Rated R for sex, violence
Summary: Action/Romance/Angst Takes place three years before Episode II. Sequel to "Sanctum Ad Infinitum"--Three weeks later. Finding Nare is the least of their problems.
The knock on the door was quiet, but insistent. Saloma P'tol looked up from her packing and frowned. It was late. She wasn't expecting anyone.
"Coming," she called out, weaving her way through the scattered shipping crates and furniture. She opened the door and looked up in surprise. "Obi-Wan?"
Her heart fluttered inside her chest at the sight of him. She hadn't seen or heard from him in a week, but she fought the urge to embrace him. The fact that he had finally shown up tonight of all nights seemed suspicious to her. She should have known he wouldn't make this easy for her.
Looking tired and slightly rumpled, the Jedi stood outside the threshold and looked past her into the hotel suite where she had been residing while on Coruscant. Sensing her wariness and noting the distinct lack of a greeting he'd received, Obi-Wan quickly apologized for the intrusion.
"I'm sorry. I know it's late, but I wanted to speak with you. May I come in? It will only be for a few moments, I promise."
Saloma sighed heavily, feeling vulnerable with his sudden close proximity to her. She wasn't sure her willpower was up to being put to the test tonight. She remembered all too clearly what had happened between them back on Aremont the last time she had tried to leave him. But he did say he would only be a few moments. Finally she nodded and stepped aside.
"I was just finishing up and was about to take a break for tea anyway," Saloma replied hesitantly. Clearing her throat, she closed the door behind him, and strode into the living area of the suite putting some distance between them. She smiled indulgently. "You didn't need to come all this way tonight. My transport doesn't leave until midmorning and I wouldn't have left without saying goodbye. You know that."
Obi-Wan locked his eyes on hers and took a deep breath. "I know that."
"So, you've something else on your mind?" She daringly stepped closer to him, her forced smile quivering. "Let me guess. I don't even need to read your thoughts, your eyes betray you. You think I'm making a mistake."
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that," the Jedi countered quietly. "But I do wish you would postpone this." He furrowed his brow, confused by her unexpected cool disposition. "Anakin told me you had called this morning and that you had already made arrangements to return to Aremont. I had to wonder how much thought you've really given this decision, Saloma. Surely you know it won't be safe for you on Aremont right now. It's too soon. It's only been a few weeks."
"Mmm, I guessed right. Why else would you have come here tonight? You haven't tried to see me in the last five days, but then Anakin told you I was leaving, so at the last minute, I must have gotten added to your list of things to do. Oh yes, remember to talk Saloma out of going back to Aremont," she taunted. She paused and waited, but Obi-Wan didn't respond. Saloma swallowed uncomfortably. "You're wasting your time."
Obi-Wan frowned. "Don't combine your anger at me with this irrational persistence of yours. One has got nothing to do with the other. If you would set aside your indignation for the time being, I know you would be a little more open-minded to what I have to say. I wouldn't be here if I thought I would be wasting my time," he said hotly.
Saloma tossed up her hands in exasperation. "Of course not. Look, I didn't decide to leave just to get your attention. I've actually given this a lot of thought. The ports have been reopened to commercial shipping for two weeks now. The government is easing a lot of their restrictions. It's a good time to go. Don't get me wrong, I know it could still be dangerous but truthfully, why should I wait any longer? Aremont never will be safe for me again, I'm afraid." She lowered her eyes briefly and sighed. "I'm going to be discreet, I promise."
The Jedi massaged his temples in an attempt to thwart an oncoming headache. "Please, Saloma," Obi-Wan whispered wearily. "I've been running myself ragged between the High Council and the Senate, and every other bureaucrat who was willing to give me the time of day. This past week has been one appeal after another, but the answer is always the same. All diplomatic options must be thoroughly exhausted before permission to resort to a covert action will be considered. Unfortunately, the tension between Aremont and the Republic remains high. The atmosphere is still too volatile."
Obi-Wan peered up at her, hoping to catch a glimpse of comprehension. Instead she glared back at him, her dark gray eyes piercing his. He sensed her determination and sighed despondently. Clearly her mind was made up. There would be no persuading her to stay at this point. Her defiant expression told him she wasn't going to be receptive to anything he had to say.
Saloma folded her arms across her chest and regarded the Jedi curiously. She knew, despite his efforts to maintain a passive air, Obi-Wan's thoughts were rampant and desperate. Mainly, he was concerned for her safety, but hidden among his fears, Saloma heard poignant thoughts of melancholy. She wondered why he hadn't admitted these more intimate feelings to her.
"Will you at least consider waiting a little while longer?" the Jedi pleaded.
"I'm sorry, I can't do that," Saloma answered with heartfelt remorse. The urge to go to him and comfort him was becoming overpowering. Quickly, she turned away and wandered over to the kitchen area.. "Can I get you anything--something to drink?" She began gathering items for hot tea.
"No...thank you," Obi-Wan murmured. He turned away from her as well and began studying the labels on the crates. Most of them were going in storage to a local facility. He sighed and stroked his beard thoughtfully. At least she had hopes of eventually returning. "Saloma, I'm doing everything I can for the time being. I'm just asking you to trust me, that's all," he continued, quietly. "Hope is elusive, but still within our grasps. All is not lost. Not yet, anyway. Just be patient."
Saloma's temper suddenly flared. "Patient? You say that every time! And every time the result is the same!" She covered her eyes with her hand and shook her head. "I've already waited too long! I'm leaving tomorrow and that's final!" She dropped her hand heavily on the countertop.
Obi-Wan was startled by her outburst. He stood, momentarily frozen, staring up at her with an incredulous expression.
"Your decision to leave Coruscant is based solely on your passions," he replied in a menacing tone. "Not on sense, or logic, or facts."
The Jedi lowered his eyes to the floor and exhaled forcefully, feeling as though he were drowning in desperation. The last thing he wanted to do was argue with her, but the thought of her leaving had sparked powerful emotions inside him which she fanned with her indifference to them. He dragged his hand through his hair in frustration and swore softly under his breath.
"Very well," he continued. "Do what you feel you have to. Who am I to try to sway your conviction? Anakin and I shall see you off tomorrow morning at the pier....Goodnight, Saloma." He bit back saying anything more endearing to her to reprimand her obstinacy.
As Obi-Wan started for the door, Saloma's heart twisted painfully inside her. She didn't want him to leave now as angry as he was. She stepped out of the kitchen area and followed him.
"I'm not indifferent to your feelings," Saloma protested. "I'm well aware of how my decision to leave is affecting you, but just try to understand, Obi-Wan. Aremont is on her own now. We don't have representation in the Senate anymore and our ambassador left Coruscant three days ago. To top it off, you and Anakin are restricted until the inquest next month. So you see. I'VE got to go. I have no other choice."
Facing her, Obi-Wan planted his hands on his hips and shifted his weight to one leg. Sometimes he hated the fact that she could read his mind. He didn't want to discuss his feelings with her and was determined to keep his mind detached and centered solely on the facts of the matter.
"The Council's reasons for denying intervention are sound," the Jedi explained. "I can't argue with them. Yes, the senator and ambassador left Coruscant, but not for Aremont. They went to Corellia. Even they knew returning to Aremont now would be too dangerous. And as for our restriction, I told you before it is just a formality--a way to tie up loose ends. We just need to submit our accounts of the events which transpired on Aremont for the record. The restriction will be lifted as soon as the inquest has concluded."
Saloma took a deep steadying breath. "But you don't know that for certain. You and Anakin could face stiffer penalties if the inquest doesn't clear you of wrongdoing. It could take another month at the least. I refuse to be placated anymore, Obi-Wan."
"...Saloma," the Jedi breathed, his expression softening. "I'm not trying to placate you. I'm telling you the truth. The governor's charges against us are bogus. There's no substance to them. You know that. You're the Republic's key witness. With your testimony, there is little doubt the restrictions will be lifted. Then Anakin and I will go back to Aremont. I promised you we would, no matter what."
"Oh. No matter what? You must be referring to the warrants Vrone issued for the two of you. Still you say stupid things like that as if Aremont will be more hospitable to you and Anakin than me. How incredibly male-chauvinistic of you. I suppose you think it's all right if I'm the one left behind to wonder and worry?"
Obi-Wan's eyes flickered angrily like a wind-whipped flame. "As far as I'm concerned...yes," he answered truthfully.
Saloma's eyes widened. She clenched her teeth and shook her head.
"No. You're wrong. It's not all right." His arrogance was intolerable at times. "I suppose I should thank you," she seethed. "When you suddenly materialized after a week's absence at my door tonight, I was actually worried. Leaving you was going to be hard enough and then I thought I was going to have to fend off your debonair charms on top of that. How considerate of you be quarrelsome and pretentious instead and spare me any regrets. You think you're entitled to still be my first consideration, but your time for that has come and gone. I have to consider my brother now."
As soon as those words were spoken, Saloma regretted them. She looked apologetically up at Obi-Wan, but he dropped his eyes and wouldn't meet her gaze. She opened her mouth to speak, but her throat tightened uncomfortably and nothing came out. Maybe it was better this way. She finally stalked back into the kitchen area and resumed her pretense of brewing tea.
"You better go now," she mumbled, knowing the damage had been done. Her eyes filled with tears as she mechanically puttered around the kitchen area.
Stung, Obi-Wan found himself unable to move for a moment. His pulse was racing in his ears as her words echoed over and over in his mind. He glanced up at her, but her back was to him. The Jedi bowed his head, then turned on his heel, his cloak swirling out behind him. He slammed his hand into the door lock.
"Fine. I have nothing left to say to you anyway," he grumbled.
Saloma turned around. The tone of his voice jabbed at her heart. She knew she had hurt him.
"You could tell me how much you are going to miss me," she offered. "You should know by now I can't resist your tenderness." She sniffed and dabbed her fingertips at her watering eyes.
The Jedi paused. "Of course I'll miss you," he told her quietly. He slowly turned from the door to face her and let it slide close. "I'll tell you a thousand times if it will help chip away some of the block you've sealed your heart up in." He took a deep breath and peered into the kitchen. Saloma was leaning against the cabinetry, tears streaming down her face. Obi-Wan sensed her remorse and took a tentative step towards her. "I didn't tell you before because I didn't think conveying my personal feelings would be appropriate tonight."
Saloma approached him. "Obi-Wan." She reached up and lay her hand on his cheek. "I'm sorry I said what I did. And I'm sorry if I've been a little callous tonight. It seemed my only hope of defense. After all, you have sensibility and rationality on your side. I only have foolhardiness."
Obi-Wan covered her hand with his and closed his eyes, reveling in the reassurance of her touch. He turned his head and kissed her warm palm.
"I need you to understand," Saloma whispered. "Please tell me you do."
"I wish I didn't.....but I do," the Jedi admitted, leaning forward and softly kissing her tear-filled eyes. He gathered her in his arms and cradled her head against his chest. "I only wish I could go with you--to watch over you and keep you safe. Worrying about you when you've gone will torture me every second of every hour." He buried his fingers in her thick hair and sighed. "I've never felt so powerless before. My hands are effectively tied by bureaucratic red tape."
Saloma looked up at him, her eyes glittering with adoration. His anguish told her what she had been longing to hear. "I do love you," she breathed softly.
Obi-Wan tightened his arms around her. "And I love you." He stared into her eyes, absorbing her sentiments with empathy. "I'll go now...if you want. It's all right, really."
Shaking her head, Saloma locked her eyes on his. "No. I don't want you to go."
Feeling himself drawn to her, the Jedi lowered his head to meet her upturned face and slowly slid his lips over hers, urging her mouth open further with the gentle grinding of his jaw. He deepened the kiss and slipped his tongue between her teeth, tasting the hot sweetness of her saliva with sensuous intimacy. He felt the tension between them slowly melt away.
Saloma's passion ignited as he continued to kiss her. Her hands began to stray over his torso, feeling hard muscle underneath her palms. She could also feel the heat from his body through his clothes. His skin must be hot to the touch, she surmised and longed to feel more of him. She took hold of the collar of his cloak and pushed the heavy garment off his shoulders. It fell to the floor with a soft rustling sound.
"I missed you these past few days," Obi-Wan murmured and kissed her harder. He stroked her long neck with his hand and trailed his lips down her chin and along her jaw.
Saloma whimpered and encircled his waist with her arms, urging him closer. "I was lonely without you," she whispered and kissed his eyes and brow, running her fingers luxuriously through his silky hair. "That's part of the reason I was so grumpy earlier."
The Jedi smiled. "Let me make it up to you," he told her, his voice breathy and thick with desire. He unfastened his utility belt and let it fall to the floor on top of his discarded cloak.
Saloma reached behind him and untied the sash from around his waist. "I don't know how I'll manage without you after tomorrow." She brazenly pulled open his tunic and dragged her nails through the downy hair on his chest. "This sort of persuasion is much more to my liking."
Obi-Wan placed his hands on her hips. "You should know my integrity forbids such coercion. This isn't persuasion--this is lust," he corrected. He felt her hands slide up his bare back, her fingertips tracing tiny circles on his skin, making it tingle. He sighed forcefully and closed his eyes. "But if you should change your mind about going, I promise I'll make love to you everyday. Bureaucracy be damned."
Saloma smiled and began kissing his ear. "Shame on you, Master Kenobi."
Obi-Wan laughed lightly. "I'm a desperate man." He covered her mouth in another devouring kiss, his arms around her shoulders, pressing her tightly against him.
Clinging to his neck, Saloma nuzzled his cheek, her mood growing somber. "I don't want to think about tomorrow anymore," she sighed. "I don't want you to either. We have tonight. Let's just love each other....Live in the moment, remember?" She pressed a soft kiss on the corner of his mouth.
Nodding his consent, Obi-Wan took a deep steadying breath and looked down at her, summoning a small reassuring smile. "I always do," he whispered.
Anakin knelt before the R2 droid and made one last final adjustment. He sat back on his haunches with a satisfied sigh and smiled.
"There, that should do it," he announced. "Let's try it again now, shall we?"
The R2 beeped in agreement as Anakin rose fluidly to his feet. Another beeping of a different tone drew Anakin's attention away from the little droid. He glanced over at the correspondence console on his desk and saw the yellow "incoming message" light blinking.
Anakin broke into a huge knowing smile and jumped over to the console, almost knocking over his chair in his haste to retrieve the message. He quickly righted the wayward piece of furniture and slid into it as his hands typed up the necessary data to bring up the message he was receiving.
The little R2 droid whistled in protest and hobbled over to Anakin's desk, apparently feeling neglected.
"Just a minute," the young Jedi chided. "This is important, all right? Be quiet." He turned on the monitor, his heart thumping madly at the sight which greeted his eyes, and sat back with an appreciative sigh. "Padme'."
The young woman on the monitor's screen squinted at him, then smiled. "Anakin! It works! This is wonderful!" Padme's three-dimensional image hailed with a high-pitched girlish laugh.
"Your Majesty," Anakin formally greeted with a slight bow of his head. "I told you it would. And the reception is better than DDS. I knew I could improve the audio too."
"Thank you for making it and sending it to me," she continued. "Now we can see each other everyday if we like."
Anakin grimaced. "Well, whenever I'm here anyway." He cocked his head and pursed his full lips. "You know, there may be a way to convert the transmissions and make it more mobile." He paused and grinned. "That'll be my next project. I could start on it tomorrow as a matter of fact. I really don't have anything else to do...."
Padme's smile faded. "You seem to have a lot of time on your hands under this imposed restriction. How are you holding up?"
The young Jedi shrugged. "Oh, I'm all right. I get a little restless sometimes. I'm not used to this kind of inactivity." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "At least I get plenty to eat and plenty of sleep here. Which is more than I can say when I'm hyperspacing across the galaxy with Obi-Wan. That man lives on oxygen alone. I think he forgot what it's like to be sixteen."
Padme' laughed lightly. "Be careful," she teased. "He might hear you."
Anakin shook his head. "No, he's gone again. He didn't say where he was going, but he didn't need to. He got more bad news today." The Jedi paused and frowned. "The Flaro woman I told you about, Saloma, is leaving tomorrow morning. She's going to try to find her brother on her own. We can't go with her like we had planned to and the senate refuses to budge on this issue. To appease the governor of Aremont, the chancellor has ordered an inquest to look into the charges that were brought against us on our last mission. To appease the chancellor, the High Council has temporarily grounded us." The young Jedi shook his head and sighed deeply. "Naturally it takes the senate three weeks just to decide when to have this inquest. It's just not a priority to anyone but Saloma and Obi-Wan and myself."
"And to the poor people suffering back on Aremont," Padme' added. "I just don't understand any of this. Why can't the senate see the urgency? It's as plain as day. And why does Chancellor Palpatine allow them to sloth through such proceedings?" She paused, noticing Anakin's amused expression. "Why are you smiling? You should be outraged," she reprimanded.
"I'm not smiling at our situation, I'm smiling at you," Anakin amended. "None of this concerns you in the least, but there you are, ranting injustice and raving about oppression." He licked his lips slowly and gazed warmly at the young queen.
Padme' sighed, her expression softening. "It concerns me because it concerns you, Anakin." She placed her hand over her heart. "And I feel so sorry for Obi-Wan. What's he going to do?"
"What can he do? What can any of us do that hasn't already been done? To no avail, I might add." Anakin folded his arms across his chest and sat back in his chair. "After Saloma leaves, this confinement will greatly tax Obi-Wan's nerves. And may the Force help us all if she doesn't return by the time the senate concludes the inquest. He'll have gone mad by then."
The queen's fair brow furrowed in confusion. "But she has to be back before the inquest. She's your witness."
A light of realization suddenly sparked in Anakin's mind. "You know, you just may have something there," he murmured. "She's a key witness in an intergovernmental inquest. The Republic would be foolish to let her fly off unescorted on a perilous pursuit." The Jedi sat forward again, his enthusiasm growing. "It certainly wouldn't be in the Republic's best interest."
Padme' smiled widely. "I think this oversight needs be brought to the immediate attention of the senate, don't you?" she inquired in a gratified tone. "As much as I hate the thought of ending our transmission, I think you need to go find Obi-Wan, and I need to make an official sovereign request for urgent communication with my friend, the chancellor."
Anakin leaned close to the monitor. "I hate the thought of ending this transmission as well, but I have to agree with you." He sighed heavily and offered her an affectionate smile. "You're absolutely brilliant, you know that? It's times like these I wish I could hug you. I'd pick you up and squeeze you and twirl you around until we crashed into things." His expression grew somber and his eyes darkened with longing. He slowly reached up and touched the screen with his fingertips.
Padme' touched her screen, meeting his hand in the illusion. They pressed their palms together and held them there as they gazed deeply into each other's eyes.
"Be careful, Anakin," she whispered.
He nodded slowly. "I will. I promise."
His head pillowed upon the thick locks of his lover's hair, Obi-Wan raised his eyes to the hazy shadows just beyond the open bedroom door. Soon the morning's light would fill every angle and corner of the room, heralding the start of a new day.
The Jedi turned away in denial and buried his face deeper in the silky blackness beneath his head. He pressed his body tighter against the side of the woman he clung to and sighed heavily.
Saloma stirred. She reached up and absently stroked the sinewy masculine arm which lay across her breasts. "That was a rather wistful-sounding sigh," she murmured.
Obi-Wan squeezed her shoulder. "It's morning," he told her in reply.
Turning her head, Saloma opened her eyes and smiled slightly. The Jedi Master's handsome face filled the scope of her vision. His long fair hair was attractively tousled and several strands crisscrossed in front of his clear, piercing blue eyes. His lips were set in a slight pout and his brow was creased with the intensity of his gaze.
"I never imagined waking up beside someone could be so easy on the eyes," she purred. "We really must try to do this more often."
Obi-Wan leaned forward and delicately brushed his lips over hers. "Yes," he breathed, trailing his hand down the length of her arm. Her black skin was warm and comforting to touch. Her pulse throbbed heat beneath his fingertips as he traced the web of blue veins to her wrists.
Saloma caught his hand in hers and kissed his knuckles, then rolled over on her side to snuggle closer to him and kissed his forehead.
The Jedi encircled her in his arms and posessively wrapped his leg around her thighs. He smiled at her as she lovingly stroked the side of his face, her eyes sparkling with his reflection.
"Don't get up just yet," Obi-Wan pleaded softly. "Let me hold you a little while longer."
Saloma settled into his arms and sighed with contentment. "I won't. It's still very early," she whispered. "The dawn's hours away."
"Mmm, you think so?" Obi-Wan asked in an insinuating tone, his gaze fixing on her dark, glossy lips. He turned his head and kissed her, savoringly moving his mouth over hers, closing his eyes to fully absorb the sweetness of the sensation kissing her gave him. His arms tightened around her back, holding her against him; his desire growing with every move he felt her body make.
"....Yes," Saloma said in an exhaled breath as Obi-Wan began sensually gnawing her neck. She grinned, catching the Jedi wondering if she was urging him on or answering his question. "Both," she gasped.
Obi-Wan chuckled and rolled over on his back, shifting his position until her body was lying over his. Saloma leaned forward and kissed him again, veiling his face with her long hair. She pushed it back over her shoulders with a sweep of her arm.
"You've such beautiful hair," the Jedi murmured, his hands delving into the depths of her shiny black curls.
"I hope you still think so after I've gotten rid of it," she replied, her own hands wandering slowly over his chest.
Obi-Wan's eyes narrowed. "Gotten rid of it?"
Saloma nodded. "I'm cutting it off before I go to Aremont. I told you I didn't want to broadcast my arrival. It'll only be in the way and it makes me too recognizable."
"Oh, I see," Obi-Wan said, struggling to surpress his dismay. He forced a reassuring smile and rubbed a strand between his fingers. "Will you....save a lock for me?"
Saloma smiled broadly. "Of course, Obi-Wan." She drew little circles on his chest with her index finger and brushed her palm provocatively over his nipple. "It's the very least I could do for you," she purred seductively, locking her eyes on his. She nuzzled his cheek, making the coarse hair of his beard tickle her face before capturing his lips in a seeringly passionate kiss.
A loud banging knock suddenly broke through the delicate silence of the bedroom. The lovers parted and looked at each other in confusion.
"The cleaning service, perhaps?" Obi-Wan guessed.
"No, they know I'm checking out today," Saloma responded and frowned. The knocking persisted. "Maybe the movers...."
Suddenly, Obi-Wan groaned and covered his eyes with his hand, recognizing the presence he suddenly sensed. "No, it's my padawan," he announced with frustration. He wriggled out from beneath Saloma and slid off the bed. "I told you his timing is always impeccable." The Jedi bent and snatched his clothes off the floor on his way out of the bedroom.
"Something told me to look for you here first, but I didn't listen," Anakin began as soon as Obi-Wan had opened the door. "Consequently, I've been searching for you practically all night. I don't think your comlink is working." The younger Jedi didn't wait to be invited in. He strolled past his master, spying Obi-Wan's cloak and belt on the floor and slowly picked them up. "Ah, here's the problem."
"Anakin....is there something you want?" Obi-Wan inquired, overcoming his incredulity and finding his voice. He faced his padawan and put his hands on his hips.
"Good morning, Anakin," Saloma greeted walking into the living room. She smoothed down the collar of her bathrobe and drew up beside Obi-Wan.
"Good morning, Saloma. Please forgive me," the young Jedi apologized with a slight bow. He paused and glanced over at his master. "I came to get Obi-Wan. We've been summoned to appear in exactly one hour before the Council. It's of the utmost urgency I'm told. Otherwise, I wouldn't have considered intruding on you like this. You do understand, don't you?"
Saloma lowered her eyes and swallowed down the lump forming in her throat. "Of course. There's no need to apologize." Her eyes drifted up to Obi-Wan.
He gazed back at her longingly. "I have to go," he told her sadly. He reached down and took her hands in his and squeezed them tightly. "But don't worry, I'll be at the pier to see you off. I promise."
Her large eyes watered and she sniffed softly, but managed a smile. "I'll hold you to it."
Obi-Wan leaned over and kissed her, then reached up and touched her hair. "Don't forget," he whispered. He turned away from her and took his cloak from Anakin and slipped it on. "Let's go get this over with, shall we?" he grumbled and reluctantly faced the door.
