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Jedi Temple, Coruscant, seven years before Geonosis.

Zaran tried not to look like she was staring at the Jedi Master kneeling in front of her, but she was. How could she not?

Master Norika Nen was a Nautolan, and that in itself was enough to catch her notice; just something about the way all those head tentacles stirred when they moved. They were pale blue-grey with darker blue dappling's near the ends, and their almost constant shifting mesmerized her. With a conscious effort, she focused her eyes on the broad face leaning in close to hers, on the liquid black, pupiless eyes and the thin-lipped mouth pursed in concentration. Large, thick fingers carefully wove delicate strands of blue hair into a thin, even braid. Zaran felt the slight tug as Master Nen wound a cord around the end, and suddenly the finality of the action hit her like a rock falling on her stomach.

I have a Master.

Many of her agemates agonized endlessly about whether or not they would get a Master. Zaran never really thought about it one way or the other. She could say without bragging that she was one of the strongest in the Force in her Clan, with the possible exception of Aisley, who had more finesse. Instructors had always told her that she would get a Master and do great things for the Order, and she, with a child's unquestioning faith, had never doubted them. They hadn't been wrong. Not a month after her tenth birthday, Master Nen pulled her out of Civic Studies and asked her the most important question of any Initiate's life: will you be my Padawan?

Of course she said yes. But now she wasn't so sure she'd made the right choice. She barely knew this man, and they were going to be spending more than a decade together in the most intimate relationship Jedi had. Master and Padawan. Can I trust him to look out for me, to guard my back? Can he trust me?

Master Nen stood up. He towered over her, and Zaran had a sudden flash of insight into what they must look like to a random passerby: the tall, imposing Nautolan and the small, skinny Human girl. It was laughable, really; she barely came up to his waist. Looking up at him now, all Zaran's previous certainty deserted her. He was so tall. Suddenly he seemed like an impossible legacy, one she wouldn't be able to live up to even with a full eight hundred years to try. She felt very small and silly, like a child caught playing dress up with an adult's clothes. Just because she wore them didn't make her one.

Master Nen blinked down at her as if he'd suddenly forgotten what he was doing. He looked vaguely around the quiet marble hall, then smiled down at her a little absentmindedly. "Mm…why don't you, ah, go enjoy yourself for a little bit? I've, mm, got some things…things to take care of. I'll, uh, I'll find you when I need you, hm?"

Without giving her a chance to respond, he walked off down the hall. Zaran stood there, feeling suddenly lost in the only place she ever remembered calling home. Now that she was a Padawan, she technically didn't have to attend classes anymore. For a moment she considered finishing the rest of her Civic Studies class, but her classmates would inevitably notice the new mark of rank hanging down from behind her right ear, and right now she didn't think she could handle all the attention that would result.

Zaran reached up and carefully fingered the fine braid. It was a symbol of her new station. No longer was she simply an Initiate, but a Padawan, a Learner. She would be expected to sign up for some sort of Temple duty, be it flight deck watch, droid maintenance, or garden duty. She would go on missions with her Master and train with him on a daily basis. Sudden panic, cold and tight, overwhelmed her.

Missions? Who am I kidding, I'm only ten! I'm not ready!

A Jedi does not panic. Zaran closed her eyes, breathing slowly and deeply as she'd been taught to do. Slowly the Force, which had been whipping through her in a gale, calmed to a gentle breeze that warmed her chilled blood and brought peace to her troubled mind. But only just.

Feeling morose, Zaran wandered aimlessly down the vaulted halls, keeping to the walls with her head turned away so no one would notice her braid and feel obliged to stop her and offer congratulations. She kept running her fingers over the smooth strand, worrying at it. This ought to be a relief, a symbol of her new life, a sign of her worth, but instead she felt like a droid with a restraining bolt suddenly attached, restricted in her movements. This braid might mean the true start of her path to Knighthood, but right now it was a vibroblade that would sever her from everything she knew and loved.

Squall Clan had been living in separate rooms for almost three years now, but they still trained, ate, and played together. Even if they weren't technically a Clan anymore, Master Jerint still checked up on them, and they all knew they could go to him if they needed anything. They were a family, not a perfect one, but still. They were the only family Zaran could ever remember, and this braid cut her connection to them with an uncaring abruptness that was almost cruel.

Family. Parents. Mother and father. Words that were foreign to the Temple halls. Zaran couldn't remember hers at all; some initiates could, but they never talked about them. When she was six, Zaran had been curious to see where she came from. She remembered kneeling on a chair in the Archives—she was too short to see the terminal screen while sitting—and typing her name into the data banks. Her file had come up, complete with home planet, parents' names and jobs, even siblings. She remembered reading the information quietly to herself, whispering names that, had things happened a little differently, would have been as familiar to her as breathing:

Father: Anders Jasiri, insurance agent

Mother: Miria Jasiri, booking clerk for Tamus-Montore Imports

Home Planet: Volter III

Siblings: Bavol Jasiri (elder brother), Jacobi Jasiri (elder brother), Kresen Jasiri (elder brother)

They hadn't meant anything, didn't even have any real connection to her, but they should have, and that they didn't made her stomach ache uncomfortably. She'd shut off the terminal and hadn't looked at her file since.

