"Not the hair-!"

Silica blinked, eyes wide, as Asuna wrapped long black hair more firmly around her hand and dragged Kirito back before he could jump into one of the two-seated racing speeders. Fuurinkazan was heading over there, and she had a feeling she ought to be wishing Mr. Klein luck. They were going to need it. Asuna and Kirito, with real speeders? She could feel the sonic booms already. "So Pina's a- a therapy creature?" She stroked her blue-feathered friend, who rustled sleepy wings. "I've never heard of anything like her."

Nanami nodded, the lock of hair that had been his padawan braid dipping over green eyes. Lau's friend hadn't spoken much, checking carry-crates for any signs of damage as they packed them into one of the larger four-person speeders, and focusing a quiet healing aura on eggs in a well-padded nest. But he was warm, and careful, and Pina was quite clear that this was a Human who deserved to be around feather-drakes.

Also, he carried peanuts.

"You wouldn't have." Lau pulled a gray turtleneck over his head, discarding his green tunic. There weren't a lot of spare clothes in the various lockers; according to Healer Agnei, this had been one of the Enclave's little hideouts for undercover CorSec operations, not a real emergency shelter. But there were enough that by trading stuff around a little, they could at least get everybody out of green. "They're very smart, and they're sensitive to the Force. We only know about them because some of the nest elders asked us for help when smugglers tried to take some of their hatchlings off the planet."

"Really smart." Silica shared a sleepy blink with her friend. "She saved my life, in the game. I got into trouble, and she jumped in the way of an anakkona who was trying to eat me. I - I thought she was going to die." Constricted and bitten, the little hawk-bat almost had; would have, if Kirito hadn't shown her how to stabilize her friend in a healing trance until they could get the rare Alderaanian medicine fragile bones needed to recover. And if Pina in the game was somehow connected to Pina here... "How did she do that?"

"They are Force-sensitive," Lau pointed out. "And she liked you. We don't know how she influenced the program, but somehow, she managed to make a link with the Pina you knew. Nanami was worried about that, he thought-" He cut himself off.

"She might get hurt?" Silica scrunched in on herself, unhappy. She'd tried to be careful, she had - but the ever-shifting maze that was Kashyyyk's layered deathtrap of a forest was too much for any player alone.

Kirito had walked through it. But Kirito was awesome.

"If you hadn't loved her back, she would have been," Lau said steadily. "She did suffer a shock. But you tried to protect her from the program, and your friend Kirito is a pretty good field medic." He reached over to scritch behind feathered ears. "When she did wake up, she told us to call her Pina."

Oh, good - wait. She told you? "They're sapients?" Silica blurted out, cradling Pina close. The feather-drake purred, radiating smugness.

"We don't really know," Lau admitted. "They're smart enough to know people who feel like the Dark Side are trouble." He glanced away, blue eyes sad. "And to grieve."

There was a lump in Silica's throat; she had to work to get words past it. "I'm sorry. About the Enclave, and... everyone."

"Chrr." Pina rubbed her head against Silica's cheek-

And there was an image, whispering into her mind like fog. A great, green forest on a knife-edged plateau, vines and creepers drinking deep of the ever-present mist.

But part of that green was rent and tattered, one of the great trees battered down by a windstorm, woven nests crushed in the wreckage. Feather-drakes in all colors of the rainbow flew over and landed in still-standing trees, keening their loss and preening the injured who'd survived.

:Warmth. Shared sadness. Cuddling together to bask in the returning sun.:

"Very smart," Lau said softly. Touched his hand over his heart, and gave Silica a faint smile. "Nanami and I lost our masters in the Clone Wars a year ago. We've been working under Healer Agnei's direction, until... until the war eased up enough for someone to take us on as their apprentices." He took a deep breath, and climbed in to test the speeder controls. "I guess we'll have to figure out something else."

"We'll help," Silica said impulsively. "We had to figure out a lot of our own training. The Jedi NPCs who got us started - after a few weeks, they'd be gone. Either they had to leave on a mission, or you got separated in a fight, or..." Her throat closed up.

Or a Sith Lord found both of you, and she told you to run.

Saa had told her that. It was one of the reasons Silica had trusted Kirito enough to bring Pina and join him in his starfighter to leave Kashyyyk. She could feel that echo of pain inside him, then. Like she felt it in Lau now.

So she made herself swallow now, and lift her chin. "Kirito helped me find out what I was doing wrong to meditate. I know we can figure more out."

"He did?" Nanami's voice was lower than she'd thought. Rhythmic, not rough from disuse as she'd halfway expected. "Strange."

"Not that strange." Lau gave him a speaking look. "The Kirigayas have always been strong in the Force."

"They have?" Silica felt like she'd fallen down a tree-rabbit hole. "But he said I was like his cous- I mean his sister!"

"He told you Suguha was his cousin?" Lau's brows climbed. "They don't talk about that much." He stroked the dashboard, a ripple of the Force checking for any shorted circuits their quick look under the hood might have missed. "But I can see why he'd think that. Suguha's strong in the Force. Especially when she's protecting someone she cares about."

"Hmm." Humor glinted in a green gaze, as Nanami raised a dark brow at his friend.

The blond turned pink. "You want me to ask... but that could get them in trouble!"

Nanami raised the other brow.

"Well... yes, I guess they might find it anyway..." Lau trailed off, even redder.

Silica looked between them, then raised her own eyebrow at Nanami. Or tried to. It wasn't as easy as Kirito made it look.

"It's not hopeless," Nanami said simply. "We have friends. Every Jedi has helped someone, somewhere. We just need to reach them."

