My Pillar, My Beacon

Chapter 9

It was a glory to watch, or in this case, listen to her work. It was like watching her become someone completely different than what he knew she was. Every response she gave was spot on, she wore the armor like a second skin. She had broken the computer locks on both suits without his even having realized she was attempting to...in just a matter of minutes. He could see his own suit's HUD readout, and it was all happy and cozy with the sudden change of user. He was down on Taris with an absolute master of her art, which was a miracle. Without this, they would have no chance in hell of getting out of this.

He remained stubbornly silent in the elevator, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that there were cameras, microphones covering it...watching her take the time to interface both suits and play with their settings, securing the transmission links between them.

"Is that wise?" He murmured, as if his whisper would make it less able for his lip mike to pick up his words. He knew, logically, that it monitored every single breath, picked up even the slightest of sounds he made...but it felt safer. The external elevator microphone would not pick up the whisper, however.

"SOP." She stated back in a normal tone. "You'll have to chin it over to wide broadcast if you would ever want to. Not that I think you would. Or should."

Oh, hell no. He wanted her to do all of the talking. One, she was so much better at it than he was. Two, he was all too well aware that the Imperials had good recordings of his voice, and any voice matching program around would identify him with ease. "And..scramble..."

Indeed, his screens blurred into a split second of snowy distortion before settling back into clarity. Little had changed...except he now had the same string of numbers she had just parroted off as her own visible in the upper left hand corner. "Switched users between the two. You've got the suit of the higher ranker in that patrol, but I don't want you doing the talking." And she probably had a dozen more reasons to not want him to talk than he could come up with on his own.

"You're good." It was an honest compliment, but her response was a slightly sarcastic snort, and of course she had to come back at him with an answer he didn't want to deal with...

"You do not even begin to know how good I am." But I'm willing to show you.

He growled, why, oh, why would he be stuck on Taris with a recon expert who had decided he was something to tease and chase? And why, oh, why was that such a temptation? Every other woman who'd given him eyes had been more than willing to walk, no...run, away when they'd discovered he came burdened with this kind of baggage.

It's been a long time.

A long time since he'd been touched, held close. A long time since he'd been truly anchored in the world of the living, walking forward instead of looking back. His personal life had become driven by ghosts and regrets, losses and revenge...

"We don't have time for that." In spite of the edge of panic she incited, the words came out almost jokingly. What in the hell was he doing, egging her on like this? She needed to know it simply was not an option...or was it?The idea stunned him back into silence, and he meekly trailed her off of the elevator, into the lower city of Taris.

Like the apartment pod above that he'd found to go to ground in, it was also silent, empty, filled with a furtive, measuring weight. "We need to get out of this armor." Obviously they were not going to find out what they needed to know, while masquerading as Sith troopers. Even he could figure that out.

"Yeah. We need to find a locker and a place to change."

He grimaced, safe in the fact that she couldn't see him. The less time either one of them spent without a full set of clothing on, the better.

Thankfully, they found an empty locker quickly, and she seemed distracted, or rather focused, enough to ignore the very short amount of time he spent stripped to his skivvies. In fact, she spent that time cautiously staring down the empty corridor, palms resting against the butts of her blasters. She had that odd, 'something smells bad' expression he was growing used to, evident when she was watchful, concentrating...but then, down here, something did indeed smell bad. It was obvious the moment he'd cracked the armor's seal and the air he breathed no longer passed through its filter system, that the air was stagnant and unpleasant down here. "It has a sensor suite." He noted, and got the barest flick of an eye in his direction. Yes, it did, and for that to work, she'd need to be wearing its helmet, but she'd been very quick to shed it, almost overly quick... he sensed an unease at odds with her ability to handle the suit itself. But she wouldn't be the first or the last who was claustrophobic locked down in heavy armor.

"The best the Sith can make." She replied, and he wasn't certain if that was an exaltation or a condemnation. "And I can't stand helmets. I like my brains intact, but."

He only nodded, shrugging back into his deck jacket. He hadn't worn a helmet in years, he was bridge crew. He captained Hammerheads. That was what he was good...no, great...at. The people who wore helmets on his ship were the ones outside of the bridge, trying to keep it secured... that was not his job. And it was obvious that the job she was great at would rarely have her kitted up in full armor, helmet with sensor suites, tagged and tracked.

"They'll track those suits."

"No. I disabled their tracking pods." She didn't fight her way out of hers as he had just had, but gracefully stepped from it and stowed it easily. He clenched his lip in reply, doing his damnedest to stare down the corridor as she had. She wasn't gorgeous, no. Morgana had been much more to his tastes, lushly built, with waving, curling auburn hair. She'd had a forthright beauty, difficult to hide, to obscure. But Sarah was a play of shadows, she could be downright lovely, as appealing as about any woman he'd ever seen, and then just flip it over and become perfectly run of the mill, unremarkable. He didn't understand how she could manage it, but right now, she was definitely moving back down towards unappealing. At that moment, he wasn't quite sure what he'd seen in her...

That's not natural.

No, it wasn't. He stared at her, trying to understand what he was experiencing. She was lovely. He knew that. He'd seen it, and it was the most obvious when she was asleep...or when she was deliberately trying to attract him. When she was distracted or ill at ease, it faded away...as she seemed to.

"You were told there was another cantina down here?"

