EDIT: 2/3/15: I have also re-uploaded this chapter, to fix a few grammar and canonical mistakes, as well as elaborated more on both Kieria's and Wolffe's first impressions of each other.
Quality means doing it right when no one is looking. –Henry Ford
Character is much easier kept than recovered. –Thomas Paine
Kieria walked back to the village, finding a meandering path through the dust and rocks. At her feet, only three of her original Aleena escort remained; the rest had gone on ahead of her when she had told them that medics would be coming soon. The rest were still chattering, but to themselves, and so Kieria was left to her own thoughts.
She knew that she had gained a reputation as "the Spineless", and that it was bound to put her at odds with the war-minded clone troopers. It wasn't that Kieria was not in support of fighting; the reputation had only spread because she had no interest in preventing it. In truth, Kieria was not averse to fighting—when it was absolutely necessary.
Unfortunately, the Republic's recent actions had been to fight first and to talk later.
Unbeknownst to most people, she had actually gone before the Jedi Council and presented her reasons for taking a stand against fighting, although she still wanted to serve the Republic. After an hour of careful inspection, the Council had agreed not to ask her to join in battle unless the lives of innocents were at stake. And so for the course of the war she had been sent on humanitarian or relief missions such as this, or to answer the calls that the Jedi had before the war. Someone had to do it, after all. She would have preferred if a clone trooper battalion had not been sent with her, and a Republic relief team had, but all of the latter were occupied, and the battalion was the closest and the best equipped to assist the fastest.
Clones. Kieria did not trust clones; she had been against their use since the beginning. How had the Republic filed an order for a clone army without the Jedi Council knowing about it? The whole situation just felt wrong to her. Some other Jedi had even agreed with her, but all they could do was go along with the use of the army, since they needed one immediately to protect the Republic. Kieria did not begrudge the Council that; their hand had been forced into using the clones, and she understood wanting to protect the Republic. But the fact was, every world the war reached was only torn apart and the lives of the citizens threatened.
But Kieria's resentment against the clones went deeper than that. She abhorred the idea of cloning; creating thousands of identical individuals, copies of one single man, was completely against the natural way of things, and she could not support it. Cloning had been around before the Clone Wars, for quite some time, to provide a workforce for various corporations, and the idea of creating expendable life was incredibly repulsive to someone who valued life as much as Kieria did. Of course, it wasn't the clones' fault; they could not help the way they had been created, but being in a roomful of identical faces made her feel sick, and she mentally flinched away from any sort of feeling coming from them through the Force, unwilling to open herself. She didn't know how other Jedi like Kenobi or Secura could stand to work with them nearly daily. She planned to spend most of her time with the thankfully natural and unique Aleena and do her best to get things here fixed quickly and send the clones back on their way.
In addition, Kieria simply could not trust that the clones knew what they were doing. They had barely been alive enough years to be called adults, their training was largely flash-training and simulations, not actual experience on the battlefield, and it was a system designed to create a vast amount in little time. In her experience, most such systems were heavily flawed, and she simply couldn't shake the feeling that the clones were not as well prepared and outfitted as they were extravagantly proclaimed to be. Time would tell, she supposed. At least they followed orders.
The village came into sight up ahead, and the last few Aleen natives tugged on her cloak and then left her, running on ahead. Kieria watched them go with a smile and a few words promising to follow them in a moment, but she did not pause and turned aside, stepping over uneven ground to the pile of rocks which sheltered her fighter behind them. The fighter was standard Jedi fare, and colored a dark blue that unfortunately made it stand out on this planet. It was not terribly beaten, but a few scratches and dents did decorate the hull—from a previous pilot. Kieria was fairly decent at piloting the ships, having the Force to rely on, but she rarely let herself get into situations where scratches or dents were even possible.
Approaching, Kieria remotely raised the cockpit and climbed up on the wing, and then inside, slipping her cloak off of her head in the process. She stored the robe behind her seat; in the heat of this desert planet, she wasn't going to need it again for a while, and she would be checking the ship every few hours for messages from the Council. Then she set about locking down her starfighter, fully powering everything down, along with locking the controls and communication system, before she climbed back out, toggling the cockpit lock on her way out. Confident that the ship was secure, she bounded off the wing and started off back to the village.
In the bustle of unloading supplies and setting up their base of operations, as well as organizing the flights to other villages and medics moving between camps and beginning to diagnose their patients, the afternoon waned rapidly and dusk fell. Quickly, the final touches on the camp were made for the night, including the inclusion of glow lamps every few meters along both the perimeter and scattered throughout the camp, so that the workers would be able to see what they were doing.
Commander Wolffe, his helmet long since forgotten on a table—although he did know which table, and he had moved it from place to place with him—stood at the base of the cruiser's landing ramp, arms crossed and looking over the camp with pride in his troops. Despite their suits, designed to regulate their body temperatures, the sweltering afternoon had taken a toll on them. He had officially ordered them to stop for the day and break for food and rest, and a steady, if scraggly, line of helmetless, sweaty clones, although in good spirits, was walking up the ramp, intent on their shipboard barracks.
An outline different from the clones caught his attention as soon as it moved into his field of vision, and his eyes immediately snapped in that direction, trained as he was to perceive threats. But then Wolffe blinked, his eyes staying on the figure in a way that had nothing to do with his training. He had not seen her since she had left for the village late that morning.