Zaran wanted something to distract her from her gloomy thoughts, something to make her happy. She ought to be happy. She had a Master. She was going to become a Knight, a fully-fledged Jedi.

As if in answer to her prayers, she felt a familiar presence, like a warm spring breeze in the Force, and smiled in spite of herself. A judicious application of Force-cloaking allowed her to sneak around the corner undiscovered by her target.

The young Zabrak was idling in an out of the way alcove, shielded from the main thoroughfare by a large statue of a hooded Jedi mystic from ages past. Warm yellow sunlight warmed the creamy marble and lit up the beige and turquois mosaic symbolizing responsibility that he was scuffing with the toe of his boot.

Charoo was always skipping class, especially ones that were all lecture. He wasn't a scholar by nature and had a fun, irrepressible energy that demanded he be always doing things. He'd slipped out of Civic Studies six minutes into the lesson on the pretext of having to use the bathroom, but the entire class and Master Diedral knew better. The Bith Master still allowed it, if only because Charoo's endless fidgeting would have interrupted his lecture on the importance of Valiant Self-Sacrifice: the Essentialness of Humility, a willingness to Serve Others, etc. etc. As a result, he'd missed Master Nen coming to pull her out of class.

He sensed her at the last second and turned just as she leapt upon him. They went down in a graceless heap, stifled giggles escaping from them. He grinned up from where he lay under her on the tiled marble floor.

"Hey, Zar, what are you doing out of class? Finally have enough of old Diedral's prattling?"

She smacked his shoulder playfully. "Don't be rude; it's Master Diedral."

The movement was enough to jostle her braid which had been covered up by her shoulder-length hair. It fell free, brushing Charoo's nose, and he went cross-eyed trying to see it. "Zar…is that what I think it is?"

The awe in his voice was unmistakable. Zaran flushed with an odd mixture of pride and anger. It wasn't such a special thing. Masters were taking Padawans all the time. There was no reason for him to be looking at her like she had suddenly sprouted wings and prophesied with the voice of the Force itself.

Her pinch was hard enough to make him squeak in pain. He stared at her in dismay, and Zaran instantly regretted her actions.

"I'm sorry, Roo," she muttered, keeping her head down so that her hair hid the shamed blush on her cheeks. Not that it mattered; he knew her well enough to pick up on the clamor of her thoughts and emotions in the Force and understand them. "I just…I'm not sure how to feel about this. I know I ought to be grateful, and I am, but…I should be happy, and I'm not. I…I don't…"

He cut off her fumbling attempts to explain her muddled emotions and spoke with a clarity that only comes from knowing someone as intimately as a lifemate. "You're scared that you aren't suited to each other. You think you aren't ready. You feel guilty because you think you ought to be happy. You're feeling lonely because you think this separates you from the rest of us. That's silly. I'll always be here for you."

She stared down at him, speechless. His face held such certainty, as though he couldn't possibly be wrong.

I'll always be here for you.

Overcome by sudden, simple gratitude for his presence in her life, she dove down and pressed a chaste kiss to his slightly opened mouth. She lingered for a small eternity, their breaths mingling on their lips.

"I'll hold you to that," she muttered.

Tipoca City, Kamino

"One-three-six, move your shebs! You're holding your brothers back, you lazy little nibral! Shift it!"

A-136 struggled under the weight of the forty kilo pack that was pressing down on his shoulders and back, making it hard to breath and even harder to move. Water plastered his dark hair to his forehead and ran into his eyes and mouth. His hands scrabbled uselessly at the rain-washed platform and his laboring heart raced faster as lightning cracked overhead, the accompanying thunder making his small body tremble in fright. Sharp pain lanced up his right arm every time he put weight on it, but he was too hyped up on adrenalin to think about the implications.

Move! Why won't my arms work? There's water in my mouth, feels like I'm drowning. Come on, come on, if I don't move he'll kill me! Move, vape it!

His panicked thoughts were interrupted by someone tugging on his pack and heaving him upright. A-51 gave him a forced smile and a clap on the shoulder that made 136 whimper as burning pain shot up from his right wrist. He clenched his teeth to hold back any other signs of weakness and scrambled after 51, determined to finish the training run even if it killed him.

The two boys were the last to stagger across the finish line. A-136 barely managed to keep himself from collapsing to the deck, mindful of what that would look like to a man like Jango Fett. It would also make his arm hurt more. He was pretty sure it was at least badly sprained, if not broken.


