Author's Note: At last, the long-awaited finale of Gravity! The first chapter of the sequel, Cover, will be up soon. Let me know what you think!

Disclaimer: In a shocking story today, it was revealed that ... George Lucas owns Star Wars!!! Insider sources also hint that DestructiveGlory is not receiving any profit from her works of fanfiction.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

In an all-too-familiar cold white room in the Halls of Healing, Anakin sat leaning over Ryn's bedside with one of her hands wrapped in both of his. Her eyelids fluttered, wincing away from the light, and then she squinted up at him, regaining focus. "Hey."

Her voice was cracked and rusty, and quite possibly the best sound Anakin had ever heard.

He felt the smile break across his face. "Hey."

He reached for a cup of water and held it to her lips. "You know, we have to stop meeting like this."

Ryn sipped and lay back. Her eyes were closed again, but the warmth of her smile banished the cold fear that had been coiled inside Anakin's chest ever since he had found her lying battered on a durasteel floor. "I'll do my best."

"I mean it," Anakin told her. "No more dramatic near-death scenes for at least a month. Maybe two."

Ryn snuggled deeper into her pillow. "Whatever you say."

"Just don't scare me like that again, ever."

Ryn tried to reach for the water with her free left hand and Anakin let go her right to help her sit up against the pillows before handing her the cup.

She watched him over the rim as she sipped, and patted the bedside in invitation.

"What about the Blades of Light?" she asked as he sat down carefully on the edge of the medical bed.

Anakin stroked her side through the sheet with the sheet with the backs of his fingers. So much damage ... "Evinne says they're wiped out. None of them were willing to surrender. She had the Raven Guard -- that's the Lorethan mercenary team she called in after we got a look at the hideout -- performed some pretty thorough sweeps of the area, just to be sure no one got away."

"The Raven Guard," Ryn repeated. "So I didn't hallucinate that gunship. But I don't think I know them."

"Apparently they specialize in hostage extraction," Anakin said. "They hire themselves out to wealthy families whose children have been kidnapped. And don't tell Obi-Wan, but I think they might have a few less legitimate occupations on the side."

"That ought to sit well with the Council."

Anakin shrugged. "I don't see how we could have done it without them. We almost didn't make it."

"But we did." Ryn touched the still-healing pink mark on his right forearm. "What's that?"

"Shrapnel," Anakin said. "I didn't feel it at the time."

Ryn traced it one more time before meeting his eyes. "I'd thank you for saving my life, but I'm still too mad at you for not leaving like I asked."

Anakin picked up a lock of long, glossy black hair and twirled it around his fingers. "I can live with that."

A soft sound of swishing cloth alerted him, and Anakin turned his head in time to catch Vokara Che's regal entrance.

"Awake, I see," she observed. "And you, Skywalker. You'd better not be tiring my patient."

But her voice lacked any real severity, and she smiled as she bent and pressed her hands to Ryn's forehead. "How do you feel?"

"Better than I have any right to expect, probably," Ryn said. "What's the diagnosis?"

"Well, you spent twenty-four hours in bacta and another twelve in a healing trance, but now..." Vokara Che stepped bak and surveyed her critically. "As far as I can tell, you're fit as a vioflute."

Ryn smiled at her. "So. Am I free to go?"

"I suppose. But I want you to get a third of a rotation of sleep tonight, drink plenty of water, and do not let me see you back any time soon."

Ryn pressed one clenched fist to her heart in an unfamiliar gesture that Anakin guessed was some sort of Lorethan salute. "Yes, m'am."

Vokara Che leveled a stern look at Anakin. "Hold her to it."

"Yes, Master Che."

He held out a hand to steady her as she got to her feet, but after the first swirl of dizziness Ryn straightened and waved him off. "I'm fine, Anakin. I just want to get back to my quarters so I can get some real clothes." She plucked at her infirmary shift in disgust.

"Oh!" Anakin said. "I almost forgot." He reached over to the chair where he'd been sitting and picked up a package, wrapped in glittering flimsi and tied with a bright blue ribbon. "Evinne asked me to bring you this. From the feel, I'm guessing it's clothes, but she was very secretive about the whole thing."

"There is a shower in the fresher, if you want to get clean first," Vokara Che said. "You still smell like bacta. I'll be down the hall, if you need anything."

Anakin seemed reluctant to leave Ryn alone to do anything so dangerous as shower, but Ryn just sighed and shook her head at him.

"You know, for someone with a reputation for recklessness, you are remarkably cautious."

There it was: the slightly sullen pout she'd been looking for. Ryn grinned to show him she was teasing and was surprised when Anakin ducked his head and looked at her with a hint of real concern in his wide blue eyes.

"You didn't see you in the transport," he said quietly. "We couldn't stop the bleeding. Even when we got to the Temple, Master Che, she ..." Anakin's voice broke and he looked away, but Ryn saw the rest of the memory in his mind:

"Young Sky -- Anakin."

Anakin met the Healer's eyes and knew it was not good news.

"We've done all we can. It is up to the will of the Force now."

Anakin wanted to protest, but he couldn't speak without crying, so he just nodded dumbly.

