Full Time Job

Chapter 5

Chapter 5.0 - Day 10

The morning gym shook the last remains of stiffness from her limbs and she loaded a second portion on her plate for breakfast afterwards to start into her ‘free’ day in high spirits. ‘How to make the most of it?’ Of course she could not do everything at once.

“Before everybody runs off again…” Tomoe joined Rav at the table and announced happily, “I’ve finally got my own comlink.” She returned the borrowed one with thanks, “Can you tell me if the new is ‘clean?’…”

“Hmmm.” The girl’s smile was contagious. Rav chewed on a bread stick, shoved the returned device into a pocket of her utility belt and produced a tool on the way back. She opened the housing of Tomoe’s comlink, studied the contents briefly, then popped a bean-sized part out and crushed it under her heel. She handed it back after changing a couple of settings. ”Now it will be alright. I don’t have to remind you that there is no absolute security in communication. Use it wisely.”

Tomoe took it back and nodded. “I know, thank you. There is another device I’m unsure of… I’d like to know how to treat that small blaster safely.”

Rav eyed her cautiously. Every kid could handle a blaster as soon as it could hold one… it was taught as a matters of safety as ordinary as slide doors and stairs. Not in aruetyc households, obviously. Rav nodded to stop that difference from pushing in between them. “Makes sense. You have it with you?”

“I decided to leave in my room until I know more about it.”

Rav had difficulties to get used to a young woman who was as clueless as a baby in one moment and full of tactical consideration and self-confidence in the next. “I don’t think he’ll hold it against us. There is no Mando woman who can’t shoot straight”

Tomoe agreed with Rav that Boba and her would attend the exercises the sergeant held in the shooting range. “Let’s kill two birds with one stone.” The sergeant asked Tomoe and Boba to wait outside and went into her class.

“Today we practice interaction with civilians. When do we get in contact with civvies?”

“Infiltration?” – “Counter-terrorism?” – “Handling hostages?” – “Foreign unit training?” came from different directions.

“Correct, all of you. ‘Foreign unit training’ is our keyword of the day. We’ve got only one civvy here who’s job it is to look like a unit.” Rav’s visor scanned ninety-six dumbfounded but determinate young faces. “Your task is to inquire about previous knowledge and available kit, then pass on customized information.”

She beckoned the first pod to come forward. “We don’t have all day, so every squad gets 10 minutes in alphabetical order.” The kids’ expressions went from surprise to despair, yet they sat absolutely still. They were used exact orders and prompt success that came in numbers. Her job was to prepare them for a more realistic setting – and less than perfect conditions.

“I don’t expect you to do a complete training, just to communicate and make some progress in the time you’ve got. Omega-booth is used for this exercise and is off limits for all but the deployed squad. Make use of the rest of the shooting-range until you are called upon. No talking among squads before the afternoon briefing. I want you to improvise and everybody to savor your own genuine experience.”

Tomoe expected Rav to invite her inside so she could learn by watching and listening, but Sergeant Bralor herded a couple of helmeted mini-versions of Fett outside before closing the door behind her carefully. “This is Ms. Harada. Meet Alpha Squad of the Epsilon Company.”

Tomoe bowed “Nice to meet you.”

The walking distance to the Omega-Booth gave the four kids plenty of time to get over their culture-shock and converse on the short-range comlink connecting their helmets. They were used to the armored Sergeant Bralor yelling at them... and of course they had seen Bob’ika running around, but this was utterly different… A human female that sounded as intimidating smooth as those scary Kaminoan medical technicians but it was a basic humanoid spec target otherwise. Armed? Non-armored, non-uniformed, non-standard… shocking! But no boots, no soldier. Civvy, alright.

“We don’t know what it is, but we are going to teach it,” was the mutual consent on their channel.

“I’ll monitor. You take it from here, Alpha.” Rav tilted her head at Tomoe whose face was a study in surprise and left them in awkward silence.

“Uhm...” She swallowed. Four little robots had her backed against the booth’s counter, but they weren’t pointing a weapon on her like those two Nulls five days ago - yet. “Bralor-sama - I mean - Sergeant Bralor,” Tomoe corrected herself, ”...invited me to learn how to handle a blaster safely…?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Nods all around, their comparatively oversized weapons clutched to their chests.

Don’t aggravate them further; hold your hands where they can see them… “I have my hold-out-blaster with me. Maybe we can have a look at it together?”

The civvy’s speaking was inefficient, but the proposal went into the required direction. “Yes, ma’am.” They gained confidence. This was easier than they had thought.

Tomoe turned sideways for them to see the blaster as she produced it from the back of her belt slowly and placed it on the counter with an inviting gesture. “Here it is.”

Available kit – check. Was that cylinder in her belt a knife or a lightsaber? ‘Not every soldier wears a uniform...’ Was she one of the omnipotent Jedi they had been bred to serve? Was this the ultimate test? They had an order... Inquire about previous knowledge. “Have you ever fired a blaster, ma’am?” There - he had spelled out the unthinkable. What if she was insulted? “...No offense, ma’am.” The boy added abruptly.

“I haven’t, ...how can I address you, please?”

“I am RC-1693.” He touched his helmet in a polite gesture, but the woman bowed again and this time, he decided to mirror the movement.

“Maybe you could show me, RC-1693?”

“Of course, ma’am.” The woman stepped back from her weapon to create a space for them all to partake. He hooked his deece to his webbing, moved in cautiously and picked up the small hold-out-blaster. It fit his hand well and it was much lighter than his DC-15 sidearm. Then he noticed that she smelled different from Sergeant Bralor. Even through the filtration mask. Like a predator… like Strill ... Sergeant Vau. ‘This gets worse by the second.’

“Stay away from Strills.” He coughed into the internal comlink. ‘You are doing fine, Three...’ his brothers’ voices came over his thundering heartbeat, backing him up. The civvy gave him an odd smile. In most exercises, shooting the origin of the fear knotting his stomach would have been an acceptable solution.

The boy was a bad case of stage fright, obviously. “It’s alright,” Tomoe said quietly. “Just carry on. I’m sure you know so much more than I do.” She raised her open palm fluently, making sure that her grasp was directed away from the weapon at all times. “This is the handle and it shots bolts of energy out of this end...”

RC-1693 understood that she had left him a gap to fill. “You have to press this lever. It’s called trigger.” This was impossible. She was a grown-up person after all?! Their time was running out and they hadn’t fired a shot yet.

“Trigger.” Tomoe repeated. What had Rav done to them? The kids were afraid and they were being monitored. She tried to remember what she had been told about exercises. What expectations did those kids need to fulfill? Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to single one out of their tight-knit group. ‘Get a grip. Help them to cope. Ask direct questions.’ Her mind was racing. “What are the other parts’ names?” She turned. “Maybe your... brothers can help?”

Once asked, they could rattle down a list just fine.

“Alright, Alpha. Next.” Rav’s voice bellowed through the intercom. They cocked their heads at the disembodied but familiar voice, put on a snappy salute and filed out. This time, Tomoe tried to mirror their movement. “Thank you.” She added, just a little wiser while she thought: ‘What’s next?’ she turned at a low chuckle in her back. “Stop laughing, Boba... can’t you see how afraid they are?”

If Alpha had turned around and re-entered the booth she couldn’t have told the difference by eye-sight. ‘Just try to act normal...’ She bowed again “Good morning. I’m Tomoe Harada.” They identified themselves as RC-something - Beta Squad, their voices coming from things that appeared to have no lips. It was disturbing. How was she supposed to respond to their needs and fears if she couldn’t see their faces?

‘Don’t let them drop into silence.’ She could extract the information from them the blunt way if that made them feel better. Tomoe pointed at the weapon laying on the counter “This is my blaster and I’d like to learn how to shoot. I know how the parts are named, but not their functions.”

She got precisely the information she was asking for, then it was Gamma’s turn.

Thanks to the disciplined and purposeful behaviour of her squads it wasn’t too hard to avoid getting in their way once she borrowed a DC-15s side arm blaster to avoid draining power-packs of the small hold-out-blaster she called her own. Again, she found that Boba was doing a great job next to all the bigger boys of “his age”. Rav smiled inside her helmet, running the visual surveillance as a transparent second layer on the far side of her 360° vision. The girl accustomed too quickly to stay her proverbial civvy-muppet for long. But until then she would have gathered the material for a good afternoon-debriefing. That her clone commandos were breed from sociopathic stock didn’t mean that they could not be taught…

“Wait a moment.” Tomoe’s raised voice on the intercom caught Bralor’s attention. “You are not the first to do so and I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with your intentions and I don’t know what your sergeant is playing at, BUT once you are grown up young man, you don’t just grab a woman’s arm like that.”

She smacked his shoulder plate with her palm lightly and turned him around to face her, thus interrupting his demonstration of firing position. Preadolescent was relative. In his armored boots he didn’t need to raise his head much to look in her face and she had some ten kilograms on him without that armor. Encased in bulky plastoid-alloy, he certainly packed a punch. “Ask politely and remember you are wearing armor while I don’t. Having my chest body-checked with those plates hurts me more than it speeds me up.”

“Yes ma’am.” The boy acknowledged and stood ramrod straight. Nobody he knew would have complained about that little discomfort. But then, civvies were told to be soft. This civvy certainly was soft - in places nobody else he had ever touched was. Maybe because her Sarge hadn’t toughened her up in time?

The blue visor pointed at her face, but Tomoe couldn’t see how RC-something had taken her statement. Was he angry? Afraid? Sad? They were probably loosing precious time, but she couldn’t go on like that and hope to be efficient. Not when Rav was bent to let her whole devoted battalion have a hit on her.

“I hope I’m not overstepping your etiquette, but is it possible for you to take off those helmets during this practice?” She made a point of addressing the whole squad to give the bravest boy of the squad time to recover from her reprimand. “It’s rather disturbing for me to be cut off from my partner’s reaction during training.

The helmet seals made a faint hissing sound as they opened. Indeed, they looked like Prudii and Mereel, maybe a little younger. “Thank you, Delta.” She nodded at them “Expect to get a lot of Ah’s and Oh’s at this point because you all look the same and other people don’t. I’m already used to that, so let’s just go on.”

This time, the kids’ relief was palpable.

By the end of Delta’s ten minutes, Tomoe had managed to fire a single shot, hit nothing and was sweating profoundly. The combination of cold fear and aggressive determination of the squads started to drain her. Whenever she had managed to connect, Rav called ‘next’ and she had to start over. Delta had filed out and she was awaiting the arrival of the Epsilon Squad of the Epsilon Company. ‘How imaginative.’ She made a face as Rav’s voice came over intercom “Tom’ika?”

“Yes Rav?” she called back.

“You can speak in normal voice,” Rav informed her, “You are too nice. That makes them want to treat you like one of them or some practice-dummy.”

“They are frightened kids under that armor. Couldn’t get anything done otherwise.”

“I plan to address all those problems in my briefing, but I need some additional first-hand-experience for the full spectrum. Drop down the next who touches you unasked, will you?”

“They are scared shitless already, Rav...”

“Telling them isn’t enough. The information that civilians can be dangerous if they don’t mind social etiquette needs to be ingrained if they are to survive. You need to be consequent for once. Don’t talk - act.”

“Okay… and what sort of ammunition do they pack in those rifles? Doesn’t look like candy to me!”

“I’m supervising this. They are trained to stop on my command – instantly.”

“I’m not convinced. At least keep Boba out of this, will you?”

“Alright. Boba, come out and stay with me.”

Boba’s and Tomoe’s gaze met. “It’s okay. I trust Rav. So should you. It’s important for your brothers.” She placed her finger on her lips “Wander out unobtrusively like you’re looking for something to drink, maybe… don’t speak to anybody but Rav.”

Epsilon entered, Tomoe introduced herself and asked them to remove their helmets which they did without complaint, but somehow, they stayed well away from her during the whole exercise, just short from being glued to the booth’s wall.

“You are broadcasting, Tomoe, big time!” Rav reprimanded her in the next exchange of squads

“Look… they are reacting just fine on my body language. Nothing wrong with their instincts.”

