Botajef Freighter-Liner Screeching Hawk-Bat
The trip that the two Jedi and their droid companion were undertaking would take two days. Willow, at least for the first few hours of that journey, took the time to familiarize herself with their intended destination.
Bothawui, located in the Bothan Sector of the Mid Rim, was a unique place, in that the planet had sided neither with the Republic or the Confederacy, preferring to remain independent. Despite the fact that either side could easily occupy the planet and force its citizens to actively contribute to their goals to the exclusion of all else, neither side had made more than the barest of token offerings to the planet before abandoning any real full scale military action, effectively leaving the world to its own devices. The fact that Bothawui was home to one of the largest information and spy networks in the galaxy no doubt played a key role in that decision. The information that the Bothan spy networks provided would be of great importance to both sides should open warfare break out, so it made sense for the Bothan government not to officially declare itself as more favorable to one side more than the other in order to maintain a certain degree of neutrality, since no matter what ended up happening, they would profit a great deal from it.
After she had done that, Willow decided to talk with Nejaa, both of them agreeing that, in the little time that they had before they reached their destination, it would be a good idea for them to talk about whatever was on their mind. Since she was going to be spending a lot of time with the man, Willow agreed, knowing that it would be a good idea for her to get to know him better beyond what Tara had told her. Having spent the better part of her childhood with the man, she knew a lot about him, but those tales, from her point of view anyway, always seemed to have gotten mixed up with the telltale signs of hero worship that made their credibility questionable, and thus made them, more often than not, get turned into something that wasn't meant to be created. It would be nice to hear those tales from someone who was more modest.
At this moment, the two of them were sitting down at one of the many makeshift tables inside the freighter's common area, Willow casting her glance around the room at the other passengers who were also in the room. Most were humans, but there were the odd smattering of nonhumans, including an Ithorian family and three Kubaz that looked rather shady. She made a mental note to keep an eye on them.
Turning around as Nejaa returned with two trays, she smiled as the food was placed in front of her, only to have it slip as she looked at the offerings. "I know that the galaxy has its problems, but I didn't think that shipboard food service was one of them."
Nejaa smiled as he took a drink from the glass on his tray, making a face as he set it down on the table and swallowing painfully. "One thing you can always count on, Willow, is than when times get tough, so will the food."
Willow chuckled and picked up her fork, tapping her meal with it several times, then deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, placed the utensil back on the tray. Nejaa amused by Willow's antics, decided to show her that it couldn't possibly be as bad as she was making it out to be. Dipping his own fork into the meal, he brought it up to his mouth, but the smile on his face dropped quickly as he found out first hand how bad it truly was.
The look on Nejaa's face made Willow smile, but she then decided that now was probably as good a time as any to broach a topic that concerned her more than the content of their meals. "Master Halcyon, do you think that Tara...that Tara will hate me?"
Nejaa looked Willow directly in the eye, a curious expression on his face. "For what?"
Willow swallowed, mostly to fight down her growing gag reflex at the smell of the food in front of her, but partially to prepare to ask the question she had been asking herself for the past several hours. "Because...Because she might think that I'm being...selfish by coming with you without talking to her first. I mean, I know that we were together for a long time, but when I became a Knight, I knew that there would be a lot of changes to our relationship, and even though we love to spend time together and truly want to spend time together, I would like to think that I have gained the right to be a little more independent when I need to be. I mean, I know we promised each other that we'd try to be together as much as we could, but with the galaxy the way that it is..."
"Willow," Nejaa interrupted, the redhead's babbling attempt at an explanation immediately dying. "You made the choice to come with me. No one forced you to decide to come." Not wanting to continue the conversation out of concern that he may say the wrong thing, he changed the subject by asking, "You can understand how important this is, Willow?"
Willow nodded, unsure as to the direction this conversation was about to take.
"And do you realize why I gave you the choice to come with me?"
Willow shook her head.
"I can accomplish this mission on my own," Nejaa answered. "I have no doubt of that. But I felt that the mission would be easier if...if I had the support of someone who knew Tara better than I did. Someone who could know Tara better than I know her, perhaps even better Tara knows herself. Someone...who loved her a great deal, as much as I know you obviously do."
Willow's eyes subtly, but very noticeably, widened at that. That statement, along with his comment prior to their boarding the transport, made her question once again just how much he really knew about her relationship with Tara. She figured that, for the moment, the best way to find out was to try and remain coy.
"Love? I...I don't know..."
