"The damage doesn't look so bad from –"

A thousand small explosions swarmed over the Endar Spire, blending together until the starship disintegrated in one shattering blast.

Carth Onasi stepped back from the aft porthole of the escape pod he was in and sagged down into the safety harness with a sigh. Never mind, then. He hadn't really known anyone on the ship, but the loss of good men and women – and for what? – was just sad.

At least a few of us got away. Their "commander," Bastila had to be ushered to an escape pod – despite being a Jedi, she'd been overwhelmed by the suddenness and scale of the Sith attack, and was too scared to even walk straight. He was the last to leave, waiting until the only remaining survivor made it to the pods; a crewwoman with reddish colored hair.

She was hunched over, her right hand covering her ribs. "Are you OK?" Carth asked. "Are you hurt?"

"Yea," she said, nodding. "Just a slash. It isn't very deep."

The escape pod started to vibrate. "We're passing through the atmosphere – strap in."

She nodded again, reaching for the harness, when the escape pod shuddered violently. The harness slipped from her grasp and she went bouncing along with the pod, slamming headfirst into the wall.

"Oh, hell, no!" Carth exclaimed as her body fell back to the floor of the pod, limbs splayed out in the sickening sprawl of unconsciousness. The vibrating intensified, and a red glow crept into his view. Hang in there, soldier, and I'll get you taken care of as soon as we crash down.

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It was easy to see why the apartment was abandoned. A fist-sized chunk was missing from each of the two large windows dominating the single room. In the Upper City of Taris, several hundreds of feet above the planet's actual surface, this allowed in a whistling, chilly breeze. Which would have been manageable, except that Carth soon discovered the heating system was broken.

There were two small beds, a grungy workbench, a half-ripped out kitchen, a cramped and equally grungy bathroom off on one side, and only one table with a few torn and stained chairs If this is the Tarisians idea of luxury, I hate to think of what poverty looks like. An enlisted barracks in an Outer Rim base had more cheer.

He laid his still-unconscious crewmate on a bed. A vibrant purple welt was forming near her left temple, but she was breathing regularly. Carth turned his attention to the wound she'd been nursing in the pod. He could see a rip in her clothing, and bloody skin beneath. Silently hoping she'd stay unconscious for the next few minutes, he fumbled with the fasteners on her vest until he could pull it off, then hiked up her shirt to expose her wound.

It was just a slash along her side, not even a quarter of an inch deep at its worst. Doesn't appear to be infected or from a poison blade. Carth let his gaze wander over his mystery companion while he injected her with the hypo in a medpac salvaged from the escape pod. She wasn't wearing the dog tags all Republic soldiers had – come to think of it, she wasn't in any kind of uniform at all. She'd been with Bastila's party – he recognized the two small braids pulled up into the ponytail on either side – but she wasn't dressed as a Jedi and bore no weapons other than blasters and a vibroblade. So…what are you?

Her skin intrigued him most of all. She was young, probably in her late twenties, though her eyes were set a bit far apart, giving her an air of intelligence and aloofness that aged her, even in her sleep. He expected the skin of her torso to be as smooth and clear as on her face, but it was dotted with a variety of scars, far more than would be anticipated on one so young. More than even he had after twenty years as a soldier. Carth recognized the wide burn of a blaster scar, the thin white line from a blade, and the jagged angles of shrapnel. Several shapes were unknown to him – those small, round ones might be from shock sticks. But just above the now-closing gash he'd treated, he spotted the distinctive cauterization marks left behind by a lightsaber.

Jedi can heal themselves without leaving scars – she's not one of them. But she's been fighting against lightsabers – against the Sith. He regarded her with a mixture of suspicion and respect, remembering the way she'd decapitated the last Sith trooper standing between her and the escape pods with a backhanded strike. Who are y

Suddenly, she started thrashing about in the bed. Her lips formed words but no sound came out. Carth backed away just in time to avoid being smacked in the face by a flailing arm. Nightmares…curiouser and curiouser…guess that means I'm it for keeping watch. He collected his blasters and plopped down into one of the ratty chairs, hoping there were hypostims in the medkit.

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Forty-eight hours later, Carth began to think the black splotches on the carpet were trying to eat his shoes. They keep moving…

He hadn't slept. He'd only eaten one of the handful of ration packs from the escape pod's survival kit. He hadn't showered, and he certainly hadn't shaved. He stood up and walked around the apartment every few hours, to keep the circulation in his legs from completely closing down, fighting the fatigue.

There had been no change in the condition of his little invalid, either. She would dream for several minutes – he'd clocked the longest session at a half an hour – thrashing about and trying to speak, then would calm down and lie still for a few hours. Her wounds were completely healed, and other than the bruise from the escape pod she had no visible injuries. Carth wondered if that smack to the head had done more damage than it first appeared.

A few Sith patrols had gone through the halls of the building they were in. Their apartment must've been abandoned for a long time, because none even paused at their door to monitor for life forms. Carth had fished out the transmitter from the survival kit and tuned into the Sith communication frequency the last time they'd come by. The patrol wasn't talking about anything more interesting than what the back of a Twi'lek's head resembled, but when he headed towards the windows he picked up on the aerial patrols' frequency – over which the crashing of several Republic escape pods into the Under City was being discussed.

One of those must be Bastila's pod…we'll need her help to get off this planet. The pilots were also going over the new shoot-on-sight protocol put in place by a planetary quarantine. Jedi or no, she's going to need our help too. Assuming Red over here ever wakes up – though, he mused, casting another glance at her, it's more auburn than red.

As if on cue, she moaned.

Carth rushed over – another nightmare? But instead of wild, frenzied movements, she was slowly and deliberately shaking her head side to side. With a second, louder moan, she propped her elbows up and lifted herself a few inches off the mattress – she's awake!

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"So, where do you want to start?" she asked him.

Carth took in the layout of the Upper City in one long glance. "The cantina. Always start in the cantina." Ilithia – or 'Just Ilithia,' as she had snapped when prompted for a family name – shrugged. "It should be straight ahead, past that emporium," Carth continued, punching up a map on his datapad. He raised his head to look over at her, but she was already purposefully striding away.

I'll never be accused of being slow, Ilithia thought. It had only been a few hours since she'd regained consciousness. In that time, she had showered, eaten, upgraded her vibroblade, and agreed to help him find Bastila. Never mind the little witch treated me like a retarded servant girl, and even Carth admits her famous Battle Meditation was worthless in that ambush. They'd also taken a few minutes to explore the apartment building they were hiding out in – slicing up a couple of Sith along the way. Carth's unspoken but obvious fear that she would be inexperienced civilian deadweight – as opposed to the inexperienced Jedi deadweight we're looking for – evaporated when she promptly rifled through the dead Sith's pockets for their spare credits and supplies.

No sooner had he caught up with her than she said "I'd like to know more about you, Carth," repeating a question he'd brushed off back in the apartment. She didn't want to think about what he might have heard her say in her delirium, but was planning to extract as much information about him as she suspected he already had about her.

Back at the apartment he'd been more than happy to tell her what he knew about Bastila and the Sith – though why she didn't seem to know much about the war was puzzling – but his personal life had been off limits for years, and today was not the day to change that. Name, rank, and serial number, sister, that's all you're getting out of me. "I've been a star-pilot for the Republic for years. I've seen more than my share of wars…I fought in the Mandalorian wars before all of this started." Without breaking stride, Ilithia whipped her head around and fixed him with a calculating gaze. Change the subject, fast… "But with all that I've never experienced the kind of slaughter these Sith animals can unleash. Not even the Mandalorians were that senseless."

She slowed down, her gaze softening. There's pain there, she thought. He's trying to hide it, but it's there – can I get him to tell me? Ilithia knew it would be pushing things to ask, but if he had personal issues with the Sith she wanted to know about them before they got her killed. "What happened?" she asked softly. Tell me…tell me…

The words rushed out before Carth even realized he was speaking. "My homeworld was one of the first planets to fall to Malak's fleet." Her eyes widened, comprehending. "The Sith bombed it into submission, and there wasn't a damn thing our Republic forces could do to stop them!" Did I just say that?

"You're talking like it's your fault," Ilithia said pensively. Anger? Check. Feelings of inadequacy? Check. Guilt? "Like you failed somehow."

"It shouldn't be my fault," he snapped. This is not happening. "I did everything I could…I followed my orders and did my duty." He sped up as they passed the entrance to the emporium. "That shouldn't mean I failed them. I didn't!" Carth Onasi, Captain, Galactic Republic Fleet, serial number 3263827. Carth Onasi, Captain…

She quickened her pace, coming alongside in just a few strides. Too far. "I'm sorry, Carth," she said evenly, don't-take-this-out-on-me written on her face. "I didn't mean to upset you." But you're going to have to keep your head screwed on straight if we're going to get off this rock alive.

"I know. Don't worry about it," Carth sighed. Ticking off the one person he had to help him would not be a good idea, even if she started it. "I…must not be making much sense." Ilithia gave him a yea, right look. "You probably mean well with your questions," he said, hoping if he was firm enough she would let the subject drop for good. "I'm just not accustomed to talking much about my past. At all, actually," he snarled.

She opened her mouth to retort, but the sight of a Sith guard at the cantina's entrance quieted both of them. Curiosity really could get me killed here, she thought, if I tick him off too much.

The doors opened into a long, narrow room dominated by a Pazaak table. Uninterested, Ilithia hurried towards the central bar, a circular room filled with small tables. Lights were low, but she could see the entrances to other rooms, including a dance floor off to her right. Most of the patrons were human. Ilithia slid into a seat at the nearest empty table, stashing her simple shoulder pack between her feet. "I'd like an Alderaanian firewhiskey, please," she said to the waitress who quickly materialized out of the darkness.

"I'll have the same," Carth said absentmindedly, moving to sit while scanning the crowd. The waitress turned and vanished. "This place is crawling with off-duty Sith," he whispered.

"Military buzz-cuts and a constant look of disgust?" she whispered back. "Great."

Carth shrugged. "Well, we could use some more information, and what better source would there be than drunk Sith?"

"No way," Ilithia spat. "I'd rather flirt with a drooling Bomar than with these rats."

The arrival of their drinks interrupted them. "Two Alderaanian firewhiskeys…that will be twenty credits," the waitress said icily, eyeing Carth's ratty orange jacket.

Credits…right, Ilithia thought, panicking. "Uh, just keep our tab open for now," she stammered. The waitress nodded curtly and headed back for the bar. "I don't have twenty credits," Ilithia whispered to Carth.

He grimaced. "Neither do I."

"I don't suppose there's a branch of the Republic Fleet Credit Union nearby where we could make a withdrawal, either," she muttered, frowning in the direction of the entrance guard.

"We've got to make some money, fast." His earlier survey of the cantina had been a friend-or-foe scan of their fellow patrons; now he diverted his attention to their activities. "There was that Pazaak table back by the entrance," he remembered, brightening.

Ilithia shook her head immediately. "Don't look at me, I'm awful."

Carth glanced around at his fellow drinkers. Not spotting anyone who looked like a shark, he slugged back his firewhiskey and stood up. "Don't go anywhere," he told Ilithia. "I won't be long."

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A spring green recruit is better at Pazaak than that blowhard, Carth thought, counting his credits as he strolled back into the main cantina. It had taken longer than he'd predicted – nearly two hours – but the three-hundred and fifty credits he had to show for it were worth the wait.

"Hey, good-looking," he called out to the woman seated across from him as he slid into his seat. "Look what I've got."

"Whatever it is I hope it takes you back to the slime pit you crawled out of," an unfamiliar blonde woman shot back, glaring.

He sprang back up, looking left and right urgently. "Sorry, ma'am," he exclaimed, "I thought you were the woman who was sitting here earlier." She opened her mouth to insult him a second time, but he was already striding away, craning his neck to check every corner of the cantina for Ilithia.

She wasn't in the dance hall – she wasn't in the lounge – probably chased away by that snotty little brat who assumed Carth must be a waiter because he didn't look rich. There's not enough of a crowd in the main bar to conceal her – you should've known a woman that curious wouldn't be content to just sit there – stupid, Onasi, stupid, he berated himself, walking into a large, open room lined with viewscreens. A Hutt was visible in the distance. Nearby, several individuals were being treated for blade wounds. Guess they picked a fight with the wrong person.

"…But Twitch's opponent plans to take the champion down!" Dueling, of course, Carth realized, wandering closer. Banned on the more respectable core worlds, the Sith encouraged dueling, both for its entertainment value and to identify potential high-level recruits. "…Battle after battle, we've watched this young phenom rise through the ranks…In this corner, the challenger for the title of Taris Dueling Champion," – sporting auburn hair and gleaming grey eyes – "The Mysterious Stranger!"

Oh, hell no…if that Rodian doesn't give her a good smack upside the head I sure will, Carth fumed as Ilithia lobbed a grenade at her opponent before charging across the dueling ring, a lone vibroblade in her hands. We're trying to avoid attracting attention from the Sith, not seeking it. The Rodian got a round in with his blaster, missing Ilithia completely, then pulled out his own blade, wincing from the damage the grenade had inflicted. At least her tactics are good.

