Aboard the Aggressor, Taris Coastal Spaceport. Day 5.
She went over the list again - reading each name silently to herself - incredulous and shocked by the revelation: Master Orui was still alive. She pressed the screen of the display monitor on the ship's control panel, something she wasn't supposed to do without surveillance, to read the details of the search warrant.
Master Orui had fallen, she had seen it, but now the possibility of his survival brought to the surface she didn't remember seeing him hit the ground. That was his picture all right: green lekku's, a tattoo on his chin and a wise glint in his eyes. The reward for his death was five thousand credits, but for his capture it was ten thousand - the file had been recently updated by Darth Vader himself. As she read on, her own name showed up. She squinted her eyes shut and switched the screen off. She wanted to cry in rage, clasping her hands around her head to repress anger and find comfort in the fact that she could still save him if he was really alive.
Furtively making her way back to her quarters she avoided the main cabin where Bardan and Runa were talking quietly, exchanging concerns about the situation. As usual Bardan was difficult to read because of his Force cloaking, like a comlink that could only receive and not emit anything. Mastering the cloaking trick was something she hadn't placed in her list of priorities but she had no doubt it would come in handy when the situation called for it. But now she needed to remain reachable in case Master Orui tried to find her.
Hiding behind a makeshift curtain from a sheet she had taken from Bardan's storage locker she climbed on the thin cot of a small detention cell. She dozed off in a meditative state, letting the flow of the Force ease her agitated mind while she schemed a possible escape or maybe coerce them to help her save Master Orui. It was only a matter of time before either of them would come looking for her to tell her that she had to stay onboard. She heard boots pacing down the durasteel floors; Bardan had a distinctive aura of mixed earnestness and irritation every time she was around him, and it tampered down when he got to her "cabin".
"Let's talk," he said. It wasn't a question because he could sense that she was inside and awake.
Aresu got up to open the cage door, parting the curtain open to let the dim light in. She stood in front of him, arms compressing her breast to keep body language to a minimum and finally avoided his deep blue gaze. His gloves and gauntlets were missing and he had rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, she guessed that was a way to get comfortable in armor.
"Talk about what?" she muttered.
"Safety," he said. "Your safety, to be precise. I know you expect me to lock you up in here - which would be the sensible thing to do - so, would you be okay with that?"
She sighed, exasperated that her intuition had been right, sliding against the cell bars down to a squat. "This is about my master, right? You don't want me to interfere because you want Vader's money."
Risking a glance at him she wondered if he was being the strict teacher or the fatherly figure.
"Maybe," he said, atoned. "You know there's a good chance that there isn't much left of him. You have to let him go."
Eventually, she would learn to live with the loss. But knowing that the Jedi Order was gone, all the other Jedi were virtually dead, Aresu was left with only one other available master to help her complete her training in the ways of the Force. He was standing right in front of her, and he had tested her many times already. Unconsciously she felt the swollen side of her jaw: now that she saw his bare arms she knew what kind of muscles could bruise her so badly. It gave her enough courage to finally reply.
"I'll decide when to let go. If he's still alive I want to see him again, just once."
"We can try that," he nodded, apparently a little distressed as he got reminded of what he did to her. He crouched down to her level. "But no heroics, and don't even think of trying to kill me again or I'll leave you in the deepest hole of the Under City. Understood?"
She confronted his glare for a few seconds. "Understood."
He stood straight again, extending his open hand to her, like a peace offering. She took it and got up. Her hand in his for a short moment, she felt her heart jump or was it the Force making a bond between them?
"Meet you at the boarding ramp in ten," he said, then nodded in direction of her outfit. "Put on something more solid than that."
She watched him walk away and the seal door sliding shut behind him. Her padawan outfit was the last thing she had from a time when everything was so much more simple and she had known her place beside her master. Now, she was a nobody and even her Force abilities didn't seem to matter to a man like Bardan.
With her large unfitting apparel and her weapons resting loosely in her pockets she did not feel comfortable at all to go in the field. She eyed Runa's armor set and belts with envy as she tightened the straps on her knee pads.
