The Aggressor's engines roared as they exited the atmosphere of Taris, Runa heard it and guessed she could pull herself out of her bunk now. Their bunk. It was time she got used to the concept of sharing. She grabbed her utility trousers and got up to slide into the refresher closet. Soon, she would be rid of her claustrophobia if they were not getting a bigger ship.
Certain systems went offline when they jumped to lightspeed, she didn't want to find herself locked in a dark closet with no heating while trying to shower. She quickly changed to her clothes and washed her hands and face before brushing her teeth. The haze of the past night was still around her eyes which reminded her of home, and a different kind of crowd. She took a longer look at herself; she looked tired under the cold light. You're married now. Is this what you expected?
Runa pushed the door open and clumsily stumbled out, knocking her toes against something hard. She groaned and fell on the cot, grabbing her foot as her nerves stung. Bad day - she wanted to stay in bed for a while, to sleep lazily in a starfighter. Reluctantly she sat up and got her leather boots on when she noticed something bleeping in a corner of the compartment. She pulled her bag out of a cabinet and found her datapad. Someone had left her a message:
Hey Runa! You probably don't remember me but I remember you. You didn't comm me so far and I'm a little disappointed... Anyway, my name is Ori, and some friends of yours told me you could use a hand finding your brother. This is a secure link, so knock yourself out! And by the way, I don't care what they say, I still want that drink with you when I come back from Carida. With your brother.
And come without your other friend.
Answer me soon, please!
She bit her lips in confusion. She did remember the Stormtrooper who had asked her to call him the day before she left Mandalore. Who were those friends he was talking about? Did the Empire find out who she and her brother were?
Her "other friend"... he was talking about Bardan, who was her husband now. She cussed at the thought, then cussed at herself for it. She had asked for the marriage, though, and now she wasn't all that certain anymore.
The door slid open and she saw him from the corner of her eye, lying down with her own arm across her face. He smiled and looked at the datapad on the sheets.
"I don't know what to make of it."
Sitting down he took the pad and started reading. "This is good news," he said. "Answer him. Ask him if your brother's okay."
"Why do you believe it's real?"
He looked down for a moment then rubbed her leg. "I'm getting a good feeling about this."
Runa pulled herself away as she sat up. "We should probably talk about last night."
"Okay." He idly tapped his thumbs on the handheld. "What's wrong?"
She met his eyes and held his gaze for a few seconds. "Are you sure we did the right thing? Getting married..."
She waited, measuring her growing doubts as the moments passed by and saw him hesitating, his jaw muscles twitching in a mix of confusion and sadness. In moments like these she saw the ordinary young man beneath the armor, someone she guessed very few could ever see. It made her uneasy when he let his weaknesses show.
"It's just a symbolic thing," he murmured. "It's not important..."
She didn't believe what he said and it hurt her when she saw a shine in his eyes. He kept at a distance and was about to stand up before stopping and giving her the datapad back.
"When I get to know you a little more each day, I know I won't regret it."
He stood to get inside the refreshers as she was still turning his words over in her mind. She heard the water running and she waited to try and fix things, maybe... She took her handheld and walked out of the bunk, leaving him to a moment of privacy because, married or not, he was a still a loner. As she was.
In the cockpit she was almost blinded by the kaleidoscope of lights that was hyperspace. Aresu was sitting on the pilot's chair and was reading a HoloNet article like she had seen lightspeed traveling all of her life. This was Runa's third. She sat beside the little girl and chin resting in her hand, letting her mind wander out the viewport, imagining what it would be like to get lost in hyperspace. Her eyes tried to find familiar shapes but failed.
"Where are we going?" she finally asked.
"Corellia." Aresu didn't lift her gaze off the screen.
"What's there for us?"
The girl shrugged. "Another job, I guess. Are you okay?"
It felt like being of a whole different species when you were the only one aware of your limits. Or when the others had something special you hadn't.
"I'm fine, just a little tired," Runa answered, refusing to give in to self-pity. "Did you get some rest? Something to eat?"
