Dedication: To the Buurenaar Cabur'e. You know who you are.

Setting: The Republic Dark Age, during the New Sith Wars (circa 1,090 BBY).

"Live and die and gone / Live and die and gone / Leave the dream of hearth and home / Live and die and gone"

"The Devil's Paintbrush Road"

The Wailin' Jennys

"We shouldn't be here."

What was quite possibly the most ridiculous-looking creature in the galaxy leaned against his Mirialan companion's shoulder and muttered mutinously out of the side of his whiskered mouth. Furtive blue eyes darted back and forth, before finally settling into a thousand-yard stare at the ceiling.

"I'm fully aware of that," the Mirialan tipped his head back, downed a shot of dark amber liquid, and continued to exude an air of complete indifference.

"There's a Sullustan sitting behind us who hasn't stopped eying us since we sat down," the gray-furred, long-eared sentient continued to mutter as he fidgeted with his own shot.

"He's probably never seen a Lepi before," the spacer shrugged and set his glass back down on the cheap duraplast bartop.

"Exactly," the Lepi's whiskers flattened disapprovingly against his cheeks and a little tuft of fur began to prickle between his ears. "I'm kinda' a big ole' walkin' 'collect bounty here' sign."

"You're the one who insisted on coming with me. I could have taken D'Larian."

"Yeah. 'Cuz a Miralukan is so inconspicuous," the immediate retort dripped with sarcasm. "And like I'd trust the two o' ya' in a place like Nar Shaddaa alone. Neither one o' ya' can hit the broad side o' a cruiser!"

"D's not too bad," the Mirialan shifted uncomfortably in his seat; this was an old argument and one he knew he couldn't ever really win.

"Maybe not. But you are," the Lepi grumbled; the scruffy creature finally tossed his own shot back.

He shook his long ears and made a face. His companion chuckled softly and raised his glass to silently order another drink.

"I don't know why you insist on drinking alcohol, if you don't like it," the spacer shook his head.

"I stand out enough as it is. Would be mighty funny if I sat down in a cantina and ordered blue milk Plus," the Lepi tugged thoughtfully on his whiskers as he considered his empty shot glass. "I keep hoping I'll find somethin' I like..."

"I think you might want to give it up," the Mirialan's lips quirked upward in a wry smile. "With all of the cantinas we frequent, you'd have found something by now."

The pair fell silent and let the raucousness of the underworld cantina wash them into the background. They were surrounded by some of the roughest sentients that Nar Shaddaa had to offer; to the left of the Mirialan slouched a snarling Devaronian with facial scars and a missing horn; to the right of the Lepi leaned a half-dressed Zeltron prostitute who had seen better days. Their bartender was a ghostly Umbaran and behind them, a Nikta swoop bike gang shouted at each other over an escalatingly dangerous game of pazaak. It was, however, a scene with which the two spacers were more than familiar with; indeed, the whole of the galaxy wasn't much better, even on planets like Alderaan or Coruscant.

The galaxy was in decline, thrown into chaos by a seemingly endless succession of millennia-long wars. Peace and lawfulness were no where to be found, but most especially not on the Sith-controlled planets where to two most often wandered. Nar Shaddaa was the worst of the planets they had visited, but where they'd already been had prepared them for it.

The Lepi continued to eyeball the ceiling; to anyone who didn't know about a space-rabbit's near 360-degree range of vision, he appeared to be staring off into a simple-minded oblivion. His companion, however, knew better; after nearly six years of traveling together, the Mirialan spacer could tell when his first-mate was watching their backs.

"Are we still the center of attention?" the Mirialan muttered out of the side of his mouth as he pushed an empty glass toward the bar-tender.

"Yep," the Lepi focused, for just a moment, on his friend. "He just pulled out a comlink, too."

"Huh. Guess that's our cute to go."

The decision was mutual. Both parties put credits down on the bar to settle their tab; if they noticed the prostitute and the Devaronian count their money, neither spacer showed it. The Mirialan moved first; his slide off of the barstool was slow and a little unsteady. As he got his feet underneath him, he realized with an inward grimace, that it wasn't entirely an act, either.

Maybe I shouldn't have had three straight shots of tihaar on an empty stomach...

There was little time to undo the damage that he had done, in any event. As he weaved his way through the tiny, dimly-lit, grungy hole-in-the-wall-cantina, the Mirialan mused that at least his heady buzz helped his appearance of total inebriation look that much more convincing. A slight grumble from behind him, though, warned him that his companion was presently doubting his ability to run if the situation called for it.

