi, but I’m not one of them.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jude hurried to say, though a flush stained her cheeks even as she spoke. He shook his head; her Master had done her no favors by not curing her of that little tell.
“I’m not deaf, Jude. I’ve heard the rumors same as anyone else. You’d think that since the man’s been a Knight for two years that folks would shut the hell up.”
“But…” Jude hesitated before realizing that Quinlan was waiting for her to continue. “He stayed partnered with Jinn. That has spoken volumes to some about his readiness for Knighthood, despite what the Council decreed.”
“Ah,” Quinlan said, nodding. “How old were you when you were Knighted, Jude?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Twenty-one standard, Quinlan. What’s your point?”
He stepped into a slow dance of the fourth kata, just to be blasted moving. “I was barely eighteen Standard when I was Knighted, and like a silly git, declared that I was ready to go on solo missions. Do you know what I learned, Knight Rozess?”
She shook her head, giving him her full attention. It was what Quinlan was starting to like about her. She was still a relatively new Knight, yes, and hadn’t toured the Outer Rim like he had, but Jude knew how to listen.
“I learned that I was a baby-faced boy to the rest of the galaxy. I was legal, but I had no reputation, no true understanding of what my Master had gone through to pave the way for me,” Quinlan said. “It was damned hard going. I learned how to use that ignorance to my advantage, after a while, which is why I’m still alive. But think of it, Jude—he was a sixteen year-old Jedi Knight, not even recognized as being of legal human age on most Inner Rim worlds. How much of a pain in the ass do you think it would have been to do the work the Council assigned?”
Before she could answer, Quinlan stopped the kata and knelt down in front of her. “Do you know why Padawan Davrin was ejected from the Temple, Jude?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head again. “I know he did something stupid, but most of us just assumed he was asked to leave.”
He grinned, tight and feral. “Oh, he was asked to leave, but he was escorted out by Judicial, and it will be a long time before he sees the sky again. His Master is on permanent sabbatical. None of us likes to find that we have harbored a rapist, or that someone who has guarded our back was caught attempting to murder one of his rape victims.”
Jude’s eyes widened. “Force and spit, Quinlan!”
“The only reason I know is because I was there, helping to catch the little bastard in the act. The records are sealed, partly to protect the integrity of the Order, partly because he was underage and therefore his identity is guarded by law. You will say nothing, not to anyone.”
“No, of course I won’t,” Jude affirmed, recovering with remarkable aplomb. “I just—I don’t understand why you’re telling me this in the first place.”
Quinlan sat back down, smiling. “If you keep up the work you’ve been doing, you’ll be head of Temple Security soon, and you can read the transcripts yourself.
“Before we discovered what Davrin was up to, I saw Obi-Wan try to speak to him. I missed most of the conversation, but I heard the important bit.” Obi-Wan told Quinlan later that he’d sensed something wrong inside Davrin, worse than when they were kids and Davrin was just an annoying part of a bullying trio. The description of what Obi-Wan had felt from Davrin had made Quinlan’s skin crawl. Later, Quinlan had sensed it as well, and felt nauseated for days afterward.
“He was asking Davrin to go to his Master and talk to her, to find help before he lost himself. Davrin’s response was loud and clear, though. I think every Jedi within a half-kilometer radius heard him. ‘No Council fuck-toy is ever going to tell me what to do,’ he said.”
Quinlan could tell from the way that Jude’s mouth twitched in disgust that she’d heard that particular rumor, too, and didn’t like it. “That was uncalled for, no matter the situation,” she said.
“Davrin left. Obi-Wan just stood there, watching him go. I imagine he’s heard worse, working the missions he and Master Jinn do, but it’s always different when you hear it from a fellow Jedi. Obi-Wan turned and looked at me, and on his face I saw everything I needed to know about the case I’d been working on, the rapes I’d been investigating. My partner and I tailed Davrin that night, and the rest you know,” Quinlan finished.
“Sweet Force,” Jude breathed, resting her face in her hands. “You know, you could have just said ‘Obi-Wan’s a great guy!’ and I would have believed you.”
“If that were the case, you wouldn’t have asked me,” Quinlan pointed out, smiling when she punched him in the shoulder. “I suppose I could have been subtler.”
“Quinlan Vos, I do not think you do anything subtle,” she said, her smile fading as she noticed the expression on his face. “What? What is it?”
He stood up, palming his lightsaber as he reached out with the Force. Gaps. He was sensing gaps.
“Comm Master Yoda,” Quinlan ordered, stepping forward. “I can’t sense Tieren or Valan.” They didn’t feel dead—no. There, the unmistakable feel of a Jedi passing into the Force. Close by. Shit. They were already right on top of the Temple, and their approach had gone unnoticed.
“Oh, hells,” Jude muttered, snagging her comm with one hand and her lightsaber with the other. She activated a pre-coded signal and then shoved the comm back into her belt. “Sticking with the plan?” she asked.
“Herd them up the main staircase as best we can,” Quinlan agreed, nodding. “Try not to die.”
“You, too,” Jude replied, and bolted off in the other direction to meet up with the East Tower Guard.
Quinlan went west, and from there the plan fell apart. He met his first Yinchorri pirate when the latter blew a hole through the outer wall with a thermal detonator. The blast took out two of the ancient statues that lined the hallway, several wall-hangings, and left a passageway the size of three Wookiees for the Yinchorri to invade the Temple.
He wiped the dust from his face and charged. “You know, we have a door chime,” Quinlan informed the reptile, shoving his yellow blade through the shoulder joint of the pirate’s armor. “Really, it’s considered very polite on Coruscant to use one.”
The Yinchorri howled and swung, catching Quinlan across the chest with something that looked like a very large vibroblade mounted on a pike. He rolled with the blow, gasping as he tried to get his wind back. Two more Yinchorri leapt into the temple, and the first one showed no signs of slowing down despite the fact that he was now missing an arm.
Perhaps this was going to be a bit more difficult than he’d thought. Master Yoda! Quinlan sent at full volume, too busy not dying to bother with a comm. I think we need a new plan!
* * * *
Obi-Wan awoke, smelled dry desert air, and spent a full seven seconds trying to comprehend where he was. The sounds he could hear baffled him; the feel of an arm draped over his side was warm and comforting, if confusing, but not as confusing as the fact that his fingers were entwined in someone else’s hair.
His sense of location and time jolted into place with a start. This was Yinchorr. The hair in his hand was attached to Eve, who was lying on her side, facing away from him. Strangely, it was Grrranth’s snoring that helped settle him. He sat up, easing himself out from under Garen’s arm, and peered around in the dawn light. The air was already warming up, and felt a lot better than the freezing night they’d endured, huddled together in a desert cave for warmth.
Garen woke up and peered up at him, and for a moment his hazel eyes showed the same confusion that Obi-Wan had awoken with. “Am I still dreaming, or did you get your scrawny butt captured by the Yinchorri, too?”
“I am not scrawny,” Obi-Wan retorted, calling on the Force before touching Garen’s left cheek. It looked to be healing nicely, though his friend’s face was a spectacular assortment of blue, purple, black, and green bruises. “How does that feel?”
“Hurts,” Garen said, shrugging one shoulder. “But not near as much as it did yesterday.” He held out his hand with a questioning look, and Obi-Wan took it, helping Garen up into a seated position. “Oh, wow, the world is spinning,” Garen said, staring around with a bemused expression. Then he glanced over at the sleepers next to Obi-Wan and grinned. “I take it these are our new friends.”
Obi-Wan nodded and pointed. “Eve Koh. Grrranth the Wookiee. Both of them are former members of Vilmarh Grahrk’s smuggling outfit. They weren’t happy about their boss running without mounting a rescue attempt. They helped me save you and Thol Heeniir.”
“Must have been a brilliant rescue. I’m sorry I slept through it,” Garen said, looking sheepish. Then he focused on Eve again. “Huh. I’m jealous. Not everyone gets the equivalent of a giant stuffed Wookiee to sleep with.”
Eve opened her eyes and looked up at them. “Giant stuffed Wookiees don’t snore.”
