Corellian Sector of Nar Shaddaa
It had taken Tara all of fifteen seconds for her to realize that she really did not enjoy being on Nar Shaddaa. True, the thought of having to face her father didn't make her feel that comfortable, but that wasn't what was upsetting her the most.
No, her current feelings of apprehension could be easily traced to the fact that she had been agonizing for the near full day that she had been skulking about on the world about whether her decision to continue on, despite the objections voiced by Master Halcyon and the doubts beginning to surface in her own mind, was the correct course of action. Her father was no doubt at this very moment making the rounds of the local cantinas, finding the worst of the worst to hire in his private vendetta against Master Halcyon, and seeing who out of their number deserved to have the honour of bringing him to his knees before he personally took his life, just as his was taken so long ago. And no doubt, after that was done, send those very same people after her.
Her paranoid feelings weren't exactly assuaged by the fact that many of the people she had passed since arriving here had given her more than a casual glance, a rather unfortunate by-product of her choice of clothing, a pair of beaten up patch worked trousers and loose fitting top. The captain of the freighter who had brought her here had said that they belonged to this one girl he had met on Atzerri that had tried to rob him blind, only to meet a rather unfortunate end when he had caught her in the act. Tara had been reluctant to take the clothes, saying that she wouldn't be caught dead wearing them in any circumstances. But she had relented when the captain had told her a very plain truth: "Maybe so, but you go out there dressed like a Jedi, and I can guarantee that you will get caught and you will end up dead."
Her robes were safely stashed in the small room she had managed to rent in a nearby flat, where they would most likely remain until she was ready to depart. She kept her cloak wrapped around herself, hood covering her head to mask her face. It wasn't at all necessary for her to go to those sorts of great lengths to hide her identity. Even though she was now on the Jedi Council, she had remained, mostly by her own design, a relatively unknown Jedi. Even her role in the galaxy's most well known conflict, that of the Battle of Naboo, had been largely forgotten by the populace, the true honours of the day going where they rightfully belonged: to Master Kenobi and his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker. After all, both of them, along with Master Qui-Gon and young Queen Amidala, had played vital roles in the overthrowing of the Trade Federation. All she had done was throw Willow headlong into danger she had been ill prepared to handle, have her get captured, and nearly get her killed.
"And now it's happening all over again," Tara thought as she lowered her head to the ground, realizing only then why it was that she had decided to continue on. It wasn't that she had any doubts as to the abilities of Master Halcyon and Willow, nor was it because she believed them incapable of handling things on their own that she had forcibly insisted that Devaronian accompany them. It all boiled down to one simple fact: unless she was with them, and was involved in what they were doing, even on a purely superficial level, they would both end up dead. And if there was one thing in this galaxy she wanted more than to be with Willow, is was to make sure that she was never placed into harm's way because of her ever again.
"Perhaps that is why the Jedi Code preaches forbidding attachments to others. I wouldn't have made the decisions I have for anyone other than Willow. I wouldn't have lied to Master Halcyon for any reason other than to protect Willow. And I certainly wouldn't have come here unless it was to help Willow. If being so much in love with someone can impair one's judgement this badly, maybe it's better to remain emotionally detached from society..."
Tara's train of thought came to a sudden halt as she collided with someone in front of her only moments before she registered the impending act through the Force. Falling onto her rear, she moved to steady herself with one hand as she lowered her hood to look at the person she had collided with. The figure was a tall brunette female wearing a synthleather jacket over a skintight black bodysuit that more than complimented her figure. From her appearance, Tara figured that she must be an escort girl for some influential death stick dealer. But then she noticed the holstered blaster rifle slung on her left side and the vibroblade sheathed to her right thigh and realized that this person, whoever she was, was more than capable of beating up any of those sorts of people that came her way.
The woman extended a hand to Tara. "You OK?"
Tara took the hand and got to her feet. "Yeah." Figuring that she should take the opportunity to apologize for her slight, she quickly added. "Sorry about that."
"It's OK," the woman shrugged noncommittally. "But a word of advice, it's not really a good idea to keep your head down. Never know what sort of kook will come up behind ya and slit your throat before you could do anything about it."
Tara swallowed and nodded dumbly in reply, watching as the woman made her way into a nearby cantina, pulling a comlink out of the pocket of her jacket as she did so. For a moment, she considered going after her, then realized that it might not be a good idea to do that. For all she knew, that woman was someone who had been contacted by her father, and it wouldn't be the best of ideas to let her or anyone else know who she was. The fewer people who did, the better off she would be.
Straightening her clothes, she drew the hood of her cloak up and re-entered the crown, doing her best to remain inconspicious.
"You see him?"
The Rodian lowered the electrobinoculars he held and turned to Beth, his snout upturned in a close approximation of a sneer. "No. Iz hard to zee any one individual among hundredz of otherz. Ezpecially when you have no idea what he lookz like."