Aresu eventually looked up and stretched her lips into a forced smile. "You don't have to baby me, I can take care of myself."
Runa let out a sigh and checked her message in the datapad one more time, wanting to go to Carida and not just reply in text form. Why go now to Corellia instead? What was the hurry? She walked back to the bunk hoping to get some answers.
She softly rapped her knuckles against the door and waited a few seconds before entering. He was lying on his back, mouth gaping as he woke up to see her.
"Sorry I didn't know you slept so quickly."
He winced at the light coming from the passageway. "I can knock myself out. Get in or get out but at least shut the door."
"Okay." She got in and did as he asked. "I thought we could talk..."
She bumped her head against a bulk, something hard she couldn't see in the very dim light of the chrono on the wall. Runa lead herself with her hands to sit on the bed and felt for her aching scalp.
"You okay?" said Bardan's muffled voice.
"Damn cabinets." She looked at his shape wrapped in the sheets, facing the wall. "Why are we going to Corellia?"
A silence. "To meet my parents."
"Parents? I thought you never knew them..."
He sat up, seeming grumpy that she wouldn't let him sleep. Runa felt rather bad about it, but she needed this talk.
"I did live with them until I was six or seven. Then I was brought to the Jedi Temple." He looked at her, expecting a reaction. She waited for him to continue. "My mother's a virologist and my father's a pharmacology executive."
"Why do I feel like you're not going to see them just for a hug..."
"They forgot all about me. I know if I was them I wouldn't want to remind myself about how I abandoned my kid to some strangers in robes." He scratched his head and yawned. "But you're right, I'm gonna ask them a favor or two. I'll save the details for when I'm rested."
"Aresu said there's a job there too," she said as he lied back down. "Another Jedi hunt?"
"You guys don't need to be there, I can handle it."
"After all that's happened? Don't be silly."
"Is it silly that I want to spare you from things that hurt?"
She let herself lie next to him and slid a hand under his shirt. He laid back against her and grabbed her hand. "I love that you worry about me, but I want to be there to help if you need me. Don't be a hero."
"Doing this job is far from heroic... I don't know what I'm supposed to be anymore."
She pulled away from his chest and rested her head against his shoulder, breathing his scent in.
"You can just be my husband and I'll be your wife, for better or worse." She felt his arm around her back. "I regret doubting this marriage thing... I know it's important to you and I'll do my best to fit in with your clan."
"Because of the ceremony, or wedding party. Isn't it what Mandalorians do?"
"We do but..." He rolled around to look at her intently. "It won't be before a while until we can gather again."
He was right about that and she had forgotten that they had all scattered. The idea of Bardan's friends all present at the celebration of her marriage was an awkward one. She could imagine them all being comfortable and cheerful amongst themselves, reminiscing things from a war she never really grasped, leaving her trying to be good enough, if not just tolerable. It was normal to feel like a stranger, but without a military background or half of their common knowledge she felt like a curiosity, a savage animal in the middle of sentient beings.
"That could give me enough time to become better at... whatever you guys do," she answered finally. "To be generally stronger."
The last time she had been at a Skirata gathering she had collapsed into a nervous breakdown and never really recovered from it. She felt tears building up under her eyelids and swallowed hard to clear her throat. Bardan sighed loudly and touched his brow in a here-we-go-again way.
"Runa. What makes you think you need to impress everyone in order to feel accepted?"
"I wasn't raised to be a warrior," she complained, her voice painfully obeying to her. "So I'll always feel inferior among your people unless I do something about it."
"And do I make you feel inferior?"
She marked a pause. "Right now? Yes."
Letting a few heartbeats pass he tore himself away from her and rolled around towards the bulkhead. His bitterness was tangible.
"I was going to wait my entire life to find someone like you. You turned away from your parents, your life and your brother because you chose to be with me. Now, how can I accept that I make you feel like crap?"
"I didn't mean it that way--"
"You were honest, though." His breathing betrayed anger or frustration. "I wish I could tell you how much you mean to me."
