(Took a while to get this one where I wanted it, and it could still use some work, but I think it's time to turn it loose into the wild.)
Record 003: Nar Shaddaa
As Kjara and Mako stepped out from the Star Cluster Casino's grand foyer, the Chiss hunter heaved a quiet sigh of relief. All the place was to her anymore was a haven of bad memories — or, more precisely, memories that had been tarnished by later events. She didn't need to be reminded of her own foolishness; she already harangued herself for it constantly.
"What's wrong?" Mako asked curiously, turning to look at her.
“Nothing, I just...” Kjara trailed off as she considered a handful of weak evasions. She generally wasn’t one for secrets, but she would have been perfectly happy to keep this unfortunate little bit of history to herself. The problem was, the secret wasn’t hers alone, and she couldn’t ignore the possibility of Tarro Blood letting certain facts drop just to be hurtful. He might not know just how much Mako hated him, or how poorly she might take this particular information, but he could guess that it would be, at the least, highly embarrassing for Kjara.
Of course, she could rob him of that opportunity by telling Mako about it herself... But confessing was still thin ice, in the hunter’s mind. For one thing, it had been months since that night, and since Braden and Jory’s deaths soon after. Would the slicer hold it against her that she’d waited so long to mention it? Beyond that, would Kjara’s “crime” of fraternizing with the enemy be grave enough in Mako’s eyes to create a rift between the two of them, even if she came clean now?
After the murder of the other half of their team, the two women had drawn close together, like two people with a single handlight walking through a dark, dangerous cave. They were on their own in a galaxy that had suddenly shown not just its teeth, but its poison stinger, too. And on top of that, Mako had just lost someone who was like a father to her. Kjara’s objective, analytical side (or the properly Chiss part of her brain, as she thought of it) wasn’t entirely surprised when the slicer began to make overtures of friendship, going beyond the simple camaraderie of fellow bounty hunters working a job together. On a more personal level, the hunter had been... well, grateful. Mako quickly came to fill a gap in Kjara’s life that she had never really acknowledged.
As a child, the hunter had had a hard time making friends; the humans of Dromund Kaas were wary of their blue-skinned allies, and parents’ attitudes filtered down to their children. Other young Chiss, on the other hand, found Kjara’s forward, rambunctious nature strange. And once she started hunting, well... It was hard to keep close friends in this line of work. Colleagues that you had a bit of mutual respect and trust for, sure. Familiar faces you were glad to see when you pulled into port, definitely. Lovers, certainly — although Kjara felt like she’d be avoiding that particular indulgence for a while. But a friend who was by your side every day, who you could trust in a firefight and then laugh and relax with afterwards... That was something she’d never really had before, and even after such a short time together, it was hard to imagine chasing down a target or clearing a room full of guards without Mako backing her up, or shambling back to base — dirty, disheveled, and victorious — without the other woman alongside, the two of them griping and grumbling together in a sort of affirmation of survival.
Now that Kjara had that, she didn’t want to give it up, and the idea that Mako might hate her for something she hadn’t done — revealing her past involvement with Blood — hurt just as much as the thought of losing her because of what she had done. But she couldn’t count on this staying under wraps forever, and given the choice of telling Mako herself or risking her finding out some other way...
Well... when in doubt, go for the straight truth. The hunter preferred honesty and straightforwardness in almost everything; it was time for her to stick to those principles, and this was as good an opening as she’d ever get for something so difficult to bring up. Taking a deep breath, she met Mako’s eyes, and her expression must have been bleak, because the other woman’s questioning look became one of concern. “Kjara? What’s the matter?”
“I...” The hunter glanced back over her shoulder at the casino’s entryway, then shook her head. “There’s something I need to tell you. Let’s go get a drink on the Promenade or something — somewhere other than here.”
“Um... okay...” Mako sounded puzzled and more than a little worried.
“It’s not... It’s not really urgent or anything,” Kjara tried to reassure her as they walked to the taxi stand, “it’s just... I guess it’s kind of important. Maybe.” In the grand scheme of things, a one-night stand, on Nar Shaddaa of all places, should never have been important, but...
Mako had said, when they first arrived on the Smuggler’s Moon, that people came here to lose something. Kjara had lost something here that she’d never intended to, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever get it back.
One brief taxi ride and a short walk later, the two women had found themselves a table in a busy cantina known for its variety of appetizers and finger-foods. Business in the Corellian Run was seldom slow, even in the daylight hours, and the chatter of the other patrons around them gave Kjara a secure feeling of anonymity. Not that anyone else was likely to care about their topic of conversation, but she didn’t exactly want her indiscretions echoing in an empty room.
