The Tatooine Cantina was just as she remembered it: bursting with life, yet shrouded in a clinging, cradling darkness. It was a hidden pulse: a drop of obsidian water within the scorching, torpid planet that contained it. This vital energy was, tonight, enhanced by her sense of a presence that was deeply familiar; and yet, one that never failed to hit her like the fiercest of Firaxan sharks.
It was, of course, Canderous Ordo.
He sat at the farthest end of the Cantina, not so subtly eyeing the dancing girls whilst sipping what was undoubtedly an alcoholic beverage, served in a conspicuously large flagon.
Revan rolled her eyes- she hadn't needed a nocturnal premonition to predict that. She hadn't even needed the Force to recognise him, though he wore a Mandalorian helmet, in addition to the traditional suit of armour.
As she walked up to him, swift and silent as a shadow, she discovered he knew her just as well as she knew him: he murmured her name in his own inimitable manner; in a tone as tough as Krayt hide, but as warm and as welcome as a sunrise out on the Dune Seas.
"I knew it was you, though that's some fancy hood you got there…looks like the Dark Lord is back in town, after all. In which case, you might want to hand me that pretty little Jedi medal of yours…it'll be worth a fortune on Nar Shaddaa."
She heard him chuckle softly behind his helmet; just as she sensed the burning ice of his eyes twinkle with merriment and relief at her presence.
She was touched to sense his undiminished regard. The heart of a Mandalorian was not easily won- but once claimed, stars would burn out before they'd betray the trust of the one who held it. It was a loyalty Revan would always remember; one she'd always be grateful for- and one she returned in kind.
"I'm glad to see you too, Canderous." She said, raising an eyebrow and grinning as she did so. "Though you obviously haven't lost your sense of humour, your manners seem to have taken a hike! What happened to good old fashioned Mandalorian charm? Care to buy me a drink?"
"You're kidding me, right? This, apparently, is a local specialty…Jawa beer. Tastes more like Bantha piss to me though. I tried their version of Mandalorian wine earlier…it was a joke compared to what we used to get wasted on back home. After a battle…you couldn't hold me back if you tried! Though I always knew when enough was enough- Jagi, on the other hand…well, back on Ordo, he wouldn't know the difference between Mandalore and a Twi'lek dancing girl! And I'm talking after just one glass!"
They both burst into fresh laughter- and then stopped prematurely. Revan knew Canderous had said more than he'd intended to. Canderous knew Revan sensed more than he was comfortable with.
There was a brief silence, which would perhaps have been awkward if not for the jarring sounds of the band, evidently not destined for intergalactic stardom, in addition to the grunts and cheers of the crowd gathered around the Pazaak table, absorbed by the disastrous combination of high stakes and dull witted players- there was also the strikingly exotic, ever-eye-catching costumes of the dancers, with moves to match, and the blinking lights and droid-like sounds of the jukebox, all wrapped neatly within the general sloth-like buzz of the place…a bubble of a world that surrounded them.
It wasn't awkward, because they were not truly alone.
It wasn't awkward, because such a thing did not exist between true friends.
It wasn't awkward…only difficult.
"Forget the drink. I was kidding anyway; the Masters would harangue me with a lecture of Bastila-like proportions if I took so much as a sip."
He caught the bottom-half of a half-wistful smile from beneath her formidable mantle.
"I'm not stopping you though. Why don't you give that Mandalorian wine another shot? It isn't often you find a little piece of home on a foreign world…at least, one that doesn't come with a pair of blasters."
"If I wanted a piece of home, I'd have gone back!" he snarled, banging his fist down hard onto the less than sturdy tabletop.
The words sizzled as though they'd come fresh off a Tusken spit.
It was hardly surprising. Nostalgic ruminations never ranked highly on Canderous' priority list. He was a man of action- he believed in pragmatic vision, plans of the mind brought into reality through force of will. He wasn't one for idle dreams- or idle talk, for that matter. It was probably one of the reasons why Revan liked him so much in the first place- a refreshing, and necessary contrast to the endless, warbling deliberations of the Council. Not that she didn't appreciate their caution- it was just that she appreciated the balance Canderous brought just that little bit more.
Silence hovered gloomily till Revan cut through it- nothing if not direct, Canderous thought, half irritated…half relieved.
"So if you didn't go back…where have you been, these past two months?" she said silkily, instantly soothing the conversational abrasion.
"…Planet-hopping, till the credits ran out. Just my luck that they happened to run out on this rock, of all places. I haven't got my own little Jedi Trust Fund, like you and the Princess."
