Actions

Work Header

A Rebellion's Heart

Chapter Text

Across the fractured starscape that soared above and around them, Kallathe fought for her life.

That in itself was nothing new- she’d been fighting for her right to exist since her birth, raised to be a killer and a weapon by the sith lord who had owned her and her mother. She had fought for her freedom, she had fought against everyone who had dared to stand in her way- the man who had owned her, the woman who had taken her as an apprentice, the man who had sired her. All of them were dead in her wake, bodies cast by the wayside and discarded as she’d clawed her way to the top.

Death was a part of her, imbued in the very structure of her cells... but she did not know how to kill a ghost.

The stars were cold and distant, pale sharp lights in a sky that had no end; there was darkness above her and there was darkness below her and no matter how she fought or how hard, no matter where she ran or how fast, he was always there before her.

Valkorion.

Vitiate.

Tenebrae.

The names blurred together in her mind, all one and the same, along with memories that were not hers, faces she had no recollection of ever seeing, ancient citadels and dead planets and a thousand other lifetimes pressing in against her thoughts. Ancient, immortal, agonizing hunger without end.

She felt herself slipping away, felt her own presence buckling under the weight of his intrusion.

Get out,” she snarled, spinning on her heel in the cold dust of the asteroid’s surface. She sent a bolt of lightning unaimed, ruthlessly pleased when it hit her mark anyway; the older human male put his hand up to block the attack, but she heard him grunt from the effort.

The pressure in her head eased.

His breathing was laboured, even as he straightened and wiped his hand on his robe with distaste. “I am not your enemy,” he said, his voice rich and sonorous despite the fact that the asteroid they were perched on couldn’t have had anything even close to resembling an atmosphere.

“A pretty lie,” she hissed, keeping her distance. “Stay out of my head.”

His smile made a cold chill pass down her spine. “Where do you think we are, my dear Nox?”

____

Tython, the Tython Sector, Deep Core

It was still hours until sunrise, the dark moon Bogan hanging heavily above the horizon, but Amaara knew she wasn’t going to sleep further that night. She’d been burdened with unsettled dreams yet again, another night of uneasy flutterings in her heart as Tython responded to the anarchy consuming the galaxy and manifested that chaos through the Force. It was surprising to see the stars through the open window, actually- the skies had been grey and overcast for days now, the spluttering threat of a storm that wouldn’t quite pass.

She rubbed her eyes wearily and rolled to the edge of the bed, the sheet falling away silently as she swung her legs onto the floor.

“You too?” came a voice from behind her.

Amaara smiled faintly and glanced over her bare shoulder, to where the redeemed Sith Lord Praven lay on the other set of pillows. “I never see anything clearly,” she said, her voice husky from sleep. “Just... emotions. Impressions of things.”

War, she meant to say, but couldn’t find the courage. Endless, eternal war.

He grunted in agreement, eyes fluttering shut as he reached across the bed for her, delicately manicured claws trailing down from her elbow to her wrist. She shivered, smiling faintly. “Tython is temperamental and imprecise, as far as news sources go,” he said, his voice a tired rumble. “Come back to bed. It does you no good to lose sleep dwelling on it.”

“I suppose you think I should lose sleep on activities more to your liking, then?”

He smirked, running his tongue over sharp teeth. “I could certainly clear your mind of distractions,” he said, the implicit offer sending a rush of heat between her thighs.

He certainly could.

But the distraction didn’t last, and although Praven seemed content to fall asleep again after their lovemaking, Amaara lay awake still, lying on her side and staring out at the stars. There was a faint glow on the horizon, the promise of the approaching dawn, and as tired as she was she felt relieved at the onset of the day. The night had offered her no reprieve, just a place for her doubts to gather quietly in the darkness, and at least in the daylight hours she could find things to occupy herself, between the younglings and the archivists and the settlers and the like.

She waited until the sky was a dull grey, the stars washed out against the ever growing light of day, before she crept silently from the bed again. Praven did not wake this time, and she was at least satisfied that one of them should get a good night’s sleep. The temple was wrapped in a pleasant silence as she went about her morning ablutions, not yet overrun with the sounds of a hundred gleeful, shrieking children trying to settle into their meditations with exaggerated childish seriousness. They were probably too lax with the younglings, allowing them too much mischief, but she could not find it in her heart to restrict their play; her generation had lost their childhood to war, and she couldn’t begrudge them their chance to enjoy theirs while they could. The thought made her misty eyed as she showered, overwhelmed for a moment by the opportunity granted to these younglings and grief at all she and her fellows had lost in their own time.

Luckily the water washed away her tears with the soap suds, and she was composed again by the time she was dressed for the day.

The light was pleasantly golden as she took the stairs down to the main hall of the temple, the first rays of sunlight slanting through the wide windows like beams of gold. It was peaceful, and glorious, and she felt humbled to be privy to such beauty; she held her hand out towards the light as she walked, absently rolling her fingers as she enjoyed the warmth of the new sun.

Tython was peaceful, and she was grateful for that; guilty, yes, so wretchedly guilty and yearning for the places beyond the stars so keenly that it was like a knife between her ribs sometimes, but still. Grateful.

The dining hall was sparsely populated when she made her way through, with a handful of other knights and masters scattered about, and two younglings who had a practice holocron set on the table between them in pieces as they broke their fast. She smiled fondly at them as she passed, noting that the elder of the two was of an age that would normally have been appropriate to consider taking the Initiate’s Trials. She made a mental note to review what resources they had on hand for such a thing- her own Trials had come about in the days just prior to the fall of Coruscant so many years ago, and had been marked by blood and violence and war. She wanted something better for the children under her care, not to coddle them of course, for there was still a great darkness at work in the galaxy and in the Force but...

The Jedi were meant to be more than warriors. She and her entire generation had been raised to fight, thousands of child soldiers who found themselves in adulthood battered and confused and traumatised. The code implored them to find peace, even as their Masters and the Republic armed them and taught them to kill.

She wouldn’t coddle them, but these younglings would know peace with her. She would not see them raised in blood and hate.

The wafting smells from the kitchen windows drew her attention away from watching the younglings study, and she went to find something to soothe the rumblings in her belly. She was settling down at the end of one of the long tables with a bowl of fragrant, steaming broth and a plate piled with slivers of raw meat when someone dropped heavily into the seat opposite her, the action jarring enough that the broth sloshed slightly over the edge of her bowl.

“Master,” said a familiar voice, and she schooled her features to a calm smile despite her irritation.

She dabbed up the spill with her napkin before glancing at the young man opposite her. “Amam,” she said, “was there something I could do for you?”

The young man opposite her was togruta, like herself, but unlike herself it didn’t seem that Amam had taken any time to compose himself before coming down to breakfast. In fact, taking in the unkempt clothing and the dirt on his hands, she had a sneaking suspicion that Amam hadn’t even tried to sleep the night before.

He rubbed aggressively at his left eye, which was concerningly red and irritated as if he’d been poking at it for some time now, but he didn’t make eye contact with her as he spoke. “Master,” he said again, his leg jittering beneath the table with a rhythmic thud. “I think I’ve had a breakthrough.”

Amaara did her best not to sigh, instead turning her attention to her breakfast. She ladled the steak pieces into the broth, stirring carefully as she let the heat slowly cook the meat. “Amam, have you slept since we last spoke?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head and squinting, “I couldn’t sleep. Too much thinking, I was thinking. And a breakthrough, I think, yes. So I came to tell you, but you were asleep, I think, so- yes.”

She paused, waiting for him to find a place to stop he was comfortable with.

“I waited,” he finished, more than a little awkwardly. “Your door was locked. Couldn’t tell you, so I waited.”

Amam’s story was a peculiar one, even by Jedi standards- taken to the Jedi with his twin sister when they were both young, they had gone with the joyous blessings of their family and clan, something for which Amaara tried not to feel resentment. Despite their obvious Force sensitivity, the twins had struggled with their lessons, often finding themselves easily distracted or bizarrely confused by things that seemed straightforward to their fellows. But where his sister was quiet and excruciatingly shy, retreating into herself when she had suffered, Amam had always had a tendency to blurt his thoughts aloud, and had devolved into manic states with almost predictable frequency.

Right now, looking at his fidgeting and his exhaustion, she was fairly certain she was looking at another one of those episodes in progress.

She set down her fork while her meat soaked up the broth. “Thank you for thinking of me, Amam,” she said gently. “I appreciate that it must have been exciting, if you wanted to come to me immediately.”

“I think I can build a long range communicator,” he said excitedly, apparently taking her words as encouragement. “Master Till’in has been letting me work down in the caverns on the old databanks, and it’s really- it’s very fascinating, the digital arrays are nothing like those we work with today, the evolution of something as simple as information storage is-”

“Amam,” she said patiently, prompting him to get back on track.

“Right, yes, sorry, um-” He slapped both hands on the table a couple of times, loud enough that one or two other occupants in the room glanced their way before going back to their breakfasts. “Long range communicator. I’ve established the function of several of the decaying machines in the caverns, and using the communication chips from several Kaleth droids- which are still functional, it’s amazing! Twenty thousand years and they have perfect data retention and there’s been some mild signal degradation which I think is due to weather exposure but the parts themselves have survived remarkably intact, which implies a metallurgical process very different from our-”

“Amam.”

“Right, sorry again.”

Amaara sighed; her first instinct was to reach over and take his hands in hers while she spoke to him, but she couldn’t remember whether he responded well to physical touch. She rested on her elbows instead, her fingers linked in front of her chest. “Amam,” she said gently, “I’m very impressed with the progress you’ve been making, and the work you’re doing with Master Till’in-”

“Thank you.”

But,” she continued, stressing the word carefully, to interrupt him before he could carry on again, “you know very well that we cannot risk the use of a long range communicator while Tython is on lockdown.”

He quite visibly deflated in front of her, squinting his nose up again as if in confusion. “No, but, see, I can make a new one,” he started, but she shook her head.

“Amam-”

“It’s been forty-nine rotations without contact from the Republic or the Council,” he said, his voice abruptly much louder. “What if they are trying to contact us but they can’t and it’s okay for us to leave again?”

The volume of his voice was carrying easily through the dining hall, and a few heads had turned in their direction again. “You have my word that that is not the case, Amam,” she said, keeping her own voice level and relaxed. “You know that we have our own long range communicators that are kept in standby mode, waiting for confirmation that things are safe again.”

“But what if they’re all broken? Maybe they’ve been trying to tell us, and it’s not getting through.”

The two younglings from earlier were watching wide eyed from their table, a very tangible sense of fear emanating from the younger one. The worst thing she could do for any of them, not just Amam, was to dismiss their fears as irrational and foolish; she did not need to encourage a climate of panic when it was simmering so easily by itself.

“That’s a very good question, Amam,” she said patiently, making sure her voice carried to everyone listening without making it obvious she was speaking to the room. “While we must always have faith in our tools, and in our fellow Jedi, it is always important to remember that faith without action can be disastrous- and our allies do not benefit from our inaction, if we simply sit back and wait for their assistance out of misguided faith in their strength.”

Amam clearly hadn’t been expecting something tantamount to a platitude, if his confused hesitation was anything to go by, but she could sense his mood had turned away from the edge of panic. A small victory. “So, um, I should-”

“Why don’t you meet me later today to inspect our communications array, to ensure that everything is functioning at acceptable levels?” she asked, casually spearing a sliver of rare steak from the broth, and taking a moment to pause and eat it. She did it deliberately, of course, to exude an air of calm and nonchalance, to remind those watching the exchange that there was nothing to worry about. “That way I’ll know they’ve been assessed by someone whose opinion on the matter I can trust, and who I know will perform a thorough inspection.”

She could physically feel the tension in the room bleeding away, as the others present turned back to their meals and their own quiet conversations. Amam, apparently thoroughly disarmed by her acceptance of his fears, rubbed at his left eye again. “Well, yes, that’s- yes, I can do that, yes.”

Amaara smiled broadly at him. “Wonderful,” she said, scooping up another mouthful of steak. The broth was just slightly spicy, with just enough dried peppers in the brew to make it sing on her tongue. It was delightful. “I have duties to attend to this morning, so that’s the perfect opportunity for you to get some rest-”

“I don’t need to sleep.”

Rest,” she said firmly, “doesn’t have to mean sleep. It would do you well to see to your own care, perhaps with food and bathing. And if you can’t sleep, meditation would ease your anxieties.”

“I can check the arrays now,” he said, rubbing at his eye again as his leg thumped beneath the table.

“Yes, but I need you clear headed, to ensure the inspection is as thorough as possible. I’d hate for you to miss something out of tiredness.”

He quite visibly paused, almost comically so, and she could all but hear the gears turning in his head as he processed this suggestion. “I’ll eat,” he said abruptly, lurching to his feet so quickly that he knocked the table again, making her broth slosh out of the bowl for the second time.

She bit back a sigh.

Sometimes it was difficult to reconcile the fact that his sister was the Barsen’thor, an accomplished member of the Jedi High Council and leader of the Council of Reconciliation. Amam had failed his trials to become a Knight many years ago, and had contentedly settled in with the Jedi Service Corps, quite a contradiction to the lofty heights his sister Asmi had achieved. She wondered sometimes whether he was jealous at all of his sister’s accomplishments while his own opportunities languished, or whether he felt nothing but pride- certainly there had been rumours of an outburst from him when she had nearly died defending the Sarkhai royal family, but she didn’t like to place stock in rumours.

She returned her bowl to the kitchen once she’d eaten her fill, and not a moment too soon- the dining room was filling fast, now that the dawn had come, and some of the younglings and padawans were prone to rowdiness first thing in the morning. She didn’t fancy breaking up a food fight, like she’d had to do last week.

It was good to have life back in the temple, however, especially life so young and enthusiastic. The destruction wrought by the followers of the False Revan under the guise of the Sith invasion had been excruciating in a way she didn’t have words to describe, like they had forced her to personally witness the death of a loved one. There were still scars, for sure- rooms still without power, or cracked floor tiles where water seeped through during the worst storms,- but Tython was alive again.

It eased her heart greatly, even more so to be the guardian of the Jedi Order’s future.

There was a group of younglings sitting on the lawns outside the temple, being lead in meditation practice by one of the older padawans, and there was a small chorus of cheerful hellos as she passed them. She couldn’t help but laugh. “Keep up your concentration,” she called in reminder.

“Yes, Master Amaara,” came the singsong reply.

The transport droid had a copy of her schedule, so it was already waiting for her with her speeder at the ready as she pulled on her riding gloves. “Vehicle paths are currently open for business,” it intoned, and it occurred to her that perhaps the greetings needed to be reprogrammed. The paths weren’t likely to see even a fraction of the traffic seen in the more prosperous days of the temple and the academy, even with the settlers in Kalikori village to consider. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to have the droid connected to the boundary warning sensors, to monitor for bad weather and wildlife movements.

She quite enjoyed the ride downriver- the wind rushing over her was pleasant, and the scenery was peaceful, and as much as she loved the temple with all of her heart, it was nice sometimes to take a break from it all. She took note of some flesh raiders on the far bank about two klicks from the temple, and made a note to have some scouts sent out to keep an eye on them; they were doing their best not to aggravate the beasts, keeping their distance wherever possible and building better defenses for the twi’lek settlement as well. If they were forced into long term cohabitation with the flesh raiders, the last thing she wanted was to encourage more animosity between their camps.

Another responsibility to bear, another choice to weigh up that would determine the lives of everyone under her care, and possibly the future of the entire Order. Most days she was fine with the pressure, but sometimes- usually when her sleep had been unsettled by faceless threats in her dreams- she felt it more keenly than others.

The trip downriver took her about half an hour, and as she reached the fords and the island came into view in the centre of the water, she slowed down, leaning to the side slightly so she could gaze down into the water beneath her. If she went too fast, the backwash from the exhausts churned it up too much, making it a mess of ripples and choppy waves; if she went slower, the ripples spread out behind her like a spearhead, and she could see beneath the surface to the riverbed below. Sometimes she even saw fish, fat river trout scattering in alarm at the buzzing roar of the speeder, and it delighted her.

On the island, a collection of pale stone buildings came into view, none of them particularly close to one another while still remaining within sight. They were single roomed domes, built from the white limestone of the cliffs along the river, and despite the lack of fences or security, and the relatively serene nature of the setting, it was not hard to determine what purpose they served.

Namely, a prison.

Oh, that wasn’t entirely correct, in the grand scheme of things- the island itself was pleasant and peaceful, and the residences were not locked or guarded. For the most part, the residents of the island went entirely unsupervised, and despite the strong currents that ran alongside them, a determined swimmer would make it to shore eventually. The cliffs to the north sheltered them from the strongest winds that swept across the great forests, and the water created an effective barrier for the flesh raiders, leaving the occupants in peace.

But those occupants were kept in isolation for a reason, well away from the temple and the impressionable minds of the younglings, and the last few relics of power that had survived both attacks in recent memory. These were the masters of the Order who had fallen, who had been dragged unwillingly or gone eagerly over to the darkness, and who had been brought back to the light either by their own determination or by the courageous actions of others. They were broken and battered individuals, with more than one of them consumed by regret and bitterness, and all of them irrevocably altered by the trauma they had endured.

So many of them were heroes of the Order, great and honourable Jedi who had served throughout the Great War and trained entire battalions of younglings and padawans to follow after them, herself included. Her own master, the gentle idealist Tol Braga, was amongst the island’s residents, and it broke her heart every time to see her beloved father figure a mere shadow of the man he had once been.

But, she reminded herself as she brought her speeder in to land on the pad down by the shore, her heart did not factor into the reasons for her visits. She may have taken lessons at the feet of one of the greatest diplomats of the war, but she had not followed him into diplomacy- her talent, and her most solemn duty to the Order, was far more bleak than that.

Amaara was the Jedi High Justice, the arbiter of judgement upon those lost in the darkness. She was the watcher, tasked with the burden of determining whether her fellows stood any chance of rehabilitation or whether the threat they posed to the Jedi and the people of the Republic was too great to risk. On those occasions, she was also an executioner as well.

A far cry from the gentle calls for peace her master had instilled in her, but she kept a cool head where others faltered and could look objectively into the hearts of others. She was a counsellor, a rehabilitator, a warden. She was the embodiment of justice in the Order, and it was those duties that had seen her volunteer to remain on Tython in the first place, when the idea to find a way to shield Tython had been brought into consideration. There were Jedi here in need of healing, who would never fully recover, and someone had to be here to sit with them on their darker days, and encourage them towards self fulfilment on their better ones.

So she had stayed.

She set the speeder down into park, stopping for a moment to adjust her windblown clothing.

“Oh no, everyone on your best behaviour, the watchdog is here.”

Amaara sighed.

“Mind your tongue, Duras,” a more welcoming voice said, and Amaara managed a more genuine smile before turning around. She could see Duras Fain standing shirtless in the small yard outside his dwelling, hands on his hips and the earth around him scuffed up from recent activity; he was the first speaker, and taking in his red face and sweaty torso, she’d wager she’d interrupted him during a training session. That was not necessarily a good sign, as he seemed to have taken to his martial exercises with more aggression than normal ever since Tython had gone into seclusion.

The second speaker was her own old master, Tol Braga, who was seated in the shade outside his small abode; he had the pieces of his holocron spread on a well worn rug before him, some of them floating in the air as he gestured carefully to them, little wisps of light dancing from his fingertips to imbue the pieces with a gentle glow.

She folded her hands before her, bowing to show her respect. “Good morning, masters,” she said, her voice carrying easily on the breeze. “It’s good to see you up and about and enjoying the sunshine.”

Duras snorted loudly, the sound almost mocking. “Yes, because there’s so many other things we could be doing with our time here,” he said, confirming her suspicions.

“Is that so, Master Fain?” she asked, setting her bags aside on the dock as she sorted through them for her tools. Hooking her satchel over her shoulder, she made sure discreetly that her lightsaber was within easy reach on her belt, tucked out of sight beneath the draping fabric of her tunic. Satisfied, she continued, smiling warmly at him. “Perhaps you could enlighten me during our session together.”

He rather comically slapped his hands up to his face. “Force save me, but I’ve hardly had the time to prepare for visitors-”

“Master Fain,” she said, more firmly, “go inside, and calm down. I will be with you shortly, once you have had time to compose yourself, and think about what it is you wish to bring up with me during our therapy session.”

She left him to scowl and mutter in his own little corner of the island, instead walking over the grass towards the next closest dwelling. Tol Braga did not rise to greet her as she approached, his head bowed as he concentrated on the holocron; it did not surprise her, to be honest. Her old master was so consumed with grief and shame that the best he ever managed in her presence was an awkwardly formal manner, speaking to her as if she were a recent acquaintance and not a girl he had all but raised from infancy.

It broke her heart, but she was not here for the love she held in her heart. She was here as a healer and a watcher.

“Good morning, master,” she said, her smile more genuine as she took a seat on the far edge of the rug he’d set over the grass. “You’re looking well today. I’m pleased.”

She went from dwelling to dwelling, sitting with her charges and talking with them, trying to get a sense of who it was she was speaking to, trying to feel out the wounds on their spirit to make sure none had burst apart again. They talked of inconsequential things when she sensed they needed her company more than her counsel, and spoke of healing and recovery with others who were feeling more sure of themselves. Some were prickly with her, like Ako Domi or Warren Sedoru, and others were withdrawn and quiet, like Tol Braga or Syo Bakarn.

It all went as expected- she took their vitals, and charted their physical health against her previous visits to make sure the dark side corruption had not poisoned their flesh. She encouraged them to meditate, guiding them through exercises to clear their thoughts and purge their spirits of lingering darkness. Some, as always, took her presence with better grace than others, and she really did sympathise with their agitation, to an extent. It galled her to be sitting on her hands, hidden away in the Deep Core while the rest of her brethren fought to protect the galaxy from this new threat surging out of Wild Space.

But still- she knew what the Order needed of her, and she didn’t shy away from that duty.

“I could at least be teaching the younglings, if nothing else,” Duras had snapped, arms crossed defensively as she’d sat with him in his dwelling. “It’s not like Yuon is locked away with us, she got to go free.”

“Yuon Par remained on Coruscant for long term rehabilitation, given how badly the plague affected her physical health, as you well know,” she’d said calmly, for what felt like the hundredth time. “You, on the other hand, aggressively founded a criminal network that took the lives of numerous people, tried to start a war with the Hutt Cartel, and cost the Jedi Order a substantial amount of money in reparations in order to soothe over relations. I’d be curious to see what you feel you can teach our younglings.”

“So the other decades of my service are dismissed so easily?”

“You chose to conduct dangerous archaeological expeditions into the heart of sith space in the midst of the worst war in centuries, the fallout of which ultimately claimed the lives of hundreds and is still causing repercussions today. Perhaps your lessons could be in humility, and prioritising one’s duties to be more conducive to safeguarding the Order and the Republic rather than dabbling in historical curiosities?”

It was an old argument, and one on which they won no ground against one another. Depending on how long they found themselves confined to Tython, she was sure that eventually she’d relent and find a way to reintegrate him into temple life without exposing the younglings to his more radical philosophies. Resources were precious, and not to be wasted, and regardless of the harm his actions had brought about, he was a living Master in a generation that had been whittled away to bare bones- he did have lived experience that was valuable to the Order, if one could sift past the ego and the barely veiled aggression to get to it.

Still. Time would tell. In a week’s time, they might be free of this self imposed exile, and safe to join the Republic once again, and her thoughts on whether or not Fain was safe to leave in charge of younglings would never be too great of an issue.

“Is Kylaena well?” Syo had asked her, with haunted eyes and hollow cheeks. It was one of the few questions he asked, on the rare occasion he wanted to speak at all. It was hard to remember him as the wise and benevolent man he had been before his own pupil had exposed him as an unwitting servant of the Sith Emperor; that man seemed to have died in the confrontation with Master Dawnstar back on Corellia. The man in her care was fragile, and brittle, and more often than not she sat with him in silence, adding her strength to his when she felt his spirit falter.

He would clearly never recover, and whether that was due to the presence of the soul within him that referred to itself as the First Son, or whether it was a state of shock and trauma he would not be coming back from, she could not say. She had never had the First Son emerge to speak with her, and perhaps that softened her attitude towards him dangerously, but she was not heartless.

“Master Dawnstar was well, last I spoke with her,” she always said gently.

“Did she ask after me? Did she speak of me?”

She could not be heartless, even if her role as judge and executioner demanded it of her. “She sent her very warmest regards,” she always said, even if it was a lie. He barely seemed aware of the fact that they had lost contact with the greater galaxy, and it would only distress him to tell him Kylaena had been out of touch for months. She lied, instead, because she was a healer too.

The last of her visits always took her to the far side of the island, where a single domed dwelling sat a long way apart from the others, the door facing out across the water instead of towards any communal space they all shared. As always, as she approached along the shore, the inhabitant was sitting outside and waiting for her; she never knew whether it was because he simply never did anything else, or whether he heard her voice carry over the water and moved outside to wait for her.

“Good morning, Master Amaara,” he called quietly, not turning to face her.

She set her satchel down beside the door, moving to take the seat beside him on the bench as she always did. “Good morning, Parkanas,” she said, clasping her hands in her lap and taking in the view across the water. The cliffs were full of movement today, a colony of some kind of gull having taken up residence in the pockmarked limestone and built their nests directly into the towering face; they wheeled and dived over the river, soaring up on the thermal drafts that rose off of the rock and into the sky above. It was chaotic, but it was peaceful, and it was pleasant in the shade of the awning. “How are you feeling today?”

“Well, thank you,” he said. “I wanted to thank you for the texts you were able to send after your last visit. It has been invigorating to dedicate myself to my studies once again.”

She smiled fondly. “It was my pleasure, Parkanas,” she said, with genuine warmth. “It delights me to be able to assist your rehabilitation, in whatever way is most helpful and healthful for yourself.”

“Your methods are not entirely popular amongst my fellows.”

“Is that sarcasm I detect? Perhaps your improvements continue faster than I had anticipated.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him smile, ducking his head almost shyly as if to hide it. “I meant to say, as well, I appreciate the efforts of the young man you send with our supplies- he is genuinely earnest, if a little overbearing at times. I did not know whether the others had said anything about him, but I wanted to say his exuberance doesn’t bother me.”

Amaara frowned slightly. “I’m not sure I know who you mean,” she said. “The supplies for the island are organised through Master Fane, and the quartermaster- I’m not sure who is responsible for their delivery. I simply pass on my recommendations in my reports, along with special requests like the library texts you asked for.”

“Oh.” He sounded surprised. “I thought- he spoke very highly of you. I assumed you’d picked him out.”

“Do you know his name?”

Parkanas shook his head. “He didn’t seem to be one for details like that. He just came up and started talking to me as if we’d been interrupted a moment or two before and he wanted to continue the conversation. Young togruta fellow, very chatty.”

That sounded more like a specific individual she was familiar with. “Red montrals?” At Parkanas’ nod, she smiled. “I’d say you’ve had the pleasure of meeting Amam. I had no idea he was doing our supply runs.”

“He’s been coming for some time now, he does the maintenance for us when things break down.” Parkanas fell silent for a moment. “He does not speak to me like a weak fool,” he said quietly, almost bitterly. “He speaks to me like an equal, like he has no judgement for my past and my actions. It is... refreshing.”

She fought back a sigh with some difficulty. “Amam has a good heart,” she said. “I am glad he is able to bring you a measure of peace with his companionship.” She hesitated, before continuing with the question burning fiercest within her. “What is it you speak of, the two of you?”

The man beside her shrugged. “Inconsequential things- he’s rather hard to interrupt, if I’m honest. He talks about machines quite a lot.”

Amaara laughed. “That does sound like Amam,” she admitted.

“He told me about his sister, the Barsen’thor,” he continued, quieter again. “He doesn’t blame me for what happened to her, but it’s hard not to blame myself for it.”

She quashed a flicker of irritation at the fact that he’d clearly known his guest to some extent, despite claiming otherwise. “The plague was the work of Terrak Morrhage, not you,” she said, but he shook his head.

“It was still my panic and rage and resentment that fed his reawakening,” he said, and then sighed. “But the young man Amam is a breath of fresh air. His concern for his sister and his husband reminded me that there is still hope in this wretched life.”

She paused. “You mean, his sister and her husband, yes?”

Parkanas turned his head to look at her. “No? His husband, a young man in politics? I forget his name, but Amam has always been quite vocal about his work in a rebellion, or a civil war? Sometimes he skipped details as if he thought I knew them already, so I’m not sure.”

Amaara breathed out slowly. “I didn’t know,” she said quietly, the reason for so much of Amam’s earlier anxiety now much clearer to her. “He never said anything.”

“Oh, are you the Caretaker of Internal Affairs? I wasn’t sure how far your jurisdiction went, whether you were just the High Justice. I suppose dispensing permission for marriage goes hand in hand with assessing threats to the stability of the order.”

“You make it sound like we expect love to be our greatest downfall, Parkanus,” she said, laughing awkwardly. “No, marriage never fell under my jurisdiction. The Caretaker of Internal Affairs remained on Coruscant, so I trust she’s safe for the time being and dispensing as many marriage certificates as she deems worthy.”

“I would have thought that would simply make more work for you in the future.”

She shrugged, still caught on the fact that Amam had a husband, and had never once complained about being separated from him within her hearing. “We are nothing if we lose our ability to love, and to embrace love in all forms,” she said. “Familial, platonic, romantic- our capacity for love should always go hand in hand with our capacity for forgiveness. It’s certainly the path I seek to walk with my own duties.”

They spoke for a time of inconsequential things, and when Amaara was satisfied with the health of her patients, she collected her things and returned to the temple. Only Syo stood and saw her off, waving absently as he called after her that he missed Kylaena, and hoped she would visit soon.

She was glad that the ride home took her some time, and by the time she pulled in to the speeder station on the far side of the temple grounds, the wind had dried away the tears she had shed on her journey. She was composed, and to all intents and purposes looked to be at peace. It was how she needed to be seen, by the younglings and by her peers; she needed to be in control and at ease, and not at all stressed by their circumstances.

There was a young girl waiting for her at the speeder station, a human youngling by the name of Bess. The girl had been shadowing her shyly for some weeks now, and she scrambled to her feet at her approach, hopping anxiously up and down with childish energy. Amaara smiled at her as she disembarked, leaving the speeder to the droid. “Good morning, Bess,” she said, reaching over to put her hand on her head fondly. “Shouldn’t you be at lunch?”

“It’s to be served in the next half hour, Master Amaara,” she said, the words tumbling out of her mouth eagerly. “I took some messages for you, Master, I hope that’s alright.”

Bless her little heart. “By all means,” she said, gesturing to her to walk alongside her.

Bess skipped, and Amaara had to physically remind herself to remain composed and not coo at her. “The quartermaster said that Lady Ranna from Kalikori wanted to talk, and Master Fane said I needed to stay in my classes when I went looking for you in the library.”

“That last one sounds like it might have been a message for you, youngling, not me.”

“Um, maybe?” Bess shrugged, putting both hands up in the air with a perplexed look on her face. “And then Lord Praven said that he wanted to have lunch with you after the morning classes if you were back in time but they were doing combat practice with, um, sabersticks, so I don’t know?”

What it was she didn’t know, Amaara couldn’t say- even if they were destined to be Jedi one day, the younglings were still just that. Young children, with an occasionally odd grasp of the world around them, and a propensity to focus on peculiar things. “Was there anything else?”

“Oh yes, and Amam gave me a sweet, and he is waiting for you in the communications room.” She smacked her lips. “We’re not supposed to get sweets except after dinner.”

Amaara laughed. “Is that so,” she said. “Well, I won’t tell the crechemaster if you don’t. We’ll keep it as our little secret.”

The youngling beamed up at her. “Thank you, Master Amaara,” she said, in the singsong voice young children adopted when they’d memorised something. Amaara escorted her back to the creche, leaving her in the care of a very relieved and very apologetic crechemaster, before diverting past her own rooms on her way to the communications hub. Her satchel she set aside on the desk to unpack later that evening, instead intent on running a cool cloth over her face and neck to clear away the dust from her travels; she smirked slightly when she saw the carefully made bed, the sheets tucked in with almost military precision. There was nothing to suggest that she and Praven had indulged themselves several times last night, not even the lingering smell of sex on the air. She’d have to thank him later for cleaning up, after she’d crept out while he was still sleeping.

Amam had, thankfully, bathed by the time she saw him again, although she wasn’t entirely sure he’d managed to sleep or meditate. He was naturally inclined to constant movement, but she thought his energy didn’t seem quite so agitated as it had that morning in the dining hall. His clothes were a little crumpled, as if he’d pulled them straight from the laundry or the floor, but they were clean. A definite improvement all round, then.

He lurched to his feet from where he’d been seated on a bench outside the communications room, clutching a grease stained tool bag to his chest as he did so. “Master,” he said quickly, “I know we didn’t set a specific time, so I just came up here to wait as soon as I was ready, and then I was worried I’d taken too long and I’d missed you-”

She held up a hand to interrupt him before he got too worked up. “It’s alright, Amam,” she said, infusing a sense of calm into her words. “I appreciate you taking the time to do this favour for me, and for working around my schedule.”

That seemed to placate him, if the way he nodded and looked to the door and back again was any indication.

She smiled at him, unlocking the door for them both to enter. “And perhaps while you work, you could tell me about the work you’ve been doing with the Kaleth droids,” she said. “Or about your family, your sister and your husband, I’d love to hear how they are.”

He sucked in a sharp breath. “You know about Zenith?”

“Is that your husband’s name?”

“Yes. Well, yes, but- yes, he has another name, he just uses Zenith because it was safer during the rebellion, I know his other name but he doesn’t like people to know it so I don’t say it much, I call him Zenith except when it’s just us-”

“We’ll just call him Zenith then, to avoid upsetting him,” she said, taking a seat at the technician’s desk by the door. “How long have you been married?”

Amam squinted, as if he was thinking, rubbing his hands down his shirt repeatedly. “Oh, um, two years, I mean, one year and three hundred and forty eight days, so not quite two years.”

She winked. “We’ll call it two years, I’m sure it’s fine.”

He’d set down his tool kit upon entering, and he turned to it now, methodically laying out the tools she had no names for in rows that apparently made sense to him, but were mind-boggling to her. She could hear him counting softly to himself as he set them out. “Do you miss him?” she asked.

He snorted. “Of course I do,” he said, as if it was the most ridiculous question he’d ever heard. “In twenty rotations it will be our two year marriage anniversary and I know that I’m supposed to spend it with him but I can’t because he’s on Balmorra and I’m here.”

“Then why aren’t you with him?”

He stopped his counting and looked over at her incredulously- she noted he still didn’t make eye contact, even in his moment of disdain. “Because of Asmi, of course,” he said, as if he thought her simple.

Amaara did her best to rationalise what such a statement meant, but couldn’t work it out for the life of her. “Did your sister ask you to stay away from him?”

“No? She needs me to- I’m-” He gestured awkwardly to himself, as if struggling to find the right way to express what he wanted to tell her and hoping she’d guess at it from his stilted charades. “I’m the shield.”

“I’m sorry?”

He rubbed at his left eye. “Asmi and me, we’re close, and she can focus on me even over long distances, so she always knows where I am and how I am, so she focuses on me and that makes me hidden and if I stay on Tython, then Tython is hidden.” He gestured to himself again. “I’m the shield for Tython.”

Oh, Force preserve them all; she felt the blood drain from her montrals as she realised the enormity of the sacrifice he’d made, and the ease with which he’d admitted to it. “Oh, Amam,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

He shrugged, tapping his fingers restlessly over the tools. “It’s okay, it’s like you said, it won’t be for long, and it’s important, and even if I’m not a Knight, I still have a duty to the Order.”

She shook herself with some effort, offering him an optimistic smile. “You are a credit to the Order in every way,” she said. “And I promise you, we won’t be here long. You’ll be back with your husband before you even know it.”

She had no way of knowing how wrong she was going to be.

Chapter Text

Kallathe reeled back in horror, the disgust she felt at the implication of his words almost overwhelming. She felt like she was going to be sick.

“This is a trick,” she said, keeping a large distance between them; when Vitiate- or Valkorion, or Tenebrae, or a dozen other names that were swimming around in her head that seemed to come from his memories, not hers- straightened with visible effort and stepped closer, she sent a warning shot slicing through the air between them, the lightning bolt aimed precisely for his face. He deflected it again, but it seemed to drain him to do so. “This is some kind of trap- I’ve been in enough Rakata mind traps to recognise a snare when I’m in one.”

He laughed, and her blood boiled with shrill fury at the dismissive nature of it. Nobody dismissed her, and certainly not a man. “And here I thought you had a rich history with the ghosts of the past,” he said, stepping closer again.

She took a step back and sideways, never turning her back to him. “Kallig was the ghost eater,” she snapped. “Do you pay so little attention to the affairs of the sith that we all blur into one for you?”

“Quite the opposite, my dear-”

Kallathe screamed, hands twisted into claws as she threw her arms towards him; a roiling mess of living shadows flew out of her grasp and raced to engulf him, swarming and seething around his head to choke him and kill him. She twisted her hands around and up, controlling the force and the speed of it as it wrapped around his neck and his face before wrenching hard.

The hate in her burned higher, an inferno of furious loathing, and the shadows swarmed-

-and exploded in a backlash of power that had her flying through the air to land painfully on her side, the cold dust of the asteroid billowing up around her in a cloud as she snarled in pain and crawled to her feet.

He stood by only immense effort, she could tell; his hair was dishevelled and there was sweat on his grossly pale face, the dust sticking to him like bereavement ash. He had his hands on his thighs as he wheezed for breath, and for the first time she saw the glitter of frustration on his dark and soulless eyes.

“Do not do that again,” he said, his voice as strong and unaffected as it had been a minute earlier. Clearly he was using some kind of sorcery for it.

She wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand, sneering widely at him as she straightened. “Do not call me ‘my dear’, or ‘my child’, or any other condescending attempt at familiarity.”

“You are hardly in a position to dictate terms to me,” he said, amusement in his tone.

Kallathe lifted her chin, straightened her shoulders, and planted her hands on her hips. “Oh, but I think I am,” she said. “I’m stronger than you.”

“A laughable proposition. You have the naivety of a child, and demand I not refer to you as one?”

She smiled, sharpened teeth glittering in the starlight. “Only one of us has died recently,” she said, gesturing to her nose. It took him a moment of disdainfully glaring to realise she meant for him to mimic the action, and when he touched his nose, his fingers came away coloured with blood.

Kallathe’s smile widened. “I’ve killed you once already,” she said, holding her arms palm up and slowly gathering the shadows to her outspread hands again. “Shall we wager whether I can do it again?”

____

Gerrenthum, the Anoat Sector, Outer Rim Territories

The Illustrious had exited hyperspace in the Anoat Sector, the supporting capital ship to the massive flagship Zhuan Dagger, the superdreadnaught that served as the backbone of the Republic Second Fleet. Travelling with them were the Transcendence and the Cassian Flare, a second and third capital ship of the same Valor-class. Accompanying them were no less than twenty-eight Thranta-class corvettes, all near to bursting at the seams with troops and Liberator starfighters and artillery all intended to counter the growing threat posed by Zakuul.

And as if that itself were not enough, Fleet Admiral Drua Mai herself was aboard the Zhuan Dagger, along with the entirety of the Jedi Aegis, the Order’s naval division, led by none-other than Master Kylaena Dawnstar of the High Council.

A superdreadnaught, three capital ships, twenty-eight corvettes, over fifteen hundred starfighters and over three dozen bombers and heavy assault craft and the Jedi’s finest pilots. It didn’t feel like enough.

Captain Jiri Athalast, quite used to the extravagance of high ranking guests aboard her ship, was nonetheless relieved to have the bridge to herself, not at all grumpy about the fact that the Admiral and the Jedi were aboard the Dagger instead of the Illustrious. She was proud of her crew, and certain that her officers were second to none in the entirety of the Republic Navy, but that didn't mean she relished the thought of having the brass leaning over their shoulders in the middle of a fight for their lives.

Because that was what they were doing, was it not? She’d seen the reports on the Zakuulan attacks over the last eight months. She’d dared to order her ship in close enough to rescue the Battlemaster that she’d personally seen the threat their damn unending fleet posed to a regular cruiser. Stars above, here she was standing on the bridge of one of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery in the galaxy, trying to dredge up some optimism in the face of odds that seemed insurmountable.

So they had the Jedi with them, so what? The Sith had sent their best, Marr and Nox, and look at what that’d gotten them.

She had a couple thousand folk on board with her. She honestly couldn’t guarantee that any of them were going to make it back home again.

“Credit for your thoughts,” a voice said from behind her, and she smiled ruefully as Zhen Lian, her First Officer, came up to stand beside her at the viewport.

“Anyone paying a whole credit for the nerfshit going on in my head is paying too damn much,” she said, arms crossed over her chest. Lian was looking a little ruffled, her top button undone and her shirt untucked; she was holding a vile looking drink in her hand, something green and lumpy that smelled suspiciously like swamp water. “Is there a party going on I’m not aware of, or something.”

She didn’t word it as a question, nor was it quite a rebuke for the unprofessional appearance of her XO, but it was a pointed reminder of it. Zhen glanced down at herself and grinned wryly, some of her dark hair slipping free of the tie and falling across her golden eyes. “I just came off a twelve hour rotation, can you blame a girl for wanting to loosen up a little?”

“If I see any girls, I’ll ask ‘em,” Athalast said. “Fact of the matter, I can only see some middle-aged disaster running around with a cup of runoff from the Works.”

Zhen wrinkled her nose at the drink. “It’s awful, isn’t it?” she said, pulling a face at it. “But I promised Anna I’d cut back while she’s pregnant, do the same diet as her. Solidarity, you get me?”

Athalast snorted. “We’re a couple hundred thousand light years away for that sort of thing to matter, Li,” she said, but Zhen shook her head.

“It’s the principle of the thing. Besides, she’ll know if I cheat at it, she only has to look at me and I’m blabbing every secret under the suns.” She nodded firmly. “Gotta stick to it.”

Watching as she took a long swig of the offensive sludge, Athalast raised her eyebrows. “How’s that working out for you?” she asked, her mild tone very deliberate.

Zhen’s face was priceless; her normally golden skin was almost the same colour as the drink in her hand. “You know what, it’s more important that my kid has a strong parent who can defend them and protect them and has enough energy to play with them, you know? So, maybe- just maybe, it’s in the best interest of my kid to not drink some kind of poisonous slime, you know?”

“Maybe,” Athalast said placidly. “You gonna talk to Anna about it?”

“Kriff no, she can just yell at me for cheating at it all when I get back home.” When she got back home, not if. “She’ll be too fat to chase me by then.”

Athalast had to laugh at that thought. “You get a chance to see one of the scans?”

Zhen’s expression turned a little wistful. “Nah,” she said, with a slight shrug. “She’s not due for another check up for about a month, so we didn’t want to waste the money. She showed me the pics from the last one.”

“All healthy?”

“Everything’s perfect,” Zhen said, more than a little wistfully this time.

They lapsed into silence, staring out through the viewport towards the vista of stars; to the right, Gerrenthum was ablaze with light and activity, the atmosphere crowded with refugee ships desperate to land, traders rushing to complete their business in the Outer Rim before Zakuul reached them, and the odd beat-up clunker that was obviously a smuggler or pirate ship of some kind. From up here, Gerrenthum was a mix of glowing urban areas and cold dark swathes that had to be the oceans; she’d never actually set foot on the planet, never had the need, but she could only imagine the mood down there.

There was something terrifying about Zakuul, something that she’d never quite felt about the Sith and the Imps. Sure, the Sith were nerfshit crazy and she still had scars from the attack on Coruscant- both physical and emotional- that would stick with her for the rest of her life, but with Zakuul... it was so impersonal. Like standing on the beach back home on Chandrilla and seeing the water drain away from the shore, knowing what it meant, knowing that the unstoppable wall was coming, a torrent of water and debris that was going to smash everything and everyone to pieces, far faster than it could drown them.

That was Zakuul. Those fleets were gonna show up, an unstoppable wall, and they were gonna smash them all to pieces with about as much emotion as the waves showed; unlike home on Chandrilla, there was no high ground they could climb to to get out of the way of the destruction. Nowhere to hide.

At least the sith, for all that they were assholes, had a bit of life and passion in them that made them seem more like living, breathing people.

You couldn’t fight the wave. It didn’t hate, or rage, or sneer- it just destroyed. Relentless and unstoppable.

Out through the viewport, the Zhuan Dagger drifted into view again from below them, the massive ship easily twice as long as her own. One of only five superdreadnaughts serving in the navy at the moment, it was an intimidating edifice of durasteel that had survived an encounter with a Silencer megalaser, and the hope was that that sort of durability would come in handy against the Eternal Fleet.

“Captain?” Zhen said quietly, holding the remains of her drink close to her chest as if she was hugging herself.

“Yeah, Zhen?”

“We gonna come out of this okay?”

Jiri was quiet for a long moment, considering her answer. “I hope so, Li,” she said finally. “I really hope so.”

____

Kylaena had never once been sick during space travel. Not once in her life. Master Syo had often joked that she’d taken to it like a duck to water, ruffling her hair as she’d done her best to stand still and not rush to the viewport to press her face up against the flexiglass. She’d become a little more reserved about expressing it in her teens and then more again as a young woman, but the enthusiasm was still there, an unbridled joy at the freedom and serenity that space offered her.

Space, and especially when she was allowed the freedom to fly herself, was where she excelled.

Which was why she was immensely frustrated to find herself so frequently incapacitated with nausea thanks to her pregnancy during their voyage. The physician she’d seen discreetly on Coruscant to confirm her suspicions had warned her about ‘morning’ sickness, and right now Kylaena wanted a stern word with whoever had helpfully come up with the term. Mornings had nothing to do with it- she’d found herself nauseous at all hours of the day and night, desperately excusing herself more than once in the middle of tactical conferences to find a refresher.

Maybe space played a factor in things; maybe because of the artificial cycles aboard the ship, her body was confused about what it wanted to do.

Apparently what it wanted her to do was hang over a bowl heaving and gagging every hour or so.

She’d managed to choke down a nutrition bar earlier that morning, and so far it hadn’t threatened to reemerge. The smell of caf wafting from the mess hall was enough to make her stomach roil and her heart yearn- she loved caf, but apparently her baby did not. She knew it wasn’t sensible to indulge in caffeine while pregnant, so she’d attempted to switch to decaf to retain a sense of normalcy in her daily routine. While the smell itself was divine, trying to actually drink it had turned into a disaster she didn’t want to repeat again.

Oh yes, and on top of all that, there was a war. Couldn’t forget that. Here she was thousands of light years away from the peace of Tython and thousands more away from the safety of her husband’s arms and her mother’s embrace, trying to maintain a taciturn facade while she led the Jedi’s best star pilots against an enemy that vastly outnumbered them.

She sat in one of the numerous conference rooms aboard the Zhuan Dagger, alone for the moment as she worked through all the reports that had come through from Coruscant since they’d dropped out of hyperspace. In the eleven days it had taken to travel from the Core, numerous things had changed, and Zakuul had made even more headway towards more populated systems. Given their current rate of expansion, they were expected here in Gerrenthum within a day or so.

Not particularly encouraging news.

There were reinforcements on the way, they’d been promised- the Battlemaster had returned from her mysterious meeting with the Wrath, no word on what had transpired between them, and was said to be en route with the Republic Fifth Fleet. That the Fifth had been diverted from its normal entrenched position along the border with Hutt Space spoke volumes about the mood back in Coruscant, and the panic that was beginning to grip them all. Kylaena didn’t really know what they thought the Battlemaster could do, given that her strengths lay in ground assault rather than naval defence, and Zakuul’s tactics had so far overwhelmingly been in favour of taking control of the stars rather than committing to ground invasions.

She groaned, covering her face with her hand; maybe it was the constant background nausea, or maybe it was the slow burning fear in her gut, but that was a remarkably snide and petty thought to have, and the Battlemaster deserved better from her than that.

She didn’t want to think of herself as petty, given that as a Jedi she had to strive for patience and understanding in all situations, but even after all this time it still stung. She could acknowledge that the Council had made the right decision from a logical perspective of course, but stars above did it hurt to have her years of service and loyal devotion to the Code dismissed so quickly in the face of Syo’s unwitting betrayal. If the master could not be trusted, after all, then it was impossible to trust the student, the Council theorized. Syo had sat amongst them for years, with no way for anyone to know how long he had harboured the First Son. Even though she had defeated the parasitic spirit, no one could guarantee that his teachings hadn’t influenced her over the years as well, or that she carried her own secret passenger.

So the title she’d worked towards had gone to another- which wasn’t to say that she didn’t think Master Ona’la was worthy of the title of Battlemaster, just... she was human. She still had hopes and dreams and ambitions, as much as Jedi were counselled not to have ambitions. She’d spent years studying under her master, and taking lessons from Jun Seros under the explicit understanding that she was learning as many martial styles and tactical schools of thought as possible to take over when Master Seros stepped down. To have all those years of diligent study and commitment thrown back in her face so easily because of Seros’ corruption and Bakarn’s deception...

It hurt. It still hurt, years later. She wanted to be judged by her own merits and strengths, not by the shadow cast over her by the men who had come before her.

Her stomach roiled, and her head spun as another wave of dizziness overtook her. She groaned and pushed to her feet with some difficulty, one hand on her stomach and one on the wall as she shuffled awkwardly to the door. With extreme effort she straightened her shoulders before she stepped out into the public areas, trying to school her features to calm so that none would suspect her of being out of sorts. She nodded politely to the crew members she passed, smiling mildly at them, and then the moment she was in the privacy of the communal refreshers on this floor the facade dropped again.

The polished floors were cold under her knees as she bent over the bowl and vomited, retching until her nose was running and her eyes were streaming with tears. Panting, half sobbing, she slumped down onto the floor beside the toilet, her head falling back against the cubicle wall. “This is not a good start to our relationship, little one,” she gasped, silently begging her stomach to stop seething.

She felt the ripples in the Force, a warning of what was coming, and a heartbeat later the onboard sirens began to blare, accompanied by a flashing red light above the door.

Her heart seized up with dread.

“All hands, this is Fleet Admiral Drua Mai, assume battle positions immediately. I repeat, assume battle positions immediately.”

Kylaena moaned. “No,” she whimpered, crawling to her hands and knees, “no, no, not now, please.”

She had trained to be the Battlemaster. She had trained to stand against the greatest enemies that would ever rise to threaten the safety and sanctity of the Republic.

Zakuul was here early- and she still wasn’t ready.

With immense difficulty she dragged herself upright, staggering from the cubicle and splashing her face with cold water from the basin. Her reflection looked haggard, too gaunt in the cheeks and too pale, but she couldn’t do anything about that now- it wasn’t like she could beg off just because she felt unwell, or like the endless ships of the Eternal Fleet would politely withhold their fire while she recovered. She had a war to fight, and she needed to fight it now, regardless of what her baby and her body wanted.

She gritted her teeth, and dug inside herself for something that resembled strength.

Ten minutes later when she was marching across the floor of the hangar bay, her helmet tucked under her arm and her green flight uniform in pristine condition, there was no indication at all to any watching that she’d been in such distress so recently. Her fine green tunic was trimmed with gold, and on one shoulder she bore symbols for the Rift Alliance and Balmorra, and on the other she had the Jedi insignia; her pants were a pale fawn colour, while her boots were a darker brown with warm red undertones. Beneath the formal wear, she wore a form fitting flight suit like a second skin, the advanced weave of the fabric crafted to insulate and protect the wearer from the cold and the radiation in space. With her hair tied back in a pinned braid, she looked every bit the part of a decorated Republic officer.

The klaxons continued to blare in warning, and as she walked briskly across the hive of activity that was the hangar bay, she glanced towards the forcefields across the open blast doors. A horrified shudder passed over her at the sight of the distant fleet, laid out in such perfect lines just like she’d seen in the surviving holos of prior attacks. They were too far out to engage, but they were closing fast. Five minutes, maximum.

Below them, Gerrenthum itself was out of sight, but not the massive array of ships packed in the skies around it. The deep black of space was ablaze with the streaking lines of civilian and mercantile ships desperately fleeing the sector, the faint flash of light as they launched into hyperspace making it seem like the sky itself was constantly winking at them.

How many were fleeing? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Where would they even go, when the Republic was already bursting at the seams with refugees and displaced peoples from almost forty years of constant warfare?

“Master Dawnstar!”

At the call, she turned and offered a terse smile to her second in command, a nautolan Jedi by the name of Natari, who was jogging up to meet her. “Status?”

Natari fell in beside her, her head tresses bobbing as she walked. “Three hundred and ninety four confirmed contacts so far,” she said, and Kylaena’s heart sank further. “Two jumps so far, don’t know if we’re expecting a third group to drop out.”

“We can’t rule out the possibility,” she said grimly, walking briskly towards her ship, a heavily modified Striker-class starfighter that she’d had adapted in the weapons factories back home on Balmorra. The sharp wings of the fighter were angled at a more severe angle than the standard Liberators, and as she approached, the lights along the wings began to glow as a familiar string of beeps filled the air. “I’ll be right there, see-six.”

The astromech droid burbled excitedly from its place in the droid emplacement, powering up her ship in preparation for launch.

The other members of the Jedi Aegis were gathered in a rough circle as she joined them, stepping into the centre of the group to survey them all as she spoke. These were some of the finest individuals in the Order, warriors she had fought alongside and flown alongside for over half of her life now, and she counted each and every one of them as a friend. Looking at the grim and severe set to their features as she looked to them one by one, she knew they all thought the same thing she did.

None of them were coming home from this.

She cleared her throat. “You don’t need false platitudes from me,” she said, her voice carrying to each of the sixty odd assembled Jedi pilots. “We all know what’s at stake, and we all know what’s out there waiting for us. Fly your best, fly for the Republic, and know that the Force will be with you.”

The warning tone changed to a far more shrill, far more urgent alarm. “Hostile contact imminent,” came the automated voice system on the Zhuan Dagger. “All hands, report to your stations.”

Kylaena swallowed, trying to blink away the sudden burst of tears in her eyes. “Let’s show these Zakuulan bastards what the Jedi are made of,” she said, pulling her helmet on and clicking it in place. “For the Republic!”

For the Republic!” came the roared response.

With the alarms blaring and the lights flashing, they made for their fighters; Kylaena offered a grim smile to everyone who clasped her shoulder in comradeship as they passed her, seeing the same bleak acceptance in their eyes that she felt in her heart. C6 chirped a string of updates as her as she climbed up the wing of her ship and dropped down into the pilot’s seat, the hatch sliding closed above her and the seals locking in to place.

C6 had already done the pre-flight checks for her, so there was next to nothing for her to do in preparation. “Green Leader, online,” she said, clicking on her harness and clipping the life support into her helmet. The inside of her visor burst into life, the black of space suddenly overlaid with a digital grid, feeding updates to her directly on the progress of the battle and the status of her squadrons. The eleven other fighters under her command were illuminated in the bottom corner of the display, her squad fully prepped for flight; beyond the physical confirmation on her visor she could feel it. Her connection to the eleven others in her squad grew stronger as they all settled in for flight, reaching out and strengthening one another through the Force. They would fly as one, extensions of one another, a weapon without match.

“Red Leader, online,” came Natari’s callsign.

“Blue Leader, online.”

“Gold Leader, online.”

“Black Leader, online.”

Five squadrons of twelve fighters, broken up into four strike teams of three fighters. The Jedi Aegis, the greatest pilots in the galaxy.

She couldn’t shake the creeping horror that she was leading them all to their deaths.

“Don’t forget, we’ll be sharing the sky with thousands of other pilots,” she called, her stomach lurching unhelpfully as she launched, the Striker holding steady in place above the ground as she withdrew the landing struts. She accelerated slowly, easing out of the hangar bay so as not to send a backlash from the ion engines washing over the deck crew. She felt rather than saw her squad launch as well, eleven other fighters on the periphery of her senses. “We cannot engage directly with the Zakuulan capital ships and survive. Our job is to intercept boarding craft and harry the capitals to keep them from using their coordinated attacks.”

The hangar bay fell behind her, and then she was suspended in space, with nothing above her and nothing below her but darkness and stars. Usually the moment when she launched was a moment of quiet joy and relief for her, when the world fell away and left her suspended in the dark and the quiet of the endlessness of space. It was supposed to be exhilarating, invigorating, freeing.

The cockpit felt too small, too constricting, and there wasn’t enough air-

C6 chirruped in alarm, and she shook herself violently. “No, no, I’m fine see-six,” she said, even though it was a wretched lie. The droid called her out on it instantly, a medical overlay appearing in her visor; she smiled ruefully. “It’s just nerves, I promise. See, my blood pressure is already settling again.”

If a droid was capable of saying ‘nerfshit it is’, that was precisely what the sullen beep behind her meant.

Away from the hull of the Zhuan Dagger, she opened up the throttle a little more, peeling away and moving a little closer towards the rapidly approaching enemy fleet. Behind and below her, the Second Fleet was moving into a defensive formation, the corvettes lining up to present the smallest targets possible while dozens and dozens of Liberator-class starfighters poured from their hangars like killiks from a kicked hive. Behind them, she could now see Gerrenthum, and there were literally hundreds of ships streaking through the atmosphere, all desperately trying to get space from one another to make a safe hyperspace jump.

There were civilians down there, children- she couldn’t fail them.

Her comms clicked loudly, and she held her breath, waiting for the message she knew would be coming through.

“Attention, Zakuulan fleet,” came the voice of Fleet Admiral Mai, cold and authoritative. They were broadcasting the message across all frequencies, both to aid the thousands of combatants on the fleet, and to hopefully reach through to the captains on the enemy vessels. “You have trespassed on territory under the protection of the Galactic Republic. If you do not take immediate steps to rectify this situation, we will open fire without restraint. You have thirty seconds to comply.”

Kylaena took a deep breath, holding steady at the head of her squadron formation. The long range proximity sensors began to flash warningly.

The Zakuulan fleet did not slow down.

“Attention, Zakuulan fleet,” Admiral Mai tried again, “disengage immediately, or we will open fire. This is your last warning.”

An alarm started blaring on her visor, and her stomach lurched. “They are powering primary weapons,” she said, immediately powering up her shields in response and engaging her dual ion engines. “Green squadron, with me!”

It was utter chaos within seconds.

The Zakuulan fleet opened fire, streaks of bluish-white light spearing towards the Zhuan Dagger en masse; more than a few Liberators either didn’t move in time, or deliberately moved to intercept the strikes, exploding in a painful blast of white light as the bolts made contact. The rest struck against the massive shields on the Dagger, dull flares flicking over the hull as the energy was absorbed and dispersed.

The Second Fleet returned fire.

The space between the two fleets was very quickly awash with debris, and was a veritable minefield of blasts coming from both directions. As Kylaena and Green Squadron raced across the middle ground she saw more than one Liberator take fire from behind, unable to move out of the way of the heavy artillery coming from the larger ships behind them. Her pilots, thank goodness, were more than capable of sensing incoming friendly fire and removing themselves from harm’s way, but not everyone on the battlefield was so lucky.

She led Green Squadron as close to the Zakuulans as she dared, running strafing attacks along the precise lines of their capital ships; their attacks seemed to slide right off of them, no more of an annoyance than water droplets on glass, but she wasn’t ready to concede defeat so easily. At the very least, harrying them would confuse their sensors and slow their response time.

The Zhuan Dagger soaked up blast after blast, the shields flickering so badly that it made her eyes water to glance at it. The giant guns aboard the superdreadnaught gave as good as they got, and she felt a surge of giddy triumph when she saw one of the Zakuulan capital ships in the centre of the grid float out of alignment, listing badly to port as explosions began to bloom within the hull.

“Take that opening and make them regret it,” she called to her team, lining up her proton torpedoes for the smaller battlecruisers exposed by the loss of the capital ship. She felt the other fighters as easily as if she had her hands on the controls of all of them, like she was piloting all of them at once.

Her comms flashed. “Transcendence has boarders, repeat, Transcendence has boarders.”

She gritted her teeth in frustration- the Transcendence was at the far end of the battlefield to her, and it would take her several minutes to navigate the blistering laser fire and accumulating debris of ruined ships to make it there for interception. She scanned her map quickly, reaching out with her thoughts. “Blue Leader, call in.”

Awareness bloomed, and an impression of the battle from a new angle. Twelve other pilots, flying as one, a shadow in her thoughts. “Blue Leader here.”

Her proximity sensor began to screech at her. “Disengage and move to assist the Transcendence.”

“Affirmative, Green Leader.”

She wrenched hard on the controls to avoid two incoming blasts from two separate ships, spinning effortlessly down the valley between them; her heart was racing as she steadied her ship, wheeling back around to rejoin the rest of her squadron. It looked like they’d scattered in order to avoid the same attack, and her tracker showed them moving back to formation rapidly. Clearly someone had decided they were enough of a nuisance to target directly, pulling fire off the Dagger for a moment to try and deal with them. On the one hand, that was good news for them all, but on the other hand, her stomach seethed at the drag from the gee forces as she accelerated back into position.

She clicked on to a channel on her comms unit. “Transcendence, this is Jedi Master Dawnstar, I have pilots on their way. Do you require onboard assistance repelling invaders?”

She waited a few seconds, speeding along the exposed line of a cruiser and firing a volley of lasers as the shield flickered. When she still had no answer by the time she came out of the run, she tried again. “Transcendence, this is Jedi Master Dawnstar, do you copy?”

Her comms clicked and she breathed a sigh of relief- but too soon. “We’ve lost communication with the Transcendence,” Fleet Admiral Mai said brusquely. “Cassian Flare, reposition to compensate until they come back online. Besh and Cresh Squadrons, repel any further boarding attempts. Let’s give them a chance to-”

There was a searing flash of light and Kylaena instinctively threw a hand up to cover her eyes, the burst burning behind her closed eyelids; she didn’t need to look to see what had happened. She felt it through the Force, the sudden spike of panic and fear followed immediately after by yawning silence.

Her ears were ringing as she blinked and stared out at the debris field, her fighter rocking slightly from side to side as the aftershocks surged over her. The Transcendence was all but gone, a skeletal spine remaining like a gutted fish with the head and tail still attached; whether it was external damage that had done it, or whether the boarders had sabotaged it, she couldn't say, but one thing was clear. The antimatter fusion systems had been critically damaged, and the ship’s generators had become a giant fusion bomb.

It was like she couldn’t hear anything but the high pitched ringing, staring in horror at the place where an entire capital ship had been destroyed in seconds. After a few blank and empty seconds she realised faintly that C6 was trying to get her attention, and she shook herself with some difficulty. “I’m here, I’m sorry,” she said, noting with some dismay that she’d completely lost her battle focus, and her astromech had made some course adjustments in the last few minutes to compensate for her going into shock. Her fingers were shaking as she threw her ship into a dive, sliding under the bulk of a capital ship that had seemed to come out of nowhere before her. “Blue Leader, did you sustain any damage or casualties?”

The comms stayed horrifyingly silent, and she felt her heart shatter.

The visor made it impossible to wipe away the tears on her cheeks, so she gritted her teeth and forced back the wad of emotions in her throat. “Blue Leader, do you copy?” She waited a beat, and followed up with “Does anyone have visuals on Blue Squadron?”

“Red Leader, negative,” Natari answered instantly, with her other two squad leaders calling in immediately after.

She closed her eyes. “See-six, maintain shields and defensive maneuvers for a few seconds,” she said, before casting her consciousness out into the chaos of the battlefield. Her thoughts sped over each ship and soul aboard, skirting around the psychic wound that was the recent death of the thousands aboard the Transcendence. There was no sign anyway of Blue Squadron, no soul that felt familiar to her as she brushed over them.

She’d sent them to their deaths.

She reeled back from the panic that thought roused in her, gasping as her heart thudded painfully in her chest. C6 beeped in alarm, the medical overlay flashing warningly on the inside of her visor. “I know, I know,” she said. “Now’s not the time!”

There were more Zakuulan ships than she could count, and she wasn’t sure whether more had appeared during the fight, or whether she was feeling the overwhelming pressure of the odds levelled against them. She’d lost her battle focus, and trying to settle her racing thoughts enough to reconnect with her squadron was like trying to grasp at smoke; she felt alone, half-panicked, and furious.

She banked a hard right and sped along the line of Zakuulan cruisers, dodging in and out of the laser fire as she flew as close to them as she dared; behind her, she dropped magnetically guided neutron detonators, the bombs locking with graceless efficiency onto the hulls of the ships she passed.

Explosions bloomed behind her, the crackling blue pulse of the bombs disrupting the mysterious power cells of the Zakuulan lasers flashing one after the other. Soaring back around in a wide arc, she felt a bitter surge of frustration to see that not a single one of the ships she’d targeted had fallen out of formation. A few still had flickers of light playing beneath the metal plate armour, as if there were explosions going on beneath the surface, but that was the extent of the damage as far as she could see.

As she spun back around to avoid a new volley of laser fire, she had a chance to see the rest of the fleet- and her blood ran cold. The Cassian Flare was listing badly, escape pods peeling away from the underbelly even as she watched; there were at least a dozen of the corvettes lying in pieces, or drifting at bad angles with gaping holes in the hull. Behind her, the Zakuulan fleet had already moved to realign itself, the downed capital ship all but forgotten by them as another moved to take its place. There was no hint that their attacks had even inconvenienced them, let alone seriously threatened them.

There were still hundreds of them, and they were dying too fast to save Gerrenthum.

Kylaena gritted her teeth and reached out forcefully to her pilots, feeling the ripple of surprise from them at the strength of her grasp. “The Cassian Flare needs cover,” she said, feeling the ships fall in behind her as she wheeled around yet again and headed back towards the Zakuulan fleet. They had to give them time to evacuate, they had to do something to save the Republic- if Zakuul took Gerrenthum, they’d have access to the Corellian Trade Spine, which meant they’d have almost unimpeded access to the Core Worlds and the heart of the Republic. She couldn’t fail, she had to stop them here, she couldn’t-

There was a flash of light over her right shoulder, and her comms crackled. “This is the Zhuan Dagger,” came the distorted voice of Fleet Admiral Mai, “we are taking heavy fire. Shields have failed, I repeat, shields have failed. All units, please-”

She felt it, the suffocating wave of hysterical panic, the wild spike of fear from thousands upon thousands of people who knew they were about to die.

No,” she said, and she wasn’t even sure who she said it to.

The Zakuulan fleet fired as one, and without their shields, the Zhuan Dagger stood no chance. The reverberating crack of collapsing durasteel was audible even from where she sat miles away in her ship, and the Dagger shuddered as a brilliant shower of sparks and flames fell from the centre; the lasers sheared it clean in two, the two halves of the ship drifting apart for a half second before the explosions began.

She stared. She felt every death, felt every moment of panic and terror and despair, and she stared. She was crying, she knew that much, and C6 was babbling at her desperately, trying to get her attention. Her visor was flashing, and suddenly there were no longer eleven pilots connected to her but ten, and then nine, and then eight. Her comms beeped, and she heard something, Gold Leader something, but she could only stare.

“All vessels, this is Captain Jiri Athalast of the Illustrious, disengage immediately and prepare to jump to hyperspace. I repeat, all vessels, disengage immediately. All fighters, return to cruisers for jump.”

Her fighter dipped around without her guidance, and on some distant level she recognised that C6 was rushing her to safety as she sat in stunned silence and wept, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She needed to stay and fight, she needed to stay and- seven pilots remaining- fight and defend the Republic, what good was she to anyone if she lost this battle?

“Aegis, this is Red Leader, Green Leader is unresponsive, please disengage immediately and make for the Illustrious.”

Natari, she thought absently, the shadow of a hangar bay falling over her as the stars vanished over her shoulder. There was smoke in the hangar bay, she could see it above her, and some of the lights were flickering. She wanted to look away, but she couldn’t quite work out how to make her head turn away. Movement in general seemed to be quite perplexing.

A shadow fell over the plexiglass of the cockpit, and she flinched; the seals hissed as the pressure equalized, and without the buffer of the panes she was overwhelmed by sounds. There was a klaxon bell ringing out a warning, loud and shrill, and there were distant explosions and so much shouting. The shadow had hands, and she tried feebly to bat at them but she still couldn’t quite grasp movement, and she could only whimper and cry as her safety harness was unbuckled.

“Is she alright?”

“She’s gone into shock. We’ll get her down to the medbay.”

No, she wanted to cry, because a doctor would notice her baby, and she couldn’t let anyone know she was pregnant, not now, not so soon. They’d say she didn’t fight hard enough, that she’d given up too early for the baby, that she hadn’t fought to protect the Republic because she’d been selfish-

“Master? Master Dawnstar, can you hear me?”

“Is she breathing?”

Everything went dark.

Chapter Text

They fought.

How long their battles lasted, she could not say. They were like gods, leaping and soaring amongst the stars, using the planets themselves as their weapons, drawing on the fire and the power of the suns as their fuel. She burned his flesh to atoms when she hurled him into the gravitational pull of a white dwarf; he retaliated by unmaking her, twisting the carbon molecules within her until she reformed in a cloud of ash and blew away on the galactic winds. She crushed him beneath the onslaught of supernova, and he trapped her in a nebula so cold that her blood froze instantly in her veins, her flesh shattering.

They were gods, battling for control of the galaxy- except that none of it was real. None of it even counted. For all that they fought with stars and fire and the crushing weight of the galactic void, the playing field was far more intimate than one might assume.

Kallathe knew now that they were trapped within her mind, that this was nothing more than a pantomime to act out their battle for control of her brain and her body- and nothing could have infuriated and horrified her more. She despised men on principle, a lifetime of being bound to the will of men who thought themselves better and more powerful than her leaving its mark upon her. Men had no dominion over her, and she bowed to no man- and yet here was one within the supposed sanctuary of her own body, violating her in the most intimate way, mocking her and hurting her and attempting to control her.

There were no words in any language she knew that could convey the disgust and the loathing she felt, the violation she felt, and how desperately she wanted to kill him.

So they fought amongst the stars, as gods and tyrants, dying and undead.

“You are weak, old man,” she snarled, as she launched a dozen or more asteroids straight towards him.

They fell away like dust around him, his face turned away from the onslaught. “A temporary situation, I assure you.”

“And here I thought death was supposed to empower you.” She broke out in a rictus grin as she put her hand up to catch the lightning strike before it hit her, snarling in pain as she let the power surge up her arm instead. “Was I not a good little slave, offering you death?”

“Your pettiness does you no favours-”

“My pettiness amuses me immensely.”

“You are clearly beaten, and still you fight,” he said, and it disgusted her to hear admiration in his voice. “Your defiance is fascinating, but ultimately unnecessary.”

She bared her teeth at him, spitting bloody phlegm at his feet. “Corner a rabid beast and it will fight to its death throes,” she countered. She concentrated, and her dualsaber manifested in her hand, the crackling snarl of the lasers echoing over desolate landscape as light speared out of both ends of the handle. “Neither of us are dead yet.”

____

Yavin 4, the Yavin System, Outer Rim Territories

Tahrin opened her eyes, unsure of what had woken her so abruptly but aware at least that something out of the ordinary had done it. The halls of her home were silent, the quiet rumble of Pierce’s snores the only sound in the night; she lay deathly still, feigning sleep, waiting to see if she could pick up on anything in the room with them.

The thought of anything getting close enough to threaten her in the sanctuary of her living quarters was laughable- she had some of the most advanced security systems in the galaxy installed, courtesy of Quinn’s recommendations, and the mesa itself was fit to bursting with the troops rotating between active duty, and more than that she had Revan on hand, more diligent and more violent than any guardian pet could ever hope to be. Their space station’s monitoring systems would pick up any craft trying to enter the system, regardless of size, so there was no chance that anyone could have furtively approached them without Quinn and his team being aware of the threat and sending down a warning.

And her mother couldn’t even be trusted to be polite to guests, let alone interlopers. The thought should have brought her some measure of comfort in the darkness, but the fact remained- her senses told her that something was wrong, and she knew better than to ignore them.

There was no movement in the room, no whisper in the shadows, and after she’d reined in the worst of her nerves and satisfied herself that she was alone but for Pierce asleep at her side, she slowly sat up. The air was still, the humidity thick in the air, and the light spilling through the skylight seemed almost unnatural. Nothing was wrong, precisely, but everything felt not quite right.

She climbed to her feet, with Pierce not even stirring behind her; the monitor for the children’s room sat quietly on the bedside, not a sound emerging from it.

But the light on it was flashing, on and off, on and off, as if it was transmitting something- something beyond her hearing.

On bare feet she padded to the door, her footsteps making no sound on the stone floor. She glanced at the side table where her lightsabers sat in their safety case, out of reach of eager toddler hands, and decided against it. There was nothing she couldn’t conquer, and certainly nothing that could dream of threatening her family in her own home and thinking they could get away with it.

She’d tear them apart with her bare hands.

She waved a hand at the door panel as she approached, the lock disengaging before the quiet hiss of the door sounded in the night; it was dark in the corridor beyond, and the moment she stepped out of the sanctity of her bedroom she felt her skin crawl with familiar horror.

The door closed behind her, without her command, and the lights came on.

She was not in her home.

The corridor was cold and sterile and painfully, horrifyingly familiar. It smelled faintly of disinfectant, in the same manner of a medical suite, and the walls were polished metal with a subdued sort of architectural style to the arches and cornices that vaguely brought Dromund Kaas to mind. There was no life to it at all, no soul or spirit. It was bleak, and soul-crushing precisely because she recognised it.

It was the facility she’d been raised in by Vitiate’s servants.

She waved her hand briefly at her side, but the locking mechanism behind her remained stubbornly closed. When she glanced over her shoulder, the door had vanished entirely, only smooth unbroken metal there to greet her.

Gritting her teeth, she looked forward again. “I know this is a dream,” she said loudly. Frustrating, of course, to have assumed she was awake only to be trapped in an illusion. Infuriating to have been snared so easily. She was supposed to be better than that. “Spare us both from the insult of this charade and show yourself.”

There was no answer, and no movement in the long and sterile hallway; irritation simmered in her veins, and squaring her shoulders, she turned and headed in the direction she knew her children to be. The horrors of her childhood seemed to press down upon her from every angle, memories of violence and beatings and abuse without measure. Within these halls she’d been shaped into a weapon, a blank slate upon which for Vitiate to impress his need for blind obedience and unfathomable power.

Not these halls, she told herself grimly as she marched onwards. I ordered it stripped and burned. This is only a dream.

Almost in defiance of her thoughts, the unbroken metal of the wall gave way to a pane of shadowed flexiglass, and her steps faltered when she spotted the room behind. The open plan of the living quarters, the bed kept in plain view of the door, no shadows or corners or nooks to hide in at all. It was the bedroom she’d spent most of the first twenty years of her life in, the single room she was allowed in the complex. It was here that they’d watched her and shaped her and stripped all humanity from her in their quest to craft her into nothing more than an instrument for the Emperor to wield.

How many times had she crept back to that bed as a child, bloodied and bleeding and bruised, determined not to cry out or beg because weakness only begot more weakness- to weep and admit to your pain was to invite more pain. How many times had she lain silently in the darkness, shaking from the violence of the pain in her little body, waiting for sleep or unconsciousness to claim her so that she could escape from this endless nightmare for a time?

She shook herself with effort, looking away from the room. “This is a dream,” she said again, even louder. “Stop wasting my time, and show yourself.”

The illusion faded away, the metal halls of the facility giving way to the more comforting stone of the temple she had claimed as her home. She fought off a shudder of relief, because she would not give the creature haunting her the privilege of knowing it had gotten under her skin; but it was there, all the same. These walls provided a measure of comfort for her that she would have found absurd to consider once upon a time, but now? Now they were imbued with memories of hope and potential, of quiet moments where she found the awkward strength to smile at the love her children showed her and the faith Gabriel had in her. Here she had begun to live, and uncover the person she might have been without twenty years or more of abusive physical conditioning and violent brainwashing.

Just because she could see her home, instead of the walls of the place where they had broken her, didn’t mean she felt safe yet.

No one appeared to her challenge, despite having given up the pretence of mimicking the facility, so she gritted her teeth and continued down the hallway to the nursery.

Despite Vaane’s propensity to destroy their nanny droids as fast as they replaced them, she did prefer to keep them on standby for night-time duties. It soothed her anxieties- not that she would admit to them- to know that her children were sufficiently guarded throughout the hours when she was not available, and between Revan and the droids, she’d never had a moment of worry. Until now, of course.

The next indication that something was wrong was the sight of the newest nanny droid, strewn in shattered pieces over the last few steps before she reached the nursery. Normally, she wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at the destruction of a droid- Vaane was growing quite proficient at it, and his sister seemed to take more and more delight in joining him in the chaos- but the fact that the droid was beyond the bounds of the room set off alarm bells in her head. If Vaane had destroyed it, she would have found it in a heap near his bed, or torn apart between their beds as they fought over it.

Something else- or someone else- had destroyed her children’s guardian.

She stepped carefully over the twisted shards of metal, cautious so that she did not pierce her bare feet on any of the jagged edges, and stepped through into the nursery- and stopped dead in her tracks.

The twins were in their beds, no other signs of disturbance in the room. But they were not alone.

A man- a ghost, really- stood over them, his hand almost absently placed over Connie’s brow as he watched them sleep. Despite the fact that she did not recognise the physical guise he wore, there was no mistaking the corruption and rot and wrongness of his psychic presence. Not when it resonated so deeply within her.

To say she was frightened was an understatement. She regretted not bringing her lightsabers with her, dream or not.

Get away from my children,” she said, her voice low and her hands clenched into fists at her sides.

Vitiate looked up at her, an indulgent smile on his face. “What sort of poor and woefully ill-bred greeting is that?” he asked, his thumb brushing back Connie’s dark hair as she slept. “You consort with the rabble and the gutter trash of the galaxy, and forget how to speak?”

She was no sorceress, and her skills with the dead were mediocre at best, but he was touching her children.

She raised her hand, intending to send a wall of power slamming into him in the hope it would disperse his form, but instead was jerked violently backwards until her hand was pinned to the wall behind her as if by a mag-cuff. The room rippled, and the familiar warm stone shivered out of sight, to be replaced by the cold, sterile walls of the facility again; the only difference now, of course, was the two small beds in the centre of the living area, where Vitiate stood over her children.

Tahrin couldn’t even begin to describe the panic she felt, seeing her babies in a setting that had caused her so much harm, and she knew she couldn’t hide it from him. His sonorous laugh made her skin crawl, as she all but clawed at her hand trying to get free from his invisible restraints.

“You were my greatest success in so many ways, daughter,” he said, utterly unconcerned by her rage and her struggles. “It pains me to see you having fallen so far from your potential.”

“You tried to kill me,” she snarled, half considering whether breaking her wrist would give her the leverage to break free of his hold. “You made me watch the entire death of a world.”

“I only considered killing you because it disappointed me to see how far you had strayed from your purpose,” he said dismissively, as if she was simply throwing a tantrum at being denied sweets after supper. Connie stirred in her sleep, and he smiled indulgently at her. “Seeing you cheapen yourself by whoring with a common soldier, watching you consort with Jedi castoffs and the unempowered rabble... you were crafted for greater things, and you sully your own potential.”

This is only a dream.

She had as much power as he did in a dream.

Snarling, she felt the abyss of the dark side open up beneath her feet and she lunged for it; hate burned through her as she tore her arm away from the wall, a huge chunk of rock and rubble coming with her where he’d bound her arm. She remembered to shield the children, safely ensconced in a bubble of Force protection, before she hurled her arm forward, the torso sized boulder hurtling through the air to slam into him.

It physically connected with him, which she was not expecting- he had appeared to her as a ghost, his form insubstantial and transparent in the same manner that Vivaane appeared- but the rock slammed into him and exploded into a cloud of dust and shards of shrapnel. As the dust settled, he became visible again, his face twisted into an expression of distaste as he made a show of brushing off his sleeves. He looked no more worse for wear than if she’d simply thrown a handful of dirt at him.

She screamed, furious and frightened and consumed by her hatred for him. “Get away from my daughter!

He looked down his nose at her, as if he found her behaviour petulant. “Is a man not entitled to know his own grandchildren?”

“There is nothing in them that belongs to you!”

He smirked. “On the contrary, daughter,” he said, and she felt an immense weight come crashing down on top of her, forcing her onto her hands and knees, “everything that they are and will be is a testament to the legacy I have gifted to them.”

This is just a dream.

But she could taste blood in her mouth.

She felt a surge of power, a contradictory presence, and she closed her eyes in relief.

There was a sparkling crack of lightning, the room blindingly white for a moment, and when the light faded and Tahrin had the strength to lift her head, she nearly wept when she saw Vivaane standing before Vitiate. There was power crackling off of her, the very air around her shifting and warping in the face of her fury, as if she was pulling on the very seams of reality and threatening to unmake him.

She looked entirely wild, her hair floating around her and her eyes vacant holes in her face, her lips pulled back in a snarl that showed off teeth not entirely human.

Get away from my grandchildren,” she snarled, her voice layered and echoing, as if she spoke with a dozen voices at once instead of her own.

Vitiate was no longer within arm’s reach of the children, apparently having been pushed back by Vivaane’s violent entrance, but he smirked all the same. “My dear Revan,” he said, with an intimacy in his voice that revolted Tahrin; she felt her stomach seethe in horror at it. “Look at how you have diminished yourself.”

“I’m sure the centuries I spent bound to you had nothing to do with it,” she hissed, thrusting a hand towards him; the power of the attack buffeted the room, the stones beneath Tahrin’s hands rattling as dust fell from the ceiling. Unlike her attempt at a strike, this one actually staggered him, and Vivaane screeched triumphantly.

Tahrin had never had anyone to defend her as a child. She had grown up knowing she was an object, a thing, rather than a person or a daughter, and she had long ago given up any pretense of knowing what it was to have a parent stand in defense of you, to have a parent who loved you.

She didn’t know if Vivaane was any more capable of love than she was, but she had never, ever assumed that one day she would know her mother, and that she would stand between her and a monster.

This is just a dream, she reminded herself even as her heart lurched with childish longing for a mother she’d never had, this is not the real Vivaane.

And the real Vivaane had died centuries ago, her spirit only a rough approximation of the woman she had once been, corrupted by hundreds of years of forced coexistence with Vitiate and a slowly crumbling sense of humanity.

“This is just a dream,” she said hoarsely, trying to push herself back to her feet.

Vitiate looked past Vivaane, his expression indulgent and amused again. Her heart stopped in terror.

“Perhaps,” he agreed, and she realised he’d heard her. “If this is nothing more than a dream, it will not concern you if I were to do this.”

He stepped forward, utterly unaffected by Vivaane’s attempts to force him backwards; the snarl of fury on her face shifted abruptly to one of shocked surprise as he thrust a hand forward, his fist embedded in her chest as if he’d reached in to grab her heart. Tahrin thought she might have called out to her, that maybe she’d screamed, but she couldn’t be sure. Vivaane looked down at the hand in her chest in genuine surprise, the inhumanly feral quality vanishing from her features. Now she just looked like a young woman, barely more than a girl, and she looked so much smaller compared to him.

Vivaane looked up to her, and Tahrin tried to reach for her; her mother opened her mouth, as if to speak, but no sound came out. Instead, fractures of light began to splinter over her skin, cracks spearing in all directions and radiating out from where he had attacked her. The light grew, and the cracks grew larger and faster, and then-

Tahrin closed her eyes as she felt the shockwave pass over her, fighting back a sob of horror. When she opened her eyes again, Vitiate stood alone between the twins’ beds, his hand still clenched into a fist; as she watched, he slowly opened his fingers, and a fine powder trickled out onto the floor, whispering away with an unpleasant crackle of dissipating power.

Fighting off panicked tears, Tahrin kept repeating it as a mantra- it’s just a dream, it’s just a dream, it’s just a dream, it’s just a dream- as she tried to push herself to her feet. Instead, she felt a cold hand wrap around her neck, and before she could fight it she was dragged upright, until her toes were only just brushing against the ground. The hand did not crush her windpipe, but it did not make it easy to breathe, and she clawed desperately at the ghostly limb in the hope she could hurt him.

Vitiate tsked her softly, disappointed. “I have tolerated your rebellious nature up to now,” he said, utterly unmoved by her struggles, “but I grow weary of your continued defiance.”

Gasping, not drawing enough air into her lungs, she tried to kick out feebly towards him. “I will see the galaxy protected from you,” she rasped, trying to push down the panic in her.

He chuckled, and the sound was enough to break her; she whimpered, and then the storm of hysterical tears within her could not be held back. “You are an errant experiment at best, nothing more,” he said calmly. “If you think I would be foolish enough to allow your continued existence if you were truly capable of threatening me, then you have vastly underestimated me, child.”

She was choking, dying, and she couldn’t allow that- she couldn’t leave him alone with her children. She would not leave them to suffer the same upbringing that she had had. “There is an end to all things,” she managed to force out, black spots dancing in front of her eyes. “There will be an end to you.”

“I could have shared the gift of immortality with you,” he said, almost mournfully. “You could have been heir to the greatest dynasty the galaxy has ever seen.”

You do not share anything, she wanted to say, but she couldn’t breathe. She had to fight, for her children, her babies-

“Instead you tarnish every gift I bestowed upon you, and squander my legacy by rutting with a half-wild guttersnipe.” He paused, and her vision grew dark as he squeezed the last of the air from her body. “The merciful thing to do would be to smother the whelps in their sleep, to spare them a life marred by their impurities.”

No, she wanted to shout and scream, not them too.

“Perhaps your brother will succeed where you have failed, and sire a worthy successor for me.”

She came awake with a panicked gasp, lurching upright in bed with her heart in her throat and tears on her cheeks. Her panic morphed into hysteria when she felt someone looming over her, and she threw up a hand to defend herself, her fist connecting with flesh.

Shit! Woah, woah, easy sweetheart!”

The voice was familiar, and it managed to pierce through the fog of her panic and- pierce. Pierce. It was Gabriel. She was safe in her room, the dreams already slithering out of reach, and the father of her children was there with her. Everything was okay. She was safe.

She was sobbing, and on some level of consciousness she was disgusted with herself for the weakness, but when he reached for her again she flinched and all but threw herself out of reach, falling out of bed in a tangle of blankets. Her legs were trapped in the sheets bound around her legs, and that just made her panic worse.

“Tahrin, shit sweetheart, breath!”

The twins, she thought, hysterical panic driving her onwards, and she tore the sheets apart in her desperation to be free of them.

“What? What about the twins? Tahrin?”

Had she said it aloud, or had she just projected her hysteria so strongly that he’d sensed it, the words forced into his consciousness? It didn’t matter, she had to get to the children-

She felt large hands on her shoulders, clamping down hard and pinning her in place. “Tahrin!” he said loudly, shouting as if he thought she couldn’t hear him. “You gotta breathe, sweetheart!”

She burst into tears, and didn’t that feel humiliating. “I need to check the children-”

“It was just a bad dream, love, the kids are fine.” He turned her around, his hand under her chin as he turned her up to face him; the concern on his face made her cringe, and she fought back against the weeping with everything in her. “Come on, love, you’re all good.”

“Gabriel,” she stammered, gritting her teeth to try and control herself, “I appreciate what you are trying to do for me, but right now I need to check on the children.”

He didn’t even question it. “Come on then,” he said, as sensible and no-nonsense as always. “But if they’re cranky as shit in the morning from not enough sleep, I nominate Quinny boy for babysitting.”

He let her go, and she all but fled from the room, stumbling into the corridor with none of her usual control and precision. She sprinted down the hall, almost tripping on the steps as she tried to take them three at time down to the nursery. There was no ruined droid strewn across the steps, no sign of intruders; as she hurtled into the room, the droid in question looked up from where it was stationed by the far wall, the blinking red of its optic sensors scanning her quickly before determining her to not be a threat to its charges.

The glowing holographic tree that served as their night light twinkled silently, sparkling cheerfully in a riotous rainbow of colours; the room was quiet but for her harrowed breathing and the sound of Pierce’s footsteps as he made his way down the corridor behind her, and she rushed to the two small beds with her heart in her throat.

Connie was lying on her back, a long line of saliva dribbling out of her mouth and onto the pillow, but her chest was rising and falling as per normally. Vaane was hunched over on his side, a toy grophet clutched fiercely to his chest with his little fist pressed up to his mouth as if he’d been trying to suck on the whole thing. Like his sister, he was breathing normally, no sign of interference or harm done to him at all.

Tahrin burst into tears.

“Hey, hey now.” Pierce came up behind her, and the twins immediately stirred, both opening their eyes and blinking in sleepy confusion as their mother’s emotional distress echoed through them. She felt his hands on her shoulders, smoothing down her arms in a comforting gesture. “Come on now, it’s all good.”

Connie started grizzling in protest at having been woken, clearly disoriented from the shared emotional upheaval; Tahrin reached down into the bed and scooped her up into her arms, her heart lurching into her throat at the blessedly familiar warmth and softness of her daughter. Balancing Connie in one arm, she managed to collect Vaane with the other- with some assistance from Pierce- and took them over to the lounge by the wall. Pierce sank down onto one knee in front of them, his expression clearly concerned as he watched her cling to their children.

“See?” he said softly, one hand on her knee while the other ran over Vaane’s head, tussling the dark hair that was already mussed from sleep. “The kids are alright, love. Ain’t no need to fuss.”

She clutched them tighter, closing her eyes as she did her best to stop weeping. “I am not fussing,” she said stiltedly.

“Okay, we ain’t gonna call this fussing, so...” He paused. “You gonna tell me what’s got you so worked up?”

She hiccuped and grimaced. “It’s like you said,” she said, forcing each word out. “Just a bad dream.”

“Nerfshit it is. Tahrin, I’ve known you a long time now, and you sleep like the dead. You close your eyes and lay there without moving and then when you’re done you open them and walk off, creepy as shit. I ain’t never seen you have any sort of bad dream, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen you cry and still have fingers left over.”

“I’m fine.”

Tahrin,” he said, a hint of frustration finally breaking through. She felt his hand on her face, and opened her eyes to see him watching her. The love in his eyes made her flinch slightly, and the concern there made her feel simultaneously safe and terrified. “Please love, you scared me, alright? I ain’t too big a man to admit to that. It scares me seeing you so worked up, and I wanna know how I can fix this.”

It was just a dream, her common sense insisted, even as she opened her mouth. “Call Quinn for me,” she said.

Her response clearly took him by surprise, and there was a flicker of irritation in his eyes that he didn’t bother to hide from her; he’d never bothered to hide his antagonistic relationship with Malavai, and she appreciated the honesty they showed in not attempting to fake it just to placate her.

He muttered something under his breath as he grunted and pushed back to his feet, going over to the desk on the other side of the nursery; he came back a moment later, a portable holo in his hand as he knelt in front of the couch again. With her hands full holding the twins, Tahrin nodded at him to indicate he should call.

Pierce’s sour exasperation was almost amusing. “You’re killing me here, love,” he muttered.

The holo only buzzed twice before Quinn answered; they’d clearly woken him, if the dishevelled slant to his hair was anything to go by, but he otherwise looked composed as always. He’d pulled on a robe over whatever sleeping garments he wore, his bare calves and bare feet looking almost comical compared to how immaculately he normally presented himself.

“Pierce, what-” He reined in whatever he’d been about to snap when he saw Tahrin as well, his heels clicking together with an almost audible crack. “My Lord? Is something wrong with the children?”

She managed a watery smile, even if the question did make her feel horrifically vulnerable all over again. “Quinn, I need you to tell me if anyone has approached the moon, or whether anyone has entered the temple.”

She could just about hear him blink in surprise. “I- my Lord?”

Even Pierce looked confused. “There ain’t no one here love,” he said rubbing his free hand over her knee. “It was just a dream, yeah?”

She gritted her teeth. “Quinn,” she repeated, with more stress on his name this time. “I need you to tell me if anyone has approached the moon, or whether anyone has entered the temple.”

“My Lord,” he said, and then hesitated. “Tahrin,” he corrected, one of the rare occasions where he resorted to using her name, “I can promise you, nothing at all has gotten past us that would be capable of threatening-”

Check the sensors!” she snarled, her voice echoing ever so slightly with the hints of the abyss.

She missed the brief glance he shared with Pierce, which in itself should have be an indication of just how out of character her behaviour was for the two of them to both express concern for her; she buried her face against the top of Connie’s head, eyes closed as she breathed in the smell of her children as they nestled sleepily against her.

There were several moments of silence, and then Quinn spoke again. “My Lord, preliminary scanners show no intrusion in the sector on any output,” he said quietly. “I will awaken the senior technicians and have our teams run some more extensive testing, which could take several hours, but initial outputs show no chemical or radiation fluctuations, no disruption to the perimetre readings, no audio or visual evidence of an intruder on the internal security cameras, and no spikes in cronau radiation to indicate a hyperspace breach anywhere in the sector.”

That should have settled her anxiety, proof that she was safe and just being paranoid, but if anything it just made it worse. “And there’s absolutely nothing-”

Tahrin,” Pierce said, clearly exasperated. “Sweetheart, come on, we can’t help if you keep refusing to tell us what’s going on.”

She hid her face against Vaane’s hair. “I need to see Revan,” she said instead, still stalling on saying it aloud.

She knew Pierce and Quinn were looking at each other again, united for once in their concern for her, but neither of them voiced an objection. After a moment, Pierce climbed to his feet.

He grunted, and cleared his throat. “Viv, you old bat,” he called, hands on his hips as if he was bracing himself for her appearance. “Get your ass in here.”

Between one heartbeat and the next, Vivaane was there- standing on the ceiling, her long braided hair hanging down towards the floor. “Squeak, squeak,” she said.

“What?”

“I’m a bat. Squeak squeak. Get it?”

He swatted a hand at her hanging braid, his hand passing straight through it as expected. “Get down from there, you bloody toddler,” he said, with tired fondness. “Where’ve you been?”

Vivaane drifted down from the roof with more poise than she normally showed, pulling a silly face at Connie when she glanced up at her. She clapped in delight at the sleepy giggle the girl let out, all but hopping up and down in her glee. Watching the two of them interact, her mother and her daughter, Tahrin started crying again.

Her mother seemed to take that as an affront against her, because she sighed dramatically. “If you must know, there was a frog on the other side of the moon. As big as my hand and everything! He was fascinating. I named him Carth.”

“Mother,” she rasped, resisting the urge to reach for her. She would not be able to take her hand no matter how badly she desired to, so there was no point.

Vivaane finally seemed to pick up on the mood in the room- or, more likely, she’d assessed it upon entering and simply elected to ignore it in favour of her own mischief- and paused. “What is it, Tahrin?” she asked, her express growing serious.

She had to say it. She could admit to it, after all, it was just a dream-

“Why are there markings on your neck?”

She could still feel Vitiate’s cold grip on her, as he’d choked the life from her and informed her he was about to kill her children. “Can you kill a ghost?” she whispered, not quite able to look at any of them.

Her question clearly took them by surprise, and it took Revan a moment to answer. “Well... yes, of course, although I’m not in the habit of telling people how to banish me permanently because-”

“I saw you die,” she said. “I saw- he was here. Vitiate.”

No one said anything, and when she risked looking up, she could see the dread warring with doubt in their expressions. “I tried to tell myself it was just a dream, but-”

“But you have markings on your neck,” Vivaane finished for her, her tone almost violently cold.

“Yes,” Tahrin whispered, licking suddenly dry lips.

The room shuddered, and Vivaane’s form rippled with power. “Well then,” she said quietly, “two can play at that game.”

Chapter Text

He gave her no respite.

She knew he was hurting, exhausted, dying- just like she was- and yet at every turn he was there, ready to torment her anew. There was so much of him that she could feel, as clearly as if they were her own thoughts and emotions and not those of a parasite buried in her body, and no matter how she focused or concentrated, it was only a matter of time before she found her thoughts tangled around his again.