As Willow attempted to defend herself against Nejaa's words, the Corellian reached over and took her hand into his own, a firm expression on his face. "Willow, please don't try and fool me. I can tell that you care for Tara deeply. That's why I gave you the choice on whether or not to come with me. After all, I too know how it feels to love someone, and I also know how it feels to do whatever is necessary in order to help them."
Curiosity overrode caution in Willow's mind at hearing that. "You do?"
Nejaa nodded, a faint smile on his face. "Thirty years ago, I met a woman on Corellia named Scerra. It was love at first sight. A year later, we got married in secret. We had a child some years later." At Willow's surprised look, he clarified, "The Jedi from Corellia are considered somewhat...eccentric in regard to their service to the Order, Willow. We don't hold on to the Council's belief that separating ourselves from our emotions makes us weak or easily tempted towards the Dark Side." He smiled faintly. "In fact, I would say that the love I have for my wife and my child makes me stronger."
Willow absorbed the information she was hearing with great interest. For the longest time, she had felt that she needed to keep her feelings for Tara a secret from everyone out of fear that others would frown upon her decision to have that emotional connection, especially due to the fact that the person she felt that way towards was her own Master.
Even Tara, prior to their mission to Naboo, had steadfastly refuted any attempt on her part to act on what Willow could easily tell were the rather obvious, yet suppressed, true feelings she felt towards her Padawan. Afterward, when she had decided to come out of her self-imposed shell a bit and admit what she truly felt, she also knew that they would have to be more responsible around others, lest anyone, especially the Council, found out about what was going on between them. The past month had truly been the most trying time of their relationship. With Tara on the Jedi Council and herself on various peacekeeping and goodwill missions in the name of the Republic, Willow had cause to wonder whether or not their relationship, strained enough as it was, could continue.
"And...you've never told the Council?" Willow asked, mentally kicking herself in the head as the question left her lips. Of course he wouldn't have told the Council. How foolish would that have been?
Nejaa simply smiled, accepting Willow's faux pas in stride. "No, Willow. And I won't tell them about yours, either."
Willow chuckled. "Oh, don't worry about it. I'm sure that the Council wouldn't mind if I asked a stupid question. It's certainly not the first time I've done it..."
"No, Willow," Nejaa interrupted. "That's not what I meant."
Willow paused and frowned, hoping that she could have avoided this for a few minutes more. But apparently, the Force would have none of it. Willow truly realized at that moment that the game was over, and that there was no way she was going to be able to weasel her way out of it. Somehow, he knew that she and Tara were in love and had a relationship that was anything but professional. But how did he find out? Perhaps it was the fact that he himself had some experience in not only finding the love of someone else, but in keeping that love a secret from the Council. In that sense, he sympathized with Willow, especially since his former Padawan was the object of her affection.
It seemed that the only way to confront it was to do so head first. As usual.
"Thank you," she said.
Nejaa nodded, then set about trying to make Willow feel better. "There's nothing to be ashamed of, Willow. I think that the love the two of you share is something special and precious, and it's obviously done her a great deal of good. In conversations past, I could tell that there had been a certain...weight that lifts from her shoulders whenever she mentions your name. I'm not sure how to describe it. It's almost as if when she mentions your name to me, that she feels...happy."
"She's always been like that," Willow mused. "It's only after Naboo that it became...different between us."
"I know," Nejaa said, adding at Willow's surprised look, "We talked once before some years ago. When I asked her what she thought about you, she brought up what had happened on Naboo, telling me only that it was then that had started a change in attitude towards her situation with you. And having experienced a similar situation myself, I couldn't help but detect the underlying meaning of what it was that she was saying, even though I kept it to myself for her benefit." He smiled faintly. "And I want to thank you for that. For her to have done that means that she can trust you with anything. This will be good when we get to Nar Shaddaa, because I will need to be able to trust that you will do the right thing when the time comes."
Willow kept her mouth closed, lest she let it slip that she was afraid of traveling to that world. It wouldn't do Master Halcyon any good to realize that she had been in constant fear ever since learning of their destination. She had not wanted to say anything, however, out of a desire to help Tara. The coming days would truly be a test, not only for her, but for Tara, as well. They would both have to face their deepest fears. Whether or not they would live through the experience was a question best left to the Force.
"You can count on me, Master Halcyon. I won't let you down."
Nejaa nodded. "I know you won't, Willow."
Willow nodded, casting her glance towards the Kubaz once again and noticed that they were beginning to make their way towards a trio of insectoid Verpine who, along with a heavily armed Trandoshan, had entered the room from the doorway at the opposite end of the mess.
