A bounty hunter falls in love with her Jedi prey on the eve of his confrontation with Vader.
"You cannot run forever, Jedi!" The voice would have been lost to the winds had its owner not been yelling. "Stop!"
The man had clearly heard the order, but he still leaped up to the meter-high durasteel guidance rail before facing his pursuer. The fierce night air blew a chill into his robes and through his tunics, but he did not shiver - he'd obviously long since trained his body not to react to such things. He pulled his outer robes aside and reached for the lightsaber hanging on his left hip. He did not ignite it, however. In fact, he didn't even bother to lift it off his belt.
He crouched on the narrow railing, grabbing onto the bar with his free hand for support. His stare and pose resembled a Binarian sabercat ready for the kill more than a human facing an attacker. He stilled and waited for the bounty hunter to strike.
The hunter stood a few meters away with her blaster raised and pointed at his chest. She steadied her hand for the shot against the gusts of air, but did not fire.
"Aren't you going to shoot me, Nyssa?" he asked in a low, growling tone. He was baiting her to assault first and she knew it.
It was a familiar routine: the end of the chase, which would lead to a showdown between the two. Nyssa would fire; Daven would block the bolts with his lightsaber. Sometimes he would even reflect them back to their originator, causing Nyssa to duck for cover from her own firepower. She had worn a personal energy shield after their first few encounters, but even if the blasts couldn't rend her flesh, they caused a dense plume of smoke after making contact with the shield. Nyssa would soon lose sight of her prey, and Daven would disappear.
But she had never had him cornered quite so well before. His only two options were surrender and execution or the two hundred-meter drop and the instant death that waited at its bottom.
He could resist his fate and fight her like he always did, but Nyssa had the feeling that even a Jedi couldn't keep his balance on that five centimeter-thick bar upon which he was currently perched.
"Give it up, Daven. There is no way out this time," she told him. She ignored the annoying tickle as her dark blonde hair fell out of its topknot and weaved around her face in a harsh dance with the wind. Her focus remained on her target. "I can make your death quick and relatively painless. Vader won't be so kind."
Daven smirked at Nyssa, a look that betrayed his youth. His auburn hair was also flying freely in the extreme breeze. It had grown longer, Nyssa noticed, since she had managed to hunt him down last.
"There is always a way out, beautiful," he said with his all too typical confidence. He removed his left hand from the hilt of his lightsaber and released his right from the railing, standing up as he did so. "See you around." With that, he took a single step back and fell.
"Daven!" Nyssa cried as she lost sight of him. She heard no scream or even the thump of a body hitting earth as she dashed towards the edge of the building and leaned over the railing. She looked down, feverishly hunting for his corpse, but found nothing, not even the shadow of his retreating form.
Not that she was surprised she should have expected Daven to have some sort of Jedi trick left to play. He had never once led her anywhere on one of their many chases without having some plan of escape.
"Damn," she said in an almost dutiful admittance of failure. She tapped the metal railing with her finger in frustration before turning away. She would catch him eventually no, soon she told herself smugly. He couldn't evade her forever. There would be a day when she would gladly present his head, still wearing that infuriating smirk, to the Emperor.
And she would finally win.
Why, then, did she panic when she saw Daven jump?
How many times had she come so close to catching that Jedi, only to have him and his bounty slip through her fingers? She had lost count. She remembered the first time she had seen the impressively long list of contracts posted at the local bounty office on Nal Hutta. The rewards offered were phenomenal one catch would make for an early retirement, two would make for an extraordinarily comfortable early retirement. She had picked his name off the list at random: "Daven Staver." The name looked boring, average, and woefully mediocre on its perch near the bottom of the list of mythically powerful beings an easy catch.
That was two years ago. Since the day Nyssa had taken up Daven's contract, she had pursued him from one end of the galaxy to the other: from the streets of downtown Aldera to a snow-filled bank on Hapes. She even added the untamed wilds of Kashyyyk to her itinerary after the stowaway Jedi had boarded a slaving vessel.
As he escaped her time after time, she began to wonder if the prize was really worth the trouble, or if the thrill of the hunt had simply taken over her motivations completely.
"Buy the wanderer a drink?" a calm but weathered male voice asked, breaking into Nyssa's thoughts.
She looked up sharply, knowing the voice immediately. Its owner was also easily recognizable, even if he had changed clothes to blend in with the local cantina patrons. Apparently, Daven had traded what was left of his Jedi robes for a discreet pair of brown trousers and a black dewback hide jacket. If his lightsaber still hung at his side, Nyssa couldn't spot it.
His light blue eyes sparkled slightly, acknowledging her surprise, as he sat down in the vacant chair across from her. He ran a hand through his hair, adjusting a few rebellious red strands.
"You have a lot of nerve, Jedi," Nyssa hissed, trying to sound irritated at his intrusion. "What's to say I wouldn't blast you into tiny pieces now that you're in my sights?"
"Oh," he raised his eyebrows at the question "the energy prohibitors the barkeep so graciously installed to reduce the fighting. Don't tell me you didn't notice that little cannon of yours fall down to minimum power."
She gave a low growl in response and quickly looked down to her belt to find that, indeed, her blaster's charge was flashing blue. She felt her eyes narrow as she glanced back up at him, then looked away. She swirled her drink, sourly watching the dregs slosh against each other, then raised the glass and drank.
"You'll be happy to know that such prohibitors don't affect lightsabers, though," Daven continued brightly, watching her as she finished drinking. "So you really shouldn't try anything." It should've been a threat, but he spoke so carelessly that Nyssa could have easily thought he was merely suggesting what to order off the menu.
That was another of the many annoyances that were Daven Staver. Why did the man insist on being so pleasant, chipper, and positive? She had always heard that Jedi were stoic and calm, never letting their masks of solidity crumble. But there was Daven, telling jokes in the middle of combat, calling her "beautiful" whenever she came close enough to kill him.
It was as if he toyed with her, as if his bounty was some sort of game. He could have ended her life on so many occasions, yet he decided to keep the chase going.
"Why don't you just kill me, then?" she asked suddenly. "You're armed and I'm not. Kill me and end your trouble." She could feel her face grow hot. After all, Daven's dive off the roof was yet another indication of his true power. She had heard of Vader choking men to death without even touching them, and she had little doubt that Daven could do the same.
"'End my trouble?'" he repeated. He shook his head after a moment's pause. "I'm afraid it would not be so easy. Rumor has it that you are one of the best bounty hunters in the galaxy. All those assassinated separatist leaders and annihilated rebel cells and, oh, let's not forget the many, many dead Hutt minions make for a very impressive resumι, if I say so myself." He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. His eyes narrowed judgmentally and his hardened features were in sharp contrast to the cheeriness of his voice.
"And?" Nyssa grumbled. Daven, despite his sense of humor, had still managed to assert what she privately thought of as the Jedi "holier than thou" trait.
"Why have a horde of lesser bounty hunters chasing after me when I could stick with just the one good one?" he asked rhetorically, nearly singing the words. "With you on the prowl after me, why would anyone else bother? I thought Vader might even forget about me, even if just for a little while."
"I get it." She nodded, displeased. "I'm your shield."
"More or less." He shrugged nonchalantly.
"I hate you, Jedi."
"I know," he said with a triumphant smile. "But I like you." His tone became suddenly sober, and he stared sadly at her empty glass. "Although our encounters have not always been enjoyable it was nice to have somebody there. A constant in my life of inconstancies, if you will."
"I don't understand. Why are you telling me this?" What had happened to the fearless warrior she had fought so many times?
"Vader is coming for me," he told her softly, almost in a whisper. "You've taken too long, I think. I could not evade notice forever."
"Vader? How do you know?" Nyssa tried to suppress a shiver.
"I've sensed him," Daven said. He seemed unfocused, dreamy even. "He's here now, you know, on Corellia."
Nyssa allowed herself a sharp sigh. "You're going to fight him?"
"Do I have a choice?" he asked, offering an empty smile. "In truth, I had a nice little corner in the cargo hold of a ship bound for Manaan in the morning. I was going to slip out while you were in a drunken stupor."
She gritted her teeth reflexively. He had called her a "barbarian lush" on more than occasion and each time she returned it with "Jedi drone." She certainly could have thought of some comeback in this instance, but his seriousness humbled her.
He smirked knowingly.
"I came because I wanted to say goodbye." He looked at her, staring directly into her eyes. "I don't think I'll see you again, Nyssa. Take care of yourself, bounty hunter."
She nodded, trying not to let the sorrow overwhelm her; it was, after all, only a lost two million. Wasn't it?
"You too, Jedi," was all she found herself able to say. He nodded and gave her a small, mock salute before standing up silently and leaving her.
Leaving her alone. She watched him walk away from her corner booth, and she wished for another drink.
Say goodbye to your comfy retirement. The words echoed in the back of her mind. Well, fine, the thought was there - in there, somewhere - definitely, but it wasn't predominant. Actually, she doubted it was even true.
Say goodbye to Daven.
Her heart jumped up in her chest and did a small flip, causing her to come to a rather bizarre conclusion.
"Daven! Wait!" she shouted, but he was already out the door and out of earshot.
Vader's presence loomed ever closer, but Daven wasn't heading directly towards the Sith Lord. Instead, he walked through a narrow alley and remembered the last time he had set foot on this planet. He was a fifteen-year-old padawan, proud to be at his Master's side as the elder Jedi shared with his pupil the wisdom he had gathered regarding the world of Corellia. His Master probably hadn't realized then that the advice he had given Daven would come to save the boy's life a decade later.
Master Jedi Farani had not lived to see the galaxy's plunge into darkness he had died only a year after Daven had completed his trials. The young Knight was partly grateful for this the noble Jedi would never be forced to watch the extinction of his people or be hunted to the death but Daven missed his guidance terribly. It was in times like these, as he strolled alone along familiar paths that reminded him of happier days, that he ached for his mentor the most. The Jedi were dying, more and more frequently each day, and Daven could often feel their souls become one with the Force in peaceful, eternal rest.
Leaving him alone; one of the last of a fading race. His moments spent with Nyssa had lessened the pain, to his surprise, and she had somehow managed to become a welcome distraction. She was still a challenge, even if their skills were not on par, but he should have known that their galactic gallivanting wasn't going to last forever.
He had assumed that she would get the best of him eventually; after all, he was out-gunned, out-equipped, and out-shipped easily by the bounty hunter. Daven just didn't want to quit so soon. He had seen so little of the galaxy, so little of life.
And now Vader was going to kill him. He could only hope that it would be a quick death, because he knew that there was no way he could best the Sith Lord. Far greater Masters had fallen under his blade. Perhaps he could at least fight honorably and die with dignity.
A small chirp from the ground in front of him caused Daven to pause both mentally and physically. He squatted down to behold a kathmouse lying in his path, curled into a tiny, furry ball. It couldn't have weighed much more than a dozen grams. Daven guessed that it was probably about five centimeters long. Its gray fur shook in fear at the human's massive foot.
"I'm not going to hurt you, little guy," Daven whispered, putting the Force behind his words. The mouse looked up slowly, and stared at the Jedi with curious black eyes. His terror forgotten, he ran away, disappearing into a dark corner.
"Be like the kathmouse," his Master had once said when Daven had first encountered the little mammals. "They are quiet, peaceful, and unobtrusive. They take what they need to live and nothing more. They only fight others when there is no place to run and no other options left."
"That is cowardly," Daven had said.
"No, that is intelligent," his teacher had corrected. "What sort of Jedi Knight will you be if you are always running into fights that you cannot possibly win? Ha! A dead Jedi Knight, I think!"
Daven had been embarrassed at the time of the conversation, but now he looked back on it fondly. He had taken his Master's suggestions to heart and had, for the most part, played the role of a kathmouse over the last two and half years. He fought only when needed and ran when he could.
Not very noble, no, but what good was he dead?
He sighed and squinted at where the kathmouse had retreated, looking to see if there were any signs of its slight passage. It was so young, that one, barely old enough to be out of its nest. He wondered briefly why it was alone, where its nestmates and mother had gone. Mothers rarely left their young, and, if a kathmouse did become aggressive, it was usually an adult protecting a pup.
Much like the Jedi, he realized. Ready always to protect the weaker, those in need of it most.
Daven made the decision then. He was going to avoid Vader and try to make it to the shipping yard for that morning departure.
He stood and brushed his trousers off, feeling for the Dark Lord as he did so. When he sensed the ominous presence, he headed in the opposite direction.
A half an hour of jogging through alleys, jumping over fences, and blending in with crowds in the more populous sectors led him ever closer to the docking yard. But Vader must have been aware of his dodging because the Sith still remained a dark cloud hovering in his mind.