Thankfully, it was easy for the experienced to slip into the anonymous ebb and flow of Nar Shaddaa's Red Light Sector. It was easier, almost, to hide a Wookie in plain sight than a Lepi, but not-withstanding the Mirialan's odd choice of traveling companions, the two were able to mingle into the midday throng without attracting too much attention. The space captain walked in front, his blue eyes roving right to left and the Lepi followed behind, his own eyes mostly directed to a spot somewhere above his friend's head, as he checked for trouble following behind them.

"I really think we should head back to the 'port, Kar," now that they were out in the open, the Lepi tried to focus his companion's attention with the use of his name.

"We've been tracking that damn slaver down for nearly five years, Al'dur," Kar abruptly changed direction and started down a narrow alleyway. "I'm not giving up when we're so frakkin' close to catchin' him."

"We've been here nearly 72 hours and his trail dead-ended in this sector. I'm startin' to think we're chasin' a ghost," Al'dur grumbled as he loped along behind the Mirialan.

"Either that, or the Hutt knew more than he was lettin' on," Kar made another abrupt turn and Al'dur huffed into his whiskers as the alleyway grew darker and narrower. "I'm starting to think he threw us a redfish to get us off the scent."

"Well, Nar Shaddaa's kinda' a big ole' planet an' it's got more back door by-ways than a Lepi warren," Al'dur grimaced when he accidentally stepped into a pile of refuse that had spilled out of a dank entryway into the alley in front of him.

The Lepi paused and took a few scant minutes to shake his boots in an effort to knock off the unidentifiable garbage that was slowly starting to clog his sensitive nose with a putrid odor. He gagged, slightly and shook his head as he pressed a paw up against the underside of his whiskers.

"Mind telling me why we're weaving down dark alleyways where death-by-ambush is all but certain?" Al'dur was, as ever, not hesitant to voice his personal opinion of Kar's more random choices.

"I Felt something come down this way," a window opened up above his head and Kar dodged just in time to narrowly miss a shower of questionable content.

"You would have made a fabulous Jedi," Al'dur rolled his eyes toward the durasteel "sky" above them; he paused just long enough to make sure that the path behind them was still clear of potential followers. "All cuddly mumbo-jumbo and not a lick of common sense."

"Ironic you should say that," Kar swiftly rounded yet another graffiti-covered corner. "My old masters used to think I'd make a fabulous Sith, too."

Al'dur knew when to let a topic drop – any conversation that could potentially involve Sith and any mention of Kar's years as a slave was unequivocally off-limits. The Lepi couldn't pretend, however, that he wasn't annoyed by the sudden turn of events; if left to his druthers, they would both have been heading back toward the relative safety of the Nar Shaddaa space port and their waiting ship. Kar, however, was a wild-card and had been ever since Al'dur had met the Mirialan; if the good captain had his head set on something, neither Sith nor Jedi could dissuade him from it.

This was also not the first time that Al'dur had been dragged down random alleyways in pursuit of one of Kar's nebulous "feelings". The Mirialan was a tribute to his naturally Force Sensitive race – in the fancy vernacular of the Jedi, the Force was strong with Kar. However, Kar's sensitivity to the Force was as fickle as his moods and just as stubborn – as natural as it was, the Mirialan couldn't control it. He could stand in front of a Hutt, listen to a bald-faced lie, and never recognize it, but a half-hour later, some strange compulsion could grab a hold of him and he'd be unable to shake it. It made Kar wild in almost any sense of the word and Al'dur often found himself wondering if it was that innate defiance that had kept the Mirialan from giving into a destiny that would have taken him much farther than that of a drifting, vengeance-driven smuggler.

Al'dur also often found himself wondering if even the Sith would have been able to fully control Kar. As the Lepi followed his daring captain deeper and deeper into the black heart of the Red Light Sector, he had to wonder if there was anything in the galaxy – creature, cause, or creed – that could ever lay claim to Kar's overpowering need to be the architect of his own fate.

Some would have called the smuggler selfish. Al'dur sighed through his large front teeth and followed Kar as faithfully as he could; the Lepi thought that maybe he knew what truly drove the Mirialan and his connection to the Force. It wasn't so much selfishness, as it was a burning need to hunt down the past that still forced him awake at night, screaming with terror into the still blackness of space.

"Are we at least getting -" Al'dur's question was cut off abruptly as Kar skidded to a stop and threw up his dusky-green fist in a wordless command for silence.

The Lepi's ears twitched; a youngling was crying.

"Why don't you go pick on someone your own size?" a voice cracked uncertainly – whether in fear or pubescence, Al'dur couldn't tell – but the tone was strong, defiant.

