IV

"At least it's still got a roof," said Asha

Ruen glanced with disdain around at the small room. Its sloped ceiling and trap door made it look like an attic; however, its original identity had been as a café servicing factory workers before or after their shifts. It retained a curved countertop and some damaged chairs. As with most of the Works, it was sealed well against dust and life forms—excepting those who had the Force and lock-picking skills—and was absent from the mind of whoever had once officially owned it.

Ruen had moved everything that she or Asha owned to this location a few days beforehand. She considered it lucky that they did not have a lot to move to begin with. No one would know that they had changed locations. And if the new place were uncomfortably close to the supposed nexus of the Sith…all the better.

"Now we get to build you a lightsaber," said Ruen, finally settling down on a box.

"A what?"

Ruen replied, exasperated, "A glowy sword."

"Oh, right."

Ruen placed Nlak's halved lightsaber on the countertop. "Are you any good with mechanical things?"

"No."

"Okay, that's fine. I'll take care of the wiring. You need to keep your fingers away from what I'm doing and work on using the Force." Carefully she extracted two crystal shards from the lightsaber, one from each half. "While we're on the subject, have you ever used a vibroblade?"

"No."

"Okay. You'll just provide the soundtrack for any battles we get in for the next week or so…here." She dropped the shards into Asha's cupped hands.

"I can do that!" said Asha excitedly.

"I was being sarcastic."

"Oh."

"A crystal matrix is a simple physical structure to manipulate with the Force. It's tiny, but repetitive. It doesn't move while you're trying to work on it. I want you to focus on this. Close your eyes. Feel it—hear it, whatever. Go beyond the visible and into the integral."

"What's integral?"

"Essential. You know that word right?"

"I think so." She looked down at the crystals. "They're humming."

"Wonderful." Ruen squinted at two tiny wires she was examining. "Are they humming anything specific?"

"It's not the Republic Anthem."

"You get a point for sarcasm. Now. Do they—"

"This one wants to attack. And this one wants to defend."

That gave Ruen pause. She set her wires down and peered at Asha with the same scrutiny. That's interesting. "They're incomplete. You should feel…the rough edges. Physically, that needs to be rebuilt so the energy is channeled properly. Do you get that…impression?"

"Not really."

"Fine! Try this then." Ruen, frustrated by what she could not understand, held the half of a hilt that she had out to Asha. "Here's the power pack, sorta like for a blaster. Put the crystal half—"

"Which one?"

"Ah…the less aggressive one. We don't want it blowing up on us. Put it here, over the…this yellow part."

Asha set the asymmetrical shard into the ragged-edged slot. It did not fit perfectly, but did touch the required points. Ruen turned and placed the second half of the lightsaber's battered shell over the crystal and power circuits, then sealed it with a few loops of electrical tape, which she had found on someone's porch. She handed the completed, shortened hilt to Asha. "Turn it on."

The musician examined the hilt and slid the activation button up. A half-length lightsaber blade appeared, humming faintly. In color it was so dark an orange as to be almost red. "Why did it change color?"

Ruen didn't really know the answer. So she made something up. "The lightsaber reflects the nature of its owner. You're darker than Nlak. And shorter."

Asha seemed to accept that logic. "But he was blue."

"It's not about your skin! Mace Windu had this ridiculous purple lightsaber…but you wouldn't know him."

"Is he human? I suppose purple would be pretty funny for a human."

Ruen hunched over the bar, looking at the second half of the lightsaber and trying to form a coherent response to her unofficial apprentice's strange comment. The second half would be harder, as it did not have its own power source or activation bar. She could scrounge those things, though. The hard task would be teaching Asha some swordplay.

---)----------

They stood in the middle of the room, legendary weapons in their hands. Ruen did not entirely know how to teach. She wished for the practice lightsabers they had used in the temple, which would administer a nasty burn to their victim, but not maim them. She said, "Let's see what you can do with those."

She activated her green blade and took a swing at Asha.

"Ah!!" Asha ducked and practically ran away.

"Ah…" Ruen stood there. "Yeah. I…" should probably teach her how to block.

But I barely remember when we began this stuff.

Blocks.

"Come here," she said. "I'll teach you to defend yourself. Lines of defense. One, two, three," She moved her lightsaber through the different positions. "Do that with the… you know, the one that wants to defend."

Asha copied her hesitantly. "What do I do with this one?" She waved the lightsaber in her back hand.

"Keep it up. Ready to attack. Ok?"

Asha nodded.

Ruen carefully brought her lightsaber toward Asha's and the musician touched her own against it in stiff versions of the eight blocks. "Ok…"

They worked for a time on this. And Ruen realized that Asha was not going to make progress quickly. No student was unable to be taught. But Asha was unable to be taught by impatient Ruen at this moment. They repeated the sequence of blocks, but Asha's control of the blade was nonexistent.

"Ow!" Asha staggered backward as her arm came into contact with Ruen's blade – not enough to cut, but enough to leave a serious burn.

"You were supposed to block! It's a simple four-parry!"

"You didn't tell me that!"

Ruen growled and switched off her blade. She looked at Asha's arm, which was beginning to redden. "You'll need a bacta patch for that. Which means I have to go out and get it…" She muttered.

"What's bacta? Sound's painful." She rubbed her arm and grimaced. "Can't you just use the Force to fix this?"