Anakin turned and gestured at Saloma's robe. "Um, you may want to get dressed. The police are on their way here to serve you with a court issued warrant of travel restriction."
Saloma's jaw dropped. Stunned, she staggered back a step, and then shot Obi-Wan a scathing look. "What do you know about this?"
Obi-Wan was staring up at Anakin as if he didn't recognize him. He glanced back at Saloma, then shook his head. "I had nothing to do with this, I swear."
"It's my doing," Anakin confessed sheepishly. He lowered his eyes briefly then glanced up at Saloma. "Mine and Padme's."
Saloma gazed at him angrily, ready to demand an explanation, but the young Jedi stared back at her with genuine warmth, his soft blue eyes red-rimmed with fatigue. His mind was purposefully clear and open to her. He had been up all night long. He had met with some prominent beings. He had accomplished quite alot in a matter of hours. His thoughts were detailed and well-organized and easily understandable. A slow smile crept across his face as Saloma's betrayed expression steadily changed to one of euphoric disbelief.
"Oh Anakin.....You're wicked!" She suddenly threw herself at the young Jedi, flinging her arms around his waist, and embracing him in a mighty hug.
Laughing, Anakin caught her up in his arms and kissed her cheek. "I know," he said, somewhat breathlessly.
Obi-Wan took a deep steadying breath and folded his arms across his chest. He couldn't make sense of anything he had just witnessed. When Anakin and Saloma finally faced him, Saloma was wiping away tears, and his padawan was grinning from ear to ear.
"Would someone care to clue me in on just what the hell is going on here?" he growled.
Anakin nodded. "Let the lady go get dressed," he began. "You'll be seeing
her again soon enough. We have to get going. We have a High Council appearance
in less than an hour. I'll explain everything on the way, I promise." His
expression softened at his master's bewilderment. He slung his arm around
Obi-Wan's shoulders with brotherly affection and urged him towards the
door. "Trust me," he whispered in his ear.
PART TWO ~ INCOGNITO
Standing shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the circular council room, Obi-Wan and Anakin bowed respectfully before seven assembled Jedi Masters. Yoda, Mace Windu, Adi Gallia, Depa Billaba, Oppo Rancisis, Yaddle, and Plo Koon were the only members of the Council available to convene on such short notice.
Anakin shifted his weight to one hip and grasped his hands together behind his back. He looked enviably confident as well as bored.
Contrary to Anakin's complacency, Obi-Wan's stomach was in knots. He wouldn't allow himself to fully believe the Council had actually lifted the restriction. It meant too much to him and the stern expressions of disapproval the Jedi Masters wore this morning did little to reassure him they had. Instead, Obi-Wan clung to the hope that, in his enthusiasm, Anakin had not been over-exaggerating the events which had taken place overnight.
Master Mace Windu was the first to address him. He frowned deeply and sat forward slightly, his fingers steepled beneath his chin.
"Your ceaseless lobbying finally paid off," he told Obi-Wan. "Apparently, an outside dignitary has taken an interest in your cause and has seen fit to intervene on your behalf."
Obi-Wan sighed, perturbed by the subtle reprimand.
"My 'cause' is a meaningful one," he said defensively. "My allegiance to it stems from my sense of honor. I'm pleased to hear my efforts have finally met with some success." He raised his chin defiantly, but folded his arms in front of him, burying his hands in the voluminous sleeves of his cloak to conceal their shaking.
"So impudent!" Yoda snapped, jabbing the end of his gimer stick towards the younger Jedi. "Know how we feel about this, you do. Patience we asked for, yet denied us, you did. Resolved peacefully, this could have been. Manipulated we were. Happy about this, we are not!"
Obi-Wan's heart clenched inside his chest. He licked his lips apprehensively. "I don't deserve your censure. I was willing to obey your restriction at great personal sacrifice."
Depa Billaba raised her hand for silence and shook her head. "Try to understand our position, Obi-Wan. We only sought to protect you and Anakin by our restriction. It isn't safe for the two of you to be about the galaxy now with the bounties the governor has issued. You can't expect us to be pleased. In a sense, we are being forced to deliver you into the hands of your enemy."
Anakin's eyes shot up and locked on the demure Jedi Master. "We'll try our best to steer clear of Vrone's forces this time."
"We have no intentions of any confrontation," Obi-Wan replied, placing a restraining hand on his padawan's arm.
Anakin tried to step forward, but Obi-Wan tightened his grip in warning. "Masters, we appreciate your concern, but you can't force us to graciously cower under your wing at the slightest hint of danger," Anakin said impatiently.
"I get the distinct impression, you two already know why we summoned you here this morning," Mace Windu interjected.
"Early yesterday, Obi-Wan and I were informed by Saloma P'tol that she was departing for Aremont this morning to attempt to find her brother," Anakin relayed calmly but yanked his arm free of his master's grasp.
Obi-Wan glared up at his padawan, then turned his attention back on Mace Windu. "It was brought to my attention just a little over an hour ago that the Supreme Chancellor had urged you to waive our restriction and allow us to escort Miss P'tol back to Aremont."
"Well-informed, you are," Yoda said, narrowing his eyes in suspicion. "Waived it has been."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes briefly and took a deep steadying breath. Anakin jabbed him lightly in the side with his elbow as if to say 'I told you so.' Obi-Wan glanced up at him with a hint of a smile on his lips.
Adi Gallia leaned forward, shifting her weight to one elbow. "Due to the fact Miss P'tol has been served a subpoena, she must testify at the inquest three weeks from tomorrow on behalf of the Republic. She is free to come and go until then, but traveling to Aremont in search of her brother concerns the chancellor. She will certainly be in jeopardy there."
Obi-Wan's heart skipped a beat at the mere mention of Saloma being in danger. He gnawed his lower lip uneasily and tried not to resent the nonchalance in Adi Gallia's tone.
"Chancellor Palpatine wants you and Anakin to act as official security for her while she is out of Republic's jurisdiction," Mace Windu continued. "We want you to proceed with this mission incognito. Go as Jedi, but not as Jedi. Wear street clothes, alter your appearances, and while on Aremont keep everything you do low key. Under no circumstances are you to engage governmental forces!"
"Take no sides," Yoda stressed raising his long ears slightly. "To protect Miss P'tol, your responsibility is. Enough, that is. This time, heed us you WILL, Obi-Wan."
The younger Master's eyes flashed. "You were given a full and detailed report. I did not seek to engage Vrone's forces. We were being attacked," he rumbled. "I had no choice in the matter."
"At the time, our only concern was protecting Miss P'tol," Anakin put in. "We simply did what we had to do in order to ensure her safety. And ours to a degree. That will be our sole intent this time as well. Right, Master?"
Obi-Wan peered up at Anakin suspiciously. He began nodding slowly and faced the Council members. "You have my word."
The ship was an older, unassuming transgalactic hauling vessel which belonged to a private shipping company which specialized in relocating their affluent clients' possessions from one system to another. This particular one was transporting the confiscated government-issued possessions of Aremont's former ambassador back to Ergo. Desks, chairs, tables, cabinetry, and computers filled the ship's cargo hold.
Saloma paced nervously in front of the transport's boarding ramp as the Calamarian captain stood at the top of the ramp and eyed her warily. His crew was already on board and the engines were fired up, but the woman made no move to get on herself. He finally cleared his throat to get her attention.
Saloma looked over up him with irritation. "What is it now?"
"Ma'am, your transportation fee has been paid, so are you planning on joining us sometime soon? I'm already behind schedule."
Producing the disc key listing her new travel restrictions, Saloma stomped up the ramp and waved the key in front of the Calamarian's huge eyes.
"I told you before, I can't go anywhere without my official escorts. This comes from the chancellor himself. They're not here yet, so it goes without saying I will not be boarding just yet." Saloma tucked the disc key back in her coat pocket and crossed her arms over her chest. She stifled the thought that something had happened to change things; that somehow, something had gone wrong and Obi-Wan and Anakin weren't coming. "You are just going to have to wait," she grumbled. "I'll pay you extra if you want."
The Calamarian shook his head slowly. "No need. The Republic has already compensated me for the two extra passengers. I'll wait another ten minutes, but then I'm leaving. Business is business. I've got a time-table to keep."
"Ten minutes," Saloma agreed. "Fair enough." She could always beg another ten minutes out of him later. At least she'd have ten minutes of peace this way. His complaining was making her even more anxious. She suddenly noticed the captain's keen gaze focusing on a descending shuttle.
"Is that them?" he inquired, gesturing towards it.
Saloma exhaled in relief. It had to be. "Yes, that should be them," she stated confidently. She skipped back down the ramp to meet the tardy Jedi.
The shuttle docked on the opposite side of the platform and moments later the doors opened and two figures emerged. Saloma paused and squinted against the glare of the midmorning sun. Then, her heart all but stopped. Something must have gone wrong after all.
"No, that's not them, it's--" For a brief instant, she believed at the last minute, the Jedi had been replaced by someone else. But as the two men drew closer, Saloma suddenly recognized them. Her eyes grew wider and her jaw slackened and dropped. "Super nova....it is them."
"Good...if you are sure," the captain said. "I'll inform the crew we are ready to depart." He turned stiffly and disappeared into the ship.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," Obi-Wan began, drawing up in front of Saloma at the foot of the boarding ramp. "There wasn't much data on current Ergonian fashion in the temple archives, so our wardrobe department had to improvise. What do you think?"
Saloma began circling him, riveted by his incredible new look. Gone were the modest layers of linen-weave and the long brown cloak, the heavy utility belt and the soft brown boots. Instead, the Jedi was wearing a loose-fitting white tunic, a long bright blue coat which tapered in at the waist like a uniform, and pale gray trousers tucked into sleek, knee-high black boots. The only clue of Jedi Knighthood was his ever-present lightsaber. It was attached to a studded black leather belt that was strapped alluringly low on his slim hips.
Obi-Wan smiled self-conciously and tried hard not to blush as Saloma slowly looked him over. "The Council felt it best not to advertise the fact we are Jedi," he hurriedly explained.
Dazed, but delighted, Saloma reached up and touched the Jedi's clean-shaven jaw. "You have a boyishly winsome face, Master Kenobi," she informed him in a breathless voice.
"I told him he looks ten years younger without the beard," Anakin quipped. "Especially with his long hair."
"Yes, I drew the line when it came to cutting my hair," Obi-Wan added. He gestured at Anakin. "Look at him. He looks so much older."
Saloma pried her eyes off Obi-Wan long enough to take a look at Anakin. He was dressed entirely in black, with a floor length coat that was split up the back to his waist. His hair had been bleached white and his padawan's braid was effectively concealed beneath a long scarf coiled loosely around his neck. Saloma grinned at him.
"Extraordinary. What would Padme' think?"
Anakin laughed lightly. "I wouldn't want to know." He put his hands on his hips, his gaze fixing on the ship. "Would you look at that? I didn't think these were hyperspace certifiable anymore."
"Come on," Saloma urged, motioning to Anakin and taking Obi-Wan's hand in hers, pulling him after her up the ship's ramp. "The captain's anxious to be on his way."
She led the two Jedi into the ship's hull and motioned to the waiting Calamarian. The captain nodded gratefully and immediately ordered a crewman to seal the ship. He hurried over to his passengers and introduced himself.
"Captain Mimbus here," he began. "I'll try to make your passage as comfortable as possible. If you need anything, please let one of the crewman or service droids know. The crew quarters where you'll be staying are aft. Only got two spare cots though. We don't normally take on passengers but occasionally we make an exception if the price is right. Don't expect any special amenities though. We're a moving company, not a luxury liner." He paused and glanced at the datapad he carried. "We'll be taking off soon, so go get settled in." Then, without waiting for a reply, the captain turned and stalked off towards the cockpit.
"I think he was actually trying to apologize. He must not realize we're Jedi," Anakin mumbled. Saloma frowned, but the two Jedi exchanged amused smiles as they started walking towards the crew quarters.
Saloma followed, glancing around occasionally. Being a former city councilwoman, she wasn't used to traveling in unkempt freighters, but the Jedi seemed rather pleased with the overall condition of the ship. She decided she may as well start adjusting to their comfort level. Her cruiser and yacht days were over.
Sensing her unease, Obi-Wan drew her closer to him and offered her a reassuring smile. She gazed up at him and smiled back, noticing how the color of his coat brought out the vivid blue of his eyes.
"I just can't believe how different you two look," she stated, shaking her head. "I honestly didn't recognize you at first."
"Good. We'd rather not be recognized," Obi-Wan told her. "If we fooled even you, we're off to a good start. I'm hoping we won't be running into anyone who knows us well enough to recognize us, but I'll settle for keeping the bounty hunters off our trail." The Jedi looked around the ship's cramped crew quarters and sighed. The two extra cots they were to use were lined up against the wall on the opposite side of the room from the other cots for the crewmen.
"I thought having to deal with Captain Vrone's internal police force was bad enough. This time we have to worry about bounty hunters too." Saloma paused and shook her head. "What was the chancellor thinking, sending you two with me?" she teased. "As if this trip wasn't complicated enough." She put her hands on her hips and made a face at the tiny cots.
Anakin placed a hand on Saloma's shoulder. "At such short notice, we were the only Jedi conveniently at his disposal." He brushed past her, dropped his large frame onto the nearest cot and stretched out. "Somebody wake me when we get there."
Obi-Wan grinned at his padawan. "Go on. Get some sleep. You deserve it," he told him, then yawned himself. "I could use an extra hour or two myself."
As it was, Anakin fell asleep in moments. The sound of his soft rhythmic breathing filled the tiny quarters. Obi-Wan glanced at Saloma and cocked his head at the empty cot next to Anakin's. They hadn't gotten much sleep last night either. "We may as well. It'll be quite awhile before we reach Aremont."
Saloma slipped her hand over Obi-Wan's arm and leaned against him. "So this is how Jedi Knights mentally and physically prepare for all those important missions. I've always wondered, now I know."
"You don't sound impressed," Obi-Wan teased, leading her to the other cot. "Actually this is very typical Jedi behavior. We sleep when we can, we eat when we can. There's no set routine for anything we do."
He sat down on the cot and stretched out on the farthest side, against the wall. Saloma settled down beside him and he contentedly spooned himself around her. Her firm, slender body fit so perfectly against him, he thought. Holding her like this was the only way he felt he could truly keep her from harm, short of locking her in a closet or tying her to a chair. This was a much more pleasant alternative, he decided.
Obi-Wan's unguarded sentiments rang loud and clear in Saloma's mind. Annoyed by what she'd just heard, Saloma tensed and shifted her weight a few times, trying to get comfortable but there wasn't room to change positions.
"This cot is too small for the both of us. I must be crushing you," she told him and tried to sit up. She didn't particularly want to be so near to him right now anyway.
In response, the Jedi tightened his arm around her. "You're fine. I like having you close to me," he countered, wondering why she suddenly found that so distasteful. He sighed, shifting his justification to something more legitimate. "Besides, you heard what the captain said earlier. There's only two spare cots. I thought you and I could make due with one, but if you truly object, I suppose I could sleep on the floor."
He heard her sigh heavily, (with resignation?) but then felt her tension slowly begin to ease. He kissed the back of her neck as a reward for her consent, then tentatively reached up and touched her now very short hair. Her tight curls were springier and coiled readily around his fingers. Intrigued, he continued playing with her hair until he felt her tense up again. He quickly stopped and lowered his hand back to her side.
"I'm sorry. I couldn't resist."
"You hate it, don't you?" she whispered. "You haven't said anything about it all this time."
There was a slight pause before Obi-Wan responded. "I hadn't noticed anything different about it until now," he said with the utmost sincerity.
Saloma turned her head slightly in an attempt to face him. "You're a very good liar." She wiggled around slightly, fishing deeply into her coat pocket, and produced a thin black braid that rivaled Anakin's in length. She held it over her shoulder towards him. "Here. I didn't forget. Now you can remember it the way it was."
Obi-Wan accepted the braid from her and slipped it into his own pocket. "I don't hate it. I still think you are beautiful. It doesn't matter to me what length your hair is." He nuzzled her cheek, then softly kissed her ear. "Saloma. What's really the matter? Talk to me."
Saloma suddenly pulled away from him and sat up. She turned and faced him. "Nothing," she announced, then stood up. "I'm just feeling a little restless. Too restless to sleep. You go ahead though. I think I'll go explore the ship." Without another word, Saloma hurried off and disappeared through the narrow door.
Obi-Wan sighed heavily and rolled over on his back. Anakin stirred in the cot next to him.
"You should go after her," he murmured.
The Jedi Master frowned. He hadn't realized his padawan was awake. "I think she'd rather be alone."
Anakin slowly sat up and climbed off the cot. "That's the last thing she wants," he stated, readjusting the scarf around his neck. "Something's wrong with her, couldn't you sense it?"
Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes. "Yes. If you recall, I asked her what was wrong. She said nothing. Which I usually interpret as not wanting to talk about it. I think she's trying to be very brave about all this, but the idea of going back to Aremont scares her. She just needs time to herself now. To think things over. I'll only aggravate her if I nag her about it."
The younger Jedi started off in the direction Saloma had gone. "No. You're wrong. She's signaling to you that she needs reassuring, but she's testing the level of your concern for her. That's why she left. Don't you know anything about women?" Anakin inquired, shaking his head sympathetically at his master.
Obi-Wan's jaw slackened and dropped in surprise. It amazed him how Anakin could always find something to disagree with him over. "I know Saloma," he replied confidently, but then wondered if he truly did. His padawan could be right.
The younger Jedi paused and sighed impatiently. "Well, someone should go after her. I don't like the idea of her wandering around on her own. One of us should stay with her at all times. That is what we're here for."
"What possible trouble could she get into here?" Obi-Wan muttered, indicating the ship with a sweeping gesture of his hand.
Anakin replied with an unwavering stare.
"Oh, go on then. Prove me wrong." Obi-Wan waved him on and slumped back against the wall. Anakin immediately turned and disappeared down the hall.
The idea of this sixteen year old boy thinking he knew the intricate workings of the female mind better than his master did, was annoying Obi-Wan more than it should have. He tried to quell his rising indignation and embrace Anakin's maturity and wisdom.
The older Jedi sighed heavily. He toyed with the idea of joining Anakin, then decided against it. Anakin would find her and offer her the comfort she needed. Saloma would probably be more receptive to Anakin anyway. They were close confidantes and shared insights and advice with each other that neither one shared with him. Mostly because it was about him.
Obi-Wan looked longingly down the deserted hall outside the crew's quarters, then resolutely rose to his feet. He wanted to be her confidante instead of Anakin. He wanted to find her and he wanted to be the one to soothe away her fears. He sighed again, his mind made up, and started down the empty passageway.
Her mind racing, Saloma strode through the twisted narrow passages, verbally chastising herself. She was jumping to all kinds of conclusions without any proof.
"Just calm down!" she told herself.
No, Saloma thought, shaking her head. Something's going on. The Jedi Master was being far too sweet; almost to the point of being condescending. He's keeping something from me, she decided. His mind had been suspiciously quiet save for a few minutes ago. It was as if he was purposefully hiding information from her.
Neither Jedi seemed to be the least bit concerned about returning to Aremont. She believed they ought to be busily scrutinizing data and frenetically finalizing the details of their plans with her. But Saloma had no idea what they had planned, or if they had even planned anything at all.
Her stride lengthened as her ire increased. She began to wonder if Obi-Wan had already devised some scheme to keep her out of the thick of things. It would be just like him to muscle his way to the front and seize control of the whole operation.
"I sure wouldn't put it past you," she grumbled. Visions of being locked in a closet or tied to a chair flitted through her imagination. "Just try it....."
This section of the ship she had wandered into was dark and distastefully unclean. It smelled strangely and Saloma got the distinct impression of being watched by small, creeping, living things. She stopped short and looked frantically around her. Did she have any idea where she was going? Or better yet, any idea of where she was?
She shuddered in revulsion and immediately turned around to go back the way she had came. The passages forked, however, and she couldn't remember which one she had just come from. She hadn't really been paying attention.
Swearing to herself, she put her hands on her hips and frowned deeply. Pick one, she thought. Either one will get you out of here.
Resolutely, she started forward, choosing the one on the left, reassured by the familiarity of the passage.
She stopped again, realizing the ship looked pretty much the same everywhere except for the degrees of uncleanness.
Saloma took a deep calming breath and started forward again. Now she was angry with herself for choosing to venture out into a maze of filthy passages in the first place. Especially since the alternative was reclining in the security and warmth of Obi-Wan's arms. She knew his mind often slipped into a state of negligence when she was physically distracting him. At the very least, she could have stayed with him to gather more information.
What am I? Stupid or something? she admonished herself, but then stopped, suddenly hearing someone thinking close by. She slowed her pace and crept silently forward, listening carefully, and wondering why someone besides herself would be slinking around these passages.
Saloma concentrated, but couldn't make any sense out of the jumbled thoughts. This person's mind kept straying constantly to other thoughts totally unrelated to the previous thought. They weren't thinking anything particularly interesting, she decided, dismissing her suspicions and started forward again. It was probably just a crewman. She was about to call out to announce her presence, when the thinking suddenly stopped.
Startled by the sudden, unexpected silence, Saloma whirled around, and found herself staring down the muzzle of a blaster. She tried to scream, but a cold, clammy palm suddenly covered her mouth and pushed her up against the wall.
Her attacker was an older, massively built humanoid male, but Saloma didn't know his exact origins. He wore a hooded cloak but she could see his face and hands were covered in orange spots and he had maniacal-looking orange-colored eyes. His robes were tattered and stained and he smelled like stagnate water. Saloma also noticed the hand holding the blaster was webbed and clawed. He wasn't Calamarian, but at a glance, he could have passed as one. Perhaps he was a stowaway, she guessed.
"Who are you?" he demanded in heavily accented Basic, lowering his hand from her mouth to her neck. "Scream...and I'll blow your head off."
"A...A passenger," Saloma began cautiously. "I was on my way to the cockpit to talk to the captain...and I got a little lost." She licked her lips apprehensively. "Please...let me go. I promise I won't tell anyone that you are here. Just let me go."
He smiled revealing a mouthful of sharp, jagged teeth; several of them broken. He shook his head. "Ah. I know you. A pretty Flaro woman. Aren't you? Aren't you? You're the one I've been looking for."
Saloma's heart skipped a beat. She would have backed up, but she couldn't move any farther away from him.
"What are you talking about? Who are you?"
He shook his head again and pursed his lips. "You're their woman. Perfect. This is perfect. They'll come to me now. They'll come right to me...because of you." His cold hand tightened painfully around her neck.
He's a bounty hunter! Saloma realized. Panicking, her heart began beating double-time now. Despite his vague indication, she knew exactly who he was talking about. Somehow, he had been tipped off to the Jedi's presence on the ship. Her throat began to ache from the pressure of his hand and she desperately wanted to get away. She tried clawing at his wrists to get him to let her go, but he tightened his grip more, even after she drew blood.
"Yes. Go on. Be afraid," he urged, leering at her. "They'll feel it. They'll come."
Saloma tried to shake her head. "Who are you talking about? There's no one with me," she gasped, digging her nails deeply into his flesh and kicking out with her feet.
The bounty hunter leaned his weight into her, pinning her tightly against the wall. He jabbed the blaster between her eyes and cursed at her. "Your Jedi," he hissed. "That's who will come. They'll come right to me so just keep calling them."
Saloma knew they would too. They'd sense her fear if she didn't get it under control. She'd be leading them right to him, just as he said. She slowly eased her grip on his hand and momentarily closed her eyes. She ordered her pounding heart to slow and tried to take a deep breath.
"You're mistaken," she told him contemptuously. "There's no Jedi on board. The Jedi were grounded....They are back on Coruscant.....You screwed up."
For a moment, Saloma was granted the satisfaction of seeing doubt darken the hunter's orange eyes. Then his face contorted with anger and he began strangling her in earnest.
Now Saloma couldn't breath, let alone speak. Her fear came rushing back and she struggled to no avail against his bulk. Her lungs began to burn and her vision blurred. She was scratching herself, tearing into the skin on her neck, trying to wedge her fingers between his hand and her throat, but her fingertips were numbing and she couldn't really feel them anymore. Her mind was clouding; her consciousness slipping slowly away...from the fear...the pain...the despair.