The Drunken Dianoga
"I have a bad feeling about this."
Kieran was the bravest of individuals. The type of work that he did often required him to have nerves of steel, a quick trigger finger and to be in complete control of the situation, three aspects of his personality that had gotten him through more than one tough scrape in the past.
And three aspects that had, over the course of the past three hours, slowly began to desert him.
Not that he was afraid of being in this squalid little hole in the ground, far from it. Over the course of his career, he had made it a business to frequent such establishments, not only to partake in what passed for the local beverage selection and the female company, but in order to conduct some of his more disreputable business transactions. After all, it was the boldest of tasks that were carried right out in the open, under the noses of those who could do anything in their power to stop it.
Times like those, he was in control. Times like those, he had the upper hand. Not like now, when he was forced to sit and wait on the convenience of others.
"Well," he absently thought as a lithe Twi'lek female passed by the table in which he sat, casting him a very flirtatious glance. "If I have to wait, at least I've got nice scenery to look at."
Moving through the crowd, Beth sat down opposite her uncle and handed him a glass. "I take it that the place isn't unappealing to the eye?"
Taking a swig from the mug his niece offered him, Kieran's face contorted into a frown. "I'd like it a lot more if I knew what the kriff I was doing here, Beth. I mean, I am grateful that someone out there apparently likes me enough to get me out of that prison, but then to come here and find out what I've got to do in return? I don't like it."
Beth turned her head to look past her uncle and towards the other side of the room, where the rest of their party sat as casually as they could given their surroundings, one of the Rodians and the humans holding their blasters in plain sight, letting anyone who walked know that they were not a group to be trifled with. Of course, the fact that they were accompanied by a rather thuggish Wookiee helped a great deal, even without the weaponry.
"To be honest, uncle, we never really asked."
Kieran fixed his niece with a glare that could melt ice. "What do you mean 'you never really asked?'"
Beth shrugged. "All we were told was that our benefactor would be willing to provide us with the ability to break you out of that place, but on the condition that we agree to do a service for him. And that we would learn what that service was by coming here to meet with a representative of his."
Kieran, who had taken another sip from his drink, brought it down with sudden quickness, the noise attracting the attention of several other patrons. Leaning over so that Beth was the only one to hear this words, he hissed, "You what?!"
Beth, who normally was well composed in the face of danger, suddenly found herself in a rather uncomfortable position. She had heard from her companions the tales of what happened to those who had crossed her uncle. And she wasn't willing to become part of that legacy. "I...I only did what I thought was in your best..."
"What you thought?!" Kieran was growing more incensed by the moment, any hopes he had of controlling the situation rapidly slipping from his grasp. He knew that he was going to draw the notice of the other patrons by acting irrationally, but he didn't really care. It wasn't as if any of them would be dumb enough to try and take him out. After all, they were the same kind of people. "Beth, don't you realize what's going on here?"
Beth involuntarily rested her hand on the butt of her holstered blaster, her general reaction to being threatened in this manner, regardless of who it was by. "Quite frankly, Uncle, what's going on is that you're off that prison asteroid and looking to get back at those who did this to you. And if that means we have to do somebody a favor, then if you ask me, it's worth it."
Kieran made a concentrated effort to compose himself as he sat back down, giving himself the opportunity to think about what Beth had said. Oovo IV was one of the most heavily fortified security centers in the galaxy. There were few people that could have gotten away with what had happened that day. And despite all he had said, he was truly grateful for whomever it was that had set about his freedom.
He just didn't like having the situation so out of his control. But Beth wasn't the type to undertake an action like this if she didn't think it was worth it. That helped to allay his fear, if only to make him feel less ill at ease.
Just then he heard a double chirp and watched as Beth reached down for her comlink. "Go ahead." After listening to the person at the other end, she put it back on her belt and motioned to the others at the table, who got up and made their way to the door.
Grabbing Beth's arm, Kieran looked into her eyes, a dark gleam in his own. "Now what?"
"Where are we going this time?"
The faintest hint of a smile appeared on Beth's lips. "To meet our employer."
As he walked down the street towards the group's intended destination, Kieran recalled the times during his incarceration when he would be escorted under guard to the mess hall, the gymnasium or any of the other destinations on the asteroid prison where he and his fellow prisoners were allowed to congregate. Though it was as close to being free as his situation allowed, it was still a time in which he had no control over his own destiny, and where his decisions and fate were decided by others, the power over his life was held not by himself, but by men that, were the situations reversed, he would not hesitate to vaporize without a second though if they simply looked at him the wrong way.
