Ngozi was thirty minutes into her massage by Carth's count, and he'd been counting every second as he paced the room. "This is so typical of her," Carth almost said aloud, but that would have required speaking to the room's other occupant, and the only thing that could make biding his time at the heart of a base belonging to the crime lord they were about to rob would be actually having to talk to the man responsible for them being here. And Carth had really no desire for the Mandalorian to know what was or was not typical of Ngozi Gogonga. Or for the Mandalorian to know anything.
On the long ride over to Davik's estate, Ordo had put his boots up on the bench beside Carth and asked him, as if he were remarking on the weather, "What battles did you fight in? We might have faced each other."
By the time their conversation was over, Carth was reconsidering his first impression of the Mandalorian. The first time Carth'd met Ordo, down there in the Under City with half a dozen terrified mercenaries around them while Ngozi and Ordo made polite conversation, was that this was one person in particular that Carth would prefer not to get in a fight with before he got off Taris. Carth felt differently now. He felt, to be specific, like it wouldn't be such a shame if he had to take a shot or two at Ordo before this day was over.
We can leave him here on Taris, if he makes it so we don't have a choice, Carth thought as he paced, though he thought it without believing it. Ordo wouldn't go back on his deal, Mandalorian were good about that in general, and Ordo respected Ngozi. He couldn't make that clearer. He couldn't make it clearer that he felt a few other things about Ngozi as well, couldn't keep the leer of his face every time she spoke, and hey look, Carth was back at the fantasizing about shooting Mandalorians. He hadn't thought about that in a few years. It was kind of funny (which meant, of course, not funny at all) what a knack the Sith had for wiping clear all previous conflicts. Five years ago, Carth couldn't imagine a day where he could sit in a room with a Mandalorian without one of the two of them actively trying to kill the other. And here they were now, Ordo sitting at the table, Carth pacing the room, and it wasn't comfortable, hell no, but it wasn't actively murderous. What a PR coup this could be for the Republic, Carth thought wryly. Republic soldier, Mandalorian mercenary, working together against the Sith. Not necessarily working together to stop the Sith, but at least working together to spite them. Everyone knew that was the closest thing to peace you got with Mandalorians. The common enemy. We'll both go attack the same guy.
"Do you think she's keeping you around after you get off this garbage heap of a planet?" Ordo asked all of a sudden, as if he and Carth had been conversing for the last half hour that Ngozi had left them alone together.
"What we're going to do is none of your business," Carth replied.
Ordo shrugged a shoulder, a shift in mass equivalent to a small-scale landslide. "I don't care what Republic schemes you're a part of," he said. "Though I heard rumor that the soldier Brejik put up for the big prize turned out to be a Jedi." He scoffed. "Idiot. To capture a Jedi through dumb luck and think of nothing better to do with her than offer her up in a swoop gang pissing match. I'm guessing your Jedi is half the reason you're so eager to get off this planet."
Carth ground his teeth. "You're plenty eager to get off this planet yourself."
Ordo laughed, that kind of barking laugh that fighters got when they couldn't even show joy without a threat underlying it. "I've been here two years. Trust me, if you'd been stuck here that long, you'd gnaw your own leg off to get out too. But you've been here two weeks. Seems early to get to the point where you'd be willing to rob the Exchange."
"You said yourself. Republic soldiers. We don't do very well on Sith planets."
Ordo jerked his head towards the direction of the slave quarters. "Your woman's been doing well."
"She's not my woman."
Ordo smirked. "No, she's not. You're her man."
"She's a private," Carth snapped. "I'm her commanding officer."
"And she listens to your commands?"
Ngozi's absence from the room answered that.
"She's a hell of a fighter," Ordo said, leaning back in his chair. His eyes rolled up and down Carth, who felt like he was getting scanned, weighed, and measured. Judging by the way Ordo scoffed, Carth had been found wanting. "She'll be a shitty soldier."
"She's not," Carth said, who would have defended his people to a Mandalorian no matter who they were but who could be particularly truthful now because he'd spent two weeks with her (fine, following her) around Taris, and after that short time, Carth couldn't picture a job, hobby, skill, or task that Ngozi wouldn't be good at.
"She is," Ordo said. "She's a commander, not a grunt. You get her off this planet and back in the rank and file, she won't last a week before she goes AWOL."
"You don't know her," Carth said.
"I know her type," Ordo said. "If I didn't, you think I'd be here with you?"
"Yeah, I do," Carth said. "Because you sure as hell need us just as much as we need you."
The two men stared each other down. Then Ordo laughed. "Believe what you want, Republic," he said. "But when you get off this rock, I'd suggest you go tell your command to bump her up high enough to keep her interested or you'll lose her forever. She’s more like me than you."
Carth didn't look away. That would be as good as admitting that Ordo was right.
Then there was a knock at the door.
"You boys decent?" Ngozi called through the port.
Carth walked over and palmed the door open. "Why wouldn't we be?" he asked as the panels slid open.
