Postlude – The Rise of Master Mihama
Darth Nochichi's vaguely squid-shaped space station didn't look particularly ominous, though it was made of the same strange, hide-like substance as his fighter docked outside. When the Dream Knife approached, it extended an arm with the proper docking interface crudely welded into its strange flesh.
"Why are we doin' this now?" Ayumu asked softly. She'd put up a brave front back on Endor and on the long hyperspace journey over, but now her composure was cracking a little bit. The monumental, jarring mass of Eddore overhead, at least three times the size of either of their homeworlds, didn't help. "We coulda made him wait a little bit longer, right?"
"But Ms. Ayumu, I don't know if we'll ever be ready for this," Chiyo replied, dark eyes sympathetic. "And it has to be done. I… don't think I can grow as a Jedi or a person with this hanging over me, and it seems like you have a similar situation, if you don't mind my saying."
"So we can only be ready once we've already done it?" Ayumu smiled weakly. She had a black eye from her reconciliation with Tomo, which made the expression's effect even sadder. "Oh, I love those logical loop-de-doos."
-you will kill Chiyo Mihama- the Empress said in her head. It wasn't really a telepathic message, just the remnants of that last, strident command aboard the Death Star, preserved by her conditioning. Bugger off! she snapped. –c'mon, you know you want to- Yukari's voice wheedled. Sometimes, an active imagination can be a liability.
"And besides… we're…" Chiyo pursed her lips. "We're ready in case things go badly."
"Makes ya wonder 'bout the whole ends-and-means dealy," Ayumu said thoughtfully. "D'ya suppose…?"
"Please, not now, Ms. Ayumu."
Ayumu nodded and fell into silence as she nudged her vessel delicately along and docked without even a slight bump. It was odd to watch; at times, she didn't even seem to be at home in her own body, at others, she was grace incarnate on the ground or in space. Chiyo could sense the Baroness's mind drifting about in the vast expanse of her interior, and where it rested in its aimless wandering would define her for a time. There was no one else quite like her.
-you will kill Chiyo Mihama-
No, I won't!
That, she could do.
"Is Darth Nochichi trying to contact you?" Chiyo asked when they'd settled.
"Tryin'." This time, her smile was more genuine. "Sorry, but I'm never lettin' him in again. We'll have to wait till we see 'im to find out what he wants."
"Fair enough," Chiyo agreed. The Eddorian's voice was horrible enough when it wasn't coming from inside your head. "You… you don't have to come, you know."
"Nah, I think I do. Y'think I'm gonna let you do this alone?" In spite of this bravado, they sat in the cockpit for a minute or two, staring into space and the great orange-and-brown bulk of Eddore turning slowly above them. "God, I'm scared," Ayumu finally admitted. "I'm shakin' all over inside."
Chiyo gave her hand an encouraging squeeze and they started towards the hatch, checking their belts. Both wore lightsabers and blasters, and neither had much hope of getting out of this without using them. When they had donned their breathing masks, the airlock opened and they stepped out through a gush of the station's foul atmosphere. Happily, the corridors inside were lined in silver-blue rather than the black of the exterior.
"Greetings, honored guests," a bizarre creature said. It looked like a stylized representation of a light gray spider, flattened out as if it had just peeled itself off of a storybook page. Five evenly-spaced eyes blinked at them as it hovered in the center of the corridor, though it didn't seem to have any mouth. Another Eddorian? "It's been a long time."
"We haven't met," Chiyo replied, tone neutral. "But I'm pleased to meet you."
"We haven't met in person," it corrected. "I was partially responsible for determining your genetic predispositions in terms of personality and temperament. It is always good to see how my work turns out. Follow me, if you will. The Director is waiting."
Chiyo looked ill, but followed when Ayumu gave her a gentle push. The taller girl leaned in as they walked and whispered, "You okay?"
"He… wrote my brain. Like I'm some kind of android or…"
"You're no more written than any of us've been," Ayumu countered. "No one picks their genes, right? You'd be some kinda prodigy if you were smart enough to pick 'em out before you were even born!"
Chiyo laughed softly, but it was more loosening tension than actual mirth.
"Human humor is a subject that no Eddorian has ever understood," their guide commented. "I put much effort into that, though it is fortunately not overly affected by genetic factors. Do your peers feel that you have a strange sense of humor?"
"I guess you've seen to it that I have no peers," Chiyo answered, only a little shaky.
"That point of view could be defended. However, your circumstances may have changed recently. Our process is ever being refined." It turned in the air and blinked at them again, backpedaling at the same pace. "Is something amiss?"
"N…not in the least." She still looked upset, but was controlling herself admirably. To imagine yourself as the product of some laboratory… Ayumu pressed close beside her.