[I am not snoring. I am breathing deeply.]
“Man, I was dreaming about aerial bombardment. Deep breathing, my ass,” Garen replied, rubbing his jaw and wincing. Obi-Wan hid a smile while Eve buried her face in Grrranth’s arm, her shoulders shaking with silent laughter.
Grrranth sat up, dragging Eve with him. The smuggler buried herself in the Wookiee’s lap to stay warm, since out of all of them, she’d been wearing the least clothing when the Yinchorri had attacked the docking bay. [When I first met Reynaar, I thought it was just him. I have since come to realize that all field Jedi are smartasses. Is it some strange bonus that comes with being Knighted?]
Garen grinned. “I wouldn’t know. I’m just a lowly Padawan. Though, you should meet my Master. He can’t even get through a Council meeting without a smart remark.”
“And he’s on the Council,” Obi-Wan pointed out, which made Grrranth laugh.
Thol Heeniir ducked into the cave, the blaster rifle still strapped across his back. “Ah, good. Everyone’s back in the land of the living. And you look much better,” he said, turning to Garen and offering his hand.
Garen took it, nodding. “I told you, Jedi Healing is the best perk this job has. But I’m so glad I slept through it. I didn’t want to watch Obi-Wan fix my hands. It always looks creepy.”
“You’re welcome,” Obi-Wan drawled.
“Being that I have now been on the receiving end of that talent, I have to agree with you. However, we should really be going,” Thol announced, squatting down on the cave floor next to Obi-Wan. “The Yinchorri patrols searching for us have slacked off, so it would be wise to take advantage of that lull and find a new hiding place. The further we get from that bunker, the happier I’ll be.”
“We’ve got three speeder bikes, so two of us can double up again,” Eve said, leaning back against Grrranth’s chest. “But I’m open to suggestions about where we should go.”
“Can we expect further Jedi intervention, Knight Kenobi?” Thol asked, his tone formal. It was a Firrerreon gesture; the man had given up on his people’s custom of hiding his name from all, but other habits he still kept.
“Not for some time, Thol Heeniir,” Obi-Wan replied, for Thol had asked for a truthful response. “The Yinchorri fleet is pushing for control of as much of the Expansion Region as it can get, and the Order is trying to prevent other planets from suffering the same fate as Mayvitch 7. I also doubt that the Yinchorri are going to be letting any other craft into Yinchorr space, now that they know we’ve already slipped onto their planet unnoticed once before.”
[We’re on our own, then. Not too surprising,] Grrranth said. [I doubt that any of Villie’s old hiding holes are useful to us. If the Yinchorri have found Olmar, then he’ll likely have handed those things over to them to save his own skin.]
“What about the inn?” Thol asked, glancing at Eve.
Eve made a face. “It’s an abandoned structure in the capital,” she explained, when Obi-Wan and Garen gave her curious looks. “The Yinchorri might search there.”
Obi-Wan shook his head. “At this point, the Yinchorri may well search everywhere, Eve. There aren’t a lot of safe places, and it might serve us well if Vilmarh has no ties to it.”
[There is the possibility of supplies still lurking in the sub-basement of the inn,] Grrranth rumbled thoughtfully. [I would prefer not to live off of those annoying little scrub lizards for the next month.]
Eve still didn’t look convinced, though Obi-Wan couldn’t blame her. “It’s a place to start,” he said, helping Garen to stand. Garen wobbled back and forth for a moment, but the strength of his grip on Obi-Wan’s hands told Obi-Wan that Garen was at least capable of holding on for a speeder ride. “If the Yinchorri are too close, we can always move on.”
“All right,” Eve conceded. “Let’s go.”
* * * *
It was near dawn, Coruscant time, when Quinlan Vos found himself in the company of Depa Billaba, Master Yoda, and Yarael Poof. They had forgone the Council chamber, since a good half of the Council was embattled somewhere in the Expansion Region, and were seated in Master Billaba’s office instead. It was dimly lit, peaceful, and full of plants. Quinlan had always liked it, and had spent a lot of time in the room as a child, kneeling at his Master’s side.
Today, however, that peace was hard to find.
“How many did we lose?” Master Poof asked, his lined, weathered face seeming even more grim than usual.
“Knight Tieren Ne-Tan, Knight Valan, and Master Suon. Tieren and Valan died defending their posts. Suon shielded one of the support areas from a suicide bomber, but died in the blast,” Depa replied, her eyes full of quiet grief. “I had hoped to avoid the pyres this year.”
“Within the Force, they are, and never truly lost to us,” Yoda said, his voice grave. “Worse, it would have been, if warning we had not been given.”
That was something that Quinlan didn’t want to think about. This was bad enough. He couldn’t remember a time when Jedi had been killed on Temple grounds. Tholme would know.
For a moment, Quinlan sincerely missed his Master, and wished the man wasn’t holed up with T’ra Saa in the Dantooine temple. Fecking honeymoon.
“Knight Rozess and Knight Baytes were both injured in the attack, as was Knight Vos,” Depa said, giving Quinlan an accusatory look.
“I’m fine,” he said, trying not to growl the response. “One broken arm and one cracked jaw? That’s nothing.”
“I believe the Outer Rim term is ‘curb-stomping,’” Depa snapped, her voice harder than he usually heard it.
“Good thing there was an armor joint at the groin, then, wasn’t it?” Quinlan replied with forced cheer. “Otherwise you would be bereft of my opinions.”
“Why you are here, that is,” Yoda said, before Quinlan and Depa could continue. It wasn’t an argument, not really; Tholme and Master Depa had sniped at each other in good fun for years before Quin came along, and the habit had been ingrained by many visits. “Tell us, you will, your thoughts on the Yinchorri invasion,” Yoda instructed.
“They had schematics of the Temple,” Quinlan said, his voice flat. “They had to—they knew where to plant every charge to emerge into a primary corridor. I doubt that they just got lucky seven times. They knew which two guards to take out to get the maximum time for infiltration before we would notice. They were on their way to the primary support areas for the central tower when Knight Rozess and I intervened.”
Master Poof nodded. “Yes, that has been our consensus as well,” he said. The Quermian Master sighed. “We need more information.”
“More information we will have when stopped, the Yinchorri are,” Yoda retorted, scowling. “But this attack, helps our friends, it does.”
“Oh?” Quinlan perked up. If anything positive came out of this debacle, he wanted to know about it.
Depa nodded. “We could not elicit more aid from the Judicial Forces without Senate approval, but because the Jedi Temple has come under attack…”
Quinlan smiled, the first one he’d managed in hours. “…we come under special purview now. Master Depa, I could happily kiss you.”
“And my mate would be after you with a stick,” the Chalactan woman replied, smiling. “But yes, you are correct. We can call in another part of the Judicial Fleet and send them out to confront the Yinchorri with Master Windu and the others.”
Yarael Poof and Yoda got out of their chairs, though Quinlan gave Master Yoda a surreptitious hand down while Poof and Depa pretended not to notice. “More work we have to do this day,” Yoda said, planting his gimer stick firmly on the floor and giving Quinlan a look. “Return to the Healers you will,” he ordered, stern. “Unbroken you must be, if join the rest of the fleet you plan to.”
Quinlan’s head jerked up in surprise. Considering the scuttlebutt he usually heard about his unreadiness and potential darkness, this was a shocking but welcome honor. “Yes, Master Yoda,” he said, giving the ancient Master a bow. “I had planned on returning, regardless.”
“Oh?” Depa gave him a graceful raised eyebrow. “This is new.”
He smiled. “I am plotting, Master Depa. Someone has to introduce Knight Rozess to real caff.”
* * * *
“That was the worst damned landing I have ever seen,” Mace said, tightening the bandage on Qui-Gon’s shoulder.
“Fuck you, Mace,” Micah said, raising the oxygen mask from his face so he could reply. “I thought that was a beautiful landing.” He shoved the mask back into place and glared.
“Especially considering that we were on fire,” Qui-Gon pointed out before shoving his own mask back over his nose and mouth. Smoke inhalation always made Micah cranky.