Ngozi, her skin glowing like polished bronze and smelling so sweet that Carth's mouth went dry, shrugged as she stepped into the room. "I don't know. Why wouldn't you be?" She shot a grin at Ordo who incredibly enough twitched his mouth in response. "You boys behave yourself while I was gone?"
"I can't believe you actually went," Carth said. "I like massages as much as the next guy, but—”
“But it turns out that the slaves heard that the Ebon Hawk’s pilot recently displeased Davik most intensely,” Ngozi said, glancing askance at Carth. “And, they told me when my wonderful massage was done, that the pilot might be very grateful to anyone who could help him out of his current predicament.”
Ordo snorted. “Aldir? Of course. He’s so used to being Davik’s favored pet, he doesn’t know how to behave now that he’s useless to him.”
“I guess he thought he could steal Davik’s ship. Who’d be crazy enough to do that?” Ngozi raised her eyebrow at Carth with the kind of wry smile she’d shared with him a lot over the last two weeks, one that translated roughly to We’re so deep in shit right now it’s kind of funny, right?
“He never does the legwork,” Ordo said. “We did. Aldir can bypass the security for the ship.”
“And as I said,” Ngozi said to Ordo. “I imagine he’ll be very grateful if we help him out.”
Carth, having spent the entire tour through Davik’s compound carefully noting the sheer amount of guns, cameras, and security droids, wondered not for the first time this fortnight if his time on Taris would have been easier or impossible without Ngozi and her cheerful willingness to wade into the worst danger. You had to do what you had to do, but Ngozi went a level beyond obligation, beyond duty. She didn’t march into battle; she sprinted.
More warrior than soldier, Carth thought and wished he hadn’t.
Ngozi smiled at Carth with a look somewhere between fraternization and insubordination. “It’s your call, Commander. What do you think?”
Carth shook his head and ignored Ordo’s smirk. “Let’s go find the pilot.”
There were kath hounds on Dantooine. And they needed hunting.
That was the kind of straightforward information that was in short supply in Carth’s life these days. By the time Mission finished explaining the situation as she’d overheard it from the local farmers, Carth was already holstering his pistols.
He noticed a little too late that Canderous had stood up as well. The two men regarded each other for a moment as Mission rolled her eyes and went back to her Pazaak game with Zaalbar. Canderous jerked his chin towards the loading bay with a challenge in his eyes. And Carth, it turned out, was feeling just frustrated enough for a challenge.
Another one for the record books, Carth thought as they hit the plains together—a Mandalorian and a Republic soldier patrolling together. Side by side, more or less. Their guns weren’t pointed at each other at least, which already made this encounter unprecedented.
“They’re nesting by the western ridges,” Canderous said, the first sentence they’d exchanged since they’d left the ship. “You can get the high ground, snipe them from above.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Carth said, casting his eyes over the hills that jutted over the plains in such stark formations. It’d be a pain clambering up there, but they’d been stuck on Dantooine for four weeks by this point, four weeks where Carth had had nothing to do besides exercise, brood, and exercise while brooding, so he was feeling about as keen about clambering as he ever had since he’d taken a pilot’s seat.
Canderous, it should be mentioned, with his biceps thicker than his rifles and general physique that made you wonder why Mandalorians needed Basilisks in the first place, had nothing to do with Carth’s recent increase in exercise. In case you were wondering. Nor did it have anything to do with the way Ngozi had come to Canderous for conditioning advice as she prepared to wield a lightsaber. “Melee weapons were never my forte,” she’d told Canderous, while Carth has stood to the side and remembered all the times she’d fought with a vibroblade flawlessly, and Canderous used blaster rifles anyway, so what did he know about swords?
“Where exactly are you planning to stand?” Carth asked Canderous now, to cut off where those thoughts would turn next, as they arced in directions he didn’t like to think about and came with words like jealousy that demanded answer about exactly why he would be jealous.
But she could have picked anyone but the Mandalorian. Whatever else Carth’s reasons, he couldn’t stop thinking that.
Canderous nodded his rifle at the plains in front of them. “On the ground.”
“You mean while I’m standing in the place that has the clear tactical advantage,” Carth said, “you’ll be wading directly into the mass of wild beasts I’ll be firing at.”
“Why?” Carth asked, more out of curiosity than to dissuade the action. If Canderous wanted to, then Canderous was welcome to. It’d taken more than a few kath hounds to kill a Mandalorian, and if it didn’t, well—well, then Carth would help him out. That was what it meant to be a soldier. You protected the people that were counting on you to protect them.
Didn’t mean Carth might not let the kath hounds get a few good bites in first.
“Can’t think of any other way I’ll get a damn fight worth having on this waste of a planet,” Canderous drawled.
Carth shook his head and looked back at the ridges. “This is why the Republic won,” he said mostly to himself. It was a bit of a surprise then when Canderous laughed, that one sharp bark that sounded like a blaster firing. Carth glanced back at Canderous, but the Mandalorian was already striding off, straight towards the herd of kath hounds in the distance. And after a moment, Carth just shook his head and set himself to climbing.