Suddenly a clear, deep voice cut through her hazy mind, startling her with its ferocity, and snapping her back into consciousness.
"Let her go!" Anakin snarled. His tall form suddenly filled the small, dim passage. The blaze of his lightsaber cast a ghostly blue pallor over the bounty hunter's spotted face. Anakin drew the saber back over his head ready to cleave him in two if he didn't comply instantly. "Damn you! Let her go now!"
Dropping Saloma, the bounty hunter spun around to confront the Jedi, firing his blaster in rapid secession at point blank range.
With incalculable speed, Anakin dodged the first shots, then leapt back a step to give himself room to manuever. In one fluid movement, the young Jedi brought his lightsaber around in front of him and deftly blocked the following blasts. He sent them all raining back down on the shocked bounty hunter. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Saloma closed her eyes and took several great gulps of air. Her windpipe felt crushed and pulpy. Breathing and swallowing was torturous. She felt herself sinking slowly to the floor with a numbing exhaustion.
Anakin was kneeling beside her in an instant, cradling her head in his large hands. "Saloma! No! Oh no please! Talk to me! Talk to me!"
She slowly opened her eyes and tried to focus on the face of the anxious young Jedi. His eyes were wide with fear. Saloma reached up and placed her hand over his.
"....All right," she squeaked.
Struggling to compose himself, Anakin carefully looked her over. He frowned deeply, unconvinced. "Like hell you are." He tenderly prodded the wounds on her neck. "You're bleeding badly."
"I'm...all right." She stiffly climbed to her feet, bracing her weight on Anakin's hand. He wrapped his arm tightly around her waist and helped her move up the passageway. Then Anakin suddenly looked up.
Obi-Wan bolted around the corner running full tilt. He abruptly pulled himself up at the unexpected sight of the dead bounty hunter.
"She says she's okay," Anakin began.
Obi-Wan's eyes jerked to Anakin's in bewilderment, then flew to Saloma as she shakily stepped towards him.
"I'm all right," she quickly reassured him, her voice still painfully hoarse. She forced a trembly smile. "Anakin's timing...really is impeccable."
Obi-Wan rushed to her and gathered her in his arms, covering her forehead with grateful kisses. He suddenly noticed the blood glistening on her dark skin and stepped back in alarm to examine her more thoroughly.
"You're hurt," he gasped, his heart twisting inside him.
"It's nothing....honest," she insisted and buried her face against his shoulder, wanting to cry, but found it too painful. Instead she clung tightly to him and letting the solid warmth of his body ease the last of her fears.
"Nothing," he echoed, his eyes fixing on the body down the hall.
"He is...was, a bounty hunter," Anakin supplied. "Named Emon Kime. Watto employed him once." The young Jedi shifted his weight to one leg and looked decidedly uncomfortable at the recollection of his former owner. "He used to specialize in intimidation, debt-collection, that sort of thing when he was younger. Hunting Jedi seems a little out of his league, but I suppose everyone has a right to ambition." He took a deep breath, then turned on his heel and started up the passageway. "I'm going to find the captain and tell him what's happened here."
"No!" Saloma choked out. "We can't tell him anything! There'll be too many questions asked. By the time we dock in Ergo, all that standard operating procedure will have made it known to every bounty hunter in the galaxy that you two are on board. We can't risk it."
Anakin sighed. "As far as I'm concerned, the jig is up anyway. Kime is proof of that. They already know we're on board. We need to insist the captain take increased measures to insure our safety."
"He won't! You heard him earlier, 'no amenities.' If he gets wind of possible danger, he'll have us off this ship and stranded on some outer rim spaceport," Saloma rasped. She turned to Obi-Wan and shook her head. "Don't go to the captain. Please."
The Jedi Master looked up at his padawan. "You're both right," he began. "I'm sure more than one bounty hunter is aware of our presence on this ship. Even if we can pass ourselves off as ordinary civilians, the chances of something similar to this happening again are too great. They know all they need to do is threaten Saloma and we will reveal ourselves to them." Obi-Wan paused and licked his lips. He gazed down at Saloma and softly brushed his knuckles over her cheek. "That's unacceptable," he whispered.
Anakin put his hands on his hips and sighed. "What would you have us do then, Obi-Wan? There's only one way off this ship and that's the boarding ramp. Unless we manage to convince the captain to make a detour on our behalf, we're presently on route to a commercial pier on Aremont. And most likely into the welcoming arms of no less than fifty bounty hunters. What other option do we have?"
"We'll make our own detour," Obi-Wan explained, his eyes falling on a sign posted in the passage that listed the ship's emergency evacuation procedures. "But we can't let the captain or crew know. We must do this as quietly and discreetly as possible."
For an instant, Anakin looked confused, then his eyes lit with awareness. "You're thinking about taking their shuttle."
"Yes." Obi-Wan nodded and grinned, pleased with his padawan's sharp mind. "We'll keep to ourselves. Bide our time, so to speak. We'll stay away from the crew and let the captain's memory of us start to fade. When we break out of lightspeed, we can take the shuttle to the planet surface. It's small enough not to be detected by ground sensors. We can land in an unpopulated area, maybe somewhere north of the cathedral."
Anakin licked his lips and knitted his brow, absorbing Obi-Wan's plan, then suddenly shook his head. "But the crew will know the shuttle has been launched."
"Not if you can disable the program which will detect it," the Jedi Master stated. He already knew Anakin could.
"This could actually work," Saloma croaked. She mentally took back all the earlier accusations she had made concerning Obi-Wan. She gazed up at him in unabashed adoration.
Anakin was nodding, his mind already calculating what he needed to do. He began pacing eagerly in the passageway, gnawing thoughtfully on his lower lip. "I can find the precise location of the launch detectors using the troubleshooter console in the engine room. It can target the relay computer and show me the point where I can intercept the signal to the cockpit's instrument panel."
"The sooner the better," the older Jedi stated. He paused and gazed up at Anakin, a mixture of trace emotions playing on his face. He didn't need to say anything. Anakin nodded in silent understanding. Finally, Obi-Wan reached up and placed his hand on Anakin's shoulder. "Go. And be careful, Padawan. The Force will be with you."
"I'll be careful," Anakin agreed and turned up the passage.
Now the Jedi Master focused his attention on Saloma, who was all but wrapped around him. He gazed down at her and shook his head.
"Woman, what am I going to do with you?" he whispered. "I'm beginning to think I can't let you out of my sight."
His words reminded Saloma of the reason she had taken to the ship's passageways in the first place. She pulled back from him slightly and looked up into his eyes.
"That will be a little difficult if you're planning on locking me in a closet or tying me to a chair," she grumbled hoarsely.
Obi-Wan cocked his head in confusion and stared back at her with a totally blank expression. "What?"
Saloma sighed. "I heard you thinking that earlier. It gave me the impression that once we get to Aremont, you may be planning on tucking me away somewhere, to keep me safe. I appreciate your concern, but I think you should know, I'm not about to submit to any misguided attempts at chivalry on your part."
The Jedi's brow furrowed as his mind struggled to recall what she could possibly be referring to. He suddenly remembered and exhaled forcefully through clenched teeth, massaging his eyes in exasperation. He jerked free of her grasp and paced hotly back and forth in front of her.
"Damn it Saloma, stop interpreting every thought I have so literally! I can't censor my thoughts to suit you. People think all sorts of things they wouldn't dream of acting on. I'm no different." Breathing hard, the Jedi came to an abrupt halt directly in front of her, planted his hands on his hips and stood glaring at her, daring further rebuttal.
Taken aback by his unusually intense display of anger, Saloma's eyes rapidly filled with tears and her bottom lip quivered. She bowed her head in shame.
"I'm sorry, Obi-Wan. You're absolutely right," she squeaked. "It's just that I'm so sensitive to what you think about me. Sometimes I get a little insecure."
Obi-Wan immediately recalled Anakin's advice. Apparently his padawan was right. Saloma did need reassuring.
The Jedi sighed heavily, his anger dissipating. He reached over and tenderly caressed Saloma's tear-streaked face until she looked up at him, then he leaned forward and softly kissed her.
"I forgive you," he said quietly. "But from now on, no matter what I may think, or how you may interpret it, I want you to remember I love you. Do you think you can do that for me?"
Speechless, Saloma slowly nodded, overcome with emotion, her heart melting at his words.
"Good," Obi-Wan said and smiled. "Shall we go get you cleaned up and dress those wounds?"
Saloma nodded once more.
PART THREE ~EROS
The lights were powered down in the ship's small sick bay. The facility was presently unoccupied and looked as if it hadn't been used in a very long time. Its paultry assortment of medical supplies were archaic and many medicines had expired. There was no bacta to be found.
Obi-Wan peered around the dingy room and frowned. It was the most pathetic-looking sick bay he had ever been in.
"It appears as if we'll have to fend for ourselves," he told Saloma, urging her inside.
"It's all right. I just want to wash up a little," she whispered roughly. She spied a sink across from the single examination table and headed towards it. Obi-Wan followed her.
"Try not to speak," he stated. "Let your throat to heal."
Saloma began rinsing a cloth towel under warm water. She glanced over her shoulder at the Jedi and smiled slightly.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" she croaked.
"Sssshhh," Obi-Wan hushed her. He drew up beside her and took the cloth from her hand. Turning off the water, he gestured at the examination table. "Here, I'll do it. Sit down."
Saloma opened her mouth to protest, then promptly closed it. Slipping out of her coat, she sighed and obediently perched herself on the edge of the table.
Obi-Wan took her coat and placed it over a chair at the foot of the table. He studied the wounds on Saloma's neck, gently pulling back the collar of her blouse.
Saloma suddenly grasped his hand before he could begin washing her and signaled him to wait.
He paused and leaned back. "What is it?....Oh, of course," he relayed as she indicated the excess water dripping from the cloth. She began to unfasten the front of her blouse.
The Jedi stood watching her with his arms folded loosely over his chest. His face was void of expression, but his eyes followed the movement of her hands as Saloma slowly peeled back the blouse and pulled it off her shoulders. She tossed it over her coat and leaned her head to the side, exposing her long neck to him; her newly-bared skin tingling in the sharp coolness of the room.
Obi-Wan licked his lips and blinked several times as if coming out of a trance. He hadn't anticipated the possibility of her not having anything on underneath the blouse. She had caught him off guard, which made the sight of her acutely arousing.
"What's wrong?" she asked innocently in her gravelly voice, noticing he hadn't proceeded.
The Jedi had to drag his eyes from the mesmerizing swell of her breasts up to her face. He quickly shook his head and cleared his throat.
"Nothing...at all," he pronounced and refocused his attention on the task at hand. He pressed the wet cloth carefully against the side of her neck, but couldn't resist watching a drop of water slide sensuously down into her cleavage.
Saloma made a face of discomfort. "It stings," she gasped.
"I know. I'm sorry." Obi-Wan frowned sympathetically. He delicately dabbed the corner of the cloth on the wounds to lift away the sticky blood. He was pleased to see the scratches were mostly superficial. She had gauged herself fairly deeply just under her chin however, and chills ran up and down his spine as he examined the marks. From them, he believed he could piece together an accurate account of what had happened to her in that passage. He lifted her hands to wipe them clean and saw the jagged, broken nails on her fingers, confirming his suspicions.
"Saloma, are you all right?" he asked anxiously. "I mean, really all right?"
"Yes," she sighed. "I feel a lot better now." She offered him a reassuring smile and squeezed his hands. "Thank you for taking care of me."
Obi-Wan exhaled heavily, full of guilt for having gotten so angry with her just after she had endured something so terrible. He turned away from her and began rinsing the cloth in the sink.
"You're welcome," he murmured, letting the warm water run soothingly over his hands. "Get dressed. Then we'll go find something to eat."
"What if I don't want to?" Saloma replied, her voice barely audible.
Obi-Wan wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly. He turned off the water and methodically dried his hands on a towel, still feeling unworthy to face her.
"Don't you want to eat?" he asked.
"No. I don't want to get dressed."
At that, Obi-Wan dropped the towel and turned around.
Saloma smiled slyly and crooked her finger at him. She was stretched out on her side, propped up on one elbow. The remainder of her clothes were discarded and scattered on the floor.
"Come on," she whispered. "I just had a brush with death. I need to feel alive again. I know I held your interest for a moment or two earlier. What do I need to do to get it back?"
Obi-Wan swept his eyes over her provocatively and took a deep breath. "You never lost my interest," he told her quietly. He took a tentative step towards her, her gaze beckoning him.
She sat up further and reached for him, pulling him closer to her. She leaned forward and kissed him, reveling in the soft sweetness of his mouth, as her hands strayed inside his coat and over his abdomen. The muscles of his stomach clenched beneath her palms as she tugged his tunic open, longing to feel his warm, silky skin against hers. She felt his hands slide over her sides and light on her waist. He kneaded her flesh and emitted a short, muffled moan of desire. Saloma pulled back from him slightly and busied herself unclasping his belt. Once undone, she slipped it off of him and leaned over to drape it on the chair.
Obi-Wan took the opportunity she'd given him to disrobe and shrugged out of his coat, letting it fall to the floor at his feet. He fairly tore the tunic from his torso and sent it sailing towards the sink; stepped on the heels of his boots and pulled them off, then reached for the waistband of his trousers.
Her eyes glittering with lustful adoration, Saloma layed back on the table to watch him strip. He locked his eyes on hers with a smoldering gaze as he unfastened the fly and opened it. His chest rose and fell with the hard rhythm of his deepening respiration. He took one long, steadying lungful of air, then slowly slid the open waistband over his narrow hips, down his thighs, and over his calves. His trousers pooled around his ankles and he stepped out of them and kicked them aside.
When Obi-Wan moved towards her, Saloma readily shifted to make room for him on the table, then rolled over on her stomach to push the pillow off to the side. She grinned, feeling the Jedi settle his body lightly over her back. His breath was in her ear as he nuzzled her cheek, whispering endearments and praising her glorious beauty. She sighed with desire and tucked her arms under her breasts to brace her upper body.
Obi-Wan rained soft kisses down the back of her bruised neck and tenderly nipped the skin on her shoulders, alternating the sensations she felt. He passed his hands over her arms and down her sides, delighting in her perfect form, kneading and tickling and stroking her everywhere he could reach. She began to writhe impatiently beneath him, her heart banging in synchronization with his. Her strong pulse spread a deepening heat through her body and made him ache with the need to be inside her. Aligning his body with hers, the Jedi raised himself off her and urged her to spread her legs farther apart by rubbing them with his thighs.
As Saloma felt the weight of the Jedi's hips against her buttocks, her heart felt like it would burst out of her chest. She closed her eyes tightly and buried her face in the table's padding to keep from crying out, but when he very slowly pressed himself into her and slowly eased himself back out, she couldn't resist whimpering in ecstasy. Each time he moved in her, he would push himself deeper, slowly pull out, then press back into her even deeper. Saloma thought she'd go mad from this exquisite torture.
Saloma's body was tightening around him and Obi-Wan didn't know how much longer he could maintain this pace without going insane himself, but he could sense Saloma's intense pleasure and felt the way her body responded to him. Maybe just a little longer. He leaned over and nibbled her earlobe, and then blew softly in her ear. His breath was hot and damp and she shuddered with delight at the sensation. Obi-Wan smiled.
Saloma's mind centered on her physical sensitivity. Obi-Wan's mind quieted as well as he steadily increased his rhythm and began to grind against her more powerfully. She found she could not stay still as he moved on her and began raising her hips each time he thrusted into her. Her back arched against his body wanting to feel him closer to her. She drew her knees up more and the Jedi growled sensuously, slipping his arm around her waist to hold her to him. His other hand closed over her breast and kneaded it savoringly.
Then Obi-Wan straightened pulling Saloma up with him until they were
both up on their knees to make her body more accessible to him. Leaning
her back against him, the Jedi slid his hands lovingly over her breasts,
abdomen and hips. A thin sheen of perspiration glistened on her smooth
dark skin, making her body tantalizingly sleek and glossy.
He murmured 'I love you' over and over in her ear and kissed the side of her face as she stretched her arm up to run her hand through his hair.
Saloma closed her eyes and smiled. She turned her head around to face him and he hungrily covered her mouth with his, kissing her so passionately she felt she might swoon. She knew at that moment she needed release before her mind imploded. She tore her mouth from his and bent over, bracing herself up on her hands. Obi-Wan immediately took hold of her hips for leverage and drove himself deeply into her. Saloma inhaled sharply and groaned softly.
Consumed with desire, Obi-Wan ground himself against Saloma with a fevered urgency. His body was screaming for gratification, but he wanted to feel her fulfillment first. He passed his hand over her back and around her side to her abdomen, then slowly slid his hand lower, and delved his fingers through the downy hair between her legs. Her body reacted instantly to his touch. He heard her breathing quicken and felt her muscles tightened around him. She became even hotter and wetter as he rubbed her. Her cries became more intense and she clawed the padding on the table. Within moments, her body spasmed and she threw her head back and released a long quivering breath.
Feeling her climax, Obi-Wan's body erupted. He wrapped his arms around her, clinging tightly to her as he pressed his face against her shoulder blade, scraping his teeth against her skin as he gasped for air.
Wriggling against him one last time, Saloma reveled in the sensation of his body so intensely locked with hers. She stayed up on her hands and knees until Obi-Wan was able to ease his grip on her; then carefully lowered them both down on the table and contentedly sprawled out beneath the weight of the Jedi.
Obi-Wan slowly opened his eyes and lay his head down on the back of her neck, unwilling to separate himself from her just yet. He knew she didn't mind and waited until his respiration had slowed and his heart rate was just about back to normal before rolling off her and collapsing in a heap on the table beside her. He turned his head to face her.
Her eyes smoldering in the euphoria of her afterglow, Saloma slowly licked her lips, and nodded in approval. "I feel...alive," she breathed.
Obi-Wan smiled and nodded. "Yes," he agreed and leaned over to kiss
her. "So do I."
PART FOUR ~TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
Anakin double-checked the readings and grinned. Each time the results were the same. Satisfied, the young Jedi leaned back in his chair and reached for his comlink.
"Obi-Wan?" he called in a low voice.
His master's reply was immediate. "What is it, Anakin?"
"I'm just finishing up now. Where do you want me to meet you? We have twelve minutes before the ship comes out of lightspeed."
"Well done, Padawan," Obi-Wan told him in an even tone, not the least bit surprised by Anakin's accomplishments. "Saloma and I will be at the shuttle alcove in five minutes. Meet us there."
Anakin glanced at the time. "All right. I'm on my way." He had just started closing out all the different schmatics he had displayed up on the readout screen, when he suddenly felt the Force stirring around him in warning. He leaned back from the console where he'd been working and quickly quieted his mind, letting the Force speak to him.
Someone was coming. One of the Calamarian crewmembers. He could hear their distinctive shuffling footsteps now. The young Jedi stood up and looked around quickly for someplace to hide.
No, he abruptly decided. If he was discovered hiding he would immediately be under suspicion. He had to act nonchalant. He wanted to make the Calamarian believe he felt he had every right to be here. The crewmember would probably just give him a tongue-lashing and send him on his way.
Anakin sat down at the console once more and quickly brought up information on engine fuel. He leaned forward and pretended to be so engrossed by what he was reading, he didn't notice the engineer enter the room.
"Hey you there! What do you think you're doing?" the engineer called out, waving his arm at the young Jedi.
Anakin looked up and smiled easily. "Oh hello. I was just reading about the engines. I'm studying to be an engineer myself so I hope you don't mind me using your computer to find out more about them. They're something of an enigma. You don't see these engines on the newer freighters."
The Calamarian eyed Anakin warily for a moment longer, then seemed to relax. "Well, this particular make is older. There's been two improved models manufactured after it."
"How interesting," Anakin said and slowly stood up. "I suppose I better let you get back to work. Thank you again for the use of your data. I found it all very intriguing."
The Calamarian placed a heavy hand on the Jedi's shoulder and pushed him back down in the chair. "Oh you don't have to rush off," he began. "I just came down to check the sublights before we disengage the hyperdrive. It's standard operating procedure." He leaned over Anakin's shoulder and gestured at the console. "Here I'll show you how to do it. It's easy with this program."
Anakin smiled up at him indulgently. "I really must be going, but thank you anyway--"
"Here, it only takes a few minutes. Every engineer should know how to do it. And nothing beats hands on experience," the Calamarian told him good-naturedly. He started to close the screen with the fuel readouts and saw the shuttle schematic displayed on the screen underneath. "Hmm, what's this doing up?"
The Jedi licked his lips. "Uh, I was reading about that too. I was wondering what sort of power it used." He glanced at the time on the monitor and frowned.
"Oh, same as these, just not as much," the engineer supplied and continued to close out the rest of the screens Anakin hadn't gotten to. He laughed when he saw the launch procedures listed on the final screen. "You passengers. Always eager to know about emergency evac." He straightened and patted Anakin's shoulder. "Don't you worry, boy. This ship may be older, but she's secure and sound. Sounder than that shuttle by the way. They'll be no need to evacuate."
Anakin's eyes lit with newfound interest. "What....what do you mean, sounder than the shuttle?"
The Calamarian waved the Jedi's concerns away and laughed. "This ship was built using quality alloy--"
"No, no, no," Anakin cut him off. "I mean the shuttle. What's the matter with the shuttle?"
Scratching his whiskered chin thoughtfully, the engineer looked at Anakin and lowered his voice. "Well, we're not supposed to let any passengers know about this, but you seem to have a level head on your shoulders. The problem is the shuttle's stabilizers are shot. We've been meaning to replace them, but haven't really seen the need. It misfires too. And the viewscreen doesn't work."
"Yeah, you know. You're going along nice and steady at a certain speed then whoosh! Your just about doing warp speed!" He shook his head. "It's really a piece of junk. It wasn't made by the same manufacturers. Here, we'll take a look at that schematic again and I'll show you--"
Anakin stood up. "Look, I really have to leave now. Thank you so much for your time. It's been so informative." He tried to muscle his way passed the Calamarian but the big amphibian wouldn't budge.
"I scared you now, didn't I? Boy, really, there's no need to worry. I've flown over forty times on this ship and--hey, why does this screen say that sensor's been disengaged?" He looked from the monitor to Anakin. "You didn't accidently press anything did you?"
Anakin's heart sunk. "If I did, I didn't mean to." He spared a glance at the time and frowned deeply. His situation was rapidly going from bad to worse.
The engineer casually entered new commands into his computer, closed down the program, and stood back. "There, all fixed. No big deal. I'm just glad I caught that." In mere moments, the Calamarian had reversed everything it had taken the Jedi over a half hour to do.
His patience gone, Anakin growled audibly at the overly-friendly engineer and physically shoved him away from the console. His hands flew over the data board as he tried to retrieve the pass key that gave him entry into the ship's sensory control program.
"Hey, what do you think you're doing?" the Calamarian asked, stunned, and grabbed at his arm.
Anakin glanced up at him then stepped aside and hauled the engineer into the chair. He jerked the lightsaber from his belt and activated it, training the glowing, sizzling tip on the amphibian's throat.
"Disengage that sensor, now," the Jedi told him through clenched teeth.
The Calamarian stared up at him with his enormous eyes too shocked to move.
"Don't make me behead you," Anakin threatened futilely. "I need that sensor off."
"You're a thief, aren't you?" the engineer surmised. "Nothing but a dirty black-market thief. You're going to steal the cargo aren't you and fly it down to the surface using the shuttle."
Anakin sighed impatiently. "Hardly. I'm a Jedi. I'm on a secret mission. I need to borrow the shuttle, that's all. I'm not stealing anything."
The Calamarian shook his head slowly. "I've never seen a Jedi dressed like that." He suddenly sprang forward and slapped his hand against a lever just above the console. Now the lights flashed red and an audible alarm buzzed loudly throughout the ship.
"Fahg!" Anakin hissed furiously, fighting the urge to behead the creature just for spite. Keeping his lightsaber in front of him as a precaution, he glared menacingly at the now smug-looking engineer, and backed slowly away until he was out of the engine room. Then he turned and ran.