"You can sit with her, if you want, until ... well, until her fate is decided. I think she'd like to have you with her ... one way or the other.

Anakin walked blindly into the room Vokara Che had indicated and rested his forehead against the transparisteel of the bacta tank where Ryn floated, pale and still a little bloody. He reached out with his feelings, sensing her pain, and tried to send her waves of encouragement through the Force. He felt the barest flicker of a response and smiled. "Yeah," he said softly. "I love you, too."

Ryn remembered that moment from the other side, remembered the weight of Anakin's sorrow penetrating her sedation, remembered dredging up, with painful effort, the strength to send him a thread of affection and reassurance. And then all had gone blissfully, painlessly dark.

She put the package down now and looked at her best friend, the worrier.

"You can't lose me," she said, folding her arms and leaning one hip against the medical bed.

"I know," Anakin said, sounding miserable.

"I mean literally," Ryn said. "Even in the netherworld of the Force, I will find you."

Anakin shook his head. "When we transform into the Force, we become one with it. We lose --"

"So certain are you?" Ryn asked him, echoing Yoda with a smile. "I have glimpsed the other side, Anakin. I have seen my family there, waiting for me. As I will wait for you, if I pass through the deep water first."

She waited for Anakin to say that he would return the favor, or that he didn't believe her, or even some sort of Jedi platitude that wouldn't bring either of them any comfort, but there was nothing. He just stood silent and still, and in the end, not knowing what else to do, Ryn gave his shoulder a squeeze and went to take her shower.

The gift from Evinne did, indeed, turn out to be a set of clothes: undergarments and fitted pants with a bit of stretch and a dawora, the long-sleeved wraparound shirt frequently worn by Lorethan women off-world. There was even a clean, new utility belt.

Ryn put on all these things, and then went out into the room to find her boots sitting on the floor at the foot of the bed. Only they weren't her boots, the ones she had worn every day since coming to the Temple. They were copies, in soft black leather that hugged the curve of her calf with the gentleness of a lover's caress. Well, she guessed, anyway.

"Looks like Evinne has been busy," she remarked as she tugged them on.

"She has been worried about you," Anakin said, his voice oddly distant. "We all have."

I'm more worried about you, Ryn thought, processing his tone with concern. Anakin wasn't taking her most recent brush with death at all well. And the plain truth was that she was likely to have many more such close encounters, one of which would finally kill her. Brooding was not going to help matters, but she didn't know how to comfort him, either.

Tentatively, she reached out and touched Anakin's arm. "You okay?"

He turned to her. "I'm fine." But his face was blank and wooden, unlike the Anakin she thought she knew.

You're scaring me, Ryn thought, but aloud she said, "I think I'm ready to get out of here. Walk me back to my quarters?"

"Sure."

They headed out of the infirmary and hit the stairs, Anakin's mood casting a pall over Ryn's own.

"Anakin, I'm worried about you," she said, as they turned down the corridor to her quarters. "I don't understand. Is this still about my injuries, or is it something else? What's wrong?"

"Nothing." Anakin caught her look of disbelief and sighed. "I'm not sure," he amended. "What you said ... about death ... it goes against the teachings of the Jedi Order."

Ryn looked at him intently. "And?"

"And I'm not sure what to believe," Anakin answered, his aura still boiling with unrest. "I need to think about this."

Ryn nodded slowly. "There's more, isn't there?"

Anakin hesitated, biting his lip. "I'm not ready to tell you yet."

Ouch. "Okay," Ryn said. "I can wait. Just ... let me know if I can help, all right? When you're ready to talk, I'll be here."

Anakin knew he hadn't left Ryn very happy. She was concerned for him, and she wanted to help, to make everything all right. But she couldn't, because the problem was inside him: the fear and uncertainty that lurked in the corners of his mind, unwittingly given new strength by Ryn's innocent effort to console him. He wondered if she even knew how antithetical to the Jedi's teachings her promise to wait for him in the afterlife was. If she could begin to guess at the flood of conflicted memories her words had brought to light?

How many times had he heard Qui-Gon's voice speak to him when he was young? And Obi-Wan had insisted that it was impossible, that it was a manifestation of Anakin's own wishful thinking.

But what if Obi-Wan was wrong?

Ryn didn't understand. He wasn't upset, he was thoughtful.

Probably, Anakin thought ruefully, because she hasn't seen me do all that much thinking.

He didn't know how to explain to her that she was already doing everything anybody could, just by giving him time and space.

He felt a sudden burst of excitement in his sense of her, which must mean she had discovered the other birthday presents Evinne had left on her bed.

Her birthday. And no one bothered to tell me until this morning.

Anakin shook his head as he walked into his own quarters and picked up the gift he had made for Ryn. It was like her not to say anything, he thought. She didn't think of herself much. But it was important to celebrate the small victories with family.

Even if the family was one you'd made, rather than the one you'd been born into.

Anakin entered Ryn's quarters without knocking and found her standing at the window with her back to the door. He approached her carefully, knowing she could sense his presence but trying to hide his own anticipation.