That wouldn't be something she would understand. There were terms like love and care that didn't seem to fit here, though she admitted that she never received much of it before. How could she know better? Feeling confused and slightly dizzy she wanted to tell him that she loved him. He was her first, the only man she wasn't ashamed to think of as her lover, and "husband" was such a weak word to define him. A few weeks ago she would have never trusted a soul with the keys of her speeder. Now she was standing against an empire, roaming the galaxy to hunt Jedi with a man whose age she didn't actually know. The Force changed the way the body grew old, she heard from back-alley hospital talks. So he could be twice her age for all she knew. It scared the wits out of her.
She was out of the room again and decided to sit on the cold floor of the passageway, head in her arms for a while. Crying helped relieve pressure but she couldn't cry for unknown reasons. She just sat in a ball waiting for minutes to pass. Small arms wrapped around her shoulders and she slowly looked up to see Aresu giving her an unsure hug.
"He'll be alright," the little girl said.
Corellia reminded her of Ord Mantell – home – for some parts. When they entered the atmosphere she saw Coronet with its tall buildings dominating the surrounding hills and the ocean. The capital was too dense and contrasted with the various natural features of the planet and she couldn't wait to go on a hike out in the forests or bathe in a real lake.
But it was just another fantasy and she came to her senses knowing that her normal, leisure filled life was over. Bardan got confirmation to dock around the spaceport and looked at her from his pilot's station, wearing a very formal business type of suit. Clean-shaved, and with his hair combed back neatly he seemed like a different person.
"What is it?" she asked.
"These meetings might take a while, why don't you take Aresu for shopping?"
Runa compliantly nodded even though she was curious to see what his parents were like.
She dressed the former Padawan to look like a young boy, with a hat that could hide her long hair and they straddled out the spaceport and met the streets of Coronet. It was around midday and a group of people were gathered around some kind of plaza with signs and holo-banners that claimed neutrality and anti-Imperial slogans. They kept quiet though, and Runa guessed they were busy having lunch.
They climbed in different cabs and went their separate ways. Aresu was grimly silent and didn't express much enthusiasm when browsing the clothing stores.
"Would you like some ice cream?" Runa tried. "Hot chocolate? Or a beer?"
"If it makes you feel better," the kid replied flatly. "What's ice cream?"
Sometimes it didn't take much to get her moods lifted. Runa spent at least five minutes picking flavors and all her worries washed away when they sat at a terrace with their cold desserts, watching people walk by on the busy sidewalks.
"Is this really nutritive?"
"No, it's just meant to fill gaps." She took a spoon full of the icy goo. "I haven't had this in years."
"Why aren't you with Bardan to meet his parents?"
Runa thoughtfully munched on crushed nuts thinking of an appropriate reply to that.
"It would be like going to a party you're not invited to."
The cab stopped at the foot of the Pharma CorSec building in east central Coronet. Bardan stepped off the vehicle with a slight unease in his gut. The reception was vast and clean, with a young Human doing her nails at her large desk. She lifted her painted eyelids to watch him walk in; he handed her his ID card, with a pseudonym of course.
"I have an appointment," he said with his best high class Coruscanti accent.
Coming off with his own name would raise too many eyebrows and he'd have the doors shut on his face. Smart as his parents were, they weren't called Jusik anymore but a simple change of name wasn't close to the average paranoia he was used to deal with.
"President Logar is ready to receive you, Mister Kama. Please proceed to the top floor."
He had his card back and nodded, too absorbed in his role to smile at the fact that she called him "Mister Backside".
The elevator shaft was directed towards the city center and shot to the sky at vertiginous speed, not helping his stomach. Bardan shut his eyes and faced the door, emptying his mind and setting the priority on his goal: to get answers and some help. He wasn't going to keep his charade up for long anyway.