Better than good, in fact, he had to admit as the match wore on. With all her feinting and parrying Twitch could barely lay a blade on her, and when he did it was just a glancing blow she shrugged off easily. The competitors here must be more incompetent than most if a raw recruit can slice up their champion so eas – Ilithia suddenly sprang into the air, somersaulting in mid-jump to bring her blade down on Twitch's shoulder and torso with tremendous force. Holy gundark spit! Carth gaped, leaning on the viewscreen in disbelief as the Rodian slumped to the ground, beaten. We don't teach that in basic training!

"It's over!" the announcer exclaimed, sounding as bowled over as Carth. "The fight is over! Twitch's reign of terror has ended! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new champion – the Mysterious Stranger!" Ilithia bowed quickly to the crowd, heading for the exit even before the medical team could load Twitch onto a stretcher.

A crowd quickly gathered by a door in a far corner, chanting "Stranger! Stranger!" Carth elbowed his way to the front, ignoring the rude comments and gestures from the wealthy and noble patrons – Tarisians must not like orange. Ilithia emerged from a darkened hall a few moments later, waving away the autograph seekers and glad-handers to slip through the crowd almost unnoticed by all but those nearest to her. As soon as she was within reach Carth seized her by the arm, pulling her through the throng. "Are you out of your mind!?" he hissed, dragging her towards the exit to the city as fast as he could without breaking into a run. "Are you trying to get yourself arrested?"

"No, I was trying to win some credits," she snarled, ripping her arm from his grasp. "Which I'd like to go collect before we leave, if it's alright with you."

"I've already won plenty of credits at Pazaak – without advertising my existence to every Sith on the planet," he replied.

She crossed her arms, derision all over her face. "Really. How much?"

Carth waved the credits in front of her face. "Three hundred and fifty."

"Nice," she deadpanned. "But Ajuur's already paid me a thousand credits for the four previous fights I won, and I'll get an additional five hundred as soon as you let me go back in there."

"Fifteen hundred…"

Ilithia sniffed, ignoring his blank stare. "Yea, it's nice. And as far as my being recognized, the benefit of using a melee weapon is that you're constantly on the move. With a blaster you stand still long enough for people to get to know your face – I think all anyone will remember about me is the color of my hair." Looking about, Carth had to admit she was probably right. The crowd, not knowing where their idol had gone to and unable to identify her, was already fading away into the far reaches of the cantina. And the lighting did make her look like a brunette, he thought,though he didn't know why he'd manage to notice that.

"Fine," he barked, "Go get your money and meet me outside." She nodded curtly and trotted back into the viewing room.

She is most definitely not a raw recruit, Carth told himself as he passed through the main bar towards the Pazaak room and the exit. Our melee weapon training covers your basic attacking maneuvers, maybe flurries if there's time. Critical strikes are too hard for an untrained swordsman to recover from, and a jump like that…she's been trained somewhere else. Oblivious to the glares from the Pazaak player he'd drained dry, he stepped through the doors and out to the city. Thoroughly trained, by someone who was probably a master of melee fighting in their own right. Out on the frontier maybe…

"There he is!" a shrill female voice cried. Carth jerked out of his reverie to realize he'd almost walked right into the high and mighty girl from the cantina – and two armed thugs on either side.

"Hey," he breathed, backing up several feet in one step, "Gentlemen…I'm sure this isn't necessary…"

"Blast the slummie!" the woman screamed. Carth had time to duck the first shot but knew he'd put himself right in line for the second –

With a loud gurgling sound the second thug fell down onto the ground Carth was staring at – dead. A scream a few seconds later told him the first had just met a similar fate. Ilithia stood over his dead body, her blade arched menacingly. The Tarisian woman barely waited long enough to blink before turning and running off into the city, yelling for her father.

"Are you hit?" Ilithia asked, watching her go with half a mind to follow. It would be satisfying… "Are you hurt?"

"No," he replied, the tremor in his voice matching the trembling in his hands as the shock and adrenalin subsided. "That was close, though."

She wiped her blade clean on the cloth armor one of the thugs had worn, then slid it into its sheath with a single metallic swish. "I knew that girl was trouble the second I laid eyes on her," she muttered, shaking her head. "And you complained that my dueling was dangerous."

Carth brushed a bead of sweat away from his eyes. "She said my clothing looked like it came from a trash compactor – was I just supposed to stand there and take it?"

Ilithia laughed, eyeing the orange jacket. "Well, considering she's right…yes."

Women. "I like this jacket," he shot back.

"Enough to die for it?" she asked, amused. It makes his skin look like he's spent a year in the Dune Sea without a sunshield – but it does bring out the warm brown in his eyes.

"You think she'll be back with more of her father's hired help?" Carth asked, suddenly worried.

She dismissed his concerns with a wave of her hand. "Nah. He'll be mad that her inability to keep her mouth shut has cost him two men – he won't waste any more on her little vendetta. Let's get going." Carth did notice her pause slightly as they turned the corner onto the main promenade, one hand dropping to the hilt of her blade, just in case.

They had only walked a few paces in silence before Ilithia struck again. "Is this a good time to ask you some more questions?" she asked innocently. She knew it would annoy him, but she was genuinely curious about the source of the pain his words hinted at. And if he's going to be annoyed at me anyways, why stop now?

Carth wanted to continue fuming; about the dueling, about her pestering questions, about her – everything about her. He wheeled about, a nasty retort on his lips, but the look in her eyes killed his anger before he could give it a voice. Instead of the detached indifference of merely "making conversation," there was a warm, seemingly genuine concern. That can't be, he thought, as she waited patiently for an answer. She wouldn't truly care – she's got no reason to, other than to just amuse herself. So you want to play, sister? Let's play. "I'm all ears, beautiful," he said, putting a suggestive emphasis on that last word.

For the first time since she'd woken up, Ilithia was truly speechless. What did he just call me? She halted quickly, her boots scraping against the metal floor of the promenade. Nobody…ever… Her jaw opened and closed several times, working back and forth. "Keep – keep talking like that…and…and – you might lose an ear or two," she finally spluttered, trying to glare at him.

"A little bit touchy, are we?" Carth asked, laughing. "Is there something else you'd prefer I called you?"

"How about my name?" she shot back, recovering her wits. He cannot be serious.

Maybe if you told me all of your name I would, 'Just Ilithia.' "Don't get yourself in a twist over it, gorgeous," he muttered. "I didn't mean anything by it." It worked, though – gotta remember that.

"There you go again," she snapped, stalking off towards the other end of the promenade. I knew it – brainless, lice-ridden Bantha!

"Oh, for crying out – fine," he called out, hurrying after her. "If it'll make you feel any better, you call me something." She quickened her pace. "Come on, I can take it."

How old is he – forty going on five? She sorted through her options quickly: insult him, or fight fire with fire. "How about 'handsome thug'?" she wondered, holding back a wicked grin when she saw him blush. Anything you can do I can do better…

"Uh, well…I like the first part of that." A familiar but nearly forgotten tingle worked its way through his body. 'Handsome'…Get a hold of yourself, Onasi, she's just playing along. His mind tried to reassert control of things, but his mouth raced forward before he could rein it in. "But I'm a bit more partial to 'the most handsome pilot in the galaxy'. What do you think?"

Ilithia rolled her eyes. "Only if every other pilot in the galaxy is a Wookiee," she muttered, approaching a set of doors below a sign displaying a healer's insignia.

"Ouch," he drawled, laughing. "'Beautiful' doesn't sound so bad in comparison now, does it?" She shook her head, refusing to be drawn in any further as the doors opened.

"Greetings," a balding but dignified dark-skinned man called out to them, standing behind an examining table. "I am Dr. Zelka Forn. How may I – you've been injured, madam!" he exclaimed, coming around from behind the table and advancing on Ilithia. "When did this happen?"

She flinched and backed up a step when he reached up to examine the bruise she still bore on her forehead. "A few days ago," she said, glaring suspiciously at the healer. "It feels fine now."

"At least let me –"

"It's fine," Ilithia snapped. Carth shot her a hey, relax look. "We'll buy a few medpacs in case it flares up, but I don't need to be examined." She took a deep breath, willing herself to calm down. "Thank you anyway."

The doctor nodded, motioning his assistant to start getting spare medpacs out of the storage containers in the corner. "Are you off-worlders?" he asked, eyeing Carth's jacket.

"Yea," Carth said slowly, ignoring the snicker from Ilithia as she moved off to one side, counting out credits. "Caught in this damned quarantine." Dr. Forn nodded thoughtfully, but stayed silent. Carth decided to see if the doctor knew anything – if there were survivors from the other pods, they might have needed to see a doctor when the landed. "Must be something real important down here if the Sith are going to seal off the whole planet."

The momentary panicked flicker of his eyes towards the closed door across the room gave it away. "Must be," the doctor said noncommittally, neither agreeing nor disagreeing in order to avoid implying knowledge, but Carth was already gone. "Hey!"
Dr. Forn shouted as Carth began to tinker with the lock, "That area is restricted, you can't –"

Ilithia looked up from handing credits over to the doctor's assistant in time to see the doors sliding back, revealing a roomful of bacta tanks – with wounded Republic soldiers inside. The doctor continued yelling at Carth, who was walking slowly into the room, pausing to take a long look at each soldier's face. "I know these men," he finally said, turning back to look at Dr. Forn.

"You – you know them?" Anger faded, replaced by caution. "Who are you?"

"Friends of the Republic," Ilithia called out. Cryptic, but she wasn't about to tell the doctor their names.

Dr. Forn came alongside Carth, joining him in front of a soldier with a deep stab wound in his chest. "Since the space battle overhead, people have been secretly bringing in these Republic soldiers who crash landed on the planet; at least, those soldiers who were not killed outright when their escape pods landed, either by the impact, the Sith, or the rakghouls." He took a deep breath, looking around at the other wounded men and women in the surrounding tanks. "Most of them will die."

"But at least they'll have spent their last few days in compassionate hands," Carth countered, his eyes glazed over as if gazing past the bacta tanks at a different image of defeat and death. "For that you have my thanks." The memory held his attention until the prickly sensation of being stared at by Ilithia forced him back into the present moment. She'll never stop pestering me with questions if I keep this up.

"Dr. Forn, excuse me," she ventured. "But you said something about 'rakghouls'?" The doctor nodded curtly. "What are they?"

He tuned and led her back into the main facility. "They are horrible monsters that live in the Undercity of Taris." Carth followed silently as Dr. Forn punched a few buttons on a nearby data console. "Prolonged exposure to the Undercity breeds the disease and those infected will eventually mutate into rakghouls, becoming mindless beasts that feed on the flesh of others, infecting them with their bite."

One glance at the image that flashed onto the screen was enough for Ilithia – she blanched and quickly looked away. "Is there a cure?" she spat, revulsion dripping from her words. Carth stepped up to the console, wincing at the same picture Ilithia had seen, but began to read the description of the disease.

"I heard the Republic scientists at the military base here on Taris were close to perfecting a cure," Dr. Forn said cautiously. "Then the Sith arrived, overrunning the military base and refusing to allow anyone access to the laboratories inside. What serum they have they are keeping for the patrols they send into the Undercity."

Carth's head whipped around. "Patrols? In the Undercity?" The doctor nodded slowly, suddenly understanding the source of his guests' interest in the escape pods. "Thank you for your help, Dr. Forn," Carth quickly replied, "But we need to get going."

If the Sith are patrolling the Undercity they may have already captured Bastila… "Yes, thank you," Ilithia said hurriedly, trying to match Carth's near-sprint for the door – and slamming uncomfortably into the suddenly halted pilot.

The assistant she'd taken the medpacs from had him by the elbow. "I've got an offer for you that you might want to hear," he whispered, glancing furtively at Dr. Forn, who was slipping back into the side room containing the wounded soldiers.

"An offer?" Carth glanced back at Ilithia, frowning. "What are you talking about?"

"Davik Kang will pay you ten times what Zelka can if you can get the cure," the assistant said quietly, trying to give Carth a conspiratorial grin.

Ilithia shoved her way into the conversation. "Davik Kang? Who's that?"

The assistant laughed. "Oh, come on – everybody knows who Davik Kang is! He's the big boss around here. Gambling, smuggling, extortion – he's got a piece of all the action on Taris."

"The thug-in-chief," Carth growled, narrowing his eyes to give the assistant the same look he'd given the picture of a rakghoul. "Probably a member of the Exchange, too."

Ilithia nodded. "I think I'd rather give the serum to Zelka," she said casually, moving towards the exit. "He'll use it to help people."

"Helping people is all well and good," the assistant said quickly, sliding over to block her path to the door, "But you've got to help yourself first, right?"

Carth wanted very much to show this backstabbing thug just what sort of self-help he was best at, but starting a fight could draw the Sith's attention back to the doctor. "And then only the rich could afford the cure," he snarled, contenting himself with a nasty glare. "Just let the poor suffer, right?"

The assistant ignored Carth, focusing his words on the neutral expression Ilithia wore. "I'm telling you Davik will pay big credits for the cure. More than Zelka could ever afford." She sniffed, then started to walk past him, clearly finished with the conversation. He reached out to hold her by the arm. "If you find the rakghoul serum –"

The moment she felt his touch Ilithia whirled around, shoving the assistant against a wall and bending the offending arm behind his back, pulling it into a painful angle. "Touch me or speak to me again and you'll be the one needing the serum," she hissed menacingly, bruising one of his legs with her knee for good measure before releasing him. She turned and stalked out into the Upper City; Carth, after pausing long enough to give the assistant his own threatening look, followed.