She remembered things that had never happened to her, wars she had never fought in. There was a woman she called mother, but she was pale and frail and human, not proud and vain and red-skinned like a true daughter of Korriban. There was a man she called father and she killed him, and that seemed true enough- but sometimes he wore a different face, Pureblood and human and then Pureblood again, three faces or more blurring into one. She knew Revan, or the foolishly arrogant young girl who would become Revan.

She knew what the inner sanctum of the Dark Temple looked like because she’d ordered it crafted in the first place, even though she’d spent years as a girl training and trying to breach the seals on that chamber.

She tried to take solace in what she knew to be true, what she knew to be fact. She remembered the apprentices she had fought alongside and the masters she had served. Lord Zhivalla and Lord Zash and Lord Ragnos- or, wait, no, she hadn’t served Marka Ragnos. Had she?

There were other apprentices, the boy who was heir to Kallig’s legacy, who had tamed a Shadow Assassin and ate ghosts for power. The girl who did her best to pretend she was not sith, who had the power to reach into the heart of a machine as if it were a living creature and twist it to her whims. The girl Kresh, and her disappointing moral compass, nearly ruining decades of work with her betrayal-

She snarled and all but clawed at her head, trying to force aside the memories that weren’t hers.

Lana. She had Lana. Lana, who was true and real and entirely hers, no one else's. Beautiful, poised, controlled Lana, who came apart in her arms, her passion unleashed at last. Her lovely silver eyes and her long dark hair-

Wait.

“Get out of my head!” she screamed, infuriated and terrified by the intrusion of his memories. Horrified by the way his seemed to supplant hers with such ease.

His chuckle reverberated through her flesh, like the tremors of a ground quake, and if she could have torn open her own body to claw the feeling out, she would have. “Have you no sense of hospitality, Nox?” he asked, appearing before her again, but at a safer distance than earlier.

“You invade my body and my mind, violating my sense of self and my autonomy, and you ask me to be civil with you?”

“You should be flattered by my attentions,” he said, flicking away a piece of rubble from his sleeve as if disgusted by it. “Out of all the ages I have lived, you alone have warranted my full interest, as no other has before you.”

Kallathe snarled, breathing hard; she wished she had the self control to attempt to appear more composed, as he did, but she was too angry. “Lie for yourself, if it soothes your ego,” she said, pressing a hand to her aching stomach. Her head felt like it was going to explode from the pressure within it. “We both know you’re only here because I was a convenient host at the moment of your other body’s death.”

“If I wanted someone spineless who would not fight me, I would have taken my son’s form. Arcann would have suited me far better.”

The smugness in him as he said it, the almost violent glee he took in mocking his own child... Kallathe saw red. She didn’t give a shit about a pampered human prince and his hurt feelings, but she had lived under the tyranny of an abusive father for too long for this mockery to go unanswered.

She went to take a step towards him, grunting in pain when the action made the stars swim around her, nausea squeezing tight around her ribs.

Valkorion laughed again, and for the first time she felt fear. “Ahhh, my dear Nox, is it possible you are in need of my assistance?”

This was different to the pain of their battles- this was... she felt weak. Frail, even. “What’s happening to me?” she said from between gritted teeth.

“Had it escaped your notice? You have been poisoned- the carbonite freezing process was imperfect, hurried, and the toxins meant to preserve you leach into your flesh instead.”

She shook her head, disbelieving. “No...”

“You are dying, Nox,” he said, far too pleased with himself. He smiled, the kindly smile of an elderly father, and her skin crawled. “Would you like my help?”

____

Naboo, the Chommell Sector, Mid Rim

Ona’la stirred sluggishly as the blaring sound of her commlink roused her from sleep; behind her, she heard Thexan groan and then his arm slid over her hip as he groggily nestled closer. The commlink continued to beep urgently, despite her best efforts to ignore it and go back to sleep, and so after a moment she reached forward in the dark of the room and fumbled around on her bedside table for the offending communicator. From the faint snoring at her back, Thexan appeared to be asleep again already.

Goddess, but she was so tired.

She clicked the commlink on and held it up to her mouth, her hand resting on the pillow. “This is Battlemaster Ona’la,” she said, her voice hoarse from sleep.

“Battlemaster, my apologies for waking you,” came the familiar voice on the other end of the line. “It’s Fleet Admiral Aygo here again.”

Rubbing tiredly at her eyes with her free hand, she was grateful it was only an audio call as she said “It’s fine, Admiral, I wasn’t asleep.”

Behind her, Thexan snorted sleepily, betraying his facade of pretending not to listen in.

“I appreciate the white lie, Battlemaster, but you don’t need to spare my feelings out of any sense of polite obligation.” Aygo cleared his throat. “I apologise for making this an abrupt call, but we need to know your coordinates for a strategy meeting in five minutes.”

Hiding a yawn behind her hand, Ona’la fumbled around on the bedside for her personal datapad. “We’re just in the Chommell Sector, outside Naboo,” she said. “What strategy meeting is this? Do you need me to link in for it?”

She heard him grunt, a sound of pure frustration. “Fourth Fleet got recalled to the northern quadrants. There’s been what Saresh calls ‘significant sith activity’ just inside their borders, and our attempts to dispute the recall were met with silence.”

Ona’la felt herself age another ten years just from that news alone. “But the Fourth Fleet was the only counterbalance we had since we lost the Second,” she said, a yawning pit of despair opening up in her heart. “We can’t hold the Mid Rim if she takes them away.”

“A point I’ve already reiterated at length.”

“It will give Zakuul access to Hutt Space, and goddess only knows we can't afford to let the Hutts try to bargain with Zakuul-”

“Battlemaster,” he said tiredly, “it’s none of this news to me. We’ve spent hours trying to argue with her and her office, Supreme Commander Malcolm actually got cut off by her aides when he tried to continue.”

She felt a new pang of guilt, a drop in the ocean to the deepening grief and despair she felt. “You should have woken me sooner,” she said quietly.

She wasn’t sure if he laughed ruefully or not, or whether she was just mishearing him through the static of their bad connection. “Someone in this damn shambles of an operation deserves to sleep, and if I recall correctly, last time I spoke to you you’d been awake for thirty-six hours.”

“Thirty-seven,” Thexan called from behind her back. She resisted the urge to elbow the traitor in the ribs.

Aygo sighed. “Regardless of how long you were awake, it was too long. I’ve got a meeting with Republic High Command in five minutes, all I need is your exact coordinates so we can integrate you into our plans.”

She clicked on the screen. “I’ve sent it,” she said, grateful for the way Thexan held her. “And please, Admiral, don’t worry about waking me- I’m always happy to offer my assistance to the meetings wherever possible.”

“I appreciate that, Battlemaster, I’ll update you as soon as we’ve got a new direction.”

“I have every faith in you and your team Admiral.”

He grunted, and she could hear the weariness and the frustration in the sound. “This is the third proposal her precious Committee for Independent Military Strategy has shot down,” he said, his voice almost poisonously bitter. “I think faith isn’t doing us much good right now.”

Before she could respond, he disconnected, the sharp click of the line closing ringing almost mockingly in the abrupt silence. She understood his frustration, she really did- she shared it, after all, both from the exhausting failures against Zakuul that continued to rise each day and the aggravating stonewalling from bureaucrats on Coruscant siphoning away their resources. She just wished she could do something more to prevent it, to buoy the spirits of those around her like they so desperately needed.

She slid the commlink back onto the bedside and slumped down onto the pillow again, exhaustion settling over her like a lead blanket. Thexan’s hand was still on her hip, and it snaked down onto her belly, gently tugging her backwards until she was tucked up against him. He was so warm, far warmer than she was, and between the safety she felt being in his arms and the comforting rhythm of his breath against her neck, she felt herself slowly relaxing again.

“Ona’la?” His voice was quiet, as if he didn’t quite know whether she would answer him, or whether she would feign sleep.

“Mm?”

He shifted slightly, almost as if he was clinging to her. “Are you okay?”

She sighed. “I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I’m tired. Does that count?”

He nuzzled at her neck, not necessarily in any sort of sexual manner so much as just... the sort of sleepy intimacy she was coming to enjoy most with him. Intimate touch for its own sake, and not out of the pursuit of sex. “You know you can talk to me about anything,” he said, almost hesitant in the way he said it. The brush of his lips over her skin made her shiver, more out of instinct than actual hunger. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to bottle it up.”

With a little awkward shuffling, she managed to turn around in his arms without getting the sheets wrapped around her legs, tucking herself in under his chin as he enfolded her in the safety of his arms. She closed her eyes and breathed him in, the hair on his chest tickling her nose; she could very happily have gone back to sleep like that, with his arms around her and his heart beating under her cheek and their legs tangled together, but she didn’t want to ignore what he’d said.

“I’m frightened,” she said honestly, her voice a little hoarse from lack of sleep. “I’m tired, and I’m exhausted, and I’m frightened. I want to help people, I want to give them something to hope for, but...”

“I know,” he said. “I know, love.”

There weren’t really any words that could adequately convey the weariness that came from fighting a war without end, the ache that permeated through flesh and soul without restraint. They’d known going into this that there was no way they could stop Arcann while he still possessed the strength of their father’s empire, there was no blind naivety there as to their chances of success, but it still dragged at her spirit, to fight on and on and on without respite.

She nuzzled closer to him, as if she could just sink into the warmth of him and cease to be anything other than sleepy and warm and safe with him. “I love you,” she murmured.

She felt his lips against the crown of her lekku. “I love you too.”

Love wasn’t going to end a war.

They drowsed for a time before Ona’la accepted the inevitable and dragged herself upright, Thexan grumbling as she did so. “We got five hours sleep,” she said, yawning as she picked up her personal chronometre.

“I should tie you to the bed,” he mumbled, his face buried in the pillow behind her.

She shivered at the images that evoked.

“That’s not supposed to be sexy, I’m just trying to get you to sleep more than once a week.”

Ona’la poked the mountain of blankets he was hiding under. “Sometimes you’re the one responsible for me not sleeping,” she reminded him.

She left him in the bed and made her way to the tiny shipboard refresher, going about her morning ablutions and trying to shake off the fog of sleep. The internal air systems must have been set to slightly too cold, because she shuddered again as she waited for the shower to run hot enough for her tastes before stepping into the small cubicle.

The water sluiced over her, and she closed her eyes as she dunked her head beneath the spray, waiting for the warmth to soak into her and melt away the stress making her soul ache. She wasn’t so lucky, of course, and after a half a minute of blank contemplation she stirred again, trying to rouse herself enough to focus on the day ahead and the tasks facing them.

She glanced over her shoulder when the cubicle door slid open, and smiled absently when Thexan stepped in behind her. The smile became a little more fully realised when he slid his hands around her waist, tugging her back against him.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he murmured, his lips against her neck, “I didn’t realise this stall was occupied.”

She laughed, squirming a little when his nibbling turned ticklish. “You’re so smooth,” she teased, giggling when he squeezed her from behind.

“It’s working, though, isn’t it?”

Turning in the circle of his arms, she shivered despite the warmth of the water and the steam around them. “Your ego is inflated enough without me adding fuel to the fire,” she said, moaning when he crowded her up against the wall of the cubicle and covered her mouth with his.

“You are the fire to my- I mean, you add fuel to my-” He very awkwardly stuttered to a halt, laughing as he tucked his head against her shoulder. “Damn it, I nearly had that one.”

She sneakily nipped at the curve of his ear. “Absolutely the smoothest,” she said. Her giggle trailed off onto a moan when he pressed open-mouthed kisses to her neck in retaliation, and from there it became a rather mutually enjoyable game of oneupmanship. The stress and the lingering sense of despair she’d felt as she’d stood alone melted away under his touch- not gone entirely, of course, but it was a little harder to concentrate on it as he held her up against the wall and made love to her beneath the spray.

Once they’d chased their pleasure to a satisfying conclusion, he helped her bathe, massaging her favourite oils into her lekku while she turned to jelly beneath his hands. She at least took some measure of gratification in returning the favour when she washed his hair; she was never going to get tired of that, she’d decided. Hair was such a weird delight, and it probably would have scandalised her younger self to know just how much she enjoyed running her hands through his hair during some of their more intimate activities.

She wouldn’t have had it any other way.

They’d worked out a system over these last few months when it came to sharing the bathroom space, and she found she quite enjoyed pausing in her makeup routine to watch him shave. It fascinated her, and she really liked how often she could make him laugh awkwardly and blush from her attention alone. She poked her tongue out at him when he rolled his eyes at the faces she was pulling at him in the looking glass.

It was comfortable, a quiet sort of fun that she might have once indulged in with Kira, or possibly Theron. Which was not to say that she didn’t enjoy the thrills of the pleasure she found in Thexan’s arms, certainly something she did not experience with Kira or Theron, but more that she’d found friendship there first. Lover and friend- one in itself was a gift, but to have both in one person seemed like a gift far beyond what she might ever have hoped possible.

“Where did your thoughts run off to?” he asked, patting his face down with a towel before swooping in briefly to press a short kiss to her temple.

She smiled at him in the glass. “Just thinking about how lucky I am.”

As always, the compliment pulled him up short, a surprised and bashful look coming over his face before he grinned. “Not as lucky as me,” he said, winking as he left her to finish applying her makeup.

With no further word from Admiral Aygo or Supreme Commander Malcolm regarding the outcome of the newest strategy meeting, she had to assume their plans were unchanged. Thexan was sitting in the cockpit by the time she was dressed for the day, one foot pulled up onto the chair as he perused something on a datapad.

“Refreshing yourself on Naboo’s history?” she asked, settling into the captain’s chair.

Thexan shook his head. “It’s some holonet comic series that Captain Voresh sent me,” he said absently, turning the datapad sideways. “I probably should have asked how she got my contact details in the first place, but I was more perplexed about why she was sending it to me at all.”

“A comic? What’s it about?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, frowning as he held the datapad sideways for longer. “It just seems to have a lot of nudity in it. And wizards, for some reason.”

“Naked wizards?”

“I think it’s supposed to be a comedy. I don’t understand a lot of the humour, I think.” He paused. “A lot of nudity.”

They made contact with Naboo’s air control, and began to make their descent towards the planet’s surface. The dark black of space slowly faded into purple, and then blue, the stars winking out of sight rapidly. There was some brief cloud cover as they made their way down, the green plains obscured for a few minutes before opening up before them.

The city of Theed was spread out over the delta of the river below them, a sprawling entity of wide limestone boulevards and the darker blue of the canals; she’d heard it was a beautiful city, but the holos didn’t quite seem to do it justice. For a settlement so young in galactic terms- only three hundred years, give or take a decade- it seemed so well established, like the stones of the city carried a legacy far older than one might have assumed. She came in low from the plains, giving the more suburban areas of the city a wide berth so as not to disrupt the people with their engines; the spaceport was overlooking the floodplains, the hangars themselves built into the cliffsides. It was all rather picturesque, and she had to commend those who had had the foresight to build with practicality and aesthetic in mind.

She’d received instructions during their descent to bypass the main landing fields and instead bring the ship down in a plaza on the outskirts of the spaceport, facing towards the palace complex. There was a rather extensive entourage gathered to meet them when they landed, complete with guards in elaborate ceremonial garb alongside the far more sensibly attired soldiers. At the head of the party was a group of young women, all but one of whom were dressed in rather discreet red hooded robes; the one exception to the rule was a girl who couldn’t have been more than thirteen, maybe fourteen, but who was wearing one of the most exquisite outfits Ona’la had ever seen in her life. Her hair was pinned up and back in a fan around her head, styled like a broad halo, and her face was stark white with only a few touches of bright red. Her gown itself was picked out in various shades of green and black, something in the lines of the design drawing to mind the feathers on a bird.

“Are you ready?” Ona’la murmured out of the corner of her mouth as they slowly descended the ramp.

“As much as I am able to be,” Thexan said back to her.

Four of the ceremonial guards and two of the soldiers peeled away from the group to meet them in the shadow of their starcruiser, and as she stepped into the cheerful cobbled plaza, she waited for the inevitable warning.

One of the soldiers, the one she guessed to be the most senior, spoke for the group as they met them. “Battlemaster,” he said in greeting, glancing at Thexan before pointedly looking back to Ona’la without acknowledging him. Thexan stiffened but said nothing; it was hardly the first time his presence had earned them a cold reception. “I am Captain Anaru, of the Naboo Royal Armed Forces. My men will search your vessel to ensure you pose no threat to Her Majesty and our people.”

Ona’la smiled warmly, bowing her head. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain. You have my word that we come in the spirit of friendship, but please, by all means, if it would set your minds at ease then you are welcome to inspect our ship.”

Captain Anaru’s gaze was flat, the smile unacknowledged. “You are rather free with your word, Battlemaster,” he said, looking pointedly at Thexan again. “One might say it loses it’s meaning when used so regularly.”

She tried not to flinch at the almost nasty implication to his words, and at her side Thexan quite audibly growled; she put a hand on his arm, preemptively thinking to hold him back should he get aggressive, but he was apparently as practised at this as she was, and didn’t move. Captain Anaru looked between them, his lip curled in something akin to distaste as he took in the way she touched him, and then turned away, directing the guards to stand watch while he and the other soldier inspected the ship.

It was a terse few minutes to wait, and after a time Ona’la let her hand fall away from Thexan’s arm; what she wanted more than anything was to hold his hand, and draw strength from him, but Captain Anaru’s words had made it abundantly clear how her public defence of Thexan had been taken out here in the Mid Rim. It wasn’t an unusual response, and they’d had far more aggressive greetings since the war had started, but she’d just... she’d begun to hope that maybe the work they were doing would earn him a better reputation.

She just wanted everyone to see the good he was doing, and the kindness in his heart that she could see. She knew he had a lot of work ahead of him to undo the damage he’d done, but...

There is no emotion, there is only peace. Her emotional investment in Thexan was clouding her ability to stand as an impartial witness, she knew that. She had to be better at maintaining that sense of separation, for all their sakes.

Captain Anaru reappeared after a few minutes spent inspecting the ship. Without further preamble, he nodded his head sharply in the direction of the rest of the party. “If you’ll follow me, please.”

He led them across the plaza to the waiting assembly, and seeing the exquisite finery of the royal court made Ona’la all the more thankful that she’d invested in better clothing for Thexan all those months ago. Exceptions could be made for her own apparel, given that Jedi were supposed to favour function over finery, but Thexan at least looked fine indeed in a peacock blue tunic picked through with silver and black embroidery.

Goddess help her, he was so handsome.

They came to a stop before the Queen’s party. “May I present, Her Majesty Queen Mereana of Naboo,” Anaru said, looking for all the world like he had swallowed something sour as he turned back to them. “Your Majesty, the Jedi Battlemaster and- her guest.”

Ona’la swallowed down the bitterness that came from his disrespect towards Thexan and instead offered a bright smile to the young queen. “It is an honour to meet you, Your Majesty,” she said, bowing deeply. Despite her extensive lessons in etiquette, she was still at a bit of a loss as to how to approach Mereana- Naboo was not a registered member of the Republic, which placed her somewhat outside the regular spheres of influence Ona’la was used to. Naboo recognised the Jedi Order, and had allowed a handful of youth to seek training with the Order over the last few hundred years, but had managed to remain steadfastly beyond the reach of both the Republic and the Empire until now.

The head of an independent military body greeting a foreign queen in her own territory? She honestly didn’t think she’d ever have enough training for that.

The young queen was silent as she straightened from her bow, her expression inscrutable beneath the painfully pale paint. “The honour is ours, Battlemaster,” she said, her voice shockingly young. Even if one was familiar with the Naboo custom for electing such young girls to their most prominent office, it still came as a surprise to see the proof in front of you.

But, Ona’la had to remind herself, you defended younglings during the sith attack on the temple when you were younger than her.

Mereana continued, unaware of her train of thought. “We had not expected the attentions of one so esteemed in a time such as this,” she said. “Surely the Jedi and the Republic require your services elsewhere?”

It did not sound like a dismissal, but it certainly sounded like a challenge to explain herself. Straightening her shoulders, Ona’la said “You and your advisory council reached out for aid, and what better way to confront Zakuul’s approach than with inside knowledge of their military and operations?”

The queen looked to Thexan, finally. “Indeed,” she said, almost flatly. “Tell me, Battlemaster, what it is you hope to achieve here with your... guest.”

“Forgive me, Battlemaster,” Captain Aranu said irritably, “but when we approached the Republic for help, we were expecting something more along the lines of an army, or a fleet.”

Something actually useful, was the unspoken implication.

Ona’la had been through this conversation dozens of times now, on a dozen other worlds, but it still didn’t make it any easier. “If I may, your Majesty, I’d like to introduce my associate,” she said, putting her hand on Thexan’s shoulder.

“We are aware of who it is you travel with, Battlemaster.”

“Prince Thexan has the most thorough understanding of the internal workings of the Eternal Fleet and the Zakuulan military complex as a whole, outside of Emperor Arcann himself. There is no one better equipped to teach your soldiers how to combat them.”

“And what good will your teachings do us, when we have yet to have word reach us of any worlds maintaining their independence from Zakuul, whether they be Imperial, Republic or otherwise,” said a woman standing to the Queen’s right, her more practical grey and white garb making Ona’la suspect that she was the city governor, a woman by the name of Whetu if memory served. “If the might of the entire Republic and their Jedi cannot stop this threat, why bother to teach us tricks that will only delay the inevitable?”

At her side, Thexan cleared his throat. “If I may,” he said quietly, his voice carrying clearly despite the volume, “I believe I would be best placed to answer that question.”

Queen Mereana’s gaze turned to him at last, with more scrutiny and a greater sense of curiosity than it first had. She looked at him for several long moments, as if weighing up her words with care before speaking. “We have heard that your father was the World-Eater,” she said at last, calling Vitiate by one of the more melodramatic names that had arisen after the cataclysm on Ziost. “These rumours concern us. We would appreciate it if you could set our minds at ease.”

Oh no.

There was nothing else for it but to tell the truth, even as she readied herself for the rejection that would follow. Thexan would admit that Vitiate was his father, Mereana would force them from Theed and the entirety of Naboo, and another world would be left as a failure on their schedule.

She felt Thexan take a deep breath beside her, and she wanted more than anything to take his hand in that moment. “Your Majesty, to the best of my knowledge, the rumours are correct,” he said, stiltedly but at least clear. “It is my understanding that he- that the entity known as Vitiate was also masquerading as Emperor Valkorion, my father.”

It was so quiet in the plaza that Ona’la could hear the distant sounds of birds squawking, the wind snapping at the flags on the bunting along the canal. Queen Mereana’s face was utterly unreadable, and Ona’la thought that her control would have been admirable in a Jedi, not just a young girl without the benefit of decades of training.

When her answer finally came, Ona’la felt her heart lurch with the promise of hope. “And you say that you can aid my people,” Mereana said, “teach them what they need to know to keep them from harm?”

“Your Majesty, everything I know of Zakuul and their armies shall be available for you and your people.”

Mereana was quiet again, considering his answer. “Naboo was founded by those who would live free of fear, and tyranny,” she said at last. “We fled from a tyrant and sought a new life. It was difficult for our people, in the beginning, but worth it- would you agree, your Highness?”

Ona’la couldn’t help the little gasp she let out as she realised what it was that Mereana was offering; her gaze flew to Thexan, and he was smiling. Oh goddess, was there finally someone willing to accept his offer of assistance at face value without tearing him down first?

“I cannot agree more, Your Majesty,” he said, and the mood of the plaza seemed to change at that. It was lighter, less tense, the sharper edges of the stress bleeding away now that the Queen had made her decision and her stance clear.

“Many of the people of Naboo are descendants of those who first fled Grizmallt, and left behind loved ones caught up in the violence. Some of their loved ones were on the other side of the conflict, actively choosing to oppose and tear down the government. Do you believe it is possible to break away from the bonds of a tyrant, no matter how close they sit to your heart?”

She could have wept happily at Thexan’s answer. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe it, Your Majesty.”

Mereana looked down, as if considering her final response, and then nodded once. “Very well,” she said. “I believe your Council agreed to spare you for several days. We would be honoured to have you as guests of Naboo for this time.”

Her words brought a polite smattering of applause from some of the crowd, and Ona’la was so relieved that for a moment she felt light-headed. “I cannot tell you how grateful we are for this opportunity, your Majesty,” she said.

“It is the least we can do for one who would offer to protect our people.” Mereana shifted, turning as if to depart; her handmaidens turned with her. “I will leave you in the care of Governor Whetu, the head of our Royal Council. She will see to your needs.”

She could see from Thexan’s face that he was a bit thrown by the change, and she tried to catch his eye as she smiled. The woman in grey peeled away from the group and moved over towards them, her earlier suspicions about her identity having been proved correct.

Governor Whetu’s smile was at least cordial as she turned to them, probably the warmest reception anyone had given them so far. “We’ve arranged quarters for you overlooking the river,” she said, nodding to them both. “If you’ll just follow me.”

“I should really see to setting up for our training sessions,” Thexan said dubiously, but the crowd had already begun to disperse around them.

“I can show you the facilities we have afterwards- now that the Queen has accepted your assistance, she will meet briefly with her council to determine what it is they hope to achieve while we have you here. We realise the Republic can only spare you for a short time.”

Ona’la caught Thexan’s eye, and while she could see it wasn’t the answer he wanted, he nodded stiffly to her; taking the signal, she turned to the Governor and smiled. “We would be delighted to see to our accommodations,” she said, taking over the conversation for him. “Although really, it’s no trouble for us to remain aboard our vessel.”

Governor Whetu waved a hand. “Nonsense. The hospitality of Naboo is famous throughout the galaxy, and we will not turn away a guest as esteemed as the Jedi Battlemaster, or visiting royalty.”

There was nothing else for it but to follow her as she led them into the palace complex, maintaining the conversation for both of them. Thexan had unpredictable limits to his moods, and she did her best to step into the breach when he faltered; she couldn’t really say she enjoyed these endless encounters with hostile allies, either. In the months since the war had started, they’d visited dozens of worlds who had reached out desperately to the Republic for aid, offering them the only thing they knew could assist them in the long run- the knowledge to defeat Zakuul.

There were very few willing to speak to a former conqueror, and even fewer willing to be civil about it. The hostility took its toll on both of them, although Thexan was on the receiving end of it far more often than she was.

Governor Whetu led them through the hallways of the palace, a bright and airy complex full of open terraces and private gardens and views towards the aforementioned river. It was remarkably beautiful, the sort of place that she might have enjoyed visiting for pleasure rather than business- if pleasure was something a Jedi took part in. As it was, her life was bound by duty, and the most selfish thing she had ever allowed herself was to give her heart to the man who walked at her side.

They came to a stop before an unmarked doorway, and the Governor turned to them with a smile as one of the guards opened the door. “Now, these quarters are-” She stammered to a halt when Thexan all but stalked past her and into the room. “Ah, your Highness, we have quarters for you, the next room down?”

Oh, goddess help them- this conversation never got less awkward. Ona’la put her hand on Whetu’s arm and smiled warmly at her. “We’ll be fine,” she said. “I am technically still required to monitor Prince Thexan’s movements as a condition of his probation. We’ll be fine in the shared quarters.”

Whetu glanced almost nervously into the room, where Thexan had already vanished from sight- presumably to assess the rooms and whether there were any listening devices planted. It wouldn’t have been the first time their hosts were less than courteous in more subtle ways, after all. “I- of course, Battlemaster,” she said finally. “I wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable, is all.”

Oh, well that was refreshing. Whetu hadn’t made the automatic connection between their sharing a room and their sharing a bed- she’d seen the look of disgust on so many faces these past few months when people realised her relationship with Thexan went beyond that of a platonic protector. “You’ve gone above and beyond for us, so far,” she said, smiling. “This will be more than enough, thank you.”

Thexan reappeared in the doorway, apparently satisfied with whatever it was his cursory inspection had turned up. Ona’la smiled at him, and she saw him relax marginally.

“Very well,” Whetu said somewhat hesitantly. “I will leave you to get settled, and return for you in an hour’s time. Her Majesty should be ready to supervise your, ah, training sessions by then.”

“Thank you, Governor.”

The moment the door was closed behind them, Ona’la was laughing and launching herself into Thexan’s waiting arms, clinging tight to him as he spun them around. “You did it!” she said, laughing as he kissed at the curve of her jaw. “You did it, I’m so proud of you!”

We did it,” he corrected, setting her back on her feet even if he didn’t let go of her. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without you. No one would have even agreed to speak to me without you here.”

She cupped his face in her hands and kissed him soundly. “You got them to believe,” she said, so emotional that she could feel tears welling up in her eyes. “My name might have gotten the door open, but it was you, freykaa. It was all you.”

He laughed as well, that bashful expression that she loved so much coming over his face. “One cordial welcome out of the dozens of worlds we’ve visited doesn’t feel much like a success,” he said.

“Nonsense,” she said, kissing him again. His arms were tight around her waist, so safe and warm. “It’s a beginning. Word of Naboo’s acceptance will spread, and more doors will open. I’m so proud of you, Thexan.”

He rested his forehead against hers. “I- don’t want to think about where I’d be without you,” he said quietly, almost hesitantly. “This is all because of you, Ona’la.”

She smiled, her gaze caught up in his. “You’re allowed to take some credit for yourself, freykaa,” she said.

“I was ready to die. I thought that was the only purpose I had. You’ve given me back a reason to live.”

Oh, goddess, but she loved him.

They didn’t bother to unpack extensively, given that they’d only have three or four days on Naboo in total- they were expected on Kirima by the end of the galactic week, and then Roldalna after that. They went over the room more thoroughly while they were alone, hunting for any sort of listening or recording devices, anything that might indicate less than polite intentions by their hosts; thankfully they found nothing, although she did find herself distracted when they bumped into one another between rooms, and he took it as an opportunity to sneakily steal more kisses from her.

“The Governor said she’d be back in less than an hour,” she reminded him, gasping when his hands went wandering.

He smiled against her mouth, his hands far too clever for his own good. “You vastly overestimate my stamina, love, which I have to say is really nice for my ego.”

The governor did return in under an hour, as promised, but they’d composed themselves by then. “I’ll have things to collect from our vessel for the presentations,” Thexan said as they were escorted towards whatever training facility the court had in mind for them.

“That won’t be a problem. If you let me know what it is you need, I’ll holo ahead and see to it that the guards have it unpacked for you.”

The location for the training was a courtyard off of the palace barracks, with quite a number of guards assembled in casualwear rather than their uniforms. It was certainly the biggest assembly they’d had so far in any of their visits, and Ona’la once again felt her hopes soaring; maybe this was finally the turning point for them, maybe from here they’d see actual successes with their training and be able to unite more people against the advance of Zakuul and-

-and maybe she was getting ahead of herself again, and just needed to take it one step at a time.

Queen Mereana was present, and was dressed in yet another outfit, this one just as elaborate as the one she had greeted them in, and apparently continuing in the avian theme. There were bright yellow feathers sweeping back from the sides of her temples, and from the side it made it look like she sported a crest just like a bird. Her gown was a gold beaded affair, the strings of glittering baubles catching the light as she made her way along the podium to the shaded seating that had been assembled for her and her handmaidens. Several other ministers from her Royal Advisory Council were present as well, one or two of whom she had not been introduced to.

Surprisingly, amongst the soldiers and the guards who had gathered to take part in their training were several of Mereana’s handmaidens, all in plain, unassuming tunics and leggings with their long hair sensibly tied back from their faces. They were huddled close together, whispering as they surveyed the crowd, and more than once Ona’la had to fight back a smile when she saw them giggle and blush; at least one of those occasions came after one of them had glanced in Thexan’s direction, to her immense amusement. Even more adorable was the one time she caught them looking in her direction before giggling and blushing.

It was nice to see them have a chance to be giddy teenage girls, and not entirely caught up in the trappings of their responsibilities.

Whetu had seen to it that their training supplies had been fetched from the ship earlier as promised, the various odds and ends for the session sitting safely to one side of the secluded plaza; Thexan seemed to be taking a quick inventory of it all as she came up beside him, her hand going automatically to his arm. The smile he gave her was brief, and there was a little tension around his eyes.

“Are you alright?” she asked quietly, keeping her face turned away from the crowd in case any of them were capable of reading the words on her lips from a distance.

He didn’t exactly grimace, but she could feel the tension in him. “Just... head. Head stuff.”

“Headache, or the other thing?”

“Both.”

Her heart ached for not being able to hug him in public. “It’ll be okay,” she said calmly, quietly, rubbing her hand up and down his arm. “You’re doing so well, just a little longer and we can take a break. We’ll go sit somewhere quiet and you can nap or meditate or just ignore the world for a bit, if that’s what you want.”

He closed his eyes for a moment. “The world will still be there waiting for me, complete with my father’s ghost and my brother’s foolish war.”

“You’re not responsible for either of them, freykaa,” she said, and he relaxed slightly at her use of the endearment. “You’re allowed to take time for you.”

“There’s a lot of people who will never get time because of the things I did.”

“And you’re working your hardest to atone for that. That’s all you can do.”

Thexan breathed out slowly through his nose, and when he opened his eyes again the look there nearly took her breath away. “Thank you,” he said. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

He nodded, seeming to take strength from that; the tension around his eyes didn’t quite fade as he turned back to the gathered crowd, but he seemed to move a little easier. It would have to be enough, for now- if she could take away the pain his own thoughts caused him, she would have done so in a heartbeat, but it wasn’t like mending a broken bone. The things he carried in his head and his heart would never be easily healed, and there were going to be some days where the exhaustion of living with them without respite became overwhelming.

She just had to do her best to help carry him through those days.

“If I can have your attention, please,” he said, no sign of his struggles evident in his voice or his stance. If anything, he looked calm and in control, and it was only her familiarity with him that told her what clues to look for. “I have some presentations for you in regards to the weaponry and tactics utilised by Zakuul, and from there we will see about showing you the various fighting styles favoured by our soldiers and how to counteract them.” He stopped and bowed towards the shaded podium, showing his respect to Queen Mereana. She nodded in response, giving him her blessing to continue.

He nodded, and turned back to the crowd. “Skytroopers are machines- intelligent machines, but still just machines,” he said, his voice ringing out over the courtyard. “They do not know fear, they cannot be intimidated, so do not waste your time or your energy in attempting either. Incapacitate them as quickly as possible, and move on to the next opponent.”

“Yeah, right, we’ll get right on that,” someone muttered from the crowd, drawing a smattering of laughter.

“You laugh now, but when the time comes, you absolutely cannot waste time when faced with these opponents,” Thexan said, his tone firm but not quite disapproving. “Skytroopers are not infallible, despite popular opinion- they are simply numerous. You need to disengage with the concept of their mass, and focus on the opponent before you only. If you allow yourself to get overwhelmed by their numbers, you will fail.”

He gestured for Ona’la to join him at the front of the group, and she brought over the hoverbed with the deactivated skytrooper they carried with them. This one in particular had been recovered from the sleeper pod that had attacked them so many months ago on their way to Yavin, and carefully reassembled without connecting the communications receiver to anything. It could be powered up and programmed to perform basic tasks, but anything more complex than that risked sending a signal back to the network hub that controlled the skytroopers, and ultimately alerting someone in Zakuul to the presence of a rogue droid. The last thing they wanted was for grainy images of them training local populations in guerilla style fighting to make its way back to Arcann and his Exarch generals.

She realigned the repulsor jets and propped up the hoverbed so that it was almost upright, allowing Thexan to tug the skytrooper from the tray with little difficulty. It stepped out obediently, and the crowd responded with uneasy murmuring, taking a step or two back warily.

“First line of attack,” Thexan said, pulling a small device from his pocket, “would presumably be some form of electromagnetic pulse. As with any artificial lifeform, skytroopers can be immobilized with an EMP device- the radiation will melt the circuitry as surely as it will with any standard battle droid.”

He demonstrated by clicking the button, and with a crackling whirr, the skytrooper’s head slumped forward onto its chest, the lights illuminating the torso going dark.

“However,” he continued, “they are all of them constructed with EMP detection capabilities, and the use of an EMP will be immediately uploaded to the network with a coordinate lock-on, as well as an analysis of whether the blast was weaponised, nuclear, so on. This will alert any nearby commanders, which is not necessarily a problem in a pitched battle, but if you are attempting discretion, it will absolutely be the wrong thing to do.”

Captain Anaru, at the front of the crowd, grunted in something that sounded like annoyance. “It sounds like it’s more trouble than it’s worth,” he said.

“It’s a decision you have to make when the moment is upon you,” Thexan said. “The pulse might give your troops the precious time they need to regroup, or retreat, or to have reinforcements arrive- or it could draw dozens more skytroopers down on your position. As with any decision on the battlefield, it needs to be made quickly and decisively, and you have to be prepared to deal with the consequences.”

He went over the deactivated droid in extensive details, pointing out the various faults and flaws that could be exploited in different situations; due to the rapid nature of the mass production, it was actually rather easy to strike the droids with enough force that it would pop apart essential joints, making them far easier to immobilise and then destroy. He simulated the methods several times over, getting some of the captains and soldiers to come up and test the process themselves to ensure the lesson stuck.

One of the handmaidens volunteered as well, a gangly young girl wielding a polestaff who laid into the prone droid with over enthusiastic aggression, to the amusement of the other girls. She got a little flustered when Thexan complimented her grip.

Ona’la hid her smile behind her hand, content to stand in the background and watch him in his element.

The lessons with the droid drew to a close after an hour or two of drills, and he moved on to the next topic. “With Zakuulan soldiers, and especially Knights, it becomes a little more complicated,” he said. “Treat them as you would a Jedi or a Sith, even the non-Force Sensitives.”

“But they don’t have the Force, we don’t have to worry about them doing their fancy mind tricks on us,” said a soldier in the front row, who then hesitated before turning to Ona’la. “No offense, Battlemaster.”

Her lips quirked as she fought down a smile. “None taken.”

Thexan continued. “My father structured our society to be little more than a cult,” he said, “far more so than Vitiate ever did amongst the sith. We do not view the Force as a balance of light and dark, but as a gift we receive as a sign of our faith and our loyalty- therefore, imbuing the idea that blind devotion and fanaticism would be rewarded with powers directly from the gods themselves. So yes, even amongst the non-Force Sensitives, you will be fighting people who are so committed to their cause that they believe the gods empower them. Do not take them lightly just because they do not wield a lightsaber.”

She felt her pocket buzz, and she stepped away from the front of the crowd to take her holo from within her coat. On the other side of the courtyard, she could see someone moving along the shaded podium and coming to a stop by Queen Mereana, stopping to bend down by her ear. Frowning at that, Ona’la turned her attention to the holo in her hand, accepting the call.

Fleet Admiral Aygo appeared in the palm of her hand, and she smiled brightly. “Admiral Aygo,” she said, “how did the strategic conference go this morning?”

His expression should have warned her. “Battlemaster, we need you to cancel the remainder of your assignments immediately and pull back to the Expansion Regions.”

Her stomach lurched. “What? Admiral-”

“This isn’t negotiable, Battlemaster. The Eternal Fleet has just made moves against Malastare, and that’s only a few hours flight from where you are now. You can rendezvous with the Third Fleet over Ramordia.”

“Admiral, this isn’t reasonable, you can’t ask me to just up and abandon people who have asked for our help.”

She could feel his frustration and his defeatism bleeding through the channel, even from the other side of the galaxy. “We don’t have a choice,” Aygo said. Her holo buzzed again, and she clicked on the file that had just arrived. “We’ve received word from behind the Fleet’s advancement that there are... things, we don’t know what they are, but I’ve sent you the footage our agents were able to get through to us.”

Aygo’s flickering holographic image was replaced by a grainy space vista, with an unnamed planet pictured with-

“What is that?” she asked, her heart racing as she took in the dark mass hovering in orbit above it. It was clearly an unnatural design, man made rather than something like an asteroid, and it was enormous. The only thing she could possibly think of that matched it for scale would have been the Vaiken spacedock, and even that was a poor comparison; she’d never seen a ship that big, even amongst the superdreadnaughts that served the Republic and the Sith.

“We don’t know. All we know is that they’ve appeared over several conquered worlds.”

Several? As in there was more than one of those monstrosities?

“We were hoping your Prince friend might be able to give us some insight into what it is we’re facing,” Aygo said, and he sounded so immensely tired. The optimism she’d dared to let herself feel this last hour or so fled, leaving her with only a yawning pit of despair at the prospect of such an overwhelming defeat. “Our agents couldn’t get close enough to know whether it’s a weapon, or some kind of ship, and we have no idea how many there are, only that-” He cut himself off, clearly at a loss for words and frustrated to the point of anger.

Biting her lip, she glanced over at Thexan to find him already watching her, the crowd preoccupied with something else while a group had gathered hastily around the Queen, taking part in a rapidly hushed discussion. Her stomach sank again when she saw the look on his face. “Thexan?” she asked quietly. “What is that thing?”

He looked... distraught wasn’t quite the word she was looking for, but she didn’t know what to call it. Resigned, maybe, a weariness that she hadn’t seen for months now and had hoped to have defeated for the time being.

“Thexan?” When he didn’t answer, she licked her lips nervously. “Thexan, Admiral Aygo needs a response. Is it a superweapon? We need to know what it is to combat it.”

When he finally looked at her, she knew from the look in his eyes that the war was as good as over. “It might as well be,” he said. “It’s a super battlestation. We call them Star Fortresses.”

Chapter Text

She couldn’t beat him, not like this.

So she ran.

Kallathe sprinted across the cold surface of the asteroids, dust kicking up in her wake, ignoring the way he called after her. Nothing would make her return to him, nothing could ever entice her to listen to him and the sugar sweet poison dripping from his tongue.

He’d had nearly two thousand years practice at wearing down the resolve of his foes; she knew that now, from the glimpses she’d seen into his own thoughts. In all likelihood, she didn’t stand a chance against his power.

In all likelihood, she didn’t give a fuck. She would be the exception to the rule.

She leapt from asteroid to asteroid, the lack of a breathable atmosphere apparently no hindrance for her as she fled; likewise the gravity proved no barrier for her, and after a time Valkorion’s voice began to fade into the distance. She was panting hard by the time she risked stopping, her stomach seething and her veins burning. She had no idea if this was the effects of the carbonite poisoning, or if it was entirely psychosomatic, but she didn’t care. Either way, she was going to conquer it, because she’d be damned if she let the limitations of her physical body mean anything to her in the landscape of her mind.

She reached up and pulled her mask away from her face, her hair sweat soaked and caked to her head beneath it. Having no need for it here in the dreamworld, she tossed it onto the ground at her feet, a little puff of dust billowing up at the impact.

“You would rather suffer and die alone, in agony, than accept my aid?”

She spun around with an anguished snarl, lightning already dripping from her fingertips as she sought him out in the desolate landscape. It was hard to draw on the power though, much harder than it had been before he’d pointed out that she’d been poisoned. She had vague memories of the aftermath of the fight, flashes of emotion rather than true recollections- the fury she’d felt at the humiliation she’d been subjected to, bound and weaponless and paraded about like a trophy. The rage and the certainty that had come from Marr’s death. The giddy, violent triumph that had come from skewering Vitiate through the back, from knowing that she had succeeded where countless thousands had failed. Better than Revan, better than the Jedi Battlemaster, better than any of the Jedi saps, better than the Dread Masters, better than any of the assassins and traitors and schemers who had attempted to end him in the thousands of years prior to that moment.

She had won.

So why was she being punished?

“I will never accept your aid,” she hissed, spinning in place as she tried to find him. “If I die, you die, and I can think of no better use of my time than to see that you wither and diminish and suffer along with me. I will make sure your name is scoured from the pages of history, never to be spoken of again!”

His amused chuckle came from far too close behind her, and she lurched around in a panic. He was standing right behind her, no worse the wear for their battles.

“And how do you propose to accomplish such a feat if you never escape from your carbonite prison?” he asked, his deep voice expressing his apparent delight at her defiance.

She bared her teeth at him. “I’m willing to find out,” she said.

____

Coruscant, the Corusca sector, Core Worlds

“Stop fussing with it.”

Ellaz glared at Aric from under the brim of her officer’s cap, a loose thread on her sleeve the most recent object of her attentions. Only the fact that she was wearing gloves had stopped her from tugging it out further and unravelling half of her dress uniform in the process, but not for lack of trying on her part. “Just ‘cause you can stand at parade rest for hours without twitching,” she muttered, setting her hands back down in her lap again.

“Of course, because I absolutely enjoy wearing capped gloves that block my claws from emerging, it’s not at all frustratingly painful and unnatural.”

“Everyone’s a critic,” she said, but she reached over and took his hand in hers, grateful at least that they weren’t required to act all stoic and unattached until the ceremony officially began. Up on the podium, Saresh was still taking photographs with Supreme Commander Malcolm and General Garza, and the various other dignitaries and Senate officials whose names she couldn’t remember.

Beside her, Aric chuckled under his breath, the sound half purr and entirely too titillating as far as she was concerned. “Does it help if I remind you just how lovely you look in all your gilded finery?” he asked wryly, his free hand tracing absently over the marks of office stitched carefully onto her shoulder.

She shivered. “You shouldn’t be pulling those tricks in public, Lieutenant,” she murmured, glancing sideways at him.

“I wouldn’t dream of ‘pulling tricks’, Major. Just complimenting my dear wife.”

“Smooth, Jorgan. Smooth.”

He smirked. “I like to stick with the classics,” he said, nodding towards the stage as the assembled dignitaries and guests began to take their seats, evidently in preparation for the ceremony to begin.

Her stomach seethed angrily- it wasn’t right, them being here indulging in pomp and niceties when there was a war being fought literally at this moment. She didn’t belong here, wearing fancy clothes and shaking hands with fancy suits and trying to remember fancy names; she wanted to be out on the frontlines, doing their best to stop Zakuul no matter the cost, and helping to stop more innocent lives from being lost in the process. She wasn’t under any illusion that Zakuul’s advance could be stopped entirely, but just... if she was just allowed to do her damn job, defending the people and the Republic, maybe things would be different. Maybe she could have swung a crucial battle, delayed the loss of a sector long enough to have their fallback position better fortified, anything.

Aric very discreetly squeezed her hand in his, half comfort and half warning, and she grudgingly bit her tongue. No point getting worked up about it again, not here and not now, and she knew it. Might’ve needed him to remind her of it, but she knew.

The journalists retreated from the staging area while the guests of honour settled in, expressions all politely blank and pretending engagement with the honoraries to come. The hall was packed with soldiers and officers of various ranks, many of whom were receiving commendations and being awarded for their services on the battlefield, the rest of them... well. They all knew why they were here, even if nobody truly wanted to say it out loud or admit to it.

It wasn’t real until it actually came from the woman herself.

A twi’lek gentleman wearing the insignia of the Chancellor’s office stepped up to the podium, clearing his throat as he leaned down towards the microphone. “If I could all have your attention please,” he said, and Ellaz did her best not to roll her eyes. It wasn’t that she disliked Hance, she just had very little patience for bureaucrats at the best of times, and Hance Rugel very rarely came to her in the best of times. She’d come to associate his face with bad news, either from the outbreak of a new disaster, or from Saresh meddling in something she really should have known better about.

“The ceremony will commence in a few moments,” Hance continued, “and we’d like to remind our attendees to hold their applause until appropriately indicated.”

“Because Force forbid Saresh doesn’t get her perfect publicity ops out of this,” she muttered, and Aric growled warningly under his breath, a distinctly cathar noise that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up out of some instinctive prey response to the threat of a predator. She scowled at him, but he kept his eyes facing forward, towards the front of the ceremony.

Saresh took the podium in both hands, gripping the stand as if she was about to launch into a scathing tirade against the lot of them. It was a posture Ellaz knew quite well, because her mother used to grip the table like that when her brothers had run amok. Those memories were practically ancient history for her now, but the instinctive need to flinch in preparation for a scolding was still lurking in her. “Good afternoon,” she said, without preamble. “It is my very great pleasure to be standing here today, in the company of some of the finest soldiers serving the Republic, all of whom have proved time and time again that we will not be cowed by the tyranny of the sith, and that we will not allow ourselves to remain silent in the face of injustices ever again.”

Ellaz only just resisted groaning out loud.

“Today we recognise the contributions and the sacrifices made by a small handful of the vast number of brave souls fighting to defend the Republic. I’d like to thank you all for joining us here, in this great bastion of democracy, to honour those who have committed their lives to maintaining our inalienable right to freedom and safety.”

She went straight from there into the formal greetings, listing every single Senator in attendance and every visiting dignitary and diplomat. They’d very sensibly made sure not to seat Garza next to Marcus Trant, despite the overlap in their official duties; clearly someone had been savvy enough not to put the divorcees beside one another, or that could have made the ceremony a hell of a lot more awkward. Or more interesting. Hell, even that Jedi girl was here, their Barsen’thor; never could tell if she was half asleep or not whenever she saw her, always seemed like she was barely paying attention.

The formal introductions and apologies for absences went for a good twenty minutes, at least, and Ellaz was thoroughly grateful that she was rarely required to attend such affairs. She just didn’t have the patience for the excessive amounts of ceremony these things seemed to necessitate. From there, they moved into the medal presentations and officer promotions, and she tried to pay a little more attention for that; these were her fellow soldiers, after all, and they deserved her respect.

“From Special Operations Group, division Havoc Squad.” She tensed, startled, and beside her Aric did likewise. “Lieutenant Aric Jorgan, for his years of service, is hereby promoted to the rank of Captain, First Class.”

She cast him a sideways glance, and found him watching her in return. She mouthed ‘did you know?’ at him, because prior to now all of their appointments had come directly from Garza herself. Granted, prior to now all of their appointments had fallen under the previous administration, and Chancellor Janarus had never been a man to involve himself too heavily in how the military conducted themselves, but still. A little warning might have been appreciated.

Aric shook his head ever so slightly, his mouth a thin line that could pass as a smile for anyone unfamiliar with his mannerisms; she knew it for the grimace it was.

Normally she would have been thrilled at his promotion, because if anyone deserved recognition for the hard work, it was Aric, but something about this didn’t feel right. Fuck, she was so on edge and frustrated at their lack of progress with the war that here she was thinking that her own damn husband was getting suspicious promotions like he wasn’t entitled to them or something.

She was really, really getting tired of being held back by bureaucratic red tape.

The ceremony continued onwards, with the medals of honour and recognition being handed out for acts of valour and heroism. She should have been concentrating, she really should, because the soldiers being recognised here were those who had been faced with the need for the ultimate sacrifice, and hadn’t wavered at all. She still had Jaxo’s medal tucked away in a drawer somewhere, where she never needed to look at it and be faced with the overwhelming guilt that came with it.

These soldiers deserved her respect. Damn it.

As if sensing her frustration, Aric discreetly squeezed her hand, and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep her temper under control. They hadn’t even gotten to the worst part of the ceremony yet.

When the medals and the acknowledgements given out, Saresh took her seat again, and Rugel whisked away the now empty display case that had previously held the aforementioned medals. With the podium left vacant, Ellaz held her breath, knowing there was only one person who could be meant to take to the microphone.

General Garza stood up, and she knew her desperate, childish hopes had gone unanswered.

Garza came to a stop before the podium, setting down a datapad that one would assume had some kind of notes or speech on it, clearing her throat as she stared down at it. She seemed to have aged a great deal in the last few months, as if out of all the enemies she’d faced and all the disasters she’d overseen as head of SpecOps, this fight against Zakuul had finally been her breaking point.

Her smile was brief, her eyes almost vacant as she looked out over the crowd. “Good afternoon,” she said. “It is my absolute privilege to be here today, to oversee so many of the Republic’s finest soldiers as they receive the acknowledgement due to them for their tireless work over the past few months and years.”

Ellaz wanted to groan. She was so heartily sick of vague platitudes trotted out for the sake of publicity and opinion polls.

“For those of you unfamiliar with my work, allow me to introduce myself- my name is General Elin Garza of the Republic Special Operations division, and I’d like to personally thank each and every one of you for coming to join me today for this ceremony.”

She was tugging nervously on the thread again, and Aric very carefully took her hand away from the hem and put it back in her lap again.

Garza paused for a long moment, not quite a hesitation but definitely not a natural pause. She cleared her throat again, as if struggling to maintain her composure. “It comes with no small measure of reluctance that I officially announce my retirement as the leader of the Special Operations division,” she said finally, and even knowing it was coming didn’t make it sink into her gut any less. It’d been months overdue for an official declaration for what everyone in SpecOps already knew, or had suspected at least, but it still hurt. Elin had built the division from the ground up during the Great Galactic War, founding SpecOps in the early days of the Republic Army being hastily reinstituted; despite being massively underfunded and desperately overworked, she’d made the elite operations group into one of the most dependable and most successful divisions in the entire Republic. Names like Havoc and Solaris were commonplace and caught in the public imagination specifically because of the hard work Garza had done to elevate her people.

Fuck, she didn’t want to cry, but watching Elin struggle to keep up a dignified front in the face of the press and the brass, she could feel her eyes burning.

Garza continued. “There are not enough words to adequately convey how proud I am to have seen this division grow from our humble beginnings on Bomodon, and to express what a privilege it has been to have been granted the unique opportunity to see it grow into something extraordinary.” She took a moment, and when she went on, there was a noticeable tremor in her voice. “It has been an honour to have been a leader and a mentor to so many of the Republic’s finest, and my only hope is that my successor can continue to shape Special Operations to be the very best that it can be. Our strength has always been in our people, and it is to all of you that I look now, as I place the future of our division into the hands of the next generation.”

The initial buzz of dismay at her announcement had died away, but there was still a murmur going around the room, and as she paused again, some of the members of the press seemed to take that as permission to launch into a barrage of questions. She held up her hand for quiet, but not before several very painful questions were shouted over the hubbub.

“Is your retirement in any way connected to the rumours of corruption that have been plaguing Special Operations these last few years?”

“Is your resignation an indication that you’ll be taking responsibility for the mass defection of troops several years ago?”

“General Garza! Are you resigning because you don’t believe we have a chance against the Eternal Empire? Are you preemptively surrendering?”

Ellaz was glad that the fucking journos were sitting at the front of the room, because it meant they’d have to actually turn around to see the death glare she was throwing at them.

“There will be an opportunity for questions towards the end of the ceremony, as I understand it, but to quickly address your queries- no, my retirement is not in any way connected to the unfounded and unsubstantiated claims of corruption, and no, my retirement is not a reflection of my personal opinions regarding the war against the Eternal Empire. I have every faith that my successor will bring a strong and united division in to combat the threat posed to our democracy and our people by the Emperor of Zakuul.”

There were further attempts to question her, shouted over the attempts to question the ceremony; the holocameras buzzed around Garza, flashing and blinking at every single angle as she stood like a stone at the podium. She was unnmoveable, unflinching- a stalwart pillar of the Republic Army.

Except that she wasn’t anymore, by her own admission.

Fuck, even knowing it had to come to this didn’t make it hurt any less.

“I have officially tendered my resignation with both Republic Command and the Chancellor’s Office, and it has been accepted. I will take questions during the session following the ceremony. For now, I ask you to turn your attention back to Chancellor Saresh, and I thank you all for giving me the opportunity to serve you these last forty years. It has been a privilege, and an honour.”

She stepped away from the podium, but not before the press erupted into another raucous round of questioning, trying to get her attention and trying to get a reaction out of her before she slipped away. Garza had too much practice dealing with public scrutiny, however, and didn’t even hesitate as she smiled and shook hands with Saresh, the two of them holding the pose for a long few moments for the cameras.

Eventually Saresh nodded to her, and Garza moved to take her seat along the back of the dias again; Saresh, in turn, moved up to the podium again, and it was hard not to hate what she represented in that moment. Petty of her, to be sure, and small-minded, but Ellaz had never been one to manage her personal affairs all that well. Professionally, she had that level of detachment, but this... yeah, this felt too personal.

What was she supposed to do without Elin there, as a friend and mentor?

“Hey.” Aric’s voice was so soft she almost missed it, and when she glanced at him, his gaze was softer again. “Another half hour, then we’re done. You hold on that long?”

Swallowing ruthlessly, Ellaz gritted her teeth and nodded wordlessly. He mouthed ‘that’s my girl’ to her, and turned back to the ceremony.

“It is with no small measure of regret and sadness that I accept the resignation of General Elin Garza,” Saresh began, “a woman who has served with tenacity and commitment to the ideals of the Republic for over forty years now. Her work has inspired a generation, and it is thanks to her tireless efforts that we have the freedom to stand here today. Truly, a Republic hero in every way.”

Except for approving experimentation on volunteers, Ellaz thought bitterly, trying not to think of the numerous incidences where she’d bitten her tongue and looked the other way at some of the more questionable practices SpecOps indulged in. What the fuck, that was an awful thing to be thinking about on the day they were losing her from the department; that sort of bitterness had no place here.

“In honour of her years of service, it is my privilege today to award Elin with the Republic Medal of Distinguished Service,” Saresh said, an aide appearing at her side with the aforementioned medal held pride of place on a red velvet cushion. Garza had apparently been forewarned for this moment, as her expression didn’t even flicker with surprise as she climbed back to her feet and stood calmly as Saresh turned to her with the medal. They spoke quietly, out of range of the microphones as the holocameras spun excitedly around them, while Saresh carefully pinned the medal to the breast of Garza’s uniform jacket. The two of them laughed briefly, the sound not quite carrying but their expressions clear, and then they shook hands for the waiting audience, allowing themselves to be posed and moved about by the waiting press looking to get the ideal picture for the leading stories on the holonet news.

“I wonder if old Janarus would’ve been this hands on with the leadership,” she muttered under her breath, knowing that Aric’s acute hearing would pick it up despite the noise in the hall.

“I’m fairly certain that Janarus being in cahoots with the old Battlemaster was what led to Saresh getting the job in the first place,” he said in response. “Just leave it, Ell. Don’t poke at that political bullshit.”

The fussing about with the photo ops and the medal took a few minutes, during which time Ellaz continued to fidget incessantly, despite Aric growling under his breath at her to sit still. Eventually Saresh held her hands up in a general gesture of congratulations towards Garza, and the room broke off into applause.

Saresh cleared her throat and turned back to the assembly, waiting for the polite applause to die off. “In light of General Garza’s retirement, there will be an obvious gap in the chain of command within SpecOps, one that will need to be filled as soon as possible to fully empower our forces to take the fight to the Empire, and the rising threat that is Zakuul.”

Ellaz snorted at the idea that Zakuul might only just now be considered a rising threat, but beside her, Aric’s ears had gone flat. She glanced at him, and there was something flat and hostile in his expression as he stared up at Saresh; she nudged him with her knee, not enough to draw attention to them, but enough to shake him out of whatever had him so fixated. She frowned slightly at him and nodded towards the stage, trying to indicate that he needed to be paying attention instead of looking like he wanted to lunge for the Chancellor with his claws out.

“After much discussion with General Garza, Supreme Commander Malcolm, Strategic Information Director Trant, and various other high ranking officials from within Republic Military Command, it is my very great honour to announce the new head of Republic Special Operations.”

Aric actually growled softly, enough to make the officer sitting on the other side of him cast them an uncomfortable look. Ellaz nudged him harder this time, scowling at him.

“This particular individual has served the Galactic Republic for over twenty years now in various roles, both on and off the field, and has distinguished herself as a talented leader, a fearless soldier, and a seasoned tactician, all tempered by her unwavering belief in justice and mercy, the cornerstones of our great democracy.”

Pay attention, she mouthed at Aric, jerking her head towards the stage. The look he gave her was incredulous, like he couldn’t actually believe what she’d just said.

“From an early start in the legal sector and humanitarian aid, this individual became known by both her peers and her superior officers as cool-headed under pressure, empathetic to the needs and fears of those she faced as enemies, and aggressively friendly when she was in a good mood.” The last comment roused a smattering of laughter, and Saresh smiled thinly before continuing. “Her background in law saw her regularly working with our diplomatic corps to negotiate with defectors, and to diminish the probability of military engagement with Imperial forces on the front lines.”

You need to start paying attention,” he hissed under his breath, apparently not quietly enough, given that the officer on his other side cast them another filthy look.

“Her distinguished military service record saw her offered a position within one of the most elite squads in the Republic, and just this last month she passed six years of service as the commanding officer of Havoc Squad.”

Ellaz froze.

“With twenty years of service to her name, it is my great privilege to call Major Ellaz Hervoz to the stage, with the news that she will henceforth be promoted to the rank of Colonel effective immediately, and entrusted with the day to day management of Republic Special Operations. Colonel Hervoz, please come forward.”

It was like it was happening to someone else, someone who wasn’t her, and she was just observing the clusterfuck from some soundproof booth- stuck inside with the door jammed, hammering on the walls and shouting where no one could hear her. The someone-who-wasn’t-her rose to their feet, making their way down the row with murmured apologies on their way to the aisle. Saresh- or possibly someone else, it was all a bit blurry-, continued to speak as she walked to the front of the chamber, apparently waxing lyrical on her many virtues and achievements; she couldn’t take any of it in. Oh, she heard it all, alright, but nothing seemed to stick in her head, the sounds of their voices were just white noise that her brain couldn’t process.

The steps up to the podium were in front of her before she knew it, and then she was climbing them, and the person who was her but wasn’t her was smiling and shaking hands, posing expertly for the press while the cameras whirred around them in dizzying circles.

Jace- she’d worked with Jace, she’d been on numerous campaigns with Jace, he was a good man and a good leader- wouldn’t quite meet her gaze as he shook her hand. He was... was he her superior now? Did she report to him? Garza had always talked about reporting to the Senate, but she’d worked with Supreme Commander Rans numerous times before his retirement several years ago... so was she working under Malcolm now? Why wouldn’t he look at her?

Garza surprised her by shaking her hand formally, and then hugging her awkwardly, apparently to the delight of the reporters. “I’m sorry it came to this, Ella,” Garza murmured beside her ear, and when Ellaz looked at her in confusion, Elin looked away, smiling tersely as she posed and performed for the cameras.

There were others, dignitaries and diplomats and senators, all of whom she was introduced to in the whirl of information that went straight through her like trying to cup water in her hands. Saresh shook her hand, offering her congratulations as she did so; her smile was almost aggressively smug.

“Chancellor, can we get a better picture of you and the colonel?”

“Of course,” Saresh said, moving to stand closer to Ellaz, keeping her hand firmly in hers. “I owe you my thanks,” she said under her breath as they stood patiently, waiting for the press to finish.

“What for?” Ellaz asked, still reeling and unable to come to terms with what was happening. She was the director of Special Operations. Holy shit, she was the Director of Special Operations, what the everloving-

“Supreme Commander Malcolm was of the opinion you’d be disinclined to accept your posting in such a public setting,” she said. “He was so decidedly adamant that you’d cause a scene that he was willing to put money on it. You’ve earned me fifty credits, colonel.”

She had no idea what to say to that. “I guess that’s why he wouldn’t look me in the eye,” she said faintly, letting herself be maneuvered by the reporters for their holos, before taking the seat offered to her on the podium. Here she was, sitting amongst some of the most powerful individuals in the Republic, soldiers and politicians who had shaped the course of the entire galaxy over the last few decades, and now she was amongst them.

She was there. Ellaz Hervoz, the seventh child from an old Corellian family, a wild card and a gamble. She was the new director of Special Operations.

She was the director of Special Operations.

The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur for her; again, it was like she was witnessing someone else taking part in it all, like she was trapped in a room made of frosted glass. She could see the shapes of those around her, and she could hear the muffled rise and fall of their voices, but nothing seemed very coherent. Nothing seemed to cling, nothing seemed to stick. The only thing her brain seemed capable of holding onto and repeating in an endless cycle of disbelief was the fact that she was the director of Special Operations. She was. Not Garza, not anyone else. She was.

Had she ever imagined this day might come? Possibly- in fact, she and Elin had joked about it from time to time during their mentoring sessions together, when they’d met for caf in between her away missions, but that had always been a far off fantasy. Something to look forward to in the distant future, when she’d done her time in the field and was ready to put down her blaster rifle and place Havoc in the hands of the next generation.

What, when you’re old and you can’t move from the arthritis?, she thought bitterly. You’re forty-five in a few months. You’ve been in the field for over twenty years. Get over yourself, Hervoz.

There was a period of questioning as promised, the press lunging almost ravenously to pick apart the reasoning for a seasoned military leader to be retiring in the midst of a war. There were a few questions directed towards her, but Saresh seamlessly interjected with those ones; not that she would have known how to answer them anyway, still reeling from the very fact that she was in a position to be asked these questions in the first place.

She heard something about Havoc, and she wondered in faint distress whether or not she was allowed to keep her place in Havoc.

No. No, that was too much to hope for. She couldn’t be out in the field running on radio silence when there were senatorial sessions to attend.

There were more pictures, and more posing, and she just... zoned out. She let them take her where she needed to be, she smiled on command. It was too much to process otherwise.

Saresh finally knocked her out of her daze when she placed a hand on her arm, smiling briefly at her. “Colonel,” she said quietly, and Ellaz was aware that the room was in the process of emptying, that people were milling about in conversation and leisurely making their way to the exits. She couldn’t see Aric, where the fuck was her husband? “If I might take up a little more of your time?”

Ellaz tried to pull her arm free. “I- I really think I need to speak to my husband-”

“Captain Jorgan is currently attending a private meeting with the rest of the Special Operations squad leaders, under the supervision of Commander Malcolm,” Saresh said, as if that wasn’t at all devastating and shocking to hear. Aric was head of Havoc. That should have filled her with joy, and pride, to see her husband finally be given the recognition he deserved after the bullshit he’d endured with the defection all those years ago, but... it felt wrong. There was a sour taste in her mouth, everything about this making her uneasy. “If you’ll follow me, please?”

What else was there to do? She trailed after Saresh almost meekly, but the anger began to build slowly within her, incredulous and burning and hot. How dare they, honestly- how dare they ambush her like this and manipulate her so publicly, knowing full well that she couldn’t retaliate in so open a setting, leaving her with no choice but to blindly follow in their wake.

Saresh led her through the halls of the Senate Tower towards her personal offices- rooms that Ellaz had never personally seen inside of, and had never dreamed she would.

Stars fucking damn it, she was so angry, her fists clenched at her sides as she fought to remain calm while they remained in public view.

The doors closed with an ominous click, and Ellaz was left staring at Saresh across the desk as she took her seat. For a long moment, the Chancellor said nothing, returning her gaze evenly; finally she folded her hands together on the desktop and leaned forward. “I imagine you have questions,” she said.

Ellaz finally lost her temper. “Oh, you think I have fucking questions, do you?” she snarled, starting to stab her finger towards Saresh.

Saresh, however, seemed to have expected that; she very calmly reached up and firmly pushed aside Ellaz’s hand. “Colonel Hervoz,” she said, “let me first say that I am fully aware of the events on Rishi concerning Special Operations group Eclipse, and your involvement in the cover up that took place.”

That pulled her up hard, and she straightened with a lurch.

“Your expression speaks for itself, Colonel,” Saresh said, her mouth pressed into a thin line that seemed to be trying to be a smile, but failed miserably.

“Did you promote me just because you wanted someone in this office that you could blackmail into doing your bidding?”

“Not at all, Colonel.” Saresh gestured to the chair on the opposite side of the desk. “Please. Sit down. I’d prefer for us to both be comfortable for this conversation.”

Ellaz stared aggressively at her for a few long moments before Saresh’s implacable calm broke her, and she looked away with a half-hearted sneer. She sat down heavily, slouching unprofessionally. “Talk,” she said flatly.

Saresh’s leather chair creaked slightly as she leaned back. “Colonel, I’m not going to mince words here. There has been a severe lack of oversight in our armed forces these last few decades, which has allowed a culture of corruption and secrecy to flourish unchecked. Scandals like the resignation of my predecessor, or the sheer existence of groups like Eclipse or the Sixth Line, or the mass defection of Spec Ops forces under the banner of your own predecessor, or-”

“Okay, okay, I get it, corruption in the ranks etcetera etcetera.”

Saresh’s lips twisted in displeasure. “These are not isolated incidents, Colonel,” she said, “nor are they insignificant events. These are monumental errors that came about as a result of a lack of transparency in the chain of command, and a lack of oversight into crucial departments. These are errors that could have spelled the end for the Republic if not for the intervention of our best men and women.”

“Yeah, you’re welcome.”

“I am not extending any thanks to you, Colonel, because as I said previously, I’m well aware of the situations you yourself have been involved in. Including but not limited to the massacre at Fort Klemark, of course.”

“And if I recall correctly, you said you didn’t promote me just to have someone in this office who you can blackmail into doing your dirty work, so why are you bringing it up again?”

Saresh scanned her face, as if looking for something in her expression, but whatever it was she was hoping to find, it didn’t look like she found it. “Our predecessors did not get along,” she said finally, bluntly. “It’s no secret that Elin was exceedingly hostile to Chancellor Janarus, and that he in turn was not as understanding as to the needs of our military as he could have been.”

Ellaz stared at her incredulously. “He let the Jedi Battlemaster all but run amok while he and the Senate put their boots on the back of the military’s neck,” she said pointedly.

“He did. And he paid for that oversight, as did hundreds- if not thousands- of staffers and soldiers who were caught up in the attack on his flagship. His blatant favouritism and half-hearted management of the military complex left us painfully vulnerable, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say an attack on Corellia, the very heart of our Republic and our democracy, should never ever have been a possibility, let alone a reality.”

Fuck, she had her there. She’d been scathingly critical of the Republic’s failings due to the Corellian invasion, and she knew she was biased as a native Corellian... damn it. “I do agree,” she said stiffly.

“Good.” Saresh gestured to a datapad on the desk, sliding it across the surface towards her. “This is a more thorough breakdown of your new contract and your duties, which you are welcome to go over in the coming days in detail, but I’m happy to answer any questions you might have in the meantime about your promotion.”

First things first. “Why me?”

“Because you are an excellent leader, Colonel,” Saresh said without batting an eyelid. “While I may not have agreed with some of your... executive decisions, and I do find your attitude to be unnecessarily combative without due cause, I cannot deny that you are a valuable asset to the Republic. Your work leading the post-Yavin taskforce alone was commendable enough to warrant marking you out for future leadership positions.”

Alright, that made some things easier to deal with. “And presumably Captain Jorgan’s promotion has been confirmed with him, or am I responsible for that?”

“Commander Malcolm will have conveyed that information to him by now, but going forward Jorgan will report to you. While I’m not necessarily fond of complicating the chain of command by having spouses in differing ranks, we accept that it’s the most logical decision.”

“And then I report to Malcolm?”

“No. Going forward, all divisions of the Republic military will report directly to my office, not to the Supreme Commander.”

Oh.

Oh.

That’s why Malcolm hadn’t wanted to make eye contact with her.

She clenched her jaw to stop herself from snapping out the first insult that came to mind. “Why not just do away with the post entirely then?” she said, unable to stop the streak of bitterness that came through with her words. “Why keep Jace on at all? Why not declare yourself Supreme Commander?”

“Colonel, while I can understand your distress with the speed at which things are changing, I’ll ask you to refrain from being accusatory before letting me finish my explanations.”

Ellaz spread her hands wide. “I’m here, then,” she said. “So talk.”

Saresh’s expression spoke leagues about how displeased she was with her attitude. Too bad. “Supreme Commander Malcolm is not being removed from office, nor is the position being made redundant,” she said smoothly. “It is necessary for our military forces to have a clear representative, and a carefully structured chain of command, and while the former was in place, the latter has most definitely lapsed under the supervision of my predecessor, and has not been looked to since.”

“So you’re keeping us all on leashes, then.”

“Colonel Hervoz, you really need to consider leashing that attitude, if anything needs to be leashed around here. You have a duty to the Republic that demands professionalism at the very least.”

“But-”

“No buts, Colonel,” Saresh said, eyes steely as her voice rose. “The SIS had a secret division of Jedi on call that they kept hidden from both the Jedi Council and the Senate. Grandmaster Shan authorized an entire joint-operation with the Sith using Republic resources, without choosing to go through any official channels. Special Operations has been plagued by defection and treachery and has been responsible for acts of mass homicide and human experimentation that are no better than the depravities we declaim the Empire for. Our own military evolved to support the construction of superweapons whose only purpose was acts of mass genocide against civilians, all of which were then stolen and used against our own people, and you tell me I think I should just turn a blind eye and let these divisions carry on merrily without any oversight or transparency? You think I do not have a responsibility to the people of the Republic to demand we do better, and to insist upon a level of moral and legal culpability in the way we conduct ourselves?”

She couldn’t argue with that, even though it felt like walking into a cleverly constructed trap to do so. “Special Operations exists to take the questionable burdens that make the Republic safe,” she said, parroting what Garza had said to her so long ago when she’d objected to an order she’d found distasteful.

“And why is that the case? What possible benefit does the Republic gain out of human experimentation that results in mass murder, like the Eclipse squadron?” Saresh folded her hands in front of her on the desk, staring calmly across at her. “No, please Colonel, I’ll wait. I’m curious to hear your justifications for it. Tell me what benefit the Republic receives out of illegal human experimentation that results in the mass murder of noncombatants?”

“You know I can’t condone that.”

“And yet you did, Colonel- in helping General Garza to cover up the incident, you gave your taciturn approval of her decision making process that led to that episode.”

“We were in the middle of a war! We couldn’t stop to divert resources and muddy the leadership with criminal charges and senatorial enquiries when we were trying to stop a madman from devouring all life in the galaxy!”

She hated saying it- she felt like the worst kind of scum saying it, but she’d made the decision and she had to stand by her choice. She couldn’t pile the blame onto Garza now and hope to escape the fallout, not if Saresh knew. They hadn’t had time to deal with the fallout from Eclipse, not with the Revanite uprising and the rebirth of the Emperor; it was like Garza had taught her. You have to make questionable moral choices for the good of the Republic.

“And did you, Colonel?” Saresh asked quietly. “Did your decision mean that Vitiate was stopped, and that entire worlds weren’t destroyed by him? Did your choice pay off?”

Ellaz stared at her until the guilt made it impossible to maintain eye contact, and she looked down. “No,” she said stiffly. “It did not pay off.”

“Then I trust you understand my position when I ask for your cooperation going forward, and greater transparency in your management of Special Operations than General Garza was willing to concede.”

What else could she say? Saresh had navigated everything so perfectly, maneuvering her into this position where to object would only make her look childish and petty and incapable of holding a leadership role of such magnitude.

She swallowed, and nodded once. “I understand, ma’am.”

Saresh smiled tersely. “Then congratulations, Colonel. I look forward to working with you very closely in the coming years.”

Chapter Text

“See how your precious Empire falls to ruin.”

Kallathe clenched her jaw, sharpened teeth cutting into her lip and leaving the metallic tang of blood on her tongue. “It is not my Empire,” she said, not even sure why she was bothering. It wasn’t like he was going to listen anyway. “Nor is it precious.”

“And yet you fought with everything in you to strive for a place of power and authority within it,” Valkorion said, as the asteroids around them shifted and twisted into new shapes, vast towers of glass and steel spearing out of the grey rock and out towards the stars. The familiar skyscape of Kaas City soon became apparent, half buried boulevards appearing from under the dust only to vanish again a dozen footsteps away. “This ruined, bloated leviathan, tainted by corruption and inefficiency, was what you sought to conquer.”

The smug surety with which he said it, condescending in the manner of one speaking to a simpleton or a squalling toddler, infuriated her. “A jackal circling a dying beast makes the most of the meat offered to them,” she snapped. “Better to be a scavenger than the parasite embedded in the skull that killed it in the first place.”

Kaas City continued to take shape around her, and the details were ruthless. The burning flags and bunting, the bright vivid red of the Imperial insignia swallowed up by the flames. The twisted, broken durasteel frames of the buildings, like hollowed out skeletons left to decay over time. There was a heavy scent of rot and decay in the air, like the putrefaction of ten thousand bodies left under the sun, and even she crinkled her nose in disgust at the smell. She could taste the fear in the city, sour and hysterical, and the peppery hot burn of the rage that smoldered beneath it.

“See how easily my children turn your home to ash and ruin. For all of your scheming, for all of your power, you could do nothing to prevent this.”

Her fists were clenched at her sides, and her breathing was coming hard and fast from between her teeth, and the hatred boiled in her veins like acid. She heard his chuckle in her mind, if not with her ears.

“The sight of it fills you with such distress, Nox.”

She screamed. “Stop presuming that you know anything about me!” she snarled, and she pushed past the agony the poison caused her to dredge up every ounce of strength she could muster. She couldn’t see him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t right here. They were trapped together, bound together in the prison of her mindscape, and he could no more hide from her than she could from him.

She had trained in the arts of the Dread Masters, and she was not afraid to use them.

She screamed in rage as she pushed her hands out before her, a ripple of power pulsing out of her and shattering the landscape before it. In the wake of the surge, the skyscrapers of Kaas City vanished, replaced instead by towers of gold and glass, the architecture painfully familiar while also seeming alien and new. She felt his moment of surprise and hesitation, and she latched onto it ruthlessly and pressed harder.

“Stop.”

It was hard to manipulate his thoughts- Force preserve her, it was hard. But she was strong, and he was weak from his recent death, and she would suffer no man to twist her to his own desires. She roared out of fury and pain as the scene shifted slightly, well-lit streets and carefully tended gardens- she had no idea what this place was, or what it meant to him, but she knew how to hurt him in the pettiest manner.

The banners hanging from the lampposts fluttered, and the colours changed- no longer displaying the clean edges in gold and black and blue, but instead the white and orange of the Republic. The blue and white of the Jedi.

His rage shouldn’t have surprised her, but she was too worked up to defend against the wall of hatred that slammed into her from behind, sending her flying. The fantasy flickered and vanished, leaving them alone on the desolate asteroid once again; when she crawled back to her feet he was there, his face twisted with violent loathing as he stared at her. Despite the pain his attack had caused her, she couldn’t help but bare her teeth in triumph. “Something amiss, Vitiate?”

“You think that something as simple as changing the drapes will break me?”

“I think it will annoy you. And judging by your response, I did just that.”

He sneered at her. “You toy with the powers of the Dread Masters, without fully utilising their powers-”

“Their strength came from the power of their collective,” she countered. “I will never bind myself to another and limit myself to their shortcomings. My power is mine and mine alone!”

“You are a child, playing at godhood without any true comprehension of what you aspire to.”

“I aspire to your death,” she said, dredging up another fantasy to torment him with. His children, laughing as they embraced one another, their eyes clear and their joy tangible. “Failing that, I will be your own personal hell from now until the end of days.”

____

Dromund Kaas, the Dromund System, Outer Rim Territories

“Lord Imperius?”

Kaltix bit back the first snarled response that jumped to his tongue, refusing to turn towards the speaker. “Hesker,” he said bluntly, not looking up from where he was rapidly cataloging the contents of the crate in front of him. Satisfied that he had the list in order, he tugged the lid back on and sealed the vacuum lock on the crate, gesturing for one of the nearby servants to move it to the transport area. He moved on to the next without waiting to see that his orders were obeyed. “What precisely do I have to do to get you to go away this time?”

“Darth Acina has requested your presence immediately, my lord.”

Rolling his eyes before he turned to face him, Kaltix said “Does it bother you, Hesker?”

“My lord?”

“Being reduced to playing fetch for mediocre sith while the world burns around you,” he said, gesturing between them.

Hesker stiffened slightly with the insult, which in itself was telling- once upon a time it would have been unthinkable to show any sort of disapproval, no matter how small, in the presence of a sith lord. That he saw no issue with revealing his mood spoke legions, but with what, he couldn’t say. Was it the snide reminder of the inevitable fall of the Empire, leaving once great men bereft of purpose? Was it the fact that Hesker himself had once served in the Imperial Guard, and any suggestion of the betrayal of his brethren on Yavin 4 was still too painful for him to endure? Or was it trying to come to terms with the idea of serving a malnourished welp playing at grandeur that undid him, and being forced to bow to a former slave from a backwater swamp?

No matter. That was the joy of being sith- if you were in a bad mood yourself, it didn’t matter if you inflicted it on others as well. They just had to deal with it without insulting you in return.

“Well?” he asked.

Hesker’s expression flickered slightly, and he drew himself up again; the man was so rigid that Kaltix wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find that the man had durasteel rods in place of bones. “Your question is a trap, my lord,” he said, surprising him. “Should I answer in the affirmative, and confirm that it does concern me, you will take that as criticism of yourself. Should I answer in the negative, and assure you I am loyal without question to the Empire as a whole, not to one master, you will take that to mean I have publicly challenged your words at the very least, and called you a liar at worst.”

“And to defy me entirely, and refuse to answer while accusing me of mind games?”

“A risk I calculated worthy of taking.”

Kaltix could appreciate that sort of honesty. Closing his eyes wearily, he leaned back against the crate he was in the process of cataloguing. “What does she want this time, Hesker?” he asked quietly.

“I imagine the same thing she has wanted every time she has requested your presence, my lord. She wants to discuss the future of the Empire.”

That irritated him. “Some of us are actually trying to do something tangible about our survival, instead of just belatedly throwing entire armies at the mercy of Zakuul knowing full well it won’t make a difference,” he said, with more than a little bitterness. The warehouse they stood in was nowhere near as full as it should have been, stacked with crates of carefully salvaged artifacts and relics depicting the vast history of the sith. After the Dread Masters’ attack on the Arcanum, followed by the Revanite invasion of Korriban and then the Zakuulan assault on Korriban as well, what little of their cultural history remained intact was...

Pitiful. There was no other word for it. Pitiful.

He felt no particular kinship with Korriban, no sense of home or belonging, but he knew from personal experience how much losing the past could hurt. The head injury he’d survived upon being captured by Imperial forces and sold into slavery when he was twelve had stolen parts of him, locked away memories that no amount of time or meditation or medication could unlock. He had faces without names, names without faces, and lingering gaps in his thoughts that remained frustratingly, humiliatingly blank no matter what he did. So yes, he knew what it would mean for the sith to lose their history, because it was what he endured every single day- and as the master of the Sphere of Ancient Knowledge, it was his duty to ensure they lost no more than they already had.

Given how many of the attacks had occurred during his tenure, he was beginning to think he was no better at preserving the memories of the sith than he was at salvaging his own.

“I think, my Lord, that if you simply gave her the benefit of the doubt and stopped to talk to her, that you would find your goals to be of a mind,” Hesker said calmly, hands clasped before him.

“Playing favourites, General?”

“I serve the Empire, my Lord,” he said, his eyes glittering as if with amusement. “So perhaps throwing my lot in with the person most determined to see to the survival of the Empire could be seen as favouritism- I prefer to think of it as mere practicality.”

Kaltix sighed, his shoulders drooping as he succumbed to the inevitable. “The Eternal Fleet has been sighted over Darvannis,” he said pointedly, “which means they are- at best- only a week or two from Dromund Kaas now.”

Hesker’s bright red robes seemed almost out of place in the dust and duracrete of the warehouse. Of the two of them, Hesker looked far more authoritative and elegant, far more the picture of sith decadence and perfection than Kaltix in his stained work tunic and his faithful, scuffed boots. “All the more reason, one would think, for a united body to face them,” he said.

“It means I have only a week or two to secure the last of our cultural heritage.”

“Then perhaps speaking to one of your peers about how best to defend our capital world will add time to your schedule.”

Kaltix gave him a withering look. “I’m older than you, you know,” he said. “You can’t be standing there giving me fatherly advice when I’m older than you.”

Hesker actually smiled briefly. “My lord, with apologies, you’re still as skinny as a Xuvvan runt. About as small as one too.”

“Would you have spoken that way to Darth Decimus?”

“Force no, not in a thousand lifetimes. But Decimus never spoke to me like an equal, or allowed me to argue with him.” At Kaltix’s glare, the smile appeared again. “I am grateful to the younger generation on the Council who seem more inclined to acknowledge the life experience of those of us who still serve faithfully.”

“You’re pushing your luck, Hesker,” Kaltix said, and then sighed. He looked down at the filthy state of his apparel, wiping grease stained fingers on the already stained tunic. “Fine. But I’m not wasting time getting pretty for her afternoon tea party when I’m just coming straight back here to work afterwards.”

“Darth Imperius, believe me when I say that no one expects you of all people to look pretty.”

“Watch that tongue of yours, Hesker, before it gets you in trouble.”

“Both my wife and my husband find my tongue to be nothing but delightful, my lord.”

“Well I’d hate to disappoint them by removing it, so perhaps consider your words more carefully and I won’t be so tempted.”

“I’ll make a note of it, my lord.”

With his resolve worn down there wasn’t much point in standing about and wasting more time, so he stopped in at the foreman’s office to make use of the crude washroom- they’d never considered that sith lords would actually frequent the bowels of a storage facility and so had never built them with the opulence of the sith in mind. But Kaltix was not one for the posturing and the trappings of imperial high society, despite how his grandfather might nag at him from time to time, and the water that came from the sink’s faucet was as good as any. He’d spent his teenage years thigh deep in swamp water after all- any water was an improvement on that as far as he was concerned.

The speeder ride from the lower districts of the city was marred by a squally burst of rain, hardly unusual for Dromund Kaas, but it was enough that he was drenched through to the skin by the time he pulled up to the landing pad on the Citadel tower. He flicked his fringe out from in front of his eyes, water dripping off the end and onto his face; the taxi droid attendant seemed utterly unperturbed by the weather, and his sodden appearance.

He wondered what the loss rate was for droids involved in outdoor work on Dromund Kaas. Surely their metal bodies had to be a great point of attraction for the endless lightning storms that plagued the planet.

He smiled sadly at his train of thought. “You sound too much like Bejah,” he muttered to himself, leaving the speeder with the droid without looking back. He missed her, more than he probably should admit to; Force preserve them all, he even missed Kallathe. Kaas City was a lonely place when there was a dearth of friendly faces around.

Well, not that anyone would mistake Kallathe for friendly- companionably antagonistic was probably the most polite description for their relationship.

But he missed her too.

He paused inside the great arching entryway to the tower, taking a deep breath through his nose to centre himself. The entire edifice crawled with power and a psychic weight that was hard to describe, but oppressive nonetheless. It was like feeling eyes on you at all times, even when alone, suffocating and vaguely threatening. The tower was full of deep shadows and deeper secrets, but it was clean and modern in comparison to the ruins on Korriban- and at least functional, compared to the ravaged shells that were still standing on Ziost.

His appearance caused a stir, one of both terror and scandal, both of which would never cease to amuse him. There were those who recognised him as he walked the halls, their faces dropping in a panic as they sought to adequately prostrate themselves before a member of the Dark Council. And there were others who recognised him and stared in outrage at the sight of one of the greatest lords in the Empire walking about in labourers clothes and without any attendants trailing in his wake. As if, somehow, his casual regard for his attire was a slap in the face to the great Sith Lords of old, who had bathed in blood and gold, and who he mocked by wearing old shoes.

His shoes were comfortable damn it. And he was quite capable of dressing in an elegant manner when the situation called for it- Ashara always made quite sure of that- but he’d learned early on that he took no pleasure in adopting the parlour theatrics that delighted Kallathe so much. She could dress in spikes and feathers and corrupted leathers enough for the both of them, he wasn’t interested in it for himself.

He left a wet, squelching trail through the tower, amused by the scuttling droids that hurried in his wake to mop the mirror-like marble floors. He probably never would’ve been so conscious of the droids around him in a city so heavily reliant on them as Kaas was, were it not for Bejah’s influence. But here he was, years after they had gone their separate ways, still picking up on little things that he knew had to be her mark. In the vast antechamber that preceded the personal offices of the Council he paused, glancing up at the immense holostatues that stood tall and proud, four-storey figures meant to represent each of the sitting members of the Dark Council.

Several of them were dark, their podiums empty, and his footsteps slowed when he noticed that for the first time since her disappearance, Kallathe’s figure was gone. Popular opinion had prevailed for months that she had survived the attack, that she was merely a prisoner of Zakuul in much the same way that the Jedi Battlemaster had been. But that hope had waned as the months had gone by, and the Eternal Fleet had crept ever closer to the homeworlds once again, and now...

... someone had made the executive decision to all but declare her dead.

Acina.

He was somewhat aware that he snarled aloud, if only because of the way an acolyte on the far side of the lobby flinched violently, jerking around at the sound as if expecting an attack. He stalked past them with a scowl, fists clenched at his sides as he fought the urge to blast open the door before him with a burst of conjured lightning. Oh, the temptation was there though, sizzling and crackling under his skin.

As it was, he slammed open the door to her chambers with far more force than was polite, the sound of it echoing through the deep and yawning corridors of the tower. Within the chamber were three women, all of whom looked up without a one of them looking surprised by his outburst.

Darth Acina- accompanied as always by the inscrutable Lord Zhivalla, and surprisingly joined by Darth Zhorrid.

He didn’t have time to contemplate the peculiarities of that alliance. “Put it back,” he snarled, stabbing a finger accusingly towards Acina. Sparks fell from his hand, the power pushing threateningly at his control.

Acina merely viewed him with pursed lips, something akin to amusement in her eyes. “Do come in and shut the door, Imperius- you’re letting in a draft.”

“I’ll conjure a fucking hurricane in your quarters if I damn well please, put it back.”

Zhorrid looked somewhere between delighted and appalled. “Must we consort with the rabble?” she hissed, turning to Acina with a sneer on her face.

Ignoring her, Kaltix stepped into the room fully, letting the door slide closed behind him. “Restore Nox’s statue to the hall, or I swear on the ghosts of my ancestors, Acina, I will make you regret this.”

“Imperius, dear, you are hysterical. Please sit down.”

He held his pose for another few seconds, debating furiously with himself as to whether it was worth challenging three other lords who were very much his equal in terms of raw power, and certainly well eclipsed him in regards to their actual control and skill. After a moment, he bitterly lowered his hands, the sparks slowly dripping to a halt where they fell from his fingers; he kept a tight hold on the anger, though. It was never good to be unarmed, after all, especially around other sith. “Talk,” he spat curtly, staying on his feet.

“Wouldn’t you rather sit-”

“Don’t try my patience, Acina,” he said.

The only sign of her irritation on her otherwise composed demeanour was a subtle darkening in her eyes, the bright gold suddenly a muted bronze as the dark side burned at her from within. “A bold statement, Imperius, when you have been trying my patience for several weeks now.”

“If you only called me here to debate which one of us dislikes the other more-”

“I told you he wouldn’t be reasonable,” Zhorrid said in a stage whisper, making sure that he heard her even as she pretended he couldn’t. “What else can you expect from such poor breeding and next to no education?”

“At least I have a spine,” he snarled.

The air was abruptly charged with something heavy and oppressive, and his pulse lurched skywards in an instinctive fear response. It was a petty parlour trick, but one he recognised well enough- it had been one of Kallathe’s favourite pranks, after all. “Enough,” a delicate voice said, breathy and gentle. The speaker was Lord Zhivalla, her face obscured by a delicate veil that only just left her mouth and tentacled chin visible; she was dressed, as always, as if in mourning, despite the fact that her father had passed away well over a decade ago. He knew this because the person who had killed him was Kallathe, rising up to kill the master who had kept her as an enslaved assassin since the day of her birth. Jayal’s touch was perhaps lighter than Kallathe’s was, who saw no use in restraint, but the technique was the same.

The reminder of Kallathe roused a new bitterness in him, and it was all he could do not to turn on his heel and storm out. “Do not do that to me again,” he said quietly, no less threatening for all that he said it without heat.

“It does us no favours to stand about bickering,” she said, and stars above but the breathy quality to her voice annoyed the piss out of him. “We should all of us recognise that we are here for the survival and betterment of the Empire, and we must have an accord to some degree.”

“All you’ve done so far is call me here to sneer at me and insult me. Rather on par for a usual session of the Dark Council, but this is hardly a full sitting and you are not on the Council, Zhivalla.”

Zhorrid let out a loud, drawn out sigh of disgust, as if bored and frustrated with the conversation.

“Shut up, Zhorrid,” Acina said, clearly fed up by her melodramatic antics. She turned back towards Kaltix, her lips pressed together in a thin line of displeasure. “I’ll be blunt, then. We want to make overtures towards Zakuul.”

Kaltix blinked. That was absolutely not at all what he had been expecting of them when he’d stepped into this room.

“I told you he wouldn’t like it,” Zhorrid said, and Zhivalla sighed at her.

“He hasn’t even had time to think yet.”

“Shut up, all of you,” he snapped, trying to grapple with the immensity of the concept and the simplicity with which Acina had stated it. “Explain yourself, Acina.”

She shrugged, as if unconcerned. “We want to make overtures towards Zakuul,” she repeated.

“I heard you the first time- I asked you to explain yourself.”

“It’s all very simple, really. We have no hope of holding out against Zakuul, not with the losses we have suffered in the last few years on internal disputes alone.” She sniffed haughtily. “We lost an entire planet’s population to our own emperor, after all, without even taking into account the losses we accrued against the Dread Masters, and Malgus, and the Revanites, and Jadus.”

At the mention of the the Dread Masters, Zhivalla very carefully smoothed down an imaginary wrinkle in the fabric of her dress; at the mention of Jadus, Zhorrid’s lip curled in disgust and she glanced away, but not before very real fear flashed through her eyes.

Kaltix crossed his arms. “And so you choose subservience to obliteration,” he said, “trading your pride for survival.”

“It is the smarter choice,” Acina said coldly, unflinching. “With the losses on the Dark Council, we have the numbers to make a majority ruling, and override the objections of any Lords who would rather cling to their pride as our empire burns around us.”

She didn’t need to say Ravage, but they were all thinking of him.

Kaltix chewed on the inside of his cheek, thinking rapidly. “With Marr and Nox gone, there are four empty seats on the Council,” he said slowly. “We three are not a majority vote- unless you’ve plans to set up a puppet in one of the empty seats just to win a vote.” He stared pointedly at Zhivalla as he said it, making his opinion of the sith lord abundantly clear.

But Acina simply smiled smugly, the expression mirrored on Zhivalla, whose sharpened gold capped teeth made him think again of Kallathe. “You assume we three are the only ones interested in pursuing such an option,” she said. “I have called you forward for weeks, Imperius, and you are the last to respond to my summons.”

He bristled at that, the tone she took making it sound like she was scolding an errant child. “Who, then?”

“The Minister for Logistics, and the Minister for Intelligence, and the Minister for Reclamation-”

Civilian voices do not outweigh the vote of a Dark Council member,” he snarled, even if he hated the illogical nature of such a rule.

“-and numerous other government ministers eager to avoid confrontation,” Acina continued, apparently unconcerned by his outburst. “Oh, yes, and Darth Vowrawn.”

He breathed out from between gritted teeth. “Because of course the man so obsessed with self preservation that he makes it an artform would have his hands in a scheme like this.”

“Do you honestly think a choice like this can be boiled down to nothing more than a scheme?”

The rain outside the windows began to pick up, hammering violently against the glass as the clouds lit up from within from the lightning strikes. Tucking his hands behind his back, he wandered over to the window, staring out over the city in silent contemplation.

Dromund Kaas had never been a home to him, no more than Korriban had, but it was the best that he had. He had work here that made him feel engaged and useful, and he had an odd assortment of people he could actually call friends. He had Ashara, and the little spitfire that grew in her belly, soon to grace the world and upend their lives anew.

The sith had never had his loyalty, despite how the ghost of his ancestor had nagged at him to honour their family legacy and uphold the divine right of the sith to rule. But he had no loyalty to the Republic either, and certainly nothing but contempt and loathing for Zakuul, given that they had taken Marr’s stabilizing influence from the Council and Kallathe’s caustic friendship from him. He had loyalty to his wife, and to his friends, and to his unborn child.

Beyond that?

And when the Empire crumbles and the hounds of Zakuul come hunting, where will you hide your child?

He breathed out heavily through his nose, bowing his head. “What exactly are you proposing?” he asked gruffly, bitter at having to accept they were right but sensible enough to know it.

