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Creeping Shadows

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Aria was jerked from her fitful memories by the groaning of the shuttle’s hyperdrive. Stumbling to the small viewport, she glimpsed their descent through the moon’s infrastructure down to the landing pad. She exhaled heavily, raking a hand through her hair as she trooped down into the bustling spaceport, thanking the pilot on her way past who gave her little more than a grunt in acknowledgement. Probably better that way, at least she'd know the few extra credit chits she'd slipped into his palm when she boarded at Tython’s orbital station had worked. He wouldn't remember ever seeing her. Nar Shaddaa was heaving with life forms and Force presences, so many that it was hard to distinguish one from the next. Exactly what she needed. Her nose wrinkling against the unsavoury smell, Aria pushed onwards, heading for the red light sector. It was the busiest place on the smuggler’s moon, and by extension the easiest place to get lost in the crowd and forgotten, which was why she had come. Nobody would ever find her here, not the Jedi, not the Sith...she'd be safe, finally. Now all she needed to do was forget, all of it.

There was only one way to do that. Neon signs buzzed overhead as they beckoned patrons into the various drinking establishments, the young woman choosing one that looked like it would suit her needs: somewhere a lady wouldn't look out of place and wouldn't draw too many questions to herself. She slid into a vacant seat in a less populated corner and placed a rolling order with the serving droid, sinking back in the uncomfortable chair as she debated whether or not to try making idle conversation with the Mirialan mam situated a table or so over from her. His blue eyes watched her curiously as she sat down, then returned to his meal as she started on her first drink. The alcohol tasted sharp and sour on her tongue, cheap stuff, not meant to taste great but good for getting smashed out of your skull. A couple of glasses in and her head was already buzzing, thoughts and sensations starting to blur together; she almost missed the Mirialan sliding into the seat opposite her, had he not spoken to her.
“I must admit I'm quite shocked to see a lady drinking such cheap liqueur.”
Aria glanced up at him through her eyelashes, making a quick assessment of the man now that she could get a closer look at him. He had a rugged sort of charm to him, his angular face broken here and there by thin streaks of paler white-ish skin, betraying the almost-healed scars that had once been there. A shock of dark hair framed his forehead, slicked smoothly back from his eyes but more ruffled and unkempt around his ears. His clothing was slightly tattered, all in all giving the impression of somebody who didn't exactly follow the law to the letter. “Look, buddy, ‘m jus’ here to get drunk, not start a fight with criminal syndicates.” she managed to exaggerate the slur in her words to a satisfactory enough level. Good, maybe he’d leave her alone.

His laughter startled her, perhaps because the sound was amplified in her drink-addled state but because it was so unexpectedly...pleasant. Just about in control of her faculties, she managed to use her Force senses to probe discreetly into the edges of his consciousness. His outwardly friendly demeanour proved genuine, and she relaxed somewhat. Smuggler, she decided, but not dangerous. Anything he offered her to drink was safe to accept, probably. Therefore, Aria saw no issue in downing the glass he pushed towards her. Much better than the last lot, actually tasted of something.
“I assure you my dear, I bear no affiliation to the crime gangs that terrorise these streets.”
Aria's eyebrows arched upwards as she took another swig.
“You don't work for the Hutts?”
White teeth glinted back at her as the Mirialan smuggler grinned.
“Darling, I work for whoever pays me more.”
“Don't do that, darlin’ thing. I'm not your darlin’.” He laughed at her again, waving a hand dismissively. She told him to clear off, in perhaps less than colourful language, bid him goodnight and stumbled out of the bar.
It wouldn't be the last she saw of him.

***

Drinking away her problems had served her well for a while, but it wasn't enough. She needed something better. Aria's trembling fingers fumbled with the drawstring that held the black velvet pouch in her hands closed. She had been skeptical at first as the dealer had pitched it to her, but he had assured her:
“If you really wanna forget anything, this'll do it for ya.”
It had cost her nearly all the credits she had left, but the blissful ignorance that the spice brought with each high was worth every single credit. It had addled her thoughts somewhat in the few days (or possibly more...she'd lost all concept of time. If not for her connection to the Force which gave her more strength, she may have overdosed by now). The strands were sticky and clung to her fingers like glue, difficult for her to cram between her dry lips. The headrush was instant. Colours were brighter, more vivid, sounds heightened...kriff she swore she could hear the infrastructure moving underneath their feet, memories and thoughts began to blur together in a tangled, indiscernible mess...the mind wipe she craved as badly as oxygen was utter bliss. But there was one thing the spice couldn't do for her, and that was remove her connection to the Force. From what she had learned contacting other rogue Force users who were scattered around the moon, that was nearly impossible. She could hope.