He had to speed up into a trot for a few steps to catch up with Ilithia. "Disgusting," she spat once she heard him come alongside. "Rakghoul disease preys upon the weakest and most vulnerable citizens on Taris and that…that worm wanted us to sell the serum that could cure it to a gangster so he can get even richer!" Her face was set into one of the nastiest scowls Carth could ever remember seeing.

"I take it we won't be doing that," Carth said, surveying her carefully as the redness in her cheeks faded slightly. That guy was a slimeball, and what he suggested was repulsive, but why is she so upset?

"No," she replied. "Zelka's taking an awful risk to treat those soldiers. One unsolicited act of kindness deserves another." A look of mild surprise was Carth's only reply. "Oh come on," she snorted, "I may be touchy and annoying but I'm not heartless. Would I have agreed to help you find Bastila if I was?"

"Yes," he said slowly, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Rescuing Bastila is in your self-interest because she'll be obligated to help get you off this planet." He changed direction, turning towards the passageway to the northern part of the Upper City.

"Whatever," she sighed, rolling her eyes. Git. "If I –"

A sudden shout from an elderly man near the passageway drew their attention. "Help! Somebody, please help me!" Two distinctly thuggish-looking figures, one man and an Aqualish, had him backed into a corner.

The human glanced over at Ilithia and Carth. "This doesn't concern you," he growled. "Move along."

"Davik doesn't like witnesses," his companion tried to whisper in Huttese.

Davik… Ilithia's face darkened.

"I can pay you 50 credits – that's half!" the old man cried, staring past the thugs to plead silently with the two passers-by.

Ilithia dropped one hand to rest lightly on the hilt of her vibroblade. "I think this does concern us."

"It does?" Carth whispered uncertainly. "I don't want to just let them drag this guy off, but would the attention from the Sith patrols and Davik be worth it?"

Ilithia casually slid her vibroblade out of its sheath. "Yes," she said in a shut-up-and-do-what-I-say-soldier voice she didn't know she had. Though at this rate our profile's not going to be any lower than the traffic lanes on Coruscant. "This does concern us."

Yes ma'am. Carth grinned as he reached for his blasters. "You heard the lady," he called out at the human thug. "Leave that guy alone."

"Guess we have to teach you to mind your own busi –" Ilithia's blade didn't give the Aqualish a chance to finish his threat. Carth's blasters made short work of the human, leaving them both standing in front of the trembling old man.

"Now I can't pay him back!" the man wailed after a few moments of staring silently at the two bodies. "It's not good to owe a crime lord money. He'll just keep sending more bounty hunters after me until I'm dead!"

Ilithia shot Carth an almost apologetic glance. "Maybe I can help you with that," she said gently.

The man shook his head sadly. "Unless you have a spare 100 credits to give me so I can pay off Davik, you've already done all you can."

"Here's 100 credits," Ilithia said, plunging her hand into her pack and producing a handful. "Take them."

"You're giving me a hundred credits? Just like that?" He reached out reverently to take them. "I…I don't know what to say! Thank you! Thank you!" Ilithia looked away, embarrassed, as tears began to form in the old man's eyes. "You've saved my life! Thank you! I better take these credits to Davik right away!"

Carth watched the man hurry off into the passageway, then turned to Ilithia. "That was…generous." She slung her pack back over her shoulder and started into the passageway herself. "So whatever happened to not attracting attention?" he asked lightly.

She threw a glare back over his shoulder at the distant, unmoving forms. "We shouldn't be attracting attention unnecessarily," she replied, keeping her voice calm. "That was necessary."

"And why is that?"

Ilithia threw him an are-you-blind? glare. "An old man was about to get worked over because he was 50 credits short on a debt to a gangster who's already on my hate list – remember Dia?"

The girl with the bounty on her head because she told one of Davik's men exactly where his wandering hands should wander off to… "Right." The North city began to come into view, with a layout similar to the South city – apartments, a shop, and a long passageway leading to the Sith base. "We still need to figure out how to get down to the Lower City," he said, squinting in the bright sunlight. "The elevator's right by the Sith base, so I imagine it's guarded."

"Well, we could play dress-up with some Sith armor and see if they're stupid enough to fall for it," Ilithia suggested with a shrug. "If they asked us for identification papers we'd be screwed, but I don't know how we could even find forged papers, let alone how much they'd cost."

Carth sighed. "It's not the world's greatest idea, but it's all I can think of, too." He glanced around at the Sith patrols striding down the promenade – they were usually in groups of three, but a group of two was coming out of the apartment building. "Should we go back to the cantina and chat up the drunk Sith there?"

"I repeat: I'd rather flirt with a drooling Bomar." She followed Carth's gaze over towards the apartments. "I say we go straight to the best source. Dead Sith." She began walking towards the apartment building without waiting to see if Carth agreed.

She's rather…eager for a fight, he thought worriedly, hurrying after her. First the dueling ring, then the doctor's assistant, the thugs, and now the Sith. It was a good idea, though – "If we can catch another patrol like the one in the South Apartments we can get what we need and do it quietly and privately," he mused, catching up to her. "Nice." She nodded, maintaining her pace. "Ilithia…" he started hesitantly, "Can I ask you –"

"No."

They reached the doors to the building, but the elevator was not there. "But you didn't even hear my question," Carth sputtered, pressing the call button.

"I don't care what your question is," she snapped. "I'm not going to answer it until you answer some of mine."

Oh, for the love of… "Is this really necessary?"

"Since I'm going to have to put up with you for the foreseeable future, yes, they are," Ilithia sighed. It won't stop him from being a pain, but at least he won't be a mystery.

Who's putting up with whom here? "Well, if it's an interrogation you wanted, why didn't you say so?" Carth muttered – the way she was going, she probably could teach the Sith torture droids a thing or two.

To his surprise, instead of scowling or coming up with a nasty reply, Ilithia started laughing, shaking her head side to side. "Excellent!" she cried with gently mocking glee. A soft chime sounded, and the doors slid back to let them step into the elevator. "Soon all your secrets will be mine!"

He couldn't help it; he laughed, too. She may be stubborn and annoying, but at least she's not boring. "All my secrets are purely of the mundane variety. Nothing worth extracting…though you're welcome to try," he added, flashing another flirtatious grin her way as he pressed a button for a random floor.

Did somebody put Corellian Fly in his firewhiskey or what? "A girl's got to do something to keep herself entertained." The elevator began to rise.

Carth laughed again. She's fun. "What, the Sith, these rakghouls, swoop gangs, and crime lords wouldn't be enough?"

She shook her head, chuckling. "They can't compare to the thrilling near-death experience of sharing an escape pod with you." The laugh she expected in response didn't come; instead, Carth a sad and haunted look fell over his face. Oh, damn… He looked ten years older than he probably was, and very, very tired. She opened her mouth to apologize, but another chime sounded, and the elevator doors opened, revealing a curving hallway dotted with closed doors.

They started checking out each apartment, picking up any spare credits or medpacs the residents might have left out in the open. I hate stealing, but we need this stuff more than they do. We'll use them to do good things, Ilithia told herself; a rationalization bolstered when she made yet another generous donation of credits to someone in trouble with Davik.

"Where did you hide those Sith uniforms? Did you sell them to the Tarisian underground? Start talking – I want answers!"

Carth and Ilithia traded grins, moving swiftly towards the source of those words.

"Please – I'm only a visitor to Taris, trapped here by your quarantine." One Sith stood guard in the hall, in front of the open apartment door. "I know nothing about the Tarisian underground or your missing Sith uniforms!"

A quick glance over the guard's shoulder revealed two additional Sith and an Aqualish in the room. "What's going on in there?" Ilithia asked casually.

"You're a little too curious for your own good, civilian!" the guard snarled in reply. "This doesn't concern you!"

"Oh, but it does," Carth chirped, smiling.

The voice they'd heard interrogating the Aqualish spoke again. "I'm getting sick of your lies, you alien scum! We've got your ugly mug on a security tape from the base! Start talking before I splatter your all over this room!"

"Uh-oh," the guard said, glancing behind him. "It took me an hour to clean the blood stains from my uniform after the last interrogation."

"Well, then, I guess we just need to put a stop to this interrogation right now," Ilithia said cheerfully. "Save you the trouble." She wished the helmets didn't have opaque visors covering their wearer's face; she really wanted to see if the guard's mouth was hanging open in surprise.

The first Sith – the commander – turned away from the prisoner and took a step towards the hall. "What was that?"

"We're not going to let you kill a defenseless prisoner," Carth announced, drawing his blasters.

The commander laughed. "You won't 'let' us kill him? I suppose you'll have to let us teach you the penalty for defying the Sith."

"What penalty?" Ilithia inquired as the guard's body slid off her vibroblade and hit the floor. The commander barely had time to raise his sword before joining his subordinate. She thought for a moment that the third Sith was going to throw down his blaster and surrender – interesting moral dillemma, that – but he opened fire, singing her combat suit before he, too, fell to the ground, dead.

The prisoner blinked in surprise at the sudden change in his circumstances. "Thank you, human," he said in Huttese. "The Sith would have killed me…of that I am certain."

"You're welcome," Ilithia said, gazing at the dead Sith. "Carth, do you think you can fit into the commander's uniform?" He knelt down and pondered the length of the commander's arm for a moment before giving her a nod. "I'm going to take this one," she told the prisoner, gesturing at the nearby corpse of the third Sith, "So if you are in the uniform-stealing business that third one out in the hall is all yours."

Another surprised expression filled the prisoner's large eyes. "If you wish to strike another blow against the Sith you would be wise to journey to the Lower City and speak with Gadon Thek, the leader of the Hidden Beks," he said solemnly, before turning and walking over to the guard's body.

Oookay…Ilithia knelt down and began the work of de-armoring her dead Sith. Sorry I had to kill you.

Carth had already finished stripping the armor off the commander, so he came over to give Ilithia a hand. "That went pretty well," he mused, unbuckling the fasteners keeping the Sith's chest plate in place.

"Better outcome than the last time," Ilithia replied. She'd pulled off the helmet and was sadly contemplating the acne dotting the far too childlike face that had been inside. I need to cut this guy a break, she thought, remembering Carth's similarly sad gaze back in the medical facility. Many of the dead Republic soldiers she'd seen on the Endar Spire had been equally young. Captain Onasi…that was his ship, his crew. All he's got left is a missing Jedi and me. "You had a question you wanted to ask me?"

"Yea," he sighed, glancing over to see that the Aqualish had already collected the armor and left. But I'll get back to that question later. "Let me ask you something about the battle on the Endar Spire," he said slowly. "I've been going over it over and over in my head since we crashed, and some things just don't add up for me. Maybe you could tell me what happened…from your perspective."

Ilithia also checked to make sure they were alone, then shrugged. "I was asleep in my quarters when the battle started, and by the time my roommate came and woke me up the Sith were already on board." She concentrated on pulling off boots, trying not to think about Trask. "I guess everything just went to hell, fast."

"It did," Carth sighed. "It was an ambush. Bastila never got a chance to use her Battle Meditation, and there were just too many Sith troopers and Dark Jedi…fire on all decks…" He closed his eyes, suddenly imagining Ilithia lying on the bridge of a ship, shrapnel piercing every limb, staring up with pale, dying eyes. I've seen so much death that death is all I ever see.

"I – I'm sorry, Carth," Ilithia whispered. Finished with the armor, she stood. "I know that must have been your ship…your crew."

He shook his head and the image vanished. "I was actually just on board as an advisor, to teach Bastila about military tactics," he said, opening his eyes. "But we still lost the ship and a lot of good people, and for what? On the hope that Jedi powers would save us somehow?"

Carth said the word "Jedi" with such vehemence that Ilithia almost took a step back. "Hey, I'm just surprised that any of us are alive to stand around and talk about it." Great, now he hates the Jedi too – is there anybody this guy actually likes?

"Come to think of it, it's more than a little surprising that you happen to be here, isn't it?" he snapped, standing suddenly and giving her a challenging, suspicious glare. "Just what is your position with the Republic fleet?"

Not me, obviously. "I – I was a scout," she stammered. "They recruited me." Carth grunted disbelivingly. "Why?" she added, sharpening her tone. "Are you accusing me of something?"

"Not at all," he replied, in a tone accusing her of a thousand evil deeds. "I just think it's a bit odd that someone who got added to the crew roster at the last minute just happens to be one of the survivors."

Ilithia shook her head and started to walk away. I'm beginning to wish I hadn't been. "What's so odd about that?" she muttered.

A strong, rough hand seized her by the arm and spun her back around. "You were the only one," Carth hissed, pulling her close so any passers-by couldn't hear him. "Not to mention that Bastila's party was the one who requested your transfer."

"I have no idea what you're talking about!" she snapped, yanking her arm away from him. She'd only been summoned to meet Bastila one time, and had nothing but administrative busywork dumped on her the entire time she was on the Endar Spire. They never even gave me a uniform. Carth started to say something else, but changed his mind and contented himself with giving her another doubtful glare. I'm pretty clearly a random nobody - what is his problem!? "Are you always this suspicious or did I win some sort of lottery of misfortune? Get blown up, land on a Sith planet, and get stuck with you?"

Carth sighed, shaking his head. "Look…it has nothing to do with you personally. I just don't trust anyone."

"Oh, really." Ilithia put on a skeptical frown of her own. "And why is that?"