–you will kill Chiyo Mihama-
Busy! Shut up!
-but you will. Just so you know.-
"Stoicism is another concept which eludes us." The Eddorian turned forward again. "Perhaps it would reassure you to know that the traits of your human parents are predominantly expressed. Yours was the first genotype that we had attempted to alter outside of this laboratory's controlled conditions, so more of your makeup was left to chance, as in nature."
Chiyo sagged again, not particularly reassured.
"The Brothers," Ayumu suddenly spoke up. "They were born here?"
"If 'born' is the proper term in Basic, then yes. Unfortunately, a combination of our inexperience and the Director's training methods produced beings of… disappointing cognitive ability. They were exceptional weapons, but nothing more."
The Brothers? Chiyo mouthed to herself. Plural? Judging from the sickly maroon flicker she'd felt within Ayumu, it was likely the former Sithling had killed the others. And judging from the condition of the one Chiyo had encountered, it was probably a mercy to them.
"They might've turned out better if he wasn't so sadistic." Ayumu pointed out.
"Sadism as you understand the term does not exist on Eddore," the scientist said, coming to a halt by an arch that led to what seemed to be the station's bridge. "Though I will allow that he has certain tendencies for which that label could be considered appropriate. Perhaps he has learned it from his years among your people."
"Evacuate the station, Gharlane," a voice from within ordered. "And say your farewells, if you wish. You will never see 4-Orange again."
"As she has grown into a being that is far more than the sum of our work, I concede to you that her project designation is no longer an appropriate way to refer to her," Gharlane inclined himself in the air. "I will now see to the station's evacuation. Farewell, Chiyo Mihama."
Evacuation? Oh, yes, Nochichi knew what was coming. The two women came forward as a menagerie of flattened, varicolored monstrosities wafted by behind them, a few using one another's slipstreams to move faster. This colorful show made Ayumu wonder what Eddore looked like on its surface—perhaps it wasn't as dreadful as she'd been imagining?
Chiyo hit the archway as if it were a brick wall and stopped dead, trembling. "I'm—that-!" She started inching back, shaking her head. Something that looked like a pink panda in profile bounced off of her and tumbled away, unnoticed. "I… I can't go in there! Why didn't we sense…?"
"Hey, don't poop out now!" Ayumu tugged on her arm but she hung back like a recalcitrant horse. "C'mon! What gives?"
-you will kill Luke Skywalker-
-I'm just screwing with you. You're gonna kill Chiyo Mihama.-
The younger girl finally gave way and entered alongside her, looking worse with every step. The room was shaped like a vast clamshell, with bizarre Eddorian stations radiating out from a raised platform in the center. (Why would the elevation of the floor matter to levitating creatures? They never found out.) Just past it, the walls switched from the standard material to a clear, plastic-like stuff, admitting a view of the planet far below. And above the command platform…
Though he'd forgone his armor, the sable cloak still billowed about him windlessly. Darth Nochichi looked even more like a strange doodle now, all flat and orange (the same color as Chiyo's hair, Ayumu noticed), but because he was floating before her in reality and not in the pages of some adorable comic strip, his visage was one of unbelievable horror.
"Hello, Chiyo, Darth Mito." His voice lost something of its body without the filter, but nothing of its menace. "I'm so glad you both saw fit to come."
"That's not my name anymore," Ayumu corrected angrily. "What are you doing to Chiyo!?"
"I'm not doing anything to her."
"He isn't," Chiyo pulled herself up by the former Sith's shoulder. "It's… behind him, it's… ohgod…"
"You should surrender, Chiyo." Nochichi drifted lower, but didn't come towards them. "I am in your blood."
Hearing that seemed to stiffen her spine. "A human," she growled, pushing each word through whatever it was that troubled her so. "Is one of those rare creatures who can deny its blood."
"You look like you're gonna rolf," Ayumu murmured.
"Thanks for reminding me," Chiyo glanced sideways with strained humor. "Next time, wait till I'm not wearing a mask."
"The genes we share still have a profound effect on you, Chiyo. Everything that I am is inside of you, for it is possible to recreate a being whole from even its tiniest part." Nochichi glowed happily purple. "And we had a whole arm to work with." He bobbed into the air to reveal…
-you will kill Chiyo Mihama-
The being had apparently been talking to him before they arrived and then stood patiently behind him, hidden by his cloak through their confrontation. It was a small human in black Sith robes, wearing a breathing mask much like their own. And behind the mask… Ayumu's eyes roved up over the figure, slowly widening. "No way…"
"Chiyo, Ayumu, I would like to introduce you to the clone Chiyyo."
