Star Wars: Cages Rating: PG
Inara

When Anakin Solo found Mara Jade, she was in a cage.

The bar had no name that he could see; just a flashing sign that promised girls and beer. And though it looked suspicious — he was, after all, a sixteen-year-old male — that was not why he ventured in. It was the only place that seemed to be open this late at night, he was rather thirsty, and the large Gamorrean at the door didn't ask for any age verification card.

Anakin was so thirsty that he was nearly finished with his drink before noticing the almost naked women dancing nearby.

The cages were slightly raised above the bar, so the first thing that Anakin saw were boots — black leather knee-high boots with high, thin heels. From there, bared muscular thighs disappeared into tiny black hot pants. Her toned stomach was bare, and her black halter-top clung to her like second skin.

She wasn't better endowed than any of the other dancers. Her build was more compact and muscular, rather than voluptuous, as if she had spent a lifetime conditioning her body into peak condition. She wasn't even more beautiful than the others either. But there was just something about her. In the way she tossed her red hair. In the defiant tilt of her chin as she looked over the room. In the challenging grace with which she prowled her cage. She had an aura about her that was predatory, animalistic, and very definitely dangerous.

Anakin discovered his mouth was dry for reasons that had very little to do with thirst.

"So you like Viper, huh?" It was the bartender, wiping the bar and chuckling at his reaction.

"Vah-Viper?" he repeated.

He nodded towards the cage. "Her. Thought it was a bit of a fancy name myself, but it suits her, doesn't it?"

Anakin could only nod. Viper. Her brilliant green eyes had transfixed him like a proverbial snake and its prey. He tentatively reached out towards her in the Force and was stunned by the intensity ... and familiarity ... of her Force signature.

A little while later, the music stopped, the lights flickered back on, and the girls stepped down from their cages and disappeared into the back rooms. None of the patrons had left, however, and seemed inclined to remain and joke with the bartender. Anakin stayed as well and nursed the dregs of his beer.

Half an hour later, it became apparent why the men had been waiting. The door behind the bar opened, and the girls, more sensibly dressed in pants and warm coats, bundled up against the cold outside, emerged in two and threes — safety in numbers. They were greeted by whistles and ribald comments as they walked past the bartender, who handed out credit chips like a father might do to his children. Some of the girls, wanting to get through the crowd of raucous men as quickly as possible, disappeared out the front door. Others flirted back, lingering by the bar to engage in quick-fire exchanges of innuendo that burned Anakin's ears.

She was the last to step out, and when she did, a sudden hush fell over the room. She was still wearing boots, but these were the sturdy, solid kind. Without the added height of heels, she was revealed to be short. There was little about her outfit that was seductive now, baggy cargo pants and a worn jacket. Her hair was loosely tied back, but her attitude seemed more forcible than ever. Not aggressive, just indifferent, as if other people meant little to her. She also walked towards the bartender, not in the coquette-like way of some of the girls, but in a no-nonsense, business-like way.

She leaned over the bar in the gap between Anakin and a Trandoshan. The bartender detached himself from the now boisterous conversation and drifted down towards her and slapped a credit chip onto the bar. Anakin found his eyes were fixed on it with a desperate sort of hunger. He had nearly run out of money and had been surviving the past few weeks on only the barest of necessities.

His attention was snapped as her hand closed over the chip and picked it up and out of his line of vision. He blinked and looked up at her, his gaze daring to look at her face. She was older than him, certainly. But how old? His estimates veered between not much and quite a bit. Her eyes were marked with the sort of weariness that didn't belong in anyone under the age of 40.

She leveled a long look at the bartender. "Whiskey. The cheap and nasty stuff." Her voice was low, sensual, and strangely soothing, and her accent was hard to place.

As the bartender went to fulfill her order, a couple of the men detached themselves from the group of regulars and drifted down towards her, walking with that careful stepping gait that indicated their drunken state. They stopped behind her, and Anakin shrank back away from them.

"Hey, princess," one slurred. "Haven't seen you around here before."

There were so many things in his tone. A sniggering lasciviousness, alcohol, and unpleasantness. Anakin suddenly wished he were anywhere else but here.

She — Viper — didn't say anything as the bartender brought her whiskey. She raised her glass, and with a toss of her head, downed it in one swallow. She then slapped the glass back on the bar with a grimace.

"Hey." It was another man, smaller than the first, but menacing enough for three. "We're talking to you." A big, meaty hand came down on her shoulder.

As if she had been waiting for this, Viper pushed off from the edge of the bar and took a step backwards. With another toss of her head, she slammed the back of her skull into the nose of the small man. There was a faint but horrible crunch, followed by a thud as her elbow jabbed hard into his chest. He staggered back a bit and cried out. She merely stepped back towards the bar.

Anakin was the only one who saw the taller, thinner man pull a vibroblade from his pocket. The grin on his face as he flicked it open suddenly made him the most menacing of them all.

"Look out!" Anakin's voice was high in nervousness as he squeaked out the warning. He had managed to survive as long as he had by keeping a low profile, and he could not hope to take on the entire bar and keep the woman safe, but he reached for his lightsaber anyway.

Viper spun around so quickly that he wondered if she had even needed his warning, or if she had somehow known about the knife anyway. One hand came up and knocked aside the first swing of the blade. She reached into her pocket and pulled out something that Anakin had never expected to see out in the middle of nowhere. With a snap-hiss, a blue beam shot out from the silver cylinder.