"I have my reasons; and no, I'm not going to discuss them," he said flatly, walking past her and picking up his armor-stuffed pack. "So can we just keep our mind on more important things?" he called out over his shoulder.

She stared at the armor scattered on the floor in frustration. Prolonged conversation with anyone other than herself was usually something she avoided. Scouting was a solitary profession; even planetside. Most scouts kept to themselves, easily spending all night in the cantina without saying two words to anyone. And playing shrink while dodging Sith and hunting for a Jedi was most assuredly not in her enlistment contract. But as she studied the tight set of his shoulders she found herself saying "I consider this important."

Huh? He turned back around. She was mad, certainly, but the anger in her expression had been replaced by the same concern she'd shown earlier. A somewhat detached, curious form of concern, but it was genuine nonetheless. Why would she want to know – why would she care?

She saw his anger wavering and smiled. "Remember, I do have to keep myself entertained."

"Alright alright," Carth exclaimed, laughing. "You must be the most damned persistent woman I've ever met!"

"You surrender, then?" she asked, breaking into a mocking grin.

Carth raised one arm in capitulation. "We'll talk about it – later."

"Fair enough." Ilithia sighed, kneeling and shoving the armor into her pack. "I don't suppose we've got time to get these uniforms laundered, do we?"

"We'll rip them off as soon as we get down," Carth reassured her. "Let's go find these Hidden Beks."

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"I'm still not comfortable with the idea of bounty hunting to make some extra credits," Carth grumbled, sliding into a booth in the Upper City cantina. "You did pretty well dueling – that should keep us for a couple of days." Even if your bleeding heart continues to pour credits into the hands of every hard-luck case we meet.

Ilithia reached for the dinner menus the waitress had placed on the table. "Hey, Selven and Matrik attacked us." The ambience had been better in the Lower City cantina – a triple murder just as soon as they walked in the door – but the danger of food poisoning drove them back to the surface. Gadon Thek had promised to help them rescue Bastila, who was offered up as the prize in a swoop race, for the favor of breaking into a rival swoop gang's base to "retrieve" the Hidden Bek's stolen prototype accelerator. Nausea and dehydration would not help. "If somebody wants to pay me for saving my own butt from paranoid lunatics," she continued, shooting a pointed glance at her self-confessed paranoid companion, "I'm not going to say no."

"I may be paranoid, but I'm not going to do anything stupid," Carth snapped. "Selven hacked us up pretty good before you got her – and the rest are bound to be just as bad!"

She made a face. "That's sweet, Carth, I didn't know you cared."

He spluttered, blushing. "That's – that's not what I meant. I don't fancy dying any more than the next man, and I sure as hell don't plan on dying here and now while Saul's still out there!"

"Saul? Who's Saul?"

A panicked look spread over Carth's face. Why do I keep blurting this stuff out around her? "No one. Never mind…forget I said anything." He snatched up the second menu and began studying it like his life depended on memorizing its contents.

Ilithia tossed her menu down. "Does this 'Saul' have a last name?"

"If your last name isn't worth saying, then neither is his," Carth growled.

She rolled her eyes. If this is the source of the burr up his butt I'm going to feed him to a rancor. "Carth… 'Ilithia' isn't half a name, it is my name. Just…Ilithia." Carth flushed, embarrassed, setting his menu down. "I'm from Deralia – we don't have family names there."

"Oh," he mumbled. You're really on a roll today, Onasi. "I thought you were being obstinate since I wouldn't answer your question about me." She shook her head in amusement. "Sorry."

"If it's obstinate you want, just keep ending conversations before I've got all my answers," she shot back, but without any real anger – in fact, she was having trouble not laughing.

Carth smiled. "Let's even out the score first – got a nickname I can use, or do I have to say that whole thing every time?"

Ilithia raised her eyebrows in surprise. Breaking out the charm to throw me off track, again. "There was this one time a random Republic officer buying me drinks on Coruscant got cute and called me 'Thia'."

She said the name with enough distaste for Carth to guess the ending. "And how much time did he spend in the hospital?"

"No time at all," she said innocently. "I just made sure he spent the night alone."

Carth winced and laughed at the same time. "Come on, be nice to the soldier boys – we need all the charity we can get." Ilithia raised one eyebrow even higher, tilting her head to give him a very uncharitable look. "Ilithia it is," he said in mock solemnity, saluting her with his ale. "So…I told you why I'm here – my homeworld…" He took a long pull from his drink, shaking his head as if that would drive the memories away. "Why are you here? I mean, the Republic wanted you for your skills as a scout, but why did you say yes?"

"I'm not really sure," she said slowly. She could only remember a few details from the last few weeks – head trauma sucks. "Most immediately, because the smuggler I was scouting for fell behind on his payments to the Hutts and found his ship – and himself – decommissioned. Permanently," she added, scowling. "I decided to take the hint and find a more respectable way to get myself killed."

"Hence your dislike of gangsters using lethal force to collect on small debts," Carth observed.

She chuckled. "Don't think too highly of me just yet – I didn't lift a finger to help Hal out, and I could have. But the Hutts are, well…more difficult than your local thug, and Hal's debt wasn't small." Sighing, she leaned back in her chair, carrying her ale with her. "I could say I'm inspired to save the Republic, crush the evil Sith, justice, peace – which I am. Now," she added, sipping her ale. "But I also want to find out what happened to my brother after the Mandalorian Wars ended. And this is the best way I've got left."

He leaned back in his chair, curiosity warring with caution. Curiosity won. "Brother?"

She nodded. "Ilion." Carth's lips formed a silent "o." "Yes," she said, "We mark our family members by giving them similar names. My father was Ilium, and my mother was Sonatia, so both their children's names begin with an element of his name and end with an element of hers."

"What unit was he in?" The name wasn't familiar, but he was better with faces.

"He wasn't a pilot," she said quickly. Carth frowned. "Assault trooper. The last unit I know he was with was called the 'Party Crashers'."

Carth let out a low whistle. The Party Crashers were an elite group of troopers who led the assault on a starship, literally crashing their transports into the ship and then fighting their way to key strategic points like the bridge and the hangar bays to let the main strike force in. The attack on Mandalore's flagship had been their crowning glory. "They were under Revan's personal command, weren't they?"

Ilithia nodded sadly. "I know he survived the final battle – the last message I have from him is dated two days afterwards. But when Revan and Malak disappeared, so did he."

"Do you think he's still with them?" Carth asked as delicately as he could. She might understand…

"I think he probably was," she said slowly. "In the beginning, at least. Now after four years of battle, who knows."

He shook his head, sighing. "They've been kicking our butts, not the other way around. If he was good enough to get into the Party Crashers, chances are he's good enough to survive."

She flinched, closing her eyes as an image of the young Jedi on a command deck flashed through her mind. "Revan didn't," she whispered.

"Yea," Carth said shortly. "Not like his death did us much good, though."

"Her."

Carth frowned. "Her?"

"My brother told me," Ilithia said. "Her mask disguised her voice, and her robes obscured her figure; but she took off the mask and the heavy robes when she dueled Mandalore." Carth's eyes widened in surprise – he'd never heard that. "She said he deserved that honor. According to my brother, he was very appreciative of the gesture – for the thirty or so seconds he had left to live."

Carth shook his head, smiling softly. "Revan was a girl…"

"Oh, come on," Ilithia snorted. "As far as shocking revelations go, that's pretty tame." Carth leaned back, laughing – then suddenly fell silent, gazing warily at something behind her. "What?" she asked, twisting around to see what had captured his attention. A full suit of Mandalorian armor was striding through the cantina's crowds, slowly and purposefully approaching their table. The numerous scoring marks from blaster bolts, nicks from blades, and the occasional deliberately overlooked bloodstain identified the man inside. "Bendak," she breathed, turning back around.

"You've already drawn enough attention to –"

Bendak sat the mug of ale he was carrying on the table between Carth and Ilithia with a loud thump – loud because the background chatter that normally filled the cantina was rapidly diminishing. "I've been watching you in the dueling ring. Not bad for an amateur," he drawled.

"Th-thank you," Ilithia said, nervously jerking her head into a semblance of a nod. What do I call him – Bendak's too familiar – Mr. Starkiller? "It wasn't all that hard," she added, reaching for her own ale.

Crackling, metallic laughter came from the duelist's helmet. "Yea, the game got pretty boring after death matches became illegal. I've got no interest in using stun blasters!" The armor shrugged. "There was nobody left to challenge me, anyway." A cold chill began to creep through Ilithia's skin. She glanced over at Carth, but he was staring at Bendak's blaster, mesmerized by the many modifications and upgrades it bore. Men. "But I saw you in the ring against Twitch," Bendak continued. "You've got enough talent to make me consider coming out of retirement for one last death match – unless you're afraid to face me."

"Afraid?!" Oh, no, you didn't… "I've never been afraid of anything." That snapped Carth out of his covetous contemplation of Bendak's weaponry – he reached out one hand towards her, but she leaned back, pulling her arms off the table and crossing them over her chest. "Name the time and place. You're on!"

"Finally – fresh meat!" Bendak crowed, picking up his mug. "Ajuur will set it all up." Excited whispers followed him as he made his way through the bar, heading for the duelists' hall. "I'll be back when it's time for you to die!"

Ilithia sighed, reaching again for her drink. "Why do they have to brag so much?" she muttered.

"Oh, I don't know," Carth snapped, his face twisted and angry. "A thousand kills to his name, a full suit of Mandalorian armor, a souped-up blaster, and a reckless woman stupid enough to take him up on his challenge?!"

"Well, obviously I shouldn't look for you in my cheering section," she replied testily.

He shook his head vigorously. "No, I didn't mean…" A long, exasperated sigh came from him as he slumped back in his chair. "Why?"

She cocked her head to the side in mock contemplation. "Let's see. One – the credits from the duel. Two – the credits from the bounty. Three – "

"The credits you'll rip from his cold, dead hands when you're done?"

She laughed. "I hadn't thought of that one. So I guess that makes number four the most important reason – the challenge."

He frowned. "The most important reason? So you're going to do this just…because?" Unbelievable…

"Why not?" she shrugged. "He's stupid enough to offer me the challenge, and I'm curious enough to see if I can do it."

"You want to see if you can kill him, you mean," Carth said coldly.

Ilithia shook her head. "No, just beat him. I'd rather he didn't have to die to satisfy my curiosity, but he's the sort of scum I won't lose any sleep over killing, so…why not?"

"Because it's wrong!" Carth slammed his fist down on the table hard enough to rattle their drinks, spilling some of the liquid inside. "To take a life just for credits…that's something the Sith would do!" he finished, trying to keep his voice down in the Sith-filled room.

She snatched her ale off the table, glaring. "I would've accepted his challenge even if there were no credits attached, but I'm gratified you think so well of me." Carth made a frustrated noise, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand. "It's my life, and therefore my business; not yours."

Carth looked away, sighing, as she put an end to their conversation by flipping up her menu to conceal her face. Who's won the bad luck lottery now? I got blown up, dropped on a Sith planet, and landed with you, too. He picked up his own menu. Either I'm going to kill her or I'm beginning to –

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The body of the commander of the Undercity Sith patrol slid off Ilithia's sword much like his Lower City colleague's had – slowly, with a sickening scrape of bone on metal, finishing with a heavy thump as it hit the ground. "They must not teach manners in basic training," she smirked, beckoning Mission to help her search the bodies of the commander and his two soldiers for anything worth carrying away.

She never takes a day off, does she? Carth holstered his blasters but decided not to join them, instead keeping an eye out for roaming packs of rakghouls. Not that he minded her when-all-else-fails-attack attitude at the moment – killing Sith was his whole purpose in life at the moment, and rakghouls were even more repulsive than the pictures had led him to believe. Glistening, slimy grey skin, the wrinkled single eye…whatever could be done to spare someone the misfortune of becoming one of those things – or end the suffering of someone who already had – was definitely a good thing.

"No serum," Ilithia grumbled, standing. She looked over at Mission. "So where can we get into the sewers?" She'd exchanged promises with the adolescent blue Twi'lek recommended to them by Gadon – she'd help Mission rescue her Wookieee friend Zaalbar from Gamorrean slavers in the sewers, and then Mission would show Carth and Ilithia a back way into the Black Vulkar base. Which – just our luck – also happened to be in the sewers.

"There's one entrance to the north of here," Mission said, pointing. "And one to the southeast."

Ilithia frowned – rakghouls in both directions. "How about we head south?" she asked Carth. "That way we'll cover about half the area we need to search."

He looked longingly at the seemingly shorter and less-infested path to the north, but shrugged. "If you say – " he turned back towards her, but she and Mission were already several paces away, strolling southward. Sighing, he trudged after them. Why do I even bother, he wondered, as the sound of their chatting drifted past his ears. She's going to do what she wants; I'm just along for the ride. He tried not to look up at her when he heard her laugh, but his eyes disobeyed, sliding over the silver and green fiber armor she'd picked up in the Lower City. Not bad for a –

Just as he was shaking that thought from his head, a small blue head appeared at his elbow. "Hey, Carth? You're a pilot for the Republic, right?"

"Uh, yea," he stammered, surprised. Ilithia continued to march along steadily, unconcerned.

"So tell me," Mission continued excitedly, "How would you rate Taris compared to the other worlds you've seen? Good? Better? Best?"