"R-Right." Silica made herself smile, determined. Despair was of the Dark Side. And they didn't need any more of that around. "Um. If you're okay here, should I go see if Healer Agnei needs more help? She's really busy, and she can't be looking everywhere, and Pina still thinks we should bite that Kibaou guy." And now it was her turn to blush. You didn't bite people. Even if their heads were thicker than duramin steel.

"Oh, a feather-drake can do a lot more than bite." Lau's wink was pure mischief. "You take care of her, and she'll take care of you." He waved her toward the next two speeders over, where Agnei and a swarm of younglings and helpful players were packing everything the healers had been able to carry off.

The first speeder seemed to be going fine, even if Teacher Sasha and her Church kids were getting in each other's way half the time from pure enthusiasm. The second speeder-

Agnei and a girl were arguing. "But Kazuto can't use the Force!" the girl protested, just above a whisper.

Black hair. Black eyes. That has to be Kirito's sister!

Agnei had her full attention on the girl. "Sugu, the past two and a half years say he can."

"In his sleep. In that awful computer dream. But he wasn't missed!" Sugu insisted. "Grandfather tested him after they found the wreck. He failed. None of us wanted to believe it, but - you know my brother. He's not a light in the Force. He's not even there. That's why Grandfather had to get him out of the dojo-"

"Is that what he told you?" Agnei cut her off. "I need to keep a list of asses to kick when I finally rejoin the Force. Seta Kirigaya may be second in line."

"Grandfather was right!"

"No, he wasn't. He made a mistake. We all did." Agnei brushed some dust off her hands. "This isn't the time to drag up Thai and Seta's favorite fight, Padawan Kirigaya. Your brother is strong in the Force. These people are alive thanks to that strength. Whatever future the Corellian Order will have, he'll be a part of it. As will many more of these clearers." She winced. "Whether they like it or not."

"But they're not Jedi," Sugu insisted, fingers fretting at the edge of a tan raincape slung over her shoulders. "If they try something that worked in a game - people could get hurt."

"You might be surprised. I was." Agnei sighed. "When we have time to talk I'll tell you about Kamino, and clones, and flash training. CorSec has the information in case things go more wrong. In short - Kayaba was able to pass his game off as based on a training simulator for very good reasons. What worked in the game, will work. They have the training." She frowned. "At least the physical techniques. We're still not sure how deeply Kayaba hacked us once the players were in the Annex. But I can tell you right now your brother's a better swordsman than I am." She let out a soft hah. "Which reminds me; we need to ask if anyone has a spare 'saber. He's a Jar'kai specialist."

"What?"

Silica almost giggled, as Pina radiated wry amusement. She'd never seen Kirito's two-'saber style herself, but everybody had heard about the Gleam Eyes boss fight. Even most Jedi didn't walk away from a fight with a sapient reshaped by Sith Alchemy. It's Kirito. He's awesome. We knew that already!

"Denying what is, is one step away from denying the truth," Agnei said, a little more gently. "And that's a road no Jedi should start down." She put a hand on the padawan's shoulder. "Suguha. I know you've always wanted to protect your brother. And he does still need our help. He's fought for his life for three years. We're going to have to teach him how to live when the fighting stops." She smiled, a little sad. "But he fought all these years to come back to you. Let him help you, Sugu. He has the strength now. He earned it with his own blood."

She wants to protect him? Silica bit her lip. She knew how awesome Kirito was. She didn't even know what to say to someone who could protect him.

"Chrrr." Pina nipped her ear; cheer up, pay attention.

Right. Because Kirito had believed she could get that strong, even if it took her some time, and - who were those guys slinking away from the speeder, looking all kinds of embarrassed?

I have a bad feeling about this.


"All right, bend it," Asuna directed the Jedi in nondescript blue and gray as he sat in the doorframe of one of their scout 'speeders. "Without using the Force."

Kirito hung back, already sure what the results would be. Asuna was going to be a good Healer. She'd noticed that flash of pain as Anton changed out of Jedi robes, and tracked him down faster than a slice hound would find a jambalaya pot.

Sure enough, as Anton's knee bent, he winced.

"Right," Asuna declared. "You're not walking."

"Young lady," Anton began.

Asuna planted fists on her hips. "Can you use a blaster?"

"Er... well, yes," the Jedi admitted.

"Can you use Foresight?" Asuna persisted.

"It's not my strongest skill, I'm more attuned to the Living Force-"

Asuna rolled right over his words. "Is there anything you can do as a Jedi, besides fight, that you can't do just as well sitting down?"

Anton opened his mouth - and sighed. "Logic. Damn."

"Getting wounded in ORO could put a Crippled Status on you," Kirito shrugged. "We learned to deal with it."

"We can't dunk you in bacta and we don't have time for a healing trance," Asuna said practically. "Sit down and give it some time to heal normally. Besides." She patted the 'speeder hood. "If you weren't flying this, Kirito would be."

Kirito heaved a heartfelt sigh. For someone whose nickname was the Lightning Flash, she was being incredibly sensitive about that last time he'd gone jinking through a half-built space station to dodge a swarm of angry space pirates. He'd come out the other side with all his weapons intact and the original paint, what was the problem?

Well. Most of the original paint-

Kirito stiffened. Please don't let that be who it feels like.

It was. Tetsuo wasn't in purple or a tank's trooper armor. Keita didn't have his laser lance. But he could never have missed the surviving Black Cats.

Asuna moved to cover his left side, hand not yet on her blaster. Anton's presence in the Force sharpened, but the Jedi seemed to only raise curious brows as he rested both feet on the floor. "Is there something we can help you with?"

