Disclaimer: I own nothing and am making no money from this. I write purely for enjoyment.
The ship settled on the Antipodes and both he and his Master stared out at the dilapidated landscape in front of them. The Factory District was the exact opposite of the Republic City, and he wasn't just talking about its location on the planet. While the Republic City gave the image of cleanliness and order (on the surface anyway) the Factory District immediately gave the observer a sense of hopelessness and danger, well earning its other name of Feral City.
"Splitting up is the best course of action," Qui-Gon said again. Obi-Wan was starting to get the feeling he was trying to convince himself of the fact more than repeating it for his student's benefit. "We'll draw too much attention together. Whatever you do, Padawan. Do not let them know you are a Jedi."
Tugging at his unfamiliar clothing and at the fabric wrapped around his head to hide his braid, he nodded. "Yes, Master." He understood the importance, but it didn't mean he had to like it.
"And remember to watch out for the feral droids," Qui-Gon went on, making sure his lightsaber was tucked out of sight and motioning to Obi-Wan to do the same.
Holding in a sigh of impatience, he showed his Master where he'd stashed his lightsaber - under his tunic and the waistband of his pants near the small of his back. Qui-Gon nodded, momentary amusement flashing in his eyes.
"You're ready to go then," he teased, obviously feeling Obi-Wan's impatience.
"I've been ready, Master," he smirked. "It's you that's doing the dallying."
Qui-Gon smiled back for a moment before becoming serious. "Remember that this is a fact checking mission only, Obi-Wan. Whatever you may see, we are not to interfere, only bring the information back to the Council for further review."
Obi-Wan nodded, his lips pressed tightly together.
"Something to say?" Qui-Gon asked, the light amusement back in his voice.
"It just seems… like a waste of time, Master," Obi-Wan haltingly said. He wasn't one to argue about the wishes of the Council, they were his elders, his betters - he was just a mere Padawan (though, hopefully for not much longer) - but going to the trouble of tracking down this crime ring, following the path of information all the way to the Antipodes, why not shut it down while they were there? Why the extra step?
Qui-Gon nodded and Obi-Wan had no doubt he'd picked up on all his semi-mutinous thoughts. "Because we aren't sure of the scope of the ring yet. If its reach extends to other planets then just cutting the head off the beast won't stop its spread. The limbs will take root, become self-sufficient."
"That's an… interesting analogy," Obi-Wan noted with a raised eyebrow.
"Yes, I rather outdid myself with that one, didn't I," Qui-Gon said, stroking his beard lightly and looking impressed with himself.
Obi-Wan shook his head and turned toward the exit, no doubt he had the most… interesting Master.
"I heard that and will take it as a compliment," Qui-Gon said behind him, his voice lined with laughter.
"I'm not sure it was meant as one," Obi-Wan shot back with a grin.
They lost their light banter when they stepped outside of the ship. It was Obi-Wan's first time in the Antipodes and he had to admit that he hoped it was his last. Besides the desolation that practically oozed up from the ground, there was also an unpleasant smell permeating the air - a mixture of old industrial pollution, corroding metals and general scent of unwashed bodies. Taking a deep breath and forcing himself to get used to it, Obi-Wan centered himself, gave Qui-Gon a nod and headed in his assigned direction.
Most of the buildings were old factories, long shut down since cheaper labor and less strict waste codes could be found on planets further away from the core. Derelict and abandoned, most of these buildings were now homes to unsavory types and served as centers for illegal operations. Such crime rings were the reason he and Master Qui-Gon were there in the first place - ordered by the Council to search out rumors of Slavis Greely and his dark workings that had been tainting not only the Republic City, but spread to surrounding planets as well.
Trying to stay silent and out of sight, Obi-Wan stuck to the shadows and moved carefully. It was rumored that feral droids roamed the streets of the Factory District - some believed them turned by a virus, others by simple neglect. No one knew for sure. And while Obi-Wan wasn't positive of their existence, he knew that going up against one without the use of the Force or his lightsaber wasn't something he wanted to attempt.
