III

Kit had only a moment to draw in breath for a fight, and to smirk, before Asajj Ventress turned and ran.

She hurtled across the room on the wings of the Force and slapped a control panel that opened onto a narrow, wooden stairway. She disappeared up the stairs, a blur of gray in the dimness sharpened by her neon-scarlet lightsabers, and Kit dashed up after her.

A flat roof was a rarity on Coruscant. Most structures were built up until gravity had to be fought to build them higher, and then capped with a plane or slope. That was the modern style, and it allowed for spacious views that increased an apartment or condominium's value. But this building was old, and now with the skyhook hanging over it like an executioner's blade it would never be changed. Its roof was an expanse of tile-patterned flowstone studded with a few pipes that billowed smoke into the evening air. Ventress spun across the tiles, settling her lightsabers into an upright guard, and Kit ran after her, tendrils flaring in a sunburst out from his skull.

They closed and clashed, one lightsaber flashing up and down before Ventress brought her second around—Kit ducked that slash and dodged to the side. Ventress chopped down at the outstretched leg the dodge left unguarded. Kit tucked the leg in and, with a twist impossible for a bony human arm and spine, struck at her back. She blocked it with one crimson blade and a flip of her elbow.

Kit had come too close to one of the venting pipes. He half-stifled a scream as the scalding heat struck his headtails and the small of his back. He Force-pushed the steam against Ventress' face and retreated from the pipe, leaving the combatants separated by almost a meter. Ventress seemed dazed by the heat, and spat like an angry cat as she moved out of its path. Kit realized with a belated shock that her far saber had cut through not only his cloak, so useful a distraction from the location of his body, but his tunic and no more than an inch of the muscle of his side as well. The pain began to register as a sharp burning.

Ventress careened through the smoke, screaming a battle cry. The Force painted an opening in the maelstrom of her lightsabers for Kit to take, and he slammed a bladed hand under her ribs and struck her across the knuckles with the hilt of his lightsaber before she regained her poise. One of her weapons clattered to the ground and deactivated with a hiss. She spun to face him, wrathful as a frightened cat, and they fought back toward the stairwell. Halfway there, she called her lost lightsaber back to her hand and the attack's ferocity redoubled.

She nearly had him cornered against the wall of the small, square structure that protected the stairwell when he angled away and her back hit the wall. Kit tensed, his lightsaber diagonal between them, threatening her neck. "Why did you kidnap the child?"

The Force warned--she went to stamp on his foot and he stepped backwards. The few inches he relinquished allowed her to jump straight up and flip backwards. She landed crouched on the roof of the stairwell, too skinny to be a cat—a spider.

Ventress smiled, and it was warm and human. "I did it to be seen." She spread her arms, looked around, cackled at her own dramatic effect. "If there aren't news cameras on us now, there will be soon. They'll see us disturbing the peace. They'll see your friend, climbing the wall of a private residence. You Jedi are such nuisances to people just trying to have a quiet life." Again a smile, blatantly cruel now. "My master wants the Jedi Order exposed for what it is—paragons of goodness reduced to killers hired for the Republic. Hypocrites. Thieves of children."

The girl dropped into Quinlan's arms at the same time as the grappling hook caught the wall. His descent stopped whip-lashingly fast. He heard lightsabers ignited in the room above.

The Nautolan girl was heavy, and she was writhing, her body and headtails lashing against his chest while he tried to get one arm solidly under her legs so that she didn't fall further. "Calm down!" he growled close to her face, not even sure where the ears on a Nautolan were—she shuddered and screamed a few times, but then stilled and clutched at his shoulders. Before he lost any initial adrenaline he began climbing the line, walking up the building. He pushed the Nautolan over the windowsill and then climbed in after her. She got to her feet quickly.

Kit and Ventress had moved on, up a flight of stairs and out onto the roof. "Wait here," he said, and started up the stairs.

Before he had gone up four steps the top third of the stairwell exploded. Shrapnel and gray dust pelted his forearms instinctively thrown up in front of his face. A spike of pain flashed out from Kit's Force presence.

