If Nico doesn’t stop comming him, Jon is going to lose the whole comm unit down a lava tube.
He gives the quiet beeping of an incoming signal an unfriendly look, then pulls his sleeve down over it again, not willing to waste time soothing Nico's concerns when there's a Jedi in danger, and a padawan especially. Particularly when Nico himself agreed that extreme measures were necessary, given how the girl disappeared within the borders of the Mandalorian Empire.
Of course, Nico might, potentially, be comming Jon about what happened to the girl’s Master, but—Jon doesn’t want to answer questions about that, either. Pong Krell gave her up to appease his captors, sold the padawan he should have given his own life for to save his own skin, and fell to the Dark Side in his cowardice. Jon refuses to regret anything he did to Krell.
The beeping stops without restarting for a solid ten seconds, and Jon spares the breath for a sigh of relief, raising his head to peer down the curve of the road where it cuts through the steppe. The land here is pockmarked with lava tubes, sudden openings that are all but hidden in the tall golden grasses, and the road winds between them, sloping up towards the vast young mountains in the distance.
There are a handful of tubes with scaffolding around them, marked out, and Jon tracks the numbers of them as he passes, keeping his hood pulled low over his eyes. No one here is going to look closely at a lone bounty hunter, especially aboveground, where the predators keep most people away and only the most dangerous or most idiotic wander freely. Once he gets into the right tube, he’ll have to be a little more careful about his cover; a handful of the people he’s heard will be attending the auction are collectors, and buying up a real Jedi would be a dream for any of them.
The padawan won't tell anyone what she is. No real Jedi would. If Jon is extremely quick and extremely lucky, he might be able to sow doubt about Krell’s claim, might be able to shatter faith in his words even before he rescues the girl. All of his sources said that this event would be heavily attended, and Jon's cover as a bounty hunter is good enough to put some weight behind a few doubting whispers.
The beeping of his comm suddenly sounds again, a slightly different tone, and Jon sighs through his nose, tugging his sleeve up enough to check the code. At the sight of Knol's, he winces faintly, because she at least won't be nearly as restrained as Nico when they meet again. For a moment he debates answering it, but—
The tunnel he needs is right ahead, and Jon needs to move quickly.
The grass is twice Jon's height, swallows him completely when he turns off the road and pushes into it. There's no visible path through it, but Jon can feel the pull, the urgency guiding his feet, and he keeps moving, ignoring the rustle of something large passing close by. The animals here won't bother him, won't even see him, and he has more important things to focus on.
There’s a man slumped on the platform that covers the lava tube, blaster propped on his knees and eyes watchful. He scans Jon as he approaches, then deliberately sits up, and says, “Wrong path, friend.”
Jon snorts, flipping him a credit chip as he pushes past. “Just taking a look at what’s on offer,” he answers, and the watchman huffs, pocketing the chip and jerking his chin.
“Straight down four levels, and it’s the tunnel marked with red.”
Jon inclines his head, leaping up onto the platform. There's a ladder leading downwards, straight into the wide vent, and Jon only uses it for the first few meters before he simply grips the sides and drops, counting levels of branching flows before he hits the fourth and catches himself on the rungs, then leaps for the one marked with a smear of red paint. There's another guard waiting, a Falleen in heavy armor, and she eyes Jon but steps aside to let him pass.
“Antilles,” she says.
There's a vague trace of recognition, a flicker of suspicion that he’s seen her in the Bounty Hunter’s Guild before, so Jon nods politely, tugging his hood back slightly. “Not quite hunting bounties,” he says.
The Falleen pulls a face, leaning back against the wall of the cave. “Paying off a debt to the Hutts,” she says, displeased. “Lots of money quick is hard to turn down, even if it means working auctions.”
Jon pauses, considering. “Anything you need help with?” he asks quietly.
Her smile goes crooked. “Gardulla the Younger got my half-sister off Zeltros. Have to finish paying them off before I get her back.”
With a faint grimace, Jon glances down the tunnel, and a part of him wants to hand over the credits she needs, or bribe her for the sake of giving her the credits and earning himself a way out at the same time, but—this is a Jedi matter. There are few enough Jedi left, scattered and hidden as they are, and he can't trust anyone else with this.
The urge to help the Falleen is strong, but—there's a child in danger, and she was already betrayed by her Master. Jon won't let any more harm come to her.
“Hope you got paid ahead of time,” he says instead, a little dry. “If they have a bad night, they might stiff you.”
The woman scoffs. “Not my first job, Antilles. I get all my pay up front or I don’t take the job.”
Allowing himself a flicker of relief, Jon inclines his head to her, and says, “Good luck, then.”
