A dreary little ice-world, but still the newest hidden base of the Rebellion and Blue Squadron's temporary assigned post. Echo Base had two squadrons and accompanying repair-crews 'on loan' from Home One while the majority of their forces were involved in an elaborate troop-transport effort. Though it was only a posting for a month or two, Tara was eager to return back to Home One. First of all, because Hoth was far away from any sort of action. Second, and more importantly, Willow was rather unhappy there.
Still, it wasn't all bad. Her friend Han was there as well, and they'd spent some time catching up. And because Willow could get rather cold, she often needed a set of arms to warm her up.
Tara and her entourage dropped out of hyperspace. In front of them, the Peragus asteroid belt loomed. The system was devoid of life giving worlds, or anything else useful. For thousands of years, Peragus had been a major fuel source for the galaxy. But that was ancient history. Now that every single drop of fuel had been extracted from the asteroids and planetoids, all that was left were ancient abandoned mining stations and a whole lot of useless floating rocks.
As asteroid fields went, this one was not as rough as some of the others. It was the perfect site for the kids to practise and play.
Six X-wings followed Tara in tight formation. Rookie Squadron contained the next generation of fighter pilots, talented youngsters being trained for the war. Seeing things were quiet on Hoth, it was the perfect time for another training mission, one that had the kids very excited. The plan was to set up a targeting range in a quiet, more stable spot in the asteroid-field to test their reaction speeds. After that, there'd be simulated dog-fights, something Rookie Squadron was really looking forward to.
"Blue Leader, calling in," Tara spoke in her comm.
"Copy that," Buffy replied. "Blue One, standing by."
Buffy had been Tara's wingman for two years and one of the first pilots she had selected when she was asked to form Blue Squadron. She was a plucky and daring pilot who was quick with the quips and always ready to serve. Rookie Two, Dawn, was Buffy's sister. As a trainee, Dawn was assigned to Echo Base and with the temporary transfer in effect, Buffy had been able to spend more with her sister. Tara understood that Buffy was quite proud of Dawn.
"Oy, Spike 'ere," Spike replied. "Blue two, waitin' my bloody bollocks off. What took you so long, Tara? One of the kids got lost?"
Spike was an equally daring pilot who loved space combat, though his irreverence and brash nature often got him into trouble with his superiors. Once, he had called Admiral Ackbar a 'smelly fish-face' when he didn't agree with one of the admiral's decisions. Spike had been lucky that Admiral Ackbar had a good sense of humor.
"I can hear you," Drusilla replied. "Blue Three, fluttering along like a butterfly, still as the wind running through your veins. Ssssssshhhh..."
Dru was a special kind of person. Some people, like Luke, said she was force-sensitive. Other people, like Han, said she was just plain nuts.
Whatever she was, Dru's erratic behavior and mannerisms showed in her piloting skills. Sometimes she was deadly calm and focused. Other times, she was almost like a berserker, flying her craft right into enemy fire with complete disregard of her own safety. This made her unpredictable in combat situations, and thus deadly to both friend and foe. But Tara always found there to be method in her madness: she avoided blaster-fire and other dangers aptly, almost as if she had some form or precognition. Somehow, Dru knew when her enemies would fire before they did, and was determined not to be in the spot her enemies would target.
Tara halted her Y-wing at the edge of the asteroid field, in front of her three wingmen, and the six Rookies did the same.
"Hi, Buffy!" sounded over the comm. "I'm so glad you're finally going to see me fly. Prepare to be amazed, sis!"
"Ahum," Tara coughed. "You're transmitting on an open channel, Rookie Two."
"Oh?" sounded Dawn. "OH! Sorry, Ta... uh, Blue Leader."
"Is the course prepared, Blue Two?" Tara asked.
"Aye, Blue One and I cleared the course with sonic charges. Make sure there's no tiny rocks there. Dru's towed the target into range and... bloody 'ell, there it is again!"
Tara frowned. "Come again, Blue Two?"
"Spike is chasing ghosts," Buffy giggled over the comm.
"I'm telling you there's someone out there!" Spike called back. "Bugger, now it's gone again!"
"Do you see something on sensors?" Tara asked. "R3?"
