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As far as Ahsoka Tano was concerned, the only thing worse than being up to her armpits in battle droids was waiting to find out just how long it would be before she was up to her armpits in battle droids. She hated waiting. But it seemed that war was all about waiting-at least, when it wasn't about staring death in the face.
But I'm not scared. I'm not scared. I'm not scared. I'm not...
With Resolute out of rotation for a refit, she stood on the bridge of Indomitable, one of the next generation of cruisers to come out of the Allanteen VI shipyards. Cruisers that were faster and more responsive than ever before, thanks to her Master's-what had the chief shipwright called it? Oh yes. Tinkering. Thanks to Anakin's tinkering, the new vessels were a definite cut above the first Republic Cruisers that had rolled out of production for service in this war against Dooku and his Separatist Alliance.
The differences had been noted, and were talked about whenever and wherever military types crossed paths-in battle, in briefings, sharing some chitchat and a drink in this mess or that one, or even the occasional civilian bar. The Jedi who fought on the front lines were talking about them, too. Everyone who relied on the massive Republic warships knew that their odds of survival had increased because Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker liked to muck about with machines-when he wasn't busy being the scourge of the Separatists Anakin.
That's how she thought of him now, after arduous months of fighting by his side, learning from him, saving him, and being saved by him. But she never called him that to his face. She couldn't. The idea of saying Anakin felt more disrespectful than a cheeky nickname. Skyguy was familiar but it wasn't...intimate.
First names were intimate. They implied equality. But she and her Master weren't equals. She suspected they never would be. She was pretty sure that no matter how hard she trained, how hard she tried, even after she'd passed the trials and been made a Jedi Knight, she would never come close to matching him as a Jedi.
How can I? He's the Chosen One. He can do things that aren't meant to be possible.
She snuck a sideways look at him, standing on the far side of Indomitable's bridge in hushed conversation with Master Kenobi and Admiral Yularen. Letting down her habitual guard the tiniest bit, she prepared to stretch out her senses. To feel what he was feeling behind his carefully constructed mask. It wasn't prying. She didn't pry. As a Padawan it was her job-no, her duty-to make sure her Master was well. To be constantly attuned to his mood so she could anticipate his needs and more perfectly serve him. Since joining Anakin on Christophsis she'd lost count of the times that keeping a close eye on him had made the difference between success and failure. Life and death. Young she might be, and still in training, but she could do that. She was good at that.
Besides, once assigned to this man she'd made her own private and personal vow quite apart from the public oaths she'd sworn in the Jedi Temple.
I will not be the Padawan who gets the Chosen One killed.
Around her, the bridge crew conducted its military business with brisk efficiency. No chatter, since the admiral was present. When Yularen was elsewhere his officers sometimes indulged in a little gossip, a few jokes, a smattering of idle wartime speculation. Nothing detrimental to discipline, nothing untoward, just harmless camaraderie to help while away the tedium of days, like this one, when battle was yet to be joined and the void beyond the transparisteel viewports remained empty of enemy ships and impending slaughter.
She could hear, humming in the background, all the baffling hardware that made these warships possible. Sensor sweeps and multiphasic duo-diode relays and cognizant crystal interfaces and quasi-sentient droid links and-and stuff. So much stuff, and it made no sense to her. The slippery info-laneways of computers she could work with, but she didn't possess any kind of knack for nuts-and-bolts-and-circuits machinery-constructing her own lightsaber had nearly given her a nosebleed. Anakin, on the other hand...
Machinery was meat and drink to Anakin. He loved it.
But she was letting herself become distracted, so she pushed those thoughts aside. Her immediate task was to ascertain what Anakin was feeling. That way she'd have a better idea of what to expect from him when the news they were waiting for at last came through...and an idea of how best to deal with him, once it did. Dealing with her Master's sometimes overpowering emotions was becoming more and more a part of her duties-and as the war dragged on, and their losses piled up, that job wasn't getting any easier.
He feels too much, too keenly. Maybe that's what happens when you've got the highest midi-chlorian count in Jedi history. Maybe that's the trade-off. You feel everything, so you're brilliant. You feel everything, and it hurts.
Not that his emotions got in the way. At least, he didn't think they did. And to be honest, she didn't, either. At least not as often as some people thought. Like Master Kenobi, for example, who chided his former Padawan for taking crazy risks, for pushing himself too hard, for letting things matter too much and losing his carefully measured Jedi distance.