Quinlan retreated to the window he had come through and prepared to throw the grappling hook again and ascend to the roof via the outside of the building.

The girl said, "I want to come with you."

He looked back at her. "Nekai, right? No. This is dangerous."

"I don't want to be a damsel in distress—"

"And I don't want you to be killed." He activated his lightsaber, waved the green blade in front of her face, and she backed away. "The woman that kept you here has a couple of these and thermal detonators too, from the sound of it. This isn't your time to be a hero." He sheathed the lightsaber and went back to throwing the line; it sunk into the wall just below the roof a few meters above.

Nekai did not reply, and Quinlan began to climb the line.

'You stole this child, without permission.' Kit wanted to say it, but his own family rose unbidden in his thoughts, their faces and scents so similar to his own, and trapped his words.

He could not count the mothers—the fathers!—who cried when their infant was taken away, their only recompense safety from their offspring's uncontrolled Force powers, and Republic credits if they asked for them.

Ventress gave him no more time to think. He had been in reverie, or else Kit would have noticed her pull a thermal detonator from her belt and dial down its power setting.

She said, "Coruscant will know of the mess the Jedi have made." She dropped the little scuffed-silver sphere and jumped.

Kit leapt away in the opposite direction. The explosion was very small, only collapsing half of the stairwell shed. Kit began to move again as soon as the detritus cleared from the air.

The Nautolan equivalent of endorphins were buoying Kit up now. Despite his shallow wounds, he recognized an opportunity to taunt Ventress and took it. They were on the opposite side of the stairwell from where they had started, among almost head-high storage containers. Kit ran past the narrow pathways between the crates, giving Ventress a swift smile when he saw her stalking along opposite him. They were almost at the end of the cluster of crates.

She rasped, "Your loyalty to the Jedi is ridiculous."

It's only Dun Moch. "Maybe so," he said, and he dashed between the last two boxes and launched a flying kick that buckled Ventress' knee. Her lightsabers' low buzz, like the violent snap of scissors, whooshed over his head, nearly drowning out his reply—"but it's so much fun!" as he ducked, then pivoted to protect his body with his saber arm. They traded strikes, fear digging into her Force sense as elation flooded his.

This would be a mission he could remember with pride—a fight on a rooftop with Ventress—what an adventure!

Quinlan's presence glowed, dim but becoming more clear every moment. Ventress and Kit traded two more blows, the dark Jedi driving Kit backwards. Then Ventress looked down as Quinlan's green lightsaber sank to the hilt in the ground beside her foot. He pulled himself onto the roof before the green neon blade could shear out of the material horizontally, and stepped toward Ventress, lightsaber low but menacing.

"You're out numbered," Kit said with a smile.

Quinlain said, "You won't get back to the girl alive."

Ventress sneered, "I've completed my mission," she said, and she pulled out and primed a second thermal detonator.

Before the Jedi could react, she threw it; not at them, but down into the ally on Kit's right, the scene of the kidnapping. Both Kit and Quinlan thrust out their hands to catch it with the Force. It stopped in midair ten levels down—and exploded there, shattering every window that looked onto the ally. In a flash, Ventress glanced behind her and kicked Quinlan, slamming the ball of her foot against his sternum. Then she jumped away, farther than would be possible for one without the Force, through the haze of smoke released by the detonator and landed like a gray shadow on a ledge on the building across the alley. She ran for one of the adjacent streets; surely, thought, Kit, she was headed for a speeder.

Quinlan looked gruff as he moved to the edge of the roof; Ventress' kick had doubled him over. "Let's go get what we came here for."

"Troubled you look, Master Fisto. Unusual this is, hmm?"

Kit looked reverently to where Grand Master Yoda stood beside him on the steps of the Great Temple. The yellow Coruscant sunset cast long shadows from the towering statues of Jedi past. Kit, Quinlan, and Yoda stood on the stairs with Nekai Fisto a few paces away out of earshot, waiting for her family, the necklace that Quinlan had handed over to her held tightly in one fist.

