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White Knights and Promises

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“I hate kriffin’ Tatooine”, the lone traveler groused as he trudged up yet another dune, stopping at the top to shade his eyes for a three sixty scan of the immediate vicinity. A line of footprints trailed behind him, already filling in with the blowing sand. The only landmark he recognized was the double peak now barely visible on the distant horizon, denoting the starting point of his journey.

Two days he’d been traveling. Water gone, speeder gone and his strength quickly waning, his will kept him on his feet and moving forward. That, and his need to find help for the woman he’d left behind.

He could no longer see the smoke plume from the speeder that had burned out a few klicks back. It had been leaking fluid for a while, and the engines had finally seized, stopping the vehicle so abruptly he’d been thrown over the handlebars, knocking the wind out of his lungs.

“I hate kriffin’ sand,” he’d grumbled, wondering why the hell it was so soft when you tried walking through it and hard as duracrete if you fell on it. The minuscule granules had invaded his clothes when he rolled down the dune and now rubbed and chaffed everywhere with each step he took.

He removed the macrobinoculars from their case that hung from his utility belt and scanned the horizon, then checked the compass on his datapad to verify he traveled in the right direction. His aching legs welcomed the momentary respite.

Raising the binocs to his eyes again, he caught a reflection not too far off his current trajectory and increased the focus until he identified the hulking form of a Sandcrawler. He needed water, and the Sandcrawler was a hell of a lot closer than Anchorhead.

Another two, maybe three hours of travel if the Jawas didn’t move it, and if abandoned, at least he would have cover for the night. One more reason for hating Tatooine—it was blazing ass hot during the day and freezing ass cold at night. He would be no use to her if he became just another pile of bleaching bones in the middle of nowhere.

He put the binocs and datapad away and continued down the incline of the dune, gauging his steps so he wouldn’t lose his footing. He’d had enough sand pounded up his ass to last a lifetime.

His legs and lower back muscles tightened into an incessant burn almost immediately as he continued the long walk ever forward. He didn’t like being alone—it gave him too much time to think and remember and worry.

It was supposed to be a simple delivery—get in, get out, no fuss. The job offered good pay for a few days easy work. A quick drop off of some lockbox full of ‘nunya damn business,' an arms shipment for the turnaround and back to normal life, whatever the hell that was anymore.

They had come in low over the planet surface, skirted around Anchorhead and landed way out in hell’s backyard. It had looked like a small moisture farm from altitude, but when they commed, the dispatch directed them to a camouflaged hangar excavated into the other side of a sizeable dune.

He’d been uneasy about leaving the ship alone but didn’t like the prospect of her going without him either. They’d disembarked, and armed guards led them to the office of one Pabal Sonhem, spice dealer and gun runner extraordinaire who operated just this side of the law and just that side of the Hutts. They should have known better.

Risha was on her way to Dubrillion to do whatever exiled princesses do to stir up shit. Bowdaar, Gus and Akaavi were left on Nar Shaddaa, because, ‘instructions, ya know.' Crooks were always so damned particular about instructions, so he and Ky had come alone, despite everyone’s misgivings. According to Ky, it wasn’t supposed to be a big deal, and they needed the credits.

Now she was sitting alone in their crashed freighter, strapped into the pilot’s seat with a piece of metal debris stuck in her gut, stars knew what broken inside, and not enough kolto to heal a paper cut.

Blast! The woman never listened, stubborn as hell and one of the things he loved about her.

They’d just taken off from Sonhem’s compound, using the repulsorlifts to gain some altitude so they could break atmo when an explosion rocked the freighter. The ship tilted, and Ky fought the controls to right it as best she could but they were going down, and there wasn’t a damned thing she could do about it.

Another explosion boomed from the other side of the ship, somewhere around the med bay. The freighter bucked and started to spin even as it plummeted through the hot, dry air of the planet.

Smoke already filled the ship from the fire in the engine room he was trying to put out when she yelled back to him to hold on and then the ship hit the ground, knocking him back against a wall. It rose again, throwing him to the floor and bounced twice before coming to rest at a roughly thirty-degree angle.

He still remembered the scream of twisting and buckling metal as the ship careened off boulders that pushed the underplating upward and crushed the starboard side like a fizzypop can.

Dazed and half blind from the smoke and sand dust, he tried to get to the cockpit, but too much debris blocked the corridor. He called her name, but she didn’t answer. It’d taken him the better part of an hour to cut through the external cargo door with a cutting torch.

He fell out of the hole and made his way around to the front of the ship which was nose deep in the sand, but he spotted the glint of the twin suns off the glass and scrambled up the durasteel plating to get to her.

He wiped the sand and dust from the windshield and used his hands to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare so he could peer inside. She was still in the pilot’s seat, keeled over to one side, her arms slack, her head lolling against one shoulder and a black stain spreading across the front of her shirt. She wasn’t moving, and he couldn’t tell if she was still breathing.

Panic and worry were useless emotions that would not serve him now, so he went to that dark place he’d kept hidden for years. That place devoid of sympathy, fear or love; a cold dungeon he’d escaped long ago, but today he reopened that door and stepped through. His breathing slowed, his hands steadied, and a dispassionate calm engulfed him—he had work to do.

The cutting torch blazed to life, and he began burning around the frame of the windshield, ignoring the sparks that landed on his shirt sleeves searing tiny holes into the fabric and the flesh underneath. He never wavered as the torch sizzled through the metal.

Loose, at last; he pried up an edge of the transparasteel so he could lift and remove it, letting it slide down the side of the ship. He wriggled through the opening and across the top of the console, planting his feet on the floor beside the seat where she sat.

He put his ear to her mouth and detected shallow breathing then took her pulse, weak but there. His sigh of relief moved the dark place aside for more humane concerns.

“Thank the stars,” he murmured as his gaze shifted down to the bloodstain on her shirt. A long, jagged sliver of metal protruded from the right side of her torso just below her rib cage. He shifted her forward, but there was no exit wound.

She moaned as he sat her upright in the chair and began to scour the cockpit for the first aid kit. After some searching, he finally found it where it had skidded partway under the copilot’s chair that now sat askew.

He used his knife to cut her shirt and expose the wound and used the resultant rags to wipe away as much blood as he could before applying the contents of the kolto tube, getting as much in the wound as possible. Packed gauze and tape completed the field dressing. Rough medicine, but it’d have to do.

A groan left her lips, and he held her fast in the seat when she tried to move. “Ky, baby, can you hear me?” he asked as he studied her pale, sweaty face.

Her eyelids fluttered open, and flashes of pain crossed her eyes every time she drew a breath. A little squeak leaped from her lips as she slumped back in the seat after trying to move.

“Be still, Ky, please. You’re hurt, really hurt,” he pleaded. “I haven’t had time to try the comms yet; maybe we can get some help.”

“No,” she whispered. “If they track the signal they will kill us both. Best they think we died in the crash. They’ll eventually come to make sure, but keeping quiet might buy us some time. Yank the transponder, we need to go silent.”

Her breathing lapsed into panting as waves of agony tore through her side. She closed her eyes, and a tear cut a trail down her dusty cheek.

“Damn, that smarts,” she grunted. “You need to go for help. Get to Anchorhead, talk to Largo, he’ll know what to do. Kriff, I’m thirsty.”

“I’ll see if I can find some water, maybe in the canteens if we remembered to fill them. Be right back and don’t move.”

“Like I could,” she groaned.

He’d found a couple of canteens in the cargo bay, both nearly empty and the water rancid but it was better than nothing. He struggled his way through the wreckage to the galley but all he found there was a half-full bottle of Corellian Rum. No water came from the sink faucets and the storage tanks were behind a bulkhead in the med bay unless the second explosion had blown them out the side of the ship. Either way, he couldn’t get to them.

The cooling unit contained a couple of cartons of Aitha, which he took before making his way back outside and through the windshield opening.

“This is all I could find, babe. It’s not much so only a sip or two for now,” he said while holding one of the canteens up to her parched lips.

Her brows furrowed, and she winced whenever a wave of pain lanced through the wound, but she was lucid enough to talk. “You have to go soon. Leave the Aitha with me and take whatever water is left. Strap me into this chair in case I pass out, and put my blaster in my hand, just in case.”

“Ky, honey, I don’t feel right just leaving you like this and...”

“Will you just shut up and go. If you stay here, we’ll both die, and I won’t make it if you move me. Besides, I have a bone to pick with that backstabbing bastard Sonhem when this is all over.”

He pulled the transponder before leaning down to kiss her and crawling up over the console. He turned before he exited out the window. “I love you, Ky. I wanted that to be the last thing you hear from me, you know, just in case.”

“Yeah, you too, now go.”

After performing some creative torch work, he’d finally wrestled the speeder out of the cargo hold and mounted, not noticing the fluid leak. And now, here he was, on foot, not knowing if she was still alive and too many kilometers from his destination.

The Sandcrawler loomed larger on the horizon, and he figured another half hour or so before he reached it. He’d drunk the last of the water a while back, and dehydration was taking its toll. His mind wandered again as he plodded forward, his feet growing heavier with each step.

The fact that she hadn’t said ‘I love you’ back to him still stung but then she never did unless he said it first and sometimes not even then. He knew things had been strained between them lately, but damn, she could die, he could die, that should count for something.

Ky pushed the envelope in every aspect of her life, forever treading that fine line between necessary risk and suicide. Underneath her cool exterior she was wound tighter than a two credit crono, gears and springs ready to explode, and he bore the scars, internal and external, from when she came undone.

He was well aware of the roles he played; doting lover, guard, and comic relief sidekick but she was always waiting for something more. He often doubted he could ever give her what she craved, he just wasn't wired that way. And, whatever darkness dwelled in him, he kept tamped down and hidden. Experiences that had shaped his life could have manifested into a mean streak, but he'd chosen another path. He had his own secrets to keep.

The shadow of the Sandcrawler broke him from the depths of his thoughts and provided much welcome shade. Eight of the half-pint robed figures puttered around with various droids and parts scattered about in the sand, and he noticed two speeders, that had seen better days, off to the side.

He had a rudimentary understanding of the Jawa trade language and was able to purchase some water before inquiring after the speeders. Another idea struck him which would save travel time and asked if they had a holocom unit he could rent or buy. Sonhem might have his and Ky’s frequency but would not be scanning for a signal from something new.

Jawas, greedy little bastards, who were more than happy to fleece him for a holocom he could only get to work by holding a piece of metal between two contacts.

Sweat beaded on his face as he continued to enter the code over and over again, waiting for someone to answer.

Finally, a flickering projection appeared, the voice stuttered a greeting, of sorts.

“Cors...at...you?”

“It’s me, Largo. Can you hear me?”

“Sig...kriffed...say...gain.”

“We’re in trouble. Need a shuttle to these coordinates, can you do that?”

“Caught...troub...shutt...be...soon.”

The holocom sparked, burned his fingers and died a quick and vengeful death. The important thing was that help was coming and waiting would bring a different kind of agony.

Unable to sit still, he paced from one end of the Sandcrawler to the other. It might have helped if he’d not checked his crono every few minutes but each second ticked one more mark against her life. He was burning moisture and energy he’d need for later, but his restless legs refused to be still. The overwhelming urge to get back to Ky overrode any common sense he had, and tested his patience which was reaching its limit. It was all he could do to keep himself from kicking the Jawa junk, that hampered his path. The passage of time crawled and he wanted to scream in frustration.

The whirring whine of a shuttle coming in low reached his ears, and he flattened himself against the side of the crawler to peer around the corner to see a refitted Rendaran-class shuttle land not far away. Gray in color with faded orange striping, it sported a fire lily, Largo’s mother’s favorite flower, painted on the blunt nose.

The hatch opened, the ramp extended and a tall man with receding hairline, small sharp eyes, and the beginning of a paunch exited.

“Corso, you can come on out,” the man yelled.

Corso Riggs sprinted toward the shuttle, wobbly legged and panting when he stopped at the foot of the ramp. “Largo. Good to see ya. Ky’s hurt, and it’s bad.”

“Then get your ass in here and show us where.” Largo motioned him inside.

“You got the coordinates?” asked Dester, one of Largo’s men and the pilot.

“On my datapad, but it’s not that far, as the shuttle flies. It was a hell of a trip walking,” Corso replied and plugged the datapad into the console.

“We’re coming, baby, just hold on,” he murmured as the shuttle lifted into the cloudless sky.

Chapter Text

Corso’s fingers tapped out an alternating staccato beat with his boot heel as he leaned forward over the console staring fixedly out the windshield.

“If you don’t stop that racket, I’m gonna shoot you in the foot,” grumped Dester.

“Yeah, sorry, it’s just taking longer than I expected.”

“That won’t get us there any faster, and it’s never good to piss off the pilot.”

“Ease up on the kid,” said Largo as he eased himself into the co-pilot’s seat and leveled his gaze on Corso. “Is that dirt on your forehead or a bruise?”

“I got a couple lumps during the crash, sore ribs and shoulder, slight headache, but I’ll be fine.”

“So, how’d you and Ky get into this fine mess?”

Corso remained silent for a few seconds but figured time might go by faster if he engaged in a little conversation. His nerves were already shot to hell so it couldn’t hurt.

“Easy money usually comes at a cost. Ky should have listened to her gut and never gotten involved with that snake Sonhem.”

“Ky should have listened to me when I warned her against ever dealing with that scum,” chided Largo.

Frown lines creased Corso’s brow. “Now’s hardly the time for ‘I told you so.' We’ve been operating on a thread for a while now. The rope offered always looks safe and secure when you’re trying to climb up from the bottom.”

“I thought the Voidhound still had Republic contracts and special immunity from prosecution.”

A bitter laugh escaped Corso’s lips. “A new broom sweeps clean, as they say. After Yavin 4, Saresh talked the newly elected Galactic Senate into rescinding a lot of its wartime contracts and cracked down, again, on privateers with a record. Ky made that list.

“Personally, I think it’s delayed retribution for that cocked-up arms shipment way back on Port Nowhere. She’s still in hot water with the Hutts over the spice and been black listed by all but a few. We’re still dodging bounty hunters even though it’s been more than three years.”

“What about the Voidhound fleet?”

“Come on, Largo. You were part of that fleet for a while. We only hear from you and Rogun from time to time. The rest have pretty much gone their own way.”

“She should have come to me. I have a couple of runs I could have subcontracted, and job leads coming in all the time.”

“She’d never do that, and you know it. She’d rather starve in space than take a handout. The credits for this job were too good to pass up.”

“Yeah, and look where that got her,” Largo snorted.

“There’s the ship!” Corso pointed out the windshield at the still smoking freighter and strode from the cockpit to pace by the hatch while the shuttle landed.

“Damned lucky the sand people haven’t stumbled across it,” Largo said as he opened the hatch and extended the ramp.

“Might want to rethink that, boss,” said Dester, raising his arm to aim his index finger at a small group standing on the ridge high above the downed ship. The broken, yowling, cries of the Tusken echoed down to them.

“Shit,” exclaimed Largo. “We’d best get to it.”

Corso was already out the door and standing by the half-buried nose of the ship when the two spacers arrived. “We can’t get to her any other way except through the windshield. I’ll need your help, Dester.”

“I’ll stand guard,” said Largo. “Don’t think I’d be able to squeeze through that small space anyway.”

Corso scampered up the nose of the ship followed closely by Dester. Both men crawled into the dim interior, Corso immediately moving to Ky’s side. Her chin rested on her chest which didn’t appear to be moving. He extended a trembling arm to check the pulse point in her neck and found it, weaker than before but still there. A thin smile touched Corso’s lips when he realized she still clutched her blaster.

“She’s cold,” said Corso.

“Shock,” stated Dester, removing a syringe from his med kit.

Corso grabbed his arm. “What’s that?”

“Tranq and kolto cocktail,” barked Dester as he yanked his arm free and injected the substance into the woman’s neck. “I do have some med training, and if she comes to and struggles while we’re hauling her out of here, she’ll likely bleed to death before we can get her to a tank. Now, quit yapping and help me.”

Together they removed her from the seat and managed to drag her over the console, through the window, down the nose of the ship and onto the ground below. Both men rested for a minute while Dester rechecked her vitals and then gave the nod that it was safe to move her to the shuttle where they secured her to a pull-down bunk.

“Can you give me five minutes? Is she stable enough?” asked Corso, unable to tear his eyes away from her pale face.

“The sand people have disappeared off that ridge, they’ll be coming and soon,” said Largo.

Dester was already on his way to the shuttle cockpit. “She’s ok for five, but don’t push it past that. What’s so damned important anyway?”

“Need to get something and check the cargo,” Corso said over his shoulder as he went back through the hatch.

He sprinted to the ship, hoisted himself through the cargo door, and went first to the quarters he and Ky shared. With no small amount of effort, he managed to push the door open. The bed sat nearly sideways, the one bracket still securing it to the wall bent to a ninety-degree angle, pillows lay strewn across the floor. Dresser drawers and closets, impacted by the crash, spewed their belongings into loose piles or hung open with clothes draped over the fronts and sides.

He searched for the duffels they kept in the bottom of the closet and found two which he quickly stuffed with as much clothing as possible. Ky’s spare datapad leaned against the wall and he threw that in also before going to a section of the wall and kneeling down. Carefully prying one small panel loose, he reached inside and removed a tiny, purple box. Lifting the lid, he gazed inside. The ring winked at him in the dim light before he snapped the top closed and tucked it into his pocket. He took one last look around and headed back to the cargo bay.

Hewie, his vibrosword, and Sergeant Boom Boom still hung in their brackets on the wall. He removed both and used the stock of the rifle to break the lock on one of the cargo crates. Throwing the lid open, Corso found only sand and a few rocks.

“Sonofabitch,” he swore and slammed the lid back down. No wonder Sonhem had his own men load the crates. If he and Ky had loaded them, they’d have known right away about the double cross and likely be dead.

Corso angrily snagged the duffel bags from the floor, grabbed the weapons and made his way to the exit. He jumped to the ground and headed for the shuttle which was fired up and waiting to take off.

“Hope what you went back for is important,” yelled Dester from the cockpit. “Park your asses and strap in, we can’t waste any more time.”

Shots pinged off the hull as the shuttle lifted from the ground and Corso was thrown from the jump seat before he could fasten the belt. Dester opened up the throttle and the ship groaned and leaped forward into the arid, dusty air.

Ky moaned and Corso jumped to his feet to check on her and make sure she was still properly positioned so that the restraining straps didn’t rub or bump the metal spike that still impaled her. Nothing could be done about the slight jostling and he was thankful that the tranquilizer hadn’t worn off yet.

“How’s she doing?” asked Largo who’d just walked in from the cockpit.

“She feels hot now and I don’t like those bright spots on her cheeks,” said Corso as he tenderly took her hand between his. Her skin was dry and heat radiated from her palm and fingers.

“What about the cargo? Anything important enough to go back and kick sand people ass over?”

“Sand and rocks,” answered Corso, his voice tight and bitter.

“You know that bird’s never gonna fly again, right?” said Largo. “It’ll be cheaper to buy another one than try to fix that mangled heap of scrap. Nothing will be left anyway once the sand people get through scavenging.”

“Yeah, I know but that’s not important right now. We’ll figure it out when she’s back on her feet.” Corso laid her hand back on the bunk and swiped his fingers across his mouth and chin before slumping down onto the jump seat he’d been so unceremoniously spilled from earlier.

He was suddenly bone tired but couldn’t take his eyes away from the profile of her face or the barely discernible rise and fall of her chest. The metal piercing her skin winked obscenely at him as if it touched places in her he could never reach and knew secrets that only they shared. His hands itched to yank it free and be rid of its taunting but, he was as helpless in this as he’d been in most things.

“She looks bad, kid,” said Largo, placing a beefy hand on Corso’s shoulder. “You might want to prepare yourself—"

Corso shot a scathing glance at the large man. “Don’t you say that; don’t you even think it. She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever met and she’ll pull through this.”

“Sure, kid, whatever you say,” Largo let his hand fall to his side. “How much longer, Dester?” he yelled to the pilot.

“About another twenty minutes. If I push this thing any more, we’ll all end up walking. Now leave me be and let me fly.”

“I’d better comm the med center and have a stretcher waiting in the hangar,” said Largo before leaving Corso to his own thoughts and misery.

The stretcher and two med techs were at the hangar when they set down. Ky was, thankfully, still unconscious when they loaded her into the enclosed speeder that served as transport and sped off toward the med center.

“I’ll walk over there with you,” said Largo, picking up one of the duffels and putting it in Corso’s hand, he carried the other. Corso left the two weapons on the floor where they lay, he’d get them later.

The med center assaulted Corso’s nose with the stringent smell of antiseptics and cleaning solutions. The sweet, cloying stench of anesthetics made his stomach roll. He and Largo strode over to the reception desk currently manned by a young blonde in a white lab coat.

“May I help you?” she asked dispassionately after putting down a datapad she’d been working on.

“A woman just brought in. Badly hurt, where is she?” Corso blurted out.

“And you are?” the woman asked suspiciously.

“Cut the shit, Annie,” said Largo. “He’s family, just answer the damned question.”

“No need to be rude about it,” she scolded. “She’s being prepped for surgery now. That’s all I know. Have a seat in the waiting area and someone will be with you as soon as there’s any news.”

“Come on,” said Largo grabbing Corso’s arm and dragging him to the other side of the lobby. “There’s nothing to do now but wait. I’d offer for you to come back to my place for a shower and some food, but I know you won’t leave.”

Corso was numb by the time he sagged down onto the synthleather couch. He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes for a second before hunching forward, balancing his elbows on his thighs and clasping his hands together between his knees. The duffel sat snug against his boot and there was something he should be doing, but he just couldn’t figure out what.

“How long’s it been since you slept?” asked Largo, easing himself down beside Corso.

“I don’t know. Forty-eight hours, maybe more,” mumbled Corso.

“You look like something my ack pup dragged in. Get some shut-eye, you won’t be worth a shit to her or anybody else if you keep pushing yourself this way.”

Corso reached back to scratch his neck, sweat and sand grit caked beneath his nails. “I probably smell like something your ack pup dragged in too, but you’re right. There’s not a damned thing I can do for her right now so I’m just gonna lean back and rest my eyes for a bit. You make sure that doctor wakes me up as soon she’s out of surgery if I happen to doze off.”

“Will do and I’m also going to post a couple of my guys out front, just in case. Sonhem won’t be pleased when he finds out she’s still alive.”

Corso was gone as soon as his head hit the back of the couch, his mouth open and slack, his arms limp in his lap and his long legs sprawled out in front.

“Sweet dreams, kid,” said Largo. “Enjoy the rest while you can cause you know all hell’s gonna break loose as soon as she’s up and about.”

Chapter Text

Corso woke with a start at someone shaking his shoulder. He bolted upright staring up into the face of a man with balding gray hair and deep blue eyes radiating kindness from beneath bushy brows.

“How is she, doc?” he mumbled, needing to hear the best and trying to brace for the worst.

“She’s out of immediate danger but is going to need at least four days in the tank. She was septic by the time you got her here and without going into too much detail, she had a nice soup of bile, body waste and blood leaking into her abdominal cavity. Three broken ribs and two cracked vertebrae added to the complications. We damn near lost her twice on the operating table. She’s one tough lady, I’ll give her that.”

“Can I see her?” pleaded Corso. “Please?”

“Follow me,” said the doctor.

Corso stretched the kinks from his muscles, wincing a bit when he moved his shoulder, and followed the doctor’s receding back down a corridor and through a set of double doors. Largo brought up the rear, carrying the duffels.

Six tanks sat against the far wall of the room. Blinking monitors hung on the wall between each unit, all in standby mode except hers. Various beds, tables, trays and rolling chairs filled much of the remaining space.

Corso tread slowly, almost reverently, to the round glass enclosure where Ky floated in a clear liquid. Tubes protruded from her arms and monitoring electrodes were attached to her chest and temples. A breathing mask covered her face, bubbles rose lazily and her hair hovered in a wispy halo around her head.

He laid his hand gently on the glass, then pressed his forehead against the cold hard surface and puffed a sigh of relief through pursed lips, leaving a ring of fog in its wake.

“I love you,” he whispered as if somehow his words could penetrate all the barriers between them and travel to her ears and maybe her heart.

“Take a seat and let me have a look at you,” said the doctor.

Begrudgingly, Corso turned away from the tank and hopped up on one of the exam tables where Dr. Harren ran a med scanner up and down the length of his body. The doctor physically prodded his torso and shoulder determining he had a sprained shoulder, cracked rib and very mild concussion. Nothing that a kolto injection and a few days of inactivity wouldn’t cure.

“I’d say you got off pretty lucky considering the injuries your partner sustained,” Harren stated while injecting the necessary meds into the side of Corso’s neck.

“I won’t leave her, so don’t bother asking,” said Corso, hopping down from the exam table and moving once more to her tank.

“I understand, son, but you look a little worse for wear and to be honest, I could throw you out for sanitary reasons alone. I’ve encountered desert cats that smelled better. Go get a shower, a change of clothes and something to eat before you come back. I might even see about getting a cot set up, but you have to follow my rules.”

“Come on home with me,” offered Largo. “I’ve posted my men already and she’ll be safe enough, plus, we’re only a commlink away. Doctor Harren will call if there’s any change and I’ll have you back before you know it.”

Corso swiveled back to the tank to gaze into her face. He hadn’t seen her this peaceful in a long time. Sure, it was drug induced, but still, no frown lines marred her brow and she was too far under to dream. He traced the curve of her face from hairline to chin with his finger, leaving a smudged line on the unyielding glass. He would have given anything to touch the warmth of her skin or the silk of her hair.

“I’ll be back soon,” he promised her. “Thanks doc,” he extended his arm to shake the hand of the man who’d saved her life before pivoting on his heel to follow Largo out of the room. Outside the med center, they mounted a speeder for the short trip to Largo’s home.

They climbed to the second level of Largo’s warehouse which doubled as his home. Corso butted his forehead against the heel of his hand as soon as they entered the living quarters.

“I completely forgot about Akaavi, Gus and Bowdaar. It’s been over two days since they heard from us. Gus will be frantic and the other two are gonna be pissed. Mind if I use your holo?”

“It’s in the comm room, right through that door. Help yourself.”

Corso removed his datapad from the inside pocket of his jacket and settled himself in front of the comm panel. He plugged his datapad into the unit and keyed in the frequency for Akaavi then sat back waiting for her to answer.

Finally the Zabrak’s familiar visage appeared as a pale blue hologram.

“Mar’e, Corso. Where the hell have you been?” the Mandalorian’s deep female voice asked accusingly.

“I don’t have much time, Akaavi, so just listen,” said Corso before going into the retelling of the past forty-eight hours events.

“I knew better than to trust that filthy chakaaryc,” huffed Akaavi, her frown knitting her facial tattoos into a straight line across her brow. “We can be on the next transport out to Tatooine, a debt of revenge is owed.”

Corso shook his head. “Best you guys stay where you are until Ky wakes up and decides what she wants to do. I’m sure that she’ll want to thank Sonhem for his hospitality at some point, but she still has four days in the tank and I don’t think she’d appreciate us moving without her.”

“As you say, but I will not sit idle here. I still have contacts with the Mando’ade who would never turn down a good fight and the chance for loot.”

The deep, growling bark of Bowdaar could be heard in the background.

“The Wookie says much the same. We will wait for the call. Ret’urcye mhi, Corso, stay in touch.”

Corso disconnected his datapad and exited back into the living room, furnished in an eclectic mixture of odds and ends. Faded peddler rugs lay haphazardly on the duracrete floor, overstuffed chairs sat here and there, and a couple of spacer’s lounges fit snuggly into opposing corners. A steel table with uncomfortable looking chairs filled one wall and an old steel desk with a lop-sided, high back chair sat against another.

Largo stuck his head out of a door half-way down a dim hallway. “Shower’s in here. Real water which we recycle. Collectors scrape every drop of moisture from the walls so nothing goes to waste. Sonic’s good enough most of the time, but you look like you could use the real thing.”

Corso entered a small bedroom with a refresher door off to the side. “Thanks, Largo,” he said setting the duffels on the bed made up with a tattered quilt of mismatched patterns and garish colors.

“Sure thing, kid. Take your time, sand can be a real bitch on the tender parts, make sure you get all of it. Oh, and when you’re done with the towel, throw it down the reclamation chute so the water can be recovered.”

Hot water and thick lather were a luxury Corso hadn’t expected to encounter on this dry planet where moisture held more value than precious metal, gems or credits. But, as delightful as this was, he remained impatient to return to the med center and Ky. He’d scrubbed every nook, cranny and crevasse, some twice, before turning off the shower and wrapping a towel around his hips.

He paused to catch his reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror which remained clear of condensation since the shower was a sealed unit. He scrubbed his fingers across his cheeks and chin, the stubble prickly and course. His face had darkened at least a shade or two from the twin suns, and his eyes stared back, the whites a stark contrast against skin as brown as a willu nut.

Corso’s mind insisted on wandering and he kept yanking it back to the task at hand. No time for a shave, no time for woolgathering, he had to get back to her. Droplets of water splattered to the floor from his dreadlocks which hung past his shoulders. He removed the towel from his hips and briskly rubbed his hair, threw the wet cloth down the chute, then proceeded to get dressed and exit the room. He’d wasted enough time on personal comforts.

“Got some food ready for you,” Largo’s cheery voice greeted him when he walked back into the living room. “I take it you feel better?”

“I feel sand free, but I’m not hungry,” stated Corso, bags in hand, ready to leave.

“Dammit, boy, sit and eat something. You intend to starve yourself for the next four days and pass out as soon as they take her from the tank or end up in one yourself? Be smart and stay strong for her.”

Corso glared at Largo, but dropped the bags and took a seat at the table. He didn’t feel hungry but his stomach growled at the sight of the sandwich, fries and bottle of ale waiting for him. The first bite went down hard, his throat barely able to swallow, but before he gave it another thought, he was wolfing down the food like a starving man. He could feel his energy build and gave Largo an appreciative nod.

“Why do you think Sonhem didn’t just off you when you were at his place?” asked Largo.

“We travel with a Wookie and a Mandalorian. You ever fight either one?” Corso quirked an eyebrow at Largo. “Plausible deniability, the mainstay of crooks and politicians. He could even volunteer to help look for us when they came calling, which they would have. The sand people would leave nothing but bones, if that, and what was left of the ship would be stripped and carted away. He could blame it on mechanical failure, feign innocence and get away with it, or so he thought.”

“And Ky? What do you think she’ll do when she wakes up?”

“With her, who knows for sure? She’ll most likely wait, months or a year, maybe more until this whole thing is just a vague memory for Sonhem. He’ll get comfortable and careless and then she’ll strike. Ky will get her revenge when he stops looking over his shoulder. She’ll look him in the eye when she shoots him in the face.”

Largo slowly shook his head. “Too bad she didn’t take her time with this deal instead of barreling in.”

“Don’t judge. She had her back to the wall. Tell me you’ve never made a mistake when push came to shove.”

Largo chuckled. “More times than I care to admit. You ready to go?”

“I’ve been ready since we got here,” answered Corso as he rose from the table, grabbed the duffels and strode to the door.

As thankful as Corso was for the help, he was more thankful when the doc and Largo finally left him alone. He pulled one of the rolling chairs as close to the tank as he could, settled into the padded seat and propped his arms on the armrests. He leaned as far as the adjustable back would let him so he had a clear view of Ky’s face. She looked so fragile, not at all like the fiery woman he’d traveled with the past three years. Her hands and feet were almost skeletal, the knuckles and arches pressed against skin stretched tight and translucent, marked by blue tributaries of veins.

Her arms and legs twitched from time to time causing him to sit up straight, ready to call for the doctor at any moment but the jerking movements passed quickly. Her lashes lay in dark half-moons against the circles under her eyes and her brows would arch upwards briefly as if she’d seen something amazing. Even like this, she was beautiful, a watercolor masterpiece in a liquid crystal frame.

He toyed with the ring box in his jacket pocket, idly prying the lid partly open with his thumb and letting it snap back into place. Not knowing what else to do with his hands, the mundane motion eased his need to do something while he continued to stare at the serene visage of the woman he loved beyond hope.

She’d buoyed him up and broken him down over the years and could make him feel lost and found with a single smile. An anomaly, a contradiction, and frustrating beyond sanity, he could not imagine his life without her.

The gurgling of the tanks created a soothing white noise and Corso scooted his butt forward in the chair, crossed his arms behind his head and leaned back. Half drowsy, his mind wandered to the first time he’d met her.

Port Nowhere, where nobody gave a shit who you were or what you did. He and Skavak were the pickup men for the arms, she was the transport. They worked for Ulass Venn who’d taken over Rendia Freight on Ord Mantell after Viidu choked to death on a rum ball during a Life Day feast, or so the rumors went. Corso’d been off planet at the time and had always wondered about the veracity of that story. He’d liked Viidu; Ulass, not so much.

Venn had taken the contract on behalf of some Republic Commander who liked to bypass official channels. Bastard likely doctored the bills of lading and took his cut long before they reached the front lines. Military grade arms sold well on the black market.

She’d sauntered down the ramp of her ship, like she was on vacation, dark ponytail bouncing, hips swaying and hazel eyes alert, scanning everything at once. He remained as smitten by her today as he’d been then. To this day, she walked with that smuggler swagger usually reserved for males in that particular line of work. His heart had jumped in his chest like a Corellian Durni and he’d hoped that she would and wouldn’t notice him at the same time.

The farm boy side of him blushed when he’d wondered if her lips were soft and her skin warm and supple to the touch. He’d slapped that other part of himself back into submission, quickly shutting down the salacious fantasies and cruel twist of his mouth before anyone could see.

Of course, she’d paid more attention to Skavak until the prick tranqed them all, stole her shipments and Torchy. It was a low blow to steal a man’s favorite blaster. Skavak disappeared like the rat he was and the rest is history.

Yeah, the one cocked-up delivery that had ultimately sealed her fate with the Republic and black listed her with the Hutts.

The only good thing about that whole mess was him signing on as one of her crew. They’d searched for Skavak for months but he was in the wind and every lead turned up empty. Maybe the bastard was dead—one could only hope.

Traveling with Ky had been an education that shattered many of his dreams and illusions and he wouldn’t have traded one second for a Hutt’s weight in credits.

He cracked one eye open to confirm she was still there then closed his lids and dozed. The beat of her heart, emitted in monotonous and reassuring beeps from the monitor, verified she still existed in his world.

Chapter Text

Corso occupied much of his time trying to repair Ky’s broken datapad which proved to be a lost cause. He’d finally removed the data chip, crushed it beneath his boot heal, and discarded it in the bin marked for incineration. He’d picked up her backup unit before leaving the ship so nothing was lost since whatever was entered on one instantly cloned to the other. He couldn’t access any of the information however, even after all this time, she still hadn’t shared her pass code with him. It didn’t upset him anymore, it’s just the way she was.

The remainder of the four days he either lounged in the cot or the chair, only taking breaks to use the refresher, eat and use Largo’s sonic. He’d even used some of Largo’s depil cream to remove the scruffy beard he’d been sporting the past five days. He didn’t know if Ky would want a kiss or not, but he damned sure did.

Dr. Harren entered the recovery room late morning, checked the readouts for the two blaster burn patients that had been admitted two days ago and then walked to Ky’s tank.

“Everything looks good. No fever or signs of further infection. Vitals are strong. I think it’s time to wake her up.”

The doctor summoned two orderlies and injected something into her IV tube, checked his crono and stood back to wait for results.

Corso stayed out of the way, nervously shuffling from foot to foot, and intermittently scrubbing his hand through his hair, his eyes glued to her face.

Ky’s lids fluttered open, squeezed tight again when they encountered the light, then blinked open again. They went wide with panic at being submerged until Dr. Harren spoke gently into the intercom, explaining where she was and attempting to calm her down so she could be safely removed. Her eyes locked with Corso’s and she nodded the affirmation that she was ready.

Corso had forgotten to breathe until his lungs forced the issue by inhaling deeply, then exhaling in a long, steady stream. He was afraid to blink and break eye contact with her.

The kolto tank drained and Ky hung limply from a harness attached to the top. The med techs released the latches and hydraulic motors hummed lifting the top until she was free of the tank then swung sideways and lowered her to the floor.

Her body shivered from the circulating air and cold floor while the orderlies removed the harness, IV tubes, and breathing mask. She was hauled to her feet by the male tech who supported her while the female toweled much of the excess liquid from her body and hair before easing her onto one of the medical beds. The doctor made a final examination before removing the IV needles and electrodes and changing the dressing on the wound.

Corso side-stepped to keep her in sight. Impatient to touch her, his hands flexed at his sides and his stomach flipped and churned.

“I think somebody is anxious to see you, young lady,” the doctor said, placing a thermal blanket over her and motioning Corso to the bed.

“Hi, babe,” he murmured taking her hand that she’d extended from under the blanket. “I’ve been worried about you.”

She opened her mouth to speak but emitted only a raspy squeak.

“You’ll get your voice back soon,” explained the doctor. “Try not to speak for now and you will be weak and disoriented for a few hours. Just rest, sleep if you can. I’ll be back in a while to check on you.”

Ky nodded her understanding and waited for the doctor and orderlies to leave before taking her other hand from under the blanket and tapping on her mouth.

“You thirsty?” Corso asked.

She shook her head and tapped her mouth again.

He lowered his head until his lips were centimeters above hers. She curled her fingers around one of his coiled locks and pulled his face down to close the distance. The kolto residue tasted bitter as he covered her mouth with his and pressed his tongue against her closed lips. Chaste and subdued it was more a kiss of relief and grace, acknowledging that life is a precious thing.

He’d arced his arm across her chest to hold his weight from her ribs which rose above the flat plane of her stomach. He hadn’t realized how thin she was until he felt the ridge of her bones rub against the inside of his arm. He raised his face to stare into her eyes, still clouded by the anesthesia, and kissed her forehead before pulling away.

“Sleep, love. I’ll be here when you wake up,” he whispered.

She nodded and closed her eyes.

He rolled the chair close to the bed and remained seated at her side, gripping her hand and drawing his lips across the knuckles every few minutes.

The first thing Ky noticed when she awakened was the weight against her left hand and the needling tingle of a limb about to go to sleep. She glanced sideways to a thick shag of hair lying against the side of the mattress, pinning her arm in place. With her free hand, she reached across her chest to run her fingers through the fleecy softness, eliciting a muffled groan from the man who held her immobile hand in a death grip.

“Corso?” her voice croaked like a spiny-collared toad.

The shaggy head stirred and lifted until familiar brown eyes met hers over the edge of the bed. Straight, white teeth gleamed at her as he rose from the chair, exposing the rest of his face. His cheek displayed the indent marks from their entwined fingers and he still hadn’t released her hand.

“Hi,” he said in simple greeting. “How you feeling?”

“Hi yourself,” she replied. “I’m tired but much better. Help me sit up, would ya? And get me something to drink.”

He wouldn’t mention the fact that she’d almost died or say anything that would rouse guilt for the dumb-ass decision she’d made. He knew it would vex her and be pointless anyway. She didn’t like looking back. The past only created stumbling blocks in the path of forward momentum or brought you to a screeching halt. She learned the lessons and moved on.

Corso placed his arm under her back and lifted slowly while she used her hand in his for leverage. Her vision spun with the new vertical attitude, but that passed quickly.

She braced herself on the edge of the bed with her arms while he released her hand to move to a nearby table and fetch a cup of water. Her legs dangled over the side like two dead weights.

Her hand trembled when Corso handed her the cup and he steadied it while she took several large gulps.

“Thanks,” she said, licking the moisture from her upper lip. “Did you bring my clothes?”

Corso pointed to the bag he’d brought with him. “Yes, and your spare datapad, the original got busted up in the crash. I tried to fix it, but no go.”

She nodded. “Help me down off this bed. We have things to do and not a lot of time to plan.”

Corso puffed a sigh through a crooked half smile. His Ky was back.

He bracketed his hands around her waist and was just about to ease her off the bed and to the floor when Dr. Harren entered the room.

“Whoa there, little lady. I need to do one more exam before I release you from my tender care,” the doctor admonished, picking up a med scanner from a table as he approached.

She and Corso exchanged glances and Corso backed away to give the doctor space to do his work. The doctor assisted Ky in lying flat again before beginning.

“Any nausea or dizziness?” Harren inquired as he moved the scanner over her prone body.

“Only dizzy when I sat up earlier,” she replied.

“That’s to be expected.” Harren switched off the device, checked her bandage and helped her sit up again. “One more shot of antibiotics and a kolto booster just to be sure and you can be on your way.”

After the injection, Harren had one more piece of advice. “It’s going to be a while before you are a hundred percent. I suggest you take it easy for a few more days.”

“Easy hasn’t been part of my life for a long time, doc, and I doubt we’ll be reacquainted anytime soon,” she replied with a wry smile.

“Why am I not surprised,” he chuckled. “Your friend, Largo is in the lobby waiting for you.” He took her hand in his and patted the top. “It’s been a pleasure, Miss Aragath. You too, Mr. Riggs,” he extended his arm for a handshake before leaving them to look after his other patients.

Corso helped her get dressed although she stubbornly tried to do it herself. Her right side was stiff and she winced when bending her arm back to put on her shirt. There was no way in hell she’d have been able to put on her boots.

She gave him a quick peck on the lips before making her way out of the room, down the corridor and into the lobby, Corso in tow, carrying the bag.

She grunted when Largo hugged her. “Can’t hold a good woman down, huh Ky?” he grinned at her.

“Only if they take top,” she smiled back. “Please tell me you have a shower. I feel like I’ve been dipped in wax and laid out in the sun to dry. This kolto shit is starting to itch and I swear my skin is going to crack.”

“Real water for my lady’s pleasure,” Largo winked. “And don’t worry about the bill, it’s all taken care of. You can repay me when you’re able.”

“You know I will,” she looped her arm through his and stepped outside where speeders waited to take them to Largo’s home.

“Why does everything have to be an argument?” Corso reached again to unbutton her shirt.

“I can handle this myself, you’ve done enough,” she repeated, pushing his hands away.

“Ky, please. You’re still stiff and sore. I’m just trying to help.”

She raised her hands in surrender unable to ignore the earnest worry in his eyes.

The walls of the small bedroom closed in as he helped her undress. Life radiated from the body of the woman he’d nearly lost. Close and vibrant, it condensed the strain of the past few days into simple senses of sight and touch.

Though carefully deferential to the wounded areas, his hands lingered too long on the slope of her shoulders, the rise of her ribs, the lean muscles of her calves. He absorbed the heat of her skin through the whorls of his fingertips, ignoring the crackled feel of the dried kolto.

He stared at her retreating back and licked his lips at the sight of the curve of her hips flowing into the smooth line of her thighs and the two tiny dimples over the fullness of her ass.

The front of his trousers tightened and he shifted his weight. His mouth had gone dry and his voice lowered to whiskey husky when he asked, “You going to need help in there?” as she closed the refresher door.

“I think I can manage,” her muffled words answered before the running water dropped a curtain of noise between them.

Shame flared in his chest. Shame, for the almost overwhelming hunger at the worst possible time. It burned away his desire in a stream of red hot blood that colored his cheeks. “What the hell were you thinking? Blasted moron,” Corso berated himself in a hoarse whisper.

He’d wanted to take her on the bed, on the floor, in the shower. Despite her injuries, he’d wanted to hear her gasp when he...

”Stop it!” he growled at himself. He remained stationary for a few moments to calm his mind, steady his breathing and let the pressure in his pants ease before joining Largo.

Ky exited the shower to an empty room and forced herself to work through the discomfort. Certain movements caused her breath to hitch in her lungs or hiss out through clenched teeth. She felt better after all the contortions of getting dressed as if stretching all the wounded parts, without breaking anything, realigned her body into being useful again.

The aroma of food taunted her nose as soon as she exited the small bedroom and walked toward the living area. She halted in the entrance totally captivated by the sight of Corso bustling about, setting the table and carrying steaming bowls of goodness out of the kitchen.

“All you need is an apron, love,” she teased.

“Guess I forgot to pack it, I was in a bit of a hurry,” Corso flashed a toothy grin her way, hoping she’d not noticed his physical response to her nakedness earlier.

“You should have asked for help getting dressed,” he chided.

“Not sure I needed that kind of attention,” she shot back, her eyes twinkling with amusement as Corso’s cheeks brightened.

“Come, sit and have a bite,” offered Largo as Corso rushed to pull a chair out for her.

“Smells delicious,” she commented while Corso scooted her chair closer to the table then took a seat himself.

“It’s nothing much,” said Largo. “Some stew with a little extra broth added to yours. I figured your stomach might have to get used to solid foot again. You can sop it up with bread to add a little more bulk, but don’t overdo it.”

Silence settled over the table broken here and there by the clink of spoons against dishes or the gulping sound of throats swallowing ale.

“Bring me my datapad, will you dear?” Ky addressed Corso after the meal was finished.

He retrieved and placed the device in her hand. She entered her code and verified the ID with her thumb print then opened the file to check her account balance.

“That slimy sonofabitch,” her mouth clamped into a tight, grim line.

Corso arched a brow questioningly. “More bad news?”

“Yeah, counterfeit credit chip, and a good one too. It shows sixty thousand going into my account and being flagged and removed two days later.” She lowered her head into her hand, temple on thumb and fingers scrubbing back and forth across her forehead. “And now I’ve probably got the kriffing banking clan after me as well.”

“So, what now, Ky?” asked Largo taking a large drink and swiping his mouth clean with the back of his hand.

She raised her head and tipped her bottle to him in a polite cantina salute.

“Now, I steal a ship.”

Chapter Text

“One of Sonhem’s, I take it?” said Largo rather dubiously. “And how do you plan on doing that?”

Ky tilted her head and cocked an eyebrow. “Very carefully.”

“That comeback was already tired a hundred years ago,” Largo retorted gruffly. “What do you really have going on in that lovely head of yours?”

“Nothing good or sane,” ventured Corso.

“You know me too well, darling,” Ky said, turning Corso’s hand over where it lay on the table and twining her fingers with his.

“Well, let’s hear it,” prodded Largo.

“Sonhem doesn’t know we’re still alive yet, as far as we know, right?”

“I’ve been monitoring comms out of his place and other than two encrypted messages we couldn’t decipher, we’ve heard nothing that suggests he’s aware. I even had Dester do a quick flyby near his compound, he didn’t report anything out of the ordinary happening. Sonhem is a cagey S.O.B., he might be waiting for confirmation and it has been six days.”

“What about the Fat Chance? Anybody been back to check on my wrecked ship?”

“No, should we?”

“I’d like to know what the Tuskens are up to. What about Anchorhead? Any possibility one of his men could have spotted us or one of the med staff are on his payroll?”

Largo snorted. “Sonhem is a paranoid bastard and control freak. He doesn’t let any of his men near Anchorhead unless he’s with them. I doubt anyone was looking for you at the spaceport when we brought you in, the ambulance was a closed vehicle as was the speeder we used to bring you here. Not sure they’d have been looking for Corso alone just yet and regarding the med staff—highly doubtful. Sonhem is not well liked in these parts. He’s known for being stingy with payoffs and informants don’t always live long enough to collect. He’s also arrogant enough to consider himself untouchable, however, we can’t take anything for granted. Scuttlebutt is he’s way too chummy with the Imperials, so we can’t rule them out.”

"I need to have Akaavi call Sonhem and tell him she’s worried that she hasn’t heard from us for six days. She can inform him that she and the crew will be on their way on the next transport out of Nar Shaddaa. That might delay any suspicions he has and give me some wiggle room. I’m sure he’s located the Chance’s wreckage by now, that’s why I need to know what the Tuskens are up to. If we can keep him off balance for another day, I’ll have my ship.”

“It was just a simple fetch and deliver. Why’d he do all this in the first place?” asked Corso.

“I’ll bet it has a lot to do with that lockbox. Nothing traceable back to him. My ship, my death, and no money trail. I wonder if the dealer we picked it up from is still alive. Pretty slick, if he’d gotten away with it. I fear there’s going to be a lot of bodies on the deck before this is over with. What he doesn’t know is that I put a camo-tab on that box before I handed it over.”

Largo’s eyes widened with interest. “Sorry, a what?”

“Some experimental tech I got from an old friend, Numen Brock, on Balmorra a few years ago. Flat, small, long-range tracker, adheres and takes on the look and feel of any substance. Uses the objects own mass as well as any structure it comes in contact with to amplify the signal. Virtually undetectable. The signal frequency is monitored from my datapad.”

Largo eyed her from across the table. "I know Brock. Arms dealer and I use the term loosely. What did you have to give in exchange?"

"A couple of hot sweaty nights and a case of Corellian brandy."

"Nice tech,” Largo conceded, “hope it was worth the price."

"He didn't have much between his legs but he had very talented lekku," she chuckled.

She gently squeezed Corso’s hand. "Don't look so glum, darling, it was long before your time."

"Would it have mattered if it was after?" Corso asked, his voice thick and distant.

Her noncommittal shrug was all the answer he needed. He pulled his hand from hers and folded his arms across his chest, slumping down and lowering his head so the thick mop of hair fell forward to shield his face.

“So, what do you need to pull this off?” asked Largo, breaking the silence that had dragged into the realm of uncomfortable.

Ky’s expression remained unreadable as she shifted her attention from Corso to the spacer. “You still got any of those old imperial probe droids I brought back from Hoth?”

“Yeah, I think I held onto one or two. They’re mostly scrap though. Why?”

“I need detonite, timers and one probe droid that can be fitted with rocket boosters. Don’t need guidance, just aim and shoot. The droid can be gutted and filled with a whole lot of boom. Let’s see if Sonhem can swallow that pill when I ram it down his throat.”

“What about the blast doors?” Largo reminded her.

Ky thought for a moment. “Create a diversion, something to make Sonhem open them to send his men out. Not all of his ships are in the hangar, at least three were outside under camo netting. I saw them when we landed and it’s one of those I’m after anyway. Assault on one should do the trick. I’ll need a rocket launcher with a payload big enough to cause one hell of a ruckus.”

She turned her attention to the mass of hair with no face. “You still got the transponder cylinder, Corso?”

“You know I do.” His response came out flat if not somewhat surly.

Ky shook her head and opened her mouth to say something but Largo interrupted. “Corso, why don’t you go downstairs and get Dester to fly you out to the wreck of the Chance. While you’re at it, tell him to get the men started on that droid and gathering the supplies we need. Oh, and that hair of yours is a dead giveaway, make sure to wear something that hides your head and your face. Let’s not give credence to any rumors floating around.”

“Yeah, sure,” Corso stood up. “I need some fresh air anyway.”

He didn’t bother to look at Ky as he swung around on his heel and shuffled out of the room.

“Sometimes he can be such a child,” Ky huffed in exasperation.

“You misread Corso, you always have. I’ve never seen a man more in love than he is with you,” countered Largo.

She rubbed her temples which had started to throb. “I know, and I love him too...”

“But?”

“I don’t like to talk about my past, but, I learned a long time ago that sometimes you get what you need at the end of a blaster and sometimes you get what you want between the sheets. It’s just business, everybody has something to trade. He should know by now it doesn’t mean anything.”

“Stars, Ky, he won’t ever feel that way about you. He can’t.” Largo waggled his index finger. “You keep pushing his buttons and one of these days you're gonna push his ‘gone for good.’ As much as he loves you, even Corso has limits. There's an invisible line around that boy's heart and you’re smack dab in the middle, just take care you don't step over it.”

Ky took a drink and set the bottle down harder than she intended. “I foundered a lot when I first started out until I realized that I had to play the game like a man to make it in this business. I’ve done a lot of questionable things and hurt people along the way, Corso most of all. I can’t change any more than I already have and business is different. Everybody wants something, Largo, I’ve just learned to use whatever commodity is necessary to achieve my goals. You know how it is with us space trash.”

Largo glanced at the door then leveled his gaze on her face. “Ok, I understand that, but anybody with eyes can see how the way you are torments the kid. Why keep Corso around? He’d have been a hell of a lot better off if you’d cut him loose a couple of years ago.”

A rueful smile creased the corners of her mouth as if what he said struck a chord she’d played a thousand times. “Because Corso was unexpected and in some sick twist of irony, I do love him and I...need him. As selfish as it sounds, he’s the only constant I’ve ever had in my life and that’s a hard thing to let go of. Just don’t tell him I said that. He has to believe he can leave at any time. I won’t stand in his way and I won’t use the ‘need’ card. His freedom is something I refuse to take.”

She idly played with the condensation dripping down the surface of the bottle. “You know, I’ve often wondered if he could love me quite as much if I were some milksop Jedi or a regimented military type, or a housewife who relied on a man’s protection.” She rolled her eyes. “Well, maybe the housewife, like that could ever happen. He’s addicted to this life same as me. He knew all the risks when he signed on and when he came to my bed. I’ve never lied to him or tried to hide what I am.”

Largo leaned back in his chair. “He’s addicted to you, Ky. There’s another old saying, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.’ You’ve always had that faraway look like you were waiting for something. You might want to refocus your view to what’s right in front of you. Trust me, an empty bed gets colder the older you get.”

She finished her ale and contemplated the empty bottle as if it held a message. “So be it, everything comes at a price.”

Metal legs screeched along the floor as Largo pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. “I’d better check on that droid and see how the guys are doing with outfitting it and make sure the suspensors are still working. We’ll put the detonite in tomorrow. Dester will have sent someone out to one of my hidden caches to get it. It’s not something you leave lying around the house.”

“Mind if I tag along after I make that call to Akaavi? Corso won’t be back for a while and I’d like to stretch my legs and put my mind to other things.”

“You know the way,” he threw over his shoulder.

“Su’cuy gar, vod. What news?” Akaavi’s economic words clipped out of the holo image.

“Yes, I still live, glad to see you too.”

Akaavi simply nodded and Ky caught the guttural grunts and growls of Bowdaar in the background.

“I’d ask you to scratch under Bowdaar’s chin for me, but he’d likely bite your arm off,” Ky joked.

Akaavi snorted. “As if the beast were fast enough. We tire of being on this loud, smelly me’suum’ika. Even Gus grows impatient. My guns itch and the barfights are unworthy of my talents.”

Ky chuckled at the Mandalorian’s straightforward approach to life. “I’ll be there as soon as I can but for now I need you to stay put and out of as much trouble as you can manage. I want you to contact Sonhem, tell him you haven’t heard from us and that you’re on your way to Tatooine to see why. That should unbalance him or push him into his next move. My first priority is getting my hands on a ship, your call should help toward that end.”

“As long as it belongs to that ge’hutuun, I will be reasonably happy. I will make the call. Ret’urcye mhi, Ky. Come for us soon.”

***

Corso had stopped just outside the door and tucked himself behind the wall when he heard Largo mention his name. His heart soared when Ky admitted that she loved him and, more importantly, needed him, then plummeted like a meteorite in heavy gravity when she’d said he was free to leave. Ripples of doubt and fear coursed through his brain and settled in the pit of his stomach, cruelly gnawing at his innards.

He’d tiptoed away and down the ramp to find Dester and they now flew over the endless dunes, a tiny vehicle swallowed by the sameness of the planet.

Dester wasn’t a talker, a trait that Corso appreciated at this moment, preferring to keep council with his own thoughts. He’d never entertained the notion of leaving her, had never been tempted no matter how hurt he was or how angry he got with her. She’d adjusted her life more than he’d thought possible to accommodate his place in it and seemed content with their arrangement. Maybe an arrangement was all it would ever be.

He tucked his hand inside his jacket pocket and fingered the cool satin cover of the box. Maintaining hope proved to be a delicate dance where Ky was concerned. Sometimes he took lead, guiding the elusive emotion flawlessly through the pitfalls of loving her. More times, than not, it would twirl away like a mystery partner, getting lost in a crowd of words or deeds.

Perhaps it was all a wasted sentiment and another shattered dream. No little ranch to live out their old age, no kids or grandkids, just endless cycles of jumping through the black until they were too old and tired to push the buttons. He’d be at her side, bent and gnarled, while the ring, with all its promise, remained buried in a hidden compartment in the wall of their room.

“There it is,” said Dester.

Corso jumped in his seat at the sudden burst of words interrupting his maudlin reverie and stared out the window at the makeshift Tusken camp newly erected around the downed ship. A few waved their gaffi sticks or fired at the shuttle and several bantha, loaded with ship parts, dotted the landscape.

He wished they’d had the explosives to blow it sky high before the vermin descended to pick the bones clean. It was like seeing an old friend being cannibalized right before his eyes. The Jawas would be next like buzzards waiting for the jackals to leave. Such was the fate of any corpse lying exposed on this bleak desert world.

Something shining in the distance caught his attention. “There, what’s that?” he pointed in the direction of the winking reflection.

“It’s a droid,” said Dester as he circled the shuttle around for a closer look.

“Droid, my ass, that’s Icy,” said Corso, zipping the ring box securely in the hidden pouch in his pocket before getting up from his seat and heading toward the exit. “Take us down. I’ll at least have some good news for Ky.”

“It’s awful close to the sand people camp, we’re gonna take fire,” argued Dester.

“Don’t care. Land close, I’ll snag the droid and you can take off before the ramp retracts,” stated Corso. “I have to do this.”

“Whatever you say. Going down, and you’d better hurry or I’ll leave your ass behind.”

Corso had already opened the hatch and begun extending the ramp before the shuttle landed.

His hair whipped painfully across his eyes making him wish he’d kept the helmet on. Briefly calculating the distance to the ground, Corso launched himself out of the door and landed on tucked legs, rolling to a stop a few feet from the metallic entity.

“Oh, thank the Maker,” whined the droid. “I thought those horrible beasts were going to find me.”

“Shut up, Icy,” Corso growled. “Can you walk?”

“Hardly with one leg, master. I was lucky to have crawled this far. What an ordeal, I thought I was doomed and that...”

Corso switched the droid off and hauled it up onto his shoulder just as a slug hit the droids body, throwing him to his knees. Scrambling to his feet, he ran, ignoring the projectiles that whizzed past his head. He leaped at the ramp just as the shuttle started to lift off, digging in with his fingers until he found purchase on the slick surface and could pull himself onto all fours. He crawled to the entrance while shots ricocheted off the hull.

“You could have waited another two seconds,” he grumped at Dester as he tumbled through the airlock and pressed the controls to retract the ramp and close the door.

“I gave you fair warning and what the kriff kind of name is Icy?”

The droid chassis clattered to the floor as Corso found his footing and made his way to the cockpit. “It stands for IC-U2, Ky doesn’t believe in keeping original droid designations. Says it robs them of their individuality. I wouldn’t rib her too much about it, though. It’s one of her many touchy spots.”

Dester chuckled, much to Corso’s surprise. The man had a more than contentious personality and laughter seemed the least likely response to come out of his mouth.

“Going to take a flyby over Sonhem’s place,” advised Dester. “Doing it at altitude so you might want to get the binocs from that cabinet behind us and take a gander.”

Dester was still chortling off and on when Corso reported that nothing appeared to be amiss at the Sonhem compound except some activity around one of the ships, refueling maybe or resupplying. Not wanting to raise suspicion by circling, Dester kept their trajectory straight to gain distance then turned the craft back toward Anchorhead.

“Your captain must be something special for you to risk both of us just to make her happy.”

Corso donned the helmet and gazed out the side windshield before murmuring, mostly to himself. “She’s more than special, she’s everything.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe he survived,” exclaimed Ky, running her fingers over the metal surface of the droid’s chassis, poking at the ragged hole from the Tusken slug.

Corso stripped the helmet from his head and straightened the locks of hair which stuck out willy-nilly. “He wouldn’t have lasted much longer if we’d arrived later than we did.”

“And the Tuskens?”

“They’ve set up camp around the Chance while they scavenge whatever the hell it is that sand people think they can use. The Jawas will move in next for the wiring and tech. There won’t be much left.”

“She was a good ship,” Ky allowed herself a moment of quiet reflection before turning away from the droid and addressing Largo. “The sand people camp almost guarantees that Sonhem won’t go back to investigate further. He likely figures our skulls are already decorating a pole somewhere. This and Akaavi’s call should allay any rumors. Have there been any more of those encrypted messages?”

“Not last I checked but I can have it more closely monitored. Suni?” He called out into the workspace.

The head of a woman with cranial implants rose from the work she was doing. “Yeah boss?”

“Go to the comm room and monitor for any calls out of Sonhem’s place. I want to know right away if any more of those encrypted messages are sent or received. Work in shifts with Trav and Bani if you have to.”

“You got it,” she wiped her hands on a rag and disappeared up the ramp.

“I’m going to rinse some of this sand off,” said Corso. “I’m evidently not needed here.”

Ky grabbed his arm before he could turn away, brushed his hair back from his face and leaned in place a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you, love, for bringing Icy home though you shouldn’t have risked yourself.”

“He’s one of the crew and we don’t leave anyone behind. Do we?” he pulled his arm away and wandered off in the direction of the ramp.

Her rebuffed hand fell uselessly to her side and she returned to Largo and the supervision of the work ahead. Occupied time passes quickly and soon the long shadows of dusk crawled across the floor through the open doors. The glare of the setting suns invaded the length of the warehouse bathing the area in splashes of vermillion and gold.

She hadn’t noticed Corso’s return until he joined her and Largo on the way upstairs to grab dinner. He’d taken great care to stay out of sight which bothered her more than she wanted to admit. She’d changed a lot for him in the past three years. Altered many of her questionable habits because they hurt him and it hurt her to see that stricken look in his eyes.

Sure, times got tough and she’d had a couple of tumbles to steal a contract or two or three from under someone else’s nose but it didn’t mean anything. She always got paid for the freight and not the fuck, or maybe she was splitting hairs. She did what she had to do to keep fuel in the tank and food on the table. It was just business, and...hell, that was beginning to sound like a sad, worn out refrain even to her ears.

Her side hurt, her head throbbed and she was a half mile past exhaustion by the time they stepped into the living area and prepared dinner. She pushed the food around on her plate and the absence of conversation offered no help in keeping her eyelids from closing every few minutes.

Corso noted her flagging energy. “Go on to bed, Ky. I’ll help clean up.”

“You coming?” she asked.

“I’ll be there in a while. You need help back to the room?”

“Naw, I’ll be fine. Goodnight, Largo.”

With the dinner mess cleaned up and Largo trundled off to bed, Corso sprawled on one of the spacer lounges, one arm flung across the back with a bottle of ale dangling by the neck between his fingers. He idly swung it back and forth like a pendulum debating on whether or not to sleep where he was or join Ky. Somewhere in the distance, a pack of womp rats squealed to each other followed by the report of blaster fire. The single, unevenly hung fan above his head thumped and squeaked in an odd rhythmic syncopation that he followed, subconsciously, with the tapping of his toe on the floor.

His mind ticked to the downbeat, ‘here, there, yes, no...’

Decision reached, he swigged the last of the ale and hauled himself to his feet. He and Ky never slept apart if they could help it, no matter how angry they were. An unspoken pact existed between them to be there for each other if or when the nightmares came. No talk, just solace, both unwilling to delve deeper into cause or meaning, neither taking advantage of the vulnerability laid bare in muffled screams and shaking, sweating bodies.

Despite the possibility of night terrors, the reassuring weight of another on the mattress and the warmth of someone you loved nestled secure at your side added a whole other level of comfort. And then, stars above, there was the sex. There weren’t enough words in basic, Huttese or any other language that could encompass how he felt when he made love to her.

As stealthily as he could, he slid into the room and undressed before scooting Ky over in the bed so he could lie down on the side opposite her injury. He wished like hell he’d not stopped to eavesdrop, nothing good ever came of snooping. Her brutal honesty left him unbalanced as if he’d been sucker-punched and had yet to find his footing. His emotions bubbled and flipped like flat cakes on a griddle and his inherent jealous nature and self-doubt didn’t help any either.

He turned his back to her and no sooner had he settled between the sheets and lay his head on the pillow, she mumbled something unintelligible and rolled to snuggle against his back.

He reached up to move his hair so it wouldn’t tickle her face and she snuggled even closer. Her breath skimmed across his neck and her breasts pressed between his shoulder blades, her arm snaked around his waist and the soft curls of her pubis compressed against his ass.

Hot, horny and miserable, he lay still, coming to terms with the fact that sleep would not visit anytime soon. He mulled over her words of earlier that day in a vain attempt to ignore her naked body and created a mantra that circled round and round his brain. ‘Damn me for acting like a child and damn her for making me feel like one.

Ky woke early and lay on her side, elbow bent and head propped on hand, watching him sleep. His eyes rolled beneath the lids, and dark lashes rested thick and full above the high, wide plane of his cheekbones. Tousled locks of hair framed his head, and partially opened lips revealed a new moon sliver of white teeth. An occasional delicate snore tremored on the tail end of a long inhale.

How precious these quiet times were when no judgment, anger, hurt or blame marred the symmetry of what they still had and what they had lost. Like dawn or dusk, these moments existed in between where harsh realities of day and hidden terrors of night held no sway.

The smell of fresh brewed caf wafted through the closed door and he stirred, thrusting one leg from under the sheet that lay rumpled across his hips leaving the other still covered by the cream-colored linen. On the cusp of waking, his breathing became less even and she sidled closer to lower her mouth and gently lick the dark circle of the areola until the nipple hardened to a tiny bead. He stretched languorously, muscles bunched and corded beneath the smooth bronze of his skin. His back arched into the meandering of her fingers inching down his stomach, halting at the thin line of hair just below the navel.

His eyes opened and molten brown met tawny hazel across the sculpted expanse of his chest.

“Good morning,” she murmured.

“It just got better.” He shifted his position so his lips reached hers.

His mouth tasted of sleep and last night’s ale, as his tongue probed between her teeth. She pulled the sheet aside and pushed herself partway onto his prone body adjusting comfortably into the arm he curled around her back.

“I never thanked you properly for saving my life.” Her hand slid lower and wrapped around his half flaccid cock stroking him to full arousal. “Oops, now look at what I’ve done.”

His eyes rolled back and he gasped, “Just doing my job, ma’am.”

Her breath hitched when she sat up and positioned herself to straddle his hips.

His eyes sprang open, “Are you sure you’re well enough?”

“Do shut up, love and just enjoy the ride.” She settled herself low on his stomach, his erection tight against her ass. “Put your hands on me,” she demanded, beginning to rock her pelvis back and forth while his cock slid up and down her backside.

His fingers traced along her thighs and over her hips with that quiet sense of urgency integral to who he was. She wanted him to hold her down, finger her wet and pound her through the mattress but settled into the controlled rote he was comfortable with.

She flung her frustrations away as one hand eased up to knead her breast while the other drifted between her legs to fondle the tiny mound that swelled at his touch. Faster and faster she rocked against his fingers until she reached the apex with thighs clutched tight against his hips, arched back and a series of moans that sprang from her throat like wild things.

When she could breathe again, she lowered her gaze to his face. “Tell me what you want.”

“I want you,” his words slipped out, ragged and tense.

“Sorry, didn’t hear that,” she teased while continuing to rub her ass against his hardness.

“Dammit, I want to bury myself in you.” His eyes turned hard and hungry, the man behind the farm boy exterior peeking through at last.

That man took her breath away and she raised herself to her knees and inched back while he guided himself to her opening. His lips snarled up over clenched teeth and he groaned as she slid down to take his length. He clamped his hands around her hips while she gripped his forearms, digging her nails into his skin and rode his thickness to its release. His head pushed back into the pillow when he drove himself deep into her core with a shuddering growl that left him weak and boneless once the desire had been spent.

She remained immobile until he’d gone soft, then gently rolled to the bed, snuggling once again into his side.

“I’m sorry, love,” he apologized, running his fingers up and down her arm.

“Whatever for?”

“Not much foreplay this time, it’s just that I wanted you so damned bad.”

“Why would you apologize for wanting me?” She raised herself up on her elbow so she could read his face, but the blank mask he lowered gave no hint to the reason behind his words.

“Not for wanting you, but for not taking the time to do it right.”

She held the deep sigh that almost escaped and measured her words before she spoke, knowing she’d make a mess of it anyway. “You didn’t disappoint, you never do but, you don’t always have to dot all my I’s and cross all my T’s. Slow and gentle is wonderful but there’s something exciting about pure lust, grabbing the moment and wrestling it into submission. I won’t break, Corso, let go, take what you want. I thought I’d made that clear to you by now.”

He swallowed hard before muttering “I love you, Ky,” which was his usual response and avenue of avoiding this particular subject that always made him ill at ease.

“I love you too,” she said, willing to leave well enough alone.

A quiet emptiness settled between them for what seemed like mere seconds before a knock at the door pulled them from thoughts of the conversation neither had wanted to revisit.

“I hate to bother you two, but one of those encrypted messages came over the comm. You might want to get dressed and have something to eat before anything else happens.”

“Thanks, Largo, we’ll be right out,” she said.

Corso planted a kiss on her forehead before rolling out of bed, stopping just long enough to assist her to her feet.

“No rest for the weary,” she sighed. “You want the ‘fresher first?”

“You go ahead, I need to find my other boot.”

Morning rituals over, cleaned up and dressed they proceeded in unison to the still closed door. A chill ran down Ky’s spine as the gravity of what they were about to face hit home.

With a hand curled around the fabric of his sleeve, she stopped him before he touched the panel. “One more kiss love, please.”

Confusion flitted across his face, but he wrapped her in his arms and pulled her to him anyway.

“In case things go south, in case I don’t make it,” she clarified, “I need this to be the one memory to carry into whatever waits on the other side.”

“I’d die before I let anything happen to you,” the conviction of his vow gripped her tighter to his chest.

“And then I’d die just the same,” she replied. An odd truth with multiple meanings too complex to unravel in that moment.

Bleak uncertainty and desperate confirmation that they would survive passed between them through crushing lips, tangling tongues and fingers locked in cords of impossibly soft hair. They clung together, willing time to stop, but time moved, regardless of wishes, goading them to join Largo in the living area.

“There’s caf in the thermos on the table and I’ll have breakfast in another couple of minutes,” Largo’s voice drifted out of the kitchen.

“You sit, I’ll help Largo,” Corso said, pulling out a chair for her. “No argument. The doc said for you to take it easy while you can.”

“This morning count?” she whispered in his ear as she took the offered seat.

He cleared his throat and moved off to the kitchen while she checked the camo-tab signal on her datapad. It indicated that the box was still on Tatooine, but for how long?

She poured a mug of caf and settled back to savor the rich aroma and flavor. A platter of scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast with a tub of butter and jar of jam on the side appeared on the table as if by magic before Corso and Largo took their seats.

After the first forkful of eggs, Ky rolled her eyes heavenward in sheer ecstasy. “Oh, my stars, this is wonderful. Marry me, Largo. A man who cooks like this is just too damned sexy to go to waste.”

“I can cook. You never asked me to cook,” Corso piped in with a sly grin on his face.

“Only if you do it nude with only an apron on. You have the most adorable ass,” she winked back at him expecting him to blush a lovely shade of red. He did not disappoint.

“The way that bed was squeaking this morning, I thought he’d already served up the main course,” chuckled Largo, who then broke out in a bout of lusty guffaws as Corso’s face deepened another couple of shades.

Stifling a smile, Ky asked. “So, when did this encrypted message come through?”

“About a half hour before I knocked. I figured it could wait until the noise settled down,” he smiled sheepishly at Corso who extended the one finger salute which only served to push Largo into another fit of laughter.

She hadn’t realized until this moment how much she missed her crew and the easy banter that passed between them over meals or drinks. Even Akaavi had developed a sense of humor, dry as it was and Gus with his tales of Jedi feats of daring do which were more likely to have come from his imagination than from the Force. She even missed Risha’s cutting wit. What her merry band of misfits lacked in credits, they made up for in loyalty and comradery.

“I have a favor to ask of you,” said Ky while she spread butter and jam on another piece of toast.

“Shoot,” said Largo.

“I need to leave Icy here with you for a while. You could use a house droid and he’s very efficient. I don’t think he’ll need much repair, except for the leg.”

“Droids are a pain in the ass. Nosey, mouthy and I’m betting yours is the worst of the lot.”

“And, Akaavi programmed him with her recipe for Uj cakes.”

Largo licked his lips. “Uj cakes, you say? I can always turn off his vocabulator if he gets on my nerves.” Largo pondered a moment. “Ok, it’s a deal.”

“I’ll clean up while you guys check out the probe and supplies,” offered Corso, rising from his chair and stacking plates.

The probe droid was getting finishing touches on the boosters before loading the detonite which lay in rectangular bricks on a table far away from any source of combustion. The detonation caps would be added at the destination. An MK6 missile launcher loaded with six missiles lay on another table alongside a BlasTech PL-17 grenade launcher with a bandolier of additional grenades.

“Grenade launcher?” questioned Ky.

“Holds two concussion and two ion grenades in case there are turrets that could shoot down the probe. You can see there are extras. It never hurts to cover all the bases.”

“Good point.”

Largo grasped Ky by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “You and Corso can’t do this alone so Dester and a couple of my guys, Tol and Voxal, have volunteered to go along. They’ll provide cover fire and diversion while you send our little present and slice into the ship, but, the close-up fighting is all you and if things go badly, you’re on your own. They’re not willing to die for this.”

“I understand and the help is truly appreciated.” She laid her hands on his arms, her mood noticeably brighter. “The odds just got better.”

The day wore on, all preparations were completed and goods delivered to an unmarked cargo shuttle Largo kept parked a few klicks outside the city limits. Now they waited for the cover of nightfall but well-made plans often get the hiccups and then puke on your boots.

Late in the day, Ky’s datapad began beeping, the box was being moved off planet and the two suns still smiled in the heavens, just not at her.

Chapter Text

“Dammit to the six hells,” she exclaimed. “They’re moving the package, and we are out of time. You got any stims, Largo?”

“Yes, but I don’t think it’s a good idea, you’re still on the mend,” he replied.

“I’m only about ninety percent, and I need that extra ten and change. I can’t afford to stumble or fall down on this one, and you know it.”

Dester and his crew got the speeders ready while Largo disappeared up the ramp and returned with a stim injector and a pair of goggles. “You’re going to need these for the light. Your pupils are gonna dilate, and you can’t afford to be half blind either.”

“Thanks for everything,” Ky threw her arms around Largo’s neck and squeezed.

“You bet. Now go out there and do what needs doing. Comm me when you can to let me know you’re safe.”

“We gotta go,” yelled Corso from astride the idling speeder with attached sidecar, the barrel of his rifle rising over his shoulder. Ky planted a kiss on Largo’s cheek and sprinted to her waiting companions.

The ride to the cargo shuttle went smoothly leaving nothing but a quickly dissipating dust cloud behind them. Dester headed toward the cockpit to do prechecks and start the engines while Corso, Tol, Voxal and the three men guarding the shuttle loaded the speeders into the hold.

“You all need to buckle in,” Dester’s voice rang back from the cockpit. “I’m gonna be peeling scabs with this run, razor on the skin.”

Ky strapped herself into the co-pilot seat, and the other three secured themselves to jump seats in the back. Dester eased the shuttle from the ground and turned it to a roughly forty-five-degree angle from Sonhem’s compound. He’d use that trajectory to gain distance, unseen, before circling back to get within landing distance.

Ky used the travel time to inject the stim into her thigh, tensing from the immediate jolt of adrenaline and stimulants and the jitters that came along with it. Her eyes dilated painfully, and the pupils absorbed every particle of light in the universe before she remembered to lower the goggles. By the time Dester made the turn, her hands had stopped shaking and her eyes no longer stung and watered.

Her mind raced with all the possible ways this could go wrong and ticked her mental list of what they had to do, over and over. She knew her part and could adapt, Corso too, the others were the unknown quantity, but she trusted Largo and therefore his crew by proxy.

“Hang on, the fun’s about to begin,” a broad grin creased the corners of Dester’s mouth as he dove the nose of the shuttle at the ground pulling up just in time so that the undercarriage scraped along the top of a sand dune. He skimmed along the surface raising a cloud of dust and weaved among the dunes finding low hollows he could squeeze through. The restraining straps pulled at Ky every time he changed direction, and the whisper of sand against the hull beneath her feet vibrated up her legs. Damn, the man could fly.

“Throttling back now,” he said easing up on the speed. “We’re about ten klicks out, and I don’t want to notify them we’re coming. We’ll land at five and speeder in from there.”

They loaded the probe into the sidecar of the speeder that Corso drove, Ky on the seat behind him. Tol and Dester shared another and Voxal, being the largest of them, took one by himself. Voxal carried the missile launcher in a sling on his back and Tol had the grenade launcher. They rode at a deliberate pace not to raise any more dust than necessary and halted behind the crest of a sizeable dune overlooking the compound. They dismounted and scrambled to the top, laying sprawled with binocs in hand.

Ky glanced over at Corso whose face had already settled into that calm, dispassionate grimness he wore when they headed into a fight. His eyes went dark and blank as if he walked on a different plane than her and saw things only he could see. He was resolute and deadly and sexy as hell when he assumed this persona—the man with hard, hungry eyes she’d barely glimpsed earlier. To this day, she didn’t know where this change came from. When pressed for an explanation he’d only ever replied that it was his ‘game face.’ She’d eventually ceased asking. She did know; however, he would fearlessly defend her no matter the odds or the cost.

