Chapter 1


The drive from Kashyyyk to Manaan was going to be four long weeks of hurry-up-and-wait. Jolee had never been terribly good with waiting. At his Kashyyyk home, there had always been some chore to do or beast to fight off. Of course, there was something here that piqued his interest, something that he wanted to know as much about as he could – namely, the crew itself.

The small collection of colored stones spun in a circle around his head as he contemplated. It was a simple enough exercise, but still allowed him to clear the cobwebs from his brain. Even trying to pierce the shadows around him with foresight wasn't helping matters, and the difficulty of certain exercises reminded him that he was out of shape in some aspects of Jedi abilities.

Now, the best way he knew how to investigate was to do it discreetly. He had already come to a few conclusions by watching them traverse the Shadowlands, and got the gist of their backgrounds. On paper, Bastila and Carth shared command of the mission, but Bastila kept a reserved distance from the crew – one the crew did not appreciate, obviously. Jolee shook his head. He didn't know whether he pitied Bastila or not, but she certainly reminded him of why he couldn't go back to the Order. Things changed after Exar Kun's War, and not for the better. The Order barely tolerated some of the things he did in the first place, and after the trial...

With a shift in thought, the stones formed a square floating before his face before arranging themselves into two circles rotating in opposite directions.

Mission was open enough. She was a scoundrel to be certain, but a good-natured one with a sense of honor. He also didn't have to be a Jedi to sense how protective she was of her friends, especially Zaalbar, Kairi, and Carth. Canderous's overt display told Jolee about how the Mandalorian saw his crewmates. Juhani was starting to stabilize, but still could swing between Jedi composure and Cathari rage within seconds, especially if she sensed a threat. Surprisingly, Juhani and Carth seemed to be closest to Canderous, even if their respective cultures would still consider him an enemy.

Curious, that was. Jolee set the circles into reversing their spins.

For all of their diverse strengths and backgrounds, the crew reminded him of a web or grid, bonds of friendship or more between them weaving the individuals into a greater whole. At the center of it were Carth and the little Jedi calling herself "Kairi." Both of them carried potentials they didn't realize, and like all potentials they could cause amazing amounts of good – or spell utter ruin. For better or worse, there was a strong bond between them already, one that seemed to only be getting stronger. Of course, that could play into that double-edged potential that swirled around them both. Worse, neither of them had a damn clue as to how strong the Force vortex was around them.

Jolee knew what he saw in Carth. That man was skating the rim. In his wanderings, he saw too many soldiers for whom war never ended. Worse were the ones like Carth who were adding personal stakes onto the battles. Of course, he could only imagine the hell Carth was going through with the bombshell dropped on him. He wasn't going to able to stop the man from searching for his boy, but he knew from experience what probably waited - and it was not going to be pleasant. In fact, it just might be the shove to send him over into the Dark Side.

This "Kairi" was puzzling to him. There wasn't a doubt in his mind that she chose the path of Light, but she seemed to do it by embracing the things that good little Jedi weren't supposed to, at least not if Bastila was indicative of what the current crop of Masters were seeking. Her strength came from those around her. Jolee couldn't take objection in least while the crew maintained their teamwork and mutual support. May the Force help them all if the bonds between the crew were shattered or thrown into chaos.

"Am I disturbing you, Hairless One?"

Cracking open an eye and rising from his cross-legged position on the floor, he sent the pebbles back to their box on the shelf. "Oh, not much, Zaalbar. And just 'Jolee' will do. I know it doesn't work out very well in Shyrriwook, but give it a go if you can."

"I see you watch the crew. Are you unwilling to come closer?"

"Ah, call it the bad old habit of a former hermit. I've been used to getting to know folks from a distance before making introductions. It just happens that I'm going it in reverse order this time."

"I see. And yes, it all is strange. Until meeting Mission, I was little more than a beast. I have her to thank for so much, and Kairi to thank for our continued freedom and survival."

Jolee harrumphed. "Kairi is the one that gets me scratching my head. There's something...odd...about her." He didn't want to reveal too much - not yet. "So, when did she pick you up?"