"You know what he looks like," Beth retorted. "I showed all of you the holo of his face."
"That doezn't mean anything," the Rodian countered. "He could be hiding hiz face. It'z not that difficult, and would be the zmart thing to do in a place like thiz."
Beth blew out a breath, clearly realizing that she had been beaten. "Di'kut."
"Language," Kieran scolded, coming up to kneel beside Beth. "Got a lead on our perp?"
"Not yet," Beth said, jerking a thumb back towards the Rodian. "That is, if you believe anything he has to say. Personally, I wouldn't trust my life to anything he says."
Kieran nodded. "I guess we move on to plan B." He got up, stopped halfway, and looked back at Beth. "You do have a plan B, right?"
"Of course," Beth hissed, watching as her uncle moved off. As soon as he was out of sight, she withdrew her comlink. "All right, Kallanik, Cade, Grizz. Go to plan B."
"What's plan B?" came the reply.
"I don't know. Make something up!"
Faith pocketed her comlink she had been speaking into as she entered the "Burning Deck" cantina. It was an establishment whose reputation Faith knew by heart, being one of the three most popular dives in the Corellian Sector and known for its loose drinks and looser entertainment. And true enough, a majority of the bar's patrons were clustered around the central stage, watching a group of Twi'lek and Zeltron dancers put on a show that would have been illegal in most civilized systems. A small crowd, however, had gathered near the back, watching as a petite blonde was working her own kind of show, one Faith knew was just as illegal as the one taking place on the main stage, and one in which she performed so well that she eventually squeezed every credit out of those who saw it.
Faith could remember the first time she had met the blonde. The Guild had recently posted a twenty thousand credit bounty on the head of some two bit piece of merchandise that had offed a prominent Republic legal aide. She had pursued the guy for a week and a half before learning that there was someone else going after him. Faith had never been the type to share, and thus had taken it personally that someone was after something she wanted.
Then she ran into a group of pirates attacking a ship on the outskirts of the Subterrel Sector, and realizing who it was they were attacking, she had been prepared to leave them to their fate. But then she had gotten a message from the ship. Only it hadn't been from her rival, but some kid. Assuming that the woman she was competing with had captured some kid to use as a bargaining chip, she rushed to their aid, vaping three fighters and sending the rest packing before she boarded the ship to rescue the kid. And learning that she hadn't been kidnapped, but had been the sister of her competitor, whom the kid insisted Faith rescue as well.
It was during the blonde's treatment at a nearby medical facility that the kid - Dawn - had told her the whole story. The man Faith had been pursuing had assassinated her mother, the aide to the Anaxes Senator, and had gotten away from Coruscant authorities. Taking it personally, the blonde had taken a ship and gone after him, insisting that Dawn come with her so that they wouldn't be lonely. Faith's heart had immediately gone out to the pair. Having come from a bad home life as well, she knew how bad it must have been for the two.
It didn't hurt that the kid's sister was the finest thing on two legs that Faith had ever seen that hadn't had the benefit of lekku or pheremones. She herself had a reputation as a girl who had someone at the spaceport of every planet from here to Wild Space, but after meeting those two, she knew that she couldn't be that way any more. The kid...Dawn needed a stable family life, and Buffy would need to have someone in her life that she could depend on, and perhaps, given enough time, even care for.
Buffy...the first time she had heard that name, Faith had nearly laughed. No way in the Minions of Xendor was that her real name. But she had kept her mouth shut, realizing that it would be insulting to Dawn if she had made a mockery of her sister. And besides, it wasn't as if she didn't understand the necessity of having a dual identity. The two had decided to become Dawn's surrogate parents, making sure she grew up right in a galaxy that looked to be doing its best to come apart. Excellent mechanical skill, an ear for eavesdropping, and a crack shot on a laser cannon only got you so far in this universe.
Moving over to the bar, she order two Gizer Ales, which the Besalisk bartender was quick to make and place in front of her, doing so just as Faith felt a pair of arms wrap around her waist. "I missed you."
The small smile on Faith's face faded. "It didn't look like you did."
"Is Dawn OK?"
"She's fine," Faith replied, downing a good portion of her drink. "I stopped by a friend of mine's on the way back to the Five By Five and picked her up a holovid." Seeing Buffy's scandalous expression, Faith quickly added. "A tasteful holovid, B. I know a guy who makes a living writing historic holodramas and got him to do a vid based around the old Jedi Civil War."
"The one involving Revan, Malak, Bastila and the Star Forge?"
"That's the one."
Buffy moved to the stool beside Faith. "Dawn always was a fan of those old holostories. Mom used to read to her every night. Her favourite story was the Ruusan Campaign." She chuckled slightly. "I'm sure she'll enjoy that vid. I wonder how she'd react if she knew we got the only surviving relic of that adventure stashed in our cargo hold."