The droid buzzed in annoyance. He complained about being transferred to Hoth, he complained about Willow, he complained about being cooped up in Tara's Y-wing, and finally, he complained about having to perform a menial scan of the asteroid field. He angrily bleeped the result: nothing on sensors but dead rock, adding the comment that Tara could take a long walk off a short asteroid if she wanted another scan.
"Maybe it's the frequency," Spike said. "Lemme fiddle with it a bit..."
"It's probably a big rock with a metal core," Buffy sighed. "Let it go, Spike."
The comm crackled again, this time with Drusilla's voice. "I can hear the rocks. They tremble. They fear the monsters in the dark. Ssshhh. Don't warn the monsters or we shall be very concerned."
"Okay, now that gave me the wiggins," Buffy replied.
"Everything gives you the wiggins," Spike snorted.
Tara shook her head and looked through the viewport. The course was inside the asteroid-field, in an area that was considerably less treacherous than the rest of the field. Now that Spike and Buffy had cleared the course with sonic charges, leaving only the biggest, easiest to avoid rocks floating around, their training could begin."
"Alright, people, cut the chatter," Tara spoke into the comm. "We're going in. Blue Three, you're our point-woman. Rookie One and Two, tie your navicomputers into Blue One's and follow her into the asteroid field. Rookie Three and Four, your navicomputers will be tied to Blue Two's. Rookie Five and Six, you're with me."
A series of 'copy that's followed. The three experienced pilots followed Drusilla as she led the squadron through the corridor she had plotted in between, past, over and under the spinning, jagged rocks. Tara, Buffy and Spike flew by the information from Drusilla navicomputer, while their assigned Rookies flew in behind them in textbook formation. Eventually they arrived at a large clearing in the middle of the asteroid field.
"Well done," Tara spoke over the comm while Buffy, Spike and Drusilla continued on to their assigned positions. "We will begin with the first exercise. The route will be transmitted to you now. You will fly over Asteroid 1B, pass between 2A and 3B, perform a barrel roll underneath 4A and quickly pass the big rock in the middle that Blue One has dubbed Mr. Gordo. The target is somewhere behind Mr. Gordo. The course ends when you reach Blue One. We will be observing your performance and you will be rated on time, speed, technique and targeting accuracy. Oh, and since we only have one target, make sure you set your weapons to 1/1000 power. Any potential who kills the target will receive an automatic failing grade and a few harsh words from Drusilla who's been dragging that target through all these rocks for the last two days."
A few more 'copy that's followed while Tara got into position. Rookie One was first up. Amanda shot across the course, showing off some impressive flying for a pilot of her skill-level. Tara tied into Buffy's nosecam while Amanda swung around Mr. Gordo. Unfortunately, Amanda completely overshot the target, not even getting off a single shot before it was too late.
"Cor, that was impressive," Spike snorted over the comm. "You fly like an angel, but you shoot like a blind rodian in a smokey cantina."
"Stow it, Blue Two," Tara replied. "Rookie One, you did very well for your first flyby. Don't be discouraged. Alright, Rookie Two, you're up."
Dawn instantly proved that piloting skills were very well represented in the Summers genepool. She pulled off some very impressive moves and was making good times. But, like with Amanda, things went wrong when she swung around Mr. Gordo and fired at the target. Well, Tara thought. At least she fired at a target.
"Dawn!" Buffy shrieked over the comm. "I can't believe you shot at me!"
"She didn't shot at you, luv," Spike chuckled. "She hit you good."
"Mr. computer says that the little sister's simulated shots made the big sister's simulated reactor make a simulated kaboom," Drusilla broke in.
"Oh my god, Buffy, I'm so sorry!" Dawn replied.
"Dawn, you maniac!" Buffy replied indignantly. "You blew me up!"
Tara shook her head. At least now she'd have a nice story to tell Willow when they'd get back. "Alright, Blue Squadron, cut the chatter. We're not finished here."
"Dammit," Spike broke in. "What is this bollocks? That big thing's on my screen again. It's moved and... argh, now it's buggered off again."
"Copy that," Tara replied. Something isn't right here. "R3? Give me another long range scan of this sector."