"Evinne told me today was your birthday."

Ryn blushed faintly. "Yes."

"Thirteen?"

"Yes." Ryn's voice broke on the word.

"If I'd known," Anakin said, not bothering to hide his exasperation, "I would have gotten you a better present."

"I didn't expect anything," Ryn said, and then suddenly looked confused. "Wait ..."

Anakin felt the grin on his face as he pulled his hands out of his sleeves and clicked the pieces together before handing them to her as a single unit.

Ryn accepted it with graceful fingers and turned it over in her hands, clearly puzzled. "I ... thank you. What is it?"

"A holocam," Anakin said. "I made it out of some spare droid parts. It's -- I thought, you could take holos to send home to your family. You can read holos on it, too, so if Kit sends you some, you could have them to look at ..."

Ryn pressed a hand to her mouth, blinking away what Anakin was dismally sure were tears.

"You don't like it?" Anakin asked, racking his brain for where he might have gone wrong.

Ryn finally looked up at him, a smile turning the tears to gems glittering on her cheeks in a heartbeat. "I love it," she assured him huskily. "It's perfect."

The tight knot of worry beneath Anakin's ribcage began to dissolve. "I wish I'd known sooner, I could have made you something better."

"I didn't want anything," Ryn said, and he knew it was true, but it didn't matter.

"It's your thirteenth birthday," he reminded her. "You should have something."

All I want is for you to kiss me.

Ryn shook her head and started to speak, but then she saw that Anakin had picked up her thought, and she fell silent, her cheeks staining a deep vermillion. Anakin could feel her humiliation, potent as a drug, making her miserable; she wouldn't meet his eyes.

That wasn't right. It wasn't right for her to hurt like this.

"Well," Anakin said, drawing the word out with a teasing smile, "I guess I could give you one more thing."

Ryn did look up then, eyes wide and startled, shaking her head wordlessly.

"Close your eyes," Anakin murmured.

He cupped Ryn's face in his hands, meeting those sparkling green eyes for just a second before she obeyed him and he let his gaze fan out to study the rest of her face as he hadn't taken the time to do before: not just as his friend, but as a beautiful woman. Delicate, sharply defined features, clear pale skin that seemed almost to luminesce: there was a lot to like, but he liked it more because it was Ryn.

He lowered his mouth slowly to hers, giving her time to break away if she really wanted to, but Ryn held as still as if frozen.

She was stiff and still, resistant; but Anakin swept his lips over hers once, twice, again -- not forceful but insistent, and then suddenly her lips parted on a sigh and she let him in.

And because it was Ryn, she gave him everything without question, nothing held back, and Anakin could feel the flutter of her heartbeat in her throat against his fingertips as she swayed closer, closing the gap between them, and tilted her head back, letting him take the kiss deeper.

Anakin tangled one hand in Ryn's silky hair and slid the other down to her waist, pulling her closer still. He heard himself moan and felt a brief flash of embarrassment, quickly replaced by a rush of heat when Ryn answered him with a soft little cry of pleasure that tightened his groin and made his blood thunder like surf in his ears. She twined the fingers of one hand in his short curls and kissed him back, hot and reckless, abandoning her hard-won restraint as though it had never mattered, as though she'd never really cared for anything but this kiss. She had no idea what she was doing -- and neither did Anakin -- but the sweet, wild desire she was no longer ruthlessly denying more than made up for her lack of experience. It was a revelation, and a gift, and Anakin took it with both hands.

The galaxy outside held complications -- Anakin's own feelings for Padmé, waiting but always there, and the problems of attachment, and the brief and bitter tragedy of loss that was Ryn's life so far, and a thousand other things. But inside the kiss, there was only Anakin and Ryn and the sweet spring of love and passion and friendship and loyalty and heady desire that surged up, obliterating the boundaries between them and sealing the horrors of the galaxy outside.

Anakin unwound his fingers from Ryn's hair and slid both hands to her hips to press their bodies more tightly together. Ryn's wordless moan of appreciation vibrated through to his core, and Anakin nudged her knees apart with his, mindless with the need to get closer, and pulled her up on to her toes and felt her shudder and rock against him.

Another time, Anakin would have been embarrassed beyond words to know that Ryn couldn't possibly not feel his physical response. Here and now, since Ryn's only reaction to this ill-mannered intrusion was to press herself more urgently against him, he decided to take it as a sign that she didn't mind and only took her mouth harder, gasping for air and yet unwilling to pull back to breathe.

He was so busy discovering the joys of slipping his fingers beneath the edge of Ryn's waistband -- every time he brushed the sensitive skin over her hipbones, he could feel her tremble and clutch deep in her core, and it felt like Podracing, every tremor sent him flying inside -- that he didn't hear the door open, or register the words that broke the spell of their kiss. But he sensed the intrusion and dragged himself away from Ryn's sweet, burning mouth to stare into eyes as dazed as his own and then turn to Evinne, standing surprised in the doorway. He glanced back at Ryn, horrified at what he'd just done and wanting to do it again.

"Happy birthday," he croaked, and fled.

