"I have a mission for you," said Rachel.
And that was all she managed before Tianyi let loose with a torrent of questions, tripping over her own tongue half the time as another question came to her mind to ask before she'd finished asking the last. "Where?" was the first. Then, "when? Doing what? Are we going to be going after those wizards? How about the terrorists? Oh, will we be working in one of the orphanages? That wouldn't be so bad. How about-"
"If you'd wait a second, she'd probably just tell you," weighed in her twin brother, Dehua.
"Yes, that would work," said Rachel. "It's nothing terribly exciting I'm afraid. There won't be any derring-do for you on your first mission. Or at least there shouldn't be."
Dehua grunted as if that was exactly what he had been expecting from her.
"I'm afraid that it probably won't be very pleasant either," said Rachel. "You have heard of what happened in Changsha, yes?"
They nodded. Even Tianyi looked serious. Almost solemn even.
"The area is safe now," said Rachel. "Or at least it should be. The Death Eaters have accomplished what they came to do and I can't see them coming back for more now that the place is crawling with demon hunters. Your task is to simply provide a Jedi presence at the emergency facility. That should help keep things civilised."
"I think that would work better if we weren't Chinese," said Dehua. "Soldiers tend to have a thing about us. Possibly something to do with the war."
"Do you know how many Jedi speak a dialect of Chinese well enough for me to be comfortable sending them to China?" asked Rachel. "Well, we're all in this room. You might have problems with the soldiers, and I'll damn well have the heads of any who push it too far, but the other Jedi wouldn't stand a cat in hell's chance of not messing it up with the locals."
"Droids only go so far," said Rachel. "It's just not the same as speaking the language yourself. You should know that by now or I didn't do so well as a master as I thought I did with the pair of you."
He subsided. Then Tianyi spoke up. "So when will we be going?" she asked. rocking back and forth on her heels. "Soon?"
Dehua looked at her as if he couldn't quite believe what he was hearing as Rachel replied to that. "Immediately after this meeting," she said. "It's not quite necessary for me to kick you out of the door and on to a shuttle but it's not too far off. The situation is developing quickly and I want a presence there as soon as possible. And the locals could really use the reassurance. My words won't hold for long without some sort of demonstration."
"I think it would be a good idea for us to hear a little more about this before we go."
"It's not all that complicated really," said Rachel. "Food supplies are being shipped in courtesy of several charitable organisations, Oxfam and the like, and donations from some of the usual corporations that need to improve their public image – I think it's General Robotics this time – and I want you to be there at the dispersal point to ensure that nothing untoward happens. Your presence alone should deter most malcontents and bigots from pushing their look, hopefully."
"And if they do?"
"Keep it low-key, if you can," said Rachel. "I want to avoid lightsabres blazing if at all possible. The people there are scared. They need to be reassured. And that needs calm, not weapons blazing action. I know you're young, new to the life of a Jedi in the field, but I need you to be strong for this. It's too important to fumble!"
"We won't let you down, master!"
"I don't know if it'll be that easy," said Dehua with a glance at his sister. "Will the soldiers work with us? Listen to us? I know what they're like, I've seen it before. They look at us and they see their enemy. They see the people they fought in the war."
"It's not quite that bad," said Rachel. "I know there are some – I remember the trouble we had when you were at school well enough, I don't forget things like that – but they are professionals if nothing else and you are Jedi. That gives you the sort of respect that money can't buy and that a misguided war can't tarnish. I know it doesn't make up for other things but it's something at least."
The frown on Dehua's face told her exactly what he thought of that and even Tianyi didn't seem terribly impressed.
"Look, I know," said Rachel. "I know it hurts. I know it makes you angry, makes you sad, makes you want to wring their damned necks and make them acknowledge you for who you are rather than what you are. But only time will do that. Time and seeing you not act like their stereotype of choice."
"Statement: you could always make use of my solution of choice. Dead people cause no trouble. At least no trouble that can't be solved through more death."
"HK, that isn't constructive."
"Query: how is it not constructive? Once they had slaughtered their way to the top of the pile, no-one would dare look at them in a way they didn't like nevermind make unpleasant jokes regarding their dwarfish stature, slanted eyes, or-"
"I think that's enough. We don't need a running commentary of every insult ever thrown their way. Just be quiet."
"Resigned statement: as you wish, master."
"Transport's waiting for you at the launchpad," said Rachel. "You could pilot it yourself but I'd rather you used the droid pilot after what happened last time you tried that."
"That could have happened to anyone," protested Tianyi.
"I'm sure. But it happened to you and it wouldn't help anyone if you crashed on the way there."
Sulk, sulk, sulk. For about two minutes anyway. Then they were gone and chances were that Tianyi would have found something new to distract her on the way to China and their mission. Rachel barely had time to let them know that Helen would join them in a week's time if the mission ran that long before they were gone. With that done, it was time to find Tara.
When Rachel found Tara she found her sat in the room she had been allocated out of the many, many spare rooms in the Enclave staring out of the window into the distance with a large, leather-bound book opened to somewhere near the middle resting in her lap. She rather doubted that Tara had taken in a word of it.
