Yikes! I went a while there again. But I'm happy to report that the net result of my not writing/posting is a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, which I accepted whilst dressed as Princess Leia. Now that I'm back home and unemployed, my time shall be at least partially given to writing. Especially since next chapter we pick up one of my favourite characters ever. Striker: I love Mission. I just have to remember to keep her running around. Glad you're enjoying! JoE: I'm glad you're enjoying the ensemble- I sometimes wonder if I have too many characters running around, but I'm glad it's working anyway. princess: So much for networks and Jlit... though I admit I had to write a story for my lit class, and that ended up being 11 pages long, hence the further delay on this guy. But if anyone wants to see Leiraya Moran ported into her own original universe, I've got that file floating around... Rogue_Pilot: Yeah, I know- it currently sucks to be Carth. Thanks for reading! JadeSolo: Complications? You don't know the half of it. Jherron: Knowing my propensity to get busy, you'll probably be juuuust fine. Aaaaaand... This chapter brought to you by Oberlin Computer Science and Philosophy. Chapter 23 Bastila wrinkled her delicate nose as the trio entered the hunting lodge. "It smells in here." "It smells everywhere on Tatooine," Canderous replied. "Has something to do with the fact that everything is baked to within an inch of its life." "I can believe that," Aiden made a face. "This place is disgusting." The hunting lodge seemed to be one of two social centers in Anchorhead- the other one being the cantina around the corner. Like all buildings on Tatooine, it was made from sandblasted stone, coated in a layer of grime, and had the climate of a very large oven. Most people couldn't afford the cooling units necessary to make a place feel livable, so everyone walked around in a state of perpetual sweating. "Look on the bright side, princess." Canderous smiled wickedly at Bastila. "You could be a Sith, and wearing black robes in this heat." Bastila narrowed her eyes. "That is not funny." "Of course it is, you just lost your sense of humour when you joined the Jedi." "I absolutely did not lose anything," she countered hotly. "Ahh, I see," Canderous nodded knowingly. "You would've had to have had a sense of humour in the first place." "All right, you two, knock it off." Aiden rolled his eyes at them. "We are here to find a Star Map, remember?" "That's right, and we're going to find it among this lodge's.... illustrious clientèle?" Bastila looked at their surroundings skeptically. "They're locals. They hang around the more obscure parts of the Dune Sea. They've got enough alcohol in them that they're likely to talk. Also," Aiden grinned, "I just like to watch you squirm, Bas." "Is that so?" Bastila drew herself up mock-haughtily. "I think you'll find I do not squirm all that easily." "How easily do you squirm?" A leering voice approached on her right, belonging to a middle-aged human male. His attire suggested he spent his time at the lodge to escape the house rather than to actually go hunting, and his breath reeked of ale. Bastila gave him her most unwelcoming frown and replied, "That's not something you're ever likely to know." "Ahh, you just need to give old Tanis a chance, here." The man smiled with all the charm of a drunken rancor. "I'm not nearly so bad as you think." "Look here, buddy-" Aiden placed himself between Tanis and Bastila, crossing his arms and scowling. "She's with me, so you can leave. Right now." Tanis seemed as though he wanted to protest, but a cursory examination of Aiden revealed two simple facts: first, that he was a Jedi and could probably slice a person to shreds, and secondly that he was well-built and could probably hold his own even if his lightsaber were to miraculously vanish. Giving one last defiant glare at the Jedi, he walked off muttering something about the injustice of the galaxy. Bastila looked up towards Aiden. "Thank you... though I could handle him myself." Aiden smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, I know. I just like to be helpful." "It's appreciated," she smiled, forgetting momentarily that his attention quickly wandered when she wasn't around. "One might think you were becoming a gentleman." "Now, when did I give you the impression that I was anything but?" Aiden's smile grew wider. Canderous snorted. "Around the time you left her to babysit the ship?" "Did you really want to listen to Leiraya's tirades against Czerka?" Aiden shrugged. Bastila shook her head. "I'll stick with the Hawk, I believe." "See?" He grinned. "It all worked out for the best." Canderous looked like he was about to make a snide remark, but was cut short by the arrival of a new figure speaking Huttese "[It is most unusual to see your kind here- two Jedi and a Mandalorian?]" Canderous looked sourly at the orange-complected Twi'lek who had joined them, not bothering to reply in the same language. "Yeah, and what is it to you?" The Twi'lek smiled affably. "[If you didn't wish for people to ask questions, perhaps you should have concealed your lightsabers, or perhaps worn something other than the traditional Jedi robes.]" "He's got a point," Aiden sighed, "Come to think of it, why aren't we better disguised? Malak is after us, you'd assume we'd want to throw them off as much as possible." "His