Mace Windu looked about as shocked as Kali had ever seen him. "Kalinda. It's good to see that you're alive."
"It's good to be alive, Master. I'm sorry for all the confusion...it's a long story." Her hands folded in front of her. "I wanted to let you know that we have Doctor Raphan in our custody as well as a small sample of the jessamin toxin. Shall we bring him back to Coruscant?"
"Yes," he said with a nod, and she caught a flicker of relief even through the hologram. "Yes, that would be good." He regarded her. "What happened?"
"While we were infiltrating the lab Raphan hit me with some of the jessamin toxin." She sighed and ran a hand through her hair; several small, white flowers fell to her feet as she did so. "It should have killed me, I guess, but I was able to use the Force to heal myself. However, the good doctor also detonated his lab; since Stonewall and I were separated from the group, the others thought that we had perished...hence the earlier transmission. Again, I'm sorry for the confusion."
Her old Master nodded again. He'd resumed his familiar stance: leaning back in his chair with his fingers steepled before him. It was several long moments before he spoke; though she was anxious to get back to her squad, who even now were disassembling their camp, she could tell that her old Master had something else on his mind, though he was silent. Is that where I learned it? she wondered, recalling Stone's frustration earlier. That is annoying. She cleared her throat. "Master?"
He blinked and dropped his hands. "I'm glad to see you, Kalinda," he said at last, in a voice that she rarely heard. "There was much...sorrow when we received the news."
"There is no death, there is the Force," she said by route, though his words touched her. "But I have to say, I'm pretty pleased with the outcome of the whole thing." She hesitated. "Will we be given another mission? I realize that this may not be considered a success, but I think that we're more than capable of-"
"We will discuss that when you return," he replied, his tone businesslike and formal once more. "Though," he paused again and the edge of his mouth tugged into a faint smile. "Well, we'll see. May the Force be with you."
She returned the parting words and the transmission ended. From her position at the long-range transmitter, she could see Weave was shooing Milo away from his instruments, indicating that he should help Crest with the tents, mess station, and other accouterments of life in camp. Traxis was collecting his weaponry, dissembling his blaster cannon with meticulous care.
Stone was not in sight, though she recalled hearing him say something about collecting his perimeter alarms. Casting her awareness out, she could feel him about fifty meters from the camp, his attention focused on the small, motion-sensitive devices that indicated any hostile presence in the immediate area. She wondered if there were still droids roaming the jungle, though she doubted it. Though I wouldn't mind getting a little more target practice, she thought as she exited the ship. The LL-30 was still tucked in her belt, though it was not as comfortable as her saber – yet. Soon, she thought. Soon it'll feel like second nature.
Weave looked up at her approach. "General. How are things in the Core?" He had told her that he'd been loathe to send the notice of her and Stone's deaths, but had done so immediately upon receiving the orders – naturally – and she could still sense a lingering guilt over the whole thing, even as he was bent over the field analyzer, taking something apart with a slender tool.
"Relieved," she replied, giving him a smile. "And anxious to meet our guest." She paused. "No one blames you, Weave." At his look she shook her head. "For the transmission. You were following orders. You did your duty, though I know it wasn't easy. Thank you."
He nodded and looked down at his table, the tool in his hand was still. "It was orders, General. I had no choice but to follow." However, when he looked up at her she could see the relief in his eyes. "But thank you. You're very kind." His face flushed and he looked back at the analyzer. "This thing's been acting up...hopefully I can get it working properly again before..." He paused and regarded her. "Are we getting another assignment, General?"
"I hope so," she replied, giving him a smile before she turned and headed for the others. Crest and Milo were bickering as they pulled tent stakes from the ground.
"You know," Crest was saying as he wrestled with the edges of the canvas tent, his back to Kalinda. "All of the most technologically-advanced weaponry in the galaxy and the Republic sends us off with these little scraps of cloth that may as well be made of flimsiplast for as durable as they are."
Milo collected the stakes and placed them in their carrying case. "Would you rather sleep on the cold ground?"
"I'd rather sleep in a bed, preferably with a woman or two to keep me warm," Crest said with a wistful sigh.
"General," Milo said as the Jedi approached him, his back ramrod straight as he stood into a salute.
"Er..." Crest turned and winced as Kalinda regarded him, though she was biting back her laughter. "Sir, about my comment..."
She shook her head. "Just wanted to tell you that we will, in fact, be returning to the Core." Crest's salute was perhaps a bit more enthusiastic than normal, but she pretended not to notice, turning her attention to Milo, who had a question in his eyes. "Yes?"
The young clone looked pensive as he spoke. "Are we getting another assignment, sir?"
I've finally got Stone calling me by my name, she thought as she looked at him. Now I just have to work on the others, though I imagine I'll have to use a different method. "Maybe," she replied. "Though, I have a feeling we'll be pretty busy soon enough. Why, are you bored?" Her smile was guileless and he looked a bit nervous.
"No, of course not," he replied quickly. "Just...well, maybe a little restless." He gave her a small smile and she raised her eyebrows.