"How did you get that suit?" she asked knowing she would get an answer if she was blunt.
"My aunt left it to me. She died many years ago and my father took care of her things."
Bardan arrived, fully armored with a big rifle slung in his back, a firearm in his leg holster and - she saw it right away - a lightsaber hanging from his belt.
"Ari," he said through his mask, and held up a device the size of her pinky nail. "This is not for separating, nor letting you improvise as we go. It'll allow you to hear what me and Run'ika are telling eachother on the comms."
She pushed the bead into her left ear and heard Runa's upbeat voice that contrasted with the cold, faceless helmet she wore.
"Finally! You're part of our world now."
Bardan sighed, it sounded like he did it right in her face. "No more yelling. But also no more excuses for ignoring orders."
Aresu found it unsettling to rely so much on equipment to assure success in a mission. She didn't know how to express that to them, while Bardan might understand her point of view, Runa could only feel left out of her logic.
They left the ship with its security measures activated and climbed in the airspeeder parked in the same hangar. Reaching the checkpoint at the exit of the spaceport, Aresu sunk her head between her shoulders at the sight of while-armored soldiers halting them. Bardan rolled his window pane down and the Stormtrooper nodded, lifting his open hand up in acknowledgement. They passed without a hick-up, she unclenched her fists in relief and saw Runa turning her visor over to Bardan at the steering paddle.
"What, you think I'd forget to tell them that we have a daughter now?"
"No," she replied calmly, "I think you've forgotten to tell me that you had it cleared."
Bardan repressed a chuckle, but his voice got nervous. Regardless of armor, this private channel revealed everything. "Well, now you know."
"It's okay for this time, Bard'ika."
They traveled through urban air traffic, going down levels gradually until there wasn't much sunlight left. Aresu recognized the canyon of ghost towers and broken sky bridges, until there wasn't much she had seen at all in her long stay on Taris. This was the Under City. You needed a flashlight to see your own feet down there.
"This is where I picked you up earlier," remarked Runa. "Forgot something?"
Bardan took the speeder to a clearing in the middle of discarded rubble. Aresu unclipped her seat strap and turned to look around: it was very foggy out of the vehicle.
"I sensed something around here, as Vader did." He shifted in his seat to face Aresu. "Keep your arms to yourself, no talking, and hide your presence in the Force unless I tell you otherwise."
She nodded to the black T-visor.
"Good. What do you know about the Rakghouls?"
"Why would you--" Stopping in mid-thought she wanted to gasp and protest. "I should have stayed on the ship," she murmured.
Bardan breathed through his nose, obviously containing his irritation. "I'm sorry it had to be this way. Just tell us what you know."
"They're infectious. Once you get in contact with one of them you have six to forty-eight hours before it's too late."
"Have you seen one?" asked Runa.
She shook her head. "I only heard things."
"Is there an antidote?"
"There was a serum… But it got discontinued."
"Why in the haran would they stop producing it?"
She startled. She had never heard Bardan speaking aggressively and now he was in her head. "We could be able to stop the disease with the Force," she said hesitantly.
He sighed and seemed to relax, slowly shaking his head and reached for Runa's hand on her lap. She meshed her fingers with his.
"If anything happens..."
"You taught me to look out for myself," she said quietly. "So I'll be doing that while you do your job."
He sat in silence and nodded sharply. "Let's do this."
They left the vehicle to walk into the darkness, stepping into the fog. Aresu stayed close to Runa: she let Bardan scout ahead and waited for his "clear" signal every time they walked around a corner. She smelled something putrid in the air, guessing that it was the yeast and fungi that she walked on. But there were at least three presences ahead of them and her senses flared up in alertness. She squeezed Runa's hand and grabbed her lightsaber. They both raised their blaster rifles, ready to shoot.
"Regroup," Bardan said, walking back a few steps. "I got three marks coming out of the windows and doors."
"Copy that, they're showing up on infrared." Runa held Aresu closer to her. "Should we engage?"
She could see them now: dark shapes crawling down hills of millenary garbage, some looking more or less human but regardless of it, Aresu wanted to run as fast as she could. They radiated animalistic hunger and rage, leaving no room for negociation.
