Tara was only vaguely aware of the fact that she was being moved against her will. She was even less vaguely aware of being thrown, rather unceremoniously, into one of the many subs that made up the flotilla of escaping craft from Otoh Gunga. Her thoughts drifted back many years ago, to the first time she had encountered Willow in Coruscant's lower levels. She had seemed so...helpless. But at the same time, someone with untapped potential. Even then, she could tell that their destines were intertwined.
She had made her case to the Council, saying that Willow could be a valuable asset to the Jedi Order, and that she should not be cast out because of her transgression. Tara had even offered to take Willow as her Padawan learner. She normally was not that direct when it came to dealing with the Council, or anyone for that matter. But there was something that just would not let Willow come to harm.
As time passed, Tara watched out for Willow whenever she could. Her duties as a Jedi Master, however, kept her on missions for much of her time. Fearing for Willow's safety, she had left her at the Temple those times when the task at hand she thought was too difficult or dangerous for her to be exposed to. For those missions that were easier, Tara usually brought Willow along, even though she usually remained at whatever domicile or hotel room they rented for the occasion.
This mission was very much like the latter. Or, at least, it had appeared to be at first glance. Then again, appearances were often deceiving. There was no way that Tara would have allowed Willow to come with her had she any idea about how bad the situation would end up becoming, even with the assistance of Master Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. But she knew that she had to expose Willow to what lay beyond the safety that she had been used to. And this had seemed to be the best time.
Then things had gone wrong. And they had steadily got worse as time went on.
The only thing that had felt good about the situation was telling Willow about her past. Ironically, considering the seriousness of the situation, it was that moment that had scared her the most. There was so much that she had kept secret from her out of fear. She realized that it wasn't nearly as bad as she thought it would be. Willow was always someone who would find the best of a person, even the coldest and most heartless. She knew that there were those in the Temple that had often joked that she would make Trandoshans and Wookiees get along.
Although she would never openly voice it, she often agreed.
Now Willow was gone. And she had been too crippled by her own fears to do anything.
It shamed her.
She was a Jedi Master. She was supposed to keep her emotions in check. What was causing her to feel this way?
It pained Tara to admit it, but Willow was, in many ways, the cause of her emotional disarray. Even before this, she had felt something for her. It's what made her take her case to the Council when they considered expelling her from the Order. It's why she always kept her safely tucked away whenever they went on missions together. It's what let her open up to Willow when she couldn't open up to anyone else.
And it's what made the thought of losing her all the more painful.
She felt herself being lifted out of the seat she had been tossed into and prodded not so gently forward. She complied, offering no hint of resistance. She couldn't bring herself to say or do anything to protest. Her thoughts were on Willow and how she had let her down.
"She expected me to watch over her," she thought. "She expected me to be fearless. And I failed her."
She came back to her senses as she found herself surrounded by Gungans, some of which were on kaadu, others on foot. And all of whom had weapons pointed in her direction. Two of the Gungans parted as the rotund shape of the Boss stepped up to face her, his face accentuating the hate in his eyes.
“Yousa haven a lotta explainin du do," he spat.
Tara involuntarily flinched at the accusation that she was in some way responsible for what had happened. Though she noted that there was no reason for her to feel guilty. She had done nothing wrong. How was she supposed to know that the droids would have invaded the city? If anything, it was the Gungans' own isolationist tendencies that had led them to this situation. She felt that she should say as much to the Boss and attempt to gain control of the situation.
She kept silent, the resolve to speak in her own defense evaporating as soon as it had surfaced. She merely hung her head in shame, her thoughts once again drifting to Willow.
“I'm..." she said, cursing herself for stuttering. “I'm...s...sorr...sorry..."
The Boss grunted. “'Sorry' not goen to be getting us back Otoh Gunga. Meebee wesa kill yousa now and riden ourselves of another mighty huge problem."
The tears began to well in Tara's eyes. “Maybe that would be a good idea."
The Boss fixed Tara with a suspicious glare. Clearly he was surprised by this turn of events. “What trick are yousa pullin?"
Tara moved to sit down on a nearby rock. The Gungans nearest to her raised their weapons to stop her, but the Boss waved them off. She sat down without resistance and gazed into the forest around them.
“I know you think that we led the droids to you," she said, her tone as neutral as it could manage. “I...I don't know if we did...and I know that...I...I know that...nothing I say will convince you otherwise."
The Boss fixed Tara with a icy glare. “Whaten game doo you thinken yousa playin'?"
Tara looked up, a single tear running down her cheek. “What makes you think that I'm playing a game?"
“Dissen udder Jedi playen to mesa sense of generosity when theysa taken Jar Jar Binks," the Boss explained. “Jar Jar knownen that if hesa come backen to Otoh Gunga, hesa bein crunched to death. Mesa noen wanten to do that, really. Jar Jar isen gud Gungan. He just...clumsy." He shook his head violently, flecks of spittle erupting from his mouth as he did. “Mesa shoulda knowen bedder dan to be nicen to strange peoples."