"On Taris, where I was living out my exile. Slavers set upon Mission and me. I fought them so she could escape. I did not expect her to get help, but she did, and it was Kairi. I could give her nothing in return for my freedom and Mission's safety aside from myself."

Jolee thought about it more. "And has she ever given you reason to question her honor? Anything at all?"

"Hair - Jolee, you are an honored and wise man. I answer honestly when I say that her honor is pure. She defends her clan, and the clan defends her in return. She has never addressed me in anger, never struck the first blow - only the last. I am truly honored and humbled to owe my life to such a noble spirit."

"And the others?"

"Canderous can be boastful, but he knows of honor, even if it is a type unique to his people. Juhani has much honor, and a temper like a Wookiee! I like her. She is good to all of us."

"I see. And I'll have you know that I like Mission. She's got a good heart and a better set of brains. Stick with her."

Zaalbar grinned. "I must get to the engine room now to check the droids. If you want to ask Kairi questions, you will find her in the armory." He then became serious. "I would also like your help later, after Carth is relieved from the cockpit. I...have something to ask, and I believe you can help me with words that may not translate well to him."

"Well, I'm not busy, as you can see. Consider it done. Now, I think I'll take you up on that idea regarding the armory..."

Carth was preparing for shift change when Bastila walked into the cockpit and took the co-pilot's seat, like usual.

"Hey, Bastila, could you check the drive efficiency before –"

"Drive efficiency is above standard, unlike your behavior."

"The hell is that supposed to mean? Give a percentage."

"Ninety-three percent. Now, regarding Kairi –"

Carth banged the console. "What do you want me to say?"

"Not say – do. I'd consider clamping a lid on that rutting instinct of yours." She crossed her arms. "I can't believe this. I've warned you about this, Commander Onasi."

"Back to rank, huh?"

"You are a grown man, not some foolish teenager. You should know better than this."

That was it! "Look here, you..." He couldn't even formulate a proper curse he was so blind with rage. "She's not the one the crew needs protecting from."

Bastila registered a moment of very un-Jedi shock. Carth was expecting the icy mask to snap back on and the requisite cold-water comeback. He waited.

The confusion stayed in place. Bastila turned back to the controls, trying to regain her equilibrium. She tried to say something, then stopped. She was able to speak on her second attempt. "What? Are you trying to say that she isn't...? And that I am...?"

The wounded dignity was genuine, but Carth wasn't about to let her off the hook just yet. "I've watched you, Bastila. And the others have, too. Now, I'm not saying I've got all the pieces, but I know your intentions towards Kairi are far from what you claim. Mission saw you attack her."

"Mission...must have misinterpreted my actions, though I do admit to overreacting somewhat. Kairi is half-trained, a danger if she falls –"

"I'm not even finished. Is it true that you also used to Force to hurt Mission?"

"Well...just to trip her," Bastila said. "But she goaded me!"

"Gee, thought your kind was above succumbing to petty insults."

Bastila sighed. "That was stupid of very stupid."

" apologize to the kid yet?"

"No," Bastila shamefully admitted. "And I thought everything would be so clear. Now, the further we go, the cloudier it becomes. The Jedi Council had made Kairi my responsibility - to guide her and keep her from temptations - all temptations."

"Well and good, but I don't see why you're coming down on Mission and me."

"My problem is that Kairi is being encouraged to stray. The others have their hands in it, but you and Mission are the most pervasive at it. Attachments are forbidden, and those feelings are wrong. It's not healthy for any of you."

"How so?"

Bastila shook her head. "Please don't play the fool with me, Carth. The Sith cost you your family. Your son was almost Mission's age."

"You are not going where I think you're going with this," he growled.

"It isn't just you. Mission has never really had a parental figure, at least not a responsible one. The girl has a case of hero worship for you and Kairi both. As for Kairi..." Bastila sighed. "You and Mission were the first people she became close to, even before I came into her life. If she were not strong in the Force, it would not be an issue. However, she has chosen a Jedi's path, and is my responsibility. I must do everything in my power to sever ties that will interfere with that path."

