"This is your capitol city?"

Ran's voice was disbelieving, and Laniff indulged himself in a sigh within the safe confines of his helmet. Ran had yet to be impressed with Keldabe, the capitol city of Mandalore. True, it didn't have the uniformity of Coruscant or practically any other planet, but it was home. There was no "Mandalore Planning and Zoning" to keep the buildings uniform or even complementary. Instead, each building was made in its own style and often out of completely different materials than its next door neighbor. It was… unique.

"Yes, this is Keldabe. Be nice or you'll get tackled by at least a dozen Mandos in full beskar'gam. I may even join in… This is home, aruetii. Mine as well as Kad'ika's. If you don't like it you can wait on the ship."

Ran let out a slow breath. "It was prettier in the rain," he commented finally.

Laniff shook his head and forged ahead. "Rain just causes mud, aruetii. Keldabe can be… an acquired taste. You'll get used to it. Come on, Vhetin and Jay are waiting for us in the Oyu'baat."

Laniff ducked inside the Oyu'baat, what amounted to Mandalore's central gathering place. It was in a sense both a hotel and tapcaf, and was almost always busy. Best of all, no Imperials were allowed inside due to the fact that so many Mandos wouldn't remove their helmets in the presence of stormies - a general term for stormtroopers -, and so business would naturally slow. It was the center of most business and the loose government on Mandalore, making it common to see clan leaders present in the ancient building. It was probably one of the safest places on Mandalore for Laniff and Ran at the moment.

Laniff slipped his helmet off his head and breathed deeply, smiling at the familiar sights and smells that accosted his senses. He nodded at the bartender, who waved in response.

"Looks like your friend Kad'ika has caused quite a stir with the Imps," the bartender said, nodding to the bounty list always posted in the Oyu'baat for the convenience of the bounty hunting patrons.

Laniff looked at the number of credits offered and winced slightly, before shrugging. "She never was good at laying low," he said finally, causing the bartender to roar with laughter.

"That she isn't. Your friends are waiting for you in the back booth."

Laniff nodded in thanks and made his way through the crowd, trusting Ran to follow. He caught sight of a Mandalorian in dull black armor with two gray stripes down his helmet, accompanied by a pretty young woman in a black armor-leather jacket.

"Vhetin and Moquena?" he asked, sliding into the booth and clipping his helmet to his side.

The Mandalorian nodded, extending a hand that Laniff clasped in the tradition Mandalorian hand-to-elbow grip. The young woman simply nodded and offered a small smile, her eyes darting curiously to Ran. She was as sharp as they said, then. Not many people could pick up that fact that Ran was more than he seemed. As for Vhetin, Laniff had no doubt that the man was making full use of his HUD scanners. It was almost impossible to tell the direction of a helmeted man's gaze. Laniff studied the two of them for a moment, knowing they were doing the same to him. It was impossible to get much from Vhetin's armor and helmet, other than the fact the he was a Mando. Laniff had heard plenty of stories about him, ranging from his skill with the unconventional lightsaber pike he carried to his almost sociopathic tendencies. Otherwise he was shrouded in mystery, with even his name carrying the message of leaving the past behind. Cin Vhetin, white snow.
Jay was another story. Her hair was dark brown, and her eyes were brown as well. She wore simple clothing, but everything about her seemed to hint at a hidden steel. She was an aruetii, sure, but Laniff was willing to bet she could match any Mando woman in determination and pure stubbornness. Laniff was suddenly glad the two were on the Mando side.

"Your message said you needed help, vod," Vhetin's voice was calm, his helmet tilted to the side curiously. "You have a job for us?"

Laniff shook his head sharply. "Not a job, not exactly. I need a team to help out a friend of mine, one you've met. Kadira Sal."

Jay glanced up. "The smuggler from Corellia, right?"

Laniff nodded. "She mentioned you two a while ago, seemed pretty impressed. Said you two were some of the best she's met, and she's smuggled hunters in and out of plenty of systems." Laniff saw Ran's eyebrows raise at that, but he kept going.