“I concur,” Micah replied, his words distorted by the mask when he didn’t bother to move it.
For a moment, Mace smiled. “It’s good to see you both. The others are in better shape than you two, since the smoke filled the cockpit but not the cargo area.”
Qui-Gon frowned, even though that was good news. We lost Siedel.
We almost lost Theen Fida with her, Micah added, then coughed into the mask for good measure despite sparing his voice. I thought Tsui Choi was going to eat those Yinchorri for breakfast.
“Padawan Fida will live, though I imagine his crest will be scarred. Tsui Choi is with him while the medics tend to him, making sure there’s no further damage.” Mace inspected the bandage he’d wrapped. “How does that feel, Qui-Gon?”
He moved his shoulder experimentally. His range of motion was limited, but better than he’d experienced while stranded on Amador. “Better. Thank you, Mace.”
Mace nodded. “Can’t have you old men falling apart on me, can I?”
Micah lifted the mask again. “Who the hell are you calling old?” he groused.
“You, you idiot,” said Adi, walking up next to them and pulling the oxygen mask back down onto Micah’s nose. “Breathe before you pass out.”
Micah grumbled but did so, which was a good thing, considering the green tinge to his skin. Qui-Gon doubted he looked any better. What did we miss? he asked.
“A disaster,” Mace said, his eyes sparked with anger. “The Yinchorri have a fleet larger than anything we’ve seen in decades—maybe even centuries. We’ve got a count now on twenty-six capital ships, and that’s not a confirmed total.”
“Great,” Micah muttered through the mask. “Four Judicial ships and a couple of shuttles against twenty-six well-armored destroyers? I hope Coruscant knows that we’re going to need help.”
“Chancellor Valorum hasn’t been getting anywhere with that damned committee,” Mace said, shaking his head. “We’re not getting help from that quarter anytime soon.”
Adi surprised them by smiling. “Then it’s a good thing the Yinchorri were stupid and went after the Temple, wasn’t it? Thanks to that, we now have the authority to call upon the Judicial Fleet directly. I was just speaking with Master Yoda and Depa. There are ten ships on their way out to join us with full complements of volunteer fighters. It doesn’t even up the odds, but we’ll think of something. We always do.” Her smile faded. “A success never comes without cost, though. Master Suon and two of our Knights were killed in the attack.”
Qui-Gon leaned back against the shuttle boarding ramp. Three of them lost, and they weren’t even on the front lines. It wasn’t unheard of for skirmishes to happen on Temple grounds, but this was different. The Yinchorri had just brought the war to their doorstep. “Who?” he managed despite his tight throat and the threat of a coughing fit.
“Master Suon, Knight Tieren Ne-Tan, Knight Valan. They are being held in stasis until the Yinchorri crisis is dealt with,” Adi said, laying a hand on Mace’s shoulder. “Yoda wants to wait for the pyres until we can all return to honor them.”
“Force keep them,” Mace murmured, while Micah swore under his breath. Mace turned his attention back to Qui-Gon and Micah. “We haven’t heard from Knight Kenobi or Padawan Muln since engaging the Yinchorri fleet. Are they all right?”
Micah nodded, slipping the mask off as his skin regained its normal color. “Garen’s alive, but that could mean anything. You, Qui-Gon?”
“Obi-Wan is as well, though I can’t tell you anything more than that.” The background hum of the pairbond was reassuring, and he was grateful for it. However, after having dwelled apart for days, Qui-Gon was keenly aware of how much he missed Obi-Wan’s running commentary and soft, steady mental voice. It made him wince to think about how ridiculous he’d once been, trying to insist that he wanted to resume working alone. Why the hell had he ever thought that a good idea?
“Good. When you two are ready, we’re going to meet in the briefing room. We’ve got a lot of planning to do if we’re going to stop the Yinchorri with the resources we have,” Mace said, allowing Adi to give him a hand up.
Qui-Gon pulled the oxygen mask off, enjoying the sensation of breathing without feeling choked, as he watched Captain Madakor stride up to Mace. “Yes, Captain?”
Madakor gave the senior Councilor a sharp nod. “Master Windu, there’s an incoming transmission for you and the other Jedi. It’s coded, so I’m not sure who it’s from, but the origination point is somewhere in the Yinchorr system.”
Qui-Gon struggled to his feet, helping Micah up as he did so. Mace gave them both a concerned look, but nodded. “Send it to the briefing room. We’ll take it there, Captain.”
Micah was gripping Qui-Gon’s arm with tight fingers. “Do you think…” he trailed off, worry for his Padawan in every line of his body. Now that they were not running for their lives, every waking moment consumed with the defense of others, worry for the other members of the Yinchorri mission was paramount.
“Let’s go find out,” Qui-Gon said, both of them following Adi and Mace away from the unfortunate wreck of their pilfered shuttle.
By the time they made it to the briefing room of the Starlight, Eeth Koth and Saesee Tiin had joined them, as had Dama Ro, Lilit Twoseas, and Padawan K’Kruhk. Even Piell was in the infirmary, they learned, literally sitting on Plo Koon to make sure the other Councilor allowed himself the time to heal after a collision had thrown him against a bulkhead.Mace was frowning down at the controls, glancing up on occasion at the static that filled the emitter field.
“Huh. I’ll be damned,” Mace said, typing a response for the encryption. “I haven’t even finished writing this code yet,” he muttered under his breath.
The static didn’t clear up entirely, but the holographic matrix resolved into the form of Obi-Wan, visible from the waist up. He was staring down at the console instead of at them, forehead furrowed as he gave something on his end of the communication a glare. “Wait,” he said, holding up one finger. “No audio on this end.”
“Hell, I can fix that,” a female voice answered, and the projection jumped in time to the sound of a loud thump.
Obi-Wan looked up, smiling at someone out of pick-up range. Qui-Gon frowned; even through the monochrome blue of the emitter, Obi-Wan’s nose and cheeks were darkened by bruising, and his nose looked swollen. “You won’t believe how often that works.”
“Sure I would,” Micah replied first, grinning. “Where’s my Padawan, Kenobi?”
“Here, Master!” There was the sound of quick steps, followed by Garen shoving his way in front of the visual receiver. If Obi-Wan’s face had been marred, Garen looked like he’d been splattered with large globs of ink. “Hello!”
Micah raised an eyebrow. “Padawan, what the hell happened to you?”
Garen grinned, and there was a noticeable blank where one of his lower front teeth was half-gone. “I got the crap beaten out of me.”
Micah opened his mouth, hesitated, and looked at Qui-Gon, completely at a loss. Don’t look at me! Qui-Gon sent back. None of my Padawans were into pain.
Force as my witness, I am now out of my depth.
Mace crossed his arms and leveled a stare at Obi-Wan. “I take it things are not going so well on your end, either.”
“Not so much, no,” Obi-Wan replied, turning serious. “We got lucky and found the impetus for the Yinchorri’s actions—a smuggler, Vilmarh Grahrk, used his cousin Olmar to initiate an alliance with the Yinchorri Council of Elders. He then used that influence to push for Yinchorri dominance of the region, knowing that he would get the first stake in any and all shipping contracts that resulted.”
Adi looked like she couldn’t decide whether to roll her eyes or bury her face in her hands. “Let me get this straight,” she said. “This entire war is being fought over smuggling rights?”
“At first, yes. But the day after we arrived, the Yinchorri decided to call off the deal and went after all of Vilmarh Grahrk’s people. He doesn’t have much of a smuggling ring left to work with. As far as we know, only he and his second in command escaped Yinchorr. The only surviving smugglers on the planet are with us—a pilot, Grahrk’s third in command, and the crew mechanic.”
“I have new intel to update the databanks with, Masters,” Garen chimed in. “The second moon of Yinchorr is no longer a smuggler’s haven. In fact, there’s not much left of it at all. Also, Masters, I hope Judicial wasn’t too attached to that shuttle they loaned us, because it left a nice trail of parts behind it when I crashed the thing.”