The man's knife clattered to the floor, unnaturally loud in the sudden, complete silence that had fallen over the bar. The only sounds were the faint groans from the smaller man with the now broken nose, and a sort of gagging sound from the taller man as he looked at the shimmering blue blade that hovered near his neck. When she finally switched off the lightsaber, he fainted and hit the ground in a boneless heap.

And then there was the click of a blaster's safety being turned off. Anakin looked over at the bartender, who now had a blaster pointed at her. Inappropriate though it was, Anakin suddenly wanted to laugh at the incongruity of this man thinking his blaster was enough to stop her. "You better leave." His voice was curt and cold. "We don't like your type around here."

Her type. His type. Jedi.

In another time and place, Anakin would have found it funny, the sudden surge of kinship he felt with this stern woman who had just proved herself so deadly so quickly. They appeared to have nothing in common — the skinny kid with too-wide eyes and too-soft accent and the terse, hard-as-nails woman. Nothing in common except something different.

While Anakin philosophized, the woman acted. A whirl, another snap-hiss, and the barrel of the blaster was suddenly half as long, and then it was flipped out of the bartender's hands and skittered away into a darkened corner.

Anakin's eyes flicked from the frozen bartender to meet her icy eyes for a bare moment before she jerked her gaze away. It was merely a part of her turning away as she stalked from the silent bar.

Arguments broke out as soon as the door slammed shut behind her, but Anakin did not stay to listen. He grabbed the pack at his feet and ran out the door. He sprinted as if his life depended on it, and he was suddenly sure that it did. Her lightsaber was eerily familiar, and he was sure that he had seen a picture of it before.

As he exited, he looked around hurriedly. Snow was falling now, and there were footprints off to the right. Further down the street, was a figure, fairly short, compact. He ran after her.

The snow crunched under his shoes, and his breath whistled through his teeth as he closed the distance. At ten meters, never looking over her shoulder, she barked, "Get lost, kid."

He closed the distance and came up beside her and tried to slow into a walk, but her pace was too fast. He had to keep breaking into a jog to keep up. "I was ... " There was no way like the straight way. "I was hoping you'd help me."

"Do I look like a damn nanny?" She turned to glare at him, not slackening her pace.

"No, but we're ... " He swallowed. This was not an easy thing for him to admit. "We're the same."

She watched him for a long moment. A transport sped by. She looked back ahead, her face implacable. "We're nothing alike." Just a gesture and a few words, but he felt the sting of rejection as if she had slapped him.

"I've got nowhere to go," he said in desperation as he went for the sympathy vote. "No money, no one, nothing."

"Not my problem." Anakin could not decide what was colder, her voice or the pavement at his feet.

His pack slithered off his shoulder, through fingers that were numb even with gloves, and landed with a wet thud on the ground. He stopped dead, she kept on walking. Not even a pause. Suddenly, Anakin felt too tired even to cry. "I saved your life in there," he called out in one last-ditch attempt.

"No, you didn't." She tossed the words over her shoulder and kept going. He wanted to scream, to rage, to run after her and force her somehow to take him with her. But he couldn't think past the monotone moment on the frozen sidewalk. He couldn't see the future. All he could do was stare at her departing back, his brain as numb as his fingers, his toes curled unfeeling in his boots.

Then she stopped. Just stopped in the middle of the road. A slight thawing, a sliver of hope. He grabbed his pack and ran after her.

This time her pace was slower and less uncompromising. Anakin could keep up easily, but they walked in silence. He felt like he owed her something. A name, at the very least. "I'm ... " Not his real name. That name was too well known. "I'm Lars."

Her eyes slanted over and looked at him curiously. "Lars ... I haven't heard that name in a long time."

"It's a really common name," he said a touch defensively.

"Okay." She shrugged and seemed to just take it in stride, as easy as that.

They walked half a block in silence. "Where are we going?" he asked.

She pointed forwards. "That way." Just as he was seriously starting to doubt her talents as a conversationalist, she stated, "Your parents really didn't call you Lars."

He gestured vaguely in her direction. "And yours called you Viper?" Anakin was tired. Tired of everything. He didn't want to explain a complicated family dynasty, being caged by destiny, and the burden of being a great Jedi. Couldn't he just be Lars?

"Who knows what they called me," she muttered. Looking at him carefully, her green eyes taking in his windswept dark hair, ice blue eyes, and familiar bone structure, she finally said, "My name is Mara. But I expect you figured that out already."

He didn't confirm or deny. "I'm Anakin."

"You're pretty far from the Academy, Anakin. And from him."

They both knew who him was. "I don't want to learn the Force that way, the way he teaches."

"So you just struck out on your own?" Her voice was amused ... but Anakin could swear that there was a tiny bit of admiration in her tone as well. After all, Mara Jade had done the same thing. "You've got nowhere to go." It wasn't a question but a statement of fact. Anakin nodded anyway. She was still looking at him, and he wondered if his whole pathetic story showed on his face. Somehow, he knew that she understood his situation anyway.

Mara expelled a breath. "I was on a mission, but it's over. I got what I needed, and my cover's blown anyway." She pursed her lips. "Well, I suppose I could use a co-pilot — you do know how to fly, right?" At his grateful nod, she continued, "And I suppose I could teach you other stuff as well." She grinned, and the change in her countenance was so sudden that Anakin did a double take. "I don't think my boss would complain much in having two Jedi work for him."

Anakin grinned back and felt, for the first time in the many months since he had left home, that he finally found what he had been looking for.


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