They slept onboard on Tatooine, which meant they kept to the barracks system they’d established on the way here. Ngozi, Mission, Bastila, and Juhani slept in one barrack. Carth, Canderous, and Zaalbar slept in the other. Zaalbar slept in the bunk between them, so that Carth at least had a Wookie between him and a Mandalorian, and Canderous had a Wookie between a Republic soldier and the door. Carth, who always slept with his blaster nearby, kept it underneath his pillow these days.
Carth lay awake in bed in the dark, one hand under his head, the other resting on his chest as faintly he heard the hiss of the ramp coming down. Then the tread of boots, then laughter, quickly muted, and then hiss again as the ramp came up. By Carth’s watch, it was two in the morning on Tatooine, and Ngozi and Canderous were finally back from the hunting lodge. There’d been a party this evening, a gathering of all the big game hunters in this part of the sandbox, and Ngozi had snagged herself, as she always managed to, an invite to an event too exclusive to be missed. The invite had come with a plus-one. She’d tapped Canderous for the job. If she hadn’t, Carth would have told her to. Canderous was every inch the same make and model of the hunters on the dunes, that feral kind of violence channeled for profit that you needed to survive out here. And Canderous was from the desert. He was in his element here.
Ngozi had winked at Carth on her way out the ship and teased, “Don’t wait up.” And Canderous had leveled such a smirk Carth’s way that once they’d disembarked, Carth had gone pointedly to bed, and once there in the privacy of the dark, he’d waited up. And now they were back.
Carth listened to the footsteps come closer and then separate, the lighter set growing lighter as they walked off to the other end of the ship, while the heavy thud-thud of combat boots grew louder and louder until the door to the quarters slid open. Light from the hallway sliced into the room. It cut across Carth’s bed like a gash. Then the door slid shut again, and the light took Carth’s night vision with it. He followed Canderous by sound alone as the Mandalorian stomped past Carth. On the other side of the room, the bunk groaned, and the boots thudded off against the ground, and the rifle rested against the metal of the wall with a clink, the only delicate noise Canderous had produced since he’d entered the ship.
“Keep it down,” Carth said to the dark.
“You weren’t sleeping,” Canderous replied. “And you can’t wake the Wookie.”
As if in answer, Zaalbar snored.
“You don’t know I wasn’t asleep.”
“You weren’t,” said Canderous with so much certainty that it set Carth’s teeth on edge. It wasn’t even smugness, though Canderous sure as hell had no shortage of that, smugness and arrogance and the kind of ego you need to when your would-be empire had been smashed into dust and relegated to the history books as nothing more than the prelude to the main event. Canderous was just certain, and Canderous was just right.
“Was it useful?” Carth asked eventually. “The party tonight.”
“We got a lead,” Canderous said. “It means we’re going to fight the entire population of Sand People on this planet.”
Carth closed his eyes. “Great.”
Canderous made a noise in the back of his throat, a deep rumble in the dark. “The glories of battle are not lost to us yet.”
“I’m sure Ngozi is happy about that,” Carth muttered.
“She would have brought you,” Canderous said, “if you ever took off your uniform.”
“I’m in civilian armor.”
“I don’t mean dress.” The other bunk grumbled as Canderous lay down. “You’re too Republic. You let civilization sand down every sharp edge you had.”
Carth felt the lump of his blaster under that pillow. “You ever cross us,” Carth said lowly, “and I’ll give you the chance to figure out how true that is.”
Canderous chuckled in the dark. It was a strangely intimate sound, for all it was separated from Carth by a gently snoring Wookie. There was always something sacred about barracks, the muted conversations before sleep, before deployment. Pillow talk of a different kind. “You can sleep easy around me,” Canderous said. “If I kill you, and I might, it’ll be on the battlefield. We’ll both be armed and you’ll see me coming.”
“Warriors don’t kill people in their sleep, is that what you’re saying?” asked Carth.
“No. That’s the mission of soldiers.”
Carth sat up in bed so quickly that he nearly bashed his head against the top of the bunk. “I remember plenty of worlds you attacked while the population slept. Do you want to get Juhani in here? I think she remembers a few as well.”
“Fight me or don’t.” Canderous sounded as if he were half-asleep already. “I’ve got one duel lined up on the dunes tomorrow. I can fit another in.”
“We’re not dueling,” Carth snapped.
The other bunk creaked, Canderous shifting to get up. Carth went for his blaster. “We’re either crew or enemies,” Canderous said. “If we’re enemies, let’s meet as enemies. If we’re crew, let me get some goddamn sleep.”
Carth’s hand tightened around his blaster. The darkness of the quarters breathed and waited. In the pause that followed, Zaalbar unleashed the most grating snore Carth had heard since, well, since about five minutes ago and the last most grating snore. It gave good cover to think. “You’ve been on the planet two days,” Carth said finally. “How the hell did you already line up a duel?”
The other bunk creaked again. And Carth’s creaked with it, Carth lying down again, the blaster sliding back beneath his pillow. Carth kept one hand on it. The other went back to his chest, pressed against his heart as it pounded, pounded, and finally slowed. And Canderous answered so long after Carth had asked that Carth had thought he’d decided not to talk at all, “Old history. New places. Volatile combination.”