Behind him, he heard the shifting of fabric, as if one of them had stood. Acina, probably. “We will not prevail against the might of Zakuul,” she said. “Korriban was evidence enough of that.”

“You are simply stating the obvious, tell me what your proposal entails other than just vaguely grandiose proclamations of doom or I am walking out.”

Acina came to stand beside him. “The Empire needs stability if it is to grow and move forward with any semblance of what it once was,” she said. “We have been mired in infighting and power struggles for too long, and we have suffered for it. Pride cannot be a consideration right now, not when it has become a literal matter of life and death.”

He turned his head to look at her. “Are you incapable of speaking plainly or must you wrap everything in unnecessary pretension?”

“You’re using words too big for him,” Zhorrid called loftily. “You can’t expect ill bred rabble to comprehend anything beyond violence and copulation.”

“If I did not need your vote in order to preserve the Empire, Zhorrid, I would quite happily throw you to the rabble you seem so obsessed with,” Acina snapped over her shoulder. The irritation in her eyes amused Kaltix. “We need to surrender, Imperius- but we cannot be seen to be doing so. To admit to such a weakness would destroy any credibility the Dark Council still retains, and any number of worlds under our control would see it as a sign to test their boundaries, either through rebellion or outright defection.”

“Nor will pride allow you to admit defeat when the Republic still struggles in vain,” he said.

“Indeed. So there is a need for a more subtle solution.”

“Something that requires the support of enough members of the Council to overrule the traditionalists.”

He saw her smirk out of the corner of his eye. “I’m glad you share my thoughts on the matter,” she said.

He snorted. “I don’t necessarily share them, I just understand the direction you’re gesturing towards. There’s a vast difference.”

“You are being unnecessarily difficult, Imperius.”

“It’s what I strive for, Acina.”

He could feel her glaring at him, but he didn’t give her even a smirk out of the side of his mouth. The lightning turned the gloomy day to sheer white for a moment, bright enough that he closed his eyes against the pain of it. “There will be a coup,” she said quietly, stating it bluntly. “The ministers of government will meet and determine that it is the more sensible option to surrender, and they will make contact with Zakuul without the knowledge of the Dark Council.”

Kaltix finally turned to look at her. “There seems to be a rather significant flaw with your plan,” he said dryly.

She smiled almost serenely. “Of course we will publicly deny all knowledge of such a scheme, and rail against it, but it will be too late. The damage will be done.”

“Your need to avoid the humiliation of the Dark Council accepting surrender does not seem to be circumvented by this plan.”

“The necessary steps will have taken place without our needing to take them. The difference is subtle, but it absolves the Council of needing to accept the brunt of the blame.” She smoothed down an imaginary wrinkle on her gown. “From there it becomes necessary for us to save face, which of course would call for significant restructuring.”

“So of course we execute the ministers responsible, further destabilising what pathetic scraps remain of the Empire. What a brilliant plan, I'm so thoroughly glad I wasted my time coming down here.”

“Force preserve, Imperius, set aside your sass for two minutes and let me finish,” she said irritably.

He waved a hand absently, gesturing for her to continue.

“The Ministers are aware there could be unintended fallout and have agreed as a body that it’s a risk they’re willing to take.”

“Is the military involved? The Grand Moff?”

“I have not approached them, no. For now, the Imperial Guard are appraised and ready to act as necessary, but I would rather avoid turning this into a military coup. Zakuul will do enough damage to us without our own soldiers turning their guns back upon us.”

He grunted. “I’ll admit I’m not as informed on our current ministers as I should be- we’ve replaced Beniko since she vanished, have we?”

Darth Zhorrid sighed dramatically from behind them. “Wretched, simpering creatures, all of them,” she said dismissively.

Acina rolled her eyes, out of sight of Zhorrid but perfectly visible to Kaltix. “The Minister for Intelligence is that chiss woman, the one who dealt with Jadus and Makeb. She was Watcher One until Beniko’s disappearance.”

“I don’t know that I know her. My contact with Intelligence has always been minimal.” At Zhorrid’s delighted cackle behind him, he realised how poorly he’d chosen his words a moment later. “Shut up Zhorrid.”

“But you said-”

“I know what I said. At least I don’t need a whole department to scrounge up some pretense at intelligence for me since I’m incapable of faking it myself.” The stunned expression on her face morphed quickly into pathetic outrage, and her lip trembled with fake emotion as she screeched at him.

“Moving on,” Acina said, not even blinking at the static burst that flew between them as Zhorrid threw a poorly aimed bolt at Kaltix, “I have met with the ministers, and they are of an accord. When Zakuul moves against Dromund Kaas, they will issue a surrender on behalf of the Empire.”

“And from there?”

“From there, we will of course declare our outrage and our determination to ignore such an arrangement, but after several days of bluster the worst of it will have settled. The Minister of Logistics is currently angling to declare himself Prime Minister-”

“We do not have a Prime Minister.”

“Indeed, we don’t. Our concession to him, for him to lead this coup- he will be awarded the position as a reward for his service to the Empire.”

Kaltix rubbed wearily at his face, the cold and the damp of his clothes beginning to annoy him. It had made an adequate statement to begin with, but now he was suffering for it. “We cannot be seen to be rewarding those who actively undermine the Council.”

She nodded briefly. “Agreed. Which is why he will meet with an unfortunate end in several months time, once suspicion has subsided. We already have arrangements in place to make sure his successor is more pliable.”

They were calmly discussing the murder of a major civic leader like it was nothing out of the ordinary. “So we surrender to Zakuul via the civilian government,” he said gruffly. “What then?”

“Vowrawn will make the necessary performance for the Zakuulan Emperor- he loves the drama, and he loves to flagellate himself for the attention. As the master of the Sphere of Production and Logistics, the minister would have fallen under his jurisdiction, and is ergo his responsibility.”

“He will bow on behalf of the Council, and the sith will be leashed to Zakuul,” he said. “A stunning plan. Really.”

“Sarcasm does you no favours, Imperius,” she sniffed.

“Ravage and Mortis will never accept the surrender. Aruk is somewhat of a wild card, and Rictus is still a shadow of the man he was prior to Oricon, so Force only knows what stance he’ll take-”

Acina laughed, and something about it made his skin crawl. “My dear Imperius, you misunderstand me. I do not require your vote in order to legitimise the surrender.”

He turned to look at her, squinting suspiciously. “Then what, Acina?” he said. “I dislike being toyed with, so be plain with me for fuck’s sake.”

Zhorrid gasped, scandalized at his language, but Acina didn’t even blink. “We can hardly be an Empire without an Emperor,” she said. “For too long, the Sith have cowered in the shadow of a man who sought only to consume us to better himself, and perhaps blind loyalty to such an individual suited our predecessors, but I believe we are capable of more.”

Kaltix breathed out slowly, taking his time to choose his words with immense care. “You boldly speak of the Emperor with disrespect, Acina,” he said suspiciously. “Are you hoping to lure me into speaking ill of him also, the better to use against me as leverage by threatening to expose me?”

“If that were the case, I would not have spoken first, now, would I?”

‘Though you leave us, your humble subjects on Ziost, we know it is not forever’-”

Acina snorted derisively. “Come now, Imperius, now is hardly the time for fanatical poetry- unless of course, you’ve come across a revised edition? ‘Though you devour us, your humble subjects on Ziost, etcetera etcetera’?”

He gritted his teeth. “Believe me, Acina, I have no love for Vitiate whatsoever, nor do I possess a shred of loyalty towards the man, but even I am not foolish enough to suggest we dismiss him out of hand- death or not, we have both seen him come back from death once already, and by all reports it is hardly the first time.”

“And so you would cower in terror, out of fear of a dreaded ‘what-if’?”

“Pragmatism is not the same as cowardice, and given that you have called me here precisely to discuss the logical conclusion of surrendering to Zakuul’s emperor before our entire way of life can be obliterated, I’d think you’d understand the difference.”

She cocked her head to the side, as if suddenly coming to an understanding of something. “I’m not suggesting we tear down the Empire, Imperius,” she said, looking at him curiously. “We have functioned adequately for over a thousand years as a theocratic empire, and trying to institute a change of political system at such a vulnerable point in our history would be nothing short of suicidal.”

The last piece finally fell into place for him. “You don’t mean to reinstate an emperor,” he said slowly, turning to face her. She was smiling serenely at him, a smug wickedness glittering in her eyes. “You mean to give us an empress.”

“The function is the same even if the title deviates slightly.”

“That’s what you need my vote for,” he said, still reeling from her arrogance and her almost insulting confidence. “You want me to support your bid for the throne.”

She clasped her hands almost demurely behind her back, and he wasn’t fooled for a moment by her attempts to project softer, less threatening body language towards him. “The Empire is dying, Imperius,” she said. “There is no way to soften that reality. We are dying, and the longer we fight amongst ourselves, the faster we crumble. Vitiate turned his gaze away from us, and we fell to bickering and violent sedition, until he himself chose to turn on our people. We need stability, and we need unity, and we need a symbol of both- and we need it now.”

What she was saying made complete sense, he knew that. As much as he was determined to preserve the history of the sith, he had no loyalty to the Council, or to the ravenous hunger of some of his brethren for violence and conquest. He rubbed wearily at his face, trying to take it all in. “What you are suggesting is in fact sedition,” he said, “just as it was for Malgus, just as it was for Vich before him, just as it was for Jadus and Brontes and every other fucking Dark Lord who has decided over these past fifty years that their particular brand of tyranny is the only one truly suitable for the galaxy.”

“And yet never before have we stood on the brink of complete annihilation as we do now,” she retorted. “Get your head out of your ass, Imperius- this has nothing to do with the petty power plays of our predecessors, and everything to do with simple, basic survival.

“The fact that you secure the throne of the empire for yourself has nothing to do with it, I’m sure.”

“Do you want the throne, Kallig? Or perhaps you think I should give it to Ravage, hmm? Or maybe Mortis would be the superior choice, although... oh dear, Mortis is notoriously xenophobic, and rather vocal about keeping non-humans out of the ranks of the sith. I imagine that wouldn’t put you in good standing with him, given your close allegiance with Nox, and the fact that your darling wife is togruta-”

Enough,” he snarled, his blood surging in an instant at the veiled threat to Ashara’s safety. Some of the furniture in the room rattled slightly in response to his anger. “Do not ever speak of my wife again, or I will tear out your tongue.”

“I am simply issuing a friendly warning-”

“Nerfshit you are. Keep your argument with me and leave her out of it- unless you expect me to believe Mortis would specifically take issue with my relationship when you are fucking an alien yourself?”

Behind them, Zhorrid clapped like a child at a carnival display, giggling in delight.

Acina’s expression soured for the first time in several minutes. “The stance on purebloods has always been different,” she started to say.

“And yet you bring up my friendship with Nox as a means to discredit me and bring me to heel. Kallathe may have been many things, but at least she wasn’t the child of traitors.”

“My father was no traitor, Lord Imperius,” Zhivalla began behind him, but he rolled his eyes.

“Spare me, please.” He turned back to Acina. “You want to be Empress, and deal with all the shit that comes from trying to prop up a crumbling empire against two superior powers? Fine. I don’t care, you have my vote. But threaten my wife again and the destruction wrought on Ziost by Vitiate will be nothing in comparison to what I bring down upon you.”

Darth Acina- or he supposed he should refer to her by Empress Acina, for practice at least- smiled slowly, her teeth bared in an expression that was supposed to convey delight but only seemed to reinforce the fact that he was staring down a predator, and had declared himself a potential threat to it. The tension in the room was so thick that it was a wonder the glass on the windows did not rattle, or the fine woollen carpets crackle from built up static charge.

“So I have your support?”

“I have given you my answer. Don’t waste my time with further word games.”

“And you will not disrupt the negotiations to surrender to Zakuul?”

“I don’t care, Acina, for fuck’s sake. Surrender to the Hutts, for all I care.”

Acina was silent for several long moments. “You know,” she said quietly, “this would be much easier if you simply ordered the mecha-deru to return-”

Immediate, boiling anger surged through him, and he rounded on her with a snarl. “She is not a thing!

“You and Nox made every attempt possible to erase all record of her from the sith archives, but she still exists, and her skills would quite literally turn the tide of the war for us. She would easily be appointed a seat on the council, and her vote could join our own. She is sith, and she owes a life debt to the Empire.”

He couldn’t believe how monumentally angry he was. “She is not sith,” he hissed, “and you will never find her.”

“Never is a very long time, Imperius,” Acina said, her tone flat and her eyes challenging as she stared at him. “Twice now you have challenged me, and both over women with questionable loyalties. Are you sure you wish to impede me here?”

“You need my vote, Empress,” he sneered. “And if you want it, you will not touch her.”

She was angry at him, that much was obvious, but her demeanour was so terrifyingly cold. Almost like the Wrath, on the one occasion he’d been unfortunate enough to meet her. “I will allow this,” she said quietly. “For now.”

“I have held my seat on the Council for longer than you, Acina, and I killed my predecessor to get here- of the two of us, only one of us has proved that we have the potential to kill a member of the Dark Council. Don’t push me.”

She stared at him for a long, long moment, and neither Zhorrid nor Zhivalla seemed willing to break the razor sharp tension between the two Dark Council members. Eventually, Acina nodded, but he still got the impression that she had won their staring match. “The Empire thanks you for your service,” she murmured, and it was a dismissal if ever he heard one. She had the same sort of false feminine modesty that Zash had pretended at, all those years ago. Coy and shy and brimming with overdone flattery in an attempt to distract you from their real goal.

And yet he’d agreed to make her Empress.

He nodded curtly in response, throwing a scowl in the direction of the other two lords as he stalked back towards the door. Zhivalla was still smiling demurely, the veil masking her expression, and Zhorrid returned his sneer; he got the impression that if she had a lace handkerchief to clutch to her mouth in scandalized horror, she would have been doing just that.

He stalked back through the Citadel tower, coming slowly to a halt in the foyer once more when he took in Kallathe’s empty podium.

The message was abundantly clear- she was gone. She wasn’t coming back. And now, having met with Acina and learned of her intentions, he knew there was another meaning behind Kallathe’s tribute vanishing. Namely, that it wouldn’t do at all to upset their future overlords by proudly displaying a monument to the woman who had allegedly murdered their emperor before her own death.

He snarled, his hand going up almost without conscious thought- he did not have Bejah’s gift for connecting with mechanical and electronic interfaces, but she’d taught them both as much as she could. Lightning flew from his fingers, arching across the room; the sharp crackling snap of the purple light caused the few acolytes and apprentices crossing the space to gasp and fall to the floor, scrambling for cover.

The lightning connected with the base of the pedestal, landing squarely on the power conduit embedded in the base. There was a burst of sparks, and the smell of burning plasteel, and the lights in the building flickered with the power surge. With a violent crackling noise, the hologram powered on again, Kallathe’s image looming large again over the entrance to the Citadel alongside the other members of the Dark Council.

Just as it should be.

It was still raining as he made his way onto the landing pad again, the droid quickly bringing about his speeder for him. Still damp from earlier, he was freezing in seconds despite the humidity as the rain soaked through his clothes and down to his skin; he didn’t really fancy going back to work, not with everything that had happened in the last few hours, so he headed instead for home.

The luxurious apartment tower loomed out of the sheeting rain, and he was scarcely paying attention as he circled around the building in order to slow down enough to come in to land. The power grid over the garage flickered off as he approached, the lights bright and cheery against the gloom of the day. There was nobody to greet him as he peeled himself off the speeder, no servants or slaves like one might have expected from a prominent member of the Dark Council. In fact, he guided his speeder into a parking bay by himself, snatching a towel off of the table by the door as he made his way into the building proper.

His boots squelched beneath him as he climbed wearily towards the atrium, the lights of the garage slowly dimming behind him as he made his way into the penthouse. As he drew closer to the living quarters, he could hear someone humming to themselves, the sound of their voice filling the rooms above him.

Ashara. He smiled.

She was standing before a projection of a star chart when he entered, one hand holding a datapad as she perused the map and the other sitting comfortably on her swollen belly. Her eyes lit up delightedly at his entrance, but her nose quickly scrunched up in dismay when she took in his appearance.

“Ew, you’re soaking wet,” she started to say, nose crinkled adorably, but whatever else she’d been about to say instead became a squeak of surprise when he dragged her into his arms, clinging tight to her and burying his face against her shoulder. After a moment of startled stiffness, she returned his hug. “Okay, now I’m soaking wet too. Is this a fun new game?”

He breathed in the scent of her, trying to imprint the smell of her and the warmth of her down onto his very bones.

“Kal, you’re scaring me, what’s going on?”

He pulled back and looked at her, his hands going up to cradle her face. He loved her for her fire, her defiance, her anger. All of the things the Jedi had told her were parts of her to be discarded and suppressed. And yet here amongst the Sith she was not necessarily any safer, judged by her alien blood and her impetuous need to seek justice at all costs.

He had not been able to save Kallathe. He had no idea where Bejah was.

He would not lose Ashara.

“Nothing,” he rasped, telling himself that supporting a carefully falsified coup attempt that would result in an actual coup was a perfectly logical, sensible thing to do. “Nothing is wrong.”

Chapter Text

She knew that time was passing differently for her, but that knowledge didn’t mean she was better able to grasp what was going on around her. Sometimes when she concentrated, she could find moments of clarity where her thoughts were solely hers again, and her memories weren’t all tangled up around his in angry, painful knots. If she concentrated, she could almost break through the fog that encompassed her thoughts, the muddling haze that wasn’t quite death and wasn’t quite sleep and seemed very much like some kind of Force projection of her subconscious, and she could see again.

She saw Dromund Kaas, not quite as ruinous as he’d hinted at but still bearing the scars of war while the wind howled down empty boulevards. She saw Coruscant, with the dead piled up in the street while the survivors rioted in desperation for food. She saw glittering silver ships, spread out like a net in the sky, and palaces that hung against the stars made of silver and gold and blocked out the sun on hundreds of worlds.

Finding specific memories, specific people, was much harder- and tended to draw his attention sooner rather than later.

“Your attachments to these mortals is a weakness,” he said, when she tried to focus on Lana for what felt like the millionth time.

She rolled her eyes, not even bothering to turn to where she could feel him standing beside her. “You sound like a Jedi,” she said haughtily, not bothering to attempt anything more diplomatic. She was so sick of talking to him.

“There is power to be found in passion, and in love,” he said, strolling regally into view; she deliberately turned away from him again. “But you yearn for the comfort of these individuals, tying your strength to their approval and survival. You must learn to let go of such obsessions, or you will drown in them.”

She sat down on the asteroid’s dusty surface, hugged her knees to her chest, and started to sing the most annoyingly bubbly song she could remember Bejah ever playing on repeat during her pop music phase. She hadn’t really ever tried to memorise it, but given that Bejah had played entire albums on endless repeat for months on end, the words and the melodies had wormed their way into her head anyway.

Behind her, she felt Valkorion pause in confusion. “What are you doing?”

She lifted her chin and sang louder, shouting out the words badly out of tune. Fuck it, music wasn’t her strong suit, it never had been, but she wanted to annoy him as immensely as possible. “Just watch me hyper-drive away from this heartache-”

“Why are you singing?”

“-and I’ll hyper-thrive without you,” she sang aggressively, wincing and glad that no one was here to witness it besides the asshole she was trying to piss off.

“Are you trying to make a point? That I have hurt your precious feelings?”

“Dun dun dun,” she yelled loudly, and out of key, deliberately singing the drum parts. “Dun dun hyper-drive heartache!”

It only took him two repetitions of the entire album for him to get the hint and leave her alone.

____

The Spire, Zakuul, Wild Space

“Food accessibility on Coruscant is down a further one point seven three percent with the successful conquest of Agamar, your Majesty.”

Arcann stared up at the giant galactic map spinning slowly through the room, frowning in absent irritability as he tapped his fingers on his crossed arms. “Unacceptable,” he said flatly, the single word causing half the room to flinch slightly in anticipation of an outburst. “I specified that it needed to be below twenty percent before we established the blockade.”

The analyst who had spoken initially hesitated, before forging onwards. “Your Majesty, we have confirmed our disruptions to Coruscant’s food supply have resulted in a total loss of eighteen point nine one percent gross mass-”

“Which is a full percent less than what I explicitly stated to be our minimum goal,” Arcann said, his temper growing. “Why are you standing there expecting me to take your failures as a positive result?”

The man paled. “My lord-”

His robotic arm snapped out, his fingers curled into a clawing gesture. The analyst tried to gasp, but the sound came out more like a panicked gurgle as his hand flew up to his throat. “Tell me,” he growled, holding the man in place with just enough pressure on his windpipe to scare him, “would you have dared to bring your failures before my father and expect to be rewarded?”

“I- I did not have the pleasure of serving his Immortal Majesty directly, may his spirit be avenged-”

“That was not my question,” Arcann said quietly, tightening his grip through the Force. The analyst wheezed, his eyes bugging out. “You are making me very unhappy.”

“No! No, your Majesty, I- I would not have presented a failure to your father.”

Arcann cocked his head to the side, as if considering the struggling man before him. “Isn’t honesty far more refreshing?” he asked, to no one in particular.

Then he snapped his neck.

The man let out a single bleating cry before he crumpled to the ground, his head askew at a horrifying angle as his eyes glassed over. No one else in the war room let out a sound, well aware that cries of outrage would run the risk of drawing his attention next.

Well, no one except Vaylin.

She sighed loudly from where she was lounging in a confiscated technician’s chair- the poor woman was hovering awkwardly behind her, clearly reluctant to leave her work station but unsure how to go about her duties when the Princess had her boots up on her console- and folded her hands into her lap, looking at him pityingly. “Now who’s going to clean that up, hmm?” she said, in the sort of tone one might use with an errant toddler.

He scowled at her, the gesture somewhat lost behind his mask.

She cocked her head to the side, a mimicry of his earlier expression. “And now who’s going to talk to us about all of those fascinatingly boring numbers you get so aroused over, hmm? Now you’ve gotten yourself all hot and bothered over percentages or decimal points or something-”

Vaylin,” he snarled, hands clenching into fists at his sides.

Ugh,” she responded, the sound drawn out and irritated. She kicked the console her feet were resting on, and the galactic map flickered, replaced a moment later with an image of a single planet. “Agamar experienced extensive periods of drought as a result of rapid agricultural expansion in the aftermath of the Great Galactic War, after the Republic lost several key agriworlds to the control of the Sith in the Treaty of Coruscant. The increased strain on the environment resulted in a drought that lasted approximately ten years, with production output levels only beginning to stabilise in the last two years. To assume that Agamar could viably produce two percent of Coruscant’s gross food consumption is overconfident at best and sheer idiocy otherwise.”

At the murderous look he gave her, she scowled. “What? I gave you the fucking numbers you wanted. Go run off to your room and masturbate all over those fractions.”

Vaylin!

She flopped backwards in the chair with a sneer of disgust on her face. “Ugh, you are impossible to please!”

Someone had moved the body in the few seconds he’d been distracted, and there was a new analyst standing in place near to the holotable when he turned back. She was quite visibly terrified, her dark skin shining with sweat and her eyes wide even as she tried to fumble with the datapad in her hand. “The, um, the official death toll for the food shortages on Coruscant is only an estimate at this point,” she stuttered, shaking so badly that she couldn’t press the keys on the terminal for several seconds. When she finally got the holographic display to update, it showed a collection of graphs and several newsreels pulled from the holonet. “There have been attempts by the Galactic Senate to suppress information about the riots, and to downplay the rationing and starvation going on. We have agents within both Coruscant Security Force and the Strategic Intelligence Service, and we have more than a dozen Senators pledged to Zakuul who are still based on Coruscant, so we’ve pooled what resources we have access to in order to make conservative estimate of the current situation.”

He stepped up to the table’s edge, pressing a few keys on his own terminal as he rotated the video file to watch it from the correct angle. “Go on.”

She glanced to the side, as if seeking reassurance from someone else in the room, and then took a shaky breath. “The, ah, the death toll is hard to measure with any sort of accuracy, given the vast number of civilians living in the greater depths of Coruscant without governmental oversight, but at three months, one week and four days of food rationing in effect, we can confirm that the number of dead has exceeded five hundred million. By our calculations, our most cautious estimates suggest five hundred and twenty million, while our best case scenario simulations go as high as nine hundred and five million.”

“So at best, we have only done enough damage to supply lines to cause a drop of zero point zero five percent in the population,” he said flatly, scowling up at the graphs. “The natural death rate for Coruscant is five point zero three percent- we are actively starving these people, and our efforts aren’t even equal to a tenth of their natural rate of population decay?”

“Your Majesty, our efforts are cumulative- those numbers will only increase as the weeks go by, and with the seizure of Agamar, we have the capacity to further limit food supplies.”

“And just because they’re not dead doesn’t mean they’re fighting fit,” Vaylin called, snacking loudly on some kind of crumbly looking cookie. She had crumbs all over the work station she’d overtaken, to the distress of the technician behind her; she always had food with her, he was noticing. It wasn’t something he’d ever considered before, but she literally always had some kind of snack or treat hidden away in her cloak pockets.

He wondered whether it was a survival response, whether they’d starved her on Nathema. Whether she was paranoid of not having food nearby, and needed to carry it with her at all times.

He shook his head, clearing away those thoughts. “What?” he snapped.

“Food rationing has been going for three months,” Vaylin said lazily, tipping her chair back on two legs. “Starving people can’t fight all that well. Starving people are more prone to panic, and aggression, and manipulation. You’re starving a trillion people, brother dear, I think they’re more than a little worried at this point.”

Arcann grunted. “And yet the Senate still holds out against us.”

“A collection of vainglorious bureaucrats clinging to delusions of power and grandeur,” she said dismissively. “It is not a collection of if they will succumb, but when.”

“They choose their pride over their people,” he said.

“And you wouldn’t?”

“For a government so obsessed with loftily reminding the rest of the galaxy that they alone stand for the only just and true path, they abandon their principles in the face of annihilation just as readily as those they place themselves above.”

“Everybody has a breaking point, dearest brother,” she said. He might have imagined it, but it seemed to be colder in the room than before. “Everybody denies it, but everybody has a moment where their fine, noble words and their pure intentions turn to dust, and they become just as cruel and desperate and selfish as those they condemned for it before. In the end, no one is selfless.”

Her words were blunt and to the point, and more than that they were completely true- but it still left an aching hole in him to consider it. Their mother, in the end, had found her breaking point, and had abandoned them without so much as a backwards glance, leaving them at the mercy of Valkorion. Thexan had found his breaking point, choosing their father over him-

The power in the room flickered, and he saw some of the analysts look around with wide, frightened eyes. With difficulty, he reined in his temper, biting the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood; the power fluctuations settled again, the lights going back to a warm, consistent glow. Breathing out sharply through his nose, he said “What is the next agriworld within range of our fleets?”

His team of analysts scrambled for a moment, rushing to pull up an answer; a young man stepped forward, his golden skin noticeably clammy. “We have units within striking range of, um, Hestria and Sermeria, both of which lie within territories we have annexed but we have not moved to directly occupy their-”

“What do we have in the Core?”

A hesitant silence met his question. “My- um, your Majesty, we haven’t actually made any incursions into the Core yet-”

Arcann clicked through a few screens on the holoterminal, and the holographic display hovering over the table flicked back to the galactic map again. It zoomed in on the Core Worlds, the centre of the galaxy burning bright with a thousand worlds. The centre of their precious democracy. He spun the map slowly, eyes scanning over the dots rapidly. “There,” he said, pausing the rotation of the map. He clicked again, and one planet became illuminated while the rest of the map dimmed. “Chandrila. Core location, critical to the agricultural sector, prominent political standing in the Senate. Take it.”

“Your Majesty?”

“You heard me- I want it.” He turned towards Vaylin. “Have we anyone in the Exarch program ready for deployment?”

She was sucking her fingers clean almost obscenely, loud smacking noises as she did so. “Two survived the most recent round of surgeries,” she said, almost bored.

“Are they fit for active duty?”

“They were unconscious in a medbay last I checked, but I can go for a visit. Perhaps their recovery can be expedited if they realise precisely how disappointed their Emperor is in their tardiness.”

“Good,” he said, turning back to the map. “Deploy the Fourth and Seventh Fleets to take Chandrila- they have eighteen hours to obtain a surrender from the planet’s government. Begin preparations to have a Star Fortress core shipped, and schedule construction to begin within the next four days. I will appoint an Exarch to oversee the construction and the transition of power from the Republic to Zakuul.”

A military analyst stepped up to the holotable, their features familiar enough for him to recognise them. Clearly they were competent enough if they’d survived his company long enough to be familiar to him. “Do you prefer an aerial bombardment only, your Majesty, or a complement of ground troops?”

“What are the current troop holdings on both fleets?”

“The Fourth took substantial losses in the Mid Rim, and production has been slow while we stabilise our supply lines. Last communications indicated a complement of eight thousand four hundred and sixty four skytroopers, with three hundred heavy artillery battledroids and eighty three Knights. The Seventh is in better shape, having only come recently from Zakuul, and currently retains their entire default armament.”

The map shivered as the simulation of the two fleets converged on the highlighted planet, running the projected outcome of any attempts at planetary defence. He watched it for a moment, the small flashes of light from the miniature explosions burning at his eyes. “Have the Seventh take point, and the Fourth can provide support,” he said. “It’s likely the Republic will retaliate immediately, and given their current fleet positioning, we can expect any attacks or interventions to come along the Perlemian Way from Coruscant, or at the opposite end of the system coming from the direction of Brentaal. Position the Fourth accordingly to counter any such retaliations, and have the Seventh focus on Chandrila.”

“Ground forces, your Majesty?”

“Three quarter complement, with a focus on major spaceports and government structures. Authorisation to kill granted, but keep enough government officials alive to legitimise the transfer of power.”

The room was abuzz with activity, as the staff rushed to begin issuing the control commands necessary to authorise the fleet movements. There was no trace of the body from earlier, and the map displays on the walls depicting the expansion of Zakuul showed the glorious sweep of gold slowly consuming the Republic and Sith both. He should have felt nothing but giddy triumph at his successes- and they were his successes, not his father’s, not Thexan’s, but his and his alone-, to have all but complete control of the galaxy in a manner not seen since the days of the Rakatan Empire, but he felt... nothing. No satisfaction, no pride, no guilt, no frustration. Just a numb sort of blankness that he could occasionally shake enough for irritability, but not a great deal more.

“Your Majesty?”

He shook himself, a little awkward at having to acknowledge he’d missed something in the briefing. “What?”

“Your orders for the Fourth Fleet, sir? Maintain orbital blockade and support ground invasion only, or do you wish to proceed with a full attack?”

Arcann stared at the map, and then at the small single dot to mark Chandrila. An entire world, almost a billion souls, all summed up with a tiny glowing sphere on his map an entire galaxy away.

“Begin full orbital bombardment of all outlying agricultural areas,” he said, and he felt nothing. “Burn their main centres of production and storage. Destroy the food stores. Leave nothing for Coruscant, or any of their other ecumenopolis supplied by Chandrila.”

The war room flowed around him, like a stone in a river, and he tried to take it all in. The dozens of analysts and comms officers relaying instructions to their assigned field units, the flickering glittering streams of data on every available surface in the room, the vast spinning curve of the galactic holographic map and the thousands upon thousand of points of interest placed upon it...

He felt nothing.

The map shimmered as it updated, and the Fourth and Seventh both shifted positions, taking the first forays into the as of yet unconquered Core territories. The moment drew a smattering of applause from the occupants of the room.

He needed to get out.

He turned sharply on his heel and stalked from the room, his hands tightening into fists at his sides as he hurried down the corridor. The walls of the hallway seemed to shift in front of him, as if threatening to close in around him, and he stumbled as the floor seemed to buckle beneath him. He felt light-headed, and too hot, and-

“Why’d you run off?”

He let out a startled grunt, flinching instinctively away; he hadn’t even heard Vaylin follow him out of the room. “Go away, Vaylin,” he snapped, trying to ignore the way his voice shook. The corridor was flat and solid, with no twisting walls and warping floors. He was fine.

“Are you running off to wank over a screen of statistics? Because I’m not going to follow you if that’s it.”

“Scyva save me, shut up Vaylin.”

She matched his stride easily, more fluidity in her movements than his own. She moved like she was half water at times, but more than that she never seemed to stay still. She was like a dripping tap, moving and tapping and fidgeting and always wearing away at you, sometimes unnoticeable and forgotten and then other times drip drip dripping until it drove you mad.

She let out a melodramatic sigh as she trailed after him into his extensive bedroom suite. “You’re being weird,” she declared, flopping down onto the nearest couch. It took everything in him not to just snarl at her to get out.

“I didn’t say you could come into my room.”

She very pointedly sat up and started smearing her hands over everything within reach, from the cushions on the lounge to the elegant glass caf table to the datapads piled up from his intelligence briefings earlier that morning. “I’m touching your things, I’m touching your things,” she said in a singsong sneer, and Scyva fucking save him it just irritated him more.

He tried to grab up the items within reach of her, to save them from her sticky, crumb-flecked fingers, but she took that as a challenge and lunged to get to them before he confiscated them all. They snatched at the same cushion simultaneously, both of them wrenching backwards to try and heave it out of the others’ grasp; her face was scrunched up in a furious expression of effort, a snarl on her lips, and when he shifted his weight to try and pull it away from her she screeched, heaving backwards.

He let go of the cushion.

She went flying backwards with an undignified squawk, tumbling right over the arm of the couch and onto the floor.

“Get out of my room, Vaylin!”

“Hah! I won!” Her head appeared again, her hood having fallen down around her shoulders and her hair a tousled, greasy mess. She clearly hadn’t washed her hair in at least a week, and going by the snarled tangle, it didn’t look like she’d brushed it either. She very noisily blew a strand out of her face. “Some Emperor you are- can’t even defend your own cushions from conquest by your own sister.”

He scowled at her. “You look disgusting,” he said, straightening up the datapads and grimacing at the smeared finger marks on the delicate screens. Turned away from her as he was, he missed the flash of hurt in her eyes that she abruptly masked with a deeper scowl of anger.

“Well, excuse me for existing,” she said dramatically, but with real venom beneath the extravagance of the words. “I’ll try to make sure the hindrance of my existence is less bothersome for you in the future.”

“You are such a brat,” he snapped, glancing back over his shoulder in time to see her reaching up to pull her hair back in a messy braid; the sleeves of her cloak fell down to her elbows, exposing the familiar and horrifying tattoos, some of which were marred by ugly, raised scars on the skin of her forearms.

There were a few scabs on her arms as well, obviously fresh injuries, and he paused. “What have you been doing this time?” he asked warily, half expecting her to admit to having been fighting in the training ring without armour, or sneaking off to the vaults again to hurl herself pointlessly at the frozen form of the Outlander.

She looked down at her forearms almost absently, as if the injuries weren’t at all a concern for her. “Oh. That.” She tugged the sleeves back down, hiding the markings from sight. “Sometimes the tattoos get itchy. And then I scratch too much and break the skin. And then they get infected. It’s all terribly sad and annoying.”

She said it so brusquely, as if it was a very simple, straightforward affair, and not at all a reference to the things their father had done to her. “Why don’t you have a medic look at them?”

Vaylin scoffed, looking at him far too knowingly. “Why don’t you let the surgeons finish fixing your face?” she asked snidely. “We’re a long way from the battlefield, dearest brother, and yet you still deny yourself the cosmetic procedures that would improve your quality of life. Why is that, I wonder?”

The question hit him like a kick in the gut, and he had to grab onto the back of the couch to keep himself from wobbling too badly on his feet. What answer was he supposed to give that wouldn’t sound pitiful and wretched and expose the depth and breadth of his self-loathing?

The physical pain distracts me from the emotional pain of Thexan’s death.

I don’t deserve to be healed for what I did.

If I’m a monster then I’d best look like one.

“That’s none of your business,” he growled, stalking away to the desk and dumping his collection of datapads on the surface.

She sniffed haughtily. “Then don’t pry at me,” she said, crawling back up onto the lounge and flopping down against the cushions. He did his best to ignore her boots on the fine fabrics. “You didn’t cope so well last time you were on Nathema, so pardon me for thinking the details of my incarceration might be too much for your fragile sensibilities.”

It was the same as always. They snipped and snapped at one another, running their nerves ragged until one of them landed a blow that was far more solid than the rest of their bickering. More often than not it was Vaylin, but he’d hurt her plenty of times over the last year too. He closed his eyes, trying to swallow down the worst of his bitterness. “I just want to make sure you’re not in unnecessary pain,” he said quietly, stiltedly. He didn’t look at her as he said it, instead staring at the far wall past his desk.

He could feel her surprise, the silence between them no longer quite so fraught with tension. He heard her shifting on the couch, fidgeting while she composed her reply. “Why?” she said finally, her tone riddled with suspicion.

He grunted a single laugh, more of a snort than anything. “Why not?” he said, still not turning around. “You’re my sister. Can’t I just want what’s best for you?”

The silence soured again, and she chuckled; it made the fine hair on his skin stand on end. “If you cared that much, you would have come for me far sooner than you did,” she said.

“You know father would not-”

“Honestly, Arcann, I don’t give a shit about what father would have done or allowed or whatever if was you were about to say. He’s dead. I wish you’d killed him sooner. I wish I’d killed him.”

He bowed his head, trying to work out whether he felt guilty or angry or insulted or hurt. Feeling things was far too confusing, and complicated- and why was it that he had no trouble at all being overwhelmed with his emotions when confronted by his sister in a childish, petty argument, but dictating the death of hundreds of millions left him nothing but hollow and blank.

“I’m sorry,” he said finally.

“I don’t care if you’re sorry,” she said in a singsong voice again. “And I don’t even know what you think you’re sorry for.”

It had never been this difficult with Thexan, and the reminder just frustrated him even more than normal. “Fine then,” he snapped, “get out of my room.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I don’t care! I’m the Emperor, you have to obey me!”

The room went cold so abruptly that he grunted in shock, and the filtered air being ejected from his mask turned to steam the moment he breathed out. There was a crackle in the air, like the threat of lightning and power, and the sensors inside of his mask couldn’t make head or tail of what the wildly fluctuating readings meant.

Don’t,” she said quietly, the word terrifyingly close to his ear without him having heard her move across the room, “ever threaten me again.”

He turned, stumbling slightly when he found her right behind him. “You can’t speak to me like that-”

The cold sharpened so violently that he had to grab at the table behind him to remain upright, his exposed skin burning from the severity of the cold. Her eyes glowed, not a clear and bright gold but a sickening, blood flecked yellow. “I’ll speak to you however I want,” she hissed, her voice wobbling treacherously. “Especially if you fancy yourself as nothing more than a tyrant mirroring father.”

She couldn’t have hurt him more if she’d gutted him. “I am not like father!”

“Then don’t treat me the same way he did!”

He shoved her. It was childish, and it was stupid, and he didn’t care- the panic he felt at her comparing him to their father, to even suggest that he was comparable to the pain that had been inflicted on them since infancy, was the most horrifying, hysterical thing he could imagine. He wasn’t father and he wasn’t like father and he wasn’t going to be like father and how dare she suggest that he was-

He shoved her away from him, desperate to get his space back, and as his knees wobbled under him he turned and grabbed hold of the desk, clinging desperately to remain upright.

He wasn’t sure whether she kept her feet or whether she tumbled to the floor, because his blood was thrumming in his ears and his heart was hammering against his ribs and his breathing rattled thinly in his mask. It was a bit hard to hear anything over the teetering edge of the panic attack.

“I’m sorry,” he said, voice hoarse and hysterical. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

He didn’t know whether she answered. He supposed it didn’t matter.

There was moisture in his mask, and on his exposed cheek. It was sweat, that was all. Not tears. He smeared it away aggressively.

When he had his breathing under control again, he felt hollow, empty- like someone had come along with a surgical laser and scraped him out from the inside, leaving only a frail and brittle shell to shuffle around in his place. He felt lonely, terrifyingly so, and even with Vaylin right there in the room with him he realised he had no one he truly felt safe with anymore.

If he ever had in the first place.

“What are we doing?” he asked dully, staring down at his hands as he gripped the desk. “This is what he wants, this fighting. He’s dead and he’s still manipulating us.”

“Do you truly believe he’s gone?”

He looked over at her, to where she sat on the caf table, cross-legged and hunched over again; she had her hands tucked up inside her sleeves, out of sight, with her hood hanging low over her face. She radiated a sullen sort of energy, no longer the terrifying powerhouse strong enough to frighten even him, but back to being an angry, petulant brat again.

She probably didn’t have anything better to say about him, to be honest.

“I was there, Vaylin,” he said. “I felt him die.”

“I did too. Doesn’t mean he’s gone. We both know the stories the sith are telling about their emperor, the world-eater. The body-snatcher.”

The words made his skin crawl. “He’s dead,” he repeated, tone more firm this time.

“And yet you imprisoned the sith woman, instead of killing her outright. Why?”

It felt like she was prompting him towards something, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on; like she’d already reached some conclusion about it all and was goading him by keeping the truth just out of reach. But what could he say to her? That he was paranoid that their father wasn’t gone, that the sith were right about him? That he was reduced to looking to myths and stories about an immortal creature that consumed worlds and leapt from body to body like a disease, half convinced this creature had sired them?

And if he was right about all of that, if the undying emperor of the sith was the same as the immortal emperor of Zakuul, then what was he? What was Vaylin? Were they even human?

And more importantly, if he was a body-snatcher... then where was he? How could you say to someone that you had frozen an adversary instead of killing them outright, because you were paranoid beyond all measure that they harboured a psychic parasite that could very well latch onto you next? Wouldn’t that conversation just go splendidly- well Vaylin, I’m afraid that our father is actually an inhuman noncorporeal entity capable of acts of mass destruction beyond our comprehension, and I’m questioning my humanity as a result of it, and oh by the way I’m terrified he’ll possess me. That’s why I turned a woman into a frozen statue. All perfectly reasonable, yes?

“Because I felt like it,” he said instead. “The galaxy needed a clear message, that we would not be intimidated, and that we would not falter in the face of such savage aggression. If I’d killed her, she would have been a martyr. Now she’s nothing but a mockery.”

He felt her eyes on him, the sullen, exhausted malevolence of her stare, but she didn’t say anything. Eventually she snorted. “Whatever, then,” she said, with enough flippancy that they might as well have been discussing food choices for an upcoming party, not the ugly fallout of their father’s death.

Whatever response he might have snapped at her was interrupted by the sound of the door, and he sighed. “Enter,” he said tiredly, ready to be done with people entirely for today, and it wasn't even midday.

His current seneschal entered, keeping his head bowed and his gaze averted as required. He held a silver tray between his hands, upon which sat a rather unassuming parcel. “Apologies, your Immortal Majesties,” he said, extending the tray towards them as he kept his head bowed. “This arrived at the palace earlier in the week, and it has just been verified as safe this morning.”

Vaylin groaned dramatically and flopped back on the caf tabletop. The glass squeaked beneath her. “Because Izax forfend we get our own mail without the Scions and the palace staff rubbing their greasy hands all over them first.”

Arcann scowled at her. “You literally came in here just to touch all of my things.”

“That’s different,” she said, in that gratingly annoying singsong voice again.

Rolling his eyes, he walked over and snatched up the parcel from the tray. “Who is it from?” he asked, turning it over in his hands. It was vaguely cube shaped, small enough that he could probably hold it in one hand with ease.

“There were no acknowledgements with the delivery, your Majesty, which prompted the delay in handing it on to yourself. We had to verify it was not some kind of concealed threat.”

“No one is going to be stupid enough to just mail us a bomb,” Vaylin said, and Arcann was inclined to agree with her.

He dismissed him with a wave of his hand, his attention now preoccupied by the parcel in front of him. He didn’t look to see whether or not the seneschal complied with his unspoken command, trusting that his staff and servants were sensible enough to know when their presence was no longer wanted. Vaylin had sat up again, and he took the spot on the couch closest to her so that they could both see the contents of the mysterious delivery.

It wasn’t locked, the small latch opening with the flick of his thumb, and he tipped the lid back to reveal a small, multifaceted cube, made of tarnished metal and dull crystal panels.

A holocron.

Vaylin sat up a little straighter. “It looks old,” she said, peering at it as she leaned forward.

Arcann grimaced. “Old doesn’t mean not dangerous,” he said, holding the case firmly in his robotic hand while he gently tugged the device free with his other; it fit snuggly inside, so much so that it hadn’t even rattled when he’d been holding it, and it took a moment to tug free. Setting the case down on the lounge, he turned the holocron over in his hands, taking in the scratches on the metal frame, the craftsmanship that had once gone into the work of it, and the dull, lacklustre colour of crystals near depleted and lifeless.

“I know that,” she said crossly, “I just mean it’s not something anyone recently living made. It’s a relic, it was made by someone a very long time ago.”

The question was, who? And why send it to them, without explanation?

He held it up between them, twisting it back and forth to take in all the details. It had obviously been well cared for once upon a time, because the design and the detailing was exquisite. It called to mind the opulence of the older sith empire, and the antiquities from their glory years, but more delicate, more intricate. He couldn’t help but feel a stone in his belly wondering if it was something that might have belonged to the sith emperor.

Vaylin made a sound of impatience. “Well, aren’t you going to open it?”

He scowled at her. “You’re so impatient. Stop being such a brat.”

He sent a careful tendril of power out towards the holocron- just because his staff had loftily declared it to be safe didn’t mean he necessarily trusted them to do a good job- and tried not to flinch when it responded with a stuttering glow. It was clearly a long ignored relic, if the way it struggled to come to life was any indication, and instead of sliding apart smoothly he heard it creak a little, and there were flecks of rust in his palm as it slowly rose up into the air.

It stopped at eye level, hovering in the air between the two of them, and it slowly began to rotate, the cube breaking apart into shards as it spun. A glow grew in the centre, and then with a flash of light the original imprint began to play. A holographic figure appeared above them, cloaked and masked and radiating power. Familiar.

Opposite him, Vaylin hissed- she’d recognised the figure too.

He opened his mouth to say as much, to point out that they both knew who it was, but the holographic figure got in first. “These are the chronicles of the Dark Lord Darth Revan,” it said, voice distorted by the mask. The hooded cloak moved gently, as if touched by a wind unseen by the living. “I was the greatest of my generation, unmatched in both the light and the dark. Herein I have recorded my teachings, my contemplations, for future generations to aspire to reach the heights of glory and power I commanded.”

“This is a warning,” he said slowly, watching the hologram closely.

“A holocron is a repository of knowledge and power, how could this possibly be a warning? If anything, they’ve given us a weapon.”

He glanced away from the hologram to scowl at her. “There’s only one person who could have sent this, who could have had access to the secret histories of the Revan. A person our father was rather desperate to lure into the open during the first invasion.”

Understanding dawned in Vaylin’s eyes, and she narrowed them. “The Wrath,” she said.

“Indeed.” It had been well over a year now since the ill-fated invasion of Korriban, and in all that time the Wrath had not once made an appearance in public. If he weren’t so thoroughly versed in her history and her achievements, he would have believed her to be nothing more than a ghost, a story told to keep wayward sith lords in line.

Toe the line and watch your ambitions or the Wrath will appear from the shadows to put you back in your place.

“I have walked in the heart of stars, and bathed in the darkest patches of empty space.” The hologram was still talking. “I have seen things that would drive lesser men to madness.”

“If it’s a warning, what does it mean?” Vaylin said, fiddling with a frayed thread on the edge of her cloak.

He shrugged. “It means that she’s out there, and she’s watching. Or she’s taunting us, daring us to find her.”

Vaylin’s eyes flashed with anger. “If it’s a challenge, I accept.”

“These are the teachings I have to impart to you, dear listener, if you are bold enough to hear them.” The hologram was rambling still, but when it moved, he found his attention drawn back to it. The cloaked, masked figure very clearly took a scroll of flimsi from inside their robes- paper? Who used paper?- and unfurled it, like a proclamation from a lord.

Arcann narrowed his eyes. “What-”

“Mandalorian food from Concordia is unequivocally better than the food from Sundari, no matter what Canderous says,” Revan said, “and the greatest holodrama ever made is Narena’s Sister, the dubbed version, and definitely not the remake because it’s not the same if they aren’t twi’lek, it takes away, like, half the symbolism of the film.”

He gaped at it.

“Is... is this a joke?” Vaylin asked hesitantly.

“Most people think I wear the mask because I’m too terrifying to look upon, but really I’m far too stunning. People swoon when I’m around. That’s never good when people are flying starships.”

Arcann shook his head slowly. “I... don’t know?” he said in disbelief. “Is it a toy?”

“No, the Wrath must be mocking us. She thinks we’re children.” She spat the word angrily, and Arcann felt it resonate within him. How dare their most elusive enemy speak to them like this, sneering at them from the shadows.

“Don’t put Corellian rum in your nerf milk, because the alcohol will curdle the milk and instead of rum flavoured chocolate milk, you’ll have a mouthful of something that feels like worms, and wriggles like it too. I mean, if you enjoy eating worms, go for it, but three out of ten for me, would not recommend.”

“This is ridiculous,” he snapped, reaching for the holocron where it floated between them. As his fingers closed around it, the hologram dissipated, and the glow within the crystal panes faded. The shards slid back together with some difficulty, until he was left with a muted, rust flecked cube again. He tossed it to Vaylin, and she caught it, holding it carefully between both hands. “See what you can find out, maybe there’s some kind of location history embedded in it, something to show where else it’s been opened in the past. Failing that, find out who brought it to the palace, and why.”

She scrambled to her feet, and he tried not to wince at the sight of her boots on the fine glass of the caf table. She jumped to the ground with a loud thump, her cloak billowing out behind her as she stalked from the room without further conversation.

And just like that, he was alone again. His furniture askew and smeared with fingerprints, and the sour hint of their bickering still lingering in the air like psychic rot. He breathed out shakily, slumping back against the cushions of the couch. By now, his orders regarding Chandrila would be on their way to the Fleets, and in the next few hours he’d start to hear reports about the success or failure of the invasion. Dromund Kaas had been blockaded for almost two weeks now, and he would have Coruscant within the next month.

He should have felt triumphant, giddy- he had achieved what no one else had, and no one in tens of thousands of years wielded the power he had at his disposal. He should have felt invincible.

He felt hollow, and he felt terrifyingly lonely.

The mask felt constricting, and claustrophobic, and he reached up with shaking hands to disengage the clasp behind his neck. He gasped at the change of pressure on his skin, shuddering at the rush of air over hypersensitive flesh; he tossed the mask onto the couch beside him, refusing to look at it. Instead he reached for the stack of datapads he’d been hoarding from Vaylin’s prying eyes, fishing out one from the middle of the pile.

He waved his hand towards the lock panel by the door, making sure he wouldn’t be disturbed.

The datapad contained a video file, encrypted and encoded to keep anyone from him but accessing it. He clicked it open.

A holographic image of a man appeared, dressed in casual clothing. No matter how many times he went through this, and how many times he prepared himself for this moment, it never ceased to feel like a blade through the gut.

“Hello, Arcann,” said the figure, smiling brightly out at him. “I still haven’t had a response from you, so I still have no idea if these are getting through to the Spire, but I’m still sending them anyway. I- it helps me, if nothing else. Maybe you’re deleting them, maybe you’re never getting them, but talking like this is... nice.”

Just an imposter, Arcann told himself, as he stared down at the figure who looked so achingly like his brother that it made his eyes burn with tears he refused to shed. Just a mockery. Not him.

“So, it’s been two weeks since my last message,” the Thexan imposter said. “And I-” He broke off with a laugh, shaking his head. “I have something to tell you. Something amazing.”

____

Yavin 4, the Yavin System, Outer Rim Territories

“Transmissions to and from Dromund Kaas are being intercepted by the blockading fleet,” Quinn said, clicking through several graphs on the overhead as he looked for the right one. “Even with Prince Thexan’s assistance, we’ve yet to find an appropriate encryption that can be broadcast past their ships without being decoded.”

Tahrin rubbed wearily at her face. “What food stores do they have on hand?”

“Sufficient for several months, but less than anticipated- the initial bombardment and invasion destroyed a good portion of the industrial sector of the capital, and that included warehouses of stockpiled food and medical supplies.”

“Thessa gave me the impression the Ministry Cabinet wasn’t going to delay the surrender anymore than necessary to make it seem plausible,” she said, flicking absently at the star chart. The tiny globe of Dromund Kaas spun rapidly, the little dots encircling it in a grid pattern indicating the layout of the Eternal Fleet blockade. “If the Dark Council intervened, and stopped the surrender from going ahead-”

“We can only have faith that things are proceeding as planned, my Lord.”

Tahrin chuckled flatly. “Forgive me, Quinn, but I’m severely lacking in faith right now. I’ll take the comfort of facts.”

He pointed his stylus at her. “You laughed. That’s another five credits Pierce owes me.”

“I am grievously offended that the two of you are still betting on which one of you is capable of making me laugh more often.”

Quinn opened his mouth to say more, and then yelped in startled panic when Vivaane appeared all but draped over him. His datapad fell to the floor in a clatter, and the only reason he didn’t follow was because he stumbled back against the computer terminal; grunting as he hit his hip on the edge.

Tahrin rolled her eyes. “What is it, mother?” she said wearily. “You’ve been quiet for weeks, and now you only turn up when it’s least convenient for me, only to harass my staff.”

Vivaane’s eyes were gleeful, and the air around her was near to crackling with energy. “Zakuul is wonderful this time of year,” she said. “You really should visit sometime.”

Chapter Text

She dreamed of Lana.

Perhaps dreaming was the wrong way to describe it, given that she was awake and aware of her fantasies taking shape. But oh, they were wonderful, fantastical concepts, moments they’d shared and moments they’d promised one another and moments Kallathe had never even dared to speak aloud, all mixed in together in a taunting, spectacular mess of longing and frustration.

The nights they’d spent together, entwined in sweat and passion, Lana bucking against her tongue with her nails digging in to her scalp as she wailed her name. The teasing arguments they’d had, debating whose bed to retire to, whose house to turn into a home, whose name to use on whimsically imagined children. Glimpses of those children, of Lana in her arms again. A family, a home, a future.

Past and present and future all blurred into one, intermixed with the undeniable knowledge that Lana was not with her, and no amount of longing could change that in the slightest. For all her anger, for all her power, she could not have the woman she loved by her side.

“It is better, in the end. She could not have remained with you, had you remained amongst the sith.”

She closed her eyes, tired beyond measure of his interruptions. “When I want your counsel, I will be sure to ask for it,” she said, without looking towards the sound of his voice. “Or, more likely, I will beat my skull in with a rock for even contemplating speaking to you, and hope that my death kills you too.”

The image of Lana in her head, of the look on her face the first morning they had woken up together, shifted and changed. “Love as a fleeting concept is marvellous,” Valkorion said, as Lana’s figure became one of a taller woman, sleek and muscular, dark-haired and adorned with silver jewellery that complemented the white of her armour. Her features were familiar, and Kallathe had seen her numerous times now in the twisting anarchy of her thoughts mingling with his; her face was handsome, strikingly so, enough so that Kallathe would definitely have stopped to proposition her. “Love as a long term commitment, less so.”

The woman’s features were twisted in disgust and distaste, her pale silver eyes alight with anger. If anything, the passion in her just made her more attractive, but Kallathe had no interest in complimenting the woman who had clearly been his bedmate at some point in the past. “It’s completely understandable that a man of your advanced years would have difficulty in pleasing a woman,” she began, but he only chuckled derisively.

“Gutter tier insults, I should not be surprised to find you unable to offer any higher witticisms.”

“There is absolutely, one hundred percent, nothing that you have to say that I am interested in hearing. You don’t seem to be getting this.”

The woman from Valkorion’s memories turned and walked away from them, her figure fading into dust as the shadows claimed her. “You and I, we are made for greater things than the fleeting passions of mortals,” he said, wandering into her view again. “In the end, they will die, doomed by their own fragility.”

“We are nothing alike, you and I.”

“We are exactly alike. Both of us, cast out by fathers determined to destroy us in infancy. Both of us rising to power on the deaths of inconvenient family.” The words were insidious, intoxicating, poisonous. “Both of us determined to survive by whatever means possible, to claim our rightful place and the power only we are worthy of holding.”

She closed her eyes, hoping with everything in her that when she opened her eyes he would simply be dead, that the power of her thoughts in this bizarre domain would be enough to kill him. This was her own mind, her own thoughts, so surely if there was anywhere that-

“Your optimism is humiliatingly naive.”

She opened her eyes again, aglow and golden with hate. “There is an end to all things,” she said, the words familiar even without her having said them before. His expression faltered for a moment, and she grinned, baring sharpened teeth. “There will be an end to you.”

____

Corellia, the Corellian System, Core Worlds

One week earlier...

Ona’la was anxious, that much was obvious. She was trying her best to hide it, because that was what she did- she never wanted anyone to worry, she wanted to make life better and easier for everyone around her. It was one of the things Thexan loved most about her, her wholehearted desire to make the galaxy easier for everyone she met, but he definitely did not love the way she had a tendency to bury her feelings away, as if she was going to inconvenience the people around her if she was anything less than serene and perfect and calm and helpful.

He had thoughts about the way the Jedi code encouraged her to dismiss her own mental health needs, and not many of them were pleasant. But she was a Jedi to the bone, and he wouldn’t slam the philosophy that she found so much comfort in.

He at least liked that he knew her well enough to gauge her moods now, and read the nonverbal cues to recognise her anxiety. The descent towards the Coronet City spaceport was largely preprogrammed, air travel in and out of the city controlled by the aviation board, and they’d inputted their side of things before they’d entered the atmosphere. Ona’la was sitting in the navigator’s chair, staring almost absently out through the windscreen towards the city as it grew beneath them.

She jumped when he reached over and tucked her lekku back over her shoulder, smiling wanly at him. “I’m sorry, my thoughts were elsewhere,” she said. “Did you say something?”

She looked tired. They both did, he knew that. The escalating war and the creeping advancement of the Eternal Fleet was taking its’ toll on them, and although she tried her best to hide it, he knew she felt responsible for every world they had to leave behind them as they retreated further and further into the Core. It hurt him to see her hurting so much, to see her taking it all on her shoulders as a personal failing on her part and not just the inevitable conclusion of centuries of violence being orchestrated by a tyrannical, immortal creature of evil like a vast, unwitting puppet show.

She was still beautiful, though, even tired as she was. Every time she smiled, he fell in love with her more deeply than he could have ever believed possible- and she always seemed to have a smile for him. “It’s nothing,” he said at last, squeezing her shoulder comfortingly. “I didn’t say anything.”

Ona’la smiled distractedly. “Sorry,” she said again, “I just can’t concentrate today.”

“I believe we’ve spoken at length about your propensity to apologise too much for things that aren’t necessary,” he said, grinning at the wry look she gave him. “And it’s alright, love. It’s understandable that you’d be distracted.”

She sighed as she slumped back against the seat. “I should be more focused on the war effort,” she said, “not fretting over whether or not Kira will be happy to see me.”

He climbed to his feet, and came up behind her, still holding her hand in his; she rested her head against his hip as he stopped, and he stroked the gentle curve of her lekku with the back of his fingers. “There’s no reason for Kira to not be excited to see you,” he said patiently, even though it had to have been a conversation they’d had a dozen times over by now.

“But it’s been so long,” she said, her answer one he almost knew by rote now. “Over a year now. What if she’s angry I stayed away for so long?”

“You didn’t stay away deliberately, love,” he said. “You were kept apart by forces beyond your control for a very long time. And you’ve been in contact with her, so she knows you’re coming. She was excited in your last holocall, wasn’t she?”

Ona’la’s thumb rubbed back and forth over his fingertips, where he still held onto her hand. “She was,” she said quietly.

“I’m sensing there’s a ‘but’ in there.”

“But it’s been so long,” she whispered. “And she was...”

He waited, but she didn’t continue. “Love?” he prompted at last.

“I remember her voice,” she said. “I remember her calling me, on Eriadu. Or at least, I think I do. It could have just been my imagination.”

He winced, as he always did when the topic of Eriadu and their duel came up. “I can promise you, I didn’t see her that day,” he said, smoothing his hand over her lekku to cradle her cheek where she rested against him. “I didn’t hurt her.”

“I’m not saying you did, freykaa, that’s not my point, I just...” He felt her sigh. “What if she thinks I abandoned her? What if it hurt her that I didn’t come back to her straight away?”

Outside the viewport, the city was growing rapidly beneath them; Coronet City still bore the deep scars of the sith invasion four years ago, with holes in the skyline where towering skyscrapers once stood. The sky itself was full of ships, the Fifth Fleet hanging heavily in orbit, and even without landing and stepping off their vessel, he could tell the mood was grim on the planet.

He came around the chair to crouch down in front of her, taking both of her hands in his; she looked so tired, and so nervous. “If I have learned anything about Kira from your stories of her during this last year, it’s that she loved you a great deal,” he said gently. “She’s a Jedi, and she understands that the Force compels you both to walk a path that doesn’t necessarily mean you walk together sometimes. I think she’ll understand.”

She looked crestfallen. “Can I have a hug?” she asked quietly.

Thexan nodded, shifting onto one knee so that he could reach her properly; she went into his arms almost desperately, hiding her face against his neck as she clung tight to him. “You’re okay,” he murmured, rubbing at her back. “It’s going to be alright, love.”

She sniffled. “I know,” she said. “Well, I know logically. Emotionally it’s taking a little more time to sink in.”

He leaned back on his legs, reaching up to run his thumb over her cheek to wipe away the tears there. “I’ve never seen you scared of many things,” he said, cupping her face in his palm. “Don’t let this frighten you, Ona’la. You know she loves you.”

She smiled weakly, eyes closed. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m getting so emotional about this,” she said, sniffing again.

He chuckled. “And there you go apologising again,” he said, climbing to his feet and kissing her quickly on the forehead as he rose above her. “I’ll make a dent in that habit one day.”

“Nothing wrong with being polite.”

“Of course not, but you’re just jumping to take the blame wherever you can. It means there are others absolved of their wrongdoings without having to better themselves. Aren’t you more interested in helping people to be the best they can be?”

She poked her tongue out at him, but there was a little more brightness in her spirit. She wasn’t so subdued, not quite so nervous, and that satisfied him for now. “I can handle the landing if you want to wash up,” he said, sliding back into the pilot’s chair. He saw her nod out of the corner of his eye, and she slipped out of the cockpit and down the hallway towards their shared quarters.

There was a light flashing on the console, and he flicked over to manual controls again. “Coronet City Air Traffic Control, this is the starship Atonement, requesting permission for landing access.” The name was relatively heavy-handed, he couldn’t deny it, but Tahrin had let him name the damn ship and if it was the closest thing he was likely to have to a home, he wanted it to be a tangible reminder of what he was working towards. His home, his ship, his journey towards betterment. Terribly melodramatic, perhaps, but sometimes a little melodrama helped.

“Starship Atonement, you are cleared for docking, please make your way to hangar two-nine-one on the eastern terminal, and please maintain cruising speeds while within atmospheric limits.”

“Copy that, Air Traffic Control, hangar two-nine-one,” he said, keying in the acceptance of the air tower’s coordinates; the console map lit up with a glowing outline of the spaceport, with the allocated hangar pulsing softly for guidance. He steered the ship carefully along the allocated sky lanes, letting the automated ground control take over when the time came for it; the shadow of the hangar bay roof slid over them as they glided carefully into the allotment. There was movement out of the corner of his eye, and he smiled absently as Ona’la bent down to kiss him briefly on the forehead as she passed, just as he’d done for her. She didn’t take her seat, however, remaining standing behind him as the ship finally came to a stop, the landing struts making contact with the duracrete floor.

He tipped his head back, smiling up at her. “Welcome to Corellia, first class passengers may disembark after paying the landing fee.”

“The landing fee?”

“One kiss, payable to the pilot.”

Her face broke into a wide smile, and his heart sped up a little at the sight of it. “You are getting far too wretchedly mischievous for your own good,” she said in a mock severe tone, but she still leaned in for a kiss. He reached up to her, his hand sliding around to the back of her neck as he closed his eyes and leaned into the kiss; she let out a small noise, not quite of surprise but certainly pleased, and he felt her relax as he kissed her.

When they broke apart, she rested her forehead against his for a moment, her nose brushing against his. “Too mischievous?” he murmured.

“Far too mischievous,” she said, pulling back; she made a face, grinning as she pulled her sleeve up over her thumb and reached forward to dab it at his mouth. “And far too prone to stealing my lipstick at every opportunity.”

He grinned back at her. “It looks good on me.”

“Mm, that’s just because you’re smug about it meaning that you’ve stolen more kisses,” she said.

“Steal? Madam, you wound me, I have never stolen anything in my life.”

She finished wiping the bright purple away from his mouth and smiled almost shyly. “You stole my heart,” she said quietly, moving back down the hallway and towards where their bags were waiting by the airlock.

Thexan groaned as he climbed to his feet. “You can’t just end with that, that’s entirely unfair,” he called after her.

“Mm? Unfair?”

“Now I’m going to be smiling like a besotted idiot when we get to the council session, and I won’t be able to pay attention at all.” He powered down the ship, and set the locks in place before climbing to his feet. She met him by the door with a cheeky smirk on her face, a look that always made him feel giddy and youthful. He liked their banter, their silly play- it gave him a chance to explore the playfulness that had been ruthlessly torn out of him in his childhood, to just be lighthearted and teasing and- above all else- safe. Safe to be and safe to play and safe to relax like he never had before in his life.

Gods above and below, he loved her. Who would have thought that he’d find not only love but friendship as well, someone who supported him and challenged him and helped him to grow and who didn’t flinch away from his darker moods and who didn’t let him wallow in the depths of his self-loathing. His best friend. Very technically his only friend, but still. The friendship and companionship they shared was quite literally changing him, undoing all the harsh and tangled knots of hate and fear and anxiety that the years of abuse had inflicted on him. She smoothed away the worst of it with her smile, and helped him to remember how to smile in return.

It was why he wasn’t at all nervous about her reunion with Kira, the woman she seemed to love with a ferocity that rivalled her love for him. It was the same reason that he wasn’t at all nervous about her earnest confession of love for Theron Shan, either. Ona’la was, very simply, a woman who loved with the entirety of her being, a woman who invested herself in others so fully and so passionately that it was intoxicating to be a part of. To know Ona’la was to run the risk of loving her, and being loved by her in return- the fact that she loved others with the same sort of intensity she loved him didn’t diminish her feelings for him. If anything, it made him feel more loved, more cherished, to watch her in action and know that he was blessed by the fact that she chose to spend her time with him.

They collected their bags and disembarked from the ship, his ears popping slightly as he adjusted to the change of pressure outside the airlock; the customs droids scanned them as they walked across the wide hangar hall towards the exit, a pleasant tingle passing over his skin as they assessed them for entry suitability.

There was a young chiss woman waiting in the archway through to the main terminal, her robes of green clashing terribly with the bright blue of her skin and the lurid pink of her hair. She nodded at their approach, her expression severe. “Master Ona’la,” she said, “and Master Tirall. Greetings.”

Thexan had long given up the hope of correcting people when they referred to him as Master; nobody seemed to know what to do with a Force user outside of the hierarchy of the Jedi and the Sith, and if he had to choose, at least ‘master’ was better than ‘lord’ or ‘prince’. As much as he disagreed with elements of the Jedi’s philosophy, he felt more comfortable with it than the sith mentality- too many reminders of the brutal competitiveness his father had implanted in all of them for him to feel at ease with their mantras.

Ona’la, unaware of his train of thought, smiled and greeted the young woman for him. “Good morning,” she said, and then hesitated. “I’m sorry, I don't know if we met when I was last on Corellia.”

The young woman smiled blandly. “Because you’d remember a chiss Jedi, that’s what you mean, right?”

Ona’la stiffened slightly, and Thexan scowled. “That’s not what she meant at all,” he started to say, but she waved a hand.

“It’s fine, I don’t care. I am a freakish anomaly after all.”

“That’s not true,” Ona’la said in protest; he could feel the genuine distress bleeding off of her. “One of my old teachers was a chiss, a woman by the name of Ranos-”

“I’d rather not stand about comparing notes to see if I know the same chiss you do. There are over a billion of us, after all, we don’t all know every blue person by name.” She folded her hands before her, her body language deceptively demure given her vocal animosity. “My name is Draemi. Grandmaster Hervoz sent me to collect you.”

“Did he send you to insult us, too?” Thexan asked bitterly.

“Oh, no, that was all me. Although I served as a padawan to Master Hervoz in my youth, and he always encouraged me to speak my mind. In fact, he used to say ‘if the sith ever take you captive, just talk to them’.”

Ona’la smiled in relief. “That’s good, that’s a good philosophy to stand by. Talking to our enemies and seeking common ground is always-”

“He said ‘either they’ll let you go out of desperation to get you to shut up, or you’ll badger them to death with your incessant yapping’.”

Thexan blinked, and at his side he felt Ona’la hesitate as well. “Oh, well, um...”

Draemi smiled blandly again. “Shall I show you to the enclave?” she asked, stepping to the side and gesturing towards the doors of the spaceport. After glancing at one another helplessly, Ona’la shrugged, and Thexan reluctantly trailed after them both. He didn’t like this woman at all. Not one bit.

He tried to bring up everything he could remember about the Green Jedi on the relatively silent trip across the healing city; the broken skyscrapers were cordoned off, or in the process of being demolished and rebuilt. The parks had grown back, and the vibrancy in the air felt natural again, not tense and soured with the scars of the invasion. How long that would last, with the Eternal Fleet drawing ever closer to the Core, was anyone’s guess.

“How long have you been with the Green Jedi, if you don’t mind my asking?” Ona’la said at one point on the journey, the silence in their private tram car almost suffocating.

Thexan didn’t look at Draemi as she answered. “Fifteen years, just after the Treaty of Coruscant.”

“Do you have family on Corellia? Is that why you joined the Green Jedi instead?”

Draemi’s smile was almost bitter, from what he could see in the curved reflection in the transparisteel window. “My family discarded me, as all sensible chiss families do upon discovering they have an abomination in their midst. I was on route to the sith home worlds when the transport I was on was overpowered by a Republic cruiser. We were diverted to Corellia when the sith attacked Coruscant, and given that the Jedi were in no position to take in more younglings, I stayed with the enclave here.”

“Are you happy here?” Because of course Ona’la’s first concern would be the emotional wellbeing of a stranger who had roundly insulted her.

“My happiness is irrelevant.”

Ona’la made a sound of distress, and he instinctively reached out to put a hand on her shoulder to keep her from lunging forward to hug the girl. “That’s not true-”

“Oh look, we’re here,” Draemi said, rising sharply to her feet and stalking over to the door as the tram slid to a halt. Ona’la and Thexan had to scramble to collect their bags and join her, and unsurprisingly the district they exited out into bore extensive signs of renovation and repair compared to some of the others they’d bypassed. The flags and pennants hanging overhead were freshly sewn, the colours still bright and unfaded; the fountains were crafted from newly chiselled stone and marble, to replace the cracked and shattered tiles destroyed by the invasion. There were no piles of rubble, no cordoned off streets- the political sector of Coronet City had had nothing but the best of treatment since the Republic had taken it back. Granted, it had been several years now, but an entire planet could not recover from the violence of an invasion overnight. The fact that he had seen evidence enough of long term repairs going on in poorer districts was all he needed to know that.

He didn’t know why he was feeling particularly critical of the way the Corellian government had prioritised repairs, given that Zakuul’s supposed fiscal utopia was only thanks to Valkorion robbing the Sith Empire blind. Old habits, he supposed- the instinct to assess an enemy and locate their weakness immediately was a hard one to break, and it manifested in the most bizarre of thoughts, sometimes.

Something was nagging at him, nervous and fidgety, and he realised after a moment of focus that it was Ona’la’s growing anxiety echoing through him. He reached over and took her hand, startling her out of her thoughts; she smiled gratefully at him once she recovered, leaning her head against his shoulder as they walked.

“It’s going to be alright,” he murmured, hopefully out of hearing range of their acid-tongued guide.

“I’m trying to believe that,” she said quietly.

He kissed the top of her lekku, and they followed Draemi into the headquarters of the Corellian Green Jedi. The sith had deliberately targeted this facility with unmitigated aggression during their attack years earlier, and it still bore the scars of that attack. The vaulted marble walls bore deep grooves in places, and some of the rooms were still dark, the shadows within indicating they were piled high with jumbled odds and ends that nobody had had the time to prioritise in the years since. Some of the tapestries on the walls were noticeably brighter than others, indicating they’d been replaced in the last few years, and a great number of decorative pedestals sat empty, the lights dimmed while they had no treasures to highlight.

He could see the gardens outside of the windows, and most of the fountains were dry and empty.

Draemi led them into a large hall, the walls lined with databanks and library archive units; it was a hub of activity, with at least a dozen people in the iconic green robes moving around the space, and a dozen more scattered about in more varied armours and robes. He saw the insignia for Havoc Squad, and recognised Jorgan from the time they’d spent on Yavin Four months earlier. Almost a year now, huh. He was standing and talking to a dark skinned man in green, his weathered features familiar in a manner that was distracting; it took him a moment to realise it was because he recognised someone else in his face, and his brain had been trying to dredge up the memory of who it was. This had to be Grandmaster Hervoz, one of the many brothers of Ellaz, because his nose and the lines at the corner of his eyes were a carbon copy of hers.

Ellaz herself was nowhere to be seen, and he had to shake himself to recall that she’d been reassigned, leaving Jorgan in charge of Havoc Squad. Even a brief lapse in his knowledge like that would have been grounds for him to be disciplined in the past, the momentary hesitation treated as a failure on his part. It was why he was already tense when two humans by the main table- a red-headed woman and a dark-haired man- turned to the doorway at their appearance.

The woman shrieked loudly, startling everyone in the room, and at his side Ona’la gasped and dropped her bag.

They hurtled across the room towards each other, crashing together in a mess of laughter and tears and desperation, spinning around and around as they clung to one another. Thexan’s heart was in his throat as he watched them, entranced by the joy and the grief and the love pouring off of them like a solar flare, spearing straight through him as he stood spellbound.

They loved one another. They truly, desperately loved one another, so deeply that he could feel it resonating in him, from across the room.

“Oh, Kira, Kira,” Ona’la was saying in between her tears, caught in a loop of saying her name over and over again. “Kira, I missed you so much-”

“Nala, you jerk, do you know how much I cried over you?” They’d stopped spinning, and Kira had her face in her hands; she was a few inches shorter than Ona’la, which made it somewhat amusing to see her clinging to her face and all but scolding her. “Do you know how gross and puffy my face got because I couldn’t stop crying for months? Redheads can’t cry, Nala, we look disgusting.”

Ona’la was laughing, despite the scolding. “I’m sorry, Kira, I’m sorry.”

“You god damn should be, I went off and got myself all respectable and sensible because I thought that was what you would’ve wanted, and now look at me- I can't even sleep during meetings anymore because I'm too busy trying to pay attention.”

“I’m so proud of you.”

Kira made a disgusted snort, even as she wiped aggressively at the tears on her face. “Watch out, soon I’ll be wearing all beige and drinking unsweetened tea and writing letters to the editor of the Coruscant Correspondent.”

“Perish the thought, Kira, I’ve seen those letters, they’re far too feisty for the life you live now.”

She laughed, still blinking away tears. “I missed you so much,” she said, her lip trembling. “When I lost you, I was a wreck for weeks after, and then when you came back, no-one would let me speak to you because they said I was too ‘emotionally invested’ and I needed to learn to let go of my connections.”

Looking at the two of them standing with their arms around each other and their foreheads touching, it was clear that message hadn’t really stuck. It was still incredible, after all this time, watching Ona’la and knowing in his heart that she embodied the greatest virtues of Jedi philosophy even while she blatantly flaunted so many of their codes. She loved, so passionately and so brightly, and she encouraged love in everyone she met, and she established connections and shared her heart. She was emotional and vibrant and gentle and kind- not at all the stoic stereotype of the disengaged Jedi.

No wonder Kira had thrived under her guidance and faltered again without her there.

Kira was crying again. “And then there were people saying it wasn’t you, or that you’d been brainwashed on Zakuul, and I just-” She broke off, visibly struggling.

“I’m here now,” Ona’la said, holding her closer. “I’m here now, Kira.”

“I missed you so much.”

“I know. I missed you too.”

“I love you, you jerk.”

Ona’la laughed softly, eyes closed as she held her. “I love you too, you brat.”

It was a powerfully intimate moment, all the more bizarre given that they were happily embracing in a room full of other people. He didn’t know whether he felt like he was intruding, or whether he felt humbled to be a witness to it.

They pulled apart at last, still touching one another as if they couldn’t believe the other was really in front of them. Their fingers lingered together, clasped tightly, but Ona’la’s other hand went up to her chest, rubbing absently.

“Y’alright?”

Ona’la poked her tongue at her. “You just hug too hard, that’s all.”

“Hey, some people would consider titty-bruising hugs to be a valuable life skill, okay, don’t knock it.”

“Not knocking it, just...” She winced. “Ow.”

There was an excited babble of electronic beeps, and they pulled apart, revealing a small astromech droid all but hopping up and down in an attempt to get her attention. Ona’la’s expression teetered between delight and the look of a woman about to burst into tears again. “Teeseven!” she said, dropping to her knees and throwing her arms around the round barrel of the droid’s body. “Oh, my little friend, I’ve missed you so much.”

Teeseven burbled happily in response, the rapid-fire beeps apparently coherent to Ona’la, who laughed and nodded; she sat back on her haunches, wiping at her eyes. “I know, I know. I was thinking it the whole time.”

“I knew you couldn’t keep yourself away from me for too long, gorgeous,” said a male voice, and Thexan’s hackles went up instantly. Ona’la, from where she was kneeling on the floor with Teeseven, tensed briefly, closing her eyes for a moment before forcing a smile to her face as she climbed to her feet.

“Hello, Archiban,” she said politely, turning to the human who’d been standing with Kira when they’d entered the room. Her body language was closed off, tight and brittle, and instead of offering a hug to the mustachioed man, she kept her hands clasped before her, bowing her head in a nod. “It’s good to see you looking well.”

He threw his arms wide, and before anyone could interject, he threw them around her, squeezing her so tight that for a moment her feet left the ground. Ona’la laughed awkwardly, patting him on the shoulder in some kind of indication to him that she wanted to let go, and he obliged with a dramatic sigh. “I get it, I get it,” he said, “your feelings at our reunion are just too overwhelming right now, I know. It’s hard being apart from me for so long.”

Thexan honestly wanted to throttle him.

Ona’la’s smile was awkward as she tried to pull away from him. “Thank you for staying with Kira,” she said. “I’m glad you all supported one another.”

“You know me, sweetheart, there’s nothing I won’t do for a pretty girl in distress.”

Thexan upgraded that to throttling him slowly.

Someone cleared their throat behind them, and they turned to see the Grandmaster Hervoz standing with his arms folded, with Jorgan at his side. Draemi was lurking in the background, her place in the hierarchy not really clear to him yet. “It’s good to see you made it safely,” he said, his accent heavier than Ellaz’s, but similar nonetheless. He didn’t have the laughter in his eyes that she did too, instead exuding an air of weary exasperation. “They’ll be expecting us to holo in any minute now, I’m sorry to rush you-”

Ona’la’s smile was a little more genuine as she turned away from Doctor Kimble and faced Grandmaster Hervoz. “It’s fine, really,” she said. “Is there anything we might have missed in the last few hours?”

“Nothing substantial,” Jorgan said, and it was odd to see him without Ellaz by his side. Not that he’d known either of them for that long, of course, but it just seemed not quite right, like he was expecting someone to add something to the end of Aric’s sentences and the silence rang weirdly empty. “Fleet’s been quiet for the last forty-eight hours.”

“No doubt getting ready for the final push into the Core,” Ona’la said, grimacing.

“Indeed,” Hervoz said. “Shall we take our seats?”

The large holotable in the centre of the room had a number of settings available for those attending the conference with High Command, and Thexan took the one beside Ona’la before anyone could try to offer him one further apart. A young teen in far less embellished green robes stumbled around the table and quietly offered them drinks, and to his surprise, Ona’la declined. When the boy came back several minutes later bearing a tray of beverages, her face twisted uncomfortably and she turned away, lifting a hand up to her mouth as if to cover her nose.

Thexan took his own drink from the tray and leaned over towards her. “Are you alright?” he murmured.

She nodded quickly. “I am.”

“No caf today?”

“Just don’t feel like it right now.”

“You didn’t eat breakfast either.”

“It’s fine,” she said, throwing him a quick smile before looking back to the holotable. “I’ll have something later.”

He wanted to press her further, because not having a hot drink was one thing and not having breakfast was another, but the meeting appeared to be starting and he couldn’t interrupt just to harangue her about her eating habits. Later, he promised himself.

The lights on the table flickered, and then several figures appeared in front of him. Saresh, he recognised. Malcolm, he recognised. There was Satele, there was Ellaz, there was Director Trant from Strategic Intelligence. There was Master Adhi of the Council, and Master Kiwiiks. Several soldiers he didn’t recognise by their faces, but the insignia on their chest made it apparent that they must have been the leaders of special ops squads Ember and Solaris, like Jorgan led Havoc. A Senator or two.

He couldn’t help it, but every time he was called to another of these meetings, he couldn’t help but compare the gathering to the assembly that Tahrin had called together. Every time, he found her efforts to have been far superior.

He didn’t know whether that was some weird sort of vague sibling pride, or whether he just was disinclined to appreciate the efforts of the Republic after how they’d treated him in the early days. Granted, they’d treated him well given that he was a prisoner of war, but he was only human and he was petty and snide sometimes. His pride was still stinging.

“We don’t have time to waste on pleasantries, so good morning,” Saresh said; her greeting was echoed in a quiet murmur by the rest of the gathering. “Let’s get on with it- Trant, I believe you have more for us regarding the Star Fortress over Bothawui?”

It was inevitable, really- at each and every meeting they had, the topic would eventually find a way to work its way back to him, and despite the session starting with Trant, it only took three and a half minutes before it came back to him.

“I have already provided High Command everything I know about the Star Fortresses, including rudimentary blueprints,” he said wearily, “but as I said last time- I wasn’t heavily involved in their design or development. It was a project my father was working on, and evidently my brother has elected to continue with it since his death. My access to the project was limited, and I have already willingly offered up everything I know.” It was becoming a frustrating argument, having to parrot himself every single time they gathered for a Command briefing. Someone would inevitably needle him, implying that if he was truly committed to helping them, he’d give them more about the colossal space stations- as if his limited knowledge was a failing on his part, a deliberate sneer at the Republic.

“I think we need to accept the inevitable and see about getting an agent into one of these facilities,” Malcolm said, his voice a deep rumble. Thexan’s attention had wandered, too frustrated at being singled out again, and as always he found himself looking to Ona’la for comfort and guidance. To his surprise, she wasn’t looking at him in return. “We need up to date, first hand data. His highness has given us everything we’re going to get.”

“In total, we’ve counted twenty-nine active Star Fortresses, placed in orbit over planets in key strategic locations, like at the intersection of hyper-routes,” Jorgan was saying, “the one exception to this rule being Darvannis, but preliminary reports can’t give us a reason for the station’s placement. Intelligence is investigating the possibility that it might have something to do with Dread Master Styrak’s previous occupation.”

Thexan shook his head, even as he frowned over at Ona’la. Her eyes had drifted shut, and if he didn’t know any better, he’d say she was asleep. “The technology of the Dread Masters was of no interest to us,” he said, struggling to concentrate on the map and not look over to Ona’la. “We found it crude and barbaric, and unnecessarily violent.”

“So there’s another reason for the placement,” the holographic figure of Satele said, “but what exactly?”

“Do we have agents on the ground, Colonel?” Saresh said, addressing her comment towards the holographic Ellaz.

“My soldiers don’t deal in information gathering, Chancellor,” Ellaz said blandly, a perfectly polite statement in most regards, but if he wasn’t mistaken it was the most diplomatic ‘fuck off’ he’d ever heard. “Perhaps you’re mistaking my division for Strategic Intelligence? In which case you want Director Trant.”

Ona’la was definitely asleep, her head slowly dipping towards her chest as she drifted off. This was a quandary he hadn’t ever expected to find himself in, because Ona’la just didn’t fall asleep during important meetings, she always gave her all until he physically had to drag her away in order for her to rest properly. Granted, they were both tired- emotionally and physically- but it hadn’t been so bad in the last week or so to warrant her falling asleep in front of thirty high ranking government and military officials. Was he supposed to wake her up? Let her sleep? How could he wake her without drawing attention to the fact that she’d let herself drift off, potentially embarrassing her or drawing the ire of influential people, but then how could he excuse himself if he let someone else discover her?

“I don’t see why it can’t be a cooperative effort,” Saresh was saying. “Going behind enemy lines in an active warzone does require the assistance of our black ops units, more often than not.”

Oh no, she was starting to snore. He had to do something.

Unfortunately, someone else had noticed.

Ona’la started awake with a yelp as Doctor Kimble put his hand on her shoulder, and the current speaker- Ellaz- trailed to a halt, with everyone in the room and the holoconference turning to stare.

“Ona’la?” he asked, leaning forward.

“I’m so sorry,” she blurted out, “Goddess preserve, I’m so sorry.”

“Is there a problem, Battlemaster?” Saresh asked flatly.

Ona’la looked mortified. “No, no, there’s no problem, I’m so sorry, I have no idea what’s come over me.”

Doctor Kimble had pulled something from his pocket- a medisensor, by the looks of things,- and was leaning far too close to her for Thexan’s comfort. “Sweetheart, what have I always said about running off without your own personal doctor ready to jump to your every whim?” he said, running his medisensor over her quickly. Thexan hated him. “You come back to me all weak and trembling, it just breaks my heart all over again.”

“Archiban, please,” she said wearily, her embarrassment showing in her face. Thexan hated him even more.

“Relax, gorgeous, you always get so flustered over nothing.” The medisensor beeped, and Doc’s smile faltered. He frowned, and turned it on again, the green light sweeping over her a second time.

It beeped again.

Doc glanced up at Ona’la, and then at Thexan, not quite a frown on his face but certainly an assessing look in his eyes as he looked them over. “Just running a slight fever,” he said loudly, as if addressing the room. “I’ll just take the lovely lady down the hall to the medbay and get that looked at. Won’t be two shakes, then you can all have her back again.”

Ona’la made a huff of frustration. “It’s fine, Archiban,” she started to say, but he wasn’t listening.

Instead, he leaned in closer to Thexan and said in a low voice “I reckon it’d be real handy if you could help your lady friend down the hallway here.” He jerked his head off to the left, his smile somewhat tight, as if it was forced. “I’m sure you know how hard it is trying to get such a vibrant flower to take care of herself.”

“I’m not a flower,” she said irritably, trying to brush him off.

“Listen sweetheart, I really think you’ll want him in there with you, so maybe just play nice for the audience and let the pretty boy help you, hmm?”

If there hadn’t already been the aforementioned audience, Thexan would have lunged for him. “Do not speak to her like that,” he growled, voice low.

Doc rolled his eyes. “Oh, okay, we can play the scary dominant male stuff later, ain’t gonna be the first time someone got stroppy with me over a fine lady, but honestly. Please just come with me into the medbay.”

Thexan gritted his teeth, but Ona’la reached up and put her hand over his where it rested on her shoulder. “Two minutes,” she said quietly.

She let Thexan help her to her feet, and she nodded apologetically to the assembled meeting. “My apologies,” she said, “we’ll be back in a moment. Please continue.”

Doc beamed at her as he went to put a hand on her arm to guide her forward, but he pulled it back hastily when Thexan snarled at him. Instead he led them awkwardly down the hallway and out of the main hall of the Green Jedi enclave, half glancing over his shoulder at them to make sure they were following him and not making a break for it back to the meeting. The medbay, once he ushered them inside, looked to be one of the few rooms that had received the finest of treatments in the refurbishments, and was fully outfitted as if the occupants of the enclave fully expected to need it again in the event of another invasion. Doc gestured grandly to the closest bed, and Thexan saw Ona’la’s jaw clench as if she too was gritting her teeth.

“If you’ll take a seat, sweetheart-”

“Archiban, this is ridiculous,” she said. “I can’t be missing this meeting-”

“So, what, you’d rather sleep through it instead of listen to what I have to say? C’mon, baby, I think I would’ve earned your trust a little more by now.”

She closed her eyes, lines of tension on her brow. “Archiban, I have asked you a thousand times now, please do not use those... endearments, for me.”

“Are you nauseous right now?”

Ona’la sighed. “In general, or at your overuse of intimacies I’m not comfortable with?”

“In general, sweetheart, we’re in doctor mode now. You turned down that drink at the table earlier, and I used to remember someone being insufferable in the mornings if she hadn’t had her caf.”

Thexan watched her as she grimaced, finally sinking onto the very edge of the bed. “It’s just because I’m tired,” she protested. “Stress does that, you know.”

“Mmhmm,” he said, sounding unconvinced as he crossed his arms and leaned against the desk opposite. “So that’s a yes, with the implication that it’s been going on more than you’re letting on. And you’re tired? How long has that been for?”

“There’s a war on, Archiban, it’s been taking up a lot of my time- maybe you’ve heard of it?”

He held up his hands in surrender. “Come on, now, just trying to clear every avenue-”

“Every avenue for what?”

“Sweetheart,” he said with fond exasperation, and then he shook his head with a laugh, “you’re pregnant.”

There was absolutely no way to explain the change that overtook him as those two words sank in. It was... it was like it was happening to someone else, like he was aware of what was happening on a clinical level but the reactions belonged to someone else. The scowl left his face, slowly giving way to a stunned, slack-jawed stare as his eyes widened. His face didn’t feel right, it felt prickly and hollow. His body felt empty.

On the bed, Ona’la had gone painfully still. “I’m... what?” she asked, her voice very very small.

“You’re pregnant!” Doc said again with a laugh, apparently delighted. “You know, knocked up? And here you said you weren’t like those other girls, trying to keep ol’ Doc at arms length and saying you weren’t interested in the nasty.”

Pregnant. She was pregnant. She was... they were going to have a child. He was going to be a father. Gods, how was he supposed to be a father? He barely knew how to take care of himself, and the only father figure he’d had had been a world-eating monster who had raised him to be a weapon.

What if he was no better than his father? What if he became his father? What if his father got hold of his child and hurt them and took them away and did to them what had been done to him? How could he protect his child against something he hadn’t even been able to survive himself?

“But...” Ona’la couldn’t have looked more shellshocked. “But he’s human-”

“Humans and twi’leks are genetically compatible in regards to procreation, with a fourteen point zero two nine percent chance of conceiving naturally, without the aid of conception assistance.” When they both just stared at him, Doc shrugged. “What? I’m a doctor. Plus, you know, at least one of my fiancees was a twi’lek. Gotta know what risks you’re running, you know?”

“So... she’s pregnant,” Thexan said hoarsely.

“Seven weeks, by my scans. Congratulations, my man! You broke past all those icy Jedi walls of conditioning and repression!” Doc held up his hand as if he was expecting a high five.

Thexan punched him instead.

Doc went reeling backwards, clutching at his face, and Ona’la immediately lurched to her feet to get between them. “Get out,” Thexan snarled violently, so angry and so frightened that he was shaking, about a hairsbreadth away from being sick.

“Stars, buddy,” Doc said, blood leaking down onto his chin, “what the hell is your problem?”

I said get out!

Thexan!” Ona’la scolded, but Doc was already scrambling for the door. As it slid shut behind him, she rounded on him, her expression teetering between miserable and furious. There were tears in her eyes, and that pulled him up short. “What in all the stars do you think you’re doing?”

He couldn’t cope with her crying, and felt his own eyes burning as well. “I’m sorry,” he rasped, fighting to stop his chin from quivering. “Oh gods, Ona’la, I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not the one you need to say sorry to! Archiban is the one you hurt!”

“No, no I mean...” He swallowed with difficulty, and felt a tear slid onto his cheek. “I didn’t mean to put you in danger like this. I was so selfish.”

Understanding dawned on her face, and the anger bled away. “Oh, Thexan,” she said quietly, reaching up to him and brushing the tear away.

He felt like a monster. “I’m sorry,” he started to say, but she took his face in both hands, cutting him off.

Thexan,” she said firmly, even as tears fell from her own eyes, “this isn’t something you’ve done to me. This is something we’ve done together.”

“But I-”

“Are you saying it’s selfish to love me? Are you saying I’m selfish?”

He was crying in earnest now, and he couldn’t stand the sight of the tears on her face, knowing he was responsible for them. “You’re perfect,” he said, babbling, “you’re always perfect, I love you, I’m sorry-”

“Why are you apologising?” she asked, clearly frustrated at not being able to understand.

“Because I don’t want to hurt you!” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, and then it was like a floodgates opening. “Because I don’t know how to be a father, all I ever had was a monster and so what if that makes me a monster too? What if I hurt you, or our child, like he hurt mother and all of us?”

The look in her eyes was heartbreaking. “Oh, Thexan,” she said again.

“And Tahrin said she thought he kept me alive to use me, so what if that means he’s coming back for me? What if he’s coming back for our child? What if he takes me, and I can’t fight him, and he uses me to hurt you and our baby? What- what if he takes the baby?”

“Thexan, you’re panicking.” She still had his face in her hands, and she brushed her thumbs under his eyes, wiping away the tears. “You need to breathe, freykaa.”

He took a shuddering breath, trying to follow the rhythm she set, as always. It was hard when he was crying. “I- I couldn’t live with myself, if I hurt you- them. Both of you.”

“Thexan, you’re not going to hurt me,” she said, sliding her hands around his neck to drape over his shoulders and tug him closer; he took the hint and wrapped his arms around her, holding her as close as he dared.

“I’ve hurt you before.”

“When we were enemies. This is different- you have a good and gentle heart, Thexan, despite everything your father did to you. You would never hurt me- and you would certainly never hurt our child.”

Our child. She’d said it too now. They had a child. He felt his tentative self-control crumble, and he buried his face against her shoulder, weeping as he clung to her. “I love you,” he said, a mantra to ground him. “I love you.”

“I know,” she said, clinging to him just as hard. “I love you too.”

He laughed, borderline hysterical. “We’re having a baby,” he said, not quite able to believe he was saying it aloud. He, a man who had assumed his life had ended a year and a half ago, standing and crying together with the woman he loved, reeling from the news. “We’re having a baby.”

She laughed as well, between her own tears. “Are you going to keep repeating everything today?”

“A baby.”

“I know, freykaa, I know.”

He pulled back, kissing her ferociously. “Marry me,” he said, when he broke away for a breath.

She blinked, clearly stunned. “I- what?”

“Please?” he said, and then rushed to explain himself. “I know I don’t have anything to give you, I don’t have a home or a ring or- or anything I’m supposed to, I know, but I- I love you, and I didn’t... I shouldn’t have waited until now-”

“Yes,” she blurted out, hiccuping on more tears, “yes I’ll marry you, Thexan.”

He was crying, and he was laughing, and he was trying to kiss her in between all of the tears and the laughter, and she was trying to kiss him too. “You’ll marry me?”

“Of course I’ll marry you.”

“You’ll be a homeless transient with me living on a borrowed starship?”

She laughed, trying to wipe away the tears on her cheek and giving up. “It’s been a pretty good life so far,” she said. “I don’t see why we need to change it.”

He rested his forehead against hers. “We’re going to have a baby,” he said, as if saying it enough would finally make it sink in.

“We are,” she said, laughing still. “The two masters Tirall and a little baby Tirall.”

Scyva save him. Maybe he had died eighteen months ago. Maybe this was the afterlife- because right now, he couldn’t think of anything more perfect than this moment. He was terrified and ecstatic and he loved her more than he could have thought he was capable of.

“I love you,” he said, still crying.

Her smile was the sort that songs were written about. “I love you too, freykaa.”

“We’re having a baby.”