Sometime between then and now, the Jedi had removed her cloak, and he found her costume underneath to be a much more pleasing sight than the standard, formless Jedi robe. As he expected, her slender form was indeed full of athletic muscle that told him no matter how Spineless she might be thought, she did in fact know how to fight.
But she had also obviously come prepared for the environment: while she wore trousers, they were of a light-weight, breathable material, her boots were flexible but well-made, and her top half was covered—actually, most of it was uncovered—by a sturdy top held up only with rather thin straps over her shoulders, leaving her arms, a good portion of her chest, and her midriff down to her hips bare. It was conducive to working on such an arid planet, as well as allowing for freedom of movement, and she was in no danger of heatstroke, and on those accounts Wolffe had to agree with the sense of wearing it, although he still would have preferred it if she was better protected with armor.
But his eyes lingered beyond his tactical assessment of his superior. While the breasts were not overly large, they remained prominent and had a curve that just begged the eye to follow it—especially clone eyes that had seldom seen a female figure. That curve also flowed very nicely into the flatness of her stomach, and the curve under her rib cage and down to her hips was a supple bend that unconsciously made him curl his fingers as if tracing it. Her hips were slender but firm, not any wider than her shoulders, which some human men might have disapproved of; but Wolffe found the neat evenness of her body to be even more attractive.
The sound of her boots on the stone snapped Wolffe out of his reverie and to attention. He felt his ears and neck flush and hoped the dim lighting was enough to hide any color that might have spread to his face as he realized exactly what he had been thinking, and he made a mental note to keep a close eye on his men and make sure they did not get distracted from their jobs; over her shoulder he could already see a few of them watching her as they walked up the ramp.
The Jedi really wasn't doing anything to encourage them; in fact the top of her shirt stopped at a good height and did not show off much cleavage at all, but the fact remained that Jedi were in good physical shape, and her clothing did nothing to hide it. It was perfectly suitable and favorable for the environment, almost picked out as if the owner had no regard for her appearance to others, or cared about their opinions, and that relaxed pose was almost as attractive as her body.
"Good evening, Gen-Master Irrden," Wolffe said, relieved when his voice sounded just as steady and gruff as normal, despite his almost slip of the tongue. "How are things in the village?"
Kieria gave him a nod as she stopped next to him, crossing her own arms in a way that unconsciously mirrored the clone commander and subtly pressed her breasts up; but fortunately she was not looking at Wolffe and so the quick glance he couldn't resist went unnoticed. He mentally berated himself; he had a job to do and the last thing he should be doing was day dreaming about pretty girls, much less one who was his kriffing superior!
"The medics have identified the sickest of the Aleena and are quarantining all of them, as well as making sure the rest of their food supplies haven't been contaminated," Kieria said, and it took him a moment to remember the question he had asked. "I am glad to see the camp is organized." Her tone implied that she had not expected it to be, but Wolffe decided to ignore it. "But we'll have lots to do tomorrow as well," she continued, suddenly serious. "I would like to get a full report from the medics that journeyed to other villages, Commander. We must fully assess the situation if we are to properly help the Aleena."
"With all due respect, ma'am," Wolffe said after a pause, "my men have been extensively trained in their duties, and I have full confidence that they have assessed the statuses of the other settlements and made the best decision in each case." He himself was not offended; that wasn't in a clones' nature, but he did feel the need to defend his men. The Jedi turned to him fully, a slight frown her face.
"I am glad you have such trust in your troopers, Commander, but they are only clones, and better suited for battle than this sort of work," she said dryly; Wolffe had to agree but didn't voice his thoughts. "That is why I am here: to make sure things get done right this time."
Wolffe's one good eye narrowed infinitesimally. "'This time', Master?" he repeated, asking for clarification.
Kieria nodded once. "The possibility exists, however you might deny it, Commander, that your troops were not as efficient on your last visit as you seem to claim and perhaps overlooked some detail that has led to this current outbreak of illness," she said, brutally truthfully. "Look, Commander, I know the Republic is filled with reports of the effectiveness of clones on the battlefield, but I fear I do not abide by it. Whatever you may claim, you are only clones, and a single defect in the system can ruin the entire process," she said, looking him firmly in the eye, a strange haunting reserve and determination residing there that surprised him.
"Further, Commander, you were all made to be expendable, and therefore your training is never going to be as complete as mine," she continued. "So if you don't mind, please, just let me handle everything. You are here as a workforce only. I will want a full report from those medics at daybreak." She gave him a mild bow and turned to follow the last few stragglers up the ramp and into the cruiser, leaving Wolffe watching her back, one hand balled into a fist, not quite sure what to make of her speech.
He turned, picking up his helmet and heading off to organize the perimeter patrols for the evening, still pondering the Jedi's speech. She truly seemed to not trust him or his men. Wolffe's feelings were far from hurt; he had worked with Jedi who were wary of them before and had even been out rightly hated by some natives on other planets. Unfortunately, it would certainly complicate this mission and his relationship with her, and could quickly prove to be frustrating. Clones were trained to be autonomous; someone constantly micromanaging them was something that had led to trouble in the past.
But he was having difficulties analyzing Irrden's specific views on the matter. She had held no anger when she had delivered her speech to him, or any emotions at all really, except perhaps pity, which was the only thing that rankled his pride and caused his guard to rise. He would just have to do his best to keep her out of the business of the clones and interact with her only whenever necessary.
At least her words also had the fortunate side effect of swiftly shutting down anymore inappropriate thoughts. He couldn't deny that she had a pretty face, but he decided the more distance there was between them, the better.