“Only two ships left. Which one you want? I’d personally choose the one on the left,” Dester whispered, his voice coming through loud and clear on the earbuds.

“Left it is,” Ky looked through the binocs and agreed with his assessment. They were both XS like the Chance, but the left one had a newer smell to it, and the extra blaster cannons peeking out from under the netting indicated promising modifications.

“A lot of men down there patrolling,” noted Corso in his flat, emotionless voice. “I count twelve at least, but they’re sticking pretty close to the compound, that’s a point for our side.”

“I can hit the right ship from the top of this dune. Launcher's accurate up to 75 meters, max range is 300, and I’d be close to 200, but I know how to calculate height and arc. Old spec force habits die hard, and skills never die,” stated Voxal.

“I’ll take the probe down in the sidecar as soon as you blow the ship,” said Ky, then turned to Dester. “Can you and Tol cover me?”

We'll take the probe,” corrected Corso. “Not negotiable.”

“We got your back,” affirmed Dester.

“Let me get situated and you guys start your run as soon as I start counting. I’m pulling the trigger on ten,” said Voxal who had already started moving away.

The others mounted up and stayed out of sight just below the lip of the dune. “The timer is set for twenty seconds. As soon as it’s off the speeder, I push the button, the countdown starts, and I activate the rockets. And Corso, in case I need to ride it in, you jump off this damned speeder and get to work slicing that ship door. Not negotiable. If we don’t time this right, we’re all fucked.”

“You sound like my old squad leader, Lieutenant Yanis, he was a real hard ass too,” chuckled Voxal. “I ain’t gonna salute you though I feel I ought to. Almost in position.”

Nine...ten, the numbers came over the earbud, and Ky tipped the speeder over the rim of the dune and opened up the throttle, Dester, and Tol at her side. The explosion of the missile rocked the ground starting a sand slide they fought to stay ahead of. Another blast followed close on the heels of the first, the smoke beginning to creep across the area in front of them.

The number of men advancing up the ramp from the compound door was rapidly growing, and Ky was out of options. She skidded to a halt within a few yards of the intended ship.

“Get off and work on the door. Give me cover if you can. I love you.”

Corso jumped from the speeder, and she reached inside her boot to pull out a coiled garrote wire with a handle on both ends. Looping the cable around the throttle lever, she opened it back up and sped away toward the bunker entrance hunched low and weaving in and out between the scattered men who were just beginning to overcome the chaos of the initial attack.

Blaster fire came from all directions, she hissed when one grazed along the top of her back and winced when another ricocheted off the probe. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw several men knocked off their feet by one of Tol’s concussion rounds.

Just yards ahead lay the point of no return, thankfully the two turrets she saw were silent, likely to avoid hitting their own men. When she reached her spot, she yanked the garrote tight, jamming the throttle, pressed the detonation timer button and rolled off the speeder letting it continue on its own. She spun around, pulled her blaster and headed toward the ship and Corso as fast as the sand would let her run.

Dester and Tol ran as much interference as they could, the concussion rounds did the most damage, and Tol used the ion rounds as well. They hurt like hell and sometimes killed, but would stop a man in his tracks.

She raised her eyes to the ship where Corso stood, blaster in hand, taking careful aim at the men who were close on her heels. A bright bloom of red showed on his pants at thigh level, and the upper arm of his jacket had a hole in it, but he appeared oblivious and continued to give her cover.

“Get that door open,” she yelled.

“Drop,” he yelled back.

She dove into the sand while a blaster bolt flashed through the air where her face had been. The sound of a thud behind her and she scrambled to her feet just in time to be knocked forward again by the explosion of the probe droid. The blast carried a wave of heat that put the desert atmosphere to shame and sent tremors through the ground. The ship bounced on its struts and sand fell like rain from the cloud of dust and debris.

The goggles protected her eyes but did nothing for her vision. She raised her head from the sand, trying to wipe the granules from her mouth, felt the grit on her tongue and in her teeth and spat. She scrambled to her feet trying to find direction, swearing that each mote hanging in the air was surrounded by a bright halo from the dual suns. Tiny prisms and reflections threw her senses into disarray. Her ears rang, and every noise held a hollow, echoing resonance.

Panic rose in her throat, sharp and sour. She couldn’t see a damned thing and had no idea how close she was to friend or foe.

“Corso?” she yelled into the swirling tan nothingness.

“Here! Follow my voice!”

She stumbled and nearly fell when her boot toe encountered the lip of the ramp, the ship rose above her like a behemoth in fog.

“You done with the door?” she asked.

“Almost there,” Corso replied, his voice tight with pain.

“I’ll stand guard,” she said turning to face outward.

She tapped her earbud. “How you guys faring?”

“Still alive,” said Dester, “but Tol’s hurt. A lot of Sonhem’s men are down, but not all of them. Watch yourselves.”

“As soon as this door’s open, you guys haul ass. I’ll let you know when.”

The dust cloud, at first heavy and impenetrable, affected everyone’s visibility, but now that it was clearing somewhat, movement was picking up.

“Fuck me running,” exclaimed Dester. “Must be some sort of side entrance, we got company and a lot of it.”

“Corso?” Ky’s voice ratcheted up an octave or two.

“Last two encryptions and they’re being a bitch.”

“Dester, get your guys out of here. There’s nothing more you can do. If I live, I’ll owe you.”

“Good luck,” came the pilot's reply. A useless sentiment, but what else was there to say?

Ky crouched down to see too many men in the distance closing fast. Way too many.

“One more,” said Corso.

“I don’t think it’s gonna matter,” admitted Ky. “It was a good run while it lasted.”

The whine of a ship passed overhead, she stood and glanced skyward barely catching the outline of something sleek and black diving at the encroaching horde of men. Blaster fire, interlaced with tracers, erupted from whatever bird of prey decided it wasn’t a good day for her to die. She wasn’t about to question the kindness of strangers, not this day anyway.

She hadn’t noticed the three men coming at her from her blindside until a green blaster bolt whizzed by her head close enough to singe her hair. One dropped, from Corso’s shot, but the biggest kept coming while the other tried to flank her.

“The boss is gonna want a word with you,” the big man growled.

“I’ve got two words. Fuck off,” she snarled back. Idiots wanted to take her alive? Ha, fat chance.

She holstered her blaster, crouched and sprang, pulling her vibroknife as she ran and dodging his shots except for one that skimmed her side. She didn’t know what the hell the other man was doing, likely trying to stay out of Corso’s line of fire.

When she got close, his beefy hands reached to grab her, she ducked and clutched a handful of shirt that hung loosely over his upper arm. She used her own momentum to swing up and around his back like a cantina pole dancer and bury her knife in the side of his neck. He dropped like a nerf bull on slaughter day while she rolled free from his crashing body, pulled her blaster and kneecapped his remaining partner. Scrabbling to her feet she sprinted back toward the ship.

“Door’s open,” yelled Corso as he ran down the ramp to help her inside, shooting the downed goon in the head as he descended.

“You ready to get off this thrice-damned sand ball?” he asked as he slung his arm around her waist, half carried her through the hatch, and closed the door. Removing the rifle sling, he leaned the weapon against the wall and headed to the cockpit.

Corso dropped into the pilot’s seat, holding his wounded leg out to the side and began preflight checks and finally started the repulsorlifts to free them from the planet’s gravity well. Once in space, he would engage the sublights until they figured out their destination and calculated the jump into hyperspace.

“You’re bleeding all over our nice new ship,” Ky said as she leaned down and kissed his neck before slumping into the co-pilot seat and removing the goggles. Still in fight mode, he didn’t acknowledge the kiss or any of their injuries. He’d be a wreck once he faded back to himself.

“I’ll need to install the transponder cylinder,” he remarked, pulling the unit from the utility belt at his waist. “Who do we want to be this time?

The soothing void of space filled the windshield as they broke atmo and left behind the orange and tan ball lit by twin suns that had lost their warmth.

“The Chance is dead, best she stays that way,” said Ky. “What’s that ID we used just the one time? Oh yeah. Welcome aboard the Soledad Trace.”

Chapter Text

“Their route is along the Corellian Run hyperlane, heading for Denon,” Ky observed from the data displayed on her datapad. “Set a course toward that destination for now. They’re at least a half day ahead of us, let’s see what this tub will do, shall we?”

“We were lucky the ship was prepared for travel, at least the fuel tanks are full,” said Corso as he found the beacon for Denon on the nav computer, ran the calculations and initiated the jump.

The layers of Corso peeled back once they were safely away and he winced when he moved his leg and arm. His eyes widened in alarm when he saw the blood stain on her shirt.

“Stars, babe, we need to get you to the med bay.” He stood up and hobbled the two steps to where she sat.

“I’d say you’re a bit worse off than I am but now’s not the time for quibbling. Let’s say we both head there, deal?”

“Deal,” he said and paled under his dark complexion, starting to sway on his feet.

She’d hardly gotten him to the med bay under his own steam and onto the exam bed before he passed out. She searched the drawers and came back with surgical scissors, bandages, antiseptic wipes and tubes of kolto gel. The kolto tank stood silent and woefully empty, and she hadn’t found any injectors, yet.

Her knees nearly buckled with relief when water poured from the sink faucet into the stainless basin she held under the tap. One less thing to worry about. She rummaged through the cabinet underneath and came away with an armload of washcloths and towels.

Removal of Corso’s jacket and outer shirt proved to be troublesome enough with having to roll his body back and forth on the narrow bed. Not having the strength to wrangle his deadweight, she opted to cut away most of his pant leg to get to the wound on his thigh. The plasma bolt had burned through flesh and into the muscle beneath.

The only good thing about a blaster bolt was that it cauterized the capillaries on entry, the skin didn’t bleed much, most of the blood oozing from Corso’s leg came from deeper inside. At least it hadn’t hit a major blood vessel. She cleaned and then packed kolto into the jagged hole, thankful he was unconscious since she hadn’t found any sort of anesthetic among the supplies, not even numb-spray.

His arm had only been grazed, his jacket and shirt being the real victims with a neat hole burned through from front to back of the upper sleeve. A light slathering of gel and clean bandage were all that was required.

She searched the med bay again and found a couple of half full boxes of kolto and antibiotic injectors in one of the side cabinets which she administered to Corso. Covering him with a blanket she’d discovered, she moved to the sink and splashed water on her face and the back of her neck and rinsed out her mouth before taking a couple of sips from her cupped hand.

The stim had worn off as well as her own adrenaline, and numbing tiredness seeped into every extremity and pore of her body. She’d forgotten about her personal injuries until her shirt pulled at the wound across her back where the material had likely adhered to the dried blood.

Going back to the tray with the med supplies she’d left by the med bed, she untucked her shirt hem from her trousers and pulled it up far enough to see the damage. A path of burns scored along her side, superficial and not much blood. Bright side? It was opposite her impalement injury, the dermaseal patch still securely in place. Not so bright side? She suspected her back was worse, and she couldn’t reach it.

Picking up a clean cloth, the basin of bloodied water and a packet of antiseptic wipes she headed back toward the sink to tend herself and wished she’d thought to bring the damned rolling tray with her. Her brain became fuzzy and scrambled as time wore on, but she managed to clean her own wound and trudge back to the tray for kolto and bandages. She wished like hell she had another stim to get her over the hump.

Tough shit, she was all she had right now.

She injected herself with a kolto infusion and antibiotics then gathered up the wrappers and bloody wipes and threw them into the nearest trash receptacle before returning to Corso’s bedside.

Stars, he is beautiful. She gazed down at his darkly tan face which had already lost much of its pallor. A heavy sigh puffed between her lips as she fastened the restraining strap across his chest so he wouldn’t fall out of bed.

She pulled the rolling stool up to the bed, locked the wheels and sat, leaning forward and crossing her arms on the edge of the mattress, wincing slightly when her shirt pulled along her back.

Just gonna close my eyes for a bit, were the last conscious words to fleet across her mind as her head lolled forward onto her arms.

“Ky?”

Someone called her name from far away. Was it dinner time already? She’d only been outside playing for a short while. The sun heated her clothing, lifting the fresh spring smell of laundry soap from the blue gingham overalls and white shirt. Birdsong filled the air, and insects hummed in the thicket bordering the field of newly sown oats. She turned, and her father waved at her from the back door of the small farmhouse. No, not waving, telling her to run before he fell, the side of his face disappearing in a crimson cloud.

She ran, crushing grass under tiny feet, grass that sprang up behind her as if she’d never passed at all. The tail of the stuffed tauntaun smooshed in her tightly gripped hand its body thudded against her legs. She crawled into the thicket, ignoring the thorns that pricked her skin as she scurried forward until gnarled, interwoven branches blocked her advance.

“Shh, Fooly, itta be a’right,” she whispered to the toy now clutched to her heaving chest with spindly, shaking arms. Booted feet, barked orders, the crackle of snapping twigs and rustling of leaves, bucket head with dead, glass eyes, black-gloved hand reaching, grip of iron, painful and bruising.

“Papa,” she screamed startling herself awake. Befuddled and blinking in the harsh white light she had no idea where she was. A dark hand lay on her arm, gripping lightly. She jerked back as if scalded, knocking over the stool, the sound piercing into her skull like an awl through soft leather. Her feet tangled and she fell, crab-walking backward until a wall thudded into her back. She pulled her knees up under her chin, buried her face in her hands and dissolved into a quivering mass of flesh, waiting for them to take her again.

Corso unbuckled the restraining strap, sprang upright, slung his legs to the side and slid off the bed ignoring the searing flash of pain in his thigh. His vision blurred, his head pounded with every rush of blood pumped by a hammering heart. Nausea cramped his stomach, but he flung self-interest aside to get to her.

She deconstructed, shattered by something from her past, an apparition she faced alone and never shared. Twice now in the three years they’d traveled together he’d seen her disintegrate into fragile shards and the only glue he had to put her back together was time and patience. Bowdaar had been the one to shelter her before he came on the scene, neither Akaavi nor Risha having the disposition and Guss being too skittish. The Wookie had hummed Kashyyk lullabies to bring her back from whatever hell she was lost in.

Corso dared not touch her, having been on the receiving end when she lashed out in blind terror, and any premature contact worsened the situation. His only recourse was to sit by her side uttering sing-song words of unthreatening calm.

“Hush baby, hush. I’m here my love. You are safe, come back, come home,” he crooned, his attention sharply focused on her hunched, quivering shoulders.

To see her reduced to this state tore at him. The woman he knew and loved never backed down, gave as good as she got and ran toward danger, usually having created that danger herself. Perhaps her wanton disregard for self-preservation and outward bravado stood in defiance to this secret prison she could not escape.

Little by little her shoulders relaxed, her breathing slowed, she lowered her hands and gazed about as if confused and vaguely surprised by her surroundings. Corso patted his uninjured thigh, and she accepted the invitation, crawling to his side and laying her head on his leg, curling her body inward while he stroked her hair and continued his monotonous litany.

He’d noted the smear of blood across her back, now dried to a blackish burgundy stain. It would need tending as soon as she was ready to get up and he needed a med scanner to check his head. He suspected a mild concussion since it continued to thump like a Tusken kettledrum and waves of nausea still plagued him.

Minutes crawled by while he continued combing his fingers through her hair, the hum of the ship nearly lulling them both to sleep. Ky unfurled and stretched, sitting up, at last, her eyes clear of whatever memory had spiraled her out of control. Unsteady at first, she dragged herself to her feet and extended her arm to aid Corso in rising as well.

Stiff from being immobile for so long, he stood for a while, supporting himself against the wall before hobbling back toward the bed. It would be back to business now, it always was. Personal discourse and exposing secrets remained a burden too heavy for either to bear.

“I need a scanner, and we have to get your back treated,” he stated weakly, sinking down on the stool Ky had just set upright.

“Honey, I’m so sorry I missed this,” she apologized once the scanner she’d found in a drawer under the bed confirmed his concussion. A closer examination revealed a decent sized lump on the side of his head.

“I vaguely recall being thrown against the ship door when the probe exploded,” he said. “Guess I hit harder than I thought.”

“You need to stay awake now. Here, use one of these.” She removed the wrapper from a Perigen patch. “It’s non-narcotic. Makes you feel better without knocking you out.”

He tended to her back, using water to loosen the fabric of her shirt before slipping it from her shoulders and letting it fall to the floor. She flinched when he touched the sensitive area over her shoulder blades and waved away his apologies while he cleaned and applied kolto and bandages.

“We better see what this ship has to offer. Both of us with no shirt and you half pantsed for the entire trip is gonna get damned cold and uncomfortable,” she smiled, leaning in to give him a quick kiss.

She would never talk about what had happened, and he was wise enough to simply add it to the tally of all the other unspoken things that lay between them.

Chapter Text

“Where’d you learn that move?” Corso asked as they meandered from room to room.

“What move?” she responded while digging through cupboards and the cooling unit in the galley, wrinkling her nose when all she found to eat were ration bars and energy pudding.

“The one where you swung around that big guy and climbed up his back like a kowakian monkey-lizard. I’ve never seen you do that before.”

She pulled her head out from under the sink where she’d turned on the water valve and stood, wiping her hands on her pants.

“Just something I picked up in my travels, I suppose.” She shrugged.

“Huh,” he grunted not thoroughly convinced. He’d seen that particular maneuver before, he just couldn’t remember where.

The crew quarters held nothing of interest, and the cargo bay stood empty, only the straps and netting showed any life where they swayed and tapped against the walls.

The captain’s quarters coughed up a small treasure trove of goodies including a few spare tank tops and tees, silky draw-string sleep pants and a couple pair of trousers, a tad large for Corso but they’d suffice.

“Seems our captain was quite the ladies’ man,” snickered Ky as she gingerly held up a lacy, hot pink bra she’d found between the bed and nightstand.

“Guess that explains the sleep pants,” chuckled Corso, a faint reddish tint shading the tips of his ears.

“Easy on, easy off. If nothing else, he was efficient,” she said, slipping into a faded tee with ‘Spacers do it Better’ written across the front in Aurebesh.

“Well, looky here,” Ky’s face brightened as she pulled a nearly full bottle of whiskey from the rear of the locker. “Don’t give me that look, I’ll pace myself.”

“Wonder who owned that ship you saw. The one that helped us,” Corso said, sliding his belt through the loops on the too big trousers.

“Damned if I know. The silhouette wasn’t familiar, but I have the feeling we’ll meet them sooner or later.”

The four-day trip to Denon allowed them time to convalesce and scour the ship’s hidden compartments that mirrored many of those on the Chance. Ky doubted they’d found them all since every smuggler modified their ship with a few personal touches. Sonhem and his pilots would be no different.

She’d reactivated the C2 series steward droid, wishing in hindsight she’d been quicker on the draw with that decision. Corso kept himself busy removing sand and dust from the servos and oiling moving parts that had begun to squeak from poor maintenance. The droid paid them back by keeping fresh linens on the bed, assisting with regular ship upkeep and helping with their medical needs. It also kept a running list of needed items that would come in damned handy once they reached their destination.

Denon; an ecumenopolis much like Coruscant, the entire planet surface one teeming city. The busy hub world at the confluence of the Hydian Way and Corellian Run hyperlanes, Denon’s constant stream of arriving and departing ships made it easy to land on and tough to police.

Ky opted to land in one of the spaceports she’d used on a couple of runs back when being a privateer for the Republic had been a lucrative business. One of those places on the seedier side where decent folk never tread.

As soon as they’d exited hyperspace, she’d called Largo to let him know they were ok and to check on his men. All were alive, but Tol had lost partial use of his arm, and Voxal had been in the tank for three days, ruptured spleen or some such. Pilot’s luck had apparently smiled on Dester who’d walked away with a few minor scratches and contusions.

“I’ll keep your stuff for you, and you’re right. That droid of yours can cook.” Largos image grinned appreciatively. “The Uj cakes are heavenly. It’s still bitching about the leg replacement since all I had was one from an old GNK droid, sort of makes him lopsided, and he drags his foot. Kinda funny actually. Keeps the place clean though, problem is I can’t find a damned thing anymore. Don’t worry about the guys, they knew what they were getting into. I love you girl, you take care out there.”

“Ditto, my friend.” Damn, she hated that Tol and Voxal had been hurt, just one more thing to make up for at some point when she was free to do something decent again instead of just surviving.

Tractored into a hangar and ground crew already busy with refuel, she placed her second call. It was to someone she hadn’t talked to in a while, but this one owned her a favor.

“How’s it going, Rogun? Where the hell are you?” she spoke to the blue holo image of the Chagrian she’d known since Corellia and her Voidhound days.

“Long time no hear. On Atzerri at the moment. Nothing you’d likely want to know about. What can I do you for?” Rogun responded.

“I’m going to need you and at least eight or ten of your guys. On the trail of something big. Big enough for someone to try and kill me over. I smell credits and lots of them, I just need the package.”

“Lots of unknowns here, Ky. I hate dipping my toes into someone else’s dirty bathwater, you get my drift?”

“You owe me, and I’m pulling in my mark. This makes us even, and you’ll get paid, unlike me when I took a knife for you and hauled your ass out of that Imperial prison you were stuck in. Good times, remember?”

“Yeah, I’m alive to remember, thanks to you.” He ran his fingers across his chin. “Alright, I’m in, but this makes us even. Where and when do we meet?”

“Sit tight for a while. I should know something in the next few hours. I’ll contact you then.”

Ky checked on the camo-tab signal and then her dwindling funds. They needed supplies. There was a big difference between being flat-ass broke and saving a bit of cash only to starve to death. She and the droid made a quick trip to the spaceport commissary where she purchased restock items for the galley, including some fresh food goodies and bought a change of clothes for her and Corso. She also picked up a spare datapad from the ‘reduced price’ table, not top of the line, but it would do.

“Where you been?” she asked Corso, who’d entered the galley as she and the droid were putting away her purchases.

“In our room, looking around,” he replied with a shrug.

“Huh. Here, see if these fit,” she said throwing the bag with his replacement clothes across the counter.

Corso caught the bag midair. “A call keeps coming in over the holo. I haven’t answered it though. Whoever it is is damned persistent.”

“One guess. He’ll call back, that’s guaranteed. What I can’t understand is why the delay? The package is still here on Denon. Although this is a non-contested Republic world, it wouldn’t be too hard for Imperials or anyone else to land. I’d think if there were a hand-off it would be in a more remote locale.”

“Maybe it is a hand-off location for decoys, or maybe they’re picking somebody up. Who knows what the hell is in that box or who wants it.”

“Good point, sweetheart. Well, whatever is going on, I hope they move soon, or I’ll get stuck with a damned hangar fee too. The fueling should be just about done, anything past that is space rental.”

As if on cue, the holo began to chime indicating an incoming call. Ky sauntered out of the galley and into the common room where the holo terminal resided.

She pressed the receive button and waited for the image of a man with implants around one eye socket to coalesce.

She smiled sweetly. “Why Pabal Sonhem, what a pleasure to hear from you. This a courtesy call?”

“You fucking bitch,” the man seethed.

She poured a little more sweetness into her smile. “I see no need for this conversation to devolve into name calling. What has the universe come to that business partners can’t speak in a civilized manner? Equitable dealings work in mysterious ways, don’t you agree?”

“I want my ship back and recompense for my compound.”

“Oh, you are such a dreamer. You shouldn’t have wrecked mine with me in it. It seemed only fair to take back a small percent of what was due. Nice trick with the credit chip, you still owe me.”

“Nice trick with still being alive and I don’t owe you shit. I’m not the only one who wants you dead, and hunters don’t come cheap. I’m going to carve my payment out of your hide.”

“Ah yes, bounty hunters. Been there, avoided that. Let it go Pabal. I’ll call it even if you will, honor among thieves and all that. Or does me being alive cock up your little deal? Bet nobody saw that coming.”

“Don’t sound so smug. This isn’t over yet.”

“No, it isn’t,” she said reaching for the disconnect button.

“Think he knows we’re on Denon?” asked Corso.

“Maybe, but if he’s got some sort of meeting deadline I doubt he’ll do anything right now. Besides, he doesn’t know this transponder ID. The man’s an idiot. I was a loose end and so is he. I wouldn’t take a half credit wager about his chances of survival once the delivery is made.” She absently rubbed her temples. “Dammit, I need to contact Akaavi.”

“You should have done that already. She’s expecting us to pick her up.”

“I know what I should have done. I don’t need any reminders,” she snapped.

He threw up his hands and backed away without a word, turning down the corridor toward their quarters. A twinge of guilt nipped at her conscience as she keyed in the frequency.

“Ma’re, Ner Vod,” Akaavi made no attempt to hide her exasperation. “When are you coming for us?”

“It’s going to be a while longer,” admitted Ky.

“Haar’chak,” cursed the Zabrak. “What’s the delay? Sharing a room with a snoring Wookie and a gurgling Mon Calamari was tiresome several days ago.”

“I’m sorry, Akaavi. There’s nobody I’d rather have at my side than you and Bowdaar, but if I came for you now, I’d lose the item I’m after.”

“You have the skanah’s ship then?” Akaavi asked, her mood brightening somewhat.

“Yes, and I’m tracking his cargo that almost got Corso and I killed. The more thorns I drive up Sonhem’s ass, the happier I’ll be. I just called to warn you to be extra careful from now on. Sonhem and his cronies may have just upped the bounty on me and mine. It’s liable to get worse before it gets better.”

“Understood. We will not seek trouble, but at least if they come, Bowdaar and I will get a decent fight. We will be ready. Ret'urcye mhi, Ky. Come for us when you can.”

She leaned against the comm terminal and crossed her arms, staring blankly at the floor. She shouldn’t have snapped at Corso, she wanted her crew back and felt like she was hanging on everyone else’s tenterhooks but her own. Hell, who was she kidding? Her drive for revenge with the promise of a big payday at the end directed her actions. Desperate times, right?

Twenty minutes and two shots of whiskey later, the insistent beeping of the datapad resting at her elbow on the galley counter drew her out of her thoughts. They were moving the box.

She capped the bottle and sprinted toward the front of the ship.

“Corso?” she yelled from the cockpit having already pulled up the astrogation charts.

“I’m here. What is it?”

“They’re moving the box down the Hydian Way, and none of the planets make sense. Eriadu is under Empire control, and something tells me they don’t want anyone, including the Empire, to know that they have it.”

“Not only that but why did they travel all the way to Denon when they could have just used the old Triellis Trade Run to cut straight across?” Corso interjected. “Dorvalla is an industrial world with a barely breathable atmosphere, Tibrin is oceanic, and Asmeru is too near the Asmeru Anomaly. No spacer worth their salt would go within a hundred parsecs of that place.”

“Karfaddion bans any incoming travelers, and that leaves...”

“Belsavis,” they said in unison.

Chapter Text

“Fucking Belsavis,” Ky shuddered, recalling her brief foray through the prison wards in search of Rogun’s old mentor Ivory. She’d never cared much for the Rattataki who wasn’t above transporting slaves and in fact, was in prison for selling children to the Hutts, the two unforgivable spacer sins as far as she was concerned.

Many of Ivory’s contacts had dried up while he was locked away, but he had served his purpose while part of her fleet due to his ties with several high-ranking Hutt families. This had allowed them safe passage through Hutt space and access to several worlds that might otherwise have been off limits. Like so many others, he’d left after the Republic rescinded contracts and immunity for her and her fleet. Those days of hauling spice without legal entanglements were long past, and she was still in deep shit with the Hutts for the shipment Skavak had stolen.

She wasn’t sorry when Ivory parted ways, no love lost, and she would have zero qualms about shooting him in the face if she ever saw him again. He’d been playing his own angles behind the scenes, which was fine except it had put her team in danger one too many times. During the months they’d searched for Skavak after Port Nowhere, she’d found out, from one of Ivory’s contacts they’d interrogated, that he’d been the one who tipped Skavak off about the spice shipment. It’s astonishing how much information a Mandalorian can squeeze out of a snitch waiting to happen.

“Fueling will be done in another fifteen minutes,” stated Corso. “I’ll make the calculations now, you’d better contact Rogun.”

“Make sure to come out of hyperspace outside the range of the orbital station sensors. We have to keep this on the down low.”

“I know my job,” he countered none too gently.

It’s gonna be a long trip. Ky shrugged and went back to the holo-terminal.

“Destination is Belsavis,” she notified the hazy blue image that flickered above the terminal. “You in hyperspace?”

“The shitty connection give it away? Almost to Denon now. I was already a day and a half behind you and didn’t want to chance missing the meet time. Shit! Belsavis. Not my favorite vacation spot.”

“Mine either. You know the drill. Go dark and stay dark. We’ll figure out the rest when we get there.”

“You’re the boss one last time. Enjoy it while you can. Rogun out.”

The delay on Denon put Ky no more than a couple of hours behind the ship carrying her objective instead of the half day or more. Rogun would not be far behind and, as usual, timing was everything. Nothing to do now but endure the nearly eleven-day trip from Denon to Belsavis.

By the tenth day, Ky had paced the ship’s circular corridors more times than she could count. She’d become accustomed to the noise of her crew to break up the monotony of days or even weeks in space. The snippets of conversation, Gus’s inane babbling, Bowdaar grumbling over a lost game of pazaak, Akaavi voicing concerns over plans and Corso’s easy laughter. Risha’s nonchalant quips, absent of late, but still, those were the sounds of home and the only family she knew. She missed the noise and the distraction.

Rapidly depleting funds, her people stuck on Nar Shaddaa and the unknown shitstorm she and Corso were likely walking into tripped through her mind like drunken interlopers. Her mood swung from cranky to distant, to agitated and she needed. Stars, she needed...

Doing an abrupt about-face, she entered the galley and removed a glass and the half-full bottle of whiskey from the cupboard. Taking a seat at the counter, she poured a three-finger shot and took a sip. Not bad for a knock-off of the Corellian she could no longer afford but not as smooth either. The tiny sip burned all the way down and left a fiery patch at the back of her throat before detonating in her stomach, sending tendrils of warmth through her veins.

Tired to the marrow, she hadn’t slept well since they left Denon and remained on edge, keenly anticipating the other shoe and Corso’s tender lovemaking did little to abate the restlessness that nagged her. She often left their bed to stroll the passageways of the ship, shadowy wraiths of memory and an uncertain future dogging her footsteps. Force help her, she craved something raw and volatile and harsh. Something to drive away the demons for just a little while.

Dread, worry and pent-up urges had been her companions for so long that relief wasn’t the emotion she’d expected when the ship dropped out of hyperspace. She chugged the remainder of her drink, dropped the empty glass into the sink, capped the bottle and joined Corso in the cockpit.

Belsavis, snow and ice-covered mountains and high elevation plains with advancing and receding glaciers that had gouged out tropical rifts over the millennia. The planet’s molten core bubbled to the surface via huge vents and fissures creating habitable valleys of often oppressive heat and humidity. A thick fog hung over the rims where valley and mountain met, ideal places for cover or ambush.

The wildlife wasn’t the most dangerous predators on this worst kept secret of the Republic. Released or escaped prisoners posed the more significant threat and the cleanup of the Empire’s attempts at rescuing some of their own would continue for decades. Unofficial archeological digs by both sides to uncover and exploit some tech from a long-dead race didn’t help matters any.

Ky had moved her ship to just out of range of the planetary sensor arrays and waited for Rogun’s arrival. The item was on planet, and if Rogun didn’t show soon, she and Corso would have to try it alone or abandon the retrieval altogether.

While they waited, Corso transferred her personal holo frequency to the ships and created a sub-frequency so that incoming calls to her could be answered without being directly traced or compromised. Rogun, Largo, Akaavi and Sonhem had the Soledad’s frequency, but she still had friends elsewhere that might need to get in touch.

“You got the sublights masked?” she asked Corso.

“Yes, as well as the hyperdrive, no one detected us coming out of hyperspace, and nobody will detect us now. Stop worrying.”

The holo chimed, it was Rogun. “Just dropped out of hyperspace. What’s the plan?”

“They’re in the old ancient tombs. Best bet is to land in the outer wastes and take the lava bridge from there. It’s going to get damned hot and then damned cold, bring cold weather gear if you got it and pack a jacket for Corso and me also. Our stuff got left behind, thieves on the run, you understand.”

“Masked and going in, best to land close to each other so I can leave a couple of my men on guard. It’s going to be quite a slog without speeders, be ready to double time it.”

Corso engaged the sublights to break orbit and start their descent. He’d always been better at landing and taking off than she was, but few people could outfly her through a blockade or asteroid field. Flying low, under the radar and using mountain ranges as cover, Corso managed a smooth landing in one of the rifts known as the outer wastes.

Leaving the ship droid in charge with instructions to keep the outer hatch locked at all costs unless it got her signal, she and Corso double checked their weapons and walked down the ramp which the droid retracted as soon as they were clear.

Rogun’s ship landed not far away. She and Corso made their way through the stunted grass that grew in sparse patches in the gray soil. Some animal grunted in the distance, and the light hum of phosphor bugs drifted out of scrub bushes that littered the landscape.

Rogun gave instructions to two of his men before joining them. “Hey Ky, you’re looking good. How’s it hanging, Corso?” Rogun greeted them both.

“Bet it don’t hang much with her around,” one of Rogun’s men quipped, slapping a hand in the crook of his elbow and springing his forearm upright.

Ky glanced sideways at Corso’s reddening face and stifled a chuckle.

“Enough of that shit,” admonished Rogun with a scowl. “Which way? We need to head out.”

“That cave entrance over there leads to the lava bridge. Once across, I’ll recheck my datapad.”

“Let’s go boys. Assholes and elbows, you know the drill. Tona take point, Salo bring up the rear.” He motioned to Ky and Corso. “You two in the middle. Keep up.”

Ky was glad she’d done all that pacing during the trip, kept her legs in shape and Corso never seemed to tire. The heat was damn near unbearable as they sprinted across the bridge. Sulfurous fumes mixed with an odd smell of charred meat drifted up in hot blasts of air making breathing difficult. She tucked her nose and mouth inside the top of her shirt and kept on running.

The sudden blast of frigid air slapped her in the chest as they exited the bridge-tunnel, nearly taking her breath away. Her hands shook as she removed the datapad from her back pocket, barely able to press the buttons. She nodded thanks as someone threw a padded jacket over her shoulders.

“Over there,” she said keeping her voice low and trying to quell the chattering of her teeth. Her finger pointed to the left, but this area of the tombs remained in constant gloom, a viscous darkness that clung to the hair and clotted in the mouth and nose. Visibility was damn near non-existent.

“No back way out of the caverns in this place as far as I know. Slicer friend of mine got some schematics before you went in for Ivory. I gave you what you needed and held out on the rest.” Rogun shrugged. “One way in, one way out. Let’s take it slow from here. I’ll send two of mine to scout ahead for us.”

Rogun used hand signals to send his two guys ahead, and the rest of their group followed in single file. Ky slid the datapad back into her pocket and slipped her arms into the too-long sleeves of the jacket. She’d have to drop it once they got inside of where they were going, not having easy access to her blaster and knife put her more on edge than she already was.

Rogun raised his fist in the halt signal. “My guys say only two guards by the entrance. They’ll take care of it nice and quiet, stealth generators are such sweet toys.”

A muted thud followed closely by another reached their ears, and Rogun motioned them forward. Rounding a stand of boulders, they approached the tunnel entrance, the two guards lay on the ground bleeding out in expanding black pools in the snow.

The tunnel was fairly short with two more guards at the other end which Rogun’s men dispatched with ease. An open area lay beyond with an entrance to one of the tombs as evidenced by the architectural structure on the other side.

“You go on ahead,” Rogun told his advance guard. “Scout for traps and don’t take on more than two. If you find more in the way, wait for us. There’s gonna be a fight at the end and no point in alerting them before we’re ready.”

The two men headed out and as soon as they disappeared down the entrance ramp, Rogun led the rest across the open area where they started their own descent, trying to muffle their footsteps as much as possible when boots tapped onto the flagstone floor. Ky pointed to the right when they reached a T junction near the bottom of the ramp.

The way was lit by some form of ambient lighting flowing from the ceiling. Rubble and broken shards of pottery lay scattered at the feet of plinths that stood in staggered arrangements as they proceeded. The walls were smooth, gray stone void of any pictographs or writing.

The subdued murmur of voices came from up ahead, and a red glow lit the wall in front of them. One voice rose above the others, either in dissent or dismay. Problems in the ranks? That could be an advantage.

Rogun sent his two stealthed men around the corner and waited for recon data. He raised both hands, and then three fingers indicating thirteen men that his point men had seen. Rogun squared his shoulders, readied his weapon and led them around the corner.

The cavern was more massive than Ky had expected. The floor composed a semi-circular platform extending out over an abyss emitting the orange-red glow of a lava flow. A lidless stone sarcophagus sat at the apex of the arc and stately columns of native stone supported the ceiling above.

She was frankly surprised that the guards were shaken out of an air of lax disinterest only when her troupe entered the room. They had evidently not been anticipating company. Rifles snapped to shoulders, and the whine of charges being loaded interrupted the heated discussion coming from the far end of the chamber.

Three men, two black robed and masked faced them and the third in an Imperial gray uniform had his back turned.

“You are not welcome here,” said one of the robed men, his voice tinny and reverberating through the mask’s modulator. “Leave now while you still can.”

Ky threw her jacket toward the entrance and stepped forward, Corso by her side, his game face making a mask of its own. “You the assholes that tried to kill me on Tatooine? Where’s Sonhem?”

“Sonhem met with an unfortunate accident once he’d picked me up on Denon,” the Imperial said before turning around. “Loose ends are so untidy. So nice of you to come so we can make a pretty bow.”

The brows of the officer who turned to greet them rose from a frown into twin arches of surprise. The horizontal scar marring the man's cheek reddened and his mouth twisted into a smugly cruel grin when his gaze landed on Corso and recognition flitted across his eyes.

"Well, well, if it isn't the little lamb come to be sheared again. I've missed you."

Suppressed rage radiated off Corso and Ky glanced his way when a growl stalked upward from someplace deep inside and leaped from his throat. His eyes crackled with fury and his lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl. The skin over his knuckles paled as he curled his hands into tight fists and his knees bent slightly into a half crouch like a Nekkar who's just spotted its prey.

"Corso, you know this man?" she asked.

"He is a beast, and he is mine. Do not interfere," Corso's voice oozed flat and cold-blooded through clenched teeth, adding an extra chill to the dank surroundings.

Ky focused her attention back to the Imperial officer whose eyes were now narrowed and pinned solely on Corso.

"I hate to break up this reunion," she stated, "but you have something of mine."

The Imperial Major casually moved his eyes back to her, seemingly unfazed. "I think you overestimate your chances, thief."

"I'm highly insulted. That's master thief to you. Now hand over the box like a good little soldier."

"You are hardly in a position to bark orders," he sneered and pressed a plunger he'd pulled from his uniform pocket.

The floor bucked, chunks of stone fell from the ceiling and dust filled the air. From behind several of the newly cracked support columns more fully armored and armed Imperial soldiers appeared and the red glow of two lightsabers pierced the gloom.

In one fluid motion, Corso pulled the strap of the rifle over his head and threw the weapon to Ky before rushing across the room toward the Imperial officer. She'd never seen anyone move that fast who wasn't using force speed. How Corso escaped injury or worse amidst the chaos was a miracle, perhaps fate itself bowed before such blind hatred.

Rogun's men spread out, green and blue blaster fire cut through the air followed by the stench of seared flesh and acidic tang of spent tibanna. Grunts and yelps of the injured mixed with the moans of the dying. The two Sith advanced, sabers swinging in a blur, deflecting any blaster bolts coming their way.

"Deflect this, asshole," Ky spat as she raised the rifle, took aim and fired. The report of the slugthrower echoed like thunder, the saber extinguished, and one Sith fell face forward.

She caught sight of Corso and the officer who was steadily backing away. Corso's shoulder lurched backward as the officer fired and the shot connected but he never slowed his advance.

She ducked in time to avoid the hissing crimson arc of a lightsaber thrown in her direction and backpedaled as the remaining robed figure leaped in her direction, landing soundlessly mere feet from where she’d stood. She fired the rifle and missed, damn the fucker was fast on his feet. She fired again, and he dodged before launching himself into the air, blade held high for the downward killing stroke. There was no time to react, no time to do anything but die.

Corso fleeted across her mind, she couldn’t breathe and a roar blasted through the noise from somewhere close by. The blade was close enough for her to feel the energy ripple the air, and then it was gone. One of Rogun’s men, his chest a bloody ruin, crashed into the Sith sending them both over the edge and into the fiery death that waited below.

She blinked, trying to register what had happened, searching for Corso amid the settling dust.

"Rogun?" Ky yelled over the fray.

"I see it," Rogun yelled back.

The officer had retreated from Corso to the point where he teetered on the edge of the platform at the brink of the volcanic abyss that backlit his form in crimson. Corso had disarmed the man with a deft throw of his knife and now stood no more than three feet away.

Everything for Ky slowed to a crawl as she followed Rogun across the floor littered with the bodies of soldiers and Roguns' crew. The fighting had stopped, and the silence was like its own barrier, thick as syrup, sticking to the skin and dulling the senses.

"I'll drop it," threatened the officer as he held out the lockbox over the crevasse. "Let me go, and you can have it."

Corso's laugh crawled up Ky's spine and made her shiver. He advanced another step, never taking his eyes off the Imperial's face.

The officer's foot slipped, his face blanched in the garnet light, the box tumbled from his hand, and he started to fall. Corso's arm snaked out and caught the front of his uniform twisting him around and throwing him to the floor. His head struck the stone with a dull thud and he lay still.

Ky held her breath, Rogun fired some sort of netting, engulfing the box in the mesh and pulling it to safety.

Corso emitted a shrill, keening wail only animals make and landed on the stunned officer's chest, flailing at his face, his hands a blur, scarlet droplets flew like ash landing soundlessly on the floor. By the time Ky reached him, his knuckles were raw, his clothes and face spackled with gore and still, he beat on the man whose features closely resembled lumps of throwaway scraps from a butcher shop.

She grabbed at Corso's arm, "He's dead, you can stop now."

Corso turned a vacant stare on her and swatted her backward to land hard and skid across the stone tile on her ass. She rolled to her feet and went to him again.

"Dammit, Corso, he's dead. Stop! Please stop."

Corso inhaled a deep shuddering breath and eased back, staring at his hands like they were foreign objects he's never seen before. Sweat and blood flung outward in a vermillion spray when he shook his head. He gazed around as if he didn't know where he was and flinched when she touched his shoulder like she'd poked him with a ronto prod.

He crawled to the nearest wall and sat, supported against the stone with his legs drawn up and his forehead resting on his entwined fingers. Ky knelt before him but gave him space and didn't attempt physical contact again.

"Are you back?" she asked.

He nodded stiffly.

"We will talk when we get back to the ship," she offered.

He raised his face to regard her with glazed and haunted eyes. "No, we won't."

"Well, something happened here I don't understand. It was so out of character..."

"Yes, it was," he interrupted. "You do not need to understand, and I will not speak of it, ever. Do not push me on this, Ky. Please."

With a resigned sigh, she rose to her feet and walked over to Rogun who still held onto the lockbox. "How many did you lose?" she asked.

"Four of mine, the imps lost more. We have two prisoners, what do we do with them?"

"Tie them up and leave them," Ky responded. "They at least have a chance this way. The Sith would have killed them all. Save one helmet, the Sith's robes, and lightsaber. I need to send a message."

Rogun raised his brows but nodded in agreement. He'd never known her to be so cold as to leave unarmed men trussed up to die, but supposed she had her reasons.

He handed her the lockbox and wandered off to give instructions to his remaining men. Ky closed her ears and heart to the soldiers who promised silence and begged for freedom and cast a glance toward Corso who still remained seated by the wall.

All the bodies of the dead were thrown into the chasm. Ky knew that none of Rogun's men had family, it was part of their contract for service. No teary goodbyes, no one to be used against them and no one to mourn their passing. They fought, drank and played hard, life and death just two sides of the same coin. She almost envied them—almost.

Once the floor was cleared of evidence, and nothing remained but the tied and gagged men, she strode back to Corso and cleared her throat. When he looked up, she offered her hand which he took and pulled himself to his feet. The trip back to the ship remained solemn and wordless.

When they reached the outer wastes, Rogun loaded his remaining men on his ship and promised to keep in touch. Friend or not, he would still want his cut of whatever this ended up being, and he trusted her enough to come through.

"Go take a shower so I can tend your shoulder and those hands," she said to Corso before heading off to the cockpit for pre-flight checks. The sooner they got off this damnable planet, the better.

Once they were outside the gravity well, she engaged the sublights and instructed the droid to take them a few hundred parsecs off the Belsavis Run smuggler route and cut the engines, leaving only life support active. Fuel was going to be a problem, and she needed time to figure her next move.

She left the cockpit and proceeded to her cabin where Corso was struggling with his shirt. "Kriffing thing is stuck to my shoulder, and it keeps tearing my skin," he grumbled.

She exited and came back with a pair of scissors from the med bay.

"Hope that shirt wasn't one of your favorites," she said, then proceeded to cut off the sleeve and surrounding fabric, leaving only the material closest to the wound. "The water will help to soften the blood and skin and allow you to pull it away. When you're done, meet me in med bay so we can get you patched up."

An hour later Corso was as patched up as she could make him. Kolto gel and bandages guaranteed he would at least be able to get some rest without undue discomfort.

Corso was already in bed when she exited the shower, his back to her, his breathing steady. She could tell he wasn't asleep when she crawled between the sheets and curled up against his back, grateful for the warmth. She draped one arm across his ribs, and he took her hand but didn't turn over.

"I love you," she whispered into his hair.

"Yeah, you too," he murmured.

She smiled. Touché, my love, touché.

Chapter Text

Ky was up and gone when Corso awoke, the smell of caf permeated the ship making him slightly nauseous. His shoulder ached and his hands were stiff as he pushed himself upright in the bed careful not to disturb the bandages across his knuckles. Stubble pricked his fingers as he swiped his palm across his mouth and chin.

Memories of yesterday strayed across his mind like squatters looking for a home. They’d be disappointed by the scant lodging amid the ruin, but with no threat of eviction, they’d take up residence anyway.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and rose, groggily, to his feet to make his way to the ‘fresher. A chill lingered over the ship and gooseflesh peppered his skin as he made his way around the bed. His reflection in the mirror over the sink exposed circles under his eyes and a sallow cast to his dark skin. He wanted nothing more than to down another one of those Nyex pills Ky had forced him to take some time during the night and crawl back under the covers to sleep for a year or for eternity. Right now, the latter sounded preferable.

Frustrated at the difficulty of putting on his pants, sans underwear, he tore the bandages off his hands and folded his fingers into tight fists, continuing to flex until the newly formed scabs loosened. A few spots of blood crept from around the edges which he wiped away with the discarded gauze. His shoulder grumped when he donned one of the former pilot’s oversized T-shirts, and socks weren’t a consideration when he stuck his icy feet into his boots.

The droid’s cheerful greeting made him want to punch its metallic face until the vision of the mangled pulp of the major’s head flashed through his brain. He sagged back against the corridor wall to clear his mind and gather his thoughts. It wasn’t the fact that he’d killed the bastard it was that he’d lost control, something he swore he’d never do, not in front of her anyway. Stars above, I actually struck her. The guilt settled onto his conscience like a stain he’d never wash away.

She’d have questions, and he had no answers he was prepared to give unless they were a lie. One more thing he’d vowed never to do. He’d choose, instead, the lies of omission and outright refusal. Those, at least, were forgivable.

“Corso, love, that you?” Ky’s voice drifted out of the galley.

“Yeah, babe, it’s me. Be there in a sec,” he responded pushing himself upright and continuing on his way.

He halted in the doorway, leaning his good shoulder against the frame, unsure what to do with his damaged hands and opting to hook his thumbs into his pants pockets. He surveyed the scene before him; Ky perched on one of the stools in a T-shirt hiked up to expose most of her long thighs, her feet balanced on the bottom rung. Her head bent over a datapad, loose tendrils of hair that had escaped her ponytail danced around her face. One hand gripped a steaming mug of caf, the other swiped the display screen in rapid succession. He intimately knew every line and curve and she still took his breath away, he could watch her forever.

The lockbox, their prize, sat unattended on the small eating table by the wall. Something about it gave him the creeps. He’d felt the same way before they’d delivered it to Sonhem like it contained something with invisible, malevolent eyes that observed and waited.

“You going to stand there all day?” she glanced up from the datapad and flashed a brilliant smile.

“Just appreciating the view,” he replied, stepping over the threshold to sit on the stool next to her. Let the semblance of normalcy begin.

She slid off her seat, kissed the side of his neck and walked around to the other side of the counter. “Care for some caf? Maybe a slice of toast?”

“Stomach’s a bit queasy for caf, toast sounds good though.”

“I’ll make you some tea, I think I remember putting a box here on this top shelf,” she stretched up, raising her arms which in turn lifted the bottom of the shirt. She wore nothing underneath.

“It won’t work, you know,” said Corso, unable to take his eyes off the roundness of her bare ass.

“Not sure what you mean,” she dropped from her tiptoes, tea box in hand.

“Don’t play me for a fool, Ky. If you want to make love, we’ll make love, but I won’t talk about what happened, and your naked backside isn’t going to change my mind.”

“I’m sorry, love. I’m just trying to understand and help. Maybe if we...”

“I said no, and I meant no,” he abruptly stood and stalked out of the room.

A guilty blush tinted Ky’s cheeks. What the hell was I thinking?  She set the tea box back on the shelf and looked longingly at the whiskey bottle before closing the cabinet door. Her sweet, gentle, brave Corso—she couldn’t help but think that some vital part of him was lost now, and she was to blame.

She should have left him on Nar Shaddaa and brought Akaavi or Bowdaar, she should have seen Sonhem’s betrayal coming. She should have...Fuck! There were more important things to worry about than dissecting her complicity in exposing a side of Corso he'd never wanted revealed.

The holo terminal chimed as she walked through the common area, third time from an unknown frequency to her personal ID. She ignored the call and proceeded to the cockpit to check the ship’s status and figure out where they could possibly go next.

The panels, readouts and gauges held no good news, they had fuel for one more jump and not a long one. She loaded the nav computer data onto the screen and honed in on the Senex sector, their current location. Widening the search grid, their best option would be to take the Ando Spine to Eiattu, currently a monarchy with strong leanings toward the Republic. Not a planet of great significance for trade or industry, but it did provide a viable refueling stop. And then what?

The distance from Eiattu to Nar Shaddaa would be the problem. With a full tank, she’d come up short by a few thousand parsecs. Even best speed and best route, it was a twenty-day trip. So back to kriffing Tatooine, borrow enough credits from Largo to continue on or...have her crew meet them on Tatooine. She smacked her palm into her forehead, why the hell hadn’t she thought of that in the first place? She’d owe them big-time, knowing for certain that they had all been dipping into personal funds.

Aaand, there goes that damned holo again. The bastard was persistent if not exceedingly annoying. Heaving herself off the pilot’s seat, she made her way to the terminal and pressed the receive button but hovered her finger over the disconnect, just in case she didn’t like what he or she had to say.

A blurred image appeared in the holo-field followed by the timbre of a deep baritone.

"We meet again, little smuggler, it has been a long time." The greeting suggested familiarity. Distinctly Empire; Korriban, Ziost or Dromund Kaas, she couldn’t quite figure which.

The tap of Corso’s boots approached from somewhere and stopped behind her.

Ky's eyes narrowed at the image that refused to congeal into clarity. "I'll take your word that we've met. Let me be blunt. State your business or get the hell off my holo and don't call back."

Maybe it was the connection, but she could swear the flickering blue fog tsk’d at her or maybe he was just sucking something out of his teeth.

"You haven't changed, Captain. They are coming for you and your crew. What you hold is beyond price and cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands."

"Nothing is beyond price," Ky retorted, "and who the hell are they?"

"GenoHaradan, bounty hunters, mercenaries, Sith and Jedi. They will not stop, and you will find no safe haven."

"I've been hunted before and survived."

"Not on this scale. Meet me on Kohlma, it is your only chance. The coordinates are buried in this signal, copy it now."

Ky nodded at Corso who removed a data crystal from a nearby drawer and downloaded the file. Kohlma, burial moon of Bogden which should already be on the nav computer. She couldn’t be sure, however, considering the ship was so recently borrowed. Best not to take any chances and they could check for any sneaky programming before loading the data into the ship’s computer.

"Look, mister, I don't know you and my trust-o-meter is waving a really big red flag. How do I know this isn't a trap?"

The disembodied voice remained flat, unemotional. "You don't, but had I wanted you dead, I’d have let them kill you on Tatooine. I believe my intervention serves as proof of good faith.”

“Your intervention don’t prove shit except that you want something,” Ky snorted. “Everybody wants something. And I ain’t exactly swimming in credits, I’ll be damned lucky to make it back to Tatooine.”

“You will find no aid there. Your portly friend is likely already dead as well as anyone who knows of you or the box. Tell your people on Nar Shaddaa to go into deep hiding, I cannot protect them, and you cannot save them.”

“My portly friend has more escape routes and hidey-holes than a womprat burrow, I wouldn’t count him out.” She squared her shoulders and crossed her arms. “I don’t scare easy, and I don’t much care for being backed into a corner; makes me irritable as a Rancor with a sore butt. I tend to do irrational shit when I’m peevish.”

“Nonetheless, Ky,” the voice continued, “your options are few and none. I may be your only hope. Travel back to Denon, land in the extreme northern spaceport, it has little traffic. A contact of mine will be waiting in the cantina, he will provide enough funds to get you to Kohlma.”

“And you don’t want this package for yourself? People have already tried to kill me twice, and I’m really not up for testing that ‘third time’s charm’ theory.”

“The package is not my destiny, I have a different path to follow, and this is merely a sidetrack that must be dealt with. Meet with me and take the chance to live or ignore my invitation and die. Do not delay your decision, already they have your scent. My contact will expect you in thirteen days, I will expect you six days after. Cover your trail." The image flickered and died.

"Mr. Cryptic seemed to know you quite well. First name basis too. Another conquest from before my time?" prodded Corso sarcastically.

"Don't start," she shot him a withering glance. "His voice is familiar, but not pillow talk familiar, if that eases your mind any.” She grabbed the crystal from his hand. “I’ll take care of this, you go do...something.”

There was no answer when she tried to contact Largo, nothing but the intermittent chime bobbing in an ocean of static. Her shoulders drooped with worry—the grief, she would put on hold until she knew for sure. Without her jolly, longtime friend, the universe would be a much dimmer place.

Akaavi answered with the typical Mando’a greeting and a frown that would frighten a nest of Vrblther.

“I need you and the others to fade into shadow,” said Ky, interrupting the outburst she knew was coming from the Zabrak. “You know Faakiz at the ‘Get a Kloo’ cantina down in the Undertow?”

The image nodded. “I know the piece of osik. He’d sell his own sister for a credit.”

“Exactly. I want you to contact Faakiz and have him take you to a safe house. Once he gets you situated, I need you to leave and find sanctuary in whatever hovel or dilapidated building you can access. Wrap yourselves in old blankets, mingle among the addicts, in the alleys, go to a lower level, I don’t care, just keep your heads down. Stay off the grid and the holo, I’m coming for you.”

Ky disconnected and gripped the crystal so tightly the pointed ends bored into her palm, the sharp pain providing an anchor she could hold on to. She hadn’t felt this alone since she was seven. A lost child in dirty blue gingham overalls stuffed into a cage the size of her house in the cargo hold of a ship that could swallow her entire village. A frightened, confused piece of baggage among uncounted others.

She’d won her first fight that day when a taller, stronger boy had tried to take Fooly, her stuffed tauntaun. She’d pulled his hair and bloodied his nose and kicked him when he tripped over another child’s legs. The puffy eye and split lip she’d received went unnoticed until later when the throbbing in her face began.

The guards had cheered her on, clapping and hooting which gave her an odd sense of pride. As soon as the spectacle ended, they resumed their rounds, forgetting her, downgrading her importance to just another piece of cargo, a valuable lesson for one so young. A lesson that had served her well. She’d hugged the toy close and squirmed her way through the throng of sniffling, dirty faces—close to tears, wanting to be invisible—wanting to go home.

She thrust the memory aside and stopped by the galley to retrieve her datapad. Inserting the crystal into the port as she walked to the cockpit, she ran a security scan on the file, relieved when nothing untoward was detected.

An involuntary gasp escaped when her bare thighs settled onto the cold leather pilot’s seat, absorbing all the heat from her body, sending a chilly tremor up her spine.

Instead of starting the jump calculations, or loading the data from the crystal, she sat, shivering and staring out the windshield at the endless black. A tired numbness washed over her and she wanted to be out there, floating, weightless and frozen, releasing her troubles to something bigger than herself.

“Stand up.” Corso’s blunt request came from beside her. She hadn’t heard him enter.

“Not now, please.” Defeat tinged her voice like echoes from an empty jar.

“I’m not here to fight. Stand up,” he repeated.

A heaviness she couldn’t fathom pulled at her as she rose from the seat and weariness staved off any inclination to fight. Corso stepped forward and lifted her to him before assuming his position in the pilot’s chair, settling her onto his lap and tucking the blanket he carried around her shivering body.

“Where to?” he asked, leaning forward a bit awkwardly to avoid pinning her against the steering wheel. A piercing pain jabbed through his shoulder as he stretched to reach the control panel. He chose to ignore it.

“Eiattu, if you please,” she responded, resting her cheek on his uninjured shoulder.

A few minutes later he initiated the jump and adjusted the chair to the furthest lock-stop position on the slider track, wrapping her in whatever comfort his arms could provide.

“You didn’t sleep last night, did you?” he inquired. “Do you think I don’t notice all the nights you get up to wander the ship? That pill you gave me knocked me out pretty good, or I wouldn’t even have to ask.”

“I didn’t get much sleep, and I never tried to hide my late-night strolls. It’s just that things are happening too fast and keep piling up. I’m broke, my crew is stranded on Nar Shaddaa, I have no idea what’s in that fucking box or where I can even unload it and then what happened to you yesterday...” She felt him tense up and added, “not that I’m going to push you for an answer. We both have our secrets.”

The blanket had fallen from her shoulders to fold around her hips and Corso absently strummed his fingers up and down her arm. The matter of his aberrant behavior was closed, she wouldn’t broach the subject again any more than she’d expose her secrets to him. She’d read somewhere that keeping secrets was the wisdom of fools, seems she and Corso were cases in point.

“We going to Denon like your mystery caller advised?” Corso started the conversation again.

“I don’t have much choice, I need the credits, but then I’m going to Nar Shaddaa to get my people. Warnings be damned.”

“You sure that’s the smart thing to do?”

She deflated against his chest, becoming small and delicate, her response full of fragile anger. “When have any of my current decisions been smart? Dammit, it’s my fault, all of it. My crew being hunted, Largo possibly dead, Rogun’s men getting killed, and the toll it’s taking on you. All of it’s my fucking fault and I have to make it right.”

“Then we’ll make it right together.” Corso kissed the top of her head and forehead, the bridge of her nose, nudging her face upward so he could kiss her mouth.

“Do you know what I miss?” she asked when the kiss ended.

“Tell me.” He rubbed his cheek against her hair.

“Do you remember our layover on Rishi and that hotel room we stayed in? Top floor, metal roof, lumpy mattress, squeaky springs—you were mortified by the thought that the whole town might hear us. And then it started to rain. Just a drop or two at first, falling here and there, unpredictable, almost teasing followed by a steady pattering and escalating into a deafening drumming that drowned out everything else. We made love in the chaos, cocooned in the rhythm of the storm and slept like two people who’d never sacrificed their innocence.”

“I remember.”

“More than anything else, my love, I wish it would rain.”

Chapter Text

Corso’s brows furrowed with worry over the woman he cradled on his lap. His indomitable, brilliant, sensual Ky who looked like fluff and bit like the business end of a knife. He knew, deep down, that she’d kick her own ass out of the slump she’d crawled into, but the taint of guilt marred her spirit, and he was at a loss as to what to do.

Ky had so few people she ever let close; her crew, Largo, and an old associate, Beryl Thorne, comprised the lump sum of who she considered family. Even Rogun never made the cut into her inner circle. She’d never confronted the probable death of someone so central to her heart, and she wore that burden like a badge of shame. He wanted to make it better and sitting in this shroud of silence was the last damned thing she needed.

“Sorry, no rain in my pockets,” he ventured, in a feeble attempt at humor. “Perhaps we should download some of those ‘Relaxing Sounds of Nature’ recordings into the ship's intercom.”

“I think it would lose something in translation,” she murmured against his shoulder. “Maybe we’ll find that rainstorm again if we look hard enough.”

His hand worked its way under her shirt, ignoring the stinging twinges when the fabric caught on his still-healing knuckles. The ridges of her ribs pressed against his fingertips as he caressed her back and the knots of bone up and down her spine were more prominent; she’d lost weight. Not surprising since she often took her meals from a glass and hadn’t slept well in days.

He attempted to tame his jumbled thoughts into one coherent stream as he lazily stroked her skin. The exact second when simple comfort turned into something more snuck by him as craftily as a pickpocket on a shadowport. A row of kisses drawn along his jaw, her fingers tracing the line of his collarbone, a subtle shift of her position, bringing his hand forward to her chest.

Her breathing stumbled when his palm found her breast, fingers kneading and gently pinching her nipple. A warm surge of blood rushed to his groin as his heart accelerated to thump against his ribs. Words had failed, but this he could give her.

A familiar bulge formed beneath her ass and she wriggled her hips to bring the message home that she desired a means to reduce her cares to a single tactile point of release.

The morass of unnavigable emotions she’d been foundering in evaporated the moment he’d fondled her breast. She could bury all fears, doubts, and regrets in this place. Hide from memories, nightmares, and herself in this brief sanctuary for damned souls.

She tangled her hand in his hair, closed her eyes and fell into the world of his touch and smell and the taste of his mouth crushed against hers.

“Seat’s small, maybe the bedroom?” he suggested, breaking the kiss and hooking his arm under her knees to stand upright.

She glanced behind to the expanse of the control console. “I don’t want to wait. Put me down.”

“What? Here?” He groaned in protest when she squirmed against him until he lowered her feet to the floor.

“Yes, here,” she affirmed and took the few steps to lean forward across a bank of controls either locked or dark from inactivity. She hiked her shirt up and cocked one hip in invitation, pursed her lips and winked at him over her shoulder.

“We’ve never...I mean we shouldn’t,” he stammered.

“For once we’re alone. I need this, and I think you do too.”

With an audible gulp, Corso toed off his boots and stepped behind her, the front of his trousers lightly skimming the convex orbs of her ass. She spread across the console like spilled sugar, arms extended above her head. His hands splayed across her back and pushed her shirt up further while he slowly bent to dip his tongue into one of the twin dimples at the base of her spine. A low moan trickled from her lips as he continued to lap back and forth between the two indentations, filling his mouth with the salty sweetness of her skin.

His fingers dragged down her back, feather-light travelers following the curves and dips of her landscape, the sweep of her ribs, the tight cinch of her waist, the flare of her hips. He righted himself, pressing his knee between her thighs to force her legs further apart. Holding her in place with one arm he glided his other palm over the pale globe of her ass to disappear into the cleft so newly opened. Deftly he plied his manual skills, stroking, circling, teasing. Her body went rigid, and she held the deep inhale, like those few moments of perfect stillness before an explosion. He took her to the brink and halted.

“Don’t stop,” she sighed, writhing against his fingers. “Shh,” he admonished, flattening her further onto the console, his hand a smoky shadow on a blanket of snow.

His injury stiffened fingers, still wet with her arousal, fumbled with the fasteners of his pants until they gave way and dropped to his ankles until he untangled his feet and kicked them aside. Bending his knees, spreading her thighs wider apart, he guided himself to her core and plunged, driving her against the front of the console. Her bones creaked against the hard edge, and she ate the pain like candy.

He ground his fingers and thumbs into the creamy skin of her hips knowing he would leave bruises and not caring. The door to the other he kept caged inside cracked open when she’d cried out his name. ‘Don’t be gentle,’ she’d begged, and he obliged, riding out his own internal battle with each thrust. His toffee-colored body slammed into her pale spacer’s flesh, pinning her to the console in an ever-increasing tempo until the fierce heat was all he could feel. Her nails screeched against the glass of the panel, her head sprang up, and a string of whimpering gasps staggered from her throat. Her muscles pulsed around him and with a growl of victory, he slammed the cage door shut and spilled himself deep inside.

Relief of many hues brushed across his mind. “Sweet heavens above, I love you,” he murmured as he collapsed forward to cover her prone back.

“Mmm, you too,” she hummed in response, welcoming the weight and warmth.

What had happened wasn't intended to last long, it was meant to be sudden, raw, instant gratification in the rough, and it scared the hell out of him. Making love to her was incomparable when he could mete out pleasure in gently controlled increments; but just one slip and passion could turn into a kind of insanity, blind and hungry. His bout of crazy on Belsavis served to show just how close to the edge he walked and although he was almost positive he would ever hurt her, the slight possibility alone tied his guts into a knot.

“Corso, love, you can move now,” her voice broke through at last.

“I’m sorry, babe. You must be freezing,” he apologized, pushed himself upright and retrieved his pants.

He wrapped her in the discarded blanket, carried her to their room and deposited her in the bed tucking the covers up around her chin. “You get some sleep. I’ll be back in a bit after I download the crystal and maybe have some of that tea and toast you so graciously offered earlier.”

Temporarily free of haunting concerns, she let exhaustion have its way, settled back into the pillow and yawned. She grasped his hand and brought it to her mouth, his injured knuckles rough against her lips. “I can be such a selfish bitch sometimes. How are your hands and shoulder? Do they need more kolto or fresh bandages?”

“Our earlier exercise didn’t put much strain on the shoulder, and the hands are stiff and swollen, but I think you’d agree they’re healing just fine. The droid can help if I need anything.” He bent to kiss her forehead and readjusted the covers before leaving their room. He’d likely be the one to stroll the corridors tonight.

They’d kept busy for the four-day journey to Eiattu trying to open the box and looking for other hiding places on the ship. Time had passed rather quickly although Ky was relieved when they dropped out of hyperspace and prepared to dock in the spaceport of the planet’s capital and largest city.

She’d secreted the box away in a space behind a panel under the flooring of the engine room that provided extra shielding from scans just in case they were boarded. The locking mechanism on the box itself proved to be more problematic having an encryption neither had seen before and no place to insert a spike. Not that either of them possessed that level of skill even had a port been available. Perhaps the mystery man would have some answers.

She sat in the navigator’s seat while Corso followed the landing procedures and instructions and caught a glimpse of the circular city built at the edge of one of the planet’s many oceans. The center rose in a tall spire above the pavilion-like layout of the silvery, reflective expanse of the annular metropolis. Swamps and estuaries broken by blue inlets and tributaries abutted against the outer walls. The spaceport lay at the outer edge of the southeast quadrant.

Spaceport officials had a standing policy of payment up front before the dock foreman would order his men to begin the refueling process. She transferred the funds, watching in dismay as the total in her account hovered just above the dreaded zero. If only Sonhem could be resurrected so she could kill him twice; damn him and damn her all over again for being such an idiot.

She locked the ship and proceeded to the busy shopping area lining the main concourse and purchased a bag of caf beans, and a bottle of shampoo, avoiding the liquor section although she was sorely tempted. She’d been pacing herself a bit too much, as far as she was concerned, but figured she could make the little more than a third of a bottle last until Denon. Nine more days would surely test that theory.

Corso strode beside her carrying the bag, both enjoying the chance to stretch their legs and breathe unrecycled air. They remained alert, skirting clusters of people, and carefully watching hand and eye movements of passers-by. A side exit opened onto a catwalk that evidently ran the circumference of the entire city. It extended out over the tops of cypress and scrub oak and the carpet of bracken covering the ground below.

The smell of brackish water, unpleasant but not overwhelming, rose from the swampy area, and a light breeze ruffled their hair as they stood near the waist-high railing. Corso set the bag down and leaned casually against the round durasteel tubes.

“You feel that?” he asked.

“Yeah, we’re being watched. I don’t see anyone, but there are plenty of vantage points up above.”

“Who would know we’re here? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Chance encounter maybe. Hunters are everywhere and have their own network for obtaining marks, and we’ve been on that list since Port Nowhere,” she said flashing a smile his way and coyly tucking a tendril of stray hair behind her ear.

Just two people having an innocent flirtation, move on or make your move. She surveyed the surroundings over Corso’s shoulder while he did the same over hers.

A glint of reflection, a puff of powdery white, Corso snagged her belt and yanked her down. The ping of metal off the railing, a dart skidding along the grating under their feet to fall off the edge verified their suspicions.

“The door,” said Corso. “Let’s get back inside.”

Ky nodded and followed his lead. The whistle of another dart cut through the air skimming the back of her neck, stinging as it scratched across her skin. It partially buried itself in her flesh before its own momentum tore it away. Two steps inside the door and already her legs were leaden, her vision contracted to a dark tunnel with bright colored bubbles floating around the edges. She shook her head and stumbled, almost falling before Corso crooked his arm around her waist to keep her on her feet.

“Stay with me, babe. It’s not far to the ship,” he said, hooking his fingers into her belt for extra heft and dragging her along at a pace too fast for her legs to keep up. People in his path stepped aside, and he kept casting furtive glances over his shoulder. No blaster fire, no whiz of a dart, but he was unfamiliar with the laws of this planet, and perhaps a public display of violence was heartily discouraged by stiff penalties.

“Drop the bag,” she mumbled, the words sounding incoherent even to her ears.

“Oh, no,” he replied, “and face you in the morning without your caf? I’d sooner face a rabid gundark.”

“Vry fny,” her thick tongue and numb lips barely managed to mutter. The world had gone gray, and she struggled to keep her head up.

“C2?” Corso yelled as soon as he’d entered the hatch and locked it behind him.

He dropped the bag and lifted her sagging body, her head lolled across his arm, and her hands swung listlessly as he made his way to the med bay. The droid toddled in just as he placed her on the bed.

“How long ‘til the refueling’s done?” Corso asked the droid as he removed the scanner from the drawer under the side of the bed.

“Another twenty-four point seven minutes, if the calculations of flow and crew efficiency hold true.”

“Here,” Corso slapped the scanner into the droid's hands. “You’re better at reading this thing. I need to know what she has in her system, if it’s lethal, and what she needs. If she dies, I’ll turn you into scrap.”

Corso paced, rubbing the back of his neck, cursing under his breath. His eyes flicked back and forth between the droid and Ky’s face, which had turned pale yellow in the harsh light.

“Ah,” the droid said without further explanation.

Corso rounded the foot of the bed restraining the temptation to bash the droids head with the scanner but settled for poking it in the chest instead. “Well, out with it. How is she?”

“Apologies. The chemical proved to be a concentrated form of Symexia, a common substance used by bounty hunters and other unsavory types. A full dose would have rendered her unconscious almost immediately. She will sleep for a few hours and be quite groggy when she awakens and may suffer from compromised fine motor skills for a day or two. I will tend to the scratch on her neck and return to my duties unless you require something else.”

“No, nothing else. Thanks, C2.” Corso aided in turning her to the side and holding her hair out of the way while the droid cleaned and dressed the superficial wound. “Oh, notify me when the refueling is done. I’ll be here until it’s time to leave.”

The light pierced her irises, her arms and legs felt wobbly as elastex tubing, and there was a horribly annoying buzzing in her ears. The last thing she remembered was being dragged through the spaceport concourse.

A hand gently smoothed her hair back from her forehead and Corso’s voice, calm and soothing, drifted to her from far away.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

Her dry throat rasped out the question, “How long?”

He pushed down on her shoulders when she tried to sit up. “Only a few hours. I’ve made the jump to Denon so you can relax and take your time. It’s going to be a long trip.”

Chapter Text

For nearly two days after her unwelcome introduction to the pointy end of a tranquilizer dart, her fingers refused to navigate the terrifying tasks of fastening her britches or buckling her belt. She’d slopped caf down the front of a clean shirt, twice, and exploded in a tirade of expletives more than once. Thank the stars the infuriating impairment passed before she flushed herself out the airlock just to relieve the frustration.

“So, the attack on Eiattu. Hutt or some new threat?” Corso broached the subject once he was sure she was willing to talk.

“Hunter for sure and could be either,” she’d replied between taking bites of toast. “If it were GenoHaradan, we’d not be having this conversation. Spacers say that if you see one, it’s already too late.”

“Heard of them, don’t know much about them,” said Corso.

“Nobody does. Ghosts in fog, part myth, part bogeyman and, evidently, everywhere. Or so I’ve heard. We need to be careful on Denon, and Nar Shaddaa is gonna be its own brand of headache.”

Corso nodded. “I just hope the others are safe.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Long trip indeed.  Not that Ky wasn’t used to traveling days through hyperspace with nothing but the hum of the drives and the popping of the hull as it went through heating and cooling cycles to keep her company in the wee hours. But, this trip wore on her more than usual.

Everything was the same, but not. Subtle as a laser sight between the shoulder blades, a niggling feeling that something was amiss, gnawed at her.

She glanced balefully at the bottle, gauging how many more shots she had until she was trying to wring the last drops from the long glass neck. Not that she drank a lot at any given time, sloppy drunks were a health hazard, but she did appreciate the solace and clarity a sip or two, or more provided.

She raised the glass to her lips, seeking answers from a liquid oracle. Her mind traveled the short distance to her room and the lovely man who slumbered there. He’d grown quiet of late and avoided close contact in any place other than their quarters. Life with her had changed him in some fundamental way, diminished the bright beacon of optimism he’d carried like a torch the day they met.

Belsavis had been a tipping point, throwing her world off its axis. A barely discernible wobble of the one person, the one constant in her orbit, threw her even further off balance.

Something Rona Riggs had said to him on Coruscant wormed its way into her thoughts, ‘go home farm boy, you're just too good for this universe.’ That was the crux of the blessing and the problem that was Corso. If her existence were a drowning pool, the weight of her sins would drag him under too, and he deserved better. He deserved more.

Ky tipped the glass from side to side, lazily sloshing the mute seer back and forth, and still, the amber harlot offered no alternate solution to their present course. Her damnable pride had put them all on this collision course with disaster.

Damn! Akaavi would be verbally bitch slapping her right now and heartily berating her for boohooing over shit already done. Risha would be telling her to suck it up, and Bowdaar would merely want to know who was next on her kill list. They’d all be right, of course; self-pity and two credits would get her a lousy cup of caf and nothing else.

Boot, meet ass. 

She tossed back the remainder of the glass, capped off the bottle and headed toward that lovely man sleeping in her bed.

The sheets on her half were cold, and she sidled into Corso’s space, shivering at his side until he raised his arm so she could slip underneath and huddle in his warmth.

“You ok?” he asked, voice muddled with sleep.

“Not yet, but I will be,” she replied.

Why the hell do the last few hours of a jump last forever? 

Whether a simple drop off or pick up or walking into a shit ton of ‘who the hell knows;’ that one kriffed up perception of time remained the same.

Corso was in the crew quarters performing final cleaning and maintenance checks on their weapons, and she sat in the cockpit, feet propped on the console, ankles crossed, absently rubbing her fingers over the raised scar on her neck.

Someone flying solo had attacked them on Eiattu, but what or who waited for them on Denon? She couldn’t leave the ship alone once they landed, Corso would have to stay behind. If they were both taken, all was lost, but as long as one of them had possession of the box there was leverage. He wasn’t going to like this, not one little bit. She lowered her feet to the floor and with a long exhale settled her shoulders into a stiff wall of unassailable resolve.

The sweet odor of gun oil lingered, even though Corso had finished up and was putting away the rags when she entered the room. The gas cartridges released a small amount of tibanna when he slipped them into their chambers adding an acrid undertone to the fruity aroma of the oil. She loved that smell and the man who often wore it like his own brand of cologne.

“Hey, babe. We need to talk,” she said, stopping short of where he stood with his back to her.

“I always hate it when you say that,” he wiped his hands and turned around, crossing his arms over his chest. An unconscious defensive posture warding off any physical contact.

“Oh, you’re gonna hate this for sure.” She prepared herself for the inevitable backlash of telling him he’d have to stay on the ship.

“No, absolutely not.” He raised a finger in front of her face to make the point. “What the hell are you thinking? After what happened on Eiattu? Are you insane?”

“A tad insane maybe, but if we are both taken, if they get the box our lives won’t amount to a steaming pile of bantha dung. Always leave a bargaining chip up your sleeve, you know this.”

“Why didn’t you just have the crew board a liner and meet us here? The travel time was nearly the same.”

“And how the hell does one disguise a Wookie? Oh, yeah, this is my very tall uncle who has a hormone problem. Please ignore all the facial hair. Akaavi and Gus maybe, but Bowdaar? They wouldn’t have made it to the spaceport, and I’m not willing to take chances with their lives.”