-was I right, or was I right?-
"This…!" Chiyo gasped as her opposite number stared down at her impassively. Now her angst was complete—not only was she a product, but she was apparently replaceable as well. The Prodigy wouldn't cooperate? No problem! They could just fax the procedure to Kurosawa and she could make as many Chiyos as she wanted! "This is…!"
"Exactly what I needed," Ayumu finished, smiling darkly. She stepped forward slowly, patting her friend's shoulder in passing. "Don't let it get to ya, Chiyo-chan. That thing isn't no substitute, an' everyone in the room knows it!" She leveled her lightsaber at Chiyyo, suddenly every bit an Imperial Noble demanding a duel of honor. "Homunculus! Have at you!"
"There's your predecessor," Nochichi said casually. "Remember what I told you and get to it."
Without reply, Chiyyo leapt to the attack. Ayumu made what seemed like a superfluous flourish with her saber as she approached, but when they collided, a triangular section of the floor gave out beneath her and they plunged out of sight.
"Ayumu!" Chiyo wailed. "What-!?"
BLANG! The section of deck finally landed far below, but neither combatant was still on it. Its echoes were swiftly drowned out by the buzz and crash of lightsabers at furious work, fading into the distance as they worked their way across the vast floor.
Chiyo made to jump after her, but then she thought of the effect the clone's presence had on her, that strange, painful mental interference. If she went after them, all it would do is screw up her companion's attempt to help her. So that's how it has to be. Good luck, Ms. Ayumu.
"I wasn't expecting that either," Nochichi tilted to look down the hole. "These humans are full of surprises."
"I'm sure I surprised you," Chiyo said.
"Now and again, even if you aren't really…"
"Stop pretending now," Nochichi commanded. "Face me."
Chiyo closed her eyes and pulled off the mask. A little shudder went through her body as it switched to Eddorian respiration, but the shock wasn't half as bad as she had expected. After a moment to get used to the air, she drew her lightsaber without igniting it. "So here we are, face to face. You've arranged quite a dramatic confrontation." Weirdly, the innocent quality Chiyo's voice had never quite lost made it sound like she was genuinely congratulating him. "What happens now?"
"Now, young Mihama…" Nochichi might have hesitated for an instant before purple lightning clawed out towards her. "You die!"
Far below and retreating across a cavernous cargo bay, Ayumu was beginning to figure out that she'd been expected. Chiyyo was able to dodge and deflect Force Shrieks, leading to a lot of howling wind through holes in the hull. She wouldn't be suckered by the fourth-dimension trick (when her saber started to pass through Ayumu, she'd stopped, and the former Sith only just managed to yank herself away in time.) Even the illusions, something she didn't normally bother to try in duels, weren't having any effect. Their minds, of course, were blank walls to one another's, though Chiyyo's barrier had an oily Eddorian sheen to it. Was that because she'd been trained by Nochichi, or was it a quality of the mind beyond?
-you will kill Chiyo Mihama-
I'm working on it, darn it!
Unfortunately, it was proving to be difficult. The clone bounded and skipped along with her, matching her step for step, raining a barrage of lightning-fast strokes on her with a short red lightsaber. Ayumu wove softly ahead of her, violet saber moving in unhurried arcs to catch each darting blow, waiting for her chance to—
-you will kill Chiyo Mihama! What's taking so long?-
She threw another shockwave just to get a moment to breathe, but when it washed uselessly over Chiyyo, the sturdy hull behind her blew violently into space. They both paused in surprise. That wasn't just the usual crumpling, it had-!
Ayumu had originally thought (or hoped, rather) that her Force Shriek making the substance Topocrine explode had just been a quirk, an esoteric little wrinkle to her powers that would have been all-too-fitting for her. Unfortunately, it seemed that Nochichi was right all along.
"Do not restrain yourself, Darth Mito," he'd told her."It is possible to change the wave's nature to make anything explode with deadly force. A great gift has been given to you… to hold the power of death incarnate, to destroy all matter and kill with a gesture! This is the power of the Force Shriek!"
But did ya have to be so dramatic about it? Ayumu sighed inwardly, even as she parried three strikes from as many directions. This new dimension to her abilities might turn out to be useful, but not so much to the matter at hand. Even if Chiyyo weren't able to block it, Ayumu probably couldn't bring herself to, say, shatter her bones or explode her brain on the spot. (Not that killing her any other way was much better, but… ugh! Just ugh!) So they continued the weary round, lost in time, hacking away with no resolution in sight.
