Rachel felt a profound sense of relief course through her when she saw Dawn's ship set down safely on the landing pad. She knew that Dawn was more than capable of taking care of herself, much, much more than capable, but that didn't stop her from worrying. As potential targets for the Sith went Dawn was right up there for a number of very obvious reasons and there were attacks that even someone as powerful as Dawn would have trouble fending off. For example, she'd been somewhat concerned about the possibility of a bomb on the transport. That would have seriously ruined everyone's day if it hadn't been picked up on.
The transport was a small thing, provided by the government for the mission, that had came straight from the state-owned shipyard in orbit of Io. It was an elegant-looking ship, as you'd expect for a diplomatic courier, all curves and tastefully subdued colours, but it was also fragile looking. No warship, that was for sure. A strange thing to see in the times they all lived in. Even personal transports had came laden down with guns and shields by the time they'd realised that more Ethereals had existed outside of their Mars forces.
"Christ, I wish they'd hurry this up," grumbled Faith from beside Rachel, hopping from foot to foot in a fit of nervous energy. "I hate all this waiting around."
"You'll have to give it a minute," replied Rachel. "You know what customs are like these days."
Faith promptly dissolved into grumbling under her breath about little Hitlers who 'needed their clipboards shoving up their ass sideways'. A wonderful legacy from their last off-planet trip which had ended in Faith pissing off the customs officers and being subjected to an entirely pointless cavity search, that. Rachel had thought that she would be given the same thing for a moment there but they'd thought better of it before trying. Not very pleasant all round really.
From the corner of her eye Rachel could see Mrs. Summers stood with her arms wrapped around herself. She never liked it when Dawn was away on missions and Rachel expected that Willow's death had only made that worse. It almost made her wonder about the wisdom of maintaining family links between Jedi and their families; they just led to so much stress for all involved that it sometimes didn't seem worth it. Sometimes.
She was tempted to move across and try to offer a little support, but what could she say? She wasn't a mother, she couldn't imagine a scenario which would ever leave her as a mother, and it would seem rather facile for her to try and understand what Mrs. Summers went through when Dawn was away, potentially having to fight for her life, and so she did nothing, as utterly useless and ultimately unsatisfying as that conclusion really was.
Buffy had a similar look about her, though with Buffy it was always tempered by the experiences of her years as the Slayer. Those years, before her retirement to become a child psychologist, had granted her some perspective. Repeated brushes with death will do that to you; either that or break you, one of the two. Buffy had never broken. Never. It wasn't in her. And of course the presence of Giles always lent Buffy some strength. It always had, even when she didn't listen to him and went running off to do something deeply stupid.
Eventually Dawn and her husband-slash-teammate, Ian, emerged from the customs building and they were soon enmeshed in the endless series of hugs and greetings that always greeted Dawn's return after a mission, though there was some extra urgency lent to the occasion by Willow's death this time and Rachel spotted tears in several faces.
Eventually they all separated. "I wish I could have been here," said Dawn. "For the funeral . . . it just doesn't seem right to have missed it."
"You had a job to do," said Rachel. "You couldn't just walk away from a diplomatic mission."
"Indeed," weighed in Giles. "Your situation was unfortunate but we all understood your choice, Dawn. We've all faced situations where doing the right thing wasn't doing the easy thing."
"And you couldn't really leave me to play gladiator alone," piped in Ian. "That would have been both cruel and unusual."
Rachel swivelled to face him. "You did it again, didn't you?" she asked. "You . . ugh!"
"This time it really wasn't my fault," he said. "How was I to know that shaking someone's hand in just that way was a challenge? Really, I think I deserve sympathy, master. I don't much like been challenged to a fight to the death. And I didn't attract any stalkers this time out so it's not all bad, right?"
Rachel closed her eyes and counted to ten. Then twenty. Then thirty. "You're going to find trouble you can't get out of some day," she said finally. "Believe me on this if nothing else."
"I believe you on lots of things, master! I just don't agree with you on some of them. There's a difference."
"Just remember that your impulsive idiocy affects others, hmm? Dawn wouldn't be best pleased if you got yourself killed."
"Hey, I intend to outlive you all, just to be awkward."