R3 gave her a not-so-flattering reply, but complied with her order. When the results came in, there was nothing but rock on all spectrums. "I'm still getting nothing, Blue Two," Tara said. "Let's continue. Rookie Three, you're up."
"Uhm, this is Rookie One," Amanda broke in. "My sensors are off. A... a big part of the asteroid field has just disappeared. But they're still there. I can see them right over there."
It didn't take Tara long to realize that their sensors were being jammed. But before she could warn the others, green beams shot into the clearing from all sides, followed by the telltale whines of TIE-fighters as they blasted from the asteroid field and unleashed their weapons upon the unsuspecting rebel pilots.
Tara, like the rest of Blue Squadron, sprang into action and pushed their crafts to engage the fighters. All around her, Rookie Squadron was buzzing around the clearing, trying to make sense of the situation and desperately trying to avoid the TIE-fighters.
"TheyreeverywhereI'velostafoilWherearetheycomingfrom? BUFFY!HELPME!OnmysixWereallgonnadie!Cantshakethem!" sounded over the open comm channel. The simple training mission had turned into a nightmare. Many of the Rookies had never been in a true combat situation. And now there were boxed in, surrounded by TIE's.
They're panicking, Tara realized, to her horror. The TIE-pilots couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if their lives depended on it, but they had the Rookies so wound up they could fly right into an asteroid without even realizing it.
Tara got a straggler in her scopes and fired, sending one of the TIE-pilots to a fiery death and drawing two more away from Rookie Three's tail.
"I got one, I got one!" shouted Rookie Four excitedly, only to fall into bitter disappointment. "It didn't blow up."
"Rookie Squadron," shouted Tara. "Switch your weapons back to full power and defend yourselves!"
Tara and Buffy teamed up to protect two of the Rookies from a superior force of TIE's while a fourth battalion of TIE's entered the clearing.
"Blue Squadron," Tara spoke over a closed channel. "We can't hold this position. If we don't withdraw, the kids'll get slaughtered. Blue Three, you'll lead the kids out of here, while the rest of us will cover their exit."
Tara jerked her craft hard to starboard and accelerated sharply, firing her lasers into an attack-group of three TIE's. When Tara finally passed their position, all what was left of them were glowing shards of metal. Her victory was short-lived, however. For every TIE destroyed, two seemed to be taking its place.
"Rookie Squadron," Tara ordered. "Tie your navicomputers in with Blue Three. Follow her in tight formation and don't look back! We'll cover your backsides. As soon as you're out of the asteroid field, lay in a course to Waypoint 7 and jump to hyperspace."
A few frightened 'copy that's later, Drusilla punched a hole through the TIE-assault big enough for Rookie Squadron to follow through. While Spike, Buffy and Tara kept most of the TIE's busy, the kids rounded about and followed Drusilla into the asteroid field. And just as a sixth and seventh squadron of fighters entered the clearing, Blue squadron followed Drusilla as well.
It would be a lie to say that Tara wasn't worried. In front of her were Drusilla and the kids, followed suit by a squadron of TIE's. Behind them, two more squadrons followed in fast, while they were trying to keep the TIE's in front of them distracted enough to stop shooting at the kids. To add to the trouble, they were flying through the field at dangerous speed.
Tara was impressed at how the kids were holding out under pressure. They kept into tight formation and flew in a single file behind Drusilla as she skirted among the treacherously drifting rocks. Like a chicks following a mother hen. Or like a caterpillar crawling across the... Oh, crud, I've been hanging around Dru too long...
Behind her, two cocky TIE-pilots collided against each other and crashed into the asteroids.
Didn't even get off a shot. Where does the Empire find these nitwits? Tara wondered.
Spike veered off to engage a number of TIE's that were trying to take the kids into a pincer and was driven into the asteroid field quite a bit away from them, leaving only her and Buffy to the defense of Rookie Squadron.
Flashes of green beams passing along her Y-wing alerted Tara to the fact that the TIE's behind them were gaining. And they were still only halfway out. In front of her, one of the Rookies was under heavy fire from two TIE's, and Tara cursed when she realized her attempts to distract those TIE's weren't working. The rookie broke formation to avoid being destroyed and was driven deeper into the asteroid field, towards a second squadron of TIE's.