"Kad'ika said you two were the ones to go to if anything ever went… wrong." Again, Laniff noted Ran's surprise. Kadira obviously hadn't mentioned that she expected things to go downhill sooner rather than later. It was part of a Mando's mindset to plan for the worst, even if they did keep that plan to themselves. "She was kidnapped by a stormtrooper deserter, who is now holding her hostage. He's given Ran and I a job to accomplish, or he'll make sure Kadira doesn't make it back."

"Are you planning a rescue?" Vhetin asked.

"No," Ran spoke up. "Not yet anyway. We're going to play along for a while, give Kadira a chance to find out what she can on her end before we yank her out. Besides, there's a large chance that this trooper isn't working alone. Before we know that, attempting a rescue is just asking to get her killed."

Jay nodded, glancing up at her partner. "Where do we come in?"

Laniff let out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. "I'm not going to ask you to come with us," he said finally. "It's not your fight and you have enough on your plate as it is. Besides, I have another favor to ask of you. But first, I need help getting a team together. Preferably someone who doesn't need to stay on good terms with the Imps. I have no doubt that they'll be close on our shebs this whole job."

Laniff glanced at Jay pointedly before looking back to Vhetin, knowing the man would get the message. Kadira was good at guessing as well as keeping track of Imperial fugitives, especially if they hailed from her home planet. She hadn't cut all ties to her heritage, unlike some Mandos.

"I can find you a team. But I don't like the idea of leaving a vod in the hands of an Imperial, even if he is a deserter," Vhetin said, shaking his head slightly.

Laniff smiled grimly. "Glad to hear you say so. That's my second question. I need someone to be standing by to pull Kad'ika out if she finds a way to get free on her own. She's not the kind to sit still and do nothing, but right now she has no transportation. The Vanguard is with us, and her captors are too smart to leave a ship just hanging around when they're holding a smuggler. I have a secure comm she'll contact me on if she gets loose. I want to leave it with you and have you pull her out, since it's unlikely Ran and I will be able to in time."

"That's a lot of trust to put in us when you've just met us," Jay observed.

"You're my vod, we put our lives in each other's hands every time we go on a deployment. And Kad'ika trusts you, so that's enough for me."

Vhetin seemed to be studying Laniff and Ran before he nodded. "I can point you to a good team. There's a bounty hunter who should able to help you, goes by the name of Jonika. She's not a Mando, but I'll give her your contact info anyway. She's a reliable source, but keep your eye on her, she's slippery. Jay and I can be ready to extract Kadira if we hear from her. You sure she has something up her sleeve?"

Laniff smiled. "Ask your partner. She knows the Corellian mindset. Add to that the Mandalorian stubbornness and I can almost guarantee you'll hear from her within the week."

Ran touched Laniff on the shoulder, rising to his feet. "I have a call to make, I'll meet you back on board the Vanguard," he said, turning on his heel and disappearing before Laniff could respond.

"Friend of yours?" Jay asked, eyebrows raised.

"Relative term," Laniff responded dryly, running one hand through his hair.

"I'm not sure I trust him…" Jay mused slowly, earning an impressed look from Laniff.

"You catch on quickly. That would be Kad'ika's boss, Ran Scorlo. None of us really trust him, but we don't mistrust him either."

"Keep your eye on him too, vod," Vhetin said quietly, his helmeted head turned towards the door Ran had disappeared through. "He reads like a spook."

"By te Manda, let's hope not," Laniff sighed, shaking his head. The last thing he needed was for Ran to end up being Imperial Intelligence. "I'll keep you two updated when I can. Thanks, vod. I owe you. Both of you," he added, nodding to Jay. She might not be officially Mando, but she counted as vod in his eyes. Aruetii or not, she'd more than earned her place here. "K'oyacyi."

Vhetin nodded, clasping Laniff's outstretched arm. "K'oyacyi."

Ran tapped his steepled fingers against his chin impatiently, his dark eyes fixed on the Vanguard's holoprojector.

