In which we introduce Padawan Matt Vekil, who is too young for his own good.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: The Longest Road
The smuggling compartment's narrow and dark. Cramped on his belly, Matt Vekil digs his toes against the metal, flexes his calves, and shivers. Every breath compresses his ribs against the deckplates.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
Sneaking back aboard the Hawk had been almost too easy, though. Amel'd promised to cover for him, like always, and in the rush to board the other ship, he slipped off behind a landing marker - he's always been good at hiding, and since Master Vandar took him on as Padawan, he's learned how to hide his presence in the Force, too - and clambered back in through the astromech maintenance hatch. He didn't even need to slice the codes to open it: he already had them, from helping T3 solder a misbehaving fuel line the first day out of Coruscant
He's been here for ages. In a light trance, until the vibrating rumble of the engines disturbed his focus and brought him back to dry-mouthed, cold, dark reality.
Master Vandar didn't ought to send me away. But he's going to show his master. He's going to prove he can be useful. Jedi Dai's blue-skinned crazy Twi'lek friend isn't any older than he is - she's not even a Jedi! - and she was fighting Sith while he was stuck in the Temple. And now he's getting sent away, as though he's some kind of baby, not a Padawan of the Jedi Order!
He might be young, but he's not stupid. He's seen the looks Jedi Dai and Jedi Shan have been exchanging. The Council wouldn't send two war heroes just to escort a bunch of Padawans off-planet, would they? There has to be something more happening. He can help. He knows he can.
He's not quite certain how, yet, but he knows he can.
"Bastila Shan didn't get sent to safety when she was a Padawan," he mutters, resentfully. An uneasy voice at the back of his mind points out that perhaps their two cases are not quite identical. He ignores it. And by the time they find him, anyway, it'll be too late to send him back to the kids.
The engines' timbre changes. He can feel/hear the hyperdrive kick in. We've jumped. Triumph wars with apprehension in his gut. Now they can't send me back.
Best to wait a while before testing that, though.
It takes a while, but eventually, out of sheer boredom, he falls asleep.
Voices wake him. T3's wheedle-eedle-OOP-beep, and Jedi Dai's "What do you mean, there's something wrong with the smuggling compartment? Has HK been sneaking extra ordnance on board? By the dark gods of Dan, if that blasted droid tried to bring a surface-to-air missile launcher again, I swear I'll reprogram him as a drinks dispenser."
Doowhit-doowheeet-oot. Getting closer.
"What do you mean, not HK?" Jedi Dai is close enough that Matt can hear the frown in her voice. He draws himself into as tight a ball as he can manage, concentrates on thinking I'm not here, nothing here, you can't see me 'cause I'm not here -
The cover slides off the compartment with a grating noise. For a moment, silence. Matt squeezes his eyes shut. Notherenotherenothere -
Then Dai says, in a voice more frozen than the depths of space: "Come out of there, blast you, before I stun you and haul you out by the ears."
"And stay there," Safine says, grimly, when she's steered Vandar's Padawan to a seat at the messroom table and pushed him into it. Matt's watching her with nervous, determined eyes. Give the boy credit for guts, if nothing else: the first thing out of his mouth was I'm not going back.
This could be a problem.
The hollow clang of boots on metal decking heralds Bastila's arrival from the cockpit. Safine tilts her head to Matt. Lightly: "Look what I found. Think we should keep him?"
She's not smiling. There's something cold and terrible moving inside her. She has a job to do, and the kid has just made it that much harder.
Not to mention Juhani will be pissed when she finds out what he's done.
A chill, familiar calculation shows her ways in which the kid might be put to use. For a moment, it feels as though she's seeing through two pairs of eyes, angles and outcomes overlaid on a dejarik board of choices.
One cannot function as a general without a full share of ruthlessness.
"Sithspawn." Bastila's blue glance cuts from Matt to Safine and back, sharp with comprehension. "He stowed away?"
"In the aft smuggling compartment. If T3 hadn't noticed something wrong, he'd probably still be there." Safine rubs the bridge of her nose, tiredly, glad that HK is still in the cargo hold tending to his weapons and not here to tempt her by saying, Exclamation: Master, a stowaway? Request: Please let me terminate the stowaway meatbag, Master. "Question is, what do we do with him now?"