"Have you found something for me to do?" asked Tara before Rachel could say anything, though she didn't look away from the window.
"I have," said Rachel. That got Tara's attention. She turned away from the view and gave Rachel her full attention before she continued. "I don't know if you've heard but there's been an attack. A relief camp in China, the workers were slaughtered. I think it's all related."
"The news said that it was wizards."
"I still smell the hand of the Sith about it all," said Rachel. "It would hardly be beyond them to use a disposable ally or two to do their dirty work. No, I really do believe that it's related. It's all coming too close together for it to not be. That and I had a vision, which kinda gave some of it away."
And that granted her Tara's full, undivided attention. There was fire in her eyes now. "So what do you want me to do?" she asked.
Rachel summoned a blood stained shirt from the dimensional pocket she had been keeping it preserved in. "The blood of the slain," she said with a flourish. "I can't make the spell work, too much interference, but magic is much more your speciality than mine, Tara. Maybe you stand a chance of getting some results."
Tara eyed it warily. "I sense dark magic," she said. "I don't know-"
"If you have no faith in your own abilities then you will fail," said Rachel. "Do or do not. There is no try. So said the muppet master. Not a bad bit of wisdom as far as it goes. Will is everything."
Tara gave Rachel a baleful look. "I-I know that," she said.
Rachel shrugged. "Well, then you don't need me looking over your shoulder," she said. "If you need any supplies then you know where they're kept, I think."
Tara nodded. "The cupboard underneath the stairs," she said. "And the cupboard near your rooms for the dangerous items. Oh, and there's a store-room near the meditation chamber too but I don't know if there's anything in it."
"That'll do. Just do your best, Tara. Anything you can find would be extremely valuable here. We really are entirely without clue at the moment."
Tara nodded absently but her attention had passed to the magic. Ah well. It was easy to forget sometimes than a mutual near-obsession with magic was what had drawn Tara and Willow together initially. She quietly let herself out and headed back to her office to let Harry know that she had things underway.
It was later on, as she worked her way through an initial report from forensic wizards on what had been found at the scene, that she felt a chill run down her spine that had nothing to do with the weather.
"Jolee," she said. "It's been a while. I was beginning to think you'd stopped visiting."
"Hmph. Young 'uns these days. No patience. No patience at all. Why, in my day-"
"You'd stand at attention for days on end waiting for your long-senile masters to remember that you even existed," said Rachel. "Yadda, yadda, yadda."
"Irritating old ghost."
Jolee harrumphed and looked away from her with a frown on his face for just a moment before looking back with a more serious look. "I'm sorry, kid," he said. "Tough breaks you're having lately."
"Break singular really," said Rachel. "Willow hurt but I've been expecting the Sith to reappear for a while now."
"Yeah," he said. "I know you have. Even an old man like me can figure on you being able to have a decent idea what they're up to. But still, isn't Willow enough? It's bad times when your best friends gets blasted right in front of you."
Rachel said nothing. Nothing at all.
"That ain't really why I'm here," he said. "Not that I need a reason. Anyway, umm."
"What did I say about patience again?" asked Jolee. "Oh yeah. You young 'uns. You don't have any. Anyway, kid, I might not be showing up much for a while. Things are moving and they're moving in directions that are all about making life difficult for people like you."
"I'm not exactly seeing how stopping you from pestering me would make my life difficult, old man."
"You'd be surprised at the places a dead man can get into."
"Not really. Not after having you hanging around me for the last decade and change."
"Heh heh heh," said Jolee. "Now, now, I thought you'd got over that."
"It was an accident. Not one I'm complaining about, you just don't see things like that living with Jedi, but still an accident. Like the time I accidentally dropped a bottle of Wookie spices into Carth's dinner. Heh heh he."
"Very funny, I'm sure," said Rachel. "Now if you were to know more about these dark forces that would be helpful."
"Now, kid, you know I'm not supposed to mess with the mortal plane quite that directly," said Jolee. "There are too many big players working behind the scenes trying to keep things as they like 'em for that. Lotta people don't like you much, kid. Lot of people. You must be doing something right."
"I'd like to think so," said Rachel.
"Yeah, well, you know what it's like," he said. "One minute everything's hunky-dory and the next a demon eats your face. I don't have a face to eat anymore, shame really because it was a pretty face when I was younger, but there are still things that'd like to eat my, uh, soul? Something like that. Things are at play that are going to stop me visiting you for a good long while, kiddo."
"Some. Some not. It can be hard to tell. There are a lot of real nasty things in this universe. It ain't like ours where it's pretty much all Sith all the time when it comes to the real hardcore evil. Here you've got demons, Dark Siders, living gods, actual gods, and Force only knows what else. Point is, it's getting harder to reach you and it wasn't easy in the first place. "
"You know, I might actually miss you, old man. Force only knows why but I think I might just."
"Yeah, yeah. I love you too, kid. And don't count me out. I'll be back sooner or later to pester you."
"I'd expect no less. What else are old people good for?"