"Trust fund?! Please, we're Jedi! The benefactors, and therefore paupers, of the galaxy! Besides, if you wanted a Mandalorian-style upgrade, perhaps you ought to have partaken in those post-victory ceremonies and media whirls that you found so distasteful?" she said, only partly in jest. She'd certainly missed his sarcasm and earthy realism in the face of all the vulgarity that came with being a 'hero'. Amidst the madness of the avalanche of Republic accolades and intergalactic celebrity status, she'd wondered how she'd ever managed without him. Of course, the Council had sermonised as though the Force would fizzle out tomorrow, cautioning her against feelings of false pride and vanity- they were more than up to the task of getting her grounded. But they couldn't do it with even a shred of Canderous' wit, and battle-worn wisdom: his advice was always welcome, never grudgingly accepted.
"Please. The thought of it makes me want to shoot up a room full of the simpering sycophants…who strongly resemble Onasi, come to think of it. I fight for honour, I fight for the sake of the fight- you know that. What use have I got for all their worthless pomp and empty congratulations? I'm no hero…I'm a Mandalorian."
She couldn't help the swell of warmth that surged up within her, as she heard him speak those words with such pride…and yet it quickly subsided, as she realised a quiet, painful doubt was also embedded within his tone- barely detectable, but present nonetheless.
She knew better than to bring it up, at that moment…though she wasn't about to forget it.
"That 'Onasi' has saved our skins more than once, Canderous. What has the guy got to do to get some respect out of you?"
"Get a brain transplant, maybe with a Gamorrean. His IQ would improve, no doubt. So would his personality!" Canderous snorted, as he took another swig of the Jawa beer, against the better judgement of his tastebuds.
About as compatible as, well…Carth and Canderous, Revan thought, as she shook her head.
"What about the Princess? She looked pretty shaken after…after the Star Forge. More than shaken actually. Broken."
He said this in the indifferent, callous tone many had come to associate with him. But Revan wasn't part of the 'many'. His pause betrayed too much- the old war horse had a heart, after all. A tiny, Mandalorian-sized one, but a heart nonetheless, Revan thought with a wry smile. Although he'd never taken to Carth, he gave Bastila a degree of respect- largely because of her unique abilities in battle…to a lesser extent, because she had always been an enigma to him. He didn't understand her- but he didn't fear her either, contradicting that age-old truism. He acknowledged her…though he'd die before he stroked that regal ego of hers, he thought to himself with a grimace. His tentative respect made a pretty swift exit when the woman chose to open her mouth, that's for sure.
"She's healing." Revan said, in tones that cloaked her sadness well. Bastila was closer than blood. Her pain left asteroid-like dents in her own heart. But she knew, with time, Bastila's dark marks would melt away- just as hers had. It was Revan's turn to look after her.
She filled Canderous in briefly; on the others…he seemed satisfied with her report. And yet strangely dissatisfied, also.
Something was wrong.
She didn't know how she'd expected otherwise- he'd been gone two months, with no word. He fought in a battle that undoubtedly rivalled that of Malachor V, and Mandalorian or no, that had probably given him more to think about than he was used to.
She had an inkling…but inklings weren't enough, when it came to Canderous.
She pushed herself out her chair, and tossed her head in the direction of the bar.
"Screw it. A Jedi's got to live a little!" she said with what she hoped was a convincingly cocky smirk, and strolled up to the bartender, leaving Canderous to brood momentarily.
He was a rather surly looking individual- but one who looked considerably worn enough to convince her he knew a thing or two. His eyes, black and glistening, were sharp as an Echani blade- they were eyes that had seen it all; familiar with every vine of the Anchorhead gossip tree. Good, Revan thought.
"Barkeep…I was wondering if you could provide me with some information on that disgruntled looking Mandalorian over there. I'm in the middle of a meeting with him- a matter of business, you see. But I don't want to make any commitments until I get an idea about his…integrity." Revan was glad of her hood, and his helmet: without those vital adornments, it would have been pretty obvious to the entire Cantina that they were close, and not apathetic strangers.