"Great. When you guys finish here, I need the ship uncovered and un-camoflagued. Be sure to scrub all of that paint off, too. There's a stream not far from here where you can get some water. Thanks for volunteering, Milo." She turned to walk away, just as Crest chuckled and elbowed his brother in the side.
"Tough break, newbie."
"Oh, Crest?" she said, glancing back at him. "Thanks for helping him out. I know it's nothing compared to a...bedfellow, but the scrubbing should keep you warm enough for a while." The bald clone's laughter abruptly ceased, though Milo was clearly fighting back a grin.
She flashed them another smile and made her way towards Traxis, who was surrounded by a few tarps on which he'd carefully laid out all of his weapons; presently he was taking inventory and assessing each piece for damage and general wear-and-tear, noting on a datapad which items needed maintenance or charging. At her footsteps he looked up and gave her a curt nod, his eyes flicking to the blaster tucked in her belt. "I didn't give you a holster," he said with a frown.
"This works," she replied. "A holster might be a bit too bulky."
The scarred clone shook his head and made a gesture that indicated she should stand by. Curious, she watched him kneel to a crate beside him, the sounds of shifting metal, leather and cloth coming from it as he rummaged. Finally he pulled out a small, v-shaped bit of leather and handed it to her. "It should clip to your belt," he said as she examined the object. "You don't want that thing pointing anywhere...well," he paused and seemed to reconsider his words. "Just try the holster. Sir."
Kali fastened the holster to her belt and slid the pistol inside of it; she gave an experimental grab and found that it was much more comfortable than keeping the weapon shoved between her belt and tunic. Trax's mouth quirked as she drew the LL-30 a few times, sliding it back in the holster as quickly as she could. After a few moments she grinned at him. "Thanks, Trax. You're right...it is better." He nodded and bent back to his weapons, selecting a large rifle and examining it closely while she watched. Suddenly her eyes caught a glimpse of one of the blades at his side. "May I borrow that for a second?" she asked, gesturing to the steel weapon.
Giving her a look of mild curiosity, he pulled it from his belt and handed the hilt to her. She took the knife and headed back to her tent where she pulled out a small mirror that she kept on hand for emergencies. It was not easy, even though Traxis' blade was sharp, but she was careful and patient; soon there was a thick swath of hair in her lap and her head felt much, much lighter. It feels nice and cool, she thought as she twisted her head from side to side to check that the cut was more or less even. Well, it's not pretty, but it'll work for now.
When she stepped out of her tent, only Traxis was in the camp, the others having made a run to the ship. As she handed him the knife his eyes widened but he said nothing, only nodded once. It was then that she felt Stone's presence emerge from the jungle beyond them; he stood just far enough back so that he was hidden by the shadow of the trees, but she knew he was there just the same. After she thanked the scarred clone again, Kali slipped into the woods to find Stonewall, his helmet dappled with the light that filtered in through the canopy as he watched her approach.
It was his turn to comment on her hair. "Time for a change?"
"Absolutely. Do you like it?" She smiled and shook her head, letting it sway against her cheeks.
In response, he reached for her and ran his fingers through the shortened strands that now fell just past her shoulders. "You'd be beautiful no matter what, Kali; even if you were bald. But I think it suits you." After another moment his hand fell and he cleared his throat. "How are things in the Core?"
She shrugged. "Master Windu's relieved; we're going to head back as soon as we can and drop off Raphan." A quiet breeze lifted the edges of her hair as she looked into his visor.
"Will we be getting another mission?" he asked. She felt a flicker of something from him, a question in his thoughts that had only a very small part to do with his words.
"Perhaps." Kalinda cast a glance behind her, towards the camp; they were more or less obscured from view, so she raised her hands to the edges of his helmet and began toying with the release. "How do you get this thing off?" she said after several fumbling moments.
In response, he flicked some unseen part of the helmet, unsealing it with a hiss. "Easy as uj cake," he replied, his tone light as he regarded her. It was not difficult for her to know what he wanted to do but they were not completely alone at present; she knew that he would let her take the lead so she took a breath and leaned up, kissing his mouth gently and smiling as his helmet clattered to the ground. One of his hands circled her waist while the other cupped her cheek, in that moment the beat of her heart increased exponentially and she felt heat leap through her veins as the intensity of the kiss grew from an ember to a blaze.
At last they parted and she found that she had to take several deep breaths to steady herself; his eyes were still that remarkable shade of honey-brown as he regarded her, the movement of his chest indicating that he, too, was fighting for control. When she found her voice she gave him a smile. "I got a 'we'll see' from Mace, which is about as close to a 'fantastic job' as anything else, so I think we will."
"That's good to hear," he replied, his voice hushed. "I think we make a good team." He paused and cleared his throat, bending to pick up his helmet. "And you're feeling better?" His voice changed as he replaced the helmet, the mic taking over.
Kali nodded. "I am, Stone." They looked at each other for a moment before she spoke again. "Whenever Crest and Milo are done with the ship, get them to prep it. I want to leave here as soon as we can."
