|Luck of the Draw
Author: Uilleand PM
This was my entry into the latest Duelling Circle Challenge trapped at KFM. A washedout Sith and a duelling ring hasbeen test their luck against the galaxy during a planet's dying moments. I just can't resist Atton, no matter how hard I try...Rated: Fiction K - English - Drama/Sci-Fi - Atton R. - Words: 3,499 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 1 - Published: 11-27-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3916501
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Luck is a cold, jealous bitch.
Sometimes, when you play with just enough skill to shun her, she makes sure you pay for it in other ways. And Jaq had never wished more fervently that he'd played with a little less skill. This was a complication he did not need right now.
He glanced up from his cards at the silly blonde who was gazing at him with rapt adoration. Grimacing, he looked back down at his cards. There was still a chance. His opponent stood at 19 and Jaq had 18 sitting in front of him. He nodded to the dealer and held his breath, but didn't hold out much hope. Sometimes you just knew the galaxy was out to get you.
Sure enough, a shiny, new 2 landed in front of him, mocking him. His groan was drowned in the woman's shrill squeal of glee.
"Oh! You won! I just knew you'd win!" Jaq clenched his teeth. Her voice could have peeled the hide from a ronto. "I just love pazaak. It's so exciting!"
He bit back a whimper.
"Look, um ….." He stood up, searching.
"Christya, yeah, look …I've, um, got to…ermph!"
Whatever excuse he'd been searching for was lost as she threw her arms around him and planted her lips on his. Even if he hadn't already been walking a fine line of panic, this would have thrown him over the edge.
Normally, Jaq wasn't one to turn down the offerings of a sweet, young thing, and this one's obvious wealth more than made up for her … outstanding vocal qualities. But something had changed recently, something that added a deep, nagging edge to his boredom. For the last two days his stomach had been clenched around a gnawing dread that he had never been able to name, but had learned to listen to many years ago.
It was time to leave this planet.
Easier said than done. He'd been laying low since he walked out of the Sith compound, but had woken up two days ago to news that the bastards had imposed a lockdown over the entire planet of Taris. He'd actually known the pilot who had attempted to make a break for it on the first day. He was using his name now. Not like he needs it anymore.
He grappled for the girl's arms and pried them off.
"Yeah, look, Christya, I really can't stick around. I've gotta see a guy about a ship."
"Oh, where are you going to go?" She screwed her face into a ridiculous pout and clung to his arm as he collected his winnings. "No-one's going anywhere."
Prying her fingers from her person was like trying to wrestle a Bespin airsquid. Every time he was sure he was free, some other part of him was captured. Worse yet, she was starting to attract attention. In fact, his pazaak opponent, so recently spurned by the young noble, was laughing outright.
Desperate, Jaq scanned the crowded for an escape and found it in a dark-haired figure leaving the cantina.
"Hey! Look, isn't that the Mysterious Stranger?"
He didn't even care if he was right, he only sighed in relief as the crowd – including Christya – surged in the supposed direction of the duelling ring's latest champion. In less than a heartbeat, Jaq was gone, making his way in the opposite direction.
Ice slipped out the duelling ring's back door – the worst-kept secret on Taris. A makeshift ladder dropped down from the ring's trap-door floor – a mummer's trick, leftover from the days when the ring had been one of the planet's main attractions – and deposited her into an abandoned alley.
She gasped as her feet hit solid ground. The ring's battles were non-lethal, but her body was still hunched around the injuries she had been dealt by the 'Mysterious Stranger.' Her lip curled into a sneer as she considered the offworlder's open smile and attempts to aid her after their match.
She had known the match was lost the minute the adhesive grenade had spewed glowing blue goo all over her feet. Not that she conceded the win. That wasn't in her. She fought to the end – but it was fast in coming. Her legs held fast to the floor, there had been no chance to dodge her opponent's shots.
Snarling, she slammed a fist into the rusted husk of a long-abandoned droid. A sickening crunch warned her moments before pain flooded her senses. My duelling hand! She cradled her newly broken fingers to her chest and sobbed more out of despair than agony.