Just as Ayumu started to imagine she was getting the hang of this fight, though, something metallic crashed into the side of her head and she was knocked tumbling. Oh, great, now the stuff-flingin' starts, she moaned inwardly, why do I gotta suck at telekinesis so bad? Crates and structural members and even parts of the hull were ripped out and flung at her, careening in from every direction.
Chiyyo stood with her hand out, eyes screwed shut in concentration, stock-still as she conducted the symphony of shrieking and clangoring "metal" (whatever it was that this station was made of—there was little practical difference) in its assault. From a distance, it would have looked like the cargo-bay itself were rearing up and trying to eat Ayumu.
The Baroness bounded lightly onto a twirling crate and then skipped to a flying pillar, running down its length and ducking what seemed to be an Eddorian toolbox. She jumped spinning from the pillar to skid backwards across the floor obliquely to Chiyyo, sweeping a volley of satanic staples from the air with her saber.
Five meters. She just had to close five meters…
Something small and very, very hard struck her solar plexus, hurling her back into the maelstrom with the wind knocked out of her. No good! She crossed her arms before her, wincing as that first crate rushed up hungrily. Oh, this is gonna hurt!
Another desperate Force Shriek ballooned out from her in every direction and tore into the unnaturally flying debris. Had she managed to recreate the accident from earlier? She actually had to regain consciousness before she had her answer—the concussion of nearly a ton of exploding whatever-it-was put her out for a second or two.
Somehow she apprehended that she was still in the air, only just managing to land gracefully in the midst of the suddenly cleared cargo-bay. Chiyyo crouched some distance away, also dazed but recovering quickly. Dubious air continued to whistle out through the Swiss-cheese Ayumu had made of the hull over the past five minutes.
-you will kill Chiyo Mihama-
Yes, I know. And don't you feel special for being right?
They sprinted towards each other, zigging and zagging in an effort to surprise the other when they finally—Ayumu saw to it that they didn't collide again, leaping into the air and flinging one last Shriek into the ground beneath her. It burst right into Chiyyo's face, staggered her for just an instant… and the violet lightsaber flicked down from above and lightly dabbed into the back of her head.
Desperate for closure and to make sure Chiyyo wouldn't suffer, Ayumu landed heavily over her and drove the lightsaber down through the clone's chest as though it were Excalibur, trying to drown her revulsion and guilt in the epic flavor of the moment. No dice.
-about damn time- And so Yukari's Last Command departed to pester someone else.
Ayumu stumbled back from her foe and sat down heavily, feeling empty and weak. That wind was getting pretty strong… would she be sucked out into space now? More importantly, did she care?
Yeah, she probably did. Shoot.
In spite of what she'd said earlier, Ayumu had to wonder just how much of a person Chiyyo had been. That barrier… what had lived behind it? Could they have reconciled? Should she have tried parleying? Maybe Chiyyo's mind had just been controlled by evil alien pigtails? Had she really killed… had she killed a real Chiyo? The unbelievable violence of their fight had kept Ayumu from doing any more than defending herself, unable even to spare the breath to speak, but now that it was over she was free to second-guess.
She lifted her remote and ordered Dream Knife to come to a gap in the hull; somehow, as though by the reassurance of something outside of herself, she was confident that Chiyo—the real one, damn it!—wouldn't need any more help. "Y'sure don't," she told the corpse sadly. "Oh… why am I so confuzzled?"
If she could have seen Chiyo, though, she would have forgotten her confidence in an instant. The prodigy crouched, breath hissing angrily through her teeth, blood running from the corner of her mouth, robes scorched and smoking in several places where her guard had failed. The air between her and Nochichi was filled with a vaguely shimmering storm of the Force, two unfiltered wills pressing against one another in the material world. Apart from the occasional Force Lightning attempt by the Sith Lord, their final duel wasn't really much to look at.
"You're already going?" Nochichi asked. "I thought you'd be tougher than this."
Chiyo's concentration flickered and she had to throw herself sideways to avoid an attack that seemed to be a Force Sports Utility Vehicle, which rolled invisibly on and flattened out a wide swath of destruction before hitting the wall with a soft little tunk! Before Nochichi could fix on her new location, Chiyo drew her blaster and fired a volley into him—which just ricocheted away and dug smoking craters in the bridge all around them.
"What was that? Blasters aren't Jedi weapons!"
Chiyo just tossed the gun aside, rising from her crouch and resting her hands on her knees. Now was not the time for a philosophical debate, but she appreciated the breather. "Stand up straight," Nochichi snapped, but she ignored him. Instead, she reached out and the lightsaber swept up into her hand. Snap-hiss! Ayumu's red blade sprang to life, its surface rippling softly. Chiyo could feel some kind of fluid sloshing inside of its handle-what had inspired this design?