“Don’t feel too bad, Padawan,” Dama Ro said, smirking in Micah’s direction. “Once Judicial discovers that your Master crashed one of their cruisers, no one will worry about your shuttle.”
“Hey!” Micah protested. “I had nothing to do with the Alliance. That was all on Williams. However, I take full credit for the shuttle we borrowed.”
“Well, now we know where all of Garen Muln’s bad Knighthood habits will come from,” Lilit murmured under her breath. Qui-Gon had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. He must still be heady from the oxygen; his control was normally far better than this.
“It’s good to see you mostly intact, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon said, and Obi-Wan glanced over at him. “I do believe I’ve told you that it’s unwise to follow in my footsteps in certain regards.”
There was a moment of bafflement before understanding dawned in Obi-Wan’s eyes, and he fingered the bridge of his nose, grimacing. “Looks worse than it is. Keep forgetting to heal it.” Then he narrowed his eyes, taking in the bandages that were visible through the tear in Qui-Gon’s tunic. “Is that from a stabilizer bar?” When Qui-Gon nodded, Obi-Wan blew out a sigh, shoving his hands through his hair. “Bloody hell. I thought that was a dream.”
Qui-Gon noticed the others give him curious looks, feeling off-center. “I thought it was a dream, too.” There was no way the pairbond had facilitated that sort of communication. It wasn’t that kind of bond—it simply should not have functioned that way. “Though the timing was excellent, so I am not complaining.”
“Right,” Obi-Wan said, shaking his head. “Later for that, then,” he said, and began telling them, in order, what had befallen him and Garen on Yinchorr. At one point Micah looked like he was going to spit nails when he heard about Garen’s capture and subsequent beating at the hands of the Yinchorri. That quickly turned to an expression of pride when Micah discovered how well Garen had handled himself, the lives he had attempted to save, and how useful he was proving himself to be when not confining himself to the cockpit of a ship. For himself, Qui-Gon was pleased with how resourceful Obi-Wan was being, trapped as he was behind enemy lines on a hostile planet with a group to look after.
“We’re hiding out in the sub-basement of an inn that Eve Koh and Grrranth knew about,” Obi-Wan was saying. “The upper sections are almost all damaged and looted, but the lockout on this level held until I used a lightsaber on it. We’ve got supplies and running water that will last a while, and there’s a good chance the Yinchorri will ignore this place. I don’t think they will expect us to hide right in the capital.”
Then it was their turn, with Mace, Adi, Saesee Tiin, Qui-Gon, and Micah filling in what had happened on their side of the offensive. The loss of the Acceptance was one thing, but Qui-Gon was surprised to hear about the Trident Moon’s near-derelict status. With the Acceptance gone, it had taken on the brunt of the Yinchorri forces during the last attack. They were down three more of the armored shuttles, and the three remaining cruisers were undergoing extensive repairs even as they spoke. They had lost none of their own people, but the Judicial Forces were down several crewmembers, and many more were injured. “We’ve got ten cruisers with full fighter complements coming in,” Mace said, “so we can hold off awhile longer, but we’re facing off against at least twenty-six capital ships.”
“Thirty-one,” Obi-Wan corrected him, grim. “We’ve noticed at least five in orbit above Yinchorr. If they’re guarding their home system, it might be safe to assume that there are ships in orbit above Yitheeth and Yibikkoror as well. If there are five here…”
“Then there might well be fifteen ships in the Yinchorr system alone,” Eeth finished, his mouth settling into a hard line.
“Forty-one capital ships,” K’Kruhk whispered, his hand reaching out to grip his Master’s. “I’ve never seen a fleet so large.” Qui-Gon wanted to voice his agreement but did not, thinking that it would add to the current level of anxiety. Only the fleet the Hapan Cluster maintained came close to matching what the Yinchorri had assembled. Judicial’s fleet was larger, but most of Judicial’s ships were not armed and were therefore nigh useless against this sort of firepower. Qui-Gon found himself wondering, for the first time, when the Republic had decided that disarming its police force was a good idea.
“This was well-planned,” Saesee mused at last. “It was no easy task to keep this many capital ships hidden from view and from rumor.”
“Even if we clear out the twenty-six ships we’re already dealing with, the backup isn’t going to be enough,” Adi said, planting her hands on her hips as she looked over at Mace. “There could be more Yinchorri ships hidden away. We need to call in the Temple reserves.”
“Agreed,” said Eeth Koth. “How soon could we expect them?”
“Considering how many of our pilots are already out in the field?” Mace shook his head. “Not soon enough.”
“We’ll see what we can do about the five sitting over our heads,” Obi-Wan said. “Our options are limited, but we may be able to come up with something.” He gave Qui-Gon a wry smile. “I never thought that I would miss…” He trailed off, his expression going slack.
For a moment, Obi-Wan just stared at nothing. Even at this distance, Qui-Gon could almost feel mental gears turning. He’d seen Obi-Wan in moments like this before. The usual result could typically be summed up as sheer brilliance. “Obi-Wan?”
“Miss what?” Lilit Twoseas snapped, her patience thinned by days of fighting.
Obi-Wan focused on her, a tiny, radiant smile forming on his face. “The military,” he said, his eyes lighting up in almost manic delight.
“Kenobi, would you mind enlightening the rest of us?” Mace asked.
Obi-Wan was already off again, mentally, and he reached up to something they couldn’t see. “Call you back,” was his only response, before the emitter returned to broadcasting static.
“Of all the—” Mace rounded on Qui-Gon. “This is your fault. He was your Padawan, and he has taken all of your maddening quirks and raised them to an art form.”
Qui-Gon found an answering smile of his own on his lips. He wasn’t sure, but he had an inkling about what Obi-Wan might be up to. “Thank you.”
Mace threw up his hands. “Whatever it is, I hope he does it fast. We’re going to see another round with the Yinchorri before this day is over.”
Mace turned back to find Adi standing there, eyes closed. “What is it?”
“Having an idea of my own, Master Windu,” she said, and when she opened her eyes, she was smiling. “If we try to actively go up against the Yinchorri again, we’re likely to lose the ships we’ve got left. Forget that. I say we get the Yinchorri to chase us.”
Saesee frowned, though Micah had an interested gleam in his eyes. “That could prove difficult. So far they have not been willing to leave the planets they are trying to raze.”
“Then we need to make them want to seek us out. It would be even better if we can give the impression that we’ll make an easy target,” Adi insisted.
Eeth snorted. “That, Master Gallia, will not be difficult.”
Lilit’s Padawan chuckled. “We could always just open the comms and shout insults about their parentage, Masters.”
They all turned and looked at him, and K’Kruhk did not seem comfortable being the sudden focus of so many Masters at once. “You know, that’s a really good idea,” Micah said at last, and K’Kruhk blinked a few times and managed to smile back.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but my epithets are not so threatening,” Eeth said. “Do you have anyone in mind?”
Adi nodded and looked at Mace.
Mace glared back. “Adi, no. I really, really prefer not to.” When she kept staring, he sighed. “Dammit. Fine.”
“Yes, well, if Kenobi was here, we’d make him do it. That boy has a mouth on him,” Adi said, grinning. “You’re the next in line for foul language, Mace. You know more Huttese than the rest of us, and I know you can swear. You used to turn the airwaves blue when we were younger.”
“A lot of that was Xan’s impetus,” Mace muttered.
“Xan just wanted to sleep with you,” Adi retorted, softening it with a smile.
“No, he did not,” Mace said, giving in and shaking his head. “Believe me, I offered.”
It took Qui-Gon a moment to realize that he was listening to his friends speak of his Fallen Padawan…and he wasn’t trying to get away, to evade their words. (He really didn’t want to hear details about who Xanatos had tried to bed among his agemates, though.) So this is what healing feels like, he thought, and the ghost of melancholy touched him.
“Enough, people,” Micah said, glancing at Qui-Gon. He nodded in return, grateful for his oldest friend’s intervention. “We have a bunch of pirates to taunt.”