Kar's hand twitched toward the blaster he kept holstered at his thigh. Al'dur bit back a groan – where blasters and Kar intersected, there was only ever trouble. And, the drama usually ended up in a trip to the nearest med-droid; Kar was a little too fond of shooting himself in the foot.

"Steady a minute, Cap'ain," Al'dur reached out and grabbed his leader's shoulder firmly, before either one of them could make a further move around the alleyway corner. "Let me go first."

Al'dur was only marginally better with a blaster – in fact, D'Larian had enthusiastically labeled them both 'the worst blaster-slingers ever!" and of them all, the blind tech-mechanic had the most accurate aim. But, Al'dur had what neither Kar nor D'Larian had – he had a Lepi's instinctive speed and long legs. Where he might fail with a blaster, he could kill with one well-placed kick to the head.

Kar – who was well aware of his limitations – hesitated for only a moment, before nodding in acquiescence. Al'dur smoothly stepped in front of his shorter companion and sidled up to the corner, so he could take stock of the situation. He grimaced, briefly, as his back came in contact with the alleyway walls; they were slick with what he hoped desperately was just a bad case of mold.

If there were younglings backed up against the apparent dead-end, Al'dur couldn't see them around the massive expanse that stood in the way. Full body, dark-blue armor identified the stranger as a Mandalorian – Al'dur twitched his whiskers in irritation. Mandos were notoriously hard to kill and one the size of a small bantha would be next to impossible to take down.

"Just calm down," a tinny-sounding voice echoed from underneath the badly banged up helmet; Al'dur narrowed his eyes and considered the state of the Mandalorian's armor.

Most slavers took at least a passing, shallow interest in their own appearance. Not to mention, Mandalorians weren't known for trafficking in sentient bodies – at least, not publicly. In fact, since the death of their last Mand'alor, the infamous warrior clans had been rather scarce about the galaxy at large. It was unusual, now, to see a Mandalorian, even on Sith-controlled worlds. It was even more unusual to see a Mandalorian in such ill-used, unkempt armor. Al'dur felt his whiskers twitching in wordless curiosity.

He didn't need to be Force Sensitive to know that he needed to wait a minute before jumping in and making a potentially fatal mistake. He eyed the holstered blaster at the Mandalorian's hip – if this was an abduction, it was a curious one, indeed.

"I'm not a slaver, I promise," the Mandalorian lifted his hands away from his thighs and Al'dur was quick to see that he appeared to be completely unarmed. "You younglings look like you're in trouble, though. Who you runnin' from?"

"We're gonna' get off this stinkin' planet and you're not gonna' stop us!"

A tall, gangly form launched itself from the shadows in front of the Mandalorian. The sound of crying didn't stop, however, and Al'dur deducted that there must have been at least one more youngling hiding against the dead-end wall. There was a brief scuffle, but it took place mostly in front of the expansive Mandalorian and Al'dur couldn't really tell what was happening. A few moments later, a form fell limp to the ground and the Mandalorian cursed beneath his helmet. The crying also escalated alarmingly in volume.

"Osik!" the Mandalorian bent over and picked up the fallen form; a human youngling made an abrupt appearance, draped over the apparent mercenary's shoulder like a sack of mounder potato rice.

Kar's elbow dug deep into Al'dur's side and the Lepi figured it was probably time to intervene – if only to save himself further harm at the hands of his impatient captain.

"Stop right there!" the space-rabbit stepped boldly into the street, blocking the Mandalorian's only exit. "And put the youngling down!"

"I promise this isn't what it looks like," something definitely didn't seem right to Al'dur – the Mandalorian didn't even reach for his blaster.

He simply lifted up the one hand that he wasn't using to steady the inert youngling on his shoulder, in a galactic sign of surrender. Kar stepped out from against the wall and took his place at Al'dur's side; the rabbit looked briefly out of the corner of his eye and gauged his captain's reaction. The Mirialan was furious, but it looked like he was keeping his reaction in check.

For once, Al'dur couldn't help thinking; Kar could be quite fickle in tense situations.

"Who are you and what are you doing with the..." Al'dur paused and tried to glance around the width of the Mandalorian, in an attempt to see who else lingered in the shadows at the end of the alleyway. "Younglings?"

"Name's Boz," was the instantaneous reply – if the Mandalorian had anything to hide, he was doing a great job of laying on the eager sincerity. "Saw this one," he shrugged his shoulder and the knocked-out youngling moved with the motion. "Fight some slavers and escape with...uh..."

Boz's explanation was cut short as a Nautolan youngling – significantly smaller and younger than the one on the Mandalorian's shoulder – launched himself at Boz's shins.