“But you’d chance yours?”

“It’s my life to risk. I’m still the Captain, and the decision’s already been made.”

“Dammit, Ky, you can’t pull rank like that. Not with me.”

“I just did.” She wrapped her hand around that one finger he still waggled under her nose and drew it to her lips. “Get ready, we’re almost there.”

The northernmost spaceport of Denon known only as The Annex sat at the very edge of the icecap that supplemented the water supply to the planet. The ice field, unlike the pristine white of Hoth, had a gray tint from decades of pollution from the city world. It barely reflected the light of the sun and processing plants dotted the icescape feeding water to the giant pipes that crisscrossed the surface.

Less than a dozen landing bays fanned around the small hub building that, even from this distance, seemed in need of repair. Ky doubted this place saw much besides local traffic. Unlike the larger spaceports which tractored incoming vessels into the hangars, a manual landing was required. Corso was directed to docking bay 5 where the dock crew began the refueling process as soon as the repulsors were disengaged.

“So far, so good,” Ky said exiting from the cockpit, Corso close in her wake.

She resettled her blaster and knife on her hips and verified her datapad in the inside pocket of her vest before pressing the hatch release and extending the ramp.

A hand tightened around her wrist, an arm coiled around her waist and she was drawn into his gravity, breasts flattened against the hard plane of his chest.

“Come back to me,” his lips whispered before they covered hers.

“You know I will,” she replied as he stepped aside to unblock the exit. Her back straight in a posture of bravery, head up and alert, she sauntered down the ramp automatically assuming the spacer’s strut that simultaneously demanded attention and told the universe to ‘fuck off.’

Her continually moving gaze scanned her surroundings, the workers whose eyes appraised her from head to toe, the scaffolding above and the rough, pitted durasteel floor held nothing of concern. The bay entrance leading to the less than impressive concourse had blind spots on either side, but she doubted an assailant would strike so openly.

She fell in behind two women with chattering children and paused briefly by the door to the port commissary, which appeared to be small and ill stocked. Foot traffic was light, most likely families of the men who worked here. The entire place was hardly bigger than a depot, only useful as a layover for those not wanting to be seen.

An occasional poster, faded with frayed edges, touted escapist lives these people could only dream of or extolled the virtues of the Republic. A block of flimsy wanted posters outside the courier service office were the only things shiny and new. She didn’t recognize any of the faces, sighed and moved on.

As she neared the end of the concourse, the sound of jukebox music drifted from the left of the T junction. The carpet was dirtier and more threadbare as she rounded the corner. Straight ahead, the holo sign above the door blinked ‘Last Tap’ in garish red and yellow.

Sidestepping, so her back was against the wall, she stopped just inside the doorway to sweep the room for her contact and possible problems. Hell, she didn’t even know who she was looking for, but trouble she could smell a parsec away and so far, her spine was tingle free, but the hairs on her neck had started to wave to get her attention.

The bartender gave her a cursory glance when she entered and went back to swiping his towel across the bar top. Two men sat at the bar, another at a table close by the holo dancer and a fourth in a booth at the far end who nodded and raised his glass in a toast before slinging back the contents.

The place reeked of disinfectant and week-old vomit, but she’d been in worse. The man by the holo rose from his table and headed toward the ‘fresher, she watched his progress before pushing off from the wall and strolling casually toward the booth.

“You don’t drink, you don’t stay,” the barkeep growled as she approached the bar.

So much for hospitality, no wonder the place was empty. 

“Whiskey, and it’s on him,” she growled back, pointed her chin at booth man and continued on.

“I don’t know you or your business. Keep it clean and cordial or take it elsewhere,” barkeep snapped and slid a glass across the bar in her direction.

“Relax, slick. I won’t be giving him a blowjob under the table if that’s your worry,” she smiled, picked up the glass and gave a wide berth to the two men who snickered as she passed by.

“Aragath?” the man asked as she leaned her hip against the side of the booth so she could see him and the room.

“That’s me,” she answered. “You have something I need?”

“Trick question?” He grinned, crinkling the deep scars that marred the right side of his face. The smile did not reach his eyes which remained obsidian hard and focused on her. “Sit, please. What I have for you is best kept from prying eyes.”

She slid into the booth staying at arm’s length. “Look, whoever you are, can we cut the crap and get this transaction over with? Your employer has me on a bit of a schedule, and I don’t think it’d be wise to disappoint him.”

“My employer has the patience of the ages, but you are correct that it might be unwise to test it.”

She carefully observed his hand that disappeared into his jacket, removed a square, string bound, leatheris envelope and slid it to her under the table.

“Twenty thousand, after my cut of course,” he said.

“Of course,” she smirked, tucking the envelope away and reaching for her glass.

She’d usually have downed the whiskey in one gulp, but instead set the glass back down. She didn’t know Scarface or the barkeep, and given the circumstances, she’d rather drink from a glass she’d filled herself or from a bottle she’d broken the seal on. Best to err on the side of caution.

“Here,” she said, pushing the glass across the table. “You paid for it anyway, and I need to be going.” She patted her vest. “Thanks for the delivery.”

“My pleasure,” he replied. “Now about that blowjob,” he chuckled at her retreating back.

An upraised middle finger over her shoulder seemed an appropriate reply. His laughter escorted her out the door.

Too public, she thought as she left the cantina unable to shake the feeling that someone watched her. She walked the middle of the concourse, avoiding darkened doorways and slipped into the commissary to see if anyone followed.

Halted in the liquor section, she perused the overpriced bottles, her eyes flitting to the door from time to time. It wasn’t Scarface, but holo dancer man who stopped outside the window to glance inside. He wasn’t trying to hide which was comforting, or not.

Ky paid for a cheap bottle of whiskey, and instead of turning toward bay 5, she pivoted and strode over to holo man who hadn’t moved.

“If you’ve got something to say, then say it. Otherwise, don’t follow me, it makes me twitchy,” she said, hand resting on blaster grip, narrowed eyes meeting his.

“Ky Aragath, also known as the Voidhound. We still monitor your whereabouts from time to time. Seems you’ve stumbled into something and I’m offering you a way out,” he responded.

“Huh,” she grunted. All things considered, he wasn’t bad to look at. Tall, lean, black hair, blue eyes, and an unflappable disposition. He smelled of whiskey and cigarettes laced with a hint of spice, maybe to help him sleep, maybe to help him forget. Everyone has their demons, and she had problems of her own.

“You have me at a disadvantage, Mister?”

“Jonas Balkar, SIS. I was in this sector, and you might consider this a courtesy call. I’ve come on behalf of the Jedi Council. They request an audience with you on Tython for a discussion about a certain transmission a colleague of mine intercepted and partially decrypted a few days ago. It might be wise of you to accept their offer.”

“Oh, this is rich. The Republic threw me to the wolves, and the Jedi couldn’t be bothered to intervene on my behalf? They let Saresh take away my livelihood, and now they want to parlay? I put my life on the line for them, so unless that offer comes with a boatload of credits, I’m not interested. The Jedi are nothing but a bunch of self-righteous pricks who only saw my worth as long as they needed me for something. I’ve had a bellyful of being used.”

“Don’t shoot the messenger,” Balkar said flinging up his hands. “I’ve had my say, you won’t see me again. The Jedi will send others who won’t be quite so amiable. All I know is that whatever you’re mixed up in is dangerous.”

“Life is dangerous, Mr. Balkar. Or didn’t you get the memo?” Ky spun on her heel and walked away, feeling the weight of his gaze on her back.

She briefly stopped by the hub office to pay for the refueling charges, seething inside at the unmitigated gall of the Jedi Order. Sanctimonious assholes!

Corso had the ramp extended and was sprinting her way as soon as she entered the hangar.

“Stars, babe, you’re shaking like a leaf,” Corso said as he folded her in his arms. “What happened?”

“I’m so pissed I don’t know what else to do,” she grumbled into his shirt.

“Refuel is done. Let’s get you back inside, and you can tell me about it while I do preflights so we can leave this place.”

“I already paid the fees, and the sooner we dust this rock, the better.”

An hour later she’d told him about Scarface and Balkar and explained that The Annex was likely too small and lacking privacy and hiding places for another attack. His face had gone an odd shade of pale when trying to make the jump.

“You thought you were mad before,” he said. “I can’t lock in Nar Shaddaa. I can’t lock in anyplace but Bogden.”

“That’s impossible. Try and reboot the nav system.”

“I can’t do that either. The system’s not responding, we’ve been sliced.”

“It couldn’t have been the crystal, could it? The scan came up negative.”

“Maybe, or it could have been embedded in the transmission itself. Whoever did this is damned good. We’d have to gut the whole system, and even then we couldn’t be sure that the code wasn’t ghosted somewhere else.”

“Alright, I’m up for playing his game, to Bogden, it is,” Ky said. “One way or another, I want this ended.”

Six miserable days. Ky remained on edge, prowling the ship at all hours, and Corso trying to stay out of her way. By the time they set down on Kohlma, Bogden’s funerary moon, her fuse had been lit, and it was a short one.

A tall figure strode toward them out of the gloom, cape billowing, boots stirring up minuscule puffs of dust. Without so much as a greeting or by your leave, Ky closed the distance, round housing her fist into the side of his face with enough force to knock his head back and rock the silver tendril rings hanging on either side of his chin.

Chapter Text

“I suppose I deserved that,” the Sith remarked, “although I have killed men for less.”

“You arrogant, deceitful, underhanded, sonofabitch,” Ky spat at the man towering over her. “You hijacked my ship, leaving my people stranded. That was low even for your kind.”

The red, giant of a man quirked one brow spur. “You have insulted my parentage and my race, like to try for a third?”

“You probably have a tiny dick too, how’s that?” Ky retorted, feeling her anger dissipate from a rolling boil to a slow simmer. “Damn you, Scourge.”

A deep chuckle escaped his lips, there and gone almost before the vibrations could stir the air. “It has been far too long since last we met, Ky. If you are quite done pummeling me, can we talk? Time is of the essence.”

“Yes it is, and time is running out for my crew. What do you want?”

“We are safe here for a few hours, perhaps we should go inside.” Scourge inclined his head toward her ship.

“After you,” Ky said, stopping for a moment to survey the area.

The ghosts of this dead place walked through and around her and over her grave which hadn’t been dug yet. Headstones and crypts rose from the gray soil, symbols of a violent past, reminders of the fragility of life and the permanence of death. A bitter wind whispered and moaned between the monuments erected to mourn the cost of war, and a sad sun shed bleak comfort on an auburn sky.

“You always did take me to the best places, Scourge,” Ky said, falling in behind the two men.

“Is there something between you two I should know about?” Corso quipped.

“Do you even know the woman you travel with, boy?” the Sith snorted.

“Haven’t been a boy for a while,” Corso shot back.

“That remains to be seen.” Scourge dismissed him with a glance.

“Ancient history and not worth discussing.” Ky shrugged.

“I beg to differ. Love radiates from him like a sickness. Such fever deserves comment.”

Hey, I’m right here you know, and...”

“Can we table this for later?” Ky intervened. “There are more important issues at hand.”

“As you wish,” Scourge acquiesced.

The Sith Lord’s presence filled the tiny galley, heady power seeping into every corner. He raised two fingers to his temple, pressing hard enough to dimple the skin, and closed his eyes.

“May I see it?” he asked.

“Terms first,” insisted Ky.

“Of course. I forgot what you have become.”

“No, you forgot who I’ve always been.”

“Perhaps.” His eyelids dawned over scarlet orbs that flashed in her direction. “It would be mutually beneficial for us to unite forces. You have no idea what you hold.”

“I’m pretty quick on the uptake. Three attempts on my life send an awfully clear message.” she scoffed. “Let me guess. The galaxy is in some cataclysmic danger, and I am honor bound to ride to its rescue. Pfft, where have I heard that before? As I recall, I’ve already saved the galaxy twice, no, three times and you should know. You were there for two of them.”

“This is different.”

“Is it?” She scrubbed her hand over her mouth and chin and shook her head in disbelief. “And what’s in it for me? I’ve been shafted by Republic and Jedi alike, been hunted, maligned, and snubbed by those who owe me the most. Stars, I’m tired of dumpster diving my way across the galaxy.”

“I sympathize...”

“Do you? Can you?”

Scourge scowled. “The intent is genuine. Please let me explain.”

Corso felt very much out of his depth listening to the back and forth between the old acquaintances, friends, lovers? There was a discomfiting familiarity about their exchange that predated his time with her, and Scourge seemed almost deferential where Ky was concerned, an odd stance for a Sith. It irked him that someone knew things about her that she had never shared with him, but who was he to talk, he’d remained just as walled off. He turned his attention back to their conversation, perturbed that he felt left out, and more so that he had nothing to contribute.

“Oh yes, do regale me with dark tales of more Sith bullshit.” She retrieved the bottle and a glass from the cupboard, plunking them down on the counter before taking a seat and pouring a goodly measure. “It is more Sith bullshit, right?”

Scourge locked his hands behind his back and sighed. “Yes, as you so colorfully phrased it. How much do you know of the Emperor’s Children?”

“Wasn’t your knight’s sidekick, Kira, one of those?”

“You remember well. After the plot was uncovered, the Jedi hunted the Children for months and thought them all disposed of or neutralized. They were mistaken.”

Ky screwed her face into a mocking visage. “This is purely wild speculation but, you’re about to tell me that the box contains some ancient trinket of immense power, blah, blah, etcetera. You Sith never learn.”

“Sarcasm sits sourly in your mouth, Ky. It will avail you nothing with this or with me.” Scourge’s eyes flared for a moment and returned quickly to the flat crimson of dried paint on a wall.

She raised one shoulder in an insouciant shrug and rotated her hand in a gesture for him to continue.

“What you have is a reliquary containing spiral bound sheets of metal that contain Vitiate’s notes on many of his experiments and rituals. A workbook of sorts, written in a language that only the Emperor can understand.”

Ky raised an eyebrow and cocked her head. “Why the hell would your Emperor need notes? Was he going senile in his old age?”

“Vitiate has lived over a millennium and the item has been in his possession for as long as can be remembered. There are rituals dating back through the ages he never shared. However, I will concede that he was greatly distracted the last years of his rule as if his mind were elsewhere much of the time. I believe this distraction may have led to the demise of his Voice on Dromund Kaas, or perhaps it was all a ruse to facilitate his disappearance. We may never be certain.”

“And you know the contents of this workbook how?”

“Few have been inside the Emperor’s mind as intimately as me, Servant One of The Hand, a couple of his Children, and one other who is now dead.”

“Revan,” Ky ventured.

Scourge nodded. “It is a terrifying labyrinth of traps and pitfalls, memory and madness. False hallways that lead nowhere, stairs that crumble under the feet, quagmires, and ghosts of his victims, eternally screaming in a chorus of agony. But, I caught glimpses of things the emperor assumed well hidden; a planet bereft of all life, the location of a hidden laboratory and the key to the language of his writings.”

She scooched forward on her seat, propping her elbows on the counter. “So, why now? I was there on Dromund Kaas when your knight struck him down.”

“The reliquary was never far from Vitiate. He guarded it fiercely, but when Sayonar dealt the fatal blow, it vanished along with his essence. I suspect a servant of The Hand secreted it away to one of the many vaults he has scattered across the galaxy. Roughly six months ago, it resurfaced in the hands of a scavenger, and the bloody trail leads here. It calls in whispers that only those who have been in the emperor’s mind can hear. Me and his children.”

Ky’s eyes widened with understanding. “Kira, your knight's padawan. That’s why Balkar approached me on Denon. The Jedi know.”

“Yes, and they will come, as well as the Sith. The Jedi make no move that escapes the Dark Council, spies reside in the most unlikely places, and the Council will hound the Jedi’s steps directly to you, but they are not the bigger threat.”

Scourge halted his recital long enough to drain a glass of water before continuing. “One of the Children, Cirris Tajno, masked himself and escaped detection. Ensconced in a position of wealth and power for years and well connected with resources to spare, he amassed his fortune. He constructed this alternate life, cultivated inroads to people of questionable ethics and seeks this knowledge.”

Given the man he was, she couldn’t believe she even had to ask the next question. “Hell, if you know who the bastard is, why not just smoke his ass and be done with it?”

“Because I don’t know where he is. His presence in the Force is slick, oily, ungraspable. It is there and then gone, leaving no wake to follow. The only reason I know as much as I do is that I was very good at my job as the emperor’s interrogator. And even then, those I tracked down died suddenly from heart failure, stroke, or embolism before I could get more than bits and pieces. He is a wisp in a whirlwind.”

Ky tapped her nails against the side of the glass. “Then the solution is easy. I’ve got the box, and if you have the credits, it’s all yours. I’m not in the hero business anymore. The pay is lousy, the hours suck and the retirement plan is shit. I’ve done my bit, it’s somebody else's turn.”

Scourge punctuated his next words as if speaking to an errant child. “Ky, let me be perfectly clear. This ‘box’ as you call it cannot be auctioned off like some common artifact. There is no highest bidder in this transaction, and you will not survive the sale.”

“You could just take it, I suppose. It’s not as if Corso or I could stop you.”

“To what purpose? I could never harm you, nor would it help your situation. They know that it is in your possession and will come for you nonetheless. Neither the Jedi nor the Dark Council or even I can contain this. It is in your best interest to help.”

She arched her brows as if he’d lost his mind. “And what the fuck do you expect me to do?”

“I need your piloting skills. You know of what I speak.”

“What? Skin dancing and stone skipping? Surely you have Force-sensitive pilots who can do the same.”

He took a step closer, focused on her face as if trying to break through a barrier. “I often thought you were Force-sensitive, but my scans proved otherwise. No, what you have is intuitive, instinctual, an inherent trait of your brain that allows you to calculate grid, position, spacial drift, and time flux almost instantaneously. In truth, I’d wondered if this were the reason for your survival in the arena.”

Corso, whose head had been pivoting back and forth between them, snapped his attention back to her. She raised a finger in his direction staving off the questions about to pop out of his mouth.

“That was not yours to tell.” She narrowed her eyes at Scourge.

The Sith’s eyes eased their scrutiny and flitted between Corso and her. “Ah, I see. My apologies. The question still stands, will you join me?”

Ky swallowed the whiskey she’d been holding in her mouth. “You’re hoping to find a cure.”

If she didn’t know the man better, she could have sworn he visibly squirmed at her assumption, rolling his shoulders inside his armor and shifting his weight.

“I do not deny the possibility hasn’t crossed my mind,” he admitted. “But the primary goal is to find this laboratory, uncover its secrets, and rid the galaxy of the reliquary once and for all.”

Ky emptied her glass and poured another shot, wondering which pantheon of the galaxy she’d pissed off this time. “Maker’s balls, what have I gotten us into?”

“You’re not really considering this,” said Corso, finding his voice at last.

“Yes, I am, on one condition.” She pinned Scourge with her stare. “You get my people off of Nar Shaddaa, and I’ll stone skip into The Maw itself.”

“Here.” Scourge removed a data crystal from his belt and tossed it to Corso. “This will remove the lockdown on your nav system and scrub all inhibiting programs from your other systems as well. I give you my word, it is perfectly safe, and we have already lingered here too long.”

“My crew?” Ky reminded the Sith.

“I have people I can contact to try and retrieve them safely. However, I make no promises. My ship is not far away, and with your permission, I would like to direct my astromech to fly this vessel to Untuar IV, a base I procured some years ago. We should not delay our departure, and you should learn to handle The Segomo, she is a bit more temperamental than what you are accustomed to.”

“You’ll need the sub-frequency for my comlink that we use in emergencies. Akaavi won’t respond any other way.”

“Pack what you need, I will make arrangements before we depart.”

“Just don’t wreck my ship,” she yelled at Scourge’s retreating back.

Corso grumbled under his breath while they packed what little they had and practically threw the box at her when he’d retrieved it from the engine room. Going to the cockpit, he jammed the crystal into the port and initiated the download, verifying he could lock in at least three different destinations before he was satisfied.

He wasn’t sure whether he was more angry with her for, once again, putting her life on the line or because he suspected that the deciding factor was to help her Sith find his cure; whatever the hell that meant.

He shouldered the duffels and rifle and followed her down the ramp.

The tension between them was like a living thing on this barren moon, arcing back and forth like frayed wires in a conduit. Corso stared straight ahead, brows creased and lips pressed into a mirthless line.

Ky flinched when the repulsors engaged on the Soledad, but couldn’t force herself to turn and watch the ship lift into the maroon sea of clouds. She’d lost too many homes in her life and lacked the heart to say goodbye to another.

Chapter Text

 Scourge’s ship, The Segomo, sat like a raptor in a boneyard. Gray-white tombstones and leaning statues rose in stark contrast to the sleek, ebon vehicle like ribcages already stripped of their meat.

‘This must be what you get when a Phantom and an Interceptor rub bulkheads,’ Ky thought as she scrutinized the exterior contour while she and Corso headed toward the dim red light emanating from the top of the ramp.

Lord Scourge exited the area of the cockpit and pushed by Corso to retract the ramp and close the door as soon as they’d stepped through the hatch.

“Welcome aboard,” Scourge said. “I’ll show you to your quarters while TooVee performs prechecks.”

They followed the armored wall of his back, passing crew quarters, galley and cargo bay to a small room with double bed, desk, chair, and wardrobe.

“I apologize for the cramped space. I know you are accustomed to larger accommodations.”

“It’s fine,” remarked Ky. “We’ll make do and at least it has its own refresher.”

“My quarters are close to the cockpit which should provide a modicum of privacy during your stay. Please stow your gear and meet me in the conference room as soon as possible. I’d like to contact my people about Nar Shaddaa and get underway.”

As soon as Scourge’s footsteps had receded, Corso slapped his palm against the lock panel. “Dammit, Ky, I can’t stand being mad at you, but what the hell are you doing? What do you owe this Scourge?”

She sat the lockbox on the foot of the bed and turned to face him. “We don’t have time for this. We can talk later.”

He spread his hands in earnest plea. “Just explain this, please. I can wait for the rest.”

She closed her eyes and slumped unto the edge of the bed, a sigh of resignation puffing through her cheeks. She wanted another drink to replace the warmth that the cold knot forming in her stomach had leached out of her extremities. Her mind whimpered, ‘I’m tired, and scared, and making it up as I go,’ but her lips uttered the words they both needed to hear.

“I refuse to have this thing dragging behind us along with everything else. Scourge is right, it’ll never end. So, by stars, I’ll give them a run for their money, and if push comes to shove, I’ll pick my place and make a stand. No matter the outcome, I’m going to end this.”

Corso had come to kneel at her feet, taking her hands in his, massaging her icy fingers. “And Scourge?”

As if hearing his name, the Sith’s voice broke through the intercom. “I’m waiting, Ky. We need to do this now or not at all.”

She slid her hands from Corso’s and laid her palm against his cheek. “It’ll have to keep.”

Scourge’s baritone met them at the conference room’s door. “Regardless, this needs to be done, and you will hear her out. Am I clear?” He stood before the holo image of a man whose back was to them until they stepped around the oval table.

“Well, hello again, sweet cheeks,” the man grinned, the scarred side of his face puckering into an abstract painting of crooked blue lines. “Seems you just can’t stay away.”

“Silence, Okarr,” grumbled Scourge who turned to Ky. “Give him the information for your people and be quick. I have many levels of security on this channel, but nothing is guaranteed.”

Ky nodded. “Your contact’s name is Akaavi Spar, she travels with a Wookiee and a Mon Calamari. Use this frequency on your commlink, 127-Zesh-95-Leth-3 and record this message from me. Ready?”

“For you, babe, always,” he teased.

Corso was taut as a bowcaster string, and if looks could kill, Okarr would already be on the floor. She elbowed him in the ribs and began to speak.

“Akaavi, I don’t have time to explain. Right now we are safe but can’t come for you. This man, Okarr, will get you off of Nar Shaddaa and take you to the ship. Stay there. I will call if I can. And just so you know it’s really me, Aliit ori'shya tal'din.”

“That it?” asked Okarr.

“Yeah, just bring them through this,” answered Ky.

“I’ll do my best, darlin’. Besides, we still have that other matter to settle. You know what I mean.”

“In your dreams,” she retorted, barely able to suppress a smile from lifting the corners of her mouth.

“Okarr out.” The man’s laughter flickered and died along with his image.

“Come with me,” said Scourge. “We need to leave.”

Corso expelled a low whistle between his teeth when they stepped into the cockpit. The control console formed a semi-circle around the pilot’s seat with tinted glass covered panels fanned out in patterns designed for efficiency. A systems status monitor tilted upward in the center displaying a constant readout, and a retractable rearview monitor hung from the ceiling. The smaller co-pilot station sat to the left and navigator console to the right.

“Nice digs,” remarked Ky.

“It serves me well,” said Scourge with an off-handed wave of the wrist.

“Prechecks are complete, Master. Orinda is locked in and we are ready for departure,” the Imperial 2V-R8 model droid swiveled the pilot’s seat and stood up.

“We have guests, and I expect you to perform accordingly,” Scourge ordered and stepped aside so the droid could pass.

“Ky, if you please,” said Scourge, gesturing toward the pilot’s seat.

She shook her head. “Corso departs and lands, I fly. It’s just the way it is.”

“Are you sure? Shouldn’t you get familiar with the controls?”

“I already am.” She turned to Corso. “Take us out, babe.”

“So, Okarr, huh?” she said, grabbing the back of the pilot’s seat during the slightly wobbly take off. “Any relation to Nico Okarr?”

“Evidently some long-lost cousin. Seph has proven to be quite useful during his tenure with me, being a man of diverse talents.”

“So, how did you meet this guy?”

“Living up to the Okarr name, Seph took it upon himself to de-flower the niece of a very powerful Moff. This was perhaps eight years before my defection. I was sent to interrogate a captured SIS agent who’d infiltrated the 7th fleet and from down the hall came yelling of a rather sexual nature. As I recall it went something like, ‘Oh, baby, please, just one more, I’m so close.’”

Ky chuckled at his dry, monotone delivery as much as the words themselves. “And you had to investigate, right?”

“It did pique my curiosity.” Scourge’s body wavered slightly when Corso made the jump. “Not much surprises me after so many years. Strapped nude to an interrogation table, body bruised and bleeding with half his face scorched, was Seph. He had the temerity to wink at me and ask if I wanted to play also.

“I feigned righteous indignation, told them I would take care of the man myself for such insult and he has been in my employ ever since. He runs his side businesses, and I don’t ask as long as he’s there when I call. The arrangement suits us both, and he’s one of a handful of people I trust.”

“I’ll hold onto my reservations about that until he gets my crew off Nar Shaddaa,” countered Ky.

“Ok, so now what?” asked Corso, swiveling the pilot’s chair to face them.

“May I see it?” Scourge directed his question to Ky.

She led the way to her room where she placed the locked box into his hands, glad to be rid of the damnable thing and the feeling of insects crawling on her skin when it was near.

“The lock...” she started to say but was cut off.

“Is no matter,” stated Scourge who handled the box as if it were detonite with a damaged blasting cap. “I will take this to my room and begin the translation.”

As if in a trance, Scourge spun on his heel and exited, his eyes glued to the item held gingerly in his hands.

An awkward silence manifested, and both she and Corso stood unmoving, locked in uncertainty where neither of them wanted to exhale for fear of the words that would tumble from their lips.

Ky cleared her throat. “I suppose we should unpack.”

“Yeah, guess so.”

For the next few hours, they pirouetted around each other, went to the galley where the droid informed them that Scourge had stocked the ship with foods appropriate to their needs and had even purchased a bottle of real Corellian Whiskey solely for her pleasure. Neither ate, and Ky left the unopened bottle where it sat.

Scourge remained sequestered in his room with the reliquary and Corso spent extra time in the cockpit, as much to give Ky some space as to memorize the layout of the control panel so his landing wouldn’t be as rough as the initial departure.

Ky sat on the bed, fighting a beastly tangle in her hair when Corso returned. He toed off his boots, took the brush from her hand and crawled behind her, tucking his shin tight against her backside and letting his other leg dangle off the edge.      

“Is this a segue into getting me to answer your questions?”

“No, I just like brushing your hair.” He’d worked the tangle loose and now drug the bristles across her scalp in long, steady strokes, smoothing the strands with his hand as he went. “It’s grown in the past few weeks, I like it.”

“About Scourge,” she began, noting that the brush had hesitated mid stroke before resuming. “I was the one who flew them through the battle above Dromund Kaas and landed outside the temple so Sayonar could face the Emperor. We fought our way to the chamber where he sat, but what lay beyond those doors was not my fight, so I remained outside, guarded their backs and waited.”

A shiver wracked her body, and Corso dropped the brush onto the bed, bracketed her thighs with his and pulled her back into his chest, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.

“I’d never experienced terror like that before. It ate through the skin like acid and settled into my bones, drilled into my brain with a thousand searing needles and left me defenseless in the face of despair. I think had I been Force-sensitive, I might have gone mad like the pitiable denizens of that place.”

A shuddering sigh heaved upward from deep within, pushing the horror aside so she could continue. “I knew when the Emperor had passed. A wall of energy hit me, knocking me to my knees. A wave of death and decay, filthy and cloying took all the air from the corridor where I knelt, and I thought I’d suffocate from the sheer absence of hope.”

“I didn’t know,” Corso murmured. “Is this the memory where you get so lost I fear you’ll never come back to me?”

“No, but you wanted to know about Scourge and our history is important.”

He rubbed her arms, hoping to drive away the gooseflesh that dappled her skin. She lay her head against his shoulder, waiting for the words she knew would come.

“Were you and he...involved?” Corso cast the question carefully, letting it hang, dreading the answer, chiding himself for being petty but needing to know.

“Not in that sense, but there is an affinity between us. Mutual respect of sorts, especially after I was badly wounded by Imperial troops blocking our way back to the ship. Scourge practically carried me, and I still flew us off Dromund Kaas, passing out once I’d made the jump. Besides, if he could feel that way about any woman, it certainly wouldn’t be me.”

If he could feel that way?”

“I’ll explain later.” She extricated herself from his arms, turned and straddled his thighs, locking her fingers at the back of his neck. “Scourge let something slip I’d hoped would never come up, but it’s in the open now. I think it’s time for a game of I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

Corso’s stomach tightened, he wasn’t ready for this, but he’d try. “Ok, I’ll start. The arena, how long?”

“As a fighter, three years and change. My turn. Belsavis.”

“Oh, Ky,” he whispered, framing her face with his hands. “Three years, I’m so sorry.”

“Being owned, being property was the worst of it.” She twisted the tiny hairs at the tender place right below his hairline making him wince. “Belsavis,” she repeated.

“Bad memory.” He swallowed hard. “What arena, where?”

“Affavan.” She cocked her head, sensing he was already shutting down. “What bad memory?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.” He shook his head, stubbornly retreating back to his haven of secrets. “I’ve already said too much.”

The moment was lost, he’d locked her out again. “You don’t play fair.” She tangled her fingers in his hair, forcing his head back so she could pinch the skin of his neck between her teeth.

“Neither do you.” He rolled her onto her back, pulling the brush from under his ribs and tossing it against the wall before swallowing all the questions perched on the tip of her tongue.

‘If only,’ Ky thought, glancing down at Corso after pulling the teeshirt over her head. He lay on his back, one arm beneath the pillow, the other resting across his chest. His fingers twitched every few seconds, and his eyes rolled under the lids; a dream, and she hoped it was a good one.

The door opened silently on its tracks, and she padded toward the galley where a virgin bottle of whiskey awaited her particular attention. The snap of the wax seal breaking bounced back to her from the metal walls, sounding louder than it should have. She peeked over her shoulder wondering if someone else had heard, and lifted the open bottle to her nose. The scent of caramel and oak with just a hint of chooka nut greeted her nostrils like old friends, and it was long past time for them to get reacquainted.

She swirled her index finger around the top of the bottle after she’d filled her glass halfway, and popped it into her mouth in case a drop had escaped. This was an unexpected treat that she had no intention of wasting.  

She strolled to the cockpit and sat in the pilot’s chair, scanning the various controls, buttons, and knobs to make sure they were all firmly ingrained in her memory, then tucked one leg under the other and leaned back. Tiny rivers of mellow fire slid down her throat, and she let her mind go blank, cocooning herself in a fleeting sense of peace that would disappear all too soon.

“Am I interrupting?” Scourge’s voice drew her abruptly out of the serenity she’d only just found.   

The Sith stood by the navigator seat attired in sleep pants and tank top. She’d seen him like this before and still marveled at his physique from broad chest to tapered waist. The corded muscles created a topography worthy of exploration and she envied the knight her discoveries should he ever find a cure.  

“You’re quite the fetching figure under all that armor,” she said, eyes openly appraising him.

“Seems the years have been good to me, or so I’ve been told,” he slid into the open chair, propped one foot on the seat and rested his arm on his knee.

“I see you found my little gift,” his eyes dropped to the glass she balanced on the armrest.

“Yes, and thank you,” she raised the glass in a toast and took another sip. “How’s the translation going?”

“More challenging than I expected. It’s based on our periodic table of elements. To date, one hundred twenty-six are known, differentiated by numbers of protons and neutrons and many combinations, but I won’t bore you with the details. I need to find a common thread. One number that repeats at specific intervals throughout that can be assigned an alphabetic value, not Aurabesh, more likely ancient Sith. If I can find that, I can break the code. It will take time.”

“For what it’s worth, I hope you find what you’re looking for. No one should have to exist with what the Emperor did to you.”

Scourge held his breath and caught her eyes with his, tilting his head as if trying to make a decision. He clicked his nails against the thumb of the hand dangling from his knee. One at a time, ticking off seconds, counting the wages of trust. "Only one other knows the true nature of my curse,” he said at last. “What Vitiate did to me was more insidious than merely stripping me of all feeling."

"How so? I can’t imagine anything worse."

The timbre of his voice grew almost wistful as he spoke. "Do you know that I kissed my Jedi once? Her lips were soft as twilight and sweet as Juna berries. I even felt the old desires stirring in my loins and stars, how I wanted her, how I loved her. But the sensations burned away almost as soon as they appeared. That is my hell. To catch brief glimpses of the man I once was, experience a drop of rain, the taste of wine or a lover's kiss before the Emperor’s sorcery sweeps it away as if it were dust. It would have been more merciful to take it all than condemn me to this half-life of almost having. He couldn't even bestow the grace of death upon me. That is true evil."  

“How do you stand it?” Ky’s words were thick with sympathy. “The constant onslaught, there and gone. How has it not driven you insane?”

“It doesn’t work as a switch constantly flipping on and off. Weeks, months, even years pass when I am but a hollow shell, and suddenly the sun is warm on my face, I taste the pure water of a mountain stream or catch her scent lingering in the air. It is cruelty I never imagined, providing just enough to keep the memories alive, a reminder of what I have lost, and what I may never regain.”

He broke eye contact and gazed into the void of hyperspace. “The emptiness is my sanctuary, for when I am in the thrall of such powerful feelings, the torment of their fleeting nature is unendurable.”

“I understand the solace of nothingness, Scourge. I’m glad the bastard’s dead.”

“The Emperor is not dead. He’s out there, I can feel it, and I will find him.”

“You seek revenge?”

“I seek purpose.”

“Purpose without emotion is a dead thing, my friend.”

“Perhaps, but it’s all I have. And what of you and your young man. Do you love him?”

“More than I ever expected and more than he knows.”

Chapter Text

 

Orinda loomed in the windshield, a planet much like any other with blue oceans, and green and brown land masses. Unimportant except that it was a hub on the Entralla Route between Ord Mantell and Muunilinst. What wasn’t expected was the incoming call as soon as they docked for refueling.

“Do you want some privacy?” asked Ky when she saw whose image appeared.

“No. This won’t take long,” Scourge answered before directing his attention to the female caller. “What may I do for you, Master Sayonar?”

The lips of the lovely woman puckered into a reproachful moue as she crossed her arms over her chest, mirroring Scourge’s posture. “Formality between us is unnecessary, or have you forgotten?”

The silver ring on the spur above his right eye glinted when he shook his head ever so slightly. “I have forgotten nothing.”

“Then come home, Scourge. Bring the object. We can hide it, lock it away forever.”

“You know I cannot do that. Evil takes many forms and harbors in the hearts of men. The Jedi have proven time and again that they are not exempt. The thirst for power is the most damning of all, and no one would escape the corruption. Even you, Nuyak Saarai, would not be above its influence. I will not subject you to the temptation.”

The Jedi straightened her back and shifted her weight on her hips. “You insult me, beloved. I am stronger than that. Have I not faced evil before and prevailed?”

“If only it were that simple.” Scourge unfolded his arms and leaned over the table, splaying his hands on the surface and propping himself mere inches from her image. “The Emperor owned you once, I will not see him triumph again, and your love for me could well provide the opening required. Passion is your strength but can also be used against you. Those very things he took from me allows me alone to touch, to study his writings and when I am done, I will destroy it. Trust that I will see this through and return to you when it is finished.”

Sayonar dropped her hands to her sides, flexing her fingers nervously. “They are sending me after you, hoping that you will see reason and surrender.”

A glum smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “I surrendered to you the day I felt you in my arms, but I see the Jedi still seek to use you to their advantage. Typical. You see who I travel with and know that I will not be found.”

The Jedi shifted her gaze and nodded. “Forgive my rudeness. It’s good to see you again, Ky.”

Ky inclined her head in greeting. “And you, Master Jedi.”

Sayonar swung her attention back to Scourge. “I am still searching for answers to our plight in your absence.”

“As am I, and this may hold the key.”

“It’s comforting to know you are not alone in this but also know that I am coming for you nonetheless.”

“A wasted effort. I must go now, and will be long gone by the time you arrive. Stay well, Nuyak Nulis.”

Scourge stared into the empty space her image had occupied before heaving himself upright, finally settling his gaze on Ky. “We should decide our course from here,” he said. “I had originally thought Adumar, but that may be unwise given Sayonar’s knowledge of this region. Our best bet would be a shadowport I know of some few hundred parsecs into wild space.”

“And after that?”

“The unknown regions.”

Corso walked into the room and joined Ky where she leaned on the table, positioning his arm and shoulder in such a way that she could support herself against him if she chose to do so. She dropped her hand to his thigh and squeezed in acknowledgment and thanks.

“How far into the unknown regions are we talking about?” she asked.

“Not far,” answered Scourge. “It’s just on the other side of the Nulastine Drift.”

Ky jumped up from the table, her arms spread, an incredulous mien frozen on her face. “Maker’s balls! That place is a graveyard waiting to happen. No drift chart has ever mapped its way through that mess.”

“No, but you can.”

“I hope your faith in my abilities is not misplaced. And this Tajno likely knows the way to our destination?”

Scourge nodded. “If, he can make it through the drift.”

“So it’s a race while keeping the hounds off our asses then?”

“In a manner of speaking,” admitted the Sith.

“Then we’d best get to it,” she said. “Corso, how long until refuel is done?”

“Another hour or so. Did you notice those two D5-Mantis parked in one of the adjoining bays as we landed?” Corso asked.

“I did. We need to do an exterior tracking sweep before we leave. I don’t like this.”

“A sweep will be useless,” said Scourge. “It is the reliquary and its contents that are being tracked. The lockbox is made of a force-dampening material which dulled the signatures for a time to throw anyone off except the intended recipient. You thwarted that plan on Belsavis, and now Tajno, as well as Kira, follow this trail. The Emperor’s mark is undeniable.”

“Then put it back in the box, buy us some time,” argued Ky.

“The seal has been broken. We have no recourse but to run.”

“This just keeps getting better,” said Ky.

“Or worse,” added Corso.

Scourge keyed the coordinates for the last known position of the shadowport known as ‘Far Cry’ into the nav computer and set it to standby while Corso did preflight checks and prepared for departure.

“Smooth take off, babe, well done,” said Ky, leaning over the chair to plant a kiss on Corso’s cheek. 

“Uh, those two Mantis are right behind us,” stated Corso as they gained distance from the spaceport. “Engaging shields.”

“Get your sweet ass out of my chair,” barked Ky, “and both of you buckle up.”

“Let’s see what they’re up to,” she said to no one in particular.

The ship lurched as a plasma bolt hit the shields when she tried to change course and again when she tried to adjust to a vertical climb.

“We’re being herded,” said Scourge.

“I know,” said Ky.

“That’s a Gage Class transport,” said Corso, noting the silhouette of the ship hanging ominously in their path. “Not Imperial either.”

“Can’t you make the jump?” asked Scourge.

“You want a replay of Lumsten III?” Ky snapped. “We’re still in the gravity well.”

“We’re being hailed,” said Scourge.

“Don’t answer,” she said. “Now, both of you shut the fuck up and let me do what I do best.”

She engaged the sublights, heading toward the cruiser stationed in orbit, in her way.

Everything slowed around her, and her senses sharpened to hyperacute receptors for stimuli. Her breathing echoed hollowly in her ears, her heart beat with a steady thud and her eyes focused, unblinking, on everything at once. Blasts of particle bolts fired from the Gage’s forward batteries were caught in her vision as soon as they left the barrels and green lines dissected the space between her ship and theirs. Trajectory trails hung in her sky, luminescent markers drawn leisurely and easily avoided.

“There you are,” her words dragged and staggered from her lips as she saw the white flash of an ion burst. She adjusted pitch, and yaw and rolled around the energy bolt, creating an eye for the blast to thread through. The controls of the ship synced with her acuity answering almost before she made the command, swerving and dodging, ignoring the jolts when plasma blasts bounced along the shield from the two escort vessels.    

She accelerated before cutting the ship’s sublights, letting inertia carry them as she led the pursuing Mantis toward the Gage’s hull. She dropped the shield. Heat and energy surged along her nerves from the friction and static buildup under her feet when metal skimmed metal and her ship danced along the skin of the larger vessel. The bridge loomed ahead, drawing ever nearer, the Mantis had stopped firing when a dodged bolt hit the mother ship, but she had no such compunction. She opened fire, hoping for structural damage at the least, before pulling back on the control wheel and engaging the sublights again. Her body jerked as the engines thrust against the solid structure catapulting them into a vertical climb up the wall of the control tower and bridge finally breaking into open space. She slammed the jump lever forward and the windshield filled with alabaster streaks of freedom.

“Bitch is gonna need a cigarette after that kiss,” Ky said as she slumped bonelessly against the back of the seat. The impact of her senses catching up to real-time hit with the force of a turbohammer, replete with a throbbing head and shaking hands. Her whole body jangled like a third-rate Jatz band on a Tuesday night and, stars, she needed a drink.

“Extraordinary,” remarked Scourge as he unfastened his seatbelt and closed the distance to unhook hers as well and scoop her into his arms.

“Hey, I was about to do that,” blurted Corso.

Scourge cast a critical glance in his direction. “Grow up, young man. She is the concern, not your fragile ego.”

Corso clamped his mouth shut with an audible click and sullenly fell in step, stopping by the galley to pour a glass of whiskey before continuing to their room.

“She needs rest,” said Scourge who vacated his spot on the bed where he’d been sitting after propping her against the stack of pillows at her back. He moved aside for Corso and looked down at her pale features before crossing one arm across his chest, bowing slightly, fist over his heart. “You’d have made a formidable Sith.”

Life in space creates a rhythm of its own, beating out time to the routines established to accommodate ship’s needs and personal preference. Downtime is best filled with activity, or idle thoughts weigh heavy on the mind.

Corso followed his routine of weapons checks and cleaning and sat on a crate in front of a foldup table he’d found to serve his needs. He was fine-tuning the laser sight of Ky’s SSK heavy blaster when the Sith strolled by the open door.

"Lord Scourge," Corso called out to the armor-clad man.

"Yes?" Scourge said, stepping over the threshold into the cargo hold.

"Look, I know you don’t care much for me and I’m trying to get along for her sake or at least stay out of your way. But, I gotta ask how did you know it was her on Tatooine? What exactly is your interest in Ky?” 

"Whether or not we like each other is a moot point and tolerance is likely all we will ever achieve. However, I will answer your inquiry. As I flew over the compound I sensed Ky in distress and in danger, and was compelled by my regard for her to assist. There is a connection between your Captain and myself, one of very few I've experienced over the years. It is not the sort you need worry about, but one of mutual respect, and trust or even kinship. A rare thing between a Sith and the force-blind."

"I see," said Corso.

"I doubt it," Scourge rumbled and turned to leave but thought better of it and closed the door to the room instead.

The Sith pinned Corso with his eyes. "There is a darkness in you young one. You cannot leash it nor can you succumb. Integrate it, or it will devour you and everything you hold most dear."

"You don't know me well enough to presume anything," said Corso, laying the blaster on the table and meeting the Sith’s gaze with a frown.

"And you should not presume to tell me what I do or do not know.” Scourge locked his hands behind his back, unrelenting in his scrutiny of the man sitting before him. “The darkness has been my companion for centuries, I know its face intimately, and it grins from behind your eyes. Your bravery or devotion is not in question, but your woman needs that darkness that dwells in you and the more you try to hide it from her, the more distant she will become.”

“You don’t understand.” Corso’s rebuttal slipped out more feeble than he’d intended.

Scourge sighed, softening his tone. “Above all else, she seeks to protect and preserve the gentleness in you and will do so to the point of great pain and terrible loss. You must prove yourself equal to the challenges of her life and only the darkness can give you the balance to do so.”

Corso stood, wiping his hands on his trousers, crossing his arms in defiance or denial, he didn’t know which. “I fight at her side, doctor her wounds, care for her, love her. You don’t know what you’re asking of me.”

“It will not be contained forever, you’ve already seen this. Trust me when I tell you that safety lies in embracing rather than maintaining its status as an enemy. That is a battle you will ultimately lose.”

“It will make me a monster. What of the cost to her?”

“She already pays the cost,” Scourge spat back at him. “You cannot always follow in her shadow but must let her shelter in yours, there can be no restful shade without the dark. She reminds me of my Jedi, never counting the risk, taking on too much, never sharing the burden. That fop of a doctor Sayonar almost married would never satisfy her needs, no more than the gentle side of you will fully satisfy your Captain. She needs a partner, not a lackey. I suggest you start making amends and create an ally. You will find none stronger except love."

"Odd coming from a Sith. I'd assumed you would say hate. That is the driving force, isn’t it?"

"Hate satiates and consumes, gives and takes in equal measure leaving nothing in its wake but bleak emptiness once the object of your hatred is no more. Love nourishes, it sacrifices and heals."

"And if love is lost?"

"The sorrow will kill your soul."

"Any other pearls of wisdom?" Corso’s attempt at sarcastic bravado fell flat.

Scourge’s eyes narrowed. "The mask of the gentle buffoon sits ill upon your face. Discard it before regret becomes the replacement. Find the balance before you both topple."

‘I have planted the seed’ thought Scourge as he exited and proceeded down the corridor. ‘It remains to be seen if he has the wisdom or the courage to let it grow.’

Chapter Text

Corso dropped back to the crate, propped his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his entwined fingers. His thoughts whirled and collided, propelled into a chaotic spin by Scourge’s words. He’d lived this way for so long, openly displaying one mask, using the second as need required and locking the third away.

He was a man split into three psyches and had no idea how to integrate them into one whole being. The face he was born to, the one he now wore with comfortable familiarity, displayed the demeanor of a boy nurtured by loving parents, taught to be tough and self-reliant but also kind, caring and optimistic. His long, arduous struggle to find that ‘gentle buffoon’ again and bring him back from the edge of extinction would not be wasted, no matter the sage advice of a Sith Lord.

‘Game face,’ was the perfect alter-ego that he called at will. Cold, emotionless, calculating and controlled, it was a means to an end, a job to be done, pain to be endured. It had preserved his sanity when subjected to the ‘barrel’ during his time imprisoned on Singat 9 and served him well in protecting the woman he loved more than life.

But, the other, the one he feared, burned, white-hot and merciless. It supplanted all he was and drove him into a blind frenzy goaded by rage, fear, and grief. Belsavis was not the first encounter where he’d been engulfed by the insatiable hunger for revenge, for relief. Stars, he’d struck her while bludgeoning a man to death with his bare fists. How could he ever make amends with that?

“There are no innocents in war,” he’d once said to Ky, and he was living truth of how the atrocities of war can shatter a man into irreconcilable fragments.  

The warning chime from the cockpit drew his thoughts out of the unsolvable maze he traversed. Damn the Sith and his meddling. They’d be exiting hyperspace soon, and he set about stowing the cleaning materials back into his kit and securing the folding table into its cradle on the wall.

“Looks a bit like Port Nowhere,” observed Ky as the shadowport expanded to fill the windshield as they drew near.

A bastardized space station served as the central hub of the structure with various platforms cobbled together in a lopsided semicircle along the periphery. They were directed to bay 26-Besh where Corso eased the craft into position and cut the repulsors. The ground crew piled through the station side door as soon as the outer forcefield engaged and waited for a signal to begin the refueling process, standing idly by pumping stations and hoses.

Scourge appeared at the cockpit entrance, his hood pulled up and a mask covering his face. “They expect payment up front,” he explained, his voice deep and resonant through the modulator. “I’ll take care of it and have a contact to meet. There’s something I need before we continue and it’s best my face remains hidden. Admit no one until my return.”

She locked the hatch behind him and returned to the cockpit, watching him saunter across the bay, back straight, cloak swinging, exuding an aura of subtle threat. Eyes glanced at him nervously and immediately found more intriguing things to examine, like the floor.

Minutes passed before the crew sprung into action. The sound of unhooking latches and the dull metallic scrape and thud of hoses being attached reverberated through the hull followed by the faint hiss of charged gas flowing into the tanks.

Ky leaned against the console and settled in for the wait.

“You're awfully quiet,” she said to Corso who responded with a noncommittal shrug.

She’d dealt with his reticence before, especially after Belsavis, and didn’t push the issue. Whatever was going on in his head, he’d have to work out for himself since he’d made it abundantly clear that sharing with her was not an option.

An hour ticked by and still no Scourge. The ground crew completed their business, disconnected the hoses and sealed the fueling ports leaving the bay empty except for the ship. This had merely been a topping-off stop in their travels, and a means for Scourge to acquire whatever he thought he needed for the journey.

A commotion in the rearview monitor drew her attention.

“Fuck!”

She surged upright and sprinted to the exit hatch, sliding it open and dropping to one knee, blaster aimed and firing. Corso, crouched at her back, sighting around her shoulder at the men who poured into the bay behind the Sith. One man howled and fell, whether by her shot or Corso’s didn’t matter.

Scourge ran two or three paces, stopped and turned, striding backward, blocking the blaster fire. His lightsaber painted the flight of fireflies as each impact flickered and sparked. Ky and Corso held their fire when Scourge reached the bottom of the ramp and launched the lightsaber in an arc, slicing the air like a crimson scythe in a field of wheat. A voice was cut off mid-yell, and the saber buzzed home to his outstretched hand like a bee to the hive. He grunted and stumbled through the hatch where Corso caught his bulk as Ky closed and locked the door.

“You’re hurt,” said Corso.

Scourge waved him off and limped toward the cockpit handing a small rucksack to the droid with a word of warning to use care in its handling. The holo had begun to beep, and he removed the mask and jammed his finger angrily on the receive button.

The sizzle of a cutting torch crawled down the hallway from the direction of the hatch as the miniaturized image of a heavily tattooed man formed above the small console unit.

“Surrender to us now,” tattoo man demanded, not mincing words. “My men are cutting into your entryway as we speak, the forcefield is still in place, and the tractor beam has you locked down. You have nowhere to go.”

“I’ve got this,” Ky said to Scourge, moving him aside so she came into full view. “If I were on the ground, you’d have me, but I’m not, and you have no idea how far I’ll go when I’ve got nothing left to lose.”

She moved to the nav computer, pulled up a random destination, and brought the hyperdrive engine online. The whine sang along the corridors of the ship like a farewell song. 

“If I don’t engage soon, the drive core will overheat, and if I do engage, well, you get the picture,” she sneered. “What’s your next move? Better make it a good one.”

“You’re bluffing,” the man taunted. “You’d kill everyone on this station, including yourself.”

“Your point?” Her lips rose in a snarl. “Tell your men to back off and leave the area. Unlock my ship, and we might all walk away from this.”

Minutes hung like pendulums, warring for advantage from opposite ends of the arc, bumping back and forth between two immovable objects. Ky inched the jump lever forward, increasing the whine by octaves and sending a tremor through the ship.

If she jumped now, the shields might protect her ship, but more likely the debris from the destroyed shadowport would be pulled into the same space-time vortex, and if the flotsam didn’t destroy then on entry, it would shred them when they exited the jump.

If she didn’t jump, the anti-matter core would overheat, and the detonation would be catastrophic. Not high odds of survival either way but she had to play the hand she’d been dealt.

Scourge stood impassively at her side making no move to interfere, and Corso fidgeted in the pilot’s seat, ashen-faced but silent.  

“What’s it gonna be?” Ky pushed at tattoo man. “Dead men can’t spend credits.”

His men shifted uncomfortably, and one of them whispered something in his ear. She advanced the lever one more notch to further instill the seriousness of her intent. The ship shuddered, and the whine became a screech. The systems status monitor crept slowly toward red.  

“Enough,” tattoo man yelled. “I concede, for now.”

“Call them off and leave. Be quick.” Her smooth tone belied the dread curled around her innards. She’d pressed this one close to a critical mass where there was no turning back.

The engine continued to scream, the men outside were leaving, “I’ll see you again, bitch,” tattoo man promised just before he also exited the bay and closed the door.

They all sighed in unison as she throttled the lever back one notch at a time, still monitoring the readout before powering down the drive completely.

“Thought we’d bought the farm for sure, babe,” breathed Corso as he sagged back in the seat, his knuckles white where they still gripped the steering column.

“A little close,” agreed Ky. “Looks like they dropped the force field. Take us out and keep us on sublights for a while. Expect to be followed and check the motivators for damage and make sure the transpacitor didn’t get warped. I’d prefer blowing up on purpose rather than by accident.”   

“I’d rather not blow up at all,” quipped Corso.

Ky turned back to the nav computer and programmed in the last known coordinates that would bring them out of hyperspace just outside the Nulastine Drift. Nothing on the other side was mapped and few who went in ever returned. Not only was radiation, particle waves, and gravitational eddies a problem but she would be flying blind with no destination grids or markers available. They would also be well out of range of any holonet transceivers, which meant no long distance communication and no rescue.

She should have handed Scourge the box and run like hell. Too late now; in for a credit, in for a pound as her father used to say.

“So, who were those guys?” asked Corso.

“Given their facial tattoos, GenoHaradan I’d say,” answered Scourge.

“I thought they didn’t ever give up on a contract,” said Corso.

Scourge lifted a brow ridge. “They are dedicated, not stupid. Well played, Ky.”

“I wasn’t playing, but I figured he’d blink. From what little I’ve heard, they honor a contract to the letter. They’ll bide their time and be back, but hopefully, by then, the notebook will be well out of their reach.”

“But you won’t,” said Scourge.

“One battle at a time, my friend,” she smiled.    

Chapter Text

 

Ky sat at the desk in oversized sleep pants and tank top, leftover goodies from the Captain of the Solidad that she and Corso had pilfered. The armholes of the top dipped low on her much smaller frame, and her breasts peeked out if she turned too quickly, a never-ending source of amusement for Corso. He laughed so infrequently of late, and she missed the easy humor that dimpled the edges of his mouth and creased the corners of his eyes.

The ‘fresher door opened, and she turned as he emerged amidst wisps of steam, a towel draped around his waist. She drank in the sight of him often forgetting how much he’d filled out since they met. All gangly and awkward angles at twenty-two, his chest was now sculpted and firm and shoulders rounded with muscle that banded down his arms, bunching and writhing under tawny skin. A minuscule knot of pain tightened around her heart. When had she come to love him so much that it hurt just to look at him?

He futzed with his hair, still wet and dripping shimmering rivulets that ran their course over the rippled plane of his stomach to be absorbed by the greedy fabric obstructing her view.

“Come here, love,” she said, shutting down the datapad and easing off the chair to stand at the foot of the bed.

He met her eyes and cocked his head in that bewildered puppy way she found adorable, then stepped around and halted a hand’s breadth away.

A decision had been made compelling her to stop in the midst of their frenzied lives and absorb the essence of the man who loved her. She knew his body as well as she knew her own enjoying each part as needed to fulfill its purpose but had never taken the time to appreciate the sheer perfection of the sum. She’d make time now for it may never come again when she emptied herself to become the filling cup, and he became the fulcrum on which all five of her senses teetered.     

“Don’t move.” She inched closer and inhaled deeply, flaring her nostrils to catch every nuance. Undertones of gun oil that never fully washed away blended faintly sweet and tangy with the tart lemon and pungent wood of soap. Tantalizingly clean and fresh and yet she wanted to breathe him in heated and sweaty with exertion, his scent released in sultry waves, unique to him alone.

She caught one errant drop of water on her tongue just as it slid past his nipple. He held his breath as the tiny bead of moisture dissolved in her mouth, leaving a perfumy residue mixed with the sharp hint of salt.

The pressure of his hand skimmed her ribs, and she grasped and lowered it to his side. “Don’t move,” she repeated.

His stomach muscles clenched when she untied the towel and dropped it to the floor, carefully avoiding further contact with his budding arousal while her hands sought other entries to write to her book of memory.

Her fingers brushed along his skin, down the sharp edge of his hip to the thigh where downy hairs parted and sprang upright to tickle the space between each digit. His muscles twitched almost imperceptively under her touch as her palm stroked upward and came to rest in the hollow at the side of his buttock.

She moved on, circling slowly, her fingers drifting up and over the roundness of his ass to his back, traveling each sinewy curve and cranny to trace the five horizontal lines across his shoulder blades. Scars that held unshared chapters of his life, indelible words forever etched on flesh. He flinched as she kissed each unread verse.

Across his ribs her hands explored, the skin slightly wrinkled and rough from a healed blaster burn then up over the shoulder returning to the beginning. She sank to her knee and pressed her mouth against the puckered pink scar from his leg wound on Tatooine before rising again to meet his eyes, dilated with desire, heavy with wanting.

“You are driving me insane,” he grumbled, but sustained his unmoving pose, sensing this was important to her.

“Some images beg to be frozen in memory, love.” She raised her fingers to his face, tenderly sliding them along the shallow grooves carved across the bridge of his nose and cheek.

“I don’t understand. All I know is that I want you.” The low timbre of his voice caressed her ears, and his brows pinched together in confusion and frustration.   

Her hazel eyes stared into his through lashes thick as pine needles. “Then don’t wait.”

He cradled the back of her head in his hand and lowered his lips to hers, snugging her body tightly with his free arm coiled around her waist. Her top bunched beneath his fingers, the sleep pants rubbed against the growing hardness pressed between them. Her skin radiated warmth through the cloth, a flimsy barrier denying him access to the smooth flesh beneath. A whiskey deep growl escaped into her open mouth as he closed his fist around the fabric, breaking the kiss to tug the shirt up and over her head.

Air hissed through his teeth as she scraped her nails up his chest, leaving faint, ivory trails of pressure marks on his collarbones and neck to twine her fingers in his hair. His eyes searched hers for meaning then closed against the answer as she forced his face downward and claimed his lips while his arms wrapped around her like durasteel bands. The mounds of her breasts flattened against him, and he walked her backward until her thighs bumped the foot of the bed. Lost in whatever this was she’d started, his hands clutched her ass and deposited her on the mattress, skimming the sleep pants over her hips and down her legs as she scooched her way across the sheets toward the headboard and pillows.

She lay there knees bent and legs spread in invitation, the dim light glistening off the wetness between her thighs. The mattress dipped under Corso’s weight as he crawled forward, never taking his eyes from hers until he lowered his face toward the shimmering curls.

His thumbs spread her folds exposing the pale pink layers, and he buried his tongue, licking and teasing, feeling the tiny nub harden. Her body trembled and she moaned while arching her hips upward, pressing against his lips. She gripped the sheets in her fists while his mouth ground tighter, his tongue lapping circles in patterns he knew she liked. The quickness of her breathing, the way her thighs went rigid against his forearms declared she was close, he eased the pressure of his mouth and with one last delicious flick, sent her spiraling into the spasms of release. He pushed her through each shuddering gasp and raised his head only when her arched back sank lazily onto the bed.

Her eyes opened and followed his journey up the length of her body, using her scars as a roadmap, stopping at each one to deposit a delicate kiss before moving on. Her scars, the unrecounted story of her life, written in blood and pain and legacy lost forever. His mouth found the peaks of her breasts, and she curled one lock of his hair around her finger, winding it tight and giving an impatient tug. He smiled around her nipple and settled himself above her, propped on hands and knees.

“Don’t stop,” she murmured and licked her lips.

“As if I could.” He reached behind and slowly eased himself inside, savoring every inch as she tightened around him. She locked her legs across his hips, urging him on, wrapped her arms around the ropes of muscle stretching and contracting along his back. He lowered himself to his elbows, a slick sheen of sweat the only barrier between them and moved over her body like watered silk, his chest skimming the twin crests of her breasts.

She matched each thrust, arching upward with her hips. “Deeper,” she moaned, gouging her nails across his back. The streaks of fire on his flesh burst open the door in his mind, goading his lust into unfettered hunger and flooding his head with visions of what it wanted to do to her. ‘Get out!” his mind screamed as he bit his lower lip, drawing blood in an attempt to drive the visions away. He quickened his tempo to finish, needing to release it all. With a final shuddering plunge, he buried his face in her neck and emptied his heat, his hunger, his despair deep into her core, locking the beast away again.  

Arms and legs trembling, he collapsed on top of her, his ribs flaring like bellows as he panted and nuzzled into her cheek willing his heart to slow its galloping pace. “I love you,” he breathed into her hair.

“I love you, too.” She kept him locked to her, his weight a comfort, cocooning, sheltering, holding her still amidst the chaos of her days. And what could she possibly offer in return? Reluctantly she released him, and he rolled to his back to curl his arm around her when she snuggled close, draping her thigh over his hip and her arm over his chest.

“That reminded me very much of the first time we made love,” he said. “You know, with all the circling around and touching.”

“I think I was appraising you then,” she smiled. “You know, sizing you up. This was pure appreciation for the beautiful creature you are.”

“Aw, shucks, ma’am,” he chuckled before his voice became serious. “Back then it seemed like the first of a whole bunch of hellos. Tonight was different, more like goodbye.”

“First off, we may not make it through this, but...” She balanced her chin on his chest, so her eyes met his. “I’ll never say goodbye to you, Corso. Not ever.”

She gingerly touched his lower lip which had begun to swell. “What happened here?”

“Guess I got carried away,” he replied.

Later when silence had created a buffer for words and thoughts and made space for drowsy introspection, Corso drifted away, and she rolled out of bed to don the sleep pants and a less revealing top and made her way to the galley.

Half-way through her second two-finger shot, Scourge appeared in all his sleep attired glory and took the counter stool next to hers.

“You do that too often,” he commented.

“What, this?” She swirled the liquor around the glass and took another sip. “It clears my mind, calms me down. I don’t overindulge so what’s the harm?”

“You drink alone every night when he is asleep, and you think I don’t hear. It is becoming a habit and habits make you weak. Already you make excuses. You might consider abandoning this one.”

“Don’t lecture me, Scourge. It’s the last damned thing I need right now.”

His crimson eyes bored into the side of her head as if seeking to pluck every thought from her mind. He read people like a marquee bill having studied them for centuries and his insights were often uncanny if not downright spooky.

“You will destroy him if you leave him,” he said at last.

“I don’t intend to leave him.” Her rebuttal came too quickly to be a lie.

Understanding can dawn bright even over the wisest of minds. He raised one brow ridge in response. “You are a clever woman, Ky. But, I have other news. About the writings.”

“You’ve deciphered them?”

“In part, yes. It is actually quite ingenious despite the simplicity, and if I had not made the correlation between the elemental tables and the gibberish written, the translation would have escaped me entirely.”

“And the procedure that changed you. Is it mentioned?”

“Only vague hints, but it may be enough depending on what we find in that laboratory.” Scourge sighed and propped his elbows on the counter. “There was mention of Tave Kal’Evos Xakersta, The Emperor’s Wrath in that particular entry. The reference could be none other than myself since I was the first Wrath. It has taken three hundred years to fully comprehend the wages of the Emperor’s favor and reward.”

He scrubbed his hand across his mouth and chin, pulling at one of the tendril rings. “A story for another day, perhaps.”

“That might be a story worth hearing,” said Ky. “So, how does this translation work and what exactly did you find? There has to be more.”

“I’ll be right back,” he said and left to return with his datapad. Settling himself again on the stool next to hers, he brought the screen to life and opened two files.

“This,” he pointed to a line of numbered characters, “is the Sith alphabet. And this,” he pointed to a complex grid of letters and symbols, “is the periodic table of elements. I used the two-letter abbreviation for the element and where it falls numerically in the table to correlate with the corresponding number in the sequence of letters in the Sith alphabet.”

He closed the two files and opened a third containing lines he’d already translated. “In other words,” he further explained pointing out each entry as he went. “F is number nine on the table but is also the ninth letter of the alphabet; therefore F is S, and so forth. So, ‘Fcanuv Ar HevfcaTihar’ translates to ‘Sutta iv Basuoti’ or Spear of Division and ‘Livbarpv Ar Parcahearfclf’ translates to ‘Kamara iv Liudesys’ or Chamber of Sorrow. What threw me off for a while were the gaps in the Sith alphabet, but once I figured out he had used ancient Huttese to fill those gaps everything fell into place. Of course, navigating around false and misleading entries was a trial, but even those had a specific order if one looked closely enough.”

“Ok, I get it. So what do we do with this information?”

“These clues, the Spear and Chamber relate directly to me, and I must pursue them, for Sayonar’s sake as much as my own. However, there is also mention of the rites he used in creating his children, and most disturbing of all, reference and scant notes on the ritual performed on Nathema. He consumed all life and drained every last vestige of the Force from the very fabric of that world. The book must be destroyed for it holds nothing but damnation.”     

He powered down the datapad and laid it on the counter. “The galaxy has barely survived one Emperor, can you imagine two with this knowledge? No one could survive the war that two such powerful entities would wage in their quest to become gods. They would devour all life in this galaxy leaving nothing but ash then move on, and the universe itself would become a pyre."

“Huh,” she grunted, focusing on the glass she tipped back and forth. “You Sith and your need for immortality. Same old, same old. Not to sound selfish, but what do I get out of saving the galaxy a fourth time? Not that I’m keeping count or anything.”

“I have immortality, and it’s not, as you humans so quaintly put it, all it’s cracked up to be. The cost is too great.”

He took the glass from her hand and drained the contents, setting it back in front of her with a thud.

“Now that’s a waste of good whiskey,” she protested.

“My purchase,” he countered.

“My gift.” She reminded him with a sideways grin.

“Drinks with old friends. What better way to end such an uplifting conversation.” He rose from the stool, then leveled his gaze on her. “Bring your datapad to me when you awaken, and I will transfer the entirety of one of my remaining accounts into your name. Unfortunately, my funds are not as they once were before my defection. The Empire confiscated much of my holdings, but I was wise enough to diversify while I had the chance. It contains nearly a half million credits, not nearly enough to compensate for the danger I’ve put you in, but it is all I can give. Rest well, Ky.”

Exhaustion seeped out of every corner, enveloping her in a bitter cloud as harsh as the scent of whiskey on her breath. She suddenly felt old and haggard like she’d walked too many miles on a road going nowhere. Life kept circling around to the same shit, and her traitorous feet kept leading her down the same worn path.

She was never meant to be the hero. Leave that to others like Sayonar or Nariel or even Scourge. Nariel. Stars, she hadn’t thought of her older sister in years, and she was too melancholy or just too damned tired to think of her now.

She slid off the stool and meandered back to her room. Fully clothed, she slipped between the sheets staring blankly at the ceiling, hoping for the oblivion of sleep.

“You do that too much,” Corso’s voice crept across the tiny chasm between them. “I can smell it you know.”

“Not you too,” she mumbled and turned to her side. “Let it be, babe, and go to sleep.”

He sidled over to her and slid his arm under hers to lay across her ribs, spooning himself against the curves of her back, ass, and thighs. “I will when you do.”

Chapter Text

A hushed gloom fell over the ship the last two days of their journey as if time itself held its breath in expectation of something unnamed and just out of reach.

Silence settled at the core of the vessel whose durasteel skin popped and crackled over a frame that creaked and groaned like a ghost too long from its crypt. Late at night, Ky roamed the corridors with old habits, old memories, old fears haunting her steps, cruelly poking at her doubts. The Nulastine Drift. Only idiots entered there.

She’d crossed the cusp of rationality so many times, of late, she no longer recognized the warning lines of demarcation. What little peace accorded to her was when she lay curled in the nest of Corso’s arms, like a fledgling who’d learned how to fall while trying to fly.

Scourge remained in his room exiting only to eat the modicum he required for sustenance. She and Corso performed checks on the sublight drive, shield generators, maneuvering thrusters and the parts of the hyperdrive they could access while it was engaged. He fretted over the transpacitor casing, but they were a long way from any safe place to do repairs even if they had the parts. It would either fail or not. In space so much was reduced to the simplicity of yes or no, black or white, while the ambiguous comfort of maybe or gray was reserved for the landlocked.    

They all converged in the cockpit in response to the fifteen-minute warning chime notifying them that they’d be exiting hyperspace. Corso sat in the pilot’s seat, and she and Scourge swayed on their feet when the ship dropped out a couple hundred thousand kilometers from the edge of the Drift. The light of a distant sun reflected off the uncountable asteroids drifting, colliding, careening around some core of gravity that held them in a permanent ball formation engulfing nearly a quarter of an entire sector. Perhaps formed from some nebula gone wrong or a solar system devastated by its sun going supernova no one would ever know, the sheer mass of what lay before them was overwhelming.

Spacer’s ships and entire fleets had become lost or been destroyed in the Nulastine. The promise of treasure or some secret society of mystics living on a world at the center and even the vague tale of a powerful weapon had lured many to their deaths. Travel to the Nulastine Drift had been discouraged or outright banned by most civilized worlds, and even the Jedi and Sith ceased expending their people and resources on a fool’s errand.            

“You see this?” asked Corso when the long distance proximity alert began to beep.

“I do,” answered Ky. “That’s not the one from back at Orinda, this is a Terminus Class. I wonder how long it’s been here. I’d say it’s either on patrol or someone has one hell of a head start. And it’s heading our way.”

“I know, get my sweet ass out of your seat,” said Corso as he hoisted himself to his feet and Ky slid into the now vacant pilot’s chair.

“Got it in one, babe. You guys might want to sit down and strap in,” she barked as she buckled her harness, engaged the shields and sublight drive. 

Whatever protests Scourge or Corso uttered were swallowed in background noise as her mind sped up, neurons firing rapidly and in unison until single thoughts merged into one incessant lightning strike behind her eyes. The universe slowed to a crawl, space and time became irrelevant as she honed in on the morass of spinning rock, and flew into the Drift.

Individual asteroids froze in place as her brain instantaneously resolved the n-body problem and made nearly impossible calculations of their velocity and trajectory. She unerringly alternated between sublight, maneuvering thrusters, and boosters to thread their course through the maze, often skimming perilously close to bodies large enough to cast their own gravitational forces into the mix.

Oblivious to all else, she didn’t feel the harness tug and chafe with each jink, roll, and pitch or the thin line of blood trickling over her upper lip as she sighted further and further into the maw of jagged, stony teeth.

She was alone, a single point of energy merged with the ship, skipping forward, one stone at a time, feeling the radiation settle and each minute fragment of debris ricochet off the shield. Her fingers flew over the nav computer keyboard in a blur, the short jump computation already made before entering the data. Current position, light year distance reduced to kilometers, gravitational flux from the point of destination, and gyrating objects between here and there.  

Corso and Scourge gasped and held their breath as her palm found the jump lever, fingers closing, white-knuckled around the metallic T. She hesitated for an imperceptible fraction of a second and slammed it forward. Streaks of light barely had time to illuminate across the windshield before they winked out and the ship emerged into the blackness, the asteroid field left behind.

The dim light assaulted her eyes, and each sound slammed into her ears like a cudgel as she was thrust cruelly back into the fragile body that crumpled under the abrupt intrusion.

Hold yourself together.

There was no time to pamper herself with the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness. No time to indulge in fluffy pillows and crisp sheets and whiskey burn. She fought against the hands holding her in place, shook her head to get away from the cloth blotting under her nose. Words formed at the edge of perception, drawing near, jockeying for position, begging for recognition.

“Ky, honey, don’t struggle. It’s okay.” Corso’s syllables were the first to gel into coherence.

“I’m alright,” she breathed, then drew another deep breath to fuel her words and actions that needed doing. “I’ve never been under that long, it takes a toll.” She looked into his worried eyes. “Get me something for the headache, something that won’t knock me out. Hurry, babe. They won’t be far behind.”

Corso placed the kerchief in her hand and left as she’d requested while Scourge helped her sit upright so she could get a better look at what awaited them. She glanced, unconcerned, at the red blotches drying into the white fabric and focused on what lay ahead.

“Looks like a fortress carved out of an asteroid,” she observed then broadened her view. Her eyes widened as she realized the meaning of the area framing the rocky formation floating in the distance. A vast area of absence; emitting, reflecting nothing, hanging empty and black against the darkness of space. “And you didn’t tell me that it's suspended just outside the event horizon of a fucking black hole.”

“It was rumored, but I didn’t know for sure,” he admitted. “And there is something I need to tell you while we make our way there. You won’t like it, and it may delve into your past. Be prepared.”

Corso returned and placed a Perigen patch on her shoulder. “Should be better soon,” he said. “You want me to take ‘er in?”

She patted his hand before engaging the boosters. “Thanks, babe, but, I got this,” she said. “Best get on with it, Scourge. We have a few minutes, and the suspense is killing me.”

The Sith leaned against the console, arms crossed, splitting his attention between her face and the destination. “Roughly twenty years ago, Vitiate initiated an experiment he called Planas Evitayottoi. In basic, that means Project Creation. In essence, he used alchemical bonding agents to combine atoms of Rakatan and Gree technology, originally designed to create super soldiers and a mentally enhanced network of spies. But, the ultimate goal was to turn the Force-blind into Force-sensitives, controlled by the emperor alone.”

“Interesting, but what does that have to do with me?” asked Ky.

“How old were you when you were taken from your home?”

Her mouth tightened into a flat line. “My parents were murdered when the Empire invaded my world, and I was seven. So what?”

“Any history of Force-sensitives in your family?” he asked.

Her mind went immediately to her sister. “Not that I know of,” she lied.

“I see.” Scourge sensed the lie but tossed it aside. “And how old were you when you were sold to the Hutts? Do the math Ky.”

“I was eight and a half, maybe nine. I don’t remember much about that time, just flashes of pain and fear. I try not to think about it. You suspect I was one of these kids?”

“I do.” He turned his attention from the windshield back to her face. “The resultant subatomic particles were infused in a delivery serum and injected directly into the Corpus Callosum the area between the two hemispheres of the brain or the pineal gland of several subjects, all of them children under the age of ten. Many went insane, several devolved into a vegetative state while others showed no measurable signs of change at all. He disposed of the insane and infirm, but the remaining failures were wiped of their short-term memory and sold to the Hutts to recoup some of the cost, and then he shut the project down.”

Scourge paused for a moment to let all that he’d said sink in. “I observed closely while you performed beyond mere human capability, scanning for the faintest whisper of the Force. Whatever this thing is you can do is not the Force, however, it all but confirms the probability that you were one such test subject.”

“If this is true, how did they not discover that I wasn’t quite the failure they assumed I was? They had me for almost two years.”

Scourge shrugged. “Perhaps they performed the wrong tests or asked the wrong questions. Maybe it didn’t manifest until you were older. I have no answers.”

“Huh,” she snorted. “The idea of being that abomination’s lab rat turns my stomach. Makes me wonder what else he did to me, to us.” A sudden wash of anger and wretchedness shivered through her body. “The bastard stole my life!” 

For the first time since Scourge began his speech, Ky noticed Corso’s hand on her shoulder. His fingers gripped tighter as he asked, “Can it be removed?”

“No.” The finality of the word felled hope with a single blow. “It becomes a permanent fixture in the brain, literally embedding tendrils into the synapse themselves. Any attempt at removal or nullification would be a death sentence.”

Scourge leaned forward and swiped his finger under her nose catching a dot of blood on the tip. “The physical manifestations of the headaches, fatigue, and nosebleed must be taken as a warning against the prolonged use of your—gift. The stress could prove fatal.”  

“Well, I still have to get us out of here, don’t I?” Ky emitted a harsh laugh. “Seems I’m a walking paradox of being enabled and disabled at the same time.”

“The irony is not lost,” said Scourge. “Alive but not living, we both carry his mark, and it is scored deep.” He idly twirled one of his tendril rings, his tone turning strangely contemplative. “I’d often wondered why I felt such an affinity toward you since first we met, a kinship if you will. It would appear that we are siblings, in a sense, sired by the Emperor’s neverending drive to—"

“Fuck with the natural order of things?” Ky interjected bitterly.