She laughed, the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard. “You really are a broken holo right now.”

Chapter Text

She sat on the very edge of the asteroid, her feet dangling over the abyss; if they were in space, she wouldn’t have fallen, because there was no down in space and so there was nowhere to her to fall down into. Very technically, they were in her mind, so if she didn’t want to fall down, surely she had some way to address that, to control the physical parameters of a world that was essentially made from her thoughts...

She wasn’t really willing to test it though. Not yet. If she fell, and kept falling, would she be free of her insufferable parasite, or would he fall with her? Would she be trapped in some sort of hellish freefall, listening to his prattling pseudo-philosophical self-aggrandization for the rest of eternity?

Kallathe shuddered, her fingers curling in the dust. She honestly couldn’t think of a more fitting hell- spending eternity bound to a pompous, arrogant human male, determined to explain every flaw in the nuance of her thoughts. It was like it’d been deliberately cultivated to cause her the most intense level of suffering.

Below her, scattered across the asteroid field, were remnants of a city. Some parts of it looked familiar, like streets she had walked in her years amongst the sith; Dromund Kaas then, and Ziost. Burning, or dead, both piled high with rubble, some parts dark and swallowed by emptiness and shadow, some parts alight with fire and pain and panic. Other parts looked less recognisable, the architecture alien to her. Coruscant, probably. Coruscant looked more or less intact, but it exuded an aura of rot and disease, even from across the vast distance of space. It was hollow and brittle, as if the slightest touch would cause the walls to fracture and crack like bones weakened from malnutrition.

Pain and fire. Darkness and death. Weakness and rot.

She grunted at a new spear of pain sliding through her veins, eyes slipping closed as she gritted her teeth to ride through the worst of it. It was good at least that she had not had any open wounds when they’d thrown her into carbonite, or the poison would be advancing far faster. Not that she really had any real comprehension of the time passing here in this place, only that it had been months- but there was a huge difference between three months and twelve, or more. She still caught glimpses now and then of the people in her life, gravitating towards them like a flare going off in a dark night, so she knew it hadn’t been decades. Other than that... she had nothing. No way to measure the time she’d spent bound to the most self-absorbed, vainglorious, mansplaining asshole to have ever existed in the entirety of the galaxy’s existence.

As if her thoughts had summoned him, she felt a shift in the air behind her. “It is as I warned,” he said. “Your precious Empire burns-”

“For fuck’s sake, will you just fucking shut up?” she snarled, not bothering to look in his direction. “How do I get this through to you? How can I possibly express the depths of my contempt and loathing for you, and how little I want to hear anything you have to say?”

“If you have no desire for my advice and opinions, then how should I express to you a means to dismiss me? If I’m not welcome to speak, I can hardly answer your question.”

The look she threw over her shoulder at him would have killed lesser men.

He smirked, composed as always, not a hair out of place and not a speck of dust on his exquisite robes. “As I suspected,” he said. “You are a child, an infant throwing a tantrum. You yearn for discipline and structure, for guidance to channel your potential into something greater.”

Kallathe turned back to face the void. She looked down at the vast expanse of nothing beneath her.

She pushed herself off the edge.

____

Coruscant, the Corusca Sector, Core Worlds

“Asmi?”

She stirred briefly in their shared bed, a tired sigh leaving her lips that morphed into a grumpier grunt when he hit the lamp on their bedside. Her face twisted miserably, pain and discomfort and frustration at having been woken early, and his heart clenched miserably in his chest in sympathy. He hated having to do this.

“Asmi, come on baby, wake up.”

She opened her eyes, the beautiful deep brown foggy with pain and distraction. “Felix?” she murmured, blinking and trying to turn towards the chrono on the bedside. “What is-”

“We’ve gotta go baby,” Felix said, his pulse drumming in his ears, “the Eternal Fleet just dropped out at the end of the sector. They’re coming to blockade Coruscant.”

That roused her, even if she did whimper with pain as she struggled to swing her feet over the edge of the bed. “Tharan?”

“He’s helping Holiday transfer back to the databanks on the Arcadia.”

She grimaced, breathing heavily as she paused before trying to stand. “Back to the Arcadia,” she whispered, “I didn’t think this day would ever come.”

Asmi’s personal starship had been in port for years now, unable to transfer to another Jedi while parts of Holiday’s program were integrated into the mainframe, yet technically without a captain given Asmi’s declining health. The last time it had left Coruscant had been the occasion of their fateful first meeting, when Asmi had met with representatives from Sarkhai to formalise the alliance between Sarkhai and Republic, only to be attacked by one of the Emperor’s Children. He had been a part of Master Dawnstar’s strike team, sent to intercept the attackers and extract the royal family, and he still remembered with perfect clarity the way the wind had been knocked out of him when he’d stormed into the conference hall to the sight of the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life standing in a sphere of golden light. The magic of the moment had been jolted by the presence of the sith assassin, savagely hammering at the light around her with his lightsaber, hacking and bludgeoning as if it were a brutal instrument of carnage instead of the graceful weapon Master Dawnstar had made it seem.

Her hands had been thrown wide, as if she was physically holding the barrier in place, and golden light had encased her and the surviving members of the royal family. There’d been less than a hairsbreadth between her fingers and the hacking slashes of the lightsabers.

Fearless. Selfless. Beautiful.

As Master Dawnstar had engaged the assassin, the light had flickered and died, and he’d raced forward; she’d collapsed into his arms, trembling from the effort of holding the killer at bay for so long, and in the weeks following he’d scarcely left her side. Weeks had turned into months, and then years.

Asmi didn’t run. It was what he loved about her, her unflinching resolve to stand and face the greatest threats imaginable. She stood and let the weight pile on her, and didn’t turn away.

And now he was asking her to run.

Their bags had been packed for weeks now, sitting ready by the front door, so all they had to do was dress and be on their way. Easy in principle, but Asmi was the worst he’d seen in years, exhausted and rendered unable to move beyond the bed or the couch when she attempted even the smallest of tasks. A trip to the Senate could leave her unconscious for a day or two right now, and that was when they had plenty of time to go slow and get her there at their own pace.

Damn it, he really should’ve looked into getting the Arcadia retrofitted with more accessible interiors; there was no way she was going to cope with all the stairs and steps and wide door frames she’d have to shuffle over. Did the ship even have room for a chair in the refresher? She couldn’t stand up to shower, damn it, why hadn’t he thought of these things?

She was sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes closed, her blouse crumpled; she hadn’t managed her pants yet, or her shoes, and with gentle hands and gentle words of encouragement he helped her get her hips off the bed long enough for him to tug her pants up. He kneeled at her feet and helped her slide on her slippers, draping her shrug over her shoulders for her.

“You’re doing great, baby,” he said encouragingly, pressing a kiss to her montral as he passed. She smiled wanly at him, radiating exhaustion, but she didn’t complain. “Do you want me to make you a drink? Breakfast? I can get a thermos ready-”

“How long do we have?” she rasped, half hunched over on the bed as she shivered, reaching up to pull the shrug closer around her.

“Hard to say- the First Fleet and the Sixth Fleet have moved to intercept, and what’s left of the Second is holding orbit. Could be hours, could be days.”

Could be minutes. He didn’t say that out loud, though. The Second hadn’t even made it an hour in the fight to protect Gerrenthum, all those months ago. They needed every second to count right now, because they had to get her off of Coruscant and away from the oncoming horde of Zakuulan fanatics. They weren’t too friendly when it came to Force users who were out here drawing on power that apparently didn’t belong to them, something about their magic tricks being a manifestation of their faith; they decried Jedi and Sith and everyone outside those margins as heretics and blasphemers, thieves who desecrated the memory of their dead God-Emperor in using his gift without faith.

He’d heard terrible things about what they’d done to the Sith and the Jedi they’d captured in the last year. Some of it was probably exaggeration, but he’d been a soldier long enough to know some of it probably wasn’t. In all honesty, they should have relocated months ago, to avoid this very situation, but they had no idea what sort of strain it would cause her, trying to travel while maintaining the shield around Tython.

There were sirens blaring in the distance, and an automated voice in the corridor of their apartment complex warning the occupants to prepare for the possibility of orbital strikes. The emergency warning systems had been installed across the planet in the aftermath of the Sith invasion at the end of the last war, over sixteen years ago now; he’d been on military bases in the past that used sirens, but it was a whole other game again to hear them wailing from one end of the horizon to the other.

It was like some sort of gate to the afterlife had been pried open, and the wailing, hopeless screams of the lost and the forgotten were spiralling up to overwhelm the living.

Asmi had her hand on the bedside when he went to look for her again, her eyes closed tight in a wince of pain. “There’s so much noise,” she said, her breathing shallow; she was hot to touch when he put his hand on her forehead, and her montrals were so tense and rigid with stress and pain that he felt like he could have cracked them if he knocked them too firmly.

“You’re burning up, baby.”

“I don’t feel good.”

Did they have time to divert past the medical suites in the Jedi quarters of the Senate district? Attros hadn’t evacuated last he’d heard, but anything could have changed now that Zakuul was practically on their doorstep. “Can you take more painkillers?”

“I’m still about two hours away from being able to,” she said hoarsely.

He grimaced. “That’s okay, sweetheart, we’ll manage. We’ll get you settled on the ship and go from there.” His pocket buzzed and he leaned down quickly to kiss her brow, leaving her to gather her strength as he stepped out into the hallway to answer his holo. The image was fuzzier than it should have been for a local call, a rather ominous suggestion that something was already amiss with the satellite arrays.

Tharan looked frazzled, even over the bad connection. “Felix, my dear man, I certainly hope you’re going to tell me you’re just walking into the hangar now.”

Felix glanced over his shoulder towards the bedroom. “She’s having a lot of trouble. We’ll be leaving in a minute-”

“A minute might be too late, lieutenant. They’ve already begun to shut down air lanes in preparation for the bombardment, and Holiday has found command codes in the system that suggest they’re about to lock down the spaceport.”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Can she stall them?”

“Have you ever tried to physically transplant your own brain, lieutenant? That she’s able to communicate with me at all during the process is inconceivable, and for her to be diverting enough of her run time in order to monitor planetary defences is just-”

“Okay, okay, I get it Cedrax,” he said tiredly. He rubbed at his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose as if that had any chance of staving off the headache building there. The wailing sirens did not help in the slightest. “Do we have clearance for launch?”

“No. No one does. Like I said, they’re on the verge of locking down the spaceport.”

His holo started buzzing again, indicating another call trying to come through. “Keep prepping on the assumption we do have clearance,” he said. “I’ll give you a heads up when we’re nearly there.” He disconnected and clicked through to the second call, no less tense when he recognised his brother-in-law on the line.

“Felix.”

“Zenith.”

“You’re getting out?”

“Just about to-”

“Don’t come to Balmorra.”

The abrupt and almost curt tone wasn’t surprising, given Zenith’s struggles with social niceties, but the statement itself was. “Something’s changed?”

“Star Fortress.” The scathingly bitter way he spat the words made his heart sink, echoes of the man he’d been years before when Balmorra was only newly liberated from the Empire, and the wounds of occupation were still fresh and raw. “We got Kylaena and her baby into the mountains, but they’ve got the parliament locked down. Tai and the rest are under house arrest.”

“You got out, though.”

Zenith’s lips thinned, like he was going to sneer and managed to contain himself. “I’ve spent my whole life running circles around tyrants,” he spat. “They think they’re gonna tie me down with just a few droids, well, they don’t know what Balmorrans are capable of.”

He rubbed wearily at his face. “Alright, not Balmorra then. We’ll... we’ll find somewhere.” Fuck.

He expected Zenith to hang up, to leave it at that now that his message was delivered. He’d never been a chatty sort, even before circumstances had forced them all apart; instead, he hesitated, his expression almost nervous. “Is... is she...” He swallowed, almost aggressively squaring his shoulders. “How is she?”

“Not good,” he said honestly, and stars above it hurt to say that.

“I, uh...” Zenith looked intensely uncomfortable, and more than a little hopeless. “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault. Not anyone’s fault.” Except the Jedi, who did this to her. Who pushed her and molded her and pressured her. Who shaped her into a durable little puppet, ready to take on a burden that was slowly killing her, without ever complaining or asking for help or protesting at the unfairness of it all. He loved her for her loyalty, her kindness, her commitment to duty and goodness and protection... but those same traits were the ones killing her. “We’ll find something. Keep yourself safe, Zenith.”

“You too, Felix. Look after her.”

Zenith ended the call without further comment, and without asking about Amam. It wasn’t really surprising, given how uncommunicative he was at the best of times, and he couldn’t even imagine how much it had to hurt to be separated from a spouse for so long. Asmi had been holding up the shield around Tython for almost a year now, and Amam had gone on ahead of time to finalise things from his end. To go a full year without the person you loved, without even the meagre comfort of holos and messages to see you through the long and lonely weeks... hell, he probably wouldn’t be that chatty either.

He pocketed the holo and rose to his feet. No time to sit around getting miserable about the mess they were all entrenched in.

His heart lurched up into his throat when he found Asmi still sitting on the edge of the bed, tears on her cheeks and her face scrunched up with pain and misery. “I can’t do it,” she hiccuped, as he raced over to her side. “Felix, it hurts-”

“I know, baby, I know.” He sat down beside her and pulled her onto his lap, well practiced at tucking her against his shoulder without knocking himself in the face with her montrals, or poking himself in the eye. She was so hot to the touch, shivering and clammy, and as his arms wrapped gently around her she started crying in earnest, exhausted sobs that left his shoulder wet and warm from the tears. It was surreal and horrifying, listening to the sirens wail and the automated voice in the hallway warning them to prepare for orbital strikes, holding his wife in his lap and begging with everything in him that something out there was able to help her, to make the pain stop. “We gotta go, Asmi, we can’t stay here sweetheart.”

She whimpered. “I can’t walk,” she said. “I can’t make it to the spaceport, Felix, I can’t do it.”

“You can, sweetheart.” He kissed the curve of her montral. “I’ll get you to the speeder, and you can rest on the ride over, and then it’s not so far to the ship, okay?”

“I can’t, I can’t-”

Asmi.” His heart was breaking at the sound of her distress and agony, and he could feel tears burning at his own eyes as he pulled back to cup her cheek. She couldn’t make eye contact with him, her gaze sitting somewhere more around his nose. “Baby, they’ll kill you if we stay.”

She sobbed, her fingers curling tight around his. “I just... it hurts so much.”

He squeezed her hand as tight as he dared. “Just hold on baby, please? Just a little longer and you can rest again.”

He hooked an arm under her knees and held her close as he climbed to his feet, dismayed at how light she was in his arms; she’d always been pleasantly curvy, soft and pudgy from a lifetime spent hiding in libraries rather than taking to the training fields like her Jedi brethren. Now she felt brittle, fragile, like if he held her too tightly her bones would crack and shatter, like more of her was made of air than flesh and blood.

It terrified him, if he was honest- it terrified him far more than the threat of invasion. Armies and soldiers and killer droids, those he could deal with. He was a soldier, the battlefield made sense to him, even when his opponents themselves left his mind reeling. But Asmi in pain, Asmi struggling to keep fighting... he couldn’t fight that battle for her. He couldn’t do anything to stop the wasting nothingness that burned away at her from the inside out.

He could fight soldiers. He could fight back an invasion force. He couldn’t fight the thing killing the person he loved more than anything imaginable, and the thought of losing her was the most frightening thing he’d ever had to face.

Everyone died. That was just a fact. But that didn’t mean he didn't want to yell and kick and rage at the unfairness of it all, that the woman he loved and wanted to spend his entire life with was fighting not to leave too early.

She was shivering in his arms as he got her out of the apartment and down the hallway to the speeder garage on their floor; she never stopped weeping either, hiccuping moans that cut right through him like a saber to the gut. “You need a blanket, baby?” he asked, settling her into the passenger side as gently as he could.

“I- I don’t know?” she whispered, whimpering as her fingers plucked absently at the shrug around her shoulders. “I don’t know if it’s too hot or too cold.”

There was a series of angry shouts outside, and he looked up in time to see two speeders drift past, interlocked from where they’d apparently crashed, with the drivers attempting to climb over the gap to fight one another. Beyond them, the sky was cluttered with speeders flying in every direction imaginable, the normal order and structure of the skylanes gone entirely now that the decision had been made to lock them down. The two speeders continued to list badly towards the ground, drifting out of sight, and from the screaming and shouting floating in from the world outside the garage, they weren’t the only ones. Even as he watched, he saw a badly overloaded skycar lose altitude rapidly, bearing down on top of a zippy little thing twenty feet below. The driver either didn’t see them, or thought they could outrace them, because they never tried to move out of the way of the collision; he winced at the flash of light when the repulsorlift engine exploded, debris and bodies raining down on the erratic rush of vehicles lower down.

“Felix?”

He felt a surge of guilt, and turned back to Asmi immediately. “Here, baby,” he said, reaching back to take her hand in his as she held it out to him. “It’s okay-”

“It’s so loud.”

The garage was funnelling the sounds of the outside chaos a lot more than he’d hoped; at least in the apartment they’d been relatively insulated from the worst of it. “I know, sweetheart, I know,” he said, taking note of the other bays in the garage that were already empty. Some of their neighbours had already fled, it seemed. “Just hold tight. I’ll grab our bags and we’ll be on our way.”

The official communications from the authorities and the Senate and every single relevant office with an opinion on the matter had said to remain indoors, to avoid using communications networks for unessential tasks so as not to strain the system, and to keep clear of landmarks and sites of interest, like the various spaceports and transportation hubs, or the Senate tower. Bunker down, was what it all came down to- stay in your homes and out of sight, out of the line of fire. Same instructions they’d given every planet in the Republic so far, and every time the skies had grown dark with refugees fleeing ahead of the oncoming fleets, taking their chances on starving in a camp or a cramped cargo hold than sticking around to see how benevolent their new overlords were feeling.

He knew that feeling. He’d grown up in a refugee camp, after all. He’d seen the fear that drove decent, hard-working people to upend their lives, flee from everything they’d ever worked for, just on the desperate hope they’d stay alive. His parents had done exactly that- taking three young kids all under the age of seven and jumping on the first available shuttle to get away from the Sith.

The fleet converging on Coruscant from the edge of the sector didn’t seem any more friendly than the Sith had been, but they were running out of places to run. Where could you run to, when the enemy had already gotten everywhere first?

He grabbed their bags from the foyer and locked up the apartment, trying not to feel a twinge of remorse at leaving the place they’d turned into a home. Home was wherever Asmi was, not a building.

Throwing their bags in the back of the speeder and vaulting over the side without bothering with the doors, he stopped briefly to lean over and kiss her on the forehead; she smiled at him, the look tremulous at best with the tears on her cheeks and her quivering chin. “It’s gonna be okay, baby,” he said. She whimpered, eyes sliding shut, and didn’t answer.

He disengaged the security grid over the garage entrance, and the noise blasted in at them, making her moan and put her hands up to her lekku, while he grimaced. The heat rising up from the city depths was worse than normal, the night sky purple and murky instead of true black; no sign of the dreaded Eternal Fleet amongst the stars yet, but it was only a matter of time.

There was a brief moment when they left the garage where the speeder began to drift, before Felix clued in and remembered the automated skylanes weren’t online to correct his steering for him. It was also at that moment that another speeder went barrelling past them from below, surging up towards the skyline and beyond; it only missed them by a hairsbreadth, and their speeder rocked violently from side to side from the slipstream.

Asmi cried out, one hand clutching so hard at the frame that her knuckles looked white, the other pressed to her forehead; grimacing and fighting back his first instinct to curse, Felix pulled hard on the controls until the speeder was level again, activating the exterior grav-repulsors to discourage any other vehicles from coming too close. With the skylanes in anarchy, it’d be a miracle if they made it the short trip to the spaceport without a few more close calls.

“Felix,” she moaned, her eyes closed and her head resting back against the seat; she was panting rapidly, and when he risked looking away from the sky in front of him for a moment to look at her instead, his heart lurched to see the sweat on her skin glistening in the neon lights of the city.

He reached over and squeezed her hand quickly. “Ten minutes, baby,” he said, half begging. “Ten minutes, and we’ll be safe on the Arcadia. You can rest again, it’ll be okay, I promise.”

She started crying again, and it cut through him deeper than anything the damn sith had every done to him in that bloody lab of theirs.

He kept up a running commentary of soothing nothings for her, promising her everything under the sun if she just kept fighting a little bit longer. The sky got more and more crowded the closer they drew to the spaceport, and the sirens wailed and screeched along with the voices of the thousands of people in the vicinity yelling and cursing and swearing and sobbing. It was the closest thing to an apocalypse he could ever have imagined, hot and violent and panicked and crowded.

There were Coruscant Security speeders in abundance as he drew closer to the spaceport, and their progress had slowed to a crawl given the traffic congestion; he could hear a loudspeaker somewhere, non-automated for once, and a stone settled in his stomach as the words began to become clearer over the chaos.

“... to your homes,” the voice was saying. “All spaceports have been closed to civilian and mercantile craft, by the authority of the office of the Chancellor. Please return to your homes immediately. I repeat, please return to your homes immediately.”

“Felix.”

He squeezed her hand. “I know, baby, I know. It’s okay.” He fumbled one-handed to pull his comm from his pocket, clicking on Tharan’s ID on the screen. It didn’t even ring before it connected. “Please have good news for me.”

“I regret to disappoint, lieutenant, but I suspect you already know as much.” Felix closed his eyes briefly, swallowing hard to suppress the growing panic in him. Tharan’s voice was scratchy and garbled by static, a terrifying implication indeed for how overloaded the local networks were given that he was literally in the building in front of him. Even so, he sounded exhausted, and a step away from hysterical. “Holiday has an override embedded in the lockdown codes, but we had to lock the hangar bay doors ourselves to keep a mob from absconding with the ship. I don’t know if you’re able to bring the speeder around to the launch doors...”

There were security speeders in bulk on that side of the building, and he could already see them fending off other craft trying to make a break for the hangars. As he watched, someone made a mad dash forward, gunning their engine and sending a spray of blaster fire ahead of them to try and scatter the security forces; they were met with equal force, and as one of the bolts connected, the desperate speeder and all its occupants went careening down into the depths of the city below.

“Everyone is so loud,” Asmi whispered, drawing his attention back to her. Her eyes were wide and glazed, and for the first time he released just how gaunt she looked. With the lights of the city to illuminate her, not the gentle dimmed glow in their apartment, she looked half emaciated. “I- I can hear them. Their thoughts. There’s so much- so much anger, and fear, oh stars, it’s- it’s... I can’t...”

“Negative on the launch doors, Cedrax,” Felix said, wishing to every star above and below that he had something to protect her with, his combat rifle or a personal shield or something. As he circled around to the front of the spaceport, he felt sick at the sight of the crowd gathered in the plaza outside, and the line of armoured security force personnel keeping them at bay. It was verging on riotous, from what he could see, and there was absolutely nowhere to bring in a speeder safely to disembark.

This was it, he realised. This was how he was going to lose her. They’d left it too late to flee, always assuming that there was no way the Fleet would actually make it as far as Coruscant, always thinking that somehow they’d be satisfied with their conquests long before now, and they’d never have to take the risk of moving Asmi when they had no idea whether moving could impact the strain of the shield she was maintaining. Now Zakuul was here, and they couldn’t get out, and they’d kill her to get to the rest of the Jedi.

Because everyone else saw her as a means to an end, not as a woman. Not as the woman he loved. Not as a woman with hopes and dreams and fears of her own, just a tool to be used and caught between the machinations of empires and tyrants.

No.

“No,” he found himself saying, pulling hard on the steering wheel to pull them away from the worst of the crowds. He clicked through on the comm with shaking fingers, barely restrained adrenalin and rage driving him, and after a long few agonising buzzes, it connected. A frazzled looking mirialan answered, his hair a mess from him clearly having run his hands through it frequently. “Attros. I need your help.”

“I’m not really in a position to give it right now,” the Jedi said, flinching at something off screen. “No, please, just return to your beds, everything is going to be just fine, I promise-”

“Attros, I need to speak to the Grandmaster.”

Attros looked back to the call, clearly exasperated and stressed beyond measure. “I appreciate that you are in need at the moment, lieutenant, but I have some very distressed patients here right now that require my attention.”

“I need to speak to the Grandmaster before the Jedi Order gets wiped out entirely.”

Asmi whimpered beside him, still crying.

“I don’t appreciate threats, lieutenant-”

“It’s not a threat, Finn, it’s fact- I need to get Asmi out of here before Zakuul sends their Exarchs down here to hunt for her. I need to get Satele to get us clearance-”

“She’s not here,” Attros interrupted, almost snappish. He was very obviously distracted by someone off screen. “She’s with- I think she’s with the First Fleet? Or with the Chancellor, I don’t know, I’m not her assistant- Master Surro, please, return to your bed, I’ll just- no, no, it’s not the Emperor, that’s not the Ziost sirens-”

The call disconnected, and when he tried to redial he just got a dead tone. He resisted the urge to yell or hurl the commlink over the side of the speeder, his hands shaking from the force of the adrenalin as he fumbled with the next number. It was a long shot, a wildly long shot, but they didn’t have anything left but long shots now. He wasn’t gonna get her out without taking risks.

The commlink buzzed, and buzzed, and buzzed, and he began to despair wondering whether or not it was going to actually connect. Finally it clicked, and his heart lurched again, and a figure appeared before him looking just as frazzled as Attros had; the difference, however, was the immense irritation bleeding off of her, the sort of energy one might expect from a drunk in a bar looking to start a fight with whoever was closest.

“This is not a public number, soldier,” the woman snarled, moving to disconnect immediately.

“Colonel!” He had to make this work. “Colonel Hervoz, please, I need your help.”

She honestly looked like she wanted to reach through the screen and choke him. “I have several hundred billion people in need of my help right now, soldier, and you’ve got the nerve to call me on my private holo-”

“Colonel Hervoz, your husband gave me this number,” he said, taking the risk to interrupt her. “My name is Iresso, sir. Felix Iresso. I served with your husband on Ord Mantell, and we met again a few years ago? We had dinner?”

She squinted at him, and then cursed under her breath. “You’re the Barsen’thor’s husband,” she said, clearly grudgingly.

He licked his lips. “Yes ma’am. We need your help.”

“And I’m sure if this were any other time at all I’d be more than happy to help you, soldier, but right now I’m trying to coordinate with the Republic Defence Committee to deal with this small problem of our capital world being under attack. Maybe you’ve heard of it?”

“Ma’am, I need to get my wife off of Coruscant before the fleet gets here-”

“Then speak to her boss about it, Satele can damn well-”

“I’ve tried, ma’am,” he said, desperation creeping into his voice. “Please, I wouldn’t bother you if I wasn’t out of options.”

She stared at him for a long moment, clearly weighing up the consequences of her actions, before shaking her head and swearing again. “What do you need?” she asked, from what sounded like between gritted teeth.

He fought back the urge to sigh in exhausted relief. “We can’t get off Coruscant,” he said. “They’ve shut down the spaceports.”

“I know, I was one of the people signing off on that order.”

“We’ve got a ship, Colonel, we just need clearance. And the spaceport is overrun, we can’t get through.”

“Nothing’s fucking easy, is it,” she muttered, leaning heavily on the desk. He heard her sigh loudly, almost a grunt of frustration, and then she stood up sharply. “Which spaceport?”

“The one by the Senate.”

“You got your ship registration?”

“Sending it through now.”

She shook her head again, clearly not quite able to believe what she was doing. “Jedi ain’t gonna win any popularity points if it gets out that one of their folk got clearance to get out while the rest of us poor assholes had to stuck around for the fallout,” she warned.

“I don’t really care what happens to the Jedi right now, Colonel,” he said, earning him a curious look from her. “I just want to save my wife.”

She was clicking away furiously at a screen in front of her, but she didn’t refute him for his borderline mutinous comment. “Speeder reg?”

“Sent with the ship reg.”

“Okay. I’ve sent both through to Coruscant Air Traffic Control and Coruscant Security. Hold outside of the hangars long enough for them to scan you, and then proceed into the hangar as quickly as you can. They’ll drop the shields for a few seconds for you to get in with the speeder, and then you’ll have five minutes to get the ship prepped for launch-”

“I’ve already got people on board, ma’am, our ship is just about ready.”

“Three minutes, then,” she said, rubbing wearily at her face. “Do not under any circumstances let any other speeders follow you into the hangar bay, or the Security Forces will be facing a riot. Then we’ll both have the deaths of good officers on our hands, and I’m not feeling genial enough towards the Jedi to risk that.”

“Understood, ma’am,” he said, relief washing over him so fiercely that his head was spinning. “Thank you, ma’am. Colonel, I mean, thank you, thank you so much-”

“Save your thanks,” she said bitterly. “And don’t make me regret this.”

She disconnected, and Felix put his head in his hands. He felt so lightheaded that he wanted to lean over the side of the speeder and vomit, but given the very high likelihood that it’d land on someone beneath them, he restrained himself. He felt Asmi’s hand on his thigh, and he glanced over at her.

“It’s okay,” she rasped, smiling faintly at him.

There were tears in his eyes, half hysterical and certainly frightened, but he reached up and put his hand over hers, squeezing gently. “I’m the one supposed to be comforting you,” he said ruefully.

Even looking like death warmed up, she was still lovely when she smiled at him. “I thought marriage meant it went both ways,” she said.

He smiled back at her; she believed in him, and that was all that mattered. He was getting her out of here, alive and safe. “Hold on, love,” he said, pulling on the wheel to bring them around and out of the worst of the crowded airspace around the entrance. “Just a few more minutes.”

He couldn’t say he’d ever had to come in at the spaceport from this direction before, as they headed towards the wide honeycomb of berths that dotted the side of the vast tower; sure, he’d flown proper ships in this way, but it felt a whole lot different coming in on a tiny speeder instead of behind the comfort of inch thick transparisteel. Just as before, there were over a dozen security cruisers stationed in a grid formation to prevent anyone from entering the hangars, but there were still people making a good go of it. He winced at the sight of a speeder limping away from the tower, drifting further and further down the more it pulled away, and hoped at least that the driver got somewhere safe to land before they lost power completely.

The comm on the dashboard beeped, the little light flashing beside it, and he fumbled to click it on. “Lieutenant Iresso,” he said, by way of greeting.

“You’re the escort for the Barsen’thor?”

They cut to the chase quickly, at least. “Yes sir, I have Master Adhi on board right now.”

He couldn’t tell which one of the cruisers in front of him contained the officer communicating with him. “Hmmph. Convenient for one of them to get out while the rest of us have to stick it out.”

He fought the urge to roll his eyes or snap a sarcastic response. “Yes sir, not arguing that sir. Just doing my duty, sir.”

No answer came through for a few tense seconds, and he held his breath, praying to any force or deity that might be listening to get them through to safety. Finally the comm crackled again. “You will have fifteen seconds to reach the hangar bay designated, and after that the shields will be reestablished. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely, sir, thank you sir.” He smoothed his hand over Asmi’s forehead, unable to stop himself from fidgeting.

“Alright. Shields going down, fifteen seconds from- now.”

He gunned the engine, lurching forward from what was almost a dead stop; the speeder roared and shot towards the wall of security cruisers, who did not move to hinder his approach at all. He got a good run of a few seconds before he heard the sounds of alarm behind him, when the other stalking drivers realised he was getting through without being fired upon. The security cruisers did start firing at that point.

There were screams behind them, and the rapid sound of blaster fire; he gritted his teeth and didn’t look back, and kept racing towards the entrance to the hangar. He could see the Arcadia now, the exterior lights all illuminated in what he hoped was an indication they were ready for launch. Unlike all the other hangar bays, this one had no faintly shimmering curtain of green light, no forcefield to keep the desperate people behind them at bay.

He just had to make it in there before the time was up and before anyone else got in there-

A speeder went rocketing past them, a flimsy little thing that had seen better days and didn’t look to be built out of anything more than durasteel scrap and hope. There was smoke streaming from the rear exhaust, and it was veering badly sideways; it had only two riders, a larger human looking individual, and a much smaller body that he realised with a surge of dismay was a child.

“Close your eyes, baby,” he said sharply, half shouting it as he pushed the speeder as hard as he could, trying to get back ahead of the other vehicle before it was too late.

He didn’t want the death of a child on his conscience, he didn’t, he couldn’t, he-

Another round of blaster fire went spearing from behind them, and hit the other speeder directly; there was a burst of flames, and the speeder went spinning into the hangar, breaking apart in a shower of sparks and molten metal.

Felix was close behind them, coming in so fast that they bounced on the duracrete floor of the hangar, skidding over the ground and coming to a painful stop near to the landing struts of the Arcadia. Chest heaving, he looked up just in time to see the forcefield reactivate, and another speeder went slamming into the barrier; there was another explosion, the sound ricocheting around the enclosed space of the hangar and making Asmi moan in pain.

He stared, stunned and horrified, until the sounds of Asmi’s distress knocked him back into action. Fumbling to climb out of the seat, he all but fell out of the speeder onto the floor, far less graceful then when he’d climbed in. “Cedrax!” he bellowed, swinging around almost drunkenly towards the ship. “Cedrax, get out here!”

Felix,” Asmi whimpered, trying to lift her hand to point at something.

He raced around to her side of the speeder, pulling her up into his arms. “Come on, baby, we gotta go, we’re almost there-”

She kept trying to point. “Felix!

Tharan came stumbling down the ramp, his usually perfectly coiffed hair an absolute mess as he ran towards them. “The Sixth Fleet is gone!” he yelled, tripping halfway towards them and clambering awkwardly back to his feet. “The Sixth, they’ve destroyed the Sixth, they are coming-”

“He’s alive!” Asmi said shrilly, trying to fight weakly against Felix’s hold on her.

He was so frustrated he wanted to tear his hair out. He spun around, and his gaze fell on the smaller body from the first speeder. “The kid?” he asked incredulously, panting for breath.

“He’s alive!” She was hysterical, inconsolable; he had no idea where she found the strength to fight, but she did, trying to pull herself out of his arms and towards the small body on the ground. “He’s alive, he’s alive, Felix-”

“Stars above, we don’t have time for this.” As Tharan reached their side and made to grab at the bags in the back seat, Felix instead handed Asmi off to him. “Get her on board!”

Tharan staggered under the unexpected weight of the woman in his arms, before turning and stumbling awkwardly back towards the ramp to the Arcadia. Felix in turn hefted the bags from the back seat and hurled them across the floor and closer to the ship; with that done he sprinted across the space towards the other crashed speeder, hopping over the strewn wreckage and burning pieces of metal.

There were two humans, as he’d thought when he’d first seen them race past- one adult and one child. The adult was male, and very definitely dead; Felix was no lightweight, having seen his share of gruesome battlefield injuries over his career, but even his stomach turned at the sight of the injuries that had killed the man.

The child was lying sprawled some feet away from the worst of the wreckage, dark haired and golden skinned and blood across his face from a gash on his forehead. Felix fell onto his knees beside him and fluttered his hands uselessly, searching for something, anything; Asmi had said the boy was alive, but there was blood and he didn’t move, and the child’s father was so violently torn apart that it seemed ludicrous to hope. But there was a pulse beneath his fingers when he sought one at his neck, and that was enough.

He was terribly small, and so light that Felix stumbled when he climbed back to his feet, turning and racing towards the ramp of the Arcadia; he slowed only to scoop up the bags one-handed, awkwardly lugging them over his shoulder as he sprinted up into the airlock. “I’m on!” he yelled, apparently unnecessary, because the airlock slammed shut behind him almost as soon as his feet were clear. “Thanks, Holiday!”

The bags he left down in the ramp, unimportant for now; he could come back for them later, once they were safe. He bumped into Tharan as he made for the cockpit, the other man apparently having deposited Asmi in the main quarters.

He thrust the child at him, and Tharan let out a frustrated snarl. “I don’t have time-”

“We’re all out of time!” Felix snapped back, leaving him with the boy draped inelegantly in his arms as he lunged for the cockpit. “Is she stable?”

“Somewhat? I don’t know, I’m not a doctor-”

“You are now!” He slid into the pilot’s seat so fast that he nearly spilled back out of it on the other side, his hands shaking violently as he pulled up the controls. “Holiday-”

“The ship is ready,” she said, her bright pink holographic figure appearing on the console before him. She looked exhausted too, which was terrifying- what did it take to make an AI look exhausted? “We can go.”

“On it,” he said, rapidly powering up the ship. “Coruscant Air Traffic Control, this is the Arcadia-”

“If you’re planning on going, go now Arcadia,” came the response. “Eternal Fleet is moving in on Coruscant.”

“Acknowledged,” he said, grimacing. The forcefield in front of them shimmered and vanished, and he took the ship out far faster than regulations required him to; the normal overrides that would have taken control of the ship to force them to maintain cruising speeds never came, and they shot upwards violently, weaving in and out of the wild, anarchic traffic. The gee-forces began to build as they climbed, and he felt it pushing him harder into the seat; from somewhere behind him in the hallway, he heard Tharan yell, and a thump.

Probably should’ve warned him before they took off so violently.

They broke atmosphere in record time, and the deep inky black of space overtook the murky purple brown of Coruscant’s skyscape. There were dozens, possibly hundreds of other ships who had all managed to flee the surface before the lockdown went into effect, surging off in all directions like ants fleeing from a disturbed nest.

“I don’t have hyperspace coordinates for our jump,” Holiday said, wringing her hands together anxiously.

Fuck.

He ran his hand over his face, wild eyed and sweaty. “Closest Republic planet without a Zakuulan presence?” he asked.

“I-I’m not sure, I don’t know what’s changed in the last twenty-four hours-”

There was a series of synchronised flashes of light, and arrayed in the sky before them, several million kilometres off the front, was the first grid of the Eternal Fleet; as he watched, the flashes came again, and the second grid appeared behind them, and then the third. They didn’t even hesitate before they began firing, without any obvious targets but with enough firepower that it didn’t matter. It was a death field.

His hands were shaking almost too much to use the console. “Ord Mantell!” he shouted. “Ord Mantell, calculate for Ord Mantell, we can work something else out from there.”

“Engaging navicomp for jump to Ord Mantell, stand by please.”

The first bolt hit them, shearing over their shields and making the ship rock violently. “Holiday!

Don’t shout at her!” Tharan bellowed from somewhere down below.

“Calculations complete,” she said, seemingly on the verge of tears. “Stand by for jump.”

The scene before them froze, and the stars stretched out towards them like long, grasping fingers. “Please,” Felix whispered, not sure who he was even begging.

The ship lunged forward, and Coruscant vanished behind them.

Chapter Text

She fell.

For a time, it was peaceful. Valkorion’s voice fell away from her, and her only company was the emptiness around her, the vast space between stars. It actually startled her to realise how badly her thoughts had been entwined around his, now that she had space to know the difference. There were so many things in her head that felt alien, uncomfortable- memories that had planted themselves like weeds and dug in deep, hungers that roused terrifying things in her heart and her blood.

Fears. There were fears there too, secret and desperate and hysterical. Irrational and loathed.

Enough to undo a World-Eater?

She wanted to walk, so her feet came down and there was earth beneath her boots again, the same dry and ancient rock as before. It stretched out before her, flat and lifeless, the dust hanging heavily in the dead air; there were a trillion stars or more spinning slowly in the sky above her, and the dust motes seemed like miniature galaxies in their own right, the way they swirled and spun away from her like eddies.

Sifting through the thoughts and memories within her, trying to spin them free of the tangled mess they had made, she pulled at threads of fear that did not feel like her own. It was exquisitely hard, like trying to weave a tapestry from silk made of glass; it cut at her, it dragged at her, it left her marked and bloodied and flayed. Still she pulled on it, weaving and dancing across the empty, dusty space to give voice to the fears hiding within her.

To create life, one needed to give life. Blood for blood. Flesh for flesh.

The darkness on the far side of the space moved, and Valkorion appeared, as if stepping through a doorway. He did not speak, a blessed relief, and she let the first fear loose from her net. The dust coalesced in the middle of the divide, darkness and emptiness coming together under her hand, and a figure emerged. A pureblood sith, just like herself, but older. Far, far older. She could feel the weight of the ages upon him.

In the silence of the asteroid, she heard Valkorion’s sharp intake of breath. “Who is he to you, that you fear him so?” she asked, her voice falling flat in the realm without an atmosphere.

“Nothing more than a memory,” he said sharply, and with a curt gesture he undid her work, the figure shifting back to-

-mother.

“You fear her weakness,” Valkorion said, as her blood ran cold. “You view her survival as cowardice, and her obedience to men as a poison that will ensnare you with time.”

Fear was her gift, her passion- she had been trained in fear, in terror, and yet he used her own weapon against her so easily. She hated him. She wrenched hard, and pulled the illusion back under her own control- more blood, more strength, more of her energy gone- and the sharp ridges and spurs on her mother’s face faded, her features softer and younger and more human. The red skin of the sith remained, and a name came to her tongue unbidden.

“Exal Kressh,” she said, delighting in the surge of irritation she felt from him. “She broke away from your conditioning. You offered her immortality and infinite power, and she-”

“And she was an errant child more interested in tantrums than in the glory of what I offered,” he finished curtly. “Just as you yourself continue to snub my offers to elevate you above the rabble to greatness otherwise unheard of.”

She threw her hands in the air in frustration; the form of the apparition wavered and became insubstantial. “Stop lying!” she snarled, angry and frustrated and near to bursting with hate. “We both know you are only here because you found me to be a less revulsive host than your son- there is nothing you find remarkable or intriguing about me that would warrant you singling me out in the first place!”

“My dear Nox-”

Shut up!” She screamed in frustration, and the dust exploded out from around her in a wave, bursting up and out like the impact cloud from an orbital strike. She kept screaming, power gathering around her outstretched hands like hurricanes clasped woven between her fingers. She felt pain, the sharp and suffocating pressure of the poison in her blood, and she pushed harder. Darkness, writhing and hungry and violent, burst out of her and flooded over the asteroid in a boiling torrent.

The pain was immense, and the weakness that followed nearly sent her to her knees. She grunted from between gritted teeth, as the darkness slowly ebbed away.

Valkorion was lying sprawled across the ground, seemingly dazed by the bombardment, and the seething rush of triumph she felt at having bested him- if only temporarily- faltered when she saw two figures standing unaffected in the dark mists. She hadn’t expected her apparition to withstand the blast, let alone for it to multiply...

One figure faced towards her, and the other stared back towards Valkorion. The first she recognised easily as Vaylin, the daughter, and the fact that she would appear as a manifestation of her father’s deepest fears was intriguing, to say the least. She expected the other figure to be the brother, the brat prince who had claimed the throne and imprisoned her to start with, but she was wrong.

Valkorion lifted his head with difficulty, his hair askew and dust sticking to his face. He froze when he saw the woman facing him.

Kallathe narrowed her eyes. “Pray tell, my dear Emperor,” she crooned, forcing strength to her voice even though she had none, “why exactly do you fear the Wrath?”

____

The Spire, Zakuul, Wild Space

The streets were packed with revellers and mourners in equal measure, the jubilation of the festivities bizarrely muted at times depending on where one chose to stop for respite. There were lanterns and streamers and showers of golden confetti raining down from above at random intervals, and there were musicians and performers making their way through the crowds. The beautifully manicured gardens had paper lights hanging from the trees, and the night blooming flowers were pale and lovely in the starlight, delicate white petals with bright golden pollen staining the centre.

It was a little jarring to see opera singers singing dirge-like songs of the dead about the departed Valkorion, especially when it was just as likely to see them accompanied by acrobats and performers, fire-breathers dressed in little more than paint and dragon masks who delighted the crowds with howls and leaps and thirty foot bursts of flame. More jarring again to have the funereal songs warring for with more vibrant music from assorted bands or singers of a more popular persuasion, the faster tempos encouraging dancing and revelry and cheering.

There were official celebration hubs throughout the city, complete with various wines and alcohols available to all citizens for free, and beyond the hubs themselves it seemed like everyone was determined to make their own revelry on the streets instead of indoors. People were laughing and shouting and dancing, they were sharing food and drinks with neighbours and strangers, and they were as joyous as they were mournful.

It was, Lana was coming to realise after seven months of living amongst them, a peculiarly apt way to describe the people of Zakuul. A culture that valued art and music, but that waged war without end and without question. A people who adored their immortal leader, all while mourning his death. A planet of wild, untamed swamps and forests, with exquisitely crafted cities that teetered above them in a way that defied physics- easier to conquer gravity than conquer the wilderness.

She smiled at the revellers as she made her way through the crowds, nodding and bowing her head to those mourning instead; she made a point to keep as much distance between herself and the golden-armoured knights on duty, which made her journey through the city far more circuitous than it needed to be. A drunken reveller stumbled into her path, and she forced herself to laugh as she helped them to their feet again. They turned to her, smiling joyously with vacant eyes. “Joyous Victory Day, friend!” they slurred, pointing an empty cup in her face.

She maintained the smile with effort, carefully lowering their arm and returning them to the side of the thoroughfare to sit with their friends again. “Joyous Victory Day,” she echoed, waving to them as they called after her.

“Don’t sound so thrilled about it,” came a voice in her ear, and she smiled more genuinely.

Absently tugging her scarf a little tighter over her hair, to hide the earpiece from anyone watching, she said “Xolani, I should hope by now that any jubilation on my part should be read as purely happenstance.”

“Of course,” said the Jedi Master, “I would never accuse you of managing actual brevity.”

“Careful, you almost sounded catty then, and I’d hate for the Jedi to earn a reputation for unkind words.”

“Your concern for my reputation touches me deeply, Lana.”

Lana smiled. “That’s not a very jubilant Victory Day attitude, Xolani,” she said. Her only answer was a ‘hmph’ through her earpiece, and her smile widened, shaking her head in amusement as she climbed the grand steps towards the boulevards outside the palace.

The Palace of the Eternal Dragon, the highest edifice in The Spire and home to the ruling family of Zakuul- and now the entire galaxy- was just as awash with celebration and activity as the rest of the city, with spotlights illuminating the towers and fireworks of gold and silver being shot from balconies up towards the stars. There were golden and white lights and patterns shining against the walls, a slow moving kaleidoscope on an immense scale, and the plaza before the palace was a writhing sea of party-goers. On the main stage she recognised the woman in gold as Malita Tal, Zakuul’s most popular songstress, and could only just make out the warbling notes of her magnificent voice over the roar of the gathering.

There were more knights again here on the plaza, and the doors to the palace- although open- were heavily guarded, with long lines of people waiting to be allowed entry to the private gala within. The ruling family would be there, the Emperor and his sister- the man who had taken her love away from her.

How easy would it be, on this the night of their greatest triumph, to take advantage of the inebriation and the euphoria and dance past the guards? To walk right up to their beloved Emperor, this petty child who toyed with them all and made mockery of them all and ruined their lives just because the chaos amused him-

“Lana?”

“What?” she snapped, turning away and tugging her scarf further over her eyes when the woman beside her in the crowd looked at her, startled.

“You snarled. If I can hear you losing your temper, then someone is going to notice it there too. Get yourself under control.”

She pushed herself through the crowd as subtly as she could, making her way over to the railing where there was a little more space; she gripped the edge of the wall so tightly that her knuckles were ghostly white, head bowed as she fought her temper. “I’ll thank you not to police me for having an emotional reaction to this moment, Xolani,” she said under her breath, hoping that the music was loud enough that those standing closest to her couldn’t hear her.

On the other end of the commlink in her ear, she heard Xolani sigh. “Lana. You assured me multiple times that this was something you could handle-”

“And yet you persisted in badgering me repeatedly, as if my nerves weren’t frayed enough already!” She was glad to be clinging so tightly to the balcony railing, because if she wasn’t she would have had to deal with how badly her hands were shaking. “Would you be any better in my position, were it Surro you were looking for?”

“Absolutely not. That was why I was so persistent, and why I offered to take the plaza.”

She breathed out slowly, head bowed. “I need to do this,” she said, ashamed of how much it sounded like she begging.

Xolani sighed again, more fond than truly exasperated. “I know,” she said. “Just don’t do anything rash.”

She straightened, still holding onto the railing but a little more invigorated. “When have you ever known me to do anything rash, Xolani?”

“Does absconding with a rogue member of the Jedi Council to infiltrate an alien empire hostile to Force users not register as rash, to you?”

Lana smiled to herself. “Good luck with the dissidents,” she said, pulling the scarf back up around her neck to hide her mouth; taking a deep breath, she turned back around and faced the writhing sea of party goers on the boulevard before her, her gaze going all the way across the plaza to the staged area in front of the palace. She couldn’t quite see her goal from here, but this was the closest she’d ever been, and she wasn’t about to let something as simple as an audience make her falter.

A tray appeared abruptly under her nose, and she blinked in surprise.

“A drink, madam? For the celebrations?”

She shook herself and managed a wan smile for the waiter. “That’s, ah-”

“All food and drink is complimentary, provided by the graciousness of his glorious Immortal Majesty, Emperor Arcann, in celebration of-”

“In celebration of our joyous Victory Day, yes,” she said, snatching up the closest glass of red on the tray and trying to smile wider. She really needed to work on her Zakuulan accent. “It’s a wondrous day for us all.”

The waiter nodded, apparently satisfied. “Joyous Victory Day to you, madam,” they said, moving on again. She watched them carefully over the rim of the glass, taking a careful sip to maintain the image of the reserved party-goer; it wouldn’t have surprised her in the slightest if the wait staff were strategically seeded throughout the revelry specifically to keep an eye out for unusual behaviour. It’s what she would have done, in her brief tenure as Minister for Intelligence.

She had a brief pang of guilt, wondering how Thessa was coping in her absence, but she ruthlessly pushed it down. She was a strong woman, with the resilience to do what needed to be done at any cost- she had witnessed that first hand. There was no one better trained to follow in her footsteps, assuming that Zakuul’s first step upon subduing the homeworld hadn’t been a ruthless cull of military and intelligence agencies.

Force preserve, it was easier not to think of it sometimes. Better not to dwell on whether or not she’d abandoned her colleagues and- dare she say- friends to the violent efficiency of the Exarchs.

It didn’t matter. None of that mattered now. Her goals were for the survival of all, not just the sith.

There was a sudden roar of excitement from the crowd, someone shoving her from behind in their exuberance; she scowled, glad she was wearing dark colours so that the wine wouldn’t be noticeable on her sleeve. Looking around to see what had caught their attention, she felt her heart grow cold and sharp as her gaze fell on the balcony several floors above the plaza, well illuminated by the spotlights and the fireworks. More importantly, she stared at the two figures standing at the railing, the cold knot in her chest twisting and writhing and flaying her from the inside out in the most painful, infuriating manner imaginable.

The two figures were distant, but there was a giant projection behind them to give those farther away a better view- the Emperor and his sister. They both had a hand raised, as if waving to the crowds below, and as she stared the sister turned to the brother, her nose scrunched up in a smirk as she said something, her voice swallowed up by the noise of the crowd. The brother glanced at her briefly, but if he responded at all, she had no way of knowing- the mask covering the left and lower half of his face made it impossible for her to attempt to read his lips.

She was aware in some distant, sensible part of her brain that these were Thexan’s siblings, and that despite her lingering reservations, she had found him to be an intelligent, considerate young man with excellent advice to offer to a resistance effort. It stood to reason that, given the same opportunities that Thexan had been given thanks to Ona’la’s intervention, they would very likely prove to be of a similar temperament. It was a logical possibility that couldn’t be ruled out, in any case- although the thought of pursuing redemption instead of revenge made the less practical side of her recoil in horror. Redemption was a notion steeped in so much Jedi puritanical nonsense that it galled her to even consider it, but even she could not deny the symbolic and literal power in turning a former adversary into an ally, and a subservient one at that.

This of course was all secondary, because right now all she could think of as she stared up at them on the balcony, waving absently to a crowd gripped by wild mania and adoration, was how deeply and utterly she despised them, how much she absolutely hated them, and how much she wanted to cause them even a fraction of the pain and suffering they’d heaped upon the rest of the galaxy. That they’d piled on her home, her people.

That they’d heaped on her by taking away the woman she loved.

The wine glass in her hand shattered, her hand reflexively closing into a fist from the sheer tension she’d built in it; it pressed the shards in further, but thankfully the noise of the crowd made her snarl of pain go unnoticed. Glancing around to make sure that no one was watching, she dropped the broken stem of the glass on the ground, and picked out what larger pieces she could see in her slashed palm. She tugged her scarf free from around her hair, grimacing as she wrapped it tightly around her hand.

By the time she looked up again, the spotlights focussing on the balcony had moved on, and the Emperor and the High Justice were nowhere to be seen. There was a sour and bitter taste in her mouth, something that felt like disappointment and hate and violence all clamouring together within her. The energy of the crowd jarred so badly with the maelstrom in her chest, and she had to swallow several times to settle the nausea in her belly; she had nothing in it but the mouthful of wine, a very poor decision indeed, and the heat and closeness of the gathering wasn’t making it easier on her.

This was, to the best of her knowledge, the closest anyone had managed to get to the Emperor since he’d taken power. She’d not heard of any assassination attempts in the last year- although to be honest she was somewhat removed from her usual channels of information here on Zakuul. She was so close, so tantalisingly close to the head of the serpent. She could risk everything she had worked for these last few months, absolutely everything, for a chance to get closer, for a chance to kill-

Unbidden, the memory of Ona’la collapsing into her arms rose up within her, the day she’d first crept onto Zakuul and into their cities in order to rescue her. Ona’la, who despite being blind with carbonite sickness had begged them to stop and rescue another, who had risked her own recovery out of the belief that she had to save someone else before considering her own safety.

She shook her head angrily, gritting her teeth. Ona’la’s relentless optimism and faith was all very inspiring, but hardly practical. Retrieving the prince had badly derailed their escape attempt, to the point where it had been nothing short of a miracle that they’d made it to a rendezvous with the Republic at all; that was without going into the whys and why-nots of Ona’la’s ill-fated encounter with the Emperor in his previous form, and questioning how much of their current predicament might have been prevented had she successfully struck him down in the first place.

Ona’la might not approve of an attempt on the new Emperor’s life, but Ona’la was not here.

But death was not the reason for her presence here either; the tyrannical whelp would live for now, it seemed.

Without the scarf to help hide her hair and her face, she felt far more exposed, but there was nothing else for it- at least she was human, and could pass for Zakuulan without question. Far more difficult if she’d sent Thessa again, or had Thake accompany her as she’d had last time.

She kept her injured hand tucked close to her belly, and was thankful at least that the dark clothing would hide the blood stains now as well as the wine; the celebrations were far too jubilant for anyone to look all that closely at her dishevelled appearance, and there were people in far more drunken states of disarray than she herself was. At least she was sober.

It was difficult to move through the crowd with any sense of purpose or directness, not with how boisterous and packed the plaza was; it took her the better part of an hour to make her way all the way to the walls of the palace, to where the stage and the displays were, and where the lines crowded about waiting for permission to enter the more exclusive celebration inside.

She almost stumbled and fell when she caught a glimpse of a familiar outfit, complete with terribly melodramatic feathers and spikes embellishing corrupted leather and cloth; for a moment, her heart stopped in her chest as she found herself standing on the hangar deck of Darth Marr’s flagship, well over a year in the past now, safe in the arms of her beloved for the last time.

The feathers moved, the wearer of the mask turning around in the queue as they laughed at something one of their companions said, and Lana came lurching back to herself so painfully that she gasped aloud. It wasn’t Kallathe, it wasn’t even close to Kallathe- the woman was human, her skin pale and her hair paler, and she looked utterly ridiculous in those clothes. Everything that Kallathe made look outrageously powerful and dramatic only looked ridiculous on this woman, like a child dressing up in a costume far too big for them.

The woman laughed again, throwing her head back in delight, and Lana despised her. How dare she- she... how dare this mockery be allowed to go unchecked? Had they no respect? Did they not understand the power of the woman they were insulting, attempting to mimic her so poorly? Did they not-

Oh, Force preserve her, there was another one further down, the details even more garishly incorrect. She looked like a cabaret performer, not a Dark Lord of the Sith, and her interpretation of Kallathe’s signature garb was nothing short of bloodboilingly insulting.

They’d turned the woman she loved into a mockery. Into a costume- an amusement, to be worn for the sake of novelty and exoticism only to be tucked away when the night was done.

The very tips of the feathers began to smoke slightly, as if a spark of flame was struggling to take hold, and the guest closest to the woman shrieked with laughter as they batted at it. It jolted her back to herself, and she turned away guiltily, well aware that the flames had to have originated from her. Her hatred overwhelming her, her anguish taking root in her heart and lashing out against the women and their wretched costumes.

“Nalissa, darling, you mustn’t stand so close to the lanterns,” someone said as she tried to move away through the crowds.

“Perhaps I should, Dahree? Would it not be the most wicked thing ever, to have a flaming costume?”

There were peals of laughter ringing behind her, drunken squawking if ever she’d heard it. “I don’t think even sith wizards use fire, Nalissa darling. They’re not so barbaric, surely?”

“You’ve seen the witch, dear- cutting on her face and her skin, absolutely savage!”

She knew they meant Kallathe, and the golden jewellery she wore, the body modifications that were so prized amongst her people, and it infuriated her all the more. She wanted to explode outwards like a supernova, melting the flesh from their bones in the most agonising manner possible, leaving them all screaming and suffering for their vile xenophobic glee. She wanted Zakuul to know- she wanted the galaxy to know- what it was to insult a sith, what it was to stand and belittle a Dark Lord-

Focus.

She closed her eyes, bowing her head to try and channel the most violent of the rage into something more practical. Focus, Beniko.

When she opened her eyes again, she was calm- a predator once more, stalking quietly amongst the prey. She filtered out the shrill inanities of the crowd around her, sliding between the guests like a living shadow, unhindered by their jostling and shoving and dancing. The words of the vapid socialites confirmed one thing for her, however, and that was that Kallathe was finally here, just as she’d hoped. Not locked away in some prison cell, not buried in a vault, but here, somewhere in the palace grounds. Somewhere close.

The closest she’d been in eighteen months.

Was she chained up, like a caged animal trotted out to perform? Was she brainwashed, sitting beside them as their pet, as inane and vapid and shallow as the party-goers outside mimicking her form of dress?

She turned the corner at the edge of the stage to skirt along the front of the palace, and she got her answer.

Her blood ran cold, and then slowed and stopped, as if turning to icy sludge in her veins; it was excruciatingly painful, the cold splintering out through her flesh and freezing her in place. Her mouth had fallen open, she knew that much.

There was a large display in front of the stage, something that she had mistaken for another one of their fountains at a distance; the crowd around it should have made it more obvious that it was something more entertaining than a fountain. The display was flat, gently illuminated with the warm golden glow of lights embedded in the floor, and the surface was a muted sort of silver, clearly metallic in origin but muddied, as if it wasn’t a refined element but still retained some of the impurities of the ore.

Which, of course, it was- unrefined tibanna gas infused into raw carbon, a messy and imprecise alloy designed for the short term transport of the gas. Or, as the case may be, the imprisonment of carbon based life forms.

It wasn’t a fountain. It was a prison.

There she was, only six feet away from her, at most; her love, the woman she’d had every intention of marrying prior to this disaster consuming their lives. Kallathe stood upright in the carbonite, her form sheathed in misshapen silver, and she couldn’t lie and say there wasn’t something breathtaking about her, even in such horrific circumstances. Her mask was in place, but there was no lightsaber at her hip; her lips were parted as if in the process of voicing a snarl towards the viewer, teeth bared.

Above her was a placard, and as Lana moved towards the display in a daze, she could slowly make out the words in the elegant Zakuulan script.

Behold the Outlander, the witch from beyond the stars. Let she who would defy the Gods themselves linger cursed for all eternity- undead, unmourned, forgotten. There will be no light to guide her home.

Lana was aware of the fact that she was crying on some distant, disconnected level of consciousness, but not enough for it to knock her from where she’d frozen at the top of the plaza. There were tears on her face, and her heart was like a block of ice in her chest, cold and sharp and heavy enough to drag her down into the earth itself. Kallathe was nothing more than a trophy, an ornament that they hung upon the walls of their palace to smugly proclaim their supremacy.

She was... she was just a thing to them, not a person, not an equal, not a woman with hopes and dreams and fears and not a person who made her feel better and brighter and more sure of herself, and-

It hadn’t been like this with Ona’la. Ona’la had been- had been tucked away, hidden, safe, not like- not like this. Not a public spectacle, not a mockery, not an amusement for the public to laugh and point. Not a thing.

“Woah, uh, ma’am? Are you alright there, ma’am?”

With difficulty she tore her gaze away from Kallathe, away from the frozen form of the woman she’d been prepared to spend the rest of her life with, and glanced instead to the voice at her side. That anything had managed to penetrate the fog of grief and rage shrouding her was impressive, especially so given that she’d managed to tune out the bombardment of noise from the crowd and the music and the fireworks roaring around her; there was a man beside her, a man in-

Oh, Force preserve her, the black and silver of his garb marked him as military. His dark brown eyes, crinkled with concern in a handsome brown face, watched her closely. “Ma’am?” he repeated, reaching out hesitantly as if to put a hand on her shoulder.

She meant to tell him coolly that she was fine, and that she did not require assistance; she meant to pull away, and put some distance between them, because the last thing she needed right now was to make a lasting impression on a member of the military, someone either far more likely to recognise what she was or report her than the average citizen. Instead, what she found herself saying as she opened her mouth was “No.”

He looked as confused as she felt. “‘No’ what, ma’am? Are you okay?”

She was shaking her head, apparently. “No,” she repeated, “no, I’m not okay. But thank you for asking.”

She turned to walk away, desperate to get some distance between herself and Kallathe’s public tomb, and even more so between herself and this bizarrely concerned stranger, but stopped when she felt his hand on her arm. His expression was solemn when she looked back at him. “Come with me,” he said.

Her heart lurched into her throat, panic kicking her adrenalin into overdrive. He must have seen it in her eyes, because his own widened in response, and he held up his free hand in a gesture of surrender. “Not like that, not like that,” he said. “Nothing official, I promise. Ignore the uniform.”

It was an absurd choice of words, and it confused her for a moment. “Imagine you naked?” she blurted out.

The startled look on his face would have been amusing if she wasn’t already so emotionally frayed; he blinked once and then burst out laughing, the sound rich and warm. It made her blink, and she was so out of sorts by this abrupt turn of events that all she could do was stare.

“That, uh...” He laughed again, shaking his head. “Wow. That was an impressive leap of logic.”

Her cheeks were flaming, and she drew herself up haughtily. “I do not see how my error is worthy of such mockery,” she said. “I am clearly-”

“Clearly in need of somewhere quieter to sit, less crowded?” The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled warmly at her. “Need a little space to clear your head?”

Lana stared at him, her heart swinging wildly from hostility to suspicion to grief-filled longing and back again. To escape from this seething mass of emotion and heat and drunken euphoria was certainly a temptation, but to wander off alone with a Zakuulan military man, more likely than not to recognise her if she said anything more than basic pleasantries...

His expression faltered, as if her prolonged silence caused him pain. “Look,” he said hesitantly, “I’m not looking to cause trouble, you just...” He trailed off, clearly reluctant to finish the thought but too uncomfortable to leave it hanging as it was. “You look like you really need an out right now.”

“An out?”

“A way out. You don’t look like you’re really enjoying the party all that much.”

She wiped at her cheeks self-consciously with the heel of her palm, smoothing her hands down her tunic over her belly as an afterthought. “There are a lot of people mourning,” she countered.

He shrugged. “True enough. There’s a lot to mourn.” He stepped back, giving her space. “But that’s fair, sorry to have bothered you-”

Later, when she had time to think about it, she couldn’t rightly say what had compelled her to speak out. Only that she was painfully, agonisingly lonely, and she did not have the words to describe the immensity of the pain she felt, seeing the woman she loved being treated like a gaudy decoration. She had Master Xo as a companion, of course, but she and Xolani were more like... acquaintances, or colleagues. They had a good working relationship, and they were friendly now, after almost a year of working and travelling together, but they still had walls in place. She wasn’t likely to find herself confiding her most painful secrets to her any time soon.

“You didn’t bother me,” she said quickly, cutting him off. He looked surprised at her outburst, about as surprised as she felt by it herself. She swallowed. “I... I would appreciate that. If there were more quiet areas, I mean.”

He nodded, and put his hand behind her back to guide her forward. “This way.”

He led her along the perimetre of the palace, and she tried not to fidget with the scarf in her hand, or to tense every time they passed one of the golden clad Knights; as it was, none of them looked at her for more than a second, their gaze lingering instead on the man at her side, as if to verify his uniform as he passed. They took a set of stairs down and around, leaving the chaos of the main plaza behind them, and instead came to another entrance that was certainly busy, but nowhere near to the extent that the elegant front doors were. When she glanced at him, questions in her eyes, he winked subtly. “Worker’s entrance,” he said. “Can’t have the Zakuulan elite rubbing shoulders with common soldiers, now, can we?”

He said it without bitterness, but just a touch of amusement. It occurred to her that he probably thought her no more extraordinary than any other citizen, and that such a comment was a sort of in-joke; she had no idea whether she was supposed to laugh or not. She’d heard some of the staff in Intelligence make similar comments, when they thought she was out of earshot.

Look at the foolish extravagance of force users, so out of touch with the rest of the galaxy.

Any comment of such a nature would've been considered seditious, or outright suicidal, were she back amongst the sith; one did not simply joke about the rightful lordship of the sith, and it was plainly apparent that the same could be said for the force users of Zakuul. Yet here she was, accompanying a stranger who just casually offered up such sentiments as if teasing with a friend.

She glanced aside. “Of course not,” she murmured, following him without complaint as he led her through the guarded gate and onto the garden terrace beyond. It was crowded, but far less so than the main plaza, and those milling about were far more relaxed and less boisterous than the mass of revellers they’d left behind. They could still hear the music from the main stage, the warbling notes of Malita Tal’s impressive vocal range hanging in the night air, but there was a quartet of string players seated beside the bar here as well, providing an interesting contrast. Most of these gathered at the tables and on the lawns were dressed in the same black and silver as the man beside her, with a few wearing the more muted bronze uniforms of the palace staff. She wasn’t the only obvious civilian, but she certainly felt conspicuous.

Her nerves were already high strung enough that she jumped when she felt his hand at her elbow. “Do you want to sit?” he asked, either woefully unobservant or polite enough not to mention her rather obvious tension. He waved to someone on the far side of the terrace, and seemed completely at ease.

He was the first person she’d met on Zakuul that felt real, instead of just some sort of bizarre stereotype. The claustrophobic, cultish atmosphere of the planet seemed to fade away in the face of his easy-going smile, and for someone who had grown up immersed in the propaganda of the Sith Emperor, that was truly something.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked quietly, holding her injured hand close to her belly.

His eyes were warm as he looked back to her. “Hmm?”

“Why are you doing this?” she repeated.

“Why am I doing what?”

Helping me,” she said, only just stopping short of gritting her teeth. She couldn’t quite look him in the eye, instead staring at his chin.

She could tell he was frowning, even if she didn’t look up. “Why wouldn’t I help someone in distress?” he said, apparently amused by the question.

“It’s not logical to stop and render assistance to a stranger when you could instead be indulging in the celebrations,” she said, ignoring the voice in her head that wanted to argue that it was likewise not logical to steal ancient star charts from the chiss in order to infiltrate an alien empire to rescue a lost Jedi.

He laughed, and it took a lot not to flinch at the sound; it was hard not to immediately assume he was laughing at her. “Never been much of a logical guy myself,” he said with a shrug. “Always tend to lead with the heart instead of the head- gotten me into trouble my fair share of times.”

She was in the palace. She was actually physically in the palace, being escorted about by a member of the Zakuulan military, and here she was trying to find reasons for tear this opportunity to shreds instead of exhausting every shred of potential it had.

He held out his hand. “Name’s Koth, by the way. Koth Vortena.”

She stared at the proffered hand, indecision warring within her. Was her name commonly known amongst the military, circulated by Zakuulan intelligence in order to ferret out any potential problems? Had they ever determined that she was responsible for the first incursion, or had her theft of Ona’la and the prince been set aside in the chaos following, with the confrontation with Marr and Nox and the subsequent assassination?

Koth wiggled his fingers at her. “I’m not wearing my spiked gauntlets by accident today, am I?” he joked, pretending to check the back of his hand. It was such a ridiculous little jest, and bizarrely enough it reminded her of Kallathe’s braggadocio, so much so that she let out a small giggle, covering her mouth immediately after out of shock. It was too late, however, because he’d definitely heard it, if the way his smile widened was anything to go by. “Look there, she does know how to smile. Things can’t be so bad, now, can they?”

He set her at ease in a way she had not felt in a very long time- not since before this whole nightmare had begun, at least. How peculiar, that she had found him on such a momentous occasion, after struggling for months now to make any headway into Kallathe’s precise whereabouts and to make contact with the unhappier elements in Zakuul’s military. Ona’la had been so adamant during her rescue that the Force had guided her to rescue Prince Thexan as well, and here... here she felt herself being prompted by something equally insistent.

Zakuul’s connection to the Force was curiously profound. Neither light nor dark, but immense and deep and apparently rather vocal.

Hugging her injured hand to herself, she cautiously reached out with the other. “I’m Lana,” she said. His hand was warm and firm, his fingers ever so slightly rough, and she felt rather bewildered by the enthusiasm with which he took her hand.

“Lana,” he repeated, as if tasting her name on his tongue. There was no flash of recognition in his eyes, no moment of tension in his shoulders as he realised he held a terrorist by the hand. “And now, since we’re not strangers anymore, it’s not so strange that I stopped to help you out, huh?”

She couldn’t help it- she laughed again, shaking her head slightly. “You are nothing if not persistent in your exuberance,” she conceded.

He was still grinning, apparently vastly pleased with himself. “Come on, let’s grab a seat. You look like you could use a rest.” He ushered her through the room and out beneath the stars again, snaring a recently vacated table on the terrace; he gestured to her injured hand as they sat, a concerned look on his face. “You need something for that?”

Lana glanced down at her hand. “I- no, no thank you.”

The concern didn’t fade. “Fair enough,” he said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table. “So, Lana-Not-A-Stranger, do you wanna talk at all about what led you to sobbing in front of the palace on one of the most triumphant days in Zakuul’s history?”

Of course there was no avoiding the topic, no matter how she might wish it otherwise. “I suppose I must have imagined the other mourners in the streets,” she said quietly, fiddling with the tassels on the end of the scarf.

“We all mourn the loss of the Immortal Emperor, true enough,” he said, “but I feel like there’s more to it than that.” He very carefully slid a napkin across the table, and she took it after a moment’s hesitation, dabbing gently at her eyes. “Those weren’t the tears of a woman mourning her leader, no matter how dearly beloved he was.”

There was a sour taste in her mouth, no doubt from hearing Vitiate’s alter ego described as beloved. She sniffed, rubbing the napkin at her nose. “Our Emperor was not the only one lost this past year,” she said quietly. When she looked up, Koth was watching her curiously; she took a deep breath, trying to ignore the way her lip trembled. “I... I lost my wife.”

She felt him withdraw almost immediately, his guilt and his nerves almost smothering her; he cleared his throat awkwardly. “I’m sorry,” he said gruffly, not quite looking at her.

“It’s quite alright,” she said, folding her hands together in her lap, one wrapped tight in the scarf and the other clutching the damp remains of the napkin. “It has been... well. I thought it would be easier, but I suppose-”

I suppose having to see her trotted out as nothing more than an ornament is more gutting than I have words for.

I suppose watching your people laugh shrilly at her and call her savage and barbaric is the most aggressively cruel torture I could imagine.

I suppose being so close, and yet forbidden her touch and her love, kills me.

She swallowed. “I suppose it was a bit more for me than I expected,” she finished quietly.

He nodded, looking at the tabletop instead of at her. “I mean, I don’t mean to pry, but I’m just guessing from your, uh, reaction up in the plaza just now that she... I mean, was she in the war?”

Alarm bells went off in her head- this man, Koth, he was a soldier, so presumably he’d have some notion of the losses the Zakuulan army had suffered in the ongoing battles. Which was to say, their mortal losses had been minimal, given their reliance on their battle droids. She couldn’t just name a planet or a battle off the top of her head, because the likelihood that Koth would know whether or not they’d had any casualties was remarkably high. Except for-

“Korriban,” she said. “It was Korriban.”

It wasn’t necessarily a lie. Korriban had changed everything. Korriban had made the Dark Council sit up and take these interlopers seriously in a way the Republic never had. So in a sense, she had lost her because of Korriban.

He winced, not quite managing to hide the reaction from her. “Okay, yeah, I can see why today wouldn’t be easy for you,” he said, almost reluctantly. There were fireworks going off in the air around the palace, and as he stared off into the distance, the golden sparks in the sky drew matching flecks in his eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

She waved a hand. “It’s alright,” she said again, and she almost meant it. As much as she hated Zakuul as a concept, she couldn’t hate this man, so moved by the plight of a stranger that he’d stopped to offer assistance on a night when he could very easily have looked away and continued with the celebrations. It was the sort of kindness she might have expected from Ona’la and her ilk. “But please, I’d rather not dwell on my grief.”

“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether or not you’re grieving out of place, ma’am.”

“Lana, please.” She went to push her hair back, and then realised that without her scarf and in the more consistent lighting of the terrace, her earpiece would look less like an elegant jewelled sleeve over her ear and more like the communication device it was. She hesitated, and pretended to bite at her nails to cover the lapse. “Tell me about yourself instead.”

“Come again?”

She flashed him what she hoped was a radiant smile. “Distract me,” she said, lacing her words with just enough coercion to make the request undeniable. “I didn’t know they allowed the military access to the palace- I thought it was just a privilege reserved for honoured guests.”

He shrugged, apparently unconcerned by the question. “Not usually,” he said. “Guess it’s enough of a special occasion for them to bend the rules a little.”

That was helpful, that was definitely helpful. She would have thought security would be increased during an event like this, but if anything they were so overconfident of their superiority that they allowed obvious lapses in judgement- like letting a Lord of the Sith walk right into the palace unchallenged. Lana feigned shyness, glancing at him from beneath her lashes. “And... and I suppose you’ve been out on the front?”

Koth cocked his head to the side, his eyes curious. “No? The Emperor- the new emperor, I mean- he kept as many of us off the front lines as possible. Only sent in the skytroopers, and the Knights if the situation absolutely called for it.” He grimaced. “Think the whole thing with his arm, and then losing his brother, it really gave him perspective on what it’s like for the rest of us down there in the trenches. He’s never said it officially or anything, but it’s pretty obvious.”

The way he spoke so warmly of Arcann made her stomach turn over, and all thoughts of niceties fled her mind. “If only that perspective could be extended to think of the suffering he’s caused for the rest of the galaxy,” she said caustically, before she could stop herself.

He frowned. “That’s-”

“Can I get you any drinks, sir? Ma’am?”

The interruption of the waiter did not to break the tension, only prolong it and make it more uncomfortable. Lana very pointedly kept her eyes down, and shook her head without speaking; out of the corner of her eye she saw Koth grimace again, and he shook his head as well. The waiter departed, and Koth’s attention turned back to her as well. “You don’t mean that, right?” he asked.

“Don’t mean what?”

“About the suffering? You’re joking, right?”

She glared witheringly at him. “Why would I jest about such a thing?”

His expression bordered on incredulous. “We’ve brought peace to the entire galaxy-”

“At gunpoint?”

“How is that any different to the way they were acting beforehand? You’ve read the stories, these people have been fighting for centuries without stopping- they’ve made weapons that wipe out entire worlds. And us getting them to put down their arms is a bad thing?”

She opened her mouth to argue, and on the edge of her periphery caught the faint glimmer of gold that marked the armour of a Knight; sure enough, she could see two of them in the hallway beyond the terrace, seemingly chatting and taking a moment to let their attention wander from their duties. It was enough of a reminder for her to watch herself, and keep her opinions to herself- just because she found the man pleasant enough company didn’t mean he wasn’t as drenched in the same indoctrination and propaganda as the rest of them, blinded by starry-eyed adoration for a regime that promised them the stars while tearing them from another’s sky. “Forgive me,” she said quietly, “but I’ve struggled to find comfort in our... peacekeeping efforts, since my wife was lost.”

His expression softened again, and she knew he’d taken her explanation at face value. Why wouldn’t he? The people of Zakuul were shaped and molded from birth to accept the word of their Emperor without question, so it probably barely even occurred to them to ever question the word of those around them. Was duplicity even a concept in their culture? “That’s understandable,” he said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. You’ve got every right to be, uh... frustrated, I guess.”

She laughed shortly. “Frustrated is one way to put it,” she said.

He picked up another napkin on the table, slowly shredding it between his fingers. “If you don’t mind my asking, why’d you come out tonight?” He seemed almost hesitant to ask. “Don’t you like... I dunno, don’t you have friends, or family?”

Did she have friends?

There was Ona’la, good and sweet and kind, who wouldn’t hesitate to befriend a rancor if she felt it in need of support. A woman who probably thought her a friend without question, but who Lana hesitated to say the same for- some lingering Sith prejudice, warning her away from alliances with foolish, idealistic Jedi?

There was Thessa, loyal and quiet and logical, who obeyed without question and who sacrificed near to everything in order to see the Empire survive and their mission succeed. They’d spent months on the run together during the Revanite crisis, living in cramped quarters in a pirate shanty town on Rishi- did that make them friends? Was it enough to cross the divide between Sith and soldier, between master and servant?

Theron. Or Xolani. Or- Force preserve her- even Thake. Did any of them count as friends?

“I have no one,” she said quietly; when she glanced up at him, the look in his eyes left her breathlessly vulnerable. Not quite pity, not quite pain, not quite yearning. Emotional, certainly, and raw. It left her feeling quite exposed to see, and she looked away quickly.

“I’m sorry,” he said, for what felt like the millionth time.

“Please don’t be,” she said, just as quickly. Her hands were trembling beneath the table, and she was glad he couldn’t see them. This strange soldier, bound tightly to a cult and yet with kindness enough to reach out to others, affected her more starkly than he should have. “Just- tell me about yourself. Why aren’t you celebrating with family?”

He was quiet for a long moment, like he could tell she was desperately trying to steer the conversation away from herself, but he didn’t question it. “No brothers or sisters,” he said, “and I lost my folks a long time ago.”

Now she’d blundered into a social faux pas as well; she closed her eyes resigned embarrassment. “I’m so sorry,” she began, but he laughed.

“Don’t be- it was decades ago, and I’ve got a better life now. Besides, now I don’t feel so bad about blundering around like a mawvorr with my head in a bucket earlier.”

The image was so utterly ridiculous and so utterly unexpected that she burst out laughing. When she opened her eyes he was grinning, apparently intensely pleased with himself. “So now I’m the one with the bucket on my head, am I?”

He was still grinning, but he made a gesture of innocence. “It suits you. Looks far better on you than on me.”

“You’re too kind.”

“Hey, I’m only speaking the truth here, no flattery to be found in truth-telling.”

She thought of the cryptic double-talk and triple-talk that was necessary amongst the Sith, the backwards and forwards that consumed every single conversation in code and symbolism and threat. “I find honesty to be quite refreshing.”

“That so?” She wouldn’t have called the look in his eye calculating, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was certainly... interested, perhaps. “Well, honestly, I was meeting friends down on Zilyarra Square, outside the museum, but I really don’t think they’re gonna care overly if I’m late.”

They talked, about a great deal of inconsequential things, Koth staying true to his word to distract her from her grief. When the waiter next came around, they ordered drinks, and Koth asked for a bowl of something she didn’t recognise; the drinks were at least familiar, but the snack seemed to bear some similarity to bang-corn- if the kernels were three times larger than she was accustomed to, and liberally drowning in a rich red powder that stained her fingers the moment she risked touching one. Koth downed a handful of them without blinking, but the moment the first one touched her tongue she found herself choking from the ferocity of the pepper.

Koth howled with laughter as she gulped down her drink in one swallow, her eyes watering. “Can’t handle your chilli?” he teased, crunching loudly on another kernel.

“I appreciate spice used in moderation, but that is nothing short of a war crime!”

He shook his head in mock consternation. “Must be a southern girl,” he said, almost mournfully. “Nobody from The Spire would talk so disrespectfully about pappocas.”

Damn it. What was the name of the town she and Xolani had been using for cover? Was it southern enough to pass muster? “Our snacks don’t try to kill us, at least.”

“I got the sweet ones for you, you don’t want to try the spicy ones?”

“Those are the sweet ones?”

“Sure- that’s the cacao chilli seasoning, not just straight chilli. It’s got, like, sugar and cacao powder and dry pepper-”

“You’re teasing me. Surely you’re teasing me.”

The minutes became hours, and the night drifted on, and Lana found herself laughing more often than not. Koth was witty, intriguing man- when they were sensible enough to avoid talk of the war, or politics in general- and his immediate warmth and kindness roused something in her, an energy, perhaps. Something she had not felt in all the months since she’d lost Kallathe, as if she’d been walking in a fog of grief and anger without truly seeing the world around her.

She had no idea why a random stranger, trying to get her attention on what was perhaps the most painful day for her so far, should break through that shroud when nothing else had.

He pulled a pocket chrono out of his pocket, sighing as he looked at the time. “I really should be making tracks,” he said, pocketing it again with some reluctance. “I’m due for deployment in three days, so tomorrow is a whole lot of prep work.”

That piqued her interest, somewhat negating the guilt she felt at having lost an entire evening to this charming man’s company. “Deployment?”

He nodded. “Now that the ceasefire has been declared, they’re sending out battalions to maintain the peace on some of the more volatile worlds. More personable than the droids tend to be.”

It left a sour taste in her mouth. “You’ll be a part of the occupying forces?”

“Just until the Star Fortresses are in place- we don’t have the manpower to maintain peacekeeping forces in so many places simultaneously.” He shrugged, apparently clueless to the bad turn her mood had taken. “It’ll be nice- I’ve never seen the uh, what is it they call it? The Core Worlds. Never been further than the Outer Rim, myself, so it’ll be interesting.”

Interesting was what he called the forceful and tyrannical occupation of a thousand worlds, the subjugations of entire peoples, the loss of cultures and histories and-

She looked down. “I’m sure it will be exciting,” she said quietly.

How is Zakuul’s expansionism any different to the rampant imperialism you helped cultivate and defend while serving the Sith?

He stood up, and she followed, climbing quickly to her feet so as not to be out of place. “It was nice to meet you, Lana-Not-A-Stranger,” he said, offering her his hand again. His fingers were warm, and so gentle despite dwarfing hers. His smile was a little crooked, and something fluttered in her belly. “Hope I made your Victory Day not quite so awful.”

She smiled hesitantly. “You have no idea just how much you’ve given me, Koth,” she said.

She meant it- because all camaraderie aside, she now had more than enough information to start work on her second infiltration attempt, to rescue the love of her life.

All thanks to a single soldier with a more heart than good sense.

Chapter Text

It was frustrating beyond measure, to know that she was dying and to not be able to do anything about it. She hesitated to say it frightened her, because she was nothing if she was not a master of fear, and she would not be undone by her own strength.

She was heir to the legacy of the Dread Masters and she would not succumb to fear.

She had no need to sleep in this bizarre realm of dreams and monstrosities, but she was exhausted nonetheless. The poison from the carbonite was unbearable at times, like steel around her chest, like acid in her blood, like glass in her lungs. It made her unspeakably angry, to be left to die by inches, wasting away from the inside out and with no recourse open to her. It wasn’t simply a bad dream- she couldn’t just wake up from this nightmare and walk it off, hoping the warmth of the daylight hours would chase away the lingering miasma of corruption and disease.

Sometimes the temptation to lie down in the dust, to just collapse and hope to find somewhere comfortable to die, was excruciating. Death would be quiet, and subdued, and she could rest. She would be alone again, without some psychic, parasitic lamprey embedded in her brain.

“I am not your enemy.”

She didn’t open her eyes.

“It would be easier for both of us if we worked together.”

Was the voice in her head, or was he standing in front of her again?

“Your strength is remarkable, but you cannot fight for much longer. Would it not be preferable to rest for a time, and set aside this unnecessary hostility?”

It was a siren’s song, sinking deep into her blood and making her yearn towards it in the same manner a moth danced around a flame. She was so tired, so exhausted, and she hurt so much. It hurt to fight him, and it hurt to keep going when everything in her burned with the wasting fire of the poison. It would be easy, he was right- it would be so, so easy to rest, to stop fighting, to succumb...

She opened her eyes, hate burning so fiercely in her that it eclipsed the pain. There he was, standing before her, his expression kind and calm and mild. Like a sympathetic father, concerned for his offspring. Like a kindly old friend, stopping to look in on the suffering of another for support.

She clenched her fists so hard that she felt her nails cut open her palms, blood trailing down her knuckles to drip onto the dusty ground. “You will not win,” she said, forcing the words out from between her teeth.

He tilted his head to the side. “Unfortunate,” he said, with sadness that sounded almost genuine.

They attacked.

____

Yavin 4, the Yavin System, Outer Rim Territories

Tahrin stood still, hands clasped behind her back as she stared at the holographic display before her. Her expression was unreadable, and nothing in her body language gave away any indication as to her thoughts. Eventually her lips pursed slightly, as if disapprovingly, and she took several slow, deliberate steps around the curve of the holographic table. “Freeze simulation,” she said, and the images stopped moving instantly.

On the other side of the table, Quinn waited patiently, datapad held at the ready as his hand rested over the holographic control panel.

Tahrin breathed out loudly through her nose, a grumpy sound. “The Star Fortress over Lehon,” she said, and that section of the map magnified at her words. “It only appears in approximately two thirds of the simulations.”

It wasn’t voiced as a question, but Quinn answered as if it was one. “It is difficult to organise any sort of scouting patrols in that region, so close to Wild Space. While we may have the facade of galactic peace, it is still considerably risky to be seen traversing space so close to Zakuul without the proper documentation.”

“A rather roundabout way of saying we can’t climb over the fence Arcann has set around his playground.”

“Just so, my Lord. As per your instructions, we have been attempting to send Moff Pyron's reconnaissance teams, but Zakuulan bureaucracy is...” He made a face, and Tahrin almost smiled.

“Why, Malavai, don’t tell me you find pointless hours embedded in bureaucratic paperwork to be time wasted, now?”

He grimaced. “I would not know, my Lord, because the Zakuulan system is entirely inefficient- either deliberately out of some xenophobic disdain for the world beyond their atmosphere, or as a result of being hopelessly overloaded with the work required to process an entire galaxy’s worth of administrative needs. I have applied to no less than three different departments for the proper permits now, and have had no further correspondence from any of them.”

She put her hands on the table, leaning closer to the small transparent orb that represented Rakata Prime. “And we cannot be assured that there have not been attempts to place a Star Fortress in orbit?”

“No, my Lord. If our suspicions are correct, and the Zakuulan means of production is some kind of modified star forge, we cannot rule out the possibility that they will return to strip further resources from the planet.”

Tahrin bowed her head, leaning heavily on the table. “This would be so much easier if Vivaane would just...” Just what? Her mother's memories were suspect at the best of times, distorted by time and death and her own ego. Her capricious nature, whether or not it was an accurate representation of her attitude in life or whether it had been exacerbated and increased tenfold by her death, made everything she said subject to scrutiny. Was it an outright lie, was it a jest? Did she consider it a game, or was she just incapable of remembering? More than that, anything Vivaane might have remembered about her time on Lehon was very likely hopelessly out of date, given that more than three centuries had passed since then.

Who knew how much had been stripped out by scavengers in the interim? How much the Revanites had stolen under the direction of her delusional brother, or how much the Sith or the Republic had salvaged in the cleanup effort afterwards?

Too many maybes, too many variables. Too much pointless hope placed on the possibility that a ghost might be able to push back the tides of an endless war.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently as if in support, and she glanced to the side; Quinn had moved around the table to join her, and although he did not look at her, he had his hand on her shoulder. There was a rigidity to him that she could feel through his touch, and his jaw seemed tight and tense as he stared at the holographic display instead of looking at her... but his intent was unchanged.

She reached up and put her hand over his, acknowledging the gesture and the support he offered. As soon as she let go, he withdrew his hand almost desperately, the small intimacy between them clearly too much to deal with for long periods of time. Callous of her, perhaps, to enjoy seeing him discomforted, but that seemed to define their relationship in so many ways.

“Keep me updated,” she said, closing the matter for now. “What news on the Outer Rim- have there been any more capitulations?”

He seemed grateful for the change in topic. “The focus of the recent push has been in the northern quadrants,” he said, the holographic map shifting to refocus on their own region of space. “There has been a lot of focus on independent worlds, unaligned to either the Empire or the Republic, and especially on the Hutts- Zakuul’s forays are hardly diplomatic, but there are a great number of world governments intrigued by the possibility of aligning with them.”

Quinn pressed a button, and a scrolling line of text appeared in front of them. “These are the planets known to have openly welcomed officials from Zakuul in order to facilitate the transition of power,” he said, dozens of names scrawling past them, “and these are the planets that we have been able to determine have reached out under more discreet circumstances.”

“Freeze simulation,” she said sharply, and the images froze at her command. She reached up and wound the list backwards, holding her breath as she hoped her eyes had deceived her. She breathed out slowly when she indeed found the name she thought she’d seen, a weight settling over her shoulders. “Ryloth.”

She could feel his hesitance, like an unwieldy, living creature in the room alongside them. “Indeed, my Lord,” he said quietly.

“Did Vette let us know?”

“She did, but an encoded message only- she has not made outright contact.”

Tahrin closed her eyes. “Are they alright?” she asked softly.

“I am, ah... I am unable to say, my Lord. The encoding was brief and to the point. There were no messages of a sentimental nature included.”

She held for a few seconds, eyes still closed, before she straightened again. “Tell me,” she said, the detached chilliness settling back over her.

“The interim government has issued an invitation to Zakuul privately, presumably with the intent to willingly cede to their authority. Vette advised us that the council is divided on this matter, but that since the Republic is yet to recognise their government as legitimate so as not to complicate relations with the Hutts, the temptation to find a stronger ally is considerate.”

She huffed out a breath. “Understandable.”

They were hardly the first. They would hardly be the last. Zakuul’s disdain for slavery certainly made them a powerfully tempting alternative to the Empire, and the Republic’s long-winded bureaucratic processes made it difficult for independent worlds at the best of times. Trying to placate the Hutt Cartel and their significant coffers in the midst of a war that was stripping them of their own independence and resources was certainly not the best of times for the Republic.

It was inevitable that there would be worlds who would gravitate to Zakuul out of choice, instead of due to military pressure.

It did not make her goals any easier, however.

“Monitor the situation,” she said, “and let me know the moment that Vette or Jaesa make contact again. I will need to speak to them.”

“As you say, my Lord.” Something on his datapad beeped, and he paused for a moment to read. “I’ve just had confirmation from Dilyara Station, the Atonement has dropped out at the end of the sector.”

And now for another frivolity that she hadn’t the faintest idea how to process- her half-brother’s wedding. “Are the guest accommodations in order?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“And is there anything else pressing that demands my attention immediately?”

He hesitated. “Well...” He straightened. “It is somewhat difficult to sum up the state of the entire galaxy in a single morning, my Lord, but we do what we must.”

She patted him awkwardly on the shoulder as she turned around and went to leave. “Indeed we do, Quinn,” she said, heading towards the door.

“I still have some acquisitions for you to sign off on,” he called after her.

“Leave them on my desk. I’ll have them signed by the end of the day.” Right now she was feeling crowded by the galaxy, by the responsibilities she was foisting on herself for no good reason, by the weight of being a functioning human being who made an effort to maintain relations with other adults. No one was asking her to set herself up as a shadowy rival to Arcann, to attempt to undo the damage done by Vitiate and his other children, and the hundreds of years of war and anarchy he had set in place since his rise to power.

Yet here she was- drowning by inches as she tried to outwit and outthink a man with a thousand times more resources than she had, without drawing his attention or engaging him openly, and all while trying to manipulate the Republic and the Sith and the various other galactic factions without her manipulations being brought to light. All on a far inferior budget, without even a fraction of their military strengths.

Stubbornly pushing onwards, when she had no reason to but sheer dogged determination.

Well. The relentless stubbornness could have come from Vivaane or Vitiate, really. What a terrible personality combination to have inflicted on another. No wonder so many of the other cloning attempts had failed.

There was a faint breeze today as she crossed the grounds of the temple, a brief reprieve from the stifling humidity. Yavin hung heavily in the sky, the bruising purples and pinks somehow fitting for the suffocating heat of the moon; no one interrupted her as she made her way towards the rear entry tunnels hidden in the rocks behind the waterfall- the last year had seen significant renovations and excavation works take place, and only now was the mesa beginning to bear some resemblance to a functional base. There were rooms of data banks, constantly working to process the data pouring in from around the galaxy; there were emergency barracks, to compensate for the staff that overflowed from Dilyara and needed quarters. There were laboratories where her private Corp of engineers and scientists worked to find flaws and weaknesses in Zakuul’s empire that could be exploited, be it by slicing into the core program of the skytroopers or isolating toxins or biochemical products that would only react to Zakuulan biology.

And there were training rooms, fitted with custom made skytrooper drones, retrieved from battlefields across the galaxy and reprogrammed with difficulty to aid in various training simulations. There was one room in particular, essentially an arena, that was for Tahrin’s exclusive and solo use. Quinn did not dare to enter, and even Pierce knew better than to push his luck and intrude on her privacy regularly.

Vivaane had sometimes joined her, but neither of them had seemed to gain anything from the shared company. If anything, Tahrin’s cold and clinical style of fighting had only irritated Vivaane, who had called it ‘lifeless and unwieldy’ when she’d been charitable; in her less diplomatic moments, she’d said she fought like she had a stick wedged up her ass.

Easy criticisms to make when one was a teenage prodigy, encouraged to fight and brawl and improvise by her Mandalorian heritage; not so easy to overcome when one was a survivor of childhood torture and conditioning that had prioritised precision and endurance.

She stopped by the bench by the door, stripping off what minimal jewellery she wore and tugging off her boots so that she could work barefoot. She pulled off her top, reaching into the hutch beneath the bench to retrieve her training gear; she grimaced at the damp patches of sweat on her shirt, tossing it to the side without much thought as she shrugged on the form-fitting exercise top instead.

Training with music was something she might have previously considered a distraction, but was slowly coming to appreciate. While she had a preference for the concentration she could attain while working in the silence, more and more she was finding that she... enjoyed the noise. Something about the silence had begun to press on her uncomfortably, reminding her more and more of the terse, miserable silence of the facility, and the handful of cutting instructions from her teachers. She had been raised in silence, but now the world she fought so hard to protect was noisy, complicated, rambunctious even- she had friends who chattered endlessly to fill the silences, she had children who were not afraid of the sound of their own voices in the same way she had been, she had people who... cared for her, as difficult as it was to parse such a thought in the first place.

She had noise in her life, and she relaxed around noise now- and wasn’t that a bizarre thought. She still remembered her first ever trip to Nar Shaddaa all those years ago, while still serving under Darth Baras; she’d barely slept for the duration of their visit, utterly bombarded by the noise and struggling with the sheer sensory overload of the smells and the lights and the lack of true nighttime darkness and the noise, oh Force preserve, the noise.

But that was a long time ago now, seven years ago now. So much had changed.

She had changed. She was still changing.

She turned on the sound system and repressed a smile at the heavy bass and fast lyrics that made up so much of Gabriel’s favourite music. She didn’t really have a preference, so much, so she let him and Malavai argue over the most appropriate selection of music and left them to it. Quinn had opinions about what musical compositions correlated to greater efficiency and concentration, and would wax lyrical for hours if left unchecked about the positive effects that classical orchestral arrangements could have for brain stimulus. Gabriel summed up his appreciation for the style called hip-hop by calling it ‘fucking good music’.

Apparently Pierce had won the most recent bout.