Keita glanced at them both, then looked intensely at Kirito. "Can we talk to you? Alone?"

The last time you didn't want to talk, you wanted to kill me, Kirito thought bleakly. Only you knew you couldn't. I was a Beater, after all.

So they'd just expelled him from the guild and warned him never to cross their path again. Which had felt like a blaster bolt through what was left of his heart, and he'd just - walked. He still didn't know what insane impulse had made him give his location to Argo, but when he'd checked the local starport message board for a ship going somewhere, anywhere...

Fuurinkazan's Grasscutter had almost landed on top of him. Klein still insisted it was luck.

He'd managed to avoid Tetsuo and Keita for two years. But this was the real world now, and he could read his greatest failure in the guilt on their faces, and...

No. We're out of the game. It's over. "No."

"Kirito, we just want to talk," Tetsuo tried.

The swordsman slashed his hand through air; one short, sharp no. "Healer Agnei wants the three of us as one of her scouting teams. We need to get moving." Anton's knee was bad, but he was ExploriCorps; there probably wasn't anyone else here more familiar with whatever weirdness might be loose in the Selonian Tunnels. Pairing him with two Force-sensitives who could move and fight made sense. "Whatever you want to say, talk."

Keita looked at the other two; by the way he swallowed, apparently recognizing the Vice-Commander of the Knights of Blood even without her red-and-white robes. "We just wanted to say we're sorry. We didn't... we didn't know."

"Know?" Kirito said blankly. "Know what?"

"Your sister," Tetsuo waved over toward Healer Agnei's speeder, some yards out of earshot. "She said - your family really thought you couldn't use the Force? At all?"

"That?" Kirito shook his head, trying to jar loose a sudden ringing in his ears. "You think that matters? Now? Why?"

"Well, I know that back then we said, about the Jedi..." The usual smile was completely gone from Tetsuo's face, as he tried to find the right words.

"You really didn't know what you could do," Keita managed. "You didn't know how to save them-"

"Stop."

Calm. Calm was what he needed, and he needed it right now. Because he could still see that horrible trap in his nightmares. First Ducker going down, then Sasumaru; and Tetsuo and Sachi were too far away, even if they were still fighting. Sachi was fighting so hard, he had to stop hiding how good he really was, he had to get to her-

I have to stop hiding!

The world had blurred. And he'd brought his vibroblade up just in time to block the blow that should have killed Tetsuo.

Sachi had been two yards farther away.

She might as well have been on the moon.

I am the eye of the storm, Kirito thought now, trying not to see her sad smile as her avatar shattered. I am the mote on the wave. The anger is real, but I will not use it...

He opened his eyes, and saw Keita flinch.

I won't use the anger. But I'm not sorry, either. "I don't want to hear it," Kirito said quietly. "I didn't tell you the truth about my level. I didn't tell you I'd been to some of those planets before. But I told you the truth about everything else. And the minute we knew we were in trouble-" He had to stop, and push down the storm inside again. "I did everything - everything - I could think of to get us out of there alive. And... I failed."

It still hurt. It would always hurt. But the acid in the wound was what these two had said when he'd survived. After all those months partying together, after all the battles they'd lived through - Keita and Tetsuo had assumed he'd let their friends die.

"You're sorry," Kirito got out, almost tempted to laugh. "My whole family's been sorry, Keita. They had such hopes..."

No. No, that's not the Black Cats' fault. Just - let it go.


They're going to push it, Anton realized, seeing young shoulders braced under hospital tunics. Bad idea, that.

A very bad idea, when a lethally trained youngling had just managed to get his storm of emotions under control. Especially when there was an equally lethal young lady who was just as strong in the Force to back him up, who had no friendly feelings toward these Black Cats whatsoever.

So much pain there.

And in what seemed a well-meant attempt to right an old wrong, these two risked pushing that pain to the breaking point. Why was it that so many people failed to realize it was pain, not anger, that was most unlikely to unleash the rancor within?

We can't lose anyone to the Dark Side. Not ever - and especially not now!

...Not that I can say that flat out. Jedi are supposed to be diplomatic. Anton cleared his throat. "Tetsuo and Keita, is it?"

They jumped; as well they might. "How did you know-?" Keita started.

"Your thoughts are quite loud," Anton said dryly. Which wasn't, perhaps, the most diplomatic thing he could have said. But they were in a bit of a hurry. "Speaking as one who's done some negotiations in his time, I suggest you consider your mission complete. You've delivered your message. It's been heard." He tried not to sigh. "Now please, go away."

Testuo winced. "Look, we were friends-"

"Were being the significant word, in this case. You've missed three years with your parents, so I'll stand for them this one time," Anton said severely. "Forgiveness is not something one can earn. It is given. Or it is not. Meditate on that." He slid in behind the 'speeder controls. "Shall we?"

Asuna nodded, and hopped into the passenger's seat. Kirito clambered up to perch on the back a little more warily, keeping an eye on the pair as they accelerated away.

Distance made the young man relax. A little. Black eyes flicked toward him. "You shouldn't have to get mixed up in this."

"On the contrary," Anton stated. "As a responsible student of the Force," one of the few still alive, space, he wanted to break something just as much as these younglings did, "every Force-sensitive in this accursed mess is my responsibility." And Healer Agnei's, as well. But she had a healer's duty to all her patients. She couldn't favor the younglings. No matter how much she wanted to.

Lucky I'm not a Healer, then.

Now it was Asuna who gave him a considering look. "Even though we're all Corellian heretics?"