Luckily, the bartender was not as credit-hungry as his patrons. Information was on the house: "That guy? He's a bum! He's been here for about…what, two months now? Almost every night without fail! I shouldn't really be complaining, he's making me a fortune, but that doesn't make him any less of a bum…he drinks enough to floor a Hutt, but he just never manages to get drunk. Thank the Force! I got enough problems to deal with without having a rowdy, trigger-happy Mandalorian as a regular…I've heard from some of the hunters that come here almost as often as he does that he likes to hunt. A lot. Every night, after he fills up in here…he's out on the Dunes, shooting up whatever gets in his way. I sure wouldn't want to get in his way…he's definitely dangerous. But there's something off about him…anyway, you want to do business with the guy? Go ahead. I haven't heard anything underhand about him, so you should be okay. Hell, anybody dealing with a regular of mine has to be! I'm running a classy establishment here!" he said with a wink, and with that, turned to the impatient Rodian beside her.
She tilted her head upwards- so that her eyes were visible, but only to Canderous. She wanted him to see her hurt, and her anger. He deserved to.
"Let's go outside. This place has become somewhat…suffocating."
"What about your drink? And what's with the look? You got fresh with the guy and he knocked you back? You Jedi don't take rejection very well!"
She wasn't laughing. And he knew why, although he wished he didn't.
His silence served as his assent, and they left.
It was fitting. Under the myriad of stars that lit Tatooine, there could be no pretence. Only truth. The hazy, otherworldly fog of the Cantina blew away with the sand-kissed winds that were so emblematic of the planet, and it was just the two of them- the midnight streets were bathed in silence, and there was only the sound of their footsteps for comfort as the clamour of the band and barflies died away into the distance. They walked, side by side, in a silence so pure it was almost unbearable, until suddenly Revan spun around to face him, throwing back her hood as she did so.
There was to be no veil between them…nobody would recognise them out here.
"Why did you lie to me?"
Such a simple question. Why was it so painful to give her an answer, he wondered…he didn't have to wonder long. Shame was a powerful inhibitor.
"What I do is my business. I'm not Onasi; I don't look for excuses to whine about my issues. I'm not a coward; I don't need other people to fight my battles for me, internal or otherwise."
"Of course you aren't. Cowards would never spend two months hiding out on a dump of a planet, drowning in alcohol, without so much as a whisper directed towards the people who would die for them. The stronger man admits there's a problem- the coward hides in denial."
"Hiding out?! Save your Jedi preaching for somebody who appreciates it. It ain't me! I can admit my problems- to myself. Why the hell should I go through them with everybody else? My therapist is my blaster." He spat bitterly. Rage flowed fresh within him…but also pain. He'd become accustomed to it, that dull, taunting pain: no matter how he pushed it away, it simmered still beneath the surface. It had done, ever since-
"Jagi. This started with Jagi." Revan said slowly, staring unnervingly deep into his eyes.
She tore away from his gaze, to look towards what was only a few metres away from them- the gate that led out to the Dune Seas. Without a word, she walked towards it, and he followed, as he always did.
Canderous' insides twisted, and bent themselves out of shape. He was so angry…so angry at her. But he was livid with himself. How had he allowed himself to fall this far?
He followed Revan, struggling under the weight of guilt, pain, anger…and another emotion. The effort it took to push that away (and his failure to do so) was what caused the daily assault of the others. It was acceptance- the desire for peace; the desire to end his internal struggle and accept his fate. But he'd never submit to it- he hadn't run from a battle yet, and he wasn't about to.
They stopped to sit down, on a particularly high peak amid the eternity of sand and stars.
In that deafening expanse, no soul found shelter from itself. But it could be one for another.
"…That kind of honour-bound suicide is common in our culture: it's the only way for a fallen warrior to redeem himself. I've told myself so many times…what Jagi did was right. What Jagi did was just. It was the Mandalorian way…my way. But I just couldn't believe that anymore. And I didn't know why…after the Star Forge, I needed to get away. To think, with a clear head- and that meant getting away from you…at least temporarily. I ended up here. No prizes for guessing why…I thought if managed to somehow recapture the thrill of the hunt, reclaim the glory of a test of strength; a struggle for power…that feeling; that doubt would vanish. So I hunted. I hunted till my muscles tore and my blood burned like a thousand suns…and it came to nothing." He looked away as he spoke. He was torn between his feverish desire to speak and his disgust at how loose his tongue had become…how cowardly he had become.
"It came to nothing because you've outgrown that, Canderous. You still want to fight; you still cherish the ways of a warrior…you are a warrior. But you're a warrior who needs a cause, a reason. You want something to fight for, a target, an ideal for which you can attain glory. Spilling blood for the sake of spilling blood…that's not a reason." Revan's soft, amethyst eyes tried to seek his own, and her voice radiated concern and affection.
He couldn't stand it.
To him it tasted like pity.