Tara couldn't help but agree, seeing how foolish it was to have tried to ask for their help. With the Naboo people enslaved and the Gungans now driven from their home, it meant that there was a lot of work to do. She had thought that Master Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan would be here to help. She didn't feel terribly great about having to deal with the situation by herself. It didn't help that she felt largely responsible for much of it. Tara had promised herself that she would find a way to set things right. This was a problem that had quickly gotten out of hand because of her lack of action. It had led to many innocents being harmed. Including Willow.
Tara made a vow, right then and there, that no matter what happened, she would do whatever it was that was necessary in order to ensure Willow's safety. She knew that making such a promise went against what the normal tenets of what being a Jedi entailed, but she didn't care. She could keep herself under control and not let herself get too emotional. After all, she surmised, Willow would eventually become a Knight. And Tara couldn't keep her protected forever.
It was then that a whistle brought both her and the Boss' head around to face another Gungan who had come from across the hill.
“Yousa bedder come ere, Boss," the new arrival said. “Yousa not gunna liken dis."
The Boss looked at Tara for a moment longer before waddling up the nearby small hill. After a moment's hesitation, Tara moved to follow, only to find herself staring down the pointed end of several spears. She held her ground and listened to the Boss as he talked to whoever it was. She heard one of the Gungans announce that the new arrivals included “Queen Amidala". But that wasn't possible. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had gotten her off the planet...hadn't they?
She cringed as the Boss made the comment about the Naboo bringing the droids to their underwater city. She wasn't too enamored about the fact that he was apparently spreading the blame for what had happened. It was all she could do not to go up and correct his mistake.
She then heard something surprising. A second person saying that she was Queen Amidala, that the whole planet was in danger, and then...begging for help? That didn't sound like something she would have expected
It apparently was not what the Boss had been expecting either, as he broke out into a deep laugh and commented that they might be friends. Tara could not help but give a faint smile at the comment. Why did people always figure things like that out after the opportunity to do something about it had passed?
The Boss, whose name she had finally learned to be Nass, returned a few minutes later and gestured to the other Gungans to lower their spears. He then fixed Tara with a smile.
“Mesa thinks theresa someone out dere that yousa much enjoyen to see," he said, pointing back the way he had come. Tara hesitated, then rushed forward to look. She saw a lot of Gungans, some uniformed soldiers and...
“Master Qui-Gon! Obi-Wan!"
All her years of Jedi training evaporated in an instant. She was no longer a wise and skilled Jedi Master, at peace with herself and with the Force. She was now a woman with the tendencies of a youngling. She rushed forward and enveloped the elder Master in an embracing hug.
“I'm so glad that you've come back," she said. “I've made such a mess of things."
Qui-Gon looked down at Tara. “How?"
Tara realized that she couldn't really lie about the situation, especially now that she had brought it up. She normally wouldn't have brought it up, but she had felt that the situation had gotten so out of hand that she couldn't really conceal it. “I...I've done things that I...I really shouldn't have. And Willow...I let her...she's been..."
Tara felt Qui-Gon's embrace lessen slightly as he listened to her. “You did everything you could, Master Maclay. No one could have expected you to do anything more. You shouldn't think that you could try to do more than you're capable of. That's the path to darkness."
Tara nodded in agreement, though she really didn't have any belief in what she was being told. She was just glad that the burden of dealing with the situation was no longer fully on her. Now she can concentrate fully on doing whatever was necessary to get Willow back.
And to make sure that nothing would ever harm her again.
Nute Gunray was afraid.
This was a feeling that was not unfamiliar to him. He had been afraid ever since this operation began, with varying levels of intensity. He had managed to assuage his fear, despite the relative weak resistance that threatened to complicate things. He had even communicated to Lord Sidious the previous evening how the planet was firmly under their control, despite the fact that the primitives had yet to be dealt with. But his fears had been brought to the surface by the arrival of two individuals. One of which he was currently speaking to.
“I cannot believe that you have done this," he was explaining to the second Sith, who was walking beside him as he traveled down one of the corridors of the Palace. “I had hoped that you would have taken care of her. By bringing her here, you've endangered us all. I cannot understand why you have done this."
The pair stopped outside a door, on which the Sith pressed the release.
“My reasons are not your concern," he said, without bothering to face the Neimoidian. He stepped inside, and the door shut behind him; Gunray was moving down the corridor at lightning speed before it had closed.
Maul stood by the doorway, watching the young Jedi struggle in her bonds. He had the droids shackle her to the floor and run the spokes that held those bonds dug deep into the floor. This way, she could not escape. She was a pitiful creature, but she did have a spark. Maul had seen that spark before. His own Master had molded that spark into the lethal weapon that he was today. If he could take that spark and mold it in his own image, then she would become a useful tool for his Master's plan.
His Master had sensed a disturbance in the Force. There was no doubt that she was part of that disturbance. That alone was cause enough to end her existence. But his Master had contacted him en route to Naboo and say that events were in motion on that world that could be turned to their advantage. That required her to remain in perfect health.
Physical health, at least. Her mental health was his to manipulate as he saw fit.
