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Chapter 12

Kyrimorut, Skirata Bastion, 1,328 days ABG

Runa’s definition of a clan until that day was a group of friends and relatives sharing a set of interests and ideals. That was before she actually saw a Mandalorian clan in one place at one time. She couldn’t even begin to remember who was whose offspring or sibling, who were married and how many different families there were within the clan. There were many clones of different age and appearance, and she saw a few children running across the rooms. The Skirata home was lively and busy, all she could see were armored as well as unarmored people, humans, twi’leks, kiffar, and a six-legged animal that thrashed around with the children.

“That's Mird, it's a strill trained for mercenary work.” Bardan handed her a warm cup of dark liquid that she guessed was tea. “Drink this, you'll feel better.”

She had popped another round of painkillers in order to walk comfortably, sadly the side-effects made her nauseous.

“I don't think I’ll be able to remember everyone’s name…”

A squeaky voice shouted Pow, pow, pow! and Runa felt a small body bumping into her shin plates. The little female Togruta fell on her back, giggled carelessly before getting on her feet to race after her friends again. She was carrying a small blaster made out of a piece of wood.

“Uncle Bardan!”

“Hey you!” He lifted Kad up in his arms and touched foreheads with the boy. “What are you up to, Kad’ika.”

“I’m hunting little kids for credits.”

Bardan playfully furrowed his brow. “Sounds dangerous, do you need them dead or alive?”

“Alive. I don’t want to carry them.”

“Well, don‘t let them get away!”

They watched him run off with Mird in his trail. The lizard-like canine seemed eager to keep an eye on the young as if they were its own. It seemed that everyone and everything was keen on adopting in the mando culture. She gave another thought about what Bardan told her that morning which had made her grateful because she wasn’t in a hurry for babies and sad because she would’ve wanted to see him happy one day. Or, it was her deeply honed reproductive instincts expressing themselves.

The tea was mildly sweet and refreshing, she’d have to find some for herself later on. She watched Bardan go over to a group of men talking in the lobby and they greeted him hand-to-elbow style, ruffling his hair and talking loudly in half basic, half mando’a. Runa wandered off to get away from the noise and crowds and maybe find some place to sit down. Someone called out to her and she was surprised that they’d known her name.

“I’m Parja, great to meet you!”

She extended her arm and Runa grabbed it in the mando fashion. The young woman was a little taller and wore long braided hazel hair over her shoulders.

“How do you know me?”

“Fi’s my husband and he told me about you. How are you?”

So she knew about the outpost operation. “In one piece,” she answered. “Feeling kind of lost and dizzy though.”

“This is no usual party,” Parja explained. “I think we’re going to have to relocate, maybe spread out across the shabla galaxy. But don’t get it wrong, it’s what we do… Mandalorians were nomads to begin with.”

“Hence the big party.”

“Yes,” she smiled. “By the way, this armor loves you. Who gave it to you?”

She opened her mouth to speak and someone in a blue outfit came into her field of vision.

“Well, well. Isn’t it our new addition to the clan.” He was tall and dark-skinned, a clone like Ordo, he also had streaks of blond hair and green eyes which she guessed were cosmetics. “My name is Mereel, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Runa Zanim.”

He took her hand and bowed to kiss it with exaggerated courtesy.

“Hi,” she said in a bland tone. “Everybody seems to know me here.”

“We can’t help it. Intel travels faster than the winds of Kamino in this family, it can make people uncomfortable. You look like you need comforting, and I can help you with that any day, any time.”

She avoided looking at his piercing green gaze and shiny white teeth and her eyes found Bardan who was still talking to his friends. Parja playfully punched Mereel’s side.

“Leave the poor girl alone, Mer’ika. Besides, she’s taken. So… go find yourself a real droid.”

The man in blue armor straightened his back to stand a little taller in front of Parja. “Lady Runa doesn’t need protection, I’m here now. Go tend to your own droids.”

“What’s going on here?”

They all turned to Bardan and even Runa was surprised. He arched an eyebrow at Mereel, arms crossed, looking like serious business. He was a head shorter than the clone and Runa never imagined he could irradiate authority that way.

“Just introducing myself to our new friend,” Mereel politely said then winked to Runa. “She promised to meet me in my ship tonight.”