The group rounded a corner and stepped up to the door of what appeared, on the outside at least, to be one of many similar apartment complexes that ringed the area. Stepping inside, they were greeted by what appeared to be a 3D-4 administrative droid, which looked terribly out of place in the otherwise shabby dwelling, and escorted them to a conference room on the building's third floor, where the droid said the one who summoned them would be waiting.
Upon stepping into the room, Kieran cast his glance around the area, taking in the worn down carpeting, the broken furniture and the cracked glowpanels on the ceiling. The room was, for all intents and purposes, exactly what the building's outward appearance suggested: one of a series of disreputable, unreliable and putrid wastelands dotting the surface of this planet.
Terms that could also be used to describe the room's lone occupant.
"Gunray. You've got a lot of nerve showing your face to me after what you and your boys did to me."
Nute Gunray, Viceroy of the Trade Federation, sat behind a large desk at the opposite end of the room, the only piece of furniture that was not in a state of disrepair. His face contorted into one of utter disgust at hearing Kieran speak. "Believe me, Kieran, were it not for the words of a mutual friend, I would not be here at all. If I had chosen to come here on my own free will, I would have done so with enough battle droids to wipe you and your friends off this planet. Instead, I was sent here to deliver this."
Reaching into his robes with a hand that Kieran noticed looked considerably different from its counterpart, he withdrew a small hologram projector and placed it on the desk, activating it with a flick of a finger. The image that appeared was that of a man with white hair and dark clothes. Kieran thought he looked familiar, but the scraps of memory that helped to form a name to that face eluded him as the man began to speak.
"Greetings, Kieran Maclay. I am Tyranus. I have a proposition that may interest you."
Several minutes later, the hologram winked out of existence, and Kieran found himself looking slack jawed into the lidless eyes of the Neimodian in front of him.
"You've got to be kidding me."
"I assure you that I am not 'kidding' you," Gunray hissed in reply, his features that of a being who had just stepped into a rather unpleasant substance. "Our mutual friend...thought it would be amusing for me to deliver the message, considering our past history, along with the...history...you have with the subject."
Kieran scoffed. "Then our 'mutual friend' must have a poor sense of humor."
"I would agree," Gunray mused, the fingers of his hand tapping the table in front of him, a sound that was eerily unnatural to Kieran's ears. "But as you have no doubt already assumed, I have already suffered a grievous wound of the flesh at the hands of those like our friend, and I for one do not have any desire to lose any more of my body due to foolish mistakes made on the part of others."
"Yeah," Kieran chuckled. "Heard what happened to you during the Naboo thing. If you ask me, that's the one good thing she's managed to do in her pathetic little life."
Incensed by the fact that Kieran was finding humor in his misfortune, Gunray decided to play the trump card that he had been saving in case he proved to be uncooperative. Those who sent him here would never have approved it, but then again, it was highly unlikely that they had ever dealt with people of the lowbrow caliber of this man. He reached under the desk and brought a finger down onto a panel hidden under it. The moment the button was pressed, four panels, two each on the opposite sides of the room, withdrew, revealing behind them two meter tall battle droids, with built in arm blasters, which they immediately raised and pointed at the assembled group. The droids were fresh off the factory lines of Geonosis, and were designed for maximum lethality with minimal effort.
Beth and several of the others reached for their blasters, but stopped when Kieran raised a hand. "Don't."
"I said don't!" He looked at the others and held his gaze on them until their hands moved their hands away from their weapons, Beth reluctantly doing the same.
Gunray smiled, a rare act these days. "It would seem that you have some sense, Kieran. Perhaps that's why you managed to survive all this time, while we were able to hunt down the rest of your crew and expunge them from the universe."
Kieran brought his head back to look at Gunray, an angry look on his face. For a moment, he thought about telling Beth and the others to go for their guns again, but thought better of it. There was no way that they could arm themselves quick enough to kill Gunray before the droids opened fire. And there wasn't any guarantee that if they were, through some miracle, able to take them out, their situation would improve. They looked a lot like new models, and for all he knew, they sported some fancy upgrades like shield generators or something. And even though four were presently in the room, there was no way of telling how many others may be in the building.
One way or the other, he was caught up in this little web. That left him little choice but to go along with this plan. Whether he liked it or not, he was once again having his life being dictated by the whims and wishes of someone else.
But at least this time, he would get something out of it. Doing the wishes of someone else would see the man who had put him here die a horrible lingering death at his own hands.
That, if nothing else, made the situation one he would enjoy.