Carth grimaced. "To be honest…Taris would rate pretty low. The prejudice against aliens, the domination of crime lords and gangs – not a pretty picture." Mission's face scrunched up like she was about to argue with him, but passing the body of yet another dead Outcast seemed to calm her. "There are a lot of worlds that are worse than Taris – but there are a lot that are better than Taris, too," he continued, fixing his eyes firmly on his blasters. "This is no place for a kid to live on her own," he said quietly. No more…when this is all over, no more. "Even a kid who's got a Wookieee to look out for her."

"Hey, I ain't no kid!" Mission snapped, stopping in mid-stride to whirl around and jab a finger in Carth's direction, oblivious to the lost look in his eyes. "And I look out for Zaalbar as much as he looks out for me – he's not my babysitter! Geez, I come ask you a question and you give me a lecture!" She crossed her arms over her chest and started to walk away.

"Don't you snap at me, missy!" Carth hurled back, taking a few quick steps to cut Mission's progress off. "You want a lecture? How's this: only bratty little children fly off the handle because of a simple comment." And cue Ilithia…

But the humorously insulting comment he expected never came. Carth glanced up to see if she was even listening – where'd she go? He cut off Mission's retort with a wave of his hand, looking in every direction for a speck of red amongst all the grey. East – walls. North – a few rakghouls, and a large, smoking shape that resembled an escape pod. South – more rakghouls, maybe as many as ten – snorting and swiping their claws at a grimacing figure in fiber armor. Even at a hundred yards he could hear her cries as the blows landed, the auburn of her hair joined by the darker rust of blood.

Oh no…"Ilithia!" he screamed, sprinting towards her. She was backing up, trying to get to a nearby retaining wall to brace her buckling knees. Faster…get there… Mission's light footsteps grew fainter as he sped forwards. A few rakghouls fell, dead, but the speck of red he was focused on slipped lower. Hang on Ilithia… "Hey!" he yelled, firing a few blaster bolts at the rakghouls. "Hey! Over here!" The rakghouls turned towards the fresh meat. Carth fired off a few more shots. More rakghouls dropped. "You asked for this!" A cry from several yards behind as another rakghoul fell told him Misison had found her range. Two rakghouls were left - then one - then the last one keeled over, hitting the ground next to the collapsed but breathing form of Ilithia.

She was a mess, but as Carth dropped his blasters and took hold of her he could see that her injuries looked worse than they actually were. Most of the blood came from a single slash in her left shoulder, though the numerous wounds on her legs and arms had probably contributed to causing her to faint. The protective paneling in her armor was still intact. He flung his pack on the ground, digging into it for a medpac with one hand while beginning to remove her armor for a better look at her injuries with the other. No, not again, I won't let this happen again!

"Is she infected?" Mission asked fearfully over his shoulder.

Carth smiled grimly and shook his head. "I don't think so. You have to be bitten to get infected, and it looks like they just ripped her up with their claws." He injected with a medpac, studying her reaction to the medicine closely. "We should take her back to the healer in the village, just to be sure," Carth said, lifting Ilithia up into his arms.

"No."

He glanced down at his wounded companion, who was stirring and wincing. "You're hurt; you could be infected with the disease."

"I feel fine," she replied flatly, looking around.

"Some comfort that will be to Mission and I when we have to watch you turn into a rakghoul and then put you out of your misery," Carth shot back. "You need healing."

"No," she repeated forcefully, struggling against his grasp. "Just give me some medpacs. We have to keep going."

"The Vulkar base will still be there – we need to take some time to make sure you're OK," he insisted, though he did loosen his grip on her, lowering her legs so she could try to stand.

She sighed and fixed him with a you-know-I'm-right look. "Will Zaalbar still be there?"

Carth chewed his lower lip as she found her balance. She was right – as usual – Zaalbar's situation was no less dire than hers. "Fine. We'll go find Zaalbar – but then we'll get you to that Healer, no matter what." He thrust a handful of medpacs at her. "Use these. I think I saw an antidote kit around here somewhere, too." Ilithia nodded her thanks, jabbing a needle into her leg. "What happened?" he asked softly, glancing over to where Mission was searching through the pockets of a dead Sith soldier.

"I, uh," Ilithia started, blushing with embarrassment, "I saw the Sith corpse and thought he might have some of the rakghoul serum."

"You wouldn't think he'd be dead if he had," Carth countered.

"He wouldn't be a rakghoul, but he died as a human, so it's possible," she retorted, eyes narrowing indignantly. "I only saw five or six rakghouls when I approached – the others were behind the pillars. They just…I just couldn't hold them all off at the same time."

Carth sighed angrily, devoid of all sympathy for Ilithia's getting herself into trouble. "You know –"

"Hey, you guys!" Mission cried joyfully. "Look what I found!" A small set of syringes filled with green liquid glittered in her hand.

Ilithia grinned. "See?" She walked over to the Twi'lek, rolling up one sleeve. "Stick me." She didn't even blink when the needle went in. "OK," she chirped, "Let's go find Zaalbar."

Mission dashed over to a rusty gate in the far corner. "Down we go!" she cried, lowering the gate and disappearing into the darkness beyond.

This journey gets better and better by the hour. The ladder was even rustier than the gate, coated in some unidentifiable slimy substance Carth knew he'd have to spend hours scrubbing off his skin. Mission had scrambled ahead to clear a mine blocking the door to the main halls. He reached back to help a still-wobbly Ilithia navigate her way down the ladder, only to have his hand slapped away to moment it touched her arm. "Hey, relax gorgeous, I'm just trying to help."

"I just don't like to be touched," she said flatly, jumping the last few feet to the floor and stalking ahead of him.

"I hadn't noticed," he deadpanned. "You want to talk about it?"

He didn't need to see her face to know she'd rolled her eyes. "Until you don't want to talk about your issues, I'm not saying a word about mine."

"I'm not getting any peace until you've wrung every last detail out of me, am I?"

She brightened. "Nope."

He raised his hands in mock surrender. "Fine, fine," he sighed. "I'll tell you, I will, but later." She scowled, working herself up to ask another question. "Look, it's a long story," he continued quickly, "Too long for here." She raised an eyebrow skeptically, but appeared to accept the need for the delay. "I'll just say this: I've been betrayed before by people, and I…well, it won't happen again, that's all." A shout and a wave from Mission signaled all was clear. Carth and Ilithia readied their weapons and headed into the passageway. "Why is whether or not I trust you or anyone so damn important to you. Why…why do you even care?"

She tilted her head to one side, surprised by his question. "You know, I'm not sure," she said, her puzzlement growing. "Aside from the obvious desire to avoid having a hole burned into my armor by your eyes."

"I'm not going to stop watching you, or being wary. I'm just not built that way. Period." He tried to glare at her, but the curious concern in her expression kept his anger from rising too high. "So if you want to know why, fine – I'll tell you. But don't waste your time waiting for me to trust you. It's not going to happen." He turned and stalked away – right into the arms of a Gamorrean patrol. Thankfully Gamorreans were as weak as they were large; a few quick shots brought them down.

The three moved rapidly through the sewers. Rakghouls and Gamorreans lurked in many of the rooms, but not in numbers large enough to give them any trouble. As they approached the northern edge of the halls, Mission called Carth and Ilithia over to a strange-looking door. "This is one of those old style manual locks. No computer codes or nothing. The sewers is the only place you'll see one of these on Taris."

"Conventional security spikes won't work on that," Ilithia muttered. "Can we break it down?"

"Oh, don't worry," Mission said cheerfully, digging around in her pack. "I've come across them before, so I've rigged up a little device that should do the trick." She stepped up to the lock and started attaching wires to either side of the mechanism.

Ilithia took a few steps back until she came alongside Carth. "Look, I, uh…I know I shouldn't react the way I do to the incidental, meaningless stuff. Like with you there on the ladder – you were just trying to help, I know that," she said guiltily. He saved my life – the least I owe him is to try to be nice. "I'm sorry."

Where is this coming from? "No, no apology necessary, I understand," he said quickly, hoping another dose of charm would keep her from demanding similar words from him. "Just try not to hit me so hard the next time I touch you, okay beautiful?"

"That depends what kind of touch we're talking about, 'handsome,'" she shot back.

"Oh, I don't know," Carth grinned. "Some touches are better than others."

Ilithia shot him another I-don't-believe-you-just-said-that look. "I wouldn't know what you're talking about," she said flatly.

"No?" he asked jokingly – then suddenly froze, remembering what she'd said about honesty. "You wouldn't know?" he repeated, feeling like an ass.

She rolled her eyes. "No."

"Not ever?"

"No," she intoned, turning away from that conversation to stare intently at the still-locked door. "I wonder what's behind there?" she asked flatly.

"A unicorn?" Carth ventured, grinning. It's wrong, I know, but I can't help it. She's so cute when she's mad.

Ilithia's patented scowl returned. "That threat against your ears still stands, you know."

Wait a minute – did I just think 'she's cute'? "Sorry," he said quickly. A prickly thing like –

The door slid open. In the room beyond, a Wookieee roared.

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They elected to stay overnight in the Outcast village; in gratitude for helping some villagers infected with the rakghoul disease the village leader, Gendar, found them some relatively private and comfortable accomodations, and despite being doped up with medpacs Ilithia didn't want to risk journeying all the way back to the Upper City. She'd struggled to keep a grimace off her face when she tasted the food the Outcasts offered them – because I got used to such gourmet fare in the enlisted crewmembers mess on the Endar Spire – but their generosity with the little they had was…well, touching. It's easy to be generous with credits when you have plenty – dividing up half of nothing with strangers is a level of grace I can never aspire to reach.

No matter how long she lay with her eyes closed the swirling drowsiness that preceded sleep wasn't coming. A damp chill had settled on her skin, and the echoes of howling rakghouls carried that chill deep into her already aching bones. Sighing, she sat up, then slowly stood, each joint creaking as it moved. When did I start to feel old? she wondered, taking a few steps out of the tent and into the open space of the village.

"Where do you think you're going?"

She stopped, but didn't turn around to face Carth. "For a walk."

"Really?" he mused. "Where?"

"Just…around," she replied, shrugging.

He came up to her quickly, suspicion in his eyes. "You weren't thinking of going 'outside', now, were you?"

Wha… "No," she snapped. "But now that you mention it, I haven't found out what happened to that old man's apprentice yet." She tightened a few of the fasteners on her armor, flashing Carth a smile. "Wanna come?"

"We can do that in the morning before we head for the Vulkar base – all four of us. Together," he growled.

"Spoilsport." She moved to pass by him, but he stepped in front of her, blocking her path. "What?" she sighed, rolling her eyes.

"This has to stop, Ilithia," he said gently, moving closer to her. "Charging off recklessly like that…you've got to stop."

She sidestepped him, stalking back towards the tent. "Don't patronize me," she hissed.

"I'm not trying to patronize you," he replied, a little less calmly than before.

Ilithia ducked under the tent's outer flap. "I'm not some zit-faced teenage recruit who can't spell the word Sith, let alone fight one." She threw herself back down onto her mattress. "I can take care of myself."

"You didn't today," he shot back, lightly seating himself on the unused mattress next to hers. She flushed, scowling, but said nothing. "It's not just your life anymore," he continued, taking the opening her silence gave him. "Mission trusts you, Zaalbar's put his life in your hands, Bastila still needs our help, and I'm stuck with you no matter what." He reached out a reassuring hand to touch her on the arm, but she scooted back out of his reach. "That's why you have to stop running around, looking for a fight – what you do now matters to all of us, too." She sighed, softening her expression to a frown. "Besides, isn't two or three or four always better than one?"

"No," she squeaked. "But – I know…" She heaved another sigh, shaking her head. "I just – I've never had to worry about anybody else but me."

With your figure? "I find that hard to believe," Carth smirked. You were probably beating them off with a stick before you realized having an attitude would do the trick.

She snorted. "Maybe you should try a little harder."

"I meant that as a compliment," he snapped angrily, jumping up off the mattress. "But I guess you're not used to those, either." He wheeled around and started walking away.

"No, Carth…" she called after him. He stopped, but didn't turn around. "I'm sorry, Carth; I'm trying, but this whole working-with-others thing is pretty new to me." Now he turned back towards her, but despite the softening expression on his face he did not raise his eyes to look at her. "If you understand nothing else about me," she continued, staring at her hands, "Understand that I'm used to being alone."

"So am I." He felt rather than saw her fix him with another inquisitive gaze; the patterns of dirt on the floor suddenly became fascinating. "You're probably one of the most skilled women I've ever met. You've saved my butt more than once, and I'm lucky you're here to help me, no question. But I need you to focus that skill on what we're doing. You don't have to be my friend, and I don't have to be yours – but we do need to look out for each other."

Ilithia chuckled. "You're actually going to have to answer some of my questions before being friends is even a possibility, so don't worry about that." She stood, flexing her sore muscles.

Carth laughed, shaking his head. She never gives up, does she? "I will, I promise." Her eyes locked onto his with an uncomfortable earnestness. "Just not yet." She frowned, disappointed, and looked away. "But if you're going to ask personal questions for no apparent reason, maybe I should too," he added, forcing a smile.

"The touching thing?" she asked flatly. "I wasn't on the receiving end of much affection as a child – none from anything resembling a parent, at least – so as an adult I've developed issues with physical and emotional intimacy. How's that sound?"

