Gotab residence, the next day
Runa woke up early and made sure not to wake the others in the dorm while she dressed up. However she had to put each piece of armor on in the dark. What she did to solve that problem was to use the night vision setting in her helmet. She tried hard not to sneeze, cleaning up afterwards would be a nightmare.
When she left the house the icy wind did not slap her face, she didn’t feel discomfort in her wrists or feet. The suit seemed to be climate-proof and the sealing clips around the neck looked like she could take a leap out of a hatch, too. The outside stayed outside, so the beskar’gam felt strangely securing.
The other major change about wearing the armor was to have a HUD floating around her field of vision. It was blue and gold digits constantly changing, measuring distances, altitude, temperature, and communication frequencies also seemed to be available. She decided not to play around with them for now. She got out this early that day because she needed time alone to think, and to get familiar with her suit.
There was a narrow path leading across the field of snow and to the woods so she went that way. Once she was sure that her armor was holding securely she broke into a light jog, but only up to the first trees she met. She had to stop to catch her breath. Thankfully her visor didn’t steam up. Beskar was really heavy, so she walked.
She held her brand new KX-60 blaster rifle ready and aligned her sights at some random point ahead of her. Her HUD immediately adapted its focus with the scope of the weapon. She wanted to squeeze the trigger and shoot a tree but thought better of it. She kept a tight grip on the rifle when she proceeded with her walk. It was a lot of climbing around rocks and bumpy terrain, she felt very uneasy at first trying to maintain awareness of all the equipment she was carrying. In those moments she really wished she’d been trained in the military.
Her mind was so wrapped around the here-and-now that she didn’t stop and realize what she was becoming. There were no mirrors for her to come to the actual conclusion you are a mando now. Every time she tripped or lost balance it was her pride and confidence that took a blow, reminding her of her physical weaknesses. Maybe the suit made her look Mandalorian, but in her mind she was still “naive little Runa with her paintings“. It felt wrong to steal the identity of a warrior and she lived with the fear that everyone could see it.
She kept going for about half an hour until she’d had enough. Her nose itched to be wiped; maybe pulling the helmet off and taking cold wasn’t the greatest idea. So she sniffled all the way back to the house following the edge of the woods to watch the sun rise. And, still getting distracted by the overwhelming interface dancing in front of her eyes she explored the database contents. There she found a list of words in the Mandalorian language, mando’a, with vocal keys and translations in Basic. The first thing she did was looking up the words that she’d heard from her father and Bardan, in order to eventually come up with her own use of the language. If she failed to meet the physical standards she would have to excel with other skills.
Of course she couldn’t imagine herself speaking it yet, the words sounded too alien to her. So far the odd sentences in huttese were all the foreign could speak for her line of work but that didn’t seem enough now. Wearing the armor and holding an assault rifle, whatever she thought she could do meant nothing unless she mastered it.
Back in the house where it was warm but she couldn’t feel the change within her suit, she smelled fresh caf and food through the filters of her helmet. Her visual display adapted to the dim lights, changing the colors slightly and she needed a minute to find her way around again. Her boots stomped loudly on the wooden floor, a hint of how much heavier she weighted with all the equipment.
Devik was sitting in the workshop, all black and gold trimmed armor on him. He was leaning forward over his helmet in great focus to modify something inside the sealing mechanism.
“Enjoying the new outfit?” he asked, looking at her with a wide grin on his face.
“It’s cozy,” she said. “Like a coffin.”
“Now you’re just trying to be funny.” He turned back to his work. “I’m fixing the soundproofing system in mine. Have you tried your comms yet?”
Matter-of-factly she had thought of telling her mother about what they were up to. Since things were completely set for her now she was ready to announce it. Selecting her comms list in her HUD she chose one of the encrypted channels available to her and added her mother’s contact via the remote link of her data pad. Then walking into her bunk she confirmed the outgoing call and waited.
A minute later she heard and saw the face of a woman in her fifties, wavy dark hair worn long around her face and a worried look in her eyes. She couldn’t see who was comming her.
“Who is this?”
“It’s me, mom. Sorry for not talking to you sooner.”
“Runa, my darling, how are you? Is everything ok?”
“I’m fine… Mom, I’m on Mandalore, with Devik and dad. Everything is almost falling into place and I don’t think I’ll be coming back.”
There was a sad smile crossing her mother’s face as she spoke.
“Don’t be sorry, Runa dear. Your father spoke to me a few days ago and I told him to take you away. It wasn’t his intention at first, he wanted to move us all to another system and lay low for the rest of our lives. But I couldn’t let him do that to you and your brother. It would be like living in a cage. No… you deserve to be whatever you want to be.”