"Wait, you don't want to attract others with the noise." He shouldered his rifle but Aresu didn't sense any intent to kill in him. The Rakghouls however… "I'm picking up something else."
Another one? In order to scan with the Force Aresu needed to control her breathing because she could distinguish the semblance of a face on one of the three that got a little closer, and it made her panic.
"Don't be scared," Runa said, patting her back. "Beasts can smell fear."
"There," Bardan said, pointing his gun to his right.
Following his aim Aresu saw it. She saw him, and she just couldn't believe it if not for the ragged Jedi robes.
His skin had turned to grey with patches of brown and green, one lekku was missing, probably torn off - or worse - and he walked with his back hunched, his left arm hanging to the floor like it was weighing way too much for him to carry. He groaned.
She cried in horror at the sight of him, of what he had become. His eyes had gone from yellow to completely black, and she couldn't say if he still had both. She was terrified, and didn't fight Runa's tight grasp when she had tried to instinctively run away. The Mandalorian woman held out her pistol and aimed at Master Orui's head, or what was left of it.
Bardan approached with his rifle down and spoke up, making his voice more articulate. "What is your name, creature?"
Slowly, black orbits turned to him and he stretched grey lips apart to reveal a set of rotten bloody fangs. Aresu couldn't stop crying, yet she still watched and realized that it wasn't Master Orui anymore… She couldn't even sense his identity.
He looked back at her with an insane expression. "Aresu…!"
"No! you're dead," she cried painfully. "You shouldn't have survived."
"This is not good," Runa said. "What is going on, here? I thought they were all brain-dead."
"Apparently not this kind," Bardan replied. "Looks like he's been fighting the disease for all this time… And he's still carrying his shabla lightsaber."
Runa's voice was trembling slightly. "We should probably kill the other three, just in case."
"Keep them away from the kid."
And so Runa shouldered her rifle and shot at the now moving Rakghouls, they could crawl and jump at incredible speeds and she missed a few times. Aresu switched her lightsaber on, ready to slash at one blurry mass moving in her direction; it hit the ground at the impact of a red flash and she jumped away from it, clinging to Runa's side. In the mess of blaster fire and trash being blown up Aresu almost didn't notice her old master starting to limp furiously towards her, growling madly. Gasping, she couldn't get herself to raise her weapon against him, paralyzed by shock and sorrow. A green blazing light emerged with a roar, slicing across his path and something fell and rolled to the ground. It smelled like burnt flesh and she couldn't look at it.
Bardan stood over Master Orui's decapitated corpse, ignited lightsaber in hand. He picked something from the corpse and walked back towards them. She sensed no emotion in him, not even satisfaction nor sadness. Her master was dead for sure now that she saw it happen. Bardan had done it and, of course her heart was broken but she felt strangely relieved.
They did not fly back to the space docks; they stopped at a crowded bar called the "Brown Bolt" in Middle City. Aresu followed Bardan and Runa as customers made room on their path, eyeing them suspiciously thinking they weren't watched back. She stayed close to Runa out of habit, thinking she would attract less trouble with her seemingly pleasant yet intimidating color patterns. They walked up the room and next to a booth where two Weequays, a Zabrak and a Quarren were sitting. They froze in mid-conversation, hands discretely reaching under the table for their blasters.
Bardan stood motionless, looking fierce. "Move."
They looked eachother for a few seconds and complied, cautiously keeping their hands visible and only turning their back to them when they reached the entrance of the diner.
Aresu let herself fall in the worn cushioned seat as Runa and Bardan sat beside her in a protective semi-circle. Bardan ordered three ales and a female Twi'lek waitress came up with fresh bottles. They took their helmets off, careless of whoever was looking.
"To our first job," Bardan sighed, raising the drink to his lips.
"And to my first shooting at things that were alive," replied Runa before taking a long sip. "More or less alive."
Aresu hesitatingly tasted the alcoholic beverage.
"According to mando law, you're allowed to drink." He affectionately patted her head. "Are you alright, ad'ika?"
"I guess. What does that mean?"