She recognized the fighter. Rookie Two.
Dawn was doing her best to dodge the fighters, but was facing certain death by being driven towards TIE's on the one side, and treacherously small drifting asteroids on the other side. Tara steered hard to port and tried to reached Dawn, only ending up playing cat and mouse when three TIE's behind her drove her to dodge them behind a rock. Tara slammed her fist into her control panel: there was no way she would be able to reach Dawn before she'd be destroyed.
"Tara," Buffy sounded over the comm, determination in her voice. "Take care of Dawn for me."
"Buffy?" Tara answered back while swinging around the rock and blasting away at a hapless TIE-pilot coming around the other end.
"Promise that you'll take care of Dawn for me."
It was then that Tara realized what Buffy was planning. "Buffy, there must be another way..."
"You know there isn't!"
Tara remained silent, but only for a second. There was no time to argue. "I promise," she whispered.
That was all the answer that Buffy needed. With a sharp turn, she steered her X-wing towards the squadron of TIE's that was approaching Dawn's position. She accelerated and went in lasers blasting, destroying three TIE's with one foul stroke. Unfortunately, there were twelve left to fight.
Tara made use of the temporary confusion to reach Dawn and took care of the two TIE's harassing her and instructed her to continue along the course that Drusilla had plotted. When Dawn was on her way, Tara steered back towards Buffy, only to see that she was under heavy fire. More TIE's were joining the assault, but Buffy kept fighting bravely. Five... Six... Seven... Eight... Ten... Twelve TIE's destroyed... Buffy was taking heavy damage.
Tara pushed her engines to the maximum output in the hope of reaching Buffy in time, but it was to no avail. To her horror, she saw Buffy take a direct hit to her stabilizer and spiraled out of control.
But she didn't scream. Tara had often heard the horrifying scream of a pilot who realized his or her death was mere seconds away. But not Buffy. She'd made her choice, to live and die by it.
Buffy managed to gain enough control to clip one of the TIE's and moments later, Buffy and her enemy collided against a big asteroid and died in a blaze of fire.
Tara felt numb. No sounds, no movement... there was just her and the explosion in front of her. The fire slowly faded away as the oxygen was being burned away. What had happened repeated again and again in front of her eyes. She snapped out of it almost too late to avoid the asteroid in front of her. Tara pulled hard to starboard and made a 180 degree turn. There was nothing more she could do.
Buffy's heroism had left the pursuing squadrons in disarray, allowing her friends to escape unharmed. Tara emerged from the confines of the asteroid field, just in time to see Dawn entering hyperspace and took solace in the fact that her friend's death was not in vain.
"Spike?" Tara said as a last X-wing emerged from the asteroid field and joined her wing.
"Aye," Spike replied. "Bucketheads gave me a spot of trouble. I bloodied their noses, though... and the rest of them too. Did everybody make it out?"
Tara sighed heavily. "N-no."
"Who?" Spike asked.
The sound of someone punching the side of his canopy, following by language that wasn't exactly protocol on any official radio channels.
"There's your sensor ghost," Tara said softly. Next to the edge asteroid field flew an old Venator-class carrier and, judging by the oversized sensor-arrays, it was a scout. Most of the TIE's were still trapped in the asteroid field, which gave Tara an idea.
"Spike?" she asked. "Do you still have sonic charges?"
"Yeah, three. Why?"
Tara explained her plan and, ten seconds later, they were headed towards the Venator-class ship. The turbolasers targeted them, but Tara and Spike deftly avoided the shots. Spike veered off towards the asteroid field, while Tara swiveled her ion cannon into the forward position.
"R3," Tara ordered. "Transfer all available power, except engine and hyperdrive, to the ion cannon, including primary life support systems."
R3 bleeped in compliance while Tara put on a breather mask and readied a thermal blanket. She'd only get one shot since the ion-cannon wasn't designed to process this kind of power. She carefully avoided the Venator's turbolasers, aimed carefully and waited until she was in point-black range. Then, she fired.