Ten...nine...eight... Carth made sure he got to "zero" before thinking up the response. "The rest of the crew is also pretty attached to her, if you haven't noticed. Heck, she was the one who pretty much assembled this crazy bunch in the first place, and we've done a pretty good job of things so far." He looked over at her. "Why? Is she starting to slide? Exhibiting any signs of..."

"No," Bastila admitted. "Quite the opposite. I just want to keep it that way, and I must resort to any means necessary to do so."

Carth let out a thoughtful noise at this. "I see. Just don't let it blow up in your face, Bastila. 'Any means necessary' was one of Admiral Karath - AND Revan's - favorite phrases during the Mandalorian War."

Canderous and Kairi were sparring in the armory, the dull thwack of their "wasters" – wooden sticks wrapped with cloth – echoing off the walls. Canderous was twice the woman's size, and a single good hit would have taken her down. The challenge was in actually hitting her, though. Even without the legendary reflexes Jedi training produced, Kairi was nimble and light on her feet. Her blows would do far less damage, but she had a better chance of hitting.

"Hit," Kairi said, placing her sword-arm behind her back and switching the waster to her off-hand.

Canderous grinned. "Finally."

Kairi ducked the swipe coming in for her exposed side and leapt to Canderous's side, quickly striking the back of his leg.

"A hit and cripple," Canderous said. "That would have severed tendons, if not cut an artery. I'd not be long either way."

Kairi stepped backward and made a slight bow. "You would have my sword arm, at least."

He laughed. "Too bad I'd not enjoy the victory. And that was three for six. Good fighting."

She opened the plastisteel container and put the wasters inside. "Thank you." She studied him for a moment before shaking her head.

"If you've a question, Kairi, say it aloud."

She bowed slightly, not taking her eyes from his. "Not so much not wanting to ask it as finding the words to ask it with, my friend. The last thing I wish to do is unintentionally insult you."

Canderous shook his head. "I don't insult easily. You know that by know. Besides, I doubt you could make more social blunders than Carth has."

She sighed and lifted herself to sit on top of the cargo barrel so that she could look him in the eye. "Kashyyyk just left me with so many questions. Most of those questions, I don't know if I can get an answer to..." She scowled. "At least not a truthful one."

Canderous had an inkling of what she was speaking about. He put a hand on her shoulder, never ceasing to be amazed by how much warrior the Gods packed into that small body of hers. "You've always known Bastila hides something from you, astrae. She hides it from us all. Still, with that 'bond' she so often boasts about, I would think you would know best what it is."

She shrugged. "I can only read emotion. Bastila seems to have the better end of it, I'm afraid. She knows what is in my mind, but going the other way, she locks the door."

Canderous laughed without any humor behind it. "All the better for her. The master can read the servant, but the servant is supposed to know their place and not intrude on the master."

"You make it sound as though Bastila thinks of me as her attendant." Kairi was scowling, but out of confusion, not offense. She looked inward, trying to form an answer. "Well, maybe I am – technically. I was bought aboard the Spire to assist her, and this mission is under her command. That, and she is on the cusp of knighthood whereas I'm barely past apprenticeship."

He scowled. "I've known for some time that you were no mere translator or protocol assistant. Bastila has other reasons for keeping you at her side. You held a blade like a Jedi even on Taris." When she flinched with confusion, he clarified. "I saw enough of Revan's troops during the war and even killed a few of your kind in battle. I know that style of swordplay very well."

Canderous turned to see Jolee walking in the armory. The old man grinned and shook his head. "I'll leave if I'm not welcome."

There was a look of internal debate in the Mandalorian's iron eyes, but it was settled quickly. He gestured for Jolee to enter. "Yes, I think a Jedi's point of view would be helpful, and you don't seem as haughty as most of them."