Ice. She spat blood on the ground. Pathetic! What are you gonna do now, little girl? You can't even afford a medpack. Go back to making credits with the parts of your body that are still worth something?
A thud and grunt behind her spun her around, tense and alert. She managed to hold her battered body straight and her blaster steady with her off-hand, pointed directly at the disreputable-looking man at her feet.
"Whew. That's a longer drop than it looks." Ice caught a glimpse of grey eyes and a crooked grin before he saw her weapon and froze.
"Oh. Hey. Look, I didn't know anyone was down here." His grin returned as he rose, hands in the air, but his eyes were locked on her blaster. He pressed his back to the alley wall and glanced towards the busy street, just a few metres away. "I'll just leave you alone here, and be on my way."
He waited a beat.
"Unless you're looking for company…"
She should have let him go. She was in no shape to take on anyone, even a well-fed, pretty-boy pazaak shark like this. But she was desperate. She'd lose more than her fingers if she didn't find some credits soon. And his casual advances made her want to see him grovelling.
"No. I think not."
She levelled the muzzle of her weapon at his eyes. "I saw you winning at the tables. Hand it over, creampuff, and you walk away. Resist, and you die."
"Hey! Creampuff?" Her mark's head rose with indignation, even as he held out his credits to her with a shaking hand. "That's not …" Before she could blink, Ice was hauled forward into his body. Hands that were harder than any card shark's she'd ever known had bent her good arm behind her back and her blaster skittered across the alley. "… fair."
Shrieking with built-up rage, she pounded her head back into his face and felt a certain amount of satisfaction as his nose flattened under her skull. But her victory was short-lived as his free hand wrapped around her and grasped her broken fingers. A light squeeze was all it took to send her to her knees.
"Doll, why would you even try that?" Ice's mark-turned-captor sounded genuinely confused. "An empty blaster and a broken gun hand?"
He shook his head as he circled her huddled form, grinning through the blood that was smeared over the lower half of his face, his dark hair hanging into his eyes. "I'll give ya points for style, though."
The stranger flipped her over, not gently, and retrieved his credits from her grip. She lay on her back, gasping, no longer caring who saw her weakness. Blood trickled from her mouth and her scorched armour gaped, exposing burnt skin and bruised flesh. Maybe if I die here, it will be all right. I'll make the holovids when they find my body. She closed her eyes and waited for his footsteps to disappear.
"Okay, now that's just insulting." Her deep blue eyes flew open and met his disgusted glare. "You're barely being held together with reflec tape, and you thought I'd be an easy takedown?"
She drew in a painful breath and used it to spit, pink-tinged, in his face. Maybe he'll do me the favour of ending this.
She could see his jaw clench, but all he did was wipe her saliva – and some more of his own blood – from his face.
"Dammit, I'd give you the creds just for the show, but somethin' tells me a ship ain't gonna come cheap around here."
She gasped out a laugh. "A ship? What kind of fool are you? A ship's as useful as a three-legged bantha. Get you about as far…"
"Yeah, you just let me worry about that, sister. I'm done with you, and I'm gettin' off this rock."
Leaving? Leaving. The very idea of lifting off the planet's surface stirred inside her, feeling suspiciously like hope.
"Wait!" Was that her voice? "Wait…I…I know where you can get a ship."
The footsteps proceeded for one, two more paces … and stopped. He didn't turn around. "Lady, if I didn't fall for your other tricks, you know I'm not fallin' for any now."
"No tricks. But, you have to take me with you. If I stay on Taris, I'm as good as dead."
He turned, his motion fluid and efficient. He tilted his head and seemed to be listening to something far away. "My name's Atton. If you've got a good ship, I can get us out of here."
Apparently, Lady Luck – when she was good and spaced off – was blonde.
Unless you're looking for company…
Jaq shook his head at himself. Idiot. Why can't you just walk away without having to have the last word?
He watched the lithe form of the duellist who called herself 'Ice' wash the blood from her face and neck.
He leaned back on her rigid sofa as he listened to her, his feet up on a small crate he'd pulled close. She was small and lean, ropy with muscle and hunger, her undeniably blonde hair pulled tight away from her narrow face. I'd have been better off with the rich squealer.