“Stop filling them in beforehand. You’re not their holonews station. Act normal... then snap... Full spectrum, remember.”

“Yes, Rav.” Tomoe acknowledged. She would have to be quick to stay on top of the situation and hope that nobody got hurt.

Zeta Squad entered, undergoing the same procedure as anybody else until one of them reached up to correct her purposefully cramped shoulder… Tomoe grabbed his wrist enclosed by the armored gauntlet, twisted and pulled. The constricting circular motion backed her up against the counter. Her knee pressed into the junction of chest-and stomach plates of the commando she had just dropped, her blaster-hand triggered on the forehead of his brother, she screamed on top of her lungs: “YOU ASK BEFORE YOU TOUCH!”

“CHECK!” Rav’s voice boomed out of the speakers.

Tomoe stared into the muzzles of three up-powering DC-17s that were frozen on their way up. She turned her vice-like grip into a gentle hold on the raised arm while she lifted her blaster clear and her weight from the boy’s solar plexus, spotting an ejected gauntlet-blade that had stopped short of her thigh. The boys’ faces were wide-eyed masks, as blank as the fronts of their helmets would have been. They were ready to kill, yet there was no anger in their expression, just concentrated deadly routine.

Rav strode in. “This is what a lapse in etiquette can lead to: brothers dead, training mission failed, diplomatic complications ensue,” she lectured unfazed. “We will work on your soft skills. Fine handling of hard contact otherwise.”

Tomoe stored her blaster in the back of her waistband to check upon the main victim of Rav’s lesson and her own prejudice. She had assumed that the boy would fall gracefully and be out of the line of fire. But had he had been frightened stiff like a wooden board. Now he was clutching his arm with lime-white face and still made no sound, but she had been informed of her miscalculation by a sound snap followed by an oddly soft feeling. “Sergeant Bralor? I think we’ve got a dislocated joint here.”

Rav had expected her model-civvy to hand out a hit, a hard shove or kick, but not to pull a complex, armor-defying stunt. The girl was full of surprises. “Zeta, dismissed to transfer RC-1713 to the medbay.”

“If you allow, I can reduct the joint here if there is no bone fracture. The sooner the better for recovery.” Tomoe felt along the body glove under the plate armor. She had targeted wrist and elbow but it was the shoulder contour that was awfully off. “Hold on to my hand… No, look at me, RC-1713, I keep the bone from slipping around further.” Once his adrenaline wore down, he would feel the full pain. “Don’t move, I mean you no harm. I’m sorry for this accident.”

Rav considered briefly. The Kaminoan medics were obsessed with what they called ‘quality control’ but they didn’t get their hands dirty in field medicine. Med-droids could not be around wherever her commandos would be operating. The damage was done, but the more they could do themselves, the better. “Okay. Make sure you describe what you are doing. RC-1714, you help Ms. Harada to remove the armor. RC-1715, prepare to scan for fractures. RC-1716 get the medkit.”

RC-1713 watched with grim resignation. It dawned on him through the pain that he had made a mistake, a very stupid one since everybody else was fine, standing around him staring. He had not passed the test. He was no longer fit to fight. He would be sorted out. He barely felt his brother unlatching the armor-plates and peeling the body glove off his arm and shoulder while the civvy still held onto his damaged arm. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?

Tomoe saw the boy’s pupils widen, reached over and locked her fingertips firmly on points along his cheek and temple “Stay with me, RC-1713.” Persuasion would work better with a real name. “I need you to tell me which moves you can do, which hurt and which are restricted. Once we’ve made sure that nothing is broken, I’m going to pull on your arm and slide it back into the original location. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The boy stared past her hand puzzled. The civvy cared?!

“Good. You need tell me when it hurts. This isn’t a moment for bravery.” She checked the function of his wrist and elbow down to the location of blood vessels. “What does that scanner tells you, RC-1715?”

“I can see no fractions, ma’am.”

“Neither can I.” she returned her attention to her patient. “Take a painkiller now, then I’m going to pull. Afterwards I put a bandage to hold your shoulder in place and then you can get some rest.” Rav assisted by drawing up a syringe and then flicked it a couple of times.

“No... no, I can take it, ma’am. No need for an injection.” Brothers who got injections didn’t make it.

Tomoe shook her head. Such a brave boy frightened by a small pinch. “It will make it easier for both of us. Just a small pinch. You need to rest afterwards anyway, so don’t be afraid of eventual side effects.”

The boy insisted “No, Sergeant Bralor, please tell her I don’t need an injection yet.”

“Okay. Your strength won’t make it easy for me, but the dislocation is fresh so I should manage without.” Tomoe sighed and applied pressure to several points on his neck and shoulders to numb his nerves temporarily. “Relax. I’m not going to force you.” She wiped her hands dry on her pants one by one to have a secure grip and placed her foot in the boy’s armpit. “Relax all you can. I’m going to pull on three. Breath. One... Two...” she pulled, turned and let it slide back into the position where the boy’s well-trained muscles took over. She inhaled deeply and felt it was right. “Three.” She added.

“That was only two?!” RC-1713 coughed at the stab of raw pain through his shoulder, and then it subsided to a more bearable level.

“I cheated.” Tomoe winked, checked the location and placed the boy’s arm over his chest which had not been possible before. “How does that feel?”

“Feels better.” RC-1713 savored the flicker of hope that he would not become useless today but stay with his pod. Aware of the instructor watching, he stood for Ms. Harada to complete a bandage that secured his right arm to his chest tightly. “Thanks, ma’am.”

He meant it when he rearranged his webbing, moved his side arm over to the left side, slung his deece over his shoulder and reached for his helmet. Replacing it would be a little tricky, but once inside it’s familiar surroundings, he would be fine. His pod gathered the armor plates that couldn’t be returned with the bandage blocking their fixtures.

‘What have I done?’ Tomoe questioned herself. A kid’s rough manners could never justify such means, no matter how professionally violent they presented themselves. ‘He’s only ten... no, five years old, for creation’s sake! He should play and know no fear or pain.’ Her stomach turned and her hands were shaking from the constant strain she had applied. “I need a break NOW.” – “Five minutes.” - “Sergeant Bralor,” was all she could manage. Tomoe bowed and headed out to find a fresher.

Outside, Boba leaned against the wall stoically and waited. He had heard Tomoe’s dampened yell and watched Rav enter the booth. Then a Zeta-RC run for the medkit. Something didn’t go as planned, obviously, but as long as there was need for kit, it wasn’t complete osik. ‘Let’s hope Tomoe is alright.’

The whole Epsilon Training Company made a show of minding their own business but had to take notice nevertheless. Alpha- to Epsilon-Squads wondered what had gone bad with such a harmless meeting. Eta to Psi pondered how to extract a hint how to pass that exercise alive and unhurt despite the order of silence among squads.

Omega compared Zeta’s delay with the time remaining to endex. With a little luck they would be spared by schedule almighty. So they continued hitting their targets unfazed and argued if civvy-remains would require a manual cleansing of their booth during self-study-hours. They shared their calculation to boost the morale of the neighboring squad as well: “Hey Psi… just four minutes longer and you are safe as well.”

Boba suddenly found himself in the centre of attention. Eta-Squad prepared to go in and inquired what he had witnessed so far and why he had left. Bob’ika wasn’t a squad member, after all. “I can’t tell you.” He blocked with stubborn face. After all, they had snatched his caretakers attention away from him. It wouldn’t be long until somebody remembered he had homework waiting and then he would be alone again.

“Why is Zeta stuck in there when Epsilon passed their ten minutes apparently untroubled?”

“I’ve been out here - just like you.” Boba shrugged, then suggested: “Maybe because they are E’n’E like Escape and Evasion…?” the smaller boy suggested. “Good for you, Eta.” Sometimes his clone-brothers needed a shake-down from their growth-accelerated ‘bred-to-be-the-best’-attitude.

Rav re-emerged from the Omega-booth tailed by an RC with his arm in a sling and his three Zeta-brothers. Tomoe was nowhere in sight. “Eta - Next!” Rav’s voice cut through the rambling. “In you go.” She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder. Boba bounced after the death-serious Eta-squad happily. His Tomoe was fine.

Tomoe used her break to splash cold water over her face and think. What she had started out of harmless curiosity had turned into a very serious thing. She was aware that Rav used her in a way. Probably in the same way Sergeant Bralor was used by Jango Fett herself. On the other hand, she had been supported by Rav without question. She owed her, alright. But she certainly didn’t owe her to hurt kids. She needed to come up with an alternative, and quick.

If she could prevent them from making mistakes under Rav’s scrutiny, all of them would be safe. Think ahead, order directly, complete obedience, no reprimands, no problem. ‘And if we get something wrong, I can still masquerade and pretend that everything is fine ...as long as they aren’t climbing all over me like their favorite tree house.’

She pushed away from the sink and went back into class to meet Eta.

“Hello, I’m Tomoe Harada... Would you take your helmets off, please? ... Thank you, Eta.” The four boys faces betrayed no deeper emotion than polite interest. “Your predecessors have been so nice to instruct me on the functions of my hold-out-blaster, but my mark is still off. Can you help me, please?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Two instructions completed on first sentence. Not bad. The civvy wasn’t difficult or aggressive at all and kept her movement obvious and slow for everybody’s comfort as she retrieved a small blaster and readied it.

“Can you demonstrate the most basic firing position for me?” she made way, keeping her hands and weapon relaxed and in front of her body.

The one standing next to her cocked his head then retrieved his sidearm and turned to the counter. “Like this.”

Tomoe copied and addressed another boy. “Does it look right to you, RC-1717?” When the small soldier stepped in to correct her, she simply dropped her hand and he took a step back. “Just tell me.”

“You need to place your hand on the grip a little higher.”

“Thank you.” She repositioned her hand, and raised the blaster again. “Better?”

“Yes. Try a shot.” This time, she hit the vicinity of the target. “Your wrist wasn’t straight. You need to lift it a little more and keep it still. You are shaking.”

She lowered her blaster, relaxed consciously and tried again.

“Push the blaster forwards and imagine a straight line to your body to absorb the recoil.” Another try, another advice.

“Hold it firm but don’t cramp. Pull the trigger smoothly.”

A couple of shots later it worked better already, but then the power-pack of the hold-out-blaster was drained. ‘Rav’s problem’, Tomoe thought. She was fine with ending the exercise this way. She placed the weapon on the counter with relief. “Thanks for your help. Eta.... Do you have any questions yourself?” she asked to kill the remaining time. Talking was better than any other ‘education’ that send kids to the med station.

Eta had done as ordered and was now looking for a possibility to excel and make up for Zeta squad’s mistake. “What happened to RC-1713?”

“It was a training accident.” Tomoe could tell the boys were not convinced, so she detailed. “I was asked to demonstrate how a response to unrequested touch could look like. I meant to drop him, not to hurt him. It was entirely my fault.”

“Did he attack you, ma’am?”

“No. He just overlooked some etiquette.”

An ill-equipped, uneducated civvy surviving a short-range attack on Zeta was a very curious thing. Eta’s scrutiny went from the hold-out blaster on the counter to the strange cylinder in the civvies belt down to the socked feet and back up to her face… “What weapon did you use?”

“My free hand.” Tomoe cut him short. No way she would let this exercise turn focus on her knife.

They had seen no blaster-burns to disprove her claim so they continued to inquire in cross-question… “Do all civilians react like you?”

“Not at all. Most people would avoid a conflict by adjusting their distance, maybe say something or just walk away with a bad impression... it really depends on the situation, your relationship and culture. Put your hands on the wrong being and you’ll probably end up dead or on a slave market.”

“How can we tell?” - “We didn’t make a mistake yet, did we?”

“Nothing wrong at all with you, boys. I think you are confident kids who do their job well. Use your instinct for distance as you do in fighting, but with the opposite intention: don’t press on to intimidate but try to make your partner feel safe and comfortable. That’s the origin of all politeness... Don’t worry, you can always ask if you are unsure of a situation. It is polite to care. You care for your brothers as well, don’t you?”