Carth had no answer that wasn’t the beginning of another fight or, worse, something that sounded too close to commiseration. So Carth kept his mouth shut.
Not that he’d say so to Zaalbar, but Carth truly hated Kashyyyk. The climate was like getting smothered to death with a sweaty pillow and the local insect life was the size of Carth’s leg. The perpetual night of the planet unsettled him as well. In what passed for quiet moments—Ngozi negotiating with a Czerka Corp representative, Mission slicing into a local security terminal, Zaalbar and Juhani commiserating about something he couldn’t quite hear, or right now, standing guard on the forest floor while the old human who lived down here fixed dinner—Carth found himself squinting up at the canopy in the vain hopes of glimpsing any of the sunlight that he knew was on the other side.
He hadn’t expected to miss the desert.
“You trust him?” Canderous asked by way of hello, sliding up to Carth with the exact kind of stealth that Canderous refused to use when walking around the Hawk.
“The old guy?” Carth looked back over his shoulder at the fire. “No. But Ngozi trusts him. Her instincts are usually good.”
Her instincts are also the only reason the crew entrusted with saving the galaxy includes a Mandalorian mercenary, a teenager, and a homicidal protocol droid, Carth thought, but he decided to keep that bit to himself.
Canderous grunted like he’d heard him anyway. “The sooner we’re off this planet,” Canderous said, “the better.”
“I would have thought you’d like this place,” Carth said. “We haven’t stopped fighting since we hit the ground.”
“I prefer fighting when we aren’t getting sniped from mile high trees every foot. We don’t know the land a fraction as well as the people we’re fighting, and we don’t have the firepower to remake the landscape to our advantage.”
“And if we did, we’re also not allowed to burn Kashyyyk to the ground. This is a secret mission,” Carth said. “And also for the record, it would be immoral and wrong, but I know who I’m talking to.”
Canderous laughed bitterly. “Ngozi’s over by the fire planning the overthrow of a government. Lecture her about subtlety.”
Carth glanced back over his shoulder. Ngozi and the old man—Jolee, that was his name—sat close together, the flickering orange light playing off their faces. Ngozi’s outer robes were shucked, a concession to the heat that had Bastila tutting until Bastila too had to remove a few layers or risk sweating to death. Now Ngozi sat in her simple under tunic and leggings, not so unlike the outfit she had worn on Taris after she and Carth had dumped their uniforms. She looked the same now as she did then, and yet you could not look at her without knowing she was a Jedi. More than Bastila, more than Juhani, more than Jolee beside her, Ngozi radiated power as quiet and insistent as a hand on the shoulder, turning you in the direction you needed to march.
“That’s Ngozi for you,” Carth said.
Canderous leaned against one of the thinner trees down here, the trunk merely the size of Carth’s first home he’d bought with Morgana. “I’ll take watch.”
“You sure?” Carth asked.
“It’s my turn.”
“It’s Mission’s actually.”
Canderous grunted again. “The kid’s the only one keeping the Wookie calm right now. We don’t need him getting agitated.”
“You can’t blame him.”
“I don’t. If I was him, I’d have murdered my brother in the throne room.” Canderous shrugged. “But we’re doing things Ngozi’s way. We need more firepower on guard than the kid’s got down here. There’s at least a dozen Mandalorian poachers in the area. She can’t handle that.”
“Mandalorians?” Carth hissed, grabbing Canderous’ arm. “Here?”
Carth stared at Canderous who kept surveying the tree line. “When were you going to tell us?”
“When it mattered.”
“So as they were firing at us.”
Canderous jerked his chin back towards the fire. “Ngozi knows. Didn’t need to tell her.”
“Ngozi knows a lot of things she keeps to herself,” Carth snapped. “You know you should have told the rest of us.”
“Fine,” Canderous said. “I should have.”
Carth wasn’t expecting him to agree so quickly. It took some of the thrust out of the engine of his argument. He paused, glanced down at his hand still clutching Canderous’ bicep. He let go. “Then why didn’t you?”
Canderous looked away. “Maybe I don’t relish having to kill more of my kin.”
“Are they of your clan?”
“I don’t know. But they are Mandalorian.” Canderous smiled without humor. “Allying with a Republic soldier to hunt my kind. I weep for my past.”
“I didn’t know you minded.”
“I mind what we’ve become. I’ve killed the worst of my kind on Dantooine. Tatooine. And now here. From warriors to scavengers.”
Over at the fire, Ngozi laughed, the sound clear as a bell. She had the kind of voice that could bounce off of trees, that even the dampest of forest bottoms couldn’t swallow. Carth couldn’t help but look back. Canderous did too.
“She’s the only thing that kept me from being like them,” Canderous said. He turned, met Carth’s eyes like a challenge. “First sense of purpose I found after the war.”
“Yeah,” Carth said, looking back at her. “She’s good at that.”
They stood in silence together, the forest chattering around them.