"Stop wondering, B," Faith grumbled in reply, nursing her drink. "She's never going to find out."
Noticing her companion's bad mood, Buffy moved to take her arm. "What's wrong?"
Faith sighed. "Nothing." Unconvinced, Buffy pressed on.
"Is this cause of what I was doing back there?"
Faith shook her head. Despite this, Buffy remained unconvinced. "It is, isn't it? I knew that bothered you..."
"It doesn't!" Faith shouted, unfortunately drawing the attention of those nearby. Once things had settled back down, she continued softly, "Look, B. It's nothing you've done. I promise you. The kind of life you've led, you should try to find whatever opportunity you can to have fun. I know where you've been, remember?"
"The galaxy's changing, B," Faith said as she downed the last of her first drink and reached for the others. "Used to be guys like us fly in and out of the star systems, picking out the bad guys and delivering them to the good guys for the credits. Nowadays it's getting harder and harder to find the good in most people. Take the Seps, for instance. They got legitimate problems with the Republic, yet are treated no better than the rest of us lowlifes simply because Chancellor Prissypants can't get off his high horse to work out some kind of deal with them, not realizing that his side's going down the Sarlacc pit faster than a Podracer tearing up the track at the Andobi Mountain Run. And as for the Jedi..."
Faith downed a significant portion of her drink and sighed. "It's never been that great for them, B. Things like Antar IV and that whole 'Baby Ludi' thing ain't exactly helping their case. The way things are going, it's going to be a matter of time before someone out there does something the other side isn't going to take very well, and this whole galaxy will go down the referesher faster that ice cubes melt on Tatooine." She turned to look at Buffy. "And can you seriously think it would be a good idea for Dawn to grow up in that kind of environment?"
"I've never really thought about it like that," Buffy replied after a moment's pause, seeing Faith be so eloquent and philosophical really surprising her.
"Maybe it's time you did," Faith muttered as she downed the rest of her drink and motioned for the Besalisk to refill it. "You know I hate being the nice one in this relationship."
Faith snickered as the Besalisk placed a third drink in front of her. "That's why I did it, you know."
"Got Dawn that holovid," Faith explained. "The Jedi are being treated like nerf dung by the majority of folks in the galaxy, it's not going to be long before their way of life becomes extinct and most of the people won't bat an eye about it. I want to make sure that Dawn realizes that, despite public opinion, there was a time when they were seen as heroes to a bunch of folks. Because when the inevitable happens, it's going to be up to people like you and me to bring them back, and I want to make sure that Dawn fights for the winning side."
Buffy was on the verge of tears by the time Faith had finished speaking, and motioned for the Besalisk to give her a drink. As he gave her the glass, she asked, "So when do we leave?"
"Tomorrow morning," Faith responded. "I think we've cooled our retros here long enough. Besides, we promised we'd take Dawn to Aquilaris for her birthday."
"You promised," Buffy smirked. "All I remember doing when you told Dawn we were going to go watch the Aquilaris Classic for her birthday was sit in disbelief as you spoiled her again."
"What can I say, B?" Faith said with a grin as she took a swig of her drink. "I just love kids."
Willow had only made it several feet beyond the hatch leading to the cockpit before the ship lurched violently. Thrown off her feet, she only barely managed to catch the edge of a nearby console and work her way back to her feet. R5, not nearly so lucky, found himself sailing dome first into the side wall, letting out the electronic equivalent of a screech the whole way. Making her way to one of the chairs, Willow sat down and strapped herself in, turning to glare at the Devaronian at the pilot's controls. "Fly much?"
"Not my fault," came the retort from Villie as he worked the controls to bring the ship under some kind of control. "You know how cranky hyperdrive is; rest of ship no better off. We lucky to make it to Nar Shaddaa without blowing apart, if others don't feel like blowing us apart first."
Willow said nothing in reply as she looked out the viewport at the world in the far distance and the moon orbiting it. While she had been periodically making sure that the hyperdrive got them here in one piece, she had been reviewing everything she could on the Y'toub system. A system of six planets orbiting a yellow sun, it had originally belonged to a species known as the Evocii before the Hutts had moved in, and in predictable fashion, soon made it their own. The central planet of the system, originally named Evocar, soon became known as Nal Hutta, which meant "Glorious Jewel" in the language of the Hutts. It was, however, anything but, as thousands of years of Hutt occupation had turned a temperate jungle world into an over polluted bog of a planet only its new tenants could find beautiful.
It certainly appeared more preferable to Willow than their intended destination. Nar Shaddaa had become known to those in the know as Little Coruscant, as the moon, much like the Republic capital, had become a sprawling ecumenopolis early in galactic history and had more or less remained the same way throughout the last twenty four thousand years. The only major difference was that Coruscant's upper levels were a haven of modernized artwork and cleanliness, while Nar Shaddaa's upper levels put Coruscant's undercity to great shame, and left little wonder to the state of affairs in the moon's own undercity, which popular rumour held no one went into and survived.