Her head raised to look at the new arrival, and noted that her emerald eyes hummed with barely restrained anger. Good. Anger was a useful tool. She would need to be taught how to use it.
That lesson would begin now.
He waved his gloved left hand, unfastening the binders enclosing her arms and legs and clattering to the floor. She paused, looking up at him with surprise. Her surprise grew as Maul withdrew her lightsaber, which he had taken from her, and tossed it in her direction.
It clattered to the ground several feet in front of her. She moved cautiously towards it before reaching out with one hand to take it. Maul felt her hesitation. She was confused. They had gone to all this trouble to capture her, and now they were letting her go?
That hesitation slowly evaporated and was replaced by a singular feeling: desire. A desire to be free from her confinement. A desire to be in the loving embrace of a comrade. And a desire to do whatever was necessary in order to accomplish that.
Igniting the lightsaber, she jumped to her feet and leapt at him. Before she could bring her blade up to deliver a killing blow, however, Maul was up in the air, performing a flip that sent him over her head to land several feet behind her. The Jedi was momentarily stunned, but quickly collected herself and turned to face him. That moment of indecision had nearly cost her, as Maul delivered a swift kick that she barely dodged in time.
As the Jedi continued to attempt to bring her lightsaber down on his head, Maul found himself becoming impressed with the Jedi's technique and tenacity. From the reports given by the droids, she had not been much of a fighter. But it seemed that, when angered, she was more than capable of taking care of herself. From all appearances, she displayed all the markings that would make her a true Ataru master. Ataru was a style that emphasized strength and power, but left the combatant vulnerable.
Blocking another series of attacks, Maul allowed a feral grin to form on his face. His master has taught him the art of lightsaber combat, and he was a consummate Juyo perfectionist. This made his attacks more lethal, as they were fueled by his anger and ferocity. That was the difference between the two: the Jedi's anger was abundant, but unfocused. This made her dangerous, but easily exploitable.
As the Jedi delivered an upward strike, Maul extended his right hand, blocking the attempted attack. He followed this up by extending his left hand and sending a strong burst of Force energy into her chest, sending her flying backward into the wall. The Jedi collapsed in a boneless heap, her lightsaber landing deactivated several feet away. She got to her hands and knees and made a desperate attempt to reach for her weapon, but as her fingers closed in, it flew into the air and landed in his outstretched left hand.
Maul took a moment to admire the weapon. It was sturdy. It was well constructed. And it was unsuited for her. As the Jedi watched in horror, he withdrew his own weapon with his free hand and thumbed the activation switch. And with in quickness that prevented her from acting, he threw her lightsaber into the air, brought his own blade up and sliced the weapon in half.
The Jedi began to sob as the two pieces fell to the ground between them. She crawled on her hands and knees to take them in her hands. “No...no...no..."
‘Your first lesson, Jedi," he said, nothing with some satisfaction as her head snapped up, her tear-rimmed eyes displaying full blown rage.
Maul stepped towards the door and opened it, two droids stepping inside to take the Jedi back to the binders and chain her to the ground again.
He did not stay to watch. His purpose had been fulfilled. For now. There would be time for her to learn what it was that she needed to know. In the meantime, he would await the arrival of the others. They would come to rescue their comrade.
And when they did, they would meet their end.
Willow was ashamed. She had let her emotions get the better of her. And it had led to her utter humiliation at the hands of that...creature. She found herself wondering who he was. He was a Zabrak, that much she obviously knew. And he had a lightsaber. But it was a lightsaber with a red blade.
But that meant that he was a Sith. And that was impossible. The Sith had been defeated a thousand years ago. There was no way they could have survived.
But there was no other label she could give to him. And it gave her a fresh reason to be confused about the situation. What were the Trade Federation doing working with a Sith?
It was all too confusing for her to figure out.
What was also confusing was the fact that she was still alive and in no way mistreated. She had expected to be killed immediately after she had been captured. But she had not been. In fact, aside from being chained down, there was no indication that she was to be harmed.
Why? What purpose was her continued existence to these people?
"What is it about me that they want?" she thought as the droids set about putting the chains on her wrists and ankles once again. "I'm...I'm nothing. I'm nobody. I don't have anything anyone would want. Except..."
It was so obvious that she was surprised she hadn't thought of it before. She realized that she wasn't important. She was merely a tool. She was going to be used by these people to bring the Queen and the Jedi back. And that meant...
"Oh, Tara," she thought as the droids left the room. Her eyes drifted to the sections of her lightsaber. Tara's lightsaber. The one part of her life that she had given up freely. And now it was destroyed. Gone. Lost forever.
Much like Tara would be, if she were to come rescue her. Even if she had an army, there was no way that Tara could get close enough to save her.
But she would try. Willow had been with her for ten years. And one thing she knew was that one Tara was set on a path, she never wavered. No matter how dangerous it would be.
And that meant that she would come for her now. And that meant that she would most likely die, if not because of the droids, then because of the Sith.
And it would be all because of her.
"I'm sorry, Tara."