Er. Heh. That had been a bit of a sore spot from time to time, historically. Especially, if he recalled certain texts correctly, during the Sith Wars. "Any port in an ion storm?" Anton offered.

That won a smile, and a subtle easing of the Force around the pair. "Better buckle up," Asuna advised him. "This storm's not over yet."

Doors parted, and they plunged into shadows.


Tunnels ought to be creepier, Klein thought, blaster resting against his shoulder ready to hand as Argo worked on slicing some door controls while Lisbeth stood ready with a toolkit. He'd led Fuurinkazan through the undercity of Coruscant, a dark place of rust, stale oil, slavering rakghouls, and manic murdering droids. Through the mud and chitin-walled hive-cities in the sinkholes of Utapau; and if he never had to ride another feathered lizard again, he'd be happy. Through the underwater cities of Naboo's Gungans, a place that brought whole new meaning to the one that got away. He'd even survived a venture into the cavern systems of Dagobah's merciless swamps - and the less said about that little field trip into the Dark Side, the better. Even today he could wake up screaming from the visions of his guild betrayed, murdered, tortured into monsters with Sith Alchemy by a black-robed Kayaba...

Kirito had saved them then; a shadow among the shadows, Elucidator's black blade singing as their Jedi held it upright in a formal salute.

"Ashla, mother of life, spread your wings over us. Bogan, father of death, withdraw your claws; turn aside from your prey..."

A Dathomiri witch-chant, Kirito had told them later. Along with, don't teach it to someone you don't trust, it's kind of shadowy.

"What did we see in there?" Klein had demanded, still rattled.

"I don't know. Computer scenarios? The operating system's worst-case predictions for the players, based on right now?" Kirito had shrugged. "Whatever it was, let's get off this mudball and mess it up."

Couldn't argue with that, Klein thought now. They'd done their best, and they were alive. He should focus on that, and not on how Corellia was pulling an epic fail on Gruesome Tunnel Crawls.

Really, he shouldn't complain about tunnels that - so far - were wide enough to be upper-city side streets. Corridors that were damp, but not dank; only the occasional drip of water from an offshoot leading up or a crack in the wall. Halls that were lit, if barely, by antique glow-panels, with blue-glowing moss only clinging to a few darker corners.

All told, this part of the Selonian Tunnels added up to mostly maintained, but not always. Which put the hairs up on the back of Klein's neck. Could be they'd just hit these tunnels during a lull; it was still at least an hour before dawn. Or...

They could be watching us. Right now.

"They probably are," Argo muttered, hands splayed over the controls to feel the last commands input. "Six thousand people can't exactly sneak anywhere."

Klein rolled his eyes. Argo was Argo. "What have I told you about picking thoughts out of my head?"

"Not to charge you for them?" the information broker smirked. "You don't mind when Kirito does it."

As if the difference weren't obvious. "He's a guy."

"Flamehead has a point," Lisbeth chuckled. "I wouldn't want some strange guy poking in my mind."

"Oi!" Klein started. "The kid's not strange."

Two pairs of skeptical female eyes glanced at him, then at each other.

"Okay, maybe a little," Klein admitted. "He's gotten better this year. Asuna's been good for him."

"So have you," Argo observed. "He does a good lone sand panther act, but at the end of the day he needs a den to curl up in. Even if it's just a patchwork tramp freighter."

"Hey! Grasscutter's a little rough around the edges, sure, but she's sturdy-"

His voice caught, as reality crashed in. The Grasscutter was gone.

It was like a sucker punch to the gut. The battered ship he and his guild had salvaged on Corellia, and rebuilt with sweat and tears and help from everybody willing to lend a hand, the trusted friend that had carried Fuurinkazan between hundreds of worlds... was gone.

My ship. Damn it, how can you be a smuggler if you can't even get off the planet?

Klein bit his lip, and tried to shove the panic and dismay back into the closet where they belonged. Everybody had lost what they'd built for the past three years. Lisbeth's forge, Agil's shop; Argo's informant network. Heck, even with a lightsaber, Kirito was probably feeling twitchy. He'd used Elucidator so long, a regular 'saber wouldn't even sound right, anymore.

Twitchy or not, Klein was glad Kirito's bunch were poking one of the side tunnels leading away from Agnei's route while Argo worked on this main door. If there was trouble about to ambush them from that passage, Kirito and Asuna would find it.

...Which wasn't the most reassuring thing he could have thought. But Klein refused to believe Kirito would do anything stupid. After three years in the Sith Wars, they were out. The real world didn't have bosses you had to fight your way past or die. If trouble could be avoided, bluffed, or mind-tricked into heading the other way, Klein knew those two would do it.

Real world still has ships, though. And damn it, I want one.

Not the kind of dream a young corporate salaryman was supposed to chase. But the lure of visiting other planets had been half the draw of ORO in the first place. To hear the hatch hiss open, catch alien scents, and know that stepping outside would take you somewhere else... it was more addictive than deathsticks.

"You'll get Grasscutter back, one way or another," Argo said, tapping out a few codes to disable any alarms that might be linked to this door. "Because no matter what happens, we know one thing for sure. We can't stay on Corellia."

"We can't?" Klein said blankly. Because yeah, the Jedi had been tossing that back and forth in the planning session before they'd broken out. But seriously. Leave the planet? For real? He had family here. He had a job, a life...

All of which had suffered a three-year interruption by the Sith Wars. That had in turn just dumped all of them into another war, where Mandalorian clones were shooting at anybody they thought were Jedi-

Damn it.