Rachel sighed and shook her head. That was when she noticed that everyone else had shuffled off to the side to have a separate conversation.
"I think they were expecting you to give me another lecture," said Ian. "Probably the 'think before you act, you Force-damned moron' one, I reckon. Seems like it'd be appropriate here."
"Hmmph," said Rachel. "I don't lecture you every time we talk."
"No, just most of the time. Very different."
"It's not like you don't deserve it.
"Oh, I do. I know."
Rachel shook her head at him and headed over to the main group, who appeared to be talking about the mission Dawn had just been on.
"Well, it wasn't that bad really," said Dawn. "It turns out that the guy who challenged Ian wasn't really all that well liked, so knocking him around and humiliating him by not even finishing him off didn't really set us all that far back. They were pretty impressed that he could do that, actually. The guy was supposed to be a bit of a badass and a troublemaker, so Ian giving him a bit of a beating won us more brownie points than it lost."
"They used to say that the Force favoured fools," said Rachel. "Sometimes he makes me wonder."
"No wonder involved. I know it does or he'd be roadkill somewhere instead of being married to me," said Dawn with a winning smile aimed over Rachel's shoulder at Ian, who was lagging along behind her. "That's what I call favour."
Ugh. That was Rachel's cue to leave. When they started approaching their weird form of lovey-dovey, she evacuated the area. It didn't do anything for her stomach. Well, anything good. She could talk to Dawn later. It wasn't like they were going to accomplish anything useful there at a spaceport anyway and what she wanted to talk to Dawn about was not for public consumption.
"So, what's going on?" asked Dawn when they were finally back in Rachel's rooms in the temple. Just Rachel and Dawn. And Dawn's husband, but Rachel preferred to pretend that he didn't exist. Did wonders for her blood pressure, that. "What are we doing to get the bastards that killed Willow?"
Rachel's response was simple. "We're waiting," she said. "Preparing."
"What?" screeched Dawn. "Waiting? We should be out there hunting them down, destroying them."
"Sounds good to me," said Ian. "A straight-up fight. That's how I like things"."
Rachel closed her eyes and sighed before replying. "Fine," she said. "So where do we find them?" she asked, her voice sharp. "Perhaps we should post an article in the Times asking them to step outside? Or maybe a classified advert? It doesn't work that way, people. We don't have any idea where to find them and they won't move till they want to move."
"We have the guy who did this, right?" asked Dawn. "We can trace him back, his movements, his associates. All that good stuff."
"Do you think that they wouldn't think of that?" asked Rachel. "Leaving aside the fact that's he's quite dead, his trail is cold and worthless. Clearly faked. They're looking into it but it's leading nowhere."
"It's still a place to start."
"But not a very good one," said Rachel, holding a hand up to quiet Dawn. "Oh, it'll be covered but it won't come to anything. No Sith Lord would be foolish enough to leave himself that open."
Dawn was up on her feet pacing up and down now. "But we have to do something!" she almost shouted. "How can you be so calm? Willow's dead!"
Rachel almost winced. "I'm calm because I have to be calm," said Rachel. "We won't defeat the Sith by running off in a blind fit of emotion, Dawn. We have to be calm, we have to be calculating, we have to be ready."
"I'm ready!" said Dawn. "Find me a Sith and I'll show them just how ready I am."
Rachel frowned at that but Ian was the first to react. "Dawn, love, you need to calm down," he said. "Remember your training. Anger isn't good. Control it. Release it. All that good stuff."
Rachel had never thought of Ian as anything remotely resembling a stabilising influence before but it seemed to be working. Dawn took several deep, gulping breathes and then retook her seat.
"Now," said Rachel. "I can appreciate your frustration, Dawn, I feel it keenly too, but we most remain in control here. If we lose control, that's another victory for the Sith, a victory we can ill-afford to concede at this point."
"We must analyse their avenues of attack," said Rachel. "We must know at which points they will strike before they do so. That way we can stymy their efforts almost entirely."
"Ugh," weighed in Ian. "Isn't this something you'd be better at figuring out than us?"
