"You lost all your sons," Carth said, "in the war."
"Most of them to the fighting. One to a rip in his armor."
"No you aren't. Any one of my sons would have shot you between the eye, and that's a fact."
"I'm sorry you dragged them into all that."
"It's our way. It's the way life is. You in the republic try to shield them from that, and any way, what about the twi'lek you keep carting around on our suicide mission?"
"Damn it, you know I've tried to find her a safe place she can start again."
Canderous grinned. "And she keeps sneaking back on. Don't beat yourself up over all that again, Onasi. She may be small, but she has the soul of a warrior."
"I don't even want to go down this road again." Carth shook his head. "Anyway.. you said all your sons.. "
"What about your daughter?"
"Don't apologize. It makes you weak."
"I'm sorry you're an asshole trapped in an antiquated culture, that, by the way, was forced on you by a race of disgusting aliens who took you as slaves."
"Blood doesn't make you mando'a. It is an idea. A way of life. The Taung were only the first."
"Whatever. I don't let pointy-headed aliens dress me funny." Carth scratched the stubble on his jaw.
"I should kill you."
"You think Bha'lir will protect you."
"I don't need anyone to fight my battles for me."
"Maybe after all this is over."
Canderous smiled. "If you're still in some mopey, foot-dragging mood and want to kill yourself.. "
"So compassionate.. I'm touched."
The herds took refuge on a hilly slope dotted with blba trees. The beating sun had them laying down, chewing lazily at the purple grasses. The hue of the vegetation made it seem hotter than it was. Some of the iriaz were clustered around the lip of a pond, where other animals had gathered, small ones and weird ones that the mandalorian did not recognize.
Sweat was itching Canderous between the shoulder blades. He and Carth had walked awhile and true to the farmers' speculation, the iriaz had chosen this place to rest.
"High ground a clear shot," he said. "What more could you ask for?"
"Well, they could just pour barbecue sauce on themselves," Carth replied with a grin.
Canderous would never admit it, but the pilot was an excellent cook. Somehow he made the most out of random ingredients found around the ship, leftovers from its former missions, or this-and-that picked up along the way. Even Bastila, harping on the virtues of self-denial and willpower, or whatever, even old Bastila was just about eating out of his hand.
And vod'ika didn't even fight it, licking his plate, utensils, and fingers in a way that a good part of the crew found distracting.
Onasi was a fool.
Later he would look back on that afternoon. Mostly he remembered the weird colors of Dantooine plains, the vivid purples and shimmering golds. The smell of the grass in the heat. Carth's voice and the edge of pain in it, when he'd lost everything.. Back before he got almost all of it back again, just not in ways he ever expected.
It was a good hunt. High ground and clear shots. A clean kill. Stretched out in the grass near the pilot, he never thought he'd have Onasi at his shoulder instead of the crosshairs. Carth would have been a prestigious kill back in the day. The chance might come round again but the moment was lost forever. The war was finished in the green fire of Malachor's destruction.
The alien dog found them not long after, barking and jumping. Some of the men from the farmstead had come to strike a deal for transport back to the enclave.
The Khoonda people feared him. He made a false start toward one of them, just to make him flinch and jump. They stiffened; one touched his weapon, and Carth intervened.
Canderous let himself have a chuckle. Dry and mean.
"You people need to toughen up, take a stand," he told them, as they hauled the antelope carcasses onto the back of the farmstead speeder. "This is your world, just you and the jedi and all this grass. Be a man. Be the master of your world."
"Raiders come," one of the older men said. He pulled up his sleeve to show the ugly burn of an old blaster wound. The muscles of the arm were atrophied around it, looking sunken and infirm. "Raiders and pirates and you savages, you mandalorians."
"And you can't even beat off the dregs of a scattered people. Maybe you aren't meant to live out in a real world.. maybe you should hide in your cities."
"Hey, all right, that's enough," Carth said. "I'm glad you came after us. There's no way we could carry these back by ourselves. If you give us a ride back to the enclave, I'll give you the choice of cut you want. Maybe make a roast, some fresh vegetables from your garden.. "
"He won't give us any trouble," one of the farmers said, frowning.
Carth spread his hands. "Sure he will, he's a grouchy bastard, but he won't hurt you, if that's what you mean."