Great, he was just going to have to be chased around the docks in circles all night.
"You are by far the most spineless Jedi I have ever had the displeasure of meeting," the mechanical voice hissed a few meters behind him.
Daven stopped and swallowed harshly, his breath creating a slight fog in the night air. His fear, a most basic instinct, threatened to bubble to the surface and overtake his body. He called upon the Force, nearly begging it to calm him, before he turned around to greet his pursuer.
The Sith Lord was exactly as expected cloaked entirely in black, dark cape flowing behind him. His breath mask was formed into a menacing, droid-like shape, with only two opaque screens where eyes should have been. A group of flashing lights on Vader's chest clearly marked out a life support system, and Daven couldn't fathom how a thing like the Sith could have received enough injuries to warrant it.
"Spineless?" he asked, amazed at how steady he managed to keep himself. "I prefer 'cowardly' or even 'pathetic,' since I do take great pride in the curvature of my back. 'Drone' works well, too, but that's not really a very appropriate in this case. Well, what, with your suit and all ... it probably applies more to you than me, you know? Ah, no offense ..."
His smirk was victorious as Vader continued to stand and stare numbly at him. Daven would have had Nyssa raving and attacking with that nasty little vibroblade she kept hidden in her right boot, but Vader didn't twitch. For several minutes the two just stood motionlessly.
Daven didn't bother to ignite his saber or make the first move; it wasn't in his character to be aggressive. Let Vader strike, he would defend.
"You are unwise," Vader finally spoke coldly. "You come before me and make jest, leaving your defenses lowered. You certainly will pay for your stupidity."
Daven shrugged. "Better late than never."
At that, Vader lit his saber and ran towards Daven, using the Force to propel his mass even faster. Daven gripped his weapon and powered it up mere milliseconds before the Sith's blade came crashing down upon him.
Amber met with crimson, causing bright, multicolored sparks to fly chaotically through the night sky.
Vader was strong, unnaturally so even for his height and size, and Daven found himself being progressively pushed back. The Sith was quick despite the heavy suit and constricting mask, and Daven soon understood exactly how the Dark Lord had taken down so many Jedi.
He blocked and parried Vader's blows as best he could. Vader appeared to strike almost randomly a jab to his mid-side there, a swipe from the left here but his confusing motions had a natural grace and order that showed that the Sith did indeed act with forethought.
His swings were wide and offensive rather than the defensive stances Daven practiced, making it appear as though Vader was being driven by the characteristic rage of the Dark Side. Perhaps Daven could use the Sith's rashness to his advantage.
He relaxed his mind, calling on the Light Side to give his muscles the extra strength he needed to push Vader back and allow himself some breathing room. The Force filled his body, dulling his sharp aches and clearing his perception.
He struck forward with all the vigor he could put forth, causing Vader to take a few measured steps back. Daven's blows were short and tight as he kept his saber close to his body, leaving very little of his form exposed for the Sith to exploit.
"Are the rumors true?" Daven asked, puffing his words out as he drove his blade against Vader's. When the Sith didn't respond, the Jedi continued. "They say your parents abandoned you in a Naboo swamp, where two malfunctioning droidekas found you and raised you as their own."
Daven had to pause in his narrative to block a few more aggressive attacks. Sweat dripped from his brow as Vader swung his lightsaber in a wide arc, attempting to decapitate his opponent. Daven moved back gracefully, allowing the blade to fly harmlessly by a few centimeters from his chest.
"They say that a Gungan scout found you," he said through gasps of air, "and tried to take you back to civilization. But you ... you believed that you were a droid, so ... you built a droid suit to wear when you met the queen. They all thought you were crazy, but you could speak fluid astromech!" His smile was wide when he had finished recalling the humorous anecdote.
Vader said nothing in response.
"Nah, I didn't think it was true." Daven tried to sound courageous, even though he feared that the droideka joke would be his last. "Too bad. I was really hoping you could teach me how to beep the Corellian anthem. Wouldn't that be gonzo?" He raised his amber blade and stiffened his two-handed grip on the hilt.
Vader attacked, aiming for the young Jedi's midriff, but Daven saw the move coming and blocked with a graceful uppercut. These motions were followed by similar combat as each tried to wear the other out. Daven studied the Dark Lord and waited, planning his move.
Vader was clearly perturbed; he must have assumed that this Jedi would make for an easy fight. He was growing impatient as well. He struck loosely, aiming yet again for Daven's head. The Jedi dodged the crimson blade, and saw his opening. He brought up his saber and sliced into Vader's right underarm.
It should have been a lethal hit, but the Sith armor protected its owner. Daven's blade still dug into Vader's skin, if not as far as it should have, and the Dark Lord immediately let out a growl and vented his pain and rage through the Force.
The hate felt like a wave of murky water, throwing Daven off balance. He took a step back from the raving creature before him. Other emotions followed the hate anger, pain, fear, jealousy.
The jealousy surprised him at first, but then, as he experienced the feeling deeper, wisps of images appeared before his mind's eye. They were of him, actually, as a younger padawan, towering over another's view. His fiery auburn braid was looped over his ear, but he brushed it back dismissively as he clipped a practice saber onto his belt.
Daven had extended his hand to help the one that had fallen before him, but it was not taken. His pleasant smile faded, replaced by a blank look of confusion.
As he stared at Vader, he tried to match his own memories with what the Sith's unexpected Force wave had shown him. Buried and often ignored, but they were there.
A lightsaber duel, only for practice, of course, in the Jedi Temple. He had won and he had been sixteen. He forced his own eyes to remember. His mental vision blurred, revealing an annoyed padawan sprawled out on a black dueling mat.
The padawan's cold blue eyes were filled with equally cold hatred a familiar hatred, actually, as Daven could almost see it swirling around Darth Vader.
The Jedi stared at his opponent, trying to clear the haze of his vision.
"Anakin? Anakin Skywalker?" The conclusion sounded foreign, wrong to his ears as he said it, but it was the truth all the same.
Vader had since recomposed himself and was ready to challenge Daven once more, but he stopped his prepared attack. The blood-red saber was lowered passively in front of its owner as the Sith Lord beheld the young Jedi.
Daven waited for Vader Anakin? to respond, to do or say something, but the masked man was motionless for several moments. Daven stood, watching him, too confused and surprised to strike.
"Anakin is dead," he finally snarled. "As are you, Staver."
"So that's it, then?" Daven asked, barely believing that the tall Jedi Knight with wavy dark blonde hair was the same being as the nightmare-borne creature that stood before him now. "You betrayed us, your brothers?"
"You are not my brother," Vader told him simply in a harsh, mechanical voice. To Daven's utter astonishment, he disengaged the crimson saber and hooked it on his black belt.
Mesmerized and horrified, Daven could only stare at the Sith Lord's hand as it rose up slowly to the level of his own chest.
A wind more powerful than those that blew across the iciest tundras of Hoth too powerful to fight assailed him head on, and the hapless knight was lifted off his feet. He sailed across the landing platform faster, or so he thought, than a speeder could have mustered. His flight was interrupted by his back's collision with the hard stonewall of a watchtower. He slid down to the ground with an unceremonious thump.
He let out a small groan as he helplessly watched his lightsaber roll out of his hand and away from his reach. Undaunted, he attempted to stand, using his knees to support his hands as he rose. As soon as he did, Vader hit him again, and continued to do so until Daven was too weak to return to his feet.
Cracked ribs, blood dripping from his nose, possible concussion ... Daven was having trouble staying conscious. He felt more than saw Vader finally approach his bruised form.
"Useless like all the rest," the Sith said, as if he were referring to a bad piece of nerf meat rather than a human being. Daven watched him through a swollen eye, trying to purge himself of the dark feelings for this man who had once been a Jedi. There is no passion; there is serenity.
"And now you will die."
Daven felt the Force lifting him up to where his eyes were level with Vader's mask. He struggled to fight the Dark Side's physical hold, but his strength had long since vanished. He gasped in horror as the dark tendrils wrapped around his neck and began to squeeze like an invisible hand, choking him to death.
So much for the dying with dignity idea, Daven thought lazily as he felt himself slip away.
He had felt his eyes close, probably for the last time, when the hold over his lungs was strangely released. There was a thunderous sound that caused Daven to return to a complete, if dizzy, consciousness.
His first thought was that noise ringing in his ears was merely some twisted hallucination, but his hard fall to the ground proved him wrong. The spots in his eyes faded to reveal Vader still looming above him, but blocking shots from a large blaster.
He looked up to recognize the hull of a very familiar ship looming just a few scant meters away it was the Gray Star, Nyssa's Nubian yacht; he had taken enough hits from its turrets to know that for a fact. Nyssa was only firing at Vader, though, leaving Daven completely unscathed. He stared at it, unable to believe or comprehend what could possibly be happening.
Was she helping him escape? Why?
When the ship's hatch opened to give him entrance, Daven realized he didn't have the time to answer that question.
Most likely Nyssa still wanted the bounty on his head, but that mattered very little to the half-dead Jedi now. Nyssa would certainly be much less brutal with him than Vader, and he would get the final pleasure of denying that Sith his sadistic execution. A win-win situation.
He crawled and stumbled into the waiting ship as Vader continued to dodge fire. He collapsed ungracefully on the hard metal floor of an empty cargo hold and was lulled into a blissful unconsciousness by the sound of the starship entering hyperspace.
Satisfied that she had made a clean getaway, Nyssa removed her safety harness and proceeded down to the lower deck. She paused, however, right before entering the cargo hold.
Daven, from what she could see of the fight, was being completely pummeled to death. She could tell, even from her view in the cockpit, that he had been severely wounded. She had expected there to be a lightsaber fight, Daven on the losing side perhaps, yes, but nothing like what Vader was actually doing to him.
For all that she knew, Daven could have made into the security of her ship and then promptly died of his injuries. She could only hope that wasn't the case.
She opened the inner airlock to find Daven lying motionless and face down. He was covered in blood, and a small pool of it had gathered around his head, which stained her knees and hands as she sat next to him. She checked for a pulse, and was amazed when she heard a steady heartbeat. Despite the gore that was already there, it also appeared that he had stopped bleeding.
Nyssa allowed herself a sigh of relief as she half-dragged, half-carried Daven's limp body into the ship's small medical bay. Appearing to be of average height and build, Daven's actual weight surprised her as she struggled to carry him in a position that was both comfortable for her and safe for him. She could only guess that the many acrobatics she had seen him perform were less about his control of the Force and more about the fine-tuning of his muscled body.
She pushed him up onto the sickbed with a heavy thud, noting for the first time the irony in the fact that she was going to use part of Daven's bounty to purchase a repulsor lift and stretcher.
He groaned loudly as his body made hard contact with the bed, and his limbs twitched slightly.
"Stop complaining, Jedi," Nyssa grumbled as she wetted a sterile cloth to wipe the blood off his cuts. She applied the cloth to his face and he hissed in response.
"You are so ungrateful," she continued angrily as she worked, clearing the dried blood away from his handsome features. "Here I am, risking my butt to save you and you can't even wake up enough to say thank you! No, instead you grunt and groan and scoff at my meager med bay. But if you had just let me kill you like a good boy, we wouldn't be in this mess! You wouldn't be lying in my bay my sick bay! like a bloody goop pile and I wouldn't be ... I wouldn't be ..."
She slammed the rag against equipment table to vent her frustration. She knew the outburst wasn't directed at the young man before her, but at herself, at her own feelings. She had never felt this way before; it just wasn't like a bounty hunter.
"I wouldn't be in love with you," she finished softly, allowing the anger of her previous words to melt away. "Why are you doing this to me, Jedi? It must be some sort of horrible mind trick." She fought the tears that so desperately wanted to surface as she cleaned the cloth for another sweep of his wounds.
She knew that, while Daven was prone to trick and mislead her pursuit when fighting for his life, he wouldn't dare attempt to alter her emotions he simply had, she believed, too much respect for her.
No, it was just his fiery hair that managed to produce streaks of gold when the sun was at a low angle, his blue eyes that reminded her of her homeworld's sky on a perfect spring day, his face that showed compassion, strength, and humor all in one glance.
She honestly didn't know why she had denied it for so long.
She removed his clothing and, although she was indeed pleased with his physical conditioning, she left him bare only long enough to examine his injuries and apply bacta wherever she could. She then covered him with a warm blanket, and tried not to touch any sensitive wounds.
Building up more nerve than she thought necessary, she placed a gentle kiss on his lips. It was hardly more than a little brush, but the sensation of the touch sent little ripples of exhilaration throughout her entire body.