There was a quick exchange of glimpses among them. “Comfort?” They would operate with their brothers in less than an arm’s length and never miss a beat, even bear each other’s full weight in cramped surroundings without complaint because of discomfort. Only weak people cared about comfort. They were hard, superior beings who cared only for their brothers and kit that would put a dent into the enemy.

“Behold the space between you and me compare it to the distance you keep to your brothers… or to Sergeant Bralor. Then you look for an acceptable balance between comfort, safety and efficiency.”

“Yes, ma’am?” They acknowledged. No brother in his right mind would approach Sergeant Bralor or a Kaminoan technician unasked... their ‘comfort’ distances to Sergeant Vau and his Strill was identical with Tipoca’s training ground’s diameter.

“If I was wearing armor, or if I was taller or if we met in an open range, you would have increased our distance without a second thought, isn’t it? On the other hand, we could cramp into an elevator without feeling uncomfortable as long as we share the available space fairly and don’t try to stare each other down...”

“How can you tell that we are staring when we are wearing helmets?”

“Maybe not a hundred percent. That’s what makes your visor uncomfortable for onlookers, but never assume that people won’t make up their mind based on less than the whole picture... Besides, you’ve got a refreshing direct body language.” She added with a small grin at the flinch which gave away that Eta wanted their buckets back over their heads right then.

“Your protective instincts are well honed, but I foresee difficulties when you continue to have your relationship with the rest of the galaxy over your weapon’s scope only. It would be better if you had more options to choose from than fear and aggression.”

The boy next to her pushed his chin forwards stubbornly. “I don’t fear you and we did not engage.” He defended himself.

Her smile widened. “That’s a good start.”

Rav’s “Next” resounded again, but there was no comment to her present lack of ammunition. Tomoe thanked them and bowed, then Eta-squad left.

Boba strolled over to his busy caretaker casually “He’s lying,” he informed her “That strill-stench on you compensates for your lack of armor ten times over...” he cracked up at her expression “They are just afraid to show it while I’m around. I bet the Delta-RC bumped into you because of a lack of oxygen,” he teased. “What did you do last night?”

“I had a stroll around the block and met Lord Mirdalan.” Tomoe sighed. “I washed afterwards. I really did. Do you have an idea how much I lounge for a real long hot soak?” She was aware of her less than perfect appearance but it was Boba who had reached the end of his patience for the day. She would have to ask the next squad to give him a task as well.

“Uhm... I did notice.” Boba tried hard to straighten out his impression at the entry of Theta-Squad.

The procedure started over with a commando’s borrowed DC-15 side arm blaster, this time including their smaller brother. Again, she found that Boba was doing a great job next to all the bigger boys of “his age”.

“Hey Tom’ika.” Isabet intercepted Tomoe in the lunch break “How was your first shooting lesson... feeling de-sacred already?”

“Fine, yet it’s not quite an irresistible forbidden fruit.” Tomoe grinned back and shook her cramped arm out. “I learned everything about power packs, recharge times and settings. I could probably do _real_ damage now... by throwing the handbook.” She shrunk her shoulder and loaded her plate. “Alternatively, I could jump over the precision-distance of my hold-out-blaster.”

Isabet laughed out loud, “Priest’s not as stupid as he looks.”

“I’ve heard that,” came a deep rumbling from a nearby table. Tomoe blushed, mouthed “oh” to Isabet and stood beside Boba and Rav quietly.

“Stop fishing for compliments, Dred.” The woman in yellow armor barked back then sat down and dug in.

Tomoe decided to pick up a different topic before Isabet’s temperament went into full swing. Her own need for trouble was clearly covered for that day. “You didn’t ask a single question yesterday evening, Boba. Do you want me to continue that story or find you another one?”

“Uh no... I just keep wondering how this prince made it into a tale at all... he’s such a loser.” The boy wrinkled his nose.

“Because he didn’t compete? Maybe he’s just a realist, don’t you think?”

“Hmm.” Boba considered “Couldn’t you have made him a little quicker at least?”

“He was last when it was of no importance but first when it counted... and the story is far from complete yet.”

“But it got him killed.”

“Nothing’s ever perfect... but many weaknesses can be made up for and mistakes can be forgiven when you are kind and take care of your friends. Nevertheless you need to be careful what you wish for... you might get it... and get yourself in trouble.”

“Dad... his wish got him into trouble, didn’t it?”

“It’s just a fairytale...” Tomoe mused in surprise, pinned down by Boba’s stare. “Maybe... He’s strong. He will get over it.” Now the boy hung his head. She lifted Boba’s face with a knuckle under his chin “And I am not a princess... just a tomboy with dirt under her nails... and as you’ve seen, I can’t even shoot straight like any Mandalorian woman should. He will make up his mind.”

“You want to leave, isn’t it, Tomoe?”

“Boba, you and everybody else have heard my promise.”

“You’ve lived that perfect life before. One day, you shrug this all off and do away with the memory like that dirt under your nails...” it broke out of him.

“No. I won’t forget you, Boba.”

“Please don’t leave me alone again. I hate waiting.”

“I won’t.” Tomoe promised again, hugging him close. For once, Boba didn’t mind.

Rav had that thoughtful expression on her face that didn’t automatically bore well for her surroundings. “Could you spare half an hour for my afternoon debriefing, Tom’ika?” she asked absently “I’m going to use Epsilon-company’s flash-instruction-time to arrange the gathered material and want to go over a couple of points with them afterwards.... around fifteen hundred.”

Tomoe exchange a look with Boba who nodded hesitantly “Yes. Just drop me a call, please.”

“Oh... another thing, Isabet. Our Tom’ika forgot to mention that she can do physiotherapy.”

Kandosii! We were missing a decent bone cruncher here. It’s more of a hobby for Llats and Gilamar has a preference for scalpels.”

“The boss knows. It’s sort of the reason why I’m here.”

“Good thinking on his part.” ...It really wasn’t what Tomoe wanted to hear.

“Light 50 %, buckets off.” Rav strode into the classroom, followed by Tomoe. “I’m going to show you the summary of this morning’s exercise and raise the points Etiquette, Respect and constant Vigilance.” Rav announced with all the capitals audible and started the holo.

“Here’s the first squad, Alpha, trying their intimidation-number on our civvy instead of starting with a detailed introduction. Not the best foundation to inquire about confederate resources. Good for Alpha that Ms. Harada decided to ignore it. You still enjoy children’s reprieve. Once you have reached your full spec bulk, most civvies won’t wait for you to present your intention to them but run or cower. See how carefully she is moving?” Rav pointed into the blue figures moving over the desk.

“This is NOT an act. This woman has never put her hands on a blaster before. There are many others like her out in the galaxy. It’s civilians’ spec to be lowbrow about weapons. And if they can handle a blaster, it’s the E-web or the Proton missile launcher that confuses them. Expect nothing. Get used to start training with the technical bases. It will give you the means of communication... that’s what Alpha did for the rest of you...” she switched to fast forward mode.

“Even though she doesn’t know anything about a blaster yet, Ms. Harada implements the weapon seamlessly into all levels of her communication.” Rav narrated, “Her mix works on Alpha and she starts to establish the scheme: ‘I ask the questions, you answer the questions’ – here - By the time Beta-Squad enters, our clueless civvy has already assumed command. That becomes the recurrent theme of the whole exercise. I don’t need to show this again - you’ve ALL got your own experience to resort to.” Sergeant Bralor looked around the classroom and made a mental note to start the next exercise with Mu or Omega.

“You have to find ways to keep your own initiative – without intimidation. You are trained to be the best. Be confident. You have something the others want. There is no need to shove foreign units around in training. If you get it right, they will run for you on their own. – Here’s Delta’s fruitless experiment with full body contact... and here’s a potential worst case kindly brought to you by Zeta. No, don’t let that haunt you, RC-1713, your little mishap turned up a weak point in our armory program just in time.” Bralor played the scene again in slow motion. “Got that move, everybody?”

She picked out an Omega-Commando “Ms. Harada, could you give us a demonstration?”

Tomoe stepped into the widening circle around the presentation desk and bowed in front of the boy indicated by Rav. “May I?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The boy clutched his deece to his chest. “Please leave your gun to your brother for a moment. I’m going to move very slowly during this demonstration. Try to follow my move, but voice your pain or pat on my body when it hurts. I’ll stop immediately. ” She lifted the boy’s wrist with one hand and bent it with the other, then turned slowly. “I bring the wrist joint to its blockade point, then the elbow joint on it’s outer blockade point... about 45° - here it is... that one’s a little tricky... and keep moving so the rest of the body has to follow. The quicker I move, the bigger the forces becomes, up to maximum damage like fragmentation of wrist or elbow.”

Tomoe moved out for a restart of the move “And here is our problem: (keep your arm stiffer this time) A tense triceps lifts the upper arm plate a little. Then, on the second bend, the upper-arm plate jams with the shoulder plate and then the full force is concentrated on the shoulder joint which can result in an anterior dislocation. Hurts like hell and looks like RC-1713’s shoulder now - after reduction, which isn’t comfortable either. I recommend two weeks rest, by the way....”

“Thank you, Ms. Harada.” Sergeant Bralor shut her up quickly. “This is the style in which demonstrations to confederates are given. I’ll raise the shoulder-plates-issue in the next armory meeting and you will practice this move under secure conditions in the next hand-to-hand exercise. Your assignment: figure a suitable defense against such rotating techniques and find a way to keep your plates from jamming up on you.”

Rav strode back to the hologram and placed her armored knuckles on the edge of the table, leaning slightly forwards to scrutinize her training company. “Surprise: our civvy can fight.” She stated dryly through the frozen, translucent presentation of five human beings ready to kill each other for no palpable reason. “Civilian or soldier, female or male, ally or opponent, the only condition under which they are unlikely to give you trouble is DEAD. Until then it’s constant vigilance for you. You need your confederates alive and unhurt, so try to avoid problems beforehand. Mind your etiquette. Treat them with respect. And most important: always keep an eye on your allies.” Rav let it sink in, and then asked for input “What else is curious in this sequence?”

“The hold-out was ready and aligned, but Ms. Harada did not shoot RC-1714 before check-command.”

“Right. Civvies tend to use their weapon not only for killing but for negotiation as well. It’s their weakness and your advantage. You will encounter many amateur’s lofty ideas about fighting, ranging from terrorist-sieges to peacekeeping with weapons. Negotiation is for officers. Republic Commandos don’t negotiate. When you engage you don’t stop killing until the enemy is wiped out or you are ordered to stop.”

Rav swapped scenes. “Here’s Ms. Harada’s view on civilian etiquette for you as a starting point.” Bralor replayed the speech to Eta full length. Tomoe blushed deeply. Was there nothing private here? Her words had been meant for the moment, not for a large crowed. “I want you to monitor your own actions in different day-to-day situations according to the rules of thumb given by Ms. Harada and sum up your ideas for improvement in an 800-words-essay until the day after tomorrow, eighteen hundred.” – “Yes, ma’am.”

“Epsilon Company: dismissed.”

Chapter 5.1 – In the Shower

Tomoe excused herself quickly and was on the way back to Boba before Epsilon Company filed out of the briefing room. The small one’s notepad sat on the table when he answered the door, but it didn’t look like he had completed more than a single exercise.

“I’m finished. Let’s go.” Bob’ika announced with a crooked grin.

“Let’s do that ‘catch up’ your father mentioned in record time, then we can go outside and play, alright?” Boba made a face “Direct order, soldier.” She added. He returned to his pad and she fetched them two cups of shig. The whole place looked remarkably friendly... without his old man.

Tomoe unpacked her own pad and made notes for tonight’s bedtime story. ‘Uagh. Sometimes, I hate writing romance!’ she thought ...it would trigger more stupid comments for sure... but it had been Boba’s special request and she had already an idea where to continue. She went to the panorama window and patched poetry lines together from her memory. For once, it was easy. Then she turned to the table, took out a stylus and wrote the words down in long fluent columns. ‘Nice.’ She let out a chuckle and held the sheet against the light. ‘Master Fett can put that under his cushion if he has any questions left afterwards.’