"Let him go!" the youngling hiccuped through tears as he pummeled the Mandalorian's unforgiving armor. "We don't wanna' go back!" some of the fight seemed to leave the little one and he abruptly plopped down on the ground and rubbed little fists into his puffy, iris-less eyes. "I don't wanna' be a slave!"

"No one's going to make you a slave, kid," Kar finally broke his silence and stepped resolutely away from the safety of Al'dur's side.

The Mirialan's face was stony, as he marched into Boz's prodigious shadow and crouched down in front of the second youngling. The smuggler paused just long enough to tilt his head back and glare defiantly into the Mandalorian's silver visor. Al'dur was almost certain that the Mandalorian would take his giant fist and send it crashing toward the top of Kar's closely shaven head, but Boz stayed as passive as ever.

Given the reputation of most Mandalorians, the Lepi found the mercenary's lack of attack rather puzzling. If Kar thought anything of it, he didn't indicate it – the younglings were clearly of more interest than a Mandalorian who seemed to be going out of his way to remain decidedly non-threatening.

"If you come with us, I promise to keep you safe from the slavers," Kar continued his patient dialogue with the little Nautolan, who was still sniffling behind his tiny hands.

"No!" the cerulean-skinned youngling lifted his head and looked, wide-eyed, at his companion, who was draped as still as ever over the broad length of Boz's shoulder. "You'll just take us back to them!" he started to cry even harder.

It was obvious – at least to Al'dur – that the youngling had been promised refuge before and had been cruelly duped because of his trust. Something ugly twisted in the Lepi's heart; thanks to Kar, he had been hunting down slavers, one in particular, for nearly five years. But, this was the first time he had seen the face of the galactic slave trade at such a personal, visceral level.

Kar didn't say anything, but Al'dur watched as his captain calmly reached up and pulled down the top of his high-necked tunic. What the youngling saw apparently surprised him so much, that for a moment or two, he stopped crying altogether.

"Do you know what this is?" Kar lifted his chin and glanced up toward the impassive Mandalorian who was still looming over him; the youngling hiccuped and nodded slowly.

"I-it's a s-slave collar," he wiped a grimy hand across his nose; Al'dur winced a bit as a smearing little streak followed the motion of the youngling's hand. "Y-you're a slave?" the question was asked with a considerable amount of uncertainty.

"I was," Kar dropped his hands and lowered his chin – his point had been made. "I hunt slavers. They won't have you. I promise."

The Nautolan sniffled, but was otherwise silent. Al'dur shifted uncertainly on his feet, but it was obvious that Kar wasn't going to rush the youngling's decision to come willingly. Boz, on the other hand, seemed to have other ideas; the Mandalorian finally made his move and his right hand moved so quickly toward his blaster that Al'dur almost didn't catch it.

Before anyone else could react, however, the hairs on the back of the Lepi's head bristled; five seconds later, the cold barrel of a blaster dug against his fur. Time suddenly ground to a halt and Al'dur silently cursed himself as he looked up.

He'd forgotten to keep an eye behind them.

"Thanks for tracking down our little escapees, vod," a voice behind Al'dur crackled with the tell-tale sound of electronic enhancement. "Would have taken us forever to find them, otherwise."

Al'dur locked eyes with Kar, who had managed to turn around and stand up, before being forced to hold his hands against the back of his head in submission. The smuggler's blue eyes blazed furiously and the young Nautolan at his feet suddenly grabbed a hold of Kar's boots in a gesture of instinctual terror.

They had started off with one Mandalorian.

They now had five.

And just when Al'dur thought that the situation couldn't get any worse, D'Larian's voice rang loud and clear through the Lepi's comlink ear piece, on the secure frequency that all three of them shared.

"Hey, Captain! You might wanna' start heading back. I think port authority's figured out who we are..."

Author's Note: So those of you who may be following my A Thousand Suns's a new one for you. This is completely original fiction, which is definitely a new one for me in the realm of fan fiction as a whole. I was inspired to write this story, though, because of my own explorations into the Mandalorian culture and encouragement I've received for my portrayal of such in A Thousand Suns. This also a labor of love for some of the niftiest people in the world - you all know who you are. I hope I do your characters justice.

Don't have much to say about this one, since this is the first chapter and all. But, if you plan to read along, please plan to leave reviews, too! A writer's ego is quite delicate and reviews are a great way of knowing if I'm doing things right or not!

Also, if anyone is inspired to volunteer as a Beta, I won't say 'no'. I could use one, especially on an ambitious endeavor like this one. There's not much out there on the Republic Dark Age - which can be a blessing and a curse. o.O

Love it? Like it? Hate it? Lemme know...!