Sitting along the wall with her arms around her knees, Saloma followed Obi-Wan with her eyes as the Jedi Master paced anxiously in front of the shuttle's alcove. His head was bowed and his hands were joined together behind his back as he strode up and down the passage, his mind full of worse case scenarios. His lightsaber swung rhythmically at his hip and long blue coat swirled around his knees with each sharp turn he made. He took several deep breaths and dragged his hand through his long fair hair a few times, his brow furrowed with concern.
"Obi-Wan, calm down," Saloma told him.
The Jedi stopped pacing to address her. "Something's wrong. I can feel it. He's in trouble."
Saloma sighed heavily. It was true. Anakin should have been here by now. The ship was going to come out of lightspeed in two minutes and the window of opportunity for launching the shuttle would close rapidly after that. The sooner they could take the shuttle, the better. Saloma struggled to think of something to say to ease Obi-Wan's anxiety.
"He hasn't called. Surely he would have called you if something happened," she offered.
Obi-Wan frowned. "Maybe he can't." He thought back to the time Anakin's comlink was taken from him by the members of the resistance who were holding him captive. But who would take it from him here? And even if someone had taken it, Anakin was still close enough to him to use telepathy if he really needed Obi-Wan's help. "I don't know. I just feel--"
As if to confirm his fears, the lights above suddenly turned red and an annoying buzzing sound reverberated through the hall passages. Obi-Wan and Saloma both looked up and around, their mouths falling open in surprise.
Sighing in resignation, Saloma climbed to her feet. "He's in trouble."
The Jedi Master turned to one of the lighted diagrams of the ship which were posted every few meters throughout the passages. It showed the alarm originating from the engine room where he knew Anakin had gone to gain access to the sensory program. Unlikely as it seemed, his padawan must have accidently tripped an alarm. Or possibly been discovered? Obi-Wan gnawed his lower lip and traced the route from the shuttle alcove to the engine room on the diagram with his index finger.
"Stay here," he told Saloma. "I'm going to head towards the engine room to try to find him."
Saloma was already shaking her head, having intercepted his thinking. "No, I'm coming with you. I don't think it's a good idea for us to split up now."
Frowning, Obi-Wan reluctantly conceded, knowing she knew he didn't want to waste time arguing with her about it. He extended his hand towards her and she readily took it. They had no sooner turned the corner when Anakin suddenly raced past them. Both parties jerked to a halt and faced each other.
"On the shuttle now!" Anakin ordered without any kind of explanation. He grabbed Saloma's hand and hauled her and Obi-Wan after him back towards the alcove. He skidded to a stop just in front of the sealed shuttle access doors and quickly jabbed the entry code into the lock. As soon as the doors opened, he frantically waved his companions inside.
The buzzing alarm sounded twice as loud inside the shuttle bay. Saloma and the two Jedi had to cover their ears as they sprinted towards the shuttle. Saloma noticed the shuttle bay doors were starting to close. She stopped and pointed up at them but before she could say anything, Obi-Wan climbed in the shuttle and pulled her in after him. Anakin jumped on, sealed the hatch, and threw himself into the pilot's seat.
"Hang on," the young Jedi grumbled, his hands flying over the controls. "I swear I'll explain everything as soon as we get out of here. First things first."
Saloma and Obi-Wan slid into the seats just behind Anakin and strapped themselves in.
"Low key, Anakin. Do you remember the Council mentioning something about that?" Obi-Wan asked with a slight edge in his voice.
"Yes I do," Anakin shot back, not missing a beat. "And I'm doing the best I can, okay?"
The Jedi Master began massaging his eyes.
"Ah, did you know the bay doors were closing?" Saloma asked with a strange Jedi-like calm.
"He knows," Obi-Wan nodded with a heavy sigh.
Anakin was too engrossed to answer her. He fired up the shuttle's engines and immediately began to lift off, accelerating to full speed as soon as the thrusters were able. The shuttle dipped suddenly and banged into the descending doors on the way out of the bay, throwing the passengers violently to the left.
"Sorry," the young Jedi mumbled by way of apology. "I thought I had enough room to clear the doors, but don't worry. I don't think we dented anything important." He released a long sigh of relief and settled more comfortably back in his seat. They had gotten away even though the ship had been put on full alert and the shuttle had cleared the bay. They were in open space now. The worse part was over.
Obi-Wan couldn't help noticing the viewscreen wasn't projecting anything. "Anakin?"
His padawan faced him expectantly. The Jedi Master indicated the blank screen.
"Oh, yeah I know," Anakin replied. "This will be a real trip. We're flying blind save for the controls and the Force's guidance. And from what I found out about this shuttle, my money's on the Force."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes and sighed. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear anymore.
"Is it safe?" Saloma ventured, leaning towards Obi-Wan for some sense of security.
Anakin shrugged. "....I believe so."
At that moment, the shuttle suddenly lurched forward, throwing everyone back against their seats. Anakin seized the controls and quickly adjusted the speed. He exhaled forcefully and turned back around to face Obi-Wan.
"Oh yeah. I almost forgot. It misfires and the stabilizer isn't functioning properly," Anakin reported.
The Jedi Master held his padawan's gaze for a moment, then slowly closed his eyes again and folded his arms across his chest. "Is that all?" he inquired.
Saloma had to laugh. The flippant way in which Obi-Wan had responded to the alarming information Anakin had just told him made it difficult to tell if he was being sarcastic or just blase'. She was ready to start panicking in earnest, but the two Jedi seemed to be taking their present adversity in stride, as usual.
Anakin glanced at Saloma and grinned. "Don't worry, my dear. I live and breathe for this kind of trouble. It's nothing I can't handle."
Placing her hand on Anakin's arm, Saloma squeezed it. "I'm sure you can," she stated more confidently than she actually felt.
"Behind all that bravado, he's telling you the truth," Obi-Wan added, looking up at her. "Anakin's flying expertise is reknown. If anyone can pilot this shuttle successfully, he can." The Jedi Master turned his eyes on his apprentice. "I trust his ability beyond any doubt."
Anakin swallowed and lowered his eyes, humbled by Obi-Wan's unexpected praise. "Thank you, Master," he said softly, his heart pounding inside him. He slowly turned and focused his attention back on the shuttle's controls.
Obi-Wan smiled slightly and closed his eyes once more.
The forest surrounding Lake Seasey was nothing more than bare, blackened stalks of charred flora. Its trees were leafless and for the most part limbless, stabbing the overcast sky of Aremont with jagged and splintered trunks.
Anakin brought the unruly shuttle down just west of the lake amidst a covering of singed boa fronds. He was pretty certain they had penetrated the planet's atmosphere undetected by any ground forces, but he didn't want to take any chances of the abandoned shuttle being discovered by overhead reconnaissance flights later on.
Following the two Jedi, Saloma stepped out of the shuttle and looked around, her heart sinking at the sight which met her eyes.
"How could they do such a thing?" she asked rhetorically, knowing the once vibrant ecosystem would never be able to recover from the destruction Captain Vrone's governmental forces had ensued.
She picked her way through the burned debris, making her way to the dark waters of the lake. On its surface, dirty, ragged-edged chunks of ice floated slowly by her, carried along by frothy-capped ripples. The banks were strewn with decaying plants and dead fish and the water itself looked dead. Its shallows were an oily yellowish-gray color which deepened to a murkier green towards the center of the lake. Saloma finally turned away from it and blinked back tears.
Sensing her sorrow, Obi-Wan walked up to her and took her in his arms.
"They killed it," she mumbled, burying her face in the collar of his coat. "They actually killed it."
The Jedi Master nodded and stroked her hair. "I know," he soothed. "But the lake wasn't the only thing they destroyed." He pulled back from her slightly and gestured to the south. "Look."
Saloma looked up and gasped. "The cathedral..."
Obi-Wan sighed despondently. "Once we had left it, they were able to attack it."
All that remained of the once magnificent structure was barely discernible ruins. Half of the north tower stood like an ancient sentinel over the scattered, dusty rubble, and one of the east walls still shadowed a crumbling stone stairway which led to nowhere.
"This is an end of an era," Saloma whispered.
Anakin was standing a little ways off by himself, his eyes fixed on the desecrated cathedral.
"It's gone," he suddenly announced.
Obi-Wan and Saloma faced him.
"What's gone?" Saloma asked, knowing he wasn't referring to the building.
Anakin stretched out his arms and gestured around him. "The Force. Our life. Our power. It's gone from here. It's lost." He dropped his arms with a heavy sigh and bowed his head.
Obi-Wan released Saloma and went to his padawan. He placed his hand on his shoulder as Anakin turned his distraught gaze upon him.
"The Force has not gone," the Jedi Master began softly. "It remains inside us, as it always has and always will. We were the ones who carried the Force to this place. Every Jedi who ever came here did as well." He paused and licked his lips. "The lifeforms in this area were sensitive to the Force's presence and that sensitivity may be gone now, but the Force itself still dwells at its source. And we are that source, Anakin. Not the trees, or the lake, or even the cathedral."
Anakin nodded, but looked away from Obi-Wan. He started towards the ruins with a determined stride. "Let's just get out of here, all right?"
Obi-Wan stood where he was, watching Anakin with a strange mixture of emotions tumbling around inside him.
"He's just angry," Saloma said, coming up beside him, her voice low. "He doesn't believe you. He thinks you're just trying to pacify him."
The Jedi turned to face her. "Thank you for the insight, but Anakin doesn't want to believe me." He took a deep breath and started walking away.
Saloma skipped after him. "Well prove it to him then."
Obi-Wan stopped and turned to face her. "I shouldn't have to prove myself, Saloma."
"Of course you do! Everybody does!" she argued. "It's not enough sometimes to just talk about something. You have to make it understood. You have to make it real." Leaning towards him, Saloma reached for his hand and slowly laced her fingers through his. "Think about it this way. The statements you make, no matter how true, like your professions of love for me, still need to be bolstered with your demonstrations of love for me. How can I believe you love me if you refuse to show me you do?" She stretched up on her toes and softly kissed him. "He's not rejecting you, Obi-Wan," she whispered. "Go to him. He needs you to reassure him that everything is all right."
Staring off into the distance, the Jedi Master nodded slowly. "Earlier today, he told me basically the same thing about you and at the time, I was feeling pretty much the same way I am now." He glanced back at Saloma and offered her a small smile. "And he was right about your needs, just like I'm certain you are right about his. I should have learned this lesson by now."
Bowing her head, Saloma whispered, "It's a lesson we all have to learn. When you don't know what it is a person needs, knowing how to meet those needs can be hard. All we can do is try."
Obi-Wan lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. "Thank you. You're a good friend, Saloma. To both of us."
Smiling coyly, Saloma released the Jedi's hand, and watched him stalk off in the direction his padawan had gone. She shielded her eyes from the glare of the setting sun as she looked towards the cathedral ruins. Anakin was kicking around some of the rubble when Obi-Wan approached him. He looked up. She saw the Jedi Master gesture back in her direction and furrowed her brow in curiosity.
Obi-Wan gestured back at Saloma who remained standing just outside the edge of the blackened treeline watching him.
"Your friend back there reminded me of the conversation you and I had this morning," the Jedi Master began.
Anakin glanced in Saloma's direction. "What did she say?"
Looking down at the rubble, Obi-Wan fixed his eyes on one of the smaller pieces and called it to his hand. "That you need...reassuring."
The young Jedi eyed his master warily. "I'm fine, really."
Obi-Wan tossed the stone up and recaught it. "I was hoping you'd believe me when I said nothing's changed, but I understand, sometimes it's best to experience things for yourself." He glanced at Anakin. "If you call on the Force, you'll see it doesn't feel any different now that the lake and the cathedral are gone," he stated.
"But it does feel different," Anakin protested.
"It's because of your anger," the Jedi Master countered. "You looked around you and saw death and destruction where there was peace and beauty and life before." He paused and took a deep steadying breath. "Anakin, we can't always be surrounded by what's alive and good. Sometimes we need to look into ourselves for these things to keep the Force's presence out of the darkness."
Obi-Wan threw the stone up once more and held it in mid-air with his eyes just over his head. Anakin looked up at the stone and frowned.
"Obi-Wan don't," he muttered. "I believe you. I'm just a little uptight, that's all."
"I want you to release your anger, Padawan, and then summon the Force," Obi-Wan said with an exasperated sigh. It was times like these that made him wonder if he was cut out to be a Jedi Master. He licked his lips and began lowering the stone slightly. "Here, take it from me," he told his apprentice. "And don't let it fall."
Anakin's frown deepened as he gestured up at the jagged stone. "Don't tempt me like this, Obi-Wan. I've had a bad day so far and I'm really not in the mood to--" He suddenly jumped back as the stone dropped heavily to the ground from above. Luckily the older Jedi moved back as well.
Trying to keep the disapproval out of his eyes, Obi-Wan pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. "I see the prospect of giving me a concussion wasn't enough to get you to let go of your anger." He quickly glanced around and spied a much larger piece of rubble. He gestured at it and sent it up into the air high above his head. "I'm not going to move this time, Anakin. You can either release your anger and feel the real power of the Force or you can kill me and never have to submit to these kinds of exercises again."
The stone began to descend, slowly at first, then gaining more speed the farther it fell. Anakin looked up at it and shook his head.
"I can't do this," he said, desperation creeping into his voice. "Please, I'm sure I won't be able to hold it."
Obi-Wan raised his hand above his head and stopped the stone. He held it just far enough up to make escaping from its descent nearly impossible. "Breathe in, Padawan. Feel the Force moving around you. Don't ever be determined to fail. Stay positive. Stay focused. Determination can be your ally."
Anakin gazed into Obi-Wan's eyes and took a deep, calming breath. He slowly stretched out his hand.
"Now, when I say 'take it', the stone will be under your control," the Jedi Master said in a hushed tone. Lowering his hand, he slowly closed his eyes. "....Take it now."
Sure she was about to witness the death of her lover, Saloma screamed from across the field and began running towards the ruins. The stone immediately dropped another inch or two before it stopped again. Anakin's eyes were fixed on it as it hovered just over Obi-Wan's head. He inhaled deeply and concentrated, gesturing with his hand to move the stone carefully aside then brought the stone to rest gently at his master's feet.
Opening his eyes, Obi-Wan looked down at it and flashed a toothy smile. He exhaled forcibly and stepped back. "I'm very proud of you, Padawan. And thank you for not taking advantage of a stellar opportunity to be rid of me once and for all."
Anakin grinned widely at him. "You were right," he breathed, excitedly. "It felt the same as it had before. The power was there when I let go of my anger."
"Anakin!" Saloma screeched, racing up to him. "Are you all right?" She glared briefly at Obi-Wan, then threw her arms around the younger Jedi's neck and hugged him. "I can't believe he made you do something like that when he knew how upset you were!"
Before Anakin could respond, Saloma spun around on her heel and confronted the Jedi Master.
"And you! Don't you ever scare me like that again!" she seethed. She hauled back her hand to slap him soundly across the face, but he caught her wrist with a lightening fast reflex, and twisted her arm behind her back, forcing her body tightly up against his.
"I know you love me," Obi-Wan cooed at her as she struggled harder and swore at him. "You don't have to prove it to me like that." Impulsively, he tilted his head and captured her mouth with his in a sensuously devouring kiss. Saloma's struggles immediately subsided and she whimpered softly, effectively appeased.
Anakin tactfully cleared his throat. "Come on you two, break it up. There'll be plenty of time for fighting later."
Obi-Wan reluctantly pulled back from Saloma, easing his hold on her. He gazed down at her with unabashed affection. "I love you," he told her and quickly stole another kiss.
Saloma smiled and licked her lips. "Yes, I know."
Vrone looked up from the data file he was studying. "What is it, Lieutenant?"
"Sir, I've just received a dispatch from the guard I had posted south of the old cathedral. He's reporting Jedi activity there," Lieutenant Tilar quickly relayed.
Vrone sat back in his chair and fumbled to turn off the computer on his desk. Despite their quality, he was still having difficulty adjusting to his prosthetic arms.
"What do you mean? Jedi activity?" he growled. The mere mention of the word 'Jedi' made his blood pressure soar. "Explain yourself!"
"The guard sighted a small cargo shuttle near Lake Seasey earlier this evening, just before dusk," Tilar began evenly. "There were three humans on board. Two men and one woman."
Vrone was growing impatient. "Why did your man suspect they might be Jedi? Did they do anything peculiar?" he prompted.
Tilar nodded enthusiastically. "First, they appeared to be dismayed by the ruins and suspiciously mulled about the grounds; then the two men conjured up some unseen powers and began lifting the rubble." He paused to let Captain Vrone digest this bit of information.
Vrone scowled up at him. "For what purpose?"
"Unknown, Sir. What shook the guard was the similarity to the demonstration of power that Jedi Master performed in the cathedral the night we went to apprehend Saloma P'tol. Levitating the stones like he levitated the blaster rifles."
Standing abruptly, Vrone lunged towards his lieutenant, knocking over files and datapads on his desk. "Was it him?" he demanded. "Was it Kenobi?"
Tilar shook his head. "I've notified our agent. He'll be able to positively identify him, but until then, there's no way to know for sure unless we can apprehend him."
"What did he look like?" the captain pressed. "Did the guard give a description?"
The lieutenant quickly consulted his report. "The woman was believed to be of Flaro descent, same as our fugitive councilwoman, I might add. She was dressed in a black jacket, gray shirt, and black pants. One of the men was tall, possibly albino and was dressed in a black coat, black shirt, black pants, scarf. The other was young, medium height, dressed in a blue military surplus coat, white tunic, and gray pants." Tilar punched a few keys on his pad to bring up more information. He studied the data and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Sir. That's all the description I have."
Vrone looked decidedly disappointed. "They don't sound like Jedi. They sound like more damned bounty hunters." He settled himself back in his chair and sighed heavily. "Why do they think they're going to find the Jedi on Aremont? Why aren't they out scouring the galaxy for them instead? I, personally, believe Kenobi and Skywalker wouldn't be stupid enough to try to come back here. They know what awaits them if they do."
Lieutenant Tilar frowned. "So, now you don't believe these people could be Jedi? What about the powers they conjured at the ruins?" He lowered his datapad and slumped forward slightly.
"Doesn't mean anything really. Plenty of these types who hunt Jedi have the same powers as they do. It gives them an edge." Vrone reached down to retrieve the files he'd spilled on the floor. He couldn't get his left hand to close all the way and some of the files slipped through it. He cursed loudly.
"Allow me, Sir," Tilar offered, quickly stooping to assist his commanding officer. He gathered up the files and stacked them neatly in a pile on the corner of Vrone's desk. "I had ordered them followed, but if you don't see the need--"
"No, carry on," the captain muttered. "Jedi or not, they still seem suspicious enough to warrant a tail and ten to one they're bound to cause trouble sooner or later." He inhaled slowly, his jaw working as he rolled a thought over and over in his head. "And if by some remote possibility it does turn out to be them, I can finally see them punished to the full extent of the law for their heinous crimes against the Ergonian people. The full extent."
Tilar smiled. "Or the heinous crimes the Ergonian people believe they committed."
Vrone nodded. "Yes. The citizens must have justice."
PART FIVE ~BETRAYAL
Saloma and the Jedi made their way south towards Ergo's city limits just after the sun had set. Under a cloak of curfewed darkness, they wound their way through the empty streets down to the warehouse district, narrowly averting detection by a passing platoon of enforcement droids.
Recalling the information he'd gleaned while in their captivity, Anakin believed the resistance had set up a gathering place for its members in one of the warehouses by the piers, but he had no idea which one.
Hoping to acquire more detailed information on the whereabouts of the resistance, Saloma led her companions to one of the more popular dockside cantinas.
"You've got to be joking," Obi-Wan whispered loudly, looking up at the dilapidated sign. "The Honest Hutt?"
Saloma grinned and shrugged. "Well, I didn't name it."
Anakin glanced around with a deep frown on his face. "This reminds me of the stories I heard as a boy about the cantinas in Mos Eisley. I don't know, Saloma. I think coming here might be a waste of time. The patrons probably won't offer us anything without some sort of monetary compensation. And let me remind you, we still need to buy our way back to Coruscant." He paused noting his observations were falling on deaf ears. He sighed heavily. "It looks closed anyway."
Saloma finally glanced up at the younger Jedi. "They're not going to look open with a curfew in effect. But believe me, they're open. A place like this wouldn't let something as trivial as a curfew law keep them from doing business during peak season." Saloma sidled up to the front door and shook her head. It was sealed tight. "There must be a back entrance. Something less conspicuous maybe."
She slunk around to the side of the building with the two Jedi following close behind. The cantina's side door was hidden in a shadowy recessed stairwell.
"The subfloor, of course," Saloma exclaimed. "Enforcement droids' sensors wouldn't be able to penetrate activity underground." She started down the steps then turned back to address the Jedi. "Look, this place can be a little rough. Just be careful, okay?"
Obi-Wan crossed his arms over his chest and leaned his hips against the railing edging the stairs. "So tell me, Councilwoman. How is it someone of your higher station knows the ins and outs of one of Ergo's seedier establishments?"
Saloma didn't seem the least bit phased by his inquiry. "Oh, didn't I tell you I used to sell my body here for spending money whenever ships came in?" She smirked up at him, but the Jedi Master did not look amused. Saloma sighed. "For your information, my constituents once petitioned the City Council to close this place down. Needless to say, the motion didn't pass and I got a first hand look at a side of Ergo I never dreamed existed."
Anakin put his hands on his hips. "Well, don't worry about us. We can take care of ourselves. You're the one who needs to be careful. Especially if you approach some unsavory being for information who doesn't care to be approached."
"No, no. They'll come to me. All I have to do is make my point of view known. Just watch," Saloma reassured him. "And for crying out loud, you guys need to back off and give me space to work. No one is going to come to me if they think I have two humorless goons attached to my side."
The two Jedi exchanged wary looks.
Saloma took a deep breath and rapped on the door. When no one responded, she knocked a little harder and chewed nervously on her lower lip.
"Maybe the owner became respectable in your absence and is abiding by the curfew law after all," Anakin whispered.
Saloma was just about to reply when the door swung open and an older, disheveled woman in a stained apron leaned out.
The woman looked Saloma up and down and then stared past her at the two Jedi. "Yeah, what is it?"
Saloma cleared her throat. "We've been dodging patrols all night and got a little thirsty. May we come in?"
The woman pressed her lips tightly together. "What makes you think you can get a drink here at this time of night? We're closed down. Curfew in effect. We always obey the law." Her face was flushed and a trickle of perspiration rolled over her high forehead. She wiped it away with the palm of her hand.
Saloma smiled slightly. "Of course you do. And I wasn't implying otherwise. We are just travellers. Weary, hungry, and cold. We come only seeking out the hospitality of Ergo's fine citizens. If you could spare a small something, it would be greatly appreciated."
The rumpled woman looked them over once more and glanced quickly around. "Sure," she said finally. "I can spare something. Come on in." She opened the door completely and stood back to allow them access.
Saloma glanced back at Obi-Wan and Anakin as they stepped into a small darkened entryway. The woman closed the door behind them and turned around to face them.
"Can't be too careful," she muttered, waving a damp bar towel at them. "We get all types in here these days." She gestured to them to follow her down another short flight of stairs. The door at the bottom of the stairs slid open as she approached, revealing a dimly lit cellar, crammed with tables and chairs, and a wide assortment of aliens and Ergonians.
A small bar ran parallel to the back wall. Two bartenders darted frenetically back and forth behind it, continuously filling orders for drinks to keep up with their numerous customers' demands. The waitress brought Saloma and the Jedi over to the bar and waved to one of the bartenders.
"Fix 'em up with something," she told him, then faced Saloma. "I'll be back if I can find you a table. If not, you're on your own." She turned and disappeared through the crowd of patrons milling about the bar.
Saloma ordered a drink from the bartender, then turned to face Obi-Wan and Anakin who were standing slightly behind her. "You should get something," she told Obi-Wan in a hushed tone. "Everyone's drinking. You don't want to look out of place."
The Jedi Master glanced over at his padawan. "What would you like?"
Anakin shrugged. "Whatever will take the chill out of my bones."
Obi-Wan leaned towards the bar within earshot of the bartender. "Do you have a house specialty?"