Nochichi squinted at her. "Don't tell me you've come to the True Force." Apparently, this was the Eddorian name for the Dark Side. "After your histrionics on Bespin, that would be too funny."
"You presume too much," she finally rejoined between gasps. "Why should a red blade make me a Sith?"
"That's why I carried one. It was a silly weapon, but an effective symbol. You seem to be the type who's careful with symbols, so I have to wonder about this one."
Chiyo changed tacks. "Why do you bother being a Sith? Why interfere with the—no, with us humans?"
"Long ago, before the birth of any man who now lives, I swore my allegiance to Clan Tanizaki. But honestly, that's none of your frickin' business."
"And you know that Empress Yukari is imprisoned and disgraced?"
"Unimportant. When Chiyyo and I return, we'll free Yukari, place her at the head of Empire once more and crush the Rebellion." Both had felt the clone's death—one could only assume that he planned to make a Chiyyyo.
"I can't let that happen."
"But you can't stop it. You should have killed Yukari when you had the chance—but then, you Jedi can never stir yourselves to do what is necessary."
"What is necessary…"
"Just look at you. You've fit that ridiculous Jedi mold to a T, charging heroically all the way to Eddore to face me on the field of Glory and Honor. Pah!" Nochichi glowed with swirling colors, but Chiyo couldn't tell what they meant. "I had hoped you might be a little different, but in the end you're just as stupid as your predecessors."
"Now, I don't think it's fair to call them stupid." Chiyo reached into her pocket and lowered the crimson lightsaber. What was that about a philosophical debate? "But Master Kamineko and his students… they clung to an idealized image of the ancient Jedi."
"Is that so."
Aha, Chiyo noted without any particular pleasure, He thinks he sees an opening to draw me to the Dark Side. His guard is lowering. "From what I've gathered, I'm supposed to come here and face you honorably, doing nothing to compromise myself as a Jedi, and sow the seeds of your eventual defeat with my death. It's what poor Ms. Sakaki did, though I'm sure it wasn't her first plan."
"And it seems that that is what you've done."
"I don't know why, perhaps it's from having grown up on Tatooine, but I feel a certain need to be more… practical than that. With all the death and suffering you would cause before your fall, I don't consider dying heroically now to be an acceptable option. I don't want to be like the Jedi who obliterated Yavin IV and swept away its whole civilization just to kill one man, but I'd certainly like to see more good for my efforts than Master Yotsuba did that day." She finally withdrew her hand, showing him a remote with two buttons.
"What's that?" Nochichi asked.
"My contribution to Jedi philosophy," she answered sadly. "I'm about to do something very nasty."
She pressed the first button, and Nochichi's starfighter silently blew apart outside. He turned in the air to watch debris skip off of the bridge viewports, unconcerned. "How did you arrange that?"
"Mr. Matsuyama made me some stealth gear for a spacesuit based on his work with your ship's sensors…"
"No stealth gear could shield you from the Force!"
"I guess you've never heard of the ysalimir." She noticed his color change slightly. "Or perhaps you have. I'm sorry."
"I suppose that explains why you were so surprised by your new sister, too. So you're trying to defeat me with treacherously placed explosives? That's not very Jedi-like. Looks like you take after me a little better than I thought."
"I knew you'd enjoy that," she agreed. "But you're speaking as though carving you in two with this lightsaber would be somehow more moral or palatable."
"Some would say. That's why you tried to face me before setting those off. I assume there's a second bomb?"
"Yes, you haven't moved from that spot in the past two hours," Chiyo replied, wincing as her arm broke in three places and the remote was ripped from her hand. But that was okay; she hadn't counted on being able to press the button anyway. Instead, she reached out through the Force and squeezed the remote's interior, completing its circuit.
"Ha-!" Nochichi started. It should've been more thunderous, but since they lost most of their atmosphere in the explosion, the sound of his death was just a sharp pop!
It was another overcast day, the sky filled end-to-end with good omens for Chiyo to enjoy. Even though it had been years since she'd last seen Tattooine, it still felt like a rare joy to be surrounded on all sides by cool, pleasant water. At the moment, she sat on a smooth rock in the center of a lake, attempting to meditate to the soft lapping of black waves.
She was no longer a child, but it would be difficult to tell for some time yet. Though Chiyo had gained a few centimeters since the fall of the Empress, she was still a small woman with the spry, slender limbs and bright (albeit stained) eye of youth. Her hair was cut short, lofting naturally into a wild, sprightly style that wasn't exactly becoming of the first new Jedi Master. Dark, sandy robes pooled around her, that peculiar quality of hers making them seem too large even though they'd been custom-tailored.