"Well, I'll consider that a good piece of backwards flattery, Canderous," Jolee said. "And if you don't mind, I'll be at the bench upgrading my lightsaber while the two of you talk. I'll interject if there's anything useful to say. Oh, and for the record, I'm no Jedi – at least not in a sense most Jedi would acknowledge. The Order and I...have our disagreements."

"You left the Order, then?" Kairi asked.

"Well..." Jolee said. "That would be a long story I'm not going to bore anyone with now. Suffice to say that I won't have the reverence good little Jedi have for the Masters. Be careful, lass, I'm liable to be a bad influence."

Kairi hopped off the barrel and put her hands behind her back. "Had I believed you would be a bad influence, Jolee, I would have suggested it to the rest of the crew."

"You never did say why you wanted to come aboard, old man," Canderous said.

"It feels good to have an engine beneath my feet again!" He explained further. "Closest thing to that sound in the Shadowlands is an uller in mating season! Be glad you folks weren't around to hear that." He took a seat at the workbench and put his saber on it, using the small hand tools in the drawer under it to make subtle adjustments.

The pair of them looked at each other, silently debating how to continue the previous conversation. Kairi shifted position.

"I'm afraid I've little more to provide you in the way of information," Canderous said. "But you're a smart woman and too damn good to be fooled when you don't wish to be."

"Thank you for telling me, Canderous."

She turned around and left the armory.

Jolee said, "Carth did mention she has a bit of memory loss. Do you know if the Jedi had anything to do with it?"

"The Jedi?" Canderous shook his head. "No. An overloaded plasma conduit on a doomed ship – why ask?" Canderous stopped himself. "Unless you have reason to suspect your former handlers of treachery."

"I've seen plenty in my years, and NEVER put anything past a self-appointed elite."

"So you also suspect the Jedi Masters of deception?"

"Oh, I never said that. Besides, I didn't recall answering questions being in the job description."

Canderous folded his arms. "You'll have to come up with a better excuse, though, Jolee. Not even I believe you came along just to feel an engine beneath your feet – even if we could use a man with your skills aboard."

Jolee harrumphed. "Not as thick as you look – I know that. You'd probably be the best to understand this, too, since you're the only one aboard this bucket that's not young enough to be my son – or even grandson." He clipped the saber onto his belt and started pacing. "You spend your better years going from adventure to adventure. Then, one day you wake up somewhere on the rear end of the universe and discover you're growing old. Given that, when an opportunity for another adventure comes along, you leap into it with both feet because it just might be your last chance."

"So that would make us a pair of aging war beasts out for a last trot?" Canderous said.

"Or en route to the glue factory," Jolee reminded him. "But either way, the journey's the thing isn't it?"

In the main room, Juhani was sewing up a rent in her robes, and Mission was lying on the floor, propped up on her elbows as she busied her hands with repairing a small black gadget.

"What is it you are making?" Juhani asked.

"Aw, just a door slicer. It sends out a scrambling frequency that confuses most computer locks. Makes it super easy to get into someplace you're not supposed to be. I learned how to make it from Nanne. She was...well, she was one of the Hidden Beks. She was trying to spy on the Black Vulkars and got killed a few weeks before I met up with Kairi and Carth."

"I remember the Beks," Juhani said. "Especially Gandon Thek. He had been trying to unite the Lower City and put an end to the never-ending warfare below. Tell me, were you a Bek?"

Mission shook her head. "I wanted to join, but Gandon turned me down. He let Zaalbar and me stay at his base, and we did a lot of scouting jobs for him. I guess part of me wanted to prove to him that I'd make a good Bek someday. It's just...well, now that it's too late, I think I get why he turned me away, y'know?"

Juhani pulled the thread and looped it for another stitch. "Go on."

"Gandon kept talking about 'when you leave Taris, Mission.' I thought he was just kidding. Like I'd ever leave the only home I knew or I'd even get the chance to. I guess I can see now that he didn't want me to be a Bek when he thought I'd have a better life somewhere other than Taris." She dropped the small screwdriver she was holding. "I miss him. I miss all the Beks, really. The Outcasts probably survived, though, thanks to Carth."