The top floor was actually an office-suite with enough space to fit a freighter in the lounge area. The transparisteel ceiling allowed for sunlight to filter directly indoors in the way rich people liked to feel exposed and yet protected within the confines of their own dominion. He walked across the lobby and reached a large double door that he only assumed was the main office. He sensed a single presence inside, an old man that seemed in a busy mindset. There was nothing engaging about it, and for one last time he asked himself why he was doing it, would he really have to reveal his real identity and ruin this poor man's conscience.
He knew the security cams were on him but he still knocked to announce himself, his gut telling him to run off before it was too late.
It was a large, dark office which contrasted with the bright lobby. There were no windows and Bardan felt immediately trapped and confined. Edo Logar stood behind his glass desk and extended his hand to him.
"Welcome to Pharma CorSec, Mister Kama..."
Bardan looked at his hand, then at the man's face. Working with men that all had the same physical attributes had ingrained thorough observation skills in him. His hair was white, his nose thin and straight and his mouth was stretched in a permanent frown that translated authority and disappointment in others. He relaxed his fingers and shook the hand of the man that he fought hard not to find repulsive.
"Thank you," he managed to say in a breath, carelessly returning to his regular accent.
"Please have a seat. I hope you had a comfortable trip, these demonstrators really show no respect in anything."
Sitting on the chair that was set a little lower than he wanted Bardan nodded politely and switched to job mode.
"There's a few points from one of your projects I'd like to discuss."
"Oh, straight to business then. I like it. Which project?"
"The derivative anesthetic. I'm interested in certain applications of that product on particular subjects."
Logar meshed his fingers and squinted at him, the wrinkles around his eyes making him look like a predator. "Go on."
Bardan laid his hands on the armrests and fixed his gaze on his forehead while he wanted to avoid him. "I want to target the anesthetic's effect on midi-chlorians. And improve it."
"Really?" He was suspicious now, as expected. "What makes you think it could work?"
So it had already been experimented. Bardan took a mental note to visit the labs.
"Your past projects show that you don't see things halfway. My society is ready to finance the necessary expenses to see this through."
"Well funds aren't the issue here. You've seen it yourself: the Empire is setting a ban on all midi-chlorian research. Pharma CorSec has a galactic reputation..."
Bardan blinked slowly and sat motionless for a few seconds, thinking of a more forward way to barter.
"And here I was thinking I'd found a company with enough resources to back itself up." He stood and straightened his suit jacket. "You won't hear from me again."
"Wait, I may have spoken too soon. Please sit."
Bardan held his father's gaze, though he didn't even know the man. Genes did not matter when speaking of such affectionate terms. He just felt cornered by the sight of his own face thirty years older.
"Let me see your labs," he replied coldly. "I have samples that your technicians might find interesting."
"I can arrange that for you." Logar picked up a stylish comlink from his desk. "I just remembered that our genetics department would be able to present you their latest discoveries."
The offer was tempting. From what he recalled from Uthan's progress with age acceleration genes a little update on more or less legal breakthroughs could help his friends.
"I would like that, actually. When can I see them?"
Logar smiled and raised his link. "You're one call away from clearance. Though I must ask..."
Bardan's heart jumped; he resisted a sudden burst of honesty that would blow the entire plan up.
"Have we met before? You seem familiar."
It was twenty years ago. He was a little boy when he last saw his father, when a Jedi was dragging him out the apartment. It didn't matter if he knew his son was back, all that time was lost and there'd be nothing neither of them could do to make up for it. Bardan would get what he required from him eventually.
"No, we did not."
He nodded respectfully and lead himself out of the office, knowing that Logar was staring at him from across the room until the doors shut. He wanted to promise himself he'd never have to see him again but it was wishful thinking. He consulted his miniature handheld, bringing up the tower's schematics and selected the virology department. Ynga Logar was logged to her station.
Midi-chlorians and anesthetics supposedly weren't in her area of expertise, but he hoped she would hear him out anyway. It was for the sake of Kad and Aresu. If they were to grow up in a galaxy where they'd have to fake a low MC count he was going to give this quest a high priority.