Boba looked up and announced “Five minutes” – “Okay.” The boy was quick once he was sufficiently motivated. A little attention was usually enough to achieve that. Tomoe finished her cup of shig. They had a look into the sergeants training room. It didn’t matter that they were a little late, with a whole battalion gone into full range exercise, the instructors who stayed at home were either busy to make the most of the additional space or they were specialists who accompanied the exercise.

Tomoe reached for a wooden practice weapon herself and went over the same moves as last time. Boba was doing well, but he was far from the perfection that any master at home would have required before raising him to the next level. After half an hour, Boba’s patience was up nevertheless.

“What did you do use on that Zeta-RC?” the boy tried to change topics.

“A wrist and elbow lock.”

“Show me, please!”

“Tomorrow... after I made sure you can fall... You think you centered that slice enough?” – “Sure.” – “Let’s try it on a different floor then...” She moved her lesson outside on a vacant landing pad. “Continue.” After the first slip that put him on his ass, her pupil was already less convinced of his progress.

Tomoe’s socked feet looked glued to the ground where ever she came down. “You need to build the ability to do that at any pace, in any space, on any terrain. In the end, even the steel becomes obsolete.”

Boba looked down the length of his practice weapon. The grip was slippery in his hands from the downpour. “Before this is eaten up by rust, I hope.”

“Not while you sit around.” She extended a hand and pulled the boy to his feet. “Keep moving. Stay warm.” Another load of salty spray hit their backs.

“At least it doesn’t smell as badly here.” Boba teased.

“Plenty of time for clean-up later.” They continued... Tomoe was about to call endex as a flight rushed low over their heads.

Jango had taken the first battalion into a full range exercise at 0400 in the morning. Basically they had pitted Kal’s Arca-company against Vau’s Bravo-company, tested the kit of the transport- and logistics-platoon and given the pilots a chance to escape their simulators. He had overstaffed their administration support group to a size sufficient for four battalions, one independent group for each company and two for the ARCs which he split 50/50 among the two sides.

There was no possibility for a realistic deployment of full trooper battalions, so the commandos would stand in for the infantry as well and gather some basic experience on the way, complete with com-problems, bad intel, flash-bangs, nerf-innards and self adjusting screw-ups.

Without practice ammunition, the vast majority would have ended up in body bags by the end of their little game of war. Instead, the walking ‘dead’ had been called to a staging area and the medevacs had enjoyed a slow day. A single LAAT was enough to pack the occupied bacta tanks. Kal and Vau’s companies had locked jaws once deployed and his ARC’s were just what they needed to make the day of all the RCs miserable, but the highlight of the day had been an EMP lobbed into Vau’s rear-command-centre by one of Kal’s Nulls.

The instructors were still debating how the Nulls had managed to bypass the codes, but Jango suspected a beforehand-slice into his preparation files. He would have a look into that together with their Sullustian encrypter. Whenever the EMP-enforced shutdown was any more unfair then Delta-Bravo’s attempt to slot Arca’s transport-platoon or not, the communication between Skirata and Vau was on their preferred freezing point.

All in all it had been a field day... and the best was a hot shower, warm meal and ... well, not pre-warmed bed waiting for him. Jango spotted his real home Slave I sitting on a landing pad... and two small figures moving on a nearby vacant pad. He blinked. His helmet enhanced the view “Make this a low approach” he directed the pilot of the transporter.

‘Why there?’ He thought and watched the downdraft kick mist and spray of the elegant sweeping surfaces below. The walkways could be dangerous on a stormy day. Not to mention cold. He would have a look into that as well.

Tomoe craned her neck “We better go inside.” She bowed to her pupil.

Boba bowed back and pushed his practice saber under his belt with a wide smile “Yes, dad’s coming home!”

Tomoe checked her comlink. Untimely indeed... said the schedule. She would not be rushed to leave a path of wet footprints and puddles all through the spotless corridor just to meet Fett half’n hour before the agreed time and drop a wet and freezing kid on him. Their shower room was properly booked with Rav’s help, a package with a dry change of clothing for Boba sat just inside the door.

Boba gaped at the facilities spacious enough for a whole company to shower at once. “Whoa... we could have practiced in here as well.”

“Half the fun.” Tomoe replied dryly, dropped the package and her hairpins on a bench, wrung out her belt, pants and tunic and peeled down her socks. She slapped her clothing into the cleaning station in the corner of the shower room together with Boba’s soaked fatigues. “Let’s hope that machine will get rid of Mird’s odor marks. I’m running out of ideas otherwise.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t spread on my clothing. I don’t want to stink, too.” Boba’s clanked his teeth and rubbed his thin shoulders. Couldn’t she hurry up?

Tomoe folded up a towel and placed it in reach when she stepped under the shower, raising the water temperature slowly so it didn’t burn their cold skin. A shower couldn’t replace a steaming tub, but it was nice nevertheless and ten times better than the washbasin in her quarter last night. She washed her face then started lathering the boy’s hair. He had beautiful thick hair, unspoiled by wearing helmet. Nobody had been inclined to cut it to clone soldier’s standard length. She was thankful that at least one clone was allowed to stay a kid a little longer...

“Aren’t you afraid that somebody could come in?” Jango’s speaker-alternated voice penetrated Tomoe’s moment of serenity as he strode in unhurriedly, his armored boots clanking on the tiled floor. “Arca and Bravo are back,” the fully armored mercenary announced. With the help of the anklet, it had been as easy to catch up with his target’s movement as to follow the wet footprints. But he had not expected Tomoe to share her present state of undress with his son as frankly as they bathed like that every day.

The threadbare woman’s formerly relaxed body tightened, rippling muscles disturbing the smooth gleaming curves. “No longer.” She retorted as her widened eyes landed on him. The red kyr’bes glared at him from her back as she reached down and snatched a towel from the tiles. The rising and falling of her rapid breath gave the skull a life of its own. The mark just highlighted what had been there all the time. A fire that couldn’t be extinguished. His.

Su’cuy, dad!” Boba pushed the water from his ears and smiled. Dad coming home early plus coming for him right away was a rare treat.

Jango had expected his little spitfire to jump his throat upon entry or make a runner for the second pair of doors ...which he had jammed shut by security system remote. He had a hold on her escape as well as her aggression. Whatever way she lost it, in the end she would have to notice him, truly notice him - not the warrior or the leader, but as a man.

But her voice stayed as level at his. Apparently she had bolstered her nerves nicely instead of crumpling any further towards his goal. “Udesii (because it always fired her up nicely)... You’ve got nothing I haven’t seen already. Go on...” He tilted his chin up at her for a moment, clasped his arms loosely in front of his chest and continued to watch with appreciation.

Keeping Boba behind her, Tomoe turned slowly on her armored nightmare. The folded towel covered next to nothing... but it dried her hands. A good grip and some free space was all she needed. ‘Come get me,’ she thought. Whatever he had planned for this shower session, all that fancy deadly kit would not help him to take her alive and conscious. It wasn’t animal fright versus armored control anymore. If he wanted to play with fire, she was warmed up nicely.

The pulse point on her neck was jumping madly. Jango had not forgotten how quickly that treacherous smooth pace could turn into an explosion ‘C’mon, give it a try...’ he smiled despite the fact she could not see through the visor. He knew she would fill that gap from her memory nicely. ‘I’m as ready as I can be and you are all soaped and out of hairpins.’

“This shower room was marked on the duty roster as ‘vacant’.” Tomoe explained patiently, “I changed settings to ‘occupied’ before I came here. As you can see, it is occupied now. Use the room according to its purpose or get out.” She managed to sound perfectly reasonable.

Somebody had explained things to her. A lot of things. “Uhm...” She didn’t even decline his presence utterly?! He could not help the loud exhale he released. “...thank you for your offer.” It would probably take a couple of very explicit comments to rattle her calm demeanor. Which wasn’t a good idea with Boba around. There were plenty of possibilities to come. For now, he really enjoyed the display. He was not going to spoil this by rushing.

Boba wrinkled his sensitive nose “What’s that smell, dad?” the boy peeked around Tomoe’s bare thigh. He would prefer Mird’s rancid perfume over that rotten stench any time. In holozines, the kids were supposed to get dirty all the time, not the adults. He really needed to tell them to get normal.

His son knew how to pick his moments... “I suppose some nerf-innards rubbed-off on me...” the T-shaped visor dipped at the kid’s soaped white hair “I haven’t done that since Boba grew out of bathing in the washbasin.” Jango commented gravely and stepped under a nearby hose, water splashing off the silver plates in all directions.

The close-up of his woman’s pert, rosy nipples made his mouth water. The switch from true visual to the penetrating radar’s soothing green outlines was suddenly an unfeasible blink away. His hands developed a will of their own that yearned to know those smooth shapes, to span her waist and to explore the firm roundness of her hips, the long expanse of her legs and that secret, feminine place between them... rotten timing! He clenched his fists.

Boba made a face. He had really enjoyed what was now called childish. Dad could wash himself, period.

“You guys really have no bathing culture here.” Tomoe shook her head at the grown-up original and hesitated briefly. Would she be pounced upon once she returned her attention to Boba? ‘No... I know you too well, Fett. You’ve a thing for control... and you like to provoke your prey before you pick it off. But I won’t jump for you to call the shots. There you go...’

“C’mon, boys don’t shrink in the wash.” She put the towel down carefully and turned to rinse the lather off Boba’s head carefully so the suds stayed out of his eyes. She washed her own hair afterwards, demonstrating on the way that she couldn’t care less what Fett was doing. She felt acutely alive, yet she could not decide if it was because of his intense scrutiny or his plan backfiring.

‘Sure, just the opposite.’ Jango felt his entire body become very hot and very cold at the same time, defying the environmental controls of his suit. His passion ignited with urgency driven by days and nights of carnal frustration, years' worth of frustrated, unfulfilled desire. But he could not retreat now. Once the stench was rinsed off his outer shell, he would try an ice-cold shower on the issues underneath. He hoped she would be gone by then, otherwise he couldn’t guarantee for anything. Control was rapidly spinning away from him.

“Would you scrub my back, please?” Tomoe asked Boba sweetly, keeping an eye on Jango “I never missed a bath with my dad when he came home... (Fett barely managed to switch off the amplifier before a hoarse groan tore itself from his lips)... but I have to admit he was far more relaxed and talkative than yours.” She bit back a giggle. Nerf-innards or not, the fully armored mercenary standing under a hose was quite a picture.

Tomoe rinsed off, picked up her stuff and retreated to the bench to wrap Boba in a large towel before she toweled off herself. She retrieved their washed and dried clothing from the laundry and got dressed. Her comlink beeped... “Yes?... Yes, I’ll be there in a moment.” She gave Fett a very pointed look over her shoulder that made him feel like he was six years old again. Her gaze was nearly as good as a splash of ice-cold water. “I’ll be back before nine for your story.” She ruffled Boba’s damp hair and headed out.

Jango swallowed hard as he realized she still possessed no underwear to go with the customized fatigues. Another detail that would return to haunt his waking moments. Desire clamored through him, hard and overpowering... couldn’t that wait for a more opportune moment?! She had left Boba in his care. ‘You can handle it. Cool down. Think of nerf-innards.’ At least his armor was clean down to the body glove now. He switched to drying mode and had to swallow again, before he could finally force his voice to co-operate. “Smell any better now, son?”

Boba dressed himself and sniffed “A little. That body glove needs a real wash.”

‘Fierfek!’ - “I’m going to change for dinner then,” Jango called retreat and father and son went home without further comment.

Jango grabbed a change of clothing and vanished in the bathroom. He removed his numerous armaments, staked his protective shell, peeled down the body glove carefully and switched the water temperature to ice cold. He was braced for the pain as the first splash hit him.

But of course it wasn't enough. He was too used to ignore pain. The tension had been coiling inside him during the battle he had overseen without engaging. The confrontation with Tomoe had transformed it from battle lust to sexual lust that he had ruthlessly suppressed because of his duties to his son. Now it boiled to the surface abruptly.