“You too.” Her smile is vicious. “Plenty of big bounties in that room.”
“Payday,” Jon says blandly, and she laughs, waving him on. Jon goes, following the tunnel down a long, straight stretch and up a flight of stairs, past walls covered in natural crystals that glitter dully, and out into a wide room with low ceilings and too many people. The crowd is an unsettling mix of pirates and slavers and businessmen, and Jon keeps his head down as he slides around the edges. There's a section cordoned off, near where the biggest press of people are milling, and Jon looks across their heads as best he can, spots the edges of a shimmering barrier, and then turns. There's a jut of stone right up against the wall, like a stalagmite that’s had the point broken off, and he grabs it, pulls himself up and looks again.
Just as he does, the little Tholothian girl curled in the cell glances up, and their eyes meet across the crowd.
Jon's heart turns over in his chest, and he can't draw attention to himself, can't risk it yet, but he still raises his hands, folding them together and bowing over them just slightly. It’s enough; the girl’s eyes widen, and Jon can feel the surge of hope that streaks through her, the relief and joy and gratitude. Her expression is quickly controlled, though, and she ducks her head again, burying her face in her arms as her tendrils tremble faintly. To anyone else it would likely look like despair, but Jon closes his eyes against the fierce light of her hope and has to breathe carefully.
This is the life Krell traded for his own. This is the child he sold to save himself.
Jon should have killed him slowly.
Quickly, Jon scans the room, pinpointing lights, exits, the controls for the barrier. There's no way Jon can risk drawing his lightsaber, not here and now—Jedi are rumors, legends, and confirming those tales in view of this crowd will set every last one of them to hunt down what Jedi remain. The odds that they’d be able to find the scattered cells of Jedi still operating in the galaxy are slim, but—entirely too high to be reckless.
Sliding down from the stone, Jon lands, straightens. He keeps his head down, slipping back into the crowd, and it’s easy to note the people the Falleen woman meant, the big names with bigger bounties attached. Jon doesn’t have any sort of plan, because that’s not how Jedi work, but—taking one of them and grabbing the girl at the same time is a possibility. He could play it off as being hired by a rival, with the girl as a bonus.
It feels right, and Jon breathes out, touches the blaster at his hip. There's a vibrosword across his back, and he has a handful of thermal detonators, a flashbang. The lights are low enough to reach fairly easily, and he can't see too many species in the crowd who will be able to see in the complete darkness. He’ll shoot out the lights, then deactivate the barrier and grab the padawan, get her out and into the tunnels and then teleport them to the surface. If he lands them in the grass, he doesn’t have to worry about being seen, and his ship is in the port, barely a kilometer away downhill. They’ll be able to make it there.
Scanning vantage points, Jon pushes towards the front, where a familiar man is talking with an unimpressed Zygerrian woman who looks more like she’s about to sink her claws into Dryden Vos’s face than anything. Jon skirts them carefully, avoids a Dug carrying a platter of drinks, and then pauses. There's something he’s missing, and he can't tell what, but—
Through the press of bodies, the Tholothian girl catches his eye, then looks past him, towards the wall. Jon turns, searching for what she noticed, and goes still with an inward curse.
Mandalorians. There are Mandalorians here, a pair of them leaning up against the stone in full armor. They're watching the crowd, and Jon can't see any symbols on their armor, any affiliations that they’ve made clear, but if they're at an underground auction the odds are they're not following the Mand’alor’s orders. That means they're likely with the Death Watch, and the fact that they would be here, watching the auction of a girl who’s rumored to be a Jedi, isn't a good sign.
Still. Jon takes a breath, lets his alarm slide out into something more even, more manageable. He catches the padawan’s eye again, inclining his head in thanks, and she tips her chin in return, just enough for Jon to catch it. Jon steps back, tucking himself into the shadow of a cage holding an akk wolf, and sweeps another look over the crowd, trying to pinpoint a good target. Dryden Vos is a possibility, but he’s dangerous, good in a fight, and Jon doesn’t need to make his life more complicated. There's a Pyke standing nearby, in deep conversation with a Human man, and Jon considers both of them, then catches sight of blue skin and horns. Mas Amedda is right up next to the barrier, watching the padawan, and he looks bored, but he isn't moving.
Sold out his people, Jon thinks, and breathes through it. Sold them out and let Changria be taken over by the Mining Guild. Agen and T'ra managed to root them out, give the people a chance to fight back and throw the Guild off their world, but—that doesn’t change what Amedda did.
Well. At least Jon won't have to feel bad about this.