“Aptly stated,” he agreed.

The asteroid hovered near, filling much of the windshield, it's pitted, and lumpy landscape held static as blue bursts from stabilizing boosters flared at intervals around the perimeter. A landing bay, dark and cavernous, yawned at them.

“Doesn’t seem to be any defense systems that I can see,” observed Ky before turning her gaze toward Scourge. “So what now?...Brother.”       

Chapter Text

Scourge raised one brow ridge at Ky, and the corner of his mouth twitched momentarily upward. “Into the Wampa den would be the likely choice, little sister.”

A dry chortle escaped her throat. “Then let’s go hunting.”

Rows of overhead lights flickered to life as she guided the ship through the opening, revealing walls carved from the native rock of the asteroid shored up by metal girders. She used the repulsors on minimal setting due to the low gravity of the asteroid and the maneuvering thrusters to guide them down the corridor. The passageway opened into a vast area cordoned off into six individual docking bays; she chose the second from the left. Tiny bursts eased them toward the back wall and with mere feet as leeway on all sides, she rotated the vessel to finally come to rest with the bow pointed toward the only avenue of escape.

An amber colored forcefield dropped in front, and the hiss of pressurization reached their ears through the skin of the ship. The dull thud of the landing struts settling to the floor echoed around the enclosed area as Ky checked the readouts for external temperature and breathable atmosphere. All in the green except for an elevated level of carbon dioxide, likely from dirty scrubbers.  

She cut the engines and rose slowly from her seat, fighting off the rush of dizziness that tilted her surroundings to a nauseating angle. Steadying hands gripped her shoulders, and she leaned into the support of Corso’s body.

“Perhaps you should remain with the ship,” said Scourge.

“Not on your life,” she retorted. “Why don’t you two go get whatever it is we’ll need while I take a minute.”

“You sure?” asked Corso.

“I’m fine,” she replied and brushed his hands from her arms to brace herself against the console. “Go on, babe. Already I don’t like this place and the sooner we leave, the happier I’ll be.”

The Perigen patch dulled the throbbing in her temples to a tolerable level, but her head still felt like a shaken can of Fizzyglug. The pressure behind her eyes made them water and blood still oozed from her nostrils one minuscule drip at a time.

Propped against the console, she locked her knees to abate the shaking in her legs and grasped the web between the thumb and index finger of her left hand with the thumb and index finger of the right. She closed her eyes and relaxed her shoulders, applying pressure, relishing the steady decline of pounding in her skull. Chloris, her Zabrak arena partner, had shown her this technique years ago and it seldom failed to relieve those stubborn impact headaches she’d incurred while zigging when she should have zagged.

Chloris. Stars, I still miss her.

Ky pushed herself away from the console, blotted at her nose again and proceeded to the airlock to wait for Corso and Scourge, her strength and balance returning with each step.

Corso was the first to show up, placing her blaster holster in her hand. “Need help with that?” he asked.

“I think I can handle it,” she replied and fastened the belt snugly around her hips. “I see you’re bringing the Sergeant along.” She noted the slug thrower strapped to his back.

“This place is giving me the creeps and we ain’t even left the ship yet,” he said. “Also filled my belt pouch with kolto injectors, patches, and gel, just in case, and a couple extra cartridges for our blasters. That’s one thing I envy about Scourge; not a lot of moving parts to lug around for a lightsaber.”

“It does have that advantage,” said Scourge as he approached, rucksack in hand. “You two ready?”

“In a minute,” replied Ky as she grabbed the front of Corso’s jacket and pulled him close. “A kiss before you go all game face on me,” she smiled.

“Always happy to oblige my lady.” Corso lowered his lips to hers.

Scourge looked on as the two merged, mouths locked as if they breathed each other’s oxygen, bodies welded together and arms entwined around neck and torso. He wished he could feel something; jealousy, longing, irritation, but all he felt was the passage of time. Minutes reduced to logic and thought and knowledge of purpose to find a way to end the monotony of his existence.

He closed his eyes and for a moment entertained the fantasy of taking his knight on a bed of Lashaa Silk strewn with the petals of Ithorian Roses. Her pale thighs open for him, her creamy flesh moving beneath him, rosy nipples taught with desire and she would sigh and moan and make a benediction of his name.

The tendril rings bumped against his chin as he shook his head, eyes opening to the reality of the present and the two lovers frozen like statues in an unbroken embrace.

Scourge cleared his throat. “I hate to interrupt this sweet interlude, but we need to go.”

Corso’s cheeks flushed slightly as he and Ky separated while Scourge opened the airlock and extended the ramp. Stale air wafted through the opening carrying the smell of dust and disuse and the decay of forgotten places. Scourge led the procession down the incline and across the floor to the control panel by the door leading into the primary structure. The ship’s ramp retracted, and the hatch lock clicked behind them.  

Ky perused the area while Scourge worked on the panel, noting security cameras hanging immobile and lifeless in their mounting brackets.

“They had security at one time,” she remarked. “There’s likely some sort of control center inside.”

The lock on the door clicked, and it slid open to reveal a dark passageway beyond. “We will find the secrets of this place,” said Scourge before turning to Corso and handing him a short range communicator. “The ship is in lockdown, and any forced entry will initiate an auto-destruct. You will need this should I become incapacitated to override TooVee’s directives and allow you inside.”  He ignited his lightsaber and stepped through the door. “Stay alert,” he added. “I detect the faint signatures of life.”

Hidden sensors triggered overhead lights that winked on in long rows bathing the corridor in a harsh white glare. The stillness of the place was unsettling with each crackle and creak gouging into the nerves like bony fingers. The floor, ceiling, and walls were carved into the stone of the asteroid just as the landing bay had been. The rivets of the support beams showed signs of oxidation, leaving a residue of rust on the index finger Ky swiped along the surface.

“How could he have even built all this?” questioned Corso.

“The emperor’s power is unfathomable; however, I suspect droid labor,” said Scourge. “The asteroids themselves could provide the raw materials required, perhaps some smelting facility that no longer exists was employed to create the beams, girders, and plating. It is all speculation, of course.”  

They came to the first junction of corridors branching off from the main. “We should split up,” said Ky. “Corso and I can go left while you go right. We need to cover more ground. I passed something at the periphery of my senses as I came through the Drift, another ship and it will arrive, sooner rather than later.”

“Agreed,” said Scourge. “Yell if you get into trouble.”

Untold anguish and agony roamed the halls like specters, and the walls themselves would scream if they had mouths. Nightmare and terror flashed like strobes at the back of Ky’s mind, and more than once she jerked away from some unseen phantom that brushed against her arms.

“This place ain’t natural,” said Corso in a hushed voice.

“His presence permeates the air, and I feel filthy inside just breathing it,” she responded while opening the last door to another room resembling barracks.   

“Seems they had some humanoids housed here,” said Corso. “Nothing but barracks and ‘freshers.”

“Let’s head back and see if Scourge found anything different.”

Corso laid his hand gently on her arm. “We need to talk once we’re out of here.”

“I figured as much,” she said, moving away to backtrack down the hall.

The next four halls uncovered much the same; sleeping quarters, ‘freshers, storage closets and a couple of kitchens with eating tables. A few cleaning droids stood scattered about, most shut down with a couple eternally stuck in repetitive, jerky movements, servos whining pitifully. Ky, mercifully, turned them off.   

The final branch of hallways before the sealed entrance at the end of the main corridor proved the most interesting. At Scourge’s prompting, they remained together to investigate the remaining rooms.

“What’s in the bag?” asked Ky, finally taking the time to make the inquiry.

Scourge stopped and looked down at her. “The book and reliquary and also detonite, timer caps and four thermal detonators,” he answered.

Her eyes narrowed at his face and her head tilted in thought until the truth exposed itself. “You intend to crash this place into the black hole,” she said without judgment.

“Yes,” his simple reply brooked no tolerance for rebuttal. “Shall we continue?”

Fewer but larger rooms lined the hallway. Most appeared to be small laboratories with shelves of equipment and rows of data collection computers lining the walls, all silent and covered with a thin layer of dust.

Ky emitted an involuntary gasp as they opened the last door on the left leg of the junction. Several desiccated corpses lay in a loose pile in the center of the otherwise empty room. Twenty or thirty of varied species, Neimoidian, Anomid, Nautolan, Bith, but mostly human given the shape of the skulls. Their visible skin stretched dry and cracked over yellowing bone, and the lab attire each wore was frayed and graying with age.

“It appears that Vitiate is quite thorough when shutting down one of his laboratories,” observed Scourge. “I see no signs of physical trauma; poison gas was the likely means of extermination, and the droids used this room as a dumping ground. Pity. I would have liked to have interrogated a live specimen.”

Corso slowly and reverently closed the door on the makeshift crypt and took his place at Ky’s side as they proceeded down the other arm of the hallway. He glanced sideways at the double doors as they passed the junction, deepening the feeling of dread that had encapsulated them all since they first entered this accursed place. He’d be happy when they put all this behind them, and that included the Sith Lord, truth be told.

All the rooms except the last held no interest, but that final door opened into the hub of operations. Banks of computers still whirred and clicked, and readouts spilled down various screens, the symbols hazy behind the buildup of dust. A stair at the back of the room led downward into the core of the asteroid, the hum of the reactor rising up through the opening.

Scourge paused by one of the inactive computer banks and turned it on then brought his fist down on the keypad in frustration. “All the data has been wiped. Everything is gone,” he growled. “There are no answers here. Perhaps the large room we have yet to explore will hold something.”

“Yeah, perhaps,” said Ky, “but you need to do whatever you have in mind and be quick about it. Go lay your bombs. Corso and I will check out what’s left. Meet us there when you’re done.”

Scourge picked up the bag he’d set on the floor and strode toward the stairs. “I shouldn’t be gone long,” he said before he disappeared beneath the lip of the opening.

Corso latched onto Ky’s arm and rotated her into his arms as soon as they’d reached the double doors leading into the last unexplored part of the base.

“Don’t think for a second that I don’t notice how heavy this is weighing on you, babe,” he murmured into her hair. “You’ve been as jumpy as a sandmouse ever since we stepped inside.”    

She coiled her arms around his waist and mumbled into his chest in a voice so low she would have been unheard but for the eerie quiet. “Maybe it’s this thing in my brain, or it could just be my imagination now that I know, but I can sense the spirits here. I feel them brush against my body, and it’s cold with rage and pain.”

“Then let’s be done with it.” He kissed the top of her head and released her to slam his palm into the door panel.

The lights blazed to life as soon as they entered and what they beheld stopped both of them in their tracks. The room was massive, divided into separate workstations with steel tables, and shelves holding glass jars of body parts and wicked looking instruments that winked obscenely in the light. Inactive medical and interrogation droids stood neglected around the area, but what caused them pause were the rows of tanks down the middle, each with a sentient being suspended in a ghastly green liquid.

Corso and Ky advanced delicately as if they stepped over freshly dug graves. Ky knelt to look at the readout panel at the base of the nearest tank holding a naked human male. She brushed away the grime to confirm that the readout was green across the board.

“Stars! He’s alive,” she exclaimed as she stood and moved further in among the rows of tanks, each displaying the same affirmation of life. “There must be thirty or forty at least.”

The further she moved into the room the more anxious she became as if something at the center contained a nexus of power. In the middle of the rows of living corpses, she spied a single tank, set apart from the others. Inside was a male child, perhaps ten or twelve, his vacant eyes open and observing. She froze in his gaze, and her world changed.

Ky shivered at the whispers caressing her ears, intimate as a lover’s sigh, malevolent as a death threat. The dead, long gone and jealous of the living, converged in this room. They pressed close with shallow hope that contact with the spark of life would ignite their extinguished fire and make them corporeal once more.

Despair and terror spread like disease, oozing from the walls, dripping from the ceiling, crawling across the floor, a contagion that would not be forestalled or denied.

Ky clutched her head, covered her ears in an attempt to ward off the incursion, insidious in intent, malicious in intensity.

Gruff hands gripped her arms, fingers bruised her flesh, her head bobbed back and forth as strong arms shook her, and words cut through the fog that imperiled her hold on reality. “Mind games, Ky. He corrupts everything he touches, twisting all to his purpose, leaving a residue like clotted blood to clog the mind. The spirits are real but cannot harm you. The boy is real but cannot touch you. Come back to us.”

She looked up into the face of the Sith Lord, his crimson eyes markers to find her way back, his hands lifelines to hold her fast against the pull of the abyss. She nodded once, and he released her to a more loving embrace as Corso folded her into the sanctuary of his arms.

“We are not alone,” Scourge said. “Take her up there, away from this abomination. I sense something in this room I must find. Be quick, stay hidden.”

Corso led Ky toward the front of the room, hiding them both behind a partition while Scourge strode from one work area to the next following the direction of what called to him. At the rear of the room, he found what he sought. A glowing splinter suspended in a glass container, the object clearly labeled ‘Sutta iv Basuoti;’ the Spear of Division. The Wrath who felt nothing could feel the power radiating off the object bringing him to the threshold of pain and he basked in the sensation. His hand cramped as he lifted the object from the shelf and dropped it into the rucksack he still carried.

A precious key had been found, the lock had yet to be discovered. He pivoted on his heel to return to the others but slid behind one of the tanks instead. The voice echoing through the chamber confirmed what he’d sensed earlier, they were no longer alone.

“Scourge!” the voice boomed. “I know you are here as well as...another. She carries father’s mark, how unexpected and delightful.”

The arms that held Ky were strong but contained no love. She glanced up at Corso’s face, his jaw and furrowed brows set in hard angles, unreadable flinty eyes projecting no warmth. He abruptly pushed her behind him and raised a single finger to his lips. Game face on.

“Vitiate has abandoned us all, Tajno.” Scourge’s voice boomed back. “This is folly, there is nothing here for you but death.”

“These tanks contain what remains of the Emperor’s Children, and they will be mine to control. As for your pitiful bombs set around the reactor...” Tajno scoffed, “my men will quickly take care of that little problem.”

“You fool!” snarled Scourge as he stepped from behind the tank to face his adversary. “Any tampering with the doors will trigger a cascade effect. An hour will be reduced to mere minutes. I have lived for far too long, have you?”

“I have hired the best, your threats mean nothing,” Tajno retorted.

“Your best won’t be good enough,” countered Scourge. “Let the others go, and we can embrace death together.”

Tajno, pulled twin lightsabers from the folds of his robes, each igniting with a buzzing groan. Rotating his wrists, they sliced the air with a whoosh before he stilled them both, pointing at the floor in an inverted V, a pose of open invitation.         

“I will enjoy dismembering your aging body and throwing each piece into a different sun. And when I am done, I will tear apart your young friend’s brain one cell at a time just to sate my curiosity. I may leave her body alive to entertain my men.”

Corso emitted a low growl, giving away their position. Damn!

“You young pup,” mocked Scourge. “You dare to attempt Dun Möch on me? I was a master long before you were born.”

“Show me,” taunted Tajno.

Booted feet approached where Corso and Ky hid, Scourge rushed forward, skidding the bag in their direction, never removing his eyes from Tajno. The bag hit Corso’s foot, and he slid it into a corner before gripping the metal operating table and flipping it to its side, pulling Ky behind and down into a crouching position.

Ky fired at the first man that rounded the partition, the blast bounced harmlessly off the body shield. Corso didn’t hesitate, he unshouldered the rifle and put a slug through the man’s chest, loaded another slug into the chamber and removed half of the top of the next man’s skull. The rest of the assailants would be more careful, trying to outflank and Corso wouldn’t be able to reload fast enough for all of them.

Ky crept forward and peeked around the edge of the partition, withdrawing her head as a shot whizzed by and scrambling back behind the table.

She gripped Corso’s arm, drawing his attention. “These are mere soldiers, not GenoHaradan and there are at least ten more. Scourge is barely holding his own, and we won’t last against shields and blasters.”

“And?” Corso quirked one brow at her.

“We double team, just like when I was in the arena. Knives, in close, I’ll be the cheese, you be the hammer. Watch my flank and follow my lead, don’t hold back. Stone-skipping through an asteroid field isn’t the only use for my gift, love. This will work. See if you can take out one or two more with the rifle, we can use the tanks as cover, run their asses ragged.”

“Beware tranqs,” he cautioned, loading one slug into the chamber and another into the magazine. The rifle was an older model that held only two shots before a reload was needed. It would have to do.       

“Ready?” She holstered the blaster and pulled her knife.

He nodded.

Ky sprung up and over the side of the table, rolling to her feet, and sprinting low to tuck in behind one of the tanks. She’d drawn the attention of the men, as she’d hoped, heard the rifle report and the thud of a body hitting the floor. She drew a deep breath and peered around the side of the tank, her mind raced, and the world slowed to a crawl.

The flash of plasma bursts from blasters, the steely glint of a tranq dart hung in suspension, the disturbed currents of air rippled her hair as they blew by her head. A peppering of plasma burned her forehead, and she hissed through clenched teeth. The rifle boomed again, a howl from the other side of the tank and she uncoiled to begin the game.

She sensed rather than saw Corso at her back as she wove through the men, anticipating actions before they happened, keeping their attention on her. Sliding into openings, slicing into flesh, she distracted and slowed them while Corso moved in for the kill. The sting of a knife skimming her ribs, the jolting punch connecting with her jaw was dismissed and she ignored the blood that dripped into her eye and filled her mouth. Her signature move came easily as she swung up the arm of one man and used his own weight to haul him sideways as she sank her blade into his neck and cascaded down his back like quicksilver.

All she saw of Scourge and Tajno were the spark and glimmer of three crimson rods, colliding and twirling like whirligigs in the periphery of her vision.

The floor lurched beneath their feet as an explosion rumbled from deep in the bowels of the asteroid followed by a second and a third. One of Tajno’s men lay injured on the floor, four were dead, and three remained standing. The explosions halted the conflict, but it wouldn’t last long.

“I warned you,” snapped Scourge as he blocked an incoming assault by Tajno while positioning himself to be driven back toward Corso and Ky.

Scourge caught the leading edge of lightning on his blade, a brief expression of surprise widening his eyes at this unexpected tactic by the other man. A Force wave lifted and knocked Tajno back giving Scourge a few seconds of reprieve.

“There is no time to win the fight, and he is too strong for either of you. Get the bag and leave,” said Scourge, his gaze never wavering from the face of his enemy. “Give it to my knight, tell her to keep it safe, tell her I love her and I will come to her if I can.”

“I don’t leave my people behind,” argued Ky, swiping the blood from beneath her nose, fighting the aftermath of weakness that was the cost of using her gift.

Scourge directed his next words at Corso. “For once in your life, be the man you need to be and get her the hell out of here. I will clear the way.”

Corso moved to gather the bag and drape the rifle strap across his shoulder before grabbing Ky roughly by the wrist and dragging her protesting and cursing figure after him toward the door. Force wave after Force wave knocked Tajno and his men away from the opening. Corso was almost there when the injured man heaved himself off the floor and lunged at Ky, vibroknife in hand.

Corso shielded her, grunting softly as the blade slid through the leather of his jacket and deflected upward along his ribs to be buried in the soft underarm near his armpit. As he twisted away, Ky sunk her blade into the man and shoved him back before a Force wave pushed them through the door which slammed shut behind them.

Corso extracted the knife from the underside of his arm and dropped it, the ringing clang of metal hitting stone seemed far away. He dragged Ky down the corridor toward the landing bays, leaving a thin trail of his life’s blood as a testament to their passage.

Chapter Text

Corso used the communicator that Scourge had given him earlier to contact TooVee and take the ship out of lockdown.

“Damn you!” Ky cursed him as she preceded him up the ramp of the ship. “I should have fought you harder. We could have saved Scourge.”

“No, Ky, we couldn’t, and he knew it,” Corso muttered through the mist forming in his brain. “Don’t let his sacrifice go to waste. Get us out of here.”

He leaned against the wall to regain his balance, depositing a dark, slick handprint and followed her to the cockpit on legs of jelly before dropping, limply into the navigator’s chair.

Ky engaged the repulsors and retracted the struts. “Fucking forcefield,” she grumbled, jamming her thumbs down on the firing buttons on the steering yoke. Bursts of plasma blasted the framing walls until nothing remained but sparking wires and rubble.

Full thrusters barreled them down the corridor and into open space where Ky engaged the sublight to put as much distance between the ship and the asteroid as possible. Five minutes, ten, fifteen—her heart sank when the detonation flared across the rearview monitor. A pristine argent glare ballooned in an ever-expanding ring, the back half winked out of existence as it crossed the event horizon and the front edge of the energy ribbon rippled their way.

She fastened her harness and engaged the shields, preparing for the impact then glanced over to Corso to make sure he’d strapped in. Her heart bounded from the pit of her stomach to the back of her throat. Corso slumped in the seat, eyes closed, chin on chest, legs splayed apart with a pool of blood forming on the floor, dripping steadily from the hand that dangled over the armrest.

The energy wave hit the ship, lifting the stern, almost upending them and sent them hurtling into the Drift. Proximity alarms blared, and her mind accelerated to avoid the peril of certain collision as she scanned the field in desperation for one big, fucking rock. Just one was all she needed. She expanded her perception further into the Nulastine. There! A shadow at the edge of her reach, she hit the sublights and rocketed forward, racing for his life.

Braking with thrusters, she eased toward the behemoth, the size of a small moon, rotating slowly, pocked with impact craters. She skimmed across the surface looking for an entrance, a cavern, a haven to shield them from the debris that thumped and skidded along the shields.

A gaping maw appeared on the port side, and she altered course. Repulsors online, she guided the ship into the darkness, exterior floods lighting her way as she extended the struts and landed. She fired one anchoring harpoon into the rock, fumbled with her harness and fell to her knees at Corso’s side.

He’d tumbled from the chair when the wave hit and now lay still, so still, his hair soaking in the blood already shed and the stain on his jacket expanding out from his shoulder.

“No! No-no-no-no!” the denial burst rapid fire from a throat so tight it hurt to speak. “TooVee!” she screamed, never removing her eyes from Corso’s face. “I can’t...I can’t lose you, not this way. Please love, not like this.”

She rolled him onto his back, searching his neck for a pulse, and breathed again when she found it. Faint but there. “TooVee!” she screamed again, brushing Corso’s hair back from his face with trembling fingers. He’s so cold. She stripped his jacket and then her own, removed her shirt and tied the sleeves around his upper arm in a rough tourniquet.  

“Here Mistress,” the droid said as it rounded the corner into the cockpit. “Oh, my,” it exclaimed when it saw the situation.

“Where the hell were you?” Ky spat. “Never mind. Get him to the med bay and do a scan. And if he—”

“Yes, Mistress, I know,” the droid interrupted as he lifted Corso from the floor. “If he dies, you will push me out the airlock, or crush me into oblivion, or...” The droid continued his list of possible fates until he deposited Corso on the medical bed and began the scans while Ky retightened the tourniquet.

The droid perused the readout on the side of the scanner that had run the full length of Corso’s body. “He’s lost a lot of blood, Mistress, and the basilic vein in his upper arm has been quite severely damaged. Kolto alone won’t stop the bleeding in time. He needs immediate surgery and a transfusion. If he lives, he may still lose his arm.”

“Then get that damned med-probe busy. Now!”

Ky helped TooVee strip Corso’s shirt, while the med-tech droid hovered above the bed on the gantry arm attached to the wall.

TooVee placed a mask over Corso’s face to feed him oxygen and inserted a needle into his right arm to provide fluids from a bag that now hung by his head. The med-droid began work on his injury. Spray nozzles and vacuuming tubes cleansed the blood away while other, more delicate instruments worked inside the gaping wound. TooVee assisted with additional clean up, mopping excess blood and liquids from around the area with clean gauze.

Ky’s body couldn’t decide whether to be numb or jitter with worry and teetered back and forth like a manic seesaw. She paced and fretted, imagining the worst, remembering the best, and hung suspended in the hell of waiting.

“Mistress,” TooVee addressed her, “we can repair the vein and close the wound, but we have no whole blood stores on board except for those matching Lord Scourges blood type, and it is not compatible. Master Corso is not likely to survive.”

“Then fucking take mine,” snapped Ky. “I’m a universal donor.”

“As you wish. We should start the process now and have everything at the ready. The transfusion can begin after the bleeding is stopped. To do otherwise would waste the limited supply you can provide.”

Ky lay down on the bed next to Corso’s while TooVee rolled a machine in between and inserted a needle into her arm. The machine whirred to life. She settled back on the pillow to watch the shallow rise and fall of Corso’s chest and the feathery flutter of his hair when caught in the air currents from the wall vents. 

“We cannot take more than three hundred fifty milliliters, perhaps four hundred at most before you start exhibiting signs of blood loss, Mistress. We could lose you both,” stated TooVee nervously.

“What about plasma?” asked Ky. “Surely you have some on board.”

“Yes, perhaps. We have some artificial plasma which may be of benefit if the whole blood transfusion stabilizes him. It’s the red blood cells that are the concern.”       

“Then he can have all of mine. Do you hear me? All of it, just save him.”

The droids worked, and she’d never felt so useless.

“The vein is shunted and repaired,” stated TooVee.  

The scanner continually monitoring Corso’s vitals began to chime, his breathing became erratic, and his accelerated heartbeat stumbled.

“Start the transfusion now,” barked Ky.

TooVee attached the other tube to the needle already inserted in Corso’s arm and flipped a switch. The crimson gift flowed from her heart to his, drop by steady drop, and hope was carried with it.

Time dragged by on stubborn feet, and when the transfusion machine began to beep, Ky realized she had given all she could, and suddenly wished she had a God to pray to. Corso’s survival was no longer in her hands, and any petition to the cosmos would be wasted, her prayers just empty words. Every spacer knew that the universe was a stone-cold bitch that ate her young, and she would find no consolation there.

Thirty-six hours shuffled by, each tick and tock marching along in single file, the steady cadence maddening in its precision. TooVee tended her wounds, fetched fresh clothing, and brought food, which went untouched. She refused to leave Corso except to use the ‘fresher and even that sent waves of panic rippling down her spine.

They’d had to revive him once, his body arching up and thumping back to the bed, one, two, three times, the flat line finally lurching upward in a spike, the most glorious sight she’d ever beheld. She stayed by his bed, using stims to augment her natural requirement for little sleep. What if she wasn’t there to say hello? What if she wasn’t there to say goodbye?

Her mind twisted and turned on her, fangs sharp with accusation and dripping with guilt.

‘Damn it all! He shouldn’t even be here, and life with me is going to get him killed.’     

In the three and a half years they’d been together, this had been the longest they’d ever been alone. The improbable love for him had blind-sided her; abrupt and swift as a runaway speeder in a crosswalk. The precise moment when he became the center of her existence couldn’t be named, and it wrenched her heart to consider the price he paid for being there.

He shouldn’t have to split himself into different faces, and already she could see the toll. The expectations he set for himself were higher than any man should have to reach, and he deserved the chance to be whole and at peace.

He deserved a quiet life with sun on his face and dirt under his nails, covered with sweat and proud of the work of his hands. Routine should set the course of his days, dawn and dusk rotating in perfect harmony—sharing it all with a good woman and a passel of kids playing in the yard.

She sighed and settled back into the chair, scrubbing her fingers across her forehead in a vain attempt to wipe the slate clean. Perhaps Largo had been right, and she should have cut him loose two years ago before love had set its hooks so deep neither could escape. He’d never leave her, and she wouldn’t leave him and the choice to love her had robbed him of his dreams and nearly his life.

‘Stars, there has to be an answer. I just can’t see it.’

The rustling of blankets and stirring of movement from the bed jolted her off the seat. “TooVee!” she yelled, standing over Corso, afraid to touch him, afraid not to.

His eyes rolled beneath lids now pale and veiny above lashes that fanned black as raven’s wings across the tops of razor-edged cheekbones.

“Don’t,” he mumbled in between ragged breaths. “Don’t.”

A single tear slipped down the side of his face that she caught on the edge of her finger. He flinched at her touch, and his lids sprang open, eyes wild and unfocused as he fought against the restraints holding him in place.

“Shh, my love. Shh,” she murmured, her hands firm on his chest, holding him down. “Be still. I’m here.”

She repeated the sing-song phrases until the panic subsided and his gaze cleared, fixing on her face with unasked questions reflecting in the depths.

He licked his lips and stammered, “I can’t move my arm. I can’t feel my hand.” 

“We had to immobilize your left arm so you wouldn’t tear your stitches or cause more damage, and restrained your right to keep the IV in.”

He nuzzled his stubbled chin into the palm she cupped around his face and the wellspring of tears she’d held inside flowed like hot wax down her cheeks.

“I thought I’d lost you,” she sobbed. “I couldn’t live if I lost you. Not like this.”

“Hey, now, none of that. Don’t cry babe, I’m right as rain. See?” A blush of a smile touched his dry lips, tender and kind and oh, so...Corso.

Damn.

He jiggled the frame of the bed with the tether keeping his IV arm secure. “I need to touch you. Please.” His earnest plea traveled from lips to open hand, palm up and fingers stretched in supplication.

“Come here,” he said as soon as his arm was freed to pull her down and tilt her head to meet her lips with his.

Her hand strayed across the blanket covering his stomach and withdrew in surprise and dismay at the obvious tent starting to rise. “Oh no, you don’t,” she scolded. “I’ll not have you passing out with all that blood I just gave you rushing to a place it shouldn’t go.”

How he managed the pinkish tint that colored his cheeks was beyond her. A sheepish grin accompanied his admission. “Yeah, that too, but, I really gotta pee.”

Laughter erupted from Ky, fervent and cathartic, cramping her sides, riding the rim of hysteria until the tears came again, reducing her to wracking sobs and snotty nose he held against his chest.

He clucked and cooed and stroked her hair, as always, comforting her. The teeth of guilt closed mercilessly around her conscience, snapping and shredding until she felt as flat as a ragdoll bereft of its stuffing.

Weary and hollow, having cried the unshed torrents from all those years she couldn’t or wouldn’t, she raised her head to gaze into the visage of all she held most dear.

His countenance grew pinched with worry, and sadness weighed the corners of his eyes and mouth into perfect parentheses framing his face. For love of him, she dismissed her fear and doubt and returned him to his rightful place as the center of importance. She no longer mattered, and for now, her solitary goal was to see him well and strong.

They remained in the asteroid cave for another forty-eight hours allowing Corso to rest, heal and regain his strength. Kolto, plasma, and antibiotics performed their magic until the only remaining concerns were the numbness in his ring and pinky fingers, lack of full shoulder rotation and the compromised strength of his grip.

TooVee said he might never fully recover, and put him on a regimen of rehabilitative exercises, leaving the final prognosis at ‘it’ll be what it’s meant to be.’

‘One more thing to add to the list.’ Ky thought as she strapped into the pilot’s seat. ‘Not only did I almost get him killed; I’ve crippled him as well.’   

“You sure you’re up for this?” asked Corso from the navigator’s chair. “You’ve not slept but a few hours in the last four days.”

“I’ve never needed much sleep.” A half-assed laugh kicked free from her throat. “Never thought about it before, but maybe it’s some side effect of my two-year slumber party at Vitiate’s pad.”

“Maybe.” Corso frowned, buckling the belt across his lap.                

“I’ve got to stone skip out of here,” she said matter-of-factly as she performed pre-flight checks, “so if I pass out, chart a course to Untuar IV. Don’t use anyplace we’ve been recently to refuel. The further off the beaten path the better. We’ve left a blazing trail to follow so far, and I don’t intend to repeat that mistake.”

“You expecting trouble?”

“Always,” she snorted. “It does seem to find me regardless of my good intentions.”

She released the mooring harpoon and lifted the ship into the busy traffic of rock and debris careening helter-skelter toward no particular destination, crossing lanes and hell-bent on colliding with the tiny craft.

The universe spun, she became the axis and the nucleus, the ship a mere extension of her will, and all else crawled before them. She was the shuttle weaving weft and warp into a tapestry of time and space in patterns of stone and iron. Fixated on a point at the fringe of perception, her mind expanded, neurons bridged across synapse until all she saw was a brilliant blaze of calculations behind her eyes. She demanded, the ship responded until they broke through the boundary and into the welcoming black of open space and the faint, cold glow of a distant star.  

The last thing she remembered was the beauty of Corso’s face and asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ before the shelter of oblivion took her away.

Chapter Text

“How long?” were the first words out of her mouth when she awoke in their bed, mouth dry and bladder full.

“Hello to you too, and ten hours,” answered Corso, moving from the desk chair to sit at her side. 

“Stars, ten hours. How could you let me sleep so long?” She shoved the covers down and bumped his backside with her knees until he stood up so she could roll out of bed.

“You were exhausted, that’s how,” he chided. “It’s not as if anything’s going on.”

“Still,” she huffed and closed the ‘fresher door.          

Corso leaned against the desk, out of her way while she scurried around the room getting dressed. Quite a show she was, pale and naked in the dim light, displaying a subtle grace despite the frenetic movement. He wanted nothing more than to tumble her into the pillows and...

The comm chimed as it had every hour on the hour since they’d jumped into hyperspace. Scourge’s knight trying to get through on his encrypted channel again.

“Let me guess,” said Ky twisting her hair unto the band that held it out of her face in a loose ponytail. “Sayonar, right?”

“Yeah. She’s been consistently calling for a while now.”

“Might as well get this over with,” said Ky. “Bad news don’t get good by putting it off.”

The Jedi’s holographic image flickered above the unit in the conference room; erect and proud, dressed in battle armor with a long dark braid lying across one shoulder.  

Sayonar inclined her head. “It’s good to see you Ky but where is Scourge?”

No point beating around the bush. “I’m afraid he didn’t make it,” answered Ky, her gut twisting with the too recent memory of abandoning the Sith to his fate.  

She kept her eyes keenly focused on the knight’s face, expecting a reaction. No tears, no display of emotion cracked the stony visage, impressive even for one of the Order given how much the Jedi loved the Sith Lord.

She believes he’s still alive.

“I don’t—” Sayonar started to say.

“Not over an open channel,” Ky intervened. “Even an encrypted one may not be secure. Do you understand?”

“I do,” said the knight. “Where would you like to meet?”

“You know of Scourge’s sanctuary?”

The Jedi nodded.

“Good. We’ll meet there in...” Ky glanced at Corso for a timeframe. “Eight days.” She relayed the number of fingers he held up.

“That’s a long time to wait,” sighed the Jedi.

“It always is,” said Ky. “And Sayonar, no fleet. Come alone or bring one other. I’ll be watching.”

“You don’t trust me.” The Jedi frowned.

“I don’t trust the Jedi Order and you by extension,” replied Ky and disconnected.

“That didn’t go too badly. Considering,” said Ky, digging her fingers into her temples, scrubbing in tight circles.

“Sounded like she thinks Scourge is still alive.”

“Maybe he is.” Ky dropped her hands to her sides and headed toward the door. “I’d always thought Jedi and Sith hoodoo was one step too far into Crazyville, but given recent events—who am I to say? It’d ease my conscience a whole lot, that’s for damn sure.”   

The aroma of freshly brewed caf drew her toward the galley where TooVee placed a steaming mug on the counter in front of her as soon as she sat down.

“If you had a dick and a tongue, TooVee, I swear I’d be in love,” she joked and took a careful sip of the hot brew. “Ahhh,” she sighed and licked her lips.

“Yes, Mistress,” the droid responded with droll incomprehension that made her chuckle and give Corso a sideways glance.

“Why the long face?”

“I’m just worried about you, I guess. What Scourge said changes everything.” He stared at his hands clasped on the counter, thumbs twiddling nervously.  

“It changes nothing.” She set the mug down and topped his hands with her own. “I’m still the same, the only difference is now I know.”

“Yeah, and who else knows?” He jerked his hands away and turned to face her. “Kriffing hell, the Republic and Empire alike would try to duplicate what you can do. Weaponize you, somehow. They’d never stop hunting you.”

“Only you and Scourge know, and I doubt either of you are going to say anything.”

“And what about the other times you’ve used this so-called gift?”

“Dromund Kaas and Lumsten III were cake walks. Any pilot with mad skills could have pulled those off as well as the forays into The Maw. There was nothing about those to raise any flags. Even Scourge thought it was just some inherent skill or instinct. Hell, even I didn’t fully understand what I could do until the Nulastine.”

“And that’s the problem, you still don’t fully understand any of it.” He combed his fingers through his hair and rubbed at the back of his neck. “Dammit. I know you. You take risks, always have. I’m scared to death that you’ll be more reckless than you already are.” His eyes searched hers, hoping for some sign that he was wrong, a sign that never came.

She folded her arms across her chest. “I’ve always done exactly what was needed to keep the ship flying. This is just another weapon in my arsenal, so, why would any of this surprise you?”

“That’s not all though, is it?” His eyes were unrelenting, trying to crack her unbreachable shell. “What about the headaches, the nosebleeds, the strain it puts on your system until you pass out? Stars, Ky, it could kill you.”

“A lot of things could kill me. These past few weeks haven’t exactly been the norm. I’ve been forced to do what I needed to survive and use all my tricks to pull our asses out of the fire, more than once.” She raised her chin in defiance. “I refuse to be ruled by fear. Not mine and not yours.”

“Kriff! I don’t even know how to help you. You’d rather open up to some crazy Sith Lord than me.” He sounded like a petulant child and couldn’t help himself.

“So that’s it,” she said flatly.

“No, that’s not it, or at least not all of it.” He dropped his gaze to her chin, unable to decipher the emotions flickering in her eyes. “Aw hell. I knew I’d screw this up. I get so tongue-tied all the words come out wrong, and everything gets all twisted around.”

“Go on. Out with it,” she prompted.

He took a deep breath as if steeling himself for a gut punch. “Look,” he started, “I know I’ve always loved you more than you love me and I can live with that, but what hurts is that you feel safe sharing your life with someone else but not with me.”

She tilted his face upward with the edge of a knuckle, needing to gauge his expressions. “It wasn’t a case of feeling safe. Scourge had no skin in the game and knew a great deal about me already. After all that Voidhound nonsense, the Jedi, the SIS, hell, even Sith Intelligence probably knew how many times a day I took a piss.”

No trace of humor touched the mahogany depths of his eyes. She continued. “We all leave traceable footprints from birth to death, and nothing stays hidden forever. Somebody always knows something it’s just a matter of ferreting it out. And, I might add, you’ve hardly been a fount of information.”       

She placed her thumb against his lips to stop the rebuttal before it began. “If I wanted to dig into your past, I’m sure there’s plenty of information to be found, but, I realize now that none of it matters.” She brushed a stray lock of hair from his forehead. “I almost lost you. That’s what changed everything, and all the secrets just aren’t that important. Keep them if it brings you comfort, I won’t ask again.”

He pulled her from the stool and wedged her between his thighs, arms loosely encircling her hips. “Fair enough, but promise me one thing. You won’t use this gift of yours again.”

She slowly shook her head. “I can’t do that. I’ve already told you I’ll do whatever it takes to keep the ship flying and you and the crew safe.”

A mirthless smile touched his lips. “I reckon there’s no point in arguing, but tell me one thing, if you can.”

“Shoot.”

“You said you were in the arena for three years, how did you get out?”

Old memories flooded her mind, painful depictions of innocence taken and the sacrifice of a friend. “Let’s just say I was a consolation prize in a lost bet.”     

She placed a kiss on the tip of his nose and broke free of his embrace. “I’m going to take a shower and then get something to eat and a hot cup of caf.”

“One more thing,” she said over her shoulder. “You have no idea how much I love you, but someday you will.”

Confessions of being an idiot and an apology entered the shower with Corso, and amidst the steam and cascading water, all was cleansed and absolved. Surrounded by the scent of herb and spice, hips locked to his and spine against cool tile, she took the length and breadth of him. He rocked her gently, gripping her thighs and she hid her face in the rivulets that ran down his neck. Release came like a zephyr blowing ripples across restless waters, leaving tranquility in its wake.

New and fresh again, old wounds, concerns, and guilt trickled down the drain, swallowed for a little while. Recycled, they would rise again, but today, she would take the squeaky clean and worry about the dirt tomorrow.

The Segomo began transmitting its transponder code as soon as they entered the solar system and the answering signal directed them to the fourth planet. Untuar IV proved to be little more than an abandoned mining colony in the Mieru’kar sector. Too far from the class F star to benefit from the warmth, the surface was doomed to a frozen wasteland much like Hoth.

Bunker entrances peppered the landscape offering ingress to subterranean landing bays, but the beacon they followed led to the base of a mountain range where blast doors opened wide for Scourge’s ship.

Bags in hand, Ky and Corso disembarked down the ramp toward the greeting party of six; her three crew members plus Kira, Sayonar and Seph Okarr.         

Bowdaar strode forward boisterously to embrace Ky in wooly arms, lifting her from her feet with woofs and grunts until she scratched under his chin and demanded he put her down. Gus shuffled his feet and gave a cursory ‘welcome back, Captain’ while Akaavi remained silent, eyes narrowed and arms crossed.

Sayonar stepped forward, her eyes lingering on the empty ramp before turning to Ky. “I am grateful for your safe return. If you’re not too tired, we should speak. Scourge may not have much time.”

“Master?” said Kira, dropping her hand to her lightsaber hilt.

“Yes, I feel it too,” answered the knight. “Stay your hand, Kira.”

“We can find someplace more comfortable,” offered Seph.

“I’m fine here, and I want to get this over with as soon as possible.” Ky set the rucksack at the Jedi’s feet. “He said to give this to you. Said for you to keep it safe and he would return to you if he could.”

“There is much of the dark side emanating from that bag,” stated Sayonar with a shiver. “Seldom have I felt such power.”

Ky shrugged. “Scourge called it The Spear of Division. It has something to do with his curse, and that’s all I want to know.”

“He is alive,” stated Sayonar with conviction. “I can sense his presence although distant and faint. Please, you must help me find him.”

Ky crossed her arms, her gaze steadily fixed on the knight. “No, I don’t. I’ve had enough of the Force, the Emperor, the Sith and, quite frankly, enough of the Jedi.”

“I would think you’d want to assist. The Jedi Council is prepared—” Sayonar started to say.

“Prepared to what?” Ky interrupted, raising her hand in dismissal. “Use me again and then cast me aside like so much trash? Where the hell were they when I needed help standing up to Saresh and her cronies to get my contracts reinstated? Oh, that’s right, they couldn’t get involved in politics. A bunch of tight-assed, mealy-mouthed, gutless...” Ky took a deep breath to calm herself. “You and the Sith both boil down to just three little words. I am Jedi. I am Sith. No difference. It’s all just an excuse for bad behavior.”

Sayonar’s demeanor turned frigid haloed with a hint of sadness. “I’m sorry you feel that way. However, I must find him, so please tell me where to begin my search.”

“I agreed to meet to honor Scourge’s last request, not to bring up old grievances about the Jedi or argue with you. Guess you touched a nerve, so best to keep the Council out of this,” said Ky, easing back at the Jedi’s nod of agreement. “I want you to know that I tried to save him, but he Force shoved Corso and me out the door and closed it behind us. There was no time to go back. I left him at the center of the Nulastine Drift. There was an explosion, and what became of him after, I couldn’t begin to guess.”

Dismay crept like a shadow across Sayonar’s face. “Force help me. Tell me everything.

Ky recounted all of it; the lab, the emperor’s children in stasis, Tajno and how Scourge stayed behind so that she and Corso could escape. She omitted the details of her talent out of necessity and a strong sense of self-preservation.  

Kira paled at the mention of the children and Sayonar’s brows wrinkled into a scowl.

“So, you’re telling me that Cirris Tajno was a child of the emperor? How could we have missed it for all those years?” The knight sharpened her stare. “Did he survive?”

“How the hell should I know?” snarled Ky. “And get out of my head. Use your Force mojo if you have to, just not on me.”   

“My apologies, old habits. After all, you know, and after Scourge sacrificed himself, you still won’t help?” Sayonar frowned.

“Don’t try to guilt me into this,” countered Ky. “Scourge will understand my reasons. I helped him achieve his goal, destroy the book and the lab, and find the key to his cure. He wouldn’t expect any more from me and neither should you.”

Sayonar picked up the rucksack. “If that’s your final word, then so be it. I will waste no more time trying to change your mind.”

“Take his ship,” said Ky. “The engines are faster, it has better shields, armaments, and maneuverability. All you need to do is replace the warped transpacitor casing and restock. For what it’s worth, I wish you luck.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it. I have the Force,” stated Sayonar coldly.

“Yeah,” remarked Ky, picking up her bag and turning to Seph. “Want to show me to my ship? I’d like to get off this rock.”

“Where we going?” asked Gus. “Please say it’s someplace warm.”

She reached for Corso’s hand. “We’re going to chase a rainstorm.”

Chapter Text

Guilt nipped at her heels as they followed Seph down the corridor leading them to the bay where the Soledad was docked. She should have gone to help rescue Scourge, but, damn, Corso was right that she couldn’t allow anyone to see what she was truly capable of. One word in the wrong ear and she’d end up a lab rat in some black site, never to be seen again. She didn’t trust the Jedi, and Saresh, the military, and the SIS were snakes of a whole different skin.

The words of Tajno came back to haunt her, ‘I will tear apart your young friend’s brain one cell at a time just to sate my curiosity.’ The Sith would be even more creative. No thanks.

“We need to talk,” said Seph, grabbing her arm right before she set foot on the ramp to enter the Soledad.

“Don’t touch her like that,” growled Corso.

“Relax, lover boy,” Seph grinned and released her arm. “But, she still owes me. Hope you’ve kept her lips in shape.”

“I don’t owe you shit.” Ky rolled her eyes and braced her arm against Corso’s stomach to keep him from advancing on the man. “Give it up already. Both of you. We need to talk alone?”

“Naw, your crew needs to hear this,” answered Okarr.

“Welcome back, Mistress,” CeeToo greeted her. “The ship is in tip-top shape, and I made sure that your quarters were cleaned in anticipation of your return. Fresh sheets and sundries are in place. I hope it meets with your approval.”

“It’s good to be home, and I’m sure it’s fine.” Ky handed her bag to the droid as did Corso. “Take these to our room and bring the bottle of whiskey you’ll find in mine to the galley. I haven’t had a drink in days, and something tells me I’m going to need one.”

“Maybe two,” said Seph a bit too seriously for Ky’s liking.

Ky poured a double shot and set a second glass before Seph, before she sat down, leaning into Corso’s chest where he stood behind her. Gus sat at the table, Bowdaar stood by the sink, and Akaavi propped herself against the doorframe, absently cleaning her nails with a knife.

“All assembled,” said Ky, taking a sip. “Say what you’ve got to say.”

Seph encircled his glass with his hands, staring into the amber liquid. “Do you remember the GenoHaradan at Far Cry?”

“How could I forget. Played a little game of Orokeet blink with them. They blinked.”

“Scourge contacted me after that incident. Asked me to keep my ear to the ground for any information floating about.” Seph glanced at her sidelong, took a sip and continued. “I’ve been known to travel in some quite unsavory circles and know a thing or two about the Geno.”

“And?” Ky prompted.

Seph turned in his seat to meet her eyes. “The Geno are assassins, not retrieval squads. A contract has been paid, likely for Scourge’s life. I suspect recovery of the reliquary was the true objective, and the termination contract merely a ruse. You were simply collateral damage, until Far Cry.”

Ky gave a nonchalant shrug. “I chose not to die that day, or, at least, die on my own terms.”

“Admirable, but you made it personal on Far Cry. The leader of that cell had his pride wounded and received a black mark with the guild. He is honor bound and well within his rights, according to their code, to declare Ars Vindicta. The Art of Vendetta. The stipulations are immutable; you die, or he and his cell do.”

“Is there no way out for her?” asked Corso, wrapping an arm protectively around her shoulders.

“Only if another contract supersedes the vendetta. Credits speak louder than any other language to the Geno,” Seph answered, spreading his arms to encompass the entire room. “They will go through all of you to get to her.”

“Then let them come,” Akaavi said. “Mhi oyacyir tome, mhi ramaanar tome. They may regret their life choices.”

Bowdaar warbled his agreement, Gus remained silent.

“Jate’shya at viniir ibi’tuur, bal akaanir nakar’tuur,” replied Seph, turning around to face Akaavi. “Gaanader gar kyrbej mirdalaoh.”

Akaavi sheathed her knife and cocked an eyebrow at the scar-faced human. “You speak well, aruetii. We will see how this ends.”

Seph matched the intensity of her gaze. “There is also strength in wisdom, Mandalorian. Sometimes the when and where are more important than the how. Do not forget that.” An expanse of white teeth appeared behind lips now stretched into a wide grin. “And, to answer a question you asked earlier; yes, I like tiingilar although I shit fire for a week, and my farts would down a Rancor.”  

The tension in the room melted like shaved lemon ices on Tatooine, even Bowdaar grunted out a chuckle or two. Minds cleared and plans could be made now that they were out from under the oppressive cloud of doom.

“You do have a way with words,” said Ky.

“It’s a gift,” returned Seph.

“So where to from here?” asked Corso.

Seph downed the rest of his drink and raised a hand for silence. “I don’t need or want to know, and I have no advice to give. The Geno are patient and everywhere so keep that in mind and watch your backs. They are a secular bunch, but they do monitor the bounty channels, and I doubt any hidey-hole will be safe for long.”

The stool legs scraped across the floor as he stood up and took Ky’s hand. “You’re a dangerous woman to be around, and I wish you luck.” He brushed a kiss across her knuckles before exiting the room and the ship.   

“Set a course for Rishi,” she said. “I’m still going to chase my rainstorm, and, if I’m lucky, the prick will get struck by lightning if he dares to follow me there.”

Scourge had left instructions for her ship to be well stocked and ready for departure upon their return. She missed the stoic counsel of the Sith Lord and instinctively knew that he would tell her to meet this threat on her terms with cunning and caution. But at what cost?

She’d learned from Akaavi and Gus that Largo hadn’t survived the attack on his compound. The smuggler game was dangerous, and lives were lost but should never be wasted. Anger turned inward for the senseless loss of her giving, jovial friend brought about by her careless actions. I should have listened. I never fucking listen, and somebody else always pays the price.   

Corso held her that night until she thought she would suffocate from the weight of his arm on her ribs, his thigh on her hip the air drifting from his lips across her neck. Love became a burden a woman like her had no right to bear, and thoughts of leaving and staying conjointly pressed on her chest until she couldn’t breathe.

She pushed the covers aside and carefully slid away from Corso’s sleeping form. Barefoot and clad in a tee-shirt that skimmed the middle of her thighs, she slipped into the corridor and placed her forehead against the cold metal.

Images repeatedly flashed in a manic slideshow that would not cease. Corso lay ashen-faced and dying, Largo’s brilliant smile reduced to leathery lips over yellowing teeth and Scourge, a vibrant, red giant torn apart and condensed into atoms by the crushing gravitational force of the black hole.  

She sighed, pushed off from the wall and made her way to the cockpit, dropping into the co-pilot’s seat beside Bowdaar who occupied the pilot’s chair.

‘You must let this go.’ He used the signing cant she’d been taught by Gundy, a Dantari woman who was often her partner in the arena. A sign language she'd taught the crew, except Gus never caught on and Corso knew only a few words.

‘I would if I knew how.’ She signed back.

‘You cannot dwell among the dead and go on living, my friend. Do not cage them in the moment of their death, honor them by leaving them in peace and going on when they cannot.’

She reached for a drink that wasn’t there. ‘I should never have gotten them or us in this situation in the first place, and I don’t think I can take losing anyone else.’

Bowdaar woofed under his breath while his fingers bent and curled in a delicate dance of soundless communication. ‘Guilt comes easy when looking back, and fear will follow you into the future if you let it. One leads to the other. Draw the line, Ky. Stop it here. You must make a stand, and we will stand with you.’

‘If there’s a way out, I’ll find it.’

The Wookie cocked his head, scrutinizing her more closely. ‘I see more clearly now. You carry love in your heart for the boy and losing him drives this fear.’

She shrugged. ‘No more than losing you, Akaavi, Risha or Gus. You are my family. The only family I have left.’

‘Akaavi and I are warriors born and would relish the fight. I have sworn a life debt to you and will not leave. Akaavi and Gus have nowhere else to go—’

‘But Corso does,’ she interrupted. ‘He could find a good life away from all this. Away from me.’

Bowdaar shook his head sadly. ‘You underestimate his strength and even the blind can see he would have no life without you. Be stubborn if you will, but it does you no credit here. Find a way for us all.’

‘I’m trying, my old friend. I’m trying.’

The next day she commed Rogun. She should have stayed incommunicado, but the call had to be made while they were still a long way from Rishi.

“Hello Ky,” Rogun said. “I hope you have some good news for me.”

“Nice to see you still alive too.” She hadn’t expected a warm welcome but had to admit his coldness stung a bit. “You know the old Voidhound fleet account?”

“Yeah. I’ve still got access as far as I know unless you removed it.”

“Kept enough credits in to keep it open and shut everyone out but you, me and Largo.”

“Sorry to hear about Largo,” said Rogun. “He was the best of us.”

“That he was,” she said, fighting off the rush of sadness that settled in the pit of her stomach. She cleared her throat. “I’ve deposited one hundred fifty thousand credits in that account. I trust it’s sufficient payment for you and your men’s aid on Belsavis?”

“Less than I’d counted on, but it’ll do,” he replied. “This concludes our business then. No offense, but I hope you don’t call me again.”

“None taken,” she said. “Stay safe, Rogun. Aragath out.”

She stared at the blank space above the holo unit. Yes. Aragath out. Largo gone and now Rogun. An era come to an end and no roads leading back to better times. Change blew through the galaxy, gusting the denizens before it like so much chaff. Time and change, the only two constants and they did not negotiate. You adapted or died, there was no in between.

Choices made and directions taken, no second guesses or redos. Kriff, if only life had a blasted rewind.

Routine and old comradery returned to the ship. Ky basked in the easy banter that resumed between her crew, each, in their own way, trying to ignore the underlying threat that dogged them all like a Kath Hound with its nose to the ground.

“Have Bowdaar tell you about his flea problem,” chortled Gus over dinner one night. “Thought he’d scratch himself bald. Nearly asphyxiated himself in the fumigation tank and they had to send an extermination team to get rid of the little buggers hopping all over the cargo bay. He was in quarantine the whole trip from Nar Shaddaa to here.”

“And you smelled like rat shit and burned oil,” hooted the Wookie.

“I have sensitive skin and used cooking oil was the only thing I could find. You think it’s easy digging in dumpsters every night to keep this glorious sheen?” retorted Gus.

“I wanted to shoot them both,” smirked Akaavi. “Daily,” she added.

Grumpy mornings, laughter at dinner, making love on nights so sleepy quiet she could hear the ship yawn. Things to preserve, trinkets to keep, treasures to value. Only one thing was missing, and it was right around the corner.  

Temporary blindness was the first thing to hit Ky when she emerged into the glare of Rishi’s afternoon sun, the second was the smell. The tang of salt water barely held its head above the greasy haze that hovered over Raider’s Cove. Exhaust fumes mingled with spent blaster cartridges, smoke, oil, and Grophet-ka-bob fat dripping onto coals in open-air stalls.

The town’s pulse thrummed along the boardwalk, the steady rhythm of deals gone bad, a beat down in an alley, the scurrying feet of a pickpocket, and the dragging boot heels of spacers down on their luck.

Curious eyes followed them, sizing them up, patting them down, trying to answer the questions that flickered behind every hooded lid. An easy mark, a new threat, gamblers, swindlers or just passing through? The Wookie and the Mandalorian defied easy classification and nervous whispers all but guaranteed they’d be watched but given a wide berth.  

The clamor of the warehouse district blocked out the regular foot traffic and muffled the hum of sentients going about their daily lives. An occasional exclamation of profanity rose above the persistent whir and clang of loaders and drone of passing speeders.

Their destination, The Limpid Pearl Cantina and Inn sat on the outskirts of town, past rows of shops and shanties constructed of weather-beaten wood and covered with peeling paint. A simple driftwood sign hung above the entrance framed by white, blinking neon lights. In the distance, seabirds squawked and called, and the faint whoosh of the tide ebbed and flowed over a sandy shore.

A short, thin Mirialan woman stood behind the counter in the dim light of the lobby, her graying hair pulled back into a severe bun. She raised her lavender eyes to survey the newcomers, letting her eyes drift from the top of Bowdaar’s head to the bags dangling from their hands.

“Welcome to the Pearl,” she said. “Name’s Rhea. What can I do for you folks?”

“Rooms for now,” answered Ky. “Three, if you have them, at least one on the top floor, but we’d prefer to stay close to each other. You understand.”

“I do. Not many people ask for the top floor. It gets noisy when the rain sets in, and we’re expecting storms tonight.”

“Exactly,” said Ky.         

Corso winced when he set the bags on the foot of the bed, and the springs squeaked like a Womp rat on stims. “Some things never change,” he sighed.

“Comforting, isn’t it?” Ky smiled.

“Why here? Why Rishi?” Corso asked while he unpacked soap, shampoo and shaving kit and placed them on the counter in the refresher.

“A combination of a lot of things, I guess,” she answered. “The rain, the ocean and the smell of that little orchid that grows high in the palms. Smells like a cross between a Tellanadan Moonflower and the Nova Lilies my mom grew in her garden. Plus, it’s a haven for pirates and miscreants, we fit right in.”

“I hope this rainstorm of yours is worth the risk,” Corso grumbled.

“We’re not safe anywhere, but—” She was interrupted by the chime of her personal holo.

She glanced at the readout before answering. Only one person had that frequency. “Thorne?”

“Yeah, it’s me. We need to meet. Where are you?”

“Can’t say.”

“Okay. Give me a hint. Something only I would know.”

Ky hesitated for a moment then replied. “You remember the Hutt ticket heist?”

“Yeah. I can be there in three days. Will you still be there?”

“Probably unless something happens.”

“Good. And Ky, I’m bringing someone else along. Promise not to shoot first and ask questions later.”

“Depends on my trigger finger, but you’ve got my attention. See you in three.”

Chapter Text

Corso froze in panic when he exited the ‘fresher and Ky was gone. The balcony doors stood ajar, curtains billowing into the room, the hems flapping against the floor. He darted to the balcony, leaned against the railing and scanned the area below. His heart hammered in his throat. Where is she? Relief washed over him when he caught movement in a copse of palm trees not far from the inn.

The rickety stairs tacked onto the building from balcony to beach creaked under his weight as his bare feet thumped on every other step. He sprinted across the sand that squeaked and kicked up in minuscule clumps at his passing until he slowed his pace and came to a halt by her side.   

Ky stood in the dim remnants of light, her shoulder propped on the trunk of a palm. Her hair fanned out in the breeze that steadily increased in intensity as a precursor to the fast-approaching storm, her eyes fixated on the wall of clouds.

The storm-driven waves crashed against the shore, and occasional claps of thunder rolled through the twilight air. He moved closer and strained to hear her voice above the escalating din.

“When I was a little girl,” she began, “I used to stand in the yard and watch rain move in over the fields. Sometimes my father stood with me, his big, rough hands on my shoulders. I’d lean against his legs as the gray curtain of water approached. The wind lifted the scents of life from the bones of the earth; dirt and grass and mama’s flowers, all mixed together in the smell of home.”

A forlorn smile tugged at her lips. “Gone now except for the memories. The rain was a promise that all would be well, that life would continue, renewed and pure, each drop a fresh start.” She turned to look at him. “That’s why I chase the rain when I can. I’m still waiting for it to keep its promise.”    

He swept her hair back where the wind had blown several strands across her face, holding it in place in the cradle of his hand. Lightly brushing his thumb along the curve of her ear, he turned his face skyward as the first drops splattered against the fronds waving above their heads.

“We should get back before we’re both soaked,” he said.

“You’re missing the point.” She hooked her fingers into his waistband and tugged him forward, aligning the long curves of his body with hers.

His untucked shirt rippled in the wind until the downpour pasted the white cloth to his form, outlining every bend and plane against the dark.   

A flash of lightning illuminated her face, and he kissed the droplets of water from her lashes and tracked the beads that ran down her cheek and the soft line of her neck.

He skimmed the sodden shirt from her shoulders, and she supported her bare back against the rough trunk of the tree. “You’re gonna get all scratched up,” he objected.

“I know. Would you prefer the sand?” she teased.

“No, but—,” he started to protest again, and she silenced him when her mouth crushed around his words.

His hands slid from her shoulders to her breasts to linger for a while. Her tongue licked the water from his lips, sipped the rain where it dripped from his chin.

“Make me feel the storm,” she murmured into his ear.

Soaked to the skin, they shed their clothes, dropping them into soggy piles at their feet. She locked her fingers behind his neck, he hooked his hands beneath her thighs and lifted her hips to his. They became fluid motion, bodies gliding in the deluge, rain-slick and glistening in the brief flashes that streaked across the night.

The sharp edges of wood dug into her skin gouging stripes of fire down her back. She drank the pain and rode the man held captive in the circles of her limbs. Ankles crossed at the small of his back, arms coiled over his shoulders and fingers tangled in the dripping length of his hair, she met each plunge and thrust with equal force.

She floated on the crest of the storm and let the rain cleanse the guilt of her past and the sins of her future. The heat at her core churned into pressure seeking release, and they came like thunder, in rolling, concussive waves that trembled and rumbled deep inside.  

He slumped against her, his panting breath puffing in hot blasts against her neck. They clung to each other until the heat of their bodies gave way to the chill of the night and remains of the fast-moving storm.

“Stars, woman,” he said as he lowered her feet to the sand. He planted a kiss on her lips and bent to retrieve their discarded clothing, then looked in dismay at the lighted area around the inn.

“No way around that,” Ky laughed and grabbed a shirt to hold across her breasts and drape to cover the dark patch at the apex of her thighs.

“Guess not,” he grumbled and pressed the wet mass against his manly bits with a shiver.

They made a mad dash back to the room, depositing wet, sandy footprints across the floor, and dark splotches where they’d dripped onto the wood. Corso retrieved towels and began rubbing Ky’s arms and legs, trying to bring some warmth back to her shivering body, ignoring the fact that he was chilled as well.

“You’re going to catch your death,” she said and snatched a towel to swipe across his chest and back, working her way from shoulder to calf. She cast a baleful glance at the ‘fresher which contained only a sonic. A hot water shower would have been a welcome treat.   

“Lemme see your back,” said Corso, rotating her by the shoulders until the lamplight shown upon her raw, abraded skin. “Why the hell would you let me do this to you,” he snapped.

“You didn’t do anything. It’s only a few scratches.”

“A few scratches, my ass.” He stomped across the room and returned with a jar of kolto gel. “Hold still.”

The cooling balm absorbing into her skin and his gentle touch quickly relieved the stinging sensation, and she stifled a yawn behind her hand.

Corso bundled her under the covers, secured the doors and crawled between the sheets, drawing her snuggly to his side.

“I don’t think I’ll ever understand you,” he said.

“I hope not. I’d lose all my mystery, and you’d have nothing left to figure out.”

“I figured out that I love you. I reckon that’s enough.”

They spent the remainder of the three days awaiting Thorne’s arrival strolling along the boardwalks, perusing wares in several kiosks scattered around the market district and stopping in various shops. Munitions and clothing topped the list since Ky and Corso both had lost most of their personal belongings in the crash on Tatooine.

They avoided the cantinas and warily scanned their surroundings—Bowdaar and Akaavi perpetually on high alert. Open air bistros and brightly canopied stalls provided the source of their meals with avenues of escape carefully scouted before sitting down.

Gus checked in twice a day but preferred to spend most of his time in the ocean, a Mon Calamari luxury ill afforded on a freighter and one he was unwilling to forego.  

Early mornings and evenings, Ky and Corso visited the beaches when sunrise and sunset painted the clouds in vast swaths of purple, orange, and mauve. Barefoot and pants rolled up, they splashed through the water, dug their toes in the sand or sat and listened to the ebb and flow of the tide.

“I love it here.” She’d said, sitting wedged between his thighs, resting against his chest.

“I thought you loved space.”

“Space is where I live, it’s home, but I’m at peace here. I can sleep and forget for a little while.”

The call from Thorne came in late on the evening of the third day. “You know the hidden landing?” she asked.

“Yeah, I remember,” answered Ky.

“Tomorrow morning. Come alone.”

“Alone’s not a good thing for me right now.”

“You’re safe Ky. You have my word, and I have my reasons. Thorne out.”

Thunder boomed sending vibrations through the wooden building that Ky could feel under her bare feet. Rain pelted the glass panes of the balcony door and drummed on the metal roof. She sat on the edge of the bed, the folds of the flowered Cyrene silk robe Corso had bought for her falling away from her crossed legs.    

Corso sat down beside her, the springs protesting under his added bulk. “Alone? I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I, but Beryl would’ve given me a sign if there was any danger. Some word that only she and I understood. Something she could fit into a sentence without raising suspicion. I’ll be alright.”

She combed her fingers through his hair, the top of the robe gaping open above the loosely tied sash. “This could be our last night here. Let’s not waste it fighting.”

The robe fluttered to the floor in a garden of fuchsia flowers and leaves of variegated green. The bed springs sang harmony to the chorus of the storm.

Protests registered and dismissed, Ky left the inn alone. Not much traffic this early in the morning and an eerie silence hung over the town. She wound her way along the boardwalk and down into the slum area, her bootheels crunching on the layers of shell built up over time. Hand on blaster grip, she occasionally stopped to listen, hearing nothing but the lap of water and her own breathing.

She climbed the wooden planks leading up to a single ship docked on a round platform at the end of a cul-de-sac and paused. The whine of hydraulics preceded the lowering of the ramp, and a familiar female voice yelled, “It’s Beryl. I’m coming out.”

Dishwater blond hair and a scar that ran from eyebrow to cheek appeared above the open smile of a face that Ky knew, but she wasn’t ready to give up her grip on her weapon.

“Hello, Beryl. It’s been a while. Who else is on board?”

“Just one other,” answered Thorne.

The man revealed himself little by little as he walked down the ramp, black boots, long muscular legs, trim waist, broad shoulders and a tattooed face beneath slicked back black hair. A tattooed face Ky thought she’d never see again.

Skavak!

The blaster was in her hand and aimed before the thought tickled her mind. “What the fuck is he doing here?”

“Ky. You promised not to shoot,” said Beryl.

“I never promised, and I haven’t shot...yet.”

“Hello, Captain. Miss me?” His customary smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth, and blue eyes twinkled with mocking humor.

“You might try and not piss off the woman with a grudge, and a loaded blaster pointed at your head. Where’s my million credits?” Ky spat between clenched teeth.  

He spread his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “I’m unarmed and feeling a bit exposed out here. Perhaps you’ll step inside so we can chat?”

“And just why the hell would I do that?”

“Your million credits, and then some,” he answered and flashed the smug grin she’d been expecting.

“Please, Ky,” said Beryl. “You can say no and walk away, but I think you’ll want to hear what he has to say.”

“And you believe him?”

“I don’t trust him, but I do believe him. Now, please come inside.”

“For you, Beryl, but he stays ahead of me. I have no qualms about shooting him in the back if he so much as twitches.”

She sat across from Skavak, her blaster on the table, her hand on the blaster. “Keep your hands where I can see them, and you might want to ask permission to scratch your nose,” said Ky. “So, make your pitch and be quick about it.”

“You ever hear of the Rommi treasure?” asked Skavak.

“It’s a myth, an urban legend,” answered Ky.

“No, it’s real,” he said.

Ky pushed her chair back and stood up. “Okay, I’m done. Thanks for the laugh.” She turned her attention to Thorne. “I thought you’d know better.”

Skavak bounded from his seat, his hands held up. “Just hear me out. I have proof.”

“What happened, Skavak?” Ky sneered. “The Jackal get jacked? Scheme backfire? You screw the wrong person?”

“Something like that. Let’s just say a coalition of wealthy investors and a Moff’s son make prickly bed partners. I’m in deep this time, wanted in twelve different sectors and this is a way out for all of us.”

“So, you reached too high.” A derisive snicker caught in her throat. “You should have stayed in the swamp where the smell of your shit wasn’t recognized until some poor slob stepped in it.”

“Point taken.” He scowled. “You interested or not?”

Ky retook her seat, blaster still on the table. “Why me? And if you say it’s because you’re sorry for past deeds, I’ll shoot you on principle.”

“Not sorry at all, it was just business.” He sat down as well, hands in the open. “You have a certain reputation for getting in and out of impossible places. Don’t know how you do it, don’t care, but we need you for this.”

“Go on.”

“Ever hear of a sector in the Redoubt known as the Eidolon?”

Her eyebrows rose in disbelief. “You want me to fly into the Ghost? Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“I’ve seen his evidence, heard the transmissions,” argued Beryl. “I’ve spent every last credit to upgrade my ship’s shields, weapons, and engines. The rewards are worth the risk, and I’ve never known you to back down from a challenge.”

“And my people?” asked Ky.

“It’s a three-person job, and I don’t care to share my secrets outside this circle,” said Skavak. “Small is easier to contain.”

“And betray,” snorted Ky.

“You misunderstand, Captain. This is a long-term endeavor. Get in, take what we can, get out, unload, go back for more. At least three trips, if the legend holds true. The Chiss alone will pay a bloody fortune for the return of their stolen property.”

“The Eidolon can’t be mapped, beacons don’t work,” said Ky. “I think you might be overestimating my talents.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to not over or underestimate anything about you, Captain, especially your talents.” He licked his lips and fixed her with a narrow azure stare. “I’ve got maps to an entry point, and pieces of a transmission sent from inside the Eidolon. What’s your answer?”    

Ky sat back in the chair, her thoughts churning and tangling, index finger tapping on the trigger guard. Her eyes locked with Skavak’s and something he’d said flashed across her mind, ‘this is a way out for all of us.’ Those words mirrored what Bowdaar had signed to her that night on the ship, ‘find a way for us all.’  

Win or lose, live or die, this was the only way she could see to protect her crew and Corso. Maker help me. “Okay, I’m in.”

She left Beryl’s ship to gather her things and give her crew the news. Akaavi, Bowdaar, and Gus would object, vehemently, but Corso—stars, what was she going to do about Corso? An icy knot of misery coiled in her stomach like a harbinger of ruin.

Three people, standing with arms crossed, greeted her when she entered her room at the inn. Only Corso paced like a Nekkar in a cage, and none of them were smiling.

“I followed and saw you meet with that hut’uun,” snarled Akaavi. “You owe us an explanation.”

“You’re not going to like it.” Ky gave them as much detail as she could and left no doubt in anyone’s mind that she intended on going.

“You promised you’d never say goodbye, that you’d never leave me,” Corso stopped in his tracks, his voice breaking like water over rock.

“I’m not saying goodbye, and I’ll be back.”

“You don’t know that,” he snapped. “You can’t just run off like this, and with Skavak, of all people.”

“Then give me another answer,” she shot back, her words trembling out of her mouth. “Give me another way.”

She glanced furtively from face to face. “No? Not one idea from any of you?”

“We’ll figure it out, Ky. We always do,” said Corso.

“That’s just it, we don’t.” Ky’s shoulders slumped from the sheer weight of the sum of her decisions. “Largo gone, Scourge gone, the Hutts hunting us, the GenoHaradan, no jobs, doors slammed in my face, nowhere to turn. It’s been three fucking years, of running and hiding and I’m tired. You almost died. I can’t lose any of you. I couldn’t bear it. It would break me.”

“And we can’t lose you. Dammit! If it were anyone but him,” growled Corso. “He betrayed you, he betrayed me. You can’t trust him.”

“No, but I trust Beryl, and I owe her. She needs me for this.”

“And what about us, what about me?” asked Corso, the sound of defeat hung between them. “I need you.”

“Then show me another way.” Her words came out more of a challenge than a plea.

She watched his face pale to the color of ash then flush to a heated shade of auburn so bright it hurt her eyes.

“Anybody but him.” A sharp bitter laugh flew from his lips. “I guess it’s really just business after all.”

The jagged barb of his gibe struck her like a slap. Upset, angry, worried and scared, he’d taken the cheap shot, throwing her words back in her face. Just business, but Skavak had never been one of them, not that she hadn’t been tempted when they first met.

Corso brushed past her and reached for the door. She grabbed his sleeve, and he neither pulled away nor acknowledged her presence, his eyes fixed straight ahead.

“Can you not look at me?”  

His words came out in shuddered wisps. "If I look at you I will be on my knees begging you not to go. I would sacrifice what little dignity I have left if I thought it would make a difference, but we both know it wouldn't. Do what you want, you always have. I will only say that if you do this, don’t come back for me. Leave me in peace, Ky, you owe me that much."

Rage and anger she knew how to handle, but this frigid wall he'd dropped between them left her unprepared. No rebuttal, apology or justification would suffice to break this impasse. This was Corso's limit, she'd stepped over the line, and there was no going back.

His retreating back, the click of the door closing echoed with the finality of a death knell. She blinked back the burning lake of tears that threatened to overflow. This was what she’d wanted, to set Corso free, protect him—she just hadn’t expected it to hurt so damn bad.    

She turned to the remainder of her crew and strode over to Bowdaar who grumbled under his breath and refused to meet her eyes.  

She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “The Soledad is yours and Akaavi’s until I return, old friend. Ship’s accounts are full and should keep you flying for a while, perhaps without me, you can pick up a job or two. Take care of each other and keep an eye on Corso if you can, at least until he gets over this.”

“You are a fool,” snapped Akaavi. “We could have fought them together as we have always done. You didn’t even give us a chance or the choice. And Corso will never get over this.”

Ky shrugged. “We all make decisions we have to live with, Akaavi, you know this better than most. As for Corso, this isn’t the life he would have chosen for himself—he did it for me, and now he’s free to start again. The GenoHaradan aren’t your run of the mill bounty hunter, even Scourge was hesitant to take them on. When I leave, it’ll lure them away from the rest of you. Who knows, if I can pull this off, I can pay the Hutts, maybe even buy my contract from the Geno. I have to try.”

“And if you don’t come back?” yelped Bowdaar.

“Then your life debt is fulfilled, and you have a ship,” she smiled and reached up to scratch under his chin, something he allowed only her to do.

“And you, Gus.” She took the Mon Calamari’s hand. “You make sure they keep the med bay stocked and keep up with your studies. You’ve become a damn fine medic, and they’re going to need you.”

“I’m gonna miss you, Captain. Stay safe and hurry back to us.”

Ky strolled to the bed, picked up the robe, and laid it across Akaavi’s arm, letting her fingers briefly linger on the silky fabric. “Take this back to the Soledad and hang it in my closet, please. I’ll pack the rest to take with me.”

“Why not this?” asked the Zabrak.

“Because some things are just too painful to carry.”

Chapter Text

Corso wandered the shoreline; directionless, rudderless, lost in the hell of his own imagination. Her lifeless body on some distant world he’d never find. Ky, lying on a bed, smiling up at a tattooed face, a face he despised. Round and round the images whirled and the masks of his personas created a color-wheel of emotions ranging from crippling despair to jealous rage.

He loved her and hated her and loved her again, on and on until he thought his skull would crack. The beast demanded its due and turned to the tree he’d been leaning on, striking it repeatedly while howling its madness at the sky. Skin broke and bled, knuckles swelled and popped, until he crumbled to his knees, too hoarse to scream, too empty to cry.

‘Get up!’ Gameface said. ‘Move your ass. She’s gone. Deal with it. You know where you have to go.’

Devoid of fear, anger, and regret, Gameface came to the forefront, and Corso surrendered to that part of himself that would best serve him now. He rose and dusted the sand from his knees and hands and headed back toward the inn. His visage blank and implacable, he had one goal; to pack and secure passage before the rain came again and melted his resolve away.

Akaavi turned from where she stood looking out of the open balcony doors to greet him. “Thought you might need these.” She pointed to his rifle and vibrosword propped against the front of the dresser.

Corso’s eyes flitted around the room, the crumpled sheets the only sign that anyone had been there at all. He almost yielded to the grief of her absence, wanting nothing more than to collapse on the bed and bury his face in the pillow that had cradled her head the night before.

‘If you do that, you’ll never get up,’ admonished Gameface.

“Thanks, Akaavi,” he said and began to gather his belongings, tossing them haphazardly into his duffel, ignoring the throbbing, biting pain in his hand.

“Where will you go?” asked the Zabrak.

“I dunno, Coruscant, I guess. Rona’s the only family I got left.”

“We can take you,” she offered.

He stopped mid-stride, staring at a gap in the floor, wishing it would swallow him. “I can’t stand to be here, and I couldn’t bear to be on the ship.” His brows drew together in lines so deep his forehead began to ache. “Damn her stubbornness! That bastard’s going to get her killed, and I’m not waiting around to see it happen.”

“Distance won’t ease the misery,” she said. “You did not see her face after you left. The decision was not easy for her. She did this to free us all. You may want to consider that before you question her motives or judge her too harshly.”

“I never wanted to be free,” Corso whispered.