Obi-Wan and Anakin waited at Dexter's Diner with no very clear idea what they were waiting for. Evinne had said, "birthday party," but the profusion of flowers and the muted lights that had transformed the once-familiar space made it unlike any birthday party Anakin had ever attended, and it was doubtful whether Obi-Wan's life in the Temple had made him familiar with anything that could actually be called a party.

Dex himself, apparently cleaned up for the occasion, noticed their cautious examination of the place and tossed them one of his overstated winks. "Betcha hardly recognize the place, eh, Jedi?"

Obi-Wan surveyed the dining area again. "You've certainly altered the decor."

"Oh, it wasn't me. That gold-headed girl and her friends, they spent half the afternoon in here, decorating. I never aw so many flowers outside a greenhouse. But I gather your pretty friend needs a pick-me-up, anyway."

"Pretty friend," Anakin repeated. "You mean Ryn?"

"That's the one! Listen, Friend, humans ain't exactly my type -- no offense -- but even I know she's the best-looking piece of pie ever to walk through those doors."

Dex chuckled and moved off. Obi-Wan leaned to the side and spoke to Anakin, sotto voce. "Is Ryn really that attractive?"

Anakin tried not to cringe. Given his activities this afternoon, Ryn's attractiveness was the last thing he wanted to discuss. He shook his head to clear it and said, "The other Padawans think so."

It was an odd response, and he knew that Obi-Wan had noticed, but he wasn't about to apologize, and there was no way he could explain.

He was saved from further questioning by one of the Lorethans who had participated in the strike on the Blades of Light. "They're just outside! Okay, everybody, when they come through the door, shout 'happy birthday'!"

The lights dimmed even further. The door to the pedway opened, and Evinne ushered in a Ryn Anakin had never seen before, brighteyed, clad in sparkling white and crowned with flowers. She paused in the entrance, lips parting in surprise, backlit by Coruscant's sunset, and actually flinched when the diner chorused "happy birthday!" in at least three languages.

She laughed and turned to Evinne. "Your idea?"

"Partly," Evinne said. "There's plenty of blame to go around."

Ryn laughed again and took a step into the room, only to be thronged by well-wishers.

Anakin stood with his master to one side and watched the proceedings with interest. He found himself a little surprised by the display, coming from people who didn't know Ryn well. And all this effusion seemed out of place with what he knew about Lorethan culture. He would have expected taciturn greetings, perhaps some sort of acoustic music ... he didn't know what, exactly. He stretched out with the Force to gain a sense of the feelings in the room and found ... Admiration. Relief. Profound respect.

Makesh -- he of the blue hair and, according to Obi-Wan, excellent blaster skills -- saw his interest and acknowledged it with a glass lifted in salute. "You look thoughtful, young Jedi."

That was more intrusion than Anakin liked, but he was here at a party, in Ryn's honor, so he figured he ought to make himself agreeable. He shoved his irritation aside and said, "I was thinking that for people who do not know Ryn well, you are very happy to be attending her birthday party."

"Ah, that. Seeing a planetary hero spring back from wounds like she had will do that to a fellow, make him feel celebratory. And besides," he grinned wickedly, holding his drink aloft, "a good Lorethan never needs an occasion to party hard."

Anakin grinned back at this response. He liked the thorny-tempered Rave, and was impressed with the aura of strength he projected, though he had missed the older man's display of battle prowess during the bloodbath that had followed their raid on the Blades of Light. "But you don't know Ryn personally?"

"I served under her brother," Makesh said evasively. "He's a good commander."

That's not what I asked, Anakin thought. "Where is Kit these days?" he asked aloud, ignoring the warning look Obi-Wan sent him. "We were hoping to meet him soon."

Makesh made a face. "I don't go back home much," he said, scowling forbiddingly. "Cheers." He took his drink and wandered off.

"They're a close-mouthed group," Obi-Wan observed, and Anakin had to agree. Even Ryn, who Anakin was sure trusted them, didn't reveal much about goings-on back home. "I wonder if it has anything to do with their history with the Jedi." Pause. "Anakin?"

But Anakin didn't answer, because across the room Ryn looked up and met his eyes, and he'd never seen a being light up like that. The smile bloomed like a starburst across her face, her green eyes brightened, and despite the fact that he knew it to be impossible, Anakin could have sworn her skin actually incandesced.

She took a step away from whoever was trying to claim her attention, and Anakin hurried to meet her halfway. Ryn reached out and took his hands, slightly breathless. "Anakin! I sensed you nearby, but I told myself I must be imagining things. I can't believe the Jedi let you come."

Why? Anakin thought, but he smiled at her. "It's your birthday," he said. "I wouldn't miss it."

"I am so glad you're here." Ryn gave his hands a squeeze and let go, probably because Evinne had wrapped an arm around her shoulders and was pulling her away.

"Come on, you have to do the polite thing a little longer," the golden-haired Lorethan said. She winked over her shoulder at Anakin. "Don't worry. I'll have her back in no time."