"Little one," Runa replied. "Though you should be considered an adult now. His friends call him Little Bardan, so he's venting on you."
He gazed at her tiredly from across the table. "They make my life miserable because I'm short."
She smiled at them and took another taste of the bitter, fizzy drink. "So, what now?"
"We get paid, and move on to the next job so that I can ask for another favor." He turned his attention to the entrance.
"What were the first ones?" Runa asked, idly picking at the bottle's sticker with her nails. "You asked him to ignore that you ever were a spoon-bender?"
"He asked me to do his dirty work, so yeah: I assume that comes in the package."
"I saw a list of names in your computer," Aresu risked saying. "Though I shouldn't have… My name is in there."
She held his cold gaze for a moment. "Did you open it?" he asked. "Aresu Kurn doesn't look like you. At all."
"…What are you talking about?"
He reached for his belt and handed out a handheld datapad with that same list on its screen. She did as he asked, and pressed the entry with her name on it. The warrant was the same, but the picture was that of a young woman with brown and blond hair, green eyes and pale freckled skin.
"Who is that?"
"A dead person," he said, taking the device back and a chill ran down her spine.
"No. No, never. She was a friend, years ago." He rotated the bottle in his hand. "I'm sorry about your master."
Runa circled an arm around her shoulders and rested her head against hers.
"It's okay," Aresu replied. "He's in a better place now."
She had voluntarily avoided mentioning the Force. Their casual mood seemed to have faded into grimness. Bardan laid a hand on hers and spoke a series of words she couldn't understand.
"You're a brave girl," Runa said, breaking the ice. "You could stay with us for a while, take the time to get yourself sorted. Maybe get some armor."
Bardan lifted his chin in direction of the entrance. "Here's our messenger."
A tall human male arrived, all clad in black, standing straight as a pillar as he looked them all in the eye. Bardan gestured to a seat next to him.
"So you have the padawan."
Aresu's eyes widened in shock as Bardan squinted, still staring in the space between the other customers and the bartender. He drank another sip of his ale while the waitress came back with the next round.
"She helped me find her master," he said, and showed a metallic casing the size of her forearm. "His lightsaber. I suggest you do not touch it before decontamination."
"I see," the man said, accepting the object. "Nice work on hacking into our files, I'll let that slip if you turn her in."
Bardan turned to him with a menacing look. The man in the black uniform was bigger and stronger than him but something made him flinch slightly. Aresu sensed his fear.
"The deal was Orui for five thousand," Bardan said. "Respect your part of it, Korrado. And I won't tell your boss that you tried to go over his helmet."
The man - Korrado - shifted in his seat and she saw his arm move under the table. She peeked to her side and saw the muzzle of a blaster pistol. A strange feeling of anguish made the hair stand on the back of her neck, then Korrado started coughing loudly, he pulled at his collar and his face went red.
"Okay!… Alright," he winced, and dropped his weapon to the floor, choking on something invisible.
Aresu looked confusedly at Bardan. He didn't look back at her, completely focused on who she guessed was an Imperial.
"Vader and I had an understanding," he muttered slowly. "I work for him, he keeps my family out of your business. And I can do whatever the shab I please to keep it that way."
The man took a deep breath, panting as if he had run miles to get there. He tried to get his composure back by having a drink, the blood slowly flushing from his face.
"I'll have the money transferred to your account, sir."
Bardan nodded to him and Korrado got up to leave hastily.
"Pretty boy can't hold his drink," mockingly said Runa. "That was scary, Bard'ika. I almost felt sorry for him."
He picked up his second ale and took an exaggerated sad expression. "But it's the only thing they can understand."
"I felt it," Aresu said. "It was the dark side…"
Bardan leaned against the back of the seat, letting his bottle rest on his breastplate and seeming more tired than he looked. "Sorry," he simply said. "Won't do it again, ad'ika. I only meant to scare him."
Runa cleared her throat. "What is this dark side?"
"It's when you use anger and hate to achieve something," Aresu replied mechanically.
"Yes," Bardan agreed with a nod. "I felt anger because he was threatening my family."
"But I'm not part of your family."