The forests of Yavin IV (they were at a high-enough latitude that the term "jungle" wouldn't have fit) stretched out endlessly in every direction, still and cool in the early evening. Diurnal creatures were finding their beds while their nocturnal cousins were just stirring; soon enough the world would become a cacophony again. The only creatures that moved about her now were tall, graceful, black birds, silent except for the occasional soft kaloon!
She identified with them for some reason.
Chiyo's head slowly dipped, a troubled cast stealing over her features. Sometimes, with no apparent cause or warning, bad memories crept back to disturb her. They had portent now and again, but most often not—they were just the relentless assault of a conscience that refused to let her forget her failings.
But her troubled expression was instantly swallowed by an impish smile as she heard a faint splaf-splaf-splaf-splaf! approaching. It was the sound of impossibly light feet slapping across the water's surface, and that whistling she heard was— CRACK! Practice swords crossed over her head as Ayumu landed on the stone next to her.
In the crazed, exhilarating few seconds that followed, wooden blades flashed all around them and Chiyo's only impression of her sparring partner was of fluttering charcoal sleeves and flowery perfume. Before her conscious mind even fully realized what was happening, Ayumu's sword rested lightly against her throat and the match was over. "You were really out of it," she commented, smiling eyes removing any bite the assessment might have had.
"Sorry," Chiyo grinned back as they lowered their bokken and backed away as far as the cramped quarters would let her. "You caught me at a bad moment."
"You've been having those a lot, lately," Ayumu agreed, concerned. She didn't stand much taller than before, but her posture made her seem so. She was wrapped elegantly in what we in this galaxy would call a dark gray kimono, thick dark hair flowing nearly to her waist and her bare feet curving gracefully over the rock's surface. Even flushed and short of breath, her bearing was serene and collected.
"It's hard sometimes." Chiyo admitted. "I just… caught myself thinking about Gantoris again. And that got me thinking about other students who've been swayed and tempted… and the times I'vefaltered… and then what Nochichi said about taking after him…"
"That jerk never said anything worthwhile," Ayumu cut in positively. "Have ya noticed you always have these worrywart attacks when we're here on Yavin?"
"Yes, but—oh my goodness! Why did you-?" Chiyo looked her up and down, shocked. "We-we shouldn't be sparring while you're in… your condition!"
"Why?" Ayumu rested a hand on her belly. There wasn't much difference in her build yet, but then, it hadn't been very long. "The doctor said exercise would be good for him."
"Moderate exercise!" Chiyo cried, waving her arms.
Ayumu gave her The Eybrow. "What do you call this?"
"Moderate-?" Chiyo blinked. Hmm… come to think of it, they hadn't been flailing away with the same energy they normally did. She would have attributed it to Ayumu mellowing in her age, but to be honest, if Ayumu mellowed any further, she'd be dead. "But, but what if I accidentally hit-?"
"You wouldn't." This was said without a doubt; while Ayumu's "danger sense" had always been unusually acute, where her child was concerned it became positively godlike. Further, even if something managed to surprise her (as things did, occasionally) there was still the fourth-dimension trick—she couldn't even catch a newspaper on her stomach without her body involuntarily flickering out of normal spacetime to avoid it. "I'm an impenetrable fortress." She smirked. "Though I guess I can't say I'm impregnable…"
Her friend completely missed the joke. "Your reflexes are amazing, but-!"
"I'm wearin' a personal shield, too."
"…oh." Chiyo lowered her hands.
"We're connected," Ayumu continued, sobered. She moved her hand in a slow circle. "I just… it's impossible for me to let anything happen to him. D'ya see? We were fine."
"If you're… if you're sure…" Chiyo gazed at her for a long moment, then spread her hands. "You win. But please be careful, Ms. Ayumu."
"Always, Chiyo-chan." She pushed the younger woman gently. "Y'know, it sounds like you need a break. Come away with me and camp in the woods for the night. I know the perfect spot!"
"I'd love to, but I can't leave the students." Chiyo started, glancing back in the direction of their campsite. The Jedi Academy was still a small, informal group, moving between places as their need or that of the Republic dictated. Yavin IV was one of the sites under consideration for a permanent home, but for whatever reason, some of their number had a bad feeling about it. A few (especially the younger students) even refused to enter any of the Masassi temples outright.
"'Course you can!" Ayumu threw an arm over her shoulder. "I left Gary in charge."
"Whatsisface… the guy that's always picking arguments with you." It was only natural the Baroness had a hard time with his name. She didn't actually spend a lot of time with the students, instead serving as their aunt—she just showed up every now and then to commiserate with them about Chiyo, exclaim over their progress and maybe bring luxuries that they didn't have time for otherwise. She didn't have it in her to be a stern taskmistress.