He watched her carefully. Most women would have taken his clumsy come-on the way he had hoped – as an excuse to get as far away from him as possible.
"Like just about every other idiot on this planet, I owe money to Davik Kang."
"He's never forgiven me for refusing to work in his dance house, but as long as I was making cred for him in the ring, it was good business to let me live." She didn't glance down at the red, swollen mess of her hand that she'd clumsily wrapped in dirty bandages. "That's obviously not going to work for me anymore."
She turned to him, her one good hand wrapping another filthy linen around her ribcage. "What's the plan, then? A ship's no good to us without launch codes, and I'm not about to make nice with the Sith to get them."
Jaq controlled the slight lift of his lips before she could see it. If only she knew. "That's covered, doll. But numbers don't fly on their own."
He kept his body languid and relaxed, but his mind was beating at the inside of his skull with the need to move, to fly.
"The ship, doll, where is it?"
To her credit, she hesitated only a moment.
"Bendak Starkiller? Your ship just happens to belong to the deadliest shot this side of the mid rim? Beautiful!" He laughed and stood. I really would have been better off with the airsquid.
"Good luck with that. Me? I like my inside parts inside."
He was almost at the door before she spoke again. "Bendak's got a death duel tomorrow. He and his entire crew will be at the ring. After he wins, he always celebrates – hard."
Something … something tugged at a corner of his mind. "Who's he facing off against?"
"The Mysterious Stranger." The words seemed to sizzle as they came out of her mouth.
"Ah." Again, the tug, the pull on his gut, something more than he understood.
"All right. Say he's staying out all night. I'm good with a security door, but if he's been hiding these wings from the Sith, it's not going to be easy to find."
"I…I think I know where it is."
Finally, he simply sat down and laughed.
"You think?!? Damn, this just gets better and better. Well, we can't lose, can we?"
He looked up and met her scowl. "Now, you've gone and made me sorry I didn't invest in vacation property on Tatooine all those years ago."
"Shut up!" Her fist clenched at her side impotently. "Did you have any better leads before this?"
"For all Bendak's legendary status, just rumours of having a ship would be enough to have him disappear into the Sith compound forever. For me … I'd be less than an afterthought as they shot me in the street simply for knowing. I'm pretty damned sure I know where that ship is."
"Bendak taught me how to shoot." Jaq watched her face as she struggled with something inside. "I think…I think he wanted me to know where it is."
He chewed on his lip as he watched her – face flushed, her one good hand hovering over an empty holster. As the galaxy is my witness, if I survive this, I am never going near another blonde again. Too damned dangerous.
"Okay. Let's get moving."
The shortest route between two points is a straight line. The safest is as crooked as you can possibly make it.
Hours later, Ice's hand throbbed as she led Atton through the winding tunnels of the Lower City. She had refused his offer of a medpack out of sheer bloody mindedness. She'd accepted the charged blaster, though. I'm better with my off hand than most with their good hand.
It wasn't cockiness. It was truth – 'Mysterious Stranger' notwithstanding.
Even so, the speed with which her companion had dispatched the two guards at the last gate left her a bit stunned. She had been trying to think of a good way to bluff her way past them when he had swept into action, neatly slitting their throats and stuffing their bodies into a nearby grate.
Now, crouched below Bendak Starkiller's personal enclave, she watched his face as he contemplated their next move. There was a cold focus in his eyes that reminded her of Bendak in the ring. A soldier's focus.
About a dozen hired guards lounged above them, savouring a night of relaxation. Ice inhaled, about to whisper a suggestion, but he raised one hand, silencing her. Over the ever-present creaks, clanks and squeaks of the Lower City sewers, she could hear a distant voice. The holovids. The announcer was declaring a new champion of the Taris Duelling Ring. The Mysterious Stranger.
Bendak is dead.
Atton Rand just nodded. He didn't seem even remotely surprised.
She stored it away to deal with later. He had been a cold man, but he had saved her from becoming just another piece of street flesh.