"The Outcasts?" Juhani was amazed. "How would they?"

"Carth helped them find the map to their Promised Land," she said. "It was at least a kilometer underground, so it probably didn't get hit. Small comfort, but still..."

Juhani made a thoughtful noise. "Carth is a good soul, but lost and angry. I have walked that path, and it is a difficult thing to find one's way again. You and Kairi aid him more than you realize."

"Yeah, yeah, he is. You're also calming down. Uh, I don't mean it as an insult or anything, but you used to get mad really fast and stay mad. You're just not so quick to get worked up anymore. Thanks."

Juhani put her robe aside and sat cross-legged on the floor next to Mission. "Perhaps some of my anger came from feeling alone. I no longer feel that way. The Force has placed us all together, and I am grateful for it – for you, for Kairi, for Zaalbar..." Juhani laughed softly. "Even Canderous. All of you." I have...confronted my demons. And I have the comfort of knowing I was not confronting them alone."

The door opened and HK-47 trotted in, blaster carbine still on its hip. It was hard not to feel a bit of a chill when facing down a meter and three-quarters worth of pure killer machinery.

"Greetings: Good morning, Crewpersons. Mistress Kairi asked me if I would check the sensor logs for her before shift change."

"It is not customary of you to come and join us, but you are welcome," Juhani said.

He trotted over to the data storage computer with precise steps, hovering over it. "Statement: Since my master appreciates your company so much, it has prompted curiosity. Admission: Mistress Kairi has proven a most unusual specimen of organic. So much so that she had prompted a desire to enrich my databanks in regard to their behavior."

Mission leaned back in her chair. "Yeah, sounds like Kairi. Guess she does kinda bring out the best in you. She's not really trying at it, but she just...well, she just does."

"Clarification: My desire to know more about meat-bags is only as a way to provide better service to my master in matters of protocol. Enhancements to my knowledge databank will also make me a better hunter of these beings as well."

"Perhaps it is too much to hope for," Juahni said.

"Reassurance: My protocol is still in place to harm no member of this crew and to guard the ship from any intruders. The master has designated that function, and I will not disobey it."

"Well, that's a relief," Mission said dryly.

"Puzzlement: Why would I? My programming is built around the function of eliminating targets set by my master. It is a task I do well in, and therefore see no reason to be anything less than proud of this duty. It is the greatest thing for a droid to be used for what is it designed for. Statement: I almost pity organics for not being wired with such knowledge of their core function."

Juhani shrugged. "We manage, and the Force is there to guide those who will listen to it."

HK-47 held up one mechanical hand and a computer probe popped out from one of its "fingers." Plugging it in, he continued to ask. "Query: I know very little about the Force, aside from philosophical conversations I have overheard. Please elaborate."

Juhani finished her stitching and held up the repaired robe to check her handiwork. "Think of the Force as well...all life is connected in a gigantic web, an overlay of energy that binds all creatures, and even all places, together. The closest anyone has come to explaining it outside of Jedi teachings would be the work of quantum physicists."

"Acknowledgement: Fascinating. So, if I were to terminate a target, it would affect much more than just that target."

"Exactly," said Juhani. "For you have eliminated any of their potential children or grandchildren. Lives that would have been touched by your 'target's' presence would not be. The Force can repair damage made to it, but the process is slow, sometimes taking hundreds of years to repair terrible mistakes made." Juhani stood. "It is why the Jedi are committed to being defenders, only drawing our blades in protection of ourselves or others."

HK-47's gold eyes seemed to take on a brighter glow. "Statement: Incredible! I had no idea that I could cause such colossal damage with my core programming."

"If you would ever consider breaking free of such programming, I am certain you can be helped."

"Refusal: Certainly not, Crewperson Juhani! The prospect of causing such damage only enhances the pleasure I get from fulfilling my functions. Thank you very much, you have certainly improved my understanding this day!"

Before Juhani could say anything (she was too in shock to formulate words), HK-47 unplugged itself from the console and merrily trotted off in search of Kairi to give her the data.