A bolt of ionized energy was released just before her ion-cannon literally exploded, rocking her craft violently. It shot forward while Tara pulled up sharply, hitting the ship's massive engines, disabling them instantly.
"Now, Spike!" Tara yelled and Spike detonated the three sonic charges he had dropped in the asteroid field. The power of the explosion sent tonnes of jagged rock hurtling towards the now defenseless Venator-class ship.
Tara and Spike didn't stick around to see if it was destroyed or not.
Willow tried to like Echo Base, seeing she and Tara were supposed to be stationed here for two months, but so far she wasn't having much luck. There wasn't a single place outside of Tara's warm, comforting arms where Willow wasn't freezing her butt off, especially now that the climate systems had failed yet again. But the cold wasn't the only thing that was bothering her.
She'd offered the techs to help them get the climate systems back online, but they had politely, yet firmly declined. Willow had surmised the base commanders still didn't completely trust her yet by the way they never assigned her to repair-duty of more critical systems. Mostly, she was assigned to droid-repair and secondary systems like food dispensers, computer consoles and power conduits. Though lately, her duties had been expanded by assisting her fellow tech Dhul over at Fighter Maintenance, which allowed her to spend more time with Tara, since she usually put in some work on her Y-wing each day.
When she had reached hangar bay three, she finally found the one place in Echo Base where she could actually warm up: the Millenium Falcon, which still had working climate systems. She had offered Han to help him and Chewie repair the ship and, though it looked like he was going to refuse at first, he must have seen the desperation in her eyes.
Seriously, why couldn't they have built their base on a tropical planet like Rakata? Willow thought as she gathered her toolkit and walked up the ramp leading into the Millenium Falcon. The warmth inside slapped her in the face. The only one having a worse time in this cold than me is Dhul, and he has the excuse of being a Geonosian. They don't react well to cold.
After unfreezing the block of ice that had formerly been her butt, Willow made true to her promise and gathered her tools to start work on the hyperdrive. She briefly felt rather ashamed at herself. Everybody was cold, but she was the only one who complained about it. Granted, her general lack of body-fat gave her a much harder time than most people
Willow wondered just what it was that had kept the Millenium Falcon in the air for all those years while she walked passed the exposed wiring and opened panels in the engine bay. As Willow had learned from Han, the ship constantly had to undergo extensive repairs. She made her way to the aft section of the ship and set her toolkit beside the hyperdrive.
While she was working at the hyperdrive control systems, Chewbacca's head suddenly popped from the maintenance hatch above her and let out a series of growls.
"AAAH!" was Willow's first reaction.
"Chewie has that effect on people," Han muttered while laying prone on his back, half embedded within the sublight engine access panels.
Willow muttered an apology and handed Chewie the hyper-spanner he asked for. The bemused Wookiee growled his thanks and returned to his repairs in the crawlspace above the aft section. Still, Willow didn't complain. For the first time since weeks she felt she could make herself useful here and the Millenium Falcon was... interesting to say the least.
"Han," Willow started. "I can't imagine how you got these components working together. You've got a custom built hyperdrive, Nordoxicon shield generator, a Quadrex power core and loads of other stuff which all have a different programming language. Theoretically, this ship is supposed to explode as soon as you switch on the power. It shouldn't work at all!"
"Well, it's always worked before," Han shrugged. "Just gotta work around the incompatibilities. Be creative."
Willow whistled. "I don't know if I'm supposed to be impressed that you've managed to get all these systems to talk to each other, or if I should be very worried that you've fixed the fuel injection systems with duct tape."
"Oh, be impressed, be very impressed," Han smirked. "This baby's got a lot of surprises in her."
"Is spontaneous combustion one of them?" Willow asked.
"And just for that," Han returned, "I won't tell you any secrets about Tara. Oh, I can tell you all sorts of things about Tara that you don't know. But now I'm not going to," Han challenged.
"Uh, this is the speediest most magnificent ship I've ever been on? I mean, it's fast, stream-lined and flown by the best pilot in the universe besides my Tara?" Willow tried while trying to make sense of the wiring in the hyperdrive.
"Close enough," Han chuckled while coming out of the panel and sat up to look for a converter he needed.