“If it affects our safety, you need to tell us what’s going on. You want to be part of the crew, be part of the crew.” Carth holstered his pistols. “And you are part of the crew.”
Canderous snorted. “Whether you like it or not.”
Carth shrugged. It was the most honest answer he could think to give in the moment.
Canderous settled again against his tree. “Piss off,” he said. “I’ve got this.”
Being a grown man, Carth did not roll his eyes. “Suit yourself.”
Without breaking conversation with Jolee, Ngozi made space for Carth as he came over. He settled down by the fire, took the barbequed creature that Zaalbar offered him, bit down into a halfway decent meal. On the other side of the flames, flanked in the permanent shadows of the forest, stood the hulking figure of Canderous, his back half-towards the party as he scanned for danger. And Carth felt safer for having him there. It was a hell of a thing, but he did.
Carth and Bastila spent the time on Korriban getting to know each other since for the week and a half they had been there, neither was allowed off the ship.
“Bastila’s too well known,” Carth had argued when they’d landed.
“I agree,” Ngozi had said. “And do you know who else is well known?”
When she pulled up Carth’s face on the holo from the local archives in less than a minute, Carth had to concede her point. And though Ngozi was racking up no small level of infamy herself—her face was on so many wanted posters that Mission had begun collecting them for the main room—the Sith were always eager to believe that another Jedi had joined their cause. So it was decided (the passive voice smoothly eliding the sheer amount of debate that had gone into deciding) that both Bastila and Carth were too much of a risk to be on-planet.
“I win again,” said Bastila, laying out her hand with a great deal more smugness that Carth thought the Jedi code allowed.
Carth glanced at his hand and folded. “It’s funny how the person with mind reading powers keeps winning all the card games.”
“Carth, I would never use the Force in such a petty manner.”
“That would sound more convincing if you waited to announce victory until I actually showed you my cards.”
On the other side of the ship, the loading ramp came down. “It’s Canderous,” Bastila said, without looking up from shuffling the cards. Carth glanced at the monitors, saw Canderous jump onboard. “He wants to talk to you.”
Carth stood up and stretched. “You’re just showing off now.”
Bastila widened her eyes with, again, really more sarcasm that he suspected the Council would approve of. “A Jedi would never.”
Carth shrugged on his jacket as he walked to the garage, where he found Canderous standing at the workbench, his rifle in twelve different parts. “What’s the situation?” Carth asked.
Canderous levered out the rifle’s power cell and tossed it onto the bench with a clunk. “We know where the Star Map is.”
“That’s great,” said Carth, who was about to immediately follow up by asking and where is it, but these last twelve days had been an exercise in the frustration of knowledge without action. And Carth sensed that he might be happier if he only found out the location in retrospect. “So where is it?” Carth asked anyway, not be a man who placed his happiness particularly high on his value scale.
Canderous waved his hand. “The tomb of some dead Sith. Ngozi worked out the details. She’s the top student at the school.”
“Unsurprising,” Carth muttered. “Unnerving but unsurprising.”
Canderous shrugged as he picked up a multitool. “She was always going to win. She can’t help it.”
“You’re not wrong.” That sentence might have been the closest Carth had ever come to agreeing with Canderous. Canderous didn’t reply, still bent over his gun. Canderous not replying wasn’t unusual—the Mandalorian came in two main moods, either concise or caustic, which meant if he wasn’t currently insulting you, he tended to keep his thoughts to himself. But there was something strange about Canderous’ silence now. Something strange about his body too. He was just disassembling his rifle, something he did about twice an hour by Carth’s reckoning, but it seemed different than usual. A little more movement. A little more fidgeting.
Of all the horrors of Korriban, Canderous fidgeting had to be the most alarming.
Still leaning against the door, holding to some semblance of nonchalance, Carth crossed his arms. “Bastila said you wanted to talk to me.”
Canderous let out a bark of laughter. “Did she? She would.”
“Do you?” asked Carth.
Canderous’ finger began to tap against the workbench.
Carth straightened. “What’s wrong?”
“Ngozi should tell you,” Canderous said without looking at Carth.
“Why? What happened?”
Canderous threw the tool down. It clattered on the table. Carth’s eyes didn’t leave Canderous’ face. “It’s good. Probably. For you. Not for anyone else on this damn ship.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Canderous sighed. It was the first time Carth had heard Canderous sigh. Today was an exciting series of firsts, and he suspected without an ounce of joy at the prospect that there were to be more exciting firsts to come. “Ngozi’d do better. Don’t know why I said I’d come.”
Dread curled fat and familiar in Carth’s stomach. “Say what you need to say.”
Canderous leveled a look at him. “I didn’t know you had a son.”
Canderous wasn’t fidgeting now. Neither was Carth. Carth was so still that the part of him that could think was dimly thinking that he might never move again. It felt like someone else was moving his lips, speaking the words that came out now. “Canderous, what are you saying?”
“He’s here, Carth. Dustil.” Canderous looked back down at his rifle, half-disassembled and with a quick movement disassembled it all the way.