She rolled her head from side to side as she clipped her practice sabers to her belt, wandering into the centre of the ring to limber up; she took her time with her stretches, enjoying the pleasant burn in her muscles as she ran through her warm ups. Sometimes she worried that the creeping approach of middle age and the stress of motherhood had a detrimental effect on her fitness; sometimes she wondered whether she needed to be worried about that at all, and whether those fears belonged to a younger woman she had left behind many years ago. Tahrin the robotic, paranoid apprentice, newly freed from the facility, was a very different woman to Tahrin the mother, forger of alliances.

Tahrin the mother had knees that ached sometimes at night. And a bad habit of snacking on sriracha roasted nuts from Sundari. Interesting how things could change.

She spent a good half an hour warming up, each movement slow and deliberate and each muscle working until she was warm and loose. From there it was easy enough to slide into old routines and patterns, her movements not quite graceful so much as efficient as she slid across the ring from one step to the next. The first circuit was unarmed, but on the second lap she unclipped her sabers and activated them, the pale silver of the blades bouncing off the far roof of the cavern like ghostly shadows. An unusual colour for a sith, but as she reminded her mother often enough- she was unusual for a sith, if she was even in a mood to label herself one in the first place.

Without even missing a beat in the music, she shifted into an armed routine, spinning and slashing and dancing between phantom opponents as she went. There were turrets in the walls and the ceiling if she fancied a challenge, but the exercise itself was enough for now; the sabers hummed and snarled through the air, a dissonant counterpoint to the music, and it was difficult to keep herself on time to the beat of the exercise, not the beat of the music.

She felt the moment when Thexan and Ona’la touched down on the surface, their unique presence in the Force tangible even across this distance; it was not suffocating, so much as it was just inescapable. They were powerful individuals, and their mere existence left ripples on the surface of the moon, ripples that brushed up against her in a manner that could not be ignored. Force preserve her, she had no idea how she’d managed with so many uniquely empowered people during the conference so long ago- clearly the last year of relative solitude had coddled her too much.

Ona’la’s presence stayed at a distance, but she felt the ripples of Thexan’s approach long before he stepped into the room. Bold of him, to enter so private a sanctum without an invitation, but also hardly surprising. He was very much her equal in many ways, conditioned and groomed to adopt the same mannerisms and behaviours for survival.

He was also, as Gabriel might have put it when describing his own relationship with Ysaine, ‘honour bound as a little brother to be as big of a little shit as possible’.

Nonsensical gibberish, perhaps. Perfectly logical now that she had someone who was very likely her sibling, definitely.

“Master Tirall,” she said, not breaking her routine to greet him.

“Lord Dara.”

She heard the hissing hum of the saber igniting behind her and pivoted to face him, her heel spinning in the dust as she got her own saber up to counter with an inside block; Thexan’s lightsaber glanced off of hers, his weight not entirely behind the attack as he dodged backwards to avoid the low swing from her other blade. He raised an eyebrow at her. “Is this any way to greet a guest?” he asked, a hint of amusement in his tone.

“I assume that your lacklustre charms are enough to make your betrothed swoon, but your witticisms will need more work for the rest of the galaxy.” He had his lightsaber out in a more defensive position now that his first attack had failed, and she shifted her feet to match the stance.

“Ouch. This coming from a woman who speaks with all the warmth and appeal of an automaton.”

“Did you come to fight, Thexan, or simply attempt to match wits? Because I see you came equipped for the former, but are sorely unarmed for the latter.”

Perhaps other siblings said ‘hello’ to one another and left it at that. She wasn’t exactly going to offer to hug him in greeting.

She grunted when he lunged in past her guard, only just getting her left saber up to deflect at the last minute; it was a bad angle, and he’d clearly sacrificed precision for speed in order to get into her defence before she countered, but it was a bad angle for her too, leaving her off-balance and with her torso exposed as she pushed him off. He anticipated her other saber and threw up his hand, the deadly beam of light slamming to a halt less than an inch from the palm of his hand.

She nodded in appreciation. “Your Jedi has been teaching you new tricks,” she said, finding her footing again as she circled around to the left.

He spun his lightsaber slowly, the hum lower than the sound her own sabers made. “Petty, Tahrin,” he said. “We both know we were both trained in techniques unique to Jedi, Sith and various unaligned factions.”

She feinted right and then spun low with both sabers on his left, aiming for his legs; he avoided the strike with ease, flipping up and over her. He landed in a crouch, just as easily missing her reverse thrust strike as he danced out of reach. “That does not mean that you do not trail after her like a smitten pup, lapping up whatever attention she throws at you.”

“Have you been talking to Scourge? Because you sound like you’ve been talking to Scourge. You have better men you could be wasting your time on.”

She appreciated the simplicity of sparring with an opponent who could match her- it wasn’t a pleasure she was able to indulge in regularly. Thexan’s style was heavier than her own, his strikes far more weighty and far slower, but even his blocking was enough to send the impact rattling up into her shoulders. Neither of them seemed capable of holding the upper hand against the other, because as soon as she rushed him with a flurry of blades and slashing strikes, he was ready with his defenses, standing firm against her assault before driving her back again with his slow, deliberate cleaves. It was challenging, and it was exhilarating- for every point she landed against him, making him grunt from the impact, he landed a corresponding one against her, breaking her guard or outlasting her flurries.

She was breathing heavily as they circled one another, sabers held low and wary. “I understand congratulations are in order,” she said, feinting left and waiting for his weight to shift to the right in anticipation of false lead from her. When he fell for it, she continued to press forward to the left- only for his blade to spin up to counter in reverse grip.

“It only occurred to you now? After you agreed to host the wedding?”

She disengaged and skipped back a step, watching the way he kept his knees loose, waiting for a sign he was about to push forward again. “The child,” she said. “The Battlemaster is with child?”

“She has a name, you know.” He threw out his arm, and dislodged a shower of dirt and grit from the cavern roof above them; Tahrin had to duck her head, almost instinctively, and cursed herself for the lapse the moment she did. She got her sabers up in time, a crossguard before her face that only just stopped Thexan’s blade. He was grinning, apparently pleased with himself for the maneuver.

She dropped, rolling backwards and disengaging her lightsabers so as not to skewer herself; without her weight as a counterbalance, Thexan overbalanced and staggered forward, stopping himself from falling onto his face only barely and getting a knee under him. As Tahrin finished the roll and came back to her feet, she reignited her sabers and returned the cross lock to his throat.

“Ona’la then,” she said, even as he froze carefully at the two sabers held up to his skin. When he nodded to acknowledge the point, she withdrew them, deactivating them again and then holding out a hand to help him to his feet. “Are you marrying her out of some misplaced sense of guilt and chivalry?”

She felt the tension in his arm as he gripped her hand, practically bristling with hostility. “I am marrying her because I love her,” he said flatly.

Tahrin shrugged. “Very well, then. I could not be certain without asking, now, could I?”

She gestured to the bench by the side of the arena, and he followed her somewhat sullenly. She had towels set out, and bottles of chilled water at the ready; she handed him both, and he had the bottle half empty in a single gulp. There were kolto patches on hand as well, for she was well accustomed to tending to her own scrapes and bruises before returning to the world outside; she slid several towards him wordlessly, and he took them with a grimace.

They did their cool down stretches in silence, and that suited her perfectly. She could tell the conversation was unfinished, however, his need to speak pressing at her almost urgently; eventually she sighed, straightening from a hamstring stretch. “Out with it,” she said.

He straightened to match her. “What’s it like?” he asked.

“Clarify.”

“Having children,” he said. “What’s it like?”

“Should I not simply give you the same gushing enthusiasm you have undoubtedly received from everyone else?”

A flicker of frustration appeared in his eyes. “No,” he said stubbornly. “I meant... for us. For- people like us.”

He did not need to state it explicitly for his question to be apparent- what was it like to be a parent after surviving Vitiate’s abuse. What was it like to be entrusted with the care of someone so vulnerable and so dependent on you, when no such care had ever been extended to you?

She looked down to the table, not comfortable making eye contact with him as she confessed to certain things. “Terrifying,” she said bluntly, “and frustrating, I will not offer you false promises and assure you there will not be moments of immense fear and frustration.”

He wilted so hopelessly that she could feel it through the Force, his misery palpable in the air around them.

But,” she said pointedly, glancing towards him if not quite looking at him, “it is enriching in a manner I will never be able to describe, and I...” She took a deep breath. “I would be lying if I said that they have not taught me to be... better.”

“Better?”

She struggled for a moment, trying to find the right words. “I am more of who I was supposed to be, if I had not been tortured by him. I will never heal entirely, and I will never be that woman, but sometimes I feel like I might be... closer.”

He rubbed at his face with a towel, and she was grateful for the moment it gave her to discreetly wipe at her eyes without his seeing. She suspected it was deliberate on his part; she was still grateful. He threw the soiled towel onto the bench with something akin to frustration, but she didn’t ask about it- whatever it was still on his mind, he would get to it in time.

When he turned to her again, she turned to match him.

“He’s not gone, is he?”

Tahrin closed her eyes. “No,” she said quietly. “No, he’s not.”

The spike of fear in the air was so fierce that she might have shivered from it had she not been expecting it. “You know for sure, now?”

She nodded. “He threatened me,” she said, barely a whisper. “Threatened the children.”

He put his hand on her shoulder, and she opened her eyes to look up at him. There was genuine fear in his eyes, his mouth set in a grim line. “I’m sorry,” he said, “it should have been me he came for.”

She rolled her eyes, but did not shake off his hand. “Your relentless insistence on martyrdom is well past tedious, Thexan. I’m quite sure one death is enough for one lifetime.”

“That’s not what I-”

“Save your offers of self-sacrifice for your own child,” she said; at the way his expression dropped, she grimaced. “He knows, Thexan. He knew well before I knew.”

Thexan didn’t answer, but he withdrew his hand; it bothered her that she wished he hadn’t. She wished she was the sort of person who could extend physical or tangible comfort to the people who needed it from her. She wished she knew what to even say to help make things better, when-

A horrendously cheerful brass band started playing, vastly out of sync with the rest of the music that had been playing through the training session; it was so unexpected that she actually saw Thexan jerk around in alarm. “What-?”

“Over the icy, snowy plains! Wompy the Wampa!”

Tahrin found herself so overcome by the absolute absurdity of it, to have so violently tense a moment broken by the inane theme of a children’s show, that she found herself doing something she very rarely did- she laughed.

“He’s beating up Pubs, he’s eating their brains! Wompy the Wampa!”

Thexan seemed to be teetering between incredulous horror and bewildered amusement, his mouth hanging open as he stared. “What- what even...?”

She shrugged as she smiled, the gesture a little more comfortable on her face these days. “Welcome to parenthood, Thexan,” she said. “I hope you like not sleeping, and listening to awful cartoon melodies on repeat for the next ten years at least.”

“That’s a song for children?”

“The ice planet Hoth is his frosty domain! Wompy the Wampa!”

“That is the theme song to the long-running children’s holoprogram, Wompy the Wampa- a thinly veiled excuse for Imperial propaganda aimed at the under sevens, complete with poorly proportioned puppets and a breathily overdramatic young woman to serve as the hostess.”

“A- what?”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Don’t tell me Zakuul didn’t have it’s share of propaganda, even for children?”

His face softened. “There was... were, I guess, some,” he said quietly. “Borzagg Bear was always Vaylin’s favourite. When we were- I mean...” She waited, gave him space to finish the thought. He grimaced miserably. “We weren’t allowed many frivolities, as children. It was-”

She put her hand over his arm. “It’s alright,” she said. “I know.”

And she did. That was the worst part. Just because he’d been raised amongst siblings instead of in solitude didn’t mean that he’d been spared any more than she had.

After a moment she cleared her throat and stepped away again, letting her hand fall back to her side; her fingers were warm where she’d touched his skin, and the sensation prickled. “Come now,” she said, “you didn’t travel across the galaxy to fret in a cave while inane children’s songs drill into your skull. Where is Ona’la?”

He had a hand over the place where she’d touched him, as if he was hugging the arm to him; she didn’t know what that gesture meant. “She’s resting,” he said, “she’s doing well with the pregnancy except for how easily she tires.”

“Well, that’s understandable. I found the process unbearably exhausting just with human children. I can’t imagine the strain it must put on a body to carry a hybrid child to term without the body rejecting it.” He winced, and she realised immediately that that had not been anywhere near as comforting as she’d intended it to be. “I- forgive me, Thexan, I am not- sometimes I do not recognise-”

“It’s alright,” he said quickly, the wince still lingering in the tight press of his lips. “She’s healthy. And the baby is healthy too, apparently.”

She clasped her hands behind her back. “That is most excellent,” she said. “And again, my apologies.”

She was spared the ignobility of further grovelling by the soft ping of her commlink, and she pulled it out of her pocket. “Yes?”

“Apologies, my Lord,” Quinn said, “I would not normally intrude upon your time whilst training-”

“Out with it, Malavai.”

“Captain Voresh has arrived, my Lord. She is, ah...”

Tahrin closed her eyes, drawing on her patience. “Did she bring Shan?”

“She- yes, she did, but she-”

Da chuda patessa! We having a party or what? Woo!

At the very abruptly raucous shout, Tahrin paused. “Quinn?” she asked, her tone deceptively mild.

She could hear the miserable resignation in his voice as he spoke. “Captain Voresh is under the impression that the marital ceremony requires celebrations, and has prepared as such.”

“Fuckin’ stars, boy, you got a six foot pole up your ass and you ain’t enjoying it in the slightest, now, are ya? It’s a party! It’s a wedding! We’re gonna get shitfaced and cry our tits off!”

Tahrin turned and fixed her gaze on Thexan, who was making a very studious attempt to not smile or laugh; the strain in his neck gave him away. “I see,” she said. “Quinn, if you would please escort Captain Voresh to the main hall, and see to it that she is adequately settled with whatever beverages she desires-”

“Her ladyship is speaking my language!”

She gritted her teeth before continuing. “And please see that Shan is waiting for me in my office. I’ll make my way there shortly.”

“As you say, my Lord.”

She pocketed the commlink, taking a moment to breathe deeply through her nose, centering herself. Thexan waited calmly and politely before her, still very clearly fighting off his own amusement; the air literally hummed with his satisfaction. When she looked to him again, he adopted a look of feigned innocence. “You might have asked,” she said flatly.

The innocence morphed into something that flickered with annoyance. “It’s a wedding,” he said, almost irritably. “I’m not going to treat it like it’s some shameful, backroom affair.”

“Which is of course why you asked for the laboratory bred assassin who is possibly your sibling to host it in a secret fortress on a sith world?”

“I asked my sister to host it in her home,” he said, anger growing, “because right now the only home Ona’la and I have is a starship, and you are the only family I have that isn’t actively trying to kill me.”

That... that was perhaps more hard hitting than he meant it to be, and it made something ache in her chest. That same part of her that yearned for the moments when Vivaane was rational and reasonable and talked to her with longing in her voice for the life they might have had together as mother and child; that same part of her that sat in the silence as her children slept, marvelling at their peculiar imperfections that made them so delightfully real. The part of her that privately admitted to missing Vette’s cheerful company, and Jaesa’s inquisitive thirst for knowledge and new challenges.

It was the part of her trying to be human, instead of the unfeeling machine Vitiate’s servants had tortured from infancy.

She still didn’t really know what to do with that part of herself.

She looked away. “I need to meet with Shan,” she said, her voice quieter. Not quite apologetic, because she didn’t really know how to reach out to a... a sibling. A brother. “I would be happy for you to accompany me.”

He was silent for a long moment, and she could feel his eyes on her as he considered her words; as he considered whether or not to accept the meagre peace offering for what it was. Finally he grunted. “I’m sure you have more important things to do than chauffeur me about,” he said gruffly.

Tahrin waved a hand. “Your presence would be more than welcome,” she said. “Besides- if I understand twi’leki wedding customs adequately, you need to see him before tonight anyway, yes?”

He laughed awkwardly. “I- yes.” He put down the towel and water bottle on the bench again. “Very well. I’ll accompany you.”

They walked in companionable silence back through the hallways, emerging towards the back of the mesa near the waterfalls. She let out a sigh of exasperation at the sight of the cumbersome freighter parked precariously down on the training field by the edge of the cliff, and beside her Thexan chuckled in amusement. “Captain Voresh is... an interesting woman,” he said.

“You say that like you know her as more than a passing acquaintance.”

He laughed. “She somehow acquired my private contact details, presumably after the summit here earlier in the year,” he said, as they took the steps down towards the bridge. “She appears to have taken it upon herself to educate me in some of the more, ah, mundane aspects of life as a private citizen.”

“She what?”

“She sends me things, to further her bizarre concept of education- comics, holodramas, news clippings. Trying to get me invested in social media, holoblogging, that sort of thing.”

“What utterly inane drivel.”

“Mm, it’s actually quite refreshing. It’s outside the realms of anything that was covered in-” He quite noticeably stuttered to a halt, a shuttered look falling over his eyes. “In our training,” he finished a moment later.

Tahrin felt a pang of sympathy for him. “Gabriel keeps attempting something similar,” she said quietly, “as does Vette. I’m yet to understand how my comprehension of a holocomedy about lesbian starship mechanics contributes to my functionality, but it makes them happy to see me attempt it.”

“I think Captain Voresh sent me a link to that one.”

In her office, they found Theron standing about almost awkwardly, hands on his hips as he worked very diligently to pretend he was inspecting a painting on the far wall; on the other side of the room, lounging on the couch with his arms spread wide along the back of the cushions, was the sith lord Darth Venator from the Alliance camp on the far side of the moon, a smirk on his face as his eerie silver eyes bored into Theron’s back.

Tahrin made for her desk, not bothering with pointless greetings. “Shan. Thane,” she said curtly, taking her seat and facing the room. “Thank you both for attending to my summons.”

“And here I thought I was being honoured with a place in the festivities,” Thane said, his voice a low growl. She saw Theron’s shoulders stiffen, as if the words were an insult to him, but thought nothing further of it. If they’d been squabbling before her arrival, that was none of her concern.

“If your ego is so easily assuaged with offers of alcohol and dancing, then I pity you,” she said. She folded her hands before her on the desk. Thexan, after a moment’s hesitation in the doorway, came further into the room, resting his hip against one of the computer terminals. “I will be frank, gentlemen, because I see no need to-”

“Uh, yeah, so- hi to you too? I guess?” Theron cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable but determined to push onwards. “You know, just, was in the neighbourhood, just thought I’d drop by and all.”

She fixed him with a flat stare, and he wilted slightly. “Hello, Shan,” she said flatly. “Does that assuage your ego?”

“Well, you know, it’s just polite to say hello, that’s all.”

“Careful, Tahrin,” Maurevar said, eyes glittering wickedly, “spend too much time assuaging other fellows egos and I’m going to start getting jealous.” If it was possible to suffer an agonising death from the power of a look alone, then the way Tahrin stared at Maurevar would have definitely seen him suffer for hours before dying. “What? I’m a jealous man. It’s the nature of a sith, after all- the violent passions.”

Tahrin quite pointedly closed her eyes and took a few long, deep breaths before opening them again. “I have a task for the two of you,” she said.

Theron made a noise of surprise, turning to face her fully. “For- what? For us? As in, like... him and me. The sith.”

“Don’t say it so distastefully, Shan,” Maurevar purred. “It makes me think you don’t love me.”

Theron quite visibly shivered, his nose twitching as if he was fighting to keep a straight face. “I don’t even work for you,” he said, the dispute sounding hopeless already.

Thexan cleared his throat, drawing the attention to where he stood towards the back. “Might I interrupt?”

Tahrin sat back with a look of frustration on her face. “Why not? Everyone else has.”

He turned to Theron without preamble. “I need a piece of your shirt,” he said.

That was clearly not what Theron had been expecting. “I- what?” He glanced at Tahrin, and then at Maurevar, and then back to Thexan. “This is all some kind of prank, right? Calling me here to insist I have a job to do, and then stealing my clothes-”

“I’m not stealing your clothes,” Thexan said irritably. He held up his hand and pulled back his sleeve, revealing some kind of leather brace on his wrist. It had several strips of fabric of different origins and colours woven around it, all of them ragged and not at all carefully trimmed. “I just need a piece of it. For the wedding.”

That seemed to settle the worst of the confusion, but Theron still looked suspicious. “Why?”

Thexan’s expression softened, and Tahrin almost felt like she was intruding on a private moment, given the waves of adoration that started pouring off of him. “It’s a twi’leki tradition,” he said. “Ona’la doesn’t know I’m doing it, but it’s something the groom is supposed to do. A token from all the members of the clan, as a sign of support and respect.”

With the explanation, Theron’s expression likewise softened, until he was grinning awkwardly; he rubbed at the back of his neck. “Well it’s not like I can say no to that sort of thing, now, can I?” he said. “So you just, like... a piece of the sleeve, or what?”

“If I can please just bring us back to the matter at hand for a moment,” Tahrin said, trying not to sound snappish. She was happy for Thexan, in her own capabilities, but she was well and truly growing frustrated. “Shan, in answer to your question, I have already spoken to Kothe, and he was of the same mind as I am on the topic.”

Theron was standing patiently as Thexan cut a strip off of the bottom hem of his shirt. “How do you even know how to contact him?”

“Irrelevant information.” She sat forward, gripping her hands together on the desk again. She was not nervous. She did not get nervous. “I will be blunt- the two of you are to travel the galaxy in secret, without alerting Zakuul to your activities, and you are to collect and hide any Force-sensitive children and adolescents you find.”

For a moment, a bewildered silence hung over the room. Maurevar was the first to recover his senses. “I beg your pardon, Lord Wrath, but I believe I misheard you,” he said, but Tahrin shook her head.

“The standard practices to ensure the safety of Force sensitive children are all but extinct right now- between the Jedi sequestering themselves beyond the reach of Zakuul, and Acina snatching power while agreeing to bow to Arcann, there are absolutely no procedures in place to see to the education and safety of the children who would normally come under our care.”

“I am not a babysitter,” Maurevar snapped, at the same time that Theron said “Okay, so I know everyone knows who my mother is, but I’d like to point out that I’m not actually a Jedi, okay? I don’t know anything about... teaching, or- whatever. Force-sensitive kids and what not.”

“I am not asking you to teach them,” she said, lips pressed thin. “All I ask is that you rescue them. One of you to represent the Jedi, and one of you to represent the Sith.”

“I do not represent the Jedi! I’m not-” Theron cut himself off, running his hands through his hair in frustration. “Y’all do get that I’m not actually Force-sensitive, right? Am I in some sort of weirdly delusional parallel universe right now?”

“I still object, if that matters at all,” Maurevar said flatly, from where his head had tipped back against the cushions to stare at the roof.

“It does not,” Tahrin said.

“So, what, you and your husband would have no objections whatsoever to two strange men walking up and saying ‘hey, you know, your kids are Force-sensitive, so we’re just gonna take them away now’?”

“Lieutenant Pierce and I are not married,” she said, grimacing slightly as she said it, as if there was something unpleasant tasting on her tongue. “It is not a state of affairs I find myself particularly inclined towards.”

Theron glanced between her and Thexan, who was diligently attempting to tie the donated scraps of fabric together, and apparently unconcerned by her words. “So you, uh... you don’t worry about it for the kids?”

The look she gave him was withering. “Our children are well cared for and adequately provided for in all things, regardless of whether or not Gabriel and I waste time on pointless solemnities.” She looked at Thexan. “No offence meant, of course.”

“None taken,” he said, not even looking up.

“And additionally, Agent Shan, while I appreciate your concern for my children’s wellbeing, it really is none of your business as to how their father and I conduct our relationship. If I wanted you to know more about my private life than the fact that he is their father, I would have told you. Kindly refrain from pointless speculation, and from derailing the conversation.”

“I’m not derailing! I’m just pointing out a very valid flaw in the idea!”

Tahrin breathed out slowly, taking a moment to centre herself against the overwhelming male hysteria she was facing. “We have lost, in the last twelve months, two very powerful institutions who have shaped the galaxy for thousands of years, and who have their own distinct cultures and histories unique amongst all the worlds. Arcann has made a point of killing or imprisoning as many Jedi as he can, and while Acina has negotiated a truce for now, the same can be said of the Sith. Neither of them will be allowed to continue to exist as they once did, which was a threat to Zakuul’s internal power structures and faith- and in order to consolidate his hold on the galaxy, and to ensure the loyalty of future generations, Arcann will either see juvenile Force-users as a threat to his power and have them killed, or they will be taken and integrated into Zakuul’s existing Orders.”

Over by the wall, Thexan’s fingers had slowed with their weaving, until he was finally standing frozen as she came to a halt. He’d closed his eyes at some point, his expression one of such powerful grief and shame that she couldn’t look upon it; it was too raw, too volatile, and far beyond her understanding of emotions.

She looked away. “Obviously, I would prefer to prevent that,” she said. “Regardless of my personal loyalties, or my own interpretation of the two Codes, I acknowledge the place they both have as unique cultures worthy of protecting. Moreso, we cannot allow Zakuul to become the singular voice in the galaxy for Force-users, or to further entwine the concept of power with fealty to their Emperor.”

“The Force is not a reward for blind fanaticism,” Thexan said quietly.

“Indeed it is not,” Tahrin said. “It is a gift, albeit one that comes with a great deal of responsibility and respect, but it is not something to be exploited. We cannot allow Zakuul to gain control of the next generation of Force-users.”

Maurevar snorted. “As I have already stated, my Lord Wrath, I am not a babysitter-”

“No, but you are currently under my employ, and you are one of the few sith who will not be missed should you fail to return to Dromund Kaas for the foreseeable future,” she said coldly. “Additionally, you have experience in this sort of scenario, given that you arranged to have your sister smuggled away from Korriban when-”

“Alright, alright!” he snapped, almost snarling the words as he lurched into an upright position. There was something dark and wild in the depths of his eyes. “Fine, you’ve ordered me to flit about with your Republic whelp, collecting wee orphans and tenderly nursing them back to health. I’ve endured worse humiliations.”

“I’m so glad you could be reasonable,” Tahrin said flatly, her tone implying just how unimpressed she was with his tantrum. She turned back to Theron. “And you, Shan?”

He looked conflicted. “I- I guess so, maybe? I just- where are we supposed to take these kids? How are we going to find them in the first place? Are we just, I dunno, are we just collecting them up and keeping them on the ship with us? Do we even have a ship?”

She held up a hand. “We can go over the finer details tomorrow morning,” she began, but he interrupted.

“No offence, but why would I agree to do something when you won’t give me the details for it?”

“Because foolhardy, ill-conceived plans seem to be your forte, perhaps?”

Theron opened his mouth to continue, and then froze, jaw working as if he was trying to work out whether it was worth sassing her or whether the insult overrode the jab she’d taken at herself.

“In any case,” she continued, “your superior has concurred with me on the need for immediate action in this regard. I have his full support in sending you on this mission. Asking you is simply a formality.”

Maurevar chuckled, the sound without humour. “Your consideration for our opinions is truly without peer.”

“I asked. Is that not enough? Perhaps next time I will not ask.”

“Perhaps next time I will not be available.”

“Perhaps next time, Lord Thane, I will leave you to the dogs of Dromund Kaas, looking to tear apart anyone with a connection to Malgus and his foolish coup attempt.” She did not realise the temperature in the room had dropped until Thexan cleared his throat pointedly, and she glanced down to see the frost creeping over the surface of the desk, outwards from her hands. She pulled them apart quickly, tucking them out of sight in her lap, and concentrated to rein in her temper. “It is not a difficult task I ask of either of you, and it is well within your own capabilities. Why are you so opposed to the notion?”

Theron scratched awkwardly at the back of his neck. “I’m, well... I’m not opposed, per se, it’s just, you can’t just drop that sort of thing on someone without warning, you know?”

Dramatic children, the pair of them. She had a far easier time understanding the motivations of Vaane and Constance, and they were only three. “How do you propose I could have eased you into it, Shan? It’s a job. I told you the job requirements. I am not asking you to consider yourself a foster father or a teacher.”

“And what exactly are we going to do with these kids when we find them? Which, by the way, you still haven’t explained how we are going to find them anyway.”

How did the Battlemaster stand his company? Could he keep his thoughts on track for more than ten seconds? The wicked voice in the back of her head wanted to point out that Vivaane seemed to have the same inability to focus, and until now she’d assumed it to be just the end result of her bizarre existence after death; seeing Theron’s thoughts jump about erratically without settling for too long in one place made her wonder if perhaps it was nothing to do with death, and was in fact a trait they shared through the generations. “I have Moff Pyron engaged in a deep space reconnaissance in the Unknown Regions,” she said carefully, “seeing how far Zakuul’s patrols venture into the north western quadrant. We are hoping to establish a base nearer to Zakuul, where they will not be expecting a resistance to grow. The intention is to take the children there.”

“So you want us to just kidnap a bunch of kids and tell their parents we’re carting them off to the Unknown Regions, sounds flawless.”

“Theron, you-” She put a hand over her eyes. “We will talk about this in the morning. All I want now from you is a basic yes or no.”

Maurevar sighed dramatically. “Well, you didn’t really give me much choice in the matter, so it’s a yes from me.”

Theron glanced between the two of them, and then grunted unhappily. “Okay, well... yeah. I guess. Yes.”

Tahrin fought back the urge to sigh in relief. “Thank you,” she said. “Now, I suppose you’ll all want to go and get ready for the wedding, yes?”

Chapter Text

“Kallathe?”

She was so tired, if only she could sleep for just a little longer. The constant battles, the constant fury of drawing on the darkest, heaviest depths of the Force, the dragging pain of the poison in her blood... she just wanted to sleep.

“Kallathe? Darling?” The speaker laughed, relaxed and amused. “Kal, dearest, you can’t sleep the morning away. You’ll be in trouble.”

With immense difficulty, she wrenched open her eyes, blinking in confusion as she found her face buried in the silken softness of a pillow, and not the cold, lifeless dust of the asteroid in the realm of the undead. There was movement beside her, and then something warm- someone warm- draped over her, a soft curtain of blonde hair covering them for a moment.

“Come on sleepy-head,” she laughed, and Kallathe recognised her now, because her need for this woman was burned onto her very atoms. Lana pressed a kiss to her brow, her breasts squished against her shoulder as she leaned over her. “Her Terrifying Majesty will come bursting in any moment now, if you take much longer.”

“Her- what?” Her voice was hoarse, her throat dry and painful; none of this made sense, not a lick of it. “Lana?”

The eerie pallor of her skin- so prized amongst the sith as a sign of power- was so pale against the rich, vibrant red of her own, her arm slung over her belly as she hugged her back against her. “It’s too late,” she said, eyes sparkling with merriment. “We’re doomed.”

What?

The sound of racing footsteps came towards them, and then there was a bang as a door was flung open; Kallathe jerked in alarm, but Lana only laughed. “Oh no,” she said, “we’re under attack!”

Something hit the end of the bed- where had the bed come from?- and then Kallathe nearly kicked out in panic as something clambered up onto the blankets and over her legs. It was small, with grabby hands, and fast, and-

-and she froze as she saw that it had Lana’s eyes. She had Lana’s eyes.

The little girl with Lana’s eyes clawed her way up the bed, bouncing aggressively. “Mama!” she screeched, and Lana was laughing still. “Mama, you said we’d go to the pancake house this morning, but now you’re sleeping still.”

Kallathe’s heart was in her throat. “Get away from me,” she snarled, her voice little more than a horrified rasp as she lurched into a sitting position and and tried to shuffled backwards. Away from the child, away from Lana, away, away. “Vitiate!”

The child’s expression dropped, her bright golden eyes- Lana’s eyes- promptly filling with tears, her lip trembling as she turned to Lana instead. “Mummy?” she said, her voice wobbling dangerously.

“It’s alright, darling,” Lana said instantly, reaching out and smoothing a hand over her plump pink cheeks. She wasn’t pale like Lana, and she wasn’t red like Kallathe, her skin far too pink for her to pass as truly human. Lana shot her a warning look. “Your mama just had a bad dream, that’s all.”

Kallathe kicked out viciously, tumbling backwards out of the bed and onto the floor; the child immediately burst into loud, wailing tears, and Lana let out a sound of concern. “Kal? What has gotten into you?”

“Vitiate!” Kallathe fumbled to her feet, moving to put more distance between herself and the bed. “Come out here, you fucking coward!”

The tableau before her froze, Lana half upright in the bed as the child clambered into her arms, and then they dissolved into dust, swirling away on a wind that ached with the cold emptiness of the stars. The warmth and light of the bedroom faded, and she was left hunched over on the asteroid again. Tired. Exhausted.

Explosively, immeasurably angry.

She screamed, the fury and the hatred building inside of her like an overheating reactor; the ground beneath her feet began to heat and crack, as if boiling lava was pushing up against the surface. Around her, the dust began to swirl, gathering speed and growing in density, quickly blocking out the stars as the storm began to seethe around her.

“Is this tantrum entirely necessary?”

She sent a torrent of lightning spearing towards the place where the voice had emerged, and she heard him grunt with the effort of holding it at bay; his hand was outstretched, the lightning surging around his fingers, but it did not travel further up his arm. His face was strained. “I gave you something to ease-”

Kallathe screamed furiously, and whipped a bolt of lightning towards him, the snaking lines of power and pain wrapping around his waist and sending him sprawling into the dirt. She kept screaming, the darkness around her deepening, and his face as he crawled to his knees to face her showed that he knew exactly how badly he’d erred.

“Never,” she snarled, the wind howling with the cadence of her voice, “ever do that again.”

“I simply gave you something more satisfying than-”

She wrenched back on the lightning rope, and he skidded through the dirt towards her. She put her boot on the back of his neck. “I said don’t.”

She bore down with all of her weight.

____

Yavin 4, the Yavin System, Outer Rim Territories

“Love?”

Ona’la shook herself, blinking; a warm pair of hands slid over her shoulders, rubbing gently, and she lifted her eyes up to see Thexan standing over her. He was grinning softly. “Oh, you can hear me now?”

She scrunched up her nose apologetically. “Did you have to call me multiple times?” she asked.

His smile widened, and he bent down to kiss her forehead. “Only a few times,” he said, sliding onto the couch behind her; she giggled as she laced his arms around her belly, resting his head against her shoulder. “I’m losing my charms, obviously.”

She giggled as he squeezed her gently, his lips pressed below her earcone. “It happens, in marriage, or so I hear,” she said.

“Well, that’s not fair. I’m an unmarried bachelor for another hour or so, I should still be perfectly charming.”

“Are you trying to charm me, Master Tirall?” she asked, putting her hands over his where they rested on her belly.

“Hmm, possibly.”

“I’ll have you know, mister unmarried bachelor, that I have a fiancé and he won’t be happy if he catches you trying to woo me.”

She felt him smile against her neck. “Oh? Do you now?”

“I do. He’s very handsome and very strong.”

“He sounds intimidating; how lucky for me that he’s not here, and it’s just me instead.”

She couldn’t stop giggling, and she turned her head enough to catch him for a kiss. He laughed too, resting his forehead against hers as he held her gently. “I love you,” she said quietly.

“I love you too,” he said, without hesitation.

They sat like that for a good few minutes, Ona’la relaxing back against him and closing her eyes. In his arms, she felt safer than she had ever felt possible, like nothing could touch her while she stayed in the warmth of his embrace. She could very easily have fallen asleep there like that, but she felt him stir at her back, his lips pressing a kiss to her temple. “You promised me you were going to stop stressing yourself out over those military reports,” he murmured, only a hint of censure in his voice as he reached forward to pick up one of the datapads she’d been browsing when he’d come in.

She snuggled into him. “I was just making a few notes,” she started, but he shook his head.

“You were burning yourself out and exhausting yourself even before you were pregnant,” he said firmly, putting the datapads out of reach. “I’m not going to let you worry yourself sick over things neither of us can change.”

“It is going to be a really boring six months if you won’t let me do anything.”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t do anything. I just don’t want you sacrificing your own health and comfort- and that of our child- to try and keep up with the resistance.” He kissed her forehead. “If Tahrin wants your help, she’ll ask for it. In the meantime, you can relax and rest and maybe take up a hobby like you’ve been nagging me to do for the last year.”

She made a raspberry noise against his throat. “Maybe I find it relaxing to be in control of military matters,” she said, and he made a scoffing sound.

Crochet is relaxing, Ona’la. Or crosswords. Or learning to play a musical instrument. Not looking at the names of all the dead Jedi you couldn’t save in time and trying to take the responsibility for their deaths onto your shoulders personally.”

She grumbled, her heart pounding unhappily in her chest, but she didn’t argue. Since the blockade of Coruscant had first been established months ago, and the subsequent disappearance of Satele and Asmi and several other members of the High Council, their numbers had dwindled badly. She did feel responsible, as one of the last public figures in the Order, and each confirmed death made her soul ache. Thexan was right, even if she didn’t like admitting it- she was burning herself out too fast.

Resting against him, she wrinkled her nose at the sweat making his shirt damp and clingy. “What have you been up to, anyway? I thought you were just going to see Tahrin.” He hesitated, and she poked him in the belly. “Hmm?”

“I did,” he hedged, clearly reluctant about something.

“And?”

“Well, I- we sparred.”

She snorted. “Can you not just say hello to one another?”

“We talked?”

“Did you win this time?” His hesitation made her laugh. “And you tell me I need a hobby.”

“I enjoy physical training and sparring against an opponent, that can absolutely count as a hobby.”

“I think you need a better hobby.”

“If you think I’m going to take up crosswords or fantasy huttball, you’re sorely mistaken.”

She made a mock expression of horror. “I’m going to tell Theron you made fun of his favourite activity,” she said in a stage whisper.

He squeezed her, and she shrieked with laughter. “You are going to tell Theron no matter what I say, because the two of you are incorrigible gossips,” he said, punctuating his words with kisses along her jaw.

Giggling, she attempted to sound shocked with her gasp, but they’d reached the ticklish portion of the faux argument, and all she wanted to do was squirm away from the teasing. “I am an upstanding member of the Jedi Council, I’ll have you know,” she said, “and I certainly never gossip.”

“Never at all?” She could feel him smiling against her skin. “Not with capricious ex-spies with a penchant for fantasy huttball?”

“Never ever.”

They were both laughing as they kissed, Thexan’s hand gentle as it came up to cradle her cheek, the other still resting against her belly. She had just recently begun to show the first signs of her pregnancy, her stomach just ever so slightly swollen, and Thexan seemed unable to stop touching it whenever he was in reach. She loved it.

He rested his forehead against hers. “Tahrin said they’re ready to start whenever we are, so I’m just going to wash up. Do you need any help at all?”

She smiled. “I’m not fat and cumbersome yet, thank you very much.”

“I was just being polite! Gosh.” She giggled as he disentangled himself from her, hopping awkwardly out from between her and the cushions and back onto his feet. He made a show of adjusting his shirt, feigning outrage. “Try to be helpful, and just... gosh!”

She poked him with her toe. “You are ridiculous.”

The smile he flashed her with took her breath away. “And you love me for it,” he said, turning and making his way into the refresher with a swagger in his step.

Grinning, Ona’la flopped back against the cushions, fighting back further laughter as she listened to the sound of the running water through the door. Goddess preserve her, she couldn’t ever remember being this... happy in her entire life; she hadn’t even believed it was possible to be this blissfully happy. In her earliest memories of her childhood, those fleeting images of home and family that she still clung desperately to, she remembered the laughter her parents used to share, and the way her father would dance her mother around their tiny home. She couldn’t remember the words they spoke, or the shape of their home, but she remembered the warmth in her mother’s voice whenever she spoke to her father; she remembered the joy in her father’s face as he watched her mother weaving in the evenings. Little things, little pieces of joy and peace and love that she had never thought to see the like of again, and certainly not for herself.

Yet here she was- on the brink of motherhood and marriage, in love with a man who she would never have guessed at two or three years ago.

Thexan was such a source of joy and comfort for her, in ways she could never have imagined. He was as dear a friend as Kira, or Theron, and the sexual intimacies they shared- though irregular as his recovery continued- were wonderful; she never would have thought she’d find herself in a position where she actively sought out physical closeness, and yet here she was. Even just touching him was calming, and his mere presence felt like something she hadn’t had in a long time- it felt like home.

Things weren’t perfectly idyllic, however, because love did not smooth over a lifetime of scars; Thexan still had his bad days, where even a simple hand on his shoulder meant in comfort and support was overwhelming for him. He still had nightmares, and sometimes the most mundane topics or objects would send him into a silent anxiety attack; he still went days at a time when things were at their worst in a brooding slump, struggling to maintain conversations and struggling to eat and struggling simply to exist.

The most important thing, on those days, was the fact that he did not have to go through it alone. He didn’t have to hide it any longer, or put up a pretense of strength just in order to be allowed to survive; he was allowed to hurt, and struggle, and grieve, and she loved him through each day of it all.

And he loved her back. Genuinely, earnestly loved her for who she was, with all of her own little scabs and scars and slip-ups.

And now they were getting married and goddess preserve her she couldn’t stop giggling...

“I can hear you laughing out there,” he called through the open door. “Don’t make me come out there, Master Jedi.”

“Mm, tempting,” she said, laughing again when his dishevelled head poked around the doorframe. “Alright, alright, I’m getting ready.”

By the time he wandered back out again, a towel wrapped around his waist and his hair a damp mess from where he’d rubbed it with said towel, Ona’la was in the midst of winding silk ribbons around her lekku. She’d managed to find the purple and gold ribbons in a boutique on Corellia before they’d left a few weeks ago, when she’d been out looking to find appropriate jewellery for a human wedding ceremony; Zakuul apparently tended towards the same customs that were common in the greater galaxy. It wasn’t a tradition amongst her people to use rings as a symbol of marriage, but she wanted to do something for him that respected his culture and customs.

She had a set of rings for the ceremony this evening, one for him and one for her, and both with the same simplistic design- a strip of gold and a strip of aurodium woven together like a braid, in much the same way that she wove the ribbons around her lekku. The gesture of entwining, when speaking twi’leki and using one’s lekku to converse, was the non-verbal sign for love, or to express love, so it made sense to her that their wedding bands should be a reflection of that.

It would have been nice to have her family necklace to wear, but... well. Only the goddess knew where that was.

Thexan wandered past her, almost deliberately seeming to pose with the towel draped low on his hips; she smiled, still concentrating on the ribbons and making sure the braids were even. “Now who’s the one wasting time?”

“Can’t a man even strut on his own wedding day now?” He moved out of her periphery, and then she felt the cushions shift behind her, his hands coming to rest over hers. “Let me,” he said, taking the ribbons from her and deftly continuing her work.

“You’ve been practicing again, I see,” she said, and he chuckled.

“I am going to have a little one of my own in just over half a year, and I am determined to be ready for them.”

“You know, regardless of how dominant my genes are, our little one won’t actually be born with lekku- at most, they’ll just have the faintest beginnings of little nubs. The lekku come later.”

“Then I have more time to practice,” he said, tying off the ends and leaving the remaining length of the ribbons trailing elegantly down her back. He leaned forward and placed a kiss on her brow. “There. Beautiful.”

She smiled up at him. Ideally she wouldn’t have limited herself to ribbons, but would have spent several days leading up to the wedding having her lekku and her hands and feet intricately painted by her family and the family of her betrothed. The old art of aola’ven, to decorate one’s body with the paste made from certain flowers that grew just inside the border of the Nightlands, was a sacred and joyous act, an expression of love and beauty on the skin of the betrothed by those closest to them. She had no family, and she was a long way from Ryloth and the ways of her people- she’d never even seen a proper wedding ceremony, not in the Rylothian manner of things, and she didn’t exactly think that Thexan would take well to the idea of dancing in scraps of silk before the wedding crowd to be that appealing.

Ah, well. It didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. She had the people she loved now here with her, and that was the most important thing.

Thexan’s gaze turned curious. “Are you alright?” he asked, cocking his head to the side as he watched her. “You went quiet there for a moment.”

“Nothing important,” she said, and it was the truth. She had what was important, and that was him here with her, and their child. It was their friends waiting for them nearby, to celebrate their marriage with them. That mattered.

He smiled. He was smiling so much these days, it filled her heart with so much joy. “Tahrin said they’d just be gathered out by the waterfall pergola whenever we were ready,” he said. “Do you- I mean, are you ready?”

She’d never thought for a moment that she would be here, on her own wedding day. “I’m ready,” she said softly, touching his cheek.

Thexan dressed quickly, and Ona’la took the chance to quickly snatch up the pouch with the wedding rings into her hand, tucking her fingers tight around it to keep it from prying eyes. When she turned around, he was likewise pocketing something, and she made a knowing face at him as he grinned sneakily in response. He was breathtakingly handsome in a very casual sense, barefoot in black pants with a dusky gold tunic that hung open at the collar- a far cry from the very severely formal garb he’d worn when she’d first rescued him so long ago, more relaxed and more comfortable in his own skin. “Are you being sneaky?” she asked, sauntering over to him and looping her arms around his waist, very pointedly pretending to grab at his pocket.

“No more than you, madam Jedi,” he said, sliding his hand down to cover her fist where she had the rings hidden.

“Hmm, so this is a marriage of secrets, is it?”

“I suppose it is.” He leaned in and kissed her, and she closed her eyes and melted against him. “Ready?”

“You don’t want shoes?”

You don’t have shoes on,” he said, pointedly sidestepping the question. It was true, she didn’t have shoes on- she was wearing a long flowing gown, a loose fitting lilac affair that gave her growing belly room. Her bare feet would have been covered with aola’ven had she been on Ryloth, and she hadn’t been able to bring herself to enclose them in shoes; it was a casual afternoon ceremony, anyway, it wasn’t like they needed to be formal about it. Nobody was going to care that she wasn’t wearing shoes.

She shrugged. “If you’re comfortable, then I’m ready.”

He held out his hand, and she took it in hers, his fingers just ever so slightly rough against her skin. He was still slightly flushed from the heat of the shower, his skin pink against the softer blue of her own; he squeezed gently, and she squeezed back, and they headed out together.

The afternoon was warm, as always on Yavin 4, and there was a gentle breeze that tugged at her skirts as they walked. The sun was maybe an hour away from setting, and the sky was beginning to grow dusky on the horizon; Yavin was like a bruise against the sky, pink and purple and swollen as it dominated the panorama.

She could hear the laughter and the conversation of the gathering as they crossed the bridge, and on the far side of the waterfall she could see the pergola illuminated with hanging lanterns, with everyone scattered about on couches and pillows on the ground. She must have made a noise, because Thexan squeezed her hand. “Okay?” he asked.

She nodded, taking a deep breath. “I’m okay,” she said. Goddess save her, she wasn’t going to start bawling before they even started.

It wasn’t anything formal at all, but it was lovely to behold- the flowering vines on the roof of the pergola were in full bloom, huge white flowers crowding one another for space amongst the greenery. The lanterns, now that they were closer, proved to be actual wax candles in a delicate paper shell, instead of just a string of electronic lights. The sun was going to be setting behind them soon, slanting beams of gold already started to fall over the scene.

“There they are!” Ona’la laughed at Kira’s excited shout, shaking her head in amusement as she saw her lurch to her feet from the cushions. She had a drink in her hand, and she wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest if it wasn’t the first Kira had imbibed that afternoon- Kira seemed to find alcohol to be an absolute requirement for social gatherings, and her higher tolerance for intoxication as a Force user meant that she was quite happy to indulge repeatedly. “We were about to send out a search party!”

Tahrin made a noise of disgust as they came under the eaves of the pergola, the heavy perfume from the flowering vines hanging thick in the air. “We were not about to send out a search party, do not be daft.”

“Check out Lady Moodkiller here,” Kira said in a stage whisper to Theron, who was lounging beside her on a cushion of his own. He had a drink of his own as well.

Archiban was settled very comfortably on one of the low slung couches with Teeseven to the side of him, and the sith she recognised as Lord Thane was on the other side; Tahrin and her partner were seated opposite, each with a child in their laps, and Ona’la couldn’t help but smile delightedly at the way they both shrieked and giggled and tried to reach for ‘Uncle Thexan’. Thexan seemed awkwardly pleased by the greeting, and stopped to muss up Vaane’s hair; the boy cackled and grinned up at his father, who pulled a face at him.

She saw Tahrin’s seneschal, Captain Quinn, sitting stiff and somewhat uncomfortably on a cushion on the floor, and she suspected rather strongly that it hadn’t been his first choice for a seat. Risha, the woman who served as a mechanic for Captain Voresh and who she had learned at the meetings last year was the exiled Queen of Dubrillion, was sprawled back against massive, hairy legs of the wookiee Bowdaar, who was sipping some delicate looking cocktail complete with a paper umbrella while dwarfing the tiny rattataki Jedi beside him; Master Gataii was still peculiarly dressed as if she had just come directly from bed.

“We knew precisely where they were,” Tahrin said, apparently determined to be correct regardless. “You are being pointlessly melodramatic.”

Someone cleared her throat loudly, and extensively, cutting off whatever further arguments might have ensued. Bobbi, previously seated on a cushion at the far end of the pergola, rose slowly to her feet, arms outstretched dramatically, and Ona’la blinked when she realised she was wearing the formal purple robes of a Rylothian priestess. Bobbi’s grin widened when she saw the look on her face. “You like it?” she asked, swishing the skirts a little bit.

“I- yes? I don’t understand, though.”

“It’s a wedding, ain’t it? Gotta play the part right if I’m gonna officiate. Setting the mood.”

“Yes, but- how? I mean, how did you get those robes?”

“I didn’t steal them, they ain’t sacrilegious if that’s what you’re worried about,” Bobbi said with a wink. “What’s less scandalous- if I told you I bought them from a costume store on the holonet, or that I made sweet, passionate love to a priestess twenty years back and she gave me the robes to flee in when we were at risk of getting caught in the temple?”

“You had- relations in a temple?”

“Costume store it is then,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Alright then! Let's get this little party underway, then, shall we?”

“You’re getting married,” Kira crowed, delighted. “My little baby is all grown up!”

Bobbi stabbed a finger into the air. “Silence!” she said ominously. “This is a solemn and formal occasion, and your revelry will do naught but attract the spirits!”

Ona’la blinked. “The... spirits?”

Beside her, Thexan groaned. “Izax forfend, please tell me you didn’t-”

“Alas!” she thundered dramatically, throwing her arms wide, and Ona’la looked to Thexan in confusion; he had a hand over his face, and he appeared to be... laughing? “The smell of strangers rouses them, and they come to feast!”

“I don’t understand what’s going on.”

Thexan was definitely laughing as he shook his head. “No one actually observes weddings like this anymore, you know,” he said. “Most Zakuulan weddings are pretty normal, all things considered.”

Oh- this was some sort of Zakuulan thing.

Bobbi broke character for a moment to pull a disapproving face at him, whispering loudly to him. “Look, okay, I did my research very extensively, and I am going to do this wedding properly,” she said. “We are having a good old fashioned Rylothian-Zakuulan wedding, so sit down on the cushions and cower from the spirits already!”

Thexan moved to help her to sit down, and with only a little difficulty she got down onto the cushion. “I don’t understand what’s going on,” she repeated, giggling as she looked from Thexan to Bobbi and back again.

His expression was pained as he took his seat on the cushion beside her. “In the old times, before my father took control of Zakuul, we were a relatively primitivistic people who had turned our back on more advanced technologies, and lived as nomadic, warring tribes. Our gods were violent, capricious creatures, according to our myths, and the spirits who served them were more like wild animals than sentient beings.”

She looked around at the gathering, delighted. “So we’re being hunted by the spirits of old Zakuul, are we?” she asked, grinning so fiercely her cheeks were aching.

“From the darkness they come, to hunt out the interlopers!” Bobbi was apparently determined to not let the drama of the moment dissipate. She paused, head cocked to the side as if she was listening for something; when nothing happened, she scowled. “I said, from the darkness they come-”

“Do we really have to do this?” came a plaintive voice from around the corner, and then came the sound of a slap, and a grunt, as if someone had just been struck. “Ow! You wanted to bail out too, Corso, don’t hit me like that, you know I bruise so easily.”

Kira and Archiban were howling with laughter, and apparently the twins thought it was hilarious too, because they were squealing and trying to squirm out of their parents’ grip. Thexan looked like he didn’t know whether he wanted to sink into the ground or whether he found the whole affair as outrageously amusing as she did. “The tribes were immensely territorial, and paranoid about outsiders,” he said, “and so if new faces were brought into the tribe- say, through marriage- it was said that the scent of the strangers would be so alien that it would attract spirits, hunting for prey. It was then the task of the tribe to mask the scent and defend them from the spirits, until they accepted them as a part of the tribe.”

“I swear to the god damn stars,” Bobbi started, “if I don’t see some god damn spirits out here in two seconds-”

“Okay, okay, keep your shirt on Captain.” Two figures shuffled out from around the corner, each clearly trying to cower behind the other, and as they stepped into the light of the lanterns, the reason for their hesitance became abundantly clear. Bobbi had dressed her two poor crewman- one human and one mon calamari, by the looks of things,- in some outrageous approximation of a monster costume, one that wouldn’t be at all out of place on a dancer’s pole on Nar Shaddaa. Neither of them had a shirt on, ironic given the choice of phrase a moment ago, and both of them were wearing very small, very unhelpful loincloths, while both of them appeared to have been drenched in copious amounts of oil and glitter. To round out the affair, they both had on cartoonishly huge heads, with bulging eyes and gaping mouths full of oversized teeth- she presumed they could see out of the mouthpieces- and all in all, they looked so completely the opposite of threatening monster spirits that everyone with the exception of Tahrin and Quinn burst out laughing.

The two spirits shuffled back and forth awkwardly on the spot. “See, this is dumb, Captain,” one of them started to say, but he was promptly shoved out of the way by a third spirit.

“Speak for yourself, Riggs,” it said, the green skin and intricate black tattoos marking him as a mirialan. He threw back his head and let out an almighty howl, hands shaped into claws, and then he came dancing under the pergola, all but naked and shimmering under the lantern light as he strutted and grinded his way towards them.

Bobbi looked immensely pleased with this turn of events. “And so the spirits of darkness descend upon us,” she said, holding her arms out in supplication. “The gods will turn aside in disinterest, and Ona’la and Thexan will be devoured! Oh, what a wretched thing it is, what a waste for such young love, to be lost so violently!”

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Thexan said, shaking his head as he laughed.

The masked mirialan appeared behind them, seemingly unconcerned with his near nudity as he shimmied right behind Thexan’s head. “Ooh, you’d best believe it,” he said. “You both look good enough to eat.”

Over by the couches, Bowdaar had his meaty paw over his eyes, and Risha was mimicking him. “Geralt, put some god damn clothes on,” she called.

He straightened, and mimed blowing a kiss to her- somewhat disturbing, given that it looked like the giant monster head was blowing the kiss. “You love me, gorgeous,” he said, and then continued with his dancing.

Bobbi cleared her throat. “Let the family of Ona’la stand and claim Thexan, lest he be devoured by cruel, uncaring gods,” she declared ominously, arms outstretched. “Let them speak for him now, or see him fall upon their gnashing teeth!”

Ona’la felt something nudge her from behind, and glanced back to see the mostly naked mirialan poking her with his knee. “You don’t mind if I have just a little nibble, now, do you honey? Don’t mind sharing, do you?”

There was movement out of the corner of her eye, and she turned to see Kira scrabbling forward from her cushion, with Theron climbing to his feet with a little more tact and grace behind her. Kira lunged for Thexan, who let out a startled yelp as her arms crashed around his shoulders in what appeared to be some tipsy, over-excited approximation of a hug. “Ona’la’s family speaks for him!” she yelled, and Theron let out an aggrieved sigh as he came over and stood above the two of them. “We claim him, the demons can’t have him!”

“Yeah, what she said,” Theron said, hands on his hips while he grinned and shook his head; he was very deliberately not looking at where Geralt was grinding and shimmying next to him.

But regardless of the immense silliness of it all, Ona’la still felt herself on the verge of tears- when Bobbi had called for family, her stomach had dropped, and her mood along with it. Observing tradition was all well and good when you had the people to help you celebrate, but to ask for her family, however well intended, seemed needlessly cruel... except that she’d underestimated her friends.

To see Kira and Theron not even hesitate to take part in the ceremony, to see stand and declare themselves her family without her even needing to ask or plead...

Kira glanced over at her from where she was draped over Thexan’s shoulders. “Oh no, we’ve got waterworks,” she said, sliding clumsily off of Thexan and crawling over to her. “Don’t cry Nala.”

Ona’la laughed, but she was crying, it was true. “Only a little,” she said, accepting the hug when Kira threw herself at her with gleeful abandon. “I love you both so much.”

She felt Thexan squeeze her hand, where they were still holding on to one another, and she felt Theron stoop briefly to kiss her on her brow. “Love you too, Nala,” he murmured, and she had to bite her lip to stop herself from breaking down further. She had a family, she had people who didn’t hesitate to call themselves her family in the most intimate and important moment of her life.

Goddess, she was so blessed.

“Well, gosh, I guess I can’t nibble on this princely specimen, then,” Geralt said loudly, apparently determined to play his part for as long as possible. “Maybe I’ll just have a taste of this delicious looking Jedi then.”

Thexan was still laughing. “Captain Voresh, you really don’t have to do this,” he said.

Bobbi wasn’t having any of it- and wasn’t very impressed with her other crewmen for not taking part. “Alas, the spirits are swarming again,” she said, very pointedly staring at where they were huddled together by the corner, hands fluttering as they tried to pointlessly cover themselves. “Our groom is safe, but now it seems there is no hope for our bride-”

“Really, captain, it looks like one spirit is all you need, it’s very crowded over there already-”

Guss!

“Okay, okay!” They shuffled forward awkwardly, still hanging about at the end of the pergola and not venturing too far undercover. “Uh... ooooh, I’m a big scary spirit! I’m going to, ah... I’m definitely going to eat you! That’s what spirits do, you know!”

“Let the family of Thexan stand and claim Ona’la, lest she be consumed by absent, violent gods,” Bobbi continued. “Let them speak for her now, or see her succumb to their ravenous hunger!”

Kira and Theron had moved back to their respective cushions, and Thexan was tugging at the hem of his tunic, almost a nervous tell. “It’s honestly, it’s really okay,” he started to say, and Ona’la realised he was just as anxious about having family called for him as she had been. But just as her loved ones had jumped forward without hesitation, so too did Thexan’s.

Tahrin gently placed Connie on her feet and nudged her forward, and Pierce did likewise with Vaane. The two toddlers dashed across the stone and all but tumbled into her lap, clambering enthusiastically all over her as if she were their own personal playground; Tahrin let out a sound of distress. “Careful!” she snapped, and the twins ducked their heads as if caught in the act of mischief. “You need to be gentle, for the baby.”

“The baby,” Vaane said, in the sort of hushed reverent tones that only small children could manage when facing something wonderful, and he squirmed around in her arms to pat her belly. “The baby.”

“That’s right,” she said, delighted. “That’s a baby.”

“Um, excuse me, Nala, um, can I see the baby,” Connie said, wording it not so much as a question as she did a statement, climbing onto her thigh and then down and then back up again.

“Constance, I asked you to be careful,” Tahrin said warningly.

Ona’la shot her a reassuring smile. “It’s fine,” she mouthed to the other woman, before turning back to the little girl. “The baby needs a little more time before they’re ready, okay? But I know they’ll be very excited to meet you when they are ready.”

“When will that be?”

Geralt very loudly and extensively cleared his throat behind them. “Ahem, excuse me? I’m a terrifying spirit, I’d like for people to pay attention to me now.”

“C’mon, Vaane, you know what you’re s’posed to do, kiddo,” Pierce said, gesturing to the masked man. Vaane was clinging rather impressively to her dress, his face only just peaking out over the top of her shoulder. “We practiced this. C’mon.”

“I’m gonna eat the pretty Jedi lady if nobody stops me,” Geralt said in a singsong voice.

Connie all but tumbled off of Ona’la’s leg and stomped around to face Geralt, her little hands clenched into fists. “Go away!” she said loudly, scowling ferociously at him. “That’s bad!”

Geralt clutched both hands to his chest as if he’d been struck. “Oh no,” he wailed dramatically, “there’s no food for a wicked spirit here at all? No wayward souls at all?”

“Go!” Connie yelled, stamping her feet and pointing. Geralt very appropriately shrieked as if in terror and went dashing off back around the corner, closely followed by the other two far more lacklustre spirits who seemed desperately relieved to be free of their obligations. Vaane was giggling quietly where he was tucked up against her chest, and Connie squealed in delight and bopped up and down for a moment, celebrating her triumph. She came back and patted Ona’la on the cheek. “I told, um, I told him no.”

Ona’la was smiling, but it was growing harder and harder to fight back the tears. “You did a wonderful job,” she said, her lip trembling as she leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.

“Come on now, ya rascals, get off your auntie and come back here.” Pierce slapped his knee loudly, and the twins obediently climbed off of Ona’la and toddled back over to their father, clambering back up to sit one on either side of his lap. Ona’la bit her lip and took a moment to wipe at her eyes, trying to mask her sniffling.

“Y’alright there?” Bobbi asked quietly, grinning like mad. “Need a minute?”

Ona’la shook her head. “No, no, don’t mind me,” she said, laughing weakly. When she glanced at Thexan he was all but glowing, but his own eyes were red and he grinned sheepishly at her. “You?”

He cleared his throat, masking his own need to sniff. “I’m ready,” he said, his voice a little hoarse with emotion too.

Bobbi winked at them both. “All good then,” she said; she threw her arms wide again. “And lo, the spirits are vanquished, banished once more to the shadows beyond the light. Ona’la and Thexan have been claimed and named for their new families, and we call now on the gods for their blessing and guidance.”

Ona’la reached over and took Thexan’s hand again, lacing her fingers between his.

“From Tyth, we call for courage, and resilience. From Aivela, we call for passion, and encouragement.” She hadn’t seen them before now, but Bobbi had a flat metal plate beside her, the surface tarnished and foggy, and upon it there were five candles encircling a sixth. As she called upon each of Zakuul’s old gods, Bobbi lit the candles one by one. “From Scyva, we call for patience, and compassion. From Esne, we call for wisdom, and defiance.”

There were only two candles left, the centre one, and one at the apex of the circle. “You know we don’t celebrate weddings like this very often anymore,” Thexan said, in a momentary lull in the incantation.

“Uh uh!” Bobbi shushed him, holding up a finger. “I am a qualified celebrant in thirteen sectors and actually licensed in at least three of those, I think, so if you think I’m gonna half ass this, well, you would be right to suspect that of me, but not this time boyo!”

“My father forbade the worship of the Old Gods.”

“And your father is an asshole whose opinion we don’t care about. Moving on-”

Thexan was laughing. “Where did you even find all these old rituals?”

Bobbi tapped the side of her nose. “Bobbi has her ways, Master Prince. Bobbi has her ways.” She turned back to the candles. “And we call upon Izax, and ask for his strength.” All five of the outer candles were now burning brightly, as she moved the lighter slowly to the centre one. “And last of all, we light a guiding light for he whose name we shall not speak. We leave a light burning to guide him home.”

Thexan’s fingers tightened ever so slightly against hers, enough for her to feel that something was wrong but that he’d tried to rein in his reaction; glancing at him, he was staring down at the candles with a severe expression, all amusement from before gone.

Clearly the last candle had some sort of dire significance for his people, but his reaction seemed to suggest it was personal for him too. Was it something to do with his brother? She’d have to ask Bobbi afterwards, when things were more settled.

“Okay,” she said, setting down the lighter and nudging the tray safely out of reach; the breeze was just strong enough to make the candles flicker and dance every now and then, casting writhing shadows over them all. “First half done. Onto part two- my lovely lady Kira, I believe you were hoarding our next secret?”

Kira had another drink in her hand, different to the last one, and she lurched upright with a gleeful look in her eyes. “Was I ever!” she said, reaching behind her and drawing out a small box; she crawled on her hands and knees over to Ona’la, settling in behind her with a sneaky smile on her face.

Ona’la laughed. “What’s going on?” she asked, looking between Kira and Bobbi. It was then she noticed that Thexan was looking almost bashful too, and she squeezed his hand. “Are you in on this too?”

“Were you in on the spirit dancing?”

“Sadly no, although I wish I had been.” A peculiarly familiar scent appeared in the air, more stark than the perfume of the flowers; she blinked, the smell tugging at her memories. “Is that...”

A strangely nibbed pen appeared in her eyeline, waggling back and forth as Kira waved it almost gleefully. “Is it the smell of aola’ven paste? Why, yes, yes it is, thank you for noticing.”

Ona’la promptly burst into tears.

“Uh... shit. Nala?”

She felt a hand on her face, and opened her eyes to see Thexan leaning in close to her. “Love?” he asked softly.

She took a shaky breath. “Did you organise this?” she asked, her voice cracking slightly on the words. When he nodded, she scrunched up her face to try and fight back the tears.

“My love,” he said, shifting to sit right up beside her, resting his head against hers, “I didn’t want to make you upset.”

She tried to shake her head. “You haven’t,” she said, stuttering a little.

His hand was so gentle on her cheek. “I love you,” he said quietly, “and I just wanted to give you the best wedding I could. I can’t give you a crown and a throne like you deserve, but-”

“I don’t need those things,” she said, kissing him fiercely.

Bobbi chuckled. “Hey, come on now, not supposed to be any of that until I give the go-ahead, you hear?”

She pulled away, sniffing loudly. “Okay,” she said, wiping her cheeks and just accepting the fact that her makeup was ruined. “Okay, I’m okay.” Thexan squeezed her hand again, his eyes so tender that had she been standing, her knees probably would have given out.

Kira cleared her throat loudly. “Okay, well, now that I presumably haven’t ruined everything, I’m gonna do the alloven thing now.”

“Aola’ven.”

“Right, that.” Ona’la felt her hands on her lekku, and smiled. “Gimme some direction here, can I draw anywhere? Anything?”

“Anything?” Archiban called from where he was still up on the couch.

“Okay, Kira’s first rule of the night, don’t give the pen to Doc, and second rule of the night, no drawing boobs or dicks on the bride.” Ona’la couldn’t help the little squeak she let out when the pen first began to slide over her skin, because the sensation was ticklish, no matter how much she thought she was ready for it. “Just drawing nice swirly things. All nice and family friendly.”

Ona’la looked back to Thexan, who was grinning like a besotted fool. “How did you find the flowers, or the paste, outside of Ryloth?” she asked, but it was Bobbi who answered.

“I know a guy,” she said, with exactly the sort of vague dismissiveness that was supposed to be provocatively mysterious. “Alderaanian. Botanist. Wonderful collection of hothouse flowers. Owed me a favour or six.”

Coming from Bobbi, that could have meant anything from business transactions to blackmail to sex. Or all three.

“Moving on,” she said, “we’ll leave the lovely lady Kira to start the aola’ven off, and get onto the meatier things. Vows and jewellery and what not.”

At the mention of jewellery, Ona’la reached for the little pouch she’d tucked under her thigh when she’d sat down- and noticed Thexan did likewise, reaching for his pocket. Her hand froze. “Don’t tell me we both spent money on rings,” she said.

His brow furrowed, even as he smiled somewhat goofily. “Rings?” he asked, pulling a similar, but somewhat larger, pouch from his pocket and holding it in both hands. “I couldn’t see anything about rings in twi’leki weddings.”

“Then what-”

Whatever she’d been about to end the question with ended on a gasp as he upended the bag into his palm, and two long golden chains came slithering out into his waiting hand. With a little careful maneuvering, he let the two necklaces dangle from his fingers, holding them up so she could see the pendants attached. “I could only see things about necklaces in twi’leki weddings,” he said, sounding almost giddily smug as she stared.

It was extraordinarily beautiful- a golden crescent moon facing downwards, with an explosively bright fire opal hanging below it, the traditional layout to represent Ryloth and the goddess and the draping elegance of the lekku. Hanging from the two peaks of the crescent were two delicate crystal rods, barely as thick across as the chain itself, and both a comforting blue that resonated with her so immediately that she didn’t have to ask to know that he’d substituted the normal quartz crystal for kyber crystal. There were two necklaces, one for each of them, with the opal split between them and the kyber rods cut carefully in half to share as well.

They were marriage necklaces, family necklaces- the sort of thing that was used as an heirloom, to be passed down from generation to generation. Just an hour earlier she’d been sitting and mourning the fact that she had no necklace from her mother’s family, and yet...

He’d known.

“Thexan,” she whispered, utterly overwhelmed.

“Since we’re working with multiple laws and legalities, we’re gonna just do basic vows and shit,” Bobbi said, gesturing for Thexan to put the necklace on her. “So, repeat after me- I, Thexan Tirall of Zakuul, offer this as a token of my love, commitment and respect.”

Ona’la was crying again, she knew it but she couldn’t stop herself; Thexan was grinning as he came up onto his knees and shuffled forward, reaching carefully under her lekku to latch the clasp around her neck. “I, Thexan Tirall of Zakuul, offer this as a token of my love, commitment and respect,” he said, his voice shaking ever so slightly. The necklace was cool against her skin, sitting perfectly above the centre of her chest.

“Let it be a symbol of my devotion to you, for all the days we have together.”

His eyes were suspiciously bright, as if he too was holding back tears as he settled back on his calves. “Let it be a symbol of my devotion to you, for all the days we have together.”

“And now you, lady Jedi, your turn now.” Bobbi offered her the other necklace. “Kira can hold up for two seconds so that you can put some shinies on your boy.”

Her hands were shaking as she reached out and draped the necklace around his shoulders, the open neckline of his shirt suddenly making a lot more sense in hindsight. He very cheekily lifted his head too early and stole a kiss from her while she was halfway through the vows, prompting another scolding from Bobbi. As she settled back on the cushion, Theron swapped places with Kira and awkwardly set about trying to use the aola’ven pen on her.

“And so now that the gizka is out of the bag, Ona’la, you wanna bring out the rings?”

She picked up the little pouch again, and reached in to pull out the two rings waiting inside; Thexan let out a small sound at the sight of them, his eyes still far too bright, and they both burst into watery giggles when they made eye contact.

“Can I just, I um- can I just say something, before we do the vows?” At Bobbi’s nod, Ona’la turned back to Thexan. “So I know you have Arcann’s ring for your left hand, and I won’t mind at all if you want to keep it like that, so if you want to wear this on your right hand, I’ll-”

Thexan lunged forward and took her face in his hands, kissing her with a desperation and a neediness that made her heart soar. He kissed her over and over, and she realised after a moment that he was crying too. “Nothing would make me prouder than to wear your ring on my hand, where it belongs,” he said between the kisses. “I want- please?”

Laughing, and crying at the same time, Ona’la took his left hand in hers. “There are, ah,” she laughed, shaking her head, “vows, I don’t know the vows.”

“Oh, you want me again?” Bobbi said wryly. “Sorry, thought I was interrupting.” She sighed. “Very well, repeat after me. I, Ona’la of Ryloth, take you, Thexan of Zakuul, to be my lawful wedded husband.”

Goddess. “I, Ona’la of Ryloth, take you, Thexan of Zakuul, to be my lawful wedded husband.”

She slid the ring onto his finger, just as she had with Arcann’s ring for him over a year ago on the balcony, on the night they’d first kissed. With shaking hands, Thexan took the second ring from her and repeated the vows, placing it almost reverently on her hand before leaning in to kiss her again.

“I’m supposed to be allowed to say ‘you may now kiss’, but you two have stolen my thunder a dozen times over already,” Bobbi said. Her expression grew almost serious for a moment. “But honestly, kids,” she said, “take it from an old lady-”

“You aren’t old!” Corso attempted to interject in some weak willed attempt at chivalry.

She stabbed a finger in his direction. “Spirits can’t talk, they don’t have the wits to learn proper words,” she said, winking at Ona’la and Thexan. “Take it from someone who’s been around the galaxy a few times over- life is messy, and sometimes it’s ugly, and if you find someone willing to take on the mess and the pain with you, that’s something worth holding onto. War ain’t a new concept, and it’s certainly not something we’re gonna see the end of in our lifetimes, so take the small moments of peace and joy as they come to you. It ain’t selfish to cling tight to the things that help us survive when there’s a whole galaxy full of things looking to see us wind up dead.”

She cleared her throat loudly, coughing a few times. “Look at me, going and getting all misty-eyed and sentimental,” she said, before clapping her hands together. “Alright! By the laws of the Galactic Republic, I now pronounce you to be legally, lawfully, lustfully married. Just fucking kiss already. Again. Now. The correct time.”

A cheer went up as Ona’la rose up onto her knees and threw her arms around him, all but tackling him backwards onto the cushions as she kissed him. “I love you,” she murmured against his mouth, grinning besottedly.

“I love you,” he said instantly, “so much.”

After a moment, when they started to pull apart, someone cleared their throat nearby, and they glanced over to see Quinn standing beside them. He handed them a datapad and a stylus. “If you will both sign here,” he said, indicating a line at the bottom of the screen, “and then here...” He went through several different screens, taking the datapad each time they signed and loading a new screen. Finally, after several signatures, he smiled awkwardly at them, as if it wasn’t a comfortable expression for him. “Congratulations,” he said. “You are now legally married under Republic common law, and your marriage is recognised under Imperial common law, in the Collected Territories of the Hutt Cartel, in nineteen different independent governments- and under Zakuulan Imperial law as well.”

Thexan visibly blinked. “Zaku- how?”

Quinn looked immensely smug as he took his seat again. “Any bureaucratic system can be twisted to one’s advantage, should one know how to carefully navigate the legalities.”

Pierce barked out a laugh. “Nobody wants to listen to you wanking off to red tape, Quinny boy, sit yer ass down.”

With the formalities out of the way, Tahrin had her staff bring out food and drinks, and Kira and Maurevar promptly started arguing over what music the party droid should have in the song mix. Ona’la found herself drawn away from Thexan for a time, with the twins determined to continue their conversation with her about the baby and trying to get an exact answer from her about when they would be allowed to meet the baby. It took her a good twenty minutes to wrap up the conversation with them, at which point Theron plonked himself down beside her.

“So,” he said, “I’m with the twins, when can we all meet the baby?”

She laughed, delighted. “You can touch if you like,” she said teasingly. “They’re not going to bite- not yet, anyway.”

Theron clearly looked torn, but his fingers crept awkwardly to the curve of her belly, flinching back at first before settling. “That’s super weird,” he said in an exaggerated whisper. “There’s a person in there.”

“You sound so concerned.”

“Aren’t you at least a little freaked out by it? That’s gonna be a whole other person.”

She smiled serenely. “I know. Isn’t it wonderful?”

“You and I have differing opinions on what constitutes wonderful.” He pulled his hand back and rubbed at the back of his neck. “So, uh... I might have something. A gift, I mean. For you and Thexan. But I know the last time I gave you something, it wasn’t such a smart idea on my end and I was dumb and I hurt your feelings, so if you don’t want it-”

Ona’la was already laughing. “Oh, Theron, I forgave you a long time ago, you know that,” she said. She held out her hand to him. “Help me up. Thexan and I had something we wanted to ask you, so we can go talk to him together, and you can unveil this gift you’re so stressed about.”

He wasn’t as practiced at helping pregnant women to their feet as Thexan was, but they got there after a moment; she wobbled a little, laughing as she waited to find her balance, but Theron kept her upright. Thexan was seated on one of the couches with a drink in hand, chatting very solemnly to Tahrin, and the two of them looked up in tandem at their approach. It was still eerie, seeing the brief flashes of similarities in them, when their mannerisms synched up or their expressions matched and it reminded her of how similar their upbringings had been.

“Can we have a moment with Thexan, Tahrin?” she asked, flashing her a smile.

Tahrin raised her glass towards her, climbing to her feet. “I’ll see that the children are not running amok,” she said, heading off towards where the shrieks and giggles could be heard.

Ona’la sank down onto the couch, letting out a happy whimper at the comfort of the cushions after having sat on the floor for so long, even if it had been on a pillow. Theron sank down in front of them, crouching down onto one knee and leaning back on his calf. “So, who gets to go first here? Want to unveil your big secret first, or should I do presents first?”

She opened her mouth to respond, but Thexan beat her to it. “We want you to be heartfather,” he said bluntly. “You are of course welcome to say no, but it would mean a lot to us if you would consider doing this for our child.”

Theron couldn’t have looked more stunned if they’d socked him with the tray of candles. “You- what?” he asked, faintly. “Are you- me? With a kid?”

Thexan snorted. “Surprisingly, it doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to be expected to be a de facto father. It’s practical, making arrangements in case... well. And you’re important to us, and you’ll be important to our child, so it makes sense for you to be the heartfather.”

What he didn’t say was that the two of them had initially disagreed about having Theron as the heartfather to their child- because initially, she had tried to point out that the role of a foster parent normally fell to close family, and that made Arcann the first candidate for the role. She knew about his letters, his ongoing attempts to contact him, and she assumed that meant that he still had faith that his brother could be made to see reason, and could stand down peacefully. But he’d gone rigid when she’d suggested it, and had argued fiercely that Theron was the far more deserving candidate.

She’d acquiesced quickly, confused by his adamant dismissal of his brother, and hadn’t pushed the issue further. Besides, he was right- Theron was her first choice personally, and he was the brother of her heart, if not the brother of her blood.

He grinned slowly, and bashfully, and chuckled awkwardly. “Well, uh... yes. Yes, I would be honoured to be the heartfather, that’s... wow. Thank you, guys.” He cleared his throat. “I think that makes my present a little less extravagant now.”

“Oh?”

He pulled a datapad from his pocket, clicking through a few screens before he found what he was looking for. Taking a deep breath, he looked up. “So, remember on Rishi, when you saw Master Orgus for the last time, and when you were running around town helping people, and rebuilding their homes, taking care of the sick, all the excessively altruistic things that make you as unbelievably sickeningly kind and beautiful as you are?”

She blushed, and Thexan snorted in amusement; his arm came up over the back of the couch and tucked around her shoulder.

“Well, the one thing I remember most about Rishi is just... how blissfully happy you were there. You were more at peace there than I’d seen you in, well, forever. And that stuck with me, seeing how happy it made you, just... helping people. Just simple things, but you were more of a Jedi to me there than you ever were on any battlefield.” He cleared his throat nervously. “So, to that end, knowing that you guys are living out of a starship and knowing that you’ve got a kid on the way that is now apparently my heartchild...”

He held out the datapad, and Ona’la took it hesitantly.

“I may have sort of bought and renovated Master Orgus’ home for you,” he finished in a rush. He glanced up. “Happy wedding present?”

Ona’la stared. Thexan blinked.

“But... Theron, that’s- you can’t afford to buy us a house-”

He laughed again. “Surprisingly, it’s much cheaper to buy an abandoned house on a backwater planet in a pirate town than you’d think,” he said, winking as if it was some sort of grand joke. “And anyway, it’s sort of the least I could do, you know? No one will recognise you there, no one will be looking for you there, no one will expect to see a Prince of Zakuul and the Jedi Battlemaster living down the street from them...” He shrugged. “Plus, I talked to Tahrin about it a bit- Shae Vizla’s clan is still based just off the mainland, which means Tahrin’s uh, sister-in-law Ysaine is close at hand, so if things go awry at any point, you’ve got an entire Mandalorian clan there for backup.”

He clasped his hands together earnestly. “Basically, you’ve got somewhere now that you can raise your kid and just... be yourselves. Be a family. Where you don’t have to be famous warriors who have to risk everything to save the galaxy.”

Thexan cleared his throat, swallowing several times in a manner that suggested he was struggling with his emotions just like she was. “That’s, ah...” He swallowed again. “That’s very kind of you, Shan.”

“Hey, what can I say, I’m a giver. Gotta make sure that heartchild of mine has a roof over their head and all.”

Ona’la felt the first tears on her cheeks. “Oh, Theron,” she whispered.

“Oh no, don’t start crying again, Kira said she’d-”

What did you do, Shan?

He winced. “Too late.”

It was much, much later by the time they finally made their way back to their quarters, fingers entwined as they walked; Ona’la’s feet were aching from being without shoes, and while she appreciated the effort they’d all gone to to obtain the aola’ven, they hadn’t mixed the paste correctly and it was beginning to run a little with sweat.

But that didn’t matter. She was married. She and Thexan were married.

When they made it back to their room, she went into his arms unprompted, resting her head against his chest and closing her eyes. She had never felt so blissfully relaxed and safe as she did today. Goddess preserve her, she hadn’t even thought it was possible to feel like this. When he put his hand under her chin, she half expected him to kiss her again, but instead he just looked at her, his eyes wide as if he was drinking her in.

The moment stretched on, the silence lengthening, but it wasn’t really uncomfortable. He cradled her face in his hands, staring at her so tenderly that she nearly melted. “Thexan?”

He smiled, almost sadly. “I just... I never thought I’d be here,” he said quietly, his thumbs brushing over her cheeks. “I never thought I’d have friends, or family, or a wife who cares about me and not just the political influence being my spouse brings to them. I didn’t think someone would love me, and choose me, especially after knowing all the- the brokenness in me.”

Her heart broke a little. “You are my best friend, Thexan,” she said, her hands sliding around his hips, “and you are the father of my child, and despite what your father wanted you to be and wanted you to believe about yourself, you are a good man. I love you so much.”

A tear slid onto his cheek, and then another. “I love you too,” he said hoarsely. “I- I don’t know what I did to deserve you in my life.”

She leaned in and kissed him gently. “That’s just it, Thexan,” she said. “You don’t need to do anything to deserve me. You just have to be yourself.”

He laughed shakily. “I love you,” he said again, and then hesitated, chuckling awkwardly. “Master Tirall.”

Ona’la laughed with him. “I love you too, Master Tirall.”

Chapter Text

They fought.

Across the stars, across the emptiness, they tore one another apart. Her fury sustained her, when her body would have given out entirely; her rage empowered her, when her strength would have abandoned her. Every time he tried to calm her, to shame her into surrendering, she attacked again, wild and violent and insatiable.

“I am not your enemy,” he shouted, lurching back from her clawing grasp.

“Shut up!” she screamed, doing her best to gut him with teeth and claws. She was a star, and she burned his flesh to cinders. She was the darkness of space, and she froze his blood and shattered him. She was a woman under siege, trapped in the prison of her own mind with a creature that wanted to consume her in the most painful, terrifying way possible.

She was not going to make it easy for him.

“I am not your enemy!” The cry came again, but this time the voice cut straight through to her heart, strong and feminine, the accent clipped and precise. When she came about, it was Lana behind her, Lana reaching out to her in desperation- Lana with a wound to her belly where she had last tried to slash out at Valkorion. “Darling, what have I done?”

There was pain in her eyes, and fear, so much fear- but still she reached out in supplication.

Kallathe screamed.

“Darling, please!”

She lunged, embedding the lightsaber deep in her chest, and the image of Lana flickered and vanished; Valkorion or Vitiate or Tenebrae or whatever the fuck he wanted to call himself, he stood there in her stead, battered and bloodied and furious. “You strike out even at those who would sacrifice everything for you,” he said, a sneer in his tone.

“Shut up!” She struck out at him over and over and over, her lightsaber no more elegant than a bludgeoning rod as she tried to break through his weakening shields. “Shut up!”

“Kal, please!” Now he wore the guise of Bejah, the one girl who had ever crept into her heart without rousing her hunger. Her bright coloured makeup was smeared with tears, and she cringed away from her as she approached. “Why are you doing this?”

“Wear as many faces as you please, Valkorion,” she snarled, advancing on him still, “but it will not change my desire to tear you limb from limb.”

Between one blink and the next, it was her mother before her now, elegant and bitter. “Well, you always were destined to be the death of me,” Xeria said, her voice scathing and disappointed in one. “It just took you longer than everyone expected.”

Kallathe screamed and screamed and screamed, her throat raw and the taste of blood in her mouth. She kept attacking, she kept fighting, she kept striking at her over and over and over until she was on her hands and knees in the cold dust, gasping and wheezing; she spat a globule of blood out, the red almost black on the ground.

“I am not your enemy,” he said again, his own voice.

She gritted her teeth, and staggered to her feet.

____

The Spire, Zakuul, Wild Space

It was terrifyingly quiet.

The silence had never really been something that he’d enjoyed, because far too often in their childhood, silence meant that something was wrong. Silence meant that he and Thexan had been separated again, forced to live apart for days or weeks or months at a time, to teach them a lesson for some imagined slight. Silence meant that their mother was gone, her laughter and her love absent from the halls, with no reason given for why she didn’t want them in her life anymore. Silence meant that Vaylin was locked far, far away from here, her toys untouched in the nursery and her clothes packed away by the servants, as if she had no need for them any longer.

Silence was the sound of his father’s disapproval, the empty, callous disregard of a man who treated him with no more warmth than he would a rabid stray on the street.

Arcann hated silence.

It was late, late enough to be almost early, and Arcann couldn’t sleep because it was too quiet. He hadn’t really slept last night, either, and he was reaching the point in his exhaustion where hysteria was creeping in at the edges of his mood. He was sitting on the floor, his back leaning up against the bed, and his mask discarded somewhere nearby- he couldn’t remember where exactly he’d taken it off, only that at some point it had become wildly claustrophobic and suffocating, and he’d left welts on his skin from his nails as he’d frantically tried to claw it off.

He’d tried to sleep, he really had, but his mood had been dark all day, and alone in the silence of his room it’d only twisted and seethed in his head, taking on monstrous, ugly shapes. In the silence, there was nothing to stop the most painful and devastating thoughts and memories from crawling around him in the dark, cutting and nipping at him inch by inch, minute by minute, until his breathing was ragged and his heart was thundering painfully against his ribs and the room was spinning around him.

He always hid the panic attacks as best as he could, but they were inevitable. Unavoidable. Weak.

This was no different, even if he fought it off for several days beforehand; he had no idea how much time had passed, only that at some point in the night he’d turned on every single light in his grand suite of rooms, the whole apartment ablaze with a cheerful golden glow. Outside of the windows, the stars still soared overhead, the inky depths of space coaxing at him to just press a little too hard against the glass again. Would he sink towards the swamps, would he plummet in a fiery shower? Would he drift away in the cold and dark, pulled out towards the stars?

And would not those alternatives be vastly preferable to the cringing, desperate fool lying broken on the floor of his room?

It was too quiet.

He felt feverish, and his body ached all over; his left shoulder was so painful that the consistent background ache from the cybernetic limb plug had manifested into outright throbbing, the pulses sending stabbing sensations down his back and into his neck. He could feel his lost arm again, more clearly than he’d been able to in months, and worse than that he could feel a persistent itch in his wrist that he would never be able to scratch. He’d picked and scratched at the scars along his shoulder so much tonight that there was dried blood under his fingernails, and yet still it burned and throbbed as if determined to mock him.

Everyone wanted to mock him. Everything wanted to mock him. That’s why he was alone, that’s why he was so despised, that’s why he had everything in the galaxy at his beck and call and yet none of it- none of it- made him feel at peace.

He groaned, and sort of rolled listlessly to the side; he winced as he put the weight of his body on his cybernetic arm, and sat up instead, leaning heavily back against the bed frame. Everything ached, and he didn’t even know what he wanted right now. Sleep, maybe. A way to calm the anxiety in his veins, the suffocating panic that he couldn’t blame on anything in particular.

It was too quiet.

He kicked out petulantly, his skin too tight and his head full of fluff and fever, and smeared his good hand over his face, trying to wipe away the sweat and the snot and the tears. His scars were sensitive and his bad eye was watering constantly from the burn of the light. Everything was wrong, and nothing was supposed to be like this- he was the goddamn Emperor of the entire fucking galaxy, everything was supposed to be perfect and he was supposed to be... he was supposed to be...

He was supposed to be something other than this wreck of a creature, half ruined and unwanted.

There was a datapad lying just out of reach, not that he could remember bringing it onto the floor with him in the first place, and he stretched out with his toes to kick it closer. It skidded over the carpet and came within armsreach, and he fumbled to pick it up with fingers that felt distant and unresponsive. He’d left it paused, the holovid still waiting for him where he’d last left it before the panic attack had taken hold of him hours ago.

Licking dry, cracked lips, he pressed play.

“-going to put that thing away at all and help, maybe?” The image on the screen burst back into life, and a woman’s amused voice filled the silence of the room. There was a twi’lek in the holovid, and she was familiar to him after all this time.

“I am helping,” came a voice that was far more familiar, and sent a spear of grief and guilt and anger into his gut. The twi’lek woman chuckled, folding clothing into a suitcase of some kind; she wasn’t dressed at all like a Jedi, but she exuded an aura of power that was tangible even through the video. “I am documenting today for future reference- it’s an important milestone!”

“We can point to it and say ‘look, kids, watch your poor pregnant mother do all the work while your father ran about in a tither’.” She turned towards the camera, and her belly was indeed swollen with the first few months of pregnancy; just enough to make her dress stretch ever so slightly.

Arcann was remembering why he’d turned it off in the first place.

“I am not in a tither, I don’t even know what that is.” The person holding the holocam came closer to her, the angle of the recording shifting as if they’d moved to put their arms around her. The holovid was now showing a rather detailed look into the contents of the suitcase.

“Well, you can trust me when I say, Master Tirall, that you are currently in a tither.” The angle was clumsily turned around, to aim the holocam back up towards them, and the person holding the cam indeed appeared to have their arms around her.

The man who wasn’t his brother.

Not-Thexan was grinning as he hugged her- her name was Ona’la, and he knew she was the Battlemaster- and he kissed the side of her cheek noisily. “If I am a tither, Master Tirall, whatever that is, it’s only because we are moving into our very own home today and I am immensely excited.”

Arcann pressed pause again, and put the datapad back down on the ground. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the mattress.

For almost eighteen months now, he’d mourned his brother. And for more than a year now, his brother had been rather determinedly throwing his thoughts into violent disarray by miraculously coming back from the dead and running off with a Jedi, sending him regular updates as if it was a perfectly normal thing to do to keep in touch with one’s murderer.

Thexan was dead. He’d felt him die. He’d held him in his arms as he’d felt the link they shared through the Force had crumbled and then shattered, like a glass droplet splintering into razor sharp shards from the most delicate touch. He’d watched the life leave Thexan’s eyes and known without a doubt that a part of him had died along with him, the only part of him that still clung to hope and the potential for joy. His brother was dead, and had been dead for eighteen months now- and yet without fail, several times a month, he would get these messages. Sometimes they were solemn, more like diary entries than anything else. Thexan would talk, and he spoke of things that only his brother could have known, not things an imposter could have guessed at. Sometimes they were slices of life, like this one now, as this strange man showed off a love and a life that was so alien to Arcann that he couldn’t even begin to understand it.

He hated them. He yearned for them. He was intensely, violently jealous.

The man in the vids was not his brother, he knew that. Thexan had been a serious and solemn man at the end of his life, almost fanatically committed to their family and to Zakuul and to protecting those he cared about. It had been his downfall in the end, after all. To see these vids, to see a man who joked and who laughed, who was relaxed and at ease and at times playful... it was abominable. He hated it.

He was crying again.

He sniffed angrily, wiping at his face again; he felt sticky all over, sweaty and clammy, and he knew that logically if he wanted to feel better he needed to get up and shower and possibly summon his servants to get medical attention for his shoulder. But logic was not necessarily his strongpoint at times like this, and instead he stayed on the floor.

After an indeterminate amount of time, he reached for the datapad again, and clicked off the holovid. The image on the screen vanished, the smiling faces of Not-Thexan and Battlemaster Ona’la no longer visible; it was bewildering, and terrifying, if he had to be honest. He would have suspected these sort of mind games from the sith, but from a Jedi?

The things they could justify in their bigoted pursuit of the light were quite honestly terrifying.

He might have dozed off at some point, he wasn’t entirely sure- he was exhausted, that much was true, but he was still too wired and too paranoid to feel comfortable sleeping. Little snatched moments of unconsciousness seemed inevitable, but he didn’t pursue them with any sort of deliberateness. His back was cramping from the bad angle he was lying at. His missing arm itched.

He hated everything.

God, he hated being alone the most.

It didn’t make any sense- he was the most powerful man in the galaxy, and he had millions of beings all falling all over themselves to please him and gain his attention. He was free of his father, and free to live his life in a manner that he saw fit, no longer a prisoner to the fear and the terror his father roused in him. He had power, and money, and he was safe. What else did he need?

He picked up the datapad again and clicked on an older file, one that he’d already watched a hundred times over at least, and could repeat by rote. The image flickered, and then Not-Thexan appeared, solemn and earnest, dressed in humble clothing not befitting a prince at all.

“Hello, Arcann,” he said, and Arcann mouthed the words along with him. “I know it’s a lost cause at this point, but I’ve come to ask you again to rethink the blockades. A lot of people are dying, Arcann, people who don’t have to die, and it’s within your power to stop it. You don’t have to be like this, you don’t have to be the way father made us-”

He turned it off.

The way father made us.

He was more than anything their father could have accomplished, far more. He wasn’t some meek puppet, content to do their father’s bidding and nothing more. He wasn’t Thexan, content to run and fetch like a dog, rolling over to show his belly to the blade. He was alive, and he was stronger, and he was a survivor. He had an empire, not father, not Thexan.

He had won.

It was too quiet.

With some difficulty, he managed to roll enough onto his side so that he could claw his way up the mattress, levering himself up onto the bed so that he could work towards standing. He was wheezing by the time he was sitting on the edge, his cybernetic arm clutched to his stomach as the pains radiated down through his shoulder and into his torso. His mask was lying discarded on the far pillow- well, that answered that question- with the neck brace that connected to his shoulder guard tossed casually beside it; his whole face felt raw and far too sensitive, and his eye was still watering. But he didn’t want to put the mask back on, he didn’t want to be... he wanted to be human for a little while longer, and not some half machine creature holding the galaxy in thrall.

Did people even see him, when they looked at him? Did they see Arcann, or did they see the new Immortal Emperor, burning bright with youth and vivacity and an ability to survive through anything?

God, it was too fucking quiet; the morose turn of his thoughts was just utterly pathetic to behold. He needed to talk, he needed to talk to someone and he had no one. It used to be he could talk to Thexan about anything and anyone, but Thexan...

The datapad was on the floor near his foot, and he kicked it under the couch. Thexan was dead. He was gone. No clever performance from a pretender could change that.

Scyva save him, he was so jealous of that damned Jedi. He hated her.

His fingers curled desperately against the edge of the mattress, clinging tight; he was alone in the galaxy, alone and hated and unloved and friendless, he-

He grunted in frustration, so exhausted by the cyclic nature of his thoughts and his anxieties. He stood up, immediately sitting back down again when his legs wobbled dangerously under him; he tried again after a moment, taking it more slowly, and on the second attempt his head did not spin as if the tower was collapsing around him. His calves were determined to cramp as he hobbled across the room towards the door to the main lounge of the suite, but he gritted his teeth and ignored them. The lounge was well lit, just like the bedroom- he’d gone on a bit of a mad spree earlier turning everything on- and he didn’t have to stumble his way through the dark, hoping not to stub his toes on the furniture as he made his way over to the main door.

When he slapped the door pad, the two Knights on duty in the hallway snapped to attention. “Your Majesty,” one of them started to say, but he snarled violently at them.

Fuck off.”

They both dropped to one knee, heads bowed, and he stalked past them without further interruption. He didn’t have to explain himself to them. He didn’t have to tell people what he was doing, wandering around in the early hours of the morning barefoot and barechested and filthy. He was the fucking Immortal Emperor- they were lucky he didn’t just end them where they stood. He could do that, and no one would be able to say otherwise-

You don’t have to be the way father made us.

The noise he let out would probably have been considered one of distress, and he didn’t notice the way the two Knights turned in his direction in alarm, and then looked to one another.