The group of twenty small boys scrambled into two lines of ten each and stood to attention, ignoring the rain that was whipped into their faces by the buffeting wind. A tall man in blue and silver Mandalorian armor paced in front of them, his sealed helmet keeping him safe from the icy downpour. It also hid his expression, but A-136 could clearly read his instructor's displeasure in the tight line of his shoulders and the way he held his head tilted slightly back, as though smelling something utterly foul.

"That was the saddest display of endurance I've ever seen! Tenacity! Drive! When you're weighed down by impossible odds, you don't just lie down and take it. You push through! You utterly destroy your opponent and leave them lying in the dust behind you! You're all training to be advanced recon commandos, the best of the best. A one man army. What I just saw would have made a Hutt curl up in shame."

He paused, helmet swiveling slowly before stopping on one boy in the back row. "Forty-two, what was that maneuver with the grappling line I saw? We're soldiers, not daisy-chain makers! Leave the clever rope tricks to the aruetiise. One-two-two, how many times do I have to tell you not to run flat-footed? Get it through your head, boy!"

And then, the moment A-136 had been dreading. That black T-shaped visor came to rest on him, and his stomach plummeted into the stormy waters below.

"Alpha-one-three-six. You are a liability to your squad. If you can't carry your own weight, why should anyone else be burdened with it? Must I remind you chakaare that in the field you will operate alone? That means no back up! When you screw up, you put your entire mission at stake. Not only will you be dead, but your mission will be a failure, and that's how you'll be remembered. A failure. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir!" chorused the boys, all except 136. He was too busy staring at that blank helmet and feeling a loathing so strong it made his stomach churn and bile rise in his throat. He'd never felt anything like it in his three years of existence. If shame and blind hatred where enough to kill, then Jango Fett would have been lying dead on the platform deck with a smoking hole in his chest.

As if sensing his dissent, the tall man bent down so that his helmet was level with A-136's face. "I said, do I make myself clear?"

136 held back a snarl and bit out, "Yes, sir."

There was a long, loaded pause before Fett finally stood up and addressed them all. "I've had enough of your incompetence for now. Go wash up and get some lunch. I'll see you in the Kill House at thirteen hundred. Dismissed." As the exhausted boys began to trail off toward the bunk rooms, Fett paused and called after 136. "One-three-six, go get that arm looked at." His voice was calm now, almost kind, but A-136 only scowled at his instructor before doing as he was told. He didn't need to be babied.

With the extra weight of the survival pack gone, 136 felt like he could float all the way to the med bay. He walked down the hall, keeping to the edges to avoid attention and cradled his arm—it was definitely broken—against his chest. His eyes burned as he fought back angry tears. ARCs didn't cry.

I'm not a nibral. I'm not worthless or a failure. One day, when I'm big enough, I'll kill him.

Movement down a side hall caught his attention, and 136 glanced over to see Jango Fett's son Boba with Administrative Aide Taun We inspecting a computer terminal. Though the boys were of an age, Boba was so small that the elegant Kaminoan had to hold him up to see the screen. Boba was a clone like A-136, but he didn't have the same accelerated aging as the others, and he wasn't training to be a soldier. The Kaminoans were nice to him. They didn't zap him with electrodes to see how much stress and pain he could stand before screaming. They weren't constantly monitoring him for deficiencies that meant he needed to be reconditioned. He was soft, with small, uncalloused hands and dark curls, not a regulation buzz cut. A-136 didn't like him much.

As if sensing his scrutiny, Boba glanced over his shoulder and met the eyes of the bigger boy. 136 scowled, letting himself imagine shoving a vibroblade up under his chin and into soft skin. Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face, because the smaller boy gasped and buried his face in Taun We's shoulder. The Kaminoan stroked his hair with a fine boned hand, crooning something in a high, fluting voice. 136 moved on down the hall, not feeling much better.

The med droid was calm and efficient, setting his arm and immobilizing it in a bacta cast. He wouldn't be able to use it fully for three more days, but at least it wasn't such a liability now. He sat on the high exam table, little legs swinging idly as he waited for the droid to finish updating his records and release him, and thought unhappily that he would probably have to skip lunch if he wanted to check the soundness of his gear before the afternoon exercises. The med bay's door slid open and A-51 came in, balancing a tray piled high with the tasteless nutrient goop that was all clones ever got to eat. It wasn't even filling. But it was food. You never said no to food.

The other boy grinned up at 136. "I thought you might be hungry."

A-136 smiled back, his first real smile of the day, and patted the exam table next to him. "Park it here, ner vod, and eat with me."

The boys wolfed down the nutrient cubes and were cleaning the trey by the time the med droid turned back to them. "You are cleared for duty," it informed 136. "Report back in thirty-six hours for a following checkup."

The young clones exited the med bay and turned to head back to their different bunk rooms. Before they separated, however, A-136 reached out and clasped A-51's shoulder with his good hand.

"Hey, ner vod. Vor'e. Thanks."

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