"Han?" Willow asked while working on the hyperdrive motivator coils. "Doesn't Tara have a smuggling ship like the Falcon?"
"There's no other ship like the Falcon, and don't you forget it," Han replied, pointing at Willow with a spanner. "But, yeah, Tara has her own ship, the Doll's Eye. It's a VCX-350."
Willow frowned. She read about the VCX-line of ships, a class of light freighter aimed at a more credit-heavy crowd than people who generally bought YT-1300 freighters like the Falcon, but she also knew it hadn't entered mass production yet. "How did Tara get her hands on one of those?"
"It's one of the prototype models," Han added. "Given to a deputy director as a retirement-gift. Sadly for him, he had a bit of a gambling problem. He lost the ship in a sabacc tournament. Lucky for Tara, she was playing against him in the first round. Traded in her old YT-1210 for a nice sum too. But I don't care how luxurious her new captain's quarters is, I still have a much faster ship."
"Where's the Doll's Eye now?" Willow asked. "I'd love to see it."
"Lando, that's a friend of ours, is minding it for her at Cloud City on Bespin," Han said before crawling back into the engine panel with the right part. "You know, I never figured there'd be a single girl in this galaxy who'd be able to tame Tara."
Willow put down her spanner and crossed her arms. "Tame? Tara's not a wild animal," she huffed with a pouty expression.
"Oh, I beg to differ," Han smirked. "Before her Rebel Crusade days, Tara used to be one of those girls who had a lover in every spaceport. More than one woman saw the inside of her luxurious captain's quarters, let me tell ya. But after the first time we contacted you... It takes the Falcon four hours to drift past the sensor nets in the Kuat System, and Tara spent all those hours talking about you. 'Oh, Han, hasn't she got the most enchanting eyes you've ever seen? I could just drown in those deep pools of green'. Every single time we contacted you on Kuat, I had to spend four agonizing hours listening to a lovesick Tara raving and ranting about your eyes, hair and various other bodyparts because.... OWWWWW!"
A static charge shot across the engines and spread to every single system in the aft section. Willow yelped as the charge hit the hyperdrive and slammed her into the floor. The electricity crackled and slowly bleed away. She set up and felt that her hair was standing straight up.
"Sorry about that," Han started combing his charged hair. "That happens sometimes. Don't know why, exactly."
A loud bellow came from the service corridor. Out jumped Chewbacca, and Willow had to bite her lip to keep herself from laugh. Chewie confronted Han angrily, and the best way to describe his current statically charged condition was 'furball'. The enraged Wookiee spat a series of growls at Han, and though Willow didn't speak Wookie, she could tell none of it was flattering. Chewbacca stomped off through the corridor, hurling more growls at Han.
Han merely shrugged. "He'll come back. He always comes back."
"Uhm," Willow said while trying to get her hair to behave. "Did Tara really say those things about me?"
"Sure," Han sighed, taking note of Willow's slight blush. "But if you ask me, women are nothing but trouble. And Leia's the worst of them all."
"Oh, I wouldn't know," Willow smiled. "I've been spending more time with Tara than with Leia."
"I can tell you all sorts of things about Tara that you don't know," Han challenged.
Willow, her curiosity more than piqued, stopped working for a moment. "Oh? Like what?"
"Well, did you know that Tara restores old battledroids as a hobby?" Han said. "It's true. She finds a rustbucket on the scrapheap and fixed it up in her little spare time, when she wasn't gambling or womanizing. Usually, she stripped the weapons and programmed them to look pretty. She's got quite a collection. A BT-16, a BL-droid, couple of old Buzz-droids, an octuparra. Funny story, some two-bit scrapdealer Watto on Tatooine sold her this old armored battledroid from the Clone Wars. Tara said it was in excellent condition, so she installed an independent electronic brain and programmed some butler-protocols it. It was quite a sight to see her and Lando sitting on the observation platform while an SBD served them their drinks."
Willow laughed for a moment. Tara being pampered by a formerly impressive armored battledroid was quite the mental image.