The older man with the injured arm put out his hand, and Carth met him with a bloody shake.
"I can't take you anywhere," Carth told Canderous.
The mandalorian watched the plains zip by, lavender and gold. The speeder was making short work of their journey together. They sat in the back seat of the speeder, with the alien hound between them. The huurton had a blissfull look on its scaly face.
"It was the truth," Canderous replied. "Anyway. Don't know why anyone would bother raiding this place anyway. It's all grass clippings and manure. Who cares."
Carth petted the huurton slowly. "You'd think the jedi would keep them away. Help out these people."
"Jedi.. fighting mandalorians? That's crazy talk, Onasi."
When Carth looked over at him, Canderous grinned.
Despite all his misgivings on the Jedi Order, Carth experienced a sense of wonder on the approach to the hidden enclave. All these times he'd seen it from the air, but he'd seen without seeing; in the pilot's chair only the Ebon Hawk mattered, getting her from the outer atmosphere down to the ground. In the speeder, he drank in the golden light and the dramatic sweep of the enclave as it curved out of endless savannah.
He wanted to believe they were good, that they were all-knowing, that they were wise. Just as he wanted to believe that Zayne Carrick got away in the end, that he lived happily ever after with that girl of his, that he never woke up squinting in the dark at a stranger and a sudden beam of light.
Jolee Bindo was there to greet them, smiling his wry smile, standing with one hand clasping his wrist. He was kind to the farm folk, trading small talk, before he stepped round the craft and studied the pilot and mandalorian.
"Good to see you boys getting along," he said.
Carth smirked. "Only because we have to," he replied.
"You're a bastard, Onasi," grunted Canderous as he swung down out of the speeder. He lifted the whole antelope and hefted its bloody body on his brawny shoulder. "What about all those sweet things you said to me, bout my whole culture being a lie and how we all ought to be shot?"
"Oh, well, not all of you."
Old Jolee laughed. "That's a start, at least."
Canderous shouldered by with the iriaz carcass, grinning his crazy mean little grin. He held up his free hand- hells, he was carrying the whole thing on one shoulder- and made a little air gun, pulling the trigger at the pilot. And winked. His 'gonna kill ya, Onasi' wink.
Son of a bitch. I'm really going to have to shoot that bastard some day..
Carth shook his head and then walked with Jolee. "How's he doing?" Bha'lir.
"Well, aside from not getting the holonet out here, I'd say he's all right again."
"He's forgotten all about it, then."
"Looks like. He's very forgetful."
"Something bad happened to him. Really bad."
Jolee squinted against the afternoon sun. "Afraid so."
"How can he come to terms with something he doesn't even remember? But he still knows it."
The former jedi considered, and for a moment his face was thoughtful, like he was picking through the words he wanted to say. Measuring them carefully. "It might be for the best," he allowed. "I don't think I'd want to know what he knows. You'd have to live with it, and I don't think he can just yet. This way, he doesn't have to, not really."
Carth sighed. "I think I know," he said in a lower voice, looking away. Even in the golden warmth of Dantooine weather, and even in the marvelous atmosphere of the jedi enclave, he felt a sick coldness creeping around his heart. The weird things Bha'lir would blurt out. The scars on his body. The things that would set him off.
Jolee had stopped walking, Carth noticed. They looked at one another. "Do you?" the old man asked.
"I don't know. I don't know if any of us will ever know. But I think he was captured at one point. Imprisoned. I've been thinking about it."
Jolee watched him carefully and Carth felt prompted to continue. "When we first came here.. after Taris.. he was still pretty bad. He'd get confused. I don't know. I guess he started to think we were going to lock him up here. I don't know what he was thinking."
He remembered how one of the healers had wanted to look Bha'lir over, to treat his scrapes and scratches and the wound that Bendak Starkiller had dealt him. That hadn't gone well.
Jolee still said nothing.
Carth sighed. "I hope I made the right choice bringing him here. I know he hates it. Bastila, too, I think. They treat her like a bad child. But I didn't know what else to do."
The moment passed and Jolee clapped him on the arm, just below the shoulder strap and the rifle. "You made the right decision. He's had a good two days out here, as it happens."
"Sure, out here in the fresh air. Lots of grass to run around in. He's even made some new friends."