"Sleep well, Jedi," she said, trying to control her blushing cheeks as she turned to leave him to his slumber. "I hate you; you know that, right?"
She had a plan. She could most certainly convince Daven to stay with her and, perhaps, someday he would even feel the same way for her as she did for him. It was worth a try.
He rose slowly, making sure not to put too much strain on his chest some ribs felt like they were bruised and pulled a rough, woolen blanket away from his body. He was thankful, if a bit stunned, to notice the bacta on some of his larger cuts.
He found his clothes cleaned, but not folded, and resting on the table beside the bed. He looked around thoughtfully, noting that he was in a standard med bay. Near as he could see, a various array of antidote, stim, and pain relieving medjars that lined the shelves along two of the walls. A small but expensive bacta tank sat against the third wall.
Only a bounty hunter like Nyssa would be able to afford such a convenient tool. Daven smiled at the thought of how much she might have needed it after one of their confrontations.
But the smile turned into a gruff grimace at the knowledge that he was, of course, most likely still on board the Gray Star and in Nyssa's custody. He sighed, but realized that this was no time to feel sorry for himself. Nyssa had a reason for leaving him alive, and he decided that, if he wanted to stay that way, he would have to find out what it was.
He dressed carefully but quickly, and slowly made his way out to see the rest of the ship. His steps were cautious, not for stealth or for grace, but for the fear of some broken bone he had yet to find.
Vader had been stronger than he expected. It wasn't his physical strength, but his mastery of the Force that had overwhelmed Daven's defenses. It made sense, though, now that he knew exactly who Vader was. Used to be, rather.
Anakin Skywalker had always found a strong ally in the Force. If he had studied more, studied as much as he should have, Daven imagined that Anakin would have someday overtaken the Masters in skill.
Well, apparently he had, Daven thought bitterly, feeling a small amount of bile rise in his throat at the memory of Tru Veld's brutal death.
He found himself in the main comms room, but there was no sign of Nyssa. He turned to leave, but a transparisteel galactic map on the far wall caught his attention. Walking over to it, he noticed the small lights that flicked at various places across the galaxy. The glowpins were stuck, he soon realized as he followed the path with his finger, onto each of the systems he had sought refuge in during his exile. Nyssa had probably placed them there to trace a pattern of his wanderings in an attempt to predict where she might find him next.
The lines of dots and dates, however, were completely random, to his satisfaction.
He ran his thumb along the small pegs, tracking where they led, color by color, and tried to remember each of the planets he had visited. His mind came up empty on nearly half of them as he attempted to recall the spaceport's appearance or even the face of a single native citizen.
So many places, yet he never stopped to gain any knowledge of them. He had nothing to show for all his adventures but a pair of worn out pilot trousers and a jacket. By the Force, he couldn't remember where he had obtained either of them. He didn't even have his old Jedi tunics or his lightsaber. Both had been left on Corellia one in an abandoned, low-rent apartment, the other in the hands of Darth Vader.
Their loss, as trivial as it was, suddenly made Daven feel homesick. The Temple, now burnt to ashes for all he knew, would no longer be there to welcome him. Neither would the Masters, who were all dead by his estimation.
He felt highly un-Jedi-like after all, what was left for a Jedi in this galaxy now? as he placed the last pin, a neon green one, on the Corellian system.
"I always use the orange pins for planets that I've actually found you on," Nyssa told him. Her voice was surprisingly gentle, sad almost. "Although I was thinking of using a red one for the system where I finally caught you."
He turned to face her and was somewhat shocked by her appearance. Gone were the tight fitting, gray combat suit and utility vest. In their place she wore loose, cream colored slacks and a matching, equally baggy tunic. Her feet were bare and she wasn't wearing her weapons belt nor holding a blaster. Her hair was tied back in a simple braid, but a few renegade blonde strands fell around her face.
She looked absolutely beautiful. As much as he didn't want to, he took his eyes off her face to stare at the ground in a lame attempt to stop his cheeks from turning red.
He had always thought that Nyssa was gorgeous beyond compare. His Master would have probably laughed if he had ever lived to see Daven feel attracted to a woman, but the rest of the Order would have ridiculed or condemned him. Such things were had been? forbidden.
"You must be hungry, thirsty," Nyssa continued, sounding slightly perplexed by Daven's uncharacteristic silence. "Here, sit down. I'll get you some food." She walked off towards the small kitchen.
Only after he heard the cling-clang of metal eating utensils did Daven dare to look up and take a seat at the table in the center of the galley. He rubbed his face and eyes roughly with his heads, trying to remove the last remnants of fatigue. If Nyssa was up to something, he would have to be ready. Though what she could possibly be planning to do to him while weaponless and shoeless was beyond his grasp.
He glanced up as Nyssa returned with his meal. He was exhausted, curious, and hungry, even if he wasn't ready to admit such a fact to Nyssa.
"I hope you like nerf soup," she said with an amiable smile.
He took the bowl she offered but didn't immediately eat. Instead, he watched her suspiciously as she took her seat opposite him. She placed her arms on the table a small indication of peace.
"You should eat," she told him. She looked almost concerned. "You've been out for nearly a day. I don't have any nutrient packs or I would have given you one. I wasn't able to get you to drink anything, either."
Daven tried not to draw a metal image of Nyssa forcibly pouring water down his throat, which still ached from Vader's chokehold. But he was hungry, painfully hungry, and the soup smelled wonderful.
If Nyssa wanted to kill him, she could have done it already, so the food wasn't likely poisoned, and the Force wasn't giving off any warning. In fact, for some reason, he was sensing that Nyssa's hostility towards him had decreased dramatically since the time he last saw her.
So he ate. His body demanded that he shovel the food in his mouth as quickly as possible, but his honed manners kept the urge at bay. The bowl was still emptied in record time, though.
He saw Nyssa hide a smile behind her hand in the edge of his vision. He paused momentarily, stiffening in an attempt to keep his composure as he ate. Despite this, a small line, not nearly a wrinkle, appeared on his brow when he had finished the soup. His stomach still ached and begged for more sustenance, but his mind fought the need.
"Do you want some more?"
His head shot up and he made fierce eye contact with Nyssa, shaking his head no. He would only take from her what was absolutely necessary for his immediate survival.
"No, thank you," he said gruffly, remembering proper etiquette at the last possible moment.
She nodded, not bothering to push him. "Would you like some caff, then?"
"Why did you help me?" he blurted out, ignoring her offer.
Nyssa cocked her head and appeared thoughtful, tucking her tongue against her cheek.
"I've known you for a long time, Daven," she said coolly, her professional tone in stark contrast to his own abruptness. "I've seen what you can do, how well you fight. So I would like to make a proposition."
"A proposition?" His voice was harsh and his eyes narrowed. "Sorry, beautiful, I'm not a contract assassin, so, either kill me now or"
"Hear me out, Daven," she interrupted him, holding her hands up in a pacifying gesture. "I'm not talking about bounty hunting."
He regarded her suspiciously, but curiosity got the better of him. He remained silent, letting her continue.
"Smuggling," she said. "This empire has made contraband more goods in the past three years than the Old Republic did in its entire existence. The market's ripe and the pay's good. We've got the ship and, with my experience and your tactics ... well, just think of what would be in our favor!" Her voice finished on a high note, as if to generate the same excitement in Daven that she herself obviously felt.
Daven kept his expression neutral, save for a questioningly raised brow.
"Why me?" he asked when he saw that her enthusiasm was undeterred by his gaze. "I'm not exactly smuggler material. Vader will still be on my tail. He'll keep looking for me until I'm dead. And then there's the two million credit bounty that you are were, whatever so keen on collecting. I think other bounty hunters might be interested, don't you? Why take the risk?"
"You can disguise yourself," she said, her tone laced with an urgency he didn't understand. "I know places where you can buy a whole new identity. Vader's got an empire to run. He'll stop looking for you if you hide. We'll wait a few months before we start"
"It doesn't work like that, beautiful," he hissed, more out of annoyance than anything close to anger. "Vader will not stop."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because Anakin wouldn't stop."
"Who?" Nyssa asked, not bothering to hide her bewilderment.
"Never mind," he said softly. He waved his hand as if sweeping away the topic of Vader altogether. "It doesn't matter anymore." His heart was still sunken, but there was nothing he could do about the past now. "You didn't answer my question, Nyssa," he reminded her. "Why me?"
"Why not?" Nyssa returned, lowering her gaze to focus on the table. "I already told you: you're a good fighter."
A slight narrowing of his eyes and the wrinkling of his forehead were the only physical signs of Daven reaching out towards Nyssa's mind with the Force. He hated to violate another sentient like this, especially one he liked for as much as Nyssa, but he saw no other choice.
A multitude of emotions and thoughts rushed at him, unfocused, dizzying, but he forced himself through them, sorting them out of chaos and into his own understanding. Most were unintelligible the lyrics of the last song she had heard, what she dreamed about last night but one feeling swelled up to the surface more than the others.
Please, let him just believe me. He can't know, not yet.
"You're lying," he said flatly as he pulled out of her mind. He could have gone deeper and discover exactly what truth she was trying to hide from him, but he owed her his life, and he would not ravage her psyche any further than he absolutely needed to.
"I'm not, Daven," Nyssa nearly exclaimed. She reached out to touch his hand with her own. Fingers grazed fingers for only a moment before Daven jerked his arm away as if he had been burned.
"Well, then, what are you hiding?" he asked defensively, rising to his feet just so he could be further away from her.
Looking hurt, she wrapped her arms around her abdomen protectively and brought her knees up to her chest. The toes of her bare feet hung loosely off the edge of the chair. "I can't tell you," she admitted softly. "But you have to trust me. I don't want to hurt you anymore."
"You're right, I have to trust you," Daven agreed bitterly. "But, forgive me, bounty hunter, if I don't cartwheel with joy."
Nyssa's eyes narrowed. "I hate you, Jedi."
"Likewise." It was the first time that he ever had said anything negative in response to Nyssa's "I hate you" line, and he did feel a flash of guilt, but the feeling of betrayal left a bitter taste in his mouth and he couldn't bring himself to feel anything but contempt for her now.
Instead of continuing the angry exchange, Nyssa unexpectedly slumped, nearly wilting under his hot gaze.
"Look." Despite himself, Daven felt his resolve soften. When he spoke again, he forced a perceivable calm into his voice, "I don't understand you. I don't know why you rescued me or why you are keeping me alive. I never even understood why a person like you would even want to hunt bounties in the first place. But I will take your word that you're not going to collect my bounty, if you let me go."
"All right," Nyssa agreed softly, but her eyes still didn't meet his. "Just tell me where you want to go."
Taken aback by her unanticipated consent, Daven nodded slowly and sat down, folding his hands together upon the table.
"Good." He took a deep breath, still shaky as his nerves calmed. "Have you ever heard of a world called Maylass Five?" Nyssa shook her head. "Well, there have been rumors that it holds a gateway base for a rebel alliance against the Empire."
"You're going to join a rebellion?" At his nod, she sighed. "What good will that do?"
"It's the right choice," Daven told her firmly, remembering the decision he had finally made back on Corellia. "They can help me escape the bounty hunters far better than you can and maybe even escape Vader, to some extent. I've wasted too much time running, Nyssa. I may not be able to defeat Vader or Palpatine in battle especially not Palpatine but I can help defeat them in the war. It is the way of the Jedi, the only way left."
"You think there'll be a war?" Nyssa asked wearily.
"Is that even a question anymore?" Daven shrugged. "I think the question you should be asking yourself is which side you want to be on."
Their conversations were often strained, with Daven mumbling only as many words as necessary about eating or changing watch shifts. Nyssa, in her days alone, attempted to feel nothing but irritation, or, even better, apathy for the stubborn Jedi.
Her more vengeful side tempted her to just kiss him goodbye and throw him out of the airlock for being such an eopie's butt. Oh, she would miss him, sure, but time healed all wounds. She had been in love and had lost loves before. Why should Daven be any different?
Let him go to that useless rebellion, she thought bitterly. He can die there, for all I care. If only she could convince herself to believe it.
The world of Maylass appeared, centered in the viewscreen, as the Gray Star pulled out of hyperspace. Maylass V was less of a planet and more of a moon, rotating irregularly around the gas giant. It glistened blue against the red planet framed behind it, but, despite the contrast of colors, Nyssa still had trouble locating it with the naked eye. She waited patiently as the navicomputer locked on to its target, and the ship began to pull towards Maylass V.
She heard Daven approaching from the crew quarters, returning early after his meditation, and she turned to watch him as he entered.