Parja guffawed and rebuked him with a slap to the back of the head. “He’s always like this with the ladies."

“Did you make that pleasure droid for him yet?” Bardan said, still very serious.

“I don’t do that kind of osik. I’m married.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Mereel chuckled.

Parja and him argued about droid and mating mechanisms. In the midst of the laughter Bardan gestured to Runa’s cup in a Are you done with it? look and she gave it to him; it was still warm but she couldn’t drink any more. He stirred it and sank it down which caught some attention.

“Oh… I see now.” Mereel leaned over his shoulder. “Secret language and exchange of fluids. So Parja’s right, isn’t she?”

The woman grinned with excitement. “Shab, wherever you‘re going, I want in on the wedding ceremony.”

Runa felt her cheeks flush. Having her emotions exposed had terrible effects on her and she didn’t know how to hide it or to pretend it didn’t bother her. Bardan took her hand and meshed his fingers with hers; his presence was soothing.

“We’ll keep you posted,” he said.

She didn’t know how to interpret her feelings about being rescued again - it wasn’t like her to rely so much on a person, let alone being sentimental -, yet she felt like clinging to Bardan as an amorous schoolgirl that feared being abandoned. He took her to a more quiet place, a hallway between the kitchen and the bedrooms but there were still no seats for her.

“Just hold on for a little while,” he told her softly, “then we’ll go home.”

“Kal is going to say something soon?” She recalled saying his name in the interrogation room but mentally waved the thought away.

“Before dinner, yes. You have to eat something or you’ll pass out.”

“If my stomach would cooperate then I’ll try.” There were sounds of chatter and plates clanking on a wooden table. “Do they know about me and the interrogation?”

Bardan looked over to the kitchen worriedly before shaking his head. “There’s very little I can keep them from knowing. For what it's worth, I don't think it really matters to anyone now.”

That was going to be her new family and Runa already managed to feel like a burden. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “Sometimes it feels like I’m not supposed to be here, wearing this suit and messing in your business.”

“What makes you feel that way?” he looked at her, lifting her chin up.

She turned the question in her mind over and over again without finding an answer. Pondering about her failures made her eyes brim and she turned away from him because she couldn’t hold it any longer. While she cried her chest burned and her left wrist stung all of the sudden, making it harder to control her sobs. There were no cusses she could say to vent her anger, because she was a weak shabla girl.

Bardan sat against the wall next to her and waited with an arm around her shoulders until she calmed herself. She heard a man’s voice speaking in the silence of the house but couldn’t make anything out of it.

“Let it out, Runa, after what you’ve been through. And you don’t have to be like any of us,” Bardan told her, barely audible. “Also… It’s who you are that I care about and not who you might be.”

She looked up at him and saw tears in his eyes, but he didn’t look sad; it dawned on her that he could empathize much more than she thought. He kept his attention turned to Kal’s voice, listening in. Runa did her best to be a little stronger and serene: if he felt what she felt then she had to be more careful.

There was a loud cheer of Oya! and chatter rose up again while people moved around the room to begin eating.

He looked back at her like he had made his mind about something and pressed his lips to hers. It was a soft kiss - not the hungry and desperate kind she’d had with previous relationships -, and it made her body react in ways she’d never speak of. Reminiscing her sensuous awakening of the other night temporarily wiped the misery away.

“Let’s go home,” he said in a breath. “Tomorrow we have to leave for Taris so you’ll want to tell your parents, spend the evening with them.”

She was about to ask “what about you?” and stopped mid-thought, for as far as she knew Bardan was an orphan so he could run away and never worry about telling anyone.

“Is that where everyone will go?”

He helped her up. “They probably have other plans.”

They walked out of Skirata’s house waving goodbye to a few people who weren’t eating in the dining room. Bardan stopped to hug Kad and to speak with a blue-skinned Twi’lek called Laseema for a few minutes. Their goodbyes were heart-breaking and Runa stood carefully in the background while they did so. She understood that it was a necessary sacrifice, that he had to part ways with those he cared for, and for their own good. From what was gathered after their assault on the outpost the Empire was looking for them actively.

And there was someone she was going to actively look for and that required skill, so maybe she wasn’t cut out to do mighty heroics but now that it was possible she was going to get the best help.