Her throat tightened and she felt pressure behind her eyes. Nobody could see her tears through her mask anyway but it was hard to let go. Maybe if her mother was there with her she’d feel in a safe place.
“But what are you going to do all alone?” she asked weakly. “You should come with us and we can be a family again.”
She seemed to ponder the question for a moment. It was what Runa wished for the most, more than being able to run for hours or flying a starfighter. Seeing her family happy together was all that mattered right then.
“I’ll think about it. But for now you do what you think is best for you. I know you’re strong, Runa. You always were.”
Now she felt something warm slide down her cheeks and she nodded. Her mother smiled and shut the transmission off. Runa pulled the helmet off her head to wipe her face and nose and tried to relax, to clear the sobs out of her before anybody saw her that way. Then came the regrets and things she wished she had said while she had the chance. She wanted to tell her that she missed her and how hard it was to walk in her father’s footsteps, how difficult it was to understand Mandalorians and to ask her what made her marry one.
Runa couldn’t begin to think of herself marrying a man only based on proximity and odd timing. And Bardan puzzled her, not only because he was a strange former Jedi - and she’d had no idea that people could drop out of that order -, but his behavior was callous and sometimes clumsy in her presence and she didn’t like it. Her experience limited in bitter disappointments with men she couldn’t hope for much about Bardan despite the fact that he meant well in that mystical Jedi way. She just couldn’t relate to him at all.
Her father met her in the kitchen as he was sorting food. He wore his battle armor like the other day as if he hadn’t taken it off over night, but Runa deduced that he only just took a few minutes to equip it every day. He looked her from head to toe and smiled in approval.
“Kandosii! You make great honor to your aunt… If she were here to see this.”
“Thanks, I‘m flattered. And by the way, you never told me what happened to her?”
“Fell in the battle of Galidraan when you were just a toddler. A fierce woman she was.” His voice trailed off in the noise of fuming nerf steaks in a frying pan.
Runa watched him for a moment when it dawned on her that she hadn’t talked to him about Bardan’s secret. Noticing how he observed him over the table the other day she guessed that he needed answers.
“Bardan talked to me after our recon hike. He told me that he used to be a Jedi before leaving the order and becoming a mando’ad. Sorry if I haven’t told anyone else about it, because I thought you knew.”
“Well I do now, ad’ika. But thanks for coming clean, makes trusting easier for this poor old merc you have for a father. So how do you feel about him?”
“How do I feel?” she repeated, taken aback.
“I’ve been twenty years old too once, you know… Things happen, whether you want to or not, people tend to care for one another very easily in combat situations. That’s why most Mandalorians marry young, to spend less time flirting, making their parents go insane.”
“Are you actually saying that I should marry Bardan?”
“Oh, shab no.” He stirred his pan, adding spices in it. “I want you to remain cautious. Odds are you’ll be spending some time here to learn all you can, and not just about Mandalorian history - everything around it, too. We accept and adopt all races and professions if they have it in their guts to become mando’ade. But certain morals and beliefs just aren’t compatible with ours. Jedi are the best example of that: one-sided, emotionally frustrated, self-righteous di’kute with immeasurable powers.”
The words caught her aback with their cynicism. Runa began to believe her father in a certain way that she also knew that he couldn’t always be right. In that perspective she understood how someone could choose not to approve of the order and just take a leap.
“So Bardan is different from a Jedi if he embraced mando culture, isn’t he?” her tone got softer as her hopes started rising.
She looked at him rubbing his temple in deep thought, worried eyes avoiding her stare in what seemed an eternity.
“It’s not really what he is that bothers me. More what he’s capable of.” He lifted the pan from the stove to serve it on the table. “There is a relative limit to how much offense and defense systems we can carry around in a more or less fair fight. If Mandalorians were to duel or fight off a problem of any kind, it’s basically how much weaponry and armor a body can carry that makes the difference. Then come racial traits, advantages, handicaps, etc. We strive to perfect ourselves to be ready for anything. Even for light sabers and the likes.
“Now take a shakaar that’s able to punch, choke and modify the contents of your brains with only the power of his mind, and all the blasters and thermal dets in the universe can’t kill him.”
It sent a chill down her spine. “Okay…”
“I don’t mean to scare you, Run’ika, just want you to understand the stakes about dealing with certain cross-breeds.”
“I‘ll watch my back then, buir.” There, she said it. Just as she expected the mando’a term for father, mother, parent, hit home and confirmed another step for her into the new life she was headed. “But yes it’s hard to trust people we don’t really know. I have friends back home that are still not entirely reliable after years of living next to them. You think you know someone and then it turns out that most people lie.”