He staggered down the hallway, away from the silence and the loneliness of his empty rooms. He hadn’t really thought it through extensively before he’d opened his door, but the humiliation of the Knights seeing him in this state suddenly felt vastly more unbearable than he’d considered. He didn’t want them looking at him, he didn’t want anyone looking at him, he was the Emperor, didn’t they know what a privilege it was to look at him and how insignificant they were and how he didn’t care-

He stopped, hands on his knees, light-headed and panting. He was so dizzy that he could barely keep himself upright.

What a fucking sight he was. The Immortal Emperor, running barefoot through the luxurious halls of the palace, clad only in his sleep pants, bloodied and sweaty and hysterical.

After a minute or so, his heart pounding loudly in his ears, the hallway stopped spinning enough for him to pull himself upright again. He was trembling, but he straightened his shoulders and kept walking.

He took the elevator down to the floor below, growling angrily at the Knights on guard who tried to greet him as he stalked past. He had not had the need to visit this floor in- well, eighteen months now. Ever since he’d killed his father and moved upstairs to the suite reserved for the ruler of Zakuul. He stopped before a door halfway down to the extensive corridor and hammered loudly on the gilded metal.

There was no answer.

He banged again, his fist landing heavily enough to make it tremble. “Vaylin,” he called, not quite shouting but not exactly subtle.

There was still no answer.

“Vaylin?”

He heard a muffled ‘fuck off’ on the other side of the door, and he breathed a shaky sigh of relief. Until that moment, hearing her voice, he’d half believed that he was alone in the universe. That his sister was simply a figment of his imagination, and there was no one left who stood with him. No one at all who simply... knew he existed.

The door slid open after a few moments, and Vaylin was standing there, her hair lank and tangled as it hung loose down her back, and her short sleeved nightshirt left her tattooed forearms bare. She wore baggy pants, and she was barefoot- in all, she wouldn’t have been out of place begging for scraps in Breaktown, not at all the image of an imperial princess. She rolled her eyes when she saw him there, rubbing aggressively at her eyes. “What?” she asked curtly.

Now that he was here, standing in front of her, it seemed like such a colossally stupid idea on his part, and he hesitated. This did not seem to be the answer she was looking for, because she scowled at him. “What? What do you want? Did you come all the way over here to wake me up and stare at me? Your face looks gross, by the way.”

He swallowed down the wad of misery in his throat. “Can I come in?” he asked hoarsely, his throat dry and raspy from the panic attack of the last few hours.

Vaylin’s eyes narrowed, and she crossed her arms. “Do you often wake people up in the middle of the night with the expectation you’ll be allowed into their rooms without question?” she asked.

“I did ask, Vaylin, come on- please?”

“What if I had someone in here with me, hmm?”

“Vaylin, you never take anyone back to your rooms, come on. Let me come in.”

She let out a melodramatic sigh of frustration, but she stepped aside, giving him room to enter. After a moment’s hesitation, he took the invitation, before she changed her mind and slammed the door in his face. There was a vaguely sickly sweet smell in the room, something that his mind categorized as rot after a moment’s consideration, and at the far end of the room, mostly untouched by the illumination of the bedside lamp, he could see numerous plates and bowls piled up in uneven stacks. Even with the poor lighting, he could see they were covered in food scraps.

He must have made a face, because she stiffened out of the corner of his eye. “I don’t like the servants touching my things,” she snarled, stomping back towards her bed and hurling herself onto it quite forcefully. She lay face down on the mattress, half heartedly pulling the blanket back over herself. “What do you want, Arcann?”

He shuffled over towards the edge of the bed, trying to find the words to express the painful mess in his head. “Are you...” He shook his head, and tried again. “Do you have any friends, Vaylin?”

She snorted, and turned her head to the side. “You’re joking, right? You woke me up in the middle of the night just to ask me if I have any friends?”

“Do you?”

“Of course I don’t, what kind of question is that? Who would be foolish enough to want to be friends with me?”

It was a heartbreaking answer, and it hurt all the more for the frankness with which she said it- as if she didn’t doubt it for a moment that she was unworthy of friendship. Arcann rubbed absently at his chest, trying to work out what to say to that. “You don’t want any friends?” he asked.

She cracked open a bloodshot eye. “Arcann, please tell me there’s a point to this, and you didn’t just wake me up to ask if the other kids are playing nice with me.” She squinted at him. “You’ve been bleeding, by the way.”

“I know,” he said absently, sinking down onto the end of the bed. She didn’t yell at him to get up and leave, so he figured that had to be a good thing. “I did it to myself.”

“Smart. You know, they used to confiscate sharp things from me in the sanitarium, because I kept doing the same thing.” The tattoos on her arms were stark and black, but there were pale pink slashes across them in places. There was something in her tone that made him suspect she was being sarcastic. “Are we having a sleepover? Are we going to sit up and braid one another’s hair?”

He hesitated, his hands hanging loose between his knees as he stared down at them. One flesh, one metal- both used for nothing but pain and death and bloodshed. He glanced over at her arms, looking again at the regular lines of pink scars. “Did you really hurt yourself?” he asked quietly.

She snorted, closing her eyes again. “No, Borzagg Bear did it, when I told him I was too old for children’s tales anymore.” He didn’t mention the poorly carved wooden bear sitting on her bedside table. “Of course I did. It helped me to feel real while they were tearing my brain apart. And it messed up their pretty, pretty markings. A win-win situation. Now it’s your turn- truth or dare?”

He scowled. “Vaylin, I’m-” He bit his tongue and looked down again, trying to choose his words. He didn’t know what he wanted to say, only that there were ideas and emotions and vast hurts pressing up on his tongue, and he had to try to get them out, somehow. “Please don’t jest.”

“Well, tell me what you want or go away. Some of us were sleeping you know.”

Arcann stared at his hands- butcher’s tools. Easier than seeing if her eyes held mockery. “Do you think he’s alive?” he finally asked, his voice so quiet that he almost wondered whether he’d simply thought it, instead of speaking it aloud. But Vaylin snorted again, hugging her pillow up to her face.

“Who are we talking about this time?” she mumbled, apparently amused by the question. “Are we talking about father, or are we talking about Thexan, or- oh! I know! We’re talking about Izax, the Great Devourer, because if father wasn’t really an immortal godkiller, then perhaps the great lord Izax still lives in another form!”

He flopped backwards onto the bed, and she didn’t yell at him to leave, so he took that as a good sign. “Thexan,” he said softly. “I meant Thexan.”

She didn’t answer immediately, and he wondered whether she meant to ignore him. It was a stupid question after all, he wouldn’t blame her if she-

“I don’t know,” she said, her tone sullen but more subdued than a moment ago when she’d been teasing him. “Are you still getting the letters?”

It took him a few seconds of confusion to recall that she’d seen the very first one, the one Thexan had sent to beg him to call off the declaration of war. But then she’d used the plural- “How do you know about the rest of them?”

She shrugged sleepily. “He’s been sending them to me for a few months now too,” she said. “I guess after you never answered, he decided to try his luck with me as well.”

It sent a spear of something ugly, something jealous and hurt, stabbing through his gut. “You never told me he was talking to you,” he said. He never told me he was talking to her.

“You never asked. And you didn’t exactly tell me about your letters either.”

It hurt. It hurt far more than was reasonable, and far more than he wanted to admit to, and it was stupid. So what if the pretender was sending letters to Vaylin, so what? It made sense, trying to ingratiate himself with both surviving members of the family, to further add legitimacy to his claims. But it hurt so much, having to acknowledge that he wasn’t unique and wasn’t special, that he wasn’t the only one who-

It’s not even him.

He swallowed down the ugly wad in his throat, his eyes burning. “Do you think it’s him?” he repeated, his voice cracking.

Vaylin made a sound of frustration, and he turned his head so that he could see her with his good eye. “I don’t know,” she said again. She tugged on the blanket rather forcefully and half buried herself beneath it. “You were there. You saw what happened, you tell me- do you think it’s him?”

He thought of every single holovid he’d received over the past year, every teasing slice of life, every solemn and desperate plea, every terse and angry condemnation of the war. He thought of his brother, and the way he’d woken from surgery on Korriban to find him sitting at his bedside, the relief on his face the only thing that made waking up worthwhile. He’d held him through the pain, when he’d thought it better to die than to live with such agony. He thought of the empty hollow shape inside of him, like missing a limb but worse, the space where his brother’s life force had resonated in him until the moment it had... stopped.

“Why can’t I feel him?” he said hoarsely, the closest thing to a confession as he could bring himself to voice aloud. “If it’s him- why can’t I feel him?”

Vaylin’s voice was muffled from underneath the blankets. “If it isn’t him, then of course you wouldn’t feel him. He’s a stranger.”

Do you remember that month that we lived in the swamps when we were children, the pretender had said in one of the more recent videos. A pretender couldn’t have known that. We said we were pirates, and we built a treehouse to keep us above the waters at night. That terrifies me now, because what if my child tries to do the same thing? Just runs off into a swamp and won’t come home?

He’d paused. I suppose I can always go along with them. I’ve got experience building treehouses, after all.

“What does he say to you?” he asked instead. “In the letters, I mean.”

“Oh, thank you for clarifying brother dear, I thought you were asking what he said to me every week when we have our delightful three hour holochat.” At his annoyed growl, she giggled from underneath her mountain of blankets. “You’re so easy to wind up.”

Vaylin.”

“Alright, alright, gods.” She grumbled under her breath as she clawed her way free, dragging a pillow over to wedge under her head as she faced him; after she was comfortable, she reached behind herself and grabbed another, surprising him by awkwardly lobbing it towards him. “He talks about all kinds of things. He’s chatty- I don’t remember him being chatty.”

“He wasn’t chatty,” Arcann agreed.

“And he laughs a lot, I don’t remember him laughing since we were children.”

“He used to laugh with me.”

“Well, bully for you, I missed out on a few crucial years and nobody wanted to laugh with me when I came back.”

Arcann closed his eyes. “I’m sorry about that,” he said quietly. “I didn’t... I wasn’t coping well back then.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say you’re coping well right now.” He felt her toe poke him in the side of his ribs from beneath the blanket. “I haven’t heard you laugh in forever.”

Her bed was very comfortable, he’d decided- although maybe that was just in comparison to hours of lying at a bad angle on the floor. “What’s there to laugh about?”

“Father’s dead. Dead dead dead dead.” She said it in a dreamy, singsong voice. “If I could tap dance on top of his crypt, I’d laugh myself sick while doing it.”

He rolled over again, hugging his cybernetic arm to his belly. Sometimes his stomach ached and burned, as if the lightsaber had gone through him, and not Thexan. He told himself it was just the guilt, or a bad reaction to food. When they’d been children, he’d always been able to feel Thexan’s pain, a faint echo in his body like a week old bruise.

But Thexan was dead.

It was probably just stress.

“Do you believe he’s gone too?” he asked, tugging a corner of the blanket up over his feet.

Vaylin laughed quietly, and the sound was bitter. “Not for a moment,” she said, her eyes glittering in the dim light of the room. “He’s just waiting. He might not come back for us, but he’s not gone.”

So she had come to the same horrifying realisation that he had- that their father was indeed some otherworldly body-jumping terror like the sith lords had claimed, or that perhaps their father had been taken by such a creature at some point in his life. Was there a man who had once been Valkorion, a mortal man of Zakuul, or had he always been the monster in human skin?

And what did that make them? Were they human, or were they only monstrous violent beasts, struggling with the confines of their brittle human forms?

“Arcann?”

He shivered, and blinked. “What?”

Vaylin was staring at him, her expression unreadable in the dark. “You made a weird sound. Thought you were crying.”

He cleared his throat, and his stomach ached like an old scar. He ignored it. “It’s nothing,” he said. “It’s been a bad night.”

She didn’t respond immediately, and he thought that, again, she meant to just leave it at that and go back to sleep; he was glad she hadn’t kicked him out. But she surprised him again when she grunted as if in agreement. “I get those,” she said bluntly, shrugging again as if that mitigated the enormity of what she was admitting to. “I thought it’d get easier after he died, like being free of his presence would help me breathe, but-”

“But he doesn’t ever really leave,” he finished hoarsely, his own fear laid bare.

He saw her swallow uncomfortably, the same sort of gesture he made when he was struggling not to let the ugly things inside of him burst out and take over. “He does not,” she said, the words almost forced out. “And so, instead of feeling safe because he’s finally gone, you’re more paranoid than ever, because now you don’t know which direction he’s going to come from and he’s-”

“Vaylin,” he rasped, squeezing his eyes hard shut. “Please, don’t.”

She was quiet, and then after a moment he heard a sullen “Sorry.”

They lapsed into silence, and for the first time that night Arcann began to believe he might actually have a chance at falling asleep. He felt exhausted both physically and emotionally, every muscle in his body aching while his head was almost painfully blank, like he’d gone around so obsessively in his thinking that he’d reached a point of only static. It didn’t exactly feel good, but it wasn’t the brink of a panic attack. He’d take it.

“Arcann?”

He rolled onto his back, giving up all pretense of intending to leave any time soon; he tugged the blanket free from where it was tucked around the corner of the mattress, and pulled it up over himself. “What?”

She sounded young, and... timid, maybe. “If it’s really him,” she said quietly, “in the letters, I mean...”

“Yes?”

He heard her shift, the rustle of the sheets bewilderingly comforting. He and Thexan had shared a bedroom for a long, long time in the royal nursery, and until their father had ordered them separated at age twelve, it hadn’t been unusual for them to share a bed too, giggling and whispering long after their nannies had given up on expecting them to sleep. In some ways, it felt like it was only yesterday, and in others it was easy to acknowledge that those memories were creeping up on two decades old. Happier, more gentle memories, of boys who did not yet know the pain lying in wait for them.

“If it’s really him,” she repeated, “why hasn’t he come home?”

It was the same question he’d asked himself over and over again in his weaker moments, when he’d allowed himself the fantasy of imagining that Thexan might have survived the killing blow. Suppose he hadn’t died there in the throne room, in his arms, and had miraculously lived long enough to be smuggled off-world by their enemies... why had he stayed with them? He’d seen the footage of their farcical trial on Coruscant, and he’d seen the attempt on the pretender’s life by the sniper. The brief few seconds of footage from the sleeper pod in the Gordian Reach had shown him leaping to defend the Jedi Battlemaster from attack without hesitation.

If it was really Thexan, why had he made no attempts to come home?

“He says... he says they’re having a baby,” he said, his voice cracking again.

“That doesn’t mean he has to stay away. Let him come home, bring the baby with him. Give the people something to be excited about, a new princess.”

He laughed weakly, but he didn’t feel that amused. “Aren’t worried about the competition?”

“I’m not a princess. I’m a High Justice. There’s a difference.”

“If you say so.” What else could he say to that? “Guess it’s a good thing it’s not actually him, then.”

It was Vaylin’s turn to laugh humourlessly. “Guess so.”

They lapsed into silence yet again, and this felt more permanent now; it was extraordinarily late, after all. He licked dry lips and attempted to push his luck one more time. “Thank you, anyway,” he said awkwardly. “For letting me talk. And...” He winced. “-stay?”

She laughed again. “You know what the rumour mills will say if it gets out you were in my room overnight,” she said bitterly.

‘Weak-willed emperor in the thrall of sister’, that sort of thing?”

“Destroying the dreams of so many pretty young things who fancy themselves a good chance to catch an emperor’s eye,” she said sleepily. “Won’t it be marvellous.”

“I have no intention of getting married,” he said, pulling the blanket up higher. She hadn’t told him to leave, so he was taking that as permission for now. “I don’t care what the rumour mills say. I’ve been married seven or eight times over this year, according to the gossip holos- and I have at least a dozen illegitimate children.”

“Only a dozen?” She sounded like she was fading fast.

“I think someone said I ate the rest.”

“And you didn’t share? Rude.”

He held his breath, waiting for the inevitable snarled reminder to get out, but it didn’t come. Trying not to sound too desperate, he whispered “Goodnight.”

Something that felt like a halfhearted attempt at a kick in the ribs landed on his midsection. “Shutup and go to sleep,” she grumbled.

He lay awake for long enough to hear her fall asleep, listening to the way she snored faintly, and pretended he was back in his childhood, listening to Thexan sleep beside him.

Chapter Text

She had enough points of reference in her waking nightmares to know that time was passing beyond this bizarre prison. Days, months, weeks, seconds, years- she had no idea how much, how fast, but she knew it was happening. This place however, wherever she was, whenever she was, was endless and infinite, and she had no idea if time was passing in this place or whether she was just trapped in a moment that repeated over and over and over again.

Like the feed on a doctored security vid, playing on a loop endlessly, while fools went on none the wiser that villainy was afoot.

Was she aging? She knew she was dying. When she finally broke out of this hellscape, would the carbonite fall away, only for her body to crumble to dust in an instant, ancient and decrepit and any chance of life and love ruined?

“You are terribly melodramatic,” Valkorion said, pacing slowly back and forth behind her.

She rolled her eyes. “Says the one trying so hard to get my attention it would put a Zeltronian whore to shame,” she snapped, not bothering to look at him. She was tired, emotionally and physically, and the poison in her blood hurt so much that she couldn’t remember what it was to not be in excruciating pain.

“Your preoccupation with death is fascinating,” he said, his voice rattling in her skull. “The Force is timeless, ageless, infinite- if you would accept my aid, you could join me in immortality. And yet you continue to fight.”

“How unusual that I, a woman whose life has been so starkly defined by the abuses of men, would take issue with the idea of letting my guard down around a man defined by his centuries of abuses. How peculiar.”

He chuckled, and she hated him. “My actions are beyond your comprehension,” he said. “You have no way to measure that which you cannot even grasp without losing yourself in the immensity of it. To understand my power, you must let go of these mortal trappings that chain you to the world of flesh and death.”

“I would call children a significant chain to the world of the flesh,” she said, “and yet every time I turn around, you have more of them.”

“Are you still sulking about the vision I gave you? The child could very well be yours, the woman too- a meek and insipid little family, destined to slowly waste away and succumb to disease and death while you watch helpless to intervene.”

“At least I would have them!” she snarled, picking up a rock and hurling it into the abyss nearby. “You collect children as if they were trinkets, nothing more than ideal playthings!”

“Whyever else would I need them?” The amusement in his tone made her stomach roil. “The mind of a child is an extraordinary thing- impressionable, malleable, eager for learning and validation in equal parts. A warrior trained from infancy can be a powerful tool indeed.”

She stared out over the abyss, her nails cutting into her palms as she clenched her hands into fists on her lap. “You disgust me,” she said, her voice dripping with disdain.

“Why? Do not tell me you feel some sense of compassion towards the spoiled whelps responsible for your slow demise.” She felt him come to a stop behind her. “Or perhaps you feel shame for how easily I describe your own childhood, Nox.”

She had tried to kill him. Oh, she had tried so, so hard to kill him. “I hate you,” she whispered.

“So did my children,” he said, amused. “The anger of a child denied their toy is of no concern to me.”

____

Ryloth, the Gaulus Sector, Outer Rim Territories

Lessu, the ancient capital of the twi’lek homeworld, was in twi’lek hands once more for the first time in hundreds- if not thousands,- of years. After the catastrophic disgrace of the Hutt Cartel almost five years ago now, the people of Ryloth had finally pressed back in open revolt, fighting for their independence against cruel masters who only saw their worth as chattel slaves. Their world was scarred, and some wounds would never heal, but Ryloth had its freedom again; with their sister capital of Kala’uun on the northern terminus, a fragile young government had formed, and was beginning to take more aggressive steps towards self-determination.

Despite what prejudices most people seemed to hold about the twi’lek people and their primitive culture, in truth their cities and their villages were ancient and proud, showing a keen understanding of the planet and their relationship with the deadly environments that lurked just beyond the terminus zone. Their homes and cities were carved into the rock face of the canyons and mountains, timeworn citadels that looked inwards and down instead of up towards the sky, to protect them from the heatstorms that lashed the red surface. Some might have found such a lifestyle claustrophobic, but over the millennia the people of Ryloth had turned the cracks and crevices in the rock into grand, vast halls and arching, elegant ceilings, the intersections upheld with glorious carvings of the goddess in all her forms.

Lessu itself was a beautiful city, built into a lone mountain on the Plains of Dar’asaan; it stood proud and tall above the flatlands, with towers and turrets carved directly into the peaks, the cliffsides a honeycomb of windows and portals. When the weather was fine, and the heatstorms kept to themselves out in the Brightlands, there were coloured banners and flags aplenty, a riot of colours that exploded against the mountain. There was a grand and ancient statue of the goddess, one of the oldest surviving depictions of her, with her arms outstretched as she faced along the terminus towards Kala’uun. There was a matching statue in their sister city, both of them well over two hundred feet tall, a symbol of the resilience of the people. They’d survived heatstorms and wars and famines and slavers and conquerors- and yet they still stood, proud and beautiful.

The stone of the city itself was a deep, magnificent red, and a thousand generations of feet and hands had worn the surfaces smooth and polished. Each pillar was a tribute to the memories of those who had come before, shaped by their touch; each hall and corridor through the mountains was worn from the tread of their feet, the streets so old that they seemed like natural seams within the rock face and not man made pathways. In the centre of each intersection was a sculpture- more of a pedestal, really,- and atop each pedestal sat a large, round orb, suspended in the air and bathing the area in warm, invigorating light. These sunstones, as they were affectionately called, made up for the restricted access to the surface and the sunlight, and made all the difference in keeping the general health and mood of the population at stable levels. It was always obvious when a district had lost a sunstone- tempers spiked far quicker, and the calls for medics increased rapidly until the orb was replaced.

On the higher tiers of the cities, there were still portals to the outside world, great carved portcullis that let true sunlight spill down onto the central void. They were guarded, of course, against the occasional hungry lylek willing to risk the noise to find a snack, and with the onset of the heatstorms, heavy blast doors came down to lock the deadly heat from the city within. The Octagon, the large open district at the base of the central void, was a riotous arena of markets and cafes and gardens, scattered through with stone dais for spontaneous performances of dance and song; many of the gardens had been stripped out by the Hutts’ thugs, the space used instead for storage, but like everything else, it had been reclaimed and revitalised.

There were mosses and flowering vines that spilled over the edge of the balconies in the upper tiers, great curtains of greenery with splashes of colour that contrasted so magnificently with the red stone. Granted, the lower halls were far less elegant, buried deep within the earth and used for storage and keeping the great herds of rycrit safe at night and for the cramped slums occupied by the poor and desperate, but things were slowly improving for the latter in the time since the planet had been taken back from the Hutts.

For one thing, there were no more slave pens down there. That was a colossal victory in itself.

Jaesa had been living on Ryloth for two years now, and surprisingly, the small apartment in Lessu that she shared with Vette felt far more like home to her than all her years on Alderaan. She could speak ryl with some halting confidence now, although some of the non-verbal cues with hands and lekku still eluded her, and she was getting so much better at cooking with local ingredients- well, getting better at cooking in general. It hadn’t ever been a life skill she’d needed to develop prior to her life with Vette, and for the first few months it’d desperately shown; Vette had teased her that if there was a way to burn water, she would’ve been a master of the craft.

She’d never imagined that she’d find herself in a life like this, living quietly and domestically on an out of the way planet, but she wouldn’t have changed it for the galaxy.

Every day, she woke to the joy of having her wife in her arms- her wife, she had a wife, it was a delight that still wasn’t old yet,- and every day she watched with pride as Vette rushed off to her office in the reclaimed government district, to further fumble through the proper channels required to build a functioning society. Every day, she pottered around the apartment after she’d gone, setting out things for the evening meal, tidying the cushions and the sheets on the bed they shared, making sure nothing was left on to drain their power rations during the day. And every day, she made her way down to the lower tiers of the city, leaving behind the natural sunlight for the glow of the sunstones as she went to spend her hours assisting in the refugee camps, and specifically with the handful of Force sensitive children that had come to her attention.

She loved it, all of it. She was making a real and tangible difference here on Ryloth, and helping the little ones to come to terms with their trauma while easing them into their powers was healing for her in ways she hadn’t even imagined. It was so very stark to her, seeing the difference it made for them in being able to stay in environments that were familiar to them, with people that loved them and cared for them.

Oh, she didn’t doubt for a moment that her parents loved her in their own way, but they had been more than happy to push her first into the service of Gesselle Organa, in the hopes of securing an advantageous marriage with some distant noble cousin, and then to send her off with the Jedi under the illusion that having a daughter amongst the Order would somehow raise their social stock.

She loved them, she truly did, but as she watched the children she tended to running back proudly to their parents to show them their latest progress, or held the little ones napping in her arms, she wondered how different things might have been if she’d been allowed to stay at home. Granted, she’d been well-taken care of amongst the Jedi, even if she had technically been too old to be admitted to the care of the creche, and she had fond memories of some of the older padawans like Master Ona’la, who had taken her under their wing until her studies had taken her away from Tython. But a Jedi had also used her as nothing more than bait in a decades long vendetta against a Sith, and had broken her heart and her trust in the process.

Which was not to say that she was not truly grateful to Tahrin for her kindness and the education she had provided her, sheltering her from the worst of the empire’s machinations and giving her the opportunity to meet the woman who would become her wife, but... stars. It was very complicated. Just because she was grateful didn’t mean that she wasn’t bitter about the way some things had turned out.

Perhaps a rather morbid turn to her thoughts on this particular morning, but the tension in the city was so sharp right now with the imminent visit of the Zakuulan Exarch that she’d had a headache for the better part of two days. One of the many perils of being an empath.

The ceremony to greet the Exarch was taking place later that morning, in the Clan Council chambers, and Jaesa had finally succumbed to curiosity enough that Vette had reserved a seat for her in the public gallery. She’d stand out for sure, as one of the few humans in attendance, but she’d never seen an Exarch before. She wanted to see if they were as frightening as promised- a goal she assumed was laughably impossible.

She was the Wrath’s apprentice, after all.

She had a few hours to burn before she was due to attend the ceremony, so she spent a little longer getting ready than she might normally have- she’d been to a few gatherings as Vette’s spouse, and she knew it was important to look the part of the supportive political wife. She put on a little more makeup than she usually wore to work, and she tucked her lightsaber hilt discreetly into the bottom of her satchel. She couldn’t exactly wear it on her hip without giving herself away outright, but it was nice to have it close at hand.

The slave pens in the lower depths of Lessu had been destroyed the moment the Hutts and their mercenaries had been ousted from power, and the vast halls that had once been used for something so ugly had been converted to accommodate the freed slaves and the refugees; there were plenty of villages that had been destroyed entirely by the greed of the slavers, and it was slow work getting them fit for habitation again. More than that, there were plenty of expatriates making their way home from across the stars, now that home was a place to have pride in and no longer a slave pit.

She didn’t have an office down there, technically, but she had a little room next door to one of the general health clinics, where the lost and orphaned children were kept safe and where the Force sensitive children came to her for help with their burgeoning powers. The district matriarchs organised housing and food for the children without adults to care for them, and during the day they allowed them to come to her, to play and heal and learn.

Nomen Karr or Darth Baras would have had her use her powers for conflict, to fuel the eternal one-upmanship of the Republic and the Empire. Tahrin asked her only to be true to herself, and to trust in her own judgement as to where to use her skills. She was tired of endless war, and she was tired of her gifts being treated as weapons of destructive capabilities and nothing else. She wanted to heal, and to teach, and to defend and protect. She was tired of being a puppet for more powerful Force users, and caring for some of the most vulnerable children in the galaxy was far more rewarding than anything she could have been doing in the name of the Sith or the Jedi.

There were already a half dozen children scattered about the room when she arrived, sitting at the little tables and drawing with the brightly coloured chalks and crayons she’d bought for them at the market a few weeks ago. Two of the little ones were floating a ball back and forth between them, their brows furrowed with concentration as it wobbled from one set of hands to the other. Unsurprisingly, there were two other adults in the room already, supervising the children as they played- she’d had no end of volunteers in the months since she’d set up the little creche, and she suspected that for a lot of parents who had lost their children to slavers, or been separated during the wars, it was helpful for them to process their grief in taking care of the children who had lost everything in turn.

What was surprising, however, was that one of the adults was not one of her regular volunteers, but was instead a woman she only vaguely recognised from the few occasions she’d gone with Vette to the halls of the Clan Council. She blinked in surprise as she set her bag down by the wall, taking in the sight of the large, golden-skinned twi’lek who was currently administering some sort of injection to one of the children.

“Um,” she began, trying to remember if she preferred Doctor or Minister. The woman looked up at her, expertly pressing a cotton bud to the injection site while offering up a lollipop with the other hand; the child, completely unconcerned by the fact that they’d just received a needle, whooped for joy at the appearance of the sweet, stuffing it into their mouth immediately. Jaesa took a wild guess. “Doctor Torr, was it?”

She smiled, so she must have guessed right. “You’re Ce’na’s wife, right?” she said, shuffling on her knees over to the next child at the table. Like the first, they didn’t even bat an eyelid at her rolling up their sleeve and quickly applying the needle. “Some kind of sith girl?”

Jaesa’s face flushed. “I’m not a girl,” she said, “I’m twenty-seven!”

“But didn’t object to the sith part,” she said pointedly, withdrawing another lollipop from the case on the floor beside her. The child took it obediently and didn’t even look up from their crayons. “I hope that doesn’t mean you’ve got nefarious plans for our kids, here.”

She bristled. “I was vetted quite thoroughly by the district matriarchs,” she began, but Doctor Torr shook her head.

“No need to get wound up,” she said, climbing to her feet and dusting her hands off on her pants. There was a sink in the back corner, with a set of steps in front of it for the little ones to reach the faucet, and she managed to turn it on using her elbow. “Can’t blame a girl for being suspicious of Force users, what with all the mess they cause. Especially when they’re off-worlders.”

Jaesa did have to grudgingly agree with that sentiment- Force users did tend to cause more messes than was necessary. “Can I ask what you were doing with the children just now, Doctor?”

With her hands scrubbed clean, she turned back towards her. “Vaccinations,” she said simply, as if that explained everything. “And call me Kol’aya.”

“I- well. Alright, Kol’aya, what vaccinations are these? I wasn’t informed of any vaccinations.”

“The matriarchs for each district have been sending through requests as folk get more settled- they were the ones who requested the vaccination schedule be adjusted to include the children without legal carers, and they were the ones who approved my presence here today. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t need to get the approval of an off-worlder wizard just to take care of my own people.”

Jaesa gaped at her, completely taken aback by the woman’s hostility. Tahrin had trained her extensively on dealing with the ruthless mockery of the Sith, and the Jedi had counselled her to stay calm in emotionally hostile situations, but in all honesty it had been some time since she’d been met with such outright animosity. She struggled to find her tongue, and in the awkward silence, one of the little ones- a pink skinned little girl by the name of Poysee- looked between the two of them and burst into noisy tears.

Her heart lurched. “Oh, sweetheart,” she said, immediately dropping to a crouch to pick her up. Poysee wrapped her arms around her neck and buried her face against her shoulder, her wailing muffled as she straightened. “It’s okay, Poysee, it’s okay.”

Beside her, Kol’aya sighed, rubbing at her face with something of a grimace. “That’s- ugh. I’m sorry, that was my fault.”

Jaesa was rocking Poysee gently, patting her back as she let her cry. “They’re too young and too traumatized to have any real sort of finesse with their powers,” she said, “but their empathic senses are extraordinarily sensitive. The slightest change in mood can set them off.”

The doctor looked mildly chagrined. “So you’re telling me that yes, it is my fault,” she said ruefully.

“Well... not in as many words,” she said. “The tension this last week hasn’t been good for them in any case.”

“The tension?” Kol’aya’s interested sharpened noticeably. “Regarding the Zakuul visit?”

Jaesa glanced at her over the top of Poysee’s lekku stubs. “Yes- Vette told me you were one of the only other ministers to vote against the alliance.” She shifted the girl in her arms to a more comfortable spot on her hip, still patting her gently to calm her. “If you don’t mind my asking, aren’t you supposed to be up at the Clan Council chambers with everyone else?”

Kol’aya rolled her eyes. “I can be upstairs being needlessly drilled on political etiquette for the upteenth time, or I can be down seeking out problems and dealing with them myself, rather than leaving them to be forgotten in the bureaucratic process.”

“I- I don’t understand...”

“I was a nurse before I was a doctor- and I’m really not cut out to be a politician. The less time I spend in office, and the less time I spend around impressionable diplomats from all powerful empires, the better for everyone.” Her expression softened dramatically when Poysee sniffed and turned her head to the side, peering out cautiously from where she was hiding against Jaesa’s shoulder. “Hey there, little one. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

Poysee sniffed again, lifting her hand up to her mouth, as if she intended to start sucking on her whole fist.

“Do you want to tell me about how it hurts? See if I can fix it?”

Jaesa smoothed her hand over Poysee’s back. “It’s not really a physical hurt,” she said hesitantly, trying to work out how to word it. “It’s probably closer to, ah... maybe just an emotional outburst?”

“Even an emotional outburst can hurt- and it definitely still has physical symptoms, looking at the chemical and hormonal spikes it can cause.” Kol’aya reached out, and Jaesa almost instinctively turned her body away, as if to shield Poysee from her; with some difficulty, she made herself stand still. Kol’aya put her hand on Poysee’s forehead, as if to feel for a fever, while her other hand reached into her pocket. “And mysticism aside, the Force has very real physical consequences when it interacts with our plane of existence, and those consequences can include physical pain or injury. It’s not unreasonable to be cautious around you damn wizards.”

The jump in the little girl’s mood when Kol’aya produced a bright blue lollipop was almost enough to make Jaesa laugh in shared joy; the two of them must have shared a look, because Kol’aya’s smile broadened and she winked comically, offering the sweet to Poysee who snatched it up almost immediately.

“Your tongue is gonna turn bright blue like a guara lizard,” she said warningly, and Poysee giggled. “Don’t let me catch you trying to eat bugs later.”

She giggled again, hiding her face shyly against Jaesa’s shoulder- not ideally comfortable, given that she had a lollipop stick in her mouth. Jaesa winced as it stabbed into her shoulder, shifting her grip again on the girl. “You’re clearly far happier looking after people in a hands on environment- why did you take the Health Ministry if you didn’t want it?”

Kol’aya’s expression closed off immediately, and she could feel the rapid shuttering of her emotions too; the way she smiled tightly was too guarded, too forced, and she moved back to the little activity table to collect her medical case. “I’d been away from Ryloth for a long time,” she said, her body language saying far more than her words. “I have a lot of knowledge to share and, well, I thought it would be good to come home. Get closure on a few things.”

It was abundantly evident from the bitterness of her tone that whatever closure she’d found- if any- had done nothing to soothe over the wounds she was guarding. “Is there anything I can help with?” she asked quietly.

The laugh took her by surprise. “Oh, stars no, I appreciate that you’re being genuine, but no. I have no interest in baring my soul to a Force-user.”

Jaesa stiffened at the insult- one of Vette’s greatest fears was the division her Force powers caused between them, the way it forced Vette into a bizarre sort of second class below her, and for years now Jaesa had been striving to minimise those issues and address them as quickly as possible, so they had no time to fester. She’d thought that, here in Ryloth, where she held no rank or social power, and Vette was amongst her own people and culture, that her gifts might become a forgettable novelty and not a reminder of the vast gulf that stood between them.

Apparently, her hopes were in vain.

Whatever awkward direction the conversation might have taken after that ugly little reminder never came to light, because a commlink beeped and Kol’aya sighed. “That’ll be one of the clerks upstairs reminding me I’m due at the greeting ceremony,” she said, equal parts exasperated and resigned. “The children are all up to date on their immunisations, but I’m going to arrange for someone to come downstairs and do some more thorough examinations. I’m trying to get funding for a centralized health databank, so it would be great if we could make sure the kids have consistent care.”

“Uh.” What could she even say to that? “Of course. That sounds perfect.”

Kol’aya hefted her satchel up onto her shoulder, looking dusty and casual and more like a weary traveller than one of the most esteemed surgeons in the galaxy and the current Minister for Health in the Independent Ryloth Government. “Sorry, I didn’t actually catch your name,” she said, holding out a hand. “Can’t go calling you ‘the sith girl’ forever.”

Jaesa smiled through the urge to grit her teeth in annoyance. “I’m Jaesa,” she said, taking the offered hand; her handshake was firm, her palm warm.

After the unexpected disruption of Kol’aya’s visit, she had far less time to spend with the children than she’d hoped; regrettable, but she could always come back later that afternoon after all the ceremonies were done, and at least Poysee was calm again by the time she had to depart.

Her commlink buzzed in her pocket when she was on her way back upstairs, and she smiled to see Vette’s name on the screen. Welp, these Zakuul jackhats are about as unpleasant as I said they would be.

Jaesa giggled to herself as she made her way across the Octagon towards the turbolifts that would take her up to the civil services district. Are they Jedi unpleasant or Sith unpleasant, she asked.

They are Quinny-boy for the first two weeks after Pierce joined us unpleasant.

She snorted, but there was an undercurrent of fear in the message, something she could feel from Vette even without standing near to her. It was sour, and unpleasant, like bad milk in her stomach, and she had to fight the urge to break into a sprint and run to Vette’s side. She had promised herself that she would not interfere in Ryloth’s government- she would not be yet another alien interloper forcing themselves into twi’lek affairs, she would not speak over them, she would not...

And yet her fingers slid into her bag out of habit, touching the cool metal of her lightsaber hilt as if to reassure herself it was still there.

The Clan Council chambers were in one of the oldest parts of Lessu, the rooms witness to some of the greatest moments in twi’lek history. The main hall was a domed auditorium, the ceiling tiled with burnished copper panels that glimmered in the light; the room itself was circular, and split in two, with one half given over to the speaker’s platform, a dais upon which the ministers and various constituents could make their claims, and the other half given over to tiered seating. There was a public gallery, set several feet above the floor, and two crescent moon tables nestled together for the Clan Council and for the ministers.

It was a tragic place, however, because the walls had once been covered with glorious mosaics, depicting great heroes and triumphs of the twi’lek people. At some point, over the duration of the Hutts’ occupation, the artwork had become fair game either for scavengers or for bored mercenaries looking for absent-minded acts of vandalism. They were pockmarked and imperfect, the brighter coloured stones having been stolen long ago, and despite the efforts of the last few years to restore them, they were still works in progress.

The worst act of vandalism, however, was the magnificent statue of their goddess, her name unspoken outside of only the holiest and most private of ceremonies. She stood at the back of the speaker’s platform, her arms outstretched as her much larger counterpart outside did- but both of her lekku had been badly damaged, presumably deliberately. The left had been broken off close to the nape of her neck, while the right was chipped and cracked until it finally broke off midway down her back. It was the most unforgivable act of vile mockery, and she didn’t know whether it was sacrilegious for them to attempt repairs, or whether they were simply too stunned at the blatant disrespect to know how to move forward.

It wasn’t her place to guess, however- all she could do was support Vette, and help her with whatever frustrations she felt she could share with her at home.

The public gallery was already quite crowded when she arrived, but thankfully the seats had all been allocated ahead of time, in preparation for the large turnout. Jaesa shuffled down the aisle towards the seats that were reserved for the families of the Council and the ministers, smiling at those few she recognised, before taking her seat in the front row of the gallery. She’d wondered whether the Zakuulans would come later, after the Council had opened the session, but she was surprised to see that they were already down on the chamber floor, four golden clad knights with a tall figure in stunning white and gold armour taking pride of place at the front of the dais.

Presumably, thought Jaesa as she folded her hands into her lap, trying not to fidget with the lightsaber hilt that she’d moved to within her jacket, this was the Zakuulan Exarch.

The Exarch, a striking human woman with golden skin and eyes as dark as her hair, stood at the front of the room, her body language aggressive and demanding. She carried a long pike in one hand, and she had seen enough vids on the holonet to recognise it as a lightsaber pike; she had trained in combat against standard techstaffs and double-bladed sabers, but this? This seemed to be something else entirely.

Stop assuming that you’ll need to fight her, you blockhead, she scolded.

The Clan Council was seated, for the most part, the two tiered crescent moon facing towards the speaker’s platform where the Exarch stood with the First of the Clans, the poor woman looking distinctly rattled from where Jaesa sat up in the public gallery above. She couldn’t blame her- even from here, she could feel the power radiating off of the warrior woman, and there was something flat and almost inhuman in her gaze as she slowly scanned the crowd. Jaesa held her breath when her eyes landed on her- not the only human in the gallery, to be sure, but to the best of her knowledge the only Force sensitive one- but after a moment her gaze moved on, and she silently breathed a sigh of relief. Tahrin had warned her about the Exarchs, and while she didn’t doubt her master’s training for a second, seeing this woman in the flesh was far more daunting than she would have liked to admit to.

That was rather humbling.

She could see Vette seated in the second row with the rest of the ministers, while the Clan Council sat in the first row of the half moon; she managed to resist waving encouragingly when Vette glanced in her direction, but only just. The atmosphere was a little too fraught for her to do something so frivolous. Kol’aya was there, dressed a little more formally than she had been down in the creche- she’d exchanged the cotton tank top for something black and slinky, and she wore a twi’leki headdress shaped like a bird with it’s wings outstretched.

Honestly, she still didn’t understand how ‘formal wear’ somehow translated to ‘slinky’ in their culture, but given what Vette was wearing, she wasn’t going to complain.

There was a Council Herald on the side of the speaker’s platform, and at a nod from the First, he lifted up a tutak, the name for a double ended trumpet made from the horns of a rycrit. The sound it let out was certainly loud, but she wouldn’t exactly have called it a pleasant noise; however it seemed to have the desired effect of drawing the murmurs of conversation to a close, and the grand hall fell to silence. There were Council Guards on both double doors, and at the sound of the tutak, they closed them both, signifying the beginning of the session.

The First of the Clans, a older, purple-skinned woman by the name of Tann’li of Clan Racor, clapped her hands together loudly. “Here we stand upon the red sands of Ryloth,” she said, her voice ringing clear in the silence, “children of the Great Mother, who we look to for guidance in all things. May her gaze fall upon us today, as we walk forward into a new dawn.”

“Your goddess clearly cares little for you,” the Exarch said abruptly, her accent one that Jaesa had only heard briefly in vids on the holonet, when watching some of Emperor Arcann’s state speeches. Tahrin had told her in great secrecy that she believed him to be a sibling to her. She wasn’t sure what to make of that.

Tann’li obviously hadn’t been expecting the Exarch to speak, because she gaped for a moment before recovering herself. “The relationship our people have with our goddess is not really something I would expect outsiders to understand,” she tried again, but the woman was having none of it.

“She allows you to suffer- you should kill her. The great Valkorion, ever shall he be mourned, took it upon himself to rise up and slay the Devourer for the sake of our people. It is a great weakness that you do nothing in the face of her indifference.”

There were unhappy murmurs in the chamber, and the tension in the room had spiked catastrophically; Jaesa could already feel it in her chest and her head, like iron bands slowly constricting her.

“That is- with all due respect, my Lord, our goddess is our highest authority-”

“You have recognised the divine right of Zakuul as the highest authority,” she said, cutting the First off entirely. “We are here to accept your pledge of unquestioning loyalty to the might of the Eternal Throne, and to the Immortal Emperor Arcann.”

The murmur escalated into distressed, angry noises, and as the Exarch lifted her chin and glared, the crowd fell silent in an instance. Jaesa had to physically force herself to unclench her hand around the hilt of her lightsaber.

The First cleared her throat uneasily. “My, ah... my lord, this is not what we expected when we invited you here-”

“This is not a negotiation,” the woman said, her voice ringing hard and cold through the vaulted hall. “We are not here to discuss matters of alliance. Ryloth will fall under the banner of Zakuul- or it will fall.”

At the renewed chatter, she banged the end of her pike on the floor, the metal clanging loudly enough to aggressively silence the room again. “As we speak, the frame of a Star Fortress is being moved into position in orbit over Lessu- over the coming months, the structure will be completed, whereupon it will become the new seat of power for Ryloth, governed by myself.”

“You can’t do this!” someone yelled, and in an instant, a bolt of golden lightning seared upwards towards the ceiling from the Exarch’s outstretched hand; the copper tiles acted as magnificent conductors for the electricity, with the blast crackling violently around the dome. There were screams, and half of the public gallery fell out of their chairs, cowering on the ground.

As one of the few humans present, Jaesa was fighting a losing battle trying to get her hair to lie back down again- and to stop herself from vaulting over the side of the gallery and onto the floor, to face this Exarch herself.

“This is not a negotiation,” the Exarch repeated, clearly determined to continue onwards despite the noise from the lightning and the screaming crowd. “Cooperate, and you will be treated with all the respect due to other worlds under the banner of the Eternal Throne. We have no interest in slavery, and your people will be free to otherwise govern themselves as they see fit.”

Tann’li had fumbled back to her feet again, trying to stand proud and defiant before her. “Then why are you doing this?” she asked, almost shouting as she gestured to the room. “What purpose does it serve to disrespect us, and to threaten us, in the halls of our own home?”

The Exarch’s eyes were blank, and that was terrifying- a Sith would have been delighting in the pain they were causing, drinking up the panic and the fear and letting it empower them. A Jedi would have cloaked themselves in any number of emotions, from forced serenity to sorrow to grim determination. Her eyes were empty, deep and black and almost disinterested.

Jaesa had no idea what to do with an opponent who felt nothing.

“It is important for you to understand the nature of this arrangement,” she said slowly, as if she thought she was talking to idiots. “Ryloth serves the Eternal Empire now. You will provide us with appropriate tithes of minerals and wealth, and will be overseen from the Star Fortress.”

“But-”

“If you object, you will be destroyed.” She turned away from the First and faced the Clan Council. “We are aware that there are Force-strong children amongst your population.”

Jaesa’s blood ran cold, and she felt her heart freeze in her chest.

“They now serve at his glorious majesty’s pleasure,” she continued, ignoring the murmurs of distress her abrupt change of topic was causing. “We will require a list of all citizens known to be Force-strong. Do not attempt to hide them amongst the populace. Do not attempt to lie to me. You have three days to see them adequately assembled in Lessu and ready for departure.”

No, no, this couldn’t be happening, this wasn’t-

“Doctor Torr.”

At the specific mention of Kol’aya’s name, all eyes in the chamber turned unerringly to where the Minister for Health was still seated at the crescent table. Her eyes were narrowed in unspoken anger, and her lips were pressed thin, but she still nodded in acknowledgement. “Yes?” she asked tersely, not bothering with an honorific.

“You have come to the attention of the Royal Physician’s Office.”

The sarcasm was literally dripping from her words as she spoke. “Oh, have I now.”

“Please confirm your credentials for me.”

She looked like she was going to refuse, or to argue, but after a moment of gritted teeth, she relented. “Diploma of Nursing, Lessu Academy. Bachelor of General Medicine, Lorrd University. Bachelor of Surgical Medicine, Lorrd University. Doctor of Medicine, Lorrd University. Medical Internship, Lorrd City Central Hospital. Resident Medical Officer, Lorrd City-”

The Exarch made a dismissive noise, waving her hand. “Your specialisations?”

Kol’aya again took a long time to answer, as if considering her options before reluctantly answering. “Prosthetic osseointegration, and neurological integration.”

“You specialise in making prosthetics function correctly, yes?”

“I just fucking said that, didn’t I?”

The Exarch’s expression wavered for the briefest moment, her eyes narrowing as if in anger at her disrespect. “Congratulations, doctor- you have been singled out as a suitable candidate to work directly with the Royal Physician’s Office on Zakuul, where you will assist in the ongoing medical needs of the Immortal Emperor himself. Your escort will be leaving shortly, so I suggest you excuse yourself now to prepare your belongings.”

There was open dissent in the chamber now- people were shouting in the gallery, some of them climbing to their feet as they gestured agitatedly and snarled colourful insults at the Exarch and her party, the curses so foul that Jaesa could really only recognise about half of them. Tann’li was so pale that her skin looked blue instead of purple. “You- you can’t just- kidnap our citizens-”

“They are citizens of the Eternal Empire, and are required to serve as their Emperor sees fit,” the Exarch said without batting an eyelash. “Additionally, you had no concern for the children, which leads me to believe your distress is performative. You will have control of your government, madam, but only if you do not impede the workings of the greater Empire you serve.”

This was it. This was the sort of thing Tahrin had trained her for- to stand up and fight when the need arose, to meet violence unflinchingly, to harness her own anger and frustration at the cruelty of others and use it to defeat them. She couldn’t let this woman walk all over her adopted home, she couldn’t, she-

She was frozen in her seat, staring in dumbstruck horror as Doctor Torr climbed stiffly to her feet; flanked by one of the knights, she was escorted from the hall in silence. Her footsteps faded slowly into the distance, and she realised that the chamber wasn’t as silent as she’d thought- there were people weeping, with hushed and hurried attempts to quiet them, as if their terrified responses to a declaration of hostile occupation were going to bring the wrath of the Zakuulans down upon them.

There is no emotion, there is peace.

Peace is a lie.

She reached inside of her jacket for her lightsaber, already drawing on the anguish and frustration and horror she felt at watching the work her beloved had undertaken these last two years be crushed underfoot- and stopped. Vette was staring at her, Vette her beloved wife, who she knew every day that she would quite literally die to protect... she was shaking her head, ever so slightly. Her eyes were wide with panic and fear, and despite the wild and roiling emotions in the room smothering her, she could still find the threads in the vast tapestry that belonged to Vette and Vette alone.

Please, her expression was saying, her eyes begging. Please don’t do this.

And her heart broke, not because Vette didn’t want her to be involved in the affairs of her people, but because the fear she felt from her was for her. Vette didn’t want her to challenge the Exarch because she thought she would die.

As humbling as it was to feel the depths of Vette’s love and desperate fear for her safety, it hurt, too. To know that, when push came to shove, her own wife didn’t think she could keep her safe.

She put her hands back into her lap, and looked away from Vette.

Somebody called for a recess of the session- she wasn’t sure who, she didn’t recognise the voice,- and she shuffled out into the hallway with the rest of the public audience as the Council Guards awkwardly herded them out. She could hear tempers erupting in the chamber behind her, presumably the Clan Council being more free with their outrage now that they did not have witnesses, but she tuned it out.

She was numb, and horrified, and it wasn’t... nothing had really even happened. There’d been no death, no bloodshed, no terrifying invasion that had left the city burning and the citizens traumatized. But it hurt, all the same, to see how easily the Zakuulans had walked all over them, how callously they had dismissed them as a culture and a people and a force to be reckoned with.

It hurt that Vette didn’t think she was strong enough to protect her.

Stars take it all, she was crying. She moved to the side of the hallway, to leave room for the rest of the crowd to keep moving; she wiped her eyes as discreetly as she could, knowing her makeup was probably ruined even though she was careful. It was stupid to cry, absolutely stupid- Vette had every right to want to be cautious, and she didn’t need to come running in to play the part of the Dashing Human Saviour, valiantly defending the poor-

Her commlink beeped in her pocket, and she sniffed as she fished it out. My office was all it said, and she sniffed as she replied Of course.

Vette’s office was on the floor below the Clan Council chambers, and as she moved through the hallways she had to do her best not to flinch at the sight of skytroopers already moving through the corridors to establish a hold on the capital. She should’ve been fighting them, she was stupid to be cowering like this and keeping her head down, Vette deserved someone who would fight for her; this city had been her home for two years and she loved it dearly, and she wanted to fight.

She still felt a giddy swell of pride every time she saw Vette’s name on the plaque beside the door to her office- it looked so fancy, so elegant, and it gave her the respect she deserved for the hard work she’d done trying to salvage the ransacked and ruined history of the twi’lek people. She traced a finger over the etching in the copper nameplate, a sad smile on her face; she was about to knock on the door when it was thrown open from the inside panel, and she blinked in surprise as Vette all but threw herself through the doorway and into her arms, smooshing her mouth to hers in an exuberant kiss.

She let out a startled noise, but it took her only a moment to overcome her shock and throw her arms around her in return, answering her kiss with just as much passion as she was offered. When Vette made a small sound, she pulled back, alarmed to see her beloved crying. “Vette?” she started to say, but Vette kissed her again fiercely.

“You- you stupid, wonderful idiot,” she said, tears in her eyes. “Don’t you ever do something that reckless ever, do you hear me?”

Jaesa’s heart soared, and she knew her own eyes were bright with tears too. “How did you even get here ahead of me?” she asked.

“Nuh uh, no changing the subject, I’m still busy being mad at you.” She kissed her again, dotting them all over her face. “If you ever try to be that stupid ever again, I am going to deliberately leap in the middle of you and whatever beastly monstrosity you’re trying to nobly murder yourself on just to thwart you, you hear me?”

They were both laughing now, laughing and crying and kissing. Oh, it was so wonderful to love her, and to know that she loved her in return. “How did you get here ahead of me?” she repeated again, in between her laughter.

Vette sobered up almost immediately, her expression hardening as she wiped quickly at her cheeks. “You wanna get the kids and the doc out of here, right?”

She hadn’t even needed to tell her- they were already on the same page. Stars, but she loved this woman. “Of course,” she said. “But not if it means that your people suffer as a result of defying Zakuul.”

Vette waved a hand dismissively. “I’ve got a plan. Follow me.”

She grabbed Jaesa’s hand and took off down the corridor at a sprint, the intersections thankfully clear of skytroopers right now. She could hear noises in the distance that sounded like an argument, almost a violent one.

“Meyr’ell and some of his boys are causing a ruckus upstairs to give us some cover,” Vette said by way of explanation. “And I’ve already sent word downstairs to the creche- Tae’una is gonna bring the kids and meet you at the access tunnel off of Barn Cavern Onith, it leads straight out into the canyons, and you can-”

“Vette!” Jaesa pulled on her hand and dragged her to a halt. “What is- I don’t understand-”

Vette immediately leaned in and kissed her again, grasping her face in her hands; her expression was solemn as she looked at her. “I love that you were willing to just throw yourself without thinking at that jumped up jackhat without a second thought, but there are ways to do this, and when it comes to circumventing tyrannical overlords, well- we’ve sort of got a lot of practice at thwarting them, you know? Practice that you just don’t have.”

Jaesa stared at her. “You’ve already got everything organised?”

“Already got everything organised, babe. We just gotta run, because the window of opportunity ain’t great to begin with.”

She took a deep breath. “What do you need from me?”

“Just be ready to fight- and follow me, quick.”

Jaesa was stripping away her fancy jewellery as they ran, unclipping her earrings and her necklace and trying to stuff them in her jacket pockets without losing any of the small pieces. “Can we get into Doctor Torr’s office?”

“There are secret hallways all over this place,” Vette said, as they rushed down the corridor. “We used them during the Hutt occupation to get around without the mercenaries noticing, and then later during the actual war- it’s how I got back to my office so fast. Just gotta know where to access them.”

They turned down a side hallway, and there was a pockmarked mosaic on the wall, like in many of the other hallways; Vette made a beeline for it, and for a moment just stood staring at it. Beside her, Jaesa finished tucking all of her jewellery safely away and stood fidgeting at her side. “Uh,” she began, “sweetheart-”

“Babe, I’m counting, shush.”

Indeed, Vette’s lips were moving wordlessly as if she was counting off the numbers, and after a moment she went ‘aha’ quietly and reached out to a particular tile on the wall. It was no bigger than a thumbnail, and with a little effort, Vette managed to turn it several times, as if she was winding up a mechanical device; it didn’t come away from the wall, as she might have expected, but instead made a soft heaving sound, like a mechanism groaning slowly to life. She blinked in surprise as a section of the wall swung open, utterly unnoticeable even when actively looking for it.

“That’s amazing craftsmanship,” she said, as Vette hustled her into the darkened tunnel beyond.

“Yes, yes, we can talk about my people’s ingenuity later, we’ve got a doctor to nab right now though.” The door swung closed behind them with a subtle groan, and once it was back in place, there wasn’t even a seam of light breaking through to reveal the presence of it.

It was rather dark. “Um,” Jaesa started to say.

“Put your hand on the wall for balance and use those sithy senses of yours,” Vette said, nudging her in the back. “Kol’s office should be the fourth turn on the left.”

With some stumbling, she counted off silently on each passageway they found in the hallway, with Jaesa reaching out to find the occupants of the nearby rooms. It didn’t take long for her to brush up against a consciousness that felt familiar, and as that thought entered her mind she found the turn to the fourth passage. It was a short corridor, scarcely more than six feet long, and as she hesitated at the flat wall before her, she could sense Kol’aya on the other side of the stone- and she was not alone.

“Can you feel them?” Vette whispered right beside her ear. “I can’t open the door without them noticing.”

Jaesa nodded, and then realised Vette wouldn’t have seen that in the dark. “Yes,” she said, “just give me a moment.”

She was exceptionally talented at using the Force to influence people; her Jedi masters had endlessly cautioned her against using her powers to take away the will of another, that stealing another’s free will was anathema to everything the Jedi stood for, and that she should never use her powers to twist another’s thoughts to her whim.

She had learned instead, under the sith, that sometimes there were exceptions to every rule, and that a disoriented enemy was better than an attacking enemy, and an injured opponent was less painful on her conscience than a dead one.

Reaching out through the Force, it took her less than a moment to ascertain the two flutters in the room beyond, one soft and undefined and shapeless, the other sharp and sentient and aggressive. The first was Doctor Torr, while the second was her knight escort. Taking a deep breath, she focussed on the latter, wrapping herself around his thoughts and finding the lapse in his concentration so that she could-

There was a grunt in the room beyond, and then a loud thud. Vette was already pushing open the door as soon as she heard it, and the two of them tumbled into the office to find Kol’aya kneeling beside the knight with a look of alarm on her face. “I didn’t do it,” she said immediately, to which Vette burst out laughing.

“She did,” she said, gesturing at Jaesa; she turned and beamed at her. “Clever, ain’t she?”

“He won’t be out for long,” Jaesa said warningly.

“Come on,” Vette said, her expression turning serious in an instant as she gestured for Kol to follow them into the tunnel.

But Kol’aya shook her head. “No,” she said firmly. “I’m not going.”

“What?” Vette and Jaesa answered in unison.

“I won’t run away like a coward when it means that other people will be hurt for it,” she said stubbornly, climbing to her feet. She lifted her chin defiantly. “If I go with you, they will see it as a humiliation of Zakuul, and the people of Ryloth will suffer. I will not be responsible for that.”

At their feet, the Knight groaned.

Vette sighed in exasperation. “We don’t have time for this! Please, just trust me, we’ve got everything ready-”

“I’m not going to endanger innocent people!” Kol’aya said, her voice growing in volume.

Then Vette said the last thing Jaesa would have expected her to just blurt out in the halls of Lessu. “The Wrath isn’t going to let that happen,” she snapped, and Jaesa blinked at her in surprise.

Apparently, the answer took Kol’aya by surprise too. “The... Emperor’s Wrath? The assassin?”

“Yeah. Her.”

“How do you know Tahrin?”

Vette already had her mouth open to respond, but she froze midway through taking a breath. Jaesa answered instead. “How do you know Tahrin?” she blurted out.

“I’m good friends with Ysaine Pierce.”

Jaesa and Vette simultaneously made an ‘ohh’ sound of understanding, but Vette couldn’t help following it up “Are you good friends or ‘good friends’?”

Kol’aya blinked. “Uh, wow,” was all she said in response.

Shaking herself, Jaesa said “Tahrin is my master. She’s been training me for over seven years now.”

The poor doctor seemed to have just about reached her limit. “Wow,” she said flatly. “We just left the Wrath’s apprentice downstairs with the kids. Fantastic.”

The Knight groaned again, and he started twitching as if he was trying to wake up. Vette gestured impatiently. “Come on, Kol,” she said, the words snappish. “Either you stay here and let them drag you off to that starsforsaken planet to be a pet for that spoiled asshole, or you come with us now and keep your freedom and continue making a difference for people. It’s not a hard choice!”

Kol’aya bit her lip, indecision written all over her face. Jaesa extended a hand to her. “Please, Kol’aya,” she said, “just trust us.”

She sighed shakily. “Throwing my life into the hands of a Force-user,” she said. “Ain’t that a curveball I didn’t see coming.”

Vette hustled them into the tunnel again, closing the seam up tight behind them and leaving them in darkness again. This time, however, Vette took the lead, and quickly pulled a glowrod from her pocket, casting a puddle of yellow light on the ground. “We have to take the stairs this time, so watch your step,” she warned.

Lessu had a rather marvellous system of turbolifts and sky platforms, to help move traffic from the upper tiers to the lower, but they were not so lucky as to find them waiting for them in the hidden rebel tunnels. By the time they made it down to the lower districts, Jaesa’s thighs were burning, and her calves felt like jelly.

“Nothing to remind a girl of how much she hates her city like having it murder her legs,” Kol’aya said grumpily as she jogged alongside them. They were moving through the agricultural halls, past lowing herds of rycrit who were unsettled by the bubbling tension in the city. “Why can’t people live somewhere flat, instead of in bizarrely lofty heights?”

“Good thing you’re running from Zakuul, then,” Jaesa panted, as they ran down the slipway in the access tunnel that led to Gaa’ngaalu Canyon, one of the three major canyons that branched off from Lessu’s mountain.

“Why’s that?”

“Haven’t you ever seen any pictures of it? They live in giant skyscraper cities. They build up instead of out.”

“Oh, fuck that, seriously.”

At the bottom of the ramp, a serious of shadows peeled away from the wall, and for a moment Jaesa’s heart leapt into her throat. Then she recognised one of her helpers from the creche, a young woman named Tae’una, and the smaller shapes around her resolved themselves to be the Force sensitive younglings, blinking tearfully in the light as Vette’s glowrod reached them.

“Is that everyone?” Jaesa asked, attempting a quick headcount. “Yes? Alright, let’s go-”

“I’m not coming,” Vette said abruptly, coming to a halt in the tunnel.

Everything froze- her heart, her breath, her thoughts. She turned back to her slowly, incredulously, trying to process the statement. “What?” she asked finally.

“I’m not coming,” Vette repeated.

“But-”

“Freykaa, we don’t have time to discuss it,” Vette said, taking both her hands in hers. “Someone needs to stay here, to minimise the damage and clean up the evidence from your escape, and it has to be me.”

There were tears in her eyes, and they were losing precious seconds, but she didn’t care. “I can’t lose you!” she said.

Vette kissed her, soft and desperate. “You won’t,” she said, letting go of her hands and stepping backwards. Her hand went up to her throat, where the half moon of her wedding necklace was visible over the top of her shirt. “I promise.”

Jaesa’s hand went up to where her matching necklace sat, the half moon comforting against her skin. “I’m gonna be so mad at you if you get hurt,” she managed to choke out.

Vette winked as she continued to back away. “Can’t have a big bad sith going and getting made with me, now, can I?” she said.

“Stay safe, love.

“Stay safe, freykaa. I’ll stall them as much as I can.”

And then she was gone.

Jaesa stared at the empty shadows in the tunnel, a painful lump in her throat as she struggled to get a hold of herself. Only the distressed noises of the children roused her from her grief, and she sniffed as she turned around, smiling brightly for their benefit. “Hello my darlings,” she said, imbuing a sense of calm in her words. “Everything is going to be alright.”

The Fury was located in a hangar just outside of the city limits, not in the official city spaceport; when they’d arrived years ago, with the war for independence still in full swing, there hadn’t been an official spaceport for them to safely land at. The rebels had made accommodations in some of the hive-like, labyrinthine warrens in the canyons, and it had seemed like a good idea to leave the ship where it was, rather than bring a registered sith vessel into the capital, and remind everyone of who it was that Vette had married.

It was a blessing and a curse, because the Lessu Spaceport was under lockdown by the skytroopers, by Exarch Diara Nyu’s orders, and they wouldn’t have stood a chance of escaping if they had to fight their way through the spaceport full of armed opposition trained in taking down Force users. It wasn’t, however, exactly an ideal situation to be hurrying through the canyons as fast as they could, with half a dozen children under the age of ten all struggling to keep up. Most of them were crying.

Jaesa couldn’t blame them.

“We’re almost there!” she called encouragingly, glancing over her shoulder to see both Kol’aya and Tae’una carrying children as they ran- in fact, Tae had two of them in her arms, and Kol’aya was holding the hand of one of the little boys as he stumbled along beside her. “Just a little further!”

The opening in the cliff face appeared just around the curve, with the faint outline of the Fury visible in the shadows therein; her heart leapt with relief, and she started to smile-

-only to come skidding to a halt as two blue lights flickered on in the darkness, followed by the familiar sharp hum of a lightsaber spearing to life. She threw out an arm instinctively to stop the others from running forward, as the two blue lights resolved themselves to be the glowing eyes of a Zakuulan Knight’s mask, the golden armour creaking ever so slightly as the warrior stepped out from the shadows. “Going somewhere?” they asked, their voice almost terrifyingly smug behind the helmet.

Jaesa reached slowly for her belt and unclipped her lightsaber hilt, making sure the children were nowhere within reach before she activated it. The bright blue of her own saber bounced off of the red canyon walls as well, like ripples from a pool reflecting on the ceiling.

“Doctor,” she said quietly, “if you would be so good as to get the children on board for me.”

“My pleasure,” Kol’aya said dubiously, carefully herding the kids with Tae’s help in a wide berth towards the edge of the cavern.

“You’re wasting your time,” the Knight called, and Jaesa lifted her chin higher, determined not to flinch. “As soon as I’ve killed you, I’ll finish them off one by one.”

“I believe in that case, I would be wasting your time, not mine.”

The Knight twirled their lightsaber threateningly. “Indeed. I don’t like having my time wasted.”

“I’ll endeavour to die quickly, then.”

She was ready when they lunged, soaring across the red sand towards her; the overhead strike was heavy, and slow- she had plenty of time to dodge out from underneath it if she’d elected to do so. She did not, and the Knight came crashing down against her guard, their lightsaber humming ominously close to her face as she blocked it. “For the Emperor!” they snarled.

Jaesa turned on the other end of her lightsaber.

The double blade ignited, and speared straight through the chestplate; the golden armour smoked and crackled instantly, and the Knight jerked backwards as the lightsaber went clean through their torso, the bright blue tip visible through the other side.

She could feel their pain, their shock, their disbelief- their faith in the Emperor should have seen them nearly immortal, unbeatable, but here she was, a slip of a woman, and they were dead, dying, dead, pain-

“I’m sorry for your pain,” she whispered, as she eased them onto the ground. She heard their rasped breathing from behind the mask, and she disengaged her lightsaber. She could see the burnt, puckered flesh through the black seared circle in the armour. “You can rest now.”

It hurt. It always did, feeling the moment when the Force reclaimed the life energy of one of the living- it was bittersweet, because it was a powerful sensation to experience, but knowing it was because of her actions never got any easier to cope with.

She closed her eyes, and she felt them die at her feet.

Jaesa shuddered, and after a moment lost in the grief, she shook herself and ran over to the ramp of the ship, all but surging up the airlock.

The air inside was musty after months locked away, and the lights were slow to come on in some quarters; she could hear all the children, loud and weepy and unhappy, and as much as it pained her to hear them in distress, at least they were safe. She could also hear Tae’s voice over the madness, and trusting the other woman to keep the children settled, she dashed into the cockpit.

Kol’aya was there, frowning as she tried to start up the engines; she looked almost painfully relieved when Jaesa appeared. “Oh, thank the goddess,” she muttered. “I was about to just start guessing.”

Jaesa all but vaulted into the pilot’s seat, grateful indeed for all the times she'd needled Quinn for lessons.

“You’re injured,” Doctor Torr said, sliding into the seat beside her.

Jaesa batted her hands away from her shoulder as she kept keying in the launch sequence. The Fury, idle for so many months now, slowly hummed to life. “It’s just a superficial burn,” she said absently. “It’ll be fine with a kolto patch later.”

“Is it a plasma burn?”

The ship shivered slightly as the struts lifted up off of the ground, and then she was easing the Fury out of the cave and into the canyon, carefully navigating the misshapen rock face so as not to clip one of the wings. “Lightsaber,” she said, concentrating hard.

“That’s not superficial, goddess!”

“I’m fine!” She could already see the faint outline of the Star Fortress in the sky above Lessu, ghostly and pale like another moon. She could also see the small ships peeling away from the shell of the uncompleted station and surging towards the planet’s surface.

Ugh, she hated defensive flying.

She floored the power, the engines roaring and echoing around the canyon as she angled them up towards the stars. It was a race, to see if they could break atmosphere safely before their pursuers caught them; even as she watched, she could see streaks of light flashing past them, as the fighters tried to shoot them at long range.

“Well, this isn’t how I saw my day ending,” Kol’aya said, gripping the edge of the console so tightly that her knuckles were a pale, ghostly yellow. “Or my life, for that matter.”

Jaesa gritted her teeth. “Not dead yet,” she said, only keeping the bare minimum power on shields, and keying the navicomp with shaking fingers. It finally beeped happily, just as the ship shuddered from a bolt striking the shields.

“Goodbye, my love,” she whispered, and activated the hyperdrive. Ryloth vanished behind them.

____

The Spire, Zakuul, Wild Space

“Your Majesty?”

Arcann glanced up in irritation, tearing his eyes away from the dance performance before him with obvious reluctance. One of his aides had entered the private box, and although Vaylin and her guests weren’t making any effort to watch the entertainment, he was- and he didn’t appreciate the interruption. “What?” he snapped.

“My Lord, there’s been... an incident on Ryloth. Lord Exarch Diara Nyu forwarded this urgent communication.”

“Can’t it wait?” he said tersely.

“I- it’s addressed to you, Your Majesty. From the Wrath.”

He went still, his robotic hand closing over the arm of his chair so tightly that the wooden frame groaned under the pressure.

“Your Majesty?”

Arcann stood abruptly, causing quite a few members of the audience to look up towards their box instead of towards the stage where the dancers were leaping and clashing with metal swords. “Give it to me,” he snarled, already stalking towards the curtain that would take him back out to the hallway.

A datapad was stuffed into his outstretched hand, and as he walked, he flicked the screen on.

To his esteemed Immortal Emperor Arcann, the missive began, and his eyes narrowed. I regret that our endeavours seem to be at crosshairs with one another, but I simply could not allow your actions on Ryloth to go unchallenged.

He glanced sideways at his aide. “What were we doing on Ryloth?” he snapped.

“I- ah...” They fumbled quickly for their own holopads, the screen flaring to life with graphs and pictures. “Exarch Nyu was establishing a Star Fortress, standard mineral extraction to follow. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

It pains me that I am once again unable to confront you directly, but let me make myself abundantly clear- so long as I am free to do so, I will oppose your tyranny, just as I opposed your father.

The frame of the datapad cracked in his hand, and the screen flickered.

I have retrieved what is mine from Ryloth, but I warn you- do not interfere with my plans again. I will not be so understanding next time.

Wrath.

Arcann’s roar as he crushed the datapad echoed through the halls of the theatre and stopped the performance cold.

Chapter Text

“Do you think they know we’re here?”

She had no idea why she was asking, or why she was even bothering to talk to him. She hated talking to him, and he never seemed to respect her desire for solitude most of the time, so why should she break the blessed silence on this occasion herself? Foolish really.

As with all other occasions, he appeared beside her without actually seeming to move in from anywhere; one moment absent and the next within arms’ reach. “And here I thought you had made your opinion on my offers of assistance rather clear,” he said, smugly amused. It made her skin crawl.

“I’m not asking for your assistance,” she snapped, not looking at him as she circled around the shadowy, half-formed figures in the throne room.

“Then what are you asking for, Nox?”

She bared her teeth at him, sharp and violent. “I asked you, if you would care to listen, if you thought they know we’re here.”

He chuckled, and it made her flesh writhe in horror and hatred. “To whom do you refer?”

Kallathe leashed her frustration with difficulty, stalking up and down the very same aisle towards the Eternal Throne where she had taken his life. “This is not one of your wretched nightmares,” she said, gesturing to the vague and shadowy outlines of the Knights standing to attention, “nor is this one of your whimsical fantasies.”

“I fail to see what point you wish to make, Nox.”

She snarled wordlessly, the sound animalistic and impatient. “This is real!” she hissed, gesturing wildly. “This is one of the few moments where this nightmare prison has touched on the real world, I know it!”

“Do you now?”

His cavalier mockery burned into her. “This is not another of your tricks!” she said, almost screaming the words. Lightning began to drip from her fingertips. “This is a sign of your weakness, proof that your hold over me is faltering- if I can see the real world beyond this prison, then I can call for help!”

He appeared before her, blocking her path as she whirled about in a frenzy; he seemed dauntingly taller than he had before, his eyes like dark holes in the very fabric of the universe. His smile was empty, fathomless. “Then by all means,” he said, his voice triggering the panic of a prey animal in her despite her best efforts to defy him, “break free.”

She turned, and she opened her mouth to call out for aid.

____

Tython, the Tython Sector, Deep Core

“Do you think they know we’re here?”

Amaara looked up from the portable learning hub; she was seated on the grass outside the temple with a dozen of some of their older padawans, each with a personal computer desk settled over their laps. The screens were currently set to display the galactic map, and as the sky above them darkened from the purple of dusk to the inky black of night, her students painstakingly copied in each star they could see, sketching out constellations and star maps from memory. One of her students, a young mirialan boy by the name of Arran, was staring at her instead of up at the sky, his stylus held loose in his hand instead of against the screen.

His expression was troubling, something that teetered between sullen frustration and fear, and she knew she wasn’t going to have an easy time getting the lesson back on track. “Do I think ‘who’ know we’re here, Arran?” she asked calmly, pausing the touch input on her hub so that she could rest her hands in the centre without accidentally erasing half the lesson. Some of the other students were glancing between them, while others kept their heads bowed with a fierce determination to avoid the risk of confrontation.

The boy shrugged restlessly, his brow furrowed with a frown. “I don’t know- the Republic. The rest of the Jedi, Zakuul, anyone.”

The sky above them was empty of anything but stars- no ships, no cruisers, no faint outline of an orbital station hanging like a third moon between Ashla and Bogan. It had been almost two years- or, as Amam liked to remind her every time he saw her in the halls, six hundred and sixty four days as of this morning- since they had had any contact with the outside galaxy. Two years without word from their friends amongst the Order, without any reassurances from the rest of the Council, without any acknowledgement whatsoever that the Republic as they knew it had not crumbled to dust and forgotten them.

Every night, Amaara went to bed consumed by her doubts and her fears, by all of the desperate scenarios that played over in her head as the isolation weighed down on her. None of them had ever considered the fact that their exile might last longer than a few months, at most.

“Everyone, set down your styluses, please,” she said quietly, pressing a button on her hub to put all the screens on lock for the time being. There was some faint grumbling, but after a moment the children all complied, looking at her with varying degrees of hope and hesitation. “Arran raises a good point, and as always it’s important to acknowledge our feelings in situations like this. To leave our feelings unacknowledged and unaddressed gives them leave to fester and evolve into something that could potentially lead us to harm.”

She gestured to Arran. “Padawan,’ she said, “you have something on your mind, it seems. Would you like to talk about it?”

He flicked his padawan braid back over his shoulder, his posture hunched and sullen. “What’s there to talk about?” he said. “Everyone has left us here and forgotten us.”

“Our arrangement was that the Council and the Republic would return for us once it was safe,” Amaara countered. “Therefore, for them to still be absent, we must assume that the state of the galaxy is still perilous, and that it is still far safer for us to remain on Tython.”

“How come we have to assume that?” Arran said, as tenacious as a hound with a bone. “Maybe everyone who knew how to find us is dead. Maybe they’ve been looking but they can’t find us.”

She smiled sadly. “Do you truly believe that Grandmaster Shan, and Master Ona’la, and all the other Council members who have nurtured you and watched you grow with pride, would truly abandon us so easily?”

“I dunno. Maybe.”

Amaara picked up her lap desk and lifted it carefully to the side, setting it out of the way so that she could speak to the children more openly; even a physical barrier could make her words less accessible, as if she was speaking down to them. “I will tell you something, Arran,” she said solemnly. “I’m frightened too.”

The padawans clearly hadn’t been expecting that answer, if the audible gasps and nervous glances passed between themselves was anything to go by. Arran’s eyes narrowed, not quite in a wince and not quite in a glare, but he was obviously hesitant. “Jedi aren’t supposed to feel fear,” he said sullenly.

“Jedi are not supposed to be controlled by their fear so much that they allow it to dictate their actions,” she countered gently. “Fear is a natural response to a great many situations, but as Jedi, we must train ourselves not to lash out without thinking, and to not let the fear consume us. I am frightened for what the prolonged silence means, but I must have faith that the contingency plans put in place prior to our exile remain active, and that the lack of a retrieval effort means it is still not safe for us to leave.”

“What if...” One of the young girls, a human by the name of Circe, stumbled to a halt when everyone turned to look at her; the end of her stylus was chewed and bent. “What if we went out to fight? To help?”

Amaara looked at her carefully. “Do you think that would help?” she asked. “If this enemy, this Zakuul, is truly too powerful and has razed the Republic and the Jedi both, do you think it would do any good for myself and the other adults to throw children at them as cannon fodder?”

Circe winced and looked down. “But- but we’ve been training,” she whispered.

Amaara sighed. “And maybe, one day, you will be called upon to use that training- but not today, my darling.” She looked around the group, making eye contact one by one to impart her message as earnestly as she could. “You are unique and wonderful individuals, with a great power at your disposal. You deserve the chance to live, and to learn, without being asked to sacrifice yourself against an enemy too vast to imagine.”

“Shouldn’t everyone else in the Republic get that chance too?” Arran asked, still rather mutinously.

She smiled sadly. “In a perfect world? Yes. But for now, we live and we learn, and we take each day as it comes until the galaxy asks us to rejoin them.”

____

Tatooine, the Arkanis Sector, Outer Rim Territories

“Do you think they know we’re here?”

At Kaliyo’s drawl, Thake scowled. “We aren’t exactly trying to avoid detection,” he snapped, punching the controls of the ship a little harder than necessary. Fuck, he hated Tatooine- what kind of sand baked idiot thought a dry, desert planet with next to no water and two fucking suns was an appropriate place to live? He hated the normal number of suns.

With an amused chuckle, Kaliyo leaned back further in the copilot’s chair, her booted feet resting heavily on the flight console. She nudged something a little too firmly with the heel of her boot, and they lurched slightly to the left, dropping a few feet rather abruptly. He yelped as his stomach dropped in response, half sliding out of his seat as he lunged for the controls to right them again. They just barely avoided clipping the edge of one of the deep red mesas rising up out of the sandy wastes, surging around it at a speed that was definitely not conducive to a landing approach.

“Seem a bit jumpy there, babe,” Kaliyo said, pulling a slightly crumpled cigarette from her jacket and lighting up with a grin.

“Maybe I just don’t want to die on this shithole of a planet.”

She snorted. “Two problems with that argument, babe,” she said, breathing out a cloud of smoke slowly. “One- you’re flying in this shitheap of rust and piss, which you only bought to impress a boy, and then promptly threw him out again, and two...” She chuckled. “If you didn’t want to die here, you shouldn’t have come here. We both know they ain’t exactly gonna roll out the red carpet for either of us.”

As they came unsteadily around the mesa, the leeward side of the rocks revealed a small cluster of buildings, embedded in the cliff face and buried in the ground, like a standard Tatooine community. This one, however, was not your standard Tatooine community, as evidenced by the intriguingly sophisticated shield encasing the entire mesa- it wasn’t technology that he had ever encountered, not even during his years wasted in Imperial Intelligence.

He could see movement as they dropped altitude and came in towards the outer perimetre, and he knew with a sour taste in his mouth that the majority of those distant figures were probably droids. Maybe he’d be lucky, and only some of them would be armed with the ability to maim and murder him.

Their landing kicked up a vast amount of sand, clouds billowing about and making the desert umbrellas rattle wildly in their frames. Thake didn’t even wait for the ship to finish powering down before he was out of his seat and stalking towards the airlock, his hands flexing at his sides as he resisted the urge to stomp and snarl some more.

“I hope her Wrathfulness is paying you enough for this,” Kaliyo called in a singsong voice down the corridor.

Thake gritted his teeth, and ignored her.

The airlock hissed as it depressurised the hull, his ears popping painfully at the change; he could already feel the heat seeping through the metal, and there was sweat beading on the back of his neck as he waited impatiently for the door to open. With a clank, it slid to the side, and he stepped through the portal and onto the gangway, stalking down towards the sand. The dust clouds were still settling, and from out of the murk he could see a single figure approaching from the direction of the homestead. Shit. Fucking shit fuck.

Nothing else for it. He raised a hand in greeting. “Ho there,” he called, “I’m looking to find-”

The figure stopped, and raised their arms in a peculiar manner- almost as if they were holding something in his direction, and-

-and the boom of the shotgun echoed around the enclosed space of the cliffs, as the laser bolts slammed into his chest and sent him hurtling backwards through the air, crashing onto the gangway with a shout of pain.

It took a long, long few moments for his head to stop ringing with the sound and the force of the impact, and when he came back to himself, he was wheezing in pain as the world spun around him. With shaking hands, he reached up to his chest, cringing as he felt the melted edges of his favourite jacket; ignoring the sting of the lingering heat, he tugged the fabric apart, exposing the Dura-armour vest beneath that had stopped the blow from being lethal.

The sound of footsteps crunching in the sand drew closer, and Thake couldn’t bring himself to give a shit as a shadow fell over him. A human male stood a foot away, his skin a warm brown with a faded red tattoo across his cheek and forehead; the look of disgust on his face as he stood over him was familiar, too.

The twin barrels of a shotgun appeared in his blurred line of vision, along with the sound of the the power pack charging up again. “I told you if you ever came near my family again it’d be the last thing you ever did, you blue-skinned son of a bitch,” came a threatening growl.

Sneering weakly, Thake reached up and nudged the barrels out of the way so that he could make eye contact with him. “So good to see you again, Revel,” he said, spitting a mouthful of blood out onto the sand beside him. “It’s been too long since I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy your bumpkin brand of hospitality. You’re a hard man to dig up.”

Andronikos moved the gun, pressing it against Thake’s throat. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just blow your goddamn head off right here and now,” he growled.

Smiling through bloodied teeth, Thake said “Because your wife might be the only chance the galaxy has of defeating an enemy comprised mainly of droids.”

The shotgun pressed down harder, enough that he was quickly gasping for air. “You ain’t got the right to come in here demanding Bejah give up more of herself than what you people have already taken from her,” he hissed.

“Don’t you really think that choice is up to her?”

____

Balmorra, the Balmorran System, Colonies

“Do you think they know we’re here?”

When her mother didn’t answer her immediately, Kylaena glanced over her shoulder, away from the narrow fissure in the cliff face that allowed her to see all the way down to Bin Prime, the long suffering capital of Balmorra. The mountains outside the city were riddled with winding caverns and tunnels, a great many of which had been reclaimed and repurposed by the Balmorran Resistance during the Great Galactic War; it was in a cavern not much different to this one that she had spent the earliest years of her life, cowering from the orbital bombardments of the Imperials and the unstoppable march of their battledroids across the plains.

It wasn’t the Sith they hid from this time, however, but Zakuul- and more specifically, Exarch Malforia, the Tyrant of Balmorra.

“Mother?” she repeated, wandering away from the opening, her eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness within the cave. “Andi?”

“Keep your voice down,” came her mother’s voice, and Kylaena relaxed. “You know sound carries all too well in the mountain.”

She rounded a corner in the rockface and found Andi seated on the worn couch, the fabric threadbare and ragged in places from decades of use. Most of the furniture around the Resistance bases was like that, worn down and held together with nothing more than tape and faith. Andi looked as worn down as the furniture, her once dark hair almost entirely grey now, tied back in a messy braid, and there was a weariness over her shoulders that Kylaena couldn’t remember being there in her youth.

Andi was holding Lara, the look on her face bewilderingly heartbreaking as she watched her grandchild sleep. Lara’s hair was almost long enough to tie back now, the dark wispy curls so soft that Kylaena sometimes found herself lost in thought for long periods of time as she ran her fingers through it; Andi seemed to be doing likewise, gently stroking a hand over her head as she slept, tucked safe and warm against her grandmother’s breast.

Kylaena sank down onto the chair opposite, the frame creaking wearily; she could relate. “Do you think they know we’re here?” she asked again, her voice far quieter this time.

“I never wanted this for you,” Andi said instead, so quiet that Kylaena had to strain to hear her. “For either of you. I thought...”

She trailed off absently, her fingers still stroking Lara’s head as she slept; Kylaena tucked one leg under herself and hugged her other knee closer. “Mother?”

Her mother’s sigh seemed to ripple through her, the grief so tangible that she could all but taste it. “I thought that sending you off with the Jedi meant a better life for you,” she said. “It broke my heart to do it, because you were all I had in the world, but I didn’t want you growing up in caves all your life, always running, never sure where the next meal was coming from, never knowing when some trigger happy Imp was gonna kick down the door to the bunker.” She smiled half-heartedly. “You were so excited when that Master Bakarn came to fetch you, and I remember being so goddamn jealous of him, taking you away from me to give you the life I never could.”

Kylaena blinked, taken aback by Andi’s abrupt sentimentality. Her mother had never been a cold woman, for sure, but above all else she’d been practical. Decades as a Resistance fighter- and years before that as a slave- had seen to it that there was no mawkishness in her heart, even if she was a woman of great cheer and enthusiasm. “You did what was best for me, mother,” she said gently.

Andi glanced over at her. “Did I?” she asked. “Seems to me like the one thing I wanted to avoid more than anything else was to make sure you weren’t trapped under the mountain with the rest of us, fighting a war without end.” She looked back down to where Lara was sleeping. “Yet here we are,” she said quietly, “both of us hiding under the rock again, and now my grandchild’s gonna grow up without a sky too.”

With a tired sigh, Kylaena climbed wearily to her feet and shuffled across the small chamber to the couch, easing down beside Andi. She tucked an arm around her mother’s shoulders and leaned against her, resting her head on her shoulder. “But she is going to grow up,” she said quietly, “and she’s going to find her sky, just like I did-”

“You took that far more literally than I ever expected you to,” Andi said with a laugh.

“Maybe I did at that,” Kylaena said with a smile. “If only because you taught me to reach for the stars.”

They lapsed into silence, Kylaena resting against her mother while her child slept in her arms, and she pondered the future. Andi had stayed on Balmorra to fight for Balmorran independence, trusting that the Jedi could give her a better life than she could in the cold, echoing caverns of a war torn planet. Could she make the same choice for Lara, if need be- and for that matter, was there anywhere her daughter could go where Zakuul wouldn’t find her? Every day, the stories of Malforia’s atrocities against the citizens of Balmorra grew, and word trickled in from other worlds of similar cruelties by the other Exarchs.

The Council was scattered, their numbers broken, and the women she would have once turned to as colleagues and friends had gone to ground, just as she had. Her husband had been all but a prisoner of the Eternal Empire for over a year now, forbidden from travelling beyond Balmorra out of the suspicion that he would rouse up dissent wherever he went.

“I’m frightened, mama,” she said quietly, something she would never have given voice to had she been in the company of her fellow Jedi; the company of her mother, however, was something entirely different.

Andi shifted slightly, just enough to absently kiss the top of her hair. “I know, Little Star,” she said softly. “That’s why we keep fighting.”

____

Onderon, the Japreal Sector, Inner Rim

“Do you think they know we’re here?”

Theron didn’t bother looking up from the holo-deck in front of him; he was close to actually winning a hand in this poker game, and he wasn’t going to let himself be distracted now. “Hmm?”

“Do you think they know we’re here,” Maurevar repeated, tapping his fingers irritably on the edge of the console. “We’re coming to the end of the exchange window- surely they would have sent word if they couldn’t make the rendezvous?”

Theron looked up reluctantly, glancing out through the viewport; their ship was settled under the overhang of a rocky cliff-face on Dxun, the largest of Onderon’s moons, and had been for several hours now. They had made contact three days ago with a government official down in Iziz, and had arranged to transport the known Force sensitive children out of the city before they could be hunted down by their new Zakuulan overlords. They had a four hour window when the Star Fortress would be out of sync with the rotation of Dxun, providing a natural blind spot in the standard sensor arrays.

He shrugged, and went back to his game. “They’ve got another forty minutes,” he said. “Give it time before we start panicking.”

Maurevar huffed in annoyance, but didn’t answer. Soon, the silence between them was a crackling, awkward thing, and he shifted irritably, trying to dispel the tension settling over him. He could feel Maurevar’s eyes on him, however, and it made his skin prickle with awkward heat; when he glanced at him, he didn’t look away out of shame at having been caught staring. “What?” he snapped indignantly.

Maurevar’s eerily silver eyes seemed too pretty for a sith, but the more time he spent with him, the more he was coming to realise he didn’t know as much about the sith as he thought he did. Especially after all the months he’d spent with Lana, on the run from the Revanite conspiracy. Who would’ve thought that sith could be actual, fully realised people and not two-dimensional caricatures of evil? “Just thinking,” Maurevar said.

Theron scowled. “Mind doing it without the staring?”

“I’m thinking about you. It helps if I can study my subject matter.”

“Wow, because that’s not creepy at all.”

“I am bored, and I am stressed, and I am trying to avoid thinking about the fact that we may about to be shortly torn limb from limb by an enraged Exarch discovering our subterfuge, so instead I am considering the fact that the terrifying sith killer known as Technoplague eats cereal straight from the box and leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor.”

He rolled his eyes and turned back to his game. “Maybe there’d be room for a towel somewhere other than the floor if your skin care regime didn’t cover the entire sink.”

“At least I know how to spell personal hygiene.”

“I am perfectly hygienic, thank you very much!”

“I can absolutely tell that you are both an only child and chronically commitment phobic, because your inability to share close quarters with someone is-”

“Hey, I grew up in a cave, asshole-”

“And it shows.”

Theron turned off his game and twisted in the chair to face him. “I’ve done numerous team ops and never had anyone complain about sharing quarters with me,” he started to say, but Maurevar sighed dramatically.

“Are you referring to the Battlemaster? Your hopelessly unrequited love?”

What? Why does everyone always think that, stars!”

Maurevar snorted. “Alright, alright, don’t work yourself into a tither,” he said, finally looking away and slouching in the chair. “It was a legitimate observation.”

Theron was sick of legitimate questions. “What, because she’s a girl and I’m a boy, wink wink nudge nudge? That what it is?”

“By the Force, you are good at throwing tantrums worthy of any sith acolyte. No, Shan, not because she’s a girl and you’re a boy- very presumptively heteronormative of you there- but because you have a widely documented friendship with the Battlemaster that has escalated to the point where you bought her a house to live in-.”

“Okay, so, so what if I bought her the house?” Kriff, why did Thane have this effortless skill of getting under his skin so easily? He felt on edge around him constantly, and it had nothing to do with him being sith and everything to do with just who he was. Annoying, abrasive, smarmy, handsome-

-what?

He shook himself. “And why does the fact that I love her mean that I have to be in love with her? She means the world to me, so that automatically means I want to fuck her? She’s like my sister, and I love her, just not that way.”

Maurevar wasn’t looking at him, but he could still feel the weight of his gaze lingering on his skin. He didn’t answer for a moment, and when it came, it surprised him- Maurevar laughed quietly. “A sister,” he said quietly, almost marvelling at the word. “I had a sister once. I have a sister, I should say.”

Theron’s eyebrows shot up towards his hair. “You- what?”

“Don’t tell me the intelligence agent is surprised that he doesn’t know everything in the galaxy?”

Theron scowled at the way he emphasized intelligence. “Look, okay, your family was always a known threat, and you didn’t exactly go winning any gold stars by signing on with Malgus’ madness. You mean to tell me that despite being such a high profile family, you managed to keep the existence of a sister a secret?”

Maurevar smirked. “Imagine that, you don’t know everything about me from a short glance,” he said. “And here I was being so stereotypically sithy to confuse you and everything.”

He felt his face heat. “Is there a point to this, or are you just talking to piss me off?”

“My sister left for Republic space a very long time ago,” Maurevar said, surprising him further. “She was a bright girl, not very powerful, but far too gentle for the sith. The academy would have broken her.” He grimaced, his jaw tight. “I know what it means to love someone, and to have people make assumptions about the person you love, and knowing without a doubt that you would do anything to keep them safe.”

Theron blinked. “I... well, that’s, uh-”

“Save it, Shan,” he said, almost dismissively. “You love the Battlemaster, but you aren’t in love with her, I can understand that. Despite the propaganda your Jedi Order spews out, we are not incapable of love and kindness on our side of the border. We are, however, apparently unique in our ability to hang up towels.”

Theron stared, feeling abruptly as if the floor had shifted a few inches to the left and he was scrambling to try and find his balance. Maurevar was- he was disturbingly human. Almost normal, he hated to say. What was it with sith being all decent underneath the melodrama?

“There’s a ship approaching,” Maurevar said abruptly, standing up. “I’ll go outside to meet them.”

____

Coruscant, the Corusca Sector, Core Worlds

“Do you think they know we’re here?”

At the dry sarcasm in her husband’s voice, Ellaz chuckled. “Hmm, hard to tell,” she said in amusement, glancing briefly at the small hoard of paparazzi outside of the restaurant. The windows were thankfully tinted to prevent the intrusion from the press, but it still soured the view to see them out there. Waiting. “Maybe we’ll just be lucky, and there’s some up-and-coming starlet in one of the other booths.”

Aric snorted into his entrée. “If I hadn’t watched you make a whole career out of luck, I would have said you were reaching, dear,” he said, skewering up some of the thin slivers of beef with his chopsticks.

“I was lucky enough to marry you,” she said, delighting in the way he choked for a moment at the unexpected flirtation; she rested her chin in her hands and grinned across the table at him as he took a long pull on his beer, feeling remarkably mischievous at the dry look he gave her as he set his glass back down.

“You are in a fine mood tonight,” he said, shaking his head with a smile as he tucked into his food again. “Something on your mind?”

Ellaz shrugged, stretching pointedly and making note of the way his eyes lingered on her bare shoulders. “Can’t a woman just be pleased about getting to spend a nice evening out with her husband after spending months apart?”

He chuckled. “You and I have different ideas about what constitutes a nice evening, dear,” he said.

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Mine includes significantly less paparazzi, and significantly more nudity,”

She smiled as she lifted her wine glass. “The evening’s not over yet,” she said sweetly, taking a careful sip of her wine.

He was spared from answering when a waiter appeared with their main courses, offering a refill of their drinks as they did so. Aric’s platter of assorted sashimi was so extensive that the polished slices of meat were arrayed in a colour gradient, and he let out a pleased growl at the sight; Ellaz shivered in response. The bite sized pieces of her krayt dragon roll were artfully arranged on her plate, and the chef had gone to the effort of sketching out the head and limbs of the dragon in the sauce upon the plate. At the way Aric eyed it off as she collected her chopsticks, she grinned. “You can have some if you like,” she teased.

Aric snorted. “Thanks, but no. Too much green stuff in there for my tastes.”

“You’re not gonna die if you eat a vegetable, dear.”

He picked up a rich orange piece of fish from the centre of his tray, pointing it at her very seriously. “You don’t know that,” he said, “and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”

“Commander of the most terrifying squad in the Republic, scared of a little cucumber.”

They lapsed into silence as they ate, but Aric did grunt in surprise when Ellaz’s bare foot brushed against his leg. “Careful dear,” he said with a quiet growl. She shivered in response, and his grin widened, but he continued to eat his food as if nothing was amiss. “So, Elara’s doing well as an XO, but she’s still getting resistance when people hear the accent.”

Ellaz tipped her head back with a frustrated sigh. “You are such a tease,” she grumbled.

Aric chuckled. “Vik’s being a little shit-”

You’re being a little shit.”

“-but then again he never settled well under my command,” he continued, grinning as he scooped a deep red piece of meat up into his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully. “He’s not gonna stick it out much longer, so I wanna start looking for a new demolitions expert-”

“I swear to the seven hells, Jorgan, I am this close to-”

“Excuse me.”