Akaavi nodded knowingly and tapped him on the shoulder with her fist. “Take care, vod. Call if you need us.”

“Yeah,” he slung the rifle and blade across his back, picked up the duffel and walked away.

*

Ky stood between the pilot and navigator seats, staring at the galaxy map Skavak had brought up on the screen. They’d left orbit and jumped to hyperspace shortly after she boarded and he was now explaining their route.

“We’ll skirt the edge of the Utegetu Nebula, here,” he drew his finger across the screen, “and enter the Eidolon, here.” His index finger tapped lightly to indicate the area.

“Unknown space. Lovely,” said Ky and leaned forward to circle a blank spot with no indicators. “And what’s in this sector?”

“The Promena Nebula that remains largely untraveled. They say it’s the spatial effects of this region that created the Eidolon. Time distortion, gravitational eddies, dimensional rifts, radiation that affects not only instrumentation but also the brain. A nasty soup nobody’s stirred for centuries.”

Skavak shrugged, skimming her ribs and the side of her breast with his shoulder, reminding her of their close proximity. She righted herself abruptly, catching the twitch of his lips from the corner of her eye. Smug or smile was all the same on that face.

“I don’t bite, Captain,” he said in a tone a little too sultry for her liking.

“Not without teeth, anyway,” Ky shot back.

“Temper, temper,” he teased.

Damn, the man is insufferable.

“Enough, Skavak,” said Beryl. “Show her the rest.”

Skavak removed his datapad from an inside pocket of his vest. “This is a partial transmission, supposedly from inside the Eidolon.”

“Supposedly? I thought this was a sure thing,” scoffed Ky.

“As sure as we can be until we get there to know for sure,” he replied.

“Your circular logic gives me a headache. Get on with it,” grumbled Ky.

“I had it translated from Cheunh into Basic years ago by a Chiss acquaintance. He’ll be our contact when we pull this off.” A short sniggering huff escaped his lips. “Huh. Even the high and mighty Chiss have those who walk on the seamier side of life. I find it rather refreshing.”

“Just play the damned thing,” growled Ky.

Skavak frowned and pressed the button. Intermittent words, distorted by static, emerged from the datapad in a language Ky couldn’t understand. The same string of sentences repeated in a loop, until someone speaking Basic replaced the gibberish coming from the device. It was a recorded warning.

‘This is Nan’Patha’Rommi warning any who can hear to stay away. The temple is in ruins, the settlement gone, the ground shakes night and day. Nothing remains. There is no escape. There is nothing here but death.’

Ky leaned against the back of Beryl’s seat. “So, let me get this straight. I’m supposed to fly through the Ghost to a planet that may not even exist anymore? Good plan, Skavak.”

“The plan is sound. Take a look.” He brought up a grainy spherical image on his datapad. “The Chiss Expansionary Defense Force has bombarded that region with various sensors for decades. About fifty years ago, one signal bounced back from the Eidolon—only one, and this is it.”  

“Exactly how old is that recording?”

“A couple hundred years, give or take,” Skavak replied. “A little over three hundred years ago a faction of the Chiss Ascendency broke away taking relics and other items of great value. They hoped to establish their own colony and fled into the Redoubt. How they made it through the Eidolon is anyone’s guess. The Ascendency sent ships after the traitors, none returned. Being a logical and pragmatic people, the Chiss know when it’s time to fold. The legend of the Rommi treasure was born, and here we are.”

“What about the Empire? Aren’t they allied with the Chiss?”

Skavak cast a side-long glance at Ky. “This was an internal affair, and the Empire may be allies, but they’re not welcome in Chiss space except on diplomatic missions. It’s rumored that the Ghost wreaks havoc with Force users, so I doubt the Sith would have been of value even had they become involved. The occasional spacer or pirate has ventured into the Eidolon, may have even made it to the planet, but nobody ever came back.”      

Skavak turned off the datapad and shifted his position in the seat so he could view Ky’s face. “I know who hunts you and who hunts me and Beryl’s on her last legs financially. Things don’t look too rosy for any of us, so what do we have to lose? If we succeed, it solves a whole lot of problems, if we die, it solves a whole lot of problems. Either way, I’m placing my bets on you, Captain. Right now, fifty-fifty don’t look so bad.”

Ky met his gaze. “I doubt even a Hutt would give those odds.”  

Beryl and Skavak continued the conversation which faded into background noise. The confines of the cockpit closed around Ky like a tightening fist, and she had the sudden, overwhelming urge to be alone. “Thanks for the rundown. I need to think for a while. I’ll be in my quarters.”

By the time she reached her room and locked the door panel behind her, the disquiet had been replaced by that odd numbness that had surrounded her on the walk from the inn to Beryl’s ship. The room was stark and bare, no warmth to be found, and the chilled barrenness soaked into her marrow. She skimmed off her boots and clothes and turned the water on in the shower, so much like rain, but not. There were no promises here.

The glass enclosure filled with steam and she stepped inside under the steady torrent. Corso’s words pummeled her with every drop that struck her skin; ‘I’d be on my knees, beg you to stay, leave me in peace.’  

She stumbled into the corner and slid down the wall to sit huddled like a child, her legs tucked beneath and face pressed against the dripping tile. Hands clutched tightly over her mouth and eyelids scrunched together, she fought to keep the tears inside. Her shoulders trembled with the effort and sobs forced their way through fingers that dimpled her flesh.

With a shuddering cry, she relinquished control, and the tears flowed unchecked, streaking their way down her cheeks and chest to be whisked away by the cascading water. With only her misery for company, she shattered and questioned if she’d ever be whole again, and worse, didn’t know if she cared.

Her chattering teeth and shivering body pulled her back to a reality she had no desire to face. The steam was gone, and the water ran icy cold when she forced herself off the floor, turned the water off and exited the shower. After doing a half-assed job of drying off, she climbed into bed, lying cross-wise with the headboard at her back, the place Corso used to occupy. She cocooned herself in the sheet and blanket, fell into an exhausted sleep and dreamed of thunder.  

The next two days she spent sheltered in her room, answering the door only for R0-0K, Beryl’s droid who delivered caf and meals that went mostly untouched. She shuffled, half aware, between sleep and fretful wakefulness, muffled her keening sorrow in the blanched knuckles she held against her lips. Emptiness engulfed her like an old friend, but she found no solace. He was gone, and there was no turning back.

Self-pity was a place she could wallow in for a time but not take up permanent residence. Her crew was counting on her, and, by stars, she didn’t intend to let them down.

By early morning of the third day, the tiny room became claustrophobic, and Corso’s absence had dulled to an ache she carried in her bones. Drowning her woes was never her style, but she could use a drink or two.

The hum of the hyperdrive and faint wheeze of circulating air followed her down the passageway and into the galley where she flicked on the lights and went to the cupboard. She removed a glass and bottle then sat on one of the stools and eye-balled a two-shot measure of amber liquid into the tumbler.

She’d just taken a sip when a male voice floated from the doorway. “Mind if I join you?”

“Help yourself, but get your own glass,” she replied.

“Can’t sleep?” Skavak asked, pouring a goodly bit and settling back against the workspace adjacent to the counter.

“Spacer’s internal chrono keeps lousy time,” she answered with a shrug.

“I know the feeling.” He took a sip and fixed her with a narrow gaze.

"So, you and Beryl, huh?” Ky inquired. “How the hell did she ever team up with you? I thought she was smarter than to let you in."

"Into her head or into her pants?" His lips curled into a maddening smirk.

"Either," she smirked back.

"Sadly, she’s more likely to crawl into your bed than mine. And what about you, Captain? After that steamy kiss on Port Nowhere, don't tell me you've never thought about it. I know I have. You were soft in all the right places, too bad Corso walked in on us."

Her eyes raked down his torso and back to his face. "And you were hard in all the right places, too bad you tranqed me and stole my cargo. Funny how a little thing like that can change attraction into loathing."

His crooked smile mocked her. "Surely the lady protests too much."

"Hardly. Besides, I already have more man than I need."

"The farm boy?” he sneered. “Oh, I'm sure he makes sweet, sweet love to you but I think a woman like you needs a little more. A little danger. In fact, I'd say you crave it."

She pinned him with a stony glare, her voice gritty and low. "A woman like me? What could you possibly know about a woman like me? What would you use for comparison? The cantina whores? The brainless bimbos who eat up your dubious charm? The high-brow bitches looking for a little strange from the seedier side? You don’t know me at all, and the only thing I crave is for this job to be done and to be away from you."

His gaze over the rim of the glass was sharp as a scalpel cautiously peeling back the layers. He swallowed and licked the corner of his mouth. “I know you’re hurting.”

"You're boring me, Skavak. I'm not interested in this worthless conversation, and I'm not interested in you. Oh, and something else for you to chew on for a while. You might want to reconsider who’s using who. You’ve already served one purpose."

She slammed back the rest of the whiskey, rose from the stool and sauntered out of the room.

Skavak raised his glass in a toast to her retreating back. “Oh, sweetheart, we’re going to be on this ship for a long, long time. I can wait.”

Chapter Text

 “Damn.” Ky leaned back onto the door of her room, her head thudding against the hard metal. Skavak’s words had hit too close to home for comfort, and now she was stuck with the smug bastard for an indefinite amount of time. What the hell did he want, besides the obvious, and what sick scheme was he cooking up in that perverted brain of his?

A mixture of anger and dismay solidified into a seething mass hardening in the center of her chest. The liquor roiled in her stomach—the aftertaste hanging thick as fog at the back of her throat. Edginess fired along her nerves, a warning jangled in her gut. She’d never felt more alone.     

As if summoned, Corso’s image floated at the periphery of her vision and disappeared the instant she snapped her head around to catch him in full view. The torment of his absence paraded through her mind on boots of spite gouging indelible impressions in thoughts already raw with grief. She scanned the tiny space for mercy but found none, and the empty bed mocked her while loneliness slithered through her veins and nested in her heart.

The door lock clicked, and she extinguished the lights, seeking sanctuary in the dark. Stripped bare, she crawled between the sheets, inviting sleep that no amount of tossing and turning would conjure. Her senses jittered in acute awareness of the texture of the fabric lightly caressing her skin. She smelled Corso’s breath in the circulating air that blew across her face, and the pressure of longing coiled through her body, building tension low in her belly. Phantom lips kissed her neck and Corso’s hand—her hand—strayed across her breasts, down the flat planes of her torso to that spot of aching need.

She opened her thighs and surrendered to the imaginary weight pinning her to the mattress. Wet and wanting, she rode the fantasy and released herself to him, muffling his name and her moans into the pillowcase clamped between her teeth. Her body radiated pleasure, and she sighed into the fleeting moment of contentment too quickly replaced by the vacuous reality of her life. Sleep came at a cost, and the coin was cheap.    

“Ky?” Beryl’s voice accompanied the light rapping on her door. “Caf’s ready and breakfast is laid out. Get up and join us.”

“Be there in a few,” Ky called back.

The headboard pressed hard against her back and she’d been curled around a pillow grasped tightly to her chest. She rolled out of bed and made a mental note to keep her emotions well hidden. Heartbreak was unfamiliar ground, but she knew the pitfalls now, and Skavak already had too much ammunition.

Beryl and Skavak occupied the only two seats at the counter, and Ky took up a standing position at the end.

“Here. Take my seat,” offered Skavak.

“Naw, I’m fine,” she replied as the droid placed a mug of caf and plate of food in front of her.

“This is good, R-zero,” she said after swallowing a bite of scrambled egg.

“Just call him Rook. I do,” said Beryl.

Ky took a sip of caf, then another and turned to Skavak. “How long’s this little jaunt going to take anyway?”

“A little over three weeks to get to the entryway, another five days or so to get through the Eidolon and load up, if we survive. Roughly a month and that doesn’t include the return trip.” He flashed a disarming grin her way. “Why? You got someplace important you gotta be?”

“Anywhere but here would be nice,” she grinned back. “We’re not going all the way back to Rishi, are we?”

“Unpleasant memories or too good to forget?” he sneered. “But, no. Drop point for the goods is a little backwater up in the Tingle Arm. Then we get to do it all over again. Five months minimum for the whole operation, likely more.”

“Not that I don’t trust you or anything, but how is payment going to be distributed? If it’s funneling into one account, I’m out now.”

“I’ve already set that straight,” said Beryl.

“Figured you would,” Ky responded and pointed the tines of her fork in Skavak’s direction. “But, I’d kinda like to hear it from him.”

He quirked an eyebrow and wiped his napkin across his lips. “Small plunder gets divided up as we take it. Precious metals, gems, not sure about credits, we’ll have to wait and see if there are any. The relics and idols will be paid for on delivery, split three ways into each of our accounts. Wholesale, minus finder’s fee for my contact, of course.”

“Of course.” Ky set her mug down and asked, “this trouble you got into. Care to elaborate?”

"I’d rather not,” Skavak drawled.

“Huh. Imagine that,” huffed Ky.

“I’ve scanned the bounty channels. He’s wanted sure enough,” added Beryl.

“He’s had bounties before. Nothing new here.”

Beryl shook her head. “Not like this.”

“Not my problem.” Ky shrugged.

Beryl cleaned her plate, pushed it away, and stood up, caf mug in hand. “Tam, when you’re done here, I need some help in the engine room.”

Ky swiveled her head to look at Skavak. “Tam?”

He frowned. “Yeah. Short for Tamerlane. Always hated that kriffing name.”

“Holy shit,” she snorted. “No wonder you grew up mean.”

He cast her a scathing glance, threw his napkin on his plate and stormed out of the galley hot on Beryl’s heels.

Days and nights rolled together into one constant stream of hours. Ten days had passed since they left Rishi and Ky spent as much time with Beryl as possible and as little around Skavak as she could arrange. The ship was too confined for complete avoidance, and she wouldn’t make the mistake of cloistering away again. Her eyes would occasionally catch him studying her, and their verbal sniping became part of the daily routine. At least it broke up the monotony.   

*

Coruscant, the crown jewel of the Republic, all sparkle and shine on the surface and rotten to the core. Five thousand one hundred and twenty-seven levels of teeming life and only those on the top level mattered. Senators, judges, heads of wealthy corporations all walked on the heads of those below and never cared where they put their feet. Credits talk and nerf shit walks; such is the way of the universe.

Corso debarked the freighter where he’d spent the last ten days, grateful to be out of the cramped crew quarters and away from the rude, rough banter of the Captain and his men. If he had a credit for every time someone who’d seen him with Ky around Raider’s Cove made a crude remark about her assets, he’d be rich. Gameface kept him in check and out of trouble.

In brief moments of solitude, in the ‘fresher or sonic the façade slipped, and memories of her spiraled like a corkscrew in the gut. He’d wake in the middle of the night, obsidian hard and throbbing, without enough privacy to indulge his dreams and his hands remained as empty as his life.    

The heft of the baggage he carried was more than just the duffel clutched in his fist or the weapons on his back, and his shoulders slumped like those of an old man. He ambled through the concourse, keeping to the outer edges, away from the bustling crowds of people immersed in their own concerns. Their mumblings receded into ambient noise bouncing off the shell of misery encasing him, and the carpet sucked at his feet making each step a burden of its own.

He exited the spaceport and closed his eyes against the glare of the sun, eking them open as his pupils grew accustomed to the light. The persistent drone of traffic accosted his ears as he strolled across the plaza toward the taxi stand. He paid the droid driver to deliver him to the Factory District and ignored the pre-recorded warnings of traversing such a place.

The taxi deposited him on the landing and sped away, leaving him to find a lift that would access level 5093 and the adjoining Warehouse district where one of the Black Sun Syndicate headquarters was located.

Time had not been kind to the lower levels of Coruscant. Artificial lighting provided scant illumination and created too many shadowed alleys where bad news was delivered on the edge of a knife. He strode down the center of the streets, wending his way past areas of bustling activity interspersed with the remains of buildings crumbling into disrepair. A sense of tiredness draped over the walls like torn curtains and the garish signs and advertisement holos hung in sharp, derisive contrast to the drab surroundings.

The forlorn wail of a kloo and tympanic thump of a drum drew him down a side street toward the Short Shrift Cantina, a front for the Black Sun where Rona had said to look her up the next time he was planetside.

Every eye in the place swiveled his way when he walked in, none of them friendly. He headed toward a door with a human and a Houk standing guard. Gameface had rammed a pole down his spine and jerked his shoulders back into a solid square that was still dwarfed by the mass of the two blocking his path.

“You. Go ‘way,” barked the Houk.

“I’m here to see Rona,” Gameface said keeping his voice calm and even. His gaze slid from the Houk to the human, watching their hands and the set of their feet.

“Ha,” the man chuckled, “I’ll just bet you are. Trust me, you’re not her type.” The man narrowed his eyes, “Now, fuck off.”

The man’s hand shoved Corso in the chest pushing him back a pace. Gameface scowled and bounced back into his previous position.

“You might want to hear me out,” said Gameface. “I’m—”

He ducked the nerf haunch sized fist of the Houk and twisted the arm of the man sideways bringing his knife up under the man’s chin. “I’m her cousin, Corso, you dumbass,” Gameface growled into the man’s face. “She’s likely to be none too pleased if you hurt her only living relative.”

“What the hell’s go...Corso?” exclaimed Rona who’d opened the door to see what all the fuss was about. “Leave him be.” She cuffed the Houk on the back of the head. “And don’t you ever touch him again.” She stepped further into the cantina. “That goes for all of you. This man is off limits unless I say otherwise.”

She escorted Corso inside the spartan office which he perused quickly; bare walls, a few shelves, metal desk with assorted datapads and crystals strewn about, spacer’s lounges toward the back and a couple of side doors. 

“Have a seat,” Rona said, “and tell me what the hell you’re doing here. You look like shit, by the way.”

“Feel like it too,” he dropped heavily into the leatheris chair in front of the desk. “I got no place else to go and need a place to stay and some work if you got it.”

“Huh.” Rona cleared the corner of the desk and sat, one leg straight with foot on the floor for support the other bent at the knee and laid on top. “Thought you were traveling with that woman, the Voidhound, spacer, whatever.”

“We parted company a while ago.” Gameface took over when Corso’s voice nearly cracked with the anguish he carried like an open wound.

“I thought she was someone you’d never get away from. What’d the bitch do?”

“Don’t call her that,” rumbled Gameface. “We had a difference of opinion, and that’s all I’m going to say. So, you got a room and a job for me or do I move on?”

Her eyes inspected him as if trying to read the story of what had brought him to this end. “You’ve changed, farm boy. Never thought I’d see the day when you’d come to me for a job especially since you know who I work for.”

“Same rules apply, Rona,” said Corso. “I don’t hurt women or kids. Other than that,” he shrugged, “everything else is pretty much on the table. I think I could go for a good scrap right about now.”

Music drifted through the closed door, diluted to tinny riffs and thudding beats. Corso studied his cousin’s face, almost hearing the gears turning in her brain. She was still the skinny kid he remembered from Ord Mantell, but her eyes were more predatory now, and the set of her mouth was barely more than a hard line. Any hint of softness had been honed into piercing spikes by the life she’d chosen to lead. A year ago, he might have cared, but today—nothing much mattered.

“Sprocket,” yelled Rona and turned to the man with implants covering half his face and skull entering from a side door. “This is my cousin, Corso. Take him to a room, one of the better ones. You can show him the ropes in a couple of days after he’s had some rest.”

“Good to meet ya, Sprocket, and I’d just as soon start tomorrow if it’s all the same to you,” said Corso.

“Ha,” the man smiled amiably. “A real go-getter. Follow me.”

Corso picked up his duffel. “Thanks, Rona. I really appreciate this.”

“Get some rest, cuz. I got some business to attend to, but I’ll send for you later to come eat dinner with me. We can talk more then. Sprocket will take good care of you, or I’ll have his balls, and he knows it. See ya later.”

Sprocket led Corso through the side entrance to a lift that jerked to a stop on the third floor. He followed the man down a hallway illuminated by lights that flickered in a sickly yellow glow on walls that were no longer plumb with the ceiling and floor. The heavily stained carpet felt spongy under his boots, and he paid scant attention to Sprocket’s dialogue—catching something about boozing, fighting and fucking.

“Well, here we are,” said Sprocket, opening the door at the end of the hallway and ushering Corso inside. “I’ll leave you to it, and welcome aboard.”     

Corso grumbled meager thanks and scanned the room. If this were one of the better, he’d hate to see the worst. Paint peeled from the walls, the veneer of the bed and dresser rubbed down to bare wood, and the sofa, rug and comforter were threadbare and worn. At least it had a private fresher and sonic which bumped its status up from slum to almost slum.

He set the duffel on the floor, propped the rifle and sword in the corner, locked the door and fell onto the bed, his eyes focused on a water stain above his head. Yeah, he was right where he deserved to be; alone amidst the desolation and the ruin.

Chapter Text

“What if the transmission is tracked. You put us all in danger,” argued Beryl.

“I don’t care,” said Ky, standing with hands on hips behind the holo unit in the conference room. “It’s been over two weeks since I left Rishi, and I need to contact my crew.”

“Afraid farm boy’s gotten himself into some trouble he can’t think his way out of?” snarked Skavak.

“Shut up!” yelled Ky and Beryl in unison.

“If you get us caught, I’m not saving your ass,” huffed Skavak.

“Why not? You’ve been after it for the past two weeks,” sneered Ky. “Stay or go as you like, but I’m making the call.”

Ky plugged her datapad into the holo unit and uploaded the frequency that was the most heavily masked and encrypted. It would just have to do. She pressed the connect button.

“Mar'e, Ner Vod,” grunted Akaavi, her face frozen in a scowl. “Where are you, and when will you return to us?”

“Good to see you, Akaavi,” Ky smiled at the hazy blue image. “Can’t tell you where and it’s likely to be a few months. How you guys holding up?”

“We make due. Bowdaar is troubled and worried, and Gus spends much time in meditation, although I suspect drink rather than religion keeps him on his knees. He often falls over.”

“Just make sure he doesn’t hurt himself,” Ky chuckled. “And Corso?” She held her breath.

“Bowdaar and I take turns keeping an eye on him. He is not doing well, I fear. He has lost weight, and his face has a worn look to it as if he doesn’t sleep. He works for his cousin, Rona, and seems to have a set route he travels with another man, perhaps boundary checks. We do not interfere and would step in only if needed. So far, it has been unnecessary, but he is not the Corso we knew. I warned you this would happen.”

“I know, but it’s done now,” said Ky, exhaling the long breath, and hiding all emotion behind a mask of indifference. “Any other news?”

“Seph Okarr contacted us about four days ago. Said to tell you that the package has been retrieved in good condition. He did not go into detail.”

“Thank the Maker,” murmured Ky. Scourge was alive and one item she could erase from her long list of guilt.  

“We have not heard from Risha yet but will try and contact her in a few days if the silence continues. There is not much else to tell.”

“If you guys smell even a hint of trouble, leave and keep moving. I need to keep this short, but I’ll call again when I can. Take care, all of you.”

“Ret'urcye mhi, Ky.” Akaavi disconnected.

Without a word to Beryl or Skavak, she exited and trundled to her room on legs made of wood. She lay on the bed, pulled the world in around her, and went numb, preferring the hollow refuge to the painful alternative. Corso’s misery mirrored hers, reflections of reflections, empty hallways extending to infinity. For good or ill, she’d made the decision for them both. There was no going back.     

Ky sat in the cockpit studying the star map on the nav computer screen. They were five days out from the entry point to the Eidolon, a vast area at the edge of a star cluster known as the Redoubt, and although she’d heard tales, she had no idea what she was flying into. She was expected to find one planet orbiting a star in the middle of trillions of kilometers of other stars with bad attitudes.

All she had to go on was information received over fifty years ago noting general direction and distance. Space and time were not static, they were fluid, always moving. On top of that, she’d have to contend with cosmic dust, magnetics, gravitation drifts and radiation that liked to get it on with the kinky mind fuck. What the hell was she thinking?

The only upside she could see was that her brain would map the path if they made it through the first time; a kriffing big if. She turned off the screen and slouched down in the seat, propping her feet on the console. The sip of whiskey she held in her mouth bit into her teeth and gums, and she swallowed the heat attempting to stave off the chill of loneliness and dread that settled across her shoulders.

Nights were spent with Corso’s ghost, ravenously snacking on crumbs of memory but never feeling full. Fantasy and self-gratification only left her hungry for more.

Skavak stalked her days, not physically pursuing, just being there with the ever-present innuendo-heavy comment. He’d advance, she’d repel his advances, and was already weary of the barbed exchanges. It had become ridiculous bordering on exhausting, and sooner or later someone would bend; the winner yet to be determined if there was a winner at all.

She drained the glass and hoisted herself to her feet still arguing the options of refill or bed and stopped short in the passageway when Skavak exited his room, shirt unbuttoned with the tails brushing his hips.

Ky gaped at the expanse of his chest, her eyes drifting south over his stomach to the dark strip of hair peeking out from the waist of his low riding trousers.       

“Care to have a drink with me?” he asked, taking up a position in the middle of the hallway.

Her attention snapped back to his face. “No thanks. Already had one.”

“What’s the matter? Like what you see but too afraid to sample?” His mouth widened into that smug smile she hated so much.

“Stars, you’re tiresome.” She walked forward. “And this is supposed to turn me on? For crying out loud, just get out of my way you horny, pre-pubescent little shit.”

Well, that struck a nerve.

The grin disappeared, and his eyes narrowed, but he moved aside and let her pass, and, for once, didn’t have a witty comeback. Score one for the spacer chick.

*

Damn the woman! Skavak thought as he poured the rum, his preferred drink, into the glass and slung it down his throat in one quick motion. Air seethed in between his teeth as the fiery liquid hit its mark in the pit of his stomach. He poured another and leaned against the counter, the edge hard against the small of his back.

She had more walls than a shadow vault with not one chink to be seen and been a thorn in his ass that prickled and irritated ever since Port Nowhere. For some unfathomable reason, he couldn’t let this go, and the game they played went beyond getting laid or making the score. He’d even missed their antagonistic banter once she’d stopped chasing him all over the galaxy. It’d been like halting a mystery vid in the middle without ever knowing who done it.

Shit like that drove him nuts. Despite the chaos he liked to stir, he was a completionist at heart, and she was still an unanswered question.

Fuck, it’s gonna be a long night.

*

“And you were going to tell us this when exactly?” asked Skavak, setting his fork on the plate with a clatter.

“I’m telling you now,” said Ky. “I didn’t even think about it until last night.”

“Rommeth IV would be the last relatively safe place for us to land,” said Skavak. “You sure you need to do this?”

“Look, if this planet we’re headed for had some geologic upheaval and if those have continued, it’s likely the whole place is nothing but a dust ball. You really want to chance the repulsor fins getting clogged up and burning out the drives? We need a closed cooling system, at least for the landing and take-off. I need valves and tubing to reroute the coolant from the hyperdrive to the repulsors and a couple of extra power cells, just in case. I can always sublight in, but I’m still going to need those repulsors to slow the descent and land us right side up.”

“You’re going to sublight into an atmosphere and gravity well?” scoffed Skavak.

“That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? You should try it sometime, it’s a blast. Besides, I need to get off this ship for a while if only to scrounge around in a used parts place.”

“You’re absolutely sure about this?” asked Beryl.

“You know the spacers credo; better to have and not need, etcetera.”

Rommeth IV was a little too much like Rishi for Ky’s liking. The air was saturated with humidity and sea salt that settled in a crusty layer on the boardwalk and crunched beneath their boots. A light breeze stirred the scents of brackish water and smoked fish with an undertone of seaweed too long in the sun.

Not exactly a hub of activity, in the galactic sense, the locals milled about with haggard faces, giving way before them as if they were someone of importance or someone to be feared. People hung together in different groups by storefronts and eateries, and sullen eyes followed her and Skavak as they made their way through the town perched on pylons high above the breaking surf.

Beryl had stayed with the ship to see to refueling and get Rook started on preliminary work to accommodate the fittings that were to be installed. Skavak wasn’t her companion of choice, but beggars and all that.   

“This way,” said Skavak, directing her to follow him down a side street.

“You’ve been here before?” Ky asked.

“It’s been a while. Hopefully, Lomacc is still in business. He should have everything we need.”

“Tam, my old friend. You’ve been away far too long,” drawled the man behind the counter, his cybernetic eye and cheek implants winking in the overhead light. “Ah, who is your lovely lady?”

“You actually have a friend?” Ky leaned closer to Skavak and murmured while flashing a charming smile toward Lomacc.

“Very funny,” Skavak growled under his breath and pasted a brilliant smile of his own across his face. “Lomacc, buddy, how are things?” He placed his hand on the small of Ky’s back. “I’d like you to meet—"

“Captain will do,” said Ky, squirming away from Skavak’s touch. “And, I’m not his lady. Happy to meet you anyway.”

“Yes, well, my mistake. So, what can I do for you?”

An hour later they walked out of the store with a box of overpriced microvalves, elastex tubing, and two not quite fully charged power cells.

“You want a drink,” Ky said as they passed the entrance to a cantina.

“You asking?” said Skavak.

“No. I’m telling. Follow me.”

They ducked into the cantina and took a seat in a corner booth under the close scrutiny of the bartender. Every male eye in the place that wasn’t face down on the bar followed Ky—some hungry, some drunk, most just tired. A low whistle or two came out of nowhere, typical dive behavior; no offense intended, none taken.

The place smelled like month old piss, week-old puke, and cheap cigars. A haze hung from the rafters where smoke of all flavors gathered and danced in currents of forced, vented air.

“What’ll you have,” asked the lone waitress who’d sidled up to their table. She’d seen better days, and the thick makeup didn’t help.

“A whiskey and rum. Two steps up from swill if you have it,” answered Ky.

“We don’t run tabs,” the waitress stated.

“Didn’t ask,” said Skavak.

Ky propped her elbows on the table. “You must be slipping.”  

“Hardly, sweetheart. A sloppy job of surveillance, whoever they are.”

“Exactly. Best to be in here where shit can be contained. I don’t fancy a tranq dart or blaster bolt coming from a rooftop or alley.”

“Shouldn’t be long before the idiot brigade shows up,” said Skavak.

The waitress returned with their drinks, bending over the table to give Skavak a clear view of her cleavage, including the wrinkles and one too many stretch marks.

Skavak slid the credits onto the table and then poked one between the woman’s ample breasts. “Buy something pretty, honey, and you might want to go shopping now if you get my drift.”

The woman returned his gaze with world-weary eyes and nodded.

Skavak and Ky clinked glasses and raised them to their lips, but neither drank. They slid closer together, and Skavak stretched his arm across the back of the booth, his free hand drifting to the grip of his blaster, smooth, nonchalant, never missing a beat. Ky giggled and leaned back into his shoulder, placing her hand on Skavak’s chest—just two spacers with eyes only for each other.

As if on cue, two men, a Gamorrean and a woman strode into the cantina like a walking bad joke. The bartender’s face blanched to the pasty white of bread dough, a couple customers caught a whiff of trouble and departed. Ky heard the ‘fresher door open, and swing shut again, whoever it was choosing the company of urinals to the shitstorm that was about to happen out here.       

The four began to spread out around the room, taking up vantage points from different directions.

Ky and Skavak kept up the act while monitoring movements out of the corners of their eyes.

“Woman has a wrist launcher, probably tranqs. She’ll hold back waiting for the shot. Skinny blond has a holdout in his boot, Tusker will be a problem, tall, dark and handsome is packing throwing daggers in his vest, likely edged with tranqs or poison. That about sum it up?” asked Ky.

“And one outside to guard the door,” answered Skavak. “Yeah, I’d say that about covers it.”

Handsome spoke first. “Ky Aragath, give up, and you may get through this unharmed. We are after you, although, Skavak is a nice bonus. Your contract wants you alive, dead is fine for him, proof of kill required. You have one minute.”

“Do you trust me?” asked Ky.

“What? No,” answered Skavak.

“You’d better start. Follow my lead,” said Ky.  

Her body mass would make too easy a target if she stood, and the booth was too confined for easy movement. She went limp in the seat and slid, bonelessly, off the edge and under the table, pulling her blaster as she went. The whistle of a dart whizzed overhead and plunged into the back of the booth.

Skavak slid to the floor beside her. “Knees and balls?”

"Balls and knees. Get your priorities straight."

“You fast?” he asked, pointing to a table not far in front of them.

“We’ll see,” she said and bolted from under the table, rolled to her feet and dove at the table top, pulling it over as she went to form a barrier.

Another dart plinked against the metal surface. She glanced behind her, saw blondie trying to flank her. The table scratched along the wooden floor as she crab-walked sideways pulling it with her.

“I’ve got pretty good aim from this angle and I ain’t above ruining your sex life," taunted Ky.

“Do your worst, bitch,” snarled blondie.  

She peeked over the top of the table when blaster fire opened up in Skavak’s direction. The Gamorrean was closing fast, and the fuckers had body shields. Damn, so much for balls.

“You know arena speak?” yelled Ky.

“Some. Kinda busy here.” Skavak yelled back.

“Fly and swatter. Watch blondie. Making my move.”

The room became a slow-motion vid as Ky burst from behind the table, blaster back in its holster and garrote removed from her boot. Blondie was closer, but Tusker was the bigger threat. If he took Skavak, they could both kiss their ass’s goodbye. Plasma bolts floated across the room in bulbous green masses, leaving stylus thin lines in their wake. Ky weaved through them as effortlessly as threading her way through trees on a forest world.

Skavak heaved the table to its side, took cover, and focused his aim on blondie, taking pot shots at Tusker and Handsome in between. Ky dodged two knives thrown by Handsome and barely moved in time to avoid a tranq dart that glinted as it flew by. A plasma bolt grazed her thigh from behind, adrenaline blocked the pain, Tusker turned toward her, dropping his blaster and filling his hands with a twin-bladed battle-axe.

“What you gonna do, little girl?” Tusker’s mouth split into a toothy chasm.

“You like monkeys?” asked Ky as she sprinted forward, dropped to the floor under the whooshing arc of the axe, and grabbed Tuskers belt. She swung upward across his side, but not before the edge of his axe grazed her arm, slicing deep into the flesh. Her arm went numb as she wound the hair-thin filament around his neck and yanked with both handles. The wire sliced through the thick hide and windpipe, getting stuck in the meaty muscle underneath. She rolled free as his hulking body dropped to the floor, flexed her fingers to return some feeling and went for the knife in her belt.

“Fly’s getting beat to shit out here. Where the fuck’s my swatter?”

“Trying not to get my head blown off,” Skavak hurled back.

“Stop being a pussy and do something,” Ky panted, veering out of the path of another incoming dart followed by a series of blaster bolts.          

Her mind expanded defining each action down to intent before the body could respond. Handsome holstered his blaster, arming himself with twin blades that twinkled and winked, egging her on. He’d assumed he was the next target. He was wrong.

She flung herself in his direction, straight for his loving arms, ducked under his elbow, leaped, slid across a table top and tackled the woman. Thrown off balance, the woman staggered going for her knife, too late. Ky drove her blade under the woman’s ribcage and rode her body to the ground, raised the arm with the launcher and fired a dart at Handsome. His eyes went blank, and he slumped to the floor.

“It’s safe, you can come out now,” scoffed Ky as she limped over to Handsome and knelt down.

She’d expected to see Skavak pop up from behind his cover and was surprised to see him standing over blondies downed body. A bruise bloomed on his cheek, and his disheveled hair hung around his face. Damn, he is a sexy bastard.   

She searched Handsome and took his datapad and communicator, throwing them into the box of parts. “We need to get out of here,” she said and frowned when Skavak clutched his side. Specks of blood formed around minuscule holes that peppered his shirt grazed by a plasma burst, but he’d live.

Her arm was bleeding like a stuck Ronto, and Skavak couldn’t carry the box by himself. She took one handle with her uninjured arm, and he grabbed the other with his.

“Sorry about the mess,” she said to the bartender who had just lifted his head above the top of the bar followed by the customers who’d taken refuge there as well.

She and Skavak walked out of the cantina, the box between them, almost holding hands, but not quite.

Chapter Text

“Ow,” grumbled Skavak for the twentieth time as Ky daubed kolto on the stippled, blistered skin of the blaster burn along his ribs.   

“Stop being such a baby,” she scolded, trying hard not to let her fingers linger on his skin or pay attention to the fact he was undressed from the waist up. “I didn’t want to take care of this in the first place, but Rook and Beryl had work to start after they doctored me.”

He sat on the medical bed, arm held up so she could get to his injury. He gazed at the top of her head while she worked and fought the urge to run his fingers through the inky dark strands falling across her shoulders. It didn’t help that she was wearing next to nothing, only her shirt with the blood-soaked sleeve rolled up over the dermaseal patch on her forearm. One button fastened between her breasts permitted the fabric to gape open when she moved, revealing the V where her long legs met and a midriff ripe for kissing.

He cleared his throat. “Fucking bounty hunters, way out here of all places. The question is, how did they know we were here?”

“Timing does seem a bit convenient,” Ky’s voice drifted up from under his arm. “Maybe they were here on another job and happened to recognize us? Maker knows both our faces are plastered all over the bounty networks. I hope Rook discovers something when he slices into that datapad I swiped.”

“Yeah, maybe.” He flinched when she hit another tender spot. “I’m a little offended that your bounty is higher than mine and I’m a bag and tag while they want you still breathing, although now I can almost see why.”

“Could be you’ve been slipping of late in your bad-ass criminal ways, as for me, I’m nobody special.”    

“Uh-huh,” he grunted.

“That should do it,” Ky said and slapped the kolto tube into his palm. “You can take care of your own damned bruise.”

He placed his hand on her shoulder as she turned away, feeling her muscles tense at his touch. “Back in the cantina. How did you do that?”

“Little something I picked up in the arena,” she shrugged.

“No. It was more than that. You knew what they were going to do before they did it, and dodged shit that had you dead to rights. Who are you really, Ky?”

“Just another piece of space trash trying to find her way.” She slipped from under his grasp, gathered her clothes and headed toward the exit.

Skavak stared at her retreating back. A mystery for sure, but, damn, I’d still like to bite that ass.

A little over twenty-three days they’d been traveling when they exited hyperspace at the coordinates Skavak had set. Two extra days for the Rommeth IV layover on top of the additional two days they’d spent skirting the Redoubt to avoid any confrontation with the Chiss. Xenophobic to the point of paranoia and deadly averse to incursions into their territory, the blue boys were not to be taken lightly.

Skavak had been uncharacteristically silent after the cantina dust-up, a welcome relief, but also made Ky wonder what he was up to. Dynamics change when two people fight side by side and lives are on the line—an unspoken bond, a hint of respect. She would catch him staring at her as if she were now a curiosity and not just a potential fuck buddy. It made her damned uncomfortable. At least the verbal sparring was openly combative; silence too often held hidden agendas.

She’d questioned Rook about the datapad the night before their arrival on the Eidolon’s doorstep. The droid had found nothing except a narrow band broadcast received by Handsome’s little group from an unknown origin. Five separate planets had been named as possible destinations for the bounty marks but leaned heavily toward Rommeth IV. He’d also found no tracker attached to the ship and detected no unexplained outgoing transmissions from the ship either. Perhaps it was just a coincidence after all, and Ky had bigger things on her plate.

“So that’s it,” stated Ky from the pilot’s seat, “the big bad ghost in person.”

Beryl’s ship, The Happenstance, hung, unmoving just beyond the rim of the entry point. Even from this distance, something in there tripped tiny trigger wires in Ky’s senses, sending alarms blaring along her nerves. A trace of radiation, tainted with a twisting wrongness, tickled the skin of the ship, the edge of her mind and she dreaded opening herself up to what lay ahead.

“We going in or not?” prodded Skavak.

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I’m just getting a feel for the place,” answered Ky. “You have no idea what’s in there.”

“And you do?” he scoffed.

“Yeah, I do, so shut up unless you’ve got something useful to say.”

The Promena Nebula emitted a faint glow at the far reaches of the starboard side of the Eidolon; a spectral lantern of kaleidoscopic colors promising a way through. It lied.

Ky scanned the instruments, noting minuscule fluctuations in their readouts, and they hadn’t even entered the Eidolon yet.

She sighed and settled back in the chair. “Ok, this is how it’s going to play out. I need all proximity alarms disabled, Rook needs to go to his recharge alcove and shut down. Beryl, you got the stims, gauze and analgesic I asked for?”

“Right here.”

“I need you and Skavak to buckle up and stay quiet. You’re gonna see things that aren’t there, not see things that I can, and I don’t know what physical effects you’re gonna feel. The instruments will be useless, but I’ve got all the information I need right up here.” She thumped her temple with her index finger. “If you’ve got any questions, keep them to yourselves. From here on out, it’s my show, or we turn back now.”

She took their silence as the go ahead and engaged the thrusters, entering slowly to gauge the depth of this well they’d all jumped into with both feet.

Entry into the Eidolon was akin to slipping through oil, leaving a slick, suffocating residue on the surface of the ship. Radiation prickled along the shields and needled against Ky’s mind. Without intent or a sense of purpose, it merely followed its nature and pried ceaselessly at the corners of perception and sanity. It had no agenda but to adhere to the laws of its creation, restrictions that Ky was not bound to follow. She was not born of nature, but of something perverted, and nature held no sway over what she was capable of.

Her mind blossomed into opening petals of calculations and factors, untouched by illusion or subtle tricks of improbability. She saw direction and distance as pure numbers fostered by the foundation of gleaned knowledge and driven by instinct. The path opened as clear as if it had been paved.

She engaged the sublights and pierced through asteroid fields that weren’t there, slingshot around the coronas of suns that her eyes could not see, but her mind detected in the minute ripples of fission expanding like heat waves in the desert.

The passage of the Rubicon occurred at the narrow straights between the gravitational fields of two red giants. The ship screamed under the ripping pressure, and she gritted her teeth, having merged with the tiny vessel from the beginning. Her hands had melded with the steering yoke, and the engines hummed like blood through her veins. They were one, a single bolt aimed and loosed at a target only they perceived.

She flew through the center of a phantom white dwarf and left the magnetics of solar systems far behind before easing back to thrusters to hold her place at the edge of a cosmic dust cloud. The swirling mists of particulates parted before her probing mind. Further and further she searched until the other side appeared like a fence constructed of sparkling ribbons of silk.   

“Shh,” she hissed when Skavak’s voice broke through the walls of separation she’d erected around the being she’d become. Her fingers flew over the nav computer, and she rammed the jump lever forward opening a hyperspace window and emerging on the other side of the cloud. The yellow sun of the solar system they sought lay clearly visible a few parsecs away.

“I could really use that stim now,” mumbled Ky, struggling to fight off the aftermath of her excursion into bizarro-land. “And the analgesic before my head implodes.”

“You’re bleeding,” said Skavak, grabbing the gauze from Beryl and wiping under Ky’s nose and blotting at her chin.

“Goes with the territory,” snuffled Ky and cringed as a spike of pain rammed through her skull when the stim hit her system.

Skavak grasped her chin and turned her face toward his. “You need to take a break.”

“No time,” she jerked her head away and regretted the brusque movement when another jab of agony rampaged through her aching head. “I need to get this bird on the ground before the stim wears off.”

She smiled when Skavak growled something about ‘damned stubborn woman’ under his breath but threw it aside as unimportant to her mission. 

“The mind-bending radiation is less in this sector, maybe filtered somehow by that dust cloud. Please tell me you can both see the planet,” said Ky when she exited sublight and eased into a high orbit around the second world from the sun. 

“Yeah,” said Skavak. “We see it, so what now?”

“The gravity’s all wrong here,” observed Ky. “Can’t you feel it?”

“I’d say you’ve got the corner on that market,” answered Beryl.

“Maybe a polar shift? Magnetics off kilter? I don’t know.” Ky tilted her head and slammed her eyelids shut as if blocking out all visual stimulus would help. “It’s like there are holes in the gravity well, voids where huge chunks of land have been torn loose and propelled upward, the debris held in whirling vortices. I’ve never felt anything like it, but one thing for sure, this planet is unstable as hell.”

“Can you make a landing?” asked Skavak.

“I’ve picked up an echo of the looping transmission. I know where I have to go.”

“I’ll take that as a yes, then,” said Skavak.

“I need one of you to volunteer to switch the coolant flow in the engine room since there wasn’t time to set up any linkage connection to the console.”

“I’ll do it,” offered Beryl. “Rook and I did most of the installation, and I know my ship.”

“It’s gonna get bumpy so find some way to secure yourself,” warned Ky then turned her attention to Skavak. “I can’t explain how I do what I do, so don’t bother asking.”

“Fair enough,” he replied.

“All set,” Beryl yelled from the engine room.

Ky gripped the steering yoke and left orbit taking the ship away from the planet for two light seconds. She turned the ship around and engaged the sublight for exactly one-point-two seconds entering the planet’s exosphere at a twenty-eight-degree angle and rode the momentum, trying to outrun friction through the layers of atmosphere. She burned from the heat building around the shields, crackled in the flames as she followed the curvature of the planet and fought the buffeting of the winds created by magnetic storms and geothermal upbursts.

Data scrolled across her mind, she was sensor and receiver; instrumentation encased in flesh. At five-point-six kilometers from the surface, she yelled, “Now, Beryl,” and engaged the repulsor drive. The ship creaked and bucked and groaned in protest as the drive found purchase against the surface gravity. She skirted around the gravitational voids and used the thrusters to finally bring the ship to rest in a sheltered valley atop a high plateau.

The harness dug into her collarbones as she slumped forward. Arms lifted her from the seat, her head lolled on a shoulder, warm and firm and comforting against her cheek. “Corso?” she murmured and knew no more.        

Chapter Text

“Hold still, kid,” snipped Sprocket as he pinched the skin together and placed a thin strip of dermaseal across the deep cut above Corso’s left brow. “I guess that about does it for now,” the big man stepped back to admire his handiwork.

“Thanks,” said Corso, sliding off the med table and slipping into his shirt, rotating his arm to test the bandage on his shoulder, another bit of Sprocket’s doctoring. “Kriffing Justicar ambush. I hate it when they pull that shit.”

“Ain’t an ounce of honor in any of them,” spat Sprocket. “You gonna join me and some of the guys for drinks and a game or two?”

“Naw. Gonna grab some food and go back to my room if it’s all the same to you.”

“Boy, you spend too much time on your own. This woman really did a job on you, but you can’t pine away forever. It’s been near a month since you left Rishi, you gotta move on sometime.”

“I wouldn’t know how even if I wanted to.”

“Lots of pretty women around, and some have shown more than a passing interest. You may be a beast out on the streets, but if you don’t feed that beast between yer legs, it’ll shrink to the point you’ll be sitting down to piss or back up and turn yer balls a permanent shade of blue.”

“I can’t rest my head in anyone else’s softness. They’re not her.”

“Suit yourself, kid. Sounds like you shouldn’t have been so quick to leave if she means that much to you.”

“It don’t matter. It’s too late now anyway.”

“Perhaps,” said Sprocket. “But while you were stroking your misery in the middle of the night, did you ever ask yourself if maybe your hatred for this Skavak fella was greater than your love for her?”

“I reckon if that were so, I didn’t deserve to love her in the first place,” Corso countered, but in truth, old grievances and jealousy had been factors and not ones he was proud of. “Just drop it, okay?”

*

Something jostled Ky, a slight tremor beneath her back shook her body, and she groggily reached out for the man who should have been sleeping by her side. Her hand encountered cold, empty space and harsh reality crept up her arm to settle like a stone in her chest. Thick sludge sucked at her thoughts as her mind trudged upward from oblivion. Her eyes fluttered open, tried to focus, slammed shut against the blurry haze, and fluttered again. Parched and dry, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and a cough tickled the back of her throat.

“Take your time,” a female voice drifted to her from somewhere near.

Ky cracked her eyes open, thin slits adjusting to the light, widening little by little to hone in on the face that wavered like a mirage.

“Water,” she croaked.

The face moved aside to be replaced by the metal visage of Rook, who lifted her head and placed the rim of a glass to her lips. “Easy, Mistress, not too much,” he said and tipped the renewing refreshment into her mouth. It tasted faintly of salt with a hint of lemon and touch of sugar. “This should give you some strength,” he said and set the glass on the nightstand.

“Better,” Ky said and glanced around to see Skavak standing at the foot of the bed. “How long have I been out?”

“About four hours,” answered Beryl.

“I’d have thought you guys would be out there sifting through the ruins by now,” said Ky as she extended her arm to Rook to help her sit up.

“He refused to leave you until he knew you were okay,” Beryl hitched her head toward Skavak.

“I just wanted to make sure the person we need to get us out of here was on the mend,” he shrugged. “No point in reading more into it than that.”

“I wasn’t reading at all,” said Ky.

Three hours later, Ky was on her feet and in the cargo bay along with Beryl and Skavak, preparing to debark and gather what they could. Suspensor sleds had been tethered together to carry the salvage, and filtration masks and goggles had been handed to each.

“The air is breathable,” explained Beryl, “but the dust particulates will play hell with our eyes and lungs as well.”

“Let’s just get this over with,” said Ky, staggering as another tremor reverberated through the ship’s struts to the deck beneath her feet.

The hydraulics whined as the loading platform lowered them to the planet surface where Ky had landed the Happenstance about a half klick from the periphery of the settlement. Scant light from the system’s yellow sun filtered through the haze that hung in an atmosphere made cooler by the dust cloud that swirled ceaselessly in the gusting wind. She noticed that part of the plateau ended in a jagged rim where a sizeable chunk appeared to have been ripped away.

“Well, that explains why the message said there was no escape,” said Skavak as they peered over the side to the wreckage far below. “Horrible feeling being trapped like that. Let’s move on to the city.”

Round towers that had once stood as barbicans on either side of the city gate now lay open to the elements, half the walls lying in rubble. Domed houses cracked open like eggshells lined the streets, rusted speeders and busted crates littered the yards. A sign that had broken loose from the front of a shop creaked on its single remaining bolt and tilted streetlamps lined the thoroughfare, their light extinguished forever. A child’s toy lay forlorn on the threshold of a home in ruins.

“Where are all the people?” asked Ky. “There’s no sign, not even a skull or bone.”

“I suspect we’ll find the answer there,” said Skavak, pointing to a once imposing structure, now diminished to a leaning stack of stucco and stone.

The temple, meeting hall, seat of government, whatever the building’s original designation sat at the end of the avenue. Half the roof had caved in, and most of the outer walls had tumbled away. Sheets of flimsi, caught under fallen rafters wagged in the wind, chairs and benches lay crushed on one side of the enormous room and stood in crooked rows on the other.

They picked their way carefully through the clutter of the collapsed side of the building, dragging the sleds behind. They’d opted to stay out from under the part of the roof still intact that groaned and squeaked high above their heads. A podium stood at the far end of the room with a broken altar behind, the top canted at an angle sloping into the floor.

“Help me clear some of this,” said Skavak, noticing a steep stairway leading down from under where the altar rested.

“We won’t get anything of size up through that opening,” observed Beryl.

Ky gave Skavak the stink eye as soon as he started to open his mouth. “Don’t even think about saying what I think you were going to say.”

“Hey, I wasn’t the one who brought up size,” he chuckled, then removed a satchel from one of the sleds, lit his glow stick and set his foot on the first step. “After me, ladies.”

The dust of ages lay on the steps and cobwebs stuck in their hair and on their fingers as they swept the gauzy veils aside. Bits of rock and pebbles strewn about made the descent slow, and every time the ground shook, more fell from the ceiling forcing them to instinctively crouch and cover their heads. Particulate motes swarmed in the beams of the glow sticks, specks of things long dead, detritus of a dying world. The steady plink of dripping water echoed from below and a musty smell tinged with mold grew more pungent the lower they went.

A hingeless, lockless metal door greeted them at the bottom of the steps, a recessed pull the only way of sliding it open or closed, and the door wouldn’t budge.

“Looks like an old ship hatch and bolted from the inside,” said Skavak. “Lucky I brought this along.”

He removed a cutting torch from the satchel. “If you two would kindly provide some light, I’ll get to work.”

Ky’s back hurt and the heat from the cutting torch mixed with the humidity made the small space feel like a sauna. Sweat trickled down her face, and she shuffled impatiently from foot to foot. It didn’t help that her eyes kept dragging themselves to Skavak’s back and shoulders where the sweat of his labor had adhered his shirt to muscles that writhed and bunched and practically screamed to be touched.

Damn!”

“Finally!” said Skavak when something came loose on the other side of the door and swung downward with the screeching of metal on metal. He snuffed the torch and took a crowbar out of the satchel, placed it into the hole and pushed just enough to move the door away from the jamb. Prying the door further, he got situated and pushed with both arms.

Air, thick with centuries-old decay, whooshed through the opened door, and Ky gagged as if she’d just inhaled the dying breath of every corpse in the room. Skeletons littered the floor from those the size of fully grown men to children, most entwined in grisly hugs of comfort, a few bony hands still holding cups.

“Makers balls,” gasped Ky. “All of them dead. Some sort of mass suicide.”

“Looks like it,” said Skavak, and cleared his throat. “I’m not here to mourn the dead but to take their stuff, and we need to get to it before we share their fate.”

“Have some fucking respect,” snapped Ky.

“Hey, sweetheart, you can’t lay this on me. They saw no future and took the easy way out, can’t say I blame them. It’s a hell of a lot faster and more humane than starvation, especially for the little ones. Go to sleep, don’t wake up. There are worse ways to go. Now shall we get our stuff and blow this rock or you want to hold some sort of vigil?”

“You are such a bastard,” Ky retorted.

“Maybe, but I’m a live bastard, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Skavak pulled two scrunched up satchels out of his bag and threw one to Ky and the other to Beryl. “Load up, ladies, times a-wastin'.”

Ky took stock of her surroundings while Skavak and Beryl eased their way through the bones to a raised section with several chests and another altar flanked by two stone statues. Both wore robes, one tall with the features of a Chiss, the other shorter with the visage of a bearded human and much too large to have come through any narrow opening.

Although the walls were carved from the bedrock of the planet, the ceiling was durasteel plating supported by rafters of the same material. “They dug this out and erected the building on top once those statues were in place,” stated Ky.

“Yeah, I noticed that,” said Beryl. “One thing for sure, those statues won’t be leaving.”

“No, but these will,” said Skavak and held up a smaller version of each before placing them into his bag.

Several beautifully detailed tapestries hung from the side walls and pedestals held bowls cast of solid aurodium, a ball carved with the topography of the planet, a mother and child statuette, an intricately inscribed astrolabe encrusted with gems.  

‘Corso would not approve,’ Ky thought, then cast her melancholy aside to get down to more practical endeavors. She shook out the bag and threaded her way past the dead to begin plundering this tomb of the forgotten. She worked her way down the wall toward the last pedestal which held a faintly glowing polyhedron, a Jedi Holocron.

She picked it up, and a biting tingle played along her fingers as if it were repulsed by her touch. “What the hell is a Jedi Holocron doing here?” she said before placing it into the bag.

“The Jedi will pay a pretty sum for that,” answered Skavak. “Remind me to tell you about Master Maanak Tuul when we get back to the ship.”

“You seem to know a lot,” said Ky.

“I know people, and they talk with the right incentive,” he replied.

Ky drug a chair over and began unhooking the tapestries from the wall, folding each carefully and laying them aside before heading back to the stairs to fetch another bag from the sleds above.

“There has to be more than this,” grumbled Skavak as he opened another chest filled with various medium of data storage, from datapads to binders filled with sheets of handwritten flimsi.

“Maybe the Rommi treasure is knowledge and written accounts of history,” said Ky as she reentered the room. “Not everything has a purely monetary value.”

“Everything is worth something to someone, but the legend tells of much more. Relics, artwork, precious metals and gems, even stacks of credits. We have to be missing something.”

Another tremor shook the room, reminding them that the planet was impatient to attend to its own business and their timetable was irrelevant.

“Something shifted behind this wall hanging,” said Beryl, pushing the tapestry aside to reveal a partially exposed lock panel with a keypad. She removed her slicing kit from her belt, pried off the keypad casing and attached a data spike to the exposed nodes before attaching her datapad to the spike. “This may take a while, so why don’t you two take a break.”

Skavak pulled a silver flask from his back pocket, took a sip and handed it to Ky. “This might put some color back in your cheeks,” he said.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a picnic basket in there too,” she said.

“Naw. My basket of goodies is more up front.” The corners of his eyes crinkled mockingly as he met her gaze.

“You really are full of yourself,” Ky scoffed. “Why don’t you tell me about this Maanak Tuul if you can pull yourself away from self-worship for a bit.”

Skavak winked and leaned against the altar. “I’d rather have you full of me, but, I guess I can settle for telling you a story instead.” He folded his arms across his chest and began. “Over three hundred years ago, House Rommi vehemently debated the Chiss Parliament to open their borders to the outside to establish trade and exchange ideas. He was gaining traction and attracting followers.  Rommi also, secretly, created a haven for force-sensitives. Then, as now, force users are considered illogical, chaotic beings who do not conform and either faced exile or execution. Nan’Patha’Rommi’s son had been born force-sensitive. You can understand his predicament.”

Ky nodded, and he continued. “He’d secreted away vast sums of currency and even stolen many artifacts and writings from the early days of the Chiss, which indicated that they had originated from a lost human colonization party. I guess he figured common ancestry might help open doors and not make them appear so alien. Something that the Ascendancy would rather not be verified by outsiders. There is safety in absolute segregation, and they will pay handsomely to recover this data.”

“And this Tuul fellow. Where does he come in?” asked Ky.

“Maanak Tuul believed that a unified force was stronger than the sum of its parts. Neither light nor dark, he adhered to the philosophy of a combination of both. The Jedi shunned him as being a radical heretic, and when they found out that he had been secretly communicating with the Sith, they tried to imprison him. He fled into wild space, drawn by something he didn’t understand until he landed on the moon where Rommi’s sanctuary for his son and other force-sensitives was located. He became a religious leader, of sorts. It’s even rumored he married a Chiss woman.”

“So how did they end up here?” Ky prodded.

“Rommi’s wife betrayed him to the Ascendancy in return for assurances that her family’s name would be restored and their daughter would be admitted into the military academy with honor. Family honor is everything to the Chiss. Rommi was warned and escaped with the help of his followers and had barely left the moon in a transport carrying his son, his people and Tuul when the military chased them into the Redoubt. I suppose they were left no option but to enter the Eidolon, and this,” he fanned his arm out to encompass the room’s grisly occupants, “is the sad ending to their tale.”

“And they were here for over a hundred years before that message went out? They accomplished a lot in that time.”

“You get enough force users together with one goal in mind, and they can move mountains,” said Skavak.

“But they couldn’t save themselves.” Ky shook her head.

“Ironic isn’t it?”

“More like tragic, but where are the rest of them? There are no more than thirty, maybe forty people in this room.”

“Door’s open,” said Beryl. “Perhaps we’ll find out more in here.”

A low whistle escaped Skavak’s lips as they stepped into the adjoining chamber. “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

The floor rocked beneath them, cargo crates jumped, their contents clinking and rattling. “We need to load as much as we can and get out of here,” said Beryl. “Those tremors are closer together and getting stronger.”

They spent the next two hours toting crates up the steps to the sleds above, taking only brief breaks to drink water and catch their breath. The contents of those too heavy to lift were broken down into smaller crates, many they didn’t even open, and the work continued until a low rumble rolled through the rock and a crack snaked across one wall. The fissure shifted, and water began seeping into the room darkening the floor in an ever-expanding stain.

“We need to go,” said Skavak.

“Not before I take a look in there,” said Ky, nodding toward an arched opening at the far end of the room. “I have to know what happened to the others and something in there is calling, I can’t ignore it any longer.”

Beyond the arch lay a gaping cavern, the depths like pitch slathered across a midnight sky. Here and there, the light from Ky’s glow stick reflected off crystals, and on the floor chalky white bones scrawled the epitaph of lost people and dead hope.

“There must be hundreds, maybe a thousand,” she sighed, her voice returning in whispered echoes that crawled like insects down her spine.  

Off to the right apart from the others, a single skeleton sat, back supported by a stalagmite, robes decayed to rags and arms akimbo as if surrendering to the final great mystery. The beam from Ky’s glow stick twinkled off the hilt of a lightsaber not far from one outstretched bony hand and reflected back from a medallion lying against an alabaster sternum. The silken cord had frayed in spots, and the sigil seemed familiar though she couldn’t tell from where. She knelt and picked up the lightsaber then reached to grasp the medallion that alternated between the warmth of the sands of Rishi and burning cold as if she held ice in her fingers for too long.

“Hey,” a voice came from behind her, and she started at the abrupt intrusion into wherever the hell she’d just been. The memory of a face, eyes black as cinders, breath like charred meat began to fade in a swirling fog that dissipated when a hand closed on her elbow and dragged her to her feet. She wanted to leave the medallion but couldn’t, and she was damned if she knew why.

“We gotta go,” said Skavak and tugged her toward the archway, through the altar room, and up the steps. “You okay?” he stopped to survey her face in the fading light of day.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she brushed off his hand to help Beryl guide the sleds through the rubble and into the street.

The wind buffeted them as they made their way back to the Happenstance, the air chilled to the point of being uncomfortable and tremors rumbled under their feet. Rook lowered the platform, and they entered the ship, grateful for light and warmth and the promise of escape.

Ky stripped off the goggles and facemask and headed toward the cockpit. “Preflights will be done in five. Strap in, and let’s get the hell off this rock.”  

Chapter Text

Caught in a cocoon of black wool, struggling to break free and soar, Ky’s mind thrashed and tore at the threads that bound her to this place of nothing. Her breath echoed in her ears, the thump of her heart beat time in the sides of her neck, and a sharp pain ricocheted back and forth, bouncing off the walls of her skull.

The world was too bright when she lifted the shades of her eyes, blinking against the ambient light that glowed from the molding around the ceiling of the room. Her arms and legs were weighted baggage, and she struggled to bridge the chasm between lethargy and reacquainting her body with the fact that she was still alive.

Scourge had warned her about using her gift too often, but choice doesn’t always adhere to the wisdom of warnings and having no choice renders wisdom null and void. The Eidolon had let her live—this time—and she questioned if she was prepared for round two.

Grime and grit grated on her skin as she squirmed under the sheets and she realized she’d been stripped down to her skivvies. ‘Surely Beryl hadn’t allowed Skavak in the room for that,’ she mused, oddly surprised that the idea was mildly entertaining.            

“Mistress?” Rook’s voice shredded the silence. “Are you well? Shall I call Mistress Beryl?”

“No,” Ky croaked from a throat gone dry and brittle as glass. “Give me a few minutes then help me up—nature calls and I need a shower.”

Rook was in the process of changing the sheets when she exited the refresher. “How long was I out this time?” she asked.

“Close to thirty hours,” the droid replied, shaking the pillows down into their cases and smoothing out the blanket. “The others sat with you for a long time and left only when they knew you were out of danger. Are you sure you don’t want me to wake Mistress Beryl?”

“No, thanks, Rook. I think I want to spend some time alone,” said Ky, slipping into sleep pants and tank top as the droid left the room.

Wide awake, nerves dancing to an insane rhythm, and an annoying ball of pain at the center of her head—empty stomach or not—she needed a drink and the solitude of the stars.

Glass in hand, Ky dropped into the pilot’s chair and let her mind fly free in the swirling mists of hyperspace, pondering on how different her life would be had she never been taken from her homeworld. At twenty-nine, she’d likely be a farmer’s wife with kids in tow, baking bread, helping with the harvest and sleeping under a handmade quilt beside a man she adored. Corso would have loved it, and she might have too had she never known anything different.

Her life had taken twists and turns she could never have foreseen in the wildest fantasies of a young girl. Test subject, arena fighter, smuggler, Hero of the Republic, outcast, hunted, and adrenaline junky—never knowing the outcome until she was thigh deep in shit and sinking. As screwed up as it all seemed in retrospect, this is where she fit, and her only regret was loving a man that didn’t fit here too.

She drained the glass and hoisted herself to her feet still arguing the options of refill or bed and stopped short when she spied Skavak propped languidly against the doorframe—his arm barring the way.

“For fuck’s sake, what do you want?” she asked with an exasperated sigh.

He tilted his head and raised his brows as if she’d just asked the dumbest question in the universe. “I think I’ve been pretty clear on that subject. We could’ve died on that planet, and you’re an itch I’ve never been able to scratch.”

She shook her head and rolled her eyes as if he’d just provided the dumbest answer. “Did you really just play the ‘we could’ve died’ card? That’s desperate even for you. And why me? You got a checkbox needing ticked for ‘fucked the Voidhound’ on your bucket list or something?”

That infuriating cocky grin played at the corner of his mouth. “Nothing quite so banal I assure you although the idea has merit. All those months you chased me, so close sometimes I could feel your hands around my throat. All those nasty tricks you pulled, and yet there was something. I actually missed you when you finally gave up. You’re a mystery and a challenge. I haven’t been this intrigued by anyone for a long time.”

“Women actually fall for this shit?” she huffed. “You want a challenge? Slap some engine grease on your cock and try to grab hold for a handjob.”

He sucked his lower lip into his mouth, releasing it with a smack. “Mmm. I do love it when you talk dirty.”

Tit for tat like two punch drunk flyboys duking it out in a bar, both too damned stubborn to give in. Stars, she was sick of it all. “Do you have to work at being this much of a dick, or is it a natural talent?”

His expression changed like the tack of a sail in the wind. “Aren’t you tired of this constant game of felinx and rodus? Admit it, I’m in your head just as much as you’re in mine.”

Damn his arrogance!

Her lip curled upward. “I’m not in your head, you just don’t like being told no. Now, get out of my way.”    

His eyes twinkled in the dim light, and a frown creased his brow, but he lowered his arm unbarring the exit. She swept by and like a fool ignored rule number one in the spacer’s survival manual; never expose your back. The footstep from behind barely registered before she was hauled backward by her hair, throwing her off balance and into steely arms locking her tightly against his chest and hips. She froze for a moment while her brain processed what had happened. A moment's hesitation where his lips whispered ‘I can make you forget’ across her ear and his teeth branded the side of her neck.

She shoved with her legs and snapped her head back. His body jerked, and his skull gave a satisfying thud as it hit the doorframe. A pained oomph escaped his lips rippling the hairs on the back of her neck. The glass she’d held thumped to the floor and rolled away as she whirled out of the cage of his arms and pivoted to face him. The trickle of crimson down his chin did little to appease her anger and his words only sparked more fury.

"Foreplay, Captain?" he sputtered. A rumbling chortle resonated in his chest when he brought his blood speckled fingertips away from his swelling lip.

"Don’t ever touch me again," she fumed, backing away, regretting she’d only busted his lip, but not nearly as much as she regretted the thrill that had surged from navel to knees when his body pressed against hers.  

"Touch is not what I had in mind, but it’s a start." His laughter followed her down the passageway.

Ky tilted her head and inspected the mark on her neck in the mirror above the sink. It stood out in reddish-purple relief against the paleness of her skin, her hand trembled as she probed the rising welt with her index finger.  

Stark and starved were the eyes that stared back at her and rationalizations stacked like empty cargo crates in her mind. Corso was gone and not coming back, so what did anything matter now? She missed him with a ferocity she didn’t understand but couldn’t live off his memory forever.

Her old ways beckoned with open arms offering familiarity and comfort, like going home after a wonderful vacation except the baggage would stand forever unpacked by the door. Fucking hell, wasn’t it bad enough that she’d given up the love of her life, and now there was Skavak. ‘I can make you forget,’ he’d said.  

Emptiness had hollowed her nights to routine and rote, tears and longing and she needed to ignite. Skavak was an equal fire sparked by flint and steel and unafraid to strike the tinder. Guilt and love had no place in what she was about to do. Physical need drove her and availability was just through that door. She fostered no illusions and was broken enough to go to a man she despised and use his fire to cauterize wounds that refused to close on their own.   

“Damn you,” she cursed herself but exited her room anyway, slunk down the hall and rapped lightly on the door.

Skavak answered, blotting a cloth against his lip. His brows arched and his eyes narrowed to azure sky peeking through storm clouds. “Well, well—”

Ky raised her hand in the universal sign for silence. “Don’t be a smug ass. I’m not here to play who got the better of who or keep score though if it strokes your male ego, please feel free to assume.” She exchanged one damnation for another and edged across the threshold. “Can you do it?”      

“Do what?” His brows drew together in confusion.  

“Make me forget, at least for a little while.”

“Oh yeah, sweetheart. That I can do.” He reached around her and pressed the button that closed the panel behind.

She stifled the bells chiming inside her head, warning her it was too soon, and gave in to the moment, opening herself to experience it all. It was a betrayal, and she was a fool, but Corso was forever gone, and she clung to the impossible hope of quelling the misery and feeling anything other than being dead inside. Her senses expanded and she became a vessel, reeling at the raw power of human touch.  

Skavak smelled of soap and faintly of spice and rum and the gel he used to slick back the hair she grasped in her fists, each strand an ebony thread wrapped around her fingers. The metallic tang of blood mixed with the taste of his tongue where his lip split again when he’d crushed his mouth to hers. Hot air puffed from his nostrils, molecules gusting in tiny blasts on her cheek. Energy left her body as the cool metal absorbed her warmth where he’d pinned her back against the door. He’d forced his thigh between her legs and the friction of the rolling grind of her hips pooled in a twisting loop of heat low in her belly. He flattened her ass against the wall rubbing his growing hardness into her groin.     

One hand gripped her upper arm, digging into flesh, the other skimmed her ribs to squeeze her breast, fingers plucking the hardened nipple, the fabric rough and skirting the edge of pain. She whimpered into his mouth. His lips abandoned hers to travel across her jaw, teeth pinched her earlobe and moved south, nibbling on her neck to her collarbone.

She tugged his head back, using his hair as handles, and studied his face, the anticipation of predator and prey reflected in the cerulean facets of his eyes. The back of her knuckles drifted down the tattooed side of his face, soft until she hit the prickly stubble of his jawline. He closed his eyes and leaned into the sensation, a soft purr rumbled in his chest.

“I need to feel your skin on mine,” she said, her voice far away, a mere conveyance of her desires.   

His eyes snapped open, hard and blue as sapphire, “Turn around.”

“You shy?” she teased.

“Hardly,” he pivoted her roughly and placed his hand on the small of her back, shoving her against the door. “Stay there.”   

The tapping of his nails on the buttons, the slithering whisper of his shirt gliding over his arms, the thud of his boots, click of his buckle, and rasp of his pants sliding over his hips and down his legs, all drifted to her ears. Separate entities of sound to savor and catalog and file away.

She jumped when Skavak’s thumbs tucked into the waistband of her pants. “Your turn,” he said and skimmed the satiny material over her hips and thighs to lie in a loose manacle around her ankles. He lifted each leg, and she stepped free then yelped when his teeth bit into her backside.

“That’s gonna leave a mark,” he snickered. “Payback for the lip and I’ve been wanting to do that for days.”

Hands traveled up her ribs, taking her shirt with them, tracks of kisses up her spine, arms pushing hers upward, shirt fluttering to the floor, body molding skin to skin, love drops on her thighs, fingers sliding between hers, gripping, pinioning, holding her still.

“Spread your legs,” he growled.

“I thought you’d never ask,” she said, toe-heeling her feet to the side.

“What the hell do you think I’ve been doing for the past month?”

“Maybe I didn’t get the memo.”

“Maybe you weren’t catching what I was pitching.” He yanked her hips back clearing the way, guiding himself inside. “You catch that?”

“In the pocket.” She surrendered to sensation, her entire body a response device feeling every nuance. Each movement, stroke, pressure, broken down into numbers and physics condensed to one heated spot of Skavak’s fingers caressing, stroking, bringing her to the point of combustion. Ciphers and integers scattered in the detonation, blinked out of existence by the eruption of her body’s response.            

There was no equation for this, no calculation for the impact of pure physical reaction. Her fingers curled into claws around his, her head rolled back, he thrust into her core, a chorus of broken accompaniment tore from her throat. She was giver and taker, him and her, both at once, the gift filled her, he filled her. Deep muscles tightened along his length, the walls thickened around his cock, he throbbed, she pulsed and rode the flush of blood to her chest and thighs. They stood rigid like petrified trees, locked in mutual release. His teeth buried in the soft tissue between her shoulder and neck, blood trickled down her back followed by the sting of salty sweat. The gift closed like night blooming jasmine in the first rays of dawn, loneliness rolled aside as easily as turning down a bed, and he covered her with his already dissipating heat.           

He softened and started to pull out and away. “Don’t move, not yet,” she said, not wanting to lose the feel of his body molded to hers. He nuzzled into her hair, lightly kissed the marks he’d left on her skin and folded his free arm across her stomach. Neither moved or spoke, words unnecessary and inadequate to the whispers of the flesh. Minutes flowed like honey on Hoth, and the air vents threw a chill into the air.  

“Will you stay?” he asked.

“No,” she answered. “Sleeping with the enemy takes more nerve than fucking the enemy. I’m not that brave.”

“So, I’m still the enemy?”

“For now.”

He pulled away leaving her free to turn around and take stock of the man standing before her. Skin paler than Corso’s, a bit taller and slighter of build but well defined with muscles of a runner, whipcord strong, wiry and dangerous. Broader shoulders than she’d expected, lean hips, nice ass. His tousled hair gave the impression of a boy, innocently mischievous until you knew how deadly his charm could be. He was built of lies, constructed to last and leave when the wind blew wrong.

She gingerly touched her cheekbone, sore and likely bruised from being pressed against the ungiving metal, a drop of blood dotted her knuckle when she stroked the back of her index finger under her nose.

“I guess I should leave. We’ll have treasure to inspect and divvy up, and Beryl will be awake soon,” she said, picking up her clothes and opening the door. She glanced over her shoulder before exiting, a smile touching her lips. “Thank you for your service.”

“You really are a bitch,” he chuckled.

“So I’ve been told, and then some,” she replied with a wink.

The door closed on the shrine of her room, this place where she kept Corso’s memory swathed in batting and tucked away. All her energy drained to the soles of her feet and sluiced out in one unchecked gush leaving just enough steam to crawl into bed.

Corso was gone, and Skavak blew through her dreams like grains of sand.

Chapter Text

“Ky, get up, we got work to do” Beryl’s voice blasted through the door, punctuated by incessant banging.

“Yeah, okay,” she answered wearily, still hung over from too little sleep and the use of her gift; ah, the wages of sin. She sat up and threw her legs over the side of the bed, stretched her neck sideways and ran her fingers over the already scabbing bite mark on her shoulder.

A wry smile touched her lips as she made her way to the ‘fresher. She was sore in all the good places, and the shower washed away any evidence, except the physical imprints of his hands and teeth. An odd sense of peace surrounded her, highly preferable to feeling like shit over a thing already done. She hadn’t sought permission and forgiveness was a lofty prize too high to reach since the day Corso walked out of her life. 

“I need caf,” Ky announced as she walked into the galley.

Beryl handed her a cup, grabbed her chin and turned her face toward the light. “Nice bruise.”

“Where’s Skavak?” Ky asked, twisting her face out of Beryl’s grip.

“In the cargo bay. Sit down we need to talk.”

“And you trust him in there all by his lonesome?” argued Ky.

“Hell no,” Beryl snapped, closed the door and flicked her chin toward the counter stools. “I said sit.”

Ky slid onto one of the stools and Beryl took her stand on the opposite side of the counter, leaning back against the workstation.

“I’d have to be blind not to see you’re having a rough time. You’ve been moping around for weeks like you’d just lost your ship in a high stakes game of Sabacc,” Beryl started. “We’ve been friends for too long for me not to be able to read your face like a two-credit novel.”

“That cheap, huh?” chuckled Ky.

“Nope, that obvious, but Maker’s balls, you and Skavak? That’s not something I saw in your future.” She glanced at Ky over the rim of her cup. “Don’t give me that look—small ship, thin walls, and you two weren’t exactly quiet. Have you completely lost your mind after what he did on Port Nowhere?”

“I’m a big girl. Let it go,” shrugged Ky.

“I thought you had better sense.”

“I know exactly what he is—a self-serving, egomaniacal, sociopathic, untrustworthy bastard. Did I leave anything out?”

“That about covers it,” said Beryl. “Just tell me one thing. Why?”

Ky’s shoulders slumped like life had defeated her in some cruel game. “Because right now, he’s the only thing that makes me feel alive.”

“Corso?” asked Beryl.

“Is gone and I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You keep shit too bottled up. All I’m saying is watch your back.”

“Always do,” said Ky, setting her cup in the sink. “We have loot to divvy up and crates to unpack. You coming or not?”

Skavak leaned on one of the cargo crates drumming his fingers against the top and arched an eyebrow as Ky and Beryl entered. “If you ladies are done with your confab I’d like to get to it.”

“Forever the ass,” said Ky.

“That reminds me, how is yours?” he smiled around teeth he’d sunk into his lower lip.

“You trying to ruin an almost good thing?” said Ky, scanning the room, not meeting his eyes. “So, what have we got?”