"Oh. His name is Keiran Halcyon."
"Suuuure, it is," Ayumu smiled slyly. She had a way with assumed names. "But anyway, he looks like his name is 'Gary Stu' to me, so I'm just going to call him Gary. I told him you might not be coming back tonight, and if not, then he was the boss until you got back."
"Won't admit to anyone how scared she is, and the others are there for her. C'mon, Chiyo-chan!" This was how it always was. Though to look at them you'd think just the opposite, Chiyo was the Academy's force for Order, while Ayumu was a gentle, playful tug towards Chaos. "At least come and see the place I picked."
"Well…" Chiyo sighed heavily. "Okay, I'll take a loo-aieee!" One of Ayumu's arms looped under hers and she was jerked along with the Baroness's sprint across the water, flailing helplessly. Splaf-splaf-splaf-splaf! "Hey!" the great Jedi Master protested as she was deposited on the shore. "Can't you leave me with at least a little dignity?"
"Nope," Ayumu shook her head, giggling. "None."
Chiyo struggled to keep a straight face. "But you just manhandled your Master! You're not supposed to do that!"
"Ah, keeps ya from getting uppity."
"Uppity…?" Chiyo stared at her for a few seconds, lower lip trembling, then finally burst into gales of laughter.
Ayumu chuckled as well, enjoying the sound. "Been too long since I've heard that laugh… here, it's not too far. And I promise not to carry you this time!"
"Hmph." Cool rain started coming down as they set out together, lightening Chiyo's mood yet further. "How is it you're able to cheer me up so well?"
"Oh, it's not so tough." Ayumu glanced at her sideways. "You're not too complicated when you get down to it."
"Don't be like that. It's not like I said you were stupid or anything…" After all, if anyone understood the distinction between "simple" and "stupid," it would be Ayumu. "Oh, and long as you're still in a good mood, I'll tell you I'm taking the Three Musketeers with me to Corellia."
"To Corellia?" There wasn't really much Chiyo could say against that. The Musketeers were an inseparable trio of students who shared a faint darkness in their hearts and an unfaltering devotion to Ayumu as a teacher and friend: Ena Ayase, unwilling heiress to a legendary dynasty of assassins, Michiko Kimura, daughter of the late, unlamented Grand Moff, and Miura Hayasaka, who was the most scarred of the three but refused to tell anyone what had hurt her so. Their skills developed in fits and starts, mainly timed to Ayumu's visits.
"Yes, ma'am," Ayumu tilted her head back as the rain started to beat down harder. "General Takino and I will introduce them to diplomacy, and I'll want 'em to do some running around for me, anyway. I am a pregnant woman, after all."
Chiyo couldn't keep herself from grinning at that. "A pregnant woman who ambushes Jedi and beats them up for fun."
"Hey, I'm practically bedridden! The trip'll do them good, anyway. I don't think they like it here."
"Especially Miura. She…" Chiyo looked troubled again. "Sometimes she actually seems to be sensing something that we can't. I hope…"
"Don't worry about that!" Ayumu swatted the back of her head. "It's your one night vacation!"
"But… okay." Chiyo shook her head rapidly. "We're all watching out for her anyway. I don't have to be there personally. If anything happens, just for tonight, Keiran will manage. If it's bad enough, he'll call for us." She took a deep breath. "Okay."
"That's the spirit! It's not so hard, is it?"
Chiyo halted, gaping. "Wait… General Takino?"
"Told ya she could do anything she put her mind to!"
"Whoa…" General Tomo Takino… now there was a thought worth worrying about. They started off again. "Wh-when did this happen? As I recall, she wasn't even an official member of the armed forces!"
"Convolutions o' fate, I guess. Got her Generalship for fixing this big mess over a planet called Dathomir and some guy with an unpronounceable name building a Super Star Destroyer… ooh, and a these people who call themselves 'Force Witches.' Think we should check it out some time?"
Chiyo didn't even hear that last part. "You mean to say that Ms. Tomo played a large enough role in defeating Warlord Zsinj that she got a Generalship for it? From scratch?"
"Yup. Even told the guy to 'kiss her Wookie,' whatever that means."
"That's incredible! And I'm sure Ms. Kagura just loves the competition, too."
"Yup, they're generals together, now." Ayumu was through the phase where she'd wilted every time somebody mentioned the soldier. Kagura naturally had a hard time forgiving her for letting Osaka fall out of under them and fighting against the men under her command; things would probably never be quite right between them. "Ah, we're here! Take a look, Chiyo-chan, isn't this perfect?"