“Can’t we bring my mother along?” she asked as he drove the land speeder across the hills.

“Don’t you think that’s up to her?” he replied with a sideways look. He didn’t seem to approve.

“I really miss her, maybe I just wish I’d spent more time with her lately.”

He remained silent for the next several minutes. Runa liked the idea of having one of her parents close to her because that made her feel at home. It was hard but she came to realize that she wasn’t used to traveling and changing homes so often. If being a mando’ad meant that she was to become a nomad then she had a lot of work to do.

Bardan found his voice again. “When we finish some business on Taris we’ll find your brother, and you’ll be with your family again. How does that sound?”

“It would be great--”

She went mute when she saw him with his eyes closed, still piloting the speeder and she panicked, thinking he fell asleep.

“Bardan…?”

His face went grim as he stared straight ahead. “We got company. Buy’ce on,” he instructed as he parked the speeder a few paces behind the homestead.

Runa felt a rush of excitement and animalistic fear as she did as he said and got out in the field, KX-60 slung to her shoulder. She followed Bardan in a jog until they came up to the house; they could see the nose of a black-painted ground vehicle at the front entrance. Bardan had his rifle raised and held it against his chest plate as he turned his T-shaped visor to her.

“Private channel,” he said, activating a blinking icon on her blue-lit HUD. “Follow my lead and watch your steps.”

Everything looked unreal through the visor, a bit like watching a holovid and not really being there. Runa checked the safety on her rifle again and kept her finger away from the trigger. They proceeded quietly into the bunker from a concealed backdoor then down a ladder where Runa recognized a ventilation exhaust port. It was barely large enough for them to fit through, all armor and weapons attached. They crawled noisily in the durasteel tunnel for about two agonizing minutes; she mentally patted herself on the back once they got out of it because she hadn't thrown up. Bardan raised a closed fist at shoulder level and she instinctively stopped, weapon raised towards the nearest door. They were in a storage room that also kept the main power generator.

“They’re here, probably because they need that ship back. Four of them.”

“And my parents?”

She gave him a moment to use his Force radar. “They’re not here. Let’s move.”

She hoped they’d had a chance to run away then. Showing her the wall next to the door he took entry position at the opposite and held his rifle one-handed while turning the knob, it was the old kind of door that spun instead of sliding and he looked through the narrow opening before nodding “clear” to her.

The living room was turned upside down with bits of furniture all over the place like some wampa creature had lost the keys to its tauntaun, whatever that meant when she heard the joke. Bardan seemed to pay no mind to it and moved rapidly towards the kitchen, came back and signaled to her in direction of the dormitory. He looked a lot like a special operations soldier now and she smiled to herself because she knew she was his mirror’s reflection in white and purple colors. They stopped in the short hallway and he stood back against the wall, threw something in the dorm room that exploded, or Runa thought it did but there was no loud blast, just a pop and a very bright light flashing out.

He stormed in the room with his rifle raised, ready to shoot and she heard someone moaning. The man was trying to pull his white plastoid helmet off when he saw both of them, then fussed with his blaster to aim but Bardan kicked it off his hands, grabbed his throat and threw him against the wall in one move.

“Hands behind your head. And not a word,” he hissed and her private channel blinked. “Runa, check the door.”

She complied and expected someone to show up in the hallway, finger ready to squeeze the trigger. It felt strange that she could maintain her calm but she did, and listened to what Bardan was saying to the Stormtrooper.

“Who did you come here for?”

No reply. Runa opened her comm to him. “Take his bucket off, he must have a link with his squad.”

Bardan did as she said and it revealed a young man with a shaved head and he probably had no scars on him yet.

“Just kill me, I won’t talk.”

“Tsss, don’t be so melodramatic. I’m hunting too, just tell me a name and I’ll be out of your hair.”

Something made Runa’s skin shiver although her suit was isolating enough, but apparently not against painful memories. There were footsteps that could be heard coming their way so she braced herself and took a few steps away from the door.

“Traitors to the Empire,” the young soldier spat. “You could be on that list if you keep aiming that gun at my face.”

“It's a very nice gun though,” Bardan proudly replied. “Now tell your friends to stand down or I’m gonna say to your commander that you went AWOL.”

