Asajj Ventress' knuckles whitened about the curved handles of her weapons. She had been betrayed, yet again. By the very Force. By the ironic, laughing Light. She should have killed Kenobi when she had the chance; she should have massacred the Ice people when she first arrived. For if this were to be her ending, the consummating moment of her struggles and travails, she would rather make it one to remember.
And it had been her own mistake.
She had felt the scouts' confusion, their inchoate representation of the oncoming hordes. Primitives, savages without experience of the broad galaxy beyond their own blanched plain of existence, they had seen the plasticarbon –armored clones as lifeless automata, as machines or insects. It was her own dread and anger that had translated this raw perception into an erroneous conclusion. It had not been a Separatist ship, but a Republic cruiser that had fallen from the battle ravaged sky.
She watched the Ice folk murmur, jostle together. She watched the Jedi speak with the clone Commander. She watched the distant horizon, burning with the sun's brief daytime flare. She watched the troops arrayed behind their officers, some on swoops, many on foot, faces utterly concealed behind helmets, thermal masks, the façade of collective calm they projected unwittingly in the Force.
The Jedi master turned at last, snow fretting his beard, piled heavily on the erk-skin cloak. His skin was tinged as pale as the drifting flakes, blue with cold, with vestiges of illness. He held out a hand. "Ventress, my dear, you had better come quietly."
She laughed, cold amusement filling the hollow places in her soul, the interstices where, a moment earlier, seeds of trust had fallen upon fertile soil. The germinating sprouts withered, shriveled into blackness beneath the onslaught of her frosty contempt. "I'll come with you… to the hells," she promised him, blades spitting into life, haloed by spattering light where the snow met the merciless beams of red.
There might have been the faintest sigh of disappointment in the Force, but the thundering drum of her pulse drowned it out, trampled it into the gritty ice. She launched herself at her foe, blades screaming in dissonant chorus. Blue fire sprang to meet her assault; snow withering to hot steam about the sabers' flashing edges.
Hate welled like a spring, hate for the seductive trap into which she had been lured, unwitting, like a foolish child. For a damning moment she had trusted the Jedi, dared to hope that his offer of reconciliation was more than empty mockery, fallen headlong into his mewling milksop delusion, his obscene and repulsive belief in the mercy of the Light.
That Light would burn a hole in his heart someday, an excoriating wound no healer could ever cure. She saw it and she howled with it, enraged at the universe, at fate, at the awful tyranny of existence which robbed her of every master, every friend, every sure center. She drove against Kenobi with a hatred equal in measure to his maniacal faith, and drowned in her own rage. Red blades slashed, whirled, scattered ice to instant destruction, carved through his defenses, crashed against his counter-attacks, crossed and cut and lunged inward, sideways, backwards, a paroxysm of bitter wrath.
They parted, knee-deep in slush melted by the thrumming sabers, Light and non-Light, healer and healed, victim and tormentor, master and masterless, tradition and rebellion, hope and despair, locked in an excruciating stalemate beneath an aborted dawn.
"Surrender, Ventress!" Kenobi hollered at her. "It's not too late!"
She laughed in his face, drowning in his pleading eyes, in everlasting defiance. He was Kenobi, he was Dooku, he was Ky Narec, he was every treacherous Jedi bastard who had ever betrayed her, slaughtered the Sisters, abandoned their own, sunk on bended knee before Sith or Council. He was both Sides, either Side, the Force itself. "It's too late for me, master!" she screamed.
"I'll die first, Kenobi!"
She raised her twin blades, opened her soul to endless night, to obliterating peace. The clack of fifty Republic heavy rifles lifted into position, trained on her flesh, resounded through the aching silence. So it would be an execution. She leered at the Jedi, at his pained grimace of victory, his heaving chest, the 'saber burning merciless in his hand.
The troops waited for the order. She would kill half of them before she dropped in her tracks.
"Hold your fire," Kenobi ordered for the second time, looking her directly in the eyes.
Asajj gaped, accepted his surrender, his forgiveness, and flipped over the obedient, forbearing clones, onto an empty swoop, rocketing away across the barren tundra, putting as much distance as possible between herself and the face of an enemy who had utterly, irrevocably confounded her.