If they shot at Jedi, they'd shoot at Kirito. If they shot at Kirito - or Asuna; or heck, any of the sensitives, Silica was darn cute with that feathery menace - Fuurinkazan would shoot back. Law of nature. Like gravity.

"We've lost the habit of staying out of trouble." Argo traded a meaningful look with Lisbeth. "Everyone who made it out of Coruscant has. If someone pushes us, we push back."

"And if Healer Agnei's right about the Republic having an army, there's a lot more of these guys in white to start the pushing." Lisbeth tapped her hydrospanner. "We need to be somewhere the Army isn't. But... if they just came for the Enclave..."

"Help me get this cover off." Argo touched spots on the surface, backed off a little as Lisbeth applied her 'spanner with a grin and a low whine of machinery. "You know Sith never stop with just Jedi."

"I know. I'm just... scared." Cover set aside with a click, Lisbeth glanced back down the tunnels, where Agnei, the Knights of Blood, the Divine Dragons, and who knew how many other guilds were helping the RLF guide tired and frightened people through the maze. "Leave Corellia, and our families, and - everything?"

I'm not trained for this, Klein thought ruefully. "Lis? Do you think you could never pick up a hydrospanner again? 'Cause that's what it'd take if you stayed, and we both know it." He tapped his blaster. "Every time I pick up one of these, or get behind the controls of something... I feel it." Oh, he was no Jedi. But like Lis, and Fuurinkazan, and half the clearers he knew, he had knacks.

That's what the players had ended up calling them, anyway. They weren't quite Outside System Skills; they always tied into something you could put skill points into and level up, like Piloting or Mechanics or Trick Shots. But there was a difference between someone who could use a Skill, and someone with a knack using the same Skill while they were focused.

Do it right, and you can bend the universe.

Which might be enough to get him in trouble, if someone got suspicious. It'd at least made the ORO servers cranky, those first few months when desperate players had started bending the rules. He didn't know what it might do to whatever the Army was using to detect Jedi.

And I don't want to stick around to find out.

"I know," Lisbeth muttered, watching over Argo's shoulder as she dissected more circuitry. "It just doesn't seem real." She brushed back too-long bangs, fretting. "But if it is, if we have to go into space - it's going to take a lot more than just a ship. Right?"

"Yeah," Klein agreed, going over supply lists in his head. "Things can go wrong even when you know your ship. If we grab something, we're not going to know if it's got cranky maintenance problems. We've got to be ready for breakdowns. On top of that..." He had to take a deep breath. This was scary. "Argo. You said Order 66 went out to the whole galaxy?"

Something sparked under her fingers, and Argo relaxed a little. "It did. Every clone trooper. Everywhere."

"Then we've got to find a planet where there aren't any clones," Klein concluded. "That means hanging out in some out of the way asteroid belt or nebula while we decrypt military communications." He had to blink at that; the fact that he was pretty sure they could was kind of neat. "And that means it could be a long time before we make a safe planetfall. So yeah. We need supplies. A lot of them."

Argo nodded, making an adjustment to the security circuits that was probably rerouting them from detect door tampering to door? What door? "More than just food and medical packs." Dark eyes slid to Lisbeth.

"We can grab blaster bits in any back alley near a starport," the mechanic shrugged. "And I got all the special tools we're going to need from the 'saber workshop raid; training-grade crystals all the way up to everything in those restricted sections Kirito cut open for us. We've got the whole rainbow. I know I saw some good-quality Eralam and Permafrost crystals, and there's got to be a half-dozen Barab ingots rattling in with the rest of them..."

Klein gave them both a wary look. He knew at least half those names as lightsaber crystals, sure. But why did Argo look like a customs inspector who'd just had a bottle of untaxed Corellian brandy fall into his lap?

Argo's brow climbed into the shadows of her hood. "The restricted section?"

Lisbeth flushed pink, and lowered her voice. "In a Jedi Enclave? You think we'd find Firkrann crystals anywhere else?"

"Noooo," Argo drew out the word, grinning. "No, you wouldn't. Heh heh... Ki-bou's going to hug you."

Lisbeth ducked her head, even redder. "I don't know... they didn't have a Chandrilian obsidian anywhere in there. I looked."

"Darn."

Klein did a double-take. The tone had been disappointed, but that cat-about-to-steal-sushi look was unmistakable.

Lisbeth hadn't missed it either. "Don't even try it."

The information broker squinted at her, and hmphed. "I am going to figure out the technique for making one of those."

"Better have a droid on hand for the activations that blow everything up." Lisbeth tapped her 'spanner against her chest, looking smug. "Can't slice data that's only in my head, Rat."

Argo held up one finger. "We have access to the game files now. I so could." A second finger went up. "Wanna bet?"

Like a whisper of wind, the massive metal door slid open.

Klein whistled. "Damn, you are good."

Argo looked at the door. Peered down the shadowed corridor beyond, as if it might sprout sarlacc tentacles.

Looked back at them, face blank. "I hadn't started that sequence yet."

Klein swallowed. Oh, this is not good...


"...Did you hear something?"

In the front of the main group of survivors, Yulier brought her fist up; stop. The scouts hadn't reported any trouble, but Sasha had ears trained by keeping a couple dozen kids out of trouble on Coruscant. If the young apprentice teacher thought she heard something...

Thinker took a deep breath, and murmured, almost too low to be heard. "Everyone, be quiet."

The subtle influence rippled outward like water.

I'm not asking. I'm not commanding. But it might be a good idea...

Eyes half-closed, Yulier listened.