The bartender nodded. "It's a spiced cocktail. It's called the Cyclonic."
The Jedi nodded. "We'll have that." As the bartender rushed off to fill the order, Obi-Wan reached over and pulled Anakin closer to him. "Do you recognize anyone?"
Anakin shook his head. "It's hard to tell. The room's so crowded." His eyes swept slowly back and forth. "You stay with Saloma. I'll go have a look around."
"All right, just be cautious," Obi-Wan murmured in his ear. "Don't step on any toes. I mean that literally as well as figuratively."
Anakin grinned. "I'll be careful." He held out his hand for his drink as the bartender came back with their order.
Obi-Wan handed him the swirling, steamy beverage with a concerned look on his face. "Well, you wanted something hot."
Anakin smelled it and took a tentative sip. "Perfect," he announced with a smile and stalked off, cradling the warm glass in his large hands.
Saloma spied two empty barstools off to her right and quickly sat down in one. She looked up at Obi-Wan and patted the seat next to her with a luring grin.
The Jedi sat down beside Saloma with a contented sigh. He propped his elbow on the bar to hold his head up and smiled, gazing fondly at her.
She leaned closer to Obi-Wan, catching his distinct thoughts. "How can you think of something like that at a time like this?"
Obi-Wan laughed lightly. "I'm a man. And that was the exact same look you gave me back in the sick bay." He dragged his hand through his hair to push his bangs away from his eyes.
Saloma sighed. "Has anyone ever told you what beautiful eyes you have?" she asked, staring back at him. "I'll never forget meeting you for the first time in the cathedral. When your eyes met mine, my heart took flight."
Obi-Wan reached over and took her hand in his. "Kismet," he whispered. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her palm.
"Kismet is right. It's a good thing the cathedral was still standing back then," Saloma said and then glanced around. "Otherwise, we may have never met."
The Rodian sitting on Saloma's left suddenly slumped forward and passed out. Saloma and Obi-Wan watched as a man came up and grabbed the collar of the Rodian's coat and pulled him off the stool. He eased him onto the floor, out of his way, where a passing waiter dragged him off. Then the man helped himself to the recently vacated seat at the bar and cleared his throat brusquely.
Saloma quickly turned to face him.
"Too bad about that," the man began, slowly turning his eyes on her. "Wasn't it?"
Obi-Wan cocked an eyebrow.
Saloma moistened her lips and peered back at the man curiously. "What, about me falling in love?"
The man laughed lightly. He seemed young, but he had a hard and weathered face. He was thin and unkempt, with dark hair and deep set dark eyes. Shaking his head, he shifted towards Saloma and placed his drink carefully on the bar.
"I meant about the cathedral. Too bad they had to go and knock it down. Especially since it was such a landmark and all."
Saloma bowed her head. "Yes, it was a shame."
"They wanted to make sure the Jedi never came here again," he continued. "I understand that, but that cathedral belonged to the citizens of Ergo. Not the Jedi. Besides, the Jedi will never come back now."
Obi-Wan grinned mischievously. "Never say never, my friend."
The man looked back at Obi-Wan as if he had just noticed him. "Ah well, these days that's the hope of every two-bit bounty hunter on Aremont. Even the citizens are keeping an eye out for them. You must be looking for them too. With that kind of price on their heads, I can't blame you."
Saloma suddenly glanced back at Obi-Wan anxiously. "Darling, can you go find the waitress and see if she has a table for us yet? I'm getting rather hungry." She put her hand on her stomach and forced a smile.
The Jedi immediately sensed her unease. He knew she had probably heard something the young man was thinking, but he couldn't understand why she was sending him away if she did.
"Actually, Darling," Obi-Wan replied, stressing the endearment, "I distinctly heard the waitress say she would come get us when she had a table cleared."
Saloma narrowed her eyes at him. "Can you please go see what's keeping her then?"
Knowing he'd get an explanation in time, Obi-Wan gave in to her strange, fictitious request. With a heavy sigh, he slid off his stool and ambled away into the thickening crowd.
Saloma turned her attention back on the young man to her left. "Sorry about that. What were you saying? About the Jedi and the bounty hunters? I've been away. I'd appreciate it if you would catch me up on all the latest gossip going around. Aremont's changed so profoundly since Governor Spiget took control. I hardly recognize it."
The man nodded easily. "I'd be glad to as long as your friend doesn't think I'm honing in on his territory or something. Not that you wouldn't be worth it, but I'm a gentleman by nature." He flashed a disarming smile at Saloma and took a long drink.
Saloma lookeded in the direction Obi-Wan had gone. "Oh, don't worry about him. I can't say he's harmless, but he is civilized."
"In that case, my name is Devon. So you live here, but you've been away, huh?"
"I'm Sal. Yes. I left just after the elections. Business, you know. Keeps me off the planet from time to time," Saloma responded. She picked up her drink and watched its odd swirling, hoping Obi-Wan would stay away so she could find out more information from her affable companion. "So tell me a little about yourself. You seem to be well informed. How do you pass your time?"
"I'm self-employed. I run my own business." He paused and took a drink.
Saloma slowly looked him up and down. She knew what kind of business he was in despite his equivocal description.
"I saw that look," Devon grinned. "I know I don't look overly successful, but I can assure you, I am."
Lowering her eyes coyly, Saloma cleared her throat. "I'm sorry. It's just that I was thinking the government might have forced you into a different, less agreeable line of work. I hear they've been doing that to some of the more...mm, established citizens. Business owners like yourself."
Devon leaned a little closer to Saloma. "You don't sound particularly impressed by the new governor's decisive action."
Saloma smiled slightly. "I didn't think I was being that obvious," she whispered.
"It's all right. You won't find many in this district who are overly fond of the new anti-Republic regime. Some even openly oppose it. If you do, you're among friends in this place."
"I have heard rumors of some sort of resistance movement," she acknowledged.
Devon nodded. "Oh, they aren't rumors. As a matter of fact, they've grown twice as strong. They've been newly motivated by a rising young figurehead. He used to be a political prisoner so the people really react around him. He's quite a character." Devon paused and cocked his head. "I think he's one of your kind. You're from the southern polar region, aren't you?"
Saloma gulped her drink to keep from replying right away. She listened to Devon's thoughts, afraid he might have guessed who she was, but he didn't give her any indication that he had. She smiled up at him finally and shook her head.
"No. You're mistaken. I'm not from the south."
Devon peered at her curiously. "Oh. Sorry. With your complexion, I just assumed."
Again, Saloma shook her head. "Don't feel bad. I get mistaken for being Flaro a lot," she told him in a reassuring tone. She heard him thinking about how much she looked like the Flaro man who had caused such a stir within the resistance.
"Flaro," Devon repeated. "Yeah, that's it. He's Flaro. I'm sure of it."
"Who?" Saloma asked innocently. "The new leader of the resistance?"
Devon leaned against the bar and nodded slowly. "Yeah. Him."
Saloma's heart skipped a beat. Devon could be referring to Nare. Trying not to look as anxious to hear more as she was, Saloma sipped her drink a few times and pretended to look around for Obi-Wan.
"You sound as if you have met him," she stated casually, her pulse banging inside her head.
"Oh, I have. He doesn't make himself accessible to many strangers for obvious reasons, but he sought my services once." Devon paused and leaned closer to him. "So, I know where he conducts his business. We've exchanged information on many occasions. He's an incredible man."
"Hmm, I wouldn't mind meeting him myself one of these days," Saloma put in. "Sounds intriguing."
Devon took a deep breath and watched Saloma carefully. "I can arrange it, if you're serious about becoming involved in his cause."
Saloma lowered her head and licked her lips anxiously. "I...think I'd like that," she breathed. She knew he was telling the truth. He hadn't lied once. He had only left out certain details concerning his occupation, but she couldn't blame him for that. From what he was thinking now, she could tell he really did know this young Flaro man who sounded a lot like Nare.
Devon suddenly sat back, startling Saloma. She looked up and saw Obi-Wan standing directly in between them. She sighed heavily and frowned at his sudden unexpected presence.
"The waitress has found a table for us, but it's right by the door and I think you should look at it first to see if it meets your approval," the Jedi droned, maintaining the lie she'd created earlier.
Saloma slowly shook her head and shooed him away with her hand. "I'm sure it's fine. You go ahead. I'll be over shortly. I'm just going to finish my drink." The look on Obi-Wan's face told her he wasn't about to take no for an answer.
"Just take it with you," Obi-Wan grumbled. He took a crushing hold of Saloma's hand and tried to pull her off the barstool, but she resisted. "Look, I'm not going to listen to you bitch all night because the table is by the door," he added.
Devon tactfully turned away from the couple and helped himself to a handful of snacks from a bowl on the bar.
Saloma glared daggers at Obi-Wan, but he wouldn't relent. Then she smiled condescendingly at him and abruptly stood up.
"Ah, excuse us," Saloma quickly told Devon as Obi-Wan hauled her off.
"Certainly," Devon muttered over his shoulder. He downed the last of his drink and promptly ordered another.
Obi-Wan dragged Saloma to the far corner of the cellar in the midst of a raucous group of inebriated aliens. He spun around to face her and finally released her.
"I'm not leaving you alone with him again!" the Jedi said, raising his voice so he could be heard above the noise. "You're afraid of him. I feel it. I want you to tell me why right now."
Shaking out the kinks in her slightly crushed hand, Saloma frowned, but nodded. "I think he's a bounty hunter. Yes, I've been afraid, but I've been afraid for you. He might recognize you. That's why I sent you away. As soon as he started talking about the hopes of every two-bit bounty hunter, his mind started salivating with greed." She looked up at the Jedi and bit her lower lip. "Listen, just before you came back, he said he knew the new leader of the resistance on a personal basis. A Flaro man who was once a political prisoner." She blinked back tears that suddenly welled in her eyes at the thought of seeing Nare again. "I have to go back and talk to him. I have to find out more, but you have to stay away."
"Is he telling the truth?" the Jedi asked.
Saloma lowered her eyes. "I believe so. I can't hear him very well. There's too much going on around me. Everything's jumbled. I'm sure he's lying about something, but it's not about Nare."
Obi-Wan took a deep steadying breath. "Saloma, don't get your hopes up. Don't let your emotions run away with you before you've had the chance to reconcile his motives. If he is a bounty hunter, he may be setting you up. He may be setting us all up."
Saloma bowed her head. "I know. I'll be careful. If there's the slightest chance, Obi-Wan, I have to take it. I have to find Nare." She distractedly rubbed her sore hand, eager to get back to her conversation with Devon.
Sighing heavily, the Jedi took her hand and began gently massaging it between both of his. Despite the uneasiness he felt, Obi-Wan knew he couldn't deny her the chance of finding her brother.
"I understand. I just want you to be very, very careful. Go on. See what he has to say. I'll be close by if you need me." Obi-Wan raised her hand and softly kissed it with an apologetic look. "I'm sorry I hurt you. I didn't realize I was holding you so tightly."
Saloma smiled shakily. "Not tightly, securely," she whispered. She leaned into him and kissed his cheek, then hurried off.
Anakin pushed his way through the dense crowd and over to where Obi-Wan stood watching Saloma make her way back to the bar.
"Any developments at your end? I've been talking to quite a few people but I haven't seen or heard anything even remotely worthwhile," the younger Jedi reported.
Obi-Wan looked up at him and furrowed his brow. "Saloma's found someone who might know something useful. Someone who claims to know Nare. How convenient for us that the first person who sat next to her is the very person she needed to find."
"Stranger things have happened but I know that tone of yours, Obi-Wan," Anakin said, shaking his head. "You don't sound very optimistic. Even so, why aren't you going with her?"
"A minor complication," the Jedi Master said sarcastically. "The man's a bounty hunter. Saloma doesn't think it's safe for me to be around him. She's afraid he'll recognize me." He frowned and glanced around. "I'm sure he's not the only one in here. But if we haven't been recognized by now, I doubt we will."
Anakin shrugged. "Oh, I wouldn't say that. The competition may be too heavy in here. They may just be lying in wait for a more opportune time to strike."
Obi-Wan grinned. "Now who's being optimistic?" He patted Anakin's shoulder amiably and started off towards the bar.
Sighing, Anakin turned and spied a waitress clearing off a nearby table. He approached her and placed his empty glass on her tray.
"May I get another one of these?" he asked.
The waitress held out her hand. "I don't run tabs on the floor. I'll need a twenty-two for it first."
Anakin frowned and shook his head. "Never mind then."
He turned to go, almost bumping into a provocatively dressed young woman, who had suddenly appeared beside him. She grinned up at him and promptly handed the waitress some money.
"Make that two," she ordered, never taking her eyes off Anakin. The waitress scurried away with newfound purpose. The girl tossed her long red hair over her shoulder and licked her bright red lips. She gestured at the empty table. "Shall we?" Without waiting for an answer, she pulled out two chairs and sat down in one.
Feeling somewhat obliged and admittedly intrigued, Anakin slid into the chair next to her. He needed to watch the crowd anyway and this table was a good vantage point.
"Thank you," he told the girl. "For paying. That was quite generous of you, considering you don't even know me."
The girl smiled revealing a mouthful of straight white teeth. Her large green eyes glittered with amusement. "Well, that's easy enough to remedy." She extended her hand in greeting. "My name is Trudee. What's yours?"
Anakin accepted her hand and shook it, trying to decide if he should tell her his real name or not. He came to the conclusion there would be no harm in doing so. His name was fairly common.
"Anakin," he said quietly and felt her squeeze his hand.
"Well, Anakin," Trudee began and laced her slim fingers through his. "I haven't seen you around here before." She started rubbing her thumb slowly over his wrist.
"I'm just passing through really," he admitted. "I'm traveling with someone." Feeling self-conscious about the way she was touching him, Anakin tried to tactfully reclaim his hand.
Undaunted, Trudee released his hand, but leaned closer to him, pressing her thigh up against his. "The man you were with before? Is he your brother? 'Cause you both kinda look alike. You're both heartbreakers, I can tell."
Anakin smiled at her coquettish behavior but sat forward slightly to get farther away from her and folded his arms in front of him on the table. "No, he's not my brother. He's just a friend," he told her, not acknowledging her compliment.
The waitress returned and set the two Cyclonics down on the table. Trudee handed her more money.
"Keep them coming, okay?"
The waitress nodded and hurried off.
"I should have worn my hair up tonight," Trudee sighed. She pushed her hair back off her neck, sliding her fingers through it in a mesmerizing rhythm. "It's very warm in here." She reached up with both hands and gathered her tresses together, piling her hair in a mass of red waves on top of her head.
"But it's very cold outside," Anakin replied, watching as her hair slipped from her grasp and tumbled back down to her shoulders. "Besides, it looks pretty loose like that," he added to reassure her.
Trudee's eyes twinkled with delight. "Why thank you, Anakin. That was very nice of you to say." She sipped her drink, her eyes locking on his. "You seem like a very nice guy to me. You dress nice. You have a nice voice. Nice manners. I've never met anyone like you before. Most of the guys who come here are scum. But not you. You're a real gentleman. I can tell."
Anakin leaned a little closer to her. "You're nice too," he told her in a low voice. He gazed back at her and sighed. She was pretty and he was flattered by her attraction to him, but wasn't really sure what to do about it. He wasn't trying to encourage her, but it seemed as if everything he said and did met with her approval. He had to be careful. A guy could get into a lot of trouble with a girl like her.
Devon was pleased to see Saloma settle onto the barstool beside him again. He glanced around behind her expectantly.
"Don't worry, he won't bother us anymore," Saloma reassured him. She waved the bartender over to freshen her drink. "So, where were we?"
Devon cleared his throat. "We were talking about a certain acquaintance of mine," he reminded, angling his body to face her.
Saloma nodded. "Oh yes. People like that inspire me to stand up for what I believe in," she began. "He must have been through quite an ordeal as a political prisoner."
Devon nodded slowly. "He was tortured right outside the Jedi cathedral just before it came down and then he was left for dead. He narrowly escaped with his life. Now he's very dedicated to bringing the ones who betrayed him to justice."
Saloma held her breath. "What's his name?"
Devon leaned closer to her and lowered his voice. "His name is P'tol."
Saloma had heard enough. "He sounds like the kind of man I'd like to meet. Could you arrange something?" She looked around warily. "Tonight perhaps?"
"Yes. It's not far."
Saloma swallowed down the lump forming in her throat. "Good. Make the arrangements," she whispered and sipped her drink. Devon wasn't lying. He knew Nare.
Devon nodded. "Meet me by the side entrance in fifteen minutes. Come alone." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of money and slapped it on the bar.
"Alone," Saloma echoed, entranced. She watched Devon pick his way through the crowd and head for the cellar door.
Obi-Wan had been making himself effectively invisible, watching Saloma a short distance away. When he saw Devon get up and leave, the Jedi started to make his way towards Saloma.
"Let's get out of this place, Anakin," Trudee suggested. "It's getting stuffy in here and the noise is starting to give me a headache." She finished her third Cyclonic in record time and looked around for the waitress, raising her hand to get the woman's attention. "I need another drink. I'm thirsty."
Anakin shook his head and took hold of her wrist, guiding her hand back to her side.
"I think you've had quite enough of those," he told her. "They're what's giving you a headache and making you so hot."
Trudee smiled, fixing her eyes on his face. She leaned into him and began rubbing his knee with her hand. "I think you're the one who's making me hot," she purred. "C'mon, don't you want to go someplace cool, and dark, and private?"
Anakin promptly removed her hand from his leg. "No, so behave yourself." Wanting to keep his inhibitions intact, he wedged his arm between them to pry her off of him. She was getting really clingy and would not keep her hands to herself.
Pouting, Trudee sat back slightly and crossed her arms over her chest. "I thought you liked me."
"I do," Anakin consoled. "Just not in the way you want me to." He sighed heavily and looked towards the bar for Obi-Wan. He wanted to keep his eye on him just in case the older Jedi signaled to him. It would be a good, legitimate reason to excuse himself.
"Here, have another drink," Trudee was saying. "You seem so uptight."
Anakin purposefully pushed the half empty glass away. "No thank you. I'm already feeling a buzz. If I were to get any more intoxicated than this, my mast--my friend over there would wring my neck."
He meant to gesture in Obi-Wan's direction, but froze as a vaguely familiar presence stirred the Force around him. Anakin quickly looked around, but the crowd was too thick to pinpoint the sensation's source. He turned to face Trudee and offered her an apologetic look.
"It was nice meeting you and thank you for buying my drink, but I have to get going now. Are you going to be all right?"
Trudee suddenly seized Anakin's arm. "I was really hoping you would take me home, Anakin. My boyfriend left me here and I don't have a speeder," she explained quickly, as she leaned against him. Reaching up, she slowly stroked his temples, running her nails through his hair. "If you take me home, I'll let you do me."
The Jedi's eyes widened, then narrowed in disapproval. "Damn and blast girl, don't you have any self-respect?" he reproached her.
Trudee grinned wickedly. "Uh-uh," she replied. "Not where you're concerned." Grasping his head between her hands, she pulled his face down to hers and roughly kissed him.
Startled and angry, Anakin pushed Trudee away and quickly stood up to leave.
Rising to her feet, but looking past Anakin, Trudee's mouth fell open in surprise. "Mortane! You came back!" she suddenly exclaimed.
"I came back all right! And luckily I did!" Mortane grumbled, his voice coming from behind the Jedi. "And as for you, you slime, how dare you come onto my girl, like that."
Anakin's heart nearly stopped. The familiar presence he had sensed earlier belonged to Mortane Rure, the young resistance fighter who had held him captive, and later tried to burn him alive. Anakin tried to turn around to face him but something jabbed him sharply in the ribs and he froze.
"Whoever you are, I've got a blaster pointed at your back. So don't try anything. I want you outside in the alley. Now start walking."
Anakin tried to find consolation in the fact that Mortane hadn't recognized him. Yet. He sighed heavily and started towards the cellar door.
Trudee looked up at him and frowned. "Please, don't hurt him, Mortane. He didn't mean anything by it."
Anakin glared back at her, then slowly lifted his eyes, hoping to catch his master's attention.
Obi-Wan stopped in his tracks and turned around. The distinct calling of his name by his padawan's voice rang inside his head like an alarm. It immediately drew his attention away from Saloma and to the far corner of the large cellar room where he had last seen Anakin.
The young Jedi was just passing through the exit door when Obi-Wan spotted him. Immediately, he knew something was wrong. He spared a quick glance back in Saloma's direction and saw she was still seated at the bar, calmly sipping her drink. He quickly made up his mind to go after Anakin.
However, the crowd was dense and unyielding between him and the door. Obi-Wan started prodding them out of his way using the Force. Feeling jostled, the throng of beings conveniently parted before him, and within moments, the Jedi Master was in full stride. He quickly crossed the room and slipped through the door.
"That's far enough. Get up against the building, then turn around. Nice and slow."
Anakin stopped. Mortane had made him walk around the corner from the Honest Hutt, his hands now raised in the air submissively, facing a black stone building.
"And just what do you think you're going to do to me?" Anakin taunted. He felt the sharp jab of the blaster's muzzle in the small of his back again and clenched his teeth. "Would it make any difference if I told you your little hottie back in the bar was the one coming onto me?"
Mortane laughed hollowly. "Guys like you only see what you want to see. That's why I have to teach you a lesson. Now...turn around."
Anakin closed his eyes and concentrated. He quieted his mind and quelled
his emotions, gathering the Force to him. It's presence filled him. Opening
his eyes, he swiftly turned around and snatched the blaster from Mortane's
hand and drove his fist into the young resistance fighter's jaw.
Stunned, Mortane spun to the ground as Anakin pivoted around him, away from the building.
Anakin stood over him, training the blaster on Mortane's head. "Don't move," he growled. "And keep your eyes down."
Mortane took a deep breath and shook his head to clear it, settling back on his haunches. "Please. I don't know what came over me. She makes me crazy sometimes. I can't stand the thought of her with another guy." He paused his confession and licked his lips anxiously. "Are you going to kill me?" he asked in a shaky voice.
"I'd like to," the young Jedi retorted. "Blow you to bits and be done with you, but you're not worth the trouble I'd get myself into by doing so. And then, I realize you were only trying to salve your wounded pride by threatening me, and I know being in love can make you do really stupid things at times. It's an incredibly powerful emotion." Anakin slowly lowered the blaster. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied Obi-Wan hurrying towards him. "I'm going to leave you to wallow in your misery now. Just ask yourself next time if she's worth the trouble you could have gotten into tonight. She's obviously not committed to you. You shouldn't trust her with your feelings."
Mortane tried to look up, but Anakin raised the blaster again and pressed it against his scalp.
"What did I tell you?"
"Sorry. It's just that....I thought you'd be angry. I thought you'd kill me. Why are you showing me mercy instead?"
Anakin sighed. "I don't know," he answered truthfully. "I have every right to despise you, but I can only feel sorry for you right now. You're absolutely pathetic." He took the blaster and tucked it into his belt as Obi-Wan drew up beside him. "Maybe it's because I know what it's like to be in love."
"I heard you call me," the older Jedi said as his eyes locked on Mortane. "What's going on here?"
"Forgive me," Anakin apologized. "I thought for a moment I might be in danger, but as it turned out, this whole sordid incident has been little more than a waste of time."
Obi-Wan looked up at his padawan and frowned. "And a distraction we can scarcely afford right now," he subtly reprimanded.
Anakin bit his lower lip. "Well, actually, it's not quite as trivial as it may seem," he began, compelled to explain. He gestured at Mortane. "This heartsick fool is a member of the resistance. His name is Mortane Rure." Anakin looked up at Obi-Wan and lowered his voice. "I have met him once before."
Mortane's head shot up in astonishment at the mention of his identity. "I don't know you! How do you know me? Are you one of Vrone's men?"
Reaching out, Anakin angrily seized him by the lapels of his coat and hauled him to his feet, shoving him up against the building. "No, I'm not one of Vrone's men, you idiot! I am a Jedi! In fact, I'm the same Jedi you kidnapped, and drugged, and tried to murder. Look at me! Don't you recognize me? You looked into my eyes just before you locked me in that room and set fire to it!"
