Coast District, Taris. Day 4
Since she had started baby-sitting the quiet moments of privacy had become rare so the only place she could find for that were the refreshers with the lockable door. Runa wasn't good with kids, whether she attempted to bond or make food to them it turned out to be a hassle for her. Aresu was cute and rather mature for her age but had some attitude about her that Runa couldn't quite bear. For example she refused to speak about her life as a stray and her excuse was always you can't understand…
Runa flushed the water down the pipes and rinsed her hands and face to gain some composure before having to deal with the little rebel again. Maybe she didn't grow up in a temple but at least she was the one with the key card.
"Aresu how about we get some snacks and rent a few holos…"
There was nobody to listen to her talking. Her intuition told her to climb up the stairs and reach the roof. Bardan had been able to unlock a door inside an Imperial base with his mind.
The roof was an identical apartment with blown up walls, the permacrete floors were charred and swept clean. They used it as a docking platform for their speeder. Aresu was sitting on the edge of where there used to be a window, her tangled hair and oversized clothes flowing to the wind. It was getting dark and Runa felt like she got punched to the chest.
"Aresu, get back here now!"
She didn't even turn her head to her. "Why?"
"Because it's dangerous, and I don't want to go all the way down there to pick up what's left of you."
"You don't care if I live or die," the girl muttered. "No one does except my master, but he's dead now."
"Give us a chance, Aresu." Runa heard a distant engine sound. "You're not alone now and we're gonna have to learn to know each other, we'll look out for you."
The girl stood up in her loose pants and shirt to turn around. The T24 arrived in a roar that Runa welcomed with relief. She saw Bardan through the canopy, he had his buy'ce on and she wondered how Aresu would receive that.
She opened her brown eyes wide, mouth gaping and started walking backwards.
Bardan got out of the vehicle and walked up to Runa with as much calm as if they were watching a bolo ball holo-transmission.
"Why is she over there?" said the disembodied voice of his helmet speaker.
She sighed helplessly and crossed her arms. "She's going through the motions."
"And learning to fly?"
He almost stole a smile from her. The padawan had her eyes riveted on Bardan, losing a bit of her balance.
"We have to leave," he told her with a little nod. "Get your stuff, we don't have much time."
"I'm not going anywhere with you."
Runa was going to shout a few things she had in mind about teenage angst and how discipline was important when growing up but Bardan stopped on his way down to the apartment and turned a fearsome, T-visor stare towards the little girl.
"Don't make me get you."
"Why should you?" she said defiantly. "I'll just throw myself off the roof if you get any closer."
"Oh, I won't need to do that." Runa saw him switching something on the inside of his right gauntlet. "Say what you want but stay where you are."
"Your Force-stun will knock me off the edge, too."
He casually held his hands together to his belt, tilting his helmet on a side.
"So you want to kill yourself after we've fed you, sheltered you… That's not very grateful."
"It won't matter anymore," she sighed emotionally. "All the Jedi are gone or soon dead. My home planet was destroyed. I have nowhere left to go…"
"…which brings us here, smart girl. I don't think I stressed enough the fact that we rescued you. Is it Runa's cooking?"
"Hey!" She playfully slapped his arm.
"Just go away!" Aresu shouted, losing patience. "I never needed anyone to save me so go if you need to leave."
"Fierfek," Bardan laughed, turning his visor to Runa. "Sometimes I hate being the good guy."
He aimed his right arm to Aresu, and before Runa could gasp in surprise something hissed through the air and the girl got wrangled in a thin wire. She yelped then screamed with disapproval when she realized that she was trapped. Bardan pulled the cord and she fell forward, clear from the edge but still very mad.
"I told you not to make me get you," he groaned, putting a knee down and carried the angry teenager. "This isn't good for my back."
Runa muted a laugh in her hand and opened the canopy to let him put the immobilized Aresu on the back seat.
"I hate you!" she cried.
"Hate is the path to the dark side," Bardan said with a comical voice and shut her off in the vehicle.
Runa followed him to the apartment thankful that they avoided a major tragedy and felt like a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
"Eevy got compromised," he said quickly. "I saw her talking to an Imp and then I lost contact with her so I'm guessing that she spoke."
"Scumbags come in different shape and form, Runa." He picked up his carry-all and started stuffing his spare clothes, accessories and food packs in it. Runa went to grab hers and her suit. "We can't leave the system so we have to go deeper down…"
"The Lower City?"
"Yeah, the creepy part of town. Don't worry, just long enough to sort this beacon thing and plan our next destination."
They went back up to the roof and Runa sat on the backseat next to Aresu to untie her. She had a wet face from lots of tears shed. Her eyes were still very angry though.