Murmurs of hundreds of uneasy people. A whine of metal in the distance, slightly out of rhythm with the pulse of air through old vents. There was an acid tang in the current moving past her face; she couldn't tell if it'd been there before.

Somewhere nearby, something was moving.

How far? How big? What is it? The BGM's not giving us any clues-

Yulier almost buried her face in her hands. This was the real world. Of course there was no background music. They'd have to go with what really existed. Ears, eyes... and that tenuous sense of the Force.

The game gave us specifics when we tried to sense where we couldn't see. Now it's like trying to grasp fog.

Whatever it was, it was getting closer.

Above us? To the right of us?

She could feel tension singing around her, as people readied blasters, vibroknives, and whatever else they'd scavenged as weapons.

A small hand crept into hers. Fear and determination trembled in it, like sparklers in the night.

Not one of Sasha's kids, Yulier realized, glancing down at an unfamiliar redheaded girl with wide green eyes. One of the Enclave younglings? Stay calm, little one. We're going to get out of this.

I just wish I knew how.

There was a rattling from the ducts. Louder. Closer.

Please. Oh please, we're so tired, no one wants to fight anymore.

But she would, Yulier knew. They'd come this close to going home. She wasn't about to let a monster stop her now.

Only I can't go home.

It hurt. But not as much as she'd thought it would. Home was with Thinker, wherever he was. His head on her shoulder; his warm, flickering presence in the Force. Give that up, just so she could go back to Coronet City?

:I'm here.:

Yulier leaned into that sense of fierce defiance. Thinker might have problems fighting other players, sure. But whatever was coming this way wasn't Human, or she'd have sensed that by now.

It's close.

Metal rattled and screeched. Yulier strained her ears, trying to determine if that was metal on metal, claws on metal, or something worse.

Closer.

Blasters lifted. The little girl beside her had her hand on her unlit 'saber.

:Wait,: Yulier whispered to the youngling. :Wait...:

Rattling passed like a distant thunderstorm overhead, screeching and clanging farther away.

:Wait.:

Faint scrapings of metal. Echoes, dying away.

Yulier swallowed, and made herself breathe. From the sudden susurrus of exhalations, she was far from the only one.

:...Are you a Knight?:

Yulier looked down into eyes green as sun through the leaves on Alderaan, and had to catch her breath. "No," she managed. "Not yet." :Thinker?:

:Of course, beloved.:

She swept up the girl into her arms, cradling red hair with one hand as the little girl sniffled against her shoulder. "I'm Yulier. My fiancé is Thinker. What's your name?"

"N-Nomi..."

"Nomi." Yulier stroked her hair, content to just stand quietly for a moment. "We're going to be all right."


"I bet it was killer droids." Dynamm waved as he walked past Agil, part of the steady trickle of people to the rear as guilds rotated out tired scouts for fresher clearers.

Kunimittz smirked, and punched his shoulder. "You always think it's killer droids!"

"Hey, I'm right part of the time..."

Healer Agnei groaned, rubbing the bridge of her nose as she paced alongside her supply and kid-stuffed speeder. "Force preserve us."

"Don't mind them too much," Agil advised, keeping his voice low for the pair curled up napping on top of Agnei's kits. Kirito could sleep through anything short of a concussion grenade, but Asuna might be a little more jumpy. "Fuurinkazan's a bunch of comedians, but they're always good backup when stuff hits the rotating turbines."

From the pilot's seat, Anton hmphed. "I doubt our merry band of smugglers is the problem-"

"Hold up a minute."

The half-light of the tunnels wasn't as bad as some dungeons Agil had been in, but it wasn't enough to get a good look at the claw marks in ceracrete. The merchant reached up to trace the cold edges with a fingertip. "Better toss a blanket on those two, Healer. Anybody walking should be okay, but staying still too long's going to make people start taking damage from hypothermia... damn, whatever made these is tall. Selonians?"

"Looks like," Agnei agreed. "I don't know why we haven't seen a tunnel warden by now."

"Selonians?" Anton eyed the clawmarks, hovering the speeder in place. "I'm not familiar with that species."

"Two-meter mustelline bipeds," Agnei filled him in. "They like to build their cities under surface cities. They live as separate nests working together with almost one will. There's an extensive colony here under Coronet City."

Anton nodded, eyes hooded. "Will they contact the authorities?"

"Not likely. They'd rather leave Human problems to Humans." Agnei glanced up at the nearest vent, as if she could peer through stonelike layers to listening furry ears. "They live more like insectoids than mammals, but individuals do get curious. I'd have thought at least one would come out to ask questions."

"Maybe they don't want to get shot." Agil took another step, and jerked a thumb toward a scorch mark halfway down the wall. "Blaster burn. Couple days old, I think. Though it doesn't look quite right."

Both Jedi started; Anton drew a sharp breath. "Blasters have changed a bit since the Sith Wars." He craned his head to peer at the faint lines radiating from the oval scorch. "Our scouts didn't mention this."

"Sure they did." Agil shrugged. "They said this place looked like trouble had come through."

Anton raised a curious brow. "And for you, trouble normally includes blasters?"

Agil had to do a double-take. "Has for the last three years. We've got blasters. We can shoot back." He chewed that thought over. "That bother you?"

"Violence is like a storm. It can be horrible while it's happening, and the aftermath may be as exhausting as it is deadly. But sooner or later, it must pass. A wise Jedi saves his worry for more long-term problems." Bringing the speeder back to its steady course with a few light touches to the controls, Anton shook his head. "Forgive me if I am prying, Healer; but does your Order not teach younglings not to instigate bonds of their own?"

