My Pillar, My Beacon

Chapter 5

Carth knew when he was watching a professional at work. What he understood as her normal mode, a quiet, easily overlooked sort, had faded. Her features were nimble, everything about her was open and approachable. She just invited confidence, camaraderie, hell, he'd be tempted to tell her everything. Although she never paused, never faltered, never blinked or hesitated, he knew she was making the entire thing up as she went along. And what she said made perfect sense. A married couple of transport pilots stuck here in the aftermath of the Sith occupation of Taris. It explained everything. Why they had no ship, no money, no affiliation, but were together. It was a little hard to swallow a woman he barely knew claiming something that only one woman had ever been able to, to be his wife, but he understood her approach. And he'd certainly never undermine her work by contradicting it. That would be tantamount to holding up a sign which read: "Republic soldier behind enemy lines." He had no illusions...if he was captured, that would all too quickly spin into "Highly decorated Republic soldier held by Empire." Which ended in a fairly obvious way, one he'd prefer to avoid. This was what he got for being assigned as Bastila Shan's driver, an honor, and a grave responsibility. Why hadn't she sensed the Imperial Flagship, Leviathan, lying in wait? If he'd just had some warning, any warning...

Hell, who was he fooling? The Spire had been yanked out of hyperspace, stagnated, blinded, by the main Imperial flagship. There was nothing he could have done, and it was just one more failure that Karath had heaped upon him. One more indignity, one more blow...

A touch, gentle as moonlight, landed on the back of his hand, and he was startled out of his reverie. She was staring at him out of those pale gray eyes, a faint line of concern between her dark brows. The amiable mask was gone, he had her back...calm, serene and focused deeply on him. It was an oddly soothing feeling, as if the very weight of her presence, her attention, could push back his internal demons. Oddly, he felt safe around her, and there were plenty of reasons why safe should be the furthest thing from his mind. He didn't know her, and he'd never been quick to trust. "What?" He demanded, and she shrugged.

"You seemed a little far away."

"Right." And he shouldn't be. He needed to be right here, right now, not woolgathering. That would only get him killed, get her killed, and lose Bastila...the only chance that the Republic had to get through this. He could think about it all later, when...if...he got the chance. He just needed to focus on the task at hand.

It was late afternoon outside, and he blinked against the low sunlight. If he just glanced across the expanse, rooted by skyscrapers, it would look normal. Even wholesome, people going about their business, small groups, the occasional couple walking with entwined fingers. Children being children. But he caught too much he knew to be out of place... everything he saw was human. Not a single member of an alien race to be seen, and all of those humans were guarded by Sith troopers moving openly through the crowds. He wanted to watch them warily, to measure it all, but she stepped around him and headed forward, like she owned the place. No, like she belonged, leaving him little choice but to trail in her wake. That was fine, if she wanted to be the one to do the talking, to stick her nose into places while he followed and did his best too look ominous and protective, he'd do it. He was a pilot. He was a damned good pilot. On days when he was in a good mood, he'd even give himself the pat on the back to say he was one of the best alive, on both sides. When he was slightly intoxicated, he'd add on any side to it, and count himself equal to just about any around. His specialty was medium sized fleet vessels, large enough to pack a punch, yet still small enough for maneuverability. But that was simply his preference, he could fly damned near anything. He was a decent shot, if he had to be, had completed ground training with high marks, but he was not a ground pounder.

And he certainly was not any sort of recon or intel gatherer, he was much more likely to say something untoward, to beg trouble than someone with that sort of calling, that sort of training. She obviously had it, and he was more than willing to let her use it.

She seemed to be wandering at random, but he knew better. She avoided the largest groups of Sith guards, melded with passersby when her path brought her too close to them, but she still scouted quickly and easily. She checked every shop, every kiosk, chatted merrily with salespeople, before finally finding a cantina and slipping in. He followed closely, glancing over the crowd. Again, all of the patrons were human. The band, the dancers, not. It creeped him out, subtly, and he stared at the tail of hair on the back of Sarah's head. Focus...focus. He couldn't change a damned thing about Taris, it was all beyond his control. He needed to back up Sarah, and find Bastila. Come up with a plan to get all of them off of this planet, out of the hands of the Sith, and back to the Republic. That was his duty. He just had to keep that in mind.

She moved through the crowds, pausing occasionally to listen to an ongoing conversation, before she took a seat at a table towards the back, and he took the seat next to her without pause. He'd been married long enough to know how to play this game, as painful as that memory was. "Want a drink?" He asked, and she gazed at him for a long moment.

"Can we afford it?"

"Sure." It had been pretty easy to sell the useless survival gear in the packs... Taris was an ecumenopolis, they had no need of snow gear, climbing gear, tent, etc. Why people here had been willing to buy it from him, he was uncertain, but they had. "Why?"

She stared beyond him for a moment before extending her hand out in the universal request. His wife had done just that same thing, in pretty much the same manner. And later, his son. "How much?" He sighed in defeat, and she shrugged.

"I don't know, yet."