As he crept through the city, the amount of women and children out and about caught him off guard. They all looked fearful and thin as they rushed through the streets, obviously trying to get to their destinations as quickly as possible, but not one of them looked dangerous. He'd never thought anything but criminals lived in the area, but it seemed there were also poor families there as well.
The low rumble of an approaching droid reached him before he saw it, giving him time to slide further back in the shadows and crouch down, making himself as small of a target as possible. It was impossible to tell what shape the machine would be in or what capabilities it still had. Since the fall of the actual factories in the district, the droids had probably roamed free, with no maintenance or orders, the combination of which Obi-Wan thought would skew what they thought they were supposed to be doing and could make them incredibly dangerous. But given the type of people that lived in the area, it was never deemed a problem of much importance. Why spare the manpower to clear out the droids in the area that was overrun with criminals anyway? It wasn't a point of view Obi-Wan particularly agreed with but it was one he understood.
The droid finally came into view and Obi-Wan mentally sighed in relief - it was ancient and barely moving. It could probably still be a problem if it was able to sense him, but given its condition, he doubted it could. The mechanics that made up their sensors were sensitive and required regular maintenance to work properly - something this droid was obviously lacking.
He was so busy watching the droid pass that he missed the group watching him from the shadows across the street. When it disappeared around a corner and he did finally lay eyes on them, he knew he was in trouble. Reaching out his senses, he prodded their intentions. Suspicion clouded their minds toward him, dark thoughts of what he could be doing there and what they were going to do to him tumbled over one another, making Obi-Wan's stomach roll. Deciding the best way to deal with this was avoidance, he turned in the other direction, only to find more hateful stares coming from that direction. They started moving toward him, boxing him in.
"Problem?" He asked, trying to speak as little as possible lest they spot his accent.
"Maybe, maybe not," one of the men on his left said. Dark, close set eyes sat on a square face, narrowed and sizing him up. "Haven't seen you around here before. Wondering what you're doing here."
"Business," Obi-Wan bit out, hoping that if he stood up to them they'd back off. "Which is none of yours."
A couple of the men chuckled, obviously not intimidated.
"Well, we're making it ours," another man said, not laughing with the others.
Outnumbered twelve to one and surrounded. This wasn't good. He wasn't supposed to do anything to alert anyone that he was a Jedi, but soon he wouldn't have much of a choice.
"And this is why we don't get tourists," a light, feminine voice came from behind them. "You're totally dragging down the local economy with your bad attitudes."
All heads swiveled to the source of the words immediately. Obi-Wan should have use the distraction to get away but the sound of a woman's voice, carefree and sarcastic, in this setting was so jarring that he couldn't help but to look as well.
Short, light-haired and around his own age, she stood in a relaxed pose, feet apart and thumbs hooked in the fabric of her pants. He was too far away to see much more detail and the bodies of the other men somewhat obstructed his view, but it's what he felt that was important. All around him, the men were shuffling backwards away from the girl. They were agitated and he could even detect threads of fear weaving through them. That was interesting. But what he felt from her was nothing. Nothing at all.
Now that… that was disconcerting.
"Slayer…" One of the men hissed, still edging backwards, his body tensed for fight or flight.
"The one and only," she smiled brightly before it morphed into a thoughtful look. "Well… most of the time. Here, I am. At least, I think I am…"
Obi-Wan wondered if maybe she was insane.
"Anyway, why don't you boys run along. I'll take things from here," she said, her blinding smile returning.
"And if we don't?" One of the men asked - Obi-Wan noted that he was the furthest away from her.
"Then I guess I'll have to do things the hard way, which involves me leaving your broken and bleeding bodies in the street for the droids to find," she said lightly, never losing her smile.
The men stood there, shuffling their feet awkwardly then took off all at once, scattering all directions.
While she watched them go with a head shake and an eye roll, he watched her. Now that he could see her with an unobstructed view, he was even more confused. She was… small, completely unassuming. Not at all what these types would find intimidating. And she wasn't even carrying any kind of weapon that he could see, not even a blaster. Why were these men running from her?
Turning her eyes back on him, she gave him another smile, this one smaller, but more genuine. "You should be more careful. I wish I could say they were the worst the area has to offer, but not so much. They're actually pretty harmless compared to most of the stuff around here."