It must have been a couple of hours since her last dose now, because her senses had returned to normal, leaving only a dull, throbbing buzz in the back of her skull. It was safe to try walking again without risking blundering into anyone that might try turning her in to the Hutts as a trophy. She had been scouting out nearby establishments with the hopes of slipping in while the bouncers were distracted to swindle a meal or a few drinks from one of the patrons (it was amazing what a lady could get for free with a simple Force persuade trick, or occasionally just fluttering her eyelashes if they were already drunk enough!) when she spotted a familiar face conversing with a shady-looking Rodian. The Mirialan man from the bar a few days ago. Some form of stupidity possessed her then, and Aria abandoned her original mission to follow him to the loading docks. She wasn't quite sure why, perhaps she had hoped to hitch a ride off-world. She'd come narrowly close to being found by a group of Jedi one time too many lately and Nar Shaddaa was no longer the safe haven it had once been for her….or perhaps she was simply bored and looking for a bit more excitement. She didn't think too hard about it, her attention rather focused on the Mirialan as he stooped to pick up a stack of crates and began loading them onto an XS model freighter. An all too familiar smell wafted through a crack in one of the containers that made her mouth water. Spice.

So he was a smuggler. Aria kept her distance as she watched him from behind a tall stack of shipment crates, shrinking backwards with a startled exclamation as he dropped the crate he had been lifting to look directly at her.
“I know you're back there, shorty...why are you following me?” He called, a hint of amusement to his tone. “C'mon I'm not falling for that bantha crap!” he added, not fooled by her attempt to remain quiet and pretend he had been imagining the moment their eyes had locked.
“How’d you know it was me?” she muttered, straightening up and smoothing the wrinkles out of her synthleather jumpsuit where she had been crouched down.
His teeth flashed in a grin.
“I know a junkie when I see one. This stuff’s going off world if that's what you were after.”
Her gaze darted from the container at his feet back to his eyes.
"Off world? Got room for one more?” He laughed and shook his head.
“I fly solo now, last time I took someone on the son of a bantha stole my ship and I had a hells own job getting her back.”
Aria swiped her tongue over her lips, huffing an impatient sigh.
"Please? I'm just trying to stay out of the loop. I can't pay you, my credit chits are dry, but…” it was a risk, a big one, but she lifted the dark cloak that draped across her back to reveal the lightsaber hilts concealed at her hip. “I can help you out, give you protection.”

The smuggler eyed the weapons carefully, and broke into another toothy grin.
“You're a Jedi?! What you running from, kid?”
She shook her head, eyes narrowed.
“I don't work for the Jedi, I'm trying to get away from them. I just need a ride okay, can you give me one or not?”
He picked up the box he had set at his feet and jerked his chin up the loading ramp for her to follow.
“Double cross me and I'll put one right between your eyes, kid.”
“I'm twenty, I ain't a kid!” Aria snarled, skittering into the ship behind him.
“You didn't answer my other question,” He glanced over his shoulder as he stepped down into the cargo hold, “What you running from?”
She peered down at him through the opening in the ship’s floor, lowering another crate down to him as he gestured for it.
“I'd rather not go into details or I'd be taking public transport. Just suffice to say I'm trying to stay out everyone’s way, I don't want anything to do with the war anymore.”
“Fair enough.” the Mirialan chuckled. “Well, you're not the only one. Welcome aboard the Silver Zephyr, miss ‘trying to avoid everyone’. Don't scratch the paint, don't touch the cargo unless I tell you to, and we'll get along just fine.”
After climbing back out into the main seating area, he extended a hand towards her, which she hesitantly grasped and shook.
“The name's Merak Shenly. You got a name, or should I just keep calling you ‘shorty’?”
Aria considered lying, but withdrawal was beginning to make her head pound and she couldn't come up with anything believable.
“Aria. J-Just Aria is fine.” she swallowed, forcing a thin smile. Don't tell him your last name, a voice in her head told her, he might know who you are.
She'd learned to trust the voice. It was usually right.