"If you were as stupid as you acted, you'd have trouble breathing," said Rachel. "But I wasn't planning on asking you to start brainstorming right this moment anyway. Little things like jet lag might get in the way of that."
"You see, thinking of things like that: that's why you're the boss and I'm a peon."
"Ian, you are the most irritating man in the world," said Rachel before setting about the task of ignoring him to preserve her own sanity. "Dawn, you will be a target, so be careful. No more taking risks if you can avoid it."
"I'm a Jedi Knight," she said. "I can take care of myself if they come for me."
"I'm not saying you couldn't take care of yourself, Dawn," said Rachel, "but there are weapons that can kill even the strongest Jedi quite easily. Many Jedi have fallen to skin-absorbed nerve gases and similar weapons in the past, a great many indeed, and the Sith are quite aware of that."
"Shouldn't you be giving this lecture to all the Jedi?" asked Ian. "It's not like they wouldn't want to take us all out eventually."
"I already have," said Rachel. "You just weren't here for it. But that puts me in mind for something else: Ian, you need to be damned careful too. You're nowhere near as strong as Dawn, no don't you dare sulk, and they'll come after you as a way to get at Dawn, most likely. It's an easy way to disturb her state of mind and that would be a win for them. Yes, they'll come for you."
"Oh thanks," he grumbled. "Being killed to piss off my wife. That's a way to go. Not the way I was hoping for, you know, in bed, with a smile on my face, that sort of thing, but still a way."
"Oh be quiet," said Dawn. "I'm not going to let you die."
"Caution would be a good idea," said Rachel. "But I expect that would be asking for too much."
"In the same way as a cat, yes," said Rachel. "If you get yourself killed, I'll bring you back and kill you myself. Clear?"
"Jawohl, mein fuhrer!"
"Brat," said Rachel. "Keep him in line, will you, Dawn?"
There were some days when it really didn't pay to get out of bed. Rachel really did wonder at times if she'd pissed some god off somewhere along the line.
"Your rooms should be ready," said Rachel. "The cleaning droids certainly have them registered as prepared."
"Thank the maker," said Ian, as he stood up. Dawn stood up similarly.
"Oh, and I'd appreciate it if you remember to engage the sound proofing," said Rachel. "There are some things we just don't need to hear."
Dawn blushed a bright red, resembling nothing so much as a long-haired tomato, but Ian just grinned and winked at her before they left. There really was no point in trying to shame the shameless. She'd have to find a better way to get her own back on him.
"Query: do you wish for me to dispose of the irritating meatbag, master?" asked HK as they filed out of the room. "Comparing you to an amateur like Adolf Hitler, it is a most grievous insult. I believe that a suitably high level of carnage is the only valid response."
"You believe that carnage is only valid response to the county forgetting to collect our garbage."
"Statement: they wouldn't do it a second time."
"And that almost makes it worth taking you up on the offer," said Rachel. "Almost."
After sending Dawn and Ian on their way Rachel felt a little restless, full of energy with no real useful way to burn it off, so she set off to prowl the corridors of the Jedi Enclave and see if that helped any. It wasn't a feeling that she enjoyed. No, it was a symptom of poor control, something which was absolute anathema to her. Without control she would be little more than an animal with superpowers. Such a fate was utterly unacceptable.
The Enclave was never a terribly busy place, though. It had been built large, preparation for the future, and there just weren't that many Jedi to live in it. Humanity was ridiculously well-connected to the supernatural but it still didn't produce that many potential Jedi and Rachel was damned if she was going to train inadequates who would only get themselves killed. And so the Enclave was rather more like a ghost town than a Jedi Enclave at times, which left it rather short of distractions, comparatively speaking.
Of course, there was always something. The numbers were small but they were still Jedi. They still kept busy and they still attracted trouble by the shipload without even trying - and when they did try, like Ian, it got to be quite the pain in the arse to deal with - so there were distractions to be found, even when Faith was off hunting down demons to beat to a pulp. Rachel found hers in one of the training rooms on the ground floor of the Enclave's main building.