Due in large part to the tone that the old man used, Carth didn't know how to take that last remark. "I hope that's a good thing?"
Jolee grinned. "Well, it depends who you ask," he said, "but they're not hurting anybody. See for yourself, it looks like they're all still out there."
Bha'lir was laying around like the lazy bastard he was, like usual, and his choice of clothing reflected his life philosophy. He probably woke up sometime that afternoon and started to dress himself with the idea that he'd put on jedi clothes, and ended up thinking how comfortable it would be to go back to bed in pajamas.
He was barefoot and bare chested with some kind of comfortable-looking open shirt, half-propped up on his arm, smiling with tousled black hair. There was a trashy romance novel cover somewhere that desperately missed him.
Playing with a piece of grass, eyes half-lidded, smiling and talking about bullshit in the way that only he could, Bha'lir was addressing a crowd of fifteen to twenty enraptured jedi who were clustered about nearby, some sitting, some standing, some typing furiously on a datapad, all of various races and ages and all hanging on his every word.
Except for that one togruta male with the hot eyes and stunned expression- that guy didn't hear a damn thing, Carth could tell right now.
Bha'lir was in the middle of talking about the light of the ashla, the flow of cosmic love and the oneness of being, or whatever the hell enlightened bullshit he liked to talk about, when he spotted Carth. A huge smile stole across his face and he sat up slightly; some of the others turned to look, having seen his reaction. Carth shrugged, smiled back, and made a 'carry on' gesture. He'd just wanted to check.
"You think he's just making it up as he goes along?" Carth said to Jolee, who chuckled.
"Now, I think he's being genuine. I really do. They're asking him his opinions about the study of the Force. Among other things."
"What does he know? He's not really a jedi."
Jolee's mirth deepened into a chuckle. "No, he isn't, is he." He steered Carth away and started back to the Hawk. "I think he brings a fresh perspective to the whole business. They want to know."
"He's very bright," Carth said. "But he's still a bullshitter."
They looked at one another and smirked.
"What about Bastila?" Carth let the rifle slip off his shoulder as he mounted the ramp.
"Oh, they've marched her around by the ear, scolding her, like usual. I walked in and had a talk with some of them about that."
"Heh. How'd they like that?"
There was a sparkle in Jolee's eye. "Not in the least! We had a very interesting conversation about hypocrisy."
"Let me guess, that went over well."
"Went over better than our very interesting conversation about irony, though, that's for sure.. "
""Well I feel we've had a momentous adventure here on Dantooine," Bastila was saying over the lip of her newest beer. "Myself, paraded about in scorn and shame, made to answer for every one of your transgressions, while you lazed about in the sun and tempted the weak to the dark side"
"We were having a dialog," Bha'lir said, digging into his second helping. "You shouldn't be so judgmental, and anyway, what transgressions?"
Bastila cast her arm about. "Where do I begin!"
"Have some more to eat, Bastila," Carth put in. "You've had enough of those on an empty stomach."
"I want to know more about my transgressions." A smile was playing along Bha'lir's lips. "I don't even know what you're talking about."
"This is absolutely rich." Bastila smiled. "Well let me inform you that you are absolutely the worst jedi I have ever met, lazy, weak-willed, completely incapable of escaping even the faintest temptation-"
"What is this, I don't even-"
"-traipsing about the galaxy like a tipsy strumpet, committing every manner of crime and indecency-"
Bha'lir licked sauce from his fingers, saying, "I don't remember this, I think you're just projecting-"
"-heinous disregard for the rights of others, improper use of the Force, abusive mind tricks, theft-"
"She's got this all bottled up, doesn't she?"
"-murder, fellatio, grand arson- "
"For crying out loud," Carth said, "We've got Mission sitting right here, Bastila."
An irresistable smile went across Bha'lir's face, then. "I thought that was all a dream," he half-whispered. "That really happened?"
Carth put his face in his hand.
"It was glorious, ner vod," Canderous intoned over his beer. "Glorious."
"We love you for who you are," Mission laughed.
"And selling a hutt into slavery!" Bastila threw up her hands, splashing beer on Zaalbar, who moaned softly.
Bha'lir blinked. "Selling a hutt into slavery? How would you even.. "
"You did!" Bastila cried. "You did that!"