The whole experience had brought back to mind fears from her own childhood, of getting lost in Coruscant's underworld and running afoul of the dangerous miscreants inhabiting the area. Only through the interference of Tara had she been able to get out of that situation. Not for the first time, Willow found herself wishing that Tara was nearby. Things just seemed a whole lot safer when she was around.
"It will be OK, Willow," Nejaa said, obviously picking up on her latent fears through the Force. "I'll be there to help you. And so will Villie."
"Not by choice," the Devaronian muttered as he brought the ship on course of the moon.
Willow swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat, wishing once more that Tara was nearby. It was strange. For a few moments back on Bothawui, it had felt as if she had been close by, watching over her shoulder and making sure things were all right. But as soon as she had felt that touch, it had disappeared, leaving her more shaken than ever.
"I've got a bad feeling about this."
"I've got a bad feeling about this."
Tara had gotten that feeling of subtle wrongness about the situation through the Force for some time now, a feeling that she had dismissed as her nervousness about the situation overworking itself. But despite that, the feeling continued to persist, and it didn't take long for her to come to the undeniable conclusion that something was very wrong. She moved a hand to her belt, where she had clipped her lightsaber out of sight, and waited for her unseen opponents to make the first move.
She didn't have to wait long, as she saw from an alleyway ahead three figures detach themselves from the shadows and make their way towards her. Two of them were human, a bald man and a short cropped brown hair ruffian, both of whom didn't appear, or smell for that matter, to have taken a shower in days. The third being was a Wookiee, one who held a bowcaster aimed directly at her head. The others likewise drew their weapons and pointed them in her direction.
"Right, that's it. Now put your hands where I can see them."
Tara did as she was told, using the Force to unclip her lightsaber and put it into her hand as she brought it out from undercover. The bald man snickered at that. "Nice plan, Grizz. Only someone with something to hide would hang around the back alleys."
"Come from the territory, Cade," Grizz replied. "The only way to get what you want is to do it out of sight of anyone who can catch you." To Tara, he continued, "OK, buddy. Drop that thing." To Cade, he whispered, "Go get him."
"Me?" Cade replied, obviously surprised by this turn of events. "Why do I gotta do it?"
"Because I got my gun trained on him."
"I got my gun on him, too! So does Kallanik. I don't see either of you making a move."
"Just do it!"
Cade sighed and moved towards Tara, complaining all the while. As he closed in, she allowed her lightsaber to fall from her hand. Cade's muttering grew louder as he bent over to pick up the weapon...and immediately fell backward as Tara brought her knee up to impact directly onto his chin. Before the other two could react, Tara reached out and yanked their weapons away, sending them back down the alleyway behind her. Calling her weapon back to her hand, she ignited the blade and brought it down to the fallen man's chin.
"I don't want to hurt anyone, so just answer my questions and we'll have no problems. Understand?"
The three nodded. Unseen, Tara smiled faintly. "Good, now first things first. Where is Kieran Maclay?"
"Right behind you."
Tara heard the voice a split second before she felt the stun blast come from behind her, knocking her breath away and sending her collapsing face first onto the ferrocrete ground. Ironically, as she slipped into unconsciousness, she found the voice to be more painful than the combined blast and fall.
Kieran lowered the modified Rawk chopped special he held and watched as Beth made her way over to the fallen figure. Something about the ease at which the past few minutes had gone by had clearly unsettled him. The man who had put him away so many years ago would not have fallen for such an obvious trap. What was going on here?
His concern only grew as Beth called out, "Uncle, you'd better come look at this!"
Kieran made his way over to where Beth was, watching as she looked down at...no. It couldn't be. Kieran broke out into a wide grin and began to laugh. Beth smiled as well, and let out a chuckle.
The others obviously didn't understand. "What's so funny?" Cade asked. "This ain't the guy we were hired to off."
"No," Kieran smiled. "She's not."
"Then who is it?" Grizz asked.
"Someone even better," Kieran said, turning to Beth. "Someone who's going to make sure things go our way. Now quickly, get her up and out of here before someone notices."
Sitting in front of the sensor station of the Five By Five, Dawn Summers watched an interesting confrontation take place near the Corellian Sector from the security of her parents' ship, a modified MSE droid, one of many she used for eavesdropping and espionage purposes, recording the whole incident from a safe enough distance to avoid being caught. From the look of things, whatever had just taken place had to be of some interest to someone, if they did it under the cover of a back alley and moved quickly to cover their tracks. All she had to do now was convince her surrogate parents to find out whom and see if they could get a little money out of letting those people know.
She smiled. "Happy birthday to me."