"Is there anything else you will require, sir?" the dutiful clone petty officer inquired, standing at rigid attention just outside the wrecked cruiser's malfunctioning cabin doors. "Ah… food? A medical droid? The sick bay is still fully functional."
Obi Wan raised one eyebrow. "No – that won't be necessary." The memory of Ventress' touch ghosted over his flesh. Frowning, he glanced down at his dreadfully uncivilized attire. "However – a change of clothing would be most welcome."
The clone cast a shrewdly estimating glance at him, obviously calculating the proper sizes, and then saluted. "That should be simple, sir. I'll return shortly."
"Thank you." He did not sag against the frame of the broken pressure hatch until CT-675432 had disappeared from view, trotting down the corridor to fulfill the promise of freshly laundered fatigues. A droid or two buzzed down the hallway in his wake; the tramp of other booted feet could be heard in adjacent corridors, the decks above this level.
The ship had crashed with minimal damage to its essential systems; and a rescue and repair team was already on its way, the battle in orbit resolved in the Republic's favor. Obi Wan could optimistically expect to be back on Coruscant within two standard days, his recent misadventures truly at their end. Though hardly finished, from any point of view one chose to adopt. Maul's quest for revenge could not be considered nullified; and the ex-Sith and his brother still roamed the galaxy, free to wreak whatever havoc they saw fit. And Ventress: she too was at large…. And that was problematic. Because he had given that fateful order himself, been willing accomplice to her escape.
He ran a hand over his beard, tugged a little at his chin. Would innocents die because of that choice? The Force held its tongue, neither chastening nor comforting. The future was elusive.
Commander ..what was his name? Gree?… appeared in his turn, the Kaminoan armor accented with a splash of color here and there, signifying rank. His dark eyes were troubled, but he presented himself with perfect formality, looking at an unfocused spot just over Obi Wan's left shoulder, not quite daring eye contact yet.
"General Kenobi," he said, stiffly. "I must submit the official mission report to the Admiral at fourteen hundred standard. Shall I indicate that the assassin escaped before our forces could arrest her?"
Obi Wan moved into the man's line of vision. "No," he replied softly. "You will report that your men obeyed my order to hold fire, and that she commandeered one swoop and fled the scene. Also that I commend your squadron for their exact compliance with orders."
Gree nodded, his amber eyes finally shifting to the Jedi's face, relief softening the hard lines at their corners. "Yes sir, General. Thank you, sir," the clone said.
He bowed, and the clone saluted. The Commander hesitated one moment. "Ah, General?"
"May I ask, sir, what you were doing out there? We weren't notified of any Jedi presence dirtside."
"There was no flaw in your intelligence," Obi Wan assured him. "My presence was the result of… an unintended detour."
"I see," Gree answered, too wise to press any further. "Thank you, sir." He saluted again and took his leave, just as his compatriot had a few minutes earlier.
The cruiser was huge… empty. Though hundreds of living beings milled about its hivelike interior, he felt oddly alone, isolated in the Force. A side effect of too much time spent at close quarters with a rather overwhelming personality, he supposed. Although, given his habitual proximity to Anakin, anyone would think he should be quite used to it by now.
He turned back to the interior of the clean cabin assigned respectfully to his sole use, and concentrated on polishing off the last bits of tarnish marring his saber hilt. The mundane task was soothing, a meditation, an anchor line back to normalcy – whatever that meant in time of universal war. When he returned to the Temple, he would inform the Council that the Brothers were on the prowl, a threat to peace and order to be numbered among the countless other plagues afflicting the crumbling Republic. He would inform them that Asajj Ventress was no longer Dooku's minion, but was still unpredictable and dangerous, a force to be reckoned with.
And he would confess to Yoda, or perhaps Mace, what he had done and what he had failed to do. And he would dutifully fulfill whatever demands of penance or healing were laid upon him, knowing that he had abstained from delivering the killing blow, that he had chosen an unlikely mercy. That he trusted the Force to resolve what his conscience could not fully fathom. If his cowardice thereby somehow brought the galaxy to ruin, he would not deny responsibility for the act. Nor would he regret it.
He examined the flawlessly shining saber hilt for a long moment, and decided that it was clean.
And that was, he admitted to himself, a small but very real comfort.