"Well…" He thoughtfully scratched the side of his jaw. "I adopted you. Welcome to the clan."
"This Jedi osik is doing my head in," Runa sighed. "No wonder you don't want to have your own kids."
"The amount of trouble is mind-bogglingly huge," he stated. "Biological bonds and the Force…"
She smirked mischievously. "Sounds like you enjoy playing with fire then." She eyed his belt. "Like that one time when you forgot--"
"You certainly didn't seem to mind, Run'ika."
"If you weren't so good at convincing then maybe we wouldn't have this conversation."
Suddenly Aresu felt out of place and cleared her throat to snap them back into reality. But that didn't help, they still smiled blankly at eachother, oblivious of the outside world.
"You should get a snip," Runa said.
"And I could heal myself in my sleep," he sloppily spoke, clearly starting to get affected by the alcohol. "You-- you should just get your tubes tied."
She slapped a gloved hand on the table, making the bottles clink. "I'm not that desperate."
Aresu was starting to get mental pictures and had to cover her ears.
"First marital dispute," she grumbled.
"We're not even married yet," Runa said plaintively. "Bardan, what have you been waiting for? I thought I'd lost you today."
"I thought that too," he replied quietly.
He reached for her hand across the table, an empty bottle rolled down to crash on the floor but they both ignored it, and he said a series of four sentences in that language Aresu couldn't understand. Runa repeated it, like a poem or a pledge.
"Why won't you have babies?" she asked them. "You have me, already."
Runa patted her stomach. "I don't want anybody stealing my food after I ate it."
Bardan laughed through his nose and giggled in his folded arms for a moment.
"Aresu," continued Runa. "I still consider myself a kid, so I just don't think I'm the type of girl responsible enough to take care of babies. Besides… I like the idea of adopting, like I'm making a difference for someone who really needs help."
She smiled and stroked her cheek. The Twi'lek waitress arrived with a broom to clean up the broken glass.
"What happened?" she said pleasantly, obviously tired and under pressure beneath her smile.
Bardan rested his head in his hand and lifted glassy eyes up to her with a loving expression. "You remind me of a friend."
"I'm sure I do," said the waitress, picking up the pieces with a plastic container. "Good friend?"
"She's the babysitter."
"Oh. What a beautiful family you got there!"
She left with another order of ale for them and Runa flicked her fingers at his face. "Flirting with the waitress, so cliché."
"And how drunk are you planning to get? I won't carry you out of here."
"Until I forget that I did two horrible things today."
"Including our marriage?"
"Well, that's a good thing we did. You have a point there."
"Take care of the tip. I'll go empty my bladder then we're heading home, alright?"
She stood carefully to zigzag towards the back of the room where the refreshers were, and apparently had to wait in line.
Aresu watched Bardan fidgeting with his belt pockets, trying to find tip money in small enough credit chips. He looked back at her with a confused look.
"I'm sorry about your master, ad'ika."
"You already told me," she said, mildly amused. "I'm fine."
"You're right, I'm such a di'kut." He placed two chips on the table. "I shouldn't have punched you either. Sorry about that, too."
"Well, I did try to kill you once…"
"But you failed!" he grinned victoriously. "'Cause you're such a nice little Aresu. And now that Runa isn't here, I can do this."
He playfully wrapped his arms around her and smacked a noisy kiss on her cheek. She didn't expect to feel facial hair against her skin and yelped in surprise. He smelled of ale, metal and soap. She tore herself away from him, relieved that Runa was back and he saw her as well.
"Ready to go?"
He stood and pulled her face to his. Aresu really didn't feel like watching but she was mesmerized and giggled, seeing two grown-ups in full body armor, amorously kissing and rear-groping. They grabbed their helmets and equipped them on their way out.
It was good to breathe the outside air and get away from the noises and smoke of the bar. They walked towards the speeder, and when she turned around Aresu saw Runa holding Bardan around his back, making him walk straighter than he ought to. There was nothing very jedi left in him at all. She wondered about her own self after living in this odd family for a few years… She shook the thoughts away and resumed worrying about her drunken foster parents.