"Pick up, Spike," he growled. "Answer the fierfekking comm."

As if in response, the holoprojector sprang to life, a blue image wavering in and out of focus before solidifying.

"I was wondering when you'd figure it out and give me a call, Scorlo. I have to say, I'm disappointed it took you so long," Spike's voice echoed slightly thanks to the comm channel, but Ran could still recognize the man with ease.

"Shut it, Spike," Ran snapped, rising to his feet. He could feel the anger welling up in his chest, something he'd managed to banish for a long time. Spike had a way of stirring things up. "Drop the act. You and I both know this is all just a revenge game."

"Oh this is too good. Let me guess, you want me to cut Jett loose and let your pilot go. After all, this is between you and me, there's no need to get anyone else in the middle… Really, Ran, you're losing your nerve. You played life and death games with plenty of other people's lives. Now it's my turn. So let's cut to the chase and I'll give you my answer without all the ingenious threats you have planned. After all, your time is running short," Spike waited a moment, but Ran stayed silent, struggling to control the rage that was building.

"You play my game, Scorlo. You watch as I destroy everyone around you, just like I watched you do to me. You will sit there as your team falls apart, as everyone around you shatters. And you'll live through it all. Best of all, they'll know everything about you. Everything. There's nothing you can do to stop it. I'm giving you the chance to save your friend, which is more than you gave me."

Ran shook his head. "You're a good liar, Spike. But not that good. You're not going to let her go."

Spike paused a moment, then shrugged. "Guess you'll have to wait and see, old friend. Just remember, you're on a timetable. I'd get moving if I were you. Jett's crew can't stay alive forever, and he's the one with the most to lose here. You and I both know how easily that can be turned against your pilot friend."

"I've met hutts with more honor than you, Spike."

Spike chuckled. "I doubt it. Just keep in mind who taught me, Scorlo. You've only got yourself to blame."

The hologram faded as Spike cut the line, causing Ran to curse and slam his fist down onto the device. He shouldn't have expected any other response, but somehow he'd let himself hope.

The holoprojector shimmered to life again, taking Ran by surprise until he saw that it was Laniff.

"What?" Ran snapped, glaring at the image.

"Ouch. Retract the claws, aruetii… I have one more person to see before I head back to the Vanguard. Try to be in a better mood when I get back, we'll have a guest on board."

"Who?" Ran asked, curiosity piqued.

"Kad'ika's dad," Laniff said. "He'll want to be in on this."

"Look, I'm going to land this ship with or without your permission. So either give me clearance or go put yourself and your fierfekking ship into a imploding star, stormie," the woman issuing the threats leaned back in her chair with her arms crossed over her chest irritably, glaring at the spacecraft that loomed between her and the planet of Mandalore down below.

"Captain, protocols-"

"I don't give a hutt's promise about your stupid protocols. Now either let me land or watch me break your barricade and embarrass you sorry excuses for soldiers. I'm here on business of the Corellian SpecOps, and I'm going to carry out that business. Do you understand? Or am I using too many big words?"

There was silence on the other end of the comm and Caida tapped her fingers impatiently against the ship's console, growing more and more irritated as time passed.

You better actually be in trouble, Kadira. If not, I'm going to-

The comm crackled back to life, cutting her thoughts short.

"Captain? You're cleared for landing on Mandalore. Have a pleasant stay."

"Yeah, right," Caida said, shutting off the comm and sending her ship rocketing forward towards Mandalore. Why her partner had chosen such a wild, backwards planet to retreat to was beyond Caida. But something was up, and Caida had yet to leave a call for help unanswered.

"Kad, if you already got yourself killed after all this trouble I'm going to shoot you myself," she muttered, ignoring the lack of logic in the statement. This had better be worth her time.

A/N: Vhetin and Jay appear courtesy of Vhetin1138 here on FanFiction. Go check out his stories, they're worth it, promise :)

Again, sorry for the delay in postings, finals are coming up quickly. I figured I should post a chapter before my life went completely insane.. As always, I love reviews!