* * * *
When Obi-Wan explained his idea to the others, it was Grrranth who stated the obvious. [That’s crazy,] he said. [Do you have any idea how absolutely crazy that is?]
“I notice you’re not saying it’s impossible,” Obi-Wan pointed out, and Garen smiled.
The Wookiee threw up his hands and muttered something unintelligible before stalking off. Thol, meanwhile, had a thoughtful expression on his face. “I’ll go with you,” he said. “I am by no means altruistic,” he hurried to say, when Eve gave him a surprised look. “But I am no fool, either. The Yinchorri are going to make it harder for us to earn a living, not easier. They already stomped out Villie’s operation. What’s to say they won’t do that to all of us? The Republic might not like us, but at least they tolerate our existence.”
“I’m in,” Garen said. “Though I’d be happier if I had my lightsaber.”
Obi-Wan gave Garen’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze, while Thol looked at Garen, amused. “What’s the matter, Kid. Can’t fire a blaster?”
“None of us leave the Temple without learning to fire a blaster,” Garen replied. He’d lost count of the number of times he and Master Micah had encountered that attitude, and it wasn’t worth getting insulted over. “I suppose I agree with my Master. Anyone can use a blaster to kill at a distance. It’s another thing entirely to kill people when you’re forced to stare them in the face.”
Thol frowned, then nodded. “Understandable. My apologies, Padawan Muln. I stand corrected, and educated.”
“No offense taken, Thol Heeniir.”
Eve sighed. “Hutt’s balls. I’ll go, too. It sounds better than sitting here, doing nothing, hoping I don’t discover Yinchorri in the hallway. Besides, I’m a better shot than Thol.”
“Prove it, young wench,” Thol said, offering her a challenging smile.
“Any day, any time,” Eve retorted, grinning.
Grrranth rejoined them, the bowcaster he’d recovered from the docking bay resting casually in his arms. [Hell with it,] he said. [I did say I wanted to rip some Yinchorri arms off. If I don’t do this, I may never get the chance.]
Obi-Wan nodded, smiling at the Wookiee’s declaration. It was only Garen who noticed that the smile did not quite reach Obi-Wan’s eyes.
Garen glanced away, uncomfortable, and noticed the unhappy look Eve was sporting. “Well, volunteering to die aside,” she said, leaning forward. “We don’t exactly know where to look.”
“I know of one place to check,” Obi-Wan said, and that strange gleam was back in his eyes. Garen wasn’t sure yet if he liked that look, or if it was one of the scariest fucking expressions that he’d ever seen. “If that doesn’t pan out, I have another idea.”
* * * *
“Anything?” Obi-Wan asked, his comm newly attuned to the frequency that matched the one Garen had acquired.
“Nu-uh,” Garen replied, wind and static distorting his voice. “This place is dead, Obi-Wan. If they were here, they left a while ago. I don’t blame them. It’s not the most well-guarded place to be if you’re trying to run a war.”
“All right,” he said, exchanging glances with Eve, who had shadowed her features with a cloak in case anyone recognized her as Villie’s Third. Between the lack of shaving and grooming, it was doubtful anyone would recognize him, or have use for Obi-Wan for anything other than a possible mugging. “Get back to the inn. We’ll see you soon.”
“Take care,” Garen said, and there was a soft click as the connection closed.
Obi-Wan smiled at Eve. Despite her status as a Third in a successful smuggling operation, she still looked nervous. “Relax. They don’t bite unless you pay them to.”
Eve nodded, though she didn’t look convinced. “Do you really think you’ll find someone in that cantina willing to work for a Jedi?”
He snorted, pulling up his coat collar against the evening chill. “Eve, pay them enough and they’ll work for anybody, no questions asked.” He stepped down into the cantina, and it was almost as dark inside as it was outside.
Obi-Wan let his eyes adjust, scanning the crowd while making a pretense at dusting the sand from his coat. Trolling for bounty hunters was a dangerous pastime, and it never hurt to be cautious.
When his eyes lit upon one particular individual, he almost froze mid-motion.
The Force did like its little jokes.
* * * *
The cantina was noisy and dark, just the way he liked it. He leaned back in the booth, positioned for easy access to at least three weapons, if need be, and enjoyed the chaos.
He looked up as a ginger-haired kid that was far too pretty for Tol Kashorn slid into the booth across from him. This one was scruffier than he was used to seeing, but that, coupled with a very lithe form and easy grace of movement, just added to the potential attraction. Too bad he’d chosen the wrong customer.
“I’m not looking for that sort of company,” he said, his tone harsh. There were too many damned whores in this town.
“You’re Jango Fett,” the kid said, his voice softer than Fett had expected. The bounty hunter re-evaluated the situation and realized that there was danger lurking in those cool gray eyes, and the coat he was wearing was designed for ease of movement. Fighter, this one. Pretty, yes, but no prostitute.
Damn it all. It’d been a long time since he’d misread someone so badly.
Ah, what the hell. Fett didn’t have anything better to do at the moment—might as well find out what was going on. He could always drop a body in the nearest alley, if it came down to that.
“Not a lot of folks recognize me without the helmet,” he said, giving the kid a hard stare. “Most of those that do, they don’t live that long.”
The kid gave him a brittle smile. “I know. You’ve quite the reputation, and an honorable one.”
Fett frowned and glanced down at the kid’s hands, where he’d left them resting casually on the table-top, one of the more common signals for wanting conversation without gunfire. Fuck-all, he wanted to snarl. He knew those calluses. The little bastard was a Jedi, and if the lack of braid was any indication, he was a Knight. He’d never seen one this young, but Fett knew well enough that looks could be deceiving.
“I’ve done nothing that warrants the attention of the Jedi Order, boy,” he growled, wondering if he needed to go for the hold-out blaster hidden in his sleeve. “All of my work is free and clear, legal under the guidelines of the Guild.”
The Jedi looked back at Jango, tilting his head. “I don’t give a damn about any of that. I’m speaking to you because I want to hire you.”
Fett narrowed his eyes, frowning. “I didn’t think the Jedi trafficked with the likes of us.”
“You’d be surprised at the paths the Force leads us down,” he replied, an unexpected amount of cynicism in his voice. “There is no exchange of credit involved, but if you’re not otherwise engaged, I’m willing to offer you a deal that will gain you a certain percentage of recovered Yinchorri weaponry and supplies, enough to represent a ten percent increase over your normal fee.”
“You don’t have the authority to make that kind of arrangement,” Fett said, though in truth he was thinking about it. So far, his time on Yinchorr had been a waste, and Guild work had been slow of late. If the Jedi were involved, the Yinchorri were going down. It might take awhile, but the Republic wasn’t going to ignore the uprising of the scaly bastards, not while they were strafing planets that were worth money.
“This place is a warzone. I wouldn’t work for anything less than what you’ve mentioned, plus a bit of access to one of the ships from the Golden Nyss, should you manage to get them back.”
The Jedi grinned. “You mean we look the other way while you make one of those vessels conveniently disappear.” He was quiet for a moment. “Being as I’m the ranking Jedi on Yinchorr right now, I do have the authority to make this kind of arrangement.”
He eyed Fett, and there was something shining in his eyes that Jango wasn’t used to seeing from a Jedi: Respect. “I need you to find some people for me, maybe run a little interference on the side. Do this, on my terms, and I will hand you the security codes for one of the ships myself. There is just one further condition.”
“And what condition is that?” Fett asked. There had to be a catch to all of this. The catch was probably the job; if it was something the Jedi was willing to hire out for, it was bound to be difficult.
“When you sell the ship for the proceeds, you make sure it goes legitimate, or close to it, at least. I don’t want to encounter a Golden Nyss vessel one day in the hands of pirates or slavers. Or the Hutts, for that matter.”
Fett’s mouth twisted in a sour grin. Those were his best chances at a quick, clean sale at high value, and the kid probably knew it. Still, there were other options, and whatever profit he could pull in would be untouchable by the Guild. “What’s the job?”