"You'll be glad to hear this," Bardan said, seating himself at the controls. "We're going to your old home, with the garbage and the roach family."
She didn't reply. They took off and Runa looked through the panes to see if there was anything happening on the roof while they left, a dreadful uniform or blaster bolts.
Taris by night was difficult to get used to, especially the slums that seemed to come alive with clubs, hotels, relatively legal stores and houses of ill repute.
"I took a different turn," Bardan said after a few minutes. "Recognize anything?"
He was talking to the girl.
"Your silence is heart-warming."
Runa patted his shoulder. "Just find us a place to crash, Bard'ika."
"Well, there's a decent-looking hotel here, and a colorful one over there…"
Runa followed his finger to see the red and pink flashes of a very graphic picture and suggestive name for a hotel. He let out a loud Hm! and kept driving until there were a little less luminous signs.
"Take a right," suddenly said Aresu - she was actually paying attention.
"As you wish, milady."
It took them into a labyrinth of dark alleys and ruins. Runa saw a lot of people out on the sidewalks, they all looked homeless and miserable.
"Oh, Aresu… Is this where you lived?"
She wished she had mentioned another spot - getting off the T24 here and risking to see her luggage disappear was something she didn't want to think about.
"Around the corner, go up in that building."
Bardan did as she instructed and got the speeder up on terrace that lead to the back entrance of what seemed to be an old casino. All specific signs were taken down or hidden. There was broken glass on the floor and it generally felt dead when Runa stepped outside.
"Seems quiet," he commented.
Then Aresu jumped off the vehicle and ran her shebs off towards a fire escape ladder. She collided with an invisible wall and fell back, rolling over her head and there was a shriek of electricity. Aresu raised her lightsaber and attacked.
"No!" Runa heard herself scream. She wanted to put herself between her and Bardan but he shoved her aside and stood in front of the padawan.
The purple blade disappeared in his breastplate; Runa thought her heart had stopped and she couldn't breathe. Yet, Bardan was still standing and Aresu watched the hilt of her weapon in complete disarray.
A gloved fist landed in her jaw and she fell unconscious.
"Great, now I have to carry her again."
"Bardan, you just punched a kid. In the face."
"I couldn't shoot her, Runa. She's just a kid!"
"What about a Force-stun thing?"
He picked her up and inspected the girl's face, it wasn't turning red just yet, but then again she had dark skin.
"The bruise will give her something to think about."
"Well, better get her walking again if we want to inspect this place."
He nodded and sat Aresu against the vehicle before removing his helmet and taking a drink from his canteen. After that he sprayed her inanimate face with water and she woke up with a growl.
"Do you remember what happened, princess? Can you tell me why I had to hit you?"
"I just want to be left alone! If you don't like it you can just kill me."
"Sorry," smirked Bardan. "We don't do pity."
He took something from his belt and ignited it. Her lightsaber. He rolled it around like it was a toy. Runa took a step back because she liked having arms, legs and a head.
"Give that back!" Aresu cried and reached out to grab it.
"Tsss… It's mine now," Bardan replied, pushing her away. "You'll get it back when I find a good use for you."
Runa went back in the T24 to change into her suit and armor. "Don't be looking this way, folks. Just a gal getting dressed up for party."
It was really cramped inside the speeder and she struggled to get her pants on while listening to the other two.
"Okay, I'll show you around, and then you'll let me go."
"We'll see about that."
She picked up her helmet and disappointment stung her when she found no new messages; nothing from Devik, or her parents, not even from the clan. They were really on their own.
Stepping off the speeder, she slung her rifle in her back and met Aresu's amazed glare. Bardan was staring too, with the most loving eyes and a discrete smile.
"I know this makes my butt look gorgeous," Runa said, and ruffled Aresu's hair. "You'll get a set of your own if you behave, ad'ika."
Brushing his hair backwards Bardan put his own helmet on and shouldered his Verp, she heard him slightly clearing his throat in the private link. Runa used to see him as two different persons with and without the buy'ce but not anymore. They were closer than ever when they both wore the buckets.
Aresu shook her head in silent disapproval. "Bounty hunting is not appealing. I have a higher purpose in this life."
It was dark and strangely silent inside the casino. The carpets and specially insulated walls absorbed all noises when they walked in between the jubilee wheels and sabacc tables. Aresu was leading the way, Runa kept at a close distance and Bardan walked behind them. Many credit machines were torn apart and stripped of all salvageable parts.
"I can understand the benefits of thieving and scavenging," commented Bardan. "A life's true calling for a young padawan."