Mortane cringed, terrified, his eyes wide with recollection. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
"Anakin, let him go," Obi-Wan ordered in a quiet, steadying voice. He stepped forward and put his hand on his padawan's arm. "Let him go."
Obeying his master, Anakin released Mortane and took a deep breath. "The very least he could do after all the problems he's caused would be to take us to Nare."
Obi-Wan faced Mortane. "Could you arrange that? Could you take us to meet with Nare P'tol?"
Breathing hard, Mortane stared back at the Jedi nonplused, his mind scrambling to comprehend their strange request.
Obi-Wan softened his tone. "We promise not to harm you. If you would assist us, we would truly appreciate it. We specifically came back to Aremont to find Nare P'tol. We have his sister with us. She needs to know that he's all right. Can you take us to him?"
Mortane began shaking his head. "Nare P'tol?" He turned his head to the side and spat on the ground. "I'll take you to him only if you promise to assassinate him! The filthy traitor! Scurvy, worm-ridden bastard!"
The Jedi exchanged wary looks with each other.
"What are you saying?" Obi-Wan asked, his heart suddenly beating out of rhythm. He could sense the truth radiating from behind Mortane's emotions. "We were informed that Nare P'tol was your leader. He survived and rose to power within ranks of the resistance."
Mortane laughed humorlessly. "Well, I'd say you were sorely misinformed, Jedi. Nare P'tol rose to power all right. But within the ranks of the internal military police, not the resistance. He has betrayed us to Vrone and sold our secrets. He's one of Vrone's spies now." He straightened and melodramatically pulled open his coat. "Go on and blast me if I'm lying. I'd rather be dead than ever defend the name of Nare P'tol."
"He's not lying," Anakin whispered thickly, absorbing the sickening implication of Mortane's words.
Obi-Wan shakily released his breath. "I know." He swallowed hard and closed his eyes briefly, his mind racing. The bounty hunter had deceived Saloma. He was the one who had told her Nare was a member of the resistance. It was a setup after all. A prickling, menacing feeling of impending unrest settled over the Jedi like a dark cloud.
"Anakin, let's go. We need to find Saloma and tell her." He turned on his heel and started walking back towards the Honest Hutt, then paused and faced Mortane. "Will you come with us? If you tell her as well, it may make it easier for her to accept."
Mortane hesitated, then nodded. "Yes. I'll come with you." He spared a glance up at Anakin. "After all, it's the least I could do."
Saloma looked up at the time and made a cursory glance around the room to try to find Obi-Wan. Even though he had told her he would be close by, he was no where to be seen. She debated whether she should seek him out and tell him the plan, but then decided against it. She would rather not have him around Devon and believed this meeting would probably go a lot smoother if the Jedi just stayed put. Sighing heavily, she stood up and paid the bartender, then headed for the door.
Devon was waiting for her at the top of the stairs which led out into the alley. He motioned for her to follow him across the street and down a narrow backroad.
A speeder was parked in the shadows, hidden from the platoons of patrol droids that occasionally passed by.
"Quickly," Devon urged, opening the canopy and sliding into the driver's seat. He strapped himself in and glanced over at Saloma. "Are you all set, then?"
Saloma took a deep breath. She smiled slightly and nodded. "Yeah. Let's go."
Devon took her north, away from the docks, and back into the heart of the city. He remained silent, focusing on the road, going slow to avoid attracting any unwanted attention. He faced Saloma and smiled reassuringly.
"It's not much further. Just sit tight," he told her.
Saloma glanced back at him and frowned. His mind was unusually busy, but with random, trivial thoughts like recipes, mathematics, and song lyrics. It seemed as if he was purposefully trying not to think about where they were going or what they were doing. It made Saloma feel uneasy.
When police headquarters loomed before her on the horizon, Saloma suddenly realized she had made a terrible mistake. The bounty hunter was taking her to the jail. Obi-Wan had been right. She had been set up. Frightened into action, she abruptly released the latch lever on the speeder's canopy and threw it open.
Startled, Devon braked and slid the speeder into the side of a guard railing, tearing it down.
Saloma sprung out of the speeder and crashed heavily to the ground, her feet slipping on a patch of snow-covered ice. Pushing herself up with her hands, she struggled to get her legs underneath her, but Devon was on top of her, throwing her back onto the ice. She screamed.
"Hey now, what's all this commotion for?" Devon taunted. "I thought you wanted to see your brother, Nare P'tol. What's he going to think if he hears you were in the neighborhood and didn't stop in to see him?"
Saloma struggled harder. "My brother? Why do you think he's my brother?"
Devon got to his feet and hauled Saloma up after him. "Because he told me. He told me all about you. See, he knew you would eventually come back to find him." Devon reached up and touched Saloma's short hair. "I had your face memorized from his description. Changing your appearance didn't work. I knew what to look for."
Saloma spared a glance up at police headquarters. Nare must still be a prisoner. That was how the bounty hunter knew him. Devon had been telling her the truth, only Saloma had mistakenly assumed Nare had joined the resistance.
Devon peered over at Saloma to check her reaction. His amiable smile was long gone. "I've known exactly who you were all along, Saloma," he told her in a low menacing tone. "And I'm pretty sure you've figured out who I am now, haven't you?"
Trying to keep her breathing slow and steady, Saloma faced Devon and nodded. "Yes. You're a bounty hunter," she murmured. She glanced forward, then locked her eyes on him again. "But surely, you must know there's no bounty on me. Vrone just wants to send me to Maerske. It's the Jedi he wants. He won't pay you for just me."
Devon shook his head. "That's where you're wrong. I am getting paid for you. Your brother informed Vrone of the close relationship you have with those Jedi. Vrone told me to find you and capture you, and that would bring the Jedi right to him."
Saloma's mouth went dry. Nare had probably been tortured and forced to divulge information about her. Captain Vrone was holding Nare prisoner to get to her to get to Obi-Wan and Anakin.
Devon tightened his grip on her arm and produced a pair of binders from his coat pocket. "No more antics, understand? I don't want to have to hurt you." He crossed her wrists in front of her and secured them together. "I am a gentleman by nature." His dark eyes suddenly lit with realization. "The man you were with tonight--he was one of the Jedi, wasn't he? Of course he was. I can see it in your eyes." He smiled broadly. "The captain will be especially happy to hear that."
The chilling words of the bounty hunter, Emon Kime, who had attacked her back on the cargo ship, echoed hollowly in her mind. 'They'll feel it. They'll come right to me because of you.' Saloma understood it all now.
Panicking, she yanked free of Devon's grasp and pushed him away from her. She tried to make it back to the speeder, running as fast as she could, but he caught up to her. He tackled her, throwing her heavily into the snow.
Saloma screamed in frustration and anguish, pounding Devon's face with
her fists until he go ahold of her hands and pinned to her chest. Saloma
began to cry, knowing she was about to be tortured, and like her beloved
brother, forced to betray the ones she loved.
PART SIX ~LOVES LOST
As Obi-Wan looked on in disbelief, Anakin tried to explain Saloma's description to the bartender who was wiping down the bar.
"Well, did you see where she went?" Anakin pressed.
The bartender shook his head. "I didn't really pay attention. I think she left though. She paid up."
"Did she leave with anybody?" the Jedi Master asked. "The thin, dark-eyed man in tattered clothes? Did he come back for her?"
"No. He left a little earlier. Look, she wasn't upset or anything. She was sitting here, like she was biding her time, then looked up at the clock, fished out some currency, and walked off."
Anakin turned to face Obi-Wan and raised his hands in bewilderment. "There's only one door. How could we have missed her if she left here, and where could she possibly have gone?"
"Do you think she was taken?" Mortane asked. "Someone may have recognized her."
Obi-Wan shook his head. "No. She just left." His mind struggled to make some sense out of what he'd been told. She didn't wait for him. She didn't tell anyone. Why? Maybe because of the man, the suspected bounty hunter, she'd been talking to. He left before her. Perhaps he went to do something--arrange something. A meeting? She had checked the time. She wouldn't have told anyone because it was a clandestine arrangement and she didn't want him or Anakin along because of the dangers of being discovered by the bounty hunter. "She's allowed herself to be deceived. She only heard what she wanted to," the Jedi concluded. "I believe she's gone to meet with the bounty hunter. He must have told her he would take her to Nare."
"Then she's being taken to Vrone's police headquarters. That would be my guess," Mortane put in.
"Vrone will use her to find us," Obi-Wan whispered, his throat tightening with emotion. He looked up at his padawan.
Anakin frowned deeply. "The bounty hunter I can understand. But Nare is her brother. Do you really think he would betray her just to get to us? He was trying to save her from Maerske before."
Obi-Wan gnawed his lower lip. "I don't wholly understand it myself, Anakin. For reasons unknown to us, Nare has simply switched sides. He's devoted himself to another cause. It happens...sometimes."
"Come on," Mortane urged. "My speeder is out back. I can take you there. Maybe we can catch up to them. They couldn't have gotten far."
Devon dragged Saloma, kicking and screaming, into the jail. He took her to one of the ground level interrogation rooms and locked her inside while he went off to find Vrone to collect his payment.
To Saloma's amazement, Nare was in the interrogation room, sitting calmly at the head of a table, unharmed. Overwhelmed with emotion, she rushed to him and dropped to her knees before him, tears spilling from her eyes unchecked.
"You're all right! You're really all right! I feared the worse when that bounty hunter started talking about getting information from you. I thought they had tortured you. I thought I'd find you all broken and bleeding. And I really didn't think they'd let me see you. Oh Nare. I'm so happy you're all right. I'm so thankful you're alive!"
"My darling Sal," Nare whispered. He reached down and touched his sister's face tenderly. "Strange words coming from someone who...shot me."
Saloma had leaned her cheek into Nare's hand, but pulled away suddenly and looked up at him, startled. "Nare, what are you saying? I only wanted to stop you. It's just that you would have killed Obi-Wan. I heard it in your mind. I reacted in fear, that's all. My blaster was set on stun."
Nare shook his head slowly and clucked his tongue. "It's going to be all right, Sal. I understand. You were brainwashed. By those Jedi. They made you shoot me, didn't they? They can control someone's mind. It's a well-known fact." He stood up and walked slowly around the room. "That's why we are going to bring them to justice. They have to be punished for these offenses and others. An example has to be made of them--to show their kind everywhere that the common citizens will no longer tolerate their abuses of power."
In stunned silence, Saloma watched her younger brother stalk around the room. She noticed Nare wasn't bound like a prisoner and his clothes were clean and tidy. A chill ran up her spine. "You're not being held here, are you? You're not a prisoner, are you?"
"No," he said outright. "I am well-treated here. Captain Vrone and I have an arrangement. I help him and he helps me. He's kept his promises. He didn't betray me, like that Jedi told me he would. The only one here who betrayed me...is you."
The door opened and Captain Vrone and Lieutenant Tilar walked in followed by four soldiers.
Saloma slowly climbed to her feet. "Nare, please. Don't do this. I'm begging you. Can't you see they're using you?" She gestured at Vrone and Tilar. "They've been using you all along to get to me and the Jedi." Two soldiers flanked her and took hold of her arms. "Nare! I love you! How can you do this to me?"
Nare rushed over to her. "Love me? You don't love me. You love HIM! You told me just before you shot me!" He gestured to the soldiers. "Get her out of my here."
The soldiers hauled Saloma out of the interrogation room. Vrone turned towards Nare.
"Well done," he told Nare and shook his hand in congratulations. "You've done a great service for your government. Maybe you'll even have a memorial dedicated to you," he said and smiled thinly.
Nare smiled back at him warily, not quite comprehending. "A memorial?"
Vrone patted his shoulder reassuringly. "You know. Here lies Nare P'tol. A true patriot to the very end."
Nare's smile disappeared. He looked from Tilar to Vrone in confusion.
Vrone stepped away from Nare and signaled the soldiers. The room suddenly filled with blasterfire.
The basement elevator door opened and the two soldiers escorting Saloma led her into a wide, brightly lit hallway with blocks of three jail cells at each end.
Saloma had never been down on this level before. She looked around and studied her new surroundings. Across the hall from the elevator was another elevator and beside that was an open stairwell.
The soldiers turned right and walked Saloma straight back to the cell which was directly ahead: cell number six. To the left were two other cells, number four and number two, but they were occupied. Saloma had noticed several large gridded ventilation shafts which hugged the low ceiling and blew warm, dry air into the damp underground passages. She had felt the heat each time they had passed one.
Perpendicular to cell six was a guard station where soldiers assigned to the cell blocks passed their time. There were two per cell block; the other faced its mirror image and sat perpendicular to cell number two. The opposite end of the wide hallway was set up exactly the same but with cell numbers eight, ten, and twelve.
One soldier opened the door as the other pulled Saloma inside. Cell six was dank and dirty. Looking around in distaste, Saloma was reminded of the cargo ship belonging to the Calamarians and came to the conclusion the ship had been considerably cleaner.
"This is just temporary," the soldier told her. "It's just a holding cell. You'll be moved to something more permanent in the morning." With a wry grin, he looked her over slowly, then glanced back at his partner, who waited at the cell door.
Saloma involuntarily took a step back, locking her eyes on the soldier's face in warning. She knew what he was thinking and wanted no part of it.
"Relax," the soldier said and smiled easily. "I was just going to take off your binders, but if you'd rather keep them on, that's fine with me." He held up the key for her inspection.
Still wary, but wanting to have her hands freed, Saloma cautiously held out her wrists, watching the soldier's every move and listening to his every thought.
"We're your assigned guards," he informed, unfastening the binders. "You should try to be a little more hospitable to us or we can make your time here very unpleasant."
Once free of the binders, Saloma tried to jerk her hands away from the soldier, but he caught her left wrist in a vice-like grip before she got completely away. Saloma froze as he began languidly stroking her arm.
"That's not so bad, is it?" he murmured.
His partner suddenly cleared his throat loudly. The soldier holding Saloma released her and immediately stepped back.
Captain Vrone strode inside the cell and eyed the soldier warily as if sensing he was up to something. He stared the guard down a moment longer before turning his attention to his prisoner.
"My intent is not to kill you, Miss P'tol," he began, his voice grating. "You are a valuable citizen after all and a highly intelligent and extremely resourceful one at that. You will be useful to our society after serving your term in Maerske. I have plans for you."
Saloma retreated to the back of the cell and pressed herself against the damp wall. "Go away, Captain. Leave me alone."
"I'm sorry, Miss P'tol," Vrone continued with mock sympathy in his tone. "I can't leave you alone. Not until I get what I want."
A hot tear slid down Saloma's cheek. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. "Do your worse then."
Vrone laughed. "All in due time. I wouldn't be so impatient if I were you," he rumbled, placing his hands on his hips. "My interrogator is preparing something special for you. It takes time, but you shouldn't have to wait much longer." He paused, but Saloma did not respond. He shrugged and continued. "We are making other preparations as well. We have to be ready once we start working on you. It will only be a matter of time before your beloved Jedi show up. If they're not on their way here already."
At that, Saloma looked up sharply.
"Yes," Vrone said and smiled. "I was informed that they had gallantly, though somewhat mindlessly, accompanied you back to Ergo." He began pacing a short distance in front of the cell door. "It is a well known fact that a Jedi is capable of sensing distress in a loved one as far away as half a galaxy. Lucky for you, Kenobi only needs to cross the city."
Saloma chewed her lower lip and impatiently wiped at her tears. "You're assuming a great deal, aren't you Vrone?"
The captain shook his head. "I'm not. I have various reports from reliable sources to back me up. As a matter of fact, you and the two Jedi were spotted earlier at the cathedral ruins. The description of the Jedi didn't fit Kenobi and Skywalker, but your presence assures me that it was them after all. And your brother was very informative as well. He told me of your...um, shall I say 'feelings' for Master Kenobi? Just before he left to join the resistance, Nare sought you out to say good-bye and saw you and the Jedi...together, back at the cathedral." Vrone stopped pacing as Saloma turned away from him.
"Go away," she seethed.
Vrone clucked his tongue. "See, his love for you makes him vulnerable. It's a vulnerability I will take advantage of. As a Jedi, if he was a little older and wiser, he would have stayed clinically detached from you, but instead he's young and virile, and you are quite comely."
Saloma whirled around and threw herself at the captain, shoving him bodily out of the cell. "Go away!" she shrieked angrily.
The two soldiers had drawn their weapons, but Vrone waved them off. His laughter echoed in the hall as he closed the cell door behind him and locked Saloma in.
Mortane pulled the speeder up to the front door of police headquarters. The Jedi had already made it clear to him they were not going to waste time with stealth. Mortane thought they were crazy, but also admired their courage.
"But what if she's not here? We don't know anything for sure," he told the Jedi as they jumped from the speeder. "If you two just storm the place, you're liable to get yourselves captured or even killed. I'm going to go get help. Can't you at least wait until I get back?"
Obi-Wan looked towards the foreboding building and concentrated. "She is here. I can sense her presence," he replied quietly. "There's a darkness around it. An anticipation. Fear and grief." Turning, he fixed his eyes on the young resistance fighter and shook his head. "We can't wait."
Mortane frowned. "In that case, at least try to stay alive long enough for help to arrive."
"We'll try, but we can't promise anything," Anakin said over his shoulder as he and Obi-Wan strode up to the door. They simultaneously activated their lightsabers.
"Then, may the Force be with you, both!" Mortane called and sped off.
Obi-Wan faced Anakin. "Are you ready?"
Taking a deep breath, Obi-Wan plunged his lightsaber into the outer door to sever the seal. It disintegrated in a spray of multi-colored sparks as blaring alarms reverberated in the thin night air. The door slid open, revealing an enclosed entryway. Another door stood solidly in front of them.
"This one's magnetically sealed. Cut through it," the Jedi Master told his padawan, yelling to be heard above the noise. "It will be faster."
Anakin nodded and stabbed the middle of the door with the tip of his lightsaber, pulling it slowly down and around in a wide arc. The metal door began to glow and blacken around the edges where the lightsaber touched it. Slowly, bits of metal sloughed away.
A siren alarm suddenly went off, blending with the previous alarm in a deafening wail. Obi-Wan irritably thrust his lightsaber into a panel of circuitry to short out the alarms. The ensuing silence gave the Jedi a welcome reprieve.
Anakin rubbed at his ringing ear and grinned. "Thank you. I didn't anticipate going deaf as one of the hazards we'd be facing tonight."
The Jedi Master bowed his head and closed his eyes briefly. "Padawan...I feel compelled to say this." He opened his eyes and fixed them on Anakin's handsome face.
Disturbed by Obi-Wan's somber tone, Anakin looked back at him with concern, but kept cutting away at the door. "What is it? Just tell me, okay?"
Taking a steadying breath, Obi-Wan began. "We will be grossly out-numbered and out-weaponed tonight. There is a good chance we may fail to rescue Saloma and fall at the hands of our enemies, but..." He paused and swallowed uncomfortably. "But finding her...and freeing her is something I have to do. I'll die trying, if it comes to that. But I can't ask you to blindly follow me inside just because you are my padawan and my friend. You should also know that by doing this, we are engaging the enemy in a way I swore to the Council we would not do. If we proceed together in this endeavor, the consequences could be quite severe and I don't want to see you punished for something I needed to do."
Anakin frowned and doubled his effort on the door. "Saloma's my friend too, Obi-Wan. So, right now, I don't particularly care about consequences we may suffer in the future. Live in the moment, remember? And at this moment, Saloma is inside there and we're out here." He paused momentarily and glared over at his master. "And by the way, wasn't it you who told me don't be determined to fail?"
Obi-Wan flashed a smile and raised his head. "Determination can be your ally."
"Well, I'm determined to get through this door!" Anakin quipped back. He leaned his weight into the lightsaber and the metal finally fell away.
Rapid blasterfire suddenly filled the small enclosed entryway. Both Jedi began deflecting the shots back into the police station through the hole in the door. Cries of struck soldiers soon joined the piercing sound of laser bolts.
Through the acrid smoke and jagged metal, the Jedi stepped into police headquarters. Their lightsabers were a blur as they stood side by side, reacting without thinking to keep the sudden deluge of blasterfire from reaching them.
The soldiers quickly fell all around them, unprotected and unprepared for the Jedi's skillful defense. Many began to retreat farther into the station, firing behind them as they ran down hallways and into other rooms.
When the concentration of blaster power began to thin, the Jedi were able to advance. They split up and drove the remaining soldiers deeper into the bowels of the building, until the large main room was completely cleared; then the Jedi regrouped.
"Which way?" Anakin called breathlessly, enjoying the adrenaline rush he was feeling.
"I'm not sure," Obi-Wan replied glancing around. Someone fired at him from behind some unseen cover, but he merely swatted the blast away.
He strode around the perimeter of the abandoned main room and methodically opened every door he came to, concentrating. He started to enter one of the interrogation rooms, then stopped, and called to Anakin before continuing inside.
The young Jedi hurried over and peered into the dim room. He saw Obi-Wan kneeling beside the body of Saloma's brother. Anakin sighed despondently.
The Jedi Master rose stiffly and slowly shook his head. "There's no life in him," Obi-Wan said, stepping out of the room and closing the door behind him.
"I wonder if Saloma knows," Anakin whispered and dragged his hand through his short hair anxiously. Suddenly, several shots flew down the hallway at the Jedi, sending them ducking for cover.
Anakin snarled irritably and dashed back up the hall, blocking the blasts on his way. He found the sniper hiding behind a data file unit in an unoccupied office. Anakin reached out and snagged the hapless man's gray uniform and hauled him out into the hall. He gestured at the blaster and wrenched it out of the soldier's hand using the Force, then held the man up against the wall.
"The Flaro woman, where is she?" the young Jedi demanded. He positioned the tip of his lightsaber directly between the sniper's eyes. "Where?" Anakin pressed the tip a little closer to the man's flesh until he cried out.
"Chamber six," the man gasped. "Basement level."
Anakin lowered his saber and Force punched the man unconscious. "Obi-Wan! She's in the basement. We need to go down!"
The Jedi Master joined his padawan at the end of the hall and glanced at the unconscious soldier. "The basement?" he echoed and sighed in frustration. The only ways down to the lower level were the elevator and the stairs. He knew both would be heavily guarded. "Easier said than done. They'll be ready for us this time."
Through the vents, the faint sound of blasterfire drifted down to the lower level passages, as well as the raspy crash and hum of engaged lightsabers. Armed soldiers were running back and forth through the wide, well-lit hall, swarming around Captain Vrone and Lieutenant Tilar for orders.
Saloma glared hatefully at Vrone through the small viewing window of her cell door, but her defiance was crumbling. She was ashamed and thoroughly disgusted with herself because she knew she had given him the upper hand by falling for Devon's ploy.
Now Obi-Wan and Anakin were battling the entire military police force just to rescue her from her reckless foolishness. She never felt more undeserving of their devotion. She knew the odds were stacked against them this time, despite their skill and resourcefulness. They stood a good chance of being captured or injured, or even killed because of her selfish mistakes. The thought was sickening to her.
She pledged to herself if they all somehow managed to come out of this ordeal intact, she would do everything she could to set things right. She mentally ticked off a compiled list of what she needed to make amends for. First and foremost, for the wrongs her brother committed against the citizens, and then for involving the Jedi in her personal undertakings, and finally, for unwittingly turning her back on her people when they needed her to fight for them most.
Counting the soldiers scrambling to line the hall outside her cell, Saloma realized the possibility of ever getting the chance to fulfill such an oath was slim at best.
"Get me more troops!" Vrone yelled, startling Saloma out of her thoughts. "I want this building surrounded. Order the patrol droids off the streets if you have to! Those Jedi are walking out of here over my dead body!"
Obi-Wan frowned and looked around briefly, then looked up. A ventilation shaft's grid panel was right above him. The Jedi clipped his lightsaber to his belt and pointed up.
"Give me a leg up," he told Anakin.
The padawan looked up, then knelt down and locked his hands tightly together to create a step.
Obi-Wan placed his foot on Anakin's hands and braced himself by putting his hand on the young Jedi's shoulder.
"Are you ready?"
The older Jedi nodded and his padawan raised him up slowly. Obi-Wan pushed the grid aside with one hand and grabbed ahold of the casement frame with the other. He pulled himself quickly up.