"Ventress got what she wanted," Kit replied.

Yoda tipped his head like a bird, looking for clarification. His eyes, wise and silent as the depths of space, almost prevented him from looking comical.

"She told me that the purpose of the kidnapping was to implicate the Jedi in disturbing the peace. And it did just that; newscamera droids gravitated to the explosions and saw part of the fight. We may be billed as heroes, but nevertheless, common citizens see property destruction in what we did. HoloNet editorials say that we ought have let Coruscant police negotiate."

"Blind are those without the Force," Yoda said. "And cunning is the Sith. A dangerous bid for public support this was, and succeeded it did."

"That doesn't mean that Coruscanti will start rooting for the CIS," Quinlan said.

Yoda shook his head. "It does not. But none so simple is the Sith's plan, I think."

Kit did not have time to ask why a Sith, always shadowy figures who saw non-Force-users as slaves or beings entirely below their notice, would bother garnering the support of the Coruscanti commoners. The Fisto family approached among the statues, Aning's head held high and straight, while Karef looked up in awe at the Temple, much closer now than tourists were allowed to get. Investigator Wakani accompanied them, a datapad in her blue hand and a demure expression on her face.

Nekai broke any potentially awkward no-man's land between the two groups by running forward and throwing herself into the arms of her mother. Aning's eyes when they rose from Nekai's shoulder were rainbow-colored like oil spilled over pavement; the Nautolan equivalent of a human crying who does not know whether it is crying for happiness or woe.

Karef exuded enough gratitude that Kit almost expected an embrace himself. Yoda gestured Investigator Wakani away for a moment to talk about something, and tugged Quinlan along with him, leaving Kit nominally alone with the family when they finished their intense reunion with Nekai.

His family. He had little doubt of it now. Sight and smell and the Force told him something about the four of them being together, something without words. It was right for them to be here.

"I don't know how we could ever thank you," Aning said, the Force giving the flavor of human tears to her Nautolan-rainbow eyes.

"No need." Kit gave a dimmed, polite and fake smile. In a way, he wanted to go home with them, to see what their lives were like.

Karef said, "You were as loyal and good as any brother she could hope to have."

Or any son we could hope to have, sang the Force, but Aning quietly asked Kit, "What is your first name?"

Tensely he told her, and to his great surprise, all of them quietly laughed once the single syllable had passed his lips. Kit let his confusion show.

"That's a child's name!" Nekai said shamelessly, giggling. "From before its mother knows what to call it!"

Aning slipped her hand onto Nekai's shoulder, blue between green headtails. Nervously Nekai shifted, parting her headtails into their usual two groups. "He doesn't know that," Aning chided. "He was given to the Jedi early." Then the Nautolan woman looked at Kit. She said, "You weren't raised right." And for a moment Kit thought she would demand he go back to Glee Anselm with her, even as grown as he was. But the Jedi would not allow that, and however sure of her connection to Kit Aning Fisto was, she knew that too. "You don't get enough open water."

And then Yoda was there at Kit's side, looking up and taking the family's attention. "An appropriate name it is. Laughs, Kit does, as often as a child. Laughs Quinlan does, as often as a stone!"

The Fistos laughed good-naturedly, a bit surprised that the Jedi Grand Master had a sense of humor. Nekai's smile had an element of I can't wait to tell my schoolmates I know two Jedi Knights' names in it.

It did not appear that Kit was going to be given any more time along with the family. It was formal after that, bows and thank yous and handshakes. Kit met his mother's eyes as she turned away, but she turned nonetheless. Anger prickled at Karef's Force sense, but he would say nothing. They had talked about this. Nekai's thin shoulders were proudly set.

The Force threatened to fling Kit into their presences, to bury him in the distractions of their lives, but Yoda said, "We do not let younglings see their parents not because we are cruel, but because we want them to be old enough to understand that good can come from hardship…"

Fin.