Fett listened, at one point nodding in appreciation of the Jedi’s sense of strategy. Later, when Fett discovered that the kid was the only ranking Jedi on Yinchorr, he couldn’t decide whether to swear, laugh, or admire the sheer gall of it. Obi-Wan Kenobi thought like a Mandalore. Jango Fett approved.
* * * *
It took three phrases in Korun and two choice words in Huttese to get the Yinchorri’s attention. One of their captains replied to the Huttese with a suggestion that made Adi’s ears burn, but to her delight, Mace growled back a response that was both crude and physically impossible.
She’d loved the man since she’d watched Mace stumble through Xanatos’s devilish flirtation with him. One day she was going to figure out what it took to actually get the stubborn Haruun Kal to accept her affection. With any luck, it wouldn’t take another three decades. Force as her witness, she didn’t want to wind up in the position Tahl had found herself in with Micah Giett. Mace Windu wasn’t oblivious, at least. Just intractable.
“I’ll be damned. They’re turning this way!” Dama Ro cackled, interrupting her thoughts.
“Great. Now we get to run for our lives,” Theen Fida commented from his station at navigation. His head crest was heavily bandaged, but otherwise the Padawan had recovered from his injuries on Amador. “I suggest we go now, Masters.”
“Not yet,” Micah’s voice crackled through the comm. “They’re not firing at us. We’re not leaving until we know they’ve taken the bait.”
Captain Madakor shrugged. “Try insulting their mothers?”
“Hmm.” Mace looked thoughtful. “Adi, what was it that Xanatos used to say about Master Duaarr?”
Adi forced down a laugh. “While amusing, I don’t think, ‘You’ve got a nice ass’ is going to make them angry.”
“No, not that one.” Mace paused, then uttered a phrase in Huttese that she’d never heard, or if she had, she’d buried it. Adi didn’t know what it meant, but it had the desired effect. The Yinchorri began firing on their ship.
“Now we disengage. Captain!” Mace ordered, and Madakor grinned as she brought the Radiant VII about.
“Hang onto your asses, folks,” she said, pulling back on the throttle. The sublights responded, and they leapt forward, sweeping around in a wide arc and dodging blasts from the quickly approaching Yinchorri ships.
* * * *
“What is that place?” Garen asked, pushing his hair back from his eyes as the wind gusted across the stone plateau they stood upon.
Fett, armored but sans helmet, pointed at a large, flat building. It was not a bunker, and looked nothing like a military base—which, Obi-Wan suspected, was the entire point. As they had hidden in an unlikely place from the Yinchorri, the Council of Elders had hidden themselves away on a farm, far from the conflict they had begun.
“That’s a y’tineer,” Fett said, and pointed out two buildings to the eastern side of the flat building. “What the locals call a farm, though in some instances a y’tineer also has religious significance. There are two squads of Yinchorri guards stationed inside those outer buildings. They stay out of sight, and they’re not wearing armor or uniforms. They dress like the farmers they’re supposed to be, but I’ve never seen farmers that heavily armed.”
“Any other security?” Obi-Wan asked, as Eve and Grrranth took turns studying the y’tineer through a pair of stolen macrobinoculars.
“Nothing for the outside except a basic sensor sweep, though they’ve got a good vid-feed setup,” the bounty hunter responded, crossing his arms. “It’s easy to get close, which makes me suspect that there is enough security hidden inside to fend off an army.”
[Are you sure that’s the place?] Grrranth rumbled, lowering the macrobinoculars.
Fett was quiet for a moment, translating for himself what the Wookiee had said. “I’m sure, all right. There’s a more obvious trail, I’ll admit, but it leads to Uhanayih. Rumor has it that Yinchorri High Command is holed up there, and maybe that’s true. But the orders for the Yinchorri fleet aren’t coming from Uhanayih. There’s not enough comm traffic coming out of there, not for folks who’re running a war. My guess is, the Council of Elders put a few members of High Command up there on a sacrificial platter, hoping you lot would take the bait.”
They prepared for Jedi interference far more than they did the last time, Obi-Wan thought, for the diversion was a good one.
“There were a lot of inconsistencies with the paperwork trail for this particular farm, also,” Fett continued. “And if it’s a real farm, it’s not set up to make a profit. See those moisture vaporators?” Fett pointed to several of the machines, visible as silvery points down below.
Obi-Wan did a quick count and shook his head. Blast, but he should have noticed that. Then again, if he’d searched for this place on his own, it could have taken weeks to uncover. Fett had the means and the reputation to get information fast, which had been the entire point of hiring a bounty hunter in the first place. “Enough vaporators to support the inhabitants, but nothing left over to sell,” he said, and Fett nodded.
“And that,” Fett said, pointing to the communications array set a short distance from the farm. “It’s doing a damned good job of pretending to be just a simple signal dish, but there is enough hardware on that thing to detect traffic coming in from the edge of the Yinchorr system. They’ve got their ears open, these folks. Even if you can get in without being slaughtered by the Yinchorri squads, there are five ships in orbit. They can call them down onto your heads before you make it to the front door.”
Obi-Wan nodded. “So we don’t take the direct approach. Take out the communications array. Distract the capital ships, and make sure they’re too busy with other things to give this y’tineer a hand. Incapacitate the exterior squads. Get inside, find the Council.”
“Well, that sounds easy,” Garen snorted in disbelief. “Why don’t you just ask for a Tauntaun while you’re at it?”
“Because they smell,” Obi-Wan said, thinking about the number of bunkers he’d seen as they’d made the ride out to this particular farm. If the squads there mobilized before they made it into the security of the y’tineer, there would be trouble.
Obi-Wan turned to Fett, who was staring at him with an unreadable expression on his face. It made him remember another time that they had faced off, smiling and polite on Kamino, each of them knowing just what the other was up to. He’d also had the disconcerting feeling that Jango Fett had been undressing him mentally.
Then they had gone out into the pouring rain and tried to beat the hell out of each other.
Jango Fett had reason to hate Jedi, a good one, thanks to Master Dooku’s misread of the situation on Galidraan. Obi-Wan didn’t believe that Dooku had done it intentionally, but his actions had once set the stage for massive interstellar conflict. Fett was also a man who worked for money in order to survive. Right at this moment, Obi-Wan could feel the other’s distrust—that Obi-Wan was just another Jedi using Jango to achieve an end, and that the payment he’d been promised would turn out to be a lie.
Staring into those black eyes, Obi-Wan wondered if there was an ally to be found in the bounty hunter. Or, at least, maybe enough mutual respect to build a relationship on that meant Obi-Wan wouldn’t risk getting killed anytime he and Fett were on the same planet. It would be a nice change.
“What ship are you flying now?”
“An AI-AT, Kuat Drive make,” Fett said, his eyes narrowing. “You’re not flying my ship, Jedi.”
“Good, because you are,” Obi-Wan replied. “Are you, by chance, carrying around any seismic charges?” When Fett nodded, Obi-Wan smiled.
Now they had a chance.
* * * *
Captain Madakor looked up at Adi Gallia and shook her head. “It’s no good,” the petite woman said, glancing down at her readouts, which showed red-lining engines. “I can’t get any more speed out of this bucket of bolts, and our shields are starting to go.”
“It’s all right. Five more seconds!” Adi told her, willing the shields to hold just a moment longer. Mace was co-piloting, shutting off alarms before they could deafen them, and trying his best to help Madakor keep the ship flying. “Whatever you said to them, Mace, it really pissed them off.”
He flashed her a rare grin. “Don’t ever ask me what I said. Your parents would flay me alive, Jedi Master or not.”
“You have an entirely irrational fear of my family, Master Windu,” Adi replied, catching herself on his chair when another blast rocked the ship.
“Oh?” Mace diverted another fraction of power from weaponry to shields, and they both hoped the power core wouldn’t critical out from the demand. “Is that why you decline to visit Corellia whenever you can get away with it?”
She scowled at him. “You and your inconvenient recollection of my schedule.”
Theen Fida yelled over the roar of battle, “They’re coming, Masters! Counting down from five!”
“Get ready, Captain!” Mace snapped. “Remember: Do not alter course, no matter what you see!”