The soldier did a terrible job at hiding his stunned reaction. “You wouldn’t…”

Bardan picked up his helmet and looked inside. “Looks like I got clearance already.”

Two, then three white-clad troopers appeared in the room, blasters aimed. Runa stepped back so they could see that they were keeping their friend hostage and took one of them in her sights.

“Stop!” the kneeling trooper yelled. “Don’t shoot or we’re finished.”

They looked at each other’s masked faces for a confused couple of seconds.

“You’re outnumbered,” shouted one, “surrender and you won’t be harmed.”

Bardan let his arms hang at his sides and made a point of sticking the muzzle of his Verp against the hostage’s head. “Look what I did to your squad leader and say that again.”

“They’re bounty hunters,” muttered the subdued soldier. “They’ll stop at nothing for credits.”

Something bleeped and flashed inside Runa’s HUD: the comlink had received new messages. She tried not to get distracted. One Stormtrooper looked at her, then at Bardan and let his guard down.

“This mission is kriffed.”

“What are you doing?” said the shouter.

The laid-back trooper holstered his E-11 and folded his arms across his breastplate. “These guys are getting paid by our commanders. It makes me sick.”

The two other soldiers persisted in gaining control over the situation but they seemed clearly disconcerted now. Runa had to applaud Bardan’s plan even if it was shaky to begin with.

“We’re on even grounds now,” he said, but she could hear him sighing. “Who are you after?”

“Skirata and Jusik,” answered Laid-Back. “Our intel brought us here and it looks like their headquarters.”

“Except that we don’t need to share that with them,” continued Shouter. “What are you thinking, that they’ll split the bounty with us?”

“I don’t know but I’m ready to take my chances.”

Bardan looked back and forth at them and seemed to lose patience.

Fierfek, you guys are a waste of time. The cargo ain’t here, that means they already left the shabla system.” He took the squad leader’s arm and pulled him to his feet single-handedly, and gave him his helmet back. “And next time you do recce in a building make sure you look out for lone-wolf-squad-genius here. Because he won't be watching your six.”

“That’s kind of rude,” hesitantly commented the quiet one.

Runa failed to contain a giggle and they all turned their helmets towards her.

“What?” she said. “That’s funny.”

Squad Leader pushed his helmet back on his head and picked his blaster up. “What kind of bounty hunters are you?”

Bardan directed them to the door and followed them outside. Runa noted that none of the troopers really turned their backs to them.

“The caring kind,” he answered.

The ground vehicle they used had a laser turret on its roof and not much room inside. Squad Leader and Shouter got in while Quiet manned the turret. Laid-Back stayed outside and leaned slightly over to Runa.

“So how often do you drop by on this rock? I’ll be stationed here for another tour and--”

“Hey,” barked Bardan. “Why don’t you save the charm for your superiors.”

“--and you can comm me anytime.” He flicked a small object to her that she nearly missed. It was a secure data chip for comlinks.

He got shoved in the tanker by an apparently annoyed Bardan and Laid-Back just laughed it off. The black vehicle headed out to the horizon and Runa caught herself wondering what he looked like under the ugly white helmet. She thoughtfully turned the chip around her fingers.

“Aw, come on. Tell me you’re just playing…”

“I always had a weak spot for soldiers,” she smirked. “And who knows, one day I might meet one that would turn out to be Devik.”

She cautiously stashed the chip in a belt pouch and turned her attention to the messages she’d received earlier. The first one was from her mother.

IT’S NOT SAFE ANYMORE. HEADING BACK TO ORD MANTELL WITH YOUR FATHER AND WE’LL CONTACT YOU SOON.

She exhaled in relief. She opened the next and her heart jumped.

I’M IN CARIDA AND I’M OK. THE WEATHER IS NICE, THE FOOD IS GOOD AND THERE ARE NO WOMEN AT ALL.

“Why are you laughing now?”

She sat next to Bardan in the Aggressor’s cockpit, pulled her buy’ce off and brushed wild locks of hair from her face.

“Devik is okay.”

“That’s great news,” he said with a warm smile. “And your parents?”

“They’re safe back home.”

She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment, thinking of nothing and letting her mind float with the sound of the engines coming to life.

“Strap yourself in,” advised Bardan. “You’re taking this baby off this rock.”

*

TO BE CONTINUED.

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