He laughed again. Typical psycho-babble – it all goes back to the parents. "What were you," he asked jokingly, "Some kind of orphan?" Ilithia immediately took a step towards him, anger rising in her eyes – oh, hell, she was – "I've just made an incredible ass of myself," he stammered, "I'm sor –"

"I'm fine," she hissed. "You are an ass but it's not going to bother me. Mission, on the other hand," she said, glancing over at an adjacent tent, "Might be upset, so keep your voice down!"

"Mission? – oh," he said, dropping his voice to a chastised whisper. "Sorry." She shook her head and beckoned him back into their tent. "Remind me to always take you seriously," he said, flopping back down onto his mattress.

She sighed, annoyed, but not angry. "It's not a question of seriousness, Carth, it's a question of honesty. I expect not to be lied to; so I'm honest with you in return."

Carth nodded pensively. "Okay." Another few moments passed in silence before he sprouted a mischievous grin. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Oh, for – " She broke off, laughing and sighing at the same time. He's quick; I'll give him that. "Fair enough," she said returning the grin. "But not yet."

He laughed, shrugging in acceptance. "Alright," he said, lying down on the mattress, "But before I let you off the hook – for now – you have to promise me that you'll be more careful with yourself from now on."

Ilithia blinked and looked away from Carth's insistent gaze. A promise…he can't know what he's asking.

She jumped convulsively at the feel of a hand touching one of hers. "You really aren't used to that," the dark-haired, brown-eyed, infuriatingly evasive and intriguing owner of the hand mused.

"No," replied, shuddering, but she fought back the urge to slap his hand away. Get a grip on yourself, Ilithia. She didn't want to admit that running off after the rakghouls had been a bad idea, but her focus on the attack had blinded her to the other rakghouls off to the side. And Matrik…she'd been perfectly happy at the time to defend herself with lethal force, but when she collected the bounty she'd learned he was in hiding because he had informed on Davik and the Exchange - exactly the kind of person she wanted to help. Had been helping – but she'd killed him without a second thought.

The intense, almost deadly solemnity returned to her eyes with such force that Carth shifted a few inches further away from Ilithia. "Okay," she said shakily. "I promise I will be more careful – with myself and with all of you."

"Thank you," he replied gently. She just nodded and sighed deeply in response. "Now," he continued, pulling all of her hand into his grasp, "Let's try to get some sleep."

"O – okay," she stammered. That feels so…warm. "I can't say I'll actually sleep, but I'll try," she added.

He frowned. "Why not?"

She pulled her hand away and stretched herself out on her mattress, wrapping the lone patchwork blanket she had around her. "Because it's fragging cold down here, that's why."

"Oh – well, there's one way I could, ah, try to help you with that." He moved towards her, arms outstretched.

She jerked both hands up to stop him. "That's not – no, thank you."

"Alright," he said, pulling back. "Well, uh…here, then," he finished, grabbing at the equally patchwork and threadbare blanket he'd been given and draping it over her.

"Carth," she breathed as the blanket fluttered down onto her, "You don't have to do that. You must be just as cold as I am."

He was, but he wasn't about to let her know that. "I'm a soldier," he grunted. "I'm used to being too hot, too cold, anything."

Liar…but thanks. "If you say so," she said, tucking the second blanket in around the first. "Let me know if you need it back."

The grateful smile she wore warmed him all the way down to his toes. "I will." I won't.

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The Hidden Beks had ordered several kegs of Taris's second-class ale to celebrate the recovery of the accelerator and the one-day decimation of the Black Vulkar's membership. It wasn't nearly as good as the clear, pricey stuff, but still packed quite a wallop, Carth reflected, as little lights began to dance before his eyes. Thirty-six hours without sleep, a handful of ration packs, nearly constant combat, and an exasperating woman who doesn't stop asking questions. Great time to get drunk, Onasi.

Where had Ilithia gone to, anyway, he suddenly wondered. He shooed away the Twi'lek dancer who'd been trying to catch his arm, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of her. She'd had just as little rest as he – I hope she can hold her liquor.

Don't be such an old man, another voice in his head snapped. She was fine in the cantinas, she'll be fine here. What do you care, anyhow?

"The key to winning a swoop race is to not let them see just how fast you are the first time out," Gadon was saying. An auburn ponytail nodded. "Play it soft the first time, miss a few of the acceleration ramps – aim for about forty seconds on the first run. Then on the second run, go out and shut them all down."

Carth downed the rest of his ale. Oh, right…the swoop race…Bastila. He sagged against the makeshift bar, forcing his blurring eyes to focus on Ilithia.

She bore the semi-vacant smile of intoxication on her face, too, but still seemed distant from everything around her. A number of Hidden Beks were crowding around her, offering her food and drink, but she was content to sip from her own ale, declining each offer politely but firmly. Gadon shooed the younger men away, leaning down to whisper something into her ear. She laughed, nodding and moving away alongside him.

You keep your hands off her, you…Carth felt his fists clench. "Another ale," he snapped at the Rodian serving as bartender, who quickly slid one over from rows of pre-poured mugs. Taking a long pull, Carth scowled at the empty space where Ilithia had been.

"Are you sure you should be having that?" a soft voice asked.

Her eyes always did him in. He'd expected them to be green, or maybe brown, but he was never prepared for the luminous gray now staring back at him. It had taken him a few seconds to remember to breathe when she'd regained consciousness back in the apartment, all his concern for her health evaporating as she blinked and raised her eyes to meet his. He stole a few seconds to study their color whenever they'd paused to rest – whenever he thought he wouldn't be caught looking – eventually settling on "Corellian mist" as an accurate description. Normally they reflected Ilithia's perpetual state of exasperated amusement, but now they were full of warmth and concern, focused solely on him. Beautiful…

He could pretend to ignore it when she hid her figure beneath armor – even that clingy fiber armor she'd taken a liking to – but the slim squareness of her shoulders and the curve of her hips was making his head spin faster than the ale. Resourceful, intelligent, brave, strong, stubborn…she annoyed the living Force out of him, but he loved every moment of it. Understanding coursed through him like lightening. I want her for myself.

A hand cautiously alighted on his arm. Carth nearly jumped out of his clothes – she's never touched me before. "I'll finish it for you," she slurred, a hint of teasing in her voice.

"No way, gorgeous," he said, leaning close in to her grinning wickedly. If it's trouble I want… "I always finish what I start."

"Oh?" she responded playfully. "Is that a promise?"

He bent down even closer to her, dropping his voice to a throaty rumble. "Do you want it to be?"

An eyebrow arched in surprise. Is he serious? "Depends…are your intentions honorable?"

"Absolutely not," Carth growled.

The spark of lust in his eyes sent a delicious shiver down Ilithia's spine. What has gotten into him? "Problem is, I have this funny thing about promises," she drawled, tracing one finger lightly down the seam of his sleeve. What's getting into me? She raised her eyes to meet his. "I expect them to be kept."

It was Carth's turn to shudder. The same earnestness and intensity that had colored her promise in the Outcast village shone through her eyes again. She's not kidding. But the tantalizing, devilish challenge in her eyes was too much. "I promise I won't disappoint you…in any way." Neither am I.

"Ahem"

Carth and Ilithia sprang apart. The multi-colored Twi'lek who guarded Gadon like a kinrath guarded its nest had come up alongside, glancing suspiciously from one to the other before settling her gaze on Ilithia. "You have to be down at the swoop track early, so Gadon asked me to show you to your room."

"Oh, ah, alright," Ilithia stammered. She drained her ale in a single gulp, then looked nervously at Carth. "I, uh, I guess I'll see you later."

He slammed his just-emptied mug onto the counter beside hers. "I think I'm done for tonight," he said, nodding at the Twi'lek.

"This way," she said curtly, marching off. She led them down one corridor, then another, and around several dark turns before halting abruptly in front of a small, dingy door. "You can meet our swoop bike technicians down at the track any time after ten in the morning," she informed Ilithia, pressing a panel to open the door.

"Thank you," Ilithia replied, stepping into a cramped sitting room. The bodyguard hurried away. "Well, it's not so bad," she called out to Carth, who had passed by the threadbare chairs and outdated holovid without a second glance. She waited for a sarcastic comeback, but none came. Looking up she saw Carth just standing still at the doorway to the bedroom, frowning. "Don't tell me I'm losing my ability to annoy you; I've got nothing else to do for entertainment."

Carth gestured towards the inside of the sleeping chamber. "I, uh, think the Hidden Beks made an…assumption." He ran a hand through his hair to hide the blossoming blush on his face. "About you and I."

"What sort of –" Ilithia fell silent, mouth open, when she poked her head into the bedroom. There was just one bed, barely large enough for two. The sheets shimmered even in the low, artificial light. A panel atop one of the nightstands had a credit-sized slot and a button labeled "To Vibrate". "Oh," Ilithia finally said, walking over to run a finger along the edge of the vibration controls. "That kind of assumption."

Carth followed, sitting down on the foot of the bed. "They probably don't see many men and women working together who aren't, uh, friendly," he said thickly, wincing at the clumsiness of his words. "Like this – well, that." He watched her shake her head, laughing. "At least the floor looks comfortable," he mumbled.

"No, no, Carth, I'm not buying that macho act tonight – you're just as beat up as I am," she said, walking over the other side of the bed. "You stay over there, I'll stay over here." She dropped her pack on the floor and began unfastening her fiber armor.

He tried to ignore the return of the warm tingle he'd felt earlier. "Are you sure?"

She nodded, tossing an energy shield onto her pack. "If you can behave yourself," she smirked, "Then I'll be fine."

"Behaving is overrated," he slurred, slowly taking his jacket off. She was already out of her armor and slipping out of the clothing underneath…wow…I didn't know Republic-issued bodysuits were that…revealing. The warm tingle began to solidify into a full-blown rush.

Finished, she hopped into the bed, yanking a sheet over her partially-clothed body. "So is sleeping," she murmured, before rolling onto her side and closing her eyes.

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Carth woke to the muffled rumble of an explosion and the sharp metallic bark of blasters. Must be the Sith – time to rumble! He put one foot onto the floor, reaching for his equipment, when a hand grabbed the back of his bodysuit and pulled him back into the bed.

"Relax," muttered Ilithia, who was sitting upright with her eyes closed. "It's in another block of the Lower City. Probably the swoop gangs' nightly brawl."

"How can you be sure?" he asked; but he did drop his blasters and slide back under the sheets. Her hand lingered on his back a moment longer than necessary.

An uncertain look crossed Ilithia's face. "I – I can just tell. From the sound." She sighed, lying back down. "Have you slept?"

He rolled onto his side so he could look at her – with the side benefit of bringing him closer to her. "Yea," he said, smiling, "It's a nice bed." She gave a little laugh. "You?"

"Not much," she confessed.

He nodded. "Nervous?"

"Yea; plus it's freezing in here," she grumbled. "Even putting my socks back on didn't help."

"I can think of a way to warm you up," Carth growled in what he hoped sounded like a jokingly seductive voice.

She burst out laughing. "Is that the best you can do?"

Ignoring the return of the warm rush, Carth forced himself to laugh along with her. "C'mon, I'm just offering to cuddle up to conserve heat." She threw him a disbelieving look. "What's the matter, beautiful," he replied, pouting in mock indignation, "You think I'm going to try something?"

Damn, he's cute when he does that – and he knows it, too. She looked him up and down, grinning mischievously. "I'm certain you're going to try something." Carth laughed, giving her an equally obvious once-over. "I just want to make sure you know which body parts you'll be missing by morning."

"Nothing I need to fly, fire my blasters, or, ah," he grinned lecherously, "Fulfill my dishonorable intentions."

She rolled her eyes. It really is cold…and it could be worse – I could've brought Zaalbar. "I'll start with your ears, then, and work my way down." Sighing, she rolled over on her side, turning her back towards him. "Do it."

Carth blinked in surprise – he hadn't thought she'd actually go for it. "Are you sure?"

"Hurry up, will you? I'm a damn icicle over here," she muttered, drawing her arms into her chest protectively.

"Okay…" He slid over until his knees brushed the backs of her thighs. She jumped, but said nothing. Moving deliberately, he settled in behind her, fitting his legs into hers, wrapping his arms around her shoulders and grasping her chilled hands in his. "Let me know if you're not comfortable," he whispered when he laid his head down beside hers.

She only nodded in response. Comfortable? This is wonderful. An itching urge to settle her hips closer to his crept over her skin. I can't give him any ideas. Stay stiff.

Carth could already feel her skin warming up – but beneath, her muscles were strained and tense. She's really nervous. "So…did you have a good time at the party?," he asked, hoping a little conversation would ease her mind.

"Yea," she said, shrugging slightly. "The ale was passable, the conversations weren't all bad –" Carth's embrace tightened suddenly. "What?," she asked, turning her head in his direction.

"What were you and Gadon talking about?," he asked, hoping she would buy his I'm-just-curious act.

She shifted away from him fractionally. "Not much, really. He was giving me tips for the race, telling me about some of my opponents." Carth grunted disbelievingly. Ilithia sighed, turning her head and shoulders around until she could see him. "What!?," she repeated insistently.

His anger – okay, jealousy – getting the better of him, Carth snapped. "What did Gadon whisper to you, huh? Tell you what room he's in and how late he'll wait up?"

Ilithia stared at him for a moment before shaking her head with an exasperated laugh. "You really are a lobotomized Gamorrean, sometimes, Carth."

"Huh?" He'd expected her to get angry – what's going on?