Four loaded suspensor sleds lowered to the floor and secured with strapping and cargo nets lined one wall. Empty cargo crates with shielded magnetic plating on the bottoms sat adhered to the deck awaiting receipt of the divided goods.

“Rommi must have been collecting all this for years,” commented Skavak as he flipped the top of a crate open revealing sealed stacks of credits inside. “Old Imperial minted ingots. Didn’t think any of these existed anymore. We can exchange them for Galactic Standard, but we’ll take a beating on the rate.”

He dug deeper into the crate. “Now this is more like it. Galactic Standard chips and in high denominations. Too bad we were forced into grab and run mode, we left a lot of unopened, uninspected crates behind.”    

“Kyber crystals here,” said Beryl. “Likely mined from that cave of theirs.” She removed a separate case from inside the crate. “Holy shit! Refined Nova Crystals. These things are worth a bloody fortune on the Outer Rim.”  

“Lucky they weren’t in their raw state,” said Skavak. “Volatile as shit. We’d likely be little bits of goo dripping down the walls of that vault.”

Ky left them to their crates, vaguely listening to the comments and picked up the satchel she’d carried in the cave. The one containing the lightsaber and medallion. The saber hilt lay heavy in her hand, ornate inscriptions faded, worn thin by years of use. The medallion emitted the same contradictory sensations of warmth and chill she’d experienced when she’d removed it from the skeletal remains segregated from the rest of the group.

Slumped as he’d been, reduced to bone, tattered cloth, and wisps of hair, he’d carried a stature in death undiminished by desiccation and the carrion creatures present on every world. He’d likely been the last to die, standing sentinel in the gloom, feeling each life flutter and extinguish, keeper of the pact that no one would be left behind. Men, women, children, friends, wife, lover, caught in the wheels of fate, abandoning him to last thoughts, final rites, and who would weep for him?

“What you got over there?” asked Skavak. “You haven’t said a word.”

Ky laid the saber hilt aside unaware she’d been sliding her thumb over the raised relief of the medallion and mourning the unheralded death of a solitary man. “Just some trinket I picked up,” she lifted one shoulder in an insouciant shrug and focused on the pictures etched into the metal.

A sun setting or rising over mountains formed the backdrop, a blade stretched at an angle from lower left to center bail, from the right, a broken branch of lightning caught on the edge of the blade. The words ‘We Stand’ were engraved on the left bezel in barely recognizable old Aurebesh mirrored by ‘Mes Kioska’ on the right, ancient Sith symbols she remembered from Scourge. We Stand.

The fabric of time wrapped around her fingers, warm suns of ages lost and frigid chasms where the suns never reached, ice and fire and shadow, a malevolence she’d not felt since Dromund Kaas. She gasped, stumbled, and nearly fell, Skavak caught her, eased her onto the edge of the sled, the hilt clanked to the floor and rolled to a stop. Whispers from long abandoned halls wrapped around her inner ear, made her dizzy, her stomach rebelled and spewed her morning caf over Skavak’s boots and the metal floor.

“Thanks, sweetheart.” He grimaced and reached for the medallion. “I’ll take that.”

She pulled the medallion close to her chest, unwilling to let it go.

“Must really be worth something.” A hint of accusation played around the tone of his words like she was trying to swindle him.  

Ky swiped her sleeve across her mouth, found a voice and flashed a look his way that would wither flame. “It is a treasure you would never understand. Money is not its worth, and it’s not meant for you or for Beryl. It’s my part to play.”

“What part? What are you talking about?”

Ky shook her head, trying to dislodge the innocuous purpose that gripped her mind. “I have no idea. Beryl, I need something to wrap this in. A leather scrap if you have it.”

Beryl tossed her a piece of chamois off a workbench. “This is all I’ve got unless you want me to cut up my vest.”

“This’ll do.” Ky wrapped the medallion, stood and tucked it into her hip pocket. A sense of detachment like that state between sleep and wakefulness descended and you’re not quite sure if you’d been sleepwalking or not. Her connection to the medallion severed, quick and clean, a lancet excising a boil, instant relief. There was history there to read, but not now, not today.

Skavak steadied her, the sounds of Rook’s servos whined in her ears as he cleaned up the mess, a deep inhale then another, and she was herself again.

“What the hell was that all about?” asked Beryl.

“Nothing,” answered Ky. “Bad reaction to something I guess. Let’s get back to it, okay?”

They engaged in dividing up credits, crystals, artifacts, and gems, burning most of the morning hours before Beryl put Rook to work slicing into the one crate they’d failed to open.

“Save the best for last,” said Skavak when they took a break for lunch.

“Yeah, or blow us all to hell,” joked Beryl. “Ain’t suspense fun?”

Ky was half-way down the hall when Skavak grabbed her arm just above the elbow and swung her around to face him. “Sorry about earlier,” he said. “I get a little testy being around so much wealth. Sort of warps my brain.”

“I’m sorry I puked on your boots,” she teased.

“You ever tromp around in the slime pools of Creeleg Seven? They’ve seen worse.”

“Actually, I’m glad you stopped me.” She leaned back against the wall, lowering her voice, looking left and right down the corridor. “I’ve got something to say.”  

“Oh yeah?” He propped himself on the wall, hand splayed beside her head and leaned in.

Her fingers played around the open neck of his shirt, eyes boring into his. “I do like it rough. Bruises and bites and scratches, oh my. But, if you ever hit me, I’ll open you from crotch to eyebrow.”

“Mmm,” he hummed. “You’re gonna turn my head with all that romantic talk. Does a slap on the ass count?”

“Just setting ground rules and it depends on how hard the slap is.”

“Just enough to tingle in all the right places,” he smiled.

“Color me intrigued,” she smiled back.

“So, tonight, my place or yours?”

“Yours of course.”

“Just do me a favor and brush your teeth,” he wrinkled his nose above a lopsided grin.

Her hand drifted down the front of his shirt, stopping just south of his belt buckle. “You really think your dick is going to object?”

Air hissed between his teeth. “Going there are we?”

“If you’re lucky.” She sidled away from the wall, dropping her gaze to his crotch. “Better tame that thing before you walk into the galley. You might bump into something and hurt yourself.”

Lunch done, small talk, back to the cargo bay. Ky technically paid them for their share of the Holocron, lightsaber, and medallion, transferring credits and other goods from her stash to theirs. No point in fighting over items she’d made very clear she’d never let go of.

Other than the locked crate that Rook continued to work on, the last crate they opened held the most interest for Ky. A couple of datapads lay on the top of stacked binders filled with pages of hand-scrawled notes. Most were written in Cheunh, ideograms representing ideas or concepts in the simplest form interspersed with symbols for their alphabet. A language none of them could read.

Four binders held notes containing the crisp, measured strokes of Aurebesh. An account of the planet’s inhabitant’s final days. Ky removed the top binder and opened it to the last pages, a hush fell over the cargo bay as she read the words aloud.

 

Karyon Settlement: 3845/06/23

Rommi’s son, who bears his father’s name, has activated the warning beacon today and we prepare for the last acts of a desperate people.

The crops have failed again, the herd animals dead or broken free of their pens. Tremors destroyed our hydroponics gardens, tremors that never cease. So much is broken. Our children must not suffer.

This planet that was at once our home and our prison has passed final sentence, condemning us all. The very laws of nature have rebelled, the Force withers under the assault and we are left with no choice but to succumb to the inevitable.

I, Gaelan Tuul have taken up the mantle of my father Maanak Tuul who disappeared into the Eidolon some thirty years ago, seeking a way out for our people. I hold his legacy in my hands and his burden in my heart. We will never leave this place this side of the veil.

Rommi’s family and my wife and daughter will be the first to take the long sleep, there will be no pain except in my soul. I will stand guard until the last and find my way to them. Their light will guide my path.

The only regret is that all these lives will be unsung, their accomplishments unknown and we will be forgotten in the fullness of time.

My last words are written, and I go now to meet my fate. May the Force be with us and forgive us all.

 

Another tumbler clicked in the lock Rook was slicing, startling them all from their inner thoughts.

“I told you,” said Ky, “this knowledge is more precious than all the treasures we have in our hands.”

“Speak for yourself,” scoffed Skavak. “The Chiss will likely bury everything in the lowest levels of their Expeditionary Library or the University of Sanbra. And the Jedi will never let your precious trinkets see the light of day. They’re all just memories of a dying people. I prefer hard currency, it best serves the living.”

“Speaking of currency,” said Beryl, “what do you intend to do with your share, Ky?”

“Pay off the Hutts for the one shipment I didn’t deliver, no thanks to Mr. Skavak here, then run like hell. There’s got to be somewhere in Wild Space I can set up shop. Run a transport or delivery service.”   

“Alone?” asked Beryl.

“I’ve got my crew,” answered Ky.

“That’s not exactly what I asked,” said Beryl.

In her peripheral vision Ky caught Skavak’s eyes drift her way, waiting for her reply. It was hollow and doleful and true when it came. “Yeah, alone.”

Chapter Text

“Mission accomplished, Mistress,” Rook extolled with an un-droid-like ring of accomplishment as the final tumbler fell into place and he lifted the lid of the crate.

“Nice work,” said Beryl, stepping forward to peek inside, Skavak and Ky crowding in at her sides.

“What the hell is this, more memoirs?” groused Skavak, eyeing yet another case full of binders.

“No,” said Ky as she leafed through the binder she’d lifted from the crate. “These are schematics. This one is full of architectural designs, aqueducts, fortifications, etcetera.”

“Agricultural here,” said Beryl. “Some biological formulas and such I can’t understand, but the pictures are pretty.”

“Maybe not such a waste after all,” said Skavak. “Weapons with a Chiss twist. These could be worth a lot on the black market. There’s even some designs for their Clawcraft fighters.”

Ky gaped at the contents of the next binder. “This is worrisome.”

Skavak peeked over her shoulder. “What the hell is that?”

“I don’t know for sure,” she answered, turning page after page. “I can make sense of the formulas and calculations, sort of, but the theory escapes me.”

“You can read that shit?” asked Skavak.

“Yeah, a little, at least the energy output.” She pointed to the drawings. “These appear to be some sort of mini accretion disks, event horizons, could be either. They were flirting with containment of perpetual power, black holes, miniature star creation. Really advanced stuff, not like the easy shit that flashes through my mind when I do what I do.”

Skavak leaned into her back and extended his arm over her shoulder, skimming his fingers across the various numbers and etchings. “So, this is what you see in your head?”

“Not exactly. It’s not so much figuring the math as just knowing.” She slammed the binder shut, almost catching his fingers. She’d already said too much. “This is either one hell of an energy generator or one hell of a weapon, maybe both. We need to decide what to do with it.”

“I say we keep it and sell the damned thing,” said Beryl. “The Chiss likely already have the technology or are working on something similar. I’m here to make credits, not babysit the galaxy.”

“I suppose you’re of the same mind?” Ky turned to Skavak. His silence answered her question. “Fine,” she said and dropped the binder back into the crate, “but, whatever happens, is on your heads, not mine.”

Nearly two months since they’d left Rishi, three weeks of those in hyperspace since they’d left the Eidolon. Ky and Skavak walked that fine line between the holstered weapon, the hair trigger, and the blade half drawn. Three weeks of bodies slammed into bulkheads, skin waffled where floor grating imprinted into buttocks, or backs or knees. Stealing moments or making their own, cargo bay or engine room or straddled hips under the clear dome of the gunnery station.     

It was the ‘users’ game they played, remaining strangers indulging in brief encounters and skirting the possibility that familiarity could breed more than contempt. Talk was dirty, bruises vibrant, crescent-shaped bites and flesh plowed in neat rows of four. He was a habit, the pill taken when sleep won’t come. She was the Hapan puzzle box, infinite combinations to get to prize within.

Two days out from their destination in the Tingle Arm where Skavak’s contact waited, Ky sat in the cockpit having left Skavak in his room hours before. She’d drained her glass and now sat rocking the empty tumbler back and forth on the armrest, emptying her mind as well, unable to face the ghosts that tapped on the windows of her mind.  

Bottle in hand, Beryl breezed through the entryway. “Care to sit a spell longer?” she asked, taking a seat in the navigator’s chair and extending the bottle in Ky’s direction.

Beryl poured a long shot into Ky’s glass, then filled her own half full, capped the bottle and set it on the floor. “Been a while since we talked and you need to open up. You wear guilt like a badge and, other than shagging our resident asshole, you spend too much time alone. Skavak and Corso, huh?”

Ky propped her feet on the console and stared out the windshield, preferring not to look at her friend’s face. “You’ve known me since my arena days, and love never fit into any future I ever saw. Yet, here I am, miserably in love with some rancher’s son from the ass end of Ord Mantell.” She inhaled the aftertaste of whiskey that coated her tongue. “I watched Corso die twice. That line went flat and I swear I would have followed him to the grave—flown the Soledad straight into the heart of a sun.”

“And yet you used Skavak to force him to walk away,” said Beryl.

Ky nodded. “I’ve never hidden that fact.” Her next words caught in her throat. “I can’t even give him the children he wants.”

“Why?” asked Beryl. “Does he know?”

Ky shook her head. “No. We spoke about kids a couple of times, mostly just to make him happy. Stars, can you imagine what my life would do to a child?” She paused a moment to reflect and let it escape with a sigh. “Anyway, I was told by Republic doctors during a routine checkup that the ovaries are there, they just don’t produce viable eggs.” Her mind drifted for a moment—Sith alchemy, experiments, a young girl’s agony, a life changed, a legacy stolen. She shooed the vision away. “Freedom from me is the greatest gift I could have given him. He'll see that in time."

“And Skavak?”

“Is a distraction, not a replacement. Corso is the love of my life, and you only get one of each. Once we’re done here, we go our separate ways. I’m not a fool, Beryl. I’ve never wanted more than a few rough tumbles to chase away the loneliness. Can we drop this please?”

“Sure, I just wanted you to know I understand. I left a woman on Corellia right after the war, broke my heart, but, it was the best thing for her. I love her to this day and it still hurts like hell. Those scars never heal.”

A bitter laugh grunted up from Ky’s throat. “And here I thought I had something to look forward to in my old age. Love really is a four-letter word.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Beryl extended her glass to clink with Ky’s. “You ever see Gundy after you left the arena?”

“No. I know Chloris was badly injured in that last fight. She fell on top of me and held me down while they beat hell out of her and knocked me out. I was whisked off planet and never got to see her or Gundy.”  The old guilt nudged its way to the forefront of Ky’s thoughts. “How the hell you arranged that bet is beyond me, but I doubt Oguul was happy about her throwing the fight that set me free. Stupid Hutt never learned the lesson of don’t bet what you can’t stand to lose, and she paid the price. I’ll never forgive Balen for not going back for them.”

"The bet was a shell game,” explained Beryl. “Funny money and shady high rollers. Balen moved in some dangerous circles.”

“What I can’t understand is why Chloris took the fall.”

“I don’t know. Balen was the go-between. You and the bet were the deal I brokered, that was something separate. Perhaps she had family you didn’t know about, or a kid. People will do almost anything to protect family,” said Beryl.

“Maybe, but she never mentioned anything to me, and it always struck me as odd that anyone would go to so much trouble over a lowly arena rat.”

“Word on the street was that the Hutts lost a bundle on that fight. My fee was small change. The worm really fucked up and The Cartel is not forgiving.”

A wisp of a smile played across Ky’s lips. “You know, when I first arrived on Affavan, a scrawny kid in dirty clothes, scared shitless, we were being paraded in front of the great Hutt so he could decide our fate. One of the guards took my stuffed tauntaun, Fooly, and I fucking lost it. It was the only thing that was mine, that was home. I clamped down on his hand with my teeth, kicking and screaming like a wild thing. He damn near shook my brains out before I let go and likely would have ended me right there had Oguul not ordered him to stop. The Hutt said I had too much spirit for the pleasure barges. I think he saved my life in more ways than one that day. I’d never have survived as a pleasure whore.”

“You’ve never told me that tale before.”

“Yeah, I don’t like looking back too often.”

“How old were you when Balen died?” asked Beryl.

Ky tilted her head, perplexed by the subject change. “Almost twenty-one, why?”

“A man old enough to be your grandfather and then some, with bad health to boot. He was supposed to let you go after he won that bet, you know.”

“I didn’t have any place to go. I’d have ended right back in the arena or worse.”

“Balen was a chump,” Beryl snorted, “smitten by you long before the arrangement. Took you under his wing and kept you like a pet on a leash.”

“And loved me enough to marry me on his deathbed so I’d have unchallenged ownership of the Chance and what saved credits he had,” said Ky. “As much of a prick as he could be, he gave me a start and my freedom.”

“Did you ever tell Corso about any of it or that Aragath is your married name?”

“It never came up.” Ky shifted her position and re-crossed her legs. “Keeping the Pridence name a secret was more to protect my sister than anything. It kept her separate from my misdeeds. My family’s dead except for Nariel and the last time I saw her was in a cantina on Tatooine years ago. She never even glanced my way. Hell, I was barely one when the Jedi Order took her for training and she was only thirteen when the Imperials sacked our planet, murdered our parents and hauled me away. Where are you going with all this?”

“Did you ever consider that if you’d opened up to Corso about your past he’d understand the life you lead, the decisions you made? He might never have left and you’d not be settling for Skavak.”

“I’m not settling, I’m using,” said Ky, “and, you’ve got this all wrong. I didn’t want Corso to stay and loved him enough to let him go. If what you said about the woman on Corellia is true, you’ll understand. This hatred he has for Skavak runs far deeper than Port Nowhere, maybe deeper than his love for me, and he’ll never forgive what I’ve done. There’s no going back. Sometimes love is more about doing without than having it all.”

“You might want to clarify that using bit to Skavak. I’ve noticed the way he looks at you.”

“I’m just something he hasn’t figured out yet. Once he discovers I’m not for sale or exploit, he’ll move on or the blasters will come out. It’s who he is.”

“Maybe we’re both damned fools,” said Beryl. “And, with that uplifting thought, I think I’ll go to bed.”

“Leave the bottle,” said Ky.

Something Beryl said tickled at the back of Ky’s mind. All sorts of movers and shakers came to the arena on Affavan. Business moguls, politicians, spies, bounty hunters, Sith and Republic alike gambling on blood and death and making backroom deals that shaped or destroyed worlds.

Scourge had been right that her particular talent manifested during her time in the arena. She was quick and flexible reading her opponent before they made a move. She made damned tasty cheese and Chloris and Gundy were deadly hammers. Hell, she’d sported bright red hair to fit the name Oguul had given their team; The Crimson Claw. She chuckled to herself, Hutts and their dumbass names.

The Affavan arena was locked up tighter than an Alderaanian nobleman’s virgin daughter and she’d been some bonus in an overly elaborate scheme. Other than the credits won, and lost, none of it made any damned sense. The Hutts didn’t make those kinds of deals. They didn’t have to. Somebody did some arm twisting or, another Hutt wanted Oguul gone and it was all a setup to make Oguul look bad. A Hutt betrayal could be exploited by someone with enough power. But still, why her? 

Perhaps Sith Intelligence, the SIS or some private concern had noticed her and talked or coerced Balen into the plan but he reneged and ran instead. Balen had gone by the last names of Orleone and Hummel, made sure they were constantly on the move, and the transponder cylinder had been swapped just before he’d died changing the ships name and ownership. She began to wonder if Aragath was even his real last name, or hers.  

Balen hadn’t kept her like a pet, he’d kept her hidden. The real question was, why and from who? With Balen dead, she’d probably never know.

After his death, she’d fallen off the grid. She’d had no name on Affavan, just a microchip in her arm with an ID number and tracking device that Balen cut out as soon as they’d hit hyperspace. All of her Voidhound files were redacted and Saresh’s rescission of her contracts put her on a blacklist with hundreds of other names, hardly worth notice. No one would have recognized her from her arena days, and Port Nowhere may have put her back on the radar but hardly more than a blip.

Bounty hunters and GenoHaradan with a vendetta hunted her now, but she had an uneasy feeling that there was something else. She eased her feet off the console and onto the floor and tilted the remainder of the whiskey down her throat. Chasing her tail was getting her nowhere.  

She should know better. Traipsing down the paths of her past had never ended well and eventually, those forks in the road stabbed her in the ass. Damn Beryl for opening that rusty fucking door.

Chapter Text

Corso keyed himself into his new digs, larger and a slight upgrade from his previous room, but not by much. At least this one had a kitchenette and separate bedroom but carried the same run-down tiredness in its walls. It reeked of the aged who’d lived well beyond years of caring and simply waited to die.

He retrieved a bottle of ale from the conservator unit in his room after dropping the food container on the dinette table where it would remain, likely untouched. The sofa creaked under his weight as he sat, elbows on thighs, bottle dangling between his knees and his gaze tracing the worn patterns in the threadbare rug.

He’d seen Bowdaar and Akaavi keeping tabs on him and was grateful that they maintained their distance, but if they were still here, that meant Ky hadn’t come home yet. Home. She was his home, and he’d walked away. Kriffing hell!

His mind tumbled through scenarios, none of them pleasant, and Scourge’s words came back to haunt him as they did every night.

‘Above all else, she seeks to preserve the gentleness in you and will do so to the point of great pain and terrible loss...she needs a partner, not a lackey...give her shelter...find the balance.’

He rolled his shoulder, still sore from being dislocated a few days ago and stretched his neck until it popped before sprawling back, balancing the bottle on his leg. It’d been a hell of a day ending in an argument with Rona.

“I won’t do it,” he’d said. “I told you from the start I won’t hurt women or children, and I’m damned sure not going to start shaking down innocent shopkeepers just trying to make a living.”

“It’s for their protection,” she’d argued. “You think it’s cheap to pay all my people and keep things safe out there?”

“Protect them from what? Us?” he’d countered. “I don’t mind busting Justicar or Merchant Guild heads, doing boundary sweeps or even escorting your couriers, but I won’t do this.”

“Cousin or not, you’re setting a bad example and making me look weak.”

“Then don’t ask me to do stupid shit you know I won’t do. Hell, throw me out on the street, send me off world, put a blaster to my head. I really don’t care anymore. But, I won’t give up my values, not for you, not for anyone. It’s all I’ve got.”

“It would’ve been a promotion,” she’d said.

“I don’t want a promotion. I just want to do my job and be left alone. Can I go now?”

Yeah. A hell of a day.

He checked the date and time on his wrist chrono, a little after 8:00 PM and fifty-one days since Rishi. Surely, it’d been a lifetime ago. The condensation from the bottle trickled over his fingers, forming a wet ring on the fabric of his pants. The ale would be warm before he took his first sip, but he couldn’t find the strength to lift it to his lips. His head lolled on the back of the sofa, and he closed his eyes against the glare of the single overhead bulb. The dotted afterimage floated on the backs of his eyelids creating a halo around the face of the woman he loved and lost. Stars, what have I done?

During the day, he walked the boulevards and alleys of Coruscant with Sprocket, hoping, praying for a fight to relieve the tension that coiled around him like a whip. Belsavis had excised a wound he’d thought long healed and scarred over, Ky was the anchor that kept him grounded in his better self. Without her, he began to untether from that gentle soul and half anticipated, half feared that Game Face would become his permanent mask.

Nights were his bane when the purpose of hours devolved into lagging minutes dragging baggage of their own. Often, he would roam the levels of Coruscant, spending countless seconds like pocket change expecting nothing more than cheap passage from one to the next. He'd walked the perimeter of the Senate building and squatted outside the Galaxies Opera House transfixed by some traveling troupes rendition of 'Dark Eyes, Warm Thoughts' that drifted down to the street from an open vent. He’d dropped five credits in a beggar’s cup and watched the man scurry away like a spider that had captured its first prey in months. Mostly he stayed enveloped in shadow, observing from afar, insular people leading insular lives, and in those slivers of time, amid the crush of humanity, he could almost forget.      

The sigh he exhaled hovered over his face like a cloud of dismay. He scrubbed his fingers through his hair and took a swig of warm ale that tasted like the bottom of an ashtray smelled. His legs weighted like lead as he stood and emptied the dregs into the sink and threw the food container into the bin. He swept off his shirt, tossed it into the hamper and headed toward the 'fresher.

Steam and water that fell like Rishi rain washed away the grime of the city, but undissolved memories remained intact. Damn her storms, and damn me for storming out of her life.  

Towel wrapped around his waist and hair still dripping, he grabbed a glass and bottle of Sullustan Gin from the cupboard. Not one to indulge in harder drink than ale, he’d recently developed a taste for the liquor and finally appreciated Ky’s penchant for a nip or two or three or...

He held the half-full glass perched on his palm, stabilized by the pedestals of his fingers and gazed into the clear liquid. Calcium splotches dried on the surface of the tumbler sullied the pristine clarity of the liquor and no matter how he twisted and turned the glass, the blemishes remained.

Secrets, like water stains on glass, had marred their relationship. Her secrets coupled with his crystallized into a film so murky that the beautiful fluidity of their love distorted and refracted like cracked quartz under a dim sun.

He should have told her the truth behind his hatred for Skavak. That the man had sold weapons that found their way back into separatist hands—weapons that had murdered his family. All she knew was that they were dead, not the why or how of it. He’d all but pushed her straight into that prick’s arms.

His first small sip dispensed the scent of juniper from the back of his throat into his nasal cavities. His eyes watered and he closed them while his empty stomach lurched as the alcohol hit. He chased the first sip with a second heftier mouthful, swallowing the harbinger of a fretful night despite the spreading warmth in his marrow. He opened his eyes to peer once again into the blemished well of remorse.

Scourge had warned him, and she had begged, but he’d stood stubbornly in the face of losing it all. Pride dictated that he guard his secrets about what he’d endured on Singat 9 and fear had prevented him from integrating his divided self into one cohesive being.

War had revealed aspects he couldn't reconcile with the gentle optimist fostered by his upbringing. His young psyche had shattered with the horrors he'd seen, the abuse he'd suffered and the things he'd done. Those parts of him shouldn’t be a conscious choice, a beast to cage, a mask to wear, but flow naturally, one to the other from a core of unity. He’d lived too long in a one-dimensional state, unmalleable to change according to the demands of the moment.

She’d provided a chance for him to end this before it started when she’d pleaded for another way out, and he’d remained silent. The pieces of him united would have found an answer, and never have let her go. She'd needed him whole, and he'd failed her.

The gin crashed against the hard edges of his pain, eroding the razor sharpness into rounded stone, and still, he cursed himself for being the coward he was.

He toasted the peeling paint and cupboard door that hung catawampus from the hinges. Broke ass room—broke ass life—and a heaping plate of self-pity. He looked to the bottle for peace and found none.

Find the balance,’ Scourge had said.

Kriff! It was going to be a hell of a night.

Chapter Text

“So, that’s Tolus Salini, huh?” asked Ky as they came into high orbit over the mostly oceanic planet interspersed here and there by mottled green and ochre land masses.

“Used to be an old Sith outpost back in the day,” said Skavak. “Name means Far Away or something like that. Whole planet’s gone independent and continues the fight to stay that way though Imps and Pubs alike are still trying to bring them into the fold. Damned if I know why. No exports or strategic value, but it’s a known haven for those with underground connections, and the black market is alive and well.”

“A bit like Nar Shaddaa then?”

“Yeah, minus the glitz, and the Hutts.”

“Any customs issues I should be aware of?” asked Beryl. “I had enough of that shit back on Taris to last a lifetime.”

“Not if you know the right people to pay off,” shrugged Skavak. “Same old—same old.”

“City’s bigger than I expected,” said Ky as Beryl brought them into the spaceport.

Beryl guided the Happenstance into their assigned hangar and cut the repulsors, the engines whining down to a stop. “Where to from here?” she asked.

“First we grab some of those credits from our stash, then stop by Spaceport Authority,” said Skavak. “I know a guy.” 

“So does Gus,” Ky chuckled. “Several in fact. At least, that’s what he’s always telling me.”

“You two go ahead,” said Beryl. “I don’t like leaving the ship unattended especially with what we’ve got on board.”

“Don’t trust me to go alone?” asked Skavak.

“Not on your life,” answered Ky.

Gravity pulled on the soles of Ky’s boots as she walked beside Skavak to the Authority office. She hated heavy gravity planets, they tired her out too quickly leaving her at a disadvantage. The strain even showed on Skavak in the way he lifted his feet a tad too high with each step. Running would be a bitch, fighting more so. She hoped it wouldn’t come to either.

A buzzer sounded when they entered the lobby, drawing the attention of a young towheaded man sitting behind a desk. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“Just here to check in with customs,” replied Skavak, his eyes flitting to the closed door underneath a sign flourished in Aurebesh. “Olig still in charge?”

“Olig retired a little over a year ago. Amis Karnel is the new boss man, but I’m sure arrangements can be made,” the young man tweaked his brows in an overt display of ‘nothing’s changed.’

“Good to know,” said Skavak. “He in?”

“Out on rounds at the moment, but I’ll give him a message.”

“We’re berthed in bay 36-Besh. Someone will be there when he stops by.”

“Well, that was a waste,” huffed Ky when they exited the building.

“Not really,” said Skavak. “Things change fast out here on the rim, and it’s always good to know up front where we stand. It’s an odd society they’ve created with all the earmarks of a genuine democracy with a little Hutt thrown in for flavor. Even bribes get taxed as tips. A waitress would be lucky to make in a year what these jerks make in a day.”

“Uh-huh. I haven’t paid taxes since the Republic kicked me out on my ass. Their loss. I’d like to find an exchange bank to offload some of those Imperial ingots,” said Ky.

“You’re better off in the core worlds for that unless you want to take an extra special ass kicking on rates. The crystals, however, there’ll be a market for them here.” He smiled in her direction and winked. “I know a guy.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. So, what now?”

“Back to the ship and wait for this Karnel fellow.” He tipped his head toward the cargo bays. “They do have a police force of sorts, and unless you fancy a shakedown that’ll rattle your molars, we need to have customs clearance papers in hand.”

“Not so much like Nar Shaddaa after all,” said Ky, as they made their way back to the ship. “At least where unregulated trade is concerned.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Folks are legal criminals here, card-carrying, paper signing, and tax paying. Laws protect the locals, outsiders abide by the laws, taxes pay for the upkeep. It’s all a façade, of course, a lawful overlay to hide what moves beneath. Credits grease the wheels, but you’re less likely to get a shiv in the ribs. This is quite the safe haven for certain types, and even I keep my asshat ways under control. It’s a good place to have an in, and you can actually sleep with both eyes closed, though I never do.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Ky. “We’ve never gotten around to sleeping.”

Skavak watched her profile from the corner of his eye. “I’d always figured you to be a spooner.” 

“Depends. I’m kind of particular on whose bowl I’m snuggled up in. That level of trust takes way more faith than I usually possess.”

“Except the farm boy,” he snorted.

“Except the farm boy,” she echoed, “and he’s not open for discussion. Especially with you.”

They waited for close to an hour for Amis Karnel to show up giving them ample time to double check the sensor scramblers in the hidden compartment where they’d stowed away the credits and ingots. The rest of the goods were left open for inspection. Skavak was known for coming through with archeological finds from time to time, so nothing untoward was on display to raise suspicions.

Amis Karnel, medium height, and build, sandy hair, a dour expression and suspicious eyes walked onto the ship with an air about him that stated everything was his until he said it wasn’t. Twenty minutes later he departed, expression still dour and leaving them fifty-thousand credits poorer. It could have been worse, Skavak reassured them, but at least the ship was flagged as a free trade zone, and Karnel’s signature guaranteed them open access to the city with no interference.

Skavak made the call to his contact, packed two of the small statuettes and one of the binders in his pack and with Ky in tow, left the ship again in Beryl’s care.

Keenet'Solin'Anneth worked out of the back room of Tapi’s Pawn Shop in the Zocalo on the city’s second level. An old-fashioned door that actually swung inward marked the entry and a bell hanging from the frame jangled merrily as they stepped inside.

Behind the counter at the back of the shop, a Sullustan raised his head and pushed his eye visor up, appraising the two. “Been a long time, Skavak. Solin’s waiting inside, I’ll buzz you in.”

“Yeah, it’s been a while,” said Skavak, inclining his head toward Ky. “She’s with me.”

“He’ll be armed,” warned the Sullustan.

“I’m well aware,” said Skavak, his eyes roaming around the ceiling, noting the security cameras. “We’re here for business, not trouble.”

Tapi nodded his head slowly. “Just remember the rules; you break it, you bought it.”

“Shit, Tapi,” chuckled Skavak. “You got nothing worth buying...or breaking.”

Tapi’s mouth stretched into a macabre grin. “Oh, how sharp the tongue.”

A buzzer sounded from their left, a lock clicked, and a door panel slid open.

“After you,” said Ky.

The room, although small, was richly appointed with a liquor cabinet, high back leather chairs, and overstuffed settees in an intimate sitting arrangement in one corner. Tapestries and paintings adorned the walls, and a thick area rug covered the floor under the intricately carved wooden desk.

“Hello, Solin,” said Skavak to the man sitting behind the desk, whose crimson eyes had never left them since they entered.

“Tam,” said the Chiss. “And who is your accomplice?”

“Just the pilot,” said Ky before Skavak could open his mouth. “My name’s not important.”

“A woman of mystery, how intriguing.” The Chiss pursed his lips and fixed her with a narrow stare.

Solin straightened his collar and gestured to the two chairs in front of the desk. “Down to business then, please be seated and show me what you have.”

Skavak removed the two statuettes from the bag and set them on the desk followed by the binder. “There’s more where that came from,” he said as he dropped nonchalantly into the chair.

A blinding spotlight triggered from above the desk, bleaching out the dark blue of the Chiss’ skin to a chalky gray and his black hair to violet streaked with white. His long fingers wrapped carefully around one statuette turning it to and fro, employing a magnifying device for closer inspection.

“An extraordinary piece from before the time of Ch’at bisatahn’ho htiseehn. Ah, please forgive, The Long Freeze in your rather quaint language. Note the more rounded human features, the crude chisel work. Beautiful.”

He lowered the piece delicately to the desktop and lifted the other one with an almost timid sense of reverence. “We Chiss have a long and bloody history. At first glance you would think this was a mother and child, standing side by side, not so. This is Ticsen’i bah rin’hi, Mother of Blood. If you look closely, you will note the knife hilt still in her hand, the blade buried at the base of the child’s skull. That is not happiness you see on the child’s face, but horror. We killed so many, just to survive.”

“And the binder?” prodded Skavak.

“Yes. Yes. I’m getting to that,” said Solin testily, setting the statue gingerly on its base and opening the binder, turning the pages slowly. “Ah. A history of Csact’i bah ch’at bta’in, The Time of the Bluing, when our ancestor's skin began to change from human pink to more suitable tones. Something in the glacial minerals affected this transformation including the reddening of the eyes. A very detailed accounting.” He glanced up at Skavak. “And you say you have more of these?”

“A whole crate full,” answered Ky.         

The spotlight extinguished as suddenly as it had illuminated, throwing the room into a twilight dullness and transforming the Chiss into an ebon silhouette folded in the drapery of shadow. An ethereal basso drifted out of the gloom. “I will visit your ship tomorrow morning at 09:00, galactic standard and appraise the remainder. You will have my offer then.”

“Make it a good one,” said Skavak, standing to leave.

“It will be quite equitable for all,” answered Solin.

Arms dealers, jewelers, black market pirates, collectors and entrepreneurs, Skavak had a long list of prospective customers he contacted. The quality or quantity of the goods loosened purse strings and the laws of the planet they were on kept him safe from old grievances. Ky could only stand back and marvel at the way he interlaced overt charm and subtle threat into a masterful primer on how to close the deal.

Numbers followed by a dizzying amount of zeros continued to grow her account. What she’d profited from the sale of artifacts to Solin alone would pay off the Hutts plus any penalties and still have plenty left over to set her and her crew in good stead for the future.

Nearly three days they stayed on Tolus Salini, the cargo bay of the ship open for business from dawn until dusk, but there was one more thing for her to do before they left.

“You want me to tag along?” asked Skavak.

“If you want,” Ky answered.

The hover sled glided among the rows of storage lockers as Ky looked for the number of the one she’d rented earlier that day. Every spaceport contained an area designated for such a purpose, the lockers used for everything from baggage to dead drops for spies and their ilk. A body or two had been known to be stuffed into the smallest of spaces, out of sight until the smell garnered the attention of the local authorities. Multi-purpose containers and tools of the trade and sometimes just a place to put your stuff.

Locker two-eight-three, Ky keyed in her access number and placed the crate with the binders and Jedi artifacts inside, along with her share of the Imperial ingots. The medallion, however, remained in her pocket.                

“Why here?” asked Skavak.

“Figure it’s as safe a place as any, honor among thieves and all that. Plus, I don’t want any of this to fall into the wrong hands. All of it has a home, I just don’t have time to take it there.”

“You know we’ve been under surveillance for a while now,” said Skavak. “And not by locals either. Bounty hunters, even the Geno, and other assassin’s guilds don’t do the bloody end of their business here, it’s been an understanding for ages, but someone is watching.”

“Maybe hoping to cash in on reporting our movements, time of departure? All the holonet feeds reach out this far, and I’m sure there are many thumbs on the pulse of what goes on here,” said Ky. “The point is, we won’t be safe no matter where we go and somehow they always know where to find us.”

“Maybe coincidence,” said Skavak.

“I don’t believe in coincidence, but we leave as soon we get back to the ship. I guess we’ll see who follows.”

A lone figure watched the freighter lift into the sky and made the call. “They just left, destination unknown for now. Expect a transmission soon.”

Chapter Text

“When will you return to us?” asked Akaavi.

“Another month at least,” answered Ky. “We were planning three trips to the planet, but it won’t survive for much longer. If the disturbances from this latest landing are any indication, it’s about to shake itself apart.”

“It will be a relief to have you back,” said Akaavi. The Zabrak lowered her head indicating she was about to ask an uncomfortable question. “And what of Corso? This is not a good place for him.”

“He’ll move on when he’s ready,” said Ky.

“I think he is stuck without you,” said Akaavi. “Do you not still love him?”

“Now and forever, but it changes nothing. I can’t bring him back into my world. I won’t. Subject closed.”

“As you wish. Ret'urcye mhi.” Akaavi ended the call abruptly, her way of showing displeasure at the outcome.

It had been five days since her return trip through the Eidolon from the doomed planet she’d never visit again. Cracks and newly opened steam vents in the plateau made landing difficult, and the ground quakes had rattled them to their bones. The constant death throes of that world threatened to bring the vault ceiling down on their heads, and the rumbling crash of falling stalactites in the cavern served to remind them that they walked on the dagger’s edge of time.

The air had been a soup of dust and ash, and they scurried to retrieve as much as they could before the underground vault collapsed. They’d barely escaped a large outbuilding before the walls tumbled in making a mausoleum of crumbling steel and stone. Their imminent departure was announced and hastened when the peak of a distant mountain disappeared in a plume of ash and flame. They hadn’t waited for the boulders to start raining down or fringes of the pyroclastic cloud to reach them.

Foregoing preflight checks, Ky launched the freighter through the atmospheric layers. She hovered in space to observe the spreading plague of dust that enveloped ice cap and land mass interspersed with blossoming gouts of crimson like drops of blood on linen. A dying world for a dead people, almost poetic in its symmetry. She’d turned the ship for the final trip through the Eidolon and thought of her crew and home.

They’d come away with less than they’d anticipated, more crystals, gems and bright baubles hardly worth the price of their lives, except for one small crate of data crystals. Star charts of planets and moons in the unknown regions and a smattering of distant worlds far beyond the outer rim of the Tingle Arm. Hidden places lost to myth and memory long before the Great Hyperspace War. Grids and calculations holding the promise of treasure and adventure for those with intrepid souls.   

Ky leaned against the wall and heaved a sigh of relief that it was done. Corso would be set for life, the Hutts would back off and she could run far on the funds she’d collected. The GenoHaradan would never stop, but she was good at running.   

She remained distant from Beryl and especially Skavak. Cursory greetings and averted interactions with the man seemed the best course considering their brief interlude was coming to a close. Best to wind down to its inevitable end. He wasn’t pleased with the changes, but that wasn’t her problem.      

Most of the time she spent alone trying to reconcile to life without Corso. The melancholy of the first days of his absence revisited in painful wisps of memory, and she was beset with a mounting dread of returning to the Soledad and her empty cabin. She strode the hallway of the ship for hours, moving forward in the vain hope that the momentum would outpace the grim outlook she saw in a future without him. Whiskey offered no solutions and gazing into the endlessly looping vortex of hyperspace only served as a reminder of her reawakened grief.

Ten days out from Tolus Salini and then home, whatever that meant. A durasteel and cortosis can that ran on nerve and skill. Always on the move, or on the run; it was all she knew or would ever know. Stars, she was tired.

Ky sat on the bed, idly brushing her hair, and singing a lullaby. One of the few pleasant and treasured remembrances of those early times and her mother.

She didn’t turn when the door slid open. “Put the towels on the bed, Rook.”

"I didn’t know you could sing. It’s pretty," Skavak’s voice floated from behind her.

Her arm stopped mid-stroke, head snapping around as if spring loaded. “You’re not welcome in this room. What are you doing here?”

“I brought this to see if maybe it’d cheer you up.” He strode forward to lay a binder on the foot of her bed. “It’s the plans for that energy machine. I held it back. Figured I’d leave it up to you whether to sell it or not.”

“Thanks,” she said.

He hesitated for a moment as if expecting something else, but when she remained silent, he turned to leave, then stopped and turned around.  

“I can be gentle.” His voice came flat with a tinge of something lingering at the edge. 

Her response was bland and emotionless. "I’ve had gentle, and it didn’t work out so well. Besides, with us, it would be a lie."

He rounded the foot of the bed and reached for the brush.

Ky bolted from the bed as if he’d thrown scalding water in her lap. "This you don't get to do."

"So, you give me your body, but I can't drag a brush through your hair?"

"My body holds nothing of importance, but this," she waved the brush under his nose, "is not yours to have and not mine to give. Not tonight Skavak, and never here."

He crossed his arms and leaned against the desk.

"Yes, tonight, and, yes here. You’ve hidden in this shrine and lived with this ghost long enough. You need to let it go."

She fought the urge to slap him. "How would you know what I need, let alone care? We both know what we are to each other; quick release systems, and nothing more. Just get out!"

His lip twisted upward, his jaw muscles rippled under the tattoo. "Missing the farm boy? Drowning in regrets? You can turn off all the lights and pretend it's him. I won't mind...much."

Pain swept across her features, bitterness dripped from her lips. "You smug bastard! I know the difference, even in the dark. The hair, the build, hell, the scent is not the same. You're detonite at the edge of war, sharp, raw, acidic, he’s cool forests, spring water, clean linen. He smells like love, you smell like ruin."

“Ouch! That was harsh.” He changed tactics unsure of why he even bothered. “This job will be over in a few days, and you won’t see me again. It’s just...” His words faltered, not like him at all. “I thought we could take it slow tonight, without the battle. Just this one time without slinging you into a wall, or bending you over a railing, or having a gunnery control poking into my balls. What are you afraid of? Just once, then I’ll go back to being the asshole you hate.”

“I don’t have to wait. I hate you now.”

"You won't give a meter, will you?"

"Damn you! Whatever we were is done. It’s over. What game are you playing? What do you hope to gain?"

"Maybe to enjoy something novel.” He shrugged, and contrary to his nature told the truth. “I don't make love, Ky. I haven’t in a long time. I fast fuck or slow screw and do whatever it takes to finish the deal. And yes, I get off, but it’s still just part of a con or a scheme. With you, there is no plan, and that’s unique in my life.”

She lay the brush on the nightstand, her face a mask of sorrow. “Please, Tam, just leave. This place holds pieces of him I can’t share.”

Warm embrace, body heat diffusing the scent of laundry soap up through the fabric of his shirt where she hid her face, unwilling to see him or the tiny universe of this room where memories flared like dying stars.

Words rumbled in his chest before they escaped his lips in whispered jets that ruffled her hair. “Let it go, Ky. Not for me, not for him. Just be.”

Hands bracketed her face; a calloused thumb swept the single tear from her cheek she hadn’t known she’d shed. Azure eyes so close they became her sky, lips light as a thief’s fingers, covered hers, begging them to open. She sank into what he offered and fell from final grace in a liar’s arms.

Each of their previous encounters teetered on the edge of violence. A bludgeoning distrust slammed their bodies together and punched the air out of any misconceptions before they had a chance to breathe. This was détente in its purest form, naked compromise with nowhere to hide the truth, and fleeting denials exchanged like icicles in the sun.

His fingers took point, clearing the way for his lips to follow. Hair whisked from her neck, sucking mouth, nipping teeth. That’s gonna leave a mark. She didn’t care. Shirt buttons undone, slowly, methodically, one at a time. Hand at her back, bra hooks disengaged, fluid motion sweeping her shoulders clear of cover, fabric floating to the floor.

“Don’t,” he’d said when her hands sought something to do rather than hang at the ends of her arms. The click of her belt buckle, the hiss of the zipper, his splayed hands worked under the waistband, girding her hips. Cloth caught on his wrists, sliding down until the momentum of weight shimmied them over her thighs and calves to lie like loose shackles around her ankles. A well-placed boot held the pants in place while she worked her feet free and he kicked the pants aside; practiced, efficient, never breaking the stare that locked his eyes to hers.     

Nipple taut against his palm, flesh soft and pliant to the pressure of his fingers, his free hand cupped her ass, pulling her hips flush against his tightening trousers. "Moan for me," a command or plea, it didn't matter. She curled her fists in his hair, he claimed her lips again, she filled his mouth with sound. 

Metered two-step to the bed, lowering her to sit on the edge of the mattress, that sexy, awkward moment of separation and stripping off his clothes. She leaned back on her elbows and scanned his body noting every minute detail, an indulgence she'd denied herself during their flash fucks in many different rooms. Nudity suited him from the breadth of his shoulders to the long muscles of his thighs, the shape of his nipples, the thickness of his cock and that strange birthmark on his hip she'd never noticed before.

He glanced down at her and licked the corner of his mouth, his smile a naughty thing. He went to his knees between her thighs, pulled her hips forward, skimmed off her panties and lifted her legs to his shoulders, forcing her flat on her back. Fingers spread and teased, his face a moving force, his tongue a hot surprise, she whimpered, he pressed the advantage.

"Mmm," he purred, tasting and licking the tender heat between her legs.

"Ooh Fuck," she cried out and latched her heels into his back, unable to stop the rigid tightening of every muscle as he teased her through tremoring waves that spread from her core to her toes.

His hands gripped her thighs. He buried his tongue deep while his eyes followed every movement, every expression from her spine arching off the bed to the perfect O her lips formed when her breath caught in her throat. He'd never wanted her more.

He slipped from under her knees, rising slow and placing wet, deliberate kisses in a line from navel to breast, neck to mouth. Arm hooked under the small of her back, he eased her inch by inch to the middle of the bed.       

His hair fell forward around his face, teeth flashed like pearls, the tattoo the only darkness between them. “Damn, I love to watch you unravel.” He settled his hips between her thighs, stranger at the door, knocking ever so politely.

She wrapped her arms around his neck, her legs across his back. “Then don’t stop,” she pleaded, tilted her hips and brought him home.      

No opposing forces this time, no polar opposites crashing together for instant release. They moved in tandem, dray animals locked in step, yoked together as though they’d always been. Subtle, he paced himself, hilting, withdrawing, meeting the middle of each swell, ebbing down and surging up, rocking her to a rhythm all their own.    

His fingers wove through her hair, his mouth exchanged her whimpers for his groans, tangling his tongue around each noise she made. His breath teased hot across her ear. “I want to feel you come with me inside.”

Her words smiled against his cheek. “You know what to do.”

“Mhm. And so do you.” He grasped her wrist and pushed her hand between them, down to that spot that had, earlier, taken his full attention. “You need help getting started?”

“I’ve got this.” She bucked upward against her fingers, gorging herself with his length.

“Take us there.” The force of his command second only to the ravaging hunger that consumed them both.  

Point, counterpoint, timing to his thrusts, circling with increased frenzy, building, building until...Oh, Stars!

A purging fire spread through her veins, pulsing outward with each spasm. Colors burst in kaleidoscopic array behind her eyes, and nothing mattered but the throbbing between her legs.

He growled a string of profanities at the ceiling, punctuated by her name, then buried his face in her neck with a last shuddering sigh.

Neither could move nor did they want to leave this space of contentment that already shrank around them. Movement would break the spell and bring finality to something neither wanted to lose. A quicksilver moment carved out of desire to forget what they were and where they were going. It slipped through their fingers, and the weight of reality filled their hands.

He knew the unwritten rules of their encounters, that he had to leave but delayed as long as he could and forced himself to open his eyes and gaze into her face. “I guess I’d better go.” He kissed the tip of her nose and rolled to his back to finish catching his breath before sitting up and dropping his legs over the side of the bed.

Not a word from her, but what did he expect? He pulled his trousers on and gathered his things to leave. “See, I told you, you needed this,” he said over his shoulder.

"Actually, I think you did."

“I’ll settle for both.” He reached for the door panel.

"Tam?" Her voice stopped him in his tracks.

“Yeah?” He turned around.

"Stay. I'd like you to stay." She righted her position and scooched over to make room. Her smile was shameless. "But you get to sleep in the wet spot."

He quirked an eyebrow, dropped his trousers, again, and crawled between the sheets, lying face to face. “So, you trust me now?”

“Oh, hell no. You’re far too devious to be trusted. But, I figure if you slit my throat in my sleep it would almost be a mercy. I’d be out of all this forever; no pain, no worry or regrets.”

“I take it I’m one of those regrets?”

“Oddly enough, yes. We might have been something in a different time and place. In another ten days, we’ll be nothing at all.”

She turned over and inched back to stretch along the lines of his chest, hips, and thighs.

“Knew you were a spooner.” He leaned across her neck and traced the curve of her ear with his lips. “I love your demons, woman. But, I’ll never love you.”   

"I know." She pulled his arm across her ribs, settling under the weight and twining her fingers with his. "Aren't we a pair? The spacer who can't stop loving one man and the scoundrel who can't love at all."

"It doesn’t have to end. We could partner up after all this is over. Those star charts hold a lot of possibilities."

"Sure, until you did something so nefarious I’d have to shoot you just for being associated.” Her sigh was a declaration. “It wouldn’t last, it never does for people like us.”  

“Ten days then,” he breathed across her neck.

“Ten days.”

Chapter Text

Ten days was too much to ask for. Ten was not prime, seven was prime. How did she know that? Ky wasn’t exactly sure. She didn’t even know where she was. Her brain was hazy, lazy, crazy days of prime and the back of her head thumped like a sonofabitch. She relived Mytus VII, one moment at a time as if still there. Yeah, that’s right. It all went to hell on Mytus VII—and seven was prime.

She and Skavak were strange bed partners, but it worked, for what it was. They joked and laughed and made love, siphoning all they could from those days; days that would never come again. She’d dreaded the end of them, but she was good at endings and walking away.

Three days out from Tolus Salini, the hyperdrive hiccupped, or so Beryl said, plus they could use fuel. She’d changed course to Mytus VII, a planet nobody went to unless they were desperate or crazy or a bit of both.

Heavily wooded with a hundred things that would try to kill you, including the plants, Mytus VII was the only source of Kaafa. A highly prized scentwood worth millions in the coreworlds and the Empire. It was rumored that the Sith Emperor himself had a room paneled with the stuff.

Mortality rates were high, and only the foolhardy ventured into the deep forest to harvest the wood. A person either got very rich or very dead, there was no in between.      

They landed at the single spaceport that serviced the entire world. Built primarily for transport of their only export, landing bays numbered fifty or more while outbuildings were mere billets used for temporary housing. The perimeter of the city port was ringed by a forcefield to keep the encroaching forest at bay.   

“You need any help?” Ky asked Beryl.

“Naw. Rook and I’ve got this. Likely a wonky motivator or something. Why don’t you and Skavak stretch your legs a bit? We should be done here in an hour or so and ready to take off.”

Skavak wrapped his arm around Ky’s waist and stared out over the treetops. “I wouldn’t want to be stranded here. Navigating an urban jungle is one thing, but this...”

They’d climbed to the top of a viewing platform. Nothing but variegated shades of green stretched below in a carpet of vegetation as far as the eye could see. Bird call, insect buzz and the occasional growl or scream of some animal filled the humid air.

“I prefer space.” Ky leaned into his shoulder.

He kissed the top of her head. “I can see the allure.”

They wandered through the city port, sidestepping loaders carrying stacks of cut lumber or entire tree trunks, some as wide as Ky was tall. The perfume smell of the wood permeated everything, cloying, sweet, offering peaceful clarity, almost hypnotic. Ky’s mind opened to the scent. She watched millennia pass in the growth rings, heard songs in the grain of the wood, saw patterns in the burst of budding life and the death of a leaf.    

“We should get back.” Skavak’s voice broke the spell.

Her gift beheld beauty in a most profound sense, and she wondered for a second if the old, bastard Emperor had ever seen beauty too.   

Beryl launched the ship through the atmosphere, the repulsors whining. Almost out of the gravity well, the ship lurched, they smelled smoke, plasma fire from somewhere grazed the aft section. They’d been fired on, twice.

“We’re going down.” Beryl fought with the steering yoke.

“Shields?” said Ky.

“Shields are offline.”

“I can get us out of this.” Ky unbuckled from the co-pilot’s seat. “Get out of the chair, Beryl.”

Rook’s hand encircled Ky’s arm, a crushing claw, forcing her back into her seat. “Mistress will handle this.”

Skavak started to unbuckle his seatbelt. “What the fuck! Give Ky control.”

“Please remain in your seat, Master Skavak.” Rook’s monotone held a subtle threat.

“They’re forcing us down,” Beryl yelled as another blast struck the ship.

The repulsors burped, died, then screamed back to life, breaking the ship’s downward plunge. Treetops snapped against the windshield and screeched along the hull. The landing struts hit the ground, the ship bounced then hit again, bounced and finally came to rest.

“Sonsabitches!” Beryl bounded from her seat. “You two stay here. I’m gonna find out what the hell is going on. Follow me, Rook, be ready for anything.”

“We should go with you.” Ky rose from her seat once Rook had released her arm.

“My ship, my rules. Stay here.” Beryl disappeared through the doorway with Rook close behind.

“I don’t like this,” said Ky.

“Me either,” said Skavak.

“I’ve got something in my room I need to get. I suggest you do the same, then meet me at the airlock.”

Ky slid the medallion into her pocket, her datapad into its case on her belt. She verified the garrote in her boot, a new gas cylinder in her blaster and her knife in its sheath. She was ready.

She met Skavak at the top of the exit ramp, staying hidden behind the wall.

Beryl’s voice drifted through the opening. “Give yourself up, Ky. They only want you. Skavak and I are free to go if you’ll come out with no fight.”

Ky slipped her datapad into Skavak’s hands then cupped his cheek with her palm. “I need you to listen. Once I surrender, they’ll kill you. They want me alive. You remember the bar fight on Rommeth IV?”

He nodded.

“Good. I’m gonna make a distraction. When I get to the bottom of the ramp, you drop over the side and run like hell. Don’t look back. Don’t stop.”

“But Ky—”

Her eyes searched his. “Take my datapad to Corso on Coruscant, don’t try to access it, everything will wipe if you do. Tell him two words; belt and Scourge.” She pressed her forehead to his. “You can betray me or save me; the choice is yours. You ready?”

“Yes.”

“Then run.” She bounded down the ramp, rolled when she hit the bottom and into the legs of one of the men knocking him off balance.

Time slowed, every move calculated according to minuscule clues foretelling what each opponent was about to do. She slid between legs, and underarms her knife surgically slicing into muscle and bone. A rifle aimed in Skavak’s direction, a crouching lunge knocking the shot wild, six men, one whirling dervish dancing in the mix. Not one of them able to break free to give chase to the man who held all her hopes in his treacherous heart.

Maker save me.

The sting of a dart in her back, her legs tremored and buckled, these were GenoHaradan, and they were good. She knew from the start she’d be taken, she just needed enough time for Skavak to get away.

She crumpled to her side, the knife rolled from her fingers, her shoulder and head thudded into the ground. Unkind hands bruised her arms, lifted her up, held her supported between two men. Her head was lifted by the hair, a grinning tattooed face filled her vision.

“Told you I’d see you again, bitch.”

Ky’s gaze drifted to Beryl. She croaked out one word. “Why?”

“You don’t owe this bitch anything,” said tattoo face.

“Yes, I do.” Beryl inched closer to where Ky dangled by her arms.

“Do you remember when I told you that a person would do anything for family?” Beryl began, then laid her hand on tattoo face’s shoulder. “This is my younger brother, and I did what I did to save his life.”

Ky’s mouth was dry, her lips and tongue thick. “And here I was worried about Skavak. Seems you fucked me better than he did.”

Her head snapped sideways, her mouth filled with blood.

“Please, Loren, enough,” Beryl said. “She needs to hear the rest.”

“I’m still on a timetable, Sis. Hurry this up,” tattoo face said.

Beryl continued speaking. “The GenoHaradan do not forgive failure. They expected the Vendetta to be resolved by now and have revoked Loren’s claim to Ars Vindicta. The price on your head superseded any personal claim, but, if Loren could catch you, all would be forgiven. He was working within a time frame, and his life would be forfeit if he could not claim the prize in time.”

Beryl’s face looked haggard and drawn, her eyes haunted. “I’m so sorry Ky. You were seen on Rishi, seen leaving in my ship. I’ve known since Rommeth IV.”

“But why let me go to the Eidolon?” Ky’s words slurred.

“Your guaranteed capture and twenty-five percent of my take if he’d give me the extra time. I owed it to you to make sure your crew was taken care of after you were gone. I can’t save your life, but they will be looked after. I’m sure you’ve made arrangements if anything should happen to you.”

Yes, she’d made arrangements. Scourge would take care of things, she’d seen to it.

Tattoo face, Loren, grabbed Ky’s chin, his face inches from hers. “Your lover will never make it through the jungle. He’ll be dead in a matter of hours.”

“I think you underestimate his will to survive.”

Loren squeezed tighter. “Once our client is finished with you, I’ll claim what’s left, and that part of you will die, slowly. You have my word.”

Ky gathered what little moisture she had in her mouth and spat into his face, red speckles of her blood splattered across his cheeks. The crack of something hard against the back of her skull was the last thing she remembered, until now.

The forcefield hummed around her cage and glowed a pale pink. Pink, four letters, four was not prime. She began to tick off numbers in her head; two-three-five-seven-eleven-thirteen-seventeen. Prime required two numbers. She was one. And one was alone.      

#

Skavak ran.

He ran for himself and for her. Tree roots grabbed at his ankles, vines for his arms and throat. He couldn’t be sure he ran in the right direction, or how far he’d come or how far he had to go. Leg muscles burned, lungs labored, sweat ran down his face, chest, and back, his clothes clung to his skin.

He ran until a stitch in his side brought him to a screeching halt. Bent over, hand clutching his ribs, gasping for air, he vomited. The purge continued until all that was left where dry, gagging heaves and a verdant world that refused to stop spinning.

A noise from behind directed his gaze skyward; Beryl’s ship and one other lifted above the canopy, visible for a split second and then gone.

He spit the taste from his mouth, swiped his hand across his chin, and waited, and listened. The roar of an engine sounded in the distance. He looked skyward, saw nothing, but he could follow the sound. At least forty-five degrees off the direction he should be taking, he adjusted his trajectory and started to walk.

Sound travels differently in different environments, he could be two klicks from the spaceport or twenty or something in between. Just walk. His brain prodded him along, one plodding step at a time.

He swatted at the insects swarming around him, biting, annoying, bloodsucking bastards. A furry animal stopped in his path, stared at him for a moment and ran off into the underbrush. Hopefully, something bigger wasn’t chasing the little shit.

Late in the day, it began to rain. He pulled a large leaf from a plant and created a bowl between his hands, drinking the water he caught in measured sips. Stars, don’t let this plant be poisonous.

Evening brought a whole new experience and night brought ominous undertones of things that can’t be seen in the dark. The noise changed from a blaring cacophony of squawking birds, chittering bugs and crashing undergrowth to slithering, creeping dangers that moved when all light was gone.

He holed up in the hollowed-out trunk of a tree, blaster in hand, and nerves keyed to a pitch that sang in his ears. His heart drummed against his ribs every time he was snatched from what little sleep he got by the snapping of twigs and the plaintive screams of things that would never see morning.

Alarm clock chirps and whistles roused him into the faint light of dawn. Stiff as a droid with rusty servos, he crawled from his sanctuary, stretched out the kinks in his back and started out again. My kingdom for a fucking ration bar.

Afternoon, no rain, no water, he heard the sounds of machinery close by and snuck forward to reconnoiter what lay ahead. A lumber camp, six—no—eight men, a couple of speeders and two portable billets for shelter. He didn’t notice the vine coiling around his boot or up his calf.

He’d never felt such pain. Fire streaked up his thigh and into his gut, curling him into a ball like cheap flimsi wadded in a fist. He gritted his teeth against a scream he couldn’t hold in.

Boots thudding, voices yelling, “Over here.” Reflection off a knife, being lifted, carried toward a campfire, words ping-ponged from different directions. “Think he’s alone?” “Dunno, but two of you stay on guard.” “Fucking firethorn. Bring me the kit.”

Hands on his shoulders, holding him down. “This is gonna hurt like hell. You’ll be out for at least a day, but you’ll likely live.”

A needle jab, acid through his veins, scorching him from balls to brains. He screamed and passed out.

“Take it easy,” was the first thing he heard when he finally managed to open his eyes. Someone put a cup to his lips, and he drank. Water had never tasted so good.

A ginger-haired man in full beard grinned down at him. “Looks like you’ll live after all. Firethorn, nasty shit. How you feelin’?”

“Headache. Body feels like I’ve been hit by a Corellian tram, but good other than that. How long was I out?”

“Bout twenty-two hours. It’ll be dark in another three. We can take you where you need to go, but not until morning. Smart folk don’t travel after dark. You in a hurry?”    

“You could say that.” Skavak looked around the room and saw his stuff lying on a nearby table.

“Names Hallen. We’re not thieves. We work hard for honest money, and all your stuff’s there. I’ll bring you some stew later. Looks like you could stand a bite to eat.”

“Thanks.” Skavak eased back onto the pillow and closed his eyes.  They’ve had her for two days. Where is she?

True to his word, Hallen drove Skavak to the spaceport the following morning and dropped him off outside the Transport Authority. He stood for a long time staring at the sign and scooted around the corner where nobody could see.

His thoughts punched back and forth, pro and con. ‘I don’t owe her shit...she’s counting on you...this won’t end well...she’s worth saving...fuck this shit, I’m outta here.’

He removed Ky’s datapad from his pocket, laid it on the ground and raised his boot heel above the device. His legs quivered from holding the pose while his mind worked out the details. Moral dilemmas were not his specialty, and his greater demons always won.  

You can betray me or save me; the choice is yours.

That voice, that face, those eyes. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He lowered his foot, squatted and picked up the datapad. “Damn you. I had no choice at all, and you knew it. Alright, tough girl, hang in there. We’re coming to get you.”

He booked transport on a cargo ship to Ithor, and from there he’d find passage to Coruscant. He had zero contact information for Corso or her crew, but he knew a guy. It would be 13 days total before he landed on the core world and he was just getting started.

She was still alive. He’d know if she were dead. Somehow, he’d know.

Chapter Text

Ky fought her way to the surface of the black pit the tranquilizer had dumped her in. Her head breached into glaring brightness as she scrambled to become fully aware of where she was. Bright flecks of color swirled at the edge of her vision like reflections off a party ball on Nar Shaddaa.

Two brilliant beams blazed at her, round and large and unrelenting. What was the term from that book she’d read long ago; dead lights. How appropriate. Harbingers of insanity and death.

She wanted to rub the grainy residue from her eyes, her nose itched. Her arms wouldn’t move, held in place by metal bands. Murmured voices broke through the fog. She thought she recognized one of them.

“You should have done the tests while she was still out. I want all of it; blood, bone marrow, spinal fluid. All of it, no excuses.”

“It will be painful for her.”

“Then be quick. I expect results when I return. No general anesthesia, doctor. She and I have much to discuss.”

Too weak to move on her own, she was half carried, half dragged to an operating table and held in place while needles were inserted into vein, spine, and hip. She trapped her groans of discomfort between gritted teeth. She’d been in the arena and knew about pain. The doctor’s constant grumbling was the most annoying thing about the whole procedure. Kolto patches provided relief, and an injection was given to stave off infection before she was returned to the interrogation chair and restrained. She’d never gotten the chance to scratch her nose.

‘Don’t waste energy,’ her mind instructed. She relaxed as much as she could despite the metal cuffs around her wrists and ankles and across her chest and hips. Her skin peppered with gooseflesh from the cool temperature of the room. She dozed off and on and waited.

“Wake up,” a male voice said. Familiar but Ky couldn’t recall from where.

Her eyes squeaked open to a dimmed room, the spotlights glaring in her face turned off and replaced by a single light shining down on her from above. The man remained in shadow. A half-assed scare tactic as far as Ky was concerned. She was alone, restrained, and clothed only in her underwear. Those plain truths constituted her situation, and any attempt at additional intimidation was wasted. He likely knew that already but still enjoyed the game.

She squinted into the darkness. “You’ve got a strange way of making friends.”

“I don’t need friends. I need compliance.”

“Just a suggestion. A cozy dinner and nice bottle of wine can go a long way.”

“Seduction? Humph. I prefer the direct approach.”

“We’re moving.” She detected the faint vibration that flowed through the metal from floor to chair.

“Yes, for a time. We’ll be home in a few days. In the interim, my flagship provides all the amenities. Don’t you agree?”

“Haven’t had the tour yet.” She jiggled her restraints. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere. You might as well let me see who you are.” She licked her lips. “You got any water on you? Mouth’s a bit dry, hard to talk, and can I have my clothes back? It’s a tad chilly in here.”

“Clothing provides an artificial sense of security. They’re over there on a shelf and will remain so. Water and food are rewards. Answering my questions will make your life easier.”

“Or make me dead,” said Ky. They hadn't destroyed her clothes. Thank the Maker.

“Dead is not my objective. I have other uses for you. Where is Scourge?”

The moment he said Scourge’s name she knew who he was and what kind of trouble she was really in. Cold rivers of dread snaked down her spine. She’d have been better off if the Geno had killed her on Mytus VII.

“Cirris Tajno, I presume?” she said. “I thought you were dead. Pity you’re not. And I don’t know where Scourge is and wouldn’t tell you if I did.”

The spotlight extinguished and overhead lights flickered on illuminating the entirety of the med-bay/laboratory. Monitors and machinery whirred and clicked to life. Compact operating theaters lined one wall, kolto and stasis tanks stood sentinel along another. One tank was occupied, but she couldn’t tell by whom. Interrogation chairs flanked her on either side, and tables fanned out in all directions.      

A man in dark robes advanced, the fabric whispering subtle threats across the floor. The light reflected off sandy colored hair and cybernetics on the left side of his face; implants he hadn’t sported on the Emperor’s asteroid lab. Deep scarring laced the implants together, a spiderweb of canals etched in his flesh. He absently rolled her medallion back and forth across his knuckles.

“Never figured you for a thief.” Her eyes pointedly stared at the medallion.

“To the victor go the spoils.” He flipped the medallion into the air and adroitly caught it in his palm.

“You’ve changed your face. Can’t tell yet if it’s an improvement or not.”

“I paid the price for my carelessness.” He halted less than a meter in front of her. “Scourge will be found eventually, but you...” His voice trailed off as he leaned in, the aperture of his cybernetic eye expanded and contracted, his blue human eye narrowed and cruel. “I will have all the secrets of the gifts our father gave you. You will finally have purpose.”

She rolled her eyes. “Let me guess. Galactic domination, a greater Sith empire, the destruction of the Republic, the demise of the Jedi. All of the above?”

“You simple child. I will change the stars.”

“Yeah. Papa tried that and where is he now? Daddy abandonment issues won’t work out well for you.”

She sputtered against the invisible fingers that tightened around her throat, squeezing until stars floated before her eyes, and unconsciousness was one denied breath away.

He lowered his clawed hand.

Air gasped into starving lungs followed by a wracking cough, the metal band dug into her ribs. Ky gazed into the blue eye of madness, and it stared back.

“A little respect is due when speaking of the being who spawned us,” Tajno said. He tilted his head and studied her the same way a scientist studies a bacteria sample. “You’ve cost me quite a significant amount of time and credits. That idiot Balen was supposed to deliver you to me nine years ago. You’ve changed your hair. Red didn’t suit you.”

Her eyes narrowed, and she studied him in turn. “So that was you?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. I’d detected father’s touch on you when you were still property of that slug Oguul. You belonged with me, with us; his children. It took great effort and finagling to broker that deal.”

“You mean broker the double cross on Oguul. For a Hutt, he wasn’t so bad.”

“For a Hutt, he was stupid,” Tajno scoffed. “He should have sold you to me when the offer was made, and we could hardly make an assault on a Hutt gaming world. Too much at stake. We merely took advantage of infighting. Balen, however, was smart and hid you well, though I imagine his perks were quite pleasant.”

His eyes raked from her face, down her body and up again. “Regardless, I recognized father’s mark on you on his asteroid lab. While I was recuperating from the explosion I finally put it all together; the arena rat and Scourge’s traveling companion. One in the same. I had to have you. I had to bring you home. There are so few of us left now.”

He adjusted his sleeve and plucked a piece of lint from the hem. “I’ll break you eventually, and you will tell me about the marvelous gifts father gave you. All of them. I will deconstruct and reconstruct you into a suitable member of the family.”

Ky’s stomach churned. How could she tell him what she didn’t know? How could she negotiate with insanity?    

The doctor and one assistant joined their master, standing quietly in the background, waiting for orders.

“Shave her head and bring the probes,” Tajno barked. “Enough time has been wasted on idle chit-chat.”

Hair fine filaments glinted in the light, wriggling as if they were alive. The prick of a needle on her scalp, burrowing through the bone of her skull and into her brain. She lost track at five.

Tajno stood by a monitoring device, scanning readouts that flowed down the screen. An image of her brain rotated slowly on another, bright dots flashing here and there where the tips of the probes sent and received data.

“Tell me about your gifts.”

“I don’t know how I do what I do. I don’t know what he did to me.” She tried telling the truth. It didn’t work. “You’ll never be him. You’ll never have his power, and I’m not joining your fucking cult of worshipers.”

“We’ll see. I understand the foot, ankle, and shin are especially sensitive to pain. Let’s start with the primal responses. Whenever you’re ready, doctor.”

She never knew she could make that sound. A high, keening wail emptied lungs that refilled on gasping whimpers only to start again. The skin split under the scalpel’s blade, peeled back exposing tendon and bone. The pain was akin to her foot and ankle being plunged into acid then spitted and hung over a pit of coals. Bones snapped like dry tinder, and the profanity tethered at the back of her throat never made it past the screams.

Time stretched beyond a horizon she could no longer see. The doctor never ceased picking at the wounds, stripping her skin. Tajno never ceased observing the readouts except to adjust the probes.

“She shouldn’t be able to endure this,” said the Doctor.

“And that’s precisely what I need to know,” said Tajno.

The end of the session didn’t quite register until sutures, and kolto packs were applied to heal the damage. Probes left in place, she was dragged out and thrown into a room hardly bigger than a supply closet. It contained a single mattress with a thin blanket and a toilet in a cubby, a forcefield barred the door. A cup of water she drank, a bowl of gruel left untouched. She scratched a mark on the wall with her nail; day one. Please, Corso. Please find me soon.

Isolation or pain encompassed the totality of her life. Her captors kept her off balance and in a constant state of agitation and apprehension. She never knew when they’d come for her, how long the sessions would last or what they’d do next. Twice they hadn’t come at all. 

New horrors awaited every day, gel paste that raised her skin in angry blisters, fingers broken one by one, injected chemicals that burned through her veins like lava, or froze her to the core. Drugs that kept her conscious when all she desired was sweet oblivion. And always the same demands, “tell me of your gifts. Tell me what father gave you.”

Twice they dumped her into a shower, cold water, no soap. No towel to dry herself, thrown back in the cell, soaked underwear and all, shivering under the blanket.

Each new day came with the certainty she’d break, but she didn’t. She wanted to break but couldn’t. Her unfailing internal chrono marked the time, offering scant order to her topsy-turvy world. 

The numbers she scratched on the wall of her cell were tiny marks of reality she clung to when all else faded into nightmare. She gouged the ninth short line and remembered. Nine isn’t prime. Progress.      

Day ten. They removed the probes to shave her head again then reinserted them. Vials and syringes lay in neat rows atop a metal table close to where she was restrained.

“It’s an experimental form of skirtopanol. There’s no guarantee it will work or that she’ll survive,” the doctor said.

“That’s your concern, not mine. I need answers. Don’t forget your survival hinges on hers. Administer the drug and monitor her well. I take it you have the antidote on hand?”

“Yes, my lord. Of course.”

“Then get on with it.”

Tajno leered at her. “This may loosen your tongue.”

Euphoria followed the sting of the needle. She was loved and safe, the voice that coiled through her brain trustworthy. She wanted to tell him everything.

“I can...”

“Yes. You can what, my dear? Unburden yourself. I care for you. I want to help you.”    

“I can...I can see it all.”

“Yes. Yes. What can you see?”

Her mouth snapped shut. A door opened in her mind, an escape hatch she hadn’t known was there until now. A veil parted, revealing the black sands of Rishi, the ocean shimmering in the distance, the scent of salt water blown to her by gentle breezes.

They waited for her, just beyond the portal. Corso and Tam. The man she loved beyond hope and the man she needed beyond reason. Their hair ruffled by the wind, welcoming arms opened wide. She’d barely stepped through. The taunting voice stopped, the pain stopped. So close...so close, no! No! Something tugged at her, pulled her away. The portal closed, blocking her from where she most wanted to be.

Knuckles slammed into her jaw, she heard bone crack. An electric current rampaged through her body, convulsing her muscles, slamming her head back into metal. Her heart stumbled. It’s finally over, she thought.

A strident voice pleaded. “My lord. Please, you’re killing her. Her heart can’t take any more.”

She came to in her cell, hurting in places she didn’t know existed. Deep, deep pain, misery to the marrow, unable to move. Marks branded her body, a diary of her defiance written in raised welts on her skin and scar tissue that would never heal.

Her mind cleared ever so slow, crawling back to reality on broken knees. She stared at the wall and scratched the tenth line. What had happened made no sense until she recalled a conversation she’d had with Scourge.      

He’d mentioned spies when they’d talked about her two lost childhood years. Spies that never told, never broke, who died without murmuring one word or revealing one secret. Now she knew why; a refuge to hide in. The Emperor’s experiments had changed the construct of her mind, and this was an unforeseen consequence. If she ever saw the old fucker again, she'd give him her thanks before putting a blaster bolt through his skull.

Day eleven. Prime. She was hauled from her cell and strapped onto the metal slab. Tajno paced before her, his boot heels striking the floor in an even tempo on his journey back and forth.

He turned to her, so close his breath blasted across her face. “Where did you go? I could read your presence, and then you were gone. How were you able to hide from me?”

Her jaw hurt, and words came out mumbled. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The tragic part was she couldn’t explain even had she wanted to, at least not in ways he’d understand. She was going to die for a madman’s fantasy. Nobody was coming for her. If she could find that portal again and make it through, she wouldn’t know when her body finally gave up, and she wouldn’t care.

“Don’t play me for a fool. Another gift from father?” Tajno grabbed her chin, digging his fingers into the bruised and swollen flesh, bone grated against bone. “Tell me. Tell me!”

He wrenched his hand away. “Adjust the dosage, doctor. We’ll try again tomorrow. And heal her jaw. I need her to talk.”

The reprieve would have been welcome, except for Tajno’s voice blaring from hidden speakers in her cell. The same questions, again and again, punctuated by some Maker-be-damned music. “Tell me about your gifts. Where is Scourge? Where did you go?” Sleep deprivation. She’d wondered when he’d get around to that.

#

Two days from Coruscant, Izzix Dumac finally picked up for Skavak’s holocall. Little bastard had been avoiding him for four days now.

“Bout damned time,” Skavak grumbled. “Did you find him?”

“I did,” the Rodian answered. “You want me to make contact?”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“You got my credits?”

“As soon as I verify your intel. I’ll call you again when I land. Your communicator code still good?”

“Yeah. Where will we meet?”

“Codger’s place. You know where that is right?”

“I know. See you then.”

Skavak pinched the bridge of his nose. Two days. He must be out of his fucking mind. Right now, he could be on some Hutt pleasure world sipping a fruity drink with one of those little umbrellas in it and fondling two women at the same time. Maybe three if he took his boots off.

Him and Corso Riggs that should be a meeting for the ages. He just hoped the kid would listen to reason and leave the shooting for that bitch Beryl and whoever else was involved.