He had healed remarkably well, Nyssa noticed; the swelling around his eye had completely receded, his bruises were gone, and his cuts were little more than a few brownish-red scabs.
"Are we in system?" he asked, chirpy once more. She could have sworn, although she wasn't Force-sensitive, that euphoria radiated off him as he took the copilot's seat.
"Yeah, we should reach Maylass Five's atmosphere within " she checked the chronometer "fifteen minutes."
He nodded thoughtfully and leaned back. He seemed calmer and more content just now than he had been during the past several days. As edgy as he often was in her presence, she could only imagine his new-found peace was because they would be parting ways soon.
"The Force has been quite pleasant of late," he said, answering her unspoken question. He looked at her, eyes filled not with spiteful distrust, but relaxed acceptance. "I sense that the future will be brighter. Perhaps I have made the right decision about the rebellion. But I feel, maybe, that I have been unduly harsh to you. For that, I am sorry."
"The Force told you all that?" She raised an eyebrow, trying to conceal her surprise at his apology.
"Yes, if in not so many words." He smiled softly, almost shyly. "You did save my life, and I am grateful."
"That must have been hard to admit." She just had to grin at that.
"Well," he said with mock severity, "if you don't want to be friends, than I certainly won't force you." He crossed his arms over his torso and huffed, raising his nose in the air.
"You are the strangest Jedi I've ever met." Nyssa shook her head. "Where's all that Jedi stoicism?"
"On some backwater planet, I imagine, contemplating the wonders of death." He favored her with a familiar smirk. "I learned a long time ago that if you take everything too seriously, you'd forget what it means to be alive."
"And here I thought this whole time that your humor was a poorly developed coping mechanism."
"Ah, maybe." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "You knew other Jedi?" he asked suddenly. The amusement in his eyes lessened, most likely as he considered exactly how she might know them.
"Not in the way you're thinking," she clarified. "I was a brigadier under a Jedi during the war, at least until she died Master Jedi Stass Allie. She was incredibly ... noble, a wonderful leader."
"She was," Daven agreed, obviously pleased. "Where were you stationed after her?"
"I wasn't." She shook her head and bit her lip, aware of the conclusion Daven would draw. "I left."
"You deserted the Republic army?" he asked with surprise. The army stopped granting discharge requests long before Allie's death; even cadets with severe injuries were reassigned to less physical posts as opposed to being released altogether.
"I'm not proud of what I did," she sighed, allowing her gaze to travel across the main console. "But I'm not going to make excuses. I was young; the army was a way out of a difficult situation. I didn't want to be there. I didn't see a reason to be there. All my friends had already been killed."
"So you went off and started hunting innocent people for money," Daven finished for her, frowning curtly. "Using the skills the Republic taught you."
"Hunting, yes," she reluctantly admitted. "Not innocent, though. I started with Hutt contracts, probably worse people than the Hutts themselves. And the Separatists well, not much difference between bounty hunting and the army, but at least I got paid for it."
"And the rebels? And the Jedi?"
"A rebellion's a rebellion," she reminded him, though her heart did not match her words. "Those were government contacts completely lawful. Don't forget, you're the fugitive here."
"Ah, yes, without trial or even charges."
"That never was my concern." She shrugged dismissively. "But if it makes you feel any better, you're the only Jedi I've tried my hand at."
"Nice to know," he said flatly.
Nyssa mindlessly switched over a few controls. A strand of hair fell from her braid and she brushed it back behind her ears.
"So, beautiful," Daven continued after the brief pause. "Why did you become a bounty hunter? I mean, there are much less, uh, deadly occupations."
"I knew people," she answered, looking away from the controls and fixing her gaze on his face. "My mother was a dancer. She worked in a cantina on one of the lower levels of Coruscant, and so I met a lot of ... interesting sentients."
He nodded acceptingly, silently urging her to continue. She glanced out the viewport, watching Maylass V loom closer. The dark moon filled the cockpit with a cold blue light.
"She died when I was fifteen standard." She sighed. "My ... her boyfriend took me in. He was a contract organizer, taught me the ropes, you know? When I became an adult, I joined the Republic. Then I caught up with a few friends who offered me some jobs." She shrugged, pushing back the memories of her grief at her mother's passing as well as the memories that followed memories of beatings and worse. She had learned all too quickly just what could befall a young woman in the sole care of such a man.
"I'm sorry," Daven said softly. He reached out and touched the top of her hand gently with the tip of his index finger, running it along all four knuckles.
She watched, astounded, then tore her eyes away from his hand to stare up at his face.
"My mother used to do that, when I was a little girl," she breathed, feeling her heart pound at the familiar sensation. "How did you ...?"
"The Force," he said vaguely. "It lets me see things about you that I never intended."
She pulled away, nervous. "Like reading minds?"
"No, I don't think so," Daven told her. "More like images, feelings. I can't really control it."
She was about to speak when the navicomputer flashed, warning them that they were entering the moon's atmosphere. She took manual control, forgetting about Daven's touch for a moment, and guided the ship towards the general coordinates he had given her. The thin clouds broke, revealing a small, desolate group of duracrete structures.
She matched the ship's trajectory with what looked to be a docking hangar. She waited for a hail over the comm, but it remained silent.
"Are they going to contact us?" she asked, keeping her focus on her gauges.
"I don't know," he answered as the ship began to shudder, adjusting naturally to the gravity. "Perhaps they have some special procedure."
A few moments of silence passed as the Gray Star rocked through turbulence. They both gritted their teeth against the rattling.
"Nyssa, I want you to join the rebellion with me," Daven suddenly said as the shaking passed. He took his eyes off the viewport to watch her expression.
Nyssa blinked, confused. "Why?"
"I had ... a vision in my meditations today," he replied. "The Force links us. I believe that you should be in my future. Must be in my future."
Nyssa glided the ship into the bay with no contact from flight control. She powered down the engines as they both stared out the viewscreen, expecting something that simply wasn't there.
His last words were everything that she most wanted to hear after he had left her alone in that cantina on Corellia, but he was no longer focused on her. He had risen from his chair to get a better view of the hangar.
"Something's wrong," he said. "There's no one here. No one alive, at least."
"Makes sense," she agreed, thinking of the silent comm unit. "They must have moved. Maybe the Empire was getting too close."
"No," he responded, "that's not it. I have a bad feeling about this."
Nyssa nodded, swallowing harshly as Daven spoke. She watched as he turned and stalked out of the cockpit. She rushed up to follow him; her nerves were firing up, burning with adrenaline as if she were preparing for a night of chasing him.
"Are you going out there?" she asked, breaking into a jog to catch up with him in the cargo hold before he lowered the ramp.
He nodded, concern etched on his features.
"Unarmed?" She narrowed her eyes somewhat playfully despite the seriousness of the situation. "Care to borrow something?"
Nyssa probably hadn't realized that her offer of the blaster had added insult to injury, reminding Daven once more of his embarrassing loss of the lightsaber that he had built as a young initiate. He was grateful, however, that she was willing to trust him enough to loan it, whatever her reasons were.
They moved down the ramp slowly, cautiously with Nyssa in the lead and Daven flanking her on the right. She had changed once more into her combat suit and was holding a blaster rifle defensively with both hands.
Although Daven secretly missed the relaxed off-white trousers and top, he couldn't help but admire the way Nyssa's hips curved up to her waist in that suit. He shook his head forcibly, trying to clear his mind of such strange thoughts.
The hangar was devoid of sentient life, even if it still contained a small fleet of Headhunter fighters. Daven peeked in between the rows of ships, looking for any signs of movement. He was surprised to find nothing, not even a single astromech roaming next to the vehicles.
Nyssa glanced at Daven, giving him a quizzical look. He shrugged and shook his head. She sighed, turning towards what looked to be the base's control center, beckoning the Jedi to follow.
"This place feels cold," Daven noted, wishing that his sweaty palm would stop causing the plastiplex grip to slip haphazardly around his hand. He wondered slightly why the manufacturer of these weapons couldn't use a plex more like the one he had on his lightsaber. He could swear that his own hilt generated less sweat, too, but he forced himself to stop his mental complaining.
"Maybe their heating generators have gone out," Nyssa guessed, eying the main door. "I don't really feel it, though."
"No, it's not the air," he said, trying to ignore the little prickles that kept attacking the back of his neck. "It's something else. I can't explain it."
"Some help you are, then, Jedi," she said sarcastically as she thumbed the door's control panel. She held her blaster out in an attack position, preparing herself for any unexpected results. Although she could not see him, Daven imitated her form, guessing it to be the equivalent of a ready stance.
They waited as the door opened and the smoke from the carbon-seal dissipated. Nyssa stepped through first, wary the thickness of the fumes told them that this particular entrance hadn't been used in a while and motioned for Daven to stay at her left.
She glanced over her shoulder briefly to verify that Daven was indeed cooperating with her instructions. He caught her gaze and nodded.
He suppressed his desire to bite his bottom lip anxiously as Nyssa tuned back and took a few more steps into the dark hallway. Everything seems wrong.
Nyssa let out a sharp, unexpected shriek and flew backwards, colliding with Daven's chest in the process. He caught her before she managed to lose her balance and fall, his blaster dropping in her stead.
She whirled around and faced him, wrapping her arms around his abdomen tightly and burying her face in his collarbone. He was surprised but inwardly pleased by Nyssa's closeness, and her rapid breath against his neck sent shivers down his spine.
Daven forced himself to look over her shoulder and peer into the obscure corridor, confirming with his eyes what his nostrils were already beginning to suspect.
More than a dozen dead bodies lined the floor.
"It's okay," he found himself repeating as he embraced her near-trembling form. He closed his own eyes harshly, wishing he could remove the sight from his mind and the nausea from his stomach.
He took a few deep breaths of the foul air through his mouth to steady his bowels before gently releasing his hold on Nyssa. He slowly pulled her arms away from his torso, even as she resisted slightly.
He touched her face ever so softly, running his knuckles across her cheek. She looked tense and ... scared. Daven had never seen the famed bounty hunter so traumatized at the thought of death.
"Go back to the ship, Nyssa," he told her reassuringly. "I just need to see who they are."
"No, I'm fine," she insisted. "It was just a little surprising, that's all." She took a pair of mini-glowrods out of her vest pocket and handed one to Daven. They simultaneously ignited them, causing the hall to brighten a red-orange hue.
The corridor was roughly fifty meters by six, most likely serving as the gateway into the rest of the base. The walls had once been painted a calming and professional-looking shade of blue-gray, but dark spots of reddish-brown soiled many parts the places where dying soldiers were thrown against and had slid to the floor, leaving a trail of blood in their wake.
Daven and Nyssa moved quickly, running the rods close to and over the deceased, and inspecting the various faces, uniforms, and wounds.
"Rebellion, all right," Nyssa verified after studying a young soldier's lapel. She had calmed somewhat and was being to sound much more like the detached bounty hunter Daven had grown to respect. "I can't make out these injuries, though. They almost look like vibroblade cuts, but they've been cauterized."
"Lightsaber," Daven concluded as he knelt down before another corpse.
"Vader," he corrected as he began the next examination. "He's the only one that could do this sort of damage. The only one who would want to, anyway." His heart sank and old grief threatened to assail him once more when his glowrod illuminated a familiar robe. "These were Jedi," he managed to say before he felt the tears building up in his eyes and rolling down his cheeks.
"I'm sorry, Daven," Nyssa said quietly.
He nodded, but couldn't bring himself to look away from the man's dark face. Had they studied together? Sparred? Attended to the same multi-team missions?
"He even took his saber," he whispered painfully. "That monster wouldn't even let him keep his saber. He probably kept it as some sort of sick trophy." Anakin would know how valued a lightsaber was to the Jedi that wielded it. A Jedi's dying wish regarding his saber was always respected, whether he wanted it used in initiate training, given to an old friend, or burned on the pyre with him. One could do a member of the Order no greater dishonor than to take the weapon against his or her will.
Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight, had become nothing short of a Sith demon from the legends of old.
Daven switched the glowrod to his left hand and covered his eyes with his right, allowing himself to openly grieve. The time of the Jedi was at an end. How many more bodies would he have to see before it was over? How many more souls would he feel slipping away before there was no one left but him?
A warm weight on his shoulder momentarily caused Daven to break out of his reverie. Nyssa had placed her hand there. He continued to cry, not caring that his behavior lacked his usual sarcasm and cheeriness.
Nyssa lowered herself into a crouch behind him and, to his amazement, enveloped him in a hug, resting her head against the base of his neck. Despite the oddity of a bounty hunter embracing her former target, he couldn't help but take solace in such intimacy.
"We should go back," Nyssa said once Daven's body had stopped shuddering from the sobs. "There's nothing we can do here."