“Things change on Mandalore,” he grinned. “It doesn’t take long for anyone to see through lies and find out the truth, that’s why it’s easier to just blurt everything out right away.”
She turned that trail of thought in her mind and didn’t feel like expressing her personal concerns regarding lies and deceit. She even knew that it was more about confidence than anything else. Time would help, she knew that too.
Later that day he left to some errands and promised to be back tomorrow before the big mission. Runa kept busy tending to her suit and weapons when Bardan came home with company: a tall man wearing red armor and a much, much smaller one that looked a lot like him, probably no more than four years old. They were introduced as Ordo and Kad. The last thing Runa was expecting to see on Mandalore were children, she just assumed people became Mandalorians in the adult age.
They sat together in the common room in a casual briefing manner with little Kad playing with miniature vehicles and figures on the carpet. Runa wouldn’t brag about her ways with kids, having never given interest in the matter. But seeing him play by himself like any other normal child among four heavily armed men was mesmerizing. As crazy as it was she could somehow relate to him.
The red-clad mando looked at Runa and her brother the same way Bardan did when they first met at the bar. She shielded her face with an aloof expression yet couldn’t hide her mix of curiosity and confusion.
“I’ve seen more enthusiasm in a batch of Ugnaught slaves.” He took something out of his belt pouches. “These will cheer you up: in-ear bead comms for undercover missions. We used the same all the time during the war. Top notch quality so don’t lose them.” Bardan who was sitting in a nearby couch couldn’t stop fiddling with a data pad and small gizmos. Ordo leaned over to his side and muttered. “They’re fixed, I double-checked this morning.”
Runa guessed they were talking about bugs, small remote controlled microchips that managed to monitor transmissions and voice traffic. Then Kad got up to hoist himself on the couch next to Bardan and peered over to look at the data pad with real interest, as if he was able to actually solve the matter.
Bardan smiled - no, he beamed at the boy in a proud fatherly way, wrapping his arm around him and even letting him press on the screen at random.
“I still have trouble grasping that algorithm. Went over it again and again but how it manages to transcribe the data is beyond me.”
Ordo grinned and tapped his forehead with a gloved finger. “When you get one of these, Bard’ika. Someday, perhaps.”
“I suppose,” Bardan continued in his technical rant, “we’ll have to wait and see how it works for real. With real imperial data to leech. And if this doesn‘t work…”
“It’ll work,” insisted Ordo. He had that serious look about him that meant business only. If Runa wouldn’t pick up a fight against any mando, he’d be the last on her list so far.
“If this doesn’t work,” this time Bardan returned that serious glare, “we resort to the old spy method.”
Ordo sighed and rubbed his chin before looking up as if suddenly realizing they had guests. Runa felt the attention drawn upon her and Devik and unconsciously straightened her back.
“Sounds like trouble,” she commented.
Ordo nodded. “And not just a little. But don’t worry about it: the bugs will work.” He checked his chrono and stood up, straight as a mast undoubtedly from a past military life. “I promised the wife I’d be home early to watch a couple of holovids. I’ll see you tomorrow, vod’e.”
Bardan grabbed his extended arm in goodbye. “How is Besany?”
“Tough as beskar, as always,” the man proudly answered. “Who’d known for a former tax inspector?”
“Life certainly is full of surprises.”
“And we all get our share.” He turned to Runa and waved. “Good night, folks. Tomorrow is your big day so get some rest. You too, Kad’ika.”
He ruffled the boy’s hair and found his way out. Surprisingly she deduced that Kad wasn’t directly related to Ordo despite the striking resemblance.
During dinner she wasn’t short of more surprises: Kad’ika could use the Force. She swore that she saw him focusing on a cup thus making it move, just one inch, with his mind. Telekinesis was the proper term for that. Nobody else seemed to have noticed and she was now burning with a question: was Kad actually Bardan’s son? The thought rose a mix of confused emotions, admiration and envy. She felt a hint of disappointment, too.
So she waited the right time when she was alone with him in the kitchen, scraping the plates.
“So what happened to Kad’s parents?”
He raised his blue eyes to her as if he knew what she really meant. “His father is a clone commando, now in the imperial ranks and his mother was a Jedi. She died in the last days of the war. I take care of him now and then.” He finished rinsing the last of the dishes and dried his hands with a towel. “I’m teaching him to control his powers and to hide them when it isn’t safe.”
Again that shudder down her spine reminded her of the speech her father held about Force-using Mandalorians.