His memory replayed the images of her. Drops of water rolling down her exposed abdomen as she rose and faced him. Tomoe did not fear him. She laughed at him. She mocked him and had fought him like a Krayt dragon. He narrowed his eyes at the surge of frustrated arousal writhing inside him, burning his blood and bringing him fully erect yet again.

Nobody would see his control shatter in the fierce dark depths of his eyes. “Enough!" The command came through gritted teeth, his voice guttural nearly beyond recognition.

Jango drew a deep breath and changed the settings for a different effort to regain control. A warm tingling spray of water hosed down his muscular shoulders. He could no more stop his body's urgent, dominant instinct than he could stop the flow of blood in his veins. He craved to taste her, to be buried deep inside her; to feel her slick, silky sheath quake about him as she climaxed, to hear the moans she made as he drove into her.

Resting his hand upon the tiles, he let the water flow over his head, soaking his thick black hair as he hesitantly touched his swollen member with shaking fingers. In his mind's eye, he had her pinned against the tiled wall, her hair wild around her face as she beckoned him closer with her long slender legs clasped around his waist. His left hand remembered how he liked to be touched. He explored the thick tip, closed his fingers about the rigid length of his shaft, hot and smooth and throbbing, steel covered in softest velvet, pulsing with independent life.

Jango’s entire body flexed and with a guttural sound his hips surged upwards. He knew that a couple of quick strokes would finish it for him. He brought himself to that edge of agony, thrust hard, once, twice, three times and exploded, spilling his seed. He bucked heavily, his head thrown back and his neck corded as he shook and pulsed, riding out the waves of white hot pleasure, until he stilled completely and sagged heavily against the wall.

A sob erupted from deep within his powerful chest as he washed himself clean. He turned off the water, feeling sudden rage at himself as his flesh tingled again, teasing him. His body was satisfied from the orgasm, but his mind found her no less desirable than before, quite the opposite.

Jango donned a fresh body glove and restored the armory, staring at himself in the mirror while his hands did the job mechanically.

He had a problem.

Chapter 5.2 – Field Day’s End

Sergeant Bralor stood outside of a meeting room that overlooked the training grounds below as Tomoe strode down the corridor, her shortened hair flying like a fluffy black cloud to mid-back

“You know I have an eye on your vital signs, Tomoe. I thought you had gotten a rid of the thing last night, but what was that just now?” the older woman inquired without bothering to take off her helmet. She had to stay in touch with Isabet for coordination. Despite the rush the girl’s pulse had sunken back under the threshold value that had triggered the alarm in the middle of Rav’s meeting.

“I’m sorry. Fett is back and waltzed in to have a shower in just the very room we reserved.”

“You okay?” Rav inquired. The girl certainly looked all fired up.

“Sure.” Tomoe grinned “Imagine a guy taking a shower in full armor,” she winked.

Rav’s chuckle resounded through the amplifier. “I hope you kicked his shebs for trying?”

“The bruise on my knee from kissing his cod-piece is barely faded. So that’s a no… and the reason why he’ll probably walk funny the rest of the evening.”

Isabet inquired why Rav was laughing so hard… and word got around.

“Thanks for taking care of me.”

“No problem.” Rav tilted her head, speaking on another channel “Yes, I’m going to ask...” she sighed but played the parrot “Kal called Llats to treat some Arca-RCs and Isabet told him you’ve got talent...”

Tomoe nodded. She was fine helping as long as she wasn’t the origin of the pain. “Where to?”

“Yes, she’s coming... Your comlink,” Rav pulled up a holomap “Jetty five, this way.” Her gauntlet pointed, then excused herself “I have to return to my meeting.”

“Thanks.” Tomoe jogged down the corridor, following the red thread in the blue chart.

Rounding the corner of the pier, she could not spot Isabet in the crowd of hundreds of busy commandos and equipment. She rounded a pile and nearly recoiled at the sight of a screaming yellow Mythosaur-skull staring back at her from green and grey armor. Who or what was that?

Duraani, burc'ya?” came from the green and yellow helmet in the middle of a tempest of organized chaos.

Tomoe fixed her gaze on the T-shaped visor as she had been told to be polite and held her hands well away from her sides. “Ni’cuyi olar jorcu Isabet’ke'gyce.” She jumped to let a repulsor-vehicle pass. It held huge cylinders filled with green liquid and... her attention was jerked back.

Mar'e!” Isabet turned to her, revealing Kal standing next to her. Sergeant Skirata was wearing sand-golden plate armor, the helmet tucked under his arm. “K'olar!” The woman in yellow armor beckoned her over. The jetty was crowded by armored boys unloading supplies, six of them forming something of a calm perimeter around the two adults, hesitantly giving way to the warrior in green and yellow...

“Good evening, Isabet.” Tomoe side-stepped another group on the way to her friend “How can I help?” she asked quietly and listened in.

Nar'sheb Kal, I don’t crunch cervical vertebrae for medical purpose. I’m a warrior and a historian, not a healer. Ask a med-droid to give the boy a painkiller and his problem will probably resolve itself in a few days.”

Skirata wasn’t soothed “Probably isn’t good enough for me.”

“This is not the time to practice. I have other patients waiting. Get the wharf age done then take that Null to the med-bay,” He tilted his head at Tomoe “...or have the aruetii give it a try...”

Tomoe bowed slightly, her eyes locked, fighting back a retort. Who was that guy? Fett’s old man? “Thank you Llats. I’ll take it from here.” It didn’t need a shove for the circle to make way for her, but they all looked the same to her down to the tense stance. “You look very different today, Kal,” she smiled.

“Do you do physiotherapy?” Skirata snapped impatiently.

“Where I come from, it is believed a warrior should learn to fix as much non-lethal damage he can do.” She raised a shoulder and smiled. “Your decision if that is good enough for you... What happened?”

“N-7, report.”

One of the clones tipped his hand to the helmet in a polite gesture “Got thrown into a wall. My neck cracked soundly but didn’t break. I can walk and I’m fit to fight, there is no paralysis in my hand or feet, but the bones keep making strange sounds and I can’t turn my head properly... there is a uncomfortable pressure here and here.” N-7 closed his description and pointed at his helmet.

Tomoe sighed. “You are not bleeding under that helmet? Do you feel warm liquid coming from your nose or ears?” – “No” he stood stiffly and avoided to shake his head. The boy made it here, so the armor had kept everything in place, obviously. Change to horizontal position or let him walk on? The clones attitude to pain wasn’t helping her diagnosis. ‘Keep the head up.’ She decided “Could you dispatch somebody to take us to the med-bay and help me with the armor, Sergeant Skirata? I want to run the available checks before I do something.”

“N-5, take N-7 and Ms. Harada to the med-bay.”

“Thanks.” Tomoe bowed, helped N-7 through the busy crowed and set a smooth slow pace once they squished through the worst. “You will let me know immediately when you feel sick, won’t you?” she asked the wounded then addressed N-5 “If he is, I try to keep his neck steady and you undo the helmet. Otherwise I’d rather leave the helmet on until I know more. Do you think we can cut it open?”

N-5 (she had to monitor positions constantly to tell the boys apart) was utterly unconvinced. “The coating material is as good as indestructible... unless you accept that the brain is fried within, that is.”

How tactful! Tomoe winced inwardly. It wasn’t what she needed. “I won’t... I’m sure we’ll get the thing off smoothly with your help.” They entered and Tomoe was confused by all the panels, devices and med-droids with a multitude of arms. Since she could not remove the facial mask and then the rest of the helmet or just reach under the edge deeply enough she needed different means of analyze.

“Try to keep the same position as before, N-7.” She advised and tried conferring with the med-droid. If it had not been a machine she would have sworn it felt ignored by her attempts to mingle in its medical affairs. “Yes, I need you to check the basilar skull and the cervical vertebrae for fractures and leakage. Afterwards scan for damaged blood vessels and nerves.”

The droid beeped. N-5 leaned back against the opposite pallet “You’re lucky they are late handing over the EMP-proof version.”

The droid complained he couldn’t get his probes in properly and N-7 popped the helmet seal “C’mon, it’s not so bad. Let’s get over with it.”

“I said: Don’t move your neck or the helmet yet!” Tomoe hissed. The two clone-brothers were less obedient to those in the morning, so she detailed. “If it’s what I think, you can suck it up five minutes longer to be sure, commando. I’m not so full of myself that surgical support in stand-by stops to be a reassuring thing to have. That’s what careful planning and a plan B is about, you understand?”

“You are very careful,” came the speaker alternated voice from inside the helmet

She studied the first scan, N-5 peeking over her shoulder “Looks okay. All plates down to the waist have to go, and then we take the helmet off.” She helped N-5 to shell his brother, then Tomoe slid her hands up along N-7’s neck for support and together they eased off the helmet.

“I’ll let go now slowly, N-7. I need your honest feedback, no bravery. If it hurts more, holler.”

N-7 lifted his hand “Feels better already. The helmet has its weight.” He felt her hands smooth over his neck and his hackles rose.

She scrutinized him for bruises or tell-tale signs of a fracture. “Now we try rotation. I know you aren’t comfortable, but stop at any raise of pain-level.” She guided him to face right, then left, noting the restricted angles. “Now down... and up... okay.” She went for pressure points along the side of the ridge and he winced. “C-2, 3: left. C-5 right...” The environmental seal at the neck of the body glove restricted further investigation and she had to call upon N-5 again to strip her patient to the waist.

“Bend down slowly with round back, try to roll down vertebra for vertebra.” She mapped her way further down. TH-1...3/4... and 6... okay, straighten up...” her hand rested on his shoulder soothingly to establish body contact. “Would you get me a stool, please, N-5?... Sit down...” Thanks to creation he wasn’t grown out yet... “Cross your arms in front of your chest... hands on your shoulders.” She noticed a flinch as she grabbed his right wrist to fold up her patient up. “You are Mereel, aren’t you?”

The boy cleared his throat. Names were a very private thing... maybe the only personal possession he had aside of things given to him for grim purpose. “Yes.” He admitted.

“...and you are Prudii.” It earned her a nod of the ARC who was monitoring every move she made. She smiled “Watch and learn. This technique isn’t too difficult and can help a lot. You take a hold on the wrist... or elbow in this case... and pull back until the targeted section of the spine rests against your breastbone. Tighten the bend. Relax, Mereel. Breath... in... out.... then pull firmly on exhalation and bend your own body back successively...” several pops became audible. She sat him up on the stool before she let go.

“Noisy.” Mereel commented, “and better.” He smiled, still turning his whole body instead of his head only.

“That were TH-3 to 6. Raise your hands over your head. No we go for TH-1.” Tomoe slid her own arms around his muscular frame and clasped her hands behind his head. “Let yourself sink back against me. Breath. In... out...” Her voice in his ear took on a hypnotizing quality. She felt him relax and pulled for all she was worth until the vertebrae relocated. “Get up... move around a little... loosen up. That was a stubborn one, wasn’t it? I could use an assistant by the end of the year if you continue to grow like reed.”

Mereel rolled his shoulders and extended his arms, wiggling his fingertips. “Much better. Can you teach me that?”

“If Sergeant Skirata gives his approval, I can... now to the neck. Don’t try this yourself until you know exactly what you are doing. Sit down. Let your arms hang down, put the right over to your left...” Tomoe placed her palm on the nape of his head and directed his chin into the croak of her left elbow. He stiffened violently. “Relax, please.” She tried again. He grabbed her arm harshly. She opened her hold and placed her left hand on his shoulder, bending over for eye-contact. “I need you to relax, Mereel, or it will cause you unnecessary pain or fail... Don’t fight it. Relax. Breath. I can give you a painkiller to help you.” Then she felt the tip of a knife in the nape of her neck.

“You are not going to snap his neck.” Prudii voice was low and level... the detached aggression all clones seemed to have in common. He wretched her sheathed knife from her belt. “Let my brother go. He’s fine.”

The med-droid started vain exclamations. Tomoe lifted her hand off Mereels shoulder slowly. “I thought we left that phase behind us, Prudii... of course Mereel can go whenever he wants. I mean no harm. Put your knife away, please.”