"This just got a lot harder." She had to strain to hear Atton's whisper, as chaos erupted above them.
She shook her head, confused. Why? she mouthed.
He simply gestured upwards with a nod of his head and a clenched fist. Looting.
Her stomach plunged as she understood. They had to get to that ship first!
They waited as the noise gathered and moved away from their position, and then crept out into the demolished room. Atton let out a low whistle. "Looks like Bendak was a swell guy. Really inspired loyalty."
She glared at him, but only said, "The ship should be down that corridor. There was always a door that was locked tight, and heavily guarded. It's got to be there."
He wasn't looking at her.
"Ice. Watch my back. I've got to patch into that console and see if I can't get a line out."
"What are you doing?"
"Inviting a distraction. Just be ready to run."
She held her blaster firmly, despite the pounding of her heart. A minute later, her heart almost stopped altogether.
"This is operative J-742, repeat J-742. Come in headquarters. I have confirmation of space-worthy vessel in quadrant four – co-ordinates 8-23-87. Repeat – 8-23-87. Dammit, no-one's answering. What's going on over there?"
When he signed off, he turned to face the muzzle of her blaster.
"Oh, come on. We're not going to do this again, are we?"
She felt her stomach trying to crawl up her throat. "You … you set me up!"
Fool! That's what you get for throwing your lot in with a man. Did you really think he'd take you away from all this?
"Don't be stupid, doll. We're not going to get to that ship first, unless something bigger attracts the attention of all those lugs. Trust me, ticked off Sith patrol is bigger."
"I'm not stupid. This blaster is fully charged." With a deft flick of her finger, she switched on the targeting scope, levelling the red dot squarely over his heart. "You have codes, you have comm.-clearance. You're one of them."
"Tell me exactly how you came to have those launch codes."
"Does it matter, Ice? Does it frakking matter? I need to get off this planet and so do you. Chances are, if the Sith do show up here, it will be the chance to fry my ass that drags them out – not any space ship."
"Hardly comforting, Rand!"
He spread his hands wide, appealing to her. She took a step back, her first encounter with him fresh in her mind. "Stand still. Stay right there. I need to think."
"We don't have time to think, Ice. We need to go. Now!"
Ice didn't see his hand move. The closest thing she got to a warning was a sickly-sweet smell – but even that didn't explain the slow draw on her muscles, dragging her down towards the floor.
"Sorry, sweetheart." His face swam in her vision. "It won't last long, I promise. You'll be fine in a little while. I just can't have this conversation with you right now, and I'm not interested in trying my luck against your skill today."
She drooled around an appropriate curse, but it was stuck on her tongue as he lowered her gently to the ground. "It's not you, doll, it's me."
"Well, I'll be a wookiee's aunt. It's real."
Bendak's ship was small, but it would be fast. Sleek as a manka cat, she would easily outrun larger Sith vessels. Might actually make it as a smuggler with this little beauty.
He felt a momentary pang for the woman he'd left behind in a stupor. But he'd left her with enough creds to clear her way with Davik and start her life over again – more than fair compensation for his transportation. Better off far away from the likes of me, anyhow.
He almost envied her luck – a new start without constantly looking over her shoulder. He wasn't so much escaping as prolonging the chase. There wasn't anywhere in this sector that was free of the Sith. I should know.
Atton settled into the pilot's chair, and powered up the little vessel. She hummed to life, and the urgency in his veins sang along with her
He didn't look back as the tiny craft lifted into the air.
When Ice woke, the sounds of looting were far away, riotous and shattering. Her head swam as she tried to focus enough to remember the best way out of here.
Her hand twitched as she reflexively reached for her blaster, but it wasn't the cool weapon that her fingers closed around. She held more credits in her hand than she'd ever seen in her lifetime. Enough to buy off Davik. Enough to leave the ring, leave the streets.
Ice's mind swirled with the possibilities of a life free of debt and obligation. She staggered to her feet and headed for the streets. As she emerged from her mentor's sanctuary, she raised her eyes, hunting for some trace of a ship's vapour trail.
She was just in time to see the sky open up and rain fire down upon Taris.