Skavak left the holobooth after clearing the call record and returned to the cabin he’d booked on the first transport from Ithor to Coruscant. He flopped down on the bed and lit the cigarette containing a little spice chaser. Sleep had been hard to come by the past eleven days. A smoke ring rose from his pursed lips, the perfect frame for the image of her face, or a noose around his neck. This could go either way.

He flicked the long ash onto the floor, and took another drag, inhaled deep and waited for the spice to kick in. He stubbed the cigarette out and lowered his suddenly heavy eyelids. Not exactly euphoria, but he’d take what he could get.

Rough days were coming.

Chapter Text

Skavak stepped off the shuttle and pulled the wide brim of the newly purchased hat down to hide the top half of his face. His eyes searched the hangar and finally found the purser he’d bribed to get him past the security scanners. Coruscant hadn’t been a safe layover for him in a long time, and he doubted all his time spent out on the rim had changed that. The low-income crowd was always eager to make a few extra credits on the side, and employee entrances were a handy way of bypassing any unwanted attention.

He took stairways, turbolifts, and back alleys, to level 5091, thirty-six levels from the surface. Lower levels of the Uscru district were unhealthy places to travel, but they were comfortable stomping grounds for him. He stopped outside the entrance to Codger’s Cantina and Gaming Emporium and contacted Izzix. He had an hour to kill before the Rodian showed up.

Early evening crowd, a few glances when he walked in, nothing to worry about. He sauntered across the room and leaned into the bar.

“Hey, Codger. Long time,” he said to the barkeep who had his back to him stacking glasses on a shelf.

The rotund human turned around. Bulbous nose, thinning gray hair, and dark eyes set deep in a ruddy face. The twin apples of his cheeks pushed his eyes deeper when a grin split his face.

“Skavak. Been what, five or six years? Nobody’s cut yer balls off yet, huh?”

Skavak flopped the hat onto the bar and slicked his hair back. “They’re still hanging right where they belong last time I checked.”

Codger wiped his hands on a towel and bumped his girth up against his side of the bar, close enough so they could talk in hushed tones that could still be heard above the music. “What can I do for ya?”

“Need a blaster and a holdout.”

Codger nodded at the blaster on Skavak’s hip. “Seems you’re pretty well armed already.”

“Yeah, but I need a couple extras just in case. You know how it is.”

“Backroom. Follow me.” Codger turned and yelled at one of the waitresses. “Noona, watch the bar for a few. Got some business to take care of.” 

Thirty minutes later, Skavak sat in a booth at the back of the cantina, sipping rum. A wrapped package lay on the seat beside him, a new blaster rested in his holster, and the holdout tucked into his waistband dug into the small of his back.

“You’re late,” he said to the Rodian who finally showed up and slid into the booth.

“You’re not my only customer. Got my credits?”

Skavak tapped his middle finger on the stack of credits he’d placed on the table. “Right here. Three grand, as agreed. Now, tell me where he is.”

The Rodian unloaded his intel, eyes shifting to the stack of credits from time to time.

“Black Sun, huh? Who knew the kid had the balls for that kind of work. You’re sure he’s there now?” The Rodian nodded, and Skavak slid the credits across the table. “We’re done here.”

Fucking Warehouse District. Skavak stopped a short distance from a group of young men huddled around a fire. He caught the attention of one and gave a ‘come here’ jerk of his head.

“You wanna make a quick twenty credits?” he asked the kid.

The kid looked him up and down, likely sizing him up as an easy mark, or not. “Blowjob’s fifty,” the kid said.

Skavak’s mouth ticked into a smirk. “Don’t be stupid. I need you to deliver a package to a man in that cantina across the way.”

“Black Sun? Dangerous place. I’ll do it for a hundred,” the kid countered.

“Fifty now, fifty more when it’s done.”

#

Corso sat at the bar, drowning his sorrow, or hell, maybe just drowning, it all felt the same anyway. He drank himself into what little sleep favored him each night and woke to stims to get him through the day. Alcohol and drugs and he hadn't even given in to the hard stuff yet, although sweet promises awaited if he'd just say ‘yeah, sure, why not?’ 

Kriff, man, how low can you go? Too far from grace and not far enough to forget.

She'd been gone for nearly four months, and he could still taste her in the booze he drank, the salt of his own sweat, and the rain he licked from his lips. She was everywhere and nowhere and would not let him be.

Female laughter pealed through the bar, brassy and grating and lacking the pure ringing tones of her particular brand of mirth. Dark haired vixens caroused and paraded, rubbed their breasts against his arms, pursed their lips and smiled, winked and grabbed his ass. One stony glare from game face sent them scurrying away. They weren't her; they were never her.

Life with Ky was like walking a wire high above a cliff, fighting to hold his balance against winds that buffeted from all sides. He missed the uncertainty of it all, never knowing where the next meal was coming from, or the next fight or the next destination. He missed the crew and the ship and those quiet moments in their room when he could...when she would...   

When almost sober, he’d lose himself in memory of Rishi in the rain or the night on Scourge's ship, when her pale fingers had trailed across his dark skin like cream drizzled over caramel. Her touch scalded as she'd circled him and his muscles had quivered under her methodical, tactile scrutiny. She'd memorized his body and promised she'd never say goodbye, and she hadn't, but, dammit, she was still gone.

In that twilight realm of almost sleep, when he'd puked up most of the gin and lay on his back waiting for the room to stop spinning, he'd recall the first time they'd made love. He'd been so nervous he thought he’d pass out and if not for the bottle of Ord Mantell 432 he might have. In her quarters, she'd stripped his clothes, button by button, clasp by clasp, until he'd stood exposed down to the nerves running just under the skin. He thought his heart would hammer out of his chest when her fingertips brushed across the tip of his cock then lightly strayed the length over the top, looping back to the head and meandering along the bottom, skimming his balls and looping back again.

"Undress me, Corso," she'd whispered. "Take it slow, we have all night." Stars, all night.

He’d never have that again. Even Nay’la the half Mirialan woman who’d shared his bed a couple of times in the last few weeks did little more than satisfy his craving for simple human touch. The guilt he carried afterward barely offset the driving desire for release into flesh other than the palm of his own hand. He’d sworn he’d never use a woman in such a way, and yet, he had.    

The gin slid down his throat, much too easily. He had to leave this place. It was eating his soul. He had to get away from Rona, and the Black Sun and Coruscant and...

“Mister Corso?” A young man slid a wrapped package onto the bar. “Mister Corso Riggs?”

“Yeah. What do you want? What’s this?”

“Dunno. A man paid me to deliver it to you. Didn’t say why. I didn’t ask.”

“What’d this man look like?”

“Average but had a tattoo on his face. That’s all I know.” The kid shrunk back from the bar and disappeared out the door.

Tattooed face huh? Corso eyed the package. It wasn’t ticking or moving. He flipped it over, the paper crackled while he unfolded the edges to reveal the contents.

Torchy!

The scope was different, and the grips changed, but it was his blaster, he had no doubt. A rolled-up note was stuck through the trigger guard. He gripped the small square of flimsi between thumb and index finger and flipped it open to the writing.

If you want to save our woman, meet me in the Works at the Cresh-22 and Leth-97 junction. Skavak.

So many emotions struck Corso at once, he’d be on his ass had he been standing. “Skavak. You sonofabitch,” he growled under his breath. What the hell was he up to now and where the hell was Ky?

He slammed back the remainder of his drink, snagged Torchy off the bar and stomped out. Save our woman. Our woman. Save. What did he mean—save? Anger, heartache, and fear for her burned the alcohol from his brain while he fretted in the back of the taxi. He was sprinting as soon as his feet touched the ground only stopping long enough to get his bearings from a plaque on the wall displaying a map of the Works. Out of breath when he skidded to a halt just short of the meeting place, he slipped into the shadows.

Water sluiced through giant pipes overhead, air recycling vents popped and hissed and the drone of machinery hung in the empty space with a faint monotonous hum. The place smelled of mold and oil and fried circuitry, the pavement slick under his boots.

“Saw you arrive,” Skavak’s voice boomed out of the darkness up ahead.

“Where is she?” Corso yelled back.

“We gonna meet face to face or just bellow at each other like two Banthas in heat?” 

“Count of three, we both step into the light. If you plan on shooting, kill me with the first shot, you won’t get a second chance.”

“Don’t want you dead, farm boy. She needs us both.”

Countdown, one—two—three. Blasters aimed, stepping on light feet, fingers on triggers, thoughts of one woman stretched between them keeping them both alive.

“Where is she?” Corso repeated.

“They took her almost two weeks ago. She sent me with her datapad and a message.”

“Who took her?”

“Beryl betrayed us. The GenoHaradan have her.”

“You left her?” Corso took a step forward then stopped.

“It’s what she wanted, and if I hadn’t, I’d be dead, and she’d still be gone, but you wouldn’t know. They wanted her alive, me not so much. Think about it.”

Corso went still as death, his voice cold as a slab. “If it weren’t for her, I’d shoot you where you stand, you murdering bastard. Slide the datapad over, deliver her message and get the fuck out before I change my mind.”

Skavak curled his lip. “If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here, and that’s not how this is gonna go. I’ll keep it all until I have your word you’ll take me along. Even if you took the datapad off my dead body, without the message, I doubt it’d mean much.”

Corso advanced another step, his forehead creased into two canyons between his brows. “That’s not your style, Skavak. Self-preservation at all cost. Tell me why.”

Skavak shrugged. “This is the first and last decent thing I’ll ever do in my life, and I won’t let you rob me of it.”

“Bullshit.” Corso’s brows knit closer together then arched into twin peaks of disbelief. “Kriffing hell. You’re in love with her.”

A dismissive chuckle barked from Skavak’s throat. “You forget who you’re talking to, kid. But, she does get in your head, doesn’t she?”

Corso’s tone lowered to a growl. “Give me the datapad and the message and leave.”

Skavak shook his head. “Not gonna happen. She’s counting on me and you. If you’re not man enough to put her before your pride let me know now. I’ll find other options.” 

“From what I’ve heard, you’ve burned way too many bridges for any other options.”

“I’ll walk through that fire if I need to. Will you?” 

Gears ground in Corso’s brain slinging his thoughts willy-nilly. The man standing before him had betrayed them on Port Nowhere and sold the weapons that murdered his family. A man she now trusted with her life. Ky’s smile and laugh, brushing her hair, stroking her skin, loving her. If he killed the man, he’d kill her as sure as if he’d pulled the trigger himself.

Scourge’s words never strayed too far. ‘Be the man she needs you to be.’

Corso nodded. “For her sake, I’d crawl. I’m listening.”

“I know the Mando, and the Wookie are here with her ship. We’ll need them. Make the call.”

Corso fished in his pocket for the communicator with one hand while keeping his blaster aimed at Skavak with the other. He flicked through the frequencies and pressed the connect button when he found Akaavi’s.

“Didn’t expect to ever hear from you, vod. What’s up?”

“Ky’s in big trouble. I need you, Bowdaar, Gus, and the ship. I’ll be there soon. And I’m bringing someone with me. Promise not to shoot. He has to stay alive, for now.”

“Skavak?”

“Yes. Give me your word, Akaavi.”

“You have it.”

“Well. Partners again, farm boy.” Skavak said. “I’ll lower mine if you’ll lower yours.”

“Truce, until this is over. That’s the best you’re gonna get.”

Both holstered their blasters, Skavak bent to pick up the hat he’d dropped to the ground, neither removed their hands from their weapons grips while they made their way to the spaceport.

Ky’s crew stood in a straight line across the loading ramp, arms crossed and faces set in grim masks. Silence, suspicion, and hatred was the tension spring in their midst, compressed and waiting to uncoil at the slightest provocation.

Akaavi stepped forward. “Your weapons. Hand them over.”

“Not part of the deal,” said Skavak. “If I wanted you dead, there are better ways and a lot less messy for me. So, are we gonna stand out here and sling shit like monkeys in a zoo, or are we gonna to go get our girl? We don’t have much time, and neither does she.”     

Clearance received, take off easy, the ship hung in the black a few parsecs from Coruscant. Skavak was in the cargo hold under the watchful eye of Bowdaar. He sat on a crate rolling a data crystal between his fingers and glanced up as the others entered the room.

“The first message?” asked Corso.

“Sounds familiar, might be a name I’ve heard before. Don’t know exactly who or what it is, but it’s just one word. Scourge.”

“Are you sure?” said Akaavi.

“That’s what she said. That and one other word, which you’ll get once you’ve retrieved this Scourge.”

“Why the hell would she need Lord Scourge?” said Akaavi.

Corso rubbed the back of his neck. “I have no idea. You still got the contact info for Seph? He’ll know where Scourge is.”

“We keep in touch from time to time. Seph it is then.”

“Seph Okarr? I know him,” said Skavak. “You wanna refresh my memory about the other one?”

Gus scratched behind his ear. “Sith Lord. Hates everyone. He’ll hate you too. Doesn’t take much to set him off either, so you should probably drop the smartass routine.”

Skavak smiled. “It’s part of my charm.”

“Tell me how that works out when your throat’s grinning from ear to ear.”

Chapter Text

Scourge leaned back in the chair and idly twisted the silver ring on his right cheek tendril. He hadn’t expected this news despite the moments of disquiet he’d experienced in the past couple of weeks.

Sayonar leaned against the desk containing the holo terminal, a stern look on her face. “I can’t believe you’re actually going to her aid after she abandoned you in the Nulastine.”

His arm whipped out, quick like a snake, hand capturing her wrist and pulling her down onto his lap. Her yelp of surprise followed by a thumping of her fist on his shoulder raised no emotional response, and he felt nothing but the pressure of her weight. Oh, how she enjoyed those little moments of play, and he indulged her far more often than he should since his rescue from the asteroid belt.

He pressed his forehead against hers. “That’s not very Jedi of you, Nulis. Perhaps my evil Sithy ways are rubbing off on you at last.”   

“You wish. But I still don’t understand. We should be following the latest lead to your cure.”

He wormed his hand between her thighs, hoping to feel the heat residing there if only for a moment, her sudden gasp was his only reward. “Are you so impatient for me to lie between your legs that passion has replaced compassion in your heart?”

“Don’t be mean.” Her fake pout was adorable.

“I am Sith. We had entire volumes devoted to the art of being mean at the academy.”

“And I’m sure you were a stellar student.”

“I survived. The true mark of excellence.”

Her quirked eyebrow shifted into a frown. “How do you know she’s even still alive.”

He closed his eyes, his demeanor a fortress of concentration. “Our connection, the Emperor’s mark. My darkness can sense her, faint and far away, but still alive. Your light would recoil from that touch, my love, but my darkness feels her call for help. I just can’t tell from which direction, and the galaxy is a big place.”

She kissed the corner of his mouth. “Then we go together. I refuse to let you out of my sight so soon after getting you back. I don’t ever want to go through that again. No, is not an option, so don’t even say it.”

“Who am I to fight such a force of will? Surely I am helpless before you.”

She curled her fingers around his chin tendrils and gave a playful tug. “And don’t you forget it.”

He slid his hand further up her thighs and wrapped her closer in his free arm. “As if I could.”

#

Corso and Akaavi stood before the closed door of his and Ky’s cabin.

“No one has entered since she left us,” said Akaavi. “It remains the same. Nothing has been touched. Are you sure you want to do this?”

“No, I’m not.” He pressed the panel and remained frozen while the door slid open. Stale air wafted across his face carrying only the faint scent of the soap they’d both used. There was no hint of the Neimoidian sage and Ishi-Tib coconut body wash and hair rinse she liked so much. He’d have to remember to buy her some the next time they were on Port Nowhere.   

Ambient lighting flickered on from behind the trim along the edges of the ceiling and bathed the room in a pale glow. “I’d like some time alone.” He crossed through the door and closed it behind without waiting for Akaavi’s reply.

The space was dead without Ky in it, empty and quiet, yet restless with the energy he’d brought with him. His fingers skimmed across the top of the dresser leaving four trails through the thin layer of dust. At the end, he knelt and pried open one of the wall panels and removed the tiny purple box, the silk cool and slick in his hand. He flipped the top open and stared at the tiny stone that glinted much too cheerily for his current mood. The lid clicked shut, and he put it back where it belonged, out of sight and waiting for the right time that may never come.

They were forty-eight hours into the four-day flight to Untuar IV, Scourge’s base, and Corso hadn’t slept yet. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, he stripped and crawled into their bed. The one place he didn’t want to be and the one place he couldn’t stand not to be. When he’d fallen into fitful sleep, the other came—beastly and leering from the dark recesses of his mind. It prowled his dreams and turned them to nightmares of memory.

Singat 9, ramshackle buildings, forcefield buzzing like flies around a corpse. Stick figure silhouettes ambled to and fro, drunk on starvation and hopelessness. They sagged against clapboard siding arguing with death and losing the fight. 

Faces flashed in front of him, friendly flesh falling away to whitened bones that clacked and rattled as they tumbled to his feet. The feeding vats full of swill, rushing to gather what he could for those he tried to save. So many. Too many. People reaching with hungry hands disintegrating to dust that swept through his fingers.

Laughter and jeers from catwalks and guard towers, the moans of the dying, the screams of the living. One bright spot on a canvas of misery. Golden hair, cornflower blue eyes, 'be my wife,’ 'don't go out alone,' 'wait for me.'

Beautiful countenance lying askew on broken neck. Body abused and discarded. Blue eyes dim and clouded with accusation, looking at him but not seeing. Hot tears falling on cold, pale skin. "I tried, Belia. I tried, but you never listen."

A deadly shadow in the dark, a shiv to the ribs, dying breath spewed from lips gone blue with strangulation. Five dead, killed them all, the ones who murdered his love. Nobody cared, nobody was coming.

Can't remember name, can't think, reduced to rage and survival instinct. Wanting to die. The beast fighting to live. Hunker down, guard the food, don't sleep, time gone so far away a minute didn’t count.

Trapped in the past and retreading steps down narrow streets, across rooftops and rafters. Unthinking, unloving, no remorse, shrinking inside the empty shell of who he used to be. No one left to save. Humanity lost, animal now.  

Belia's face merging with Ky's; dead eyes staring past him and into eternity. Sweet Maker, not again.

Corso tossed and turned, the beast roared, and he woke, clammy with sweat and shaking.

He lay for a time catching his breath, gathering his thoughts then rolled from the bed and entered the refresher to splash water on his face. He didn’t—couldn’t look at his reflection in the mirror.

Donned in trousers and a loose shirt, he walked to the galley and searched for a bottle of gin but settled for the cabinet’s only offering of whiskey.

Two sips under his belt and he noticed movement by the door. Skavak leaned against the frame, his arms crossed over his chest, his hip free of his blaster.

“What do you want, Skavak?”

“Oh, you know. The usual exchange of insults and barbs. We both know it’s coming. Might as well get it over with. Clear the air.”

Corso focused on the far wall, unable to look at the man. “My air won’t be clear as long as you’re breathing it.”

“Such hostility. Besides Ky, what’s really eating you?”

“The weapons that killed my folks were traced back to you. Found that out when me and Ky were looking for you after Nowhere.”

“I sold to the Empire, never the Separatists. What the Imps did with them wasn’t my concern. Don’t lay that at my feet. I didn’t pull the trigger.”

Corso rolled the glass back and forth between his palms. “You ever look at yourself through the lens of your victims?”

“I try not to look too close at anything except profit.”

“And what lens did you use on Ky?”

A laugh grunted up from Skavak’s throat. “For the life of me, I can’t understand what she sees in you, farm boy.”

Corso stared into the amber liquid, still refusing to look at the man. “Integrity, honor, loyalty? Things you wouldn’t know anything about.”

“Loyalty? You’re the one who turned your back, aren’t you?”

Corso’s grip tightened around the glass. “And you’re the one who couldn’t keep his filthy hands to himself. You used her. Walk away, Skavak. Let it be.”

“Ky never does anything she doesn’t want to. You, of all people, should know that. You left, she had nothing else to lose. What the hell did you think was going to happen? I’m not the only expert in the user’s game, and you should never have let her go.”

Rising anger and unrelenting guilt hammered at Corso’s temples. “Don’t you think I know that? I’ve gone over that day a thousand times in my head. If I had it to do over again, I’d have slung her over my shoulder, sat on her, tied her down rather than let her leave with scum like you.”

“But you didn’t. If she was mine, I’d have torn the universe apart, used every contact I had, every dirty trick I knew. I’d have done anything to keep her with me.”

Corso set the glass down with a thud and turned to face Skavak. “But she’s not yours, is she? And she’s not mine. Ky doesn’t belong to anyone.”

Skavak’s eyes narrowed, time for a deeper cut. “You dumb fucking hick. It was your name she called in the middle of the night. It was your memory she locked herself away with and cried more tears than she’d ever admit.”

Skavak’s words pummeled Corso like fists, each one striking a vital blow to nerves already raw from weeks of loneliness and regret. Scourge had warned him. Scourge was right.

“Then why the hell are you really here?”

Skavak’s final words sent him over the edge. ‘Because you don’t fucking deserve her.’

Corso flung himself off the stool, kicking it back into the wall. He crashed into Skavak, tumbling them both into the corridor. Fists flew, skulls thudded against flooring and walls, flesh split and bled, bruises flowered on ribs and faces.

A Wookie’s roar drowned out the grunts and cursing. Two strong hairy hands grabbed the two scuffling men, slinging them in opposite directions. Lips drawn back over teeth, Bowdaar threatened to break their legs if they didn’t stay still. Both men had the sense to know he could make good on that threat.

Two days later they landed on Untuar IV. Corso and Skavak were finally allowed to leave their respective places of confinement. Bowdaar growled a warning, Akaavi gave them ‘the look’ before they stepped onto the exit ramp. Scourge and Sayonar waited at the bottom, Seph and Kira standing not far behind.

The Sith Lord’s unsettling gaze halted first on Skavak then on Corso; scanning, reading, probing. “Follow me,” Scourge said at last.   

Seated around a table in Scourge’s conference room, the Sith slid a datachip onto the table and spoke first. “I am told you have something for me. May I see it?”  

Skavak removed the datapad from his vest and passed it down the table.

“Kixi, a slicer we met on Coruscant put some pretty heavy encryption on her datapad,” warned Corso.

“I am aware.” Scourge powered up the device and began keying in a sequence of digits and characters followed by his thumbprint on the biometric scanner.

Corso leaned forward, elbows on the table. “How?”

“When you and she were aboard my ship, she gave me full access in case anything ever happened to her. Not only does this contain her financial information, but also sensitive data she’d accumulated during her time as the Voidhound. Certain defenses, off the grid planets, lists of contacts, people open to bribes, or defection, names of those she suspected of treason, some still living. Nobody ever suspected just how deep her involvement in the war truly was.”

“She could have trusted any of us,” said Akaavi. “Why you?”

“Of course, she trusted you, but, I did not travel with her and, I cannot be broken. She counted on me to distribute her funds, sign ownership of her ship over to Bowdaar and Akaavi, make sure Corso was settled comfortably and to use or destroy the rest at my discretion.”

Corso glared at Skavak who sat across the table. “But this doesn’t help us find her, does it? What’s the second word?”

“Belt,” said Skavak.

Scourge slid the datapad to Corso. “Open up the file Brock, a subfolder under Balmorra.”

Corso tapped on the screen. A star-chart displayed, and a single repeating beep filled the silence. Understanding dawned on Corso’s face. “That ratty-ass belt she always wore whenever we left the ship. She tagged herself with a camo-tag. The same device she put on that box at Sonhem’s place, the one with the reliquary inside.”  

“Ky tried to cover all contingencies before we left for the Nulastine, and she was very specific,” said Scourge. “My astromech programmed the Soledad’s droid to ping Seph daily with location and crew status. This,” he tapped the datachip with a finger, “is a copy of the camo-tag program in case her datapad was taken or compromised. My TooVee droid gave it to Seph as soon as he returned from Nar Shaddaa. It was not to be used unless she disappeared.”

“And if you hadn’t returned from the Nulastine?” asked Sayonar.

“If I had not survived, Seph had standing orders to go to the aid of only three people; you, Kira and Ky. He would have contacted her people and gone for her regardless of whether or not I was here.”

“And what if I hadn’t survived to bring the datapad to you?” asked Skavak.

“Ky contacted Akaavi every two weeks. I, in turn, did the same. Either way, I would have known,” answered Seph.

“And here I thought you just wanted to talk to me,” said Akaavi.

“That was just an added incentive.” Seph cast a wink in the Zabrak’s direction.

Corso laid the datapad on the table with trembling hands. “The point is, we can track her. We can find her.”

“Or her remains,” said Seph.

“She’s still alive.” Corso and Skavak said in unison.

“I concur,” said Scourge. “Seph. Prepare the Segomo for takeoff.”

“The Soledad would be roomier, and its hyperdrive has an upgrade of point five past light speed,” said Akaavi.

“But does it have stealth?” countered Scourge. “We will be the vanguard. Seph can follow us in the Soledad with Doc, Rusk, and Gus and remain at distance until our strike team secures whatever we run into. Your ship also has a kolto tank that may be required. We leave in an hour.”

Corso paced in front of Scourge’s ship, the longest kriffing hour of his life. Seph finally sauntered down the ramp and motioned him inside where everyone else was waiting.

“Akaavi and Kira can bunk in the crew quarters, Sayonar with me, Skavak and Bowdaar in the cargo bay and Corso can take the spare room,” said Scourge on his way to the cockpit.

“Let Skavak have the room.” Corso’s mind wrapped around the memory of one night in particular. “I’ll bunk with Bowdaar.” Corso’s chin lifted in Skavak’s direction. “And I still don’t understand why the hell he’s going with us.”

“A resolution,” was Scourge’s cryptic reply. “Let’s load this into the nav computer, shall we?”

Akaavi studied the display. “The Tangrene system. Isn’t Tangrene an Imperial planet?”

“Yes.” Scourge followed the course the red dot took across the Galaxy map. “But, they’ve already bypassed that planet to stop there at a dead world that lost its name eons ago. T7, transfer those coordinates to Seph and take us out. We’ve got at least a twelve-day journey ahead of us.”

Scourge clamped a hand down on Corso and Skavak’s shoulders as they turned to leave the cockpit. “I will chain you to the bulkhead by your collarbones if you start trouble aboard my ship. It will be most uncomfortable. I trust I’ve made myself clear.”

He wrapped his arm around Sayonar’s waist when she moved to stand beside him and watch the two men’s retreating backs. “Two men in love with the same woman. Force help us.”

“Resolution?” she said.

“One way or another.”

Chapter Text

Ky scratched at her scalp, one of the scabs catching under her fingernail like a flake of paint scraped from a peeling wall. Just one more small, flat, dead piece of her she inspected with indifferent eyes then flicked onto the floor. She raised her fingers to the same spot, now a tiny divot where the scab had been. Her head throbbed, and she was fevered and thirsty.

There was something new here, in this place Tajno had taken her. She sensed it in the hollow-eyed spectators that stared blankly at her from the deep folds of hoods that almost hid their faces. They parted like inky water before her and the guards that drug her through the corridors. Blank slates waiting for instruction and she was going to be just like them, in time.  

Numbers. Numbers kept her sane, made sense, sort of, sometimes. She'd carried fifteen with her when they’d transported her from the ship and scratched it into the wall of her new cell. Fifteen lines marking a beginning for how many more, and... stars, where was the ending?

Tajno had gotten quite imaginative with sixteen by finding new uses for the probes inside her brain. He’d made her blind, scrambled the signals to the visual cortex, trying to trigger other senses, innate responses or hidden memories. Her hearing compensated, so acute she heard the molecules of air flowing into her lungs until he turned off their function too. She’d flopped about in the restraints and made those hideous gulping, strangled noises that fish make when too long out of water. Panic lay siege to all thought, taking her to the brink of blessed unconsciousness, then they’d turned her lungs on again.

It hurt to breathe, she gagged on oxygen, her diaphragm struggled with ragged gasps, stumbled into its natural rhythm before ceasing to function again. She had no gift to fight this. No way to navigate the alternating periods of breathing and suffocation. How long? How many hours?  

Sweet Maker, please make it stop. And it did. Tajno spoke the divine words and bestowed the gift of everlasting breath like a God with a newborn child.  

Still blind, she listened to them speak, this God and his doctor minion.

“When will she break?”

“Soon, my Lord. But, may I suggest you cease the oxygen deprivation. It could damage her beyond repair.”

“I’ll consider it. And the mapping of her mind?”

“We’ve found an anomaly at the synapse clusters. Ghosts of neural pathways that lie unused. An alternate form of thought perhaps or a way to access unused portions of her brain. We have yet to find the trigger. Are you sure that continued torture is the best course of action?”

“It broke the others to my will. It will do the same to her.”

“As you wish, my Lord. Shall I return her sight now?”

“Not yet. Take her hearing as well and let her hang for a while longer. That may soften her resolve.”     

Unexpected needle pricks and electric shocks came at her from all directions. Blind and deaf she had no warning, no way to prepare. Minutes dissolved into hours and jangled nerves that perched on the edge of madness.

Sixteen finally over, finally done, sight and sound returned with blaring clarity that made her eyes water and her ears ring.    

The cell and peace for a little while and now was seventeen. Prime.

The forcefield dropped. They’d come for her.

They strapped her to the chair and injected her with stimulants that made her insides quiver and her muscles jerk. Hour after hour, formulas and calculations flashed across the screen until they became nothing more than a white on black slideshow.

“Tell me how it works.” Tajno prodded incessantly.

“I am telling you. I don’t understand the numbers, I just know the end result. There has to be a purpose for the end result, some goal, some reason, and I can’t pilot this fucking chair to get to them.”

“Do you think me an idiot? You’d fly us into a black hole or a sun. Open the pathways, Ky. Look deep inside. There is no escape.”

Tajno nodded to the doctor, and the pain began. The portal wouldn’t open. Why wouldn’t the fucking thing open? Love waited on the other side, and she needed the shelter of that love before this madman shattered her into a thousand pieces.  

Day eighteen. Her menses should have started, but she didn’t bleed. The drugs and chemicals perhaps or maybe she was too thin. She’d moved beyond hunger days ago and left the gruel untouched, her only source of nutrition administered through the IV needles inserted into her veins every day.

Eighteen. She wished now she’d eaten. They inserted a feeding tube through her nostril and down her throat. No lube, no kiss. Bastards!

Back in her cell she blew caked blood from her nose into her palm and wiped it on the wall. Her stomach growled and cramped, and she wanted to puke but couldn’t. She wanted to die but couldn’t.

Dressed now in a loose, sleeveless shift, given to her when her underwear no longer fit, she lay on the mattress curled into a ball of misery. Her bones ached and felt as brittle as twigs waiting to be snapped into kindling. Too exhausted to sleep, she lay awake, staring at the lines scratched into the wall and tried to recall anything beyond the pain. Hope was already dead.

Nineteen. Something different today. New questions about Scourge and the Jedi he traveled with. Something new out on the rim, something about father. Time was paramount, he needed her to break, and soon.

Strapped to the chair, new drugs injected, something alive and vile squirmed through her veins. Chanting from all those hollow hooded creatures that now stood like black unlit candles around the room. Bright amulet, scarlet, and gold held before her eyes. It opened like a blossom, a hand reached out and touched her forehead, light as a lover’s promise. She was no longer alone.

A dark specter with a hungry maw that would devour all she was chased her through the pathways of her mind. NO! You fucker, no! Synapse fired like angry stars. She jumped the gaps and ran, spurred on by her gift, instant calculations, directions for thought. She knew where to go.

Breath on her neck, claws at her back, teeth poised to close and hold. She saw the portal and leaped, tumbling through and into Corso’s arms. Skavak folded around her back, and she was held in the center. She was home, and nothing could reach her now.

The portal closed with a resounding click, a deadbolt slid into place. A roar came from the other side, it raged and howled and railed against the door. She melted into Corso’s kiss, dissolved into Skavak’s hands on her shoulders, his lips along her neck. Her men would keep her safe and warm, and Tajno would never touch her again.

#

“Damn her! Get her back,” Tajno growled at the doctor.

“I told you it was too soon for the amulet, my lord. She wasn’t sufficiently broken yet. If you’d waited another week or so.”

“Tear her mind apart if you have to, we can reconstruct it later, just find her or you will be the next on the table, and I doubt you will last as long as she has.”

Tajno stormed away to stop in front of the stasis tank holding the shell of his only son. His poor force-blind son whom he’d hollowed out over the twelve short years of the boy’s existence. Nothing remained of the child’s personality or the man he might have become. He was only a cell donor now, a genetic match that kept Tajno alive and a future vessel for Tajno once his own body failed. The thought of occupying a stranger was repulsive.

He’d euthanized the mother soon after she’d spit the mewling infant from her womb. Stupid cow, though she was the only one who’d carried a child to full term despite his countless dalliances with a number of women. Father’s favor always came with a price, and he would never sire another child, now being infertile as well as impotent. He tapped on the glass. Ah well, he only needed one for now, force-blind or not. He’d father many more children once the transfer was complete. The supply of vessels would be endless.

Tajno left the med lab and went to his inner sanctum where he stripped off his robes and knelt on the rug to meditate. Every joint and muscle ached from the degenerative muscular atrophy that ravaged his body. 

The darkness settled around him like a cloak. It gave him clarity of thought and manipulated his twisted muscles, stretching and strengthening them although the effect never lasted. Stem cells harvested from his son provided the real foundation for his survival, but his body still crumbled day by day under the merciless assault of his disease.

The woman was the key, not only as his way to get to Scourge and his Jedi whore but also the secret of how his father sought to create force sensitives from the force-blind. He needed the woman to turn her extraordinary gift inward, navigate that glorious mind through her memory and her own cells down to the molecular level. Despite his many years of research and countless lives he’d snuffed out along the way, there was always something missing.

Some part of a ritual, a bending of the force, an alchemical agent that had eluded his father to the point of abandoning Project Creation. But he wouldn’t abandon it so easily. No. He’d see it through, create his invincible army and see father’s corpse at his feet when he took the emperor’s throne. Oh yes. He would change the stars.

The darkness pulsed around and through him with exquisite pain. He fell into the agony and sighed with pleasure.

#

Time was infinite and finite in her sanctuary, and Ky hadn’t scratched one single line in anything to track the passing days. This would last as long as her body was alive and at some point, simply stop. Evil hammered at the walls and pried on the door, but it would hold, she would hold.

They strolled the beach, hand in hand, Corso on one side, Skavak on the other. Always together, lounging on sun-heated rocks, or sprawling on a blanket beneath waving palms. Long showers, moonlight swims, citrus and melon juice licked from lips and chins at breakfast. Making love, gentle or frenzied, sweet or rough, she to them and them to her. If this was delusion or insanity, she hoped she’d never be sane again.     

Ky stood on the balcony, looking across the expanse of sand to the sea. The hem of the Cyrene silk robe fluttered across the planks under her feet exposing her legs to the warmth of the sun. Corso’s shoulder was firm against her cheek, and Skavak’s arm coiled around her waist.

They were the pillars, she was the center, and she would hold. No more pain or worry or struggle. Corso tugged the end of the sash; the robe billowed and fell to the floor. She turned and guided them toward the bed. So much to explore and all the time in the world. She’d never been happier or more at peace.

Chapter Text

Scourge had prowled the ship for nearly three days before acquiescing to Sayonar’s demands that he rest. His sleep, shallow and fitful at first, had calmed into this peaceful repose. He lay on his back, one arm tucked under his head the other stretched by his side.

Sayonar lay propped on her elbow quietly watching his face, now a placid surface, relaxed and untroubled by responsibility or care. His chest expanded and contracted with the steady cadence of his breathing. He shifted his weight and straightened the leg he’d kept bent at the knee, pulling the sheet lower on his hips. The three V-shaped ridges on his abdomen pointed like arrows to the crumpled material barely covering his pelvis.  

“You are magnificent,” Sayonar whispered as she reached out to lightly brush her fingertips along the ridges that lay centered on the mound of his chest. Desire rippled off her like a force wave.

His eyes fluttered open. “And you are beautiful.”

“How long have you been awake?”

“Your passion rolled over me like a boulder. The darkness answered and nudged me awake. I would be a poor Sith indeed if I did not sense the danger at hand.”

“What are you talking about? What danger?”

“You are the most dangerous woman I know. I would burn half the galaxy to keep you safe and the other half just to spend one meaningful night with you.” He raised his fingers to her lips to forestall her rebuke. “Don’t bother to spout your Jedi dogma. We’re both too far gone for that, and you know it.”

His teeth gleamed white behind lips stretched into a half grin. “Shall I pull the sheet lower?”

“Don’t tease, Lord Scourge. We’ve tried, and it brings nothing but frustration and pain. It’s an unkindness neither of us deserves.” Sayonar rolled from the bed and slipped into her robe, feeling his gaze on her back.

“My apologies, Master Jedi. It was not my intent, but you should temper your expectations for our future.”

“Never.” She rounded the foot of the bed and sat on the edge beside him. “You didn’t sleep well. Care to share?”

Scourge sat up and eased himself backward to lean against the headboard, pulling the sheet up to his waist. “I lost contact with Ky the day we left Untuar IV. She was there one second and then gone, and I haven’t been able to sense her no matter how hard I try.”        

“Perhaps they have her in some force dampening enclosure you can’t penetrate, or so heavily sedated even her life signature can’t register. It could mean anything.”

“The others should be told.”

“Why would you do that? Do you intend to stop searching? To turn back?”

He toyed with the ends of her hair that cascaded over her shoulder like an obsidian waterfall. “Of course not, but they have the right to know.”

“No, they don’t.” She caught his hand in hers. “You may not feel it, but you can read how much they love her. As a leader, a friend, and a lover. Their hope is fragile at best. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that level of truth will do more harm than good. Please, beloved, let them hold onto what little they have.”

Scourge nodded. “For now. I will continue my attempts at contact, but, in my experience, it is best to be prepared for all eventualities.”

“Could you prepare for my death?” Her ice blue eyes stared into the smoldering crimson of his.

“I have considered the eventuality of outliving you should we not find the cure.”

“Consideration is not the same.”

“No, it is not. I am not prepared to lose you and feel nothing. I am not prepared for the lack of grief when you are gone, Nulis.” He pushed her hair back and slid the robe from her shoulders. “Come lie with me for a while longer. Such knowledge is a terrible thing and should not be faced alone.”

#

Torchy lay in pieces like she had for the umpteenth time in the past six days. Corso sat, cross-legged on the floor of the cargo bay meticulously cleaning each part before laying it back on the tarpaulin stretched before him. He missed his own cleaning kit but made do with what he’d found on Untuar IV before they’d left to find Ky.

Bowdaar hunkered by the door fiddling with the firing mechanism on his bowcaster for the umpteenth time also. He often raised his eyes to glance at Corso then grunted and shook his head, before concentrating on his weapon again. The boy had never been this quiet for so long, and it worried him. The Wookie grunted again.

Corso eyed Bowdaar over the sight on the blaster barrel before laying it back on the tarp. “I know what you’re trying to do but I’m fine and what is there to say?”

“You must stay strong,” Bowdaar said in that half grumbling half warbling language of the Wookie.

“I’m holding it together as best I can.” Corso swiveled his upper torso and tilted his head from side to side eliciting a series of popping sounds from his back and neck. “Besides, with you or Akaavi shadowing me every place but the ‘fresher, I’m not likely to lose it any time soon.”   

“I’m not speaking of your fight with Skavak. You are retreating into that hollow place I’ve seen you go before. It’s not good to spend so much time inside your own head.”

“Afraid I’ll give myself ideas?”

“Afraid you will disappear. She will need you when we find her, not that empty face you wear when we go into battle.”

“Not so sure it’s me she needs anymore.” Corso clicked another part of the blaster into place.

“Seems you are giving yourself ideas after all. Bad ones. She sent Skavak for you.”

“She sent Skavak for Scourge, I just happened to know how to find him.”

Bowdaar pulled the string back over the latch and listened to the reverberation as he plucked the string with his finger. He adjusted one of the screws, plucked the string again, and dry shot the crossbow. “Better,” he said before addressing Corso again. “She could have sent him to Akaavi or me, or even Gus, but she sent him for you. It is important that you remember this.”

“It hurts to remember.”

“I know, my friend. Your empty face may rescue her or keep her alive, but your true face may save her.”

“Or maybe a face half covered by a tattoo will save her.”

“Humph. Bad ideas. Let’s get her back first. The rest will unfold as it is meant to.”

Corso finished tightening the screw that held the grips in place and locked the scope into its channel, wiped the reassembled weapon down again and set it on the tarp. He leaned against the wall, his forearms resting on his bent knees and worrying the cleaning rag with his fingers. “I’m such an idiot. Going on and on about settling down on Dantooine, raising rontos and a bunch of kids. Hoping to make my childhood dream her dream. That life would have smothered her, and she’d have hated me for it in the end. I never realized until she was gone that she’s my dream, always was. I can’t lose her again.”

“Then don’t.” The Wookie pushed himself to his feet. “Time for my rounds. Akaavi will be waiting. Get some sleep.”

#

Seven fucking days and Skavak was going stir-crazy. He’d smoked his last spice laced cigarette two days ago, and Scourge’s supply of alcohol was dwindling fast, not that the Sith had much to begin with. And no rum. Ah well, beggars, choosers, house rules, whatever.

He lay on his back, twirling one of the data crystals between his fingers. He’d already counted the ceiling tiles, more times than he cared to admit and there was only so much time he could spend in the shower jerking off. What a bunch of tight asses he was stuck with. He’d give anything for another go at Corso, at least that would be some kind of interaction.   

The ginger-haired Jedi crossed his mind more than once. A nice piece, that one, and he’d never had a Jedi before. He wondered if she was a true redhead all the way down to her short and curlies. He’d never know, but it was a nice mental image.

Of course, Scourge’s woman was the real beauty. A man could drown in those eyes or get lost in the inky strands of her hair. Yeah, if a man wanted to get his eyes gouged out and every bone broken. No thanks. She was best admired from afar, like other end of the galaxy far.

Huh. Kira, that was the ginger’s name. Rolled off the tongue, sweet and juicy, much as he’d expect her to taste. Yummy.

Thing is, he hadn’t made so much as a pass at her during their brief encounters in the galley or corridors. No innuendo, no snarky remarks, not even a wink in her direction. Nothing that would have triggered the sweet young thing to throw him against a wall. Nothing that would have earned him a cuff on the back of the head by the Mando or the Wookie who were two steps behind him every time he left the room.

What really flipped his skullcap was that he had no desire to engage in any sort of flirtation with the pretty young Jedi. He had zero interest beyond looking and a fantasy or two.    

What the hell was wrong with him? As if he didn’t know. Damn Ky and this impossible shit she’d gotten him into. She blurred everything, twisted his nice chaotic life into something he no longer recognized. Even gave him good intentions for crying out loud.

He missed her. Stars, he missed everything about her.

There was a word for this affliction, but he’d be damned if he’d admit or use it. Sweet fucking Maker on a crutch! He’d probably lose her to the farm boy anyway, right? That was one question he couldn’t walk away from even if he’d wanted to.

#

Day eight into their trip to the Tangrene system, Scourge had convened a meeting, requiring everyone be present in the ship’s small galley. The smell of caf suffocated the air in the tight quarters, and Corso’s already tightened stomach clenched even tighter when he spotted Skavak leaning against the back wall, cup in hand. The bastard had the nerve to raise the cup in a half-assed toast when Corso stopped in the doorway. Bowdaar growled softly at his back and bumped him into the room.

Akaavi stood not far from Skavak, Kira and Sayonar perched on the stools and Scourge stood in front of the workspace and sink, arms crossed and scowl on his face.

“I’ll get to it then,” the Sith Lord said, his voice low and even as freshly troweled duracrete. “I’ve not sensed Ky’s presence for some time now. I have reached deep and far, and the darkness has returned nothing of her essence.”

Corso’s thudding heart leaped into his throat. “She’s not dead. We have to go on.”

Skavak’s face blanched, starkly white in contrast to the dark tattoo that adorned much of the right side of his face. He halted the ascent of his cup halfway to his lips. “Why are you telling us this now?”

“Contact was lost the first day. I delayed mentioning it because I had lost contact before for short periods of time, but never for this long.” Scourge’s carmine gaze surveyed each face, reading despair and disbelief and glimmers of hope. Resignation clouded Sayonar’s eyes and sadness tugged at the corners of Kira’s.

Scourge leaned back against the counter and continued. “I have no intention of turning back, and we will bring her home no matter what we find. None of us know what has been done to her and you need to prepare for all possibilities. Fair warning had to be given.”

“How Scourge?” Corso spread his hands, grasping for an answer. “With all your years of wisdom, tell us how we prepare for the worst. I can’t imagine a life without her. I won’t! She’s not dead, and I refuse to let you kill what hope I have based on some jiggery-pokery I’ll never understand.”

Sayonar tilted her head and gave Scourge that ‘I told you so’ look while everyone trudged from the room on leaden feet.

#

Day ten, they entered the Tangrene system. Day eleven, they passed the Imperial planet. Day twelve, they exited hyperspace far enough from the unknown planet to avoid long range scanners.

Scourge was in the cockpit with the others crowded around and patched in Seph on the Soledad. “There are four moons around the world that I’ve finally identified as Letas Zalias. The ancient writings are full of lost things. It means Long Green in the ancient tongue and the second moon was a listening post during the time of the Dark Wars. The signal indicates that’s where we’ll find Ky.”

“So, what now, boss?” asked Seph.

“Sublight to the far side of the fourth moon. That should keep you hidden. Put a single triangulation probe in orbit then wait for my signal. It should bounce off the probe directly to you. Do not delay when the call comes.”

“We’ll be waiting. Seph out.”

“What about us?” asked Skavak.

“The stealth generator won’t last long enough to keep us hidden the full distance. The most we can hope for is to remain undetected until we reach high orbit, then stealth the ship and land on the surface as close as we can to the origination point of Ky’s signal. Be prepared for a fight no matter which way this goes.”

Scourge engaged the sublights, and all eyes stared out the windshield as the green tinted gas giant came into view, growing from a tiny dot to a behemoth that filled the screen. The moon they sought hovered in the distance, just above the curvature of the slowly rotating planet.         

“What the hell is that?” said Corso pointing at a dark speck orbiting the moon.

“A ship,” said Akaavi. “They had to get here somehow.”

“Damn!” said Scourge, disengaging the sublights and letting inertia carry them forward. “T7, engage stealth.”

Braking thrusters jolted the ship, rocking everyone whether standing or seated. Scourge tucked the ship into low orbit and started the descent toward the thick foliage of the forest moon. All remained transfixed and holding their breath when they passed under the shadow of the Imperial frigate. Below they spotted a clearing around the entrance to an underground bunker. Ky’s signal screamed at them as they flew over.

Scourge went twenty klicks beyond and engaged the repulsors. The ship lurched and tilted when the hull settled into the canopy. Treetops snapped, and branches scraped and screeched along the metal plating with a hideous sound that set everyone’s teeth on edge. Tree trunks, leaves, and verdant undergrowth replaced the pale blue of the sky in the windshield as the ship sank lower finally coming to rest on the forest floor.

Scourge stood and turned to face them. “Don’t clump together. Fan out and watch for surveillance drones or cameras on the perimeter. Expect resistance at the entrance. T7 will attempt to disrupt communications and find where Ky is being held then turn off internal surveillance as well as gain control over doorways and hatches. Teams will cover more ground. Bowdaar with Corso, Akaavi with Skavak, Sayonar, and Kira with me. You all have kolto, rebreathers for gas and antidotes for poison in your packs. TooVee has personal body shields for everyone, use them sparingly.”

The heat and humidity struck them like a sweaty palm as soon as they left the cool confines of the ship. The sodden air closed over their nostrils and mouths, the moisture clinging to their lungs made each breath a labor of its own.

Scourge removed the respirator mask hanging from his belt and affixed it over his lower face while adjusting the temperature control inside his armor to provide welcome relief. Heat exhaustion in tropical climates was one downside of being a pureblood and not something he could afford to suffer.

Moss and broad-leafed, thick-stemmed flora, thorny vines that pricked their skin and buzzing, biting insects made their trek even more miserable in the cloying, infernal heat. No drones, no patrols impeded them until they came to a stop at the tree line marking the perimeter of the clearing around the bunker.

Cameras swiveled back and forth above the closed blast door, and two turrets stood sentinel on either side.

“Ion grenade will take care of that,” said Akaavi. “But they’ll know we’re here. Maybe we should just knock.”

“They already know we’re here,” said Scourge. “Do you feel it, Nulis?”

“I do,” Sayonar answered. “A trap?”

Scourge placed a gloved hand on her shoulder. “Most assuredly.”

Chapter Text

Ky lay wedged between Corso and Skavak, her head on Skavak’s shoulder, arm across his ribs and Corso stretched along her back, hand resting on her hip. Silent, her two men were, in this place, she called home. She didn’t know what words to place in their mouths beyond simple courtesy or moans of pleasure or laughter when they bumped noses in the dark. They didn’t have to say they loved her, she already knew. She’d had enough of words with Tajno’s questions and constant grating voice blaring through her cell night after night.

They communicated in body-speak now, action or inaction, limbs and torsos and touch saying all those things that words would fail in the telling. They glided through the cycles of day and night, mute and harmonious, with birds and waves and wind to sing the arias of their lives.

She alone knew of the horrors outside the borders, just beyond the walls, snuffling at the door. Another tremor rumbled through her mind, shaking the foundations of her refuge, driving a spike of pain through her temples. The demon-god who had dominion over her body was trying something new. A new chemical, a new artifact or ritual, a new torture or...maybe she was dying. She could live with that. What an amusing oxymoron.

Nothing good waited for her out there. Nobody was coming for her, a bitter pill she’d swallowed at nineteen, the last number she’d scratched on her cell wall. She doubled down on her resolve, tightening her defenses, digging in like a Yavin tree tick. She knew it now, knew the truth. Nobody was coming, and she’d never leave this place alive.

#

“I know that evil.” Sayonar shivered under Scourge’s hand. “I remember when I was held prisoner and twisted into something so dark I thought I’d never see the light again.”

“Not the Emperor but one of his children.” Kira’s face turned pale and wan under dappled sunlight filtered through the leaves.

“The same we met on the Emperor’s asteroid. Cirris Tajno.” Scourge’s mouth curled into a snarl. “I thought he’d died. Seems fate has given me a second chance to take his head.”

“We have to get to him first,” said Akaavi.

“The trap is not out here. It’s in there,” said Scourge.

Corso’s face had gone blank. The kind of fatalistic blank that showed no fear, and no mercy. “That the same sicko bastard that said he’d tear Ky’s mind apart and then give her over to his guards for—how’d he put it—their entertainment?”

Scourge nodded then grabbed for the man who’d stepped from the cover of the trees and proceeded into the clearing. “Corso. Wait!”

“Just gonna ring the doorbell,” Corso threw over his shoulder, never slowing his stride.

“Fucking hell,” blurted Skavak and trotted into the clearing to catch up.

“So much for precautions,” snorted Akaavi.

“And the arrogance of youth.” Scourge strode forward, followed by the others.

The turrets remained silent, the cameras whirred and clicked as they pivoted on their brackets, tracking the approaching group.

Corso banged on the door with the heel of his fist. “Ok, asshole, we’re here. Where’s Ky?”

Seconds stretched into minutes, the ages-old waiting game intended to needle intruders into impatience and blunder. They all knew the rules and settled into stances of unconcerned forbearance. If Tajno wanted them, he’d make the first move. Opening the door would be a great start.

The duracrete pad under their feet vibrated, pullies and hydraulics groaned and the blast door ascended with the squeal of metal on metal. A short, dark hallway opened up before them with a dimly lit freight lift at the far end.

Bowdaar growled and blocked Corso with his arm, pushing him back and motioning for the others to follow suit. The Wookie skidded the tree limb he’d been carrying across the floor and retreated.

The whoomph, flash of stun grenades reverberated off the corridor walls, the detonation stirring dust clouds that blew in waves and dervishes through the entrance.

“Stun grenades,” said Scourge. “The cheap trick of a coward.”

“Pressure plate or trip wire? And was that only the first volley?” said Akaavi who activated the spectrum scanner on her gauntlet and set it to rotate from infrared to violet searching for trip wires. There were none. “Pressure plates it is then.”

“Someone will be monitoring our progress.” said Scourge. “T7, stun grenades don’t damage droids. You go across first, let’s see if those plates trigger again.”

The repeating whoomph, flash answered his question, T7 beeped from the other side.

“We can shield ourselves,” protested Kira.

“Yes, and doing so would weaken us before we ever entered the fray,” said Scourge before turning his attention back to the droid. “T7, one more pass. I doubt the supply of grenades is inexhaustible.”

One more pass, no detonations. Scourge led the way into the entry, noting the open and empty chutes, one on either side of the passageway. His boots crunched on the metal detritus left by the grenades. The lift whined and lurched when Scourge pressed the button to take them down to level two.

Akaavi reignited the spectrum scanner on her gauntlet, again searching for trip wires. Walls, floors, and ceiling, painted in varying tints of Imperial gray. At least the Empire was consistent in color scheme and predictable in tactics.

The first junction, kill zone and crossfire. Blaster bolts, flash bang flare, Wookie roar, Mando’a curses. Kira turned left, vanguard for Corso and Bowdaar, dualsaber twirling, deflecting blue and green. Body shields active, then up close and deadly, hairy arms flailing, bodies flung like empty clothes, bones snapped, heads crushed. Kira’s face bathed in blue, lightsaber sizzle, cutting, stabbing, clean, bloodless death. Corso, cold face, blade running warm with red.

Scourge, Akaavi, Skavak to the right, much the same, crimson blade carving a narrow path. Skavak, tuck and roll, knife glinting, whispering promise of quick death, piercing skin, the twist a lie, making it hurt just a little more. Men pouring in from side doors. Sudden plume of fire, screams cut off by flame, the smell of fat burning, flesh crisping, metal melting, fabric turned to ash. Akaavi drifting back to the floor, jetpack sputtering off, tip of the flamethrower glowing like a Tatooine sunrise.  

Sayonar and T7 in the junction, watching the way forward, watching the flank. Her head hurt from the darkness pounding against her skull. More fights to come, more of the same, another lift at the far end of the corridor, the true power waits below, sharp fangs and no soul.

Doors kicked open as they advance, nobody hides, nobody lives. Still need a control room, T7 searching. Last stand at the end of the hall, men scurrying like spider-roaches to a corpse. Stupid men, senseless deaths, too easy by far. Bloodlust and caution warred for a place in Scourge’s eyes. Blood always won.

Adrenaline rush abandoning them, draining energy through their pores in the smell of gore and sweat. Cuts and bruises and blaster burns, sting of kolto injectors. Jolt of stims, expanding irises to the point of pain, each nerve a live wire sparking against their skin. Not over. Not by a long shot.

T7’s whistle from down the hall. Feet running to see what he’d found. Schematics to the complex, two more levels beneath their feet, cells on the bottom level. No camera access, someone had blinded those prying eyes. The floorplans revealed an expansive lab, sanctum, quarters for people, master bedroom, unlabeled room at the end, and lift to the cells below in an alcove off the main hall.

Corso’s heart plummeted. “Where is she?”

Scourge put his gloved hand on his shoulder. “In the lab or the cells. We will find her.”  

The beast, coiled and restrained, lunged forward, breaking free. Eyes gone black and feral, teeth bared, Corso threw off Scourge’s hand. “I will kill them all.”

“Stand in line, farm boy,” Skavak growled.

A sigh of impatience blew from Scourge’s lips. “Bravado and blind rage will not serve either of you. Force users wait for us below. Kill what you can, leave the rest to Sayonar, Kira and I. Tajno will be too powerful for any of you. Leave him to me.”

He turned to Kira and Sayonar. “Guard your minds well. You have both bathed in the darkness, and it will tempt you again. Lean to the light, it may save you both.”

“We will be exposed when we reach the next level,” said Akaavi. “The lift provides no cover.”

“The three of us will take the front. Our shields should hold until cover can be found. Keep moving, do not provide an easy target.”

Corso shoved the beast back into its cage so he could think. “Any of you ever fight with Ky?”

“Barfight on Rommeth IV,” answered Skavak.

“Arena tactics?”

“Yeah, though I doubt either of us could move like her.”

“Nobody moves like her,” said Corso.

Skavak’s voice slipped into a wistful tone. “Don’t I know it.”

Corso gritted his teeth and ignored the double entendre. “Point is, you and I are both smaller and quicker than Bowdaar and Akaavi with all her armor. Cheese and hammer, distract and kill. We get in a tight spot, it might be worth a try.”

“Sound strategy,” said Akaavi. “We’ll be ready.”

The force wave that hit them when the lift reached the bottom slammed into the pale blue and gold of Sayonar and Kira’s shields. They skidded backward, then advanced into the hall to face the wall of black cowled people blocking their way.

“Force save us,” breathed Kira. “All children of the Emperor. Their power makes me sick.”

Away from the two Jedi, Scourge wrapped a cloak of writhing dark power around himself. “They belong to Tajno now, and he has unleashed them. We must find him soon.” He raised his commlink. “T7. Now!”

The hall went black. Lightsabers cast the only light, rainbow rods of crimson, blue and green weaving and waving in a macabre greeting. Akaavi jammed her helmet onto her head, the visor changing to night vision. She jetted ahead, keeping her oath of death from above and sprayed a wall of flame onto the front line. Screams filled the hall with a flood of sound, poor flapping creatures abandoned by their master and their kin. Left to their fate, falling one by one.

Battery powered emergency lighting flickered to life, dim and sickly green. Sprinklers burst open, reducing those caught in the conflagration to charred bone and muddy slime.

Scourge looked ahead. So many left, perhaps twenty or more. The sprinklers stopped. Sodden and dripping, his troupe surged forward to meet Tajno’s army. Chaos erupted, uncontrolled and unbeautiful, digging into the muck and grime of the true nature of battle. Above the deafening din, Scourge’s voice rang like a clarion bell, calling Tajno’s name. Calling him out.

Tajno’s people fought, frenzied and uncoordinated, but deadly nonetheless. Force lightning burned wide swatches of hair from Bowdaar’s body, the underlying skin blistered and blackened. The visor of Akaavi’s helm shattered, the useless armor lay discarded, blood pooled under her right armpit. Her left thigh throbbed, she blinked blood from her eyes.  

Kira’s face would carry another scar, the knuckles of her left hand lacerated to the bone, she limped on a twisted ankle. Skavak’s shirt was crisscrossed with scarlet stains, crusting and turning black. Corso had rolled onto his bad shoulder one too many times, his arm nearly useless and hanging at his side. One eye was swollen shut, and blood dripped from a broken nose.  

Lightning scored the walls and ceiling, pieces of rubble flew through the air, and the drone of lightsabers sang the song of angry hornets.

Scourge and Sayonar both caught movement at the far end of the corridor at the same time. Blond hair and implants reflected green in the light, black robe trailed the floor, twin red sabers drawn and displayed in that inverted V of invitation that Scourge recalled so well.

Force speed rocketed Sayonar forward. “Sayonar, no!” Scourge’s voice a warning. He reached out with the force and pulled her back before she could cross the threshold of the far room.

Scourge skidded to a halt by her side. “Together, Nulis,” Scourge said, realizing his blunder too late.

“So, the mighty Scourge has a weakness after all,” Tajno taunted, inching back into the room one step at a time, luring them in. “Who would have thought it would be a woman, considering your shortcomings in certain departments.”

“Immortality has a cost,” said Scourge, “and your debts already run deep. I’m here to collect, not to give a donation.”

“Your little spacer friend had many secrets to tell. I wonder what marvelous treasures your Jedi has locked away? I’ll have fun finding out, one piece at a time. Perhaps you’d like to watch my methods.”

Sayonar moved from Scourge’s side to flank Tajno, who watched her with the amused interest of a predator.

Something was wrong, rippling just beneath Scourge’s feet. The oily taint of Sith alchemy bubbled up through the floor, slick tentacles wrapped around his legs, up his torso, gripping his arms. He was force locked in place. His darkness roiled and struggled against the ever-tightening bonds, unable to break free, raging against the restraint. The doors slid closed behind him.

“They’re in trouble,” Kira yelled while blocking a saber and spinning around to aim for the gut. She was having trouble of her own. And someone needed to do something.

Corso ducked and rolled, coming to his feet at the far end of the fray. “Akaavi? Do something about that kriffing door,” he yelled before sliding his blade into the ribs of his latest opponent. The man slid off his knife, falling soundlessly to the floor.

Akaavi jetted upward, raised her gauntlet and fired. A trail of smoke followed the missile to its target, the explosion buckled the metal, and the door cracked open, but not enough.

“Akaavi?” Corso yelled again.

The Mandalorian plowed her fist into the face of a young woman, snapping her head back, then fired her gauntlet again. “Last one,” she said before snapping the woman’s head back for good.

The missile struck the right panel of the door, knocking it off the track and opening a gap large enough for a man to slip through. Corso ran, halting at the door just long enough to spy Scourge battling against some force that Corso couldn’t see. Tajno and Sayonar battled on the other side of the room.

“Sayonar he’s baiting you into another trap. Stand your ground,” Scourge grunted through clenched teeth.

Corso squeezed through the door and unleashed all the rage he’d kept bottled up for so long. Adrenaline surged anew, refueling his tired muscles, his legs burned with it, his heart hammered out a war cry that echoed in his ears.

He crouched and lunged, not at Tajno, but at Scourge and slammed into the Sith Lord with enough force to shove the man outside the reach of whatever held him. Corso’s beast hardly noticed the hot needles rolling across his body, prickling and poking into his flesh like cactus spines.

“Well, well.” Tajno grinned. “A force-blind fool come to join the game.”

Corso saw the man’s hand twitch, the wrist bend, the shoulder drop, preparing a new trick that would doom them all. The beast lunged again. He’d seen Ky do this, he knew the move, he could do the move. He dropped to the floor and slid under the man’s arm, hooked his hand into Tajno’s belt, swung upward, pulling the man off balance. His hand grabbed a handful of Tajno’s hair and yanked back, rewarded with the sound of cracking bone. Scourge’s blade narrowly missed Corso’s arm as he sliced his blade across Tajno’s throat.

“Fool should have run while he had the chance.” Scourge’s eyes met Corso’s. “Perhaps you are man enough after all.” Scourge turned his back and walked to the door that creaked open with a wave of the Sith Lords arm.

Sayonar knelt and removed something from Tajno’s corpse.

The fighting in the corridor had stopped, six of the ‘children’ remained alive, their eyes confused, their jaws hanging slack in stunned silence. Bodies littered the floor, blood and viscera creating reflecting pools of the carnage that had swept through their ranks.

T7 relayed a message through the commlink. “More trouble on the way from Tajno’s ship,” said Scourge. “T7, open a channel.”

Scourge’s eyes narrowed. “Your master is dead. I have no quarrel with you, depart now and live, continue this folly and die. My name is Scourge. You do not want to make an enemy of me.”

No reply came, but no troops either. “T7, tell Seph we need them now. We have a woman to find, and if alive she will require medical aid.”

The beast fidgeted in Corso’s skin, shuffling from foot to foot, too hemmed in by people, needing to lash out. Chafing with impatience as the lift descended, he burst through the entrance and came to a grinding halt before the only active forcefield.

He’d never known she could look so small, delicate, breakable. Even under the blanket that covered her, the bones protruded, all rounded knobs and razor-sharp ridges. They’d shaved her head. His fist pounded on the forcefield.

The forcefield dropped, he stepped inside and turned to snarl at Scourge who’d gripped his arm. He barely heard the words the Sith Lord uttered. “Don’t touch her. Something is terribly wrong with her body. It could kill her.”

Corso dropped to his knees by the mattress ignoring the horrendous odor. She’d soiled herself. They’d not even preserved her dignity. A tube hung from one blood caked nostril. The arm laying exposed was dotted with needle tracks, bruised and raw, the fingers bent at odd angles. Scabs and metal probes dotted the stubble on her scalp.

Born of loss and vengeance and rage, the beast threw back its head and roared at the ceiling, its agony too overwhelming to bear. It had no place here, alone and seeking relief from emotions that had no names. It bowed and merged with Game Face who felt nothing. Game face stared down at the woman he had fought for, would have died for and needed to weep for but didn't know how. He merged with Corso, the original man, the man who could cry the tears that needed to be shed.

Chapter Text

Corso ignored the fact that his face throbbed, he could only see out of one eye, and blood still trickled from his nose. All he knew was the grief that spilled hot down his cheeks and onto her hand, a small broken thing that lay dormant in his. "Oh, Ky. What did you do? What have I done?"

Scourge had warned the boy not to touch her, but the fool had slid his palm under her hand anyway. He’d stepped forward to push Corso aside, but Sayonar had caught his arm and shook her head. He’d long ago forgotten the power of touch, Sayonar reminded him with her reproachful glance.

Skavak stood off to the side, his hands clenched into fists, his heart a tight knot in his chest, itching to touch something of her—anything of her. A fingernail, an eyelash, the moist exhale of her breath. Always the outsider, barred from being part of the show unfolding before him. He should just leave now and save himself the embarrassment of losing a race he’d never had a chance of winning anyway. He’d done his bit, she’d been found; yeah, he should just leave, but he couldn’t. Not now. Not yet.

“Come back to me, tough girl,” he muttered under his breath then turned and made his way to the lift to join Bowdaar and Akaavi who’d remained on the second floor to guard the few assailants who’d survived.

He almost ran into Doc and the Mon Calamari, Gus, when he stepped off the lift. Seph was having a conversation with Akaavi and the Wookie and, Rusk, the Chagrian appeared through a door from one of the side rooms, a sour look on his face. Likely unhappy he’d missed all the action, his fingers drummed along the top of a satchel he carried, his assault cannon hung from his shoulder.

“Dammit, I’m the one with the expertise,” grumbled Doc. “You stay here and tend to the others while I go below. We both have a job to do, and Sayonar specifically requested me. Don’t worry, my friend, Ole Doc’s on the case.”

Skavak knew the type; too slick, too well groomed and too full of ego. Scourge didn’t like the man, that was evident by the surly scowl during Sayonar’s conversation over the commlink, but they both had faith in his abilities. Skavak stepped aside and let him pass, but if Ky died, he’d show the man just how deadly the sin of pride could be.

Medkit slung over his shoulder, Doc rounded the wall of the cell and stopped short. “Force help us,” he whispered as his gaze fell on the pitiful creature lying before him.

He squeezed past Sayonar and Scourge and laid his hand on Corso’s shoulder. “Ease your hand from under hers, son, and step back. Let ole Doc do his work.”

Doc had seen the evil that men can do, but nothing like this. His scanner made one pass over Ky’s body, he frowned, made adjustments and scanned her again, his mouth a grim line, he made a third pass.

He lifted the blanket, and the collective gasp sucked all the air from the room. Every inch of skin on the woman’s body had some kind of scar, burn mark, abrasion, puncture wound or bruise in varying shades of nearly black to sickly green. Her fingers had been broken and not set, her left foot had been flayed, with bones pushing up against the scar tissue in peaks that threatened to tear through again.

A feeding tube had been forced through a nose already broken, the dark shadows of trauma framed her closed eyes. The hinge of her jaw jutted out just below her ear and her misaligned teeth clenched behind dry, cracked lips.

“Well?” Corso’s voice pierced through the stifling silence like a slug thrower shot. “Will she live? She has to live. Please.”

Doc turned to them, his complexion ashen, his lips pulled tight, his eyes without promise. “You can all see the external damage, and how malnourished she is, how she’s alive I can’t even begin to guess. Only the massive amounts of kolto in her system have prevented rampant infection, and she is severely dehydrated. She also suffers from a non-genetic form of Osteogenesis Imperfecta or brittle bone disease. She has micro fractures everywhere, but the ones in her spine are the most worrisome. We have to find a way to remove her from here and get her to a decent medical facility where I can begin analysis and treatment.”

Doc checked his scanner again. “There are chemicals in her blood I can’t identify and things traveling through her veins, possibly parasitic in nature, possibly keeping her alive. I just don’t know without the proper equipment. Her systems are so compromised, she’s so weak, I don’t know if she’ll survive being transported to the ship.”

“What of her mind?” asked Scourge.

“All her autonomic functions are working, or she’d already be dead, and there are blips of higher brain function that register on the scans, but not with any regularity. She has all the appearances of a coma patient, but there is something else there as well. More study is required. The main concern is keeping her alive and getting her off this force-forsaken moon.”

Corso shuffled back and forth, scrubbing his hand across the back of his neck, trying to rub some feeling back into his shoulder, needing to hold her, comfort her as he’d always done. He hurt when he looked at her. From toes to balls and balls to brains, he ached, a mordant clawing misery that shredded his heart and laid it bare.          

From far away he heard Scourge ask, “what about the probes?”

Doc fiddled with his mustache and checked the scanner again. “They’re embedded deep. We must find some sort of release mechanism to remove them. Perhaps the room that remains locked? A lab perhaps?”

“T7, have you been able to unlock the room marked as the lab yet?” A series of whistles and beeps came through the commlink. “He says he is close.”

“The question still remains; how do we move her?” said Doc. “What can you force users do to help? Surely you can restore some vitality to her body, enough to stabilize her at least?”

“I know little of the healing arts since my talents lie elsewhere,” said Scourge. “Dark healing is painful at best and could throw her into convulsions at worst.”

“Kira and I are much the same, both of us warriors not adept in healing practices. Scourge has also said that his darkness sensed her, an influx of light could cause more harm than good and what was done to her has nothing to do with the light.”

“Then we are at an impasse and time whittles away at her life.”

“Perhaps if we combined our power,” said Scourge. “Tempered the force somehow between dark and light.”

“And likely blow up this room and everyone in it,” said Kira.

“No, there may be a way.” Sayonar removed the medallion she’d taken from Tajno’s body from the folds of her tunic. “Do you feel it Scourge? Kira? The item has power.”

“And you know what it is?”

“Yes. It’s the pendant of Kaelin Mon, a Jedi exiled for his beliefs centuries ago. One of my ancestors who believed in the Gray. Look at the motif, read the inscriptions. Dark and light, gray in the middle, ‘We Stand.’”

“A conduit, but who would channel such power?”

“I will,” said Kira. “Though I’ve chosen to serve the light, a grain of darkness will always be with me. Subdued, yes, but I fight it every day and will for the rest of my life.”

“My darkness may consume you,” said Scourge.

Kira touched the medallion, light and dark in perfect balance, no conflict, passion and peace in harmony, calm purpose written in achromatic lines. “It is important that we save her?” she asked Scourge.

“Yes. Her gifts cannot be wasted, and she still has a part to play.”

“Then let’s do this.”

Kneeling with the pendant held between them, Scourge grasped the engraved lightning, and Sayonar grasped the sword, Kira gripped the base of the mountain. The rising sun on the bas-relief flared and the three fell into deep meditation. A bubble of energy formed around the trio, light flashed brilliant white, a miasma of black laced through with red and purple lunged against the light. Both caught in a vortex, funneled together, squeezed into a single thread of opalescence and channeled toward Kira’s fingers.

A silvery mist formed over Ky, lowering gauzy tendrils that stroked and wound around her battered body and pulsed with power. The energy of dark and light, yoked together, pouring life into the dying and shoring up cells that had gone awry. Kira’s hand trembled with the strain, beads of sweat broke out on her forehead, and even the giant red Sith wavered under the stress.

Ky’s breathing deepened and steadied, a watery pink flush spread across her cheeks. The mist dispersed into translucent droplets and shattered. Kira and Sayonar sagged, Scourge caught them both and hugged them to his chest, fighting to stay upright himself. The medallion clattered to the floor, spinning on its edge before falling flat and face up. Doc breathed a sigh of relief, Corso stumbled back into the wall, hand across his mouth, afraid to ask, afraid to hope.

Doc ran another scan, a frown scrunching his brows together. “We need to move her soon. Whatever strength you gave her will not last, and we still have the probes to remove.”

T7’s binary erupted from Scourge’s commlink in a series of chirps and beeps. The lab door was unlocked.

Scourge hoisted himself to his feet, pulling Sayonar and Kira with him. “We need a hover-stretcher and answers. I’ll be back.”

An hour later, they all stood in Tajno’s lab. Seven technicians and the doctor lined up in front of the row of interrogation chairs, Tajno’s surviving children on their knees against the wall, guarded by Akaavi and Bowdaar.

A keening wail had exploded from Bowdaar when he first saw Ky as if his world had crumbled and only his cries of grief could make it right again. A string of Mando’a curses flew from Akaavi’s lips, so much rage with too many places to lay the blame. Gus made an odd sound somewhere between a gurgle and a gulp, anger and shock stuck in his throat with nowhere to spit it out.

The Chagrian moved around the lab, Seph’s mien turned into sharp angles around the ruin of his face.

Skavak didn’t give two shits about any of them. He’d come for her, and his eyes were hard as sapphires under a cold winter moon. He leaned against a table and watched and waited. 

Corso had expected the doctor to be alien, Anomid or Neimoidian, but he was human. Short, bald and well fed. Corso brushed past Scourge, closed his fist around the front of the doctor’s jacket and slammed him into the metal table. “Seems you didn’t miss any meals. Is this where you tortured her? Look at her, you sonuvabitch. I will kill you for what you’ve done.”

“Let him go, Corso,” said Scourge. “We need him to remove the probes. She will surely die if not done properly and we don’t have time for Doc to figure it out.”

Corso rammed the man’s shoulders into the metal, grinning at the loud thud of his head and grimace of pain that played across the doctor’s face. He released his hold and turned away.       

Pasty-faced, hands folded in supplication, the doctor fell to his knees. “Please. I was just following orders. You have no idea what that madman would have done to me, to us.”

“If I had a credit...” Scourge stepped forward. “Get up and stop whining. You have no idea what I will do to you if you don’t remove the probes from her head without further injury. Do it now if you want to live.”

“Move her there.” The doctor pointed to the bank of monitors that blinked to life with images of Ky’s brain as soon as the stretcher was within proximity.

“Doc?” said Scourge, both doctor’s heads turned toward him. “Our Doc, not you,” Scourge clarified. “Supervise if you please.”

“She has a most magnificent brain,” Taj-doc prattled on as he set about turning knobs, flipping switches and removing the probes one by one. “She’s hiding, you know. We tried to ferret her out, but she’s burrowed too deep. I tried to get him to stop the torture, but he was obsessed with her. What he did went beyond the interests of science. Ah, the last one.” He placed the final wriggling filament in a beaker on the table.

“And the injections?” asked Doc.

“Everything is here.” Taj-doc walked to a row of computers. “You can copy all the data and take it with you although there were things he did that had no logic to a scientific mind. Those things are best explained by someone with knowledge of the force. Your Sith or Jedi friends perhaps.”

Taj-doc pointed to a small metal box on the table. “He used that on her also. Some ancient amulet intended to break down the minds’ defenses. Please take it.”

Scourge nodded to Seph who palmed the box and tucked it into his rucksack.  

“Scourge? Come here please,” said Sayonar from across the room surrounded by rows of stasis tubes with adult bodies suspended in a viscous medium.      

The Sith joined her where she stood gazing on a male child frozen in a stasis tube set aside from the others. “Who is this boy?” Scourge addressed Taj-doc.

“Lord Tajno’s son. A tissue donor that decelerated the advance of Lord Tajno’s illness.”

Sayonar’s face flushed with anger. “He used his own son as a lab animal?”

Scourge leaned closer to the glass, invading the child’s mind, searching for any sign of consciousness. No walls, no barriers, just a flat wasteland, with no prints of a single thoughts passage. “The boy is hollow, Nulis. Not force-sensitive and nothing remains of who he was. He is blank like an unused sheet of flimsi. He will feel nothing.”

“I won’t leave this child,” Sayonar’s jaw set hard and stubborn as granite.

“You know the outcome of this. Mercy has no place in what we must do.”

“He is an innocent. Please do not fight me. I will remove and carry him myself if I have to.”

“Remove the boy from the tank,” Scourge said to Taj-doc. “I will carry him from this place.”

Ten minutes later, Scourge stood with the blanket wrapped boy in his arms. Doc and the others had left with the hover-stretcher, only he, Sayonar, Corso and Rusk remained though he detected Skavak’s presence just outside the door.

“I’ve done everything you asked. You promised to let me live.” Taj-doc squirmed like a worm on a hook.

The jittering vibrations of fear rattled against Scourge’s darkness, and, oh how he wished he could smell the rank odor. He’d breathe it in like a heady perfume. His eyes settled on the quavering doctor with no more concern than the sole of his boot observing an insect. “I never promised you could live and I never said you could leave.”

Scourge pivoted on his heel, Sayonar tugged on Corso’s sleeve to follow. Scourge turned just once before exiting through the door. “Rusk, you know what to do. Finish this.”

Chapter Text

Skavak fell in beside Corso. The jackhammer report of the assault cannon followed them to the lift. Pleading screams and shattering glass disintegrated into silence and the occasional sputter of dying electronics. They lost sight of Rusk as the lift took them to the next level.