Taking another careful look around the room, Jon slides away from the akk wolf, passing another cage with a nexu curled up inside it. She tips her head, one of her sets of eyes blinking open, and Jon makes a soothing sound low in his throat, touching her mind. She’s hungry, and he considers the lock on her cage, how simple it would be to snap it, and files that away as another distraction. A good one, if he can let both her and the akk wolf out—
“Pretty, isn't it?” a low voice says, and Jon doesn’t flinch, doesn’t twitch even if the urge is there. He just turns his head, looking at the man standing right behind him, and the man smiles faintly. He’s big, broad and only a little shorter than Jon, with dark hair cut short and a short, neatly trimmed beard. Jon flicks a glance over him, but doesn’t recognize him, and—with a face like that, square-jawed and handsome, he thinks he would remember.
“Very,” Jon says steadily, and the man takes a step closer, right up next to Jon. He’s dressed in blue, simple clothes in comparison to everyone else here, and Jon can see at least one blaster beneath his coat. The man makes no threatening moves, though, just watches the nexu as she sits up as much as the cage will allow, and Jon catches the flicker of something close to regret in the man.
“Not quite the forest it’s meant for,” the stranger murmurs, and steps closer again—
With a snarl, the nexu slams herself against the bars, quills bristling, claws lashing. The man jerks back, and Jon steps into the space before she can draw attention to them, pressing his thoughts against hers. Images, concepts, not actual words, but—hunt, eat soon isn't something that needs much explanation. He reaches out, and she hisses but doesn’t lash at him with her claws, and Jon presses her paws away from the bars, back towards the door of the cage. She lets herself be moved, a low growl still rumbling in her throat but a willingness to wait rising.
“Easy,” Jon tells her, and she hisses, but when Jon presses a hand to the wide, flat wedge of her head, she butts at his palm, lets him rub the scent sacs on her cheeks, and sinks back down, tail-tips twitching.
There's a moment of silence, then a quiet snort. “A friend to animals?” the stranger asks, and Jon can feel the weight of the man’s attention on his back, like a hand.
“She’s just hungry,” Jon says, without looking away from the nexu as he scratches her chin. “And angry.”
“Understandably.” There's another pause, and then the man takes a careful step forward. One eye opening, the nexu growls, but she doesn’t move away from Jon's touch, and the man relaxes faintly. “Most people wouldn’t stick their hand into a cage with an angry nexu.”
Jon snorts quietly, pulling back, and the nexu makes a sad sound but doesn’t try to follow. “She knows I'm not the one who put her there,” he counters, and turns, facing the man squarely. He’s close, close enough to make Jon's skin itch, but there's nowhere to go except back up against the nexu’s cage.
And then, like he can see Jon's wariness, the man takes a deliberate step back, hooking his fingers into his belt. Nonthreatening, and deliberately so, Jon thinks, and—
That’s not what he would expect from someone here.
“This isn't the normal sort of place for a bounty hunter. You're looking for someone, I assume,” the man says, and his dark eyes are sharp.
Jon doesn’t freeze, doesn’t waver. “I'm on a job,” he says, and lets it stand as either denial or agreement, depending on what the man wants to hear.
The man makes a thoughtful sound, still watching. “And who hired you?”
There's no way of telling what this man will do if Jon refuses to answer. If he causes a scene, Jon will have to act immediately, go for the girl at once and hope for the best. “I don’t betray my employers,” Jon says, deliberate, and the man smiles, just a little.
“A bounty hunter with morals? That’s rare, these days.”
“Was there something you wanted?” Jon asks flatly, and the man snorts, the curve of his mouth going rueful.
“Your name?” he asks, and Jon frowns.
“Jon Antilles,” he says, and when the man starts to open his mouth, doubt on his face, Jon shakes his head. “It’s the one people know me by. In the Guild.”
The man inclines his head, accepting that, but doesn’t offer his own name. “Jon,” he echoes, and then meets Jon's eyes squarely. “A word of advice, from one mercenary to another. Finish your business and leave quickly. The people running this auction are part of Death Watch.”
Jon freezes, breath tangling in his lungs. His contacts missed that detail. But—if the Death Watch is involved in the actual running of this event, and given how they're currently within the boundaries of the Mandalorian Empire—
Jon's skin prickles, and the stranger smiles. “I like a man who’s good with animals,” he says. “Be careful.”
Turning, he vanishes back into the crowd, and Jon watches as he’s swallowed up by it, trying to remember how to breathe. If the Death Watch is here, and people know that, it means the True Mandalorians can't be far behind. They’ve been rooting the Death Watch and all its terrorist cells out of their empire without mercy, and Jon can't risk getting himself or the girl caught in something like that. It’s likely what the padawan was trying to warn him about, too.
