Tara sat on a tree stump, watching as Master Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and the Queen discussed the specifics of the upcoming battle. They would draw the majority of the droid army away from Theed while she, the Jedi and a small group of troops would infiltrate the city. Accompanying them would be a small group of pilots that would launch from the hanger bay and attempt to take out the Droid Control Ship that was in orbit.
Her role in the assault had been discussed and decided upon, and now she felt that she had nothing more to contribute. So she had decided to sit on a nearby tree stump until the others were ready to move, her thoughts once again turning to Willow. She didn't know what she was going through at this moment, but she knew that it must have been horrible. It occurred to her that if she hadn't sheltered Willow from the galaxy, she wouldn't be as scared as she must be right now.
"And I wouldn't feel so guilty now," she thought. "How could I have ever believed that sheltering Willow would protect her?"
Tara was determined to rescue Willow, and was willing to do whatever was necessary to do so. The thought filled her with dread. She knew that, as a Jedi, she was supposed to do what she could to protect the innocent and provide peace and justice. But this situation felt different somehow. It was easy to justify doing whatever was necessary when you're talking about protecting the galaxy. It was different when you boiled down the duty of protecting the entire galaxy to one single individual.
Especially one individual that you cared about so deeply as Tara cared for Willow.
Tara found herself thinking about what she had been taught. The Jedi were not allowed to form attachments to anything. This was done in order to prevent them from having to be conflicted when it came to their duty to the galaxy. It was something that Tara could not believe. She always felt that the Jedi could benefit from having attachments and a strong emotional connection to someone, if only to ensure that one would do whatever he or she could to protect others.
Tara knew that her thoughts were forbidden, and that was why she had kept mostly to herself. Over the years, those thoughts and her desire to protect the galaxy had slowly built a wall around her emotions. She had told herself many times that she did it in order to keep things in perspective and that it was for the good of everyone she knew if she didn't become too involved with what was going on around her.
It also kept her from thinking about her father. From what Master Halcyon had told her, he was a particularly vicious man who had no morals whatsoever. She could only imagine the horrors that he had inflicted on her mother. It made Tara sick to think that she could be related to someone like him. And it further made her depressed that he had killed hundreds of innocents just to enact his revenge on her for what he considered to be a shot at his own ego.
The only thing that comforted Tara was the fact that she would never have to deal with him. He was in prison with no hope of parole or escape. She could visit him if she wanted, but the Jedi tenet of severing familial bonds frowned upon it. She found herself glad that, at least in that respect, her role as a Jedi was not a burden.
"Don't worry. Everything will be all right."
Tara lifted her head to find the source of the voice. She recognized its source to be the tow headed boy that had accompanied Master Qui-Gon and the others. His face showed a genuine concern for her welfare. This surprised Tara more than anything else. Most people she dealt with put their own affairs first and her opinions and concerns second.
"Wh...what?" she stammered.
"You look upset," the boy said as he moved to sit beside Tara. "You're worried. Worried about what's going to happen. You don't need to be. Everything will be all right."
Tara held back the optimism that the boy's words attempted to infuse within her. "You don't know that. Things can go wrong." She fought the tears that threatened to overpower her resolve. It also kept her from speaking aloud the next thought to pass through her brain. "Everything always does when I'm around."
The boy gave Tara a quizzical glare. "What do you mean?"
Tara sighed. "Every time I try to help, something always goes wrong. Look what I've done here. I tried to protect Willow, and she got captured. I tried to help the Gungans, and led the droids right to them. I tried to do my best to help, and managed to cause an even bigger mess."
"Maybe," the boy said, his tone conveying more sincerity that Tara would have expected from a nine-year-old. "But you couldn't be expected to do everything. Master Qui-Gon is one of the wisest people I've ever met and even he couldn't defend me to the Council." He sighed. "I wanted to be a Jedi, but they thought I was too old. Qui-Gon stuck up for me, but even he couldn't convince them."
"I was too old, as well," Tara admitted. "But they accepted me. I've always wondered why." She couldn't tell him that it was because of her mother's sacrifice that she was allowed to become a part of the Jedi Order. She wasn't sure that he could understand.
The boy turned to respond, but a voice interrupted before he could reply. "Annie, we're almost ready. Go with the others. I need to talk to Master Maclay."
The boy nodded and ran off to join the small group. Qui-Gon sat down beside Tara. "I think we need to have a discussion, Master Maclay."
Tara swallowed. Something about the elder Master's tone indicated that this was not going to be a conversation that she wanted to hear. "Not that I...I...I...I want to...disagree, Master. But...I think that..."