Oh, that was a dangerous statement if he'd ever heard one. It was even more dangerous when she took every credit he had, nodded, and headed resolutely towards the pazaak tables in the back room. He could only stare after her, before hiding his face in his hands. Just his luck.

"I know that look." And Carth certainly didn't know the voice, but he dropped his hands to stare at the stranger who had decided to strike up a conversation with him. He had the look of a ship's pilot about him, and Carth composed himself, gathering his wits about him. Hopefully he would not be recognized... "She any good?"

Carth could only hope that the 'good' in question referred to pazaak, and not something else. He was not in the mood for a cantina fight, especially when the authorities most likely to respond to it were the Sith he was trying to evade. "She better be, today." He chuckled wryly, staring into his drink.


"Yeah." It was amazingly easy to say that, and oddly, he felt like the statement didn't fall flat. He stood, finally gathering the nerve to move up behind her, to watch. If she just broke even, he'd be content. If she could win a little, he'd be ecstatic.

And...if she was a pazaak shark, he'd be damn near orgasmic. She played with the same approachable smile she walked through the door with, plied the table with the same chitchat, and completely eviscerated her challengers. And she stood up just when the table's mood changed, right when it was going to start to get ugly and confrontational, waving at the nearest waitress. "Round for the table." She said, grabbing Carth's elbow as she turned. "It's getting late."

"Yes, dear." He drawled, falling into step behind her, happy to get out of the cantina and back into the night air. The crowds had thinned, but that simply made the Sith guards that much more obvious. He slung an arm around her shoulder, matching steps with her...doing his best to make it look easy. Just a couple, coming out of the cantina, not drunk, just pleasantly fuzzy around the edges. No problem, no threat.

"You two better hurry. Curfew in twenty minutes." The nearest Sith guard, encapsulated in shiny gold and silver armor, stated. It was odd to hear one of them sound so...human. Almost concerned.

"Oh, shit. Thanks!" She breezed, moving faster, and he happily kept pace. Of course there would be a curfew.

He remained silent until the door shut behind him, leaving them alone again. Her confident stride faded and she sat on the edge of the bed, before finally giving up and lying down. She was doing better, but she wasn't recovered...

"Well?" He asked and she opened an eye to stare at him.

"Nothing. Which means we go down. I'm sure the Sith are still looking for something, and I'm guessing that something is Bastila." She sighed, pulling the credits out of her pocket and counting off several of them, holding them out to him. "Half." She sighed, taking out her new pazaak side deck and ruffling through the cards.

"Half." And that was double what he'd originally given her. "So, Republic scout is your side job? A hobby to supplement your pazaak earnings?"

She chuckled, tucking them back in their box. " pazaak habit is a supplement to my scouting job. It goes with the territory. People talk at a table after awhile, and it's something to do that's less suspicious than sitting around hoping people will talk in front of you. It's also a way to kill time on a ship... little surprised you don't play."

"I play. You don't play." There had been, in spite of her demeanor during it, precious little enjoyment in what she'd done. She'd gone into for money, and for information. She'd gotten both. Carth played socially, for the fun of it, for bonding and camaraderie. She worked at it. And she was damned, damned good at it, almost good enough to make him think she cheated.

"Fair enough." She breathed, shutting her eyes. "You caught me. I don't actually care for pazaak. But we needed the money, the info, and it's a fairly painless way to get it."

"Until you get shot up for cheating."

"Didn't cheat. And I won't go back to that cantina to play, I never do." She remained silent for quite awhile, long enough for him to think she'd fallen asleep, before she spoke again. "Anyway, come to bed. We'll work on getting down lower in the city come morning."

Come to bed. His heart seized and he closed his eyes. Why this? Why now?

"I don't think that's..." What? Wise? Logical? Safe? Unfortunately, it was all of the above. "What we should be doing. It's...improper. I, uh, outrank you." Yeah, that. It was a laughable excuse but the best he could come up with in a pinch. "I'll sleep on the floor." It had been one thing when she was injured, but she was well on the road to recovery.

"You outrank me, and you want to be the one sleeping on the floor." Her voice was gently amused, and he leaned against the wall, staring into the corner. He wanted his cabin back, safely, privately his. Where he could mourn in peace. Where he could avoid facing shit like this, avoid hearing the little voice in his mind that reminded him that it had been years since he'd lost Morgana. He wasn't old. It wouldn't be terrible if he faced up to the fact that he was a thirty eight year old widower, and let some of that drop behind him. Morgana wouldn't have wanted him to be like this, clinging to her memory, and nothing else.

"What if I get ideas?"

"What if I let you get ideas?"

Oh, ouch. He'd hoped for a little subterfuge, but no. This one was about as subtle as an Imperial task force. "You're still not even close to a hundred percent." That was much more of a valid argument, and her glance proved he had that one correct.

"True. So come to bed, keep me warm, and keep your hands to yourself."

He sighed in defeat, sitting on what somehow had become his side of the bed and shedding his boots and jacket. He settled down next to her and she slept almost immediately, further proving the point that neither one of them was ready for anything. She seemed emotionally willing, but physically, no. He was physically able, but emotionally unwilling.

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