“You still use your Jedi powers?” she tried to look him straight in the eye to show her good faith but kept being distracted and awkward. “I’m a bit confused and don’t know what to make of all this.”
In her agitation she fiddled with the cutlery and something ripped her left palm. Before she knew that she broke skin the gray water in the sink was spotted with red drops of blood.
“Damn it,” she hissed. The cut was deep and had hit a vein. Her medic training kicked in and she cleaned the wound under running water before carefully drying it with a paper towel and got to her backpack. Bardan followed her to observe her every move. She knew he was inspecting her skills, too. “I can handle this, just a little cut.”
Her attempt to humor was failing now that more blood was seeping out of her hand and the antiseptic spray was nowhere to be found in the medic kit. She didn’t want to use her precious bacta for a minor incident and resorted to a tight bandage. Her bigger concerns now were with possible infections and if she’ll be able to use her hand the next day.
Again, she felt like failing at her task and not making the required standards to be accepted in her new, demanding family. She fought back the emotions that had brought tears to her earlier in the morning, wanting to prove that she was still physically resilient. If she cried now then she’d already lost.
But he was still there and got to a crouch in front of her. Runa watched him search her things to find the rest of her medical equipment and that way salvaged a pair of scissors, antibiotic pills and the spray canister she was looking for. Now she wasn’t only weak but she was messy, too.
“You need to relax, Runa,” he softly said, taking her hand and unfolding the bandage. “Nobody’s here to judge you or to decide if you belong or not…” He sprayed the antiseptic on the now swollen, bleeding open flesh, added padding and replaced the dressing around it, less tightly than she had done the first time. “You asked me what I would’ve done if I didn’t join the Mandalorians, well I did have an alternate plan.” He kept her hand in his as he paused. “I wanted to become a combat medic. I heal, that’s the only power I still use.”
Her hand felt a little numb but the pain was definitely still there, minus the edge meaning that the bleeding had stopped. According to her experience she’d need at least hours before a cut that deep closed off.
“Did you just…”
She wanted to undo the bandage, expecting to see a miracle underneath but Bardan kept her from it. His hands were warm, strong, callous from weapons training yet still soft from wearing gloves all day long. She took his advice and breathed slowly to calm herself.
“How come you always seem to know what I’m thinking?” she murmured, a little less anxiously than she should‘ve been.
“It’s nothing like that, I only sense feelings and intentions.” He let her go and started packing her things properly. “People are like open books to me, or like transmitters I just need to tune in to get to know them.”
“Handy,” she remarked. “Yet, it beats the purpose of socializing.”
He gave her a sympathetic glance in approval. “That’s probably why the ones like me don’t have many friends.”
So it wasn’t jedi anymore now. She imagined how Kad would grow up in a world where most people resented Force users, where there were obviously no institutions for education or day-care, where children could not evolve into normal, social creatures.
Bardan turned around to the door and then she saw the little boy appearing at the door frame.
“Do you want to watch my holos?” he shyly asked Runa, his tiny voice heart-melting for a Force sensitive son of a warrior.
Before she could find anything to reply Bardan offered her his hand and she followed him and Kad to the main room. The house had many rooms but life as a family gave very little privacy, she noticed, and it had been a long time since she had to share space with anyone. Now she was sitting through what seemed hours of colorful animations with comical characters, intermittently laughing and timidly expecting Bardan to attempt something towards her. But none of that happened, they only enjoyed the show and made sure Kad was asleep before switching off the holovids. Bardan took Kad to a room next to his where the boy had some of his own furniture and toys. She waited for him to finish tucking him in.
“Thanks for earlier,” she said hesitantly, “I’m glad we had that talk.”
She felt different about him now, which would be a good thing if she wasn’t apprehending whatever new aspect of his life she was going to discover next.
“Then so am I,” he answered quietly. Curiously his moments of silence were more revealing than his words. Runa tried to mentally shake herself out of his blue gaze, which he of course seemed to pick up and shifted his stance. “We’ll have more of those, if you want to?”
Oh, shab yes, she thought as she wanted to grab his face to kiss him but that crazy, untamed side of her personality was always quickly restrained to the back of her consciousness. Instead, she let out a weak, shy response that killed all of her spontaneous reactions. “Okay.”
She went to sleep and tried not to think of how she could've said or done things differently, as she did every night. Much more important tasks were awaiting her and she had to be ready for them, not tired and preoccupied with emotional matters. She was in a place where those things didn't need explaining, especially not for him. Now she knew that he knew what she felt, and that was one big load off her back.