"Yeah, a pazaak salon with fresh meat." Her expression animated with a nearly feral intensity, and she was beautiful again. He almost wished she wasn't, but at the same time, it was wonderful to behold.

"Then it's time to go get this job done."

.*.*.*.

You are cheating. Sarah wasn't sure how. Wasn't sure how he was, and she wasn't sure how she was so certain, but she never ignored that voice that muttered and mumbled deep in her consciousness.

"Close. Another hand?" The man grinned at her, and she measured him silently...feeling Carth's dismay rising beyond him, although she refused to look in that one's direction. She still had control of this, it was all still good.

"No, I think...not." She shook her head, gathering up her deck again, focusing on the bright geometric pattern on their backs. No, she was certain, he was the problem, she knew how to play...

"Come on, Squint. Draw or stand, make up your damn mind already..."

"Hold your throttles, woman." A male voice, edged with indulgent humor. She liked him, no, she loved him. She once leaned on him, he had been a pillar of stability, a touchstone of sanity. They had been friends, partners, lovers...

More formless memories, wispy and completely without context. Also, completely useless. Now all she had was what must be a nickname, and a ghostly voice from the depths of her submerged memories.

"No?" The man across the table from her chuckled, leaning back and folding his arms over his chest. "Getting a little too warm for you, sweetheart?"

I've been around this block more than once. Rise to that bait, and there will be a fight. And no more information, no chance at more credits to keep them going. Time to shut this down, Sarah.

"Yeah. That's it exactly." She was too old and wise to play this one's games...all of them. "Sweetheart."

"Awh." His eyes flicked up, and she knew who was standing behind her now. Carth had moved around, and pointedly rested a hand on her shoulder, looming protectively over her. "Right."

Well, it was good to know that apparently Carth was good at protective looming...because he'd certainly raised caution in the man in front of her. Caution enough for him to stand up and leave the table in a hurry, glancing back often to make certain that neither Sarah nor Carth had moved.

"What was that all about?" Carth asked, his hand still resting firmly on her shoulder. "You're usually better than that."

"Eh. He was cheating, and his attentions were in the wrong place." No, that one wasn't open to giving her information, his attentions had been for his own benefit...her credits, and the occasional furtive glance to her face, her chest. Not like she had much there to offer...

"Cheating?"

"Yeah. Not going to call him on it...don't want a fight."

"Good call. We don't need the Sith down here to arrest us all." He gave her shoulder a squeeze before letting go of her. "Can you still get this done?"

"Probably. I'll bet he has a reputation down here already." He had been very quick to intercept her the moment they had walked through the cantina door...he'd smelled of desperation. She was willing to guess he had already burnt all of his other targets, which would make her a member of the group now.

She gazed around the cantina thoughtfully. Yes, this was much more what she was used to, much more normal than the one upstairs. A mix of races, heavily skewed away from human, Ithorians, Rodians, Twi'lek, all stuck below the upper city, waiting for the Sith blockade to be broken.

"Didn't take you long to shut him down."

Another man, human...older than the first to approach her, and she eyed him, feeling Carth fade back to give her room to work. The stranger sat in the recently vacated seat across from her, bluntly ignoring Carth as he did so. "Two hands to realize he was cheating. Means you're not bad... do you have the credits for a hand?"

"I do."

"Interested?"

Sarah sighed, smiling. "Of course."

He was a deliberate player, cautious but good. Not very talkative, but at least he wasn't cheating. The credits were welcome, but weren't really what she was here for. "So..." She began, and he flicked a glance at her over his cards. "How long do you think we're going to be locked down here?"

Answer me. Tell me the truth...

"Ah." He set down the next card, and she nodded slowly. Good play, ordinarily it would have been enough. Not today, though. She locked eyes with him, willing him to finally speak. "When they get a hold of the Republic soldier they're looking for. The woman."

Bastila? She could feel Carth shift uncomfortably behind her, but the man's gaze didn't flicker from her eyes. She still had him...

"Woman?"

He snorted with laughter, the spell over, his attention back on his cards. "Yeah. She came out of one of those Republic escape pods, and was picked up by one of the street gangs down here. Too dumb to realize what they're doing with her..."

She gave a quizzical tilt to her chin, and he only nodded. "The Sith are going to tear us apart looking for her, but they decide to offer her up as a prize for a swoop race."

Sarah didn't bother to alter the first expression that wanted to jump up... Bastila, a Jedi...held as a prize by a street gang? It was hilarious, it couldn't be, but it was. She knew it. Somehow.

"So which gang do we owe this to?"

Ah, that one he didn't want to answer, and she let it fall, just like she let the winning card fall. He sat up, his eyes narrowed for a moment before he gave a reluctant smile. "Good game." He admitted, paying up with a lopsided smile. "But that's it for me."

Sarah was not surprised, but she'd gotten what she wanted out of him. He was free to go, and go he did. "You can sit." She murmured to Carth, pushing the chair out for him with her foot. "I'm done playing for now."

He sat, trailing fingers across her shoulders as he did so. She wasn't even certain he realized he'd done it, it just seemed natural, unthinking.

"I find it hard to think that Bastila would have been taken by a street gang, of all things." He stated softly, his voice pitched to not carry far. "I mean, she's a Jedi..."

"She may have been injured. Even Jedi can be knocked unconscious."

"True."


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