Rusk was a zealot where the Republic was concerned and hated Scourge to his core, but he was also pragmatic and unemotional with a selective conscience. The mission always came first. He didn’t question, he didn’t balk, and he was a damned fine demolitions expert.

The Chagrian stepped off the lift and depressed the detonator, the floor bucked, and Rusk's silhouette was lost in the dust that erupted from the lift shaft. He jogged to catch up with the others and gave Scourge a curt nod. T7 had joined them. The Sith pressed the entry-level button, and as soon as they stepped off the lift, the earth trembled.

“The Soledad isn’t too far away,” said Seph. “A ride to the Segomo might be nice.”

Scourge’s eyes squinted against the glare filling the exit door. “And prudent since Rusk has damaged the cooling conduits to the bunker’s reactor core, and once it overheats, this entire complex will be a smoking crater.”

In minutes, the Soledad had made its own clearing by the Segomo and settled onto the ground. Ky had been transferred from the stretcher to a medical bed, Scourge still held the boy and prepared to debark to his own ship. “Doc stays here with Ky and her crew. The rest with me.”

Defiance and suspicion rolled off Skavak who stood by the door of the medbay with crossed arms. “I’m going to stay with Ky.”

Scourge pinned the man with a gaze that brooked no argument. “You will come with me. Do not let the child in my arms fool you.”

“You can’t keep me from her forever.”

“No. But now is not the time.”

Corso’s urge to punch Skavak or shoot him and kick his corpse where it dropped congealed into a hefty pocketful of wishful thinking. His fingers itched to dig in and lighten the load. “Destination?” he snarled.

“We are taking the boy to Tython. You will take Ky to Coruscant. Physically it may be her only chance if she survives the trip.”

Two vessels lifted into the falling night, rose beyond the curvature of the forest moon, hovered above the weak gravity well and waited. A drop of fire splashed on the surface, a dribble of yellow in an expanding palette of flame, scorching trees and sentients, bugs and worms in a circle of cinders and ash.

The Segomo – Day 1 of 15

Kira and Sayonar grimaced under the deluge that surged through the force. Scourge weathered the swell that buffeted his darkness standing grim and detached, eyes fixed on the spectacle below.

Sayonar locked her fingers around the Sith’s arm. “I thought they’d feel nothing. All those pitiable creatures locked in their tubes. They screamed, Scourge. They all screamed in the end.”

Scourge covered her hand with his. “Yes, Nulis. And the emperor cried out as well. He will not forget the death of his plans. Tajno was a fool and a puppet, he just never saw the strings.”

“And the boy?” asked Kira.

“He will remain in the guest quarters. Skavak can bunk with Seph and Rusk while you, Sayonar and I take turns attending to his needs and education. He must first learn the tools of survival; eating, drinking, body functions. The cadence of life has been forgotten, he must relearn how to separate the rhythm from the noise.”

Sayonar laid her head against his shoulder. “He’s force-blind. They won’t let him remain at the temple indefinitely.”

“We’ll cross that barrier when the time comes. Seph?”

“Course programmed. Making the jump.”

The Soledad – Day 1 of 13

Bowdaar piloted and Akaavi stood behind the pilot’s chair. Both observed yellow, red and orange eating a hole into the moon like some ravenous monster chewing on spectrums of the color wheel. The charcoal scar of ruin marked the end of its gluttony.

Scourge’s ship stretched and blinked out of sight, Bowdaar made the jump in its wake. Thirteen days to Coruscant and Ky’s life hinged on the enormous ego of a doctor and a thread of hope.   

Akaavi dropped into the co-pilot’s seat, one leg on the floor, the other slung over the armrest. “He won’t make it if she dies.”

“I know,” Bowdaar grunted. “The guilt will eat him alive.”

“He’ll fall into a bottle and never crawl back out. The signs are there since Coruscant. What the hell do we do?”

“What we always do when we can’t fight or run. We wait.”

Gus stuck his head in the entrance. “How you guys doing?”

Akaavi stretched her arm against the stitches that had started to pull. “Okay. Thanks for the patch job.”

Gus shrugged. “Not as good as Kimble would have done, but I pass muster as a field medic.”

“That the doctor’s name?” asked Akaavi.

“Yeah. Archiban Kimble. Graduated with honors specializing in xenopathology. He’ll see Ky’s condition as a challenge which means she’s in good hands. It would be too much of a blow to his ego to lose her.”

“Archiban, huh?” Akaavi snorted. “That explains a lot.”

“Stay still, dammit,” Doc cursed at Corso. “I need to drain the hematoma over your eye and give you an injection of antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory for that nose before I can set it. And no kolto until then. If your nose heals wrong you’ll be whistling show tunes out of one nostril for the rest of your life.”

“I can’t see her out of that eye,” grumbled Corso, trying to turn his head again.

Doc grabbed Corso’s chin and yanked his head to face forward. “She’s not going anywhere and so help me, I’m going to knock your ass out if you don’t stay still. The sooner I’m done, the sooner you can get back to your pointless pacing.”

“Anyone ever tell you, you’ve got lousy bedside manner?”

“Says the dimwit who’s causing all the delays.”

“Ow.” Corso winced as the scalpel sliced into the corner of his eyelid followed by wads of gauze to soak up the mess.  

Doc surveyed his handiwork. “There we go. By tomorrow morning you’ll see better but hurt a hell of a lot worse.” He injected a hypospray into Corso’s neck and reached for a sling to support his arm. “You could use some nerve regeneration on that shoulder. Costly and time consuming, but it won’t get better until you do something about it.”

Corso stood up and moved to Ky’s bedside. “Not worried about me. Why Coruscant?”

“She needs a lot of work and I need the medical equipment available at Coruscant University. Sayonar will have sent word so we’ll have no problem getting admittance. Plus,” Doc tugged on his lapels, puffed out his chest, “I’m one of their most distinguished alumni. Graduated with honors, top of the class. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s a very unique case.”

Corso’s brows drew together over the multi-colored landscape of his face. “They’ll use her as a lab rat.”

“No son, they’ll help me heal her body. Her mind, however, is a challenge best seen to on Tython.”

The Segomo – Day 6 of 15

Skavak woke in a foul mood again due to a lumpy mattress, flat pillow and little to no sleep. Getting up hardly seemed worth the effort. The ship was out of booze, he was out of hair gel, the sonic sucked, and everyone treated him as if he had the Ithorian scab-rot or ignored him outright. Bunch of elitist assholes.

He curled his lip. Shared quarters, my ass. Seph mumbled in his sleep, quite loud and colorful at times and the Chagrian never—fucking—moved. He just laid there for hours like a corpse in a coffin, uncanny and creepy as hell.

Skavak rolled out of his bunk. Morning piss, brush teeth, quick shave, slick his hair back with water and pray the shit didn’t fall into his eyes all day long. Scourge could rock the bald look, Skavak preferred to have something for the ladies to hang on to. It’s a life choice.    

Then Ky would enter his head with all the subtlety of a blaster bolt and throw all his righteous pissed off and badass ways right out the airlock. He worried and wrung his hands like somebody’s granny in a snit. Sonofabitch, he needed to see her, and, dammit to hell, he missed her. How fucked up was that?

The galley was empty except for Scourge and Sayonar sitting at the side table, her creamy white hands folded over his. For just an instant Skavak wondered how that worked. From what he’d heard, the Sith couldn’t feel anything. Huh, that had to play hell with a hard-on.

The Sith’s red gaze snapped to him. Fuck! Shut that shit down quick, some thoughts just weren’t worth the risk.      

A cup of caf and a ration bar, breakfast of spacers everywhere. His mouth involuntarily watered when he recalled those little sausages on Port Nowhere at Simel Todd’s bistro. Never question the meat, just savor the flavor. He swallowed with a gulp and leaned against the counter, sipping the too-old caf to wash down the tasteless hull caulk crunching between his molars.   

Sayonar turned in her seat and something glinted between her breasts. Skavak averted his gaze and set the mug on the counter. “That medallion. Ky took it off the bones of some dead Jedi on our first trip into the Eidolon. Something Tuul, if I remember right.”

“Ky flew you into the Eidolon.” Not exactly a question, not exactly a statement. Scourge lifted a brow spur. Skepticism done Sith style.

“Twice, in fact,” said Skavak. “Talking to me might not be such a waste of time after all. Imagine what a person could learn from a lowlife like me.”      

“You never mentioned this before,” said Scourge.

“I had my reasons.”

“The Rommi treasure?”

Skavak raised one shoulder in a non-committal shrug. “That’s Ky’s tale to tell when she comes back to us.” 

Sayonar lifted the medallion, letting it rest in her palm. “You mentioned Tuul. Not Maanak Tuul by any chance?”

“Naw, Gaelan Tuul, I think. Maanak Tuul’s son. Ky found a lot of writings and journals, both were mentioned in the final entry.”

“She still has the journals?”

“Again, that’s her tale to tell. What’s the big deal with the medallion anyway?

“It’s a long story,” said Sayonar.

“I’d say we got time, unless there’s some place more interesting for you to be.”

“This new information does open other avenues of consideration,” said Sayonar. “Generations ago, even before my Lord Scourge was born, one of my ancestors, Kaelin Mon, broke from the Jedi Order to follow the philosophy of the Gray. He feared that strict adherence to the Jedi code would result in apathy and the Sith code in chaos. It’s rumored that even some of the Shan family was involved to the extent that it was better to marry than to burn with repressed passions.”

Sayonar patted the top of Scourge’s hand. “You’ll love this, dear. It’s also said that Kaelin’s wife was Pureblood Sith, though records of her have disappeared over the ages and the blood diluted considerably.”

She flashed a smile at Scourge while stroking her chin and the evident lack of face tendrils.

“Hmm,” he grunted and rotated his hand for her to continue.   

She inclined her head. “Kaelin desired to create a legacy for his heirs, an object of power imbued with both dark and light sides of the force. He left his wife and daughter taking metals and the dust of a crushed Heart of Fire to the Defel on Af’El in the outer rim. Renowned assassins and metallurgists, they fashioned this medallion according to a vision he had. They forged an alloy to give the medallion strength and a Heart of Fire is said to hold part of a person’s spirit. It was created to last and carry a piece of him through the ages.”

Skavak refilled his mug. “So, what happened to him?”

“He was captured by the empire on his way home. Stories vary, some say he was spotted by a Sith Lord on Af’El, others say he was betrayed by the Defel. Archives say the Emperor killed him in his attempts to turn the gray into total darkness.”

Scourge twisted a tendril ring, his eyes fixated on the medallion. “I remember where I’ve seen it before. It all makes sense now. A painting that hangs in the Emperor’s inner sanctum shows that same medallion around his neck. Of course, by the time I entered his employ, the medallion was already gone. I remember reading about a pendant that could not be destroyed or corrupted no matter how the Emperor tried. I dismissed it as Jedi propaganda.”

“Of course, you did.” Sayonar puckered her lips into a patient moue as if speaking to an impertinent child.

Scourge narrowed his eyes but said nothing.

Skavak emptied the mug and set it in the sink. “Question is, how did Maanak Tuul get his hands on it?”         

“I can’t answer that,” said Sayonar. “Maybe it was stolen or given away. We may find answers in those journals that Ky held on to. What I find most ironic is that the dark side influence of the medallion may have come from the Emperor himself.”

“Yet I sense nothing of him,” admitted Scourge.

“Perfect balance, my love. I sense nothing of Kaelin either, only a faint calling of blood to blood.”

“A bunch of force hogwash if you ask me,” grumbled Skavak.

Sayonar’s rebuttal came swiftly. “Force hogwash that saved Ky’s life.”    

“Maybe.”

Sayonar let the medallion fall against her chest and stood to leave. “Kira will need her break soon and it’s my turn with the boy.”

Scourge followed her through the door, his voice drifting back to Skavak from the corridor. “So, pureblood Sith in your heritage.”

The thud of a fist hitting leather. “Shut it, red boy.”

Skavak rolled his eyes. “Ain’t love grand.”

The Soledad – Day 9 of 13

Corso ran his tongue over his teeth. They felt sticky and dry. Ugh. He’d slept with his mouth open again likely snoring like a Gundark with a cold. Sorry Doc, but I warned you not to give me that pill.

The cot sagged under his weight, his neck crimped at a weird angle on the pillow that hung half off the side and his back ached like he’d slept on a bag of rocks. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and cracked them open enough to see Ky’s legs where she floated in the kolto tank not four feet from his face. 

“Mornin’ baby,” he rasped and pushed himself to a sitting position, the cot frame digging into the back of his knees. A man had definitely designed these portable torture devices, no woman would put another human being through such misery. Well, maybe a Sith woman, but he wasn’t going there.

He stood, stretched and placed a kiss on the glass at the approximate location of Ky’s lips. Doc would be annoyed by the smudge, Corso didn’t care. “I miss your tongue, babe. Be back soon.”

He walked into the ‘fresher just off their quarters, the bed remained untouched. Morning piss, brush teeth, quick shave, run comb through hair, change clothes. The routine was actually comforting in a mundane sort of way. His brain was too full of worry and guilt buzzing everywhere at once. It was nice to hop off the crazy tram for a few minutes each day and take the delivery route, slow as shit, but he never got lost.    

The back of his hand skimmed the robe he’d bought for her on Rishi when he reached into the closet for a shirt. He stopped to rub his fingers on one of the fuchsia flowers, the silky threads weaving his mind back to the mental image of her indelibly imprinted on his memory. She sat on that squeaky-ass bed, the robe falling away from her crossed legs, the top draped open to reveal the curve of her breasts, her dark hair falling across her shoulders.

His mind snapped back to the here and now. They shaved her head. They tortured her. He’d kill them all again if he could, but slower; cut for cut, bruise for bruise, broken bone for broken bone. Their ending was too quick and too merciful.

‘Stop it!’ his mind yelled. ‘Don’t become this. She needs you not to become this.’

He nodded in agreement, tucked his shirt into his pants, slipped into his boots, slapped a smile on his face and returned to the medbay.

The Segomo – Day 13 of 15

“Mr. Skavak. I would like a word with you.” Lord Scourge walked into the galley and closed the door behind him.

Skavak looked up from his datapad. “Seems I’m a captive audience and I doubt you’re gonna stop at one word. As long as this doesn’t end with me floating in vacuum, I’m all ears.”

“What exactly are your intentions concerning Ky?”

Skavak powered down the datapad, his blue eyes sparked against the crimson orbs boring into him from across the room. He leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs beneath the table. “What the hell kind of question is that and what’s it to you? Hate to state the obvious, but I’m not seeing a strong family resemblance. You’re not her brother and you’re damned sure not her daddy.”

Scourge ignored the barb. “She will arrive on Tython in a few weeks. Do you intend to be there?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes I do.”

“And should she wake and decide to leave with you, what then?”

“Then we leave and get on with our lives.”

“And what kind of life would that be?”

“I don’t have to listen to this shit. Twenty questions are over.” Skavak placed his feet on the floor, hands on the table, pushing upward to stand only to be shoved back into the chair. The legs squealed across the floor.

“I am not finished,” growled Scourge. “You love her. It is new and exciting and something you have never had before and do not quite know how to handle. You sleep in her bed and eat at her table and life settles into routine. Days, months perhaps years pass and you get bored and restless because that’s who you are. An opportunity comes your way, ethically questionable, morally ambivalent and you just can’t help yourself. You take the deal.”

Skavak tried to speak but words were locked in his throat. Scourge continued. “It is the risk you crave, the possibility of getting caught or pulling it off and thumbing your nose at the universe. You and she argue, hateful words thrown like punches, but cutting like knives. She cannot follow the razor’s edge you walk and you cannot stay rooted in the ground she stands on. So, you leave with all those words you cannot take back building a wall between you and you have ruined the one good thing in your life. You will wallow in bitterness and spite because, in the end, you are a thief and all you have done is stolen time from this woman you love and left her broken and alone. Tell me I am wrong, make me believe I am wrong and this conversation ends now.”

Skavak rubbed his neck and coughed, his eyes watering. “Already tried and convicted, huh? Corso walked away, something I never did. What the hell makes him any better than me?”

“With a few exceptions, all men are the same at their core, one no better or worse than the next. Their decisions make them who they are, the ability to learn from their mistakes shape their future. The difference between you and Corso is that he loves her enough to change for a lifetime. Can you say the same?”

Bewilderment swept across Skavak’s face as if staring at a puzzle and trying to figure out how all the pieces fit. How he fit. “You’re saying I should leave?”

“I am not saying anything at all.” Scourge opened the door and stepped into the corridor. “I leave you to your thoughts.”

Ky’s Sanctuary – Day – Who’s keeping track?

Ky floated on her back in a sea of aquamarine, her head lying on the crest of Skavak’s shoulder, his arms supporting her, his hands on her breasts. Her legs locked around Corso’s waist, his one hand cupped under her ass the other at the apex of her pelvis, his thumb rotating... Ah, there. Weightless and hanging on the cusp of release, she moved to the rhythm of the tide and the drive of Corso’s hips.    

Her arm sliced through the water, searching by touch, reaching down and back and... Oh, there you are. Her fingers wrapped and pressed her palm against the smooth hardness. Skavak squeezed her breasts hard enough to bruise and she rode the pain, stroking him to the throbbing beat of her own pulse.      

“Faster,” Skavak breathed into her ear. A new word, that’s my good boy.

Her gaze traveled the length of her body and locked onto Corso’s eyes. Intense and dark and watching her. His pink tongue licked his lips, his teeth flashed, beautiful predator ensnared in the net of her thighs.

Ebb and flow, caught in the current, churning to a frenzy beneath the lapping surface of the salty sea. Skavak groaned and erupted, a sluice of warmth skimmed her knuckles, his knees buckled and water slapped against her chin. Corso clenched his jaw and plunged deep, deep, his fingers biting into her skin.

Her head rolled back and she rose into the bliss under the heat of a tangerine sun.   

Chapter Text

The hover-stretcher barely moved when Ky was transferred from the medbay bed. Gaunt and frail and too small to register the weight, her body was nearly lost in the folds of the sheet covering her. The bruises were gone, the cuts and abrasions healed, but new scars marred her skin like trenches of war. Her hair had started to grow, spiking around her head like a crown.

Her hand was cool and dry and taken from him when Doc and the medtechs began to move. Bowdaar, Gus, and Akaavi stayed behind, and he was alone with the residual sensation of her hand in his and his feet trudging to the waiting speeders.   

Kriffing Coruscant. Corso stared out the clear canopy of the enclosed speeder that followed the vehicle transporting Ky and Doc to the Medical wing of the University. Levels snapped by with military precision and windows blinked, backlit with a yellow glow or shaded against intruding eyes. The steady traffic whined a bitter reminder that life goes on with people scurrying to fulfill their tiny purposes in their own tiny worlds. Stars, I hate this kriffing planet.  

The landing pad approached with a bright neon sign hanging from the ceiling declaring the destination in glaring red letters; Fobosi District. Arrowed guideposts directed travelers to various institutions and points of interest; Fobosi District Medical Center, University of Coruscant, Skydome Botanical Gardens. The Works sign was a sub note, this way and down, watch your step.            

The medical wing buzzed with students and doctors and an intercom that summoned people hither and thither with its disembodied voice. Hours old caf, the bite of antiseptic and strong disinfectant tried and failed to mask odors that nobody wanted to name. The sobbing of bad news, the crying of good news bounced from the walls where miracles dwelled, and death lurked in every chink and crack. Numb to the green paint, the mirror slick floors, and the sound of his own breathing, Corso nearly collided with Doc who’d come to a stop just outside double sliding doors with a ‘staff only’ sign.

“This is as far as you go,” Doc said. “There’s a waiting room over there, but trust me, this isn’t going to be an overnight stay or an outpatient procedure.”

He laid his hand on Corso’s shoulder. “Give Ole Doc time. I’ll figure this out, and she’ll be right as rain before you know it.”

Corso’s eyes brimmed with fear at letting her out of his sight. “Can I have just a minute with her, please? I’ll be careful.”

Doc patted his shoulder and turned away. “Just a minute.”

All the words Corso wanted to say sat in a thick clump at the back of his throat. Her face, pale and unaware lay a breath away with skin stretched so tight over cheekbones, chin, and jaw, it might split if he blew on it. He stroked the tips of her hair, silky spindles tickling the pads of his fingers. An utterance slipped past his lips, six words, a plea, and a declaration. “Don’t leave me. I love you.”

A kiss, light as a whisper, urgent as a prayer pressed against her forehead. Corso straightened his back, ramrod stiff and full of pretense that he was fine. “You can take her now.”

Doors opened, and she disappeared behind a wall of steel. Corso froze, staring at the sign, dumbfounded as if lightning had lit him up and burned him out. A kindly voice spoke to him in words he barely heard and led him to the visitor’s lounge.

He crashed on the couch, a derelict wreck sinking slowly for four days, existing on caf and half-eaten sandwiches from the courtesy cart that rolled by twice a day.

Doc came by once spouting medical jargon that hardly qualified as a valid language. Something about an exchange transfusion, liver damage and kick-starting collagen production and temporary infusions for her bones. Subatomic particles, half tech, half organic embedded in her cells. No removal, no cure. Still comatose, but alive. Thank the Maker, alive.   

‘Love her strong.’ His internal voice, the one that had seen him through the horror of Singat 9 broke through the stupor. ‘She needs you strong so get the fuck up.’

Corso scrubbed his hands through his hair, once again aware of the noise of humanity around him. The sage green walls and the slick floors came into focus. One foot in front of the other, it was a start. He stopped by the desk to leave a message for Doc to contact him if there was any change and that he’d be back in a couple of days.

Corso found Bowdaar and Akaavi in the common room of the Soledad, growling at each other over a game of dejarik. Someone’s Kintan strider was doing a victory dance over a downed Houjiix. They paused when he entered.

“No word yet,” Corso said before either had a chance to ask. “And I don’t know how long we’ll be here. I have to speak with Rona, and she’s not gonna be pleased that I just bailed on her. You guys look like you could use some time off the ship and I’d like you both to go with me.”

“You smell like osik.” Akaavi wrinkled her nose.

Corso pulled the top of his shirt out and buried his nose, coming up for air with a grimace. “Shower’s on the list and can you have C2 scrounge up something to eat? I ‘bout passed out on my way here and I won’t do Ky any good if I die of starvation.” He almost chuckled at the expression of disbelief on their faces. “Yeah, I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but I do catch on eventually.”

They took a taxi to the Factory District and stairs to level 5093 and the Warehouse District, keeping to the shadows and avoiding contact with passersby, though Bowdaar drew some unwanted attention. Corso had patrolled here with Sprocket and knew every alley, security cam, and blind spot.

The atmosphere of the Short Shrift cantina was unfriendly on the best of days, now it was downright hostile. Jix, the Houk, stood solitary guard in front of Rona’s office. Ando, the human, was nowhere in sight. Bowdaar covered their backs, Akaavi stood at Corso’s side.

“I need to see Rona,” said Corso.

The Houk’s waddle quivered when he spoke. “She no want see you. Go way.”

“Jix, I kicked your ass once, what the hell do you think she’s gonna do?” Corso hitched his head at Akaavi who obliged with her best scowl and showed the edge of her teeth. “She hasn’t had a fight in weeks, and you know how that shit builds up with her kind. Just be a good fella and let Rona know I’m here. I don’t want any trouble and trust me, neither do you.”

Corso glanced at the security camera over the door. Rona already knew he was there, Jix was just for show. Cleaning up after a bar fight was expensive and something she’d weigh heavily in her decision. The door slid open.

Rona stood behind her desk. “You’ve got some nerve, cousin.”

“Just here to talk, Rona. Sorry, I had to leave in a hurry, but there wasn’t time to explain.”

“The spacer bitch again, huh? You had a good thing here. You sure she’s worth it?”

Corso didn’t hit women, but right now, family or not, the urge to slap the smirk off Rona’s face was damned tempting. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“You never were too bright, cuz. If you came for severance pay, there isn’t any. Replacing assets is costly. Nothing personal, it’s just business.”

Just business. How many times had he heard that before and it still smarted. “Nice to know where I stand.”

Rona sat, her hands pretending to be busy with her datapad. “You knew where you stood from the beginning. I never bullshitted you about anything. What do you want, Corso? I’m busy.”

“Came to say goodbye. Where’s Nay’la? I didn’t see her in the cantina.”

A snarl lifted one side of Rona’s mouth. “I figured you’d taken your little piece of tail with you. She could be dead for all I care. Haven’t seen her since you left. Never showed up for work.”

Corso’s gut twisted as if he’d just now seen Rona for who she really was, and he wanted no part of it. “Then I guess we got nothing left to talk about.”

“Just one last thing.” Rona leaned back in the chair, her eyes small and mean. “Don’t come running back to me when she breaks your heart again and you’ve got no place else to go. I don’t give second chances, not even to family. You’re on your own.”

Corso glanced at Bowdaar and then Akaavi. “Aliit ori’shya tal’din,” he said in less than perfect Mando’a. “Goodbye, Miss Riggs.”

“Your Mando’a could use some work, but vor entye, thank you,” said Akaavi after they’d left the cantina.

“Your cousin has no honor and does not deserve to share the same blood as you,” growled Bowdaar.

Praise from the Wookie and the Mandalorian left Corso wordless. He could only nod his head as they strode forward, three abreast, as close to family as he’d ever get.

Akaavi and Bowdaar tucked into an alley near Corso’s apartment, close enough to come to his aid should he need them. He had one more thing to do.  

The stairs to his apartment still canted to the left, the corridors gloomy from fixtures so dirty light never escaped the layers of grime. He halted in front of the door, glanced left and right, keyed in the code and toed the door open. The smell of old rot drifted through the entrance. No blaster fire, no knife lunges in the dark. He reached around the wall, pressed the light switch and entered.

Corso squinted against the sudden glare of the single bulb. The musty smell of disuse and long absence mixed with the pungent odor of decay hanging in a near-visible cloud around the unemptied garbage bin.    

A scuffle of feet from behind. Corso pulled his blaster and whirled around. Sprocket stood in the doorway.

“You alone?” asked Corso.

“Yeah.” Sprocket raised his hands to prove they were empty. “What the hell did I tell you about turning your back to an open door? Can I come in? Probably be wise to close the damned thing, and my ass feels a little exposed right now.”

“Just keep your hands where I can see them. The implants still on?”

“Turned off the comm and locater ‘bout half an hour ago. Rona won’t be happy, but, fuck her. Stinks worse than shit in here.”

“Ya think?”

“Damn, you’re twitchy. You got enemies I don’t know about? Can I put my hands down now? Elbows start to ache after a while. It’s an age thing.”

“Sure, but no quick movements. Torchy’s got a bit of a hair trigger.”

“Still naming your weapons, huh? Thought you’d grown out of that shit.”

“Some things just deserve a name. As for enemies, the line starts on the right. Why are you here?”     

“Mind if I sit down?” Sprocket pulled one of the kitchen chairs from under the table and sank into the seat. “I just wanted to say goodbye out of Rona’s earshot. After you disappeared a few weeks ago, she went ballistic, going on and on about how ungrateful you were and how she took you in, gave you a job, protected you only to be betrayed. I take it your meeting didn’t go well?”

“It wasn’t pleasant, but she was my last tie to Ord Mantell. It’s actually a relief it’s over. I had to leave when I did, Sprocket. A matter of life and death. There wasn’t time to explain.”

“I figured as much, even said so to Rona, but she wasn’t having any of it. And put the damned blaster away before your arm gets tired and you accidentally put a hole in my gut.”

“Sorry about that. Trust is on a long waiting list these days.” Corso holstered the blaster.

Sprocket laid his beefy forearms on the table and twined his hands into one fist. “I hear that. Rona’s in way over her head this time. Crawled in bed with the Hutts and the Black Sun higher-ups are watching. It’s got everyone on edge. She brokered a spice deal, lucrative shit for both sides until somebody gets greedy, and someone always gets greedy. Territorial lines got blurred in some districts, and when they come unblurred, all hell’s gonna break loose. You and yours need to be gone before that happens.”

“We’ll be gone as soon as we can. Got circumstances, you understand.”

Sprocket nodded. “Rumor is there’s a Hutt bounty on your lady friend and her crew. Rona’s not above selling you out to gain an edge if she needs it. Just a word to the wise.”

“I appreciate the heads up, but why tell me? You could get a sweet promotion for turning us in.”

“I don’t like back-stabbing deals. You were one of us, and you were her family. People shouldn’t fuck with family. It would’ve been better if she didn’t know you were here, but, a day late and a credit shy as they say. Stay off the grid, keep out of sight and for fuck sake, watch your back. Take the warning for what it’s worth. You aren’t safe here.”

“Hell, why do you put up with it? She’ll get you killed one of these days,” said Corso. “Why don’t you come with me?”

Sprocket shook his head. “Naw. Rona’s living on debt she can’t pay. Sooner or later it’ll all go south, and I aim to be here when it does. When her fall comes, I won’t be the one to push her over the cliff, but I’ll be the one to pick up the pieces. Some people just can’t be saved from themselves.”

“I know. I tried to talk some sense into her a few years ago, but she hasn’t been that little girl on Ord Mantell for a long time. She didn’t listen then, and she won’t listen now.”

Sprocket stood and stretched his back. “I’m getting too old for this shit. A nice cushy desk job might be in the cards after all.”

“What about Nay’la? Rona said she never showed up to work.”

“I’m watching after the girl.” Sprocket raised his hands, warding off Corso’s frown. “Whoa. Not like that. Rona wanted to start pimping her out after you left. Figured the girl might have something special to offer since she caught your eye.”

Corso cringed at the implication. “We did more talking than anything else, mostly about Ky.”

“I thought as much. Nay’la’s a sweet thing and deserves better. I’ll get her off planet as soon as I can, I give you my word. I help one or two a year get off world. Don’t give a shit about Rona’s profits, or the Hutts, it’s the Justicars I want to see taken down. Had a kid brother once, don’t have him anymore. Anyway, I better go, and you need to get out of here too.”

“Just need to get something first.” Corso headed toward the bedroom closet, pried a panel loose and reached inside the wall, pulling out two objects before returning to Sprocket.

“Well, I’ll be damned. An old slug thrower.”

“Yep. Meet Sergeant Boom-Boom and Hewie. Both have saved my life more than once. You better get going before you’re missed.” Corso grasped Sprocket’s extended forearm in a tight grasp. “I’ll give you a few minutes before I slip out. And thanks again, Sprocket. It’s been an honor to know you.”

“You too, kid. See ya around.”

Corso returned to the bedroom and emptied the contents of the drawers and closet into a rucksack, slung the rifle over his shoulder and grabbed the vibrosword. The gin bottle winked seductively from the top of the conservator, he licked his lips and swallowed imaginary fire. Caught in the allure for just one second, he winked back and walked away. Loose ends tied into a secure, if ugly knot, he turned off the lights and turned his back on the past.                 

To wait are the longest days when sleep won’t come, and wakefulness is filled with apprehension, and the end is too far away to be dreamed. Corso lived in between trips to the medical center where the ‘staff only’ sign greeted him and the ship where anticipation poked into his nerves like stinging nettles.

‘Stable but unresponsive.’ ‘Alive but unresponsive.’ Doc’s words revolved like a wheel, spinning in monotonous circles without going anywhere.   

One week, two weeks. Corso marked time and waited.        

Chapter Text

The expanse of the council table seemed to widen between the two Jedi with every sentence spoken. Philosophies, the same and yet so different, spurred Sayonar into more treacherous waters than she’d intended to wade. Good intentions no longer sufficed and the Jedi Order was folding in upon itself, pulling the edges around a tight core of inflexible belief. Lip service and ancient dogma paralyzed them. Abstract thinking and fighting for an ideal would be the death of them all.

“Your indifference to the force-blind is no secret, Grand Master Satele, but the boy requires more time. He’s come so far and learned so much in just a few weeks.”

Twin glaciers held more warmth than Satele’s eyes. “It is not a matter of indifference, but resources. We are woefully short on housing and supplies since the sacking of the Temple on Coruscant. There are younglings to consider and train, and soon your smuggler friend will require attention as well. Be mindful of your emotions, Master Sayonar.”

Sayonar’s gut tightened against the hypocrisy. Force-sensitive younglings but not an ounce of compassion for one broken force-blind boy. “He is bunking with us on the Segomo, and the only room he takes is the fresh air and sunshine and the grass beneath his feet. Tython surely has enough of those things to spare.”

“And what becomes of him when you and Lord Scourge continue your search? Yes, I know about that.”

“I never tried to hide it,” said Sayonar. “My personal time is my own.”

“There is no personal time for a Jedi.”

“Really. Would Master Zho concur if he still lived?”

“Enough.” Satele’s voice sliced through the tension like a rapier. “You have two months to find the boy a suitable home, or he will be remanded to the orphanage on Coruscant. Do not force me to convene the council, Sayonar. They will not side with you on this.”

Summarily dismissed, Sayonar rose from her chair and inclined her head. “Grand Master.” She turned on her heel and walked from the room, the double doors clicked shut behind her.

Lord Scourge stood at the edge of the deserted balcony surveying the temple grounds. His long black cape rustled against the floor and devoured the grace of the sun within its inky folds. His hands tightened on the railing, his knuckles creating a landscape as red and craggy as the peaks of Korriban. Sayonar appeared beside him, and his darkness drank her anger, almost tasting the feverish delight on his tongue.

“I felt your presence from down the hall. I take it the meeting went as you expected but not as you’d hoped?”

She placed her hands on the railing, pinky touching his and his dark essence mourned when her anger died. A derisive snigger puffed through the flat line of her lips. “We try so hard to protect the whole of the Republic and forget the needs of the individual. Without the pieces, the entirety is lost. Protect the innocent until it becomes inconvenient. Don’t love the individual for that leads to the dark side. The more I see, the more torn I become.”

“Perhaps my presence and this constant questing for a cure are having undue influence. Maybe I should leave for a time and let you clear your thoughts.”

Her palm settled across his knuckles, fingers disappearing between his and folding into a fist of red and white. “No. Avoidance is not my way. Sometimes I almost believe in the second line of the Sith code; through passion, I gain strength. Or perhaps Kaelin Mon was correct that balance is the only way. I am seeking answers, love.”

She jutted her chin toward the retreating back of a man strolling into the tree line bordering the temple lawns. “Like him, the best decision is made when faced with the object of one’s confusion.”

“Then I will stay, Nulis. We will speak of the Jedi and the Sith codes and the code of the Gray. You will find your answers just as he will find his.”

Skavak slipped between the trunks of the trees, leaving the manicured grass of the lawn behind to wade in knee deep shrubs, ferns, and stunted saplings. A faint trail of disturbed leaf litter and broken twigs marked the path he’d taken every day for nearly three weeks. The clean aroma of pine and the pungent odor of decaying vegetation hung in the cooling breeze that swept across his face. Dappled blotches of shadow traveled across the creamy white fabric of his shirt, a bird called in the distance, and the canopy above rustled with creatures going about their business.

He was being followed, of course, but whoever they were stayed back and out of sight. More at home in jungles of duracrete, smoke-filled cantinas and dowdy backroom gambling dens, the serenity here gnawed at him and yet he couldn’t stay away. Something about this place made a man look deep inside and face truths the noise of the city drowned out. Introspection required a conscience. His had been beaten out of him when he was a kid, saving Ky had brought it back, and in his line of work, conscience was a luxury he could ill afford.  

The stream came into view, water sparkling and gurgling on its way to nowhere, confined in its banks, set in motion and following the laws of gravity to whatever end. He sat in his favorite spot, rough, sun-heated stone spreading tendrils of warmth into his ass and hips, thighs and knees. Tiny fish swam against the current or struggled to stay in place. The story of his life.

He carried Scourge’s words like drowning stones tied around his neck and each question drug him down just a little more. Did he love her? Damned if he knew. She’d used him, and he’d used her until it wasn’t using any more. They’d gone from verbal combat to desperate, angry fucking to making love, but when the loving was done, and she lay beside him—damn. Everything fell into place, and it was the closest thing to home he’d ever known.

Could he change for a lifetime? There was the rub. He’d been a runner as long as he could remember, pickpocket to Ponzi schemes, gutter rat to rubbing elbows with Moffs. He’d lived on his wits and his looks, slept on rags and silks, drunk two credit rotgut and sipped champagne from the navel of a Republic senator’s wife. Spice dealer and slaver, short-term transactions, short-term lovers, perpetual motion, content with his restless heart until he’d met her.

What the fuck was he doing? Guys like him don’t get the happy ending. They don’t get the girl. She’d choose the farm boy and all this hand wringing and soul searching wouldn’t mean shit. She’d arrive on Tython in a few days, and he’d know what to do when he saw her face.

#

Ky sat on the edge of the blanket, hugging her knees to her chest and digging her toes in the sand. Skavak walked along the beach, pants rolled up, bare-chested, tall and lean with salt spray dancing on his sun-kissed shoulders. Corso lay on his stomach at her side, face buried in the crook of his arm, snoozing in the shade.

She was at peace and yet something was wrong, undefinable and nagging at the fringe of awareness. Murmurs and whispers coiled through the air, phantasmal words hung at the edge of comprehension and disappeared in the wind. Snatches of conversation caught and tossed aside. A vicious, heartless attempt at trickery using Corso’s voice to lure her out, ‘don’t leave me, I love you,’ or maybe she was finally going mad.   

A strange haze hung over the landscape, and the borders of this world lay hidden in banks of fog that she could not dispel. They crept closer every day, obscuring boundaries that once had spread to infinity. This place was safety and love without consequence, worry or sorrow. Out there was pain and terror and the inability to fight past the torturous shattering of body and mind. No one was coming to save her. Better to stay and disappear in the fog than face the cruelty of never going home again.

#

Her hand lay in Corso’s, the skin warm and pliant under his thumb that stroked back and forth. A little over a month had passed, and the Soledad made the jump to Tython leaving Coruscant behind. Two more days of travel to the Jedi world where healers, sages, and seers waited to break the walls of the prison inside her mind if they could be broken at all.

Doc checked and rechecked the tubes and wires attached to her arms, chest, and head. Machinery emitted the steady beep of her heartbeat and readouts flashed across the screens.

“I’ve done as much for her physically as I can.” Doc stopped fussing with the IV in her arm and stepped back to scan the data scrolling down the monitor. “The rest is up to her.”

“And?” Corso never lifted his gaze from her face.

“There are still questions I haven’t found answers to. She should be suffering muscle atrophy by now, but those particles in her cells are maintaining her tensile and flexural strength. I had to rebreak and set her fingers and her foot, but the bones are mending. Her kidneys are back to full function, but the liver still shows sign of damage. Her drinking days are over, and she’ll never have children, though I expect she’s known for a while.”

Corso brushed her cheek with the back of his knuckles. Dammit, Ky. Another reason she’d tried to force him from her life. As if that mattered. She was enough, she’d always been enough.

Doc shunted his gaze from Corso’s face back to the monitors. “Sorry son, I thought you knew. Anyway, her body is riddled with these things especially along the neural pathways of her brain. Whether they were introduced by Tajno or had lain dormant and something he did activated them is anybody’s guess. They are self-sustaining, bonded by agents I can’t define and surrounded by a form of energy I’ve yet to identify. Right now, they’re doing more good than harm, and I couldn’t extract them even if I wanted to.”

“Scourge might have some insight about that. She was in the clutches of the Emperor for two years when she was a young girl.”

Doc pulled a chair over and sat down. “That figures, fucking bastard. I’m a man of science bound to the knowledge of the physical world, but all that metaphysical bullshit is beyond my scope of understanding. I can heal what I know, make an educated guess at the rest of it and the research could take decades.”

“And where does that leave her?”

“Technically, I can keep her alive indefinitely with IV fluids and forced feedings, but afflictions of the mind are not my expertise. I can give the Jedi time to work their mumbo jumbo. However, if she doesn’t come around, eventually you may have to make a choice. I hate to lay that at your feet but, there you have it.”

Corso shut that door before it could open. “Don’t ever say that again. She’ll come back to me, no matter how long it takes.”

Clearance received and instructions given, Akaavi proceeded to the landing bay where one of the medical staff waited with Scourge and Sayonar. Skavak stood off to the side, a dour expression plastered on his face, his arms folded across his chest.  

The hover-stretcher appeared on the ramp followed by a procession of the ship’s occupants, Doc, Corso, and the rest. Skavak craned his neck to glimpse her face, gaunt and pale, her hair lying in short, dark waves in stark contrast to her skin. Animosity arced through the air like an ion storm in low atmosphere when his eyes locked with Corso’s. The moment passed, the procession passed, and he fell in at the end of the line.

A Mirialan stood at the entrance to the medical wing of the temple, a pale yellow Twi’lek at his side. Olive skinned, black-haired and kind eyes, he stepped forward as they approached.

“Who’s he?” murmured Corso.

“Master Attros Finn,” replied Sayonar. “He’s had a great deal of experience with maladies of the mind.”

She gave a slight bow to the Mirialan. “Master Finn. I’m gratified that you could leave your duties on Coruscant.”

“I arrived a few days ago at the Grand Master’s request to resolve a problem with a knight who’d been held in an imperial prison on Nar Shaddaa. This is my assistant Pharen.”

“You were on Coruscant and didn’t offer to help?” asked Corso.

“One thing at a time,” said Doc. “Healing the body was the first priority.”

“I’ll take her from here.” Finn nodded to Pharen who moved to push the hover-stretcher toward the door. “Master Sayonar, Lord Scourge and Doctor Kimble are welcome to attend.” He addressed Corso. “You and the others must stay here.  Emotional distractions may interfere with the process, and it will take some time.”

“How long?” Skavak’s voice rang out from the back of the crowd.

“A few days perhaps a week. Leave us to our work, we will do what we can.”

Akaavi, Bowdaar, and Gus returned to the ship, Skavak disappeared, and Corso paced the hallway for five days, leaving only long enough to shower and eat or use the ‘fresher. People came and went, no word from Doc, Scourge or Sayonar. His nerves lay in tight knots, fraying at the ends, and he told himself the little lies that made the waiting bearable.

The door slid open, and Scourge beckoned him inside without a word. Polished marble tile hallway, unused rooms or closed doors along the route and Ky’s room situated near the end. Scourge entered, and Corso halted at the door, unable to move. Equipment buzzed and hummed and beeped, Finn and Doc stood by the bed, their solemn faces answered the question he’d yet to ask.

Finn blotted his lips together then spoke in a tone, so hushed Corso strained to hear. “I’m sorry, but we cannot reach her. She’s either too frightened or simply cannot drop the walls, and we cannot breach them. We’ve encountered Sith alchemy before, but nothing like this.”

Doc hung his head as if ashamed to admit there was nothing he could do. “There is a cluster of those constructs, for lack of a better word, in the cerebral cortex and neural pathways that shouldn’t exist. The technology is so thoroughly integrated any attempt at deconstruction would kill her. She has to come out on her own if she ever comes out at all.”

Scourge spoke next. “I explained to you about Project Creation and the spies that never broke and now I understand why. When she could no longer endure the torture, she ran the only way she knew how using the escape route the Emperor provided. She may never return. Perhaps the kindest act would be to let her go.”

It was all too much to take in, and anguish flowed through Corso like lava through a narrow canyon. “Why does everyone keep saying that. I can’t let go. We need more time. Thank you all, but I’d like to be alone with her now.”

“Hey, babe.” He sat beside the bed and gathered her hand in his. “Things don’t look too good right now, but I won’t give up and, dammit, don’t you give up either. I didn’t rescue you just to lose you. I’ll think of something.”

He sat for hours while sorrow and determination warred for his attention. He’d never been so scattered and yet so focused in his life. She was his to love and his to save, and the answer was there, he just needed time to find it.

The rest of the crew would be waiting for word. He kissed her lips and promised to be back soon. The man hidden behind a column went unnoticed as well as the man shadowing the man.

Skavak stepped into the lighted corridor and made his way toward the double doors.

“So, you intend to see her?” Scourge’s voice snuck up on Skavak before his footsteps did.

“Shit!” Skavak’s hand dropped to his side where his blaster should have been and whirled around. “You move awful damn quiet for a big man. Next time give a guy some warning, huh?”

“I am Sith. We don’t give warnings, and you didn’t answer my question.”

Flustered that he’d reached for a weapon he didn’t have, Skavak tucked his fingers into his pocket and stared the Sith in the eye. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about what you said, and yes, I intend to see her, if you catch my drift.”

“Then I will ensure you are not disturbed.”

Yeah, he had to see her face to muster up the courage to say what needed to be said. Skavak sidled up to the bed and meticulously scrutinized every line. Her jaw and chin, a little too square, the slightly crooked nose, the vertical scar on her upper lip and the stippled burn scars just in front of her left ear. Long lashes feathered an arch inside the mauve circles under her eyes, and a faint rosy blush colored her cheeks. Flawed and beautiful and imprinted on his mind forever. He smoothed her hair back from her forehead and leaned in.

“Hey tough girl, remember me? I’m the asshole who talked you into this mess, and also the asshole who came for you. I wish like hell I’d be one to save you, but, I’ll leave that to a better man. I don’t know how to love you, I just know that I do, but I’m not built for the long haul and that’s why I have to go.”  

He dug a data crystal from his pocket and placed it in her palm folding her fingers to hold it secure. “I made a copy of the star charts. Figured you’d want to see all those new places. I’d love to be the one going with you. And Ky, use it to run if you need to, they’ll never catch you. They wouldn’t know how.”

Angry voices drifted in from the hallway, but he wasn’t done yet. He leaned over her face, closer this time. “I want to stay, honest I do, but there’s no angle to work where either of us comes out ahead. Come back to him, grow old and gray and live well. I’m just sorry I’m not the one to see it through.”

He closed his eyes as if that could block out the ending of them. “Damn, I hope we never meet again ‘cause I don’t think I could walk away from you a second time.”

A long kiss, a final taste of her he could file away with all the other kisses. He’d like to believe she felt it too.

Time to run, toward trouble, from trouble, it was all familiar and all the same. Straight back and set jaw, he left the room and her and strolled into the hall.

“It’s finished, Scourge. I’ll be leaving now.”

Corso surged forward. “What’s finished? What the hell did you do?”

Scourge grabbed Corso’s sleeve and blocked his path.

A smirk toyed with the corner of Skavak’s mouth and his shoulders lifted in an indifferent shrug. “I said goodbye, farm boy. That should make you happy. I’ll be leaving on the first freighter I can catch off this rock. But before I go, I’ve got a little word of advice. I’ve got eyes all over this galaxy so don’t ever walk away from her again, ‘cause I’ll be there and you’ll never get another chance.”

Skavak eyed Scourge and Corso and brushed by the two men. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a whole lot of misbehaving to catch up on.”

Chapter Text

Though nothing had been said, Corso was starting to feel like the guest who’d overstayed his welcome. He used to be ignored or followed by curious stares when he strolled through the temple. Now he was met by averted glances and hushed whispers when he walked by. Master Finn had returned to Coruscant days ago, med staff and cleaning crew came by daily, barely uttering words of greeting, and Doc visited every afternoon. He waited for the other shoe to drop when the Jedi Council decided it was time for them to leave.

His eyes scanned his datapad trying to find the place he’d left off in the book he was reading to Ky. Part of his daily ritual; reading, talking and watching for a sign.

Akaavi, Bowdaar, and Gus were back from their four-day rotation, shuttling supplies and personnel back and forth to Coruscant. It kept them busy, but they chafed under the routine of the past five weeks. Scourge checked in every few days but spent most of his time with Sayonar and Kira tending to and teaching the boy they’d rescued from Tajno’s base.

Corso joined them when he needed a break and fresh air and walked the temple grounds observing the boy and finding some small joy in the laughter and discoveries of a child. The boy improved daily in stumbling steps, stuttered words and a smile that would break your heart. He’d given himself the name Ethan and was so adamant about his choice that no one dared argue. Ethan. Whether an echo from his past or something he’d heard, it was a good, strong name.

Doc walked through the door, chipper as always. “So, how’s my favorite patient today?”

Corso turned off the datapad and rested it on his knee. “She’s your only patient, and nothing has changed. And before you bring it up again, the answer is still no.”

Doc monitored the readouts and checked the tubes keeping her alive. “You know I could force the issue since you aren’t her husband or a blood relative, but the thought of eating my balls, with or without sauce, gives me pause and indigestion. As far as I’m concerned, the matter’s closed.”

Corso’s gaze followed Doc as he moved around the room. “A wise decision.”

“We’ll call it vested self-interest and move on.” Doc straightened one of the tubes and re-taped it to her arm. “You know Scourge, and the rest of us will be leaving soon. What do you intend to do?”

“Scourge said we’re welcome to follow him to Untuar where you can continue Ky’s treatments. I’ll likely take him up on the offer. The Jedi will very politely ask us to leave and then not so politely boot us out the door. I’ve come to grips with a lot of things these past few months. Picking my battles is one of them.”

“Huh. Maybe wisdom is contagious.”

Corso rubbed at a kink in the back of his neck. “Nah. I just feel old is all.”

“Happens to the best of us. See you tomorrow.”

Corso slouched down in the chair and rested his head on the cushioned back. He was twenty-six going on fifty and the weariness of years he hadn’t lived yet burrowed deep in his bones. He’d fought since he was thirteen and lost everything more than once, but it was the waiting that aged a man. It tested his mettle and his patience and whittled away at his life leaving pieces behind like shavings on the floor. Stars, he was tired.

He reached across the bed and wrapped his hand around hers. Just going to rest his eyes for a minute and then find out if the space pirate ever saved the lady. He drifted in that half slumber that descends on lazy afternoons when the mind is numb from routine and too little sleep.  

Her hand twitched.

Corso’s eyes flew open, and he sprang upright in the chair. Thunder boomed overhead, nothing, and again and still nothing. Please, babe. Please. Another rumble echoed through the corridors, then another, and... there it was again, the faintest twitch of her fingers. He knew what he had to do.

They’d think he was crazy, but Tython was all wrong, weaker sun, too cool, forested with the tangy smell of fir and pine. He needed the hot sweet aroma of orchids, moisture-laden air with the sharp bite of salt and thick with memory. He was right about this. He just had to be.

He fished his com out of his pocket. “Akaavi, fire up the ship.”

Twelve days and each second scoured Corso’s nerves like the sands of Tatooine, scratching at the tender places already abraded by weeks of not knowing what to do. He paced the ship, ate with the others and slept with his head on the edge of her mattress cursing his cramped legs and aching back each time he woke up.

Doc traveled with them to see to Ky’s health, Scourge also for reasons of his own. Corso thought his heart would hammer through his ribs when they exited hyperspace, and Bowdaar eased the ship through the layers of atmosphere to land.

“I never thought to see this place again,” grumbled Scourge, his voice hollow behind the respirator mask that hid the bottom of his face.

Prying eyes followed them as they made their way along the boardwalk of the ramshackle town. Bowdaar and Akaavi all but guaranteed no interference, the Sith enforced the warning for the curious to stay away.

The inn and room were the same as the day he’d walked out of her life and memory stretched behind Corso in a ribbon of road already traveled. Ahead he saw the storm roll in, obscuring the light of the late afternoon sun. The breeze transformed into a steady wind that flattened his shirt against his chest and blew his hair back from his face. Lightning flashed in the distance and thunder drummed its fists against the ozone charged air. It was time.

He turned from the balcony and strode past the billowing curtains. “Set her free, Doc. She and I have a date I don’t want to miss.”

Her weight was nothing more than a shadow, her arms, and legs dangling as he carried her down the steps and across the sand. He propped his back against the trunk of a palm and slid to the ground, holding her in his lap, her head on his chest, tucked under his chin. “Wait for it, baby. It’s almost here.”

#

Ky glanced up when something wet splattered on her forehead and ran into her eyes. She hadn’t brought rain to this place with all its memories too precious and painful to recall. Another fat drop fell on her hand, leaving a shining trail of wetness as it rolled across her skin. The sky was cloudless, it doesn't rain here. Another drop and another and a voice calling her name, booming from the azure sky like thunder. "Ky? Baby?"

She covered her ears. “Shut up! Shut up! You're not supposed to talk. I’m not supposed to hear you. You'll ruin it all. It's a trick, a horrible, sick, twisted lie.” She railed against the impossible rain, the taunting voice, and the storm that shouldn’t be.

Her sanctuary shrank the portal opening, trying to spit her out into a cruel world. She couldn’t go back, not to him, not to the horror of what he’d do to her. She’d break if she went back and that sonofabitch would win.

Nowhere to hide. Her blood sang in her ears, thrummed in her veins. Corso and Skavak stood waiting by the shore shrouded in fog that thickened like layers of gauze, hiding them from sight. The fog slithered forward, an evil, hateful thing, devouring everything in its path. It burned like acid, forcing her to run toward the portal, to run through the pouring rain. Terror had claws that ripped the air from her lungs. She was suffocating in the realization that she would die alone, caught in the web of a madman who’d found the means to force her from her perfect world.

She closed her eyes. Lightning flashed in brilliant strobes leaving coronas of light on lids crushed tight against the deluge.

"Ky, I'm here. Open your eyes and look at me. Please come back. Please."

She took a shuddering breath. She'd never been a coward and was damned if she’d die like one. Her eyes fluttered open, the portal shattered into a million glowing shards.

#

Corso's face appeared through the curtains of rain. Blurred around the edges, coming into focus. Brows knit, blinking away the droplets caught in his lashes, one unruly curl plastered to his forehead. Strong and fragile, suspended in expectation, a portrait frozen in a lightning strike. Her sense of reality tilted, unsure of what to trust, she sought truth in the depths of his eyes. "Are you real? Are you here?"

His body quaked with the long exhale. His hand cradled the back of her head, holding her face against the sodden fabric of his collar, his arm hugging her to his chest. He rocked her like a child too long lost in the storm and found at last. "The rain kept its promise, Ky. I'm real, I’m here, and you're home."

Her body shivered, chilled and wet and held tight to the heat of his. Panic settled around her like a thorny vine, brain to body connection not quite right. “I can’t move my arms. My legs.”

“Shh,” he crooned and lifted her palm to his cheek, held it there and cracked wide open like he told himself he wouldn’t. Tears welled hot in his eyes, cooling as they ran down his face and merged with the rain flowing over their hands.

A simple phrase fell from her lips, resurrected from hope she’d left abandoned on a prison cell floor. “You came for me.” 

One raspy word hung on the edge of a vow he’d never break. “Always.”

Promises kept by love and rain and a tattooed face that wasn’t there. She settled into the storm and Corso’s arms and into a silent promise that she’d never leave him again.

Shafts of light pierced through the tattered edge of the fast-moving storm that had better places to be. Only the two of them lingered behind, soaking up the warmth of the sun and each other. Questions and answers faltered behind lips pressed into kisses that said everything. Hungry and tender and all brand new as if they’d just met and trying to break through the shyness.

They clung to each other in the failing light. A giant orange ball lay half buried on the horizon, the harbinger of purple twilight and a million glittering stars. The sounds and smells of dusk rose around them, and Corso lifted her from the sand. “We’d better get back. The others will want to see you and Doc will want to check on your recovery.”

“Do we have to?”

“Afraid so. Your clothes are still damp, and Doc will wring my neck if you come down with a cold after all he’s been through.”

She kissed the underside of his jaw. “Don’t let them stay too long.”

“Tired?”

“Not really. I just want it to be you and me for a bit longer.”

“I’m good with that.”

Ky felt the nudging pressure in her head the moment Corso stepped through the entrance from the balcony. Scourge stood by the hall door, eyes half-hooded, boring into her, scanning, searching deep, his gaze hot, intense and frightening. “The others will see you tomorrow, and we will speak later. I leave you to your rest.” A rustle of fabric and he was gone.

Corso carried her to the ‘fresher, sat her on the edge of the sink counter, folded her knees and placed her feet in the basin. “What was that all about?” he asked as he turned on the water and began to rinse the sand from her legs and feet.

She held herself upright with hands locked around his neck, turning her face from the mirror, afraid of what she’d see. “I guess he wanted to make sure I’m still human.”

He gave her the side-eye over his shoulder. “You’re human enough for me.”

He swung her legs around to dangle off the counter while he grabbed a towel to blot her dry. “Hands and arms next.”

“I’m not a baby, you know, and we could have used the sonic.”

“You’ll always be my baby, and the sonic’s too risky. Hands please.”

Corso placed her between the sheets, sand-free and stripped of the damp hospital gown. The springs squeaked in welcome or a curse, could be either or both. He went to the sonic to clean up, and she lay on her back, eyes fixed on the ceiling fan. The tingling sensation of nerves reborn and muscles newly wakened prickled under her skin. She flexed and stretched and struggled to turn on her side. It was a start.

Corso stood by the fresher door, broad-chested, lean-hipped and just as beautiful as the night all those months ago when she’d traveled the roadmap of his body with her fingertips. A look of wonder and disbelief played around his eyes as if she’d disappear if he blinked or looked away. “Come to bed, love, but leave a light on. I don’t think I can face the dark just yet.”

The springs squealed in protest when Corso’s weight settled behind her and groaned again as he curled himself along the curve of her back. He stretched one arm under her pillow, the other lay across her ribs. She took his hand and clutched it to her chest folding him around her like a blanket.

A tear trickled across the bridge of her nose, a soft shuddering, a broken sigh. Images flashed across her mind, she lived the pain again. The snapping bones, the taste of her own blood, the needles flooding her veins with fire. Tamp it down, it’s over now. He came for me.

Paradise found, and lost and found again. She was no longer alone.  

His lips kissed the back of her neck, the crescent of her shoulder. He pulled her close, his breath a promise across her skin. She cried, and he held her safe from the demons of the night.

Chapter Text

A day and a half, all the time in the world and no time at all. Rumors, scuttlebutt, Seph’s ear to the ground and new arrivals on Rishi had put the Sith Lord ill at ease. Paradise was left behind on full thrust takeoff and the tail end of a warning.

Shipboard routine, learning to walk, building strength, oatmeal and watered-down juice for breakfast, tea and toast for lunch, soup for dinner. Doc said she could upgrade to noodles in a few days. She’d kill for a nerf burger and fries. Corso was by her side through it all, never complaining when her temper got foul, holding her at night with no demands, neither of them addressing the Rancor in the room.

Five days in and she couldn’t sleep.  

“Should you be up?” Scourge didn’t turn around when she entered the cockpit where he stood, hands clasped at the small of his back.

“Old habits die hard.” She shrugged, took a stand at his side and gripped the back of the pilot’s seat for support. “You carry it with you, you know. All the torture packed into a neat little capsule lying in the pit of your gut waiting to explode at a sound or a word or in the dark where the nightmares dwell. I’ll never be free of his touch. It’s like rot you can’t slice away no matter how deep you cut.”

“It will get easier with time.”

She cast a querulous glance his way. “Says the Emperor’s executioner and inquisitor. Have you ever subjected yourself to your own methods?”

His eyes swept to her, dark and steaming like lava hitting water. “The pain was unendurable in the beginning when the Emperor changed me, and I carry his touch always, as do you. It will get easier.” He unclasped his hands and lowered himself into the co-pilot’s seat with more grace than a man his size should possess. “You need to stay on the move.”

“Old news. I’ve got credits to burn and a star map of endless destinations I intend to fully explore. Beryl and her brother are still out there, and too many people know of my physical enhancements. I don’t want to be around when they start asking the hard questions at the end of a needle or a fist. I’ve had quite enough of that.”

A pensive mien tightened the angles of his face. “I have to wonder if the Emperor knows just how close he came to fulfilling the goal of Project Creation when he created you.”   

She sat in the pilot’s chair swiveling it sideways to face him. “If you were going for reassurance, you missed it by a long shot.”

Lines creased his forehead above the brow spur he cocked in her direction. “It was speculation, not reassurance, but still something to consider.”

Ky sank back in the seat. “So, the force then? Is that what you see every time you look at me? Cause I haven’t levitated any cups or saucers yet and I don’t glow in the dark.”

He fixed her with that unsettling, probing stare that made her want to crawl out of her skin and hide. “Not the force, but something else. It’s as if you tap into the knowledge of space and time itself. The Infinite Engine is part of you now, Gree quanta-technology is part of you now. They fuel your cells, your neurotransmitters fire at an unprecedented rate, that is why you can do the things you do. You call and the universe answers.”

She dropped her gaze to a bright spot on the breastplate of his armor. A reflection from the control panel, a focus other than his eyes. “Perhaps the universe should change its call sign. I never wanted any of this.”

“Want counts for nothing and what’s done is done. Now you need to learn to live with the aftermath. Little has changed except you can no longer hide in plain sight.”   

A derisive grunt burst from her throat. “It figures. I finally get enough credits to pay off the Hutts and maybe bribe the Geno into a little internal housekeeping and life takes a giant dump in my cargo bay.”

“You’re lucky to be alive.”

A face danced across her mind. Tattooed, sneering, smiling, laughing, loving; she hadn’t asked but needed the answer. “I’d like to think it was a little more than luck. What about Skavak? Without him, you’d have never found me. I owe him my life.”

Scourge rose from the chair like a column of smoke and looked down at her. “He left soon after you arrived on Tython.”

Thinly veiled expectation glimmered in her eyes. “Did he say anything before he left?”

“A private conversation with you I doubt you heard, and I do not eavesdrop.” A hint of something crossed her face. Relief? Disappointment? Hurt? He wasn’t sure. “Take the gift for what it is, Ky. Don’t go looking for trouble you don’t need.”

She nodded, slow, thoughtful as if agreeing to turn her back on a dilemma she’d never resolve. “And the boy? There was a boy in the lab. Young, maybe ten or twelve, locked in a stasis tube. Did he survive?”

“Sayonar refused to abandon the child to his fate. You will meet him when we reach Tython.”

“Are you sure Tython is the best place for me to be right now?”

“I suspect the Jedi would rather wash their hands of any further involvement. They have jurisdictional autonomy, even from the Republic and will not detain you or allow anyone else to do so. Once you leave the planet, however, you will be on your own.”

“I know how to run,” she muttered at Scourge’s retreating back.

For days she and Corso tiptoed around each other, punctuating long periods of silence with idle chit-chat. The more strength she regained, the more distant he became. He never asked, she never offered, but life had a way of hammering home the sins of the past and the fears of the future. It just required an opening.    

The ship slept. She sat at the galley counter dunking a tea bag into a cup of steaming water watching the liquid turn from pale gold to the decadent caramel of whiskey. A sigh, a sip, she hovered over the cup inhaled the fragrance and let her mind fill with nothing.

The scrape of metal on metal, a tanned arm sliding onto the counter beside hers. She waited, Corso didn’t speak. Not knowing where to begin, she made the first offering. “I made such a mess of things. Of us. didn’t I?”

Sadness hunched his shoulders, pressing his elbows into the hard surface. “We both made a mess of things. I thought I’d lost you forever. Where did you go when you disappeared?”

The truth came automatic, hollow and real. “Rishi. I created Rishi, and I was at peace.”

He stared at some point on the far side of the room. “At peace. Are you sorry I brought you back to all this uncertainty?”

She hadn’t given it any thought and the question caught her off guard. It was hard to look back on a place where she had everything and not feel some regret. But it wasn’t living and it wasn’t dying and it wasn’t worth the cost to those left behind. “No. This is where I belong.”

“At least I did something right. Was I there? In your Rishi?”

“Yes.”

“Anyone else?”

She knew what he was asking, and she could lie, should lie, but covering lies was hard. She wasn’t prepared to dig that hole. “Yes.”

His sigh filled the room, tremulous and heavy like the weight of unshed tears. “I see.”

“No, you don’t.”  

An edge of anger honed by hurt crept into his voice, glinting and barely there like the tip of a knife. “Then explain it to me. Do you love him?”

Ah. There it was. The Rancor was loose, stomping its feet, demanding attention. She laid her hand on his. Tension rippled along his arm as though he wanted to pull away. He didn’t. “I needed the balance of him and you together. His fire, your gentleness, both saved my sanity. I think I loved the idea of him. I love the reality of you.”

He moved impossibly fast, a blur plucking her off the stool and wedging her between the edge of the counter and his body. His fingers dug into her arms, the counter edge ground into her lower back. Inches separated his face from hers, brows locked, teeth clenched, his words gusted across her cheeks. “Never again. You don’t leave me, and I don’t leave you. I can live with whatever you had to do to stay alive, but don’t ever push me away again. I can’t bear to feel that empty.”

She’d spent so much effort trying to protect him that she’d stopped seeing him. There was steel in him now that wasn’t there before, a bedrock of resolve, solid and unwavering. Still, she had to try and explain all the blunders she’d made. “I watched you die twice, and I needed—”

His fingers dug deeper. “You needed, you needed. Shut up, Ky.”

His lips covered hers hungry and hard and not to be denied. He released all his anger, fear, shame and self-doubt into her mouth, she tasted forgiveness and comfort on his tongue. The terror and pain melted under the heat of his touch, swept away in the grip of his hands. 

There was no gentleness in their room, in their bed, in him. No carefully choreographed moves, no holding back. Everything dissolved until only they remained. Him and her. Them, as they were always meant to be. Equals. Positions changed with fluid ease, flowing one to the next; from behind, her on top, him on top, stars...he was magnificent. She opened, and he flowed in her and over her, molten and hot, branded her with his teeth, and made her name a manifesto when he came to his shuddering finish.

She slept for the first time in days, buttressed against the warm wall of flesh at her back, the fighter at her side, the bastion between her and the hunter. He was the forged barrier that held back the dark void of memory and stood between her and the abyss. The boy was gone, the man was hers, and she rested in the perfect being he’d become.

#

Tython, the last core world her feet would touch for a year or two or as long as it took for her to fade into obscurity. Long enough for her records to be shuffled to the back of the file and her name to fall off the bottom of the list. Long enough for the immediate demands of never-ending war to make her face a blur in a throng of thousands.

Sayonar and Kira met them at the landing pad, a boy with tousled blond hair and inquisitive blue eyes peeked out from behind Kira’s shoulder. A broad grin lit the boy’s face when he spotted Corso. Guileless and innocent, the joy of it pierced through Ky like a lance and scored that place deep inside that only barren women know.

Akaavi, Gus, and Bowdaar remained on the ship, Doc said his goodbyes replete with good wishes and departed, Kira led the boy away. Sayonar escorted Ky, Corso, and Scourge to an ante-room off the Jedi Council’s main chamber. Caf, juice, and sweet honey cakes sat on a sideboard. A hint of cinnamon hung in the air.

“It’s good to see you well.” Sayonar poured a glass of juice and sat in one of the six chairs lining the table. “Something to eat or drink?”

“It’s good to be myself again, and no thank you.” Ky took a seat, as did Corso and Scourge. “What do you want?”

“Straight to it then.” Sayonar placed her elbows on the table and leaned in. “We will provide fuel and provisions for your ship, but the council wants you gone from Tython as soon as possible. You bring discord and too many questions the council does not want to answer. More than Jedi roam these halls and we cannot keep you hidden here.”

“I understand. I’ll be gone by tomorrow at latest, but I have one question.”

“I am listening,” said Sayonar.

Ky sat back in the chair, her stomach a tight knot. “The boy. What will happen to the boy?”

“The boy is not your concern.”

“I’m making him my concern, and I’m not leaving until I get an answer.”

Scourge reached across the table and grasped Sayonar’s arm. “Tell her, Nulis, or I will.”

A mixture of regret and shame passed over the Jedi Knights features, nearly missed if Ky’s attention had drifted for an instant. “In less than a week, Ethan will be remanded to the orphanage on Coruscant. He will remain there until he is either adopted or comes of age.”

Ky reached for Corso’s hand, he smiled and nodded for her to continue. “He’s already at a disadvantage and I won’t see him thrown away like this. I’ll take the boy.”  

Sayonar stood up, shaking off Scourge’s hand. “Are you insane? You’ll be on the run. What kind of life will the child have?”

Ky stood as well, her hands splayed on the table, her arms stiff as rods. “Better than being lost in the red tape of a government that doesn’t give a shit about its people below level 5100 or the Jedi who view every force-blind as just another drain on society. He’s too old to be adopted, and once he reaches age, he’ll be dumped out on the street like so much garbage. I met someone recently who went through the grinder of the system. The boy deserves more.”

“He doesn’t know you.”

“He knows me,” Corso chimed in, “which is a hell of a lot more than he’ll know on Coruscant. Unless you and Scourge intend to take him, ours is the better offer.”

“You know that’s impossible. Scourge and I are fighting a war, and the boy cannot stay on Tython.”

A smile creased the corners of Ky’s mouth. “And I am going on a great adventure. The boy will see wonders beyond his dreams. I’ve learned hard lessons and trust no one except this man by my side and those on my ship. No one can touch me, or find me or catch me. You know this, Scourge. You’ve seen what I can do. The boy will be safe, and he will be loved.”

“Nulis.” Scourge once again reached for Sayonar’s arm. “If you care for the boy at all, do the right thing. Give him a chance for a family.”

Sayonar pinned Ky with her eyes, the understanding of women passed between them. “I’ll have the documents ready to sign in the morning.”

Corso led Ky from the room, down the spiral ramp to the first floor and out onto the lawn. He spotted Kira and the boy in the distance, just inside the tree line. He grabbed Ky’s hand. “Come on, let’s go say hello to our son.”

#

Ky called her crew together the following afternoon shortly before takeoff. Ethan sat next to Bowdaar who was the only one who could comfort him when he tried to break away and follow Kira back to the temple. He had a death grip on a tangle of Bowdaar’s hair right above the elbow and refused to let go. Patience and time to raise a child and it all started now.

Ky stood at the workstation of the galley, Corso at her side, their hands clasped. “You all have decisions to make before I leave. I hold you to no oath. You are all free to find your own way."

"I'm a fool and known as a fool no matter where I go," said Gus. "I'll stay and help with the boy. Even a fool has lessons to teach."

"You’re a fine medic, Gus and a friend. I’m sure there’ll be scraped knees and bruises aplenty that require your attention. And you can teach Ethan what not to do in a crisis," chuckled Ky. "And you Bowdaar? Back to Kashyyk?"

"I owe a life debt to you," said the Wookie. "Words cannot release me from such a debt, only your death or mine will set me free. I will stay and help with the boy. I may yet have some knowledge and wisdom to give though not as much as an elder. I'm only eighty-five after all."

"Akaavi? Back to Mandalore or the bounty hunter’s guild?"

"I think I may return on Untuar IV if you will take me. Seph and I have become close during your time away. We speak often.”

"Seph is a liar and a scoundrel. Are you sure?"

"Skavak was a liar and a scoundrel, and yet you loved him did you not?"

Ky gripped Corso's hand tighter. "Yes. I loved him."

"Then I can love Seph also. He understands my language and my ways, and we are both of an age where we may settle well together. He is not Mando'ade but we can build our clan and make a home such as it might be. I will stay with the man."

Ky turned to Corso, the question rhetorical. He’d already made his wishes known, many times over. "I can never give you that farmstead or the children you wanted. All I have is what you see before you. Will it be enough?"

He draped his arm across her shoulder pulling her close. “I think I can make do.”

“And you, little Ethan?”

The boy’s eyes went wide as he hid half his face behind Bowdaar’s shaggy shoulder. “Miss Kira,” the boy said.

“I know you do.”

“Bowdaar stay?”

“Yes. Bowdaar is staying.”

The boy raised his hand in a thumbs up. “Ethan stay too.”

“Alright. Next stop Untuar IV. You all know what to do.”

#

To lose Akaavi was like losing a part of herself. The Mandalorian had been her friend, advisor, and comrade in arms since before Corellia. Perhaps she’d find love with Seph Okarr, Ky hoped so, but love was funny like that. No guarantees and one day at a time. For now, the Zabrak and the human made a good fit. A smart person takes happiness however and whenever it comes their way and doesn’t look too closely at tomorrow, and Akaavi was smart.  

Ky checked in with Risha on the way to Tolus Salini. Dubrillion was far from conquered yet, but she and the husband were still working on it. Risha seemed content with the man who ‘looked like a noble but rutted like a stable boy.’ She’d look good in that crown if she ever got to wear it, and Dubrillion could have a worse queen.

Tolus Salini, a democratic planet for social outcasts. When on planet, everyone followed the rules, and nobody got hurt. If someone felt cheated or had a problem, they followed the laws designed to keep the peace for the locals and took it off world. Ky would have liked to set up shop there eventually, but life had different plans.

She removed the Imperial ingots and the binder with the energy generator schematics from the storage locker and left the rest for Sayonar. Back on the ship, Ky sent an encrypted message to the Jedi with the location, locker number, and access code. The histories, Holocron and lightsaber hilt were always intended for the Jedi Knight, Ky had merely been the courier.

Ky brought up the star chart on the screen, the reflection painting ghosts of systems across her face and the face of Ethan who stood beside her. “This is your playground. Where would you like to go first?”

Bright dots of destinations twinkled in his eyes and flowed across his cheeks as he leaned closer. “There.” He pointed to a system on the edge of the rim, just outside the exterior prong of the Tingel Arm.

“Good choice, navigator, I think your dad will approve. Sit in your chair and strap in. Let’s go take a look, shall we?”

Before they left the star system, Ky placed the binder into a refuse cylinder and shot it into the outer corona of the sun. It seemed a fitting end.

#

Ky stared at the words flashing on the screen. Are you sure you want to permanently delete this communications frequency code? She’d sent the mail and deleted the address. Just one more step to cut all ties. Ky pressed (YES), and leaned back into the arms that were suddenly around her waist.

“Is Ethan finally asleep?” she asked.

“Took two stories, but yes, he’s asleep.” Corso punctuated the words with a string of kisses down the curve of her neck.

“And yet sometime during the night, he’ll crawl into Bowdaar’s hammock and fall back asleep on the Wookie’s chest.”

“Mm-hm,” he hummed against her skin. “You about finished?”

“Seph is still working the GenoHaradan but doesn’t hold much hope in breaking the Vendetta. We’ll be flying blind and comms dark from here on out. Dead to the galaxy. Hutts are paid off, one million plus interest, but they agreed to call off the bounty on my head. That’s something at least.” She wiggled her backside against the front of his trousers. “Think you’ll be up for a little celebration?”

He nipped the lobe of her ear. “I already am.”

#

Tamerlane Skavak strode through the Tinsel Nest casino on Affavan, heading toward the guarded double doors that stood between him and an invite-only high stakes Pazaak game. He patted the front of his jacket that held the stolen gold engraved invitation in an inside pocket.

Tonight, he was Pesco Notalle, a mid-rim industrialist who’d wake up tomorrow morning pissed off, and nursing one hell of a drug-induced hangover. Served the fat fuck right for getting played. Yeah, I got something to show you, and it ain’t my dick, jackass.    

Skavak’s mark was just beyond those doors. Competition eliminated, trade war resolved, patent secured, and no more abused children in a secret room in the bastard’s house. Ky would approve. Nix that last thought.

Poison was a woman’s tool, but Skavak wasn’t averse to getting in touch with his feminine side as long as the outcome justified the means. Of course, there was always the knife he had in the unscannable sheath in his boot, but that was messy. He really liked his new jacket.

It was possible someone would recognize him, though he’d never been to Affavan before and none of the names on the dossier he’d received rang a bell. As long as he had funds to get into the game, no one would care, and he had an escape plan in case shit went south.

He didn’t need the job or the credits, he was playing for the thrills and that jolt of adrenaline when he got away with it and was still breathing. One less perverted scumbag in the galaxy was just an added bonus.  

He was flying solo tonight but winked at the women who turned their heads to gawk as he walked by. The place was a veritable smorgasbord, and he might take a nibble later if he wasn’t running for his life. Damn. Good times.

His datapad chimed. He pulled it from the inside pocket of his jacket, the back of his knuckles skimming the rough gold leaf of the invite. His eyes widened when he recognized the channel the mail had been sent to. That frequency and address hadn’t been used for a long time. He halted in his tracks and tapped the open icon, two words and a letter froze on the screen; Thank you, K.

The world stopped and flew away like he was trapped on a conveyor belt taking him on a ride back through time. He smelled the musk of her on his fingers and his mouth, the shampoo in her hair, the mint on her breath. He scraped his teeth along his bottom lip, the tip of his tongue licking at the memory of the honey and salt of her skin. She smiled, and his heart broke all over again.

The walls of the casino expanded and contracted when he snapped back from gazing into that box in his mind. She lived there, locked away with all the memories. A place he opened only when he was very drunk or very high. Damn. Of all the lousy timing. She just might get him killed after all.

Roll with the punch, man, stay on top of your game. Get your shit together!

The guards were giving him the thousand-meter stare, he shrugged, slapped a silly grin on his face and pointed at the datapad. ‘The wife’ he mouthed at the guards. They nodded as if they understood. Oh, they really didn’t.

His finger hovered over the delete button. He had the shakes, he fucking hated the shakes. A deep breath and he blew it all away in one single decision. He’d heard the quickest cut hurt the least. What a load of bullshit.   

Delete mail? Confirm. Yes.

Delete account? Confirm. Yes.

Delete frequency code? Confirm. Yes.

Delete her? Never. Even if he could.

 

~The End~