"The ship?" His head tilted as he regarded her.
"You'll see when you get back," she grinned. "I think you'll get a kick out of it." Turning to the jungle she flexed her left knee; it had been a little sore lately as she had been neglecting her usual exercises, which she resolved to rectify when she had a chance. "I'm going to meditate for a little while," she added. "I should be back soon."
"See you then," he replied, before he slipped towards the camp. "Kalinda." She shivered slightly at sound of her name in his voice.
Before she began to run, she took a deep, steadying breath, inhaling the scent of green, growing things, distant rain and some unidentified flora. In the next moment she was racing through the forest, drawing on the Force to enhance her speed and agility as she moved past trees and brush; when she stopped her breath was only a little quicker, though her heart was racing. The Force had led her to a small clearing, a bright blue patch of sky above her head indicated that it was still mid-afternoon and she could hear cicadas buzzing all around her.
Taking a deep breath she folded her legs and sat on a nearby log as she tried to quiet her mind, tried to use the Force to reach across the stars and planets to contact Obi-Wan.
Whether he was aboard a vast starship or a one-man fighter, Obi-Wan was uncomfortable with space travel. It seemed unnatural, for all that it was an integral part of his life. He had always hated flying; he despised the cold, empty void of space and the unblinking stars and the monotony of sitting alone in a miniscule cockpit for hours with no company but the occasional beep of an astro-droid.
But at this moment he was untroubled by the blackness that surrounded him, as it was nothing compared to what lay within his mind, his spirit, his heart. He had tried to reach her again and again, but it was like looking at a blank wall, so he prayed to whatever gods still listened that he was wrong. "R4," he said, glancing at the little droid behind him. "How much longer until we reach the Japarran system?"
The indicator panel on the screen before him flashed and he sighed. Thirteen hours. With a sigh, he nodded and leaned back in his seat – as much as he could, anyway, given the tiny space – rubbing his face with hands that were still covered in dirt and grime. Kali, he thought, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Remorse flooded his mind, but he took a deep breath and pushed it aside; in his shock and grief he had fled his position, but he had since regained a measure of composure.
To some degree, anyway.
The lights at his messaging station flickered. The Temple? He grimaced. I have an inkling as to why they'd be calling me. He took a deep breath and accepted the voice-only transmission. "Kenobi here."
"What are you doing?" Mace Windu's voice was weary.
He had no ready answer, so he remained silent.
Unexpectedly, Mace sighed, and Obi-Wan could almost see him pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. "Your flight plan indicates that you are headed for Japarran."
Obi-Wan resisted the urge to shoot the droid a glare. It was protocol to inform the Temple of any flight plan, and he hadn't thought to order the astromech to do otherwise. "That is correct."
"She's not dead," Mace said abruptly. "I spoke to her myself a few minutes ago. There was an incident, but she is unharmed." He could hear the senior Jedi's frown. "You need to return to your post, Obi-Wan; your mission is not yet finished."
"What kind of incident?"
"It doesn't matter," the other Jedi replied. "However," there was a very long pause that made Obi-Wan's hands clench. "I'll send her report, if you want. Now, please turn around and rejoin your squad."
Sighing, Obi-Wan nodded, though he knew that the other Jedi couldn't see him. "Thank you," he said after a moment.
Mace made no further response as he signed off, so Obi-Wan directed R4 to turn the ship around, to angle back for the fleetand tried to ignore the pull of his heart that urged him in the opposite direction. After transferring control of the helm to the astromech droid, he closed his eyes and tried to relax his mind, tried to sense the bright pulse of life that he knew almost as well as his own.
And then it was as if she was sitting right next to him, he felt her presence in the Force, heard his name in her familiar voice. Obi-Wan? For a moment Obi-Wan wondered if he was hallucinating, if the Force was playing a trick on his mind. Many, many years ago, they had learned the secret of communication through the Force, though he was certain that his actions after Basrah had severed the already tenuous connection.
Kali. Relief washed through him, his body sagged in the seat. You're not dead. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
He could hear her chuckle in his mind. Not yet. There was a pause, as if she was hesitating. I just wanted to let you know.
There was much he wanted to say to her, but it was difficult enough to communicate as they were over such a distance, so he simply nodded to himself. Thank you. I was...worried.
I thought you might be.
He frowned. Are you...how are you?
I'm...better. Her thoughts were tinged with regret and something else that he could not place. Goodbye, Obi-Wan.
I just...goodbye? His eyes closed. Is that all it's come to now, Kali?
There was a pause before she replied. Obi-Wan, goodbye is all we ever had. Then she was gone, the wall replaced as though it had never left. The fighter slipped through space as if nothing had happened and Obi-Wan sighed again, casting a glance at the controls.
For now it would have to be enough to know that she was alive and well, though he was not certain he could say the same.
Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed! You all kick SO much ass!
If you enjoyed this story, check out the next fic in the series, Warriors of Shadow. Thanks again for reading!