“Dustil is here?” Carth took a step forward, grabbed Canderous’ arm. “Dustil is alive?”
“Yeah. Just met him today.” Canderous yanked his arm free from Carth’s grip and then reached over to squeeze Carth’s shoulder. Then he went back to his rifle. “Looks like you.”
“Dustil is alive?” Carth asked.
“He’s a student here,” Canderous said bluntly. “A good one. Knows his way around a blaster rifle, might be talented in the Force. And he’s angry.” He paused for a moment. “At you, mostly.”
If Canderous had stabbed Carth in the heart with the multitool, it would have hurt less. But the pain was balanced in equal measure by delirium, by ecstasy, by relief, by a thousand other emotions he couldn’t name but overwhelmed him, practically drowned him.
“I’m getting the hell off this ship,” Carth said.
“Obviously,” Canderous replied.
“I don’t care if anyone recognizes me.”
Canderous snorted. He reached beside the workbench, into the pile of salvage that the crew had dragged in from the last three planets. He grabbed something and threw it to Carth, whose body was thankfully not as overcome as his mind. Through the numbness of a mind still stuck on a thought process that was most accurately transcribed as !!!!!!!!!, Carth managed to catch Canderous’ toss. “Why don’t you try that instead?” Canderous said, turning back to his rifle. “If you can stand it.”
Carth looked down at the Mandalorian helmet he held. Which planet Canderous had claimed it on, Carth couldn’t say. It could have been from any battlefield. How many millions of these helmets had Carth stared down in his own time, when the sight of this helmet rushing forward was enough to make cowards out of the best the Republic had to offer? How many of the men who’d worn these helmets had tried to kill Carth, had Carth tried to kill?
But it would cover his face.
“I need the rest of the armor,” Carth said.
With such quickness that Carth’s drill sergeant would have been rendered speechless, Canderous snapped his rifle back together with a new power core and a better scope. “I’ve got you. You’re small for a Mandalorian.” Canderous smirked. “But you’ll manage.”
There was no point saying thank you. Canderous hadn’t been the one to bring Dustil back to Carth; he’d just been the one who’d delivered the news. But Carth couldn’t help reaching out. He grabbed Canderous’ shoulder, and Canderous looked at him with gunmetal eyes. One nodded, and then other. And then Carth took a step back, put the helmet on, and got ready to find his son.
They hid on Yavin Station, as per Jolee’s orders. He was as good a person as anyone to follow right now. Carth sure as hell couldn’t lead. He couldn’t sit up half the time without blacking out, couldn’t think half the time without wishing he was blacking out. He slept mostly, that day after they escaped when the Sith was scanning for them so fiercely that they couldn’t even turn the ship’s lights on. Carth couldn’t do much more than sleep. They had tortured him on the Leviathan. They had tortured him, and he hadn’t thought anything about it at the time, the way Ngozi suddenly couldn’t lie convincingly, the way she couldn’t charm her way out when it was Carth’s life on the line, when it was Saul pressing the button. In his more fair moments, he knew she hadn’t done it on purpose, hadn’t manipulated Saul’s monstrous game to extract as much pain as she could from Carth with the most deniability. But Carth wasn’t feeling very fair at the moment. And he just couldn’t wrap his mind around Ngozi failing at something.
No. Not Ngozi. That was the problem.
He remembered, a little later when the platoon had thinned out enough that they decided to risk running while the lay of the land was clear, Canderous’ boots walking towards him. Then the door to the quarters. And a medpac, applied with surprisingly gentle hands.
Carth didn’t ask. Canderous didn’t offer.
And anyway. They escaped the Sith that time too.
Revan was out there, somewhere in the vast ocean that was Manaan, Carth stood by Canderous on the other side of the glass, worrying and not worrying at the same time. Revan can’t get killed because we still need her, was the line that Carth had settled on, but every time the research base shook, it was Ngozi he feared for.
“What underwater base only has one diving suit?” Carth grumbled.
Canderous finished placing his last mine, their contingency plan if the maddened Selkath made another rush for them before Revan could finish her work. The power had gone out in this section, leaving them with nothing except emergency lighting and just enough oxygen to stay on the right side of lightheaded, but Canderous was sure that if the mines went off, the blast doors would activate and stop the explosion before it further destabilized the base. Or blew up Carth and Canderous.
They were really hoping not to have to use the mines.
Canderous stood, cracked his back. “The inside of this damn place is enough for me.”
“I would have thought you’d wanted to be in the thick of it.” Carth gestured vaguely out the window at the pitch black sea. “Large angry crazed fish. A billion pounds of ocean all around you. Every piece of infrastructure shaky as hell and ready to explode.”
Canderous glared, half at Carth and half at the ocean view behind him. “I hate fighting underwater.”
“You could have mentioned that before you volunteered to go underwater with us.”
Canderous snorted. “Volunteered. I was nominated. Or sacrificed, take your pick.”
Carth crossed his arms. “What do you mean?”
Canderous jerked his chin at the window. “Like we were going to let you and Revan go down in a submarine together. We wanted to get you both back alive.”