Startled out of the rhythm of their flirtations, Ellaz quickly dropped her foot back onto the floor and straightened, while Aric cleared his throat loudly; beside their table was not a waiter, as one might have expected, but a rather striking human man of unusual height, his hair dark and his skin glistening faintly in the dim light of the restaurant as if it was bronze.

His eyes were gold, and there were three silver beads embedded in his forehead over each eye.

An Exarch.

Opposite her at the table, Aric had gone preternaturally still, the caution of a predator assessing the threat of another. Ellaz, at least a foot shorter than either of them, and currently barefoot, resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Can we help you?” she asked pleasantly, keeping her tone mild and calm, so as not to draw attention to the scene.

The man smiled, and it was an uncomfortable expression- like he had no great familiarity with it, and was just attempting what he had seen others do. “You are Colonel Hervoz, are you not?” he asked. “Of Republic Special Operations?”

Ellaz smiled. “I’m fairly sure you already knew who I was long before you approached this table, so why don’t we rid ourselves of such pretences and you tell me what you want from me.”

“Ellaz,” Aric said warningly, but she waved him off.

The Exarch glanced between them, his expression unreadable. “My name is Raza Tuul. I serve as an Exarch of Zakuul.” He gestured to their table. “Do you mind if I join you?”

Aric let out a pained sound, but again Ellaz indicated for him to remain quiet. “You know as well as I do the repercussions for someone of my position to be seen fraternizing with one of your people,” she said bluntly, and Raza smiled widely, the expression still unsettling.

“Ah, but we are at peace, are we not? We are comrades, yes?” His accent was not as thick as some Zakuulan accents they’d encountered, so he’d clearly been working at blending into the Core Worlds. He pulled up a chair from a nearby table and sat down, looking almost too large for the furniture. “And, as luck might have it, I was lucky enough to purchase this establishment some months ago, so the staff are all quite loyal to me.”

Ellaz narrowed her eyes. “Wouldn’t have thought someone who went through all the trouble of the Exarch program would dabble in property management,” she said carefully, keeping her hands clasped in front of her. Where Aric radiated hostility, Ellaz was sharp and calculating- she hadn’t earned her place in Havoc as a crisis negotiation specialist for nothing.

“Indeed- it was brought to my attention that this restaurant was a favourite of yours some time ago, and I purchased it in the hope it would expedite a meeting under... less suspicious circumstances. I serve on the Zakuulan attaché to your Chancellor.”

She very pointedly reached for her wine glass, and took a slow sip. “And what,” she said, “is a Zakuulan ambassador wanting to meet with me for, outside of official channels?”

Raza’s false smile vanished, to be replaced by a look of urgency. He set his hands on the table and took a deep breath. “There are those of us,” he said quietly, “who are curious about the rumours concerning Prince Thexan.”

It was painfully difficult to keep a straight face. “Oh?”

“Some stories seem to persist suggesting that he did not die in the Core Worlds as we were told, and that he in fact lives,” he said. “And that you might know how to contact him.”

____

Rishi, the Abrion Sector, Outer Rim Territories

“Do you think they know we’re here?”

Mako snorted on the screen in front of her. “Please, Kol,” she said dryly. “I’m gonna pretend I didn’t just hear you insult my unquestionable slicing talent.”

Kol’aya grinned, hugging her caf in both hands as she watched the various screens in front of her slowly come to life as Mako connected from Nar Shaddaa. “I prefer to do my slicing with a laser scalpel,” she said, watching with rapt fascination as the screens began to output a dizzying array of numbers.

“Ha ha. You’re so funny.” Mako’s brow was furrowed as she concentrated, and her tongue was poking out adorably. “Okay, so, let’s see if... this... works!

Settling down in a seat in front of the computer with a comfortable sigh, Kol glanced outside at the sunlight streaming down between the buildings. Rishi was very different to most other places she’d lived, and certainly after a year or more of living on Ryloth, seeing full sunlight was still a novelty; it wasn’t her first choice of places to settle down, but in the weeks since her flight from Ryloth, she’d been rather abruptly introduced to the existence of some sort of... rebel alliance, working across political and cultural boundaries in order to defy the rule of Zakuul. It had been made clear to her that it wasn’t particularly safe for her to return to any of her previous addresses while Zakuul hunted her, and so arrangements had been made for her to settle on a backwater, out of the way planet, which conveniently had no Star Fortress and additionally had a prominent Mandalorian encampment which was connected to the alliance.

Oh, and the Jedi Battlemaster and her husband, an exiled Prince of Zakuul, were living here too. She couldn’t decide if she felt flattered by the attentions, or frustrated at being so sheltered.

Which wasn’t to say she didn’t believe that Zakuul wasn’t a serious threat, because it clearly was, but more that she was struggling with the notion that nobody seemed to think that she was capable of protecting herself or making her own decisions about how to survive. She didn’t like other people making decisions on her behalf- it made her skin crawl, remnants of miserable times in her childhood when her worth as a person was determined by how much of her brother’s gambling debt could be cleared by her sale.

So here she was, hiding in a tiny apartment in a pirate haven above an equally tiny clinic where she provided free medical assistance and prosthetic work for those injured during slavery. Like hell was she gonna just sit on her hands and wait to be told it was safe for her to run along home again.

Mako was chattering away brightly as she worked, and Kol shook herself and sat forward again, trying to focus; she didn’t know a damn thing about slicing, even if she was an incredibly proficient programer of neural cybernetic relays. Hacking a network was rather different to hacking a brain. “... these little hover terminals all over the Promenade and stuff,” Mako was saying. “Obviously so they can make their grand proclamations without hassle, but sheesh, so many of them have been vandalised and graffitied and generally destroyed. I saw a group of niktos playing soccer with one. Not a smart move, Zakuul.”

Kol had no idea what she was talking about, but she grinned wearily. “Nothing about them strikes me as particularly intelligent,” she said, taking a sip of her caf. “Dunno if that’s a cultural thing or nah, but that whole superiority complex they’ve got going is really gonna bite them in the ass.”

“That’s true,” Mako said with a snort. She held up the gutted remains of some kind of circular droid, wires hanging out of the base. “Okay, so the idea is that I should be able to remotely connect to some of their more protected servers back home on Zakuul if I piggyback off the signal from the Star Fortress. These little fellows aren’t long range, but they do connect to their parent server upstairs in the space station, and so in theory I can connect to the station from here, and then to Zakuul via the station. In theory.”

“I’m gonna trust your theory, then,” Kol said, propping her feet up on a nearby chair. One thing about Rishi that she did enjoy was the heat, and the excuse it provided to wear fewer items of clothing. Unprofessional if she was still back in an office on campus at Lorrd University, maybe, but being able to go barefoot in hot shorts was honestly a goddamn delight.

“Ugh, though, the Ephemeris systems are a pain in the butt to work around. Gotta give ‘em props, that is a really fantastically intuitive security system.”

“I have no idea what that means. Is it an AI?”

Mako nodded, still frowning as she worked. “A really good one,” she said, and then grinned wickedly. “But I’m better.”

She made an elaborate show of hitting a single button, and Kol sat up sharply as the screens in front of her began to fill with far more familiar images. Neural scans, blood work, surgical blueprints, x-ray images- she felt her pulse jump with an adrenalin surge, her grin widening as she began to flick rapidly through the files downloading to her terminal. “You are better, Mako,” she said. “You are incredible.”

Mako sighed dramatically. “I try, what can I say,” she said, sounding far too pleased with herself. “Gotta ask though- don’t you doctors have some kind of code about patient info? Isn’t this like, I dunno, morally iffy?”

Kol snorted, too enraptured by the files; goddess preserve, it was like a treasure trove of challenges, she could see half a dozen problems that even an intern should’ve picked up on. Just how bad was the medical team she was being called to assist? “Yes and no- we don’t go out selling patient information, that’s for sure, but if you want to hire a doctor, you kinda need to let them see your medical history if they’re gonna stand a chance of providing a beneficial service. If they’d gone through normal channels, they would have sent me these files beforehand so that I had a chance to thoroughly grasp the extent of the work.”

“Yeah, but... you aren’t actually gonna go to Zakuul and agree to fix up the Emperor, are you? After they nearly took you prisoner?”

She paused on the image of the young Emperor without his mask on, clearly taken immediately prior to another surgical procedure, given what she could see in the details of the holoimage. He was striking even with his scars, as far as humans went, but even with his eyes closed, she only got a sense of flat emptiness from him, something that transcended pain and grief and fury and emerged into a horrifying blankness. Handsome, but broken in a way that didn’t really gel with what little she knew about sith.

“I like a challenge,” she said simply.

____

Voss, the Allied Tion Sector, Outer Rim Territories

“Do you think they know we’re here?”

Felix glanced down, tearing his eyes away from the garish outline of the Star Fortress in the yellow sky above them. At his side, a small human boy was crouching in shadow of the Shrine of Healing, a stick clutched in his hand and a clever approximation of the space station drawn into the dirt in front of him. His dark hair was tousled, and his golden brown skin had a suspicious amount of what seemed to be more dirt on every visible inch.

Shaking his head and laughing, Felix reached over and ruffled up his hair a little more, grinning at the way he wriggled out of reach. “Oh, good afternoon young master Ru,” he said with a chuckle. “And here I was thinking you were allergic to the sunshine.”

Ru scowled. “I don’t get it.”

“You’ve only been coming upstairs during the night,” Felix said, dropping to a crouch beside where the boy huddled. “Something on your mind, buddy?”

Ru, or Song Ru by his full family name, was the boy Asmi had hysterically insisted he go back for on Coruscant. Unconscious for a good few days after their perilous flight from Galactic City had taken them to Ord Mantell, he had finally recovered enough from the few injuries he had to awaken- and upon learning of the death of his father back on the hangar floor, had been studiously mute for a number of weeks. It had taken him a long, long time to coax anything out of the boy, and even his name was courtesy of the ID card he carried in his pocket. He was a frail little thing, badly malnourished- the food rationing hadn’t been good for anyone that last year or so, and especially not those who lacked the money or the social capital to get faster access to the ration queues.

Ru had no family left in his life except for his father, giving silent, unenthusiastic shrugs in response to questions about aunts or uncles or grandparents. His mother, Felix learned, had been dead for a number of years now, a victim of Black Sun gang violence. His father had been a tailor, sitting in a tiny shop down in Monit Town near the ruined Jedi temple district, mending the clothes of those who could afford his services. What might have been a profitable venture fifteen years earlier, before the Battle of Coruscant had rendered much of the district a broken wasteland of scavengers and refugees, was now nothing more than a desperate venture that only just staved off starvation and homelessness.

Holiday had been able to pull up most of the boy’s family records, poor scatter-brained dear that she was; she was still struggling with the relocation from her servers on Coruscant, and Tharan suspected some of her files had been corrupted during the transfer to the far inferior shipboard databanks. She was recovering slowly, and Tharan was making it his life’s effort to ensure every single damaged datafile was corrected, but sometimes her responses were a little slower than normal, or a little... peculiar. As if her search functions just didn’t connect through to the right drives sometimes.

Case in point- the first time she’d looked for Ru’s family records, she’d pulled up the file for a long dead individual of the same name, a Song Ru of Alsakan who had lived nearly six hundred years earlier. Her distress at realising her mistake had been utterly heart-breaking, and it had taken Tharan the better part of a day to calm her down and reassure her that it was nothing to be self conscious about.

Voss was not an ideal place to be hiding when in need of computer repairs, however- even with the Voss and Gormak treaty shakily holding under the growing pressure from the Zakuulans, there was a limit to what the Gormak tech experts could offer them. Holiday was one of a kind, after all, and Tharan’s knowledge of exotechnology was second to none in the entire galaxy. But they needed somewhere discreet where Asmi could have access to healers- especially healers who specialised in taking care of Force sensitive folk, and they weren’t gonna find many places better for that than the Voss Shrine of Healing.

It hurt a lot, actually, having both the ladies struggling.

Ru, having been poking in the dirt almost forlornly for half a minute, finally sighed. “I like to watch the stars,” he said, as if that explained everything- in a sense, it did. The light pollution on Coruscant made it impossible to see anything in the night sky, and for a boy raised in Galactic City, seeing starlight for the first time would have to be a magical experience.

Felix nodded. “That’s pretty fun, I gotta say,” he said. “You know anything about the constellations?”

The boy shrugged, still staring at the ground. “Don’t know,” he said quietly.

“I could teach you,” Felix said, “although I don’t know much about the stars in this part of the galaxy either. We could learn together?”

Ru finally glanced at him, his slender brown eyes narrowed as if in concern. “The Voss wouldn’t let me go and see Lady Asmi,” he said, the reason for his abrupt appearance above ground finally clear. He poked at the ground with the stick again, digging a furrow in front of him. “I haven’t talked to her today and I wanted to see if she was okay.”

Felix felt his heart flutter a little, and coughed briefly to hide his surprise. “Hey,” he said softly, letting his hand rest on Ru’s shoulder. “We can go down together, if you like? I’m a little worried too, so it’d be nice to have company to go visit her.”

The offer had the desired effect of soothing Ru’s little ego, and his shoulders straightened with almost comical pride. “Yes,” he said solemnly, as if undertaking a grand and sacred oath, “yes I will go with you.”

Rising to his feet, Felix held out his hand towards Ru, and he didn’t even hesitate before reaching up and putting his hand in his. It made something warm settle in his chest, something that made him want to smile a hell of a lot more, and he was careful not to walk too fast for Ru’s little legs as they made their way back into the Shrine. “You wanna tell me what you’ve been up to this morning?” he asked as they walked.

Ru shrugged. “Not much.”

“Not much? How did not much get you so filthy then?”

“There was a lizard in the west courtyard.”

“Oh, yeah? Did you catch him?” Ru’s answer was a silent shake of the head. “Maybe next time, huh bud?”

The Shrine of Healing was a confusing labyrinth at the best of times, but he’d slowly been coming to terms with navigating it after several months as a guest; Gaden-Ko, Kylaena’s old Voss ally, had been instrumental in seeing them well settled and cared for. Asmi’s condition was nowhere near as volatile as it had been during their flight from Coruscant, and her health had improved to a point similar to what it had been prior to her taking on the shielding responsibilities for Tython. Which was not to say that she was healthy, because he had never known a time when she had been hale, but he didn’t sit and watch her sleep and wonder if she was going to wake up in the morning anymore.

There was a Voss healer in the room outside Asmi’s, kneeling in meditation; she went to stand when they appeared, but Felix waved her down again. The woman’s expression was hard to read, her features too alien to be familiar, but he could tell she wasn’t exactly happy about the intrusion.

He ignored that. It wasn’t intruding to visit his own wife.

Asmi’s bed had been set to a sitting position, and she was resting against the pillow with her eyes closed; at the sound of their entry, she stirred, and she smiled wearily when she spotted them crossing the room. “There’s my boys,” she said faintly, and it stirred something in Felix’s chest to hear her say that. She reached out for them as they approached, running her hand over Ru’s hair before coming to rest against Felix’s arm. Even the small gesture seemed to exhaust her. “You’re both filthy.”

Felix chuckled, pretending his heart wasn’t aching to see her like this. “Apparently there were lizard adventures to be had,” he said; he put his hands under Ru’s arms and lifted him up onto the bed, letting the boy sit carefully beside Asmi.

“Lizard adventures,” she mused, resting back against the pillows again, even though she kept her hand on Felix; he reached up and entwined his fingers with hers. “That sounds exciting.”

“Next time I will catch the lizard and bring to show you,” Ru said solemnly.

She smiled weakly. “That sounds wonderful,” she said. “That would be a wonderful gift.”

Felix put his other hand up to her forehead, running the backs of his fingers over her montrals. He didn’t want to make any assumptions, but there was something... nice, about all this. It wasn’t perfect, they were fugitives and refugees after all, and Asmi was going to struggle with her health for the rest of her life, and Ru was struggling with recovery as any child who witnessed the horrors of war would, but...

It was a start.

Chapter Text

She had weak moments.

There were times when Valkorion would leave her, when his suffocating presence would fade to a dull ache; she suspected that he was deliberately retreating to tend to his own wounds, like a vine cat sulking after losing a battle with a rival over the dead carcass of a lizard. He wouldn’t admit to weakness in any form, but his death had hurt him, she knew that. The poison in her body had to be hurting him also, regardless of what he might say, and she had not given him an inch of ground in all of their confrontations.

So she soothed her own ego by insisting that he must be struggling with similar moments of weakness, and so it didn’t matter if she indulged herself in pointless fantasies. He had well and truly sifted through every inch of her psyche, her every deepest irrational fear and desire, so what did it matter if she lost herself in them for a time?

It took next to no effort to make her imaginings manifest as physical entities before her- and she had considered whether or not to conjure up a remembrance of Lana, still aching from the memory of her warm and soft in bed behind her. But that was not what she turned to, in this silent, empty place between the stars, kneeling in the dust.

Instead, she conjured their daughter.

She had a pink, plump little face, her tangle of golden curls so much like Lana that it made her breath catch in her chest, an ache building there behind her ribs. Her face was round, like her own, but even with the chubbiness of childhood clinging to her, there were hints of Pureblood heritage in her features- a chin far sharper than the softness of her face required, perhaps the beginning of spurs. A nose that was not quite ridged, but instead just looked like she spent a good deal of her time with her face scrunched up in haughty displeasure.

She reached out a shaking hand, a soft sound passing her lips as her fingers came into contact with the snarled mess of hair. She looked half feral, proud and imperious and far too lofty for any toddler to reasonably be. Running her fingers through her hair, working out the knots with her nails, she took a shaky breath as she let her hand come down to cup the girl’s cheek.

She did not respond, or even breathe- she was just a fantasy, after all.

Was she past, or future? In showing her to her, had Valkorion been mocking her with something that could have come to pass by now had she not defied him, or was he offering her a tantalizing glimpse of something she still had a chance to claim? Was he taunting her, or tempting her?

Wetting her lips, she whispered “Speak.”

The girl blinked, her eyes cat-like and golden. “Are we going for pancakes, mama?” she said, a recitation of the same request from the illusion.

Kallathe bowed her head and wept.

____

Rishi, the Abrion Sector, Outer Rim Territories

“Thexan, you can stop fidgeting any time now, bud.”

He blinked, coming back to himself abruptly; he almost yelped when he realised how tightly he was holding Ona’la’s hand, all but dropping it in his panic that he’d hurt her. Kol’aya, the twi’lek doctor, chuckled and shook her head. “Mm, the jittery panic of new parents, I’d forgotten how amusing it was.”

His cheeks heated in embarrassment, but neither of the women seemed to notice; rubbing awkwardly at his neck, he said “It does not fill me with a great deal of comfort, you saying that you’d forgotten what this was like. How long has it been since you did, uh... this?”

“This is about as basic a procedure as you can get- I learned this in nursing school over a decade ago. If anything goes wrong, it’ll literally just be that I forgot to change the battery cell in the remote.”

“... did you forget to change the-”

Kol’aya cast him a droll look. “Sit down, stop fussing, it’s all fine.”

Thoroughly chastised, Thexan instead looked down to where he still held onto Ona’la. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?” he murmured, rubbing her hand between his.

Ona’la shook her head, scrunching her nose up at him. “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” she said, twining her fingers back through his. “I’m tougher than I- ah!” Her grip on his hand tightened abruptly, and for a moment he was ready to panic; but it wasn’t an exclamation of pain, but of surprise. Kol’aya had emptied a tube of clear gel onto her belly, and as he tried to convince his racing heart to slow again, she let her head rest back against the pillow with a laugh. “That was a lot colder than I was expecting,” Ona’la admitted sheepishly, patting his arm apologetically.

“Always takes people by surprise,” Kol’aya said, switching on several screens beside the bed and rolling her stool back over to them. She had a small device in her hand, smaller than a lightsaber hilt by at least half, and with another small screen on the handle. “Best to just get it over and done with, really.”

Thexan did his best not to fidget. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with this... sort of technology,” he admitted, proud of the fact that he was able to say it without snapping. He was getting far better at admitting to his limitations, and far more comfortable accepting them too.

Either Ona’la had warned the doctor ahead of time about his peculiarities, or his question was not so unusual as to be laughable. “This is an ultrasounder,” Kol’aya said, pressing a button on the handle before gently setting the head of it down on Ona’la’s belly. “It is a device that allows us to see through tissue and into the body, when we do not wish to perform surgery.”

“And don’t have access to the Force,” Ona’la added helpfully.

Kol’aya looked pained. “Yes, and if we don’t have access to the Force,” she said begrudgingly. “Which, for the ninety-nine point one eight percent of the general population who don’t have a sufficient connection to the Force, means that technology like this is both a necessity and a life-saver.”

It was clearly an old frustration, and Thexan made a note not to poke at the topic again.

“But in your case,” Kol’aya said distractedly, flicking another switch on the monitor beside her, “it will allow you to say hello to your little one.”

The screens all illuminated at once, and Thexan found himself at a loss for words. Several of them made no sense to him, charts and graphs and lines that might have indicated pulse or weight or food preferences, for all he knew. But the one that captivated him, the one that left him absolutely breathless, was the largest monitor just over Kol’aya’s shoulder which currently displayed a grainy, poorly coloured image of a tiny, humanoid face.

His child.

“Freykaa,” he heard Ona’la say, as if from a distance, and he shook himself. She nodded to their entwined fingers. “Not so tight?”

He nodded, somehow. “Sorry,” he said hoarsely, too dazed for anything else. That was his child he could see, their child, their child had a face.

“Let’s see if we can’t clean that picture up a little,” Kol’aya said, tapping a few buttons; the image sharpened, some of the blurrier edges growing clear, and the colours resolved themselves to a more settled palette, instead of just murky, unclear browns. “Alright, mama and papa, say hello to what looks to be your very healthy baby.”

Ona’la was radiating such immense joy that he could physically feel it resonating within him. “They’re so beautiful,” she whispered, and if he’d had the strength to say so, he would have agreed.

Their eyes were closed, and their nose was a little squashed, but they were so, so beautiful that he found it rather difficult to process anything other than that. And very clearly, thudding through the speakers, he could hear the gentle pulse of their heartbeat.

Kol’aya was grinning absently as she assessed the screens. “So it looks like we haven’t got any significant indications of external auditory processors-”

“They’re deaf?” Thexan asked, his anxiety spiking immediately.

“No, no, nothing of the sort that I can tell- although it will be necessary to test them once they’re born, so I can’t make any guarantees yet.” She rotated the angle of the image somehow, moving the small head of the device over Ona’la’s belly so that the side of the baby’s head was visible. “Normally at this stage of development, we can expect to see the ears, but as you can see, we’ve only got a slight bulge right- there. See? With the small hole? That’s the ear canal, and the beginning of the ear cones which are found on most rutian twi’leks.”

“Oh,” Ona’la said in a small voice. “I didn’t think about that. Giving birth to someone with ear cones.”

Kol’aya laughed distractedly. “It’s not an issue, any more than the rest of the birth is,” she said. “Like the rest of the skull, the cartilage that makes up the cones will remain rather soft for several weeks after birth, so you won’t face any difficulties there.”

He had a child. They had a child. He and Ona’la, this was their child, right there in front of him. They weren’t a nebulous concept, some vague promise of fatherhood that was looming with every day that Ona’la’s belly grew. Here was a small and very vulnerable person staring back at him- or, as the case may be, was not staring at this very moment,- and he...

He found himself quite overwhelmed.

“Thexan?” Ona’la squeezed his hand. “Freykaa? You’re crying.”

He blinked rapidly, reaching up quickly to smear his cheeks dry. “I’m-” He tried to speak, and found nothing but a squeak. “I’m okay,” he managed a moment later.

Her eyes were shining as if she was on the verge of tears too, but the smile she wore was blinding. “Freykaa,” she said again, reaching up to cradle his cheek with her free hand.

“Okay, gotta say,” Kol’aya said, breaking the moment, “it’s been a long time since I’ve done any kind of general medicine, and normally when people cry in my clinic it’s because I’ve just given some really awful news, so when you started going just now, I panicked for a second there.”

They both laughed shakily, and at Ona’la’s coaxing, Thexan leaned forward and rested his forehead against hers. “We’re having a baby,” she whispered in a sing-song melody.

He laughed again. “We are,” he whispered back.

“You two sure are a cute pair,” the doctor said loudly, as if determined to remind them they were in a public clinic, and were not alone. “I’ll just sum up the rest real quick, huh?”

Kol’aya chattered away mildly, sometimes talking to them and sometimes just talking aloud- she seemed to take a number of images of the baby, if the way the screen flickered was anything to go by, and he had no idea what that was for. He had a very basic understanding of field medicine, as a result of his training, but anything more complex was utterly beyond him. The baby- his baby, their baby- had stubbly little fingers, and a rather oddly shaped head which Kol’aya assured him was very normal for this point in development.

“You’re running a slight fever at the moment,” Kol’aya said, without any sort of concern at all. “That’s probably to be expected with a mixed species pregnancy- your body will still be prone to treating the baby as a foreign object, and your immune system will be running on high alert.”

Ona’la’s grip on his hands tightened. “Is the baby safe?”

“Oh, pretty much. It sounds much more ominous than it actually is.” She attached something to Ona’la’s wrist for a moment, some kind of arm band that was attached to the main computer banks. “Keep an eye on it, but if it hasn’t been bothering you up to now, we’ll probably be lucky. You can keep it under control with some general dose myocaine, but if it gets any worse, come see me or give me a call.”

Thexan glanced at her, and Ona’la looked a little sheepish. “I thought I was just hot all the time from the climate,” she admitted.

Kol’aya chuckled. “You are a giant incubator at the moment, Master Jedi,” she said, apparently satisfied with whatever the wrist band did, as she detached it and tucked it back onto the shelf. “It’s normal to expect some higher than normal body temperatures, but don’t go putting on a brave face for no reason- think of your naya, if nothing else.”

He recognised that word- the twi’leki word for baby- and felt a brief flicker of pride, something he had never felt during his childhood lessons at home on Zakuul. It wasn’t information forced upon him in endless repetition, as they shaped him into a brutal hunter with unquestioning loyalty to his father; it was knowledge shared out of love and excitement, his wife giving him a chance to learn of her culture and her people so that he could better encourage the same learning in his child. Their child.

It might have been a pitifully small thing to feel pride for, but it didn’t matter. He was allowed to feel excited about something, to feel pride for something without looking anxiously over his shoulder, for the first time in his life.

He was going to enjoy it while he could.

Kol’aya gave Ona’la a few more instructions that he tried to follow along with, but the two of them lapsed into conversational twi’leki, and he gave up. He didn’t think it was malicious on their part, deliberately trying to exclude him, but it still felt awkward. Another reminder that he was an outsider somewhere else. She shut off the monitors and left Ona’la with a towel to clean the gel off of her belly, and she giggled at how slimy it was.

Seeing her laughing made his heart soar, and he leaned forward and kissed her cheek without thinking. Her smile was so bright when he pulled away that for a moment he was lost in it.

“Don’t squeeze me too tight,” she said with a giggle, “I’m so slippery I might just go skidding across the room!”

“And here I thought you said just last night that you were too big to move ever again.”

She gasped melodramatically. “So you do think I’m fat,” she whispered in faux horror.

“Play nice, children,” the doctor warned, pulling back the curtain to the rest of the clinic. Two of the other beds were currently occupied, but otherwise the room was empty; the morning sunshine spilled in through the windows, illuminating the cheerful yet worn furnishings. “You’ve got my holo, so if anything comes up, just let me know. Otherwise, you should be fine until your next checkup.”

The home that Theron had purchased for them was across the harbour, on the outskirts of town; he had been remarkably dubious of it when they’d first arrived on Rishi, unsettled by how lawless the township seemed and concerned about whether or not it was a safe place to consider raising a child. As Ona’la had pointed out, however, it was absolutely one of the last places anyone would look for them, and the child of two extraordinarily powerful Force users was hardly going to be helpless- and if they took Tahrin’s warnings to heart, any true threat to their child was going to be supernatural, rather than physical.

And now that they’d been here for a couple of weeks, he found that he was actually growing quite fond of the wretched town. Certainly the slavers upset Ona’la quite a lot, but he seemed to have earned enough of a reputation around the docks that none of them tried to catcall her anymore, or offer him money for her. There were plenty of people who were just genuinely decent people, trying to make a life for themselves away from the ongoing wars and away from the oversight of the Republic and the Empire; he wasn’t going to pretend that they were living like tax-abiding citizens, but there were families and there were children and there was a relaxed atmosphere like nothing he’d ever experienced before. It was as if time itself was not a concept here, as if living was just something that happened, instead of something that needed to be planned and organised and placed into increments of carefully ordered time.

If they wanted to sleep in every morning, they could; if they wanted to stay up late, they could. He could spend his days napping, or reading terrible genre fiction, or exploring the coves and nearby beaches, and there was nothing to say he couldn’t. The freedom was terrifying, to an extent, and sometimes it made him anxious.

“She seems very nice,” Ona’la said as they walked; they’d diverted past the market, and a cloth bag hung between them, holding a bag of rice and several paper-wrapped parcels of chicken and various odds and ends for the pantry. Including at least three kinds of chocolate for Ona’la.

Thexan snorted. “She’s blunt,” he said.

You’re blunt. That’s not a bad thing in either case.”

“That’s not enough common ground for me to suddenly want to invite her over for supper and charades.”

“That’s just because you’re bad at charades.”

Their house was a tiny little affair, smaller than the suite of rooms he’d had on Zakuul, and smaller too than the living spaces on the Atonement. It had a single living area with a basic kitchenette attached, and two little bedrooms, with a refresher wedged between them. They had a roof-top garden, and sometimes in the evenings the two of them would go up and lie together, staring up at the stars as they held one another and whispered and giggled. He would sing Zakuulan lullabies to Ona’la’s belly, the same ones his mother had sung to them before she had left, and she would giggle and tangle her fingers in his hair as he pretended to have complex conversations with the babe within her.

They had none of the wealth and privilege he had been told was his right, and nothing that he wanted to give her was within his means to do so. A tiny house, basic food, plain clothing- he wanted to give her a palace, and a mountain of jewels and silks; he wanted to buy the damn chocolate store on Coruscant that she loved so much so that she could have as much of it every day for the rest of her life as she wanted. He wanted her to know just how desperately he loved her, and how important she was to him- instead they were all but fugitives, living a frugal existence on the edge of the galaxy.

As if sensing the direction his mood was taking, she wrapped her arm around his, as if hugging it to her, and rested her head on his shoulder as they walked.

Their walk through town took them a good half an hour or so, and he could sense Ona’la growing weary as their home come into view. A little house in a cluster of buildings just across the creek, with a bright blue awning over the door and a crescent moon hanging on the wall that Ona’la had put up to honour her goddess. There was a collection of pot plants gathered around the step, a riot of colours and mismatched pots that he was certain were going to get stolen the very first night Ona’la had put them out. He didn’t know whether they remained because no one actually cared that much about a free pot plant, or because everyone in their little end of the neighbourhood was so thoroughly charmed by Ona’la that none of them wanted to upset her.

It was dark inside the house, the lights inside dimmed to preserve power while they were gone. Ona’la huffed out a sigh of relief as she sank down onto the couch. “I am so fat and cumbersome,” she grumbled, rubbing her hands over her belly.

Thexan moved through into the kitchen with the groceries, opening the shutters that faced towards the harbour; when they’d first moved in, he’d found the stench to be unbearable, salt and brine and the unmistakeable rot that seemed an intrinsic part of any waterside existence. In the weeks since their arrival, he’d come to find it comforting, in a strange way- it was a smell he associated with domesticity, with this little sliver of hope and safety and love that he’d carved out for himself against all odds. It smelled like the place where Ona’la fell asleep beside him each night, and graced him with a smile each morning.

He put the kettle on over the hotplate, smiling as she continued to groan dramatically in the background, clearly waiting for his input. “You have another person inside you, love,” he said patiently, fishing out a pair of tin mugs from the cupboard above the hotplate. “It’s rather understandable that you would be larger.”

“I’m a behemoth. I’m like those big fish that get washed up on the beach every now and then.”

He shook his head, trying not to laugh. “You are not.”

“Have you seen me try to get up when I’ve been lying down? Flailing about, just like those fish.”

He finally gave up and laughed. “Are you quite done?” he asked, glancing over at her.

She was peering at him over the top of the couch, eyes mischievous. “I made you laugh,” she said triumphantly.

“So you’re done?”

“For now.” She pulled a face. “Someone else is riled up, though.”

“Oh?”

She settled awkwardly back on her calves, hands back on her belly. “Kicking up a storm right now,” she said ruefully. She grunted, wincing slightly. “In all the wrong places, too- I’ll be right back.”

She climbed off the couch and waddled towards the tiny refresher; Thexan continued pottering around the kitchen, getting the tea ready while she dealt with her bruised bladder. The heat was still climbing outside, but he found it was not so unbearable as he’d thought it might have been before they’d arrived; certainly he could never have imagined brewing tea in this sort of heat, but Ona’la had taken to draining entire pots of hibiscus tea in the last month or so since she was banned from drinking her precious caf, and while it was probably a little sweeter than he would’ve preferred, he quite liked sitting down with her and drinking quietly in the afternoon heat. It felt peaceful, domestic, something he never would have allowed himself to yearn for in another life.

And as always, when left alone with the turmoil of his thoughts when he was already dwelling on memories of family, his mood soured quickly.

The sun was glinting off the water of the harbour and making him blink, but he didn’t look away; he used to stand and stare out into the darkness of space from The Spire, and he hadn’t flinched then either, even when the rotation of Zakuul had turned them to face towards the sun. Did Arcann still stand and stare out to the stars, too? Did he think of him, in those moments, as he thought of him?

Arcann had to know they were expecting a child, if he truly was getting the correspondences from him. He’d had no response to any of them, not even any further public denouncements- it was as if, having said his piece so long ago, Arcann was determined to ignore any mentions of him as nothing more than propaganda and fantasy. In the few pieces of news that trickled out of Zakuul from Xolani or Lana, there seemed to be more regular reminders from official channels that Thexan was dead, and any suggestion to the contrary was to be treated as enemy subversion, but from Arcann himself?

Silence.

Vaylin had written back precisely once, and it gutted him. A single sentence, not even signed with her name. Just stay dead, it had said, it’s easier if you’re dead.

Easier than what? Easier than accepting that there were ways to escape their father’s tyranny without following in his footsteps? Easier than having to face the fact that Valkorion had broken all three of them, over and over and over again until they lashed out at one another as easily as they had at him?

Easier than accepting the fact that they deserved a chance for something more? Something that wasn’t hatred and fear and paranoia and self-loathing and was, in fact, something more like forgiveness?

Love?

The slowly rising whine of the kettle drew him out of his thoughts, and he rubbed at his aching eyes as he took it off the heat. He could hear Ona’la moving around in the refresher, and the last thing he wanted to do was to worry her again with another of his bad moods.

The door slid open, and she stepped back into the room with a sigh. “I hate to be a pest,” she said ruefully, “but we actually don’t have that medicine that Doctor Kol’aya told me to take, the one for my blood pressure?”

He snorted, pouring the boiling water into the mugs. “I told you we didn’t,” he said.

“I could have sworn we did! Archiban was very thorough about the medkit, for all his faults, that was the one thing I know he wouldn’t get wrong.”

“You and I have very different opinions about Doctor Kimble’s capabilities.”

She looked distracted as she wandered into the room, one hand on her belly while the other rubbed at her forehead. “Maybe we do, and I put them down somewhere thinking I’d remember? I don’t think I’ve been taking them already, but- gah. This pregnancy brain, I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast!”

He stirred the mugs with a shared spoon, adding a dollop of honey to hers; how she could stand it so sweet, he would never understand. “You had two slices of toast with fried fish,” he said patiently. “You bought the fish at the market yesterday and kept declaring all day that you were absolutely going to make a stew with them, and then come suppertime you declared that the smell of fish made you more nauseous than any smell in the galaxy, and then this morning-”

“Alright, alright,” she grumbled, coming up behind him and sliding her arms around his waist. Her belly pressed into his lower back, and she rested her head on his shoulder. He put his hand over hers, closing his eyes for a moment as he revelled in the intimacy.

“I’m so scatterbrained at the moment,” she murmured, squeezing him gently. “I don’t know how you put up with me.”

He huffed out a laugh. “I don’t ‘put up’ with you,” he scolded softly, “it’s my privilege to take care of you.”

And he meant it, even if he wasn’t sure if he did a good job of it most days. She never complained except in a jesting manner, but he couldn’t imagine it was easy for her- living out the last few months of her pregnancy in this heat and humidity, unable to lead the Jedi to safety and stand against Zakuul as she so clearly wanted to do. She never seemed to blame him for the fact that being with him meant, in a sense, she had doomed herself to a vague sort of exile in the same manner as his own.

“Can I be a pest?”

“You want me to go back to Kol’aya and get more of that medicine.”

“You read my mind.”

He twisted around in her arms and kissed her firmly on the forehead. “You’re not allowed to eat all the chocolate while I’m gone,” he said warningly.

“I can’t be held responsible for what I do when I’m left unsupervised with chocolate.”

He got her settled on the couch with her feet up on a cushion, her mug of tea close at hand. With a longing sigh at his own tea, left to go cold on the counter, he quietly promised himself a muja juice from the stall near the bridge on the way back through town.

The journey was a lot quicker the second time, not having to go at an easy pace to accommodate for Ona’la’s pregnancy. The heat was draining at the best of times, so he couldn’t imagine trying to deal with it while supporting another life inside of her. He managed a brisk pace across town, finding himself approaching the clinic fifteen minutes later just as someone else was leaving. The other fellow, a nautolan, held the door open for him, and he slipped inside to where the rickety old air conditioner was noisily blasting cold air into the clinic. Only one bed was still occupied, the patient apparently fast asleep, and Kol’aya did not seem to be present.

Just his luck; he fought back a sigh and wandered between the beds, looking to see that she wasn’t crouched down out of sight retrieving something from under a gurney. There were three doors, one of which appeared to lead to a closet of some kind, the next to a staircase that he presumed led to her living quarters above the clinic, and the third to a darkened back room that he was more willing to try than to go prying about in her bedroom.

The back room was extraordinarily different to the almost frugal nature of the clinic at the front- the walls were lined with monitors and screens, and there were two different computer models, neither of which he recognised, but one of which had its own power generator to maintain what he assumed was a memory bank, going off of the bulky design of the structure. He might have assumed it to be a surgical theatre, because it wasn’t like he had a great deal of experience with more extensive medical procedures, but there was no operating table, no kolto tank, nothing that he might have thought necessary for surgical purposes.

There was a table, but it was covered instead with various pieces of metal and wires and tools. Oh, of course, he remembered someone saying that Kol’aya was some kind of cybernetic specialist; he hadn’t ever really given any thought to what that sort of discipline might entail.

It was darker in this room, the lack of windows counteracted by the glow of the monitors, but it still made him blink as his watering eyes adjusted. He could see Kol’aya seated at one of the terminals by the back wall, and she was chattering away to herself in twi’leki; he didn’t stand a chance in hell of following along with the rapid speed she spoke, but he thought he understood a word or two, here and there. She was clicking just as rapidly through a series of images on the monitor before her, pausing every now and then to scribble a note on her datapad.

He felt awkwardly like he was interrupting, but he hadn’t any reason to feel that way apart from his own social gracelessness. He took a few steps further into the room, meaning to clear his throat to draw Kol’aya’s attention, when she instead activated the holoprojector beside her; a figure appeared, clad only in a pair of trousers while the torso was left bare, the better to allow access to the monstrous chunk of metal attached with very little grace to the left side of the body.

The figure spun almost lazily in place as Kol’aya flicked at it with her stylus, still talking to herself, and Thexan found himself so distracted by how painful the whole affair looked that it took him a second to actually look at the face-

-and realised that the figure on the holographic projection in the centre of the room was his brother.

He must have made a sound of distress, because something startled Kol’aya enough that she squawked in alarm, lunging to her feet as her hand went for the blaster on the desk. Instinct kicked in, and he pulled out his lightsaber, igniting it just as she swung around and got the gun pointed towards his face. The hum of the lightsaber matched the sound of the blaster’s power pack charging up, and there was no hesitation in her face at all, no tremor in her hand as she faced him with a lightsaber at her throat.

For a long, agonising moment, the air between them was charged with something ugly, something violent; neither of them flinched.

But he could hear Ona’la in his head, pleading with him not to follow pathways of violence his father had built into him, and he gritted his teeth. “Do you often pull a gun on people who surprise you?” he asked stiltedly.

She still hadn’t lowered her gun; he wasn’t even sure she’d blinked. “It’s easier to apologise after if I’m still alive,” she said bluntly. She didn’t choose to elaborate on her reaction to him, and after a long moment weighing up the situation, he disengaged his lightsaber and very carefully moved it back to his hip. Kol’aya didn’t move, and he began to panic that maybe he’d underestimated her, that maybe she was a threat.

Finally, she sighed. With clear reluctance she turned the safety back on and let it power down, setting it back on the desk beside her. “I’ve pissed off a lot of people over the years,” she said grimly. “Your brother isn’t even the most recent.”

“I-what?”

She grimaced. “There’s a few pirate gangs who have taken exception to my work with the slaves,” she began, but he shook his head.

“My brother is angry at you?”

Kol’aya paused, her eyes ever so slightly narrowed as she assessed him. “Possibly,” she said carefully, with obvious hesitance.

When she didn’t continue, he grunted in frustration. “Whatever happened, you have to know I wouldn’t side with him,” he said, which resulted in her rolling her eyes at him.

“I don’t know that, actually,” she said. “I barely know you, so I have no idea where your loyalties lie. And to be honest, I don’t even know if it was him or just one of your shitty little peons getting too uppity.”

“I... what?”

She crossed her arms, chin raised defiantly. “I’m not here on Rishi by choice,” she said. “I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation, and I’m not gonna lie, being able to help the folk out here being hurt and abused by the slavers and the pirates is a pretty great feeling, but I wouldn’t be living in a fucking pirate town on the edge of nowhere if I had a choice.”

He glanced to where Arcann’s holoimage hung behind her shoulder, his face set into a scowl that seemed far too familiar. The scarring, though, the painful exposed tissue that seemed only a few weeks out from an injury instead of two years... that wasn’t familiar. It made his heart thud painfully in his chest, something like grief and something like yearning. “Why are you here, then?” he asked quietly.

“Why are you?”

He wasn’t expecting that sort of answer. “Uh- I don’t-” He swallowed down the spike of anxiety in his throat- you are a battlefield commander of unrivalled skill, and you’re quaking over a doctor scowling at you, stop it. “We’re hiding from the Zakuulan authorities just like you-”

She waved a hand irritably. “Here, idiot, why are you here in my clinic.”

He felt his cheeks burn. “Oh- Ona’la needs more of that blood pressure medication you were talking about. She was a little anxious about it.”

Kol’aya’s expression softened, the frown on her forehead fading away, and she sighed. “Wait here,” she said, wandering over to a cabinet on the far wall. She rummaged around in the contents for a few moments, and Thexan shuffled his feet awkwardly in the meantime, trying and failing not to stare at the holoimage of Arcann. She was squinting at the bottle in her hand as she came back, and when she looked back up at him and found him staring at the holo, she groaned in resignation.

Thrusting the bottle at him, she said “Tell her to take one of those in the mornings, and if she has any instances of dizziness or faint-headedness to get in contact with me.” She hesitated for a long moment, clearly agonising over whether to say anything further.

Taking the medication and rolling it between his fingers, he said “Thank you.”

“Your brother’s in a lot of pain,” she said suddenly, clearly uneasy but pushing ahead regardless. “I’m not gonna lie and say I appreciate being all but kidnapped, and I sure as fuck don’t appreciate being stuck on this hokey little planet until the heat dies off, but I can’t let something go once I know I’m in a position to help someone.”

Thexan took a deep breath, choosing his words with excruciating care. “There are others in far greater need than my brother,” he said carefully, but she shrugged.

“Not debating that. Also not debating the fact that, even with all the time in the world, I’m never gonna get to all of them- there’s always gonna be someone sicker, someone struggling more, someone who looks worse than the person standing in front of them in the queue.” She sighed, almost irritably. “That’s what it means to be a doctor.”

What could he even say to that? “I’m... sorry?”

She snorted. “Don’t be. See, the thing is, there’s a lot of other doctors out there. And yeah, there’s a lot of need for us all, but there’s a lot of shit I don’t need to do, because there are other medics out there who are perfectly capable of filling in the gaps. What I do, and what made me a target for your brother’s people, is that there are very, very few people who can match the work I do.” She straightened her shoulders ever so slightly, as if she was preparing herself for an argument. “I’m one of the best damned cybernetic specialists in the entire galaxy, and if your brother wants to get better and just... get back some damned quality of life, he’s gonna need me.”

Thexan blinked at her.

“It’s not arrogant of me to say it,” she said, almost angrily, almost defensively. “There’s a reason they came for me in the first place.”

“I wasn’t implying you were,” he said. “Just...”

“Just?”

He swallowed nervously. “I’m not going to lie to myself and pretend that people don’t hate my family, and that they don’t have good reason to.” He glanced over at the holoimage of Arcann, his heart aching. “I suppose I just don’t really understand why you’d want to help.”

Kol’aya was quiet for a moment. “I suppose for the most part it’s about professional pride,” she said carefully. “A lot of people thought I’d amount to nothing. A lot of people still think I’m no good for anything other than dancing on a table with my tits hanging out- not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just...” She grimaced. “It gets frustrating when nobody thinks I’m capable of anything other than that. So I see a challenge like this, with a high profile patient with long term tissue damage, lots of problems with the implant, and I see a chance to prove myself.”

A flicker of irritation sparked to life within him. “My brother is a person,” he snapped, “not some job opportunity for you to add to your resume.”

The faint warmth in her expression disappeared instantly, her eyes going cold. “Your brother sent me into exile after threatening to kidnap me and hold me against my will in order to act as his personal on-call physician. I don’t really think it’s outrageous to consider how I could twist that situation so it benefits me, instead of just accepting that yet another human male wants to keep me as a slave.”

He flinched, and took a step back; it was impossible not to miss the way she said ‘another’, and he wasn’t so naive to think that she might not be serious about it. Ona’la still bore the scars of her own slavery, after all, and she’d been free of the mines for over twenty years now.

She crossed her arms, and broke eye contact, looking down towards the floor; her entire body language screamed defensiveness, and he could physically feel her closing herself off. He had a thousand, million questions he wanted to ask her- what did she mean that Arcann was in pain? Why did he need a cybernetic specialist if he’d already had the surgery?- but he was better at reading people by now, and he knew without a doubt that his presence was no longer welcome.

Turning the bottle over in his hand, he nodded awkwardly to her. “You have my thanks for the medication,” he said gruffly, backing towards the door. She made a noncommittal sound and turned her back on him, and he took that as permission to stumble towards the door with more speed.

The walk back home seemed to pass by in a blur, his palm sweaty as he gripped the medicine bottle tight; his head felt like it was trapped in a clamp, his skull too tight and too heavy while the rest of him felt feather light. He was breathing heavily, and he chalked it up to the heat, and his heart was beating so rapidly that it was making him dizzy.

Why was Arcann in pain? Why wasn’t he being treated, when it was almost two years since the accident now? Had he been in pain this entire time? Was no one looking out for him, not even Vaylin?

He fumbled with the keypad several times before getting into the house, his hands shaking too badly to hit the code accurately. When he finally made it inside, he vaguely realised that he’d never gotten the juice he’d promised himself at the market, and that his shirt was stuck to his back with sweat.

“Thexan?”

Ona’la was sitting up on the couch, and the holoterminal before her was active; Tahrin stood before her, one of the twins lying at her feet and scribbling determinedly on a piece of flimsi, tongue sticking out of their mouth as they worked. Both women were looking at him, and he realised Ona’la must have called his name several times.

Her smile slowly faded, the beginnings of a frown settling onto her face. “Freykaa? Is everything alright?”

There was an ache in his chest, in his shoulder. His scar burned.

He opened his mouth to tell her he was fine, that everything was okay and that he’d just had a terse conversation with the doctor that had unsettled him. But nothing came out, his jaw working wordlessly as he struggled to speak past the lump in his throat, slowly choking him. Ona’la and Tahrin both stared, and he couldn’t stand it.

He set the bottle down on the counter with far more force than was necessary. “Medication,” he said, his voice cracking, before hurrying past them and into the bedroom.

He felt like the room was suffocating him, like he’d forgotten how to breathe and his brain was slowly dying from lack of oxygen; he stood beside the bed, air wheezing from between his lips as he tried to convince himself he was breathing, that this was enough, that this was all he needed to do and that his brain was lying to him.

His shoulder ached, like an old wound, like a fresh injury, like he’d lost his arm two years ago or more and grown it back.

The room was spinning.

He was supposed to be dead.

It’s easier if you’re dead.

He was too dizzy, so he all but fell onto the bed, crawling awkwardly up to the pillows. The bed smelled of Ona’la, and he buried his face in the lilac coloured pillow with the frilly edges, trying to breathe in the scent of her until it was all he could smell.

In the small main room, he heard Ona’la quietly end the call with Tahrin, and it took a few minutes before she ventured into their equally small bedroom. She made sure to make plenty of noise as she approached him, humming under her breath as she moved around in the lounge and shuffling loudly between the furniture; when she made it into their room, she purposefully trod on the floorboard that squeaked the loudest.

The bed sagged as she sat down beside him, and when he felt the backs of her knuckles brushing over his cheek, he had to scrunch up his face against the ferocious need to cry.

“Freykaa?” she asked softly, her fingers running up to his hair. When he didn’t answer, she said “Bad day?”

He managed to nod against the pillow, the roiling maelstrom of misery inside of him trying to erupt outwards.

“Was there anything particular that upset you?” His eyes were burning with unshed tears, and he tried to shrug. “Not sure?”

The bed creaked as she stood up again, and she waddled around the bed; the mattress sunk down as she clambered onto the bed behind him, and then he felt her arm slide over his hip, her face tucked up against the back of his neck as she snuggled up behind him. It was enough to tip him over the edge, and the tears he was so desperately trying to hold back spilled out of him, his body shaking as he cried silently.

Ona’la held him, whispering softly to him, and after a time he turned awkwardly in her arms so that he could bury his face against her, hiding himself in the folds of her tunic. Her belly made it difficult to hold her too tightly, which was probably a good thing in the end. He cried for what felt like an eternity, everything in him burning and roiling and consumed by the furious misery overtaking him; by the time he came back to himself he was sobbing shakily, breathless and exhausted as he shivered against her. Ona’la held him close, her hands cradling him gently, one running slowly up and down his back.

He felt humiliated, and pathetic for his weakness, but she just kissed him on the forehead and sighed his name. “Freykaa?” she murmured, as if sensing he had come back to her at last.

He swallowed several times, his throat raw from crying. “I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely.

“You never need to be sorry, Thexan,” she said gently, no censure in her tone. She didn’t complain about the tear-drenched front of her tunic, or the fact that lying entwined together fully clothed in the middle of the day had left them both sweaty and uncomfortable. “Do you want to talk about it?”

His head was throbbing. “I- I don’t know,” he said, shifting so that his hand was resting on her belly. Sorry, little one, he thought privately, hoping that he hadn’t caused any undue distress. “It just sort of- it all just piled on top of me.”

“That’s alright,” she said, smoothing his hair back from his face. “We can just take it easy for the rest of the day, hmm? No errands, no news about the Alliance, no-”

“Is that why you were talking to Tahrin?” he asked, almost desperate to put some ground between himself and his breakdown, now that it was over. “The Alliance?”

She chuckled softly, her breast moving under his cheek. “No news about the Alliance,” she repeated pointedly. She let her hand rest over his where it sat on her stomach. “Just the three of us for the rest of the day- we can stay in and have an easy dinner, or we can take a walk down to the beach and buy something from one of the vendors and eat on the sand while the sun sets, or we can go back into town and see what’s showing at the holotheatre?”

He felt a bump against his hand, the pressure of a kick, and Ona’la’s quiet grunt of surprise confirmed the baby’s movement. He laughed shakily, rubbing at the spot where the kick had come from. “Was that a vote for or against the holotheatre?” he asked, voice rough.

“I can never tell. They’re terribly temperamental about what they like,” she grumbled, rubbing just as soothingly at his arm. When the baby kicked again, she sighed. “I think they just want your attention.”

“They have it,” he murmured, wishing that he had some way of conveying to the little person in there that he could sense them, that he could feel them reaching out to him. He had vague recollections of his mother saying that Vaylin had been strong enough to reach out before her birth, and he wondered if his own child would do the same. “Thank you, little one.”

Ona’la continued to play with his hair, toying with it ever so gently to relax him. “You know,” she said slowly, “we haven’t really talked about names yet.”

He sniffed, wishing he had something to wipe his face on. “I don’t actually know anything about twi’leki naming conventions,” he said, and she laughed gently.

“And I don’t know anything about Zakuulan naming conventions,” she said pointedly. “Our baby is both, you know.”

“I don’t exactly think that a culture I’m currently exiled from is a great starting place for our child.”

She was resting against the top of his head, and he felt her smile. “No more than I’m alienated from my own, too,” she said. There was another kick against his hand. “Our cultures, our heritage... it’s not something that anyone can forbid us from embracing. Well, not without brute force, I mean. If we want our child to find comfort in the small fragments we both remember enough to pass onto them, then that’s our right and our privilege to do so.”

He was quiet for a long moment, considering her words. “I feel like there’s too much of Valkorion in my history,” he said finally. “I don’t... I don’t want my child to have anything to do with a culture he crafted.”

Ona’la kissed the top of his head. “I understand, freykaa,” she said gently. “Well, in that case, might I make a suggestion?”

“Mm?”

It was warm in the bedroom, the air thick with humidity and sweat, and as much as he was uncomfortable he honestly didn’t want to move. “The old way to name twi’lek children was to have their name be a derivative of someone important, or of the clan name.”

“Who were you named after?” She was quiet, and he realised after a moment his mistake. “Love, I’m sorry, that was thoughtless.”

“It’s alright,” she said, and she sounded sad, but not upset. “I don’t remember the names of any of the adults in my village, not even my parents. For all I know, the slavers might have butchered the pronunciation of my name all those years, and I was too young to remember anything differently.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” she repeated, “ but before I get sidetracked again, I wanted to ask- if we named the child in the twi’leki style, what if we took the tributary names from you?”

Thexan paused. “I... I’m not sure I follow,” he said hesitantly.

“You can choose who to name the child for,” she said, and his heart immediately screamed Arcann.

He ignored it. “Wouldn’t it make the most sense to just use Theron, since he’s the heart parent?”

He felt her shrug. “It’s entirely up to you, freykaa.”

“Or Kira?”

“It’s up to you,” she laughed, squeezing him gently. “Although if you had multiple tributes, you’d craft a new name with theirs- so you could do, like, Kiron or Rona or something like that.”

He wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know if I could do that without meeting them first,” he said, rubbing absently at her belly. “Seems a bit rude to name them before getting to know them first.”

There was a solid kick against his hand, and they both laughed. “I think someone agrees with you,” Ona’la said, giggling.

“Good,” he said, “I will win them over to my side and the two of us will gang up on you.”

“That hardly seems fair.” Another kick. “See? They agree with me now.”

And it didn’t seem quite so dreadful and claustrophobic as it had an hour ago, the weight of living with all of the pain and the anxiety. They were laughing, and they were safe, and against all the odds arrayed against him they were happy.

He could take the moments where he stumbled if it meant Ona’la would always be there to help him back to his feet.

Chapter Text

“I am not your enemy.”

She could just about replace him with a recording at this point; she was so tired, and so frustrated, and she hated him so much, but she knew how this would progress if she attacked him again. They would fight, they would attempt to tear apart the seams of the universe in their desperate rage, they would retreat exhausted to lick their wounds, repeat ad nauseam. Every time, she came back a little weaker, a little more fractured, the surface of her existence cracking with feathery, web-like lines as she grew ever closer to complete annihilation.

He was growing weaker too, she knew it- but it wasn’t enough.

“And I am not your ally,” she said, one arm around her torso and the other held up to her chin, and she stared out across the abyss of their shared prison. She was not even convinced they were within her mind anymore, not truly- this was something else, some kind of shared consciousness from the moment their spirits had collided with one another in the battle for control of her flesh. It explained why he had seemingly just as much control here as she did, when there was no reason for him to have access to her mind; even as a parasite, he should have had his limits, and he had well and truly surpassed them.

“Perhaps I can convince you otherwise.”

The scene around them flickered, and the barren asteroid faded away to reveal a lush garden, the sky above them a pale sort of teal, rather than the empty blackness of their prison. There was a sun in the sky, a dark orange instead of pale yellow, and the air was thick with the smell of nectar and greenery, the sort of smell one would expect in a greenhouse or a nursery. It was alive and moist, and she could feel the humidity against her skin as if she was truly standing there, in this bizarre garden she had not conjured.

She could hear music playing nearby, some kind of sharp and nasally pipe instrument, and laughter too; when she looked up, past the treeline, she could see towers, the architecture vaguely familiar while still seemingly painfully alien. Primitive, almost, as if it came from a less civilized age. “Where are we?” she asked, eyes narrowing.

Valkorion appeared beside her and gestured for the palms in front of them to part; beyond this secluded nook in the garden was a tiled gazebo, and within the gazebo were a number of pureblood sith, all lounging about on divans in very little clothing while a chained alien sat by the railing, playing the instrument she’d heard first. She did not recognise the species.

“The question you should be asking yourself is when are we,” Valkorion said, looking far too smug for her tastes.

She pressed her lips together in displeasure. “I have no interest in your games,” she snapped, but whatever else she might have planned to snarl at him was cut off, a shout of alarm cutting through the hedonistic tranquility of the scene.

“Dramath! Dramath!” The purebloods gathered in the gazebo slowly wound down their conversation, turning to look towards the voice; their jewellery was excessive, and it glittered brightly even in the shade. A young man seated on the floor beside a mostly naked woman with ample cleavage- Kallathe could easily admit she was distracted for a moment- and she saw him roll his golden eyes before shifting to see the interloper. Another pureblood ran towards them, falling to one knee just outside the pavilion with his head bowed low.

A suspicion ran through her, like a ripple in a pond warning of some greater wave about to break upon the shore. Valkorion chuckled and it made her stomach sour. “When are we, Vitiate?” she asked from between gritted teeth.

The young man before them sighed extravagantly, as if exceedingly put out by the interruption to his afternoon. “What is it, Rajahva?” he drawled, his accent thick, and Kallathe realised she had never seen so many of her people gathered socially. Always, there were humans in the mix, there to interrupt and speak over them and generally place themselves as the superior species in any conversation. He sat up slowly, the long chains of jewellery tinkling musically as they cascaded down his chest, and his chin tendrils flicking in irritation. “Why are you interrupting me?”

She could feel Valkorion’s smug delight, and it crawled along her skin like an unwanted touch. “We are witnessing the moment when our destinies became irrevocably entwined,” he said, and there was something so confident about the way he said it that she felt sick.

“Apologies, Prince Dramath,” the kneeling pureblood said. When he lifted his head, his eyes were wild with fear. “I bring word from the north- your father, he...”

“Spit it out, coward.”

“Your father is dead, my Lord. Dramath the Elder is dead- and they say the child who killed him is your brother.”

____

The Doombringer, Odessen, Wild Space

Tahrin stood on the bridge of the Doombringer, hands clasped loosely behind her back as she surveyed the view before her. Around her, the bridge was a hive of ordered activity, conversation kept light and quiet, but even so the tension was palpable- tension that was a direct result of her presence. She wasn’t distressed at all by energy around her, knowing that it was somewhat inevitable that the presence of the almost mythical Wrath would cause awe and fear amongst the less experienced members of the crew.

She wasn’t exactly setting their fears at ease with her outfit choice, but... the Wrath was an idea. A nightmare. Not a human woman with a spouse and children, who sometimes struggled with a deep ache in her hip when the weather turned cold.

Her reflection was faintly visible in the transparisteel windows, cold and grey and vaguely inhuman. She did not wear bulky armour, the better to move with speed and lethality, and the cortosis-weave armour had been deliberately worn and distressed to give it a ragged appearance. Her helmet, too, was worn and tarnished, the style significantly not Sith-like; she was not a fan of helmets generally, but the outfit was a performance, not a genuine safety requirement. Both the ventail over her jaw and the helmet proper had exquisite golden etchings, symbols that seemed not quite human and were not entirely easy to look at; beneath the ventail, the front of her face was covered by mirrored metal, so that anyone peering through the gap to try to see her features would instead be confronted with their own reflection. It was deliberate, of course- nothing was quite so unsettling as to have one’s killer be utterly faceless to the point of wearing your own face. She had learned a lot from Revan about the value of a performative outfit, and cultivating a legend to do your work for you.

She looked vaguely feral, ragged and just marginally unkempt, and it was such a painful counterpart to the crisp, careful control she maintained in conversations that it unsettled even her allies.

As if to prove her point, the sound of footsteps drew up behind her, and out of the edge of her periphery she saw Moff Pyron come to a halt, bowing his head sharply. “My Lord,” he said, his voice low, “scans indicate the sector is clear. We can begin transportation to the surface on your command.”

Outside of the viewport was a single planet, a significant portion of which was covered by vast oceans. There were wide bands of white clouds, inevitable on a planet with so much water, and what seemed to be two narrow continents, both of which were jagged and mountainous. From this high up, they were little more than strips of green and brown, with a splash of white towards the northern pole; there was no landmass over the southern pole, but there was a storm of concerning size rotating slowly on their scanners.

She didn’t move. “Has Lord Beniko made contact?” she asked, the mask distorting her voice sufficiently as to make it sound eerily inhuman.

“She has,” Pyron said, and his years of practice with the far more theatrical antics of Darth Nox had apparently inured him to her own levels of dramatics. He hadn’t flinched once at her silent presence on the bridge all morning, nor had his voice wavered whenever he’d been within hearing range of her. “She has transmitted her coordinates, and our orbital scans have verified both the location and the number of, ah, guests in attendance.”

“And?”

He gestured to the left side of the planet, which was bathed in bright morning sunlight. “She is located on the smaller northern continent, towards the central mountains. She is accompanied by Jedi Master Xo and a half dozen unidentified humanoids who we have determined to be Zakuulan.”

She tipped her head ever so slightly, as if considering. “Are they armed?” she asked mildly.

“As far as we can tell, yes, my Lord.”

She breathed out slowly. “Sensible,” she said, rolling her shoulders carefully. “Very well. Prepare my shuttle for launch.”

Pyron bowed with immaculate precision, as if he had practised endlessly on the most ideal way to offer his respect while not giving up too much autonomy. “As you say, my Lord,” he said, turning and marching away with authority. She could hear him issuing commands behind her, but she didn’t interfere. She knew there were plenty of Sith, and even non-Force sensitive commanders, who revelled in being overbearing and cruel, who wanted their subordinates to cower and cringe in their presence, but she found it a tedious waste of time.

Efficiency was not improved upon with terror; fear was not an effective motivator.

Instead she stood silently, letting the activity of the bridge flow around her without touching her, and let her mind drift. Lana’s correspondence had indicated that she had found an uninhabited planet that she considered suitable for their needs- close to Zakuul, and masked from long range sensors by a nearby gas nebula that stretched around it in an arc almost four light years deep at the widest parts. Furthermore, Lana’s report had cryptically implied that Tahrin herself needed to be present to inspect the site for suitability, and while normally she would have agreed with her wholeheartedly on the matter, she found the tone of Lana’s request to be somewhat impertinent. Not quite a demand, but certainly unsubtle in the wording.

However, now that she was here, standing over the planet... there was something there. Something she struggled to put words to, but the Force hummed softly over her skin in a way she had never really encountered before. If the Force on Korriban was like the infinite, inky darkness of an ocean under storm, then this planet as the eye of such a storm. Eerily calm, almost devastatingly so, but with the knowledge that power unimaginable surged and seethed almost within arm’s reach.

It was peculiar, and breathtaking- she could see why Beniko had wanted her here in person. All planets resonated with the song of the Force, all part of a greater cacophonous melody that could not be heard by mere mortals, and it was inevitable that some would sing louder than others. Some were harmonious, and some were discordant. By that same metaphor, she could not help but imagine that this planet, this small uninhabited world orbiting a lonely star, held the secret to the original tune, as it had been sung at the birth of their galaxy.

Whimsical nonsense; she shook her head to clear herself of such capriciousness.

“My Lord Wrath?” She turned her head ever so slightly, to where a young woman stood beside her, a lieutenant by her insignia. “If you’ll follow me, please. Your shuttle is ready for departure.”

She nodded, remaining silent, and fell in behind her escort; if the young woman was discomforted by her appearance or by her silence, she gave no indication, and Tahrin was impressed. This was the first time she had travelled outside of Yavin 4 in a number of years, and certainly the longest amount of time she’d spent on an Imperial craft that was not her own private vessel- the staff were far more contained in their presentation than she might have expected, and performed with the same level-headedness she had come to appreciate in Malavai.

Perhaps she had hidden herself away on Yavin for too long. Perhaps there was merit to her taking a more public role in this burgeoning rebellion-

And end up no better than your mother? A dead martyr, name lost to the ages, spoken of as if your very memory was poison?

There was another benefit to wearing a mask, one she had not considered- it hid the very rare moments when emotion got the better of her, and she flinched.

But her steps did not falter, and to anyone watching her as she stalked after the lieutenant, she was the same as she always was- a ghost, a shadow. Death given physical form.

The hangar bay for the Doombringer was several floors below the bridge, and it took them a good fifteen minutes to make their way down to that end of the ship. When they emerged from the hallway onto the stark black floor of the hangar, there was a single shuttle in the processing of finishing refueling, a mechanical crew running last minute checks as an astromech wheeled up on the ramp onboard. And standing beside the ramp, hands clasped behind his back in a pose that was deceptively demure, was Lord Scourge.

Another benefit to the helmet- she could pull an exasperated face without risk of offence.

“Lord Wrath,” he said as she drew closer, with just enough emphasis on her name for her to know he meant it as an insult, “if we are quite done frolicking out in the outlands of the galaxy, I believe it behooves us to return to aid in the defence of the Empire.”

She came to a stop before him, wondering for the thousandth time what precisely she had done to warrant being saddled with her mother’s castoffs. “For a man with all the time in the world to conduct your affairs, Lord Scourge, you are frustratingly impatient,” she said.

“Hiding in dark corners of the galaxy is more suited to criminal refuse, and yet you persist.”

She made a show of adjusting her gloves, waiting for the astromech to clear the ramp and allow her entry. “If we are to compare one’s habits to that of a cockroach, Lord Scourge, then I would suggest the title suits you far more.”

To her surprise, he chuckled. “You have her talent for acerbic wit,” he said, and she did not need to ask who he meant; her skin crawled regardless.

There was room for her to take the ramp now, the astromech trundling past her, and she stalked up and into the shuttle in the hope that he would not follow- no such luck. Scourge joined her in the shuttle, coming to stand silently beside her as she stood at the back of the cockpit, watching the pilots make the final preparations for a planetary descent.

“Ready to launch with your permission, Lord Wrath,” one of them said, glancing back over their shoulder at her.

She inclined her head. “Proceed.”

There was a mild bump as the shuttle retracted the landing struts and hovered under its own power, but otherwise things were smooth as they pulled away from the Doombringer. The planet grew larger through the viewport, the rich blues and greens growing to dominate the field of vision.

Scourge breathed out impatiently, and Tahrin bit her tongue.

“We are wasting our time,” he said under his breath.

“You may be wasting your time, Lord Scourge, but I assure you, I am quite content with how I choose to occupy my hours.”

“Your mother was as overconfident as you are now,” he said, his voice growing intriguingly bitter for a man allegedly incapable of feeling or expressing emotions, “and in the end, it was her downfall.”

Tahrin turned to face him, not even wobbling as they hit the atmosphere and the shuttle began to rumble around them. “I’ll remind you, Lord Scourge, that in the end of all things, you were my mother’s downfall.”

He did not have the benefit of a mask to hide his expression, and for a moment she saw it- the flicker of anguish deep in his eyes, like a match being struck a mile away on a starless night. “I did what was necessary,” he began, and she turned away, dismissing him.

“As do I,” she said flatly. “Do not trail after me like a bored toddler simply to whine, Scourge. I have an alliance to forge.”

The rest of the descent passed in silence, and as they broke through the cloud cover, the shuttle passed over the coast and towards the interior, the plains giving way to a rocky mountain range swathed in deep green forests. The song she had heard from the bridge of the Doombringer was far stronger here, enveloping her in a manner that felt remarkably soothing even while drowning her. It was dangerously powerful, the sort of power that made her feel like she could scoop her hands through the air and cup the Force between them, lifting it up to her mouth like a physical liquid.

This was an interesting planet that Lana had found for her.

The shuttle swept low over the mountains, following the curve of the range as it ran parallel to the coast. After a few minutes they began to make their slow, the pilots bringing them around in a wide arc as they circled a large meadow perched beside a wide canyon. There was a light breeze, the tops of the pines shifting with the wind, but the pale star provided ample sunlight to counter the chill of it, even at this altitude.

There was another craft in the meadow, a Zakuulan shuttle, and a half dozen or so figures arrayed before it. Tahrin stepped in closer behind the pilots. “Thermal scans?” she asked.

“The shuttle shows no evidence of pre-flight mode, engines are currently showing as rapidly cooling.”

“Life signs?”

“All confirmed organic signatures are present in the field, my Lord.”

She nodded. “Maintain an open comm channel with the Doombringer,” she said, “and inform me immediately if anything changes.”

“As you say, my Lord.”

Tahrin turned on her heel sharply and marched towards the airlock, doing her best to ignore Scourge as he fell in beside her again. She found his presence tedious at best, but she could not deny that he had information regarding Vitiate that far surpassed anything she could have uncovered by her own investigations. She would not dismiss his centuries of knowledge, as much as it pained her to do so.

The airlock hissed, and her ears popped; her mask filtered the air regardless of the fact that it was perfectly suitable for most humanoid species to breathe, but she felt the cool rush of the outside press against her clothing. And then the ramp was descending, and she was descending with it, and she had not felt this sort of agitation since the day she had first assembled the beginnings of their Alliance back on Yavin 4. It would have helped to have Pierce at her side, or Jaesa, or even Pyron- anyone other than Scourge, who could disrupt these delicate proceedings with nothing more than a flat sneer and an ill-thought insult.

The ground beneath her boots was springy, as if rain had fallen during the night, and on the far side of the field she could make out the distinct figures of Lana and Xolani. It was a deliberate choice, to arrive before her and to make her walk towards them- Tahrin did not miss the symbolism of such a gesture. It put her in a position of weakness from the outset, framing her as the interloper come to beg for their aid, but she knew that in order to fully sway them their cause, she had to be persuasive. Not domineering.

Her Sith brethren did not exactly have a reputation for being understanding at the negotiation table.

Lana and Xolani began to move towards her as she drew closer, meeting her about two thirds of the way across the field in order to have some privacy; both were dressed in Zakuulan fashion, and Lana had cut her hair quite severely at some point in the last few months, the pixie cut only just beginning to curl below her ears again. Xolani looked the same as she had on their last encounter, the same sort of stoic sensibilities that never seemed to change from Jedi to Jedi.

“Beniko,” she said in greeting, nodding her head, “Xo.”

“You look like something that crawled out of a Dromund Kaas swamp,” Xolani said bluntly, her nose scrunched up in distaste.

Despite herself, she felt her mouth tweak with the hint of a smile. “I am pleased to see you as well, Master Xo.”

“Hmph,” she said, eyeing Scourge with open hostility. “I would be glad for fresh faces, if I kept the same company as you.”

Tahrin stopped to survey the Zakuulans gathered behind them, knowing that she in turn was being assessed by them. Three of them were in armour, one was in robes, and the remaining two were in the distinguished sort of finery that she had come to expect from the upper elements of Zakuulan society; interesting, that. She’d have to remind Lana that rebellion often fermented from the bottom up, not the top down. If there was enough dissatisfaction in the wealthy tiers that there were those bold enough to attend a clandestine meeting with enemies of the state, then there would surely be a veritable army in the darker corners of the cities.

She’d need to send people who could comfortably infiltrate the less affluent areas of Zakuul- perhaps Pierce could offer some insight into the matter.

None of them made any move to come forward, all of them warily watching her interactions with Lana and Xolani. Furthermore, she could feel the tension between the group, as if the individuals were not necessarily comfortable with one another’s presence, but were tolerating one another for the sake of alliance.

Not a particularly auspicious start.

Lana cleared her throat, gesturing to those assembled. “My Lord, if I might introduce my acquaintances,” she began.

The urge overcame her without warning, and it very abruptly seemed like the most sensible thing she could do in this situation. She reached up, and the unexpected movement did cause the Zakuulans to tense, as if expecting her to draw a weapon; her fingers went for the clasps at the back of her neck, and with one smooth motion she unclipped the helmet and pulled it off and over her head. Her hair was mussed from the hours she had spent in the mask, and she only briefly spared a thought for it as she pushed her fringe away from her eyes.

Beside her, Lana had sucked in a breath sharply, well aware of the implications of her removing her helmet in the presence of the Zakuulans; even Xolani seemed mildly impressed.

“I would be honoured to meet them,” she said, her cheeks flushed from the warmth inside the helmet. Her appearance- that of a rather average looking human woman- had apparently taken more than one of them by surprise, if the way they stared was any indication. Everyone expected a monster, and it terrified them to see someone they would otherwise dismiss had they seen her in public.

A two tiered maneuver- meet them as an equal, not some masked and pseudo mythical creature, but remind them that they would easily have underestimated her, had she not appeared to them as the creature first.

The persona of the Wrath was terribly useful.

One of the armoured individuals stepped forward at last, silver studs embedded in her forehead in the manner that seemed to be reserved for the greatest warriors of Zakuul; likewise, her armour was elaborately detailed, with golden plate and a heavy purple half cape so dark that it was almost black. There were inscriptions on the chest plate, and an image of a winged serpent coiled as if ready to pounce towards her chin. “Esla Verre,” she said, her voice rich and sonorous. She did not extend a hand, but she nodded her chin towards Tahrin as a sign of respect. Greeting her as an equal. “Exarch of Glee Anselm.”

“We are a long way from Glee Anselm, Exarch.”

The woman’s golden gaze didn’t waver. “Closer than Dromund Kaas, Lord Wrath,” she said.

Tahrin nodded in acknowledgement of the point. The man behind the Exarch wore the golden armour of the Knights, his helmet held tightly beneath his arm and his expression pinched. Lana cleared her throat. “I’ll finish off the rest of the introductions, shall I?”

She went through each of the gathered rebels in turn, each of whom greeted her with varying degrees of curtness. Captain Darras Zun, of the Zakuulan Knights, and his partnered Scion Galla, both of whom had served in the original conquest into the Core. Major Bas Nican, one of the last remaining officers in the Zakuulan military who was not Force sensitive. And then Lady Indira, most recently of The Spire, and Lady Shann of Esmedaa, the second largest city on Zakuul. She was polite, nodding to them without ever moving to offer a hand or any proximity to her person, and she assessed the risk posed by the Force users as they all spoke lightly of inconsequential things during their introductions.

But she had not travelled the length of the galaxy simply to speak of inconsequential things as if this were some kind of parlour tea. “I’ll get straight to the point,” she said, clasping her hands behind her back. “By now, you are aware that a resistance of sorts has arisen to undermine Zakuul- a resistance that has been acting under my banner. I assume that, by your attendance here, you are expressing an interest in the workings of such a resistance, and whether or not it is in your best interest to join me.”

Her words were met with silence, the wind blowing a solemn howl through the canyon beside them. The two society women exchanged glances, clearly unwilling to speak before the Exarch, and the Major grimaced and looked away. The Knight, similarly, looked painfully uncomfortable, almost as if he was on the verge of pulling the Scion away with him while berating her for convincing him to attend. Interestingly enough, she found the Major to be the most jittery of those present, far more than she would have expected from a military man immersed in a culture deifying Force users- but then again, he was in the literal act of committing treason, and the man had more than enough reason to be afraid right now.

So it did not surprise her in the slightest when first person to smile and step forward was the Scion.

“We would like to offer this planet as your base of operations,” she said.

“Galla!” the Knight snapped.

“Set your heart at ease, Darras- this is the right path for us. Trust in the knowledge of our shared destiny.”

“A shared destiny is all well and good when your magic powers are passing you hints about the future,” the Major said, “but not all of us are that lucky.”

Tahrin chose to focus on Galla instead of the escalating tension. “Tell me of this place.”

Galla smiled. “We call it Odessen,” she said, her eyes an eerie silvery-white that reminded her far too much of the eyes of the possessed on Ziost. Lana’s reports had referred to them as seers, essentially, bound to serve Valkorion almost obsessively; the few times Vivaane had been able to give her credible information, she had seconded the observation. She couldn’t say she was entirely comfortable in the woman’s presence, not given how often she still dreamed of the hoards of white-eyed possessed sprinting through the streets of New Adasta towards her. “It is an ancient world, one that was known to our priests in ages past.”

“Does Zakuul know of it now?” she asked, uninterested in a lesson in their history.

“It is unlikely. There are no records of it in the public archives, and those of us who had access to the higher levels of Zakuulan Intelligence were unable to find any mention of it prior to our disgrace.”

“Oh?” She cocked her head to the side. “Your Order is out of favour with the establishment?”

For the first time, the woman looked something other than blankly ethereal, her expression shifting to one of irritation. “Our path does not align with that of Emperor Arcann’s,” she said, the most painfully diplomatic answer if ever she’d heard one. “It was always tradition in the time of Valkorion for each Scion to be paired with a Knight, a perfect balance of mental and physical prowess. But in the last year, we have seen the need for the Scions diminish, while the Knights flourish. Emperor Arcann no longer finds our services... necessary.”

Interesting- clearly there was something happening in the political spheres of Zakuul that she had not been paying enough attention to. The moment she had the chance to talk to Lana or Xolani in private, she was going to need a more thorough breakdown of their current situation. “And yet a Knight travels with you?”

Darras was red-faced, his emotions surging far too close to the surface. “Some of us honour the old ways,” he snapped, and Galla reached out a hand as if to calm him. The touch of her fingers against his chest saw him slump as if in defeat; she and Thexan had spoken at length about the ways in which the people of Zakuul accessed the Force, and how it was integrated into their lives. Their approach was far more emotional even than her Sith brethren, fixated on the belief that nothing less than fanaticism could empower them, leaving them far more prone to the catastrophic highs and lows such emotional manipulation could inspire.

And as she watched how easily both the Knight and the Major began to succumb to their paranoia about committing treason, she had to admit she could not rationalise such thinking- it was anathema to her own training.

Perhaps that was deliberate.

“Can we count on the aid of the Scions?” she asked instead.

The woman inclined her head, a demure apology. “Our path is predetermined, as are all things,” she said, with frustrating vagueness. “We offer to you the gift of this planet, to aid in your rebellion- the song of Odessen will mask the presence of your knights, and the Eternal Throne will not look down to see the serpent coiled beneath their foundations.”

Tahrin stared at her, and only just resisted rolling her eyes. “Yes, well, I can see Lord Scourge is going to get along splendidly with your people,” she said flatly, gesturing to him behind her. “He’s all for prophecy and fantastical metaphors and prolonged service to a tyrant long after it became sensible.”

Behind her, Scourge growled in frustration, and Xolani chuckled.

“I assume this planet falls under the jurisdiction of Zakuul, though?” she asked, turning the conversation back to the point at hand. “Are we to just hope that Emperor Arcann will not turn his gaze towards us?”

The two ladies shared a glance, and one- she thought her name had been Shann- cleared her throat. “Our families have won rather lucrative mercantile contracts with Core worlds,” she said carefully. “Territories not awarded to the Exarchs to govern is instead, ah... auctioned off, in a sense, for the Old Families of Zakuul to do with them as they will. Mineral extraction, colonization, breeding beasts for the arenas...”

“And I am to take it that this sector just so happens to have been awarded to yourselves?” Their smiles were ambitious, the sort Tahrin had seen far too much of in her youth in places like Alderaan and Dromund Kaas. The predatory grin of social climbers. “How exactly am I to believe that you will turn a blind eye to our occupation of this planet when it might affect your family’s capital?”

She finally got a reaction from one of them, the one who had not spoken. “Not all of Zakuul is happy beneath the heel of our young emperor, Lord Wrath,” she said primly. “You might adhere to lofty ideals such as peace and salvation, but some of us are offering aid for less honourable reasons.”

There was a fire in her that suggested those reasons were not motivated by profit alone- she got the distinct impression the woman had very personal reasons to want the collapse of Arcann’s regime. A lost family member, or lover? A personal insult? Whatever the reason, it was more visceral than money.

It would do for now.

“And you, Exarch Verre? What are your reasons for rebellion?”

The woman was almost impossibly tall- she would easily have given Ysaine a run for her money if the two of them stood back to back, and yet she still seemed to draw herself up to an even greater height at Tahrin’s question. “I have yet to hear you speak for yourself on the matter of rebellion, Lord Wrath,” she said. “Perhaps I require you to explain the nature of this... alliance, and how precisely you believe my dishonouring my family is outweighed by the good this will supposedly do.”

Tahrin nodded. “Very well,” she said. “I am sure that Lord Beniko and Master Xo have given you a basic understanding of our intentions, else you would not be here today to hear my proposal. As I am sure you are aware, I previously served as the assassin of Vitiate, who we now know to have been another form of your Emperor Valkorion. He-”

Her comm link buzzed urgently, and she closed her eyes in frustration. When she opened them again, the Exarch was watching her with an expression that seemed to suggest she found the interruption deliberate on Tahrin’s part.

Just what she needed during delicate negotiations.

Gritting her teeth, she said “My apologies,” in a low voice, fishing her holocomm from her belt. She considered moving to the side to take the call, but it would do her no good to attempt secrecy at this crucial moment. Whatever the issue was, she would have to see it resolved in front of the Zakuulans in order to secure their trust.

She held the holocomm out in front of her, keeping it well within view of her guests and allies. Moff Pyron appeared on the display, a holographic figure a few inches tall.

He did not even question the audience. “My lord,” he said, bowing quickly, “apologies for the interruption-”

“Out with it, Pyron,” she said, pleased that he did not make a great fuss over her maskless state. He was one of the few who had seen her face before, of course, but still. She appreciated it.

“An unidentified ship has just entered the system,” he said, and the tension on the ground skyrocketed. “We have attempted to scan it, but it is evading our sensors.”

Her eyebrows went up despite her best efforts to keep her expression neutral. “Evading your sensors? How-”

“It dropped out of hyperspace near to the edge of the system, and we are assuming that seeing us drove them to take evasive measures. The have activated some kind of physical cloaking technology unknown to us, but they are not maintaining it with any sort of consistency.”

“Is it broken? Is their ship perhaps damaged?”

“We believe it to be deliberate on their part, actually- as if they are goading us.”

Tahrin grimaced. “And they are not responding to hails?”

“No, my lord. We have also despatched an escort, but even the fighters with the prototype isotope-5 engines cannot keep pace with them.”

“Is this some kind of trick, Wrath?” Major Nican spat, clearly agitated and uneasy. “You lure us here and then pretend to be thwarted by an intruder?”

“Maybe it’s nothing more than a scavenger, or a pirate,” Lana said in an attempt at consoling their fears.

“You expect me to believe that a scavenger just happened to stumble onto an unsettled system at the same time that we are conducting treasonous negotiations that will see our entire families tortured and murdered for our actions-”

The holocomm crackled with static, and Moff Pyron’s image broke apart. For a moment the picture was distorted, and then it settled again- to show a figure who was distinctly not the austere commander of the Doombringer. They were far shorter, for one thing, and they wore a hooded cloak over a set of armour that was... well, alive was probably the wrong word for it, but that even through the hacked connection of the holocomm, was visibly awash with energy. It seethed, like the ancient Gree technology she’d seen on Asation.

The figure was masked, but there was no questioning the fact that they were a Force user- Tahrin could sense it as clearly as if they were standing beside her.

To say she was displeased with her carefully laid plans being disrupted was an understatement. “Identify yourself,” she said coldly. She wasn’t wearing her helmet, but that did not mean that she could not be equally as terrifying without it. “This is a private signal, and your ship will be fired upon if you continue to advance.”

The figure inclined their head, as if in apology. “Lord Dara,” they said, their voice distorted by the mask. The fact that they called her by name instead of title raised immediate alarm bells. “I believe you have been looking for me.”

She frowned slowly. “Identify yourself,” she repeated, “and explain how it is that you found us.”

“I could find the Doombringer in any corner of the galaxy, Lord Dara- her voice is an old familiar song to me, and I was well overdue for a reunion with her.”

The clues aligned, and Tahrin didn’t know whether to be delighted at the success of the search after so many months, or irritated that the timing of such a meeting had to come while she was in the middle of equally important discussions. “You are the mecha-deru,” she said.

“I am. Your agent said you were looking for me.”

She hadn’t heard from Thake in months, and she’d begun to suspect he’d just wandered off to amuse himself yet again. “What are you doing here?” she asked slowly, trying to puzzle this situation out.

The figure inclined their head again, definitely a gesture meant to imply an apology. “I meant to approach you earlier, but you had already departed for Wild Space by the time I reached your base.”

“Lord Wrath.” Tahrin looked up to find the Exarch staring at her coldly. She gestured impatiently. “Do you care to enlighten us as to the nature of this interruption?”

Lana appeared at her elbow, her expression tense. “Do you want me to deal with the mecha-deru?” she asked quietly, her tone urgent. “We have risked too much to gamble this chance, we need Zakuulan allies.”

“And we also need this particular ally, too,” she said, turning back to face Exarch Verre. The breeze was light, but just enough to push at her fringe, and she resisted the urge to reach up and fuss with it. “There is an individual approaching who I believe will be a valuable asset in any sort of resistance against Zakuul.”

“Valuable enough that you would allow them to transgress upon this secret meeting?”

Tahrin looked instead to Galla. “You said this planet was once sacred to your priests,” she said. “I realise that we set foot here only by your invitation first- may I extend the invitation to another?”

The Scion nodded. “Of course,” she said, “she is expected.”

She is expected- well, that was at least confirmation of a small detail she had been unable to verify through her networks. Tahrin held up the holocomm again. “You may approach,” she said to the patiently waiting figure, “although it would help if we knew how to address you.”

“I believe I was appointed the title of Darth Occlus, but I dislike it immensely.” She couldn’t see her face, but she imagined the woman was smiling. “You can call me Bejah.”

Tahrin nodded, and broke off the connection, tucking the holocomm back into her belt. Across from her, the Zakuulans eyed her with everything from disdainful curiosity to open hostility. “In regards to your previous question, I cannot say that I feel personally responsible for the evils committed by the creature we all served as emperor,” she said, for something to fill the space while they waited, “because his evil is insurmountable and timeless. But I do know that I feel grief and shame for not having stopped him earlier, or recognising the threat he posed and breaking away from his control. In time, it may come to pass that even an Alliance of the greatest and most determined souls this galaxy has to offer will not be enough to stop him, but I cannot sit to one side and allow him to continue unchallenged.”

Her words garnered no reaction, so she did not continue. Things were fraught enough already- no reason to continue babbling simply to fill the silence.

After a half minute or so, she heard Scourge mutter “This is a waste of time.”

“Nobody asked you for your opinion, ever,” Xolani snapped, and Tahrin made a note to thank her later for voicing what she could not.

There was a growing roar, the sound of a ship travelling at incredible speeds through the atmosphere, and she squinted as she looked up towards the cloud scudded sky.

The ship was bizarre- like someone had taken the vague concept of a Fury-class Interceptor and attempted to build it from memory, only to get distracted halfway through. The wings were not as sleek and angular as her own ship had been, the shape of them curved inwards instead, and the body of the ship was far more bulbous. Like the appearance of the mecha-deru’s armour, it seemed almost alive, the power seething in exposed sections of the hull like the pulse of a living beast.

Again, she wanted to say there were elements to it that reminded her of the Gree constructs, but that wasn’t entirely right either. It moved far faster than their shuttle had, shimmering under the sunlight as it came soaring over the trees and around in an arc, settling down on the far side of the field so as not to crowd them all; the air buffeted by their approach set the wild grass in the meadow bending to one side, and the cloaks and skirts of the assembly were battered somewhat mercilessly.

Tahrin did not blink despite the dust, and instead walked forward to where the ramp began to lower from the airlock. There was movement out of the corner of her eye, and she glanced sideways to find Exarch Verre standing beside her. As if aware of her gaze, Verre said “I will determine the threat this individual poses, and assess whether or not to continue with these negotiations.”

Tahrin nodded, because there wasn’t much else she could say in answer to that. It was a sound and sensible platform, one she would have taken for herself.

The ramp descended, and the airlock hissed open; a moment later, a figure appeared in the doorway, still masked and hooded, and her armour far more distracting to look at now that it was before her in person. She came slowly down the ramp, hands clasped before her, and if Tahrin had to guess, she would have said the woman was nervous.

She did not think she had ever met a nervous sith, unless one counted the ones on their knees begging and grovelling and pissing themselves in fear before the Wrath took their life.

She didn’t think they really counted.

“Lord Bejah,” she began, but the sith shook her head.

“Just Bejah, please,” she said, her voice still distorted by the mask. Her armour was a work of art, with definite inspirations from Gree technology- the gold and black panels did not seem like fixed pieces of armour, but more like components of some greater mechanical whole. She hesitated to say it made her look like a droid, but the comparison was there.

“What are you doing here?” Exarch Verre said, and Tahrin pursed her lips in irritation. She didn’t want to insist that the Exarch leave the questions to herself, but... well. She wanted to have the questioning left to herself.

Bejah’s helmet dipped, the very same gesture as in the holocall; in person, it definitely read as apologetic, and hesitant, as if she was struggling to hold their gaze beneath the mask. “I have come to help,” she said, her voice significantly quieter than it had been a moment before.

“Yes, but why are you here? How did you find us?”

“I can provide you with answers to those questions, and more,” she said, turning back towards the open ramp. She pressed a button on her wrist guard, and for a moment, nothing happened; she saw Lana and Xolani exchange a look, but Tahrin didn’t move.

Then, the last thing any of them were expecting happened- a Skytrooper appeared in the airlock to Bejah’s ship, its’ armour sleek and freshly painted, its’ metal feet clanging loudly on the ramp as it-

Someone shot it.

The blast rang out loud and clear in the meadow, searing through the air and immediately absorbed into a transparent shield of some kind around the droid. Tahrin’s head whipped around, a snarl of fury on her lips as she spotted the Major with his blaster out. “You idiot,” she snarled, but he was already shaking his head in a fury that matched her own.

“They’re all connected!” he shouted, his hand shaking as he held the blaster as if intending to shoot again. “You fools, they’re all connected, they’ll know we’re here-”

He broke off abruptly, his hands going to his throat as his eyes bugged out wide, and Tahrin spun on her heel to find Scourge with his hand extended, his fingers slowly squeezing closed. Force preserve them all. “Scourge!

“If he panics so easily now, he will betray us with only the slightest pressure from the Emperor,” Scourge said, as if that in any way explained his decision to murder him in cold blood. “He is a liability.”

“That is not your decision to make! Put him down!”

“I do what is necessary, Wrath,” he growled. “As you should very well understand!”

Before she could respond, a lightsaber snarled loudly, and the golden tip burst from his shoulder; he grunted and dropped the Major immediately, falling to one knee as he pressed a hand to his shoulder. Behind him, Lana reversed her grip on the hilt of her weapon, using it to crack him brutally over the back of the head. The sound was enough to make even Tahrin wince, and Scourge fell forward into the grass, flat on his face.

A stunned silence fell over the clearing.

Lana put away her lightsaber without further elaboration, gracefully stepping around the fallen form of the former Wrath. “He is functionally immortal, as he has so frequently reminded us,” she said primly. “He will be fine in a few days.”

Her words broke the spell that had fallen over them all, and everyone lurched back into action. Xolani made a beeline for the Major, kneeling beside him and beginning to administer healing to his bruised throat, while the two Zakuulan ladies pulled ever so slightly away from the main group, whispering furiously to one another. Lana came to stand beside Tahrin, shrugging when Tahrin cast her a withering glance.

“This is how you treat your alleged allies?” Darras hissed, trying to drag Galla behind him; she was rather determinedly not moving. “With deception and murder?”

“Lord Scourge is an ally to precisely no-one,” Tahrin said flatly, “as should be evidenced by his attempt to harm your associate. I assure you, he does not speak for me or for the Alliance.”

“Please!” The shout came from behind them, distinctly female instead of distorted, and everyone turned towards the speaker. The mecha-deru, the lost sith apprentice of Darth Zash, had discarded her helmet and tossed it aside into the grass, kneeling beside where the Skytrooper had tumbled backwards at the blaster shot- and she was almost shockingly young. Her skin was a deep, rich brown, and her dark curly hair had been carefully pinned back to fit comfortably beneath the helmet; she couldn’t have been any older than Vette or Jaesa, and the brightly coloured makeup on her face made her look even more youthful, like a child playing in her mother’s cosmetics.

She did not have the sort of face one would expect one of the most powerful Force users in the galaxy to have.

“Please!” she said again, her hand outstretched towards them pleadingly; the other was helping the droid to sit up, in the same manner that Xolani was assisting Major Nican. As if the droid held the same importance to her as another sentient being. “Please, stop fighting! I didn’t mean for this to happen!”

“Why have you brought a Skytrooper here?” Darras snarled. “Are you trying to get us all killed?”

“He’s not a Skytrooper anymore! Well, not as you would understand it- and he hasn’t been for years now.” She turned back to the droid, her hand on his shoulder. “His name is Ess-Tee, and he is my friend.”

The lights in the droid’s visor flickered on again, and the head turned slowly to survey the view. And then the most extraordinary thing happened- the Skytrooper, a model of droid that had been built without any proper vocalization processor, spoke. “Have I done something wrong, Master Bejah?”

Her eyes widened, and she rushed to soothe him. “No, no dear, you’ve done wonderfully, it’s alright!”

“It can talk,” Nican said, voice hoarse from being choked. “Why the bloody hell can it talk?”

“Because I taught it to talk,” Bejah said, a touch of heat in her words. She climbed back to her feet, helping Ess-Tee to join her, defensively holding on to him like an overprotective mother. “Because I have lived as a commodity, as a piece of equipment, treated as replaceable and expendable by cruel masters who did not see me, and I will not allow that to happen to others while it is within my power to change something.” She looked up at Ess-Tee, who was a good foot taller than her at least. “Ess-Tee is one of many I have helped-”

“I serve and protect Master Bejah and her sub-units,” Ess-Tee said.

“Yes, dear,” she said absently, patting it on the arm. She turned back to Tahrin and the Exarch, clearly trying to make herself look bigger and more terrifying than she actually was. Which was to say, not at all. “I want to help. Against Zakuul, I mean. I have removed myself from galactic affairs for too long, telling myself it was not my duty to risk myself and my family, but too many people are suffering- and too many mechanical sentients are being built for the sole purpose of causing harm and terror and then to die.”

Tahrin couldn’t say she was displeased, but the timing could have been better. “And what did you hope to achieve, exactly, by bringing this... individual, with you?”

“As proof- that Zakuul is not infallible, not untouchable.” She smiled, and it was finally the smile of a sith. “And that I have learned many things of interest to you all, including the existence of a weapon that can finally stop the Eternal Fleet.”

Chapter Text

“I don’t understand.”

The words had been on Kallathe’s lips as well, but she had not spoken them. The young man named Dramath had spoken instead, his brow furrowed with irritation as he glared at the interloper. She circled slowly around the gazebo, taking in the details of the scene. The jewellery, so much more pronounced and flamboyant than she had ever seen on Dromund Kaas or Korriban; the trays of food, complete with half empty bowls that looked to contain bloodsoup. The lanvaroks, propped almost carelessly against a nearby pillar, as if they were a common tool and not an ancient, cherished weapon.