“Turn left. Face the wall... closer... feet away from the wall.” Prudii directed and Tomoe obeyed without question. He frisked her briefly and produced the hold-out-blaster from her pocket. “Hands behind your neck. Down on your knees.” The boy inched back carefully, checking for the progress his hurt brother made donning his armor, his side-arm in his other hand aimed on the kneeling woman. “Stay put.”

Tomoe situated herself in the requested position. “It’s alright. Sergeant Skirata will tell you where to take it from here. Please ask him to drop me a call later, will you?” there was no further comment but a scramble of armored boots and the swiff of the door. She let the seconds tick by before speaking up again. “Prudii?”

There was no answer. She was about to turn and have a glimpse around as the door hissed open again.

Llats blinked twice at the young aruetii kneeling on the floor of the med-bay... alone. “What are you doing here?” he looked around the room as if it was booby-trapped.

“I’m trying to treat some scared kids with guns.” She took her hands down and stood, smoothing down her pants. “Have you seen N-5 and N-7?”

“Yes... and they were in quite a hurry to get away.”

“I see. Well, seems I’m done here for the day. Where do you keep the med-records?” Tomoe fished in her pocket for the comlink.

“I’ll get that N-7 back to you in a few,” Llats harrumphed, and then probed carefully “any success on his deviant neck?”

“Partly. Bone and tissue scan turned up nothing serious. I resolved blockades on TH-1, 3/4 and 6 without problems.” she shrugged her shoulders and made a mental note. “The cervical vertebras C-2, 3 and 5 will drive N-7 back to medical care... sooner would be better than later. He has to wear that heavy helmet all the time... I need to call Sergeant Skirata.” Tomoe excused herself and figured the address.

Llats strode over to the info-station of the med-bay, shutting down the hysterical droid with a probe to port on the way. He would have a look into the machine’s records later. For now, the reaction of the woman was far more interesting. Unfazed. Full of concern for the kids despite they went at her a moment ago. He could respect that mind set. But the Nulls’s unruly behavior could not be tolerated.

“Hi Kal... did Mereel and Prudii show up again?... Yes... No, I’m not finished yet... Prudii was afraid I was going to harm Mereel’s neck... No, I’m not injured. Tell Mereel to report back when he’s in pain. Anytime... no... no hard feelings. If you could ask Prudii to return my knife and blaster, please? He can give them to Rav or Isabet as well... Thanks.”

Tomoe closed the connection. “Dinnertime,” she announced with a smile into the black T-shaped visor surrounded by a green and yellow paint-job. “Do you come along? I’m starving,” she invited.

“I don’t think so. Stay put. I’m going to get N-7 back and you’ll put that neck right now.”

“Sir, please leave them alone.” She clasped her hands in front of her. “He’ll be back in his own good time.”

“Nulls have to obey like everybody else.”

“Maybe, but I won’t treat anybody against his will... Null, RC... whatever letter of the alphabet you call them.” Tomoe answered stubbornly.

“I’ll make him want it.”

“No sir, you can’t do that. Whatever you have in mind, it won’t make Mereel trust me.”

“He doesn’t need to trust you, just to do as you instruct.”

“True... But I do. I can’t do anything for him without his trust... Sorry, Sir. Feel free to consider me a helpless case.” A cutting edge seeped into her voice. “I’m going to have dinner now.”

He shouldered past her on the way outside. His armored frame and the huge gun in his hand filled the width of the corridor easily once Tomoe had scratched herself off the doorframe. “You. Wait. Here.” Who did the aruetii think she was to question his methods and best practice in general?

The yellow Mythosaur-skull that decorated Llats’ chest plates glared at her and the mark on her back was searing her skin again. In this very moment, she hated him from the depth of her heart. Him and all he represented to her. He would not be rattled in a fight with her bare hands and three darts... as sturdy as she had made them. But she would not be violated again. Neither in body nor in proficiency. And she certainly was not to violate a boy who was taught nothing but killing.

Tomoe seemed to rake her hair briefly in exasperation, two of her hairpins sticking between her clenched digits on the way down. She diverted Llats gaze by sinking on her right knee with deliberate ceremony, then suddenly upped the stakes. “Llats Ward, I consider your behavior dishonorable. For yourself as well as for me. You are a disgrace for all medics in this galaxy. You disgust me. I won’t support yournauseating brutal practice.”

Ward stared down at her. There was an edge in her voice but there seemed to be no fight in her. Did she threaten to puke on his boots or what?

“I could not live with this shame.” She lifted her right palm to her throat gently, then suddenly changed her grip so the tiny knife on her carotid artery became visible. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way.” She stared at him, her throat bared to the narrow pointed blade.

‘Whoa...’ Llats stopped up in save distance. “I see you’ve got poetic role-models... and full B-grade for the elegant poise... but did you think that through properly?!” he bent in his hips mockingly “Now I have to ask what you want, isn’t it?” Whatever her motives were, he would not surrender to blackmail.

“Free passage. I’m going now this way or the other.”

That request was anything but complex, but he didn’t like the way he was treated. “Just curious. Your passing will change… what exactly?” He challenged and slung the rifle around onto his back. He needed to have his hands free. That small woman would not make much of a grappling opponent.

“You think your shiny fortress is invincible, but it is rotten like that skull on your chest. Make way or see it fall.” Crouched into a tight ball teetering on the edge to drop forwards into the blade Tomoe let the second dart slip in her left just enough for the tip to find the notch in the band around her ankle.

Ward dipped his head in an unimpressed pose, secretly thankful for his visor. It dawned on him that he would not be quicker on her throat than her when push came to shove. A compromise was in order. If she made a runner in the opposite direction, he would just let her leave. “What can I say? I bet that toothpick is too blunt even to hurt your fair aruetyc skin...” He faked a lunge at her, clapping his gloved hands in front of her face “BOOOH!”

“Not a classic, just old.” Tomoe commented unflinching and caught Llats’s gaze on her neck by slicing through skin slowly while she rammed the second dart into the innards of the anklet. The ‘toothpick’ was sharp enough obviously. ‘Let’s find out what Fett does to put Ward’s priorities right… after the destruction of two prized possessions at once over some republic cannon fodder’s training-details.’ She wanted to see the beginning of the end if she were to go.

“Ouch. That must have hurt. You are bleeding, there,” Llats pointed.

She laughed dryly “Too late, gaijin.”

A giant’s hand closed around her right wrist in a vice-like grip and an armored elbow crashed down just in front of her collarbone. The other hand took a hold on her cheek and jaw to press it away from the blade as she was pulled up and off her feet. Her next breath filled her nose with Mird’s odor marks. She stopped her left hand from making an attempt on the muscular long thigh in the black body glove behind the matte plates. It wouldn’t have made much of a difference anyway.

“I’m impressed by your stealth, Walon,” Tomoe commented.

“Well done, ner vod.” Llats nodded at the taller Mando’ad reverently. “Take her into the med-bay. I’ll be right back.”

“Just passing through.” Vau wretched the knife from her right and picked another from her hairdo. She passed him the last one on her own and Walon eased his crushing hold. “Interesting style of discussion, Ward. It would be wise to keep your hands off Ms. Harada and avoid such trouble. Believe me, she wields more impressive faints than bleeding into the corridor for your evening entertainment.”

“She denied a direct order.”


Tomoe could see his gaze under the slightly tilted visor, picture him looking down his nose with contempt at Ward from half-lidded green golden tiger-eyes. It seemed the message was transferred to Llats as well. He had overstepped his boundaries. It didn’t take Vau another comment to make the mercenary in green armor excuse himself for the evening.

“Thank you.” Tomoe’s slim frame shook from unspent adrenaline. While she could walk through under his outstretched arm with her head held high, for the moment she was contend to lean into him. “Hello, Mird.” She acknowledged the six-legged predator’s crouched approach. The tip of its tail flinched nervously. “Missed you already. I’m okay now.”

“You have an interesting way to drive your point home, little one.” His baritone voice drawled through the speaker as he ushered her back into the med-bay. “Choice location to acquire a cut.”

“One moment.” Tomoe stood away from him and lifted her chin to the end of the corridor Llats had blocked a moment ago... open corridor was better than closed surroundings to avoid misunderstandings. “Rav?”

Sergeant Bralor rushed around the corner to see what was wrong -this time- , incensed by the alarum and the unbroken line where Tomoe’s pulse should have beeped periodically. The girl was on her feet, no cardiac arrest - obviously.

Tomoe rolled her head back gently to ease the tension of her neck. The superficial cut burned, a thin strand of blood ran from it and stained the collar of her tunic. She lifted her hands a little in excuse. “Sorry I made a mess again.”

“Could you save my nerves and use your comlink instead of that anklet next time, please?” the older woman reprimanded Tomoe then sighed at Kal who limped around the corner with some delay. Her old friend’s dose of painkiller for the day was wearing off for sure and his fractured ankle was acting up again... He really didn’t deserve to be chased around like that.

“When I called you, Kal, I didn’t expect Llats to become over-interested in Mereel’s treatment the next instant... or rather obedience. I certainly would have asked for your support,” She took a deep breath “...but I could not imagine that Ward’s ideals and mine would clash that badly.”

“Like what?”

“Ward thought I had to treat Mereel even against his will. I don’t think so. He tried to enforce his opinion on me physically. I threatened to jump ship if he did. Vau broke up negotiations,” Tomoe closed.

Skirata grumbled, and then directed his rage on the black sentry towering over Tomoe. “Since when do you know where to put your muscle, you big bald Wookie?! What’s your problem with the word ‘exercise’ anyway?! Where did Delta get the idea they could use their knives freely during non-live-round practice?”

“You transport platoon saw no reason to surrender at point blank and that EMP was damn real as well. My penetrating-radar is still fried.”

“Arca won. Throwing my boy around after we called endex won’t change a thing.”

Tomoe’s gaze bounced from one man to the other. The unequal characters had their own dirty laundry to wash, obviously. Rav rolled her eyes. This was getting old.

“Winning is winning and get-away is get-away. N-7 has to learn to avoid being caught in the act.” Vau patted Mird’s head absently.

The only missing step to a hell’s discussion was Fett rounding the corner... and there devil impersonated was, taking a more distinguished pace than Rav. Of course, his radar wasn’t fried like Vau’s. Tomoe faced his scrutiny briefly before he turned his attention to the three Cuy’val Dar.

Me'vaar ti gar?” Jango asked for sitrep.

“We have a disagreement about what’s best practice in training and how to handle... accidents.” Rav explained in general terms and in Basic to include Tomoe.

“What’s she doing here then?” Fett pointed his chin briefly.

“Tom’ika agreed to assist me a little.”

‘Did you?’ he thought and regarded Tomoe in the 360°-display without turning his head. Rav seemed to have made remarkable progress on integrating the stubborn young woman into their community. “Assist on what exactly?”

“Training. Physiotherapy. Useful things like that.”

“Where does that cut come from?” his hand shot forwards with lightning speed, catching her chin between his gloved fingers and turning it from side to side to look at her throat. He had also noticed that her cherished knife was missing.

Tomoe frowned at his manhandling of her. The air was out of her act anyway, so she wiped it off the plate with a quick excuse “I cut myself while shaving.”

“What?” Jango was as startled as annoyed. This had to be the poorest excuse of the year.

“The hairs on my teeth.” She opened her lips into a toothy grin. “You must have noticed.” If he was behaving disrespectful, she wasn’t going to miss a beat.

Kal bit back a laugh and decided to pack it in. He needed to look after Mereel. The boy would not pop up while he was tongue-lashing Old Psycho. Rav piped in “Hurry for dinner or mess room’s closed and we all go hungry tonight. I’ve got a couple of points to rise as well.” She snatched Jango by the elbow.

“I’ll dress that cut in the med-bay and follow you in a moment. Thanks again.” Her politeness was lost to three armored backs; one red, one silver and one sand-gold. Vau had managed to slip everybody’s conscience like a shadow. Not an easy feat for such a tall guy one should think.