Anakin settled back in beside Obi-Wan, who fortunately didn't scold him with anything more potent than a raised eyebrow, and watched Ryn make the rounds of the room with Evinne hovering protectively close by. Actually, Ryn had to do but very little moving; Anakin wondered whether that was a sign of her rank or merely a practice for birthday parties.

To Anakin's surprise, several people also came up and introduced themselves to him and Obi-Wan.

Among them was a familiar-looking redhead.

"I don't know whether you will remember me," she said, sidling in to be heard over the music pounding through the diner. "My name is --"

"Banora," Anakin supplied.

Banora smiled and moved even closer. "You have a good memory, Jedi."

"Anakin Skywalker. And I'm a Padawan."

"A Padawan is one who learns things, yes?" Anakin nodded. "What things do you learn?"

Anakin scrambled his wits to answer her. "How to use the Force. How to control our emotions. Galactic politics and history. Physical training. Uh --"

Banora stopped him with a hand on his chest. "Tell me about this physical training," she said. "It must be very rigorous."

"It isn't easy," Anakin admitted. "But control of the mind begins with control of the body."

"I have heard that the Jedi are ascetics."

Anakin wasn't positive where this conversation was going, but Banora seemed to be finding it fascinating. "I guess we are."

"So you don't ever indulge in physical pleasures, with another being?"

"Uh ..." Anakin shook himself. "It is permitted, but it is not encouraged."

Banora reached out to trace his Padawan braid with her fingertips. "Control is greatly valued by women as well as Masters, you know."

Anakin swallowed, trying to use a little of that control to dispel the tension he felt coiling inside. "It is?"

"Oh, yes. It is essential." Banora took a deep breath that almost caused her breasts -- soft, round ... Oh, Force -- and her low, corseted top to part company.

She was about to say more when Evinne appeared behind her and reached over her shoulder to gently tug Anakin's braid free of her clasp. "Banora, I am not going to protect you when Orun comes over here to find out why you are crawling all over her favorite Jedi."

Banora blushed and looked up to meet Anakin's curious gaze. "I meant no disrespect, Padawan Skywalker."

"That's all right," Anakin managed, and Banora bowed and drifted away.

Evinne leaned against the bar, regarding him with fond exasperation. "I'm guessing that whatever Ryn sees in you, it isn't your ability to smooth-talk women."

Anakin felt himself blushing. Evinne saw his discomfort and smiled. "Relax, Skywalker. It's obvious what she sees in you."

Anakin eyed her warily, half-expecting another of Evinne's cracks about his looks. She seemed to take a special delight in making him uncomfortable. But this time she just jerked her chin in Ryn's direction. "So. You going to hit that?"

"What?"

Evinne glanced over at Obi-Wan, who had wandered a short distance away, in conversation with a light-haired woman, and lowered her voice. "Are you going to finish what I interrupted this afternoon?"

Anakin felt his jaw tighten. "That was a mistake."

"I don't think Ryn would call it that."

No, probably Ryn wouldn't. That was part of the problem. Not only had Anakin behaved in a very unJedilike fashion; he had also created expectations he could never fulfill. It had been bad enough to know that Ryn's feelings for him were decidedly more than friendly. They had both tried, at least, to get past that. They had even managed, against all the odds, to form a true friendship in spite of the initial awkwardness. And now Anakin had betrayed that friendship. He'd kissed her and stripped her defenses and laid bare that intense longing she'd tried so hard to hide. And then he'd just walked away.

I'm a cad.

"I know," he said miserably to Evinne. The memory of Ryn's eagerness -- it had felt so good at the time, being wanted like that -- burned him now.

Evinne studied him for a minute. "Got carried away, did you?" she remarked at last.

Anakin nodded, so heavy with guilt he could barely move.

"I'm not sure how you'll take this," Evinne said slowly, "but I'm going to say it anyway. Have you heard of 'friends with benefits'?"

Anakin scowled at her. "Yes."

"It's not a bad arrangement," Evinne said, unfazed by his disapproval. "I mean, as long as both parties know where they stand." She looked into her drink. "I had that with Terch."

You had more than that with Terch. "You say 'had'," Anakin pointed out. "Things aren't going well?"

Evinne sighed. "I never really expected him to stick around. It's not his line. He's a drifter."

But Anakin heard the ache in her voice. "You miss him."

"I miss the benefits." But she smiled, a little. "And I think you and Ryn could both use some."

Anakin wasn't sure whether to be angry or amused. "Somehow I hadn't pictured you as a matchmaker."

"Well, Ryn deserves a little happiness, and so do you." Evinne grimaced. "That, and I'm drunk."

Anakin laughed, the vestiges of his anger melting away. "I make a habit of never taking love advice from drunks."

"Terrible idea," Evinne said. "Drunks are the only ones loose enough to tell you the truth." She grinned at him. "And on that note, I'm going to get another drink." She waved her mostly-empty cup at him and swayed off into the crowd.

Anakin watched her go. He had a feeling he'd never really understand Evinne, or her odd, not-quite-friendly relationship with his best friend.

As though his thoughts had summoned her, Ryn drifted up next to him, out of the crowd. "You look serious."