After their plates arrived — some sort of flat, flaky pastry with a savory filling, and fried dosha-shrimp served with a spicy sauce — the bounty hunter finally cleared her throat self-consciously, instantly drawing Mako’s attention.
She’s dying of curiosity, Kjara realized, feeling guilty for keeping the slicer in suspense. I wish I had a better payoff for her patience. “You remember that Braden recruited me here on Nar Shaddaa, right?”
“Yeah, of course. He did a lot of work here himself, and he heard about you through some of his contacts.” The girl picked up a wedge of the pastry and nibbled on it tentatively, her eyes still on Kjara.
“Right.” The Chiss hunter was too nervous to eat anything at the moment; she fiddled with the stir-stick from her drink instead. “Well, the day before I was supposed to meet with him, I cashed in a bounty, got a nice little pile of credits. Between that and knowing I was gonna be talking with Braden the next day, I was in a pretty good mood, so I came down here to have some drinks and chill out, you know?”
“Sure. Braden and Jory always said...” Mako trailed off for a moment, then smiled wistfully. “They said we should enjoy our credits when we had ‘em, because who knew if we’d get another chance?”
Ah, flames. Kjara hadn’t meant to remind the slicer of their former crewmates. Would her anger at their murder be fresh in her mind now? Regardless, she had to finish the story now that she’d started it. “Exactly. So... I was over at the Boracyk—” the cantina was a well-known hangout for hunters and mercs — “just having a good time, and someone buys me a drink. You know, not openly, but that whole ‘send it through the bartender’ thing. I look over, and it’s some fella, a Mando by the look of him.”
Mako grinned slightly at this revelation. She knew by now that the hunter had a certain weakness for Mandalorians. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah.” The Chiss couldn’t quite summon up a smile in reply, and the ice in her glass rattled as she fidgeted with the stir-stick. “We got to talking, and one thing led to another, and we went back to the Star Cluster, since he was staying there, and, well, you know.”
With the important part of the story still missing, it was apparent that Mako didn’t quite know what to make of this information. Kjara could see it on her face: I thought she liked Mandos — what’s the problem? “Did... something happen?” By her tone, she clearly meant “something bad”.
“No, not at all,” the hunter replied, shaking her head. “It was fine.” Better than fine, damn it all. “It’s just that...” She put her hands flat down on the table to keep from accidentally knocking her drink over. “He gave me a false name, or at least, not the name he usually goes by these days.”
“A false name? Why—?” The other woman met Kjara’s eyes and read the answer there. “No.” She’d managed to piece together what the hunter couldn’t bring herself to say, and now seemed on the verge of jumping out of her seat. “You can’t be serious, Kjara, how could you—”
“I didn’t know!” the Chiss said emphatically. “And even if I did, it wouldn’t have mattered — knowing who he was wouldn’t have meant anything to me then.” She looked at her friend pleadingly. “I was just having fun for a night.”
Mako stared at her, and the distance between them seemed to widen somehow. Kjara could only imagine what was going through her head. Does she think I’m actually working with him? That I care for him? That I won’t take him down when we finally catch up with him, and the rules allow it?
“Why are you telling me this now?” the slicer finally asked, her expression unreadable.
It wasn’t quite the question Kjara expected, but it was one she could answer. “Because... being at the casino again reminded me of it all, and because... I wanted you to hear it from me,” she said quietly, looking down at her hands. When the other woman didn’t reply immediately, she stumbled on, “I’ve been afraid that he might say something about it, and you’d think I was hiding it from you the whole time...”
“You have been,” Mako pointed out quickly.
“I know!” The hunter raised her hands in surrender. “I just...” She sighed. “Would you have admitted something like that? That some random fella you got horizontal with turned out to be your nemesis a few days later?”
The slicer grimaced, and Kjara knew she’d scored a valid point. “But after Braden and Jory... after he tried to keep you out of the melee on Dromund Kaas, and tried to get that nasty little Rodian, and then those Corellians, to kill you... Didn’t you ever think you should have said something?” Now Mako sounded as much hurt as angry.
“I... Flames, seeing him there, on Dromund Kaas... You have no idea how afraid I was that he’d say something there, in front of the Huntmaster and everything,” Kjara said lowly. “After that, I... I’ve thought about it, a lot, but I just didn’t know how to tell you.” How would you ever bring that up in conversation?