Sith henchmen can sense us before they see us, so I don't see what good that does." Bastila shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "True," Aiden said. "But maybe we shouldn't advertise the fact that we're Jedi." "[Actually, that could work to your advantage in this place,]" the Twilek interruped. "[Forgive me, my name is Komad Fortuna. I am a hunter in this region, and so I know the people here. Believe me, they still hold a healthy fear for the Jedi. I doubt anyone would bother you.]" "A hunter, eh?" Canderous eyed the Twi'lek, who was much shorter than anyone in their group, but clearly not weak by any means. "What sort of game?" "[Oh, I hunt the desert wraids, like everyone else. But I am currently in pursuit of greater prey- have you heard of the Krayt dragons?]" He looked over at Aiden, who shook his head. "[They are great beasts indeed- larger than one man alone can hunt, unfortunately. It is told they are the fiercest of all the monsters to ever live on Tatooine, and it terrifies even the Sand People.]" "And you're determined to go after it?" Aiden arched a skeptical eyebrow. "[Indeed I am- if I can find suitable aid. I have been sadly unable to find anyone worthy of the quest in here... unless, of course, you would like to join me?]" Komad looked up at him with a small smile and a hopeful glimmer in his eye. "[It would be an honour to hunt with a Jedi.]" Aiden didn't even have to look at Bastila to feel her glare. He might have actually enjoyed trying to hunt down the Krayt dragon... but it really didn't have anything to do with their mission. "I'm afraid we'll have to turn you down on that one. Pressing business, and all that..." "[Understandable. But the invitation remains open, if you change your mind.]" Komad bowed his head slightly and left. "Good riddance," Bastila muttered. "I don't think we're going to find out about the Star Maps in here- shall we venture elsewhere?" "Yeah, I think you're right," Aiden sighed, looking about at the largely disreputable crowd. "Come on, let's meander." * * * Carth looked absolutely miserable. Of course, he had every right to look so- he had, after all, just discovered that his son- thought dead for several years- was a Sith. So he did what all men do in times of trouble. He found a dive in which only mournful Agamarian music was played. The kind of music where your cargo is stolen, your hyperdrive breaks down, and then your gizka dies. From there he tried to drink himself into oblivion. Tried, of course, being the operative word. Leiraya sat next to him, patiently listening and dumping parts of his drink on the ground when he wasn't looking. Once he sailed past tipsy and approached completely smashed, she knew she had to do something to make sure he'd still be able to fly the Hawk when Aiden needed it. "I'm a failure as a father," he moaned. "I gotta find him- right now. We're going to Korriban. C'mon, I've got a ship-" he tried to grab Leiraya's arm to pull her away, but she smacked it aside. "Come on, flyboy, you're not a failure, and you're not going anywhere." Carth looked at her with glassy eyes, to which she responded, "Oh, don't give me that look. You're drunk as a Selonian on Disarmament Day." He blinked. "Huh?" "My point exactly. You're in no shape to fly." She gently took his cup of ale and slid it out of his reach. "We'll be going to Korriban- it's a part of our mission, anyway. I'm sure you can convince Aiden that's where he needs to go next." "I..." he trailed off, then hung his head. "You're right. Mission's most important. It's just... do you know how happy it made me, for just a few seconds, to know that Dustil was alive?" She took his hand sympathetically. "No, but it must be even happier than it would make me to find Kylan alive. And that's pretty happy." "I know. And then to find out he's fighting on the other side? It's like a bad holofilm." "But it's not your fault. You do know that, right?" Carth blinked at her. "How is it not my fault? I'm his father. I was supposed to protect him." "But you can't control everything that happens to him," she replied. "Carth, he might have been gone before you even got to the surface. And even if he wasn't, it's near impossible to find someone in a large battlefield. Kylan almost died when he tried to retrieve Skyler's body on Selonia, and he knew exactly where to look." "Your point being?" "Stop blaming yourself for what happened to him- put blame where it's due if you must, but stop holding yourself entirely responsible. You didn't bomb the planet- Karath did. And you did everything you could to find him." "But it wasn't enough." Carth replied mournfully. "How would you feel if it turned out that Kylan had gone and joined the Sith? Wouldn't you wonder if you should've left Corellia sooner?" "Or that I should have knocked him over the head before he could leave, so that I could tie him up in a closet and let him out when he was more sensible?" Leiraya gave him a slight smile. "Okay, point taken. I'd be upset, too." "'Upset' doesn't even begin to cover it, but you get the idea." Carth frowned at the drink just out of his reach. "This isn't helping, is it?" "No," Leiraya shook her head. "Why don't we go do something fun? Something more fun than trying to drink yourself silly." "Is there something more fun?" Carth raised a skeptical eyebrow, but stood. Leiraya joined him, taking his arm so as to ensure his safe