Anakin turned slightly to smile at her. "Not any more." he tracked her movement as she crossed in front of him and boosted herself onto the nearest bar stool. "Has Obi-Wan said anything about your dress?"

"Like what?"

"Well, it doesn't leave much to the imagination."

"I didn't trust your imagination." She grinned cheerfully at his expression. "Besides, it was a birthday present from Evinne. And it matched the shoes." She flexed one high-arched foot, showing him a silver sandal that matched the beading on her dress.

"That is not the natural color of your toenails," Anakin observed, staring with interest at the vivid, glossy green.

"Well, of course not," Ryn agreed, wiggling her toes at him. "But it's pretty, don't you think?"

Anakin shook his head to clear it.

"No? Not pretty?"

"No!" Anakin exclaimed. "I mean, yes! I mean, your toes are fine. I just ... you're acting like a girl."

Ryn regarded him with amusement. "What did you think I was, a Wookiee?"

"No! I didn't mean it like that. I just didn't think you would care about stuff like that. Primping. You know ... Oh, Force. I'm going to stop talking now."

Ryn's expression turned thoughtful, and she looked down at her green toenails again. "I like it," she said slowly. "It's just ... On Coruscant, it hasn't been important. Or even, in a sense, appropriate." She hesitated. "Back home, because we have so few men, physical attractiveness is important for women. It gives you an edge in the scramble to find someone and carry on the family line. And from the time I was very young, I knew I was considered pretty, and that was ... valuable." You're a lot more than pretty, Anakin thought, but he nodded for her to go on. "And then I came here, and I guess I look the same, but it doesn't mean anything, because 'luminous beings are we'. I don't mind, not really, I just ..." Ryn's voice trailed off and she shook her head, pressing her newly glossy lips together.

"Just what?" Anakin asked her gently.

Ryn shook her head again. "It doesn't matter."

"It matters to me."

Ryn sighed and wrapped her hand around one slim knee. "I left home just when being pretty could have been really useful," she said, and Anakin heard the echoes of frustration in her voice -- not at leaving, but at herself for caring. "When I left, I was a pretty kid who might turn into an attractive woman. And then I did turn out to be attractive -- it sounds awful when I say it, so conceited -- only to move to a place where no one cares what I look like. I never got to enjoy it, even for a minute. I never got to feel desirable. I just ... had potential, and then I achieved it, sort of, only it didn't mean anything." She kicked her stool. "You must think I'm horribly shallow."

"No," Anakin said.

Ryn eyed him doubtfully. "Come on. You never think about your looks. You're gorgeous, and everybody in the Temple notices it but you."

"I'm good at fixing things," Anakin said.

Ryn picked her new holocam up by its wriststrap and waved it at him as evidence. "I know."

"On Tatooine, that made me special," Anakin went on. "Valuable. I could fix things no one else could fix. I even took on odd jobs sometimes, without telling Watto. It was a way to help Mom." He saw the sympathy on Ryn's face, but instead of diving into it, he pressed on. "At the Temple, that doesn't matter anymore. I mean, sure, it's come in handy a few times on missions, but nobody really wants a Jedi to be an expert mechanic. Mostly it just makes me different."

Ryn was silent for a long minute, absorbing what he'd said. Then the ghost of a smile cracked through her solemnity. "You know I love you, right?"

Anakin grinned at her. "I know."

"Good." Ryn leaned back on her stool and said, "Oh, and you're not a mechanic. You're an improvisational engineer."

"A what?" Anakin asked, amused.

"You heard me." She picked up her drink and handed it to him. "Here. Tell me if they got this right."

Anakin sipped, and felt the smile stretch across his face. "A ruby bliel!" he exclaimed. "How did you manage that?"

"Not me: Evinne. Be careful; she probably had them add alcohol."

"I can taste it. But it's still a fair approximation."

"I'll give Evinne your compliments." Ryn hopped off the stool. "Hang on to it for me, will you? I have to go speak to Obi-Wan."

Anakin was nibbling izzy-mold when the lights dimmed and the flow of conversation stopped.

"Okay!" Evinne said, stepping forward into the middle of the diner. "Dex has very graciously allowed us to clear a dance floor, so we want to thank him for that." Cheers. "But before we can start dancing the night away, the birthday girl has to choose a partner for the first dance." She took a long step to the left, caught Ryn's hand, and dragged her, blushing, into the center floor. "Is there any man here who would like to share a dance with this young woman?" Chorus of yes. "All right, Areth'ryn. It looks like you have your pick. Who will it be?"

For a heartbeat Anakin was sure Ryn was going to choose him. But she passed him over with a smile and a conspiratorial wink.

She walked up to Makesh and held out her hands. The blue-haired Lorethan looked both amused and uncertain, but Ryn grinned and twirled her hips at him, eyes glinting with a teasing light. "Come on, Makesh. Show the outlanders how it's done."

Makesh laughed ruefully and took her outstretched hand, only to instantly switch roles and lead her to the dance floor, rather than the other way around.

The music began, heavy with drumbeats, and for the next seven minutes, the entire diner watched, fascinated, as the two of them spun and gyrated and, once, turned cartwheels, interweaving their movements so that they were a half-turn apart and back-to back, their long straight limbs forming star shapes with each rotation.