She didn't always disagree. And sometimes, when Anakin had given her a really bad fright or when his mood became difficult, she wished she could chide him, too. But as a Padawan she had to find another way to let her Master know he'd gone too far. So she sassed him, or invented nicknames that were guaranteed to get under his skin. Sometimes she even deliberately flouted his wishes. Anything to break him free of sorrow or frustration or some bleak memory he refused to share. Anything to let him know, Hey, what you did then? That was stupid.
But mostly she kept her fears for him to herself, because all his bright and burning passion for justice, his reckless courage, his hunger for victory and his refusal to accept defeat-they were what made him Anakin. He wouldn't be Anakin without his feelings. She knew that, she accepted that, no matter what Temple teachings said about the Jedi and their emotions.
And even though he scolds, I think Master Kenobi accepts it, too. He only scolds because he cares.
So...what was her brilliant, sometimes volatile Master feeling now? Eyes drifted half closed, Ahsoka breathed out a soft sigh and let her growing Jedi awareness touch lightly upon him.
Impatience. Concern. Relief. Loneliness. Weariness. And grief, not yet healed.
Such a muddle of emotions. Such a weight on his shoulders. Months of brutal battle had left her drained and nearly numb, but it was worse for Anakin. He was a Jedi general with countless lives entrusted to his care, and every life damaged or lost he counted as a personal failure. For other people he found forgiveness; for himself there was none. For himself there was only anger at not meeting his own exacting standards.
Feeling helpless, she chewed at her lip. She didn't know what she could do to make anything better for him. She couldn't heal his grief for the clones who'd fallen under his command, or the civilians he'd been unable to save. She couldn't make him less tired, or order him home to Coruscant where his mood always lightened. She couldn't promise the war would end soon, with the Republic victorious.
At least he had Master Kenobi's company for a little while. She was sure that accounted for his relief. They cheered each other up, those two. No matter how dire the straits, Anakin and Master Kenobi always managed to find a joke, a laugh, some way to ease the tension and pressure of the moment. Between the two men lay absolute trust. Absolute faith. Now, they were equals. On the outside, looking in, she couldn't help feeling a little forlorn.
Will he ever feel that way about me? Will he ever believe in me the way he believes in Obi-Wan?
She opened her eyes to find Anakin looking at her. Though she'd tried so hard to be discreet, still he'd felt her sensing of him. She held her breath, expecting a reprimand. Anakin hated when she did this.
But no reprimand came. Instead her Master raised a tolerantly amused eyebrow at her...and in his eyes was a kind of tired appreciation. She felt herself shrug, a tiny twitch of one shoulder, and curved her lips into a small, rueful, I can't help it smile. He took a breath, he was going to say something-but then his head lifted. So did Master Kenobi's. A few moments later she felt it, too: a sharp, almost painful tingle of awareness. Something was coming. And a few moments after that, the comm officer straightened in her chair and pressed a finger to the transceiver plugged into her ear.
Admiral Yularen, lean and predatory as ever, and alerted already by the Jedi on either side of him, practically leapt for the comm station. "Lieutenant Avrey?"
The slight, blond officer danced her fingers over the ship's comm panel, frowning, then gave a pleased nod. "Sir, I have an incoming message from the Jedi Council, Priority Alpha."
"Recorded or real-time?"
The lieutenant checked. "Recorded, sir. Sent by triple-coded multiple-routed shortburst." Priority Alpha. Skin prickling, senses jittering, Ahsoka held her breath. This was it. This was what they'd been waiting for as they dangled idly out here for hours in the middle of nowhere, an empty stretch of space on the border between the Expansion Region and the galactic Mid Rim, parsecs from anywhere remotely civilized. This is it.
Yularen's nod was swift and grim. "Very good, Lieutenant. Master Kenobi?"
"I think we'll take this one in the Battle Operations Room, Admiral," Master Kenobi said. His voice was mild, completely unperturbed, as though an Alpha transmission from the Council came along once or twice a day...instead of only as a last-resort emergency.
Ahsoka eyed him with unbecoming envy. One of these years I'm going to be as untwitchy as him. "Masters-"
"Yes, Padawan, we means you," said Anakin. "So what are you waiting for?"