“So what, you thought she was going to murder me?” Carth asked angrily. “Or that I was going to murder her?”
“Neither,” said Canderous. “Or both. Or you’d just have another one of those icy fights that we’ve all grown to know and love these last two weeks. Mission thought you two would hash everything else and come back up to surface clasped in each other’s bosom, but the rest of us decided to not risk it.”
Carth shook his head, turned around and leaned on the console underneath the window. “So you’re here as peacekeeper.”
“Trust me. I see the irony.”
The ocean was so dark outside with the external lights cut that the window became a mirror. Carth’s eyes skimmed over his own face and settled on Canderous’. The Mandalorian’s eyes watched him back. “Why you?” Carth asked.
“Who else?” Canderous shrugged. “Half the crew disagrees with you about Revan, the other half never knew you that well in the first place. You gonna send the Cathar down here to diffuse things? Or the Wookie?”
“No, we couldn’t fit him in the sub,” Carth muttered mostly to himself. He leaned his forehead against the glass. “Mission maybe.”
“We were not going to send Mission to an underwater base full of crazed monsters,” Canderous said so firmly that Carth had to look his shoulder questioningly at him. “Shut up. She’s a good kid.”
Carth couldn’t help but laugh a little. Which was probably why the base took that moment to shake so violently that Carth and Canderous got knocked on their asses. Carth scrambled to his feet just as the base started to shake again. He lurched against the console for support, offered his hand to Canderous as Canderous shouted, “It’s that damn fish again!” Canderous batted Carth’s hand away and crouched by the control panel on the floor. “Revan needs to kill it already.”
“She won’t,” Carth said, with insight he couldn’t explain. “She’ll die before she kills something trying to protect its home.”
Canderous growled in the back of his throat and pulled out the wiring for the mainframe of the console. “Of course she won’t. That’s why she brought you. Her walking, talking, shooting, whining conscience.”
“I’m not anyone’s conscience.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Canderous said. “I’m going to reroute the power from the west wing over here. I’m tired of squinting into the dark. We’re getting some goddamn lights.”
“Good idea.” It was, a damn sight better idea than what Carth had been doing—waiting and worrying at the dark. “You know the rest of the crew might have wanted you to come, but Revan’s the one who tapped you to come down here. It’s me she didn’t want here.”
“Of course she didn’t,” Canderous replied, his voice half in the console. “You make her feel like shit. That’s why she brings you. She says you keep her on the right path.”
Carth bit down on the shame that flared up, strong as a blaster shot. “She told me she was heading down with you. I told her I was coming too. That’s the order things happened in.”
“For you, yeah. For the rest of us, we knew she’d bring you and so we figured out who else should come.” With the kind of electrical skills possessed only by Mandalorians with the constitution of, well, Mandalorians and an implant that healed minor wounds, Canderous pressed two violently sparking wires together with his bare hands. Carth smelled burning flesh, and then the console before him flickered to life. “Revan said she wanted me on her team down here?”
“She might have not if you’d told her about the underwater phobia,” Carth replied, thumping his fist against the console until the flickering lights settled into something steadier. “But yeah. Of course she brought you.” The console made a sad little beep that Carth recognized as the on noise. “You get the job done.”
Canderous stood, shaking out his no doubt lightly electrocuted hands. “Someone in the damn crew has to. Hit the lights.”
Carth found and hit the lights. The black mirror before them flickered and became a window once more, the external lights spluttering on and arcing off into the distance, towards the horizon underneath the ocean. About half a mile off—maybe more, maybe less, it was so hard to tell underwater—Carth could make out the shape of the kolto pump in the distance. He could just make out the shape of a small body against the vast sea. And from behind the kolto pump the silhouette of a fish more massive that Carth had ever seen. It dwarfed the Ebon Hawk as it circled Revan. Carth leaned forward, hands pressed against the glass as a leviathan far more literal than the kind they’d last experience got close enough to Revan to swallow her whole. Then with a flick of its massive tail, the fish turned with an impossible grace and disappeared into the dark.
Carth released the breath he’d been choking on. He heard Canderous exhale as well.
Revan stood there and stared out at nothing.
“Truth be told,” said Carth. “I would have poisoned the damn fish.”
Canderous laughed. As if she heard him, Revan shook herself. She turned around and started the long walk back. Carth wasn’t sure if she could see him, but he couldn’t help himself from raising one hand in greeting anyway.
“A hell of a planet to make a last stand,” said Canderous as he sat next to Carth on the beach, the eerily beautiful beach crisscrossed by snapping, crackling electricity. “It’ll be a shame to die on some space station instead.”
“It’ll be a shame to die,” Carth replied, and wondered exactly when he had started thinking that so wholeheartedly.