"But that was a reason, damnit!" he barked, springing up suddenly, causing sand to fly quite violently in Revan's direction. A thick clot of cloud passed over the moon above them, shrouding them in darkness deeper than that which they had been exposed to earlier. It seemed to amplify Canderous' voice, as it echoed endlessly, up to the stars.
"That was part of what made me a Mandalorian. A true Mandalorian. Not this…this weakling I've become. After fighting one of the most challenging, prestigious battles of my life…to be reduced to this..." he closed his eyes, his mouth twisted into a deep grimace, as he shook his head. He may have veiled his gaze, but he'd have to erect thicker barriers than that to keep her out.
"You haven't lost your identity, Canderous. You've transcended it. You're a better Mandalorian than you've ever been, because of that fact. You're the future…the ideals you speak of are relics of the past; they belong to the Mandalorians that lost the war. In order to survive…you must adapt. I was your enemy once. And I defeated you. Why? I must have had something you didn't. Something you're beginning to see now- honour comes only when victory means more than cheap satisfaction. Honour comes when victory sends reverberations throughout the galaxy- not because a world was ravaged for the sake of bloodlust. But because an enemy was defeated for the sake of the people- and everything they stand for." She said this with all the fervour and sincerity that he had by now come to know…and to respect. But still he struggled. Still he found himself unwilling to bow to her logic.
"I don't want to lose myself. I can't. I'm all I got. That's the way it's always been." He looked her in the eye this time. She deserved that much.
She grasped a handful of sand, and both watched as it trickled swiftly through her fingers.
"Identity is fluid, Canderous…like time. It changes. You change, you grow…you're a living thing, as much a part of the Force as everything else in existence. Stagnation is death. Transformation is life. You're transforming, Canderous…welcome it. A warrior evolves, as he must- he must in order to comprehend new enemies, to prepare for the greater struggles-"
"I get it. I get it Revan…give it a rest, you're beginning to sound like the Princess. I…I guess I don't have much of a choice either…I've tried, but I can't fight it anymore. I can't. And maybe you're right…maybe there's no shame in admitting that. Maybe it's pointless to fight against what will make me stronger…what will make me truly worthy of being a Mandalorian." There was a pause, as he exhaled deeply, contemplating his own words…then he turned to her, and said in an all too familiar way:
"Besides, you're going to need me- you'll never handle these 'greater struggles' without my blaster covering your back."
He smiled his sly, arrogant smile, but his eyes spoke of sadness- still, he fought it. Anger, he could handle. Sorrow, evidently, was his Achille's Heel. But that beast too, he would learn to subdue…in time.
"It's okay to grieve for Jagi. And it's okay to grieve for the loss of what you thought you knew- that's just as acceptable as being eager to face the challenges of identity, of figuring out what it means to be a Mandalorian now…not what it meant before Malachor V. It isn't weak to admit to pain." Revan said quietly, as the moon became visible once more. It shone like the crystal formations on Dantooine- all the more, because it had just emerged from the dark that had formerly obscured it.
"Hey, I haven't changed that much- don't expect me to get soft on you. You want somebody to blubber? Give Onasi a call." He said with renewed vitality, and threw a fistful of sand in Revan's direction. She laughed and gave him a playful shove, exclaiming: "For somebody who dislikes Carth as much as you do, you sure talk about him enough!"
"Well somebody's got to be the butt of my jokes!" with that, he slung his formidable blaster over his back, and turned to head back into the city.
He was dizzy; dizzy with thoughts of the future, dizzy with the power of the present… He felt alive again: as alive as he'd felt on the Star Forge. As alive as he'd felt in the battle of Althir. As alive as he'd felt on Malachor V. And for the first time, in a long, long time, it was because of an individual…not a post-battle high. It was because of Revan: the source of all his turmoil…all his hope. His future.
"Take off your helmet."
"What? Come on Jedi, we need to head back, it-"
Bewildered, he did so. And the second he did, he was glad of it- it felt good to meet eyes with her, to soak up the warmth between them, and to feel assured of the authenticity of their bond; their connection…and just as suddenly as he was aware of it, she held him in a tight embrace, her head resting gently on his shoulder.
"I wanted to see your smile…it's been awhile."
And suddenly, Onasi didn't seem so stupid after all. He cringed, inwardly. But he relaxed within her arms. Because he was glad of it- and had no wish to battle that fact.
His battle with the facts was over.
He knew at least that for certain, as the sands danced around them, carried by the midnight winds, and the ubiquitous moon shone down: shimmering with a light he no longer feared…