"I can't leave them like this," he muttered, his voice gruff. "They are my brethren. I ... need to give them a proper funeral. The other soldiers too; they all deserve that much."
"All right," Nyssa whispered over his shoulder. "I'll help you."
'Usually' was, sadly, the key word here. Even though she had been in the shower for upwards of half a standard hour, she could still smell the stench. It managed to get everywhere, it seemed on her skin, in her hair, and it had found a way to seep into her combat suit as well.
She had thrown the outfit away; it was hardly worth the effort it would take to properly wash. She would simply be satisfied to get the smell off herself.
The base had held, to their dismay, many more piles of corpses, scattered throughout as if attempting to make various stands against Vader's massacre. Some of the rebels had been shot to death as well, making it appear that Vader had been in command of a small squadron of clones.
The center of the compound, however, had held the greatest atrocity of all a small room had been set up to resemble the crθche at the Jedi Temple. Initiates, as Daven had called the young children, were scattered throughout unceremoniously some on the floor while the babies and toddlers were still in their cribs each with a precise lightsaber cut to the chest.
And so, for the first time in what seemed like eons, Nyssa had allowed herself tears.
They had dragged all the bodies out into the open plains that surround the rebels' compound, and Nyssa had yet again wished for a repulsor lift. They gathered enough flammable materials, including goods from the base, to build a funeral pyre and Nyssa had begun to pile corpses together indiscriminately when Daven stopped her hand.
"No," he had said, "the Jedi will go on their own mound." She had only nodded and allowed him that much, telling him to concern himself with the Knights while she took care of the soldiers.
The two pyres had then burned, side by side. Nyssa wondered if Daven prayed or meditated or held some other mysterious and silent Jedi rite as he watched the bodies of his kin return to dust, but his solemn face revealed nothing.
She shook her head, willing the sonic waves to blow away the memories along with the grit. She could only wonder how Daven had managed to come out of the shower smelling like he always did musky with a slight hint of simple salt. Perhaps she no longer stunk as bad as she thought, and the odor was all in her head.
She shut off the shower and dressed in her cream tunics, rolling her hair up in a plain bun.
Daven was sitting in the ship's common room, right where she left him, staring mindlessly at the galactic pin map. He looked up at Nyssa as she approached and favored her with a sad smile. She returned the expression and sat down across from him close but not uncomfortably so.
"Thank you for helping me, Nyssa," Daven said, his tone reflective. "It means a lot. I don't think I could have done it by myself, especially all the ones we found after the hall. I never really thought of you as the compassionate type." It was probably meant to be a compliment, but Nyssa's eyes narrowed all the same.
"I'm a bounty hunter, not a homicidal maniac," she reminded him, a slight edge hanging in her voice. "I don't do massacres, Jedi. I like individual catches the best, not groups, and I'd much rather deliver live bounties, not leaving piles of corpses. And children never children, dead or alive, I don't care what price is offered."
Daven nodded, relief filling his features. After a few minutes of silence, however, he looked up and raised an eyebrow.
"You looked like you were about ready to take off my head more than once, though," he prompted thoughtfully, "and I hear that's how the Emperor likes it."
"Would you have honestly let me take you alive, Daven?" she asked. "I would have taken your head, but I would have disposed of your body respectably. You were a worthy opponent, Jedi; I would have considered an honorable pyre nothing short of deserved."
Daven smiled. "Thank you, then. That's more than I could have hoped for."
"You're welcome," she returned, allowing her own hint of a smile.
"You are very admirable for a bounty hunter all the same," he admitted. "You weren't the first to try to collect on my head, you know. I've had a few run-ins with others, but they were more trouble than they were worth. I don't think they would have treated my body as well as that, either."
She stared as him, her eyes widening. So Daven's contract had other bidders before she came along, and evidently, he had gotten rid of them easily.
"Apparently I'm not the only one capable of taking a life," Nyssa noted dryly. "And here I was led to believe that you were all innocence."
"No one can be completely innocent and survive in this galaxy," he answered with a sigh. Despite his dejected tone, Nyssa saw the all too familiar rush of roguishness at the statement. With a new haircut and a decent blaster, Daven would make a damn fine smuggler. "Answer me this, though, Nyssa: why were you so surprised in the hall? I know you've seen that sort of thing before."
His gaze was sympathetic but curious, causing her usual "none-of-your-business-Jedi" response to remain unspoken. She simply shrugged. "I found my mother like that. Somebody killed her over a half a kilo of spice and left her in our apartment. So it just isn't something I like to walk in on."
Daven's eyes widened in shock and his features turned completely compassionate. He reached out across the table and touched the top of Nyssa's hand with his own. It seemed, Nyssa had to admit, that she and the Jedi were spending an abhorrent amount of time comforting each other.
"I'm sorry, Nyssa."
She waved her free hand loosely, suggesting that the event was almost mundane. "It was a long time ago," she told him blankly. "She didn't even do anything; I suppose that that's the worst part about it. The spice actually belonged to that boyfriend of hers. I found that out after I left the army."
"Oh?" Daven said, his tone quietly encouraging.
"Yeah," she said nonchalantly. "My first hunt was actually the gundarks that did it to her. It was most ... satisfying. I managed to learn about the boyfriend before their unfortunate deaths."
"And I'm sure you were very creative about it, too," Daven noted lightly, without a hint of reproof.
"Be thankful for that creativity, Jedi." She smiled, pleased that his casual humor managed to take some of the old pain away. "I might have not been able to save you from Vader without it."
"Yes, that was a fantastically original plan, bounty hunter," he said with a smirk. "Shoot the bad guy; rescue the hero."
"Oh, you're the hero now?" Nyssa found herself smiling despite everything.
"Of course, beautiful. What else could I be?"
"Ah," she began, running a mental list of all the characters in classic holo adventures. "The comic sidekick, for one."
"I'm much too attractive." Daven grinned.
"Not really," she found herself saying, even though she always thought the exact opposite.
"Well, anyway," Daven said, a slight blush rising to his cheeks, "as much as I'd like to leave this rock, I noticed that the Star's supplies are low. I saw some crates in that other hangar. I'm sure they wouldn't mind ..."
She nodded. "I know. I was going to see if I could barter with them once I got here maybe deliver personnel or equipment in exchange for fuel and supplies."
"That sounds awful close to actually joining the rebellion, Nyssa," Daven noted with some playfulness.
"Perish the thought, Jedi," she countered.
"You never did give my proposal an answer, you know," he reminded her, his voice betraying hope as well as seriousness.
"Well, you never answered mine, either," she said, attempting to not allow her heart to start pounding.
"We're at an impasse, then."
"I'll go wherever you go," she finally admitted, defeated. She slumped down into a chair and let out a loud sigh that was almost a groan. She loved him and denying her feelings would only make her life more difficult.
She had seen him at his best and his worst, fighting against her with all his might where others would have faltered and allowing himself to grieve openly in her presence when no other man would have dared. That took courage, real courage, the sort which Nyssa had seen very little of in the rest of humanity. Through all his trials he remained not only spirited but also humorous, making a joke out of the most life-threatening situations.
And I love him for that. The thought was so strong that she almost said it aloud.
"What?" Daven asked sharply, his face yielding nothing but pure shock.
"I said I'd go with you," she repeated as her stomach started doing those little flips once more. "If you want to find the rebellion, we'll find the rebellion."
"No, that wasn't it." He shook his head as if trying to clear his thoughts. "After that." His breathing hitched, but his eyes stayed fixed on hers.
"I didn't say anything after that."
"Yes, you did."
"Isn't good enough that I said I'd go with you?" she snapped, flustered. "Do I have to admit that I'm in love with you, too?"
"Oh," Daven's eyes widened to the point of bulging and his face turned a hot shade of red. "That must have been it." He looked away.
"Gods," was all she managed to say before burying her head in her hands and leaning down, elbows on her knees.
Several uncomfortable minutes of silence passed before Daven spoke.
"Was that what you were trying to hide from me?" he asked slowly. "You didn't want me to know that you ... you loved me."
"Yeah." She didn't bother to look up, so her voice was muffled in her palms.
"Jedi do not know love," Daven mumbled.
"Yeah, well, the rest of the galaxy does," she said bitterly. She dropped her hands and stood abruptly.
"Please don't go," he said softly.
"I'm tired," she growled, wishing that were more than partially true. She turned
"You're the most beautiful woman in the galaxy," Daven said, voice trembling. "At least to me."
Nyssa stopped and spun to face him once more. He was standing and looking at her directly, his loose grip on the back of his chair distinctly shaky.
"Um, that's why I call you that," he said lightly, breathlessly. "Because you are."
Nyssa struggled to find words, but Daven continued, his voice gaining strength as he did so.
"Jedi aren't supposed to feel emotions for others. It's against the Code." He paused for a rough swallow. "But what I feel for you, I can't explain it. Every time I saw you, I was mystified by your presence, by your strength of will. It was so ... captivating. Just being around you is amazing. I don't know if that's love; I've never known love, really."
"It could be," she started slowly, nervously. She walked back, stopping less than a half-meter before him, and gently touched his bottom lip with her index finger.
He responded by pressing his lips closer to her fingertip in a slight kiss. The usually calm, cheerful blue waves of his irises held a hint of something Nyssa had never quite seen before desire. There was a small amount of fear in them as well although it wasn't the kind she would imagine the Jedi were taught to guard against.
His shivering made him look more vulnerable, younger even, but his inexperience didn't really concern Nyssa. She had been with enough men too many men and she had never felt close to half the devotion for any of them as she did for the one standing before her now.
She placed her right hand against his cheek and pulled him closer so that his lips could meet hers. It was barely a light brushing much like the kiss she had given him in the med bay but it caused every single one of her nerves to tingle. She ran her left hand through his hair, allowing the soft strands to envelop her fingers.
He wrapped his arms around her waist, and she could feel him shaking as the last space between their two bodies was removed. His warmth was inviting, and Nyssa found herself molding to him. One of his hands crept under the back of her overtunic and she moaned softly.
"I'm sorry," Daven mumbled, worry filling those handsome features. "I'm not doing this right." He moved to pull away, but Nyssa kept her hold tight.
"You're doing fine," Nyssa soothed. "It's wonderful." She removed her hand from the back of his neck and reached for his hand, guiding it to the edge of her breast. The look on his face would have triggered a laugh on Nyssa's part had she not been so deeply aroused.
She placed another kiss on Daven's slightly open mouth, using his stunned expression to her advantage. She traced his bottom lip with her tongue to give him fair warning before completely entering his mouth. She felt his spine stiffen in surprise as she deepened the kiss, locking her lips to his and softly touching his tongue with her own.
He was motionless at first, most likely perplexed by her actions, but he soon understood and began to follow her lead. They steadied into a rhythm as Daven became comfortable, and Nyssa could feel her body yearning to take it to the next level.
Daven broke away first, grasping for breath as he did so. Nyssa smiled at him, noticing how flushed his face had become within the last few minutes.
"Wow," was all he managed to say. He ran his thumb along the curvature of her breast, causing her to whimper against the sensation. "You like that?" he asked, genuinely questioning.
"Gods, yes," she answered, not hesitating for an instant. "I love you." It was a declaration given freely, happily, and, as far as Nyssa could remember, it was the first of its kind.
He grinned brightly; the spark in his eyes was pure Daven. He prepared to meet her lips again, but she backed her head away, a few centimeters out of his reach. He looked up, confusion evident on his face.
"Tell me the same," she begged more than demanded, surprising even herself with the request. She had never before expected to care about a man she bedded, let alone have such feelings be returned. But everything was different when it came to Daven. She cupped his face with her hands and waited patiently.
"I love you," he admitted sooner than she would have guessed. His eyes shone in his honesty. She didn't know if he could see the elated joy crossing over her face, but she hoped he could sense it through the Force. It would be his gift to her returned in kind love for love.
She smiled once more before spreading tiny pecks across his jaw line and causing his heart to pound loud enough for her to feel it against her own chest. He buried his cheek in her hair, whispering something that she couldn't quite understand, even as she didn't feel the need to.
She paused briefly to push a few renegade red strands out of her way before nibbling at his ear. He groaned deeply and tightened his hold on her one arm around her waist, the other on the middle of her back where it still caressed her bare flesh.
"Crew quarters," she whispered then, knowing that she could no longer completely contain her need. She wanted to give Daven more time time to understand these new feelings and experience each sensation in full before continuing but his throaty growl had caused the last of her control to cascade away.
"I ... I don't know how," Daven confessed. His voice was hardly above a whisper, but she could hear his desire thinly veiled underneath his unsure words. His hand still glided along her back, and she felt her mind go numb.