Madakor gave him a worried look. “Some days I hate flying with you people.”
“One!” Theen Fida yelled, and in that moment ten Judicial cruisers dropped out of hyperspace, their hangars spilling out fighters as they came.
“Oh, holy fuck!” Madakor whimpered, her face ashen, as the fighters and cruisers streamed past her ship. One of the cruisers was literally in spitting distance, sailing past with their communications arrays just missing each other. The maneuver had been arranged in advance, with Saesee Tiin relaying their heading and position, updating it every time the Yinchorri had forced them to alter course.
The result was spectacular. They all watched on the sensors as the eight capital ships that had pursued them from Dorin broke ranks, trying to turn away from the fleet that had just dropped in almost on top of them.
The comm crackled, but the signal came from one of the new ships. “Greetings, Masters. I do hope our timing was satisfactory.”
Adi grinned; Mace looked delighted. “Padawan!” he said, toggling the comm to reply. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Eh, the dear troll decided it would be a nice surprise,” Knight Echuu Shen-Jon replied, wry lilt to his voice. “Excuse me, Master. I’ll be coordinating our forces on this side so we can deal with the parasites that are hounding you.”
“Glad to hear it. We’re going to limp out of the way. The Radiant VII’s had all the fight she can handle for now.”
“I’ll clear them off,” a new voice added. “I have some friends with me who have brand-new fighters to break in.” Adi and Mace glanced at each other in surprise as they recognized Quinlan Vos. His presence was even more unexpected than Shen-Jon’s, which made Adi curious as to what potential Yoda had seen in the young Knight during the Temple attack.
“You heard Knight Vos,” Shen-Jon said. “Clear off these parasites, and disable those ships!”
* * * *
“You look nervous,” Obi-Wan said, adjusting the armor Garen was wearing while the other stood stock-still, chewing on his lower lip.
“I am nervous,” Garen admitted, shifting around experimentally after Obi-Wan signaled that he was done. The armor had been borrowed from a Yinchorri detachment they’d run into the previous day. It was meant for a species much bigger than the standard human, but Garen could wear it without too much trouble. Obi-Wan had insisted that at least one of them needed to be blast-proof. “How can you not be nervous?”
Obi-Wan stood up, adjusting the gauntlets he’d cut down to size, placed over leather padding to keep the metal from biting into his skin. If he had to deflect any more laser blasts, he wanted to do it without getting covered in burns. The Cortosis he’d added in hopes that it was a precaution and not a necessity. “I’ve done this a lot.”
Garen glanced down at him. “Remembering a war, huh?” he asked, his eyes filled with a mix of sympathy and apprehension.
Obi-Wan smiled. “Everything’s going to be fine, Garen.”
He shook his head. “Do you really think so?”
“Well, it is better to think that than to run into battle chanting ‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die,’” Obi-Wan pointed out.
Garen sputtered a surprised laugh. “Yes, all right, so I was just thinking that. Besides, there are worse things that could happen. We could be captured and executed. We could get blown up.” He paused. “We’re not going to wind up executed, are we?”
Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow. “I really hope not.”
“Yeah. Me, too,” Garen said, watching as Obi-Wan holstered an extra blaster rifle into a sling on their speeder bike. “Can I ask you a question?”
“You just did,” Obi-Wan couldn’t resist saying.
“Smart ass,” Garen shot back. “You’re…Force, Obi-Wan, you are good at this. I think if Eve, Grrranth, Thol, and I weren’t here, you’d still manage to pull something like this off, and in record time. You could be out there earning a hell of a name for yourself. Why stay paired up with your ex-Master?”
Obi-Wan sat down on the bike, resting his feet on the stabilizer bar so he could plant his elbows on his knees. “Necessity, at first,” he said, trying to find the right words. “After the necessity passed…well.” He smiled again. “I’m where I want to be.”
Garen frowned, quiet for a moment. Then his eyes lit up. “Oh! You mean…right! Well, that’s awesome. He’s not quite my type, but, you know…”
“Your type is Dressellian,” Obi-Wan teased.
Garen choked and offered Obi-Wan a half-hearted glare. “I’m not even going to ask how you know that.” They stood there for a few minutes, not speaking, just existing together. The Force gave them that, and the pairbond amplified it, gave them the means to share in each other’s feelings before walking into chaos.
He wasn’t filtering as much at the moment, so it was no surprise Garen noticed one frustrated thought. His friend narrowed his eyes. “He doesn’t know, does he?”
Obi-Wan shook his head. “He hasn’t noticed, no.”
“Well, crap.” Garen walked over, took Obi-Wan’s hand, and said in his most serious tone: “Is he fucking blind?”
He smiled, and even to him it felt forced. “Garen, he’s involved with someone else. I’m not all that interested in breaking up relationships.”
To his surprise, Garen laughed. “Oh, hell no. Master Tahl and Master Qui-Gon might be dabbling, but there’s never going to be a relationship between them, not as long as Master Micah’s alive.”
Obi-Wan stared at Garen, feeling like he’d been punched in the gut and thrown from a cliff. Garen noticed immediately, grabbing Obi-Wan’s shoulders. “Are you all right?” he asked, his eyes huge and worried.
I had asked Tahl to bond with me.
She said no.
Oxygen came back, along with an understanding of certain events that he had never had before. He sighed, dropped his head against Garen’s chest, and took a moment to put his world back in order. It explained so much, though it didn’t detract from the horror of what he’d once lived through. “She loves Micah?”
“Yeah. Bant told me one night, when we were gossiping about sex, relationships, and who was doing what to whom. Tahl doesn’t really talk about it, but Bant says that she’s been in love with Master Micah since they were kids. He just doesn’t notice.”
Two oblivious Jedi Masters. Obi-Wan couldn’t resist a watery chuckle. No wonder Qui-Gon and Micah matched each other so well.
“Hey, if you two are going to make out, can I at least watch?”
Obi-Wan lifted his head and looked over to find Eve, Thol, and Grrranth standing there, armed and ready for battle. They were also wearing near-identical smirks. “No, Eve, you don’t get to watch. Participate, maybe.”
“You’re a tease,” Eve retorted, but she was grinning. Between Thol and Obi-Wan, they’d manage to carve a set of Yinchorri Cortosis armor down to size, and she was wearing enough to protect vital areas. Thol and Grrranth had elected to go without. “Are you two ready to go?”
Obi-Wan looked up at Garen, who drew in a deep breath and touched the Force, settling his jangled nerves. “Ready,” Garen said.
Thol nodded. “The charges are set.”
Obi-Wan thumbed on his commlink, opening a channel to the other member of their impromptu strike force. “Ready?”
From his docking bay in Tol Kashorn, Jango Fett replied. “Jaster’s Legacy is ready to launch, Kenobi. Make the call.”
Obi-Wan reached out to the Force to calm himself. He was nervous, even if he’d hidden it to allay Garen’s unease. So many things could go wrong.
No, he thought, resolute. No one dies today. “Launch.”
“Clearing the bay doors now,” Fett replied. “Counting down from five minutes.”
“Acknowledged.” Obi-Wan shut down his comm. There were days when he adored Mandalorian professionalism. “Let’s go.”
They mounted their bikes—Garen and Eve on one bike, Obi-Wan and Grrranth on the last two. “Good luck,” Thol said, holding up a handful of controllers. “May the Force be with you all.”
“And you,” Obi-Wan said, while Garen offered the Firrerreo a wide grin. He kicked the bike’s accelerator, lurching forward. Garen took up the left wing position. Grrranth settled into place at his right. Together they dropped over the edge of the stone plateau, the whine of the bikes increasing as they raced towards the Yinchorri Council’s hiding place. As they approached, a plume of orange flame rose up, signaling the death of the y’tineer’s communications array.
* * * *
It would have been so much easier if Kenobi had given Fett permission to just annihilate the Yinchorri ships in orbit. Still, there was a certain amount of skill needed to do what he’d been asked, and Fett liked a challenge.