"Of course we do. But they're afraid. And most of them are orphans now." Leaving the scorch marks behind, Agnei knuckled what had to be a massive headache. "They've lost everything, Knight Gelis. Home, parents, masters. The clearers may not be fully trained, but they have a Jedi's will to protect. They feel safe." She sighed. "I didn't expect this. I should have."

Agil glanced between the two full Jedi, putting the pieces together. "Bonds? You're talking about Force bonds, right?"

Anton raised a curious brow. "You've heard of them?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know; I'm as strong in the Force as your average tree," Agil grinned at him. "But I've heard some. Kirito sacked out in my shop once in a while, and almost everybody in the clearers and midlevels dropped by. They needed to talk. And I'm a good listener." He shrugged. "Force bonds are part of what masters use to train apprentices, right? A link in the Force, so you know if the other guy's getting in trouble. Carries feelings; sometimes even thoughts." He glanced at Agnei. "You want honest, I used to think that was a little creepy. But after the third time somebody shows up out of the blue to save your butt when you had no way of getting a message out? Eh, it grows on you."

The healer looked surprised, and faintly pleased. "Your average tree?"

"Long as your average tree's not a Neti, yeah." Agil picked his next words carefully. "I got the picture that those bonds were about family, too. That's why you're worried about your kids. They're hurting, and we're here; and you don't know us."

Sighing, Agnei lowered her hand. "I do know most of you are very good people."

"Yeah?" Damn it, he did not want to stick his nose into a family mess. But... Kirito. The kid would never let him go into a boss fight without backup. Agil wasn't going to leave him hanging. "If you think we're good people, how come you're keeping Suguha busy anywhere her brother isn't?"

Agnei gave him a measuring look, as if she could use the Force to poke all the way to his bones.

She probably can. So? Agil matched her, stare for stare.

"It has nothing to do with you as players." Agnei measured her words out like flecks of spice. "It's... personal. To the Kirigayas."

Oh yeah. This was going to be a mess. Agil let a breath sigh out. "Personal have anything to do with why he never calls himself a Jedi?"

Agnei winced.

"Ma'am, if it weren't for the Black Swordsman and the Lightning Flash, none of us would be alive," Agil stated. "We'd cleared maybe three-quarters of the systems. The Sith were retreating, but we knew it'd just take one slip for them to take us all out. And we'd just lost fourteen clearers." He had to pause, just for a moment. It hurt. And it was going to hurt a lot more, as soon as they had time to stop and think.

Focus. Give them the important stuff. "We were this close to all dropping over the edge." Agil tried not to shiver. "Forget falling to the Dark Side. We damn near jumped off the cliff. We gave everything our best shot, and a third of us died. And there were - space, at least a hundred planets still left to search. We couldn't do it. We were out of options. Out of hope. Out of time."

He felt Anton's eyes on him. Watching.

"By this time I can pretty much spot when the Force is pushing something," Agil stated. "It's no accident that we woke up in time to get the kids out. And you can thank Kirito for that, too. He yanked out a hunch, and he was right." He glanced into the speeder, where chestnut nestled next to black. "Those two beat the Sith Lord. They cleared the game for all of us." Agil softened his voice. "Lady, he's my friend. If he's in trouble, I want to help."

Agnei blew out a breath, obviously considering how much of what truth to tell.

Okay, let's cut that off at the pass. "You don't have to tell me much," Agil shrugged. "Kirito likes to keep things private. All part of that mysterious stranger in black thing he's got going. Just - if something's going to hurt him, clue me in."

"You really are his friend," the healer murmured. "Force knows, Kazuto needs one." She drummed fingers against her thigh, thinking. "For the past sixteen years, Kazuto Kirigaya has been at the center of one of the longest-running arguments between Masters this Enclave has ever seen."

Agil tried not to trip over his own feet. Say what?

"Mind you, it was a very quiet argument," Agnei went on. "But it was serious, Suguha had her chosen side, and she doesn't like to be wrong."

Agil blinked, adding the time up in his head. Sixteen years? He'd have sworn Kirito wasn't more than seventeen. Eighteen, tops. "Um..."

"He really didn't tell you." Some of the tension slumped out of Agnei's shoulders, but she looked more resigned than relieved. "Then I will. Hopefully we won't come off too badly." The healer looked past him, into memory. "The Kirigayas have been Corellians for... oh, over a century now. But Kazuto was born on Humbarine."

Agil tried not to whistle. That was more history than he'd gotten out of Kirito in years.

"Knight Aoi Kirigaya had gone there as part of the Corellian trade delegation," Agnei went on. "She met a brilliant young slicer, one thing led to another... and when Kazuto was old enough for easy space travel, they decided to come back to the Enclave." A muscle in her jaw jumped. "They never made it to Corellia."

Agil took in that focused anger, and put it together with one of the few times he'd seen Kirito come close to losing it. "Space pirates." He still remembered a do-or-die run on Laughing Coffin's battleship, damn. "No wonder he hated spaceflight."

Agnei's nod was tight and choppy. "A tramp freighter happened to come out of a jump close enough to catch the distress call a week later. The captain admitted later he was mostly thinking about salvage. The way the ship had been blown... they didn't expect to find life signs."

Agil winced. "But they found two."

"No. They found one."

Agil's jaw dropped. "But - his sister-"

"Ears," Anton advised, covering his own.

The rattling wasn't loud, but it was penetrating; air and what sounded like fist-sized chunks of ceracrete knocking through the ventilation system somewhere above. Agil grimaced, and redoubled his visual sweep of the surroundings as they quick-marched past. The noise might be covering their movement, but it'd cover anything else, too.