"You aren't seriously suggesting he should come with us?"
Matt's jaw juts stubbornly. "I'm a Jedi too, not a child! Whatever you're doing, I can help!" His fists are tight, pale-knuckled. More quietly: "I want to help. Please."
Bastila raises a disapproving eyebrow. Safine shrugs. "Were you any older?"
The younger woman's mouth tightens. "That was different. The Council had no choice -" She bites her lip on the sentence, and uncertainty fills the bond between them.
The Council has had 'no choice' about a lot of things. Safine meets her gaze, levelly. He's not much younger than Mission. And every instinct I have is telling me it would be a very bad mistake to turn around now. Aloud, she says, "Our decisions will be better informed after the rendezvous. It's too late to deliver him to Juhani, and we have no time to take him to Coruscant, but perhaps" - with a twist of her lips - "we can deliver him to Carth." A glare at Matt when he starts to open his mouth. "You're in enough trouble without arguing, kid. So don't."
"That would appear to be the best course of action," Bastila admits after a moment, consideringly. "At least, I don't have a better suggestion."
Safine grins without much humour. "Then I'll let you explain to him exactly how badly he's screwed up, will I? I seem to recall you used to have a knack for lecturing hasty, impetuous Padawans."
"One hasty, impetuous Padawan, at least." Bastila's faint smile is shadowed with irony. Among other things.
Pride is one of the flaws that Jedi fall prey to. Pride, and its cousin, arrogance. It took Malak to strip Bastila of Jedi pride. Thoroughly, and without gentleness.
No less thoroughly, though with very different methods, Safine Dai Revan has been stripping her of the arrogance of power. Day by day, since the hour they met, abrading Bastila's cool certainties with sandpaper humour and a fierce crooked gentleness.
She hasn't looked at the galaxy with quite the same eyes, since Lehon. She sees how things can break, now. Break, and be broken, and never made really whole again.
This is, she suspects, how Dai - how Revan - has seen things all along.
And that is a thoroughly disturbing thought.
But the boy's pride is kin to hers. Hunched over at the messroom table, fingers twisted uneasily together on the dull metal, not meeting her eyes, he's still convinced he's right.
Be fair. In his place -
Given the opportunity, she would have very likely done the exact same thing. The fact that, being one of the Republic's secret weapons, she had not had the opportunity is rather moot.
It does not make Matt's choice any less irresponsible.
"You will have, by now, caused Juhani and Belaya no little distress," she says, very quietly. "They will not know for certain what has become of you, nor will they be able to find out for quite some time. If we encounter serious trouble, they may never discover what has become of you, because we might all be dead. Or worse, alive in Sith hands." Which is not a thought she can countenance without tasting bile in her throat, but her voice doesn't waver. "Dai and I are able to defend ourselves. We may not be able to defend you as well."
He flashes a dark look at her, and bristles. "I can defend myself!"
"You've never had anyone really trying to kill you." She runs a tired hand through her hair. "Consider what I'm saying, Padawan. Don't let your emotions deceive you."
"Yes, Jedi Shan," he says, sullen.
Well, she's tried. Dai can't complain that she hasn't. Bastila exhales, softens her glare. "I understand wanting to help, Matt. But consider the consequences. For us, as well as for you."
He's on the ship.
Matt thinks he should maybe feel happier about that, but when Jedi Dai looks at him, her yellow gaze makes him feel disturbingly like a specimen under a microscope, weighed, measured and classified to within a micrometre of his life. Jedi Shan is hardly any better - every time he tries to ask her about the war, about fighting Malak and the Sith, her mouth twists oddly and her eyes go hard and distant.
The protocol droid creeps him out. It kept muttering about terminating the small meatbag until Jedi Dai told it in no uncertain terms to shut its vocabulator, and its ocular sensors wink at him whenever he comes in range.
He scowls, scuffing a toe along the deckplates. It's been two days, and they haven't told him anything, not even where they're headed. Jedi Shan assigned him a strict schedule of chores and meditation to keep him out of the way, and the low-voiced conversations between her and Jedi Dai come to a halt every time he passes by. And Dai goes out of her way to avoid him.