"Why did you help me? I could be like them," he blurted.
"Twelve to one odds don't sit well with me," she said, turning away from him and walking down the road. "Besides, I could tell you weren't looking for a fight."
"Wait," he said, jogging to catch up with her. He should let her go, continue on his way, but he figured he could use someone with local knowledge to find what he was looking for quicker. And really, he was just curious. "Are you busy? Can you take over the job of welcoming the tourists that the others were obviously not doing properly?"
"Wow, I haven't heard anyone that well-spoken since I got here" she said, looking over and up at him with a small smirk as he caught up with her.
"I'm… Mace," he said, internally grimacing immediately. Great idea, let's distract her from your Republic City speech and hide the fact that you're a Jedi by using a false name… of another Jedi.
"Mace, huh? Like the weapon?"
"The weapon?" He repeated in confusion.
"Where I'm from a mace is a this big spiky ball on the end of a chain attached to a pole, you swing it around and hit people with it."
"Really," Obi-Wan said, fascinated. That sounded… brutal. "So, you're not from around here then?"
"Nope, I ended up here kind of by accident about a year ago," she said with a shrug. And while he was still unable to read her, a fact that both frustrating and interesting, he could tell from the way her shoulders tightened slightly that the 'accident' that brought her here was something she didn't want to talk about.
"Why haven't you left?"
"I thought about it. Almost did. But… there are a lot of people here that aren't bad, ya know? People that actually used to work in the factories when they were still running and didn't have the money to leave when they shut down. So they're stuck here. I saw… horrible things happen to some of those people…"
"So you stay to protect them?" Obi-Wan asked, impressed but also bewildered. She was just one girl…
"Someone has to. And it's not like I have anything better to do."
"Don't you have a family? Friends? A job? Something to get back to from before you 'accidently' ended up here?"
"No," she answered flatly - her tone telling him in no uncertain terms that the subject was not to be pressed upon.
"So, that's all you do here? Rescue people? Don't you just end up saving the same people over and over?"
"I help them leave this place," she said, looking out over the darkening skyline. "I've met a couple pilots - some are just nice guys, some owe me a favor or two, so I have them take a family somewhere else. Either that or I take down some stupid thug who has some money on him and use it to buy people a way out of here, a fresh start somewhere else."
"So, the people you save… they don't even stay?" Obi-Wan asked, suddenly realizing how absolutely alone the girl in front of him was.
"Nope, they move on to bigger and better things," she said, flashing him a smile. It was genuine too - she was really happy that they got out, even though she was left here.
"What's your name?"
She stopped and looked to the right suddenly, her head cocking to the side and her eyes narrowing. Then she grabbed his sleeve and yanked him with far more force than one would expect someone of her size to have into a shadowed alcove.
"Shhh," she said, eyes still glued to a spot in the distance.
The setting sun cast everything in slanted, sharp shadows. After a moment, one of the shadows detached from the others, ambling along the road with lurching gait. A droid? How did she sense it before him? It stopped periodically to scan the area - Obi-Wan hoped it was just by sight and not by detection sensors, but the girl next to him didn't seem to be concerned, she just stayed completely still, eyes locked on the robot.
"If they weren't so much with the homicidal rage, they'd almost be sad," she muttered, eyes trained toward where the droid had disappeared before shaking her head and continuing on in the direction they'd been going before.
"You never answered me," Obi-Wan said, falling in step beside her.
"Oh, everyone just calls me Slayer."
"I didn't ask what everyone called you. I asked your name," he said, making sure the words were just curious and lightly coated with sarcasm instead of sounding rude or arrogant.
"Hmph," she huffed, putting her nose in the air and turning down a side street. "I don't tell guys my name on the first date."
"D-date?" He sputtered behind her. "I hardly think this could be considered a date."
"Give me a break, I fight rabid droids and pathetic thugs all day, this is as date-like as things get for me."
Obi-Wan couldn't help the smile at her words. She was certainly different than anyone else he'd ever met.
"So, Mace," she said, making him flinch at his own idiocy at giving that name again. "What's the sitch with you?"
"Why are you here? While the 'tourist' bit is fun for the sarcasm part of my act, it'd be easier to help you out if I knew why you were really here."