Carth felt that if Juhani had a tail, it would be lashing now, low and slow. "I see a kind of justice in it," the cathar said. "The hutts make their credits from the blood and sweat of their slaves."
"Of course, he didn't live long as a slave," said Jolee in a mild voice, reaching over to get a new helping of vegetables.
"Sometimes it's not how you live," said Canderous, mockingly, "but how you die. The mandalorians of old said that."
"Yeah but did they mean getting killed by jawas?" Mission half-grinned, half-cringed.
Canderous laughed into his beer. "Hell, no."
"Cause that was horrible! I was like no way. Bha'lir, man you are just a sicko, ya know what? We still love ya. You're all crazy."
"I sold a hutt into slavery and he died. That was Tatooine? Jawas?" Bha'lir seemed as surprised as anyone, but now there was a creeping realization over his face, a certain rightness, a certain justice, and he had that feline smirk on his face, eyes gold-bright from the fire.
Carth felt the need to step in. "What happened happened, all right, and it worked out, strangely enough." He dropped a new slice of barbecued antelope on Bha'lir's plate. "Anyway, you were so mixed up you thought you were Davik Kang, and now the hutts are at war with the Exchange. We're off the hook."
"Oh, no," Bastila spat out bitterly, "I've been hearing about that all day. A disturbance in the force... "
Bha'lir set down his plate and looked at her, in earnest. "I'm sorry, Bastila. I'm sorry I keep getting you in trouble. I'm not a very good jedi."
"No, you aren't, are you," she huffed.
But now Bha'lir had a look of wistful sadness upon his face, gleaming in the firelight. He held out his hand, palm up. "Please come sit with me," he said, softly, "and come eat with us."
Carth felt sorry for her, in some ways. Headstrong but frightened of her own power, her own desires. Not treated like a woman but as a weapon. It must be difficult for her, the pressure and the scrutiny. He knew from the start that she wouldn't be able to resist him. He knew. Bha'lir had looked into that cell and seen Bastila Shan on her knees, half-dead, with a powered collar locked around her neck. Carth remembered the look of astonishment and wonder on Bha'lir's face. Carth remembered the whole ordeal of the swoop bike, finding the money, finding the prototype, the gang-war, the black market, a duel.. how all of it came down to the moment before the race, when the Vulkars laughed and gestured to the slave cell, telling Bha'lir that the prize could be his for his enjoyment if he won the race.
There hadn't been a race, after all that.
Bastila hesitated, but the upturned palm remained.
"Please," he said.
She blew out a hiss of a breath, sighed, and lightly touched his hand, just for a moment. She took the plate Carth made for her, and Bha'lir's delight was written all over his face. He was all smiles, friendly, utterly pleased to be tucked into a warm evening with his favorite people.
"I just want to say that I've been thinking about things," Bha'lir said, casting a meaningful look about to catch everyone's eyes. "A little about what we talked about today, the oneness of being- you're smirking, Carth."
Now it became a smile. "You're full of crap, Bha'lir," he said. "But don't let that stop you."
"I never do." Bha'lir grinned back. "I just want to say that I feel I'm approaching this oneness, right now, I feel it. Sitting here among friends, sharing a meal made for us by friends, by the labor of their hands. All of us from such different walks of life. And I know.. " His voice wavered a little, and it went to straight to Carth's heart, damn him. "I know I forget things sometimes, but I really want.. I really want to remember our times together like this. Like this here."
A quiet fell between them, and there was a moment where no one said anything or touched their plate, sitting in the flickering light of the firepit at the edges of the jedi enclave.
Then Carth slugged back his beer and said, "Well.. You better go check on your assassin droid. Don't want him to wake up and start shooting people like he was doing last."
"My assassin droid," Bha'lir said. His eyes went to Bastila's face, as if to double check with her.
"I suppose you should," she muttered. Maybe for her the moment had also become too heavy. "HK was trying to protect you."
"Nothing wrong with that," Canderous said. "Keeps everybody on their toes.. keeps 'em in line, naaysh?"
Bha'lir looked from face to face, a look of confounded wonderment on his own, as though he dared not hope. When he spoke it was with a hesitant delight, and with a smile smudged with barbecue sauce.
He said, "I have an assassin droid?"
Mission beamed. "And he's allll yoouuurs."