"He said," Ilithia continued, smiling, "That you were looking at him like he was a rakghoul about to take a bite out of me."

Carth frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"That you were giving him a very nasty look because the only person you think should be flirting with me is you."

"Oh." Damn – am I that obvious? "Well, um, I –"

"Relax, Carth," she said, laughing and rolling back over. "It's not as revolting as I thought it would be." She settled her back against his chest closer than ever before.

Not as – "Woman…I'm going to –"

Ilithia rolled over suddenly, one arm draping itself across the pillow above Carth's head, the other resting itself lightly along his thigh. Her lips glistened less than an inch from his, while stray strands of her hair draped lazily across her cheeks. "Well?"

He reached up and brushed away one offending strand. His fingers worked their way down her face, tracing the outline of her jaw, gliding along the her neck, moving back and forth over one bare arm until she shuddered and sighed. "I thought I told you not to try anything," came her singsong reminder.

"That's not trying anything," he said in a husky voice he barely recognized. He bent his head to her skin and gently brushed his lips against her neck. "Now this," he whispered, kissing down her neck towards the collar of her bodysuit, "This would be trying something." He slid a hand down her arms, slipping it around her waist so he could pull her close against him. His lips moved back up her neck, and he grazed the edge of her ear with his tongue.

She gasped, then let out a soft moan. Oh, wow…

He wanted her. Wanted to make her cry his name for every question she'd asked, and to pay her back for his silence with each scratch her nails would leave on his skin. To seize her and take her, claim her as his own, to bury himself in her – all his feelings, his pain, his anger, even the small flicker of lightness he felt when she smiled. He rolled her over, sliding on top, pressing himself down on her. She moaned again, moving her legs against his as her hands reached out for him. Her lips beckoned, and he leaned down to devour them –

You don't really know her, hissed the always-doubting voice in his mind. Why is she interested in you? She could be a Sith spy, using you to get to Bastila – don't trust her!

With a sigh, he kissed her chin, pulling back from their embrace. "I think I've risked dismemberment enough for one night," he murmured, caressing her cheek.

She tried to cover the deep crimson flush heating her face with a grin. "What, am I not going to get a second chance?"

"Just keep hounding me with questions, woman," he said, laughing. "And I promise you'll get what's coming to you someday."

Suddenly she wrapped her legs around his and snaked her arms around his neck, pulling him down onto her. She kissed him fiercely, lips and tongue working as he returned the kiss, their heads moving in tandem.

Just as suddenly, she broke off, releasing him from her grip. "Don't ever make me a promise you can't – or won't – keep," she intoned, her eyes locked on his. "And don't ever lie to me."

He nodded, bracing himself with his elbows while the world spun around. "I won't," he replied, panting. "I promise." I want to trust her. Force help me, I want to try.

Ilithia looked surprised, and impressed, but only for a moment. "Good to hear," she said lightly, the usual mix of cynicism and mirth back in her eyes. She rolled over onto her side, her back towards him as before, but she made no effort to end their embrace. "I think I'll be able to get some sleep now."

Somebody should, because I sure won't be. "Glad to help."

The last thought she had was how very well she fit in his arms.

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Carth paced around the apartment, cursing himself for having kicked the transmitter. He'd been trying to tune back in to the broadcast of the swoop race; feedback flooded the signal when the fighting started. For a moment, he thought he heard the announcer yelling that someone was down – then it had blinked out again. That was when he punted the blasted thing clear across the room, where it landed on the workbench and shattered into several dozen pieces.

She's got to be fine. Bastila's there, and free – they can fight their way out, and Bastila can heal anything. He contemplated leaving the hideout to go look for them, but Ilithia had insisted he stay behind with Mission and Zaalbar, discussing a way to get off Taris. Discussions that kept ending with "And then the Sith will shoot us down." He heard light footsteps in the hallway running swiftly towards their room. A moment later the door split in two and opened – revealing two ragged-looking but living ladies.

"Bastila!" Carth exclaimed, overjoyed. "Finally things are looking up!"

Ilithia stopped wincing long enough to glare at him. "What am I, a useless gizka?" she muttered.

"Hey," he whispered, as she limped past him towards a chair, "I didn't mean it like that, I –" He reached out a hand to help her into the chair, but she slapped it away. Damn it, not this again… "Now we just need to figure out a way to get off this planet," he said, turning towards the Jedi.

Bastila either hadn't heard them or chose to ignore them. "You mean you don't have a plan for getting off Taris yet?" she said incredulously, lightly seating herself on a bed. "What have you been doing all this time?"

"We were trying to find you, remember?," Ilithia snapped.

Carth paused in his hunt for medpacs. Uh-oh…catfight. Mission and Zaalbar exchanged glances saying the same thing, retreating into a corner with some Pazaak cards. "I know you're new at this Bastila, but a leader doesn't berate her troops just because things aren't going as planned." Or because you're genetically incapable of admitting you might sometimes be wrong. "Don't let your ego get in the way of the real issues here," he added, knowing it would get a grin out of Ilithia.

Bastila's jaw hung slack for a moment before she jumped up, indignation flashing in her eyes. How…dare…Carth, too! "That hardly strikes me of an appropriate way of addressing your commanding officer, Carth," she snapped, striding over to him and attempting to assume an authoritative pose. "I am a member of the Jedi Order and this is my mission. Don't forget that!" Ilithia sat up, trading I-can't-believe-this looks with Carth. "My Battle Meditation ability has helped the Republic many times in this war, and I'm sure it will serve us well here."

"Your talent might win us a few battles, but it doesn't make you a good leader!," Carth retorted, glowering down at the Jedi like a drill sergeant laying into a recruit. She's even touchier than Ilithia! "A good leader would at least listen to the advice of those who've seen more combat than she ever will!"

Ilithia shot out of her chair and moved to stand between the other two. "Both of you settle down!" This is priceless - the Jedi finally shows up and I'm the blasted voice of reason. "This isn't helping." She shot an apologetic look at Carth, then joined him in turning and staring down Bastila.

The Jedi held her composure for a few moments, then blinked and looked away, her shoulders slumping. "Yes…you're right, of course," she sighed. She looked back up at the other two. "I apologize, Carth," she said, without bitterness. "This has been a difficult time for me."

"How difficult?," Carth asked, his face suddenly a picture of concern. "They – Brejik – he didn't try anything, did he?"

Onasi the Overprotective, Ilithia thought with a smile, arriving right on cue.

"Not at all, thank the Force," Bastila said quickly, shuddering visibly at the thought of being touched by such a thug. "His plan all along was for one of his own riders to win the swoop race, at which point I would be gifted back to him and be made available for purchase. If I had been…defiled," she spat, like the word itself was rotten, "My price would have been significantly lower." Carth brightened somewhat, muttering nastily about the evils of slavery. Bastila inhaled deeply, forcing a smile on to her face as she glanced from Carth to Ilithia and back. "What do you suggest we do?"

Carth looked over at Ilithia, who shrugged. Aside from not getting hung up on who's in charge… "The answer is out there," he said lamely. "We just have to find it."

"Bastila's had plenty of free time on her hand to sit and think," Ilithia said flatly. "What's her brilliant plan?" Carth frowned – apparently the young Jedi's gift for pissing people off within an hour of meeting them hadn't been affected by her captivity.

"Maybe one of the locals can help us out," Bastila said, with an air of finality. "We should probably start by asking around in one of the cantinas."

Ilithia tried not to roll her eyes. Because everyone else stuck on Taris hasn't already tried that. "Fine – but you're staying here."

Bastila scowled. They spend all this time trying to find me and now they don't want my help? "Why would that be wise?"

"Because everyone on this planet will recognize you as a Jedi," Ilithia replied, annoyed the younger woman hadn't figured it out. "The Sith would be all over us like sand on Tatooine."

"How would they know that?"

"Because you called yourself a Jedi when you started the fight at the racetrack," Carth intoned. "Half the planet probably heard it." As much as he'd like to have a Jedi watching his back, the animosity between the two women would be a distraction, and Bastila's aristocratic haughtiness wouldn't exactly fit in with the cantina crowd. "Besides," he added, hoping to put a positive spin on Bastila's displeasure, "You're probably pretty tired after being in that cage this whole time. Take a shower, get some sleep – you'll be busy enough when we hook back up with the fleet."

Bastila pouted, sitting back down on the bed. "Alright," she grumbled – just like a teenager who's been told to do their homework before going out with their friends, Carth thought with a laugh. An image of an equally petulant young man sulking in a darkened room flashed through his mind. Dustil…the laugh gave way to a sigh.

"Okay," Ilithia said slowly, eying the change in Carth's emotions warily. What was that about? "We'll be back by dusk, or earlier if we get lucky."

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Lucky doesn't even begin to describe it, she reflected, watching Canderous Ordo's massive frame – and massive blaster – part the crowds as he walked away. No sooner had she and Carth stepped out of the apartment than they'd been hailed by a local and told to go meet Canderous – in a cantina. The Mandalorian then proceeded to offer them a way to get off Taris, in a crime lord's personal ship, no less. Maybe Bastila's not so useless, after all. There was the small matter of breaking into the Sith base and stealing launch codes out of the Governor's private office first, which would probably require killing every Sith in the entire base. Not that there was anything wrong with that. I hope it smells better than the Vulkar base did.

"Well, let's go get that 'droid he mentioned."

Ilithia turned her gaze on Carth. "In a minute," she muttered, grabbing his arm and steering him towards a vacant table in the corner.

Carth groaned. "I thought I said I didn't want to talk about it yet."

"After what I let you get away with last night? Tough," she replied, shoving him at a chair.

"Hey, you were the one who kissed me!" he protested; but he did sit down.

She slid into the opposite chair, arching an eyebrow. "Only after you nearly nailed me."

"Whatever happened to 'I don't like to be touched'?"

"Whatever happened to 'I just don't trust easily'?"

Carth's eyes narrowed. "Why do you think I stopped?"

A flash of anger passed over Ilithia's face. "Oh, it's like that, is it?" she snapped, waving off the waitress. I'm good enough to almost screw, but not good enough for a conversation!?

"Like what…?" Carth gaped, dropping his head into his hands. "Blast it if you aren't the most frustrating woman to talk to!" he replied, frustrated but fading. "Isn't there someone else you can harass for a little while?"

"Yes," Ilithia smirked, "But she has a lightsaber and isn't nearly as entertaining."

He laughed, loudly and genuinely, drawing her into laughing along with him. "Can't say I've ever met a woman quite like you before," he finally said, smiling and shaking his head. "You're really something."

I want him to trust me, she thought, breaking into a smile of her own as their eyes met. I was just curious before, but now…she held his gaze for a long moment, comfortable with the warmth his eyes brought her. "I've asked more questions than I've answered," she said slowly, "So...my parents were killed in a speeder accident when I was two."

Carth paled. "Oh…I'm sorry."

"I don't remember anything about it," she said, shrugging. "Or them. It should probably upset me more than it does, but it doesn't."

"At least your brother was with you."

The first hint of sadness crept into her voice. "He wasn't. He was a sweet little infant angel, he got placed with a nice foster family right away and stayed there." She leaned forward onto the table, her features darkening. "They refused to take me, so by law they couldn't adopt him, but he stayed there until he was old enough to get a job. We'd stayed in touch, and he moved in with me, but we weren't brother and sister anymore – hadn't been for years. Not close friends, even – though we tried." Ilithia closed her eyes, leaning her head back until it touched up against the wall.

"You stayed in an orphanage that whole time?"

Ilithia nodded sadly. "They tried placing me with a couple of different families after my brother's foster parents said no, but all the others gave me up after a couple of weeks."

If you were half as annoying as you are now…Carth flushed, scolding himself for thinking such thoughts. "I'm sorry," he mumbled thickly.

"I was a handful even then," she sighed, "So don't blame yourself for thinking they had good reason to get rid of me – they did." Carth's face turned even redder. "Besides, this is my older and more mature self who's driving you batty," she added, jaded humor in her tone. She fell silent, swimming through her memories. They were fuzzy, misty, almost too distant to recall, but one memory burned brightly in her mind. "Family is where you find it," she whispered.

What if there's no family left to find? What are you left with then? "What's that?" he asked softly.

Ilithia's eyes stayed closed. "Something we used to say to each other. When everything you cared for is taken away, even your loved ones, those who stay with you and those who come to comfort you are your family. Your real family." She opened her eyes, frowning. "Not that I've kept up with any of them. I took a nice, solitary job as a scout and never looked back."

"I can understand why you wouldn't want to talk about it. That must have been horrible," Carth murmured, visions of rows of rickety beds and faded, too-big clothing floating through his mind.

"No, actually, it wasn't," she said, as if she was as amazed as he that it hadn't been so awful. "It wasn't wonderful, either, but the food was good, the staff quite nice, even the beds were comfortable. And the other kids there were all in the same, unadoptable boat – behavioral problems, too old, a disability…" She trailed off, staring off into the corners of the cantina as if she expected to see ghosts lurking in the shadows. "It's just – it's been a really long time since I was around anyone long enough to talk about anything more profound than the weather and pod racing," she said. "And the only person that I ever really…opened up to vanished into space with Darth Revan. Hell, he might even have been on that ship that attacked us." She paused, drawing in a deep breath. "So I –"

"Saul Karath."