"Hmmph. You should appreciate your elders." He flickered out of existance for a moment. "Ah, time to go. See you later, kiddo."
"You too, old man."
And then he was gone. Just like that. First they killed Willow and then they sealed Jolee off from her. It wasn't anywhere near as bad but it still irked her. She didn't have enough friends that she could afford to lose them.
"I would have appreciated being told about the mission in China," said Helen.
Rachel looked up from the terminal she working at and looked at the nun turned Jedi. She looked irritated, and that was about as close as Helen ever got to being angry in Rachel's experience. She switched the terminal off and gave Helen her full attention. "You've just spent six months working yourself to the bone in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast," she said. "And before then Pakistan and before then Brazil and before then Iraq. Even the greatest of Jedi needs to take time away from their work occasionally."
"God would not have gifted me with the skills he has if he did not expect me to use them to their fullest," replied Helen. "I won't sit around in the Enclave while there are people out there who need my help."
"You'd wear yourself down to a nub before you came even close to fixing everything that's wrong in this universe," said Rachel. "And you can't help anyone when you've destroyed yourself."
"I can see where you're coming from but I must respectfully disagree," said Helen. "I would not have the skills I have if I did not have the strength to properly use them. It just doesn't work that way."
"You'd be surprised," said Rachel. "Where do you think Sith come from? But, anyway, it won't kill you to take a little time off. Give it a week and if the mission there's still running I'll quite happily endorse you going there. If not, well, there's no shortage of things that need doing, is there? Really, come on, the kids love having you around. Stay for a while."
She frowned. "But-"
"Helen, please," said Rachel. "If there's one thing I do know, it's the consequences of a Jedi pushing their too hard." Helen opened her mouth, looking quite peeved, but Rachel cut her off. "You're not exactly my idea of a risk when it comes to people who could fall, sure, but there are plenty of other nasty ways for it to go wrong. We're as vulnerable to sloppiness as any other person, Helen. The candle can only be burnt at both ends for so long."
"And before you say it," she concluded. "The Force won't stop you before you push yourself beyond your limit. Oh, it might warn you, but it's rather easy to not hear such a thing or even to simply disregard it. And my instincts say you need a break."
"I'm quite capable of making my own decisions."
"Yes, you are. And I can't stop you if you leave here and go to China. That's a given. But I won't facilitate it. I can't do that, not in good conscience. Really, though, you have to be the first person I've ever met who would complain about a holiday."
Helen looked at Rachel as if she couldn't quite believe what she was hearing before she replied. "I'll, ah, take your word for that," she said. "But I don't feel right just sitting around here while there's work to be done."
"So don't just sit around. Help with the kids. Teach some classes. That sort of thing. There's no shortage of things that need doing in the Enclave, Helen. And it won't hurt you to spend some free time meditating, either. It doesn't save any lives or cure world hunger or bring an end to racism but it does help you attune yourself to the Force which might just help with those somewhere down the line."
It took a little more persuasion, a few more jabs aimed at just the right spots, but Helen eventually gave in and went off to help with the children. Rachel outright sighed with relief when it was done. She hadn't been lying, strictly, the woman did need to take a break, but she was rather more worried about a totally unarmed Jedi running around on a world that was almost certainly crawling with Sith assassins than she was about Helen's need for a holiday. It went without saying that threats to life and limb wouldn't have dissuaded her but a jab of duty did the job well enough even if was a dirty trick.
"So you're leaving?"
"Yeah," said Faith. "Don't want to, really don't, but you know what it's like, Darth. Sometimes things just need a Slayer's touch and they've got it really bad in the land of tea and tweed right now, they say."
"The British hellmouth," said Rachel. "Never been there myself but it sounds like a wonderful place."
"Yeah if you like drunks, druggies, and prostitutes," said Faith. "Sure. Hell of a place if you like that sort of thing. Otherwise, for the sane amongst us, not so much."
"Sarcasm, Faith. Look it up. It's an interesting concept."
"One and the same."
"You're just lucky that I like you so much," said Faith. "Or I'd have to go all Slayer on you."
"Sure you would," said Rachel. "I shall be sure to live in fear of the wrath of the Slayer from now on."
"Damn right," said Faith. "You know where it's at. Now, you gonna kiss me goodbye or am I gonna have to come over there and pull your ass out of that chair its welded to these days?"
"I suppose I can stretch to it."
Rachel was in the process of doing so, with hands definitely not in any publicly inappropriate place, when Tara entered the room. "I've got, uh," she said before flushing a bright, bright red and spinning on her heel to face away from Rachel and Faith.
"Ah, Tara, you wanted to say something?" asked Rachel after she had disentangled herself from Faith.
"I, uh, found something," said Tara. "Um, it was, ah, a mansion. A face too. I made a picture of it, uh, here. Bye!"
Faith was busy laughing herself hoarse as Rachel eyed the picture that Tara had handed her. "I'll have to get this to Harry," she said. "I have no clue. Completely clue free zone. You be careful, Faith. Watch your back."
And with that they went their separate ways.