Canderous leaned back, his legs outstretched with the waves just barely lapping at his heels. He’d shucked his boots, they all had as they had one last dinner on the beach as they waited for the Rakata to finish their ceremony. Mission and Zaalbar were playing one last Pazaak tournament, each allied with one of the droids who were shockingly good at telling when organic matter was bluffing. Jolee had finished eating, declared he was taking a nap, and somehow did just that, his snores echoing up and down the beach. Juhani was meditating, sort of, though she did keep wandering over to the Pazaak game to tell Zaalbar how Mission was cheating. And Revan had gone walking. She’d sat with Carth earlier, and they’d said a thousand things, and they’d said nothing, and her hand had found his way into his.
If you asked Carth how he’d gotten to this point in his life, his hand still warm from the ex-Dark Lord of the Sith, a Mandalorian warrior sitting companionably by his side, he honestly couldn’t answer you. The closest he could come was the feeling he’d had as the Ebon Hawk crashed onto the planet, every bit of control wrenched from him and the worst case scenario rushing towards him. But then the worst case scenario wasn’t the worst at all—it was exactly where he needed to be.
“I can’t believe there were Mandalorians here,” Carth said. “Even at the end of the universe, we can’t free of you guys.”
“We have to do something about ourselves,” Canderous replied. “We have utterly lost our way.”
“What are you thinking?”
Canderous’ mouth twitched. “Another war with the Republic?”
Carth snorted. “Watch it. We’re not that close.”
“Why not?” asked Canderous. “The war is over.”
“Yeah?” Carth asked. “And how many of my friends do you think you killed?”
“I killed as many of your friends as you killed mine,” Canderous replied like settled everything.
“Don’t say it like that. Like it’s even.”
“It is even. We fought. You fought back. We tallied our dead together.”
“You attacked us,” Carth said. “You don’t get to start the war and then claim that the war equaled itself out.”
“You won,” Canderous said with a weariness that Carth had never heard from Canderous before and had never imagined could come from him. “We made the Republic tremble first. But you won.”
“We did,” Carth said after a moment. “And it was a damn good thing we did.”
“Of course, Republic victory led straight to the next war.”
Carth glanced down the beach towards Revan who stood in the surf with her robes hiked up, her head tilted back to the sky. “It did.”
“But you’ve forgiven her,” Canderous said.
“I don’t know if I have,” said Carth. “I just know I can’t hate her. And I don’t even want to.”
Canderous shrugged. “You can’t hate her. You’re too loyal. You’ve been her man for too long.” Canderous grinned, a feral look that Carth found uncomfortably comfortable. “She’s too magnificent to hate.”
“We’re probably thinking in different ways,” Carth said. “But you’re not wrong.”
They sat in silence, the waves murmuring around them, the sound of the crew somewhere behind them, talking and laughing and snoring and fighting and yelling and teasing and living their last evening as best they could, which was very good indeed.
“If you can forgive her,” said Canderous, “forgive the Mandalorians.”
“I would have thought you’d think there was nothing to forgive.”
Canderous was silent, that silence he had when you had to wait for the words he wasn’t sure he was willing to give. Eventually he said, “We wasted ourselves against an enemy we couldn’t defeat. We wanted glory. We got shame. Greed, desperation, fear—that’s what started pushing forward the war. When it wasn’t worth fighting, we fought and destroyed ourselves so we could destroy our enemies. I thought that was valor for a long time. Now I see what we’ve become because of it. Scavengers. Mercenaries. Guns for hire, fighting for money, fighting from boredom, fighting because that’s all we’ve ever know. This isn’t glory. This is our destruction. Not at the hands of our enemies. But at our own, as we surrender the reasons fighting meant anything just so we can keep fighting.” Canderous looked at Carth. “Do you feel vindicated by that?”
“I’m glad the Republic won,” Carth replied. “Nothing will ever change that.”
Canderous grinned again. “Good,” he said. “You’re a shitty enough warrior as it is. You can’t afford to get any softer than you already are.”
“I never wanted to be a warrior,” Carth replied. “But you’re sounding like a piss-poor soldier yourself.”
“Shut the hell up,” Canderous said.
“You shut the hell up. You’re the one who sat next to me.”
“You looked pathetic and alone. I took pity on you. You should be thanking me.”
“I’m really feeling your compassion.” Carth tipped his head back towards the afternoon sun. His eyes closed, he said, “You need a new Mandalore.”
“I’ve thought the same thing.”
“You’d be a good Mandalore.”
Canderous didn’t say anything to that. When Carth glanced over at him, Canderous was flopped back on the sand next to him, his hands behind his head, his eyes closed. “You’re blocking my sun,” was all Canderous replied.
Carth tossed a fistful of sand into his face.
Canderous pinned him into the surf.
“Behave yourself, boys,” Revan said as she walked past them. “We didn’t get all the way to the Star Forge to murder each other on the last planet.”
Carth would have taken a break from repeatedly punching Canderous in the kidneys to reply, but Canderous was still trying to drown him. He’d get back to her in a minute. He landed a particularly good shot into Canderous’ gut, and he heard the Mandalorian grunt and laugh at the same time. Canderous staggered back, saltwater dripping off him. Carth blinked up at him.
“Let’s go, Republic,” Canderous said and offered Carth his hand.
“Piss off, Mandalore,” Carth said and took it.