What she found was Signa going through some of the katas she had taught him as part of his training, mixing them up with his native martial arts as he went. It was quite the impressive sight. He was quick, deceptively so, for his bulk and all that muscle was impressive enough on its own. Rachel didn't feel the same sort of thing that she'd seen a large number of women feel at that sort of sight but she could still appreciate it for what it was: a very large, very powerful predator honing its skills with a deadly sort of grace. The same sort of appreciation you felt when you saw a lion stalking across the savannah or a bear lumbering through a forest or an eagle swooping through the air.
He noticed her presence quickly and stopped his practice, a skill probably honed through several years of having to put up with human fangirls. Apparently it wasn't only the male of the species that had a thing for cat-people. "Little Master," he said, using the nickname his species had dubbed her with during her first visit to their world, "is there something you wish of me?"
Rachel shook her head. "Not at the moment," she said. A pause. "Would you care to spar?"
"Ah, of course," he said with a grin that showed off sharp teeth. "Always."
"No claws," said Rachel as she shrugged off her heavy outer cloak. "That'd just be cheating."
"Of course," replied Signa. "You humans break too easily for me to use them anyway."
"I'll show you breaking easily."
And with that they started. Both were cautious at first, circling each other, looking for a gap in defences. It would have almost certainly looked quite ridiculous to any outsider watching, the way the massive Signa kept his distance from a woman who was easily a foot shorter than him and maybe half the mass if you were optimistic about it, but neither of them were stupid enough to underestimate the other in such a way.
In the end it fell to Rachel to launch the first attack. One moment she was circling around and the next she was flowing forward and attacking, her arms a virtual blur as her fists cracked through the air towards Signa. His reaction was quick, taking the blows on his forearms with little impact, before he stepped forward and aimed a low kick at the back of Rachel's knees that would have toppled her had she not leapt up and over his head to get out of the way.
As she came down from her leap Rachel planted a heavy kick into Signa's back that knocked the large man stumbling before spinning around and clocking him across the back of the head with a roundhouse kick that would have knocked any human out cold on the spot. Signa grunted in pain and nearly, nearly, fell but stayed on his feet. Rachel would have taken advantage but in the bare moment it took her to solidify her footing he was recovered and had whirled around to face her, his eyes narrowed and focused on Rachel.
They met in the middle, in a fury of blows, with Signa using his bulk to absorb Rachel's blows and Rachel simply using all of her speed to stay the hell out of the way of Signa's attacks. It ended when Rachel was just a hair too slow and a punch to her chest slammed her off her feet and sent her skidding across the ground.
"Unusual," said Signa. "I am not accustomed to attaining victory in my sparring sessions with you."
"You don't seem quite yourself," he continued. "Are you well?"
Rachel stood up and rubbed at the forming bruise on her chest. "Never better," she said. "I get hit by freight trains every day, you know."
"I did not mean to inflict any injury," he said. "I would apologise but it would appear to me that the disturbance of your spirit is far more serious than any wound I could have inflicted with that blow."
"I'm a little on edge," said Rachel. "Was a little on edge. Now that I've worked it off, I can start working on why."
On edge," he said slowly. Then he gave her a fanged smile. "You feel the call to war," he said. "That must be what it is. War is coming and you feel its pull. I feel it too. The turmoil."
"It's possible," admitted Rachel. "I don't like it but it's something that I have considered. Hopefully meditating on it will reveal some answers."
Signa nodded. "Well, I do appreciate the opportunity to have a sparring session which doesn't end in my being twisted into some painful position," he said. "It is nice."
Rachel smiled. "Just don't expect it to happen again," she said. A pause as she thought. "Now, I've been meaning to speak with you. My question is this: how much longer will you be staying?"
"My people are divided," he said. "Some feel I should fight alongside our allies as I have done so far; some feel that I should return to my homeworld and use my talents there. I wait and see. Either decision would be acceptable for me. Living here, amongst the humans, is no hardship but I do miss my homeworld at times."
Rachel nodded. "I understand," she said. "I'm surprise you've stayed here as long as you have, to be honest. It's not usual for a government in the position of yours to be so patient."
The meditation chamber was the part of the Enclave that Rachel was most proud of having constructed. She had invested a vast, vast sum of money into creating the ideal chamber for a Jedi to meditate in and she had succeeded. The vast chamber had been designed in such a way that even a mediocre Jedi could attain the focus needed to successfully explore the mysteries of the Force and so for a skilled user it was a truly incredible environment to work in.