“Come,” Vau now sought her company and walked Tomoe over to a cubicle with dressing material. “Please sit.” He removed his helmet with measured movements and placed it on a nearby pallet reverently, then opened up a disinfectant wipe to swipe the blood away that had run down her neck and gathered on the collarbone before soaking her fatigues.

Vau’s gaunt face held a look of concern at the depth of the cut. As he had expected, her threat had not been empty. His hand tangled in her dark tresses as he steadied her head. The tall man perched on the edge of the pallet beside Tomoe. Her warm female scent was intoxicating, mixed with the metallic aroma of fresh blood. He lowered his lips to the base of her neck tentatively. She was pliant like warm wax in his hands and he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.

He kissed his way up her collarbone and throat lightly, tasting her skin and blood as his tongue ran over the burning cut sensuously. A small moan reverberated deep in her throat. He licked her clean with wide strokes like a cub. Tomoe shivered with pleasure when he kissed her fully on the lips, tasting her own blood on his tongue as he invited her to taste him. Walon pulled back slightly to look at her, breathing hard at her response as he drank in her soft flushed impression.

Then her eyes went wide and unfocused as the moment passed, her palm came up to rest on his steely biceps, but it was neither grip nor push “Sorry... I’m not ready for this.” - “I know.” His hands continued on their own, all gentle profession when he skillfully applied bacta, taped the edges of the cut closed and slipped the wipe into a belt pouch unnoticed.

For once, Tomoe did not mind the smell of the green liquid. She sat frozen, her mind racing ‘It was him who threw Mereel in that wall... so did you... I can’t... but... I’m going to fix it.’ He released her and turned to leave, looking for Mird. She slid off the pallet to her feet. “Where are you going?” came out as a mere peep.

“Skirata likes to take it out on Mird and he’s a bit frustrated tonight.” He replaced his helmet, returned her darts and watched her rearrange her hair. “Have a nice dinner.”

Tomoe bowed “Thank you.”

Walon wandered home, still savoring her taste on his tongue. He had taken a small risk and had been rewarded two folded. Doing recce had rarely been as pleasant. Even the treat of a bantha steak he shared with Mird paled in comparison.

Tomoe placed her dinner tray on the table and slipped into the vacant seat beside Rav silently, not trusting her own voice yet. Kal limped by on the way into the med-station to check upon his boys. Concern deepened the etches that split his old face.

Isabet finished slowly the bland mixture they called dessert. “I thought the Llats and you would click together well, since you are both storytellers.”

Tomoe answered between two bites “Maybe it was a bad moment... or we just like different stories... or it is deliberate disrespect of my heritage.”

Isabet shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t understand how can you get along with Old Psycho but jump out of your skin at our historian?”

“Vau’s a polite man and he respects my right of choice. Ward’s respect is proportional to the amount of sheet-metal on a person and his obsession with the sigil Fett etched into my skin on a slaver’s block marking me as his property is all too obvious.”

“Oh... I didn’t know.” Isabet excused herself. Rav nodded silently. She should have known.

“I don’t take it well to be mistaken for property. I don’t accept any other bonds but my own word of loyalty to your Mandalore – as in top-hierarchy here, not to Fett personally nor to his historian - and command is limited by the same constitution that goes for you and any other Cuy’val dar. Loyalty does not come without honor and responsibility. I don’t obey Ward and I don’t obey dishonorable order in general.”

“Okay, okay...” Isabet cut her off. “I got it, no need to particularize. I’m sure Llats understands that as well. Let’s start looking for a solution instead of complicating the matter further.”

“I could try to explain my motives after he slept over his rude behavior, but not today. I need to prepare for another appointment. Did Mereel show up already? I feel better with my kit in place.”

“Not yet.” - “No... but I’ll fathom Llats’ point of view until then. We’ll smoothen that out, I promise.”

“Do that by all means.”

Rav shook her head. Tom’ika’s fuse with adults was a lot shorter than with the kids. She was so obviously different that it gave her the benefit of experiments without undermining her own authority. Yet the girl had by no means less pride than herself. ‘And she really needs a pair of boots.’ Rav thought as Tomoe stood and left without further comment.

“I think it’s time for a little collection...” Rav detailed to Isabet and stood to announce it with details “Who is willing to make charitable donations such as small-sized shoes, boots and clothing and maybe a blanket or two? I take everything from textiles to sheet metal.” She offered and scanned the hard faces around the room. But there was movement... once the usual doubts were dispelled...

“Fett’s going to provide that with the next supply shipment anyway.” – “That’s next month and we don’t know that for sure.”

“What’s in for me?” – “Tom’ika’s offered her help without posing that question, but there’s no prohibition on side-deals if you’ve got something special.”

“Have a good look around, ner Vod... you’ve got the will to contribute, but we don’t do ‘small’. We are big boys.” – “C’mon, Dred, big is beautiful. You’ve seen that she’s good in fitting stuff.”...

Jango had a quick dinner at home with Boba, and then had a look at the security protocol of that corridor before he had to attend the debriefing of today’s exercise. He replaced his helmet and went over the visual feed. There was no audio, but he had seen enough. “Shaving, my ass...” he would have a word with Llats right after the briefing.

As he passed through the medbay on the way to the meeting, he found out that the surveillance-data of the room had been corrupted and the med-droid was off-line and missing records as well. Jango sat through the gathering fully concentrated, his mere presence keeping Skirata and Vau from getting into it again. He modified the closing-line by a “Ward, with me.” His colleagues filed out, and Fett turned his attention on the data-feed of the holo-emitter. “You going to explain that?”

The picture of the aruetyc girl kneeling in front of him came up and Llat knew that ‘oops’ wouldn’t cut it with Fett. “My apologies. We had a minor disagreement that went out of hand.”

“Be specific.”

“She was stubbornly supporting N-5 and N-7’s insubordination.”

While Tomoe certainly was a stubborn one, insubordination wasn’t a ‘minor issue’ for an army. Even though obedience was no problem with clones in general, Fett guaranteed for military standards and for that he had to rely on competent instructors. “The Nulls are Skirata’s assignment. What exactly did you want from Harada?”

“I requested her to finish therapy on N-7. Of course I would have caught the evader for her.”

“Is she competent?”

“Naturally, the post-treatment scan of N-7 is still missing, but I can tell he was already fitter than before she laid her hands on him. I checked the records...” Ward slipped a data-chip around the diameter of the emitter in the table, “N-7’s diagnose was done most carefully and Ms. Harada successfully treated a displaced shoulder in the morning. Yes, she is good at it.”

“Skirata will deal with N-5 and -7. Request more subtle next time. I need her alive.”

“I’ll be.”

“Fine. I need your analyze, Ward.”

Out of a shaken blur, a different picture came up, a peaceful view at the back of a slender woman that perched on the side of a kid’s bed and had just started telling a story. The record wasn’t very high quality, but unshaken and Llats recognized Fett’s son, Boba. Never taking his eyes of the emitter, his brows shot up in surprise that Fett would share such a private scene with him.

Jango watched Llats’ mesmerized expression with a slight smirk. Two choice-methods to stop their tough historian... a plasma cannon round on his chest-plate or a sentence beginning with ‘once upon a time...’

The record froze up at the woman standing to her feet and Llats reached over for the holo-emitter’s controls for a narrated re-play.

“Plains of existence and natural places mix, time is of no importance... all of that is typical for terra-forming legends. Natural phenomenons are impersonated by gods and monsters. Serpents as in meandering rivers and floods, or earth slides that destroy land, earth that breaths fire: volcanic activity. The presented problem is approached with human wit. Hair often stands for power, vitality, sexual prowess... hair and comb... quite a picture.” Llats smiled to himself...

“The number eight is repeated, but I’d need more local background to tell what it stands for. The battlefield is reinforced as precaution... Fences - or floodgates are built...” He laughed at the woman discussing tactics imitating two deep voices “I think now she’s improvising a little for the sake of action. She’s really good at it...”

Llats realized that he was probably enjoying himself too much and returned to narration of the subtext immediately. No need to anger his leader further.

“The superior strength of the opponent isn’t blocked unyielding but redirected by an alternative offer and successively diminished. Patience is rewarded and accompanies the violence that leads to victory... Another serpent-river analogy... Iron from river sands maybe? Weapon technology transfer? Swords stand for the killing of men, for judgment as in justice as well as personal decision... and it is a phallic symbol.” He cleared his throat. “Ah, it’s a sequel obviously... a peace-treaty with an equal or superior adversary is made and enables nation-building on the tamed land.”

“And - what does it mean?” Fett cut short as the record ended again

“Well, lots of strings attached: terra-forming, tactical advice, ancestry... all presented in a handy, personalized action-romance-plot for easier remembrance and re-telling. It is a way of everlasting enshrinement without memorial-building - very Mandalorian in a way ...and it is instructive. Nothing makes information stick like a good story to remember. A creative, imaginative mind can draw fluently upon the embedded treasures and transfer them into any situation.”

“She is instructing Boba?” Fett huffed. He would prefer to know in detail what she slipped his son by the way of entertainment.

The historian laughed “...and you... and even me. Can I keep a copy?”

“No.” Jango snapped.

“Don’t worry; this isn’t far off the track. I don’t see any danger for Boba listening to it. This Storm God for example: he is as much of a warrior as a leader and a farmer... he would have made an excellent Mandalore,” Llats proposed.

Jango harrumphed, lots of things swirling through his mind. He couldn’t tell everything... could he? He felt a firm pat on his shoulder plate as Llats left him to his thoughts. Was there a way to make peace? She had been hesitant to tell the story... but Boba had requested it, subtly providing him with options. He wasn’t a good father, imposing their fight on his son. On the other hand, Tomoe had yielded to the boy’s request and lost herself in the story for a long moment.

His son had something he was missing.

Chapter 5.3 – Tales

At 2030, Fett allowed Tomoe in with a stone-cold expression, still wearing full armor minus helmet. No better hiding place for his body’s reaction than a proper shell of bes’kar. Kal had foretold he would be sleeping in his armor. One more step and the old gdan would be right. But he wouldn’t let it come to that.

Tomoe perched on Boba’s bedside and unfolded a fan. In her hands, the crescent shape could become everything while she continued the tale of the youngest prince’s adventures...

After the council of heavenly gods brought him back to live, Prince Plenty was sent down from heaven to find his way to the land between the roots of all living and be trained by the mighty warrior ruling it. Walking down a deep valley, he arrived at the gates of the underworld where he was greeted by the youngest princess of the Shadow-Realm on the outlook into the bright land beyond the gate. The Princess was eager to hear more from the curious bright county that she could see but never wander.

He instantly fell in love with her forward style but excused himself dutifully after their encounter to complete his journey to her home, where he met her father, the Storm God, the slayer of the eight-headed serpent...

Boba grinned knowingly. “Any nine-headed serpents to slay on the way?” he proposed.

“ If there were, the event wasn’t handed down in history... maybe because all the mighty nine-headed snakes suffered from hare-phobia and slithered away just in time?”

Boba giggled “Looks like our looser goes in without striking arguments then.”

“But he proved outstanding taste picking his adversary.” Tomoe quirked a brow and smirked.

“As you supposed, their union didn’t sit too well with the mighty and swift Storm God. His mother had left him before his birth, his father and sister had kicked him out from heaven and all his beautiful daughters had left him – safe Forward Princes. His selfish and ruthless side could not see that this weakling was his lovely daughter’s first choice and, like the Prince’s eighty brothers before, the Storm God decided to kill the unworthy suitor.

In the first night, the Storm God offered the prince to sleep in a room full of venomous snakes, but he was protected by a magical scarf Forward-Princess had provided for him. Once could be luck, so the Storm God put the prince in another room, this time full of bees and centipedes, but as before, the scarf protected him from harm.

The next morning, the young Prince found the Storm God standing on the wall of the castle, overlooking the open fields as he tried to centre himself. He held a tall bow in his left and his storm-cloud-grey hair was tied back with a leather headband. Undisturbed by his guest, the Storm God put an arrow on the string, raised the bow and pulled it down into full draw with his divine strength. When the string released with a deep hum, the arrow raced over the countryside and finally fell into a vast field. Once he came back from his state of concentration, the Storm God told the suitor “Get lost and don’t return without the arrow.”