"I'll show you," she reassured, hoping that Daven was ready for what she was imagining. She would be as gentle as possible, giving him everything she could. She kissed his cheek lightly before pushing herself out of his grip.
Daven stared at her, swallowing nervously. He hesitated only for a moment before nodding his consent.
Nyssa smiled warmly and grabbed his hand, planting a loving kiss on his palm. He took a deep breath and exhaled, as if discharging his apprehension. She gripped his one hand in both of her own and led him willingly to the back of the ship.
He was enjoying the sensation of her slight touch, he had to admit, and the only thing half his brain and the whole of his body wanted to do was wrap his arms tightly around her and fall back into a pleasant sleep.
The other half, however, was not being nearly so cooperative. It was the side of his mind that told him to scowl when Nyssa drank, to only speak when spoken to, and to not make jokes in the middle of a lightsaber fight. And it was most certainly the part of his brain that reminded him of all those little rules especially the ones regarding Jedi and the opposite sex.
What have I done? He wanted to groan loudly, but he stopped himself. That would lead to a verbal explanation for Nyssa, and she probably wouldn't like what these rational thoughts would tell him to say.
It was forbidden. Plain and simple. Jedi did not form attachments, they did not feel passion, and they most certainly were not supposed to ...
He had broken the Code.
The groan he was attempting to suppress burst forth and, even though his hand flew to his mouth to block it, the sound still escaped his lips, alerting Nyssa to his distress.
Her head snapped up and her green eyes met his, showing delight quickly mixing with worry. He blinked, wanting to look away, but knowing that she completely filled his field of vision.
"You okay, Jedi?"
Of all the things to call him at the moment, 'Jedi' wasn't helping. He felt himself starting to panic.
"I shouldn't have," he told her, unable to finish for fear of hurting her or saying something that even he didn't want to believe. He closed his eyes to avoid the look that would surely cover her beautiful face.
To his surprise, he heard her snort rather boorishly. "You weren't thinking that five minutes ago." She then laughed.
Daven grunted again and covered his eyes with his hand, as if it could provide him more protection than merely keeping them shut.
"It isn't funny, Nyssa." He wished momentarily that he could just die.
"No, well, maybe," she responded brightly. "I doubt you broke any laws by being with me, if that's what this is about."
He drew a ragged breath, trying to formulate his thoughts trying even more to understand his feelings. He was enjoying the total darkness his hand was currently providing his eyes.
"Daven?" He felt Nyssa's fingers pulling at his hand, attempting to draw it away from his face. He held his grip firm. He couldn't look at her. Not yet. "Please, what's wrong? Tell me."
There was a long pause.
"I love you." He spoke when he imagined Nyssa was starting to become impatient. "Love is against the Jedi Code. Attachment to another is forbidden. What I feel for you is against everything I was taught. Loving you is wrong." He regretted it the moment he said it, knowing that it would hurt her. He had felt her love for him in the comms room it was pure, innocent, magical even and it had consumed him. His guilt caused the words to spill out of his mouth; it was his fault for allowing the relationship to proceed to this point.
She finally removed his hand from his eyes, despite his attempt to keep it there.
"Open your eyes, Daven," she ordered sternly. "Open your eyes and tell me face to face that love is wrong."
He did so and found her soft features unbearably enticing the high but delicate cheekbones, the prefect arch of her eyebrows, the small and regal-looking nose. He bit his lip, unable to speak.
"I thought so." She smirked after giving him some time to answer her challenge. "It doesn't feel wrong to me." She gave him a light kiss and he found himself reflexively returning it, drawing Nyssa closer to him. She broke away and ran a series of small pecks across his chin and down his neck.
Daven felt his composure weaken and his mind lose rational thought as he began to experience once more the still relatively unfamiliar sensations.
"Is it wrong that I breached my hunter's contract to save you?" Nyssa asked, her tone heavy, laden with desire. Daven opened his mouth to speak, but found that his foggy brain could not process the question. "Is it wrong," she continued, "that I risked my life to rescue you?"
"No," he muttered. She sat up again, a wide grin upon her face. Her green eyes twinkled brightly with mischief.
"And is it wrong that I would willingly sacrifice my own life to spare yours?" Her gaze deepened into an intense stare.
"No," he returned as he felt the cloud lift from his thoughts. The realization of Nyssa's logic hit him the moment the word slipped out of his mouth.
"Would you do the same for me?"
"Yes." There was no hesitation.
So many times had he nobly offered his own life in exchange for others a rebellious senator, an oppositional party leader, a young Twi'lek that had unwittingly witnessed an illegal dealing. It was the nature of his duty as a Jedi; an ability that should remain unquestioned.
"And does that feel wrong to you, Daven?" Nyssa ran a lone finger across his chest. He broke eye contact with her to watch it trace small patterns.
"No," he admitted with a sigh. There was, logically, no reason to feel this level of protection for someone like Nyssa. She was a ruthless bounty hunter, capable of taking a man's life in return for a monetary amount. She was supposedly swine, a piece of bantha fodder stuck on the boot of galactic civility.
Yet he would do anything for her. Even become a smuggler, if that was what she desired. His heart beat faster and his knees went weak when he even so much as thought about Nyssa. He was quickly becoming unable to imagine living without her.
And, for all the knots in his stomach that piled upon each other when she smirked at him, it didn't seem wrong. In fact, it felt quite right.
He pulled her face up to his and kissed her passionately. The Jedi Order was left in ashes, and nothing Daven Staver could do would change that fact now. The only thing he had left was Nyssa and this moment, which he was enjoying immensely.
He drew a short breath when Nyssa broke the kiss.
"It doesn't feel wrong," he told her honestly. "Not wrong at all."
He was half expecting the Force to abandon him after such a blatant transgression of the Jedi Code after all, the legends told of Jedi-turned-Sith whose sensitivity was stripped due to their maltreatment of the gift. But the Force still flowed around him, embracing his heart and mind like it had always done. He didn't know if it was his own perception, given his experiences the night before, but the Force currents seemed unusually pleasant, giddy almost.
He rolled over and sprawled out on his stomach, burying his head in a pillow and not bothering to open his eyes. There was a slight whim lingering in the back of his mind that he tried to force away by physically digging his forehead deeper into the pillow.
Did he somehow want the Force to desert him?
Jedi as he was, it certainly wasn't a completely objectionable thought. He could change his name, stay with Nyssa, and join the rebellion, smuggle, or Force knew what. Vader wouldn't stalk a normal, boring, non-Force-sensitive being, would he?
No, he wouldn't bother. And then perhaps Nyssa, since she already said she loved him, would agree to marry him and bear children ...
He continued to daydream, hoping that it would soon lull him back to sleep before the cold reality of things struck him once more. He turned to his side, expecting to grab onto Nyssa lying next to him.
His hand found nothing but air and a vacant top sheet; she had already woken up and left for the day.
He allowed himself an annoyed sigh. The unpleasant reminders of where exactly they were and who was still hunting him assaulted his thoughts yet again.
The Force was still there and so Vader could still sense him. He still was a Jedi and duty bound. No matter how wonderful his night with Nyssa had been, it was still only that one night, a moment in time incapable of changing the galaxy as a whole.
Daven grunted and got up. He dressed slowly, truly not wanting to deal with the life that awaited him outside the crew quarters. The guilt caused by his blasphemous thoughts regarding the Force continued to echo in his head as he stood and walked out to the main quarters of the Star.
He found Nyssa returning from the bridge, apparently on her way to the cargo hold. She was, to his amusement, humming a merry tune under her breath. She paused when she saw him and smiled brightly. Her cheeks were aglow as she threw down a hydrospanner and greeted him.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned against him. Her cheer was infectious, and Daven soon forgot his depressing thoughts. He allowed himself a few moments just to let his eyes absorb her loveliness once again. She was truly a sight, and he felt the emotion, which he could now positively identify as love, swell inside him.
"Morning, beautiful," he finally said as he gently cupped her chin in between his index finger and thumb.
"Morning yourself," she answered, kissing him playfully. "I went ahead and moved the ship; we're in the other dock now. It shouldn't take as long to load everything from here."
"You should have woken me," he grumbled with only a slight hint of disapproval. "I could've helped you navigate." This second hangar was much smaller than the one in which they had originally landed. It was probably used for planetary scout transports rather than ships. The entrance was much narrower, making it difficult to see from a few kilometers above the ground.
"You looked too cute sleeping, Jedi," she told him with a wink. "You're up now, though, and I need you now anyway."
Holding his hand, she led him down to the ramp, filling him in on the morning's events.
"Those fuel tanks we saw the other day are full, thank the gods," she reported as they exited the Gray Star, "but they aren't equipped with a standard nozzle. I think they outfitted it only for the speeders here. It won't fit the ship."
"Great. Do we have enough already to get us to a civilized system?"
"'Fraid not," she admitted. "I figured they'd have some; it is a base, after all. I'm assuming that the nozzle is interchangeable, but we aren't going to find a tech droid to help us now."
Daven winced a little, knowing how awful she must have felt for making such a grievous error. "It's all right, Nyssa," he said as they both inspected the large fuel canisters. "Can we do anything?"
"I'm thinking I'll be able to rig something together," she said, finally clarifying why her voice hadn't held an air of complete glumness. "It'll take longer, though, maybe a few hours."
"That's fine." Daven shrugged. "I'll load up the hold with rations in the meantime."
After he had finished loading, he sat down to help Nyssa with the nozzle. She had even gone so far as to wield a blowtorch against a stubborn piece of durasteel. Having limited knowledge of mechanics or repair, the Jedi could only offer an extra hand or Force-enhanced strength when she required it.
Nyssa cheerfully teased him about his lack of engineering prowess in between his near catastrophes with manipulating various tools.
"I thought Jedi were supposed to have knowledge about everything," she laughed as Daven fumbled with a hydrospanner, unaware of how to hand it to Nyssa properly.
"I'm sure I had some courses in this stuff," he said with a shrug, "but I don't remember. I was sent mainly on protection mandates as a padawan. There were always droids to fix things."
"What about your old man?" Nyssa asked. "He wasn't into tools?"
"Who?" Daven glanced up, confused. "You mean my Master? No, he was a lot like me, I guess."
"I mean your father."
"I never knew him," he admitted, wondering how Nyssa would react. "I was given to the Temple when I was still an infant. Most Jedi are." Actually, all except one, he remembered bitterly, but chose to ignore that thought.
"Never knew?" Nyssa raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Your mother, too?"
Daven nodded cautiously.
"How could you live like that? Never?" She shook her head as if trying to deny that such a situation could exist. "How could they live like that? If I had a child, I could never give it away to some stranger."
"It was the right decision," he countered. He had never doubted his parents' choice to give him to the Jedi. It was simply the only place where he belonged.
"The Empire wouldn't have placed a bounty on your head if they'd kept you," Nyssa pointed out logically. She grasped the clamp in front of her and yanked, forcing the durasteel to meld itself to the flexisteel hose.
"There's still a reward offered for Force-sensitives," he reminded her. "Just not as much. And without my training, I wouldn't have been able to defend myself as long as I have."
Nyssa nodded in reluctant agreement as she withdrew the clamp and checked the fitting.
"So, are you going to try to find them now?"
They both looked up and stared at each other in bewilderment, trying to decide whose idea had been the strangest.
"Aren't you the least bit curious about them?" Nyssa finally prompted.
"No." The response was automatic, but Daven found himself questioning it as he spoke. "I don't know," he admitted. "I never gave them much thought, really." He paused to sort though his emotions. "But I have found myself thinking about more ... domestic things since I woke up this morning."
Nyssa smiled almost arrogantly, as if she knew exactly what their encounter had done to Daven's concept of family.
"Perhaps I would like to meet them," he confessed more to himself than to her. His thoughts of taking Nyssa as his wife and having children had become more and more frequent a very perplexing development. It was almost if the Force willed it. "I wouldn't even know how to begin looking for them, though."
"Hello, bounty hunter here," Nyssa said with a triumphant grin. "I can find anyone."
"Really?" He felt a sense of hope swell within him. Strange before this moment he was never aware that he even cared about his parents. Perhaps he was merely trying to fill the void that the destruction of the Temple had left. He paused and rethought the idea. "No, it's too dangerous. I don't want the Emperor finding them."
"Yeah, good point." Nyssa nodded. She became somber and the two worked in amiable silence until the new nozzle was finished.
It was about as far from perfection as something could be and still work, but it did indeed work, which was the only thing Daven cared about right now.