It hadn't been easy to design, there was no doubt of that. The physical structure of the room, the size and shape of the windows, the intricate design of the runes painted on both floor and ceiling - all had been designed down to the last millimetre, all had been constructed in a painstakingly exact fashion by the droids that Rachel had hired. But it had been very much worth the effort.
Oh, it didn't give you access to massive, destructive superpowers or anything like that. It wasn't a place for devastating Sith rituals, though she supposed it could be warped into use for such a thing, but instead a place for contemplation and discovery. She had designed the chamber in such a way as to grant greater focus and vision, not destruction. Truly, it was almost surprising how many times she'd had to explain that to neophyte Jedi over the years.
Of course, it had been designed with this in mind: the return of the Sith. The galaxy was dark, very dark, and Rachel had known that for a long time. They would have a natural advantage in obscuring their plans by the very nature of the terrain they were fighting on. A counter had been necessary. And that was where the meditation chamber had came in. A way, hopefully, for her to penetrate the shroud of darkness and discern their plans.
And so she assumed the lotus position in the centre of the chamber, the locus of all the focussing tools, and opened herself fully to the Force. Possibilities immediately exploded into view in her mind's eye. Vast lines of probability stretched off into the distance and beyond her ability to comprehend, branching and combining seemingly at random as the great tapestry of life was woven right in front of her gaze. It was an incredible sight, one that gave her pause each and every time she meditated, and it filled her with awe briefly before she focused her mind on the topic she wished to meditate upon.
Images flitted past her mind's eye as she did so, seemingly at random, and her mind was filled, for a few moments, with images and sensations that were not her own. She was a woman giving birth, a man training for the upcoming Olympics on a mostly barren, high gravity colony world, a Virgoan plotting to murder his superior to ascend through the ranks of their military, a Rylean cheering his leader as they ordered the sacking of an Ethereal outpost, an Ethereal fuming over the audacity of the humans, and so many more. For those moments she was everything and yet she was nothing. Then she began to narrow the focus.
The images that came then were murky, desperately so, and fragmented. She was a man taking inaudible orders from a hooded figure, a short man prowling the streets of some alien city with murder in his mind and a lightsabre hanging from his waist, a woman watching with glee as an apprentice squirmed with fear in front of her. All interesting but all ultimately useless. There was no context to what she saw and the Force wasn't providing any hints.
So she tried to drill down, to get to the details, by focusing further on an individual vision. But the more she tried to do that the harder it became to grasp the vision she was working on. A shroud of darkness sprang up around it and grew in strength with every passing moment. And eventually the whole thing just slid away from her and she was forced to move away and try something else.
Rachel reached out through the massive probability trees and began to search once more for relevant information. As she did so the thought that it would be a great deal easier if the Force supported Google passed through her mind fleetingly before she crushed the distraction and continued with her work, probing for visions that would supply her with information she could use against the Sith.
Images flitted through her mind once more but again they were useless. This time they were too generalised. She saw the Earth aflame with war as humanity destroyed itself in an orgy of internecine warfare but, terrible as that was, it was also utterly unsurprising. About the only thing that could make humanity pull together was the threat of an invader and even then it was more than a little dubious. No, she needed more.
And so she pressed on, focusing her mind fully on the task of sifting through the information that passed through it as she meditated. She brought her full strength to bear on the vision. A dark force tried to interfere again but she was prepared for it this time and it met the full power that she could muster against it. And it was enough. She burned through the interference.
The images that came burned through her mind far too quickly for even her supernaturally enhanced senses to comprehend in any great detail, the dark still had some tricks up its sleeves clearly, but one thing did stand out in stark clarity to her: the wizards. They were involved. The wizards were involved in the Sith's plans. And the image that stood out most was that of a tall man in dark robes whose eyes glowed with crimson malice.
Her eyes shot open and her chest heaved as she took in air rapidly to make up for her exertions. Yes, that was a starting place. The wizards, specifically the new Dark Lord. He was part of their plans. It seemed that a visit to Harry was in order.