"You don't know what bacta is? Blue gooey stuff, heals? Whatever. I don't know how to heal with the Force," she replied curtly. "I'll go out." She picked up a jacket from beside the door and looked for a second to see whether Asha was going to make any comments. It angered her that her student was doing so poorly, but she was not going to leave the kid with a burnt arm. That wouldn't be efficient. She thought about where she could get cheap bacta. It would be very hard to steal the stuff, as it would be kept at pharmacies or hospitals, or in people's cabinets. Despite the fact that she was getting good at it, Ruen wasn't keen on breaking into someone's apartment during the day.

Asha stared at Ruen's back as the older girl walked away, still wondering idly if bacta was going to be painful. Of course, even if it was, it probably wouldn't hurt any more than her arm already did. Now that the shock was wearing away, she could feel the steady throbbing as blood rushed to the area.

Out of instinct, she drew the Force into her body and tried to focus it along the painful track that the blade had left. It came surprisingly easy – well, maybe not all that surprising. She realized now that on the many nights when she'd played until her fingers were raw and bleeding that she must have drawn on the Force to block the pain then too, even if she hadn't known it by that name.

She cast another look around the abandoned room, looking for a corner or a shadow she could tuck herself into. She had no idea how long it would take to find bacta, or when Ruen would be coming back. Quietly, she drew her violin out of its case and – very gently, so she didn't further injure her arm – set it under her chin and put the bow to the strings. One long note, then a second… it was slightly out of tune, and she spent a few moments adjusting the pegs before returning to the music.

Then she slipped into trance, drawing the now-familiar power around her like a blanket as she played.

---)----------

There was no warning. All of a sudden, there was another presence playing on the edges of her consciousness. It probed cautiously, as though it were confused by her. She sent out a tentative reply through the Force, and felt him – it was definitely a male presence – withdraw quickly, before she could see further into his mind.

The last note faded into silence; she opened her eyes, and found herself staring at the boots of a tall, thin, red-and-black alien. Very slowly, her gaze traveled upward until she met his. She tried a small smile.

He glowered.

It was at this point that Ruen returned. Asha heard the thud of a bag of groceries hitting the floor, and jerked her gaze away from the intruder's to look around his legs at the doorway. Ruen was staring, shock written all over her face, but also a definite excitement and…the music that Asha associated with her mentor had spiked, suddenly careening into a major key and an incredibly fast pace. Wasn't expecting that, Asha thought.

The intruder turned to look at Ruen. His melody was a quiet one, a menace in the low winds. "You are not wanted here. The rule of two, one Sith master and one apprentice, must be upheld."

"Ah," Ruen felt for the bag she had dropped, without lowering her gaze. Asha set down her violin in a relatively safe corner and inched toward her lightsabers, which lay discarded on the bar. The intruder sounded…restrained, like a dog on a leash; eager to fight in ways unlike either the street fights of her youth or the formal lethality of lightsaber combat. His Force presence repelled and frightened her, as he wished it to.

Oh.This is the dark side.

Ruen fought for words for a moment, then picked up the bag and carried it toward the countertop as if she were alone. "Ah, the rule of two means nothing to me. I am powerful. Enough to seize the Sith by their throats if I wished. Your master can't see that. But…"

"Do not doubt the wisdom of my master!" He said, still quietly. Asha's hands found the lightsaber hilts and she raised them in the guard she had been taught. Even if the only weapons she had were those that frustrated her and matched the blisters on her hands, she would fight—she activated the shoto blades. The Sith waved one hand toward her. She crashed into the side of the counter, undamaged but for surface pain on her back—and feeling very out of her league.

Ruen had abandoned her shopping bag and approached the Sith with her lightsaber in hand. "Don't push my apprentice! What's your name?"

He raised his head a bit but did not appear to want to answer at first; Asha stood up and moved toward Ruen. The Sith said, "I am Darth Maul."

"And your master?" asked Ruen eagerly.

"He is too busy for you," said Darth Maul. He glared at her—passively, if a glare could be described as such, but it seemed that his eyes always held that intensity-- and she looked back, her conflicting emotions cascading one after another, tinkling like glass shattered on the ground. Fear stood out, so powerfully that even Asha's newborn senses could easily perceive it. Ruen had faced this man before.

"But he sent you to kill me."

"He did not. I found you by accident. The Sith reside in this place. You are at their doorstep."

She did not reply, although she tried.

He moved toward the door. His gloved hand strayed to the silver lightsaber hilt at his side. "My master has given me no reason to kill you," he said roughly. "I trust that you won't either."

After the trapdoor shut behind him Ruen surged toward the door; lightsaberless she nevertheless seemed to attack. "We'll stay!" She shouted, voice cracking. "Vape the Sith Master, if all he sends us is…" But the rant died down into a murmur, a suggestion of fear, when she got to the part about the shadowy master. She sat down on a nearby stool and the music inside her trembled and crescendoed, angry and confused. Asha approached and put a hand on Ruen's shoulder.

"Bacta?" She asked, once she had Ruen's attention.

Ruen got up and pulled a small box out of the bag. She unwrapped it to reveal a cloth with blue gel attached to it. "Wrap this around your arm." She handed it to Asha.

Asha eyed the blue goo suspiciously.