It was certainly a very nice spot. They stood in a small clearing cleft by a shallow river, ringed in by slender trees that let the emerging sun through prettily. The ground beneath them was amazingly bright green for the latitude—kneeling, Chiyo saw that it was covered with soft, springy four-leaf clovers. "It's… so peaceful here," she said wonderingly. A feeling of contentment and optimism welled up around them, banishing the shadows that seemed to cover the rest of Yavin IV. "I've never felt a place like this before."
"Ohh…" Ayumu lay down on her side heavily. "I already feel all bloated and heavy. It hasn't even been a month yet and I don't think I can get up."
"I'm sorry… you seemed nimble enough earlier, though."
"It just hit me. And now I want pickles, great… had to get the pickle craving on a remote jungle moon…"
Chiyo just laughed. She was starting to get the hang of it again.
"Yeah, you can laugh at me. Just wait till it's your turn." Ayumu curled slightly. "So I was thinkin' of naming him after you."
"Umm… that's very sweet, Ms. Ayumu, but Chiyo is a girl's name. Are you sure…?"
"So he'll grow up tough." Ayumu giggled. "Nah, you're right. That'd be pretty mean."
Chiyo lay down and watched the clouds as they rolled by, finally revealing the sun again. "Thanks for making me take this break," she said finally. "I don't think I was ready to start taking on students when I did. It's just so stressful…"
"I think it's turning out all right."
"I don't know." The diminutive Jedi suddenly smiled. "But sitting here it doesn't seem all that bad. Even… even if I'm not strong enough, the Jedi Order has a life of its own now, you know? The idea is strong again. If I fell in battle or to the… well, there would still be Jedi, and they would still learn and grow and be strong."
"Yeah…" Ayumu propped herself up one elbow. "Isn't that funny? I was kinda down, too, but this place perked me right up."
"It's almost as if there's a benevolent… oh!" Chiyo sat bolt upright. "I just remembered! When Exar Kun killed Master Yotsuba, even he felt she deserved a proper burial. You don't suppose this is the spot…?"
Ayumu ran her fingers through the clovers. "It just could be."
Chiyo stood slowly and looked around. "You know, we passed a few large clearings on the way here… maybe we could build the Academy around this spot! If the campus is kept simple (and it will be), we wouldn't even have to cut down any of the forest! Hmm, but I don't think we should put anything in this particular clearing, though…"
"Not even a marker? Memorial? Concession stand?"
"Not even," Chiyo affirmed. "These clovers are all the marker she would want. But this… this is absolutely perfect! I mean, it has a link to Jedi history, it's isolated from the war, we're surrounded by life and there's all kinds of interesting sites to investigate, and…!"
"You're so cute when you get excited," Ayumu commented. "Like a little puppy!"
Chiyo's momentum was suddenly completely shot. Her arms dropped to her sides and she fixed her old friend with a long, withering look. "Ugh… why did you have to go and say that?"
"Because I can't bear the thought of you being able to take yourself seriously? That's my best guess."
Chiyo sighed and sat down, deflated. "Well, it'll be great, anyway. At least until we figure out what that malign presence in the temples is all about."
Ayumu looked up apologetically. "I didn't wreck it for you, did I?"
"Mm… no, I'm still pretty enthused. In fact, I should probably calm down a…"
"Oh! He kicked!"
"Um, your child? He, uh…" Chiyo floundered. "I mean, I don't think he has legs yet."
"No, no, no, not like that… c'mere and listen." At her insistent beckoning, her friend came over and knelt next to her, listening carefully. Ayumu added, "Not really kicking, that's just what I call it. Not so much a sound, neither. More of a… it's a Force thingy you feel like it's a sound, yeah?"
"I'm sorry, Ms. Ayumu, I don't…" Chiyo started after a few seconds, but then suddenly jolted with surprise. She felt it! It gave her the sense of a very faint sound, a little silvery "cheep!" Perhaps it wasn't quite the voice of a sentient mind, but rather that of a presence which would, in due time, become one. "Ooh! I heard him!" she squealed, suddenly not caring how cute she was being. "Oh, wow! He's so… wow!"
"And t'think," Ayumu said languidly, curling up again, "When he's born, there'll be an Academy all ready for him, and a whole new crop of Jedi defendin' the galaxy… Chiyo-chan, do you even realize how great you've done, these past few years? You brought the Jedi back! Now whatever happens, we'll be up to it, y'know? For the first time, I… I feel good about the future, ours an' everyone's. I feel like everything's gonna be okay."
Normally, Chiyo would have felt constrained to say something modest or caution Ayumu against getting her hopes up about the academy… but now, in this spot, with the bright, confident spirit of Yotsuba rising all around her, all she could do was agree.