Obi-Wan ticked his eyes to her and then back at the bleak landscape of the city, wondering how much to tell her.
"What do you know about the Slavis Greely?"
"That he's bad news. His band of merry men are like flies – anywhere there's some kind of crap going down, there they'll be," Buffy said, her lip curling in distaste. "Slavery, prostitution, smuggling - you name it, if it's illegal, they're doing it.
"I work for someone that's… concerned about the scope of Greely's operation," Obi-Wan said, picking his words carefully.
Buffy paused and looked at him seriously. "There's a lot of okay people here, I can't have you waging a war and them getting caught in the middle."
"I assure you, I'm only here to gather information," he said, looking right in her eyes and hoping she'd see he was telling the truth - they were very green…
She stared back at him for a long moment before she apparently saw enough to believe him. "Okay, I'll help you under one condition. You have to promise to give me a heads up before the hammer falls."
He nodded, impressed not only by her desire to protect innocent people but also by her shrewdness in detecting that he could cause problems here on a large scale.
"I swear it," he answered.
She nodded and they continued on their way. To where, Obi-Wan had no idea, but he strangely didn't mind. There was something about this… Slayer, that he trusted.
"Alright, first thing then; you seem to be thinking Slavis is in charge. Hate to burst your bubble, but a spider roach has more intelligence, not to mention he's eight different kinds of crazy. He's taking directions from someone way smarter than him."
"You're sure," Obi-Wan asked, his brow furrowing in worry. They'd been under the impression that Greely was the mastermind behind this. If that wasn't the case, then this wasn't the "head of the beast", as Master had called it, at all. This was just one part of a much larger operation than they'd originally thought.
"Totally sure," she answered. Her speech was puzzling, but not unpleasant. Eventually, he'd be interested in finding out where she came from. "I saw him getting chased by a droid one day and panic so much that he pulled his blaster out upside down and shot himself in the leg with it. Another time he got himself stuck in an alley because he didn't realize he was too fat to fit. One of his cronies had to grease him to get him out."
Obi-Wan choked off a burst disbelieving laughter. Those were far from the actions of the criminal mastermind the report he'd read gave the impression Greely was. They turned another corner and she came to a stop, pointing down the strip of abandoned factories barely lit in the lingering light of the day.
"Fourth one down," she said, her voice surprising him by taking on the tone of a commander. "They have droids of their own watching over the building, plus a rotating shift of guards. Ground floor is a dummy floor, set up to fool intruders, the real stuff starts on the second floor. There's usually anywhere from ten to thirty people in the building. Slavis is in and out randomly."
He stared at her a moment in shock, this was more than he could have hoped for.
"Well, this is where I leave you," she said, looking hesitant and indecisive. "I wish I could go but…"
"I never intended you to," Obi-Wan said sincerely.
"It's just… I do my thing, keeping the people here safe, and they do theirs. If I started butting into every bit of criminal activity around here, not only would I be busy around the clock, but it would kind of mess up what I have going here," she said, looking frustrated and trying to explain. "If I leave them be and only step in when they're messing with some civilian, they're less likely to keep doing that. But if I start messing around in everything-"
"Then they'll take out their frustrations on others," Obi-Wan finished.
"Yeah," she said with a sigh. He realized then that it bothered her, letting these men get away with what they were doing. "And honestly, killing people, not so much my deal. I'm fine with keeping the innocent safe."
"There's absolutely nothing wrong with that," he said, looking down at her. There was something… something he couldn't quite put his finger on about her. But unfortunately he didn't have the time to explore that now. "Thank you for the help."
"I get the feeling you wouldn't have needed it," Buffy said with a small knowing smile. He returned the smile with one of his own and turned to leave, but paused, indecisive, before turning back around. She'd done so much for him in the short time he'd known her. He should at least be honest with her…
"My name… it's not-"
"You… know?" He knew he should feel suspicious, but the Force told him he needn't be.
"You don't look like a 'Mace'," she said with a simple shrug.
"My real name is-"
"Save it for the next date," she interrupted him with a wink.
He watched her disappear into the darkness with a smile on his face. Next date, indeed.