A chill crept over Ilithia's skin. Karath, and Telos…of course. "Oh…"

Carth leaned back, sighing deeply and closing his eyes. "He's half the reason Malak's has done so well in the war, at least since Revan's death. Malak isn't the general Revan was, good or evil." He paused, expecting Ilithia to have something, anything, to say, but she stayed silent. She's letting me say what I want, how I want – she understands.

"Saul was my commanding officer back when the Mandalorian Wars first began," he continued, hunching over the table and clasping his hands together on its surface. "And my mentor. He taught me everything about being a soldier…I looked up to him. He led us to so many victories against the Mandalorians, even when things looked to be at their worst." He paused, trying to find the words to describe what happened next, when he felt the soft touch of her hands on his. Why now? Why her? "Saul approached me before he…left. He talked about how the Republic was on the losing side…and about how I should start thinking of my survival." Her fingers tightened their grip. "I know now that he was trying to recruit me into the Sith, but I couldn't have conceived of it back then. I argued with him, and he got angry and he left. I never saw him again."

His voice hardened, bitterness replacing regret. "I just…couldn't conceive of it. He...he couldn't be serious. I was wrong of course; he not only left us for the Sith, he gave them the codes to bypass our scanners. I remember waking up as the first of the Sith bombers snuck past our defenses and began bombing half our docked ships. I knew immediately what had happened." Ilithia shifted in her seat, pursing her lips. "It's OK," he said quickly. "Go ahead."

"You blame yourself for trusting your friend?," she asked quietly.

"I blame Saul, not myself," he replied, shaking his head. "I was…I was stupid and ignored the danger. He nearly destroyed us all." He unfolded his fists, moving to take her hands in his. "I…could have stopped him. I could have stopped it all."

She smiled sadly. "Do you really believe that?"

Carth sighed, knowing each answer he gave was leading him further down the disused and overgrown road he'd feared for so long. "I don't know. Maybe. He might have killed me if I'd tried, or I might have killed him. I was stupid, however, and let him go." He looked up at her for the first time since he began speaking, hardening his expression. I need you to understand this. "I've fought Saul for years, now, and if I ever catch up to him…he will regret what he's done. He will regret it."

"I'd do the same thing in your shoes," she said evenly.

"Your brother," he said.

Ilithia shook her head, a puzzled expression on her face. "Actually, no. I feel some anger, yes, but mostly…it just makes me sad. It was his choice, and he's the one who's going to have to accept whatever consequences that brings." She shrugged. "Karath betrayed you personally and professionally, then led the Sith fleet to your homeworld and bombed it into spacedust – he deserves killing for that." She looked up at him just in time to see a spasm of deep pain contort his face for a moment before he hid his feelings behind a scowl. "There's more, isn't there?"

"This is me we're talking about," Carth said, managing a dark smile. "There's always more." Ilithia frowned, not sure if she should push for more – he's already said so much. "Later," he said, grasping her hands tightly and letting some of his emotions show. "I promise." She smiled sadly, nodding. Easing his grip, he exhaled deeply, as if releasing a breath he had drawn in years before. "I suppose I could use someone to talk to…thanks for listening," he added, in a tone so gentle it made his eyes gleam.

"Thanks for answering," she replied, forcing her eyes to meet his in spite of a shyness more powerful than any she'd felt before. He trusted me enough to tell me…wow.

He held her gaze, smiling for another heartbeat before releasing his hands and standing up. "Let's go get that 'droid, alright?"

"One more thing," she said slowly, a conspiratorial smile on her face as she got up and headed for the bar.

"So – are you ready?"

The sound of that meanacing, metallic voice stopped Ilithia cold. Damn… She turned towards Bendak, grimacing at the scowl Carth gave her.

"Ajuur's got everything set up," the Mandalorian said, casually draping a hand over his holstered blaster. "I see you've upgraded your armor," he jeered, "Though I don't know anyone in such a flimsy get-up would last thirty seconds against me."

Iilthia's fists clenched instinctively – time to show this arrogant son of a – but the angry retort that was rising to the surface plunged back down at the sound of Carth's sigh. Instead of anger or disdain, she saw disappointment in his eyes. "I'm sure Brejik, Kandon, and a few dozen other Black Vulkars would have agreed with that theory," she said smoothly, flashing a wicked grin at Bendak while hoping Carth could see that she was calming down. "Except that I spent the last two days killing them, so they may have changed their minds."

"That was you?" Surprise and a bit of wariness crept into the Mandalorian's voice. "But I bet you had a little help from your friend here, and that Jedi at the swoop track – do you really think you can take me down by yourself?"

Her grin softened. "Yes." Carth made another exasperated noise. No need for paranoia this time, handsome. "But I'm not going to." A hiss of inhaled breath came from the helmet. "I've got a lot more lives on my conscience than I did two days ago; respect and credits simply aren't good enough reasons to add your name to that list. Convey my regrets to Ajuur," she finished, turning to resume her progress towards the bar.

"Nobody walks away from Bendak Starkiller!"

Before she heard his cry and long before she heard the telltale snap of a blaster being unholstered, Ilithia's hand found its way to the hilt of her vibroblade. She whirled around amidst the screaming patrons, pivoting her body to gracefully swoop the blade upwards until the tip found the joint between the Mandalorian's helmet and chest plate. Bendak froze, his blaster still only halfway out of its holster. "Today, I do," she growled, putting slightly more pressure on the blade. "And then so will you." Cantina security guards approached, blasters drawn, but stopped when Bendak let his blaster drop back into his holster and raised his hands into the air, waving them off. "Carth," she called out over her shoulder. "Relieve him of his blaster."

"You won't fight me, but you will rob me?" Bendak sneered.

"I'm sure you'll acquire a replacement easily enough," Ilithia demurred, smiling. "And trust me, we need it more than you do." As soon as Carth had taken the blaster and stepped back, she lowered her blade to a less lethal angle. "My friend and I are going to have a drink, after which we have business to attend to elsewhere," she said, her tone conversational but dismissive. "Have a nice day." Bendak nodded and moved off towards the duelists' chamber. The cantina guards glared at Carth and Ilithia before following.

Carth quickly stuck Bendak's blaster in his pack, then gently touched Ilithia on one arm. "Are you alright?"

"Yea," she replied, letting out a deep, ragged breath and sliding the blade back into its sheath. "Glad I got out of that one without a fight." The cantina's patrons were turning back to their drinks, jabbering excitedly but steadfastly avoiding being caught glancing at Ilithia.

"Why?" he asked softly.

She started walking slowly towards the main bar. "I promised you I'd be more careful, didn't I?"

"But you'd also agreed to fight Bendak," he countered.

"Well, then I guess it's obvious which promise meant more to me," she said quickly, hoping the dim light in the cantina would keep Carth from seeing her sudden blush. Reaching the bar, Ilithia waved at the bartender, who let out a frightened yelp but nodded and hurried over. "Two shots of Alderaanian firewhiskey, please."

Carth slid into the chair next to her. "Ilithia…can I ask you something?"

She grinned. "If I said no, would it stop you?"

"Not a chance," he shot back, returning the grin. Ilithia shrugged and threw up her hands, surrendering. "When Bendak pulled his blaster…it looked like you were already moving, like you knew he was going to attack. That can't be true, but…that's what I saw."

Her mood chilled. "Before we left, B – our newest companion," she corrected herself, clasping her hands on the counter, "Pulled me aside for a little chat while you were packing our gear. She said…" Ilithia made a noise halfway between a laugh and a snort. "She said she thought I was Force sensitive."

Confusion darkened Carth's face. "As in…you can use the Force? Like a Jedi?" The bartender placed their drinks in front of them, waiting patiently until Ilithia had produced the twenty credits their drinks cost and a nice little tip before gliding off.

"Yea," Ilithia whispered. "I was already drawing my blade because I already knew I was going to be attacked." Carth's confusion faded into comprehension…and something else…fear? She shook that thought away. "Every nerve in my body, every cell in my brain was screaming that he was about to shoot me, so I just drew my blade and turned around; and I didn't move to make it to go his neck, it – it just went there."

The drink called to him, but Ilithia called to him more. "What do you think it means?"

"I think…I think she may be right." She reached for her drink, grasping it but not bringing it to her lips. "With what we're about to do, let's hope she is. Which brings me back to these," she said, raising her glass in the air and forcing a smile onto her face.

"A ceremonial toast before battle? That's an old tradition – a good one, but a really old one." Can she be any more incredible?

She nodded, picking up the first drink and handing it to him. "I know it's not done very much anymore, but my brother told me that Revan led her troops in a toast before they stormed Mandalore's flagship. The source may be a little tainted," she said, putting out one hand to prevent any protest, "But I think you'll like it anyhow."

"Okay," Carth said, plucking the small glass off the counter and handing it to Ilithia. She drew herself up into a tall, erect pose, and spoke in a regal voice that still echoed in his mind as the door to the Sith Base slid open:

"Fight until you have no more strength; draw upon your courage until your will falters; use all your skill until you are overwhelmed; but at the last, remember why you have come to this battle, and you will find the strength, courage, and skill to fight on."

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Ilithia had never seen so much purple. And that armor…lurid was the only word that came to mind. She'd complimented Davik on owning such a "unique" set during their tour of his compound – including an honest-to-goodness throne room – only to see him puff up with so much pride and vanity it had taken all of her concentration not to burst out laughing. Carth had to pretend to sneeze behind his hand to hide his snicker. But Canderous and Calo Nord, a diminutive bounty hunter Ilithia and Carth had seen in the Lower City who was now glued to Davik's side like a burr on a Bantha, seemed unaffected. With the lives they've led, I doubt anything affects them at all – except their own self interest.

"OK, we're in," the Mandalorian growled as soon as the door to the main chamber swished shut behind Davik and Calo. "Let's get what we came for and get off this rock."

Don't knock selfishness – it's getting your butt off of Taris, too. "Sure thing," she replied steadily. "We'll need a computer terminal, and then either a passcode or enough spikes to slice in."

"All the terminals are in the other wings." Canderous shouldered his blaster and led them into the hall. "I don't know where you might find spikes, but I do know the pilot has the codes."

"And we can find the pilot where?" Ilithia asked, unsheathing her vibroblade.

The Mandalorian walked to the doorway and glanced down the hall in either direction. "The northwest exit from the throne room. I heard the pilot was…detained. For stealing spice."

Ilithia nodded, glancing over at Carth to make sure he agreed – which, considering that he had his blasters at the ready, he did. "Let's go."

Guards and idling bounty hunters caused them little trouble as they made their way through the estate. Canderous mowed them down with the repeating function on his blaster, just letting them get far enough inside the door to get the right range to make firing worthwhile. Carth hung back, watching with both awe and disgust at the Mandalorian's droid-like ability to maximize his firepower and damage. The best way to keep him from ever having a reason to shoot at me is probably not to talk to him…ever.

They quickly found and freed the pilot, receiving the security codes to Davik's ship, the Ebon Hawk, in return. First Davik loses Canderous' loyalty and now this guy's – not good, Ilithia thought as they chopped their way through bounty hunters and lab technicians to reach the hangar.

"After we bust in," the Mandalorian growled when the reached the hangar door, "We'll grab the ship and blast off this rock as fast as we can."

Ilithia immediately stopped and turned to give Canderous the stubbornly insistent look Carth was far too familiar with. "No – we grab the ship, pick up our other companions, and then we blast off this rock," she countered. Mission, Zaalbar, and Bastila had broken in to an old, abandoned spaceport to wait for retrieval.

"Fine," Canderous sneered, though not a single muscle in his face moved. "But the Sith aerial patrols will be onto us the second we leave the hangar, so I hope your friend here flies better than he shoots."

Carth tightened his grip on his blasters and opened his mouth to retort – damn my own advice, I'm not taking that kind of crap from a Mandalorian – but a rumbling sound and rippling shock wave changed his plans. "What was that?" he said instead, glancing over at Ilithia, who was staring blankly at the floor in pensive confusion. "Hey," he said, taking her by the arm, "Are you with us?"

She blinked, her eyes focusing. "Yea," she replied quickly, shaking her head as another rumble echoed off in the distance.

"Whatever that is it can't be good," Canderous muttered, striding up to the hangar door. "Let's get out of here."

They barely made it ten feet into the hangar before a sprinting splotch of purple brought them to a halt. "Damn those Sith – they're bombing the whole planet! I knew they'd turn on us sooner or…well, look what we got here!" The small blue figure of Calo Nord appeared at Davik's elbow as the crime lord spoke. "Thieves in the hangar, figuring they'd just steal my ship for you get-away and leave me high and dry while the Sith turn the planet into dust!"

Ilithia tightened her grip on her vibroblade, picturing a trembling Mission being sheltered by Zaalbar in her mind. Hang on guys, we'll – hurry, to the stairs! – she shook her head again, chasing the stray thoughts away.

"I'll take care of them," Calo said with a sadistic glee, reaching for his blaster. "I've been looking for –" A cluster of bolts from Canderous' blaster caught Calo square in the chest, knocking him back several feet. The bounty hunter swayed, then staggered forward a few steps, only to be hit by a volley from Carth.

Davik took aim at Ilithia, who ducked the shot but still hung back behind her blaster-wielding companions. Charge or wait, charge or wait… The Sith answered the question for her when a series of blinding red flashes shook the hangar to its foundations, knocking everyone to the ground. When the glare faded, only Ilithia, Carth and Canderous got back up. Wordlessly, all three ran for the ship.