The utter lack of humans, with the exception of Valkorion’s ghostly form.

“Where have you brought me, Vitiate,” she whispered, her hands clenching and unclenching into fists as she fought the bizarre sense of longing such a scene roused in her.

“A thousand apologies, honoured prince-”

“Cease your cowering, worm, and desist with your callous lies!” Dramath shouted, backhanding the man so ferociously that the rings on his hands tore open his cheek; he had only four fingers on his hand, a sign of the purity of his blood. Kallathe looked down at her own hands, and the four digits on each that marked her lineage. “How dare you insult the line of Dramath, to imply that my father could be bested by a mere infant-”

“It is not a lie, honoured one, it is not a lie!” The man had scrambled back to his knees, a hand pressed to his bleeding cheek. One of his chin tendrils was hanging loose, ripped open by the cruel strike. “The news has come straight from Lord Krusaan, your father’s most trusted general. They rode upon a village in the far north, near to the D’Zhaon Mountains, where a great rabble had assembled to witness the sorcery of the babe.”

He continued to prattle, and Kallathe huffed out a frustrated sigh, turning back to Valkorion. “I don’t care for your riddles and your dramatics,” she snapped, gesturing irritably around her. “Tell me what this means, or leave me alone!”

His eyes were empty, his smile unnatural. “I have seen your thoughts,” he said, the smug tone making her skin crawl. “You have accused me more than once of desperation, of choosing to bond with you only out of limited options at the moment of my death.”

For the first time since she had awoken in this hellscape, and possibly the first time in her life, Kallathe felt something she did not want to feel- fear. She lifted her chin and glared down her nose at him, defying that fear. “What do you mean?”

That smile, that smile, that empty, excruciating expression that was just so wrong to look at that it made her brain want to rebel in horror. “Has it never occurred to you that your arrival on Zakuul was never the pleasant coincidence you believed it to be? That in fact, your every move had been carefully calculated and anticipated long before you even ascended to the Dark Council?”

There were no words to describe the extent of her revulsion, the horror she felt rippling through her. “Speak plainly!” she snarled.

“Summon my siblings on the ruling council,” Dramath said behind her, his voice authoritative and clear. “Zuanna and Karraz have been pawing at the gate for some time- if they desire bloodshed and mayhem so desperately, they can see to this whelp and the rabble.”

“Prince Dramath the Younger,” Valkorion said, utterly delighted by her fear. She knew he could sense it, that there was no hiding from it. “My dear eldest brother.”

Kallathe’s gaze whipped back to the pureblood. Brother?

“This was the day I killed our father,” he continued, circling around to stand before the prince. Dramath, like with Kallathe, gave no indication that he knew he was there. “The day your destiny was forged as surely as mine.”

“No,” she said, but it did no good to say it aloud. It didn’t change anything. “No, no, not that, no-”

“Do you require me to- how did you say it? Speak plainly?”

“No!”

“Do you not wish to know more of your family?” Valkorion asked, his smile like knives.

She screamed.

____

The Spire, Zakuul, Wild Space

“You served Valkorion hundreds of years ago, yes? When he went by Vitiate?”

The ghostly outline of the masked sith nodded in confirmation. “I would not say ‘serve’ is the most adequate descriptor for our relationship, but yes,” it said.

Vaylin rolled over onto her stomach, chin propped up in her hands as she narrowed her eyes. “What is that supposed to mean?”

The holocron of Darth Revan was settled comfortably on her caf table, and the various pieces were hovering in a gentle orbit around the frame while the device projected the apparition above it. The cloak continued to move as if the ghostly figure stood underwater, billowing gently; the mask still distorted the voice, disguising the identity of the speaker. She had had the device for some months now, and after numerous discussions with it and numerous experiments upon it, she had come to several conclusions.

First, that the figure projected from within was indeed an accurate representation of Darth Revan, complete with the bizarre attempts at humour that just seemed pointlessly childish. Second, that the device was definitely an artifact several hundred years old, placing it comfortably within the timeframe of Darth Revan’s known lifespan.

And thirdly, that she was not entirely convinced it was a recording, or an imprint, or whatever it was the the sith did to preserve their legacy within these shells. Which is not to say that she thought it was alive, that would be stupid, but...

She had her suspicions.

The figure waved a hand, as if dismissing her suspicions. “To say that I served Vitiate makes it sound like such a... subservient arrangement on my part. It was nothing of the sort.”

“Just because you do not serve willingly does not mean you don’t serve,” she snapped. There was a plate of her half eaten breakfast sitting beside her on the sheets of the bed, and she reached over and picked up a soggy piece of pastry, spilling crumbs as she brought it up to her mouth. “Trust me, I think I’d know.”

Revan’s head tilted to the side beneath the hood, as if they were assessing her. “I do know,” they said, and if Vaylin didn’t know any better, she’d have thought the damn toy sounded sad. “He promised me a great many things- despite what the Jedi would have the historians believe, I went to him willingly in the beginning.”

Vaylin snorted. “If you’re going to say you had sex with him, I don’t want to hear it,” she said, sucking the jam from her fingers. “Because that’s disgusting.”

“I might have considered it, had he been in possession of a physical form like the one he used to masquerade as human here on Zakuul.” She had done her research extensively, and while she had found evidence of some more sophisticated holocrons being capable of learning and interacting with their users- specifically, the Jedi made use of a series of them called noetikons, which dated back to the same era as Revan- she was unconvinced that the nuances this device showed were standard features. The way this Revan seemed capable of grasping the passage of time and the evidence of Vitiate’s survival beyond the Sith Empire was increasingly questionable. “But no, I did not fuck him, nor did he offer. Despite whatever stories you might have encountered about my voracious appetites, it did not extend to decaying creatures of infinite evil.”

An unpleasant shudder passed through her, her skin prickling as she scowled. “Ugh, that’s disgusting, I said I didn’t want to hear it.”

“I could tell you about the time I fucked Darth Malak, just before I tore off his jaw, if that would cleanse your palate?”

“Ew!” She threw the remains of the pastry in the direction of the holocron, flakes and crumbs and clumps of jam raining down over the carpet. “I said no sex talk!”

Revan sighed. “Very well,” they said, making it very clear that they were put out by this proclamation, “I shall continue on the other topic, the boring one. And no, it was not sex he offered me, but acknowledgement.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

The figure chuckled, the sound rich and alluring. It made Vaylin want to squirm uncomfortably listening to it. “I was extraordinarily powerful,” they said, “made for greatness, and yet the Jedi wanted to leash me. Chastise me. I’m sure you know a little something of what that is like.”

Her mother’s expression flashed before her eyes, the fear and the anger when she had unleashed herself on the knights as a girl. The smug entitlement on her father’s face when she had knelt before him, chained and broken. “I do,” she said.

“They dismissed me as an arrogant child, as a brat who had no manners and no temperament to respect her betters,” Revan said, spitting the words like they disgusted her.

Vaylin sat up sharply. “Her betters?” she said. “You have dismissed all acknowledgements of gender whenever we have spoken in the past.” The figure paused, and Vaylin couldn’t help herself- she cackled delightedly. “You did! You’re a she!”

“It’s not polite to out people,” Revan said crossly.

Vaylin scrambled into a sitting position, legs crossed as she clung to her ankles, snickering to herself. “You’re a she,” she said, eyes bright with fascination. “You’re a girl.”

Revan made a show of dusting imaginary dirt from the shoulder of her robe. “When it suits me,” she said loftily. “Sometimes I am far more comfortable to be some sort of genderless malevolence.”

She had to admit, that did sound delightful. “So many people write about you as if you’re male,” she said, and Revan snorted.

“So many people are incapable of imagining that anyone other than a man might be stronger and more dangerous than they are,” she said. “They will do anything and everything in their power to deny you, dissuade you, and destroy you- even if it means rewriting history to unmake your truths.”

Vaylin stared at her, eyes narrowed.

Revan didn’t move, and for a long few moments the room was fraught with tension, something ugly and brittle moving between them. Finally, when Vaylin was about to scowl and break the silence herself, Revan sighed again, the sound making her shiver uncomfortably in the same manner that her laugh had. As if she could feel her breath moving over her skin. “If we are quite done with this foolishness,” she said slowly, “I would very much appreciate being able to move again.”

She breathed out slowly through her nose, ignoring the lurch of triumph in her stomach. “I don’t follow.”

“I know you know I’m not a holocron,” Revan said. “And as much as I love games, I’m terribly bored.”

Her heart was surprisingly calm, given the fact that she’d just had confirmation that something had been in her quarters undetected for months now. A ghost, a spectre- something that sat close at hand and watched her when she slept. “Show me your face,” she said.

The charge in the air turned sultry, and Revan put a hand on her hip, cocked to one side as if to exaggerate her shape. “Darling, I thought you’d never ask-”

“Don’t,” Vaylin said quickly, her heart choosing that moment to lurch uncomfortably. “Don’t do that.”

“But darling, you just asked-”

“Take the damn mask off,” she snapped, her skin crawling with a sensation she couldn’t describe. It prickled, not unpleasantly, but it was overwhelming. “You don’t need to be such a slattern about it.”

She chuckled again, the sound far too sensual; the prickling in her lower back was the worst, burning and roiling in a way that made her want to squirm. “If you knew half as much about me as you pretended to, you’d know that’s an impossibility for me.”

Between one blink and the next, she changed- gone was the mask, the elaborately ragged robes, the bronze gauntlets that retained their shine despite the ghostly appearance she presented. Instead, Vaylin found herself staring up at a young human woman hovering a foot above the ground, a woman so young that she hesitated over whether it wouldn’t have been better to call her a girl.

She had long hair, tied back in a loose braid that made her look even more girlish, and a chubbiness to her that seemed to be the remnants of youth, as if she had not hit her final growth spurt. Her eyes were sparkling with malice and mischief, and it was hard to say more about her features while she was still transparent and ghostly pale, but Vaylin thought her eyes might have been greyish blue.

Sort of like her own had been, once upon a time.

She took a shaky breath, forcing herself to maintain eye contact. “You aren’t Revan,” she said, a little sullenly.

The smile that was returned to her was feral, inhuman. “Am I not?” she said, holding one hand up to her chin as if deep in thought. “Oh goodness gracious me, what a terrible fool I’ve been making of myself these last three hundred years. Thank goodness you were good enough to point out my woeful ignorance.”

Revan,” Vaylin said pointedly, “was a great warrior, who defied the Sith and the Jedi both, and who was powerful enough to defeat some of the greatest warriors of the age in single combat. Revan shaped the fate of the entire galaxy.”

“And you think a mere girl is incapable of such grandeur and violence?”

Vaylin glared at her. “I hardly think, if Vitiate and my father were the same being, that he would have allowed you to run around unchecked like that.”

The smile widened, and Revan drifted towards her; Vaylin found herself leaning backwards, almost unconsciously trying to keep the distance between them. “Has it not occurred to you that perhaps your father learned his lesson with me, and what he risked by allowing his guard down around a young girl?”

Her console beeped, a reminder that she was late for an inspection of the Knight Captains and the nominees for the Exarch program. She was already an hour late, and at this point she didn’t care; going to watch them all strut around the yard and prance and crawl for her attention, ugh. Normally she delighted in the craven fawning, pitting them against one another for her amusement, but today... she just didn’t want to get out of bed. She hadn’t showered in days, and she hadn’t brushed her hair in longer, and her meals had been sporadic at best and she was just consumed with loathing and a hollowness that seemed to devour the hours.

It was easier just to lie in bed, staring at the ceiling and hating. Hating herself, hating her father, hating her brothers- Arcann for living and Thexan for dying,- hating her mother, hating Zakuul, hating everyone and everything and nothing and no one.

Except that she had a trinket in her room with the spirit of a sith lord in it, who kept wanting to talk to her.

She threw a pillow at the console, not hard enough to stop the flashing reminder, but the vague attempt at hostility pleased her. Revan laughed, and Vaylin scowled at her. “So what are you, exactly?” she asked, picking at the ragged threads on the wrist of her shirt. She’d been chewing on it again at some point, and the edge of it was damp under her fingers; her nails were terribly short as well, bitten down until they bled, so it didn’t make it easier to pick and fidget.

“I am whatever you want me to be,” Revan said, sitting cross-legged in the air in a pose that matched her own.

“Stop with the cryptic bullshit- if I wanted a nonsensical answer, I’d go to the Scions.”

“Ah, yes, the prophets.” She said it with such obvious disdain that Vaylin raised an eyebrow at her. “Spineless sycophants who cling to vague whispers of tomorrow as if that holds more promise than the moment in front of them. Charming.”

“You say that as if you have experience with their particular brand of cowardice.”

“I’ve known enough like them. Those who choose to forego decisive action today because they have the utter conviction that they and they alone have a better understanding of when to act.”

“You clearly don’t believe the Force can provide visions.”

Revan snorted. “I believe that all things are possible through the Force,” she said, waving elaborately to herself. “Case in point, I find this suits me far more than oblivion ever could.”

Vaylin sighed exaggeratedly, flopping back on the bed. “You don’t make any sense,” she said with a grumble. “You might as well be a toy, for all the good you do.”

There was a crawling whisper over her skin, and then Revan was hovering above her, as if she was lying beside her in the bed; Vaylin squawked in a panic, awkwardly clambering backwards like some sort of gangly-limbed crab. Her heart was in her throat, choking her, as Revan chuckled at her distress.

“I can be a toy if you want me to be, darling,” she cooed, making the prickling sensation flare again.

She gritted her teeth. “Stop doing that!” she said, trying to sound authoritative, but her voice just came out hoarse and clumsy.

Revan tsked. “Oh, you aren’t any fun,” she said, pouting.

Vaylin’s heart was pounding, and she felt clammy and disgusting; she desperately wished that at some point in the last week she’d bothered to shower. “Whatever else you might be, you’re also rude and crass and abrasive and- and awful.”

Revan chuckled again. “Darling, please, you’ll make me blush.”

“Stop calling me darling!”

“Does Daddy’s Little Monster not appreciate it when people flirt with her?”

Vaylin picked up another pillow and hurled it at her, the object sailing straight through her without interference. “Get out!”

“What, without an answer to my question?”

Get out!” she screamed, one of the paintings rattling on the wall so badly that it fell to the floor; it was a landscape picture, a reproduction of the only colour they’d allowed her in her cell on Nathema. It was one of the few things that calmed her, on her worst days, the tranquility of the hills and the sky and the blues and the greens so diametrically opposed to the grey emptiness of the dead world she’d been trapped on that it had often been her only means of escape.

To have it fall to the ground, the frame cracking on impact, seemed like a poignant statement for how she was feeling right now.

Revan giggled, the sound extraordinarily girlish and young. “We’re not so different, you and I,” she whispered, and then giggled again. “I’ve always wanted to say that. It was just as fun as I hoped.”

Leave me alone!

The laughter seemed to echo through the room for far longer than was possible, but Vaylin couldn’t feel her presence in any longer.

She really ought to get up out of bed and shower, maybe brush her hair- but instead she pulled the blankets up around her and pretended she wasn’t sobbing, and that she didn’t hate literally everything about herself.

She was a very good liar, after all.

____

Arcann paced slowly before the throne, his thoughts awash with frustration and anger. Beyond the throne room the stars spun just as slowly, the sunlight bouncing off of the vast metal grid of the Eternal Fleet like man made constellations; it should have been beautiful, in a macabre sort of way. Deathly silent beyond the atmosphere, and deathly cold. Illuminated by starlight and sunlight in equal measure.

It felt like a tomb.

The doors to the throne room hissed open, the only sound but for the gentle burble of the fountains. At his command, the great hall was empty but for himself, his honour guard ordered to retreat to the adjoining hallway while he conducted this meeting- although meeting was such a mundane word for what he was about to undertake.

Footsteps drew closer to where he paced, echoing in the vast space; he did not turn to look, did not give his guest the courtesy of a greeting or even an acknowledgement. Instead he continued to pace, as if preoccupied with far more important things than the man he had summoned to him in the first place.

There was a rustle of fabric as his guest knelt at the end of the aisle, head bowed before the throne. “Your Immortal Majesty.”

He finally stopped, breathing out an exaggerated sigh. “Do not insult me, Heskal,” he said flatly, turning just enough that he was able to sneer over his shoulder at the kneeling Scion. “Do not use a title for me that you have no faith in whatsoever.”

Heskal was on one knee, his head still bowed- but Arcann could see the way his eyes flickered about, as if contemplating his response.

“What’s the matter, Heskal?” he asked, slowly turning around and pacing back across in front of him. “Did your visions not warn you of my mood today? Did you not have time to practice all of your answers ahead of time?”

“As I have explained to you before, your Majesty, the nature of prophecy is not as clear cut as you seem to imagine it,” Heskal said, his tone mild in the same way one might speak to an idiot. “There are always pivotal moments shining like a beacon through the shadows of time, unquestioning and unmoving-”

“Shut up,” Arcann snarled, his hand clenching into a fist at his side. He wasn’t expecting to be on the back foot so quickly, but Heskal had always had a way of getting under his skin; even as a child, he had memories of silver eyes looming over him. Weighing him, judging him, finding him wanting. Just like father. “I assume you know why I have called you here today?”

“I’d rather not make assumptions, your Majesty- your time is far too valuable to indulge me in these little games.”

The snarl was on his lips, ready to lash out at him, but he restrained himself with difficulty. Heskal already had too much power to sway his moods, he would not succumb to his mockery. He would rise above it. “The time has come for Zakuul to look to a new future, a new direction. The age of my father’s rule has ended, and it is time we shook off the shroud of grief and look to ourselves for strength.”

“An admirable mentality, your Majesty. Very mature.”

Arcann gritted his teeth, refusing to lower himself to the provocations. “Get up,” he said, bracing himself to stand unflinching regardless of whatever snide mockery he saw in Heskal’s face. His expression was surprisingly blank, and it felt excruciatingly contrived. “My father is dead.”

Heskal raised both eyebrows. “Surprisingly, your Majesty, that fact had not escaped my notice.”

“Then why do you still serve him instead of me?”

The silence between them was deafening, and he saw the shutters come down behind Heskal’s eyes, the bleak way he retreated without his expression moving an inch; it made him sick to the stomach, the confirmation of his worst nightmares.

“You knew, almost twenty years ago, you knew I was going to be on the throne- which meant you knew my father was going to die,” he said, his voice shaking for a moment before he recovered himself. “Despite my pleas, you condemned me to this, and you didn’t think to warn of about- about Korriban, or about my arm, or about- Thexan-”

“My speaking the future before it came to pass would have changed nothing. You were in denial as a twelve year old, and you are in denial now as an Emperor.”

“Are you trying to goad me?” he snarled, stepping directly in front of him, uncomfortably close.

Heskal didn’t even blink. “From your narrow perspective it might very well seem like I am goading you,” he said, in that same condescending tone he had always used to address him with. The same tone he had condemned him with as a child, encouraging Valkorion to push him harder and higher in preparation for the throne. “But from my perspective, which is that of a mind open to the whims of destiny, I am simply guiding you towards what must come to pass.”

“Have you no restraint? No sense of self preservation?”

His eyes were fathomless, the same eerie silver white that they had been when he had served his father. Cruel. Displeased. Critical. He felt like a twelve year old boy again, shivering and cowering in fear as Thexan’s wails vanished into the distance; it roused the sort of hate in him he normally only felt for his father. “I have a destiny to fulfill,” Heskal said instead, his expression unflinching. “I would not expect you to understand.”

Arcann snapped.

His hand slammed outwards before he could help himself, striking Heskal soundly across the face. It drove the Scion backwards a step, and down onto one knee, the crunch of metal crushing bone painfully loud in the hollow echo of the throne room. There was blood, there was blood on the joints of his hand, dark red on dark black metal; there was blood on Heskal’s face, dripping from between his fingers where he held a hand up to his face.

There was blood on the smooth glass surface of the aisle towards the throne, the water flowing gently beneath it as the drops pattered down quietly from Heskal’s chin.

And despite it, despite his outburst of rage and the violent response it had elicited in him, Heskal did not cower. His gaze was clear as he stared up at him, kneeling on the floor of the throne room. Like he had meant to kneel all along, and Arcann had simply sped up the process.

“All of this has been foreseen,” Heskal said, his voice low. When he moved his hand away from his face, his nose looked badly broken, the skin over his cheek torn. “Your fear and your refusal to acknowledge what is laid bare before you has been known to us time and again- and this is no different.”

“He is dead,” he said incredulously, and he did not have to speak Valkorion’s name aloud for him to know who he meant. “Why are you so determined to dance to his whims even now?”

Heskal climbed slowly to his feet, with a grace that made Arcann feel brutish and cumbersome. The blood dripped from his chin, and he made no attempt to wipe it away or stop the bleeding. “Valkorion had a far greater plan for our people, and the galaxy, than you will ever be capable of comprehending. You are a child, playing at greatness, unable to grasp the complex potential before you.”

“We were children and you let him break us- you gave him ammunition to use against us!”

The look Heskal gave him was pitying, as if he was far too simple to understand what he was trying to explain to him. “You were and are pieces in a greater production, nothing more- does a Skytrooper stop to demand that the assembly line that constructed it explain its’ purpose?”

Arcann stared at him, incredulous and horrified. “How can you compare us to machines?” he asked, his stomach roiling.

His expression finally changed, a smirk appearing on his bloodied lips. “One can hardly be blamed for looking at you as you are now and drawing such a comparison.”

He actually recoiled, unable to stop himself from reeling back in horror.

Heskal finally wiped at the blood on his mouth, the red smearing up his arm before being hidden by the sleeve again. “You always were so terribly dramatic,” he said, his voice and expression flat and hostile again. “Whatever it is that you’re about to do, your Majesty, try being an adult for once and actually do the dirty work yourself- instead of letting others take the fall for you.”

He could have been referring to Thexan or the Outlander, but what did it matter? Heskal knew the truth behind both his brother’s death and his father’s death. He had done nothing to prevent them, but he still knew the truth. He was a liability.

Arcann hated him so violently that for a moment it almost eclipsed his hatred of himself.

From somewhere, he found the strength not to kill him where he stood. “Get out,” he said quietly, the command no less threatening for the fact that he’d all but whispered it.

Silence hung between them, sharp and terrible. Finally, Heskal nodded, bowing his head in some mockery of respect. “As you say, your Immortal Majesty,” he said, and Arcann stared as he turned and marched back down the aisle, his footsteps echoing through the achingly empty hall.

It still felt like a tomb.

As the doors hissed closed behind him, he was left alone again, shaking with adrenalin, his head pounding like his skull wanted to rattle right out of his skin. He hadn’t... he hadn’t expected Heskal to admit to everything so readily, he’d expected to have to fight him for a confession.

His certainty, his unflinching confidence, terrified him.

It made his decision easier, in the end.

With shaking hands he keyed in his override on the throne, waiting as it connected to the Zakuulan media servers; across the planet, and on all ships and stations ruled by Zakuul, the current broadcasts cut out. The music ceased, the arena fights were frozen mid-match, the concerts and holodramas overridden with a new visual, and the groans of the frustrated audience were quickly silenced as the Immortal Emperor appeared on the projectors instead.

“Loyal citizens of Zakuul,” he said, his voice clear and authoritative, “I come before you not as your Emperor, but as a concerned individual, looking to find support amongst those with the courage to face an unpleasant truth.”

He held Heskal’s face in his mind, the arrogant sneer on his face as he’d called him a machine, a monster, a child. While he’d laughed at him for the abuse he’d endured.

“It has come to my attention that a group within our blessed society seeks to undermine us, to belittle what we as a people have achieved, and to tear down what we hope to build for our children, and our children’s children. They look down upon us as lesser beings, as inferior- and they are taking steps to actively destroy the great peace and security that we have won for ourselves.”

The door at the end of the hallway opened, and through the light of the projector he could see Vaylin stalking into the throne room.

He ignored her. “I speak, of course, of the Scions,” he said, voice steady. “Once, they were a valued pillar of our society, an honoured tradition maintained since our ancient days of nomadic barbarism, but much like the warring tribalism that we have left in the past, the time has come to set aside the primitive superstitions of the Scions and walk confidently into the future.”

He could see Vaylin making ‘what are you doing’ gestures, but he continued to ignore her. “It is with deep regret that I must declare the Scions to now be a hostile organisation, and their arts to be forbidden,” he said. “From this day forth, the Scions are an enemy of Zakuul and her people, their goals and beliefs opposed to our own in every way. For those of you with family amongst their number, we deeply regret the betrayal you must be feeling right now, and grieve with you for their loss- but the person you remember is nothing more than a lie, a fallacy, for the Scions seek the destruction of everything that we cherish.”

The anger in him crystallized, his hatred as clear and sharp as the crystal in his lightsaber. His anger was a weapon, and it had helped him to survive when nothing else had.

“Let this be our first and only warning,” he said, adrenalin thrumming through him. “We will not suffer such a viper to cling to our flesh, to pump poison into our heart, without responding.”

Arcann,” Vaylin hissed from beyond the projection circle.

“By my order, let no Scion stand through the night,” he said, trying to finish his address before she gave up and lunged for him. “Burn the Order to the ground.”

He disconnected, nearly collapsing under the weight of his relief.

It was done.

Vaylin let out a sound like a brawling cat. “What are you doing?” she hissed.

“I am doing what needs to be done,” he growled, not looking at her as he turned and went to take his seat on the throne.

“Are you mad? Declaring war on our own people-”

“The Scions are not our people!” he said, spinning back around and stabbing a finger towards her. “They care only for father, regardless of whether he’s dead or not!”

“That doesn’t mean we should just kill them!”

He laughed, the sound half hysterical. “You, of all people, trying to discipline me on whether or not we need to be killing people?” he said.

“They were useful! They were tools! You don’t destroy tools!”

“They thought of us as tools, Vaylin!” Gods, the smug arrogance of it still made him feel ill, cringing internally like he was still that twelve year old boy being judged and mocked all over again. “They were using us! And I- I will not ever let- I will not be someone else’s puppet ever again!”

“Oh, because you know all about what it’s like to be someone’s toy, sure-”

“Shut up!” Her clothes buffeted backwards, the force of his anxiety and his anger manifesting as a force wave, and she took a step backwards so as not to fall over. “Are we going to play ‘who suffered more under father’? Because of course, you’ll win, just like you win at everything else-”

“Only one of us is sitting on that throne, brother dear,” she said, her voice icy.

“And they knew that!” Why was she even arguing with him? Couldn’t she see he was doing the right thing, the only thing he could do? “They knew I was going to be Emperor, and they did nothing- they encouraged it! Which means they knew that Thexan was going to die-”

“You mean they knew that you were going to murder him.”

“And it means they knew father was going to send you away!” Finally, a reaction- she couldn’t have looked more shocked if he’d physically slapped her. For a moment, the snarl slipped from her face, and her expression was that of a much younger woman, frightened and desperate; then she recovered herself, her eyes darkening to muddy gold again. “They knew what was going to happen to you, every moment of pain you suffered, and they let it happen.”

Vaylin stared at him, her hands clenching into fists and then flexing open again, her fingers rolling irritably as if she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to claw his eyes out or slap him.

“They know something about father,” he continued, quieter, gentler. He had to convince her. “They know he’s not gone, just like we know. They still serve him, instead of us- just because he’s not here to give them instructions doesn’t mean they aren’t working in the manner that best serves his interests.”

She still stared.

He swallowed nervously, reaching a hand out to her. “If there’s a way to bring him back, they’ll find it,” he said. “They’ll find it, and they’ll bring him back for good, and then we’ll never be free of him. Vaylin, we- that can’t happen.”

Her gaze dropped to his hand, still outstretched towards her.

“We can destroy them,” he whispered, waiting. “We can stop him from coming back. From ever hurting us, ever again.”

She shuddered, her lip curled up in a snarl.

“Please, Vaylin.”

She met his gaze, and finally took his hand.

____

... Arcann?

He awoke with a gasp, his stomach lurching into his throat as he sat bolt upright; his skin was clammy with sweat, and for a moment he thought that he had a lover beside him that he had forgotten about, his body still sore from their coupling. But he was alone, his heart hammering wildly as if from a nightmare, and his hands shaking with adrenalin.

It took him a few long moments to work out why he was awake, and why he had awoken with the utter conviction that someone was with him in the bedroom; his head jerked around in a panic, searching desperately for movement in the darkness, for proof of something in here with him that had disturbed him.

Fumbling on the bedside, he managed to turn on the lamp, bathing his suite in a gentle golden glow; outside the windows, the stars spun gracefully, a beautiful view that normally brought him calm when not a lot else did. Right now it just made him feel agonisingly small, and terrifyingly lonely. The room was empty, the sheets twisted tight around his legs where he’d thrashed in his sleep. His mask was on the floor, and he couldn’t quite remember whether he’d taken it off before bed or whether he’d done it half awake.

His eyes were sticky with sleep, and his hand was shaking as he reached up to wipe them; he gave up after a moment and buried his face in his hands, trying to steady his breathing and instead finding himself shivering.

A bad dream? He had bad dreams, he had them all the time, and it wasn’t unusual to wake up in a panic, convinced that his father was lurking nearby and waiting to strike. But this felt...

There was something within him, something that had stirred a part of him he had long thought dead. If he had to find a way to describe the sensation, he would have said it was akin to those moments when he felt pain or itchiness in his left arm, despite it having been gone from his body for years now. The itch of a phantom limb, except it wasn’t a physical sensation because it wasn’t a missing limb rousing the peculiar feelings in him, it was-

Thexan.

Except... except not him.

Until the moment of his death, he and Thexan had been entwined so tightly around one another that it was all but impossible to tell where one brother began and the other ended. It had been more than a spiritual connection, something that was imbued within him and imprinted upon him as distinctly and as clearly as his own genetic code. Thexan was a part of him, connected to him, in a way he could never describe.

When Thexan had died in his arms, that connected had shattered. The void in him had ached, hollow and echoing, as awkward and miserable as a missing limb.

Something was moving in that space in him. A phantom itch for a phantom limb.

He pressed a hand to his chest, willing his heart to stop racing, and tried to deny the cautious tendril brushing against his mind. It was the presence of another, not physically present in the room with him but strong in the Force and reaching out to him as if-

“Leave me alone,” he rasped, trying not to hyperventilate.

It wasn’t Thexan, because Thexan was dead, and anyway this didn’t feel like Thexan, it was smaller and weaker and curious, and surely his own brother wouldn’t be curious about him, given that they’d all but been inseparable for the first twelve years of their lives, until prophecy and cruelty had forced them apart and gods help him, he wasn’t breathing and-

And the presence withdrew, leaving him gasping and shivering.

He did not sleep again that night.

Chapter Text

“I can trace my lineage back to the arrival of the Dark Lords on Korriban,” Kallathe snarled, stalking to put some distance between herself and Vitiate. She passed straight through the vision of the assembled Purebloods, no more tangible to them than they were to her. “I can count each Darth in my bloodline, each member elevated to the Dark Council- and there was certainly never anyone by the name of Dramath!”

Vitiate followed her, circling around the outside of the pagoda like a nexu stalking prey through the shadows. “Ah, yes,” he purred, “the ancestry burned into your brain by your mother, forcing you to recite it until your throat was cracked and dry.”

“Get out of my memories!”

His smile was the stuff of nightmares, and he kept following her at a methodical pace, no matter where she went. “We are bound together too tightly for you to ever keep me out entirely,” he said. “But that is hardly relevant, given that the memory you speak of is one I knew of long before our joining.”

Dramath stood between them, issuing orders that she shouted right over the top of. “I am going to draw you from my flesh like the shrieking parasite you are and then I am going to grind you under my boots-”

“Did you never question your mother’s obsession with your father’s bloodline?” Valkorion asked, following her with terrible deliberation. “Xeria was a proud woman, a bitter woman, and yet she was fixated on what your father’s blood could gift to you.”

“He destroyed her!” she snarled. “He ruined her life! Of course she would be consumed with thoughts of revenge!”

“Or perhaps she knew that which you did not- perhaps she knew something you deny yourself even now.”

She screamed and threw a bolt of lightning at him; he caught it and redirected it at her, the surge striking her in the belly. She grunted and staggered, falling to one knee. “Do not speak my mother’s name,” she hissed from between teeth gritted in pain.

He chuckled, coming to stand above her- beside Dramath. “My brother was a worm and a coward,” he said, “but he was clever. He sent our sisters to deal with me while he held the capital-”

“Shut up!”

“And when I slaughtered them, he sent more.”

How could she make him stop? “I said shut up!”

“Until eventually, I marched on his last holdings, and with his city under siege he fled in shame. Defeated by a child, but alive.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up-”

He didn’t laugh, but she could feel his amusement crawling over her, oozing into her flesh. “He and his disciples came to the frozen wasteland of Rekkiad, and there they lived in secrecy, with none the wiser that his lineage had survived- until Darth Revan, the most powerful and unpredictable of my servants, uncovered his tomb some three hundred years ago, with proof he had sired a child prior to his death.”

She lunged upright again, panting, and scooped up a handful of dirt, hurling it at his eyes. It passed straight through him without making contact. “Enough with the pointless monologuing!” she screeched. “I don’t care about your grand plans, I don’t care about how clever you think you are! What do I have to say to convince you that I don’t care about anything you have to say!”

“For almost a thousand years, my brother’s offspring remained hidden to me,” he continued.

“I don’t care!”

“But do you care that you, my dear Nox, are the final descendant in my wretched brother’s lineage?”

“I am not! I can count my ancestors-”

“On your father’s side, yes.” His smile was empty, echoing, fathomless. Terrifying. “But what of your mother’s side?”

____

Rishi, the Abrion Sector, Outer Rim Territories

Tapping one stylus against the datapad in her lap, Kol chewed on the end of another as she mused the blueprint in front of her. “I don’t know,” she said skeptically, “I was really not a fan of that last shipment of nanocarbon you got for me, Des. The quality was shocking.”

The neimoidian spread her hands wide, the webbing between her fingers showing as opaque over the holocall. “You get what you pay for, doctor,” she said, her voice deep and raspy. Her mottled skin didn’t look as vibrant over holo, and her wide dark eyes looked flat and unfriendly. “And you haven’t paid me in a very long time.”

“Des, I rebuilt your leg for you and I never asked you for a single credit for that.”

“And that’s just a terrible business plan, doctor. A soft heart doesn’t pay the rent.”

Without looking up from the datapad, she pulled the stylus from her mouth and pointed it in the direction of the holo. “You’re a shit, Des.”

Someone else laughed. “Oh, now she realises it.”

Des made a sullen hissing noise. “I am a businesswoman,” she began.

The laugh came again, from a riileb by the name of Jekki, the second of three people in the call. “If you’re a businesswoman, then I’m a Hutt’s mother,” he said, antennae twitching irritably. His firm grey skin looked no different over holo to what it did in person, like hardened leather that folded over the joints like the segments of an insect, but it didn’t show off the luminous pink of his eyes, or the extravagant colours she knew his clothing would be drenched in. Jekki’s kind were rare in the greater galaxy, much preferring to keep to their homeworld than run the risk of further attempts at colonization by the Hutts, but their natural ability to read the biorhythms of other species made them extremely adept as physicians.

And, allegedly, the moods of other species too.

“Aren’t your people supposed to be all personable and shit? You should be nicer to me.”

“I don’t have to be nicer to some hack trader who’s a hairsbreadth away from trying to sell folk for a profit,” he said loftily.

“I don’t even have hair, asshole.”

“Goddess preserve,” Kol’aya muttered, propping her feet up on the desk and leaning back in her chair. “Can we please focus?”

“I’m fine.” The final speaker was Marmoori, a plump twi’lek she’d meet during her tenure at the free clinic on Nar Shaddaa run by Doctor Cordovich. She’d helped him get access to hormone therapy when he’d been out of work, and in return he’d always done right by her when she needed smithing work done. Most of the big name hospitals had their own suppliers when it came to prosthetics, but Moori had been doing work for Elsie for well over ten years now, and Kol had been riding off the goodwill of that relationship for almost as long. At that very moment, Moori was happily chomping away on a sandwich that was at least a foot long, if not longer, the jowls beneath his chin wobbling as he spoke between mouthfuls. “Keep arguing, gives me more time to eat.”

“Are you ever not eating, wermo?” Des asked, looking down her nonexistent nose at him.

“When I’m sleeping,” Moori said cheerfully.

“Moori agreed with me on the quality of the nanocarbon,” she said pointedly, trying to forcibly drag the conversation back to the point. “It was subpar-”

“You’re using it to patch up runaway slaves in a pirate slum, you don’t need quality.”

“Some of us happen to take pride in our work,” Jekki said condescendingly.

“Pride doesn’t buy fancy clothes,” Des said primly.

Kol hid her face behind the datapad as she tried not to screech in frustration.

Jekki made a series of insectoid clicking sounds, something that managed to convey sympathy despite the alien noises. “I looked over the schematics you sent through,” he said, clearly taking pity on her blood pressure and pulling back on goading Des. “That’s quite an injury you’re working with. I take it this isn’t a theoretical patient?”

Letting the datapad slide slowly back down onto her lap, she tried to think of the most diplomatic way to bring up the identity of the patient. “Not a theoretical patient,” she agreed carefully.

His antennae twitched in agreement. “Well, the private cases do pay the bills, at least,” he said, and at her wince he paused. “This is a paying patient, correct? It seems a rather monumental job to be pro bono.”

“No, no, someone is paying,” she said hastily. “I, uh- I don’t know who yet, but it will be. Paid for, I mean.”

“That’s good, because I can’t get you phrik or beskar on the house, Kol,” Marmoori said. “You know I like you, and if I could manage it I would, but even just one of those’d gut me, let alone two.”

She rubbed at her eyes. “Setting aside costs for a moment,” she said, “have you got the infrastructure to work with a beskar-phrik alloy, to the specifications in the blueprint? Or do we have to invest in upgrading your tools too?”

“Eh, think I’ve got what I need, though it’s been awhile- don’t get much call for that sort of work, and them Mandos keep to themselves a lot, get their own smiths to do the job. Don’t know how it’ll stand up under them magic powers-”

“We can test for that later in development,” she said quickly. “This is just a preliminary build check, to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

“It’s a big job,” Jekki said. “Lots of damage to undo.”

Here was the moment of truth. “Mmhmm,” she said, deliberately refusing to commit.

The antennae straightened, like a humanoid raising their eyebrows. “You aren’t going to share with the rest of the class, dear?”

Kol sighed, dragging the sound out as long as possible. “It’s maybe possibly someone who-”

“Out with it, two-brain.”

“It’s Arcann.”

You could have heard a pin drop on the call, the silence was so extreme. She licked her lips, her nerves high strung as she said “The Emperor-”

“We know who Arcann is, Kol!” Des said, hands pressed to her wide forehead. “Oh, merciful guardians, what the fuck-”

“Now come on, it’s not that bad,” she said helplessly.

“Not that bad? He’s a tyrant!”

“He tried to kidnap you,” Jekki said.

She rolled her eyes. “As if I’m going to forget that,” she said. “Look, it’s all theoretical at this point anyway, none of you have to agree to any of this-”

“Why are you doing this, Kol? Did you get too bored playing politics on Ryloth, get it in your head to go off and do something suicidal?”

“Look, okay, he needs a new arm and a better medical team, and I am the best fucking specialist in the galaxy,” she said defensively. “There’s a reason his people tried to steal me, and it’s because I’m fucking good at what I do.”

Marmoori actually put his sandwich down to gesture with both hands, his lekku slithering over his shoulders as he sat forward. “No one is suggesting that you aren’t the best, Kol,” he said, “just maybe that, you know, there are better ways to prove yourself.”

“People more deserving of your attentions,” Jekki said scathingly.

“Hey now, I ain’t gonna attribute morality to health care, okay? If Kol says the guys needs an arm, then he needs an arm, simple as that.”

“All the better to crunch it down on the little people, eh?”

Marmoori snorted. “Hey, this guy ain’t tried to sell me once yet, so that puts him ahead of the slugs and the sith.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t exactly make him some kind of gold star as far as tyrants go, that’s like, meeting the bare minimum for decency.”

“Don’t look at me, I’m just the blacksmith- but I don’t think medical needs should be handed out based on how nice everyone thinks y’are.”

“It’s not a matter of nice! It’s a matter of whether or not he’s a tyrant-”

“Who only I can help,” Kol said. “That’s where the conversation starts and ends. There are plenty of other physicians out in the galaxy who can do what I do day to day, but a job like this, as extensive as it is- there’s really no one else who can pull it off but me.”

She was met with silence, and she tried her best not to feel bitter about it. She hadn’t really expected them to understand, not really, but she’d hoped they might have believed in her. Might’ve figured she knew what she was doing, which would be nice, given that she was sort of questioning whether she actually knew what she was doing.

Just patching up a galactic tyrant. No biggie.

She cleared her throat, ignoring the brief turn of maudlin emotion. No one else ever believed in her, no surprise there- no point wasting tears over it. “So with that in mind, you’ve got a better idea of the size of the project we’re looking at taking on-”

“Stars above, Kol, where did you even get his medical files in the first place?” Des asked incredulously. She paused. “And actually, can I sell them?”

“Not telling, and no you may not.”

Des made another sullen hissing noise again, gesturing rudely. “If you can’t give me a timeframe, I’m not going to hunt down the supplies for you just to sit on them for months without payment. Give me dates, and we’ll be in business.”

Marmoori raised a hand. “I’ll probably wanna get started as soon as possible, just to get the alloy stable. Off the top of my head I’m gonna guess we’ll need about fifteen percent more of the beskar, just because of the lower melting point, we’ll probably lose more of it during production than the phrik.”

Kol scribbled some notes in the margins of the screen. “I’ll budget for it, just send through your adjustments.”

“My services have suddenly gone into high demand, and my prices are going up,” Jekki said.

She didn’t bother looking up from where she was writing. “That’s a lie, Jek,” she said absently.

“If you’re allowed to be vain, then so am I- and I’m one of the best surgical assistants out there-”

“You are, Jek, which is why I always come to you when I need help.”

The antennae twitched again, as if he was preening. “And I want to be paid what I’m worth,” he said.

“That’s a given, Jekki,” she said from between gritted teeth.

“You can’t keep doing all this pro bono shit, Kol- maybe you don’t care about getting paid, but the rest of us sure as hell do.”

She was glad he couldn’t see her lekku over the call, because the gesture she was making was considered quite rude in polite company. “Oh no, my connection is failing,” she droned, reaching for the console with her boot. “Jekki, are you still there? I can barely hear you.”

“You’re such a shit, Kol.”

“I think I’m losing the-” She kicked the button with her toe, and the call cut out.

Fucking- fuck. Well, that could’ve gone better. Not that she’d been expecting them to jump for joy at the prospect of working for a man who’d damn well done his best to fuck over everyone and their mother, but...

They were a vain lot, all of them, and if there was one thing she could count on, it was their desire for attention. To see two of them hesitate, over something that would unquestioningly put their names in the history books, was more frustrating than she wanted to admit to.

And they were right to doubt her, because what was she gonna do? Just walk up to the palace and bang on the front door as if she had every right to be there? Kidnap him and spirit him off to her shitty little clinic in a shitty little pirate town to perform major surgery?

She stretched her arms up over her lekku, rolling her head from side to side as she let her thoughts wander. She was being too ambitious, she was being too arrogant, too uppity for a slave and a twi’lek and a-

Her holo chimed.

Probably just as well. If she’d sat around moping any longer, she would’ve started to reach the point where the bitterness overwhelmed her, and she’d start looking for the bottom of the wine glass to drown out the old ghosts.

Reaching out with her toe again, she kicked until the button activated. “Doctor here,” she said.

“Oh, thank the gods, you’ve got to help!”

Her head snapped up, and she took in the sight of a very bedraggled looking Thexan on the holo before her. Ironic, given that she’d spent half the morning arguing about his brother. “Thexan,” she said carefully, setting down her stylus, “what can I do for-”

“It’s Ona’la,” he said frantically, wringing his hands together in front of him. “It’s- I mean, it’s the baby, the baby-”

“Woah, woah! Deep breaths!” She sat up sharply, putting her datapad down on the desk beside her. She was almost certain she knew what the call was about, but jumping to conclusions never helped anyone. “Full sentences please, what’s wrong?”

From the background, out of sight of the holo, came a very displeased grunt. “Nothing is wrong at all,” Ona’la said crossly.

“She’s having the baby,” Thexan said, his hair sticking in all directions as if he’d been running his hands through it endlessly. “The baby is coming.”

She couldn’t help herself- she laughed, shaking her head. “Okay, I’m gonna need you both to just keep breathing then,” she said, standing up and taking the holocomm with her as she moved to grab her medical kit; she’d had it packed ready to go for three weeks now. “How far apart are the contractions?”

“She’s been having them for hours,” he said, and in the background Ona’la groaned in frustration.

“I thought they were the fake ones again!”

“I can’t hear anybody breathing calmly over there,” Kol’aya said patiently. “How far apart are the contractions?”

Thexan fumbled for the chrono at his wrist. “They are, uh...” He squinted. “The last ones were seven minutes and fifteen seconds.”

“And how long has it been going on?”

“We got up at about four-”

“And I’d been awake for about two hours before that,” Ona’la said from off screen.

Thexan turned towards where she was obviously lying down. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“Because! I thought they weren’t real again, and I didn’t want both of us to be tired-”

“I don’t care about being tired, I care about both of you-”

“Children,” Kol’aya said loudly, trying to interrupt them. “I will be over shortly, but in the meantime I’d like to remind you both to stay calm, stay hydrated, and where possible stay at a comfortable temperature for your species. There’s not gonna be a lot happening for awhile, and there’s nothing to worry about.”

Ona’la moaned in frustration off screen.

She laughed despite herself. “Chin up kids, this is the big day.”

She set the holo back down on her workbench and disconnected, taking a deep breath before she made the next call. Just don’t overthink it, she told herself, waiting for the holo to connect.

There was a click, and then she felt her pulse lurch as always at the sight of Ysaine Pierce on the other end of the call. “Pierce here,” Ysaine said absently, breaking into a wide grin when she saw her. Even her smile was enough to make her weak-kneed. “Well well, if it isn’t my favourite twi’lek.”

Goddess. “Hey Izzy,” she said, with forced cheer in her voice. “It’s about time Zakuul hit you up for a favour.”

She quite visibly brightened, and Kol had to fight the urge to close her eyes, so she didn’t have to see her looking so lovely. “Aw, hell yes, royal baby time,” Ysaine said, slapping her thigh for emphasis. “Seems fitting- I took the last Jedi Battlemaster out of the world, now I’m helping the new one bring life back into it.”

Kol swallowed. “Pretty much,” she said vaguely. “You good to meet me there?”

“No worries, babe, I’ll just let Shae know I’m heading out and bum a lift off someone.”

The reminder of Ysaine’s wife was like a metaphorical bucket of water being thrown in her face; she smiled thinly. “Excellent. I’ll see you soon.”

She cut off the call before it could devolve any further, taking a shuddering breath in the silence of the empty clinic. Nope, it definitely had not gotten any easier being in love with a married woman, especially not a married woman who had rejected her flirtations years ago. Gentle or not, the rejection still stung, and it hadn’t eased her unrequited crush in the slightest.

Get over yourself, she thought bitterly.

She tucked her commlink into her belt and double-checked her bag for the millionth time, shuffling through the clinic to the door as she did so. Satisfied that she had everything she’d need, she shouldered open the door and fumbled for the lockpad, pressing her palm to the sensor to lock it up behind her. It was damned bright outside, and she squinted in the mid morning sunshine; the humidity outside of her precious air conditioned rooms was disgusting, and she felt sweat bead between her shoulderblades almost instantly.

There was an avian whistle from across the narrow alley, and she glanced over to see one of the native rishii watching her, feathered head cocked to the side. “The fledgling comes?”

She smiled. “The fledgling comes,” she agreed, adjusting her bag on her shoulder before setting off down the alley.

Setting a brisk pace across town, she nodded in acknowledgement to those she recognised, keeping a wary distance from those with certain gang colours that she knew were unhappy with her. From what she understood, Rishi was certainly a lot better about slavery than it used to be even five years ago, but that didn’t mean that the practice was stamped out entirely- and her work with injured, runaway slaves certainly hadn’t earned her any friends amongst the gangs who relied upon the slaves for profit.

Like she was afraid of any dumb thugs, though. She’d been staring down their kind since she was a toddler.

The residential area on the outside of town had fewer unfriendly eyes staring at her as she went, but she wouldn’t exactly have called it pleasant. Maybe being terrifying space wizards had a way of making that sort of hostility a moot point, and the prospective parents just didn’t notice because it wasn’t even a problem on their radar.

That’d be nice, not to have to worry about the sort of stuff that consumed her thinking daily.

It was a cute little home they had, with a colourful collection of pot plants by the front step, and brightly coloured awnings hanging over the door; she paused for a moment by the upside down crescent moon of the goddess attached to the wall, touching the two points out of habit. The door was unlocked, and it slid open at a touch of the doorpad.

She stuck her head into the small hallway. “Good morning,” she called, letting herself into the house.

She didn’t have to look far to find them, given the size of the house- they were both in the tiny space that passed as both the common room and the kitchen, with Ona’la pacing back and forth as if she was determined to wear a groove into the floor, and Thexan looking to all intents and purposes like he hadn’t slept in weeks.

Without an obvious greeting from either of them, she raised her eyebrows. “Hi there,” she said pointedly. “Anyone in here excited about being a parent for the first time soon?”

If it was at all possible, Thexan paled further. Ona’la, midway through turning in her pacing, put a hand up to her forehead. “Sorry, doctor,” she said, “I don’t mean to be so unpleasant.”

“Oh, you’re hardly the worst I’ve seen over the years.” She set her bag down on the counter, taking in Ona’la’s restless pacing and Thexan’s bedraggled state. She looked at her own chrono. “Okay,” she said, “I’m gonna guess that neither of you have eaten anything yet-”

“If I eat I’ll throw up,” Ona’la said crankily.

At Thexan’s nervous headshake, she smiled to herself, repressing the urge to roll her eyes. Ahh, first time parent dramatics, it was always the same. “So, here’s what we’re gonna do,” she said, taking Thexan firmly by the shoulders and steering him into the tiny kitchenette. “You are going to make yourself some food, and you are going to sit and eat, because Ona’la is going to need you, and your new bub is going to need you, so you can’t go passing out from hunger.”

He looked miserable. “But-”

“No buts. I’m in charge, and those are your instructions.” She turned back to where Ona’la was pacing, her hands pressed into the middle of her back. “Have you taken anything for the pain?”

Ona’la shook her head distractedly, her face screwed up in pain and annoyance. “No, I didn’t know if it was allowed, and I thought I could just meditate, but it’s just-”

“Okay, okay,” Kol said, coming up behind her and carefully replacing Ona’la’s hands with her own, “are we remembering to breathe? Have you got any contractions happening right now, and have your waters broken yet?”

She shook her head again, her eyes sliding closed as Kol kneaded at her lower back. “No and no,” she said miserably, “I’m just- I didn’t think it’d be so exhausting. I’ve been in war zones and I’ve been in battles that lasted hours, and just...”

Kol’aya laughed. “It’s just a teensy bit different to fighting in a war zone,” she said pointedly, before spotting Thexan hovering behind them. “You- sit. Ysaine is going to be here shortly, and if you’re still doing that hover-shuttle routine, she’ll tie you to the couch.”

He sat meekly back down on the stool in the kitchenette.

“Now, we’re just gonna take a nice shower and just relax a bit, okay?” She snagged one of the flimsy looking chairs from the tiny lounge room, carrying it in one hand while guiding Ona’la into the bedroom with the other in the small of her back. “You’ve got to think of this like any other endurance sport, you have to pace yourself and try not to let yourself burn out in the first leg.”

“How many more legs are there,” Ona’la moaned, but she didn’t resist as Kol led her through to the tiny refresher. There was barely enough room for the two of them to shuffle around in the small room, and Kol kept the door wedged open with a spare shoe from the bedroom floor. With some gentle coaxing, she got the grumbling Jedi undressed and seated on the chair in the shower, her eyes a little glazed with pain and exhaustion as she shivered, hands on her naked belly.

“You’re a little warmer than I’d like,” Kol said, setting the spray of water to be refreshingly cool, rather than hot. “We’ll just run that for a few minutes and get your body temperature down, get you feeling all nice and clean, and then we’ll get you settled for the main event, okay?”

The answer was a groan, her face scrunched up in pain.

“Contraction?”

Ona’la nodded.

Ignoring the spray, she crouched down beside her and took her hand in hers. “Just remember your breathing, just like we practiced,” she said. “Don’t hold it in, don’t tense up, just nice gradual in...” She waited until she saw that Ona’la had definitely started following her instructions before continuing. “And out again, just as slow.”

She stayed with her through the contractions, not saying a word about how tight she was gripping her hand, and when she was satisfied that they were through this round, she patted her on the belly gently and rose back to her feet.

“You just relax, enjoy that water, and I’ll be back in a minute for you, okay?” She wiped her hands on her shirt, well resigned to the fact that water was going to be the least of her worries before the day was through. “When did you last drink something?”

“I’m- not sure...”

She rubbed her shoulder briefly. “I’ll grab you a drink,” she said. “Gotta keep those fluids up!”

She cut back through the bedroom, wrinkling her nose at the unmade bed; she could hear conversation out in the main room, and steeled herself for the coming greeting. Thexan was still sitting at the bench in the kitchenette, but now Ysaine had appeared as well, lounging extravagantly on one of the stools and somehow managing to make the tiny room seem immensely smaller just from her presence. Whether it was her exuberant personality shining through or the actual size of her doing that- she was well and truly the tallest person in the room, after all,- Kol couldn’t help but feel it in every cell of her being.

Goddess, she was still so beautiful- even now, almost fifty years old, she was beautiful. Just as vibrant and strong and magnificent as she’d been the day she’d rescued her, with a few more lines on her face and a few more sunspots on her bared shoulders, but still wonderful.

And when she turned that smile towards her, Kol’aya was abruptly reminded of why she couldn’t stand to be in closed spaces with her for extended periods of time.

“There’s my girl,” Ysaine said, lumbering to her feet with all the gangly grace of a newborn murra. “Kol, babe, how ya been?”

Kol smiled weakly as Izzy threw her arms around her, hugging her so fiercely that her feet briefly lifted off the floor. “Oh, you know, the usual,” she said, trying to put some distance between them as soon as possible so that she wouldn’t be tempted to linger and embarrass herself. “Running from tyrants, pissing off regimes, absconding with little Jedi kids.”

Ysaine was grinning. “Same old, same old, eh?”

“Pretty much.”

Ysaine slapped her hands together eagerly, rubbing them together like she was scheming. “So! What’ve we got?”

Professional mode, that was good. She could work with professional mode. “Last timed contractions were seven minutes or so, we’re looking at about seven or eight hours since they started.”

“Dilation?”

“Haven’t checked yet. I put her straight in the shower to get her relaxed and try to get her temperature down.”

Ambling past her, Ysaine stuck her head in the door to the bedroom. “Gonna set up in here then, yeah?”

Oh shit, that reminded her; she turned to where Thexan was sitting quietly at the table, his knuckles white where his hands were wrapped around a mug. “Linen,” she said. “Where do you keep the spare sheets?”

He fumbled to climb down off of the stool, still pale as he went to a chest tucked behind a single couch in the common room; next door, she could hear Ysaine enthusiastically greeting Ona’la, her booming voice almost painfully cheery to listen to. She couldn’t hear Ona’la’s response, but she wouldn’t ever have called the Jedi a boisterous woman.

Thexan turned back to her with his arms full of linens, his face so pale that he looked like he was about to be ill. She took them from him, cocking her head to the side curiously. “You know she’s going to be fine, right?” she said.

He rubbed wearily at his face, one arm wrapped around his belly as if he was in pain. “It’s... it’s not that,” he said hesitantly.

Going over to her bag, she tugged out the roll of bedliners, tucking them under her arm so she could juggle them with the sheets. “What is it then? Are you squeamish? Are you gonna swoon over the blood?”

He chuckled weakly as he trailed after her, like some kind of damn lost puppy. “No, it’s not that,” he said cryptically.

“Pull off those old sheets,” she instructed, waiting as he stripped the bed clear for her. “Well damn, son, are you gonna keep me playing the guessing game, or should I just send you outside to sit on the step and wait ‘til you’ve got a baby to fuss over?”

They spread out the bedliners over the mattress, tucking the new sheets tightly over the top of them. “It’s a Force thing,” he said finally, tossing the pillows back up onto the top of the bed. “It’s not really... it’s not a medical thing at all.”

Great. More space magic. “Try me,” she said, returning to the other room to fetch her bag and bring it into the bedroom.

He looked- well, miserable wasn’t the word for it exactly. Strained, maybe. “Anya is already awake,” he said, and Kol blinked at him.

“Beg pardon?”

“Anya,” he said, rubbing at his belly again, like he was rubbing at something hurting him. “She’s awake.”

It took her a couple of seconds to work out what the fuck he was talking about. “... Anya is the baby?”

He nodded.

She nearly rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Well, of course she’s fucking well awake,” she said, not stopping to question how they knew the gender of the child without having spoken to them yet. That was another kettle of fish entirely. “Who else did you think was kicking around in there when you felt Ona’la’s stomach?”

Ysaine stuck her head through the refresher door. “Got a robe or a sundress or something comfy our lovely lady can wear?” she asked.

Thexan passed over some kind of sleeveless cotton sundress, by the looks of it, and through the open refresher door she could hear Ysaine chattering away happily to Ona’la as she presumably helped her to dry off. “It’s a bit- different, with Force sensitive babies,” Thexan said, dragging her thoughts back to their bizarre conversation. “I hadn’t had any real experience with it myself, but my mother said that my sister used to be able to move things around the room while she was still pregnant with her.”

It finally clicked into place. “You think the baby is, what, cognisant?” she asked incredulously.

“It’s...” He looked hopelessly lost. “I said it would be hard to explain.”

“Babies don’t have object permanence, they don’t have a sense of self. Especially not when they haven’t even been born yet.”

“It’s- gah.” He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “Look, all I can say is that she’s... she’s able to communicate with us, just that it’s not really... words. It’s more impressions? Emotions?”

Kol stared at him flatly as Ysaine helped Ona’la hobble awkwardly from the refresher. “Uh huh,” she said, unconvinced.

“Anyway,” he said awkwardly, moving to sit beside Ona’la as she shuffled backwards onto the bed, flopping back wearily onto the pillows, “Anya is very, uh, active, and has been for about a week now, and it’s just-”

“Exhausting,” Ona’la said, eyes closed.

Ysaine was rubbing cleansing alcohol over her hands, and tossed the pump bottle across the bed to Kol. “Babies tend to do that to you,” she said, pulling on a pair of disposable gloves.

Ona’la rolled her head to the side and cracked open an eye to look at Thexan. “They don’t get it?”

“I tried to explain,” he said wryly, leaning over and pressing a kiss to her forehead.

When Ysaine looked over at Kol, she rolled her eyes. “The baby talks to them with space magic,” she said.

Ysaine’s expression was a magnificent representation for how she felt about it too. “Well, that’s super cool,” she said with forced cheer. “Didn’t fancy telling bub that you wanted a quick and easy birth, huh?”

“I told you they didn’t get it,” Thexan said.

Ona’la’s face scrunched up, and she let out a pained whimper; Thexan’s face fell, and his arm slid around her shoulder, holding tight to her hand with her other one.

“Time?” Ysaine said instantly, and Kol looked down at her chrono.

“Down to five minutes fifty.”

“Mm, progressing pretty quick,” she said, kneeling on the end of the bed. “Okay, hon, when you’re all done with this round, I’m gonna check to see that you’re dilated suitably.”

Kol’aya, from where she was unpacking her equipment beside the bed, glanced up at Thexan. “You’ll probably want to take a shower too,” she said, powering on her portable computer and setting it on the flimsy bedside table. Pulling out the tangle of cables for the monitor leads, she continued “but the lady will need a drink first. With a straw if you’ve got one.”

With Thexan in the kitchen organising the requested beverage, Ysaine took advantage of the moment of quiet to perform the check. Kol was busy hooking up the various nodes to her belly and chest when Ysaine leaned back on her calves.

“We’re already at seven centimetres,” she said, “so this isn’t gonna take much longer.”

“Oh, thank the goddess,” Ona’la whimpered.

The sounds of twin heartbeats pinged through the room for a minute, before Kol lowered the sound on the monitor. “She’s engaged, head down, looking good there. Blood pressure’s still a bit high,” she mused, inspecting the screen. “Might want to try and bring that down a bit before we get to the home stretch.”

“You bring something for it?” Ysaine asked, patting Ona’la on the leg before rising to her feet.

Kol’aya snorted. “No, I thought I’d just wing it.”

Ysaine nudged her. “Goddamn specialists,” she teased, “giving us regular docs a bad rep.”

She found herself smiling, and leaning into her- and stopped both abruptly. Clearing her throat, hoping Izzy couldn’t see her lekku twirling around like a schoolgirl with a crush, she browsed through her med kit. “I’ve got a stim, and I’ve got capsules,” she said.

“Gimme the stim.”

Handing over the hypo-syringe, she said “it won’t last as long as the capsules.”

Ysaine gently pressed the hypo to Ona’la’s exposed thigh. “Yeah, but faster release, and this labour ain’t gonna last much longer. We’ll keep the capsules for afterwards.”

Thexan came back in at that moment with the water, which Ona’la gratefully half emptied in one mouthful. Ysaine was frowning at him as he knelt on the edge of the bed beside his wife. “You’re looking a lot more pale than I remember you being, boyo,” she said. “Most folks who move out to Rishi end up gaining a little colour, not losing it.”

He chuckled weakly. “I have not had the most, ah... restful week,” he said.

“What, nerves? You always struck me as a stoic kind of fellow, grimace and bear it in silence sort of shit.”

He and Ona’la exchanged a glance that spoke volumes. “Anya started reaching out to us both about a week ago,” he said hesitantly, as if he was fully expecting them both not to believe him. “She hasn’t really given us much of a break since then.”

Ah. More of that Force shit. “Maybe you should jump in the shower while you can,” Kol’aya said. “Not gonna be long now.”

For the first time since her arrival, his colour changed, his cheeks flushing pink as he averted his eyes. “I, ah...” He glanced up nervously and looked away again just as quickly. “With you both in here?”

Ysaine cackled. “We ain’t gonna come in there to swoon over your junk, buddy,” she said wryly. “Trust me, I’ve seen my fair share of other folks’ fun zones, it ain’t anything new and exciting to me.”

If anything, that just seemed to make him blush more, and he tried to hide his bashfulness by looking down to Ona’la. “You’ll be okay?” he murmured.

She reached up to touch his cheek. “Come back soon?” she whispered.

He turned just enough so that he could kiss her palm. “I’ll be right back.”

He was amusingly over cautious despite Ysaine’s reassurances, watching them carefully as he backed into the tiny refresher and slid the door closed behind him. Ona’la picked precisely that moment to have another contraction, and her head fell back against the pillow with a drawn out sob. “You’re doing great sweetie,” Kol’aya said, sliding onto the bed to mirror the pose Thexan had been in earlier. She kept an arm around Ona’la’s shoulders, careful not to squeeze her lekku, while she let her cling to her other hand as tightly as she needed. “Not long to go now.”

“It’s been going long enough,” she managed to gasp between sobs.

Ysaine, from where she was kneeling between her legs and massaging her thighs, chuckled. “You could’ve called for help sooner, hon,” she said pointedly.

Ona’la’s face was scrunched up in pain and misery. “I didn’t want to bother anyone.”

“Bullshit. Even if it wasn’t the health and safety of your child on the line, it’s your health and safety on the line. Don’t compromise on that just to be nice.”

She was panting by the time she made it through the contraction, sweat beading on her brow. Kol’aya carefully wiped her face for her with a damp cloth, keeping an eye on the vitals on the monitor screen all the while. “Anya’s a cute name,” she said, to keep her distracted. “You guys are sure it’s a girl?”

Ona’la laughed hoarsely. “Oh, we’re sure,” she said. “She’s extremely adamant on that point.”

“Thought your boy said it wasn’t really like talking, with words and whatnot.”

“It’s not, he’s right- but she made her point very clear, trust me.” She let out a surprised grunting noise, her eyes flying open. “Oh! That was- oh.”

“That would be your waters breaking,” Ysaine said cheerfully.

“I heard it pop!”

“That’s pretty normal,” Ysaine said, frowning slightly as she tried to take another measurement. “We are at... looks like nine centimetres. Doing great, hon, almost there.”

Kol glanced over her shoulder at the monitor again. “Blood pressure is stable, it’s all looking good.”

Ona’la wailed, and Thexan hurtled out of the refresher half dressed.

It didn’t take long from there. There was a great deal of noise, so much so that Kol’aya actually felt a touch of sympathy for the neighbours. Thexan seemed almost as distraught as Ona’la, babbling desperately as he let her cling to him, kissing her brow over and over as she sobbed and grunted.

“Well, she’s blue,” Ysaine said over the noise. “Can’t feel the cord around her neck, so here’s hoping it’s just her skin tone.”

Another wailing grunt from Ona’la and then-

Then.

A thin, high-pitched cry filled the room, and Ona’la’s tear-streaked face lit up as if she’d been offered the secrets to the universe itself. Thexan looked as if he’d aged a decade in the last five minutes, his mouth hanging open with something akin to bewildered awe in his eyes.

Panting, Ona’la said “Is she...?”

Kol’aya handed Ysaine a clean towel as she took back the laser scalpel and the tube of memory-plastic gel. Ysaine had her tongue poking out of the side of her mouth as she worked, smoothing out the gel over the knotted end of the clipped umbilical cord. “Well, Ma and Pa,” she said distractedly, “I think it’s time for you to say hello to your little troublemaker.”

And then she lifted the most perfect creature in all of creation up for Ona’la to take, helping her to take her onto her chest so that she could rest against her heartbeat. Her skin was blue like her mother’s, but the stormy blue of her eyes as she blinked confusedly in the light of the world was entirely Thexan.

Kol’aya had seen plenty of births in her time in medicine, particularly in the first few years when she’d been confined to nursing, but this... it felt different. Watching the two of them stare enraptured at the tiny person before them- who, for all their talk of cognisance, seemed about as amusingly bewildered by the world as every other newborn she’d encountered,- was an extraordinarily intimate experience.

“Hello my love,” Ona’la whispered, fresh tears on her face.

“We have a baby,” Thexan said hoarsely, his expression dazed. “We have a- we have Anya.”

Ysaine chuckled, breaking the moment that had ensnared Kol; she shook herself discreetly as she turned to check there were no post labour spikes in her vitals. “You guys did good,” she said, “you should be real proud.”

“Hello my little love,” Ona’la said, apparently utterly unaware of anything else in the world but her daughter. The baby was making fussing noises, eyes squinting against the light as she pressed her face against her mother’s skin as if trying to bury herself in the warmth again.

“Anya’s a good choice, she looks like an Anya,” Kol said, to distract herself from how caught up in someone else’s moment she’d gotten. “Did she, uh... pick it herself? Or was that one of you?”

“Thexan picked it,” Ona’la said breathlessly, and she turned to him at last; they closed their eyes and rested their foreheads together, another painfully intimate moment that Kol couldn’t help but feel like she was intruding on. “It’s from Arcann and Senya, his-”

“My brother and my mother,” he said.

Movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she glanced over to see Ysaine gesturing to her; she followed her out of the bedroom and back into the common area, giving the new parents a little privacy for the first few minutes. Births were always a pretty emotional ride for everyone involved, but this one felt like it’d hit her a lot harder than normal- maybe it was just because it’d been years since she’d done one, and she wasn’t as emotional prepared as she’d thought.

“So,” Ysaine said quietly, keeping her voice down as she crossed her arms over her chest, “a little bird tells me you’re thinking of doing something mighty stupid, Kol.”

Fuck. “I don’t know what you mean,” she hedged.

Ysaine snorted. “Don’t give me that bullshit, Kol, we’re both too old for that.” She looked at her with the worst possible expression, one of disappointment; it made her want to squirm miserably. “Mako says she pulled some files for you.”

“Goddess, can no one keep a secret in this galaxy?”

“How did you think this was gonna go, Kol? Were you just gonna walk up and introduce yourself and say ‘by the way I’m here to change your arm for you’? Just go introduce yourself to the Sith Emperor’s son-”

“We just delivered a baby for one of them, so I don’t see why it’s such a bad thing to want to help the other,” she said defensively.

“That’s different and you know it.”

Goddess, she hated how much she felt like a brattish child being scolded for some misdeed, like she’d done something naughty and needed to be chastised for it. “Is it more like marrying someone despite them attacking a temple full of kids for vengeance?” she asked bitterly.

Ysaine blinked, but otherwise gave no indication that her words had upset her. “Get your head out of your ass, Kol,” she said, her words brisk and calm. And then she turned and made her way back into the room, cooing brightly at the new parents as she asked if she could take the baby for a moment for the post birth cleanup.

Kol squeezed her eyes shut, alone in the other room and trying not to cry.

... until she very abruptly realised she wasn’t alone, because she could feel very clearly a sense of- curiosity?

What?

It was very distinctly a presence separate from her own consciousness, and the moment she acknowledged that thought, it spiked with delight, as if overjoyed that she had recognised it. It was absurdly powerful, enough that the surge of emotions almost staggered her, and she put a hand on the doorframe to steady herself.

When she looked up, Ysaine was in the process of cleaning Anya, and the baby’s arms and legs were moving about feebly; her eyes were still in the squinty, half-opened phase, as if the light of the world was still too much for her. As if sensing her eyes upon her, Anya let out another reedy, squalling sound, not quite a cry but definitely some kind of grumbling demand.

“You’re gonna be a chatty one, aren’t you?” Ysaine said cheerfully, seemingly unaware of the object of Anya’s attention.

Kol could only stare.

It was some hours later, once they’d helped Ona’la to clean up and settled both mother and child into bed together, that an exhausted Thexan let them out into the late afternoon, looking for all intents and purposes like he was about to keel over, but grinning so fiercely that his face looked about to split from it. “Thank you, thank you so much,” he said, for what seemed like the millionth time. “Both of you.”

Ysaine seemed in fine spirits despite their earlier spat, and she laughed heartily. “Congratulations to all of you,” she said, slapping him firmly on the back. “Just give us a shout if you’ve got any worries in the next few days. Kol’ll keep an eye on you guys long term, but I’ll still be around for about another fortnight.”

Kol looked at her, surprised. “You going somewhere?”

“Mandalore has called the clans,” she said with a shrug. “Word is there’s a lot of pressure on him, that he abandoned Mandalore too easily to the Zakuulan clankers, so... dunno. A war or a leadership spill, who knows.”

The afternoon was hazy and golden, the air thick with humidity; Ysaine looked almost divine in the light, and Kol wanted to hate her. She really, really wanted to find a way to not be in love with her anymore, but she just...

Another surge of curiosity that didn’t belong to her, and she flinched. Trying to shake off the sensation of otherness in her head, she offered a smile to Thexan instead. “You know where to find me,” she said. “Just let me know if you need me, but I’ll come back in the next couple of days, make sure she’s settling in.”

“And try and get some sleep, while she’ll let you,” Ysaine said with a laugh.

Kol’aya?

Goddess, she had to get some fucking distance from this house, because if she stayed any longer she’d start believing that the infant was actually communicating with her.

They waved their goodbyes and set off back towards town, and Kol made sure to keep a decent amount of space between herself and Izzy. She would’ve been happy to walk in silence back to the speeder pad, but Ysaine apparently still had more to say.

“You know I think you’re great, right?”

Kol laughed incredulously, shaking her head. “We’re not having this conversation again,” she said.

“Shit, Kol, you’re fucking fantastic at what you do, I’m not disputing that, but I just...” Ysaine trailed off, the frustration evident in her voice. “You go looking for things that’ll either kill you or make you infamous, it’s what you do. It’s why you fought to get into an Imp school instead of a Pub one, it’s why you agreed to take on that ministry job back on Ryloth, and it’s why you’ve gotten it in your head that you can heal the emperor-”

Something inside of her snapped, and she rounded on her. She should have cared more about the fact that they were arguing in the middle of the street, but she didn’t. “Maybe I’ve spent so much of my life having people tell me it’s not appropriate for a girl like me to be the way I am that I go looking for ways to get attention,” she spat, her voice shaking. Goddess preserve, she was thirty-five fucking years old, and she was about two seconds away from bawling on the street because a pretty girl was calling her out on her shit. “Maybe all my life, I’ve only heard people tell me to stop being me, and I’m tired of giving them a chance to get a word in on how I run my life.”

Ysaine stared at her, expression inscrutable, and then finally she sighed, shoulders slumping. “I ain’t gonna argue with you on that, sweetheart,” she said, and even just the pet name was enough to make her heart ache. “Just... be more careful, okay? Maybe think this whole emperor thing through a bit more carefully.”

She swallowed down the bitter retort that jumped to her tongue. “I’ll keep that under advisement,” she said.

The look on Izzy’s face was unconvinced, but she knew they weren’t gonna get any further with this. “Take care of yourself, babe,” she said, pulling her in to hug her before Kol could object. For a moment, closing her eyes and leaning into her warmth, she could almost pretend...

But Izzy pulled away again, slapping her casually on the shoulder as a final note. “I’ll check in with you before we head offworld,” she said, as she walked backwards towards the speeder pad.

“Sure thing,” she said, trying not to let the bitterness through.

Ysaine saluted to her, and then vaulted onto the waiting speeder, disappearing out over the water towards the Mandalorian island. Kol was left alone, standing on the shore still trying not to cry, thoroughly emotionally wrecked and miserably unsure of herself.

There was a sensation of comfort, like the mental equivalent of a small child throwing themselves at her legs to try and hug her. She laughed, somewhat hysterically, reaching up to try and brush away the tears in her eyes. “Oh goddess, give it a rest,” she said, and she had no idea who she was talking to, or about what.

The sensation retreated, leaving a taste of something like disappointment and hurt in her mouth.

She ignored it, and made the lonely walk back to her empty apartment, above her equally empty clinic, on a planet that was no more her home than the last one she’d spent time on.

Chapter Text

It felt as if eons had passed, trapped in his company. Like the galaxy had been born and she had been locked in twisted communion with him already, like the universe had died and she had been left alone with him. Always, unending, inescapable.

They fought, and she was trapped.

He died, but remained.

She died, but it was no blissful solitude.

“Three hundred years ago,” he said, “my brother’s tomb was uncovered, and I made it my task to seek out his offspring.”

“I don’t care,” she said.

“Two hundred years ago, I found them- an unassuming family, living in Kaas City, with no knowledge of the bloodlines they carried within them.”

How to make him understand? “I don’t care!”

“I nurtured them from the shadows, shifted the odds in their favour. Slowly manipulated their fates to ensure their existence best served my purposes.”

“Why do you want me to know this nerfshit?” she screeched, the sky above them dark and the sky below them dark and the sky around them dark and dark and dark. The stars were gone, as if hiding from the immensity of her temper. “I don’t care about your relentless monologuing!”

A shiver along her spine, the dark crawling fear of something ageless and deathless and beyond comprehension by mortal minds. “Over the space of two centuries, I carefully saw to it that only the best breeding opportunities were presented to them-”

“Shut up!”

“-until the final result came to pass, and a girl child was born with potential unmatched by any of her peers. I kept her safe, away from the clawing politics that consumed and weakened my first empire from the inside out.”

She dug her fingers into her temples, as if she could claw the words out of her own skull. “No, no, no-”

“I saw to it that she was trained in the arts of my most powerful servants-”

“Why?” she screamed, the word buffeting outwards, a pulse in the darkness. “Why do this, why tell me?”

And then he was there again, standing before her, man and god and spirit and sith in one tenuous, flickering form. “I have tried to appeal to your pride,” he said, his voice a chorus, a thousand souls speaking as one. “I have tried to overcome you, to destroy your spirit. I have even tried to deceive you, drawing on the secret weaknesses you carry in your heart- and still you fight me.”

“And I always will,” she rasped, blood in her mouth. She couldn’t remember biting her tongue.

“And so we reach this impasse, where I have been forced to reveal to you the truth of my origin- and of yours.”

The stars were gone, the stars were dead, the sky was dead and empty and yet she lived. “You truly have no idea who I am,” she said, from between gritted teeth. There was blood in her mouth. Dead stars in her lungs.

“You are who I have made you to be.”

She took a deep breath. “You have made your own downfall, then,” she said.

She attacked.

____

Coruscant, the Corusca Sector, Core Worlds

Ellaz tapped her stylus against her datapad repetitively, bored to goddamn tears as she did her best not to yawn. The committee had been in session for over two hours now, and so far she’d only been called on to speak once; the rest of the two hours had been filled with acerbic pronunciations of economic statistics by the governor of Iridonia, all of which had been met by equally terse dismissals by the Zakuulan representatives. To say the round table had been a pointless waste of time would be an insult to the usefulness of pointless wastes of time.

She wanted to beat her head against a wall in frustration.

“Section five point seventeen, on the restriction of military forces-”

“Those restrictions were agreed upon by your Republic Senate under the terms of the armistice and surrender. Take your squabbles up with them.”

The Iridonian Governor, a man by the name of Dell Ghurda, bristled at the upteenth curt dismissal of the hour. “Our people have a rich culture of martial prowess and philosophy, and to issue a blanket ban on all such activities with no exemptions for historical or cultural significance is nothing short of cultural genocide!”

Zakuul hadn’t even bothered to have the Exarch assigned to Iridonia to attend the session, and instead Exarch Zenara Aya, the consul for Coruscant and the Republic Senate, was bluntly dismissing all concerns, as she always did. One might have hoped that Zakuul would have the decency to assign someone skilled with diplomacy to oversee the home of the Galactic Republic, but alas- that would imply that the damned toddler in charge of their empire had a lick of sense in his head. “Again, governor,” she said, her tone flat and her words accented peculiarly, “these are your words and not mine, and I’d suggest you invest more time into expanding your vocabulary than complaining. I am by no means a native speaker of your Galactic Basic, but surely there are words one could use other than to parrot ‘culture’ thirteen times in a row and hope it makes an eloquent statement.”

And now they were devolving into name calling. Fantastic.

She stared out the nearby window, tuning out the argument. She had so much to do back in her office, dictations to approve and field reports to sign off on and correspondence to reply to, and yet here she was- stuck in a goddamn pointless, petty feud that was going to end as it always did. With the Zakuulan Exarchs refusing to cede any ground, and the Republic representatives walking away with a slap across the knuckles for their impudence.

Really, she grudgingly respected their tenacity, in going into a situation that had proved fruitless for so many others and hoping for a different result. She just wished that it didn’t have to require her presence.

“Colonel Hervoz?”

She shook herself, looking up to find all eyes in the chamber upon her; Saresh’s lips were pinched in displeasure, and she thought she saw Director Trant roll his eyes briefly. Clearing her throat, she said “I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?”

The Iridonian senator, a large woman with intricate brown markings on her skin, huffed out a breath in disgust. “They asked, Colonel, about the potential to send one of your squads to Iridonia to assist in peacekeeping efforts.”

“Preferably Solaris,” Exarch Aya said; she was a rather small woman by Zakuulan standards, who nonetheless seemed to exude an uneasy energy that dominated the entire room. Her smile did not reach her eyes, which were dark and flat, just like her voice. “Such a decorated unit, and led by a zabrak no less, should surely inject a modicum of- calm, into the population.”

The weird emphasis she placed on ‘decorated’ made it sound like nothing but a mockery, and it took her a moment of breathing through her nose and trying to picture Aric’s voice cautioning her not to be stupid before she could respond. “Major Aoide’s contributions to the Republic and the safety of her people cannot be underestimated,” she said blandly, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Governor Ghurda straighten his shoulders, as if pleased with the praise offered to one of his kin. The senator had a little more tact with guarding her body language, and did not move. “But my division does not exist to provide street patrols- SpecOps is a highly trained, highly sensitive-”

“If you think the job to be too difficult, you can merely say as such, Colonel,” the Exarch said.

Ellaz snapped her mouth shut so fast her teeth clacked, as she fought every instinct in her body to not offer up a snarled retort. A year ago- hell, even six months ago- she wouldn’t have hesitated in giving this uppity ass a piece of her mind, but now...

Too many lives hung in the balance. Too much was dependent on her holding her tongue and holding onto her temper, and if that meant she had to bow her head and absorb the bullshit these Zakuulan despots threw at her, well then... she’d just have to go and spend a few hours in the gym afterwards, beating the shit out of a sparring droid to compensate. She’d earned her spot in Havoc years ago for her ability to keep a cool head under pressure, for her talents in crisis negotiation.

All of that came down to nerfshit if she couldn’t use those skills now when lives depended on it.

Taking a deep breath through her nose, she smiled thinly. “Peacekeeping duties are an immensely complicated responsibility that require tact, diplomacy, compassion, and I would not presume for a moment that it is a task that should be underestimated by anyone. I am particularly hesitant to offer military units trained for far less gentle operations, given the misunderstandings that could arise.” She hadn’t been interrupted again, that was a good sign. “To many people, the presence of a SpecOps squad like Solaris will only be seen as proof of hostile escalation. It will inflame the tensions, not soothe them.”

Exarch Aya stared at her, her expression unreadable and yet unquestionably hostile. Ellaz stared back, unblinking, her own expression mild and polite.

Finally one of the other Zakuulan diplomats leaned forward and murmured something to her, and Aya pulled a face. She sat forward, folding her hands on the table before her. “While we are sympathetic to the concerns of the Iridonian people and the perceived slight to their culture, we are limited in what we are able to offer in terms of compromise.” She turned her attention to Saresh, her lip curling slightly. “As I have informed the Supreme Chancellor in other such sessions, all planets have a financial responsibility towards Zakuul, and to ask that we- how do you say it? Lighten the load?” Her smile was flat and unfriendly. “It simply shifts the onus of responsibility onto other communities, making your neighbours pay double in order to assuage your alleged difficulty in acquiring resources.”

“And as I have informed you in other such sessions,” Saresh said coldly, “there is a difference between the taxation rates instituted by the Galactic Republic in order to maintain our democracy, and the blatant resource stripping endeavours undertaken by some of your Exarchs.”

“Our Exarchs are fully within their rights as territory governors to ensure that suitable tributes are provided to the Immortal Emperor,” Aya quipped just as coldly. “I would suggest- again- that it is the responsibility of your local governors and senators to work with our Exarchs to provide them with alternative solutions that are not... resource stripping endeavours.”

Ellaz stared very pointedly down at her datapad so that she wouldn’t pull a face at anyone else in the room.

Exarch Aya sighed dramatically. “As to your other requests,” she said, her voice more personable now, “we are not indifferent to the pride of a warrior culture. Zakuul herself is a proud kingdom of warriors, after all, honed in the darkness of the swamps and the seas and the stars.”

How pleasant for you, she thought sourly.

“To that end, we are inclined to be sympathetic to your requests for leniency in military matters. You may submit a formal proposal to Exarch Theej of Iridonia, outlining the nature of any such training to be undertaken by the populace and the administration in place to oversee it. This will of course include any budgetary requirements, and how this will impact Iridonia’s financial responsibilities towards Zakuul.”

Governor Ghurda looked thrilled, but the Senator looked stone-faced still; Ellaz couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t precisely a win for them yet.

That point became abundantly clear a moment later, as Exarch Aya smiled broadly. “And of course, I’m sure I need not remind you that any younglings entering into martial training who are found to be Force-sensitive are to be entrusted to the care of Exarch Theej, for transport to Zakuul,” she said. “You zabrak are said to be formidable warriors even without the Force, so it will be fascinating to see how well you flourish under the teachings of the Immortal Emperor.”

“You cannot take our children!” Governor Ghurda cried, half rising to his feet before the Senator dragged him back down again.

Exarch Aya blinked at him, almost deceptively innocent. “Why, Governor, we are not stealing them,” she said mildly. “We are all citizens of the Immortal Empire, are we not? No, we are simply ensuring that our fellow citizens are able to access the benefits entitled to them- benefits like advanced training and education far beyond what they would be offered on Iridionia.”

Senator Bennes grimaced at her. “With all due respect, Exarch,” she began, but Aya cut her off.

“After all, it is no less than what the Jedi offered your children before their collapse, is it not?” she asked, with false sweetness. “Such a shame, but inevitable. I doubt the older members would have done well acclimatizing to a new and superior doctrine.”

The tension in the room was so fraught that you could have cut it with a vibroknife and served it up for afternoon tea; Ellaz gritted her teeth until she thought they were going to shatter, avidly making sure not to stare at Saresh.

Finally, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Saresh straighten her shoulders. “A terrible shame,” she said coldly, with all the frosty authority that made her so suited for the role of Chancellor in the first place. “I believe that covers all pertinent topics on the agenda, and since we have run over time quite substantially...”

The session finally broke, and Ellaz couldn’t burst out of there fast enough.

There was a young mirialan woman seated in the antechamber, her dark hair pinned back in a perfunctory bun and her seams pressed with near mathematical precision. She looked up as the doors hissed open, scrambling to her feet as Ellaz came storming through and falling into step beside her without being asked.

“Please tell me you at least brought a snack with you,” Ellaz grumbled, and a jumbo sized chocolate nut bar appeared in front of her. She glanced at her in surprise, but she still took the proffered treat. “I meant for you, lieutenant. You’ve been sitting out there for a good two hours, did you at least take a break?”

“More than you managed, sir,” Lieutenant Mai said cheerfully. “I had the freedom to acquire a small meal once the session ran longer than an hour, which I imagine is more than you were afforded.”

Tearing open the chocolate wrapper as they walked down the hallway and into the grand foyer of the Senate tower, Ellaz muttered “They had mints on the tables at least.”

Her personal assistant was far too chipper for her tastes, especially after having been locked in that blasted room for so long and having to tiptoe around so many egos. Even as they walked, Caszi was flicking through her datapad and rattling off items from an itinerary that never seemed to grow any shorter no matter how much they got through in a day. “I’ve sent through a message to the office asking to delay all of your afternoon appointments by a half hour,” she said, fingers skimming over the screen, “and I’ve answered all non-essential messages for you.”

“As long as you aren’t sending love notes to Aric for me again.”

“Oh, no, of course not sir- he clued into that so quickly, I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Ellaz snorted. “Would’ve saved some time,” she muttered under her breath.

“You’ve had three field reports come through- Solaris, Ember and Typhoon. I’ve had them forwarded to your personal computer in order of importance.” Their booted feet slapped sharply on the shining marble floor of the Senate, matched by the clinking of the various rank insignia pinned to Ellaz’s uniform. “Your mother messaged you again-”

Ellaz groaned.

“-asking you again whether you’ll be attending your daughter’s engagement party, since she’s trying to firm up numbers for catering.”

“She’s going to overbook no matter what my answer is,” Ellaz said flatly, even though she knew Mai didn’t deserve the vitriol. “And regardless of what my answer is, I’m going to upset them all.”

Caszi cleared her throat tactfully, rather than providing an opinion. “I’ll leave that one for later, then, shall I?” She continued down the list as if nothing had happened. “You’ve been asked to attend two more Senate committees, one into the the ongoing hostilities on Denon, and one into the Zakuulan attack on Bothawui-”

“Oh, no, don’t forget lieutenant, we’re not allowed to call it a Zakuulan attack,” Ellaz said bitterly. She paused by the door to SpecOps and pressed her hand to the scanner, stepping through to the reception area once her identity had been verified and waiting for Mai to follow suit. The sergeant on the desk, a strapping young kiffar woman who had an almost unholy attachment to her datapad and her hourly schedules, nodded to both of them as they walked in. “It’s an ‘unsanctioned internal dispute’ and Zakuul are just so terribly remorseful about the unauthorised and excessive use of force. Not sorry, mind you, these assholes will never get their heads out of their asses for long enough to actually apologise, but they deeply regret having to acknowledge all the poor mortals caught up in their power games.”

“Your three o’clock appointment is here, Colonel,” her receptionist said.

Ellaz cast an accusatory glare at Mai. “I thought you said you rescheduled them all.”

Mai spread her hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I said I contacted them all asking to shift them back half an hour- I didn’t say I’d had responses from them.” At Ellaz’s look, she nodded as if in agreement. “I’ll organise for a small meal to be brought in shortly.”

“Appreciate it,” Ellaz said, tossing the now empty chocolate wrapper in the disposal bin as she passed the desk.

She took a deep breath before marching into her office, diving from one politically delicate situation to the next without even catching a break in between. Hopefully this one went somewhat smoother than the meeting with Zakuul and the Iridonians. Her guest was already seated, his back to the door; she was used to seeing him in military fatigues, or at least an officer’s uniform, but he was instead dressed in an almost gaudily red tunic, unembellished.

His ears flicked briefly at the sound of her entrance, acknowledging her arrival, and he rose to his feet. “Colonel,” he said, as he turned to greet her.

She clasped the outstretched hand in her own. “Fleet Admiral,” she said, far more gently than she might normally have greeted him. “Thank you so much for coming in today.”

Fleet Admiral Bey’wan Aygo looked like he’d aged a decade since the last time she’d seen him, his eyes wan and his fur lacking the usual lustre she knew to expect from her furred colleagues thanks to her marriage to Aric. He smiled weakly at her, as if even such a small gesture exhausted him. “You’ve got my thanks for keeping the invitation open,” he said, taking his hand back and folding both behind his back. “To be quite frank, colonel, I needed the distraction.”

Given the bright red of his outfit, the colour of mourning in Bothan culture, she couldn’t even begin to imagine. “Are you holding up okay?” she asked carefully, gesturing for him to take a seat at the desk again.

He sighed loudly, the sound drawn out as if he was considering his words. “It’s, ah...” He laughed wearily, shaking his head. “It’s certainly a thing.”

She honestly couldn’t say she would have said it any more eloquently than that. “Do you need anything before we start?” she asked. “A drink, any refreshments-”

“I’m fine, colonel,” he said, holding up a hand in polite refusal.

She nodded. “Fair enough. I’ve got something coming for myself shortly, I hope you don’t mind?”

“Oh, no, by all means.”

“Fantastic.” She cleared her throat, and as she did so, nudged the button on the underside of her desk to activate the scrambling field. The Senate hadn’t been as obsessively watchful these last few years as they once had been, but Saresh certainly liked to pretend she had Ellaz squarely under her thumb, and that meant that there were monitoring devices spread throughout the SpecOps offices- and that was before one considered whether or not Zakuul had their fingers in the pie, or the Empire.

Aygo’s fur rippled as she pressed the button, and she saw his brows furrow; she’d been counting on that, another trick Aric had taught her years back. Some species were far more sensitive to changes in electromagnetic fields than others, to the extent that Aric had always been a good early warning system for her when dealing with this sort of tech. Apparently Bothans were the same. “Colonel?” he asked carefully.

She sat down at her desk and leaned forward. “I’ll have to be brief here, Aygo,” she said, dropping down to more casual titles. “You were already on administrative leave before the Bothawui incident, yeah?”

He stared at her, and then nodded slowly, eyes narrowed.

“Saresh put pressure on Malcolm to have you removed from office, right?”

His ears went flat with displeasure. “The Supreme Chancellor found my repeated refusal to deal with Zakuulan representatives to be- disagreeable, for a man of my station,” he said.

She nodded. “And then of course, there’s Bothawui,” she began, but there was a knock on the door.

Damn it. “Come in,” she called, dropping the scrambling field as she leant back in her chair. Mai entered a moment later, carrying a small cast-plast container that she could smell from across the room; she couldn’t help but sigh happily. “You are a treasure, Mai.”

Lieutenant Mai beamed brightly. “As always, sir,” she said, placing the container on the desk with a chunky plast spoon. “Koththu roti, just from the food stand down the street.”

“Extra spicy?” she asked, pulling the lid off and taking a whiff dreamily.

“Of course, sir.”

She turned to go, but Aygo put a hand out to stop her. “Mai?” he asked quizzically.

“Yes, sir?”

“That first or last name?”

“Oh, last name sir. Lieutenant Caszi Mai, at your service.”

He grunted. “Any relation to Fleet Admiral Drua Mai?” he said quietly.

Mai’s face dropped, but she pulled herself back together admirably. “Yes sir. Admiral Mai was my aunt on my mother’s side. Joined the Grand Army of the Republic to follow in her footsteps, sir.”

His arm was still out where he’d stopped her, and after a moment he patted her awkwardly on the elbow. “Drua was a good sort,” he said. “She was a good friend.”

Mai glanced back to Ellaz, who nodded to her that it was okay to go. “Thank you, sir,” she said to him quietly. “My condolences for your own losses on Bothawui.”

Ellaz already had the spoon in the koththu, and as the door slid shut behind Mai she nudged the scrambler again with her knee. “She’s a good kid,” she said, nodding after her. “Garza poached her from logistics about two years before I took over, but stars, she’s been a lifesaver.”

“It’s good to surround yourself with people like that,” he said, turning back to face her.

“Speaking of,” she said carefully, “I’m sure you’re wondering what I was wanting with a Fleet Admiral without a fleet, out of favour with the administration.”

“You’ve got Garza’s talent for plainspeaking, Hervoz,” he said.

She chuckled. “I learned from the best,” she said. She stabbed the spoon into the koththu and sighed, sitting back. “I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that while there’s an investigation into the Bothawui attack, word is around the Senate halls is that we aren’t going to see any significant repercussions or apology for it.” He didn’t say anything, and she swallowed. “I’m- I’m sorry, Bey’wan.”

He sighed quietly. “We all expected that,” he said. “There’s been a few calls for ar’krai, but so far... everyone is too shocked to really commit to anything.”

Ellaz nodded. “Aric said to offer a friendly ear, if you needed someone to talk to,” she said. Someone who understands, was what she didn’t say. How did one make an offer like that, anyway? Oh, my husband’s species survived attempted genocide, so if you’d like to talk about this apocalyptic attack on your people, he’s happy to chat about generational trauma and the perils of diaspora? “When he’s not in the field, of course.”

“Of course,” Aygo said.

She tried not to wince. This was far more awkward than she’d been hoping. “But, given the ahhh... questionable nature of your employment-”

“You can say I was fired, Hervoz, it’s fine.”

“Well, yes, there’s that,” she said, folding her hands together on the desk so she didn’t fidget with the food. “Would you be interested if I told you that I represent a group who are both distinctly impressed by your career and dedicated at all costs to ending the tyranny of the Eternal Empire?”

The room was so silent that you could have heard a pin drop. Ellaz held his gaze, watching him for any form of response, anything at all that could give away a sign of his thought process.

Finally, his ears perked up again, and his shoulders straightened. “I’d say... I’d be equally interested,” he said carefully.

____

Dromund Kaas, the Dromund System, Outer Rim Territories

The atmosphere in the capital was sour, the unpleasant bubbling rot of something left unattended in the sun for too long- ironic, given how infrequently they saw the sun in Kaas City. Where once the people of the Empire had been united in their fervour, now there was dissent simmering in the halls and estates of the grand old city, something unheard of in the days under the Emperor.

And it was because of the Emperor that such a division existed in the first place, because while his silence was something the people endured and expected, the long years trickling past with nary a whisper of his commands, the events of the last few years were... troubling, to interpret. There were those that saw the occupation and annexation by Zakuul as nothing more than an extension of his will, for did not the whispers proclaim that the young man upon the throne was Vitiate’s son? How blessed they were, to have the guidance of one who had known their beloved emperor so intimately, to have the rulership of one who had been raised under his guidance.

But there were others who questioned such claims, and questioned the authority of such a whelp to rule over the Dark Lords themselves- which in turn led to doubt being cast upon the Council, and the newly proclaimed Empress herself. What sort of Empress allowed herself to bend her knee to another? How were they supposed to trust in her capacity to rule, when her first act had been to leash them to the whims of an untried brat?

Ambit