The navicomp was pre-programmed for each jump, adjusted for each capital ship’s position in orbit. He left the gravity well and made the first jump, coming out of hyperspace a moment later with the first ship in view. It was dangerous, jumping this close to orbital range of a planet, but the Jaster’s Legacy could handle the stress. His old teacher’s ship had done harsher things.
“Hello, you scaly bastards,” he murmured, launching the first seismic charge. It sailed through space towards the ship, innocuous, until the timer counted down to zero. Then it blew apart in spectacular fashion, and a wave of blue energy stretched out along a specific plane in space. It struck the Yinchorri ship before they could begin evasive maneuvers, pounding into the hull.
He watched the ship go dark, smiling in satisfaction. That was why he never wanted to find himself stationed aboard a large ship. His nimble old girl evaded the blast with ease, and he made the mini-jump to the next orbiting Yinchorri cruiser.
* * * *
He had it calculated down to the second. By the time his commlink chirped, letting Obi-Wan know the last ship in orbit had been disabled, they had ditched the bikes and were hiding next to the gate at the front of the y’tineer compound. The squads stationed outside had already roused themselves, and only a few guards had remained behind, standing watch in front of their bunk houses and the y’tineer’s door. As Fett had said, none of them were armored. That struck Obi-Wan as foolhardy. Were he in their place, he would have assumed an attack and made the troops dress appropriately.
The other guards were now outside the compound, intent on finding out why their array had exploded. The smoldering remains were a fair distance from the y’tineer, and that left Obi-Wan’s team with the perfect opportunity to act.
While Obi-Wan pointed out each shot, Eve took out the external security cameras and the power for the sensor grid. “I told Thol I could outshoot him,” she said with a smug grin.
[Yes, but he’s the one who gets to blow everything up. Technically, you’re still losing,] Grrranth rumbled.
“Fuck off, you giant stuffed Wookiee,” Eve retorted after Obi-Wan translated for her. Garen and Grrranth took out the remaining guards with a few well-aimed shots. The compound clear, they rushed inside, lining up on either side of the y’tineer’s sealed door.
Garen took the opportunity to raise his own commlink. “Thol, your turn again!” he said, thumbing it off and replacing it on his belt. Then he stuffed his fingers in his ears, as Eve and Grrranth were doing, just in time for the two guardhouses to explode. Obi-Wan muffled the blast with the Force to protect his own ears, wincing as hot embers rained down on his exposed skin.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Eve hissed as they all pressed up against the wall to evade falling debris.
[You’re asking now?]
“You’d be surprised at how single-minded people can be,” Obi-Wan replied, then ducked back into place as the door released with a pneumatic hiss. A squad of Yinchorri guards, fully armed and armored, came running out of the doorway, yelling at each other in their own language. Obi-Wan caught bits and pieces of dismay, anger, and shock at the destruction. More importantly, he sensed that there were no more Yinchorri joining this squad.
“Now,” he whispered, and let the others precede him into the y’tineer before ducking inside.
The control panel was glowing in the dim light inside, and he pulled open the front cover. The security system was new, easy to use, one he’d seen a lot of in later years. New technology wasn’t going to save them this time. Obi-Wan gained access just as the first Yinchorri began to turn back in their direction, shouting out in recognition of the new threat.
“Bye-bye!” Garen called, waving as the doors sealed. “That went well. Now what?”
“Now we find the Council of Elders, subdue them, and get them to surrender,” Obi-Wan replied, igniting his lightsaber as he began walking down the hall.
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Garen said, taking up the standard Padawan position three steps behind him. In this case it was the best position Garen could take to cover Obi-Wan’s back, but it made the hair on the back of Obi-Wan’s neck stand up anyway. “How are we going to do that?”
“Not sure. I’m still working on that part,” Obi-Wan said, grinning at the snort of amused laughter Garen responded with. “Quiet, now, all of you. We’ve got plenty of Yinchorri left to deal with, and they’re all going to do their best to stop us. Don’t take any chances. Shoot for the head. Most of them aren’t wearing Cortosis up there.”
Behind him, Garen sighed but said nothing, knowing that the stakes were too high and the odds stacked against them. Fighting to incapacitate would do them no good here, and likely get them killed.
It was also possible that they were working against a clock. Taking the Yinchorri fleet out ship by ship was doable, yes, but the other Jedi had been lucky so far. Sooner or later, people were going to start dying. Obi-Wan would do his best to make sure that didn’t happen.
They walked further into the complex, glancing around as they went. While the outside might have been staged as a working moisture farm, the Yinchorri had never bothered to mask the true purpose of this y’tineer. The halls were stark and empty, and rooms showed places where the Yinchorri slept, as well as weapons caches. There were a few rooms that looked like cells, and other rooms were stacked high with supplies. Obi-Wan kept sensing the presence of the other Yinchorri, but they came no closer.
At the end of the last junction was an open turbolift, fully lit, ready for passengers. He stopped, waiting for the others to notice it.
Garen stepped up beside him and glanced over at Obi-Wan, his blaster rifle pointing at the empty lift. We’re walking into a trap, aren’t we?
Looks that way, he said.
What should we do? Garen asked, eyeing the turbolift suspiciously.
Obi-Wan shrugged. What else could they do? The Force was telling him that they needed to go down to the next level, whispering in his ear about a knot of Yinchorri clustered together, waiting. Spring the trap.
That isn’t a great plan, Garen complained.
But it’s what we have. Trust me, Garen. This is the right path.
Garen smiled. I trust you. But do we trust them? he said, meaning Eve and Grrranth.
Obi-Wan reached out for a moment, gripping Garen’s arm. Everyone gets the chance to make their own choices.
His friend nodded in understanding. Like Davrin.
They entered the turbolift, which was a bit cramped with Grrranth’s presence, but Obi-Wan wasn’t comfortable with the idea of splitting up the group. Likely they were under surveillance, though he hadn’t noticed any system access when locking the Yinchorri squad outside. He wasn’t going to take the chance of leaving someone behind to become a potential target.
The ride down was swift, and the door opened to reveal a long hallway. At the end was an open door that spilled light out into the corridor. He could hear the sound of hissed words within. Yinchorri.
The turbolift closed behind them, and he heard the distinct hum of the lift rising back up. “Now they’re coming,” Obi-Wan said, sensing numerous presences upstairs converging on the lift. “Go!”
They bolted down the hall, he and Garen side by side, with Eve and Grrranth on their heels. He raised his lightsaber as they entered the room, which was a large, open area that held a long table. He saw movement and bisected a Yinchorri guard’s arm when he tried to raise his weapon in response.
“Eve!” Obi-Wan yelled, but the smuggler was already at the control panel, sealing the doors and scrambling the lock. Garen shot the second guard in the face, swearing as he did so. The guard fell, and as one he and Obi-Wan turned and pointed their weapons at the Yinchorri Council of Elders.
They were seated in a line down one side of a long glass table. Two of them rose, and Obi-Wan took in the blasters they carried, and noticed the tell-tale sign of plate armor hidden beneath their robes. “I am Jorek, First Speaker of the Council of Elders. You are intruding.”
Eve stepped close to Obi-Wan and muttered under her breath. “These guys do not look cowed by that lightsaber, Jedi. I hope you’ve got something brilliant in mind.”
The second Yinchorri spoke. “I am Sothek, Second Speaker. We have been expecting you, Jeedai.”
“We thought you might be,” Obi-Wan said, exchanging a quick look with Garen. Whatever was going to happen, it was close, so close. He just couldn’t see what. “You must know why we’re here, then.”
“Indeed,” said Jorek, and he looked behind Obi-Wan and gave one sharp nod of command.
Danger flared, and Obi-Wan raised his lightsaber, expecting a bowcaster blast. He didn’t expect Grrranth to pick him up bodily from behind. The Wookiee wrapped one arm around his ribs, crushing him and keeping him from drawing further breath. In the next moment something snapped into place around his throat.
There was a second in between one heartbeat and the next, a stillness. Then the bottom dropped out of his stomach and the world tilted on its axis. His lightsaber dropped from nerveless fingers, and Obi-Wan screamed as the Force went away.