Anakin saw something spark inside the shaft and heard a small snapping sound, followed by a few choice expletives from the Jedi Master. Anakin narrowed his eyes curiously and was about to call out, when Obi-Wan peered down at him.
"It's nothing," he explained. "I just got my haunches zapped. Here, give me your hand," he instructed Anakin, leaning his torso over the access and stretching his hand out towards him. "Come up slowly. There's a web of power cables and energy tubes lining this shaft."
Anakin took Obi-Wan's hand and jumped for the casement frame, hauling himself through the access and into the shaft beside his master.
Obi-Wan directed Anakin's attention to the left. "We can climb down the air intake tunnel and drop out of it in one of the lower level rooms. We'll be able to move a little more freely and perhaps we can regain the advantage of surprise."
Anakin licked his lips and eyed the pulsing energy tubes warily. "If we nick one of those, we'll be toast," he warned, but grabbed ahold of one of the fixtures and crept forward.
"Yes, I know," the Jedi Master replied dryly. He watched anxiously as his padawan slowly made his way down to the intake tunnel, then grabbing ahold of the same fixtures for purchase, the older Jedi started forward.
Anakin peered back at him. "It's tight in here, but if I can fit, you can fit." He eased himself down the slick walls, then pulled himself out into one of the lower level ventilation shafts. "These vents must run just above the basement level," Anakin surmised.
Obi-Wan squeezed himself into the shaft beside Anakin and studied the direction it went. He gestured to the vein on the left. "The even numbered rooms in this building run east to west. The odd numbers go north to south. This one should take us over to the main hall. Then we'll follow the next shaft to the right. That should put us in the correct position. Go on. I'll be right behind you."
Anakin started crawling on his hands and knees in the direction Obi-Wan had told him. At the end, the shaft split in two separate veins again. Anakin took the one to the right, moving steadily.
Saloma's presence was getting stronger. Obi-Wan could sense her feelings as clearly as if she were standing beside him now. His heart twisted in pain at her burgeoning misery.
"Hurry," the Jedi Master urged Anakin, stifling his rising emotions. "We're close now."
Lieutenant Tilar faced Captain Vrone and frowned deeply. "Actually Sir, we aren't sure where they've gone. The man I left above to keep an eye on them hasn't reported in."
Vrone turned on his heel and began pacing up and down the hall. "I still find it hard to believe two mangy Jedi, one an apprentice, managed to drive off an entire squad of highly-trained enforcement officers." He waved his mechanical arms angrily in the air. "After this is through, I want every soldier on this force reevaluated and tested for motivation and skill levels."
The captain stopped pacing and fixed his eyes on his lieutenant. "At the very least, we know the Jedi will eventually find their way down here," he concluded. "They're not going anywhere without her." He jerked his head in the direction of Saloma's cell.
"The men will be ready for them this time, Sir," Tilar said eagerly. "There's only two ways to get down to this level. It's either the elevators or the stairs. Either one the Jedi choose, they're in for a rude awakening."
Vrone nodded, but his expression remained skeptical. "Two mangy Jedi," he muttered. "Who would have thought?"
Just then a strange, but oddly familiar ripping sound over Tilar's head made the lieutenant look up. In the ventilation shaft a few meters from the stairwell, a dim blue-white light flashed.
Tilar's eyes widened with realization, but before he could utter a warning, the wall around the vent exploded. Ceiling tiles, stone, and chunks of metal rained down on the hall's occupants, sending everyone running. Tilar grabbed Vrone and yanked him into the stairwell for cover.
Veiled in a shower of gold sparks, the two Jedi dropped to the floor, startling the soldiers directly in front of them. Reacting in panic, the soldiers fired haphazardly at the rapidly moving targets, but were the first to be struck down. Blasts ricocheted within the open hallway sending the remaining soldiers sprinting for cover.
"Cease fire! I want them alive!" Vrone hollered, but the noise level was deafening and no one heard his order. The broad hallway rapidly clouded with smoke, making visibility next to nil.
"They're in front of us," Tilar informed, quickly poking his head out of the stairwell to see the position of the Jedi. Looking left, he could just make them out through the haze. Clearer were the lightsabers as the Jedi cut them through the air, deflecting away the soldiers' blasterfire with inhuman speed and calculation. The soldiers in the hall were dropping one after another, brought down by their own blasts. Disgusted, Tilar raised his blaster. "I can get a fairly clear shot at the boy. He's closest."
Vrone shook his head. "No. I don't want them dead...yet," he said and ground his teeth angrily. "Besides, if you fire at him, he'll just block it and the blast will bounce harmlessly off his lightsaber and most likely hit me between the eyes before your trigger finger unflexes. That's the problem with these Jedi."
Tilar licked his lips in frustration. "What's to stop them then? We're powerless...defenseless against that kind of skill."
Vrone shook his head. "No, not entirely. I know how we can get them to surrender with minimal resistance." He held up the pass key to Saloma's holding cell.
Tilar raised his eyebrows. "The woman?"
Nodding, the captain straightened slowly. "Or more specifically, Kenobi's lover. You get me to her cell and you watch how fast those Jedi lay down their weapons and throw their hands in the air."
The soldiers had taken cover in the open elevators on the left and right sides of the hall and also in the guard stations. They effectively kept the Jedi from advancing towards the cell block.
The Jedi's backs faced the wall from which they had emerged, but an unguarded stairwell behind them to the right, gave them an easy means of escape if they decided to retreat. Cells number two, four, and six were to their immediate left. Saloma's cell was just across the hall a short distance away.
Anakin and Obi-Wan altered their positions a few times for maximum cover. They stayed close to each other, deflecting away the barrage of blasterfire that streamed towards them at a steady rate from both sides.
Anakin took up a position on Obi-Wan's left side. He easily brought several soldiers down that were lining the cell block and tried to edge closer to the guard station beside cell number six.
The young Jedi didn't want to stray too far from his master's side however. The main concentration of blasterfire was still coming from Obi-Wan's right from the soldiers in the elevators and the guard stations in the other cell block down the hall.
"We need to move, Obi-Wan!" Anakin yelled above all the noise. "This is a stand-off!"
Obi-Wan whirled around and caught a blast just before it struck his right shoulder. He frowned deeply. He was tiring and his reflexes were slowing at a rate which was imperceptible to anyone but himself. Still, it was enough to cause him concern. He felt Anakin laboring beside him as well. The acute lack of sleep his padawan suffered from was beginning to take its toll. The Jedi Master knew neither one of them could keep their defenses up much longer at this pace.
"Cover me!" he suddenly ordered, moving out towards the center of the hall towards the two elevators.
Anakin darted ahead of him, doubling his effort to keep the blasterfire from hitting Obi-Wan now as well as himself. He wasn't sure what the Jedi Master was up to, but didn't want to take the time or effort to ponder it.
Obi-Wan lowered his lightsaber and concentrated on the elevator doors. He licked his lips and stretched out his hand towards the one on his right with a sharp gesture, then spun around and gestured at the other to his left. The elevator doors suddenly slammed shut, trapping the soldiers inside. The Jedi gestured again and yanked a water pipe from the wall and sent it crashing into the elevator's control panel. He turned and drove his lightsaber into the other elevator's panel.
The concentration of blasterfire thinned considerably. The two Jedi exchanged relieved grins.
Obi-Wan and Anakin turned as one and jogged back up the hall towards Saloma's cell, deflecting the few remaining blasts coming at them from the opposite end of the hall. They stopped just before reaching the cell block as shots from the two guard stations took on a new intensity.
Once again they were forced back towards the stairwell. Anakin swore under his breath and moved just behind Obi-Wan to catch the blasterfire coming from the station beside cell number two.
"We may have to split up," Obi-Wan shouted.
Anakin opened his mouth to reply, but paused as he felt a presence behind him and saw movement out of the corner of his eye. It was a blur of a gray uniform. He pivoted slightly to get a better look, but the smoke in the hall was too thick to really make out anything distinctly. He hadn't sensed a threat with the mysterious passing, but the sensation made him uneasy nonetheless.
Neatly blocking three shots fired at him in rapid secession, Anakin sidled back up to Obi-Wan and leaned close to him.
"I'll be right back," he said loudly then turned and disappeared into the smoke.
Obi-Wan wondered at his padawan's sudden distraction, but let him go, knowing he would find out soon enough what Anakin was pursuing. He took a deep breath and adapted a classic battle stance, settling in for the duration of the soldiers' assault.
Saloma saw Vrone and Tilar approach through her view window and immediately raced to the back of her cell and flattened herself in a corner.
The cell door opened and Tilar entered first. He unhooked a pair of binders from his belt and started towards Saloma.
"Stay away from me!" Saloma screamed and tried to dodge around him, but the lieutnant caught her around the waist and pushed her roughly back into the corner. He wrenched her arm painfully behind her back.
"Behave yourself," he warned her through clenched teeth. "We're just taking you out of here for the time being. We are in need of your assistance."
Saloma twisted against the lieutenant's grip and struggled harder. She hit at him with her free hand and kicked him in the knees. She finally managed to turn around and then tried to pry Tilar's hand off her wrist. When that failed, she bent over and sank her teeth into his forearm until she tasted blood.
Tilar swore hotly and cuffed the side of her head, knocking her away from him and onto the floor. He glared down at her and shook his head. "Don't think I'm letting you get away with that!" he growled and drew his blaster. "Stop right now or I'm blowing you to smithereens."
Saloma froze. She knew from his thoughts he was angry enough now not to worry about the consequences such an action would reap from his superior.
Vrone slowly ambled over to her, shaking his head, with an angry expression on his face. "Miss P'tol, if I were you, I would comply. My patience is long gone with regards to such foolishness and I'm just about ready to shoot the lot of you myself."
Saloma stared up at him and sighed heavily. She stiffly climbed to her feet.
Still deflecting sporadic blasterfire, Anakin quickly crossed the hall and trotted alongside the wall to his right, heading towards the cell block. The presence he had sensed earlier was just ahead of him in cell number six.
His first thought was that Saloma was being moved and the young Jedi experienced a spurt of panic and hurried forward. The blasterfire from the guard station abruptly forced Anakin to halt in his tracks. He pressed himself against the wall for cover.
He glanced back down the hall at Obi-Wan. The Jedi Master's bright blue coat was barely distinguishable but his lightsaber shone clearly through the smoky haze. Anakin suddenly realized that ironically, the lightsabers were giving their positions away. The soldiers probably would not be able to locate them otherwise. The Jedi quickly deactivated his lightsaber and clipped it to his belt.
Anakin thought if he could short out the lights, he and Obi-Wan would have all the advantage. He looked around wildly until his eyes fell upon a circuit control box on the wall to his right beside the guard station.
Debris from the demolished ventilation shaft lie strewn around the hall in front of the cell block. Remembering the lesson he'd had at the cathedral ruins, Anakin summoned the Force and concentrated on levitating and controlling a sizable piece of the debris. Copying Obi-Wan's gesture to the water pipe, Anakin stretched out his hand and closed his eyes. The chunk of metal sailed across the hall and smashed into the control box. The lights immediately went out.
Obi-Wan suddenly found himself plunged into total darkness. He knowingly deactivated his lightsaber and dodged the few remaining shots that sputtered his way.
"Very good, Padawan," he breathed, sprinting across the hall, knowing Anakin was behind the sudden power outage. Using the Force, he was unhampered by the darkness, but kept his eyes open to allow them to adjust to the lack of light.
The Jedi Master could feel Anakin's presence just ahead of him. The Force was stirring around him and charging Obi-Wan's blood with warning. Soldiers were close as well, but the center of discourse seemed to be emanating from Saloma's cell. Obi-Wan picked up his pace.
Rendered blind in the absolute darkness, Lieutenant Tilar tightened his grasp on Saloma's wrist. She was fighting again to get free and he knew if she did, she stood a fair chance of escaping. He fumbled with the lock on the binders, trying to fit the key inside, but quickly gave up the notion and chose instead to wrap his arm around her neck in a choke hold, hoping it would secure her and quell her struggles.
Much to his dismay, she reacted violently. He felt her struggle even harder, twisting and turning in an attempt to wrench herself free, jerking him off balance a couple of times. She clawed frantically at his arm, wailing and shaking fitfully. Tilar had no choice but to let go of her.
"What in blue blazes is going on, Lieutenant?" Vrone suddenly demanded, sounding farther away than Tilar thought he was.
The lieutenant faced the direction of Vrone's voice. "I lost her!" he spat furiously, clutching his torn arm.
"She got away from me!"
Vrone swore heatedly and turned in what he believed was the direction of the cell door. "We have to find her! Start moving!"
Shaking uncontrollably, Saloma moved as far away from the sound of Vrone's voice as she could. Tears welled in her eyes, but she wiped them roughly away. Her heart was pounding so hard, she was sure the sound of it would give her away. She took several deep steadying breaths and forced herself to calm down.
The dreadful pressure of Tilar's arm around her neck had made her snap. It reminded her too much of the sensation of Emon Kime's hands closing around her throat as he tried to strangle her.
Cautiously, Saloma stretched out her hand in an attempt to locate the cell wall. If she could find the wall, she could follow it to the open door. She took a tentative step forward and promptly touched someone directly in front of her. Her eyes widened in surprise and fear and her second reaction was to scream.
The person she had touched seemed to anticipate this as Saloma felt a large, callused hand cover her mouth before anything audible emerged. The person slipped behind her and pulled her up against him. Saloma started to struggle, then suddenly felt his steamy breath in her ear.
"Hush! It's me. Anakin."
Relief washed over Saloma and her heart leapt with joy at the sound of the young Jedi's voice. A split second later however, she felt him tense. He suddenly spun around and shoved her behind him as a brilliant red bolt of energy exploded out of the darkness in front of him and disappeared a second later in a small puff of smoke.
Saloma heard Anakin gasp and then moan. His hands tightened on her shoulders as he slowly began sinking to the floor. Horrified, Saloma realized he had just been shot. In the darkness she could not tell how badly. She threw herself down beside him and cradled his head in her lap.
"Anakin! Anakin!" she shrieked, rapidly passing her hands over his body to try to find the wound. Instead of a blaster wound, her hands found a blaster, tucked into the Jedi's belt on his left side. She tugged it free and quickly slid it into her own belt. At least now she was armed.
"Sir! I've hit one of the Jedi!" Tilar suddenly sang out. "Over here!"
Saloma leaned protectively over Anakin and lay her cheek against his head. "Anakin, please, tell me you're all right," she whimpered and started to cry.
"I'm all right," the young Jedi whispered shakily.
Saloma hadn't really expected him to reply. She caught her breath and sat up. "Where did you get hit?"
"My leg," Anakin gasped out. "I'm not dying," he added to reassure her. "I hurt though. I hurt bad."
Saloma hugged him and stroked the side of his face frantically. "It will be all right. It will be all right," she soothed, though she didn't have the faintest idea how things could possibly turn out all right at this point.
A warm hand suddenly covered Saloma's and squeezed it, startling her. Even warmer lips brushed her tear-stained cheek.
"Stay with him," Obi-Wan breathed.
Saloma heard the creak of the leather of the Jedi Master's boots and the soft rustle of his coat as he slowly stood up and moved around her.
Tilar had heard the Jedi too. He raised his blaster and fired.
"No!" Vrone commanded, seeing the blasterfire and a flash of azure light.
Obi-Wan intercepted Tilar's assault and sent the shots pounding back into the lieutenant's body. Tilar staggered back and collapsed against the wall.
The lightsaber cast an eerie blue pallor over the cell and its occupants. The captain rushed forward, towards the Jedi.
"When are you going to give up?" he demanded. "When are you going to realize all this is futile? I have men just outside this door. I have men waiting on the upper levels. My droids have the building surrounded. You won't make it, Kenobi. Somewhere deep down inside, you have to know this."
Obi-Wan slowly lowered his lightsaber. He took a deep breath and faced Vrone with a peculiar calm. "I have to try," he stated. He reached down and helped Saloma pull Anakin to his feet.
Vrone swore heatedly. "To the death, is that how you want it?"
"No," the Jedi Master answered without hesitation. "That's how you want it."
Bracing himself on Saloma's shoulder, Anakin nodded his head and addressed Vrone in a breathless voice. "You days in power are numbered. A new voice is rising, speaking out against your oppression, your lies, and your injustice. The citizens of Aremont will learn the truth one way or the other and the truth will free them."
Vrone smiled thinly. "I'm not interested in your mealymouthed prophecies. Such prophecies will not win you your freedom."
As if on cue, soldiers filed into the illuminated cell, weapons raised and trained on the Jedi.
Anakin peered over at them and sighed. "It's not my freedom I speak of."
"Now, hand over your weapons," Vrone instructed the Jedi.
"Or what?" Anakin taunted.
Vrone pursed his lips. "Or I order my troops to shoot....the woman." He waved to the soldiers clustered at the cell door behind him. They started forward.
Obi-Wan automatically stepped in front of Saloma and raised his lightsaber. "If they fire on her, you'll be the first to die, Vrone."
"Admit it, Kenobi. You have lost this time," the captain replied coolly.
Obi-Wan took a step forward, spinning his lightsaber expertly in his hand, daring the soldiers to come any closer.
The soldiers froze and looked over at Vrone expectantly.
"Why don't you admit that your grudge is with me and me alone?" the Jedi Master retaliated. "This obsession for so-called justice on your part is nothing more than a means to your own personal revenge."
Vrone fixed his eyes on the Jedi and nodded slowly. "Very well. I'll admit it." He stiffly crossed his mechanical arms over his chest and sighed. "It is personal."
"Then keep me," Obi-Wan offered. "Let the woman and my apprentice go."
Anakin and Saloma exchanged stunned glances.
Anakin suddenly took a step back, hopping on his one good leg, and activated his lightsaber.
"No!" the young Jedi stated emphatically. "I won't go!" He waved the lightsaber menacingly in front of him, but swayed unsteadily from the pain in his thigh. He slowly turned his large blue eyes on his master and swallowed hard. "I'm not leaving you behind!"
Obi-Wan closed his eyes momentarily and took a deep breath. "Padawan, if you ever felt any inclination to obey me, now would be the time to acknowledge it."
Vrone looked from Anakin to Saloma and then to Obi-Wan. "All right. I'll let them go. I'll have my men escort them out of the building, to the docks, and onto a departing transport. Will that satisfy you? Will you surrender?"
Obi-Wan nodded slowly. "Yes."
"No you won't!" Drawing the blaster she had taken from Anakin, Saloma suddenly stepped out from behind the Jedi Master and aimed the pistol at Vrone. "He's lying, Obi-Wan! How can you believe him after everything he has done!" Saloma protested.
The Jedi Master bit his lower lip and faced Saloma. "Perhaps you are mistaken. His intent is genuine. I feel it."
"The only genuine intent he has is to see you tortured to death," Saloma snapped. "I'm not wrong...this time. I know he's lying."
"She's right. I can see you two need to work on trusting each other if you want your relationship to succeed." Vrone paused and laughed humorlessly. "Did you actually think I would let them go?" he asked the Jedi. "You're too willing to hear what you want to, my friend. It must be that whole faith in the inherent goodness in every lifeform you Jedi subscribe to."
Vrone's words echoed the condemnation Obi-Wan had previously aimed at Saloma. Ashamed, he glanced at her apologetically, then focused on Vrone. Narrowing his eyes at the captain, the Jedi Master shook his head. "No. If there's one thing I have learned as a Jedi it's that true evil comes in many shapes and guises."
Vrone shrugged. "Believe what you will about me. In the meantime, I will prove to you that I have one redeeming quality. When I say something, I mean it. I am a man of my word." He suddenly motioned to the soldiers. "Shoot her."
Both Obi-Wan and Anakin leapt forward as the soldiers snapped up their weapons and fired. Reacting instinctively, Saloma fired back. The torrent of blasterfire that streamed towards her, crashed into the rapidly moving blades of the Jedi's lightsabers and abruptly reversed course.
Struck several times, Vrone cried out in alarm and then dropped heavily to the floor, gasping and gurgling until he died. Many soldiers also fell under the deluge of lethal blasts. The ones who managed to avoid certain death, soon fled, knowing their attack was futile.
The Jedi steadily advanced, relentlessly driving the soldiers back into the dark hall towards the opposite cell block. It seemed the soldiers wanted nothing more to do with the Jedi now that their commanding officers were dead and readily retreated.
Once free from the soldiers' assault, the Jedi deactivated their lightsabers and carefully made their way through the darkness back to the open stairwell. Obi-Wan helped Anakin negotiate the stairs as Saloma trailed after them, clutching the hem of the Jedi Master's coat to keep from losing track of them.
They paused at the top of the stairs behind a partially closed door just before entering the main room. Obi-Wan wanted to let Anakin rest and make sure a platoon of soldiers wasn't lying in wait around any corners. The Jedi Master also took the opportunity to query his charges.
"How are you holding up, Padawan?" he asked softly, his hand gently palpating Anakin's injured thigh.
"I'm doing all right. I'm a little nauseous, but I've pretty much got the pain under control," the young Jedi responded. "Thanks for the concern."
"Don't sound so surprised," Obi-Wan said and smiled, then directed his attention at Saloma. "And what about you? Are you all right?"
Saloma looked over at him but could barely see him. She sighed. "I'm fine, really. I was more frightened than anything and then not even for myself. I was frightened of what could happen to you two. Super nova, what an ordeal."
"But it was a great learning experience for you wasn't it?" Anakin quipped.
Saloma reached over and tugged at his earlobe teasingly. "Yes and it's the unpleasant experiences that prove to be the most significant," she quoted and heard Anakin laugh.
"Unfortunately we are not completely out of trouble just yet," Obi-Wan reported. "Vrone warned of soldiers inside and out."
"Can you see anything?" Saloma asked. "Is the power off up here as well?"
"Yes, but it's not as dark up here with the lights coming from the windows," Obi-Wan noted peering through the crack in the door seal. "I don't see soldiers but that doesn't mean they aren't there. We will need to stay quiet and proceed with caution."
"I don't sense anything," Anakin announced in a loud whisper. "Do you think Vrone was lying about that too?"
"Of course he was," Saloma whispered back. "I don't hear anything either."
"Let's go then," the Jedi Master instructed with a heavy sigh. "Before the ones below find their way up here." He wedged his arm into the opening of the malfunctioning door and pushed it aside.
Anakin leaned on Saloma as Obi-Wan crept along slightly ahead to scout for any signs of danger. Just before they reached the door that the Jedi had cut through to get inside, a commotion outside the building caught their attention. It was more blasterfire. Anakin looked over at Obi-Wan with new concern.
"They may have reassessed their situation and regrouped," Saloma guessed as the Jedi Master herded her and Anakin into one of the deserted interrogation rooms.
"But who are they shooting at?" Anakin asked, nonplused. "We're in here."
Obi-Wan positioned himself between the doorway and Saloma and activated his lightsaber. He stood at Anakin's side and leaned against him to help support him.
Anakin activated his lightsaber and tried to psyche himself up for another round with Vrone's tenacious forces.
Then, through the jagged hole in the door a tired and tattered-looking Mortane slipped in, followed closely by his mother, Teira, and several other resistance fighters.
The Jedi exchanged glances, exhaled simultaneously in relief, and deactivated their sabers. Obi-Wan felt Saloma's arms encircle his waist. She leaned her head against his back and hugged him.
"Jedi! You've done it!" Mortane hailed, rushing forward to greet them. "The word has gotten out about your courage here tonight! The citizens and the resistance have joined forces and declared war! Our people are storming the governor's mansion as we speak! Even the prisoners at Maerske are rising up against their captors," he exclaimed and looked quickly around the deserted hallways. "What about Vrone and Tilar? Did they escape?"
Anakin shook his head. "No. They're dead."
Mortane closed his eyes and exhaled his breath through his teeth. "Even if we fail tonight, at least we are free from their brutality."
"That's incredible news you bring us as well," Saloma stated, slipping out from behind Obi-Wan. "The people have finally revolted. I can hardly believe it."
"Now we've brought about a coup d'etat," Anakin murmured, shaking his head. "Something else to add to our list of transgressions."
The Jedi Master sighed heavily, but summoned forth a smile. "We are pleased to see you," Obi-Wan told Mortane quietly, suddenly feeling emotionally drained. "Your presence assures me the way out of here is clear."