While Prince Plenty searched for the arrow, the Storm God set the field ablaze....

“Now that’s foul play!” Boba protested soundly.

“I’m sure the Storm God would have agreed ... had he been on the prince’s side. Otherwise he wasn’t picky in his methods.”

“Surrounded by a wall of fire the boy was trapped and could find no way to escape. It was then that a mouse told young prince to stamp a hole into the hollow ground. He did so, and hid beneath the ground as the fire swept overhead. The mice-people searched everywhere, turned every straw to help and recover the arrow, which the prince then returned to the Storm God.

Prince Plenty’s repeated success helped the father to feel more at ease with him, so he had the young prince cleanse his long storm-cloud-grey hair from the centipedes that he caught while preparing the guestrooms. When the time-consuming process lulled the Storm God to sleep, our small hero saw his chance to escape the Shadow-Realm, along with his beautiful bride. He tied the Storm Gods hair to the rafters of his palace, and taking the god’s powerful bow, sword and enchanted harp, he set off with Forward-Princess upon his back.

Their get-away went unnoticed until the burdened-down Prince brushed past the roots of a bush. The harp made a sound which woke the Storm God, who jumped up, destroying his castle that came down on him when he knocked over the wood work as he tried to run after them.

“Ouch!” Boba snickered

“By the time the Storm God had managed to untangle his hair from the rafters and reach the border of the Shadow-Realm, the couple was already in the Land of the Living. But instead of being angry, he was impressed by the resilience and bravery his daughter’s small suitor had finally turned out. The Storm God shouted to Prince Plenty that if he was ever to defeat his mean eighty brothers he must use the weapons he had taken... and that was what the young prince eventually did, becoming the Great Landlord God.

Finally, when the Sun Goddess’ grandson took over to rule the land of the living, he was made ruler of the unseen world of spirits and magic in compensation. He is believed to be a god of nation-building, farming, business and medicine.”

Tomoe closed her story, tucked the blanket around Boba and kissed his forehead “Sleep well.” – “You too...” She pushed the folding fan under her belt, filling the space where her knife had been and left with all the fluid, rapid grace she called her own. Jango’s good-night kiss was more sloppy, but he barely managed to call “Please stay with me,” after her as he reached the door frame.

She stopped in her tracks. Master Fett had recovered another lost word from civilized vocabulary and incorporated it the first time in a way that didn’t sound like a mockery but more like hidden misery. Not an undeserved one though. “For what?” she called back and reached into her pocket for the comlink. Even without the helmet, it was too hard to fight a guy in Mandalorian armor with bare hands to take any chances. It was suspicious enough that Fett was still wearing his gear.

“We need to talk... would you come back in, please? I need to tell you something...”

She turned around “I will listen,” she agreed. One couldn’t teach an old Hi-Inu new tricks without a little reward once he did the right thing for a change. Once he had learned his lesson, everybody would feel better and life would be easier.

Jango invited her to sit in the easy chair while he made them shig. Barely nipping on his cup he sat it aside and clasped his gloved fists on the table, probably to keep them from fidgeting when he started a tale of his own.

"I remember you asked why I didn’t find me a mate. I think it’s time I tell you something about myself.

I am the leader of a mercenary band and that is all I have ever wanted to be. What I was raised to be. What I was born to be. When I was younger I was too busy learning my trade to get involved with women. Being a merc I realized one thing: that it is easy to die.

When I was nine years old, both my parents and my older sister were murdered in civil war. I was adopted the same day, but by the time I was fourteen my mentor was killed by betrayal as well. I was chosen Manda’lor, and it took up most of my time...

With twenty-five I began a relationship with a woman. It lasted a year. Then our ship was attacked by pirates, we entered separate escape pods and never saw each other again.

With thirty-two the True Mandalorians under my lead were wiped out in another set-up and I was sold into slavery myself. I eventually escaped and avenged my mentor’s death then became a bounty hunter.

I put my life on the line every time I take a job, there is no guarantee that I will live. What kind of life is that for a woman - never knowing if I will come back home alive? Never knowing what I am doing when I am out on a campaign, there is no way I could have faith in a woman."

He ended and Tomoe took a deep breath. She could have sworn there was an expectant blink in his dark eyes but he had to know she came from a long line of warriors herself? That such behavior was unheard of with them? But at least he had started reflecting his own deeds. “You had a hard childhood and rose to leadership too early, therefore you had faith in enslavement to appease your baser human instincts? ...You think that explains it to me?” Creation’s sake, he was so clumsy!

“I’m not proud of anything I have done,” Fett said, no hint of emotion in his voice. “But I’m not ashamed of anything, either. I just do what I have to do.”

Her hopes in his progress crumbled. He still missed some of the most essential civilized words. ‘Sorry’ for example. Which brought them back to the ground line of morals: tit for tat. “You kill for a living. Tell me, what did you do to the slavers?”

“I killed them,” ...and he certainly wasn’t ashamed of that.

“Then what do you expect me to do to get even?”

“It wasn’t me who enslaved you, remember?”

Tomoe shook from the anger boiling deep within her “Hypocrite.”

Jango watched her stand abruptly with a hard stare then leave. He made no move to hold her back. He had enough to think about. There would be another day. He got to his tired feet slowly and turned in for the night, just to find that she had robbed him of his sleep again.

Sleep he badly needed.

Tomoe had just managed to wash the blood from her tunic and pulled the blanket around her as the door buzzer went “What is it now?” she grumbled and wrapped the sheet around her chest to check the monitor embedded in the doorframe. A young clone soldier in blue fatigues stood in front of her door, his arms loaded with a large package, her knife and blaster on top of the pile. There was a folded towel wrapped tightly around his neck.

“Good evening, Mereel... please put that package down for a moment. I’ve to get decent.” she rushed into the fresher and forced her arms and legs into her one set of wet clothing that clung to her body uncomfortably. At least the special fibers kept it from dripping once she had wrung the water out forcefully. It was still better than to parade public corridors wrapped in a towel or use companies’ rooms of clones who likely inherited Fett’s proclivity for gate-crashing... calling it rapid-entry-by-textbook or so.

Outside, Mereel stepped from one foot on the other. Being caught in a corridor after lights-out by an instructor could have severe consequences. Thankfully, Ms. Harada returned quickly and invited him inside without further hesitation. “Prudii...” - “Shhh... you need to take care of yourself...” Instead of reaching for her weapons, she extended her arms alongside his and took the weight from his sore back. “Heavy,” she noted.

He sighed under his breath and tried again. “Sergeant Bralor and the other Cuy’val Dar gathered some clothing and things you might find useful... Prudii says he’s sorry. He found you a pair of boots that we hope will fit. I cleaned them most carefully.”

Mereel decided not to mention that Prudii had rappelled down into a garbage compactor that smelled far worse than Sergeant Kal’s exercising nerf-innards. Before he had pulled the semiconscious back up with Ordo’s help, his brother had teetered around down there for a while to reunite an undamaged pair from the remains of one or more RCs who had been less than successful with live ordnance in their first HUD-exercise. While the RCs would not miss those boots wherever they had gone, Prudii was still green in the face when he left their quarter. No, he would spare Ms. Harada from that experience tactfully.

“Thank you, Mereel... I’ll express my gratitude to Sergeant Bralor and Sergeant Skirata first thing in the morning.” She rested the pile on the small table.

“I am sorry for causing you trouble... I’m ready to complete the therapy now, ma’am. Please put my neck right.” It wasn’t just Skirata’s order that drove him back, but the pain as well. And the interesting scene Ordo had described after monitoring the med-bay for them once they banged out. Creatively acquired information made most of the difference between the ordinary ARC and the Nulls. He looked around the small room for a stool, spotting a blanket on the floor, half hidden by the table. She had been sleeping already... but not in the bed? He wondered, but didn’t dare to invade her privacy further, let alone anger her. His life would rest in her hands in a moment. He was afraid, but he was in pain as well and he certainly wouldn’t chicken out twice.

“Thank you for your trust Mereel... and it wasn’t you causing me trouble.” Preparing her next move, Tomoe looked around as well and passed the chair. The back-rest would just get in the way and she wasn’t used much in the way of furniture anyway. “Please take off your boots,” she advised. Mereel blushed and scrambled backwards to leave his probably dirty boots at the door. “It’s okay, I just want you to sit on your heels more comfortable,” she sat on her heels gracefully. “Like this.”

Mereel followed her example and watched her slide around him on a knee wearily. He had never seen somebody move as fluently on the ground. He suddenly felt as clumsy as if his arms and legs had suddenly grown to twice their length while she helped him to unwrap the towel.

“Good idea to take weight off your neck.” Tomoe commended him and did her diagnose again. She was aware of her difficulties to tell the clones apart and wouldn’t be duped. But it was Mereel’s problem alright, the steel-tightness of the muscles adding to what she had felt earlier that evening. Wearing helmet, additional stress and the deferment had not made her job any easier.

“You have already seen what I am going to do.” She rested her palms on his shoulders, massaging lightly while she spoke. The area she had worked on before dinner was less tense. “I assure you that there is no danger to snap your neck. My grip may be tight, but I hold you in a way that restricts the angle of the movement and keeps you safe. The manipulation is short and quick and needs far less power than it would take to damage the bone. All we want is the return to normal agility. And of course I don’t use any more power than I can control... all I need is you to relax.”

“I’m ready.” Mereel announced, staring at the wall in full concentration.

“Here we go for C-5 right. Both hands over to your left.” She rose on one knee for leverage and aligned her body with his left side, his shoulder resting in her solar plexus. She took his head in her hands gently “Don’t forget to breath. In... out... easy... (she had a hard time not to stiffen herself)... in... out... let your head sink into my arm... in... out...” she administered a short pull and the audible pop cracked through Mereel’s bones. She let go immediately, slid behind him and supported his head with her fingertips on the base of his skull, shaking lightly. “How does it feel?”

“Whoa, that’s a lot better.”

Tomoe grinned and bend over to tell him “thought so,” she slid back. “Now to the highest two buggers on the left. Your muscles are very tense, so I have to prepare the manipulation with pressure points. It will hurt a little, but there’s a good chance we can avoid a detour to the med-bay... I’ve already learned how much you boys enjoy sharps...”

“Okay. I want you extend your arm, shoulder-high... and try hold it up against my hand pressing it down. Give me your best... try again.” She had her fingertips on Mereel’s neck who was surprised with what ease his best was flattened by the thin aruetyc woman. Her hand was small and her touch gentle, but he would have sworn she pressed more of a punch than Old Psycho! He probably wasn’t as fit to fight anymore as he had assumed earlier.

“Well done. Let’s try again. Hands over to your right.” She took him into that nasty hold again, he breathed and willed his mind to go elsewhere while she repeated the manipulation on the other side. His neck cracked, calling him back and then the largest part of his pain was gone.

“Move a little, loosen up... Check for any other places that feel funny...”

Mereel rolled his shoulders, then his neck and tilted his head from side to side, checking his spine. “No, ma’am. I’m alright.” ...he wasn’t too anxious to tell what else felt funny.

She moved in front of him and winked “Want to try that arm-pressing-game again?” – “Ma’am?” – “C’mon, boy, extend your arm.” This time it took both her hands and half her weight to press it down. “Such a little detail, but it makes all the difference. Do your gym, try to avoid sitting around and don’t hesitate to come back if you experience further problems.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Please call me Tomoe. I’m not an officer. And if Sergeant Skirata agrees to me training you - then it is sensei.” She slid her fingertips over the ground to form a V in front of her and bowed gracefully to touch her hands with her forehead.

“I’d like that, Tomoe.” N-7 tried to mirror her movement. He felt clumsy again as he stood and retrieved his boots. Nobody had ever tried to help him into his boots, but this woman did before saying good night. Everything about her was curious indeed. Not unfriendly... but... strange... maybe Kal had been right to warn them...

Mereel returned to the Nulls’ waiting in their quarter as the hero of the day, having won the game, overcome Old Psycho as well as a Bone Cruncher - a female one on top of that - and lived to tell the tale...


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