Nyssa climbed the starboard side to attach the hose to the fuel intake valve. Normally such work would be done be a fueling droid, but she had been unsuccessful in her attempts to reboot the one lying in the dock's far corner.
Daven watched, wishing that she had allowed him to go instead. She had merely laughed when he suggested it, reminding him that he wouldn't be able to figure out how to handle the device.
She reached the valve without incident and, after securing her footing, she proceeded to lock in the new nozzle. It wasn't a very good fit, and Daven could hear her swearing in various languages as she struggled to manhandle it in.
Her fierce jerking was making him nervous from his view nearly ten meters below her perch. He shouted, "Careful!" more than once, but she had chosen to ignore his warnings.
After a particularly hazardous bout of tugging, Daven couldn't honestly say he was surprised when the Force prickled at his nerves. He jumped forward just in time to catch the falling form of his lover, still shouting cruses as she went.
She landed in his arms hard, causing him to lose his balance and begin to fall forward, leading them downwards to the rough floor and the inevitable, bruising consequences of such a destination.
He reached out with the Force instinctively to push him back up before his knees buckled fully. The familiar waves of energy wrapped around his body, stopping their descent.
His connection to Nyssa was strengthened by his near complete immersion into the Force. He felt her fear at her startling tumble, but it was mixed with a larger amount of annoyance. She had been slightly angry as well, yet the emotion was settling as she came to realize whom she had fallen against.
She showered him with love as if she knew he could sense it, and Daven had to bask in it, if only for a moment. His mind was relaxed as he bought himself to stand straight. He was about to speak, but a delicate wisp of something caused him to pause.
It was warm and bright, yet beyond small. It lived, enveloped in the Force, but he could not sense it breathing.
He studied the ... feeling? ... as well as he could until the realization hit him like a bolt from a blaster cannon.
He stared at Nyssa blankly, trying to form some explanation, but his throat went dry both in shock and pure joy.
"Nyssa" he started.
"Thanks for the save, Jedi," she interrupted, not noticing his disquiet. "Got the damn thing in, though. So let's go." She jumped out of his grasp after giving him a sharp kiss, and walked back towards the first tank.
Daven sighed. He knew that his news could wait until they were safely off planet anyway. He didn't even know how Nyssa would react; best for her to have no other current obligations to worry about when he told her.
He turned to follow her, but something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. He looked back and stepped a few meters closer to the ship, inspecting the underside of the hull. There sat a barely noticeable metallic disk no larger than the flat of his hand. A red light flashed tenaciously on the top of it.
His mouth went wide and he felt his years of training attempting to bring a Jedi calm back to his nerves. It didn't take a degree in mechanical engineering to know what that was.
"One guess: Vader," Daven answered from his standing position behind the copilot's chair. His voice remained steady despite the potential danger they faced. "He must have attached it as we were departing. I don't know."
Nyssa hissed in frustration, leaning back in her seat. "He certainly knows his tracking beacons, then. Anything other than the XB Stealth Hunter, the Star's security sensors would have caught. Damn, we're sitting ducks here."
"Won't the fuel be loaded soon?" Daven asked. "We got the beacon off now; once we leave Maylass, he shouldn't be able to find us."
"It's taking its sweet time," she growled, eyeing the gauge angrily. "My nozzle must not be that efficient." She tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair, fidgeting uncontrollably.
"We just have to wait." Daven slumped down in the seat next her, radiating an air of patience. "How much do we need to reach the next planet?"
"Fifteen percent," she glanced back at the console. It was already at five. "We should be fine. Gods, I hope so. I'm upgrading to an ion engine the second I have some credits." If you live to see another credit, that is.
They sat for a while in companionable silence, watching the percentage points continue upwards.
"We'll be okay," she finally, knowing that each passing moment bought them closer to fifteen.
"No, we won't." His voice was soft and full of anxiety.
As if to agree, the proximity alarm beeped, alerting the ship's crew to the fact that another vessel had just cleared the atmosphere.
"Please don't say it's Vader," Nyssa begged, feeling her heart sink into the base of her stomach.
"Nyssa," Daven said quietly, distantly.
"No!" she hissed, feeling her face burn in aggravation. "We're so close. We can make it to fifteen before he gets here!"
"We can't," Daven whispered, glancing up at her forlornly. "I'm sorry, Nyssa, but I think ... I think this is the way things are meant to be." He inhaled an uneven breath before standing and exiting the cockpit. Nyssa remained sitting, her brain trying to process just what could possibly happen.
"No," she found herself repeating as she jumped up to pursue him. "I worked too hard to track you down!" she yelled at his back from one side of the comms room. "I love you too much to lose you." She knew that the Sith Lord's landing would most likely result in her own death as well, but only Daven's occupied her thoughts. Her tears almost fell, yet she continued to fight them.
He turned to face her, his features formed into a morose mask. She ran into his open embrace and clenched onto him tightly.
"Please. I'll go wherever you go," she told him stubbornly, pleadingly.
"You can't. Vader will kill you," he reminded her. "I'll go and face him. He's likely to land in the other hangar. I should be able to hold him off long enough for you to refuel and escape. You run. You run and you never look back."
"I'm not leaving you," she hissed fiercely. "There has to be a way out of this. There's always a way out. I thought you said the future would be better. You always said the Force never betrayed you."
Daven looked pained for a moment, his brow wrinkling. "I did and it doesn't," he admitted slowly. "But, Nyssa, the Force is elusive. The future will be brighter; I just won't be in it. I see that now."
"I don't understand," she said. She would have been irritated at his Jedi philosophizing if it were any other day or situation, but now it only caused her heartbreak.
"Nyssa," he began, pausing to touch her cheeks with the tips of his fingers. "Forgive me, but you are with child. My child strong with the Force."
She backed away from him, shocked, but not bothering to ask how he would know such a thing. She simply laid a hand on her abdomen, ridiculously feeling for movement in a day-old zygote. Her tears finally came, flowing down her cheeks evenly.
Daven watched her, a look of utter grief crossing his soft features. "I can't ask you to keep it, Nyssa. The Empire might try to ..." he paused, unable to conclude his thoughts, "... but I'm hoping you will consider it. For me."
She began to sob loudly, no longer able to control her sorrow, and allowed him to hold her once more.
"If I know that you'll both survive, the worst Vader could do would be worth it," he whispered, burying his face in her hair. "Please, Nyssa, he's landed. I have to go."
She grabbed on to his torso as tight as she could, shaking her head, hoping her grip alone would cause him to change his mind. Somehow he managed to break free, perhaps using that blasted Force of his, which had equally united and tore them apart.
"I'll keep it, Daven," she promised. "I'll protect it from the Empire. For you, but for me as well."
She could clearly see the relief in his eyes as he nodded and offered a diminutive smile.
"The Force will be with you, beautiful. I can sense that much." Their lips touched gently in one last, lingering kiss before he finally released her and turned away. He ran down the ramp, not eager to meet his fate but knowing that speed was possibly the only thing that could change hers.
And so he left, leaving her alone.
She hadn't known what to expect when she had finally sorted her feelings out in that dusty Corellian cantina, but she had believed, perhaps foolishly, that, if he returned her love, everything would have worked out for the better. She had admitted to herself that night that she could have never actually held Daven's head up for a gloating Emperor's appraisal he was simply too wonderful. Everything in the galaxy would be wrong without Daven in it.
Now, for the first time in two and half years, Nyssa was going to have to start imagining just how wrong it could be. She brushed her belly lightly.
What am I supposed to do now?
She took a moment to dry her tears before returning to the cockpit and checking the fuel percentage gauge.
Anger and hatred drifted off the Sith in waves, causing the along Daven's spine to quiver. The Jedi took several deep breaths as if in meditation, hoping that his calm would be able to block the Dark Side energies with which Vader was bombarding his senses.
If the Dark Lord was expecting to find this Jedi curled up in a corner, awaiting annihilation in fear, he would be sorely mistaken.
He suppressed the raising, grating fear emerging from the pit of his stomach with thoughts of his unborn child, which was still hardly more than a cluster of cells and midi-chlorians. What would it look like? Some magnificent combination of him and Nyssa? Boy or girl? What name would Nyssa decide on?
The Force seemed to shimmer pleasantly around him, as if it agreed with his course of feelings. It was so simple now that he actually took the time to think about it this was his destiny and Nyssa had come to the rescue only because the Force had willed his child to be borne by her.
Anakin was rumored to be some special "Chosen One," at least according to the gossip that his friends had shared. He was supposed to "bring balance to the Force." Everyone, especially as padawans, had been confused by this, but now it was clear to Daven.
Anakin's purpose was to dampen the Light Side. The Jedi had been numerous, while the Sith were but a few.
But, such as it was, Palpatine's reign could not last forever, and someday the Jedi would return perhaps with his child amongst their ranks. It was a very pleasing thought for a dying man to have, even if it wasn't necessary true.
He stopped a few meters before that accursed hallway, not wanting to lose his life in there, and awaited Vader. He stared at the door, remembering when he and Nyssa had first come through it from the other side. They hadn't known what to expect, but the control center, in which he now stood, was no surprise. There had been bodies in here, too, but no Jedi. The central venting systems cleared out the smell much better than those in the corridor.
He flexed his muscles, swinging his arms around loosely, and reminded himself to relax. He had no weapon, no hope, no way of escape ... why was he stretching?
Be calm. Trust in the Force.
Do not fear.
He heard the door's activation as if it were the only sound in the universe. He felt his eyes close and sweat pour down across his brow. He merely wiped it away without a second thought and drew a ragged breath.
He opened his eyes as the echo of respirator reverberated through the small area. He fixed his gaze on the masked demon directly in front of him, forcing himself to raise a condescending eyebrow.
"I was half expecting you to run again, Jedi," Vader spoke in between mechanical breaths.
"No place left to run," Daven admitted. "I paid that Corellian rancor, want-to-be pilot to take me here. And he just up and leaves me with two-dozen rotting corpses to deal with. You can't pay for good help these days, I tell you. It's a shame. You should speak to your evil dictator about it; maybe he could erect some civil right debilitating law against dropping people off." He could only hope that his sarcasm would conceal the truth.
"Your humor will not stop the inevitable," was the response. The Dark Lord's hands were still hanging at his sides, peaceably, but ever so close to his saber belt.
"Did you kill them, Anakin?" the Jedi asked, having to know if his suspicions were correct. "The children here, too?"
"Does that surprise you, Staver?" Vader's voice was dark, harsh. "Does it bother you that I kill those that took me in?"
"Yes," Daven hissed.
The memory of a teenage Anakin threatening a rather large bully assaulted him. He had been an initiate, only a year away from becoming a padawan himself, and small for his age. Another older initiate had taken advantage of his size and began to tease him when a tall, fairly intimating padawan three years his senior pulled the bully away before a fight started.
Eleven-year-old Daven had remembered that this was Anakin Skywalker, an honorary member of his initiate clan the Bantha Clan even though he hadn't grown up in the Temple. Because he had no previous Jedi training, sometimes the strange teenager had to practice the most basic skills being learned by boys half his age.
"Thank you," Daven had whispered softly.
"Yeah, well, what are fellow Banthas for? I guess," the confident padawan had replied simply and stalked off.
"I suppose you will be like all the others," Vader finally growled, his voice so different from the baritone Daven remembered. "Will you attempt to redeem me, Jedi?"
"'Redeem you?'" he repeated, momentarily confused before realizing that other Knights, those that had been closer to Anakin, would have tried to turn him back to the Light Side. He shook his head. "The Masters say that people cannot come back. That darkness is forever."
As he looked at Vader, he could feel the truth in that statement there was no goodness in this man if he could be called that anymore only cold, bitter darkness, like a dying sun turning into a black hole.
"Then why are you attempting to delay your death?" The gloved hand was dangerously close to a lightsaber hilt.
"You were once a good, decent human being," Daven , hoping that he could stall the Sith just a little longer. "You once had honor. But killing babies? Innocents? Have you stopped considering yourself a sentient? Are you now some twisted droideka? Have you no honor left?" He allowed his voice to sound out the words in the manner of a plea.
"What I have, Jedi, is little patience for your oratory. What do you seek?"
"Honor," Daven boldly. "A chance to die like a Jedi. Return my weapon; let me fight with dignity. Maybe you don't want redemption for your crimes, but you should not kill an unarmed man. For, if you do, you will no better than an animal. You know this."
"You want your lightsaber back?" Vader asked, thoughtful. At Daven's nod, he pulled out a very familiar cylinder.
The Jedi blinked, slightly amazed that the Sith was actually carrying his own lightsaber somewhere in the folds of that black cape. He silently wondered if Vader had kept all the weapons of his recent kills so handy.