Aresu scornfully sighed and kept walking until they reached dimly lit hallways and Runa held her KX ready in case of an ambush.
"No welcoming party," she heard in her personal channel.
She smiled and replied. "As much as I believe in your Force senses I still like to look prepared."
He laughed gently in her ears. Aresu didn't slow down or stop, Runa had to pull her back a few times otherwise she could disappear around the next corner.
"What's the hurry, sweetie?"
"Just follow me and don't get lost."
She brought them into an elevator, several keys were broken or snapped out of the control panel. Aresu pressed one of the lower floors.
"Sensing anything yet?" she asked Bardan as they went down.
He turned his head a little. "Besides Aresu's overwhelming irritation?"
"She can hear us?"
"Of course not… but she can figure us out."
He relaxed his shoulders and let his Verp hang from its sling.
"Figure what out?"
The doors of the elevator parted and they stepped out in a dark hall, Runa's sensors immediately picked up sounds and voices of presences all over the place. There were fires lit in a few corners with people gathered around, dressed in rags. Humans and non-humans alike, all seemed either ill, drunk, asleep or generally complaining about something. Her HUD started identifying the different species, invading her field of vision with a large pointless list and she shut the progress down with a blink. None of them seemed to react at the sight of two mando's in their territory.
"Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" Runa muttered.
"They don't care who gets in or out," Aresu replied quickly. "But they'd strip you of everything you have. Come on, we're almost there."
She looked over her shoulder; Bardan wasn't aiming his rifle at anybody and just walked along without giving a second glare at their surroundings. Runa on the other hand was tense and couldn't let go of the grip on her weapon.
They climbed a flight of stairs and found themselves in a private suit type of lodging but everything was turned around to make every hiding place inaccessible or just difficult to live in. There was trash and discards all over the floor, some stuff seemed ages old.
"Hard to believe a little girl lives here," Runa said.
"Yes," Aresu replied, parting a curtain from a wall to reveal another hideout. "Those that looked for the little girl never came back."
They followed her in the other room where she had a small cot with blankets, a reading lamp and cleanly stowed plates and boxes. She turned around to them and stretched her arm out to Bardan.
"I'd like my lightsaber back."
He looked down on her for a long moment. Aresu waited but her face took an expression Runa did not expect. Eyes brimming with tears she reiterated her request.
"I'm sorry," he answered in a breath. "I can't let you go on like this."
Imagining what it would be like to have to fight off every intruder in this room was a nightmare, unable to sleep for too long or having any possessions. But having to do so as a fourteen year old female was far worse. Runa had noticed quite a few grown males on the way in, and they didn't seem like the righteous type. She pulled her helm off, suddenly aware of reeking smells in the air and knelt down to her level.
"Come with us Aresu, please. You know this is not a place for you, that's why you're showing this to us."
"No!" she stepped back in protest. "You have it all wrong!"
Runa turned her gaze on Bardan to seek his help. He looked back and suddenly turned away, walking out of the room.
"You can't survive here without your weapon," he said as they followed him. "You'll die in a matter of days and we won't need to worry about you. I'm making this easier for all of us."
"Bardan, you can't possibly mean that."
He looked at Runa but she couldn't meet his eyes and admitted to herself that he lost her with his logic.
"Pain and death don't scare her," he explained coldly. "However, losing control of her life, other people deciding what's best for her… that's where it stings the most, doesn't it? I know. I've been there. You don't get to choose what you want to be in the Jedi Temple."
Aresu shook her head, wiping her face with the back of her hands, tears flowing freely now. Bardan sat on an old crate and removed his buy'ce, placing it next to him. He unclipped the lightsaber from his belt and stared at it thoughtfully.
"This is the only thing we get to make our selves."
Runa sighed with emotion, not yet aware of what he really meant. The padawan looked from the silver hilt to Bardan then to Runa.
"The Order is finished," he continued. "You can be whatever you want to be, if you dare taking control of your existence and stop relying on a jedi weapon."
"But the Jedi ways are all I know," moaned Aresu. "They kept me alive for years."
"You kept yourself alive," he corrected, "by stealing, deceiving and killing. Not exactly the way I was educated at your age."
His smirk was almost mocking as he nodded in direction of dark, brownish stains on the floor. Aresu stepped away from him, arms tightly folded on her breast in fear.
"I didn't mean it…"
"Just take our offer. Now that I've seen what you're capable of I know you won't burden us as much as I thought."
His expression was neutral but his eyes betrayed a certain admiration that Runa detected when he looked at the girl. She seemed to unwind a little, sighing loudly.
"You finished your training when you left the Order." Her voice was nothing but a painful complaint. "You had the choice but I don't have better options."