The chores are mostly helping T3 with dull routine maintenance, nothing the droid couldn't have easily done on his own, and the meditation - he casts a guilty glance at Bastila, stretched out in restless sleep on the messroom's fold-out couch, which, narrow as it is, she apparently prefers to the bunks in the crew dorm - is deadly boring.
Deadly boring, and Matt can't even wander off and hide, because either T3 or the crazy protocol will find him and fetch him back. Or Safine Dai will return from whatever she's doing in the cargo bay and notice he's not doing what he's supposed to.
Which is why he's sitting cross-legged in the messroom, with a datapad holonovel hidden in his lap, pretending to meditate.
This isn't turning out to be the adventure he'd hoped for.
Nervous tension twists in his gut. He sighs and reads the same paragraph for the third time, trying to ignore the creeping sensation of disaster: he's got no real reason to be afraid, blast it -
Bastila twitches in her sleep, and whimpers, and the sense of dread intensifies.
He stares at her in sudden realisation. It's not my fear I'm feeling, it's hers.
The hurried hammer of Dai's boots on the deckplates comes from the corridor at a run. "Bastila. Bastila!"
Bastila's chest is burning. She can't breathe. She can't remember the last time she took an easy breath, here in this bare ice-cold chamber in the Leviathan's belly. The weight of her body suspended from her pinioned arms has been compressing her ribs for days - or maybe for hours, or only minutes. The grey fuzz of the neural disruptor and the constant unrelieved pain has destroyed her sense of time. She's lost track of how many times he's come, flanked by men with avid faces, with blue writhing lightning that obliterates the last vestiges of clear thought in bursts of white-hot uncontrollable agony; with the quiet insistent words that almost, almost make sense.
Her own charred skin smells like a battlefield.
There is no passion, there is serenity. There is no death, there is the Force.
Those words meant something, once. But since then she's screamed her voice hoarse and raw begging for death. Cold black depths of rage and despair have swallowed her whole, and there's no way out.
She can't remember a reality before the pain.
He's coming again, and the knife of furious fear twists in her throat -
Safine knows within seconds of rounding the hatch to the messroom that the nightmare is a bad one, maybe one of the worst since the first nights after the Star Forge. Bastila's pain and terror burns in her gut like bile.
A burst of Force lightning takes her in the shoulder as she rounds the hatch. The impact spins her sideways and knocks the breath from her, but Echani armour dissipates the charge and she stumbles forward -
Her bodyweight's enough to pin Bastila to the couch until her thrashing stops and the wild horrified incomprehension in her eyes fades to recognition. She's projecting reassurance through their bond as hard as she can, fighting to keep from being pulled into the terrified maelstrom of Bastila's nightmare, saying she doesn't know what - Malak's dead, he's dead, Bastila you're safe -
It is a long moment before Bastila goes limp and unresisting in Safine's grasp, breathing hard. Sweat stands out on her forehead. "Damn you." Her tone is low and savage, but her blue eyes are bleak, resigned - and clearly aware. She exhales heavily, and turns her head away into the couch. "Damn you, Revan."
"That happened long ago, I think." Safine slumps against Bastila's shoulder, one knee braced on the deck. Her nose is bleeding where the other woman's elbow struck it in her thrashing: she wipes it, noticing with some irritation that her hand is shaking with reaction. This is not the first time the other woman has lashed out from a nightmare, but this was a bad one, and Safine can still smell the stink of fear on her clothes. She braces herself on her elbow, regards Bastila's profile. Razor-edged guilt twists in her chest, and the old ache of betrayal. I did this. Malak was my apprentice. I did this. She clears her throat. "Are you back with us?"
No use asking Are you all right? There's no such thing as right, when it comes to this.
"Damn you, Revan." No heat in the words now, only resignation. Bastila's lips go crooked, her glance half-bitter, half-wry. "Get off me, you blasted useless Sith. Your armour is pinching."
"Your insults are improving." Dryly, sprawling on her back on the deckplates: "I knew you had it in you."
Above her, Bastila's laugh is choked and half-hysterical but genuine, and some part of Safine unclenches at the sound.
She's strong. She'll come through.
She has forgotten Matt.
White-faced, horrified, staring at them both with one of Safine's own lightsabers in his hand.
I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here, so feel free to chime in.
It might be a while before I get back to this, since I've just about run out of excuses to avoid real life.