"Made a lot of people nervous too," Han continued. "Bespin's got a lot of Clone War veterans living there, so Tara left it on the ship, to help her load cargo. This other time, one of her clients couldn't pay up so he gave her this 'antique'. It was an ancient rust-covered battledroid about 4000 years old. Mean looking thing too, had red glowing eyes. Tara worked days and nights fixing it up and replacing old rusted parts. But when she was ready to switch it on, it wouldn't work. Tara couldn't understand why. I told her that she'd been had and that it only was a 4000 year old pile of scrap. Hey, it happens to the best of us."
"Not Tara," Willow admonished.
"Even to Tara," Han smirked while closing the panels to the sublight engine. "So, Tara goes to bed and leaves the droid in the hold of her ship. The next morning, it's gone without a trace. Lando turned all of Cloud City upside down, but it was nowhere to be found. Whoever stole that droid also took a lot of weapons from Tara's cache, but Tara was mostly miffed that the droid was taken."
"Weird," Willow said while screwing the top onto the hyperdrive motivator. "Well, this hyperdrive should be working again... I think... I hope... It should?"
"Well, is it working or not?"
Willow looked into the hyperdrive and back at Han. "I honestly don't know," she said sincerely.
"Ah, you Imperial techs, sorry former Imperial techs, need to learn to think outside the box a bit more."
At that moment, the telltale ticking of chitin on metal could be heard coming from the corridor. Dhul, make a rather silly impression... a Geonosian wearing a thick parka with the tips of his folded up wings just sticking out from underneath it generally wasn't easy to take seriously. Dhul whirred and clicked in his native language, but the translator on his belt told her that Blue Squadron was returning to the hanger.
The moment of joy Willow experienced at the idea of Tara returning home quickly faded when she saw the scorch marks on her Y-wing as it slid into the hanger bay and put down on her assigned landing pad. Several of the Rookie Squadron X-wings were in similar shape, some missing a foil or an engine pod.
"So much for the little training mission," Han shrugged as he followed Willow who was running towards Tara's craft.
The canopy popped open and Tara jumped out, immediately taking a surprised Willow into a fierce hug. Willow let out a strangled cry after a while. "Buckle," Willow whispered when the large buckle in the front of Tara's flight suit pressed through her clothes into her flesh. "Sharp buckle..."
Tara released Willow, but the dour look on her face worried her.
"Tara?" Willow asked.
"You have been in the war, haven't you?" Han quipped. "So, did one of the kids forget to power down their weapons during the dogfight?"
Tara ignored Han and watched as repair and medical teams swarmed towards the fights, while one fire-crew worked on coating one particularly volatile engine-pod with fire-resistant foam. "We r-ran into bucketheads and w-we l-lost someone," Tara whispered.
Willow swallowed hard. "Who?"
A bewildered Dawn strolled around the hanger bay, looking around frantically until she finally came to Tara's Y-wing.
Dawn looked bewildered and wide-eyed, in a neat state of shock. "Tara?" Dawn asked softly. "Where's Buffy?"
"Oh, god," Willow whispered softly. Even Han refrained from his usual biting quips and stood by silently.
"Dawn," Tara started.
"S-s-s-s-s-she was just behind us," Dawn replied. "W-we..."
"Dawn," Tara started again, squeezing her eyes shut to keep the tears back.
"NO!" Dawn shouted angrily. "Don't say it! Don't you dare say it! S-she's still out on patrol. She held back to see if we were being followed. She... She's scouting the asteroid field! P-perimeter patrol. Yeah, she's on patrol She's..."
"Dawn," Tara whispered softly.
"No, you're wrong! You're all wrong!" Dawn gritted her teeth. "Any time now, she's going to come in flying through those hangar-bays! You'll see!" she called back while walking to the bay control doors. "You'll all see! You'll all see she's fine!"
"How long has she been sitting there?" Han asked while he and Tara stood at the Falcon. Some 150 meters away sat Dawn, crosslegged on a cargo container, tireless watching the massive bay doors and the clear blue sky beyond. Watching and waiting.
"Almost two days now," Tara sighed. "I've brought her food, drink, a blanket. She never says a word."
"Poor kid," Han said.
"Buffy was the only family she had left when her planet..." Tara started to say.
"In a way," Tara said, but there was no humor in her voice. "Alderaan."