Assuming there's anything else left. Hive species don't leave outlying areas unpatrolled. If the Selonians aren't keeping an eye on us, something went really wrong for them.

Which didn't mean something was going to go wrong for his fellow players. Whatever it was could have just hit and moved on.

Yeah. Right. Since when do we get that lucky?

"Kazuto was adopted as Suguha's brother," Agnei said, as they made their way past the racket. "Midori Kirigaya and her family took in her sister's son, once he could come home from the hospital. Which took a while; the freighter crew had to sedate him to get him into a lifepod, and - well. He was a mess."

Anton had sat up straight at sedate. Agil gave him an evil eye. "What?"

The Corsucanti Jedi cleared his throat. "I believe our healer is getting to that."

Agnei gave him a look askance. "So you know?"

"I've had reasons to investigate odd effects on midichlorian counts. Very toothy reasons," Anton observed. "Agil, if someone ever invites you to visit Felucia, find an urgent reason to be elsewhere. Flesh-eating bacteria, trees that fall on you to try and eat you, rancors as just part of the food chain... it makes Kashyyyk look positively friendly."

Agil smirked. "I thought Jedi were supposed to honor and respect all manifestations of the Living Force."

"I most certainly respect Felucia's," Anton said dryly. "Next time, I'm bringing a flamethrower."

Not going to laugh. Not going to...

"Though I might not have mentioned that to Master Yoda." Anton coughed. "Once the boy's identity had been ascertained, you checked his records and noticed a discrepancy?"

"I wish. I wasn't the healer in charge of his case," Agnei stated. "I'd like to think I wouldn't have missed the obvious, but-" She spread empty hands. "The records were missing or destroyed. Master Seta Kirigaya, Kazuto's grandfather, had a fresh test done, to see if the boy should be taken into training." She gave Anton her own evil look. "As you've guessed, he didn't pass."

Agil looked between them. Pointedly rested his gaze on the black-haired kid who'd taken down Kayaba.

"This might be regarded as heresy by some of the Council Masters, but the midichlorian test isn't quite the gold standard most might think," Anton informed him. "You have to dig for the information in rather odd corners, but... bluntly? Anesthesia and sedation can knock down a count quite a bit."

Oh, hell. "The Enclave missed him," Agil stated.

"And that's when the argument started." Agnei sighed. "At the time, Thai Golia was only a Knight. But he had the nerve to argue anyone with as much luck as Kazuto ought to be taught anyway."

That name, Agil knew. Hard to forget a frantic girl screaming it in his ear. "Suguha's master thought her brother ought to get trained?"

"Thai was her master from the time she was eight," Agnei corrected him. "Midori is a determined and intelligent woman, but she's no stronger in the Force than your friend Klein. Seta taught Suguha from the time she was born."

And now he knew why Agnei had a headache. "Ma'am? We've got a problem."

"I noticed," the healer said wryly.

Anton was flicking glances toward both of them, even as he steered the speeder around the next corner in the tunnel gently enough not to jostle an egg. "I'm sorry, I don't understand...?"

"That is one advantage of Coruscanti traditions," Agnei said wryly. "You generally don't have to deal with sibling rivalry."

"Everybody on Corellia dreams about green robes when they're a kid," Agil filled in the bewildered Jedi. "Jedi versus vicious space pirates! Vroom, slice. And Sugu grew up knowing she was going to be a Jedi. Kirito-"

"He was going to be a CorSec slicer, like his mother," Agnei stated. "Or perhaps a corporate negotiator, like his father. Though of the two, Master Seta preferred CorSec... Why are people stopping?"

"Don't know." Agil frowned at the thickening crowd ahead of them. "Man, what I wouldn't give for some Instant Comms. Wait; somebody's coming back here... Schmidt?"

The Divine Dragon trooper nodded at him, then gave Agnei a serious look. "Healer. There's a split in the tunnels ahead."

Agnei stared at him. Pulled a mini-map out of her pouch, activating the holo to be sure. "There's no split in the tunnels!"

Schmidt traded a rueful look with Agil; the maps of legend don't show all of the dungeon. What else is new? "There is now."


A/N: Rakghouls are pretty much the SW equivalent of infectious zombies; the result of a Sith bioweapon that turns beings into mindless mutants. The original outbreak occurred on the planet Taris, but they also supposedly lived (live? That'd be an eep.) on Coruscant. Given this critter first appeared in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, our heroes have met them.

...And this is why anyone who survived ORO would have a bone-deep understanding of Sith as bad news.

Of course non-Jedi can have Force talents. Han Solo got the universe to bend in just the right direction how many times?

Sedation and anesthesia suppressing midichlorian counts is EU canon. It's explicitly stated that if a high midichlorian count had to be preserved, people would be operated on without them. Ouch. And now we know why Jedi need healing trances. A lot.

For anyone who really wants to know the crystals Lisbeth's thinking of... here's some bare-bones, there's more detail on Wookiepedia.

Barab ore ingots are found in every color, and produce a clear blade that burns almost to the point of losing cohesion.

Chandrilian obsidian - not canon, but Chandrila has Jedi tombs, so the planet being a source of lightsaber crystals would be likely.

Eralam crystals produce a clear, superior lightsaber beam.

Permafrost crystals, from Hoth, give the blade an icy blue color.

And Firkrann crystals would be in the restricted section, where they could be studied by the Enclave's swordmasters. They're noted to be used specifically by the Dark Lords of the Sith... they're compatible with Force Lightning.