With a muttered curse, Jon pushes past Dryden, ducks a man with a tray, and heads for the edge of the padawan’s cell, drawing his blaster. There's no time to spread rumors now; he’ll have to attempt that later, cast aspersions on Krell well after the event, and it’s messier, but still better than getting caught between the Haat Mando’ade and the Death Watch.
When he glances over, the girl is watching him, still curled up with her arms wrapped around her knees, but there's an alertness to her that says she’s ready to move as soon as Jon gives her an opening. He nods, and she tenses faintly, watching as he turns, clouds the thoughts of those next to him just enough that they won't pay attention to him and then levels his blaster at the ceiling.
The first shot hits with a spray of sparks, and the light goes out. Jon takes out the next two as the screams start, and then spins, twisting a hand beneath the cover of his cloak. He feels it when the locks on the nexu and akk wolf’s cages give, and he grabs for the nexu’s mind, shoves urgency at her, and in an instant she’s slamming her way out of the cage with a howl of glee, grabbing for the closest guest. The akk wolf is right behind her, snarling ferociously as it barrels into the throng, and Jon doesn’t wait to see what they do. Lunging, he draws his vibrosword, swings for Mas Amedda and deliberately misses, sheering through the control panel for the barrier. With a cry, Amedda recoils, but Jon grabs him by one horn, hauls him forward and slams him down into stone to knock him out, then sheaths his sword and reaches.
The padawan leaps for him, grabs his hand, and Jon hauls her up onto his back. She wraps her arms and legs around him, and Jon drives a hypo full of sedative into Amedda’s shoulder, hauls him up again, and drags him towards the narrow tunnel behind where the barrier was. There’s a man there, a guard, clearly taken by surprise, and Jon hits him full-on, knocks him into the wall and keeps moving, dragging Amedda with him.
“You came!” the girl cries in his ear, and her arms squeeze around his neck. “I thought—”
“Of course I did,” Jon says, grabbing her arm and squeezing in return. “This tunnel?”
“Leads to the holding pens,” the girl reports immediately. “Third opening, on the left. There are two more tunnels, but there's a flow leading back to the surface, too.”
“Good girl,” Jon says, and picks up his pace. The holding cells are obvious; there's another barrier set up, another akk wolf in a pen, and Jon breaks that lock as well, then deliberately drops Amedda as the akk wolf bursts through the door. It turns, distracted, and Jon leaves it, twisting to drop the padawan on her feet. She lands lightly, immediately latches onto his wrist and picks up a run, and Jon slides his hand down to lock around hers, shoulders through a door that feels right, and locks it behind them, destroying the panel with a blaster-bolt.
There's no time, but—
Turning, Jon crouches down, pulling his hood back. “Are you all right?” he asks the girl.
She nods, tightening her grip on his hand. “I was scared,” she admits. “But when I saw you, I wasn’t anymore.” Her smile is tentative, but bright all the same. “I'm Katooni.”
“Katooni,” Jon repeats, and offers her a smile in return. He knows he doesn’t have the most reassuring face, but—at least he’s not staring at her through a barrier and wondering how many credits she’s worth. “I'm Master Jon Antilles.”
Katooni swallows, then throws herself forward, wrapping her arms around him, and Jon hugs her back, letting out a heavy breath. She’s small, and she’s shaking, and his chest feels hollowed out and aching, but—there's joy there, too. He got her back before anything could happen. “You're safe now,” he promises quietly, and pulls back, brushing a hand over her tendrils. They're loose, even her headdress stripped from her, but—Krell is dead, and that leaves Jon as her Master. He can take her to Tholoth, get her another headdress if she wants it.
“I know,” Katooni says, muffled by his cloak. “I knew as soon as I saw you.”
Jon closes his eyes, then pulls her in and hugs her once more. “You’re brave,” he says simply, and feels her fingers curl in his cloak. “We need to leave. Can you run, or should I carry you?”
“I can run,” Katooni promises, and she takes Jon's hand again as he rises. “I didn’t tell them anything.”
“I know,” Jon says, brushing her tendrils again, and leads her down a corridor lit only by a single flickering light. “My ship is in the port. We just need to get there.”
“The flow up ahead is how they brought me in,” Katooni says, pointing towards another door. “I was paying attention so I could get out if I saw a chance.”
“Clever,” Jon praises, and she grins at him. He smiles back, throat tight, and—
He’s never had an apprentice, left Dark Woman and never planned to take one on, even if all Jedi should to keep their Order alive. But—Katooni needs someone, and Jon rescued her. He can't abandon her now. And…he doesn’t have to be like Dark Woman, if he’s her teacher. He can be like Fay instead.
