Willow had been tracing her finger around the edge of the now empty cup she had been offered when she suddenly felt a disturbance in the Force. She got to her feet and reached for her lightsaber, its crystal blue blade igniting with its usual snap-hiss. She noted that Tara, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had also drawn their weapons.
She also noted that the droid, who had remained in the room, was now muttering some halfhearted apology.
"Try to raise the ship," Qui-Gon ordered.
Tara nodded and reached for her comlink. As she did so, Willow gripped her lightsaber tightly, prepared for whatever might happen. "This isn't supposed to be happening," she thought to herself. "This was supposed to be an easy assignment. That's why we were given it. I'm not a fighter. I wasn't meant to do this..."
Her internal babbling was interrupted by Tara's voice. "No response from the ship."
"Hear that?" Obi-Wan asked.
Willow focused herself, and heard a faint hissing noise.
"Gas," Tara confirmed.
The squad of battle droids came to a halt outside the conference room door, a hologram of Viceroy Gunray appearing before them.
"They must be dead by now," the hologram said. "Destroy what's left of them."
The hologram disappeared as the door opened. The battle droids drew their blasters and pointed them directly into the open door, from which the remnants of the gas were seeping out.
A few moments later, the form of TC-14 shuffled out of the door, still clutching the tray of refreshments she carried.
"Excuse me," she said politely to the battle droids. "Oh, excuse me."
A moment later, four colored bars of light, two green and two blue, shone through the gassed room. The battle droids raised their blasters in response, some even managing to get off a couple of shots, but it was all for naught, as the four Jedi made their way out of the room, Tara and Qui-Gon expertly twirled their blades, decapitating several droids. Obi-Wan bisected another and used the Force to send its parts scattering into a pair of oncoming reinforcements.
Willow kept mostly to the rear, only blocking those shots that managed to come close to her. Fighting was not her style. Even in practice duels in the Temple, she had never managed to successfully master the art of lightsaber dueling. Tara had always said that she could get better in her craft if she kept trying, and Willow had always thanked her, but she never really believed that she could.
And unless things turned out of the better, she'd never be able to find out for herself.
The four made their way to the hatch leading to the bridge which, not surprisingly, had been closed and locked sometime before. Tara tested the controls, and looked at Qui-Gon. "They've locked the door, Master."
Qui-Gon raised his lightsaber and drove it deep into the door in response, and Willow couldn't help but chuckle as she deflected a shot back at an incoming droid.
"Good thing we brought a couple of good lockpicks," she thought to herself.
"Masters!" Obi-Wan suddenly shouted. "Destroyers!"
Willow spun on her heels and found herself staring down two of the most unusual droids she had ever encounter. They rolled on the ground fast, unfolding into what could only be described as a war machine, its hands a pair of powerful blaster cannons that were now pointed in their direction and firing without restraint.
Tara moved beside Willow and began to deflect the fire from the Destroyer droids. And despite the situation, she relaxed. Not enough to leave herself unguarded, but enough so that she could concentrate on what she was doing. Knowing that Tara was nearby and protecting her made her feel that she could do no wrong. Which was a feeling that she wished she had in abundance in the current situation. And one she wished she could explore outside their official capacity.
But now was not the time to think about that. Better to think about such things if they got off the ship alive.
"It's a standoff," Qui-Gon said. "Let's get out of here."
Willow suddenly felt Tara's hand intertwine with hers and squeeze gently. Willow squeezed back, perhaps a little too hard, but she wanted to let her Master know that she was alright. They shared a glance, then turned to look down the corridor. And suddenly, the two were moving faster than normal human capacity allowed, the corridor passing like lightning beside them.
As the two approached the opposite end of the corridor, Willow began to feel conflicting emotions. It was said that her Master was one of the most powerful Jedi in the order, on par with Master Yoda and Master Windu, and yet she was reluctant to use her powers unless truly necessary. She was, to be perfectly honest, the finest example of a Jedi Consular. Willow herself had been taught from her young age that she had all the skills necessary to become a great Jedi Guardian. But from the moment she and her Master touched hands, she knew that together, they were more powerful than any other Jedi in the Order.
And what made the situation all the more confusing for her was the fact that Tara knew this as well. She couldn't tell how she knew this, however. Perhaps it was some subconscious prodding through the Force that made her aware of the fact that the relationship between the two was destined to become more than a professional one.
But there was little she could do now, not when they were running for their lives. But Willow promised herself that, when the opportunity next arose, she would talk to her Master about these feelings.
The two joined Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at a nearby grate, which had been forced opened. Obi-Wan was already on his way down the chute, and Qui-Gon turned to look at Tara.
"This leads to the hanger bay," he said. "We're going to try to find a way off the ship."
Tara nodded as Qui-Gon followed Obi-Wan down the chute. Tara moved to follow him, but suddenly felt a hand on her arm. She turned to see Willow looking at her, fear and the barest hint of tears in her green eyes.
"Be careful," she said. "And May the Force be with you, Master."
Tara flashed the barest hint of a smile. "Always, Padawan."
Several minutes later, the four Jedi found themselves in the hanger bay, which was in quite a state of commotion. Various maintenance droids were preparing munitions and ordnance. Command battle droids were issuing orders to the infantry models. Troop transports were taking onboard the first waves of assault forces that were no doubt bound for the planet.
All of this activity made its purpose abundantly clear to the four Jedi hiding behind one of the many supply cases.
"It's an invasion army," Obi-Wan said with dismay and shock.
Willow took a look at the arrayed army. "I didn't think the Trade Federation had the power to do this."
Qui-Gon spared a glance at the assembled vehicles and troops as the transports opened and deployed their loading racks. "I didn't think the Federation had the daring to do this. We've got to find a way to contact the Naboo and Chancellor Valorum." He turned to look at Tara. "We should split up. Obi-Wan and I will each board a landing ship and meet down at the planet. You and Padawan Rosenberg should do likewise."
Tara nodded as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan moved off. She was about to head out as well when she once again felt a hand on her arm. Her instincts immediately thought it was a battle droid that had discovered her, but through the Force, she could feel that it was Willow. And that she was frightened.
She couldn't blame the fact that her Padawan was scared. This was, after all, her first assignment as a Padawan. Silently, she cursed herself for allowing her to bring Willow with her. This was not the place for her. But she realized that she had no way of knowing how bad things would eventually play out. On the surface, it seemed little more than a simple trade negotiation. To think of it as anything else was rather peculiar.
"We have to go, Willow," she said. "They'll be ready to land their ships any moment."
"I want to go with you Master," Willow said, clutching even harder on her robe. Tara was about to chide her apprentice for behaving like this, but she realized that to do so now would be to further shake her confidence. And right now, she needed to be as aware of her surroundings as she could be. It suddenly hit her that she probably hadn't felt this afraid since that night when they had first met.
"She sees me as someone who will always be there for her, no matter what," she realized. "How can I abandon her now?"
Aloud, she said, "Very well, Willow. We'll go together. But we must hurry."
As the two made their way towards the hatch of a landing craft, Willow suddenly let out a laugh that she tried to stifle, and thus came out as a squeak.
Inwardly, Tara wanted to tell Willow that such an outburst might lead them to getting caught. Instead, she said, "What's so funny?"
"I just realized," Willow said with a small smile. "Master Qui-Gon was right."
Tara arched an eyebrow, awaiting an explanation.
"The negotiations were short," Willow said in a perfect rendition of Qui-Gon's voice.
Tara clamped a hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing, as the two continued to make their way to the hatch of the landing ship.