It was a pretty demonstration, and earned them a lot of cheering when they were done, causing them to laugh and bow, first to the asesmbled partygoers and then to each other.

"Excuse me, milady," Makesh said, and beat a hasty retreat.

Ryn sent an exasperated look after him and then made her own more leisurely way to the bar, where Anakin and obi-Wan were leaning and sipping drinks.

Anakin handed Ryn her ruby bliel, and Ryn, apparently untroubled by the fact that he'd drunk at least half of it, took a sip and then handed it back to him.

"What's with Makesh?" Obi-Wan asked her, and Ryn grimaced as other couples took the floor behind her.

"Shame," she said. "Needless shame, and a severely misplaced sense of chivalry."

"What do you mean?" Obi-Wan asked, and Ryn frowned.

"I don't know the whole story," she admitted. "Makesh Aravel has something of a reputation as an irresponsible playboy, a drifter, a ..." her brow scrunched tighter as she struggled for the right word. "... a good-for-nothing, you would say."

"And no one knows why?" Anakin asked.

Ryn turned her scowl on him. "Not no one. Just not me. I expect it has something to do with his father kicking him out, years ago, but I never knew the reason. Anyway, it's hard for a disinherited man to get work, but in those days we needed every fighter we could get. He volunteered for the militia, and that's where our paths crossed. Kit hauled him out of the supply runs and put him on the line at the Battle of Thorrin. I was just seven at the time: too young to fight, but not too young to reload blasters, so we were on the line together. Makesh earned an arm-band -- like your service medals, sort of -- for his performance that day." She shook her head. "I haven't seen him in a long time."

"That doesn't explain why he was so reluctant to be dancing with you," Obi-Wan said.

Ryn made a face. "He's keen to save me from myself. Doesn't want to sully my innocence or tarnish my reputation."

"That sounds sexist," Anakin said, and Ryn looked surprised.

"I don't think he's anxious to protect me because I'm a girl," she replied. "But a boy would have been much less likely to ask him to dance." She hopped down from her bar stool. "Too much serious thinking. Master Kenobi, I am most eager to see you dance." Tugging Obi-Wan forward, she grinned at Anakin over his shoulder. "Later for you, and don't think you're getting out of it. But I see Banora headed your way again, and I'm not getting in the middle of that."

Ryn's words soon proved themselves correct. As Obi-Wan swayed cautiously to the beat, clasping hands with Ryn, the red-haired Lorethan drifted up and hopped up onto the stool Ryn had vacated him.

"It looks as though Evinne was wrong about your girl," she said softly, tossing her head to indicate Ryn. "She's danced with two other men already."

"Ryn can dance with anyone she wants," Anakin said firmly.

"Oh, I'm sure. I just wonder about her taste. If it were me, I'd want you."

Anakin wasn't about to admit to Banora that he'd thought much the same thing -- the last part, anyway. He would have thought she was angry about their kiss that afternoon, but she had definitely been happy to see him. I trust her, Anakin told himself. She has her reasons and she'll tell me when she can. I just have to be patient. Patience wasn't what Anakin did best, but for Ryn he'd try.

So now he forced a smile and said, "I guess she knows she can have me any time she wants me, so there's no rush."

Banora raised her eyebrows. "That doesn't strike you as a little manipulative."

Yes. Except it probably also wasn't Ryn's real plan. Get over here and explain yourself, Ryn. I'm not doing a very good job. "We're old friends."

"Ah." Banora looked back at Ryn, who was appalling Ryn with her provocative dance moves -- and also, Anakin noticed, laughing her head off. "How friendly?" she asked, turning back to Anakin.

"We're very close," Anakin said, not paying attention to what he was saying as he stretched out with the Force to try and read Banora. "We built a droid together."

He'd expected something unpleasantly predatory, given Banora's aggressively seductive demeanor. But all he could sense from her, in the instant before her eyes snapped up and her brows whipped together and she said, "A droid?" was desire and loneliness and haunting fear.

He ignored her question about the droid and leaned closer, looking into her eyes so she could see his absolute sincerity. "What are you afraid of, Banora?"

Hard eyes flashed. "I'm not afraid."

Yes, you are, Anakin thought. "Look, I'm a Jedi. Maybe I can help you."

Banora looked away. "I don't need your help. And I don't want your pity, Jedi. I can take care of myself. I just thought we might have some fun."

"Give it up, Ban," said a voice behind Anakin's shoulder, and then Evinne stepped around him, waving another vividly colored drink. "Skywalker's incorruptible. But there are other men here tonight, and many of them would be panting for a night with you. And if there is no man here who pleases you, then we will go out and hunt, and not rest until the man has been found who can satisfy the ache in your loins."

All this sounded more crude than appealing to Anakin; but Evinne's tone was gracious and soothing, without a trace of irony: she clearly meant just what she said. And Banora just as clearly accepted the offer at face value. She bowed her head.