Teira approached the Jedi and nodded. "They had the building surrounded by droids. You wouldn't have found the way to freedom easy. We were happy to assist you in that respect. We are indebted to you. You have come to our aid after all and given us the hope and inspiration we sorely needed. You have restored our faith in your kind."
Obi-Wan bowed respectfully to her. "Thank you. Knowing this will ease my conscience when I stand before the members of my council to account for what I have done here."
Teira gazed unwaveringly into his eyes. "I give you my word, I will contact them personally on your behalf. You only did what you had to do to save your loved one from certain death. You've done nothing wrong." She smiled benevolently and bowed to the Jedi, then turned and left the room.
"Maybe with her testimony, you won't need mine," Saloma said quietly, recalling the oath she had made back in her prison cell. The Jedi apparently did not hear her. He seemed to be deeply submerged in thought.
Obi-Wan watched Teira leave, feeling as if he had just had a brush with greatness. Finally, he took a deep breath and faced Saloma. "I need some air. Let's get out of here." He extended his hand to her and waited.
Saloma slowly grasped his hand and offered him a trembly smile. He smiled back, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I'm okay, really," she told him, hearing his concerned thoughts.
Obi-Wan nodded and squeezed her hand. "Padawan, are you coming?" he said over his shoulder.
Anakin glanced up at him. "In a minute." He watched the older Jedi and Saloma amble towards the door, hand in hand. It was a tender sight, but Anakin felt a strange disturbance emanating from them as though all was not well and wondered at it.
Mortane placed his hand on Anakin's shoulder. "I'm sorry to see you've been hurt. Come on. We'll get you fixed up. We've got a ship standing by for you. As well as medical supplies, bacta, and some food. It's not much, but it'll get you to the nearest Republic space station where you can catch a transport to Coruscant."
Anakin smiled and squeezed Mortane's arm in thanks, but noticed the young man's anxious expression. He could feel shame all around him. "Why do I sense such lingering guilt?" he asked him softly. "You've rectified your wrongs, Mortane, and what you've done for us tonight has been ample restitution. I told you I forgave you."
Mortane took a deep breath and bowed his head. "It's just that, you're such a great Jedi, Anakin," he began. "If I would have succeeded in killing you, your loss would have been deeply felt. I am truly sorry and I'm having trouble forgiving myself for what I put you through."
Anakin closed his eyes and sighed. He leaned forward slightly to whisper in Mortane's ear. "Mercy is a virtue. Never forget that."
Several members of the resistance stood outside the docking bay where the ship for the Jedi was ready and waiting. Having already undergone treatment for his injured leg, Anakin was inside the vessel, familiarizing himself with the controls, and doing last minute checks.
Obi-Wan thanked Teira and Mortane again and asked to be kept apprised of the government situation on Aremont as it unfolded.
It was then the Jedi Master noticed Saloma was unusually quiet, speaking only when spoken to and then in short one word sentences. Her melancholy deepened when they said their goodbyes to the members of the resistance and started to go inside the docking bay.
Saloma followed him a few steps behind, then hesitated when Obi-Wan opened the door for her. She looked up at the Jedi as he glanced curiously back at her.
"Saloma? What is it?" he asked, concerned. He let the door slide close and went to her. He tried putting his arm around her, but she shrugged it off, and stepped back.
"I can't," she whispered. "I can't go with you." She bowed her head and wiped quickly at her rapidly watering eyes.
Obi-Wan let his empty arm fall to his side, stunned. He swallowed uncomfortably and stared at her with a piercing gaze. "What are you saying?"
Saloma shook her head, the tears falling freely now. "I have to stay and finish what was started." She finally looked up at him and gestured at Teira and Mortane, who appeared equally taken aback. "These are my people. This is my home. I owe it to them to stay and fight by their side. Most of all, I need to make up for the wrongs my brother did."
"You were not responsible for his actions, Saloma," Teira told her softly. "Go with the Jedi. You owe him, not us."
"She doesn't owe me anything!" Obi-Wan snapped, then covered his eyes with his hand. He took several calming breaths, then turned to Teira and addressed her. "Forgive me. Please, may I have a moment alone with her?"
Understanding intuitively, Teira nodded solemnly, reaching out to pat his shoulder, and then waved her companions away. They quickly disappeared into the shadows.
Obi-Wan's heart felt as if it would burst out of his chest and fall to the ground in pieces. He unconsciously placed his hand over it to steady it and tried to remember to breathe. He wanted to say something reassuring to Saloma, but his mind was racing, and nothing intelligible found its way to his tongue.
"You can't stay," he finally managed, his throat clenching, strangling his voice. He tried to take her hand, but she pulled it away from him. "Has something changed between us that I'm not aware of?"
"That's so unfair of you," she breathed, struggling to regain her composure. "Nothing's changed. This has nothing to do with us, or you, or the way I feel about you. I still love you, Obi-Wan, but I just can't go with you now. Please try to understand."
"What exactly am I supposed to understand?" the Jedi retorted, fixing his eyes on hers. "Do you realize what you are asking me to do?"
"Don't Obi-Wan...please don't make this any harder than it has to be," she pleaded and started to cry.
Obi-Wan leaned against the doorframe for support, certain his knees were about to give way. "Make this harder? It doesn't have to be hard at all." He longed to reach out and hold her, but commanded himself to stay where he was, knowing he could not bear to have her pull away from him again. "They don't need you," he continued, gesturing in the direction the resistance had gone, his voice softening. "They are going to win this without you...." Pausing, he bit his lower lip savagely and took a shaky breath. "But I do need you. I'm so in love with you, Saloma. I want you with me, beside me, now and always."
Shaking her head, Saloma lowered her eyes, and wiped impatiently at her tears. "I want that too, but we can't always have what we want."
"No, I suppose not," the Jedi murmured. He sighed heavily, feeling spent and defeated.
Saloma stepped forward and reached out to him. He seemed surprised by her gesture but readily welcomed her into his arms and held her tightly as if he would never again release her. She clung to his neck, shutting out everything around her except for the sound of his thudding heartbeat and the warm security of his embrace. The red-rimmed sorrow reflected in his usually sparkling blue eyes seized her heart.
"Try not worry about me. And please, don't be sad," Saloma said quietly.
Obi-Wan slowly shook his head. "But it hurts," he whispered. "It hurts."
Saloma hugged him, rubbing her hands over his back to comfort him. "This isn't good-bye forever, Obi-Wan. I have every intention of returning to you someday. And if the resistance is victorious, there'll be a new Aremont for you to come back to. One that will welcome you and all Jedi with open arms again. I know I can help. I can put right what went wrong. This is something I'm willing to fight for and die for. This is something I need to do....but if you truly do not understand, then...I'll go with you. I won't leave you wondering and questioning. I love you too much to do that to you."
Closing his eyes against the throbbing pain in his heart, Obi-Wan lost the last remnants of hope he had. He did understand and it would be wrong of him to deny it just to keep her with him. She knew he'd be lying if he did. He was a Jedi Knight and he had experienced the same need to rectify wrongs many times over. Softly, he kissed the top of her head and lay his cheek on her downy curls.
"Go then," he breathed into her ear. "Go now."
Hearing his thoughts, Saloma pulled back from him slightly to look up at him, marveling at the depth of his unselfish integrity. She took his face in her hands and covered his mouth with hers in a passionate kiss, then suddenly tore herself away from him. Once free of his imprisoning touch, she turned and quickly ran away without looking back, disappearing into the shadows of the night.
Obi-Wan felt himself split in two as she separated from him. His lips felt cold, his arms empty, and his hands useless without her to caress. A aching chill descended on him and made him shiver. He bowed his head in defeat, plunging his numbing hands deeply into the pockets of his coat.
It was then he felt it. His fingertips had brushed against it. The satiny
softness of a coiled braid.
PART SEVEN ~SALVATION
Anakin sat on the upper balcony just outside the quarters he shared with Obi-Wan at the Jedi Temple. His long legs were stretched out in front of him and his back was braced against a stone column. A cumbersome control panel was balanced precariously in his lap, connected to a small monitor screen which lay on the balcony floor beside his knees.
He gazed up at passing air traffic, silhouetted by the setting Coruscant sun as he waited, his hands twitching restlessly over the controls. A rapid beeping suddenly drew his attention back to the monitor screen. He grinned and quickly adjusted the controls to make the connection for an incoming reception.
The monitor's screen filled with the image of Padme', reclining in a sunny antechamber in her palace. She smiled widely as his image appeared to her.
"Anakin! Are you busy? Is this a good time?" she asked quickly, a fleeting look of concern clouding her large brown eyes.
"Yes, Your Highness, this is a very good time," Anakin reassured her.
The young queen's smile brightened. "It's good news then?" Anakin nodded. "Oh Anakin, I could hardly wait any longer to contact you. I've been on edge all morning. Tell me everything!"
Anakin smiled and opened his mouth to speak, but Padme' interrupted him.
"Wait! First, how's your leg?" she demanded.
"It's fine, really. I have a slight limp still, but I've been assured it will disappear in time. I feel good. Strong. I'll be back in the thick of things in no time," he told her and winked slyly.
Padme' shrieked with delight. "Oh, Anakin! That means the Council has decided in your favor! I've been so worried! So tell me what happened! Don't leave out any details!"
Anakin laughed. "It was the most incredible thing!" he exclaimed, catching her enthusiasm. "Obi-Wan and I went to that inquest thinking we were both doomed. We had lost our one and only witness, which also meant we had failed our assigned mission...again. Obi-Wan was certain we were done for as a team. That was his worse fear. It was strange and touching in a way. He was afraid the Council would take me away from him."
"Poor Obi-Wan," Padme' sympathized.
Anakin leaned a little closer to the monitor. "I kept trying to tell him I didn't care what they said, that no matter what, I wasn't going anywhere." The young Jedi paused and smiled with recollection. "Then he reprimanded me and called me a rebellious teenager and told me if I didn't get rid of my attitude before we went in front of the Council, they'd know for sure that he had ruined me." Anakin laughed and shook his head. "He was serious too, that's what was so funny. Needless to say, the Council did not split us up."
"So what happened?" Padme' urged, sitting forward in her chair.
"Oh, get this," Anakin continued, licking his lips. "Obi-Wan received a communiqué from Teira Rure just as we were about to enter the courtroom."
"Teira Rure? Not Saloma?"
"Uh--no. But more on that later," Anakin informed. "She told Obi-Wan that a week after we left, the resistance was able to oust Governor Spiget and new democratic elections were held. Well, Teira Rure won. She's the new governor of Aremont."
Padme' s eyes widened. "If she's governor now, what happened to the charges Spiget brought against you?" she asked, unable to tell anything from the look on Anakin's face.
"Dropped." The handsome young Jedi's eyes twinkled with amusement as Padme' nearly jumped out of her chair in joy. "The Force was with us, that's all I can say. Teira Rure told Obi-Wan she wanted him to know she'd kept her promise to him and had already contacted the chancellor and the Jedi Council to speak on our behalf. So when the Council convened, Master Yoda just gave us a ponderous lecture and Master Windu gave us a tongue-lashing for disobeying a direct order. Then they came to the conclusion all is well that ends well, and sent us on our way."
Lowering her eyes, Padme' grimaced. "But not all is well." She looked back up at Anakin and shook her head. "Saloma hasn't come back yet, has she?"
Anakin frowned and sighed heavily. "No. She hasn't contacted either one of us. Though Teira's communiqué mentioned that Saloma had led many battles against the former regime and proved herself to be a keen and courageous military leader."
"Well, that's wonderful, but I'm sure it didn't make Obi-Wan feel any better," Padme' put in, her tone edged with criticism for the woman responsible for breaking her friend's heart. "How's he doing?" she asked quietly.
"Outwardly, he's fine, but I know he's just keeping up appearances. I can tell he thinks about her alot. He's functioning, you know, but not really living." Anakin paused and leaned back on the column. "Like the way I am when I'm not near you."
Padme' blinked up at him and blushed prettily. "Me too," she whispered. "Sometimes you seem so far away. Too far away. I look up at the stars in the night and search for you there. When I see your light sparkling in my sky, it's like you're here watching over me."
Anakin sighed wistfully and crossed his arms over his chest. He gazed deeply into her eyes and offered her a shy smile. "When you sit like that in the sunshine, the way you are now, and you feel its rays warming your skin and the breeze ruffling through your hair, I want you to think of me reaching out to touch you. That way, I'll always be near you, Padme'. Day or night, keeping watch."
The young queen turned her head and wiped discreetly at her eyes. When she faced Anakin again, she stretched out her arms and leaned her head back until her face was fully washed in sunshine and closed her eyes.
His heart pounding inside him, Anakin watched her, entranced, as she slowly drew her arms in and hugged herself. Then she opened her eyes, looked directly at him, and smiled adoringly.
Saloma fidgeted with the "limited access" pass she had attached to her uniform as she followed the child into a vast and beautiful garden. The canopy of stars above were not the actual view from the skylights, but a filtered, digitally enhanced version of what Coruscant's night sky would look like minus the artificial lights and air traffic.
The child, a boy of approximately four, dressed in the same kind of off-white tunic and pants outfit the older Jedi wore, led Saloma down a well-worn path beside a bubbling stream and past a clearing to a small rocky alcove. He paused and looked back at her, then pointed into the darkness just ahead.
"There. Can you see him? He is there," the young Jedi directed.
Saloma squinted. Her heart began banging heavily against her chest. At first she couldn't make out anything in the thick shadows, but then he moved and looked up and seemed to be looking right at her.
Swallowing hard, Saloma thanked the boy and sent him on his way.
She watched him approach her. He walked purposefully with a long graceful stride. The hem of his mahogany-colored cloak glided over the ground behind him. Suddenly Saloma wanted to run into his arms, but found she could hardly breathe, let alone move. She had forgotten how handsome he was, and when he said her name, her insides melted.
"Saloma....at first, I thought my eyes may be deceiving me," he was saying. He stopped a short distance in front of her, looking her slowly up and down. "You look wonderful. And doing well, I've heard. You're an officer now. Congratulations....It's so good to see you again."
"Obi-Wan," she said and sighed. "....You look good too. I see you grew a beard again."
Lowering the hood of his cloak, the Jedi nodded. "It doesn't play to a Jedi Master's advantage to have a 'boyishly winsome' face," he said and grinned.
Saloma's mouth fell open in surprise. "Super nova, you actually remembered me saying that about you?"
Obi-Wan lowered his eyes briefly. "I remembered everything," he told her with utmost sincerity, then realized how pathetic that made him sound. He gnawed his upper lip, suddenly feeling very awkward. All of a sudden, he didn't know what else to say to her. He took a deep steadying breath and pretended to study some of the flora adorning the garden.
"It's very pretty here," Saloma announced, breaking the stretch of silence that had descended over them. "Do you come here often?" She took a tentative step closer to him.
The Jedi nodded. "It's peaceful. It's a good place to meditate. And just think things through," he told her, then frowned deeply. "I must admit, your visit has caught me a little off guard. Please, forgive my lack of manners. We can go inside where I'm sure you'll be more comfortable. I could show you around if you'd like, or if you're hungry, we could get something to eat. Or we could go to my quarters--I mean, for tea or just to sit and talk or something."
Obi-Wan cursed mentally. He absolutely hated feeling so uncomfortable around her; a woman he had been intimately involved with only a month ago. But he couldn't help it. He didn't know what was appropriate anymore. They were talking to each other like acquaintances instead of the lovers they really were. Had things changed that much between them already?
Saloma's heart twisted hearing his thoughts. He was right. They had suddenly become strangers, keeping each other at a respectful distance. She didn't like it any more than he did, but wasn't sure how he would react if she commented on what he was thinking. He knew she could hear him, but he often unintentionally continued to think very private things at times.
Another long period of silence was followed by coy glances and nervous chuckling.
"This is pitiful," Saloma finally spoke up. "We were more chatty and animated when we first met." She took another step closer to him. "It's not like we're enemies....are we?"
"No," Obi-Wan responded immediately. He bowed his head and joined his hands behind his back. "I don't understand why this is so hard. I never pictured our reunion this way."
An image flitted through his mind which made Saloma blush and smile. Luckily he didn't notice her reaction to it. At least now she knew he was still interested in her that way. Encouraged, she decided to provoke him.
"I heard about the outcome of the inquest. I'm sorry I didn't make it back here sooner, but as it turned out, you didn't need me anyway," Saloma stated, and licked her lips apprehensively. "A new position had just opened up in Teira's reformed political circle and she thought I would be interested in accepting it. We had to hash out the details and formalities first and it took a little longer than either one of us had anticipated, you know how that goes."
"So, I thought I'd stop by and see you before I have to report for duty. It'll be pretty hectic for awhile until I can get all the kinks smoothed out. I'm really looking forward to it, however. It's a great opportunity for me as well."
"I'm very pleased to hear that," Obi-Wan said, not sounding particularly pleased. "You have my best wishes for success."
Saloma sighed heavily and lowered her eyes. "Thank you." He hadn't responded
to her news the way she had hoped he would.
The Jedi sensed a feeling of deepening sadness within her and thought perhaps it was because she felt as frustrated by this impenetrable distance between them as he did.
"Yes?" she said, looking up.
Obi-Wan sighed and quickly looked away, unable to think of anything to say now that he had her attention. His eyes fell on a white pelledia moon blossom just beginning to open on the edge of the path where he was standing. He plucked it with a sweeping movement of his hand. He buried his nose in the center of the flower, smelled it sweet, heady scent, and smiled. Then he slowly offered it to Saloma.
Surprised and caught off guard by the unexpected romantic gesture, Saloma fixed her eyes on the blossom and hesitantly stretched out her hand to accept it from him. Their fingertips touched briefly and Saloma felt her heart skip a beat. She looked up into his eyes, a sudden powerful swelling of desire surfacing inside her.
Saloma knew he had sensed her unguarded response to his touch when his eyes darkened with curiosity, then his open expression suddenly reflected his pleasant surprise.
The physical contact had been small, but Saloma's intense reaction to it startled the Jedi. In that brief instant, he had felt her sensuality stir. She had not given him any indication of still feeling this way about him until now. A flicker of hope warmed his heart. Intrigued, Obi-Wan took another step closer to her.
As if conducting an experiment, Obi-Wan reached out and brushed his knuckles softly over her left cheek. Her reaction to this deliberate touch was even more intense. Encouraged, the Jedi decided to take it one step further.
Awash with anticipation, Saloma bit her lower lip and closed her eyes, then whimpered delicately. She held her breath, waiting and hoping. Then she felt his hands slide around her back. The pressure of his arms tightened around her waist as he drew her up against him.
Saloma looked up at him. His crystalline blue eyes glittered with longing and he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. Slowly, he bent his head towards her and pressed his lips softly to hers; tentatively at first, as if half expecting her to pull away. Closing her eyes in ecstasy, Saloma encircled his neck with her arms to encourage him, and enticingly opened her mouth wider to deepen the kiss.
Obliging her subtle demand, Obi-Wan slipped his tongue between her teeth and sank his lips deeper against her mouth. His hands caressingly roved her back. It felt so good to touch her and hold her again. The awkward distance between seemed to disappear and the time they had spent apart faded away. Their bodies were melding together in the heat of their undeniable passion just like before--never to be separated again. Then it hit him. They would be separated again.
He suddenly began to wonder if it was wrong of him to kiss her; to inflame the desires they shared all over again. Saloma wasn't protesting now, but he knew she didn't like him to touch her whenever they were inevitably parting. She always said it made it too difficult for her. He abruptly pulled away from her and stepped back.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly, dropping his eyes to the ground, feeling as if he had just taken advantage of her.
Saloma swore softly. Her lips were tingling and her head felt as if it was swirling in a slow wide circle somewhere above her amidst the tops of the trees. She inhaled the crisp night air to clear her mind.
"How dare you apologize for that," she growled, clutching the pelledia flower protectively to her chest. "That's rather insensitive of you, not to mention down right rude."
Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes as he stared back at her and placed his hands on his hips. "Insensitive of me? I apologized because I was being sensitive."
"Well, if you don't mind me saying, your senses are slightly off kilter, Master Kenobi. A Jedi should have been able to sense pleasure in that kiss, not remorse. My pleasure, but apparently your remorse. Did I give you any indication that I was sorry you were kissing me? I don't think so." Saloma turned her back on him and stomped her foot in frustration. "Damn you, why do you have to make things so complicated?"
Obi-Wan stalked over to her and spun her around to face him. "Oh no you don't!" he warned. "You are not blaming me again for your bipolar convictions. If you want to leave, leave! If you want to stay, then stay! One reckless kiss should not affect you that much either way."
"What are you talking about?" Saloma hissed, exasperated.
The Jedi took a deep breath before he continued. "You had just told me you were leaving. I realized it was wrong of me to toy with what I was sensing when I touched you because you always seem to think I'm trying to deviantly coerce you to change your mind, when in fact it's only because I love you and I can't seem to resist touching you. You seemed to want it as much as I did and I've missed you so much....but I don't want to make things complicated for you, that's why I realized I shouldn't have kissed you, and that's why I apologized!"
Saloma held up her hands to halt his raving. "Wait a minute. You're jumping to all kinds of conclusions. What makes you think I'm going anywhere? I never said I was leaving, or even thinking about leaving. As a matter of fact, I just got here, but if this is the kind of welcome I get, well, maybe I should just reconsider this ambassadorship and ask Teira to find me a job somewhere across the galaxy. And for your information, reckless or not, those soft, sultry kisses of yours turn me inside out and set me ablaze like newborn star. Affect me? Oh yeah."
Obi-Wan's heart had stopped. "Ambassador?"
Saloma stared up at him, a mischievous smile slowly brightening her face. "Yes. You're looking at Aremont's new ambassador to Coruscant." She started to laugh as the Jedi's eyes suddenly lit with realization. "I didn't want to tell you right off," she continued, "I wanted to see if anything had changed between us. I have to admit, I was a little concerned at first. But now it's obvious, nothing's changed. Our passions still burn and our personalities still clash. Same as before."
Obi-Wan suddenly seized her and crushed her to him in a smothering hug. He eased his grip just enough to cover her face with kisses and then hugged her again.
"No. Not the same as before," the Jedi countered gently. He pulled back and gazed deeply into her eyes. "I love you," he whispered. "I promise I won't be so negligent this time, but I won't become possessive or domineering either. I shall graciously accept whatever part of your life you are willing to offer me. Do you think you could do the same for me?"
Saloma smiled and leaned forward to kiss him. "I love you too," she sighed and stroked the side of his face. "I understand what you are saying and the answer is yes. I promise I won't be so demanding of your time and attention. I know you still have other important commitments, and I will too, but I'll be here, close to you, beside you whenever possible. If you can be content with that, so can I."
Obi-Wan took her hand and kissed it. "We'll just take it one day at a time."
"Ah yes. Live in the moment!" Saloma said and laughed. "Let me tell you, that has become one of my favorite sayings. And right now, at this moment, I feel like celebrating."
The Jedi smiled and nodded. "A welcoming celebration would certainly be justifiable. Allow me the privilege of escorting you, Ambassador. Where would you like to go? What would you like to do? All of Coruscant lies at your feet."
Reaching up to trace the curve of his ear with the petals of the moon blossom, Saloma pretended to think long and hard. She inconspicuously slipped her hand around his waist and slowly let it slide down over the firm muscle of his rearend.
"You had mentioned something about taking me to your quarters before, for tea, or something..." she purred. "You know, that sounds rather appealing."
The Jedi shifted his weight, moving beneath her provocatively placed palm. "I get the impression you have an idea of just where 'tea at my quarters' may lead."
"Mmm, think of it as a way for us to reconcile our differences. After this last little spat we just had," Saloma suggested, "I think I need a little reassuring. And you're so very good at...reassuring me."
Obi-Wan inhaled sharply. At this rate, he didn't know if he could wait until they got all the way across the temple to his quarters.
"Is that why you pick fights with me all the time?" he asked, taking her hand to lead her to a secluded clearing that he knew of deep within the garden.
Saloma stared back at him with mock indignation. "Oh, absolutely," she confessed and then smiled impishly.