“Just ahead,” Katooni urges, and she’s the first one to reach for the button beside the door, to trigger it. Jon glances behind them, hearing voices, and turns back, taking three long steps into the dark room—
A blaster barrel shoves into his chest, and a man’s voice says, low and dangerous, “Keep walking, chaavla. Let’s see what it gets you.”
Jon doesn’t even hesitate. He drops, pulling Katooni down with him, and hears her startled cry as a blaster fires over their heads. Lunging backwards, he tries to get them back out the door, but hands grab him, grab his hair, and the full weight of a body slams him into the floor, cracking his face against stone. Bright spots spin behind Jon's eyes, but he rolls, spits a mouthful of blood at the person holding him, feels metal against his hand and doesn’t hesitate. A touch of Force-assisted speed has him twisting, grabbing armor, and he flips over the Mandalorian’s back, hears her curse, and drives the butt of his blaster down. It resounds off her helmet with a clang, and she sweeps a foot out, tries to foul his feet. Jon leaps back, hears a thump, and ducks as Katooni shouts. He hits the Mandalorian holding her in the stomach, and she jerks out of his grip, kicks out at a knee, and the man goes down with a cry.
“Katooni, go!” he shouts, and she doesn’t hesitate, leaps past him towards the door—
The haft of a spear hits Jon in the side of the head, and he goes down, a cry wrenched from him. A blaster shoves up against his throat, clear warning, and Jon freezes. At the same moment, there's a snarl, a curse, and Katooni shrieks. A body hits the ground beside Jon, scrambles up, and a moment later a light flickers on.
A Mandalorian in green armor is staring down at Jon, blaster pistol flush against his skin, and a half-dozen others all have their weapons pointed. Katooni is in the grip of a woman in black and yellow armor, and there's another man in blue just staggering upright with a sound of pain.
“You all right, Myles?” the woman asks, her voice full of amusement even as she locks her arm beneath Katooni's chin. “I think she dented your codpiece.”
The man in blue mutters something uncomplimentary in Mando’a, and the woman snorts. She tips her head, then asks, “Jango?”
“Hang onto them,” the man holding Jon tells her. “Jaster should be almost done.”
“And still no Vizsla,” the woman says, displeased. With a sound of grim agreement, Jango crouches down, using the barrel of his blaster to tip Jon's head up so he can meet his eyes.
“You even twitch in a way I don’t like and I kill you,” he warns, then grabs Jon by the neck of his cloak and hauls him up, shoving him down onto his knees and taking his blaster. Katooni makes a noise of protest, but she doesn’t struggle, just looks at Jon with wide, worried eyes, and Jon holds her gaze, tries to promise that they’ll be all right without lying.
“You're not the Death Watch,” he says, and there's a snort above him, a blaster muzzle digging into the back of his neck.
“Thanks for noticing,” Jango says flatly. “Who the hell are you?”
“Jon Antilles,” a voice says, and Jon stiffens. “Or at least, that’s the name he gave me.”
“Jaster!” the woman says, turning, and the man from the auction smiles at her as he steps into the room, then lets his gaze slide down to Katooni. One brow rises, and he glances at Jon.
“You didn’t mention your job was less bounty hunting and more theft,” he says mildly.
With a sound of fury, Katooni jerks, wriggles, and before the Madalorian woman can grab her, she rips herself free of the hold and throws herself forward, right between Jon and Jaster. “Leave him alone!” she says loudly, and Jon can't help the sound of fear that’s wrenched from him, his jerk to grab Katooni and haul her out of the way—
Jango lets go, lifts his blaster, and Jon hauls Katooni towards him, puts his body between her and the rest of the room. She makes a sound of protest, clutching at his shirt, but Jon just looks up, meets Jaster's gaze and dares him to try and take her away again.
“Take me, if you want,” he says. “But let her go, and let me call someone to come get Katooni first.”
Jaster doesn’t answer, doesn’t react. He studies Jon for a moment, then says, “Come control your nexu. She’s trying to eat my men. Then we can discuss terms, bounty hunter.”
Hands grab Jon's arms, haul him to his feet, but the Mandalorians don’t pull Katooni away, don’t keep her from attaching herself to Jon's side like a barnacle. And—at this point, Jon will take it.
His comm is beeping quietly again, an insistent drone of sound beneath the echo of armor and heavy boots, and Jon closes his eyes, curses Nico and Knol, and lets the Mandalorians drag them out.