"I thank you, Aesin'Evinne. Yet I would not insist upon such a hunt on this occasion. I will give every man here a fair chance, rather." She touched Anakin lightly on the arm as she hopped down. "Forgive me, Jedi. It was not my intention to make you uncomfortable."

Evinne sighed and shook her head as she watched Banora walk away. "Great shame will be on her for this, I fear. To approach the same man twice in one evening ... that reeks of desperation."

Desperation didn't seem like a bad description for what Banora was feeling. "Did I hear you right?" Anakin asked, not worried about Banora's desperation for now. "Did you just offer to go out and hunt a man to sleep with her?"

"Well, yes," Evinne said. "Banora has been a loyal companion at need. I have a responsibility to see that her needs are met."

"By finding someone she can screw?"

Evinne met his gaze levelly. "You speak as a native of Tatooine," she said, her voice quiet but unashamed. "No blame to you in that. But there are places in the galaxy -- too few and far between it's true -- where sex is not about power, not about one being using another. Sex can be -- should be -- a gift two beings give each other. And because there are so few of our own men left, our women must adapt. Sometimes that means cultivating tastes they never knew they had. Sometimes it means looking elsewhere in the galaxy. Banora wants what most of us want -- someone to hold tonight, a man to give her a child tomorrow. There are still places on Loreth where it is considered bad luck to go to bed alone, and a host was thought ill-mannered if he did not provide for his guests." Seeing Anakin's blank look, she sighed. "What I mean is, Banora thinks it is my duty to see everyone paired off for the night. I lose face if she goes to bed alone."

"Oh." Anakin wasn't sure what to say to that. "I'm sorry to make your task more difficult."

Evinne gave him a rueful smile. "Don't be. I'd be disappointed in you if you went to bed with anyone but Ryn. Her, I still think you should move on. It's obvious you care deeply for each other. And the way she looks at you ... don't give that up lightly."

"I don't," Anakin said.

"You two have something special together. And a girl's first time should be special."

"Yours wasn't," Anakin said with sudden conviction, and Evinne's full lips tightened briefly.

"No."

"Tell me."

"Not tonight." Evinne gestured at the spinning, heaving dancers, some of whom were indulging in a little public foreplay. Makesh, Anakin noticed, had given up anything so civilized as actual dancing and was instead grinding against a scarred young woman with one leg wrapped around his waist, teasing her spine with long skilled fingers as she rocked against him with her head thrown back, panting. "Do you want me to make sure you're not propositioned again tonight? Except by Ryn, of course."

"I can take care of myself," Anakin said, unconsciously echoing Banora. "And Ryn wouldn't."

Evinne looked back at the younger girl, who was parting from Obi-Wan now as the dance came an end. "No, she probably wouldn't," Evinne agreed reluctantly. "Well, no one ever accused her of being smart." She clapped Anakin on the shoulder and turned to go. "I've got a man with a taste for redheads to find. Signal if you need me."

Ryn wasn't long arriving in the flesh, grinning and trailing a flustered Obi-Wan. "Well, what about it?" she asked Anakin, beckoning to him from half a meter away. "Got the dance free?"

"I don't know, I'll have to check my card ..." Ryn punched him in the arm and Anakin laughed. "I guess I could make room for you, since you give such a convincing argument."

Ryn laughed back as he abandoned what was left of the ruby bliel and followed her to the dance floor. It was a slower, sweeter song than the first two, and Anakin fitted his hands into the deep curve of Ryn's waist and pulled her close, swaying in time to the music.

"Sorry about the first two dance," she murmured, her voice pitched low. "I didn't want to make Obi-Wan nervous."

Suspicious, you mean. "Hard to avoid that, sometimes," Anakin said, distracted by the scent of her skin, the feel of her body in his hands, warm and lithe and all his, if he'd just say the word.

But he didn't say anything, just rocked to the beat, enjoying this quiet intimacy.

Ryn didn't press him to talk, or to hold her closer, as a lover might, or even to explain what the hell had happened that afternoon. And Anakin found himself relaxing, ever so slowly, into her warm acceptance.

So of course that was when everything went all to hell. Anakin was looking into Ryn's eyes, marveling at how good it felt, when the front door flew open and a wild-eyed woman about Obi-Wan's age ran in.

"Aesin'Evinne! They took Cam!"

The dancers all froze, Ryn and Anakin included. Evinne stepped forward. "Who did?"

"Ziro's men," the woman gasped. "And I don't ... I mean, there's only one thing Ziro wants to Cam and a couple of Twi'leks."

Evinne's face twisted. "Slaves." The woman nodded, still trying to catch her breath. "Stang. We'll have to deal with this quickly, before they can be shipped off-planet." She turned to Ryn. "It's probably better if you and the Jedi are not involved --"

Anakin tightened his grip on Ryn's arm before she could say anything. "If slave raids are being conducted on Coruscant itself, the Jedi have to get involved." He turned to Obi-Wan for support. "Right, Master?"

Obi-Wan hesitated.

The Force surged in warning; there was a faint whistling sound. Evinne's eyes widened. "GET DOWN!" she screamed, and Anakin grabbed Ryn and threw them both to the floor as a wave of heat and noise blasted through the diner.