Mako was silent for an uncomfortably long time; the Chiss worried that she was being judged, as if her partner was trying to decide if she was trustworthy anymore. Heh. Girl can verify anything on the HoloNet as legit or fake, but she can’t do that with people. Ordinarily, she’d feel insulted for being doubted when she’d told nothing but the truth, but there was more at stake than just facts, and she’d known that Mako’s hatred for Blood would come into play. She’d just hoped that the slicer’s liking for her would overcome it. Maybe we’re not as close as I thought, after all...
That sinking feeling, the knowledge that she’d disappointed someone, sat in the pit of her stomach like a stone. She’d felt the same thing from her parents when she’d declared her intention to become a bounty hunter, ignoring their advice that she join the CEDF, or at worst, one of the Empire’s branches of service. She’d forsaken the traditional Chiss path of enforcing order to take up a highly chaotic profession and lifestyle; not only did her parents not like it, they could hardly comprehend it.
There wasn’t a gap of understanding like that with Mako, at least, but that didn’t make the slicer’s reaction any less painful. She wouldn’t have had a problem with virtually any other male in the galaxy, but this particular one... Why did it have to be him? Kjara asked herself for the millionth time. Was it really a coincidence?
Not that that really mattered, right now; whether or not Blood had intentionally sought out the Chiss, she hadn’t refused, and he hadn’t forced himself on her. As much as she loathed him now, she’d never lie about that. Her incaution and lack of judgment were all her own, and now she had to accept the consequences, whatever those would be. If she lost Mako... well, she had no one but herself to blame. It wasn’t fair, but who ever said life was fair?
Finally, Mako met her eyes, and asked point-blank: “Do you have... feelings for him?” The idea was so distasteful that it seemed difficult for her to even say the words.
“No,” Kjara said firmly, wanting to make matters very clear. “Absolutely not. It was never gonna be anything more than a good time for a night, and now with everything that’s happened...” She shook her head. “I can forgive another hunter for a little scuffle on the job, but this underhanded sabotage crap... No. Never.”
The slicer nodded slowly, seeming to accept that answer. She still looked a little wary, though, and Kjara had to resign herself to the fact that the trust between the two of them would be strained for a while.
“I’m sorry, Mako,” the Chiss murmured, meaning it. “I just... didn’t know what to say.”
“It’s all right,” the other woman sighed, shrugging slightly. “I guess I don’t know what I’d do in that situation either,” she admitted, “but... if there’s anything else...”
Kjara shook her head emphatically. “Nothing else, I swear.” She tentatively tried out a little humor to break the tension. “Unless you want details, and then I’d have to charge good credits for that.”
The slicer shuddered in disgust. “Nooo, thank you.” She glanced up at Kjara, frowning. “I can’t even think of his stupid, smug face without my trigger finger itching. Do you...” She seemed unsure of how to word what she was getting at, but the hunter thought she got the gist of it.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I just want to shoot him and have done with it, but then, I’d like the chance to punch him square in the face, too.” The Chiss shook her head. “Maybe it’s nothing personal to him, but it sure as flames is to me.”
She hadn’t thought of it quite that way before, but it was entirely possible that Blood didn’t give a damn about their previous encounter; maybe he simply saw her as an opponent, albeit an annoyingly persistent one. He’d implied when he’d come to eliminate Braden and Jory that he’d rid himself of other potential competitors, but perhaps he’d just meant the easy ones. Maybe he was putting this much effort into foiling the others still in the running, and she and Mako simply knew nothing of it.
That didn’t make her any less eager break a few of his teeth, however.
Mako was watching her with an expression that was equal parts concern and consternation. To Kjara’s relief, however, she no longer looked suspicious. “We’ll get him,” she said determinedly. “Unless he gets knocked out of the Hunt early. Then we’ll just laugh at what a loser he was.”
“Cheers to that,” the hunter agreed, but privately, she didn’t find that scenario likely. Unless a group of competitors teamed up to put him down like last time, Blood seemed ready to take out his rivals through any means necessary — and she imagined he wouldn’t be caught out the same way he was ten years ago. He wanted the victory badly enough to forsake his honor; with plenty of resources and nothing holding him back, he’d be difficult to beat.
It would be up to her and Mako, then, to fight their way to the top. If, like the slicer suggested, the Alderaanian was eliminated in an early round and they never crossed paths, they still had to take the prize, for Braden’s sake and to prove that petty interference wouldn’t stop them. If they faced Blood along the way... well, they had to win, for the prestige, for Braden and Jory, and for their own pride.
Kjara wasn’t a Mandalorian to go looking for deadly fights just to test herself, but this one... she wanted, and she’d beat every rival and take down every target she had to in order to get there. That was really all there was to it.