Mission shrugged. "What can I say? Some guys just don't change."

After Canderous relieved him at the helm, Carth went back to quarters and flopped on his bunk, counting the bolts in the ceiling to try and keep from reliving the conversation with Jordo again.

"He's...uh...he's joined the Sith..."

Dustil? A Sith? How could he have not found his son sooner? How could he have been such a rotten father as to give up? Keffing hell, if he didn't forgive himself before, he certainly couldn't now.

"The Sith cost you your family. Your son was almost Mission's age."

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction was denial and anger. Where did that ice princess Jedi get off saying things like that? She had spent her entire life locked up in a cloister and kept away from "common" people. Emotions – real emotions – were just a damn concept for her: mere theory!

Carth bolted upright in his bunk when an even nastier thought struck him. Bastila said she had some kind of bond with Kairi, something that made her closer to her than anyone else could hope to be. Yet Carth knew how powerful Kairi's empathy was, even back on Taris. What would happen when someone who's kept her emotions and instincts bound tighter than a matron's corset "plugs into" an empath? Was this "bond" less of a protection for Kairi and more a fix for Bastila?

He certainly hoped not.

Yet, Carth wondered if he'd been so quick to anger because there was truth in Bastila's words. It was true that Dustil was almost thirteen when the Sith bombed Telos, and it was also true he felt an instinct to keep an eye on Mission – both to protect her and to teach her a few things.

He didn't know how much time had passed before he heard a knock on the door. Carth sighed. Was it Bastila with another lecture? Was Mission trying to cheer him up, or Kairi coming to offer underserved understanding and compassion? He sighed. Whatever.

"Come on in."

The door slid open. Zaalbar was stooped in the door. "May I come in?"

Between traveling with Zaalbar and visiting Kashyyyk, Carth had picked up enough Shyrriiwook to grasp the basics, especially when Zaalbar supplemented it with Basic sign language, but trailing behind him was Jolee. Carth still didn't know the elderly ex-Jedi well enough to form a solid opinion, so he kept up his guard.

"No need," Jolee said, holding up his hand. "I'm just helping Zaalbar translate. Some concepts don't translate to Basic very well, so he asked me to help."

"Okay." Carth wondered what this was about. "Come on in."

They sat on the bunk across from him – the one Canderous claimed – and Zaalbar started to speak. "You represent your Republic on worlds where it isn't present, right?"

"Well, sort of, Zaalbar. I'm a military officer with the Republic, and we sometimes get assigned diplomatic missions. Mostly, just escorting the diplomats. Why?"

"I wish to know more about your Republic. Are there many species who join it?"

"Yeah. At last count, we've got about three thousand species represented in the Senate, and three hundred thousand worlds at last count. Each sector elects their representative to the Senate, which is held on Courscant. The Senate debates trade laws, allocates resources in times of crisis, sets ground rules for the whole, but most day-to-day things are left to the local planetary authorities." Carth sat up, looking up at the Wookiee. "The first law, though, is that all beings have the right to their life and a right to govern themselves. That's why slavery's illegal in the Republic, and so is sending your armies to march in on a planet to conquer it. The planetary citizens have to join voluntarily."

"It sounds like an honorable way of doing things," Zaalbar commented

"Ah, but on the downside, the Senate is full of bureaucracy, and it's not always fair. That, and you'd be sharing a seat with the Trandoshans, unfortunately," Jolee warned. "There's always consequences to any choice."

"Father and I were already planning to conduct negotiations with them," Zaalbar said. "We may be ancient rivals, but Czerka's arrival proved that there are bigger enemies than each other to fight."

"You've got a point there, Zaalbar," Jolee said.

"You mean," Carth said. "Are you thinking of asking for membership in the Republic, Zaalbar? Really?"

"I have seen much that speaks to the Republic's honor, especially through your actions and those of the Jedi. I am at least willing to consider the possibility."

Carth whistled.

"If I wanted to discuss this further, where would I go?"