"Poor Dawn," Tara sighed. "She's lost everything she ever had. She and Buffy joined the Rebellion after the Death Star... They were the only members of their family to be off-world when it happened. Buffy was making a cargo-run to Corellia and Dawn had stowed away on her ship with her swoop-bike to try to race on the Jolanu Swoop-tracks."
"At least she's still alive," Han said. "Oh, Luke asked me to tell you that Rogue Squadron found your Venator. You and Spike really did a number on that old rustbucket. She was at drift, all systems down. Dead in space."
"Good," Tara gritted her teeth. "What did they find?"
"It was a long-range scout," Han replied. "Cargo bay filled to the brim with probe-droids, using the magnacite ore in the asteroids as cover. I think they must have been in the system for a while and tried to take you out just in case you'd seen too much. Typical Imperial tactics. Still, a scout snooping around five systems away from Hoth... I got a bad feeling about this."
Tara nodded. "We did a standard evasive jump. We went to five different systems before coming to Hoth. I think we're safe."
I hope we're safe Tara added mentally.
The next day, Tara went to the hangar bay to work on her Y-wing and to bring Dawn a thermal blanket. Weather conditions outside were bad, and the temperature in the hangar had dropped significantly. When she entered the hangar, she noticed that Dawn was having words with one of the quartermasters.
"Tara!" Dawn shouted at her. "Tell this dork that he can't shut the bay doors!"
"I have to!" the quartermaster, a burly middle aged man shouted back. "Have you seen the snowstorm outside? We'll lose our electrical systems or, worse, our crafts if we don't close the bay doors."
"But Buffy won't be able to get in! She's... been gone two days and there'll be a closed bay door. She'd have to circle the planet and wait even longer. Please, Tara, you have to tell them to keep the bay doors open for Buffy! Please!"
Tara responded by folding the thermal blanket across Dawn's back. She flinched when she felt that Dawn was stone-cold and that parts of her hair had started to freeze. Tara started rubbing Dawn's equally cold hands, hoping to rub some warmth in them. "Vesser," she told the quartermaster. "Close the bay doors."
Dawn's head snapped to Tara and, for a moment, she had the look of a child crying for a betrayed mother. But her expression softened slightly. Dawn strolled to the cargo containers at the side of the bay doors while they started to slowly close. She slid to the ground, supporting her back to the containers. A flinch travelled through her body at the moment that the massive bay doors met in the middle.
Tara sat down beside Dawn, allowing the smaller girl to press against her.
"When Buffy and I were younger we used to swoop together," Dawn said softly. "We'd used to zoom across the grass-plains of Alderaan at speeds that gave our mother heart-attacks. We've always been speed demons. Been swooping since I was ten, but Buffy was always a spacer at heart."
"I know," Tara replied. "Space was in her blood."
"It was a prank."
"When I shot at her instead of the target. It was a silly prank. Spike suggested it."
"She's not coming back, is she?"
"I'm so sorry, Dawn."
"I'm so cold," Dawn whispered and finally allowed herself to cry.
Willow had returned from a long day of food dispenser repair and longed for a cup of hot chocolate and a lengthy snuggle from Tara as she entered the quarters which they shared. Immediately upon entering, she found an extra cot. On it, lay an exhausted Dawn, peacefully sleeping while covered by ten layers of thermal blankets.
"I've asked her to come live with us for a while," Tara spoke from the small cooking area of their small quarters, preparing Willow's usual hot chocolate after a long day of slaving away at repairing disobedient electronics.
"She shouldn't be alone right now," Willow replied softly. "You're right."
"We're holding a memorial service for Buffy soon," Tara said. "I've asked the base commander to hold off on the ceremony until Dawn's ready for it. I'm also putting in a request to Admiral Ackbar for Dawn to complete her training on Home One."
Tara smiled briefly. "I have a promise to a friend to keep."
In the background R3 bleeped angrily about yet another meatbag cluttering up his tiny living space. Humans could be so very, very annoying...
Oh, btw, here's a link with a picture of Tara's ship, the Doll's Eye. I thought it was really cute ship when I saw it. Perfect for Tara. VCX-350 light freighter