He looked at the lightsaber again, and gave it to her.
"Now, make your choice."
She took the metallic hilt with a feeble hand, repressing a hick-up and wiping her eyes. Runa wanted to wrap her arms around her and take her away from it all. Shabla instincts. Mandalorians didn't do pity.
"I'm coming with you."
She had always believed that becoming a mother happened during the nine months of natural pregnancy with all the hormones triggering the right behavior that helped protecting and loving a kid as your own flesh and blood.
That turned out to be a misconceived idea.
During the entire walk back to the speeder she refused to let go of Aresu's hand until they were on safer grounds. Having to be exposed to the worst scum of Tarisian lower levels with the girl made her fiercely purposeful and she felt ready to slot anything in her way. Granted that Aresu was still a stranger to them, Runa still thought that she was a bit naïve and she had tried to kill her man but she hoped that they could change that. After all, she had decided to change.
Bardan took the speeder back to the Lower City center and slowed down in a lane as they got stuck in traffic. He lifted the hood of his cloak, hiding his helmet from whoever got too curious.
"That's a Jedi cloak," said Aresu.
"And now it's mine," he answered flatly after a pause.
She snickered and looked out the windows.
They eventually stopped at a sleazy hotel that didn't make enough profit to hire a decent cleaning droid. The house keeper was an old, half-blind Quarren with most of his tentacles intact and the front sign at the entrance wasn't working. Runa was just happy to find a place to rest, even if the mattress made weird noises and she saw something crawl along the walls for a second. It still beat Aresu's hideout by miles.
Lying on one of the beds and staring at the cracked ceiling she wondered about their next steps.
"Have you ever seen Carida?"
"I haven't," Bardan said, helmet off, busy zipping a bag open. "We'll need to check with the clan about visiting that place."
"High risk of failure," Runa agreed. "I wouldn't go unprepared either."
After maybe a month she would get used to the idea that her brother wasn't going to show up any minute and say that everything was back to normal again. It had been a week since she had found his first and last message from the Imperial training planet. She sat up, and saw Bardan giving a clean blanket to Aresu who was sitting on the other mattress.
"What's on Carida?" she asked.
"Runa's brother. The Empire caught him."
"So why aren't you there yet?"
His face went grim and he looked to Runa with imploring eyes. "It's not that easy. Carida is entirely under Imperial control. As Taris will be, soon."
Aresu looked at her as well. She seemed tired and annoyed.
"Did you stop being a Jedi because of your feelings for Runa?"
That hurt, actually. She wanted to react and mouth gaping she could only watch Bardan smiling and shaking his head.
"Those are two completely unrelated things."
The girl braced her knees up to her chin under the blanket. "Attachment is forbidden. You left the Order, and now you have feelings for someone."
Runa almost scoffed her, thinking of the amount of feelings that were actually involved, needless to mention what they did now and then.
"It's important to have someone to look after other than yourself," he replied very patiently. "And from now I'll also be looking after you. So that's not attachment, it's being selfless…"
"But you indulge in your feelings, that's not selflessness."
"We're not indulging!" Runa laughed. "Are we?"
Bardan rubbed tiredness off his eyes and went to lay beside her. "No kid should be lecturing me about that." He tugged at her sleeve and she looked at him with his arm on his forehead. "Do you think I was more a Jedi before we got involved?"
"I didn't know you that well before, Bardan."
"And now… do you know me enough?"
It was more a plead than a simple question. She wanted to feel his embrace and let him know that she would always be by his side, even when he'd have to do things that would scare her. He had scared her a few times that day but at least she wasn't apprehending him anymore. He was her hero, she knew that much.
"You used to be sad and lonely," she finally said. "And so was I."
"So you both indulged," Aresu said. "It's not right."
Bardan got up on his elbows. "Aresu, what's so right about people going around the Temple with their secret relationships with other Jedi or padawan and having illegitimate offspring across the galaxy?"
"There was no such thing."
"Go to sleep. Shab, you're annoying."
"Maybe. But at least I'm not a fool."
Runa needed to laugh. If Aresu was going to be part of their family she was going to be a piece of work but she'd rather take her snappy remarks as a distraction.
Bardan didn't get out of his beskar'gam and just half-sat against the wall, arms loosely crossed. She put a blanket over him and lay against him, meshing her fingers with his.
"Good night, fool."
His stubble tickled her face as they kissed, and she guessed that Aresu would be exasperatedly rolling her eyes at them. As she closed her eyes to sleep Runa still heard the girl's questions in her mind and got lost in thought wondering what may have been if she hadn't liked Bardan and remained the sad and lonely person she used to be.