Qui-Gon placed his hand on Tara's arm. "Now is as good a time as any, Tara. We may not get another chance."
Tara passed her gaze down to her feet and nodded. "I...OK."
Qui-Gon let out a deep sigh. "Tara, I know that you feel responsible for what has happened here. I want you to know that you should not be. You did the best that you could given the circumstances that you found yourself in. And you did all that was necessary in order to protect yourself and your Padawan."
"But I let her be captured," Tara blurted out. "I let her down just when she needed me the most."
"Willow knew the risks," Qui-Gon said, attempting to reassure Tara and hoping that she could control her feelings better. It deeply concerned him that Tara was showing more emotion about the situation that she should have. It also concerned him that Tara was putting her Padawan at the forefront of her thoughts. "And I know that you care for her."
This brought Tara's head around quickly. "I...I tried...I tried to maintain an emotional distance, Master. But..."
The hand on Tara's arm gently squeezed as Qui-Gon replied, "I know. You shouldn't feel guilty. It is only natural for someone in your situation to feel the way that you do. But you should not allow yourself to have your emotions control you. The only way to save Willow is to keep your mind on the task at hand. Our objective will be difficult as it is."
Tara faintly smiled, glad that she wouldn't have to explain herself. "I understand, Master. I won't let either of you down."
"I know you won't," Qui-Gon replied as he sat up and moved to join the others. After several steps, he turned back to look at Tara. "But I would suggest that you make your feelings known to the Council. They will need to know about this."
Tara's mood immediately darkened. She had thought that she could hide her feelings for Willow from everyone else. It was bad enough that Qui-Gon could comment on it. But Qui-Gon was a maverick and known for going against the Council. And although he had given her the option, from his tone he very much hoped that she would inform them about this new development.
The thought brought Tara up short. She had stood up for Willow, ensured that she would remain a part of the Jedi Order. The Council had given her to Tara in the hopes that she could turn the precocious Youngling into a shining example of what it meant to be a Jedi.
If she were to go to the Council and tell them that she had formed an attachment to Willow, they would consider it enough of a reason to cast her from the Order. She would have failed Willow once again. It would be a problem she would have to deal with later, however.
Right now, she had to concentrate on the mission. The ramifications would have to wait until later.
The hologram of Darth Sidious, projected from the holoplate of the mechno chair, gazed into the faces of Nute Gunray, Rune Haako, OOM-9 and his apprentice. They had passed onto him grave information that had the potential to disrupt his plans further.
"I had not believed that the Queen would attempt this," he told the assembled group. "She must be even more foolish than I thought."
"I have begun to increase security at the detention camps," OOM-9's electronic voice reverberated. "Resistance from the Naboo will be highly unlikely."
"And all remaining forces are converging near the swamps to confront the army assembling there," Gunray added. "It appears to be made up of primitives, my lord. Our forces will have no problem eliminating them."
"Your enthusiasm may be premature, Viceroy," Sidious scowled. "With a Jedi in your midst, the Queen's protectors will no doubt attempt to infiltrate the palace to rescue her." His gaze passed to his apprentice. "Lord Maul, once you have eliminated them, the prisoner's life is forefit. Eliminate her as you see fit."
Maul tilted his head in silent acknowledgement.
Gunray, meanwhile, entered the conversation once again. "I have your approval to proceed, my lord?"
Sidious' face remained passive. The coming battle may have meant something to Gunray and his lackeys, but it meant little to him. The Neimoidians and their droid forces were pawns to be discarded at his leisure. Should they defeat the Queen's forces, their act would bring him more of the influence he needed. Should they fail, he could turn their defeat into a situation that would support his long-term plans.
As long as the Neimoidians fulfilled their purpose, it mattered not whether they succeeded. Either way, he would emerge triumphant. His apprentice was another matter. The Jedi were formidable, and with one of their own as a prisoner of the Federation, they would come for her without fail.
But his apprentice would be there to stop them. Sidious had trained him specifically for the task of eliminating the Jedi from the galaxy. And the four on Naboo would only be the first to taste the unbridled fury that was Darth Maul, Dark Lord of the Sith.
The first step in his plan to gain complete control of the Republic was coming to a close. And this battle, regardless of its outcome, would be only the first skirmish in a firestorm that would sweep the galaxy and change it for decades to come.
But that was the future. And the present demanded his attention. The four beings before him awaited his response to their query. And he was all too happy to give it to them.
"Wipe them out. All of them."