"Well, there's a Republic Embassy on Manaan. If you want to head on in and show the flag, Kairi and I will certainly back you."

"I thank you for your support and friendship, Carth. You represent your Republic well. Now, I will go and send a message to Father. There is still much we have to do."

He got up and bowed slightly to both Carth and Jolee as he left. Carth couldn't tear his eyes from the closed door. "Now that's something you don't hear every day - the prince of a planet walking up to you and asking about how he gets into the Republic."

"Well, Wookiee government is low-key. Each village has a chief. It just happens that Freyyr was elected to be the one who settles any disputes among the other chiefs. The Republic operating in much the same fashion definitely makes it more appealing to him." Jolee chuckled. "And he certainly has a point about how well you represent the Republic!"

"What do you mean by that?" Carth flopped back on the bunk again. "Look, as I keep telling Bastila, I'm not just going to roll over for you just because you pack a saber, okay?"

Jolee laughed. "And you have no idea how glad I am for it. People see the lightsaber and make all kinds of assumptions they shouldn't. No, Carth, you just carry the better parts of the Republic on you – the drive for justice and equality, the willingness to stand up and help when you can, and the fact that you're honest. But, there are also the less-than-shining aspects of it on you, too."

"Yeah, like how many times I've dropped the ball," Carth said. "How many times I should have seen something coming and didn't, and how much other people paid for that."

Jolee made a little grunt of understanding. "I'm not going to fault you. I've been in war myself, you see. Gets hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and even then you wonder if it's the headlamp of an oncoming speeder."

"You actually have a point to this, or are you playing therapy droid?"

Jolee shrugged. "Well, I'm just trying to get to know everyone better, that's all. Been alone too long, I guess. However, I do have questions. What can you tell me about Kairi?"

"You want to know more about her? Why not ask her yourself?"

"Humph. And deal with Bastila running interference?"

Carth rolled his eyes. "You have a point. The Jedi consider Bastila some star Padawan, and that Battle Meditation of hers has saved our butts a couple times, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to throttle her on occasion. It's like she thinks she's better than the rest of us, that we're not all facing the same price here." He found himself gritting his teeth and trying to keep his voice from going up. "And I don't give a frack what she says, Kairi's a grown woman and can handle herself. She doesn't need to wrapped up in nerf wool or locked away, only to be trotted out on Bastila's leash to sniff out a Star Map!"

Was it Carth's imagination, or did the old man raise his eyebrows?

"Kairi has a right to make choices for herself getting hurt, that's all," Carth admitted. "She deserves it – she's more than earned it. I don't want her to end up as nothing more than some pawn for the Jedi, especially since neither Bastila or the Council have played it straight with us."

"I see," Jolee was keeping his cards close to his vest. "What about Juhani? Is she in on this?"

"No, she's with the rest of us in being kept in the dark. I doubt the Jedi trust her with whatever it is, since they tricked her into flirting with the Dark Side. She's concerned with atoning for her actions and not really in a position to be privy to what's going on or ask any questions." He laughed. "At least you know she's not a droid – some Jedi leave me wondering!"

"Statement: I can assure you that Jedi are fully organic beings, we just don't act like it," Jolee said, doing his best mimicry of HK-47.

"Does that make it easier, then?" Carth wondered aloud.

"Make what easier, exactly?"

Carth dismissed the thought. "Never mind."

Jolee shook his head and looked out the port. "At their best, strict codes and regulations keep you from making the hard decisions unaided. At their worst, they give the timid a wall to duck behind in times of crisis or prevent stagnation and corruption from being challenged when they need to be." He sighed. "So, no, it doesn't get easier, especially with someone like you."

"Huh? Someone like – "

Jolee stood up and straightened his tunic. "I could be wrong, but I look at you and see a bit of what I was like as a young man. And nothing makes the things you carry any lighter – not even time. You just learn to carry, or let it go. Now, I've talked enough. Think about it or don't."

For some reason, Carth wasn't able to think of a retort – or really didn't want to. Letting out a long sigh, he closed his eyes and tried to catch a nap after Jolee left.