"So be it, Jedi."
The Force prickled around him milliseconds before Vader ignited the amber blade, but Daven knew it was already too late. His muscles stiffened in anticipation as Vader crossed the last few meters between them.
The more powerful Sith Lord crushed down upon the younger man's Force-attuned senses, not allowing him to use the energy field in his own defense. Daven thus remained perfectly still, but perfectly aware of the near future.
The lightsaber running through his abdomen was just as painful as he had imagined it would be. He desperately wanted to scream, as if it could release some of the anguish, but his diaphragm failed him and he was left gasping for air.
He could only cough, though. The taste of the blood streaming out of his mouth was unbearable. He finally landed on the cold stone floor, unaware of how he managed to get there. The snap-hiss of the saber deactivating sounded so faint, so muffled, that Daven was surprised that Vader was still standing this close to him.
He struggled mentally, involuntarily, to find Nyssa through the Force. Just to feel her one last time ...
Nyssa ... No, mustn't think of her, mustn't reach out to her, mustn't touch her mind. Vader will find her quicker that way. Die alone, just as you were meant to.
"Thanks," he whispered sarcastically despite feeling the warm liquid bubbling over his mouth and down his chin. "After all, what are fellow Banthas for?" So Vader was truly the betrayer. He was no longer a Jedi for sure, and now Daven knew he was also no longer a man as well.
He closed his eyes, not bothering to search for Vader's response. With that mask, how could he even read facial expressions? Not like it mattered. Nothing mattered anymore. Even the fact that the young Jedi had not gotten his last wish he would die without dignity.
Daven exhaled one at last time attempting to push the painful feelings out of his head but failed to inhale.
Sleep now, little Jedi, the others await you,was his last conscious thought, but he could not honestly comprehend whether it was his own or another's.
She had spent what precious spare moments Daven had given her calculating the length of time it took for the gauge to raise one percent. If she left now, she would reach the starboard tank intake by the time it went up to fifteen.
Nyssa had no desire to be in this hangar any longer than necessary.
With her utility belt secured to a new combat suit, she marched down the ramp with her favorite blaster rifle in tow. She made a wordless promise to herself to be more careful in climbing up the hull this time around Daven wasn't here to catch her anymore.
She swung the rifle over her shoulder, fastening it to her back for easy access, and began her ascent. The hangar was eerily quiet without Daven there to shout warnings at her, but she tried to ignore that fact before grief overtook her and she became motionless.
"Don't think," she told herself out loud, hoping that her words would break the silence. She reached the nozzle and was pleased when it detached quite a bit more easily than it had been attached.
Nyssa threw the now useless contraption away, but flinched when the durasteel panels bounced and clanged against the permacrete floor. That had been a bad idea. Vader might still be in the base and if he heard that ...
"Okay, girl," she whispered. "Don't get panicked; just get out of here." She slid slowly down the hull, carefully edging her way towards the ground. She breathed a sigh of relief when she hit the end of the hull and decided to jump the last few meters.
The distance had been slightly greater than she had guessed, however, and she was forced to land in a crouching position.
And that's when she heard it the sharp, deadly hiss of mechanical breathing.
She ducked down further and crawled away, attempting to hide her form in a mess of nearby crates. A whole slew of choice slang words from several tongues rushed into her mind, but she remained silent, almost breathless.
Nyssa could hear Vader moving from one side of the hangar to the other, perhaps inspecting the Gray Star or, more likely, looking for her. She swallowed harshly, hoping that the gesture would not generate too much noise.
"Your attempt at stealth is pointless," a voice snarled. "Come out."
Nyssa realized she was shaking in fear as sweat slowly ran down her entire body. If this Sith could kill Daven without a fight, what could he possibly do to her?
"I'm bounty hunter under contract with the Empire," she said, trying to stop her jaw from quivering. "Staver was my target; I found him here and was trying to take him down." A half-truth was better than no truth, right?
"Yet you broke him out of Imperial custody in this ship," Vader responded coldly. "That does not bode well with the Empire."
"My mistake," Nyssa replied as she moved a few more meters away from the Dark Lord's voice. "I wasn't aware of his arrest. But, since you caught him now, I think we're even. After all, I did lead you to him with that homing beacon."
"Nonsense, bounty hunter," Vader barked. "I grow tired of your games. Imperial mandate or no, you have harbored a fugitive, and are a traitor."
Such simple logic, Nyssa managed to think before a black glove reached out from behind her and latched on to her neck, pulling her forcibly away from the crate stack.
She struggled fiercely as he pulled her to him and managed to successfully bend her leg and ram her foot into his kneecap.
Obviously in pain, he paused just long enough for her to break free from his grip and run. She sprinted towards the ship, which was less than half a dozen meters away. But, before she reached the foot of the ramp, a hidden hand grabbed her and held her perfectly still, levitating her a half meter off the ground.
"Hutt spawn!" she screamed. She could thankfully still feel her arms, so she wasted no time in activating her blaster cannon. He dropped her, allowing her to spin around and face her attacker. Nyssa didn't hesitate to fire a round of shots directly at the Sith Lord, and was hardly surprised when he blocked them.
What was amazing was how he blocked them Vader didn't ignite his saber like Daven always did. Instead he merely raised his hand and the bolts miraculously bounced away or were absorbed.
Nyssa stood, stunned at the feat. The smoke was beginning to clear, and, without warning, Vader's immense form was upon her again. He flicked his wrist mindlessly and the blaster flew from her grip, crashing against the wall on the far side of the hangar, completely out of reach.
She desperately wanted to cringe in fear, but she forced herself to stand tall instead. She bent her body into a defensive stance, weaponless as she was, and prepared for the attack. It was possible that Vader would simply choke the hapless hunter and be done with his task, as he had attempted with Daven, yet Nyssa still hoped she would be given a chance at survival.
She lunged suddenly and aimed her fists to smash the support system flashing on his chest, supposing that its destruction would render him helpless to stop her escape, if not completely dead. It was her best option.
It took less than a second to jump close enough to the Sith to strike, but, astonishingly, Vader was ready for her, predicting each of her moves.
He grabbed her outstretched fist and crushed it mercilessly in one of his own. She crumbled ever so slightly, losing her perfect combat form, and fought the oncoming screech as half of her fingers broke.
Nyssa sank down before the Dark Lord's feet when he let her hand go, hissing in response to the unexpected agony. Her cheeks reddened in both pain and anger as she fought to control her throbbing nerves.
She was about to rise again, to continue the fight to her own death, willing to follow Daven into whatever sort of afterlife, when that black glove grasped her hair's topknot and yanked her to her feet.
This time, she allowed herself a cry of hurt and surprise before she made eye contact with Vader. His mask was horrendous, as evil as it was dark, but she forced herself to spit at it.
Her vision was fuzzy from the tears she now seemed to be crying, so she would never know if her saliva had hit its intended target. But the attempt was good enough for her.
"Son of a kathhound," she growled, knowing that these would be her final moments in this galaxy. "You killed Daven. I'll see you in hell, that's for sure, and you better pray that we aren't more evenly matched there." She wanted desperately to butcher this monster and avenge the death of the only man she had ever loved, but was brutally aware that she would never have the chance in this lifetime.
"Daven," Vader mused, stopping his hand just millimeters from his lightsaber hilt. "Staver?" He was silent for a minute, seemingly thinking, allowing the name to hang like smoke in the air. "You were his lover?" he asked, his mechanical voice rumbling.
"Yes," Nyssa hissed, giving into her rage. "Not like you can understand anything like that." Bitter grief shot through her heart as she realized that she wouldn't live to give birth to Daven's child or see it grow up. It seemed Daven's sacrifice was for nothing. They could have died together, resting together for all eternity on this base's gray floors. But now even this was not to be.
At least Daven hadn't known that.
She closed her eyes and awaited the fatal blow, wondering if it would be from a lightsaber or the Force. The wetness from her tear tracks caused her hot face to burn and itch, but she ignored the feeling.
Moments passed that seemed like hours, but nothing happened. Her skull still hurt, yet it had lessened to a dull ache, making her wonder if Vader was still pulling her hair. She swallowed loudly, amazed that she was able to hear her pulse booming in her ears and her harsh breathing more than the Sith's respirator.
Suddenly she dropped to the ground, landing with a shriek on her broken hand. She instinctively backed away, crawling with her injured hand clutched against her chest. She must have gone meters before she bothered to question why the Sith had let her fall.
Nyssa glanced back up, expecting her face to meet with the heel of a boot, only to watch a black blur of a cape retreat from the hangar bay.
She continued to crawl, reaching the underbelly of the Gray Star and leaning against one of the landing gears. She curled into a defensive ball and rested her broken hand atop her knees while her other rubbed her abdomen protectively. Her hair flew about her face in disheveled strands, which stuck to her cheeks as her tears dried.
Nyssa could only imagine why Vader had left. Did he have some horrible torture device he wanted to grab from his ship? Did he sense the baby and want to find a way to make them both suffer equally before death? Perhaps Daven was still alive and he knew ... and he was going back to finish the job.
Her eyes filled once more, but she refused to let the tears fall. She merely continued to hide underneath the ship and stare at the hangar bay entrance.
And still silence.
Nyssa, never one to miss an opportunity, realized that this was possibly her only chance to escape. She sprung to her feet and ran up the ship's ramp, looking over her shoulder as she did so. The bay remained empty.
To her relief, the gauge in the cockpit read fifteen percent. She strapped herself down for a speedy lift off.
That's when she noticed it.
The Star's radar was picking up another ship, just like it had done when Vader had arrived, but the green flashing indicated that the vessel was moving away, up into the planet's atmosphere. A few minutes later, the screen went blank and the proximity alarm went silent, signifying that the skies above her were clear.
Vader had left.
Nyssa's throat went dry. Why would the Sith Lord leave? Was it some sort of trick?
She opted to take advantage of the situation and leave before he could change his mind, but something stopped her hand before she began the preflight checks.
If he had left and Daven was still ...
She released her harness and left the ship, carefully walking out of the bay. She felt her body shaking, anticipating the worst, so she had to force her legs to move slowly. Her hands rubbed together in a nervous gesture she had picked up as a child, despite the ache in her broken fingers.
Her heart was in her throat as she rounded the last corner before the control center, but then it plummeted down somewhere near her stomach when saw she the body lying on the floor.
She stopped in her tracks and threw herself against a nearby wall, burying her face against it as the last of her emotional strength dissolved into wracking sobs. Her knees gave way and she fell slightly, unable to control her body.
She crouched meters away from Daven until the trembling calmed and she managed to breathe again. She stumbled over to him then, trying not to become paralyzed by the sight of the gaping wound in his midriff, and pressed her forehead against his neck, allowing herself to weep once more. His body was already growing cold.
When she had recovered, she sat up, realizing that the side of her face was covered in Daven's blood. She ripped off a piece of her undercoat and wiped off his chin, trying to clear away the blood that hadn't yet dried.
The motion was so familiar, reminding her that only a few days prior she has tended the young Jedi while he laid unconscious, right before she had worked up the nerve to kiss him. That pleasant but anxiety-ridden moment seemed like so long ago, a different lifetime even, as she finished her gruesome work.
"I don't know why he let me go, Daven," she told him, wishing he could listen. "I bet you would know, though. You didn't know everything, but you might have known that."
Nyssa stared at him, noticing how innocent, how serene, he looked in death. He had accepted it just as he had accepted the bounty on his life and her hunting him with grace and poise. Could she have expected anything different from Daven?
"What am I supposed to do now, drone?" she mused, attempting to call him by her favorite endearment. "You've been my life for the past two years. I don't know what to do." She ran her hand along her belly. She couldn't very well continue hunting she had lost the taste for it and smuggling and the rebellion were no places for a woman with a child.
She sighed, forcing herself to breathe, and stood. Grabbing Daven's body, she hefted it over her shoulder.
The trek was rough, especially with the throbbing in her hand, but she carried him to the Jedi pyre and ignited the wood there one last time.
He would rest with his brothers. Nyssa knew that he would find it fitting and be grateful, possibly more than she would ever understand. He was a Jedi and he belonged to the Jedi, but she refused to deny that she too had owned a small piece of his soul, however briefly their mutual love had been celebrated. Nyssa decided then that she would carry him with her always, no matter where destiny decided to take her.
And she wouldn't be alone. She touched her abdomen gently as the last of the pyre's flames died down and darkness settled over the barren field once more.
"Well," she said thoughtfully as she looked at her stomach, "I guess it's just you and me, kid."
At that, Nyssa Jade turned on her heel and headed for her ship, not looking back, but not forgetting either.