path to the door. "Just stay close," she smiled at him. "I don't want you to decide it's fun to drop-kick Jawas or something, okay?" "I wouldn't do that," Carth protested. "I mean, I don't think I would..." Leiraya smiled broadly as they made their way out the door. Considering whether to turn left or right, she was spared the choice as an Ithorian stopped her. "Excuse me, madam, might I have a moment of your time?" Taken aback by the approach of a complete stranger, she could only reflexively reply. "Well... yes?" "I do not mean to bother you, nor do I wish to detain you for long. But I see you have a lightsaber, and that tells me you are a Jedi." The Ithorian peered at her more closely. "You are a Jedi, are you not?" "Good job, Moran." Carth rolled his eyes. "You might want to work on being a bit more stealthy with that thing." Leiraya responded only by nudging him in annoyance. "Yes, I'm a Jedi. What interest is it to you?" "I represent a small minority here on Tatooine," the Ithorian replied. "You see, Czerka has completely taken over the desert hunting grounds." "And you want to hunt freely?" Carth interrupted incredulously. "Forgive me for not wanting to get involved, but-" "That is not my concern, sir." The Ithorian interrupted him in turn. "I will get to the point. The Sandpeople are indigenous to Tatooine. The humans at Czerka see them only as mindless animals and wish to drive them to extinction. I am certain that, with negotiations, a peace could be reached between the humans and the Sandpeople. But no one from Czerka is willing to listen to me." "Of course they're not," Leiraya practically spat. "They're about as close to evil incarnate as you can get without being a Sith." "I see you hold no love for the corporation." "You might say we don't get along." "Would you be willing, then, to negotiate?" Leiraya thought about it for a moment. "Carth, are we doing anything?" "I thought we were going to have fun." "Overthrowing evil corporations is fun." Carth sighed. "We can help, sure." Leiraya grinned and turned to the Ithorian. "We're in." "Splendid." The Ithorian reached into his bag and pulled out a sheet of flimsi. "This is a hunting permit- you'll need it to go out into the Dune Sea. It's blank, but you can fill your names into the ownership spot." "Thank you," Leiraya replied, accepting the permit and placing it in her own bag. "No, thank you." The Ithorian bowed his head. "I cannot stand to see such bigotry continue, and I am glad to see a champion to the cause." "It's my pleasure." Leiraya bowed in turn, and they both turned and left in opposite directions. Carth was silent for a few moments before asking, "Don't the Sandpeople speak another language?" "Maybe?" "They definitely do." Carth scratched his head. "And I don't know any of it." "Well... that's what protocol 'droids are for, right?" "Wait a minute." Carth stopped and pulled her aside. "You want to buy a 'droid?" Leiraya fished into her bag and pulled out a pouch full of credit chips. "I've got the credits for it. Besides, it could come in handy. You never know." Carth sighed once more, and acquiesced. "Fine. Though if Aiden reams you out, it's not my fault." "Who me?" She looked at him innocently. "Can't see why he'd do that." "Let's just find a 'droid. I think I remember seeing a little shop around here somewhere..." * * * Bastila frowned. "I don't like the look of this place." "You don't like the look of any place that's not crawling with Jedi," Aiden replied. "I agree with saber boy," Canderous chimed in. "You're not known for liking places, princess." "Stop calling me princess," Bastila replied sourly. "Point being, we can't be suspicious just because you don't like the way a place looks." "Can we be suspicious if we see a bunch of Sith standing just around the bend?" Bastila inquired. "Well, yes-" Aiden stopped short. "Oh, blast. You mean that for real." "Look on the bright side," Bastila smiled. "Now you know they're there, and we can be smart about this." "As opposed to running in and nearly getting ourselves killed?" Aiden considered this. "Sounds good to me." "And how does her Jediness propose we dispose of these Sith?" Canderous crossed his arms and looked at her expectantly. Bastila blinked for a few seconds, looking between Aiden and Canderous. "I... well... I'm open to suggestions." "I say we send Canderous out in a dress," Aiden suggested. "I say we send you out in a dress, and then shoot you for suggesting it in the first place," Canderous replied menacingly. "Come now, we can be serious about this," Bastila put her hands on her hips and glared at them. "You're behaving like adolescents." "I was actually being somewhat serious," Aiden replied. "They're looking for you, Bastila. And by now they've heard of me. So they're looking for two Jedi, male and female. What if we were to hide our sabers and, well..." "Cross-dress?" Canderous finished for him. Aiden shrugged. "I know they may sense us anyway, but it'd be easier to slip by if we don't fit their profile at all." "And if they do notice us?" Bastila stared pointedly at him. "We kick their sorry tails back to where they came from." "Sounds good to me," Canderous gave a predatory smile. "It'd be worth it to see Aiden fight in a dress." "All right, come with me." Bastila grabbed Aiden's hand and dragged him into one of the many shops lining the streets. "I'll find something we can fit you into..."