She didn't have her own office. The Virology floor was lower in the building and didn't have a view, so most of its hallways were rather dark and he had to knock on a few doors to find Doctor Logar. A labtech directed him down the hall and into a common lab room. The lights were dimmed and there were biological refrigerators humming across the entire lab. His senses were drawn to one of the three people sitting there, manipulating their microscopes and centrifuge machines. It was a short woman in her fifties, her dyed reddish blond hair tied in a bun in the back of her head, wearing an old white coat on top of a beige outfit. She looked curiously at him through her glasses.
"Can I help you?"
Her voice was soft and kind, light years away from her husband's imposing inflections. Bardan opened his mouth to state his fabricated name but stopped and took a long breath.
"Is there some place we can talk?"
"We can talk here because every office is occupied. It's a wonder you got passed my obnoxious husband."
Even in the dim light he saw her tired-looking face and the lines around her eyes and mouth that suggested that she smiled a lot. He could imagine her in her twenties, crying and avoiding his gaze when he had asked her when he'd see her again. Bardan bit his lips and took a hesitant few steps forward.
"May I take you out for lunch then?"
The woman looked around to her lab partners and arched an eyebrow to him. "You aren't going to kidnap me, are you?"
He smiled and motioned to the door. "Just an hour, I promise you'll be back safely."
Once she got her purse and left her lab coat he had to resist telling her anything compromising on their way out of the building. It was difficult to avoid the main topics but he managed to keep his head level and politely followed her on foot to a diner a few streets away. It was small, quiet and cheap considering the neighborhood.
"So you're one of my husband's customers," she said biting in a vegetarian sandwich. "And you're interested in midi-chlorians?"
"I'm working on a temporary neutralizer for live subjects, like a--"
"Um! Sorry if I'm not entirely listening, honey. Nobody usually takes me out for anything and I just don't want to hear about work. Now, how about you tell me your name?"
He sat in amazed silence over his cup of caf and caught himself smiling. Finding out that at least one of his biological parents was a decent human being was a greater relief than he had imagined.
"My name is Bardan Jusik," he said softly, looking her in the eye.
She stared blankly and wiped her mouth with her napkin before pressing it against her lips. She started to scrutinize his face as if she was looking for something. Her light blue eyes started to brim with tears.
"You came back?" she said, her voice shaking with emotions. "You... survived?"
He let her touch his face and felt his own eyes tear, but it was all right. He nodded and a warm drop rolled down his cheek. His voice refused to cooperate and he took her hands in his, realizing how small and weak they looked.
"For so many years I wanted to tell you how sorry I was, and how much I missed you. But I couldn't. Your father changed our names to forget about you, to move on..." She sponged her face with the napkin. "I moved on, but we never had other children. I couldn't stand the thought of losing another child. Then, I heard the Jedi were being exterminated--"
"Mom." It sounded strange to his ears, yet so familiar; as if he had only been missing for a few months. "I left the Jedi Order two years ago. I have friends with me that need help. Two Force-sensitive children who could use some of that midi-chlorian damper Pharma CorSec made."
She nodded in approval. "Anything, tell me how I can help. We have a resort at Tyrena, you can all stay there for as long as you want. The Empire won't know, it's a small town."
"Thanks. When can we go?"
"I would take you there myself but, if you need me to get some samples of that product I'll have to cover my shift." She stood up and searched in her purse. "Here are the keys. It's the first house, east on the beach. Did you talk to your father?"
Getting up as well he took the key cards and froze for a moment. "I did talk to him but he doesn't know..."
She came over to wrap her arms around him. He held the small lady against his chest for a moment.
"Thank you so much for coming back," she whimpered. "What do you... do, now?"
Bounty hunting? Smuggling? Conning people? He didn't know which answer was more suitable.
"We'll catch up later. I really have to go now... my wife and kid are waiting for me."
Ynga covered her mouth in shock, but her sad eyes were radiating happiness when he left the diner. Hailing a cab he saw her through the glass panes, smiling at him with pride and joy. Bardan waved at her, suddenly feeling like he was seven years old. Only this time nobody was going to take him away.