She nearly said, An invitation. The smart remark was awfully tempting. He'd practically asked for it. But she held her tongue, because she was no longer that uncertain, mouthy Padawan who'd met her new Master in the midst of battle on Christophsis. She'd changed. Grown. Smart remarks at a time like this weren't funny. They were disruptive and unhelpful and they made her mentor look bad.
She'd learned that lesson from Clone Captain Rex.
"Lieutenant," said Admiral Yularen, sounding almost as calm as Master Kenobi. "Comm the captains of Pioneer and Coruscant Sky. Stand by for orders, battle alert."
"Yes, Admiral," said the comm officer. Color washed into her space-white face. All around the bridge the crew snapped to stricter attention. The scrubbed air tightened with a palpable anticipation.
Yularen flicked a tight smile at Anakin and Master Kenobi. "Lead the way, gentlemen."
With an effort Ahsoka smoothed her expression into uncaring blandness, hating that Anakin and Master Kenobi could sense her true feelings. As her Jedi superiors and the admiral swept past her she fell into step behind them, lightsaber bouncing lightly against her hip. Her mouth was dry-how annoying. She'd seen plenty of action since the start of the war; surely she should be bored by this now. But no. Her body betrayed her with a dry mouth and a racing heart, and sweat slicking the skin between her shoulder blades.
Soon we'll be fighting. And if I make a mistake I'll get Anakin killed.
"Ahsoka," said Anakin, not even looking over his shoulder. "How many times do I have to tell you? Our thoughts create our reality. Cut it out."
He always knew. "Sorry, Master."
It wasn't far from the bridge to the Battle Operations Room, just one short corridor and a single flight of stairs. As soon as they were ranged around the broad central holodisplay table, Admiral Yularen toggled his comm to the bridge.
"Patch it through, Lieutenant."
The holoimagers blinked on, bright blue-white light against the Battle Room's muted illumination. The air above the holodisplay shivered, mirage-like, and then an image flickered, partially disintegrated, flickered again, and finally coalesced into a recognizable form.
"Confirmation we have, Master Kenobi, of the initial report," said the Jedi Order's most respected Master. "Misled the Special Operations Brigade was not. A target have Dooku and Grievous made of Kothlis and its spynet facility. In Republic hands must they remain, for compromised the Mid Rim cannot be. Once the strength of the enemy you have determined, call for reinforcements you can if defeating Grievous without them is not possible. But contact the Council in real-time do not until Kothlis you have reached. Stealth and secrecy are our most potent weapons. Use them wisely. May the Force be with you."
Master Yoda's image winked out.
"Well," said Master Kenobi, breaking the tense silence. "This is going to be interesting."
Anakin frowned. "What reinforcements? Our people are scattered from one side of the Republic to the other."
"Coryx Moth is on patrol near Falleen, is she not? That's the closest
"One ship?" Anakin shook his head. "Obi-Wan-"
"It's better than nothing, Anakin."
Anakin didn't think so, if the look on his face was anything to go by. He scowled at Master Kenobi and Master Kenobi stared back, his expression unreadable.
"I'm sorry, but Master Yoda's message is too cryptic for my tastes," said Admiral Yularen. One narrow finger stroked his mustache, a sure sign he was uneasy. "Bitter experience has taught us we can't attack Grievous with anything less than overwhelming force. Not if we wish to finish him once and for all-and avoid a catastrophic level of loss on our side."
"And in an ideal galaxy we would have that overwhelming force at our disposal," said Master Kenobi, arms decisively folded. "Alas, Admiral, this galaxy of ours is far from ideal. And cryptic or not, we have our orders. Yoda's right-we must keep Kothlis out of Separatist hands."
"I know that," said Yularen curtly. "But the notion we can't call for support until we're in the thick of the fight? We all know that'll likely be too late."
"True," said Anakin, stirring out of somber thought. "But we'll have to live with it. In fact-" He shot the admiral a dark look. "I think we'll have to think twice about calling for help at all. Because if someone does come to our aid, it means somewhere else gets left undefended."
Yularen bristled. "What? You want me to risk this battle group-three cruisers-against-"
"I beat him with three cruisers last time," said Anakin, deceptively mild.
"I know!" Yularen retorted. "And that would be my point, General Skywalker. Grievous isn't stupid. He learns from his mistakes. He's going to make sure he has more than enough firepower to easily take us down! I'm not prepared to risk-"
From the Trade Paperback edition.